Thursday, November 20, 2014

FFB: The Killing of Katie Steelstock - Michael Gilbert

I'll have to restrain myself when writing this review.  I'd like to discuss just one aspect of this book at length. But if I did go into great detail then I would reveal one of its most devious parts. I noticed how Michael Gilbert turned his focus away from Superintendent Knott, who is meant to be the protagonist and lead detective, and suddenly spent a lot of time on a supporting character. I thought it a subtle but telling change in point of view. And it's doubly telling for his near genius method of misdirecting the reader while letting us follow this character's actions. Anyone who is looking for a top notch example of a thoroughly contemporary update of the traditional detective novel would do well to find a copy of The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), or as it is published in the UK Death of a Favourite Girl, a much better and suitably ironic title for the story. Gilbert didn't quite fool me, but he pulled off quite a few gasp inducing twists in the final chapters.

At first glance this novel seems to be a routine police procedural with a veritable army of coppers on the case. Scotland Yard, CID, local and area policeman are all enlisted to help solve the bludgeoning death of a local girl who has become sort of a reality TV star of the 1980s. She was well known for being a panelist on "The Seven O'Clock Show", a game show and had made several TV commercials as well. Another story of a local girl who "made it big" in the eyes of her hometown fans. On the surface Katie Steelstock is the "favourite girl." But her brutal death will lead to the truth of who she really was. The routine case becomes extremely involved and will uncover blackmail, suicide, sordid photographs and explode a houseful of skeletons in closets among the townspeople. Turns out the favorite girl was really rather a bad apple. And rotten to the core.

UK 1st edition
(Hodder & Stoughton , 1980)
There are lots of crime novels that tell this story of a victim who appears to be good then turns out to be the opposite, but Gilbert makes his telling utterly fascinating from the get-go. We meet the entire town's population and learn of their relationships while they enjoy themselves at a dance. The young people pair up taking turns on the dance floor while the oldsters sit out on the sidelines watching and gossiping. Secret moonlight trysts take place, we listen in as old hens dish the dirt on the kids and their parents, and slowly realize that this town is seething with pettiness, jealousy and enmity. Something bad is bound to happen.

Lurking in the background is Jonathan Limbery, a volatile and outspoken young man who rants his opinions in a weekly newspaper. When he isn't mouthing off in print he is disrupting church services with his vehement accusations.  Limbery has amassed a following of young schoolboys who admire his rebellious nature and think he can do no wrong. They are eager to defend him when he becomes the prime suspect in the death of Katie. Seems he was not only outspoken in his political diatribes but was a jealous lover as well. The townspeople whisper their own accusations of what goes on in the boys' choir Limbery has organized with his coterie of young admirers.  And it isn't the choice of songs they're worried about.

US first edition (Harper & Row, 1980)
My favorite parts of the book were the contrast between the rural police and the ultra urban but not so urbane Knott whose prejudicial views of country policemen are put to the test when they continue to outperform him during the investigation.  There are obvious biases from both side, but Knott is made to look a fool more than once.  Sgt. McCourt reads up on the use of plaster cast techniques so he can get the tire tracks and footprints at the scene of the crime just right but never lets Knott know.  Sgt. Shilling displays some surprising knowledge of women's cosmetics and deduces that the lipstick and eyeshadow in Katie's handbag can't be her own.  He even goes so far as to sample the shades on the back on his hand like a woman about to get a makeover.  Even quaint period giveaways like the use of a computer to ID a typewriter by its font and taking a matter of minutes rather than weeks got a few smiles from me. The book is filled with nifty touches like these.  Gilbert is constantly finding ways to subvert the reader's expectations and shake up the tired formulas of the standard whodunit.

Gilbert always finds moments of humor amid what turns out to be quite a sordid story of crime and base human indulgences.  Many of the characters have a sharp and biting wit and there are several zingers I could quote but they would fill up pages more on this post. Most surprising to me was a rare and compassionate depiction of a young gay teenager's secret desires and the tragic aftermath that follows a brazen declaration of love.  The Killing of Katie Steelstock is a rarity in crime novels. Satirically funny on one page, a few pages later shocking the reader with descriptions of seamy activities, further on it tugs at your heartstrings or elicits a pang of grief. Gilbert works his way through a gamut of raw human emotion in this very fine novel that works both as a mystery story and a mainstream literary work.  Highly recommended for those with discriminating taste.

