Category Archives: Mysteries

The mystery/crime/suspense genre, to be specific.

The City and the City

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China Miéville’s The City and the City is another Nebula nominee. It’s a police procedural set in two imaginary cities. If you haven’t read it, it might be best to stop reading this review now. The City and the City doesn’t dump its premise on you all at once; odd details pile up, and one or two chapters in the true premise hits you and remaps your entire perception of the story.

On the other hand, if you’ve heard of The City and the City at all, you probably know the concept. Some stories have twists that will never surprise anyone again, because they’re part of our common mental furniture. Everyone who sees Psycho knows not to get too attached to Marion Crane. Among SF fans the premise of The City and the City is already just as well known. So I won’t be spoiling anything for most people when I explain that The City and the City is set in two imaginary cities that occupy the same space.

The citizens of Beszel walk the same streets as the citizens of Ul Quoma. No one remembers how, or why, the cities split, but over the centuries the divergent cultures maintained separate identities with complicated mental defenses. The cities learned to unsee each other. Tyador Borlú, the Beszel police detective at the center of the story, walks among Ul Quomans and is effectively alone. All his life he’s been trained in selective attention. He doesn’t acknowledge that Ul Quoma is there. If he did, he’d be in trouble; no one wants to come to the attention of Breach, the group that polices the imaginary boundary between the two cities.

This sounds like fantasy, and maybe it is… but only just barely. We “unsee” things all the time. Things we don’t want to acknowledge… or people we don’t want to acknowledge. When I Googled The City and the City to check the spelling of names and places, I found a review that mentioned the secret cartography of London gangs:

These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

That sounds just like the “crosshatched” maps of Beszel and Ul Quoma.

Unseeing isn’t always a bad thing. The human brain can only process so many things at once; if we consciously acknowledged everything we perceived, all the time, it would be hard to sort out which details were immediately important. You don’t want anyone stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, distracted by the ants and the weeds and the cracks in the asphalt, while a car hurtles towards the intersection! And when you’re traveling home on a crowded bus, politely “unseeing” the other passengers lets everyone read or talk to friends or just unwind in the pretense of privacy.

But sometimes people take selective attention too far. One of the clichés that get thrown around a lot when people talk about the United States is the “melting pot.” This isn’t a great metaphor—it raises images of people rendered down into homogenous goo, being assimilated but not assimilating anything themselves. But it does at least approach something true: put cultures next to each other, and they mix. They trade. They fall in love. Which is scary for the people who’ve built their identities around belonging to the culture on the top of the pyramid. So they build walls, and patrol the deserts. Certain neighborhoods become anathema. Certain people are not “real” citizens. They squint suspiciously at anyone who looks like they don’t belong, and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the people who “don’t belong” have actually been around longer than they have…

Beszel and Ul Quoma can only maintain their purity as totalitarian states. No one in either city has a choice in what to see or unsee—no one gets to decide what’s important to them. The division between the cities takes precedence over everything, even life and death. If Borlú came upon an Ul Quoman dying on the street, he’d have to unsee and walk away, or face Breach.

This is a problem for a man investigating a murder that crosses between cities. I could predict Borlú would have to choose between catching a killer and throwing away a lifetime of mental training. What surprised me was that Borlú steps outside the barrier between Beszel and Ul Quoma but doesn’t permanently disrupt it. Order is maintained, the status quo continues. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—Miéville’s never seemed optimistic about the possibility that things might change for the better. (Iron Council ended with the image of a revolution that perpetually approaches but never arrives.) You can climb over the walls, but you can’t tear them down. Borlú can refuse to look away from the unseen, but once he does he can never return to ordinary life.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sirens Sang of Murder

Cover art, by Edward Gorey. Because Hilary Tamar is just that cool.

(Note: I’m posting about a mystery novel. I don’t reveal the killer, but it’s almost impossible to talk about a mystery novel without spoiling something. If you’re planning to read this book, proceed with caution.)

The thing that usually gets mentioned when people talk about Hilary Tamar, the legal historian/amateur detective who appeared in four novels by Sarah Caudwell, is that we never learn Hilary’s gender. You might assume from the emphasis placed on that fact that these books spend a lot of time teasing the audience. Actually, it’s the least noticeable or interesting thing about them. Most readers probably get a pretty good mental image of Hilary from his/her narration, even if it’s a different image for everybody. Hilary is big on literary references and hangs out in wine bars with a group of young British lawyers whose misadventures provide him/her with cases, so my mental image of Hilary looks exactly like Horace Rumpole.

