Friday, August 18, 2017

FFB: Murder Cancels All Debts - M. V. Heberden

Those who know the many novels of M.V. Heberden are probably more acquainted with Desmond "Des" Shannon, her tough private eye modeled very much on the 1940s movie version of a typical private eye. But she also wrote three books with a much older detective -- war veteran, and former Naval Intelligence Officer Rick Vanner who after his service in the US forces briefly ran his own private detective agency with government contractors as his primary clients. Then he stepped out of that life. But he wasn't to abandon entirely his life as a detective for long. Murder Cancels All Debts (1946) is his first appearance in a novel. Despite its flirting with an awful Alternative Classic style title the mystery is engaging and often original in plotting. Heberden's crisp writing, her sharp ear for quips, and her observations about post-WW2 life in America and the xenophobia that infected the country that make the novel worthy of attention.

The story is almost run-of-the-mill in that we have a unlikable woman as the victim, several unhappy marriages, flagrant adultery, and couple of stock characters. The clueing sometimes falls short of the mark. There is, for instance, a missing dinner napkin that shows up in the pocket of a woman's raincoat and everyone begins to suspect her of the crime. Apparently, we are supposed to infer that it was used by the killer to fire the gun that killed Celeste Mather though this is never outright stated. There were other aspects of the crime that were much more important and telling, but for some reason everyone gets all riled up about the napkin.

The minor flaws in plotting, however, are easy to overlook because the real point of the novel is Heberden's commentary on the treatment of refugees in the US, the differing views of war from European's perspective as opposed to an American's, and her criticism of the complacency of Americans who can so easily mourn a fallen soldier overseas while their country, its citizenry and their homes remain relatively unscathed. She has much to say in the character of Polish pianist Paula Ronosky who constantly reminds the reader that Americans do not understand war at all. This is not just grandstanding on Heberden's part. The immigrants and ex-pats who make up a small portion of the cast turn out to be the most crucial figures in the story. The reader should be playing close attention to Paula's philosophy when she speaks; the behavior of Manuel, the Mexican chauffeur; and the slightly cryptic conversations that Vanner has with Manuel in Spanish (rendered in English, of course). These mystery novels that focus on the outsider or "the other" are always fascinating to me. Heberden's wartime observations seem obvious to us now, but I'm sure she was in the minority among all the flag waving patriots of the era who swallowed up our own self-aggrandizing propaganda and never truly experienced what the true horror of war is about.

Initially I was drawn to her talent for epigrammatic dialogue and a skill in turning out quips. Here's a sample:

"There's nothing in the world more desperate and ruthless than an unmarried woman of thirty. Nothing in trousers is safe within a mile of her."

"Sailors on leave are notorious for their lack of discipline."

She went over to the piano with the feeling that perhaps it would like to be played. Musical instruments should be played as pearls should be worn.

He was too far away to hear the conversation, which annoyed him on the principle that all knowledge in murder cases -- even apparently irrelevant things like other people's telephone conversations -- is useful.

"There are very few moments when the truth is a good idea."

Sympathy, generosity, kindliness [she found everywhere in the U.S.], but no understanding. They still didn't know what war was all about except the few who had been in it and returned. And they seldom talked. Even those with sons and husbands overseas didn't understand. They suffered and they feared, but it seemed to take a European to understand.

In the end I was won over by her flair for the dramatic. There are quiet, deftly done moments like when Delia, a minor servant character, pauses in a doorway to listen to Paula's piano playing and allows herself to be taken away from the madness of the murder investigation if only for a brief instant. But the dominating atmosphere of impeding doom is the masterstroke. The characters are at the mercy of a torrential rainstorm which threatens to cause massive flooding. They flee the scene of the murder and take refuge in the Blane house, next door to the Mather estate on much higher ground. When the dam bursts as they all feared, the river floods the town, washes out a bridge and leaves them all isolated. There follows a power failure and a climax that takes place in the candlelit Blane household where a killer is hiding among the stranded survivors.

M.V. Heberden as photographed
in a fashion spread in Vogue
(circa late 1930s, early 1940s)
Mary Violet Heberden began her life as an actress in England. She then emigrated to the US and found a variety of supporting parts in 13 Broadway productions ranging from Kaufman & Hart's Merrily We Roll Along (an unusual play told in reverse chronology and later adapted into a musical by Sondheim) to the long running drama Victoria Regina starring Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. Her stage career lasted from 1929 to 1941 and during this period she began writing detective novels. Her first novel, not too surprisingly a theatrical mystery, was Death on the Door Mat published in 1939. Under the pen name "Charles L. Leonard" (the name is a combined tribute to her father a mother) she wrote espionage and adventure thrillers, most of them featuring another military man and war veteran, Paul Kilgerrin, as her series detective.

Heberden had a fondness for travel and lived and worked in South America. At one time she was in charge of a timber company in Brazil. She also traveled extensively in Europe and settled in Rome for a while sometime in the 1950s. Her career as a crime writer seemed to be a secondary source of income but she was prolific, sometimes having four books published in a year, and her writing career lasted close to twenty years. Her final novel was published in 1953. She died in 1965.

Other than Engaged to Murder (the second in the Rick Vanner series) reissued back in the 1980s most of Heberden's books under her name and as Charles L. Leonard have not been reprinted. The used book market is flooded with a variety of her titles in both US and UK editions, but most of them are the older hardcovers as there were few paperback reprints during her lifetime. I'll be looking at her private eye Desmond Shannon in the coming months and maybe sample one or two of her thrillers as Leonard. Stay tuned.

The Rick Vanner Trilogy
Murder Cancels All Debts (1946)
Engaged to Murder (1949)
The Sleeping Witness (1951)

Friday, August 11, 2017

FFB: Angel Loves Nobody - Richard Miles

THE STORY: You think Holden Caulfield was a problem child? Take a look at Angel Martine, the sullen, smirking, reticent leader of an army of teen-age misanthropes at Betsy Ross Junior High somewhere outside of Los Angeles. How perfect that a teen rebel should be leading a revolution at a school named after one of the legendary heroes of the 18th century. The teachers have no idea that Angel is plotting a bloody massacre. He's arming his gang with knives and they plan to murder the teachers during sixth period on Friday afternoon that he's dubbed Zero Hour. The novel Angel Loves Nobody (1967) tells of the lives of the students and teachers in the days leading up to Zero Hour and the unexpected events of the day itself.

THE CHARACTERS: Like many novels of the 1960s this is a densely packed episodic exploration of character. Though named for the teenage leader of would-be Executioners (as they all dub themselves) the real protagonist is 27 year-old teacher Tim Nielsen. He is the replacement art teacher at Betsy Ross Junior High and this is his first job teaching young people. We get to know the staff through his eyes and on occasion through the more skewed perceptions of Angel and his band of terrorizing teens. Tim is trying to balance his new career with a burgeoning romantic relationship with Margie, his artist girlfriend who works at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles. But he is sensing something not quite right with his new group of students, especially the oddly quiet, antagonistic vibe he gets from Angel Martine. It doesn't help that his youthful idealism clashes with the senior faculty at the school, many of them several decades older than he and all of them grown jaded with teaching, utterly indifferent towards their students' lives and outside interests.

