#282: Sinners in Paradise (1946) by Max Afford

Sinners in ParadiseDo you find yourself lulled into an erudite hebetude by too many stories blethering on instead of simply getting down to the plot and relevant incidents?  Well, Max Afford’s fifth novel runs to 116 pages and probably doesn’t contain a single one that does not in some way contribute to the interpretations or solutions of the central conundrums.  A sea-faring mystery in the Death on the Nile (1937) school, a small group of characters are gathered on a liner heading out from Sydney, Australia to some islands because…reasons…when mysterious phone calls, mysterious passengers, mysterious relationships, and mysterious pasts all converge for a cavalcade of enigmas wrapped in queries and shrouded in deepest sinisterlyness.

You sort of get the impression Afford was working to a deadline, because he really doesn’t hang about, but this in no way means he writes cheaply.  A very experienced dramatist for radio, he has an eye for quick character beats and trenchant description that shows his class:

He was old.  That was their first impression.  Old and yellow and lined.  And thin to the point of obscenity, shrunken in his dark, rumpled clothes like a chrysalid prematurely dead in its cocoon.

In true GAD style, just about everyone has some secret in their past — a dead spouse, status as a lamster, we take all kinds here — and the trip soon descends into some unusual events which are in no way aided by their calling at a nearby island to pick up more passengers…most of who also have secrets, passions, and plans of their own.  Before you know it, someone’s threatening to reveal the Dark Secret of someone else…tomorrow, for some reason…and,  mere a séance where an impossibly-appearing voice terrifies someone later, we’ve got murder in our midst.

If anything, and here’s something I never thought I’d say, this could almost do with a little more by way of connecting scenes just to give you time to sort out everyone’s tragic backstory or secret past.  Some revelations are made openly, others reluctantly following certain other events, but, man, I had trouble keeping track of precisely which dead sister was secretly married to the milkman whose first wife was horrifically injured in the ballooning accident that the employer of the nephew’s older brother’s wife’s sister organised with little concern for safety…that’s not something that happens in this book, but it’s not far off.  The people present are captured very well indeed — I love how, at the sight of the ship’s doctor, one character “immediately offered up silent prayers for a trouble-free voyage” — but too much tragedy is too hastily sketched in for it to be easily kept straight.

Anyway, most of the time you move too quickly for that to matter, as radio dramatist and author of “cheap blood-and-thunder stuff” Robert Morte and his wife carom around alternatively trying to solve and then ignore the mysteries that surround them.  It’s not really detection, as come the end a lot of characters simply tell Morte what he needs to know rather than him figuring it out, and the one piece of detection that is involved is unfortunately not fair play (and a few extra pages could have fixed that…), but the imbrications of the various motives and actions are exceptionally well-handled given the brevity of the book and the range of people involved.  Though it is rather frustrating that Afford sets up a classic GAD misdirect and then…doesn’t use it or even seem to remember it; I might steal it myself if I ever write a book (I mean, since he doesn’t even acknowledge it, it’s not technically stealing…).

So as a book it’s…fine; quick, to the point, inventive at times, frustratingly and suddenly unfair, a nice sniff of Gothic horror, capable of being better if a little more care had gone into it.  I wanted to like it more, and there’s not really anything here to actively dislike, but of the five Afford books I’ve read this is easily the least essential.  It will alleviate any concerns you may have to know that you’re perfectly able to pass this one over, but should you find yourself with a copy there are far less pleasant ways to spend a couple of hours.

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The novels of Max Afford, published by Ramble House:

1. Blood on His Hands (1937)
2. The Dead Are Blind (1937)
3. Death’s Mannikins (1937)
4. Owl of Darkness (1942)
5. Sinners in Paradise (1946)
6. The Sheep and the Wolves (1947)

Additionally, they’ve collected three of his short stories (including ‘Poison Can Be Puzzling’, which I looked at here) under the title Two Locked Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn, which TomCat reviewed in full here.

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I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Body of Water.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Devil and the C.I.D. as both feature a crotchety old man who has a younger, put-upon valet.

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9 thoughts on “#282: Sinners in Paradise (1946) by Max Afford

  1. Love that character description, brevity with flair. You can see radio and stage play shining through that as you said.

    Is the solution to the impossible voice any good or the standard seance fair?
    And he wrote impossible crimes in total?

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    • The voice at the seance is not enough of a stretch for me to tag this an impossible crime — it’s nicely worked, but nothing special, nothing in the realm of complex or interesting.

      As for impossible crimes he has written, there’s Blood on His Hands and (borderline) The Dead Are Blind. Owl of Darkness has (I seem to remember…) a misprint that accidentally implies an impossibility, and Death’s Manninkins flirts with impossibility (like TDAB) but is rendered possible on account of circumstances (it’s a no footprints setup, though it also isn’t — no, I haven’t explained that very well). Can’t comment on his final book, The Sheep and the Wolves, as I’m yet to read it.

