Thursday, April 28, 2016

FFB: Death, My Darling Daughters - Jonathan Stagge

THE STORY: At the behest of Inspector Cobb Dr. Hugh Westlake acts as an undercover detective in the wealthy Hilton household when Nanny dies under suspicious circumstances. Using his role as coroner as an excuse he tries to determine if her death by cyanide poisoning was an accident due to careless use of the silver polish on her antique tea service. Or was she done in by one of her relatives? Nanny had been overheard having an argument with a member of the house in which she accused the other person of planning to murder her grandson. A few days later Dr. George Hilton dies agonizingly in one of the most bizarrely imagined murders of the Golden Age. Now Westlake and Cobb must root out the poisoner before another person dies.

CHARACTERS: There are enough research chemists in Death, My Darling Daughters (1945) to give any policeman a headache. Hilton heads up a research team and is one of those arrogant scientists who wants all the credit for himself making for an acrimonious working relationship with his colleague Dr. Richard Kenton-Oake and especially Dr. Victor Roberts, the hothead hunk (“The young doctor was the best looking man I had ever seen”). Victor is yet another Stagge Adonis whose initial description goes on for an entire paragraph detailing his “too beautiful” looks, impressive physique and “animal virility”. But he’s an embittered beauty. He’s not only angry about having his name left off publications for developing the synthetic rubber esters he made himself, but is ticked off that Hilton disapproves of his womanizing. Victor can’t help himself, of course, setting hearts aflutter of every young woman in the Hilton household including Hilton’s giddy much younger wife Janie. He’s sex on a stick 1945 style, passionate in temperament in more ways than one.

French paperback using a close translation
of the British alternate title (see below)
Rounding out the cast of research scientists is Dr. Lisl Stahl, a toxicologist from Austria who unfortunately has all her dialogue rendered in a phonetic accent. (Annoying!) Her scientific specialty conveniently enough is research on rodenticides, specifically on efficient methods to kill rats. But Dr. Stahl is careless with her lab, none of her chemicals are securely locked away in cabinets and the lab is left open to all. Anyone could’ve made their way into her lab and helped themselves to any amount of the various poisons she worked with.

The Hilton daughters who all sport the names of Shakespearean characters – Perdita, Rosalind and Helena – are not at all like their namesakes. Webb and Wheeler like their characters to be ironically named. Helena is brash and brazen, Rosalind is petulant and ridiculing, Perdita is distant and unloving to her father. All of them are talentless musicians no matter how hard their mother attempts to cultivate them into a classical trio. But they have other hidden talents – like vocal impressions. Rosalind is particularly talented in her various impressions of the men and women in the Hilton household. She imitates her mother and sister to perfection. Is that a clue to events to come? Maybe. Maybe just a clever red herring.

Their imperious controlling mother does her best to maintain her façade of social politeness but is a dragon of the worst sort. There is a scene between Mrs. Lanchester (she is George’s sister) and Dr. Kenton-Oake’s wife that could have been lifted from Clare Booth Luce’s witty play The Women. A verbal cat fight that allows each woman to reveal her true self. It’s a trenchant theatrical touch with bitchy and cruelly witty dialogue that foreshadows Hugh Wheeler’s future career as a playwright.

UK 1st edition (Michael Joseph, 1946)
INNOVATIONS: The method of introducing poison in this book is diabolical. No other way to describe it. Dr. Hilton’s murder comes at the most unexpected time in a manner that was gasp inducing for me. It certainly is a nasty and bizarre way to kill someone. I’ve read a lot of mystery novels and it takes a lot to shock me. This one worked.

THINGS I LEARNED: Back in the day (and maybe still true today) silver polish contained enough quantities of potassium cyanide to cause toxicity if not handled properly. Dr. Stahl quotes from contemporary toxicology textbooks specific cases of fatal poisonings resulting from the accidental ingestion of residual silver polish not properly removed from silverware, pots and platters.

Arrowroot, often used in cooking as a starch substitute, can also have toxic properties in mass quantities. Ironically, the name itself originally came about because the plant was useful in drawing out poison from envenomed arrows.

German edition. Title translates as:
Mrs Hilton's Pretty Daughters
is the German word for "poison")
EASY TO FIND? Doesn’t look good as of this writing. Though it was reissued in a 1946 Unicorn Book Club omnibus and reprinted in the 1950s by Bestseller Mystery in digest form there are about ten copies for sale. All of them are the Doubleday Crime Club 1st edition hardcover, some with the unique cavorting skeletons DJ. The chances of buying a UK edition are even more limited. I found only eight copies for sale online under the UK alternate title Death and the Dear Girls (1946). For non-English speakers/readers: my search turned up French, Italian, German and Norwegian editions at the site. Libraries are always a good option when so few copies are offered for sale.

* * *

This is my second contribution to Rich Westwood's "Crimes of the Century" meme. This month we read books published in the year 1945. The first book I read and reviewed was This Is The House by Shelley Smith. A list of all the 1945 book posts and contributor's blogs can be found on this page at Rich's blog Past Offenses.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


I have a built in mechanism that leads me to take screen captures of DJs I admire when I stumble across them on the bookselling websites. Most of the time it's because my brain goes, "Hey I have that book! Cool DJ. I should blog about that sometime soon." **CLICK!** And the photo promptly goes into the huge folder on my MacBook Pro labeled "TBR Scans". I also tend to come across lots of books I wish I could buy and read yet can only take photos of.

