Thursday, March 31, 2011

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Maria Black, M.A.

John Russell Fearn was a prolific science fiction and detective story writer who penned numerous books under a variety of strange pseudonyms each name signaling the genre in which he was working: Hugo Blayn, Spike Gordon and Dennis Clive for crime thrillers; Volstad Gridban, Vargo Statten, and Thornton Ayre for sci-fi pulp; John Slate for the detective novels featuring Maria Black; and many others. In some cases he blended sci-fi elements or, more accurately, scientific detection into his mystery novels.

After several years of languishing in the limbo of out-of-printdom nearly all of Fearn's books have been reprinted, albeit in large print format. They can be found as part of the Linford Mystery Library, published by F.A. Thorpe in England. Luckily, the books are now being reissued under Fearn's real name. The publisher along with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor, did a remarkable job of gleaning the detective and crime fiction from of the purely sci-fi works. Though there are still a few detective novels which blend both genres and defy categorization as one or the other.

Maria Marches On is the second book in the Maria Black series written under the "John Slate" pseudonym. Slate’s mysteries featuring this headmistress of a Rosewell College for Young Ladies school border on the scientific detective category but only barely so. This one is also a quasi-impossible crime, a subgenre of the detective novel that Fearn dabbled in almost as much as John Dickson Carr, Clyde Clason and Anthony Wynne. Unfortunately, Slate’s mysteries are fairly transparent from the get-go and some of the murderers are fairly obvious by around the midpoint of the book. His clues are not well hidden in his descriptive passages. On the contrary -- they stick out like sore thumbs. The reader keeps waiting for some character other than Black to notice them. Still, there is no dismissing the telling of the story and his intricate plots. Fearn can write an entertaining tale despite his faults in construction and misdirection.

Maria Black is a colorfully drawn, imaginatively realized character. She holds the reader’s interest and carries each story to its satisfying conclusion. A no-nonsense, tough woman with a near perverse interest in the criminal mind, Black has a mathematics background (she teaches the subject at her school) but is also well versed in physical sciences, notably biology and chemistry. She will often do a little research to fill in gaps in her knowledge or even dabble in experiments in the school lab to prove her theories.

In Maria Marches On she investigates the hanging death of a newly enrolled student who was found dead in a clearing in the woods outside the school grounds. Nearby, two schoolmates are discovered unconscious and barefoot lying next to the tree where the body is strung up. The method of the crime is what’s most puzzling, the criminal is not. The quasi-impossible aspect is that the ground surrounding the victims (both dead and unconscious) shows no sign of being trampled and gives the appearance that the killer escaped into the air or climbed into the trees. A subplot involves a formula for a secret explosive that has been tattooed onto the dead girl’s arm using an ink visible only under ultraviolet light.

Other books in the Maria Black series also feature impossible crimes. The first book in the series, Black Maria, M.A., is a locked room mystery in which she travels to America to solve the murder of her own brother. One Who Remained Seated deals with a man found stabbed in a movie theater yet no one was sitting or seen anywhere near him. The corpse in Thy Arm Alone is found burnt to a crisp in a convertible automobile on a lonely road in the countryside. The car is not damaged at all, but the man's face is destroyed and most of his upper body has suffered extreme burns. The killing in Thy Arm Alone is one of the most bizarrely executed and ingeniously planned murders in all of detective fiction. I have yet to read a book employing the same murder method. It is unusual and imaginative ideas like this that make the Maria Black books worth tracking down and reading.

The Maria Black Detective Novels
Black Maria, M.A. (1944)
Maria Marches On (1945)
One Remained Seated (1946)
Thy Arm Alone (1947)
Framed in Guilt (1948)
Death in Silhouette (1950)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind - Michael Fessier

John Connolly, author of the crime novels featuring Irish detective Charlie Parker, once said that he prefers the American term "mystery novel" to describe his books rather than the term "crime novel." He explains it this way:
I know that books have to be filed in some kind of order, but it raises larger questions about the limitations imposed on writers and what they do. For that reason, I tend to like the use of the term "mystery" to describe my books, instead of "crime" or "detective fiction." If you go right back to the roots of the word, a mystery is a revelation from God that can't be understood by human reasoning alone. From the very beginning, it has its origins in the divine and the supernatural.
In that regard the term mystery is perfectly suited for Michael Fessier's very odd novel, a book that I think truly defies categorization. It's mysterious aspects have earned it the quadruple labels of mystery, horror, science fiction and fantasy depending on who happens to be writing about the book. But I think mystery as Connolly uses the word best defines Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind. So much of what happens in the book is never explained. For 1934 this was particularly daring and I liked it all the more for that. Some readers, however, may be angered or frustrated by a story that leaves so much open for interpretation.

The novel opens with a murder and will include two more violent deaths by the time the story ends but I hesitate to call it a crime novel. There is no real investigation of the crimes – we know from the outset who the killer is so it's not a detective novel at all. There is the menacing presence of the little old man who seems to have some unearthly power over all of the characters in the books and this often earns the book recognition as a horror novel if you read him as a supernatural being or as a science fiction novel if your prefer him as extra-terrestrial. Then there is Trelia, the strange child-like woman who swims naked in the lake in Golden Gate Park, who is jokingly referred to as a water nymph by the narrator, John Price. By midpoint in the book one begins to think that she too is some sort of supernatural being and just may be a water nymph. Check off fantasy on your scorecard. There are the odd paintings that Laurence Dorgan creates - portraits of both the old man and Trelia - which capture their soullessness and non-human qualities that also reinforce the argument that the novel is a work of fantasy but at the same time reminded me of the horrific portrait in the The Picture of Dorian Gray. Easily it can be all these things - horror, fantasy and science fiction-  at all at once.  Yet with all these elements I still assert that the book is a true mystery. A medieval mystery, almost. Definitely a mystery of the human soul.

The book has a deceptively simple structure: much of the dialog is a kind of 30s working class vernacular, the prose sentences are short, the vocabulary is unencumbered. But the story in its telling is rich in detail and compelling in its unadorned directness. The more I read the more I found it was closer to a medieval allegory or even a fairy tale than any other type of fiction. Like the Grimm fairy tales it is dark, menacing story, the characters are filled with dread yet also there is a love story aspect to it that is found in the French fairy tales of Perrault. The only female character (Trelia) is a naïve child-like thing almost alien to adult human emotion. The villain – the unnamed little old man who manages to appear magically without anyone ever seeing him enter a room – is more of a malevolent force than a person. Like a fairy tale monster he has eyes that glitter green with intensity. Those eyes have the power to render any human who dares to hold his gaze utterly helpless. The other characters often describe the little old man in reptilian terms:
Dorgan says: "Him slipping in like that's just about as pleasant as finding a cobra in your bed."

