There is never a lack of books. For each volume I pick to review in this column, there are a dozen I had not planned to review books with any common theme this month. But early on I noticed that two titles feature Sherlock Holmes in Japan. Soon I discovered multiple pairs of interlocking themes. Two of this month’s titles are ecclesiastical mysteries. Two are set in Ireland during the Last Last May at the Malice Domestic convention I spoke on a panel along with three experts—true scholars—of classical detective fiction. The panel, called “Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Detection,” was moderated by Professor Douglas Greene, and included Daniel Stashower and Martin Edwards. Our discussion looked not only at the timeless staying power of Christie, but at the many other lesser-known men and women, British and American, who typify the classical in tales of crime and detection. This month I lead with Martin Edwards’s new book about the founding members of the Detection Club, and follow it with several books that demonstrate that clever plotting is not limited to the Golden Age.
Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, HarperCollins, $27.99. This important work looks at the inner lives and writing careers of Britain’s great mystery writers between WWI and WWII. Edwards’s role as Detection Club archivist gave him access to many documents not seen and stories never told before. Much of the book centers on the private lives of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anthony Berkeley and the events in the world around them that inspired their writing. Edwards interweaves the stories of other Detection Club members including G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, G.D.H. and M. Cole, and John Dickson Carr. Included are photographs and facsimiles of documents (including two pages from R. Austin Freeman’s private diary, written in a code that to this day has not been cracked).
Yukito Ayatsuji, The Decagon House Murders, Locked Room International, $19.99. Seven university students—members of a campus Mystery club—spend a week in a strange house on a deserted island where a gruesome quadruple murder took place six months earlier. One by one, the club members (who go by the names of classical mystery writers: Agatha, Orczy, Ellery, Carr, Poe, Leroux, and Van Dine) are being killed off. With obvious nods to Christie’s And Then There Were None, the novel is a contrast of realism and contrivance. To illustrate, midway through the book several characters discuss puzzles, codes, and magic tricks until one of them utters the name of a club member who has just died, and all are suddenly forced back to stark reality. Originally published in Japan in 1987, The Decagon House Murders is credited with launching the Shinhonkaku (neo-orthodox) movement in Japanese crime fiction. This new translation by Ho-Ling Wong includes an introduction by Shimada Soji and an article about the real Kyoto University Mystery Club. Also new from Locked Room International is The House That Kills ($19.99), by Noel Vindry, considered France’s answer to John Dickson Carr.
Ann Cleeves, Thin Air: A Shetland Mystery, Minotaur, $25.99. Cleeves, a member of the Detection Club, is the author of several crime series. Her novels featuring DCI Vera Stanhope have been adapted for TV as Vera, now in its fifth year, and her Shetland Island series featuring detective Jimmy Perez, has been adapted as Shetland, now filming its third season. Against the atmospheric backdrop of seaside cliffs and legends of the ghost of a young girl who dances along the beach, a group of university friends from London are on the island of Unst to celebrate a classmate’s wedding—until one of the women disappears. In a style both brooding and beautiful, Cleeves tells a surprising story, illustrating that intelligent plotting and “fair play” are not inconsistent with modern tastes and sensibilities.
Peter Lovesey, Down Among the Dead Men, Soho Crime, $27.95. Lovesey is another writer—also a member of the Detection Club—whose novels are thoroughly modern (except when he writes historical fiction) but whose plots play fair with the reader. Detective Peter Diamond has been dragged to Sussex for an internal investigation. Seven years earlier when a car thief was arrested, he seemed as surprised as the police by the corpse in the trunk. The thief was charged with murder even though an important piece of DNA evidence was never filed. Now, as Diamond uncovers the facts behind the arrest, he finds unsettling connections to a private school’s art department and several missing persons. Lovesey’s plotting is smart, his style engaging and drily funny.
Dorothy Cannell, Death at Dovecote Hatch, Severn House, $28.95. Florence Norris, the keenly observant housekeeper who debuted in Murder at Mullings (2014), is back. When the mild-mannered master of Bogmire tumbles to his death down a flight of stairs, he leaves behind two nutty sisters, a pretty teenaged ward, and a house full of secrets. Recalling Florence’s deductive skills the local inspector asks her to quietly inquire. Cannell’s writing is infused with clever turns of phrase of the sort you’d expect to find in Milne or Wodehouse, with characters as colorful as those in Dickens or The Canterbury Tales.
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train, Riverhead Books, $26.95. During her daily train ride to a nonexistent job, an alcoholic woman passes the neighborhood where her ex-husband now lives with his new wife. Each day she voyeuristically watches for a loving couple she calls “Jess and Jason” and idealizes their perfect marriage. But when “Jess” goes missing, Rachel is compelled to learn what happened. Told from the perspective of three troubled female narrators, this is a novel about obsession and regrets.
Joseph Trigoboff, Rumble in Brooklyn, Bare Knuckles Press, $16.00. Personal memoirs are by definition self-indulgent and often they are either badly written or ghostwritten. But occasionally a book will come along by someone with both an interesting life and talent. This is one such book. It reads like a 1960s version of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (and in fact, several characters in the Scorsese film were based on gang members Trigoboff ran around with as a boy). As a Jewish kid growing up in East New York, Trigoboff learned at an early age that he had to be tough and to associate with the right people. The book traces his earliest street fights as a four- and five-year-old to a major gang war during his teenage years.
Kathryn Harkup, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, Bloomsbury, $27.00. Christie’s remarkable knowledge of toxic chemicals derives from a lifelong interest in poison, her training as an apothecary’s assistant, and her practical experience working in a hospital dispensary during the First World War. Research chemist Harkup discusses fourteen different poisons, explaining each one’s chemical composition, history, physical effects, and how it was used in a Christie mystery. Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, involves murder by strychnine. Veronal is used in Lord Edgeware Dies. Other toxic chemicals treated here include arsenic, cyanide, opium, phosphorus, and ricin. An appendix lists the causes of death in every novel and short story Christie wrote.
Nathan Ward, The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Bloomsbury, $26.00. If Christie is the icon of British traditional mysteries, Hammett is the standard-bearer for the American hardboiled school. Biographies and criticism have been written about his career, relationships, politics, literary accomplishments, and meteoric fall. The Lost Detective focuses on Hammett’s early life and influences, particularly his stint as a private eye for the Pinkerton Agency, and how specific real-life incidents worked their way into his novels and stories.