Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dead Man's Gold

Rheingold! Rheingold! Leuchtende Lust wie lachst du so hell und hehr! 
"Das Rheingold

Rhine gold! Rhine gold! Radiant joy, thou laughest in glorious light!
"The Rhinegold" (Frederick Jameson translation)

I think today's book was on the "I should probably read this book one day" list for over ten years now...

Not surprisingly, many of the comments that are posted on this blog are lamenting the fact they can't read a certain book, especially if I keep referring it to them all the time, making it obvious there is probably some kind of interesting factor to it. In a way, I have had the same for the longest time with the Norma & Alexander Gold novels by Herbert Resnicow: I saw a lot of the English-language puzzle plot blogosphere writing about Resnicow's work in general, especially in the earlier days, but I never came across the books myself, so Rescinow always remained an author I defnitely wanted to read eventually, but never really got a chance too. A while back though, I finally got around to reading The Gold Solution (1983), the first of Resnicow's detective novels and also the first about Norma and Alexander Gold: both brilliant minds in their own fields, and both not willing to even consider their spouse might be smarter than themselves. Norma, the narrator, is definitely the snarkier of the couple though, but even she acknowledges that while she's more "practically" smart, it's Alexander who's best at tackling abstract problems. After a stroke that was nearly fatal, Alexander is forced to quit his job as he'll take months to recover properly, but not being able to do anything but crossword puzzles isn't doing much for his mental health.

That is until neighbours and best friends Burton and Pearl Hanslik swing by with a problem for Alexander. Pearl's niece Nina's fiance Jonathan Candell is accussed of the murder of his employer, and not even Burton, a high profile criminal lawyer, can figure out how to prove how his client and cousin-in-law-to-be is innocent. The victim, Roger Talbott, was one of America's most prominent architects, and he was found murdered in his penthouse studio of his brownstone, with... Jonathan bent over his boss' body, with the knife in his hand. Talbott craved privacy during work and nobody could ever get into his studio without his permission. The studio was only accessible via the elevator, which needs to be unlocked to reach the studio floor via a special switch in Talbott's desk in said studio. On the morning of Talbott's murder, both Talbott's wife and Jonathan chatted with Talbott through the intercom before Talbott unlocked the elevator for Jonathan, who went up alone. After a frantic call for help by Jonathan through the intercom, the maid went upstairs too, only to find her master dead and Jonathan holding the weapon in his hand. As Talbott's wife and maid were downstairs and Jonathan the only person who went up the elevator, it seems only he could have committed the murder, as the elevator is the only way to reach the studio: while there were emergency stairs leading to the floors downstairs from the studio, the alarm would go the moment the emergency exits on each floor would be opened. Alexander, who had been worrying about his finances too, arranges so he'll receive a reward if he can find the true killer of Talbott, with Burton, Pearl and Norma doing the work "in the field" for him to gether information. Naturally, it doesn't take long for them to discover that while Talbott, as the golden child, was the face and name of the company, most of the people working with him had at least one or two reasons for wanting him dead too...

The Gold Solution is a very detectivy-novel. It is both very fun to read, but also at times not really fun to read. To start with the good: the banter between Norma, Alexander, besties Pearl and Burton and all the other characters is really good. It's easy to read and absorb, light-hearted witty dialogue with people throwing things back and forth constantly and with both Norma the narrator and husband Alexander boasting huge egos (Norma is slightly better at hiding her ego), the at times bombastic tone of the book is from start to finish a fun experience. The other characters are at times even cartoonish, with names that are easy to remember because they are literally based on their role in the story, and all of that makes for a smooth read that at least in terms of writing, is enough to keep the reader engaged.

