The joy of running this blog comes not from the screaming fans that hound my every step, nor the piles of untaxable cash that seemed to just appear from day one, but from the discussions it and others allow me to have with like-, and sometimes unlike-, minded enthusiasts of Golden Age detective fiction. What to do, then, when I have a book that probably no-one is going to want to talk about?
The glut of recent GAD reprints has left many of us spoilt for choice when seeking opinions on the latest British Library Crime Classic, but if you’re anything like me — and I commiserate should that be the case — your To Be Read pile also contains a bunch of stuff that you look at and think “When the hell did I buy that? And why?”. You find yourself suspecting that probably only John at Pretty Sinister — home of the neglected, forgotten, and bizarre in the annals of GAD — has heard of them and (casting no aspersions on John and his conversation, you understand) end up putting them off time after time. Well, no more. With a virtually guaranteed locked-down January 2021 audience, the next four Tuesdays will see me burrowing into the most buried, abandoned, and obscure tunnels at the base of Mount TBR to rootle out those books that probably aren’t going to get read otherwise (and possibly aren’t worth the effort of reading to being with) on the slim chance that there’s something delightful for you all to scour your secret book-buying haunts in the hope of uncovering.
Which brings us to Menace for Doctor Morelle (1947) by Ernest Dudley which, when the dust finally settled on 2021, may well turn out to be the worst book I read this year.
Look, I honestly take no pleasure in reading or writing about bad books; some people are great at it, whereas I find it exhausting on both fronts — the frustration at knowing how cheaply some stuff has just been crapped out is infuriating because this genre is capable of such brilliance if someone is willing to put in a little thought. Sure, you can claim that the Golden Age of detective fiction was little more than a combinatorial application of a few key tropes that, in almost any configuration, are virtually guaranteed to have fans of such stagey, repetitious crap drooling over themselves regardless of quality — you’ll probably find someone who agrees with you and the two of you will be very happy together. Name your cat after me, since I introduced you, and live a happy, full life.
I’d prefer to take the view that some authors simply knew they were writing cheaply and didn’t care so long as the bills got paid. There’s not huge scope for originality in the genre that needs a detective, some obscure clues, and a denouement where All Is Revealed, but the genuine masters of this form used those expectations to insert some ingenious ideas — highlighting the detective’s Outsider status, say, or finding a clever piece of wordplay around which to frame a tale of rapacity or vengeance. And then, to quote Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner:
“No sooner is a murder, theft, or fraud committed in a novel or striking way, than this method is aged — probably in the next few days — by some other less imaginative scoundrel.”
Nowhere is this more easily revealed than in the vast quantity of aloof genius detectives who sprung up in the wake of Sherlock Holmes — the Old Man among them — and the sheer numbers of them who have rightly faded from memory for confusing a list of ingredients with a recipe. Chief among that list, I’d suggest, is the character and series under investigation today, who seems to have been quite a hit on the radio in the 1940s and 50s and went on to appear in several novels and collections of short stories. Marketed, it seems, as “the man you love to hate”, Morelle is on paper everything the aloof genius should be (rude, emotionless, an expert on apparently everything) and none of the things he should be (charming, intelligent, interesting).
Claim counter-programming if you like — we’ve seen authors create deliberately unlikeable sleuths to run contrary to the genre’s expectations (c.f. Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham, John Dickson Carr’s Henri Bencolin, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley, etc.), and media personalities such as Howard Stern to P**rs M*rg*n have traded on being disliked for decades now — personally, based on this book alone, it just seems to be bad writing. What at first seems like it might be possessed of a few charming nods to its antecedents (Morelle lives at 221B Harley Street, possibly the only nice touch in the entire book) ends up being…well, shit. I’d dress it up more, but we all know that’s where I’m heading.
After an opening that sees some Sinister Types possibly fall out over their next sinister plan, we meet Miss Frayle, Doctor Morelle’s young assistant, as she fails to catch a taxi and must take a shortcut through an alleyway because she must attend an evening lecture the doctor is giving in order to preserve it for posterity. A bleeding man stumbles out of a doorway and collapses in front of her, she rushes into the nearest establishment — a pub — seeking help and returns with a glass of brandy only to find that the man has disappeared. Throughout this entire period, her sole concerns are a) not being late to the lecture and b) fearing that Dr. Morelle won’t believe the reason she’s late. Thankfully, he does — whew! — but only because “even your imagination could not rise to such heights”. Thank heavens he only thinks she’s unintelligent when the real risk was that he’d think her a liar. What a guy!
I’ve just spent several minutes flipping through this picking out quotes that illustrate just how much of a martinet and bully the man — who “you love to hate!” — is, and it’s depressing work. A typical exchange is akin to the following, after Miss Faryle has discovered a dead body in a flat and Morelle has serendipitously arrived on the scene:
“Miss Frayle,” he called peremptorily
She appeared in the doorway.
“Take these notes.”
“Oh, but — but, Doctor,” she protested, “I’ve no notebook or pencil.”
“I might have known you would have come unprepared,” he remarked acidly.
The most galling thing is that, after Morelle struts around being condescending and ticking every red flag on the list for 180 pages, solving a thoroughly unbaffling blackmail or smuggling of theft or something mystery in the meantime, Miss Frayle remains entirely in some manner of romantic thrall and, in the final paragraph, is blushingly stoking the fires of her ardour in hoping that maybe, one day, she might, if she’s very lucky, induce the man to marry her. Is Morelle a hypnotist? Does he have her parents in his basement? Enquiring minds want to know…
The plot is one of those pulpy A to B to C to D affairs that rarely invites any reconsideration of events and is strung together just enough to qualify as coherent. Think Hulbert Footner without the…well, anything, really, and you’re not far off. And, don’t misunderstand, some great pulpy detective (or really, sensation) works have been written, but, as I said before, so has a lot of cheap crap intended as nothing more than cheap crap. The amount of time we spend with our gang of miscreants have conversations full of ejaculation and exclamation marks indicates to me that this is the latter, and nothing will make me rescind this opinion — plus, look at how late this was written! Such a simple ‘criminal gang’ endeavour might have been the height of thrills in 1915, but by 1947 the lustre on the pulp detective of this ilk has worn down to the copper beneath. This isn’t even riding on the coat-tails of the genre, it’s floundering around in the dust stirred up long ago buy the genre’s having once passed this way.
Morelle’s a difficult prospect to begin with, but when cast in the shadow of the far more interesting, intelligent, refined, capable, and humane doctor I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with he stands out even more starkly as what he is: a cheaply photocopied facsimile of the loose ideas that someone thinks are enough to make a crime story a success. It’s just a derivative piece of work, I can barely summon the enthusiasm to dismiss it — this is the exact style of lazy acephalous plotting people with pure types (plus one Sudden Mastermind at the end — gasp!) that brings out the “Meh!” in me, and I was mainly delighted to realise at the halfway point that, should I wish, a chapter’s contents could be guessed with reasonable accuracy by reading only its first and last lines. It is, in all honesty, more of this books than deserves to be read.
This bodes well for the weeks ahead, eh? I suppose I can take solace in the security that very few people will have, upon seeing the title of the post, bothered to read it. Should you, who has braved the way with me, wish to see precisely what manner of book it takes to provoke so enervated a review from me, this was — incredibly — released on Kindle within the last couple of years. My advice: buy anything else instead.