Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Josh Lanyon: Murder takes the High Road

cover133096-mediumAuthor: Josh Lanyon
Title: Murder Takes the High Road

Librarian Carter Matheson is determined to enjoy himself on a Scottish bus tour for fans of mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Sure, his ex, Trevor, will also be on the trip with his new boyfriend, leaving Carter to share a room with a stranger, but he can’t pass up a chance to meet his favorite author.

Carter’s roommate turns out to be John Knight, a figure as mysterious as any character from Vanessa’s books. His strange nighttime wanderings make Carter suspicious. When a fellow traveler’s death sparks rumors of foul play, Carter is left wondering if there’s anyone on the tour he can trust.

Drawn into the intrigue, Carter searches for answers, trying to fend off his growing attraction toward John. But as unexplained tragedies continue, the whole tour must face the fact that there may be a murderer in their midst—but who?

Rating: B-

I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the last few Lanyon-books I picked up and so I wasn’t planning on reading this one. But the plot ‘holiday trip with mysterious events and then a sudden death’ just sounded too good to pass. And I was not disappointed. Lanyon gives this frequently used set-up an unexpected twist that fits the story perfectly. (Die-hard mystery traditionalists might complain about it but I enjoyed it a lot).

 

The romance was very low-key. Carter and John meet, are attracted to each other, have sex and agree to stay in touch and take things further but things are not overly emotional. Which is understandable considering the story takes place over the course of one or two weeks and things are quite busy. Still, it’s definitely more a happy-for-now than a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, it felt more like the beginning of a traditional cozy mystery series (where the designated couple meets in book one, there is an obvious attraction but it takes a few more books until they really get together), than of a typical romance series e.g. Lanyon’s Adrien English books or KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord (where the couple has already taken huge steps towards a proper relationship in book one). I don’t mind this since I enjoy both but if you pick this book up for the romance you will probably be disappointed.

What did bother me was the bitchy-ex trope that takes up quite a lot of space. Carter had originally planned to take the trip with his then-boyfriend but then the boyfriend left him for another guy so now all three of them are taking the tour. Both the ex and his new boyfriend spent a lot of time being horrible to Carter and it’s exhausting. Admittedly, it does help muddling the waters because it means Carter can’t be sure if some of the strange occurrences might be their fault. It’s also part of Carter’s character-growth that he realises how little he and Trevor fitted together and it’s much more than ‘well he couldn’t see how awesome I was, so obviously he was horrible’ but especially considering how little space the actual new relationship got, it’s disappointing to see how much time that sub-plot took.

I would still recommend this book but only to people who (also) enjoy classical mysteries and don’t mind having the typical tropes from those played with (and perhaps also lampshaded a bit), not to lovers of romantic suspense because there is not that much romance in it.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Globe and Mail Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better. 

Rating: C

The house seemed full of lunatics who never gave away anything they knew until it was too late.

At first, I was worried I would be in for a similar reading experience as in The Moonstone, a story with multiple first-person narrators, most of which were annoying people, I couldn’t stand and hated having to spend time in their heads.  The Santa Klaus Murder five first-person narrators, telling the first five chapters and some of those are extremely unlikeable. But then the murder happens and the narration is taken over by Colonel Halstock who investigates the crime. Halfway through we learn that as part of his investigation he asked five of the people who were at the house to write down how they experienced the days leading up to the murder and the first five chapters are those stories. It sure is convenient, that their stories match so perfectly; each person begins his narration just at the point the other ended. And it’s even more convenient that the very first person gives a short rundown of the backstory of everybody involved in the story so that the reader knows who has what motive to murder Sir Osmond. It is however somewhat inconvenient that towards the end of the story there are some major occurrences that happen while Halstock is not around, so we get two more chapters told by somebody else but this time no flimsy excuse for where they come from.

If done well, stories with multiple narrators can be great but this one isn’t done well. I might have even accepted the weird switching around with most chapters told by Halstock and a few by others if the ridiculous explanation that it’s part of the investigation hadn’t been. Of course, mysteries usually don’t portray a realistic picture of police work but this went too far for me.

The story under all this is decent but relies a lot on every single person not telling everything, because they thought it wasn’t important because they don’t want to get in trouble or because they don’t want to get somebody else in trouble. This is a staple of mysteries but unhelpful witnesses usually aren’t the only thing that’s hindering the investigation. Besides, it has a paint-by-numbers feel to it. Halstock finds something out, questions a witness about it, the witness gives new information, he goes to the next witness with that new information, they tell him something new…

In between all that, there are characters that go beyond being black or white cardboard-cutouts and the solution to the mystery is not easy to guess without being unfair. Perhaps the book also suffers from having a plot (horrible family patriarch gets murdered over Christmas) that reminds me a lot of Portrait of a Murderer and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and in comparison with those it can only lose. I’m willing to give another book by the author a try but I’m not rushing to getting it.