As purely a detective story though, I think The Gold Solution is a debut novel that is competently written, but it doesn't feel ambitious at all. In fact, at times, the book even feels like it follows the less interesting parts of the Detective Fiction Tradition more than the more interesting aspects, making the book, despite its short length, feel dragging in terms of how the mystery develops (which is luckily somewhat obscured by the funny writing). The middle part of the book is just a series of interviews with all the other suspects in order, where they talk about alibis, how they all hated Talbott, their possible motives etc. While the banter in between might be funny to read, it is mystery-wise an incredibly boring segment where nothing occurs but just info dump after info dump (not to mention that this part was preceded by some reports written by Norma about Talbott, which are by definition info dumps). Nothing happens for most part of this book, just a chapter with Suspect A, followed by B, then C, then D etc. it's not Norma and Alexander make really worthwile deductions until the very end of the book, nor do they act upon things they might have thought of during their investigation. 70% of the book is, in terms of plotting how to present information to the reader, very boring in this format: I can totally live with this in short stories, but here it feels dragging, especially as the dialogue parts are actually good in this book, which makes the uninspired manner in which the puzzle pieces are laid down feel stand out. This is a thing that might be improved upon in later novels of course, but this was one aspect where it felt like the book took over the worst part of puzzle plot detective novels.

As for the main locked room murder puzzle in the penthouse studio... it's a practical, yet not at all awe-inspiring solution. It is basically one of the first things you'll start to suspect once all the facts/parameters have been presented to you, and while yes, it is a solution that fits the known facts and "works", it is a bit disappointing. In a way, it reminded me of the little of Norman Berrow's work I have read: a solution that does explain how the alluring murder could've been committed, but it isn't going to win any originality points because come on, that is going for the first and most obvious explanation any reader will think of considering the given facts! At no point does the solution surprise the reader, nor will I ever remember what happened in two months because the whole affair was ultimately just so... nondescript. Sometimes you read mystery novels that have very silly solutions that seem improbable (even if possible), but at least those make an impressiona and I remember, and I can imagine how they could be tweaked for better execution. The Gold Solution's solution however is on the other side of the spectrum, presenting a workable, but very boring solution that one reads, shrugs at and will forget the moment they close the book. 

Does that mean The Gold Solution is a bad book? No, it doesn't. The writing is good, and while the mystery plot is not particularly memorable, it's not like The Gold Solution is an utterly impossible or cheating mystery novel. But it is not a book that stands out in any way looking at its merits purely from a mystery POV. It works, and that's it. As the characters and dialogue are fun to read, I can definitely recommend this as an easy read in between more heftier works, just don't expect something that will manage to amaze you when it comes to its locked room mystery. But then again, this was Rescnicow's debut novel, so perhaps this will be one of those cases where you see an author improve with each following work. I sure hope so!


  1. Yeah, The Gold Solution is pretty much a maiden effort at a locked room mystery novel, practical rather than inspired, on which Resnicow would improve significantly in subsequent novels. Such as the brilliant The Gold Deadline and The Dead Room. Mousoukyoku reviewed The Gold Deadline on my recommendation years ago and thought it was a huge improvement on The Gold Solution that feels like “a very solid Japanese neo-orthodox detective novel.” Resnicow specialized in large-scale, architectural locked room mysteries on a scale that can be compared only to its Japanese counterparts of the shin honkaku school with The Gold Deadline and The Dead Room as his standouts.

    So I hope you stick with Resnicow long enough to get to those two novels, because you probably have a lot more to say about them than we do. You can almost call his 1980s locked room novels anomalous as nobody in the West was doing what he did. Not on that scale anyway.

    1. I have read The Gold Curse already, which had a few of the same problems I felt Solution had, but I might try out the Dead Room next then! (Which would allow me to try out a different series by Rescnow too)

    2. The Dead Room is a good pick. Beside being an original, one-of-a-kind, locked room mystery, the detectives are a father and son, Ed and Warren Baer, team in the spirit of your favorite mystery writer, Ellery Queen. They also appeared in a second novel, The Hot Place, but that one is a marked step down from The Dead Room.

      If you decide to stick with Resnicow, you might want to take a look at The Gold Frame as it has strong Dutch flavor to it (Oude meesters in Nieuw-Amsterdam).