Every month here at Past Offences, I round up crime and mystery fiction reviews focusing on a particular year. It’s called Crimes of the Century. In September we were looking at 1930, which proved to be a stonking year in terms of publishing debuts.
Brad at ahsweetmystery got in first with Miss Marple’s debut novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, pointing out some links between Marple and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I sort of reviewed to general confusion earlier in the month.
[Agatha Christie] enjoyed bringing Caroline Sheppard, the inquisitive spinster sister of the narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, (1926) to life so much that she wanted to preserve the same sort of person – “an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home” – for future use. (It’s worth noting that Caroline Sheppard also deserves credit for inspiring the author to try her hand at adapting her own stories for the theatre after another playwright’s adaptation of Ackroyd awkwardly transformed Caroline into a young romantic figure.) The other person who may have inspired Christie in making up the character of Jane Marple was her own grandmother, but only for the quality the two women shared of universal pessimism about human nature.
I chimed in with my thoughts on The Mysterious Mr Quin, Christie’s whimsical and I thought rather Chestertonian short stories starring elderly fusspot Mr Satterthwaite. And a Harlequin.
In Quin’s company, Satterthwaite gets the power to solve mysteries. The stories showcase a familiar cast of eccentric and domineering duchesses, handsome but curmudgeonly artists with beards, beautiful but graceless artists with page-boy haircuts and jumpers, glamorous but faded dancers, tedious ghost-hunters and table-turners, fortune hunters and big game hunters. Each story sets up a puzzle, usually some tragedy, that a fresh perspective and Mr Satterthwaite’s eye for human behaviour resolve.
Another immortal debuted in 1930: Inspector Jules Maigret. A Crime is Afoot brought us thoughts on Pietr the Latvian (the cover of the 1931 first edition is shown here).
This novel was the one with which Simenon made the transition from his popular novels, written under pseudonyms, towards those he was aspiring to write. For what it’s known his main publisher at that time, Arthème Fayard, doubting of its public acceptance, published it initially by instalments from the 19 of July to the 11 of October 1930, in his weekly magazine ‘Ric et Rac’, before its publication in book format. Even then Pietr the Latvian was the fifth Maigret book to be published a year later in May 1931.
Another important 1930 debut. The Puzzle Doctor offered us John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks by Night, featuring know-it-all Henri Bencolin and a lycanthropic suspect in a gambling den.
The werewolf thing disappears pretty quick. It feels like it was inserted to justify the spoooooky title, but it doesn’t serve any other real purpose. Shame really, there aren’t enough locked room mysteries with werewolves in them. They could kill someone, pretend to be a wolf-skin rug, and then sneak away when no-one’s looking. There you go, aspiring writers, you can have that one for free!
Brad at ahsweetmystery celebrated It Walks by Night by interviewing confirmed Carrophile JJ from The Invisible Event:
Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. If we’re calling Carr’s peak the 1940s (and they were), he was at a stage then where the dropping of a single adjective could completely change the comportment of a scene or the response it incited in you. Here, he’s guilty of somewhat over-writing to ensure he gets his point across, but even then there are some beautifully descriptive and succinct expressions — ‘Surprising how a match-flame can blind one against a darkness moving and breaking like whorls of foam on water!’ has always stuck with me, especially given the context of that match.
The Puzzle Doctor followed up his Carr with a Rhode: Peril at Cranbury Hall:
A wonderfully twisty tale, with the reader never sure what’s going to happen next, and a great example of the Golden Age genre. The identity of the villain became a little inevitable as the end approaches, but even then, I was never quite sure I’d flagged it up correctly […] Rhode has a few weak points – overcomplicated motives, obscure characters as the killer, reliance on a certain plot shape – but none of those problems are present here. He makes the most of a small cast of characters, all of which get a nice bit of page time, and pulls off a nice revelation at the end of the tale that I doubt many readers will spot.
Bev at My Reader’s Block opened with The Wheelchair Corpse by Will Levinrew, which has an intriguing hook.
As the book opens, “Iron Man” Hite, city editor for a New York newspaper, is weeding out the anonymous tips and crazy communications that often cross his desk when he comes across one that is different enough to make him pause with his hand over the trash can.
