Tag Archives: vintage mystery

Tuesday Night, Travel edition: THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED.

titian adonis detail

Titian: Venus and Adonis

The vintage mystery bloggers’ monthly challenge this month is TRAVEL AND HOLIDAYS. Last month and the month before I read perfectly appropriate books and then failed to produce my posts, so this month I’m going to write about a non-classic mystery, Sarah Caudwell’s THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED (1981). I know, I know, it’s only 35 years old; but it has the best-ever travel-related plot device and is in general a delightful work. My attempt to tease it apart it for this review has given me a heightened appreciation for its complex structure, tricky but (mostly) clued solution, and stylish language. There’s a three-way phone conversation towards the end that reads like a trio from a Mozart opera. Well, a parody of a Mozart opera, anyway.

The first of what turned out to be four comedy-of-manners mystery novels Caudwell wrote before her untimely death, THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED introduces us to Professor of Legal History at Oxford Hilary Tamar, who in turn introduces us to a cluster of his or her (this detail is never confirmed) younger lawyer friends. Timothy, Selena, (Desmond) Ragwort, and (Michael) Cantrip, barristers, share chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, and next door their friend Julia Larwood “sits all day, advising quite happily on the construction of the Finance Acts”; that is, she is a tax lawyer. It is late summer, or in university terms the Long Vacation. Hilary has come to London in pursuit of some research in medieval law and stops by to have coffee with the Lincoln’s Inn gang. Julia, we learn, has gone on holiday to Venice and is expected to provide a chronicle of her adventure in the form of letters. These letters are then read aloud to the group and form (with some other epistolary elements) a large part of the text of the novel.

Julia is notoriously impractical and accident-prone, and also highly susceptible to the charms of pale, pretty, slim young men. To insulate her as far as possible from the effects of the former characteristics, Selena has made sure she is attached to an organized tour, an Art Lover’s Tour in fact, and Ragwort has loaned her his precious guidebooks (some in English, some in Italian) to Venice and the cities of the Veneto, protected from the drips and stains inevitable in Julia’s vicinity by sturdy paper covers. (As to the latter tendency, far from countering, Julia intends to make the most of it.) As the friends discover in the first of Julia’s letters, she did not even manage to get on the plane before being separated from her passport, and before the flight takes off she has marked as fellow Art Lovers a stereotypically Empire-hearty, shorts-wearing military type, an “armour-plated matron,” a “rather pretty girl” traveling with a handsome but “peevish” American man, and two young men, one strong but gloomy and one more slender, who she later discovers is the possessor of “a face for which Narcissus might be forsworn and the Moon forget Endymion.” Swoon. “‘I don’t think she’s mentioned Praxiteles since that out of work actor in February,” Selena says.

When the friends next meet for the reading of two more of Julia’s letters, Timothy is to treat them to dinner because he too has to go to Venice, to consult with a client whose large tax obligation (due when he comes into a rich trust on his 25th birthday) can be relieved if he can only be persuaded to establish domicile in England; but he hates England.  As they debate stratagems, Timothy receives a phone call whose burden has already been revealed to the reader: Julia has been detained as a suspect in a murder.

It is the beautiful young man, Ned, who has been stabbed, apparently while asleep in his bed at the Hotel Cytherea, and Julia is implicated because, well, she had been there earlier, and her copy of the Finance Act is still beside the bed.

Naturally Timothy will make Julia’s rescue a second goal of his trip to Venice, while the London team read the rest of Julia’s letters as they arrive, transmissions from the recent but AM (ante murder) past recounting the sometimes ominous actions and conversations of the Art Lovers as well as their travels round the cultural and hedonic attractions of Venice and the Veneto. We follow their guide, Graziella, to Piazza San Marco and the Doges’ Palace.

Graziella instructed us to note the development, as thereby exemplified, from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, and gave us a little lecture on the Venetian constitution. She spoke of it tenderly: it had been, it seemed, a splendid constitution, full of senates and checks and balances and other things delightful to the political theorist.

“If it was that fine,” asked Stanford, “why didn’t it last?”

“It lasted six hundred years, signor,” said Graziella. “And when it was quite worn out and would not work at all any more, it was exported, of course, to the United States of America.”

