Friday, December 29, 2017

*and finally, A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Penguin Classics, 2001
originally published 1887
144 pp


"There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it." 

I think it only fitting that I end  this year's reading of crime/mystery fiction of yesteryear with Sherlock Holmes. Consider the fact that all of the authors whose works I've read this year still largely remain in obscurity, while you'd have to live under a rock these days not to know about Sherlock Holmes.  He endures.  Holmes and Watson have been revisited myriad numbers of times on film, television, and in print beyond Conan Doyle's original stories; Sherlockian societies exist worldwide, and there are a huge number of websites like this one that keep the great detective alive, living and relevant. But why?

 In his book Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity, Stephen Knight says the following:
"...Doyle's creation is unquestionably an apotheosis, a conveying of quasi-divine status on the figure that had emerged slowly through the nineteenth century: a detective who is highly intelligent, essentially moral, somewhat elitist, all-knowing, disciplinary in knowledge and skills, energetic, eccentric, yet also in touch with the ordinary people who populate the stories." (55)
He also notes that
" Inside the learned mumbo-jumbo, the mystique of all-night pipe smoking and austerely distant behaviour is someone who can apply the common knowledge of the human tribe. It is both exciting and consoling to have a hero so grand ... The essential power of Sherlock Holmes is that his substantial disciplinary authority is in fact enacted in a publicly accessible way: the ultimate methods of solving a crime are usually as simple as any used by the mid-century detective foot-soldiers." (57)
Whether you ascribe to this theory or not, or  whatever it is in your own make up that holds fascination for Holmes and Watson, they've been alive and well for 130 years since A Study in Scarlet first appeared  in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887, after having been rejected by a number of publishers.

from The Best of Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Scarlet is an unusual novel -- in a big way, it doesn't really cohere like a novel should.  The first part of this book brings together Holmes and Watson who both need roommates. Holmes introduces himself as a "consulting detective," stepping in to provide his expertise when government and private detectives "are at fault."  Many of his clients come from "private inquiry agents," from whom he collects fees. Shortly after Holmes dazzles Watson with his "intuition," his "special knowledge," and his "train of reasoning," Holmes is called to the scene of a "bad business" at 3 Lauriston Gardens.  There is very little to go on at the scene -- a dead body and few clues, the word "RACHE" written in blood on the wall -- but after a short time, Holmes manages to bring the guilty man to his very doorstep, and even knows his name.  Leaving the reader wondering how the hell he did that, the next page takes us to "The Great Alkali Plain," and an intriguing story involving Mormons in Utah, a man with an orphaned little girl, and ultimately, a quest for revenge.  Then it's back to the final act with Dr. Watson and Holmes for the dazzling solution.  It is a flawed story in terms of its telling, but as Julian Symons notes in his Bloody Murder, it doesn't really matter because "Sherlock Holmes triumphs as a character from the moment we meet him." 

And that for me, in a nutshell, is why I've loved Holmes since I read this book as a teenager; it's why I keep reading Holmes over and over again -- it's that first meeting that really sealed the deal.  I fell in love with his mind -- there's just no better way of putting it -- and I'll turn to Symons once more here when he says that
"... the pleasure one gets from this opening up of a fine machine, so that every cog in it can be seen revolving, is hardly to be overestimated." 
And perhaps that's why Holmes continues to fascinate over a century after his creation. 

The introduction in this book is by Iain Sinclair, and it is excellent, making me think of A Study in Scarlet in an entirely new way.  I won't go into it, but if you can get this edition, it's well worth having just for that.

If your first experience of Holmes and Watson is from the fast-paced, high-tech BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch, well, the stories might come across as a bit tame.  The luckiest people, I think, are the ones who've read the stories first and then watch them play out across the screen. 

* and another.... The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Hogarth Press, 1985
originally published 1886
224 pp


" is a chessboard, after all, and we are the puppets of Fate."

