The Death of ‘Death in Paradise’ – The BBC mystery series that has truly been murdered.

One of my most popular blog posts has been a piece I wrote in early 2017 about the award winning, view rating smasher, exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise. In that piece I looked at how its diverse representation of mixed gender and strong well written BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters, alongside wonderful plotting and original crime ideas made the series a real hit, and one to watch for fans of crime fiction.

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The new team

But, this was at the end of season 5, and I am sad to say that since then and particularly with the most recent series, everything that I praised about this programme has been totally reversed. And it is unbelievably shocking.

Let’s start with Race. Each episode has the main cast of the Saint Marie police force, and then the selection of characters who will be involved in the murder investigation. In this cast of suspects is where the series used to take BAME representation and gender balance very seriously, most importantly portraying BAME characters as normal people, and not making them stereotypes of their race or giving them stories that were only about race and nothing else. It was bold and exciting writing, bringing a diverse cast into millions of people’s homes each week. Even winning them awards for diversity. But things have changed horribly.

As I write this we are midway through season 7, and (get ready for this) in the first 3 episodes, nearly half the series, that entire cast of characters are totally white. How is it possible that a series that is set in the Caribbean can have no black characters for its first 3 episodes? What on earth are they thinking? The crimes explored have mainly become about the problems of a white elite that can afford to holiday, own multiple hotels, or lead poker tournaments on the island.

Now I may hear you say that the programme still has its diverse main cast. 3 out of the 4 are black and all non-British. However, the issue is now that the rich character development, tensions and cultural explorations that were dealt with through the main cast in the early series have all been gutted out. The main cast are as cardboard as possible, the black characters being now of mainly fairly low intelligence, only able to do desk work, and seemingly unsure of anything until the white detective amazingly explains it to them, and they are slowly becoming parodies.

We get to episode 4 of this series 7, and we do get to a black cast of characters. However, the major problem here, is that they are given stereotypical ‘black roles’. They are crazy Christian faith healers, and American pentecostal preachers. This is a major issue, as we go again towards the terrible idea that holds so much of our televisual output in this country: that only things about ‘race’ or about ‘black culture’ happen to people of colour, and everything else happens to white people.

The gender balance still remains high, with a mixture represented on screen, but a similar problem occurs here as with racial representation, let me give you an example.  Florence Cassell, right hand woman to both D.I Goodman (of series 3-6) and D.I Mooney of the current series, has become so thin a character as to seemingly have no thoughts of her own. She is written to stand around, asking what is going on, and watching D.I Mooney do everything for her. Then in a recent episode she had the role of chasing a suspect and grabbing them, both of them falling into the water. This caused a spate of write ups calling patronisingly calling her an ‘action woman’. The co-detective before her, Camille Bordey, was a fully rounded, complex and fiery character, who actually did detection. Having a full character, Camille was never called out and lifted up for one specific thing that she did in an episode, but Florence is written so vaguely that when she does one thing (running once in an episode) she gets the patronising name of ‘action woman’, seemingly because she has done nothing else before that or since.

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The classic duo – D.I Poole and D.S Camille Borday

All of this is down to bad writing. This show used to have a gorgeous set of character relationships, with the simple but brilliant premise of an Englishman forced to solve crimes in the sun, and everything that built from that culturally and racially was genius. But now any tension is totally lost. Those who take up the detective role at this point just enjoy being there. They don’t seem to suffer from any tensions apart from some food being too spicy, or a drink being odd, and everyone gets along. And if they don’t it’s because of some extremely base misunderstandings of each others cultures. Like for example in episode three of series 7 where poor Florence can’t possibly understand the idea of the ‘Desert Island Discs’ radio show: “Why would you be thinking about what music you are listening to, you need to survive if you are stuck on an island alone”– I mean please.

And the most tragic of all, for a detective series is the mysteries themselves. What used to be a wonderfully written show, with clear links to the great books of the past, without over stating, and using the best aspects of the genre in a new context were what made series 1 and 2 so wonderful to watch. Now the whole programme has the level of detective writing that you would expect to find in a do-it-yourself murder mystery box that you order for a birthday party.

The crimes used to link so well to the context built, and evolve naturally out of a situation (take the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’, from series 1 as a perfect example), but now it seems that a writer has had a cool idea they want to get out and have then written a ridiculously convoluted and weak set up in which to show that idea off. Take for example, episode 2 of the current series 7 The Stakes are High, where there is seemingly no reason for the killer to create a highly complex and risky murder when they could have bumped off the victim at anytime they liked elsewhere. The ideas, context, motives and clues just don’t stack up, and nothing gels, leaving you covering your eyes in despair.

