Monday, August 29, 2011

Baantjer Tribute: DeKok & Murder in Seance

Hideous cover art!
As you will learn from our good friend TomCat at his blog Detection by Moonlight A.C. Baantjer died one year ago today, August 29. TomCat asked some of the readers and writers of detective fiction blogs to join in a tribute to the Dutch writer on this anniversary of his death. I intended to write on a trio of Baantjer's books, but alas I only managed to read one all the way through while the other two I abandoned about one third the way through each. But this third kept me interested as it was very much a retro-Golden Age detective novel. And so here is a review of DeKok and Murder in Seance.

One might be tempted to call this DeKok and the Handbook for Poisoners as it is entirely preoccupied with poisons as a means of murder for the first third of the book. It is the fifth or sixth book I have read this year in which hydrocyanic acid is used to kill a victim and the third or fourth book which once again goes into a lengthy discussion on the uses of the chemical in photography, as a pesticide, and other industrial purposes. There is a chapter in which DeKok and the younger policeman Dick Vledder discuss the variety of poisons, the ability to discover it in a corpse during autopsy, why the heavy metals linger in the human body and other poisons are harder to trace, etc. etc. Because I have been reading far too many books with poison as the means this was all a little tiresome to me. But I continued going because DeKok himself is an engaging character.

DeKok -- who loves to spell his name in these English translations "with kay-oh-kay" -- is hard not to like. Alternately irascible and affable he's sharp witted, good humored and wastes no time in getting to the heart of whatever case he is working on. Here he is challenged to unmask the devious killer among a spiritualist society.  During the middle of their weekly seance at the home of the blind medium Jennifer Jordan one of the members drops dead. The victim, known as Black Julie among the circle, appears to have not a single enemy yet her death uncovers some interesting secrets, notably her real name which turns out to be Jane Truffle.

Victor Reiner (l.) & Piet Römer as Vledder & DeKok
As DeKok proceeds in his investigation he is more and more troubled by the callous murder of Black Julie aka Jane. He begins to think that she was not the intended victim. This is subtly suggested through some of his questions which seem to be Columbo-like non sequiturs. He begins to ask all the women how they take their coffee. An astute reader will pick up on his reasoning for this line of questioning if he has been paying close attention to the discussion of poisons and how they can be administered. This is typical of the way DeKok runs his murder investigations. He allows the suspects to talk then takes them by surprise with an innocuous question but one that will prove to be instrumental in solving the case.

Orig Dutch edition  - there's a familiar face, eh?
I enjoyed some of the supporting characters who seem to  appear regularly in the series. I know from reading portions of two other books that the bar owner Lowy is definitely a recurring character. Here he not only serves as comic relief but also as a key player in the murder of Black Julie. Lowy, you see, was a former thief and he heard of the attractive art collection in Jennifer Jordan's house but he and his cronies avoided it as a target when they learned she was blind. "You don't steal from no blind lady" he tells Dekok. This line of dialog will come back to haunt the policeman as the case adds two more dead bodies and the possibility of art forgery into the case. A painter named Peter Karstens, who does forgery on the side, also is featured as is his shapely lover who serves as his model and who enjoys parading around his studio au naturel. These scenes are some of the best in the book, not for the nudity, but for the dialog between Dekok and Karstens. Vledder also proves to be a perfect foil for DeKok. He is younger, more strait-laced and less tolerant of his superior who is often irreverent and eccentric in his investigative style.

This is an interesting series that I may sample more of in the months ahead. It took a while for me to warm up to DeKok but I can now appreciate him after completing Murder in Seance.  It's easy to see how he and his creator enjoyed a long life as one of the best loved characters in Dutch crime fiction.  I'm glad we have been allowed to sample nearly all of his books in these English translations.

One thing more -- the translator, a certain H.G. Smittenaar, has taken it upon himself to add some very odd updated passages in these books. According to the publication history, clearly the books that I read were written long before the formation of the E.U. and the Netherlands' conversion to the Euro as its primary currency. Yet Smittenaar felt it necessary to talk of an amount in Dutch guilders in terms of contemporary Euros. This was in one of the books I didn't finish (Murder at Blood Mountain). In The Sorrowing Tomcat another one I didn't finish there is an equally bizarre discussion about an office machine that some workers refer to it as a fax yet DeKok still calls it a telex. If a book is written in the 1970s and the characters are using a telex machine, for Pete's sake call it a telex and not a fax! I was angered by this dumbing down for an English reading audience. Did the translator think Americans would have no knowledge of the past history of electronics and European currencies? I found no strange additions like this in Murder in Seance but I'm sure if two books had these weird updates then the rest of these English translations (and they number over 25) are sure to have a few more.

Hard Times Come Again No More

Hurricane Irene, destruction and loss, a parent in the hospital, and other personal messes are all on my mind today. I'm getting really bummed. My usual Monday post for the EuroPass challenge will be delayed today along with the post for the Baantjer tribute while I tend to some personal crises in my family.

In the meantime, what with all that's going on in this country and the world, here's a musical wish for anyone else in a similar situation.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

VIDEO: Curmudgeon or Realist?

Here's a British bookseller who owns a shop in Bournemouth. The clip is apparently part of a documentary in progress by a very young person who doesn't seem to understand that eccentricity and disorganization often go hand in hand in used bookshops. Try not to pay too much attention to her glib and facile narration. It's Rodney who should be the focus.




Friday, August 26, 2011

FFB: Frost - Donald Wandrei

Professor I. V. Frost is one of those super-intellectual, multifaceted fictional heroes that reigned in the heyday of the pulp magazine era. He has degrees in science, literature, and law. He was a former university level teacher and had research background in chemistry, physics , biology and physiology. He was also an inventor and automotive tinkerer. When academia grew tiresome he turned to the "final frontier" that all pulp heroes turn to eventually - criminal detection and the pursuit and apprehension of criminals of all types.

Assisting Ivy (as he is affectionately called) is his beautiful and lethal assistant Jean Moray. She's drop dead gorgeous (of course) and pretty mean with an automatic and knows a few tricks in the art of self-defense as well. Her striking beauty and shapely body are a perfect foil to the gaunt, towering, acetic figure of her intimidating employer.

Donald Wandrei's stories featuring this crime duo first appeared in the pages of Clues from 1934 through 1937. A total of eighteen stories were published and the first few originally published between September 1934 and December 1935 were collected in a handsomely designed volume published by the sadly missed indie publisher Fedogan & Bremer. Titled simply Frost it includes the very first story (also titled "Frost") as well as seven more that show off the weirder aspects of this writer and his brainy, somewhat arrogant detective.