In his Washington Post review of this book, critic Michael Dirda asks why The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was so successful, and goes on to say the following:
"I think because it's the detective story equivalent of the kitchen sink," 
and really, I can't think of a better way to describe this book.

According to Stephen Knight in his Towards Sherlock Holmes,  once Hume had decided to try his luck at publishing fiction, he went to a Melbourne bookseller and asked what "style of book he sold the most of."  He learned that "the detective stories of Gaboriau" were extremely popular. After buying "all  his works" and reading them "carefully," he started his book in 1885.  Lucy Sussex reveals in her book Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab that Hume's idea, as noted in his preface, came to him while riding in a hansom cab "while driving at a late hour to St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne." (85)  He revealed to friends that not only was he writing a book, but more importantly, and one part of this "kitchen sink" mix, Hume also noted that he was "going to put on the local colour with a spade." (89)  In fact, the first British edition had been advertised as "a startling and realistic story of Melbourne social life," which really does come shining through this book, not just in terms of the upper classes but also moving through level after level downward into the lives of the denizens occupying the city's underworld.

The story itself is a mix of crime, investigations, courtroom drama, melodrama, and elements of sensation fiction, complete with dark secrets from the past.  The novel begins with a report from the Argus on "Saturday, the 28th of July, 18--"  telling its readers of an "extraordinary murder" that occurred in a most unlikely place -- a hansom cab:
"...committed by an unknown assassin, within a short distance of the principal streets of this great city, ... surrounded by an impenetrable mystery.  Indeed, from the nature of the crime itself, the place where it was committed, and the fact that the assassin has escaped without leaving a trace behind him, it would seem as though the case itself had been taken bodily out of one of Gaboriau's novels, and that his famous detective Lecoq would only be able to unravel it."
Gorby, the detective working on the case, follows a series of clues that lead to the arrest of one of society's own.  While he claims his innocence, the man refuses to disclose any information that might provide him with an alibi, and at first, even refuses to "engage a lawyer," because
"the first question he will ask me will be where I was on that night, and if I tell him all will be discovered, and then -- no -- no -- I cannot do it; it would kill her, my darling,..."
The secret that the accused is holding close to his chest will become a major focus of this story, and will lead the reader through the streets of Melbourne from the gentility of the city's gentlemen's clubs down into its  darker dens of vice. It also belies the idea that the upper classes, these pillars of society,  are immune to corruptibility; how that plays out I'll leave for others to discover.  And while we're busy wondering what exactly is the nature of this secret and why a man is willing to risk his own life for it,  another detective, Kislip,  is added to the mix, this time working for the attorney of the accused.  In fact, as Sussex mentions in her book, there is not just one or two detectives at work, but "the investigating is shared," among several of the characters in this book.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is fun but at the same time delivers strong commentary and criticism on society of the time, which is, I think,  one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.  And then, of course, there is the mystery of the whodunit, which I didn't guess, and Hume's incredible attention to detail in writing this case which kept me guessing every step of the way.   Add to that the elements of sensation fiction (which I love) and the characterizations (the landladies cracked me up);  putting aside the melodrama, it all made for a couple of days of reading pleasure.

I liked it so much, in fact, that I bought the DVD of the tv adaptation made in Australia.  That I didn't care for as much as I did the book, since for some reason, whoever put it together got the strange idea of giving away tiny pieces of the secret in flashback form here and there.  I mean, I'd just read the book and knew the secret but I couldn't understand why the powers that be couldn't have just let things play out the way Hume had intended.  Had I watched this dvd only, without ever having read the novel, I would have figured things out way earlier than I should have; to be perfectly blunt, I would have also been pissed off.   On the other hand, I love seeing books I've just read played out on the screen, and other than what I see as the major flaw here of practically dumping the unknown right into your lap, I did get caught up in the story and the ending left me with a bit of a lump in the throat.  Positively swoonworthy it was, for sure.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

*...and diving into the 1880s: Devlin the Barber, by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon

createspace, 2016
originally published 1888, Ward and Downey
202 pp


"...the ends of justice are sometimes reached by roads we cannot see." 

and now, for something completely different...