So once again here's a sampling from my enormous collection of photographs of DJ artwork from books I wish I could own, but reside only on my hard drive as I lust after them and dream that they were in my library.

This is the 18th "Jacket Required" post.  I hope to have this feature return every Sunday for the rest of the year. I'm planning on a new feature called "Impressive Imprints" tracing the history of the US mystery imprints from their heydey during the 1930s to the mid 1950s. I've previously written about the short-lived Scarlet Thread Mysteries and Doubleday's much more successful Crime Club (here, here and here). There are about twenty more imprints from publishers who helped make mystery and detective fiction popular and I own several examples of DJs from all of them.

Friday, April 22, 2016

FFB: I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury - Elizaberth Hely

THE STORY: Newlyweds Mark and Laura Needham are just starting their honeymoon when tragedy strikes. Laura is attacked and killed. Suspicion falls on a unsavory grocer who showed an interest in Mark's wife. Commissaire Antoine Cirret enlists Mark's help in hunting down the grocer and gathering some evidence via subterfuge. Initially reluctant to take part in what he feels is clearly a police duty Mark grudgingly gives in and discovers he has a knack for spying and underhanded interrogation. But when he cannot separate personal feelings from police business the undercover work transforms to vigilante style retribution as the US title I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury (1959) suggests. And is usual with the case of unrestrained vengeance there are horrible consequences for everyone involved.

THE CHARACTERS: Elizabeth Hely spares no punches in this bravura debut performance. Mark Needham is a husband haunted, longing for love yet finding himself bereft of emotion and impotent in the bedroom. He has only two people to turn to for comfort and solace -- Alex Trevor and Andrée de Montdoux.  Alex is Laura's gay best friend, and Andrée is a former flame of Mark's. Alex notices troubling changes in Mark's usual no-nonsense behavior: he is guarded, less than forthright, and has started drinking heavily. Alex suspects his lawyer friend is too interested in Theo Bondet, the grocer, that he has turned sleuth and that his rash behavior may lead to a dangerous confrontation. He and Andrée try their best to distract Mark from the undercover work by taking advantage of Andrée's past history with Mark and her still lingering affection for him. The plan backfires when Mark is physically incapable of carrying through with their passionate affair and his frustration and embarrassment unleash an anger he has held at bay since his wife's death.

The supporting cast is just as complex and fascinating as Mark. At first Alex is presented as a typical gay character of 50s genre fiction. He's an artist, of course -- a classical pianist whose specialty is Chopin. He's self-effacing, a bit of a fop. A past love affair with a man who abandoned him to get married left Alex so heartbroken he become an avowed bachelor. He is introduced to us in a park where he is seen chasing after a Pekingese named Lillith, calling her a naughty bitch and generally acting like a cartoon of an effeminate man, though he's a hulking giant. You think he's going to be a comic character, an object of ridicule. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alex turns out to have a coldhearted thirst for revenge just as Mark does and he's no wimp or limp-wristed queen in the final terrifying scenes.

Andrée too undergoes a startling transformation over the course of the novel -- from spurned old flame, to teasing tart, to Nemesis personified. She proves she's tougher than all the men when she's willing to sacrifice her safety, nearly her life, and sustain scarring injuries for the cause. After all, she was a member of the French Resistance just like Cirret. She has to prove she still has what it takes to face off with a brutal criminal.

Every single character is a force to be reckoned with. Hely spares no mercy for her characters as she sets them loose on one another in the quest for their personal form of justice.

INNOVATIONS: Hely has set her novel in France to take advantage of that country's unusual legal system. Police have less authority than judges and in this case it is the Juge d'Instruciton who seems to be in charge of the case. It is only because he has issued a Commission Rogatoire that Cirret, a commissaire of the Sureté in Paris, has been placed in charge of the case in Beaune, in the heart of French wine country. "We don't like foreigners to get murdered," he tells Mark reassuring him with his customary sarcasm that the case is being treated with urgency. Still, Antoine Cirret is one of the most unorthodox of policemen in crime fiction of this era. By trusting Mark to use his skills as a lawyer to entrap Theo Bondet and to find out things that the grocer might otherwise hide if questioned by police Cirret unwittingly sets in motion the stratagems that fuel this very Hitchcockian story.

THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Hely is the pen name chosen by Nancy Elizabeth Brassey Younger for her crime fiction. Hely was the wife of William Younger and part of a long line of writers all related in one way or another to bestselling thriller writer Dennis Wheatley. William Younger, who also wrote crime novels under the pseudonym William Mole, was Wheatley's beloved stepson. In fact, this book -- originally published in Hely's home country as Dominant Third -- has an endearing dedication page marked "For Mole, with love". Hely's biographical sketch on the rear DJ flap mentions her love of wine, a book about wine and a travel memoir of Portugal she and her husband wrote, her fondness for Pekingese dogs and that Hely included "an engaging one in the cast of characters." The scenes with Alex and Lilith, the dog, are one of the very welcome examples of Hely's wry sense of humor in an otherwise stark story of relentless tension and angry retribution.

QUOTES: "Hate is nearly always destructive. It's only rarely that hate can be used constructively. In your experience, you've never had to hate; not until now. Your country has never been occupied. Occupied. An odd word for cataclysm. Our children learnt to hate while they were young. They learnt to hate with discretion; to use their hatred as a stimulus to their intelligence. Do you imagine that a resistance movement could have existed if every Frenchman had spat in the eyes of Germans? No. We hated with smiles, those of use who had to, and we did it because, when the time came to stop smiling, we knew them."

"To live close to your enemy. Smile at him, talk to him, listen to him; admire and flatter him; gain his confidence. Learn him by heart. Then you can break him."

"Young people are belligerent animals, my dear Andrée, and we were no different from the rest."

"This is not a dog. This is my psychoneurosis. I wrap it in mink to keep it in a good temper."

TV ADAPTATION: Four years after the book was published I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury was adapted for "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." The script was by Lukas Heller with direction by James Sheldon. For unknown reasons Heller decided to transplant the entire story from France to Mexico and most of the supporting players were re-written to suit his needs. The cast included Peter Graves as Mark; Albert Salmi as the rapist/killer renamed Theodore Bond; Rodolfo Hoyos played a Mexican version of Cirret named Inspector Ortiz; and Ed Nelson appeared as Alex Trevor who, of course, was not gay but was married to Sarah Marshall playing Louise Trevor, the substitute for Andrée. The basic plot of a backfired revenge scheme remained the same with a different twist in the finale due to the change in locale.

EASY TO FIND? I'm happy to report that this is one book that is in ample supply. Both hardcover and paperback editions of the US edition which goes by the title reviewed here are numerous. Hardcovers first editions are scarce in the UK under its original title Dominant Third, but copies of the Panther paperback seem plentiful. No contemporary reprints have been published, but I have suggested the book for reissue to a well known reprint house. Cross your fingers that they agree with my assessment.

The Antoine Cirret Crime Novel Trilogy
Dominant Third (1959) - US title: I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury
A Mark of Displeasure (1961)
The Package Deal (1965)

The last book was also adapted for a TV movie retitled The Smugglers starring Shirley Booth and Donnelly Rhodes as Antoine Cirret. I think he's on vacation on a cruise in the book and the story follows the "busman's holiday" type of crime plot. In the TV movie adaptation Booth is a woman traveller who unwittingly becomes a pawn in a smuggling operation. Unsure of whether or not this sticks to the original plot. I have yet to find a copy of that last book, but I'm on the hunt!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Not the Girl She Used to Be

I truly can't believe the speed with which the "runaway bestseller" The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was turned into a movie. Did they start filming the day the book was released?  Lightning speed from page to screen. I've had no desire to read the book because when it comes to mass consumption of bestsellers I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. But then they go and cast Emily Blunt as the lead. A damn fine actress. And after this extremely enticing sneak peak now I have to see it.

For a change I don't feel like I've seen the entire movie after watching this trailer. It actually did its job by making me eager to see it come October. Of course I know next to nothing about the book and that probably helps.

Have a look for yourself.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

COOL FLICKS: Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison is a mostly faithful adaptation of Stephen Geller's novel She Let Him Continue. The characters remain fairly true to their original incarnations and remarkably all the names remain intact.Usually movie writers like to "waspify" all the ethnic surnames in movie adaptations, but thankfully we still get to know Sue Anne Stepanek and Mr. Azenauer and Bud Munch with their original names.

I was afraid I was going to see Anthony Perkins do just another version of Norman Bates in this, but due to one of the interesting changes to the movie script Dennis Pitt is not only fully aware of his fantasy life of being a CIA agent he shares those weird stories and fantasies with everyone. So in the opening scene where we see him meeting with his parole officer for the first time (a scene not in the book) he is playing with Azenauer and teasing him. Dennis makes fun of his apparent diagnosis of mental illness with a story of aliens being responsible for polluting the town's water supply. Azenauer then cautions him about indulging in those wild stories. He's supposed to be rehabilitated and ready for the real world now. Dennis smirks, tosses off the advice, and heads out to start his new life.

Immediately afterward he sees Sue Anne for the first time and is entranced. She happens to be dressed as a drum majorette and is inexplicably marching down the street with her high school marching band. This image allows for a recurring musical motif throughout the movie that signals Dennis is daydreaming and drifting off into his private world. The marching band also adds a surreal element that will pervade the movie tying into Dennis' refusal to commit to entering the real world despite all the advice given to him by his landlady, parole officer and other adults.

The strength of the movie is in the scenes between Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. They have an fascinating chemistry together. Weld seems like an easily impressed, easily manipulated teenage girl sick of adults and her homelife and craving adventure. She oozes enthusiasm and cheerfulness but is never cloying or stupid. There are sly hints about what she's really up to if you already know the ending. It was fascinating to see her play the subtext in the early part of the movie. What I didn't think was a wise choice was to turn her into another two-timing noir temptress.