Take also episode 1 of series 7 Murder From Above, (penned by Robert Thorogood, the series creator, writer of some of the best episodes of the programme, and an actual authority on detective fiction and who therefore should know better.) This episode sees a woman commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of her room locked from the inside. But DI Moony thinks it’s murder. Why? Because the victim left the lid slightly off of her nail varnish and had only painted her thumb nail. How does he convince us as the audience that this small clue means murder? Well he just tells us that’s what it means of course! DI.Mooney (and I paraphrase here) points to the victims bed where there are some shirts folded up neatly and says “no, she would never have left the lid off of her nail varnish, look she is an extremely neat person, this doesn’t make sense.” This represents the worst kind of writing in detective fiction, where the writer simply tells us what things mean, and that they could have no possible other meaning or function – aside from the fact that a folded shirt on one occasion doesn’t make you a neat person, or a hotel maid could have folded them, or someone else etc etc etc.

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But only her thumb nail had been painted!

I could go on and on but you get the point. It’s this kind of poor writing that was satirised in books like The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkely back in 1929!

“Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.”  (Poisoned Chocolates Case, Anthony Berkley, 1929) 

Other than these murderous writing problems, the general dialogue and delivery is so wooden, full of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, with endless stretching out of the most simple concepts that it is actually cringe inducing. I had to take breaks in watching the 3rd and 4th episode in particular because the writing was so poor. The actors (and there are some great ones in the series) fed this terrible dialogue, sound like they are reading their lines from cards next to the camera.

Why does this all frustrate me so much? Well I am of course a fan of detective fiction. When I see a chance that the form may get solid representation, with possible new takes on the genre, not to mention all the other great points about inclusion that this show can bring up, then it’s super exciting. But Death In Paradise now represents why many people think detective fiction is so poor, unintelligent, weak, unliterary and not worth their time. And for a programme that pulls in more viewers than ever (8.79 million for episode 1 of series 7), it’s a tragedy that this is what most people will believe detective fiction is.

It’s so sad to see something that once had such credibility in every area, become the most empty and conservative parody of itself. I implore any readers to go back and watch an episode from series 1 or 2 against this series, it’s like watching two entirely different shows. I want to say there is still a chance that it could pick up again. But unfortunately, I already know that it’s too late. At least I can go back to the days of D.I Pool and Camille Borday, but I know that we cannot have them back again.

 

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Reflections on Impossibilities Through Foreign Bodies (British Library 2017) – Ideas Towards a ‘Locked Room Decalogue’

There has been some great stuff in the bloggersphere the past few weeks. After reading the incisive review by JJ of one Ellery Queen’s problematic locked rooms The Chinese Orange Mystery and the brilliant deconstruction of SS Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories by Noah, they got me thinking: do locked room mysteries need  a different set of ‘rules’ than the average golden age detective story? Are there narrative tools that need to be applied to make a locked room mystery story really work?

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This has set me on the slightly gargantuan task of beginning to create a my own ‘decalogue’ for locked room mysteries. The decalogue I of course reference here is that created by Ronald Knox in 1929. Father Ronald Knox, writer of some wonderful mystery novels and short stories of the Golden age, came up with a set of 10 rules (or a decalogue) for writing detective stories. This famed list was very much tongue in cheek, but was a challenge to the writers of his generation to write better, and has lasted the test of time. You can see the list here at Thrilling Detective. But rather than diving straight in to try and create a possible ‘ten rules for writing locked room mysteries’ (a rather presumptuous task in many ways), I want to begin wrestling with some ideas, with suggestions from you lot, and this post aims to start that.

The other thing that got me thinking about all this was recently completing Foreign Bodies, an anthology of international detective stories, brought together by golden age aficionado Martin Edwards, and published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. Foreign Bodies contains a number of locked room shorts, which touch on different aspects of what makes a locked room mystery work (or not work as the case may be). I’ll use these selected impossible crimes from Foreign Bodies to draw out some ideas about what I think makes a great locked room mystery, on the way towards creating some kind of decalogue of my own in the near future.

Wow!! With that massive introduction/caveat over lets dive into it.

