Anthony Horowitz is probably my favourite contemporary author of detective fiction, as his superb Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk (2011) and its genuinely exceptional follow-up Moriarty (2013) displayed an affinity for both the milieu of Holmes and the necessary misdirection and construction of a blistering plot that blindsides you at will which seems to elude many who try to walk this path these days. His earlier novel The Killing Joke (2004) isn’t really detective fiction per se, but shows a playfulness with narrative that is aware of many of the tropes of genre fiction and is worth mentioning here precisely because of how much it foreshadowed the work he does in Magpie Murders when it comes to deconstructing the classical detective and his ilk.
“The impulse for this novel,” says Adam Roberts “was a desire to collide together some of the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter than the former.” Well, count me in! Sure, the authors he then cites (Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes) don’t all fill me with delight, but this is a collision of my two favourite genres plus impossible crimes — how could I pass it up?! And it would have passed me by entirely had not blog-commenter ravenking81 brought it to my attention, so my most genuine thanks for that; at its best it’s a fascinatingly successful attempt at merging the two genres in a way that recalls both Isaac Asimov and John Dickson Carr, who, y’know, are the two finest authors to have worked in their respective genres. So that’s a good thing. By definition, however, it is not always at its best. Continue reading →
There’s an appealing irony in the assertion that you know an author has hit the big time when everyone remembers the name of their characters over that of the creator themself: Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Tarzan, Jason Bourne, we erudite types remember them, of course, but the world at large – fuelled no doubt by TV and films – associates more with their representations than their origins. Erle Stanley Gardner – a King of Crime, lest we forget – is not just less well-known than his character, but also the piece of music that character is himself overshadowed by; all together now… Frankly, he must be like the biggest-selling author in the world on those terms. Well, uh, yeah, he kinda is, actually. And yet, despite my avowed love of the man and his writing, it’s taken me 70 posts to get round to reviewing him here; what gives?
Well, two things. Firstly, I’d read a lot of Gardner before starting this blog and had sort of lost track of exactly what I had and hadn’t already encountered, and secondly a lot of it was written at high speed and with, er, some quality control issues and so some of what I’ve read since hasn’t exactly covered him in glory. However, The Case of the Borrowed Brunette is about as classic a Perry Mason – oh, yeah, that’s the famous character, but the way – novel as you’ll get, and showcases a lot of what Gardner did extremely well and also a lot of the flaws in his process.
Orion’s digital crime arm The Murder Room will apparently be ceasing operations in the near future, meaning to those of us in the UK the loss of high-quality e-books from classic Golden Age authors like Anthony Boucher, Pamela Branch, John Dickson Carr, J.J. Connington, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Geoffrey Household, Ronald Knox, John D. Macdonald, Helen McCloy, and E. L. White, and more contemporary fare such as Charles Willeford and many others.
They have excelled in the high standards of their output, the range of authors they promoted, the fact that they made these books available to the widest possible market, and their commitment to the Golden Age long before it was fashionable again. Goddammit, this has really spoiled my day.
Existing somewhere between an early 2000s romantic comedy – probably starring Chris O’Donnell or Matthew McConnaughaghay – and The Count of Monte Cristo, John Dickson Carr’s The Bride of Newgate was his first foray into the historical mysteries that would come to typify his later career. You never write Carr off – like Christie he waned as he wore on, but there are enough flashes of fire after his peak for everyone to have two or three Later Carr highlights – but these dalliances with the extra detail required show a different side to our man. Mainly they show that he was a massive history nerd – detailing not just what people are wearing, say, but also what they would have removed from their outfit to be left with what they’ve got on – and that he was able to fit this into his wonderful brain and stir up something both necessarily of its setting that also fulfilled the expectations raised by his name on the cover.
I’m not going to tell you the plot – the opening four or five chapters are full of schemes, plans, and revelations enough that you should really experience completely pure – and will instead focus on the writing. Because while he gradually loses his grip on his narrative, his powers of portraiture are sent to their grandest heights with a renewed enthusiasm that is both this book’s chief joy and its main undoing. In a way it’s like a debut: he gets it wrong, but he tries hard and would improve after a few more attempts.
Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each. But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.
So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it. And so, alphabetically by author, we have:
Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin
The second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously. My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection. Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat. And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]
Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’ Continue reading →
John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant). I am here to help.
Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea. I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower. I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like. Oh, and make it funny. Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above. What’s that? It’s already been done? Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead. [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]
While I technically popped by blog Carr cherry a few weeks ago in recommending Death-Watch, it was at best a passing thumbs-up to the man and his achievements. And, following the disappointment of my intended novel under review, the time is probably ripe to dive in, get the first Carr review up and prop open the floodgates. And why not The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins)? Carr’s most well-known work, an arguable masterpiece of detective and impossible crime fiction, surely the most widely written about impossible crime novel on the internet…why not trot out the usual platitudes, recommend it unreservedly and fill the gap in my schedule?
Except, and here’s the different perspective I’m hoping to bring to this, the first time I read The Hollow Man I hated it. I hated it. It was published as part of Orion’s Crime Masterworks series and that alone stimulated sufficient interest for me to give it a go but, being in my nonage of classic crime fiction, I couldn’t really tell you what an ‘impossible crime’ was and so didn’t know what to expect. I somehow knew of Carr vaguely (the internet was not quite so well-informed then as now), had ten or so Agatha Christies to my name – including Murder in Mesopotamia, which I failed to recognise for the impossible crime it is – and figured that alone meant I would be in for a similar kind of experience and knew what I was doing.