CLASSIC CORNER

CLASSIC CORNER features mysteries from the past currently in re-release.

POSTED DECEMBER 30, 2012

GAUDY NIGHT         
DOROTHY L. SAYERS          
Bourbon Street Books / Harper Trade pb 10/12

It is a little hard to believe, given the prominent and distinguished role of women in higher education today, that it has been less than a century since women were first admitted as full members to, and became eligible for degrees from, Oxford University in England, one of the world's oldest and most distinguished centers of learning. Among the first women to receive degrees from Oxford was Dorothy L. Sayers, who would go on to write her immensely popular and influential mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey - and, in four of them, create and develop another marvelous character, Harriet Vane, an Oxford-educated woman and a mystery novelist. Any parallel with real life, of course, must be strictly coincidental.

In the first of those four mysteries, STRONG POISON (1930), Lord Peter saves Harriet from the gallows when put on trial for having murdered her lover. For the next couple of books he will pursue Harriet Vane, proposing marriage only to be rejected.

That is the state of affairs at the opening of the third of those books, GAUDY NIGHT (1935), a book in which Lord Peter plays a distinctly second fiddle role to Harriet Vane - and in which Dorothy Sayers gets to examine the then-still-controversial subject of the proper role of women in higher education.

GAUDY NIGHT begins with Harriet Vane being invited to attend a Gaudy Night at her old school, Shrewsbury College, a college exclusively for women within Oxford University. A "Gaudy Night" is a sort of school reunion, with "old students" returning to mingle with the dons and the rest of the college staff. Harriet attends despite having qualms - her notoriety as a criminal defendant acquitted of murder makes her unsure of her welcome as she returns to her academic roots, but she is welcomed by everyone from the College's Warden and the Dean down to the "scouts", the servants who provide necessary services for the students. Her visit is somewhat marred by a couple of seemingly isolated incidents involving poison-pen letters and a peculiarly offensive drawing, but Harriet Vane, having suffered through a hostile public reaction to her trial for murder, is used to this sort of thing and assumes it is the work of some malicious outsider.

A few weeks after the Gaudy, however, Harriet receives a call from the Dean of Shrewsbury College: there have been a number of increasingly disturbing events - more poison-pen letters, increasingly dangerous "pranks" - and the school doesn't know quite how to respond. They do not want publicity, for that would play into the hands of the not-inconsiderable number of male Oxonians who still resent the presence of a women's college in their (until recently) all-male domain. The prankster - if that is what we may call the person responsible - is quite clearly seeking to drag the college down by generating unfavorable publicity, and the pranks are becoming more dangerous and more desperate.

Is it the work of some frustrated intellectual? Do women who have dedicated themselves to scholarship, as opposed to marriage and family, which was by far the prevalent fate for most English women in the 1930s, wind up with personalities so warped that they must take out their frustrations in these increasingly dangerous pranks?

Harriet hopes for some intervention from Lord Peter Wimsey, who spends the better part of the book away from England on diplomatic missions to an increasingly tense central Europe. This was the time of growing Nazi power in Germany and there is considerable debate among the Shrewsbury dons over the subservient role of women in the Nazi world-view. There will be several crises before Wimsey returns to Oxford to help Harriet uncover the truth behind the dangerous attacks - and the reader will undoubtedly be surprised to learn what has really been happening.

Among fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, there is some controversy over GAUDY NIGHT. Some object to its length - it is almost as bulky as many of today's oversized mysteries - and to the quotations and other nuggets of scholastic humor that are provided; others object to some of the views presented about women and their scholarship; still others complain about the time devoted to the growing romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. I disagree with all those critics. Sayers has a wonderful writing style that keeps the story moving while providing insightful and witty and, yes, thought-provoking comments that I find extremely entertaining. For example, at one point Harriet, having composed half of a sonnet, finds that Peter has completed the other portion of the poem to complement what she has written. Sayers observes: "[Harriet] went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself. This goes to prove that even minor poetry may have its practical uses."

As always in Sayers, the settings are beautifully drawn; I have been an admirer of GAUDY NIGHT for many years, and I made it a point, while visiting Oxford some years ago, to walk the lovingly-described and remembered streets to find the landmarks so important to both Harriet Vane and Dorothy L. Sayers. The major characters are believable and memorable. GAUDY NIGHT has been republished as a handsome paperback from HarperCollins's Bourbon Street Books imprint, with a new introduction by novelist Elizabeth George. This should not be your only Sayers novel - almost certainly not your first. But it should definitely be on your "To Be Read" list as an example of the kind of elegant writing that made the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in England so memorable. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

                                                                                                    - Les Blatt

THE INDIGO NECKLACE         
FRANCES CRANE         
Rue Morgue Press Trade pb 5/12
ISBN: 978-1-60187-069-8

When Pat and Jean Abbott are around, can murder be far behind?