The film devolves into a series of histrionic scenes beginning with arrest of Dennis at the hands of some hysterical policemen and ending with Sue Anne in the police station revealing that she turned him in. In the book Dennis makes this decision to call the police and confess to the crime himself because he finally realizes that he will never fit into the real world and wants to do the right thing by sparing the girl he has fallen in love with. Yet no matter how hard he tries to be believable he's still treated as if he's a lunatic. It's more effective and tragic than having him become a victim of Sue Anne's devilish betrayal.

In fact Dennis is made to out to be a cowering baby when it comes to actually doing something deadly. Perkins quivers and gives us his wide-eyed innocent looks while Weld laughs and giggles and is turned on by all the violence done mostly at her hands. Too many scenes in the original story where Dennis is complicit in the violence are removed. Weld's Sue Anne is turned into a cackling psycho in the climactic murder scene collapsing into laughter on her bed surrounded by the framed ballet dancers and flowery wallpaper of her girly bedroom. An unsettling scene for sure, but to my mind not really right for Geller's intended themes.

John Randolph (right) as Azenauer, more of a father
figure than a parole officer
The book gives us a series of ineffectual adults who don't really care about Dennis or Sue Anne, who are more interested in enforcing rules and ordering them to do the same. In the movie nearly every adult is sympathetic, especially the all too caring parole officer Azenauer (veteran character actor John Randolph), diminishing the impetus for their rebellious natures. This undermines Geller's intent of having two young people at the mercy of an adult world of hypocrites. In the novel they are reacting to a blasé world of indifference and unimaginative zombies who live their dull lives following the rules blindly. One improvement in the movie comes from the intensity of Perkins' involvement in his fantasy world of CIA rules, alien threats and paranoid delusions of being scrutinized by everyone he and Sue Anne encounter. An interesting choice is how Dennis is flippant and sarcastic when dealing with the adults and so serious and officious when he's with Sue Anne who is both starry-eyed and curious, eager to figure out just who Dennis is, why he's so strange and itching to take part in his adventures.

The only adult character who remains true to the original story is Sue Anne's mother even more of a harpy than she was in the book. As played by Beverly Garland Mrs. Stepanek is the best supporting part in the movie. She is epitome of the bitch mother. Philandering with wannabe hunks and yet keeping a tight control on her "slut" daughter who is only following in her mother's footsteps. Garland appears in three scenes but she makes the most of them delivering her lines with vehement gusto, puffing away on a cigarette, slapping her daughter like Ida Lupino in Women's Prison. It's no wonder Dennis retreats to the kitchen or inches his way to the front door when in her presence. No one would want to be in the same room with such a Fury.

The movie works largely thanks to the presence of Perkins and Weld and their very magnetic chemistry. Their scenes are the strongest, most powerful and most imaginatively composed and lit. If there are a few unintentionally campy moments like the shot of Sue Anne straddling her first murder victim like she's won a wrestling contest or some dreadful dialogue like Perkins oft quoted "What a week...!" speech they only enhance the weirdness of the movie. This is supposed to be a story of young people -- a 22 year old man and a 17 year old girl -- committing sabotage, murder and having drug enhanced sex in the 1960s. Watching two people much older than their parts (Perkins was 36, Weld 25) carry off their roles with 100% commitment and never once parodying themselves or their past roles is both impressive and wildly entertaining.

Monday, April 18, 2016

She Let Him Continue - Stephen Geller

I’ve not read any JD pulp fiction, but I’m pretty sure that She Let Him Continue (1966) is a reaction to a subgenre of popular fiction that flooded the drugstore paperback racks during the 1950s and 1960s. There are no leather jacketed, motorcycle riding, juvenile delinquents in Stephen Geller’s novel but the rebellious youth attitude, the beat poet prose and the disregard for all adult authority are present in this high octane, reinvented version of a JD pulp novel.

She Let Him Continue is narrated by 22 year-old ex-convict Dennis Pitt who imagines himself to be a CIA operative. He works in a chemical factory in the aptly named New England town of Gravemoor where nearly everyone he meets is half dead or so bored with life any sort of diversion will entertain them. Take for instance Dennis’ quasi landlady Mrs. Bronson who along with her husband runs the motel where Dennis lives. When not discussing with Dennis the sensationalized crime stories of rape, child murder, and kidnapping in the local tabloid she’s showing an unusual interest in Dennis himself. Or is her Mrs. Robinson-like seductive posing only part of Dennis’ elaborately constructed delusions? Dennis spurns the attentions of Mrs. Bronson and focusses instead on recruiting 17 year-old Sue Ann Stepanek as comrade in his covert missions. And true to this JD pulp Sue Anne is more trouble than Dennis can handle.

Stephen Geller writes the book in a sort of hipster Beat Lit style shunning chapter divisions and the use of quotation marks in all the dialogue. The result is like reading the transcript of an uninterrupted drug induced hallucination. Pill popping is one of Dennis' hobbies along with his baroque fantasy life and he and Sue Anne freely take drugs as they turn into thrill-seeking daring adventurers as part of Dennis’ strange plan to sabotage the chemical plant. Dennis is fully aware of his pretense as a CIA agent and lets us in on that big lie fairly soon. But we believe along with him that Sue Ann is just a naïve teenage girl he’s exploiting for companionship and eventually sex.

