The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

linls
The Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1923
Hercule Poirot #2
Preceded by The Mysterious Affairs at Styles
Followed by Poirot Investigates

This year marks the first time in over twenty years in the US that new titles have entered the public domain. This covers books originally published in the United States in 1923 and one of the most prominent titles on the list is this early Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links.

I was shocked when I realized that I have not written about a Christie title in over six months so when I saw this piece of news I couldn’t resist dusting off my copy to take a fresh look at it.

The Murder on the Links was the second of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. It followed his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles which I found an enjoyable read though I felt that the mystery plot was not particularly compelling. I think this novel, though still having some flaws, features a much more interesting and compelling mystery plot.

This novel begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a Paul Renauld who writes requesting his help and asking him to travel to his new home in Merlinville-sur-Mer in northern France. Poirot sets out immediately with his friend Hastings to travel on the overnight train but when they get there they learn that he was found dead that morning. Feeling a sense of obligation to the dead man to honor his commission, Poirot decides to stay and investigate the murder.

It turns out that his body was discovered dead in a shallow grave that had been dug in a patch of ground that would soon be turned into a bunker at a local golf course. He had been stabbed in the back with a letter opener. His wife claims that in the early hours of the morning two masked men broke into their home and tied her up, taking him with them and the French authorities suspect that they may be gangsters from South America but Poirot is unconvinced.

This book strikes me as a more complex and intricately plotted book than its predecessor and one of the reasons is the way this story is set up. Christie provides us with an apparently clear reading of the crime scene supported by physical evidence and witness testimony and yet Poirot spots the small details that suggest that the crime scene has been managed and that something else may be going on here.

The way Christie does this is quite masterful, emphasizing the logical flaws and in one particularly brilliant observation the absence of a piece of evidence that ought to be there. This showcases Poirot’s attention to small details and is an early source of tension between him and Giraud of the Sûreté.

The antagonistic relationship between Poirot and Giraud is one of the joys of this novel for me and I think it helps bolster our sense of Poirot’s brilliance. Giraud certainly makes mistakes and reaches for an easier or more obvious reading of the crime scene and the facts but he is not stupid and we understand that he is a character that is regarded as being at the top of his profession. By creating a competition between the two men which it is hardly a spoiler to reveal Poirot will win makes him seem only more brilliant and builds a sense of his unconventionality which here is identified as lying in his supposedly old-fashioned approach to the art of detection.

At the same time, I think this is a crime scene where we cannot blame Giraud for his errors because it is quite intricately set up. We are given a surprisingly large amount of information in these early chapters and one complaint I have heard is that this makes this chapter feel quite dense. I have no problems with this however because unlike his previous case the important thing here for the reader to solve it is to understand the narratives and psychology implied by the evidence.

Where I think the critics have more of a point is in the argument that Christie incorporates some information about a previous case inelegantly, dropping a hefty amount of back story that takes up a whole chapter before resuming the story in the ‘present day’. I certainly think this is awkwardly structured and a little jarring but I have no inherent problem with a past case being relevant to the present one. After all Murder on the Orient Express similarly requires us to learn about a historic crime and no one really holds it against that novel. I consider it a perfectly fine idea, just inartfully executed.

The historical crime described here is a little complicated and messy in its application to the ‘present day’ case which I suspect to be part of the reason it does not sit quite as well with readers. Certainly I think it adds an additional layer of complexity to some of the character relationships, making it once again feel like quite a dense chapter to unpick. It may perhaps have worked better had Poirot explained it to Hastings in dialogue, putting emphasis on the most important details.

I am less forgiving of the way Christie uses Hastings here. I have no problem with using him as light comical relief but this story requires him at several points to act thoughtlessly, becoming a liability to Poirot and the investigation. In the end no lasting harm is done and yet I find it hard to believe that Poirot would ever be able to trust him on future investigations based on his conduct here. In other stories Christie will often balance any moments of buffoonery with some action or observation that sets Poirot back on track but there is no such moment here and I am struck by how small a contribution he makes to solving the case.