An informative introduction by D. H. Olson traces the beginnings of Wandrei's career in the pulps, his early foray into the detective story and the immense popularity of the Ivy Frost stories. A passing mention is made of Wandrei's claims that some of the stories were plagiarized, but in my reading I found numerous similarities to the stories of Sherlock Holmes. In the case of "Impossible" the entire beginning is practically lifted from "The Red Headed League." Plagiarism? Or mere coincidence? This kind of thing is hard to prove and I tend to dismiss any pulp writer who claims his worked was pilfered when I can find egregious examples of possible pilfering from classic works in their own stories.

As for the stories themselves we have tales with bizarre murder methods like liquid nitrogen - apparently a favorite in the pulps as Anthony Rud also made use of it in The Rose Bath Riddle one year earlier than Wandrei did. "The Artist of Death" is a complex story that begins with a man confessing to the slaughter of apes throughout New York area zoos and pet shops, then asking Frost to murder him so that it doesn't look like suicide. Soon Frost discovers that the man's brother, a painter specializing in macabre and surreal artwork, has been horribly murdered. The story "Green Man - Creeping" tells of Mae Ellen Hollister whose entire family died over a period of two years. All of them seemed to have been frightened to death.  Her brother, the last to die, was mysteriously murdered in a crypt no sign of a weapon or any other person having entered the crypt.  This is the tale which Wandrei and Olson claim was plagiarized by John Franklin Bardin in his novel The Deadly Percheron which admittedly does share some similarities in plot. But it is "Impossible" which best exemplifies Frost. Here is a prototypical pulp story with convoluted plot, action scenes galore and the usual arcane knowledge imparted.

"Impossible" begins with a Holmesian office scene is which Nick Valmo tells Frost of how he answered an advertisement that runs:
Wanted: man, single, 5', 9 1/2" 140-150 pounds, age 26-30, brown eyes, black hair, Latin type, perfect teeth, ho physical disabilities, for interesting experimental and research work. Must be prepared to spend nights out of town. Good salary to right party.
He applied and out of the many identical looking men Valmo got the job. He was then chauffeured in a windowless truck to a brick house out in the country where he was asked over a period of days to perform some strange tasks. He copied out Chinese characters, he spent two hours doing nothing but talking, he even was asked to walk around the room naked for an entire afternoon. Valmo wants Frost to find out who hired him and why. Frost immediately asks Valmo to take off his shoes, leaves the room and when he returns he says he will take the case. When Valmo leaves Frost asks Jean what she thinks. She is astonished by the story but wants to believe Valmo even if he proves to be the world's most gullible fool. Frost replies that the story is true but the man is not the real Nick Valmo. He then enumerates nine points based solely on observation that prove the man who visited cannot be the real Valmo. These include scars on his face and fingers that indicate plastic surgery and uneven wear on his shoes proving that his smaller feet could not have caused the damage. Shades of Sherlock Holmes, eh?

From the collection of Morgan Holmes
From there the story becomes more and more involved. Frost breaks into a cemetery vault and takes fingerprints off a corpse. He learns of some confidence men who have gone missing or turned up dead. He enlists Jean's aid in trailing Nick Valmo, endangering her life in the process. He dons deep sea diving equipment to recover a dead body from a lake. Finally, almost single-handedly, Frost manages to solve the various mysteries that come to light using his far-fetched methods. They are presented as if they were logical deductions but they are anything but logical and far from fair play detection.

The I.V. Frost stories are perfect examples of the fantastical trends of the mystery story as published in the early pulp magazines. I found something to marvel at in all of the stories in this volume. Wandrei's imagination and plotting can be breathtaking, but his writing can also show the telltale signs of the penny-a-word fictioneer at his most verbose and multisyllabic.  Here are two examples that occur in the same paragraph:
He did not look like a person to be thought of in terms of blithesomeness and conviviality, but gay he seemed and plastered he was.
The entirety of this exquisite person finally arrived, after a series of further minor encounters with recalcitrant nature, in the general vicinity of his farm house
Blithesomeness?  Ugh.  Cumbersome neologisms and convoluted sentences like those tend to grate on the nerves after a while.

I've read elsewhere on the internet that there may soon be a new volume that compiles all eighteen Frost stories. Published by Haffner Press it should be released in March 2012. I'm eager to read those other ten stories - fantastic plots, verbose sentences and all. It's darn good reading even with their minor faults.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Amsterdam & Rotterdam

The train is pulling into Centraal Station in Amsterdam. Already I can smell the fragrant aroma of local baked goods and local baked people. Everyone knows Amsterdam is home to all those brown cafes where coffee and pot are sold in equal quantities, right? Well, maybe total sales tip the scale in favor of the magical weed. People tend to think of two things when Amsterdam is mentioned - pot and sex. But do you ever think of jazz music? Maybe you will now.

Evan Horne is a jazz piano player who happens to have an unfortunate habit of getting involved in music related crimes. He was created by Bill Moody, writer and jazz musician himself, and appeared in seven books so far. In his fourth outing, Looking for Chet Baker, Horne finds himself in the European playground for pleasure seekers of all types which also happens to be the city in which Baker died.

Seems a university professor acquaintance, Ace Buffington, is researching the mysterious death of Baker who fell out of a window at the Hotel Prins Hendrik back in 1988. He hopes Horne will meet him in Amsterdam and join in his adventure. When Horne arrives at the hotel Buffington is nowhere to be found. He seems to have vanished without a trace. He did, however, leave behind a portfolio with all his research on Baker stuffed behind a radiator in his hotel room. Horne is faced with a mystery again. What happened to Ace? And is his disappearance related to his work on Chet Baker and Baker's violent and seemingly accidental death?

Chet Baker memorial plaque outside Hotel Prins Hendrik
What I most enjoyed about this book was all the jazz music history and the parts dealing with music and the musician's mindset. You learn that Amsterdam has been the chosen city of exile for several ex-pat musicians in addition to Baker. You also get insight into the creative life of a jazz musician and what makes him tick. The writing about Horne's improv sessions perfectly encapsulates this kind of thinking. And one of the characters -- Fletcher Paige, an American sax player living in Amsterdam -- has some insightful comments about Horne's skills as a piano player ("...you looked like you were going to climb right in that piano.") reveal him to be the perfect personality type to sit back, reflect and observe, and take everything in. Interestingly, these are also the qualities of a good detective. No surprise that Horne is compelled to solve the mystery of Ace and Chet Baker.

The city comes alive in a different way than most books set in Amsterdam. Jazz music colors every scene. There's even a side trip to Rotterdam. But the presence of Chet Baker's ghost takes over. There are sections devoted to the trumpeter's final days interspersed within the mystery narrative. At one point Horne succumbs to the temptation of the magical weed, buys a particularly strong strain at one of the cafes and after smoking it, has a similarly strong hallucination. He imagines he sees Chet climbing up the drainpipe outside of the Hotel Prins Hendrik and Horne chases after him, but under the influence of the drug he doesn't make it up the pipe very far.

Bimhuis - Amsterdam music venue known for jazz
I liked the jazz music portions more than the crime story plot. I may check out others in the series, but a warning to anyone unfamiliar with this series. Do not start with this one. The previous book Bird Lives! will be completely ruined for you if you do. Evan Horne talks about that book in which he faces a mad serial killer and the killer's identity is revealed along with much of the story in that book. Also, Chapter 2 consists of a flashback of sorts where he seeks out a therapist who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder and he talks even more about he experiences in Bird Lives! as well as two other books in the series.

Evan Horne Jazz Music Mysteries
Solo Hand (1994)
Death of a Tenor Man (1995)
Sound of the Trumpet (1997)
Bird Lives! (1999)
Looking for Chet Baker (2002)
Shades of Blue (2008)
Fade to Blue (2011)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: Rhodes Less Taken

I'm perhaps a little late with this one as a follow-up to some good reviews of John Rhode's  books by my fellow vintage detective fiction bloggers: TomCat at Detection by Moonlight and Patrick who writes At the Scene of the Crime, but Dr. Priestley has been on my mind of late. I have about eight of his books all begging to be read. I've reviewed only one Rhode and one Miles Burton - Cecil Street's other pseudonym. He's deserving of many more reviews and much more attention than he ever gets. In the meantime, yet another gallery of vintage DJs and two paperback covers all from books featuring Dr. Lancelot Priestley.

Please click on the images for the full size. Forgive the rips and chips and creases. These things are damn old and I'm lucky to own some of them.  Thankfully, they've managed to survived this long so you can all ogle and gasp in awe.











Friday, August 19, 2011

FFB: The Eliminator - Andrew York

It's 1966. Spies were hot -- both in the bookstores and the movie theaters. Matt Helm was a sensation. He had already appeared in ten books and Dean Martin played him (in a very different guise) in two movies.  All 13 James Bond books had been published, were in multiple printings in paperback, four movies had been released, and the final book Octopussy & The Living Daylights was about to be released posthumously. Then mid-year in 1966 Jonas Wilde appeared on the scene. Who? Exactly.

Although a few insightful reviewers took notice Wilde and his creator Andrew York never really got the attention they were due. This is a series just as brutal and true to life as Donald Hamilton's books and filled with irresistible female characters like the Fleming books. Additionally, they are intelligent, literate, populated with fully realized complex characters and crammed with action-packed scenes that rival any contemporary thriller of the past ten years.  Luckily, for those who missed Wilde back in the late 60s and early 70s readers now have a new edition from the excellent Top Notch Thriller line (selected by hip Mike Ripley) available from Ostara Publishing.

Wilde is a hired assassin who works for a nebulous branch of British intelligence known only among its elite members as "the Route." He's not your typical brawny, sociopathic, professional killer. Sure Wilde is an expert in deadly martial arts and can deliver a lethal karate chop to his intended target. Sure he has an admirably athletic body that arouses the attention of the women he encounters on the job. But he has a few traits you don't normally associate with a macho hired killer. Like for instance his fondness for rum and brandy laced cocktails like the Frisco, Daiquiri and the Alexander. To sharpen his mind and teach himself patience he plays chess and spends a lot of time sailing. His cover is as co-owner of a charter boat company in the Channel Islands. They call him "the Nobody Man." He adopts so many new identities and appears and vanishes during his assignments with the ease of a prototypical Jason Bourne that no police authority has ever traced him to the several accidents he's arranged as part of his elimination assignments.

At one point in the novel a character talks about the claustrophobic, ultra secret world of the Route:
"You belong to the tiny core within the core, within the box within the trunk within the huge shuttered mansion. You are part of the network that makes it possible for Jonas Wilde to operate."
It's a highly structured organization with only four outside members involved. Wilde receives his orders from Antony Canning, Peter Ravenspur provides new identity documents and weapons, and Stern and Bulwer help him with travel on their yacht Regina A. "The Route" has been a smooth covert operation but now Wilde wants out. Like Junior in Charles Willeford's Miami Blues he has a hankering for a normal life and longs to settle down with his girlfriend Jocelyn and forget his past. The higher level people have learned of this before Wilde has submitted his formal resignation and are planning to send him on one final assignment from which they hope he will not return alive.

Wilde learns that he must eliminate a Czech biologist who has perfected a method of germ warfare. When he receives his instructions there's something all too strange about the assignment. They want him to travel to England to do the job and he's never eliminated anyone in the country before. He usually gets a few days to prepare but they want him to leave in 24 hours. And his target will be surrounded by bodyguards and an American agent. All of it is very out of the ordinary to Wilde, but he agrees to do the job then disappear on his own afterwards.

Nothing, however, goes as planned. No one can be trusted. No one is who they appear to be. It's classic spy stuff. And it's done exceptionally well here. Even the sex scenes are sexy as they should be and not sleazy as is the usual case in books of this type.

Surprisingly, in a book so hypermasculine and testosterone pumped it is the supporting female characters who are the most interesting and best realized. There is Rhoda Gooderich, a housekeeper at the estate where he must kill the Czech scientist, who Wilde must charm and seduce in order to get in and around the household. Wilde gives her several nights she will long remember (in more ways than one) even if she may lose her job for all the attention. Marita is a woman who claims to be Peter Ravenspur's niece, but who knows far too much about Wilde and his real work and calls him "Her Majesty's government's executioner." Most fascinating of all is Barbara Canning, his boss' wife, who at first appears to be nothing more than another example of the prim, neglected British spouse but who when forced into becoming Wilde's cohort takes to the spy life with an amazing hidden aptitude for the life of an adventuress. All three women are strong characters vital to the story who hold their own against a virile and wily man and are willing to risk everything to help him escape the clutches of some sadistic and ruthless villains.

York went on to write eight more thrillers with Jonas Wilde. I had never heard of any of these books prior to learning of the Top Notch Thriller reissue. The first book is such a superior example of the spy/assassin subgenre that I plan to read all the books. There are relatively affordable paperback editions of most of the Jonas Wilde books. I suggest you start with this one and decide for yourself. I guarantee you'll want to read at least another. He's every bit as good as Jason Bourne and in some respects Bourne owes everything he is to Jonas Wilde.