1 –  A Locked Room scenario should flow naturally out of the world created by the author
(Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay)

I have been talking about this a lot lately and mainly because I have been disappointed by the lack of this in so many modern and golden age locked room mysteries. Too often I have seen impossible crimes used as a crude tack on; or that the author seems to have created a nice idea for a problem, but then created a terrible story around it just to facilitate the idea. Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead (which I have just dragged myself through) is a perfect example of that. I think this rule goes for the solution as well. When an author creates a world in which the impossible crime can naturally emerge, or fit in with the narrative, it’s a wonderful moment, which drives the power of the impossibility. And although you are providing a rational ending to your impossibility, if it can relate to the context at hand, and fit in with world created then it’s a total winner

In Venom of the Tarantula, a sweetly composed Indian impossible crime short, the aged, sickly and foul-mouthed Nandadulalbabu, bed bound and surrounded by a constant stream of witnesses, now dedicated t the process of writing poor erotic fiction, is some how able to ingest ‘spider juice’, a deadly poison that in small amounts gives the addict a rush of nervous energy. His doctor doesn’t know how he gets his hands on it, as everything and everyone that goes in and out of the room are watched. Nandadulalbabu challenges the doctor and his family to find out how he does it. This situation could sound absolutely ridiculous, but here is where my point comes in: Bandyopadhyay sets up the scene and characters in a way that means that it feels like this is exactly the kind of thing that would happen, and it’s also exactly the kind of way those people would act, therefore naturally creating this impossible scenario.

2 – Be creative with the set up, clewing and denouement, especially if the locked room is technical.    
(The Stage Box Murder by Paul Rosenhayn)

As many locked room mysteries can be (sometimes necessarily) complex, and in particular need of a strong mental image (and a map in some cases), if one can use unique and exciting methods of delivering the information this strengthens an impossibility no end. In The Stage Box Murder, both the set up and denouement are pretty involved – a man is stabbed in a locked and watched theatre box – but the whole narrative is delivered as two people writing letters to one another. This style allows Rosenhayn to deliver what could be clunky exposition with a natural edge as (again with point one) it’s flowing as it would, naturally, in that type of letter writing and in that context.

These kind of clever and creative tools don’t have to just be used with the overall format  (and can be used very badly – I’m looking at you again The King is Dead) but can be used in plotting, clewing, character and motive also. For example clues can be laced within scene description and the atmosphere of the mystery (as Carr does so beautifully) which then has the amazing meta-effect of both charging and developing the world of the book, while also pointing at the solution and the motivation for the impossibility.

3 – Taking clues and making them maddening, by making them oblique.
(The Cold Nights Clearing by Keikichi Osaka)

Maddening clues, like why someone took 30 minutes to complete there routine journey home rather than 15 (just to pluck an example from Foreign Bodies at random) are of course vital to all types of golden age detective fiction. But the maddening clue in a locked room is super important to the building of atmosphere and mystery because it’s a how-done-it. We are not just trying to decode a clue to work out who the killer is or their motive, but also to find out how on earth they achieved it. So then, when the clue is made heavily oblique, and by that I mean so seemingly left field and unrelated to the problem at hand (a low wattage lightbulb in the wrong packet, why a £5 note is ripped in a certain place, and why someone would fire a blank gun into a wall – just to again pick a few favourites at random from some of the best locked rooms mysteries ever), it adds to the maddening world that is already being created by the impossible crime. If used well, and linked both to the impossibility and the character of the killer (a real challenge), it makes the solution all the more delicious.

In The Cold Nights Clearing the wonderfully obscure clue of why a the lid from a cardboard box is wet (in an otherwise dry and warm room), is one key to a vanishing killer.

4 – Totally subverting the idea of a locked room itself as a way to create an original problem.  
(The Mystery of the Green Room by Pierre Véry)

Sometimes you come across a story with such a clever and brilliantly executed idea it makes you laugh. Véry here takes the whole idea of a classic locked room, as provided by The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, and turns it on its head. In The Green Room, a thief has every opportunity to go into a room and steal priceless items, that they knew about in advance, but they don’t take it. There were no doors watched, locked or otherwise, and no blocks to the room, but the burglar didn’t go in. Why? The detective of Véry’s story then calls the whole thing an ‘open-room mystery’, and the whole story runs in total parallel, right down to the villain, to the The Mystery of the Yellow Room. If you haven’t read Yellow Room, don’t read this first! It totally spoils everything! But this story is a little masterpiece so read Yellow Room so you can get to this, and vice-versa.

5 – The reason for why the crime is impossible, must be as satisfying as the solution to how it was done. 

I don’t have a story to reference for this one, but I couldn’t leave it at 4, not rounded up, I’m not some kind of mad man. This rule I think can be the making or breaking of an great locked room mystery. Many times have I come to a great impossible problem that in the end is so flimsy on the reason to why it exists that it serves to totally negate the power of the impossibility.

