Coming up just ahead of my first birthday as a blogger, I am excited to present my one hundredth post. A mere eleven and a half months ago, I was a mere shlub brimming with excitement to have discovered a community of readers, writers and thinkers who were just as obsessed with a love for classic mysteries as I was. I owe my entry into the blogosphere to Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp, who took a chance on guest-hosting a young, vital, handsome and enthusiastic wannabe writer (okay, the enthusiastic part is true) who just wanted to express his views on his favorite mystery author, Agatha Christie. Here I am, ninety-nine posts lighter, having talked about Christie and other old favorites (Carr, Queen, Brand) as well as “new” classic authors who have become favorites (Helen McCloy, Harriet Rutland, Norman Berrow) and not-so-much favorites (er, Paul Halter . . . . . )
Over the summer, my good buddy Kate, the Armchair Reviewer at Cross Examining Crime, got a bunch of us together to create a new occasional series of group opinions on various topics of interest. The premiere entry had to do with authors we wish had written one more novel. (Here’s that post.) This month, I have been given the honor of hosting, and I am thrilled to devote the hundredth post to the community of new friends I have made.
The question this time around stems from my recent analysis of Christie’s Destination Unknown, one of her lesser stand-alone thrillers. In the discussion that followed, folks wondered about other favorite authors who had written the occasional stinker. Inspired by this, I suggested that this become the next topic for The Verdict of Us All: What’s one mystery that you wish a favorite mystery author hadn’t written?
Of course, Kate, wanting to be teacher’s pet, sent the first entry, choosing an author whom many bloggers have noted for the inconsistent quality of his work:
This was certainly a tricky decision for me to make, as it is not just a case of picking any novel you can’t stand, but such a novel from an author you really like. I was tempted to pick Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934), being one of my least favourite Sayer novels. Yet many readers online extol its’ virtues and part of me wonders whether a re-read might make me see it in a better light. I also toyed with Manning Coles The Fifth Man (1946), but then I realised there were a few other poor reads of his that I had read, meaning this one didn’t stand out as an exceptionally bad book. I finally decided on Nicholas Blake’s The Morning After Death (1966), as this is the final Nigel Strangeways mystery and what an awful finale it is, making the endearing and likeable Nigel into a creep seamy old man who is dismissive of women, a transformation all the more radical, considering the fact that in earlier novels he affirms independent women. After all he did marry an explorer. Additionally, the investigation Nigel leads in The Morning After Death is also much poorer than say those in Thou Shell of Death (1936), There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) and The Beast Must Die (1938), with a marked absence of physical clues and the case itself fails to entertain. Suffice to say I think like Poirot, Nigel does not work well in a post 1960s world.
Next up, The Puzzle Doctor, host of the blog In Search of The Classic Mystery Novel, sent an entry that I bet will be the most controversial pick, since so many people consider it one of the author’s best:
It’s an interesting question because most authors, especially those with long bibliographies, have produced more than one disappointment in their careers. You could identify Postern Of Fate by Christie, but there was more than just that one disappointment from the end of her career, for example. Ditto Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. I’m going to pick one by Carr, but it won’t be the one that you might expect. I wish Carr hadn’t written the book that he’s most renowned for, The Hollow Man.
I’ll explain my thoughts. I think more than any writer, Carr is famous for this one novel, and I don’t think it comes close to being his best work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad book, but off the top of my head, The Judas Window, She Died A Lady, He Who Whispers, Til Death Us Do Part and The Black Spectacles (and a few more) are much better. But because of chapter 17 of The Hollow Man, the “locked room lecture”, that book always seems to get the attention. Without it, could more of Carr’s work be in print? Possibly…
I love the opinions of my fellow academic, Bev from My Reader’s Block. She picked a writer and novel that she actually reviewed on her own site, and I’m glad she included the link to the whole review:
My choice for the mystery that a mystery author shouldn’t have written is Gently Go Man by Alan Hunter. Hunter generally provides very entertaining police procedurals with solid plots and a central investigator, Inspector Gently, who is intelligent and can take on a variety of situations. But Gently Go Man is like way out there, man. Like the mostest in the way of late 50s/very early 60s talk. Like maybe too much mostest. You dig me, man? As I mention in my full review, I am solidly lodged in squaresville. I just don’t dig this book, man. It doesn’t reach me. Hunter seems to go out of his way to be over-the-top in slang and Inspector Gently and his investigation gets lost in the shuffle.
That was far out, Bev, er, thanks for the entry.
Next, Moira from Clothes in Books chose a novel from one of our more recent A-list mystery writers:
I wish Ruth Rendell had not written A New Lease of Death. In general I much prefer her earlier books to her later ones, but this 1967 entry is a sad exception. It has a ridiculous plot, excruciating snobbish attitudes, and a final twist that screams out to most readers, surely, from very early on – it’s an idle idea that might have made a reasonable short story, but has been stretched out to a novel while everybody catches up. Wexford and Burden are particularly rude and unpleasant to those around them, and the moral framework does not stand up to any examination. I did a blogpost on it here.
