#340: The Owner Lies Dead (1930) by Tyline Perry

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Fellow GAD blogger Noah Stewart has in the past talked about intertextuality in detective fiction, part of which is how each mystery’s solution feeds into a general awareness of all other mysteries and their solutions.  Essentially, reading detective fiction is then a game: has the author been able to mislead you about the solution?  And the more you read, the harder this game becomes for these authors, especially as many of them wrote their books close to a century ago and so don’t really get the right of response where later developments in the field are concerned.  The best GAD plots stand up to all subsequent attempts to innovate, and remain surprising.

Inside of this game you also play a meta-game, wherein the author may want you to believe you have spotted the solution so as to better surprise you come the end, and you the reader must decide whether this meta-game is being played…while also not believing that it is being played so that the surprise is genuinely surprising.  Round and round and round we go, where we stop nobody knows.  Some of the most accomplished GAD novels play this cannily by having revelations up their sleeves to reveal just as the astute reader is beginning to lose patience — witness The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen for the perfect utilisation of the “Aha, nope!” reveal multiple times to stanch readerly smugness.

Alas, when this fails, it tends to fail hard.  Occasionally — as, say, with my experience of Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand — there is simply too little to sustain the illusion of misdirection, and the solution screams at you simply due to the presentation of the single idea around which everything orbits.  And sometimes, as with The Owner Lies Dead, there are simply so many ideas that have to come together in a way that makes sense that there’s only one possible way it could unfold, and the illusion of misdirection is further hindered by what we’ll call clues being rammed so hard down the reader’s neck that even a sword-swallower’s gag reflex would be stimulated.

A recent discussion on this blog about the reading of GAD authors’ works in order raised the commonly-made point that an author’s debut is rarely their best work, and this bears that out simply for how interminably long it makes you wonder what sort of game Perry is playing.  The interpretation that someone of even moderate intelligence would put on certain events lays unacknowledged for a loooong time before being brought up as if surprsing to the reader: the kind of narrative where we know Person A has a gun and is looking to shoot Person B, and then when Person C gets shot it takes a solid 50 pages for someone to go “Hey!  You don’t think Person A is responsible for this, do you?!”.  In this regard it does feel more than a little algorithmically plotted where the mystery is concerned, with large swathes of slow reveals and excruciatingly dull conversations between revelations, very much the work of someone who doesn’t quite grasp that their readers will probably have encountered a mystery on the page before.

But, in fairness, away from the mystery it is very well written indeed.  The wonderfully atmospheric opening chapter lays out the impossible shooting of a man in a burning coal mine when everyone else in there is dead, and we then skip back some 20-odd years for about 40 pages of Mark Twainian youthful Americana, which was not even slightly what I had been expecting but nevertheless turns out to be rather wonderful.  When we eventually catch up to that opening chapter, however, it then takes a frickin’ age for events we already know about to be covered, and the fact that some thoroughly unmystifiying mysteries are stirred in — gee, I wonder who could’ve possibly stolen the money from the safe — only enhances the treacle-slow crawl of the intended focus.

So, some advice: don’t come to this for the plot.  You’ve seen the plot, and you’ll be bored, incandescent, and throughly indifferent come the end (the sudden uncovering of, like, four incriminating letters in the final chapter is a clear sign of an author struggling to tie their threads).  I would no more look to this for GAD puzzle plotting than I would To Kill a Mockingbird for Grishamesque legal thrills.  Treated instead as a character piece and it’s somewhat superb — a slice of small town jealousies and greed, an era-rich examination of family and obligation, and an examination of the way we become trapped by the people around us as much as the decisions we make.  Which is not at all what I signed up for, but I’m happy to pass that perspective on if it will help you get more out of this than I did.

And now I really want to read Perry’s second novel, The Never Summer Mystery (1932), which Curtis Evans mentions in an introduction that does a wonderful job of providing context for the unfamiliar milieu as much as the unheralded author.  Because we all know authors improve with their second book, right…?

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See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: What made this such a good read is the way it balances being a character driven story with also being a story with quite an intricate central mystery to solve. The tables are often turned on the reader as new information comes to light and the reader is forced to reinterpret the evidence. The first chapter sets the readers up with a tantalising foreshadowing of events to come but when those events turn up for the second time the reader is already beginning to look at them differently due to the new information they have learnt on the way.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Arrogantly, I assumed I had (roughly) pieced together the explanation for the entire problem, which was somewhat conservative in nature, but, despite correctly identifying some components of the actual solution, Perry kept me from reaching the complete truth – something I find to be incomprehensible in hindsight. In the end, everything clicked together with logical inevitability. From the childhood incidents and the local legend of Haunted Mine to the explosion and bizarre circumstances of the shooting. It all makes sense without taxing the readers credulity too much, because the explanation is not as complex as the premise suggests it to be. And those often tend to be the best kind of detective stories.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Foreign Bodies from last week because ‘Footprints in the Snow’ therein and this both feature a love triangle as a key plot point.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Crime involved fire/arson.

