The Affair of the Second Goldfish by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ½ x 7 ½ 211pp (Newgate Crime Club), Collins. $1.50
Over the past few years, a curious new phenomenon has been thrust upon my attention: that is, the increasing tendency to treat crime fiction as a branch of literature. Last year, I was asked to review for this magazine Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon, a squalid and leaden exercise that has since become one of the inexplicable darlings of the cocktail-party set. This year, Collins has not only launched two new imprints dedicated to flooding the public with lurid tales of bashed heads, tough dames, arsenic-pouring spinsters, etc., but has purchased full-page advertisements for two new Ariadne Oliver novels in several publications, including the New Mercury, despite Mrs. Oliver's already appallingly high sales figures in the U.S.. Crime fiction, it seems, is determined to throw its weight around. No longer satisfied with mere lucre, it begins to clutch at the bootlegger's elusive dock-light. It courts respectability.
More troubling than the presumption of Collins, however, is a perceptible change in the attitude of the public. I have noted first-hand a highly defensive and even possessive attitude toward a form of crime fiction previously recognized everywhere as mildly unwholesome trash. Unfortunate souls, who might previously have hidden their copies of S. S. Van Dine or Sexton Blake in a drawer when company came to call, now go to embarrassing lengths to drag the unafflicted, in the time-honored manner of the dope fiend or pervert, into their curiously unattractive mire. But while dope and perversion still carry a whiff of the outré in a few circles, there is now no quarter in which I do not find the peddlers of detective fiction; the predilection has become not only accepted, but fashionable. One mutters “no thank you” in vain; one dares not whisper that the thing may be unhealthy.
Having politely expressed my lack of interest in this genre (in both its American and English forms) in my review of Hammett and more recently in an editorial for Harper's, I now find myself all but buried in opprobrium from an outraged readership, on grounds that I have not, somehow, read enough to make a categorical statement of my own preferences. Meanwhile, my editor has thrust the new Ariadne Oliver in front of me, in what is surely a naked bid for increased circulation. Soft-hearted Quixote that I am, I have agreed to review it, as I appear to be the only working critic willing to fight the shibboleth that crime fiction is a form of literature, rather than of cheap entertainment. To that end, and for the sake of my readers, I have read The Affair of the Second Goldfish in its entirety. It is far worse than I could have imagined.
Mrs. Oliver has been held up to me for several years now as one of the 'better' writers of the English school, which runs heavily to eccentrics, 'comic' foreigners, and the stale wit of wounded privilege. Her books have been praised (by no less prominent a critic than the London Review's H. Samuel Botkin, who ought to know better) for their effectiveness and economy, much as a drunk might praise the virtues of straight bourbon over the subtler effects of fortified wine.
In fact, The Affair of the Second Goldfish has a bluntness and a density of “incident” that makes it an efficient machine for the production of thrills, couched in a prose that is clumsy and heavy-footed, but not unbearably so. There is a murder badly disguised as a suicide, and some business about whether a society matron's prize goldfish (is there such a thing? Does it make dramatic or emotional sense for such a thing to be? Can there be such creatures as Sven Hjerson, Oliver's massive and amiable Scandinavian detective, who calculates square roots as a form of mental discipline and hums Socialist hymns as he breaks the ice in his morning bath? Such questions must be beside the point; this is machinery, not mimesis) was switched for a lesser fish at the last minute by a rival, and the inevitable cornering of the culprit in a flurry of improbable Swedish proverbs. I did find it necessary to skip some allegedly humorous scenes in which the Scandinavian blinks innocently at English mores and diet, and also a number of passages dealing with clues and footprints and so on, as such Potemkin villages of forensic science can only insult the intelligent reader. The “stuff” works as intended, the sleuth is not as intolerable as some of his contemporaries; I was able to skim to the end with mild interest and without despair.
But to concede that The Affair of the Second Goldfish is a strong and not too sickening form of dope is not to confuse dope with meat and drink; the thing is, in essence, typical of the genre: titillating as an experiment, unhealthful as a habit, utterly unsuited for regular consumption, and inexpressibly tedious as a subject of evangelism.
