Sometimes you just have to bite a bullet: following the exceptionally sad loss of the Rue Morgue Press, this is the final Jeff and Haila Troy novel currently available, but, well, let’s enjoy it, eh? Audrey and William Roos did such a great job with so many aspects of the writing in these first four books — the dialogue is genuinely funny, the plots mostly move at a great pace, the mysteries are intriguing, and third book The Frightened Stiff is a genuine genre classic for all time — that we shouldn’t get too weighed down with lamenting their unavailability. Common sense will prevail, they’re too good to let go out of print for any length of time, and this won’t be the last we see of the Troys. Right?
There are times when it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment when a novel doesn’t fulfil its promise, and given the intricacy of many novels of detection these can sometimes be very keenly felt. Perhaps the detective is an absolute duffer (an accusation frequently levelled at Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French), or the guilty party comes disappointingly out of nowhere (as in John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber), or perhaps the solution offered up to a brilliant problem is a shade on the simplistic side (the disappearance from the locked bathroom in John Sladek’s otherwise-superb Black Aura springs to mind). For this second novel by husband and wife team Kelley Roos, I’d say the main problem is in the selection of the victim: the setup is excellent, the characters are a delight, and come the murder…the most obvious victim is selected and the book never quite recovers.
I will probably put this very poorly, so bear with me.
I am an Agatha Christie fan. I am also, you may have noticed, a fan of John Dickson Carr, and of Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Rupert Penny, Kelley Roos, and Constance & Gwenyth Little. What these detective fiction writers have in common is two-fold: firstly they are all dead, so their output is now a fixed and known quantity, and secondly it is my express intention to read everything they ever published in the crime fiction sphere. In some cases this may not be achievable – though with the recent increase in GA reprints it’s to be hoped that these will be picked up before too long – but I intend to give it my best shot nonetheless.
So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you? After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring. You’re always saying that, aren’t you? Sensible person that you are. So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).
My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now. It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it. Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared? The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible:
The less you know about Pamela Branch’s debut novel the more you’ll get out of it, and obviously this poses a problem for my nascent blog. A few cultural touchstones, then: it falls somewhere within kicking distance of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1954), 1980s comedy classic (one of those words should be in ironic quotation marks, surely?) Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), and the output of Kelley Roos. There is a dead body. It must be hidden. Difficulties ensue. And this undertaking (if you will) is very, very funny.
The funny is a difficult one, because I’m honestly not sure at which point it becomes funny. It starts off strange and becomes only stranger as it goes, all the while introducing a gentle absurdity that, at least for me, tips over into outright hilarity at times. It’s not consistent rolling-in-the-aisles comical, but I’d be surprised if you could read too much of this – especially in the set-pieces like the ‘picnic’ and, later, its glorious counterpoint in chapter 18 – without at least a wry smile on your face. There are a few quite lovely suprises, hence my recommendation that you know as little as possible going in, and it all stays far enough this side of zany, bawdy nonsense to remain just about believable.