Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Oh, Oh, We're Halfway There!" - Updates and News

Not quite "Livin' on a Prayer" yet but I may be offering my prayers up to the book gods come this summer as more and more deadlines approach. Very, very busy this year.

I've been holding back discussing some of the projects I've been working on when not dishing out reviews for this blog. There have been hints dropped here and there, but now I'm ready to make at least one announcement. One of my essays will be included in a soon to be released study of popular fiction. I'm very excited since this will be the first non-fiction book my writing has ever been published in. I've had several forewords and introductions appear in small press reprints of forgotten books as many of you know, but this is so very different. First, because the editors approached me to be included and second because it has led to contributing to a second book by the same editorial team.

Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats.: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980 is published by Verse Chorus Press, the fine people who re-introduced Australian mystery writer June Wright to the crime fiction readers of the world. It's been edited and compiled by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntrye, writers and critics both based in Melbourne, Australia.  Beat Girls... is a fascinating compilation of essays and reviews focusing on the beat culture, juvenile delinquents, motorcycle gangs, hippies, folkies and all sorts of other youth culture as depicted in thirty years' worth of US, UK and Australian popular fiction. I've read several of the essays prior to the book going to print. If you think I know a lot about obscure mysteries and supernatural fiction you will be greatly impressed by the breadth of knowledge shown in the work of myriad contributors. They've dug up some amazing books and writers I've never heard of.  I only wish I had the time and money to buy copies and read several of the books that are discussed in Beat Girls... The book will be officially released (if all goes to the schedule) in November 2015.  More on the book can be found at Andrew Nette's website and blog, Pulp Curry.

My short piece is in the section on music and discusses A Sad Song Singing by Thomas Dewey. The piece first appeared here on Pretty Sinister Books and was slightly revised for inclusion in Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats.

My research on transgressive fiction of the 1960s and 1970s continues as does my reading and research on the depiction of LGBT characters in mystery fiction from the 1920s through the 1960s.  All this reading is for several essays for two other projects that I will talk about in detail at a later date.  Two reviews -- The Fetish Murders and Body Charge -- were posted on my blog previously this year and both will be part of a much longer essay to appear in another book to be published by Verse Chorus Press sometime in 2016.

And here is the official update on the two Vintage Mystery Reading Challenges I've been working on. At nearly the six month mark for this year I think I'm pretty much on target with more than half the Golden Age card filled and just shy of the 50% mark on the Silver Age card. I'm confident I'll complete both cards well before December 31.

Total: 24 books read out of a planned 36

Total: A Lucky 13 books and almost halfway there.

Most of the marked above books I've reviewed on the blog. I still have about three reviews to write and post. They're a-comin'. Some absolutely will not be reviewed on this blog. Books like The Butterscotch Prince, a wild murder mystery drenched in sweaty sex scenes and dealing with the 1970s gay fetish underworld in lower Manhattan, or The Gay Haunt by Victor Banis really are not appropriate for the regular visitors who read my posts. Anyone interested in learning more about those titles and topics will just have to wait until I write again about my still-in-progresss book projects.

Friday, May 22, 2015

FFB: The Black Stamp - Will Scott

The Black Stamp (1926) was published in England as Disher - Detective (1925) and in it we are introduced to Will Disher, a corpulent, monocle wearing, consulting detective who probably would like to belong to the school of sleuths that Carolyn Wells called the Transcendent Detective. Her term implies a grandeur that is undeserving of most of these types. Disher aspires to greatness but his ego prevents him achieving anything other than cleverness. He is alternately insufferable in his treatment of others and hilarious when spouting forth his epigrammatic dialogue that might impress even Oscar Wilde. He comes from a long line of these amateur sleuths who seemed to be the mainstay of detective novels of the mid to late 1920s. Disher has much in common with Philo Vance, Graydon McKelvie, Phineas Spinnett and Roger Sheringham all of whom are full of themselves, irreverent, intolerant, but not without a sense of humor often tinged with a patronizing tone. Disher is rescued from being thoroughly dislikeable by his occasional flashes of heartfelt camaraderie toward his much put upon assistant Henry Moon, legman extraordinaire, and a respect for Henry's often surprisingly original thinking.