As the reader watches Angel recruit his Executioners, spies and armorers in preparation for Zero Hour one can't help feel that some of these adults deserve at least a good punch in the face if not the gruesome death Angel has planned for them. The principal William Conrad, nicknamed "ConRat" by the kids, is an overweight lecher always ready to put the moves on the typists in his administrative offices. Roger Post is a lout who insults the women, picks fights with the men, tells horrible off color jokes and is in general an asshole for much of the book. The few scenes of him at home also reveal him to be a misogynistic husband who treats his wife as nothing more a sexual plaything. Elderly Cleaire Devereux doesn't earn much sympathy either. As the most senior teacher in the school she has little interest in anything other than lunchtime when she gets to gossip with her female friends about life outside of the school.

INNOVATIONS: Angel Loves Nobody seems to be the first of its kind in depicting high school violence as a sort of horror novel. Although the blurbs on the rear cover of the Dell paperback compare it to the juvenile delinquent nightmares depicted in The Blackboard Jungle and Up the Down Staircase Richard Miles' second novel takes teen angst and juvenile rebellion to the extreme in the planning of a high school massacre. I know of only one other infamous book that dealt with such a real life horror before we all suffered the 21st century plague of nightmare gun violence. In 1977 Stephen King, under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, wrote Rage about a boy who kills two teachers and holds a schoolroom of students hostage. Several teens used it as inspiration to commit violent acts in schools throughout the 1980s, but after a 1997 shooting in Paducah, KY King withdrew it from publication. He has never allowed it to be reprinted since.

While King's novel tells the story of a single violent youth, Angel Loves Nobody is concerned with a kind of mass hysteria conjured up by one very angry young man and the skill with which he manages to coerce and manipulate his army of angry and hateful kids. While it does ends in violence, altogether much differently than Angel ever planned, the telling of the story is controlled and never sensationalized. The book can be likened to a suspense novel, notably in the very tense and nervewracking final two chapters, but it really belongs to mainstream pop fiction. Miles is interested in a lot of what isn't noticed about the outcasts and loners among teens as well as the misfits of the adult world. There are insightful parallels drawn between the personalities of the students compared with those of the teachers that most "school in trouble" fiction of this sort never addresses.

In this second novel Miles also shows a more mature side to his writing rather than the often vulgar and melodramatic excesses of That Cold Day in the Park, his debut as a novelist. There are frequent vignettes with powerful evocative images, many of them capturing perfectly the struggles of the teens to reconcile their conflicted feelings about Angel's plans with their secret desires and dreams. One of the more unusual uses is a scene where Maria Estragon, one of the first students to regret her involvement in the plot, is leaning up against a wall and as she feels the surface of the bricks she imagines them to be small houses in a valley and she pretends "that each valley had its small houses filled with small people and children and dogs." She continues to imagine a blissful Utopia that includes beautiful blue eyed and brown eyed people and Mr. Nielsen smiling at her. Then she is brought back to reality when her body warms the bricks and a drop of sweat trickles down her back. "She tried to turn the drop into a tear from one of the blue eyes, but the tear was too big, and the eyes were too small, and the whole dream just ruined."

QUOTES: They went past the drugstore window, Angel stopping briefly to inspect some war games that were simulating a battlefield across a strip of phony cellophane grass. Between the signs TOOTH-PASTE REGULAR 69¢ TODAY ONLY 59¢ and GOOD FOOD, there was an impressive display of submachine guns, toy soldiers, and doctor kits next to a display sized bazooka. PLAY VIETNAM, said a hand-lettered sign.

Angel: "We gonna kill 'em each one in a special, poetic, proper, diff'rent way like they deserve. It wouldn’t’ be fair to kill 'em all the same way. Charley, would it? […] Some people deserve to die, don't they, Charley, if they don't fight back? Or if they fight so good but not quite good enough?"

"You force [people] to be uncultured. Everything they see is their culture. You take advantage of a child's natural selfishness, his natural cruelty, and prolong it by pandering to it until he becomes a cruel, selfish adult, proud of his cruelty and selfishness because it conforms to the national ideal."

Tim: "Television is practically everywhere. In a few more years there won't be a house anywhere that doesn't have a set. ...[W]hen the kids are home from school, till the time they're supposed to be in bed, you have nothing on any of the channels except things that are educational, but well done."
Marge: "That's ridiculous. [...] You're talking about nationalizing. You're talking about 1984"

THINGS I LEARNED: Miles had a prophetic vision for quality children's programming on national television broadcasting. The section (partially quoted above) where Tim talks to Marge about the power of TV and how it can be a force of good in helping to shape young minds beneficially was amazingly on target. Only two years after this book was published Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" spoke before a Senate Committee on Communications in order to preserve multimillion funding for children's programming on public TV. After an impassioned argument he quoted the lyrics from one of his songs that reminds a child that he or she is always control of his emotions, that he can pause in a moment of anger and do something better, something constructive. When Rogers was done Senator John Pastore said, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars." You can view Fred Rogers' testimony on YouTube here.

Richard Miles, age 22, seen in
"The Betty Hutton Show"
THE AUTHOR: There is a brief biographical sketch about Richard Miles and his previous life as a child actor in movies and TV on the page for my review of his first, less controlled, more histrionic novel That Cold Day in the Park. I'll only elaborate here on the unusual way that Angel Loves Nobody came to be published. Miles won the Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1966. It was apparently first written as a script because the Samuel Goldwyn awards are for a screenwriting competition for TV and movie writers. Miles received extensive critique on the story and suggestions for its improvement. Apparently he decided to convert it into a novel and later earned a contract with Prentice-Hall for its publication.

EASY TO FIND? Miles' novel was published in both the US and UK. It was also reprinted in paperback in both countries. Despite the fact that there were four separate editions in two countries it seems to be rather scarce. I found only 15 copies for sale online, a mix of all four editions, in prices ranging from a $3.97 paperback to $35 for a copy of the US first in fine condition. You may want to check your local library. I found the book utterly fascinating, eerily prescient and, sadly, extremely topical and still relevant in our violence ridden world. It's very much recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: The Arrow Points to Murder - Frederica de Laguna

THE STORY: All is not well at the New York Academy of Natural Sciences. The Hall of Mammals is closed for rehabbing and redesign, the sea otter exhibit is moth eaten and in need of a taxidermy repair, one scientist's paper all ready for publication now looks as if it will never see print. The entire staff is on edge, at each other's throats with jealousy and animosity for one reason or another. Then there's the collection of South American artifacts being catalogued and prepared for loan to a foreign museum. Museum director Dr. Oberly insists on reviewing the group before it gets shipped off to Russia. Hours later Oberly is dead, apparently having accidentally cut himself on the arrow blade still tainted with curare. Was it an accident? Oberly was not at all well liked, had made several employees angry or upset, and seems a perfect target for violent revenge. Was the accident a cleverly disguised murder? Dr. Richard Barton turns sleuth and uncovers more secrets than he cared to know about.