. . .
The Cat it Was Who Died by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ½ x 7 ½, 304pp (Newgate Crime Club), Collins, $1.50
Of all the crashing bores our civilization has produced, the contemporary detective fan must surely be one of the crashingest. In the four months since my review of Mrs. Oliver's previous book appeared in The New Mercury, I have been bombarded by letters upbraiding me for my reading habits. I am informed, usually in hostile and abusive terms that by skipping the boilerplate scenes of fingerprint dusting etc., I have “denied myself a fuller understanding of the unique pleasures” of this supposed masterpiece, that Sven Hjerson, Mrs. Oliver's bony and windburned immigrant sleuth, is Finnish rather than Swedish, and further that I am guilty of “slander” by characterizing Mrs. Oliver's productions as a kind of cheap dope substitute for the semi-literate.
This latter statement I am happy to retract. When I wrote that earlier review, I had not yet been forced to contemplate the sheer number of detective novels ingested by the typical fiend each month. I now realize that it would be more accurate to call dope use a more cost-effective substitute for the consumption of detective fiction.
As to Mr. Hjerson, I have no wish to be anything but accurate. Despite his un-Finnish name, he references his home nation of Finland approximately once per page, as I discovered by plodding through nearly every grueling word of The Cat it Was Who Died. This is not to say I did not skim a good deal of “colorful” conversation at the opening garden party, and several frankly unreadable passages in which Hjerson describes his ascetic life-style and method of preparing vegetables according to some formula of Eastern mysticism, along with the usual banter between this superstitious paragon of reason and the mere bureaucrats at Scotland Yard – but these cul-de-sacs were irrelevant to the plot, and ought never to have been allowed to stand in the first place.
The plot concerns the usual stock assortment of English country people, throwing the usual theme party in poor taste; here the theme is “Secrets and Lies!” A vaguely delineated Bright Young Thing is found hanged behind a large curtain; a clammy young man with comical politics is impaled on a banister; later, another appears to have been pushed down the stairs, but this turns out to have been an accident. In the end, the murderer is revealed to be the heavily made-up co-ed from the first chapter. She is betrayed by the telltale lack of fingerprints on a blowpipe, which is what passes in detective fiction for subversion of expectations. For a bonus thrill, one of the sons of the manor is a female cousin in disguise. The titular cat, of which so much unnecessary hay is made by Scotland Yard, is really a red herring deliberately planted by the co-ed's fiancé (the disguised cousin of the dead heir) for reasons expounded on at great length and with very little real coherence by Hjerson. At second, or even at first glance, the house of cards collapses, but I confess that I read to the end in much the same way one listens with one ear for the punchline of a long joke, not from any lingering hope that it might make us laugh, but simply because it has been so long withheld.
. . .
The Body in the Library by Ariadne Oliver.
4 ½ x 7 209pp (Avon Suspense), Avon Books, .50
Death of a Debutante by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ¼ x 8, 273pp (Newgate Crime Club) Collins, $1.50
Before anything else, I must insist that devotees of Mrs. Oliver refrain from sending me books, on the presumption that I have not read the “right” ones, and give up trying to tempt me with wildly inconsistent rankings of her oeuvre based on number of twists, grisliness of the corpse, quality of humorous sayings of Sven Hjerson, proximity of supporting cast to weak semblance of humanity, and so on. I now have fourteen copies of The Body in the Library, some with pitifully illiterate marginalia, and I do not wish to receive any more. It is a capable, creaking mystery in the usual Oliver vein, and even duller than The Cat it Was Who Died.
Apparently I have committed some kind of unforgivable sin by “giving away” the ending to that book, thereby stripping it of the only thing it had to offer its readers. Even Lesley Markham of the New York Review of Books has made snide remarks to the effect that I am trying to “ruin other people's fun.” Under other circumstances, Mr. Markham is an intelligent critic, but such is the insidiousness of the crime novel: not only inane in itself, but the cause of inanity in others.
