I've noticed over the years there was a short-lived revival of the traditional, Golden Age-style detective story in the 1980s that began to sputter a decade earlier with William L. DeAndrea, Bill Pronzini and John Sladek, but quickly assumed an identity of its own – complete with identifiable characteristics. An identity best described as a hybrid of the American and British detective story.
Generally, the detectives tend to be either professionals (non-detectives) acting as amateur sleuths or hold some kind of quasi-official position with their cases taking place against specialized backgrounds. Such as the theater, commerce and museums or private collectors. This neon-illuminated age of the traditional detective story even his its own sub-category of pop-culture inspired mysteries that take place at conventions or among fandoms, which began with Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981) and Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982) added modern fandoms and pop-cult references. Good examples are Patrick A. Kelley's little-known Sleightly Lethal (1986) and Sharyn McCrumb's award winning Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987).
More interestingly, these writers showed a healthy interest in the locked room mystery and often brought new innovative ideas to the fore.
Herbert Resnicow was a former civil engineer who brought his drafting pencil to the detective story and turned the locked room puzzle on its head by turning wide open, three-dimensional and multi-floored spaces into tightly sealed rooms – making him one of the leading lights of this brief revival. Resnicow penned about half a dozen of these innovative locked room puzzles, all with specialized backgrounds, but his best two are The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987). Marcia Muller is not as closely associated with the impossible crime story as her husband, but she engineered one of her own large-scale, museum-set locked room conundrums in The Tree of Death (1983). Ellen Godfrey cleverly made use of the locked computer room of a software company in Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) and Kate Wilhelm's experimental Smart House (1989) takes place in a fully automated, computerized house. There are also some British specimens, such as Roger Ormerod's More Dead Than Alive (1980) and Douglas Clark's Plain Sailing (1987), but they have the tendency to stand closer to the European police procedural rather than the American Van Dine-Queen style detective story. But they fit the mold.
So I may be completely wrong here with my narrow, specialized reading creating a pattern, where there isn't any, because similar type of mystery novels were published in the 1970s (Lionel Black's The Penny Murders, 1979) and 1990s (Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds, 1996). Nonetheless, they obviously proliferated during the eighties and gives the impression of a resurgence, short-lived as it may have been, of the traditional detective story. And it coincided with the rise of the shin honkaku movement in Japan! But in the West it petered out after merely a decade.
Why this long-winded introduction? The subject of today's review made me think of all these authors, novels and the possibility of an unrecognized Neon Age (can't think of a better name).
Anthony Oliver's The Elberg Collection (1985) is the third novel in a short-lived series about a retired policeman, John Webber, and his Welsh housekeeper, widowed Mrs. Lizzie Thomas, who appeared together in only four detective novels – published between 1980 and 1987. These four novels appear to have a unifying theme: shenanigans and skulduggery in the world of antique dealers and collectors.
The Elberg Collection begins on the beach of a small, French seaside resort, Le Bosquet, where David and Jane Walton walked, arm in arm, when Jane caught fire and turned into "a flaming torch within seconds." David must have tried to smother the flames, because "their arms were still round each other when the first people got to them." French police believes the wind blew glowing tobacco from David's pipe and "slammed the shower of blazing sparks" into her "highly inflammable" dress. Since the incident was witnessed by a maid and no other footprints to show someone had "approached them on that fatal walk," the French authorities filed it away as a bizarre accident. However, the daughter of the Waltons, Jessica Elberg, refuses to accept the verdict.
A friendly conspiracy between Detective Inspector Snow and Lizzie to put their recently divorced and retired friend, ex-Detective Inspector John Webber, back in the game by landing him his first assignment as a private investigator. Hans Elberg has agreed to foot the bill to help his wife come to terms with the death of her parents.
Webber warns Jessica that he has "never yet inquired deeply into the circumstances of sudden death without upsetting some," but, once all the formalities are settled, they begin a two-pronged investigation with the slightly eccentric, French-speaking Lizzie crossing the channel – snooping around the scene of the crime. Webber stays behind in England to look into the professional side of the case. Walton was a talented potter and part-owner of a pottery firm, which allowed him to help his father-in-law accumulate an impressive collection of antique pottery. What they uncover is a dead witness who left behind a dying message. A rotting corpse of a another murder victim and a disturbingly fresh suicide. A missing, or stolen, manuscript that could throw "a spanner into the international market for English pottery" and a mysterious figure who's willing to spend both money and bullets to get them off the case. And all of this comes with an odd assortment of suspects, motives and clues.
One clue, in particular, deserves to be highlighted. Snow has a young bright son, Alan, who likes computers and dates the story by saying he writes his own programs on a computer with 48 K RAM and "a data transfer rate of 16 bytes a second." Snow gives his son a purely hypothetical situation, two people impossibly burned to death on a lonely beach, to test his analyzing program. It came back with eight possibilities that ranged from flamethrowers, incendiary bombs and missiles to meteors, satellite debris and an Act of God – along with the more plausible murder/suicide or a suicide pact. You won't find the correct solution on Alan's list, but when you learn how it was done, you realize how cleverly it hinted in the right direction.
I think it could have been one of the best and most original clues of the decade had Oliver played the game fairly across the board.
I could have easily forgiven the obvious murderer, who stood out like a billboard, but the sudden, anti-climatic ending revealed that Webber and Lizzie had been investigating only one side of the case. The case has an entirely different angle that throws an entirely new light on the charred bodies, the dying message and the messy suicide, but they were left in the dark until it was time to wrap things up. They're also told that the murderer will never be brought in front of judge, which makes for an unexciting and disappointing payoff to what could have been a first-class detective novel.
Webber at least got the satisfaction of explaining to the big bugs how the Waltons were burned to death and the fire-trick, in theory, is excellent and a perfect example of the impossible crime story moving along with the times. Something fresh and original. Practically, the fire-trick has a glaring weakness that can be partially blamed for the weak ending.
The Elberg Collection is the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. A leisurely paced, thoroughly British detective novel with some good and original ideas, but the weak and botched ending only makes it worth your time if your interested in plot-mechanics or obscure impossible crime novels.