#22: The Nine Wrong Answers – Popular Authors Who Fail to Impress

Much like you – well, exactly like you, I’d imagine – there are authors I love and authors I don’t.  Almost as a counter-point to last week’s My Blog Name in Books, here is my list of nine ‘classic’ crime authors whose work I’m unlikely to ever touch again and – in some cases – whose continued popularity is, in all honesty, a complete mystery to me.  I cast no aspersions by this, it’s just interesting to throw some ideas around and get a sense of people’s tastes and preferences.

As ever, there are rules: they must be dead (I’m not one for trolling), I must have read at least four of their books (to give them a fair chance) and they must fall into my self-imposed 1920 to 1950 envelope.  Presented alphabetically by surname, too.

Wrong Answers

Nicholas Blake

Cecil Day Lewis, as poet laureate, was responsible for some wonderful and moving work with the English language.  As Nicholas Blake he mainly wrote turgidly and indefensibly dull mysteries that often required contortions considered too outré by Cirque du Soleil in order to fit together; his plots always discard their sole interesting hook in favour of stilted and awful dialogue, and Nigel Strangeways is less a sleuth than a pompous collection of quotations and unhelpful observations.  Blake’s novels are the kinds of books you write when you don’t know any real people, or when all your friends are politicians (same thing, really).  Lovely descriptions, atrocious everything else.

James M. Cain

Cain is the only author on this list because he was too good, but too good once.  My first Cain – Double Indemnity – astonished me, it was honestly like being cracked in the face by a bucket of ice, and everything since has been a pale and disappointing toe into a puddle in comparison.  I simply cannot read him again, because nothing – no, not Mildred Pierce, not The Postman Always Rings Twice, not Serenade, nothing – even touches that first peak, and the disappointment each time weighs increasingly heavy in my soul.

Raymond Chandler

“We danced around like some hoo-haa boys trying to flip a penny switch while a piano-player ate glass on the sweepstake, and just as I was about to launch the ticker he took one high-handed and scrammed like a hard-time dingo dusting his wheels on a flapper girl’s curling tongs”.  Reads everything Chandler ever wrote.  Some wonderful quips (I seem to remember ‘She was pushing 40 backwards hard enough to break a wrist’) do not make up for his inability to simply and clearly describe people and their actions.  That may be the point, but it’s not what I’m looking for!

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s whimsy and verbosity rile me like little else; case in point, ‘The Queer Feet’ contains one of the single-most brilliant examples of ratiocination the genre has ever seen (yes, ever.  No argument) but, dear crikey, can the man not just tell the story?  The verbiage present in everything makes getting to his points agonising work.  Gets kudos for inspiring Gideon Fell, but that was passive rather than active and so doesn’t really count.  And he gets far too much leeway for ‘The Invisible Man’, too, which is surely one of the most frustrating detective stories ever written (though with a wonderful final sentence).

Dashiell Hammett

The plotting on Red Harvest is about as dense and amazing as they come – virtually every short chapter changes the structure of the plot in a meaningful way – but the blandness of Hammett’s expression makes it difficult for me to get too involved with his guys and dames as they scheme, fight, and kill each other.  It’s more noticeable in his shorter works, I feel, because you get to the end of a story without anything approaching an interesting idea well expressed.  As soon as I noticed it there, it killed his novels for me, too.  Yes, even The Thin Man.

Ngaio Marsh

I love Marsh’s cattiness, but she’s probably the only detective author I’ve read whose books become less interesting once the crime is committed.  Her detective Roderick Alleyn is pretty much just some dull questions wearing a coat and, and might just be the only detective whose appearance in books I’m mentally hoping is put off for as long as possible.  If Marsh ever introduced him in the last 30 pages like Christie did with the later Poirots, it’d probably be the exact book I was looking for from her.

