Friday, January 13, 2017

FFB: Within the Maze - Ellen Wood

When the discussion of domestic suspense comes up no one ever thinks of Ellen Wood, or Mrs. Henry Wood as she was known back in her heyday as one of the most prolific and perhaps the leading Victorian bestseller writer. Why is that? Granted her books may be incredibly old-fashioned, but they are surprisingly readable. Any brave reader willing to dive into one of her massive tomes (most of them were released in three volumes during her lifetime) cannot fail to draw comparison to the modern work of Margaret Millar, Ursula Curtiss, Charlotte Armstrong, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Wood practically invented the subgenre. Instead of her books being seen as an offshoot of the more criminally minded Victorian sensation novels of Collins, Braddon and Charles Reade she gets clumped together with them. The majority of her novels have nothing to do with crime and are, in fact, domestic melodramas rich with scandalous incident. Victorian soap operas might be a unkind label, but sums them up rather nicely especially considering how soap operas have in evolved into tales of passive aggressive schemers only happy when causing unhappiness to others. When Wood does turn her mind to criminal acts, they almost always result in unintentional cover-ups. Her men and women are determined to preserve family reputation and individual honor at all costs. There may a suspicious suicide, bigamy, theft, or even a murder or two, but the story is always centered on the aftermath of the crime teeming with misunderstanding, gossiping busybodies unnecessarily complicating otherwise innocuous events, stubborn refusal to speak without ambiguity, and characters suffering silently in their pain, guilt and shame while tenaciously clinging to what little dignity they have left and resolute in their stance not to expose their secrets.

Within the Maze (1872) is essentially the story of two brothers and their wives and the complex interweaving of family secrets that can be traced back to a single foolish and criminal act. The older brother Adam Andinnian has been sent to prison for shooting a man who was stalking and paying lecherous advances towards Rose Turner whom Adam is secretly married to. Karl Andinnian, the younger brother is engaged to marry Lucy Cleeves but the marriage is not forthcoming because Karl is not seen as suitable in the eyes of Lucy's snobbish parents. Mrs. Andinnian who has always favored Adam over Karl is heartbroken when Adam is sentenced to hard labor for life in a penal colony on a remote British island. She cannot allow him to suffer there, nor can she live without him by her side. And so Mrs. Andinnian schemes with her servant whose husband is a guard at the prison to allow an escape to take place. The prison escape fails miserably, however, and ends in a violent shootout. Adam, another prisoner, and the guard all perish. One of the bodies is never recovered and the man is presumed to have drowned when the boat was attacked by prison officials and police. With Adam now dead and buried Karl has inherited the family title as well as the Andinnian fortune left to them by their grandfather Sir Joseph. The marriage between Karl and Lucy can now take place. All of this happens within the first fifty pages. You think that's involved? I left out a lot of detail and only highlighted the basics. But there's more to come, of course, in this 425 page novel. Karl and Lucy are not going to have a very happy first year as newlyweds.

A religious zealot named Theresa Blake who has her nose in everyone's private affairs becomes a lodger in the home of Karl and Lucy. Miss Blake quickly develops a morbid interest in Sir Karl's frequent visits to a house sheltered by a hedge maze known aptly enough as "The Maze." The sole occupant of "The Maze" is the reclusive Mrs. Grey who according to rumor has a husband who lives and does business in London though he has never been seen and very rarely ever visits his wife. Miss Blake being a sanctimonious religious hypocrite obsessed with immorality immediately jumps to the conclusion that Karl and Mrs. Grey are engaged in an adulterous affair. And of course the first person she tells is Lucy. The remainder of the book consists in Karl and Lucy confronting each other about their secrets, a complete misunderstanding of what each other is talking about, and Lucy's descent into a private misery wavering in and out of deep love and devotion to and utter distrust of her husband. Miss Blake complicates matters by her constant eavesdropping, spying and coincidentally being in the same place as Karl at the most inopportune moments. Karl, on the other hand, believes that Lucy knows the true secret of the occupants of "The Maze" and cannot understand why she is making herself more and more depressed and physically ill over something that he is dealing with as best as he can.