Still, that solution to the case is clever and I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book a lot. I think it does showcase Poirot’s talents well and I did appreciate the story’s French setting which also helps give a sense that Poirot is sufficiently good at what he does that he can command interest in clients from all over the world, further building our belief in his abilities. It is, in my opinion, a big step up for Christie and Poirot although it would soon be overshadowed by his next appearance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

The Book of the Crime by Elizabeth Daly

bookofthecrime
The Book of the Crime
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1951
Henry Gamadge #16
Preceded by Death and Letters

I have expressed the enormous sense of envy I feel towards several of my blogging chums who are able to pop down to a market stall or a charity book shop and happen upon actual vintage mysteries. The few secondhand bookstores near me rarely have anything dating back before 1980 (Agatha Christie titles, wonderful though they are, do not count). I can, of course, order things online but that limits the opportunities for discovery which is one of the great pleasures of book shopping for me.

It was a nice surprise for me when I stumbled upon a copy of Elizabeth Daly’s The Book of the Crime the other day at a local used bookstore (the edition pictured is a much more recent reprint from Felony & Mayhem than the one I purchased). While starting with the last book in a series is hardly ideal, I couldn’t resist the acquisition and then felt the need to justify spending the money by actually reading it.

The Book of the Crime introduces us to Rena Austen, a young woman who married a wounded war hero only to find that their relationship quickly turned sour. One day he discovers her looking at a book in their library and becomes very intense with her, frightening her enough that she decides to tell him that she wants to leave him. He storms out, locking her in the room, forcing her to escape and run to the only person she can think who might help – Henry Gamadge who had been a client of a publisher she used to work for.

This story has a somewhat unusual structure in that while there are clearly odd things taking place in that house in the Upper East Side, we are over halfway through the novel before Gamadge has an obvious crime to investigate. Up until that point our focus is on learning about the characters, trying to understand what about Rena holding that particular book prompted such an explosive reaction from her husband and observing how Henry supports her and steers her in trying to secure a more permanent separation from her husband.

That last point is particularly important as securing Rena’s long-term security is Henry’s main priority in investigating this situation and he does so already being convinced that her husband must be guilty of something. This is a completely understandable assumption based on his behavior and it quickly establishes Henry’s role in this story as a champion of the woman involved in the case rather than as a more dispassionate, process-driven detective.

These early chapters of the novel also provide information about recent developments in Henry Gamadge’s life which sadly were a little lost on me. This is, of course, not Daly’s fault. She was not responsible for me jumping on board at the end of this series and I think they seem well written. If nothing else, it is certainly a pleasant novelty to encounter a sleuth with a genuinely happy home life. I will be curious to see whether other titles in this series also feature these glimpses of his domestic life or if it was unique to this novel.

I found Henry Gamadge to be quite an appealing protagonist and can understand the comparisons people draw with Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, though I think he seems a little less affected. His response to Rena’s problems is quite admirable, particularly given he hardly knows her, and I think that makes him feel all the more likable. I also enjoyed that this mystery absolutely caters to his particular skill set, making his background a really important part of the story.

Turning back to the mystery element of the novel, I think the start of this book presents us with an intriguing situation though not much in the way of firm, physical clues. Instead this is the sort of case where the reader must infer things about the case based on the situation and what we can observe of characters’ relationships with each other.

That approach often works well and I did find some of the deductions to be quite clever but I do think the overall structure of the plot naturally suggests the answers to several key plot points. I do think though that if you haven’t already guessed at the solution, the explanations given for how the different elements of the story related to each other seem quite logical and clever. I was ultimately satisfied with the reasons given about what took place and why.

One part of the book that did disappoint however is the introduction of a murder late in the narrative. There are some positives that come with this plot development in that it gives a little focus to the investigation element of the story and I think it plays an important role in several of the novel’s subplots but the victim is unknown to us at first meeting, meaning that their death has little emotional impact. We do gain a little information about this character in subsequent chapters never so much that I felt that they really came to life.

Happily I found the initial mystery concerning Austen’s erratic behavior sufficiently interesting that I could overlook the relatively uninteresting murder. I enjoyed the process of discovering more about him and his family while I felt it built to a solid, if not exactly thrilling conclusion that lacks surprises.

On the whole I enjoyed it more than enough to go and seek out more of Daly’s work which I expect to do in the near future.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Librarian/Bookstore Owner/Publisher (Who) – Gamadge isn’t exactly any of these but I think being a rare books expert is clearly along the same lines

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

murderunderground
Murder Underground
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Murder Underground is the first of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s. All three were reissued a few years ago by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics range, sporting introductions from crime writer Stephen Booth.

