Friday, July 3, 2015

FFB: Picture of Millie - P. M. Hubbard

"I wish I could give you a proper picture of Millie," he said, "but I won't try, I don't think."

There are many perceptions of Millie Trent, the carefree vivacious wife of Major Trent, who serves as muse, object of desire, and dear friend for many of the characters in Picture of Millie (1964). Here is a story where the life of a dead woman is a greater mystery than the circumstances surrounding her unfortunate death. We only get to know Millie after her death and as such it is the perceptions of others we get. Their portraits are as varied and colorful as any that could be painted on canvas -- deeply personal, secretive longings, inexplicable attractions are all there depending on the person describing Millie Trent. Paul Mycroft never really knew her and can only base his opinions on what he saw and how she related to the other guests of the Carrack Hotel where he and his family are vacationing. His own assessment of Millie Trent will change greatly over the course of the novel as he tries to learn the truth of how she came to be floating in the ocean.

The amateur sleuth can be handled in a variety of ways in a detective novel and this is one of P. M. Hubbard's few true detective novels written early in his career. The Golden Age gave us hundreds of egocentric amateurs eager to show off their arcane knowledge, dozens of geniuses both male and female ever willing to assist the police or go off on their own to uncover the truth of baffling murders. None of that rings true at all. Those detectives belong to a wholly fictional world. Hubbard eschews this type of character for one who is more grounded in reality. Paul Mycroft becomes a detective sever so slowly, by accident even. He is a victim of his own curiosity and uncontrollable imagination.

High above them a tangle of green paths criss-crossed the broken slopes. Nothing moved on them, but Paul saw with his mind's eye a small figure, parti-coloured in two shades of blue, climbing eagerly while the last grains of sand ran out through the waist of the glass. Lord, lord, he thought, what a fearful way to fall. Then he thought, but it can't have been like that.

He's on holiday and his main concern is his family. But while entertaining them with boat tours, line fishing for mackerel, and a visit to an estate dating back to medieval times he finds his mind wandering. Those pictures of Millie painted by all her friends, acquaintances and husband, her horrible fall from a cliff, the oddness of her missing life jacket which she always wore when anywhere near the water, all of these thoughts and images cannot be dismissed from his thoughts. Paul is compelled to learn the truth of why she was on the cliffs, who she might have be traveling to meet in secret, and how she ended up dead in the ocean.

Even as early as this second novel Hubbard's talent for describing the landscape and geography is a highlight. He arouses so many moods in his sensual writing and the action is inextricably linked to the setting. The coastline with its ominous jagged rocks, the turbulent ocean, a hidden cave where the unexpectedly violent climax takes place -- each are characters in their own right. Comparisons to John Buchan and Robbert Louis Stevenson, both writers of adventure stories who knew their settings well and wrote of them with lush detail, are not at all exaggerated. Readers who enjoy their thrillers taking place in evocative settings will find much to admire and absorb in reading any Hubbard novel.

As for the human characters the focus is on the men, all of whom find themselves drawn to Millie in one way of another. Dawson is the drunken fantasist with a harridan for a wife who when he isn't engaging in public marital spats drowns his sorrows in whiskey at the hotel bar. Mike Cardew, the local Adonis fisherman, catches the eyes of every women from teenage Susan to Mary, Paul's wife, and seemed to have a relationship with Millie that to everyone seemed purely sexual but was much deeper. Major Trent, a colorless personality rendered all but invisible by his young wife's death is seen by Paul and Mary "the hollow man." And then there's Bannerman a "professional bachelor" whose wealth is his identity. Aloof yet affable, somewhat sinister in the way he is always smiling, Bannerman is like an anachronistic medieval landowner treating the townspeople as his serfs and vassals.