THE CHARACTERS: The primary cast of characters is made up of the rather large staff of the Museum. Everyone from security guards to administrative staff to all the scientist are introduced in a whirlwind first chapter, one right after other, and it took many pages for me to keep everyone straight. I made a checklist with character names, their museum affiliations, and field of study and needed to refer back to it frequently before I had finally kept them all straight in my head. That was well past the halfway mark. Once that task was accomplished I was able to sink into the very intriguing plot.

Barton is our hero detective and he is part of the American Studies section of the museum. His knowledge about the South American Goajiro tribe and the methods of making and using arrow poisons is key to uncovering the murder method and in part the killer's motive. He is sure that the murderer unintentionally showed his ignorance of ethnology in choosing the arrow as a murder weapon while the police think it all may be a blind. When another murder related to the arrow collection -- even more bizarre and horrific in its execution -- takes place Barton and the police know for certain that Oberly's death was no accident.

INNOVATIONS: When Doubleday Doran first published de Laguna's book in 1937 part of the publicity for the book claimed that it was "the first fictional presentation of backstage life in a large an archeologist (sic) who knows and appreciates the color and fascinating detail of that type of work." Like most publishing PR this is slightly exaggerated. There had been a handful of other detective novels published much earlier that also involve museums and even one with an arrow murder in a museum (The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917) by Anna Katharine Green), but the claim of the authorial expertise on the academic side of museum work probably holds true as a first in fiction publishing.

The plot makes use of anthropological forensic science and unusual poison experiments in a way like no other detective novel I know of. De Laguna admits frankly in her foreword to the 1999 paperback reprint that she took liberties with the operation of the Medical Examiner's Office in order to make the plot more exciting.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Arrow Points to Murder (1937) is replete with anthropological lectures, cultural tidbits, and tangential scientific trivia all related to museum work. I learned about the importance of entomology in helping to date Egyptian mummies (some species of lice are being studied by one of the staff members). There is considerable background in the "publish or perish" mindset of working in academia and how the continual delay of a manuscript affects the eccentric ethnologist Carstairs, who for much of the book seems to be the most likely suspect as Oberly's killer. And of course I got a crash course in arrow poison sources and the manufacture of those poisons. De Laguna includes a complex recipe for curare which consists of samples of bark from five different species of tree and the roots of two other plants! I discovered that some poisons remain lethal for years even though they appear to have dried on the arrowhead.

Frederica De Laguna
(circa early 1930s)
THE AUTHOR: Frederica de Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1906, the daughter of two philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College where she eventually would study politics and economics. She later studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University which led to a travel expedition focussing on the study of connection between Eskimo and Paleolithic art. She travelled throughout Europe on a fellowship awarded to her from Byrn Mawr and had a variety of ethnological and archeological experiences all culminating in her decision to pursue anthropology as a career. In the early 1930s she held a position at The University of Pennsylvania Museum which provided her with much of the background that shows up in The Arrow Points to Murder. De Laguna founded the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College where she taught from 1938 to 1972. In 1975, along with Margaret Mead, she was one of the first women to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Her life is rich with fascinating work and you can find out a lot about her from various books and websites. For the most interesting take on her long career visit this informative, often intimate, tribute website.

In addition to her many books on anthropology and ethnology De Laguna wrote two mystery novels, both to offset a period of unemployment during the depression. The Fog on the Mountain (1938) followed The Arrow Points to Murder and is in part based on her expedition to Cook Inlet, Alaska to discover traces of Paleo-Indians and her study of the Athapaskan people.

EASY TO FIND? The Arrow Points to Murder was originally published only in the US by Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club".  There is no UK edition. Copies of the original hardcover are --surprise!-- exceptionally scarce, though I managed to find one in a Half Price Books outlet for a mere $25 only a few months ago. But your chances are better if you look for the 1999 paperback reprint from a one time independent Alaskan operation called Katchemak Country Publications. This indie press also reprinted her second detective novel Fog on the Mountain, another equally scarce mystery book. De Laguna intended to have all of her books, her two novels and all of her non-fiction work, reissued by a publishing enterprise she created herself prior to her death in 2004.  But few of her books have been reprinted according to the website catalog.

Friday, July 28, 2017

FFB: The Thing at Their Heels - Harrington Hext

THE STORY: The Templer family has been targeted by a mad killer. It appears that a crazed German soldier, someone they call the Man in Black, is killing the heirs in order of their succession according to the legacies listed in family patriarch Sir Augustine Templer's will. Bertram Midwinter, a police inspector, is summoned by Father Felix Templer to find the killer and stop the decimation. But the mysterious Man in Black seems far too elusive and efficient a killer to stop.

THE CHARACTERS: Though published in 1923 The Thing at Their Heels is set in 1919. Most of the characters are still suffering from the aftermath of World War I, two of the Templers are military men who experienced the horror and carnage first hand on the frontlines. The younger of these soldier Templers, Major Montague, is considerably changed by his wartime life. A post-war worldview allows Hext to have his characters serve as mouthpieces for fanatical philosophies and he delivers a variety of debates on everything from the Tao of Lao Tzu to the role of socialism in post-war England. Some characters we don't get to know for a very long at all like Major Templer and his 15 year-old son Tom because they are the first victims of the relentless and untiring killer. Midwinter is one of the most well rounded and grounded characters. He's the detective of the piece and when he is on the scene the book has a truly gripping and thrilling narrative. What the book is most noteworthy for, however, is its non-genre aspects.

INNOVATIONS: True, this is a detective novel and when it sticks to the traditions of the genre it works very well. The book can be exciting and original for one of the earliest mad killer novels of its type. Often Midwinter excels in his theories when applying the evidence found to the many crimes perpetrated. But Hext is really not interested in telling the story of who the real culprit is; the killer's motivations are more to his interest. The Thing at Their Heels is more of a polemic, a critique of zealotry and fanaticism. Sir Augustine's obsession with the Greek playwright Menander and his constant quoting of quips and philosophies found in those comedies is more than irritating. Can anyone have committed to memory so much of a single writers' work? And such an obscure, barely studied writer at that! When he isn't quoting the Greek he is counseling every living Templer on their duty to carry on the family name and become the steward of the Templer estate and family traditions. He is an anachronism in post World War I England -- a feudal lord insistent on maintaining an outdated and dying aristocracy.

He's not the only one with an obsessed mind. The book is littered with chapter-long debates about religion and socialism. Father Felix, a Catholic priest, is also drawn to the mystical qualities of Sufism and Tao Buddhism. Poor Petronell Templer, the only female character of note in this male dominated world, is at the mercy of his manipulative lectures. She is goaded into marrying a man she does not love all in service of God. Later when that man is murdered Father Felix tells her that her only solace is to be found in a life of service to the Lord. Once again she is convinced that she must do as she is told and she plans to enter a convent by the novel's end.

Montague Templer is the voice of reason in the novel and yet he too is one of the many fanatics. He is basically a contrarian to all that Felix and Sir Augustine espouse. Montey is the also an avowed socialist and he utters a single paragraph of dialogue that to me is the most telling clue as to the secret motives of the real killer. I planned on quoting that passage but it turns out to be a dead giveaway and my guess as to the true identity of the Man in Black was 100% correct. So I'm not going to supply that passage.