I have owned this one and Death on the Cherwell for some time but never really gave them a try. I suspect it was because some of the reviews I read, such as this one from Curtis, were not warm and when I did try Cherwell I found I couldn’t really get into it. Still, I recently decided that I wanted to fill in some gaps in my coverage of the Crime Classics range on this blog and having them to hand I figured I would give them a go.

Murder Underground begins in the aftermath of the murder of an elderly woman, Euphemia Pongleton (what a name!), who was strangled with her dog’s leash on a staircase at Belsize Park station. The dog was not with her at the time so someone who had access to the house must have been responsible, causing some concern for her family and the other boarders at the Frampton Hotel.

At first the investigation focuses on Bob Thurlow, a young man who has been walking out with her maid. We learn that she confiscated a brooch from him a few days before her death, claiming that it was stolen property and that she would decide what to do about the situation. The suspicion was that he killed her to keep her from talking to the Police yet it is pointed out that if he had killed her he would almost certainly have taken the brooch from her pockets.

Suspicion instead would seem to fall on her nephew Basil, a writer, who is expected to inherit the bulk of the estate. He seeks out legal advice from one of his aunt’s friends, confiding in him that he came across the body before it was found but fled the scene and constructed a false alibi. The story mostly follows his perspective on the case as he reacts to the police investigation and tries to shore up his alibi.

The result is a story that has a rather unusual focus. Most mystery stories tend to play out from the perspective of someone who is trying to solve the case or prove their innocence yet Basil is in a very different situation. His problems are almost entirely of his own making and borne out of his own choices, flippant attitude and careless thinking.

Some reviews comment on how he is a pretty unsympathetic figure and I can certainly see why he would irritate readers. His attitude towards his aunt’s estate seems entitled and there are points during the story where he comes off as snobbish and selfish in his interactions with others. Still, I will admit to finding him rather entertaining if you approach this story as a somewhat comedic cautionary tale rather than as a detective story.

The comedic conceit is that you have a character treating life as if he were in a light comedy when he is actually in a dark murder tale. All of his instincts are to dig himself in deeper, to further complicate his alibi and construct further layers of inadequate stories to try to cover up the uncomfortable but not criminal situation he found himself in on that staircase. He will not be responsible for his own rescue and instead we can see that he is fortunate that there are others around him who are far more aware of just how perilous his situation could be.

One of the things Curtis mentions in his review of Murder Underground is the contradiction in the tone of the material, finding the brutal murder at odds with the otherwise quite frothy and lightly comedic business around it. I think that argument reflects two ideas – firstly that Ms Euphremia Pongleton is not a ‘deserving corpse’. I can say that I probably wouldn’t like her if I met her but while she tries to exert pressure over Basil with the threat of altering her will, I think she is proud of him and wants the best for him.

The second argument is more specifically about the vicious nature of the murder method which while not described in detail is still quite disturbing to imagine. I will concede that this is a problem when you look at the book as an example of a mystery or detective novel but I think it works better if your focus is on the way Basil makes himself look guiltier and guiltier with his responses and the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in.

While this is not a detective story, there is still a mystery here for the reader to solve by the end of the book. Hay does drop clues for the reader about the case and while I am not convinced that it plays fair with the reader, I found the ending to be quite entertaining and I think the conclusion just about makes sense. I would also say that I found the cast of characters to be quite distinct and entertaining.

In spite of some of these positives, I do think that there are also several missteps and irritations. One that always irritates me is the choice to try to depict accents in the text. This is a difficult thing to do and almost never done well.

The other is that the active characters really have very little to do with establishing the outcome for the novel’s conclusion making them seem a little passive. Now, as I indicated earlier, I do think that fits the themes I believe Hay is developing but I don’t think it works dramatically, nor are the laughs quite big enough to say it really works comically either.

To me Murder Underground is ultimately a rather awkward read. At its best there are great positives such as the lively characterization and effective communications of ideas are certainly there and to be appreciated but I think if it wanted to be a comedy it should have pushed those elements a little more. Instead it feels like a messy jumble, mixing the dramatic and the comedic but never quite successfully marinating them together. The British Library have reissued some other lighthearted mysteries that I think are altogether more effective and I would suggest that you start with those before tackling this story.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

Death in High Provence by George Bellairs

highprovence
Death in High Provence
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1957
Inspector Littlejohn #27
Preceded by Death Treads Slowly
Followed by Death Sends for the Doctor

Given that Inspector Littlejohn is a detective working for Scotland Yard he spends a surprisingly large amount of his time solving mysteries on French soil. I previously reviewed Death Spins the Wheel which saw him make a short fact-finding trip across the channel but Death in High Provence is the first I have read where he is investigating a crime abroad.

