High summer, and a resident of an island tourist hotspot is found with the back of his head beaten in. The famous detective Asbjørn Krag is summoned, and as he attempts to solve the mystery of the murder we are taken into his confidence through the eyes of a nameless holiday-maker. Shenanigans, naturally, ensue. In many ways — some of which we’ll get to later — this is an archetypal GAD novel of crime and detection, but since we’re a good decade short of the form’s beginning we’re going to diverge from the expected tropes on more than a few occasions. Think of it as a piece of atmosphere with detective story interruptions for best results.
What’s in a name? When you’re dealing with GAD authors, quite a lot, which is why I’ve read 71 books by Agatha Christie but have yet to pick up any by Mary Westmacott, or why so much attention is paid to the four books Barnaby Ross published in his two-year career. So when I say this Anthony Berkeley novel would be far better were it by Frances Iles, you will hopefully appreciate my point. I thought it worth looking at the genre’s arch convention-challenger — one of the four most important male authors of his era, according to some attractive genius — for the 1937 Crimes of the Century and have come away somewhat confused, bemused, muddled, harried, and generally all a-fluster.
Summoned by a distant relative to a secluded family pile, a young(ish) man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as money-hungry relatives, murder, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways No Flowers By Request takes the exact same ingredients as The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head — vast swathes of it will appear ominously familiar — and plays perfectly in the 1937 tradition that Rich has got us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals? And is it any good, after the failure of Jonanthan Latimer’s stirring of these same ingredients?
Well, see, that’s because I was working at trying to making it happen. And the result of that work is this: Bold Venture Press will be republishing two impossible crime novels by Theodore Roscoe — Murder on the Way! (1935) and I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) — over the next couple of months or so, with yours truly having edited and prepared the texts for publication as well as writing introductions for each book.
Worry not, I have no intention here of spoiling anything about Death on the Nile ahead of spoiling everything about it next month, but I’ve just reread it in preparation for that and some thoughts came out of it that I’d like to get down here for posterity. Also, having tackled Australian and American authors for the 1937 Crimes of the Century, it struck me that I should probably go for the English-speaking trifecta and take on the most English of English Detective Novelists, too, for completeness if nothing else.
Summoned by an elderly relative to their secluded family pile, a young man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as murder, missing documents, an escaped lunatic, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head is a vade mecum for the Golden Age of detective fiction — vast elements of it will appear achingly familiar — and plays perfectly in time with the tattoo of 1937 that Rich has got many of us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals?
Philo Vance. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Raspberry Jam by Carolyn Wells. ‘The Fairy Tale of Father Brown’ by G.K. Chesterton. The Clue of the New Pin by Edgar Wallace. A character who is detective novelist of some repute. Characters in a detective story discussing whether they are behaving like people in a detective story. All these references and more can be found in the opening salvo of Max Afford’s debut novel, following the discovery of a man stabbed in the back in his locked study with the only key to the specially-constructed lock in his possession, the murder weapon missing, and some subtly esoteric clews that give rise to plenty of canny evaluation and then re-evaluation. Aaah, I love the Golden Age.
Every so often, a novel is adopted by more mainstream fiction when it is in fact pure genre. Typically the result of this is that those of use who read the good stuff in our own genre have to put up with a ripple of brouhaha while we’re lectured by the broadsheet darlings as they fall over themselves to recommend something as inventive or ingenious when in fact we’ve read three books more inventive or ingenious in the last month alone (or, worse, phone someone in to explain incorrectly to others who don’t know any better). In SF, say, we’ve recently been subjected to Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy which is…well, every single cliché you can name and about as awful as you’d expect, but it especially seems to be happening more and more in crime fiction.
Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself. So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator. I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) orJohn Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.