We hear about the marital tensions of Marylou and Stanford, the good-looking and well-off Americans; the possibly shady plans involving vintage furniture and objets d’art of the Major (Bob) and the matron (Eleanor); and how Julia served as guide on the group’s mainland trip to Asolo, Vicenza, and Verona, relying on Ragwort’s guidebooks.  (She does complain that the Vicenza book is deceptive, but proudly reports her strategic triumph in finding many of the most important piazzi, palazzi, and chiesi (and their notable pictures) in Verona, somewhat startling in the face not only of her general talent for confusion but of her admittedly loose grasp of Italian.) We also hear about Julia’s romantic encounters first with a charming hotel waiter and then, yes, with the beautiful Ned, despite his being partnered with the gloomy young man, Kenneth, a sculptor.

And in the present the friends work to learn all they can about the other Art Lovers and to figure out what actually happened. Certainly Julia did not kill Ned, notwithstanding her loathing for his employers, the Inland Revenue Service. (Julia’s being a tax lawyer has not kept her out of the grasp of the tax authorities.) And in all likelihood even she could not have slept, and waked, next to a corpse without noticing the fact.

Except of course for Julia and the late Ned, the Art Lovers return to London and are there trailed, encountered, and interviewed by Hilary, Cantrip, Ragwort, and Selena. Eventually, applying the principle of lectum difficilium* (don’t forget, Hilary’s a scholar of legal history), quite a bit of larcenous thinking, and some fairly arcane art historical knowledge, Hilary untangles the narrative’s threads —Timothy’s tax and trust case is involved too — and sets up a dramatic showdown to provide the proof.

If you are curious to know, or think you’ve guessed, what that plot device I like so much might be, it is SPOILER ALERT! the confusion of a guidebook to Padua for a guidebook to Verona. You take a look at the two maps some day, with their loops of river and their San Whozit churches and Piazzas di this and that, and see if you don’t believe it could happen.

*That between two versions of a text, “the most difficult reading is to be preferred,” as Hilary puts it.

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Vintage mysteries by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

A first experience of Phoebe Atwood Taylor

First two experiences, I should say. The very first came about through a coincidence, or accident, suitable to a classic mystery. I cannot fathom why a copy of the 1966 Norton edition of Taylor’s 1938 THE ANNULET OF GILT, one of her series featuring Cape Cod local hero Asey Mayo, should have swum up out of the depths of the Brooklyn Central LIbrary’s stacks and onto the not very extensive Mystery shelves of my local Carroll Gardens branch. I’d never heard of Taylor but this was definitely a Vintage Mystery, or vintage something anyway (a mere glance at the typeface would have told you so), and I snatched it up. When I couldn’t get the self-checkout kiosk to recognize the volume, I brought it to the librarians’ desk. “You’ve saved it,” said the technician, clicking some keys and releasing it to me, “it was due to be discarded.”

In the first sentence it is established that our hero, Asey Mayo, drives a roadster. A roadster!  I doubt I’ve come across many literary roadsters since my Nancy Drew days (and suspect I’ve never seen one in three dimensions). And indeed the book seems to me to affiliate with kids’ adventure books as much as it does with mysteries. The three rambunctious children Asey glimpses in that first sentence are key to the story, and the light tone of their dialogue prevails throughout the book, though Bad Things including murders do happen.  There’s even an elephant. On the mystery side, there are also plenty of clues (though Asey learns some things before we do) and a classic case summary.

I went back to the BkPL catalog to see if there were any more Taylor treasures lurking un-withdrawn, and found one of the mysteries she wrote under the name of Alice Tilton. (As Taylor, her real name, she wrote over 20 Cape Cod-set Asey Mayo stories; as Tilton, half a dozen mysteries featuring secret adventure novelist and Shakespeare lookalike Leonidas Witherall’s sleuthing in the Boston suburbs. She also used the pseudonym Freeman Dana.) This was 1943’s FILE FOR RECORD, reprinted in 1987 by Foul Play Press in Vermont. It too has a lighthearted air, despite quite a nice person getting brutally killed. Where ANNULET develops its Cape Cod atmosphere carefully through landscape (and seascape) descriptions and dialogue styles and accents, FILE FOR RECORD collides its Massachusetts suburb with a classic British country house mystery, including, along with a baffling and decorative (samurai sword) murder, people who say “Er” and “I say,” a gentleman’s umbrella, and a local Major. It is also a WWII home front story: key elements are shortages of gas and of young men, an air raid alarm, and two “victory swop” events. Like ANNULET, it offers us a cheerful, unflappable, modest hero and a likable gang of helpers that accumulates around him. Sample line of dialogue: “‘Turk,'” Leonidas said, ‘move over and make room for the admiral.'”

