5/7/11

The Student Body

I alluded in an earlier review to the intricate relationships and ever changing combinations of the participating members of a collaborative writing team, primarily known under the shared penname of Patrick Quentin, and the near impossibility to shortly summarize the inner workings of the group for a simple review as this one. Therefore, I will confine myself to the rudimentary facts, and tell you that Death and the Maiden (1939) was written by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb, one of the regular tandems of the group, and was signed as by Q. Patrick (as "inconspicious" as an anonym as "Carter Dickson").

Ruckus on the Campus

Death and the Maiden is easily one of the best detective stories I read this year, and has all the ear-marks of a first-rate whodunit: an elaborate, multi-layered woven plot, well-rounded, believable characters and a fairly good setting, however, the best part of the story is that the Webb and Wheeler have taken the intelligence and experience of their readers into the equation. The observant and experienced mystery reader will probably spot the murderer, either deductively or instinctively, before the final chapter, but the story is so diabolically clever and trickily plotted that you're in for a surprise no matter how solid your deductions were or how sensitive your intuition is.

Being able to gauge your readers' intelligence and knowledge of the genre, and acting on them to cleverly mislead them, is one of the greatest gifts a mystery writer can possess – and makes for a satisfying read. It's like both men crossed time and space to point and snicker at me, while saying, "Ha! You thought we came at you from this angle, but then we turned around come at you from that spot." Well played, guys. Well played.

This fiendishly cunning story revolves around Grace Hough, not one of the most popular woman on campus, who's been receiving a string of special delivery letters – which everyone presumes to be love notes from a mysterious admirer or even a secret lover. But the letters become sinister tell-tale clues, when, after a short disappearance, her body is dragged from the river of a small town – twenty miles removed from the campus grounds.

The efficient Lieutenant Trant is put on the case and skillfully unsnarls a tangled and complicated web of lies, motives and clues to discover who from the small pool of suspects, consisting of fellow students and faculty members, murdered the unpopular and dangerous Grace Hough – who's final actions resembled that of a kamikaze pilot. It's really no wonder she ended up with a dent in the back of her skull.

Lieutenant Trant is a memorable detective without being an overbearing, eccentric snob who spouts Latin phrases and quotes obscure passages from Shakespeare every five minutes. He's a shrewd, scheming homicide detective who's cut from the same mold as his colleague Lieutenant Columbo. Just like him, Lt. Trant has a knack for wreaking havoc on the nerves of suspects and knows how to give them more than enough rope to hang themselves with. In a way, his personality and police methods makes it almost disappointing that the plot wasn't constructed as an inverted detective story.

On a final note, I have to say that Patrick Quentin has impressed me as a mature equivalent of Ellery Queen. Quentin's detective stories boost the same complex, multi-layered plots and clueing as Ellery Queen, but their tone was more serious, their themes darker and they were simply better at creating characters.

Concisely, this is a five-star detective story – worthy of being labeled a classic.

9 comments:

  1. Ah, sounds excellent. The Ellery Queen comparison intrigues me- I liked the EQ plots, but sometimes other elements could be off-putting (like the EQ of "The Greek Coffins Mystery", who would've made even Philo Vance blush-- but it's a great story nonetheless). I'll have to read a Quentin soon...

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  2. Yes, that was what I meant with the immaturity of the Ellery Queen stories, and when they tried to take a more serious, character-driven approach (c.f. Wrightsville & Hollywood novels) the plots lost their delightful complexity.

    However, they nearly always had something interesting to offer to keep you reading, unlike S.S. van Dine – whose only relatively good and readable book was The Kennel Murder Case (note that I haven't read all of his books yet).

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  3. Well, too much S.S. Van Dine has got to be bad for your health. I've only read one- I don't even remember what it was anymore! All I remember is it involved a gramaphone alibi so old and easy to spot, a five-year old wouldn't have been fooled.

    Not to be too harsh on ol' S.S. He recognized that the mystery needed a brilliant idea, but he was unable to come up with it himself.

    But still, I disliked Vance so much I have passed up the opportunity of buying a first edition of "The Bishop Murder Case" several times. I'm just not interested in reading him, and that's the primary reason I buy books- to read them.

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  4. Gramophone obviously being spelt with the "o". Geez Louise, I can't type today!

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  5. The Bishop Murder Case contained his only real good idea, constructing a devious serial killer plot around innocent nursery rhymes, but he failed to fully deliver on it – and was outdone by nearly everyone who employed that device after him (most notably Agatha Christie).

    I guess his legacy is that he inspired and paved the way for an entire generation of American GAD writers, which included Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos, Clyde Clason, Stuart Palmer, Craig Rice and Rex Stout.

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  6. Casino and Garden are pretty good, stripped down Van Dines. Scarab is not bad either. I can enjoy these books for the formal ratiocinative apparatus.

    Of the (overpraised) early books I like The Greene Murder case, though the mystery really is solved more though Philo waiting for nearly everyone in the family to be killed off. I have never been able to finish Bishop for some reason.

    You mustn't hold the gramophone clue against Van Dine, his use of it may have been original (unless he stole it from Austin Freeman, who used it in a story about the same time). And the poker game scene was considered brilliantly original at the time!

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  7. Oh, concerning Q. Patrick, yes, it's baffling "he" has not been reprinted in decades. But then Ellery Queen is oop too, so....

    I too prefer the earlier Ellerys, though have not read the Hollywood books. Calamity Town struck me as overrated. The puzzle is predictable yet gimmicky and psychologically unsound at the same time, ultimately making it a failure on all fronts in my view (though one can appreciate the stab at naturalism--the later The Glass Village is so absurd it doesn't even get as far as Calamity Town).

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  8. I should have mentioned that Langtail Press, a one-man show, has reprinted three Ellery Queen titles, middle period ones (including two of the Hollywoods).

    Q. Patrick would be a natural for them. God knows who controls the copyrights though!

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  9. @vegetableduck

    I remember reading a message from Douglas Greene, on the GAD group, that the current copyright holders turned him down when he tried to secure the rights for a short story collection.

    So even if a publisher is interested in reviving "Patrick Quentin," their heirs (or who ever holds the rights at the moment) might not be so enthusiastic – and most of the books won't fall into the public domain for at least another 30-40 years.

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