The recent episodes of Death In Paradise series 7 (oh how the mighty fallen!) are perfect examples of this going terribly wrong. Impossible problems are used to create a ‘hook’ at the outset, but then by the denouement are deemed to be totally unnecessary. By that I mean, that the killer is going to incredible lengths to pull of an impossible poisoning or a faked suicide attempt (to choose the first two episodes of DIP as an example) when they could have just shot or stabbed them on the beach, or poisoned their drink or food at anytime. With this rule ignored the impossibilities become the equivalent of click bait, used to create an interesting starting point, but actually have no bearing on the motive, and the reason why it all happened. We are then just expected to believe as the audience that someone would go to ludicrous lengths for absolutely no reason apart from the writer trying to show off some clever idea they came up with.

So where would you start with your rules for the perfect locked room mystery? Do you agree with these ones?

 

 

 

 

The Red Pavilion – Robert van Gulik: (1964) 

The Mysteries of the hard hitting Chinese magistrate Judge Dee were penned by Dutchman Robert van Gulik from 1950 through to 1968. Placed as Dutch ambassador to the Chinese government during the second world van Gulik stumbled across a copy of the anonymous Chinese detective work Di Goong An. This book fictionalised the exploits of the real Chinese magistrate Judge De Renjie who lived from 630-700 AD in Tang Dynasty China, and who was considered a great detective. So taken was van Gulik with this book that he translated it into English and then began his own set of fictional mysteries based in part on the real life cases of Judge Dee.

My first encounter with Judge Dee and van Gulik was almost exactly a year ago at the beginning of my blogging life when I read The Chinese Gold Murders, a locked room poisoning that I very much enjoyed. Now having read a second van Gulik work I am getting more excited to explore the whole series. There is something very lucid, striking and believable about van Gulik’s writing. The scene setting, plotting and characterisation allow you to rest into the narrative, and it feels like if this were a TV series it would be very easy to joyfully binge watch.

The Red Pavilion is another of van Gulik’s locked room works, containing not just one but three locked room problems, albeit in the same room. Judge Dee is travelling back to his home province when he must make a stop off at the fictional walled city of Paradise Island. A heaving, tourist metropolis, filled to the brim with gambling halls, brothels and sordid activity. However, when he meets the local magistrate – a clearly quite incompetent and ever so slightly corrupt official – he is forced into helping close up a ‘routine’ case. A simple suicide of a young academic in the bedroom of a high end boarding house known as The Red Pavilion. A sliced throat, barred window and a thick door with large metal key on the inside seems to make it a open and shut suicide. But when a famous courtesan dies in the same room the next day locked from the inside, with only strange markings on her body, and another suicide in the locked room from 30 years prior comes to light, Judge Dee has the task of solving three murders, all with a vanishing assailant.

A creepy introduction kicks off this book nicely and we are rapidly presented with a memorable cast. As we go through the complex ties of the plush and silicious city, van Gulik gives us an insight into the more sordid entertainment of Tang Dynasty China. The three locked rooms are then satisfyingly weaved into the plot; one necessitates, motivates or complicates the other. The murders work in both an immediate and historical timeline, with the 30 year gap from the first locked room to the second and third providing depth and richness to the plot with past grievances relating to the present ones.

The impossibilities are also, importantly, born out of the historical Chinese context that is so well set by van Gulik. This is something I bang on about a lot but I believe is so important: it really works when the impossibility naturally arises from the context the writer has created or is exploring, rather than used as a gimmicky tack on, or something seemingly unrelated to what’s going on elsewhere in the narrative. And van Gulik handles this with flair.

There is a strong respect and love for the culture at hand in and the historical knowledge is clear. You get a well crafted sense of the context without it feeling overbearing or over explained. There are also a number of well placed comical moments through the book, the double act of ‘The Shrimp’ and ‘The Crab ‘being particularly memorable characters.

Some lovely clues set early on come back to haunt you by the reveal, and the whole plot has a solid disclosure. As with The Chinese Gold Murders, van Gulik packs this mystery to the brim with events, giving you a huge amount of information in a very short space of time (170 pages) without it ever feeling like you are loosing your way. And with this book, more than Chinese Gold, there is a Carrian style level up on clewing going on, in that clues are not only set in the dialogue or within the instances that take place between characters, but also in the atmosphere and scene description. Some subtle scenic pointers come to bear on the final solution in a satisfying way.

By the end we are not presented with one solution to the locked rooms, but three. One was an absolute classic that I should have seen coming a mile off but the way it was presented still got me and had me kicking myself. The other two were unique twists fitting solidly into the context of the room itself that I think were very satisfying.

