The year is 1941, and the shadow of war encroaches on our nation from both sides. Paris has fallen, and in a few short months the Japanese will bomb Pearl Harbor. You wouldn’t know this, however, if you peeked into the windows at Blessingbourne, the Long Island estate where society hostess Claudia Bethune and her third husband Mike are hosting friends for the weekend.
So begins the ahsweetmysteryblog review of Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth, in which some stolen truth serum causes trouble for her series sleuth Dr Willing. Brad’s opener sets the scene for December’s Crimes of the Century, which looked at crime fiction from 1941.
Brad went on to look at two great films noir (is that right? Film noirs?) from 1941 – The Maltese Falcon and I Wake Up Screaming.
Ever In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, the Puzzle Doctor picked up Gladys Mitchell’s Hangman’s Curfew…
There’s some nice humour at times in the tale, in particular with regards George, Mrs Bradley’s chauffeur, and his ambitions in life, but other than this, I found the book pretty flawed. The pacing is all over the place, not least in the finale that takes absolutely forever, and the danger posed by the villain of the piece seems to vary from near-comic (a sequence with Gillian in a hotel) to homicidally maniacal. Add in the vaguest of reasons to involve Mrs Bradley in the first place (although there are plenty of other aspects of the plot that I didn’t understand either) and it’s a bit of a mess really.
The Doctor had better luck with Christianna Brand’s Heads You Lose, but some questions about the politics.
The setting – during wartime but away from any action – is interesting, not least for the Jewish character. It seems at times that the notion of being Jewish is almost as if he is from a different species. I’m not saying that Brand was anti-semitic, but at least three separate characters seem to have issues with the Jewish character in a patronising sort of way in the very least.
Staying with wartime settings, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise read E. R. Punshon’s Ten Star Clues, a tale of identity theft set in the early days of the War.
…a carefully plotted Golden Age police procedural which left me feeling that I wouldn’t mind trying another in the series, perhaps an earlier one, at some stage. I found the references to the impending war interesting, especially the lack of any idea by the characters that this was going to be very different style of warfare.
Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot also enjoyed Ten Star Clues:
The book, a traditional puzzle, is highly entertaining and I’ve very much enjoyed its reading. The story is very well crafted and offers an interesting picture of England in the early stages of WWII.
Bev at My Reader’s Block read Sue McVeigh’s The Corpse and the 3 Ex-Husbands, explaining that the author/narrator ‘Sue McVeigh’ is the wife of a famous New York detective who is away fighting. Bev initially thought it was an overwrought melodrama, but wound up admitting:
Even though the atmosphere of the story is very over-the-top, there is the germ of a very nice mystery here–pretty fair play and a nice twist at the end.
Bev next read Mabel Seeley’s The Chuckling Fingers and found a satisfying set-up:
Seeley’s story begins with Ann Gay arriving in Grand Marais in response to a letter she receives from Jean Nobbelin warning her that her cousin and best friend Jacquelin Heaton may be in danger. Jacqueline has recently married for the second time, wedding Bill Heaton, lumber tycoon. Several ugly incidents have occurred that make it seem as though Jacqui may be a bit unbalanced…or someone wants her to seem that way. Acid is used to make holes in Bill’s suit, a bed is set on fire, and Ann’s robe is cut to ribbons–among other things.
Tracy reviewed Helen Reilly’s Mourned on Sunday at Bitter Tea and Mystery, finding it contains
…elements of the “damsel in distress” story and also bears some resemblance to the “had I but known” sub-genre, but doesn’t fit neatly in either. The reader sees most of the story from the point of view of either Nora Dalrymple or Inspector McKee. Nora is a strong woman, capable of taking care of herself, but keeps her own counsel about some facts that could help clear her.
New player JJ at The Invisible Event read the Little Sisters’ The Black Shrouds, enjoying the humour:
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”.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime enjoyed John Dickson Carr’s Scottish castle locked-room mystery The Case of the Constant Suicides, essaying the thought that…
the style of this story reminded me to an extent of a comedy of manners novel/play such as those by Austen or Oscar Wilde, where misunderstandings abound.
Jose Ignacio also heartily recommends The Case of the Constant Suicides.
a good example of a locked-room mystery, that combines pretty well an interesting story with a clever resolution and I’m sure that it will delight all those who may be interested in reading it. A good test of the quality of this book is that as soon as I finished it, I felt the desire to re-read it.
John from Noirish reviewed Patricia Wentworth’s Danger Point, aka In the Balance, starring spinster-detective Miss Silver.
I was reminded, for obvious reasons, of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in terms of the situation and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar in terms of this being a psychological thriller that represses any use of cheap tricks in the ratcheting up of the tension, instead focusing more on the interplay of characters and the yearning of a central character to be loved for herself. Danger Point worked for me very effectively in this way.
Christmas was coming for most of December, and a country-house mystery set in the season of goodwill is Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, a review seen in the wild at Beneath the Stains of Time.
Something of historical interest about the tool consisting of “a pair of forceps shaped a bit like eyebrow-pluckers to open locked doors,” because it’s a burglary-tool called an “oustiti.” I was unable to find a picture of those forceps, but I came across a reference describing it as “an essential item of a burglar’s tool kit” and it even quoted this book! The tool was also mentioned in Modern Police Work (1939).
