#250: The Verdict of Us All 5: A Book You Love by An Author You Don’t…

Verdict of Us All

Last year, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime had the grand idea of putting the same question to several GAD bloggers and collecting their responses into one post under the title The Verdict of Us All.  This became a semi-occasional thing that a few different blogs hosted and, given a recent reading experience, I thought I’d mark my quarter-millennial by resurrecting it here to ask the following: Is there an author whose work you generally can’t stand but who has nevertheless written one book you absolutely love?

It turns out the answer is “yes” for some other people, too…

First up, Brad of AhSweetMysteryBlog with a title that I have on my own TBR from an author I’m yet to read a second book by:

I had a hard time with this topic, as I am a most unforgiving reader. If someone displeases me, I rarely invite him into my reading room again! For some reason, however, I gave a dozen chances to S.S. Van Dine. (He only wrote twelve mysteries.) I think I kept trying because I like the shape of his novels – the cast of characters, the bizarre nature of the crimes, the eccentric genius of a detective, all tropes that have since been done so much better by Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and many others. For the contents therein never failed to disappoint: the characters were either killed off quickly or they failed to generate much interest, and the bizarre murders lost their luster as soon as the investigation began. This is the real problem with Van Dine: his “eccentric genius” of a detective has to be the most annoying creature ever created to detect, and he happens to bore me silly! To riff off of Ogden Nash, “Philo Vance gives me ants in my pants!”

dscn0540Except for one time: I happened to enjoy Van Dine’s third book, The Greene Murder Case (1928) very much. For once, Van Dine eschews his fascination with academic esoterica (although I can’t promise that there are fewer endless footnotes than usual) and focuses on dysfunctional family matters. The Greene crew reminds me of the Hatters in Ellery Queen’s The Tragedy of Y, and the tragedy plays off of the fairy tale of Cinderella to delightful effect. Mind you, I read this book so many years ago that I may have forgotten that it’s boring, too! Ah, well! I shall not return to find out!

(P.S. I do have to say that the movie version of The Kennel Murder Case, starring William Powell, is a brilliant mystery film, one of the best! And it’s an impossible crime, too! This suggests that the kernels of Van Dine’s stories are probably just fine; it’s his execution as a writer that turns me off.)

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Next up, going alphabetically by blog title (or something), is Kate from CrossExaminingCrime with an author who has caused me a fair amount of headaches over the years and a recommendation of one I’ve not yet read:

Although initially stumped by today’s topic, as by and large if I can’t stand an author’s work it tends to spread across all of their work, I finally came up with Michael Innes. I have read nearly a dozen of his works and in the main found them wanting, often vastly wanting. His series’ sleuth, Appleby, is uninspiring and his prose frequently comes across as dull and dry and his plots are sometimes far too boggling to work (see The Daffodil Affair (1942) and Appleby on Ararat (1941)). And it’s not just a case of me disliking his work once Innes’ quality peaked, for me I was still waiting to find a high point in his body of work.

1360761However coming back to this post’s theme there is indeed one novel by Innes which I loved. Unsurprisingly it does not feature  Appleby and is one of his standalone ones. It is What Happened at Hazelwood (1946). For once I found Innes’ prose lively and entertaining, his characters engaging and gripping, as you try to figure out what they are really like. The murder method is unusual to say the least, yet fits beautifully with the setup and location Innes picks and surprisingly for Innes the narrative voice is quite innovative, with the mystery being told by four different narrators, all bringing their individual stance on events. This is indeed an Innes novel I can confidently recommend.

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Abandoning the alphabetical ordering, Moira from Clothes in Books has opted for another one I haven’t read by an author I picked up once and have never returned to:

strangersonatrainMy choice is Patricia Highsmith. I had the good luck (?) to read Strangers on a Train (1950) first, and I thought it was clever, and well-plotted, a good read — not my favourite crime book ever, but a pretty solid effort, and then there was the Hitchcock film, which if anything was better. When I look through the list of her works, my spirits sink at the memory of ploughing through them: I read ALL those blooming Ripley books, unsettling, unpleasant, and bearing no resemblance to  each other. Ripley isn’t the same man in any two of them, and I couldn’t understand why no-one ever mentioned this fact. Mind, it was quite an achievement  to create all those equally horrible but very different protagonists. And then there were all those other random standalones, each more lowering than the last one. And  then one day I thought ‘this is ridiculous, I actually do not have to read anything else by her.’ I have re-read Strangers since then, but not one other word by Highsmith has entered my brain.

