Friday, April 30, 2021

Grading Mystery Plots

Grading Mystery Plots

 

Over the past year, due to multiple factors, I’ve been able to read way more contemporary crime novels than normal.  In the last twelve months, I’ve read about two hundred mystery novels that were published in 2020.  Some of them have been great, while others were… not so much.  After reading this massive collection of contemporary contributions to the genre, I was struck by just how wide-ranging the quality of the plotting and cluing was.  This goes beyond the level of the prose craftsmanship or the characterization.  When reading a fair play mystery, one should be able to work alongside the detective, and before the solution is revealed, the intelligent and observant reader ought to have figured out the identity of the villain based upon some carefully placed clues scattered throughout the book.

 

In a review of the BBC series Father Brown that I wrote for Gilbert! Magazine a few years back, I wrote:

 

“I think that most deductive mystery plots can be assigned a letter grade. An “A” plot is clever, twisty, and unexpected, but there are still enough fair play clues for the intelligent and observant viewer to figure out whodunit.  Most Agatha Christie mysteries can be categorized as “A” plots.  A “B” plot still contains some elements of originality, but may include clichéd or overused elements, and the answer may be more obvious than in an “A” plot.  A “C” plot has an obvious killer, often through using feints that point right in the killer’s direction, or because common tropes point in one direction, or the knowledge that the personal preferences of the writers will compel them to make certain plot choices (the fondness of some Law & Order writers to make the chief villain a rich white guy under any circumstances is an example).  In a “C” plot, the killer can sometimes be determined through the process of elimination, since the first person arrested for the crime can be ruled out, the two young lovers are probably innocent, and the show is trying so hard to make the fourth suspect look guilty that you know it just has to be the fifth and last suspect.  A “D” plot is a mystery that pulls a solution out of thin air, without sufficient clues to point in the killer’s direction.  If the observant viewer can’t deduce the solution through logic, the writer has failed. A “F” plot is a mess– confusing, trite, and produces plot threads that go nowhere, with clues that point in a direction different from the official answer, and clues that are never properly explained.”

 

I was amazed by how many books published today qualify as a “C” or a “D” plot.  All too often, there simply wasn’t any detection being done.  Yeah, there were suspicions aplenty, but not enough clues pointed in the direction of a single person for the reader to make an informed accusation.  Indeed, as Xavier Lechard, a Facebook friend of mine in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group noted, more and more, “detectives” in crime novels don’t do that much detecting.  I agreed, saying that in so many books, the detectives just wander around, asking suspects questions, checking out a few locations, but the evidence they find applies to several suspects.  The detectives don’t draw logical conclusions from the evidence, they simply stumble into a solution.  Sometimes they walk in on the killer doing something incriminating, and other times there’s a spontaneous confession, often with little provocation.  It’s as if the author was merrily writing along, and suddenly declared “Whoops!  I’m on page three hundred!  Better wrap this up– I’ll just pick a killer at random.”




 

And of course, when authors make their political views obvious throughout the book, it’s a pretty safe bet that the killer is The Sort Of Person The Author Does Not Like.

 

Even worse are the books that never explain the extraneous clues.  These novels have enough red herrings to keep a seafood restaurant fully stocked for two years.  Yet at the end, the evidence could be used to build a strong case against multiple characters.  The only reason one person gets identified is the killer is because the “detective” looked at the bad guy wrong, and the fool spontaneously confessed.

 

Has anybody read a book recently that’s so poorly constructed it rates as a “D” or and “F?”  Alternatively, has anybody found a book so cleverly clued that it’s earned an “A?”

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27th from MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Humor of Joyce Porter

 The Humor of Joyce Porter

 

Joyce Porter is reported to have said ,“Personally, I wouldn’t read a funny detective story if you paid me.”  While many English mystery authors may put some humorous dialogue here and there in their works, and others may have a silly scene here and there, there are very few mysteries from the British Golden Age that leave the reader the laughing from beginning to end.

