Friday, January 29, 2016

FFB: The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral - Robert Westall

THE STORY:  Joe Clark is a steeplejack and stone mason who has been tasked with repairing the crumbling stonework and damaged weather vane atop the towers of Muncaster Cathedral. The southwest tower presents some trouble for Joe and his partner Billy with its imposing gargoyle. Soon after Joe begins to have disturbing nightmares, his son starts sleepwalking and a demonic force seems to be taking possession of young boys in town.

THE CHARACTERS: Reverend Morris is Joe’s employer and is a particularly resonant character type these days. Morris is a proselytizing zealot ever ready to talk about God and faith.  Non-churchgoers are his favorite target of course. Rather than a friendly “Pleased to meet you” at first meeting Rev. Morris almost always begins a conversation with “Are you a Christian?” Very off putting to Joe (or anyone I should imagine), an unapologetically irreligious man who prefers to seek out the sacred in the natural world rather than sitting in a church and being told what to think and believe. The dichotomy of the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the secular plays a crucial role throughout the tale as the increasingly inexplicable supernatural forces threaten to wreak havoc not only on the cathedral but on Joe’s family and anyone who visits the southwest tower.

THE ATMOSPHERE: Westall has got creepy down to a science. From Joe’s nightmares to the possession sequences and a genuinely frightening section high atop the cathedral towers The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral does what all good horror and supernatural tales are supposed to do – give you a good scare or two. You’ll never look at a gargoyle the same way after reading this original spin on a familiar horror motif. And there is a nice mystery element that Rev. Morris helps uncover which I will not elaborate on. This is one of those rare books in which the less you know the better the reading experience.

THINGS I LEARNED: The novella is a crash course in the art of stone masonry and the life of a steeplejack. Joe’s down to earth narration make these sections true examples of didactic writing in that we learn and are entertained at the same time. He treats his job as more of a lost art than hard labor. Joe shares his love of his profession with his curious son Kevin and we get all sorts of side commentary touching on the legends of the Freemasons and their secret rituals which really did grow out of the world of stone masons and the tutelage of their apprentices. Jealousy and envy could trigger violent reactions when a senior mason encountered a younger apprentice with a artistic talent far greater than his own. Joe tells stories of rage filled vandalism and even murder.

THE AUTHOR: Robert Westall made a name for himself in the juvenile fiction world winning several awards for his supernatural and adventure stories geared to young readers. To capitalize on this market The Stones of Muncaster (1991) also seems to have been published as a young adult novel and all older 1990 editions seem to indicate this publisher’s aim. But with a very mature worldview and Joe serving as narrator I can see it only as intended for grown adults and not kids. Had it been told from Kevin’s point of view I could understand it being marketed as a young adult novel. In any case, it will appeal to both older and younger readers alike. For more about Robert Westall and his large body of impressive work visit the writer's tribute website maintained by his literary agent.

EASY TO FIND? The Stones of Muncaster has been reprinted by Valancourt Books in a new edition that also includes a second novella by Westall called “Brangwyn Gardens” and an introduction by horror fiction writer Orrin Grey. My edition is an older copy therefore I didn't have a chance to read the other novella.

Friday, January 22, 2016

FFB: An Air That Kills - Margaret Millar

In an effort to crank out more posts on the books I read this year I have come up with a formula that will highlight the aspects that I think make the books worth reading and I'll conclude with a "Things I Learned" section, which has grown out of my yearly post about the arcane information I have gleaned from my reading of these vintage books. In some cases I find so many fascinating bits of trivia, history and geography that I fill an entire index card separate from the notes I take on the content of the book and its story. This year I'll be talking about the "Things I Learned" for every book rather than saving up the most bizarre info I've collected for a post at the end of the year.

