Erle Stanley Gardner, in my view one of the four most important male authors of classic crime fiction, is of course best known for the savvy machinations of Perry Mason, a man who never met a legal loophole he didn’t like. Yet between 1937 and 1949 he wrote nine books that just might comprise some of his most interesting writing, those featuring D.A. Doug Selby. Selby is a more naive presence than Mason — equally ready to fight his corner, yet strangely trusting in a way that at times proves his undoing — and in order to bring these books a little more attention I’m going to work through them in order over the next few months (yes, yes, we’ve heard this before… well I need a break from that, and this is the perfect antidote).
A late-Victorian private detective living in London who exhibits such traits as brilliant deductive skills (highlighted especially in his observations about strangers), a brusque and pompous manner, the application of reason and logic in all his encounters with crime, and a singular lack of personal relationships with anyone beyond his household, the members of the police he encounters, and his chronicler. Sound familiar?
And, of course, he has that glass eye, too. Wait, what?
This isn’t a review, it’s an obituary. My copy of Think of a Number by John Verdon opens with twenty-six glowing review excerpts from a range of authors, publications, and blogs, but it genuinely might be the single worst book I have read in a very, very long time, and without being in the least splenetic about it I’m going to explain why. I will avoid spoiling it in full thoughtless fashion but, honestly, I’m being mindful of your time, your money, your families, and your health in writing the following. I take no pleasure in this, it’s purely to save you the experience of this fustercluck of a novel posing and sold to you as something intelligent and worthwhile. It is neither. That this is on the market at all is a slap in the face to all concerned.
Reader, brace yourself for a shock: I — the man who curated an online celebration of Paul Halter’s 60th birthday last year — loved The Madman’s Room. Given the hue and stripe of originality Halter has brought to the impossible crime genre (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Lord of Misrule, and The Invisible Circle, among others, all contain what surely must be original resolutions to the inexplicable), it’s no surprise to find him resolving the mysteries herein as inventively as he does. What I especially enjoyed was the simplicity brought to the answers, particularly the way he occludes that simplicity so smartly so that you look back on come the end and go “Oh, hell, how did I miss that?”.
Sometimes I think it is possible to become jaded from reading too much of the same type of book. I signed up to this GAD blogging lark on my own initiative, and it’s the genre I prefer to read, but the need to get in at least one, and ideally two, a week to meet my own self-imposed deadlines can lead at times to a little disaffection creeping in. Thankfully, via the exemplary work of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint, I have discovered the books of Norman Berrow, and so if my will be wandering I have the option of returning to the lightness and joy of his entertaining milieu. He’s not a plotter par excellence, but I find these books fun in a way that obviates my usual requirements in this direction. Prose before pose, dudes.
What the hell? This blog — preserve of the expired author, occupying as it does a dusty corner of the interwebs free from contemporary scrutiny — has now featured two living authors on consecutive weekends. Clearly I’m courting popularity. Next thing you know, there’ll be a guest post by Ed Sheeran [please note: I have no reason to believe a guest post by Ed Sheeran to be forthcoming]. And this one isn’t even an impossible crime. Where does this road lead? Rave reviews of Cozy Baking Mysteries? Who even am I any more?
“There is no suspense in a bang,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “only in the anticipation of it.” This applies to Stacey Bishop’s sole detective novel because, well, it wasn’t a book a sizeable proportion of GAD readers were aware even existed until Locked Room International conjured this reprint fittingly out of the ether — when John Norris at Pretty Sinister hasn’t read it, you know it’s rare. As such, the gleeful anticipation of its release was undercut somewhat by the fact that we hadn’t even heard of it, and so there’s no weight of expectation: we are free, in this connected age of everything being on demand and everything being remembered, to come into this entirely without preconceptions.
This gets a little convoluted: at the recent Bodies from the Library conference, I was discussing impossible crime novels with Dan of The Reader is Warned when conversation turned to Siobhan Dowd’s very, very good impossible disappearance for younger readers The London Eye Mystery (2007). Dan mentioned that, following Dowd’s death in 2007, the series was to be continued (The Guggenheim Mystery is due out in August) by Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series. Then he mentioned that one of the MMU books was a locked room and, well, I was in.
Last week, I was moved to reflect upon the end of the archetypal Golden Age detective novel, and this week I’m moved to reflect on its beginning. The essential ludic air at the heart of the best of the genre is not quite there in The Duke of York’s Steps, but one can feel the inalienable ingredients of the form straggling into line to give shape to a story that retains fidelity to a type of plot that, at this stage, was understood if not quite mastered. If anything, the mystery feels almost over-subtle — like Antidote to Venom, it seems a trifle unlikely that such a set of circumstances as these would come to warrant criminal investigation — and so approximately the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest.