Friday, August 15, 2014

FFB: Obit Delayed (1952) - Helen Nielsen

 "Two forces. Interesting speculation indeed. But it had taken a small boy in search of a dog collar to identify the forces and uncover a crime."

Virginia Wales, a waitress in a hash joint in a California-Mexico border town, was a good time girl. Always looking for a laugh, an adventure, one of those "live life to the fullest" women who almost always land themselves in trouble at the expense of a good time. One night someone entered Virginia's hovel of an apartment and bludgeoned her to death with an award she won for jitterbug dancing back in 1937. An ugly crime, and an undeserving end for a woman who never really hurt anyone. But as Mitch Gorman says it was "[a] casual murder that didn't matter because it happened somewhere every night."

Helen Nielsen explores this tawdry, seemingly opportunistic, murder in Obit Delayed (1952), a story that begins as a domestic drama involving a lover's triangle gone wrong. It's a fine example of the detective novel as a character study of the victim. We get to know Virginia Wales, her troubling life masked by the veneer of an extroverted happy-go-lucky persona. She is still hung up on ex-husband and keeps turning to him for help. But as the story progresses Mitch Gorman, a nice example of that detective novel mainstay the reporter sleuth, discovers that it's not Virginia's life that is the key to the solution of the murder.

Mitch Gorman is fascinated by the case. He uncovers a possible connection between Virginia's murder and a drug dealing gangster named Vince Costro. Dave Singer, Costro's lieutenant, had a relationship with the waitress but he is extremely upset over her death belying what he claims was only a casual friendship. Mitch thinks Singer knows who and why Virginia was killed but he's not talking to anyone. When another of Singer's girls, the garrulous gossipy lounge entertainer Rita Royale, turns up dead Mitch is certain the two women got in over their heads in some very nasty business. Business that Costro didn't want revealed. With the addition of these gangster characters the story enters new territory.

Deceptively familiar in its basic plot Obit Delayed is nevertheless a gripping, well told novel of non-discriminatory violence. Nielsen does an admirable job of describing how senseless murder, the fodder of tabloid journalism, can turn even the most cynical and skeptical reporter into a Nemesis of the hapless victim. Aided by society columnist Miss Atterbury (aka "the Duchess"), a smart-alecky colleague who would've been played by Eve Arden had this been a movie, Gorman devotes all his energy to turning a routine police case that might easily lay ignored on a sergeant's desk into a personal campaign for justice.

Multiple copies of the US first edition (Ives Washburn, 1952) and the Dell paperback published two years later will turn up in any internet book search and almost all copies are nicely affordable. The UK edition (Gollancz, 1953) is rather scarce. An eBook version available from Prologue Books. If you are inclined to reading and collecting digital books I suggest you check out their website for a wide variety of vintage crime fiction. Why not start by acquainting yourself with Helen Nielsen's work? You're sure to come back for more after sampling this one.

This book serves as part of Rich Westwood's 1952 Crime Novel Reading Challenge for August and another book knocked off my Bingo card for Bev Hansen's year long Golden Age Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

FOND FAREWELLS: Pleasant Dreams, Mrs. Bogart

While I was mourning the untimely death of Robin Williams yesterday (an event that broke my heart and saddened me for much of the day) something else happened in the entertainment world that nearly passed me by. I just now discover this morning that Lauren Bacall died. Clearly, I'm an entire day behind on the rest of the world.

In tribute to this glamorous actress and all around classy dame, a gallery of stills from some of her better crime related roles and movies.

Slim Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)

The Happy Couple circa 1947

Irene Jansen in Dark Passage (1947)

Lucy Moore Hadley in Written on the Wind (1956)

Mrs. Samson in Harper (1966)

"Harriet Hubbard" in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
(Caroline Hubbard in the book, but doesn't matter. It's an alias)

Sally Ross in The Fan (1981)
The only musical-slasher-stalker movie I know of in existence.
 Dear ol’ James Garner was her co-star. R.I.P. to you too, Rockford.

