RARA-AVIS: The Thirties: Christie, Queen, Sayers, Gardner

From: K Montin ( kmontin@total.net)
Date: 28 Nov 2002

I read several books from the 1930s. They don't all quite qualify as hardboiled, but I'll slip them in anyway. My '40s selection is better focussed, and I'm in the middle of Le petit bleu de la cô´¥ ouest
(Manchette), so I'm not totally off course.

Agatha Christie, The Boomerang Clue (U.S. title)/Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
(1933) This book was mentioned in the Sayers article Miker pointed us to. I hadn't read an Agatha Christie in ages, but she was my first crime writer after Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, so I seized the opportunity to read a new one.

Murder, attempted murder and kidnapping take place, and you're not likely to figure out the details until they're explained at the end. The plot is fairly complicated, involving a drug ring and ruthless con artists, along with a sinister Canadian doctor who runs a detox centre for drug addicts.

The amateur detective duo of Lady Frankie Derwent and vicar's son Bobby Jones is quite appealing. Frankie fearlessly insinuates herself into the household of the suspected killer and lives there for a while.

It was a good bedtime read for a few nights, but you hardcore exclusively hardboiled fans won't want to bother with it.

Ellery Queen, Drury Lane's Last Case (1933) Drury Lane, retired actor, devoted Shakespearean and all-round genius, is called in to help his friend, a retired New York city policeman, who runs a detective agency. Inspector Thumm is pretty thick. Fortunately his daughter, Patience, more than makes up for his deficiencies.

It all begins when a very strange man with a "Joseph's" (multicoloured) beard leaves an envelope with the detective agency, giving orders to open it only if he is not heard from on a certain day. The plot involves rare Shakespeare editions that are stolen and replaced. A couple of people get killed and a lot of intricate reasoning is required to figure out who did what and why.

Drury Lane plays a very peculiar role in the thing and it is all really quite ridiculous. The best part about it is that it is Patience who solves the case.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors (1934) A classic crime novel. Sayers plays by the rules, but there are a couple of very unexpected twists.

Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter are obliged to spend the night in a village vicarage. The vicar and his team are just getting ready to break a bell-ringing record and are short a man. Wimsey just happens to be a perfectly competent bell ringer.

Then a body is found buried in a village churchyard. The problem is, it's on top of someone else's coffin and it is missing its hands. The story really begins about ten years earlier, when a valuable necklace was stolen and a culprit was imprisoned. Someone was saying recently that cosies don't show the way that a crime affects the community, but one of the themes of the book is that the theft affected many people in different ways and leads to a number of violent deaths.

Needless to say Wimsey figures it all out, although it takes over a year to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. There is much discussion of campanology and even a secret code that involves a bell-ringing sequence. Sayers did more research than I would ever want to do into the art of bell ringing, and the science of water-control structures as well. Very well written, not hard hitting, but difficult to solve.

Erle Stanley Gardner, This Is Murder (1935)
"A crackling tale of kidnapping and mystery by the best-selling mystery writer of all time." Thus saith the cover. I have a 1949 reprint of a 1935 title originally published under the name of Charles J. Kenny.

A book with a cast of characters at the front, which I referred to a few times. Two antagonists are called Moraine and Morden, so for awhile I had trouble keeping them straight.

This time our hero is an ad man! Sam Moraine happens to be playing poker with his friend the DA and his investigator (note the absence of a defence lawyer) when they are called out to talk to a woman whose sister is missing--she fears murdered by her husband. Sam goes along, ostensibly to provide his expertise in paper and ink. The plot thickens and before long there are political and financial intrigues, a kidnapping and a couple of murders.

Guns are drawn but there are no shoot-outs. The time of one murder is established by the length of a burned-down candle and the schedule of a passing train.

Sam is tough, yes, but not supertough. The language is colloquial. So the minimum hb requirements are met.

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