My criticisms? I do love the character of Judge Dee, but there is more than one occasion where a scene runs something like: “I wish I could see the pattern”, he paced the room and suddenly the pattern came to him. You know the kind of thing I mean, you wish you were partaking in the deduction rather than being told its happening in a characters head. Dee’s reasoning does come to the fore at the end, but its usually post-rationalisation (if I can use that term); he’s already worked it out and you are presented with the links. This book is still fair play for sure, but sometimes I wish I could walk alongside Dee rather than watch him from a distance.

In saying that I do realise that not every GAD writer wants a detective who reveals there process. I have seen that for example in the Inspector Cockrill mysteries of Christianna Brand – Suddenly at His Residence and Tour de Force being good examples – where Cockrill is very much in the background, along with his deductions, and therefore the reasonings of the rest of the cast are what makes up the ‘detection’ of the novel. Brand cleverly uses emotional responses and ‘lay’ deductions from characters as a way of clewing and building plot (man she is good!) But that isn’t really seen here with van Gulik. It does make me wonder, as van Gulik was so committed to the Gong’an writing style that this could be a stylistic choice note redolent of those early Chinese works? I need more expert input here (I’m looking at you Ho Ling and Tom Cat).

When it comes to the women in the book I wish it could sometimes be a little less historically accurate. The buying, selling and sexualisation of women is potent (it is a brothel town after all), but there are some good female characters, and over all the book exists as a critique on the fickle world of gambling and prostitution, particularly through Judge Dee whose fixed morality hits out against these practices. There is a reflection on the fleeting nature of beauty, and on how one may find love within these moral complexities.

If you see a van Gulik on your travels whip it up, particularly his locked room works. He has a lovely handle in these complex mysteries which is very satisfying to watch unfold.

My first year in blogging: The best and what’s next!

It’s December 2017 and with that comes the anniversary of my first year of blogging! I started The Reader Is Warned with the sole purpose of getting things out of my head. Excitements, thoughts, ideas and theories about locked room mysteries and impossible crimes that had to come out somewhere, and I really didn’t think much more would come of it. But something totally surprised me, and that was all of you! I have found a group of bloggers and readers who share these passions and a desire to express them, discuss them and read about them together.

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I have been recommended books and TV shows I never would have read or seen otherwise. I have a deeper insight into this whole crime genre and it’s joys and treasures. I have discussed and debated with so many people in this digital world, and I have met fellow bloggers JJ, Kate and Puzzle Doctor in person! Myself and JJ started our podcast together on impossible crime fiction, and through that I have met and interviewed authors I love, and we have had some great laughs making the series. What a year it has been! Thanks to all of you for making this what it is, and here’s to another year!

Well, before I get carried away and start tearing up, I thought I would take an opportunity to look back over this year and try and pick my favourites. With so many great books it has proved an almost impossible task (pun intended). But with you folks behind me I know I can achieve anything! (Yeah! High five! Okay I’ll stop this now). Here is my run down of some of my favourite reads of 2017, and what I’m reading next:

The Chinese Gold Murders – Robert Van Gulik: 1952
My second book review on this blog, and still a stand out work for me. Multiple impossible crimes set in 7th century China written by Dutchman, whats not to love!? I think Van Gulik really had something special with this series, and the historical context, written from experience, is compelling and makes for original forms of detective fiction. As an anniversary special, I am next up reading and reviewing another impossible Judge Dee novel by Van Gulik, The Red Pavilion, which contains three locked room murders! So watch this space.

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Ronald Knox – The Short Stories: 1931 – 1947
Hunting out these three shorts from Knox was a real highlight of 2017. I find Knox is totally underrated, and possibly because he was really a master of the short story form rather than the novel, and these three shorts prove it. Solved By Inspection is still one of my top 10 locked room short stories, if you haven’t read it, go and do it now! Expect to see some Ronald Knox novels discussed on this blog this coming year.

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Christiana Brand – Suddenly At His Residence: 1944
This year was my first time reading Brand and what a writer she was! Her sheer volume of ideas is staggering clever, and it was difficult to choose a favourite. But I went for Suddenly at His Residence because it has the best of all her skills (that I have read so far) all rolled into one book: solid impossible set up, so many top level false solutions, great clewing, great comic/tragic characterisation and a kicker ending. I have her first novel Death In High Heels on the TBR ready to be read and reviewed this year, and London Particular is also burning a whole in my bookshelves.

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Cue For Murder – Helen McCloy: 1942 

Having read McCloy’s impossible classic Through a Glass Darkly before starting this blog, I really wanted to get my hands on some of her other work. Cue For Murder was a great way to continue with her oeuvre and wins the award for best motive for murder out of everything I have read this year. It also has one of my favourite opening little maddening mysteries/clues that spirals outwards into the book’s murders. Next up for McCloy on this blog will be another of her locked room classics Mr Splitfoot. 