I first heard of this book while looking at the website of the Lilly Library at Indiana called The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction. 1841-1941, and bought it back in January of this year while I was plotting out what I might be reading over the next twelve months. I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, and I must say that it took me completely by surprise. Eye-opening surprise. 

Benjamin Leopold Farjeon (1838-1903) was a prolific British author who wrote his first novel, The Life and Adventures of Christopher Cogleton (1862-1863) after leaving the gold fields of Australia and New Zealand and taking on a job as journalist for The Otago Daily Times.  [In the spirit of purely historical interest, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, that particular novel was the first book ever "printed, published, and bound in New Zealand."]  Father of famed children's writer Eleanor Farjeon and mystery novelist Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, Benjamin  also dabbled in "sensation mystery novels," for example his Great Porter Square of 1885 and his The Mystery of M. Felix of 1890, with Devlin the Barber falling between those two in 1888.   It was in 1888 that the series of Jack the Ripper murders began, and from what I can see, the timing of Devlin the Barber was no coincidence.

And yet, the focus here is not so much on the actual crime itself, but rather on the titular character Devlin, who rents a room at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lemon.  The fact that Devlin is a lodger might bring to mind the spectacular novel The Lodger written in 1913 by Marie Belloc Lowndes,  but trust me, outside of the Ripper connection,  the two books are as different as can be.  It all begins when a Mr. Melladew discovers in the newspaper that his daughter Lizzie had been the victim of a "Horrible Murder in Victoria Park!," which comes as a shock because he'd seen her just the night before when kissing her goodnight.  Adding to his misery, he also discovers that her twin sister Mary has vanished with no clue as to her whereabouts.  Portland, the girls' uncle, newly-arrived from Australia, puts forth a proposition to our narrator, offering him a thousand pounds to discover who killed Lizzie and another thousand if he brings Mary home safe.  Having just recently been laid off, the money is sorely needed, but where to begin?   As fate would have it, a letter arrives from a much-loved former servant from his parents' home, a Mrs. Lemon, entreating him to come to her house.  Answering her summons, he discovers that she wants to talk about her lodger, Mr. Devlin, and oh what a bizarre, strange tale it turns out to be!   If  you will  forgive the cliché,  the story revealed by Mrs. Lemon held me completely spellbound to the point where upon returning to the hunt for Lizzie's murderer I almost didn't care about that part of the story any more.

Devlin the Barber is a real treasure, not so much in terms of the crime aspect, but because it is so vastly different from all of the old crime/mystery/detective novels from the 19th century I've read to this point.  Really, outside of the murder mystery, the draw is Devlin himself, especially as seen through the eyes of his landlady.  Farjeon must have had a right jolly old time writing this novel, and I had a right jolly old time reading it.  I'm not going to discuss particulars here, but I'll just say that it would probably be much more fitting to post about this novel in the dark fiction section of my reading journal.  It's also a much easier book to get through than the others read so far with far less melodrama, narrative that flows much more smoothly -- in short, it's much more reader friendly.

It is a book so far out of the ordinary that it begs to be read.  I absolutely loved it.

Monday, December 18, 2017

*closing out the 1870s: The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katherine Green

Penguin, 2010
originally published 1878
326 pp


No look back at early crime/detective/mystery fiction would be complete without talking about The Leavenworth Case, which is a true landmark in the genre.  In this book the author introduces the first American series detective, Ebenezer Gryce, of the New York Metropolitan Police force, who would go on to be involved in eleven more cases.  But it is also, as Kate Watson notes in her book Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880, 
"innovative in the introduction of a number of a number of themes and tropes, now familiar to the reader of crime fiction, but then new and exciting. The Leavenworth Case is original in its deployment of ballistics, science, medicine, and a coroner's inquest, the illustration of the crime scene, replica letters, and the inclusion of the locked room mystery.  There is a diagram of the murder scene and the layout of the library, hall and bedroom, a ploy familiar to modern readers of the Golden Age detective fiction of Agatha Christie.  While some of these elements had appeared in earlier criminography, the way in which Green cleverly combines them locates her text as the forerunner of what Knight has called the clue-puzzle mystery." (122)
In short,  The Leavenworth Case occupies a sort of transitional space -- here we find a beginning in the movement toward more modern mystery/crime/detective fiction. And by the way, Sherlock Holmes hasn't appeared on the scene yet and won't for nearly a decade, but as Watson tells us,  "In the wake of Green, women writing crime became almost commonplace in America," listing several women authors, many of them now faded into the fabric of obscurity,  who went on to contribute "to the form after The Leavenworth Case."  (130)

