#179: An Old-Fashioned Mystery (1983) by Runa Fairleigh

old-fashioned-mysteryWriting a decent novel of detection is difficult enough, as evinced by the fact that the form virtually died out by the 1960s, so taking the classic detective story and turning into a pastiche of itself is even harder again — it has to be both a story of crime and detection and a cunning vehicle for transcending the tropes thereof while simultaneously wallowing in them.  Leo Bruce did this near-perfectly in Case for Three Detectives (1936) and a great many luminaries of the form dipped their toe into such conceits with aspects of their books, plots, or characterisation, but for a full-length novel to take this on successfully is something of a challenge that it would be beyond the abilities of most mortals.

And then we must also deal with the belief that we understand something better because we have the freedom to look back upon it from a position of greater enlightenment, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the attitude displayed to Golden Age detective fiction by authors several decades later.  Yes, their plots were convoluted and unlikely; yes, they relied on a webwork of Suspicious Behaviour and Hidden Motives that not merely borders but flat-out annexes the land of make believe; every time I see or hear these objections raised, it takes a tremendous amount of effort not to scream That was the fucking point, you moron!  Anyone claiming now, in this day and age, to have a more enlightened perspective on the tropes of the novel of classic detective fiction than the people who devoted years of their life to writing them is so far wide of the mark as to be setting a new world record.

Which brings us to Runa Fairleigh’s An Old-Fashioned Mystery, clearly a pastiche from that title all the way through, and so overbearingly self-indulgent that it makes Augustus Gloop look quite the paradigm of abstemious abnegation.  Reader, I hated it. You may say it winks at the classics, I say it leers at, slobbers over, gropes, and drunkenly propositions them and then dismisses them as a slut when they have the class to retain their dignity and forcibly reject such advances.  You may say it cleverly subverts the expectations of such books, I say that actually — after providing several wedges of exposition in the first chapter, then having a character complain that such novels are filled with too much exposition, then going on to provide another two chapters of almost pure exposition — it’s really, really, embarrassingly poorly written.

This is a novel so ignorant in its intentions that I can honestly believe it will have put people off reading any proper detective fiction.  Gather some people in a big house, have a Pompous Arse, a Bright Young Thing, a Foreigner, Some Overbearing Relatives, a Few Other Types, uh, then, I guess kill them one by one and have someone try to solve it.  The young, attractive one, she’s the heroine.  Boom, novel written.  Except — and here’s something those old-timers with their dull sense of buttoned-up denial about how the world really is couldn’t do — then I’ll put a twist so devastatingly brilliant that no-one will have thought of it before.  Which just goes to show how fusty and old-fashioned these old writers were — I mean, crikey, some of them are even dead themselves by now, can you believe? — and how clever I am that I’ve come up with something none of them thought of.

Now, look.  There’s a lot of talk about the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, mainly because Knox or Van Dine are — hey! irony! — not fully understood these days in their intentions when it came to the writing of their respective lists.  That is a conversation for another time.  But the point was the innovation has to take place inside of certain accepted conventions, and that’s what made the writing and reading of such stories the delight it was: given the restrictions (it can’t be a dream, it can’t be aliens, or that the prime-numbered chapters are when the narrator suddenly just making stuff up that didn’t happen, or that there’s an extra person who’s been there all along that no-one has mentioned or spoken to) there was still so much scope to slide clever — borderline genius — developments past you, the reader.  Fine, if you want to write a story unencumbered by what you see as these transgressive tropes, go right ahead, but you’re not writing a pastiche of detective fiction.  You’re simply revealing your own inability to write such a book.  That, my friend, is a different game entirely.

It’s like someone saying that toast is the best food ever because of the vast array of flavours that can be added to it — jams, chutneys, fruit, whatever the hell Marmite is — and someone else replying “Yeah, but when you want to move house you can’t pack all of your stuff onto a piece of toast — you need a car for that, so cars are better than toast”.  And then mocking toast because it doesn’t fit easily in their car’s cup holder, or the glove box doesn’t keep it warm, or you can only fit twelve slices side-by-side across the back seat and then there’s no room for anyone else to sit in there…they are completely different things, and the more you force an overlap between them, simply put, the more of an arsehole you appear.  And it becomes funny for the reason that you so clearly do not have any idea how wide of the mark your comments are.  That, my friends, that is the experience of reading this book.  Yup, toast and cars.  You heard it here first.

