Sunday, March 31, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: A Smile that Drives Men Mad

In a recent book buying coup I snagged several extremely scarce books, a few with dust jackets. One of those books is The Black Cap, a collection of stories dealing with crime and the supernatural. It is edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, a writer who dabbled in ghost stories and other genre fiction and who also collected unusual ghost and crime stories for a variety of anthologies.

The book itself is in amazing condition but many of the books I ended up purchasing had several dogeared pages -- and not just the upper corner but the lower corners.  Sometimes the pages were turned from odd to even page, other times the opposite direction. It was maddening to discover this.  The books would be in Very Good, some in Fine, condition if it were not for this annoying practice of the previous owner.  When I got home with my purchases I spent a good portion of the night going through all eight books and turning back carefully all the dog- eared corners and afterwards stacking the books and pressing them with weights.

While paging through this book I discovered only one story had been dogeared -- "The Smile of Karen" by Oliver Onions.  Onions was a unique writer who immersed himself in all sorts of styles and genres, but he is probably best known for his collection of excellent ghost stories Widdershins. That book includes the masterful tale "The Beckoning Fair One" which has been adapted for TV and radio many times. Between the pages of "The Smile of Karen" I found an index card with some odd phrases.



I read the story and the phrase "the smile that touched her generous lips" appears nowhere.  It's an eerie narrative with a fairy tale quality about a man who has oppressive control over his beautiful much younger wife.  He is also a woodcarver of amazing, other-worldly talent.  He has created a small statue of his wife but the eerie object has no face or expression. When the narrator asks why the statue is unfinished the woodcarver says: "Once she did not smile and I was happy, now she smiles always and it drives me mad."  The narrator of the tale befriends Karen and learns she is having a secret affair with a handsome man closer to her own age. She confides in the narrator that if  her husband discovers the identity of her lover he is certain to plot revenge. The tale ends in gruesome murder with a final grisly twist related to the statue.

Why the previous owner wrote those phrases and stuck the card in a story of jealousy, possessiveness and vengeful rage eludes me. While there are passing references to Karen's beauty and the virility and handsome looks of Niccolo, her lover, I found nothing beautiful about the story.

Friday, March 29, 2013

FFB: The Starkenden Quest - Gilbert Collins


My write-up a few weeks ago of Dennis Wheatley's The Man Who Missed the War mentioned in passing that it shares something with books of the "lost race" subgenre of adventure stories, but it happens to be one of the more outrageous examples. This week's book, The Starkenden Quest (1925), is instead an anthropological treatment of the subgenre. There is a chapter entitled "The Mystery of the Ages" in which one of the more mysterious characters reveals his professorial background in a long lecture that manages to epitomize all of the philosophies of the lost race theme. It is a near desperate attempt to link all humans via religion, culture, mythology and race to one origin. The lecture almost convinces me that Collins was the Joseph Campbell of his day.

Down on his luck and down to his last few shillings, our narrator John Crayton finds himself marooned in Yokohama at the Four Winds Hotel. A financial disaster has nearly wiped out his bank account back home in England and he needs a job quickly in order to pay his hotel bill or risk jail in Japan. A fortuitous encounter with the shady and morose Abel Starkenden in a local bar changes his luck.

Starkenden has just single-handedly fought off a group of carousing and offensive sailors. Crayton is impressed by the fighting -- a combination of verbal assault and agile fisticuffs -- and he sidles up to Starkenden for a chat.  The conversation soon turns to Crayton's sorry state of affairs, his pathetic scouring of the want ads, and Starkenden's very strange job offer.  He asks Crayton to join him as a member of his team of explorers and will pay him £300 plus expenses throughout the journey. If Crayton accepts the position, Starkenden will also pay the outstanding hotel bill and release him from that obligation. What choice does he have really? He agrees and later at Starkenden's hilltop home in a British settlement in Yokohama he meets Gregory Hope who was similarly recruited as part of the team. The two listen to a series of legends and anecdotes about the Starkenden family and their ties to ancient mysteries and relics first discovered by his Norse ancestors.  Crayton and Hope find their lives almost immediately transformed from the lackluster to the astonishing.

The three set off in search of Starkenden's brother Felix who was abducted by a savage race known as the "devil men of the hills."  Armed only with an old map from Felix' one time exploring partner Starkenden is determined to find not only his brother, but the source of a hidden treasure trove of odd gems that emanate a powerful blue light that he calls "eyestones."  They are harder than diamonds and extremely rare which he believes make them the most valuable jewel on Earth.  Should they locate the source of the eyestones all three of them will be rich for the rest of their lives.

