THE CRIME OF MY LIFE, by Marv Lachman
One of the mysteries I have yet to solve is why Gerald Sinstadt stopped writing fiction. Thirty years ago I read his first novel, The Fidelio Score (John Long, UK, 1965; Lancer, US, pb, 1967), and thought it one of the best spy stories I ever read. It was not until 2005 that I was able to read his second and last book, Whisper in a Lonely Place (John Long, UK, 1966; Lancer, US, pb, 1967, as Ship of Spies), and it is almost as good. Sinstadt pits British Intelligence, including Geoffrey Landon, protagonist of his first book, against agents of an unnamed foreign country. In the middle is a very believable young British aeronautical engineer. An intriguing beginning tells how he becomes involved, and from then on the telling is crisp and clean and in adult prose. I use the word “adult” in the best sense since there is no swearing in this book as there is gratuitously in so many recent mysteries, whose use of language is more suited to randy teenagers than to adults.
Sinstadt is good regarding British Intelligence bureaucracy but spares the reader the angst found in Le Carré and others. Only the ending is not up to the rest of the book for, while it is enormously suspenseful, it appeared that Sinstadt didn’t quite know how to conclude his book and resorted to a deus ex machina. A bit of research via the internet – and with the help of Geoff Bradley and Bob Adey – reveals that Sinstadt has become one of the leading commentators on British football, so perhaps he was too busy to write more spy stories.
Update: An email from Gerald Sinstadt can be found in the Readers Forum.
The death early in 2005 of Charlotte MacLeod reminded me that I had many unread books by her, and I picked up The Withdrawing Room (Doubleday Crime Club, 1980), in which Sarah Kelling opens a boarding house on Beacon Hill. There was much sadness in internet chat services at MacLeod’s death, and many praised her humor, which is most noticeable in the observations of Sarah, the character MacLeod created that was most like her. (She is a commercial artist, as was MacLeod.) Murder strikes Sarah’s boarders, and she says, “I must have some magnetic attraction for disaster.” Max Bittersohn is on hand as their romance subtly grows. Occasionally there are serious moments and observations, and they do not seem out of place. Ultimately, there are few hilarious lines in MacLeod’s work, but there is a wry, sophisticated viewpoint. Plotting and detection work were never Charlotte MacLeod’s strong points, but her books remain fun to read, making one even sadder at her demise after five years suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Another humorous lady, one who delighted attendees at the 1976 and 1977 Bouchercons, was Christianna Brand. She was best known for the often-reprinted (and well filmed) (Dodd Mead, 1944) about Inspector Cockrill, memorably played on screen by Alistair Sim. I finally read her first Cockrill mystery, Green for DangerHeads You Lose (John Lane, UK, 1942; Dodd Mead, US, 1942) in its 1988 reprint edition from Bantam. There is much that is traditional in this book, including weekend guests gathered as murder (by decapitation) strikes. Furthermore, there is a seemingly impossible crime when Cockrill cannot find any traces of the killer approaching a body in the snow. Unfortunately, Brand’s explanation of the crimes is somewhat lame, and Cockrill doesn’t really solve it; we have one of those killer-gives-self- away confessions. The book seems more filled with anti-Semitic references than one might expect from a book written many years after Hitler came to power, but they just might have been deliberately satirical on Brand’s part, considering her sense of humor.
Like latter-day Siamese twins, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson seem linked. I’ve seen reviews of their works coupled in several magazines as well as in The New York Times. Though Rankin is perhaps the hottest writer around in our genre, I’ve given up on him. He seems to want to have it both ways, publishing his novels as crime fiction but neglecting the plotting and entertainment I expect in detective fiction. Despite his gritty descriptions of Edinburgh, he does not provide the depth one finds, albeit seldom, in the best mainstream fiction. I find Inspector Rebus and his personal problems both boring and annoying.
I haven’t given up on Robinson. Despite a slow beginning to an overlong (340 pages) book, his second Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks mystery, A Dedicated Man (Viking Press, UK, 1988; Scribner’s, US, 1991), comes to a psychologically plausible and satisfying, albeit non-fair play, solution. In explaining it, Banks even says, “I’m making this up by the way.” It’s not that the solution has been pulled completely out of thin air, but the clues on which it is based have not been shared with readers. We learn more about Banks than I needed, especially his would-be intellectual taste in reading, music, and politics. Reading about his efforts to keep his pipe lit, I visualized him with patches on his tweed jacket, more like a professor than a detective. Robinson brings in several real professors, from Leeds, seemingly only to have a few more suspects.
A strength is Robinson’s regional writing about Yorkshire. Otherwise, this is a rather straightforward mystery, with few surprises. Robinson seems to agree with one of the characters he has created in the book, a mystery writer who says of his own writing, “The plot’s taken care of; it’s the characters and atmosphere that are really hard to do.” I disagree and don’t think Robinson spent enough time on taking care of his plot.
Tom Jenkins’s article in Mystery*File 47 about P.M. Hubbard reminded me that I had never read any of Hubbard’s books. Hubbard has been highly praised by many, including Barzun & Taylor, with whom I agree more often than most readers. I picked up High Tide (Atheneum, 1970), one of only two of his books reprinted in the U.S. in paperback. It was rewarding reading though ultimately the inconclusive ending (a Hubbard characteristic noted by B & T) disappointed.
Hubbard’s narrator, Curtis, has just been released from prison and is followed by two mysterious men who believe that the man Curtis manslaughtered whispered vital information to him before dying. The McGuffin in this book is scarcely believable, even when Hubbard does get around to explaining it fairly late in this short (181 paperback pages) book. Curtis buys a boat and sails from Cornwall to Devon, meeting up with two women who may be connected to the men trailing him. The tale is told at a leisurely pace, with too much description of sailing and topography and relatively little action, much of the book being devoted to Curtis’s thoughts and emotions. Ultimately Hubbard builds up considerable suspense at the end, and he has created characters about whom I cared.
A major thread of discussion on DorothyL in the spring of 2005 was about the appropriateness of an Edgar-winning book for 2004 that is told from the viewpoint of a rapist-murderer. This concept is not new in the mystery. R. Austin Freeman is generally credited with inventing this “inverted” form of detective story. Freeman had his great detective Dr. John Thorndyke available to solve the murder, as, more recently, was Peter Falk as Columbo in the television series. Those complaining about the recent book point out that the killer gets away with his crimes, presumably to kill again. Others disagree and fear censorship.
While reading the controversy on DorothyL, I was reading an inverted mystery, Alfred Tack’s P. A. to Murder (John Long, UK, 1966). The title refers to Neville Clifford, the personal assistant to the managing director of a London-based office equipment company and his plan to supplant his boss by murder. Tack has a business background; he wrote at least nine books on salesmanship. He paints a good picture of the business, though sometimes with too much detail, and the titles and functions of some of the various employees become confusing. A few of them (they all seem to be adversaries of Clifford) are well limned, but others are only ciphers. This is a crisply told book with considerable suspense though ultimately spending an entire book – albeit a short one – in Clifford’s sociopathic mind grew wearisome. Still, I am glad I discovered this author, most of whose books have only been published in the United Kingdom.
As a slow reader, I finally got to read Slow Burner (Cassell, UK, 1958; Little Brown, US, 1958), my first William Haggard spy novel, and it left me wanting to read more by him. Despite a relatively slow pace and some contrivances, Haggard captured this reader’s attention, and the fact that this was another relatively short book didn’t hurt. The plot involves the attempt to steal the titular secret form of nuclear energy. While it is a relatively simple plot, this is compensated for by some interesting characterization and a fascinating picture of the British civil service. Reading today about a very early form of computer is also interesting. Haggard shows a subtle sense of humor, as when he writes about a fictional musical show Yes, Madame, No, one following the titles of such real musicals as No, No Nanette and Yes, Yes Yvette. Comden and Green once imagined a musical called If, If Iphigenia. But, as Tom Lehrer said, I digress. The ending of Haggard’s spy novel is satisfying, if a bit too dependent on some more of his coincidences.