In this novel Littlejohn is approached by the British Minister of Commerce whose brother had died in a car accident in Provence. The Police quickly ruled it an accident but the Minister feels that something is suspicious and wants some answers. Being concerned about causing a diplomatic incident the minister asks Littlejohn to visit the area in an unofficial capacity to obtain some evidence of foul play so he can get the investigation reopened.

Littlejohn and his wife travel to the quiet village of St. Marcellin under the less-than-convincing pretense of being travel writers. They try to befriend some of the locals to find out more about the death but the few who do share information disappear…

Because we can already guess much of what Littlejohn discovers in the opening third of the novel its early chapters of the novel concentrating on establishing an atmosphere. Some of this is giving a sense of life in the rustic, decaying village but it is also about building our understanding of the almost feudal relationships that still exist there and that the answers to the recent crime lies in the village’s past.

I have written appreciatively in the past of Bellairs’ ability to write about rural communities and that same skill is very much in evidence here. The descriptions of the landscape and the buildings when they first arrive are rich and wonderfully detailed giving the sense that he is describing real places and people. I really enjoy the small details that pepper the early chapters like the negotiations that have to take place between Littlejohn and the hotel proprietor about when they will have a bath and whether the water will be hot or cold.

Death in High Provence is quite a strange book structurally because the reader begins the novel already aware or at least strongly suspecting the answers to the questions Littlejohn is investigating. To give an example, I doubt that any reader will seriously believe that the deaths were really the result of a car accident and it will soon be clear to the reader who is manipulating the villagers into keeping quiet.

This choice gives the novel some of the texture of an inverted mystery novel and yet I think that would be a misleading label (not least because it is only very strongly implied rather than confirmed in the text). While we know who is behind the conspiracy of silence that does not necessarily equate to knowing the identity of the killer, their motives or exactly what was done. What it does do however is establish a tension that will run throughout the novel and give Littlejohn an opponent of sorts to maneuver against.

Bellairs adjusts the style and pacing of the novel once that opponent emerges, shifting from a slow, conversational approach to investigation to something more active and direct. The book never feels action-driven but I think it finds a new focus in those chapters. It helps that this shift coincides with the discovery of information that gives Littlejohn’s investigation a much sharper and slightly different area of focus though we do not lose sight of the car accident.

I do appreciate that this second phase of the story introduces some stronger mystery elements, creating a puzzle for the reader to solve although the writer’s focus remains on developing his characters and the relationship between Littlejohn and his opponent. The situation Bellairs describes is interesting and I did appreciate that it becomes more complex the more we know about it, building to the very welcome discovery of a second mystery for Littlejohn to work out.

I found that second mystery to be much more intriguing than the first and was surprised by several of the developments and by the overall premise which I thought was clever. Unfortunately I think it also feels a little rushed, in part because it is introduced quite late in the book leaving little time for a focused investigation. When Littlejohn does start to work it through I found I had to reread the conversation to clarify aspects of the complex explanation and wished that a little more room had been allocated to exploring this portion of the story.

Pacing is really the principle issue with Death in High Provence. The opening chapters are certainly atmospheric and establish a sense of obstacle but Bellairs takes too long to begin moving his narrative forward, leaving little room for the meat of the mystery. The circumstances of the second investigation are much more interesting than the first and could easily have supported a whole novel in themselves and yet they feel buried away in the final third of the novel, hinted at but not directly addressed until shortly before the end.

For that reason I cannot say that Death in High Provence is a particularly successful novel. It certainly stands out as being quite different in structure and style than any of the other Bellairs novels I have read so far but I couldn’t help but think that this would have worked better as a novel with a French policeman such as Bellairs’ Dorange taking the lead rather than an English detective like Littlejohn. Making that change might have allowed Bellairs to skip over some of the necessary establishing material to explain how and why Littlejohn gets involved and get directly to the mystery which, given more space, had potential to be quite interesting.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any country but US or UK (Where)

The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis

Pein
The Niece of Abraham Pein
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1943

It has been a while since I last wrote about any of the works of the American mystery writer James Harold Wallis in part because getting hold of them is quite difficult. With the exception of his novel Once Off Guard which was later reissued under the title The Woman in the Window, his mysteries do not seem to have been reprinted since they were initially published in the 1930s and 1940s. I was understandably very excited when I happened upon an affordable copy of this novel.