QUOTES: I will however quote in its entirety the entry for The Thing at Their Heels (1923) as it is found in Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime. It's a laudatory entry, but one not without an unspoken caveat:

Unorthodox in form, but powerful in effect. Seldom has [the writer] used his knowledge of the countryside and his feeling for passionate characters more artfully to produce a series of murders that are clearly described and assiduously investigated -- though without result till the very end, when all the talk about socialism and religion finds its due place as part of the plot and the solution is given without diminishing the stature of Insp. Midwinter. The elimination of the Templer family then appears inevitable though unjust. A masterpiece in a rare variety of the species.

Masterpiece? Not at all. I find this to be overkill in its praise. While I can agree with Barzun's assessment of its strengths as a detective novel, the faults of the novel far outweigh the author's skill. The zealotry expressed by one character is ridiculously heavy handed. I guess it was a shock for its 1923 audience to discover the identity of the killer. But post modern detective novel devotees are inured to this kind of "shocking twist." In presenting a story of three stubborn True Believers who rant and rave about religion and politics and the paramount importance of an aristocratic bloodline Hext has not indulged in the detective novelist's finest trait of misdirection but he has shown his hand all too often. It is fairly easy to spot the mad killer and not because the body count leaves us with only a few living suspects to choose from. It is easy to spot the villain by the third of the five murders because of these drawn out debate sections.

THE AUTHOR: "Harrington Hext" was a pseudonym for Eden Phillpotts, a prolific novelist who wrote in many genres and created about a handful of pioneer works. The Red Redmaynes (1922), interestingly yet another story of a mad killer knocking off members of a single family, is his other noteworthy serial killer novel written under his own name. As Hext he wrote the odd genre-blending science fiction/crime thriller Number 87 (1922) and as Phillpotts he also wrote a much praised science fiction novel Saurus (1938), a satirical novel about a reptilian alien making observations on humans. He wrote a number of detective novels, mostly run-of-the-mill, but is primarily known for his novels of manners and other writing in mainstream literature. He also has an additional fifteen minutes of fame as the primary influence who encouraged Agatha Christie to pursue her life as a detective fiction writer. So for that we all owe him abundant thanks.

EASY TO FIND? I'm not really recommending this novel even as a curiosity in the formation of what we know as the serial killer crime novel. However, for those who need to know a handful of copies are out there for sale. I know of no paperback reprints, but you can find both US and UK hardcover editions in a price range of $30 to $150 depending on condition and the chutzpah of the bookseller. It's probably been uploaded at Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Many of Phillpotts' books are out of copyright and the information pirates(Phillpotts would have loved their obsessive minds and compulsive habits) are always busy uploading books of this type.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: An Additional Guide for the Curious

My copy of Martin Edward's Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books arrived yesterday and I was rather excited that I've already read and reviewed many of the books listed. As an additional guide to those who are interested in the books Martin discusses I've made a list of the titles that are reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books. Here they are with hyperlinks to each page:

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius
Death Under Sail by C. P. Snow
Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Family Matters by Anthony Rolls
Middle Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton (reviewed under the US title Dead Reckoning)

In honor of Martin's book I've created a new tag "Edwards' 100" and added it to the list of tags for the above posts.  I'll also be using that tag in the future for any book I write about that appears in Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Additionally, I have reviewed at least one book (often many more) by these authors though the one book Martin cites is not among any of my posts:

Freeman Wills Crofts
Agatha Christie  and also here (2 books)
H. C. Bailey
Gladys Mitchell (6 books)
Rupert Penny
Anthony Wynne (2 books)
John Dickson Carr (3 books), also Carter Dickson (3 books)
Miles Burton and also John Rhode (4 books total)
John Bude
Newton Gayle
Victor L. Whitechurch (2 books)
Ethel Lina White
J. J. Connington (2 books)
Q. Patrick also Jonathan Stagge, Patrick Quentin (10 books)
C. St. John Sprigg
Henry Wade
Christianna Brand (2 books)
Martin Porlock
Joanna Cannan
G.D.H. & Margaret Cole (3 books)
Patricia Highsmith (2 books, 1 movie)
Georges Simenon
Shelley Smith (5 books, 1 movie)
Julian Symons

I've already read several sections and made notes on about a dozen or so books Martin discusses (or mentions in passing in other reviews) that I'd like to read. And quite by coincidence I will be reviewing about five books that appear as one of the "honored 100" in Martin's book in the coming months. Three of them I've read this year long before I knew they were included in his crime fiction survey.  Like minds, eh?

I also grinned widely and laughed a bit when I saw my name mentioned along with a handful of other booksellers and mystery novel mavens in the last two sentences of Martin's Acknowledgments page. I'm very happy I was able to contribute in my small way to the creation of this book.

(And yes, these are photos of my books. Just a sampling of the many bookcases in this book museum of a house.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

FFB: Dead Reckoning - Bruce Hamilton

"Well written, but most unpleasant tale" -- penciled remark by a Previous Owner left in my copy of Dead Reckoning

THE STORY:Tim Kennedy is a successful dentist and happily married to Esther. Until one evening his vivacious, attractive wife goes chasing after her hat on a busy roadway. She is struck by a car and suffers multiple injuries. Her recovery is a painful and disheartening one. She is left horribly disfigured, crippled on one side of her body, and drained of her lust for life. Taking care of Esther becomes a burden to Tim, his love and devotion dwindling, eventually finding himself drawn to the much younger Alma Shepherd. Tim begins to daydream of how easier his life might be without Esther leading to what he thinks is the perfect murder.

THE CHARACTERS:The original title of Dead Reckoning (1937) in England was Middle Class Murder. That title is a good cue to the kinds of people to expect in its realistic rendering of a dentist, his patients and friends. But it is Hamilton's juxtaposition of mundane homelife and a routine workplace against the secret criminal plotting of our anti-hero that make the book more than just a mainstream novel which in the first half it very much resembles. From the very first page we know Tim Kennedy is planning on killing his wife, one of several half-started, then abandoned plots that will come back to haunt him in the final chapters.

The story is told in third person but everything is viewed through Tim's perspective. He at first seems like an amiable man, well respected in his profession and well liked among his small circle of friends and acquaintances. As the story progresses he gradually transforms into a figure of pathetic desperation. Aching for the sex life he once had, longing to be desired, suffering through the worst kind of middle age crisis and coming to the most heinous decision on how to transcend his depression and unhappiness. Remarkably, it is Hamilton's skill in turning our sympathies toward Tim when he becomes the victim of a nasty blackmail plot that make this book unique of a British version of a James M Cain tale of infidelity and murder.

We know poor Esther is doomed from the start and yet she never becomes sentimentalized. Her recovery is painful to read of while her burgeoning friendship with Alma, Tim's object of desire, is an ironic high point of joy in her brief post-accident life. Tim's partner Adam, who becomes his nemesis in Book Two, is a fine portrait of a little man attempting to life a life of big dreams yet revealing instead nothing but amoral corruption and small-minded greed. The lack of police throughout the story highlights another world of Hamilton's creation fraught with omnipresent danger, paranoia and near lawlessness.