George the bartender says: "When his eyes go green on me I have the same feeling I had once when I come face to face with a rattlesnake raised up on his hind end and snapping his fangs at me."
When Price is framed for one of the little old man's savage and cunningly perpetrated murders he is at the mercy of a brutal and blind police force.  The book takes a yet another genre bending turn into hardboiled territory with corrupt and sadistic cops relentlessly beating a confession out of Price and pummeling his friend Dorgan the painter as well.  They revel in their power and laugh at Price when he dares to point out their lawless behavior in the interrogation room.  In a scene that sadly echoes what is going on in many a Chicago police station one of the cops says:

"Listen smart guy, [...] if you are innocent I wouldn't get any more done to me for hitting you twice that I would for hitting you just once.  Shut your trap or I'll give you these."
His red knuckles were wagging within an inch of my nose.
"And besides I think you're guilty and for two cents I'd sock you whether you said anything or not."
And that's towards the end of Price's nightmare. Things do get worse for him and his pal Dorgan. His meeting the little old man brings nothing but bad luck to him and all the people he knows.  In Grimm fairy tale fashion only true love will save him from execution.

I'd been looking for a copy of this book for years. On my recent vacation to New Mexico I was extraordinarily lucky (in a suitably supernatural book hunting experience) to come across the first edition in superior condition for an incredibly cheap price. I grabbed it off the shelf greedily and let out a near ecstatic gasp along with a whispered "Oh my God!" I couldn't wait to start reading it.

The book can be read in almost one sitting due to its short sentences and speedy pace, but I lingered over it for a few days. I was hypnotized by its surreal and eerie story. I let the mystery of it all wash over me. It's one of those books that can affect readers in so many different ways. Some find it horrifying, some find it very funny, some find it irritating.  I found it sublimely mysterious and fantastically satisfying. It's a book I won't forget for some time.

NOTE FOR COLLECTORS:  The book is more easily found in the Lion Library paperback. Often it runs between $15 and $20 on the internet sites. Sometimes a cheaply priced copy will turn up in a used bookstore. I suggest you snap up the first copy you encounter. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

NEW STUFF: India Black

How can you not want to read a book that begins with these two sentences:

My name is India Black. I am a whore.

I had to continue and I'm glad I did.

India Black runs Lotus House a brothel in late 19th century London. Her Tennyson allusion probably goes over the heads of many of her employees but perhaps not too many of the clients who frequent the brothel. Most of the men who call on the bints of Lotus House are prominent men in London society and probably well read enough to know Tennyson's "The Lotus Eaters" and certainly smart enough to know that they will "smile in secret" while, if not "looking over wasting lands," enjoying untold pleasures. One night one of those secret smiling indulgers turns up dead in bed. When India learns he's a prominent member of Parliament she wants to get the corpse out of the house before the nosey journalists get wind of it. She recruits Vincent, a local street urchin (who will play a large supporting role in the adventures to come), to help dump the body in an alley. But she is observed doing so by the mysterious French, a secret service agent, who knows an awful lot about her and blackmails her into taking part in an outrageous scheme.

While the book is marketed as a mystery it is in fact more of an adventure novel with a typical spies in pursuit plot. I was reminded of classic films like The Thirty Nine Steps, North by Northwest and other "chase the Macguffin" type stories that Hitchcock did so well. The book is extremely cinematic with lots of fist fights, chases in horse drawn carriages, ledge climbing and other feats of derring do that would make a stuntman drool in anticipation of a casting call.

In this instance the Macguffin is a case with valuable documents. In the wrong hands the documents could not only embarrass the British Empire but bring it to its knees for they reveal that the British army is sorely under-manned, under-equipped, under-trained. India and French must retrieve the documents but they are already in the hands of a Russian count. The story consists of a series of action-packed incidents in which French and India do their best to recover the documents before any harm can come to Turkey or England.

This is a hip historical mystery that mixes a 19th century setting with a 21st century sense of humor. It's an interesting blend - one that reminded me of Lindsey Davis' similar use of contemporary humor in her ancient Rome mysteries featuring Marcus Falco. Usually I'm put off by this mixing of eras but somehow it works in this story.

India Black is an opinionated, sassy pistol-packing mama. Her weapon of choice: a Webley Bulldog. (go here for more about the gun) When no gun is handy she's not afraid to use her fists. French is typical of the leading men of this genre probably a bit too mysterious and sketchily drawn for some readers. I didn't mind this. He's also teasingly presented as a romantic lead who never lives up his promise. Yet I never got that India really wants anything to do with him as other readers seem to have imagined based on the several other reviews I read for this book. In fact the only real action in that arena is between two women! In the context of the story the scene is pretty funny and a little bit creepy considering why the girl-on-girl action was ordered. But it's hardly offensive or laughable in a derisive way.

My only quibbles with the book are the tendency for India to comment on the action before it occurs (in that gentle reader kind of thing George Eliot liked to indulge in) or comment on it after it's already happened. Let the action speak for itself is a cardinal rule for any fiction writer. The only explaining we need is of the mystery (if there is any) at the end of the book. I'm all for knowing how a character thinks or feels but I don't like to read about an interpretation of something that already occurred. India also has a habit of making lengthy parenthetical comments that give the book a chatty modern tone that doesn't really serve the period well. (I should talk, right?) But these are only minor gripes and I recognize them to be personal pet peeves that crop up in all the books I read.

India Black grew on me. I was both surprised and delighted to find that I really liked her by the end of her rollicking adventure. I'm looking forward to the second book. Carol Carr tells us at her blog to expect it sometime next year.

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This is my second entry for the Color Coded Reading Challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. If you like reading contests jump on the bandwagon, friend!  Click here to get the scoop and the rules.

FOND FAREWELLS: H. R. F. Keating (1926 - 2011)



Doug Greene posted the news at the Golden Age Detection Forum at Yahoo.com. that H.R.F. Keating, creator of the irrepressible Inspector Ganesh Ghote, died March 28., that should be Saturday March 27.  There are already several brief tributes and remembrances of the man who was by all accounts a warm and generous fellow.  His photos certainly always show these traits.

I remember reading many of the Ghote books when I was a teenager.  These were the first mystery novels I read that weren't set in either America or the UK and I longed to see the India depicted in those books --  both the beauty and the squalor. I later discovered that Keating wrote many of the early books without ever setting foot in India.

In addition to his numerous mystery novels both with and without the Bombay policeman, Keating was one of the leading proponents of detective fiction criticism and worked hard to elevate the genre out of its ill deserved reputation as populist reading and escapist fare. His non-fiction works Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime (1977)  and Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987) are still two of the best critical works devoted to the genre.

