Vladimir's list of the greatest mysteries ever written (or that he's read, anyway). Additionally, we'll be posting a few short stories and serializations by Vladimir and other authors! Weigh in with your comments, agreements, and disagreements!
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 9, 2020 at 4:30 PM|
I did find Billingsgate Shoal to be propulsive, and once it got going, difficult to put down. From an outset where Doc Adams is simply being curious about why a mysterious boat crew is hiding their actions, he ultimately turns up a conspiracy that involves treasure, assumed identity, boats with secret compartments (and with bodies inside) and multiple previous murders. As mentioned in the first installment, Doc’s (and Rick Boyer’s) unusually high knowledge of boats leads him to some clues. I have to say that some other times, he gets other clues by simply putting himself in danger and then managing to survive it. It is established that the people behind the incidents are vicious and ruthless, and while Boyer sets up nicely why Doc has more boating knowledge than the average bear, his survivor skills seem to come out of nowhere.
The villains come to a terrible end, and as written, they richly deserve it, so this is another novel where the reader is led by the nose to hate a fictional character and root for them to die gruesomely. I didn’t think this tactic represented skillful writing when I was reading Forfeit, and I still don’t. Boyer also sets up the plot so that, at the end, essentially everyone who would have a stake in the treasure has already died or been murdered. So Rick and some friends buy a house that contains the treasure and the reader is asked to root for him to figure out the location of the stash because we have been set up to accept that he deserves to keep it as much as anyone else does. Again, the suspense was effective and it was interesting to try to anticipate where the treasure was hidden and how it could be obtained. But I resented being repeatedly set up for Doc to bend the law. Perhaps Boyer should have considered writing Doc as a lovable thief or a sympathetic law-bender who we could sympathize with as he thwarted the plans of other miscreants who were truly evil. And maybe this is an element in the later books in the series. But in Billingsgate Shoal, Doc is a law-abiding citizen who seems to have a very low bar for bending the law himself.
Along those lines, I don’t think enough was done with the fact that Doc suggested his scuba-diving friend poke his nose into a situation that got him killed. The reader is essentially asked to accept that the ultimate vengeance for his friend’s death takes care of Doc’s moral responsibility. I’ve seen James Bond brood more about an innocent bystander being killed during one of his operations. For Doc to seemingly forget so easily that he was brooding about his role in the diver’s death seems both to miss an opportunity to examine an important ethical question and also again, undermines the characterization. Again, isn’t Doc (at least in this book) supposed to be an amateur detective?
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on July 2, 2020 at 1:05 PM|
While the cliché about the ordinary joe who stumbles onto a murder is very familiar, it is surprisingly underrepresented among Edgar winners. We need to go backward through 13 years of international assassins, reformed terrorists, smugglers with hearts of gold, and professional detectives, soldiers and spycatchers to get to Forfeit in 1970, whose protagonist was a reporter. Even a reporter is professional obliged to investigate. 1969’s A Case of Need features a pathologist, so he is more of an actual amateur, though he doesn’t really stumble onto the case since he is motivated to clear an unjustly-accused colleague. In that sense, Billingsgate Shoal was a breath of change, since “Doc” Adams is an oral surgeon who is originally in no way connected to the case, but just bored with his prosperous suburban life and nosy.
Doc is also an expert boater, and in fact the vivid and detailed descriptions of boating are one of the strengths of the book, and another unusual element. Some intricate plot points later on hinge on Doc’s knowledge of the design and construction of boats – while a little of this was lost on me, I quickly loaned my copy to a friend who loves both boats and mysteries. At any rate, Doc’s knowledge of boats and nosy nature turn deadly when he observes a mysterious crew performing midnight repairs on a small feature near Cape Cod called Billingsgate Shoal. He convinces a young scuba diver friend of his to check out the hull of the craft – and the diver turns up dead. No one thinks it’s murder except Doc, who thinks it is a murder and one that he has inadvertently caused.
Our hero is thus obligated to take up the case and make sure that the people behind the boat don’t get away with whatever put them there. He needs to use his nautical knowledge to track down the boat’s provenance and he runs into some very nasty people who would prefer that their secret activities remain secret. I appreciated that the plot was not just a generic plot plugged into Cape Cod for color, but was integral to its setting. Was it convincing at the end, both narratively and morally? That’s for the spoiler installment.
It is not easy to find much biographical information about Rick Boyer. Every source likes to mention that he studied writing under Kurt Vonnegut, which is really cool, but doesn’t say much about his life. He apparently taught English at Western Carolina University, though it is unclear if this was a part-time gig since the University doesn’t seem to list him as a professor emeritus. He doesn’t seem to have been in the news since 1996, when he was mentioned as part of an article on famous people moving to Asheville, NC. It seems that his last Doc Adams book was published in 1998; ten years later he was in the local Asheville Press for a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories he published with an obscure press. Not all of his publications during his prime were mysteries – he was also responsible for The Places Rated Almanac and some other popular reference works. If any readers know more about his current whereabouts and activities, it would be nice to hear if he is still doing well.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on May 17, 2020 at 9:50 AM|
That question has an easy answer: no. But what novel should have been chosen by the Edgar award voters to represent 1981 is a harder question.
In terms of actual great novels of 1981, there are two clear contenders, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Both have been celebrated all over, and Red Dragon was 27th all-time on the Mystery Writer’s of America list, with Gorky Park ranked 35th. The challenge is, each of these fine novels, though clearly superior to Peregrine and anything else of 1981’s slate that I have read myself, is not the best novel in their respective series. For Hannibal Lecter novels, one would want to award Silence of the Lambs (though it is too early to gauge what Silence of the Lambs will be contending with in 1988). I will argue strenuously that Gorky Park is only the third best Arkady Renko novel – one wants Polar Star and Red Square, two of the greatest crime novels ever written, to win Edgars in their years (even further out than 1988). This is benefiting from hindsight, but this whole exercise is an exercise in benefiting from hindsight.
(Interesting coincidence that both of these remarkable characters introduced in 1981, Hannibal Lecter and Arkady Renko, waited 7 years or more for a second appearance. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each waited 3 years for his second novel, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer each waited one year, the first three Maigrets all appeared in 1931, and Travis McGee’s first two adventures were published simultaneously. One suspects that Hannibal Lecter and Arkady Renko weren’t originally seen as recurring characters. I for one am grateful that their authors had a change of mind!)
Other crime novels from 1981 that I have read include Free Fall in Crimson, speaking of Travis McGee, and The Rebel Angels by “serious author” Robertson Davies, which many people love but didn’t do it for me. Speaking of serious authors, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez published a mystery in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which I haven’t read but which is on my list now. Other celebrated books of 1981 that I haven’t gotten to yet are The Glitter Dome, by Joseph Wambaugh, Martha Grimes’ The Man with a Load of Mischief, which introduced the beloved Richard Jury, and Sarah Caudwell’s Thus was Adonis Murdered, which introduced Hilary Tamar, the academic detective who, among their other admirable traits, is meticulously described by the author so you can never tell in any novel if Hilary is a lad or a lassie.
Much worth reading there, but it leaves me back with the two with which I’ve started. When stumped, you might say, don’t ignore the obvious. Regardless of the future (seen from 1981), Gorky Park was the best mystery I read published in 1981 and great on its own merits, and I designate Gorky Park the book that should have won the Edgar in 1982.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 27, 2020 at 12:40 AM|
In the first installment of my review of William Bayer’s Peregrine, I have noted some of its bonkers elements, some of which are so ridiculous (the protagonist, Detective Frank Janek, releases tension by repairing accordions) that I wondered if the book was meant as a spoof. The villain, who is our POV for about half the time, also appears to have no motive, though he eventually acquires one. His motive seems to be chaos, or perhaps to feed into and thus reveal the toxicity of 1970s media culture. This just makes him a serial killer, which is not an unpromising basis in and of itself. In fact, I actively dislike when an author takes a serial killer (Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader) and then creates an origin story that is supposed to explain his insanity.
