Saturday, June 18, 2016

FFB: Here's Blood in Your Eye - Manning Long

THE STORY: Louise "Liz" Boykin is an artist's model by choice. She's trying hard to become part of the artist community but lives on the fringes of acceptance. She's getting over the recent break up with her old fiance who dumped her and dealing with her uptight, ultra conservative, new fiance who is not much of an improvement. When she is invited to a swank artists' party at the home of the married painters and current employers, Flora and Whitfield Linton, she feels she is finally part of the in crowd. But when her ex-fiance Melchior Thews turns up violently murdered, circumstances continually point to Liz as the prime suspect. With the help of Gordon Parrott, investigator for the Manhattan DA's office, her name is cleared, but not before she is implicated in at least tow more deaths.

THE CHARACTERS Here's Blood in Your Eye (1941) is the first of the Liz Parrott books. Knowing this ahead of time spoils a bit of the final chapter where Liz Boykin discovers she will become Liz Parrott. But not much of a spoiler really. Any reader well versed in detective novels as jammed packed with romantic subplots and a leading character with a trail of ex-fiances knows that as soon as Liz meets Gordon she has found her third and final fiance-to-be. With this one reading Liz Parrott has become one of my favorite woman amateur sleuths of the 1940s. She's got a contemporary edge to her and she's got so many conflicts within herself she makes for a unique character. It helps that she's got a tough side to her and a wicked sense of humor in her narration. I could easily see these books made into movies with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead even if Liz is supposed to be more ravishingly beautiful.

The rest of the cast is made up of equally brash but mostly snobbish characters. They all sport the kinds of names that reek of the kind of urbane Manhattan sophisticates that turn up in mysteries set in NYC. In addition to the preposterously named victim we have Husted Breamer, Liz' laughably priggish current fiance; Clare Edmiston and Barry DuBois, an older woman engaged to an investment broker playboy; Grace Leigh a dangerously wronged woman with blackmail on her mind; Leonard Foxe-Macon who first sees Liz when her gun falls out of her purse in front of Melchior's apartment; and Marcella Payne, a wealthy art patron and one of the many ex-lovers of the murder victim. Even the cops have unusual names like Inspector Langmede who is convinced that Liz has a part in Melchior's death and all the violence that follows in its wake.

INNOVATIONS: The narrative voice of Liz Boykin (soon to be Parrott) is loaded with zingers and fine ironic writing that never descends into the jokey wiseacre stuff of this era. I could fill this entire post with great quotes but it's better to discover them within the context of the story. Her edgy voice has a purpose too because she's trying to find her way in life, sorting out what she wants and who she wants and most importantly of all trying to preserve her identity and personality without having to sacrifice her fiercely independent ways. Getting over her previous engagement which is tinged with a personal shame and a terrible incident that still haunts her provides some conflict to the story as Melchior exploits her past, writes it up in a letter and attempts to blackmail Liz and ruin her chances at marriage with Hue Breamer who disapproves of everything from her posing partially nude in a artist's studio to her owning a cat.

The plot which is overflowing with letters used for blackmail purposes and a string of ex-fiances and ex-lovers in Melchior Thews' amorous past is perhaps a bit too complicated for its own good. The large cast of characters, especially several women who appear to be clones of one another, is often a bit hard to keep track of. Nevertheless Long carries off the telling of this complex story with panache and verve. There are plenty of incidents to keep the plot moving, some decent fair play detection, and a handful of clues dropped early on in the story to point the reader to the somewhat surprising killer.

THE AUTHOR: All I could find out about Manning long comes from a French Wikipedia article. She was born in Virginia, lived in Washington DC, New York and New Jersey and eventually settled on a farm back in Amherst, Virginia. She was married to Peter Williams, a ceramist and sculptor who created the bust of Edgar Allan Poe used for the MWA Edgar awards.

EASY TO FIND? This title is rather scarce, but later titles in the Liz Parrott series are comparatively common. None have been reprinted in contemporary editions nor did I find any eBooks out there. The first couple of books in the series were published in the US, UK, Canada, and France so finding a copy may be easy for an assiduous book hunter. Here's Blood in Your Eye is one of the earliest Harlequin titles dating back to the days when they published all sorts of genre fiction before turning exclusively to romance novels. Manning Long's first mystery novel is Harlequin #10 first published in a 1948 edition with the suitably lurid cover shown above.

Liz Parrott Detective Novels by Manning Long
Here's Blood in Your Eye (1941)
Vicious Circle (1942)
False Alarm (1943)
Bury The Hatchet (1944)
Short Shrift (1945)
Dull Thud (1947)
Savage Breast (1948)

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This is late because I'm in Alaska and it took me an entire day to fix my phone so that it would work way up here. Sprint and roaming call headaches. I needed to download a software update that finally I managed to do when we were in a hotel with decent WiFi. Expect more delays over the next ten days.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: Death and the Professors - Kathleen Sproul

Two rival physics professors die within hours of one another after attending a faculty function at the home of the Dunster College's president in Death and the Professors (1933). Though one death appears to be from natural causes and the other a suicide, the circumstances surrounding each are bizarre and in the case of the suicide so violent that foul play is suspected. Visiting lecturer Richard Van Ryn Wilson, a criminologist an psychologist, is bothered by the uncharacteristic behavior of each professor prior to their deaths and he turns detective to ferret out the truth and expose a ghastly revenge plot.

Once again we find a college campus rife with overflowing passions, unhappy marriages and unrestrained sexuality. Unlike the last book I profiled (The May Day Mystery) for the Tuesday Night Bloggers' discussion of murder in academia this month, the bedhopping is not in the dormitories but in the faculty bedrooms. This is one more addition to the fictional proliferation of unhealthy marriages, jealous husbands, philandering wives and spurned lovers as played out in a university setting. Coincidentally, this is practically the mirror image of Octavus Roy Cohen's book, a sort of Through the Looking Glass tale in which the student and faculty roles are reversed while exactly the same plot devices are used including another secret marriage, another hateful cad and another murder by throat cutting.

The most innovative part of the book is the method by which Jeff Storm is done in. Sproul is one of the first of the American mystery writers of the Golden Age to employ this method, but not the first ever. The earliest instance I know of this particularly diabolical means to kill someone dates back to 1901 in a short story by L. T. Meade and Clifford Halifax that appears in the extremely rare collection Race with the Sun. By the late 1940s, however, it becomes a gimmicky murder method, especially in novels dealing with scientists, experimental labs, and hospitals.

Richard Wilson is not exactly the most competent of detectives nor is the story very well constructed. The clues are discovered by other characters and brought to Wilson's attention whether actually hand delivered to him as in the case of a bloody monogrammed handkerchief found several blocks fromthe home of Professor Shearer who was thought to have killed himself by slitting his own throat, or through the various gossip mongers who eavesdrop and spy on their neighbors. Gossip plays a large part in the story and is Sproul's attempt to satirize the small-mindedness of a New England town. The portraits of the two old biddies who periodically come to Wilson's door with tales of what they saw and heard are done amusingly and show Sproul's flair for character dialogue. The abundance of these types of evidence gathered through eavesdropping, however, gets to be irritating by the last third of the book.

That Wilson does not actually discover much of the physical evidence himself is no real concern of Sproul. She has given him an innate talent as a truth seeker: "One of the qualities that had made him so successful as a detective was his remarkable ability to feel psychological subtleties--to feel a personal conviction, not often needing to be altered later, the truth of what he was hearing at any time." She seems to be reflecting a quality of early 20th century fictional detectives that shows the influence of Anthony Berkeley's ideas of what detective fiction ought to be about. The talent for observing human nature and seeing through deception and lies, and for "feeling" or sensing criminal behavior are traits more often found in women detectives like Mrs. Warrender created by the Coles, Maud Silver, and Solange Fontaine whose talent for sensing evil stems more from an undefined supernatural origin than a highly developed psychological insight. Wilson belongs more to the intuitive school of detectives and is more self-doubting than his male counterparts. His reliance on others to provide him with the results he ought to be finding on his own makes him less of a detective hero than his male counterparts in the genre.

The New England setting has its touches of archetypal characters and shows the influence of Hawthorne in the person of the "village idiot" Gracien Lowell. Here is a woman who lost her son in a horrific accident that ended in a fatal explosion in the physics lab. She descends into a severe depression, leading eventually to madness and becomes a reclusive, almost mute, hermit hiding away in her home allowing the house to fall into disrepair serving as a metaphor for her ever disintegrating mental and emotional state. There was an opportunity here for some eerie touches of Gothic sensibility but Sproul instead chooses to have other characters talk about Lowell and we get third hand assessments of who she is. Wilson meets Gracien only once and the scene instead of being poignant is almost comic. She has some privileged information that she is reluctant to talk about for she can speak but chooses not to. But by the time she decides to speak up and seek out Wilson it is too late.

My experience with reading academic mystery novels has been almost exclusively with the type of detective novel that uses the milieu of an insular intellectual world to reflect selfishness, opportunism in one's career and the typical rivalries and jealousies that arise out of competing for tenure and positions of influence and power. Sproul explores all of these but with less grace or insight than most writers who choose to satirize ivory tower thinking. The faculty here are petty, spiteful and extremely juvenile. There are two characters who have an assured manner, speak in voices that reflect the kind of arrogance you would expect from academics who think police and outsiders have no understanding of the importance of their work. And it is those characters the reader is most likely to finger as the murderer. The rest of the cast exist as stereotypes of jealous lovers behaving more like horny teenagers like the woman cheating on her husband who meets her lover in the physics lab for a nightly sexual rendezvous.

Kathleen Sproul had an interesting career as a writer. She wrote five detective novels in between 1932 and 1946 and then became a staff writer for The Saturday Review. Her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared regularly throughout the 1950s, many of them advertised on the cover. But her love for the detective novel never left her. For a brief time in 1951 she took over the duties of reviewing mystery and detective fiction for The Saturday Review's "The Criminal Record" monthly column. Most of her books are rather scarce and with the exception of this title were published only in the US. I know of no contemporary reprints or paperback editions of any of her books which makes the likelihood of finding any of them even more remote. Based on this one offering I doubt that I will be investigating any more of her mystery novels. Her insights as a mystery reviewer, however, are right on target. At least they match my tastes and I have found her snippet reviews in "The Criminal Record" columns to be an excellent guide in finding new writers and books for my own neverending hunger for the genre.

Kathleen Sproul's Detective Novels
The Birthday Murder (1932)
Death and the Professors (1933)
Murder Off Key (1934)
The Mystery of the Closed Car (1935)
Death Listened In (1946)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

LEFT INSIDE: Business Card Bookmarks

A quick "Left Inside" post here. I found a few business cards in the books I've been reading lately. The card below seems to have been inserted as a method of advertising. Made me laugh. I found it in a library book I started to read but disliked intensely and never finished. But I kept the card, of course! Next time I'm overcome with disgust for my current job and indulge in the temptation of a "get rich quick" scheme I'll have a handy phone number to call, I'm not so keen on driving these days, but I really do want to travel the world. And some nifty tailor made clothes? Who wouldn't want those? I wonder what this "dream job" entails? Someone call and fill me in. I'm not quite ready.

DEPARTMENT OF IRONY: The name of the book I found it in? End of the Line.

The second card turned up while I was reading The Medbury Fort Murder I apparently bought this book from a local seller though I can't remember who. The business card comes from a Quincy, IL stove salesman. I loved what I read when I turned it over. Such an odd book for someone to give as a present. Guess this gift giving father never bothered to read what the book is about and figured, "Another mystery for my detective fiction obsessed son. He'll love it, I'm sure." But more odd is the fact that Dad uses his business cards as gift tags. Frugal or self-absorbed? I'm guessing it's the father who is J. W. Egan. It would be even more odd if it turned out that Dad just pulled any scrap of paper of out of his wallet or off his desk, scrawled his birthday greeting on it, then suck it in the book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

FFB: The Medbury Fort Murder - George Limnelius

THE STORY: Loathsome Lt. Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort situated on the Thames. Lepean was not at all admired among his fellow soldiers. The arrogant, sneering soldier was a known user of women and is revealed early on to be a ruthless blackmailer. There are at least four men who had very good reason to kill Lepean, two of them were being blackmailed. Was it one of them who slew the soldier or someone else?

THE CHARACTERS: At the start the story is told from the viewpoint of Major Hugh Preece who meets Lepean and faintly recognizes him from his good looks and his superior insinuating manner. A flashback occurs and we are taken to West Africa where Preece served alongside another soldier, Victor Wape, who also will end up at Medbury Fort fifteen years later. The West African flashback is one of the most enlightening pieces of writing I've read in a long time. I learned all sorts of arcane tidbits about African culture (circa 1914) and the British military presence there. But it is a courtroom scene with a horrifying conclusion that is the main reason for this flashback. That and the revelation of how Preece and Wape both knew Lepean in their past. We also learn how Preece met his wife Claire, his romantic fling with a stage actress named Prunella Lake, and a bit about Wape's personal life.

Lepean's murder is solved by three different policeman: a local constable who is not all that competent, Inspector Paton of Scotland Yard, and his superior officer Chief Inspector McMaster. All three do their part in uncovering key evidence in the unusual locked room murder which seems to have been inspired by a famous detective novel. This is told to us when Major Preece describes in detail how he plans to kill Lepean early in the book. When Lepean is found murdered exactly as Preece planned there is a strong suspicion that the major was the killer. But the story, of course, will turn out to be not all that simple.

Prunella also plays a primary part in the crime. We know that she urged Preece to eliminate Lepean who knew of a secret liaison between the two. It's not just because Prunella is now married to a prominent aristocrat that she fears exposure. There is something much more damaging to her reputation and her comfortable life. She writes a letter to Preece hinting at murder and instructing him to destroy the letter after he reads it. Claire will also enter the picture and will turn amateur sleuth in order to save her husband from the gallows when it appears that he is the primary suspect in the murder.

INNOVATIONS: This is one of the most unique novels I've read in early 20th century crime fiction because it is both an inverted detective novel and a true detective novel. It seems from the beginning that Limnelius was inspired by the books of Anthony Berkeley for we will follow Major Preece from his planning stage to the actual crime. But the book is told in third person and we get all sorts of viewpoints throughout the novel. On the night of the murder we are fairly certain that Preece did not follow through with his plans based on some events that happen prior to the discovery of the body. Yet there is an ambiguity about whether or not he did kill Lepean by the time he is discovered dead.

If you know the famous novel (which is mentioned twice over the course of this book) that Preece used as inspiration then you will also be looking for certain evidence and behaviors. There are a few specific incidents that make it possible for at least three different men to have killed the vile blackmailer, but odd clues and items keeps turning up that make the case very difficult to sort out. When one character asks Inspector Paton if he has any clues he says nothing. But we hear his thoughts: "Yes,...plenty of clues. Too many clues; but no evidence, and no motive." Paton is referring to the discovery of three different possible weapons -- a scalpel, an African machete found on the grounds, and a curved French bayonet hidden in a corner of the murder room. Other curious bits turn up like what was in the ashes of the fireplace in Lepean's room and what McMaster finds when he examines the broken down door. By the end of the book the revelations of what actually happened on the night of the murder uncover not only a surprise killer, but three other unexpected twists in the plot. The reviewer for The Bookman in the November 1929 issue called this a "...brilliant and well-written piece of detective fiction with a good plot." Nicely understated, I'd say.

QUOTES: "...this looked as if it were going to develop into one of the those "mystery" cases, so dear to the journalist, so repugnant to the best instincts of the professional detective."

"To discover the romantic sensual man it is unnecessary to probe very deep. Even a middle-class, plain, and respectably married detective is not entirely immune from the occasional indulgence in daydreams in which he pays the dashing and intensely amative hero."

"Then, fatally, for Prunella, he remembered her origin. She was not a genuine aristocrat. He might have married just such another as Prunella Lake himself. No! With hardly the slightest twinge of regret, he put the temptation from him. It was, in a sense, a triumph for the moral value of British snobbery."

THE AUTHOR: Lewis George Robinson used the pseudonym "George Limnelius" for two detective novels. Limnelius comes from his mother's maiden name Limnel. The Medbury Fort Murder is his first and most successful mystery novel. He based much of the plot on his personal experience as a medical officer in the Royal Army where he served during the first World War. though I found no proof of his being stationed in West Africa I am positive that he must've been there based on the concentrated detail of African geography and culture.

Map of West Africa from 1910 showing
probable locations in The Medbury Fort Murder
THINGS I LEARNED: I had a devil of a time trying to figure exactly in which African country Preece and company were stationed. Limnelius uses the outdated British names, circa the 1920s and some dating back to the 18th century, for all the towns and countries and regions. He names a river that either doesn't exist (Rene) or had its name changed. He refers to Mandingo as both a language and a region, the Mongola Valley (couldn't locate it) and a city called Sakene (another strike out). He mentions Senegalia (another passé name) but not Sierra Leone which was British occupied at the time. He talks of French Equatorial Africa which at the time took up about one third of the continent. I have a feeling the flashback in West Africa took place in what is now Sierra Leone, but it was very hard to pinpoint.

The term mammy palaver refers to both the gossip of African women and is a slang term the Brits used to talk euphemistically of sexual relations between white men and African women. Palaver apparently is not only an African term that means gossip but the act of sex itself. The Brits borrowed that slang term and mixed it with their own pejorative "mammy" for any African woman. There is a lot of race talk in the flashback sequence and much of it reveals some of the less attractive by-products of colonialism that began in the 17th century and still existed in the early 20th century.

The gruesome surprise that takes place during the climactic courtroom sequence in the flashback has a eerie resonance for what is going on in both Africa and the Middle East with the rise of brutal terrorists who look back to their ancestors in meting out gory retribution.

I also learned more than I ever cared to know about slaughter practices in a kosher butcher shop. The visit Chief Inspector McMaster makes there provides a major clue to the solution of the mystery.

EASY TO FIND? Only a handful appear for sale on the various bookselling websites. Copies start at a mere seven bucks and run upwards to $63. None of the copies I found came with the apparently very rare dust jacket. There are no paperback reprints that I know of, either in the US of the UK where it was originally published. There is only one US reprint in hardcover from Grosset & Dunlap. Of the two books Robinson wrote under his "George Limnelius" pen name The Medbury Fort Murder is the easier to find. There's even an eBook version at Hathi Digital TrustThe Manuscript Murder (1933), his second and last mystery, is extremely scarce.

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This is the third of many 1929 books I am reading and writing up for the "Crime of the Century" month long celebration of mystery novels that were published in that year. Previously reviewed were The Secret of Sea-Dream House and The May Day Mystery. More 1929 book reviews are on the way!