This isn’t a review, it’s an obituary. My copy of Think of a Number by John Verdon opens with twenty-six glowing review excerpts from a range of authors, publications, and blogs, but it genuinely might be the single worst book I have read in a very, very long time, and without being in the least splenetic about it I’m going to explain why. I will avoid spoiling it in full thoughtless fashion but, honestly, I’m being mindful of your time, your money, your families, and your health in writing the following. I take no pleasure in this, it’s purely to save you the experience of this fustercluck of a novel posing and sold to you as something intelligent and worthwhile. It is neither. That this is on the market at all is a slap in the face to all concerned.
A little while ago, while secondhand bookshop haunting as is my wont, I stumbled upon a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) — a book I have recommended here before for the brilliant way it shows up the tricks of the séance through a combination of perspicuous writing and trusting its readers’ intelligence. My copy was a rat-eared, much-abused paperback and this was a lovely hardcover for a very reasonable price…and yet I vacillated for some time (like, a few weeks) before buying it.
In the comments of my post on reality and Golden Age Detective fiction from last Saturday, Harry shared his frustration with the solution to Murder on the Marsh (1930) by John Ferguson — it’s very spoilerific, be warned (though it also sounds terrible, so…) — and I in turn recounted a couple of awful solutions to locked room short stories in sympathy. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all read some stinkers in our time, haven’t we?
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.
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.
Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself. So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator. I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) orJohn Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.
I know, I know, it looks like I’ve forgotten my brief for this blog, but I haven’t. This is something I’ve been mulling for a little while, and I wanted to raise it here to see whether it’s been worth my time.
I don’t read many living authors — not intentionally, it’s just that the current trend of a lot of fiction doesn’t intersect with my tastes very often — and so I’m saved the concern of how they comport themselves on a daily basis and how this impacts my feelings about them. But following a comment by Dan at The Reader is Warned about a comment made by John Dickson Carr in She Died a Lady (1943), I got to thinking about the above question.
Aware of my fondness for the programme itself and an impossible crime in general, people keep asking me what I thought of the recent Jonathan Creek Christmas special ‘Daemons’ Roost’. And I keep having to relive it by telling them. The only sane response is therefore to write it all down here and direct all future enquiries to this post on my blog (which might at least get me some readers…). I apologise in advance. This is not going to be pretty.
Writing a decent novel of detection is difficult enough, as evinced by the fact that the form virtually died out by the 1960s, so taking the classic detective story and turning into a pastiche of itself is even harder again — it has to be both a story of crime and detection and a cunning vehicle for transcending the tropes thereof while simultaneously wallowing in them. Leo Bruce did this near-perfectly in Case for Three Detectives (1936) and a great many luminaries of the form dipped their toe into such conceits with aspects of their books, plots, or characterisation, but for a full-length novel to take this on successfully is something of a challenge that it would be beyond the abilities of most mortals.