Friday, May 18, 2012

FFB: The Case of Mr Cassidy - William Targ

Tower Books edition (1944), most common of the two
I have a fondness for "alternative classics" of crime fiction as frequent readers of this blog may have already learned. I have already written about Amelia Reynolds Long, Paul Haggard, Michael Avallone and perhaps the Queen of Alt Crime -- Carolyn Wells. Add to that list William Targ and his only foray into mystery writing The Case of Mr Cassidy (1939 and 1944). [Hey! Why are there two dates in parentheses, John? OK, Eagle Eyes, settle down. More on that later.] While the other writers have their moments of lucidity and occasional lapses in poor judgment, Targ's book is one of the alternative crime classics that not only goes overboard into the outrageous he seems to wallow in the sea of absurdity for his own entertainment. Often with alternative classics we get a bonus and in this case we get several -- Targ's story is a bibliomystery, it's set in Chicago, and he makes his detective a gourmand and a naturist. Aha! I knew that would get your attention.

Hugh Morris, amateur criminologist and bibliophile, inveigles his way into the murder case of a wealthy book collector. At first it appears to be another victim of a serial throat-cutter dubbed "The Fiend" by the local press, but further investigation proves otherwise.  Morris is one of the most grotesque detectives in mysterydom -- an obese, gluttonous, nudist. While in the privacy of his apartment he spends much of the book naked, typing his notes, playing the piano for inspiration, and eating. And eating. And eating. Thankfully, his fondness for flopping his flabby body around his home is curtailed when he must leave his sanctuary of nakedness and is forced to wear clothes in public.

The plot seems to be about the theft of a rare edition of Poe's first published book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, actually a pamphlet we are told by the knowledgeable Morris, and several murders disguised as work of The Fiend by the person intent on owning the rare volume. But the story gets more and more convoluted as it progresses and digresses and its difficult to decide what exactly Targ wants the book to be about. Throughout the circuitous storytelling there is lots of talk of books, Targ's bailiwick, which makes for some fun and learned reading if you happen to be a bibliomaniac like me. One of the few real surprises in the book is a cameo appearance of Vincent Starrett, fellow bookman, mystery writer, Sherlockian and personal friend of Targ.

The book is mostly set in Chicago, where Targ lived in his early life as a budding independent publisher and bookman.  Inexplicably, there are unforgivable lapses in geography. Morris' apartment is on Dearborn/Pearson, then Ohio/Rush, then Dearborn again. Characters walk south to get to destinations that can only be arrived at by walking in the opposite direction and take now defunct train lines to Iowa. Portions of the book are set in the border town of Clinton, Iowa -- still a quaint place situated along the Mississippi River on the northwestern edge of Illinois.

As with all good alt classics there is a plethora of bad writing. Bad B Movie dialog mixes with pretentious often ludicrous purple prose, and absurd philosophical digressions. Here's a sampling:
From childhood, when we derive pleasure from pulling out the wings of flies, up through youth, when the spirit of sport is dominant and we strive to defeat by humiliating or killing others, all of us have murder in our hearts.
He performed his work stark naked, and the sight of his huge pink body seated at the typewriter or at the piano would have been an inspiration to a Rubens.
It's all an enormous hashish hallucination, blossoming with gorgeous non-existent blossoms, fragrant with odors unknown to any perfumer, sonant [sic] with the crashing, melodic chords of a thousand piece orchestra, peopled with moon-breasted houris reclining languorously on cloud-quilted divans.
That last bit is Morris' supercilious opinion of burlesque theater and night club life, by the way.  It goes on for about the entire length of the page.

The scarce Phoenix Press 1st edition (1939)
As for the detective novel aspects of the book they trend to be of the cheating variety and are hardly fair play.  At one point Morris tracks down a rare watermark on a piece of paper. The reader is never made aware of the watermark when the paper is first discovered. Morris travels to Chicago's famed research library The Newberry where he identifies the watermark in an esoteric volume found in the stacks. The bibliophile parts of the book are some of the more entertaining and enlightening parts of an otherwise wacky and surreal story.

William Targ wrote The Case of Mr Cassidy in partnership with Lewis Herman whose name appears on the true first edition of the book published by Phoenix Press, a house known for books of a less than literary quality. When Targ managed to become the editor in chief of Tower Books at the World Publishing Company he finagled a deal to reprint his mystery novel in slightly altered version in 1944, but this time with Herman's name obliterated as co-author.  And there we have the reason for the two dates of publication mentioned above.

The suave William Targ
(Tower Books DJ photo by Dordick)
Targ's bio on the rear of the Tower Books edition mentions his other work as a poet, bibliophile and Poe bibliographer.  From this lengthy vainglorious blurb we also learn that Targ owned a bookshop in Chicago and that he has "the looks, suavity, and geniality" that are lacking in his fictional bookseller counterpart, Mr. Todd, who appears in The Case of Mr Cassidy. Author bios are never found on Tower Mystery editions, most of which are cheap reprints, but when you are in charge of the imprint as well as being the author I guess you're allowed a bit of indulgence.

For an inside look into the world of book collecting circa the late 1930s, a local writer's opinion of Chicago, and a truly unique detective you can't beat The Case of Mr Cassidy. Copies of the Tower Books edition pop up every now and then in the used book trade. I've owned and sold several copies over the years. You can usually get one for under $15, sometimes with a dust jacket. The true first edition, however, published by Phoenix Press has become a scarce and "collectible" book and will require you to plunk down between $100 and $350 for a copy in very good condition.

5 comments:

  1. Brilliant info and review John - this really does sound intriguingly bizarre in its self-indulgence (love the sound of the 'cloud-quilted divans'). Thanks as always for sharing - how many naturist bibliomane mystery solvers are there out there? Well, in real life I suspect more than one might think ...

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    1. Morris may be the only nudist/gourmand/amateur classical pianist/detective in the genre. I don't even want to think about his counterparts in real life.

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  2. Interesting review, John, but I have to say that the newspapermen of this book impress me as an unimaginative lot. A serial throat-cutter loose on the streets of Chicago and "The Fiend" is the best nickname they could come up with? Why not something a little bit more catchy like "The Second City Cutter."

    Now just imagine the headlines with a nickname like that: "FIFTH VICTIM OF 'THE SECOND CITY CUTTER' LEAVES POLICE REPUTATION WITH A GASH."

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    1. Excellent and a vast improvement on Targ. It's like something out of a Robert L Fish story. Speaking of which... You really need to write some short stories, TomCat. Your imagination is teeming with ideas. Or have you done so already?

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    2. I'm afraid I lack the literary talent. :/

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