Monday, July 29, 2019

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers

Bourbon Street Books, 2014
originally published 1923
213 pp


"Enter Sherlock Holmes disguised as a walking gentleman."

As much as I prefer the less unsung mystery/detective story/crime novels of the past, there comes that time when I just can't pass up the more well-known novels of this particular era, especially when the author's name is so familiar to nearly everyone, mystery reader or no.  And while I wouldn't call Whose Body the best in the series (that will come down the road a bit later), it is most certainly worth reading as it introduces one of the best-known characters of mystery's golden age, Lord Peter Wimsey. 

Just a wee bit about Sayers' creation before moving into the novel itself.  In his work on Sayers,  James Brabazon,  author of Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography (Charles Scribner and Sons, 1981) picks up a quotation of hers from  "How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter," from Harcourt Brace News (Vol. I, July 15 1936: 1-2) where she reveals in a sort of tongue-in-cheek fashion that she had been "thinking about writing a detective story," when in walked Lord Peter:
"complete with spats, and applied in an airy don't-care if-I-get-it way for the job of hero." (120)
 Martin Edwards, writing in The Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins, 2015), says that Sayers "reasoned" that
"A detective who was not a professional police officer ... needed to be rich ... and to have plenty of leisure time to devote to solving mysteries.  She conceived Wimsey as a caricature of the gifted amateur sleuth, and found it amusing to soak herself in the lifestyle of someone for whom money was no object..."
She also
"endowed Wimsey with criminology, bibliophily, music and cricket as a favourite recreations. He is a Balliol man, equipped with a magnifying glass disguised as a monocle, a habit of literary quotation and an engaging, if often frivolous, demeanour." (19)
We also learn in Whose Body? that he  is also someone whose "young mind had been warped in its young growth by 'Raffles' and 'Sherlock Holmes'," and whose "career as a private detective"  was "hampered" by a public-school education. But there is much more to this "frivolous" man which doesn't crop up here until well into the story, when, as I remarked somewhere after finishing this novel, just as he's really getting on your nerves there comes that one moment when you suddenly realize just how very human Lord Peter Wimsey actually is. 

from OUPblog
A call from his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver,  alerts Lord Peter to a most unusual crime.  A dead man, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez, was discovered in the bathtub of the mild-mannered architect Thipps of Battersea.  Later, after having a look at the flat in Queen Caroline Mansions and incurring the wrath of Inspector Sugg,  Wimsey returns home and is called upon by his friend and Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, who tells him a story of the disappearance of financier Sir Reuben Levy.   As it happens, Levy had gone missing on the day he was slated to attend "a most important financial meeting and do some deal involving millions."  Parker had taken his own look at the man in the bath, thinking it might be Sir Reuben; on discovering that indeed it was not, Parker remains puzzled at the man's disappearance.  He welcomes Lord Peter's interest in the case, and it is not too long before our hero comes to realize that perhaps the two just might be related.  First, though, he and his almost Jeeves-like valet Bunter must wade through what will turn out to be a mess of red herrings before the case(s) can come to a successful close.

What absolutely has to be my favorite cover:  1948 Avon paperback edition; artwork by Anne Cantor from Moment

Most unfortunately, once you reach a certain point, the identity of the criminal is way too easy to figure out, but I think you have to consider the fact that,  as Edwards notes, the author was generally "more interested in describing the culprit's methods of carrying out and concealing the crime."  In this sense, I was actually more interested in Lord Peter and Bunter to actually mind too much, and despite knowing ahead of time the who, the how, I felt, was rather ingenious.  And also under the heading of most unfortunately (and I would add uncomfortably), I'd forgotten exactly how demeaning Sayers' descriptions of  Jewish people were at the time.   Otherwise, I'm quite happy to have read it again, and as I have the entire series here, I'm sure Lord Peter and I will meet once again in the near future.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Black Jersey, by Jorge Zepeda Patterson

Random House, 2019
originally published as Maillot Negro
Translated by Achy Obejas
312 pp


