Friday, April 29, 2011

FFB: Mr. Splitfoot - Helen McCloy

Although published in 1968 and with only a trace of the 1960s present in the person of two very modern young people Mr. Splitfoot is in many respects a throwback to McCloy's first book Dance of Death. Her post World War 2 books played with the espionage genre and the straight suspense book which she would completely embrace in the 1970s. But this penultimate case for Basil Willing is very much a traditional whodunit loaded with tropes from the Golden Age of Detective fiction. There is an group of suspects shut up in a snowbound mansion, talk of ghosts, a haunted room that could have come from a book by John Dickson Carr, a verbal dying clue picked up by a mimicking parakeet, and an ingenious impossible crime.

The book opens with two young people plotting a vicious prank. They will pretend that a poltergeist is haunting the home. The two, Lucinda and Vanya, make for a devilish and manipulative couple - Vanya moreso than poor Lucinda. Misunderstood, unloved, ignored by her parents Lucinda desperately wants to be noticed. This ghost prank is her final revenge for being ignored. She will pretend to hear some rapping and call out "Do as I do, Mr Splitfoot!" then clap her hand three times. Vanya will respond from a hidden spot with another three raps.

All goes as planned until someone brings word that Vanya has called the house. He is ill and his mother won't let him leave the house. Lucinda, who has just completed her role in the prank, is stunned. Who made the raps in response to her shouting out? She faints dead away. The ghost appears to be genuine.

Basil and his wife have been given refuge in the snowbound household. They have had a car wreck and Basil's wife Gisela hurt her ankle in the long grueling trek from the road to the house. They are allowed to stay for the night. This decision leads to the revelation of an unused room.

The room has, according to family history, remained unoccupied for several years. Legend holds that three people who slept in the room were found dead the following morning. Superstition has prevented anyone from using the room since those deaths several decades ago.

One of the men dares to suggest that someone sleep in the room to see if the legend will hold true. They cut cards and the man with the lowest card will sleep in the room. Precautions are taken. They rig up a bell to signal to the others in case of any unusual event and a parakeet is brought into the room. Since birds have delicate respiratory systems it would fall ill to any deadly gas or vapors before the occupant did so.

Only a few minutes pass before the bell in the room starts to ring. More than the three times they had all agreed upon. They rush to the room and discover that David Crosby - the unlucky low card recipient - is dead. The parakeet is chattering "Too brood, too brood." The curse apparently still holds fast.

The reader, however, should be skeptical. Earlier in the book Lucinda discovered a secret room with a passageway that allows someone to overhear conversations in the bedrooms below. It is entirely possible that someone else in the house knew of the secret room and used it to commit the murder. Basil is certain that Lucinda's fainting spell is indicative of something not right, that she is hiding facts. It will take some time for him to get her to open up and come clean. It's an interesting blend of the detective novel and the suspense novel - rather Hitchcockian in fact.

The two young people continue their mischief. Lucinda tells Vanya of a conversation she overheard in which Serena Crosby, the wife of the murdered man, was accused of being unfaithful. They suspect that this is the reason Crosby was killed and want his wife implicated. They create a fake love letter in order to force out into the open the idea of infidelity. But they are teenagers, after all. In trying to create a love letter written by adult they fail miserably. To their shock the discovery of the letter not only opens the door to a discussion of sex and infidelity, but also results in a second murder.

In keeping with the retro traditional whodunit structure McCloy has Basil gather the household in one room to reveal the truth of the crimes. The explanation of the impossible crime in the haunted room is on par with some of the best of Carr's novels. It's the most ingeniously devised of any of McCloy's plots. The architecture of the house plays an important part, but I doubt any reader will come up with the devious way in which the killer managed to make it appear that a ghost was at work.

*  *  *

This is my weekly contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books usually hosted by Patti Abbot. This week, however, our congenial guest host is Richard Robinson. Go here for the list of usual suspects and other great reading long overlooked.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Gypsy in Amber - Martin Cruz Smith

You may notice in the illustration that the author for this book is Martin Smith. Why then have I put Martin Cruz Smith in the title? Easily explained. They are one and the same. The very first novel by Smith was published a full decade before his breakthrough bestseller Gorky Park which apparently many people think is his first book. It was also honored with a nomination as Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America in 1972 alongside Bill Pronzini's crackling debut The Snatch and the amazing Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr which won the Edgar that year in the Best First category. An auspicious beginning for a writer who would become a leading contender in espionage thrillers. For his first book he took a decidedly different and very unusual topic - the gypsy culture of New Jersey and New York in the 1970s - and created a story that forty years later still seems more original than most of what is being published today.

Being set in the 1970s there are some story elements that date the book to the Viet Nam era - talk of draft dodgers, hippie culture, an extended scene at a rock concert that seems inspired by both Woodstock and medieval Renaissance fairs. This is not at all distracting. It doesn't really seem all that dated either considering that a lot of rock concerts these days have atmospheres that are trying to duplicate the hedonistic love fest coupled with anarchic rebellion that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similarly, the attitudes towards war in our 21st century are even more radical than ever with the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. These aspects are merely incidental though to the real story which deals heavily with the Romany life in America and the sometimes cut-throat (literally) world of antique selling.

The book opens with a gruesomely detailed, medically specific description of an autopsy. I can't recall a single book from this era that went into such graphic detail. Nowadays it seems commonplace with the numerous pathologist sleuths in contemporary crime fiction and the deluge of similar characters on TV. But I'm sure this scene helped grab the attention of an editor back in 1971. And the book only gets more intriguing as it progresses. A young girl's mutilated and dismembered body is found amid the wreckage of a car and truck that collided outside of New York City. The car, driven by a gypsy, was delivering a batch of antiques to Roman Grey, an antique dealer who often consults with the NYPD. Coincidentally, the truck that hit the car was also delivering a shipment of antiques to the annual Armory show in Manhattan. But where did the body come from? Was it in the truck or the car? And who is she? Grey is brought in as a "cultural consultant." The bigoted police immediately suspect the dead gypsy driver is guilty of some heinous murder and conspiracy.

Orpiment crystal
The book has aspirations to being a detective novel. Roman's knowledge of antiques comes into play in proving the girl was murdered. His careful examination of a shattered highboy reveals bloodstains in the woodgrain of the drawers. At the home of Hoddinot Sloan - a wealthy antique collector whose goods were destroyed in the truck's wreckage - he impresses both Sloan and the reader by proving a gilt paint on a restored piece of furniture is not gold but actually orpiment, a mineral that contains arsenic. He does this by tasting a small amount of the paint. "Amazing. Never saw that done before," says Sloan. "Have you ever been poisoned by any chance?" Roman assures him he never tastes enough for even a minor illness. Orpiment is not mentioned here casually. It plays a wicked part in the final paragraph of the book.

Throughout the investigation Roman meets with his gypsy family and friends. The story focuses on the differences between gypsy culture and the gaja, basically everyone who isn't a gypsy, or as they call themselves -- the Roma. Romany lexicon is liberally sprinkled throughout the text. The reader's gypsy vocabulary is greatly enhanced with words like vilo (old witch), duikkerin (fortune telling), ofisa (a decorated home), bozur (bag of money used in an old switcheroo con game) and jockey which Roman assures us is a gypsy word. I had to research this and according to a 19th century book on the English gypsies by Charles Leland the word is derived from the Scottish gypsy word chuckni which means whip. That put an end to my doubting the veracity of anything having to do with gypsies in the rest of the book. Smith knows his subject.