The Jonas Wilde Series
The Eliminator (1966)
The Coordinator (1967)
The Predator (1968)
The Deviator (1969)
The Dominator (1969)
The Infiltrator (1971)
The Expurgator (1972)
The Captivator (1974)
The Fascinator (1975)

And if you haven't already seen it, be sure to check out yesterday's post about the movie adaptation of this book that was called Danger Route starring Richard Johnson, Carol Lynley, Barbara Bouchet, Diana Dors, Sylvia Sims, Harry Andrews and Sam Wanamaker.  I've included two video clips:  the original movie trailer and the opening five minutes which includes the entire title sequence (and a drippy wannabe James Bond style theme song) as well as the first two scenes of the movie.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

COOL FLICKS: Danger Route (1967)

Here's a sneak preview for my post on the neglected book I've chosen for Friday's Forgotten Books coming tomorrow. The book was adapted for the screen and made into an equally forgotten spy movie.


It was retitled Danger Route with Richard Johnson (the original choice for James Bond) starring as super spy and hired assassin Jonas Wilde, and Sam Wanamaker and Harry Andrews in other spy roles. The women are played by Sylvia Sims, Carole Lynley, Diana Dors and Barbara Bouchet (Johnson's former girlfriend). There is an excellent review here that goes into great detail about the film and also mentions that it can be viewed in streaming video format at Netflix. But when I went to watch the movie I found that Netflix had inexplicably removed the film. It had only been up for three or four months. Copyright issues? Who knows.

You can, however, watch the trailer for the movie below. (God bless the cinephiles who flood YouTube with these treasures!) The scenes depicted tell me that the adaptation is very faithful to the novel. I also posted the only other film clip available from the movie. It includes an edited montage of action scenes taken from a German version of the movie accompanied by the odd theme song by Lionel Bart (composer/lyricist of the musical Oliver!) and sung by Anita Harris. Bart tries his best to emulate John Barry's Bond sound and falls short of the mark. Trumpets blasts aren't enough. And those lyrics!

"To stay alive in this violent world a man has to have an edge. His is the edge of his hand!"



"A man has to travel on the danger route / A man has to toy with life and death..." Just a sampling of the not so memorable lyrics.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: France

We're headed on a whirlwind tour of France in this leg of the EuroPass Challenge. I'm bypassing Paris altogether for the less travelled parts of the country and - of course - less well known French writers of mysterydom.

I was on a French crime fiction kick last month. I've already written about Boileau & Narcejac here, here and here. Also recognized are Hubert Monteilhet and the writing team of Jacquemard-Senecal. But there are plenty of others I can clue you in on. Here's only a sampling of some of the most unique:

Death from the Woods by Brigitte Aubert
Aubert's novel features Elise Andrioli, one of the most original detectives in all of the genre. She's a blind and mute paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, the victim of a terrorist bomb when she was visiting Northern Ireland. She can communicate only with her eyes and later in the book one finger. You may think it impossible for an fairly immobile, non-seeing, non-speaking character to be a detective but Aubert manages to pull it off. The gimmick is that Elise is the narrator and we hear all her thoughts. She's sarcastic and no nonsense. It's a mixture of the terrifying and the wickedly satirical. Truly an enviable feat to have such a seemingly incapacitated character solve a series of murders and communicate it to others. I was stunned by the book. There is also a sequel featuring Elise in her second outing as amateur sleuth called Death from the Snows which I own but have not read yet.

Death in the Dordogne by Louis Sanders
An ex-pat Bristih painter turns amateur detective when hi sneighbors keep dying under suspicious circumstances. Wry humor and oddball characters add interest to a very different type of crime novel. It does tend to have a dark and bleak tone that reminded me of Highsmith and I guess that's not to everyone's taste. I thought it unusual and better than average.

The Double Death of Frederic Belot by Claude Aveline
Once again I'm reaching deep into my trusty trunk of vintage and out of print books to present you with one of those nuggets well worth seeking out. This was Aveline's first novel published in France in 1932 and then in an English translation in the 1940s. It's an impossible crime mystery with some innovative plot machinations. The French writers excelled at this kind of thing.

Finally, I wholeheartedly recommend the novels of Fred Vargas who wrote The Chalk Circle Man, a book that is the closest to a Harry Stephen Keeler novel in a foreign language that I have ever encountered. Her books often deal with surreal and bizarre elements like the possibility of a werewolf on the loose in Seeking Whom He May Devour. The rest of the series featuring her eccentric police detective Commissaire Adamsberg are just as good especially Have Mercy on Us All which deals with murders traced to a strain of bubonic plague. She has written about a group of unlikely detectives dubbed "The Three Evangelists" (their names are Matthias, Marc and Lucien) who appear in two books. Only the first, fittingly titled The Three Evangelists, has been translated into English and is also includes surreal elements that recall the old-fashioned impossible crime novels of the Golden Age.

Hop aboard the other trains headed for France at our host site Mysteries in Paradise where you should be able to find links to the other posts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

NEW STUFF: 21st Century Ghostbusters

Cinema of Shadows by Michael West
278 pp. w/ illustrations by Matthew Perry
Seventh Star Press  $15.95

Harmony, Indiana according to my state map of the Hoosier state is located approximately 15 miles southeast of Greencastle. Harmony may not be entirely fictional but it may one day take its place alongside purely fictional cities like Arkham, Dunwich, and Castle Rock. In Michael West's loving homage to the old-fashioned spook tales of the late 1970s Harmony is the home of the other worldly Woodfield Movie Palace which itself is descended from such familiar literary haunts as Hill House, the Rolfe home, Belasco House and the Overlook Hotel. It has a bloody and violent history that has been attracting the attention of Prof. Geoffrey Burke, local parapsychologist who teaches at Stanley University. He and a group of specially selected students will spend one night of intensive research in the movie theater hoping to record any supernatural activity. They get much more than they ever hoped for.

Part of the clever design concept of the book itself is also to pay homage to old movies.  There are section titles dividing the book that reflect a night at the movies: "Previews of Coming Attractions," "Our Main Feature" and -- what now seems to be standard practice with works of fiction -- the acknowledgement page which has been dubbed "Credits." The "previews" are two prologues which I felt completely unnecessary. This seemed to be an echo of those old 70s horror novels where every book had a prologue to introduce what happened in the past and an epilogue where the terror seemingly resolved resurrects itself. Cinema of Shadows is constructed exactly the same way and in some respects this works against it.

In fact, the entire beginning of the book is filled with extraneous exposition. Too much time is spent on the mundane lives of the not so interesting college students, and the newly found love life of the lead college student, Kim Saunders. Luckily, somewhere in Chapter 9 the ghost story element finally kicks in when Kim talks of her first real terror-filled moment with the supernatural at a covered bridge. She describes in great detail how the ghost of drowned girl attacks her while she is trapped inside a car and how the little girl still comes to her in dreams. This creepy bit is followed by a scene at the local ER where Kim's boyfriend, Tyler, a medical resident works. He cares for a gruesomely wounded man who was working at the Woodfield Theater and we begin to see that some unnatural being must be on the loose. From here on the book finally settles into itself and tells a thrilling story that incorporates demonic possession, horrible murders, an attempted exorcism, and a rip-roaring investigative night replete with high tech video, sound and thermal equipment in the haunted movie theater - a place supercharged with tortured ghosts, apparitions and the utterly bizarre.