THE STORY: An Air That Kills (1957) is a perfect example of what Sarah Weinman likes to call "domestic suspense", a subgenre pioneered by women crime fiction writers in the post World War Two era. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding began writing about the dark underpinnings of marital discomfort and suburban malaise as early as The Death Wish (1935) but writers like Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and many others built upon the same ideas Holding first explored and delved deeper with ever increasing innovation. In An Air That Kills what first appears to be a soap opera of two unhappy married couples turns out to be a subtle story of a crime of passion, perhaps several crimes of passion if one interprets the phrase as a metaphor. Philandering husband Ron Galloway disappears en route to a fishing lodge for a weekend getaway with his buddies and the search for him develops into an exploration of suspected adultery, jealousy, marital deceit and a subtle and cleverly hidden murder mystery with some unexpected detective work.

THE CHARACTERS: Thelma Bream is one of Millar's most unusual creations. On the surface a model wife who is spookily like a 1950s Stepford wife in her parroting of her husband's wishes, her obedience, and devotion. But beneath this carefully cultivated mask of a perfect wife is a daydreaming, half crazed, hugely dissatisfied woman longing for a child. And she is willing to do anything to achieve her fantasies. She is filled with contradictions and simultaneously infuriates the reader with her rash behavior and near mad worldview while provoking ironic sympathy for her plight. The men tend to dominate the story and each one has a distinct voice and personality from the logically minded college professor Ralph Turee to Harry, Thelma's deluded husband.

There are a variety of very minor characters so well drawn and intriguing you wish that they had their own sequels so that you can get to know them better outside of their brief appearance in this story of Ron Galloway's vanishing. A chapter that takes place in a rural Canadian elementary school is a highlight with the character of a Mennonite girl and her two teachers trying to find out where she found a man's hat and if it might be tied to the news story of the missing man.

THE QUOTES: "He had a sensation that he and Harry were stationary and the night was moving past them swiftly, turbulent with secrets. To the right the bay was visible in the reflection of a half moon. The waves nudged each other and winked slyly and whispered new secrets."

"She slammed down the lid of the trunk, but the gesture, like Pandora's, was a little too late. Too many things had already escaped."

"The long erratic journey had ended for Harry. The crazed bird had grown weary, the misguided missile had struck a meteorite and was falling through space."

THINGS I LEARNED: In the school sequence Millar mentions in passing that two children are Doukhobors. What? I had to go looking that up. The Doukhobors were Russian dissidents who emigrated to the United States and Canada to escape religious and political persecution. They believe that God resides within all humans and not as a supernatural entity housed in a church. They rejected all traditional organized religions and the Bible. Instead, they created their own psalms and hymns to celebrate their beliefs. Their history is fascinating and I could write an entire post about this little known sect. For those who wish to be enlightened as I was I suggest you read the article on them at The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Esther and Thelma have an intimate tête-à-tête at a place called Child's. I thought at first Millar just made it up until I read the phrase "by the time they reached the nearest Child's" which seemed to indicate it was a real life chain. And of course it was. Child's was one of the earliest restaurant chains in the US and Canada. Started by brothers Samuel and William Childs in 1889 in New York's Financial district it was a pioneer in quick service, restaurant hygiene and was credited with the invention of cafeteria style tray service. According to the Wikipedia article (I know, but that's the only place that had info) the chain "peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with about 125 locations in dozens of markets, serving over 50,000,000 meals a year, with over $37 million in assets at the time." The article claims it was sort of the McDonald's of the early twentieth century. So ubiquitous and popular was the chain it has been immortalized in countless songs, stories, plays and musicals.

Friday, January 15, 2016

FFB: The Survivor - Dennis Parry

It's paradoxical that The Survivor (1940) is considered a ghost story. True, there is a malevolent spirit at work here exploiting the body of a naive young woman in order to continue a relentless assault of emotional abuse, verbal cruelty and psychological torture. What seems on the surface to be a story of supernatural possession and an exchange of souls, however, is really not much more than a family saga.

