Mystery Reading Club: Spring/Summer 2018 - The Missing Clue - April 2018

For the spring Jack has decided to be a little bit selfish and the group will be exploring the theme “Books that Jack Enjoys”:

Tuesday, April 24th – The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Tuesday, May 29th – London Rain by Nicola Upson

Tuesday, June 26th – Dark Saturday by Nicci French

We know that some non-members of the group do read the assigned titles. If you would like to have the questions that Jack writes, please let Wendy know (via email, phone, or in person). Books will be available for purchase at the store and feature a 10% discount. New members are always welcome.

Jack's Pick - Bumsted Picks of 2017 - The Missing Clue - December 2017

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

(TP, $23.00, order here)

My choice for Book of the Year is a combination of two of my favourite genres: legal and historical thrillers. Curiously enough, this book, which has no violence in it, is really a lot more exciting than 99% of the books we carry at Whodunit. It is the story of the real-life struggle between two American geniuses for control of the light and power business throughout the world. I read this book in one sitting, being unable to put it down. The legal question is a fascinating one involving how much of the construction of an electric light bulb is generic and therefore protected under Thomas Edison’s patents. I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover. I will say this though; The Last Days of Night is not just my favourite book of 2017 but one of the best books I’ve read.

Recent Women Sleuths by Jack - The Missing Clue - August 2017

Women have always been prominent among the writers of crime fiction; Agatha Christie actually had a character, Ariadne Oliver, who was a female writer that she used as a figure of fun. But apart from Christie who had several female sleuths, the remainder of the Golden Age female writers used male protagonists, often linked to females who were the secondary detectives in many of their books. In more recent times, we can find many females, sometimes cops, more often perhaps private eyes or even professionals connected to the criminal justice system.

Probably the most violent of the authors to be considered in this piece is the South African Jassy Mackenzie, whose character Jade de Jong is taught to shoot by her father beginning at age 13. There is a gap of ten years in Jade’s life, but the hint is that she has done a variety of nasty stuff and she certainly re-enters South Africa with several bangs. Not surprisingly, the villain Jade is after in Random Violence (in stock in trade paperback) has homeowners murdered so that their property can be bought at a rock bottom price. In the end, things get pretty gory.

The American writer Linda Fairstein has created a series featuring an Assistant District Attorney in New York City. Alexandra Cooper likes to keep her nose close to the ground of the cases she technically has nothing to do with. But she occasionally gets caught up in the them. Such is certainly the case in Deadfall (available to order in hardcover) when her boss gets bumped off in her arms. She has two police assistants to help her solve the case.

One of the problems with focusing on gendered authors is that husband and wife teams really mess you up, as in the case of Nicci French (aka, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). But Frieda Klein is one of my favorite sleuths, working as a psychotherapist which gives her some status in the room without quite turning her into a cop. In Dark Saturday (in stock in trade paperback), Frieda deals with an accusation of murder that has seen a young woman spend 13 years incarcerated for crimes she may or may not have committed. This book is particularly well-plotted with a surprise twist at the end.

Ann Cleeves is one of our more prolific authors. She currently has two series on the go, both now television series as well, one set in the Shetland Islands featuring Detective Jimmy Perez and another set in Northern England featuring DI Vera Stanhope. Vera is by far the more interesting creation. She is older, crankier, and more intuitive than Perez. The two victims in The Moth Catcher (in stock in trade paperback) seem to have in common only a fascination with moths, but it turns out that they have more in common than one might expect. As usual, Vera plunges ahead to come up with a most unlikely solution to a very complicated case.

Margaret Maron began her crime writing career with a series starring a New York Police detective, Sigrid Harald. Sigrid was quirky enough, her boyfriend was a successful artist more than twice her age. At some point in the series Maron moves into the South and shifts her locale and her protagonist. Personally, I always regretted the shift since I found that Judge Deborah Knott was much less interesting than the quirky New York cop that had preceded her. Maron has returned to Sigrid for one last hurrah in Take Out (in stock in hardcover). The famous artist boyfriend is dead (auto accident), leaving Sigrid as executor of his estate. This one has an interesting method of killing: two homeless men are given a free meal which turns out to be dosed with Warfarin. The case leads Sigrid into the thickets of a small New York City neighbourhood which features the widow of a mobster who lives next door to his mistress. It only gets more complicated from there.

Rhys Bowen has specialized for many years in “soft” crime fiction. She set a number of cases in the Highlands of Scotland, but more recently has been extremely successful with her Her Royal Spyness, featuring Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, an impecunious member of the Royal Family who moves from one job to another in her search for steady employment. In Crowned and Dangerous (in stock in mass market), the latest installment of this very popular series, Lady Georgiana is in the process of eloping with her Irish Catholic boyfriend when the couple is brought up short by the information that Darcy’s father is suspected of murder. Elopement is put on hold while they solve the mystery and away we go!

The Missing Clue - February 2017 - Crossover Crime Fiction by Jack

When you think about the contents of the Whodunit Mystery Bookstore, there are two possible ways of looking at it: one is that it’s a specialty bookstore with a very limited range of books, the other is that it is a specialty bookstore with an extremely wide range of books, stretching from Agatha Christie-type whodunits to cookie baker cozies to Sherlock Holmes to great spy novels to books set in about 50 different countries to steam punk and beyond. As co-proprietor, I choose to think of the store in its latter conceptualization. Moreover, the shop features an interesting assortment of “crossover” titles that defy easy categorization. In this category, I would put a fairly substantial number of books that involve fantasy elements about crime detection. The sort of books I mean are mainly British in origin; the Americans don’t need any fantasy about FF since they have Donald Trump.

For the most part the typical fantasy book involves a large dose of magic. Take Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, for example. Adams made his international reputation with his space fantasy series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but followed this success with a detective series featuring Dirk Gently. The second volume of Gently, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, opens with the mysterious explosion of an airline ticket kiosk and follows the adventures of several elderly gods through the British private healthcare system, with all sorts of zany blackouts owing much to Monty Python along the way. We’ve got The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul in stock in new trade paperback and book #1 in the series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, on order. Netflix’s dramatization of the series is available on, where else, Netflix in an initial 5 episode season.

There are robots. Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill stars the World’s last robot, Raymond Electromatic, formerly a private eye and now a hit man for hire. One day a beautiful young woman appears in his office with a bagful of gold bars and a job. He and his controller, a compute named Ada, are off and running in sixties Hollywood. We’ve got the book in stock in hardcover in new. Book #2, Killing is My Business, comes in hardcover in July.

Then there is George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, a steampunk novel set in 19th-century London. The main task at hand it the investigation of the crash of an automated airship, although there are also strangulations by a mysterious bobby and a plague of zombies that must be resolved. There are four books in the series thus far and we’ve got them all in stock in new trade paperback. Book #5 comes in hardcover in January 2018.