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It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr: 1930 

I have read so much good Carr this year; Till Death Do Us Part and She Died a Lady absolutely blew my mind (obviously), and Nine – And Death Makes Ten surpassed all my expectations and was one of my top shock killers of the year. The reason I pick It Walks By Night for this list is, as Carr’s first book, it’s amazing how it acts as a perfect map for where Carr would take his career. And how the book is a clear homage to Poe was wonderful to see.

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Siobhan Dowd – The London Eye Mystery: 2007

A solid, perfectly executed, contemporary locked room mystery from the late and great Siobhan Dowd was a total favourite this year. A young boy steps into a pod on the London eye and when it comes back round he has vanished! I mean come on! This also put me on the path to the work of the brilliant Robin Stevens, who published a sequel to the book this year (2017), who myself and JJ of The Invisible Event interviewed for the second episode of our podcast.

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Well there you have it, some of my tops reads from this year. I hope they are inspiring to you, particularly if you haven’t read them before. And thanks once again to all my readers and fellow bloggers out there writing about all this stuff, it’s been a joy to share this all with you. Happy Christmas and Happy 2018!

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles, Episode 3: Murder On The Way! – Theodore Roscoe (1935)

I am excited to announce that the third episode of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles is now online! Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction. In this episode I had the great privilege of interviewing JJ himself about his work in bringing back to print the forgotten, locked room master piece Murder On The Way! by Theodore Roscoe.

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We talk Roscoe, Haitian voodoo, multiple locked rooms and why its so hard to bring back Golden Age detective works that have slipped into obscurity (spoiler free!). Just press play below to enjoy! The episode can also be downloaded by clicking the download button on the top right. You can listen to all our episodes here.

 

Forgotten Authors – Holly Roth: The Mask of Glass (1957)

I love finding a mystery writer that I have never come across before, which as you dig deeper into this ol’ world of classic crime fiction is sometimes easier than you think. It’s even better to come across one in a second hand bookshop and, for some whimsical reason, to be taken with the title, the cover or description (though I try not to read those too much) and decide to go with it. So begins my relationship with Holly Roth.

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Very little information exists online about Roth (any experts on her work out there I would love to hear from you), but what I gleaned about her from this 1957 paperback of The Mask Of Glass and other online sources is very interesting. Roth was a highly intelligent woman of the world, born in Chicago and moving between America, England and Europe, she finally resided in New York. Beginning her career as a model she left that for newspaper and magazine work before settling on the mystery and suspense field, publishing 12 novels under three different names and writing a number of television and film mysteries. Her works were serialised in magazines and very much are part of the pulp genre, although with a GAD feel and twist.

Roth composed extremely tightly plotted stories and The Mask of Glass is no exception. Clocking in at only 154 pages and containing really only two main characters this is a pacy, contained piece. The Independent in their forgotten authors series ‘Invisible Ink’, described Roth’s thrillers as ‘high-concept before the term had been created’, and The Mask Of Glass fits that bill perfectly:

Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, wakes up in hospital to find himself unable to move, bandaged and cast all over, his head wrapped up with a few spaces for eye holes. He has been saved by a Doctor Steinfeld (‘Doc’) a long term family friend, but the Doc doesn’t know what has happened and by the looks of it neither does Jimmy. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jimmy is forced to mentally reconstruct the last few days events, that lead to the intense night of violence he experienced. As each piece of the story unravels it builds into an exploration of corruption, murder and the haunting nature of a shifting identity, as Kennemore decides what action he can take in the wake of this terror.

I find it very frustrating when reviewers say things like ‘I wasn’t sure at first but then it turned out to be brilliant’, but in this case this really sums up my experience with this book. As you begin the writing is deceptively sparse, extremely tight, with absolutely no fuss, and therefore quite quiet in how it initially comes across. But it’s this restraint of description, plot and dialogue that carries you as the reader into a intriguing and refreshing space, and the simplicity in her writing allows the tension to be turned up to high when it comes; something that Roth was also a deft hand at. We follow Kennemore the entire time, each chapter only serves to advance the story, with very little deviation away from stepping forward.

There are some lovely ideas in terms of counter intelligence mixed with detection style deductions and reveals. The cypher and solution to the six pages of stencilled black dots found in a stolen file, and Kennemore’s ability to decipher telephone numbers by listening to the clicks on the dial through the wall are satisfying examples.