Believe it or not, I take no pleasure in tearing something down like this.  But when a voluntary undertaking such as this is so utterly wrong in everything it thinks it’s doing, and when a misinformed attack such as this is launched on something as dear to me as classic era detective fiction, well, I feel some alternative perspective is required.  And yet, weirdly, if you want to read this I don’t dissuade you — it will give you a far better understanding of the genre to see someone mess it up so comprehensively — just don’t expect it to be good, well-informed, funny, clever, insightful, original, knowledgable, respectful of its targets, or relevant to anything that has come before and you’re all set.  Dig in!

starsstarsstarsstarsstars

See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I would recommend An Old-Fashioned Mystery the strongest to devotees of Agatha Christie and people who have read altogether too many mysteries. They’ll probably appreciate the book the most!

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51 thoughts on “#179: An Old-Fashioned Mystery (1983) by Runa Fairleigh

  1. “You may say it winks at the classics, I say it leers at, slobbers over, gropes, and drunkenly propositions them and then dismisses them as a slut when they have the class to retain their dignity and forcibly reject such advances.”

    ⊙▂⊙

    I bought this from my local Amazon store, off the back of TomCat’s reviews. Oh dear. Anyway, it’s really hard to find contemporary mystery novels that pay proper tribute to the Golden Age. 😦

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    • There’s probably more about this to appreciate than I necessarily give it credit for — TC certainly found a lot to like in his reading of it — but its absolutly not a pastiche of Golden Age detective fiction. Perhaps I went in expecting that too strongly, and the snoobish, arrogant way Morse seeks to unpick problems that aren’t actually problems at all grated on me to such an extent that I lost patience pretty bloody quickly.

      So, y’know, don’t give up hope. You now have two contrasting opinions to go in with…see which one you agree with when you get into it!

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      • I feel like I need to apologize here, but, honestly, I barely remember anything about the book or what exactly appealed to me. However, glancing at my own review, I did note “others will probably hate it and call shenanigans.” So I was spot on about that aspect of the story. 🙂

        P.S. if you hate this one, you must stay as far away, as humanly possible, from R.H.W. Dillard’s The Book of Changes. Forget I even mentioned it here.

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        • Bah, no apology needed — I don’t remember even reading your review until I was searching for alternative perspectives. IIRC, I came to this through a recommendation in a review of Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring, which I had read and enjoyed last year. This, however, is very much not that kind of a book, and I think it’s specious to draw any comparison between them as they’re both out to achieve very different things. So a pox, a pox on whoever it was that might have possibly linked these two books. If they even exist and I’m not misremembering it.

          And The Book of Changes, you say? Hmmm, I’ll definitely be sure not to check that out and buy it if it sounds interesting…

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  2. If one wants to read a story with a plot similar to And Then There Were None, I recommend the following:
    1. I Know What You Did Last Wednesday by Anthony Horowitz
    2. Nine Man’s Murder by Eric Keith
    3. The Eleventh Little Indian by Jacquemard Senecal

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      • I would say that’s one of the most faithful homages to ATTWN. There are plenty of nods to the Christie book, Hoch clearly wanted to write a loving tribute to the Queen and I would say he succeeded. But it’s a pretty good mystery on its own right too, much better than Nine Man’s Murder. It’s the third part of a trilogy; I also have book 2 The Transvection Machine which is another SF mystery, alas without any Christie connection as far as I can tell.

        Some other good books inspired by ATTWN:

        “Maze Of Death” by Philip K. Dick, though it’s really not a whodunit, it’s very much a science-fiction story. Dick was inspired by ATTWN, but he turned it inot a typical PKD style mindfuck. A fabulous book nonetheless, but perhaps not for everyone.

        “Stableford on Golf” by German author Rob Reef is a golf mystery and a fine traditional detective story, the English translation seems to be quite pricey though. A shame since Reef deserves to be read more widely.

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        • Can one read Frankenstein Factory without the previoius instalments? I’m probably going to anyway, but it’s nice toknow if you’re missing out on something by doing so…

          I’ve developed a real fondness for Philip K. Dick’s work over the last few years. Spurred on by reading most of his short fiction, I’ve found his novels insanely inventive and playful, and it’s been great to see his mind unfurl down the various paths that interested him. Still have a lot to go, of course, but I’ll keep an eye out for A Maze of Death following this comparison — very interesting, much apreciated.

          And, yeah, I’ve been searching for a sensibly price copy of Stableforon Golf since you first mentioned it, but so far no joy. Shall keep on searching…

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, “Stableford on Golf” is a rare book. There were only about 170 paperback copies sold. It was a self publishing project and I had to stop selling them when I signed a publishing contract with Dryas. The German version has been edited since and the new “Stableford” is still waiting for a proper translation.

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        • How’s this for weird timing: I have just this week tracked down a copy for a very good price, and it is now waiting on my TBR. Expect a report in due course…!

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      • …The man writes almost a thousand short stories, has mutiple collections of them, some with locked rooms…

        And you pick the *novel.*

        I’ll forgive such madness, both because I’ll probably send you into a fury with this list of Halter books I’m doing at a snail’s pace, and because I didn’t know that it was a tribute to ATTWN. Might be worth my while after all!

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        • Hahah, I know, right? But y’know what? I’m yet to read a Hoch story that I’m convinced by. Like, they’re mostly fine, and I’m sure there must be some very good ones out there, but it seems to me that the first thing everyone cites is how many he wrote rather than specific titles…almost as if loquacity equals quality. Usually mentions of an author are backed up with “Read this one or this one” but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen with Hoch. Steer me somwhere to convince me!

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        • Nah, fair. I like him because he’s consistently good. It’s like Case Closed, not every story will blow your mind, but you know that you’re getting a solid mystery plot, if nothing else. I can admire that, even in his weaker/simpler stories.

          As for recs, Diagnosis Impossible, maybe? All locked rooms, after all. 😛 I might toss more here when I can think about it a bit more.

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        • In my opinion, More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is the best Sam Hawthorne collection.

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        • If you’re looking for specific stories, try to find “The Long Way Down”, “The Leopold Locked Room”, “The Impossible ‘Impossible’ Mystery” or “The Oblong Room”.

          None of which feature Hoch’s resident impossible mystery solver, Dr Sam Hawthorne, by the way. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • “The Leopold Locked Room” and “The Oblong Room” (which won an Edgar and was going to me my rec if you kept asking) are found in Leopold’s Way. “The Long Way Down” can be found in The Night My Friend and “The ‘Impossible’ Impossible Crime” in The Night People: And Other Stories

          Haven’t read em, but there you go!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Haha, good point, but now I know which three to keep an eye out for. And if I sign up for Kindle Unlimited I’m prety sure a lot of the Hoch books are included in that, so I’ll be able to borrow them for free…so at the very least this has saved me a bit of time if nothing else 🙂

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        • By the way, I am a member of Kindle Unlimited and I recommend it. I got the last 2 Paul Halter, The Moai Island Puzzle and several British Library Crime Classics from Kindle Unlimited.

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        • Good to know, thanks. Got a TBR pile to work through, but I’m considering it for next year sometime so it’s reassuring to know someone who has done it is enthusiastic about it.

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  3. Oh dear sounds even worse than my recent experience with a detective fiction pastiche last month. Thanks for the taking the bullet, mainly because I can then avoid said bullets, but also because you’re always so funny to read when something drives you up the wall (to the extent you add literary allusions to Jane Eyre (knew my degree would come in handy at some point)).

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    • Jane Eyre and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, no less. Oh, yes, I expect my readers to have covered quite a curriculum before getting the full benefit of my ramblings. Must be why I have such low viewing figures… 🙂

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  4. “it can’t be (…) that there’s an extra person who’s been there all along that no-one has mentioned or spoken to”

    Oh man, this reminds me of a brilliant mystery novel that kinda did what you suggest here in a totally fair way that made use of how a person *wants* to read a text. Obviously not going to name the book, but in general, I’m open to anything from a dream to a narrator who only lies in certain chapters, as long as it’s properly clued (and thus fair to the reader).

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    • Well. I mean. Now I’m just exceptionally bloody curious.

      And, yes, such ideas are perfectly fine if appropriately clewed, of course. The problem is that the more ‘clever’ ideas we seem to get in modern crime novels, the more it’s taken as read that the idea is enough, and the experiecne of reading the book to that point will be swept away once the brilliant twist is revealed.

      But, well, we live in hope…

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    • There’s the occasional straight pastiche that works, but these ‘humorous’ ones miss the mark a vast majority of the time. It is not a well I shall be returning to any time soon.

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  5. Well, once again you’re entirely wrong.

