Friday, February 21, 2014

FFB: Death Wears a White Gardenia - Zelda Popkin

I think to many mystery readers the specialty mystery is a relatively new idea. There was discussion on a few other vintage mystery blogs a few weeks ago as to what constitutes the "cozy mystery" - a term I am growing to loathe. I hear that term and rarely think of the traditional mystery of the Golden Age, but instead of these new specialty mysteries that deal with bakeries, cheese shops, pet sitting services and amateur sleuths who enjoy home crafts like needle point and sponge painting on walls. Assiduous readers of vintage mysteries already know that these types of specialty mysteries -- books set in a specific milieu with crimes directly related to that setting and solved by either an amateur or professional detective -- were rather common in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the first creators of a specialty mystery was Zelda Popkin who gave us Mary Carner, a department store detective. In her debut appearance, Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938), Mary helps the New York police solve the murder of an executive at Jeremiah Blankfort & Company, a rival to world famous Macy's.

Not long after the doors of Blankfort's have been opened for a gala celebration and huge store wide sale marking the 50th anniversary of the store, the body of Andrew McAndrew, the store's credit manager is found strangled, his body shoved into a small space between salesman’s cubicles in a remote area open only to store employees. The body was discovered by a professional shoplifter who had previously stowed a suitcase containing some ladies' lingerie he was planning to take out of the store unpaid for. He is held for questioning while Mary makes her way (under orders from her boss Chris Whitaker) to McAndrew's office. She is told to change the locks to his office doors, but her innate detective instincts take over while doing that relatively routine task. She notices several unusual things, like a woman’s handkerchief and some torn papers that arouse her curiosity.

Soon the interrogation begins and motives and secrets are uncovered like new merchandise being put on display. The hysterical Evelyn Lennon, McAndrew's secretary confides in Mary that she was having an affair with her boss. Not one for discretion Evelyn's fling with McAndrew was well known among her gossipy co-workers and even McAndrew's wife. When Mrs. McAndrew is brought in for questioning there is a nasty catfight that escalates from bitchy insults to face slapping and hair pulling. Mary and Chris have to intervene before the two women suspects are carted off to jail.

The structure of the story is borrowed from the Van Dine school with Mary in the Philo Vance role (minus all the snooty erudition) and a team of Manhattan police, the D.A. (a former judge in Popkin's book) and Mary's boss Chris Whitaker all working together to solve the murder. In the course of the investigation Popkin gives us a neat little seminar in the business aspects of department store, the importance of store detectives and the fine art of shoplifting. Popkin and her husband were at one time involved in their own publicity firm and handled several department store accounts providing her first hand knowledge of pre-World War Two era retail.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Popkin wastes no time in getting straight to the action. From the very first sentence when we know shoplifter Joseph Swayzey is up to no good to the discovery of the murdered credit manager a short time afterwards the story moves at a brisk pace. The investigation is non-stop with few side trips to the land of backstory. I found it to be engaging, fast paced and populated with excellent characters. In addition to the delving into the backstage of a department store Popkin 's great strength is in creating a lively group of fully realized characters all of whom have distinctive voices. She has a gift for real dialogue and also adds a nice period flavor in her frequent use of shop girl slang and urban idiomatic speech.

Death Wears a White Gardenia was Zelda Popkin's first mystery novel. Mary Carner, her department store detective, went on to solve more murders in five other books. Three of Popkin's mystery novels were reprinted in the Dell Mapback editions. For those who enjoy browsing and hunting used book stores or the various online markets they are usually easy to find and very affordable. Boson Books, a small press, has also reprinted Death Wears a White Gardenia as well as Time Off for Murder.

For more about Mary Carner’s sleuthing adventures read TomCat's reviews of Murder in the Mist and Dead Man's Gift at his blog Beneath the Stains of Time.

