The Verdict of You All…

This is a question I’ve mused over for a while, but it’s one of those times in which it may well be more difficult to formulate question rather than answer! (Socrates would be proud.) Simply put, it would be “who are your favorite detective characters?” but I believe the question is slightly more complicated than that. Do we include TV sleuths, or limit it to books? Do we base it on how enjoyable we find the character (I find Dr. Fell delightful) or on how well-characterized he or she is? What of the characters who changed so much over time—Ellery Queen, most notably, or even Miss Marple (from “the worst cat in the village” to a saint!).

cropped-cropped-lord-peter-wimsey-gideon-fell-jules-maigret-sherlock-holmes-charlie-chan-ellery-queen-jane-marple-father-brown-auguste-dupin-hercule-poirot-nero-wolfe.jpgSo many uses for this image…

These are all excellent questions, so naturally yours truly will neatly try to sidestep them and instead leave it up to you: based on whatever criteria you may deem relevant, whom would you consider your favorite sleuths in fiction? I’d love to read and compare lists—it’s something I find especially interesting in view of detective fiction’s oft-cited “characterization problem.” Go at it, ladies and gents! (A top-10 list would be practical, I think.) Then, if you’d like, we can pick which top 5 or so receive the most votes…

My own choices:

Sherlock Holmes (literary, Arthur Conan Doyle)

Lt. Columbo (television, William Link and Richard Levinson)

Matt Cobb (literary, William DeAndrea)

Ellery Queen (literary, Ellery Queen)

Patrick Butler (literary, John Dickson Carr)

Tommy & Tuppence Beresford (literary, Agatha Christie)

Father Brown (literary, G.K. Chesterton)

Thackeray Phin (literary, John Sladek)

Philip Marlowe (literary, Raymond Chandler)

Nick and Nora Charles (film, portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy)
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Helen McCloy

At the risk of making a somewhat unceremonious return… 😉

I recently finished Helen McCloy’s The Slayer and the Slain and was inspired, I suppose (it’s really a marvellous book), to write the following. I posted it elsewhere, but I’ll post it here too; I hope you enjoy it. I will try—I promise!—to get some more blog-posts in, and—JJ—I haven’t forgotten about trying to come up with another solution to The Three Coffins! Anyhoo, in the meanwhile…

Helen McCloy was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all mystery writers and may well have been the single greatest American writer of detective stories were it not for Ellery Queen (and, of course, if we’re counting Carr as British, or at least Transatlantic). So, naturally, no one really knows her name anymore!

Indeed, as a writer, she may be even greater than Queen: her prose is sublime, her images evoking long-forgotten memories as her words plumb our unconscious. In that respect, she’s rather like Fitzgerald, who used lyricism and imagery that approached poetry to evoke—less emotion than a sense of awe, or even haunting, Proustian memory. “So we beat on, boats against  the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”

Her themes are unique, though in some ways recalling Hitchcock—most obviously in both’s use of the Doppelgänger motif. She is intrigued by psychology, and nearly all of her lead characters are psychoanalysts or psychologists: she began with the kind of orthodox Freudianism that was in vogue in the ‘40s, and, while her opinion of psychoanalysis might have changed somewhat throughout her career, it never really left her. Unlike later Rendell, though, she never gave way to the specious belief that we’re all either lunatics or sex-maniacs; and, however faint it may seem, there is still hope and good left in her world.

Of mystery authors, she’s closest to two who are rather unconnected: John Dickson Carr and Ngaio Marsh. In the latter case, one can make even  a few one-on-one comparisons between Marsh and McCloy, and in nearly every case McCloy comes out on top (and I write this as a Marsh fan). Dance of Death, McCloy’s remarkably accomplished first novel, cross-references neatly with Marsh’s Death in a White Tie; McCloy’s The Goblin Market with Marsh’s Colour Scheme; and McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot with Marsh’s Off with His Head.

In all cases, the plots are vaguely similar, the detectives professionals, not amateurs, and the trace of the Van Dine school (blue-bloods, poison, unusual murder methods, carefully-sketched backgrounds) present in both. Yet Marsh clearly delineates the two sections of her books: the pre-murder takes up about 4 chapters or 70 pages (as Mike Grost noted) and then the murder and investigation for the rest of the 200-page book. Because Marsh’s gifts were more for character and light badinage, the investigation portions of her books can seem rather dull in comparison to the openings—so much so that some readers will be very disappointed.

McCloy, on the other hand, is like Carr in this regard: she unites strong prose, dialogue, and characterization, and a fast pace, with the investigation, and she’s so thoroughly bored by that normal bane of the detective story, the never-ending suspect interviews, that she leaves it out entirely. Thus, in some ways both she and Carr unite the thriller and the detective-story by virtue of simply being good storytellers. It’s a remarkable gift and one that, sadly, few detective-story authors had or have. (It was also key for Gladys Mitchell, whose books resemble McCloy’s in psychology and supernaturalism, and mid-to-late Ellery Queen.)