 

Porter’s books work because she finds worthy targets for her humor.  She never treats death as a laughing matter, as she has too much fun poking fun at living people.  Hypocrites, bullies, fools, and the generally nasty are all grist for her mill.  Most of the Dover novels feature a stable of suspects, the best of which have one terrible flaw that is magnified beyond the usual proportions in order to create a grotesque and laughable caricature, a monster embodying the flaws of humanity.  Porter then ridicules these people, like lecherous old men, self-obsessed and domineering women who rule their hometowns through intimidation, shiftless young people, and so forth.  Of course some perfectly nice people are presented as comic characters, whose pure hearts can’t disguise the fact that they are ridiculous in their overzealousness to help, or because their well-meaning cluelessness causes all manner of problems.




 

Of course, the heart of the humor comes from her central characters, like the slovenly and sluggish Dover, a man whose repulsiveness, boorishness, and selfishness are played up in a way that you’d never want to meet him in real life (and you’d go to any length to keep him out of your bathroom), but he’s always fun to read about because his hijinks are so amazingly over the top.  Likewise, the Hon Con means well, but she puts so much thoughtless enthusiasm in all of her investigations that her failure to think situations through and her physical recklessness means that she invariably leaves a trail of destruction in her wake.

 

Joyce Porter’s humor isn’t about the wacky farce of impossible comic situations.  It’s about taking a relentless look at the flaws that mar humanity… and chuckling at them.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27th from MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Who The Heck Is the “Hon Con?”

 Who The Heck Is the “Hon Con?”

 

The third of Joyce Porter’s series detectives is the “Hon Con,” the nickname of the Honorable Constance Ethel Morrison-Burke, a noblewoman with tons of spare time and disposable income on her hands, though given the high taxation and social upheaval of 1960’s and 1970’s England, she’s constantly pinching pennies (even though she doesn’t need to) and dodging the barbs of hoi polloi who believe it’s their social responsibility to take the aristocracy down a peg or nine.

 

Having boundless amounts of energy and lacking a direction for them, a chance encounter with a distraught mother sends the Hon Con into the private detection business.  Actually, it’s not really a business, as the Hon Con never makes a penny off of her investigations, and often has to pay considerable sums out of pocket, whether it’s covering her own expenses, or paying hefty fines levelled by an unsympathetic (and often unjust and incompetent) court system.




 

The Hon Con stories (five in all) are pure comedy, even when they skewer the hypocrisies, banalities, and insanities of English life and society at a time when everything seems to be crumbling.  Throughout the series, Porter takes shots at corrupt and venal government agencies meant to Serve The Public, crime allowed to run rampant because no one in charge can be bothered to address it, and nastiness and iniquity amongst falsely friendly faces in seemingly quiet villages.  In one adventure, Porter switches to sending up the duplicitous and decrepit nature of life under the Soviets when the Hon Con takes a trip to the USSR.  Even the Queen doesn’t escape a bit of satiric nose-twisting in the final adventure.

 

The Hon Con’s reluctant assistant in her investigations is Miss Jones (better known as “Bones,”) her housekeeper, best friend, and possibly something more, as the village gossips constantly wonder.  The Hon Con is sometimes cited as the first openly lesbian fictional series detective in British fiction, but Miss Jones often is shown with an interest in much younger men, and Porter keeps the exact state of their relationship ambiguous throughout the series.  While the Hon Con is boisterous and fearless, Bones is timid and easily shaken, though she can be roused to fury when the order and cleanliness of her domestic sphere is threatened. 

 

The Hon Con mysteries rank as some of Porter’s funniest works, and illustrate a search for truth in a world gone mad.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27th from MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Who The Heck Is Eddie Brown?

 Who The Heck Is Eddie Brown?

 

If someone were to ask you to think of a fictional spy, more likely than not your mind would turn to Ian Fleming’s James Bond.  He’s suave, debonair, highly competent, witty, and a man of action.  

