I, doubtless in common with anyone who has persevered through the stronger and weaker works of any prolific author’s career, have been moved at times to reflect at what point a long-running series becomes good before it starts to tail off in quality through the challenges of sustaining such an output.
As in life, this blog has a few untrimmed threads hanging — one of these days I really must return to The Knox Decalogue and The Criminous Alphabet — but for today it’s back to The Baffle Book (1930). The first seven problems in F. Tennyson Jesse’s edit of Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay’s famous puzzle series failed to excite my reason or my enthusiasm, so how does this second quarter of puzzles stand up?
You may view the above rating of this book as too harsh, and you may be right. Honestly, I’ve struggled with how good The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) may or may not be, and it certainly has its fans — at one point John Dickson Carr apparently considered it among the four of his own books that he enjoyed the most. But the key thing I keep coming back to is how this novel, rooted as it is in Egyptian curses and an apparent vanishing in a ghostly old family pile, written by a man who could stir up sulfur and brimstone with a well-place adjective and could summon the most wonderful patterns from the most perplexing of mysteries, is so very forgettable.
I’ve always thought of 1950 as a watermark year in the career of Erle Stanley Gardner. It’s arguably the point at which prevailing literary trends started to diverge meaningfully from the style of writing Gardner had staked out for himself. Post-1950 his Perry Mason series is a catalogue of steadily-diminishing returns, being somewhat preserved in aspic in its early-1930s incarnation, and the escapades of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool are saved only by Gardner’s many talents in not allowing that series to ever be easily pigeonholed. But for me the most compelling evidence that 1950 was meaningful for ESG is how Doug Selby never saw the light of day again after 1949.
Marketing has a lot to answer for. In much the same way that Herbert Brean a couple of weeks ago found himself the centre of a tussle between competing crime fiction ideologies, and endless crime fiction authors these days end up with “as gripping as Agatha Christie” in their synopses, it’s fashion that determines how to lie to you when selling something.
Three books into the seven-strong output of Herbert Brean, I’m going to suggest that he’s one of the most unjustly-neglected writers of the latter-GAD era — that “latter” prefix being key. Brean’s plots are dense enough for the puzzle fiends of the 1930s, and his social milieu more than matches the requirements of the post-GAD 1950s hankering after domestic suspense, but each school will be disappointed by how much of its rival is present. Thus, puzzle fans lazily insisting he’s in the same bracket as John Dickson Carr and realism fans keen to play up his HIBK credentials each sell him as writing sorts of books he never wrote, and everyone ends up disappointed.
When digging his garden to lay a foundation for a new sundial, quiet, unostentatious bachelor Marcus Pottermack uncovers a previously-unknown well. That same day, he receives yet another demand for money from the man who is blackmailing him, and it’s only a matter of time before one problem is used to solve the other. And when curiosities about the man’s disappearance are raised in passing with Dr. John Thorndyke, it’s only a matter of time before that pillar of truth is on the trail of quiet, unostentatious Marcus Pottermack. And yet, for all its conventional-sounding setup, Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) is a delightfully unconventional inverted mystery.