Friday, October 17, 2014

FFB: The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte

Since I've returned to the original purpose of this blog -- reporting on obscure and utterly forgotten writers of popular genre fiction -- I've been combing my shelves for books I've owned for years but never gotten around to reading. Charles Forsyte is one of those writers. Often these long overdue yield multiple rewards. In the case of Forsyte both the books and the discovery of who he really was made for some fascinating reading. I initially purchased two of his books because they fall into the "impossible crime" category. I'm glad to eprot that both can hold their own against the best of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of this favorite subgenre. Forsyte it turns out was not one but two people -- a husband and wife writing team. Gordon Philo, the husband, was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. All of which are skills and talents that he puts to good use in his ingenious detective novels.

Forsyte's series character is Inspector Richard Left, one of the humanist policeman detectives of fiction who knows his police procedure but is more apt to rely on his keen understanding of human nature to help him solve the baffling murders he encounters. In his first adventure, Diplomatic Death (1961) he is sent by Scotland Yard to the British embassy in Istanbul to help sort out the puzzling murder and eventual disappearance of the British consul stationed there. He was found in his locked office and only minutes later the corpse vanished without a trace. Left must discover who killed the man and why and how the body disappeared from a locked office without anyone seeing it done. Like Ellery Queen's infamous The Greek Coffin Mystery, a classic detective novel with multiple solutions and one egregious error on the part of Queen, Left comes up with a variety of solutions to the crime and makes an assumption that proves to be his biggest mistake. The solution to this impossible crime is simple and surprising and perhaps obvious to the most astute reader. But the story is told with elegance and wit and carried off with panache. It's a fine debut which made me want to read more by Forsyte.

This debut novel has a lot in common with many of the great writers of the Golden Age. When Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Queen and Christie. A more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson whose impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks. The murder victim Left learns had an eclectic taste in reading and finds among the books in his office library a copy of The Life of Houdini and a few books by Agatha Christie. Left himself is fascinated with magic since he was a boy, a hobby he shares with his creator Gordon Philo. Similarly, the skill with which the plot is developed and the sprinkling of unusual clues harkens back to the old-fashioned puzzle mysteries of days gone by. Left will finally come to the final and actual solution to the mystery based on three bizarre elements -- a golf ball left on the victims' desk, the Houdini book, and one witness' remembering at the eleventh hour the rigidity in the murder victim's right arm as they checked him for signs of life.

Left appears again in Dive into Danger (1962), originally published in the UK as Diving Death. This time we find Left on vacation in the south of France where he meets his old archeologist pal Sir Paul Pallet. They catch up on old times and Left inquires of Pallet about a yacht called the Knossos that has been moored close to his hotel. Pallet tells him on board are a group of amateur underwater archeologists digging around the ocean floor. He scoffs at the idea of "underwater archeology" as his life's work is one of precision and meticulous time consuming labor. With no real control in an underwater dig site the potential for disaster is far greater. Dermot Wilson, a millionaire playboy with a lot of money to throw around, is nothing more than a treasure hunter. Wilson is looking for proof that an ancient Greek shipwreck will turn up valuable antiquities, statues and artwork. Pallet ridicules the idea. After all these years they'll be lucky to turn up a couple of broken amphora let alone a "valuable statue."

Left manages to get invited to tag along with the next day's dive. He meets the crew made up of Wilson and his girlfriend, a former military frogman, two professional archeologists, and a secretary on holiday who befriended one of the archeologists. The day goes horrible wrong however, when one of the team seems to have lost consciousness underwater. They drag the body clad in its scuba gear out of the water only to discover that it's the millionaire; a harpoon from a speargun is impaled in his chest. Left sees it as a sort of underwater locked room murder. Soon his vacation has turned into a policeman's holiday as Left finds himself teaming up with local French inspector Philipp Lapointe, learning the fundamentals of scuba diving, and uncovering a murder plot that reveals three previous attempts on Dermot Wilson's life. Why was he so hated and why kill him underwater? As the investigation progresses Left learns that Wilson was a blackmailer of the worst sort who made a lot of enemies and that everyone on board the Knossos had a reason to want Wilson dead.

Forstye's other books include a third detective novel with Inspector Left Double Death (which I have so far been unable to find) and one non-series pursuit thriller with detective novel elements called Murder with Minarets in which the authors return to Turkey. Perhaps the most interesting of all his crime fiction books is The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980). Primarily a literary analysis and history of the numerous writers' attempts from late Victorian era to the 20th century to complete Dicken's unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Philo puts his novelists skills to test in the end by adding his own solution. It is this book for which Philo is best known overshadowing his earlier fine work as a novelist. These first examples of modern day impossible crime mysteries should earn him a place in the Detective Novelist Hall of Fame. They really are that good.

Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky Galsworthy (distant relation to writer John Galsworthy whose "Forsyte Saga" novels inspired their pseudonym) wrote only four murder mysteries in tandem. For a brief overview of Philo's life as an amateur magician and an encapsulation of his life as World War 2 veteran, ex-secret agent in the British intelligence service, and his life as a diplomat in Viet Nam see this fascinating post at the blog "The Ephemeral Collector". Devotees of the use of stage magic in detective novels and locked room fans will find a lot to enjoy and admire in these books about Inspector Left, one of mysterydom's decidedly Neglected Detectives from an undeservedly forgotten but damned good writer.

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)

Friday, October 10, 2014

FFB: Nightmare Cottage - G. M. Wilson

UK 1st edition (Robert Hale, 1963)
"The chilling story of a house that harbored a deadly secret..." is the catch phrase used to market the only paperback edition (see scan below) of Nightmare Cottage (1963). Makes it sound like one of those woman in her nightie Gothic suspense novels. It's not. It's one of G. M. Wilson's many detective novels blending psychic and supernatural events in the context of a murder mystery.

Wilson's series character Miss Purdy (so far I haven't been able to discover her first name) is a mystery writer herself and has a habit of encountering bizarre and inexplicable events that usually end up with someone being murdered. This time she meets an eccentric old woman named Miss Bessiter while both are traveling on a bus tour making stops at the churches and old buildings in Norfolk. Miss Bessiter drops into a faint after looking out the bus window and seeing a house that she has been dreaming of repeatedly.

In her dreams Miss Bessiter enters the house and has made so many frequent tours that she has memorized the placement of each piece of furniture and knicknack on the fireplace mantel. She can describe the patterns in the carpets and wallpaper and  even remarks on the feel of the polished bannisters. She rhapsodizes about the house to Miss Purdy and confesses a desire to go back and visit it to see if it is the same house in her dreams. Miss Bessiter is sure the house holds the key to her cloudy past. Soon we learn she is an orphan and for all her life she has been trying to learn the identity of her real parents and any living relatives.

Pulls Ferry, Norwich
Probably the most famous tourist site in Norfolk
But the next day Miss Bessiter is found dead in her hotel room. The doctor rules it a natural death brought on by the shock of the previous day. Suspecting all is not right Miss Purdy begins asking questions. She starts with a visit to the troublesome cottage of Miss Bessiter's dreams. When she steps inside she finds it matches word for word the detailed descriptions Miss Bessiter gave her of the dream house interior. Can it be a coincidence? She further learns Miss Bessiter managed to visit the cottage as she had planned. But the current occupants are unwilling to discuss that visit. In her exploration of the house Miss Purdy discovers a cursed room, one that the current owners avoid for it was the scene of an accidental death by gas poisoning and it seems anyone who enters the room begins to suffer strange visions and is overcome with fear, not to mention a powerful nausea.

UK 1st paperback (Digit Books, 1964)
When it is determined that Miss Bessiter's death was due to an overdose of digitalis the police are brought in. Miss Purdy joins forces with her usual policeman cohort Inspector Lovick and together they uncover a trunkful of family secrets, learn the real identity of Miss Bessiter and her connection to Nightmare Cottage. They also uncover a devilish scheme to preserve a family's reputation and their fortune that leads one person to commit murder more than once.

The story unfolds with skillful potting, a good dose of fair play clueing and a handful of nifty tricks and twists. Wilson's love of the Norfolk countryside (her home for many years) plays out in colorful descriptions of the land and architecture as well as a few historical tidbits. Her talent for creating interesting often eccentric characters is put to good display in this strong entry in an often uneven series of detective novels featuring Purdy and Lovick. If you like a mix of the spooky and the gritty and don't mind a bit of ambiguity in the explanations of the uncanny events revealed at the story's end G.M. Wilson's mysteries are a smart alternative to the paranormal nonsense littered with vampires, werewolves and zombies found in contemporary supernatural mysteries.

Wilson's books are unfortunately rather hard to find in the US. Only three titles were published over here with the bulk of her books published only in her native England by Robert Hale Ltd. Added to the difficulty in finding used copies is the fact her books were rarely reprinted in paperback editions. Of those in paperback (all from Digit Books, an imprint of Brown & Watson) the three titles I've read are all worthy of your attention. She's one of the better mystery writers who blends supernatural and detection and makes it all work rather well. Her plotting came sometimes attain the exquisite simplicity coupled with baffling incidents found in the work of Christie or Brand or McCloy. More about Miss Purdy and Inspector Lovick coming next week when I discuss four other books in the series.

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I'm picking off a handful of squares on my Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card this month. This book fulfills space L1, the "Spooky title" book.

Friday, October 3, 2014

FFB: Poison Is a Bitter Brew - Anne Hocking

When Doubleday's Crime Club decided to market the books of British mystery writer Anne Hocking they chose to draw attention to her literary quality rather than the plot of her books. Her first book published in the US, Deadly Is the Evil Tongue, had this unusual disclaimer on the DJ front flap: "...if you want blood and thunder, guns roaring and daggers dripping gore, don't read this book." (The italics are theirs.) They went on to discuss what wasn't in the book rather than what was and that Hocking would appeal to the reader who is "truly discriminating...who prefers finesse to fury." The same might be said of her second book to be published in the US Poison Is a Bitter Brew (1941). Not only did Doubleday draw attention to Hocking's consummate finesse in storytelling they changed the original pedestrian, far from enticing title of Miss Milverton to one that would clue a prospective reader to the Borgia-like proceedings within.

Anne Hocking is another of the many second tier mystery writers who, when she put her mind to it, could concoct a murder tale populated with fascinating characters and perplexing events without a shred of fanciful gadgets, quirky antics from an eccentric detective or any other froth that tends to make a lot of people turn away from detective novels of the early 20th century. Poison is A Bitter Brew is one smart, calculating and thoroughly engrossing story.

All this came as a surprise to me because the plot sounded very run-of-the-mill. At the heart of the story you have your basic "Who killed the heirs?" tale and one in which money seems to be the underlying motive for a series of poisoning deaths. But which death is an accident and which is murder? And could one of them actually be a suicide? This is all left up to Chief Inspector William Austen to discover as he infiltrates the repressed household of Augusta Milverton and her odd group of relatives. There is a restrictive legacy attached to the Milverton estate and Augusta is forced to deal with its misogynistic instructions from her long dead, woman-hating father. The Milverton money can only be passed down through the male lineage as outlined in her father's will and Augusta, one of these familiar "spinster for life" women we encounter in detective fiction, is not happy with the group of nephews who are her immediate relatives nor how they line up in their chronology. Charles Temple, the youngest, least responsible yet the most appealing of the nephews is her favorite. She would like him to be the primary legatee but cannot change her will thanks to the legal entanglements created by her father. She is stuck with the philandering dullard George Hayle, the oldest and first in line to her fortune followed by the asexual and aloof Osbert Garstin. Neither earn much respect or affection from Augusta.

When the nephews start dying from mysterious causes, possibly poisoned, the immediate suspect is Charles Temple. But no one in the household nor the town can believe such a likable young man, so full of life and personality and good humor would ever contemplate murder. Augusta refuses to believe her favorite nephew would dare harm anyone. she reminds Inspector Austen that Charles is much too preoccupied with his current love affair with wealthy vivacious Anstice Castle whose father is making Charles' proposed marriage plans very difficult. He needs to come up with an income to match Anstice's exorbitant lifestyle before her father will consent to anyone marrying her. A watercolor artist with barely £500 per month to his name is hardly a desirable son-in-law. Mr. Castle sees Charles as nothing but a fortune hunter. And the police think this may not be too far from the truth.

It's all very familiar, isn't it? Hundreds of detective novels have been written revolving around this timeworn plot. But Hocking makes the story immensely readable. The characters are so well drawn from the usual garrulous and devoted servant Tamsin, who knows all and intuits more, to the central character of imperious Augusta Milverton. Even Austen has some traits that raise him out of the middle ground of second rate detectives. Hocking who comes from a literary family also has fun with literary allusions. The characters quote from poetry and literature, there are references to detective fiction with Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey name-dropped at two key points. One notable highlight: Austen lectures his cohort Sergeant Pendarvis on the merits of reading detective fiction. He says the books remind him of what many policemen tend to forget is key to crime solving -- "the insistence on the importance of the human factor." Hocking believes this wholeheartedly as well. As the story progresses in Poison Is a Bitter Brew Hocking increasingly focusses on the complexity of the "murderer personality" as she has Austen call it. He comes to the astonishing conclusion based on evidence and circumstance that there are most likely two killers in the house, both of whom share a similar psychological make-up. Family devotion takes on a far serious note and characters flittering about in the shadows will advance to center stage in an eyebrow raising denouement that mixes justice with sorrow.

Anne Hocking's books were mostly published in the UK with a only a few titles receiving US editions. Of all her books Poison is A Bitter Brew seems to be the most easily found. It's the first book I've read of hers and according to her bibliography the third of her detective novels featuring Inspector Austen. Though on the surface it may appear to be a tale all too often told in Hocking's capable hands this story of money and love, greed and desire, is carried off with panache and grace.

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I've knocked another title off my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card. This one fits space O5 - "Method of murder in the title". Trying to get this card filled by October 15. Think I can do it?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

1958: The Real Cool Killers - Chester Himes

US first edition (Avon, 1959)
"The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books."

-- Chester Himes in The Several Lives of Chester Himes (Univ Press of Mississippi, 1997)

I wonder if Chester Himes would be at all surprised that the world he created, one he insisted was not at all a real depiction of Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, has manifested itself as something all too real in the 21st century. Gangs of teenage thugs now flourish more than ever, shootings have become almost a daily occurrence, and indifference for human life and disrespect for any kind of authority trumps all civil behavior.  These are the kinds of events and symptoms of Harlem that Himes held up to ridicule.  His gang of teenagers who call themselves The Real Cool Moslems" dress up in robes and turbans pretending to be Arabs.  People are routinely murdered just so a new gun can be tried out. Young girls allow themselves to be humiliated and insulted just so they will be paid attention to by boys.  I guess it was funny almost fifty years ago.  I just kind of shook my head at how things haven't changed at all.

The Real Cool Killers (first published in France as Il Pleut des Coups Durs in 1958) are anything but cool. The gang Himes creates is made up of a ragtag bunch of bored teenagers led by an arrogant kid calling himself Sheik who taunts and insults everyone around him. A little man in the ghetto who becomes a big man when he has a zip gun or a knife in his hand. Shedding their ghetto identities as they don their ludicrous outfits the "Moslems" all prefer to go by ridiculous nicknames in an attempt to further escape into a world of their own fashioning. The Sheik surrounds himself with an army of sycophants called Choo-Choo, Inky, Camel Mouth, Slow Motion and Punkin Head. Their girls are Sissie, Good Booty and Sugartit. Sugartit turns out to be Evelyn Johnson, daughter to Coffin Ed Johnson, one of the two Harlem policemen who are Himes' series characters. Johnson's partner is Grave Digger Jones whose first name is not revealed in this book. I wonder if it ever is. The two are not your typical policemen and make a strong contrast to the uptight rule-following white cops who are their colleagues and superiors.

The opening of The Real Cool Killers is a whopper. Within the first four pages a barroom brawl breaks out replete with knife attack, a couple of shootings and a hand dismemberment by a very angry ax-wielding bartender. The police are called in when a white man ends up shot.

UK reprint (Allison & Busby, 1985)
Coffin Ed it turns out is still getting over an attack that left his face a ruinous horror. Some punk threw acid on him and he's understandably very touchy about anyone throwing any type of liquid at him again.  When he beats one of the gang members after a a bottle of perfume is thrown at him he is suspended from duty and disappears for the remainder of the book. We are left with Grave Digger Jones, even more intolerant of the inhabitants of Harlem who he finds to be an ignorant bunch of brutes and savages.  He loses his patience, frequently exploding in violence, slapping and beating the gang members when he gets nothing from them but feigned ignorance of the shooting and violence at the bar, loads of lies peppered with plenty of swearing.  The word "mother-raper" appears on nearly every page and I'm sure it was a toned down version of more commonly used slang of the real Harlem.

Grave Digger receives little help from his fellow cops while Coffin Ed is out of commission. He is left to his wits and his brawn in trying to figure out how a white man ended up shot dead when the only gun on the scene can only fire blanks. It's sort of an impossible crime in the setting of a hardboiled -- very hardboiled -- crime novel. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Even more surprising were the characters who at first seem like cartoonish caricatures and stereotypes leftover from an Octavus Roy Cohen comic novel. As the book progresses. however, it is clear that Himes is using these very real stereotypical characters as foils for his intolerance for the "anything goes" lifestyle of the ghetto. His Harlem is filled with people who in order to have any decent life will use and manipulate anyone and everything. Morality goes out the window, crime is almost second nature to some of them. As Grave Digger says to one of the superior white characters: "If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are safe." Grave Digger will not abide pretense of any sort.  Both he and Coffin Ed tell it like it is.

French paperback reprint (circa mid 1970s)
Himes never really set out to write crime fiction. While living in his self-imposed exile in France along with other Harlem expatriate writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright he was approached by publisher Marcel Duhamel who was championing the publication of American crime fiction in French translation, specifically that of the hard boiled school. Himes confessed he hadn't a clue how he was going to write a hardboiled novel and Duhamel told him it was simple: begin with a bizarre incident and then imitate the writing of Hammett and Chandler. You can't fault him for following that bit of advice. Himes has been compared to those two kings of hardboiled crime, but I'd say his real influence is the most hardboiled writer of all -- Carroll John Daly.  Himes himself has confessed that Daly's stories were a big draw for him when he was addicted to reading pulp magazines while in prison during the late 1940s.

All of Himes' books, both his crime novels and his other mainstream fiction, are readily available in a variety of reprint editions. The 1950s and 1960s paperback originals from Avon tend to be priced extravagantly these days due to his new place of honor in the Crime Fiction Hall of Fame. In looking for images of the first edition Avon paperback I saw prices ranging from $16 for a reading copy to $75 for a VG+ copy. If you spent that kind of money on a nearly pristine copy you'd probably never want to open the darn thing.