Friday, January 31, 2014

FFB: Thrilling Stories of the Railway - Victor L Whitechurch

1st UK edition (Pearson, 1912)
For decades Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912) has been one of the Crown Jewels for collectors of vintage detective fiction. The original first edition has been one of the rarest of books. What makes it even more sought after is that the stories themselves are exceptional. The book is included in Queen's Quorum, a list of noteworthy short story collections in the history of detective fiction. The stories are notable for a number of reasons but chief among them is that they feature what Ellery Queen likes to call "the first of the specialty detectives."

True to the title of the collection each story features some facet of railway business and the daily operations of train lines. The detective in question, Thorpe Hazell, in addition to his remarkable knowledge of railways is one of the earliest oddball detectives. Hazell is a zealous vegetarian and overall health nut constantly proselytizing about the best exercises to improve digestion and counseling all his clients to eat less meat, more lentils, drink milk and pass on the whiskey. Ironically, he does all of this while smoking cigarette after cigarette. Guess the evils of tobacco had yet to be discovered. Whitechurch has a lot of fun with Hazell whose eccentricity is clearly meant for laughs and is probably also meant as satirical jibes at the early 20th century fitness fanatics.

There are fifteen stories in Thrilling Stories of the Railway but only nine feature Thorpe Hazell as detective. Not all of those tales are true detective stories either. Most follow the timeworn formula laid down by Conan Doyle in which the client seeks out the detective, relates a story curious enough to elicit interest in the detective, and then the game is afoot. But there are other tales that are pure adventures and two that are more like Wodehouse's comedy of manners as in "How the Bishop Kept His Appointment", basically nothing more than a shaggy dog story in which Whitechurch gets to make fun of his own profession -- the clergy.

1977 facsimile reprint (Routledge & Kegan Paul)
What distinguishes the detective stories is Whitechurch's sheer ingenuity in the use of trains and the mechanics of railway lines in the the carrying out of a crime. The villainy includes cigar smuggling, con games, theft, kidnapping and murder. There are impossible crimes as well. A boy goes missing on board a train making a nonstop journey in "The Affair of the Corridor Express" and he cannot be found anywhere inside. But Thorpe points out to the less than observant police and train officers that a train has an exterior as well as an interior and uncovers evidence of the surprising location where the boy was hidden temporarily.

In "Sir Gilbert Murrel's Picture" a train car is loaded with some valuable paintings but when the train pulls into the final station the car with the paintings has vanished. Yet the train made no stops where the car could have been removed. This particular story is the pièce de résistance of the collection. Whitechurch is utterly ingenious in how he reveals the elaborate operation involved in making the train car disappear. Not as high tech as the Banacek episode "Project Phoenix", also about a train car that disappears, but for the early 1900s Whitechurch's trick was an enviable feat of mechanics, timing and team effort. Pure genius in storytelling, too.

Reading the stories in quick succession reveals one of Whitechurch's repeated motifs -- the switcheroo. In at least four stories the plot involves exchanging one item for another in the course of the crime. Switched luggage, switched dispatch-boxes, a genuine painting replaced with a forgery... It got to be repetitive and showed his one weakness for sticking to a formulaic plot device. I was reminded of the major criticism of Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas with Sullivan being obsessed with the idea of topsy-turvy worlds

Though the original 1912 edition remains an elusive prize periodically the 1977 facsimile reprint  shows up for sale. I found my copy in the amazing COAS bookstore in Las Cruces, New Mexico a couple of years ago. I say amazing because 1. the store is the largest used book store in the Southwest and is truly awe-inspiring and 2. my copy cost me only $3.00. Someone made a huge mistake on that pricing!  Maybe you will luck out as well and find a copy at a steal. Right now there are several copies of the Routledge & Kegan Paul reprint for sale via various used bookselling sites ranging from $2 for a passable reading copy to $48 for a fine copy in fine dust jacket. Anyone charging more than $50 for this particular edition is no reputable dealer in my opinion.

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Here's another box X'd out on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card.  This book satisfies the space E4 ("Read a Short Story Collection").

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Drawing on the Past #13: G.K. CHESTERTON

Lilly Library (photo by "Vmenkov")
While researching Victor L. Whitechurch, whose books I am currently reading, I came across a fascinating post at the website for Indiana University's Lilly Library which has one of the most remarkable collections of detective and crime fiction in the United States. Back in 1973 the library celebrated the 130th anniversary of the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with an exhibit entitled "The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction, 1841-1941."

Among the books are some other ephemera including the drawing reproduced below.  I've long known of G. K. Chesterton's ability as a sketch artist and cartoonist but never knew that he was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Sherlock Holmes stories. Below is his rendering of the near fatal struggle on the cliffs of the Reichenbach Falls.