The narrator of this account, Marc Moreau, says close to its beginning that
"We understood that every so often there would be an annus horribilus, a cursed year, for the Tour de France. By the time we finished the first four stages of the tour, we would start to suspect that this could be the worst of all." 
He's not joking -- the mystery within this novel centers around the attempts to discover who is responsible  for a string of horrific incidents, some deadly, among the cyclists competing in that year's Tour.  Moreau, a domestique for Team Fonar,  is asked by French police Commissioner Favre to assist him in trying to solve the case, since Favre believes that "the killer or killers belong to the circuit."  As he notes, those responsible have "struck with surgical precision to maximize their effect on the results of the race."  He's come to Marc not only because of his background in the military police, but because he's on the inside.  The executive director of the Tour is also hopeful that Marc will help since these accidents, as he puts it, are  "the most serious threat to the Tour de France in all its history."   Somewhat reluctantly he agrees to do as they ask. 

Had the author left it there, the mystery and its solution would have been satisfying enough, but this is definitely not your average crime novel, not by any stretch.  It is a very human story, and Marc is much more than an insider helping the police.  At the heart of this novel is the close relationship between Moreau and  Team Fonar's star cyclist Steve Panata,  with Marc destined over the years to be Steve's protector and domestique, doing anything and everything to ensure Steve's victories in the Tour.   As he and the police uncover evidence leading toward finding the "killer among you," Marc also comes to as the blurb notes, the "sickening realization" that everything that's happened has been to the benefit of his own team.  That's bad enough, but he also finds himself having to battle his own feelings for the good of the team, and he is under a huge amount of pressure to leave his role as second fiddle and go onto victory in his own right. 

I'm not a huge sports fan at all, I'm a ten-mile-ride-is-my-limit sort of cyclist so I can't speak to what he's  done right or not here as far as the Tour de France, but the decision made by the author to use this exacting competition as the milieu for his story turned out to be a good one.  As he says in this interview with The Spain Journal, the Tour
"takes the passions to the limit. Emotions are bare wires when competing for something that demands so many sacrifices.  Love, ambitions, loyalty or betrayals are over-dimensioned." 
 All of  what the author says in this short bit of quotation is made so vividly real in this novel, along with the intensity of the competition, to the point where, as also noted in that interview (although I'm thinking he meant "rider," not "runner'),
"If a runner is willing to kill himself, descending a mountain at 90 kilometers per hour on precarious roads and huge abysses, why would he not be willing to kill for it?"
The author did such a fine job here that even I had no idea who was trustworthy and who was not, and I never guessed the who.  I will say that I had to go back when all was revealed and read that part again (it's a little complicated and it was a wee bit on the murky side), but there was still one more  shocking and unexpected surprise in store even after all became known. 

The Washington Post featured this book in June as one of "9 Picks for Your Beach Bag," but I would consider this novel as way more than just a fun summer read.  The author's  intense focus on the people here made this a novel I won't soon forget. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

and we say goodbye to 1922 with The Lyttleton Case, by RAV Morris

Harper Collins
originally published 1922
212 pp


I know it will take some doing, but anyone who plans to read this book ought to skip the dustjacket blurb and move right on into the text.   Once again, and to my great dismay, whoever wrote it has given away one of the elements of the plot.  Seriously? Who does that?  For shame.

Ronald Arthur Vincent Morris, the author of The Lyttleton Case, never wrote another mystery novel after this book's publication; with no follow up, as Douglas A. Anderson notes in the introduction to this edition, the novel "lapsed into obscurity."   Indeed -- I'd never heard of it until I started collecting volumes of Harper Collins' reprinted Detective Club novels.  Trust me, the ending is a complete surprise which I didn't see coming.  When the editor of the original detective story club edition says "the secret is well kept and the reader is left guessing, almost to the last page," he or she was not exaggerating.

the collection, so far, with more on the way....

