Monday, May 6, 2013

The Talking Sparrow Murders: Review

I think all of us were caught in the strange panic and fear which swept through Germany after Hitler had assumed control. No one knew what was going to happen or what could happen. (p. 39)

The Talking Sparrow Murders by Darwin L. Teilhet ("Tee-let") was written in 1934 and is set in Germany just as the Nazi party is beginning to rise and Hitler has been Chancellor for a year.  The book has been praised (on the cover, in the back blurb, and in the introduction) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Julian Symons, and Douglas G. Greene with comparisons to John Dickson Carr and all speak favorably of it in the company of other crime fiction such as The Thin Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Nine Tailors--all of which came out in that year.

I absolutely agree that it is a phenomenal book historically.  As Greene's introduction mentions, Teilhet, an American who spent time in Germany, witnessed these events first hand.  He is one of the few writers of those early years of Hitler's reign to realize what a terrifying prospect that was.  It is easy for us to look back and wonder why more people didn't recognize what Hitler and the Nazi party would mean to Germany, the Jews, to Europe and the world.  But few popular authors did--and "it took five or six years for popular writers, who usually reflect widely-held attitudes, to feature Hitler and the Nazis in their novels." (Greene)

So, it is very interesting to read a mystery/spy thriller novel written by a man who was on the spot at the time.  I wish I could say the mystery as a whole interested me in the same way.  Written by an American, the story comes across as having been written in German and translated.  The dialogue is stilted...even when it involves conversations between Americans.  The comparisons to Carr are somewhat accurate--the entire story has a very bizarre feel, not unlike some of the early Henry Merrivale stories or even the Bencolin stories.  And, of course, the plot reminds one of The Thirty-Nine Steps in which the wrong man will be accused if the police catch up to him.  Except, in The Talking Sparrow Murders, the police do catch up to William Tatson right away and he spends the rest of the novel trying to prove that he doesn't know anything about the death of an old man who was muttering about "talking sparrows"--or the other murders that happen along the way.

The story opens with Tatson on  his way to an appointment.  He's stopped in the street by old man who says, "I think I must be ill." Tatson suspects an old ploy to get him in a taxi and robbed and tries to politely pass on by, but then the old man starts talking about hearing a sparrow speak--a bird that says, "Help! I am caught!"  And that's when Tatson's troubles begin.  The old man is shot and Herr Polizeidirector Kresch seems to suspect that Tatson is involved.  Tatson is due to leave Germany and return to a job in the States--if he's not on his way home in two weeks at the latest, he will lose his position.  And so begins a mad dash to unravel the mystery before his two weeks are up.  The resulting plot will involve more murders, a bit of fraudulent book-keeping, a mystery man by the name of La Roc, and a couple of lovely ladies.  Tatson will be held in jail, beaten up, and shot at before he and Kresch can bring things to a successful conclusion.  And running underneath is the steady threat of the Nazi take-over of Germany.

There are plenty of twists and turns along the way and it's easy to see why Tatson is so wrong so often.  I would like to give this a full three stars (and will on GoodReads), but can't really do so here....2.75 stars.  It's just not quite what I usually call a good solid read.

Challenges: Vintage Mystery Challenge, 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Outdo Yourself, Off the Shelf, Embarrassment of Riches, What An Animal, Around the World, Monthly Key Word, Mount TBR Challenge, 52 in 52, A-Z Reading Challenge, Mystery/Crime Reading Challenge, European Reading Challenge


Anonymous said...

Hmm... Sounds really interesting. I haven't read a lot of spy thrillers lately but I really like them.

Ryan said...

I'm, for whatever reason, always leery of spy thrillers, especially those written during this time period. I always go into them thinking I'll like them, but mostly, they fall rather flat to me. I'm thiking it may be my general aversion for thrillers in general.