Sometimes, as I read a very old mystery, I wonder if I’m not the only person in the world currently reading it. (I wouldn’t think that if I were reading The DaVinci Code.) I certain felt that way while reading Patrick Leyton’s The Dalmayne Mystery (Herbert Jenkins, UK, 1928), though I did know that my friend Charlie Shibuk had recently read it and again was kind enough to make it available to me. This is an exciting thriller regarding the Irish Republican Army and another secret formula – this one pre-nuclear – “The Silent Death,” one that will destroy the English empire and allow its holders to control the world. If ever a mystery is pro-Imperialism, it is this one, and Leyton includes racist dialogue, par for English books of the 1920s.
None of Leyton’s leading characters are especially believable, but his protagonist, Christopher Curtiss is more flawed and interesting than most. As we meet him, he has just been fired from his job for embezzling, but we’ll find him sympathetic nonetheless. There are many coincidences in this book, and that old device, the secret passage. Yes, it is corny but fun, and it includes such wonderful examples of slang “not quite balmy on the crumpet.”
Miriam Borgenicht was one of those writers who never seem to write the same book twice. These writers typically don’t have series characters since having a continuing protagonist usually leads to a certain predictability. Andrew Garve was another whose books followed little pattern, though, as I have written elsewhere, Garve was probably his own series character. Borgenicht was a sophisticated writer who created many different strong female protagonists. A late example of her work is Still Life (St. Martin’s Press, 1986) in which Margaret Berringer first tries to prevent a murder by her paralyzed brother and then tries to prove him innocent for reasons more believable than those involving detection by other amateurs, though she keeps asking herself why she is doing this. (A weakness in the book is that too much of it takes place in Berringer’s mind; more objectivity would help.) This book has a slim plot, expanded by information on paralysis and a rape crisis center. There are several fair play clues, but they are rather easy to guess; I spotted them. There are also several rather large coincidences. The ending is satisfying, if a trifle too tidy.
At a time when few Broadway dramas are about crime, more and more operas and musicals are. I read in a review of Jack Heggie’s 2004 opera based on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (William Heinemann, UK, 1951; Doubleday, US, 1951) that an important character is a private detective. That set me to reading finally my copy of that book. Though listed in Hubin’s bibliography, this is only marginally a crime novel. It’s mostly about adultery and religion, two subjects very important to Greene. His interest in Catholicism is well known, but his biography shows how often he was unfaithful. In this book Maurice is having an affair with Sarah, who is married. He then suspects that he is an adulterer who is being cuckolded and hires the private detective Parkis to follow her. Parkis, a very sympathetic character, has a twelve-year-old son who is a private eye in training. There is little criminous plot in this book that is mainly about love and jealousy. Despite the reputation of this book and Greene, I found Maurice and Sarah not to be grand adulterers but petty people whose conversations are rather trivial.
I was a baseball fan before I read my first mystery in 1943. I went to Yankee Stadium in 1941 and saw a game between the Yankees (with Joe DiMaggio, who hit in56 consecutive games that year) versus the Red Sox (with Ted Williams, who batted .406). It is baseball that is far and away the best part of Crabbe Evers’s Murderer’s Row (Bantam, pb, 1991), the second book in a series of baseball mysteries. The president of the Yankees, an even less pleasant fictional version of George Steinbrenner, has been murdered by a marksman (“Lee Harvey Oswald in the Bronx”), and the commissioner of baseball asks retired sports writer Duffy House to investigate. This book is especially good regarding New York City and baseball nostalgia, and for the latter reason, I recommend non-baseball fans avoid it; they will be lost. They will have trouble accepting the killer’s motive and will find, as I did, that there is a whopping coincidence in the solution.
In 1965 Peter Stone novelized his screen play for CHARADE (1964), probably the most Hitchcockian film that Hitchcock never directed. Audrey Hepburn’s husband has been murdered, and his three former OSS compatriots, seeking a treasure he may have hidden, are not averse to killing her if she won’t give them information they seek. To her rescue comes the suave Cary Grant, but is he as much on her side as he pretends? The plotting is tight and the humor sophisticated. Hepburn is lovely, and Grant shows, racing through the streets of Paris in an exciting climax, that at age 59 he was in as good shape as he was when he tried to avoid that cropduster in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
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