But, and this is an element that can’t be put delicately, our villain is also a rapist. He forms an attachment on a news anchor who seems intrigued by his crimes, and his plot changes to a plot to kidnap her, use her as a sexual captive, and in fact torment and brainwash her into believing that she is his falcon, even to be point of dressing her in feathers and wings. This now goes well beyond the realm of satire or a villain who is charming in his nihilism, and really to the point of misogynism. I don’t recall any female characters in the novel of any strength and character to seemingly balance the victimhood of the kidnapped reporter, and indeed the murder victims are likewise vulnerable young women. I think there is much room to question whether this is entertainment. Full disclosure, I have the same question about some other novels that have been wildly popular but which, for me, the skill or suspense achieved falls far short of the sadism and cruelty that is created by the author.
Speaking of suspense, what passes for suspense is also disappointing. For at least half the novel, I don’t recall the police authorities making any headway whatsoever. Janek and his team do, late in the game, pick up the trail and carry out some convincing detective work. But the author seems to want it both ways, and while creating some intriguing police work to close in on the villain, he seems to hold back and resist allowing his villain to be captured. When Janek finally finds the apartment the falconer is using for his headquarters, he arrives after the action is over. The killer has let the real falcon go and induced his captive to cut his throat, essentially brainwashing her into assisting his suicide. This is what the villain had wanted as the ending all along, so Janek is basically too late to either save the victim or foil the plot. Essentially, he is too late to do anything except help the victim start her psychological recovery, presuming that she would not have eventually walked out of the apartment or called someone on her own.
To me, what happens in this book might be another case of an author being overly fond of his villain. We saw this before with The Day of the Jackal, where Frederick Forsyth couldn’t resist bestowing near superpowers on his assassin protagonist. I found this a weakness in that great thriller, but it came in the context of superior plotting and writing and a plot that was far more plausible. The gamble for an author when you fall in love with your villain is that you are risking that your readers will too, but the maniac behind the falcon is given no qualities that are likely to be interesting to the typical reader. A telling example of Bayer’s excessive fondness of his character is an episode in the middle where a world-famous Japanese bird trainer brings his hawk-eagle cross to hunt the falcon that has terrorized the city. Of course, the namesake falcon wins this air battle, and in the aftermath, the trainer kills himself in shame. It is not enough for Bayer to describe his villain thwarting another scheme to stop his crime spree, but the people who attempt to bring him down must be humiliated. And of course, in the end no one can stop him and he is only stopped by his own deathwish.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 27, 2020 at 12:40 AM|
You might assume as you start the book they did award in 1981 that the title is symbolic, and refers to a detective, or perhaps a victim or another character who drives the plot, who is restless and driven to move constantly. But in fact the title is literal, and refers to a peregrine falcon, which a villain has trained to swoop down on command and kill passersby on the streets on early 80s New York City. The author acknowledges that this is almost impossible biologically, so there is much straining of the plot to justify how a falcon could actually kill a human being, and in case you are thinking that larger birds of prey might have been better choices, it turns out to be a carefully bred falcon, far larger than the norm.
I was tantalized by the possibility that Bayer meant this as a spoof, at least originally, although the last half of the book is certainly not amusing or droll in any way. But the media frenzy that follows the attacks rang true and was a fairly convincing bonkers echo of the Son of Sam media frenzy from four years earlier. Another indicator of at least a fleeting attempt at satire is the hobby given to the main police protagonist, Frank Janek – he repairs accordions. But there appear to be three additional novels starring Frank Janek, and some of his other traits are less original: Like so many other Edgar protagonists, Janek is seen as damaged goods with a scandalous past – and it will turn out, as it so often does, that his sin is something that the author strenuously justifies so that few readers will consider it a sin. Which doesn’t mean they will find it interesting. Richard Crenna made a series of TV movies in the 80s in which he played Frank Janek, though as far as I can tell, Peregrine was never chosen as the basis for one of them.