Also like Carr, McCloy loved the concept of the apparently-supernatural, or more accurately preternatural: it brings forth ancient mysteries, beliefs that we would prefer that we’ve forgotten, and scares us with what we continually deny. In this regard, both Carr and McCloy achieve fright with understatement, the most effective means of all—what M.R. James so accurately deemed “a pleasing terror,” atmosphere that engulfs us without a single “shock.” Carr and McCloy both believed that there is more to the world than what Carr called “the thump of the janitor’s mop”; indeed, what are the secrets that our humdrum, conventional lives seek to repress, that tug at the very edges of our consciousness? As Carr put it (in The Burning Court):

We huddle together in cities, we make bonfires of a million lights, we can get a voice from across the ocean to sing to us so that we needn’t feel lonely… But suppose you, Ted, in your apartment in New York… or John Smith in his house anywhere in the world—suppose you went home at night, and opened the ordinary door, and heard another kind of voice. Suppose you didn’t want to look behind the umbrella-stand, or go down to attend to the furnace at night, because you might see something climbing up?

Unlike the conservative Carr, however, and like Queen and Anthony Boucher, McCloy was very much a liberal, and she wore it on her sleeve; even so, both Carr and McCloy loved the past, albeit with different opinions of it, and attempted almost to unite past with present (Carr directly in, say, the historical novels; McCloy indirectly through musings on psychology). Even Carr’s beloved swashbucklers return with McCloy’s swashbuckling sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, and it’s intriguing how, in spite of their distinct political opinions, they end up at more or less the same place. I wonder if Russell Kirk would have thought them both Bohemian Tories.


As noted above, the Doppelgänger is central to McCloy’s worldview: the idea of two or more sides to a person unites the psychology and the supernaturalism, and it recurs over and over again throughout her works. In her masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly, she writes:

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture are vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and—you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself, only—there is no mirror. So you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die.

Thus the fear of the Doppelgänger, the double-walker, the death-fetch—that which is dually natural and supernatural, normal and abnormal, the self but not the self—you as seen through the sinister mirror.

I can go on further—I originally intended to talk about how much The Slayer and the Slain had points in common with Hitchcock’s Marnie—but I’ve gone on way too much (apologies) and will break off here. I hope, though, that I can inspire some interest in this wonderful writer; she deserves it.

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Notes for the Curious (Part 2)

A more appropriately Carrian title, no? 🙂


First things first: I’ve been investigating whether or not Lady Pamela Hoyt was a real person and have found that, to the knowledge of every historian I know (not many), a history-connected forum, and the Google corporation, no such figure actually existed.

Why, then, did Carr invent her?

Certainly, her story sets the stage for Carr’s ending (which I shall not spoil here), but it is entirely possible that JDC could have chosen a real historical figure for the same purpose.  I must say that I’m genuinely stumped on this one; if anyone has any suggestions, I’m more than open to hearing them.

He Who Whispers, then (brief spoilers):


Carr did genuine work in investigating the various unusual and sundry details of the vampire legend, which, we know from Douglas Greene’s biography, he learned largely from the works of the Rev. Montague Summers, an eccentric figure (a less forgiving writer may deem him a lunatic, plain and simple) who might or might not have actually been an ordained Catholic priest. (We do know that he was an ordained Anglican deacon, which gives him the right to the “reverend” title, but his claim to the Catholic priesthood is is uncertain, to say the least.)


The good padre himself

Summers wrote two books on vampirism–The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929)–and he recounts numerous tales with similarity to Carr’s, including the Croglin Grange account.


Carr’s lengthy quotation from a book on the subject–pg. 86 in my edition–is fictional, as was Grimaud’s book on witchcraft in The Burning Court, but it is quite similar to several passages from Summers:

…there is, especially in Slavonic tradition, a very great distinction, for the Slavonic vampire is precisely defined and it is the incorrupt and re-animated dead body which returns from its grave…

It is difficult to say, however, whence Carr derives this notion:

In Western Europe, notably in France, the vampire is a demon living outwardly a normal life in the community, but capable during sleep or trance of projecting its soul in the form of straw or spinning mist to take visible bodily shape.

It too reads like Summers, but Summers goes out of his way to emphasize how little France has contributed to the vampire myth (well–Summers wouldn’t have called it a “myth,” but then he was a little off):

As in England and in Ireland, in France the records of Vampirism are few; one might say not untruthfully designedly few. 

My first thought, then, was that Carr wrote that passage and changed the legend to fit his plot, but “straw or spinning mist” seems oddly specific. After doing some more research, I came to the conclusion that Carr has [probably purposely] conflated several legends here.


There is an old French legend, with similarities to the vampire tale, about a water-spirit, Melusine (or Melusina), a beautiful woman who was cursed to take the form of a dragon or sea-serpent from the waist down (shadows of Medusa). (On a less grandiose note: the Melusine is actually a major inspiration [along with the Siren] for the two-tailed mermaid in the Starbucks logo. Yup. See what you learn when doing this kind of research?) Wherefore the vampire, then?

In western France, Luxembourg, and Germany, Melusine is considered a succubus, a female demon descended from Lilith–who, while not appearing in the Torah, is Adam’s first wife in the Talmud–who seduces men and often drinks their blood.

In Romanian mythology, there is another spirit that Summers does analyze, a vampire called the varacolaci.  This creature is less the reanimated corpse well-known nowadays than a being that projects its spirit from beyond the grave by a process called “night-spinning.”

