Friday, February 5, 2016

FFB: So Bad A Death - June Wright

THE STORY: Maggie Byrnes who made her debut in Murder at the Telephone Exchange as a phone operator turned amateur sleuth, is on the case again in So Bad A Death (1949). This time she's married to policeman John Matheson who endures her inquisitiveness with limited tolerance. The newlyweds are in the market for a house and this leads Maggie to her meeting with Cruikshank, the unctuous real estate agent, who works for James Holland, self-appointed "squire of Middleburn".

Holland owns Dower House, a cottage that Cruikshank has been trying to sell for years, and it's a running joke of sorts to show it to prospective clients knowing full well that Holland will refuse the sale. Maggie, self-assured and not a little bit tough, is no match for him. She wins him over and the house is hers. Weeks later "Squire" Holland invites a motley group of his "subjects" to what turns out to be a very odd dinner party and things turn sinister. Holland is not well liked by his family nor the locals and it comes as no surprise when his body is found on the grounds with a bullet in his head. Maggie becomes way too involved in the case and frustrates her husband to the point of exasperation. Over the course of her thorough but entirely unorthodox murder investigation she endangers herself, another woman's child, and her own son. Some amateur sleuths don't know when to stop meddling.

THE CHARACTERS: June Wright has been called Australia's own Agatha Christie. While her plotting can often be intricate it's not a devious or ingenious as Dame Agatha's. And the laudatory comments from new critics and reviewers of her work who purport that she invented the amateur female sleuth are exaggerated to the extreme. Maggie is very much in line with characters like Pam North, Jean Abbot, Anne McNeill, and to a certain extent Haila Troy -- all wives who turn detective alongside their equally nosy husbands. Unlike many of those women Maggie has a stronger, tougher personality. She takes no BS from anyone. Brusque, forward, opinionated and -- dare I say it -- a bully at times, Maggie suffers no fools. She has little room for sympathy in the face of weakness as in this passage where she encounters an enraged and possibly inebriated nurse: "She started to weep in a maudlin fashion. It was disgusting and rather alarming, alone with this foolish woman in the middle of the wood..."

Rather than comparing June Wright's style of detective novel to Christie's work I'd class her with fellow practitioners of domestic melodramas and Neo-Gothics like Ursula Curtiss, Mignon Eberhart (in her 50s period), and even Margaret Millar. The strong female protagonist who recognizes her faults at the eleventh hour and manages to prevent herself from doing real harm as a result of her prying reminds me of the women characters that populate the work of Millar.

The supporting players are highlighted by an assortment of oddballs like the malingering invalid with a waspish tongue Mrs. Power-Potts; her slavish daughter Diane; Ursula Mulqueen who dresses in pink taffeta and cultivates an artificially cheery persona to mask her malaise; Ernest Mulqueen Ursula's rancher father, the most Australian character in the cast; a handsome Lothario with the ludicrous name of Nugent Parsons; and the beleaguered young widow Yvonne Holland who is bullied by her father-in-law while struggling to care for her chronically ailing baby boy.

THE ATMOSPHERE: The depiction of Dower House and the Holland estate are prime examples of the Neo-Gothic oppressive households and the imposing (often haunted) buildings that characterize the old 18th and 19th century Gothic novel. Wright also has a talent in painting frightening pictures and raises a few goose pimples in the formulaic "traipsing through the woods" sequences so often found in this subgenre. The sense of trepidation is well conveyed and she manages to transform the "faux English spinney" surrounding the Holland's Australian estate into a sinister landscape fraught with hidden dangers and prowlers lurking in the shadows. There are a couple of effective scenes when Maggie is looking for evidence and whispered voices and animal noises punctuate the chilly silence.

INNOVATIONS: So Bad A Death touches on two fairly taboo topics in detective fiction -- abortion and child murder. Wright seems to be fairly modern in her understanding of the frustrations of motherhood, the fear of entrusting your children to the care of physicians and nannies, and discussions of the ethics and morality of abortion. These asides into medical ethics also serve as clever bits of misdirection and sway the reader's suspicions while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the real motivations of the villains in what turns out to be an elaborate conspiracy.

One of the best bits is that Maggie's little boy Tony turns out to be a secondary detective, albeit an accidental one. His boisterous play and curiosity lead to the literal uncovering of two key pieces of evidence - one found in the rough of a golf course, the other in a sand pit he was digging in. That Maggie is blithely ignorant of the importance of these items until it's almost too late only serve to underscore Wright's ideas about motherhood and the role of the stay at home wife. Throughout the story we are reminded that Maggie sees raising a child as dreary routine and how often her little boy's behavior is dismissed as not only bothersome but irrelevant. Nothing could be further form the truth. In Wright's mysteries, as in the best whodunits, a seemingly minor incident can prove to be of grave importance.

THINGS I LEARNED: Parthian shot - I have read this phrase many a time and never bothered to look up its origin. It's used to describe a cutting remark or insult made as someone departs or a way to end a conversation rudely. The term comes from an ancient Iranian tribe of warriors known for their archery skill. The Parthian shot was their skillful habit of releasing arrows backwards at their enemy as they retreated on horseback.

Australian lingo often left me in the fog. The word "dummy" is footnoted as being a slang term for a baby pacifier. That was very helpful. But later in the story Maggie picks up a jar of "comforter smear" and I was utterly confused. No footnote for that phrase. Did people actually put some kind of paste on quilts to disinfect them or something? That seemed ridiculous to me. An internet search turned up a very vulgar Twitter comment using both comforter and smear to describe something so disgustingly absurd it made me roar with laughter, but didn't help me to understand what it meant in Wright's book. In the final pages I learned that "comforter" is also a synonym for pacifier and that the comforter smear was a malt extract that was put on the pacifier to make it more tasty. It was crucial to understanding something utterly insidious that the main villain does. To be left in the fog wondering what "comforter smear" was left me feeling a little bit cheated that I couldn't' figure out something on my own that perhaps a British or Australian reader would just take for granted.

EASY TO FIND? Yes, it is! Isn't that good news? So Bad a Death is one of three June Wright mystery novels that have been reissued by Verse Chorus Press. Buy a brand new copy or get one of many cheaper "newer" copies from the many resellers out there in the digital shopping mall we call the internet. I enjoyed this one more than Duck Season Death which I reviewed last year. This book impressed me so much that I went looking for more. I managed to track down a rare June Wright title (not among the reissued titles) purchased from an Australian dealer for a mere $23 and will be reviewing that one next month.

Friday, January 29, 2016

FFB: The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral - Robert Westall

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

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

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

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

Robert Westall made a name for himself in the juvenile fiction world winning several awards for his supernatural and adventure stories geared to young readers. To capitalize on this market The Stones of Muncaster (1991) also seems to have been published as a young adult novel and all older 1990 editions seem to indicate this publisher’s aim. But with a very mature worldview and Joe serving as narrator I can see it only as intended for grown adults and not kids. Had it been told from Kevin’s point of view I could understand it being marketed as a young adult novel. In any case, it will appeal to both older and younger readers alike. The Stones of Muncaster has been reprinted by Valancourt Books in a new edition that also includes a second novella by Westall called “Brangwyn Gardens” and an introduction by horror fiction writer Orrin Grey. My edition is an older copy and I did not have a chance to read the other novella.

For more about Robert Westall and his large body of impressive work visit the writer's tribute website maintained by his literary agent.

Friday, January 22, 2016

FFB: An Air That Kills - Margaret Millar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 15, 2016

FFB: The Survivor - Dennis Parry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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