From The Dybbuk (1912) to The Exorcist (1971) tales of possession rely heavily on mystery and suspense and a search for reasons and causes of the soul's takeover. The characters are often faced with questions of faith as they delve into a realm of unfathomable supernatural beings, forbidden texts, religious rites and a struggle to reconcile the paranormal with the mundane. In The Survivor, however, there is no worry about religion, no wrestling with faith, and any talk of demons is metaphoric. The evil comes not from another dimension nor from a mythological underworld, but from Earth. He is wholly human, a nasty piece of work, but human all the same.

In life James Marshall was a monstrous bully, in death even moreso. Parry discards all manner of devils and demons and gives us a mortal man whose power in life extends beyond death. Marshall is a man so determined to make his family miserable that on his deathbed he manages to influence his malleable and terribly naive young ward to serve as his conduit of cruelty. When Olive promises that she will not let her "Uncle" James die from the influenza that has been decimating the town's population he takes advantage of her childish wish and manages to make a deathbed psychic connection with her.  Olive has previously been alarmed at the odd talent she has in thinking exactly what James Marshall has been thinking.  This is the only trace of the occult or paranormal that enters the story.  Parry's tale is less one of the mystery of why or how James took over Olive's persona, and instead a battle for control of a family and its wealth.

Parry begins his story with an unconventional sardonic, sometimes farcical, humor. At first James Marshall seems at his wit's end and his sarcasm is his saving grace. He endures his uptight, prissy spinster sister Eva and his layabout indifferent brother Roger without a trace of civility. In his role as local physician we see him doing his best to battle the flu epidemic sweeping the countryside and trying to educate his patent's families against indulging in ignorant folk remedies in favor of intelligent modern medicine. It's a losing battle that he will succumb to himself. Only on his deathbed does the humor give way to a domestic horror tinged with guilt and shame.

The reading of Marshall's will initiates his plot to conduct a reign of terror and mind games from beyond the grave.  He punishes Eva and Roger with meager financial legacies and reveals a past love named Delia Pond who receives a sizable amount of money, more than his blood relatives combined.  When Delia turns up unexpectedly at the funeral a shocking surprise is in store for the family.

Olive's behavior grows increasingly erratic and volatile. She lashes out in insults, bursts into hysterical laughter at the funeral, and cries out a charge of sexual assault. Just as quickly she returns to her docile innocuous self claiming to have blacked out and not remembering anything. But the family knows James' language, James' thinking, and most of all James' voice.  There is no question that Olive is not Olive at all.  No one needs to consult arcane books of forbidden knowledge nor call upon the local exorcist. The family deals with the problem not as one of ghostbusting but of soul watching, a constant vigil, and a revelation of long held family secrets that should never have been hidden.

The Survivor has been reprinted by Valancourt Books in their usual handsome paperback edition. The book includes an introduction by noted supernatural fiction maven Mark Valentine who discusses Parry's all too short novelist career (he died in a car accident at the age of 42) and draws similar conclusions as I did by calling the book a "realist ghost story".  I didn't read the intro until after I read the book and had made all my notes for this post. That both Valentine and I found Parry's unique approach to telling a ghost story of a malevolent possession by grounding it in reality and not the supernatural was very satisfying to me. It's the primary reason that The Survivor will appeal to readers who generally avoid ghost stories for their elements of fantasy and gruesome horror. The story still terrifies, but does so with its feet firmly planted in a very human world. Sometimes the most chilling stories are those we tell about our own families.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Write? Of Course Write!

...or, The Mystery of the Vanishing Posts Explained in Full

Here's a brief list of my proud accomplishments outside of the blog in 2015.  It was the busiest year for research and writing projects and I learned a valuable life lesson in saying "Sure! I'd love to be a part of that!" way too often. Life has a way of interfering with one's plans and my schedule was thrown off course in a drastic way.