INNOVATIONS: Hamilton's brother Patrick is best known for his playwriting skills, but Dead Reckoning shows the elder Hamilton to have a similar gift for drama played out in skilled dialogue sequences that reveal character. There is a excellent section devoted to a tennis party ostensibly thrown together for Esther's benefit but in reality a way for Tim to get to see Alma. Hamilton uses the tennis party to introduce a few minor characters who will reappear in other functions in the second half of the novel as well as allowing us to see Esther experience the joy of her former self. The dialogue is cleverly rendered with innuendo between Alma and Tim; we know Tim's thoughts as well as his words, but can only guess at Alma's thoughts and feelings based on ambiguous remarks. A later scene where Tim takes Alma on a private tour of his home leads them to a room with a rocking horse. Alma sits down and rocks herself while Tim continues his veiled flirtation with her. It's a remarkable piece of writing that shows the older man pursuing a younger woman while at the same time ridiculing him as we see her acting in such a childlike manner.

The crime novel features take over in Book Two when Tim find himself the victim of a blackmail scheme. In eerie anticipation of Robin Maugham's well known novel The Servant Tim finds himself at the mercy of his employee who in effect takes complete control of his life, commandeering his finances and forcing Tim into committing more acts of final desperation. This coupled with some bad news about his supposed property inheritance from Esther sends Tim into a continual downward spiral. It's a chilling portion of the novel. One cannot help side with the hapless dentist and hope that he can turn the tables on the avaricious and amoral Adam. There are some violent action set pieces and an eleventh hour scene where we think Tim may have indeed thwarted the plot to reveal him as Esther's killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: In one of the many dentist office scenes (some of them rather fascinating) Tim runs out of a special mouthwash preparation. He calls his assistant, Adam, to make him some more, but there is no reply. Because the patient is in the chair in mid-surgery he is forced to come up with an alternative: "Eventually he telephoned the chemist (whose boy proved to be out) and made do with lysol." Lysol as a mouthwash? I can't believe that. Hamilton must've intended Listerine and got confused. I looked up the history of Lysol products and it was never used as mouthwash. It was, however, used as a vaginal douche. I'll spare you anymore of my findings.

EASY TO FIND?If you speak and read French you're in luck. The most affordable copies are paperback editions in French (Portrait d'un meurtrier) but there are only five that I could find. No good news for the original English language editions. A single copy of the UK title Middle Class Murder is available if you're willing to pay $324 (£250) while only two US editions are for sale priced at $30 (no DJ) and $250 (with DJ). Looks like your local library may be the best bet.

Friday, July 14, 2017

FFB: Something about Midnight - D. B. Olsen

THE STORY: By day she's Ernestine Hollister, dedicated English literature student at Clarendon College, but at night she transforms herself into Ernestine Hall, sultry dance hall girl flirting with every young naïve sailor she can find. Her motives are founded on bitter revenge but she's not talking about her past with anyone. Not even Freddy Nixon who's been trying to get her to notice him for weeks at her regular haunt at the amusement pier. He finally gets up enough nerve to talk to her, she relents out of boredom, and accepts his invitation to visit Mrs. Lacoste, an elderly woman who has been his weekend companion for several weeks now. This strange trio of characters drink, laugh and discuss Mrs. Lacoste's missing grandson who has gone AWOL from the army or is MIA. It's all very ambiguous. Mrs. Lacoste isn't offering any real details, she'd rather drop a few sleeping pills in her beer creating a "goofball cocktail" and get deliriously drunk. Freddy and Ernestine notice the abuse of drugs and alcohol but keep it to themselves. That night Ernestine vanishes along with her sporty convertible Packard. Professor Pennyfeather is asked to find the missing Ernestine by her seriously frightened cousin Rae Caradyne who also happens to be one of his students. Four hours later he finds the missing student at the foot of a cliff. A typewritten note left in her car indicates suicide. Or did something far more sinister happen?

THE CHARACTERS: Something about Midnight (1950) is the fourth mystery novel featuring D. B. Olsen's (aka Dolores Hitchens) inquisitive English professor Mr. Pennyfeather. Hitchens has once again dreamed up a cast of fully human often complicated characters. It's almost a shame that poor Ernestine gets knocked off so early in the book because she is one of the most fascinating young women I've encountered in Hitchens' mystery novels. Intelligent yet petty, Ernestine's sardonic hipster attitude masks a deep-seated anger mixed with sorrow. Only after she's dead do we fully realize what motivated her to adopt the alter ego of Ernestine Hall who teased and exploited the young sailors looking for female companionship at the dance halls. The opening chapter with its strange visit to the home of Mrs. Lacoste is at the heart of the mystery and the numerous violent deaths. Mrs. Lacoste herself is an odd character, but compared to others she seems relatively sane even in her choice to live in an alcoholic stupor.

There's Rae Caradyne, an all too somber, rather humorless college student who first brings Mr. Pennyfeather into the case. She comes off as a near caricature of the ugly duckling, bespectacled loner. But her seriousness rings false to Mr. Pennyfeather. He is sure Miss Caradyne is hiding her real self behind the mask of a dull Plain Jane.

The most colorful of the cast is Ernestine's uncle Stephen Dunne. He too is a loner, but of an entirely different sort. He lives the life of a reclusive artist in a seaside ramshackle house where he collects driftwood and seaweed for his unusual mix of sculpture and painting in the weird landscapes he creates on mesh frameworks. He has a deep love for his niece and cannot accept that she killed herself which is how the police want to deal with her death and thus avoid any type of real investigation. Uncle Stephen waxes poetic with some nicely done monologues in his discussions with Pennyfeather. Hitchens does a fine job with Stephen in reminding us how violence brings out a person's deep philosophical side, how it makes us reflect on the fragility of life, what we value most and how often we never realize that worth until it is taken from us. Stephen Dunne is cantankerous, witty and often profound. He was my favorite of this well-rounded group of intriguing characters.

INNOVATIONS: Of all Hitchen's mid-career books this one seems to mark her transition from the traditional mystery to her darker crime novels that border on genuine noir. The story of Ernestine and her past are reminiscent of the plots that Ross Macdonald revelled in with his corrupt, well-to-do California families. Hitchens' noir touches will be fully realized in her brief series featuring private eye Jim Sader who appeared in Sleep with Slander (1960) and one other novel. That's not to say that this still isn't a intricately constructed and subtly clued detective novel because it is. The academic setting for once is intrinsically intertwined in the story of Ernestine's violent death. Her insightful study of literature and love of poetry manifest themselves in quotes from "The Garden of Proserpine" by Algernon Swinburne which will be of great help in leading Pennyfeather to the truth. Also, a rather Christie-like bit of clueing comes in the letter Freddy Nixon sends to his secretary alerting her to his possible murder. He reports an overheard conversation and quotes some dialogue that appears to be college slang but will turn out to have a completely different meaning.