 

Joyce Porter’s Eddie Brown is the antithesis of James Bond.  The protagonist and narrator of four espionage novels, Eddie’s misadventures often lead to serious international upsets.  He’s dubbed “the world’s most reluctant spy” for good reason.  He’s awkward, out of shape, easily flustered, and not nearly as smooth with the ladies as he thinks he is.  As the series begins, Eddie is an unenthusiastic foreign-language teacher at a fourth-rate school.  Due to his skill at speaking Russian and his uncanny resemblance to a Russian agent, Eddie is recruited by a top-secret branch of the British Secret Service to perform a simple operation, and after much cajoling and many sharp threats, Eddie complies, deeply resenting being called upon to serve Queen and country.  When Eddie’s working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, very little goes right…




 

Over the course of the saga, Eddie blunders from one disastrous operation to another, as his handler sends him on missions that only he can handle… or is he trying to get rid of Eddie?  It’s a fun series full of wacky situations and characters, turning the Cold War into a rollicking farce.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27thfrom MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Who The Heck Is DCI Wilfred Dover?

Who The Heck Is DCI Wilfred Dover?

 

In last week’s post, I mentioned that in the coming weeks I’d be covering some of the hilarious fictional characters created by the marvelous mystery writer Joyce Porter.  I will now profile some of her greatest detectives.

 

DCI Wilfred Dover is a repulsive human being.  He’s horrifically unhygienic.  His well-worn suit needs cleaning.  He chain-smokes.  He drinks a lot.  He scarfs down tons of pub grub and junk food.  He’s rude, bigoted, and lazy.  He hates investigating, and prefers to latch onto the nearest suspect and force a confession through force and threats.  He has the sort of moustache that went out of fashion with Adolf Hitler.  





And yet, for all of that, he’s a lot of fun.  Despite his countless flaws, he’s a better sleuth than you’d think.  As much as he resents suspects for making him question them, he has an uncanny knack for catching clues.

 

Porter’s Dover novels are comedies of ill-manners.  They’re witty, satirizing 1960’s and 1970’s England, and derive raucous humor from awkward and over-the-top situations.  It’s a great series, and one which I highly recommend.

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27thfrom MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Who The Heck Is Joyce Porter?

Who The Heck Is Joyce Porter?

 

As a mystery critic, I take pleasure in publicizing terrific writers who are less well-known than they ought to be.  I love the works of Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Erle Stanley Gardner, but every now and then I find another, not nearly so famous crime writer, who needs some recognition.

 

I discovered Joyce Porter by listening to some British radio adaptations of her books.  Not only does she know how to write a terrific whodunit, but she also is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read.  Porter spent the first stage of her adult life working in spycraft, before retiring and switching to writing.




 

She created three detectives: Inspector Dover, Scotland Yard’s laziest officer; Eddie Brown, an exceedingly reluctant spy; and the Honorable Constance Morrison-Burke (the “Hon Con”), a noblewoman who decides to start working as a private eye.  (The title of this post is a riff on Who the Heck is Sylvia?, an Hon Con novel.

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be profiling Porter’s great detectives.  I hope my work beings her wider recognition.

 

So what else can I do to promote Porter’s work?  Why, write a full-length literary analysis of her mysteries.  It’s scheduled to come out this summer.

 

 

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27thfrom MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Article Profile: “Did Solar Pons Inspire Saul Panzer?”

Article Profile: “Did Solar Pons Inspire Saul Panzer?”

 

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I’m a huge fan of Golden Age mysteries.  I love Sherlock Holmes stories.  I also really enjoy August Derleth’s pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, Solar Pons.  I’m also an enthusiastic reader of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries.  

 

My book Sherlock & Irene illustrates that I play “The Great Game,” the critical thinking and analysis exercise where mystery tales are scrutinized for hidden secrets and logical conclusions.  There are many players of “The Great Game” who have found links between the Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes universes, most notably theories about Wolfe’s parentage.  Could there be a link between the Nero Wolfe and Solar Pons worlds?  My article says “yes.”




 

The Pontine Dossier: Millennium Edition, Volume One Issue Two is available for sale in both a paperback and a Kindle edition.

 

–Chris Chan

 

 

Chris Chan’s first book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” was released on August 27thfrom MX Publishing, and is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there).  It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Grading Mystery Plots