Lady Westholme in Appointment with Death (1988)
Not the most successful of the Ustinov as Poirot movies by a long shot.
Good night, Mrs. Bogart, wherever you are.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

NEW STUFF: World of Trouble - Ben H Winters

World of Trouble
by Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books
ISBN: 978-1-59474-685-7
316 pp. $14.95
July 15, 2014

Usually I avoid dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. I'm not all that interested in the dark imagination of writers showing human behavior at its most hedonistic and desperate. I live in a chaotic city and I ride public transportation. I get enough of this on a daily basis without the fear of the end of the world literally looming over my head.

Ben H. Winters, however, in his final installment of his "Last Policeman" trilogy has dreamed up a world facing inevitable doom that is plausible in its mix of indulgence and dread. As many readers already know the premise behind this trilogy is Earth's impending collision with asteroid 2011GV1 predicted to strike the planet sometime in October and all of civilization is counting down to that impact date. Over the course of the first two books we have seen towns all across the United States disintegrate in lawlessness and paranoia. But periodically, Winters adds a very human touch in his depiction of this end of the world scenario. Drunks and drug addicts feast on roasted chicken while blaring classic rock until Doomsday.  This is a world where "Bucket List" criminals, fantasists who have always wanted to loot and rape and murder, can now do so without fear of arrest, trial and incarceration.  "Last Call" parties are the trendy way to go out big and those revellers brave enough to take part in one can indulge in one last party cruise before they throw in the towel on Life and allow their cruise director to blow them up at sea. Now there's mass suicide with a twist! Crime and death and traps are omnipresent. And Hank Palace, Winters' last policeman hero, is looking for his sister in this final volume.

In the previous two books Winters was finding both his voice and his way around a new genre.  Though The Last Policeman won an Edgar, and deservedly so for its sheer inventiveness, his work with the structure and tropes of the detective novel were rudimentary and at times very disappointing. In Countdown City, the second book, he abandoned the detective novel format instead opting for an adventure thriller that focussed more on science fiction elements than crime.  Finally, in World of Trouble Winters seems to have found his footing. He treads more assuredly in the land of the detective novel and there are fine touches of retro detection. Palace is forced to resort to the old fashioned methods in this world where the internet has been destroyed and computers and crime labs are useless. He carries with him a magnifying glass and often finds himself examining clues and evidence like the most hackneyed of comic detectives. Yet, in this dystopian world of ravaged shopping malls and citizens armed with high powered rifles a policeman with a magnifying glass is ironically original and inventive.

Ben H. Winters (photo: Quirk Books)
Probably the best parts of the book are when Winters allows Palace long scenes with some of the most endearing yet dangerous supporting characters in the trilogy.  Notable are the young couple living in an RV who befriend Hank Palace and invite him to their daily chicken roast even while pointing automatic rifles at him throughout his visit.  An extended sequence on an Amish farm is the highlight of the book when Hank meets up with Atlee Miller, a man who has stooped to lying and kidnapping to protect his family from the truth of what is in store for the entire planet.
The story itself is the age old cherchez la femme plot with Palace trying to locate his sister and his determination to solve one last mysterious murder and learn the identity of the victim. The plot is well done, the detection is genuine and surprisingly fair play, and there are an ample amount of twists and surprises. World of Trouble was well worth the wait and its reassuring to see a young crime writer returning to the fundamentals of the mystery novel and concocting an intriguing and moving novel of raw human emotion. Often in reading these types of trilogies the reader finds as he progresses to the last volume not satisfaction but a let down in an anticlimactic conclusion. Winters has lived up to the promise of his first award winning novel and has delivered a stunning conclusion that mixes the mystery of crime with the mystery of the human heart. As the characters face the inevitable end one of the most powerful images is that of one human reaching out for the hand of another. Winters reminds us that -- Apocalypse or not -- in the end all we really have is one another.