Gladys Mitchell

I don’t like anything about Mitchell’s writing.  Her characters are annoying, her sleuth is infuriating, her settings are dull, her plots are hokey, her clues are astonishingly poor, her chain of reasoning is diabolically bad…I’m amazed she was allowed to get away with this for as long as she did.  I’m sorry to be so negative – there is at least something that I can say is good about everyone else on this list – but the time I’ve wasted trying to like Mitchell, or even find one redeeming thing about her writing, is one of the bigger regrets of my reading life.

Dorothy L. Sayers

I know, I know.  I want to like Sayers, I really do, and I love the way we started off with Peter Wimsey as this shell-shocked, devastated ex-soldier occasionally affected by panic attacks, but she increasingly struck me as a detective novelist who disdained the ‘detective’ bit.  I’m aware of the research that went into The Nine Tailors, but to write a crime novel just to prove how much research you’ve done would get you castigated these days (and I can’t help but feel that none of Sayers’ peers would have been allowed to get away with it).  An innovator, a lady of letters, no doubt, but I’ve yet to read her without getting the impression she’s just slumming it to show that she can.

Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair is an excellent book, everything else by Tey (I’ve only The Singing Sands left to read) is bland, overlong, and marked by an absence of real character.  More than anyone else on this list I struggle to come to any opinion on Tey’s work, because it’s simply too uninteresting for that lack of interest to even make it noteworthy.   Yes, yes, Richard III and all that, but if Barbara Cartland had been the one to discover water on Mars it wouldn’t have made her books any better.  ‘Significant’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing.

Wrong Answers 2

So there you have it.  Two crime queens wiped out, the three arguably most influential American hardboiled writers swatted aside, what am I thinking?  I invite you to challenge my choices and call me out on my adulation of Christie or Rupert Penny; that would be lovely, and no less than I deserve.  Alternatively, feel free to herald me as a genius of the modern age for my insight, that would also be lovely.  Who wants to start…?

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24 thoughts on “#22: The Nine Wrong Answers – Popular Authors Who Fail to Impress

  1. You are a brave blogger my friend and I imagine that you might get some very ‘specific’ feedback on this, JJ! I take your point completely though as there are some popular authors, like Marsh especially, that I have never been able to appreciate (Patricia Wentworth is another). However, i shall, to my dying breath, remain a massive fan of Chandler, Hammett and Chesterton and have enjoyed plenty of books by Blake and Cain. Mitchell is very, very variable but I did enjoy DEATH AT THE OPERA (I’m reviewing that one over at Fedora shortly in fact). Tey I am not crazy about either but Sayers was a very fine prose stylist and I really like some of her books, such as NINE TAILORS, MURDER MUST ADVERTISE and UNNATURAL DEATH (despite her snobbery and racism, of which I believe there is no doubt, though plenty insist otherwise)

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    • The importance of Chandler, Hammett, Chesterton, etc. is beyond dispute. But, like Poe, I can’t help but feel that their starting something doesn’t mean they were necessarily going to stand the test of time. I’m honestly more curious than anything else over this type of point, however. Will look forward to your views on the Mitchell – not that I’ll read it, but you take things apart very well and it’ll be interesting to see what you make of it.

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  2. Yup, you’ll get some feedback on this, if the reaction to my query at Bodies From The Library at to why Marsh is considered on a par with Allingham, Sayers & Christie is anything to go by. And I completely agree on Marsh – she could write the pre-murder bits as well as anyone but after the crime is committed… Not read enough on most of the others but I’m with Sergio on Blake. The Mystery Of The Abominable Snowman is great.

    As for Tey, not convinced she was the first to speculate on Richard III’s innocence but I suppose that she may have been the first to popularise the theory. It’s a decent read but the evidence is weak. After all, those idealised portraits are such convincing evidence…

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    • See, Doc, this is what I find so interesting; I’ve been following yours and Sergio’s blogs for over a year now and we agree on so many fundamentals, and yet there’s still such scope for differing opinions over things like this. I’m not saying it’s an original realisation, far from it, but it’s something I’m interested in exploring in some way. …Abominable Snowman was the Blake that finally broke me, I found it so dry and dull and poorly-constructed, but what particularly about that book results in different opinions when we agree about so much else? It remains a cause of great curiosity to me, though there’s no way of answering that question, of course, beyond vagueries about different interpretations, etc.

