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review 2018-06-01 17:54
Do-It-Yourself Crime Solving from the Golden Age of Mysteries
File on Fenton & Farr - Q. Patrick
Murder Off Miami - Dennis Wheatley
Who Killed Robert Prentice? - Dennis Wheatley
The Malinsay Massacre - Dennis Wheatley
Herewith the Clues - Dennis Wheatley

You'd think that I get to read more than enough files (though not typically crime files) in my day job -- but gluttons for punishment that some of us mystery lovers are, there's nothing we like better than tracking down the murderer ourselves, instead of just reading about some super sleuth doing it for us ... or so the makers of the 1930s' Crime Dossiers / Crime Files series figured, and of course they were dead on target.

 

The idea was first conceived by English authors Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, whose Murder off Miami (aka File on Bolitho Blane) was such a raging success on both sides of the Atlantic that it inspired follow-ups in both the U.S. and in the UK: in the latter case, three more "Crime Dossiers" by Messrs. Wheatley and Links; in the U.S., Helen Reilly's File on Rufus Ray (Crime File No. 2), as well as File on Fenton and Far, and File on Claudia Cragge by Q. Patrick (aka Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler) (Crime Files Nos. 3 and 4).

 

While the American "Crime Files" Nos. 2 and 4 (Rufus Ray and Claudia Cragge) are true collectors' items that continue to elude me for the moment, I've now read all four "Crime Dossiers" created by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, as well as Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr, and I'm in awe at the amount of ingenuity that has gone into creating these books.  They really are extremely close to the real thing -- you get correspondence (including cablegrams) and file entries by the investigators as well as witness statements, handwritten documents, crime scene and witness photographs, entire newspapers containing reports on the crime (not merely individual reports but actually entire broadsheets!), and even honest-to-God tactile evidence such as blood-stained pieces of cloth, strands of hair, tubes of lipstick, and other items found at the crime scene or in a witness's possession.  One can only guess at the amount of time and effort that must have gone into the creation of each and everyone of these books -- and they must have been tremendously expensive to produce, too; so no wonder that many of them (and all the originals from the 1930s) are rare collectors' items these days.  Crimes scenes range from a yacht off the Florida coast to an English village not far from London, a castle on a remote Scottish island, small-town New Jersey, and a London night club; and the cast of characters -- in each book as well as in all of them taken together -- is as diverse as any that you might expect to find in the best of crime fiction.

 

This all being said, obviously you can't like all books equally well, however lovingly they are put together; and so far my favorites are Wheatley / J.G. Links's sophomore effort, Who Killed Robert Prentice? (which has downright fiendish elements; it is, however, solvable on the basis of the evidence provided) and Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr ... the latter, if only for the fact that the authors even managed to work a funny-sweet romance between one of the detectives and the police chief's precocious secretary into the file.  (Obviously it also helped that I managed to solve both of these cases substantially (Robert Prentice) / partly (Fenton & Farr) correctly, even if I reserve the right to quibble with some of the evidence in Fenton & Farr.

 

The weakest of the lot is, IMHO, The Malinsay Massacre; not so much because it consists very largely of correspondence but because the solution just plain doesn't make sense to me and some of the conclusions allegedly "forcing" themselves on the reader from individual pieces of evidence are implausible beyond belief.  (OK, sour grapes, I admit.  Still ...) -- Herewith the Clues, the final Wheatley / Links outing, is generally decried as weak as well; however, I actually prefer it to Malinsay -- it does present a genuine puzzle, and even if some of the clues / proposed deductions are maybe a bit far-fetched, a fair amount of them actually do serve a logical purpose in eliminating innocent suspects on the one hand and nailing down the murderer on the other hand.  (Besides, the sheer number of fellow writers and society celebrities of their era that the authors managed to rope in for purposes of posing for "suspect" photos for Herewith the Clues is mind-boggling in and of itself -- in fact, this is the only volume where the true identities of the persons portrayed in the photographs are unveiled -- not least as this is a story dealing with IRA terrorism and some of the suspect biographies also point to Nazi Germany ... surely, in 1937, not exactly connections that many well-known Brits would have welcomed to see associated with their names; however much in a fictional context and with a disclaimer reading "the particulars regarding [name of fictional suspect] which are given in the script have, of course, no reference whatever to [real name of person portrayed], who very kindly posed for this photograph.")

 

Now, if only I could get my hands on at least halfway affordable copies of the File on Rufus Ray and the File on Claudia Cragge ...

 

In the interim, File on Fenton and Farr gets me another square in the Detection Club bingo -- "Across the Atlantic" (chapter 22), which at the same time completes bingo no. 4 ( all 4 corners + center square).