I enjoyed both novels very much and would happily read any others, in either series, that I come across. I also hope someday to find one of her Freeman Dana stories.

UPDATE: A nice report from mystery blogger Kate at Crossexamining Crime on Taylor/Tilton’s last Witherall mystery, THE IRON CLEW. I had wondered whether the mock-Aristotelian effect of the whole thing taking place in a single day were common to all the Witherall books; it is true of both of these, so I am inclined to believe it is.

Covers, potentially for the Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: ANNULET OF GILT, a car (a roadster?) fallen off the road; FILE FOR RECORD, a stack of papers stabbed with a knife.

 

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THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY #1933book

pigback

pig from the back

My first entry in Crimes of the Century, really my first take on mystery blogging.

THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Freeman Wills Crofts! The very name redolent of—something or other.  I have read many mysteries in my day, but largely unscientifically, and am not an aficionado of the strict fair-play puzzle mystery so much admired by the mystery blogging community. Nonetheless, or perhaps for this very reason, I was pleased to discover that THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY would suit the #1933book rubric for my first-ever entry in the Crime of the Century collaboration; would introduce me to the work of Crofts, by reputation one of the most exacting of fair-play authors; and was available, in the new British Library Crime Classics edition edited by Martin Edwards, at the Brooklyn Public Library.

The situation: A semi-retired doctor disappears, in the course of five minutes, from the sitting room in his home in the Surrey countryside, below the Hog’s Back ridge that names the book. Has he run off, been kidnapped — or is he dead? There’s no sign, and after a baffled week the local authorities call in the Yard, in the person of scrupulously systematic Inspector French. Borrowing the local sergeant’s bike for transport, French searches the grounds and re-interviews Dr Earle’s friends (including Dr Campion, his partner, Campion’s sisters Alice and Flo, and Ursula Stone, visiting schoolfriend of Earle’s wife; relations (wife Julia and Julia’s sister Marjorie, also visiting); and neighbors (Reginald Slade and Colonel Dagger).

It seems unlikely that Earle, if he were to have run off (perhaps with the young woman with whom Ursula spots him driving “along the east side of Seymour Street” in London when he says he’s playing golf), would have done so in his slippers and with no access to funds, but there’s no evidence of anything else either: no body.  Following the details and interviewing train ticket sellers and car park attendants, French is led to a new name and a new absence: Nurse Nankivel, evidently Earle’s London liaison, who has herself gone missing. French immediately reaches the obvious conclusion: “Earle and this nurse had gone off together. On the Thursday they had met to complete their plans, and on the Sunday they had put them into effect.”

Perhaps I need not say that French is wrong about this. It is, after all, not even the middle of the book.

Nurse Nankivel’s missing-persons case, too, is handed to French and in his interviews with Nankivel’s colleagues he discovers the original connection between Earle and Nankivel. Nankivel had been live-in nurse at a house in the Hog’s Back area a few weeks before. Campion was the chief doctor and Earle had been called in as consultant. French even tracks down a telegraph signed by Earle appointing a meeting with Nankivel just where a new road and overpass are being constructed at the Hog’s Back ridge. French will find time to enjoy watching the earth-moving and building work, reminiscing about happy times on an earlier case, that of the Whitness Widening.

Up to this point the book has been short on pace, Now, though, things perk up, in a manner of speaking. Ursula Stone, who has stayed on at the Earles’ house to support her friend Julia, disappears. This time evidence of a crime of violence is found almost at once, in the classic forms of a footprint (in a conveniently placed patch of sand, “which had evidently been thrown up by a rabbit [and which] was the only sand in the immediate neighborhood”), a few strategically placed drops of blood, and a depression in some grass (later known as Thicket No. 1). Thicket #2 is also found, confirmed by a thread from Ursula’s green sweater (furze is so very apt for snagging wool). From here on it is a veritable rain of clues: clean joints revealing a secret safe and a confidential manuscript, fingerprints, a distinctive yellow clay smeared in the footwell of Reg Slade’s car. Even a reader minimally driven to solve mystery stories will have twigged that yellow clay as matching the soil at the new road cut. A sticky and effortful night scene follows as construction workers and policemen dig up the new bank until the bodies of all three missing persons are revealed, at long last, on about page 226.