Zelda Popkin's Detective Novels
Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938)
Murder in the Mist (1940)
Time Off for Murder (1940)
Dead Man's Gift (1941)
No Crime for a Lady (1942)
So Much Blood (1944)

* * *

This book serves as yet another space filled in on my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card (Golden Age version). It's space D4 "A Book with a Professional Detective"

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Desert Town Giveaway Winners

Things got a bit crazy this weekend with the final rehearsals for Corpus Delciti and I nearly forgot about the Desert Town giveaway.  So without further ado...

The two free copies of the Raven's Head Press reissue of Desert Town go to:

1. Jack Welling

2. "bklyn"

This was completely at random and not based on what you wrote or when you replied.

To each winner:  Please send me an email including your mailing address. You can find my email by clicking this link that will take you to my Blogger Profile page, then click on the email link on the left side of the page.

We discovered some errors and typos in the book manuscript and had to correct them.  The first few copies we ordered for the giveaway are being set aside to sell on eBay as "seconds". We are ordering new copies that will be "typo free". When I receive those I'll send out those copies to the winners.

Thanks to all who participated.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Phineas Spinnet is the creation of Andrew Soutar, an incredibly prolific British writer during the 1920s and 1930s whose popular fiction mostly consists of romances and domestic melodramas. Soutar also wrote a handful of detective and crime novels some of which feature Spinnet who was popular enough to have appeared in a radio series during the 1930s. But based on this one adventure of his I can’t see what the appeal is.

Spinnet is part of that subset of supercilious private “inquiry agents” inspired by Sherlock Holmes. What Soutar fails to capture in all of Phineas Spinnet’s arrogance and misanthropy is the kind of respect Holmes demands. Spinnet is just plain unlikeable. He has intuitive skills rather than a talent for detection, an ego as immense as the Atlantic Ocean, and a coterie of lackeys who do most of the real work while he sits back insulting nearly everyone he encounters. He smokes his expensive cigarettes sneering and dismissing everyone around him as incompetent. It’s only the unusual background of the primary characters’ connection to British colonies in India and Ceylon that held my interest in this adventure of Spinnet’s aptly titled Facing East (1936).

The story begins with a great hook reminiscent of the best of John Dickson Carr. Sir Cuthbert Bale asks for Spinnet’s help in finding out why the legendary Death Watch specter has reappeared and is haunting the grounds of Grimston Hall, Bale’s ancient Tudor estate located in Crowhurst, Sussex. Captain Leech, a visiting ex Indian Army soldier has dropped dead while visiting Sir Cuthbert and witnesses claim that an apparition with a skull like face was most likely the cause. Any time the Death Watch phantom appears someone is sure to die shortly thereafter.

Spinnet makes his way to Grimston Hall where he meets up with a group of suspicious servants led by the sinister Lycett, Sir Cuthbert's Indian butler. The story begins to shift in point of view and soon it is clear that the overall mood and structure will be that of a thriller and not a detective novel. The servants are busy at night doing some mysterious digging on the grounds and explain that they are looking for a mineral spring for the possible construction of a well. Spinnet knows better that to believe such an implausible story. His suspicions of ulterior motives are confirmed when the chauffeur reveals that he has been reading up on the history of Grimston Hall in some library books and has learned of treasure that may be buried in the vicinity of the house. Then the chauffeur disappears one night after one of the midnight digging sessions.

St George's Church, Crowhurst, Sussex
scene of the criminal activity in Facing East
When Drugmann, an old friend of Sir Cuthbert’s turns up unexpectedly – again after travelling in parts of Asia – Spinnet is convinced there is some conspiracy at work to get control of the estate. Then Drugmann drops dead from mysterious causes though Spinnet is convinced he was poisoned, a fate similar to that of Captain Leech. Yet how was the poison administered in full view of three other people? The method of the poisoning, however, will not be revealed until the final chapter. Though there was ample opportunity to play fair with just how and what form the poison took Soutar chooses to allow Spinnet dazzle everyone with his intuitive skills in a gathering of the suspects in the drawing room scene. It is a surprise and rather an ingenious way to kill someone but I was disappointed that Soutar couldn’t plant a few more clues for the benefit of the reader.