Tashima kicks ass at the Woodfield  (art by Matt Perry)
I liked some of the supporting characters more than the leads. Robby Miller, an EMT, who has the lowdown on the Woodfield's horror-filled past is one of the best in the book. His dialogue is rich and distinctive.  A scene with him in a strip bar is a gory highlight for those who crave that kind of thing. Also Wilber Harvey, the old projectionist of the Woodfield, is a sharply drawn old codger. His tour of the theater prior to the madness that ensues is filled with movie theater lore and interesting tidbits about the long gone days of life in a real movie palace. I thought it a fascinating part of the book. Of course, I'm a diehard old movie fan. West has a real handle on making passages like these come alive and spice up the narrative. You can tell he loves his movies as much as he loves his horror fiction.

West's strengths lie in his action sequences. There are some truly original scenes here as well as some pointedly subtle allusions to horror classics. True horror fans may need a scorecard to check off all the references. I saw homages to The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House and Peter Straub's Ghost Story. There are probably even more. One of the best sequences involves Tashima, the sassy self-dubbed "black chick," who becomes a down and dirty badass and does battle with an army of animated gold statues smashing them to pieces with the back of one of the theater's seats.  It's only one of many knuckle biting, page turning scenes that make up the extended climax.

There are, however, some weaknesses in the writing like an overload on the the tired dream/nightmare sequences that occur in so many movies of this genre and a strange affinity for using "chuckle" instead of "laugh," but these are picayune compared to West's overall lively storytelling ability. I might also add that proofreading the book was a bit careless. I found some unforgivable spelling errors. Letting "Citizen Cane" slip by in a book about old movies is practically a mortal sin. Editor beware.

All fault finding aside I have to admit I was surprised by Cinema of Shadows. It delivered what I expected and then some. This is the first in a proposed series of three books set in haunted Harmony, Indiana. It will be interesting to see how far Michael West will go in taking the familiar formulae of horror novels and transforming them into action-filled contemporary shockers. He is one horror writer to watch. He's definitely got the goods on display here.

  *  *  *

GIVEAWAY!!  To celebrate my first legitimate review for a newly published book I'm giving away my copy of Cinema of Shadows which also includes four "Collector" post cards of the artwork by Matt Perry that illustrates the book.  The black & white illustration above is from one of these cards, but strangely the picture does not appear in the book.  In order to win the copy, leave a comment below and tell me your favorite haunted house novel of recent years or days gone by.  Anonymous comments will not be eligible as I will need an email to contact you afterwards.  I'll select a name at random and announce it here in two weeks around August 27.

Friday, August 12, 2011

FFB: The Prisoner - Boileau & Narcejac

"Love's not all that beautiful. It's a grotesque business."
-- Gervais Larauch from The Prisoner

Sometimes I come across a crime fiction book that has so much going for it that I am hesitant to talk about its content yet feel compelled to bring it to the attention of those who have been unlucky enough not to have heard of it. In the case of The Prisoner (originally published as Les Louves in French) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac I have found such a book. And here is something unique for me -- I will not give even a smidgen of a plot summary. Here is one of those rare books that should be read without any prior knowledge of what happens. The DJ jacket mentions only that the two men in the opening pages have just escaped from a German prisoner of war camp in occupied France. Wisely it goes no further. Neither will I.

From the opening page with the slickly engineered prison escape via cargo truck to the final chilling paragraph the reader is in for a wild ride. It seems to have covered well worn territory with its duplicitous lovers and an impostor motif yet the authors managed to surprise me no less than three times. Just as I think I can outguess Boileau & Narcejac they prove me wrong again and again. If you are familiar with Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, two famous movies based on two of their early novels, then you know the kind of web of deceit these masters are so adept at spinning. The Prisoner easily ranks as the third jewel in a supreme triumvirate of their best crime thrillers. Each of the three make up their crowning achievements – little masterpieces of macabre suspense.

The Prisoner too has been turned into a movie and retitled Demoniac (1957). According to the imdb.com listing it stars François Périer and Jeanne Moreau - two classic French screen actors. It also happens to be one of the few films for which Boileau wrote the screenplay so it's sure to be very faithful to the story. I only wish it were available on DVD. I could not even find one clip on the various video websites that more and more are turning up scenes and entire versions of obscure movies like this.  I think that this particular book would even work on stage as a claustrophobic thriller. With a cast of only four people and a single set it would be also be easy to produce.

I will tempt you further with these tantalizing morsels: that superstition plays a heavy role in the proceedings, and that the narrator of the story is equal parts victim and culprit. There is one scene of ruthless cruelty in particular that took my breath away. The title, too, is metaphorically fitting. I cannot resist including this one passage as an example of the recurring motif of imprisonment:
[S]hould I go, should I stay. I began to realize that the danger was much the same in either case. If I made off, Hélène would soon guess why; it was the surest way to awake her suspicions. If I stayed, I was at the mercy of one false step, one thoughtless remark. I was their prisoner. [...] But hadn't I always been one? With my mother, with my wife, with Bernard in the prison camp and now with these two sisters it was the same story every time; prison and gaolers.
If you manage to find a copy of this book I suggest you snap it up. Like nearly all of Boileau & Narcejac's books that have been translated into English it is a difficult to find title. But it is one of the few that turns up in a paperback edition every now and then. I was fortunate (and incredibly lucky) to find a UK 1st edition in a dust wrapper for the unheard of price of £12. A miracle! It is a book I will hold onto for a long, long time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Barotique Mystery - George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe was one of the Black Mask boys whose unique creation, a hard nosed newspaper photographer named "Flashgun" Casey, appeared in numerous stories in that pulp magazine as well as two novels. Coxe created a spin-off of Casey in Kent Murdock. He's also a newspaper photographer but slightly less tough and bit more presentable for a book reading public. He had a much longer life than Casey who advanced to a radio show and practically disappeared from Coxe's books. Murdock took over as the lead series character in Coxe's novel going on to star in over twenty books from the 1930s to the early 1970s.

Kent Murdock made his debut in Murder with Pictures (1935) in which he first meets his wife-to-be Joyce when she barges into his apartment after fleeing a murder scene. To escape a policeman hot on her tail she jumps into the shower with Murdock naked inside making for a very intimate accidental "first date." His less racy sophomore appearance is in The Barotique Mystery. He and Joyce are now married and they team up to solve the violent crimes in one of the many murder-on-a-honeymoon novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction.