Although there will be no more adventures with Ghote there are still the 24 books waiting for you to discover if you haven't already.  Read an Inspector Ghote book in Mr. Keating's honor some time soon
.




Sunday, March 27, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Tombstone Bookplate w/ Verse

Here's another unusual bookplate that was lightly glued inside one of my books.  I removed it and placed it in my ephemera collection several years ago.  My pencilled note (barely visible in the upper left corner) says it came from an R. Austin Freeman book about Dr. Thorndyke.  Can't remember the exact title. Strangely, though, I do remember that I bought that book in an Evanston (northern suburb of Chicago) used bookstore.


The author/owner was a local man here, apparently a noted collector of mystery and crime fiction.  He was also involved in the mystery book convention scene back in the 1970s.  Through the miracle of Internet search engines I  discovered he was one of the organizers for Bouchercon when it was twice held Chicago.  Have no idea if still lives in Chicago or Evanston or indeed if he is still alive.

I recognize all the characters mentioned in the verse, but shamefully had to Google the name Schlessinger.  I don't know my Holmes as well as I should.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Sweepstakes Murders - J. J. Connington


J. J. Connington
This is one of Connington's many detective novels featuring his series character Sir Clinton Driffield. It was the first Connington book I ever read about five years ago and it's excellent. After finishing it I was surprised that I agreed with the assessment of Jacques Barzun in his A Catalog of Crime. The Sweepstakes Murders really is exemplary for its type. If you are familiar with the scientific detection novels that were popular in the late 1920s through the early 1930s and like reading about the intricacies of early criminological techniques you are sure to admire this book.

A syndicate of nine men go in on a sweepstakes ticket together. Their group is drawn on a long shot horse who manages to place in the derby race they are betting on. They win over £200,000 but the holder of the ticket dies in an airplane crash and this leads to a legal dispute. One of the members decides it is in the syndicate's best interests to draw up a document which states that only living members of the syndicate can draw from the winnings. Then members of the syndicate start dying in bizarre accidents and a murderer is suspected among the survivors.

An intricate plot device involves a camera and a series of photographs that were taken at a geological formation where one of the murder victims was done in. A clever inspector runs a photography experiment that focuses on the way shadows lie in the photos to prove that the murderer himself took the pictures thereby destroying his alibi and proving the death occurred earlier in the day.

Truly one of the best novels of the Golden Age. I was completely caught up in the story. Although the culprit is easy to identify as the bodies pile up and the suspect pool diminishes, the detection by both Driffield and the inspector (a smart policeman for a change!) is fascinating.

(Sorry no picture of this book. I ended up selling my copy of a US edition as part of shelf purging process several years ago. Couldn't find any unprotected photos of the DJ on the internet.  If you want to view the original UK DJ you can go here.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hardboiled Haiku #1

Today I start a new feature. Hoping it will appear at least once a month from now on. Reviews of hardboiled private eye novels done entirely in the Japanese verse form of haiku.

Read The High Window.
This plot less convoluted
Than most of Chandler.


Marlowe is hired
By the old lady Murdock
To find her son's wife.


Rare coin is stolen.
It's called the Brasher Dubloon -
Worth a chunk of change.


Two men are murdered.
Marlowe finds both their bodies.
Just his lot in life.


Chandler's good tough stuff:
Guns and blondes and hulking goons,
Marlowe cracking wise.


My favorite bits?
Chandler's use of similes.
Get a load of these:

It was a tight crackling voice, like someone tiptoeing across a lot of eggshells.

[T]he usual distorting mirror...made me look like a two-time loser sneaking home from a reefer party.

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made to be seen from thirty feet away.

Her hair was as artifical as a night club lounge.

...a sound came out of him like a convalescent rooster learning to crow again after a long illness.

She had eyes like strange sins.


Favorites - Round Two
Chandler's clever metaphors
Try these on for size:


"You milk easy. But you give pretty thin milk

Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth.

You could just manage to walk on the carpet without waders.

The room was painted egg-yolk yellow. All it needed was a few fat spiders painted on the yellow to be anybody's bilious attack.

She had the utterly disdainful expression of a dame who makes her dates by long distance.
Example the third:
How about this paragraph?
(I just can't resist)


Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it; and once in a while even men that actually go to work.  But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
That's enough of that.
I'm too tired of counting
All these syllables.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: A Hive of Glass - P.M. Hubbard

When does a hobby become an obsession? What events can tip the scales and cause a collecting mania to become a dangerous monomania? There is one book in the crime fiction world that is an intricate study of antique collecting gone maniacally wrong and it has haunted me ever since I first read it. That book is P.M. Hubbard's nasty and violent A Hive of Glass.

 I have read many of Hubbard's books, but this one really hit home with me. I confess that I'm a book collector of the maniac variety and I recognized much in the rabid thoughts and feelings expressed by the book's narrator. Thankfully, I have never resorted to theft or murder (nor do I ever plan to) in order to acquire an object that sets my eyes and heart ablaze with the collector's drooling need to possess. The same can not be said of Johnnie Slade, the protagonist in A Hive of Glass. He is the kind of collector you never want to encounter in your life.

Within the first few pages we know that Slade will pretty much stop at nothing to acquire his object of desire. His particular fancy is 18th century glass. He rhapsodizes about the fine work exhibited in this kind of glass in a near orgiastic paragraph in the first chapter. He cheats an ignorant junk dealer out of a particularly fine example and nearly clobbers the poor man on the head with a pewter mug when the dealer realizes he's been duped. Too late, though. Slade already paid for it and is out the door pursued by two young men the dealer enlists to try and retrieve his prize.

No sooner has Slade got this latest addition to his collection but he learns of the existence of a true treasure. An Italian tazza (kind of a cake stand) by a master craftsman of the 16th century. He gets the name and address of an old man who has vital information about where the tazza can be found. When he arrives at the old man's home, he finds a dead body. Has someone already committed murder in order to get the tazza? When he meets Claudia James at an auction house he gains a new obsession. It is a deadly combination of lust for the flesh and lust for glass that will lead Slade to ruin.

Italian tazza, circa 1550.  Collection: Victoria & Albert Museum
The Maltese Falcon touches on the same theme of lusting after a valuable treasure. But Hammett never gets into the psychology of collector mania. In Johnnie Slade Hubbard has created a borderline sociopath who confesses that his love for glass objects has utterly consumed him. At one point he realizes that although it seems he may never actually get his hands on the tazza or ever possess it he cannot allow anyone else to have it. Slade is sorely underestimated by his rivals also in pursuit of the tazza. It is to their dire misfortune that they do not sense Slade's envy and avarice are more than mere sins; they are his driving lifeforce.