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry CoverTitle: Bats in the Belfry
Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Series: Inspector Macdonald #15

Bruce Attleton dazzled London s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. 

RatingC-

I like detective stories myself, they make me laugh, whereas real crime isn’t funny.

An alternate title for this book could be PSA: Don’t solve your own crimes at home because it really drives that point home. Early in the book Greenville and Rockingham, two friends of the missing man, discover his suitcase with his passport. Rockingham immediately declares “I’m a law-abiding man, not one of those half-baked fools who think criminal investigation is the province of the amateur.” and demands that they call the police. After they do this and Inspector Macdonald is on the case he makes it clear that he wants “no Sherlocking around”. And while Greenville does at first do some Sherlocking, he soon discovers “that there wasn’t any glamour about a murder case in which you knew the parties involved.”

The author spends a lot of time patting herself on the shoulder and saying “Look how much more realistic my stories are than those of those other writers who let lords or old ladies with no police experience solve cases!” And yes, in real life amateurs shouldn’t try to solve cases on their own. The thing is, in real life, there are also far fewer murderers whose plan to get the inheritance quicker/rid of the unfaithful husband/rid of their lover’s inconvenient partner involves carefully planned quadruple-bluffs. But that’s exactly what the murderer in Bats in the Belfry does. And he does it well. The mystery is cleverly crafted and doesn’t require a ridiculous amount of coincidences to work. It’s a shame that this got overshadowed by the author’s condescending attitude.

Otherwise, Inspector Macdonald is a character that is interesting without sliding too much into the quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirkiness field. When he doesn’t complain about amateurs meddling in police-work he is quite funny and not some genius asshole who insults everyone who disagrees with him. But sadly, we don’t get to see too much of Macdonald in this book since a lot of the plot focusses on the people involved in the crime and they are at best bland and at worst annoying. It shows that Lorac was a very prolific writer who wrote several books per year. While the mystery is good and definitely not formulaic, the characters are rather one-dimensional.

ARC received from NetGalley

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.

Rating: D-

It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.

Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).

However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.

I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:

Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you

a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling

If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!

Gif: Russian Watson is judging you

Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so) and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.

I mean:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.

In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.

In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.

And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.

What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading “David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair”

Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza Ghost

Cover Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza GhostTitel: The Ginza Ghost
Author: Keikichi Osaka

Although the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction was re-launched in the early 1980s as shin honkaku by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ajatsuji, the original honkaku dates from the 1930s and one of its pioneers was Keikichi Osaka. The Ginza Ghost is a collection of twelve of his best stories, almost all impossible crimes. Although the solutions are strictly fair-play, there is an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them.

Rating: C+

There were a few stories that stood out for me in Foreign Bodies and Keikichi Osaka’s did it for being much darker than the rest. It wasn’t my absolute favourite but it turned out to be the only one where it was easy to find more by the author in translation.

The stories in this collection are also all darker than what readers of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie might be used to. The author doesn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of how a body looks after a brutal murder. But it never feels like either goriness for the sake of it (as it often does in modern thrillers) or the slightly condescending Well, murder is brutal and gory and if you are reading about it for your entertainment you have to be able to deal with it-attitude that some crime novels have. It simply fits the overall tone of the story.

And while there still are stories where the motive is plain great or jealousy, there are also many where more complex emotions are behind the events of the story. Some of those make for an interesting change from the often puzzle-focussed (Western) detective fiction. Others veer more into the ridiculous melodrama territory. Part might be blamed on a geographical and temporal culture clash but some of the stories, especially the one the introduction promised to be an incredibly moving tragedy, had me feel nothing except the urge to roll my eyes.

The topic of this collection is impossible crimes so this isn’t a collection of all of Osaka’s stories featuring a certain character or from a certain period in his career. The common denominator of the stories is their apparent impossibility: a dead person commits a murder, someone disappears from an island from which there was no possible escape, a car disappears from a straight road that has no side-streets and other variations of locked room mysteries…

While I enjoy those kinds of mysteries, this collection doesn’t do itself any favours by limiting itself to this theme. There are twelve stories in total; three feature the same twist and three others very similar explanations for why something seemed very different from what it actually was.

Now he isn’t the first writer who recycles ideas (*cough* The Red-Headed League and The Stockbroker’s Clerk) and it is entirely possible that looking at his whole body of work there are only a couple of repetitions and the editor’s attempt to collect these ‘impossible crimes’ meant that he ended up with some similar twist. Since this is his only work that appeared in translation, I can’t tell.

