"To read of a detective’s daring finesse or ingenious stratagem is a rare joy."- Rex Stout.
Until a few years ago, the message board of the John Dickson Carr collector website was not entirely unlike a disreputable alleyway, tugged away in an obscure gas-lit street of Sherlock Holmes' Victorian London, where the fugitive shadows of the city gathered to tell and boost of tales of haunting crimes and murder most foul. However, crime has the tendency to spread and soon we were absorbed by the blogosphere, which provided us with the tools necessary to
masses indoctrinate your children promote classically-styled mysteries, but
it turned the JDC forum into a ghost town – and one thing I do miss, from time
to time, are the one-man book-clubs.
A One-Man Book-Club is exactly what its name implies: you read a book and post your thoughts and theories as you go through the story. This resulted in some interesting "reviews," at least I think so, and because I have nothing else at the moment I decided to revisit a few of them.
One month before I began blogging, I read Lenore Glen Offord's The Glass Mask (1944) for one of these One-Man Book-Club threads and the first thing I noted that it was the kind of detective story that American mystery writers reputedly never wrote – set in a remote small-town unaffected by the passage of time and echoes the sleepy, country-side village of Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead. The problem is also one that could have been torn from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel: was an ailing and inoffensive matriarch murdered by her grandson to inherit her property and an opportunity to get married? According to the local gossip machine, he did, but it's impossible to proof as the remains were cremated and there are many other unanswered questions.
Offord's main characters, however, are not stock-in-trade and even ahead of their time. Georgina Wyeth is a single mother of an eight-year-old girl and has relation with her semi-official fiancé, pulp writer Todd McKinnon, but she's not your quintessential dunderheaded heroine entering dark cellars or abandoned houses on her own – and the book has its "Had-I-But-Known" moments. But the biggest triumph of this book is how the solution to the "perfect murder" is handled.
S.S. van Dine's The Dragon Murder Case (1934) was a disaster of a story that I had to abandon midway through, but not before taking a peek at Vance's explanation and discovered not only that I was partially correct but also that I was being to logical. If you’re curious, you have to read the original post where my observations are hidden behind proper spoiler-tags.
Darwin Teilhet was one of the first writers to address the atrocities committed by the nazi's, when Hitler rose to power, and used the detective story as his vehicle. The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934), set against the rise of the Third Reich, opens with the unlikely sight of a talking sparrow, imploring an elderly man to help him, moments before the man himself is shot. A cover-blurb pointed out that the book, atmosphere-wise, suggests the work of another American mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, and I agree. The story has a few nice touches of the macabre, the sparrow that spoke like a human and nazi officials going out of their way to bow to a lone pine-tree, but also a young American hero who's caught between a blitzkrieg of crime and the efficient Schutzmännen of the German police force.
Unfortunately, The Talking Sparrow Murders merges the spy-thriller with elements of the detective story, which left me in two minds, where I wanted more from the plot, but was nonetheless intrigued that it was published years before Hitler began WWII. This makes me want to give less weight to its shortcomings as a mystery. I mean, it's not an historical novel – it was written in 1934, and it turned out to be a glimpse of things yet to come!
My fall as a snobbish, cynical purist began to pick up momentum after reading William DeAndrea’s The HOG Murders (1979), which has a wonderfully conceived plot that connected the past with the present. A serial killer is bumping people off at random in a small town and sends taunting messages to the police, who turn to the famous criminologist Nicolo Benedetti, who I described at the time as a cross between Hercule Poirot and a hand tame Hannibal Lecter, and Ronald Gentry – a private-eye Benedetti personally trained. The plot has an original take on the serial killer story and I was on the right track, before DeAndrea effectively pulled the wool over my eyes.
It's follow-up, The Werewolf Murders (1992), was also subject of discussion in a One-Man Book-Club thread. The book was written and set during the waning years of the Twentieth Century and a French baron has organized the first Olympique Scientifique Internationale, a year-long gathering of the world's most prominent scientists, in preparation of the new and hopefully more enlightened millennium at the ski resort of Mont-st.-Denis. But then an astronomer is murdered and his body is draped across the eternal flame, situated in the town square, another scientist is brutally attacked, and before long, logic and reason begins to dissipate among the scientific community as the rumors of the Werewolf of Mont-st.-Denis begins to leave footprints on their nerves.
When the local authority with the assistance of a detective from the famous Sûreté fails to turn up any leads or even a viable suspect, everyone, once again, turns to that philosopher of crime and human evil, Professor Niccolo Benedetti, who also shows Nero Wolfe how to collect an enormous fee and still come across as the embodiment of generosity and patriotism.
I was able to grasp the most significant parts of the solution, only missing out on some of the finer details and motive, and missed one very obvious clue.