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Silver Age Bingo card update: Space I6 - "Book with a woman in the title"

Friday, November 14, 2014

FFB: Murder by the Day - Veronica Parker Johns

In the opening chapter of Murder by the Day (1953) we learn that Mortimer Rutherford, a millionaire with a morbid fear of dying in an inferno, has completely fireproofed his penthouse. How then was he found incinerated in his newly purchased designer armchair? A chair, that like the rest of his home, was most recently treated with a new fireproofing compound he helped develop with a chemist friend. Furthermore, Rutherford's interior designer, Althea Tamblyn (one of the more colorful characters in the book), had also purchased several of those chairs for other tenants in the building. Mysteriously, the chairs keep turning up in the oddest of places. Murder by the Day might well be subtitled The Case of the Flip-Flopped Furniture along the lines of an alliterative Perry Mason title. It's well suited for the Mason series for just like Gardner's obsession with switching guns and bullets in the Mason books Johns has her characters switching and moving those chairs around the Rutherford House apartment complex with the rapidity and deftness of a con man running a shell game.

Mercury Mystery digest paperback (1954)
But it isn't just the bizarre murder method that makes Murder by the Day worth your while. Webster Flagg, ex-performer whose talents on the stage took him from the vaudeville circuit to Shakespearean repertory, is the Rutherford's butler and housekeeper who also is employed by several other residents at Rutherford House. Flagg is the amateur sleuth of our piece, the only actor turned butler turned detective I know of in the genre. Oh, but he's also one of the earliest African American amateur detectives in the genre, too.

Beating out both Ed Lacy's private eye Toussaint Moore who first appeared in 1958 and Chester Himes' policemen who debuted in 1957 Webster Flagg is perhaps the first of the modern amateur black detectives. But unlike Lacy's and Himes' creations you'll find no tough guy demeanor here. Flagg (two G's, please, if you don't want to unduly upset him) is a sixtyish gentleman in every sense of the word, restraining himself with the suavity of Jeeves, reining in his temper and never resorting to harsh words when he's taunted by his mercurial clients. Drawing upon his acting talents and his clever insights into his client's personalities based solely on how messy or tidy they lead their lives he makes for a formidable detective. Johns' characterization of a black servant in a very rich and very white environment makes for some enlightening reading. She makes her point especially in a flashback when Webster has to deal with one of his employer's frequent fits of rage and his repeated use of the "N word". Johns' handling of the scene shows only one of the many reasons that Webster is one of the most dignified and sophisticated of black detectives in the history of crime fiction.

Servant's Problem (1958) 1st US edition
The second and last Webster Flagg mystery
This is a detective novel with all the goods on display. Johns' has a lively writing style with a talent for turning a phrase and incorporating clever wordplay. Sometimes a bit self-consciously clever ("...slip covering herself in a kennel of blue poodles flaunting magenta ribbons") or awkward ("Her second Gibson laced her stays."), nonetheless, her writing is always vibrant and alive, never dull. At times tongue in cheek, but never silly; deadpan serious, but never preachy, as when dealing with the subtle and insidious racism that shows its ugly face at key moments. Her women characters are more colorful than the men ranging from the harried Priscilla Taylor, neglected wife who discovers the body, to the smug and haughty decorator Althea Tamblyn to the dumb blond hick Margie Peters whose naïve country ways are typical of the kind of comic character you get in a crime novel set in urbane Manhattan. Even the temperamental Black Angus, Rutherford's pet cat, gets to shine and provides more than a few clues to the solution of the murder. But this is no cat mystery. Angus has a few scenes of importance and never takes center stage, thank heaven.

Let me not overlook the essential ingredints of any good mystery novel -- the detective work and laying out of clues. There is an abundance of both. A stolen house key, the cat in the dumbwaiter incident, Rutherford's collection of valuable Impressionist and abstract paintings, an ingeniously painted copy of a Cezanne, reading glasses found in a recipe file, and the game of musical chairs in which the furniture moves around in dizzying circles rather than the people are among the numerous puzzling events and clues Webster will deal with as he sorts out fact from fiction in this literal case of in flagrante delicto.

Hush, Gabriel! (1941)  Atlas paperback edition
Johns' first mystery novel featuring Agatha Welch
Not much is known about Veronica Parker Johns other than her writing career. In addition to only five detective novels -- two with a spinster detective named Agatha Welch, one stand-alone mystery, and two with Webster Flagg -- she wrote a non-fiction work about her unusual hobby of collecting sea shells titled aptly enough She Sells Sea Shells. A number of her short stories appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and she is perhaps best known for her story "A Gentleman Caller" which was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour starring Roddy McDowall in the tile role. A review of the second and last Webster Flagg mystery Servant's Problem will be appearing here soon. Stay tuned.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo -- space E2, "Book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title". Another Bingo line! And only four more books left to fill the card.

Friday, November 7, 2014

FFB: Where There's Love, There's Hate - Casares & Ocampo

Los Que Aman, Odian (1946) was the only collaboration between Argentinian writers and husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. It's both a love letter and a send-up to the detective novel. Translated by another collaborative team, Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, this short novel showcases the two writers' fascination with surreal and fantastic events while simultaneously presenting a story of what Ocampo says encompasses her credo: "not to forget what is most important in the world: friendship and love, wisdom and art."

