12/28/15

Murder in Retrospect: The Best and Worst of 2015


"...scattered across the country is a small but determined group of readers... who devour almost every mystery story published. They take their daily dose of murder with the frenzied enthusiasm of a drug addict. They know all the tricks; they have followed all the detectives, erudite, exotically Oriental, depressingly homespun; they are familiar with all the ways a human being can be put to death."
Philip van Doren Stern ("The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley," from The Virginia Quarterly Review, 1941)


First of all, the amusing opening quote for this obligatory annual round-up post comes courtesy of Past Offenses, who recently uncovered an article from the early 1940s in which the author rages impotently about people avidly consuming the kind of books he looks down upon – concluding that the "root of their devotion can probably be traced to an unhappy childhood" or "a maladjusted sex life." Fortunately, Phil gave us the verbal ass pounding we had been yearning for since 1841 and finally made men out of us!

Secondly, I hope everyone survived the busy, demanding ordeal of the festive season and enjoyed themselves on Christmas Day. I surely did. Well, I could pad out this post further, but I'll stop myself here and immediately skip to the meat of the matter: a list of the best-and worst mysteries read in 2015! They've been surprisingly voluminous this time around, because I had a rather slow start this year and there were even months I had barely read anything worth mentioning.

So here is, without further ado, the annual best-of/worst-of list:  

THE BEST MYSTERIES READ IN 2015:

Spider's Web (2000) by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne

A novelisation by Charles Osborne of a stage-play Agatha Christie wrote in 1954 for Margaret Lockwood, who wanted a role that would exploit her talent for comedy, which resulted in a humorous thriller about a diplomat's wife stumbling over a body in the library – not long before her husband is expected to come home with an important foreign guest. A fun and clever little mystery that's not as well known as other pieces from Christie's large body of work.

The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) by Robert Arthur

This was the sixth book in a series of juvenile mysteries about The Three Investigators, but it was my introduction to Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. It's a gem of a case: they're asked by none other than Alfred Hitchcock to figure out who's committing acts of thievery and vandalism on the set of a suspense movie, which involves an abandoned amusement park with a haunted merry-go-round and an island that used to double as a pirate hideout. Where there are pirates, there's bound to be treasure!

Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji

A book credited with launching the neo-orthodox movement in Japan and a fun riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939), but populated with the Asian counterparts of the characters from Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996). The characters are members of a university club dedicated to detective story and they decided to stay on an abandoned island that had been site of a tragedy. Of course, a fresh series of murders is dogging their heels! A very fun and important mystery novel that was translated by our very own Ho-Ling Wong.

Cold Blood (1952) by Leo Bruce

Lamentably, Bruce retired Sgt. Beef as his series-character after the publication of this novel, but it's a magnificent sendoff to such a wonderful and sadly under-appreciated detective character. Sgt. Beef is engaged to investigate the bludgeoning of a misanthropic recluse in a dark, gloomy-looking Georgian mansion and soon comes to the conclusion that much more than simply his reputation is on the line. The confrontation with the murderer on the rooftop may have inspired a specific episode from Jonathan Creek, which in turn may have given the writers of Sherlock an idea to explain a cliff-hanger.

The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts

A companion piece to Croft's debut novel, The Cask (1920), which begins when two fishers hook a wooden packing crate in the waters of a Welsh inlet and discover it's macabre content: a horrendously decomposed body of a man with obliterated features. It's a seemingly insoluble problem, but the methodical Inspector French follows the clues to their logical conclusion. Somewhat of a minor classic. 

The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson

If I'm not mistaken, this is the only book I re-read in 2015. However, it's one of those books that stood up very well to re-reading: a man is murdered in a hermitically sealed room and suspicion naturally falls on the only other person present in the room – who's absolutely innocent. The explanation to the impossible aspect of the plot is as classic and original as the performance of the "Old Man" in the courtroom!

Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) by Keigo Higashino

The second, full-length novel in the "Detective Galileo" series and has an impossible crime plot that is as clever and original as it's cheeky and unbelievable, but all of the clues where right there – embedded in the characters. I'm sure not everyone is willing to swallow the explanation, but it's a fresh and innovative treatment of the shopworn poisoning plot.  

Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan

I know what you're thinking: how can I award a spot on my yearly list of best classic and neo-orthodox mysteries to a science-fiction novel? But it's ok: we've officially appropriated Inherit the Stars from the SF-genre. It's officially ours now! The plot of the book revolves around the anomalies discovery of a skeleton in a spacesuit on the moon, belonging to a normal-sized, anatomically modern human being, but carbon dating says this person died over 50.000 years ago! I know it's science-fiction novel and the plot is grounded in that territory, but the explanation is worthy of our genre!

Dead Man's Quarry (1930) by Ianthe Jerrold

I said about the reissued edition of this book that it gave credence to our claim that we're currently living in a Renaissance era of detective-fiction. The story is set the beautiful, evocative Wye Valley in the Hereford-Wales borderland, which is where a cycling party ends with its least popular member at the bottom of a disused quarry. It's a pure and solid Golden Age mystery.

There May Be Danger (1948) by Ianthe Jerrold

I wanted to avoid giving writers more than one entry this year, but I had to make an exception for Jerrold's final contribution to the genre: which is more of an thriller-cum-adventure story that's structured as a very unusual detective story and ends up as an espionage novel. It begins when an out-of-work stage manager, Kate Mayhew, notices a handbill in a shop window requesting information about a missing twelve-year-old London evacuee – which leads her to a sparsely populated village in Wales and a very dangerous situation. It's simply splendid! By the way, lot's of Welsh-set mystery novels this year!    

Crime at Christmas (1934) by C.H.B. Kitchin

Mystery readers mostly remember Kitchin as the author of Death of My Aunt (1929) and Death of My Uncle (1939), but Crime at Christmas was my introduction to Kitchin and the book has a pleasant, old-fashioned and traditionally looking plot. However, Kitchin wrangled a clever and original mystery novel out of the premise of a family gathering at Christmas time. It's a bit slow moving in parts, but comes highly recommended if you like to read Christmas-themed mysteries in December.

Schemers (2009) by Bill Pronzini

A fairly recent entry in the ongoing biography of Pronzini's "Nameless Detective," who's named Bill, which can be labeled as a "bibliomystery" and has two impossible situations at the core of its plot: one of them is the disappearance of several highly prices volumes of detective fiction from secure and private library. The second impossible situation is a fatal shooting in that very same library and the explanation shows were still a long from exhausting every possible way to polish someone off in a locked room. I'm also very amused at the fact that this hardboiled series is strewn with bibliomysteries and locked room murders. 

Ten Star Clues (1941) by E.R. Punshon

Punshon has rapidly ascended on my list of personal favorites and Ten Star Clues is a great piece of justification. It's basically one long riff on the infamous, Victorian-era case of the Tichborne claimant and is scrupulously plotted with an extremely linear narrative, which was evidently needed to keep the plot from becoming muddled. A clear and sharp detective story.

Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland

Arguably, one of the best and cleverest mystery novels I have read this year and a book that should be jotted down on my list of all-time favorites: it's set in a Welsh fishing village where one of the unpleasant guests is found at the side of a lake with a poisoned salmon fly deeply imbedded in her hand. I found the whole book a pleasure to read and the final, ingenious twist was grand! I can't recommend this one enough!

Devil's Planet (1942) by Manly Wade Wellman

An early and surprisingly accomplished attempt at integrating a formal mystery plot with a science-fiction premise, which predates Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954) by more than a decade! The plot follows around an Earthling, named Dillon Stover, on the dry, dusty and draught-stricken surface of Mars in thirtieth century and how Stover became the prime-suspect in the murder of a prominent Martian citizen – who perished in a locked room! I'm genuinely baffled how Devil's Planet failed to carve a name for itself as both an early hybrid and an impossible crime novel.

HONORARY MENTIONS:  

I've read a number of anthologies and short story collections, but adding an additional section to the list, discussing individual stories, would really bloat this blog-post. So I simply list the collections I enjoyed as a whole.