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      • Different interpretations are what drives me to revisit authors that I don’t haven’t enjoyed. I’m sure I’ll go back to Marsh, Beaton, Peters etc at some point because I have a fascination with what people find popular about them, even though I know that I’ll probably be disappointed. There are always books that divide like-minded people – search my blog (or possibly Sergio’s – forgot where it ended up) for our joint review of Crooked Hinge or the one I did with Patrick of Ellery Queen’s Cat of Nine Tails. After all, if we all agreed , we’d be out of a “job”!

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  3. I agree on Marsh, Tey and Mitchell. And to a considerable extent I agree on Sayers as well. In general I think the female writers of the golden age are ludicrously overrated (apart from Christie). Mitchell is particularly bad – quite unreadable.

    My major problem with Sayers is Harriet Vane – a character I simply can’t abide.

    You’re quite right about Sayers and her growing disdain for the genre, or rather her growing desire to be takes seriously as a Real Writer. I have an aversion for writers of detective stories who want to be seen as writers of Serious Literature. The problem with books like GAUDY NIGHT is that they’re not very good detective stories and they’re not very good as Literary Fiction either.

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    • Have you read any Margery Allingham? She’s not as textbook “classic detective” as the others, but some of her Campion books – Flowers for the Judge, for example – are wonderful puzzles and arguably border on pieces of art.

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  4. Good post to set us all thinking, though could cause a blood bath if read out at the next Bodies from Library conference! I’ve never been a fan of hardboiled detective fiction so I didn’t find your apathy towards them too startling. Again I have quite enjoyed some of Blake’s works and some of the Father Brown stories are really good, but I can see why they would not be everyone’s cup of tea. I think the only two authors I feel sufficiently strong about are your last two. I can understand that the Harriet Vane quartet is a bit like marmite for Golden Age readers, though personally I really like the development of Vane and Wimsey’s relationship, but there are other ones outside of those four which I think are really strong such as Whose Body?, Documents in the Case, Unnatural Death and Murder Must Advertise. Glad you enjoyed The Franchise Affair as that is one of my favourites by Tey. Also really liked A Shilling for Candles and The Singing Sands. I’m not sure how you think Tey’s novels are overlong as they mostly around the mid 200s mark, which I’ve always thought rather an average amount. A writer who really needed to cut down was P. D. James as many of her novels (some 400-500 pages long) just seem to go on and on telling you everyone’s back story and then spending ages having Dalegish find out that information. She also commits the faux pas Sayers does in The Nine Tailors (not a favourite of mine) by including way too much research knowledge such as in A Taste for Death, which also seems to double up as a dummies guide to architecture.

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    • Ah, you see, that’s my exact problem with Tey – even at only a sniff over 200 pages her books are still too long, in the sense that there’s not enough in them to justify even that relative paucity of paper. Miss Pym Disposes is an Enid Blyton book until about 40 pages from the end when the mystery finally runs in profusely apologising for the terrible traffic, Brat Farrar is far more interested in breeds of horse, The Man in the Queue doesn’t even contibute anything to its own solution (though that’s perilously close to a spoiler), To Love and Be Wise goes to such efforts to set up its unlikely conclusion that it loses an interesting short story amidst pages where absolutely nothing happens. Horses and courses once again. And I didn’t mind Harriet Vane at all, I get the impression she’d actually be good company, but the impression of Sayers looking down her nose at me while she writes is now too strong to be easily banished!

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  5. Yeah I really wanted to slap Miss Pym, a very frustrating amateur sleuth. I don’t feel like Sayers is looking down at me (or perhaps she is and I haven’t noticed!) when I’m reading her books.