Several macabre set pieces (again almost a homage to Dickson Carr) manage to maintain the reader's interest. These include an illegal exhumation, the surprise of a missing corpse in the coffin, some grisly antics in a family vault and the reappearances of the Death Watch specter in and out of Grimston Hall. Spinnet is assisted by Timson, an ex-convict manservant in the manner of Magersfontein Lugg, and a reformed con artist named Marie Crosby Dick who has a talent for acting. The two of them pose as a "Lady Blythe Kenny" and her servant "James" and hole up in a local inn in order to keep tabs on some other bad guys outside of the Bale household.

10 1/2 days back in 1930
Other interesting facets of the book include a section devoted to passenger air travel and the business of a commercial aerodrome that takes up all of Chapter 24. In this chapter I learned that, in 1936 at least, it took four days to fly to Australia including all stops for refueling and stocking of provisions. Also that in order to talk to one’s fellow passenger the use of special earphone/headsets was required to cut down on the deafening noise of the propellers. I thought it was the best part of the book.

I’m not sure I’ll be investigating any other adventures of Phineas Spinnet. He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him. Eccentric detectives were all the rage back in the heyday of the Golden Age but this detective who cares more about his jigsaw puzzle collection than people is just not the kind of character I’m interested in reading about. Give me detective with quirks and humanity, not this odious megalomaniac.

Nearly every book featuring Phineas Spinnet is exceptionally hard to find anywhere. Those that are offered for sale tend to be inappropriately expensive for such an obscure and unread author as Andrew Soutar. Facing East was the first one I came across that was relatively affordable. But save yourself the trouble of hunting, my friends. Here’s one Neglected Detective who is best forgotten.

*   *   *

On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").

Friday, February 14, 2014

FFB: My Late Wives - Carter Dickson

"If there's any flumdiddling of the police to be done, I'm the one to do it."

--Sir Henry Merrivale in My Late Wives

There is a lot of flumdiddling and farcical doings amid the criminal mischief and baffling murders in My Late Wives (1946), Carter Dickson's follow-up to the infamous The Curse of the Bronze Lamp.  I say infamous because in that book Dickson included a kind of twist that I consider something of a cheat in a murder mystery.  The rear panel on the DJ for My Late Wives hints that Dickson has surpassed the impossibilities of his previous book.  Did he really write a better mystery?

The story is pure fancy, one that could only take place in the pages of a detective novel. We learn that someone has written a play based on the life of a murderer and sent the script to a well known actor. His friend and colleague, Beryl West, would love to direct the play even though it may be libelous but it has a weak ending. The play is based on the life of Roger Bewlay, a known multiple murderer who killed and disposed of the bodies of his four wives. The requisite Dicksonian impossibility appears in the last murder. Bewlay managed to murder his wife in a house watched by two policemen and witnessed by another woman outside. But when the police broke into the house there was no sign of a murder and no body. What happened to the murder victim? And what happened to all the other bodies of his dead wives?

Bruce Ransom, the actor who receives the play, is challenged by Beryl to act out in real life the part and test the weak ending of the play. He is to pretend to be Roger Bewlay, court a young woman and all the while let slip that he is a wife killer and let that spread throughout the town. Then just as the girl is ready for Bruce to ask her to marry him he reveals that everything is a sham. He's really an actor and he's not a murderer at all, that it's all research for an upcoming play.  Crazily enough, Ransom accepts the challenge and the story takes off like gangbusters.

Enter Sir Henry Merrivale explosively. Literally. He makes his appearance in this novel accompanied by his Scottish golf instructor in an amusement arcade which he manages to destroy in one of Dickson's usual over-the-top low comedy sequences. As extreme as it was I burst out laughing. I guess I needed a dose of Three Stooges style nonsense that day. The book is filled with these usual blustery Merrivale escapades. A silly fight on a golf course and the following argument initially seem like filler, but will have greater significance in the final pages. However, it's one of the least clever bits of misdirection in the book, one that led me to the solution of how Roger Bewlay's victims were disposed of.