The novel tends to veer into thriller territory in the final third when Mr. Pennyfeather is abducted and the story shifts into high gear with one action set piece after another. Highlights include a climactic fire in a California forest and an unusual hand-to-hand fight between the middle-aged man and the very surprising villain of the piece. Still with all these action sequences Something about Midnight rightly belongs in the traditional detective novel category.

QUOTES: Dunne looked gloomily out upon the sea. "So damned lonely as death itself. Would she have come up here in the middle of the night to jump off into the roaring black surf? I don't think she would have. Not at midnight. There's something about midnight, something gruesome."

There were no lights, and the fog concealed the gleaming radiator until it was too late. The car was there, a juggernaut, and [he] was there, its victim. And Death was there, too, waiting for the not unhandsome fellow who had liked to linger on the beach to pick up girls.

Mr. Pennyfeather turned over and over in his mind the circumstances of the case, the outright, miraculously lucky breaks that had seemed to occur one after the other, making everything seem so smooth, logical and easy; and he was aware, as before, of an uncomfortable hunch that there was a ghastly hitch in it all somewhere, and that under the whole reasonable tightly knit structure of his solution some demon of the perverse was laughing at him.

EASY TO FIND? Looks pretty good, gang. As usual it's the paperback reprint that tends to be available for sale more than any other edition. The book was published in the UK and the US, but US editions are more plentiful on the internet. There are approximately 30 or so copies available all at reasonable prices. Only two copies of the first US edition hardcover (a Doubleday Crime Club book) show up for sale. One with the scarce DJ is $25 and the other without is $20. Both are real bargains, I say. The Pocket Book paperback is your best bet. Sadly, none of Hitchens' books under her D. B. Olsen moniker have been reprinted in modern editions. Someone ought to rectify that soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEW STUFF: A Talent for Murder - Andrew Wilson

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-5001-4506-3
310 pp. $26
Publication date: July 11, 2017

Back in 1978 I remember reading (and later seeing the movie) Agatha by Kathleen Tynan. This was the first attempt by an novelist to concoct a reason for Agatha Christie’s mysterious two week disappearance in December 1926, following an argument with her husband about his affair with a young woman. Christie's strange relocation to a spa at Harrowgate (where she was registered under the same last name as her husband’s lover) was attributed to amnesia and depression. But before she was found the press dreamed up wild stories ranging from an elaborate publicity stunt to help sell her books to kidnapping to possible murder. Tynan’s story reduced the mystery to a preposterous revenge plot completely out of character for the real Agatha Christie. Now Andrew Wilson, biographer of Patricia Highsmith and many others, has tried his hand at spinning his own thriller to explain the same period when the Grand Dame of Mysterydom vanished for several days in A Talent for Murder (2017). Having completed extensive biographical and literary research Wilson’s story is more in keeping with Christie’s personality and temperament but it is nonetheless just as implausible. Knowing that he was first interested in the life and writing of Highsmith ought to prepare you for what is clearly a crime novel inspired by both women’s books.

Wilson has fashioned an odd story of grief, depression and murder by proxy. Like Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train he has created his own version of Charles Bruno in the person of Patrick Kurs, a megalomaniac physician who is tired of his invalid wife and wants her gone. He manipulates Agatha into carrying out the murder of his wife by threatening her with exposure of her husband’s affair which he knows far too much about. Agatha is just beginning to enjoy success as a bestselling writer thanks to the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and any publicity of her philandering husband would be scandalous to her personal life and detrimental to her professional life.

Kurs has read …Ackroyd, of course, and commends Agatha for the tour de force novel. He cannot stop talking about it and how he greatly admires the character Dr. Sheppard, who he feels is one of Mrs. Christie’s greatest creations. In fact, he regards the fictional doctor “something of a hero” much to Agatha’s horror. Even more horrifying is Kurs' additional threat of doing harm to Agatha’s young daughter Rosamund if the novelist does not follow Dr. Kurs’ implicit instructions on how to do in his wife.

A parallel story follows when Agatha meets Una Crowe and her friend John Davison. Una aspires to become a reporter and will have ample opportunity to do so when Mrs. Christie suddenly goes missing. Sensational newspaper headlines spur on Una who is determined to beat the pros at their own game and reveal the truth herself. Her amateur sleuthing uncovers Archie Christie’s affair which leads her to Nancy Neele, the mistress, and eventually to the office of Nancy’s confidante, her private physician Dr. Patrick Kurs.

Wilson has done an admirable job of incorporating Christie’s biography into A Talent for Murder. However, there is an unfortunate avalanche of this information within the first two chapters that almost ruins the crime plot before it has a chance to even start. Wilson has chosen to emphasize the recent death of Christie’s mother and he allows Agatha to spend much of her time wallowing in nostalgia and reminiscing about her childhood. This is how she is coping with her grief, but coupled with the knowledge that her husband is cheating on her and planning to leave her Agatha’s emotional life and state of mind are always at the near breaking point.

In the parallel story of Una Crowe there is also the shadow of a recent family death. We learn just as much about Una’s interior life as we do Agatha’s. The idea that fragile women both dealing with overpowering grief are channeling their energies into writing and sleuthing is an interesting one. While Una is determined to solve the riddle of the missing mystery writer, Mrs. Christie is determined to outwit Dr. Kurs in his bizarre murder plot and expose him at his own game. Each woman is doing her best to live up to the memory of her lost relative as well as finding a way back to herself and the real world. The juxtaposition of these two stories and their eventual intersection and overlap are the most successful aspects of this often gripping book.

Unfortunately, the character work is often heavy handed and one gets the feeling that Wilson couldn’t decide between his two crime novelist influences. Several scenes with the stubborn Supt. Kenward who suspects Archie Christie of killing his wife become repetitious in how Christie continually denies all accusations levelled at him increasingly losing his patience and temper with the unimaginative policemen. There are also elements of Christie’s Westamacott novels that threaten to drown the story in domestic soap opera. But then Wilson will insert a delicious scene with ambiguous dialogue and hidden motives straight out of Highsmith that invigorates the narrative.

Andrew Wilson
(photo ©Johnny Ring)
The use of unusual poisons in the plot, however, remind us we are clearly in the world of Agatha Christie. There are several chapters devoted to Agatha’s research into choosing a unique poison with chemical properties that will allow her to thwart Dr. Kurs’ murder plot. The final third of the novel in which Agatha finally meets up with Flora Kurs, their joining forces against the amoral doctor coupled with the story of Una Crowe’s near coup de grace in uncovering the truth about Agatha’s disappearance make for the most exciting parts of this on-again-off-again thriller.

If in the end the novel is less of a whodunit honoring Christie and more homage to Highsmith’s fascination with criminal behavior and the dark recesses of human emotion that is no real fault. The reader unfamiliar with Agatha Christie’s personal life will benefit from Wilson’s intensive research with an ample amount of biographical background that renders her more lifelike and true than Kathleen Tynan’s Agatha. Wilson’s love of Christie’s work and respect for her storytelling and plotting skills are also on grand display. There are some well done Christie-like touches and requisite plot twists that may catch a few readers off guard and perhaps even elicit a gasp or two.