Although the story is told from a first-person point of view, the narrator is not Detective Gryce, but rather a junior partner in a law firm named Everett Raymond.  As the story opens, Raymond has received news that Mr. Leavenworth has been murdered, "shot through the head by some unknown person while sitting at his library table."   There is to be a coroner's inquest, and Leavenworth's two young nieces Eleanore and Mary need someone to be present in an advisory capacity.  The senior member of the firm is Leavenworth's best friend, but he is temporarily absent, so Raymond takes the job upon himself.  When Raymond arrives at the Leavenworth home, he is met at the door by Mr. Gryce, who takes Raymond to the scene of the crime.  When Raymond asks who Mr. Gryce suspects, his answer is "Everybody and nobody."  However, the circumstances of the murder reveal that it must have been someone in the Leavenworth house; as we learn more about possible motives, the evidence begins piling up against Eleanore.  Everyone is questioned, with the exception of one of the maids, Hannah, who has now mysteriously disappeared.  Raymond finds himself dazzled by Eleanore, and can't bring himself to believe that she had anything to do with it, but Eleanore isn't helping matters much -- she obviously seems to know something, but refuses to talk.  In fact, Eleanore isn't the only one in the Leavenworth house who is keeping quiet, and with each new clue uncovered, things become more desperate.  Mr. Gryce, though, has a suggestion for Mr. Raymond: he would like the attorney to do some detecting on his own, to play "the mole" in an effort to get to the bottom of what's actually going on.  As he notes, it's not something he can easily do himself:
"Mr. Raymond...have you any idea of the disadvantages under which a detective labors? For instance now, you imagine that I can insinuate myself into all sorts of society perhaps, but you are mistaken. Strange as it may appear, I have never by any possibility of means succeeded with one class of persons at all. I cannot pass myself off for a gentleman...
...When we are in want of a gentleman to work for us, we have to go outside of our profession." (104-105). 
 And although Raymond is somewhat aghast at serving as a "spy," he agrees.  Trying to defend Eleanore by seeking the truth of events leads Raymond into a maze of secrets -- but will his findings prove Eleanore innocent or will they add further weight to what seems to be the evidence of her guilt?

from Blue Ridge Vintage
The Leavenworth Case is truly a whodunit, and unlike my bad luck with modern crime novels, I had absolutely no clue as to the identity of the murderer until the very end.  There is much to enjoy about this book -- a preponderance of clues that slowly appear, several people with motive to do away with the deceased, and a number of secrets to be unlocked as the story goes along.  And then there are the numerous themes that Green works into her narrative, for example, as Michael Sims notes in his introduction, "female dependence and inheritance laws;" an examination of class constraints are also obvious here.  If you enjoy books that turn on secrets then this a good one; I'm someone who just loves this sort of thing.  I will admit that the reluctance of the characters to spill what they know got a bit frustrating after a time, and I will also say that some readers unfamiliar with writing during this period might become tired of  the rather florid writing style in parts or the more melodramatic aspects of the story that crop up here and there.  But in the long run, I found it to be a fine mystery, one I couldn't put down.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

*talk about fake news: The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão

Dedalus, 2013
originally published in 1870 as O mistério da estrada Sintra
translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Nick Phillips
287 pp