Only two from the Queens of Crime this month. First Santosh reviewed Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun,
The characterisation is superb. Most of the characters are memorable and remain in memory long after the book is read. The dialogues are sparkling.
This is a brilliant novel typical of the author’s best writing. In fact, after reading this, one understands why she is regarded as a master of the detective genre
By way of contrast, Moira read Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys, and had an oh dear oh dear moment.
The problem is the Lampreys, who are not funny and clever and entertaining: they are horrible, charmless, snobbish and vilely dishonest. They are snooty about everyone else in their jovial way, but their own manners and customs are quite shocking. That doesn’t stop themselves, and Roberta, and the investigating Inspector Alleyn, from comparing them favourably with the lower classes – something the reader is not inclined to do.
(By the way, Moira’s review was part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers meme – a great one to tune in to for more thematic looks at classic crime fiction.)
Dissent comes from John in his review of Surfeit of Lampreys:
One of the funniest detective novels I’ve read. Much of the humor and later the drama center around the fact that, even though Roberta may adore “her” Lampreys, it’s quite obvious to anyone with an objective eye that really they’re self-indulgent freeloaders, their various quirks and quiddities being not so much joyous expressions of eccentricity as a pain in the rear, especially to all those who’ve seen the Lampreys absorb “borrowed” money like blotting paper.
Col’s Criminal Library checked out Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?
An interesting observation on Hollywood and the American dream played out to the nth degree. Probably the closest modern comparison, I could make would be Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Naked feral ambition, lack of a social conscience and lacking totally in any empathy, compassion or consideration for his fellow man – what’s not to like about Sammy? Haha…. you don’t ever totally abhor him, in fact a sneaking admiration for his particular skill-set lingers.
B-movie time, and John at Noirish has uncovered some gems.
Gambling Daughters is a story of rich girls falling into a bad crowd, although without much crowd.
Presumably in order to save money on acting fees, the bustling clientele at the Angel’s Roost are here and elsewhere represented primarily by off-camera chortles and coughs.
[Gambling Daughters] is held together by a knowing script and the performances of Parker and Miller. The direction’s nothing to talk about, and likewise the cinematography, while Baldwin’s a bit of an embarrassment. It’s one of those vintage fillers where, if you choose to enjoy it, you probably will, whereas, if you choose to be snooty, you probably won’t.
Next, Swamp Woman…
This is a pretty dreadful movie, to be honest, but it’s by no means boring and, in truth, I really quite enjoyed it; my occasional outbreaks of laughter were as affectionate as they were derisory. Overall, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this ain’t, but there are moments when, particularly, La Rue and Corio improbably manage to create some dramatic tension, and even some heat.
The Gang’s All Here is a truck-driving thriller enlivened by the comedy skills of Mantan Moreland.
Mantan: “Ain’t you scared that thing could go off?”
Ham Shanks: “What if it do? It ain’t pointing at me.”
Mantan: “It would be if you were sitting where I am.”
Finally, British movie Cottage to Let is
A somewhat lightweight spy mystery based on a play written before the full horrors were known of what was going on in Europe; it was first staged at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in 1939–40, when opinion on the war’s wisdom was still (just) up for debate in the UK. Another sign of the piece’s date is that, in the screen adaptation, a central character even pronounces the term “Nazis” incorrectly, as “Nazzies” rather than “Natzies.
Sadly, John didn’t get around to the promised ‘rather fun-looking noirish VD scare movie’ he flagged up 😦
A bigger budget movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, watched by Kate at crossexaminingcrime.
Along with most people I think (certainly with me), she found it a little disappointing.
All in all I think my rant-review (sorry), suggests that Frances Iles brilliant story [Before the Fact] is best read rather than watched. This sadly is not Hitchcock at his best and films such as Dial M for Murder are much superior.
Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, who published a nice round-up of her Crimes of the Century reading for the year, read Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain, but found it didn’t qualify, as it…
contains nothing quite so entertaining as murder.
Oof, that was a mega month. Some great books there – somewhat deflating the arguments made by Philip Van Doren Stern in his essay The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley, my own 1941 review.
Thanks to everyone who submitted a review, and in fact everyone who has played Crimes of the Century in 2015. I’m really glad people are enjoying it.
January’s month will be 1950, just to help Col out with his attic-based TBR pile…
Quite the set of books there. I’m interested by JOhn’s alternate view of Lampreys! Thanks as ever for hosting, Rich, and on to 1950 with a song in our hearts…
Fascinating selection. Very intrigued by the Punshon as I hadn’t heard of the author and obviously Sayers thinks highly!
Wow, that’s quite a selection – thanks for all your work in drawing this together, Rich.
What a very interesting roundup, Rich. To echo JJ: Thanks for all the hard work putting it together.
Not sure if I’ll be able to do anything for 1950 — I have a deadline coming up. If I do, it’ll be more likely a book than a movie.
Well, a really large number of reviews ! This is becoming quite popular !
Thanks for putting this together, Rich. Two new authors to me on that list (Punshon and McVeigh).
Love this monthly look at crime fiction, Rich! So glad you started it up and that we’ll be continuing in 2016!
I Wake Up Screaming is a wonderful and very underrated film noir. I loved Cottage To Let. And The Case of the Constant Suicides is great fun.
Gladys Mitchell is a writer I have major problems with. These days I try to avoid her I’m afraid.
I had a blast being part of this, Rich! Can’t wait for 1950! Thanks!