Interesting points connecting the varacolaci and Melusine: both are recorded as taking on the form of a dragon, and both are believed to derive from the succubus. Both the varacolaci and the succubus, by the way, are known for this:

In addition, the night-stalkers could take the form of inanimate objects such as straw, beams of light, or wisps of smoke.

There, methinks, is our smoking gun. (Pun intended.)

But why would Carr have gotten the idea to conflate these two legends? I think there’s a source for that, too: Alexandre Dumas’s “The Pale Lady” (1849), which, though not set in France, similarly brings together these stories. Dumas, as we know, was one of Carr’s favorite writers; by what is probably more than happenstance, he also wrote one of the first significant stories about our old friend Mme. de Brinvilliers.


Carr is not conflating but rather recording legends, however, with this following line:

The physical characteristics, the red hair and the slender figure and the blue eyes, are always in folklore associated with the vampire…

Yes, indeed: no matter which country in Europe you investigate, every national folklore associates red hair and blue eyes with vampirism. (The “slender figure” came later–early legends in Romania, Hungary, and Greece have the vampire as bloated with blood–but one can find it, especially in western Europe.) Red hair was, in the classical tradition, associated naturally with blood, one of the four humors, and believed to cause “…fieriness and a desire for sexual dominance” (Rhodes 95). The implications of both points seem clear; and, interestingly, Lilith, a postlapsarian Eve, and Judas Iscariot are all commonly depicted with fiery red hair (96).

According to folklorist Chloe Rhodes in her book Black Cats and Evil Eyes, to which I am indebted,

Distrust of redheads was exacerbated by their rarity. Only four per cent of the world’s population have red hair and in many parts of the world it’s barely even seen. (96)

The various sources I’ve consulted are less clear on the subject of why blue eyes were also a sign of vampirism, however. Perhaps their mythological status derives from their relative rarity as well? I should also note that, in mythology, blue- and green-eyed children are often considered more likely to possess the evil eye, from which Prof. Georges Rigaud defends himself when he sees Fay Seton for the first time at Miles Hammond’s house.

(A brief sidenote: Carr has chosen his character names well. Fay’s Christian name refers to the word fay, meaning fairy–a connection which has significance both to her character and to the vampire legend as a whole.)


It is difficult to discuss the next part without spoilers, but I shall try. Still, those who haven’t read He Who Whispers may wish to read it and then return here.


Count Alessando di Cagliostro was the cognomen of one of the more unusual characters in history, Giuseppe Balsamo (1743-1795), a magician, adventurer, and con artist (Carlyle called him “the prince of the quacks”) who was involved in the lead-up to the French Revolution. Indeed, Cagliostro convinced various crowned heads of Europe of his psychic powers until he was exiled from France because of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and, because of it, sentenced first to the Bastille in ’85 and later, because of his Freemasonry, to Italy’s Sant’Angelo and San Leone prisons in ’89.

Speaking of his Freemasonry, it is this point which is so vital to Carr’s book. I shall try to be as circumspect as possible because of the spoiler question, but Carr was completely accurate as regards the Banquet of the Dead, which Cagliostro hosted in his “mysterious house in the rue St. Claude,” and London’s claim on Signor Balsamo. He was initiated into the Esperance Lodge of Masons in 1777 at the King’s Head pub in Gerrard Street, London [as Carr records], from which he [Cagliostro] brought the Egyptian Rite to France and there founded his own secret society, which also borrowed elements from Swedenborgianism and Rosicrucianism. Readers of He Who Whispers will want to know if a certain fact is true, and they will be happy to know that it is. Said readers will probably know what I’m talking about. 🙂 (Sources at the links.)

Interestingly enough, can you guess who referenced Cagliostro in several novels? That’s right, Dumas again!


Now, the question of Dumas’ influence on Carr is an excellent one, and I’d say the influence is indeed significant, if infrequently noted.

OK, then: is there anything else?

There is indeed a river Eure in northwest France, and it seems aptly eerie for the setting of the ruined tower in Carr’s story.


I spent so much time on the vampire legend–mea culpa, but, like Prof. Grimaud in The Three Coffins, the topic interests me–that I think I’ll save The Crooked Hinge for another time, because there’s a lot of material there.

Hope you’re enjoying these “investigations” at least somewhat–I like all of these topics, so I enjoy finding out the details behind them. I hope to have The Crooked Hinge covered soon, though Lord knows when “soon” is, now that I’m reluctant to set myself to a hard and fast date again… 🙂


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Brief Interrupting Mystery

I know I promised to do Part 2 of “Notes for the Curious” yesterday; I apologize that I didn’t follow through with it. (I actually got very sick on Thursday and am still recovering now.)

Still, my apologies, and I hope to have the article written as soon as possible.

In the meanwhile, perhaps all of you can help me with a mystery that’s related to Carr’s epigraphs: I recently finished re-reading He Who Whispers, and I noted that historian-hero Miles Hammond has a very important-to-the-his-character dream involving Lady Pamela Hoyt, whom Carr describes as “a sprightly court beauty of a hundred and forty years gone by, no better than she should be, and perhaps a murderess.”


The question, then: was Lady Pamela a real person?

I know the question may sound daft, but I’m completely unable to find any evidence on her. To be sure, one of the characters–Barbara Morell–has equal trouble finding her (she’s not in the encyclopedia, Barbara says)–but I don’t know if Lady Pamela is a real historical personage or someone Carr invented. The latter option seems unlikely, as there would be no logical reason (JDC could have found some other historical figure to play the same role), and she is paired (in the book) with Agnès Sorel, the real-life maîtresse-en-titre of King Charles VII of France.

Any historians out there, amateur or professional? I cannot find any information on Lady Pamela, and I’d like to know if she were real or not before posting Part Two.

Thanks to everyone, and–again–my sincerest apologies for missing yesterday’s “deadline”!


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Notes for the Curious

Crime and the occult! These were the only hobbies for a man of taste!

I just had to start with that. This may seem a strange topic for a post, I know, but John Dickson Carr’s epigraphs and sources have long interested me for any number of reasons, including the fact that he and I have many of the same interests. (When Patrick Gore lists his favorite books in The Crooked Hinge, I always find myself cheering whenever I read the book.)

I’m currently re-reading many of my favorite Carrs–I’ve read The Crooked Hinge and The Burning Court and have just started He Who Whispers–which is probably what has prompted this idle musing. Nonetheless, there are some very interesting discoveries in looking into Carrian sources. Now, Carr quoted a wide variety of sources in his career, so we’ll only look at four–the aforementioned three and Beneath Suspicion. Of these, I’ll tackle Beneath Suspicion and The Burning Court today and The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers Friday (I have appointments all day tomorrow).


In Beneath Suspicion, for example, Carr (via Dr. Fell) quotes extensively from Margaret Murray (1863-1963), and he refers to her in several other books. (Douglas Greene devotes a chapter to these references.) With my own interest in “crime and the occult,” I naturally had to take a look at Murray’s work, and luckily interlibrary loan had me covered: I was able to read both The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933).


Murray’s work is fascinating. She lays out a remarkably convincing case that the accused witches of the Middle Ages were in fact members of an elaborate pre-Christian fertility cult–“the old religion,” as she called it. All the more remarkable because, in fact, the basis of her thesis has been debunked by such later historians and anthropologists as Elliot Rose (A Razor for a Goat, 1962), Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971), and Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons, 1975). With all that said, Murray’s argument is excellent background material for the writer. I will add, also, that some of Carlo Ginzburg’s works (The Night Battles, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath) have proved that Murray, though sloppy with her sources, might have possessed a “kernel of truth” in her theory.

I should also note, in passing, that the two witchcraft-related locked-room stories that Carr cites in Beneath Suspicion are real, and remain unsolved mysteries.

And now to a similar case, in The Burning Court.

As far as I can tell, the “non-dead”–poisoning witches who came back from the dead to kill–is a Carrian invention. You will find evidence in mythology for witches who return from the dead, but there is nothing about their being poisoners or a particularly different form of magical creature. Moreover, I find no evidence, for example, that, following the execution of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, Maître Nivelle said anything to the Grand Penitentiary akin to “there is something beyond this. I saw them die. They were not ordinary women. They will be restless,” and “Grimaud’s History of Witchcraft” offers no citation, as other quotations in that “book” do. (An interesting note–is the fictional Grimaud here intended to be The Hollow Man‘s Grimaud, who also wrote on superstition and witchcraft? I haven’t seen much commentary on this subject, but it seems logical. By the by, all of Carr’s footnotes in that “book” are real.) With that said, Joseph R. Christopher wrote an intriguing essay on the subject here.

Needless to say, perhaps, Mme. de Brinvilliers (Marie D’Aubray), Capt. Gaudin Sainte-Croix, Maître Nivelle, La Voisin, and Desprez (actually spelt Desgrez) were all real people, participants in the infamous Affair of the Poisons, one of my favorite subjects in history to study. I have found no evidence, however, of a later girl also named Thérèse La Voisin in 1737, or of a second Marie D’Aubray guillotined in 1861. Lady Anne Somerset wrote an excellent book (simply titled The Affair of the Poisons) on the affair in 2003, and Prof. Holly Tucker wrote a book as recently as this year entitled City of Light, City of Poison.


Let me add, too, that the Black Mass, which was performed in and around Versailles during the Affair, was as gruesome as Carr made it out to be–the details revealed by Etienne Guibourg and the others are, in fact, difficult to read.

Now to move on to the epigraphs. There are four in The Burning Court, and they’re all real (unlike, say, Ellery Queen’s epigraphs in The Roman Hat Mystery, which are all from a book by Insp. Queen!).


The first is from Samuel Pepys, the chief secretary to the Admiralty under Charles II and James II, whose diary is one of our most important primary sources for the Restoration.

Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me somewhat afraid–but not as much as, for mirth sake, I did seem.

This entry is from April 8, 1663. We know that Pepys was very interested in ghosts and spirits–see the diary entry for June 15, 1663–and also that he was somewhat skeptical of their existence. “Sir William,” by the way, is Sir William Batten (Surveyor of the Navy), whom Pepys disliked, and “Edgeborrow” is Kenrick Edisbury.


The second is from the Rev. Richard Harris Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends, which he wrote under the nom-de-plume of Thomas Ingoldsby. It’s an amusing, witty collections of poems and stories, often regarding such “gallows” subjects as murder and hauntings.

Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock,

Fly bolt, and bar, and band!–

By the way, this quotation is from the poem “The Hand of Glory: The Nurse’s Story,” which I believe is a direct inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When the Night Wind Howls” (from Ruddigore) and an indirect inspiration (via the G&S song) for Buddy Baker and X Atencio’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (used in Disney’s Haunted Mansion). I should also note that Carr used the title–The Dead Man’s Knock–for one of his later books, which indicates (I think) that he was quite fond of this collection.


Our next source probably needs no introduction–M.R. James is probably the greatest writer of ghost stories of them all (at least, tied with Robert Aickman, in my estimation), and he has inspired detective-story writers as different as Carr, Christie, H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell, and Ruth Rendell.

Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on for fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?”

The story is James’ “A View from a Hill.” There is little more that needs to be said, especially as fans of detective stories tend also to be fans of ghost stories, except that Carr was attempting to emulate James’s style, especially in the matter of saying nothing and suggesting everything, in many of his more supernatural-esque works; and that James wrote what is probably the first detective story/ghost story hybrid in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book.” (By the way, does anyone know if a copy of Carr’s essay on ghost stories–“Things that Go Bump in the Night,” if I’m remembering correctly–is available anywhere?)


The penultimate epigraph is from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Carr is using it as foreshadowing, as Tom Cecial is describing his trick just as Carr will explain his.

“And where is your nose?” quoth Sancho, seeing him now without disguise. “Here in my pocket,” and so saying, he pulled out the nose of a varnished pasteboard vizard, such as it has been described. … “Blessed Virgin!” quoth Sancho. “Who is this? Thomas Cecial, my friend and neighbor?” “The same, friend Sancho,” quoth the squire. “I will tell you by what tricks and wheedles he was inveigled to come hither.”

I should also note that I believe Sayers used this scene as well as an inspiration for one of her best Wimsey short stories, “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey,” which I think impossible-crime fanciers will like.


The last epigraph in the book is from Thomas Seccombe’s Twelve Bad Men, a study of twelve villains and scoundrels from history.

The tendency has gone so far that one is led to ask oneself, not without the gravest apprehension, “Is there, then, no evidence of extreme depravity?” For the wholesale elimination of the utter villain from history could hardly be regarded save in the light of an aesthetic calamity.

I confess I haven’t read this one–though, looking it over on Amazon, it’s the sort of thing I like. I will note that, according to Amazon’s synopsis, several of Carr’s favorite historical figures–witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, hanging judge Mr. Justice Jeffreys, “Papist plot” organizer Titus Oates, and “gentleman-highwayman” James MacLaine–appear, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he liked the book.


One more, and then I’ll pause and leave the rest of it (regarding The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers) until Friday, but…

William Makepeace Thackeray is most noted for Vanity Fair (1847-1848), but as a satirist he wrote a parody of the realism of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). The hero of Goethe’s novel commits suicide, and Thackeray writes:

Charlotte, having seen his body,/ Just borne by upon a shutter,/ Like a well-conducted maiden,/ Went on cutting bread and butter

–which, Carr writes, went through Ted Stevens’ head as he saw Marie in the kitchen.


Hope my comments serve some kind of purpose–the references have interested me for a long while.

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Review: Nine Man’s Murder

Regular readers of this blog (and thank you immeasurably for that!) know that I don’t usually do reviews. That’s mostly because I simply don’t have the patience for them (oh, how my mind wanders!), which is why my hat is lifted to JJ, Brad, Patrick, TomCat, PuzzleDoctor, and all of you for doing what I cannot!

Well, rules–even un-cemented ones–are made to be broken, and here I am, doing a review.

I feel I have to do it, simply to get it off my chest.

I hated this book, Nine Man’s Murder. Hated hated hated hated hated this book. Hated it.


(And, yes, I could have simply re-phrased Roger Ebert’s entire review of North and had it serve as my review of Nine Man’s Murder.)

Right after I finished it, I wrote down my thoughts and finished it up with “I think I’ll probably forget it as of tomorrow.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I still remember the time I spent on it, and how disappointed I was in every aspect. Not to take anything away from author  Keith, who apparently has a great love of our genre and seems like a nice person from his comments on PuzzleDoctor’s blog. Nor from the people who liked it, including PD and Patrick. Nevertheless, I feel I must be truthful about my reaction, if you’re at all interested. Here goes:

Keith cannot write, plain and simple. Nor can he plot, in the sense of creating a story that keeps one reading on. He can formulate puzzle plots, which are necessary ipso facto for detective stories, but without anything to keep me reading on, I find that it has all the interest of the coldest logic puzzle you can conceive. Suspense, humor, human emotion, clever writing–all missing. I’m skeptical that Keith even understands Ten Little Indians, the book he’s riffing. That book has nail-biting tension as the end approaches, combined with wondering how Christie could ever pull off an ending. This book had me yawning, as I couldn’t give a damn which of these stick figures had murdered the other eight. It’s this kind of book, to be honest, that gave detective stories a bad name.

This is the same flaw I see regarding most of Paul Halter’s works, but Halter seems like the greatest writer on God’s green earth compared to Keith. (And that is something I thought I’d never, ever, say!) The silliness of something like The Invisible Circle, or the lack of characterization in The Tiger’s Head, is nowhere in the same level of badness as something here. I used to be one of those people who thought that Halter’s books read less like detective stories than synopses of detective stories, but that’s nothing compared to Keith. I’m loath even to call what he did “writing.”

And the puzzle-plot. Ah, yes, the puzzle-plot, that sine qua non of detective stories. John Dickson Carr formulated the central twist here in 1935. Anthony Horowitz invented a creative variant of Carr’s trick in 2004. Keith took Horowitz’s variant and combined it with Christie’s main trick from And Then There Were None. There was some clever locked-room stuff, but nothing that held my interest out of idle curiosity.

As I noted above, despite the unoriginality of the central twist, Keith can create puzzle-plots. The chain of cluing here is good, if (again) dull to read. If Keith desires to go on writing detective stories, he should invest in a collaborator who can do the writing whilst he does the plotting. It would be an improvement for all involved.

Ugh. This is one of the worst detective stories I’ve read in a long time. (Luckily, Hard Tack, the detective story I just finished, is a good remedy.) Anything else in the field, even the unbearable Crofts, is better than this.


P.S. In his [also negative] review, TomCat mentions an alternate solution he dreamt up, and it’s a great one. As I told him, I can only wish that Keith had gone with something like that instead.


What You Should Read/Watch Instead–And Then There Were None

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Open Question

I do intend soon to post something that’s more than filler, folks, but until then…


What books do you know that are comparable to Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians)? On the IMDb v2.0 boards, one poster asked for books with a similar set-up–people invited to an abandoned location, where they’re killed off one-by-one–and theravenking (who has commented on JJ and Brad’s blogs from time to time) and I listed several. The OP listed The Invisible Host (Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning), but I listed these (of which I’ve only read the Berkeley, the Carr, the Horowitz, and the Queen) —

Panic Party (Anthony Berkeley)

The Unicorn Murders (“Carter Dickson” /John Dickson Carr)

“I Know What You Did Last Wednesday” (Anthony Horowitz)

The House of Brass (Ellery Queen)

Death and the Dancing Footman (Ngaio Marsh)

The Eleventh Little Indian (Jacquemard-Sénécal)

The Ex (Nicholas Sanders)

–and Raven King listed these:

The Frankenstein Factory (Edward D. Hoch)

The Riddle of Sphinx Island (R. T. Raichev)

Nine Man’s Murder (Eric Keith)

Fire Will Freeze (Margaret Millar)

Bertie and the Seven Bodies (Peter Lovesey)

The Dying Game (Asa Avdic).

None of which I’ve read, by the way.

Anyhoo, does anyone know of any more? Both for helping the OP there with her question and for helping me with trying to find alternate solutions for the ATTWN scenario, which I’d like to work on after trying to work out a hypothetical alternate solution to The Hollow Man. (I haven’t forgotten, JJ!) 🙂

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“The Time Has Come…

…,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.”



Well, the time has come for the solution to “Death in the Sun,” too–so here goes…









I’m trying to decide how to do this one: I’m having a little difficulty writing the dénouement (which, to be perfectly honest, is why I’ve taken so long to write this), so I’ll just do what I did before and describe the solution. (I hope you don’t mind!)

As noted, JJ correctly noted the clue about “being able to see the beach from the house”; in fact, the Arning house is “…right next to the public beach,” according to the sheriff.

Silver Screenings correctly noticed that the shoulder is an odd place to shoot someone with intent to kill–which is indeed a major clue that we should keep in mind.

JJ then suggested that Thurlow could not have been shot outside, but rather that he was shot in the house and then walked out. But–as he wrote–“would there not be a trail of blood along the sand from the gunshot wound?”

“The deed must have been done in the house,” Colin wrote–and, as noted, correct!

What other points should we keep in mind? “Sadly, said hand and not seen fit to deliver him as brazened as the other sardines…” Thus: he could not have been on the beach long, on that very hot day, if he were not sunburned, as is inferrable, also, from his personality. Where could he have come from? The house, obviously, which is right nearby. So why, as Geoff asked, should he have been at the public beach? The point is what JJ noted: that he had been shot in the house and walked out to the public beach so that someone could see him.

Substantiating evidence? Naturally, he could not have been shot at close range on the sandbar, with no one around him. At close range–and that, my friends, is the point.

George Thurlow, remember, was shot twice: once in the shoulder and once in the back. The shot in the shoulder had powder burns–indicating a shot at close range–but the shot in the back did not.

Conclusion: we assumed that both bullets entered the body at the same time because two shots were heard at once.

But there’s the secret: George Thurlow was shot once in one place (close-range) and once in another (long-range).

In other words, he was shot once in the house (in the shoulder) and once, long-range, on the beach, from the house. Substantiation? In the back–he was facing away–long-range. He had recently come from the house; the people on the beach watched him walk out–he’d been shot in the shoulder at this point–and didn’t see anyone, or any kind of weapon, around.

Who could have committed the crime? The person who was standing on the roof when the shot was fired–the person who brought up “golf clubs” when nobody was up there to take any golf clubs–the person who had argued with Mrs. Ball and with his employer over changes to the house–the person who, obviously from his demeanor and attitude, loved and missed his former employer–the person who had only a few minutes before shown that former employer through what had been her home…

To wit, Billy Cummings.














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New Carrian Author?

I’ll try to post the solution to “Death in the Sun” soon, but until then…

Has anyone seen this piece of Jon L. Breen’s in the Weekly Standard? Fascinating stuff.

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“For Every Evil Under the Sun…”

“Death in the Sun”


a Geoffrey Lord tale

The heat was oppressive that afternoon, cooking the sand and brazening the outstretched, squirming bodies such that they resembled brass sardines.

One of the sardines, however, was outstretched but not squirming; the blackening on the shoulder was caused not by the sun’s heat, oppressive though it was, but by the muzzle of a gun put up against it—and the trigger pulled.

We may classify this particular sardine (for let us continue to deem him that) by that appellation of stock melodrama, the crooked lawyer. He was a crooked lawyer, a nasty, no-good scoundrel, the type who robs Peter to pay Paul and keeps a perquisite-for-self on the side. His name? You remember George Thurlow, no? Of course you do. Universally-known as the sort of lawyer for whom the term “shyster” was invented—indeed, the term was too kind for that low-grade arachnid.

And now a kindly hand had taken the incentive and delivered him to his maker. Sadly, said hand had not seen fit to deliver him as brazened as the other sardines, but let us not gild (or brazen) the lily. Nevertheless, George Thurlow was a human being (perhaps; the physicians are out on that point), as deserving of life as any of us (perhaps; the philosophers are out on that point), even if Sheriff Hank Gibbons nearly spat on the body as he overlooked it:


“I don’t have anythin’ good to say about that man, Mr. Lord—I woulda gladly shot him myself if I thought I coulda got away with it. Came along from the city, all how-do-ya-do and fancy, the way the city folk do—exceptin’ yourself, ’course; you’re almost like a local—and rents the Arning place, right next to the public beach, every year. Not that he liked bein’ there, naturally: only that he was a cheapskate, and old Mrs. Arning lets it out cheap. And now he’s dead.”

“Now he’s dead,” Mr. Geoffrey Lord repeated softly, removing his glasses and polishing them with his pocket handkerchief. The first time he had visited Nordharbor, he remembered, he had seen George Z. Thurlow (very important, that middle initial) on the old Arning balcony, sunbathing as if he expected to be seen and heralded by all, and told himself that Thurlow was setting himself up for a run-in with tragedy. He’d known Thurlow from a case on which Pop O’Leary had asked Geoff’s help; Thurlow had defended the doctor involved (for a hefty fee) and won the case. (For all his flaws, no one could call Thurlow a bad lawyer.) Geoff, that nicest of men, had disliked Thurlow—a pompous peacock with a mean streak to match—ever since.

Pop O’Leary had been philosophical about it—“If we went after every crooked lawyer in New York…”—while sweet Paula Vale let her emotions get the better of her—“Shoot the crook!” Geoff remembered shooting Miss Vale an amused looked and thinking that he was now seeing a new side to her.

“Is there any reason he should be at the public beach, Sheriff?” Geoff inquired. The point had puzzled him.

“No reason at all—though it’s the least of our worries. Gad, if only he’d committed suicide!”

“I understand the conviction. The footprints?”

“The footprints. Gad Almighty, the footprints! Explain that and Nordharbor’ll give ya a parade, I’m bettin’. How can a man be shot (at close-range, mind ya—see the powder burns round the hole in the shoulder?) in the middle of a beach, in full view of a dozen people, with only his footprints around, and nobody sees the fella that did it?”

For that was what had happened. Thurlow had walked out on to a sandbar, watched by the sardines mentioned before. Some carefully, some askance, but all saw him. And two shots rang out on a hot summer afternoon, and the man was dead, shot in the shoulder and the back. Alone on a sandbar, with only his footprints leading up to him. Weird? Unreal. The sort of thing you’d expect of a Lewis Carroll phantasmagoria, or—if you have the tastes that you probably have, dear reader—a detective story of the impossible sort.

The tide was coming in.

“I suppose the water couldn’t have washed away any footprints?” Mr. Lord asked, at this point clutching at straws (for he saw no way it could have happened either).

“No, siree,” said Sheriff Gibbons. “He was in the middle of the shoal, as nice as you could get, and there woulda been something around him. Nothin’. Mr. Lord, there wasn’t nobody here, I’m tellin’ ya. Not a single living soul came to this barge exceptin’ the man himself. Ghosts, goblins—there’s talk of an old Indian legend aroundabout these parts…”

“An awfully able one who can fire a modern gun,” Geoff said, smiling. “No, Sheriff, there’s a human side to this puzzle. Have you ever read detective stories?”

“Ah,” said the Sheriff, cocking his head to one side. “I thought it’d get to that. Ya write ’em, don’t ya? That’s why I called ya up when I heard ya was in town—seems like a detective-story sort of crime, if y’know what I mean…”

Evil Under the Sun 1982

“Do I ever. Body, shot at close range, found on otherwise unmarked sand, whole house of suspects… I suppose a boat couldn’t have come up nearby and someone could have fired from that?”

“Woulda got caught up on the reef,” the sheriff pointed out, “and ’course somebody woulda seen it.”

“Silly notion, anyway—sorry,” said Mr. Lord. “And the first person to find the body?”

“Hm, yes, siree, we thought of that. Lots o’ people on the beach saw him fall; we had a few different calls in to the precinct about the case. But nearly everyone was sayin’ no one approached the body till my men and I got here.”

“Well: back to the house of suspects, then—the Arning house, to be exact. His son?”

Gibbons gave the OK to the deputies standing nearby to take the body away; there was no evidence to be found on the bar, he and Geoff had determined (the gun? Probably thrown into the ocean by an invisible killer, they reasoned); and, even if there were, the water would soon sweep it away anyway.

“His son, yup,” he said. “And his housekeeper and the boy doin’ work for him. Gad knows they’ve all got a reason for it, but then I’ll bet ya half the town does. We can’t quite narrow it down, can we?”

“Maybe we can,” said Mr. Lord. “Listen here, Sheriff, there’s a way someone could have killed Thurlow without ever being on the sandbank. There’s an old solution in detective fiction…”

The house creaked, as if it were about to give up its ghost and sink into the sea at last, and folks had long said Mrs. Arning would go with it—prob’ly one of her reasons for letting it for so little, the Sheriff told Geoff as they walked up the beach to the estate. Geoff looked up at the balcony and recalled how many times Mrs. Arning—white-haired, tall and noble, with the accent and bearing of near-royalty—sat there, overlooking the waves (her late husband’s true love, people had gossiped), being waited on by the obsequious Billy, a cheerful lad of about 19. Billy stayed on after Mrs. Arning left—left the house, left the town, handled the business details through a lawyer—and did various odds and ends for Thurlow.

“His motive,” the Sheriff laughed unhappily.

The housekeeper was about fifty—a dumpy woman with stringy hair and the complexion of glue. Mrs. Ball, her name was (though no one had seen Mr. Ball in many years)—Edith Ball, she of the Judith Anderson face and voice. She was brought in from New York, and there had been talk (Geoff remembered, and told the sheriff) years ago, of marriage between her and her employer. All scuttled when said employer married Beryl Innes.

“Her motive,” said Geoffrey Lord.

And the son, August: a grown man with the brain of a child, who had hated his stepmother and was delighted when his father threw her out. Not that he liked his father any more, but then he rarely bothered his father and his father rarely bothered him. His stepmother, however, had longed for August to leave his room, to leave his father’s house, to grow up and live and… Not for the Thurlows, this lifestyle. Miss Paula Vale would have said that they were not a very nice family.


It was August who blocked the doorway when Geoff and the Sheriff had tried to enter.

“The sheriff?” he said. “You’ve come about the woman?”

“We’ve come about your father’s death,” Sheriff Gibbons said sharply.

But Mr. Lord said, “Woman?”

August Thurlow sighed. “Of course, the woman. The old woman who owns this house.”

“Mrs. Arning? But she’s…”

“I know that. But she was here.” He stamped his foot as if about to throw a temper tantrum. “She bothered me, going through all the rooms. I’d like to have her arrested.”

“Huh.” The sheriff coughed. “For what charge, exactly? Enterin’ her own house?”

The housekeeper’s entrance interrupted August Thurlow’s outburst of a reply. “Sheriff Gibbons? Yes, one of your men talked to me on the telephone. I understand you wished for a statement of our whereabouts?”

“That would be appreciated, ma’am.”

“Indeed. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Thurlow, Mr. Cummings, and I all heard the shots—”

(“‘Mr. Cummings’?”

“Billy,” the Sheriff explained.)

“—at about 1:18, is that correct, sir?”

This to August.

“I guess,” that personage sulked.

“Yes, sir.”

“That fits in with what the coroner said,” Gibbons whispered to Geoff.

“Now, as for where everyone was…”

“One moment,” Geoff interposed. “Mrs. Ball, do you know where everyone was before you heard the shots?”

“Before? I don’t know…” She knew exact whereabouts when she heard the shots fired—of course she did. Mrs. Ball, in her ever-knowing way, was expectant and ready for that.

“About 10 to 20 minutes before. Apologies for the question, but as I was just saying to the sheriff—well, it’s connected to our theory on how the crime has been committed.”

“Let me think, sir,” said the eternally unruffled woman, now ruffled and unaware how to react to it. “Mr. Cummings was here, with me—before he went up to the roof to bring up Mr. Thurlow’s golf clubs, sir. I was explaining how, under Mr. Thurlow—the late Mr. Thurlow—one could not act as one acted in Mrs. Arning’s day… I don’t know about Mr. Thurlow.”

“I was in the game room, playing with the pool balls—nothing murderous, Sheriff. But I do have an alibi for the time of… Anyway, how about that woman? She probably murdered Father—everyone hated Father.”

“Did you?” said Mr. Geoffrey Lord, who already knew the answer to the question.

Billy Cummings was the last to arrive. Yes, he had been up on the roof when he heard the shots; yes, he knew why the Sheriff and Geoff were there; and…

“You knew the woman?” said August Thurlow.

“Of course,” said Billy, surprised. “I thought everyone knew. It was Mrs. Arning—she explained how she wished to see her old home. Of course I took her through the rooms–she was gone before we heard the shots, you know–and…”

“My God,” said Mr. Lord, suddenly. “What a fool I’ve been. Of course—yes. That’s the only way it could have been done. Billy, one thing: did she explain why she wished to see everything?”

“I—I think she’s sick, sir: I mean, in the sense that I doubt she has long to…”

“That’s it,” the great man murmured. “Fool that I am.” He paused again. “Sheriff, if the question is one of arrest…”

Who killed George Thurlow?

How could the murder have been committed?


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