K.K. Beck | Jon L. Breen | William L. DeAndrea | Gerald Tomlinson | Kathy Lynn Emerson | Antonia Fraser | Herbert Resnicow | Alan Gordon | Mark Richard Zubro | Carol Gorman | Nancy Pickard | C. M. Chan / Cassandra Chan | B. K. Stevens | James Lincoln Warren | Toni L. P. Kelner | Steve Hockensmith | Richard A. Lupoff | Jo Dereske | James Powell | Jack Ritchie
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Adventures of Henry Turnbuckle
Little Boxes of Bewilderment
Cardula short stories
Hair of the Sleuthhound
Rachel Hennings stories
Jerry Brogan stories
Berwanger and Foley stories
Keep the Baby, Faith (1986)
Killed in Paradise (1988)
The Werewolf Murders (1992)
Murder - All Kinds (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru)
The Body in the Volvo (1987)
Peril Under the Palms (1989)
The Body in the Corn Flakes (1992)
Amateur Night (1993)
The Tell-Tale Tattoo and Other Stories
Murders and Other Confusions (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru)
Captain Sunset Tales
Peril Under the Palms (1989) is also a good read, with some fine descriptive writing about Hawaii. Beck's books make some feminist points about the traditional roles of women in society.
Peril Under the Palms is reminiscent of Earl Derr Biggers' The House Without a Key (1925), with its Hawaiian setting, its murder in a house near the beach, and its older crime with links to a South Seas past, that gradually gets unearthed. The Iris Cooper books as a whole take place in a similar Society setting to Biggers' novel. In both writers, the characters are part of a leisurely, low pressure world, filled with gracious living. Iris Cooper, the proper, young Society heroine of Beck's tales gradually learns to lighten up, and gets a lower class boy friend, similar to the progress of Key's stuffy young Boston businessman, who eventually winds up with a similarly déclassé girlfriend. Biggers' detective Charlie Chan is spoofed in Murder in a Mummy Case, and the shipboard setting of Death in a Deck Chair (1984) also appears in The House Without a Key.
In recent years Beck has produced a series of short stories about Iris. The Tell-Tale Tattoo and Other Stories contains the three best so far of the Iris Cooper short tales, together with Peril Under the Palms. It is available from its publisher Five Star.
The Body in the Cornflakes (1992) does a similar inside look at the modern grocery store chain. It succeeds as a comic novel about what it is like to be working in a supermarket, but its mystery puzzle elements are unfortunately more perfunctory.
Beck has a real knowledge of lower middle class life; her satiric portraits of the modern working experience of the average American have considerable bite. The gracefulness and charm of Beck's style should not disguise the insight she often brings to the world around her. Beck is especially good at characterizations and romantic relationships; convincing love stories inhabit all four of these novels.
These books are part of the revival of the "backgrounder" (to use Marylin Hornis' phrase) in modern mystery fiction. Many of the most popular of these books are by and about lawyers; others look at everything from gardening to banking. In the Golden Age, backgrounders were part of the "realist" tradition founded by Freeman and Crofts; the use of the background was linked to a whole suite of other characteristics of the realist school, such as scientific detectives, an interest in alibis, concern over racial prejudice and social problems, and many techniques of plot construction. As far as I can tell, this has all gone by the boards in today's mysteries. The use of the background is no longer linked to any one set of mystery techniques. Most contemporary writers have read Sayers' backgrounders, and might have been inspired by her, but show no other sign of contact with the traditional "realist school".
The P.I. format is perhaps not most conducive to Beck's talents. She is at her best with the approach of the traditional novel in which a group of fixed characters interact and develop through the course of a book, not with the P.I. convention that new characters are introduced in each chapter, never to be seen again. This stupid convention, originally introduced by Raymond Chandler, is one of the things I like least about private eye fiction.
Breen is also knowledgeable about classic Hollywood films, and his "The Auteur Theory" (1978) is an affectionate-but-devastating satire of the auteurist film studies that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's. (I am still an unregenerate auteurist, and find auteurism infinitely preferable to the current rage for Marxist and psychoanalytic film studies.)
Breen's delightful pastiche "Frank Merriswell's Greatest Case" (1968) anticipates Touch of the Past in that it is set in the 1930's, and contains a great deal of historical material about sports and broadcasting. Like "Old-Timers' Game" (1973), this story is about basketball.
Breen's short parodies and pastiches are collected in the volume Hair of the Sleuthhound; more are also found in The Drowning Icecube, along with some non-pastiche mystery tales. Hair of the Sleuthhound contains reactions from most of the original authors parodied.
Eye of God (2006) is a novel that comes out of the pastiche side of Breen's writing: far and away the longest pastiche in Breen's fiction. Here is it is not mystery writers who are being echoed. Rather, the pastiche is of the many kinds of attitudes people have, pro and con, towards fundamentalist Christianity. The book is full of clever dialogue that mimics vividly the many kinds of things people say about this subject. Breen gives equal time to many different points of view, and like his other pastiches, the novel is free of malice or axes to grind. Eye of God has a mystery plot, but the solution is not especially fair play, and the book is not structured as any sort of puzzle plot. Eye of God is also atypical in Breen's work in being about private eyes, rather than the amateur sleuths who usually star in his puzzle plot mysteries.
One of the funniest parodies is "Justice Knows No Paws" (2001). It is a sly look at modern cozies and hard-boiled mystery novels, suggesting that soap opera has taken over both forms, and that mystery plot is disappearing. Their endless casts of continuing "series" supporting characters are skewered with deadly accuracy.
"Ruffles Versus Ruffles" (1980) also scores a satiric coup, this time about including real-life characters in historical mystery fiction.
Probable Claus (2009) is a courtroom novel. While it is light-hearted, it is not primarily a parody. But the book occasionally erupts into full scale Breen parody. There is a hilarious look at the traumatic pasts assigned to protagonists of today's soap-opera like mysteries (Chapter 9). This chapter reads like a direct sequel to "Justice Knows No Paws".
Other parody sections of Probable Claus look at police detectives testifying in court (Chapter 19) and medical examiners (Chapter 22). These sections mainly don't have satirical points to make - they are out-and-out comedy. The police detectives show Breen's flair for echoing different kinds of speech.
The detective heroine of Touch of the Past, Rachel Hennings, has also appeared in three short stories, of which the best is the longest and most complexly plotted, "Starstruck" (1987). "Starstruck" is a fine example of a type of story Breen has written throughout his career, the mystery with a detailed Hollywood background. These brightly colored stories are rich in show biz lore. Other good works in this mode are the early Van Dine pastiche, "The Austin Murder Case" (1967), and Breen's series of tales about Hollywood detective Sebastian Grady, such as "Credit the Cat" (1994) and "The Cat and the Kinetophone" (1999).
Some of Breen's stories tend to be closely constructed around his characters. Breen's non-pastiche works usually have either a show business, literary or sports background, and every character in the tale will have some specialized professional skill relating to that background. His characters also have a professional status, such as up and coming newcomer, old-timer on the downgrade, person trying to branch out to some new specialty, etc. This allows Breen to work a portrait of an entire sport or entertainment into his tale. In addition, each character has their own personality and feelings. The progression of Breen's plot is often a mosaic made up of many different facets, actions or abilities of his individual characters. The stories are full of interesting detail.
Breen also has an affinity for parties. This gives him a chance to gather his characters together, and let each express a vivid personality. Costume parties show up in a number of Breen tales; each character gets to come both as himself, and in some new, often symbolic persona.
"The Missing Elevator Puzzle" (2007) and "Fake Résumé" (2009) explore crimes linked to writing and literature. Both give in-depth looks at various kinds of literary fakery.
Breen has sometimes branched out into combinations of fantasy and mystery. His "No Gaol For The Budgie" (1993) is a James Powell like mystery fantasy set among birds. It is a little gem. It shows both imagination, and something to say about society.
Three of the later Ed Gorgon tales in the collection are well-done impossible crime stories: "The Number 12 Jinx" (1978), "Streak to Death" (1987) and "Insider Trading" (2003).
Breen has written several stories in which hidden messages are coded into objects or statements. Sometimes these are pure dying message stories, in which a murdered person's last statement must be decoded to learn their murderer. More often, these are elaborate looks at series of objects that contain some hidden meaning. The object series often form a whole system, with a shared pattern of meaning among the individual objects. Both kinds of tales have strong roots in Ellery Queen, as Breen's tales proudly point out; Queen is Breen's favorite mystery writer. One recalls the hidden meanings in Queen's Ten Day's Wonder (1948) and "The Inner Circle" (1947). Among the most important such works in Breen are the objects on the table in the fourth section of Triple Crown (1985), the dying messages in the Ed Gorgon tales "The Babe Ruth Murder Case" (1972), "Designated Murderer" (1974) and the Rachel Hennings "Starstruck" (1987), the mysterious cats in "Longevity Has Its Place" (1997), the puzzle in the Berwanger and Foley "A Run Through the Calendar" (2007), the musical clues in Probable Claus (2009) (Chapter 35), and the hidden patterns in "C. I. A.: The Swedish Boot Mystery" (1973), "The Male and Female Hogan" (2001) and "Sharing" (2001). The mystery plot in "The Missing Elevator Puzzle" (2007) also has links to such techniques. While the costume parties in Breen are not usually presented as mysteries, they too show his ingenuity in coming up with symbolic meanings in imagery.
Three of the Ed Gorgon stories are puzzle plot mysteries, that do not fall into such well-marked subgenres as "impossible crimes" or "dying messages". All three have interestingly constructed puzzle plots. "Fall of a Hero" (1972) starts out with a surreal situation, one that is original and new. It then moves pleasantly in the next few paragraphs on to a Queen-like "exhaustive search", although this is not a physical search for an object, as in Ellery Queen, but a search through possible explanations. Finally, the story gradually reaches a logical solution. The story succeeds both as a formal mystery with interesting plot patterns, and also as a work of social commentary.
"The Body in the Bullpen" (1972) is criticized by the author in his afterword as having a murderer that is too easy to spot. That is true, but the plot shows imagination regardless.
"Throw Out the First Ax" (1992) has a complex plot. It gradually constructs two different and conflicting versions of reality. It builds deductive reasoning about solving the mystery out of them, and also an explanation for the murder. This double-reality construction is unusual in mystery fiction. The story also has an original sports background, and a nice view of small town life, that resembles Breen's favorite small town, Idyllwild.
"A Piece of the Auction" (1986), like "Fall of a Hero", is another tale that centers on a hard-to-explain situation. Breen comes up with two different solutions. While both stories contain a muder, the main puzzle in both is not the killing, but the unusual situation.
Among Jon L. Breen's short fiction, the one that reminds me most of Touch of the Past is "Tea and 'Biscuit" (1991). As in the novel, a complex and pleasant network of relationships is set up, in the short story involving both human and animals. As in the novel, there is a central unusual situation. Here it is a friendship between a cat and a horse: something out of the way of common experience, but NOT surrealistic. This unusual situation is made the foundation of a puzzle plot. The whole story is well done. It is short, but I have been resisting the temptation to describe it as a "little" tale. Just because Breen writes with artistic economy there is no reason to minimize his work. It is very fully developed in terms of a complex plot.
Breen writes contemporary puzzle plot mysteries, doubles as a critic, and has been associated with EQMM. So far, this sounds like a description of the Edward D. Hoch-Bill Pronzini school of fiction. He certainly has affinities, but his actual mysteries seem very different from theirs. For one thing, both Hoch and Pronzini are clearly centered on impossible crimes. Although Breen has written three clever impossible crime story in his Ed Gorgon tales, he is not centrally oriented towards this kind of fiction the way Hoch and Pronzini are. Just because puzzle plots no longer dominate mystery fiction the way they did in the 1920's, is no reason to group all modern puzzle plot writers into a single school. I would instead describe Breen as a contemporary member of the Van Dine school. Breen's puzzle plots are frequently in the tradition of Van Dine's great disciple, Ellery Queen. And the cultural "backgrounds" in Breen echo those in Van Dine, Queen, and the other members of the Van Dine school.
DeAndrea is good at plotting. His first novel Killed in the Ratings (1978) is a model of plot complexity. Its formal patterns fascinate, and are the equal to the standards of the best Golden Age writers. While his later novels are not as vastly complex, they are still substantial puzzle plots, and both Werewolf and Paradise contain clever, well set up mystery elements. These ingenious plot twists, revealed in the solution to the cases, and well supported by clues, are in the classic Golden Age tradition.
DeAndrea is especially good at characterization. He writes best when he writes about talented people, whether their talent is TV production, mystery writing or science. His detectives are similarly talented, and are among the most full bodied characterizations of all recent fictional detectives. His characters seem like interesting, three dimensional people. On the downside, are those spy tales where DeAndrea's main interest seems to be preaching right wing ideology.
Keep the Baby, Faith (1986) is an anomaly in DeAndrea's work in that its storytelling is more interesting than its puzzle plot. The opening sections, with their flashback to France, are especially good. The hero, a reporter on a great newspaper in New York City, is an interesting variation on Matt Cobb.
William L. DeAndrea has identified Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin as the source of his series detective, Matt Cobb, who he created for the classic 1978 novel, Killed in the Ratings. I confess that I don't see too many resemblances.
The earlier character in detective fiction that seems most similar to Cobb, to me at least, is McLove in Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down" (published 1965, although Hoch wrote a version of this story in the 1950's). Usually considered the masterpiece of Hoch's early career, Hoch's tale is one of the classics of the impossible crime tale. The detective in the story shows many similarities to DeAndrea's Matt Cobb:
The story also has two related puzzles about the same crime:
A favorite setting of Emerson's is the country estate, depicted as a working farm and household engaged in the production of food. This is the historical equivalent to Lawrence G. Blochman's depiction of modern-day industrial food production. Emerson's sleuth, Susanna, Lady Appleton, is in the long tradition of scientific detectives, using her expertise on poisons and plants in general to solve mysteries. There is also a general influence from the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters. Both write historical novels about England, dealing with sleuths who are experts on herbal medicine and poisons. However, the tone of Emerson's stories is more cheerful than Peters', and their Elizabethan setting is far more civilized than the bleak medieval world of the Cadfael tales.
The short tales about Susanna have been collected in Murders and Other Confusions (2004), available from its publisher Crippen & Landru. Two of Emerson's best short stories concern issues of gender and sexuality. "Lady Appleton and the Cripplegate Chrisoms" (2003) deals with illegitimate birth; "Confusions Most Monstrous" (2004) with marriage. Both take us to an utterly different world.
Emerson's stories are mysteries - they concentrate on detectives investigating mysterious situations. However, they are rarely fair play puzzle plots - the reader would not be able to deduce the solutions based on clues or evidence presented. This is a limiting factor in the tales. However, the stories compensate for this by offering innovative plotting and situations.
The use of an amateur detective, one who solves the crime through pure thinking, also marks Resnicow as an intuitionist writer. With the intuitionist tradition, there are more specific links to the Van Dine school. The story shows respect for racial minorities, and liberal political attitudes. Its crime involves a rare collectible, with a colorful history. The story has mild impossible crime features, also popular in Van Dine school tradition. The story has an interest in the historical past. Every part of the story is developed with rich detail, in the Van Dine school tradition.
"Old Eyes" (2002) is a moving crime story. It goes against the misanthropy that afflicts too much contemporary crime fiction to express an idealistic view of human beings.
In theory, B. K. Stevens' sleuth Iphigenia Woodhouse is a former policewoman, now operating as a private detective. In practice, Miss Woodhouse behaves much like an amateur sleuth, and the crimes and characters she encounters are squarely in the cozy tradition. "Death in Small Doses" (1994) includes much witty satire of contemporary academia, including its currently fashionable interest in literary "theory". Both the tale's look at the intelligentsia, and its comic dialogue, recall Golden Age traditions of settings among dons. The narration of the tale by a Watson-like assistant to Miss Woodhouse also recalls Golden Age fiction.
"True Blue" (2005) is also a satire on academia. But here the target is the high cost of tuition, and how students are gouged to pay it - the financial rather than the intellectual side of university life. It is a continuation of the long-running series of short stories about police Sgt. Gordon Bolt, that began with "True Detective" (1988). Like Stevens' other work, this is a true mystery tale, with a clever puzzle plot solvable through fair play clues.
"Death in Rehab" (2011) shows an interesting construction found in other Stevens stories as well. The solution is full of what a policeman calls "connections": hidden patterns that the sleuth finds in the tale's story material, linked together to reveal concealed events. There are no less than ten such connections in the last third of "Death in Rehab". They are propounded one after the other, in huge waves of detectival reasoning. SPOILERS. The connections fall into a number of categories:
Treviscoe is especially good at analyzing crime scenes, using clues left behind to reconstruct the crime. Warren's tales feature a good deal of physical evidence, used to reconstruct complex murder methods. This is an approach to mystery fiction that goes back to Gaboriau. They also draw on technology of their day, that links the stories to the tradition of Scientific Detection.
Warren has started a second series about Emma Stavacre, who becomes a "Searcher", a kind of first-on-the-scene police investigator, in 18th Century London. "Mother Brimstone" (2007) is more of a thriller and less of a mystery than the best Treviscoe tales, and lacks a puzzle plot. But it has vivid characters and historical background.
The pirate short stories appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: "Skull and Cross-Examinations" (February 2008), "The Pirate's Debt" (August 2009).
Larry Erie is a retired policeman turned private eye. His debut in "Erie's Last Day" (2000) is rich in characterization, but lacks a good mystery plot. Much better as a puzzle plot is the Larry Erie tale "The Big Road" (2005). "The Big Road" shares some features with "Dear Mr. Holmes". Both mysteries take place along journeys, which are mapped out along fixed routes and destinations. Both involve businesses which haul things: cattle in "Dear Mr. Holmes", trucking in "The Big Road". Both take place in a ruggedly male world, and both have a Watson-like narrator who offers funny and colorful commentary on everything.
"Fred Menace, Commie for Hire" (2004) is a zany what-is-it. This spoof of private eye fiction is about a shamus in 1951 Los Angeles who is also an ardent Red. Mainly, the tale gives Hockensmith a chance to fuse the clichés of private eye writing with equally cornball Communist slogans of the day, both of which pour forth ceaselessly from the hero's mouth in a non-stop stream of total absurdity. The tale is politically superficial - Hockensmith confuses anarchist sayings like Proudhon's "property is theft" with Communism in a way that will anger anarchists who have devoted their lives to opposing Communism. But at the level of verbal parody this tale is clever and funny.
Another story that shows Lupoff's skill at evoking bygone eras of literature is the Poe pastiche, "The Incident of the Impecunious Chevalier" (2003).
Lupoff's ability to write rich, complex and beautiful English prose partly reflects his long career as a science fiction writer: such skills are highly prized within the science fiction world.
Miss Zukas and the Library Murders has a simple but pleasant mystery plot. It has a surprise or two along the way, but mainly it is a structure on which the author can hang the characters and their adventures.
Without flaunting it, Dereske flouts some conventions of modern mystery fiction - and a good thing, too. Her characters are skilled people at their jobs - they are not the "ordinary people next door" of many current mysteries. Her characters live in Washington State, depicted as part of the modern world - not a fantasy version of a small town in a red state. The heroine is a librarian - not that cliché of current cozies, an improbably successful owner of a small business. And she is pursuing crooks who are up to a criminal scheme - not the dismal mystery that obsesses so many cozies, "who is sleeping with who?".
Jo Dereske has a personal web site.
Powell's stories fall into sequences:
Powell followed this with another of his most important tales, "Coins in the Frascati Fountain" (1970). While San Sebastiano was first created in "The Friends of Hector Jouvet" (1965), it undergoes its first main development here. Ganelon first appears here as well. This exuberantly imaginative comic work creates San Sebastiano as a whole imaginary world. It is one of the few imaginary worlds in modern fiction that is cheery and upbeat - an expression of happy wish fulfillment on the part of the author. EQMM for November 1990 points out that Powell studied at the University of Paris, and taught in France, which helps explain the rich French atmosphere of these stories.
Powell's Christmas tale, "The Plot Against Santa Claus" (1970), is also a fine work. It appeared a year after Harlan Ellison's "Santa Claus Vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.", which depicted Santa Claus as a Man From UNCLE type hero, fighting James Bond like battles around the world. While there is no reason to believe that Powell knew Ellison's tale, both show features of the 1960's Zeitgeist, and make an interesting pair of fictions. Powell's story's protagonist is not Santa Claus, but a private eye elf hired to protect Santa from a plot. The combination of The North Pole and the tough guy private eye story gives an unusual flavor. Powell also surprises by some powerful comments on modern politics. This is Powell's first major "fairy tale story"; the earlier Moonstone parody, a pretty good tale called "The Eye of Shafti" (1968), perhaps also qualifies.
The North Pole setting of "Santa Claus" is not so incidentally Canadian. Though he lives in the U.S., Powell's stories are typically set either in Canada or abroad, not in the U.S. These settings are not necessarily at all realistic of course - this is Powell! - but they tend to be at least labeled "Canadian", and include Ottawa (a particular favorite of Powell's), Toronto, The Thousand Islands and the Arctic. Canadian settings have been more and more frequent in Powell's work in the 1980's.
Powell's other major tale of the early 1970's is "The Mandalasian Garrote" (1972). This is part of the series featuring Sgt. Maynard Bullock, intrepid and less than brilliant Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman. Here he is in Mandalasia, an imaginary country resembling Vietnam. This is one of the few mystery stories by any author set in SE Asia published during the Vietnam war. The characters run the full gamut of various 1970's political factions, and the tale shows Powell's ability, and interest in, mixing politics, and just about everything else, into his comic tales. Powell does not take political sides, and his stories seem free of propagandizing or ax grinding.
Among the other good tales of this period are three Ganelon stories, "The Gobineau Necklace" (1971), "Trophy Day at the Chateau Gai" (1972), and "Ganelon and the Master Thief" (1972). In real life, Chateau Gai is a Canadian suburb; here as one of Powell's Canadian jokes it serves as the name of a Chateau in Europe.
After 1972, Powell's 1970's tales temporarily declined in quality. He published last in 1975, including the fine story, "Bianca and the Seven Sleuths", and then published almost nothing more till late 1981. "Bianca" is a private eye version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", and includes some of Powell's memorable absurdities. Powell's later "The Black Daffodil" (1994) also sympathetically burlesques private eye tales.
Powell resumed publication in 1981 with a series of Ganelon stories, and he has published a steady stream of tales ever since. This is a good candidate for the Most Welcome Return of an author in the 80's. Some of the first tales were weak, but he hit his stride in 1982-1984 with a whole series of high quality works. "A Pocketful of Noses" (1982) is a classic Ganelon tale, loaded with detail about San Sebastiano. "The Priest Without a Shadow" (1982), "The Meandering Pearl" (1983) and "The Stranger at the Crossroads" (1984) are all interesting works in this series. The Ganelon tales of this period often focus on 19th Century espionage and international intrigue, with plenty of campy satire of William Le Queux era spy thrillers. They offer a loving comic look at period detail, both of real life and the absurd conventions of the thriller, with treaties being stolen, the fate of Europe hanging in the balance, and careers of brave young men in the diplomatic service being in jeopardy.
Powell's most important stories of this era are three long Sgt. Bullock works, "The Dark Elf Master of the Crack of Doom" (1983), "The Polygon From Alpha Centauri" (1984), and "Under the Spangled Roger" (1984). Their complex, imaginative, beautifully formed plots combine with lots of exuberant comic invention.
This era also marks the beginning of Powell's Arabian Nights series. These allow Powell to combine mystery plots with logical fantasy. The best member of the series so far is "The Phantom Haircut" (1983). The fairy tale series seems to have largely lapsed in the 80's, although there have been a number of darkly colored vampire tales. I didn't like these very much. Better is a Christmas fantasy, "Death in the Christmas Hour" (1982).
In recent years, Powell has revived the Ganelon series. These stories show him in full creative flight, inventing complex stories loaded with richly brocaded detail. "The Flower Diet" (2000) is a satiric work, looking at the follies of contemporary society. Parts of the tale address the dot.com follies of the 1990's boom years. Even more disturbingly, Powell seems to have anticipated the economic malaise and war years that followed. Like "The Mandalasian Garrote", this is one of the few fictional works of its time to show a real look at the social evils of the day. It is eerily prophetic about some of the war-mongering aspects of 2000's era politics
"The Jewels of Atlantis" (2002) shows pure imagination. It is one of the most complex and fully realized of the Ganelon stories. Like other recent Ganelon works, it has a highly complex plot, with many subplots all dovetailing with each other.
Powell's Captain Sunset tales begin with "The Dawn of Captain Sunset", but so far the gem of the series has been "The Mad Scientist, J. G." (1987) (J. G. means Junior Grade, so we have a youthful Mad Scientist at large, here. There is no reference intended to J. G. Ballard.) This ingenious tale shows a whole team of senior citizens working together to create the apparent existence of an imaginary crime fighter called Captain Sunset. A non-series tale, "The Black Daffodil" (1994), looks at aging private eyes with a similar sympathy.
Some of Powell's tales fall into no particular category. Powell's mordant spoof of publishing industry, something he presumably knows from the inside, is called "The Coffee Table Book" (1985). An early story, called "Kleber on Murder in 30 Volumes" (1968), has a terrific opening paragraph, although the rest of the story is fairly mild. This paragraph could form a stylistic signature for Powell's loving, comic and very personal attitude towards Europe. Read it!
His stories often have a mosaic quality. A series of story ideas keep interlocking in different ways throughout the tale. Each individual idea develops, often ingeniously; and the ideas keep encountering each other, interacting to keep the plot going.
Powell has a strong sense of the absurd. Sometimes it is related to Camp, which sees the ridiculous side of everything. However, it is often a very personal quality in Powell's work.
Jack Ritchie's best tales are often genuine detective stories, something that was not supposed to be in fashion during his peak years in the 1970's. His work often benefits from his humor, and a sense of the eccentric and bizarre. The throwing of his vampire detective Cardula out of Romania after the Communists nationalized his castle is a great comic concept, and the Cardula stories have many pleasant touches of "logical fantasy" about them, in the E. Nesbit or Unknown Worlds tradition. Even his realistic detective Henry Turnbuckle gets a supernatural adventure in "The Hanging Tree".
There is an authentic Milwaukee atmosphere to many of his stories, something I can verify since I lived in that city from 1977 - 1980. When he talks about the domed vestibule of the main public library in "No Wider Than a Nickel", he is referring to a real place (I wish he had mentioned the mosaics on the floor); and when the sun goes down at 4:22 PM in November, he is talking about a city on the extreme Eastern end of its time zone, one where total darkness falls in Winter before anyone is out of work. The many apartment houses in the city, and mansions on Lake Shore Drive, are also realistically invoked. I also like the description of Milwaukee's valley in "The Alphabet Murders", an awesome place I have only seen from the air, while driving over it on a bridge. One other note: in that story, Turnbuckle's address is on "Cranberry Blossom Lane"; cranberries are an immense industry in rural Wisconsin, so this is a bit more local color.
Ritchie's first two Buckle tales, "Take Another Look" and "The Griggsby Papers" (both 1971) are thematically linked works. Written before the current craze for historical detective fiction, they are outstanding for their high quality detective work, and their interesting look at the past. The two stories contain virtually a comic Myth of Origin for Ritchie's world: the Island mentioned in the first tale is where Ritchie spent World War II and discovered detective fiction, for example, and much more about early Milwaukee comes out in the second. Other Ritchie stories also deal with the contrast between the present and the past, notably "The Willinger Predicament", and also "The Hanging Tree". Ritchie is not just interested in this subject thematically, but also uses it to construct plots: Ritchie uses the lapse of years to enable a great number of innovative detection concepts, and also to show how things can change and develop over time. There are also elements of this in his little gangster tale "Big Tony" (1966). Even in stories set in one time period, like "The Midnight Strangler", a process of historical change plays an important role in the plot. "The Midnight Strangler" shows Ritchie's remarkable ability to compress a whole mystery story into a very small space. Another short gem in Ritchie's output is "When the Sheriff Walked" (1974), comparable in its inventiveness to "The Griggsby Papers". Both stories ("Sheriff" and "Griggsby") have a somewhat similar feel, perhaps because they involve a whole town, and the relationships of the people running it, as do "The Hanging Tree", and a great number of Ritchie's other best stories. "Sheriff" is a full fledged detective story, with a complex plot. Just as in "Griggsby", I had the feeling that I had no idea of where Ritchie was going, and was constantly surprised by his plot.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about those Ritchie stories that ring changes on a single plot theme. In these tales, Detective Turnbuckle explores every possibility about a crime. Much of this is presented as alleged detectival "deduction", but it actually seems to be Ritchie exploring every variation of a plot, usually a well known, cliched mystery plot the author is satirizing. It can be as tiresome as it is ingenious. A better than average example of this is "Hung Jury", wherein Ritchie runs his logical analyzer on the plot of John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928), with pleasing results. "The Many-Flavored Crime" (1975), which is a Turnbuckle tale in all but its choice of detective (had Ritchie written it a few years later he surely would have included it in the series), is also of this kind. Here Ritchie is doing variations on the Peril at Edge House type crime, where a series of "accidents" keeps stalking someone. This story has elements of Ritchie's own brand of absurdism, in which clues to the crime keep being revealed as Something Other Than What They Seem. This approach reaches its crest in the Turnbuckle stories proper in "Some Days Are Like That".
The early story "Shatter Proof" (1960) is nice because it has something new to say about a situation we've all seen countless times in the movies and fiction. In this, it is similar, in miniature, to those Ritchie stories like "Hung Jury", in which he rings the changes on well known mystery themes.
Many of Ritchie's 1960's tales seem to be comic caper stories, narrated in first person by clever Rogues trying to pull off some big scam. The art world take-off "Who's Got the Lady" (1964) shows special satiric sparkle. He also wrote such stories as "The Operator" (1963) and "Big Tony" (1966), tales which comically portray the underworld as just another routine business. One of his earliest pre-Turnbuckle detective stories is "By Child Undone". This is a thin, but admittedly hard to guess, tale about anonymous letters from a mad killer - a favorite Ritchie theme, reminiscent of Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936).
Ritchie's work suffers from unevenness. Too many of his tales lack inspiration. When reading his best works one is convinced he is a brilliant writer; when reading his worst one can feel that he is a hack. All too few of them can be classifies as "puzzle plots" in which a well defined mysterious situation is eventually explained in a surprising way, but one in which all clues have been fairly presented to the reader. I basically like the puzzle plot approach, and think that the quality of Ritchie's work might have been better had he lived in a time like the 1930's that encouraged such an approach. By contrast, Ritchie is really good at detection. Sgt. Turnbuckle often unearths fascinating surprises and ingenious twists. He is very good at following up clues. He also makes spectacular deductions from evidence, often with too great a leap to be really "fair", but with considerable ingenuity all the same.
Ritchie's style seems influenced by Ellery Queen. Queen also wrote works in which a single plot is explored for every possible small variation: see The Origin of Evil, for example. And Queen's books are deeply oriented towards deduction. Sgt. Turnbuckle and Milwaukee can seem like a low rent spoof on Ellery Queen and New York City, too. And what Francis M. Nevins calls the theme of The Lovely Past in Queen finds an echo in Ritchie's historicism. Ritchie also shares some of Queen's surrealism: see the spectacularly odd "The Many-Flavored Crime", for example. The usual Ritchie household of well to do older people living with their grown children and various secretaries and servants also seems taken right out of Queen: see The Devil To Pay or The Origin of Evil. As in EQ, the grown kids in Ritchie tend not to be really bad, but they are very willful and intelligent, have a major attitude, and often engage in schemes to conceal other people's crimes and otherwise gum things up. Even the anonymous warning letters of the latter novel are echoed in many Ritchie stories. So is the way in which the real killer gets away in The Origin of Evil, having set things up so there is no evidence to convict: a common finale of Ritchie tales. Did Ritchie read Queen's omnibus The Hollywood Murders, and did it make a big impression?