“The Butler Did It!”

Here’s another story from the archives, this time solved by the nameless policeman narrator, with a cameo by a series sleuth of mine, Geoffrey Lord. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

“The Butler Did It!”

 

It was just about last year at this time—September, right before summer officially ends—that I was sitting in my office, with scarcely a care in the world (so it always seems in retrospect), when Jack McDonald walked in and spat out, “Murder. Real bad, real confusing, real—”

“Well, that’s they pay us for, right, Jack?”

“But—! Perhaps I’m just not makin’ myself clear, sir.” McDonald’s a good guy, and a good cop, but he’s got an awful habit of never saying what he means.

“OK,” I said, “begin at the beginning. Call just came in?”

“Right.” It looked like he was about to break out in a cold sweat. “And you’re gonna either laugh like a hyena or blanch like a ghost.”
“Try me.”

“Murder. The first responders are there now. Now, it seems the guy left a clue to the killer. He said, ‘The butler did it!’”

I stared at him like he was nuts; and, when I saw he was serious, I thought I was going to start laughing hysterically. “The butler did it!” Gee, I didn’t think even the most traditional detective stories used that old cliché anymore.

“That’s not the funny part, sir.”

I looked at him straight in the eye. “OK?”

“We just got the call in, like I said. You know where they were calling from—where he was killed? The victim whose dying clue was ‘the butler did it,’” said Sgt. John McDonald, speaking calmly to his superior officer, “was a butler, killed at a butlers’ convention.”

We do not joke about a murder case, just as a matter of course. God! murder is a serious business, mister, a crime and a sin; a human life has been taken. And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that we were cracking up the whole way to the butlers’ convention. Let’s get a few things straight: I’ve been working for the NYPD for about 30 years—enough time to be made a lieutenant, to have gotten a chance to see just about everything a guy can see in this job—and I’ve never heard of anything as screwy as this. A butlers’ convention? Heck, are there even any butlers still around nowadays?

Apparently there are, to answer my own question, enough to organize a convention once a year at the Waldorf Astoria. The Noble Union of Butlers, Valets, and General Factotums—I’m serious; they’ve unionized—hosts it, a party for the few butlers left in New York, and guess who “buttles” it? That’s right—the butlers’ butlers! Those strapping, up-and-coming lads who want to be butlers—yeah, like they’re in abundance—train for the job by buttling the butlers’ convention. As I say—screwiest thing I’ve ever heard. The Waldorf, when McDonald and I arrived, was stuffed to the brim with a bunch of the human-sized penguins, tailored butler-outfits, hair parted crisply in the middle like Jeeves-substitutes, just about every shape and size you can think of. There were tall butlers, short butlers, thin butlers, fat butlers, butlers who looked drunk, drunks who looked like butlers, butlers who looked like they weren’t actually butlers but wealthy college kids on a sociology experiment, even female butlers (never let it be said that butlers oppose your run-of-the-mill “gender equality”). I see police uniforms every day; I get sick and tired of seeing police uniforms; and let me tell you that after all the black-and-white I was more relieved at seeing a blue police uniform at that moment than seeing a million dollars fall out of the sky or the Lord Himself start speaking to Moses.

“OK, Schwartz,” I told the uniformed man, “what’s up?”

Schwartz saw me and broke out in laughter too. You’ve got to forgive us, but sending cops to butlers’ conventions tends to do that.

“OK,” I growled, “now that we’ve got that out of the way, what’s the story? And have you kept the newspapers away? Answer the more important question first—that’s the second one.”
“Newspapers OK so far,” Schwartz responded, exorcising himself of the giggles. “Our victim is one Giles A. Benson, according to the driver’s license in his pocket.”

“Been able to find family, next-of-kin, anything?”

“Still searching, sir.”

“OK, keep on it. CSI team here yet?”

“Just finished up in here.”

I was trying to keep my dignity, so I glanced at the corpse. His hair was parted on the left side, his red, fat face was all puffed-up like he hadn’t been breathing (well, he wasn’t now), his body was paunchy and well fed (there’s a nice euphemism for you). But that wasn’t the stupid thing. He was wearing a far-too-small butler’s outfit and looked absolutely hilarious in it.

Schwartz laughed again. “Pretty silly, ain’t it? How the heck does life throw this stuff at us?”

“Cause of death?”

“Strangulation, as you can see. Probably with a cord or something.”

I said, “Who found the body?”

“The president of the butlers’ union—hey, you can’t blame me for laughing if you’re doing it too, chief!—a guy named William Hemming.”

Hemming was tall and lean, with gray eyes and graying hair. He looked a bit like an overgrown scarecrow, though without the gawkiness.

“OK, let’s talk turkey,” I said, trying to sound like a movie cop—hey, sometimes it works with ’em! “Your name Hemming?”

“Yes, sir.”

A distinguished, patrician voice—not English, per se, but that kind of old-time American accent you hear in movies.

“Well, what happened, Mr. Hemming?”

“Hmm,” Hemming said. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he started every sentence with “hmm” and ending it with “sir.”) “It was most unfortunate, Inspector—quite unsuspected. Why anyone should wish to strangle poor Mr. Benson is beyond me.”

“Uh-huh.” Well, I knew this guy wouldn’t get me anywhere faster. Then something dawned on me. “Wait a sec, Hemming. I never said anything about Benson’s being strangled.”

You know, in detective stories, the criminal turns red in the face at a mistake like this and admits the whole crime. “Where were you when Joe was killed?” “In the bar when he was shot, Inspector.” “I never said he was shot!” By the way, it’s a horrible clue. If you ever write a detective story, don’t use it. Nor is it true to life, as I know now from experience. Either Hemming was not a criminal, or he just plain thought I was stupid. Or both.

He said, in words, “Inspector, I believe you know already that I discovered the body.” He said, in implications, “Give me credit for having a brain, mister.”

“Right,” I said winningly, trying (and failing) not to show that I was riled in any way. “So—tell us about this Benson. His likes, dislikes, etc.?”

“Hmm,” Hemming said again. I already realized I couldn’t stand Hemming. “Unfortunately, Inspector, there’s very little that I can tell you about Mr. Benson. Few, if any, of the members knew the gentlemen. He registered for our convention at the last moment; I believe he explained at what residence he was employed, information that may be difficult for me to find in our files, but unfortunately little more.”

“First of all, Hemming,” I snorted, “I’m not an ‘inspector,’ I’m a lieutenant. This ain’t Scotland Yard, just so you know. But what about finding the body? How’d that happen?”

“Ah.” Hey, at least it wasn’t “hmm.” “Well, Lieutenant, I had just come from one of the conference-rooms—where our main dinners are served, you understand. As this year’s president, it is my responsibility to oversee some of our less experienced butlers, valets, and general factotums—three in particular, who had not been doing as well in their studies.” (Studies!) “They meet on the other side of the hotel—so I passed through this smaller conference-room, where I found, lying there, the unfortunate Mr. Benson. I ran for assistance and found Mr. O’Connor, the hotel manager, and our vice-president, Phillips. They rushed in while I alerted the police, and that is when I believe Mr. Benson stated his final phrase.”

Seeing, once again, that I could get nothing out of Hemming, and feeling that I’d go crazy if I had to look at yet another butler, I turned to the hotel workers. I brought MacDonald with me to take notes and give me his thoughts. He’s pretty good at seeing an answer to things sometimes. The manager was a young guy, Thomas O’Connor, with glasses and asthma. (I knew the latter because he was nervous and kept using an inhaler.) He wore a gray suit and seemed like he wanted to feel important, high-and-mighty. It didn’t help that he looked like he’d just gotten out of high school.

“What do you know about this Giles Benson, Mr. O’Connor?”

“Yeah. Right, Lieutenant—right. I was on duty last night, but it was one of our check-in staff who checked Mr. Benson in, of course. You know, the Waldorf is proud to have one of the finest check-in services—”

“He checked in last night?”

“Right. I noticed him particularly because he hadn’t arrived with the majority of the other—er—convention participants.”

“Late?”

“Yeah. Uh—right, Lieutenant.”

“Take a note of that,” I murmured to McDonald. “Find out what he’d been doing before he got here. OK, go on, Mr. O’Connor.”

“This morning, after Mr. Hemming found the body, Mr. Philips and I entered—where we heard, almost immediately, ‘the butler did it!’ There’s not all that much more to tell, Lieutenant. None of the hotel staff had anything to do with Mr. Benson (I know nothing about him, to say the least)—besides the fact that housekeeping made his bed this morning. I can call the housekeeping department, of course.”

“And we’re gonna have to see his room. OK, thanks.”

Next on the list? Back to the butlers! Three of them, to be specific—the three of the butlers-in-training who hadn’t been doing as well with their “studies.” Their names? There was a Thompson, a Reilly, and a girl named Barbara Green. Their testimony was pretty much agreed on all particulars. They hadn’t anything to do with the deceased, to be quite honest. Yes, they’d seen him, all right. He was there, dressed in a gray suit, when the president was sworn in (oh, the drama) and given the ceremonial sash of office. Yes, Hemming had been going to see them on the morning of the murder, bringing a new outfit for Thompson. My pressing question for them had nothing to do with the murder, of course, and I didn’t ask it. It was simply “Why in the world would you—especially you, Miss Green—ever want to be butlers?”

Housekeeping, in the form of Mrs. Gonzalez, let me into room 803, but the room furnished few details for the investigation. In fact, it seemed as if Benson hadn’t brought anything with him, so spartan had he left his hotel room. MacDonald said he’d have the CSI team fingerprint the place, but I didn’t have much hope. I also checked out Hemming’s room, packed to the brim with butlers’ outfits; the vice president’s room, packed with books (voracious reader?); and the three trainees’ rooms, which were more akin to Benson’s in the light furnishing.

Speaking of the vice president, George Philips, the butler (butler again! The breed were going to give me nightmares) who had heard the dying words, was a middle-aged man who looked a little bit like Benson but was a great deal thinner. I had no niceties or pleasantries; my introduction was—

“So, what about these words, Philips?”

He grinned something of a cruel smile. “Words, Inspector—?”

“Lieutenant.”

That kind of took him off his high horse already. “Ah, lieutenant. Well, I entered the room after Hemming, our president [he sort of spit out the word—I sensed that he thought he should be president, or something like that], came running, saying that Benson had been killed. Now, I hadn’t the foggiest notion who Benson was at the time—he certainly did not mix much with the other butlers—but I checked in the room anyway. Even before I entered, he screamed, ‘The butler did it!’”

“‘The butler did it,’” I repeated. “Gee, how that really helps us. Wait! You were in the room when he said, weren’t you?”

“Yes, as I just explained. I—”

“Uh-huh.”

Thoughts were coming together. After all, Benson had to have had a specific butler in mind at a butlers’ convention…

“One more thing,” I murmured. “You wanted the president spot for yourself? Is that it? You…”

“Ah, I see you catch on quickly, Lieutenant. No, it’s not quite that, you understand. Let me see if I can explain this as a non-servant [amazing how that could sound like snobbery] would understand it: Hemming is a valet. I am a butler. The difference is large. The difference is…”

I didn’t care much about the difference. I finished the interview, sent McDonald back to the precinct with the CSI team, told Schwartz to try and find anyone who’d seen anything in the area, and headed swiftly over to Sardi’s. This last item wasn’t as incongruous as it sounds. For, under his own caricature, the man I had come to see was teaching the barman how to mix drinks. Typical.

“The problem is,” Geoffrey Lord was saying, the shaker in his hand and the bartender watching closely, “we’ve got to distinguish between real cocktails and just sugary drinks.”