Christianna Brand's What Dread Hand (1968)
Edmund Crispin's Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979)

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), which I reviewed in several parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.  

CURIOSITY OF INTEREST:

The Case of the Sharaku Murders (Sharaku satsujin jiken, 1983) by Katsuhiko Takahashi

A book starting off as a British-style academic mystery, but soon delves into the distant past as the characters try to figure out the identity of a legendary woodblock print artist, "Sharaku," who worked for only a short period – between the early months of 1795 and 1796. You have to enjoy either history or art to enjoy this book, because this portion of the plot covers a period from the early 1600s to the late 19th century. It's not a great mystery novel, but it's an interesting one.

THE TOP 3 WORST MYSTERIES READ IN 2015:

1: Nine Man's Murder (2011) by Eric Keith

I read this one on the strength of a ton of positive reviews, but was angry and disappointed when I discovered a horribly written, sloppily plotted mess populated with unconvincing, cardboard characters. As I noted in my review, the characters resembled a group of Easter Island statues, because they were completely unmoved by what happened around them and this robbed the book of any tension that should’ve arising naturally from the isolated situation. You should avoid this one at all costs.

2: The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay

A long, repetitive Christmas-themed mystery novel lacking in originality. It was a chore to read and a drain on my festive spirit, which prevented me from reading and reviewing some additional, holiday-themed detective stories I had lined up for this month. Not recommended.

3: And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson

I know, I know! I actually placed a John Dickson Carr novel in this portion of the list, but it's a genuinely bad and poorly constructed mystery. Hopefully, its inclusion here proves I can be critical of his work and not just gush over, and blindly praise, everything he ever wrote.

Well, that's a wrap for this year! I'll probably have more review for this year, but that would require me to finish the book and write a review before the end of the year, which is not a guarantee in these final days of 2015. So this could very well be my final post of the year. If that's the case: I want to thank everyone who has voluntarily put up with my vague ramblings about detective stories over the past twelve months and wish you all the best in 2016!

8 comments:

  1. Quite surprised that someone would like the decagon house murders and dislike nine man's murder at the same time. Both share pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses (especially the sparse writing style and cardboard characters that are fully aware that they are in a mystery novel) and I eben found nine man's murder slightly stronger considering how obvious the solution in decagon house murders was. I also think the honor of launching the Japanese neo-orthodox movement should go to the Tokyo Zodiac Murders but might be mistaken there. Otherwise a very nice list and thanks for some very interesting sounding suggestions!

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    1. The Decagon House Murders has its flaws, granted, but it was both a fun book to read and important detective story in the history of the genre.

      I can't say the same for Nine Man's Murder for the reasons stated in my review. However, the opinions on that book seems to be very devided: John from Pretty Sinister Books hated the book as much as I did, but we both gave it a shot based on very positive reviews that had appeared on other blogs.

      The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was published before The Decagon House Murders, but according to our guide into the Japanese detective story, Ho-Ling, it was the latter that got the ball rolling. In his review of the book, he said the following:

      "Jukkakukan no Satsujin is hailed as the first in the wave of new orthodox detective novels in Japan. It is a Giant in the history of Japanese detective fiction. If there is something like a canon to detective fiction history, this would be in it."

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  2. Thanks for the list. Have a happy New Year.

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    1. Glad you liked it and all the best in 2016!

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  3. I'm surprised that Carter Dickson managed to squeeze into the top 3 worst mysteries - will definitely avoid that one. And I'm glad that Ianthe Jerrold and Freeman Wills Crofts made it into your list of recommendations!

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    1. I can't believe I actually put Carter Dickson on that list myself, but it shows even he had his off-days.

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  4. I loved The Sea Mystery. Not quite my favourite Crofts but excellent all the same.

    Everyone seems to be recommending Ianthe Jerold. I guess I'll have to track down at least one of her books.

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    1. I can heartily recommend Jerrold! Especially Dead Man's Quarry and There May Be Danger.

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