The note in the exhibit catalog accompanying this drawing says:
G. K. Chesterton was once commissioned to illustrate the Doyle stories (imagine Father Brown on Sherlock Holmes)! The volume was never published, but Lilly has his sketches, among them the Reichenbach scene, done in blue crayon.
The entire contents of the exhibit along with program notes are posted at the Lilly Library website here.  It's an excellent resource for any devotee of the history of detective fiction. I've already made note of three writers who until I read the catalog I had never heard of. Unfortunately, the exhibit's catalog notes for one of those writers ruined a book for me by revealing the ending.

Friday, January 24, 2014

FFB: The Careless Hangman - Nigel Morland

Dubbed "the toughest woman in Christendom" by reporter Dick Lodden, Palmyra Pym is the original badass police woman.

She began her professional life in journalism, then joined the Royal Navy during World War I and was sent to China where she worked as Chief Secretary to the Director of Remounts for four years eventually join in the Shanghai police force. Her unusual career then took her the United States where she became a consultant for various police forces including New York, Chicago and of all places Omaha, Nebraska. She can also boast having helped out police organizations in Berlin, Stockholm, Rome, Madrid and Buenos Aires.

How do I all know this? Nigel Morland supplies her Who's Who entry as the foreword to The Careless Hangman (1940), her tenth appearance as Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. That makes her the earliest highest ranking police woman in detective fiction. Mrs. Pym has not only loads of experience but an ample amount of chutzpah. What a refreshing change from the eccentric and near sociopathic amateur detectives that make up most of the lead characters of the Golden Age.

In The Careless Hangman Mrs. Pym and her colleague and partner Chief Inspector Shott uncover the reason a skeleton was hidden inside a tailor's dummy, why it was dressed in the clothing of a wealthy businessman who made his fortune selling a miracle depilatory and why some well known con artists have coincidentally moved next door to the cosmetics millionaire. Morland mixes these oddities usually found in a traditional whodunit and throws them into the structure of a police procedural with skill and imagination. As the story unfolds Morland also introduces forensic anthropology, innovative autopsy techniques, and an abundance of scientific arcana -- his most consistently fascinating contribution to his crime fiction. Even a modern reader can join in the surprise when Professor Shebron says, "This is most interesting. I had no idea that bacteriology had such practical possibilities in police investigation."

With the creation of Palmyra Pym Nigel Morland was attempting to bring the crime novel out of the realm of puzzling fantasy into the real world of messy crime where not all the clues will necessarily fall neatly into place. Mrs. Pym is as far removed as possible from the brilliant detective who explains all as if he were putting all the evidence in a neat gift package, wrapping it with pretty paper and tying it up with a perfect bow. There is disorder in the world of Palmyra Pym. There is danger and menace. Bullets fly and policemen's lives are at risk daily. She faces it all with guts and insolence and unorthodox police procedure.

Nowhere is this realism more apparent than in The Careless Hangman. There are multiple criminals at work not one fiendish individual, there are two attempts on Mrs. Pym's life one of which she laughs off as half-witted calling it a "stunt that'd make a Chicago man laugh himself sick." One of the policemen prides himself on his intimate knowledge of the people in Barbary Cut, the neighborhood where the tailor's dummy was discovered. Pym and Shott are able to get better cooperation because of this policeman's disregard for class distinctions, noting instead the importance of their family life details which he has wisely memorized. Prior to each introduction of a witness the policeman asks about a husband, a wife, a child thereby humanizing the police and lessening the innate suspicion the people of Barbary Cut have for the "rozzers".

In the final pages Morland allows Mrs. Pym to emphasize what must be his manifesto for the future of the crime novel:

"Is there one single case in the Registry files that's been put away with every tidy angle rounded off? Come again, Superintendent! Human nature doesn't go in for card-indexing systems in its actions, and if we're going to mess about with motives, reasons and logic in crime we'll be here for a month."
There is nothing tidy about crime and certainly not in solving crime. The Palmyra Pym crime novels are pivotal in de-emphasizing the puzzles of the whodunit and focusing on the chaos of violent crime and unpredictable criminal behavior. The Careless Hangman is an accomplished example of this turning point in the development of the modern crime novel as we we know it today. Who says you can't learn from the great writers of the past?

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I'm crossing off another square on my Bingo card. This counts as space E5 ("Book Set in England") in Bev Hankins' Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone - Richard Shattuck

The New York Times reviewer for The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (1940) called it "...hilariously funny...a real mystery". Marcia Muller wrote a praiseworthy essay for 1001 Midnights calling the same book "wonderfully amusing...with rich bawdy (for its time) humor." I know I have a sense of humor, but maybe mine is a bit more refined or too quirky. I didn't find much of this book hilarious at all. In fact, I thought much of the humor was simple-minded and tedious.

