Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise! Surprise!

Yesterday I went to the mailbox and found yet another review copy from a publisher who often sends me ARCs. The timing couldn't have been better; I had just finished a book and was looking for a new read for this week's daily commute. I thought to myself, "Hmm... I wonder if this one is worth reading." I opened the package and burst out laughing. It was an ARC for a reprint of The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen. (But you probably already knew that because of the picture over there on the left.) Yes, the very same book I had just finished and written up for FFB three days ago.

So for the handful of you who read my Friday's Forgotten Book post a few days ago here's some fantastic good news for you. A new paperback edition of this very fine noir thriller (which is also a detective novel) in coming to you in November.  Can you stand the waiting?

I bet Stark House never had this kind of ESP/synchronicity from the vintage book blogs for any of their planned reprints. Ever. I seriously had no clue that anyone had any interest in reprinting anything by Helen Nielsen. I am very, very happy that this book is being reprinted. And talk about advance reviews!

PLUS! Here's my first giveaway in many moons. Be the first person to email me with your interest in reading Nielsen's excellent book, and your mailing address of course, and I'll mail this ARC to you. I don't need it at all obviously since I already have a 1954 paperback as well as a 1st edition hardcover.


Sunday, August 21, 2016


David McKay Company, another publisher based in Philadelphia (see previous Main Line Mystery and Lippincott Masked Man posts), joined the post-World War Two era mystery imprint mania around the mid 1940s. They seemed to have copied their line of crime fiction imprints along Doubleday's Crime Club 1940s model which used a set of cartoon drawings to denote the subgenre of each of the books being sold ranging from a magnifying glass to signify "Favorite Detective" to a grinning skull for "Comic Crime". McKay Company also chose to broaden the definition of detective fiction to include spy novels and adventure thrillers that supposedly also include detective novel elements. On the rear panel of each book included in the imprint there was a key to help the buyer determine what kind of crime novel they were holding in their hands. But while Crime Club used distinctive icons McKay used a subtle system of color coding employed in the imprint's very clever logo of man reading in an armchair. And if you couldn't figure it out for yourself they just told you as shown in the example below.

The "Armchair Mystery" dust jackets began with a uniformly designed dust jacket at the start in 1945. The entire DJ had a yellow background with full color art work on the front panel, an ad for another Title on the rear panel, and the logo key explained on the rear flap along with another ad for the upcoming book in the series. The imprint logo or title was placed on the front board and spine of the book and on all panels of the DJ: front, both flaps, rear panel and spine panel. In the years after 1945 the is formula was dropped and DJ art no longer used the yellow background and the logo key was eventually eliminated as well.

The leading writers in the "Armchair Mystery" imprint were Bruno Fischer, W. T. Ballard, and "Edward Ronns" who writing under his own name, Edward S. Aarons, became one of the bestselling writers for Gold Medal when he created the "Assignment" series featuring Sam Durrell, a CIA agent.

The imprint, however, was relatively short lived and ran from 1945 to 1948. I can find no sign of any of David McKay's detective, crime or espionage fiction after 1948 published as part of the "Armchair Mystery" imprint. If anyone knows that this one lasted longer, I'd appreciate knowing of some or all of the later titles.

Friday, August 19, 2016

FFB: The Woman on the Roof - Helen Nielsen

THE STORY: Wilma Rathjen is The Woman on the Roof (1954). She spends a lot of time watching her neighbors from her rooftop apartment that overlooks the courtyard building next door. One night while spying through their open, well lit windows she sees a dead woman in a bathtub but says nothing about it to anyone. Instead through her rash actions she unwittingly implicates herself in what turns out to be a murder set up to look like a terrible accident. When Wilma is targeted by the killer who thinks she knows too much Wilma flees making more foolish decisions and endangering others.

THE CHARACTERS: The viewpoints switch between Wilma and John Osgood, a police sergeant investigating the death of Jeri Lynn, an exotic dancer and would-be actress who was electrocuted in her bathtub. Told in the third person we get to know the intimate thoughts of only Osgood and Wilma. Their perceptions of the case vary wildly since Wilma is introduced as a paranoid neurotic from the very first page. Osgood eventually comes to see that what others interpret as the ravings of a "madwoman" are in fact truthful events but told to the police in such a hysterical fashion that she seems to be completely delusional if not guilty of the crime herself. The scenes with Wilma and Osgood alone are penetrating and we see that Wilma is hardly unbalanced but rather sharp witted and keenly observant. It's only her past that continues to haunt her and colors everything that could possibly be seen as threatening to her. The real pull of the story is in following Osgood's slow realization that everything that Wilma has done and everything she has seen and told him are not delusions but a slanted truth of sorts. She is holding back some key information and once he can get her to feel comfortable enough to tell all he knows he can solve the case. Yet at every turn in this often complex and highly suspenseful story Osgood is hindered by a killer who takes advantage of chance and coincidence and Wilma's mental imbalance.

The supporting players are a cross section of working class California and wanna-be entertainers. Nielsen knows this side of the Hollywood outskirts and the losers and dreamers very well. There are two show girls who act like the typical Hollywood starlets heightening mundane moments with melodramatic speech, a drop dead gorgeous hunk who likes to wash his sports car wearing nothing but his tight yellow swimming trunks, a has-been saloon singer who tries to befriend Wilma, the blowsy outspoken woman who runs a strip club, and the nosy ancient handyman who conveniently has keys to everyone's apartment and who can't help but do a little spying and sleuthing on his own.

INNOVATIONS: The Woman on the Roof is a rare example of a writer using a mentally ill character as a protagonist and not really caring if that lead role comes off as sympathetic. Still, Nielsen does an admirable job of presenting an obviously deeply troubled and neurotic woman well aware of her fears and paranoia and not turning her into the typical nut job you find in crime fiction of this era. Initially it's hard to like Wilma for all the seemingly ludicrous things she does but we do come to feel how trapped she feels. Sympathy does not come easy from Nielsen's pen but eases out over the course of the story. Her handling of Wilma's incarceration in a sanitarium at the hands of her brother sends mixed messages for most of the book. Was it the best choice or merely an easy way out for her often indifferent brother? Curtis Rathjen is more concerned about his public image as a rising star in real estate business and a possible political career than his sister's welfare. The role that Osgood plays, however, in teaching others about how to handle Wilma is perhaps her master touch in The Woman on the Roof.

Osgood comes to understand that seeing the crime through Wilma's skewed perception and trying his best to step into her shoes rather than dismissing everything she says as "crazy" is the key to finding the person responsible for the murder of Jeri Lynn and all the other crimes committed. Osgood not only learns a lot about his own prejudices about mentally ill people he comes to be Wilma's only friend in the book. In the course of this self-discovery of sorts he also manages to teach his police colleagues a thing or two about compassion and the role of witnesses despite preconceived notions of their fantasies or lies. This is one of the better crime novels I've ever read in how it deals with mental illness and the fear that tends to ruin the lives of those afflicted with alternate perceptions and misaligned realities.

QUOTES: There was no mistaking Curtis' step--quick and firm as if each one cost good money and he was determined to get full value for every expenditure.

Wilma Rathjen looked normal enough, neat, simply dressed, certainly not like the obvious characters who could be seen any day parading the streets like a road company of The Snake Pit.

Wilma tried to stand tall and proud, but there wasn't enough of her to stand tall, and she looked about as proud as a Christmas tree on the day after New Year's.

"He's got the breath of a baby, providing the baby smokes cheap cigars."

Maybe [Wilma] was as guilty as the evidence indicated. Maybe she was crazy enough to keep in a cage and he wasn't far behind, but some of those questions would have to be answered before he could be sure. Even a crazy woman deserved that much of a chance.

When Wilma walked into the room Osgood felt sick. He'd seen women in the same condition thousands of time, but not this woman. Not a woman so fastidious in her dress and conduct, and so pitifully proud of her furniture and her [china] cups. In the forty-eight hours since he'd seen her last the woman seemed to have matriculated from hell.

Maybe he couldn't square the world, but he could at least square himself. Living was a private enterprise anyway; a man could break his neck trying to see which way the crowd went.

"Insane is a pretty strong term , Mr. Rathjen. If you had my job you'd stop thinking of your sister as a freak. This city is crawling with frightened people just like her. Maybe they've lost a loved one and can't get used to being alone; maybe they've just committed the terrible sin of getting old and unemployable. One way or the other, they're left with a lot of time on their hands and too many scare artists screaming in their ears."

THE AUTHOR: For more on Helen Nielsen and her crime fiction see my previous reviews of The Kind Man and Obit Delayed. Also check out Curt Evans' review of Gold Coast Nocturne, reprinted under the title Dead on the Level.

EASY TO FIND? The paperback edition pictured at the top of this post seems to be very common in the used book trade and offered at mostly affordable prices. The hardcover editions, both US and UK, are much more scarce. While I was reading this I made a trip to Omaha and visited Jackson Street Books for the first time. An amazing store that reminded me of the best of the old and now gone antiquarian bookstores in Chicago. In my poring over their mystery fiction shelves I found a first edition with the very scarce DJ of The Woman on the Roof . Of course I bought it. At only $12.50 it was practically a steal. That's how I managed to have two illustrations for this post. Proving that the constant search for vintage crime fiction often turns up a serendipitous find when you least expect it.

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This is my second of several 1954 books and stories I read for this month's Crime of the Century meme hosted by Rich Westwood at Past Offenses.

Friday, August 12, 2016

FFB: The Cat and Fiddle Murders - E. B. Ronald

THE STORY: Rupert “Brad” Bradley has been hired to find out who is spending time wife the wife of night club impresario and antiques collector Arthur S. Barlowe. Bradley takes a single night to complete this easy shadowing job and reports back that Barlowe's wife Elaine is two timing him with Donaldson, his business partner. But the night Bradley wants to deliver the news he discovers that the "Cat and Fiddle" security guard has been coshed and the prized Guarnieri violin kept on display in the night club’s has gone missing. A search for the violin turns up the dead body of a musician in one of the several employee boarding rooms. Now Bradley is tasked with locating the missing violin and clearing his name as a suspect in The Cat and Fiddle Murders (1954).