This is in fact one of Wood's few genuine crime novels. Eventually, the police get involved when Karl and Mrs Grey inadvertently stumble upon the possibility of another escaped prisoner guilty of forgery and financial chicanery living in the quiet little village of Foxwood. The story then gets doubly complicated with the police misinterpreting Karl's interest in the forger and the appearance of a mysterious man who seems to have vanished in The Maze. Some of those who witnessed his appearance believe him to be a ghost. Detective Burtenshaw is assigned to watch the home. His persistent efforts uncover the presence of a man hiding in The Maze. He is convinced it is the escaped forger Philip Slater, but Karl thinks the police are after "Mr. Grey" and fears his entire life will fall apart if the identities of Mr. and Mrs. Grey are ever made public, especially by the police. Karl begins to visit The Maze more and more frequently employing clever subterfuge with the help of Mrs Grey and her servant Ann Hopley to prevent the secret being known. Meanwhile, Miss Blake continues to interfere and gossip and Lucy continues to languish in fear, depression and misguided jealousy making herself more and more ill. Yet in the end all will turn out for the best with some stunning plot twists.

Miss Blake receives a tea-rose from
the mysterious Mr. Smith

You may have guessed the secret of "The Maze" yourself. Remember that missing body that was never recovered after the failed prison break? Who do think it really was? An unrecovered body lost at sea (any missing dead body for that matter) nearly always signals someone is really alive as we all know from reading hundreds of mystery novels. And who do you think "Mrs. Grey" really is? If you aren't clever enough to have discerned the obvious, never fear. Ellen Wood tells you almost immediately in one of her many direct addresses as the omniscient narrator who sees all, knows all, and cannot help but tell all in a sometimes annoying patronizing tone.

The inability for people to communicate properly with one another and harboring their secrets is at the heart of the book this book very much about the mind and spirit. This theme is brought up as early as the first section when Karl attempts to get his mother to confess her involvement of the prison escape "[Mrs. Andinnian] had always been a strangely independent, secretive woman: and such women, given to act with the daring independence of man, but not possessing man's freedom, may at time drift into troubled seas. Karl greatly feared it must be something of this kind." The words dishonor and disgrace occur throughout the novel. The characters are fearful of tarnished reputations, afraid of how they will be viewed by others if they ever open up with total candor. Clinging to these secrets not only leads to depression but it makes them physically ill. Lucy, Mrs. Grey, Adam, and Margaret Sumnor all succumb to what amount to psychosomatic ailments. Some of them are chronic, some of them prove fatal. All because no one is willing to speak the truth.

Wood employs the metaphor of the broken heart both figuratively and literally. Lucy more than any other character desires to make her heart whole again, but it is her stubborn refusal to discuss her real troubles and fears with her husband, who she supposedly unconditionally loves, that leads to her dangerous decline in mind and body. She wants to believe he is innocent of philandering, but Miss Blake's malicious gossip she takes as gospel truth. When Mrs. Grey gives birth to a child and Miss Blake delivers that awful blow Lucy nearly dies on the spot. But there is a patient spiritual masochism at play here as well. It is almost as if Lucy, so blithe and optimistic and deeply in love in the first portion of the book, truly wants to suffer and wants to be the wronged woman more than she wants her marriage repaired. When all seems lost Lucy in desperation turns to her well-meaning friend Margaret Sumnor. The words of wisdom Lucy receives are ill advised though they perfectly embody the Victorian mindset: "Whatever your cross may be, my dear -- and I cannot doubt that it is a very sharp and heavy one -- take it up as bravely as you can, and bear it. No cross, no crown." Knowing that she has no real cross to bear at all, that her marriage was never was in disrepair, makes her plight all the more bittersweet, if not maddening. What is unspoken and held close proves time and again to be detrimental to everyone. Secrets can indeed kill in the world Ellen Wood creates. What is more indicative of domestic suspense than these stories in which people will not confide in anyone or too late choose the wrong person as their confessors? Here are people so entrenched in misery of their own making and mired in their inability to "see clearly" so that the are not only at the mercy of interlopers and malicious exploiters but they become victims of their own fantasies.