Poor Henry Moon is described as a young man who might otherwise have become a non-entity had he not met Disher. He is called a follower and that is exactly what he does for about 75% of the book. He is sent out to follow and shadow a variety of suspicious characters. His very physical work uncovers vital clues and unexpected developments in this baffling case involving anonymous letters, an invisible gang of criminals, and a rash of mysterious disappearances. Disher leaves most of the work to Henry just as Nero Wolfe relied on good ol' Archie Goodwin. When Disher decides to take charge, however, he can display an unconventional outside of the box approach to interrogating his suspects like the puzzled gardener of whom he demands to know where he went to school, if he won any prizes and how often he attends church. All Disher's questions seem utterly random and immaterial to both the reader and the gardener who expects to be interrogated about his missing employer.

There is an element of Edgar Wallace in The Black Stamp. Several important politicians and business leaders throughout Europe and the United States have received letters sealed with the titular black stamp. Each letter briefly accuses the recipient of being better off dead and shortly after receiving one of these stamped letters the recipient vanishes without a trace. In one instance the letter receiver vanishes from a locked room in which the lights go out briefly while Disher is standing next to him qualifying the novel as an impossible crime book. The solution to that particular disappearance is solved fairly quickly and in an ingenious way that I believe is the first instance of such a gimmick.

Though Henry and Disher do some legitimate detecting and work well as a detective team this is mostly a pursuit thriller and less of a detective novel. There is a lot of following and tailing. Characters pursue each other on foot, by taxi, and even ocean liner. The story travels from England to the US and back again. When the story is transplanted to the USA for several chapters the tone even changes. We lose the Wallace atmosphere and meet up with characters like Spotty M'Gee, a trigger happy crook with a taste for fistfights who would be at home in a Carroll John Daly novel. The dialog becomes peppered with American gangster slang with even Disher succumbing to the speech pattern. Hamilton Harris, a wealthy businessman who receives a black stamped letter, commits burglary in order to be jailed thus ensuring he not become one of the vanished. He summons Disher via telegram and proposes he become his bodyguard once he is freed from jail and together they can join forces to outwit the Black Stamp gang. With luck they will put an end to the disappearances altogether when they find the reason for what seem to be a series of kidnappings.

The scenes between Disher and Hamilton Harris, a Scottish immigrant who made his fortune in American steel, are some of the best in the book. Harris is as irascible and intolerant as Disher. "You're mighty conceited" he says to Disher whose rejoinder is "A peacock posing as a peacock is just a peacock. It is when a sparrow struts around in the guise of a pheasant... But do have a cigar, Mr. Harris."

Disher may be supercilious and intolerant, but I find his slant on the world (and himself) pretty damn funny. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
On living outside a city:
"Suburbs are the curse of civilization. They are pure poison. In them the spirit of dullness has been captured and given a life sentence. It would not surprise me to learn some day that Hell is the suburbs of Heaven."

On conversation:
"There is no occasion on which I am unwilling to talk, except in sleep. [Talk] is an art which I have brought to a state of perfection almost unbelievable. I am its Beethoven."

On lack of observation:
"The fool never recognized me! He is the kind of idiot that would take the Angel Gabriel by the shoulder, and say: 'Give me that instrument! What are you doing here?'"
Harris is the man who disappears so miraculously from the briefly darkened but thoroughly locked and sealed room. No small problem for Disher though who solves that miracle with the ease of crossing a street. With the help of Henry, M'Gee and his American cohorts, plus an assortment of speed racing taxi cab drivers Disher manages to uncover an international plot and locate the missing men all under one roof. The Black Stamp is an above average example of these fast paced, action oriented thrillers so popular in the early 20th century. Those with a dry sense of humor and a slightly cynical worldview might find Will Disher to be worth a visit in one of his three adventures.

Occasionally the Disher books turn up dirt cheap in the used book market. I haven't checked if there are free online versions, but I suspect that since they are in the public domain at least one of them probably is out there in the digital airspace. Happy hunting!

Will Disher detective thrillers
Disher - Detective (1925) - US Title: The Black Stamp
Shadows (1928)
The Mask (1929)

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age, space N3 - " Book published under more than one title"

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Death Knocks Three Times - Anthony Gilbert

I seem to be on a roll in choosing my kind of detective novel.  My first taste of the prolific --and sorely overlooked by me -- "Anthony Gilbert" (in reality Lucy Beatrice Malleson) was another delight from start to finish.  And such an unusual blend of so many different kinds of subgenres.  Death Knocks Three Times (1949) is almost unclassifiable.  It's a Gothic send-up, a satire on the art of novel writing, a treatise on detective novels, a "badass biddy" (my own name for a certain type of subgenre featuring nefarious and murderous senior citizen women) suspense thriller, and the end a fair play mystery novel.  But detection, I have to say, takes back seat to an engrossing tale of duplicity, blackmail, anonymous threats and familial jealousy.