Initially, Gilbert Collins' third novel appears to be just another in a long line of quest adventures similar to the work of Haggard, Bedford-Jones and all the Indiana Jones movies.  Among the many set pieces Starkenden and his two explorers-for-hire encounter are a run-in with Chinese pirates, crossing a raging river of white rapids in a most unusual fashion, and travelling through an ancient cavern equipped with a lantern made from a human skull. But it is their encounter with Starkenden's arch enemy Coningham that changes the team's intended plans. Coningham is seen in the company of Marah Starkenden, daughter of the explorer, and the trio believe she has been kidnapped. The object of the quest then immediately turns to rescuing Marah from the clutches of a man described as treacherous and evil. When they finally meet face to face in a cavern that is home to the lost race (ah, there it is!) of the Ktawrh, fearsome and dwarfish ape-like creatures, there will be multiple surprises in store for the explorers and the reader.  No one is who they say they are, assumed identities are unmasked, roles are reversed, and the novel becomes both a crime story and a fantasy adventure all at once.

For me what raises this above your standard She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed style of lost race tale (yes, there is a white goddess-like character) is the setting of Southeast Asia and Collins' painstaking detail to the geography, culture, superstitions and religions of that part of the world. Nothing is wholly made up here, much of it is based on facts circa 1925. In many lost race novels we mostly get imaginative fancies, absurd leaps in logic, monsters and weird creatures. While there is still an element of imaginative fantasy much of the story owes its success to Collins' insightful inclusion of anthropological discoveries and Darwinian theory.  I wouldn't recommend the book to a Creationist, that's for sure.

While E.F. Bleiler finds too much similarity to Haggard in The Starkenden Quest and criticizes its verbose length and complex plot (faults I am willing to forgive more easily) he praises Collin's other lost race novel Valley of the Eyes Unseen which he touts as "a convincing story of geographical adventure with adult detail, and an excellently imagined fantastic situation in Hellas."  I think the same can be said of The Starkenden Quest with the mere substitution of Indochina as the last word. Collins is well worth investigating for readers who like intelligent rousing adventures.

The Starkenden Quest was popular enough in its day to merit being reprinted in the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries in the October 1949 issue. Several illustrations by the phenomenally talented Virgil Finlay are used from that issue for this post. Valley of the Eyes Unseen was also reprinted in a 1952 issue of the same magazine.  I suspect they both underwent extensive abridgement.

In 1930 after publication of three adventure novels Collins turned his writing to crime and detective fiction. He was born in 1900, but I could only trace his bibliography from 1922 to 1937.  I have no idea if he abandoned writing in the 1940s or if he died extremely young, perhaps one of the many casualities of World War 2. Any other info on Collins is greatly appreciated. I plan on reviewing one more lost race book and a few of his detective novels in the coming months.

Gilbert Collins Bibliography
Flower of Asia (1922)
Valley of the Eyes Unseen (1923)
The Starkenden Quest (1925)
Post-Mortem (1930)
Horror Comes to Thripplands (1930)
The Phantom Tourer (1931)
     US title: Murder at Brambles
The Channel Million (1932)
Chinese Red (1932)
      US title: Red Death
The Dead Walk (1933)
Death Meets the King's Messenger (1934)
The Poison Pool (1935)
The Haven of Unrest (1936)
The Mongolian Mystery (1937)
Mystery in St. James Square (1937)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

FIRST BOOKS: Murder in Blue – Clifford Witting

"He's deep, is the Inspector."

John Rutherford, bookseller and sometime fiction writer, discovers the bludgeoned corpse of a policeman one evening while taking a stroll in a rain storm. The policeman's overturned bicycle is what first catches Rutherford's eye. Then he sees Officer Johnson's body sprawled on the sodden ground of Phantom Coppice. Rutherford takes Johnson's bike and pedals to rural Paulsfield police station, two miles away, to report the crime. There he finds Sgt. Martin who initiates calls to a doctor, a photographer and Inspector Charlton. Among the oddities in the case are the mystery of the bicycle tire puncture, the possibility of switched bicycles, the appearance of a third cop on the scene, and the strange location of Johnson's policeman's hat at the scene of the crime. 