Friday, June 30, 2017

GUEST POST: Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

In lieu of Friday's Forgotten Books this week I have a guest post by blogger, mystery novelist, genre historian and friend, Martin Edwards.  This is part of the blog tour to help promote his crime fiction survey The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Over to you, Martin --

 *  *  *

One of the joys of delving into the world of “forgotten books” is that there are so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Over the years, I’ve come across quite a few as a result of following Pretty Sinister Books –- examples that spring to mind include Q. Patrick’s The Grindle Nightmare, and Claude Houghton’s I Am Jonathan Scrivener.

In writing The Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins), I tried to offer fellow enthusiasts a guide to a range of books produced by members of the Detection Club in the Thirties, as well as talking about the authors’ lives, the real life crimes that inspired many of their novels, and the way the times in which they lived influenced their work. My latest book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library) has a different angle. I’ve tried to offer a fresh look at the way in which the genre evolved over the first half of the twentieth century.

The approach is broadly chronological – from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train (and wow, mention of those two very different books illustrates the remarkable scale of that evolution over fifty years!) – but along the way I examine a variety of themes. So there are chapters devoted to stories about impossible crimes, country house mysteries, and so on.

Conan Doyle’s novel, and Highsmith’s masterpiece, are exceptionally famous, but there are plenty of titles which I hope will come as a surprise to readers, however well-versed they are in the genre. The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius and Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr are just two examples. This is, after all, not a list of “the best” (supposedly) or even my own special favorites, but rather a book that focuses on an eclectic mix of novels (plus a smattering of short story collections) with a view to telling a story. Some of the choices may seem controversial, or even just idiosyncratic, but I hope that readers who come to the narrative with an open mind will find that the selections make sense – kind of! We will see.

I must just add that John Norris’s perceptive critiques have made Pretty Sinister Books one of my favorite blogs about forgotten mysteries. Thanks, John, for hosting this guest post. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be travelling around the blogosphere, talking about different aspects of the book, and of classic crime. Here’s a list of the remaining stops on my blog tour:

Sat., Jul 1 – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview)
Sun., Jul 2 – Eurocrime
Mon., Jul 3 – Tipping My Fedora
Tue., Jul 4 – Desperate Reader
Wed., Jul 5 – Clothes in Books
Thu., Jul 6 – Emma’s Bookish Corner
Fri., Jul 7 – Random Jottings

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books will be published in the UK on July 7 by the British Library, and in the US on August 1 by Poisoned Pen Press.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Story of Classic Crime Blog Tour

This Friday there will be no Friday's Forgotten Book.  Instead I'll be one of the ten participating bloggers in a promotional web tour for the upcoming release of Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  Similar to 1001 Midnights and the more recent Books to Die For Martin's survey of overlooked detective and crime fiction addresses decidedly obscure and utterly forgotten books in the genre which nevertheless helped shape the evolution of what we know as the modern crime novel.

Below is the full schedule with links to all the blogs. As the posts continue to appear over the next week and a half I'll update the links to take you to the specific post of n the tour (Right now they go to the blog home page).

All of the posts were written by Martin himself and are designed for each blog and its particular audience. The post for Pretty Sinister Books talks about our mutual obsession for obscure detective fiction and how my blog helped contribute to the creation of the book. Quite an honor, I think! One post will be written by the blog host -- Margot Kinberg ("Confessions of a Mystery Novelist") -- who will interview Martin. That one ought to be one of the more interesting pieces to read.

Hope you stop by to read each post and get some insight into why Martin wrote the book and how it came into being. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books will be released on July 6 in the UK and August 1 in the US. Pre-orders via internet bookseller sites are, of course, available now.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books Blog Tour

Wed., June 28 – Lesa’s Book Critiques
Thurs., June 29 – The Rap Sheet
Fri., June 30 – Pretty Sinister Books
Sat., Jul 1 – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview)
Sun., Jul 2 –Eurocrime
Mon., Jul 3 – Tipping My Fedora
Tue., Jul 4 – Desperate Reader
Wed., Jul 5 – Clothes in Books
Thu., Jul 6 – Emma’s Bookish Corner
Fri., Jul 7 - Random Jottings

Friday, June 16, 2017

FFB: The Other Side of Green Hills - John Keir Cross

One of the serendipitous rewards of having created this blog is discovering another side to a writer I am already familiar with. Take the case of John Keir Cross, an obscure Scottish writer whose collection of strange and supernatural fiction The Other Passenger I thought was his only noteworthy book. In researching his work as part of my preparation for a foreword to the upcoming reissue of The Other Passenger from Valancourt Books, I learned that the bulk of his work was in children's fiction under his own name as well as his fictional alter ego of "Stephen McFarlane." He wrote a mix of science fiction, detective novels and fantasy for children with much of it published only in the UK. One of the more obscure books published in both the UK and the US is The Owl and the Pussycat (1946) reviewed here under its more familiar US title The Other Side of Green Hills. Also, I thought I would arouse your interest using the US title since the original one is an allusion to the well known nonsense poem by Edward Lear and might cause a bit of confusion as it did me.

Green Hills is the name of a house in the Scottish countryside where several children are spending their Christmas holiday. The "other side" refers to an elaborate alternate dimension on the grounds where the Owl and the Pussycat live. These are not literally two anthropomorphic creatures as in Lear's poem, but an elderly violin playing gentleman and his companion, a little girl about ten years old. The focus of the story is on Geraldine, one of the youngest of the children spending her holiday a Green Hills. It is her uncanny ability to penetrate the Other Side that allows all the children to see and speak with the Owl whose real name we never learn, and the little girl known only as Pussycat.

Sounds a bit too strange already, right? I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles in which another world is accessible through that magical wardrobe located in Professor Kirke's massive home. In The Other Side of Green Hills Geraldine first discovers the alternate universe when she falls into a secret basement after uncovering a trapdoor in a cottage she and her friends are exploring. After being rescued she claims that she was pushed though no one was anywhere near her as she is told by the older children in the group. Later when all the children are visited by the elderly eccentric Owl and the angelic, forever young Pussycat we learn that there are weird creatures known as Moon People who are the enslaved minions of the wicked sorcerer Titus. They are trying to kidnap Geraldine for an unknown purpose. The elderly Owl knows why, but is too terrified to reveal the secret of Titus' motives until it is almost too late.

The Owl talks a lot of paradox which he first introduces to the children in an optical illusion included in the many macabre illustrations done by artist Robin Jacques. He explains this familiar drawing of cubes done in black and white (see illustration at left) as a tool in appreciating how the Other Side exists. "It all depends on how you look at it," he tells the children." Then as he so often does he bursts into song: "Look once, look twice./Look round about --/And in a trice/What's In is Out." Staring at the drawing the children discover that the cubes look as if they are going in or rising out of the paper. And this is also the key to understanding how adults are unable to see into the Other Side or be visited by any of its occupants. Adults, of course, grown too lazy in their thinking and accustomed to their grown up ways tend not to have the ability to see differently as do children the Owl explains.

Though the story begins with a lighthearted fantastical tone as The Owl regales the children with anecdotes of the Other Side and revealing his philosophy of life through a series of songs with seemingly nonsensical lyrics much of the story descends into a dark realm atypical for a children's book of the 1940s. The story will turn into the age old battle between good and evil, innocence and experience, with the children helping rescue Geraldine from the clutches of Titus and the Moon People. Eventually the Owl will divulge the secret motivations of Titus and his search for missing pages in a Book of Secrets the children find. The story is imbued with an increasingly eerie atmosphere, magic rarely is used for good, and the reader cannot help drawing an analogy with the battle that takes place in the climactic pages as a fantastic rendering of post World War 2 England after the Blitz.

Interestingly, these eccentric fantasy characters and incidents echo what is found in Cross' strange adult stories of wanton cruelty, inescapable violence and haunted individuals who populate the pages of The Other Passenger (1944). The theme of an alternate world is explored more metaphorically as characters discover they are trapped within their cursed interior lives. I'll have more about that book in the coming months along with news about its reissue and release date.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

VERDICT OF US ALL: The Shadow of the Wolf - R. Austin Freeman

JJ at "The Invisible Event" has revived the once somewhat regular meme on the vintage mystery blogs in which participants ramble on a particular topic. This month we talk about our favorite book by a writer who we don't care for or have avoided over time because we just don't like his or her style of mystery writing. Took me a while to come up with one for this because most bad mystery writers in my experience don't really have much to recommend in their overall work unless you want to read the books as self-parodies or "Alternative Classics." But that's not the point of this week's topic. So I had to reach back in time to remember one single book by a writer who I just don't read anymore because... well... frankly he bores me to death. And that's R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman as we all know was a pioneer in the scientific detective short story and also the inverted detective story. He also wrote several inverted detective novels but only one of them stands out in my mind as something rather remarkable. The Shadow of the Wolf (1928) is one of his more complex mystery novels loaded with the kind of arcane scientific talk (like a long dissertation on the formation of barnacles on a ship) that aid Dr. John Thorndyke in tracking down his elusive murderous prey. And yet despite what might have been yet another droning, boring book I found it utterly fascinating. There's a paradox worthy of Father Brown. It's one of the few Thorndyke novels that I found truly suspenseful. Another of Freeman's inverted detective novels we therefore know the identity of the murderer in The Shadow of the Wolf from the outset. Thorndyke's methods, however, are so odd and unusual in this novel, a nautical mystery about ships and the sea, that I was transfixed. I tend to write a lot about the "Things I Learned" in books of this type and there is a lot to fill the head of the insatiably curious reader in The Shadow of the Wolf.

I rarely go back to Freeman's books because they belong to an old-fashioned type of detective story that no longer excites me. His obsession with all things related to Egyptology gets tiresome; his characters don't ring true as human beings to me; and his often stodgy prose hasn't aged well. But I will always recommend The Shadow of the Wolf for its faster than normal pace (for Freeman, that is), its unusual subject matter, and a story that unravels with true suspense and a couple of thrilling surprises.

Friday, June 9, 2017

FFB: The Thing in the Brook - Peter Storme

THE STORY: Biologist James Whitby's scientific studies are interrupted when he inadvertently becomes one of two men who discover the grisly body hanging from a tree above the brook in the rural village of Brookdale. The victim, a much loathed local, was strangled, bludgeoned and then hanged. Someone definitely wanted him dead. Could this be another victim of the legendary thing that is said to haunt the waters of the brook? What happened to that young woman so many years ago? Her clothes were found in a neat pile by the bank but not a trace of her body ever turned up.

THE CHARACTERS: Whitby narrates the story, but he's not at all interested in solving the baffling crime of a thrice murdered victim. He'd rather attend to his involved study of the local Myxomycetes. That's slime mold to all us non-scientific schmoes. Slime molds! You'd think that this was a parody of detective novels the way the opening chapters play out. What with Whitby's reluctance to cooperate with the state troopers, the motorcycle cop who keeps showing up to interrogate the villagers, and Whitby's overeager house guest Henry Hale (a murder mystery addict and budding amateur criminologist) sticking his nose into the investigation like some junior Philo Vance. There is a wry humor that pervades the story, but the plot turns very grim and serious by the midpoint.

So is it a parody? Not really. A homage to the intuititionist school seems more likely. Despite frequent deprecating allusions to fictional detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey and Vance, Whitby fails to deter Henry from his goal of uncovering the identity of Howard Stanton's killer. Two more deaths will occur before the surprising finale.

Hale is sort of a run-of-the-mill amateur sleuth that you find in numerous American mystery novels of the mid-1930s. I was reminded of the Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge novels because the of the bizarre nature of the murders, the creepy atmosphere, the legend of the "thing" of the title, and a slightly macabre obsession with murder and occult phenomena.

Leading me to the most interesting character of the book -- Mr. Marigold, an overweight, florid man of middle age who lives alone with his cat Herman. Marigold regales Hale with a litany of grotesque murders from the annals of crime reveling in the lurid details of violence and unusual weapons employed from medieval times to the post-WW1 years. Later, Marigold discusses his interest in psychic research with Whitby.

INNOVATIONS: There is a strong hint that something paranormal is going on in Brookdale, but sadly this never really pans out. Still, the story has a neat resolution that may raise a few eyebrows and frustrate traditionalists in its iconoclastic disregard for the finer rules of detective novel writing.

Storme clearly seems to be inspired by Van Dine and Quentin in his plotting and detective novel structuring. Hale calls himself an intuitive sleuth and not a true detective. He spends much of his time looking for the "psychological pattern" of the crimes foreshadowing the kind of criminal profiling techniques that become very popular in late 20th century crime novels. Hale relies perhaps too much on inference and intuition and does not impress the police even in his long lecture in the final chapter (teasingly titled "Parlor Tricks") when he reveals the truth. Captain Macready reminds us all that guesswork has no place in real police work when he warns Hale, "You'll need better evidence than that." And yet all along Storme has done an admirable job of supplying the reader with subtle clues -- mostly presented in character sketches and dialogue -- so that he too can come to the same conclusion as Henry Hale. The revelation of the motive and methods of the murders may break a couple of rules for traditional detective novels, but I'll give Storme bonus points for subverting the genre just when it needed shaking up.

Philip Van Doren Stern, circa 1940s
THE AUTHOR: "Peter Storme" wrote only one detective novel. His real name was Philip Van Doren Stern, an American historian and short story anthologist who wrote several non-fiction volumes on the Civil War as well as editing a collection of Poe's writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and a noteworthy ghost story anthology. In addition to his writing Stern made a living in the publishing industry working as an editor for Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books and Knopf at various times throughout his lifetime.  Stern's claim to fame, however, will always be his short story "The Greatest Gift" which has been immortalized on film as the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.

EASY TO FIND? At one time it was fairly easy to find either of the two US paperback editions of The Thing in the Brook (1937). But as with the majority of books I enjoy and like to write about this title is becoming increasingly scarce in all its editions. As far as I know there is no UK edition of this book. The original US first edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937) is practically a rare book these days as I found only two copies for sale online. If you do go looking, you will increase your chances of finding a copy knowing that the digest paperback edition was retitled The Case of the Thing in the Brook which was reprinted in 1941.

Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.

THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.