Two mysteries begin this novel.  First comes the disappearance of wealthy financier James Lyttleton, who goes off to work as usual one day and is never seen again.  Telegrams sent to his daughter Doris  from various locations keep her posted about where he is, but after a wire from New York, he is not heard from again.  Doris' fiancé, journalist Basil Dawson, decides to travel to the Big Apple to try to locate him, but he is presented with a set of baffling clues that lead nowhere.  Turning over what little he has to the NYPD, Dawson returns to England to give his information to Scotland Yard, and to wait along with Doris for Lyttleton's return.   The second mystery unfurls as James Candlish, Chief Inspector of the Yard's CID,  a man who has a "passion" for natural history, has started his annual vacation time, which he's spending in  "an exploration of the flora and fauna of the Southshire Downs."  After a "most satisfactory morning's work," he takes some time next to a stream to have lunch and to write down his observations in his notebook, but his idyllic moment is disturbed with the discovery of a man's body.  The Coroner observed that the dead man was between twenty-eight and thirty-five, he'd died of natural causes, and had been in the water most likely four to five days.  Even though there isn't much to go on, when Candlish returns from his holiday, his interest in the case never wanes.  He is also put in charge of the Lyttleton case, and as the investigation progresses, a few too many coincidences crop up for his liking.  There are so many coincidences, in fact, that after reaching the halfway mark, I thought that it was game over and that I had it completely sussed, but no.  So a word of advice -- when you think you know what's what, you may want to think again. 

Around the mysteries to be pondered in this novel, there are a number of interesting people who caught my attention, beginning with James Candlish.  He tends to take a Zen approach to solving crime:

"He had found by experience that by dismissing his work entirely from his mind for a while, he was able to return to it with renewed energy, clearer perception, and deeper insight. In fact, as he sometimes told his cronies, it was only when consciousness was wholly taken off a subject, that the subconscious mind was given a chance on working on it."  
Then there's Police Constable Hutchinson, "a diligent reader of detective fiction," who smokes "shag" like his idol Sherlock Holmes when contemplating a problem.  In his room he has a violin, a syringe ("that rather as a reminder of his great prototype than for actual use"), and a dressing gown, all in emulation of his idol. His current reading project is  Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920)  but he's also a huge fan of Gaboriau's Lecoq and of Poe's M. Dupin.  In the introduction to this novel, Anderson notes that the mentions of these various detectives exemplify the author's "familiarity with the detectve fiction genre," but it also gives the story a bit of a comic interlude.   Finally, Miss Doris Lyttleton made my favorite character list -- she is not only portrayed as a modern woman but for reasons I cannot divulge, she turns out to be a first-class heroine in her own right.

The themes that recur throughout the novel  are pretty obvious so I won't go into them, and there's more than one foray through London streets and environs which added to the story.  And while I genuinely enjoyed The Lyttleton Case, the mechanics of the solution seem to take forever in the telling at the end.  On the other hand,  it really is,  as Anderson notes, quoting Barzun and Taylor, a "well-written, slow, carefully plotted puzzle."  It's also highly entertaining which is never a bad thing.  Recommended for fans of vintage crime; cozy readers would enjoy it as well with the caveat that this book was written in 1922 so it's not nearly as fast paced as most modern cozies. It really is a shame that Morris never wrote another crime novel -- given how enjoyable is his one and only, a second one would have been more than likely top notch indeed.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Murder in the Crooked House, by Soji Shimada

Pushkin Vertigo, 2019
originally published as Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, 1982
translated by Louise Heal Kawai

345 pp

A few years ago I read and loved Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders so it was a no-brainer as to whether or not to buy his newest, Murder in the Crooked House.  As in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,  at one point in the action, everything comes to a full stop as the author throws out a challenge to his readers, letting us know that at this point in the game we have everything that we know to solve the mystery.   The question is "Can you solve this case?"  The answer:  no, not I.  I did manage to figure out the who but not the why and not the how, and even that  small victory came only after making my way through a wriggling school of red herrings thrown in throughout the story.  To those of you who solved it by the time the "challenge to the reader" is thrown down,  I would love to have your brains, because I was kept in the dark pretty much throughout.

