Wednesday, February 18, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Today’s selections feature three fictional detectives, as different from one another as can be, but each possessing his own unique set of superior sleuthing skills that makes the stories highly entertaining.
Ernest Bramah Smith (he dropped the “Smith” from his name as a writer) was a bit of an odd bird, whose various careers included farming, journalism, and, late in life, editing a trade magazine for clergymen. He wrote fiction and non-fiction, including a futurist war novel and a collectors’ book on English coins. Very little is known about his life, but he has created a memorable detective in the person of Max Carrados, an amiable and patient man of penetrating vision – this last attribute made all the more remarkable by the fact that Carrados is blind. His disability only serves to sharpen his other senses, and to disarm both clients and malefactors in his quest for the truth. His friend and occasional partner is Louis Carlyle, a “private inquiry agent” and ex-solicitor who had been struck off the rolls – unjustly (he claims, at any rate) - for “falsifying a trust account.” Bramah wrote numerous short stories starring his blind sleuth, which were published in the Strand magazine (frequently getting top billing over another fictional detective you may have heard of: Sherlock Holmes). The stories present excellent puzzles and include much warmth and humor in the interplay between the cheerful Carrados and the somewhat prickly Carlyle, as they track down thieves and murderers in Victorian and Edwardian London.
E.C. Bentley published a highly-lauded mystery novel, Trent’s Last Case, in 1913. Probably too well-known for me to comment on, I would like, instead, to point out that the hero, Philip Trent – a painter who brings to the task of solving crimes the artist’s skill of seeing things in unique perspective – appeared in a dozen short stories, as well, published under the title, Trent Intervenes. Trent is well-served by his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from heraldry to wine, and his affable, but courageous, character sees him through some very ticklish situations. He seems to be known to everyone, and everyone knows his worth as a man of discriminating intelligence and good judgment, so you will find him spending most of his time solving mysteries instead of applying brush to canvas. These are elegantly-written little gems of the mystery genre for enthusiasts of the traditional English “who-done-it.”
We now enter another time and place, entirely: Southern California in the post-war years; a paradise marred by vice, where Ross MacDonald’s protagonist, Lew Archer, moves among alcoholic starlets, seasoned conmen and cold-hearted gunmen as the last of the old-school hard-boiled detectives. Although the name is taken from Sam Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon, Archer’s character was openly modeled on Raymond Chandler’s quintessential private eye, Philip Marlowe. The Name is Archer brings together seven short stories published between 1946 and 1955, in which the hero – tough, smart and true to his rigorous personal code of honor – solves a series of noir-style mysteries. MacDonald (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) also wrote 18 novels featuring Archer, two of which were made into movies starring Paul Newman (The Moving Target and The Drowning Pool; Newman’s character was named “Harper” in the movie versions). When I finally worked my way through Chandler’s short stories and novels, I was glad to discover that Ross MacDonald had essentially picked up his option on the classic American gumshoe. If you haven’t treated yourself before to an encounter with Lew Archer, there’s no time like the present.