Friday, 29 April 2011

"The Man in the Queue" by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, as to which much ink has been spilt on the pages of book blogs, often gets in the way of understanding that she was also a legitimate Golden Age crinme writer, though nowadays sadly neglected.

In this book her Inspector Grant, one of my favourite fictoinal detectives, faces what appears at first an intractable case. A man is found to have been fatally stabbed while in the queue for theatre tickets. The corpse held upright by the press of bodies, his killer has long since had a chance to slip away, and even the identity of the dead man is not known.

Grant is an intensely credible detective, very much an everday creation, much more of a Wycliff than, say, a Campion or even an Alleyn. Success usually comes as much from dogged police procedural work as it does from Grant's instinctive hunches which, incidentally, he freely admits are usually wrong. The French have a name for this sort of book, a policier, and Simenon's Maigret books are probably the best example.

Though this book was first written as long ago as 1929 it is remarkably undated, and I recommend a perusal of Tey's ouevre to anyone interested in the detective novel as a genre.

Incidentally, even though it is not intended to form any part of the subject of this post, I should state for the record that I personally find The Daughter of Time an excellent book, though I can think instantly of at least one book-blogger who would give me a fierce argument on this!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

"The Black Camel" by Earl Derr Biggers

Apologies for the recent lack of posts. I have been on an extended trip to the USA and the Middle East, and thereby hangs a tale, or rather a number of books.

Being a rapid and voracious reader with a bad back who is determined not to carry a heavy bag, long trips (anything more than a couple of days) present something of a problem. I have debated buying an e-reader such as a Kindle, but have so far been deterred by the fact that almost no books that I would want to have on it are currently available. Doesn't it seem even remotely strange to those who peddle these things that there should be no Patrick O'Brien, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham or Lawrence Durrell, for example?

Another option of course is to take a couple of books with you, read them, throw them away and buy some more. Apologies to fellow book-bloggers everywhere for even suggesting this. Yes, the idea of throwing a book away is just as abhorrent to me as it is to any of you. However, regretfully I have started trying to grit my teeth and do it, since it seems the lesser evil to writhing around on the floor unable to stand up or walk (but only just).

Looking out of my hotel room in Phoenix, having just turned the last page of the excellent Cry Havoc by Joseph Maiolo (of which more anon) the weary traveller's eye chanced upon two sights in quick succession: (1) a large Borders store across the road and (2) a closing down sale notice in its window. Closer inspection revealed that discounts of between 60% and 70% were available as the store only had about three days left to live. They were even selling off the shop fittings to local students.

Forty minutes later I staggered back to my hotel with eight books. One of them was The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers.

Biggers was a 1907 Harvard graduate who rather let the side down by turning to detective fiction as a way of life. He had a big break when his first published book Seven Keys to Baldpale was subsequently adapted into no less than seven different films (including Haunted Honeymoon) and a stage play by the great George M. Cohan of Yankee Doodle fame. He is though best known for his Charlie Chan mysteries. Chan became a Hollywood institution, featuring in about fifty different films from the 1920s onwards and being played by various different actors.

Chan is a complex character. He has a large and happy family but generational issues are apparent, albeit good-naturedly. His older children, for example, are growing up resolutely American, whereas Chan clings to his mother's more traditional Chinese values. As a detective, he hides a fiercely intelligent and disciplined mind under a mask of mock-humility and self-deprecation. This does not however prevent him from sarcastic asides to an ethnic Japanese assistant, who is one of von Moltke's industrious idiots.

The title of The Black Camel refers to death, and death naturally plays a part in the proceedings as a Hollywood actress visiting Hawai is found stabbed to death in a beach house. Any further description of the plot is difficult without compromising the denouement.

While I have of course seen many of the films, this is the first Charlie Chan book which I have read, and I recommend it. It is a well written story with a sympathetic central character, and has not aged in the same way that so many of its contemporaries (it was published in 1929) have done.

Another name to add to your list when browsing in book shops.