 

Individual ratings:

File on Fenton & Farr - 4 stars

Murder off Miami - 4 stars

Who Killed Robert Prentice? - 4.5 stars

The Malinsay Massacre - 3 stars

Herewith the Clues - 3,5 stars

 

 

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text 2018-05-31 19:15
Detection Club Bingo: My Progress So Far
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - Martin Edwards
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards
The Hog's Back Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts
The Red House Mystery - A.A. Milne
The Lake District Murder - John Bude
The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin
Quick Curtain - Alan Melville
Murder Off Miami - Dennis Wheatley
The Hollow Man - John Dickson Carr
Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth

 

First four bingos (bottom row, second column from right, diagonal top left to bottom right, and 4 corners + central square) -- plus three more in the making (top row, center column, and diagonal top right to bottom left).  Not that it greatly matters, but still. :D  Progress!

 

The Squares / Chapters:

1. A New Era Dawns: Ernest Bramah - The Tales of Max Carrados;

Emmuska Orczy - The Old Man in the Corner

2. The Birth of the Golden Age: A.A. Milne - The Red House Mystery
3. The Great Detectives:
Margery Allingham - The Crime at Black Dudley, Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady, Police at the Funeral, Sweet Danger, Death of a Ghost, Flowers for the Judge, The Case of the Late Pig, Dancers in Mourning, The Fashion in Shrouds, Traitor's Purse, and The Tiger in the Smoke;

Anthony Berkeley - The Poisoned Chocolates Case

4. 'Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!': Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery;

Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links - Murder off Miami

5. Miraculous Murders: Anthony Wynne - Murder of a Lady;

John Dickson Carr - The Hollow Man

6. Serpents in Eden: Agatha Christie - The Moving Finger (reread);

John Bude - The Lake District Murder;

Patricia Wentworth - Poison in the Pen

7. Murder at the Manor: Ethel Lina White - The Spiral Staircase (aka Some Must Watch)
8. Capital Crimes
9. Resorting to Murder
10. Making Fun of Murder:
Edmund Crispin - The Moving Toyshop;

Alan Melville - Quick Curtain

11. Education, Education, Education: Mavis Doriel Hay - Death on the Cherwell
12. Playing Politics
13. Scientific Enquiries:
Christopher St. John Sprigg - Death of an Airman;

Freeman Wills Crofts - Mystery in the Channel

14. The Long Arm of the Law: Henry Wade - Lonely Magdalen
15. The Justice Game
16. Multiplying Murders
17. The Psychology of Crime
18. Inverted Mysteries:
Anne Meredith - Portrait of a Murderer
19. The Ironists: Anthony Rolls - Family Matters
20. Fiction from Fact: Josephine Tey - The Franchise Affair

21. Singletons
22. Across the Atlantic: Patricia Highsmith - The Talented Mr. Ripley (reread);

Q. Patrick (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler) - File on Fenton and Farr

23. Cosmopolitan Crimes: Georges Simenon - Pietr le Letton (Pietr the Latvian)
24. The Way Ahead

 

Free Square / Eric the Skull: Martin Edwards - The Golden Age of Murder

 

The book that started it all:

Martin Edwards - The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

 

The Detection Club Reading Lists:
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: The "100 Books" Presented
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 1-5

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 6 & 7
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 8-10
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 11-15
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 16-20
The story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: Other Books Mentioned, Chapters 21-24

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review 2018-05-18 13:12
Should come with several prescriptions / warning labels:
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

The first caveat, obviously, being "don't ever try this at home."  Most of the poisons Harkup discusses are much harder to obtain these days than in Agatha Christie's time, so for most of them the risk of being used as a murder weapon may have been mitigated in the interim, but that's not true for all of them -- belladonna, phosphorus, opiates, ricin, and thallium are still scarily easy to obtain (or distill) if you know how and where, and the story of Graham Young (aka the stepson from hell) is a chilly reminder that (1) it may not actually be a particularly wise idea to present your 11 year old son with a chemistry set for Christmas for being such a diligent student of the subject -- particularly if he has taken a dislike to your new spouse -- and (2) there are still poisons out there, thallium among them, that are but imperfectly understood and may, therefore, be misdiagnosed even today.

 

My second caveat would be to either read this book only after you've finished all of Agatha Christie's novels and short stories that are discussed here, or at least, let a significantly large enough amount of time go by between reading Harkup's book and Christie's fiction. (Obviously, if you're just reading this one for the chemistry and have no intention of picking up Christie's works at all, the story is a different one.)

 

There are exactly two instances where Harkup gives a spoiler warning for her discussion of the books by Agatha Christie that she is using as "anchors" for the poisons under discussion (morphine / Sad Cypress and ricin / Partners in Crime: The House of Lurking Death), and in both instances, my feeling is that she is using the spoiler warning chiefly because she is expressly giving away the identity of the murderer. 