As this hallucinatory journey continues each of Dennis’ encounters with the mostly ineffectual adult characters reveal a frustrated troubled young man orphaned at an early age, corralled into his aunt's house, bullied by teenage girls, abandoned by peers, and eventually turning to arson as his ultimate rage-filled teenage response. Upon release from prison he is badgered by his exacting parole officer and harrassed by his boss at the factory. He is coping with indifference and lack of empathy on a grand scale which he collectively labels “the pressure.” The chemical plant is a symbol of all that is corrupt in the world as Dennis watches it pour out filthy sewage, sinister “red dye” and stinking pollution into Gravemoor’s river. Blowing up the sewage chutes is an act of revenge on the world that turned its back on him, led him to commit a selfish crime and robbed him of five years of his adolescence in prison. We begin to feel an odd empathy for the young man as he dreamily riffs on "the pressure", the polluted river and everything promised to him that was spoiled or taken from him.

With Sue Ann as his sergeant he plans to battle the world. Under Dennis’ mentorship Sue Ann is given a test to prove her worthiness as a CIA agent. She surrenders to Dennis’ will and with the help of some pills to loosen her inhibitions we watch her unleash her inner demons in a violent climax. All too quickly we realize Sue Ann was not at all the naïve waif she was first presented as. The pills are not to blame. It’s clear that she and Dennis have a lot more in common than misfit sexual attraction. And Sue Ann actually turns out to be much more dangerous than the fantasy plagued Dennis.

Geller’s novel served as the inspiration for two movies. The first retitled Pretty Poison (1968) is something of a cult sensation among exploitation and psycho-thriller fans. Unsurprisingly, Anthony Perkins plays Dennis though he was three years shy of his fortieth birthday when he made the movie. Tuesday Weld is Sue Ann whose part is substantially rewritten to hint at a vixen in training just as aware of her capacity to corrupt as Dennis is aware of his CIA fantasy world. I’m not so sure I like this change but Weld carries it off with a sinister subtlety ultimately exploding into a kind of bloodthirsty teenage version of Bonnie Parker that another immature or less intelligent actress might overplay into a tired caricature.

The movie was remade for TV in a boring revamp updated to 1996. Grant Show, best known as one of the bland hunks on "Melrose Place", plays Dennis with an unattractive boyish haircut and as Sue Ann we get the uninspired Wendy Benson who went on to play supporting roles in a string of forgettable TV series throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Much of the TV movie is just a copy of the far more interesting original. The changes in storyline like Dennis’ aggressive sexual nature don’t add to a better understanding of what Geller was really after in his portraits of two furious young people of the 1960s. As acted by Show and Benson we get vapidness personified not deeply troubled frustrated souls caught in a world they want desperately to control but cannot.

More on the first Pretty Poison movie coming in a post in a few days.

Friday, April 15, 2016

FFB: This Is the House - Shelley Smith

THE STORY: This Is the House (1945) is a Caribbean homage to the British claustrophobic village murder mystery. The Jacques family lives in a converted Portuguese fortress on Apostle Island not far from Haiti and they are dropping like flies under mysterious or violent circumstances. Voodoo, smuggling and espionage also figure.

THE CHARACTERS: Julia Jacques is the sad matriarch of the family who in the opening chapter is in the end stages of a terminal illness that has left her paralyzed and bedridden. Unable to speak or barely move a muscle she withers away under the care of a solicitous nurse, her supercilious sister Hattie, and her aloof husband.  She dies mysteriously by suffocation that may have been the result of a cat falling asleep on her face. Quentin Seal, a detective novelist and casual acquaintance of the family, is troubled by the coroner’s dismissal of death by misadventure and ponders whether Julia was somehow cleverly murdered. Then another member of the family dies and this time there is no question that murder was done. Quentin is approached by M. Jacques and goaded into using his skills in creating and solving fictional murders to help the family avenge the deaths. Prudence Whitaker, secretary to Hattie Brown, acts as Seal’s sometime sleuthing cohort. A vagrant beach bum named Boris Borodin makes a cameo appearance and will figure into an intriguing subplot that will eventually tie all the criminal activity into a carefully orchestrated scheme years in the making.

Oh, let me not forget the gibbon named Orlando! For a while I thought that there was going to be a nod to Poe with the introduction of Hattie’s exotic pet, but he’s really only present to raise the bar on the surreal elements several notches higher.

A little past the halfway mark Napoleon Orage enters the story as a representative of the Wigtown police force and surprises most of the characters when he turns out to be a native. A black police officer in the Caribbean? Unimaginable! More of Smith’s very welcome satire.

Smith shows off her obvious love of the genre and has created in this early work (her third crime novel) a hodgepodge of detective novel and adventure thriller. She manages to work into her engaging plot several familiar motifs of the traditional detective novel including a quasi locked room puzzle, alibi breaking, a whiff of supernatural in one character’s use of macabre voodoo spells, and an oddball romantic subplot. All the while the story is filled with intriguing incidents, eccentric characters, puzzling murders and one very well hidden murder method. Clues are so artfully placed that even the most assiduous reader will miss most of them resulting in some eyebrow raising surprises in the denouement. True to an old-fashioned whodunit the big reveal takes place in a sitting room with all the surviving suspects listening to Quentin Seal deliver the elegantly presented solution. In a nod to Christianna Brand’s trademark of multiple solutions Seal shows how every single member of the family was capable of committing one or more murders before he and Prudence unmask the real culprit and reveal the unexpected conspiracy.

Mirani Fort in Muscat, Oman  [Photo ©João Sarmento]
Built by the Portuguese in 17th century, most likely very similar to the Jacques home
ATMOSPHERE: The tropical setting on Apostle Island is suitably languorous in the sun drenched, breezy daytime interludes and with nicely done sinister touches in the Gothic-like Jacques fortress cum manse. The introduction of the voodoo aspects are perfectly macabre highlighted by some grisly spell casting paraphernalia. You may learn a thing or two about voodoo. It’s not all done with just wax figures and pins.

INNOVATIONS: One lurid murder combines a dollop of illicit sex, a corpse found in a compromising state of undress, and a nightmarishly timed plunge of a paper knife. The investigation reveals that one suspect was witness to the murder but completely oblivious that a murder took place. For that daring touch of sex and a thoroughly horrifying murder This Is the House gets my vote as one of the earliest transgressive detective novels. Smith takes a huge risk in dreaming up a crime of passion that other more polite mystery writers of this era would never dare imagine. It would be forty plus years before a similar murder sequence would ever be considered in fiction again only to lose its power to shock when the concept was cheapened in grotesque overuse in 1980s slasher movies.

One passage foreshadows what will become one of Smith's own trademarks in her crime fiction. Quentin Seal considers then dismisses several suspects in the role of the killer and when he finds he must discount Julia's creepy older sister Hattie he remarks to Napoleon: "You've cleared my mind. [...] She seemed so delightfully suitable for the part, too. It's so right to have a nasty old woman whom everyone dislikes for your murderess rather than your innocent and bashful heroine." Hattie is actually very reminiscent of Luna Rampage and Mrs. Jolly who will appear as Smith's badass biddies in future books.

The title comes from the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” In the opening pages of the book the cast of characters is listed with each of them matched up to the characters in the rhyme. Some are obvious like M. Jacques for Jack and Father Xavier as the priest, while others are satiric like Hattie cast as the cow and the gossipy bitch Ellen Foley as the cat. The full nursery rhyme is printed as a prologue with Jack being replaced by the family name Jacques. Seems to me this is a nod to Agatha Christie’s penchant for using nursery rhymes as inspiration for plot gimmickry and the book’s title. In fact the whole novel might well be seen as Smith’s homage to Christie for it satirizes the English village mystery and its closed set of suspects by transporting it to a seemingly tropical Eden just as claustrophobic and ridden with secrets and hidden passions.

EASY TO FIND? I thought it might be one of Smith's hard to find books since no one has ever written about it on the web until I did. Even Good Reads, a website I tend to avoid, doesn’t include it in her bibliography. (No surprise there, actually.) But a genuine surprise was finding nearly 35 copies waiting to be purchased and read out there in the digital used book market. There may be even more waiting to be discovered in bookshops that have no internet presence. Very good news indeed! It was published only in the UK and Canada and you have a choice between hardcover (Collins Crime Club, two editions) or paperback (Toronto’s White Circle, the Canadian paperback arm of Collins). Prices range from $2 for a paperback reading copy to $25 for a VG+/VG+ copy with a DJ. I say go for a hardcover with DJ even if most of them are the 1948 reprint. I’ve never seen so many affordable copies of a 1940s era mystery novel with DJs in such great condition! Another surprise: In 1964 This Is The House was translated into German and published under the title Das Haus auf der Apostelinsel (literally, The House on Apostle Island).

WANT MORE? I’ve written about Shelley Smith a lot. She’s one of my favorite writers who I think worked best --and perfected-- the malice domestic and “badass biddy” subgenres. Click here to bring up all the Shelley Smith tagged posts over the past five years.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

ODDITIES: Clue for Murder - Ronald Barker

THE STORY: Very simply Clue for Murder (1962)  is a detective novel inspired by the board game Clue®.

CHARACTERS: Mrs. Pocock, Colonel Charlock, Angela Lake, Oliver Verdon and of course Professor Plumb have all been invited to Dr. Wight’s hotel apartment for a party. When all are present they are instructed to play a game of Clue® while their host readies himself. A few hours later poor Dr. Wight is found in the hallway closet with a bashed in head. It doesn't take long for the guests to see the similarities in their names to the roles they were assigned in the game. And the fact that the cards said that Colonel Mustard did the murder in the conservatory with the candlestick. Dr. Wight has no conservatory but he does have a consulting room and it seems that a candlestick is missing from the fireplace mantel in that room. Someone is having a perverse laugh at the expense of these apparent strangers. Did Colonel Charlock (check your botany catalogs for the connection) kill Dr. Wight? Or is he being framed? It takes the combined efforts of hotel detective Burt Charles and Detective-Inspector Harris to uncover the reason the strangers were brought together and to track down the villain behind the deadly games.

INNOVATIONS: Clearly, the entire novel is an innovation having used the popular board game as its inspiration for a devilishly clever murder mystery. After a brief and superfluous section about who had which cards during the play of the board game the story gets very interesting as everyone attempts to find out what the guests have in common, why they were invited to Dr. Wight’s, and why they have been targeted by a mad killer.