Merrivale is not really onstage all that much and that is part of the problem with the book. Though he gives a lot of advice to Dennis, Beryl's lawyer friend, and drops hints that he knows the real Roger Bewlay has shown up in the town where Bruce is doing his play-acting/research he does not really solve the case. Dickson allows the actor to have a melodramatic confrontation with the killer that might as well have taken place in a theater while Merrivale, Dennis and Beryl watch in an adjoining room. Bruce nearly is done in by the maniac and Merrivale steps in at the eleventh hour to stop one last murder.

The plot is difficult to summarize since the playscript, the story of Roger Bewlay's life of crime, and Bruce Ransom's "research" all intersect and overlap as the novel progresses. There are multiple mysteries to solve and it got a little dizzying for me as Merrivale tried to explain to Dennis and Beryl how he knew Bewlay committed all his wife murders, knew where the bodies were hidden and hinted at one more murder that might take place. Of course it does occur and both Denis and Beryl are devastated that they could have prevented it if only Merrivale hadn't been so damned ambiguous.

Such is the world of John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson. His plots are all fancy and contrivance.  Who would ever write a play based on a murderer's real crimes, divulging previously undisclosed evidence, and then send it to an actor? Wouldn't someone just call the police and tell them what they knew? Asking questions like this when reading a book by Carter Dickson or John Dickson Carr is futile. You must surrender to his fantastical plots and absurdities or the book can never be enjoyed for the baffling puzzle it ought to be.

*  *  *

This counts as another book on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I've counted it as space G6 ("A Book Set in the Entertainment World").  I seem to be doing this haphazardly with no intention of trying to get a Bingo line, right?  But there is indeed a method to my reading selections. Solve that mystery if you can!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hothouse Melodrama!

Check out that pistol packin' mama!  If Fritzi Haller ever carried a weapon she couldn't look any more threatening. That gorgeous illustration is the cover painting for the latest reprint from Raven's Head Press.  The artist for our new edition is Fernando Vicente whose sexy artwork can be viewed here.

Desert Town by Ramona Stewart is the second release from Raven's Head Press and is now available for purchase here. Our new edition includes a nifty foreword by yours truly detailing the interesting writing career of Stewart from her debut in the pages of Collier's to her offbeat stories for other "slicks" and her culmination as a 1970s occult horror writer.  I'll be receiving a few copies for promotional purposes and once again I'm offering two books as giveaways.

To be eligible for a free copy of Desert Town just leave a comment below. This time in your comment I'd like you to tell me your favorite pulp cover artist or your favorite pulp cover illustration.  Book or magazine, it doesn't matter which.  On Saturday, February 15 I'll announce the two winners who will be chosen by a very amateurish random selection process that I'd rather not divulge.

Unfortunately, the giveaway is limited to the United States and Canada.  We're a small operation here and the shipping is coming out of my pocket. Sorry, I can't afford the $15 or more airmail postage to the UK or parts farther away.

If you missed my review of the book last fall please do read it.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Robbery at Rudwick House - Victor L Whitechurch

The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929) is the third of only five crime novels written by Victor L. Whitechurch, cleric turned mystery writer and one of the first members of The Detection Club. Interestingly, like Anthony Berkeley who founded the Detection Club some of Whitechurch's books are far from the usual traditional mystery of the other members. He liked to experiment with the form. This book, originally published as Mixed Relations in the UK, is as far removed from a detective novel as possible. In fact, there is very little detection in the book at all.

Whitechurch attempts to tell the story of a comedy of manners slowly introducing elements familiar to readers of comic crime -- mistaken identity, leaping to conclusions, and the farcical possibilities of bringing together characters of contrasting class backgrounds. Selina Lakenham, an American woman and her son Alexander travel overseas to the home of her brother-in-law Archdeacon Lakenham who has been entrusted with getting Alexander into Oxford University. Cyril Lakenham, whose brother recently died, learns from an odd codicil in his brother's will that he will earn $10,000 if he can safeguard a place for his nephew at Oxford and upon completion of his studies and graduation from university will receive another $10,000. He assures everyone that the money is not the impetus for his meeting with his sister-in-law and nephew. He really has the young man's educational interests at heart.