Millie is their femme fatale. But she is not at all like the temptresses of noir cinema and hard-boiled private eye novels. For one thing she has no ulterior motives in the friendships she develops with these men. Described as full of life, always beaming, always laughing joyfully, and radiating attraction in all its forms Millie is not out to use people. She genuinely wants to be with them whether in order to learn the fine art of sailing with Dawson or to bask in the male beauty of virile Cardew. Never really aware of her allure she managed to weave a spell over all these men like the mermaid that Paul and Mary jokingly refer to her. In one way or another each is responsible for Millie's death.

Copies of Picture of Millie are rather scarce in the used book market. There were no paperback reprints that I could find and only one printing of each hardcover edition in the UK and the US. The Us has the collectible Edward Gorey DJ as show above. But have no fear -- once again Orion's vintage crime imprint The Murder Room has released the book in digital format. This time the book is available to everyone with no "country of residence restrictions" as with some of Joan Fleming's books. While not as violent or dark as Hubbard's more signature works like The Holm Oaks or A Hive of Glass as one of his few forays into a traditional detective novel (albeit one with some non traditional twists) Picture of Millie is definitely worth reading.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space L6 - "Book involves a form of transportation"
Boats and sailing are prominent in the story.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Constable Guard Thyself! - Henry Wade

What's needed in any copy of Constable Guard Thyself! (1934) -- at least for a poor ignorant US reader like myself -- is a list of characters with a chart explaining their police rank and where they fall in the hierarchy. Perhaps a brief explanation detailing the difference between police rank and military rank. The complicated and twisty plot in this excellent detective novel didn't confuse me but the way the policemen referred to one another by job title, police rank and sometimes military title was headache inducing. Luckily, I take notes for all these blog posts and referring back to them helped straighten everyone out. This is a police procedural that is very much about job duties, job rank and the policemen's military past. Wade gets a lot of mileage out of all three elements.

The opening chapter introduces the band of policemen who make up the Brodshire Constabulary in the fictional town of Brodbury.  In the first few pages Wade links several characters to one another via their time in France during World War 1. After some rambling and reminiscing about the war from visiting General Cawdon the talk turns to Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had been sent to prison for poaching and murder.  He was one of three arrested but the only one brought to trial.  The others became soldiers but lost their lives during the war.  Coincidentally, those two men were under the leadership of Captain Anthony Scole, the current Chief Constable at Brodbury police station.  These two incidents -- military service at Somme and how the three men were caught during a night time police stakeout -- are not mentioned in passing as colorful background.  They turn out to be the most important elements of the intricate plot.

You can see already that the use of Captain and General was confusing to me. Unlike US police ranks which borrow sergeant, lieutenant and captain from military ranking British police ranking has its own peculiar set up. Though Scole is a policeman and a Chief Constable he is repeatedly referred to as Captain Scole, a reference to his military rank back in the days of WW1. I was reminded of the hundreds of Chief Constables in books by the myriad writers I've read in the past who were Colonels in one army or another and still retained use of that rank. Took me to this long to realize that the military rank and the title of Chief Constable were completely different. Adding to my confusion is the fact I had always thought a Chief Constable was an appointed position in rural areas where police departments were made up almost solely of constables. Call me a slow learner. Took me to about the halfway mark to get used to the mix of military and police ranks.

But back to the engaging story of this very modern police procedural...

Hinde harasses and threatens Scole both in person and in letters. A few days later Scole is shot dead in his office at the station. Suspicion immediately falls on the ex-prisoner and the hunt is on for him.  Begrudgingly, Superintendent Venning (now the acting Chief Constable and in charge of the station) calls in Scotland Yard and they send over Inspector Poole and Detective Sergeant Gower, two of Wade's series characters. After a day or so of bristled relations between urban and rural policemen and an odd admission of somewhat unethical police procedure on Venning's part, the two agree to put aside their prejudices and work together on finding the real murderer of Capt. Scole.