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  6. Definitely a bold post, and thanks for sharing your anti-recommendations. 🙂 I read one Marsh – ‘Died in the Wool’ – in my younger days, and recall nothing beyond the fact that I kept falling asleep.

    I was slightly saddened to see Nicholas Blake heading up the list as I have high hopes for him given his Poet Laureate credentials. To date I’ve only read ‘Abominable Snowman’, and am looking forward to trying some of the other Vintage re-releases of his works. I didn’t find ‘Abominable Snowman’ to be a bad read at all, but I would concede that it was stronger in its writing than its puzzle.

    I tend to be kinder to mystery writers who craft good puzzles at the expense of eloquence, than the reverse. Hence I would take Ellery Queen above P. D. James. I definitely agree with Armchair Reviewer on James – looking back, I’m not sure how I survived the one or two James’s novels I’ve read!

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    • Blake only heads the list on account of his surname, don’t forget! I’m certainly with you on craft over expression, and share your enthusiasm for Queen for that reason. The Greek Coffin Mystery, for instance, is not well written and far too long, but my word what a mystery you get!

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  7. The Nicholas Blake books are dull but I have much bigger problems with them. It’s the moral nihilism I dislike. In one book he seriously argues that it’s OK for poets to get away with murder because they’re poets so they’re special. It’s always amusing to see a communist like Day-Lewis revealing his inner elitist. I’m surprised he didn’t argue that it was OK to commit murder if you were Oxford-educated.

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  8. I kinda agree on Marsh. I’ve only read two short stories (“I Can Find My Way Out” and some Christmas story) and found the former to be incomprehensible and the latter duller than lead dishwater.

    Ah, “The Invisible Man”. I’d actually go as far as to say that the trick doesn’t even work as presented. Don’t know if I should detail or not.

    And Mitchell…not sure, I can’t decide if I’d like her or not. I do enjoy somewhat absurd things…

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  9. If I sound crabby here, I’m dealing with a walloping case of insomnia this evening! But I can’t say you’re right or wrong, as everyone is entitled to personal tastes and opinions. I read almost all of Marsh and enjoyed her, but I agree that the best parts are before the interviews! I read most of Blake many years ago. I think I enjoyed him, but I can’t remember him at all. And when I recently tried to read the first one, I couldn’t get into it. We share the same opinion about Sayers, unfortunately, and you are a better critic than I am for having read four of hers. The only other one on the list that I feel I can talk about is Hammett, and there I disagree with you, having truly enjoyed Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and The Maltese Falcon. I am not in any way a lover of the hard-boiled school, but I thought these three were cleverly plotted and that Falcon was especially well-written.

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    • The style of Maltese Falcon really struck me – the way you’re never let into anyone’s thoughts, only their actions, as if Hammett is sitting in the room and describing what’s going on around him – but it became very distracting once I dwelt on it because it’s so unlike other books in that you don’t have any idea what’s happening until the final scene. And as for the ending…well, I’m just glad I’d already seen the film and knew what was coming!

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  12. Wowee and also eep! Blake, Chesterton, Marsh, Sayers and Mitchell? Faints in the direction of down.

    I’d urge you to give Blake another go. Abominable Snowman is terrific – country house at Christmas with interesting characters – but if you’re after puzzles, try The Widow’s Cruise, which is very tricky, clued like a Christie, delightful to read, and set on a cruise ship in Greece. Head of a Traveller is more sober, and has one of the all time great endings in detective fiction (although Berkeley got there first).

    Which Mitchells have you read? And which Chestertons? Have you read “The Sign of the Broken Sword”, “The Mirror of the Magistrate”, “The Dagger with Wings” or “The White Pillars Murder”?

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    • Ah, see, now Abominable Snowmanwas the book that convinced me to give up on Blake – it has that lazy strucutre of “great first chapter, then jump back in time for very little to happen for the rest of the book, then the random incidents are loosely tied together in time to go back to the interesting beginning”. Someone had the temerity to compare it the The Problem of the Green Capsule. The mind boggles.

