Tuesday, December 24, 2013

...And to All a Good Night!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all the rest of it, gang!

This makes me nostalgic for Christmases past and reminds me of all the people I wish I could be with who made so many holidays so memorable. That's a good thing because I'm not good with the holidays these days.

Wishing a magical holiday to all you wonderful people out there in the dark!

Friday, December 20, 2013

FFB: Death on the High C's - Robert Barnard

Gaylene Ffrench isn't bothered by typecasting. In the role of Maddalena in the Northern Opera Company of Manchester's latest production of Rigoletto she is relishing playing a vulgar prostitute. But if you ask her fellow cast members they'd tell you she's not acting at all.

The more we get to know Gaylene the more we see that she is loud, brash, rude and licentious. Between her promiscuous come-ons to every male member of the cast and her frequent insults hurled at the more talented female singers Gaylene has managed to make enemies of the entire company. They dislike Gaylene so intensely that when two attempts are made on her life they are not taken seriously. Especially when, in her constant grasping at any type of publicity, she runs to the newspapers rather than the police. However, when she dies bizarrely via an electrified doorknob outside her dressing room the opera company must reassess those previous accidents and start looking for a murderer among themselves.

Death on the High C's (1977) was Robert Barnard's third detective novel. He has a field day satirizing the many vain and egotistical performers so often lampooned in novels about opera singers, but he is also highly knowledgeable about the world of opera. As is the police detective Superintendent Nichols who at first plays dumb about the music in order to catch the cast and crew off guard. If there is anything to criticize it is an assumption on Barnard's part that his readers are as expert in the world of opera as he is. As much as I dislike "info dumping" a little more background on some of the plots of the operas and composers would have been appreciated by a rookie opera fan like myself. I resorted to Google to help fill in the gaps that Barnard and Nichols and the Northern Opera Company omitted.

The writing is at times arch and ostentatious with a wry humor that on occasion made me laugh out loud. Every now and then the satirical touches are tempered with moments of quiet drama as in the scene when we learn that the singer playing Rigoletto is taking care of a severely disabled young girl in his home, a fact he'd prefer to keep very private. For the most part though this early Barnard mystery novel is less somber than some of his later books. His wit and clever plotting reminded me more of Christianna Brand than Agatha Christie who he greatly admired.

Today is a salute to the recently departed Robert Barnard. For more about his wonderful detective novels and crime fiction please visit Patti Abbott's blog where you will find links to the other contributions for Fridays Forgotten Books.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Ghosts 2013: "The World in Solemn Stillness Lay"

Each year at this wintry holiday time Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites bloggers and creative writers to contribute vignettes for his Advent Ghosts celebration. It's a Flash Fiction Challenge of sorts but with a word limit set at exactly 100. No more, no less. It's also his community tribute to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to participate. Here's my contribution. It's inspired by a well known M.R. James story.

"The World in Solemn Stillness Lay"

Yesterday there was a light in the window of the steeple.  Now it was out.

Yesterday, a blanket of snow untouched before the church. Now there were footprints.

Yesterday, carolers singing near the pine trees. Now they were gone.

Was it digital trickery? The picture must alter over time, he thought. Some clever technological magic. But it was a woodcut on handmade paper colored with inks, not a photo. An old fashioned Christmas card, an old fashioned image. He wasn't frightened, just mystified.

Then he looked at the floor and saw the puddle and a trail of tiny scarlet footprints.

For more chilling vignettes of a mere one hundred words please visit Loren's blog where he has gathered all the links from the participating writer's various blogs. Wishing a very merry Christmas to all you wonderful people out there in the dark.

Friday, December 13, 2013

FFB: Hot Freeze - Martin Brett

 Michel Garfin is the man to go to in Montreal if you have a particularly nasty family secret you need to keep quiet. But call him Mike.  Only the Chief of Police calls him Michel and only because he doesn't speak any English.  Oh, and while we're talking about his name its GAR-fin, pronounced just like its spelled, not Gar-FAN as if it were French. He's Irish/French Canadian and though he's bilingual and lived in Montreal most his life where he was once on the Royal Mounted Police Force he could have stepped out of an office in Hammet's San Francisco or Chandler's L.A.  Hot Freeze (1954) marks Mike Garfin's first appearance out of three crime novels.