I am personally very fond of police procedurals investigated by special units devoted to paranormal goings-on. These are always British. Perhaps the best illustration of this sub-genre is by Ben Aaronovitch. The first in a series of books by Aaronovitch is called Midnight Riot (or Rivers of London, in the UK, we have had both in stock) and features PC Peter Grant with the assistance of Lesley May who have been co-opted to the Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, a Scotland Yard unit also known as ‘The Folly’ headed by a wizard named Inspector Thomas Nightingale. The Folly is one of a number of fictional British crime units in these kinds of books devoted to the supernatural. Grant is a biracial young constable with magical capabilities who has come to the Force’s attention by successfully interviewing a ghost. This act sets off a series of actions and incredible events which stretch across six books and two graphic novels (i.e. expensive comic books). We’ve got all six books in stock in new mass market, The Hanging Tree (book #7) is on the way also in mass market, and the graphic novels in stock too.

After Aaronovitch comes Charles Stross, who has written eight novels in the ‘Laundry’ series. The Laundry is a British government agency along the lines of MI5 or MI6 which specializes in the paranormal. Stross has gotten more ambitious as he has gone along and his latest effort The Nightmare Stacks involves an invasion (called here an intrusion) into the British countryside around Leeds by a small army of extraterrestrials. We don’t currently have any in stock, but can order the first six titles in the series in mass market and The Nightmare Stacks in hardcover.

Guy Adams’ novel The Clown Service – that is what his British government agency consisting of one old man and a younger assistant recently sent there is nicknamed– also deals with the paranormal. So far there are three novels (also The Rain Soaked Bride and A Few Words for the Dead) and undoubtedly more will follow. We’ve got all three in stock in new trade paperback.

A recent entrant into this world of paranormal crime detection is Oscar de Muriel The Strings of Murder which is set in 1888 Edinburgh and features a Scotland Yard Inspector investigating under the cover of a made-up department specializing in the paranormal. We’ve got this first book in the series in new trade paperback. Books #2 and #3 seem to be coming this spring.

Saving the best for last: the master of modern fantasy is the recently deceased Terry Pratchett. One of his best novels of crime investigation is The Hogfather. The main crime is the kidnapping of a figure much like Santa Claus. His disappearance leaves a gaping hole in the world of belief which is very hard to fill. An enlarged tooth fairy just doesn’t hack it. The major investigator is Death’s granddaughter, a gal who is very handy with a frying pan to battle creatures under the bed of the children she looks after. We’ve got a copy in stock in new mass market. We can also recommend the film adaptation, available on DVD, starring Michelle Dockery of Downtown Abbey fame as Susan, Death’s granddaughter.

Fantasy really requires no more suspension of belief than sf novels about space travel. Try it sometime.

The Missing Clue - December 2016 - Bumsted Picks of 2016 - Jack's Pick

The Crossing by Michael Connelly
(MM, $12.99, order here)

I have read Michael Connelly books in the past, but have enjoyed none so much as his most recent mass market The Crossing. It is technically the 20th ‘Harry Bosch’ novel, but it also features the main character from Connelly’s other main series, Mickey Haller. The book is somewhat violent, featuring multiple murders over several days, and the timeline of the story is quite short. You need not have read any other books in either series to enjoy The Crossing, although you may find yourself, like me, searching for the other crossover titles in both series. This is a relatively easy read, so perfect for vacation or plane travel. Overall, I found it very well plotted, very exciting, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

For those who are already familiar and caught up with Connelly, ‘Harry Bosch’ #21 The Wrong Side of Goodbye came out in hardcover in November (in stock, reserve here). The TV series based on that character, Bosch, is available it was on the local Global channel and is now available on Crave TV. There are currently two series, with a third on the way.

The Missing Clue - October 2016 - Jack on Television by Jack

One of the things that my change in situation has led to is my increased consumption of television serials. While I have been slowly reluctant to embrace the new technologies of digital television, I have tried a large number of series of late. For those who are interested in finding new series, whether they be on screen or in book form, (or perhaps both), I have compiled a list of some of the notable ones that we have in the store.

Longmire (Netflix, iTunes, Google Play)

Longmire is based on Craig Johnson‘s thirteen book series, which follows a character of same name in his work as a sheriff in present day Wyoming.

When I was 9 years old, I used to cadge a quarter from my mother and take it to the motion picture emporium, which on Saturday afternoon had an afternoon’s worth of motion pictures, including two serials, a half dozen cartoons, and the main feature. When I watched the version of Longmire recently, I was struck by how little had changed. The cowboys no longer rode on horseback, but the pickup trucks came pretty close on. Sherriff Longmire wore a star on his shirt and a holstered gun at his hip, in fact, the most impressive feature of Longmire was the guns, which do not seem to have changed much in 70 years.

Longmire is a violent series, one that has recently changed from being on A&E to being on Netflix. As books, they are relatively short, punchy narratives that move straightforwardly and quickly from beginning to end. If you are looking for a dependable, modern cowboy narrative, then this may be one for you to try.

IN STORE: Craig Johnson’s ‘Longmire’ series, Books #1-2, 4-9, and 11 are in store. #3, 10, 12, and 13 available to order.

Endeavour (PBS, iTunes, Google Play)

Colin Dexter wrote fourteen Morse titles, in which his aged, and aging inspector thwarted crime all around Oxfordshire. Made even more popular with the long-running TV adaptations starring John Thaw as Morse, Endeavour is a prequel series in which we see Morse not as the Inspector in full command of his powers, but as a freshly minted detective constable.

Endeavour is a TV series based upon the Colin Dexter books of twenty years ago. Basically, it fills in the gaps between Inspector Morse’s early life and his later one. It is set in Cambridge in the 60s. This new series is quite competently done, although it lacks something of the original Morse, chiefly, John Thaw as a much more curmudgeonly detective.

While there are no book adaptations of the Endeavour scripts (nor, for the original Morse spinoff Lewis), Dexter remains a much loved author at WhoDunit? and the whole series is now back in print and available.

In Store: Colin Dexter’s ‘Inspector Morse’ series, Books #3-4, 6-14 in store, #1-2, 5 on order.

Bosch (Crave TV)

Before The Lincoln Lawyer put Michael Connelly on the radar of the world at large, he was already a best-selling, award winning author for his jazz loving, anti-authoritarian Hollywood detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

Bosch, which is the Amazon Studio series based on the character (who, in Hollywood fashion, lives in a house paid for by his work as advisor on a TV series based on his own life), is a bit of a timeline nightmare for those who are faithful followers of the series. Each season so far has taken inspiration for three or more separate titles in the series, and has interwoven them into something new.

Titus Welliver, who portrays Harry, does so with the same quiet intensity and semi-concealed power of the character in the novels. However, the mixing of the narratives that make up the original book series makes long-time fans like myself (Jack), have some trouble following along. It is probably best to simply read all the books (there are now 21). Still available in paperbacks, the Michael Connelly’s show that the art of the great American detective novel is not dead, and that it can still be chilling and effective in the right hands.

In store: Michael Connelly’s ‘Harry Bosch’ series, Books #6, 7, 9, 15, 16 available in store, #20 (Oct 25th) and 21 (Nov 1st) on order, rest available to order.


Based on the prolific work of French author Georges Simenon (more than seventy-five novels, which Penguin is slowly reissuing in paperback), the most recent English rendition of the character is something of a surprising one, as it features Mr Bean/Blackadder star, Rowan Atkinson, as the titular character, Maigret. So far two 2 hour programmes have been released in North America. The first, ‘Maigret Sets A Trap’, is based on the novel of same name. The second is ‘Maigret and the Dead Man’ due for release around Christmas. Atkinson, who may at first seem a strange choice for such a character, nevertheless seems to have the one ability which makes Maigret exceptional, the ability to see through his suspects to discover their flaws. I liked particularly the psychological emphasis placed on the solving of the cases.

The novels, which Simenon first started publishing in 1931, have little bearing on one another, save for featuring the Marchel Guillaume inspired detective, his loyal wife, and his loyal colleagues. Brief, pithy novels which evoke a strong sense of France at the time, they go well in any sequence, and can be found with nearly any combination of crime and theme.

In Store: 8 titles in stock, mixed between new and used. Check our webstore, call, or visit if you’re looking for a specific title.

Homeland (Netflix)

While Homeland has existed in the television world for some time, (being itself based on an earlier Israeli series ‘Prisoners of War’), the popular, American version has relevance to WhoDunit? as it has supplied us with a number of spinoff novels.

Set in the present day, and featuring powerful performances by an all-star cast, Homeland is a suspenseful, sexual, and complicated series which shows the difficulties in intelligence gathering, the horrors created by the modern political climate, and the powers and stigma which come from, and can be attached to the mentally ill. Andrew Kaplan, himself a reasonably successful spy author, has written two spin-offs novels to help fill in some of the character’s backstory, Homeland: Carrie’s Run and Homeland: Saul’s Game.

In what I am told is standard HBO style, nudity, violence, and profanity is frequently on display in the TV series. For those who prefer their murder in a slightly more serene, safe setting, the following series may serve a better fit.

In store: both titles available to order.

Father Brown (Netflix, Acorn TV, iTunes, Google Play)

Another revival of a classic series, Father Brown is based on G.K. Chesterton’s books following the English Roman Catholic priest. The new series, which places Father Brown in the 1950s, is loosely based on some of the original, early twentieth century tales written by Chesteron, but ensconces the priest in a single landscape, rather than the changing locations of the cannon. More interested in the soul than the earthly nature of the crimes he is investigating, Brown finds himself at occasional odds, and with convenient foils, in the succession of inspectors that he comes into contact with.

While the original texts truly are of a different time, this “updated” Father Brown nevertheless evokes the feel and nature of post-war Britain. Intended for the daytime BBC TV crowd, it is a relatively peaceful, pleasant place to visit, if not the most thrilling update of an early twentieth century work.

In Store: G.K Chesteron’s ‘Father Brown’ series, Books #4 and 5 available in store, the rest available to order (Michael loves a challenge).

Sherlock (Netflix, iTunes, Google Play)

In terms of the magnified possibilities of what an update can do to a character, the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is our present day gold standard. With ably done modernisations of the original narratives, and an overarching structure that helps to fit the Consulting Detective (and his more able sidekick Dr Watson, played by Martin Freeman) into the twenty-first century, the smash hit of this article is this BBC update.

Now moving into a fourth and fifth go around, the three series (and Christmas special) to date have so far hit many of Doyle’s own greatest fictions, and will presumably now shift to dealing with some of his latter day fare. I (Jack), as previously mentioned here, find these particular shows to be too full of flashes and montages to deliver a clear narrative, and find the frenetic pace of the dialogue difficult to follow. The characters themselves, however, are well cast, which I must admit I do not always find to be the case.

However, the original cannon, and the many pastiches based upon it are always available in store. And, should you be interested in reading more by this particular group of adapters Mark Gatiss, who plays Mycroft and has co-written a number of the original episodes, has his own short series of mysteries featuring a character called Lucifer Box.

In Store: Check our webstore, call, or visit if you’re looking for a specific title. Every Bumsted has their favourite.

Shetland (Netflix, iTunes, Google Play)

Finally, in terms of odd casting choices, Ann Cleeves Shetland is one of the most glaring. Her Jimmy Perez character, who in text is a large man with wild dark hair, is not really anything like Douglas Henshall, the actor who portrays him, in appearance. Despite that, the series, which to this point has followed the books with reasonable faithfulness to this point, does nonetheless evoke the beauty and solitude of the Scottish archipelago.

Ann Cleeves other series, featuring Vera Stanhope, is also being given the same treatment on television. Both series, as well as a photo-essay book featuring Shetland as the main character itself, are all available in the store.

In Store: Ann Cleeves ‘Shetland’ series, Book #4 in store, #1, 2, 3, and 7 (November 3rd) on order. #5 and 6 available to order.

The Missing Clue - August 2016 - Lecture - Crime Fiction in the British Empire by Jack

(Originally presented on December 3rd, 2008)


As is usually the case with such matters, the British Empire works in a variety of ways in mystery fiction. It serves (1) to provide authors, both in Britain in the classic period and in Canada since World War II; (2) to provide characters; (3) to facilitate plots, chiefly by allowing people to be not whom they seem; (4) it provides exotic settings. Let us turn to each of these in turn.


There are five authors in the early history of British mystery fiction who were born in or brought up in the “colonies:” Rudyard Kipling, Grant Allan, Robert Barr, Ngaio Marsh, and Leslie Charteris.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in Bombay, the son of John Lockwood Kipling, the principal later of the School of Art at Lahore and Alice Macdonald, sister of a Methodist minister named Frederic Macdonald. There is a tendency to think of Anglo-Indians as British nobodies but that was certainly not true of the Kiplings. Lockwood was a distinguished artist (sculptor and pottery designer) , educator, and scholar. One of his wife’s sisters married Edward Burne-Jones, the distinguished pre-Raphaelite painter and friend of William Morris; another married Edward Poynter, a president of the Royal Academy; and a third married a wealthy ironmaster and became the mother of Stanley Baldwin, a British Prime Minister. So Kipling had close family connections into the world of Victorian high art, and a cousin who was prime minister of Great Britain. Like many Brits, Lockwood had gone to India because he was offered a better-paying job at an earlier age than he would have received at home. Young Ruddy came from an artistic background and was brought up among artists. He was educated at the United Services College, which he would make famous in Stalkey and Company as “Westward Ho.” We do not normally think of Kipling as a mystery writer, but in his time he was associated with writers like H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan who wrote adventure stories, and certainly Kim was, among other things, a very fine novel about the espionage side of the “Great Game in Asia.” A number of Kipling’s better stories have mystery overtones, such as “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,” which explains why a British regiment in India breaks before the enemy, and the better-known “The Man Who Would be King,” which is framed in the first person by the narrator, who may well be Kipling himself. Kipling was one the great imperialist writers in the age of imperialism, particularly noted for his verse.

Grant Allan (1848-1899) was born in near Kingston, Canada West. He was privately educated in Canada before entering Merton College, Oxford. He then went on to teach at a school for black students in Jamaica (1873-6) before returning to England to earn a precarious income as a freelance writer. In the course of his career he published more than forty novels and short-story collections, as well as an enormous volume of journalism and non-fiction (including a study of Charles Darwin and The Evolution of the Idea of God). His last work, being serialized in The Strand Magazine at the time of his death, was completed by his close friend Arthur Conan Doyle. Allan’s most famous (or notorious) novel was entitled The Woman Who Did (1895). And what did she do? Well, she insisted on having a love affair and a child without marriage and living happily ever after. Many of his novels and short-stories were criminous or mysterious, although he is remembered mainly for one book, which is frequently anthologized: An African Millionaire: episodes in the life of the illustrious Colonel Clay (1897). This collection of short-stories featured a confidence trickster, master of disguise and legerdermain named Colonel Clay, who was “the first great thief of short mystery fiction”, anticipating by several years E. W. Hornung’s Raffles.

Robert Barr (1850-1912) was born in Glasgow, but was brought to Canada by his family at the age of 4, growing up near Windsor. After an early career as a school teacher he entered journalism, then removed to England to become a journal editor and writer. With Jerome K. Jerome (the “three men in a boat” man), he established The Idler in 1892, which published Stephen Carne, George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Conan Doyle. Many of his short stories were mysterious; his first collection of stories was entitled Strange Happenings. (1883). His major contribution was a collection of short stories published in 1906, entitled The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont. Valmont was a French detective who narrated his tales in the first person and has often been taken as the model for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I think myself that Hercule is more the product of an author who wanted a detective as far removed from Sherlock Holmes as it was possible to get. Make him a Frenchman, give him a funny name (Hercule is obviously not Hercules), and set him going. But Barr’s Valmont stuff, especially a very well-known piece entitled “The Absent-Minded Coterie,” is often anthologized.

Leslie Charteris was born in Singapore in 1907 as Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, of mixed-blood parentage -- his father was a Chinese physician, his mother an Englishwoman. He was never quite regarded as “pukka” at the English public schools he attended, nor at Cambridge. Like many a mystery story writer, he bummed around a lot and was educated mainly in the school of life. Not surprisingly, he created the greatest of the Robin Hood figures in the person of Simon Templar, “the Saint.” Templar had more than a forty-year run in almost as many novels, and was made several times into a TV and film character. His best known interpreter was Roger Moore. One can hardly help but see Templar, a suave debonair character of no known background but able to pass as a gentleman in the best of British company, as a fantasy projection of his author, much as James Bond was a fantasy projection of Ian Fleming. Templar specializes in rescuing damsels in distress, and in creating vastly elaborate schemes of retribution against gangsters and especially respectable criminals who would otherwise escape scot-free from justice.

Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) is somewhat different than the previous four, and not just in that she is not a male. Ngaio (it is pronounced “Ny-o”) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand to English emigrant parents. She was educated in New Zealand at St. Margaret’s College and made her first trip to England in 1928. She ran an interior decoration shop, and with her hair bobbed, she worked as a mannequin. She published her first mystery novel in 1934, introducing the detective characters that would remain with her for the remainder of a career that spanned nearly fifty years: Inspector Roderick Alleyn, assisted by Brer Fox and various other Scotland Yard types. While the previous writers all emigrated to Britain and settled there, Marsh returned home to New Zealand in the mid-1930s and remained there, where she concentrated on creating an English country garden around the family house, directing a student theatrical company of Canterbury College in Shakespeare, and labouriously drafting out in longhand most of the more than 30 novels she wrote featuring Roderick Alleyn. Marsh was one of the younger members of the “Queens of Crime,” women detective writers who remade the British detective novels in the interwar period. Like her compatriot Queens (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Heyer, Mitchell, and Tey), she was a liberated woman who smoked and lived a thoroughly independent life. She never married, never had children, and at least one biographer claims she was a lesbian. Not only did Marsh spend most of her life in New Zealand (with regular trips to England to refresh the old ambiance), but was one of the first major British mystery writers to set her books outside England. A number of her works, beginning with Colour Scheme (1942) were set in New Zealand, where Inspector Alleyn had ended up engaged in counterespionage during the Second World War Like most of the Queens, Marsh not only created a fictional detective and entourages, but a romantic interest which ripens to marriage in the person of the artist Agatha Troy. She does not accompany her husband to New Zealand and is not in any of the New Zealand novels. Marsh stuck to closed environments in her New Zealand fiction, setting one novel in a spa, another on a sheep farm, and a third in a New Zealand theatre among a visiting touring company from England. Marsh also created a fascinating portrait of a leader of Post-colonial Africa and his entourage at his country’s London embassy in Black as He’s Painted (1974). The African president (nicknamed “The Boomer”) had been to school with Inspector Alleyn, which explains how he gets assigned to protect him from a threatened assassination. In most of Marsh’s work, the setting is better realized than is the detection. Marsh novels tend to have long lead ups to the murder in which some rather nice social description provides a nuanced view of upper middle class and artsy society in both England and New Zealand. Most critics agree that the novels tend to stultify when Inspector Alleyn finally has to detect. Marsh was proud of her versimilitude. She read extensively in crime literature and was proud of getting things right. But whether many real Scotland Yard detectives allowed their wives to become involved in their cases is another matter. And it should be added that the Alleyn TV series is, in my view, one of the least well-realised efforts of British television. You always know you’re in trouble when the period of the show is different from that of the novel.

While the colonial writer in England was a fairly common phenomenon in the days of empire, it is now happens considerably less often. About the only recent mystery writer I could think of who was born in the colonies is Gillian Slovo, who was born in South Africa to marxist radical parents and who writes some of the best feminist mystery stuff around today.

I don’t want to say much about the reverse process with authors, by which Britain supplies the colonies with some of its best writers, because it tends to be a post World War II phenomenon and technically post-imperial (if not post-colonial). But just to remind you, a number of Canada’s best mystery writers come from the British Isles. Names include Eric Wright, John Brady, Peter Robinson, Matthew Quogan, Shaun Herron (who actually lived in Manitoba and wrote spy thrillers about a retired spy named Miro), and Sara Woods. With the exception of Eric Wright, whose Toronto detective Charlie Salter was an inspired piece of Canadiana, and Matthew Quogan, the rest of these guys and gals wrote most of the time as though Canada never existed. They resolutely continued to set their books in the old country. John Brady writes about contemporary Ireland, Peter Robinson about the contemporary North of England territory, Herron about an international spy world often centered in Ireland, and Woods about a sort-of contemporary barrister living in London. A few Canadian authors such as Norah Kelly also set their books in Britain, so I guess turnabout is fair play.

As far as character development is concerned, the empire contributes only a fairly narrow range of stock characters. One is the “Buchaneer,” the type of hero usually associated with the writing of John Buchan. Many people associate Buchan’s writing with the empire, but in truth most of his adventure and spy fiction (especially that involving Richard Hannay) is set in Europe during and after World War I. Nevertheless, Hannay himself was the classic Buchaneer: tall, clear-eyed, bronzed, a perfect specimen of mankind who had kept himself fit on the veldt of Africa. Thanks to Buchan and H. Rider Haggard, heroes who come from the colonies almost always hail from South Africa. Agatha Christie produced a similar specimen in The Secret of Chimneys (1925). Anthony Cade -- with his “tall lean figure, his sun-tanned face, and [his] light-hearted manner” leaves the tour he was guiding in South Africa and returns to England to substitute for a friend. Before the novel is over it transpires that Cade is really the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia, who has escaped his country’s dynastic turmoil by retreating into the anonymity of the British colonies. Christie did produce a non-South African colonial hero in Murder is Easy (1939). Luke Fitzwilliam has recently retired as a police inspector somewhere in Asia. She also produced a Buchaneering heroine in Anne Beddingford, star of The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), which was Christie’s third novel. Africa figures in this book, only in reverse. Instead of coming from Africa, one goes to Africa. Anne uses a small inheritance from her archaeologist father to pursue villainy to the diamond mines of South Africa. She is easily one of Christie’s most liberated women, at least at the beginning, although she ends up marrying a rich young man and moving to Rhodesia.

More than heroes and heroines, however, the empire produces villains. Nearly half of the first 25 Sherlock Holmes stories feature colonial villains of one sort or another. Some come back from the colonies with their ill-gotten gains to settle into respectability, and others follow them to England to wreak a terrible revenge for the way they had been treated earlier on. Often there is a gang of conspirators sworn to vengeance. The other stock ex-colonial villain in the Holmes stories is the cruel older man who has obviously had his morality buds excised through his years abroad dealing with colonials. Often these villains are ex-officers, usually from India. They often emotionally abuse females and in some cases threaten them with physical violence. The evil ex-Indian army man is a stock villain in mystery fiction between the wars. He makes an appearance in Georgette Heyer’s first book, Footsteps in the Dark, in the person of Colonel Ackerly. When Ackerly is exposed at the end of the book, he asks the young detective “how did you guess my identity?” The answer is, “When a man of your stamp is seen to be on terms of apparent intimacy with the local publican, one is apt to draw unwelcome conclusions.”

The Empire also produces plot devices. The early mystery story frequently used the colonies (particularly Australia and Canada) as a place from which people (often wealthy) returned to England who were not known to anyone in the old country. They could pass as somebody else. Their bodies also could be misidentified and could be given other names at will. One of the most common plot devices in the early mystery is the live impersonation, but only just behind it is the impersonation of dead bodies, which are passed off as somebody else. A couple of examples of this convoluted impersonation stuff will suffice. In Christie’s Murder on the Links, the victim is an accused murder of 20 odd years earlier, who has assumed a new identity (as a Canadian) and plans his own false death to escape a blackmailer. In Dame Agatha’s Dead Man’s Folly, the murderer impersonates a rich businessman in order to live as an outsider in his familial property, using the money generated by his wife, who is impersonating a rich Caribbean heiress. In Christie’s The Clocks, the second wife impersonates the first wife in order to inherit a Canadian fortune, and the murder is simply to prevent someone knowledgeable from identifying the imposture. The second wife simply uses all of the documents of the first (deceased) wife, and is never checked up on in the Canadian legal process. Christie obviously didn’t think the Canadian legal process was very thorough. Finally, the colonies were a place to which scapegraces and other criminals could escape instead of bringing brought to justice. The murderer in Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, another tale in which the corpse impersonates somebody else, in the end escapes to the colonies, leaving a note behind tying up all the loose ends.

But mostly what the Empire does is to provide some splendid settings and some splendid characters to people them. Few of the mystery books and series about exotic locations in the British Empire are produced by natives or even long-term residents of that location. Most are by professional British writers, usually writing from Britain. With the exception of the earliest, all are police procedurals, focusing on policemen in various corners of the world doing their jobs under semi-realistic circumstances.

One of the earliest and most interesting is “November Joe,” the detective in a book of short stories of the same name by Englishman H. Hesketh Prichard (1876-1922). Prichard wrote extensively on sports and the outdoors. He had a serious heart defect (a wonky valve) and like many of his era preferred to ignore it in favour of the active life. He travelled extensively, big-game hunting in Africa and small game hunting in Canada. Joe is a Canadian woodsman, possibly of mixed blood, who helps the Quebec police investigate crimes in the province’s backwoods wilderness. As the author points out, “The specialty of a Sherlock Holmes is the everyday routine of a woodsman. Observation and deduction are part and parcel of his daily existence. He literally reads as he runs. The floor of the forest is his page.” So Joe uses woodcraft in imitation of Baker Street in order to solve his cases. In “The Murder at the Duck Club,” Joe deduces from the absence of footprints that the killer has used a canoe, and from his knowledge of shotguns and shotgun cartridges the identity of the killer, who is an Indian squaw seeking revenge for the earlier death of her son, sentenced to prison by the victim. Joe concludes this story: “I guess our civilized justice does seem wonderful topsy-turvy to them Indians sometimes,” he said.

Another interesting setting is provided by Elspeth Huxley, who wrote three mystery novels in the 1930s set in Chania, a thinly-disguised Rhodesia. The sleuth is a former Mountie named Vachell. He is perhaps the first Canadian-born series detective, since he stars in all three books. Murder at Government House describes the murder of the colonial governor in his residence in the colonial capital. The reader learns a good deal about how the British governed their third-world colonies. The capital city, with a few brief sentences omitted, could have passed for any European city anywhere in the world, however. The few sentences, of course, acknowledge the existence of a huge black community. In The African Poison Murders Vachell has to deal with a Mau-Mau type of black uprising in a rural district of white farmers, within which white people murder one another and try to blame it on the rebels. In Murder on Safari, Vachell goes on a big-game hunting safari to try to solve a jewel robbery and eventually a series of murders. This one features another one of those rare liberated women. Chris Davis is a pilot and hunter who can read the spoor of an elephant and knows more about the flora and fauna than almost anyone on the safari except the chief hunter. Once again the author spoils it, however, ending up treating Chris as the love interest and concluding the book with a promise of romance.