So Frank Janek, while not repairing accordions, leads the NYPD’s efforts to contain panic and stop the mad falconer. And returning to the very real sins of the 1981 Edgar voters, one could say that Peregrine, like Gorky Park and Red Dragon, would be followed by better entries by its author. So why pick the one and not one of the others? No risk of spoiling – I couldn’t possibly spoil that mystery because I don’t know the answer. But I can’t say more about why Peregrine is bad without spoilers – in the next installment.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on January 16, 2020 at 9:00 PM|
Whip Hand won the 1981 Edgar for best novel of 1980. I have already stated that I don’t consider it to be one of Dick Francis’ top books, and I think I can go on to say that I don’t think it is a particularly good book standing on its own.
Nonetheless, competition in 1980 was weak, and whether considering the mystery reading public or just yours truly, Whip Hand escaped a lot of perils. The biggest was a matter of translation. I have previously designated Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose as the greatest mystery of all time, and it was published in 1980 – in Italian. I’ve been consistent in considering the year of the English translation to be the year of the win, as have the Edgars people, for example in the award to The Laughing Policeman in its English translation, in 1971. So The Name of the Rose will be the “should have” Edgar winner for 1982, a year that included Richard Condon’s sublime Prizzi’s Honor and Elmore Leonard’s excellent Stick.
Back in 1980, though, another very popular book is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. I get the impression that many readers who aren’t enamored of Ludlum still like The Bourne Identity, and well do I remember a friend in 1980 who was obsessed with it. But I haven’t read it, and the silliness of the one Robert Ludlum I did read makes me reluctant to suspend my rule to not pick something I haven’t read myself. I might be tempted to relax that rule and choose LeCarre’s Smiley’s People, because so many other LeCarres are so great, but that doesn’t seem justified when LeCarre already has an Edgar. Things I did read from 1980 include Ken Follett’s sub-par The Key to Rebecca and Elmore Leonard’s subpar The City Primeval. Looks like I am reluctantly obliged to endorse Whip Hand as best mystery of 1980.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on December 28, 2019 at 1:30 PM|
As implied in my spoilerless introduction to Whip Hand, Dick Francis’ second Edgar-winning novel is a little light on mystery. We meet the main villain by chapter eight. There is some mild residual suspense in the secondary plots, and there is one big reveal where we learn that the Chief Steward, who had hired Sid to look into one of the mysteries, is himself the guilty party and responsible for a second set of thugs who beat Sid up. I had to reread several chapters in depth to get this because the first and second time through all of the authority figures in the plot were almost indistinguishable, and his reason for inciting, then attempting to quash, an investigation into his own crimes still doesn’t make sense to me. But the main suspense is man vs fear. Sid Halley’s one good arm is threatened by the sadistic Trevor Shammuck, and he is successfully blackmailed to at least temporarily let him continue his sabotage of a famous trainer’s horses. Sid then overcomes his fear, which is a morally satisfying ending, and then has to face the next step with Shammuck.
Since Dick Francis has chosen, again and again, to go with the plot point of sadism in his villains, it is legitimate to ask if he succeeds in this literary device. In some ways, adding sadism in a villain makes the novel seem more gritty and realistic, since many real-life criminals are sadistic. But for Francis (and potentially for other authors), does relying on sadism as a plot device paint the author into a corner from which there is no convincing escape?
Of course, in many books the sadism is added simply to goad the reader into wanting the villain dead, by the most gruesome way possible, and to feel the protagonist is justified in committing the murder. I do not really feel like this is a respectable (or skillful) thing for an author to try to accomplish, but it remains a popular ploy, used in at least one other Dick Francis novel and also by authors such as Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard. Dick Francis has also used the ploy of having a situation occur that kills the sadistic villain through circumstances that the detective isn’t responsible for – this can get unconvincing especially as it is repeated. The author could have his or her detective simply accumulate so much evidence that the villain is executed through legal means, or at least neutralized in prison, which modern authors have apparently decided isn’t convincing.