The story is narrated by pompous and smug physician Humberto Huberman who has traveled to a seaside resort called Bosque del Mar to work on a screenplay adaptation of Satryicon.  The egocentric doctor confesses not at all abashedly that he has been commissioned by a film company to write the script. He's a Renaissance man, we learn, but in the worst sense. Huberman is insufferable in the first few pages as he brags about his work, his numerous talents and his tastes in fine art and literature.  He makes allusions to obscure characters from Wilkie Collins, quotes Petronious, and peppers his speech with French. And he hates the detective novel craze with a passion.

It's all tongue in cheek and rather ingenious on the part of the writers to give us a narrator who loathes mystery novels and all the artifice. Dr. Huberman, you see, will become the amateur sleuth of the novel.  In effect his hubris and ego get the better of him. As much as he agrees with Petronious' criticism of a boyhood obsession with pirates and fantastical adventure stories creating a generation of "blockheads" who "neither see nor hear one single thing connected to the usual circumstances of everyday life" and draws analogies to the current fad of detective novels doing the same thing to adults of his own generation he will nevertheless succumb to the detective fever that got the better of Gabriel Betteredge in The Moonstone.

A lover's triangle between two sisters and one man, all guests at the same hotel where Huberman is staying, serves as the fuse setting off tumultuous displays of misplaced love and affection among the hotel's employees and guests. Impassioned arguments between the two sisters, clandestine trysts, amorous advances made in darkened stairwells -- the hotel is a hotbed of desire and sex and eventual murder. Mary Gutierrez, translator of British detective novels into Spanish, is found dead in her room apparently having poisoned herself after a heated argument with her sister Emilia.  Or was the strychnine found in her cup of hot chocolate put there by someone else?

Adolfo Bioy Casares, circa 1940s
Casares and Ocampo have a lot of fun with detective novel tropes. Characters in disguise, a couple of false solutions before the truth is revealed and an abundance of clues all play out in the fast-paced and compactly told story.  The detective novel itself becomes a focus of their story as two police inspectors in an effort to find clues begin to devour a pile of mystery novels found in Mary's room. The cleverest of these clues is the apparent suicide note written by Mary which turns out to be a passage lifted from one of the many books she was working on, a novel by Michael Innes no less! With a nod to Trent's Last Case there are also multiple complications when two characters protect one another believing each committed the murder. Evidence is manufactured and red herrings are strewn about the hotel like confetti at a carnival. Confusion rains down on all but the vainglorious Huberman who makes one insightful observation that leads to the truth and the murderer's identity.

Casares and Ocampo are no stranger to genre fiction. He and his wife were leading practitioners of fantasy, science fiction and magical realist short stories and novels. With his good friend Jorge Luis Borges as partner Casares created the fictional detective Don Isidro Parodi, a sort of parody of Poe's Dupin, who solved puzzling crimes from his jail cell. Casares' best known work is The Invention of Morel, a phantasmagorical novel of identity, illusion and love set in a surreal island paradise.  Ocampo's work is discussed in Levine's informative and teasing introduction. Living in the shadow of her better known and respected sister who founded and owned one of Argentina's most important literary magazines, Silvana wrote short stories that their intimate friend Borges said were imbued with "a strange taste for certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty."  Levine says Ocampo's work is "more perverse" than her husband's and "surreal in the sense of inexplicable." Tantalizing descriptions to me and I'm eager to track down a volume of her stories now.

Silvina Ocampo, circa 1950s
Where There's Love, There's Hate was reissued in English for the first time last year by Meville House Publishing, a Brooklyn based independent press, as part of their Neversink Library.  This imprint line revives a variety of eccentric novels and works of non-fiction from world literature.  Ranging form Charlie Chaplin's autobiography to a Russian novel about a life in a Gulag camp told from a guard dog's point of view (Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov) the series is one of the most impressive collections of overlooked yet pertinent literature to be assembled and reissued by any small press.  Check them out, but most especially make sure to check out this unusual satire of detective novels.

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This counts as my translated book (space E3) in the Golden Age Mystery bingo card reading challenge.  Also, this is the book that inspired me to choose 1946 for Rich Westwood's continuing Reading Challenge in which we all read books published in a particular year.  His post of books read and reviewed will appear at Past Offences at the end of this month when the 1946 Challenge ends.

 

Friday, October 31, 2014

FFB: The Mask of Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer never ceases to amaze me. For a writer who arguably created fiction's most infamous master criminal and indulged in some of the most macabre aspects of sensation and pulp fiction (some have never surpassed him in my opinion) he also managed to use the thriller as his sounding board for his political views. Am I reading too much into this in light of the recent headline making news of the events in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? I don't think so. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) seems exceptionally pertinent now in light of recent world affairs. It gets my vote for one of the earliest thrillers dealing with religious fundamentalism as a platform for terrorist activity.