While vacationing in the Caribbean, not far from Trinidad, Murdock and his wife take a ferry to the private island of Barotique. There they will meet up with Joyce's college girlfriend Margaret, daughter to millionaire Sir Stanley Bannister, owner of the island. Also on the island are a motley group of American tourists including a small time hood Murdock knows from his newspaper beat back in Boston. The hood, Brick Egan, is traveling under an alias along with two other underworld figures also using noms de guerre. Needless to say with gangsters hiding out in the tropics there is bound to be some gunfire, knives pulled, fistfights and one or two dead bodies before the final page is turned.

This is a book of the semi-tough hardboiled school. I've seen it described as soft-boiled crime fiction elsewhere, but I dislike that term as it is more evocative of greasy spoon diners than books. Murdock is not reluctant to threw a few punches and has a bit of a temper he expresses verbally in his grilling of the suspects.

There is a large cast of characters all with the requisite secrets they want kept hidden. The men fare better than the women here. Two of the female characters are more ornaments than fully fleshed out characters. Apart from Joyce the best of the female members of the cast are Nina Coleman, the femme fatale of the piece and referred to as Lady Macbeth by Joyce, and Flo Anderson, the gangster's gold-digging moll and an ex-chorus girl. Lucy Porter, the battered wife of the first murder victim, is practically a cipher. But Kay Joslin is the invisible woman of the book. She is talked about often but appears only once onstage and is conveniently wandering the island offstage for most of the book. Granted this is Coxe's second novel and he probably hadn't yet mastered dealing with a large cast in a closed setting. It seemed to me that five of the characters could've been eliminated altogether.

The gimmick in the early Murdock novels is his use of photography to help solve the crimes. He takes and collects incriminating pictures to present to the police later on. In this book Bannister is an amateur photographer himself and in the cellar of the main house on the estate there is a handy dark room that Murdock uses to his advantage. He also uses his camera to trick the killer into forcing a hand and has Joyce in hiding ready to snap the guilty party to cement proof of an already partially verbal confession. In other books his camera or the photos he takes are stolen, and there is plenty of chasing after them or the crucial negatives.

Interestingly this predates many of Raymond Chandler's better known novels by several years. It has a real Chandleresque feel to it plot-wise even if the gritty urban setting is replaced by a steamy tropical paradise. But it does not approach, or even attempt to copy, Chandler's metaphor strewn prose so often imitated these days. A tough minded, wise-cracking photographer with a knowledge of police work from his many years shooting film at crime scenes, Kent Murdock makes a good detective. Add to the mix double-crossing gangsters, blackmailers, brawls in the jungle, a switchblade that disappears then reappears and the usual hardboiled tricks with guns and bullets and it's hard not to think of this as another emulation of a Philip Marlowe adventure. Chronologically speaking it clearly is not.

This first sampling of Kent Murdock whetted my appetite for more. He makes for a likeable if stubborn detective with a steadfast determination to get at the truth. The vintage camera talk and early photography trivia make them all the more intriguing to me as I'm a bit of an amateur photographer myself. The first five books in the series are lined up in a new TBR pile and I'll be reviewing those in the months ahead.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Catalonia

The train has headed for Spain this week according to the itinerary laid out by our host Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. This particular train is headed for the northeast of Spain, specifically Barcelona and the surrounding towns of Catalonia and the beaches of Costa Brava. There is also rather an extensive side trip to the Netherlands which came as a complete surprise to me as I read Tattoo, the completely engrossing second crime novel by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Amsterdam, the Hague and Rotterdam were included in this private eye story that had much to offer in local color of two countries and - probably the best part of the book - in the discussions of food.

Pepe Carvalho is a private eye who lives and works in Barcelona who is hired by Senor Ramon, the owner of a hairdressing salon, to help identify the faceless corpse recently pulled from the ocean. The young blond man had a distinctive tattoo on his back that reads "Born to raise hell in hell" that should make the identification somewhat easier if only Carvalho can find out who did the tattoo. His search conveniently leads Carvalho to Amsterdam -- a city he knows all too well. He was formerly a CIA operative there in an antique shop that covered as a station for monitoring communist activities and illegal immigrants.

I can't speak for the original Spanish, but the English translation by Nick Caistor beautifully captures a European flavor both figuratively and literally. Carvalho is in love with food. The passages describing his own cooking and the meals he rapturously enjoys in the restaurants of both countries are some of the most poetic and evocative in the book.

Take this visit to the House of Lords, a restaurant Carvalho chose for their offering of gigot of lamb:
He tucked into the lamb without holding back. Well cooked meat is first and foremost a tactile pleasure to the roof of the mouth. [...] When the aroma of the burgundy hit the delicate skin of his palate and rose to fill his nostrils with the heady perfume of red wine, it was like having a velvet fluid wipe away the tiny wounds that the pieces of meat had caused.
There are also philosophical observations rendered in a witty offbeat manner:
A pleasure shared can become a spectacle, but never one enjoyed in private. ... [S]howing too plainly how much enjoyment a meal is giving you has a direct influence on the size of the tip you leave. Waiters are subtle psychoanalysts. As soon as they see from your expression that you are approaching ecstasy, they ask you to confirm it out loud, and peer into the recesses of your mind and your wallet with the intensity of a soul mate who will not achieve their own orgasm unless you leave at least fifteen per cent tip.
As Carvalho makes his way through Amsterdam where he enjoys rollmops (raw herring with onions in black bread), genever (a powerful Dutch gin) and other local fare he makes contact with all his old cronies. This leads him to the tattoo artist who created the hellish design. The tattooist also reports the dead man was employed with other Spanish immigrants at a local Philips electronics factory. There he finally gets a name for the dead man:  Julio Chesma. Carvalho then must travel to the Hague and Rotterdam for further interviews with the many women in Chesma's life. After gathering all this information (and consuming several hearty memorable meals) he heads back to Barcelona.

It is a very basic plot with more question and answer scenes than legitimate detection. However, the pull of the story is not so much in the plot as it is the writing itself: the 1970s details and atmosphere of a hippie laden Amsterdam, the colorfully drawn aspects of hidden lives of the working poor in Catalonia, the odd nature of Spanish relations between Andalusian, Catalan, and Galician cultures, and ultimately his discussions of food.

Carvalho is a gourmet - not a gourmand - whose highly developed tastes have become his religion. His altar is the dining table and each meal cannot be complete without the ritual drink - the perfect wine, the crispest beer, the most potent potable - each to be served in its appropriately chosen glass. Early in the book, for example, he prepares a caldeirada and he chooses a Fefiñanes that must be served in a tall elegant wine glass. He likes people even more -- women especially -- when they truly enjoy their food. He takes note of one woman eating her meal and is "pleased to see her make short work of her barbecue ribs."

