Fatal Flaws: A Short Overview of Ruined Detective Stories

"These little things a very significant."
- Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder, 1976)
Earlier this month, I reviewed Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls, which took an unconventional approach to telling an inverted detective story and the narrative had all the elements of a genre-classic, but was unable to sustain itself and ended with a whimper – an open-ending that managed to be simultaneously lazy and pretentious. So hardly a satisfying and rewarding read. However, the book made me reflect back on similar detective novels that were on their way of becoming (minor) classics, but slipped with the finish-line in sight.

It has been a while since I slapped together a filler-post and thought doing a quick rundown of a handful of them would make for a nice fluff piece. You may abandon this post, if you want, and come back for one of my regular review, which should be up within the next day or so. Or stick around. It's entirely up to you.

I'll be running through this short list in non-specific order and will begin with Agatha Christie. Or rather with an observation about one of her series-characters, Miss Jane Marple, who's one of Christie's two iconic detective figures, but there's remarkable difference between the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series – namely a severe lack of classic titles in the former. Miss Marple never handled a case of the same caliber as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), The A.B.C. Murders (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). However, there's one Miss Marple novel that came close to matching the brilliance of her Belgian counterpart.

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962) has an American starlet of the silver screen, Marina Gregg, descending upon the sleepy village of St. Mary Mead, but soon learns that an English village can be as dangerous as a dark, grimy back alley in the States. One of her house-guests dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail and the explanation for this specific murder was one of Christie's last triumphs.

The relationship between the victim and murderer, combined with the powerful and well-hidden motive, stuck together with simplistic brilliance, but the equally powerful effect the explanation could've achieved was ruined when Christie allowed the murderer to become completely unhinged – committing several additional murders along the way. It cheapened and lessened the impact of the reason behind the first murder, which robbed the series of a book that could've stood toe-to-toe with such Poirot titles as Peril at End House (1932), Sad Cypress (1940) and Five Little Pigs (1943).

Logically, the murderer should've been stone cold sane, completely unrepentant and never went pass that first murder, which had a solid, original and very human reason behind it. I've always wondered if a much younger Christie would've made the same mistake. A textbook example that sometimes less can be more.

You can also ruin a potential series-classic by punctuating the plot of the story with sheer stupidity. Case in point: The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen.

The American Gun Mystery had all the potential to be one of the best entries from Ellery Queen's plot-orientated nationality series, which has a great premise and a memorable backdrop: a sports arena, the Colosseum, where a horseback rider is gunned down during a rodeo show with twenty thousand potential suspects and eyewitnesses in attendance – topped off with the impossible disappearance of the murder weapon. I distinctly remember how much I had been enjoying this slice of old-fashioned Americana, presented as an original puzzle detective, but all of that enthusiasm dissipated upon learning how the gun was made to vanish. It was one of those rare instances I actually wanted to fling a book across the room in frustration and the hiding place of the gun seems to be a stumbling block for most readers.

And that's why The American Gun Mystery is never mentioned in the same breath as The French Powder Mystery (1930), The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) and The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932).

Sometimes you can be on the right track, but simply bite off more than you could chew and a good example of this is Herbert Brean's still beloved Wilders Walk Away (1948).

Curt Evans described the plot of the book as "a fusion of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr," which is an apt description, because the story is basically one of Queen's Wrightsville novels as perceived by Carr. The protagonist is a freelance photographer, Reynold Frame, who travels to Wilders Lane, Vermon, which is named after the founding family of the place. A family with a peculiar tradition dating back to eighteenth century: members of the Wilders clan have the tendency to escape the yawning grave by simply vanishing into thin air.

So what's not to like, you might ask? Well, the solutions to all of the impossibilities have some of the most routine, common-place explanations you could imagine. It stands in stark contrast with everything that came previous in the book. Barry Ergang hit the nail on the head, in his review, when observing that Wilders Walk Away appeared as "a companion to The Three Coffins (1935) and Rim of the Pit (1944) for ultimate greatness," but that "degree of feeling didn't sustain itself" and that's how I felt when reading the book. A very likable and readable detective story, but the wasted potential is painful to behold. Everything about the book screamed classic... until you reached the ending.

Brean would go on to redeem himself with the superb Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1952), the equally good The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) and the very amusing The Traces of Brillhart (1961), but they (sadly) never garnered the same attention as Wilders Walks Away.

Finally, I have a prize-winning book, Kay Cleaver Strahan's Footprints (1929), which could have become a personal favorite of mine, but shot itself in the foot in a way that's very similar to Rolls' Family Matters.

Footprints garnered some attention upon its publication for toying with conventions and plot-devices that were not very well established or popular at the time. One of them is that the book qualifies as a semi-historical mystery novel and this past story is entirely told through a series of old, crumbling letters. A story that took place on an Oregon farm in the early 1900s, which has, rather originally, a murder that could one of two types of impossible crimes: either the murderer escaped from a locked room to get to the victim or passed over a field of snow without leaving any footprints.

