Tuesday ’Tec! Murder Is No Joke by Rex Stout

and four to go 2Dial Wolfe for Murder…

 

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are one of my favourite detective duos of all time, so it has been remiss of me to wait so long before including them on the blog. Rex Stout is one of those rare crime writers whose short stories are as good, if not better, than his full-length novels. The collection And Four to Go contains four novella length mysteries, including the one I’ve chosen for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

Murder Is No Joke by Rex Stout

 

Rex Stout
Rex Stout

Fiona Gallant wants to hire Nero Wolfe to look into the background of a mysterious foreign woman, Bianca Voss, who seems to have some kind of hold over Fiona’s brother Alec. Alec is a famous dressmaker who can command exorbitant prices for his designs so Wolfe, always reluctant to work except when a massive fee is involved, is disappointed to find that Fiona Gallant is offering a paltry $100. On the point of turning down the job, he reluctantly agrees to at least talk to Voss, since Fiona is convinced that he will immediately recognise her to be a bad lot – though his real reason for agreeing is typically Wolfeish, as Archie explains…

I do not say that the hundred bucks there on his desk in used twenties was no factor in Wolfe’s decision. Even though income tax would reduce it to sixteen dollars, that would buy four days’ supply of beer… But what really settled it was her saying “We shall see” instead of “We’ll see” or “We will see.” He will always stretch a point, within reason, for people who use words as he thinks they should be used.

Fiona dials Voss’ number and hands the phone over to Wolfe, with Archie listening in as usual. On hearing who the call is from, Voss starts to hurl insults at Wolfe but suddenly makes a noise somewhere between a scream and a groan and there is the noise of the phone crashing to the floor. Suspecting the worst, Wolfe is not surprised when he learns that Voss has been murdered.

Edward Arnold & Lionel Stander as Wolfe and Archie in the 1936 film
Edward Arnold & Lionel Stander as Wolfe and Archie in the 1936 film “Meet Nero Wolfe”

“Aha!” I thought immediately! Fiona dunnit with an accomplice and is setting Wolfe up to be her alibi. And I sat back smugly to wait to be proved right. My confidence was a little dented by the fact that Inspector Cramer immediately jumped to the same conclusion, because any regular will know about the unbreakable rule that Cramer is always wrong. (Which is a pity, since I so often come up with the same answer as he does.) And this case is no exception. While Archie is at the police station giving a statement, Wolfe reads in the newspaper that a fading actress has committed suicide, and his brilliant mind instantly sees that this puts a whole new complexion on the case. It’s not long before he has all the suspects gathered in his office for one of his famous denouements, where he gradually eliminates the suspects one by one until only the murderer remains…

Portrait of Wolfe by Kevin I Gordon
Portrait of Wolfe by Kevin I Gordon

There are so many things I love about these stories. Nero Wolfe is a fabulously eccentric creation, with his strict schedule, his orchid growing, his gourmandising, his beer, his profound laziness and most of all his brilliant mind. He’s more Mycroft than Sherlock really. And Archie, who narrates the stories, is no downtrodden or overawed sidekick. He accepts Wolfe’s mental superiority, but he’s the one with the physical skills and he plays as big a part in solving the crimes as Wolfe. They’re maybe not equal but they are interdependent. Oh, and Archie is also gorgeous, very smooth and a great dancer. *sighs*

Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton from
Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton from “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” TV series in the early 2000s

Stout’s plots are always beautifully executed. As in this one, there’s usually a specific clue on which the whole case turns, but even when it’s a bit obvious (to people like Cramer and me) you can be sure Stout will twist it in such a way that it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Given the short length of the novella form, he always manages to fit in a fairly wide cast of suspects and gives each of them a believable motive. The reader has to be paying attention to timings because alibi is usually a strong feature. And there’s lots of humour through Archie’s slick-talking narration and affectionately disrespectful descriptions of Wolfe’s little foibles, not to mention the fun of seeing Wolfe make a fool of poor Inspector Cramer…

“…and I didn’t say I have never known you to be wrong, Mr Cramer. I said I have never known you to be more wrong. That is putting it charitably, under provocation. You have accused me of duplicity. Pfui!”

If you haven’t come across Wolfe and Archie yet, I recommend them. And if like me you read them all years ago, time for a re-read! They’re still as much fun as they always were.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

Tuesday ’Tec! The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Detection from A to Z…

 

C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

 

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.

The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unnamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)

c auguste dupin

A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.

This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).

the purloined letter 1

The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.

Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😦 😦

Tuesday ’Tec! Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley

resorting to murderElementary, my dear Sheringham…

 

Like last week’s Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, Resorting to Murder is another anthology of crime stories edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, this time with the theme of murders committed during summer holidays. According to the introduction to this story, Anthony Berkeley was pretty well known as one of the crime writers of the Golden Age. Personally I’ve never heard of him, either under that name, which he used when writing whodunits, or as Francis Iles, the name he used for novels about the psychology of crime. Roger Sheringham, the amateur detective in this story, appeared in several other stories, though this one was never published until 1994, and even then in a strictly limited edition. So time to see if it’s a forgotten treasure or just one that should have been left on the shelf, in this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley

 

Anthony Berkeley
Anthony Berkeley

Here, ladies and gentlemen, are the facts of the case. Your mission is to see if you can find the solution…

Roger Sheringham is spending the weekend with his old friend Major Drake, who just happens to be the Chief Constable of the seaside resort of Penhampton. A man is found drowned – not an uncommon occurrence in a place where the bathing is known to be dangerous. A distraught woman turns up at the police station and tells them that her husband, Edward Hutton, had gone bathing with another man, a fellow holidaymaker, Michael Barton. She subsequently identifies the corpse as her husband. Barton hasn’t been seen since, and all Mrs Hutton can say by way of description is that he had a long moustache. The police are confident it’s a tragic double drowning accident but, as you do when you have guests staying, Major Drake invites Sheringham to accompany him to the mortuary to look at the corpse. (Beats visiting the local museum, I suppose.)

Sheringham has a casual glance or two at the corpse and pretty much solves the whole thing on the spot, though in time-honoured fashion he keeps his conclusions to himself so that the police can show off their stupidity to the full. Here are the things Sheringham notices…

Clues

The man has a recent shaving cut on his lip.
The man’s chin is stubbly as if he hadn’t shaved that morning.
The man has scratches all over his back but none on the rest of his body.

From this, Sheringham deduces it’s a case of murder. Five points and a signed picture of Sheringham to anyone who can at this point tell me whodunit and how it was done. Oh, come on! Sheringham had the answer!

Had the man not been wearing a daring backless bathing suit, the murder may have gone unnoticed...
Had the man not been wearing a daring backless bathing suit, the murder may have gone unnoticed…

No? Oh, well, let’s assume that, like the police, you need a little extra help.

New clues found out in the course of the investigation

Barton owned a blue suit but wasn’t wearing it when he went bathing that day.
The blue suit is no longer in Barton’s tent.
There was a warrant out for the arrest of Hutton for dodgy sharedealing.
Mrs Hutton was seen the next day with a man in a blue suit.

Still not solved it? I guess you’ll just have to read the story then.

Oh, how did I do? Well, I admit I’d sussed out the whodunit from roughly page 2, and I worked out the why when the new clues came along. As to the how, well, I got about two-thirds of that bit, and frankly the other third was silly…

oh we do like...

Despite the fact that I’m making fun of it, the story isn’t too bad really, but neither is it particularly good. Because I haven’t read any of the other Sheringham stories I can’t say how it compares, but I found the writing pretty good and the characterisation pretty stereotyped. Sheringham himself is not so much a Holmesian incisive reasoner as an annoyingly smug, psychic know-it-all, and that’s just as well because the intellectually challenged police desperately needed help. While I like stories that give the reader the clues needed to work out the solution, they really have to be hidden a little better than they are in this one. I’m not sure it would encourage me to seek out more of Berkeley’s stories, but it whiled away a quarter of an hour pleasantly enough.

 

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 🙂

Tuesday ’Tec! The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

capital crimes london mysteriesSkulduggery in the City…

 

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries is a collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Many of the stories are by authors I’ve never heard of, much less read, but there are a few well-known names amongst them too. I’ll be reviewing the full collection at some point in the future, but here’s a little taster from the pen of one of the best thriller writers of his time, for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

 

Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace

This story was first published in 1925 as part of a 12-story collection entitled The Mind of Mr J G Reeder. Mild-mannered Mr Reeder works for the Public Prosecutor’s Department, and his fascination for all things criminal sometimes enables him to see through puzzles that leave the police baffled.

Rumours have been going round the City that Telfers Consolidated, an old family-run business, might be about to hit the rocks. Its founder is long-dead and the company is now in the hands of his grandson, Sidney Telfer, a weak young man with no head for business. Sidney’s secretary, Margaret Belman, is coincidentally a neighbour of Mr Reeder’s, though they only know each other as nodding acquaintances.

'The_Mind_of_Mr._J.G._Reader'

Miss Belman is a pretty young woman, who’s walking out with a respectable young man. So she is shocked when one day, out of the blue, her employer asks her to run away with him to South America. The next day, Sidney’s begs her to tell no-one of his proposition, promising that he would marry her as soon as some legal difficulties could be got over. Miss Belman finds no difficulty in turning him down flat, and you can understand why…

The room, with its stained-glass windows and luxurious furnishing, fitted Mr Telfer perfectly, for he was exquisitely arrayed. He was tall and so painfully thin that the abnormal smallness of his head was not at first apparent. As the girl came into the room he was sniffing delicately at a fine cambric handkerchief, and she thought that he was paler than she had ever seen him – and more repellent.