For a while it seems that Professor Plumb will become the real detective of the novel since he does quite a bit of pontificating and armchair sleuthing on his own. Overall, there is some good detection and the uncovering of all the various secrets is told with crisp dialogue and nicely controlled suspense. Several floor plans add to the nostalgic atmosphere and may a elicit a smile when the reader realizes that the hotel room where the murders take place is a near duplicate of the Clue® board game with only the bedroom and Wight's consulting room standing in for other rooms in the game. There are, however, no secret passages. Thankfully.

The finale caught me completely off guard and I have to applaud Barker for some excellent misdirection. I like being surprised when I always think I never will be. The story has an element of the impossible crime subgenre as one of the murders seems to have been committed by an invisible intruder. All the guests were in the company of at least one other person when the murder was done and no one could have got into the locked hotel suite from outside.

THE AUTHOR: Ronald Barker was born in Scotland and raised in England. After a brief career in business and then a stint in the British Army medical corps he entered the publishing field in 1947. At the time of the publication of Clue for Murder he was the president of the British Publishers Association.  He was commissioned by Unesco to write a study of the international book trade and two of those volumes focused on the trade between the UK and African nations. Using the pseudonym "E. B. Ronald" he wrote a handful of detective novels modeled after the American hard-boiled private eye novel but all of the books were set in England. Clue for Murder (1962) was his sixth mystery novel and the only one published under his real name. I've found a copy of one of the  those E.B. Ronald books about some murders in a pub and will be reviewing it soon. Supposedly there is another locked room murder in that book.

One mystery never explained: though the story is set in England and written by a British man why are they all playing on a Clue® game board and not a Cluedo board? I guess it was altered for this side of the Atlantic. I'd be interested to know if the UK editions of this book refer to Cluedo instead.

Detail from the rear panel of the 1st US edition DJ

Friday, April 8, 2016

FFB: The Woman in Black - Leslie Ford

THE STORY: Grace Latham is invited to a Washington dinner hosted by Dorothy and Theodore Hallet. Theodore is grooming his employer Enoch B. Stubblefield, a millionaire industrialist, for candidacy for President. At the dinner is young Susan Kent who just the night before had approached Grace for help in a predicament. She has been unwisely accepting money as a "subsidy" for her husband's chemical research into synthetic rubber after she gave two influential businessmen some of her husband's papers meant to be destroyed. Among other guests at the dinner party is Mrs. Lawrence Taylor, the mysterious woman in black of the title. She has been stalking Stubblefield and harassing him for a wrong done to her in the past. The next day Mrs. Taylor is found murdered in a boarding house. More death follows as secrets are revealed, Susan Kent's compromising of her husband's research looms large over the story, and misguided good intentions turn very deadly.

THE CHARACTERS: Grace Latham is on her own in The Woman in Black (1947). I believe it is her only solo adventure. Colonel Primrose, her usual cohort in crime solving, is recuperating from the measles. Sergeant Buck, however, is there as Grace's substitute Watson, doling out advice and keeping her posted on the Colonel's recovery. The supporting cast of suspects and victims is a lively lot ranging from Milton Minor, an arrogant writer working on Stubblefield's biography; Dorothy Hallet, the epitome of a Washington society hostess; Freddie Mollinson, an ugly depiction of a vicious old queen who plies his trade in gossip and rumor; Susan Kent who at first seems like a vapid wife with no sense at all, but in the end proves to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman who loves not too wisely but too well; and Stubblefield himself. He's an interesting depiction of a megalomaniac businessman with his eyes on everyone's prize and whose charm and unflappable persona are a façade for ruthless ambition and self-interest. I couldn't help but draw comparisons between Stubblefield and a certain member of the current US Presidential candidate race. I wonder if Ford based him on some prominent industrialist of the post WW2 era. The complications involving Susan's indiscreet handling of her husband's not so well guarded research into synthetic rubber polymers, the politics of a pre-presidential campaign, and the more familiar subplot of Mrs. Taylor, her daughter and their ruined life that Stubblefield was responsible for all blend into a fine mystery novel with some very good detection.

INFLUENCE & INNOVATION: The story for me was unexpectedly engaging for its depiction of the Washington social scene. It's also a good example of how Ford's style and choice of subject matter influenced Ellen Hart Smith who wrote under the pseudonym Louisa Revell, a writer I've just discovered and have been writing about on this blog. Julia Tyler, Smith's character, is almost a clone of Grace Latham (albeit a much older Grace) in attitude, speech, and narrative voice. This is only the second Ford novel I've read and it vastly differs in tone and treatment from The Clue of the Judas Tree, the first book of hers I read. That other book, a very early non-series mystery, resembles more of a woman in peril mystery along the lines of Mignon Eberhart. Apparently the early Ford mystery novels are more in line with the HIBK subgenre. Not so in the case of this well done, smart and humanistic detective novel.

There is some business with a gun disappearing and reappearing that reminded me of the literal gunplay in the Perry Mason novels. No real knowledge of ballistics or guns is needed as in Gardner's books. But it got to be a bit ridiculous with finding the gun, hiding the gun, retrieving the gun, and trying to get rid of it by dumping it on other suspects.

QUOTES: This book often had a wicked sense of humor.

