8/7/11

An "F" for Felony

"It was as fantastic as Alice's sojourn in Wonderland – as improbable as her tea party with the Mad Hatter!"
- Hilary Fenton (Murder at Cambridge, 1933)
The collaborative, literary venture, operating during one of the most prosperous eras of the detective story under a number of different pennames, such as Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, accumulated a considerable hoard of praise on here – and each and every laudatory syllable was well deserved. Unfortunately, they didn't permit me to compose another meritorious song of praise, in which I would've lyrically waxed about their skillful handiwork at knitting an intricately patterned wire mesh from a ball of plot threads and their knack for gauging the intelligence of their readers and act on it to cleverly lead them up the garden path. But none of these talents were on display in Murder at Cambridge (1933).

When I invaded the opening chapters of Murder at Cambridge, published under the Q. Patrick byline, I was astonished to find myself at the heart of what appeared to be John Dickson Carr territory. Naturally, the style of story telling diverged from that of the maestro himself, but the characters and events suggested a conscience pastiche – which I would've assumed to be the case were it not for the fact that John Dickson Carr was still an up-and-coming writer himself at the time of publication.

This felonious yarn of double murder, sudden romance and buried family skeletons, clawing away a ton of dirt to their freedom, set at a quiet, British college is narrated by Hilary Fenton, son of a well-to-do, notable jurist from the States, who studies abroad and leads the habitué lifestyle of an undergraduate – which is turned on its head when he catches a glimpse of a woman in the lecture hall and promptly falls in love. The name of the woman, referred to by the love struck chronicler as The Profile, turns out to be Camilla Lathrop, a daughter from a wealthy family, who trots the campus grounds with her fair share of secrets – one of them being the true nature of her relationship with Julius Baumann, a South African of Dutch extraction, who coincidently turns up at Fenton's doorstep with a rummy request.

Baumann wants Fenton to countersign a document as a validation of his signature and entrusts him with an envelope, which he has to drop off in a mailbox, in case anything happens to him – dire words pregnant with prophesizing qualities. Because one night, during a roaring thunderstorm, doubling as an atmospheric backdrop for a group of students telling horror stories and as a cover to drown out the noise of a gunshot, someone surreptitiously slipped into Baumann's room and shot him in the face.

Well, there you have it: nearly all the ingredients required to formulate a John Dickson Carr novel. The male lead of the story is a youthful, American hero who is swooned off his feet by an attractive, British girl and they're subsequently plunged heads first in a shady, dangerous affair – cumulating in a murder committed while everyone was breathlessly listening to ghost stories with occasional interuptions by the crackling thunder. The only components needed to have completed this concoction was a killer striking in a hermitically sealed environment and the hidden presence of ingenious, double-edged clues.

The lack of a proper, meticulously conceived locked room trick is a grave offence, but one that would've received some leniency if there had been even a single, semi-clever clue to look at – instead of randomly selecting a culprit who snugly fitted the role of least likely suspect and even that bolt from the blue was deflected by the front cover of my edition! Yes, the second-rate, poor excuse for a hack illustrated the front cover of the Popular Library edition with a depiction of the murderer in the act of poisoning the cup of the third, intended victim – hence the reason for picking a different cover to embellish this post with. 

Thankfully, this artistic debauchery didn't spoil a better detective story, but I'd still like to show this paint-waster, and others of his kind, the error of his ways in an interactive college course I entitled, The Experiments of Dr. Mengele: An Reenactment. Guess who will be wielding a set of syringes filled with a brightly, multi-colored liquids? Oh, c'mon, don't pretend you failed to notice the tell-tale signs of my crumbling sanity and ever weakening grip on every-day reality.  

Anyway, the only redeeming qualities this book possesses is the Carrian flavor that lingers through-out the book, the protagonist who tells an excellent story and the delineation of college life in the early 1930s – but as a clever, fair-play detective story this one just might constitute as the biggest misfire of the year.

This is not at all what I expected from the same, straight "A"-minds who crafted the deviously, twisted and multi-layered plots that adorn the pages of Death and the Maiden (1939) and Black Widow (1952) – and I have no other choice than to mark this one down with a big red "F". I hope you do better next time, guys!