Montreal is a frigid violent world of illegal casinos luring gamblers to the barbotte and fan tan tables, brothels where the prostitutes serve as both companions and informers, and home to a wealthy dysfunctional family that would be all too familiar to Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe. The sexual imbroglio in the Astley/Remington household may call to mind the tawdriness of The Big Sleep or the family secrets that dominate Ross Macdonald's novels. But its the omnipresent, near paranormal influence of the wintry weather in Montreal becoming a formidable additional character almost as brutal as the human villains that reminds the reader he is far from the mean streets of California.

Mike is hired by Mrs. Remington to find out how her son Gerald is obtaining such a large amount of money. He receives an allowance but his ostentatious spending raises suspicions. He must be getting more money from some other source, she thinks. Mike soon learns that there are actually two families in the Remington home and that Mrs. Remington was previously married. Gerald and his sister Geraldine provide us the earliest examples of the unbridled sexuality that pervades the book.

Gerald is yet another of the handsome indiscriminate gay men, always flirting, always alluding, that one finds in 1950s private eye novels. It's his sex life that triggers the blackmail flag in Mike's mind as the possible source of the extra money. Geraldine is clearly a Carmen Sternwood knock-off but her insatiable taste for men eventually unearths a surprising facet to her character that all but erases any reminders of Chandler's teenage nympho. Then there's Marian, Mrs Remington's stepdaughter, who makes all too clear that she despises all of the Astleys and resents them living in her home.

Originally Mike plans to tail Gerald, find out his habits and bring the case to a quick close. Mike is sure that Gerald is blackmailing some wealthy influential man who can't risk having his sexual predilections uncovered. But Gerald surprises Mike by inviting him along to a barbotte casino and all thoughts of blackmail are almost entirely put out of Mike's mind when he sees how incredibly lucky Gerald is at the gaming tables.

Enter Tom Littleton, Mike's one time partner in the Mounties when they were both cops back in Winnipeg. Littleton is undercover as part of a narcotics investigation and he urges Mike to keep him that way by not mentioning his name. Mike in order to save his hide, however, lies about working with the RCMP and lets slip Littleton's name. When he returns later that night to find Littleton dead in the courtyard of his apartment building he is devastated. Up to this point Mike was all tough guy like many of the eyes of his day, but now we see a new side. A crowd of gawkers gather round the fence when Littleton's body is being taken away and Mike overhears them gossiping about another dead drunk who froze himself to death.
I kept my mouth shut, not answering any questions. I climbed into the back of the wagon when they were ready to go and sat near the bunched up thing that had been Tom. Grown men, they say, don't have such emotions. Grown men do. I sat with the tips of my fingers touching his frozen head and vowed to do slow murder to avenge this one.
The addition of this fraternal love between former police partners at times is heartbreaking. Mike is overcome with emotion several times during the novel. He suspects an insidious murder method and when it is confirmed that drugs are involved it only fuels his vengeful drive.

Brett toys with Chandleresque prose but makes it all his own as Montreal and Canadian culture dominate the proceedings. Hot Freeze is one of the better examples of a private eye novel that will appeal to a variety of crime fiction tastes. Enough tough guy manner and sex to satisfy the hardboiled crowd, real crimes committed for believable reasons for those who crave documentary style realism, quirky characters of truly original molds (including an acrobat dwarf with a sadistic side!) for lovers of offbeat fiction, and good investigating with a few examples of well placed clues for the detective novel fans. Above all there is an humanizing emotional undercurrent that controls every behavior in the violent and corrupt world of a bitter and savage Montreal.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ODDITIES: Department of Uncollectable Collectibles

I get a lot of book catalogs in my email and I peruse them mostly for my select interests: Victorian sensation fiction and obscure detective, supernatural and adventure fiction. Every now and then pulp magazines strike my fancy. While looking over the pulps offered by Michael John Thompson, a bookseller in British Columbia, I came across one of the most absurd catalog listings ever. It's reproduced below (with some typos fixed) along with the illustration that accompanies the listing.