In pointing out the differences between the Roma and the gaja Smith allows us in on Roman's private thoughts. Roman allows Lt. Isidore to continue believing his stereotypical views of gypsies as deceitful and untrustworthy and wicked seducers of women. Smith dispels all the myths and prejudices of gypsy people through Roman's angry meditations. While the Roma life does entail much stealing, he muses,  it is because gaja are so gullible. The Roma think nothing of taking advantage of this foolishness. The Roma cherish chastity; women spurn men who are sexually promiscuous. To marry a virgin is one of the most honorable acts of a Roma man. There are wedding rituals we discover that celebrate proof of the bride's virginity.

After learning of these distinctions the reader cannot help but compare some of the behavior of the gaja with the Roma. Sloan's daughter, Hillary, cruelly points out to Roman how her father took advantage of a poor woman who had in her possession a William and Mary bureau.  He bought it from the naive woman for $50 and sold it for $3000. He is not far removed from the gypsies. In fact, shortly after hearing this anecdote Roman will discover proof that Sloan is involved in an antique restoration project that is actually a clever antique forgery business. Also, he will discover some documents that will link the dead girl to the Sloan household.

Amid all the ethnological revelations of Roma life, some unusual folklore and legends (furniture in old Salem was broken up to prevent evil spirits from hiding in the property of a condemned witch), there is the story of the crime. Roman is charged with the duty of clearing his dead friend's name. The friend's mother reminds Roman that murder is a gaja crime. No Roma spills blood like this. She makes Roman take a solemn oath to prove that her son did not kill the girl.

But even with the antique business detection, the knowledge of gypsy culture the book fails to deliver as a modern spin on the detective novel. When Roman travels to the rock concert to confront Hillary Sloan with his findings the book takes a sharp turn into thriller territory. All aspects of the traditional detective novel that were so assiduously honored in the beginning of the book are tossed aside.  Instead we are presented with yet another example of the talking killer - a character who will definitely surprise the reader - who confesses everything and behaves like one of the many crazed, arrogant villains that have been found in B movies and mediocre TV for decades. It was for me a disappointing finale.

Roman Grey appeared again in a sequel Canto for a Gypsy in which he is asked to guard a valuable Hungarian relic on display at St. Patrick's Cathedral. After these two books Smith turned to a pseudonym Simon Quinn and wrote a series of adventure thrillers with "The Inquisitor" for a paperback publisher. When his publisher asked him to pick a middle name to differentiate him from another Martin Smith who was publishing fiction he became Martin Cruz Smith. Using this new moniker he wrote a supernatural thriller about Native Americans and hordes of killer bats called Nightwing (made into a movie) and a few movie tie-in paperbacks before creating Arkady Renko in 1981.

Monday, April 25, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Haunting Hand - W. Adolphe Roberts

A weird menace story that promises great things but delivers little. Similar in style to a poor juvenile mystery complete with spunky heroine and tag-along boyfriend. The only really interesting thing is the background on the silent film industry in Astoria, Queens.  All of the characters are involved in making a movie called “Toreador of Love.”

A lot of the story hinges on a very brief incident – a spectral hand that appears from beneath the heroine’s bed and just as strangely vanishes.  I was astonished that the writer could get so much mileage out of a mere incident that takes up about three paragraphs.  There is a subplot with two feuding actresses vying for the attentions of the handsome young man.  Their bitchy verbal cat fights are worth a few laughs.  But the mystery and the crime story?  Weak and forgettable.

Later in the book a mummified arm is found beneath the floorboards of the room and a maid with one arm surfaces. The arm presumably was hers. Why was it buried? Who was playing puppet show with the mummified limb? Why? There are several other mysterious questions the reader may ask as well.  None of the answers are worth discovering.

Alfred Dorrington’s The Radium Terrors has the same basic storyline.  And without the hand manifestation and the amputated housemaid it is a far better book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Carson Pirie Scott Bookplate

Here's a small bookplate that fell out of a book.  Don't remember which one.  Surprise.
Carson Pirie Scott once was the second most famous department store in Chicago after the well loved (and very much missed) Marshall Field's.  The original store, designed and built by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, still stands downtown on State Street. The building was his last big project in the city. Although the flagship store is long gone a handful of stores can still be found in the suburban malls. Back in the 1940s apparently Carson Pirie Scott also had a lending library as this classy bookplate advertises.

For more about department stores in old Chicago including Carson Pirie Scott click here.

JACKET REQUIRED: Gorgeous Ghouls

Beginning a new weekly (or fairly frequently) feature today. I've mentioned before the numerous logs and websites that celebrate pulp magazine and paperback cover art. Here's my contribution. It - of course - my tribute to the lost art of dust jacket art. They call them dust wrappers in the U.K., but I'm glad we call them dust jackets. It allowed for an excellent feature nickname.

Be sure to click on the images to enlarge and better appreciate them.






Friday, April 22, 2011

FFB: Dead Man's Walk - Richard S. Prather

Cover art by Barye Philipps
I have to thank Christa Faust for first getting me interested in looking for the Richard Prather books. She says her book Money Shot would never have been written had she not read the Shell Scott books. Money Shot is one of my favorite Hard Case Crime originals. That praiseworthy note of a writer's influence was enough for me to check him out. I know I have quite a few of these books now but like most collectors I did more amassing than reading. I saw Dead Man's Walk on one of those old paperback spinning racks in a used bookstore in Ohio last month. With its tantalizing catch phrase "It was murder all right – but was it voodoo too?" I knew that this had to be the first Shell Scott book for me to read. Private eyes and voodoo? Give me that book, now!

Voodoo was a fascination for crime writers from the 1930s through the 1960s. I can think of an entire bookcase full of related detective novels and thrillers, all of which I've read. Let's see how many I can type off the top of my archive of a head: Voodoo by John Esteven, Voodoo'd by Kenneth Perkins, The Obeah Murders by Hulbert Footner (Bahamian spin-off of voodoo), A Grave Must Be Deep by Theodore Roscoe, Conjure Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher (deals more with hoodoo, an offshoot with voodoo roots), numerous short stories from the pulps like "Papa Benjamin" by Cornell Woolrich and "The Voodoo Mystery" by Arthur B. Reeves, and even Live and Let Die, James Bond's own voodoo/occult adventure. I could go on but that would mean leaving my seat and checking the shelves. How about movies? The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Skeleton Key (Hoodoo again), Isle of the Dead, Voodoo Man, Voodoo Woman, Voodoo Dawn, I Walked with a Zombie, White Zombie (yes, the zombie legends have their roots in voodoo and not George Romero). Et cetara, et cetera, and so forth.






I'm not sure any crime writers will touch voodoo anymore as a plot basis. The most recent I can think of that comes close is Michael Gruber's excellent job of incorporating Santeria and black magic in his chilling supernatural thriller Tropic of Night. But that wasn't exactly voodoo. Is it a taboo topic now? Perhaps very un-PC? No matter to me. I'll eagerly seek out as many voodoo thrillers as I can. Dead Man's Walk is one of the best out of all those I listed. It was like a crash course in voodoo. From accurate terminology well defined (no glossary required) to astonishingly detailed descriptions of the rituals, tools and the entire belief system of voudon.

Shell travels to Verde Island to investigate the suspicious death of George Knowles. His business partner, John Farrow, disagrees with local authorities that Knowles died of natural causes. It may have something to do with the death of a local boy only days earlier. Farrow is convinced someone is trying to destroy his business especially since his employees have quit the place en masse for fear that the hotel is cursed. Oddly enough, the guests have decided to take over and fill in as maids, bartenders, kitchen help and what have you. Farrow needs Shell to get to the bottom of the mysterious deaths before his hotel business completely falls apart.