Apparently not. In Frances Crane's THE INDIGO NECKLACE, written in 1945, the scene is New Orleans, near the end of World War II. Pat and Jean are living in rooms they have rented through one of Pat's friends, army doctor Roger Clary. The rooms are in a part of a beautiful old mansion in the French Quarter owned by Roger's aunt, with many members of the extended Clary family living there.

All seems to be going well until, one night, Jean discovers a body in the mansion's garden. It is Roger's wife, a woman who - it turns out - suffered from an incurable brain disease that had mostly destroyed her mind. According to the law, her mental condition made it impossible for Roger to get a divorce from her. Her doctor suspects foul play - and he blames the woman's nurse, who has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. However, when it turns out that the dead woman apparently was poisoned with curare, the police arrive on the scene - and as the victim was a very wealthy woman, and Roger is clearly in love with another woman, the police inspector in charge of the case, Captain Jonas, becomes convinced of Roger's guilt. Pat Abbott, a private detective before the war and now a Marine Lieutenant specializing in intelligence, isn't so sure. The question is, will he and Jean be able to find the evidence they need to clear Roger Clary in a house where remarkably few people seem capable of telling the truth about anything?

THE INDIGO NECKLACE was the seventh book in Frances Crane's tremendously popular series starring Pat and Jean Abbott. The New Orleans setting is wonderfully evocative. Captain Jonas, like many real-life residents of New Orleans today, is obsessed with fine food, and the Abbotts join him for memorable meals at some of the city's finest restaurants - real places that are still magnets today for serious diners, such as Arnaud's, Antoine's and Galatoire's. The setting of the old French Quarter, with its mix of tourist hangouts, classic old residences and some of the seedier areas where it is not always wise to walk alone at night, is really brought to life in Pat Abbott's narration. As Tom Schantz points out in the introduction to this new Rue Morgue Press edition, "Crane manages to capture much of the charm and not a small amount of what is wrong with that most French-like of American cities." Certainly, THE INDIGO NECKLACE is a very enjoyable entry in the Pat and Jean Abbott partnership. RECOMMENDED.

                                                                                               - Les Blatt
POSTED FEBRUARY 28, 2013

THE CASEBOOK OF JONAS P. JONAS AND OTHER MYSTERIES         
E. X. FERRARS          
Crippen & Landru Trade pb 11/12
ISBN: 978-1-936363-02-5

This collection of short stories by Ferrars is varied and entertaining; all of the tales are written in the "Golden Age" style, which is to say, clever on plot and simplistic on character. Settings are usually pleasantly upper-middle-class bordering on aristocratic, and deaths have a tasteful veil drawn across them so no sensibilities are harmed. Villainy generally gets its just desserts, and romance (as well as passion) is lightly and subtly sketched. The six eponymous tales are short and sweet, with Jonas admirably playing the role of super-sleuth and hoping that his niece will play Watson to his Holmes. Other stories have slightly more substance to them. "The Trap", one of the longer tales, tells of a young woman hired to be housekeeper-companion to a disabled woman, temporarily cared for by her sister who wants to return to her own life in London. The untimely death of the invalid opens a Pandora's Box of secrets which, of course, are ultimately neatly sorted out. "Fly, Said the Spy" resounds with Cold War skullduggery, and the unlikely protagonist's dilemma provides an enjoyable bit of irony. Definitely not for fans of hard-boiled suspense thrillers, this collection is just the thing for a bed-time read for fans of Christie and Sayers. RECOMMENDED.

                                                                                              - Carol Howell

BLIND DRIFTS         
CLYDE B. CLASON         
Rue Morgue Press Trade pb 7/12
ISBN: 978-1601870728

There is a secret buried in the heart of a gold mine in Baddington, Colorado, a secret apparently worth killing for. When one of the controlling directors of the Virgin Queen Gold Mine is shot - in front of seven witnesses, none of whom sees the shooting or can say what happened to the gun, which apparently has disappeared - history professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough finds himself working with the local police to determine what exactly is going on at the mine. It proves to be a dangerous and deadly secret.

