Monday, December 5, 2016

IN BRIEF: A Silver Spade - Louisa Revell

Julia Tyler is reluctant to accept the job as teacher of Latin at Camp Pirate Island in Maine. She’s been approached by the camp’s founder and owner, Mrs. Turner, to fill in for the previous Latin teacher who’s unexpectedly up and quit. Was it the exceptionally intelligent girl, one with an IQ of 140, that scared away the teacher? No, it was the rash of strange anonymous letters with hints of violence that sent her packing. Anonymous letters? Julia asks for more details and once she has been filled in she can’t pack quickly enough and find the first plane from Virginia to Maine. Retirement can wait. Her inner detective smells a mystery that needs to be solved. A Silver Spade (1950) is Julia's third adventure and perhaps the most satisfying of the entire series.

The title takes as its inspiration a song lyric. In the setting of the summer camp Revell indulges us with frequent scenes in which the girls let loose in a rousing chorus of a campfire song. One of these songs is adapted from a blues tune with a variety of lyric alterations. Julia Tyler hears the words “You can dig my grave with a silver spade/Cause I ain’t gonna be here no longer” and is chilled to the bone. The melody is quite pretty but the macabre lyrics and sentiment leave a lot to be desired and will foreshadow the deadly events to come. Digging has indeed been going on in secret at night

Accusations of Nazi sympathies, covert nighttime activities that suggest espionage, a member of the staff who was a member of the French resistance -- all play a part in the exciting plot. No one is spared scrutiny, no one is ever considered off limits. At one point a group of girls are considered as having committed murder. This is the kind of mystery novel I truly enjoy and the kind that is all too rare.

As I chronologically work my way through the Julia Tyler detective novels by Louisa Revell I find that each book improves upon the previous one. By the time I got to this third title I found the one that I will heartily recommend if you are interested in reading this writer. Everything about it surpasses the previous two. From the highly unusual setting of an academic summer camp for girls to the exciting finale reminiscent of a Christianna Brand novel. As in most of Brand's mysteries, and sometimes Ellery Queen, several suspects are accused of being the culprit until someone who played an exceedingly minor role in the book reveals all in a solution that makes such perfect sense it should have been obvious from the start to any astute reader.

Friday, December 2, 2016

FFB: The Man Who Didn't Exist - Geoffrey Homes

THE STORY: Robin Bishop, California newsman, stumbles across a sport coat left on the beach late one night. Pinned to the jacket is a note that seems to indicate the owner of the coat committed suicide. It's signed by Zenophen Zwick, a famous bestselling mystery writer whose true identity has been kept hidden from the public. Intrigued by this mystery and emboldened by a newspaper clipping, also found in the jacket, that teases about five possible men who might really be the mystery writer Bishop sets out to find the truth about Zwick, who he is, and what might have happened to him. Is it all a publicity stunt? Did he kill himself by walking into the ocean? Or did something far more sinister happen to the mystery writer?

THE CHARACTERS: From the very first page The Man Who Didn't Exist (1937) is engaging and not just because of the double whammy mystery related to Zwick's body disappearing and his true identity, but due to the well drawn cast of oddball creative types. The newspaper clipping found in Zwick's jacket mentions five possible men who could be the mystery writer and they include a poet with hardly any sales, a painter of "headless and feetless nudes", a playwright, and a novelist presumed to have died after falling off a cliff. Bishop meets and interviews each of the still living men several of whom reside in the same apartment building (see the rear cover of the Dell Mapback below). Over the course of his Q&A he uncovers even more mysteries and more deaths occur that might never have occurred had he not decided to seek headline grabbing news. His guilt is apparent and pervades the novel at key moments lending an unexpected gravitas to the proceedings not often encountered in the genre. Most amateur sleuths of this era are more keen on arriving at the solution, naming the murderer and being praised for being clever rather than agonizing over the people who died, pondering the what ifs, and owning up to responsibility for violence that might never have been. Homes also has a flair for crisp, crackling dialogue which he later honed to a sharp edge while working as a story and screenwriter in the movie and TV industry from the mid 1940s through the 1960s.

INNOVATIONS: Unique to Homes' series about Bishop, one of the many reporter sleuths in America's Golden Age of mystery fiction, is the reporters are much more adept at detective work than the police. Bishop, his cohort Guy Barton, and even a rival reporter from the Express do 90% of the detective work in this book. Another 10% comes from Bishop's wife Mary who does some literary sleuthing and comes up with proof of which of the five men wrote the mystery novels as Zwick. The police do next to nothing except bluster and scream at the reporters for meddling in their affairs. What is most intriguing is the deal making that goes on. Bishop, as well as Brennan form the Express, get permission to grill suspects, visit crime scenes, and collect evidence for the police only in order to scoop each other with headline stories while making sure that the police get all the credit in print. It's amusing to watch the pompous and nearly incompetent Chief Hallam Taylor contradict himself each time new evidence is presented and new stories are published in the rival papers. Often he hasn't seen the paper in time to comment and must take his cues form the ever present journalists.

