By Sarah Weinman
May 11, 2008
Perhaps mystery novelists are better off sticking to other writers for their real-life protagonists. Ambrose Bierce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Louisa May Alcott, Beatrix Potter, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare are among those who have taken their place among fictional detectives -- as has Jane Austen, most recently in "Jane and the Barque of Frailty" (Bantam: 352 pp., $6.99 paper), the ninth Austen mystery by Stephanie Barron.
Crime writers are hardly exempt from this type of reinvention, what with Joe Gores' "Hammett," an excellent hard-boiled novel about Sam Spade's creator, and "Manifesto for the Dead," Domenic Stansberry's noirish ode to a down-and-out Jim Thompson. At this rate, it won't be too long before a fictional Donald Westlake is asked to pull a caper alongside Dortmunder or Lilian Jackson Braun is solving the mysterious death of Qwilleran in Pickax.
The appeal of real-life detectives, as best as I can surmise, is twofold. First, fiction allows for the illumination of truth without letting pesky reality get in the way, so if having Poe or Conan Doyle solve a mystery reveals something about a certain historical period, so be it. The second and more powerful point is the urge many writers and readers have to fill in tantalizing gaps in the personal lives of writers. Agatha Christie lives on in the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels, but what happened during those 11 days that she disappeared in 1926? Having that mystery solved -- or having the chance to solve that mystery -- proved so irresistible to Susan Kandel that she wove the story line into her most recent novel "Christietown."
Ultimately, using a real-life writer as detective is a risky prospect with a low probability of payoff, as three recent releases demonstrate.
Nicola Upson brings something of a similar perspective to "An Expert in Murder" (Harper: 292 pp., $24.95), which brings back to life Josephine Tey (1896-1952), a writer of mystery's so-called Golden Age. Tey is not nearly as well-read as she ought to be, and if Upson's blithely spirited debut accomplishes a single task, it would be to compel newfound discovery of Tey's crime fiction masterworks, especially "Brat Farrar" (1949) and "The Daughter of Time" (1952).
The Tey of Upson's novel does not overstep her sleuthing bounds, and the lion's share of detection -- centered around the unlucky, murder-laden closing run of Tey's 1934 play "Richard of Bordeaux" -- is conducted by Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, a man of honor, dry wit and keen intelligence. Upson clearly knows her way around pre-World War II London and the grimy backstages of Covent Garden, and delivers an ending shot through with palpable surprise and emotion. But at the risk of quibbling, would it have been so difficult to make even one token reference to Tey's birth name, Elizabeth Mackintosh? Tey's work often broke S.S. Van Dine's vaunted Rules of Detection, but she nearly always hewed to Rule 15: treating her readership with the cleverness they deserved. Upson doesn't quite manage that here.
The Oscar Wilde who centers Gyles Brandreth's witty but uneven series debut "Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance" (Touchstone: 358 pp., $14 paper) certainly sounds like the real-life writer and is accurately, if joshingly, described by narrator Robert Sherrard as being "as gentle as St. Sebastian and as wise as St. Augustine of Hippo." Yet, perhaps perversely, the novel is so caught up with Wilde's larger-than-life persona that it doesn't give him much chance to, well, solve a mystery.
That's a shame, for the quotable Oscar, after chancing upon and then running away from the body of a young swain of his acquaintance, passes the investigative opportunity off to the police. The body disappears and the case grows cold -- leaving the door open for more quips, more personality development and a lurching, stop-start race to the finish line that eventually reveals nearly every other character to be of blackened morality and guilty of something. It's not much of a mystery, but now that Brandreth has a handle on his fictionalized Oscar, perhaps his new book "Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder," due out in September, will give its hero more action than aphorism.
At least "The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë" (Overlook: 380 pp., $24.95) -- Laura Joh Rowland's first stand-alone novel after a slew of mysteries featuring 16th century Japanese detective Sano Ichino -- delivers almost exactly what its title promises. Flush from the success of "Jane Eyre" but battling writer's block, as well as the envy of her younger sisters, Charlotte takes an impulsive trip to London to clear up a case of literary misunderstanding and soon finds herself a witness to the murder of a fetching maid with ties to a conspiracy that would bring down the British monarchy. The plot spins out of control merrily enough and in suitably thrilling fashion, and it's great fun to watch sparks fly between Charlotte and the handsome spyman Mr. Spade, but poor, consumptive Emily gets a bad rap as a vindictive shrew who cares little for others, except on rare occasions.
Perhaps this is an instance when greater attention to the facts would have made the fiction seem more kind?
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction on www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at latimes.com/books.
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