And small wonder.  I don't know how anyone could have possibly solved this while reading because the solution is so farfetched and so out there, well beyond the norm of many of the locked-room crime novels I've read.  In fact, whenever reading in this subgenre, I flip the switch in my brain to "suspend disbelief" mode so that I'm prepared when the denouement comes.  On the other hand, once I knew how Shimada made it all happen, I found myself going back to the diagrams scattered throughout the novel trying to put things together and doing the inner "aha" as I saw how it could have been pulled off (sort of).     I have to admire the author's creativity here, and  I have to wonder how many hours he must have given to setting up the entire story, not to mention how much fun he must have had in doing so.

from CDJapan
In the long run, this is a book where it is best to know next to nothing about the story.  What little I'm willing to spill here is that the action takes place in a house somewhat like the one pictured here on the Japanese cover.  As we learn,
"At the top of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, on the very tip of Cape Soya, there's a high plain that overlooks the Okhotsk Sea. On this plain stands a peculiar-looking structure known by the locals as 'The Crooked House.' " 
At present it sits empty, on the market for many years, and "will probably stay that way."  One might think that it's because of its remote location, but in reality,
"it's far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away."
The house's actual name is the Ice Floe Mansion, built and owned by Kozaburo Hamamato, a somewhat eccentric industrialist who, at the time of the events that took place here, was in his late 60s.  He occupies the tower, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the leaning one in Pisa; his eccentricity even includes a drawbridge that connects with the rest of the house.  Hamamoto refers to it as "this old man's whimsical mansion," because, as the back blurb notes, it is a
"maze of sloping floors and strange staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny dolls."
His daughter Eiko and three household staff also occupy the "crooked house," and as the story begins, the Hamamotos have opened their house to a number of guests for the Christmas holidays, 1983.  The first night of the guests' stay turns out to be anything but normal, but things become even more off-the-wall weird once daylight brings the discovery of a most bizarre murder.    Going back to the blurb once more, the victim has been "found murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances," in a locked room which is accessible only from the outside, the murderer having left no footprints in the snow either coming or going.  While a few of the houseguests take on the puzzle the killer has left behind, the local police are called in and do their best to try to put the limited (and strange) clues together to form a picture of what had happened.  When another death occurs, in circumstances that are perhaps even stranger than the first murder, they have their hands full and call to Tokyo for help, bringing Kiyoshi Mitarai and his friend/sidekick Kazumi Ishioka to Ice Floe Mansion.  But even then ....

[as an aside, Mitarai and Ishioka are names readers will recognize from Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I actually did a double take when I came across them here for the first time on recognition since I had no idea that this was their second adventure. ]

To say more would be to spoil and I don't want to do that at all because it would be wrong to take away someone's fun in trying to piece together exactly how these crimes were committed.  What I will say is that the use of masks in this story  is most appropriate as  it seems that most of the people staying in this house over the holidays have things they desire to keep hidden, each masking his or her inner self behind a very different public persona while in the company of others.   I could go on here, but it would also be a spoiler to do so.

I loved the eerieness of the setting  in this book, which added an atmospheric quality to the novel.  Combining such a remote location, the howling winds during a blizzard, the greyness of the sea during the winter with the fact that the people in the house are all pretty much trapped there until the mystery is solved gives the story a claustrophobic feel that only heightens the strange events that take place.

  In comparing Shimada's earlier book with the present one,  I have to say that Murder in the Crooked House is much more reader friendly, moving much more quickly through to the solution than was the case in Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I also felt that this time around, as I said earlier, I had to keep myself in the state of suspension of disbelief a bit longer than while reading the first book. When all is said and done, I had a lot of fun with this novel and certainly recommend it, most especially to people who find pleasure in reading locked-room/impossible crime novels, which are in many ways a very different breed than your average crime/mystery novel and may take a bit of getting used to.

 Once again, hats off and major applause to anyone who solved this crime before the answers were made known.  I was left completely in the dark. And that's okay.