    I checked it out, and I was able to fit SIXTEEN pieces of toast, side by side, on the back seat of my Prius. And thanks a lot, because now I have to take it to a carwash to have them scrub the melted butter off the upholstery.

    You do have me intrigued as to what this horrific twist is. I checked with my local library system, and it’s only available as an e-book, which may be too much bother. Maybe you can privately e-mail me with spoilers???

    Finally, I’ve been leered at, slobbered over, groped, and drunkenly propositioned, but I have never been dismissed as a slut. The secret is to always wear nice shoes . . .

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  6. I wanted to mention first that this book actually was written by L.A. Morse, who’s cited as the “editor”; the pen name is yet another post-modern layer to the novel. (“Runa Fairleigh” is a VERY rough transliteration of “Fairly Clued”.) He wrote it during a period of time when he and I were trying to collaborate on writing a mystery together, which came to naught. But I didn’t realize he was working on this book also; I might have been living elsewhere at the time. The first I knew of it was when he handed me a first edition with a written dedication that said “For Noah, without whom this book would not have been possible.”
    I honestly think that Larry was trying to make sense of the mind-set of people like me; at that point in time I would have read anything that said “mystery” on the cover and found something in it to enjoy. He might even have been making fun of me personally; I’ve never been sure. (“Sebastian Cornichon” might be based on me.) Over the years I’ve met many people who feel much like JJ about this book, and I halfway agree with them. Certainly I can’t gainsay them. It’s annoying and frustrating for mystery fans precisely because it is so completely irreverent about the mystery genre. I can’t defend it and I won’t try — I think it’s funny because I can hear it being read in Larry’s voice, and I can’t share that with you.
    But I do have to add that Larry had a HUGE library of mysteries and was thoroughly familiar with everything he was burlesquing. (He also won an Edgar the year before AOFM came out.) He introduced me to the works of Ronald Knox, for instance, who plays a role in this volume, and C. Daly King, and many other Golden Age writers. He may have had an annoying and supercilious attitude towards the Golden Age, but he knew it inside and out.
    Great review, honest!! And if it’s any satisfaction to you, I dimly remember the novel had TERRIBLE sales; worst failure of his career.

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    • Oh, and if anyone is curious, Larry reused Violet and Sebastian Cornichon in another book that you will find impossible to get. It’s called … bear with me … “Who Done Did It”. The word Done is crossed out, because the book is a textbook for ESL students. It uses mystery stories with Violet (and Sebastian) as detectives to teach English. I haven’t seen a copy in 30 years and I very much doubt that even collectors know of this book.

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    • Can’t help but feel that some sort of explanatpory spiel at the start — as opposed to that (clearly) fictionalised Runa Fairleigh biog — might help people appreciate this more (I’m reminded of Anthony Boucher’s introduction to Carr’s The Blind Barner here…); but, well, it’s clearly just not for me, which is why I wanted to link to TC’s review to show that someone sensible and intelligent had enjoyed it 🙂

      I’m fairly sure that Morse’s The Flesh Eaters — a book owned by my father, and with a title and cover that an inquisitive young mind couldn’t help but the drawn to — contains the first sex scene I ever read. When I was far too young to understand sex, of course, but in retrospect that’s quite a significant event and one I’d like to acknowledge!

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      • It’s been a long, long time since I read The Flesh Eaters … but those are important and formative things to find in books, aren’t they? I remember, at some pre-pubescent age, some piece of trashy fiction where I put two and two together and realized that they were talking about having sex and I tried and tried to figure out what they were doing!! ROFL

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  7. I can’t be sure, but it’s very possible that my first description of sexual events was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which some relative had and I snuck a look. This explains so much about my troubled sexual history that I can’t even explain . . .

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  8. And if I sign up for Kindle Unlimited I’m prety sure a lot of the Hoch books are included in that, so I’ll be able to borrow them for free…so at the very least this has saved me a bit of time if nothing else 🙂
    None of which feature Hoch’s resident impossible mystery solver, Dr Sam Hawthorne, by the way.

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    • S’alright, I’m right in saying that other non-Hawthorne tales are still impossible, right? Thanks for reminding me about these, I should get on and read some Hoch. Aaah, dammit, so many books… Okay, I’ll pencil Hoch in for a September review…

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    • The 3 Sam Hawthorne collections Diagnosis: Impossible, More Things Impossible and Nothing Is Impossible are all available in kindle unlimited. The fourth collection All But Impossible recently released is not yet available in kindle.

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