There are mysterious deaths aplenty and crime galore in Death Knocks Three Times, but the emphasis is on a cat and mouse game between many of the characters. The reader becomes spellbound by the serpentine plot and may be more interested in trying to figure out just who are the heroes amid all the villainy rather than uncovering the identity of the murderer.  If there is one!  Lucy Malleson's most popular detective Arthur Crook is hardly the main character in this outing though he does the wrapping up in the penultimate chapter.  I almost don't want to say anything about this book because truly it's so strange and surprising in how it unfolds. The story shifts gears and moods so many times that to give any kind of summary would ruin discovering what it has to offer. I'll try my best to highlight the bare bones.

The opening chapter seems be a homage to Benighted by J. B. Priestley. Crook is travelling in Scourge, his beater of a car, to visit a friend when a terrifying storm of Biblical proportions washes out a bridge and makes driving impossible. Just like Priestley's book Crook goes in search of shelter and fortuitously (as in Benighted) there happens to be an old house just off his ruined route. He is greeted by a creepy old butler who thinks he is someone else, eventually inveigles his way inside and meets the eccentric and belligerent Colonel Sherran who seems to be living in a long gone past much like the occupants of the sinister Femm mansion. Crook lets the Colonel know of his specialty in law -- he is skilled at getting guilty people acquitted of their crimes -- which results in an almost immediate friendship and a glowing congeniality from the former blustery and rude ex-soldier. This is the first of the most telling clues that I guarantee any reader will almost instantly forget by the time the book is in full swing. It's also a sure sign of Malleson's talent in concocting a tantalizing mystery novel.

Enter John Sherran, a struggling novelist and the Colonel's nephew. He was the guest the butler Bligh expected when Crook rang the bell. John and his uncle have an argument and in the morning the Colonel is dead. After breaking down the locked door to a bathroom they find the colonel in a Victorian bathtub the lid of which has come crashing down on his head. An accident?  Or a fiendishly designed murder?  Crook ends up attending the inquest to give evidence along with Bligh and John who are the only other witnesses. The surprising verdict is death by misadventure.

But the Colonel's death is only the first in a series of suspicious accidents that may or may not be cleverly disguised murders. Death seems to be following John Sherran wherever he goes and his relatives are dropping like flies. The reader is privy to John's thoughts and we get an inkling that he has been tempted to bump off his rich relations so that he can live a more comfortable life as he blunders his way through writing mediocre novels that don't sell very well.  But is he guilty?  Wouldn't that be too obvious?

Malleson does an excellent job of painting her characters in shades of ambiguity.  There are no good guys dressed in white nor any villainesses wearing slinky black cocktail dresses. Nearly everyone has a dark side to them and by the midpoint nearly everyone seems to have murder on their mind, especially the odious Frances Pettigrew, an ex-governess John keeps running into with a frequency that beggars belief.  Coincidence or design? The scene in the train compartment between John and Miss Pettigrew shows off Malleson's taste for the macabre as we listen to Miss Pettigrew deliver a De Quincey-like lecture on the fine art of murder.  Her speech curdles the blood while simultaneously bringing a devilish smile to a contemporary reader who can only laugh in astonishment at such a callous old woman's philosophy. Her appearance takes the book further into a surreal world where activities like playing cards, riding an elevator, or taking a tea break are fraught with peril.

For anyone who hasn't read Anthony Gilbert I highly recommend this as your entry point. I found the strange shifts in mood in Death Knocks Three Times to be thoroughly beguiling. The plotting is mesmerizing, the characters are outrageous, the suspense is relentless and the ending is killer. You're sure to be stunned by one or more twists in the gasp inducing finale. I've read many a book with a triple twist endings, but is it possible to have a quadruple twist?  This could be it!

I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this book.  For those not satisfied with my review I suggest you read any of these three raves from my fellow vintage mystery bloggers:

Neer at "A Cup of Hot Pleasure"
TomCat at "Beneath the Stains of Time"
Bev at "My Reader's Block"

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space E6 - "Book you have to borrow".  I got this copy from the Chicago Public Library. Also this counts as one of the three books I read for the "1949 Mystery Book Challenge" for the month of May sponsored by Rich Westwood's blog Past Offences.