The busybody Theresa Blake spies on
Sir Karl and "Mrs. Grey" together in London
Within the Maze, may be one of Wood's lesser known novels today, but it was the fourth most popular of her books in terms of sales with over 150,000 copies sold between 1872, when it first appeared as a serial in Argosy, and 1900, one of its many  reprint years. That's nowhere near the 520,000 copies sold in the same time range of her famous potboiler East Lynne, the popularity of which grew evermore with its several stage adaptations. Yet still Within the Maze is notable for having remained in print for thirty plus consecutive years and continuing to be reprinted long after the author had died. With that kind of decades long popularity surely it is time to take notice of why Ellen Wood's books have struck such a resonant chord with readers of all types throughout history. There are indeed many clunkers in her stupendously prolific career ranging from dreary diatribes on the evils of drink to ponderous sentimental tales of women dying slow and languorous deaths, but when she was writing a book like Within the Maze all her talent in suspenseful storytelling kicked into high gear. She is long overdue for being recognized for her contributions to a subgenre still popular today.

Friday, January 6, 2017

FFB: A Corpse for Christmas - Henry Kane

THE STORY: Peter Chambers is hired by Genie Tiny, a fellow private eye, to find Sheldon Talbot and Ok a deal she and her employer Barney Bernandino set up with Talbot. Chambers knows Talbot is a scientist who supposedly died in a truck accident a while ago. Genie assures him that Talbot is alive and waiting for her at a specific address. She can't go because she's in jail awaiting traffic court appearance on a DUI. It's all trumped up, she claims, but she's stuck until she can plead her case. Pete agrees to act as her proxy. When he arrives at the agreed upon location he finds Talbot dead and an 18 year old girl (who looks much older) standing over the body holding a gun. Three more women, all former wives of Talbot, figure into the murder case. And there will be more than one corpse at Christmas before Chambers gets to the bottom of the mess.

QUOTES: The only reason to read Henry Kane is for his unusual style. When anyone thinks of private eye books this is the kind of writing they expect. Quirky use of metaphor, wiseguy dialogue, and that kind of rambling narrative peppered with good ol' boy slang, a faint whiff of world weary misanthropy and a generous dose of chauvinism mixed with veiled misogyny. Next to Robert Leslie Bellem, another oddball stylist who seemed to be parodying the entire genre in his pulp stories, Kane was king of "private eye speak". Kane also has an unnerving hyper-real way of writing dialogue that makes him stand out from the rest of his private eye colleagues. Much of what I read in A Corpse at Christmas (1951) reminded me of David Mamet's terse, realistic dialogue in his early plays. Get an eyeful of this sample:

The book is filled with this kind of Q&A banter. And I like his frequent epigrammatic lines and metaphoric wordplay, too.

There is nothing to divest a party more quickly of its gay constituents than a dearth of the potables.

Have you ever seen a crematorium? It's a place that sort of sifts for itself. Or didn't you ash? Puns from the private eye, ear, nose and throat. That's what happens when you're scared.

Nonchalance missed wider than a banker's piazza.

She was built in luscious bunches, beautifully spaced, marvelously hyphenated.

His face looked like the top of lemon meringue flavored with jaundice.

Lorimar Boulevard was a boulevard strictly under the false license of poetic pretense. It was a narrow, rutty road with more bumps than a grind-girl going crazy in early morning burlesque.

But this paragraph perfectly encapsulates the Pete Chambers books and Kane's worldview:

Somewhere along the stumble to maturity, I had picked up a prohibition against eighteen-year-olds. I am not saying how. Even a private Richard with literary leanings seals up certain sections of the book. Eighteen is delectable, unpredictable, modest, bawdy, constant, fickle, shy, bold--wrapped together and flung at you all at once: trouble. Eighteen is wonderful. I rear up at eighteen like a racehorse against a flying sheet of newspaper. I shy off.