On rare occasions, the detective can end up sacrificing him- or herself knowing that they will be at the mercy of the villain, or his avengers, at least temporarily. I have seen this done effectively though usually against villains who are more ruthless than sadistic. What happens at the end of Whip Hand is this – Sid alerts the authorities to Shummuck and his criminal empire collapses (as well as his access to his few legitimate business interests), and arrest is possible though hasn’t happened yet. Shummuck confronts Sid to carry out his threat and destroy his remaining arm – but then relents in disgust because what he really wanted was for Sid to fear him and he realizes he will not get that. If you have read my other spoiler version summaries, you realize that this is the second time in ten years that an Edgar-winning novel has ended with a villain arbitrarily deciding he doesn’t feel like harming the detective who is in his power. To me, this is the writing equivalent of setting up a locked-room mystery, playing up the impossibility of the deed, and then saying, “oh, the door wasn’t locked.” Maybe authors, even award-winning ones, should resist the temptation of painting their heroes into the corner of sadism if their only solutions are something like this!
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on November 27, 2019 at 6:05 PM|
Whip Hand, winner of the 1980 Edgar Award for Best Novel, was the middle of three novels by Dick Francis to win the prize; Forfeit won in 1970, and Come to Grief in 1996. This is three decades, which is pretty impressive for an amazing career. I have read all of them (and at least two by Felix Francis), like hundreds of people, yet I wonder if anyone would ever have identified these three as Francis’ best. Myself, I consider his first three, Nerve, Dead Cert, and For Kicks as far superior to the three winners, but award voters do tend to miss early greatness in authors and they can probably be forgiven. I have already bestowed my “should have” Edgar for 1962 on Dead Cert, and Nerve and For Kicks only happened to go against The Light of Day and In the Heat of the Night in their years, which I didn’t and won’t argue with.
Whip Hand was also one of three novels to feature the same character, Sid Halley, a rarity for Francis (Felix has also used him once). This was a re-read for me, and the copy of Whip Hand I obtained for the purpose had all three of the original Sid Halleys in one convenient triple-header. Sid Halley is a former jockey who became a detective after losing most of one arm in a riding accident. Assisted by his useful assistant, Chico, he finds himself working on three cases simultaneously, one involving his ex-wife’s smarmy ex-boyfriend who has used her name to commit a fraud involving furniture polish, and one involving suspicion of corruption high in the security service of British racing. The most fraught involves a trainer for whom he formerly worked, who has been the victim of a suspiciously long string of unexpected race failures.
Sid makes a bit of progress on the cases, but before we reach Chapter 8 a wealthy bookmaker named Trevor Deansgate who Sid has known since the bookmaker was named Trevor Shummuck, reveals himself to be behind some of the criminal action, and threatens to shoot off Sid’s good hand with a rifle if he doesn’t drop the case. This sadistic threat is effective and first, and Sid stays away from the case long enough for his second client’s horse to join its predecessors in unexpected failure.
As with most of Dick Francis’ best ones, Whip Hand features yet another fiendishly clever plot to rig races; the solution of this one was convincing and satisfying, as usual. And I always appreciated the moral complexity of Francis’ characters, and the first time I read it, the struggle of Sid against his fear is fairly novel for a thriller. Rereading it, however, after having read the whole series, put it in a different light, and it slipped in my isolation on second reading. The sadism and ruthlessness of Trevor Deansgate and the moral strength needed to fight it were less interesting after I realized just how chockaplenty Francis’ novels were with sadists and jockeys whose strength is the ability to absorb pain and the threat of pain.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on October 29, 2019 at 11:05 PM|
Bottom line first – much as I would like to find a better candidate for best mystery novel of 1979 than The Rheingold Route, 1979 doesn’t appear to have given me the material. Many fine authors had an entry in 1979, but none in my judgment had their best stuff or even their above average stuff that year. Among the contenders I have read are John D MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, and Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Among those that I can’t remember whether I have read or not are Ken Follett’s Triple and John LeCarre’s Smiley’s People. I haven’t read some of the others that were bestsellers that year, such as Robin Cook’s Sphinx, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Leonard Sanders’ The Sixth Commandment and Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle. None of these strike me as having the reputation or significance to overcome my loose rule against choosing a novel I didn’t read. And as to the LeCarre and Follett contenders, I also have a strong aversion to praising a book I read and didn’t remember. (Though I have to say, I remembered nothing about Agatha Christie’s The Patriotic Murders, which I recently re-read, and it was terrific).