Speciality HouseI’m going to cheat and add one more author: Stanley Ellin — love the short stories, so we’ll count them as one book, The Bumper Book of Ellin [Editor’s note: these have been collected in their entirety and published under the title The Speciality of the House]. And then there are his crime novels, thrillers, boring and close to unreadable, and yet I got through quite a number of them, getting no enjoyment, before realizing that all I had to do was stick to the stories…

I heartily second this recommendation of Ellin’s short stories — they’re wonderful, and run the gamut of tones and styles.  Something for everyone, even if the sole impossible crime is a little underwhelming.

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From In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Puzzle Doctor opts for an under-appreciated classic mystery in a slightly different vein — it’ll shock you to learn that I haven’t read this one, either:

This is an exceptionally difficult category for me. I’m a fairly obsessive reader once I latch onto an author or a series – from the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators, to Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr to Paul Doherty, Michael Jecks and now on to John Rhode and Brian Flynn. And that’s not counting authors that I’ve become hooked on after reading a new release and now follow obsessively – N.J. Fountain, L.C. Tyler, J.A. Lang, etc. But just as much as I will obsess over a new-to-me author that I enjoy, I won’t waste time with one that I don’t. Apart from Ngaio Marsh, obviously, but that’s an entirely different story… Witness Freeman Wills Crofts and The Pit-Prop Syndicate, a book so mind-numbingly awful that I’ve needed an eighteen month run-up and the 20 Books Of Summer meme to get me anywhere near his work again.

So to discover a sole title by an author that I can’t stand otherwise would mean reading that classic first and then reading some duff ones. So I’ve racked my brains on this one and have sort of come up with one. Douglas Adams.

11177551-_uy200_Now I know the first three Hitchhikers books are fun, but the classic that I’m referring to is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987). It’s an utterly bonkers book, it nicks certain crucial plot points from Adams’ Doctor Who stories City Of Death and the un-made Shada, and it took me two readings to work out how the sofa becomes geometrically impossibly stuck in a flight of stairs, but I felt that this is Adams’ masterpiece. It’s witty, intelligent, complexly constructed and a “proper” novel, rather than a sequence of events written up from a radio script. And the sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul, is seriously disappointing in comparison, feeling to me like a first draft rather than the finished version.

Yeah, it’s not an ideal answer, but with my reading habits, it’s the best that I can do…

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Are we going alphabetically again?  Probably, so here’s Bev from My Reader’s Block with a book and an author completely unknown to me (so, yes, another one I’ve not read…)

I didn’t realize how difficult this was going to be. Probably because I don’t tend to keep reading books by an author I hate. That only really happened with Hemingway and that was because, as an English major in college, I had to keep reading the man. If we weren’t dedicated to the detective field, I’d definitely go with Hemingway — but even with him there isn’t really a novel I love amongst all the ones I hate. I just prefer him in short story form. I thoroughly enjoyed The Snows of Kilimanjaro & Other Stories which we read in one of those English courses long ago and far away.

512bmxk4m1pl-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_But I’ve wandered afield….The nearest I have is The Tanglewood Murder (1980) by Lucille Kallen. Not a vintage mystery, but I can’t seem to come up with one. Tanglewood was actually the first mystery I read by Kallen, despite the fact that it’s the second in her “C. B. Greenfield” series. It had a nifty setting — at the Tanglewood Music Festival. The characters were well-drawn, there was good dialogue, and the plot was nicely done. Apparently, from my point of view, Kallen was a one-trick pony, though. None of the other four books in the series came close and what seemed charming and interesting in the primary characters in Tanglewood became repetitive and irritating. None of the other plots were as well-crafted nor did they make as much sense to me.

