A little while ago, via TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time, I learned to my immense sadness that the Rue Morgue Press has officially shut down and will no longer be publishing books. If you don’t know RMP, then you’ve been missing out: set up by Tom and Enid Schantz, they have kept in print the kinds of classic detective novels that give the Golden Age such a deserved reputation while big-hitters like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers hog all the limelight. The cessation of their endeavours is a tremendous loss, and what follows is an attempt to explain what they’ve meant to me as a reader for several years now.
So, from one Australian author last week – the entertainingly bonkers world of Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness – to two this week – the entertainingly bonkers world of the Little Sisters. This is my first foray into the Monthly Challenge over at Past Offences, with the year for December being 1941 and so falling perfectly into my TBR pile, and it’s been a joy to reacquaint myself with these literary ladies after frankly too long away. Shades of my reviews from earlier this year – Pamela Branch’s The Wooden Overcoat and Torrey Chanslor’s Our First Murder – resurface here, with delightful overtones of everyone’s favourite crime-solving couple found in the echoes of Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff, too, as a murder in a boarding house gives way to suspicion, fear, mistrust, confusion, doubt, terror and…laughter. Because as well as being a well-plotted and beautifully light mystery, this is also very, very witty indeed.
There are no tentpole comic set-pieces like in The Wooden Overcoat – seriously, the ‘picnic’ chapter in that book still makes me smile – and it’s not that the Littles are especially arch or sharp-tongued in their prose, but there is a gentle kind of amusement behind everything that really works. It helps typify characters such as Neville Ward who is “about as exciting as a boiled egg” and in failing to make himself heard during a drunken conversation involving a great many other people is described as having his soprano voice “cut off at birth”. It helps perfectly capture fellow resident Camille “an ex-actress in her sixties who…made no bones about admitting that she was nearly forty”. And, crucially, it helps soften the edges on, and emphasises the charm of, runaway heiress and narrator Diana Prescott who, in less graceful hands, would probably have irritated the living hell out of me. Continue reading →
The heart of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge – previously voted the fourth-best impossible crime of all time – is this: a man standing alone at the edge of a pond surrounded by sand has his throat slit, and the two witnesses who had him in their sight both swear no-one was anywhere near him at the time. It is, of course, impossible. But then the incidence of that which cannot be done is the bailiwick of Dr. Gideon Fell… Something a little different this week, as two venerable gentlemen of the blogosphere – Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Sergio of Tipping My Fedora – have kindly agreed to allow me to append my thoughts to their own joint review of this title from last year by way of providing some alternative perspectives on what is a hotly-debated topic: just how classic is The Crooked Hinge?
I’m not really a fan of the adjective ‘cosy’ (actually, being an Americanism, technically it’s ‘cozy’) when applied to classic detective fiction, but I appreciate that it serves a purpose. It paints a picture of a land far from sadistic serial killers and pulse-pounding races against time, a land inhabited by little old ladies and bloodless death where everything is resolved, or at least halted, for scones and cream at 3pm, where the unpleasant never prosper and where thuggery and what little violence is allowed are perpetrated at the severe risk of extradition. A great many classic crime authors couldn’t actually be any further from ‘cosy’ if they tried, hence my opposition to the term, but right now that’s beside the point.
John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant). I am here to help.
Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea. I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower. I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like. Oh, and make it funny. Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above. What’s that? It’s already been done? Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead. [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]
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: