#352: The Chinese Jar Mystery, a.k.a. Black Hawthorn (1934) by John Stephen Strange

CJMstar filledstar filledstarsstarsstars
If there’s one setback to the profligacy of quality GAD blogs now found online, it’s that very little in my reading gets to take me by surprise any more.  Something good tends to get shouted about (this is, after all, why we’re here) and then others buy it and shout or grumble as they see fit…but we’ve gone in with a ringing endorsement in our ears beforehand.  I’m not complaining, it’s a lovely problem to have — and I contribute to this as much as anyone — but I was moved to reflect on picking this for review that it’s one book on my TBR that I knew nothing about. So now allow me to pre-prejudice the experience for the rest of you…

Okay, so moving my star ratings to the top of my reviews spoils the eventual outcome of this post, but here’s the thing: this is a very, very good book…until the last two chapters.  Only in the closing stages, so very important in the annals of GAD, is this divested of higher regard, because it’s great for about 200 pages, and probably something I enjoyed all the more because I didn’t know what was going to happen.  About the only thing I thought I knew about this (namely, that it contained an impossible crime) turned out to be false, so I was fending for myself and desperately hoping it would pull it off come the end.  Alas, not to be.

The story is simplicity itself: the matriarch of a wealthy, influential Connecticut family dies, this is revealed to be murder — whodunnit?  Really, it’s no more than that, and the simplicity of the focus is one of the many factors in its favour.  We only properly see three locations in the whole narrative, but the mix of family, associates, lovers, and yet-to-be-determineds is well-handled and diverse enough to hold the interest admirably (even the servants play a part!).  And it’s definitely helped by Strange — pen-name of Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett — writing like this:

A marked change had come over him.  His elation had left him.  His florid face was pale and there were blue rings under his eyes and around his mouth.  His heavy body seemed to weigh forward, like the body of a fat old man.  No one spoke to him.  The eyes that followed him were filled with the secret satisfaction reserved for the misfortunes of the wealthy, overlaid with a little unwilling pity.

There’s a sort of semi-Gothic heaviness to everything that works in an atmospheric angle equally forbidding and lithe, feeling both portentous and nimble, giving character and plot in the same breath while not appearing to work too hard over it.  Conversation feels natural yet contains a great number of significant points — indeed, the entire thing is arguably laid bare by a throwaway comment — and Tillett’s use of multiple perspectives allows us to see how some points are resolved without the need for our detective Jed Potter to be present at every reveal.  It’s good, it’s really, really good, and while it doesn’t exactly innovate in the genre, damn, most GAD didn’t and wasn’t this well told.

But, ugh, those closing chapters.  For all the careful layering of possibilities and the sneaking suspicion of brilliance brewing — there’s a laudably Chestertonian device employed in the hiding of…something — the final summation is masterful in its irruption of blandness.  Clues are suddenly withheld, new information suddenly introduced, red herrings stink up the wallpaper for about three lines, and when the killer is finally collared…well, very little of what went before actually matters.  The clues haven’t really been building to anything, Potter could just have easily walked in, pointed at the killer when they first appeared and gone “Er, you did it?” and we’d be no less far along.

So…a mixed response here, which is ultimately going to be disappointing.  The officinal balm of the first 90% leaves you with a rather famishing denouement, achieving an acidic taste when you know how it ends up.  I’d prefer to remember this one for its superb use of tone — such as a man lighting his way through dense fog with a lantern and “feeling like a goldfish in an illuminated bowl” — but over time my impressions will be dragged down by the wasted potential that this more roundly represents.  A real heartbreaking shame, though, because while it was good, dude was it ever good.

So, now you know…

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Family Matters from last week because in both books a man’s freign wife is viewed with suspicion purely on account of her foreigness.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category An author you’ve never tried.

13 thoughts on “#352: The Chinese Jar Mystery, a.k.a. Black Hawthorn (1934) by John Stephen Strange

  1. Oh. 😦 Thanks for the review, and thanks for the warning: the ending must have been really disappointing, to drop the rating from full to two stars. I still don’t prefer the rating to be revealed at the top, but I guess that prevented me from feeling overly disappointed.

    I’m looking forward to your next review – I’ve not read that particular title, but I’ve read two of his short stories, and another of his long novels.

    • Yeah, I was hoping I’d uncovered something a bit special here, especially as “Strange”s family are working through her works to reprint them…but it seems not at this attempt. Maybe others are better, but it’s now a question of wanting to take the risk on them.

  2. I was interested to see what you make of Strange’s work, as I have read two by her and to be honest neither of them were that great. In fact this one still sounds better than the ones I tried, especially considering most of the book was really good.

    • Is that better, though, is or that worse? To have a book be thoroughly meh throughout is fine, you know where you are. To have it hint at greatness and then deliver men-ness is…probably the bigger disappointment.

  3. An interesting fact about the author is that she maintained the secret of her true identity through the 48 years she published her 22 mystery novels under the name John Stephen Strange(1928-1976) .
    Although not well known today, her books were very popular from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. In fact, her third book, The Strangler Fig, was selected by William Lyon Phelps (American author, critic and scholar) as one of the ten best detective stories published from 1928 to 1933.

    • Huh, there you go — I’ll keep an eye out for he Strangler Fig, then, thanks for letting me know. I have a feeling it might even be in print at this very moment…not that this necessarily means I’ll get to reading it any time soon, however 🙂

  4. I share your desire to break out and find something that no one else has been writing about – it is always gratifying to be able to uncover and share a great read. It’s a shame that the ending disappointed so much given how much you liked what came before.

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