The unusual title comes from Coleridge's Gothic poem The Ancient Mariner and each chapter begins with an epigram from the same poem.  As the book takes place during the honeymoon of Sue and Ty Grant it seems appropriate to have a poem about doom and death during a wedding celebration as an ironic source from which to draw allusions. The characters also inexplicably and surprisingly make several highbrow literary references during the action. I say surprisingly because they all act like imbeciles for the bulk of the book. You'd never think they had the smarts to read half the works they make reference to.

The entire plot is predicated on the old screwball mystery gimmick of hiding a dead body. Craig Rice did it in The Corpse Steps Out, Jack Trevor Story did it in The Trouble with Harry, but those books at least made me crack a smile. I was rolling my eyes while reading Shattuck's book. Not one chuckle. Not even a snicker. Even with the early bedroom farce bits with Sue running around in her nightgown and crawling into bed (nude, it is implied) with the dead body I failed to see the humor.  Later, in an equal opportunity semi-nude scene, her husband runs around town in his underwear. Hilarious.

One of the problems with the plot lies in the reasoning for hiding the body in the first place. Four people enter a conspiracy in order to protect Sue -- including Milly, the owner of the hotel "hilariously" named La Cucaracha -- all because they don't want Sue's honeymoon ruined and have the police crawling all over the place. Plus, the murder victim just happens to be one of those characters everyone hates, though the reader never gets to see any behavior that would support the antipathy everyone feels for him. Once he's dead he becomes a prop. He never was human even when he was so briefly alive in the story.

Title changed in this digest edition,
also the 1st paperback edition.
So the first half of the book is filled with "hilarious" hiding the body sequences. They take him to a walk in refrigerator, then when the meat is delivered they move him somewhere else at around 2 AM using the ancient and unreliable elevator. Guess what? That's right -- the elevator breaks down. More "hilarity" ensues as the people in the elevator are rescued via a ladder and the attempts to get the now rigor mortis-ized corpse out of the elevator. They are forced to leave the corpse there and wait until someone accidentally discovers it the next day when the elevator is summoned. But, of course, the corpse vanishes and the conspirators have no idea where it went. Until the police show up and tell them.

When they aren't hiding the body they're all drinking. And drinking. They've all attended the Thorne Smith School for Hilarious Heavy Drinking Fictional Characters. The assortment of cocktails and libations that turn up include lime rickey, sidecar, Tom Collins, sloe gin fizz, brandy (and anything that uses it as an ingredient),  whiskey and splash (also ordered as "corn and ditch"), and whiskey straight up for the battle-scarred WWI veteran who hardly speaks at all over the course of the book. Even the cops are pouring whiskey and knocking back drinks while interviewing the suspects! There was one drink I'd never heard of -- an angel's kiss. Apparently it contains apricot brandy and is topped with whipped cream. Sounds more like a dessert!

The only interesting aspect of the novel to me was a barbecue party at a "dude mine." One of the wealthier characters, Cedric Jones, has purchased an old mine and turned it into a sort of adult playground where people can simulate what it feels like to be a miner by descending into the caverns wearing denim overalls and carbide light helmets and play at digging for gold. Problem is Cedric also simulates realistic perils that endanger the lives of his guests. Getting trapped two hundred feet below ground by an engineered rock slide! Hilarious, ain't it?

2nd paperback edition (Collier, 1968)
This didn't do it for me at all. Even the mystery itself is lacking in the kind of puzzle elements that make a mystery entertaining for me. The culprit is fairly obvious as he is depicted as the most hateful person in this group of clowns and buffoons. The clues about his character are all there in his dialogue. Real evidence is lacking. A convenient eyewitness in the form of a little old lady turns up at the eleventh hour in order to give the only real proof of the murderer's guilt. It's all a bit of an anticlimax when the murderer is named and caught.

I was excited about finding a copy of this hard to find book but utterly disappointed in its content.  Here's another case of a mystery highly praised that turns out to be nothing but hyperbole. If you want real hilarity I say stick with Alice Tilton or Craig Rice. You'd best skip Richard Shattuck...who is really Dora Shattuck anyway.

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This counts towards another space filled on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo Card.  The space is O1 ("A Book Published under More Than One Title").

