Every month here at Past Offences, we review crime books and the occasional movie from 1929. For June we set our sights on 1929…
Kate at crossexaminingcrime came up trumps with E. M. Channon’s The Chimney Murder (for which I can’t find a contemporary cover), finding evidence of social upheaval.
As the case progresses and things begin to look dark for Jabez, it is interesting to see how Selina transforms into a much more capable person and diverges from how she used to be. This is exemplified when it is said that ‘she put her knitting aside, preparing to give them her whole attention, and this in itself was rather awe-inspiring. For those gently clicking needles were almost inseparable from one’s idea of Mummy.’ The change in Selina is represented through her putting aside her knitting as that symbolises her old way of being.
Bernadette at Reactions to Reading also got hold of The Chimney Murder, finding similar hints of change:
It is on the face of it one of those restrained domestic stories that English mystery writing of the era is so well-known for but underneath its polite veneer the book borders on revolutionary… There are plenty of things which remind the reader that the events being depicted in THE CHIMNEY MURDER are taking place in 1929, not least of which are the social attitudes on display, but the book never feels dated. Indeed at times it seems to have a thoroughly modern sensibility.
Lucy at The Art of Words returned with Josephine Tey’s first Alan Grant novel The Man in the Queue (published as by Gordon Daviot, Tey’s other name), finding some evidence of old-fashioned attitudes.
The “dago” is the prime suspect – as an obvious Spaniard, Frenchman, Italian or Greek a stiletto is his natural weapon. This is not exactly scientific detection, though it reflects the times. Throughout his career, Grant assumes that you can tell a lot about a person by the shape of their chin, or the colour of their eyes. In later editions, the “dago” is changed throughout to “Levantine”. “Dago” is pejorative, but the editors probably didn’t realise that in the 20s and 30s “Levantine” could be code for “Jew”.
John at Pretty Sinister Books launched into 1929 with Albert Payson Terhune’s The Secret of Sea-Dream House:
Pirates, a cursed house, underground chambers, bootleggers, knife throwing Indians, a magical talisman that seemingly disappears without a trace, a missing 17th manuscript by a world famous Spanish writer — what doesn’t this book have? It all sounds like a movie serial or an archetypal thriller, doesn’t it? The originality arises from Terhune’s unconventional treatment of familiar adventure story motifs and plot devices.
(including a Seminole Indian who happens to be an Oxford-educated radiation expert!)
Next, John turned to campus crime with The May Day Mystery by Octavus Roy Cohen, featuring bumpkin-detective Jim Hanvey:
Universities were the perfect microcosm for the detective novel. A closed community of suspects in which passionate love affairs, envy among academics play a crucial part in the story. Petty jealousies played out in the dormitory hallways as well as the the lecture halls can often lead to violent and murderous reactions. The May Day Mystery (1929) is a prime example of the blending of the collegiate novel and the detective novel that was just catching on in the United States.
John from Noirish read the decidedly un-noirish The Crime at Black Dudley, Margery Allingham’s first novel to feature a young Albert Campion, who was still very much a work in progress.
After the Sayers/Christie-like setup and cast of party guests, however, Allingham offers us what’s essentially an Edgar Wallace-style mystery, with internationally notorious master criminals, ruthless bruisers, chases and other hijinx, a mysteriously valuable stolen item, etc., etc. This device — a Sayers/Wallace mashup, whodathunkit? — gives Allingham tremendous freedom to tell a ripping yarn without having to feel constrained too much by the niceties of detective fiction.
TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time joined in the 1929 challenge (I think unwittingly) with a reading of C. H. B Kitchin’s Death of my Aunt:
Usually, the first entry in a series, even a short-lived one, suffers from several weaknesses: a writer is figuring out the ropes or a portion of the story is dedicated to delineating the characters, which tends to come at the cost of the plot, but Kitchin niftily sidestepped the latter in Death of My Aunt – in which he intertwined the introduction of his detective character with the setup of the plot. The title of the book probably gives away how he managed to achieve that.
John at Noirish liked his first movie of the month – an unlikely jury-room/circus mash-up named Painted Faces:
Eleven of the jurors’ ballots read “Guilty” while the twelfth demurs. That twelfth ballot was cast by the juror Herman (Brown), a foreigner with a thick Mittel-European accent (someone refers to him as a Dutchman, but that seems a non-literal term) who’s better known to the outside world as Beppo the Clown. Beppo’s just certain that Bobby’s innocent, and that all the circumstantial evidence in the world won’t convince him otherwise.