      However…I’m a sucker for a promising puzzle *shakes head* I’ll investigate Widow’s Cruise…not urgently, I’ve been bitten too much by Blake to rush back in just yet, but I’ll definitely flag it up for consideation once my TBR is reduced. My thanks in advance, just in case it is awesome. 🙂

      As for Mitchell, I know I’ve listed the books I’ve read elsewhere but I don’t want to go back and check – there were about six, I think: Saltmarsh Murders, Twenty-Third Man, Watson’s Choice, Butcher’s Shop…the others elude me. Too little in the way of what I look for – not that I’m moribund by conventions, but she strays really too far out of the bounds of what’s even permissable as detection and fair-play at times, detection and fair-play are pretty much the only things I do require!

      Chesterton I’ve not read ‘The White Pillars Murder’ (or I don’t remember it at least). I particularly hated ‘The Dagger with Wings’ in much the same way as I hated ‘The Invisible Man’ – people talk about these as if they’re impossible crimes, but they’re not; it’s just lazy plotting and characters jumping to premature conclusions! Love the spirit behind a lot of them – ‘The Hammer of God’ is wonderful, and ‘The Queer Feet’ is a marvellous idea that’s simply horribly realised – but his sesquipadalian verbosity slays me practically every time.

      Wow, this is a lot of negativity for one reply – my apologies! I think I’ll go and do something nice for someone just I don’t start suspectng that I’m this much of an arsehole in real life…

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      • I get the feeling that I enjoy the literary, arty detective writers more than you do!

        What did they think Snowman and Capsule have in common?

        Blake’s first three novels all have strong plots and puzzles. Carr praised the second murder in A Question of Proof; and Thou Shell of Death has a really ingenious method and a humdinger of an ending. There’s Trouble Brewing is clever but a bit transparent.

        I wouldn’t recommend Watson’s Choice, which is fairly average. I’d suggest Death at the Opera, in which Mrs Bradley solves the mystery twice from a psychological and a physical angle; The Devil at Saxon Wall, which is very elaborate and fairly clued, and is set in a drought stricken village with pagan survivals; and St Peter’s Finger, set in a convent, one of her most sober and straightforward works, with a clever double solution. Brazen Tongue is very clever, too.

        Chesterton, I think, is an author one either loves or hates, and much depends on how one takes his style. I like it – it’s a virtuoso display of language, eminently quotable and often thought provoking. “Dagger” blew my socks off; it’s one of the classic “turn the story on its head” tales, and some of the clueing is brilliant. Is it an impossible crime?

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        • From what I remember, it was the small circle of suspects that was proffered as the similarity. NOw, I didn’t see the Snowman circle as particularly small given the conceits of classic crime, but then my memory of that book is starting out intrigued and getting increasingly angry as I read…

          Possibly it’s Blake’s writing, as I couldn’t finish Thou Shell of Death; if the ending’s that good then tit’s a shame I’ve missed out on something. Let’s see how Widow’s Cruise goes and then I may reconsider and be asking for further suggestions, so it’s good to know that there are enough books out there to get excited about if one enjoys his writing.

          Mrs. Bradley and I are done, I’m afraid. Life is too short!

          Of course, now I need to find out who you won’t go near so that I can possibly attempt some counter recommendations (though your choices in your “best mysteries” list speak of excellent taste for the most part).

          I’ve seen people try to pass off ‘Flying Dagger’ as an impossible crime but – SPOILERS – I don’t see how “I was the last person in that room and I definitely didn’t kill him. Oh, and the window’s open” really qualifies. Certain impossible crime plots rely on witnesses lying about what they saw to make something appear impossible – John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, grand-daddy of them all, is a perfect example – but the situation for me has to extend beyond simply the word of one person. Physical evidence, other statements from people who have been misled, something about the situation, must combine to make it appear impossible; one person alone isn’t enough.

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