Rutherford is narrator and wanna-be amateur sleuth who aids Charlton in the investigation of the crime. But it is not these two lead detectives who are the most interesting characters of the book. That honor goes to 19 year-old George Stubbings, assistant at "Voslivres," the bookshop Rutherford owns. George is a detective story addict and he is keen on solving the various mysteries surrounding Johnson's violent death. He is both ingenuous in dealing with Rutherford and ingenious in his precocious observations about the apparent murder. Whenever George sets foot on the scene the book gets a welcome humorous lift.

To be truthful the entire book is more lighthearted than one would expect for a story about the beating death of a policeman. It's one of the many examples of how a detective novel can also be a good mainstream novel. The detail about life in a village bookshop and how Rutherford and George treat their customers is a highlight. At times I was reminded of the work of Herbert Adams who, like Witting does here, adds a romantic subplot and populates his books with fully realized minor characters who tend to upstage the detective leads. There is an abundance of charm and wit on display in Murder in Blue amid the brutal violence.

The detection is mostly fair play, but several clues withheld from the reader and revealed in the final pages are clearly not. The solution, sadly, leaves a lot to be desired. In an attempt to make the mystery more realistic Witting has chance figure prominently. Rutherford in acting as Good Samaritan inadvertently ruins what was intended as the murderer's perfect frame-up. The bad weather, the available bicycle, and several other plot details all combine with Rutherford's split second decisions to create unnecessary complications that hinder the murder investigation. But the reader is not really aware of these complications until the final chapter. That will make for cries of "Cheat!" among the more rigid detective fiction fans.

According to several reviews I have read elsewhere -- notably those by Nick Fuller at the Golden Age of Detection wiki -- Witting improved over time. Catt Out of the Bag, Witting's fourth mystery novel, receives the closest thing to a rave from Nick. I've been looking for an affordable copy of that title for several months now. His Measure for Murder, set in an amateur theatrical troupe, was chosen as one of Jacques Barzun's "Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction" and reprinted in a library edition back in the 1970s. I will be reviewing that book in the coming weeks.

As a side note Murder in Blue introduces Peter Bradfield, a policeman in a very minor role. Later in Witting's books, Bradfield turns up assisting Inspector Charlton and eventually serves as the lead detective. Out of all Clifford Witting's books Charlton and Bradfield work together on seven cases, Charlton is solo in four others, and Bradfield is alone in three of the later books.

Clifford Witting's Detective Novels
Murder in Blue (1937)
Midsummer Murder (1937)
The Case of the Michaelmas Goose (1938)
Catt Out of the Bag (1939)
Measure for Murder (1941)
Subject -- Murder (1945)
Let X Be the Murderer (1947)
Dead on Time (1948)
A Bullet for Rhino (1950)
The Case of the Busy Bees (1952)
Silence After Dinner (1953)
Mischief in the Offing (1958)
There Was a Crooked Man (1960)
Driven to Kill (1961)
Villainous Saltpetre (1962)
Crime in Whispers (1964)

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: This number three in my "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Jolly Old England. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Category 1: Murder is Academic
Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Category 2: Colorful Crime
The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Valiant Valancourt Books

I'm always ready to help publicize the work of any small press that dares to reissue my favorite writers languishing in the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom. Valancourt Books, who have reissued some of the earliest Gothic novels from the 18th and 19th century, has now turned their attention to 20th century weird and supernatural fiction. They are in the process of reissuing many of the books of John Blackburn.

Regular readers with good memories may know that I have reviewed three of Blackburn's wholly original thrillers which blend crime and the supernatural into thrillers with a hip 1960s vibe. Not since Dennis Wheatley gave up writing had anyone really done such an exceptional job as Blackburn at incorporating the supernatural into a modern setting.

I was so excited I sent a letter of thanks to the publisher James Jenkins and learned in his reply that my rave review of Broken Boy "helped persuade" him to reprint that book. What an honor for this humble little blog. I helped bring a forgotten book back into print!

Not only has Valancourt chosen to reprint John Blackburn they have a long list of books they plan to reissue, many of them out of print for decades, that will be of interest to readers of weird, supernatural and fantasy fiction. Some of the titles I am anticipating are Benighted by J. B. Priestley, The Hand of Kornelius Voyt by Oliver Onions, the books of Claude Houghton and The Burnaby Experiment by Stephen Gilbert, best known as the author of Ratman's Notebooks, AKA Willard in its movie adaptation. Valancourt Books' forthcoming list also includes crime novels like He Arrived at Dusk by R. C. Ashby (read my review at Mystery*File),  Ritual in the Dark by Colin Wilson and The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole. Perhaps the most astonishing planned release will be The Birds by Frank Baker (author of Miss Hargreaves), an exceptionally scarce title I've wanted to read for years now. This is just a sample of the genre fiction. Valancourt also has an interest in early 20th century literary fiction and early fiction with gay themes. There is plenty that will appeal to a variety of reader tastes. All of it exceptional in quality and wisely chosen, I think.

Three John Blackburn books are available for purchase via amazon.com where Valancourt Books has chosen to market their titles. Below is a list of links. According to a blog post back in December 2012 Valancourt Books plans to reprint at least five other John Blackburn books including extremely scarce titles like The Beastly Business and The Household Traitors

All current titles published by Valancourt Books are available in either trade paperback or digital format.

Start saving your pennies, gang. I know I am!

John Blackburn's work at Valancourt Books
Broken Boy
Nothing But the Night
Bury Him Darkly

Monday, March 25, 2013

NEW STUFF: Ordinary Grace - William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451645828
320 pp. $24.99
Publication date: March 26, 2013

Memory as we all know can play tricks on us. We like to think that there was a time in our past that was " the good ol' days" usually turning to a brief period in our early to late teens. There is a nostalgia for this time that is often distorted with an ample amount of good memories but nothing troubling, unpleasant or -- heaven forbid -- nightmarish. And there is a type of fiction that likes to travel down these nostalgic byways and allow the reader to bask in a fictional past that approaches an idyllic Eden of bliss and contentment. William Kent Krueger 's most recent novel Ordinary Grace (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2013) dares to be a nostalgic novel that starts not with the pleasant but with the horrific.

At the start of the novel in a foreword written in Frank Drum's adult voice we immediately know that the tale he is about to relate about a specific summer from his teen years is one in which Death paid several visits to his hometown and he and his brother learned that summer usually a time for carefree pursuits can be an unsafe and haunting time of the year. For Frank and Jake is it a summer of losses and gains.

Loss, once it's become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It's solid and can be assessed and dealt with. You can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away. The uncertainty of Ariel's disappearance was vastly different. It surrounded us and clung to us. We breathed it in and breathed it out and we were never sure of its composition.
In a departure from his series featuring series character Cork O'Connor Krueger has written a stand alone novel that is a Minnesota version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two siblings learn to deal with the brutality of adult crime while simultaneously having their strong moral upbringing put to the test. The twist in Krueger's version is that Frank and Jake Drum have not a lawyer for a father but a Methodist minister. The law of the land does not serve as the background as much as the Law of God does. Tests of faith and moral convictions are at the root of the entire story.

Frank, the elder brother is an outspoken, impetuous, rascal of a teenager while his younger brother Jake is the contemplative, well behaved, voice of reason. He is the embodiment of Frank's conscience and a walking model of Reverend Drum's Sunday sermons. He is constantly reminding Frank not to swear, not to use the Lord's name in vain, not to think ill of others. Frank, on the other hand, rarely listens. He taunts and teases Jake and is constantly leading his brother away from the straight and narrow path. Frank serves as a model of teenage rebellion daring Jake to let loose and misbehave like when he hands Jake a baseball bat and asks him to get even with the town bully by smashing the headlights on the jerk's souped up vintage sports car. Jake gives in occasionally, but usually is seen standing back, remaining silent, preferring the morally right option no matter what the cost. The two of them will pay the consequences for choosing their paths and by the novel's shocking climax will learn to meet at the crossroads of blind obedience and non-conformist independence.

The story begins with the mention of three deaths – accident, suicide and murder – providing the basis for the most elementary mystery for the reader. Which death is which? But this is no traditional whodunnit or puzzle mystery. There is so much more that awaits the patient reader.

The most fascinating aspect of the story is how Krueger deals with a variety of societal outcasts. Jake stutters and has a very difficult time making himself understood when he gets anxious. Then there is Lise, sister of reclusive musician and piano tutor Emil Brandt, who is described by the locals as a crazy woman but is more compassionately described by the adult voice of Frank as "someone who must have been autistic though we were not as familiar with that disorder as we are now." There is an almost supernatural bond that exists between Lise and Jake. She will not allow anyone to touch her or speak to her but Jake. And this eleven year old boy, wise beyond his years (at times making him a bit too much to take), is the only person in town who can calm her down when she explodes in one of her frightening tantrums.

And there is Warren Redstone, a member of the Dakota tribe. During the murder investigation Redstone becomes the prime suspect. Frank and Jake have previously met the man under a bridge which serves as the focal point for all the violent deaths. They had a disturbing encounter with him there and Frank's imagination gets the better of him when he sees the man put his hand ever so briefly on Jake's leg. When they have their second encounter with him, with police in hot pursuit of all three, Frank will surprise himself by letting Redstone escape. That action will plague Frank's conscience for the remainder of the book. Whether or not it turned out to be the best decision he could have made I leave for the reader to discover.

Ordinary Grace takes its title from a brief episode towards the end of the book in which Mrs. Drum asks her husband "For God's sake, Nathan, can't you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace" before a meal is eaten at a funeral reception. Remarkably, a few minutes later a small miracle takes place in the presence of the entire congregation. It is both poignant and predictable and yet altogether satisfying. There are other examples of miracles throughout the book prior to this scene, some barely noticeable others astonishing in their magnitude. All of them serve as Krueger's belief that somewhere within all of us is an ordinary grace that can lead to unexpected, sometimes wondrous, events.

Friday, March 22, 2013

FFB: Vanishing Men - G McLeod Winsor

Looking at the table of contents and reading the chapter titles I learned that Vanishing Men (1927) promised five disappearances and a laboratory explosion. Good enough for me. I plunked down my money and bought the book. I was hoping for something along the lines of the scientific impossible crime novels of Nigel Morland under his many pseudonyms. Would this one involve esoteric chemistry experiments like the books featuring Johnny Lamb? Would I learn of mechanical or engineering problems as in the novels Morland wrote as Neal Shepard? Perhaps physics or biology would be featured. I was surprised when the story hinted at invisibility, matter disintegration and experiments with radioactive elements. The solution to the crimes seemed to be heading toward science fiction and fantasy rather than real hard science.

Prosaically titled The Mysterious Disappearances in the original UK edition the story takes the form of a detective novel opening with the theft of diamonds and gems from a jeweler's office and several apparent murders. The biggest mystery that plagues the several policemen from Scotland yard tackling the various crimes, accidents and vanishings is the fact that the victims' bodies cannot be found. Among the many baffling and inexplicable events the police face:
  • A jeweler disappears from his locked office. There is only one door watched by two clerks who saw only a single visitor enter and exit during the work day.
  • The body of a Maharajah disappears from a plane crash site with no sign of footprints or any other disturbances surrounding the wreckage.
  • A policeman enters a building in full view of his colleagues but never returns. A search of the house reveals it to be completely empty of inhabitants.
The primary suspect is Arthur Seymour, a reclusive misanthropic amateur scientist who lives next door to narrator Sir Henry Fordyce. Seymour has been conducting strange experiments with uranium and radium but will not go into details about the specifics of his work. Fordyce happens to be privy to Seymour's personal life and relates how a broken engagement and his one time fiancée's marriage to another man drove Seymour to the brink of madness. The man who stole Seymour's bride-to-be is also the jeweler who disappears at the start of the book. The police are determined to find a connection between all the vanished men and Seymour and thus prove a case of elaborate revenge. They, however, need some vital information from Miss Arnold, the adopted daughter of the jeweler's widow. Inspector Gilmour turns to Fordyce who he believes might more skillfully obtain Miss Arnold's cooperation. She has refused to talk with Gilmour who she finds a boor and Inspector Glynn who she found inappropriately friendly. Fordyce, a dignified middle-aged gentleman, is shocked when in the course of his sly interrogation he finds himself falling in love with the woman, fifteen years his junior.

The book has a somber often humorless tone thanks in large part to the extremely uptight Henry Fordyce as narrator. But the adventures and multiple puzzles keep the reader engaged. Only the introduction of the at times sappy love story subplot periodically detract from what otherwise is an intriguing mystery that soon becomes a science fiction adventure. In the final chapters Seymour's experimental work is revealed to be an early form of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Fordyce finds himself rendering those experiments in very basic layman's terms in an attempt to convey the often difficult mathematics involved which he confesses he does not understand at all.

George McLeod Winsor, apart from sounding like a character found in the pages of a Stevenson novel, was a little known scientific romance writer from the early part of the 20th century. His best known work -- thanks to its inclusion in 333, a bibliography of fantasy, science fiction, lost race and supernatural fiction -- is his novel Station X (1919). The book is a bizarre tale of interplanetary warfare between Mars and Earth. I have not read the book but the plot summary in 333 certainly makes it seem like a War of the Worlds knock-off with the added bonus of alien mind control. But then there are dozens of books published between 1890 and 1920 about evil Martians invading Earth taking all sorts of forms from bat winged humanoids to metal encased tentacled machines. Though no aliens are involved in the mysterious events in Vanishing Men the solution depends on something just as fantastical as Martians or Venusians.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stuck in the Doldrums



Recognize that map? (A virtual bottle of Montepulciano D'Abruzzo to the first one who names it correctly.) See that maze-like portion of the road the over on the left?  Somehow I've found myself stuck there for days. I'm in the Doldrums in Milo's car and I've run out of gas. Now I'm on foot trying to get back to the Sea of Knowledge, but I've got no map, no compass, not even a GPS. It probably wouldn't work with the mountains interfering anyway.

Today is the Vernal Equinox. I've always wanted to try out that trick of standing a raw egg on end out on the sidewalk on this official beginning of spring. Maybe that'll get me out of this funk.  At least I seem to have smidgen of my sense of humor. Now if only my posts were as exciting and insightful as they used to be.

Wait... Google tells me that yesterday was the Vernal Equinox and a hoax busting website revealed that egg standing stunt as an utter myth. For the past two days I forgot to turn on my cellphone and missed three fairly urgent phone calls. I'm a mess. I need a secretary. I need a drink. Now I sound like everyone in The Tattered Dress, a movie I watched two nights ago and really didn't like at all. (No review for that one on Tuesday, you can bet.) And now this blog has turned into a self-absorbed overdose of Twitter-like commentary that I usually loathe.

I'm back in the Doldrums. Blah.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

COOL FLICKS: Too Many Crooks (1959)

I've always loved Ruthless People, the 1986 comedy in which Danny DeVito tries to get rid of his harridan wife played by Bette Midler only to discover prior to killing her that she has been kidnapped.  He is elated and taunts the ineffectual kidnappers by not paying them and daring them to kill her and put an end to all his troubles. Screenplay writer Dale Launer claimed to have been inspired by O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" about the kidnapping of an obnoxious child who causes headaches for the crooks trying to get money from his parents who don't want him back.  Well, it appears that Launer really took the idea from an old Rank Organization/Pinewood Studios movie called Too Many Crooks. I only learned this a few days ago when Christopher Fowler mentioned it in passing on his blog here.  So of course I had to find the movie and see for myself. Too Many Crooks has an awful lot in common with Ruthless People. But the 1959 British movie happens to be funnier, less vulgar, and has a sense of fun and hysteria that outshines the American film of the 80s.


Terry-Thomas, premier sputterer and cad of so many British and American farces, plays Billy Gordon, a greedy businessman who fears banks and the taxman. He keeps all of his money hidden in several safes and other secure spots out of the hands of his wife and the British government.  A gang of inept thieves targets him for their latest caper, but they fail miserably at their group effort as masked yeggmen.  So they turn to Plan B - kidnapping his daughter.  Their ineptitude once again trips them up when they learn they have kidnapped not his daughter but his wife. And the joke is on them when Gordon has no interest in paying the ransom. Even when their gang leader Fingers (George Cole) attempts to barter on the ransom dropping it from £10,000 to £4,000 to a mere 200 quid Gordon will not fork over the money. When his wife learns that she is unwanted and not even worth 200 her meek demeanor gives way to vengeful Fury. No more Mrs. Nice Gal for Lucy Gordon played with wily charm by Brenda De Banzie.  She lets loose with a display of military combat techniques on her captors and lets them know who's got the real brains and brawn.  She convinces the gang of crooks to turn the tables on Gordon and rob him of every penny they can lay their hands on.




The movie is an all out farce with all the typical ingredients you expect from low comedy. Sight gags, goofy pratfalls and slapstick antics, silly disguises by the trunkful, shapely women in tight fitting costumes providing ample opportunity for  lots of breast jokes.  Cole shows off his skill at comic dialects yet his character always manages to slip into his native Cockney giving him away each time. But for every slapstick joke there are probably two or three genuinely witty lines in the very clever script by Michael Pertwee, son of playwright and novelist Roland Pertwee.  The screenplay is also apparently based on a story by novelist and journalist Christine Rochefort and Jean Nery, who was a Cannes Film Festival judge though I can find nothing else about him.

Terry-Thomas is blackmailed by "Sgt. Sykes" (Cole),
one of the many disguises of Fingers, the gang's leader
As with any farcical comedy there are a number of bizarre complications, utter coincidences and convenient accidents that add to the chaos.  Gordon is told if he doesn't pay up on the ransom his wife will be cut up into tiny pieces and distributed along the Great North Road.  Not much later he will be handed a newspaper with a headline emblazoned WOMAN MURDERED ON GREAT NORTH ROAD and frantically jump to conclusions. A series of mishaps lands him in court where one of the silliest sequences takes place. Gordon's incoherent rambling of "Money, no money. Oh, I wish I were dead" at the scene of his house fire is misinterpreted as "Mummy, Mummy." Then turned around by his defense attorney to be "Bunny. No, Bunny." As the lawyer explains, "Bunny, his budgerigar."  It goes on and on like the best kind of wordplay in a Marx Brothers movie or an Abbot and Costello routine.

The gang of crooks is made up of some veterans of the Carry On series, Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw,  and Joe Melia in his screen debut. Melia plays a scrawny, wannabe weightlifter who speaks almost all of his dialogue sotto voce and is called, aptly enough, Whisper. The shapely women are blond bombshell Vera Day as the gang's moll Charmaine and Delphi Lawrence as Gordon's unnamed secretary. Lawrence may be recognizable to keen 1960s TV fans for guest appearances on many US and UK shows like Wild, Wild West, The Man from UNCLE and Gideon C.I.D. Each of these supporting players gets their chance to shine in the chaotic, incident filled story.  Only Rosalie Ashley and Nicholas Parsons as Gordon's daughter Angela and her tax inspector fiance seem wasted as the symbols of sanity in this madcap world of criminal activity gone haywire.

Monday, March 18, 2013

IN BRIEF: Ebenezer Investigates - Nicholas Brady

The locals of Dowerby would like a new parish hall and they turn to the charismatic Reverend Ebenezer Buckle who in the past has been quite talented in getting multiple fundraising projects going. Among the many ideas that bring in money are raffles, whist drives, benefit concerts, and -- as their last straw attempt -- door-to-door collections.  The entire congregation decides to hold a full-out church fete and bazaar to get the final couple of thousand for a down payment for the architect.

During a treasure hunt which takes participants on a scramble throughout the village by following clues in riddle form Rev. Buckle discovers the body of Constance Bell. The young lady had just visited his booth where he was selling a variety of wildflowers grown in his garden. She cannot have been dead for long. Constance is found face down in a creek near a foot bridge and has been stabbed in the throat. Suspicion immediately falls on the young man she was seen with earlier at the fete. Investigation leads police to believe that Constance was promiscuous and had a variety of men paying attention to her. Rev. Buckle disbelieves these assumptions and sets about to clear Constance's name and uncover the truth behind her violent death.

Buckle comes across more like Father Brown in this book than in any other. This is the mystery novel as morality play with a decidedly modern twist. Theology takes center stage as Buckle is seen preaching from the pulpit several times a facet of his life absent from the other two books I read in the series. Thankfully, the preaching is never heavy handed. The murder investigation soon focuses on adultery and promiscuity in the lives of two key women characters. Forgiveness and compassion are the ultimate lessons Buckle attempts to teach by the end of the novel. 

Detection for the most part is very good with an emphasis on human nature observations rather than physical evidence. Buckle must do a lot of inductive reasoning and a bit of guesswork . Several times over the course of the book he points out that the killer seems to have made the crime a lot more difficult than it should have been. Constance's belongings, for example, are strewn throughout the fields near the scene of the murder. It takes days to locate all the items she was seen carrying away from the church bazaar. Why did the killer do this, Buckle wonders?  Why not just leave where she was? Buckle is convinced he is dealing with a murderer who is too smart for his own good. But with little real evidence at hand and conceited and overly self-assured murderer, Buckle finds himself forced to do what any law officer would find unethical. He manufactures evidence and lays a trap which he hopes will trick the murderer into revealing himself and thereby confessing to the crime.