“Right,” the bartender said.

“So I always recommend British vodka for vodka martinis, you understand. Funny how these things get phased out. I…”

“Hey, Geoff,” I told him, walking up to the bar.

He turned to me, confused for a minute, and then got a great big smile on his face. “And how’s the NYPD treatin’ you, Lieutenant?” He turned back to the bartender—“We’ll finish this up in a little while, OK, Joe?”—and then back to me. “A drink or anything? Joe’s one of the best in the country, and I should know after the massive cross-country trip…”

“Yeah, why’d you ever do that?”

“I thought I’d go crazy in Tinseltown, dealing with F.Z. Weinberg and his band of flying monkeys, so I needed the road trip even if just to clear my head. But what’s up?”

I told him about the case—everything I just explained. He laughed in all the right places, and I thought he’d start chortling so hard the restaurant would cave in. When I finally finished, he took a deep breath, grabbed a napkin from the table and a pen from his pocket, and wrote a few words down.

OK. Wow, boy-o, this is the nuttiest case I’ve ever heard of! Do you have any ideas?”

I told him my ideas. He nodded and showed me what he’d written.

“All right,” I said, “so we’re on the same page—literally here. I was just wondering if you had any ideas as to how we’d convict, and… Damn it!”

Geoff looked at me bemused. “What’s wrong?”

I said, “Your clue #3. I never saw it, but it’s been staring me in the face the whole time… That’s the way to convict!”

“I don’t know,” Geoff said, scratching his neck; “the whole thing could be wildly wrong…”

“…but if we’re both thinking the same thing I doubt it, Geoff. Do you think you could spare me a few hours tonight?”

His eyes dropped almost shamefacedly. “I feel terrible for saying no to a friend in need, but tonight I’m doing my lecture series on ‘detective stories in the modern world.’ I…”

“No worries,” I said, rising. “Thanks a million, Geoff. Tonight I’ll go and make the arrest of…”

 

 

 

 

Challenge to the Reader:

 

Now it’s your turn, dear reader. The identity of the murderer is obvious, if you look hard enough. Your questions: who committed the crime? How did our friend the Lieutenant know? And what did Giles Benson mean by saying “the butler did it”? Think you’ve got it? Let’s find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Waldorf-Astoria, that night, I ascended the stairs of the butlers’ convention main stage, the meeting having just been called to order, and announced that I knew the identity of the murderer. I received gasps from the assembled penguin-people and angry questioning from president and vice president of the illustrious union.

“It wasn’t actually all that difficult,” I said into the microphone, “but then it never is in retrospect. There were about five clues that made the identity of the murderer obvious and explained the dying message. I’m going to sound like a friend of mine, Mr. Geoffrey Lord, but, hey, the guy’s speech patterns sometimes rub off on me:

“1. The Clue of the Victim’s Appearance

“2. The Clue of the Victim’s Non-appearance

“3. The Clue of the President’s Sash

“4. The Clue of Proper Decorum

“5. The Clue of the Proper Title.

“Got it?”

“My dear inspector,” Hemming drawled, “I doubt that anyone could understand the elucidation of the crime after your vague hints.”

“But you would, Mr. Hemming,” I said, smiling at him, “because you’re the murderer.”

 

It shut him up all well and proper for a moment, for which I was immensely thankful. I always find it very relieving when someone I despise ends up being the villain.

“Let’s start from the beginning, though, because the identity of the murderer is not the real surprise in this business.

“1. The Clue of the Victim’s Appearance. One of the things I was struck by, when I began this crazy case, was the diversity of butlers. But there was one thing they all had in common—they were all dressed in their butler uniforms.[1] Well, why is that so interesting? Because the victim wasn’t wearing his.”

“But he was!” Hemming exploded.

“As much as I’d like this valet to be the murderer,” Philips murmured, “I do have to agree. He was wearing his uniform. He…”

“No, he wasn’t,” I put in quickly. “Think back to the corpse. His butler’s outfit was far too small for him.[2] That makes no sense, especially as every other butler here wore a tailored uniform. It was too small for him: not just a little too small, but far too small. Let’s think of what else we have here? We have a stout—no, fat—man, with hair parted on the left. Yes, there are fat butlers, but not many of them (because that’s generally a sign of wealth, to afford such food, not of domestic service)—and I doubt that any butler, especially one who’s a member of this—er—‘noble order,’ would have his hair parted on the left side.[3] I noticed at the beginning that every other butler had his hair parted in the middle,[4] à la Wodehouse’s Jeeves.

“2. The Clue of the Victim’s Non-appearance. Benson didn’t arrive with any of the other participants. O’Connor, the manager, told us that.[5] You yourself, Hemming, told us none of the other butlers really knew him.[6] In fact, Henning, you’re the only person who did know him. Philips didn’t,[7] and neither did Messrs. Thompson and Reilly and Miss Green.[8]

“There’s another meaning to ‘non-appearance,’ though. Stop thinking of what Benson did have. What didn’t he have in that spartan room of his? Any other butlers’ uniforms. But who did have a large number of butlers’ uniforms? None other than William Hemming.[9]

“I’m going to leave aside the clue of the presidential sash just for the time being. I think you’ll understand why in a moment.

“4. The Clue of the Proper Decorum. Hemming, we may suppose, is a perfect butler, with proper decorum. (Or—yes, Philips!—valet.) We’ve seen it. As a perfect butler, he calls his fellow butlers by their last names—Philips, Thompson, Reilly. He calls others by their title—‘lieutenant,’ ‘mister.’ Yet he is wildly demure—to Benson! The whole time I was interviewing him, it was always ‘Mr. Benson.’[10] Now, this isn’t a major point, but it’s excellent substantiation.

“5. The Clue of the Proper Title. Hemming is a valet, not a butler, as Philips has told us again and again. Yet, when Benson screamed ‘the butler did it!’ he could be referring to one person only—Hemming. Why? Both Philips and O’Connor say the scream came immediately[11]—as Philips put it, before he’d even entered the room.[12] Why would he have done this? Not to accuse them—they were coming into the room; he could have just said, ‘You did it!’ But, no, he said ‘the butler did it!’ Which butler? Obviously the one who had just been in the room. But Hemming’s not a butler—I know, Mr. Philips! In that case, Benson did not scream out the proper title. He referred to a valet as a butler. Ergo: he was not aware of Hemming’s proper title. Ergo: he was not a member of the butlers’ convention.

“When put together with the previous clues, we can come to only one conclusion.

“Q.E.D.: Giles Benson was not a butler.”

Pause while this settled in.

“It should really surprise no one. Who was the only person who said that Benson was a butler? Hemming, of course.[13] Benson obviously wasn’t a butler. Therefore: Hemming wasn’t telling the truth.

“But was Hemming the murderer? Probably, due to the clue of the proper title. But let’s make sure. Mr. Hemming, may I ask a favor? That sash you’re wearing—the presidential sash of the Butlers’ Union. May I see it?”

That’s what finished him, of course. He admitted the whole thing. Benson had been a moneylender; he had tracked Hemming down to the butlers’ convention, checked in to find him and get his money back. That was when Hemming had dreamt up the whole plan, and executed it beautifully. Geoffrey Lord wrote me a letter about it, actually, a little while later:

“…The cleverness of Hemming’s plot, of course, depended on the fact that one supposes that a fellow found in a butler’s uniform is a butler. I first started thinking in that direction because he was bringing clean clothing for Thompson on the morning of the murder.[14]I thought, Whatever happened to that clean clothing? If you look at it in the right way, it had to be what was used to redress Benson and therefore make him look like a butler. It did help that Benson had a ‘butler-sounding name,’ though that was sheer chance, amusingly enough. I knew that if he were the murderer the presidential sash was too good a weapon for him to pass up.[15] It was right there, after all—useful for strangulation. There were ways he could have got off, of course, but it seemed logical that he’d confess, and he did. An interesting and unusual case—and absolutely hilarious. You know, they’re going to have to change the old cliché. Now it will have to be ‘the valet did it!’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] p. 2.

[2] p. 3.

[3] p. 3.

[4] p. 2.

[5] p. 6.

[6] p. 5.

[7] p. 7.

[8] p. 6

[9] p. 7.

[10] pp. 4-5.

[11] p. 6.

[12] p. 7.

[13] p. 5.

[14] p. 6.

[15] p. 6.

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Top 10 Agatha Christie Books

This blog is threatening to become a nightmare of lists, but here goes: my top ten Agatha Christie novels. Now, this is not going to be that a list of that vague and nebulous term “the best,” with a thousand different judgments on what “the best” means, but just my personal, subjective favorites. I tend to like detective-stories that combine the orthodox detective puzzle (clues, alibis, false solutions) with adroit characterizations and skilled writing. Of course, there are exceptions (as with everything); if the puzzle is particularly, overwhelmingly ingenious and the characterization flat, I may give it a pass (not if it’s boring, though–that is the one cardinal sin, to paraphrase Carr); if the characters are particularly good and the puzzle lacking (e.g., the Nero Wolfe books, or Christie’s The Hollow), I may also give it a pass (although The Hollow does not make this list). I will admit that this list is disproportionately tilted in favor of the Poirots; I find Christie’s books about him to be, on the whole, better than the Marples. I also enjoy a number of AC’s non-series books, and you’ll see several of those on here as well.

10. The A.B.C. Murders (1936): marvelous, one of her smartest jobs, with an excellent manhunt for a mad (or apparently mad) murderer. The identity of said murderer is breathtakingly brilliant, with incredible misdirection. If Hastings, in one of his last appearances, if more than a bit annoying in his thickheadedness, the Alexander Bonaparte Cust parts more than make up for it. The clues, let me say, are first-class. A classic.

9. Murder on the Orient Express (1934): her most famous, probably due to the movie, which is fun but slow-moving for long stretches. The book, mercifully, is far better; the interviews actually increase the tension of being stuck on the snowbound train with a murderer who stabbed a loathsome American gangster in his locked cabin. The solution may be far-fetched, but (Raymond Chandler notwithstanding) we are too busy marveling at it to worry. And pure magic is evoked by one of the simplest lines in all Christiedom: “The Orient Express had started on its three-days’ journey across Europe.”

8. Murder is Easy (1939): though little-known, this is a masterful tale of witchcraft in a small town, sort of St. Mary Mead turned on its head, with detection by ex-policeman Luke Fitzwilliam, Supt. Battle, and a number of amateurs. The characters are excellent and the detection delightful; the book becomes genuinely unnerving at the end, akin to Carr; and the identity of the murderer is one of Christie’s best surprises. Unfortunately, what keeps this book from the top 5 is the lack of clues; there is no single clue that will allow the reader to deduce the villain; but said reader may be having too much fun to complain.

7. A Murder is Announced (1950): my only Marple on the list, but it’s probably the best of the Marples, with an excellent plot, a fast-moving story, and good characterization. The murderer announces his crime in the local paper, leading to an excellent why problem; indeed, the revelation of the motive may be even more ingenious than the revelation of the murderer. One of Christie’s best.

6. Endless Night (1967): a shocker, to such an extent that the reader may actually be angry upon finishing the book. It is without a doubt the darkest and most sinister book she ever wrote, prefiguring, in fact, some of Ruth Rendell. The characterization is superb, and the plot (borrowing in part from her Marple short “The Case of the Caretaker”) pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet and leaves him reeling. Brilliant. As Nick Fuller realized, note similarities to Death on the Nile.

