Every month on Past Offences, we look at a particular year in crime fiction. For November I picked 1975.
John at Noirish opened the month with a TV show (we don’t get enough TV shows on here) Too Many Suspects, starring Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen. Hutton…
…does a wonderful job with the part. At first I thought, This isn’t quite Ellery. But the problem, always, with bringing Ellery Queen to the screen is that the character evolved over the decades of his literary existence. He started out as Philo Vance Lite, but by the time he got to the marvelous Calamity Town (1942)—in my opinion the masterpiece of the EQ canon—he’d become someone else altogether. And it’s this someone else that I think Hutton was trying to capture. He doesn’t really have the asceticism of face for it, but even so he does wonderfully well . . . except that his director or his producers/scripters clearly insisted that Ellery have also some aspects of a bumbling, absent-minded klutz: put an obstacle in front of him and he’ll trip over it. It’s cheap, low comic characterization, and for me it doesn’t belong to Ellery Queen.
Coincidentally, Reading Ellery Queen covered the first episode of the Jim Hutton series:
The pilot premiered on a Sunday night during the slot usually taken by the legendary NBC Mystery Movie, which I would have been primed to watch. The series rotated four mystery series, each episode two hours long. That year’s roster included the Levinson and Link creation Colombo, McCloud, the Rock Hudson vehicle McMillan and Wife and Ironsides spin-off Amy Prentiss, which lasted three episodes. Perhaps Levinson & Link had hoped Ellery Queen would become part of that stable. Instead, the Tony Curtis vehicle McCoy took the place of Amy Prentiss, and Ellery Queen was given his own series, which debuted on Thursday, September 11, 1975.
Winner of the ‘book cover featuring a woman with hardly any flesh showing’ award (scan down the page and you’ll see what I mean), Bev’s review of Patricia Moyes’ Black Widower finds Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett investigating a death in the diplomatic community on the Caribbean island of Tampica
….not the best example of Patricia Moyes’s detective fiction. The plot is serviceable and Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are their usual congenial selves, but transplanting them to Washington and the Caribbean doesn’t work as well as their British adventures or even those that take place in Switzerland. And this time around the reader is hit over the head (repeatedly) with the primary clue. I didn’t stop to count how many times it’s mentioned, but I would think even the dullest of readers would pick up on the fact that was a most important item indeed.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime also read Black Widower:
In comparison to Ngaio Marsh’s Black As He’s Painted (1974), Moyes handles the issue of race better and although including racist viewpoints, they are clearly not endorsed. For example when Michael’s wife says ‘“Sir Edward may be only a Tampican, but at least he’s a gentleman!”’ Moyes follows this with the line ‘And, having packed the maximum possible snobbery, bigotry and lack of tact into one short sentence… [she left].’ Michael’s wife is not the only white character to come under censure in the book. However, there are some less clear passages in the book, where Moyes’ handling of race is more ambiguous, such as with the means of apprehending the killer.
RogerBW reviewed Catherine Aird’s Slight Mourning:
Bill Fent, local landowner, died when his car hit another at a notorious corner… but he’d have been dead before morning anyway, from the poison in his system. This is a good solid mystery of the old school, and I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t spot the solution. The Fents have a money-poor estate, but can’t sell any of the land for development unless the owner and heir can agree to break the entail… but the heir wasn’t interested in cooperating, though he’s ready enough to talk about his plans now. And the next heir just happens to be on the scene too. The widow certainly knows more than she’s saying. Then there’s everyone else who was at the fatal dinner party; but they all ate the same food, and nobody else came down with anything.
Les at Classic Mysteries also read Slight Mourning
Her books are more-or-less police procedurals, but with distinctly Golden Age – type traditional elements. The key characters are Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan – known as “Seedy” to his friends, Detective Constable Crosby, whose “assistance” to Sloan is highly debatable (Crosby is known behind his back as “the defective constable”), and their boss, Superintendent Leeyes, who serves mostly as a comic foil for Sloan. The Superintendent takes all sorts of night self-improvement classes and then torments his staff with his misinterpretation of most of the things he learns.
Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog bade a fond farewell to Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Curtain:
…a powerful ending for longtime readers who have invested their hearts in the exploits of this endearing Belgian for forty or so adventures. Some of Poirot’s actions to catch the killer frankly do not bear close scrutiny, but one cannot deny the novel’s emotional power at the conclusion. One wishes that Christie had only taken more time to craft a better case around this finale. She was almost certainly writing at the height of her powers when she drafted Curtain, (if it was written in the early 1940’s as she claims), but she relies too much on allusions to the past and that hard-hitting ending and takes too little time crafting her characters and story for us to care more deeply.
Curtains of the theatrical variety now. RogerBW was underwhelmed by Simon Brett’s Cast, in Order of Disappearance, which finds perpetually struggling actor Charles Paris combining sleuthing with ‘resting’.
Against the timelessness of the major action, Brett superimposes the real events of 1973-1974: the petrol crisis, the Three-Day Week, and the general election. It’s an unusual step for a detective story, which are usually left to float vaguely within their eras; petrol shortages are a minor plot point, but otherwise the current events are more depressing background detail.
Another thespian: Julian Symons’ A Three Pipe Problem is a pastiche on the Great Detective, featuring a washed-up actor reviving his role as a TV Holmes by solving a real-life crime.
It all sounds comic, but it’s handled very seriously. Sher is a figure of fun to all but his greatest fan, a traffic warden called Joe Johnson. His wife is unfaithful and he’s stopped caring. His Holmes purism is affecting the quality of his work and alienating his co-stars. And there are hints that he is losing his grip altogether as he consciously allows Victorian visions to submerge the real world.