"I could imagine what Dorothy must have been feeling just then, as I can imagine how an architect must feel standing by while somebody picks up the foundation of a house he's built and gives the whole thing a heave-ho into the open sea."

"I suppose I have a the all-time low in batting averages on figuring the correct time to open my mouth and the correct time to keep it shut."

"...the advice I was trying to give him didn't have the chance of the proverbial snowball on the steps of Capitol Hill..."

Mrs. Stubblefield (an occultist and astrology nut): "Your aura was a lovely blue last night. Now it's yellow."
Grace: "That's the jaundiced view of life I'm taking at the moment."

EASY TO FIND? Yes, indeed if you like hunting the world of used books. No modern reprints or reissues exist. Thanks to her unfortunate and ill-deserved reputation for being un-PC Leslie Ford will probably never be reprinted unless a real smart and courageous indie press decides to revive her. And I think she should be. There are multiple paperback editions (I counted four) as well as three hardcover editions of this particular title. Prices range from $2 for a reading copy of the later Dell paperback to $40 for a US 1st edition with a dust jacket. All very reasonable prices, I'd say and some are outright steals. I love the dust jacket for the UK edition! I may just buy that copy myself.

This was such a nice surprise after all I've read about Ford and her supposedly snobbish view of life in Washington and all the nonsense of her being racist. True she can't resist having Lilac, Grace's smart as a whip housekeeper talk in that insulting Butterfly McQueen dialect, but there is nothing at all racist about Ford's worldview. Snobby sophistication as well as outrageous hubris goes hand in hand with the Washington elite now as much as it did then. That hasn't changed at all. But her treatment of the middle class and working class characters, in this book at least, comes off more fair minded and compassionate than how she feels about the arrogant and ambitious characters of Washington's upper strata. Milton, Freddie and Stubblefield are actually more villainous to Ford than the murderer! And for me Lilac is a breath of fresh air and a force of common sense in this book - despite her poor grammar.

Friday, April 1, 2016

FFB: Skuldoggery - Fletcher Flora

In honor of April Fool's Day here's a very silly entry in the subgenre of comic crime -- Skuldoggery (1967) by Fletcher Flora.

THE STORY: When the Jarbelo family gathers for the reading of Hunter Jarbelo's will hoping to hear how each are to inherit a share of his ten million dollar estate they are in for a rude awakening. He has included a proviso that the entire estate is to go toward the care and well being of his Chihuahua -- Senorita Fogarty -- as long as she remains alive. Together the family conspire to cut short the life of the dog but not without considerable effort.

THE CHARACTERS: Like all good farces of this type nearly everyone is greedy and/or stupid. Few of the family members come off as anything resembling a real person or an intelligent human being. That's quite all right though, for the entire book is written in a very strange imitation of an Evelyn Waugh satire. Unlike Flora's usual writing style he adopted for his fast paced paperback originals in the James Cain vein or his lesbian "erotica" he wrote for the sleaze publishers this book has a patronizing tone emphasizing the Jarbelo family's flaws in the progression of their many failed attempts to eliminate the fated Chihuahua.

Only Hester -- twin sister to Lester and daughter of Flo, Hunter's elder daughter -- is presented as anyone with a modicum of cunning, charm and expediency. The rest are drunks, louts, layabouts and generally perfect cartoons of the idle rich. Standing in their way to the Jarbelo fortune are the Crumps, Hunter's faithful servants, whom he appoints as Senorita Fogarty's guardians and keepers of the estate. Just getting into the house to talk to one of these servants is a job in itself as the Crumps know only too well that the others intend to do the dog major harm. They take their job as guardians very seriously. But could they also be as self-interested as the heirs? The temptation to use the money not only for the Chihuahua but for themselves is oh so hard to resist.

When one of the Crumps unexpectedly drops dead under suspicious circumstances the police enter the picture. The scenes between Det.-Lt. Sylvester Bones and the family make for some excellent farcical reading. And I couldn't resist including a large chunk down in the "Quotes" section.

INNOVATIONS: It's the odd narrative voice that Flora adopts for this book that really makes it stand out from his other better known crime fiction. that and it seems to be the only all out comedy he wrote in novel length. Hard to believe that the story is set in the US with passages like this:

"Hester, on the other hand, had in the meanwhile been busy. Her business had begun, in fact, the previous afternoon immediately after leaving Flo and Uncle Homer and Lester, and it had been in the beginning a kind of preliminary session of furious thinking. It was apparent that someone had to assume the initiative in the matter of nudging Senorita Fogarty into dog heaven, and it was equally apparent that Lester was not the one to do it. Indeed, Lester had proved himself incredibly incompetent at every turn, and it was impossible to believe that he would suddenly improve."

MORE QUOTES: There are a lot of passages I'd love to quote at length. I'll settle for a half page snippet of my favorite scene in the book:

I had a blast reading this one. I ended up reading passages aloud to Joe and we cracked ourselves up. If you're a fan of silly farce, clever wordplay, and comic crime populated with the basest and most venal characters, then Skuldoggery is right up your alley. It's not exactly uproarious or hysterically funny but it ought to raise more than a few smiles and inspire a couple of good chuckles. And it's certainly very different from anything else Fletcher Flora ever wrote.