Friday, May 15, 2015

FFB: Dead Man's Quarry - Ianthe Jerrold

A group of art students touring the Hereford-Wales border country on bicycle lose one of their party on a simple ride down a hill and begin to fear the worst in the opening chapters of Dead Man’s Quarry (1930).  The next day Charles Price’s body is found at the bottom of a disused quarry along with a crushed bicycle.  But what at first appears to be a bad accident turns out to be something more insidious when a bullet hole is discovered in the back of Sir Charles’ head.  Sir Charles engendered plenty of dislike among the group of cyclists with his loud laugh, his caddish behavior towards female servants and his very un-English ways displayed as the newly placed baronet of Rhyllan Hall.  He had travelled from his former exile in Canada to reclaim his rightful place now that his uncle Evan has died and Charles was named heir to the estate.  Clearly someone didn’t approve of the new baronet or his return to England.

Dead Man’s Quarry is that rarity of a forgotten novel that has rightly been rediscovered and reprinted for the ever growing audience of traditional detective novel readers who crave more and more of the old-fashioned whodunits of the past.  First and foremost it does what a truly fine detective novel should do—it entertains the reader on all levels.  Ianthe Jerrold’s best assets include her lively sense of humor and her refusal to pull cut-out characters from the dusty trunk of expected stereotypes and archetypes usually found in detective novels of this era.

Take for example the platoon of servants at both Rhyllan Hall and various other hotels and households that dot the surroundings.  Usually relegated to comic background roles in standard mystery novels of the Golden Age Jerrold’s servants rather are essential to the plot. Each one steps into a spotlight briefly for an important moment.

Ianthe Jerrold, 1936
© National Portrait Gallery
Waters, the vain footman, is candid about a servant’s typical transgression of being too interested in letters left on tables.  He openly confesses to reading a cryptic letter, quoting it from memory, but only because he has to tell someone and confiding in the maids would’ve been disastrous to his perceived reputation.  The housemaids, similarly are frank and honest when most would expect them to be close-mouthed and guarded.  But their willingness to cooperate is due mostly to Mrs. Maur, the housekeeper whose slightly sinister demeanor is enhanced by an iron will and intimidating gaze.  The maids are more frightened at what Mrs. Maur might do should they withhold information rather than fearing any punishment the police might come up with. One of the most unusual pieces of evidence comes in a kitchen maid’s elaborate story about what happened at breakfast the day of the murder. She blames the appearance of a shadowy figure seen skirting through the apple orchard. Thinking he might be a fruit poacher she left the kitchen and the eggs unattended for nine minutes and ruined everyone's breakfast. The stolen apples and later some missing eggs will prove to be some of the exceptionally odd clues in the final solution of who killed Sir Charles.

The clues are abundant in Dead Man’s Quarry and they are pure Golden Age whimsy.  The strange evidence includes the purchase of a hard candy called bulls’ eyes, an ambiguous note mysteriously signed with the initial C, a green bicycle pump, five pound note used to pay rent, and a revolver hidden in a rabbit hole.

John Christmas who also acted as the amateur sleuth in Jerrold’s first mystery novel The Studio Crime (1929), enlists the aid of Nora Browning, the atypically observant “Miss Watson” of the piece, and is also helped somewhat reluctantly by his traveling companion and friend Rampson Sydenham.  Sydenham and Christmas are perfect foils for one another and serve to highlight Jerrold’s main conflict of the imaginative mind versus the scientific mind in their approach to solving a crime.  Sydenham is the rational man lost in a sea of artists who quote poetry, draw analogies from novels and use figurative language in their daily speech. He is exasperated by the wild and dreamy notions spouting forth from his friend’s bothersome romantic mind.  “Imagination is excellent thing, kept under control,”  he lectures to Christmas. “It’ll arrive at the same conclusion as scientific reasoning, and get there quicker.  But really, John…you’re blinding yourself to the obvious.”  He does his best to point out to Christmas that he is discarding many clues that don’t fit his theories; a mortal sin to a scientific mind.  It also happens to be bad detective work.

But John will not listen. He is convinced that Morris Price who has been found guilty of murder at the inquest is innocent no matter how much the evidence seems to reinforce that guilt.  Christmas instead turns his attention to a mysterious woman who keeps reappearing throughout the investigation.  A woman they have met once and who has eluded them since their chance encounter.  Christmas believes her to be Price’s first wife who though estranged from her husband for years still has legal claim to property as his wife. It is quite possible that her talk of Rhyllan Hall needing a mistress was a hint to an ulterior motive.

Enough intriguing plot developments in this cleverly laid out murder tale are on vivid display and ought to intrigue even the toughest to please mystery novel enthusiasts.  For once in a very long time here is an utterly forgotten writer's long out of print book that deserves having been rescued from obscurity.

Dead Man’s Quarry is available in a digital and printed book from Dean Street Press and can be purchased from the usual online bookselling sites.