RogerBW reviewed A Case of Spirits by Peter Lovesey:
As one expects from Lovesey, everyone is at least mildly unlikeable except for the detective. They ignore their wives in favour of their collections of nude paintings; they entertain strange men while their husbands are occupied; and of course some of them murder. The situation is carefully set up so that pretty much any of the suspects could have done the deed, though the whole business did seem rather fragile and dependent on chance, and I’m not at all convinced by the murder method.
But this is more of a character study than a puzzle story, especially if you’re already familiar with the tricks of the medium rather than coming to them afresh. (Well, I suppose in 1975 those tricks weren’t universal knowledge.)
My next review was Mary Higgins Clark’s Where are the Children? which put me off a bit with its theme, but:
Having said that, the suspense is built very efficiently, with different people knowing different parts of the story – if only they’d put them together it would all be okay and the children would be saved…
Two quite different spy novels (at least judging the books by their covers). At the Nick Carter and Carter Brown Blog, Linda Stewart’s The Jerusalem File brought us a story
Arab terrorists have kidnapped the world’s ten wealthiest men and it is up to Nick Carter, “Killmaster”, to find them.
For Nick there is only one sure fire way to find the enemy, walk into an alley and see who tries to kill you. Then make sure you kill them first.
By way of contrast, Moira at Clothes in Books read Joseph Hone’s (‘the best spy author you have never heard of’) The Sixth Directorate, and thought it was fabulous.
The book was so clever and melancholy and thoughtful, and tremendously well-written. Then there would be some sudden action scene and terrible gruesome moments. The woman in the case, Helen, is terrifically well done, much more so than the women characters in Hone’s contemporaries’ books.
Speaking of descriptions of women, and reminding me that I have two reviews of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books in my to-do pile, Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery brought us 1975’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky.
This is pretty much the standard plot of the books in the series. McGee is approached by a woman needing help. He takes a break from his retirement to provide aid… What makes the books so good is MacDonald’s storytelling. I was rereading sections of this book after the first read through, and they are just as good the second time around. Does this book reflect life in the US in 1975? I would say yes.
A lot of books this year failed to set our reviewers alight. John at Pretty Sinister Books slammed Mary McMullen’s A Country Kind of Death
This novel is a mess. It purports to be a crime novel and it isn’t. It succeeds only as a meager satire of 1970s middle class white suburbia […] Even the finale –- an excessively violent and melodramatic basket of clichés -– fails when the so-called villain of the novel (no surprise as to the identity, BTW) is presented as a certified madman, utterly contrary to the way he was portrayed in the first two thirds of the book. It’s a cheap and inauthentic way to attempt to legitimize calling the book a mystery novel.
RogerBW was the first of two reviewers of Inspector Morse in Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter.
Attitudes to women, even from the “good guys” and especially from the narrator, are archaic even for the era; this feels sometimes like a tawdry novel of the 1960s in which everyone is lying about sleeping with everyone else (of the opposite sex, of course), dragged into the 1970s by making everything a few shades darker.
Morse himself is less than convincing here. Rather than being a portrayal of a man with interests, he’s a block to fill the policeman-shaped hole in the story, with an enthusiasm for opera pasted on to try to give him a bit of individuality.
Jose Ignacio also caught the Last Bus to Woodstock:
The story is entertaining and the plot, although fairly convoluted, ends up being quite attractive. Perhaps its greatest flaw can be found in the sexists attitudes of some characters and in some macho remarks that are completely out of place, and that are certainly no longer acceptable nowadays. I don’t even believe they would have been acceptable in 1975.
Another panning – JJ looked at Deadly Reunion by Jan Ekström, starting with the frontispiece:
Yup, that’s four generations of family tree, given to you before even a word of the plot reaches your eyes, and straight away it felt like I was about to sit some kind of exam where I’d need to recall the exact relationship between Malin and Charlene, and it virtually guaranteed there’d be a several moments of having to stop and think “okay, so if he’s married to her and she’s their cousin but this one is having an affair with that one…aren’t they too closely related for that? Oh, no, wait, he’s her second husband, so the girl is the first cousin of his second cousin, so when they marry…yeah, no, that’s still not going to work…”. Thank blimey the cat’s on there, is all I can say.
The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel pinned his hopes on Reginald Hill’s An April Shroud.
With little plot of any interest to focus on, with the majority of misdemeanours being committed being very minor, it just didn’t grab me at all. You do get some insight into Dalziel, but no more than usual, and you start to realise that without Pascoe (for most of the book) or Wield, Dalziel is pretty tiresome in large doses.
Ending on two good ones, John rounded us off with a double review, beginning with Lawrence Block’s The Topless Tulip Caper, written as by PI Chip Harrison:
The client in this case has hired Haig to find out who slaughtered her prize collection of Scatophagus tetracanthus [a tropical fish]. They account for the first one hundred and twenty-three victims of the book. Thankfully, we are spared this aquatic carnage as they are mass murdered by poisoned fish food well before the book even begins. Chip knows that Leo is the man for the job as does Thelma Wolinski, aka Tulip Willing, as she is known when she dances in her undies for the salivating male audience at the Treasure Chest strip club. Thelma, you see, is the leading authority on the “Scatty” and has written a couple of articles on how to successfully breed the species for a few ichthyological trade journals.
John finished with James McClure’s hard-hitting South African novel Snake, which…
…depicts the era of apartheid in all its ugliness and bigotry. The book dares to show policemen working together, black and white, Afrikaners and Bantu, without one trace of the political correctness we are suffering from these days. McClure’ s main policemen characters are Lt. Tromp Kramer, a white Afrikaner, and Mickey Zondi, a Zulu.
Thanks to everyone who played this month. Onwards and backwards in time to 1960…