Simultaneously, another story is unfolding. The Vicar has recently employed Leonard Brooks, a new manservant, who we learn almost immediately is not at all who appears to be. He is leading a double life in an elaborate disguise under the assumed name of Major Greynell. Something fishy is going on. And when another woman Babs Morris and young man posing as her son show up the stage is set for an obvious case of mistaken identity and silliness galore. Mrs. Lakenham and Alexander will soon be mistaken for Babs and her "son" who is really her brother Alan.  The police are hot on the trail of the two con artists; Mr. Gillingham, the Archdeacon's lawyer is trying to sort out the mess of who is who; and Sir Henry Middleton has recently lost a valuable addition to his unique collection of antique snuff boxes. With all this going on there is ample opportunity for farce and laughs galore.

Canon V. L. Whitechurch
Here's the problem. The story is not very funny at all. It's too familiar. The mistaken identity gimmick is easily spotted and the reader can predict everything pages before it happens. This is a shame because Whitechurch has proven he can be a master of the unexpected with offbeat humor in his creation of Thorpe Hazell. The comedy of an Edwardian health nut still has resonance for and can elicit a smile or a giggle from a 21st century reader. The humor in ...Rudwick House, however, is hackneyed. The strength of the book is perhaps in the satirical touches about life at a vicarage and the politics of the clergy, something very close to Whitechurch.

The Robbery at Rudwick House is a pale imitation of an P.G. Wodehouse novel. All the jokes are about making fun of crass Americans. There are too many scenes like those in which the vicar's houseguest Lady Caroline is horrified by the Americans' vulgarity. Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont made a career exploiting this kind of character contrast. Frankly,  I'd rather be watching Groucho so naturally and ebulliently make fun of Dumont than read a book that consists of labored comedy. Nothing brings a frown to my face faster.

*   *   *

This counts as the seventh book in my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I've counted it as space G3 ("A Book with a Crime Other Than Murder").

Friday, February 7, 2014

FFB: Just an Ordinary Day - Shirley Jackson

The introduction to Just an Ordinary Day (1997) written by two of Shirley Jackson's grown children tells how they received a box of manuscripts, carbon copies and typewritten sheets of unpublished stories as well as the original manuscript for The Haunting of Hill House and character notes for that novel. The two siblings began to think about putting together a volume of their mother's unpublished work.  In doing research they uncovered even more published work that had never been reprinted in book form.

Just An Ordinary Day brings together thirty vignettes and stories that were never published in Jackson's lifetime in the first half of the book. A second section reprints an additional twenty-two stories that originally appeared in a variety of magazines between 1943 and 1968. Though mostly women's magazines bought Jackson's stories I was surprised to see among the list of publications Harper's, Vogue, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy. Three stories were purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction but I have to say the fantasy content is very slight and none of them would I classify as science fiction by the widest leap of imagination. I can't believe they made it to that revered magazine. Clearly, Jackson was able to appeal to a wide audience even if her themes and topics seemed to be very similar as I moved along from story to story.

I'll admit I did not read this volume cover to cover. I randomly selected stories based on the titles or by the magazine in which the story was originally published. Admittedly this was not a very good way to discover what I wanted to read -- Jackson's darker fiction dealing with crime, the supernatural or domestic suspense tales. I hit gold with only three stories. "Nightmare" tells a story of surreal paranoia when a woman feels she is the subject of a bizarre advertising gimmick that seems to have taken over the city. An eerily evocative supernatural tale of people trapped in a painting ("The Story We Used to Tell") is a brief but chilling example of Jackson's gift for making the flesh creep. "The Possibility of Evil" about an anonymous letter writer was my favorite story of the batch I selected.

While perusing the other stories I learned that the bulk of Jackson's fiction was about suburban life, married couples and troublesome children ("Arch Criminal" and "I.O.U."), the problem with gossip in small towns ("The Very Strange House Next Door"), the malaise of housewifery and the desire to escape ("Maybe It Was the Car"), the dependence on neighbors for help and advice ("When Things Get Dark" and "I.O.U." again) and other similar themes. But in all of them Jackson managed to undercut the mundane and the superficial with an uneasiness and a cruelty that was often disturbing.