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Violence and food are genuine turn-ons and often they go hand in hand. In the midst of one of the most suspenseful scenes in the book -- pursuing Fat Nuria, a teenage girl employed by Senor Ramon at the hair salon -- he cannot stop thinking of food. While spying on her family who may be involved in the death of Chesma he overhears someone mention chitterlings and is sent off into a reverie of sense memory as he tries to recall the taste and texture of a "glazed pottery dish heap full of them." After a knife fight outside a bar Carvalho "could feel a warm glow in his chest as if he had drunk a glass of fine french brandy of Black Label whiskey."

The other characters are well drawn, earthy and memorable from his prostitute girlfriend Charo who must squeeze in time for her Pepito in between client appointments to the paranoid shoeshine man, Bromuro, who acts as Carvalho's informer on the seedy underworld of the Catalan neighborhoods. There is also Teresa Marsé, a typical femme fatale found in all private eye novels. She is suitably cynical and sexy and immediately attracted to Carvalho who stimulates her insatiable appetite for sexual dalliances.  And there are quite a few of them.

Tattoo uses as a framework the lyrics of a popular song from the 1940s which sets to music a poem called appropriately "Tatuaje" by Rafael De León. The English translation of the song includes a line about a young man who is "bold and blond as beer"-- a phrase which recurs throughout the story and that Carvalho also uses to describe the faceless Julio Chesma. The rest of lyrics also are peppered throughout the story which made me curious to hear the song. It has been recorded by many singers, but I was fortunate to find one of the earliest filmed versions. The performer is Concha Márquez Piquer and she can be seen and heard passionately singing in the clip below.


For the complete list of this week's crime ridden journeys through Spain (and Portugal), please visit Mysteries in Paradise.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Drawing on the Past #4: ELLIS & HYLAND

Work:  The Devil Tree of El Dorado by Frank Aubrey
New Amsterdam Book Co., 1897
(U.S. edition)

Artists: Leigh Ellis & Fred Hyland

It's a gloomy day here with weather that seems more suited to October than early August and that gets me thinking of ancient horror stories like this one by Frank Aubrey. Born Francis Harry Atkins (1840-1927) this fairly prolific author wrote under a number of pseudonyms, notably "Frank Aubrey" and "Fenton Ash." His work is considered to have been originally written for juveniles and appeared in magazines as well as published books. The book from which these illustrations were taken is of the lost race genre and tells the story of the discovery of the legendary lost city of El Dorado. In Aubrey's version the city is a vicious place where humans are sacrificed to the carnivorous plant of the title.

I can find little about each artist's life. Fred Hyland's work does, however, pop up all over the internet. He was a book illustrator, poster artist and book binding designer. He contributed the intricate design to the cover of this book seen above as well as the creepy Art Nouveau style cover design for Uncanny Tales by Mrs. Molesworth. A poster of the Harper's magazine cover Hyland created announcing the publication of a serial version of George Du Maurier's novel The Martian shows up on the art auction house web pages. This one, at Christie's website, shows that an original lithograph of that poster of the magazine cover sold for over $3500. The poster - apparently Hyland's most popular work - has also been reproduced and can be purchased at numerous websites selling art prints.

I found absolutely nothing about Leigh Ellis even though each plate in the book is signed "Ellis & Hyland." They must've been partners of some sort.  I found at least one poster, "The Gay Parisienne" signed "Hyland Ellis" that matches the Ellis Hyland signatures on the plates in the book.  For some reason on this work they inverted their names. These internet poster sellers seem to think there is an artist named Hyland Ellis when, in fact, it is two collaborating artists.

Click on the images to enlarge for full Victorian splendor.





Ah! The sun has deigned to shine just as I finished this. Time to hit the road on our bicycles...

Friday, August 5, 2011

FFB: The Man with My Face - Samuel W Taylor

Imagine coming home to find a stranger in your home who looks just like you. Imagine, too, that your spouse and your friends insist that the stranger is you and you are a fraud.  How do you prove them wrong?  This is the nightmare problem that faces the protagonist of Samuel Taylor's debut mystery novel. It's a whirlwind of an action thriller and has elements of the traditional detective novel as well.

The Man with My Face foreshadows the post-World War 2 paranoia that would show up in so many private eye novels and other suspense thrillers throughout the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. In addition to the theme of loss of identity the book is very much about trust. Finding the right person or people to believe Charles "Chick" Graham's story provides the main thrust of the plot. The only way to escape the trap of his stolen identity and avoid further victimization of the grandiose plot hatched to frame him for a $2 million bank robbery Graham decides to turn the scheme around. Rather than fruitlessly trying to prove that he is the real Graham he decides to prove that Rand (the bank robbing double) is not Graham. A subtle difference to be sure, and yet a brilliant strategy.

The story is replete with crazy coincidences. Graham finds a business card from a salesman who visited him at his office. To escape the police he pretends to be James Pease, the salesman who lives only a couple blocks away. He convinces the cop to take him home - Pease's home - and through sheer luck gets into the unlocked house. Then he has to talk his way out of that predicament when Pease walks in and asks Graham who he is and why he just walked into his home. Later, Pease will run into Graham and Rand on a commuter train and discover Graham's secret. Or what he thinks is Graham's secret.

Barry Nelson (right) insists he is the real Charles Graham in the 1951 film

Added to the high level of coincidence are B movie tricks and gimmicks. Much needed information is received through incredibly detailed newspaper articles and emergency radio announcements. These are easy ways out for any thriller writer and are terrible clichés to us these days. Taylor's other novice writer annoyance is what I call the Soap Opera Dialog Syndrome. Everyone addresses each other repeatedly for no reason. "Chick, how did your face end up like that?" "Well, Mary, it's a long story." "Oh Chick, I have all the time you have." "OK, Mary grab a chair" "Ready when you are, Chick." Chick, Mary, Chick, Mary! Blah, blah, blah! On a radio or TV show this is sometimes necessary. In a book where the scene is between two characters it's completely unnecessary. A minor complaint but one that just grates on my nerves when the dialog is made up of 90% of these type of exchanges.

Then there is the strange man in the black leather "zip jacket" with the Doberman. He seems to show up everywhere Graham goes. Not only are the police after Graham this guy with a vicious dog is after him as well. It's a series of pursuits followed by narrow escapes throughout the entire book. Graham needs an ally and the only person he can think of turning to is his former girlfriend, Mary.

