IN WHAT IS sometimes referred to as the 11 golden age" of the detective story the mysteries tended to occur in a fairly small selection of settings, the most common being the big house in the country, the city of London, and, less frequently, the university. For the most part, however, these were only settings- they did not greatly affect the behaviour of the characters and there was no attempt to portray social and cultural aspects of the crime, much less explore the psychological make-up of the victim or the detective and his suspects.
Somewhere along the tine all was "changed utterly" and a "terrible beauty" was born, to use Yeats's expression. Sometimes the term "beauty" hardly applied, as in the brilliant and savage social commentaries of Ross MacDonald, the probing psychological studies of Simenon, and, later, the extraordinarily passionate explorations of 19th-century London by Anne Perry. The detective story became much broader in range, and crimes began to occur in places and communities that were far more than settings; were, indeed, significant components, even part causes, of the criminal acts under investigation.
This is fully understood by Eric Wright, who invented a Toronto college for the setting of Death by Degrees (Doubleday, 192 pages, $23.95 cloth). We are given a picture of academic life that is splendidly far from those of the somewhat baroque Michael Innes or the cheerful Edmund Crispin. Wright's academics are as self-serving, neurotic, devious, and egocentric as so many of them are, alas, in actuality. The death of a colleague affects them with nervousness rather than grief; one of them takes to writing anonymous letters; another hides behind meetings and minutes. Charlie Salter takes on the task of disentangling this web largely as a kind of therapy; his father is in hospital and may be dying, and Charlie has to keep himself busy even while spending as much time with the old man as possible. His relationship with his father has been difficult, and in this superbly balanced story the private anxieties and the professional suspicions are brought together in a wholly convincing fashion. This is Charlie at his very best, and both Bathurst College and the hospital frustrate and stimulate him to the required extent.
The setting is also an important element in John Lawrence Reynolds's Gypsy Sins (HarperCollins, 274 pages, $22.95 cloth). We encounter Joe McGuire at last retired from the force, living the life of Riley in the Bahamas with a beautiful mistress and all the peace that is possible. Of course, this cannot last; he is called back to New England where his last remaining relative, an aged and particularly abrasive aunt, has just died. He must attend to her burial and to the consequences of her will. Of course, her death turns out to be from other than natural causes, and Joe embarks upon an investigation that leads to the destruction of a house by fire and to more death. Everywhere Joe turns he encounters evasions, concealments, half-truths. The community is one that has protected itself from truth for many generations. While there may be adulteries, rapes, thefts, and, of course, hypocrisies, these cannot be discussed. Some things are unthinkable. It was because of this attitude that the murder happened, as well as an earlier murder that was never properly investigated and thus remained, like a cancerous turnout, in the body of the community. Gypsy Sins is a sly and ingenious story that keeps one's attention throughout all its twists and turns.
The setting is significant once again in J. Robert Janes's Kaleidoscope (Constable/Stewart House, 2 56 pages, $29.99 cloth); it is Occupied France in 1942, and a French detective has teamed with a Gestapo officer to investigate a murder. The situation is not only complicated by mixed loyalties but also confused by the author's style, which ranges from the elliptical and the staccato to the overly rhetorical in such passages as: ... now she was like a defiant angel, a paragon of virtue searching his dark soul and defying him to uncover her...." The constant self-searching of the French detective is tiresome, to put it mildly, and the whole is cluttered with unnecessary characters and superfluous details.
Kaleidoscope fails because it loses its direction in a fog of sensibility; it is a different kind of failure that afflicts David Thompson's The Mirrormaker (HarperCollins, 307 pages, $24.95 cloth). The book is subtitled Intrigue, Treachery and Murder in Venice, and it lives up to its title by giving us a bus world of men and women cut out of cardboard; they are not people but marionettes, and one is reminded of nothing so much as the less credible cinematic adventures of Errol Flynn. The local colour is laid on with a trowel and the prose is equally simplistic. Venice, in this tale, is very much a component of the plot, as is the France of Kaleidoscope, but in both cases this component is less a smoothly driving piston than a cup of sugar in the gas tank.
It is a relief to turn from these ill-made books to Howard Engel's There Was an Old Woman (Penguin, 261 pages, $16.99 paper). Benny Cooperman is back again and in splendid form. Trapped into actually working when clearly he would have preferred something less stressful, he finds himself helping his incompetent and shiftless office caretaker over the death of an old woman who has lived for years in ragged squalor and a state of perpetual malnutrition. Her house is, however, of value; and it is now that we and Cooperman begin to smell a rat or, indeed, several rats. Once again Cooperman finds himself involved in the deviousness and corruption of Grantham, Ontario, and exposes hypocrisy and evil with an insouciance that only he can achieve. This is delightful stuff, and the denouement is deliciously ironic. Benny Cooperman understands his city and the ways of people as well as Charlie Salter understands his; long may they both continue on their useful careers.