Conrad Manx , Jr. will die of meningitis. He will be Number One.
And the “Number One” is given using the Hebrew Alphabet. Not your average crackpot. But how could anyone predict a case of meningitis?
With her second 1930 review, Bev suspected The Mystery of Burnleigh Manor by Walter Livingston was
…perhaps the basis for the plot of many a Scooby Doo cartoon episode. It features a Spooky Old House which none of the locals will go near for love or money. There are rumors of hauntings and footsteps in the walls and an evil atmosphere that touches anyone who comes near. The only thing missing is the spectre who is really the local policeman in disguise.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime brought us Molly Thynne’s The Case of Sir Adam Braid, finding the victim more sympathetic than many a tyrannical wealthy Golden Age murderee:
I think the description which gave me a little sympathy to Braid was this one where it is suggested that he could be compared ‘to an old, ill-conditioned, shaggy terrier, his few remaining teeth bared to bite.’ This sums him up quite well as he doesn’t always have the best of tempers but there is a sense that the harm he can do is quite minimal and there is a certain loveability to a scruffy dog character.
John at Pretty Sinister Books went west with Stephen Chalmers’ The Affair of the Gallows Tree:
Boldrewood (could he have a more fitting name?) is typical of the hero detectives from a pulp writer like Stephen Chalmers: stalwart, brave, good looking, and loaded with common sense. He’s also good at old school detective work that has its roots in hunting and tracking. He’s keen on reading animal and human trails, reading the wear on tree bark and other seemingly uncanny talents related to the natural world. His deputy ranger Tommy Kershal is equally good at this kind of detective work when he points out how he knows a forest fire is the work of arsonists and can tell the difference between worn and broken rope and cleanly cut rope. Likewise, the Native American Rance does his part with almost supernatural skill as when he notices disturbances on the pine needle covered forest floor and can follow the trail to a nearby stream.
Yet another significant title from 1930 (although like the Maigret it was serialised before becoming a book) was Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which Jose Ignacio read for the first time this month.
Some times I wonder myself why I waited so long to read this book? And I have no answer. Perhaps, it didn’t help me having seen the film so many times. A superb film, incidentally, directed by John Huston in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. In any case, the novel has met or even exceeded, all my expectations. It’s, undoubtedly, a true masterpiece. The story is just great and is very well told. The pace is well chosen and the characterisation is excellent.
John at Pretty Sinister found much to interest him in George A. Birmingham’s Wild Justice, which
…is narrated by an Anglican minister who is given no name throughout the course of the book. Early on in the book he says “I am no lover of the Irish, who have always struck me as a troublesome race, but I like to be just to them.” This is the overarching tenor of the book. The author, an Irishman himself, starts by poking fun at the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent in England at the time. The humor is mildly satiric in pointing out the narrow-minded prejudices of the narrator and others, but by the end of the book the author is clearly espousing his critical opinion of the radical Irish, the revolutionaries and terrorists who have sullied the reputation and history of the homeland he is proud of.
Now this is a terrible cover. What were they thinking? And the Puzzle Doctor found the book just as disappointing.
To be fair, it’s not a mystery, but an adventure story, sort of an early years James Bond caper, as [League of Nations officials] Baxter and Granby bounce around early twentieth century Spain for some reason. And I have to say for some reason, as it takes about 60% of the page count before Granby tells Baxter what’s going on and then, in a teeth-grindingly irritating way, Baxter, the narrator, ignores passing that information on and tells us:
‘I feel, however, that my immediate business is to get on with the story; and if you read to the end of it, you will, perhaps, agree with me.’
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery reviewed The Diamond Feather by Helen Reilly, which kicks off with that old classic – a family heirloom that turns out to be a fake.
Of the four mysteries by Helen Reilly that I have read, this is my favorite. The story had me under a spell and I would gladly have stayed up all night to finish the book. That might be because this was closer to a police procedural and had much less of the “damsel in distress” element than I noticed in previous books. And less romance.
Not every title from 1930 was a classic. Here’s a full round-up of the year’s failures, beginning with JJ’s recommendation regarding The Second Shot by Anthony Berkeley:
Your best bet? Read the first half up to the appearance of Sheringham, then read the epilogue. That gives you an excellent novella and displays more of Berkeley’s strengths than his weaknesses.
