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): marvellous, 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 because of 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 marvelling 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 masterly 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 pointed out, 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 likeable 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 marvellously 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. Brava.

*”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 Black 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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