Sunday, January 19, 2014

One Drop of Blood - Anne Austin

There's trouble at Mayfield Sanitarium now that Dr. Carl Koenig, their kindly director is dead. Someone has bludgeoned him with a miniature replica of the famous Discus thrower statue. His office is in a shambles: medical records shredded and torn, books thrown about the place, a crystal lamp overturned. It appears that one of the patients lost complete control and turned into a homicidal maniac. But of course it only appears that way. James Dundee makes this crucial observation. The crystal lamp in intact as if it were delicately placed on its side and not knocked over. The books are artfully arranged and not lying open if they were thrown to the floor. And a single drop of blood is found on the upper corner of the doctor's desk. Why did the murder clean up all traces of blood but miss that one drop?

One Drop of Blood (1932) is the penultimate detective novel by little known American writer Anne Austin. Based on this one book I'd say she was influenced by the works of Van Dine and Queen. The detective work involving the reason for the oversight of a single drop of blood is an example of the kind of outside the box thinking that made Philo Vance and Ellery Queen so distinctive in the realm of amateur sleuths. Dundee is perceptive and insightful whereas Captain Strawn (who has annoyingly nicknamed Dundee "Bonnie" due to  his Scottish heritage) is the typical gruff, impolite cop who jumps to conclusions. Each time a new suspect shows the possibility of being in the vicinity of the murder scene Strawn spends the next two paragraphs coming up with faulty reasoning and absurd motives for that suspect being the killer.

Unlike Queen and Vance Dundee is no amateur. He makes his living as a Special Investigator for District Attorney Sanderson in the mythical Midwestern town of Hamilton, the actual state is never named but is probably somewhere in eastern Michigan based on Hamilton being in the Eastern time zone and a five hour train ride from Chicago. Dundee is so good at his job his sleuthing skills are known to law officers all the way in Los Angeles. Dundee soon discovers that in 1919 three of the patients at Mayfield were all under the care of Dr. Sandlin at the Good Hope facility in California. This is one of those crazy coincidences you just have to accept in order to keep going with the story.

In addition to the mystery of who killed Dr. Koenig Austin manages to concoct multiple past lives of five patients far more interesting and puzzling than the mysteries at the murder scene. Like many a detective novel from this era the solution to the murder lies in the secret filled past. Dr. Koenig we are told early in the novel made a supplemental income as an expert witness in trials where insanity is the defense. Several of the patients' case histories are discussed in detail and the reader is treated to a litany of mental illnesses -- some still legitimate diagnoses, some outdated -- ranging from dementia praecox to nymphomania. As long as you can accept the 1932 setting and forgive some of the passe, often risible, psychobabble and focus on Austin's much more impressive handling of the mystery plot you'll enjoy this forgotten writer's book. I'm already on the search for more to see if the rest live up to this impressive job.

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This is my second book for the 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for which we are to fill in Bingo style cards. My goal is to fill in both cards -- Golden and Silver Age with 36 books on each card. This one fulfills the requirement for space O2 ("A Book with a Number in the Title") on the Golden Age Card.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Able and Willing - Raven's Head Press News

Raven's Head Press has some wonderful news for vintage detective fiction fans. Take a look at the email I received yesterday afternoon.

This is a huge coup for our little operation. We plan to reprint Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight and The Deadly Truth all of which I have reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books.

If the legal issues and money for rights are within our means we may continue with the other books I reviewed on this blog: Do Not Disturb and Mr. Splitfoot. Ideally, I would like to get all of the Basil Willing books back in print and that would entail asking for the rights for another seven books.

I'm especially excited since Helen McCloy's books have languished in the realm of Out-of-Printdom since the 1970s. Currently the only title available in a new paperback edition is Through a Glass, Darkly and that comes from an independent press (also a print on demand outfit like us) who markets only to the UK.

Dance of Death is first on our list. It's the very first Dr. Basil Willing detective novel and I think it was a pioneering book in the genre. Below are the links to Helen McCloy's books reviewed on this blog.

I am one of her greatest fans. And now mystery readers all over will be able to afford new editions of her books without having to scour the planet for a used copy of her early, very hard to find, and often absurdly priced books.

Helen McCloy Books Previously Reviewed
Dance of Death (1938)
The Man in the Moonlight (1940)
The Deadly Truth (1941)
Do Not Disturb (1943)
Mr. Splitfoot (1968)

Friday, January 17, 2014

FFB: Armadale - Wilkie Collins

"I am in one of my tempers tonight. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort. Do you ever like to see the summer insects kill themselves in the candle? I do sometimes."
-- Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866)

 She has been called the most ruthless villainess in Victorian fiction, practically a prototype for the femme fatale we all love to hate in film noir and paperback originals of the 1950s. With her fiery red hair, her caustic wit, her superficial charm, rapturous beauty, and her undying hatred of men she lives for cruelty and vengeance. She is Lydia Gwilt.  Emotionally warped, spiritually bankrupt, psychologically ruined she is perhaps the most used and abused woman character Wilkie Collins ever created. But is she truly evil? By the novel's end most readers may find themselves shockingly feeling sympathy for Lydia's wrecked life and finding pathos in her final line "I was never a happy woman" as she meets her doom.

Replete with the worst of human behavior including murder, poisoning, bigamy, torture, fraud and all sorts of mental and physical cruelty Armadale is the grand daddy of all noir fiction. The book can easily be seen as The Woman in White (1860) in reverse. Whereas the earlier book has two women at the mercy of two scheming men out to win a fortune through deception and fraud Armadale gives us two men being victimized by two plotting women both of whom are desirous of power and wealth and will stop at nothing to get what they want. In Armadale the reader meets the unscrupulous Madame Maria Oldershaw and the vindictive, man hating Lydia Gwilt who serve as the female counterparts to Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde. Similarly, the light and dark characteristics, both physical and emotional, exemplified in Marian and Laura are mirrored in the portraits of Allan Armadale -- light haired, fair skinned, cheerful to the point of naivete -- and Ozias Midwinter -- his  dark haired, swarthy opposite, a man of brooding darkness and superstition. This dichotomy of the two men is underscored by Collins in a chapter entitled "Day and Night."

Armadale opens with a deathbed confession. A dying man dictates the story of a past crime, a thwarted marriage, and a wicked servant girl's deeds that allow his fortune to fall into the hands of a man who shares his name. The confession taking the form of a lengthy letter addressed to his son concludes with a warning that his son is to avoid at all costs a man named Armadale and the servant girl who he feels caused all their misery.  The letter is delivered to the family lawyer with instructions that it be given to his son when he is old enough to understand the horrible story. Thus the seeds are planted for a tale of Fate and doom and the question of whether chance can really exist.

Despite his father's warning of dire peril that will befall him Midwinter meets Allan Armadale and is almost immediately his bosom friend. Allan, the good natured one, has a series of strange dreams that he relates to Midwinter that will have an eerie hold over the fearful youth who believes wholeheartedly they are dreaded omens.  He does his best to prevent the dreams from becoming fulfilled prophecies. Yet as each segment of the dream comes true he feels more and more that he has made a fatal mistake by befriending Allan and not following his father's instructions. With the entrance of Lydia Gwilt the story becomes one of three lives destined to be inextricably entwined.

As with most of Collins' novels the book is made up of multiple viewpoint narratives, letters and diaries.  When the focus is on Midwinter the novel delves into a near supernatural realm with his obsession with Allan's dream and the inescapable thought that he has no control over what appears to be a doomed and very short life.  But when the book is told from Lydia's viewpoint it attains the most chilling moments, the most cynical observations and paradoxically its most poignant scenes. She also has the best lines in which Collin's displays a wicked sense of humor.

Lydia Gwilt and the "Gorgons"
"There are occasions (though not many) when the female mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason."

"She looked at the ground with such an extraordinary interest that a geologist might have suspected her of scientific flirtation with the superficial strata."

"Half the musical girls in England ought to have their fingers chopped off, in the interests of society -- and, if I had my way, Miss Milroy's would be executed first."

"I am sadly afraid the man is in love with me already.  Don't toss your head and say, 'Just like her vanity!' After the horrors I have gone through, I have no vanity left; and a man who admires me, is a man who makes me shudder."

"Did you ever see the boa constrictor fed at the Zoological Gardens? They put a live rabbit into his cage, and there is a moment when the two creatures look at each other. I declare Mr. Bashwood reminded me of the rabbit!"

"After bewildering himself in a labyrinth of words that led nowhere, he took her -- one can hardly say round the waist, for she hasn't got one -- he took he round the last hook-and-eye of her dress..."

"Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner's inquest lets so many people see it."

Lydia may be the star of the novel but she does not completely overtake the stage as villain supreme. Madame Oldershaw has just as many moments of wry and bitchy humor and a few cross purposes to boot. To watch the decrepit and fawning Mr. Bashwood, errand boy and spy, fall in love with Lydia is to view a portrait of bathos and creepiness. By the novel's finale he may remind one of Victorian fiction's male equivalent of Miss Havisham. The unctuous Dr. Downward appears in the final section of the book and proves to be quite a match for Lydia. Finally, Captain Manuel, a man from Lydia's secret filled past, nearly outdoes her in nastiness.

Pedgift , Sr.
On the other hand there are also some finely drawn supporting characters on the side of our manipulated heroes. Reverend Decimus Brock is Allan's guardian and Midwinter's confidante, the man who for over three quarters of the book is the only one privy to Midwinter's secret identity and his haunted past. Among my favorites is Augustus Pedgift Sr., a wise lawyer who attempts to advise Allan Armadale of his folly in keeping a friendship with Lydia. When Pedgift is featured the novel shows clearly how well Collins engineers suspense and reveals Lydia's true character. A pity that Armadale is so infuriatingly naive and cannot see what to everyone else is so obvious.