32 thoughts on “#340: The Owner Lies Dead (1930) by Tyline Perry

  1. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! I got halfway through the first chapter of this, then stopped because life was just too busy, and vowed to return despite some misgivings over what I had read. And now, I feel that this may be a deeper slog than I had feared! Like you said, it did seem more like a novel of early Americana with some murder stuff thrown in. I will try to heed your warning and adjust my expectations.

    • I like the small town Americana, it’s an interesting angle to take on it all and Perry has talent in how she conveys that aspect of the story, but it’s also very much not how this is sold and I can see people picking it up and expecting something very different to what they get. Adjusted expectations would definitely help!

    • This shouldn’t be approached for the puzzle at all. The impossibility is…fine, but — as I said — there is sort of the notion that you haven’t encountered any other puzzle on the page if you’re expected not to see through it. Taken instead as “Well, given the situation this is a way to extricate myself from a difficulty” it makes sense as a course of action a person would pursue, but it’s not a strong impossibility by any sort of genre comparison.

      Man, I really want to read that second book, though…

      • I tend to feel that any given reading experience is about 50 percent down to the author; 45 percent, the reader ; and 5 percent sundries (e.g. mood, environment, Are you sitting comfortably? Or a raging case of toothache).
        Though I may be ascribing too much credit to the author and too little to the toothache.

        • I asked myself the same question as Kate and when I saw the three-star rating all I wanted to post was “hang that man high enough so we can see the soles of his shoes.” Your taste can really be abominable at times! Although you did redeem yourself, if only slightly, by liking the slice of early, small town Americana. I loved that in my American Golden Age mysteries.

          Anyway, I do hope that Coachwhip will reissue The Never-Summer Mystery this year.

        • I think there’s a slight overlap, too, on how much what you’re reading turns out to be what you expected you were going to read. remember of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes advertising itself as a murder mystery, but not actually becoming one until about 40 pages from the end. In retrospect I’d enjoy it a damn sight more were I to reread it because I’d know what I was getting!

          That’s the overriding factor here, I think. It’s not the book I was anticipating; hopefully my warning to that end will give others more to enjoy!

    • Perry’s ‘The Never Summer Mystery’ is still under copyright in the US, so unlikely to be reprinted here anytime soon, unless someone tracks down the estate.

  2. I have this on the TBR and have really been looking forward to reading it, as the setup sounds fascinating. Hopefully I fail to see through the misdirection and have a better experience than you did. Or maybe I just appreciate the same aspects you did.

    As a bit of trivial, Genessee is a real place, located in the mountains right outside of Denver. There isn’t really any reason to go there, but you’re guaranteed to drive right past it if you drive from Denver to any ski resort.

    • Yeah, I’d be kind of amazed if you don’t see through the misdirection, it’s really not that kind of a book. But you may well have a better experienc with it than I did, and indeed I hope you do — knowing what to expect is a big part of it in this case, because Perry’s not accomplished enough (this is her first novel, after all) to simply whisk you away with the story she’s going to tell. You need to be on-side to begin with…

    • We appreciate the sterling work you’re doing, Curtis; if Never Summer happens that’d be amazing, but I’ve no doubt there are all manner of delights already on the way.

  3. ” I would no more look to this for GAD puzzle plotting than I would To Kill a Mockingbird for Grishamesque legal thrills. Treated instead as a character piece and it’s somewhat superb…”

    Thanks for the review… I got a copy of this after Kate’s and TomCat’s endorsements, and was thinking of saving it as a treat sometime this year. I confess feeling somewhat ambivalent now, as I don’t pick up a GA mystery for characterisation – the puzzle is everything. Will be interesting to see what I make of it!

    • Oh, sure, and my solitary opinion isn’t meant to call that into question. Though I would venture to suggest that the 1930s did see an escalation in the complexity and artistry of the puzzle plot that perhaps finds this in more esteemed company when viewed retrospectively.

      And, I mean, sure, Hammett is a big name and hardly the most vocal fan of puzzle plots, but he’s not really falling overhimself with praise, is he? “It all stays plausible, as mystery stories go” reads a bit like he’s sniffing when he wrote it… 🙂

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