Map of Brodbury police station
(frontispiece in my edition)

As evidence is uncovered and alibis are made clear all are astonished that Hinde could not have committed the murder. When letters hinting at blackmail and a scandal within the Brodbury police department are unearthed Poole is convinced that a policeman killed Scole. Furthermore, Scole was hiding a personally amassed fortune of close to forty thousand pounds and was parsimonious and secretive about his money. He kept control of his wife and daughter by giving them mean allowances leading them to believe he was not well paid. Motives for murder begin to multiple and the suspect list slowly grows.

Overall, the book has a surprisingly modern feel to it.  The way the characters talk to one another, the detail of the police relationships both professionally and personally, and the urgency with which the police behave towards finding the killer of one of their own are all hallmarks of a thoroughly contemporary crime novel. Remove the talk of World War I and this might read like any modern day bestseller.

Wade also has a talent for making each character uniquely human.  We learn that Inspector Tallard is an amateur magician who entertains at children's parties, Gower has skills of a gymnast that come in handy when asked to scale a rain pipe in a reconstruction of the crime, and Venning's attempts to be the station ballistics experts are fraught with human error. Scole's daughter likes Poole because he is down to earth and easy to talk to not all stuffy like most of the policemen she has met.  She has a few amusing scenes when after receiving her inheritance she buys a new car and takes Poole for a reckless joyride around town nearly causing several motor vehicle accidents along the way.

This is a rather hard to find title in Wade's prolific output. It's too bad it's so scarce because I found it fascinating on all levels. If the identity of the murderer is perhaps too easy to discover through a few blatant clues in the very first chapter it is no fault of Wade's. He more than makes up for that slip with an elaborately constructed story, multiple twists and sub-developments, and a cast of very human and complex characters.

One of the Detection Club's founding members Wade was highly regarded by his peers as an ingenious plotter. If Constable Guard Thyself! is considered one of his weaker efforts I am eager to read more and find out how he can improve upon his talents so obviously on display here. This one is enthusiastically recommended with all its minor faults. But good luck finding in a copy!

GOOD NEWS UPDATE! Of all of Henry Wade's book this one is the only title available for a free download from Hathi Trust Digital Library.  Click here for the book. And happy reading!

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Reading Challenge update:  I read this for Rich Westwood's monthly Crimes of the Century meme. During June we were to read a mystery published in 1934.

Friday, June 26, 2015

FFB: Harlem Underground - Ed Lacy

Lee Hayes, the rookie patrolman protagonist of Harlem Underground (1965), has been summoned by his captain. He's sure that he is about to receive a promotion to detective for his recent nabbing of a serial rapist. Imagine his disappointment when he hears from a fellow cop that he's being transferred to an uptown station to work as a typist. Can't be true, he thinks. He did some incredible work on that rapist case.  It's all a smokescreen for his fellow beat cops. The typist job is a cover so word won't get out about his real assignment. Chosen specifically for his youthful looks and street smart sensibility the 23 year-old Lee is to go undercover as a teenager and infiltrate a gang known as the Bloody Blacks who are responsible for several violent hate crimes against whites and are rumored to be plotting something worse than muggings and stabbings.

Lee experiences first hand ugly racism in his brief job as a garment district rack boy, gets into a fistfight with his employer and is fired on the very first day.  All this is to serve to build a reputation as a bad boy to make him more attractive as a recruit for the Bloody Blacks.  He finds a cheap room in the home of the Johnsons where he befriends teenager Ace, a hooligan braggart who dreams of owning his own fighter jet and dropping bombs on Klansmen in the South. Lee listens to ridiculous stories that have filled Ace's easily manipulated mind all of which come from the brains behind the Bloody Blacks -- an intimidating man known only as "Purple Eye."  With the help of fellow police officer Mary Parenti, working undercover in the guise of a social worker, he is to find out the identity of Purple Eye and stop the secret plan that has only been hinted at in the rambling bravado talk of gang members like Ace.