A British archeological expedition in Iran comes to a halt with the discovery of the murdered body of Dr. Van Berg. The only entrance to his hotel bedroom was the open window thirty feet above ground and yet no ladder could have been used to gain entry without any seen or heard it being done. Adding to the mystery of how the assailant entered the room so swiftly and silently is the aroma of mimosa that pervades the room. A strange nearly intoxicating scent that lingers in the air adding an exotic mystery to the murder scene so typical of Rohmer's books.

Local authorities get word that the expedition is honing in on the site of ancient artifacts belonging to the revered Muslim El Mokanna, known also as "The Veiled Prophet" though someone is quick to point out that this is a misnomer for El Mokanna actually wore a mask. It is the mask, sword and tablets purportedly carrying the text of the New Koran that are thought to be the reason for Van Berg's death.  His murder is viewed as a fatal warning to the crew to stop their digging and searching. Sir Lionel Barton, "the greatest living Orientalist in the Western world", will have none of it. He continues with his work and succeeds in finding those treasures. And then the trouble really begins.

Mask of Fu Manchu is narrated by Shan Greville, Barton's right hand man on the expedition. He is looking forward to ending this project so he and his fiancé can return to London and get married. Anyone who knows anything about books like this immediately knows this love affair will be targeted by the nefarious Fu Manchu and his minions. No sooner does Rima appear but she is threatened and eventually kidnapped. By her own husband to be! Greville himself is abducted when he is tricked into following a figure wearing what appears to be El Mokanna's mask. Turns out it's Fu Manchu's deadly and beautiful daughter Fah Lo Sueee. Greville meets up with Fu Manchu, is restrained by some dangerous African servants, and drugged with one of Rohmer's ubiquitous mind controlling opiates. A drug distilled from the seeds of the mimosa pudica has been used to anesthetize Greville which he quickly associates with the botanical aroma back at the murder scene. We also learn that Fu Manchu has been preparing an elixir of life derived from a rare Burmese orchid. An essential oil created from the flower is the secret ingredient in the formula that has prolonged his life and bestowed an ageless appearance.

You can only marvel at the sheer excess of this story. Fu Manchu is once again aided by a veritable army of Asians, Africans and Muslims all with athletic agility and superhuman strength. In addition to an array of exotic poisons and mind controlling drugs there is a super strong cord created from spider silk that is used as a weapon, a restraint and as means of travelling between the balconies and rooftops of high-storied buildings. Did Stan Lee read these books, too? You can't help but think of Peter Parker's inventions when you get to this part.

Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, of course, make an appearance and are on hand to save the day as they do battle with their perennial nemesis. The story travels from Iran to Cairo to the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza where another impossible event occurs. From Egypt our intrepid band travel via ocean liner back to London where the climax reveals Fu Manchu's real plans for world domination using his duped zealous followers of El Mokanna.



I haven't read a more breathtaking, high speed chase, action thriller like this in a long time. It's no wonder the wizards of Hollywood were continually drawn to these books as a source for the good ol' fashioned cliffhanger serials of the past. Oddly, the movie version of The Mask of Fu Manchu is even more over-the-top than the book. Gone is all of the religion and quasi-politics. The emphasis is not on zealotry and the dangers of blind faith and how easily it is manipulated for ill purposes. Instead the mask and tomb belong to Ghengis Khan and we get an abundance of pulp thriller trappings as indomitable Boris Karloff and ethereally gorgeous Myrna Loy, portraying the evil father and daughter, play havoc with out heroes lives and threaten world peace. Rohmer's love of botanical poisons and drugs are not surprisingly replaced with an arsenal of venomous creatures. Too strange is the torture sequence in which we watch handsome and rugged Charles Starrett as Greville (renamed Terence Granville in the movie) stripped naked and strapped to a table while Karloff looking like an insane surgeon in his mask, gown, and gloves subjects his victim to injections taken from giant spiders and snakes. And Greville isn't the only victim. The entire band of archeologists is captured and restrained in a variety of old movie torture devices from spiked moving walls to a pit of alligators.

As of March 2014 Titan Books has now reprinted eleven of the thirteen Fu Manchu books. Luckily, The Mask of Fu Manchu is one they chose to include. It's available in paperback from most retailers in the UK and US. For those who prefer the older editions, you can find multiple copies of the many US and UK vintage paperbacks available through the used book market, usually for sale at $7 or less per copy. This book review serves as my contribution to the "1932 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Rich Westwood. Visit his blog Past Offences to read more posts on books others found of interest from this exceptional vintage year.