Friday, October 31, 2014

FFB: The Mask of Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer never ceases to amaze me. For a writer who arguably created fiction's most infamous master criminal and indulged in some of the most macabre aspects of sensation and pulp fiction (some have never surpassed him in my opinion) he also managed to use the thriller as his sounding board for his political views. Am I reading too much into this in light of the recent headline making news of the events in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? I don't think so. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) seems exceptionally pertinent now in light of recent world affairs. It gets my vote for one of the earliest thrillers dealing with religious fundamentalism as a platform for terrorist activity.

A British archeological expedition in Iran comes to a halt with the discovery of the murdered body of Dr. Van Berg. The only entrance to his hotel bedroom was the open window thirty feet above ground and yet no ladder could have been used to gain entry without any seen or heard it being done. Adding to the mystery of how the assailant entered the room so swiftly and silently is the aroma of mimosa that pervades the room. A strange nearly intoxicating scent that lingers in the air adding an exotic mystery to the murder scene so typical of Rohmer's books.

Local authorities get word that the expedition is honing in on the site of ancient artifacts belonging to the revered Muslim El Mokanna, known also as "The Veiled Prophet" though someone is quick to point out that this is a misnomer for El Mokanna actually wore a mask. It is the mask, sword and tablets purportedly carrying the text of the New Koran that are thought to be the reason for Van Berg's death.  His murder is viewed as a fatal warning to the crew to stop their digging and searching. Sir Lionel Barton, "the greatest living Orientalist in the Western world", will have none of it. He continues with his work and succeeds in finding those treasures. And then the trouble really begins.

Mask of Fu Manchu is narrated by Shan Greville, Barton's right hand man on the expedition. He is looking forward to ending this project so he and his fiancĂ© can return to London and get married. Anyone who knows anything about books like this immediately knows this love affair will be targeted by the nefarious Fu Manchu and his minions. No sooner does Rima appear but she is threatened and eventually kidnapped. By her own husband to be! Greville himself is abducted when he is tricked into following a figure wearing what appears to be El Mokanna's mask. Turns out it's Fu Manchu's deadly and beautiful daughter Fah Lo Sueee. Greville meets up with Fu Manchu, is restrained by some dangerous African servants, and drugged with one of Rohmer's ubiquitous mind controlling opiates. A drug distilled from the seeds of the mimosa pudica has been used to anesthetize Greville which he quickly associates with the botanical aroma back at the murder scene. We also learn that Fu Manchu has been preparing an elixir of life derived from a rare Burmese orchid. An essential oil created from the flower is the secret ingredient in the formula that has prolonged his life and bestowed an ageless appearance.

You can only marvel at the sheer excess of this story. Fu Manchu is once again aided by a veritable army of Asians, Africans and Muslims all with athletic agility and superhuman strength. In addition to an array of exotic poisons and mind controlling drugs there is a super strong cord created from spider silk that is used as a weapon, a restraint and as means of travelling between the balconies and rooftops of high-storied buildings. Did Stan Lee read these books, too? You can't help but think of Peter Parker's inventions when you get to this part.

Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, of course, make an appearance and are on hand to save the day as they do battle with their perennial nemesis. The story travels from Iran to Cairo to the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza where another impossible event occurs. From Egypt our intrepid band travel via ocean liner back to London where the climax reveals Fu Manchu's real plans for world domination using his duped zealous followers of El Mokanna.

I haven't read a more breathtaking, high speed chase, action thriller like this in a long time. It's no wonder the wizards of Hollywood were continually drawn to these books as a source for the good ol' fashioned cliffhanger serials of the past. Oddly, the movie version of The Mask of Fu Manchu is even more over-the-top than the book. Gone is all of the religion and quasi-politics. The emphasis is not on zealotry and the dangers of blind faith and how easily it is manipulated for ill purposes. Instead the mask and tomb belong to Ghengis Khan and we get an abundance of pulp thriller trappings as indomitable Boris Karloff and ethereally gorgeous Myrna Loy, portraying the evil father and daughter, play havoc with out heroes lives and threaten world peace. Rohmer's love of botanical poisons and drugs are not surprisingly replaced with an arsenal of venomous creatures. Too strange is the torture sequence in which we watch handsome and rugged Charles Starrett as Greville (renamed Terence Granville in the movie) stripped naked and strapped to a table while Karloff looking like an insane surgeon in his mask, gown, and gloves subjects his victim to injections taken from giant spiders and snakes. And Greville isn't the only victim. The entire band of archeologists is captured and restrained in a variety of old movie torture devices from spiked moving walls to a pit of alligators.