For a prime example of Victorian Sensation at it most lurid and thrilling look no further than Armadale. Collins pulls out all the stops in this novel incorporating supernatural elements, trenchant humor, bitter cynicism, genuine suspense and dizzying plot twists. You'll pray for the heroes and condemn the villains. But by the novel's inevitable conclusion you may be surprised by your feelings for one of Victorian literature's most splendid of wicked women. Lydia Gwilt, you may learn, may not be all that bad after all.

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This is my first book in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block.  I've assigned this book the spot I call D1 ("An Author I've Read Before") on the Golden Age Bingo Card. Only 35 more to go on this card. Oy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Drawing on the Past #12 : GEORGE H & WILLIAM L THOMAS

Work: Armadale by Wilkie Collins
(Harper & Brothers, 1866)
1st US edition

Artists: George H Thomas (drawings)
and William Thomas (engraving)

As a teaser for an upcoming review here are the illustrations taken from the original United States edition of Armadale. This mammoth novel was originally published serially in The Cornhill Magazine from November 1864 to June 1866. The illustrations used in both the first UK and US editions were taken from the magazine serial. While the UK first edition includes all the original illustrations by the Thomas brothers the US edition is missing about five drawings.

George Housman Thomas (1824-1867) studied wood engraving with George Bonner, set up an engraving business in Paris, and illustrated books for both American and British publishers. Some of his work is included in the Royal Collection in England. Perhaps his most notable work appeared in the first US edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. While living in New York for a brief period he was also contracted to engrave American banknotes.

William Luson Thomas (1830-1900) did the engraving and signed all the illustrations for Armadale. George, however, is credited as the primary illustrator on the title page of the first UK edition (Smith & Elder, 1866). William founded the illustrated newspaper The Graphic late in his life. Explaining the original concept of the paper he writes: "The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only five pence."

For detailed biographical information on William Luson Thomas go here. For the life of his brother George visit this website.

Click on the images below for full size appreciation.

Friday, January 10, 2014

FFB: The Man in the Moonlight - Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy would have made a great writer of TV crime show scripts these days. While reading The Man in the Moonlight (1940), her sophomore detective novel featuring Dr. Basil Willing, I was struck by the abundance of arcane bits of scientific knowledge that made up the clues and evidence in her usual fascinating plot. She introduces biochemistry, anatomy, abnormal psychology, symbology, and even the construction of heating and air conditioning units in to her multi-layered plot. The story of the murder at Yorkville University could easily have been an episode on House or Elementary or any of the dozen of shows in which the plot hinges on little known medical, psychological and historical facts.

Want a sampling? Let's go!

1. Suicide by a gun in the mouth is the most common method of self-destruction among German and Austrian soldiers.

2. There is an abnormal condition of the thymus gland that can result in giving people a youthful appearance not consistent with chronological age.

3. A certain type of lesion in the septum is indicative of chromic acid poisoning.

4. There is a discussion of HVAC construction and its flaws and how it relates to acoustical anomalies that allow the murderer to eavesdrop on private conversations in one room while being hidden in an adjacent room below.

That just scratches the surface. My notes include three other points which unfortunately would reveal a few well deserved surprises. As I've said before McCloy was way ahead of the rest of her mystery writing colleagues in tackling what are now almost routine in plot devices. She was, in my opinion, the first of the truly modern detective novel writers.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University and loses his way en route to a meeting with the dean. He runs into Professor Franz Konradi, a research biochemist, who interrupts Foyle as he is looking over a piece of paper. The paper begins with the jarring sentence "I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No. 1." and continues with detailed instructions on how to play the role of the murderer. Prof. Konradi thinks Foyle has found a missing paper in written in his native German, but is as equally puzzled by the instructions when Foyle shows him the paper. Prof. Konradi must hurry back to his lab and leaves Foyle with the cryptic comment that if anything unusual should happen that night Foyle should know that Konradi would never commit suicide. Something indeed does happen that night. Konradi in found in his locked laboratory dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Foyle enlists the aid of Basil Willing, consultant in psychology to the New York District Attorney's office, to help make sense of a murder disguised a suicide. In the process of the investigation Foyle and Willing must uncover the bizarre psychology and behavioral experiments of Raymond Pickett who confesses to using his own children in behavioral pre-trials. His experiment with a "sham murder" was modeled on a mouse in a maze. He tells the police that he turned Southerland Hall (where Konradi is found dead) into "a gigantic maze similar to those we use in animal experiments with only one exit which the animal is compelled to discover under the urge of fear, hunger or sex." It doesn't help matters much when the gun used to kill Konradi turns out to be Prickett's and was intended for use in his sham murder experiment.