Arthur W. Upfield was an Englishman who emigrated to Australia. In the later years of his life during the 1940s and 1950s he wrote a series of mystery novels set in Australia featuring the mixed-blood detective Napolean Bonaparte (better known as “Boney”). The Upfield novels are almost invariably set in the Australian outback, and offered many a reader (this party included) one of their rare views of this part of Australia. The outback is hot, dry, and distinctly underpopulated. Boney is the son of a white man and an aboriginal woman. He has November Joe’s outdoorsman’s lore -- he is one of the best “trackers” in all of Australia -- but he also has access to all of the “magic medicine” of his people, which he often uses in order to solve the crime and/or catch the criminal. There are a lot of out-of-body experiences in Upfield novels. They are impossible to obtain new in bookstores and virtually the only copies now held by the Winnipeg Public Library are large-print editions done in the 1980s. They occasionally turn up at garage sales or in used bookstores.

H.R.F. Keating’s novels about Inspector Ghote (pronounced Go-tay) of the Bombay Police in India are interesting simply in terms of their genesis. Like most of the authors I am discussing (and a good many more who set their work in unusual foreign locations), Keating was a Brit, actually an Anglo-Irishman born and educated in Dublin before moving to London to become a journalist and writer. Keating wrote the first novel about Ghote in 1963. He was an experienced mystery writer whose specialty was the use of unusual, even exotic, locations. He had never been to India, however, and so his Indian background was based entirely on research he had done at his local library. The novel was intended as a one-off. The Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder won several major mystery prizes, including the Gold Dagger and an Edgar Allan Poe award in the United States. And so Ghote had an unexpected lease on life. Keating had completed a number of novels and short stories about Ghote before he finally got to visit India in 1974. He made some mistakes, but most of them were on cultural details that he might have got wrong even had he been in permanent residence in India. He has written that he did not have to correct his previous images of Bombay and India very much after seeing it all in person. “Everything was more than I had believed. The colours were brighter. The clamour was louder. The rich were richer. The poor were, yes, poorer and occasionally more outwardly wretched than I had been able to conceive of.” But the India of his imagination held up pretty well. One change he made was to the police department environment, based upon visits there. Ghote lost his old scratched-up desk and acquired a glass-topped one, for the Bombay police worked in more modern quarters than Keating had imagined. You either like Ghote or you don’t. I am one of the don’ts. I sense that both he and his characters are larger than life caricatured Indians, subtly different than the one written about by authors like Rohinton Mistry. I have some difficulty knowing when Keating is trying to be amusing and when he is not. I also don’t like the constant interior monologues which Ghote carries on with himself -- he has no colleagues to discuss his cases with. But nobody else writes police procedural detective stories set in India. I find it curious than no native Indian (or ex-Indian) writer has had a go at the genre, but I don’t know of anybody. To my mind Keating’s less successful books often send Ghote abroad -- to London, to the United States -- where the cultural conflicts become very stereotyped.

William Marshall is another Brit who spent a lot of time in Asia. He has used two Asian locations for mystery fiction: the Phillippines and Hong Kong. The Chinese city appears as the location for a series of police procedurals. Marshall has created an imaginary precinct (Hong Bay) and an imaginary precinct house (Yellowthread Street station), which he has peopled with an international collection of policemen who all work in Hong Kong. Most of the police detectives and specialist staff (the pathologists, the coroner) are British, although Christopher O’Yee is of Irish-Chinese ancestry educated in the United States. The lower rank cops are mainly Chinese. This is apparently very accurate, at least for Hong Kong before 30 June 1997. The Yellowthread Street stories are modern police procedurals strongly influenced by Ed McBain. Unlike the traditional procedural, which follows the investigators attempting to solve a crime (the classic procedural is Freeman Willis Croft’s Inspector French stories of the 1920s and 1930s, and Vachell, Boney, and Ghote, as well as several cops I haven’t yet discussed), the new style follows a precinct or a station house, where the detectives work on a variety of cases simultaneously. This format was successfully used by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct novels and imitated by many others, including Dell Shannon. The approach works very well in polyglot Hong Kong. The detectives are multilingual, speaking English and Cantonese, occasionally English and Mandarin. The criminals are usually not Europeans, but Chinese or Hong Kongers. Marshall has a macabre sense of humour, and he often writes in a vein of black comedy. This series is not easy to get, although the WPL has copies of most it in various branches. Nor is it for everybody, but it is wonderful.

South Africa has given us two series. One, by James McClure, features an Africaner detective, Tromp Kramer and his black Bantu assistant, Sergeant Zondi. Writing about South Africa, of course, is always controversial, especially in the days of Apartheid. McClure is originally a South African, although the books are written from England. There has been much criticism of this series, claiming in the words of one literary commentator, it “gives a frozen and ultimately unrealistic picture of social reality” in South Africa, communicating a sense of stability not ordinarily observable. It is certainly true that McClure does not write about the black communities or about police activities in them or in defense of apartheid. There is no riot control in McClure’s books, for example. At best, the author tries to embody the liberal hopes for slow evolutionary change. His is the voice of privilege, and he cannot speak for the black majority in a repressive system. Only the white victims embody the particular social pathologies of South Africa’s system, although the antipathy of English and Boers is a constant chorus in the books. The blacks are both seen and unseen, often part of the anti world of non-gentility. Zondi is said to have bought into the system, which of course affirms apartheid. The series was extremely popular in South Africa in the white communities.

