I am immensely chuffed to be able to bring to you today the results of the spoiler-heavy discussion between myself and the erudite and phenomenally knowledgeable Noah Stewart of Noah’s Archives on the topic of Rex Stout’s thirteenth Nero Wolfe novel, And Be a Villain (1948). Hefty spoilers follow, so read on only if you are a) prepared or b) a daredevil badass who takes no truck with your “rules”, man.
Do 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.
While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
I was quite excited when I discovered that this sole mystery novel from Rudolph Fisher was to be republished under the revived Detective Club imprint. To my understanding it had impossible crime overtones with a vanishing body, and GAD fiction doesn’t exactly offer up a swathe of BAME authors, so this account of 1930s Harlem promised to fulfil all sorts of fascinating niches — not least how a black author would represent the experience of being a black man in America when times were not as enlightened as we hope them to be now. But, first things first, yes we do get an impossibly-vanishing body, provided by a Red Widow Murders-esque “How could he be talking if he was dead?” impossible murder for which there was no time in which it could have been committed; so do we have a classic on our hands?
And so I enter the final decalogue of Agatha Christie’s works — from here to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) — with a return visit to Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and his wife Prudence, known (for reasons I genuinely cannot recall; someone will doubtless enlighten me in the comments) as Tuppence. The Beresfords are unique in Christie canon in that they are the only repeating characters who seem to age in real time, and in doing so they provide an overview of Dame Agatha’s writing career in just a handful of books.
Sometimes you just have to bite a bullet: following the exceptionally sad loss of the Rue Morgue Press, this is the final Jeff and Haila Troy novel currently available, but, well, let’s enjoy it, eh? Audrey and William Roos did such a great job with so many aspects of the writing in these first four books — the dialogue is genuinely funny, the plots mostly move at a great pace, the mysteries are intriguing, and third book The Frightened Stiff is a genuine genre classic for all time — that we shouldn’t get too weighed down with lamenting their unavailability. Common sense will prevail, they’re too good to let go out of print for any length of time, and this won’t be the last we see of the Troys. Right?
Over the summer, I read certain sections of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by the blogosphere’s very own Passing Tramp, Curtis Evans. Certain sections because, to be perfectly honest, Curtis has done an amazing job in analysing so much of the work of J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Rhode/Miles Burton that it’s clear I need to do a lot more reading to get the most out of what he has written. Upon (in fact, while) reading A Smell of Smoke I went back to see what insight Curtis could offer to explore Street’s motivations or intentions, but there is no mention of it at all; no fault of his, as Street published over 130 novels under his two most famous pseudonyms, but I suspect I know why it doesn’t get a mention: it isn’t very good at all.
Alongside classic detective fiction and locked room/impossible crime mysteries of every date, stripe, and hue, I read a moderate amount of both classic and modern SF. And as much as I rejoice in the closedness of the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, I take equal delight in the free-form craziness that can open up in front of you in excellent SF.
As a parody of the detective novel, the maverick cop genre, and the low Fantasy genre, Simon R. Green’s Hawk & Fisher takes quite some beating — it is an honestly hilarious take on the tropes of three. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much since reading…well, possibly anything; almost every page contains some wonderful joke or savage undercutting of the false sincerity of the situations encountered, not unlike William Goldman’s timeless The Princess Bride. For instance, Hawk is supposedly an expert in hand-to-hand combat with an axe, but he has only one functioning eye and therefore must lack any depth perception; it’s an absolutely genius piece of subversion, and such examples are rife. The only problem is that I have a sneaking suspicion — only a sneaking one, mind — that this book is in fact supposed to be taken seriously. Very Seriously Indeed.