Later he joins forces with local girl Alexandria Ducharme (Dria for short) who will be his tutor in Voodoo 101. It's clear to Shell that he will need a rudimentary understanding of the local beliefs if he is going to outwit the bad guys who are taking advantage of a superstitious population and killing anyone who gets in their way. His imaginative and purely American revenge on the local voodoo bad guy takes the form of an elaborate magic show employing balloons, voodoo dolls, a booby-trapped tree, a very large and powerful magnet, and generous amounts of fake blood. He outwits and out-cons the con artist - a forbidding voodoo priest who turns out to be powerless compared to Shell's ingenuity. It's the best sequence in a very entertaining crime novel.

I've read that the later Shell Scott books tend to get fanciful. That's putting it mildly. Apart from the heavy emphasis on voodoo rites and rituals, the murder method employed (and those mysterious deaths are indeed murders) is something out of the world of weird menace pulps. Anyone well versed in those magazines may know that Anthony Rud's five part serialized detective novel The Rose Bath Riddle which appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly (Sept – Oct 1933) employs the very same method. This is only the second time I have encountered it in any crime fiction of any period. In Rud's story I thought the method was more like science fiction and probably impossible to pull off. As Prather describes the use of this specific means of killing people it seems more feasible. And more psychopathic. It gave me chills reading the villain's dialog as he gleefully described administering his weapon of choice and how he managed to leave no trace of it on their bodies. Fanciful is not the word here. Fiendish is the proper adjective.

I like Shell's oddball sense of humor and Prather's eccentric way of conveying it. Here's a good example from late in the book:
That was she. My gal. The gal I'd swept off her feet. Ah, you Romeo, you, I thought. Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Casanova was a piker. Just wiggle your little finger and they land all over you. Clunk! I've got to quit believing everything these babes tell me. Maybe I'd better give up babes entirely. No, I'd rather die.
I got you, babe. He also calls women "tomatoes."

And his troubles and mishaps and set-backs?
"This is some pickle, eh?"

"…an indication of the depth of the pickle I was in."
I have to dig up the rest of my Shell Scott books. I've only found Kill Him Twice and Three's a Shroud. I was positive I had more than that. In any case, I know I'll be adding to my Shell Scott collection on a regular basis.This is some damn good crime writing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Number Seven Queer Street - Margery Lawrence

Robert Hale, 1st UK edition
Why is it that the majority of the occult detective are always physicians? Or psychiatrists? Or therapists of some sort? Granted there is a strong influence of John Silence hiding in the shadows whether or not the writer is courteous enough to acknowledge Algernon Blackwood's "grandfather of occult detectives." In a straight detective story the private eye or other investigator is merely seeking the solution to a mysterious crime. Nab the killer or thief and the problem is over. All is set right. In an occult mystery the culprit, more often than not, is rarely human and the problem has left deep emotional scars on the victim - if he is lucky to be still alive. Several writers have chosen physicians as their occult detectives to become caretakers of the soul. It is not only a crime or mysterious occurrence that must be put right, there is healing of the psyche that must take place.

Take Margery Lawrence's creation Dr. Miles Pennoyer. He owes much to John Silence. (In fact, Lawrence credits both Blackwood and Dion Fortune's Dr. Taverner as being major influences in her writing these stories). Here is a near perfect clone of Blackwood's physician of the extraordinary. Pennoyer first appears in  Number Seven Queer Street in which he battles a Chinese demon, the ghost of a suicidal architect, a sinister sorcerer, a snakelike apparition, and many other strange and weird entities. Like Silence, Pennoyer traveled in the Far East and underwent vigorous training in the mystic arts. Like Silence he takes clients who are troubled by matters that are beyond the understanding of medical science and beyond the scope of the law.

He says to his chronicler Jerome Latimer:
"I have been trained not to disregard phrases, however apparently trivial, that come into mind. They are indicative‚ descriptive perhaps, is a better word‚ of impressions; and though words may not be important, impressions most certainly are."
Here is the key to Pennoyer's approach to solving or even diagnosing his client's problem. Unlike many of the rational detectives of mystery and crime fiction these occult or psychic detectives rely heavily on intuition. And truly there is something to be said of the "gut instinct" even if some of the occult detectives also claim to have extrasensory perception. In Miles Pennoyer's case his special vegetarian diet is key to maintaining his special skills. Having a body unpolluted by meat or alcohol helps heighten his senses and aids in communication with psychic forces. Is this Margery speaking to us here? Perhaps she, too, was an avid vegetarian teetotaler. It certainly is mentioned often enough to seem like proselytizing.

For the most part, Pennoyer (and one assumes Lawrence) is interested in matters of the heart. Of the seven very long tales in Number Seven Queer Street nearly all of them deal with some aspect of love relationships. Pennoyer spends most of the story trying to figure out what psychic connection must be fixed before two troubled parties can finally be at peace. Often one of the parties is human and the other is not.  Always some element of the supernatural or occult is at play. There is the demon lover who haunts the man in "The Case of the Bronze Door;" the strong bond between a Scottish maid and a stray dog that leads Pennoyer to believe the dog is a reincarnated human soul in "The Case of the Ella MacLeod;" and the curious whip-like mark on George Kynaston's arm that has some link to a ghostly manifestation in "The Case of the Young Man with the Scar." Perhaps the best example of this psychic connection problem occurs in "The Case of the White Snake."

Margery Lawrence, circa 1919
In this weird tale an orphanage is haunted by nightly visits from a spectral snake. It seems to be fixated on one particular charge, Colette, a four year-old girl rescued from a bombed village in France. Pennoyer stays up late as a guardian and notes the snake is in fact an emanation that takes the form of a cord or cable that runs the length of the courtyard outside the girl's bedroom window and ends at the window of a guest house. Lawrence's point in seen quite clearly here:
"Anything from the Other Side is apt to look sinister to people who don't understand it and its reason for appearing ....what does emerge is that there is a strong psychic link... If you had psychic insight you would see that husbands and wives, lovers, sisters and brothers, parents and children who truly love each other are linked by a sort of psychic umbilical cord."
In "The White Snake" that cord literally takes shape to connect the child to a loved one who happens to be staying on the grounds of the orphanage. Pennoyer elaborates further when Latimer scoffs at the psychic link claim.
"But even if there's no link of this life between them...that does not mean there is no connection between their souls, their older selves. There may be a very strong connection there that dates from some previous life. A connection that is still so strong that in sleep it reaches out blindly, gropingly, hungering to renew the link that once existed unbroken between them."
By this third tale in the collection the reader sees that Lawrence intends her stories to transcend the horror element in favor of human emotion and sentiment. She uses motifs of ghost stories and weird tales to introduce unusual "psychic relationships" that have gone awry. Pennoyer enters the picture to "heal" those relationships in a sort of occult therapy session. He even has a bag of tricks — the so-called bogey bag — to help him out when straight intuition and human intervention will not alone solve the problems. Latimer describes the bag as "containing all sorts of oils and unguents, queer-looking metal contraptions, robes and headgear, various documents and a book or two, packets of herbs, odd-looking amulets, all manner of things that might be needed by my colleague in his frequent battles with the Forces of the Outer Dark." That's some kind of suitcase!

Another recurring theme in Lawrence's collection is that of redemption best illustrated in the second tale "The Case of the Haunted Cathedral." This is an intricately layered story that starts out as a straightforward haunting story but soon becomes a story of a hidden crime. Pennoyer visits the cathedral and witnesses not one but two separate manifestations. It appears that the cathedral may be haunted but the ghost is haunted by another ghost! The answer lies in a hidden diary and the solution calls for an elaborate exorcism. The plot is convoluted and asks the reader to swallow a bit too much all at once.