Caudwell wrote books in the form of classical detective tales and the style of P.G. Wodehouse (with a little extra frankness about sex). They’re painlessly loaded with the lore of British estate and tax law. The Sirens Sang of Murder, the third in the series, is set in various offshore tax havens. The plot is driven by the absurd lengths to which British millionaires go to avoid taxes, and I actually managed to sort of understand the arcane legal contortions. Caudwell wrote the kind of books that make me feel smarter while I’m reading them.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is set at a specific point in time technologically: the solicitors’ office has just installed a Telex machine, sort of a telegraph hooked up to a typewriter. Michael Cantrip, one of the more airheaded regular cast members, is nuts about it and narrates most of his scenes through his voluble telexes. A few years later he’d have sent faxes, and later still emails.

At one point another regular, Selena Jardine is unhappy with one of the clues—a distinctive pen dropped at a murder scene. It’s old-fashioned, something out of an old detective novel, and she doesn’t find it remotely believable. “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel—it is curiously difficult to do otherwise,” observes Hilary. Selena thinks about crime as realistic modern police procedurals taught her to do.

In the real world, lawyers complain about the “CSI effect”, the assumption by jurors that forensic science works just as magically as it does on TV. Stories have power. Everyone sees the world through the filter of the stories they read and watch and listen to.

Sirens’s cast is focused on the financial shenanigans surrounding the Daffodil Trust. They’re looking for a realist motive, a motive that makes some kind of sense. They miss one obvious possibility because it’s intruded into their narrative from romantic (in the archaic sense) literature. The real killer has been reading different books.

We in the audience, as real people reading a mystery novel, can’t help looking at Hilary’s case through the lens of detective fiction—because, heck, it is detective fiction. At one point, a revelation pointed to one obvious suspect who appeared to fit all the clues, some of which had been laid very subtly, very early on. I knew he was a red herring. I hadn’t worked this out through a Holmesian deductive leap. I just had information that Hilary didn’t: I knew I was only two-thirds of the way through the book. What kind of crappy detective novel would reveal the killer with 80 or 90 pages left to go?

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

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The fantasy genre is the last redoubt of the three-volume novel. Your local Barnes and Noble contains shelves of geography-spanning tomes–most longer than they should be–split into threes. There is no sensible reason for this… but the book that inadvertently invented Fantasy as a marketing category was The Lord of the Rings, and the form passed from the first hack imitators of Tolkien into tradition. Even good fantasy writers work in the multivolume format by default1.

So I love Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Trilogy (City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch): three different books about the same world that combine, Voltron-like, into something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s weird that more fantasy series don’t work this way. We get few novels2 about any given fantasy world, all written by the same author and therefore sharing a family resemblance. But why are they so often slices of a single story, and almost always written in the same style? Walk over to the “Literature” section and you’ll see a near-infinite variety of novels set in the real world, about all kinds of events, starring innumerable people, written in every possible kind of prose. The world is not one thing. A city is not one thing. Why shouldn’t an invented world be seen from many perspectives, described in many styles?

So City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of literary short stories. Shriek: An Afterword chronicles the lives of two underachieving siblings, told in alternating, arguing voices, with bigger things going on in the background…

And Finch is a hard-boiled detective novel, set after the Gray Caps, the mushroomy original inhabitants of Ambergris, have taken over the city. And it’s great–Finch is everything a hard boiled detective novel involving intelligent fungus ought to be. The Gray Cap overseers send John Finch, a tired steampunk Humphrey Bogart, to solve a murder. Finch bounces from faction to faction and picks up pieces of the puzzle from various interesting people who proceed to beat him up or knock him out. Everybody wants his help. Nobody asks for it without a threat.

The prose in the first two Ambergris books was straightforwardly literary (with digressions into reference-book style for certain parts of City of Saints and Madmen). Finch is written in short, sharp sentences. Sometimes sentence fragments. Telegraphese. There are food shortages and power cuts and Finch can’t spare the resources for a coordinating conjunction.

(I get a little more into analysis after this point, and some of it is spoilery, so I’m putting the rest of the review behind a link. Just go read the book, okay?) Continue reading Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

The Red House Mystery

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Even in childhood, my feelings toward Winnie-the-Pooh weren’t far from Dorothy Parker’s (“Tonstant Weader fwowed up”). When I discovered the existence of The Red House Mystery, A. A. Milne’s one detective novel, my head swam with visions of Death at Pooh Corner. I felt I would someday have to read it. I was certain when I realized that it was the novel that drove Raymond Chandler to write “The Simple Art of Murder”.

