Friday, August 21, 2015

See You In September

No Friday's Forgotten Book for the next two weeks, gang. I'm trying to finish up three essays that are due by the end of this month. And we have multiple home projects going on that are demanding what's left of my little free time.

And so -- I'll see in you September. Take it away, boys!

Friday, August 14, 2015

FFB: A Taste for Honey - H. F. Heard

Now that Ian McKellan is entrancing moviegoers with his performance as the retired apiarist Sherlock Holmes all I can think of is bees. And Holmes. I also happen to be immersing myself in the crime fiction of two writers who were both avowed Holmes addicts -- Gerald Heard and Beverley Nichols. It's been difficult not to think of Holmes for the past couple of weeks. And then, of course, I have also read Mitch Cullin's beautiful novel A Slight Trick of the Mind on which the movie Mr. Holmes is based. I remember much of Cullin's delicate prose, the talk of bees and the education of the young boy at the hands of the aged Holmes. So today I thought I'd write about a book I think all mystery enthusiasts ought to not only be aware of but a book that should be essential reading.

A Taste for Honey (1941) by H. F. Heard is one of the earliest and most cleverly disguised Holmes pastiches in the genre. It's an unusual for book for many reasons: Heard's densely rich somewhat self-consciously ornamental prose; the mixture of elements from the traditional detective novel and the horror novel and the mad scientist genre; but most of all the manner in which he wraps the old man detective in a mystery then drapes him in a shroud of enigma (to paraphrase Churchill's famous quote about the Iron Curtain). Though the detective calls himself Mr. Mycroft we never know if this is meant to be his first name or last name. He confesses that it is "only one of my many family names". But who else has retired to the south of England to become a beekeeper? It's all a little too convenient.

The story is not so much a true whodunit but there is much that is mysterious besides the identity of the detective. Sidney Silchester, the erudite, somewhat snobbish and slightly befogged narrator, apparently has never heard of Sherlock Holmes but he is more than eager to listen to the detective's colorful tale of the sinister next door neighbor from whom Silchester used to buy his honey. Seems Mrs. Heregrove, the neighbor's wife, has died from a bee sting and Mr. Mycroft is suspicious that it was not an accident by a gruesomely engineered murder.

And that is all I will reveal of the plot. You really need to read the book yourself to experience the full impact of story. What Heard does with this seemingly simple idea borders on genius. The writing is lush, a bit too fanciful for its own good, but Heard succeeds in transporting the reader to a world of unimaginable horror. The battle of wits between detective and murderer recalls the long gone days where heroic acts trumped villainy, where the unveiling of breathtaking adventures was the only reason for telling a tale of mystery. This is one forgotten book that should never be forgotten. I'd add that it never will be forgotten by anyone who reads it.

Luckily, A Taste for Honey was such a huge success in its time and became something of a cult phenomenon in mystery fiction that is has been reprinted multiple times since its original publication back in 1941. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of copies o in paperback of this little masterpiece offered for sale in the used book market. I'm sure there must be an electronic version by now, too. Go find one and read it...or else!

Friday, August 7, 2015

FFB: Modesty Blaise - Peter O'Donnell

I don't think this really should be considered a forgotten book, but I'm going to write about it all the same. Surely the character cannot be totally forgotten. Peter O'Donnell created Modesty Blaise as a comic strip back in 1963 and the blurb on the back of my reprint edition tells me the strip ran for 38 year and was syndicated in over 40 countries. The first novel didn't appear until 1965 making this year her half century anniversary. And she still looks fabulous! Always will.

I've never read any of the books until a few days ago nor had I even seen the comic strip until I went trolling the internet looking for images to help illustrate this post. But for anyone e who is well versed in spy fiction, adventure novels and, of course, comic strip history Modesty Blaise will never be forgotten. Truly the first successful and extremely popular female superspy (though that is a very loose term as you will soon learn) Modesty served as the template for all other superheroines of her type. There have been plenty of Modesty Blaise knock-offs in genre fiction, but none come close to capturing the best of qualities.

She seems to me to be the female equivalent of Simon Templar since she actually began her life as a thief, engaging in capers with her lieutenant Willie Garvin and together amassing a huge fortune that allowed them to live in luxury. Only when the British Secret Service learn of her enclave known as "the Network" does she become a spy of sorts. Sir Gerald Tennant becomes her liaison with the British government and she and Garvin are called upon to help foil a slew of sadistic and ruthless international criminals in a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories, as well as the comic strip adventures.

At the start of this introductory novel Garvin is in prison in an undisclosed South American country. Modesty infiltrates the compound, single handedly dispatches the guards and sets him free along with the rest of the prisoners. They join forces in Tennant's plan to prevent the theft of a multi-million British pound shipment of diamonds intended as payment for a Middle Eastern sheikh, one of the UK's most respected allies.

Garvin is the gadget expert of the books and he has invented several lethal weapons like an exploding tie tack and a lipstick that releases lethal nerve gas. The scene in which he puts the infernal device hidden in his diamond tie tack is one of the most gruesome in the book. I literally gasped and groaned at what happens to the poor vain sap who is given the tie as a gift. The action scenes are more graphic than I expected. Modesty and Willie are both very adept at martial arts and hand to hand combat. Neither will use a gun unless absolutely necessary. The book is nothing more than set piece after set piece as they do battle with the numerous thugs and villains. Revenge is the motivating factor in many of these violent sequences with the villains intent on killing either Modesty or Willie or both. Our heroine and hero suffer more than their fair share of cuts, stabbings and near broken bones, but the villains get what's coming to them...and then some!

Modesty Blaise was turned into t what I think was a very dull parody of spy movie. Italian actress Monica Vitti wearing a ridiculous number of wigs played the lead impassively alongside Terrence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Some excellent casting in his part at least. The book shows Modesty to be tough, smart, sexy and oddly compassionate in her battle against nefarious master criminals and their army of thugs. But you'd never know that from the movie where she comes off as nothing more than 60s pop culture fashion plate who kicks a lot. For a parody movie Vitti was thoroughly unhumorous in the role. No comedy chops whatsoever. Best stick to the books in order to get to know the real Modesty. I plan to go through the whole series in the coming months. And I'll do it in much more detail next time.

Friday, July 31, 2015

FFB: A Leaven of Malice - Clare Curzon

Zoe Freeman has left her narcissistic lover Clive Gibley and is looking for a place to stay. She ends up being offered a room in the home of Hester Keeble, a nurse whose specialty is caring for patients with end stage disease and terminal illnesses. Later we meet Dan Hammond, a part time assistant undertaker in his uncle’s funeral parlor but who also runs a second hand and antique furniture business of his own. The three of them become involved in a police investigation of the strange death of Estelle Bentall, Zoe’s best friend in her high school days. Strange because Zoe had visions of Estelle’s death the very night it happened. She heard her voice calling out to her and saw a woman’s bare feet suspended in mid-air in her new lodgings. But she dared not tell anyone for fear they would think the worst of her. When she learns that Estelle was found hanged in her kitchen and barefoot Zoe is sure the vision she had was of Estelle. Estelle’s husband is convinced her death is suicide but the police suspect him of murder due to some oddities like evidence of Estelle’s hands being bound with electrical tape.

The case becomes even stranger when Zoe begins to remember a trail of fatal accidents that followed in Estelle’s wake back in their high school days. Anyone who crossed her seemed to suffer a terrible death or in one case succumb to a nervous breakdown. Estelle used to talk of her being raised in the Caribbean by her mambo Adela who often referred to Estelle as having extraordinary powers since she was the child born after her twin brothers. In Haitian folklore this child is referred to as the dossu (or dossa when a girl) and is supposedly blessed with a charmed life and paranormal abilities that are revered by those who believe in such things. In death Estelle still seems to have an eerie influence over both Zoe and her husband Tim. Is it possible that she has become even more powerful now that she is dead?

Clare Curzon’s novel A Leaven of Malice (1979) is one of the more unusual crime novels to incorporate genuine supernatural and psychic events. It starts off with no real mystery other than Hester's work and past life which are teasingly written about in an ambiguous manner. Then the death of Estelle shifts the story into a crime novel with the murder investigation and the uncovering of her sinister past life. Finally, the bizarre events involving a mural Zoe paints on the wall of her room, the visions she has and some psychic connections Hester reveals shift the book once again into the realm of a paranormal thriller. All the while Curzon’s writing is lush and imbued with a gamut of richly felt emotions. It’s miles above the usual lurid potboilers that made up the bulk of the supernatural thrillers that were being churned out in the 1970s.

Nearly all of the characters have some sort of other world encounter in the book with Zoe acting as the catalyst. Hester Keeble has her own secrets in her past which I will not discuss since they are masterfully revealed over the course of this intriguingly told and well plotted story. Ultimately her knowledge will help uncover the truth behind Estelle’s strange powers and she acts as a sort of modern day occult detective educating Zoe in all things paranormal and the dark side of Caribbean voodoo. The finale is quite a shocker and blends an intellectual approach to evil beyond the grave with some action set pieces that rival the best kind of occult detective battling supernatural beings found in the stories of Margery Lawrence’s Miles Pennoyer or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.

Clare Curzon is the best known pseudonym of writer Eileen-Marie Duell Buchanan. She began writing traditional detective stories in the 1960s using the name "Rhona Petrie". Her first book Death in Deakins Wood (1963) was published in both the US and UK to mild acclaim. As Petrie she continued writing a series of books featuring her detective Marcus Maclurg and two mystery novels with Dr. Nassim Pride. She later abandoned that pseudonym and used Marie Buchanan. Under this pen name she wrote a variety of thrillers, some incorporating elements of the detective novel, but all of them dealing with her fascination with occult and psychic phenomena. Greenshards (1972), better known in the US as Anima, is the story of woman possessed by a malevolent spirit and was favorably compared to The Exorcist when it first was published. The Dark Backward (1975) tells of a haunted archeological site near some standing stones and the slow demonic possession of the archeologist obsessed with his findings. A Leaven of Malice is the first book she wrote as "Clare Curzon" and her interest supernatural is still very apparent. Eventually Buchanan focused on straightforward police procedurals and created yet another policeman series character in Supt. Mike Yeadings. It is this series of books for which she is best known, but all too forgotten by most contemporary readers. She died in 2010 at the age 88 having written close to fifty books under four different pen names.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I4 - "Book by an author you've never read before"