Saturday, December 28, 2013

Vintage Mystery Recap 2013

As the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Thirteen comes to a close, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on all that we have accomplished. I refer to what we have accomplished reading-wise, of course. As usual I read more than I thought…but less than I wanted.

This year I tried something different, signing up for reading challenges. The problem with this was that instead of reading off my To Be Read Pile (an eclectic and growing monstrosity that resides both in my head as I peruse my online library catalog as well as surrounds my nightstand), I was forced under duress to choose other books according to a theme.  Although I selected challenges I thought would help me whittle down that TBRP…well, let’s just say it didn’t quite work out.

But now it’s the end of the year, and those challenges have come due! Like library books!  A sense of panic overwhelms me! Fine, I’ll just start with my Vintage Mystery reviews, which were for the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 hosted by My Reader’s Block:

The Red Box (1: Colorful Crime) - Rex Stout

Murder by candy?  And all this time you thought your dentist was exaggerating. I always judge a mystery's complexity on whether I can figure it out...because usually I'm not trying that hard to root out clues in the prose, so if even a casual reader like me can guess the solution, it's a pretty simple plot. By that standard, this is one of the simpler Nero Wolfe mysteries, but that doesn't mean it still isn't fun. You'll never see those red Valentine's Day boxes of assorted chocolates the same way again after reading this novel.

Prisoner's Base (28: Book to Movie) - Rex Stout

One of my favorite--and one of the creepier--Nero Wolfe mysteries, Prisoner's Base gets its title from a children's game that I had never heard of before reading this book. Of course Rex Stout's novel turns this "game" into something deadly. To save yourself from spoilers, don't watch the A&E adaptation until AFTER you've read the book. Then watch away.

If Death Ever Slept (16: Locked Room)s- Rex Stout

It seems like Archie Goodwin is always going undercover as someone's secretary for the sake of a case, and it turns out everyone at the company/home he is working in is just plain batty. The wealthy clan he  infiltrates in If Death Ever Slept is no exception. A tyrannical patriarch hires Nero Wolfe to "get rid of" his annoying gold-digging daughter-in-law. But because this IS a Nero Wolfe mystery, you know that it's going to end up being not a case of "paying off the gold-digger" but also a case of murder. 

Too Many Women (10: Wicked Women)- Rex Stout

A man gets run over and Wolfe is hired to find out what happened. Of course this means Archie goes undercover again, at a Wall Street office where five hundred women work--we only meet about five that are important to the plot. Archie being Archie, this means that he's hitting on pretty much all of these dames, and his character comes off kind of unpleasant as he juggles dinner-dates and flirting between several girls at once. It's one thing having Archie flit from girl to girl in the entire series; it's another to have him do it between chapters. That's one flaw in Archie's character: as has been pointed out by better critics than myself, Archie may LOVE women, but he doesn't respect them. The misogynist Nero Wolfe, by contrast, may dislike women and not understand their motives, but he always respects them.

The ABC Murders (24: A Murder by Any Other Name; this book is alternately titled "The Alphabet Murders") ~ Agatha Christie

One thing I like about Christie's novels that is usually lacking in mystery series is how she teases out small themes. At the beginning of this story, for instance, she emphasizes mortality and aging, as the great Poirot is revealed to be coloring his hair, his loyal friend Hastings' hair is  combed over, etc.  There's a nostalgia in it that, in retrospect, is actually a literary cue to the murderer's identity. I had the plot pretty much spoiled by a reference to it in an episode of "Remington Steele," so I won't say that I figured out the case by myself, and I won't do YOU the injustice of giving any more hints.   

Murder in Mesopotamia (7: World Traveler) - Agatha Christie

Unusual for an Agatha Christie mystery, I actually figured out not only whodunnit, but howdunnit.   This is a disappointment because I was really expecting this book to be more complex. Archaeology being an interest of mine, I kept wanting to know more about the "dig" where the murder takes place, but really this mystery could have taken place anywhere else. Another thing that detracted (and distracted) from my enjoyment of this book was the person who read it. I always listen to Christie's books via audio book, and the reader for this one was not very good at accents...and almost every character in this story has an accent! 
The Hollow (17: Country House Criminals) - Agatha Christie

I have rarely been as happy to have someone be the murder victim in one of these stories as I have been for Dr. John Christow. A smug philanderer, one feels more sympathy for his murderer than is probably good for the reader's moral compass. 