While both Lee and Mary do some impressive detective work the mystery novel aspects are thin here.  True, there is final reveal of the identity of Purple Eye but it's not all that surprising.  Nor is that Lacy's intent. The story serves only as a method to explore race relations at a time when the civil rights movement already seemed to be failing. Lacy allows for several fervent speeches about race relations, some delivered with thoughtfulness and understanding like the scenes between Lee and Helen Johnson. But there are more instances of the zealotry of Black Power and bigotry as nasty as the ingrained unfairness whites inflict on blacks.  This ranges from the intolerant thoughts of the West Indian grocery store owner to the unbridled hatred for whites exhibited in the inflammatory dialogue of Solmen, superintendent of the building where the Johnsons and Lee live.

Harlem Underground is a remarkably resonant book for our time. Considering what just happened in South Carolina its also a sober reminder that things never seem to change. Written only months after the Harlem race riots and with the murder of Malcom X still fresh in the minds of everyone Harlem Underground is an angry book filled with volatile emotions, didactic speeches, intolerance on multiple levels. Eerily, when the nightmarish plot of the Bloody Blacks is uncovered Lacy foresees the kind of terrorist acts that have become nearly commonplace today. Lacy intersperses the story of Lee's undercover work with journalistic passages (some actually lifted verbatim from newspaper accounts) describing the struggles and  unfair treatment of the people of Harlem.

Among these accounts are the story of a pregnant teen who doesn't know or care who the father of her baby is, a black teen sent to the store to buy a can of chili but who shocks his father when he steals it, a black youth riding the subway who pretends to help a fearful white man fix his radio but takes it and runs, and Lee's rejection by a prospective employer who is shocked when a black man turns up at the interview.  Lacy presents all these stories in a straightforward style telling each vignette in a first person narrative. So true and natural are these voices they come across as though he transcribed their words from an interview tape. Though fictional they are as true as a story on the nightly news. One can't help but join in their anger and buy into all the rationalizations each character gives for their behavior.

Lee Hayes does get his promotion.  He appeared one more time, this time as a police detective partnered with Jewish cop Al Kahn, in Lacy's final polemical Harlem novel aptly titled In Black & Whitey (1967).  The only paperback edition of this book touts "Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture!" but I'm not sure it was ever made. Lacy's entry at imdb.com doesn't list any movie or TV episode resembling the novel. Movie mavens can feel free to enlighten me in the comment section if I'm wrong.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R3 -  "Book with place in title"  This is the corresponding missing category that should've been on the Silver Age Bingo card in the last column.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Polly Put the Kettle On - Joan Fleming

Could this be the only nursery rhyme that Agatha Christie left untouched when she plundered the pages of Mother Goose for inspiration in plots and quaintly ironic titles?  I think it's an unfortunate tongue in cheek choice on Joan Fleming's part. Although there is a character named Polly in Polly Put the Kettle On (1952) and there is a tell-tale kettle left boiling on a stove as a clue to murderous intent the tone of the book does not lend itself to ironic or cutesy titles. This may be why it's one of Fleming's least known books.  It never received a reprint in either her home country or overseas here in the US where nearly all her books were reprinted in easily obtainable paperback editions. Such a shame because not only is it her only locked room detective novel that I have so far encountered, but it also seems to be her homage to James M. Cain.

Derek St. George Sudley has been released from prison in the opening pages of the novel. He intends to stay away from the city where he got himself into trouble and eventually arrested for robbery with violence.  Now having served three years of a five year sentence he's out to make a better life as a laborer. After a few words of advice he learns that Hill Farm may be looking for a new gardener and having spent much of his time tending to the ground of the prison gardens George (as he prefers to call himself) heads to the farm to meet with Eli Edge, his soon-to-be employer.