Despite the multiple Q&A sequences the story is never static. It's involved and heavy on action. Many of the action scenes seem like cinematic set pieces like a high speed getaway with Mary at the wheel of the car after Bishop has been forced to beat up a cop in order to escape from a storage closet in the basement of the murder scene. Neither overly complex nor convoluted this is a well told, gripping mystery novel with several clever tricks and plot gimmicks. One of those tricks seems almost like an impossible crime in that one of the murder victims was shot and yet none of the suspects in the building could have been able to pull the trigger when the gunshots were heard as they were in the presence of witnesses who saw no gun.

THE AUTHOR: Unlike his creation Zenophen Zwick there is no mystery as to the identity of mystery writer Geoffrey Homes. He was Daniel Mainwaring who like Robin Bishop began his career as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle then slowly transformed himself into short story writer, novelist and script writer for radio, movies and eventually TV. Mainwaring is probably best known for writing the crime novel Build My Gallows High (1946) which became the ultimate noir film, Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum and his then wife Jane Greer. With the success of that one film Mainwaring turned solely to Hollywood for his income. His scriptwriting career outlasted his life as a crime novelist with numerous contributions as screen adapter of his own novels, well over twenty original screenplays, and a handful of episodes for popular 60s TV shows like Cimarron Strip, The Wild, Wild West and Mannix.

QUOTES: Normally I quote from the book, but I thought this was a lot more interesting as it comes straight from the author:

"First I had a detective named Robin Bishop, and I got sick of him. Bishop got married and then got awfully soft, and I got fed up with him. I changed to Humphrey Campbell, who was a tougher one. With Build My Gallows High I wanted to get away from straight mystery novels. Those detective stories are a bore to write. You've got to figure out 'whodunit'. I'd get to the end and have to say whodunit and be so mixed up I couldn't decide myself." (from an interview by Pat McGilligan)

EASY TO FIND? Looks fairly good in the online used book market, but prices are all over the place. Oddly, the Dell Mapback is extremely scarce while multiple copies of the original Morrow hardcover are offered for sale. Of course, once the hardcover has an original DJ then the price is going to be higher. If you're in the mood to own a nearly pristine copy and have a spare $750 you can own a lovely copy of the first edition with a DJ. Otherwise, based on condition, prices range from $15 to $200+ for a hardcover and $18 to $30 for the paperback. I found no UK editions of this title for sale online., but there is one Spanish translated edition from a dealer in Bilbao for a mere seven bucks. But their shipping fee from Spain is a little under $30. (?!) Best deal I found was a Dell Mapback on eBay for $24.99. Pricey for a Mapback, I think, but it looks to be in much better shape than my beat up, water stained Mapback.

Of the few Robin Bishop Books I've read I enjoyed this one the most. Coming soon a look at the Homes' milk drinking private eye Humphrey Campbell and his shady, very corrupt boss Oscar Morgan.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

1975 BOOKS: Sex, Race & Crime

I know, I know. I'm a day late (and a dollar short as my mother would say. These days I'm several dollars short). But I have to get these written up and knocked off, so to speak. I enjoyed them more than the other 1975 book, each for different reasons. And they were much more exemplary of the year 1975 than that book I refuse to name by that American woman. So very quickly here are the highlights of the two other books I read for the Crimes of the Century meme last month when 1975 was the year of books being saluted and celebrated.

The Topless Tulip Caper by Lawrence Block

This is the last book about Chip Harrison, ostensibly also written by him as they were originally published under his name. But he's just another of Block's alter egos working double time on the wiseguy humor and the sex and crime books he wrote for Gold Medal back in the days of paperback originals. It's also the second detective novel featuring the sleuthing team of Leo Haig and Chip who, as all mystery lovers in the know should know, are knock-offs of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Oops. Should I say this is a homage? No way. Block would call that pompous.

As the title implies there's a strip club involved and a stripper is the first victim. Well, really the 124th victim. "124 murder victims?" I hear you cry. "That's some serial killer at work!" Oh calm down. See, this is also about tropical fish collecting and the lost art of breeding fish in an aquarium. (Does anyone still have home aquariums?) As Wolfe has his obsession with caring for and hybridizing various orchid species so Leo Haig has his tropical fish. And the client in this case has hired Haig to find out who slaughtered her prize collection of Scatophagus tetracanthus (You better believe I looked that one up!) They account for the first one hundred and twenty-three victims of the book. Thankfully, we are spared this aquatic carnage as they are mass murdered by poisoned fish food well before the book even begins. Chip knows that Leo is the man for the job as does Thelma Wolinski, aka Tulip Willing, as she is known when she dances in her undies for the salivating male audience at the Treasure Chest strip club. Thelma, you see, is the leading authority on the "Scatty" and has written a couple of articles on how to successfully breed the species for a few ichthyological trade journals. Remarkably, the bizarre death of her stripper colleague Cherry (curare poisoning delivered mysteriously to her ...uh... left breast) is tied to the liquidation of Thelma's fish.