In a nutshell, that's the basic situation in BLIND DRIFTS, the third of Clyde B. Clason's novels about Professor Westborough, a man with a rather astonishing reputation for solving impossible crimes. He finds his skills sorely tested here.

Professor Westborough is at the mine because he is another of the mine's directors, having inherited a large amount of mine stock. He finds himself besieged by two groups seeking control of the mine. And the more he investigates, the more he finds himself caught up in the remarkable violence that seems to befall some of the key players in this power struggle.

Professor Westborough finds himself learning what is, essentially, a new language for him - the language of gold mining, and the reader will be confronted with drifts, adits, crosscuts, stopes, vugs, strikes and more. The action is fairly slow to start, but once it picks up and the bodies start piling up, it moves to a good, tight conclusion - and the reader will have discovered a very unusual way to make a gun disappear from the scene of the crime.

I do have a bit of a problem with some of the writing. Some of Professor Westborough's dialogue seems to me to be unusually prissy and pedantic - somebody's impression of what a classical historian's conversation should sound like. There's nothing prissy about Westborough, however, and I think there's enough action here to suit most readers.

Clyde B. Clason was an interesting writer. In the space of just five years, from 1936 to 1941, he wrote ten novels about Professor Westborough - and never went back to crime writing after that, though he lived until 1987. His books are generally quite interesting, and BLIND DRIFTS, with its excellent descriptions of gold mining, is certainly worth reading.

                                                                                                   - Les Blatt

A HEARSE ON MAY-DAY          
GLADYS MITCHELL         
Rue Morgue Press, Trade pb 2/12
ISBN: 978-1601870667

Fenella Lestrange is on her way to visit relatives, planning to be married. While driving to their home, she turns off the main road on a whim, following a byway to the tiny village of Seven Wells. She has lunch at the oddly-named More to Come pub there - then discovers that her car mysteriously won't start and that she will have to spend the night at the pub. It is the evening before May Day - or, as the locals call it, "Mayering", a holiday that seems to have deeply pagan roots. And Fenella is warned to stay in her room, keeping the door locked and bolted, for her own safety - for "no maiden be safe, except under lock and key, at the Mayering of Seven Wells." Naturally, she doesn't stay put - and so begins a series of extremely odd adventures involving a group of people costumed as signs of the Zodiac, a fertility ritual involving animal sacrifice and human bones, a rather odd young man dressed up as the Jack-in-the-green of May Day folklore, and a good deal more, not to mention murder. And some of the villagers are a bit upset over the lack of sufficient human skeletons to continue the ancient rites.

So begins a marvelously strange mystery by the often-underappreciated Gladys Mitchell. A HEARSE ON MAY-DAY, originally published in 1972, features Dame Beatrice Bradley, a criminologist and psychoanalyst and one of the most original detective characters in traditional British mystery fiction. In a writing career that spanned more than half a century, Mitchell's books, while well-received in the U. K., were not at all well-known in the United States; this is the first U. S. edition of A HEARSE ON MAY-DAY. Mitchell, and Mrs. Bradley, deserve better.

When Fenella leaves the pub at Seven Wells on May Day morning after her fairly harrowing adventure, she manages to retrieve her car, now repaired, and continue her journey to her relatives. She finds that her great aunt - Mrs. Bradley - is most interested in her account of the peculiar goings-on in Seven Wells, in no small part because she is investigating the murder there of the local squire, who was buried on May-Day. Why would anyone kill the popular squire? Who are the people hiding behind those Zodiac masks? Why did the original hosts and servants at the More to Come pub disappear suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely new staff? And are the very odd activities observed by Fenella on Mayering Eve connected in some way to the murder?

Readers familiar with Gladys Mitchell will find what for her is a remarkably straightforward story, full of odd twists and bizarre occurrences but quite easy to follow, and the explanations and solutions for the various aspects of the mystery are quite well done. The behavior of Mrs. Bradley is less outrageous in this book than in many of the earlier novels in the series, which I think could make her more acceptable to a new audience. Perhaps it is because there are so many gothic trappings surrounding the events in the book that the relatively calm demeanor of Mrs. Bradley is welcome here. I found that it was almost impossible to put down A HEARSE ON MAY-DAY until I had finished the book. This new edition from the Rue Morgue Press includes an excellent introduction by the publishers providing more information about the remarkable Gladys Mitchell and her equally remarkable detective. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

                                                                                                 - Les Blatt