Much like in one of those hilarious romantic comedies from the early 2000s starring Ben Stiller or Jennifer Lopez, Philip MacDonald and I got off to a rocky start that seemed to be improving, on the way to falling lovingly into each other’s arms by the end credits. It began badly with X v. Rex (1933), showed signs of improvement with Murder Gone Mad (1931), and so by now we’re at the montage stage — I’m the aggressive go-getter, he won’t compromise where his family’s concerned…how can two such different souls ever hope to find common ground? Can’t I see that his brand of innovation is made for me? Won’t he just do the decent thing and write a novel of detection with actual clues? Hairy Aaron, we’re so stubborn…
First thing first: yes, I’m aware that the 2017 Collins Crime Club edition of this novel — for which I am eternally grateful, since it has enabled me to read it in the first place — has been reissued with the title Inspector French and the Sea Mystery. What can I say? I’m a stickler for origins, and so am reviewing it under the original title. My delight at having Crofts back in print is undimmed, and if building an MCU-esque awareness through uniformity in titles helps the books gain popularity and leads to even more Crofts back in print, hell, I’m all for it. And, while we’re on the subject of these new editions, the covers are exquisite — simple, direct, clean, beautifully evocative…a great job.
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?
Well, this seems an odd choice of book to review the day after John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, right? The sensible thing would be to pick one of his novels, in keeping with the occasional Carr-related theme of my posts of late, right? Aha! Well, good job, then, because this is Carr-related: in 1946 Carr selected what he felt to be the 10 best detective novels published to date (writing an essay entitled ‘The Grandest Game in the World’ that, I believe, was intended to be published as an introduction to a run of reprints of the books…which never materialised due to copyright issues) and this was one of them. I really did not like the first MacDonald book I read (X v. Rex) and was warned in advance by both TomCat and Noah that this isn’t a particularly good book…so that all boded well, hey?
Well, well, well, more good news: following the emergence of Erle Stanley Gardner’s missing Cool and Lam novel, it transpires that another classic — and one I’ve personally been trying to find for a while now — is also due back into circulation.
Although Agatha Christie’s later works put her out of era for this blog, I’m still keen to look at these books on account of the level of impact she had on the genre. So The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) was an early review when I was less rigid in my restrictions, but alas I had nothing to say about The Clocks (1963). Then came the one-two punch of A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) before Poirot once again got a short shrift with the rather forgettable Third Girl (1966), which Brad has analysed with typical adroitness here. So, because I’m reading these chronologically, this brings me to Endless Night.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that as Agatha Christie approached the twilight years of her career the quality of her output dipped somewhat. And yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, what these novels appear to lack in merit from a plot perspective they arguably make up for in a kind of critical self-analysis of her own position in the firmament of crime fiction. And At Bertram’s Hotel, the tenth Miss Marple novel, provides yet more opportunity to potentially read too much into her writing from this perspective. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s no Douglas Hofstadter, but who’s to say this is a completely bad turn of events*?
With 80 crime novels and story collections to her name, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Agatha Christie had quite a few repeating characters to call upon: Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Superintendent Battle all got to be the focus of several books. Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Johnny Race, and Mr. Satterthwaite cropped up a few times each, as arguably did James Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quinn through their short stories. But then what about the others, the one-offs, those sleuths who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and then were heard no more? What immortality do they get? Well, since you ask…
The Sittaford Mystery (1931) Damn those evil ouija demons! Up to their tricks again, predicting the death of a man alone in a house cut off by a snow drift, unsettling a friend of his enough to ski down there…and find his dead body. Makes Charlie Charlie and his spinning pencils seem rather tame by comparison (you’ve probably already forgotten that reference, that’s how behind the times I am). Possibly breaks one rule of detective fiction, and the investigation largely consists of a lot of similar conversations, but the reveal is one of the watershed moments in my reading life (yeah, no, I’m not exaggerating) and probably singled-handedly convinced me that this was a genre and an author worth pursuing.
“Write what you know” is the kind of aphorism doled out to aspiring authors like public money at a bank’s board meeting, and aged 72 Agatha Christie – world’s biggest-selling author of crime fiction, with a West End play entering its eleventh consecutive year – knew a lot about being old and a lot about crime. So is it any surprise that this return to crime-solving elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple is so damn good? It’s the first Miss Marple book to actually feature the wily old fox with any regularity since They Do it with Mirrors (1952) as she only really put in a cameo in both A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and 4:50 from Paddington (1957). Of the 16 books Christie would publish from this until her death six of them would feature Marple, composing practically half of the canon, and arguably a familiarity with her subject helped; it’s an impression reinforced by the opening pages of The Mirror Crack’d… wherein the indignities of old age are charmingly laid out from Aunt Jane’s perspective and you can almost see Christie winking at you while she writes.
Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions: