Artillery Row Books

Murders for late June

From midnight Parisian walks and femmes fatales to jazz and corruption, Jeremy Black rounds up the best murders

A young man’s book, It Walks By Night (1930; British Crime Classics, 2019, £8.99), comes with a short story, ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926), in which Henri Bencolin, John Dickson Carr’s first major detective, made his very first appearance. This appeared in The Haverfordian, a student magazine, edited by one Carr (1906-77), then a freshman. The closed room plot, a case in which “a man proves an alibi for his murderer,” is very clever in its solutions, and the writing is at times arresting: “Arbor is a strange sort of English gentleman…. Just a polished form of moneylender. The man looks kindly, but he has a hard glaze on him like a tombstone,” or Madeline “with a sort of half beauty in her face that was rather better than loveliness.”

It Walks by Night, Carr’s first book, reflects his months in Paris, and draws on the influence of Edgar Allan Poe and of Renaissance “poisoned cruelty,” but with heavier dollops of sex and drugs to the fore. Departing from the British norm, both the women are femme fatales, and mental illness is to the fore. The novel oscillates between reason and high emotion, with a highly operatic close (albeit no suicide), but, before then, the plot hinges on the solution forced by the murderer creating an apparently unbreakable alibi. There is some poor writing, including “She rose, breathless, her face flushed and her eyes dark with a questing, futile rage. The throb and fire of her loveliness, a languor that struggled to burn, swept a wave over the heart; that whole expression said, “Damn you!” but something quivered in her lip.”

More often, however, there are interesting images: “The harsh light showed worn places on faces and furniture…. He was drawn up in offended dignity, rather like a laundry bag attempting to resemble a gold shipment…. He was rather pitiable, this spectacle of an intelligent man, a dogged and earnest and plodding man, seeing things undreamed of in his psychiatry…. A long waiting-room with barred windows and decorated tastefully by a picture of the eminent Dr Guillotine… The garden was shut in by poplars, held through the branches in a hush of dying sun on gravel walks…. Pernicious influence of the cinema. We have to find a substitute for the standards of acting laid down in Victorian novels.”

A classic, a novel of energy, talent and overwriting, and a wonderful femme fatale in Sharon Grey with her amber eyes.

Departing from the British norm, both the women are femme fatales, and mental illness is to the fore

My fault, but I did not know the work of Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947), whose The Chianti Flask (1935; British Crime Classics, 2021, £8.99), has just been republished. Half-French, she was a very well-connected woman of letters who wrote widely, and whose detective writings, which focused on character, and many of which drew on her strong interest in real crimes, included The Lodger (1913), a noted bestseller. With a dramatic start in a murder trial, The Chianti Flask is a strong novel in which the focus is on the accused, Laura Dousland, who had married an elderly husband. The background to the trial is very ably presented in writing that truly gets inside Laura’s personality, experience and prospects. The resulting personal dramas are to the fore, and the murder curves back nto the plot. A good novel in the Whydunnit mode.

The Mobster’s Lament (Pan, 2020, £8.99), is the third in Ray Celestin’s City ‘Blues Quartet.’ I enjoyed the first, The Axeman’s Jazz, although it did go on a bit near the end, and have not yet encountered the second, Dead Man’s Blues, but set in New York in 1947, this novel successfully brings together crime and jazz, and, if Louis Armstrong is a minor player, Gabriel Leveson’s Copa Lounge is lively, notably with Carmen Miranda. Real figures move through, particularly competing Mob leaders, and there are mentions of Billy Holliday, Ronald Reagan, Stanley Kubrick, and others in a sharply etched New York. Corruption is commonplace, as is racial prejudice. The writing is arresting, as with a statue “foamed in snow,” although that image is spoiled by being reused. Better possibly are “all those miles away in California, on the other side of the great night that lay glittering across the land…. They stayed like that, locked in their embrace, as the people rushed past, two stones in the river.” A good plot, but somewhat slow and overlong.

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