As I have mentioned often, I am thrilled to be living in an (oft-eBookish) age where classic detective fiction titles and many obscure or forgotten authors and mysteries are being made available once more to a new generation of readers. Dean Street Press is certainly one of the busiest publishers of Golden Age crime fiction, and its catalogue is growing impressively wide and deep. Detective series from prolific authors like E.R. Punshon, Christopher Bush, and Patricia Wentworth are made available once more, and DSP is adding new names and novels all the time.
Coming in March, five additional Moray Dalton titles are added to the mix, as well as three books from crime-writing couple E and M.A. Radford and four books from a newly represented writer, Henrietta Clandon. Dean Street Press is also releasing Kind Hearts and Coronets, the famed 1907 murderous satire by Roy Horniman.
January continues to be a busy work month for me, but I look forward to February for just a bit of free time and a chance to try a new (to me) mystery and author offered up at Dean Street Press. Thank you, Rupert, for all of your hard work and dedication!
The eighth book published in Gregory McDonald's series featuring journalist Irwin Maurice Fletcher, Fletch Won (1985) rewinds the clock to deliver an origin story of sorts. Here, Fletch is a rookie reporter languishing in the Obituaries section: his destined-to-be long-suffering editor Frank Jaffe chews him out for reporting that one recently deceased woman did nothing with her life, a detail that, after talking with her relations, turns out to be accurate, if indelicate. Fletch is shuffled to the Society pages and his first assignment there is to write a puff piece on Donald Habeck, a lawyer planning to donate five million dollars to a museum. But his subject appears to be so shady that the phrase "criminal lawyer" seems appropriate in multiple ways. When Habeck is found shot in his car in the News-Tribune parking lot, Fletch gets reassigned once more, far away from the dead man. But he knows a good story when he stumbles into one, and soon he is on a search for the killer.
Fletch Won continues the buoyant spirit of the previous books, and its aspirations as a prequel are admirably grounded. It's a lean story that avoids franchise indulgences, even as McDonald has fun shaping the fractious courtship of his hero and Barbara Ralton, first introduced in 1975's Fletch as one of his two ex-wives. There is also mileage gained from jodhpurs, an overstocked item Barbara is tasked to sell at the clothing shop where she works, and of Fletcher's official assignment for the paper, going undercover to infiltrate a bordello disguised as a health spa.
The mystery of the murdered criminal attorney is set up as a traditional whodunit, and the author sketches Habeck's estranged family with colorful and surprising details. The lawyer's wife is a sympathetic eccentric whom Habeck had committed to an at-will mental institution years previously; his son lives in a monastery and his daughter is married to a man who writes celebratory poems of violence. Past clients bearing a grudge are also potential suspects. With a compelling cast of characters from which to uncover a murderer, it is a bit disappointing that Fletch Won falls short of fair play. Motivation and circumstances of the crime are only revealed in the second to last chapter, as the guilty party explains them to Fletch and the reader. The journey is still breezy, witty, and enjoyable, but the puzzle's resolution – just as with the first series novel published a decade prior – feels a little incidental and anti-climactic. Luckily, both books deliver post-confession final scenes as codas that punctuate the narrative and provide a satisfying full-stop for that tale.
It looks like Fletch Won has been in development as a feature film for a couple decades already, variously attached to actors like Jason Lee and Jason Sudeikis. A quick browse of Internet message boards shows lots of speculation about how another actor could possibly launch a new screen version of I.M. Fletcher after Chevy Chase's two films from the 1980s. Anyone who actually reads Gregory McDonald's books and tracks the character's curiosity toward others, professional tenacity, and quick-wittedness as a genuinely resourceful reporter will probably answer: easily.
And then there were two: Joyka and I are responding to the final chapters of Dead Men's Morris in this post. Martyn and Catherine may be sharing their thoughts in the days to come, and I will be happy to add their observations in an additional post. This was my first Mitchell Mystery Reading Group event to take place in the month of December, and traveling, visiting families, and the holidays likely do not encourage weekly reading and responses for many.