The other series, only two books long, is by Englishman Tom Sharpe, who emigrated to South Africa in 1951. The books are entitled Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. Sharpe was a social worker, a teacher, and a photographer in Natal, before he was deported from the country for his criticism of the regime. Like McClure, Sharpe writes of the Afrikaaner police force in a town called Piemberg, obviously the Pietermaritzburg where he lived for some years. His detective is Kommandant Van Heerden, the town’s chief of police, assisted by Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els. Van Heerden was an anglophile, while Verkramp hated the English and Els the blacks. “His natural aptitude for violence and particularly for shooting black people was only equalled by his taste for brandy and his predilection for forcing the less attractive parts of his person into those parts of African women legally reserved for male members of their own race.” But Els had his virtues, one of which was his ability to operate “the electrical-therapy machine which had proved such a boon in extracting confessions from suspects.” Sharpe’s Afrikaaners are caricatures. They are not very bright, narrow-minded, and repressive. In Riotous Assembly this collection of cops are summoned to Jacaranda House, the ancestral home of Judge Hazelstone, an Anglo judge who had advocated flogging for parking offences. [read pages 16-18] It does turn out to be a difficult case. Miss Hazelstone not only insisted that she had shot her Zulu cook, but that he was her lover in a variety of forms of kinky sex and the motive for the shooting had been jealousy. [read 25 ff.] The plot gets very convoluted, and Konstable Els is in the middle of what becomes for Sharpe in later novels a typical situation of total mayhem. In Indecent Exposure, Sharpe allows the Kommandant, who was told at the end of the previous book he had been given in a heart transplant the heart of Miss Hazelstone’s clergyman brother, to become involved with a group of English who call themselves the “Dornford Yates Club.” Dornford Yates wrote a series of criminous stories between the wars about the “clubland”set, and Sharpe builds a literary satire into his larger political one. There are many strands to the plot. One involves efforts by the police to identify those within their ranks who would be susceptible to Communist infiltration (in South Africa, any critic of the regime was a Communist). [read 33-35.] Sharpe is a satirist who specializes in vaguely or sometimes explicitly off-colour humour, and these books are full of it. In the end, the reader senses that the Afrikaaners have been truly sent up.

Finally, we turn to a series of detective stories by Michael Pearce, involving Captain Gavin Owen, the “Mamur Zapt” in turn of the century Cairo. Egypt in the early years of the century was officially autonomous politically, but was really administered by a small cadre of British advisors who worked quietly beyind the scenes to run the country. The Mamur Zapt was a traditional post carried over from the days of Turkish rule. He was head of Egypt’s secret service. This series, written in the 1980s and 1990s about Egypt a century earlier, gives the reader some notion of how indirect rule worked in Egypt and elsewhere around the world. The political situation, in which the British “advisors” are caught between the Nationalist Party on the one hand, and the French on the other, between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority, is the backdrop for cases of crime and murder that have to be solved.

The Missing Clue - June 2016 - French Crime Fiction by Jack

France is not a country one normally associates with crime fiction, although one in every five books sold in France is a “polar” (short for roman policier). After all, its leading author of polars is really a Belgian, and only a handful of French writers in the genre have received much exposure in English. But many experts expect the French to succeed the Scandinavians as the import flavour of the month. There are certainly many good things to be savoured. One is the Belgian author, a real-life character of excesses. Georges Simenon is well-known for his prodigious literary output – probably near a thousand novels, and countless short stories – and for his ferocious sexual appetite; he himself boasted of more than ten thousand sexual encounters. Simenon apparently kept a wife and two mistresses busy, as well as a string of casual relationships. In the 1930s his entire entourage toured North America, spending some time in Quebec.

Simenon wrote three kinds of books: his serious fiction, chiefly psychological studies; his literary thrillers; and his approximately 75 Inspector Maigret books, written over a period of more than 40 years. The Maigret books were frequently made into television series or movies. They were the very antithesis of formula crime books, the anti-formula being Maigret shambling around inside a situation and eventually coming up with the solution. Madam Maigret was a frequent part of the sniffing. One of the characteristics of the Maigret books was their brevity – usually less than 150 pages. His technique in all his writing was the same. He would lock himself away and emerge ten days later with a completed manuscript. Revision was minimal, and he gave little attention to the work once completed.

Simenon had little life outside writing, sex and good living (impressive houses, many automobiles.) He spent the war years living in seclusion trapped in Vichy France, and he ended the war under a cloud of suspicion as a Nazi collaborator, a taint that still follows him. He whined a good deal about not being taken seriously enough as an author, but couldn’t bring himself to write the sort of books that would win literary prizes such as the Nobel Prize. He just wasn’t happy enough with all those books and all those sexual encounters. (Penguin Random House have in the last year begun to issue new translations of the Maigret novels in paperback. We do have some of these titles in both new and used in stock as well as some used Maigret in French.)

Next to Simenon, the French crime writer probably best known to the English-speaking audience is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, better-known as Fred Vargas, a historian and archaeologist who burst onto the scene in 1996 with The Three Evangelists, a concoction which won several prizes and has been enduringly popular. I am quite fond of this book, fond enough to recognize its many weaknesses. In the first place, its basic premise is a fraud. Empty four-story ramshackle mansions simply do not exist anymore, even on the back streets of Paris, much less are such edifices available as cheap rentals by impecunious students. Moreover, such students would not have the money to put the mansion back into operation in time to be ready to participate in the plot of this book. Finally, of course, such impecunious students would not have the money to pursue the plot with such vigour; whenever money is required (for taxis, for train journeys), it is found. The story proper begins when the opera singer who lives in the expensive mansion next door to the tear-down discovers a new tree in her back garden, and cannot figure out what is doing on, but is menaced by it. She is soon murdered, and the plot thickens – and thickens, and thickens, until it ends up to a final resolution some two hundred pages later. By this time the reader is quite giddy from the series of revelations that take place so quickly that there is no time to assess their credibility. Along the way, we are introduced to a much more attractive and inexpensive Paris than the one I remember, as well as a number of loveable character; there are also some nasty villains. By the way, despite the blurbs on the internet, this book is not part of a series. When it is done it is done. Vargas does have an ongoing series, featuring Commissaire Adamsberg. It follows its own rules, occasionally drifting into paranormal fantasy, and has been very popular.

The European publishing sensation of 1997 was Brigitte Aubert’s Death in the Woods, a conceptual tour de force. Its narrator is a blind and mute paraplegic who is afforded information about a killer, if she can only communicate her knowledge to someone in authority before she is herself killed. Reviewers found the narrator sympathetic and full of good humour.

Another interesting French author is Jean François Parot. He has written an extensive collection of historical thrillers that follow the career of one Nicholas la Floch from 1761 towards the Revolution. La Floch is the illegitimate son of a highly-placed French nobleman, and so he is able to hang around the fringes of the French court, solving crimes in high places as he goes. Parot is a historian of considerable skill, and so along the way we are introduced to the mores of the French court, as well as other incidentals, such as French cuisine of the 18th century (aristocratic stuff, of course; the French peasants consumed a much less interesting diet barely fit for pigs). Unlike those involved, who ate, drank, and screwed to excess as if there were no tomorrow, we know how badly it all ends – and how suddenly.

Not all French crime fiction takes place among the upper or middle classes; the French have a notorious criminal underground, and a large proportion of the “polars” sold in cheap editions that tap into this netherworld. Perhaps the most notorious author in this sub-sub genre was Frédéric Dard, who wrote Industriously 175 books under the pseudonym “San-Antonio.” He picked the name by randomly scanning a map of the United States; the dash between the two words was his own contribution. Dard’s world was so unfamiliar to the bulk of his audience that at one point, Dard’s publisher included a glossary of the argot the author was employing. Probing the same world, although in fewer numbers, were the writings of Jean-Claude Izzo, who made a name a few years ago with a trilogy of novels set among the Marseilles criminal element. Both Izzo and Dard dealt with “white” criminals. I suspect there is a literature for the black African population which makes up an increasing proportion of the French underground, but I am unable to access it; probably the best way to approach this world is through daily television coverage, since the black underground is, among other things, the home of the terrorists in both Paris and Belgium.