John then moved on to steamy movie The Letter, set on a colonial plantation:
Robert: “It’s only wives like you can make these godforsaken places bearable, Leslie. Seven years on a rubber plantation, with no company but natives and a lot of dowdy planters’ wives.”
Leslie (wearily): “Yes, Robert. That ought to be a test for the good wife.”
And Phantom in the House, which was caught between two stools:
The movie has “early talkie” written all over it, with the director and a couple of the players—notably Valentine as Peggy—not having fully adapted to the new era. In fact, a silent version of the movie was released alongside the sound one, for theaters that lacked sound facilities.
Back to books. The Puzzle Doctor continued his #IreadRhode challenge with the author’s Dr Priestley mystery The House on Tollard Ridge, finding some 1929 characteristics:
Marrying farmers for their money for example, or pubs serving whisky with a soda syphon given to the customer. And possibly (or it may just be the author) the use of the phrase finger-marks rather than finger-prints. Although, to be fair, Rhode also uses the phrase foot-marks as well, so perhaps he just can’t spell the word “print”. And we get to learn a lot about do-it-yourself radio sets. More than one character has a hobby of creating radio receivers to pick up radio signals from other countries… Interestingly, the word “ham” isn’t used though, so perhaps that’s a later phrase.
John turned to the first Gladys Mitchell novel, Speedy Death:
I guffawed several times while reading this purported detective novel — usually at the kind of humor that cinema aficionados might label Pre-Code (too, the book’s from the right era for that comparison). Usually I’m prepared to cut books that make me laugh a lot of slack, but I found it increasingly difficult to do so with this one. I’d like to be charitable and say that the prose has dated badly, but the truth is that it’s just poorly, often ponderously written, as if reveling in its own self-importance.
Back to Pretty Sinister Books for George Limnelius’ The Medbury Fort Murder,
This is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in early 20th century crime fiction because it is both an inverted detective novel and a true detective novel. It seems from the beginning that Limnelius was inspired by the books of Anthony Berkeley for we will follow Major Preece from his planning stage to the actual crime. But the book is told in third person and we get all sorts of viewpoints throughout the novel. On the night of the murder we are fairly certain that Preece did not follow through with his plans based on some events that happen prior to the discovery of the body. Yet there is an ambiguity about whether or not he did kill Lepean by the time he is discovered dead.
Bev brought us a review of The Mystery Woman by J. U. Giesy & Junius B. Smith:
“The Mystery Woman” is the name given to a woman who is found dead in small country town. It appears at first that she is the victim of a “machine” accident (as the characters in the book repeatedly refer to automobiles) … This is a fairly good American mystery from the 1920s with an interesting plot revolving around the police procedures of the time. The clues are fairly displayed–the reader learns everything that the inspector learns as the information is found. There is perhaps a bit of melodrama surrounding the “Mystery Woman’s” story and her reasons for coming to a strange town, but it’s not over-the-top and, given the period the story was written, the motives are perfectly sound.
An intriguing choice of cover for the big hitter of the year, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, reviewed by Jose Ignacio:
Red Harvest is a fast-paced absorbing reading, I’ve enjoyed immensely. Perhaps the plot is a bit convoluted and, given the number of characters, the story is not always easy to follow, but it’s worthwhile to embark on this kind of reading. Red Harvest bears all the hallmarks of what we call hard boiled. And certainly, its publication begun a new approach to what we call crime fiction. If only for that reason, one should read this book. But I’m convinced there much more incentives to read it.
Moira at Clothes in Books revisited one of her first Christies, The Seven Dials Mystery:
As a book of 1929 it is splendid for demonstrating what I think of as the ‘un-Julian-Fellowes’ or ‘un-Downton’ effect. As I’m fond of
droning on about helpfully pointing out, Christie is full of contemporary details that no current writer could put into a book about the 1920s, 30s or 40s. A favourite phrase from the book is a young man asking an older woman, Lady Coote, where she lives:
‘Where are you hanging out now?’
Any modern writer who put that into a 20s drama would be hammered for anachronism.
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery also read The Seven Dials Mystery:
I especially enjoyed the character of Lady Coote, who features most prominently in the initial chapters of the story, and the contrast she provides to Lady Eileen, known to friends and family as “Bundle”. Lady Coote worries about everything: people coming late to dinner, how to deal with the gardener. There is an extended conversation with MacDonald, the gardener, regarding doing some work on the estate, and he circumvents her wishes very easily. As soon as Bundle is back on the estate, she asks him to do exactly the same things and takes no flak from him when he demurs.
Thanks to everyone who played this month. Good luck with 1944 everyone 🙂