Hubbard's later work increasingly emphasizes place in a way that makes his books very much modern Gothic novels in the true sense. Setting and place become whole entities, an additional character to some extent, imbuing the atmosphere with dread and sinister foreboding. There is only a faint hint of this Gothicism in A Hive of Glass and that is in the household of Claudia's Aunt Elizabeth and in some of the weird scenes that border on the supernatural.

Hubbard was a master at inserting bizarre sequences into his books that just like the old 18th and 19th century Gothic sensation novels shift the book into high gear shock mode. One such sequence follows a dinner date with Claudia where Slade accidentally hits a deer with his car. We know how he feels about death from a previous encounter:

I cannot stand dead and broken things. I do not know what started this, but it goes a back a long way. It is not quite the same as the fairly common thing about blood, though blood makes it worse. It is the deadness. It seems odd when I have a good deal of violence in me.
Slade is incapable of removing the deer from the road or even extricating it from his car. Claudia is left to clean up the mess and she proves to be something of a bloodthirsty Fury. In a bizarre, almost supernatural, moment a fierce and ravenous dog comes tearing out of the woods to claim the deer carcass. Claudia does battle with the dog using a piece of the deer's broken antler savagely bringing the dog's life to an early end. This is the woman Slade has fallen in love with. They will make quite a duo in the remainder of the book.

For its complex and fascinating character of Johnnie Slade, the equally intriguing supporting cast, the weird incidents and overall Gothic atmosphere you would be hard pressed to find a creepier thrilling read than A Hive of Glass. And if you're a collector at heart, I guarantee after reading this book you will do a little closer examination of your own lust of objects and do your best to keep it in check.

For more on P.M. Hubbard's life and work I strongly recommend this excellent article at Mystery*File.

The Problem of the Green Capsule - John Dickson Carr

The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) is subtitled "Being the Psychologist's Murder Case." If the reader should miss this on the title page the final chapter is also conveniently titled the same thing. In England the book was published as The Black Spectacles which, in addition to being part of the murderer's elaborate disguise, is an interesting metaphor which will be explained later. Under his Carter Dickson pseudonym Carr wrote a book called Seeing Is Believing (1941). This book might just as easily be called Seeing Is NOT Believing for the powers of observation – or more accurately the lack thereof – is at the heart of this devilish detective novel.

Here is an example of the type of John Dickson Carr book so lovingly parodied by Anthony Shaffer in Sleuth. It is pure artifice, something that could never happen in real life. The whole thing is really nothing more than a piece of theater. Illusion and misdirection were the key components in Carr's fantastical detective novels. It's surprising he didn't employ more theatrical plot devices like this one in his books. Puzzle lovers are sure to get caught up in the multiple layers that make up the criminal activity in this book. At work are mind-bending psychological game playing, intentional trickery and bamboozlement galore.

Marcus Chesney claims no one truly observes. He pronounces that eyewitnesses are worthless. He is determined to prove to his niece Marjorie, her fiancé George, and Professor Ingram, a psychologist; that they are not as observant as they think they are. In a letter to Dr. Fell he outlines his ideas:

All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what goes on on the stage, still less what goes on in the audience. Show them a black-and-white record of it afterwards, and they will believe you; but even then they will be unable to interpret what they see.
Chesney arranges a theatrical experiment, enlisting the aid of a household servant, which they are all to witness and be quizzed on what they think they saw immediately afterwards. To help prove his point he asks one of the participants to film the proceedings. What is meant to be a piece of melodramatic theater – the servant dressed in an outlandish disguise enters from outside and feigns murdering Chesney – goes horribly wrong. Chesney dies as the result of prussic acid poisoning apparently at the hands of his confederate. Yet later the confederate is discovered wounded and dazed in the yard outside. The pieces of the disguise strewn about the yard. Questioning of the three witnesses proves that none of them could have left their places. It's another impossible situation.  This all seems to be related to a series of poisonings that took place weeks ago. Poisonings in which Marjorie was a primary suspect and the target of malicious gossip.

Dr. Gideon Fell is consulted when one of the three policemen Inspector Elliott is stymied. It doesn’t help matters that Elliott has previously met Marjorie coincidentally while traveling in Italy and has fallen in love with her. Dr. Fell recognizes this emotional flaw and helps guide Elliott out of his self-imposed trap towards the proper solution. The film of the playlet proves of great importance in unmasking the killer as does one character's knack for lip reading.

Two interesting parallels: One the book deals with prussic acid poisoning the murder method used in The Fifth Tumbler by Clyde Clason, a book I wrote about last month. There is a remarkable section in Carr's book almost identical to a passage in Clason's book in which the chemical properties and composition of prussic acid are discussed. Not only that –- the commercial, agricultural and industrial uses of potassium cyanide, the main ingredient in prussic acid, are also mentioned in almost exactly in the same order as in The Fifth Tumbler. Clason's book was published in 1936 three years earlier than Carr's. Had Carr read it and used it as a reference in writing about prussic acid and potassium cyanide? Or is it one of those outrageous coincidences of life? Definitely something to mull over.

Secondly: Dr. Fell gives one of his famous lectures in this book. This time it is a poison lecture. I wonder why critics never talk about this one. His locked room lecture (found in The Three Coffins, also published as The Hollow Man) is very well known having been cited many times in numerous articles, critical works. And rightly so. It's a brilliant crystallization of the various ways in which a murder can be committed and made to appear impossible. But this poison lecture is one that is based on true crime cases not a fantastical detective novel trope. Carr outlines a type of poisoning persona and uses the case histories of convicted poisoners to support his theories. It's an overlooked portion of the book and deserves some mention.

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This is my first completed read in Bev's Color Coded Reading Challenge at My Reader's Block.  If you like reading contests jump on the bandwagon, friend!  Click here to get the scoop and the rules.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ODDITIES: The Crime with Ten Solutions

The Crime With Ten Solutions (1935) - Patrick Leyton

Sometimes a book starts off with a great opening and promises so much. Eleven passengers board a bus en route to a London suburb during a threatening snowstorm. We learn of each passenger's intent on their trip via Leyton's omniscient narrative voice and are privy to secrets early on that none of the other characters discover until much later in the story. Clifford Ransome confides in the woman seated next to him, Barbara, that he is going to an inn in order to hunt for a will that is supposedly hidden on the premises. If he succeeds in finding it he will clear the name of his wronged father who was the intended heir of his grandfather's fortune. Instead the fortune is in the hands of his crooked uncle who apparently forged a second will. Clifford shows Barbara an advertisement announcing that a reward is also available to anyone who can find the will and present it to a lawyer's firm. That advertisement also happens to have been seen by nearly every person on the bus. And the snow continues to fall.