As for Death of a Debutante, it was what my enthusiastic correspondents might call A Real Corker. Though I was forced to skip a portion of the dialogue, the Scotland Yard business, and the entirety of the “lake house” sub-plot, I can report that the killer was Miss Lucia Spatford, the false governess, who was also responsible for the letters threatening Mott and Rickles, and the fourth letter was misdirected on purpose by Miss Spatford's pathologically loyal housemaid. If you are convinced that your experience of Death of a Debutante has been somehow "spoiled" by this information, I ask you to consider carefully what you are revealing about yourself and your own valuation of the books you choose to read.
Errata: Sven Hjerson is not a Buddhist, only a health-nut. This distinction appears to be of tremendous importance to a large cross-section of the New Mercury readership, though I do not intend to expend any further effort in trying to figure out why.
. . .
The Stain on the Stones by Ariadne Oliver.
4 ½ x 7, 199pp (Pocket Suspense), Simon & Schuster, $0.25
Death in a Dry Season by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ¼ x 8, 331pp (Newgate Crime Club), Collins, $1.50
When I took upon myself the thankless task of reviewing “crime fiction” for the New Mercury, I confess I expected to be surprised – by the odd scrap of insight into human nature, maybe, or a well-turned phrase gleaming among the chaff. Instead, the only surprise has been the relentlessness and embarrassing defensiveness of its fans on one hand, and the utter bankruptcy and hollowness of the genre on the other. I am tired beyond expression of being daily harassed with claims that Sven Hjerson, that watery-eyed clutch of bones and malapropisms, is either a startlingly three-dimensional creation of unprecedented subtlety and realism, or a clever parody of two-dimensional detective figures – which is it? – or that I would not fail to understand the genius of Mrs. Oliver if only I had not skipped paragraph B on page 131 of Murder Most Emphatic, or that the inaccuracies in the depiction of the British legal system are really an instance of biting satire, or that I have failed in my duties as a critic by spelling some godawful comic relief rustic's name with the wrong number of Gs.
I have grown used to this kind of commentary, but it is grim to see it in other critics. Just this week, Adele Salisbury-Merton has published a piece on “The New Crime Fiction,” naming the execrable Mrs. Oliver “a kind of genius of the plot twist,” whose books are “pointed explorations of the nature of evil,” comparing her to both Poe and Trollope, and calling The Stain on the Stones “funny, frightening and surprisingly intelligent” and “a trenchant commentary,” though even the terminally fatuous Salisbury-Merton has the decency to stop short of speculating as to what, specifically, is being commented on.
Well, I have also read The Stain on the Stones. I have read every rotten word. I have felt my way blind through the black maze of its twists, stumbling, learning nothing, seeing nothing human, hating every second, yet fumbling forward almost by instinct. Once in the maze, it becomes almost inconceivable not to try to get out of the maze. That is the ingenious cruelty – one hesitates to say, the cruel genius – of Ariadne Oliver and her tribe.
As for Death in a Dry Season, you need howl no more at me, readers. Your thrills are intact, should you still choose to waste time and attention panting after them. It was so repellent that I was forced to skip everything after the initial (and excruciating) meeting with the Colonel. The final scene of this putative exploration of evil was a reiteration of Hjerson's preference for cold baths, ending in a gale of high-pitched English laughter; the last printed character was an exclamation point. My only review is a warning: Get out while you can.
. . .
With Vinegar and Brown Paper by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ¼ x 8, 230pp (Newgate Crime Club) Collins, $1.75
Not for the first time, nor yet for the last, Sven Hjerson came to me in a dream. His enormous white-and-cornsilk side whiskers were like halves of a sun. He said, “Now you are the refugee, Herr Wilson, like Sigurd of the great Finnish epic.” I opened my mouth to correct him but I could not remember what it was that was wrong, and then I looked and saw that the rocks beneath us were bones, and we were alone together on an island of the dead.
After a long siege, exhaustion sets in. Perhaps this is why Marisa Berg at the New York Review of Books, formerly one of my few allies in the cause of literature, has chosen to publish a painfully fawning “retrospective” of the works of Ariadne Oliver, complete with one of those desultory interviews they go in for these days, Silver Screen-like, with favorite colors and coy hints at a personal angle. When asked if she had not come to think of her ambiguously Finnish detective as a faithful companion, Mrs. Oliver replied, “I think of him as a damned nuisance. If he were real, I'd have pushed him off a fjord years ago. But if he were real he wouldn't make me any money, so there you are.” At that remark, the Review is pleased to tell us, Mrs. Oliver “decisively munched an apple.” A defining action, meant to mark the puppet as a distinct “character,” like the tell-tale crank of Hjerson's vegetable chopper in moments of concentration.
Strange to reflect on this. Strange that Hjerson should understand, and the canny Mrs. Oliver too, in her way, what so many of our critics do not. The latest book by Ariadne Oliver is called With Vinegar and Brown Paper, and I have not read it. I do not recommend that you read it. Whether I will read it in the end, I cannot say. But you must be strong even when I cannot. I suggest immersion in a strong glue, and sun-drying, for any copies you may already possess, if you cannot bring yourself to actually fling the thing in the fire. Best of all is never to acquire it in the first place, but sometimes our choices are made for us. Last night I met Hjerson again, under the walls of Elsinore, and he warned me not to open it, whatever happened. I knew it was Hjerson, though he had no face, only the side-whiskers and the red skin and the sleeves turned up on his huge frostbitten wrists. It was a dream, but what does that matter? I have been a novelist for twenty years, a fiction critic for thirty: I assure you I have not scorned dreams, except for being paltry. His shadow was a giant; he had an enormous bundle of carrots slung over his shoulder. Sven Hjerson likes carrots, you see. It's one of his traits. I was once a critic – in that hoary, old-fashioned world where we used to believe in Literature – that is mine.
Perhaps there is nothing so dreadful about that world's end, any more than any other. We dissolve into comedy before our own eyes, as our grandfathers did and their own and theirs, in our felt hats and our funny buckled shoes, and there will be no one to miss us in that brightly colored cartoon future – no one even to notice the difference between that world and ours. We have seen the future, Hjerson and I: there will be no stories any more, only puzzles that we pull apart and shriek at and forget. Isn't that right, Hjerson, you blinking watery-eyed marionette, you poor shambling patchwork doll? In the end we are all but movable types, eikö?
My editors at the New Mercury have suggested that we implement a Michelin Guides style star-rating system for books, a system which seems to me eminently suitable for this new world where books are to be consumed like cinema popcorn, carelessly and in tremendous volume. I award With Vinegar and Brown Paper negative eleven million stars out of a possible four, and may God have mercy on us all.
. . .
The Cat Alive! by Ariadne Oliver.
5 ½ x 7 ½ 211pp (Newgate Crime Club), Collins, $2.50
Who killed the Master of Ceremonies? Part-time sleuth and full-time cat fancier Sven Hjerson arrives at the Devonshire Semi-Annual Cat Fanciers Conference on a much-needed holiday following the harrowing events of With Vinegar and Brown Paper – only to find himself caught short by a last-minute addition to the program. . . . murder!
The latest Sven Hjerson novel from Britain's reigning Empress of Crime is a fast-paced romp through the dark underbelly of a seemingly innocent hobby. As the body count increases and the number of suspects grows, Hjerson will need the full strength of his famous “clarity of mind and body” to unravel this Gordian hairball of a case! But will he be in time to prevent the murderer from killing again? Another home run from the great Ariadne Oliver, The Cat Alive! is sure to be a treat for mystery lovers and cat fanciers alike.
Editor's Note: The New Mercury regrets that its regular fiction critic is currently on sabbatical for personal reasons. We have been asked to remind our readers that letters sent to writers on sabbatical will not be forwarded and may be destroyed at the discretion of the staff. In the interim, we are pleased to have our capable theatre critic, Aaron Van Der Hoop, covering fiction and poetry, while the delightful Miss Marisol Cruikshank has agreed to be the temporary face of our popular crime fiction section.