CHARACTERS: Bradley talks and behaves like an American private eye borrowing his shtick from the pages of Chandler and all his imitators. But his syntax and vocabulary give him away as a bona fide Brit. Why the phony American talk and passable accent? He apparently has spent time in Missouri for a while and picked up the lingo and the accent while living there. He finds it somewhat to his advantage to pretend to be a Yank. I guess this was the writer’s attempt at wry or ironic humor but it all felt unnecessary and a bit cheap to me. Imagine a Marlowe-wannabe uttering a sentence like this: EXAMPLE No one in the US talks like that especially a private eye in a novel. He insists that everyone call him Brad rather than Rupert a name he obviously hates calling it “his mother's idea.”

He’s not an unlikeable guy this “Brad” Bradley nor is he incompetent as a detective. But nothing really distinguishes him from the dozens of private eye clones in the post WW2 era, either Brit or Yank. He peppers his speech with the usual smart aleck’s patois, he has a weakness for the ladies yet will insult the more forward of the loose women he meets, and he does yeoman work as a detective. The case involves not only a stolen violin but a cache of diamonds purportedly part of a 16th century necklace that belonged to a courtier of Louis XV. The whole plot smacks of a Maltese Falcon rip-off with the diamond necklace acting as stand-in for the Black Bird; the "Cat and Fiddle" impresario Barlowe serving as a Casper Gutman clone, and Elaine and Donaldson’s shenanigans echoing the Spade/Archer/Iva imbroglio.

Some of the supporting players are worth mentioning so I’ll give nods to the violin expert Professor, a nicely etched portrait of the absent-minded savant; his waspish daughter Jackie, quick with a caustic comment for any of the poseur antique collectors she disdains; Benson, the lummox security guard whose doltish ineptitude provides some comic relief; and the alternately affable and supercilious headwaiter Francis Walters.

(Click to enlarge)

INNOVATIONS: The plot aspires to a locked room/impossible crime novel, but fails to carry it off. The floor plan of the "Cat and Fiddle" points out the various gates that prevent anyone from entering during its strict hours of 7 PM to 3 AM. The writer goes out of his way to explain that there are only two keys that will operate those gates, one in the hands of the owner and the other with his security man. The guard's key is taken from him and remains missing for much of the book but then turns up later in an obscure hiding place. The hiding place of the violin is not much of a surprise and the ostensible puzzle of how the thief got out of the club without being seen is presented as a baffling impossibility until conveniently someone notices something that any reader would've called out as obvious. There's also a lot of talk about the one elevator that is supposedly the only method of entry into the club yet as the story unfolds (and as any reader can tell by the floor plan) that is just not true. In creating this nearly impenetrable night club and his attempt to make it seem like there was an impossible theft and escape Ronald bungles the whole thing.

QUOTES: A sampling of the more nasty side of Bradley's tendency to crack wise
"What do you want me to do? Tell you you're beautiful, fired with the spirit of youth, desirable and that we could make sweet music together? It's all kid stuff. Grow up. Just because you've read a few books on birth control doesn't mean you've got to go to bed with every presentable man you meet."

THE AUTHOR: “E. B. Ronald” is the pseudonym for Ronald Barker, a publishing executive and writer, who penned a handful of private eye novels all featuring Bradley. I haven’t read any of them other than this one , but I suspect that they all have this quasi-American flavor to them even though all of the books are set in England. For more about Barker see my review of Clue for Murder, a non-series mystery and the only detective novel he had published under his own name.

THINGS I LEARNED: Loads of history on the Guarnieri dynasty, an Italian family of violin making geniuses who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries when luthiers were considered demi-gods in the music world. I learned that a Guarnieri violin is much more prized than a Stradivarius or an Amati, especially if it was designed and built by Bartolomeo Giuseppe, a third generation luthier of the Guarnieri family often referred to as “del Gesu”.

There is a legend related about the diamonds and the necklace that turn out to play an important part and the underlying motive in the several crimes and murders. I don’t know if this is a real legend or if Barker made it all up. It was a good little tale nonetheless. Could be the basis for a novel in itself.

EASY TO FIND? The US edition is relatively scarce as I thought it would be with about six copies for sale from various online sellers ranging in price from $6 to $25. Most of them have dust jackets. Exactly half of that number are offered in the original UK edition. I also found one German translated edition given the not so interesting title Nachtklub im Hochhaus (Night Club in the High Rise) that calls attention to the fact that the “Cat and Fiddle” night club is on the eleventh floor of the Metropolitan Hotel but would never signal to me that the story is about crime or detection.

Though most of these copies are relatively cheap I really can’t recommend this one. There is nothing that makes it stand out as exciting or innovative unless you’re interested in learning about the arcane world of antique violins.

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This is one of three novels I've read for the Crime of the Century meme sponsored by the Past Offences blog. For this reading challenge each month participants read books published in a specific year. The books read in August come from 1954.