 

In truth, however, several other chapters should come with a massive spoiler warning as well; not because Harkup is explicit about the murderer (she isn't), but because she gives away both the final twist and virtually every last detail of the path to its discovery.  As Harkup herself acknowledges, a considerable part of Agatha Christie's craft consists in creating elaborate sleights of hand; in misdirecting the reader's attention and in creating intricate red herrings that look damnably convincingly like the real thing.  But in several chapters of A Is for Arsenic, Harkup painstakingly unravels these sleights of hand literally down to the very last detail, making the red herrings visible for what they are, and even explaining just how Christie uses these as part of her elaborate window dressing.  The effect is the same as seeing a conjurer's trick at extreme slow motion (or having it demonstrated to you step by step) -- it completely takes away the magic.  Reading Harkup's book before those by Christie that she discusses in the chapters concerned makes you go into a later read of those mysteries not only knowing exactly what to look for and why, but also what to discard as window dressing -- the combined effect of which in more than one instance also puts you on a direct trail to uncovering the murderer.  This applies to the chapters about hemlock (Five Little Pigs, aka Murder in Retrospect -- see my corresponding status update), strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), thallium (The Pale Horse), and Veronal (Lord Edgware Dies); as well as, arguably, though perhaps to a lesser degree, to the chapter about belladonna (The Labours of Hercules: The Cretan Bull).  In fact, in at least one of these chapters

(Veronal)

(spoiler show)

she as good as discloses both the murderer and the final twist before she's ever gotten to a discussion of the drug used in the first place.

 

As a result, Harkup's book loses a half star in my rating on this basis alone, and I'm left with one of the odd entries in my library where I'm checking off the "favorite" box for a book that I'm not rating at least four stars or higher.  Because the fact is also that I immensely enjoyed Harkup's explanations just how the poisons used in Christie's novels work (and where they occur naturally / what they derive from), which has both increased my already enormous respect for Christie's chemical knowledge and the painstaking way in which she applied that knowledge in her books, and also served as fascinating background reading and a chemistry lesson that is both fun and instructive.  I just know that this is one of the books I will come back to again and again in the future, not only when revisiting Christie's catalogue but also when reading other books (mysteries and otherwise) involving poison -- from the beginning of this read, I've had repeated flashbacks to books by other writers (and I'm gratified that Harkup hat-tips at least one of them, Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain, in her discussion of thallium, even if I'd also have liked at least a little word on the effect of the embalming procedure described Marsh); and I'm fairly certain that particularly my future mystery reads involving poisons will prompt some considerable fact-checking at the hands of A Is for Arsenic.

 

Which in turn brings us back to caveat No. 1, I suppose ... don't ever try this at home!

 

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text 2018-05-17 12:16
Reading progress update: I've read 236 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Phosphorus and Ricin -- two particularly nasty ones.  And the way she's describing the discovery of phosphorus, it sounds like something straight out of a sorcerer's lab ... byproduct of the search for the philosophers' stone.  Why stop at gold, anyway?!

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text 2018-05-14 12:58
Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

What does it say that I read the opium chapter this night, after having woken up at 4:00AM (against all habit)?

 

I can see the temptation in using Sad Cypress as the anchor book for this chapter, and I'm glad Harkup gave an unambiguous spoiler warning this time around before proceeding to give away the final twist, in order to be able to address a compound that Christie uses in this novel (and which she only mentions by name in Poirot's final round-up of the suspects).  Still, it's not like this is the only book by Christie where morphine plays a prominent role, and Harkup would have been able to do without a spoiler completely by choosing, say, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (which was likely inspired by one of the real life cases Harkup addresses anyway), discuss morphine, heroin / diamorphine and codeine exactly the way she does here, and then, without specifically identifying Sad Cypress, tag on a paragraph beginning with "In another book, the poisoner ..." -- and then proceed to describing the solution of Sad Cypress.  Ah, well.  But, as I said, at least this time around there's a clear spoiler warning ... which should absolutely be heeded by anybody who hasn't read Sad Cypress yet.

 

Notes on the previous chapters:

 

I'm now wondering whether the murderer in Ellis Peters's Monk's Hood would really have made it all the way to being found out by Brother Cadfael, a considerable time after the murder, without suffering the slightest effects of the drug himself.

 

And while I thought I couldn't possibly be more scared of both nicotine and opiates than I already am anyway, just reading about the chemistry involved all over again was a not-very-much-needed refresher of just how scary these really are.  And, um, why kicking the habit (smoking) once and for all some 20 years ago was definitely the right thing to do.

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