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Cherchez la Murder Monday

Traitor's Purse was ok! It's about at the level of Dancers in Mourning for entertainment value, with a little extra boost from Amanda and the amnesia, minus the annoyance of getting a slightly creepy encomium to dewy youth every time Amanda is on the page. Allingham's technical skills have improved tremendously since Sweet Danger, which used some similar elements with much less confidence or coherence. The amnesia plot forces a little more characterization on Campion and his friends than anything else so far has managed to do, is a reliable source of humor and pathos, and gives the book a much better shape than usual.

A.S. Byatt was much more impressed than I was. This essay makes me feel a little bad for not recognizing the genius of Traitor's Purse, but I guess the heart wants what it wants, or not, in this case. For me, the thriller plot registers as "decently plotted goofy fun" rather than "eerily prescient," which is probably partly a spot of Edmund Wilson-esque genre blindness, and partly just pigheaded indifference to spy stuff. Someone will manage to cure me of the latter eventually, but it is not this day.

Oh, and Campion is supposed to be "urbane," apparently? Could have fooled me.

Anyway, it was fun and decently well-made and uses its amnesia to good effect. Byatt's not wrong. I enjoyed it a little more than any previous Allingham book, but not quite as much as the most mediocre Christie (that I've encountered so far; I know there are mountains beyond these mountains). I'm still curious about what Allingham is going to do next, but should probably stop reading in this series for now.

I've tried to begin Fer-de-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout, about six times now without success. Last week I came across a Rex Stout book with the tantalizing title Too Many Women, so I decided to ditch Fer-de-Lance for the time being and try that one. It's just as casually misogynist as you might expect, and a pretty entertaining murder mystery.

The head of a New York insurance company hires eccentric private investigator Nero Wolfe to find out if one of his employees was murdered in a hit and run, or if, as he suspects, it was only manslaughter. He suggests that Nero Wolfe take a job in his company to investigate, but Wolfe's whole shtick is that he doesn't leave his apartment, so that's a no go. So an irritating narrator, who is Wolfe's live-in assistant or something, goes undercover instead, and is predictably terrible at it, but it doesn't matter because the whole thing is sorted out with a lengthy confession in the end.

Nero Wolfe is a potentially fascinating character -- enormous, abrasive, finicky, spectacularly self-possessed -- but he is sadly missing from most of the book, which is overrun by the irritating narrator, Mr. Goodwin. Goodwin is excellent on the many minor indignities of working for and living with Wolfe, but tedious on every single other subject, and sometimes affects a bizarrely unconvincing tough-guy posture that feels like something a ten-year-old copied from a bunch of movies circa 1947. It shouldn't be unconvincing -- according to events in the book, he is a tough enough guy to win an unexpected fistfight, for example -- but it is. Maybe it's just an idiom I'm not used to? I did like the details of office and city life, whenever they were visible through the dense foliage of Mr. Goodwin's weak jokes.

I've been advised to try another book to see if Goodwin grows on me, or if I can at least stop disliking him enough to get to know Wolfe better, but I might leave it for another week.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 9th, 2015 02:22 pm (UTC)
Yu're beginning to sound like a tree being overwhelmed with ivy, trying to see if all these under-par detectives will grow on you!

Nov. 9th, 2015 02:47 pm (UTC)
True, true. I just want to give them a chance! If Alleyn hadn't had such a weak beginning and turned out so well, I might not be such a human trellis today.

Nero Wolfe isn't an under-par detective, though -- at least, I don't think so yet. He's just saddled himself with a suboptimal Watson. Could happen to anyone.
Nov. 9th, 2015 08:45 pm (UTC)
An terrible Watson is a misfortune for a perfectly good detective; better not to have had one, really...

I've come across some crossover fics for Nero Wolfe, but never read it so I can't make any otherwise sensible comments!
Nov. 9th, 2015 02:56 pm (UTC)
I don't really think that Archie's voice changes much over the course of the series. I know I've read quite a few of the books, but not much sticks with me from them except that I know that I prefer the shorts to the novels. (That tends to be true with a lot of mystery writers.) The shorts tend to be in volumes that have the word 'Three' in the title.

There are one or two books where Wolfe actually leaves home. I don't know if those would appeal to you more. Too Many Chefs is one. Black Orchids is another. The Black Mountain actually involves Wolfe and Archie going to Montenegro. That last is not a great book in many ways, but it is wildly different from everything before it and everything after it.

I quite like the TV adaptation of Nero Wolfe that had Timothy Hutton as Archie. I thought it was faithful to the series without trying to copy every beat and detail.

I can think of two SF/fantasy riffs on Wolfe and Archie, and there may well be others. Randall Garrett, in his novel, Too Many Magicians, used versions of Wolfe and Archie to complicate life for Garrett's actual detective, Lord Darcy. Those books are an alternate world where laws of magic were discovered instead of laws of science. Lord Darcy has no magical ability, but he is assisted by a forensic wizard.

The other riff on Wolfe, I remember rather less well. Glen Cook's mystery series features an unmoving 'dead man' who the detective consults regularly. I think the series starts with Sweet Silver Blues (all the titles have metals in them). The stories are set in a secondary fantasy world with multiple sentient species, fairly standard fantasy world species.
Nov. 9th, 2015 04:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the recommendations! I wonder if I'd like a TV version better, being outside Archie's head a little? We'll see how the next book goes. I'll try a short story, too -- my experience with mystery short stories has been discouraging, but also very limited, so it's probably time to give the format another try.

I am curious about what happens when Wolfe leaves the house. The idea was presented in TMW as daunting and improbable. He doesn't like moving vehicles and the chairs are all pathetically small.
Nov. 9th, 2015 11:11 pm (UTC)
I've been recommended the Nero Wolfe books a hundred times, and listened to people describe or discuss them two hundred times, and yet somehow this is the first time I realized that he isn't the narrator of his own books! Your post are so informative. :)
Nov. 10th, 2015 12:21 am (UTC)
Glad to be of some use! :D

Nero Wolfe's narration would be an interesting experience, I think! He probably wouldn't bother to explain the same things to the reader that Goodwin would find important, so it would slowly dawn on you that this guy is fundamentally opposed to leaving his house, for example. And there would be the trouble of getting the information from his lieutenant(s) onto the page without clunkiness or breaking character. It's pretty clear why Stout would decide to use a Watson, even setting aside the difficulties of writing a "genius" character.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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