A special mention this month for Les Blatt of Classic Mysteries, who admitted to being of 1944 vintage himself. His review of Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, found it a suitable coeval (yes that’s a word).
This really is one of Christie’s most carefully constructed books, superb in its misdirection of the reader’s attention and expectations. Superintendent Battle may not have Hercule Poirot’s showmanship or Miss Marple’s grasp of human behavior, but he does have enough wit, intelligence and experience to dig through many layers of red herrings to emerge with the truth in hand. Christie fans will certainly enjoy Towards Zero.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime also read Towards Zero (giving me a chance to display both US and UK firsts – lovely covers both of them).
The story opens with the ‘zero hour’ premise and the suggestion that detective stories ‘begin in the wrong place,’ i.e. with the murder. Whereas one of the character’s argue that ‘the story begins long before that… with all the causes and events that bring people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day.’ After this point it is though the clock is ticking and that the various characters are ‘going unbeknownst to… [themselves] towards zero.’
Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot also (mostly) recommends Towards Zero:
Despite its complexity, the plot is well developed, although the final explanation has seemed to me a bit far-fetched. I find its romantic ending is completely unnecessary, but I’m quite ready to forgive it for the good times I spent with this book.
Brad read at ahsweetmystery also read Towards Zero and then moved on to Christie’s second 1944 title, Egyptian history-mystery Death Comes as the End, finding it relevant to the 40s despite being set centuries earlier.
During and between the great wars, mysteries served a purpose of some social significance by providing readers with a sense of stability in a world that held little political or economic certainty. A group of upper middle class citizens are disrupted by the evil machinations of one of their number, usually motivated by greed, sometimes by hate. By book’s end, the detective has caught the killer, and, in almost every sense, the other characters return to their original state. In both 1944 tales, order is restored at the end, but the shake-up to the small circle of characters in each book is massive, and lives are significantly changed on a large scale we don’t always see in a Christie mystery.
From an Ancient Egyptian country-house mystery to the more usual kind. Bev at My Reader’s Block looked at L. A. G. Strong’s All Fall Down.
an English country village crime novel with fairly heavy psychological overtones–especially for the 1940s. We have two down-trodden women–wife and daughter a tyrant who thinks of nothing and nobody but himself and his books. We have an invalid wife who holds just as much sway over her extremely healthy and guilt-ridden husband. We have two rival tutors–one the aforementioned healthy husband and the other a young woman who thinks nothing of stirring up others to add a little excitement to her own dull life.
Clothes in Books read (my current favourite) Patricia Wentworth’s The Clock Strikes Twelve,
In terms of its era, the book keeps dodging in and out of wartime: there’s the odd mention of rationing – I for one was very disappointed that Lydia didn’t wear her trousers (made from furnishing fabric, so no coupons used up) but thought one of these pictures would give a clue as to how she might have looked in them. And Miss Silver has very limited colours to choose from for her endless knitting wool. The family engineering firm at the heart of book is making something top secret for the war effort, but everybody is far more interested in snubbing each other than in worrying about the missing plans. And I was surprised by the huge quantities of food on offer at this grand dinner, with no mention of difficulties.
John at Pretty Sinister Books read three of his collection of 1944 titles, beginning with Amelia Reynolds Long’s Death Looks Down:
…a mystery set on a college campus and one of the more gruesome mystery novels I’ve read this year. With a high body count and some very nasty ways for some unfortunate characters to shuffle off this mortal coil it makes for some flesh creeping reading. A familiarity with the work of Edgar Allan Poe will prepare the reader for the onslaught of a variety of weird murders and hiding of dead bodies found in its pages.
Also at Pretty Sinister, Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle for Puppets sounds quite daring for ’44:
Peter also gets involved in an absurd incident at a Turkish bathhouse leaving him without his navy uniform and without a towel at one point. So we have not only frank talk about their sex lives but an R rated sequence with loads of naked men, including Peter, at the baths. There’s even a two sentence bit about Peter being cruised by a young gay boy. This is not your typical WW2 era detective novel by a long shot. But then it was written by two of mysterydom’s most famous gay writers. You’re bound to get some traipsing into taboo territory with Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler at the helm of your mystery novel.
And finally, All for the Love of a Lady by Leslie Ford, spotting a cunning bit of WWII psychology:
Colonel Primrose is wily enough to know the effect of referring to men by their military rank in order to get the proper responses in his interrogation. He addresses Randy Fleming as Lieutenant and expects him to respond like an officer rather than a civilian and to behave honorably as well as truthfully. Grace spots this strategic interviewing tactic and Ford has her explain it to us in case we miss it. And I would have missed it for its sheer subtlety had she not pointed it out. I thought that was a very clever bit of WW2 type behavior that most modern writers would never think of.
Two more books reflected their wartime genesis. New player RogerBW reviewed Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, set in a hospital.
What this book has become since its publication is an effective period piece, showing life in a military hospital during the Blitz; Brand didn’t work in one herself, but her ENT-surgeon husband did, and she sometimes joined the staff in the shelters. The atmosphere of life on the wards, with air raids every night, seems effectively captured, and as someone with a little medical knowledge I found the equipment and procedures convincing if frighteningly primitive. One unexpected note: when the murderer commits suicide after confessing, Cockrill treats this as an unwelcome evasion of justice, rather than as saving everyone the bother of a trial; I suppose this might well have been the attitude at the time, but I can’t help feeling that dead is probably just as dead whether by one’s own hand or from a hangman’s noose.