Finally, some French stuff in English, by Peter May. His publishers have left the origins of the “Enzo” books deliberately murky, but when Peter May visited us in 2014, he told us that no British publisher was initially interested in the series. They were initially published in French in France, and appeared in English only after they became runaway French bestsellers. This story confirms Jack’s view that publishers are not very smart, but never mind. The story also explains why the series is only now appearing in North America years after it was originally written, although it has been available in the UK since 2006. The facts are that May is a great writer, and with “Enzo” he has created a great series. The premise is a bit complex to explain. Enzo MacLeod, a Scottish forensic psychologist with an Italian Catholic mother and a Scottish Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian father, meets his true love at a professional convention. He flees his wife and child to live in France with the other woman, who dies in childbirth, leaving him to raise their daughter, Sophie. He finds a job teaching at a French university, and twenty years after his impulsive act he makes a bet with a French journalist friend who has written a best-selling book describing seven notorious unsolved crimes. Enzo impulsively bets with his friend that, using his forensic skills, he can solve these cases. Extraordinary People records Enzo’s first attempt at winning the bet. The case he chooses to begin with involves the mysterious disappearance of a brilliant French academic, who teaches the nation’s smartest students – the “extraordinary people of the title -- at an elite institution preparing the students for careers as high-powered civil servants. And away we go, following Enzo on his quest! Enzo is very attractive to women, and very attracted to them, so a lot of romanticizing and drinking accompanies the action. This first book is puzzle one, in which the solution of one clue leads to another. Deconstructing each clue reveals another dismembered piece of the professor’s anatomy. It is clear that the clues have been deliberately produced and intended to be solved. An engrossing story, this is the first of six, which will be released over the next while.

(Extraordinary People is in stock at $17.99, the second book in the series, The Critic, will be available at the end of August also at $17.99.)

The Missing Clue - April 2016 - Some Thoughts on Pastiche by Jack

When I was a boy, one of my mother’s favourite bromides was: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” a phrase that has stuck with me over the years. Literary imitation is usually called “pastiche,” and for better or worse, I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about and playing with the concept, especially since we decided to do a series of Book Club evenings featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pastiches. When I actually focused on the technique, I was more than a bit surprised to realize how limited it was in practice. In the first place, one can really only imitate an author who is super well-known. Who beyond Sherlock? The first author I thought of was Agatha Christie. Partly because of the second consideration: the need to find sufficiently well-known literary characteristics to imitate. When I considered this factor, it suddenly became clear to me why Holmes was such a popular target for pastiche and why relatively few others could qualify. Hercule Poirot could certainly be imitated, because of his appearance and because of his distinctive phrases, such as “the little grey cells.” But who else? Miss Marple? Probably. Father Brown? The Saint? Perry Mason? James Bond? Nero Wolfe? Peter Wimsey? Make your own list. It will not be very long, and would probably not include many recent authors. At this point I suddenly began to appreciate durable popularity. The pioneers of crime fiction who have survived the years are mainly those who created larger-than-life characters. Such creations are no longer fashionable. Lisbeth Salander is one of the few contemporaries who comes immediately to mind. Who else? One wonders. A point worth emphasizing is that literary pastiche is not confined to books; film and television rely heavily on literature for their material, and are currently the sources of some of the best pastiche – Holmes has two television series currently going, neither one of which started in print. Both series move Holmes into the 21st century. Recent films have reversed the Holmes/Watson relationship and looked into the early life of Holmes.

What exactly is literary pastiche? Simply put, it is imitation. In practice, however, imitation covers a multitude of sins and a variety of strategies not all of which involve a straight line between original and copy. Why do authors write pastiche? The most obvious answer is lack of originality, although I suspect that this answer explains very few of what is produced. More important is commercial viability. Pastiche enables an author to tie his or her work to a known product with a known record in the bookshops. In a few cases, the success of the imitation generates its own popularity. This was clearly the case with the Mary Russell series. Some authors are attracted by the challenge of successful imitation.

Curiously enough, the easiest strategy of pastiche to adopt is also the hardest to bring off well. It involves an authentic replication of the original style and of the author. If Conan Doyle is the target, this usually means writing in the voice of Dr. Watson, harder to do well than you might think – just try it! Many of those who go this route actually create a complex story about a lost manuscript recently unearthed, and they set their work within the timeframe and space (London) of Holmes’s glory years. The problem is that there are only so many plots, and Conan Doyle has already cherry picked most of the best ones. The result is a product which often seems stale, at least to the reader of the Doyle originals. But we must always remember that not every consumer of pastiche is necessarily familiar with the original.

As my comments about film suggest, there are many ways of doing pastiche, some sticking closer to the original than others. One popular strategy is to hijack one of the Holmes characters and turn him/her/them into the major protagonist(s). As I have noted elsewhere in this newsletter, every continuing character in the Conan Doyle canon – even the urchins of the Baker Street Irregulars now has his or her or their own series. Indeed, one of the most appealing recent series takes nothing from the Holmes canon but the address – 221B Baker Street – at which Holmes and Watson are supposed to have resided. Two attorney brothers rent the premises in modern times; their lease includes a stipulation that they answer any mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Since any such mail is bound to involve some kind of crime puzzle, the author has a wonderful lead-in into a fresh story. (Author of this series is Michael Robertson; we have most of the titles in stock)

Complicating the whole business of pastiche is the recent emergence of authorized pastiche, as literary estates seek to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of their literary property. The heirs of Steig Larsson—his family, not the common law companion, who according to Swedish law had no rights of inheritance – authorized a Salander sequel, which appeared in 2015. Fortunately, the new author, David Lagercrantz, had the good sense to do the new volume as a pastiche, essentially filling in details in the original three books. It got reasonably good reviews.  (The Girl in the Spider’s Web will be available in tradepaper at the end of April, ($22)) The Christie estate authorized a fairly well-known crime fiction novelist, Sophie Hannah, to continue the adventures of Hercule Poirot. Hannah took a different approach than Lagercrantz, essentially dumping the Belgian detective, full formed, into the middle of one of her own stories. (The Monogram Murders, in stock (tp$18.99. The result little resembled Agatha Christie, and the critics were not at all impressed. Hannah’s effort may not have been sufficiently pastiche-like. In fairness, it is hard to know how to write another author’s sequel. 

It seems unlikely to me that much more can be done with Sherlockian pastiche, but then, you never can tell.