Arkham House, 1st U.S. edition
"The Case of the Moonchild" is very much like a Sax Rohmer thriller with its baroque depiction of the occultist Father Aloysius. He has an affected manner and dress similar to the villains in Fire-Tongue and The Brood of the Witch Queen. He is even accompanied by a bodyguard who seems to have escaped from the extras cast of a Fu Manchu story. There is Svengali-like mesmerism, a jeweled cross with inscribed symbols of an ancient cult, and the discovery of a pillow stuffed with the leaves of a Greek plant called the Diktamnos. This story, unlike the others, is focused on an occult plot and reaches its climax in a richly detailed, eerie ritual performed on the moonlit grounds of a girls' academy. Also, Jerome Latimer narrates this story from his own point of view and for once takes an active part in the storyline. Probably because it abandons the love relationship motif (although the psychic link element is still present) I found this story to be one of the better tales as far as an entertaining thriller.

Critic Everett Bleiler, however, prefers the final story "The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe" as the best example of Lawrence's handling of the supernatural. In it we are treated to yet another child with a problem that is beyond normal comprehension and regular doctors and priests have been unable to explain. Ev is not too kind with Margery. His entry for Lawrence's book in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction says she has a nice touch with creating stories but that they are often "drowning in words." I will agree with him on that point. She has an unnecessary habit of veering off on tangents that do nothing but annoy the reader and distract from the main point. But here in "Leannabh Sidhe" the tale is fairly uncluttered and is probably even better as a genuine detective story than any of the others.

The plot is a weird spin on the "Bad Seed/Devil Child" subgenre. Patrick Flaherty, the bad child, is not exactly a murderer but he seems responsible for unfortunate accidents that befall anyone who crosses him. Some of those accidents prove fatal. He used to be a happy-go-lucky boy, but a strange transformation overcame shortly after his father died in a car accident back in Ireland. Now Patrick grows irritable and angry at the mention of his former homeland. He spends most of his time playing with animals (except dogs; they shun him everywhere) and intimidating nearly every adult he encounters. Only his aunt and a servant have the courage to face up to him and his antics. Patrick's mother has been reduced to a timid yes-woman, completely in her son's power She has turned to her sister, Miss Cargill, for advice on how to return Patrick to his normal boyhood instead of the "strange otherness, this thing not quite human," he has become. Enter Dr. Miles Pennoyer who will play the part of Patrick's new tutor in order to observe his behavior and interaction up close.

Of all the tales in the volume, "Leannabh Sidhe" is the best constructed mystery story. True there is a strong supernatural element, however, the story overall is written in a manner to tease the reader, to get him asking questions just as a lover of whodunits would: What exactly happened to Patrick? Why does everyone refer to him as a "thing" and not a boy? What is in that sketchbook he keeps secret from everyone? Why does he continually make fun of his own name and claim to have a different one? There are many more questions an astute and curious reader will ask throughout this well written, suspenseful tale. All those questions will be answered. A clever reader who has a knowledge of Celtic legends and mythology will be able to outguess Pennoyer before he announces to Miss Cargill his final diagnosis and cure for Patrick.

"Leannabh Sidhe" is a strong story, but I still prefer the lurid nature of "The Moonchild" over this drawn out affair that is bogged down with multiple third hand narratives by characters who have overheard conversations, a popular motif in detective stories and novels. Pennoyer must travel all the way to Ireland and hunt down a seemingly insignificant maid to get a first hand account (finally!) and receive the final piece to the puzzle of Patrick's transformation. By that time, all the clues have been presented and the reader is fairly certain what and who is responsible for the bizarre personality change. The climax — rather Lovecraftian in its descriptions — in which Pennoyer must perform an ancient ritual armed with occult tools from his bogey bag and ending in a face-off with Patrick's true father is well worth the wait.

The Miles Pennoyer stories were published in two collections.
Number Seven Queer Street (Robert Hale, 1945)
Master of Shadows (Robert Hale, 1959)

There was also a U.S. edition of Number Seven Queer Street published by Arkaham House. Unfortunately, for copyright purposes two stories were excluded in that edition. The U.K. edition has all seven tales, the US version only five.

[NOTE: I wrote this in 2001 for "The Weird Review" - an e-zine devoted to the discussion of classic and vintage supernatural and weird fiction. I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in broadening their choice of reading material in supernatural fiction - especially the Victorian and Edwaradian era ghost stories of so many incomparable writers.]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Search for My Great-Uncle's Head - Peter Coffin

Peter Coffin is both the narrator and author of The Search for My Great Uncle's Head. There was a time when there were loads of books "written" by the narrator. I wonder why writers thought this was clever. They weren't fooling anyone. The books were always found in the fiction section of bookstores so why bother with the gimmick at all? In this case Peter Coffin turned out to be a pseudonym for Jonathan Latimer, creator of the Bill Crane private eye novels. The Crane books are completely different in tone and style from this book. From the title you think you'll be getting a very black comedy and there is a smidgen of that here. I'd say it's more of a blend of the fair play detective novel and a surreal nightmare thriller with a trace of the Gothic shocker thrown in for good measure. The wise cracking dialogue of Bill Crane is fairly absent here.

Coffin is summoned to the home of his great-uncle Tobias Coffin where his relatives have gathered for an announcement about Tobias' will. While walking through the woods in the most Gothic scene in the book Coffin encounters a barefoot man skipping along merrily and singing the old nursery rhyme "A tisket, a tasket." Later we discover that he met up with an escaped lunatic who previously had decapitated his wife and children. The police are trying to capture the nut case but are doing a pretty poor job of things. At the home of his great-uncle Coffin is met by his hostile relatives who mistake him for the lunatic due to his rain drenched clothes and his mud stained hands and face. After a brief clean-up and several protestations they allow him to see Great-Uncle Tobias who proceeds to castigate him in a kind of character test. Coffin, disgusted by the poor treatment, tells off his great-uncle and tries to leave the house. Tobias is pleased that Coffin shows a little backbone and convinces him to stay. He also confides in him that there will be a surprise in store for all the relatives the next day alluding to his plans to disperse his fortune in a new will.

But of course, Tobias is done in rather brutally as the title suggests. His headless corpse is discovered in his study and the new will is missing from his papers. Coffin attempts to do some detective work on his own but he proves to be rather dim witted even if he is a college professor of Renaissance English history. He's also ridiculed by nearly all the other characters in the book. Oddly enough, in a scene very reminiscent of ol' Aggy Plum, Coffin proves himself quite an athletic swimmer in the lake. When he practically drowns someone he believes to have taunted him one of the woman changes her initial opinion of him as a wimpy coward.

Our hero dwells too much, however, on what others think of him. He spends much of his time interpreting, often mistakenly, the opinions and actions of others. For a while it seems as if the book has forgotten it is a detective novel as it veers off into an exploration of a comedy of manners.

Coffin is trapped by his intellectual persona. The obvious eludes him. He is taken into confidence by some of his wily relatives who toy with him and yet he is never aware of their manipulations. He is something of an accidental detective like David Frome's Mr. Pinkerton who almost always stumbled into a crime and got entangled in the investigation like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Still, Coffin is so oblivious he doesn't even realize that he had in his possession from very early in the book the missing will that all the characters are so desperate to locate.

Only late in the book when an insurance investigator, Colonel Black, shows up does the book really start shaping up into a detective novel. Black is the quintessential detective of the Golden Age. He has arcane hobbies (the authenticity of Shakespeare's work), speaks enigmatically, and displays quirky methods of detection. In one scene he's sitting on the floor of his bedroom in lotus position apparently meditating. Later he is seen crawling on all fours at the scene of the crime and looking up at impossible angles. He also suffers from the "Van Dine syndrome" of extemporaneously lecturing on any esoteric topic that captures his fancy whether it relates to the case or not (see my review of The Fifth Tumbler for another of these detectives). But he's far more interesting than Coffin. He's the much needed breath of fresh air in a book that otherwise might have succumbed to a suffocating claustrophobia.