Christow, his vacant and doggedly devoted wife Gerda, his sculptor mistress Henrietta, and the flirty actress Veronica Cray all end up cooped up together in one of those vast and wealthy houses that are littered all over the English countryside in Christie's work.  In this instance the house belongs to the Angkatells. Before too long Christow is dead. But who did it? All three of the above name women have reason to kill him out of jealousy, and the Angkatells aren't without motive either. In fact, if Poirot were able to jump out of the book and interrogate ME, I myself would not be above suspicion, because I hated the guy.

One thing to remember when reading mysteries is Occam's Razor. Along the lines of the popular Sherlock Holmes quotation "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Occam's Razor states that the most obvious or simplest option to a problem is the solution. The more you train yourself to look at the bare facts of a mystery novel and disregard all the smoke and mirrors which the author employs to redirect you, the more often you will be accurate in your own amateur inductions. 

Five Little Pigs (8: Dangerous Beasts) - Agatha Christie

A young woman, raised by relatives, finds out just before she is to be married that her birth mother was convicted of killing her husband. Afraid that unless her mother's name is cleared her fiancé will suspect the murderous tendencies are genetic, the young woman hires Poirot. Thus Poirot begins working on a VERY cold case, narrowing the suspects to five "little pigs", people whose movements mimic the "This Little Piggie" nursery rhyme.

Agatha Christie often uses children's nursery rhymes to entitle her stories, sometimes to very haunting effect.  A Pocketful of Rye is a Miss Marple example of that, where the murderer uses that rhyme deliberately in his methods of killing. By the Pricking of My Thumbs (which is a reference to Shakespeare, but along the same titling theme), a Tommy and Tuppence mystery, does not really go beyond the title's quotation, but "something evil this way comes" really resonates in that dark and chilling tale. When it comes to Poirot, however, he just likes nursery rhymes. He often connects his current case with things like One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or the less-known (to me at least) Mrs. McGinty's Dead.

I think Christie honed in on something that horror movies and thriller television often employ nowadays: that simple, nonthreatening, and childish things that seem so ordinary are the most scary when juxtaposed with death. Childhood is as far away from the grave (especially when you are a child yourself) as you can get, so the mix of childish things with human mortality is as stark as mixing oil with water.

Murder in the Mews and other Stories (14: Scene of the Crime) - Agatha Christie

Okay I'm not going to talk about Murder in the Mews, but instead about Triangle at Rhodes, which was one of the other two stories included in this collection. Let me just say this is Christie at her most confusing (which to me is a good thing). The "triangle" of the title is a LOVE triangle, and there is Poirot watching like the voyeur he pretty much always is (since he's never a part of the love triangle himself, which I find a shame because that is something Christie never tried--although she seems to have used every other twist in the book). That said, I did figure this one out fairly early on. Perhaps it's because Poirot is so skilled at rooting out murderers even before they have committed the murder. He does the same in Death on the Nile, trying to save the murderer from themselves. However, although I was able to guess in this way who  the murderer was, I couldn't figure out how the murder was accomplished until Poirot explained it to me. 

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (4: Leave it to the Professionals) - Emmuska Orczy

Emmuska Orczy is probably most famous for her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, but here she does something different. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's much more famous Sherlock Holmes, Lady Molly is a collection of loosely linked short stories starring the Holmesian-brilliant but utterly-feminine Lady Molly and her Watsonian sidekick and maid, Mary. They solve crimes using not the deductive reasoning of most genius detectives, but feminine intuition and common sense.

Tales of Terror and Mystery (I'm gonna go with 27. Psychic Phenomena in that a lot of these short stories deal with seemingly spooky events that have a "rational explanation") by Arthur Conan Doyle

“What?” you say, “I didn’t know Doyle wrote other mysteries aside from Sherlock Holmes!” 

Well, these were forgotten for a reason. They’re not all that good, nor are they the ingeniously plotted whodunnits we’ve come to expect from the mind behind the Great Detective. Sure, there are some interesting twists (though a newfangled invention called the phonograph was probably an unexpected twist in Doyle’s time, but I saw it coming a mile away!), and Doyle as always has a special way of turning phrases that makes the reading itself not tortuous, but I wouldn’t really consider these “mysteries” in the same sense as Sherlock Holmes or any of the other novels I read for this challenge.  

The challenge was to read at least eight books, and I ended up reading eleven. I probably could have read several more (the Nero Wolfe and Poirot books aren’t all that voluminous), except I was purposely spacing them out so the mysteries wouldn’t all blend into one in my mind. To conclude, I think it’s fair to say that while I probably will avoid signing up for FIVE reading challenges next year (I have a lot of Ancient History books to read instead, sigh…..), I would probably sign up for THIS one again, since I do read a lot of mystery novels, particularly via audio book. Besides, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Christie/Stout bibliographies, and I wouldn’t mind rereading the Sherlock Holmes canon again….

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