Like a latter-day Edgar Rice Burroughs, Manly Wade Wellman’s Earthman-out-of-his-element story casts the protagonist as a near-superhuman saviour who is hated by the powerful, championed by the underdog, and treated to sweet, sweet lovin’ by an appreciative female who’s clearly never experienced this sort of hunkiness before. Think Jack Reacher of Mars for best (?) results.
In a week that saw me start and quit three books in a row, it was a relief to open Norman Berrow’s third novel and be put immediately at ease by his nimble capturing of the pre-show backstage goings-on at the latest, most fashionable theatre in London. From the music described as “…a shamelessly stolen conglomeration of Mexican airs, assembled in Tin-Pan Alley, shipped to Europe, and played with astonishing variations” to the beautiful summation of leading lady Lili La Paz as “a miracle to watch; and hell to live with”, it’s the sort of opening salvo that reminds me why I return time and again to Berrow and his slightly disappointing impossibilities (the man does love a secret passage): simply put, he writes glorious prose.
I love a country house mystery, especially those with a body on page one. So when the murder of ex-judge Sir Ernest Ferber in his private garden by man he sentenced harshly and the subsequent suicide of his assailant at the scene is communicated in the opening ten lines of The Baddington Horror, we’re off to a very good start. To my understanding, Walter S. Masterman wrote as many ‘weird tales’ as he did novels of detection, and so it was always a little uncertain what I was going to get here. But the first chapter could not be more Golden Age detection if it tried: murdered aristocrat, retired amateur detective who takes an interest, two big coincidences, and away we go…
Identity and location, as I’ve said before, are really the two hooks on which a staggering majority of the detective genre hangs. And if you want to get the most out of the impossible shooting tale Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder — pseudonym of Detective Club alumnus Milward Kennedy — you’re going to need patience in figuring out the latter. Because while he has a good sense of character and action, as soon as anyone is required to go anywhere, or it becomes necessary to understand the internal layout of the ancient French citadel-cum-château that features so prominently, it’s as if his narrative powers desert him and he’s writing with a stick of celery.
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.
Norman Berrow writes great policemen. His other characters are very good — he has Agatha Christie’s ability to give you an archetype plus enough to be quietly, subtly powerful — but his policemen are superb. After reading three later Berrows featuring Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith and his lackeys, I’m leaping back to Berrow’s second novel here, and well before the halfway point I was lamenting the fact that this seems to be the only case calling on Superintendent Mellish, Inspector Sennet, and the delightfully earnest Constable Ensor. They take a standard Country House Mystery and transform it through their cheek, cleverness, and camaraderie into something that feels like the start of a very promising career indeed. Alas, not to be.
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.
I am swiftly approaching the point where I will be reluctant to read any more Rupert Penny; he published a mere nine books, of which Policeman in Armour is the fifth I’ve read, and I don’t want to find myself in a situation where there’s no new Rupert Penny to pick up and lose myself in. I still have plenty to be getting on with — half of Carr, 10 Christies, 17 Berrows, countless undiscovered gems — but Penny holds a special significance for me because he is such a superb classicist and produced detective plots that walk the fine line between several stools without tripping and getting trapped between any of them (I apologise for any pain that mixed metaphor may have caused you).
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.
Given the number of people who applied themselves to the challenge of writing a novel of detection during the Golden Age (precise dates pending…), it is to be expected that a fair number of wonderful novels, plots, ideas, and authors will have been lost in the tidal wave of creativity. Through the continued efforts of publishers like Ramble House — who were reprinting this stuff before it was cool again — we’ve been able to rediscover Max Afford, Norman Berrow, Rupert Penny, Hake Talbot, and others, and it’s this path of frank fabulousness that has brought me now to E.C.R. Lorac, author of some 70-odd novels under a couple of pseudonyms. Does she belong in the realm of How In The Hell Is This Stuff Overlooked? Well, on this evidence…maybe.