Dismissing the Travis Magee contender and Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is a little harder, but both are authors on whom I have already bestowed “should have won”s, on much better work, and I should have high standards. The Green Ripper just isn’t good, and struck me as more of a wistful gesture on a great author’s part in response to a complicated work than a worthy entry in the tight complex Travis Magee canon. But The Dead Zone is, in my opinion, the first Stephen King novel to really tackle a valuable psychological question. If you had special powers that allowed you to perceive something unseen by others, would that justify otherwise immoral acts? And is that situation distinguishable from being insane? An intriguing and important question, so one’s judgment of The Dead Zone hinges on one’s judgment of how King answers the question – and I can’t talk about that without spoilers.
The Rheingold Route wasn’t great, but it had its moments, and nothing else from its year mounts a strong enough case to overturn it.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on October 16, 2019 at 10:30 PM|
I mentioned in the previous posting that there is another blog covering the Edgars, at criminalelement.com. These are published weekly with a changing series of authors, and so far are spoiler-free. As noted, the authors have sometimes been able to dig up some facts about the authors and books that I did not succeed at finding. I was curious if we tended to agree on our judgment of the winners, so I read three of the reviews of books I have already covered, two that I judged great (Beat not the Bones and The Spy who came in from the Cold), and one that I judged to be disappointing (Promised Land). criminalelement.com agreed that the first two were great but also thought Promised Land was great. Wondering if they ever give a negative review, I skipped ahead to an Edgar winner I have already read but haven’t written about yet, which I shall not yet name. criminalelement.com agreed that this second one was a problem, though they tended to emphasize the sheer wackiness of this upcoming winner (which is indeed wacky) but they did not seem to realize its deep offensiveness and misogyny.
To recap, in our current subject, The Rheingold Route, a shady attorney named Garwood hires a “troubled” smuggler named John Cochrane to get his nephew’s inheritance to Geneva, away from British taxes, before the person who owns the money actually dies. Garwood also hires a psychopathic creep named O’Rourke to stop Cochrane. We learn (and most readers won’t be very surprised) that Garwood has done this to basically get his paws on the money himself, and he doesn’t give a damn who needs to suffer for that to happen. O’Rourke ends up murdering both the nephew and Garwood, but then is apprehended by the authorities before he can get the money himself. Maling nicely plants the seed of O’Rourke’s failure in his character flaws – a murder O’Rourke has committed because of an ignorant misunderstanding gets the authorities after him who would scarcely have cared what he did to Cochrane.
The cat and mouse chase by O’Rourke of Cochrane is the best part of what is an underwhelming novel, and in a sense both O’Rourke and Cochrane are successful. O’Rourke successfully mugs Cochrane, leaving him in grave danger, and escapes with the suitcase that is believed to have the money. But Cochrane had a second suitcase and the one with a money is safely (but inaccessibly) ensconced in a locker at the station. So Cochrane’s overall strategy was successful, but even though he is the last man alive, he can’t keep the money for himself because he is convinced that the locker is under surveillance and if he is questioned by authorities his kidnapping of his daughter will come to light. But proving he is above all that and that he is a man of character (which Maling has let us doubt for four minutes before getting nervous about whether we will get it), he is happy to live without these resources and make a new life with his new love (who wasn’t in love with him for at least a half a page).
So the mystery isn’t very mysterious, the character growth is minimal and overdramatized, and the characters are cartoonish. The plot is a bit of paint-by-numbers caper. The scenery and the technicalities of the chase work very well within these unpromising borders. Is that enough to make a novel of the year? Well, maybe it was a lean year – in the next post we will again ask the question, should it have won?