As Chandler pointed out in great detail, the plot doesn’t make much sense. Of course, the plots of most old mystery novels hinge on farfetched plans, weird coincidences, and generally extraordinarily unlikely events. Not being Raymond Chandler, I don’t usually notice. I couldn’t help noticing with The Red House Mystery. A Dorothy Sayers novel or an Agatha Christie novel is like a magic trick: the audience doesn’t see the magician pulling the card from his sleeve because he has something more interesting for everybody to look at. The audience doesn’t particularly want to see the card; it would spoil the show. A. A. Milne is like a stage magician who refuses to do the sleight of hand, perfunctorily walking through the trick as though he’s wondering what to have for lunch.

Take the cast. The stereotypical country house murder always happens amidst a houseful of stereotypical guests. The Red House Murder does not disappoint. Then they’re bundled back to London as soon as the body—the brother of the owner of the house, who is now missing—is discovered. For most of the book the only people around are the detective, his Watson, and the missing man’s secretary. The reader catches on pretty quickly that Milne isn’t going to do anything as clever as reveal the detective or the sidekick to be the killer, so the identity of the murderer is less than mysterious; the only questions are the motive, and how he pulled it off.

The motive is taken care of in a chapter. The inquest is in the book only to show the police being dense. Finding the method takes up most of the book and involves whole chapters of obsessing over a secret passage. The country house could be any country house in any novel, and the detective could be Psmith’s duller cousin. The Red House Mystery is a skeleton of a mystery, a mystery boiled down to the barest essentials, and clearing the meat from the bones reveals the core weirdness of the kind of traditional mysteries I love.

These mysteries take place in an alternate world where the police have trouble with complex murders and are happy to have an eccentric upper-class murder hobbyist around to solve them. Usually I accept this in the same way that I accept that the Discworld books take place on the back of a giant turtle. Usually these detectives are entertainingly eccentric, fundamentally decent if occasionally hard to get along with, and above all experts in their field. I can accept that the police turn to Lord Peter Wimsey in times of crisis, because Dorothy Sayers makes it clear from the start that he’s just that good. (Also, his brother-in-law is with Scotland Yard. Never underestimate the power of nepotism.)

I could not accept Antony Gillingham.

There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them—from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper-reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely. He never stayed long in one job, and generally closed his connection with it by telling his employer (contrary to all etiquette as understood between master and servant) exactly what he thought of him. He had no difficulty in finding a new profession. Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month, and—if he satisfied his employer—double wages the second. He always got his double wages.

This is the point at which most readers will wish Antony Gillingham would get hit by a brick.

With all these professions under his belt, Antony doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be a detective as well. Nothing to it, right? He has enough sense of self-preservation to stay away from the police and not let on he’s investigating, so we don’t hear much of the authorities’ opinion on the matter… although, to Milne’s credit, the police don’t take this random, unproven upper-class twit for granted. There’s an interesting suggestion that Antony’s injecting himself into the investigation might backfire:

It would have interested Antony to know that, just at the time when he was feeling rather superior to the prejudiced inspector, the Inspector himself was letting his mind dwell lovingly upon the possibilities in connection with Mr. Gillingham. Was it only a coincidence that Mr. Gillingham had turned up just when he did? And Mr. Beverley’s curious answers when asked for some account of his friend. An assistant in a tobacconist’s, a waiter! An odd man, Mr. Gillingham, evidently. It might be as well to keep an eye on him.

But the rest of the novel keeps the police off in the distance, and it never comes to anything.

A lot of these detectives seem to have way too much fun with their murders. Writers have ways to take the sting out of this. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t notice how he comes off half the time, so we cut him some slack. Peter Wimsey is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, so we know death affects him even if he doesn’t show it. The Gervase Fen novels cheerfully admit their hero’s a bit of a ghoul, and run with it. I don’t know what to think about Antony Gillingham and his faithful sidekick:

Bill brightened up suddenly.

“To-night,” he said. “I say, to-night’s going to be rather fun. How do we work it?”

Antony was silent for a little.

“Of course,” he said at last, “we ought to inform the police, so that they can come here and watch the pond to-night.”

“Of course,” grinned Bill.

“But I think that perhaps it is a little early to put our theories before them.”

“I think perhaps it is,” said Bill solemnly.

Antony looked up at him with a sudden smile.

“Bill, you old bounder.”