My blood brother JJ over at The Invisible Event has chosen for his author one of the fathers of the Golden Age. Those who originate the form that we all study and enjoy may have even more to answer for when they produce a lemon, as JJ notes here:
Wiping a book out of history isn’t something to be done lightly, but I’d have to opt for Anthony Berkeley’s Not to be Taken (1938). I consider it a stain on his otherwise exceptionally intelligent and perceptive output — this is a man who introduced the Gentleman Sleuth who keeps getting the solution to the central crime wrong, after all. The characters are idiots, the sudden introduction of some intrigue is there to pad the pages and then drops away for no reason, someone changes their testimony at an inquest in a way that changes everything and no-one even blinks…the entire book seems to have been constructed on the hoof and never checked for consistency and reason. The Challenge to the Reader is a particular low point, as Berkeley has the temerity to ask for a “dominant clue” and then reveal the solution by having two characters simply agree that a series of perfectly plausible solutions couldn’t have happened for no reason other than they say so, and makes his “dominant clue” something dropped into the dreary conversations you had to endure in the first 50 pages that could just as easily be dismissed or given a number of different interpretations. Lazy, lazy garbage, and unbecoming for someone as talented and important to the genre as Berkeley was.
John from Pretty Sinister Books sent a post to which I can relate well:
When I was a teen I devoured all the later Ellery Queen novels I could get my hands on. But even while still in high school I was developing a distaste for the backward stereotyped portraits of gay men and lesbians in the books I read. The Last Woman in His Life was published in 1970, only six years prior to my reading it. I loathed it. In order to tell you why I hate it so much I have to give away the ending. So fair warning my contribution constitutes a huge spoiler for the book though of course I don’t recommend it at all.
The premise is that the title is a huge red herring and the titular “last woman” is actually a man. You see, all gay men are psychopathic stalkers and sad lovelorn losers who love to dress in women’s clothes. Didn’t you know that? This book also has a fairly good dying clue that involves the word homosexual which eluded me and yet left me angry and pissed off. There is an entire subgenre of mystery novels which rely on transvestism as the “shocking” twist when the killer is revealed and they include both men disguised as women as well as women mistaken as men. However, when a writer doesn’t know the difference between a drag queen and a transvestite or know that statistically most transvestites are straight men not gay men then he ought not to write about gay people at all. Most gays in 1970 were not dolling themselves up in womens’ clothes in order to find a man. Most of them were struggling to reconcile their latent urges and admit that they had a sexual attraction to men. Donald Westlake’s A Jade in Aries, written under his “Tucker Coe” alter ego — and published in the very same year — is a much more accurate picture of gay life in early post-Stonewall, though it does spend too much time on the depressed and damaged men more than the well-rounded, content men. The Last Woman in his Life is a poorly conceived plot that only reveals the ignorance and bigotry of Dannay and Lee and whoever was the ghostwriter for this one. I wish I could find all copies of the book and burn them. But amazingly it was included among the Ellery Queen reprints released by Open Road Media just last summer. If only it had been left to rot in the closet of shame where it belongs.
John , I couldn’t have put it better myself (although I tried because this is the book I had chosen!!) But you put it so well (and I am, after all, a gracious host) that I simply had to defer to you.
Which leaves me to bring up the rear, and since nobody chose Christie, I would be remiss not including her here. Still, while there are a number of easy targets, especially from the last decade of her career, I thought I would choose a title not because it’s a bad book – in many ways, it’s one of my favorites – but because it makes me so damn mad! So here goes:
I wish Christie had not written The Hollow. Is it a good mystery? Oh, yes. Does it explore character in ways that others of her books do not? Most definitely! So why this book?
As a person proud of his Jewish heritage, I understand that if you choose to study, ponder and enjoy a body of work stemming from the first half of the 20th century, you have to brace yourself for the casual racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping of gay people found in a disproportionate number of writers. Still, the effect is no less hurtful even when one tries to come to terms with the attitudes of the British empire at the time. (And listen, it’s just as prevalent in American books and films of the 1930’s.) Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, Christie’s displays of unenlightened thinking pepper her work. Sometimes this is “balanced” by “sympathetic” Jewish characters, intelligent, charming people whose only true flaw seems to be that they are “a Jew, of course.” And often those expressing anti-Semitic views are actually shown in a negative light themselves. Furthermore, Christie herself claimed to have seen the light after meeting a noted German antiquarian in the 30’s whose declaration that Jewish people should be exterminated cued her into the ugly anti-Semitism emanating from Hitler’s regime.
So then, what is one of Christie’s most vitriolic displays of anti-Jewish sentiment doing in a post-war novel? And worse, the character most guilty of it is one of the most sympathetic, Midge Hardcastle. Midge complains venomously about the “vitriolic little Jewess” for whom she works. Midge calls her “a Whitechapel Jewess with a voice like a corncrake.”
American publishers cut these references out of U.S. versions, and I appreciate the compromise. The Hollow really is a fine book. Still, it is hard to reconcile one’s love and respect for an author’s skill with these inexcusable positions, and in a finer world, Christie would not have held these beliefs or displayed them with such casual insensitivity in some of her best mysteries.
Well, there you have it: a list of books that might not make it onto your TBR pile. Consider this post a public service. If you’ve read any of these choices and agree or disagree, feel free to express your opinions below. And if there are other books you feel we should all avoid or, at least, not judge an author’s overall quality by, let me know about those as well.
And thanks to everyone who has followed, read, shared and/or commented on any of my first hundred posts. The one-year anniversary draws nigh. I’ll bring the cake!