Friday, August 8, 2014

FFB: Come and Be Killed! - Shelley Smith

Sometime this blog has a confessional tone and today I’m surrendering again to a not-so-whispered admission. The “Badass Biddy” category (a label I invented myself) is my perverse guilty pleasure. This subgenre deals with elderly women plotting malicious crimes and doing in each other with abandon. I’m not sure I want to explore why exactly I get such a kick out of reading these kinds of books (I dearly loved my two grandmothers so don’t even think about going there, Dr. Freud). Let’s just say almost every time I encounter one of these books the characters are so outrageously nasty they fascinate and delight me and the plots are filled with double crossing and the kind of cat-and-mouse mind games that make for a rip roaring read. I’m thoroughly entertained. I’m a little sicko, right? Not really true because sometimes the books go over the top into gross-out gore as in Nigel McCrery’s Still Waters and his sadistic psycho senior citizen murderess Violet Chambers. And for me that is always a turn-off. In the case of Shelley Smith’s novels, however, there is restraint mixed with suspense and a dash of macabre wit. Come and Be Killed! (1946), its ironic title already hinting at the black humor within its pages, is one of the best examples of the Badass Biddy crime novel.

Smith dedicates this novel to her Auntie Annie “who gave me six years of peace during six years of war”. I can’t help but wonder if that too isn’t a bit ironic having completed the book. There is little peace in this book and quite a bit of scheming and battle of the wits between expert poisoner Mrs. Jolly and Phoebe Brown, the actress bent on avenging her foolish sister’s mysterious apparent suicide. There is so much going on in this book I’m hesitant to discuss any of the intricate plot. Smith has structured the book deftly and she manages to shift the tone from satiric novel of manners to psychological portrait of a murderess to a page turning cat-and-mouse thriller.

Come and Be Killed! is divided into three parts. Part one introduces Florence Brown, a whining hypochondriac dependent on her sister Phoebe’s assistance. Phoebe is a self-involved actress of questionable talent and limited success. Florence begs her sister to accompany her on a vacation that a doctor has prescribed for her health. But Phoebe sensing it to be more a plea for money than companionship rejects her and rewards Florence instead with a vacation in a nursing home that is actually a mental institution. When Florence realizes that Phoebe has duped her and sent her to live with crazies she feels even more lonely than ever and is determined to escape. Turns out it’s easier than she could imagine. She simply walks out one day while the staff is preoccupied with a busy outdoor recreation event and soon finds herself at a train station. There she is almost immediately befriended by the solicitous Mrs. Jolly. Florence begs for train fare to help her get back to her sister, but Mrs. Jolly has a better idea. The two women go off together leading to Mrs. Jolly offering her home to Florence. And poor Florence does not live very long in that household. For Mrs. Jolly we soon learn has a habit of knocking off her elderly lady roommates.

In the second part Smith travels back in time and we learn that Mrs. Jolly was born Violet Russell (why are all these badass women named Violet?). This section reveals Violet’s life story and the origin of her murderous inclinations. The finale and third section is the closest to a detective novel if more of the inverted type. Smith continues the story of hapless Florence and her sister. Phoebe is now remorseful over her indifferent treatment to Florence. “We are never kind enough, are we?” she laments. “And the dead remind us bitterly by their absence of lost opportunity.” The actress begins to suspect that her sister’s death was no accident. Fed up with incompetent police work Phoebe manages to track down Mrs. Jolly and, using her skills honed on the stage, play acts and matches wits with the killer in a dangerous and deadly climactic showdown.

Come and Be Killed! has been reprinted twice in the US since its first publication in 1946. Once in a 1940s era digest paperback from Mercury and again forty years later in 1988 by Academy Chicago. In the UK it was reprinted at least three times in paperback, two of those editions are used to illustrate this post. There are multiple copies in both US and UK editions, paperback and hardcover, available at very affordable prices in the used book market as of this writing. If you’re like me and admit to this guilty pleasure or if you like the kind of crime novel where wily characters match wits with one another you’re sure to find Come and Be Killed! a delectable treat. Without hesitation I recommend this finely written, expertly plotted and thoroughly entertaining book.