Eventually, of course, there are enough clues, and Inspector French spends enough time charting them out and pondering them, to work out Who, trickily, did What, Why, and especially When (it all comes down to close timing of alibis and car trips, fibbery and misdirection). The root of the three murders leads back to old Mr. Frazer, Dr Campion’s and Nurse Nankivel’s late patient. After everything’s wrapped up, all is explained by French to his police colleagues over drinks (“Fortified with another tot, French went on with his tale”) and smokes in the approved fashion, a narrative accompanied by time chart, diagram, and citations back to the page in this very volume where each relevant detail was observed. (If only French were active today, in the epoch of PowerPoint!) To do Crofts justice, French’s friends tease him for his deliberate and prolonged exposition.

So, on to reflection. The puzzle was certainly puzzling, and its disentangling scrupulous, to the point almost of absurdity. The tale’s strange lack of urgency, its willingness to take weekends off to go to Romney Marsh by train (express [p. 153]) and bus, to fuss with cigarettes and meals (“Breakfast was becoming quite a problem” as French searched the Earles’ house (p. 173), give it a narcotic detachment. I assume these small details are meant to give an illusion of humanness to the otherwise mostly wooden figures populating the book. There are occasional eruptions of humanity: the odd relationship between the snubbing Julia and her enamored young neighbor, for instance, though irrelevant to the mystery, is unusually startling and lifelike. Ursula Stone, from whose point of view we see the first few chapters, is another exception, but her interiority disappears long before her character.

Though the puzzle was, as the citations are meant to assure us, fair*, somehow it doesn’t feel fair, to me anyway.  Is it that the murder/cover-up plot is so precise and at the same time so flimsy? Or that the motivation, though perfectly realistic, is never shown to us in anyone’s behavior?

Clearly, this is not my favorite style of story. But I can see its virtues and enjoy them, along with the guileless exposure of Crofts’ own passions for machinery and engineering, literal and figurative. (The tools in Campion’s workshop: circular saw, planing machine, mortising machine, vertical drill, lathe — these have nothing to do with the crime, French himself takes no note of them, and yet they are lovingly enumerated and “polished till they shone” [p. 27]).  I’m not rushing to find more of Crofts’ oeuvre, but I’m glad to have read this one.

Note: Sadly, there seems to be nothing about this cover, with rolling landscape and unspooky mansion, that matches the Vintage Scavenger Hunt list.
*Although we do not hear of French’s researches at the Handcraft shop until his recapitulation.

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Challenged. (2016)

In another indication that I have too much time on my hands and am longing for order, I am considering participating in some reading challenges this year.  I don’t think they’ll change my reading habits all that much, but they will encourage me to pay attention and to write some brief reviews. Also, it means I’m participating in one of the great trends of our century, gamification.

These are the three challenges I’m thinking of (EDIT: SIGNED UP FOR ALL THREE):

  • Books in Translation at the Introverted Reader. This merely asks you to read, well, translated books, with the highest level, “linguist,” asking for ten to twelve books. But it’s too plain, so along with aiming for a dozen translated books (I’m pretty sure I read at least one translation a month), I’m going to look for at least four different languages from at least six different countries.
  • Back to the Classics at Books & Chocolate. This one has twelve categories, with opportunities to participate in a reward drawing being offered at levels of completion from six to twelve.
  • Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block. This will require some extra effort to seek out vintage mysteries. Its quirk is that it asks for Things Found on the Cover, with 75 objects in each of the Golden (to 1960) CORRECTION: THROUGH 1959 and Silver (60-89) categories. (Same list for each period.)

So does it sound like fun, or like drudgery? Both? We’ll see how long I last. I’ve made a spreadsheet to track the books, and I seldom associate spreadsheets with fun. So far: one Golden Age mystery, one object (a phone). And I’m going to decree right now that any one book may answer more than one challenge. For example, an Arsène Lupin novel (E. Gaboriau, c 1900) would count as a work in translation, a classic, and potentially the source of a scavenger hunt item (probably not a plane or a flashlight, though).

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