I'd file this under "Why Bother?" Seems it was included in the catalog only for the amusement of the bookseller and his customers. He's right about that artwork. It's a real nightmare.


HODGSON, William Hope [marginal interest].
$30.00 CAD

First edition. Quarto, original pictorial wrappers, stapled at spine. A fanzine, issued in an edition of 104 numbered copies, this being copy #56. 17 pp. Contains Editorials and Convention reports, no fiction. Most notably, it bears perhaps the singularly worst drawing ever to illustrate a Hodgson story, the cover artwork, which is by Bill Grant. The editor prints a long report on the convention, an SF con; and reproduces the signatures of the likes of Bok, Leiber, Williamson et al., but it is of little interest. In fact, there really is nothing of interest in this fanzine at all except for the atrocious cover artwork. It's not like anybody needs to buy this thing - it's hideous. A very good copy in original wrappers, if that matters.

You can click to enlarge this, but be prepared for a real horror show.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

IN BRIEF: It Was Locked - John Hawk

Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who'd turn down that party? You'll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the "wrong man accused" and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin's friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet's innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one -- how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn't care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.

Friday, December 6, 2013

FFB: The Judas Cat - Dorothy Salisbury Davis

A mysterious death, a bizarre murder method, a locked room, inheritance schemes, fraudulent wills, secrets galore and a horde of suspects unwilling to cooperate -- all the makings of a grand old detective novel of the old-fashioned school. Dorothy Salisbury Davis takes these intriguing ingredients of a traditional whodunit recipe and created The Judas Cat (1949). She whips up a tale of long held family secrets while simultaneously exploring the effects of small town's population at the mercy of corrupt businessmen and an opportunistic mayor.

The death of 92 year-old Andy Mattson arouses the curiosity of reporter Alex Whiting and Chief Waterman. The man is found in his locked home with a starving and out of control cat prowling the outer room. Mattson died from an apparent heart attack according to the coroner, but with a look of utter terror on his face that leaves Alex Whiting asking several questions. What exactly happened in that room to terrify the old man? Was he frightened to death? Why was the room locked? Why did the cat need to be killed to prevent it from attacking the two men investigating the scene? Delving into the life of the reclusive nonagenarian Whiting and Waterman uncover a secret side to Andy Mattson known to only a few. He was a toymaker of ingeniously designed wooden wind-up figures and had sold many of them to a toy manufacturing factory in the next town over. Mattson was also a mathematical wizard with superior engineering skills and had collaborated on some designs for hydraulic equipment during World War 2. Both the toy designs and hydraulic equipment lead to another inquiry into the legal ramifications of patent ownership that complicate the plot and provide a strong motive for Mattson's possible murder. Add to these facts the search for a hidden will and there is quite a bit of fuel that make Mattson's death seem less than natural.

Davis in her first crime novel shows a mastery of both plotting and characterization. Though on the surface it has the appeal of a puzzling detective novel at the heart of the novel is a profound study of the after effects of a violent death on the entire population of a town. From the nosy neighbor Maude who clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to tell to the Machiavellian town mayor to a sinister veterinarian the cast of characters is rife with intriguing personalities with plenty of skeletons in their closets. A climactic town council meeting that s calls into question the investigative methods of Chief Waterman and his unorthodox use of a newspaper reporter as a deputy is one of the highlights of the story. During the meeting the chief accuses the mayor of plotting with wealthy Henry Addison, owner of Addison Industries and is sure that some business chicanery is at the heart of Mattson's death.

Anthony Boucher one of mysterydom's most insightful and prescient critics, called The Judas Cat "rewardingly perceptive novel" and predicted that Davis would be a writer to watch in the future. She proved to live up to the promise of this first captivating novel with a run of top notch suspense stories that further developed the crime novel and elevated out of the realm of the too often maligned whodunit.