Jason Half brought us While the Patient Slept by Mignon G. Eberhart, a run-of-the-mill Had-I-But-Known story:
And when there is not an added element to allow Gothic melodrama to transcend its genre and work on higher levels, you are left with an offering like While the Patient Slept by Mignon G. Eberhart. In her second published novel, appearing in 1930, the stoic traveling nurse Sarah Keate – whose name would almost certainly be modified to Para Keet if the book were important or original enough to justify a Holmesian pastiche – accepts a post at the perpetually gloomy and cavernous mansion of old Jonah Federie, who is in a coma […] On a dark and stormy night (naturally), Sarah Keate hears a gunshot and discovers Adolph Federie sprawled on the staircase. A jade elephant figurine lies below him.
Jason’s run of bad luck continued with Milward Kennedy’s Half Mast Murder, which…
offers very few literary attributes beyond its detailed, timeline-centric plotting. The first pages start promisingly, with various family members and guests at Cliff’s End racing to the summer house only to find Professor Harold Paley locked inside the room and dead from a knife to the chest. Niece Cynthia notes that the flag above the building is flying at half mast, and promptly faints from the sight. It is soon thereafter, during the introductions and interviews of the suspects conducted by the nondescript Superintendent Guest, that tedium begins to descend.
Another clunker was E. M. Channon’s Twice Dead, reviewed at Pretty Sinister Books.
I found the whole thing utterly unsatisfying from its ersatz melodrama to its naive worldview about love. Most off-putting is Channon’s preference to explain everyone’s thoughts and actions. She adopts a “gentle reader” omniscient narrative voice peculiar to early 19th century novels making continual sideline commentary rather than allowing the reader to discover who the characters are through their actions and deeds. This is probably due to Channon’s primary career as a writer of juvenile novels set in girls’ schools. Most of these adult women act like Edwardian “mean girls” and the men are pretty stereotyped, too. There’s not much here to recommend even as a quaint period piece. There are dozens of similar stories better written, better plotted, and much more maturely handled.
And another clunker. Patricia Wentworth’s The Coldstone was a non-Miss Silver mystery which left Jose Ignacio feeling that the cover blurb oversold the story.
Then one night a wall in the queer old library moves and Anthony finds himself on the trail of a mystery exceeding his wildest imagining. Mystery, adventure, and romance combine […]
I must confess that I have had to struggle to finish reading The Coldstone. These kind of novels are not my cup of tea.
Back to a good one for the finish.
RogerBW thoroughly enjoyed Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison (which featured some quite ugly typography in its Gollancz cover), the one in which Lord Peter falls for murder suspect Harriet Vane:
This is, to my mind, a masterpiece. There’s only one logical flaw in the whole business, and rather than hope the reader won’t notice Sayers admits the problem and has a character ask explicitly “why didn’t he do X”. She has the trick of writing a character cleverer and better-read than herself (don’t try to do it as fast as he does, and don’t be shy of spinning off references without filling in all the gaps for the reader; they can go and look up “the Seddon trial” or “Mithridates he died old” or “the Bravo case” for themselves), and the prose in general is sheerly lovely.
Moira at Clothes in Books rounded off the month with her take on Strong Poison (which featured some quite ugly typography in its Gollancz cover):
Recently some of us were suggesting which Agatha Christie book we could recommend to a new reader: it occurs to me that this would be the ideal book for someone wanting to try out Lord Peter Wimsey. It does not have the slight silliness of some of the earlier books, and has real, believable characters with dilemmas and ideas. Many of us really enjoy any appearances of Miss Climpson, and in this book there is a Miss Murchison too, who does a tense undercover job in a solicitor’s office, again beautifully described. To this end, she learns lock-picking from a retired burglar. There are also scenes of Bunter vamping the help at a suspect’s house: flirting with the cook and maids in a most satisfying way. The book also contains a full account of how to make a jam omelette.
Thanks to everyone who played. We’re on to 1907 next month, which I suspect will limit the field somewhat – good luck everyone!