A gardener is not really what Edge needs. Instead, he offers George a chance to be a farmhand and help out with the cows in the dilapidated barn. Not exactly thrilled with this substitute job George is about to turn him down but when he catches a glimpse of Edge's extremely attractive and much younger wife, Polly, the former prisoner quickly accepts. Hard work might be easier on the hands with such a sight who's so easy on the eyes. And here we enter the territory of Cain with the ex-con trying to make the moves on the brutish husband's wife and the wife doing her best to ignore the hired hand's obvious advances. She's one of those ladies who protests too much and George knows how she really feels. You can bet that no good will come of their trysts in the barn.

But George is not your typical ex-con. He's an exceptionally literate former burglar.  He freely quotes Francis Bacon, Thomas Mallory and John Keats.  In his first person narration he sprinkles literary allusions with the ease of an Oxford don. There's even an ironic reference to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss which will make sense to anyone familiar with that novel that features quite a bit of repressed sex and sudden bursts of passion in the Yorkshire countryside. With the entrance of Madge Clay, a neighbor who breeds Keeshonds on her nearby farm, we have the addition of another woman interested the virile George.  Madge with her vulgar humor, her lust for life and liquor, and a very forward pursuit of George is an obvious foil for the prim and obedient Polly. But of course it is always the forbidden often married woman that these men would rather pursue and never the single very available and readily willing woman. Madge warns George to stay away from Polly, that Eli is not the dumb farmer George may think he is. Trouble is a brewin', my friends. And it ain't tea Polly will be making when she puts her kettle on.


Unlike Cain, however, Fleming with her inimitable flair for breaking free of crime fiction expectations includes some clever misdirection. George, who is at first presented as nothing more than a Lothario, becomes rather quickly a figure of sympathy. When Eli Edge is removed from the story in a mysterious accidental death by poison gas, and is found in a locked room from which his pet dog Argo seems to have also mysteriously vanished, suspicion inevitably falls on Polly who seems to be the only person who could have tampered with a coal gas burner in the room where her husband died.

The plot is complicated by a series of incidents in which George quite innocently was trying to help improve the farm with plumbing upgrades and by teaching both Eli and Polly to drive the new Land Rover he convinced Eli to purchase. The farmer been very tight with his money for years until George cajoled him into spending money on the improvements and the vehicle.  No reason to live like 19th century country bumpkins with an outhouse and walking miles to fetch water for the cows when they can have modern plumbing.  Fleming, of course, has a few tricks up her sleeve.  Eli proves to be a poor driving student and a variety of accidents befall him and Polly while he is at the wheel and occur in such a way to implicate George as well.  Things do not look good for George when the police learn those accidents occurred only a few days prior to Eli's death. Discovery of a couple of dead cats near the sofa where Eli's body is found also indicate possible foul play.

Rare photo of Joan Fleming (no credit given)
George finds himself a victim of circumstance constantly at odds with the police, Madge and Eyvind, the ex-German POW (with a Norwegian or Icelandic name?) who at one time worked at Hill Farm and returns quite unexpectedly in an attempt to win back his job. George not only tries to prevent everyone from discovering his secret of being a former prisoner but tries to shift all blame to Polly who he no longer trusts. As in Double Indemnity when Walter Huff begins to suspect Phyllis of using him George turns on his paramour. He becomes an amateur sleuth doing his best to solve the mysteries of how the dog got out of the locked room and how Eli was poisoned. But it is Eyvind who will prove to be George's greatest adversary not Inspector Hope, the police inspector who has trained his eye on George as the prime suspect.

Luckily, in this renaissance of vintage crime novel reprinting we are experiencing of late Polly Put the Kettle On has been reissued from Orion Books in a new digital version. But it is only allowed for sale in the UK. Used copies of the briefly reissued paperback (or the original hardcover) might also be available to an assiduous book hunter no matter where you live. With a few clicks of your keyboard you'll soon have your hands on this very fine crime novel that blends both traditional detective novel with the impossible crime novel as well as a noirish thriller that would impress Cain and Highsmith.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O6 - "Woman in the title"  Et voila!  My first Bingo in the O column. I've now officially completed the challenge. But I persevere in my attempt to fill the card!