THE AUTHOR: Henry Kane started out as a lawyer. He turned to writing for the pulps in mid-career in the 1940s, wrote a novel called A Halo For Nobody (1947) which introduced Pete Chambers to the world of private richards, and eventually churned out over 60 books. About half of his output features Chambers. He also created a woman private eye named Marla Trent and an ex-cop turned PI named MacGregor. If you want to learn more about Kane you can read a brief overview of his work and life at Thrilling Detective or a bio at Prologue Books, who have reprinted many of his books in digital editions. The most entertaining glimpse of Kane in his later life comes from the memory bank of Lawrence Block who wrote a fascinating piece about Kane for Mystery Scene magazine.

THINGS I LEARNED: There was a running gag about people greeting each other with "White Christmas" rather than saying Hi or Hello. The setting of Christmas adds nothing to the plot nor does the constant snowfall other than to allow Kane a chance to employ this odd way of having characters greet one another. "White Christmas" they say almost as an observation and sometimes Chambers says "Same to you" in reply. Strange.

EASY TO FIND? As mentioned above Prologue Books, a digital reprint outfit, has reissued several of Henry Kane's crime novels as eBooks. But for this book they used one of the two retitled editions and call their reprint Homicide at Yuletide. Apparently it was reissued in the 1966 with that title to help distinguish it from a book by Carter Brown also called A Corpse for Christmas. If you want one of the books with the original title you can also troll the bookselling websites of this shopping mall we call the internet or hunt for a copy in your local thrift store, used bookstore or flea market. There are plenty of copies out there I promise you. At least three paperback editions (one retitled Homicide at Yuletide, another published as A Deadly Doll) and two hardcover editions are out there for sale that I uncovered. As for me I'll be reading more of Kane in the coming months because he's one of the most entertaining "stylists" in the private eye genre I've ever been lucky enough to stumble upon. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 30, 2016

FFB: Sing Me a Murder - Helen Nielsen

THE STORY: Shortly after his wife perishes in a house fire struggling playwright Ty Leander stages a fake suicide in the room of a murdered waitress to generate publicity. Then he announces he feels his life is so worthless that he intends to prove he was responsible for a death of the waitress. When it is later revealed that Ty's wife Julie, a well known jazz recording artist, and the waitress were look-alikes Ty turns sleuth and uncovers a wickedly nasty revenge plot.

THE CHARACTERS: Sing Me A Murder (1960) is a combination music and theater mystery. Nearly everyone in the case is involved in the entertainment industry in some way. There is an element of that heightened reality that pervades novels that take place in the artifice of the world of theater. Emotions are passionate, dialogue is rich with metaphoric expression, and behavior runs to the melodramatic. Mary Brownlee, the waitress whose murder trial serves as the background for the novel, was bludgeoned to death and her face burned with acid. She also happened to be wearing an outfit that was a replica of one Julie wore on the album cover of her latest record. An ex-boyfriend of Mary's is on trial accused of a crime of passion with Cole Riley, Ty's best friend, acting as his defense attorney. When Ty learns that Mary was a Doppelgänger for his singer wife Julie San Martin he begins to think that some kind of switcheroo might have happened. What if Mary is alive and the victim is really Julie? Ty is a troubled, mildly paranoid, man obsessively in love with his dead wife. He will do anything to make the circumstances of the house fire and Mary's murder fit into his private worldview. The more he digs into the past the more complicated it becomes.

Many of the characters do their best to extricate Ty from his fantasy world by alternately cajoling or chastising him to return to his writing. Marcus Anatole, Ty's agent; Alexis Draeger, a set designer who also designs houses on a commission basis; and even Cole Riley all do their best to counsel Ty against his foolish mucking up of the murder trial. Lt. Janus, however, is intrigued by some of Ty's insights and continues to investigate the murder of Mary Brownlee.

As usual there are minor characters who shine in Nielsen's work. Mary's landlord Mr. Gruenther is a portrait of a hot headed, narrow minded bigot. Mrs. Herbert is a comic kind of Glady Kravitz nosy busybody whose habit of spying on her neighbors Ty exploits. She also has a neat scene with Marcus Anatole who is sure she is holding back information in one of the pivotal moments at the end of the book. The two gas station attendants, Nick and Orin, have great moments too since Julie's car maintenance is crucial in finding out where she was on the night of the house fire. The monologue Orin Peters gives about his beagle and the living doll metaphor and how that relates to how men love is one of the highlights of the book. I'm always impressed when the real meat of a book and the most incisive dialogue comes from relatively minor and inconsequential characters. To me this rings true. I'm always being given advice and having important things pointed out to me by relative strangers and never the people who mean the most to me. Nielsen understands this often overlooked bit of real life brilliantly including in all of her books.