5. Five Little Pigs (1943): the first and best of the “murder-in-retrospect” theme, one of Christie’s favorite plots. Along with The Hollow (1946), this book has Christie’s greatest characterization, but the detective story is not forgotten: the cluing is ingenious, and the identity of the murderer is a brilliant shock. A deep, fascinating book, which should be required reading for all of AC’s detractors.

4. The Pale Horse (1961): one of her best, fun and spooky, with witchcraft right around the corner. I suspect this is AC’s tribute to Carr (she was thinking of her fellow detective-writers around this time, as we know from 1963’s The Clocks), just as One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) seems her tribute to H.C. Bailey. The hero-narrator, the heroine involved in the mystery, the witchcraft background, the apparent impossibility of the crimes–these all seem Carrian, albeit filtered through Christie’s own style and sensibilities. The method is brilliant, and the murderer’s identity is diabolically clever.  Some readers may long for Poirot, but I felt the team of Insp. Lejeune and amateur Mark Easterbrook more than make up for his nonappearance here.

3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): her first masterpiece, maybe still her most daring (or most foolish, depending on how you look at it) solution. There are a number of likable characters, ranging from narrator James Sheppard and his sister Caroline (the latter a proto-Miss Marple) to the Ackroyds and Capt. Paton and the rest of them, and Christie fools us with our presumptions about detective stories. Some revisionists (and Robert Barnard) consider this only a mediocre and traditional Christie, but can anyone deny the sheer shock value of the twist, her most surprising? And, even considered apart from that twist, no one can compete with the masterful juggling of times and alibis.

2. Ten Little Niggers/Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None (1939): my first Christie–wow. The characterization is brilliant, the story is beautifully told and captivating, and the murderer’s plot is ingenious. This is a story of human beings trapped alone on an island with their consciences and their emotions, all of them murderers and one of them the murderer–a mad agent of perhaps divine judgment. Far, far better than any of the movies based on it; the end chapters, before the murderer’s confession, are tenser than almost anything Christie ever did, with the possible exception of Endless Night, and marvelously written. Read it.

1.   Death on the Nile (1937): “What can one say about perfection itself?” Nick Fuller asks rhetorically in his review. Well, what can one say that hasn’t already been said? It may well be the best detective story of ’em all, with undoubtedly the greatest alibi of ’em all–so simple, so smooth, and yet so undetectable until Poirot reveals all. The plot and characters are convincing and memorable. Though all of the characters are well-drawn, the plot hinges around the triangle, one of Christie’s favorite themes, and this is her best use of it. We are shocked by our preconceptions–not about detective stories, as with Roger Ackroyd (or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), but about human relationships. Her masterpiece.

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“Murder,” She Spelled Out Real Plain

Of the large number of TV detective shows that longtime friends and collaborators William Link and Richard Levinson created, Ellery Queen (1975-1976) and Columbo (1968-1978; 1989-2003) seem (to me) to be the best. Columbo, of course, is the (far) longer running and the better known–and, I think I may say with impunity, the best of the lot. Fiendishly clever, ably twisting detective-story conventions to go with an R. Austin Freeman-style “howcatchem” rather than an Agatha Christie-style “whodunit,” and anchored by a brilliant performance from the late, great Peter Falk, Columbo is probably the greatest detective show ever to hit the airways. Best episodes? Oh, there are so many… “Death Lends a Hand,” “Double Shock,” “By Dawn’s Early Light,” “Forgotten Lady,” “Now You See Him…,” “Last Salute to the Commodore” (if only for the change in formula), “Murder under Glass,” the much later “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” and especially Season 2’s brilliant “A Stitch in Crime” all stand out in my mind. If the viewer insisted on watching an old-fashioned whodunit, however, I would recommend Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton (Timothy’s father) as Ellery and David Wayne as Insp. Richard Queen. It doesn’t possess the deeper characterization or a singularly exemplary performance like Columbo has, but it’s a fun, likeable show with clever plots and good acting. It’s probably the best whodunit we’ve seen on screen, probably because Messrs. Levinson and Link, and all of the writers who worked on Ellery Queen, knew how to write whodunits, whereas most TV detective writers know how to write dramas. Best episodes? Hm… Most of the episodes starring rival sleuth Simon Brimmer, played as a Philo Vance-esque know-it-all by the inimitable John Hillerman, are good and double-solutioned, as Simon produces an inevitably incorrect answer before Ellery reveals the real story–an old Queenian trope. But I would say the following are the best episodes: “The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap,” “The Adventure of the Chinese Dog” (set in Wrightsville, even if it’s nothing close to the small town of the novels), “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” (only episode based on an original EQ story), “The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario,” “The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman,” and, perhaps cleverest, “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep.”

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Columbo                                                                                                      Ellery and Insp. Queen

Conspicuously missing from the above is Levinson and Link’s most famous detective show–the long-running, much-parodied, and very well-known Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), which they co-created with Columbo writer Peter S. Fischer. Starring stage and screen actress Angela Lansbury, excellent in just about everything she has ever done, Murder, She Wrote is what more than one critic has disparagingly called “a grandma show.” Perhaps the nomenclature is not entirely inappropriate: it’s a program about a middle-aged mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher (Lansbury), who ends up solving real-life murders wherever she goes. Levinson and Link obviously based the concept on Ellery Queen, as Ellery is also a mystery writer who goes around solving real-life mysteries, though EQ always had more verisimilitude in this respect, as his father was a police inspector, whereas Mrs. Fletcher is a total amateur!

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Why do people love Murder, She Wrote so much? And love, too, is the right word, something quite different from mere like. Much of it, I suppose, is due to the charm of Lansbury’s personality. She is indeed charming as Mrs. Fletcher, and she prevents the character from being the weird, prying busybody that she would otherwise become. In fact, Fletcher is a thinly-sketched character, but Lansbury’s playing suggests untold depths and layers, making Mrs. F into a real person that you or I could very well know. Lansbury, like Peter Falk above, shines above an otherwise lousy episode by the sheer force of her personality. Also, there’s a quaintness to the little Maine village of Cabot Cove, whence Fletcher hails, and which is peopled by such typical New Englanders as friendly sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) and cranky doctor Seth Hazlitt (William Windom). We genuinely like these people. And yet…

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Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher

Sorry, MSW fans, but on the whole I’ll have to agree with the show’s critics. So many episodes tend to be weakly scripted, weakly directed, and weakly plotted. Compared to the great writing of Columbo or the great plotting and authentic 40s atmosphere of Ellery QueenMSW just seems to fall flat. People just seem to like the idea of “little old lady gets involved in solving murders–go women!” Sorry, but that ain’t exactly my ideal type of entertainment. When I do enjoy an episode, I feel like it’s a “guilty pleasure”–not a feeling I get from either Columbo or EQ. And, all too often, I don’t enjoy an episode even if I do enjoy Lansbury’s performance. It seems far too frequently like this delightful parody:

Despite the above, there are several Murder, She Wrote episodes that are a cut above the rest. In some of the below cases, several critics believe that old, un-produced Ellery Queen scripts were rewritten to work for MSW. Certainly such excellent episodes as “Murder Takes the Bus” and “We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” seem like they could have been EQs. And then I shall point out the obvious EQ take-off. So, without further ado, and in no especial order, here is my list of best Murder, She Wrote episodes:

N.B.: Caveat lector. I have not seen all Murder, She Wrote episodes and, in fact, have no desire to do so. It was a long running show, and I do have better things to do with my time. So the reader may have his own favorites that I haven’t yet seen; these are just the best, in my opinion, of what I have seen thus far. Also, MSW fans should remember that I am judging on mystery-related criteria, as this is a mystery blog. OK? Good? Let’s proceed.

*”We’re Off to Kill the Wizard,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Peter S. Fischer and Gerald K. Siegal–Season 1, Episode 7: Absolutely the show’s first classic, and one of its best. It’s a locked-room mystery, endearing itself to mystery buffs already, with a very unlikeable suspect in theme park owner James Coco. While the identity of the killer is easy to guess, the locked-room is a humdinger, though the same application previously appeared in Christianna Brand’s “Murder Game” (a.k.a. “The Gemminy Cricket Case,” 1968), and something like it was, I believe, mentioned in Dr. Fell’s locked-room lecture. No matter. It’s an ingenious and eminently believable locked room puzzle, equally ingeniously unravelled by Mrs. Fletcher. A good, solid job.

*”Murder Takes the Bus,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Mary Ann Kasica and Michael Scheff–Season 1, Episode 18: A delight of an episode, despite the awful and cliched title, and probably the highlight of the series, mystery-wise. If Mrs. F were like this all the time, there’d be no reason to carp, for she brilliantly unravels the tangled skein behind the murder of a bus passenger, possibly by the driver, and uncovers the truth with the (limited) help of Sheriff Tupper (“out of my jurisdiction,” indeed!) as well as of several clues (of which, unfortunately, this show generally tends to have a dearth). The (SPOILER) double bluff (END SPOILER), while old hat to mystery fans, is brilliantly used and shows once again why this Christiean gimmick is so good. Even better is the supporting cast of suspects, including Insp. Queen himself, David Wayne, and the multiple solutions they draw up against themselves–someone has obviously been reading either Ellery Queen or Christianna Brand!

*”Trial by Error,” directed by Seymour Robbie, written by Paul Savage and Scott Shepherd–Season 2, Episode 13: Wow! I wrote “…the highlight of the series, mystery-wise” for “Murder Takes the Bus” because that episode seemed like an otherwise typical MSW episode. “Trial by Error,” on the other hand, is so different that I would be completely unsurprised if it were written for another show and the writers just shoehorned Mrs. F in for this one. It’s a Twelve Angry Men parody, with Jessica Fletcher as the foreman (or forewoman) of a jury hearing the case of a man who claims he shot his lover’s husband in self-defense. Brilliantly done, with flashbacks within flashbacks, and a jaw-dropping revelation, excelling Agatha Christie (“Witness for the Prosecution”) at her own game by using her twist, bettering it, and then throwing another twist on top of it. The solution is deduced using psychological and verbal clues, though the format is far from “detective-story-like.” It says much for Jessica Fletcher that she can solve this imbroglio, with its Chinese boxes within Chinese boxes. Bravo.

*”Snow White, Blood Red,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Peter S. Fischer, Season 5, Episode 4: Not quite up to the level of the above three, as it breaks no new ground but rather goes through the old Agatha Christie device of isolating suspects in a remote location and then killing someone off (shocker), but it’s a fun episode, with–in a change of pace from most MSW episodes–some clues pointing to the killer! A blessing for which we may be very thankful in this program.

*”Night of the Tarantula,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Chris Manheim, Season 6, Episode 7: Gee whiz, this is a fun one, with some scenery-chewing from John Rhys-Davies. While the solution to the locked-room problem is disappointing (SPOILER)–a secret passageway (SPOILER ENDS)–the episode more than makes up for that, with genuinely creepy atmosphere and backstory, recalling John Dickson Carr at times. Note similarities, in atmosphere, character, and plot, with Death in Paradise‘s excellent “Stab in the Dark.”

*”The Legend of Borbey House,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Danna Doyle and Debbie Smith, Season 10, Episode 3: Another fun one, involving another (SPOILER) secret passage (SPOILER ENDS). Why couldn’t MSW have more apparently supernatural culprits? Either way, fun take on the haunted house/vampire mythos.

*”Unwilling Witness,” directed by Anthony Shaw, written by Robert Van Scoyk, Season 12, Episode 11: When I first caught Murder, She Wrote on television with a friend, also a mystery buff, I said, “Don’t be annoyed if you don’t like it; it never bothers with cluing, so the mysteries are usually bad.” Much to my surprise, “Unwilling Witness” concludes both with a clue (only one, but still) and a twist ending that I suspected but threw out (“Murder, She Wrote wouldn’t do that…”). An excellent episode, especially for one so late, and a real surprise ending, even if it can’t top the shenanigans of another court episode, “Trial by Error.”