Monday, April 18, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Snake of Luvercy - Maurice Renard


Maurie Renard, science fiction & thriller author

Mme de Prasse and her son Lionel are intent on luring young Gilberta Laval (Mme de Prasse’s niece) away from Jean Mareuil, her intended fiancée. The countess and her son want Gilberta’s fortune, inherited from Mme de Prasse’s dead sister, for themselves and are hoping to marry Gilberta to Lionel. So the scheming de Prasse family enlists the aid of a crooked former butler to follow Mareuil. They soon discover that Mareuil is leading a double life – by night he becomes Charlot the Snake, a ruffian of the Parisian underworld with a girlfriend who does a snake charming routine for café patrons.

There is much discussion about the current ideas (circa late 1920s) about multiple personality and memory throughout most of the book. The de Prasses think that Charlot was somehow involved in the bizarre death of Mme de Prasse’s sister, Jeanne Laval (Gilberta’s mother) who was bitten by a deadly South American viper, a rare specimen captured by M. Laval who was a sometime explorer and naturalist. The twisting plot then alternates between the scheming countess and her son doing their best to expose Jean as a criminal and Jean’s desperate attempt to prove Gilberta’s mother was murdered by one of the de Prasse family members.

An excellent fast paced thriller with a surprise ending. Interesting use of snake imagery throughout as well. Typical of his French crime writing contemporaries Renard relies heavily on duplicity, disguise and misdirection about the true identities of many of the characters.

Although Maurice Renard wrote one of the most terrifying crime thrillers of the early 20th century, The Hands of Orlac (which was filmed three times), he is perhaps best known as a science fiction writer. He even invented his own genre that he dubbed "Scientific Marvel Fiction." Only a few of his works were published in English during his lifetime.

In the last five years, however, there has been a renewed interest in his work. Several new English translations by Brian Stableford have been released by Black Coat Press. They have published five of Renard's science fiction books only one of which had been previously published in an expurgated, badly translated version in the 1920s. That book was published in the US as New Bodies for Old.  The new Black Coat Press edition restores its original French title of Doctor Lerne.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: U of I Gym Locker Receipt

One of the bonuses of this ephemera collection of mine is learning about Chicago's past when I go to write about some of the more interesting things I find left inside my books. Today's item prompted me to find out more about a gym that apparently was located at the now refurbished tourist playground known as Navy Pier. These days it's the home of the giant Ferris Wheel, several shops and restaurants, and the amazing Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Back in the day Navy Pier had an entirely different purpose than entertaining the masses.

Here's what I found in one of my old mystery books. (click on the images for full size)


On the reverse: young, good man Brown scrawled a memo about two books of decidedly different content.


Note that while young Mr. Brown got the author for Forever Amber correct he messed up on Studs Lonigan's creator.  It's James Farrell, not James Jones who wrote From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line among other books dealing with World War 2 and its aftermath. It's this error of Brown's that can easily date this slip of paper at least to the early 1950s when Jones was a bestselling author and the famed movie version of From Here to Eternity was extremely popular.  It may be from the mid 1950s, but I doubt it's from the 1960s.

A diligent Google search (using the correct combination of search terms, of course) revealed to me that the University of Illinois did once have a branch of the school located at the old Navy Pier. It was open from 1946 to 1965. They shared the space with the Chicago Police Traffic Division, the North Pier Terminal Company, and a few military tenants.


Here's one of my favorite bits from the article I found at the UIC website devoted to their university's history:

On October 21, 1946, the new branch campus opened to about 4,000 students. Officially called the University of Illinois, Chicago Undergraduate Division (CUD), students described the campus as the “narrowest university in the world,” a “sideways skyscraper,” the “horizontal cathedral of learning,” and “Harvard on the Rocks.”

For more on the early history of the University of Illinois at Chicago go here.

Read about James Farrell and Studs Lonigan here.

To learn about Kathleen Winsor's "dirty book" Forever Amber go to your local library. Although it was at one time a book banned for it's daring sexual frankness, it's sure to be on the shelves there now. It's hardly pornographic. Daring for its time is even a stretch. As usual, the people who wanted to ban it were the ones with the problem with sex. It certainly wasn't the book. Wonder what young Mr. Brown thought of it...if he ever found and read it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

FFB: Broken Boy - John Blackburn

Readers who enjoy the Peculiar Crimes Unit detective novels of Christopher Fowler and are impatient for the next Bryant & May adventure into the bizarre and macabre should turn to the works of John Blackburn as a more than suitable substitute. His books are amazingly similar in structure and theme to Fowler's work. Blackburn also shares Fowler's interest in arcane legends and folklore as well as the secrets of old London's infrastructure and architecture. I have to thank Mike Ripley for sending me a promo on Top Notch Thrillers, a reprint line he edits for Ostara Publishing. In that email there was some info on Blackburn that prompted me to investigate this writer. Though Blackburn wrote straight crime and straight espionage as well, it is his own special blending of crime supernatural and espionage that has made him according to the Top Notch Thriller publicity "the link between Dennis Wheatley and James Herbert."

One of the most intriguing of Blackburn's thrillers is his fourth book, Broken Boy, published in 1959 in his native England and released in the US in 1962. The melding of crime, detection, and the supernatural ranks with the best of not only Fowler but groundbreaking genre-benders like Dennis Wheatley, A. Merritt and the stories of Seabury Quinn. While Blackburn is not shy to indulge in pulpy thrills like those last three writers he is more interested in the psychological motivations of characters who employ the occult and supernatural for their own selfish purposes.

The book begins as any standard detective novel with the investigation of a crime. What at first seems like a brutal murder of a prostitute dumped beneath a bridge by an angry and savage john will prove to be something far more complex. General Charles Kirk and his fellow Home Office agents, Michael Howard and Penny Wise, are called in when the prostitute is identified as Gerda Raine, a former East German spy, with a particularly callous and sociopathic nature. She is linked to the selling of British government secrets in exchange for a British passport that would allow her a freer life. But while the reader may think this will morph into a spy novel he will be dead wrong. When Kirk visits Gerda's apartment he meets her very strange landlady and the landlady's son. He also finds a weird idol in her room.

Queen Ranavalona I - a nasty piece of work
The title refers to that idol - a disturbing figurine of apparently African origin with blind eyes and unnaturally disjointed arms and legs. It is this object that leads Kirk and his team to the discovery of a strange cult in the town of Minechester. With the help of an anthropologist and a medical doctor Kirk learns that the idol is tied to ancient black magic studies with their roots in the French Revolution era that made their way to Madagascar where purportedly they were adopted by the very real historical figure of Ranavalona the Cruel. 

Mothers and sons play a big part in the story. Each mother Kirk and his team encounter has the odd habit of referring to her no longer living husband in this fashion: "My husband? Oh, he...died." In each case a slight pause before the word "died." Kirk only realizes this strange speech pattern very late in the book. It's a subtle clue to a larger and nightmarish revelation.

There is a point in the book where one of these women reveals her true nature and the entire book shifts in tone. It's a real "Aha!" moment for the reader. What seems like just another detective story with some bizarre plot elements instantly transforms itself. From this point on I kept thinking of the old TV series The Avengers. The finale, however, is something straight out of a 1960s Hammer horror movie or even the weird menace pulps of the 1930s. There is a perfect scene where one of the villains shouts out "You fool. You wretched, interfering, foolish fool." And she punctuates each adjective by slapping her bound captive across the face. How's that for a throwback to the pulp era?