The whole book had that feeling (can you relate to this?) where something about it gets under your skin and when you are not reading about it you are thinking about it. Not so much a ‘I must know whats going to happen’ but just something about the precise and stripped back context she has created makes me want to get back to that world and to inhabit it again.

My one objection to Roth’s style is her desire for naturalism in dialogue. The dialogue is not ‘novelistic naturalism’ but reads like actual dialogue you would say or hear, and therefore can be so natural it becomes obvious, unneeded or stilted. But on the other hand this ‘slice of life’ style works well in setting up the atmosphere of New York, and the little instances in cafes, taxi’s and sidewalks serve the narrative well.

Roth came to a tragic and mysterious end herself. In 1964 she was sailing on and living aboard a ketch with her Czechoslovakian husband Joseph Franta, when a large ship hit the boat and sailed on into the night. Roth fell from the side and her body was never recovered. The strangest coincidence here is that in Roth’s book Operation Doctors, written just two years before her death, a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Frank Roth, Holly’s brother, a rare coin dealer, said at the time of her disappearance that he hadn’t seen her since she got married in 1960. The Mask Of Glass, written in published in 57, is dedicated to Frank ‘with love’.

The Invisible Ink piece closes with this notable passage:

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.

I’m looking forward to reading another Roth, and although much more in the pulp/thriller genre, there was a lot about this little book that won me over, I hear as well that others count Shadow Of A Lady as her best work so I hope to find a copy of that soon.

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A little after thought, I am yet to read any Earl Stanley Gardeners ‘The DA…’ series, but from what I have read from the rest of the GAD community, this tight and sparse beauty of writing and plotting that I see in Roth could be said to be a similar experience in reading Gardener? Many of the ‘DA’ books clock in around the 150 page mark as well. Any thoughts anyone?

 

 

 

5 More Impossible ‘Thrillers’ to Try (Part 2)

In my last post I gave a list of 5 brilliant locked room mysteries from the golden age of crime fiction, or written in the golden age mould, that work as for runners to the ‘thriller’ genre. Page turning mysteries that never hold up on the pace.

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But as with all lists picking out just 5 was too difficult, and so many great books got missed out. So I thought why miss out, let’s do some more! So here are another 5 thrilling, high paced, page turning impossible crime works, to add to your list:

1 – Murder on the Way – Theodore Roscoe (1935)

Published originally as a serial under the title ‘The Grave Must Be Deep’ this is an absolutely rip-roaring mélange of impossible madness. Locked room shootings, lead to hovering guns, lead to impossible vanishings, lead to being buried alive, lead to a woman impossibly healed after being shot in the head, and that’s just a small selection of the book’s mysteries. Constant threat and a brilliant ticking-clock-set-up give this book it’s furious pace, and the maddening claustrophobia of being stuck in one house on one island (pre-Agatha Christie) make this into a perfect example of an early thriller. It is also a book of firsts: set in Haiti it must be one of the earliest golden age crime novels to have a totally mixed race cast, with most of the main characters being black, it is also one of the very first Zombie novels – not the kind of Zombie we know today, but in it’s original Haitian origins – and it opens with the phrase ‘funny queer not funny ha-ha’ which is original to Roscoe, and which thanks to him is now an everyday part of the English language. This book will be the subject matter of our next Men Who Explain Miracles podcast as my fellow podcaster and blogger JJ went on an amazing journey himself getting this book pack into publication.

2 – Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr

Set in 1805, during the assault by Napoleon on Britain, this is a stand alone Carr and is part impossible crime work, part spy novel and part historical thriller. A silent, invisible killer known as ‘Captain Cut-Throat’, with the ability to to kill without being seen is knifing sentries in the Napoleon’s vast battle-camp poised to sail on England.

Not being hugely drawn to historical works per-se I was totally surprised by this book. The natural flow of the narrative, and the tension built by Carr with every plot point meant that I couldn’t put it down. The impossible angle is played down but gives rise to everything that follows and creates terror among the sentries that makes for a brilliant sense of hysteria throughout. There are some of the best written scenes in any Carr book here, just for the their sheer pace and the depth of the contextual framework.

3 – The Judas Window – John Dickson Carr – as Carter Dickson (1938)

I am honestly trying not to have majority Carr works here, but he has so many good examples what can I say? He isn’t called the master of the locked room for nothing. The Judas Window is hailed as one of Carr’s best, and there is very good reason for that. I also think it’s another of his most thrilling. James Answell arranges to visit his future father-in-law, Avory Hume, at his London home. Hume pours drinks for the both of them in his strong room, fitted with metal shutters on the windows and a huge wooden door with sliding bolts. But after a few sips Answell begins to lose consciousness, finally passing out, his drink being drugged. When he wakes Hume is dead, stabbed with an trophy arrow taken from the back wall. Only Answell and Hume are in the room, and only Answell’s finger prints are on the arrow, all the windows and doors being locked from the inside. Answell says he is innocent and the only one who believes him is the magnanimous Sir Henry Merrivale.

