It’s been a while since I looked at The Quintessence of Queen #1 – an anthology of “best prize stories” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was originally published alongside these entries as part of a larger collection, but my Avon editions find the compilation split in two. We get some reasonably big names in part two – Nicolas Blake, Helen McCloy, and John Dickson Carr, plus entries by less renowned authors. Similar to part one, you get a wide range of styles, although not too many of the stories really stand out. Two of them do though. Both Carr and Jorge Luis Borges provide excellent entries well worth tracking down.
I’ve been struck by this question for a while – can the essence of a golden age mystery novel ever truly be captured on film? Obviously novels from the period have been adapted to screen – quite a few of them even if you only consider the Christie adaptations since the 90s – but can they ever really deliver that wow moment for an audience that isn’t already invested in the genre?
A recent discussion at The Invisible Event explored the topic of fair play in classic detective fiction. The notion of fair play is typically associated with sets of rules laid forth by Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine which present a framework within which mystery authors of the era should work. My own take on fair play is that it is crucial for that wow moment delivered at the end of a book when the solution is revealed. The author, often through the voice of the detective, lays out a neat explanation of all that came before. What creates the fair play wow moment is the stitching together of clues that lay in plain sight throughout the novel. The solution should feel as if it was obvious – that the reader had a chance to figure it out – even if in reality it was tucked neatly out of reach.
I’m a sucker for the idea of a murder occurring within a maze. I suppose I’ll have to wait for John Dickson Carr’s All in a Maze or Murder in the Maze by JJ Connington to actually experience one. Philip MacDonald’s The Maze is more of the abstract kind, referring to the task of sifting through the testimony presented at an inquest. His idea is an interesting one. Most mystery novels would have us observe the investigation from the point of view of a character, taking in the setting, cast, and mannerisms, sprinkled with private observations. What if you stripped all of that away from a detective novel? What if you left the reader purely with the evidence of the case?
MacDonald makes a statement in his introduction that this would put you on a level playing field with the detective. You would have access to every last drop of information that the investigators have – no more, no less. Could you solve the crime?
A gathering of socialites at the seaside Crow’s Nest ends in tragedy when the local reverend grasps at his throat and drops to the floor dead. Poison? Unlikely, since all of the guests were served drinks at random from the same platter. A few months later though the circumstances repeat themselves at a party with many of the same guests in attendance. Is there a hidden killer lurking amongst them?
For me, Murder in Three Acts is a story of two halves. The set up is just gorgeous and I found myself chugging down the pages. There’s an odd bit of romance between an older man and a much younger woman that somehow managed to tug a bit at the heartstrings (creepy as it may seem to the modern reader). Plus there’s that delicious set up. Two very similar crimes that simply can’t be explained. Are they even related at all?
I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story. At least, I think I wouldn’t. As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library. I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that. Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.
Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less. I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within. Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.
For my second John Russell Fearn read, I decided to go with the first novel in the Black Maria series. From what I’ve read, this run of books contains some of Fearn’s better work, so it seemed like a good way to get a firmer sense of the author. Plus, these novels are kind of hard to lay your hands on, so I didn’t exactly have much to choose from.
Black Maria M.A introduces us to Maria Black, the headmistress of Roseway College for Young Ladies. Black has a reputation with the girls as a strict disciplinarian, although we don’t get to experience this first hand, as Black immediately leaves on a summer vacation trip to New York City. Well, it isn’t exactly a vacation – Black has been summoned by the lawyer for her deceased brother, Ralph Black. Ralph established a massive fortune as the first person to can broccoli (you read that right), and then branched out his business into a sprawling enterprise.
It seems completely random that the first Golden Age book that I purchased was a Dell map back. I was looking for a cheap John Dickson Carr novel, and glimpsing the gorgeous vintage cover art of Dell’s edition of Hag’s Nook, I snagged the copy for something like $3.50. At the time it was more like a gamble – I had enjoyed Carr’s short stories and was looking to see if a more drawn out form of the impossible crime novel would hold my attention. Might as well grab a decent looking cover while I’m at it. Kind of cool that it turned out there was an illustration on the back…