*”The Grand Old Lady,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Peter S. Fischer, Season 6, Episode 3: “Unfair?” you say. Yes, probably. This is a “bookend episode,” one of those cooked up by the producers so that Lansbury didn’t have to appear all season and yet still manage to complete the terms of her contract. So she appears at the beginning to introduce the story and at the end to wrap it up, but the rest of the case is aboard the Queen Mary in the 40s, and what a delightful trip it is too. Not only has Fischer returned us to Ellery Queen‘s authentic, convincing 40s atmosphere, he has also given us two clones of Queen and his father, respectively, in Christy McGinn (Gary Kroeger) and his father, Lt. Martin McGinn (John Karlen). While Kroeger and Karlen are nowhere near as immediately lovable and do not have the same unique chemistry as Jim Hutton and David Wayne, they are more than serviceable, and Christy is a fun Ellery doppelgänger. There are war secrets, clues based on the German language, and a scenery-chewing performance from Robert Vaughn as the Simon Brimmer-duplicate, Edwin Chancellor (great name). In addition, this is a case for three detective, as we have Chancellor, Agatha Christie expy Lady Abigail Austin (June Havoc), and Christy McGinn all giving us alternate solutions, each of which builds on the one before, in the manner of Ellery Queen’s brilliant The Greek Coffin Mystery. If the final solution is not as immediately ingenious as the deduction, so be it–it is fine time that we see this kind of deduction back on TV. The solutions are wonderful, and the identity of the killer is deducible and clever. Probably the best of all Murder, She Wrote episodes, as Fischer has obviously resurrected the ghost of Ellery Queen. All the more unfortunate for this being Christy McGinn’s first, last, and only appearance. McGinn, we hardly knew ya.

 

So, there are some of the best Murder, She Wrote episodes! What say you? MSW fans, I apologize for criticizing your beloved show so harshly, but, as you see, there are many episodes that I very much enjoyed. So I ask all of you out there: what are some other great episodes that you think I would like, with good puzzle plots, mysteries, and surprise solutions? Please do comment below, and thank you for reading!

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Until next time…

 

 

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Le roi est mort, vive le roi…

Here we go with some more Ellery Queen–nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

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Today’s book, Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead (1952), has gotten a largely negative reception from mystery fans, which is (a) too bad, for it’s a fine book, and (b) not entirely unsurprising, since it’s not really a mystery. Oh, it has clues and alibis and all that, as well as a fine locked-room puzzle, but this is the crime-story-as-allegory, something we detective-story buffs have been warned against, lest the detective story fall into the psychological musings of “crime writers” who do not care a whit for plot. I sympathize with fellow fanciers of the noble literary art of detection (“the grandest game in the world,” as Carr puts it), but such a view may blind us to the best parts of the non-mystery and send us falling down the rabbit hole of obsession with one genre at the expense of the great tapestry of what books in general have to offer. I adore detective stories, but I have no more desire to go step-by-step through the monotony of detective work, à la Crofts at his weakest moments, even to find a surprising solution any more than I wish to read about nothing but than the psychological problems of the main detective. Many authors do not deserve to be considered “humdrums,” as mystery critic Curt Evans notes beautifully in his Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (2012), but I do not wish to read the true humdrum any more than I do the modern “cozy” or “psychological crime drama.” I own an edition of Carr’s first Dr. Fell novel, Hag’s Nook (1933), in which mystery critic Anthony Boucher writes that Carr’s achievement was making the detective story “fun”–exploring what can be done with it. Exactly. Many modern writers and critics (The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda being a conspicuous exception) err in throwing plot out the window entirely, but many modern mystery buffs also err in throwing traditional literary virtues out the same window. Characterization is a very good thing, mystery fans. Plot is a very good thing, modern critics. The sooner we lose the radicalism taken up by both sides, the sooner we can learn how good a book, mystery or otherwise, can be.

Which brings us to The King is Dead.

It’s really an extraordinary book, and I keep using that adjective with each of the Queens I read. It may not possess the power and characterization of Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), perhaps the Queen cousins’ masterpiece (and their finest amalgamation of the virtues of the mystery and of the novel), or the brilliant plot of The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), but it is a fascinating look into power and responsibility in a changing world. The book recalls Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), right down to naming the focus character “Kane,” and prefigures Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955). The similarities to Welles are almost eerily significant and indeed prescient, being that Welles played the focus character in Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Ten Days’ Wonder (1971). One wonders exactly who inspired whom.

As for the plot… Kane “King” Bendigo is a billionaire who influences the affairs of nations. He has been receiving death threats, about which his brother and “prime minister,” Abel, is very worried. Abel Bendigo, a letter from the president himself in hand, takes (read: “kidnaps”) Ellery and Insp. Queen to Bendigo’s private, secluded island to investigate…

And I shall tell no more. If you have read it, you know the plot. If you have not, stop reading this post, for I shall begin with spoilers. If you have a chance, do read it and then post a comment below. It will be interesting to know all opinions on this interesting and unusual book.

I will probably write another post, with spoilers, analyzing the book in greater detail. As always, all comments and opinions are welcome below.

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Musings on Queen

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Finishing Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil two days ago and having looked through Francis Nevins’s fascinating if hagiographic overview of the Queen (and Barnaby Ross) books, Royal Bloodline, started me thinking about Queen, recently one of my favorite detective-story writers, and the Queenian worldview. It actually (and surprisingly) took me a long time to come around to Queen. When I was very young, I became a big Sherlock Holmes fan (still am!), and my Holmes experience, finding and reading The Adventures at a young age, is more than a little similar to Frederic Dannay’s. From Holmes, I discovered Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and was caught up in the storytelling, leading to Christie’s becoming my favorite mystery author until I discovered (and, reading Douglas Greene’s brilliant biography, found that I sympathized more with) John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked-room mystery. While I explored the mystery and other genres (particularly the historical adventure–perhaps that can explain my sympathy with JDC!), Ellery Queen was kind of thrown to the wayside. I watched (and adored) Levison and Link’s 1975-76 TV series, also called Ellery Queen (starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne–I’m going to have to do a “best-of” list for that show one of these days), and read many of the short stories in a collection called The Best of Ellery Queen (I particularly recommend “The Bearded Lady” and “The Mad-Tea Party”). Sooner or later, I also took Calendar of Crime out from the library and enjoyed that too (more for the characters–Ellery, Insp. Queen, Sgt. Velie, and the always-delightful Nikki Porter–than the plots, though “The President’s Half-Disme,” “The Emperor’s Dice,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Dauphin’s Doll” are very good).

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But the EQ novels always left me cold. Granted, they were clever as puzzles, but I thought that the writing was atrocious and that the characterization was about as developed as a jigsaw puzzle. The famous “Challenge to the Reader” sealed the deal: Dannay and Lee, clever though they were (And were they really all that clever? I asked myself, because they seemed less adept–methought–in the novel form), are just not enjoyable to read and have interest in nothing but sheer puzzle-plot.

I am happy to admit (*the blogger wrote in an attempt to be dramatic*) that I was wrong.

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We are inevitably biased in what book we choose as our “favorite” in a series–more biased than usual, I mean. Often, it’s not just a simple “I like” choice: we are influenced by how we read the book, when we read the book, in what circumstances, etc. Like television and films watched at home (less so with movie theaters and live theaters, where some circumstances are controlled), our opinion of the critical object is based on circumstances both inside and outside of us. In this case, I bought Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) for $1 at a used bookstore in New Hampshire, with the cover falling off (book-jacket long gone) and someone (presumably a little child) having scribbled all over (some of) the pages with a red crayon. I read it quickly–it’s not a long book–and was caught up in every word. Let me tell you, it’s quite a ride and and extraordinary book. The book is an excellent detective-story, yes, with twists and turns around every corner and a brilliant plot, but…

(I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible–difficult to do–but, if you want to go into this book without any preconceptions [which I would highly suggest], I would advise you to skip the following paragraph. I will point out when you can start reading again.) Nevins’s book illuminated the concept for me, though I had suspected it before: the book is in many ways a look into Nietzsche’s “death of God.” “God” is revealed at the end, in all His glory, but is no longer the kind and benevolent father but (in Nevins’s words) a “moral monster” who manipulates those around him, an insidious puppet-master playing with the lives of mortals. Even for a Christian like me, who doesn’t agree with the philosophy, this is a fascinating philosophical text–and, with Ellery’s incorrect solution and then guilt at the end (as a theocide, as Nevins points out in his critique of Cat of Many Tails), Ten Days’ Wonder is even more an anti-detective story than Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case or Borges’s (brilliant) “Death and the Compass” (which was, in fact, almost a parody of Ellery Queen, one of Borges’s favorite writers). It is an extraordinary, fascinating, and endlessly rewarding work, and note that I have said nothing of the poignant human drama that arises organically from how carefully Dannay and Lee have written their characters!

(You can start reading again.)

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So I was wrong. And not only because of one (admittedly excellent) book: Cat of Many Tails is very nearly as good, not to mention something early like The Greek Coffin Mystery. I had read Greek Coffin before, criticized the characterization, and put it down as “puzzle-plot and nothing else.” Too, we hear (and I thought), the character of Ellery Queen changes so drastically that mystery critic Julian Symons (in his Great Detectives) thought there were two Ellerys, one actually being the other’s brother “Dan”! Thinking on it now, I must disagree. When Symons told his theory to Frederic Dannay, Dannay told him that he was not taking account of how people change. Not only do people change over time, but they become wiser and more thoughtful. The Ellery of “Period I,” who is a Philo Vance knock-off (as the cousins cheerfully admitted), is a well-read, snobbish, cynical young man, fresh out of college and invested in the theory that he is much, much more brilliant than his hard-working, probably not-college-educated (and very tolerant) father. (That’s why Ellery’s false solutions in Greek Coffin are so delightful.) He’s a bit like the “good” version of the two young guys in Hitchcock’s Rope, believing fully in the nonsensical and (look at this!) Nietzschean theories of professor Jimmy Stewart. Ellery’s progression from Vance-clone to human being, throughout Periods 1 to 4, makes complete sense. Ellery’s humanness–and fallibility–makes him so very likeable, and so very different from most of your “great detectives.” (Holmes is another example.) Not only that, but the Queen cousins are some of the most philosophically interesting of all detective-writers; I wonder how much they were influenced (like Borges) by Chesterton, something virtually undiscussed in most literature on the subject! (We always examine Chesterton’s impact on Carr and, to a lesser degree, on Christie. Certainly, in terms of subject [e.g., locked-rooms] Chesterton had a greater influence on Carr than Queen. Yet the amalgamation of philosophy and detective-story, something anti-Carrian but Chestertonian, is present to a great degree in Queen; even if those actual philosophies are different, the method of combining philosophy and detection is very similar.) I was reading some Chesterton stories with detectives other than Fr. Brown, and the similarities with Queen (even down to Lee’s prose, which is less poetic but highly influenced by Chesterton’s) are striking. Mike Grost discusses how Carr seems to be influenced by Queen; I wonder if, in fact, they are indebted to Chesterton as a common influence that expressed itself in different ways. I recently read, as I noted at the beginning, EQ’s The Origin of Evil, which I will keep myself from discussing in detail now but which I found fascinating even if less satisfying than Greek CoffinTen Days’ Wonder, or Cat of Nine Tails as a detective story. 30b_Origin.jpg

There’s something, too, so poignant (I keep using the word, but no other would be appropriate) with Queen, especially with Wrightsville, which is as brilliant a portrait of a small town as can be and, in some ways, comparable to Booth Tarkington’s (and Orson Welles’s) portrait of a family in The Magnificent Ambersons. A feeling of what is lost, blown away like autumn leaves by the winds of time and relentless change, all in the name of the dread god “Progress.”