With the declining health of my mother and her eventual death I was overwhelmed with things I've never had to face before. I not only had no more time to write on the blog I had to put away all writing for a period of about three months as the family tended to the business of the estate. As Christmas time rolled around faster than ever (it seemed) I found myself catching up on deadlines and got in my final drafts, some just in the nick of time. Here's what is out and what is coming:

Blondes Are My Trouble by Douglas Sanderson (Véhicule Press, 2015)
Foreword by J.F. Norris

One of the best private eye novels set in Canada. My foreword discusses the unlikely feminist angle in a private eye novel which tend to be hypermasculine in their worldview. The female characters, women's viewpoints and their opinions, even attention to women's clothing are very important in this plot which is centered on a prostitution ring.

-- available for purchase now


Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats (Verse Chorus Press, 2016)
Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture 1950-1980

Includes my essay on A Sad Song Singing (1963) by Thomas Dewey and a discussion of the folk music scene in New York as depicted in that novel

-- planned for a May 2016 release

As Yet Untitled Anthology edited by Curt Evans (McFarland)

This book is a collection of reviews, essays and biographies on gay mystery writers and how LGTB issues are treated in Golden Age detective fiction. The nineteen contributors cover books written between 1890 and 1969, the date of the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the "gay revolution".

--- publication slated for late 2016 or early 2017

For the untitled book, still being compiled and edited, I have contributed three essays on three different writers whose work spans a fifty year period, from 1912 to 1969.

Beverley Nichols (circa 1930s) photo by Cecil Beaton
©National Portrait Gallery, London
The Beverley Nichols piece was the most fun to write and research.  I may write a bit more about Nichols and his Mr. Green series for the blog come mid-year. The books are wonderful examples of the British detective novel of the late 1950s and tend to focus on music, theater and Nichols' first love -- horticulture and gardening. It was interesting to learn that Nichols had an undeniable respect for the traditions of the Golden Age formulae and plot mechanics.

I hope this year to be more regular with posts. I have planned a new format for book reviews on this blog that will make it quicker for me to churn out reviews. Most likely I'll be spending more time on new books in an effort to get more freelancing paid work and I plan on looking at more reprints of vintage writers' work now that we are in a Renaissance of Golden Age detective fiction reprint publishing.

Onward and upward!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints - Ken Crossen

Detective Jason Jones and his tagalong partner Necessary Smith, a private eye, are confronted with the puzzling disappearance of the prime suspect who has left behind incriminating fingerprints on a murder weapon in the first few chapters of The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints (1945). Jones is known for handling unusual cases and he is prompted to deliver a mini lecture on the nature of impossible crimes and why murderers indulge in them. After offering up four different categories that might explain what appears to be an impossible vanishing Jones then goes on to draw analogies to the world of magic and prestidigitation.

“The only way to solve a case like this is to forget that it’s a human drama, in which a human life was lost, and to think of it as a trick—as sleight-of-hand. When we do that, we know that all we have to do is find the one move that is the key to the trick, and the whole thing will fall apart.”

Magicians tend to be drawn to dreaming up impossible crime mystery stories. Clayton Rawson, of course, is the most well known and even his detective The Great Merlini is a magician. Hake Talbot (aka Henning Nelms ) was also a stage magician and one time stage designer for theater. Ken Crossen who used a variety of pseudonyms in his writing and his pal Bruce Elliot were also magicians and members of an elite circle of illusionists and magicians, many of whom were also writers. Crossen has written widely in the genre and used some rather clever gimmicks, though not always done fairly, in creating impossible situations in his mystery stories. While he is not as well known or as talented in whipping up ingenious locked room problems as his colleagues Rawson, Carr and Anthony Boucher (aka H.H. Holmes) who are mentioned in passing in this short novel, Crossen deserves at least an honorable mention for his clever spins on well-used tricks and his obvious love of the genre.