If you notice that this seems like the formula for one of those 1970s disaster movies, you get a gold star. Maybe a free pizza. You've already guessed what happens, haven't you? A spectacular bus crash leaves the motley group stranded within a short walk of the inn where Clifford was headed. They are all forced to stay there until the weather clears and the bus can be rescued and repaired. Clifford soon learns that everyone knows of the ad and he – not so brightly – tells his story to everyone. The search for the will is on. Someone finds the will and instead of receiving the cash reward is killed. The remainder of the novel is devoted to the ten solutions of the title.

Leyton's detective novel with the intriguing title teases the reader with yet another murder mystery in which the author will pull off trick worthy of any stage illusionist – a crime that can have ten separate explanations with ten separate culprits. But there are magicians of the detective novel who are like Kellar, Carter the Great or Blackstone and there are writers like Leyton who aspire to brilliant flamboyance but come off more like a vaudeville hack doing a cheap levitation act with the wires showing. The Crime with Ten Solutions is no miraculous tour de force.

The problem lies in the presentation. After the exciting beginning two characters step forward as self appointed detectives: the innkeeper, Mr. Hartley, who was a former policeman and Dr. Warren who also happens to have been stranded by the snowstorm. They decide to sort things out until the snow lets up and the police can finally get to the inn. The bus passengers are interviewed in succession with each one giving his or her own guess as to what happened in the library when Miss Sprotson, the hapless victim, found the will. And the reiteration begins.

One right after the other the solutions are expounded. Many of them are not very interesting or clever. Only when Edna Lane, a snooty spinster offers her version (the seventh) does the book get a slight lift. She is an arrogant, middle aged woman who treats nearly everyone with disdain and condescension. Her reasoning for knowing the solution – that she is highly observant and reads detective novels – is one of the few amusing moments in an otherwise pedestrian, very familiar story. She shows up the ex-police officer and the doctor both with a few interesting Holmesian bits of inductive reasoning. Her acerbic dialogue is some of the best in the book.

The other interesting character is Father Allendale, a Catholic priest who has a bit of Father Brown in him.  He acts altogether too mysteriously, speaks in cryptic sentences and hints that he knows much more about the crime than the two men investigating it.  I could not completely dismiss him as a mere supporting character. For quite some time I suspected he was a policeman in disguise in pursuit of another character who is a thief on the run.  Even though Father Allendale practically hides in the background while Leyton focusses on the interviews conducted by Hartley and Warren, I was convinced the priest would turn out to be the person who solved the crime. All you regular readers know my track record on these hunches.

The tenth and final solution when it comes is hardly a surprise at all. Sadly, it is one of the few books where the solution is rather ridiculously obvious. I was hoping for something special and I got a pale imitation. A Sondheim lyric came floating out of my memory: "What once was a sumptuous feast is figs. No, not even figs -- raisins!"

I have not read any of Leyton's other books. He created no series characters. The list in the back of my edition lists several titles of his other books with synopses that make them sound like rip-offs of other very well known detective novels of the 1930s. I wonder if Leyton was one of those writers who "borrowed" his ideas from others. Only two of his books were published in both the US and the UK, the remainder only released in his native England, making him one of the many lesser known writers of his time period.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The National Classic Mystery Lending Library

Richard R. left a comment here a few days ago coming up with a brilliant idea. What we need is some sort of central location that would lend to discriminating readers these forgotten and long out of print books I have been writing about.  And all the others who have been writing about similar books elsewhere in the blogosphere.


Here's my proposal. 

While I cannot actually become a huge distribution center for the entire country, I am willing to loan out any book to any reader who visits my blog. I can be a Midwestern version in miniature for starters. Don't all gasp. You all love books and I know you would take care of anything I would send your way. 

So if you are having difficulty locating a copy through your local library, through interlibrary loan or buying an affordable copy in a used bookstore or via the internet, I will happily let you read my copy.

1. Click on the "View my complete profile" link at the bottom of the ABOUT ME box on the right side of this page.
2. Find the Email link on the left side of my profile page.
3. Click on the link and send me an email with the title you want to read and your mailing address.
4. I send you the book via Priority Mail and include a return label and a Priority stamp to return the book.

No cost!  When returning all you have to do is provide the Priority Mail box (they're free at any post office) and pack it up with tender care.

Unfortunately, I can only do this for people in the US. Can't afford to ship for free outside of the country.

It's the least I can do.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker

From Ray Russell's Supernatural Fiction Database
For this week's forgotten book I'm digging through my reading logs for something that is an all-time favorite book -- a reading experience that was not only satisfying on multiple levels but also transformative. Few books have this power over me anymore, but Frank Baker's supernatural fantasy Miss Hargreaves is one of those rare books that allowed me to see life with a new clarity, to begin to appreciate so much that I have taken for granted. It's one of those books I want to hand out to everyone I know so they too can read it and – with luck – will appreciate it as I did.

I discovered this book late last year a few months just after its reissue in paperback from Bloomsbury. I had owned the book for several years and had just decided to find out what it held in store. I must have been picking up on whatever was in the air, for right after I finished reading the book I went looking for info on Frank Baker of whom I knew nothing. Google searches began returning review after review on Miss Hargreaves from blogs all over the US and UK. Apparently the entire world rediscovered this book and its colorful characters at the same time I did. As I often say, "Isn't life filled with amazing coincidences?"

I did find out a few things about Baker – the most surprising being that he has a website devoted to his life and work. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. These days the internet seems to have a website for everything under the sun. Why not a site for Frank Baker? I'm glad I stumbled across it for I got a bibliography of his work and learned he wrote several enticing books including a dark fantasy that in part inspired Hitchcock's The Birds. And I bet you thought it was solely based on Daphne Du Maurier's novella. Well, I did. And of course now I have a small pile of Frank Baker books that eagerly await reading. But onto Miss Hargreaves…

Norman Huntley and Henry are the best of friends. But they have a habit of indulging in a fantasy game a bit too much. While on vacation in Ireland and touring a dull and gloomy cathedral the two of them invent an elderly poetess friend they dub Miss Hargreaves in order to entertain themselves and befuddle the sexton who is acting as their tour guide. Later they continue to invent and elaborate on the life of Constance Hargreaves who writes doggerel verse, plays the harp, owns a dog named Sarah and a cockatoo named after a character in The Beggar's Opera. Continuing their charade they write a letter to her and send it off to her home (also invented). When they return home Norman is shocked to learn that he has received a telegram from Miss Hargreaves accepting his invitation to visit and that she will be expecting him to greet her at the train station. He and Henry go to the station and are horrified when Miss Hargreaves shows up with cockatoo and dog in tow. Her harp has been previously sent on to Norman's home.