So you can imagine I was completely hooked by the halfway mark. I loved the depiction of family life on an American farm in the early twentieth century with an apparently innovative impossible crime plot at its core, but the vaguely written ending only hinted at the murderer's identity. And not a single letter was wasted on attempting to explain the impossible situation. A postmodernist would no doubt love such an ending in a structured genre like us, but I wanted, as Carr would say, strangle the author and lynch the publisher. They were really lucky they had already kicked the bucket when I finished the book.

Cleaver did redeem herself with her second locked room novel, Death Traps (1930), which was a competent, if rather conversational, piece of work with an actual ending!

So far my lamentations on several detective novels I really wanted to like, but proved to be a let down, in one way or another, when the final chapter rolled around. I hope this will be, for now, the last blog-post with my whining about bad or disappointing detective stories. My next review looks to be that of a good mystery novel and have something interesting (and untranslated) for the one after that. And both of them fall in the locked room category. Please try to act a little bit surprise about that!


  1. Interesting thoughts here, TomCat.

    As for Marple classics...

    I always thought "A Murder is Announced" was held up as the Marple par excellence, on the same platform as the Poirots. I may not personally regard it equally, but it is one of the best of the Marple stories, IMO.

    "The American Gun Mystery" is one of EQ's few "nationality books" I have not yet read, so I'll reserve judgment on that.

    I thought "Wilders Walk Away" was first-class, even if its plotting weren't perfect. I found it a perfectly enjoyable Carrian romp set in a pseudo-Wrightsville, as you say. I didn't find the ending all that unsatisfying, but then I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, merely a competent detective story. Which is, I think, what I got.

    That brings me to my major point: it's damned difficult to construct a simultaneously surprising and inevitable puzzle-plot. As someone who has written a few himself, I know that I'm always wondering if this clue is going to lead the reader up the garden path or give the game away. Now, that's not to excuse sloppy or shabby plotting, merely to emphasize that this kind of story is difficult to write and that, therefore, we shouldn't cry foul just because something isn't equal to the mastery of the best of Christie, Queen, or Carr--because most detective stories aren't.

    In fact, accepting the chaff makes the wheat all the more satisfying.

    At least, I think.


    1. I know A Murder is Announced is considered to be the best and most popular title from the Miss Marple series, but does anyone seriously consider it to be on equal footing with the best Poirot novels? Maybe with some of the mid-tier books, but not with the Poirot classics. No way anyone could claim that with a straight face.

      As noted in the post, Wilders Walk Away is not hated by locked room fans, on the contrary, but hardly anything worthy of either Carr or Queen. Brean just placed the bar very high with the fantastic premise of the book, but proved to be unable to deliver upon it, which is exemplified with the painfully plain solutions to the impossibilities. You should compare this one with the later titles I mentioned. He obviously learned from the mistakes made in Wilders Walk Away. But, yes, still an enjoyable read even if it could have been much, much better than it actually was.

      Hey, I've always been very forgiving of mystery writers who genuinely try, but not always (completely) succeeded, because I'm very well aware of the pitfalls of crafting a good and fair-play plot. I highlighted these particular titles because I really wanted to like them, but they failed to reach their full potential or live up to their promise. I wanted them to be more than they were.

    2. Well...

      Nick Fuller called "A Murder is Announced" "...one of the best surprises in all Christiedom...," and Robert Barnard thought it "superb." That's quite some praise, I think. I'll personally hold out for "The Body in the Library" as the best Marple, at least from a plotting perspective (an inventive take on the Birlstone Gambit), but I think "A Murder is Announced" has some of AC's cleverest plotting re: motive.

      I shall indeed try some of Brean's other books, but I did quite enjoy "Wilders Walk Away," especially because, as I say, I wasn't looking for a classic.

      Oh, I understand your point, and I'm not criticizing, just interested. I've been writing one or two short mystery tales recently, so plotting mechanics and what is satisfying or not satisfying are on my mind at the moment.


    3. By the way, how does one italicize on here? All those quotation marks are annoying me! :)

    4. You have to take personal taste into account, of course, but (IMO) you can't seriously compare any of the Miss Marple titles to the most iconic ones from the Poirot series. There's such a huge gap in quality between both series. A Murder is Announced might match with the mid-tier Poirot books and The Mirror Crack'd had to potential to be breakout story, but I stand by what I said that none of them compare to Christie's best.

      As far as Brean's concerned, I recommend giving Hardly a Man is Now Alive. It's also very Carr-ish in nature and the overall plot is a lot better. Unfortunately, the book lacks a full-blown locked room mystery, but has a few borderline impossible situations (ghost lights, phantom drums and a strange disappearance). It really deserves to be better known.