I’ve written about Crossen before in his guise as “Richard Foster”. Both those books also featured impossible crimes and “miracle problems” but were not as engrossing nor as clever as this one. Perhaps Crossen was caught up in the novelty of having his detective be a Tibetan American or maybe he was expending much of his energy on creating the Green Lama pulp magazine stories. In any case both books featuring Chin Kwang Kham were not as interesting as this one featuring a Nero Wolfe clone in the person of gigantic Jason Jones.

Crossen, who has clearly borrowed from the pages of Rex Stout, even shamelessly has one character call Jason Jones “a poor man’s Nero Wolfe”. Jones is a colorful character who like Wolfe and his orchids enjoys tending to his geraniums on a rooftop hothouse. There is a strange section in the book where we learn that he often uses various geranium varieties in cooking like an exotic recipe calling for geraniums as a flavor enhancer in lemon jam.

Oddly, Necessary Smith though he is ostensibly engaged to investigate the murder by drama critic Thornton Rockwood acts as a sidekick and legman to policeman Jones. Smith does some sleuthing and even offers up a theory (which perhaps most readers will come up with pages before he does) that turns out to be utterly wrong. Jones is the real detective here. It’s an odd pairing and I’m sure that no real life police department would look favorably on Jones using a P.I. as his partner. But we’ll let it slide because it’s all done in pulpy fun. It’s a book, after all, and hardly grounded in reality.

Speaking of books Crossen uses a particular mystery novel as one of the biggest clues in this story. It also happens to show one of his weaknesses as a pulp writer –- self-referential jokes. One of the characters is a mystery novel addict and his copy of The Laughing Buddha Murders has gone missing. It turns up in a hotel room briefly and just as quickly disappears. The joke here is that The Laughing Buddha Murders is by a writer named Richard Foster and it happens to be very real. (Anyone curious about the book can briefly read about it in my post on Crossen writing as Foster by clicking here.) For the sake of the story this “version” of The Laughing Buddha Murders has not been officially published even though in real life it was published one year earlier than …Phantom Fingerprints. Both books were put out by the digest publisher Vulcan Publications; Buddha is Vulcan Mystery #3 (1944) and Fingerprints is Vulcan Mystery #5 (1945). Over the course of the novel Smith and Jones try to find out who has read the book and who might have borrowed the advance copy from choreographer and detective story nut Gregor Santos. There is also a brief mention of John Dickson Carr and his ingenious locked room mysteries which turn out to be the preferred reading of both Santos and a ditzy actress named Toni Dorne.

In …Phantom Fingerprints Crossen makes use of a very familiar plot from the annals of Golden Age mysterydom. A group of theatrical professionals are at the mercy of a scheming ruthless blackmailer who happens to be producer Max Black. Many of Block's productions are staffed with big name stars who he has wheedled into working for him lest he reveal their deep, dark secrets. Additionally, Block would demand cash payments for keeping those secrets under cover. No surprise when he’s found stabbed in his home during a big post-theater shindig where not too coincidentally many of his blackmail victims were guests. The weird thing about the crime is that the murderer left his bloody fingerprints on the knife in Block’s chest. The prints match those of Max Thale, a visiting PR man from a Hollywood movie studio. But Thale appears to have dematerialized. He is nowhere inside the house and no footprints can be found outside the snow covered ground to indicate he might have jumped from a window or snuck out some other way. All the entrances and exits were guarded by trustworthy policeman and they swear no one got past them. How did Thale manage his disappearing act? That the book is populated with theater people ought to be a big tipoff.

There are several other murders and found at each scene of the crime a bloody handprint matching the prints of Max Thale. The trick of the fingerprints and how they were created is probably the most original feature of a book filled with familiar characters and situations. We even get a “talking villain” scene that seems to have been created solely to fill up some pages with words. I think anyone who knows even a little about stage magic might spot the telltale clue that can lead to figuring out the fingerprint mystery. The explanation when it comes is glibly related and I doubt it would result in the intended effect, but Crossen gets points for trying. Supposedly, the solution is based on fact and can be found in a book on French criminology though Crossen never mentions the exact title nor the author’s name.