Young Frank Baker
 This has the potential for great farce. It may remind old movie fans of a kind of Harvey in reverse as a perfectly sane man tries to convince everyone around him that a woman they think is real is far from that - that he, in fact, created her. The act of creation is a central theme in the book but moreso the power of the imagination involved in the act of creation. Norman does get a bit of an ego trip out of it all at first. He very quickly begins to regret his elaborate prank. As amusing as it all first appears Norman's adventure in being a demi-god slowly becomes rather sinister -- a word that is used by Baker several times throughout the book.

Norman's father Cornelius, a scatterbrained bookseller who has a similar habit of embroidering the truth (if not completely fabricating it), warns Norman of the dangers of his wild imagination. He also reminds his son that "Creative thought creates" but Norman turns it around and keeps as his dangerous mantra "Destructive thought destroys." With each attempt at making Miss Hargreaves go away Norman only succeeds in making matters worse. She finds ways to transform and transmogrify herself in order to stay put. A
mid all the comedy there are faint echoes of Victor Frankenstein in all of this as Norman's creation gradually begins to turn on him.

This is really rather a remarkable book that has much to say about friendship, father and son relations, and the ultimate power of the imagination. The numerous blog reviews I have read have similar heartfelt, personal reactions and a number of profound insights. Great writing often resonates with human emotion. The impressions sent out through the blogosphere support my belief that Miss Hargreaves is not only noteworthy in the supernatural fantasy genre but also a masterwork in English literature.
"Miss Hargreaves--" I murmured. "Miss Hargreaves--?"
I leant over the rail and looked into the darkness of the Irish Sea. It was night. The lights of our boat were the only lights upon the black water. No answer came from the sea as I mumured that name. And yet, it seemed to me that very faintly in the December air, in the wind, I could hear the sighing of my own name. "Norman-- Norman-- Norman--"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Dance of Death (1938) - Helen McCloy

I was surprised to find that very little is written about Helen McCloy on the various crime fiction blogs. I have always felt that she has been overlooked and to a certain extent ignored as someone who was rather pivotal in the development of the modern crime novel. Her detective, Dr. Basil Willing, is one of the earliest of the American fictional detectives to incorporate scientific and clinical explanations for the psychological motives of a killer. More importantly her books are cleverly constructed detective novels that are excellent and entertaining examples of an American mystery writer showing mastery of the fair play technique.

Anthony Berkeley was one of the first to pioneer the psychological facet of the modern crime novel. He eschewed the usual emphasis on physical evidence of the crime and instead focused on the victim in the crime. He said in a dedication to E.M. Delafield that he hoped she would appreciate his attempt "to substitute for the materialism of the usual crime-puzzle of fiction those psychological values which are ... the basis of the universal interest in the far more absorbing criminological dramas of real life." After all, the truly interesting thing about any murder is why the person was killed in the first place not what kind of cigarette ash was left on the floor of the crime scene. But unlike McCloy he did not quote or employ the work of scientists and psychologists as aids to the detective in arriving at his solution. His detective Roger Sheringham was a mystery writer with an acute insight into human behavior. All of his pronouncements were not so much scientific as they were based on observations and inferences.

Shortly after Berkeley's first foray into the psychological detective novel, The Wychford Poisoning Case, was published in 1926 other writers started to explore the same territory. Some to great effect, others managing only minor success. In England Gladys Mitchell created Beatrice Bradley, an avowed Freudian psychologist, who delves into the psyche of the criminals in what are largely parodies of the traditional detective novel. In the United States Charles Dutton, who began as a pulp writer, wrote about murderers whose psychopathology I am sure was incredibly disturbing to a reading audience of the late 1920s. Helen McCloy entered the crime fiction arena in 1938 with an impressive debut that not only tackled the idea of psychology in detective novels but scored a couple of touchdowns in the process.

Dance of Death introduces Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults with the New York Police Department after having a fairly successful practice treating shell shocked war veterans. The novel opens with a scene featuring sanitation workers who are clearing the streets after a snowstorm. One of them uncovers the body of a young debutante buried in a snow heap. At first it seems as if the novel is going to be yet another treatment of the impossible crime – the body is extremely warm and the face is stained a bright yellow two things that seem incredible after being buried in snow. The plot gets even more strange when another young woman bearing a striking resemblance to the corpse comes forward to tell a fantastic story right out of the Sherlock Holmes canon. She was asked to impersonate the dead girl at a debutante ball and the following morning was treated as if she were actually the girl she impersonated. It is here that the book begins to emphasize the psychological approach to crime solving. Willing is asked to be present at the woman's interview to determine if she is sane or not. Her relatives insist she is Kitty Jocelyn, the dead woman, but she claims she is Ann Jocelyn Claude, Kitty's cousin.

As the story progresses Willing and Inspector Foyle will carry out numerous interviews and visit the home of the dead girl. At each interview Willing points out a "blunder" or fault on the part of the person being interrogated. Foyle is more concerned with evidence and fingerprints. Willing tells Foyle that he too is concerned with fingerprints but of an intangible kind:
Blunders, like dreams, are messages in code. By decoding them we are able to eavesdrop on the unconscious and get at the truth. For no one can control his blunders any more than he can control his reflexes or his dreams. [T]he blunders a suspect makes, the things he drops, and breaks and forgets, his stumbling and stuttering might tell the psychologist as much about his mind as the marks on a bullet tell the ballistic expert about the gun from which it was fired.
He also discusses his theory that nothing is ever really accidental at all.
In decoding a blunder, you ask yourself what unconscious wish could be back of it.  Why should such-and-such a person want to do such-and-such a thing? The idea is that no one ever does anything he doesn't want to do--either consciously or unconsciously.
These "psychic fingerprints," as Willing calls them, will manifest themselves frequently in a variety of ways: slips of the tongue, nervous manner in speech, absent mindedness, mention of "lost" items. Foyle makes an apt pupil for at the midpoint of the book he presents Willing with a list of nine blunders that puzzle him. Willing astounds him by explaining nearly every one of them as they relate to the crime. Only one of the blunders continues to puzzle him until the book's finale.

There have been other fictional detective of this era who call themselves psychiatrists or psychologists. Dr. Eustace Hailey in the novels of Anthony Wynne does an awful lot of probing of the psyche with plenty of elaborate didactic lecturing, but more often than not he seems like a droning pedant. Little of what he says is easily understood. Beatrice Bradley likes to indulge in Freudian psychobabble as well, mostly in her early appearances, but also makes up an awful lot of her "theories." To me, at least, much of what Mrs. Bradley says seems not only outdated but prejudicial rather than soundly psychological.