One of the most interesting things that Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart have done with this material is to point out the way Jackson liked to recycle plot ideas and even characters from story to story. The most fascinating juxtaposition is of two versions of the same story called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" in one version and "The Mystery of the Murdered Bride" in the other. In the former the story is more fleshed out, more direct with little ambiguity except for perhaps the very last line. In the second, and probably the first version, the story is vague and hazy. It seems unpolished. There's too much left to suggestion and the final sequence is just muddled. Jackson is trying to plant the idea that Mrs. Smith is oblivious that her new husband might be a wife killer with a couple of bodies buried in his past. I think the version called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" is the more successful of the two. Similarly, the entire plot of "Nightmare" was lifted and inserted as a minor incident in "The Omen", one of her stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction that to my mind is representative of neither genre.

Her darker fiction is not well represented in this hefty volume. There is an ambiguous ghost story that has traces of crime fiction in "The Missing Girl" and "The Friends" is a nasty story of busybody Ellen who decides to put an end to the adulterous affair of her friend Marjorie by commandeering Marjorie's free time. But it is "The Possibility of Evil" where I found Jackson to be at her shining best. Published in the December 18, 1965 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (mistakenly noted as 1968 in this book) we get to know the inner workings of superficially kindly old woman Miss Strangeworth who in her spare time writes poison pen letters to the neighbors she is smiling to on a daily basis. When she has a mishap mailing a batch of those letters and some children help her by hand delivering a letter she dropped Miss Strangeworth gets a bitter taste of her own "good intentions". Deservedly, in 1966 "The Possibility of Evil" won Jackson the Edgar for "Best Short Story". This is the kind of story I've always felt was Jackson's strength. Though she may show traces of the underbelly of apparently peaceful suburban life in her more lighthearted domestic tales it is this kind of portrait of Adela Strangeworth that is her hallmark in American fiction.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Ghost Knows His Greengages - R. B. Saxe

Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car "the boot" or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy's peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.

Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series
"Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket."
"…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle."
"…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills."
"…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts."
"My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel."
"The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic."
The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That's the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:
“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”
See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

* * *

Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”)."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

FOUND BOUND: The Gory Gazette

Periodically I find myself stuck in the pages of magazines (there's a punny sentence for you!). Usually I'm perusing old reviews of forgotten and obscure murder mysteries and adventure novels. Every now and then along the sidebar margins I find an advertisement or two that catches my eye. This is how I learned of the existence of Aunt Beardie, a fantastic example of the historical mystery done well with a whopper of an ending.

Now that my collection of ephemera has been completely exhausted, and the usual Sunday feature "Left Inside" is a very rare occurrence (the last one was in the summer of 2013), I am substituting it with a new feature called "Found Bound". Every other Sunday I'll be posting ads, cartoons and other interesting tidbits I find in magazines of the past.

Today we look at an advertising gimmick created by the clever gang at Simon & Schuster, one of the oldest existing publishing houses in the United States. S&S was very innovative when marketing their mysteries. They invented Pocket Books in the late 1920s, the very first mass market paperback imprint in the United States. Additionally, they were one of the first publishers to create a hardcover imprint solely for detective fiction ("Inner Sanctum Mysteries") and were rather clever in getting their message out to their audience. Below are two ads found in two early 1940s issues of The Saturday Review done along the lines of a newsletter they called "The Gory Gazette."

I've read the Woolrich novel The Black Curtain (1941) advertised in the second set of illustrations and highly recommend it. I've not yet found a copy of Gypsy Rose Lee's second mystery novel Mother Finds a Body (1942), but I'm still looking. BTW -- Lee did in fact write her own books. They were not ghost written by Craig Rice no matter what numerous websites and reference books are trying to convince you otherwise.

Click to enlarge all scans in order to read the ads.