Still, there are some interesting topics to explore as Gladys Mitchell's Christmastime mystery now jumps forward to Easter (in Chapter 15) and the men prepare for the village's Whitsun Morris dance. Maurice Pratt, we are told, has improved, and the usually taciturn pigman Priest will play the Fool and collect coins from the audience. The final chapter also places both Mrs. Bradley and a second target in jeopardy as the murderer of Fossder and Simith is flushed out.
Joyka writes that "characters are very important to me in a book, second only to use of language. Gladys Mitchell hits all of my buttons. I have to say, however, when she is ready to wind up a story, it moves fast. If you want to know more about Carey, Jenny, Denis and the Ditches you will need to read more books. As for the murderer, don’t expect to know the ultimate outcome. Mrs. Bradley has already moved on!"
All of this is true, and yet the ending of Dead Men's Morris, for me, is somewhat atypical of the author's usual choice of presentation. I refer to the moment that serves as climax, where an attempt at a third murder – rather quixotically telegraphed through multiple clues by the clever but apparently mentally imbalanced villain – is a rare in-the-present scene of suspense and revelation. Many of Gladys Mitchell's stories are concluded with a dialogue debriefing from Mrs. Bradley rather than a situation where the reader is invited to be witness to action and arrest, so the Morris dance mayhem here feels both satisfying and novel. The psychoanalyst still gets the opportunity to talk in the final pages, but she also physically sidesteps an attempt on her own life and thwarts the attack of another in the previous scene. Personally, I like the choice, and it helps allay my earlier complaint (see Post 2) that the reader is kept at a distance from moments of important action, such as the murders of Simith and Fossder.
The killer's personality remains, by the end of the book, rather inscrutable, and we are invited to literally take Mrs. Bradley's psychological profile of the culprit as the unquestioned truth. I keep returning to the tantalizing comment Mitchell once made about not knowing exactly who the murderer will be when she sets out to write, and that her choice of villain may change as the book forms. Interestingly, the physical clues that point – some would argue that they point too obviously – to the murderer's identity here are established in the first chapters, and no other characters fit the bill quite so well. Yet there is a feeling that, narratively, the killer could have been revealed as one of the other male characters and a few of the female characters as well, and the climax would have been just as, or more, effective than the printed one.
Both of the book's victims, lawyer Fossder and farmer Simith, receive cards before their deaths showing heraldic crests. So it is a tense moment when we see, prior to the dance, both Mrs. Bradley and Priest receiving similar cards. (The image accompanying this paragraph is a scan of the illustrations found on the endpapers of the Michael Joseph edition.) Such a decorative and genealogical plot development is not a surprise, since Gladys Mitchell has always celebrated history and setting in her mystery stories. From the Scottish Border Ballads that feature heavily in 1941's Hangman's Curfew to the Neolithic-era Rollright Stones at the center of 1980's The Whispering Knights, GM loves to incorporate UK history and topography elements, and Morris – with its ritual dance traditions and its Oxfordshire countryside exploration – is a good example of this.
Joyka was not satisfied with the author's use of the crests and their meanings. "The heraldic crests as part of the solution are a mystery to me. They seem a minor clue at best then all of a sudden they assume a major role. Maybe you need to be English to understand what they are and what they mean. I found them a confusing addition." On the other (sinister?) hand, I did not find their meaning problematic, but their use as a calling card to signal the recipient's doom feels unbelievably ornate. This returns us to the earlier point that you either accept Mitchell's sketch of the murderer's psychosis – that he is in the grip of an academically inclined mania – or you do not.
Another observation from Joyka: "My classical literary education sadly pales next to not only Mrs. Bradley, but also Mrs. Templeton, Priest’s landlady. I have no idea which young man pushed a volume of Aristotle’s philosophy down the boar’s throat to escape death. And Mrs. Templeton is a philosopher in her own right, 'Supper first, and gals come later.'"
If additional conversation arrives about Dead Men's Morris in the days to come, I will certainly report it in a separate post. I am grateful that I chose to revisit this story, as it was in some ways more satisfying and thought-provoking than the previous group reading title, 1937's Come Away, Death.