On a final note, I once again have to apologize for the fact that a bad read translated itself into another shoddily written review. When a book turns out to be as disappointing as this one, it's an exhausting wrestling match to gather the right words, string them together to form coherent sentences and hoping that it miraculously resembles a half decent review. Hopefully, I will do better in my next blog entry, which, by the way, will focus on one of John Rhode's most praised books. Stay tuned! 

All the books I reviewed by these writers:

Murder at Cambridge (1933)
Black Widow (1952)

8 comments:

  1. Aw come on! That review deserves atleast a B+. :)

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  2. Oh, I thought this was a fairly well-written review. Your disappointment is obvious and not particularly encouraging, but it is nonetheless an intelligible review and stands on its own legs.

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  3. @Alfred

    Aw, thanks! :)

    @Patrick

    Hey, aren't you supposed to be foaming from the mouth over the part with the cover artist spoiling the only real surprise the story had to offer? If memory serves me correctly, you personally booked a special nook in hell for the person who designed the cover for Crispin’s Swan Song.

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  4. Ahem, but that cover dserves particular shame as it literally spelled the solution out, not once, but twice, and was so atrociously inaccurate in its blurb as well as just plain ugly. If this cover artist at least knew how to draw something nice, that's good enough to avoid that special nook in hell. Besides, I only create new nooks once a fortnight.

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  5. Admittedly, the cover wasn't entirely devoid of artistic merit, however, it depicted the murderer in the act of poisoning a teacup – which is akin to literarily spelling out the solution on the front cover of Swan Song. Believe it or not, but in this case I would've preferred an abstract expressionistic representation of that particular scene.

    And there's a waiting list for hell?! :D

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  6. Oh yes. You get inside information like that when you're Catholic. ;)

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  7. This review was absolutely delightful to read, don't worry. Your frustration with the novel was eloquently put, which is what matters the most in a review. Out of curiosity, have you ever read a Japanese visual novel by the name of Umineko no Naku Koro ni? I have just recently finished reading the first seven out of eight episode(the final episode coming out in just a few days) and I must say, it's something every mystery fan should read.

    Not because it's good, but because it's absolutely the most pretentious commentary on the mystery genre the world has ever seen. The writing is bad, the locked rooms are uninspired, and the solution to the overall mystery is pathetic. But that doesn't stop the author from commenting on the mystery genre and all its supposed faults. It starts out innocently enough, until it completely falls apart and the author's entire point begins to contradict itself.

    If you ever give it a try, feel free to watch the anime(which covers episodes 1-4 of the novels) then go straight to the visual novels for episode 5 and on.

    Episodes 1-4 set up the premise(and are called the "question" arcs) while episodes 5-8 involve most investigation. From episode 5 on, the author becomes amazingly pretentious. It is as if Raymond Chandler was reborn, stripped of all talent and sent to Japan.

    I would love to know if I am the only person who truly disliked the way the series handled mysteries or if it's a more universal thing. Also, having suffered through that series, I have to confess schadenfreude might or might not be involved with my suggestion of that series. The fact you convey frustration so well in reviews would also have be looking forward to it.

    Most anime fans seem to enjoy the series, but to me it's frankly to Detective fiction what Twilight is to Vampire fiction.

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  8. Well, thank you for the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed the review, but I just wish every one of them turned out as good as my dissection of Austin Freeman's The Stoneware Monkey.

    To answer your question, I am aware of Umineko's existence and have read commentary from both sides, but their exposition failed to entice me. And to be honest, I skimmed through most of the online criticism, which consists of thousands upon thousands of pages, but from I gathered your Twilight comparison seems to be pretty accurate.

    It struck me as a textbook example of what happened when people, unfamiliar with the detective genre as it actually is, get hold of the sheet of paper on which Van Dine and Knox scrawled a few rules – and then proceed to take them seriously.

    I was also a bit baffled to read that a significant chunk of the people discussing this series think that Van Dine's detective novels are among the best the genre has to offer, when, in fact, they are not – which is even admitted by people who are fans (yes, these poor creatures do exist). Van Dine's greatest contribution is that he was the founding father of a school of detection that included such students as Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos, Stuart Palmer, Craig Rice, Rex Stout, Clayton Rawson and Anthony Boucher. But hey, at least they're reading detective stories.

    So, no, don't expect a review from me on that disaster.

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