INNOVATIONS: The plot itself I think is highly original. I've never encountered a story with a attempted suicide that was arranged in order to implicate the suicide in a murder he didn't commit. Nielsen never ceases to amaze me in how she shakes up the genre with new angles and inventive ways for characters to turn sleuth.

I also was very intrigued by the idea of the haunted man motif in Sing Me A Murder. Janus tells Ty "Rooms are never haunted, Mr. Leander--only people" and Nielsen makes the most of this piquant observation throughout the novel. Ty is desperate to believe that Julie is still alive and nearly everything that happens in the book tends to reinforce his stubborn refusal to accept her death. In scene after scene, her music plays continuously on the records she made. Her image shows up repeatedly. Her clothes mysteriously reappear in her closet when they should've been burned in the fire.

THINGS I LEARNED: A major plot point involves an oil change and the mileage on Julie's Ferrari. I learned all sorts of things about the way gas stations are run in 1960. For instance Nielsen writes that a gas station attendant was "resettting one of the automatic pumps" when Ty pulls in to talk to him. Then the same attendant "writes up a service ticket" for a filling up his tank and cleaning his windshield. Credit card slips are featured in the plot as well as one of the major clues. I can still remember when we had to present our card and have it run through that sliding machine in order to get an impression of the number on the carbon copy. I guess the "service ticket" was actually the credit card slip. Also an oil change sticker is found on the hinge side of the car's body and not on the door where it is normally found leading Ty to realize that the oil change was done in a place other than their regular service station.

1960 CULTURE: Ty and Julie's home in Malibu Canyon is described in great detail. It was one of the many custom built houses designed by Alex Draeger who specializes in eco-friendly home design. Not only does Alex use natural materials in the construction of the house she takes advantage of the natural surroundings as part of the overall design.

When asked about the kinds of records played in Mary's apartment, Herman Gruenther says he can't tell the difference. "They sounded the same... All this new music sounds the same to me. Somebody bangs some kettles, and somebody else blows a horn, and some female moans."

QUOTES:  "There's hatred beyond fear; a hatred beyond love. There's the eye of the hurricane in us all, the quiet place where the storm ceases and the only reality left is the one thought--kill. We all kill, in one way or another, those who refuse to love us."

Marcus Anatole, the cynic of the book: "Love? What is love? A form of egotism. Ty's lost a mirror he was fond of gazing into to admire his own reflection."

Lt. Janus pops peppermint candies into his mouth periodically to cover his bad breath. He tells Ty: "Wife's order. 'Too much smoking,' she said. She's right, too. That's the trouble with having a nagging wife, they're nearly always right."

"I've never forgotten what Mr. Leander said that morning when I told him his wife was a living doll. I hope he's forgotten. 'Dolls,' he said, 'are pretty to look at and to play with, but, believe me, they shouldn't be living.' I sure hope he's forgotten [he said that]."

EASY TO FIND? Ample copies available for sale in the used book market. In addition to the original US and UK hardcover editions, there are three paperback reprints and a Detective Book Club three-in-one volume which also include The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald and Murder After a Fashion by Spencer Dean. The most recent reprint of Sing Me a Murder was in 1988 as part of the hardboiled and noir series of reissued crime novels published by Black Lizard. Though Prologue Books has released several of Nielsen's crime novels in digital editions Sing Me A Murder is not among them. Sorry eBook fans. But happy hunting to all the rest of you!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

It Wouldn't Be a Party If It Didn't Have You

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

And speaking of jazz-- Here's some swingin' holiday cheer. Jane Lynch and pals singing in perfect harmony just for you.

Make the most of this holiday season. Don't take it all too seriously. I never do.
Ho, ho, ho to all you wonderful people out there in the dark.