Once again through a series of coincidences Graham runs into people who provide him with information about Mary. He is lucky enough to track her down and she and her brother, Walt, after listening to Graham's outrageous story finally believe him and decide to offer their help. Without them Graham would've been sunk.

Slowly Rand sees that his scheme is falling apart and he does his best to enlist some other villains to prevent Graham from succeeding in ruining the plan. There are several brutal murders, two abductions, a handful of dog attacks, and a fortuitous run-in with a poison oak bush that temporarily gives Graham an unwanted disguise. Amid all this action there is also some legitimate and very clever detection on the part of Graham, Mary, Walt and even James Pease –- the salesman who will make one final appearance in a scene involving a walk-in meat freezer.

As if all that preceded wasn't enough Taylor adds a final surprising twist and eleventh hour salvation from the least likeliest character to have uncovered the plot. All in all, a remarkable debut from a crime writer who contributed only two books to the genre. Taylor's second book, with the unfortunate title of The Grinning Gismo, will be reviewed here in the future. I highly recommend The Man with My Face as a perfect example of an imaginative cat-and-mouse thriller with the added bonus of some well thought out detective story elements.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Department of Queer Complaints - Carter Dickson

This is the only short story collection featuring "Carter Dickson's" (aka John Dickson Carr) lesser known detective Colonel March. I read the revised and updated version of this book which includes two stories previously unpublished in book form that were not in the original 1940 book. According to Douglas Greene's introduction to this updated book Colonel March was modeled after Carr's good friend and fellow mystery writer Cecil Street, aka "John Rhode" and "Miles Burton." If so, then Street must have had a great sense of humor in real life. Something that astonishes me because most of his books are rather lacking in a rollicking sense of humor. The stories in this volume were originally written in 1937 and published between 1938 and 1940 in The Strand Magazine. The final one appeared in February 1941. Two of the stories "The Empty Flat" and "William Wilson's Racket" did not appear in book form until 1963 in The Men Who Explained Miracles.

There are nine stories total and all of them deal with an impossible crime or an impossible problem. Not all the stories are about locked room murders though. There are stories about a room that disappears, footprints on a snow covered hedge that couldn't support the weight of any human, an invisible piece of "furniture," as well as the usual baffling murders with weapons that disappear or methods that seem impossible. In one case, there is even a story that was pilfered from and recycled in two well known Carr novels.

March who heads up the D-3, a special branch of the Metropolitan Police that only investigates unusual cases hence the slang name given the branch that give s the book its title. He is described by Carr as an amiable and large man (his weight of 17 stone is constantly mentioned), "with a speckled face, an interested blue eye and … a cropped mustache that might be sandy or grey." He also displays a jovial sense of humor. His gift is for noting the obvious in what appear to be puzzling problems and "he hits it right every time."

Of the original seven stories I particular liked these:

"The New Invisible Man" – This called to mind of The Curse of the Bronze Lamp in that the crime turns out not to be a crime at all. Also another instance of theatrical shenanigans as in The Problem of the Green Capsule.

"Error at Daybreak" - a man is stabbed while standing on a remote rocky area of beach with no one anywhere near him and the disappearance of his body thereafter. It may not have been brilliant in its solution, but the telling had excellent use of misdirection and so the ending came as a surprise to me.

"Death in the Dressing Room" – another case of misdirection well done. So much time is spent on a pickpocketing ring that the murder victim found in a locked room seems almost forgotten. When the murderer is literally unmasked I was impressed.

"The Silver Curtain" has an Anthony Wynne-like stabbing in a dead end alleyway. The method and means are also reminiscent of several of Wynne's books. I almost figured this one out.

The other four were only so-so in my estimation. "Hot Money" is the one about an invisible piece of furniture used a hiding place for stolen money. But I have never considered the hiding place to be a piece of furniture in any room I've ever been in – even the many vintage apartments I've lived in. I'd call it a part of the room's construction but not a piece of furniture. That different use of the word was unintentionally unfair, but that's what comes of reading a story 70 plus years after it was written. Terminology and home construction have changed drastically. There is a silly story called "Footprint in the Sky" that takes place in the winter and has a lot to do with prints in the snow. It begins like something written by Mary Roberts Rinehart with a very "Had I But Known" air about it. The problem seems entirely contrived for the sake of creating an impossibility. It reminded me of the murderer's trick in Christianna Brand's Suddenly at His Residence (aka The Crooked Wreath) and is practically a cliché in this subgenre. "The Crime in Nobody's Room" is the story of a disappearing room and a body that seems to move after death. This includes a trick employed by Ellery Queen more effectively in a book I dare not mention. Here the culprit has a similar affliction and his behavior gives him away, but the two things he does seem once again contrived, not to mention stupid.


Then there is "The Empty House." The story opens with Douglas Chase, a history professor, bothered by a noisy radio blasting irritatingly loud music while he is trying complete his thesis that if accepted will provide him with a professorship at an American university. He is in competition with another history professor named K. G. Mills whom he has never met. He heads off to find the source of the bothersome radio and discovers that it seems to be coming from behind the door of an apartment with the name plate that says "K. G. Mills." He knocks on the door, a woman opens the door and he asks for Mr. Mills. She replies: "I am Mr. Mills. That is to speak with academic accuracy…my name is Kathleen Gerrard Mills, and I am the only Mills at the present moment." She, of course, is the very same K. G. Mills who is his competitor for the professorship. They exchange a few insults about each others' work before they get down to hunting for the irksome radio. Does this sound familiar? An initialed history professor who turns out to be a woman and the rival for another history professor? It should. A similar scene between two Dr. Campbells, both professors, takes place in the opening pages of The Case of the Constant Suicides a novel written in 1941 about four years after this story was written. And the woman professor in that novel was named Kathryn. Not much different from Kathleen.

And that's not all! When the source of the radio is discovered a dead body is also found. The story reveals that the corpse is a lawyer who was investigating a haunted room (The Red Widow Murders, Night of the Mocking Widow, ) and apparently died of fright (He Who Whispers). But when the solution is revealed it turns out the murderer employed a method exactly the same as one of the deaths in The Reader Is Warned (1939). So we have a story that was cannibalized to make up at least two other books and shares plot elements with at least three other books. All of them coming after the time when the story was originally written, around 1937 as Greene tells us. This is assuredly the reason why the story was excluded from the original Department of Queer Complaints. The Reader is Warned was published only the year before and Carr probably didn’t want to be seen as a lazy writer who borrowed from himself.

For locked room and impossible crime fans this collection contains a few stories well worth investigating. Your tastes may differ from mine, but there is enough of the odd and bizarre to interest a variety of readers. It's not exactly a winner of a book all around. But I enjoyed it and especially was taken aback by the similarities in "The Empty House" with so many other Carr/Dickson works.