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John at Pretty Sinister missed the madatory Playing Well With Others training and has posted his thoughts on this topic over at his place — personally, I didn’t rate any of the Fifty Shades quadrilogy, but it takes all sorts…

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And as for me?  Well, I was tempted to say Georges Simenon, since I’m not really a fan of Maigret, but I’ve read two superb books by the Belgian miserablist — The Stain on the Snow (1948) and The Blue Room (1964) — and reckon I might come round to Jules’ way of thinking in later life.  I could be wrong, but I’m willing to give him a chance once I hit my 50s.  Watch this space.

So, in fairness, I should go with the author who started this for me: Michael Gilbert.  It was Close Quarters (1947) that I had to abandon recently, having already given up on Smallbone Deceased (1950) and Death Has Deep Roots (1951), because the writing is just far too fusty and uninteresting — he writes about dull characters in such a dull way, unable to find any way to poke fun at their dreary natures.  And the more I’ve read, the less I’ve found to enjoy: the obsession over disinteresting, irrelevant minutiae probably strikes some of you are atmospheric, but in the five books I’ve fought my way through to the end it’s always been a battle of wills that exhausts far more than it entertains.

2515187But the first book of his I read was the glorious The Danger Within, a.k.a. Death in Captivity (1952), and it’s light-years ahead of everything else I’ve tried.  It precedes John Sturges’ classic The Great Escape (1963) by eleven years and does everything that films does and more — okay, there’s not a point where someone tries to jump a fence on a motorcycle, but Gilbert’s murder-while’we’re-planning-to-escape-a-PoW-camp mystery is charming, gritty, beautifully clear, and full of graceful touches. As yet, nothing else by him has even come close.

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My thanks to my fellow contributors for my first ever piece of round-robin hosting; if you’re curious about previous posts in this vein, well, look no further than just below this paragraph.

Previous Verdicts of Us All:

1. The Author You Wish Has Written One More Book (@ CrossExaminingCrime)

2. One Book You Wish a Favourite Author Hadn’t Written (@ AhSweetMysteryBlog)

3. One Author You’ll Never Read (@ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel)

4. Your Favourite Christmas Mystery (@ CrossExaminingCrime)

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23 thoughts on “#250: The Verdict of Us All 5: A Book You Love by An Author You Don’t…

  1. Congrats on the quarter-millennium, JJ. A great collection of thoughts there – flicking back through the old verdicts, I found that Rich had the opposite opinion of Adams as I did, as he was his Author Who Should Have Written Another Book, or whatever we called it…

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Death In The Tunnel…

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    • Cheers, and thanks for chipping in. DitT seemed a timely read with Bodies from the library looming…will be interesting to see what Tony Medawar has to say about Street and his works; I’d like to read more on this evidence, I will disclose that much…

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  2. Great post JJ! I actually enjoyed Death has Deep Roots, as well as The Danger Within, but I think Gilbert’s work can vary in quality depending on what structure/format his story is taking. Good mixture of familiar and not so familiar reads, though it was increasingly amusing the way each book was one you hadn’t read.

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    • I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve actually read anything, given how many posts on other blogs these days leave me thinking “Sheesh, I should probably track that down…”. What am I doing with my time?!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would say that you are really missing out in the case of Ellin’s novels – he did write a lot of thrillers, all of a certain type, and if they are not your bag, fair enough. But he also wrote some sensational stand-alone mysteries completely outside of these, most notable: DREADFUL SUMMIT, THE KEY TO NICHOLAS STREET, THE EIGHT CIRCLE and MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL – I heartily recommend all of these are exciting departures in the crime genre that are superbly written and truly worthy of your time. I previously reviewed a couple of them here: https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/e-is-for-stanley-ellin/

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  3. Things are crazy around here as we are preparing for a long trip out west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington. We leave in two days. I didn’t get mine posted in time for inclusion up above, but I did do it. Very brief, but still done. Please add me to the list, if possible. The Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman

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  4. Quite a good idea, JJ. Now are you going to try “a book you hate by an author you love”? Fertile ground for discussion there… 😉

    I’m with Kate on Michael Innes. I have given him about half a dozen chances and have been disappointed every time; I own a copy of The Daffodil Affair, which I have been assured is a masterpiece, and I just can’t get through it: the prose is so cold and off-putting, and the characters such stick-figures. I tried Hamlet, Revenge!–Rich at “Complete Disregard” wrote it was “the finest detective story ever written, bar none”–to the same reaction. For all I know, he may be the greatest puzzle-plotter who ever lived–and the plot materials, by themselves, sound great–but I just can’t get through a single of his books so far. But I shall try What Happened at Hazlewood–I know there’s an Innes book out there that I’ll like!

    For Brad’s sake… I don’t know if he has tried Van Dine’s The Kidnap Murder Case, but it’s the best Van Dine I’ve read. More action, better characterization of Vance, more Queenian bizarrerie (a purple house!), and a fairly ingenious false solution halfway through that Van Dine explodes. The real solution isn’t all that great, but the journey getting there is a lot of fun (and, for the most part, genuinely clued!).

    JJ, as for The Danger Within, interesting that it came out the year before Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. I wonder if it could have been based on the play the movie was based on or something…? I ask because the film is very much like a mystery, with a “rat” in the camp whose identity “sleuth” William Holden has to figure out–and there’s even a grand little fair-play clue! Wilder seems quite indebted to the puzzle plot, at least in my mind; I wrote an analysis of his work from a puzzle-plotting perspective (how that’s for alliteration?) here (http://imdb2.freeforums.net/post/291924/thread).

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    • Gilbert was interred at a PoW camp himself during WW2, so I believe a lot of the detail comes from his own experience — can’t speak for Stalag 17, but you’ve piqued my interest; thanks for the link.

      Green is the Van Dine I’ll get to next (or, rather, the next Van Dine I’ll get to), but I’ll bear Kidnap in mind, too. I remember enjoying Kennel, but as to details…not so much. Innes is hot and cold for me, mostly cold. He has a couple of impossibilities I’ve not tired, though, so I could be tempted back to the fray at some future point.

      No, apparently I never learn 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I knew about Gilbert’s experience, yes, but I still wonder if there was some connection between Stalag 17 and the book. Maybe just something in the air, after the war.

        By the way, did you receive my e-mail? I posted the solution.

        Karl

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  5. With the exception of Greenfield (who I’ve never read) and Van Dine (who I don’t think I would be able to re-read even if someone promised me a large sum of money for accomplishing the task) I enjoy every one of these writers. I guess that’s no surprise since I tend to be the one who reads crime fiction for everything EXCEPT the detective novel plotting. Highsmith for me is one of the finest practitioners of crime fiction because of her dark and cynical worldview. Ellin is similar, I think. Gilbert writes absolutely captivating stories for me. Never been bored by him at all. Adams is a riot with his insane plotting and goofy characters. Innes I do have problem with but lately I have discovered his weird and fanciful books and I’ve been delighted by them all. Appleby’s End, especially, is hysterically funny to me — an absolutely bonkers book that ought to please lovers of the absurd. I will say that What Happened at Hazelwood? (which I only just read for the first time three weeks ago) is perhaps his most accessible and easily enjoyed mystery novel. It’s still overloaded with his usual literary allusions and highbrow stuff, but the plot is very original with the added interest of alternating points of view in the narrative. It’s also a borderline impossible crime novel with an equally improbable solution that I absolutely loved. Reminded me of the best of Christianna Brand when I got to the final chapter.

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  6. Interesting post, JJ. I had no idea you were compiling these. However, the only contribution to the list I could make at the moment (for obvious reasons) is Yozaburo Kanari’s House of Wax, which you probably would not accept as it’s not a proper novel.

    Anyhow, I’m not sure if I agree with your overall opinion on Michael Gilbert (not read enough of him to judge), but The Danger Within is an absolute gem and one of the greatest World War II detective stories ever written.

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