Willing, however, speaks in everyday language (primarily because he's talking to an unsophisticated policeman) making his psychological tools and observations easy to swallow in what may seem like large doses. He also uses the theories of established scientists in the field of psychology and openly refers to them by name. Dudley Schoenfeld, who used similar tactics when assisting police in identifying Hauptmann during the Lindbergh kidnapping, is mentioned frequently in Dance of Death. Schoenfeld's theory of the unconscious mistake being a large clue to hidden motives provides the springboard for the turning point of the case in this novel.

Apart from all this emphasis on psychology the book has a really modern tone to it. From the scientific knowledge the murderer uses in poisoning Kitty Jocelyn to the crazed popularity of the diet pill employed as a murder weapon; from the fawning over magazine endorsed miracle pills to the deeply disturbed motive of the murderer -- all of the details in the story still have resonance seventy plus years later. When I finished the novel I felt as though the book could serve as a script for any of the latest TV crime shows. Most especially the plot and Willing's investigative style reminded me of the methods of Vincent D'Onofrio's police detective and the plots written for Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Rarely did it feel as if I was reading a book written in the late 1930s. McCloy is to be admired for being something of an oracle in choosing a timeless topic and presenting her story in a manner that did not date her work.

Mysteries featuring Dr. Basil Willing
Dance of Death (1938)
The Man in the Moonlight (1940)
The Deadly Truth (1941)
Who's Calling (1942)
Cue for Murder (1942)
The Goblin Market (1943) - small role only
The One that Got Away (1945)
Through a Glass Darkly (1950)
Alias Basil Willing (1951)
The Long Body (1955)
Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956)
The Singing Diamonds (1965) short stories
Mr. Splitfoot (1968)
Burn This! (1980)
The Pleasant Assassin (2003) short stories, some of which originally appeared in The Singing Diamonds

UPDATE: Feb 10, 2011: I was using the oldest Hubin bibliography when I copied out the Basil Willing titles and I missed two books. Also I should've added the dates of publication so they're up now.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Red Lady (1935) - Anthony Wynne

Sir Mark Fleet is stabbed in full view of an audience while delivering a speech in front of a painting called "The Red Lady." Although it was possible for someone to hide behind the painting it is determined that no one was in the crammed space even though it was cleaned as if to obliterate footprints in the dust. It appears that it was impossible for anyone to have stabbed Sir Mark and yet he was killed. Later the body is taken from the bedroom prior to it being delivered to the coroner for an autopsy. It is found on a burning haystack. Why would someone steal the body and set it on fire?

Dr. Hailey starts to uncover a strange financial scheme that led to Sir Mark leaving a sizable legacy to a young woman who he barely knew. In trying to get to the bottom of this mess Hailey discovers that Sir Mark had recently consulted with a spiritualist. So Hailey himself visits the spiritualist under the pretense of contacting the spirit of Sir Mark to find out why he left the money to the girl. Through the medium he learns of yet another young woman who knew Sir Mark. No sooner has the information been divulged the medium is stabbed amid some typical contrived Wynne business and in chasing the intruder out of the séance room Hailey discovers the body of the butler also stabbed.

Before the novel is through two more people are killed -- one in a similar apparently impossible stabbing death. Faster moving than most earlier Wynne books, heavy on dialogue, but plods down a bit with all the rigmarole about the financial chicanery and the writing of the wills that were behind the motive for the deaths of Sir Mark and all the other victims. Still out of Wynne's high output of sometimes dreary, often humorless mystery novels this is definitely one of his best.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Case of the Solid Key (1941) - Anthony Boucher

One of the reasons I love reading vintage mysteries is that I learn so many odd facts. The most recent tidbit: apparently the gums shrink in the mouth of a corpse after an extended period of time. This may well have been covered on an episode of one of the many versions of the CSI dynasty, but I doubt it. It's too low tech and not disgusting enough for CSI. The best vintage mysteries (in my reading it tends to be the Americans more than the Brits) are chock full of these nuggets of arcane information.

These days killers may dress in lint free coveralls and cover their crime scenes in plastic sheeting for easy disposal of blood, hair, fibers and other pesky detritus that might give them away. Or they may pour gallons of bleach over the crime scene to eradicate that troublesome genetic info left behind. Gone are the days when a murderer had to use his ingenuity to mislead or cover up a crime. Now it's all about science. That's right I'm blaming DNA technology for ruining crime fiction. And especially for putting a damper on writers' imaginations. Give me a corpse with shrunken gums so a murderer can shove a set of someone else's dentures in the mouth and have the corpse misidentified. That's misdirection! Did I say not disgusting enough for CSI? I take that back.

Somewhere Fergus O'Breen picked up this fact of gums shrinking after death and relays it to his Watson Norman Harker, a budding playwright from Oklahoma, and the ever exasperated Lt. A. Jackson in his penultimate adventure The Case of the Solid Key. The corpse in question -- which may or may not be sporting its own dentures -- is discovered in the locked theatrical workroom where the victim had been experimenting with fire effects. Unfortunately, the fire effect seems to have exploded rendering the face utterly unrecognizable – thus the need to resort to dental records for identification. The victim is Rupert Carruthers, a shady theater owner who financed the company through extortion. The suspects are a motley group of actors and actresses, the stage manager, the company manager and a playwright.



This is a theater mystery. With actors and actresses in the list of suspects the reader should be on the lookout for impersonation, insincere emotions, volatile temperaments and plenty of heavy drinking. It's also a theater situated in Hollywood and many of the actors have motion picture careers on their minds. Fergus O'Breen's sister Maureen just happens to be a publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures. The movie studio and Maureen play a secondary but integral role in an unusual subplot involving one of the actresses with whom Norman is smitten.