Leo Haig delivers a rousing final chapter lecture just as all great detectives of the Golden Age should do with all the suspects present in his office. Chip has several sexual escapades with the attractive women in the cast all done tongue in cheek and with some meta-fiction jokes at the expense of the people who were Block's editors at Gold Medal. This is a fun and frothy example of a well done off-the-wall detective novel that hits all the marks for me -- bizarre murders, unusual subject mater, raunchy humor and true wit, as well and some randy sex scenes that, as gratuitous as they are, still managed to make me smile because they were never taken seriously.

Snake by James McClure

At the opposite end of the 1975 detective novel spectrum is this police procedural from South African writer James McClure. As somber as Block's book was lighthearted this crime novel depicts the era of apartheid in all its ugliness and bigotry. The book dares to show policemen working together, black and white, Afrikaners and Bantu, without one trace of the political correctness we are suffering from these days. McClure' s main policemen characters are Lt. Tromp Kramer, a white Afrikaner, and Mickey Zondi, a Zulu. Kramer calls the locals coons, wogs and coolies. Zondi doesn't even blink at the use of these terms. There is also Sgt. Marias, one of the most ultra conservative and nationalist Afrikaners in the police force. He often resorts to the term "kaffir" -- a word that was banned from usage in South Africa as it is the equivalent of nigger in the US. Oddly, the word is borrowed from Islam and literally means a non-believer in Allah. But just as "gook", the Korean pejorative in their own language for white men, was turned into an insult for Korean soldiers in during that war I can see how a relatively harmless word from another culture was appropriated by South African white men to insult an entire race.

The white policemen and the black policemen seem to tolerate one another amid all this obvious dislike. Kramer despite his uncensored language is more than tolerant and has a friendship with Zondi that transcends their work relationship. Occasionally the reader is reminded of the reality of apartheid as in the scene when one of the police officers watches an argument between an African teacher hosting his class on a field trip and a nature museum official. The teacher is not allowed to enter a movie theater in the museum because there is a prominent sign marked "Whites Only".

And why a nature museum in this novel? Because, of course, as the title tells us there's a snake in the pages. The murder being investigated is of an exotic dancer who was apparently strangled by the python she used in her act. The death is actually described in detail and we know that she was visited by a man who she attempted to seduce in a very unorthodox manner -- well, creepy is the right word I guess -- by letting the snake slither over her naked body as her visitor slowly undressed himself. Then we see that he kills her when the kinky sex gets out of hand. The mystery is not so much about who or how she was killed, but exactly which of the many male suspects is guilty of the murder.

Told parallel with this murder case is the investigation of a series of robbery/shootings in a poor neighborhood known as Peacedale. This had some powerful resonance for me with the rash of urban crime and bank robberies that have beset Chicago for the past ten years. The depiction of the gangster lifestyle of 70s era South Africa doesn't seem very different at all to what continues to plague 21st century cities in the US. The resolution of this portion of the novel has an interesting twist that further comments on the divisiveness of South African culture during the 1970s.

This is the first of McClure's I've ever read though I've known about them for decades. I found his manner of unrestrained violence and straightforwardness in presenting difficult topics refreshingly honest and real. Kramer, Zondi, Marais and all the rest of the policeman and law officers come alive on the page and are uniquely individual. McClure was a crime reporter for many years so he knows the ins and outs of both writing and the police in his native land. But he also manages to reveal a human side to all of his characters in the brief glimpses we get of his characters' personal lives. Even Marais who for the most part seemed to be a hug asshole had a couple of scenes where he was less hateful and more human. There was one touching scene where Kramer's girlfriend after moving to a new home donates her unwanted furniture and clothes to Zondi and his family. It's done without a patronizing manner and reveals character without one word of dialogue being spoken.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this short series of crime novels. I own copies of almost all of them and they've been set aside for this month and the coming new year.

All in all, here are two books from 1975 well worth your time. Whether you lean towards wild and crazy or somber and humane each of these books give you aspects of 1970s life that are genuine and not artificial.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

FOND FAREWELLS: Jean Bowden (1920-2016)

Jean Bowden, whose mystery novel The Fetish Murders written as "Avon Curry" I reviewed here, died earlier this month.  A reader of this blog who apparently was one of her neighbors was kind enough to post a comment on the review for The Fetish Murders to let me know.  Later, in trying to locate her obituary, I found this post at The Gumshoe Site:

Jean Bowden died peacefully on November 04 in London, UK. The former book editor wrote more than 100 novels (ranging from historical to romance to suspense to detective mystery) under 10 different pseudonyms (Jennifer Bland, Avon Curry, Lee Mackenzie, and Barbara Annandale among others) before her retirement on her 90th birthday in 2010. Her first book was non-fiction; GREY TOUCHED WITH SCARLET (1959; reprinted-issued and retitled NURSES AT WAR, 2015) about the true story of the experiences of nurses in the Second World War. As Tessa Barclay, she authored a series about amateur detective Crown Prince Gregory of Hirtenstein, and the last Gregory novel, DIAMONDS IN DISGUISE (Severn 2010), was also her very last novel. She was 96.