Joyka offers this suggestion for the next reading event: "I think Laurels are Poison (1942) would be a good follow-up book. We meet Jonathan, Deborah, Laura, Kitty and young Alice. And there is a brief Christmas gathering with Carey, Jenny, the Ditches, Denis, Ferdinand, and his wife, Caroline, who has been renamed. I have always thought this book was a pivot point for Gladys Mitchell." I will definitely consider it, and will announce both book choice and reading month once I have settled on them. September or October might prove agreeable, but December will likely be avoided… Happy New Year to all!
A few stories into Agora Books' 2019 reprint of The Allingham Minibus, I realized I had read this collection before, although the rather cute title was new to me. A quick search of my bookshelves revealed the answer: the set of stories had previously been released under the title Mr. Campion's Lucky Day and Other Stories, and some years ago I had procured and read a Carroll & Graf paperback edition from the early 1990s. Margery Allingham was and is a solid writer and storyteller, so revisiting the tales – which contain a mix of crime and supernatural thematic elements – proved not to be a hardship.
There are many more successes than misfires here, although I found myself wishing that the organization of the stories and their order were a bit less haphazard. Personally, I would have curated these pieces so they were grouped by general subject into categories such as "The Humans", "The Spirits", and "The Criminous", understanding that Allingham's characters can move between these labels with admirable ease.
Three tales feature the author's series detective Albert Campion: "…Lucky Day", "The Unseen Door", and the longer Christmas adventure, "The Man with the Sack". ("Sack", by the way, was collected in the British Library Crime Classics anthology Crimson Snow in 2016.) The single novella in the bunch, the non-Campion "A Quarter of a Million", is an interesting cops-and-robbers tale where Allingham switches between perspective views of the dogged detective and the duplicitous (and dangerous) kidnapper, building suspense as she places protagonist and antagonist on a collision course.
It is the tales of ghosts and avenging spirits, however, that I found more resonant than the traditional crime stories. "The Sexton's Wife" is particularly good, a simple but effective tale of an old woman relating the details of a tragic triangle and beyond-the-grave revenge that occurred when she was a youthful bride. With the other supernatural stories here, atmosphere and mood are always solid, but the plots occasionally slip into cliché that allows the reader to get ahead of the simple story, as with "The Secret" and "'Tis Not Hereafter".
The author is arguably at her best with the stories that focus on the vulnerabilities of everyday people; these short pieces take an observational, reflective approach similar to de Maupassant, and some don't even feature a traditional crime element. "The Correspondents" follows a man who must reconcile his effusive friend's written adventures with a far different reality, while in "The Pioneers", a couple about to dissolve their marriage finds their perspective forced by visiting friends. And "Publicity" is a likeable underdog story about an actor who is prematurely pronounced dead and, because of this, discovers a new life with realigned values. All of these "Human" stories I found thoughtful and often elegiac.
I need to voice one criticism, as Agora seems to have chosen to alter a tale for the sake of political correctness, with no mention made that the text has been censored. The change made to a story about a celebrated Asian academic and a manor-house jewel robbery is no minor one: the final paragraph (containing the "twist" that explains the thief's ideology) is omitted, and without it the story ends abruptly and rather pointlessly. That original final-sentence sting helps to define the casual cultural racism ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon hosts, which gives an uneasy justification to the person taking their possessions and makes the story's moral landing more stubbornly ambiguous. If you are wondering what social comment that original paragraph contained, look to the story's title for your clue: "The Same to Us".
As always, I'm very happy to see so many authors and titles from the Golden Age of Detection in print (or eBook form) and readily available to a new generation of mystery readers. The Allingham Minibus is a worthy story collection, and will be especially satisfying for those who look for variety and character definition in the genre. This was a preview edition offered by Agora Books via NetGalley.
Lots of book reviews and discussion of classic and contemporary mystery fiction. I welcome comments and continuing conversation.
Mystery Fiction Sites
-- all recommended ! --
Beneath the Stains of Time
Bitter Tea and Mystery
Catherine Dilts - author
Gladys Mitchell Tribute
Grandest Game in the World
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
The Invisible Event
The Passing Tramp
Pretty Sinister Books
Tipping My Fedora