The reason I add this one to the list is for the peril in which Answell finds himself, with the ticking clock of his arrest and impending trial in court, the closing chapters of which have to be one of the best and most fast paced court room drama’s there are. I was literally racing to the end to finish it on my first read.

4 – The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada (1981)

Another master work from the land of the rising sun. A harrowing prologue sets the pace for a number of brilliant impossible crimes. Painter, serial womaniser and astrological obsessive Heikichi Umezawa is found dead in his studio, locked from the inside. Only his footprints are in the snow leading up to the door and he has a head wound inflicted by an object that is nowhere to be found. Upon his death his studio is searched and a manuscript is found containing an elaborate horrific plan for Umezawa to create the perfect woman, known to him as ‘Azoth’. He would create this woman by killing his daughters and step daughters, recomposing them. And you can see what’s coming next, even though he is now dead, his plan somehow begins to be carried out, and his daughters begin to go missing. Multiple modernist breakdowns and challenges to the reader are all the more maddening, but what makes me add this book to this list particularly is the use of horror to drive the plot. There are twisting moments that rely on some pretty chilling ideas to work, not used for the sake of making something horrific for shock value, but written as a natural development to all that has happened, and therefore all the more powerful.

5 – Big Bow Mystery – Israel Zangwill – (1892)

One of the first locked room mysteries proper, and a very early example of what are now considered both locked room and thriller staples. Mrs Drabdump, owner of a working class, east end boarding house pounds on the door of one of her lodgers, who unusually hasn’t risen from bed. The door locked on the inside she begins to be worried and calls in the expertise of her neighbour, the retired detective Mr George Grodman. Breaking down the door they find the young lodger dead in his bed, throat cut from ear to ear, all windows locked from the inside and no weapon to be found. This book is marvellously written and is a pitch perfect satire of class culture and the East End of London in the late 1800’s, from a man who lived and worked there, and was one of the first books to bring humour into a story of murder. This in many ways was born from the ‘sensation’ literature of the victorian era, but with fast paced, dark twists.

What makes this one a thriller in my opinion is the pitting of the old detective George Grodman against the young gun on the scene Edward Wimp, both of whom detest each other, battling it out with old and new methods of detection. The race to finish line becomes wild as the public outcry for justice builds, with crowds and riots in the street. The last few chapters, and indeed the last few lines are as thrilling as they come. The solution to the locked room was the first of it’s kind and has been imitated no end since.

Special Mention:

6 – Killer’s Wedge – Ed McBain (1959)

Well I couldn’t just do 5 could I? Killers Wedge sees Detective Steve Corella, out on the case of a creepy locked room murder. Back at the station Virginia Dodge walks into the 87th Precinct with a gun and a bottle of Nitroglycerin. One shot into the bottle, or one knock onto the floor is enough to blow the whole block sky high. Dodge plans to kill Corella, and stating that no one can come or go until he arrives she takes the entire station hostage. Taking a seat in the centre of the room, the bottle sits perilously on the edge of the table, and with no way of communicating with Corella or each other, the remaining officers must work out a way of getting to the bottle before Dodge can use it. The suspense is nail biting, and as the heat rises you are flying through the pages to see what happens. A number of perfectly timed phone calls and arrivals in the precinct up the ante all the more.

Why this is not in the main list is for the way the locked room plays into the plot. There was some discussion, between locked room aficionados JJ and TomCat in the comments of my last post, about how much it could be said that the locked room in Killer’s Wedge provides the thrilling element. In the rest of my list the impossible angle is the origin of the thriller narrative, where as here the locked room provides a reason for Corella not to be there but doesn’t necessarily play into the hold up back at the precinct. Having said that the complexity of the locked room, means that Corella doesn’t leave quickly (which you are desperate for him to do), although again this could be any complicated crime to keep him away.

However what I think does make the locked room a thrilling element in this book, is how it works on it’s own merit. What is revealed as the door is broken down stays with you for a long time. Also the solution is one of my favourites, and this book has pride of place in my locked room collection.

So there we have it, another 6 books to fill your shelves with. I do not apologise in anyway for burdening you with for books to add to your list.

Anymore recommendations from readers? Any more great thrillers from the golden age or in the golden age mould to try?