As is usual in the early Basil Willing detective novels the field of psychology and its practices are intrinsic to the plot. There is one sequence involving association tests (a much overused device by less informed mystery writers going back to the early 20th century) that for once is actually interesting to read about. McCloy also incorporates a discussion of lie detectors, how they work and their unreliability in police investigations. The use of a lie detector test is part of Pickett's experiment. But perhaps the most interesting point related to psychology is Willing's theory that there is truth in a lie, that creative lying reveals the devious mind of the murderer.

Another highlight that makes this a stand out in mystery novels of the period is the role of German and Austrian refugees fleeing Europe for America and other parts of the world. Basil will meet Gisela von Hohenems for the first time in this book as secretary to Prof. Konradi. Though the police try to make a strong case against her in the course of the investigation readers knowledgeable about the later books in the series will know that she will be in the clear. Gisela, you see, turns out to be Mrs. Willing by the fourth book. But among all these compelling features the most important is the role of capitalism in wartime. The motive for the murder will be tied to the discovery of a synthetic metal and its effects on global economy. As ever McCloy devises an intelligent mystery with a thoroughly original and captivating plot.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

What a Friend I Have in Sarah

While I was celebrating my anti-holiday last month Pretty Sinister Books was being recommended by Sarah Weinman at both her blog devoted to Domestic Suspense and her Tumblr page. began as a way to promote her excellent anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (which of course I urge you to read.  Go and buy a copy now!). In her post dated December 23, 2013 she says the website will continue to focus on women crime writers who delved into that subgenre. She talks about Mildred Davis, her debut novel which won the Edgar in 1948 and points curious readers to my review of that book, The Room Upstairs. Though I know little of Davis' short fiction I suspect her work may appear in a second volume of domestic suspense if Sarah decides to do a sequel to Troubled Daughters.... I am hoping there will be one.

Many thanks also to Sarah (who confessed to me once she was a lurking fan of this blog for many months) who mentioned PSB along with Curt Evan's The Passing Tramp as two of the best blogs writing about vintage crime fiction.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2014

Who doesn't like a challenge?  Each year Bev at My Reader's Block asks readers to travel back in time and read the kind of books that this blog celebrates nearly every day - the vintage mystery. Last year she shook up the challenge by offering category labels for each book read.  This year the categories are still there and are arranged in the fashion of the old Bingo game with the choice of Golden Age Mysteries (1890 -1960) or Silver Age Mysteries (1961 - 1989). These are Bev's date ranges and not every subscribes to them.  Hey, I'm not going to quibble about it. It's basically a game.  You follow the rules of the gamemaster.

In order to finish the challenge any reader need only finish one line that would lead to the cry of "Bingo!" if you at your local church hall and were surrounded by a bunch of avid old lady gamblers armed with dabbers and sitting with fifteen Bingo cards in front of them.  The word Bingo has been replaced by GOLDEN and SILVER on each card -- only six books any reader has to read at a minimum in order to finish the challenge.  But that's no challenge for me.

I intend to fill out not just one card, but both. Now that's a challenge!

Seventy-two books with the constraints of date ranges and category labels.  Think I can do it?  I read 104 books last year and the majority were vintage mysteries.  As I said to Bev in my comment when signing up.  "72 books?  Piece of cake."

For those interested in the complete rules visit My Reader's Bock here.  The bare minimum needed to finish the challenge is six book, my friends. Anyone can do that.  Why not you?

Friday, January 3, 2014

FFB: Catt Out of the Bag - Clifford Witting

1st UK paperback, 1940s
As some wise old person once said to me ages ago "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do a week from now." Wait a minute, that's not it. That was my wiseass comeback to the wise old person's advice about procrastination. Probably a parent or teacher, I can't remember anymore. All this is a rambling preamble to my excuse of being behind with what was intended to be a Christmas book review. Catt Out of the Bag (1939) is set between December 21 and December 31 and would've been perfectly suited for my final post of 2013. But here it is the third day of 2014 and I'm finally getting around to letting you know about this very fine detective novel from a writer I only discovered last year.

Had this fourth mystery from the talented and genuinely funny Witting been published in the US it would've been a great choice for the Dell Mapback series. My paperback reprint edition (it's extremely scarce in any edition for what it's worth. But you probably knew that already) comes with a beautifully hand drawn map of Paulsfield where the crimes take place so it is predisposed for Mapback status right off the bat. Had I been alive back then and been employed by the estimable Dell Publishing Company I would have written a fantastic little blurb for this holiday themed detective novel. For those of you unfamiliar with Dell Mapbacks the books have tantalizing lists of suspects ("Persons this Mystery is about") and a page headed "Things this Mystery is about" followed by a series of cryptic clues and plot elements that are meant to entice the reader to buy the book. So what is this mystery about, anyway, I hear you ask?

