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.
Contrary to what the books may tell us, the father of Ellery Queen, detective, is not Inspector Richard Queen but instead Philo Vance, the dilettante amateur wise-arse detective created by S.S. van Dine. I’m not claiming this is an original observation — far from it — but reading the second novel to feature the Queens and the first in which Ellery actually solves the case (he has a very small hand in their debut, The Roman Hat Mystery) it’s interesting to realise just how heavily Dannay and Lee were leaning on van Dine at this point of their careers.
I haven’t updated you on my progress with Detective Conan for a while, so now seems like a good time to discuss the elements that make this on-going one-man Manga both so very, very brilliant and so very, very meh.
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.
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.
Benjamin Disraeli had it right when he said “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and publishers’ breathless comparisons to the classics”. I’ve been bitten once by this recently, so was doubly shy of the promise on the reverse of Warren B. Murphy’s sole detective novel to feature Dr. David Vincent Leonardo that it would introduce “a splendid new addition to the ranks of Holmes, Poirot, [and] Dupin”. To be upfront about it, obviously that’s not the case, but despite some flaws in the rendering of our genius amateur — of which more later — this is honestly a lot of fun, and joins the ranks of Hmmmm, What If They’d Written More of These? because, yeah, it lacks in artistry, but if you want a swift, reasonably smart, and engaging unheralded locked room puzzle you could do a damn sight worse.
In what might actually be the first time I’ve contributed to a full month of TNB posts — woo! Mr. Commitment! — I thought I’d finish off with my first Five to Try in a little while on the subject of Crime in Costume. But, this being a blog about detective fiction, I thought I’d leave it up to you to deduce the theme inside of this framing which links all these books together.
The first person to correctly work it out gets…a prize of some sort. Tell you what, they’ll win a pre-publication copy of Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums, personally emailed to them by me. So as, y’know, to save them waiting an extra three or four days and having to click on a link to download it themselves. I know, I know, I’m too kind. Tell you what — to make it nice and unique, I’ll even add a bit to the introduction about how this was won in a competition on the blog. That makes it a bit more special, eh?
As Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums edges ever closer — 11 of the 15 stories are now typed and ready, and TomCat is beavering away editing a twelfth — I thought I’d share my thoughts on certain aspects from the preparation, because it’s been an interesting insight into some things I’ve previously had no experience with. My apologies in advance if this seems self-aggrandising, I just think some of this will be of legitimate interest to you and have no desire to make it all “hey look how much work I’m doing”. No-one is making me do this, after all, and it’s honestly a huge amount of fun. Yes, my notion of fun is not like that of other people.