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      • Afford also wrote two short locked room stories, “Poison Can Be Puzzling” and “The Vanishing Trick,” with the second one being my favorite of the two. A wonderfully imagined and charming example of the impossible disappearance, which has a nifty clue hidden in the narrative. Highly recommended.

        The Dead Are Blind definitely qualifies as a full-blown locked room mystery. Even if the presentation of the trick diverges from the norm. But when you know how it was done, you have to agree that it’s a locked room murder. Saying anything more than that would spoil the solution.

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        • In true style, I shall contradict TomCat here and say that, to my tastes, ‘Poison Can be Puzzling’ is the superior story. Gauntlet is laid…nah, it’s okay, we do this a lot…

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    • I second that! Character description is crisp, clean, tight, and paints the character’s physical description in such a concise and powerful manner — nothing frivolous. Definitely something I want to master in my own writing. It’s a great example of how to write character descriptions in a day where attention spans are short and readers don’t want to read a run-on description of character descriptions. I don’t believe character descriptions should describe every inch of the character and it doesn’t allow the reader to use the theatre of his/her mind. Raymond Chandler is another great example of such a writer.

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      • Carr, Christie and Crispin were also excellent at this. Allowing the audience to participate in the building up of the character by giving minimal and pointed description. It’s really respectful to your audience I think.

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        • But generally this kind of thing comes from their funvtion in the plot, doesn’t it? I mean, Christie’s use of archetypes was so good because she’d often give you just enought to lead you to assumptions about a character — the Reserved Priest, the Vacuously Garrulous American, the Simple-Minded Maid — only to then allow your presumptsion to be shown as false later on. She got you to do the explicit misdirecting, that’s why it workd so well (and why she got away with it wth those characters who were exactly what she told you they were).

          The character description above contains that elements of horror because the character is supposed to be viewed as a horrible thing…if he were the lead in the book’s central romance, something would be wildly off. So it goes beyon simply respecting your audience, it’s surely more about having a purpose for the character in mind, and giving your audience no more than is needed to allow them to either come to a realisation or be lulled into a false sense of knowledge. Maybe by not hammering it home you’re respecting your audience, but by doing less than is necessary the author is surely just making life simpler for themselves in the long run.

          The reason a lot of modern takes on character struggle in this regard, I’d wager, is that movies frequently include characters just to look cool, or books have them as a one-purpose, three-scene Basil Exposition, and so suddenly everything becomes cluttered on account of all the people it feels the need to fill you in on…but that effort is wasted if their role is simply “Here’s the thing you wanted…now go to the next place”. Description came out of purpose in the best GAD stuff, and indeed the best character work generally; it’s weird how easy thayt is to miss.

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  2. JJ, can you provide an example from a piece of work from the GA period that demonstrates character description with a purpose in contrast to a a modern mystery?

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    • I’m not entirely sure I understand the question: you want me to compare and contrast a piece of GAD with a modern mystery? That’ll take, like, ages. If you want GAD examples, I’d say look at someone like Erle Stanley Gardner or Jim Thompson and see how little they phycially describe their characters and then let all their attributes come through in what role they actually perform in the narrative. Neither of those writers — possibly on account of the speed at which they worked — wasted your time on outlining the precise relationships between characters at their first meeting; most of the time you got a name, a job, a brief physical attribute, and then the dialogue and action took over.

      For a modern work, well. You could take John Verdon’s Think of a Number which I reviewed the other week: the artist the main character find attractive does nothing in the narrative — we’re told she’s attractive and that’s it, she never gets to demonstrate any skill or insight, she’s simply there to be An Attractive Woman. Or take L.C. Tyler’s “Herring” books, where the two main characters might as well be called Haha Isn’t It Funny When Older Women Swear and I Am A Dangerously Credulous Moron. They perform no action beyond these preposterouly broad strokes, with none of what they accomplish coming out of them as actual characters capable of any form of insight (some may claim that’s the point, an assertion at which I’d hope L.C. Tyler would take great offence).

      Yes, many GAD authors created characters who were arresting without any specifi plot purpose, of course. Josephine Tey is not an author I admire, but her character-work is amazing: little things like Aunt Lin in The Franchise Affair trying to hook her legs around a stool while sat at the table contribute nothing to the plots — Tey was never big on plot, she’s one of the most genre-straddling authors lumped into the GAD tradition (which might be my main problem with her, frustrated expectations and all that) — but capture the essence of that character with a pin-sharp precision.

      The difficulty, of course, is that the modern crime novel has moved away from plot — too much murder and not enough mystery, as Dan quoted recently — and so it’s easy to toss in characters by the handful who contribute to the ambience or some wider social picture but add nothing to the overall purpose of the book. Think of all the random mutants included in X-Men: The Last Stand and you’re on the right lines: that was someone going “Look, I’ve read the comics! Here’s this guy!” but not knowing what to do with that guy beyond showing that he was there to give the universe some sort of longed-for credibility.

      Okay, I can feel an essay coming on, so I’m going to stop here.

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