Broken Boy is the kind of book I crave. It has the perfect blend of action and detection, the surreal and the supernatural, and the utterly bizarre. When I come across something as weird as this I want to find every other book the writer has written and read them all. As a matter of fact I've already ordered four more Blackburn supernatural thrillers and eagerly await their arrival in my book crammed house.

Reviews of other John Blackburn thrillers on this blog are hyperlinked in the lists below.

The General Charles Kirk Supernatural Thrillers
(many of which also feature Marcus Levin and his wife Tania)

John Blackburn, circa 1959
A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958)
A Sour Apple Tree (1958)
Broken Boy (1959)
A Ring of Roses (1965)
    (aka A Wreath of Roses)
Children of the Night (1966)
Nothing But the Night (1968)
The Young Man from Lima (1970)
For Fear of Little Men (1972)
The Sins of the Father (1979)

Other Thrillers with Bizarre and/or Supernatural Content (without Kirk & crew)

Bury Him Darkly (1969)
Blow the House Down (1970)
Devil Daddy (1972)
Deep Among the Dead Men (1973)
Our Lady of Pain (1974)
Mister Brown's Bodies (1975)
The Face of the Lion (1976)
The Cyclops Goblet (1977)
A Book of the Dead (1984)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Horror on the Loch - David Whitelaw

This had an interesting start but Whitelaw has a verbose writing style that bogs down the action with overly detailed geographic descriptions and rambling tangential passages unrelated to the main plot. E.F. Bleiler's comment about Margery Lawrence's writing style as "drowning in words" comes to mind.

The initial problem seems like something out of a John Dickson Carr novel.  In the opening of the book a burial vault under observation is broken into and a body is stolen but no one was seen leaving with the corpse. I had great hopes for a thriller of a detective novel. The writing has wonderful Gothic atmosphere in the descriptive passages of the Scottish landscape and the cast of quirky minor characters. There is much hinting at supernatural interference. Among the possibilities discussed are a local legend of some beast that haunts the moors, a vampire when the carcass of a gigantic bat is found near the burial vault, and later when the sexton is found with his throat ripped open.  All of this, however,  is dismissed when the real reason for the bizarre events is discovered halfway through the book.

A local physician has been conducting genetic experiments (Island of Dr. Moreau redux) and one of the specimens from his collection of freakish animals escaped and killed the sexton. The hero discovers the stolen corpse in the lab and learns the physician was starting human experiments. His Malay servant was his earliest guinea pig in the first of the human experiments. He now has larger than normal hands and a freakishly out of proportion upper torso and odd facial features. The physician is killed in a fight with the protagonist who escapes with the doctor's niece from the gloomy castle and dungeon-like lab.

The rest of the book is spent in looking for a stolen treasure (a second reason for the burial vault break-in) and locating a black sheep relative of the stolen corpse who was responsible for hiring a crook to break into the vault. No supernatural content at all. More science fiction horror than anything else. It might be worth reading some of his other books to see if he was a Carr wanna-be.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Death at Swaythling Court - J.J. Connington

Bordering on a parody this is an early Connington novel with an unusual light-hearted tone not found in his later books with Sir Clinton Driffield. The characters are here are stock, speak in phonetic dialects, and behave a little less than real. The detective elements are well done and the book is a good example of what the mystery novel was like in the early 1920s.

The story involves the invention of a lethal ray and the attempts of Jimmy Leigh, the inventor, to acquire financing to start a manufacturing business. His mistake is that he chooses as his primary backer William Hubbard, a wealthy, lisping, butterfly collector who also happens to be a despicable blackmailer. As is the case with most blackmailers in crime fiction he meets a violent end. He is discovered apparently stabbed by a paper knife in his suffocatingly hot study.

At the inquest expert testimony reveals that the knife wound was done post mortem and that he died from cyanide poisoning. But why stab him as well? Inspection of the crime scene reveals a broken display case with a stolen butterfly, some papers and documents burned in the fireplace, and a .022 caliber pistol lying on the carpet. While the main characters are looking over the crime scene, Hubbard's pet parrot, disturbed by some earlier altercation that took place in the room, suddenly erupts in a stream of foul language much to the amazement of the three men who discover the body. Other unusual aspects in the story include three characters who own motorcycles (one of them being a butler) and a village idiot obsessed with finding and keeping beautiful things. There is a bit thrown in about a local superstition of the Green Devil whose ghostly appearance signals the approaching death of someone in the village. This never really amounts to anything unfortunately.

This was Connington's first detective novel after his science fiction novel Nordenholt's Millions. An admirable and entertaining job. Solution is actually presented at the half way point by the culprit but is touted as a theory and then dismissed by the Colonel, the local magistrate who is acting as the story's primary detective. It is one of the early rule-breaking detective stories in that the culprits manage to escape punishment for their actions. There are various ethical and moral rationales discussed throughout the book (primarily the evil of blackmail) that the Colonel uses to justify his decision. He's not as Old Testament in his retribution as Beatrice Bradley sometimes behaves, still it is worth noting for a detective novel written in the 1926.

Interestingly, like many writers who introduce supernatural elements into their detective novels only to rationalize them, the science fiction element introduced at the start of the book turns out to be completely phony. Question: what happened to Connington's sense of humor in the later Driffield books? Maybe I've not read enough of his work but this seems almost farcical compared to other novels.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ODDITIES: Chalk Face - Waldo Frank


Here's another one of those books that crops up on want lists of collectors of arcane and supernatural fiction. Waldo's Frank's esoteric novel of 1924, Chalk Face, is a puzzle to me. I was simultaneously hypnotized by his prose and the sinister tone of the book, yet completely left in a fog as to what it all meant. Unlike a similar story overloaded with inexplicable menace which was much easier to follow (Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind reviewed on this blog here) I was a bit lost in this ambiguous convoluted tale of a man haunted by a mysterious figure who seems to be killing all of his enemies.

Is it a metaphysical mystery? Is it genuinely supernatural? Is it a story of a man losing his mind? It is indeed a tale of murder and there is some genuine detection along the lines of an R. Austin Freeman or J.J. Connington scientific detective novel (the narrator is a physician). But there is the apparition of the “man with the white head” who is on the scene of each violent death leads the reader to believe some supernatural agent is acting on the narrator’s evil thoughts. A weird dream sequence which takes up the entire second section of the book makes one think that the narrator is in fact going mad and that he himself has committed all the murders. Frank's fascination with Feud and his theories may explain the this entire sequence.  It's like a prose version of the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Then again, it’s possible that there is a genuine doppelganger device playing out here along the lines of Poe's "William Wilson".

Waldo Frank, circa 1923
(photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
The book is written in an arty, pseudo-sophisticated style that literary critics like Kathleen Pfeiffer call "modernist" and "experimental." I won't argue with her. I wonder what readers in the 1920s thought of it when it was originally published? Was it only popular with the intelligentsia and the bohemian crowd?  There is no denying that Frank has mastered an eerie and claustrophobic mood throughout the book. Just what he intends this to mean eludes me.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Pontiac Price List, Feb. 1939

Today's strange bookmark left inside one of my books is a price list from an old Pontiac dealership in Chicago. There is a very small date (2-15-39) in the lower left hand corner of the front side. As for the X drawn through the first column and the 115 written in - I'm guessing that means that the "Quality " model with a V-6 engine was no longer available and only the Deluxe models could be purchased. Just a guess though. It's amazing to look at these car prices. The prices listed are now the equivalent of one month's rent in a decent one bedroom apartment in Chicago.



