Out of the Forest

March 9, 2007, 8:34 pm
Filed under: mystery novels


Back in 1910, the arrest and trial of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen for the grisly murder and dismemberment of his wife caused quite a sensation in Great Britain. It’s enduring infamy stems not only from the heinous nature of the crime, but also from Crippen’s failed attempt to avoid capture by fleeing across the Atlantic to America on an ocean liner, only to find Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew waiting to arrest him when he got off the boat.

The case seems to have quickly seeped into the British consciousness. I have found casual references to the event in numerous British mysteries from the early 20th century, most recently in Margery Allingham’s bizarre but compelling novel More Work for the Undertaker.

But no novel integrates the legend of Dr. Crippen more thoroughly into its plot than Peter Lovesey’s ingenious, award-winning 1982 novel The False Inspector Dew. Set a decade after the Crippen murders, the story details the affair between a dentist and his mistress, who together devise a complicated plot to murder his wife. Like Crippen, they flee to America on an ocean liner, and the dentist, realizing the similarity to the Crippen case, jokingly assumes the disguise of the famous Walter Dew. That decision leads to the first of many disquieting twists in this exceedingly twisty novel. I could easily recommend this novel for the plot alone, but there is a considerable amount of humor and satire that makes the story all the more exceptional. This is essential reading!


February 15, 2007, 9:28 pm
Filed under: mystery novels

Agatha Christie. Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh. Margery Allingham. The four original “Queens of Crime”, each immensely popular during the “Golden Age” of British mystery. Of these, Ms. Allingham seems to get the least respect these days, particularly here in the States. Only one of her novels, The Tiger in the Smoke, is currently in print in the United States. But what a novel it is!

While the book does feature Allingham’s famous detective, Albert Campion, this novel is less a whodunit than a very gripping suspense story. Campion does some detecting that moves the story forward, but for the most part the story belongs to Jack Havoc, a serial killer who terrorizes the foggy streets of London.

The novel has a philosophical richness to it that sets it apart from many novels of this era. Characters in the novel come face-to-face with evil, and it is interesting to see how they deal with it, both intellectually and emotionally. The novel has much to say on the nature of good and evil, and the dangers of greed and violence.

And of course, the nature of what is discovered in the end is certainly no accident, and the author’s message is clear. I don’t completely agree with that message, but I wouldn’t want to give anything away, so you must read the book for yourself to find out what I mean.

I might add that even if the book were less profound and suspenseful than it is, it would be worth reading just for the beautiful and evocative descriptions of fog-shrouded London that pervade the novel.

February 1, 2007, 8:00 pm
Filed under: mystery novels

Who knew that an author most famous for her haunting Appalachian mystery novels would also pen a definitive satire on science fiction fandom? But Sharyn McCrumb does just that in her Edgar Award-winning Bimbos of the Death Sun. Of course, it goes without saying that the novel also has one of the best titles ever conceived.

A whodunit set at a science fiction convention, the book pokes fun at all sci-fi geek obsessions, but only in the most tender way. It would not surprise me to learn that Ms. McCrumb is either a sci-fi fanatic herself, or loves one dearly.

This short little book captures all the charm of these conventions and the fans who attend them: the mania, the adoration, the camaraderie, the loneliness.

To be honest, the mystery itself is rather second-rate. But then it was never meant to be the point of the story. And some of the details are rather dated, as this was written in the 1980’s. But as a child of the 80’s, this only added to its charm.

As a satire on sci-fi geekdom, Bimbos is perfection. Highly recommended to all sci-fi geeks, and those who love them.

January 4, 2007, 8:25 pm
Filed under: mystery novels

Reason number two to read mystery novels: they can give your “little grey cells” a workout. Particularly those novels with “puzzle-plots”, in which crimes are committed by devious and often elaborate means, and the killer is finally revealed thanks to the detective’s ruthless application of logic. Such novels, if they’re good, include you in this logic game, challenging you to solve the case, and probably surprising you in the end.

The master of the puzzle plot is, of course, Agatha Christie. Her novels are always fun, often far-fetched, but usually fair in their solutions. So it was with great pleasure that I recently reread one of my favorite Christie novels: Death Comes as the End.

This novel is unique in that it is set in ancient Egypt, not 20th century England like most of her work. The historical setting is handled convincingly, and the characters are not just stuffy museum pieces, but real people possessing real human emotion. Like the best of Christie, the plot is suspenseful and surprising, and the puzzle perplexing. I can still remember the first time I read it as a boy, particularly one evening I spent in the bathtub with the book, totally engrossed in the story’s seemingly endless parade of murders, until the bath water had grown so cold that I suddenly found myself shivering.

The novel is also unique in that it is one of the few that I actually solved on my own, before the solution was revealed. This didn’t disappoint me, as you might expect it would. The book is still good, even if you figure it out. Just as a crossword is satisfying once you’ve filled every square, so long as it was a challenge.

December 29, 2006, 8:45 pm
Filed under: mystery novels

Reason number one to read mystery novels: they can offer psychological insight into the criminal mind, and the best of them can even generate compassion and empathy for the killer.  In so doing, they can challenge our more simplistic notions of right and wrong.

The book I just finished reading, A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell, is one such book. It’s not giving anything away to say that the murderer kills because she is illiterate. Heck, Rendell skews the typical mystery plot right away by telling us this with the first line of the book:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write“.

The book is well-known for its perceptive understanding of the killer’s psychology, and how her illiteracy leads her to kill. But to me it all still seemed rather simplistic, and I sometimes felt a disturbing lack of compassion, or neutrality, in the voice of the author. More accomplished at this, I think, is P.D. James. Just read her Innocent Blood to see what I mean.

Still, A Judgement In Stone is a suspenseful must-read for mystery fans, and all those interested in understanding how people can develop a mind to murder.