The Niece of Abraham Pein was one of the last novels published by Wallis although he would live for a further fifteen years after its publication. It was published in 1943 and it is clear that this was a book written to remind readers of the Nazi persecution of Jews, to encourage support of the war effort and to influence readers to be on their guard against similar attitudes developing in the United States.

The story is narrated by Arthur Dyce, a headmaster from a New England preparatory school, who has bought a holiday home in a small town in rural New Hampshire. In the summer of 1939 he takes his annual holiday only to find that the usually peaceful community is riddled with tension and suspicion at the arrival of a pair of Jewish refugees who had escaped from Nazi Germany several years earlier.

Dyce feels that Abraham Pein and his niece Esther are the victims of racial and religious intolerance and he tries to intervene but with no success. When his enemies notice that the niece has not been seen for a few days they begin to ask questions, causing Pein to become agitated and evasive. Before long the authorities are checking up on his story and, unable to confirm it, Pein finds himself arrested for her murder and placed on trial.

Deeply disturbed and concerned that Pein will not be given a fair trial, Dyce contacts Clenard, a lawyer friend, who reluctantly agrees to take on the case as a public defender. The lawyer notes that while he finds Pein to be an unconvincing witness, the authorities have been unable to produce a body which puts the prosecution at a disadvantage and he feels optimistic. The rest of the book details the pair’s efforts to construct a defense and then the conduct of the trial itself.

Though there is a mystery here concerning the fate of Esther, this book is not structured as a detective novel. Instead it is presented as a legal thriller in which Dyce and Clenard are less focused on detection of the truth than they are in presenting a defence.

Typically in legal thrillers the protagonist would be the lawyer for the defendant but Wallis opts instead to present the story through the eyes of an outsider to the community. I think this is an interesting and effective choice on several levels. Firstly, it gives us an authoritative moral voice within the story to identify those antisemitic forces within the community and to act as a witness to some of the most crucial developments in the case before it goes to trial. While we know Dyce feels sympathetic to Pein, we are also aware that he is an inherently trustworthy narrator and that facts he establishes are likely to be truthful allowing us to focus on other questions.

Secondly, this creates a secondary character, Clenard, to act as Pein’s lawyer who is able to examine the situation on legal merit as opposed to a sense of moral justice. This has the benefit of creating a dynamic where the defence and progress of the trial are explained to Dyce and also to the reader. This helps the reader follow the action of the trial and to understand how new evidence will affect Pein’s chances.

Where Dyce is principled and rigid sometimes seeming a little patrician in his attitudes, Clenard is a much more grounded and pragmatic figure. He recognizes the problems inherent in their case, even though he has faith in the judicial process.

The problem is principally that Abraham Pein does not trust them or the American legal system. Pein cuts an interesting and ambiguous figure, simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious. It is pretty clear from the moment he is introduced that he is a victim of antisemitic prejudice and persecution first in Russia, then Germany and then in the United States. While we understand the forces that have made him hard and bitter it is clear that his treatment of his niece was frequently violent.

The tension is derived from not knowing exactly what evidence the prosecution will produce to support their case and our uncertainty as to what actually took place in that house. While I suspect many readers would be able to deduce some elements of the book’s conclusion from consideration of my brief outline and the themes of the novel, even if you know where this is ending up the journey there is pretty effective.

There are surprisingly few sensational developments in the trial and it is clear that the author aims to accurately portray the American legal system with equal time given to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In this I think he is quite successful.

Judged purely as a mystery or thriller I think it is a little less successful, in part because so much of the conclusion can be inferred at the start and Wallis does not provide many surprises. I think though that Wallis understood that he was using a genre as a vehicle to discuss societal issues. In that respect this work is more successful as Wallis writes boldly, with passion and conviction, building to a powerful if not surprising ending.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Person’s Name in the Title (What)

St. Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

StPetersFinger
St. Peter’s Finger
Gladys Mitchell
Originally Published 1938
Mrs Bradley #8
Preceded by Come Away, Death
Followed by Printer’s Error

It has been far harder than I expected to figure out how I would complete this last category in the 2018 Vintage Mysteries Challenge. I thought I had it all figured out last month when I read A Javelin for Jonah, another book by Gladys Mitchell, only to discover when I was quite a way into the book that it was written well after the 1960 cutoff date. Whoops.

I did contemplate picking a book set at a college like Death on the Cherwell or Gaudy Night but would they really constitute a school mystery? I was pretty sure that I would have said not back in January and if I am going to do a mysteries challenge then I was determined to do it right. After weeks of procrastination I decided yesterday afternoon that I would return to Gladys Mitchell, this time carefully checking the publication date before I commenced reading.

The novel I selected was St. Peter’s Finger, one of Mitchell’s earliest Mrs. Bradley mysteries. It begins with her responding to a request from one of her sons that she visit a convent school where a student had been found dead in mysterious circumstances.

The victim, thirteen year old Ursula Doyle, was an heiress who has two cousins also attending the school. She was found dead in a bathroom in the convent’s guest-house of carbon monoxide poisoning yet the bath had been stopped running, the windows were open, there were no signs of violence on the body and no faults could be found in the room’s gas line. The nuns dispute the coroner’s verdict of suicide and ask her to see if she can find evidence supporting the idea of an accidental death.

When Mrs. Bradley begins her investigation she soon discovers that there are problems with both of these explanations for the death. Before long she becomes convinced that the girl must have been murdered but the problem is working out who could have committed the crime and how they managed it. Soon she finds her own life may be in danger, not to mention the lives of the victim’s family.

One of the greatest strengths of St. Peter’s Finger is the way Mitchell is able to evoke the sense of belonging to a convent community. She introduces us to quite a wide selection of nuns, teachers and convent school students, each of whom has a different response and level of comfort with the environment. For some it is a place of comfort, friendship and support while others chafe at the restrictions and the rules. One thing that most of these characters have in common is their unwillingness to volunteer information to Mrs. Bradley which makes her investigation more challenging.

Mitchell does introduce us to quite a large group of characters and most feel pretty distinctive from each other there were some points where I was mixing up some of the minor characters and the relationships to each other. While this caused a little frustration for me early in the novel, I did appreciate that it does help give the sense of a real, bustling institution and all of the most critical characters were very well-defined and memorable.

In my review of A Javelin for Jonah I barely remarked on the character of our sleuth, Mrs. Bradley. Just about the only remark I made was noting how little time is spent establishing her character, speculating that was a reflection of it being a later installment in a long-running series. I did find that the character is not really given much more of an introduction here although we do learn a little about her family and household but she does at least feature from the start of the novel and the action centers on her investigation.

Mitchell does not feature passages of really detailed descriptions of her protagonist and yet I had far less difficulty imagining her than in that other story because aspects of her personality emerge in the course of the investigation. She is a little haughty in her manner at times yet she shows signs of genuine warmth and concern for others such as a girl from the orphanage who frequently finds herself in trouble. I wouldn’t say that she is an investigator I would want to know if they existed in person but then who would want to know Poirot or Miss Marple?

I can say that I enjoyed following her investigation which I was pleased to find turned out to be less straightforward than it initially appeared. In fact I spend a good chunk of the book worrying that I had worked out the solution far too early and I kept waiting for some twist or moment that would make me realize I was horribly off track. That moment never quite came in the way I expected and while there are a few loose ends in the story, I was largely satisfied with the solution to the case.

A bigger problem for me was the novel’s pacing which at times seemed ponderous. I was particularly conscious of this in the section of the book between a night-time attack and a character leaving. Not much new information or evidence is found in those chapters that moves on our understanding of the situation and while I appreciated the chance to explore some of the suspects’ psychologies, I felt that the book may have benefited from a little trimming to some elements that were not directly linked to the solution.

The positive side to the novel’s leisurely pacing is that it does allow for some moments of humor and wry observation about convent life that I would certainly miss if they were gone. It was those moments that I think helped make this a more entertaining read than Jonah and I can say that I consider it a much better puzzle in terms of its construction and the range of elements involved. While I don’t expect to make a quick return to Mitchell in the next few months I may be a little more optimistic the next time I reach for one from this series.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a School (Where)

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

Howling
The Case of the Howling Dog
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #4
Preceded by The Case of the Lucky Legs
Followed by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye

I am a little nervous of declaring any reading projects for 2019. It’s not that I don’t want to take anything on – goodness knows I have ideas – but I have poor follow-through as anyone who has been following my one-a-month Christie and Ellery Queen series knows… So while I am not saying that I am intending to review all of the Perry Mason stories in order I will say that I plan to review the Perry Mason stories in order.

The Case of the Howling Dog is the fourth in the series and while I have some issues with it (more on that later), I am pleased to say that I found it a more engaging experience than The Case of the Lucky Legs. Where I struggled for months to enthuse myself to finish that title, this one I did in just two sittings which I think says everything.

So, what’s it all about? Perry is approached by a man named Cartwright who asks him questions about writing his will and then engages him to take legal action to stop his neighbor’s dog from howling. Perry carries out his instructions but is soon approached by the neighbor who insists that his dog is calm and that he is being persecuted and that Cartwright is unhinged and spying on them.

The situation becomes odder still when Perry receives a will from Cartwright that is written contrary to the specific advice he had given him, leaving his money to his neighbor’s wife. Keen to get to the bottom of things Perry heads to the neighbor’s home where he finds a body and a dead dog, not to mention a missing wife.

An attribute of Gardner’s writing that I am appreciating is his ability to set up an apparent legal situation and then transform it in an altogether more interesting case. We saw that in the previous novel which began with a contract dispute and here we begin with a case of poor relations between neighbors. There are several clues to suggest that these two men have considerably more history than they initially seemed to but the most interesting part of the case for me are the differing accounts of the dog’s behavior.

Let’s take a step back though and consider Perry’s previous stories and the way he was handled there. In those novels he takes an aggressive and active role in protecting his client’s interests but what detective work he does takes the form of listening to information and testing its validity. He uses his professional judgement and common sense to work out why his client is innocent but there is little deductive work.

This novel feels different. He still interviews persons of interest in the case and tests information but at points in the story he clearly utilizes deductive reasoning to make sense of that evidence in a way we haven’t seen before. This culminates in a moment towards the end of the novel in which Perry lays out his understanding of what happened. This is not only fascinating as a dramatic reveal, I loved how that moment fits in to some of the broader themes and ideas of these early novels and builds on our understanding of Perry as a man and as a lawyer.

In my previous reviews I have mentioned that I enjoy moments where Mason skates on the edge of the law which was apparently a feature of these earlier stories. Gardner really pushes Mason into some ethically dubious territory in this one which is certainly entertaining, even if I think he goes way further over that line than he claims. What I appreciate most about those moments in this story though is the point Gardner makes about how witnesses are manipulated and I appreciated how it shows Mason being particularly cunning.

Once again we get a hefty dose of courtroom action and see Perry at work, developing his approach to fighting this case. These chapters are effective though I think Perry’s strategy is clearer than the author seems to realize. In particular there is one element that he has to explain to Della at the end that I imagine will jump out to anyone who has seen more than a handful of legal dramas. It’s not really Gardner’s fault that others have since covered similar ground but it does reduce the impact of that revelation.

For the most part I found the characterization of the supporting figures to be just fine, albeit with no outstanding figures. It does feel a bit strange that we spend so little time getting to know Perry’s client but I can accept that it is not a priority given the themes and plot ideas that Gardner intends to explore.

Della and Paul Drake play a pretty limited role in the story and I will say that I missed them. Gardner does find other characters to fill the need for someone to question Mason’s methods and approach to the case but what I appreciate about these two is that they know him and care for him, particularly Della.

Where I think Gardner’s characterization falls down is with the portrayal of the Chinese cook Ah Wong. This character only plays a small role in the story and it seemed that Gardner had intended to make a point about the treatment of Asian immigrants. Certainly I think we are supposed to think Pemberton is an idiot when he insists that you have to know how to handle the Chinese but then he has Ah Wong communicate in broken English. On top of that this section of the book features repeated uses of racial epithets in a way that doesn’t sit particularly well including from Mason. Regardless of the author’s intentions I think that this aspect of the book has not aged well and though it is hardly out-of-place within the fiction of the time, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Were those chapters not in the book or had the subject been handled differently I would be quite comfortable suggesting this as the best of the four Masons I have read so far. Certainly it is the strongest of the four as a mystery featuring some genuine pieces of deduction on the part of Mason and I think it has a very effective ending. Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.