On July 23, 1870, readers of the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de noticias would have seen a notice therein from the editor that said the following:
"At a rather late hour yesterday we received a singular piece of writing. It is an unsigned letter, posted to the editor, with the beginning of a stupendous narrative which suggests a dreadful crime, clouded in mystery and full of truly extraordinary occurrences which seem to have been related in order to sharpen our curiosity and confuse our minds in thousands of vague and contradictory conjectures."  (as quoted in Maria Filomena Monica's Eça de Queiróz, 69). 
The idea behind the story that was about to be published in the newspaper in daily installments (a departure from the normal serialization publication timing) came from two writers, Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz (24) and Ramalho Ortigão (33), who were both friends of the editor.   In an afterword to The Mystery of the Sintra Road, Nick Phillips writes that the two understood  that Portuguese readers had "avidly embraced foreign fiction," especially French feuilletons, and by 1870 "had become aware of a new style: the crime and detection novel." (281)  The two writers decided that they'd give it a go as well,
"to be published as instalments (sic) in the newspaper, Diário de Noticias, with the intention of stirring up Lisbon, which they saw as a city overcome by inertia, and showing its people how literary styles were changing." (282)
In Nancy Vosburg's Iberian Crime Fiction, Paul Castro notes that it was "designed to be a hoax, a spoof devised to reveal the attitudes of its readers and expose their stance to critical ridicule." (117)

The editor/founder of the newspaper saw its publication as an opportunity to "boost circulation," and the first installment began July 24th.  Phillips explains that on that day, a letter to the editor appeared in which the anonymous author said that he was a doctor who had been
 "kidnapped at pistol-point, blindfolded, bundled into a coach and taken to the site of what looked to be a serious crime.. He had been released unharmed, but through fear of retribution for having written to the newspaper, he had not dared to sign his letter."
 And we're off, into a series of events which the Doctor himself called "so grave, so veiled in mystery, so seemingly steeped in criminality," that he felt that the facts should be made available to the public "as a way of providing the only key to unlocking what seems to me a truly horrifying drama."  I won't and can't get into plot here, but the drama, as so nicely recounted on the back-cover blurb is as follows:
"Two friends are kidnapped by several masked men, who, to judge by their manners and their accent come from the very best society. One of the friends is a doctor, and the masked men say that they need him to assist a noblewoman, who is about to give birth. When they reach the house, they find no such noblewoman, only a corpse.  Another man, known only as A.M.C., bursts in at this point and declares that the dead man died of opium poisoning."
 This section, which introduces the crime and its seeming impossibility, is followed by a fake letter from a reader, then a letter from the friend of the doctor who was with him at the time of the abduction, another fake letter, and then we come to the testimony of one of the "masked men" who had taken part in the kidnapping.  Then we hear from A.M.C. himself, followed by the confession of the killer, and then all is concluded with a final account, once again from A.M.C.  The back-cover blurb also reveals that "Many readers believed the letters to be genuine," which made me think that if people were actually believing that this whole thing was true because it was in the paper every day, it would have been great fodder for morning coffee conversation at home or later around the 1870 equivalent of the office water cooler. As I said in my GR post, it was a case of fake newsapolooza!!

Looking back on their work in 1884, Eça de Queiróz notes that today he and his co-author find their tale "quite atrocious," and indeed, while it begins mysteriously enough, I found that once the "tall masked man" got his say, the story moved into a different territory altogether. Granted, everything he says helps lead to the final reveal, where the mystery sort of just flattens for a while until we get back to the crime elements.  On the other hand, though, I was so caught up in the story that I didn't care, and put together, this book made for what I like to call a rollicking good yarn, so good, in fact, that after turning the last page, I put the novel down and applauded.  Serious crime readers wanting just the crime facts etc.,  may not find it to their liking, but I'm in for its place in the history of crime -- the first Portuguese crime novel --  and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  It may not be the most intellectually-stimulating book in my reading history, but I loved it. Sometimes you just gotta let go and have fun.

... and as usual, there's plenty going on under the surface, so read it slowly if you can.