But if I’m honest: even if there were more of his stories translated I wouldn’t rush to read them. Osaka has a rather exhausting writing-style. When e.g. in a Sherlock Holmes story somebody comes to Holmes and tells him about something that happened earlier, they will still sound like a narrator. In other words, Alice telling Holmes about her confrontation with Bob will read like this:

I rushed to his room and slammed the door behind me.
“You fiend!”, I cried, “You were behind it all along!”
He turned towards me and laughed, “Of course I was.”

Osaka lets people tell stories in a much more realistic fashion:

I rushed to his room and yelled at him that he had been behind it all along. He didn’t deny it and just laughed.

(With apologies to both Doyle and Osaka who are much better writers than I am but you should get the gist).

With three or four stories in The Ginza Ghost that have somebody tell the story long after it has happened, that’s a lot of recounting of events with indirect speech etc. And while that is the more realistic way to talk, it makes for more difficult reading. It’s hard to focus on long walls of text.

It was still an interesting experience to read these stories as someone whose idea of detective/mystery stories was formed by (Western)-European authors but I can’t quite sing the same praises for Osaka as the editor of this collection does in his introduction.


This was a read for the Kill you Darlings game: Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle (Read a book that is a mystery or a collection of short stories)

Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle

Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

31678146Title: The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Author: Anthony Berkeley
Series: Roger Sheringham Cases #5

Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates. Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.

RatingB-

You know how at the end of the book Hercule Poirot talks about the skeletons in everybody’s closet? Often enough he will also destroy the seemingly waterproof alibi of one person along with it and when they start protesting Poirot just shrugs and says “Oh, of course, you didn’t do it. You only needed that false alibi because you were visiting your mistress/brother in jail/divorce lawyer. But you deserve that shock for trying to fool me.” before he continues with the next person with skeletons and seemingly waterproof alibi.

Imagine that but for a whole book.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case opens when the murder has already been committed. The six amateur detectives decide to look at the case themselves and do some sleuthing – off-screen. Then the first three present their cases but at the end of each presentation somebody points out a fact that has escaped the speaker and makes his or her theory fall apart.

Then Roger Sheringham does some sleuthing – on-screen this time but also in a way that is typical for mysteries in that the reader doesn’t get much out of it: we see that Sheringham goes round showing certain people a photograph but don’t know whose photograph that is. He’s the next to present his case but it turns out he has also missed something. So it’s on to the next presenter…and then the next.

Now, the idea to write such a mystery is undoubtedly brilliant but the thing is: I don’t deny that the ‘library scene’ with all the suspects together and all the skeletons falling out belongs to a proper golden-age mystery and I’m not saying I dislike them but I really only need one per book. I already find it tedious if it gets dragged out for too long and a book that only consists of these scenes is also…well tedious.

The other thing is the way the wrong solutions are dealt with. The solutions in the first half are the kind of solutions bad mystery writers would come up with. And the characters in the book call them out as such and say that, for example, Sir Charles simply took a few coincidences and claimed that it was impossible that they weren’t connected to the murder without backing that claim up. That kind of lampshade-hanging is fun and I always appreciate it when writers don’t take the genre they write 100% serious all the time.

But the wrong solutions of the second half are actually good mystery solutions. In the introduction, Martin Edwards even mentions that there is a Sheringham short-story in which his solutions is the correct one, only in the novel he gets proven wrong. And the way the other characters react to the wrong solutions? A kind of condescending ‘Oh real life isn’t like mysteries’-attitude.

Newsflash: I know that neither mysteries nor more ‘serious’ police procedurals portray a 100% realistic picture of a murder investigation. If they did cops in books and movies would have to deal with a lot more domestic violence and quarrels between neighbours instead of cunning serial killers who are always three steps ahead of them or classically educated murderers who are inspired by Jacobean Revenge Tragedies. They also would have to do a lot more paperwork (and Agatha Christie would have been only allowed to write about 10 books because the actual murder-rate in small English villages wasn’t that high). Nobody wants to read truly 100% realistic crime novels…and if genre-books get too smug about being not like those other genre books I get annoyed. Especially when the true solution ends up involving just as many twists and turns as any other mystery.

There are also two alternate endings to the novel. One written not long after the original book, one by Martin Edwards especially for this new edition and they are…nice. They fit the tone of the book and I don’t think I would have noticed if either of them had followed the book without a note about the fact that it was done by a different author. They were fun but also not particularly impressive. (They don’t use the already known facts and twist them in a new way, they introduce new ones. Which is exactly what was done with all the ‘real’ solutions so I’m not saying they should have. But simply being able to imitate a style does not awe me so much that I’m convinced this was a necessary gimmick).


I am also reading this for Kill Your Darlings and use it to play the Ariadne Oliver-card (book is set in the UK)

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