Then you flip over the card for the add-on "approved accessories" to see the extra money you needed to dish out for say a radio which apparently was not at all standard (look at the first side again). I'm sure radios were very popular and brought in quite a bit of extra cash for Pontiac. I notice that air conditioning is conspicuously absent. Guess it had yet to be thought of for cars even though Willis Carrier invented it in 1902 and founded his company in 1915.


Once again, I have no idea what book this fell out of. I wish I had notated all these pieces, but it only dawned on me to do so very late when I had already acquired about 75 or so pieces. It was most likely in a mystery novel from one of the many books I used to buy when I was an estate sale addict.

In a Related Story...

Every now and then I get a very interesting email from a reader of this blog who, in lieu of leaving a comment, sends me a personal note. This one I wanted to share with everyone. So I asked the reader (SteveHL) for permission to post it. It's related to the post on Miss Hargreaves back in March and mentions a similar idea as treated in a short story by a different writer.

I would have just posted this on your blog entry for 3/11 but I don't know if you would ever see that. Thanks for the recommendation of Miss Hargreaves. I ordered it and read it this past weekend. I am in total agreement - a really fine book.

There is a rather similar and very good short story, "Presence of Mind", written by a British writer named Martin Armstrong. It was originally published in 1934 in a book titled General Buntop's Miracle and Other Stories. I read the story in Fantastic Stories of Imagination (October 1962) in what was evidently the only other time it appeared. I don't know if your bookselling includes old science fiction magazines, but if you can find this, it's definitely worth seeking out. It's years since I last read this but I can still remember a lot of it. One of the people brought to life in the same way as Miss Hargreaves is named, I believe, Z. Q. Muggleton Spoffin; if you can bring Z. Q. to life, you can pretty much create anything. (That issue of Fantastic also had the first publication of Fritz Leiber's "The Unholy Grail" about the Gray Mouser in pre-Fafhrd days as well as stories by Tom Disch, Roger Zelazny and Ron Goulart. The Disch was his first published story.)
Thanks, Steve. And now...  further info from your intrepid blog host.  I can never resist a literary research challenge.

Martin D. Armstrong was a writer primarily of short stories. My research turned up four collections of his stories all of which include a handful of supernatural, ghost or fantasy stories. They are listed below with the appropriate genre tales noted. All the books listed below are the first UK editions. A few of his books were indeed published in the US, but I didn't bother looking up all of the bibliographic info on those.

The Bazaar and Other Stories
(Jonathan Cape, 1924)
Including: "Mrs Barber's Christmas", "Helm Hall", and "A Dog's Life")

The Fiery Dive and Other Stories
(Gollancz, 1929)
Including: "The Fiery Dive", "In the Wilds", "Portrait of the Misses Harlowe", "Saint Hercules", "Sombrero", "Widow of Ephesus"

General Buntop's Miracle and Other Stories
(Gollancz, 1934)
Including: "Presence of Mind", and "The Pipe Smoker"

A Case of Conscience and Other Tales
(Gollancz, 1937)
Including: "The Phantom Horseman"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Old House of Fear - Russell Kirk

On the dedication page Kirk says that this "Gothick tale [is] in unblushing line of direct descent from The Castle of Otranto." Well. Authors are allowed their hyperbolic dedications, aren't they? The novel owes more to Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, and even Guy Boothby but the only thing "in direct descent" from Walpole's masterful Gothic thriller is the creepy castle of the title. Nothing else.

The story starts off very much like a Gothic and there is a lot of legend and lore filling the pages, but after a rather protracted exposition (in which our hero attempts to get to the remote and unfriendly island of Carnglass at least four times) the hero does indeed arrive only to discover that the island has been taken over by a gang of thugs and criminals under the leadership of Dr. Edmund Jackman. The novel ceases to be a Gothic at this point and transforms into an adventure/crime novel.

Jackman is of the sinister master criminal type "in direct descent" from Dr. Nikola and the oddball occultists in Sax Rohmer's supernatural novels. Although all the gunplay and violence seemed to me very much like it was "in direct descent" from Edgar Wallace or Dennis Wheatley. Hugh Logan is our hero; Mary MacAskival, the heroine; and Dr. Jackman, the truly evil villain. It's all melodrama and heavy handed stylized prose. There is the usual business of who will inherit the castle; our poor hero trying to figure out who is telling the truth and with whom he should ally himself; death traps; narrow escapes; and a crazed bloody shoot out in the finale with the MacAskivals coming to rescue our hero and heroine. Dr. Jackman gets a fitting violent death of which I'll say no more.

It's entertaining and often gripping, but in the end all very familiar. Even the supernatural elements are rationalized. I was disappointed by that since at one point they seemed very other worldly. Not at all in line with Walpole, Radcliffe or any other genuine Gothic writer.

Friday, April 8, 2011

FFB: The Naked Sun - Isaac Asimov

I've always enjoyed how some writers have mastered genre blending. My personal favorite will always be the detective novel that incorporates the supernatural. There are, however, examples of science fiction detective novels that are just as brilliant. Given that so much of the best science fiction deals with the study of alien cultures and mores it's a wonder to me that there aren't more sci-fi/detective novels out there. But then again maybe there are, and I have yet to discover them. One of the best and earliest practitioners of the sci-fi detective novel was Isaac Asimov who not only wrote a detective plot into his some books, but added the extra bonus of making those plots impossible crimes. He is in my estimation the John Dickson Carr of the science fiction realm.

The Naked Sun is a sequel to an earlier detective sci -fi book (Caves of Steel) featuring the same leading characters of Elijah Baley, a policeman from Earth, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a very human-like appearance and build. The Naked Sun is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel on all levels including the impossible crime elements and is astonishingly timely for the 21st century. It can easily be read and enjoyed without having read Caves of Steel first.

Whereas Caves of Steel is set on Earth The Naked Sun takes place on the colonized planet Solaria in what is known as the Outer Worlds. Baley is personally summoned to help solve the first ever murder committed on the planet populated by only 25,000 Spacers (term for humans living on colonized planets) who lead solitary lives and rarely if ever personally interact with other Solarians. Baley paired once again with Daneel Olivaw (who is mysteriously incognito as a human) must investigate the death of Dr. Rikaine Delmarre, a genetic scientist (or fetologist as he is dubbed in the book) who was in charge of the Solarian birthing center. His wife, Gladia, is the prime suspect. She was the only person allowed to see her husband. As robots must obey the primary laws of serving humans first and never allowing them to come to harm it appears that a robot could not have been responsible for the death. Gladia claims total innocence in the bludgeoning death of her husband. It appears to be an impossible crime if what she says is true, for no one but robots were present when her husband was killed.

Baley faces a major culture clash as a Earthman who is used to living in the underground cities (the "caves of steel") back home. The Solarians live above ground and enjoy a much longer day in the light of the naked sun. He must overcome both his dread of the outdoors as much as the Solarians must overcome their fear and hatred of Earthmen who they view as vile and filthy. Why? Because on Earth humans interact with one another, touch one another, and "see" one another on a daily basis. The Solarians make only rare visits to see one another and only touch one another when they are genetically selected to create a child. They do most of their interacting by "viewing" - a technology similar to the internet Skype service of today but with the added sci-fi bonus of screenless 3D images that can travel with the viewer from room to room or even outdoors.

Solaria also has a far greater population of robots than humans. There are something like two million robots in service for the entire Spacer population of 25,000. Needless to say the Solarians do very little with their lives and have robots at the beck and call providing them every service they could imagine even to the point of raising their children. As in The Caves of Steel robots play a very important part in the three crimes committed in the book.

Baley has his hands full dealing with Daneel who has not made it known to the Solarians that he is a robot. This at first bothers Baley but he soon realizes this was a ploy by the Outer World authorities and he begins to realize this will be to their advantage. Still, the human disguise does not often work very well as Daneel's speech pattern is too stilted and emotionless. Baley fears his cover may be blown ruining their plan. There is also the problem of Daneel's far too logical programming:
Logic was logic and robots had nothing else. Logic told Daneel he was completely stymied. Reason might have told him that all factors are rarely predictable, that the opposition might make a mistake.
None of that. A robot is logical, only, not reasonable. 
The book is amazingly prescient in what it has to say about dependence on machines, living a life of pleasure for pleasure's sake, the importance of face to face contact in sustaining a healthy civilization and numerous scientific advances that seem mundane to us in the 21st century. All that needs to be done is to substitute the robots in Asimov's book for the electronic gadgetry of our modern times and you can immediately see how the lives of the Solarians are not much different from our own.

Increasingly people seem to be disappearing into a virtual world of Facebook, iPhones, iPods, laptops, eBook readers.  If a Solarian were to visit Earth now it might appear that most Earthers prefer "viewing" to "seeing." I often hear from some of my more addicted gadget loving friends that to contemplate living without electronic devices is anathema to them.  Although we haven't yet utterly shunned human interaction I would venture to guess we are not far from becoming Solarians. Even Asimov's talk about genetic experimentation in the way Solarians decide who should marry and procreate is not at all different from in-vitro and other extracorporeal means of creating children.

Read as an entertaining detective story with a sci-fi angle The Naked Sun is comparable to anything by the Grand Masters of mysterydom. As an eerie forecast of what a man living in the 1950s imagined of "life in the future" it is a sobering account for any 21st century reader.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

IN BRIEF: Sweetheart, Sweetheart - Bernard Taylor

Uneven ghost story that is a kind of homage to Rebecca. David Warwick longs to visit his estranged father and twin brother in England. When he arrives at his father’s home he learns that Colin, the twin brother, is dead as is his wife Helen. David assumes that they died together but he eventually learns they died on separate days in separate apparent accidents.

As he tries to learn more about the two deaths he also discovers a violent past attached to the cottage which he has now inherited. Most of the previous tenants of the cottage also died violent deaths going back for three generations. David begins to think that perhaps there is a malevolent presence associated with the cottage and the grounds.

An introverted housekeeper, a roguish artist who has disappeared and various villagers figure in this complicated plot which slowly reveals the intricate past of Helen and Colin as well as the long dead previous occupants of the cottage. The ghost story aspect does not truly come into play until the book is two-thirds over, but the slow revelation of all the dead characters’ pasts holds the reader’s interest.

However, in the final third gruesome incidents pile one upon the other in a kind of unintentional parody of M. R. James’ “Lost Hearts.” A horribly gory ending in which the ghost exacts even more bloody revenge (with five corpses she hadn’t had enough?) seemed like it belonged to a completely different story. Prior to the shocking finale the structure was that of a detective novel with legitimate suspense and genuine supernatural aspects. To suddenly convert the story into a gory shocker smacks of potboiler to me.

Taylor's first novel The Godsend (one of the many devil child horror stories of the mid 20th century) was made into a movie in 1980. I think I may have seen it but much of it has faded into oblivion.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

ODDITIES: Death at "The Bottoms" - A. B. Cunningham

Here's an odd cast of characters for you: Snotnose Kale, Bigfoot Paden, Dummy Axling, Carlyn Aljor, Wib Turner, Butch Thord, Keb Folden, and Rod Kloth. Are we in Harry Stephen Keeler territory here? Maybe some kind of Damon Runyon tale with quaintly dubbed gangsters? Could it be some Lil Abner style murder mystery? The last guess isn't too far off. These are the people of A.B. Cunningham's WW2 era Kentucky in his fourth novel Death at "The Bottoms."

This is the first book by Cunningham I've read and I'm glad I chose this one as my introduction to his work. It's one of those old-fashioned backwoods detective novels that has echoes of the kind of detection done by Hesketh Pritchard's November Joe and not a little bit of Sherlock Holmes.

The victim is Vivian Beck and she appears to have been attacked by a pack of dogs that has been roaming and attacking livestock. Her body has been found in deep snow with several sets of dog tracks surrounding the immediate area. Farmers in town have been keeping their shotguns by their doors in case they hear the marauding canines. Sheriff Jess Roden, Cunningham's series detective, almost immediately sees that the wounds that caused her death could not have been made by dogs or any other animal. Why? Because many of them contain rust stains and flecks of corroded metal. Roden's investigation of the crime scene is only the first instance of some interesting fundamental detective work.

In a surprisingly violent scene early in the book a group of overgrown delinquents bent on ending the dog pack attacks go on a killing spree savagely and sadistically doing in a number of pets unfortunately running loose in the area. When Roden gets word of the dog killing spree he and a friend set out to avenge the town's pets. Roden sets his own dogs (he owns five) on the men with a hidden agenda in mind. He wants to have a few of the men incur dog attack wounds so that he can compare them with the wounds in the corpse of Vivian Beck. This is how the law works in rural Kentucky in the early 1940s.

As the book progresses it becomes increasingly odd. It seems to be suffering from a schizoid identity. While it is definitely a detective novel, the characters, the extreme violence and the dark tone make me want to treat it differently. It's almost as if Cunningham managed to create his own version of country noir not unlike the plots found in Daniel Woodrell's crime novels which were written more than forty years after this book. Although there is no real doomed obsessive love story here as in noir, there is a love triangle of sorts. Also, the characters are grotesque enough to have been created for a typical noir story.

Bigfoot Paden is a moonshine maker with a still hidden away in an abandoned mine. Carlyn Aljor is a femme fatale of a nurse taking care of Ivy Martin, an ungrateful invalid, but spends her time seducing Chas Beck, the victim's handsome husband, whenever she has a chance. Then there's Dummy Axling, a deaf mute who is a key witness but whose communication skills are almost completely absent. His wild gesticulating and grunting lead only to more confusion rather than clearing up the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of Vivian Beck.  Finally, there's Big Nig, the token stereotyped black character complete with insulting phonetic dialect.  He's deputized by a US marshal in order to persuade moonshiner Bigfoot Paden to cooperate with the law. Big Nig's major scene is a Kentucky duel of sorts with the moonshiner. Bigfoot is armed with a fish gig and the giant black man threatens to cut Paden to ribbons with his straight razor he conveniently carries on a string around his neck. You don't find these kinds of characters in Agatha Christie, do you?


The finale has a few nice twists in store and I was genuinely taken by surprise when the murderer was unmasked. There's the usual summing up in the final chapter in the manner of a typical detective novel and all the odd angles of the story suddenly are revealed in their true light. The grotesqueness of some of the characters is what serves as the main form of misdirection in this book. The reader spends so much time appalled by their actions and words that he fails (as does Roden) to see what is really going on. Cunningham must be given credit for putting a very American spin on his mystery novels.

I'm interested in reading the four other Cunningham books I managed to acquire this year.  Anthony Boucher in his reviews done for the San Francisco Chronicle has some good things to say about Cunningham's detective novels.  This one must be atypical of his work.

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NOTE: I have started receiving requests for books to loan out by mail. Can you believe it? For those who are yet unaware of this service read this post. The above book I DO NOT own. Please do not send requests for it.

I am trying to come up with a way to signal whether or not a book is available for loan. Other than flat out telling you, I am stumped. I'm not good with this kind of shorthand symbol thing. Anyone have any ideas? A free book from one of my many duplicate copies is yours if you come up with a simple solution.  Is this my first contest?  Maybe.