Checkmate to Murder by E. C. R. Lorac is another Blitz novel, reviewed by Bev.
I must have a thing for Lorac’s fog-shrouded, black-out-centered mysteries, because I thoroughly enjoyed her Checkmate to Murder. Inspector MacDonald is a very thorough yet very human policeman. He is never quick to judge and he has a way of seeing everything–even the things the witnesses and suspects think they’ve hidden properly. The mystery is fairly clued–maybe too fairly, because I figured this one out. Not absolutely every little detail, but enough that I’m calling it a win for Inspector Bev.
Less effectively anchored in its time was H. C. Bailey’s Slippery Ann, bravely reviewed by the Puzzle Doctor.
H C Bailey is best known for his short stories featuring Reggie Fortune, but also wrote eleven novels featuring Josh(ua) Clunk. Apparently, his opus was in that series was The Sullen Sky Mystery. It sure as heck wasn’t this one…
The setting is rather odd – is the country at war or not? While there are possibly German spies knocking around in the background, nobody seems to act as if there’s a war on. I know in 1944, the threat of invasion had died away, but the attitude in general seems very strange to me.
Time for some 1944 movies. John at Noirish watched Rogues Gallery.
One of the countless comedy mysteries that were churned out as B-movies in the 1930s and 1940s, this features a familiar pair of protagonists: the smartass reporter and her photographer sidekick.
Plus a great macguffin….
Reynolds has developed a device that can pick up sounds from anywhere in the world without the need for radio, wires or anything else that might make the invention physically plausible.
Brad at ahsweetmystery viewed Otto Preminger’s Laura, in which a hardboiled dectetive played by Dana Andrews tries to solve the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt. Was it Clifton Webb’s bitchy newspaper columnist, Vincent Price’s gigolo, or Judith Anderson’s socialite?
Brad rates the film:
For all of you who haven’t seen it, you have a wonderful murder mystery in store. Stop reading NOW and go watch it.
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery read Margaret Millar’s Fire Will Freeze, in which we meet:
Miss Isobel Seton, a 35 year old woman who thinks a lot about marriage but has no prospects. She is on a bus with a group of people headed for a skiing lodge and is getting so fed up that she is composing a letter of complaint (mentally) to Abercrombie & Fitch: ‘Because one of your irresponsible clerks did not prevent me from buying a pair of skis, I am sitting here in what these damned Canadians call a Sno-bus, which means a bus that meets a Sno-train and conveys one to a Sno-lodge. I am marooned in the wilds of Quebec in a raging Sno-storm. My nose is red. I am thirty-five, which not an age for adjustments. I am hungry.’
Sounds a lot funnier than Beast in View…
Jose Ignacio must be reading Maigrets as fast as they were written, this month submitting his review of Signed, Picpus.
The mystery revolves around the murder of a clairvoyant; the appearance of a disoriented old man locked in a kitchenette next to the crime scene; the origin of the message foretelling the murder; the suicide attempt of Mascouvin, a shady character employed by a financial services company who found the message; the eccentric family of Octave Le Cloaguen, the man who had appeared enclosed in the kitchen; the role played by a certain Monsieur Blaise, a man who in appearance leads an untroubled existence; and, above all, who is Picpus and why was the victim murdered? As usual, Maigret solves the case thanks to his observation skills, and with the only help of a deep knowledge of the human condition.
I forgot my own book last month! This month’s was Helen MacInnes’ While Still We Live, which follows an English girl as she fights alongside the Polish resistance during the 1939 Siege of Warsaw and its harrowing aftermath.
Just under the wire was the Puzzle Doctor, continuing to read Rhode, with the enigmatically named Vegetable Duck. You’ll have to read his post to find out what a vegetable duck is. Clue: Not a duck.
Mr and Mrs Fransham sat down to eat their dinner, but before he could even touch his starter, a mysterious phone call lures Fransham away. Returning from the hoax call, he enters his lodging with his neighbour who he met on the stairs, only to find his wife dying – killed by the vegetable duck!
But who will quack the case?
Oh come on… quack.
Bernadette brought us an Aussie classic at Fair Dinkum Crime, Common People by A. E. Martin, which…
tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people.
Sadly no 1944 cover to be seen on the web, but here is another fairground title…
Ending on a high note. JJ at the Invisible Event sounded his classic book klaxon for Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr, which:
twists like a cornered viper. To give one example without spoilers: a casual mention is made of something early on which, just after the halfway point, is used to explain a key aspect of the case in a way that makes perfect sense and throws new light onto proceedings. Then, about 15 lines later, that explanation is blown out of the water — and in a single line, no less — with all the calm assurance you’d expect from a man who has just led you happily into a bear trap. But still that original explanation has a part to play, and this kind of construction is maintained across virtually all of the misdirection throughout. Honestly, this is possibly the best book I have read this year, and I’ve already abandoned two books since finishing it because they’re so pedestrian by comparison.
Thanks to everyone who played, especially new guy RogerBW. August will move on a decade to 1954, see you all next month 🙂