Monday, November 21, 2011

A Worthwhile Trip to Mysteries Past

by Julia Buckley
Do you love watching an old movie now and then? Something in black and white, filled with a dancing Fred Astaire or a whimsical Doris Day? I love the occasional indulgence in an old film; in the same way, I love to revisit mysteries from another era.

Here are the beginnings of three of my favorites--see if they make you want to read on. If they do, you're guaranteed some great reading for the holiday weekend.

1. "Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason that I was having tea with her in Harrod's on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was still preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Louis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Louis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn't done anything to mitigate his offense; and when looking up "other people's weather" in The Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in southern Italy and concentrate steadily on Louis's sins and my own grievances."

Mary Stewart

2. "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open becuase Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.

There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls Royce look like just another automobile. It didn't quite. Nothing can.

The attendant was the usual half-tough character in a white coat with the name of the restaurant stitched across the front of it in red. He was getting fed up.

"Look, mister," he said with an edge to his voice, "would you mind a whole lot pulling your leg in the car so I can kind of shut the door? Or should I open it all the way so you can fall out?"

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn't bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.

A low-swung foreign speedster with no top drifted into the parking lot and a man got out of it and used the dash lighter on a long cigarette. He was wearing a pullover check shirt, yellow slacks, and riding boots. He strode off trailing clouds of incense, not even bothering to look toward the Rolls Royce. He probably thought it was corny. At the foot of the steps up to the terrace he paused to put a monocle in his eye.

The girl said with a nice burst of charm: "I have a wonderful idea, darling. Why don't we just take a cab to your place and get your convertible out? It's such a wonderful night for a run up the coast to Montecito. I know some people there who are throwing a dance around the pool.

The white-haired lad said politely: "Awfully sorry, but I don't have it any more. I was compelled to sell it." From his voice and articulation you wouldn't have known he had anything stronger than an orange juice to drink.

"Sold it, darling? How do you mean?" She slid away from him on the seat, but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.

"I mean I had to. For eating money."

"Oh, I see." A slice of spumoni wouldn't have melted on her now. . . . "
Raymond Chandler (1953)

3. "The lake was cold, black, evil, nor more than five hundred yards in length, scarely two hundred in breadth, a crooked stretch of glassy calm shadowed by the mountainsides that slipped steeply into its dark waters and went plunging down. There were no roads, no marked paths around it; only a few tracks, narrow ribbons, wound crazily along its high sides, sometimes climbing up and around the rough crags, sometimes dropping to the sparse clumps of fir at its water line. The eastern tip of the lake was closed off by a ridge of precipices. The one approach was by its western end. Here, the land eased away into gentler folds, forming a stretch of fine alpine grass strewn with pitted boulders and groups of more firs. This was where the trail, branching up from the rough road that linked villages and farms on the lower hills, ended in a bang and a whimper: a view of the forbidding grandeur and a rough wooden table with two benches where the summer visitor could eat his hard-boiled eggs and caraway-sprinkled ham sandwiches."

And so begins Helen MacInnes' great thriller, The Salzburg Connection, which gives The Bourne Identity a run for its money.

Anyone who hasn't tried MacInnes might be pleasantly surprised to find she has many exciting books, and in fact the mid-twentieth century has an endless array of wonderful mysteries that are fun to return to. This was just a taste.

What's your favorite old mystery?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, they're all fine writers, but. I shared your love for Mary Stewart for many years, but when I reread some of them, Airs Among the Ground was one that didn't hold up well for me. I was profoundly irritated by the way the protagonist deferred to her husband--more, how she talked about his gender-based superiority to herself--once the action started. Helen McInnes's blatant Cold War politics annoyed me even when I first read her books. And Chandler writes like an angel, of course--I'll spare you the feminist critique of hardboiled. I didn't want to stop loving Stewart, but my tastes have changed in half a century. Patricia Wentworth's heroines have been annoying me on recent rereads too--lots of TSTL--though I still adore Miss Silver.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oops. That should have been Above.

Sheila Connolly said...

I still have the copies of Mary Stewart's mysteries that I read in high school (I once went to Les Baux in Provence to watch the sun rise because of her), as well as the copies of Helen MacInnes's books that I read in college, and the copies of every Dorothy L. Sayers's book that I read after college...

Sayers's Gaudy Night remains one of my all-time favorites--I can quote parts of it. Does anyone remember MacInnes's Rest and Be Thankful, set on a dude ranch?

(as for the s's--my editor made me do it!)

Anonymous said...

Liz, that is true--time alters our perceptions of certain works and there is no going back to our younger or more sheltered images. And yet sometimes when I re-read I think I try to take into account what my younger self liked in the first place, and in that I can still find appreciation. And of course every text is complicated by the environment in which it was written.


Anonymous said...

Sheila, Strunk and White would do the same. It's a singular word that ends in s, so (say the duo) you should still add an apostrophe and an s. :)

I do not recall that MacInnes title--I'll have to look it up.

(I have to keep using anonymous because I can't seem to get into my Google account).


Liz said...

Have enjoyed Stewart, although my favorites are Madam, Will You Talk and Moonspinners. You might enjoy looking at:

MacInnes is another good storyteller. Picked up Above Suspicion in Nuremberg when 17. Remains my favorite. Her last books about the threat of terrorism were spot on.

Anonymous said...

Liz, good to find another MacInnes admirer. And how cool that you were in Nuremberg! Such a well-travelled 17-year-old!

Thanks for the web link. I also love Madam, Will You Talk--I still remember the impact that book had on my teen sensibility.


Liz said...

Julia, at 12, I cried when my Army brother was posted to Berlin. Two weeks later, the Wall went up. Needless to say, his youthful plans to see Europe on leave died. So, after discharge and marriage, he and his wife went to Europe, including me in the trip--just in time for the invasion of then Czechoslovakia. So, while I agree that MacInnes' views were occasionally intrusive, I never found them wrong.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--a lot of backstory there to provide context for the books. How interesting and ironic.