      Speaking about plotting mechanics and what's satisfying, I recently wrote a lengthy comment on a blog-post by JJ about rules, etc. You might find that comment helpful as even come up with a locked room scenario and solution to illustrate one of my points. You can find the comment here.

      P.S.: You can italicize by using the following tags without the *: <*I>book title<*/>

    5. I will take you up on your recommendation of Hardly a Man is Now Alive. Thanks for letting me know.

      I quite liked your example impossible-crime solution there. Gives me one or two ideas, in fact, if you don't mind!

      And nice to hear that you're looking for new material for "real-life impossible crimes," slim pickings though they may be. Much appreciated. Thanks for showing me how to italicize here as well.

    6. Ugh! The italicization didn't work. Let me try this?

    7. Aha, got it!

    8. Will you be posting your idea/story on your blog? I would like to see what you did with my locked room example.

  2. By the way, I meant to ask you: any more of those "real-life impossible crime" stories on the way? I always loved those.

    Once based a locked-room story I wrote on Isidore Fink's death, in fact.

    1. Believe it or not, but I've been looking around for new material. So far, they've been slim pickings. Maybe I should (finally) get around to updating my best-of lists, which include my lists of favorite locked room novels and short stories.

  3. I'll add The Curse of the Bronze Lamp to the mix. What a lame ending -- an utter cop out. One of Carr's many variations on that overused Chestertonian gimmick. Plus, no murder! Not that having no murder automatically gives the book a thumbs down from me. I just read a well known, oft reviewed Michael Innes mystery and thought it was wildly imaginative and insanely funny. Didn't care that in the end there was no murder victim. The solution to the multiple, very strange, mysteries all fit into the utterly bonkers plot.

    1. I agree about [i]Curse of the Bronze Lamp[/i]. One of the Carrs I was most looking forward to, and one of the most disappointing. I don't really mind its having [spoiler]no murder[/spoiler], but the way it did it--making you think there was one and then saying, "Nope! No murder!" out of nowhere--was supremely disappointing, I thought. That's just sloppy plotting, especially from the Master. Carr did create a grand variation on that Chestertonian trick in "Cabin B-13," though.

    2. John,

      I've seen you go off on The Curse of the Bronze Lamp before and you're forcing me to revisit the book, because I remember quite liking it. But then again, I'm a bit of an apologist when it comes to the H.M. books.

      After all, I even defended Behind the Crimson Blinds. It's really not as bad some people make it out to be! What? Why are you all booing and lobbing rotting fruit at your screens? I'm merely stating indisputable facts!

    3. OK, I promise I'll knock off my ranting on ...Bronze Lamp for the rest of my life. Truly. :^D

      Synchronicity Moment #115: Just watched Dangerous Crossing last night -- the movie adaptation of "Cabin B-13" -- and I'd never have figured out the trick in that one even if I had read the script. Lots of clever misdirection and focus on the wife's hysteria. It was OK, but the story was probably better as a shorter radio play. Jeanne Crain fairly ruined the movie for me with her posturing and histrionics that reminded me of silent movie acting. Lovely to look at, but no real emotion behind her vacant eyes. Hard to feel much of anything for her or her plight amid all her fakery and wailing.

    4. John, sorry to intrude on your and TomCat's conversation, but if you haven't read (or listened to) the radio play of "Cabin B-13," I highly recommend it.

      While I enjoyed Dangerous Crossing and watching the lovely Miss Crain (in spite of my similar criticisms to yours of her acting ability), I think it missed out on Carr's cleverest trick in the short radio play, namely the reason that the one sailor said no one was near Ann as she came up the platform. It amazes me somewhat that what Carr could lay out in that short radio script, writer Leo Townsend and director Joseph Newman couldn't work out in the whole movie!

      Something of a caveat because the picture is quite fun, but annoying nonetheless.


    5. John,

      Don't let me keep you from ranting and raving about Curse of the Bronze Lamp. I just might have to re-read it now to see if it stands up or have to agree with you.

      I've never seen Dangerous Crossing, but the radio-play was pretty good and one of the iconic episodes from Suspense. A pity that the radio-series, based on Cabin B-13, only has three surviving episodes.

  4. TomCat, I'm not quite sure yet what to do with your idea. I just thought of the basic premise and filed it away for a later date--you'd be credited, of course, if I ever wrote the story!

    By the way, is anyone here interested in those brief mysteries? I've neglected the blog for a year and change, but I've got a whole ton of brief mini mysteries that I've written for party games and that sort of thing.

    1. I just posted a recent mini-mystery of mine (how's that for alliteration?), "Thirteen at Dinner," to the blog. The title's borrowed from Christie, but the story is more of a Queenian dying-clue trick. I hope you all enjoy it.