Later that same day, an employee of Telfers, a Mr Billingham, embezzles £150,000 from the firm, bringing it crashing down. Mr Billingham disappears and the best efforts of the police fail to trace him. Because of the size of the theft, the Public Prosecutor’s Department sends in Mr Reeder, but at first he is also at something of a loss. However, one day a few weeks later, Mr Reeder is indulging his hobby of watching criminal court cases, when a woman appears in the dock, accused of having stolen marble chips from a stonemason’s yard. At first intrigued by the strangeness of the crime, Mr Reeder becomes even more interested when it is revealed that the woman is Sidney Telfer’s housekeeper, who had also acted as guardian to Sidney after the death of his parents.

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories
Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Mr Reeder lets his mind work over his favourite game of patience, and soon figures out the connection between the housekeeper, the stolen marble and the disappearance of Mr Billingham and the money. Have you? No, I didn’t either, and I’m not totally sure it would be possible to on the basis of the information the reader is given – but it’s a lovely puzzle with a nice old-fashioned feel to it, back in the days when fictional criminals came up with more imaginative methods of committing their crimes. The tone of the story has something of a similar feel to the more quirky of the Holmes stories, but is lighter, with one eye always on the humorous aspect. Although there’s a bit of a thrillerish ending, there’s never any real doubt that Mr Reeder will get everything sorted out. I enjoyed the writing style – I don’t know that it would work for novel length, but it made for a very entertaining short story.

“Put down that jug or I will blow your features into comparative chaos!” said Mr Reeder pedantically.

The characterisation is surprisingly good given how little room there is for development, and there’s a clear distinction between the baddies and the goodies. And while the solution to the puzzle is one of the more far-fetched I’ve come across, it works in the context and style of the story. I feel I may have to track down some more of Mr Reeder’s adventures…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday ’Tec! The Adventure of the Dancing Men

Cracking the code…

 

Since spring is almost upon us (that falls decidedly into the category of wishful thinking…), the fretful porpentine has gone into hibernation for a while to recover from the horrors of the winter. So, as well as the approaching return of Transwarp Tuesday!, it’s time for a new series. Don your deerstalker, take a swig from the bottle of hooch in your desk drawer, polish off your little grey cells, and join me for the first…

Tuesday Tec

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is busily showing off his deductive powers to Watson when they are interrupted by the arrival of a new client, Mr Hilton Cubitt. He tells them that there have been strange doings afoot at his manor house in Norfolk – mysterious pictures of dancing matchstick men have been appearing, first in letters sent to his wife, and now scrawled on doors and buildings around the grounds. Mr Cubitt is a good, old-fashioned Englishman, who would never be discombobulated by such childishness. But his wife Elsie is plainly terrified. She is American, and on the day before their marriage following a whirlwind romance, she extracted a promise from Mr Cubitt that he would never question her about her past. So our upright friend has come to Holmes for help to solve the mystery of the dancing men…

Dancing Men 1

Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.

The Dancing Men (1984)

This may well be the story that really inspired my love of crime fiction, and quite probably influenced me to prefer clues and mysteries to mavericks and gore. It’s one of the many stories in which Holmes actually fails pretty dismally and I fear I can’t let him off the hook very easily – had he sent a telegram when he discovered the truth, all may have been well. However, the story would have been considerably duller and Conan Doyle never made the error of saving an innocent victim or two at the expense of telling an exciting yarn. Holmes, having failed to prevent the crime, sets himself grimly to solve the mystery and get vengeance for his client – a common feature of the stories. For Conan Doyle, it is always more important that the villain should get his just desserts, whether at human or divine hand, than that the crime should be prevented.

“I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”

“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.

 

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 2

I love pretty much all of the Holmes stories. They were variable, especially in terms of plotting, but Conan Doyle was such a master storyteller that he could make even the flimsiest plot enjoyable. In this one, the plot is good, but the main emphasis is less on the story or on finding clues than on the breaking of the code and, for me, that’s what makes it such a joy. Watson plays completely fair – we get all the messages at the same time as Holmes does, and the solution makes complete sense. So the reader can either read the story straight through, or do what I did (when I was about 11) and spend hours trying to break the code before reading the solution, Sadly, I now know the story too well to repeat that bit of fun, but there was a time when I was actually able to use the code to write my own secret messages!

So once you’ve read the story (click here) and memorised the code here’s a little bonus message just for you.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

* * * * *

(NB The Little Grey Cells rating will measure the mystery element of a story. To get 5 cells and thus become a Poirot, the story must have a proper mystery and clues, and a solution that it’s possible for the reader to get to before the detective.)