“Well, dash it, it’s our show. I don’t see why we shouldn’t get our little bit of fun out of it.”

This is two people getting ready to watch a man dump a dead body into a lake.

The book ends with the ever-popular “letting the killer do away with himself honorably” scene. Which is okay. it’s usually used when we’re supposed to have some sympathy for the culprit, and I guess we do in this case, inasmuch as he’s the only major character who doesn’t talk like he belongs in the Drones Club. But Antony and the police don’t have a working relationship. What on earth are they going to say when he hands over the killer’s confession? Or is he content to leave the world blissfully ignorant of what really happened?

I never think about this when I’m reading a good mystery. I never worry about any of these things when I’m reading a good mystery. I hope having watched The Red House Mystery strip the paint off the genre won’t make me look at Lord Peter funny the next time I pick up a Sayers.

“You got your Gervase Fen in my Albert Campion!”

I recently read Swan Song by Edmund Crispin, one of his Gervase Fen mysteries. At one point a journalist asks Fen for an interview. She’s doing a series on famous detectives: “I’m hoping to do H.M., and Mrs. Bradley, and Albert Campion, and all sorts of famous people.”

I didn’t immediately recognize the first two names, but Albert Campion is Margery Allingham’s series detective, who in 1947, when Swan Song was published, was still appearing in new books. Google revealed that “H.M.” was John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale (which I should have known), and Mrs. Bradley starred in a nearly forgotten (but intriguing-sounding) series by a third author.

This was interesting. I’ve seen writers make use of public-domain characters, and I’ve seen covert in-joke references to their colleagues’ work. (For example, as I recall at least one of Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories had characters obviously based on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.) I haven’t often seen a writer explicitly and unilaterally connect his own fictional universe with one created by another contemporary writer. In fact, I can think of hardly any. Two things come to mind: a Star Trek tie-in (Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly) which is apparently a crossover with an old TV show I’ve never seen, and a recent post on The Valve about a 19th century hack who tried to latch onto Charles Dickens’s coattail by taking his melodramatic trunk novel, slipping in a couple of cameos by Dickens’s Paul Dombey, and calling it Dombey and Daughter. (This kind of thing must have happened more often in the days of loosely-observed copyrights; it’s possible I’ve heard of, and forgotten, similar incidents from the period. Not that it’s a great example in any case; it’s a cynical appropriation by a hack. The line from the Crispin novel was friendlier, and came from an equal.)

If anyone comes across this post and knows of other examples, let me know in the comments.

The Story That Time Forgot

Time has not been kind to “The Japanned Box” by Arthur Conan Doyle.

There’s the title, for one thing. Who knows what “japanned” means, these days? (Apparently “varnished with a dark enamel.”) And it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story, and so little-read… but this one’s obscure for a reason. The setup might be described as “The Turn of the Screw, but with a man, and not good.” The narrator, a Mr. Colmore, has been hired to tutor the children of Sir John Bollamore, a wealthy widower. He reveals he’s lost the job, but gained something he promises he’ll reveal in the course of the story. It’s two paragraphs before Colmore blurts out that he married the kids’ governess. “But, there—I have already revealed what it was which I gained in Thorpe Place!”

Kickass anticlimax, Arthur! Any other suspense you want to kill?

At this point I must admit that Arthur Conan Doyle was not a very good writer. I first came to this realization upon reading “The Final Problem.” This, one of the central landmarks of the Sherlock Holmes canon, is a story in which everything even remotely interesting happens offstage.

But Conan Doyle did one thing very well, a thing that gave him a permanent place in literary history: he created the hell out of characters. Sherlock Holmes became a stone in the foundation of our culture, a flat-out myth. Everybody knows Professor Moriarty, though he’s barely in “The Final Problem.” Conan Doyle created any number of characters nearly as good, and had another little success in Sir John Bollamore:

Imagine a man six feet three inches in height, majestically built, with a high-nosed, aristocratic face, brindled hair, shaggy eyebrows, a small, pointed Mephistophelian beard, and lines upon his brow and round his eyes as deep as if they had been carved with a penknife. He had grey eyes, weary, hopeless-looking eyes, proud and yet pathetic, eyes which claimed your pity and yet dared you to show it. His back was rounded with study, but otherwise he was as fine a looking man of his age—five-and-fifty perhaps—as any woman would wish to look upon.

But his presence was not a cheerful one. He was always courteous, always refined, but singularly silent and retiring.