A CAROLER who disappears...
A familiar but unnameable SMELL...
A missing MILK BOTTLE...
SHEET MUSIC for a Christmas carol...
Four HOUSES named St. Brelade...
Some stolen COINS...
An abandoned WELL...
A LETTER signed "S"...

And the "Persons this Mystery is about"--

John Rutherford - former bookseller and narrator of the tale. He teams up with...
Inspector Charlton - your typically sharp as a tack Scotland Yard official
Sybil De Frayne - organizer of the caroling night intended to raise money for a local hospital. A bossy nag of woman married to...
Charles De Frayne - puts up with his wife's demands at the expense of his happiness
Thomas Vavasour - one of the townspeople assigned to collect money while the carolers are singing. He disappears without a trace at approximately 9:25 PM along with his collection box
Mrs. Vavasour - at home recovering from an illness the night of the caroling. She has no idea where her husband has gone to let alone what kind of work he does or who he works for as a "commercial traveler"
Harold Cornthwaite - composer of the original carol "In Wintertime in Bethlehem" a tune that has a haunting familiarity to a few of the suspects
Raymond Cloud-Gledhill - guest at the De Frayne home who sees the disappearance of Vavasour as an adventure and a chance to turn amateur sleuth
Mr. Tipper - a hairdresser with an ear for gossip
Albert Miles - a vagabond known for committing petty crimes. He has a sharp sense of smell, a memory for unusual sights, and is missing two fingers from his right hand

2nd Hodder paperback, 1952
The investigation into Mr. Vavasour's disappearance grows ever more complex as multiple identities of the victim are uncovered and a plethora of mysterious findings complicate the case. The title of the book with its odd spelling ought to tip off any sharp-witted reader to the possibility of alter egos. Charlton and Rutherford encounter a veritable Dickensian cast of characters, all drawn with Witting's characteristic lively and colorful touches and an ample amount of his customary wit. Witting also pulls off a neat trick when Rutherford, the first person narrator, uses his imagination to recount second and third hand events that were told to him by Charlton and others. This, Rutherford confesses, allows him to eliminate the cumbersome style of quoting passages of dialogue with "inverted commas".

It may take some hunting to locate a copy of this book. I lucked out in one of my tours of the eBay auctions in the late summer of last year. The book was only published in the UK and exists in hardback and at least two paperback editions, both of which I used to illustrate this post. As I've said before in my reviews of Clifford Witting's books some enterprising publisher ought to reprint his detective novels. So far I haven't read a single one that fails to deliver. And Catt Out of the Bag is surely the best of the lot I've read to date.

Other Clifford Witting books previously reviewed on this blog:

Murder in Blue (1937) 
Subject -- Murder (1945)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Haunted by a Movie

Yes, this is supposed to be a book blog but I went to see a movie by myself (as I almost always do) and I was so overwhelmed by the mixture of emotions I felt and now I have no one to talk to about it. So let me invite discussion with any of you out there who may have seen it.

The movie was Her with Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man on the verge of a divorce who slowly falls in love with an operating system named Samantha. Set in a not too distant future where everyone seems to be talking to themselves but is actually conversing with artificial intelligence systems that have the ability to manage nearly every facet of one's life, Her is a very odd movie in which we learn how absurd relationships can be. But it is in the extremes to which lonely people will go in order to find any sort of connection that will bring them joy that is the most profound aspect of the movie.

When stripped to its bare essentials Her is the story of a man falling in love with a computer. It sounds like it would be a great comedy, and though it is funny and amusing at times the overall tone is more serious. It turns out to be an oddly beautiful and poignant movie thanks largely to Phoenix' nuanced and entirely grounded performance. I was reminded of As She Climbed Across the Table, a novel Jonathan Lethem wrote during his early career when he was toying with science fiction and fantasy. There are also elements of Colossus: The Forbin Project, especially in the very strange, somewhat ambiguous ending.

I was both disturbed and profoundly moved by what I saw. Granted there are several instances when it's just absurd and not a little bit creepy (the sex scene in particular and the very sad sequence with the sex surrogate). Yet I think it has a lot to teach about the ultimate mystery of life -- falling in love -- and the importance of not caring what other people think about you as you try to find joy in a world that increasingly seems to rob of us of that elusive state.

Anyone see Her yet? Any thoughts? I'm eager to talk about this with anyone.