HAVE you ever met Lord Peter Wimsey? If, reader, you have not; if, more than that, you have yet to discover the fascination of crime detection, the thrill of the chase through pages of closely reasoned narrative, the skill that comes with practice in distinguishing clues from herrings, in outguessing criminal, detective, finally the author who calls the tune you gladly follow — then take the advice of one who has long since joined the hunt and look up the distinguished series of cases through which laird Peter has made his deceitfully easy way. They are written by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the latest, published last year, is called lhe Sine Tailors. Any one of them will initiate you into the game which, contrary to all predictions, remains constantly, however variously, popular; the game of Murder and How It Mill Out.
Two rules of the game will become apparent from a reading of these or any other classics of modern detective fiction: —
1. However shocking the crime (and to the purist no crime short of murder is allowable), the emotions called into play regard iL quite simply and coldly as x, the unknown, the problem to be solved. The criminal, you will discover, never escapes justice, but even the sense of retribution is fostered only incidentally. Once you find yourself participating in a case, you move in a world of abstract mathematical equations, however engrossing the living characters may become.
2. The successful author always plays fair; the clues which the ‘Sherlock’ of the story has to guide him are there for the reader too if he is clever enough to find them. No solution of a recommended story, by a recognized author, is incredible, and no crime is insoluble.
Have you heard otherwise? Then either the reader or the author was at fault — I am speaking, remember, of legitimate successors to Sherlock Holmes; oi Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, of Ant hony Berkeley s Roger Sheringham, Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune; of Wimsey, Philo Vance, and Ellery Queen. Thus, in The Spanish Cape Mystery (Stokes, $2.00), of and by the last-named, his customary challenge to the reader, which appears on page 312, — ‘The facts are all here at this point in the story of John Marco’s death. Can you put them together and logically place your finger on the one and only possible murderer?’ —is honorable, however difficult. As usual, the scene of the crime reveals strange and puzzling circumstances, the corpse this time appearing clad only in an enveloping cape; why was the victim undressed, and where were his clothes?
Although the logic of Ellery Queen’s deductions makes him a true descendant of Holmes, the manner in which his stories are told and the woodenness of his characters detract from the reader’s enjoyment, particularly when some narrative style is, quite naturally, expected. The mannerisms of Queen are not as irritating as those of Philo Vance, whom he rather resembles, but for genuine and entertaining eccentricity allow me to recommend M. Hercule Poirot, who in Agat ha Christie’s Death in the Air (Dodd, Mead, $2.00) uses the justly famous Tittle gray cells’ to solve the mystery of a murder that takes place on an air liner en route from Le Bourget to Croydon. Here the conditions are ideal for the amateur sleuth: one of the passengers or crew (though it may be remarked that crimes by servants are frowned on by connoisseurs) must be guilty; enough of the history of each character is given to divide suspicion among all, and even though it is unlikely that the novice’s powers will prove equal to M. Poirot’s, he has no cause to complain of his treatment from beginning to end.
Uneasy householders and enlightened citizens will be relieved to hear that the police, too, occasionally solve mysteries in fact, Rufus King’s Lieutenant of Detectives Valcour is apt to find himself, midway in a case, baffled only by the difficulty of proof. Here, as in the new ’hard-boiled’ school of criminal fiction (represented by James Cain and Dashiell Hammett), the author’s interest in realistic psychology adds depth and richness to the algebraic equations of detection. Profile of a Murder (llarcourt, Brace, $2.00) makes no attempt to keep the reader guessing up to the last page. Valcour solves the mystery of Beatrice Mundy’s death almost at once, and the inattentive or passive reader who has failed to notice obvious clues is rudely awakened on page 227 by the criminal’s calmly announced intention to commit a second murder. Nor is suspense lacking from that moment on. The writing is adequate to the plot, which is built to a climax a dramatist might envy.
The introduction of elements, psychological or otherwise, that are foreign to the central problem in detective stories — Who did it? — is still a hotly contested point. It may be traced, 1 believe, to the first woman writer of detective fiction, Anna Katharine Green, who, in The Leavenworth Case, wrote a best seller which attracted feminine as well as masculine interest. She has been followed by a long line of highly successful women writers, notably Mary Roberts Rinehart, Frances Noyes Hart, and Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, most of whom allow the love interest greater play than purists find altogether permissible. Who Hides on a Tiger (Longmans. Green, $2.00) may be read as a love story of England’s ‘bright young people,’ hut in the midst of a house party al derricks, a famous old country house near London Mrs. Belloc Lowndes introduces a murder which engages some, at least, of the deductive faculties.
Even more successful at combining mystery with romance is Mignon G. Eberhart, who excels in creating an atmosphere of shuddering horror. The House on the Roof (Doubleday, Doran, $2.00) is the latest of nine volumes whose protagonist is murder; when it is indicated that the first death occurs behind drawn curtains in a lonely penthouse, the scene is set and he who cares to run the sensational course may read.
With the notable exception of Peter Wimsey’s creator, the women who write detective fiction and some of the men should be read by those who prefer a full-blooded story, love recompensing death, to the mathematical problem of detection. But, whichever school you join, you will find yourself an eager participant in a game that invites our best and happiest minds; indeed, for acquiring odd information of endlessly miscellaneous variety, I commend you to Light Summer Murder.
MARY LOUISE ASWELL