Can’t you just see the guy already? Colmore gets friendly with Sir John and learns his employer’s history. Sir John used to be quite the rake: drunk as a lord—hardly even a metaphor, what with the knighthood—and gambling away his fortune. Then he met a young woman who, in true Victorian fashion, had nothing better to do than to marry him and devote her life to his reform. She had nothing else going on and managed it through constant effort. Sir John has stayed on the wagon since her death, though it’s been a struggle.

And then, says Colmore, “A single incident changed all my sympathy to loathing, and made me realize that my employer still remained all that he had ever been, with the additional vice of hypocrisy.” What is this horrible revelation?

Are you ready?

Colmore overhears a woman’s voice coming from Sir John’s study. And other people have heard this voice! Sir John, a lonely widower, occasionaly meets a woman!

The silence you hear is nobody gasping. Also, a tumbleweed just rolled past.

The central mystery of “The Japanned Box” is a thing which today no one in the world would wonder or care about, not even Ralph Reed. And yet this is only the half of how time has deflated “The Japanned Box.”

Colmore begins to notice that, besides a small social life, there are other weird things about Sir John. He’s very protective of the little lacquered box he keeps on his desk—a servant touches it and is instantly fired. And nobody knows how this mysterious woman is getting in and out of the house. Is there a secret passage? Could she be… a ghost? The suspense, such as it is, is mouting!

One night Colmore falls asleep while cataloguing Sir John’s library, and wakes to see Sir John at his desk. Now it looks as if something interesting is about to happen:

As if in a dream I was vaguely conscious that this was the japanned box which stood in front of him, and that he had drawn something out of it, something squat and uncouth, which now lay before him upon the table. I never realized—it never occurred to my bemuddled and torpid brain that I was intruding upon his privacy, that he imagined himself to be alone in the room. And then, just as it rushed upon my horrified perceptions, and I had half risen to announce my presence, I heard a strange, crisp, metallic clicking, and then the voice.

Upon reaching “something squat and uncouth” I imagined this as a horror story. Perhaps Sir John’s wife, obsessed with her great project, vowed never, never to leave him. Through sheer effort of will she lives on as a tiny, shrivelled being like the Cumaean Sybil, emerging from her box each night to remind him of his promises. That would have been an interesting story. This isn’t it.

Sir John, noticing Colmore at last, realizes he must trust the man with his secret. His dying wife feared that, without her constant reminders, he would relapse into a drunken beast:

”It was from some friend’s gossip of the sick room that she heard of this invention—this phonograph—and with the quick insight of a loving woman she saw how she might use it for her ends. She sent me to London to procure the best which money could buy. With her dying breath she gasped into it the words which have held me straight ever since.”

And… that’s it. Sir John has a phonograph, and with a limp wheeze the story grinds to a halt.

In 1899 this must have been a crowd-pleaser. A new story from the “Sherlock Holmes” guy! And such an ingenious twist—who would have thought of using one of those “phonographs” like that?

Today we’ve had recorded sound for over a century. It’s utterly unremarkable, part of the background noise of life. For us “The Japanned Box” reads less like an ingenious mystery than a terrible Turn of the Screw/Scooby Doo: Where Are You? crossover fanfic. Conan Doyle’s stories haven’t changed, but the world has, and “The Japanned Box” will never recover.

Cleek of Scotland Yard

After reading Thomas Hanshew’s Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces on Project Gutenberg (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click that first link to read an essay from this past June) I knew I had to have a hard copy. So I headed over to AbeBooks and dropped twenty bucks on Cleek of Scotland Yard, an omnibus edition containing Cleek, a few of the short stories Hanshew pasted together to make Cleek, and an eponymous sequel: Cleek of Scotland Yard.

I think there’s a book missing in between. I’m pretty sure it’s one I’ve seen listed as Cleek’s Government Cases. I’m going to have to get hold of that one, too, because Cleek of Scotland Yard—which we’ll call CoSY, to save typing—is almost as good as the first. Continue reading Cleek of Scotland Yard

The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek

“‘Cleek!’ he said, in a voice that shook with nervous catches and the emotion of a soul deeply stirred, ‘Cleek to take the case? The great, the amazing, the undeceivable Cleek!’”
—T. W. Hanshew, Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces

For old-school detective fans, times must come when Lord Peter Wimsey irritates; when Hercule Poirot comes off as an anal retentive with a weird moustache; when they even wish Sherlock Holmes would stop self-medicating his manic depression and get professional help. At moments like this I turn to Cleek. Hamilton Cleek. The Man of the Forty Faces.

Continue reading The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek