Sunday, July 1, 2018
The Black Orchid Novella Award is co-sponsored by the Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It is intended to promote the sort of fair play detective stories illustrated by Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novellas.
The rules do not require that the story follows the structure of Stout's work, but most of the winners have done that. (Full disclosure: mine did.) Here's what I mean by that structure: the narrator does the legwork of investigating a crime, bringing back clues to an older and wiser character, who solves the crime, usually by bringing all the suspects together for a chat.
Thielman has followed that pattern, as he did with his 2015 winner, which also made my best-of list. Both of his novellas use actual historical figures.
It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific. Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus. When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook. He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.
Cook is a wonderful character here. Witness his comment on another character:
I wished I had the opportunity to have spoken more with the man. Of course, I may have ended up ordering him hanged, but up to then, he would have proved a fascinating man with whom to converse. A pity I missed the opportunity.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman seems to have played midwife to the love child of Rex Stout and Lillian de la Torre. Or maybe I have just been infected with his characters' love of metaphor.
"A Meter of Murder" is this year's winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, which is co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack, dedicated fans of Rex Stout. Often but not always the winner follows the formula of Stout's Nero Wolfe stories: a genius detective who seldom goes anywhere, and a narrator who does the footwork. So it is in Thielman's story.
But this novella is also part of a subgenre which, as far as I know was invented by Lillian de la Torre. I assume she was reading Arthur Conan Doyle one day and noticed that Holmes referred to Watson as "my Boswell." And she thought: If Watson is Boswell why can't Boswell be Watson? And so she created the Samuel Johnson: Detector series, the first mystery stories to make use of a real person as the fictional hero.
And now, at last, we can get to Thielman's story.
London in 1661 was a very dangerous place. King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or worked with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.
One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost. The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet.
At the beginning of what turns out to be a very long day Marvell comes to tell his friend that a royalist member of the House of Commons has been killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive. If someone doesn't find out whodunit, then the people of their party may be chosen as the killer.
And so Milton gets on the case, sending Marvell out to investigate and bring back suspects. Thielman clearly knows his Restoration London and his Rex Stout. I enjoyed this novella a lot.
One line made me laugh out loud. Milton to a suspect: "Sir, don't be pugnacious. Spare us your vehemence."
Doesn't that sound exactly like Nero Wolfe?