This is yet another example of a detective novel with multiple solutions and one in which the detective gets it all wrong. Fergus realizes too late that he overlooked a rather obvious fact which shifted all the other evidence making his rather brilliant solution nothing more than one of his fanciful theories. There is a lot of banter between Lt. Jackson and O'Breen about the difference between police work and private eye sleuthing. Jackson even reveals he's rather well read in detective fiction:

"I'll admit," said Jackson, "that Rupert Carruthers was asking for murder. On purely psychological grounds, maybe this looks like a murder case, but the physical evidence is too strong the other way."
"Too strong is right. It's so strong it smells. No natural death could ever be so congoddamedclusively natural."
Jackson grinned. "You've been reading Chesterton again. Bad influence."
Later, just to rile O'Breen, Jackson does a little role reversal:
"In the meantime, Fergus, let me call your attention to one fact: there's only one conceivable advantage that that solid key has over an ordinary key."
"And that is?"
"That,"said Lt Jackson, "is its disadvantage."
"Hey! Fergus protested. "I'm supposed to be the brilliant if eccentric sleuth that makes cryptic remarks. Remember?"
"Sorry, I could not resist it."
I liked this thoroughly American mystery novel. I've been reading far too many Brits with far too many plots about someone who makes the fatal mistake of announcing he is changing his will in front of all his heirs. It was a refreshing change to have a story about acting and the movie business, scenes set in coffee shops and bars, jokes about comic books and Lifebuoy soap, and a rambunctious detective swearing up a storm with tongue twisting conglomerations like the one above. (But I tried it. Just not natural, not at all something that comes trippingly off the tongue.)

from the DJ of The Compleat Werewolf
The Fergus O'Breen books are breezy, clever and pretty tricky to boot.  I'd suggest you keep your eyes peeled for one of the many paperback editions of any of the five titles. For your book hunting pleasure they are all listed below.

Novels

The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937)
The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939)
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940)
The Case of the Solid Key (1941)
The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942)


Short story collections
The Compleat Werewolf (1969) - two short stories w/ O'Breen
Far and Away (1955) - one story w/ O'Breen

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Neverwhere is Everywhere

Just came back from my weekly trip to my local branch of the Chicago Public Library to see a display announcing the latest "One Book, One Chicago" title. It's Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

I was floored.

The "One Book, One Chicago" program is a city wide reading program to encourage the discussion of good literature. I think there are these types of programs in many large cities throughout the country now. Apparently the first one was in Seattle. The one in Chicago started ten years ago. Previous titles made up an interesting blend of "great works" and contemporary fiction. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Night by Elie Wiesel, The Ox-Bow Incident, Pride and Prejudice, A Raisin in the Sun, Go Tell it On the Mountain, The Interpreter of Maladies, The House on Mango Street and even --oh yes-- The Long Good-bye.

Crime fiction finally made its mark in 2008, but this is the first fantasy novel to appear. I was even amazed that Chandler made it among the other important and literary works that have been selected. But not so much surprised as I was by this choice. To have a rather popular and modern fantasy novel like this appear in the "One Book, On Chicago" program bodes good things for the future of what I thought was just another Great Works of Literature arts program in Chicago.

There are booklets that are printed up to accompany each announced title (see photo illustration upper left).  The booklet includes author info, cultural events related to the book, reading group notes and questions, and lists of reading groups and their assigned discussion dates at each of the 79 branches of the library (ours is the third largest metropolitan library system in the US, by the way). Inside I read a letter from Neil Gaiman explaining that part of the book's origin was associated with our fine city. He says:
It was a quarter of a century ago, about 1986. I had recently read a book set in Chicago called Free, Live Free by Gene Wolfe (he’s local to you; the Washington Post has said Gene Wolfe may be the best living writer America has) and I had started thinking too much about cities.
What I had started to think about was that some cities were also characters. Chicago was, in Free, Live Free. It was drawn in such a way that it had become almost magical, and was as much of a character in the book as any of the more human people who walked around in it.
For the complete text of Gaiman's letter go here.  Although I knew about the TV series that I thought was the basis for the book I had no clue about the Chicago tie-in to Neverwhere.

I loved this book. Neverwhere is a powerful work of imaginative fiction that has all the bells and whistles of a rip roaring read. It was the second book by Gaiman I had read. Good Omens was the first and completely different in tone being a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Neverwhere made me a fan of Gaiman's work for life. It's incredibly exciting that so many people in the city will now be reading this book and talking about it in the months ahead as spring approaches our slowly thawing and melting city.

The list of the titles chosen since the inception of "One Book, One Chicago" in 2001 can be found here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sinners Never Die (1944) - A.E. Martin

Australian writer Archibald Edward Martin is an underrated and forgotten mystery writer of the 1940s who deserves some notice. He was championed by Anthony Boucher in his reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle when Martin's books first started appearing in the US. Only recently has his work been reissued, but only in Australia and only the first three books. I wish some enterprising publisher would recognize A E. Martin's unique place in the development of detective fiction and get the rest of his work back in print.

Among Martin's many unusual jobs prior to writing to crime fiction were his involvement in the documentary movie exhibition business as well as a touring vaudeville show. Nearly all of his books feature plots that somehow involve show business be it a touring carnival, a vaudeville troupe or an amateur theater company. In the case of Sinners Never Die the story features a traveling sleight-of-hand artist who also does a mind reading act with spook show gimmickry as an added theatrical bonus.

Set in turn of the century Australia Sinners Never Die is narrated by Harry Ford, a very unlikable fellow who is the town postmaster. He busies himself with opening people’s mail and blackmailing those he doesn’t like. As there are very few people he does like he is very busy with his hobby. The complex story involves the disappearance of a young man during a flood, the apparent accidental shooting of a hateful blind man and Ford’s blackmailing of the blind man’s widow and her lover when he convinces them he knows that they actually poisoned the man prior to the shooting. The arrival of a mind reader/conjurer sets Ford on edge when at one of the preview shows he learns that the mind reader has somehow managed to learn everyone’s secrets –- including Ford's criminal hobby.


Although this first book is not truly a detective novel the criminal aspects of the plot more than make up for the lack of clue hunting, examination of physical evidence, and interrogation. What is most interesting here is the despicable nature of the narrator and the sudden turn of events that makes this villainous man turn into something of a do-gooder. The reader is never quite sure if his snooping and blackmailing is self-serving or for the benefit of the town. Is he merely toying with the townspeople or is he trying to root out evil? When Harry starts to get a taste of what it is to be a victim, the novel takes on an even deeper dimension about the nature of crime and the criminal's means to an end.

Martin went on to write other books all of them just as rich in detail and character as this one. Sinners Never Die foreshadows the unreliable narrator who would become almost cliché in the modern suspense novel we now have. Writers like Ruth Rendell and Patrick MacGrath used them effectively in their early works of the late 1970s and 1980s. As I was reading Martin's book I was also reminded of the nasty characters in the unhappy, corrupt small towns that provide the creepy settings in the books of Minette Walters (her first four books only) and Caroline Graham. Here is a book that was far ahead of its time.


A.E. Martin's Crime & Detective Fiction  (U.S. titles & dates unless otherwise noted)
Sinners Never Die (1944)
The Misplaced Corpse (1944 - Australia only)
The Outsiders (1945) (orig published as Common People)
Death in the Limelight (1946)
The Curious Crime (1952)
The Bridal Bed Murders (1953)
The Hive of Glass w/ his son Jim Martin (1962 - Australia only) Published posthumously, crime interest is marginal