As of March 2014 Titan Books has now reprinted eleven of the thirteen Fu Manchu books. Luckily, The Mask of Fu Manchu is one they chose to include. It's available in paperback from most retailers in the UK and US. For those who prefer the older editions, you can find multiple copies of the many US and UK vintage paperbacks available through the used book market, usually for sale at $7 or less per copy.

This book review serves as my contribution to the "1932 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Rich Westwood. Visit his blog Past Offences to read more posts on books others found of interest from this exceptional vintage year.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Update #2

I continue to knock off book after book in my daunting attempt to cover both Bingo cards as part of the "Golden and Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Bev Hankins at My Reader's Block.  However, I haven't been regularly attaching the scans of my progress on those cards with each post.  So here on one page is the current record of all books read so far in both challenges. As you can see I have quite a way to go on the Silver Age. I'll be focussing on those books for the remainder of this year or else I'll never achieve my goal of filling in both cards.

I've picked up another seven books in the Silver Age categories, but only one book that fit a category on the Golden Age card.  Still that one book gained me my sixth Bingo line. If all goes well it looks like the Golden Age card will be finished in three weeks.  I've selected all the books I just need to read them now without being distracted with books like The Longbow Murder (review posted here) which sadly didn't fit any of the remaining open categories on that card.

If you are participating in this challenge how is your progress?  Have you got at least one Bingo line by now?  I hope so.


Golden Age:  30 books read out of 36 with 6 Bingo lines.


Silver Age:  18 books read out of 36. No Bingo lines so far.  Exactly halfway done.

Friday, October 24, 2014

FFB: The Longbow Murder - Victor Luhrs

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Dickon Bendbow, aka Robin Hood) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, mayhap, and prithee elicited more eyeball rolling than smiling.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion and an inabilit for Star to distinguish reality from fancy. This "misty" trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer's identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" There are fair a share of "Zounds! and "Gramercy!" exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word "Good-bye" to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also in loyal knights service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the middle ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the middle ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series. Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- many of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the middle ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

Friday, October 17, 2014

FFB: The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte

Since I've returned to the original purpose of this blog -- reporting on obscure and utterly forgotten writers of popular genre fiction -- I've been combing my shelves for books I've owned for years but never gotten around to reading. Charles Forsyte is one of those writers. Often these long overdue yield multiple rewards. In the case of Forsyte both the books and the discovery of who he really was made for some fascinating reading. I initially purchased two of his books because they fall into the "impossible crime" category. I'm glad to eprot that both can hold their own against the best of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of this favorite subgenre. Forsyte it turns out was not one but two people -- a husband and wife writing team. Gordon Philo, the husband, was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. All of which are skills and talents that he puts to good use in his ingenious detective novels.

Forsyte's series character is Inspector Richard Left, one of the humanist policeman detectives of fiction who knows his police procedure but is more apt to rely on his keen understanding of human nature to help him solve the baffling murders he encounters. In his first adventure, Diplomatic Death (1961) he is sent by Scotland Yard to the British embassy in Istanbul to help sort out the puzzling murder and eventual disappearance of the British consul stationed there. He was found in his locked office and only minutes later the corpse vanished without a trace. Left must discover who killed the man and why and how the body disappeared from a locked office without anyone seeing it done. Like Ellery Queen's infamous The Greek Coffin Mystery, a classic detective novel with multiple solutions and one egregious error on the part of Queen, Left comes up with a variety of solutions to the crime and makes an assumption that proves to be his biggest mistake. The solution to this impossible crime is simple and surprising and perhaps obvious to the most astute reader. But the story is told with elegance and wit and carried off with panache. It's a fine debut which made me want to read more by Forsyte.

This debut novel has a lot in common with many of the great writers of the Golden Age. When Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Queen and Christie. A more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson whose impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks. The murder victim Left learns had an eclectic taste in reading and finds among the books in his office library a copy of The Life of Houdini and a few books by Agatha Christie. Left himself is fascinated with magic since he was a boy, a hobby he shares with his creator Gordon Philo. Similarly, the skill with which the plot is developed and the sprinkling of unusual clues harkens back to the old-fashioned puzzle mysteries of days gone by. Left will finally come to the final and actual solution to the mystery based on three bizarre elements -- a golf ball left on the victims' desk, the Houdini book, and one witness' remembering at the eleventh hour the rigidity in the murder victim's right arm as they checked him for signs of life.

Left appears again in Dive into Danger (1962), originally published in the UK as Diving Death. This time we find Left on vacation in the south of France where he meets his old archeologist pal Sir Paul Pallet. They catch up on old times and Left inquires of Pallet about a yacht called the Knossos that has been moored close to his hotel. Pallet tells him on board are a group of amateur underwater archeologists digging around the ocean floor. He scoffs at the idea of "underwater archeology" as his life's work is one of precision and meticulous time consuming labor. With no real control in an underwater dig site the potential for disaster is far greater. Dermot Wilson, a millionaire playboy with a lot of money to throw around, is nothing more than a treasure hunter. Wilson is looking for proof that an ancient Greek shipwreck will turn up valuable antiquities, statues and artwork. Pallet ridicules the idea. After all these years they'll be lucky to turn up a couple of broken amphora let alone a "valuable statue."

Left manages to get invited to tag along with the next day's dive. He meets the crew made up of Wilson and his girlfriend, a former military frogman, two professional archeologists, and a secretary on holiday who befriended one of the archeologists. The day goes horrible wrong however, when one of the team seems to have lost consciousness underwater. They drag the body clad in its scuba gear out of the water only to discover that it's the millionaire; a harpoon from a speargun is impaled in his chest. Left sees it as a sort of underwater locked room murder. Soon his vacation has turned into a policeman's holiday as Left finds himself teaming up with local French inspector Philipp Lapointe, learning the fundamentals of scuba diving, and uncovering a murder plot that reveals three previous attempts on Dermot Wilson's life. Why was he so hated and why kill him underwater? As the investigation progresses Left learns that Wilson was a blackmailer of the worst sort who made a lot of enemies and that everyone on board the Knossos had a reason to want Wilson dead.

Forstye's other books include a third detective novel with Inspector Left Double Death (which I have so far been unable to find) and one non-series pursuit thriller with detective novel elements called Murder with Minarets in which the authors return to Turkey. Perhaps the most interesting of all his crime fiction books is The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980). Primarily a literary analysis and history of the numerous writers' attempts from late Victorian era to the 20th century to complete Dicken's unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Philo puts his novelists skills to test in the end by adding his own solution. It is this book for which Philo is best known overshadowing his earlier fine work as a novelist. These first examples of modern day impossible crime mysteries should earn him a place in the Detective Novelist Hall of Fame. They really are that good.

Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky Galsworthy (distant relation to writer John Galsworthy whose "Forsyte Saga" novels inspired their pseudonym) wrote only four murder mysteries in tandem. For a brief overview of Philo's life as an amateur magician and an encapsulation of his life as World War 2 veteran, ex-secret agent in the British intelligence service, and his life as a diplomat in Viet Nam see this fascinating post at the blog "The Ephemeral Collector". Devotees of the use of stage magic in detective novels and locked room fans will find a lot to enjoy and admire in these books about Inspector Left, one of mysterydom's decidedly Neglected Detectives from an undeservedly forgotten but damned good writer.

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)