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All in all, I think Ellery Queen deserves his place in the Holy Trinity of detective-story writers, with Carr and Christie; he is a master of the form, and I envy anyone discovering the books (especially Ten Days’ Wonder, though I suggest starting with the short stories, moving onto Greek Coffin and the nationality titles, and so on) for the first time.

 

As always, I welcome all comments and feedback.

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The Staple Murder Case

The following is the parody that I wrote of S.S. Van Dine’s (William Huntington Wright’s) detective stories, whose titles follow the pattern of The [Six Letter Noun] Murder Case and which star the wealthy, egotistical amateur Philo Vance,  who American humorist Ogden Nash said deserved “a kick in the pance.” (The Vance of the books, whom I find absurdly annoying, should not be confused with William Powell’s portrayal of the character in the movie adaptations, which I find very enjoyable. The Kennel Murder Case, an early success of director Michael Curtiz, perhaps best known nowadays for having helmed the masterpiece that is Casablanca, is particularly good.) I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it! (For more information on Van Dine and Vance, please see Mike Grost’s excellent detective-story website: http://mikegrost.com/vandine.htm.)

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The Staple Murder Case

A Philip van der Lyine Mystery

by Karl Salzmann

Of all of the strange and oft-told cases of my friend and virtual owner Philip van der Lyine, the queer, curious, and unforgettable business of the staple killer stands as the most gruesome and mysterious. Who can forget—but wants to—the blood-curdling screams that erupted from the toilet of the public bathroom when it was revealed—by my friend, of course—that ***[this name is whited out for the reader’s enjoyment and pleasure]*** had committed the crime? Who can forget—but still wants to—the genius of my friend van der Lyine, who single-handedly revealed the New York Police Department to be the cretins they are? Who even dare forget the terrible motive or the gruesome and seemingly inexplicable method, both of which were never before seen in human history? It all began when van der Lyine and I were touring his private art gallery, which is located on the top floor of one of the many apartment buildings my friend owns in New York and which is only open to himself and the elect few he chooses to bring there. (It might be recorded, although it be shockingly irrelevant, that those elect few were considered “the blessed” and exalted to nearly godly status by the many van der Lyine-adoring masses on the streets of the city.)

“Vinny, old sport, old son, old boy, old chap, old horse,” he was saying as we walked through, smoking those tiny, invisible Persian cigarettes that he inexplicably fancies, “one of these days I shall retire from the detectin’ business and dedicate my life to the service of that astoundin’ race of animals known as ‘mankind’ through givin’ them art.”

I was about to enquire how one can “retire” from a profession in which one had never been employed, but then I remembered that I did not speak—the reason why I am van der Lyine’s only friend—and promptly shut my mouth. Van der Lyine was about to treat me to a pointless and irrelevant lecture on the masterpieces of the Oriental master Din Sho Tyrung, but he and I were treated instead to a sudden shock when we heard boots ascend the steps and the doorbell ring.

“If I am not mistaken,” said Philip van der Lyine, “—and I never am—that august personage who just rang the bell to this flat is none other than the District Attorney himself.”

I grunted.

“How do I know, you ask, Vinny? Ah, we geniuses need not reveal our secrets to the less fortunate—eh, what? However, since you’re so demned [sic] int’rested, I’m goin’ to do you the honor of answerin’ your grunt. I knew because I have written a monograph on the subject of boots, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those boots which you and I heard are district attorney-boots, which are a special kind known only to police chiefs, district attorneys, and”— he paused and leaned in to look me directly in the face—“Philip van der Lyine.”

It was, unfortunately for my brilliant friend, not the District Attorney who graced the art gallery’s door but rather Sgt. Blockhead, an up-and-coming (“—which means ‘completely moronic,’” van der Lyine had told me) detective-sergeant of the NYPD. (It was our half-crazed butler Curry, an Aborigine who, like myself, is mute, who let the sergeant in.) As always, Blockhead fell to the floor in awe and admiration when he saw my brilliant friend and did not notice me at all.

When van der Lyine had told him to “be a man” and not a chicken, to “get up from the floor, you compleat [sic] ignoramus,” Blockhead had this to say:

“I don’t know if you’ve heard, sir, but the District Attorney is there now.”

“What is it? What is it?” snapped my brilliant friend. “I cannot possibly be expected to solve the crime if I don’t know what it is! Even I—Philip van der Lyine!—cannot do that!”

“Why, yes, sir,” Blockhead reflected, disappointed. “I was maybe hoping you could… Nonetheless! Do you remember, Mr. van der Lyine, how Sir Auguste de Staple, the famous English tobacco millionaire, built a secluded mansion in the middle of Times Square?”

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“Indeed I do,” stated van der Lyine. “That was—eh? what?—maybe ten years ago. Well, man, what of it?”

“Do you remember how, when he died in a freak accident, long thought by the surrounding townsfolk to be murder but never proven to be, he left the entire place to his eldest child, a daughter, Salinda?”

“Nat’rally.”

“Do you remember that Miss Salinda de Staple, who stayed a spinster her entire life but forced all of her cousins and their children to live with her, sold the place to a private contractor three years ago?”

“All this is ancient history, m’dear chap,” said van der Lyine, bored, taking a long puff of his Persian cigarette. “Give me somethin’ more recent.”

“Do you remember that, after Miss de Staple completed this transaction, mad and haunting screams were heard erupting from the house as the contractor razed it?”

“The nonsensical ravin’s of local fools.”

“Do you remember how the contractor turned it into a gigantic restroom complex and then sold it to the city?”

“Of course. Though I must say,” said Philip van der Lyine, yawning, “that you’ve an awful’ frightful way of gettin’ to the point.”

“Well, sir!” said Sgt. Blockhead, as if having won a debate. “There has been a gruesome murder in that restroom complex!

Even the great Philip van der Lyine was shocked. He said, “Great scott!”

I would have said, “Great scott!” or something like it, but it came out as “Grr-grr!”

“Indubitably, m’dear Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “Sergeant, when did this gruesome murder take place?”

“Last night, sir,” Blockhead stated. “And do you know who ‘got it,’ sir?”

“Who?”

“None other than Benson Greene, the famous dilettante and ‘man-about-town,’ long suspected—” he leaned in close—“and this is only between ourselves, sir [still apparently not realizing that I was in the room]—of being a criminal mastermind.”

I grunted.

“That’s right, Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “The police considered Greene the consigliere to the Canarie—pro-nounced [sic] ‘Cah-nah-ree-ae’—Crime Family, colloquially known as ‘the Canaries.’ As I, Philip van der Lyine, know from my monograph on the lawyer-choosing habits of canaries—I mean, ahem, crime families—the consigliere was always known as ‘the Bishop.’ Well, m’dear Blockhead,” my friend continued, “have you got any clews [sic] as to who killed ‘the Bishop’?”

“Why, yes, sir!” Blockhead exclaimed proudly. “We have established suspects and found alibis, footprints, fingerprints, ropes, bits of piping—”

“’Pon my word, man!” van der Lyine interposed. “It’s as if you police chaps were all under the spell of the shillin’ shockers. Won’t you ever learn that crimes can’t be solved by—y’know—real clues and actual evidence? The whole thing’s in the mind, and all that! If y’know the psychology behind it—not that either I or the author has ever studied psychology or knows what he’s talkin’ about—then you’ll be able to know the killer instantly.”

“Oh,” said Blockhead, dejected. “But I doubt that would convince the courts, sir.”

“Courts! By God, m’Blockhead, we’re in a detective story, for Pete’s sake, and the guilty is always punished and the innocent always freed. That means that, if the killer don’t get sentenced by the courts, and I don’t like him, then I’ll kill him m’self. And, if I do like him, he’ll go free based on my Godlike judgment and omniscience.”

“Why, that makes perfect sense, sir,” said Blockhead, the policeman. “Still, you’ve got to figure out who the killer is first.”

“Quite,” said van der Lyine, curtly. He called for me (although I was right next to him)—“Vinny!”

I grunted.

“Off we go!”

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I shall never forget my first glimpse of that awful and gruesome (am I using the word gruesome too often? My editor tells me that I employ the usage far too liberally. I told him not to discuss politics at the dinner table) sight, the dead body of “the Bishop.” His head, Blockhead had forgotten to tell us, had been severed from the body by a silver sword and placed in a bowl of spices (e.g. thyme, parsley, garlic, cinnamon, oregano—yes, I know this is completely useless, but it takes the place of my genius friend’s lecture on spices and herbs, a topic on which he is an expert*) on his breakfast table. The breakfast room, moreover, had been locked, sealed, and bolted from the inside, suggesting a seemingly impossible crime; though, knowing my friend, Philip van der Lyine, he would figure out a completely prosaic, mechanical, and uninteresting way to solve the locked-room problem. The District Attorney, who has requested not to be named, was pacing up and down the floor, puffing on a huge cigar. He was dressed in opera-clothes for no apparent reason other than to suggest that all of the characters in this story are extremely fancy and upper-class, tricking credulous people into believing in our pseudo-intellectualism.

“Oh, van der Lyine, glad you’re here,” the D.A. said. He puffed some more.

“’Pon my word, m’District Attorney, don’t you know that smokin’ is awful’ bad for your health?” said my genius friend, taking out one of his small Persian cigarettes.

“Why—why, yes, van der Lyine. I think I’ll quit the habit immediately.” The D.A. gave the Cuban to Sgt. Blockhead, who happily puffed away on it. “Either way, van der Lyine, I’m glad that you came alone, for we don’t want this getting beyond the three of us—me, you, and the sergeant here.” Once again, I was so inconspicuous an observer as to blend in with the wallpaper.

Van der Lyine nodded.

The D.A. continued: “The murdered man is Benson Greene, commonly known as ‘the Bishop’ for no apparent reason other than to fit another S.S. Van Dine title into this story. He belongs to the Canarie crime family, who are suspected of having this restroom complex as their center of operations for New York City. This complex has a long, mysterious, and blood-curdling history, about which Blockhead has, I am sure, already informed you. Nonetheless, I doubt that he has informed you that the de Staple family still live here, in this restroom complex in the middle of Times Square!”

We were all shocked, and the shock dramatically affected my delicate sensibilities. Philip van der Lyine, however, hid his shock well and begged the D.A. to go on.

“Miss Selinda de Staple, at the tender age of 108, only sold the de Staple family mansion to the contractor on the condition that the de Staples continue to live here. What’s more, the contractor with whom Miss de Staple did business was none other than Benson Greene, before he received his law degree!”

My delicate sensibilities were so dramatically affected this time that I thought that I would fall over dead, but van der Lyine gave me one withering glance with his powerful eyes, and I flew up to the ceiling.

“So, if I’m not very much mistaken, which I never am,” drawled my friend, “you suspect one of the de Staples of havin’ committed this dreadful deed.”

The D.A. nodded reluctantly.

“Psych’logically,” said van der Lyine, “there are only two kinds of people who could have the nerve to slice off someone’s head. One kind is a member of the de Staple family, and the other—”

We all leant in, ready to hear the deductions of such a genius.

“—the other would be a writer of detective stories. Silly genre, that. Well, on to the de Staples!”

Normally, at this point in the story, we would be treated to two-hundred pages of useless filler material as Philip van der Lyine interviews every single suspect, bores the reader silly, and blathers pointless psychological mumbo-jumbo that has no relation to reality. Suffice it to say that Selinda de Staple was 108 years old, had a hunchback and a huge beard, and could not get out of bed; that her nephew, John de Staple was a crazed Shakespearean actor who truly believed himself to be a warlock; that her niece, Carmilla Verrarrev (née de Staple), was a vampire on whom Sheridan Le Fanu based his famous story; that John’s wife, Inga, was a Russian émigrée who had now taken a job as First Lady; that Carmilla’s husband, Malcolm, was a professional Santa Claus impersonator who wore his trousers up to his throat and was a mathematical genius; that John and Inga’s daughter, Yasmina, was an escaped lunatic from the Times Square Asylum; that Carmilla and Malcom’s son, Bruno, was a professional rapper (in the 1920s) who obviously was a time-traveller; and that I, Vinny, write really long sentences that Microsoft Word’s grammar checker doesn’t like.

“Did we learn anything?” cried Sgt. Blockhead, who had fallen asleep halfway through the interviews.

“Did we learn anything?” cried the D.A., who had drunk 9,000 cups of coffee to keep himself awake.

“Did we learn anything?” I attempted to cry, but was prevented in doing so because I am a mute, so it came out as “Gruh-gruh-gruh?”

“Quite right, Vinny,” van der Lyine agreed. “The emphasis should be on the thing—for it was a thing that we learned.”

“Only one thing!” The D.A. was exasperated—not irrationally, I might add, for, if I were he, I would similarly be annoyed by my genius friend. (Thank heaven, however, that I am not he and am only a mute and pseudo-slave to the great Philip van der Lyine.)

“Only one thing,” the great man conceded, “but it is the key that unlocks the whole mystery! Think about it—who couldhave committed the crime? Miss Selinda de Staple cannot leave the bed, and, anyway, she is 108 years old. You can verify these facts, I’m sure, m’dear D.A. Inga de Staple, as first lady, would be too busy and too concerned with her reputation to commit it. Ditto with Bruno Verrarrev as a professional rapper. Malcolm Verrarrev wore his trousers up to his throat—he could not have seen well enough to commit the crime. That leaves Carmilla and Yasmina. Yet which of these two had the ability to murder ‘the Bishop’? The Bishop—very interestin’. It suggests a religious figure! Furthermore, how was ‘the Bishop’ killed?—with a silver sword. Mark that—it will have significance in a moment. Mark also, m’dear people,” drawled van der Lyine, “that Greene’s head was placed in a bowl of spices—including garlic. Finally, remember that the door was locked, sealed, and bolted from the inside—’pon my word, are you chaps startin’ to see the light?”

It began to draw on us all.

“He was protecting himself—against a vampire!” said Blockhead. “Thus the garlic!”

“Silver is a weapon that can kill a werewolf or a vampire!” said the D.A. “Thus the sword!”

“The vampire, however, turned on him, killing him with a method by which she could drink a lot of blood!—thus the head-chopping!” I tried to say, but it came out as “Booly-dooly-ding-dong!”

“Vinny is right,” van der Lyine said. “It all depends on the psych’logical bit of it. The murderer can be none other than Carmilla de Staple Verrarrev, who passed in through the door as a cloud of smoke and tried to drink the blood of the man who (she thought) had stolen away her ancestral home, de Staple Manor—Benson Greene, ‘the Bishop,’ our victim!”

We were amazed at this incredible display of logic—it was absolutely foolproof, showing the sheer power of man’s brain at work. (“I’ll slap the handcuffs on right now!” Blockhead cried.) No matter that this story has no literary qualities whatsoever—it showed how brilliant the brain of Philip van der Lyine, that master detective, can be when Mr. van der Lyine puts it to use. Nevertheless—

“I do have to critique your logic one little bit, van der Lyine,” I said. “You know that vampires do not exist.”

Van der Lyine, Blockhead, and the D.A. all stared, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Indeed, it can be said that Philip van der Lyine, who, even when he was shocked beyond all comprehension, always kept his cool, this time was so astounded that his Persian cigarette dropped out of his mouth. Indeed, his pseudo-Oxfordian accent, which was obviously unlike how any real person in the world speaks, vanished too, revealing a basic Midwestern American.

“What the—? Vinny, what’s going on here? You can’t speak—at least, I’ve always thought that you’re mute. I mean—”

“Yeah,” barked Blockhead. “The D.A. and I never even thought you were there—at least, we’ve never seen you before. How long have you been there?”

“The whole time,” I said. “In fact, I’m the chronicler for every one of Phil van der Lyine’s cases. By the way, Philly boy, why don’t you pass me one of those stupid Persian cigarettes that no one can see (but me, apparently)?”

Philly boy’s face dropped again, but he did pass me one. I lighted it and threw my head back.

“Now! We come to the real issue,” I continued. “I’ve been here, as mute as a rock, listening, day after day, to your crackpot analyses and pseudo-sophisticated ravings, van der Lyine! I despise you—I despise your belief that you are somehow superior to the rest of us, that you are special just because you are rich, and attended the ‘veddy, veddy’ best schools, and cater to all sorts of crackpot causes. I don’t like the fact that your plots never use basic common sense, that you don’t even bother to provide a mystery that is somewhat intelligent, that you neglect any kind of good storytelling or characterization, that you never want to let people live, or breathe, in your cases, just that they are dummies to pad out chapters. I especially despise the fact that you think yourself better than everyone else, especially me. You’re the most tiring detective in fiction—you know that? You annoy the reader with twenty pages of pointless rigmarole about your opinions on art, or tropical fish, or politics, when all the poor fellow wants to do is read a good story, have some fun, enjoy being in sheer fantasy for a little part of his life! Well! Well, it’s going to stop right now, van der Lyine, because—”

I removed my gun and shot him.

Blockhead said, “Huh?”

The D.A. said, “Wha—?”

“I killed Benson Greene,” I confessed, puffing on the cigarette. “I killed him so that I could place purposely misleading clues and make Philip van der Lyine deduce a ridiculous and totally erroneous, yet logical, solution. Despite this, if the reader reads back to my opening paragraphs, he will find out that it is all fair-play, at least in terms of motive. Anyway, van der Lyine’s solution couldn’t be real, even by the logic of this story—a vampire cannot enter a locked room unless he or she has been invited in. I’m surprised that van der Lyine didn’t write a monograph on that.” I sighed. “Well, Mr. District Attorney, time to get out the handcuffs. I’m ready to go.”

The D.A. looked at me quizzically. “Now, now, who said anything about ‘handcuffs’?”

Now was my time to be shocked. “You mean—?”

“I mean,” the man continued, taking the gun from my hand, wiping my fingerprints from it, and then putting it near the now-dead Philip van der Lyine, “that, between ourselves, I’ve always hated van der Lyine, especially because we could just as easily solved the case but that he had to come in and mock us all to Kingdom Come. Because he was so popular with the crowds, however, we had to let him do his thing. Anyway! Let’s just tell the reporters, and the de Staples, that van der Lyine killed Benson Greene—that he was a criminal who committed crimes in order to ‘solve’ them and take all the credit (and money, and free publicity) for their solutions! Clever, eh?”

“Clever,” I agreed. “What say you, Blockhead?”

The man chuckled. “As long as it discredits old Philip van der Lyine, I’m all for it, Vinny (if I can call you that, sir).”

“Oh, sure you can call me that,” I said. I looked at the D.A. and Blockhead. “You know, gentlemen”—as we walked out of the de Staple Mansion—“you know, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

*See “Adding Spice to Life: A Nine-Thousand-Page Monograph Written Entirely in Aramaic, Sanskrit, Latin, and Ancient Greek, Without Translations,” by P. van der Lyine (Van der Lyine Publications, 1928).

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Post-Easter Flights to St. Marie, Anyone?

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In keeping with our post-Easter celebrations, I’m thinking of giving this blog an unceremonious resurrection and posting again for the first time in–what?–four years? Has it really been that long? A few changes, for anyone interested: my favored genres have expanded (though–don’t fret!–detective stories are still one of them!), and I now have much less time for pleasure reading. The inevitable march of life, I suppose. Anyway, I have also changed in my tastes, so to speak: John Dickson Carr (JDC), for example, has overtaken Agatha Christie as my favorite detective-story writer, with Gladys Mitchell following close behind him. It has been that way for a while, interestingly enough (once I started to read more of their books!). Anyway, to get back on subject for this post, I’ve started watching, in that long four years, the British TV show Death in Paradise, which is an excellent detective-fiction program. One of my favorites. So–I was thinking, what would be a better way to resurrect this blog than a list? (Yeah, yeah, all blogs do that when the blogger can’t think of what else to do. Je comprends, et je regrette.) So–with all apologies to the late, great Andrew Sarris, whose The American Cinema should be the go-to guide for anyone and everyone who loves the movies–here are my favorite and least-favorite Death in Paradise episodes, organized in the Sarrisian categories of “Pantheon,” “Far Side of Paradise” (even more appropriate here, hm?), and my contribution, “Bottom of the Barrel,” with commentary as we go along. Whether you enjoy Death in Paradise or not (I hope you do!)–I hope you’ll have fun following along!

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Pantheon Episodes:

  1. “Wicked Wedding Night,” directed by Roger Goldby, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 2: The first four episodes of Death in Paradise, all except the fourth written by series creator Robert Thorogood, are some of the best detective programming we are likely to see on modern TV. This episode provides one of the cleverest plots that Mr. Thorogood created, with a particularly ingenious motive and method that remind one of middle-period Carr (in particular his novella “Terror’s Dark Tower”). Moreover, the show features Ben Miller’s delightful Insp. Richard Poole, who, from the moment he steps off the plane in the first episode, is already one of the great detectives. While the rest of the cast, particularly Sara Martins as DS Camille Bordey, have not yet hit their stride, they are as interesting and convincing as ever—though the brilliant plot is the main draw here! Luckily for us, there will be other excellent episodes of this excellent show, but “Wicked Wedding Night,” for me, is the absolute cleverest—at a caliber that competes with Jonathan Creek’s “The Black Canary” for the best hour (and change) in modern TV detective-show history.
  2. “Ye of Little Faith,” directed by Dusan Lazarevic, written by Ian Kershaw— Season 3, Episode 4: Also an excellent plot, and one of the best of the Humphrey Goodman episodes. (Kris Marshall’s Goodman is a fine character, especially after Marshall got more into his role [not all his fault—in the early episodes, they tried to make him the anti-Poole—understandable but undesirable and unbelievable—and quickly dropped], though I must confess I miss Ben Miller’s Poole!) The old cast—Sara Martins, Danny John-Jules, and Gary Carr—are all as uniformly excellent as always, and it is a joy to watch authentic detective work. This episode, an impossible poisoning, is one of the series’ best impossible crimes—quite ingenious, and equally ingeniously unravelled by Goodman. The characters work, the episode is light and fun, and the murder of the stewardess in the locked room is one of this show’s best jobs.
  3. “Stab in the Dark,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 4, Episode 1: Definitely one of the best—indeed, Nos. 2 and 3 are pretty much interchangeable. Thorogood has obviously been reading Carr—the situation is right out of JDC’s radio play “The Dark Minute”—but his solution is completely different. This is one of the few episodes to bring forward the concept of the supernatural that one would think would be more exploited in this Caribbean-based show—extremely well-done, with appropriate eeriness. The séance and the killer’s plot are particularly good. By far the best episode of the very weak Season 4.
  4. “Predicting a Murder,” directed by Charles Palmer, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 3: Very, very good. By this point, Miller and the rest of the cast are getting into their roles, and the plots are uniformly clever. One wishes that Thorogood could have been writing during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction! This episode is a joy to watch, and, while the viewer may deduce one solution, there is not just one mystery in this episode, and the other solution is quite unexpected and brilliant!
  5. “Death of a Detective,” directed by Cilla Ward, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 1: A sad (though high) point for the series, and utterly indefensible as far as characterization goes—whither the character arc between Camille and Poole? Why go through the rigmarole with Poole’s decision to stay on St. Marie in S2:E8 only (SPOILER) to kill him off in the very next episode? Granted that Mr. Miller wanted to return to his family, couldn’t Thorogood at least have left his character alive? Or did he want to ensure that Poole could never return? Either way, if we move past the inexplicable “Poole dies” decision, we are left with a clever, middle-of-the-road episode with a quite ingenious plot. Thorogood borrows the central situation from Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, and the murderer is not too difficult to guess, but he gives us some delightfully gnomic clues left by the dying Poole—absolutely ingenious. Really, the cluing in this episode is what brings it to the Top 10. Granted that the program relies more on its plots than its characters, I think that Thorogood should analyze those characters in a wee bit more depth than he does.
  6. “Death in Paradise,” directed by Charles Palmer, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 1: Watching this episode again, I’m struck by the relationship between Insp. Charlie Hume and the crew in the police station—a direct mirror of the relationships first between them and Poole and later between them and Goodman. (Maybe that’s why they’re not so broken up after Poole’s death? They’re so used to so many changes in DIs?) This episode, the pilot, tells a good story, though the characters are very loosely sketched, with the series’ first impossible crime (a dime a dozen on St. Marie). The plot’s cleverness is less in the “How,” however, than the “Who”: the decision to make (SPOILER) likeable and incredibly lovely DS Lily Thompson, played by likeable and incredibly lovely Lenora Crichlow, the murderer is quite brilliant, the viewer’s expectations for the romantic lead in a typical fish-out-of-water TV show being subverted almost immediately (though the likeable and lovely Camille soon fills Thompson’s shoes). Surprising how no one is dumbfounded over the sweet Sgt. Thompson’s capture… (I would be.) There is good detective work (the clue of the book is particularly smart) and good humor, though the locked-room angle is remarkably unremarkable. A good episode, though it will be bettered.
  7. “A Deadly Party,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 2, Episode 8: Memorable mostly for the quite clever alibi gimmick that Thorogood has cooked up, in spite of breaking Carr’s dictum that the point of a detective story is for one criminal to hoodwink one-hundred innocent rather than for one hundred criminals to hoodwink one innocent. Despite that, Thorogood neatly tricks the viewer into believing in (SPOILER) one criminal, so that the ending is a good surprise. Even better are the characterizations, perhaps the characters’ high points in (and at the end of) the Richard Poole episodes.
  8. “Missing a Body?” directed by Roger Goldby, written by James Payne—Season 1, Episode 4: The first of the show not written by Thorogood, this episode uses another ingenious alibi gimmick (a Death in Paradise specialty—the “disguised impossible crime”). The killer’s window of opportunity makes the enterprise seem minimalistic in a Queenian way (despite the lack of a Queenian minimalistic poisoning). Also enjoyable for Poole’s crush on the main suspect (the victim’s wife) and the sense of fun in these early episodes, riding on Thorogood’s coattails. Despite this, the episode is so low on this list because (1) the supporting cast are still developing their roles and (2) the number of coincidences involved in the spur-of-the-moment plot breaks the believability line, inviting comparisons to the similarly-plotted and even more ludicrous Jonathan Creek special The Judas Tree.
  9. “A Deadly Curse,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 2, Episode 4: This would be a run-of the-mill episode but for one thing: Thorogood neatly and brilliantly parodies the old Agatha Christie technique of making the “attempted victim” the killer, which makes the detective-story fan fall right into his trap (which makes it all the more disappointing when the Christie device is used in Season 3’s “The Wrong Man”—though, to be sure, that was not a Thorogood-penned episode!). Besides that, nothing quite remarkable except for (SPOILER) the interesting murder by emptying the EpiPen—a method that I cannot believe someone hadn’t thought of before!
  10. “Political Suicide,” directed by Robert Quinn, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 5: This is a tough call… The episode is really very clever, but the gimmick has been done to death (even in a Murder, She Wrote episode—albeit one of the best ones). Wherefore the placement here, then? The gimmick, usually used for impossible crimes, has been used for an alibi here, which is a welcome and unexpected change. Best parts are in examining Camille’s family and relationships. Plot-wise, however, the episode ties with S3:E3 (“An Artistic Murder”), which also has a done-before alibi gimmick.

10b. “An Unhelpful Aid,” directed by Alfred Lot, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 6: An out-of-left-field pick, though I know that I shouldn’t really put a No. 11! This episode ties with No. 10, however, because, while its plot is weaker than both “Political Suicide” and “An Artistic Murder,” it is a far more fun episode than either one. Even a weak Thorogood episode is better than some others penned by less inspired writers! The interplay between Fidel and Dwayne and the interim DI, played by Shirley Henderson of Harry Potter fame, is a highlight of the series, with Poole playing a good armchair detective role (more similar, it must be stated, to Dr. Fell in Carr’s The Blind Barber and The Arabian Nights Murder than to Nero Wolfe, Mycroft Holmes, or [in a few stories] Hercule Poirot!). The episode is so much fun that it makes up for the weak plot, which even a non-mystery buff may guess without much difficulty. Needless to say, though, this being a Thorogood episode, the whole thing is completely fair, well-clued, well-written, and well-paced.

Undated BBC Handout Photo from Death in Paradise. Pictured: Camille Bordey (SARA MARTIN), DI Richard Poole (BEN MILLER). See PA Feature TV Miller. Picture Credit should read: PA Photo/BBC/ Red Planet. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TV Miller. WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' BBC Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be published in print for editorial use during the publicity period (the weeks immediately leading up to and including the transmission week of the relevant programme or event and three review weeks following) for the purpose of publicising the programme, person or service pictured and provided the BBC and the copyright holder in the caption are credited. Any use of this image on the internet and other online communication services will require a separate prior agreement with BBC Pictures. For any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising and commercial prior written approval from the copyright holder will be required.

The Far Side of Paradise:

  1. “Rue Morgue,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 8: A really good episode, with Thorogood’s twists to the old Israel Zangwill gimmick (which he’d used in Episode 1) combined with a method Dr. Fell cites in the Locked-Room Lecture. Two big problems, however, flaw this episode: (1) the stuff with Goodman’s wife, which is really actually annoying and irrelevant, is so hyped up that Fidel’s more important story is scarcely given a moment and (2) there is really no need for the clever locked room gimmick. Despite that, the show’s most ingenious impossible murders tend to be poisonings, and this is no exception.
  2. “A Murder on the Plantation,” directed by Keith Boak, written by Delinda Jacobs—Season 2, Episode 1: An above-par episode (which, with a show as good as this, is saying a lot), but I had to leave it off, despite smart alibis and a dying message, because (1) the usage of the (SPOILER) secret passage, while fairly clued, disappoints and (2) there is no shock in the identity of the murderer(s). A good episode, but lacking a smash finish (just imagine if Thorogood had written it!)—to quote mystery critic Nick Fuller from his comments on Carr’s The White Priory Murders, this episode, like that book, “…has that quality of lost ingenuity, of needless vulgarity—in short, the murderer’s identity lacks inevitability.” The best parts have to do with Camille and the “ghost girl.”
  3. “The Man with the Golden Gun,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Jack Lothian—Season 3, Episode 7: An excellent episode, with good suspects and good atmosphere (shades of Christie’s Ten Little Indians), but for one thing: the most ingenious aspect of the plot is completely plagiarized from Carr’s “The Proverbial Murder.” Too bad.
  4. “Death in the Clinic,” directed by David O’Neill, written by Dan Sefton—Season 2, Episode 3: An ingenious method and intelligent clues complement always-excellent acting. But—that’s all there is. The “Who” and “Why,” unfortunately, are sub-par, and the episode slogs along more than the series’ best (for which we should more fault Mr. O’Neill than Mr. Sefton, I suppose).
  5. “Until Death Do Us Part,” directed by David O’Neill, written by Rebecca Wojciechowski—Season 4, Episode 4: Worth watching for the salt gimmick, which is ingenious (and should be put to use in a better story), and the fact that it’s Camille’s last episode, with the writer having given her an appropriate send-off (far more appropriate, in fact, than Poole’s murder in “Death of a Detective”!). Besides that, ehh, especially plot-wise.

Programme Name: Death in Paradise - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 6) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Florence (JOSEPHINE JOBERT), Humphrey (KRIS MARSHALL), Dwayne (DANNY JOHN-JULES), JP (TOBI BAKARE) - (C) Red Planet Pictures - Photographer: Denis Guyenon

Bottom of the Barrel (no order here):

  1. “Hidden Secrets,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Simon Winstone—Season 4, Episode 2: The team thinks that it’s a suicide and (SPOILER) it is a suicide. Capitally disappointing—and the gimmick is liberally borrowed both from Agatha Christie’s “Murder in the Mews” and Ed Hoch’s (far superior) “The Leopold Locked Room.”
  2. “The Wrong Man,” directed by Cilla Ware, written by Daisy Coulam—Season 3, Episode 2: Guessable from the beginning, completely plagiarized from Christie’s much-plagiarized Peril at End House, and not fun in the slightest. Only redeeming quality is the very beginning, and even the twist there is guessable.
  3. “A Stormy Occurrence,” directed by David O’Neill, written by James Payne—Season 1, Episode 7: Just boring. That’s about it. It’s a boring, uninteresting episode with a gimmick that everyone (even the characters) guesses halfway through. What’s the point of the other half…? Beats me, except to continue the Camille-Poole arc, of which this episode is its most embarrassing point.
  4. “Unlike Father, Unlike Son,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Matthew Barry—Season 4, Episode 8: Good for watching the interactions between Kris Marshall and the always-enjoyable James Fox, but that’s about it. The plot is instantly guessable (despite some OK clues) and taken from Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, with liberal amounts of this show’s own pilot thrown in for good measure.
  5. “Unholy Death,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Colin Blytheway—Season 2, Episode 2: The series’ low. The nasty, vicious anti-Catholic sniping is unforgivable, our heroes act wildly out of character, and the locked room is a joke (and taken in its entirety from a solution in the Locked-Room Lecture). An awful episode, one that we can thankfully write off as a one-time disaster. (Note that Blytheway only wrote for the show one time more.)

 

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Well, there are some categories and some favorite and not-so-favorite episodes! I think it’s really an excellent show, and I can’t wait for Season 5 to premiere here in the U.S.! All the best to everyone reading, and Happy Easter!

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Capsule Reviews

Of all of the realists, Dorothy L. Sayers has to be the most original, the most ingenious, and the best at characterisation. All in all, she is a master (‘mistress’?) of the genre. Now, I’m re-reading the Lord Peter books, and I’ll do little capsule reviews of the books I’ve read thus far.

Whose Body? (4/5): one of the best debuts of any mystery author — the only competitors are Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Innes’s Death at the President’s Lodgings (I mean, who wants to remember John Dickson Carr by It Walks by Night or Gladys Mitchell by Speedy Death?). Lord Peter, at his most — er — ‘whimsical’, does some wonderful detecting in terms of finding out who the dead, naked body in the bathtub is (wearing only a pair of glasses). The identity of ‘whodunit’  — revealed half-way through — is clever and inevitable; the murderer one of Sayers’s best-characterised; and his murder plan beautifully surprising, including an ingenious reversal of the reader’s expectations.

Clouds of Witness (2.5/5): probably Sayers’s worst until Gaudy Night (though I have to re-read this one) and Busman’s Honeymoon. Sayers sets up a wonderful and exciting tale (including His Lordship and Bunter being shot at on the moors) — and then ruins the whole thing in an awful (and not fair-play) solution. Too bad, because this book could have been a masterpiece.

Unnatural Death (5/5):  (see my longer review here) Nick Fuller calls this Sayers’s masterpiece, and he will find few to disagree with him (though I know one of them — Patrick at At the Scene of the Crime does not like this book). Though the reader knows ‘whodunit’ from the beginning, he will love this beautifully-written and -characterised tale. Besides literary values, the intriguing and well-detected ‘why’ question is superb; and the rightly celebrated ‘how’ is absolutely brilliant and ingenious (and so obvious in retrospect). All in all, as brilliant as Christie or Carr at their best.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (4/5): though Mr Fuller doesn’t like this book, I quite enjoyed it. The murder plot — including a clever ‘whodunit’, never Sayers’s strong point — is good; the characterisation excellent; and the whole thing a pleasure to read. Lord Peter, using science, acts as Dr Thorndyke and Bunter as Polton — the realist school at its best.

Well, I hope I’ll get round to posting more — I haven’t done it in a while. And, as I continue posting, I’ll continue writing these reviews (anyone else prefer capsule reviews?).

Oh, and by the way — whoever wants to comment, go ahead.

22 June

finished re-reading Strong Poison

Strong Poison (5/5): definitely one of Sayers’s masterpieces. While ‘whodunit’ and ‘why’ are known early on, Lord Peter, who’s one of our best detectives, being as amusing as Bertie Wooster but with a brain, proving detective novelist Harriet Vane (with whom he is in love) innocent of murder, despite self-doubt, does a superb job of working out the utterly brilliant method, a poisoning as clever as one of Christie’s (and actually used by the Queen of Crime in ‘The House of Lurking Death’). Characterisation is excellent — we really care about these people, not just for their place in the story but for who they are as people. Miss Climpson, despite her annoying letter-writing, is as amusing as ever. In a word, superb.

By the way, while Bunter (who’s surely a first cousin to Jeeves) serves as a Watson of sorts, Chief Inspector Charles Parker, Lord Peter’s main Watson, must be one of the best Watsons ever — intelligent and loyal, by no means an idiot à la Lestrade or even Japp (well, Japp in the early books — by the time One, Two, Buckle My Shoe rolls around he’s much more clever), and coming up with solutions of his own (like Carr’s police officials, especially Chief Inspector Masters).

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The Big Five

Nick Fuller — whose fantastic web-site “The Greatest Game in the World” is now gone with the end of of geocities but which is semi-revived in “oocities” — first used the term “the big five” to refer to the five greatest short story writers of the mystery genre: Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes was his detective, of course); Ernest Bramah (Max Carrados); G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown); H.C. Bailey (Reggie Fortune); and Dorothy L. Sayers (whose novels are even better — her detective is Lord Peter Wimsey). While stressing the term short story, I agree with Mr. Fuller’s idea; and, even though I’m in the middle of my “Re:” series, I thought I’d put a special emphasis on these short story masters. Now, without any further ado, we get to the best known sleuth of all time…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — and Sherlock Holmes: Who doesn’t know the line “Elementary, my dear Watson”? Of course, the Great Detective, though fond of saying both “elementary” and “my dear Watson,” never uttered this famous line, never said it; but I use it as an example of Holmes’s fame, which is rightfully deserved. Though Doyle wrote four Holmes novels — A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear — he really excelled in the short story format. In the Holmes short story he perfected the mystery as created by Poe; and many he wrote are really classics. My favorite Holmes stories? Er — that’s difficult. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” thougn not a mystery per se, with the superb “villain” Irene Adler, is probably my favorite — absolutely superb. “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” a moving and sharply-characterized account of the infamous Pr. Moriarty and Holmes’s “death” over Reichanbach Falls, is just as good — not a mystery but a beautiful story. The Red-Headed League”  (which obviously inspired Chesterton — a hilarious tale wherein the whole case seems to make no sense) is fantastic, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band (a locked-room mystery with an ingenious solution and a really, really evil villain — the superb Dr. Grimsbery Roylott), “Silver Blaze” (the theft of a racing horse and murder of its owner — solution is superb and logical, really well-hidden — and the best clue in the Canon, the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”), and “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (Doyle’s best trick solution — a perfect story with very strong characterizations) are all fantastic, however. Until this point in time, the “puzzle plot” had been neglected — it was Doyle who brought it to is first flowering. Pick up The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is one of the finest short-story collections ever written.

“The Blind Detective” — Ernest Bramah and Max Carrados: Though virtually unknown nowadays, Bramah was a great short-story author — one of the few to escape from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. Carrados is blind — which, ironically, he uses to his advantage, for, as he says, he is not led astray by physical appearences. He is brought his cases by his private detective friend, Mr. Carlyle, an old friend. I’ve only started reading the Carrados stories recently — but they’re very good; it is unforunate that the most-anthologized story, “The Coin of Dionysius,” is also one of the weakest. “The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage” is perhaps Bramah’s best — an ingenious method, with similarities to Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” (see above) and yet which still is different.

G.K. Chesterton and Father Brown: The Father Brown stories are technically perfect: brilliant mysteries, appealing characterizations, and a memorable sleuth in the dumpy, unimportant Father Brown. Chesterton and Doyle together must have invented every trick in the book: almost everything we poor mystery authors do nowadays is merely a variation on something they did or alluded to. Like with Holmes, it is difficult to say which Brown story is my favorite. “The Invisible Man,” often rated Chesterton’s best, has a superb set-up and wonderful clues — however, I can’t completely believe the business with the witnesses… “The Eye of Apollo,” which has the Good Father investigating (with the limited assistance of his ex-criminal friend Flambeau) a suspicious cult with a fixiation on the sun is my favorite, and might just be Chesterton’s best. The solution is absolutely brilliant — the identity of the murderer (the leader of the cult) is known; but it is impossible that he did it. However, this story is rivaled by “The Dagger with Wings” — one of the best short stories (of any genre) every written. While the plot consists of little more than two conversations, the solution is so competely astounding as to make the reader think he’s an idiot for not seeing it. He is not, however; he has been misled by one of the very best detective writers ever — Chesterton rates very highly with Christie, Carr, and Doyle on my list of favorite mystery writers. Please pick up The Innocence of Father Brown or The Incredulity of Father Brown. I assure you you won’t be disappointed.

“My Dear Chap, My Dear Chap”–H.C. Bailey and Reggie Fortune — While I wouldn’t rate them as high as Chesterton or Doyle, the Reggie Fortune stories are very good. My biggest issue with them is Bailey’s love of absurd psychology — at least it’s not as bad as the unspeakably awful Ruth Rendell, whose books include one about a character falling in love with a dummy (yes, like a crash dummy) in the basement… Still, Bailey is often  a clever writer. Reggie is always getting involved in some ridiculous situation, and he quite often detects an ingenious solution. Some are disappointing — something about “leaves” which I can’t remember anything about — but many of them are superb: “The Broken Toad,” “The Long Dinner,” “The Yellow Slugs”…

Bertie Wooster with a Brain — Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey (and Mr. Montague Egg) — Lord Peter is one of my favorite detectives, but it is only recently that I discovered Sayers’s ability with short stories. The stories collected in Lord Peter Views the Body are quite good — “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face” is one of Sayers’s best; “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention” and “The Vindictive Story of the Footprints that Ran” are excellent; and “The Adventurous Exploit in the Cave of Ali Baba” is a superb parody of Doyle’s “The Final Problem.” However, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (the latter being my all-time favorite sleuth), Lord Peter really requires a whole novel to showcase his talents — which sets us up nicely for Montague Egg. Monty (as he is called) is a wine salesman; and his cases (all short stories), while not as well-characterized as the Lord Peter books, are very well-plotted. “Murder at Pentecost,” while a re-use of an old Christie trick (from The Murder at the Vicarage, which was itself based on the earlier The Mysterious Affair at Styles) is very clever; “Murder in the Morning” boasts one of Sayers’s most ingenious alibis; and “Maher-shalal-hashbaz” has a typical ingenious method in the good old Sayers tradition (“Dear Old Dorothy” didn’t do too well whodunit-wise, but her methods were brilliant — see Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, or The Nine Tailors).

These authors are all masters, especially of the short-story. Personally, I’d love to include Agatha Christie as #6 (or even replacing Bailey, whom, as you’ve seen, I have mixed feelings about), despite the fact that my favorite sleuth, Hercule Poirot, never did well in the short form. The Miss Marple short stories, however, are brilliant — and have some of AC’s best impossible crimes: “The Idol House of Astare” (boasting two impossible problems, both, while based on well-known ideas, brilliant; and a sense of atmosphere remniscent of Carr at his best); “Miss Marple Tells a Story” (an ingenious gimmick — based on, but better than, Chesterton’s “invisible man” gambit); and “The Affair at the Bungalow” (nothing impossible, but one of the most deceptively brilliant of all short stories, with a superb triple twist ending). Ah… I’m going to go back to my “Re:” series soon, but I hoped you liked this look at short story masters.

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“A Taste for Death”–Re: P.D. James

Despite much dislike from other fans of the classic whodunit (Patrick on his blog At the Scene of the Crime, for example), P.D. James is, in my humble opinion, the best of the modern mystery authors–far better than the insanity and perversion of Ruth Rendell or the banality of plots with almost anyone else. For one thing, James actually plots–her novels combine the “crime novel” (basically a novel of character with a crime just thrown in for the sake of putting it in the mystery section) and the “detective story,” the latter which we classic whodunit fans love. Her detective, Inspector (nowadays Commander, I think) Adam Dalgliesh, is–at least after the first novel, Cover Her Face, which is disappointing–a real person, with both good and bad points about him. A poet and policeman, Dalgliesh also has a good sense of humor, something missing from almost every mystery nowadays. He was unfortunately portrayed by Roy Marsden in several television miniseries based on James’s novels: unfortunately because Marsden’s Dalgliesh is more boring than Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French, which is quite unlike the way the character is in the books. So, let’s look at this author and her books…

It is difficult to choose which James book is my favorite, for many of them are excellent; and even some of the lesser ones have some good points. Unnatural Causes (a tribute to Sayers, with a guessable murder but an absolutely brilliant–and completely unguessable–method, and some excellent characters), The Black Tower (a very personal case for Dalgliesh after his godfather, a priest, is murdered), and A Taste for Death (overlong but beautifully written, with real deduction and a surprising climax) are probably her best, however. What sets James apart from everyone other “crime novelist” is, as I said, that, while she is hugely focused on the characterization, the plot is important and the solutions often ingenious. It is tremendously unfortunate, then, that of late James’s plots have been getting worse… I really hope she will be going back to her old ways soon. Of James’s non-series works, she is not as good: the two Cornelia Grey books are well-written but not well-plotted; and her other non-series stuff is just boring, Her short stories, however, are better than Rendell’s: she has the twist like Rendell does but no interest of cruel, “sick,” disgusting inner psychology. All three short stories were excellent, and Dalgliesh makes a nice appearence in “Great Aunt Allie’s Flypapers.” I wish–I truly wish–that there were more P.D. Jameses (at least as she used to be) than Ruth Rendells–because, if there were, we’d have a much better mystery section. All in all, P.D. James is an excellent contribution to the genre.

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