There is a good bit of misdirection in the story as well. The sex aspect of the book seems very advanced for a detective novel of the early 1930s.  Readers of the time were probably easily fooled by Brady's clever way of making the case appear to be about one person when in fact all the clues really point to another, but a contemporary reader will probably catch on to the trick fairly quickly. It is difficult to see this book in the light of the 1930s because of the fallen woman cliche that crops up repeatedly in the story. Two of the women are portrayed as "wicked" who out of loneliness turn to the arms of attractive and virile men, ironically the real weaklings and cowards of the book. But like the murder victim in Murder Among Friends reviewed here last week it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Constance and her mother in this book.

Chances are you will not be able to locate a copy of Ebenezer Investigates (1934) very easily.  It took me almost 15 years to find mine. It purchased it from an online UK bookseller and I paid close to $85 including shipping to get it over here. Currently, there are no copies for sale on the internet. Good luck in your search. I'm still trying to find a copy of Week-end Murder and Coupons for Death, the the last two books featuring Reverend Buckle. But I fear I may never find either book.

Previously reviewed books by Nicholas Brady are The House of Strange Guests and Fair Murder.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: A Secret Store

Another unusual handmade bookplate.  Can't remember the name of the book I found it in.  It's hand drawn in ink.  I see initials in the lower corners: H.G.  Haven't a clue what they stand for. For some reason this reminds me of Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish artwork.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: A Woman in Purple Pajamas

I continue my reading of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries with this oddball book with an oddball title. Turns out it's by a writer who is the only person to have more than one book published by this imprint. Wilson Collison wrote The Diary of Death under his own name and it appeared as one of the first books in the Scarlet Thread series of mystery novels in 1930. A Woman in Purple Pajamas followed one year later in February 1931. It purports to be a police procedural with a quasi-impossible crime. The result is indeed impossible in a completely unintended connotation of that word.

A Woman in Purple Pajamas is a casebook pastiche. Collison, in a nod to the late Victorian police procedurals, creates narrator Willis Kent, a "first-grade detective" and Harvard graduate, who also serves as the books "author." Kent gives a brief background in his Foreword on how he quickly rose to his current rank under Lt. Martin Brannigan and attempts to get the reader to believe that this novel is a work of non-fiction. Kent is continually reminding the reader that the police work of fictional characters in detective novels is entirely unlike that of authentic policemen. He proposes that his story of the Rand murder will reveal how police really investigate a murder. The book is to be a sort of experiment in which the reader follows Kent from start to finish, viewing evidence and hearing eyewitness accounts as he received them in chronological order. The entire book takes place over the span of twenty four hours.

Jimmy Rand, libertine millionaire playboy, is shot in his bedroom on the night of one of his loudest and busiest weekend parties. Brock Warwick, secretly in love with Rand's wife Denise, just happened to be outside at the time of the murder and is the first of many eyewitnesses to come forward. Just prior to seeing Rand shot in the open French windows leading out to a second story balcony Warwick claims to have seen a woman wearing purple pajamas who disappeared after Rand fell to the ground. There is some business which makes the room appear to be locked and inescapable but later interviews with suspects quickly dispenses with the impossibility angle. The bloodstained purple pajamas appear and reappear in a variety of locations but finding which woman had been wearing them -- something that should be easy and obvious based on the different heights and shapes of the women involved --  proves to be one of this Harvard educated cop's most difficult tasks. Lying suspects are Kent's undoing.

During the investigation Kent learns that his chief seven suspects were all in Rand's bedroom at some time during the night.  He also learns that at least three suspects had planned to kill Rand. One of these would-be murderers is also an eyewitness to the killing and makes the mistake of trying to talk with Kent in confidence. He is, of course, overheard and becomes the second victim. This unleashes a wave of hysteria among the party-goers when his dead body is found at the foot of a staircase in the main hallway. Despite the fact their host was killed and that the police on are on the premises at the time of the second murder the reveling extras are still drinking and dancing oblivious to a murder investigation. It takes a second murder for the police team to get the news out.

Suspects are found hiding in closets, hiding in clothes trunks, and otherwise behaving like stock characters in a bedroom farce. Denise Rand is depicted as a hysteric who can't answer simple questions without being reduced to a quivering, stammering neurotic. When asked how tall she is, she replies, "I don't know," her answer to most everything asked of her. Kent is merciless in questioning Mrs. Rand, moreso than any other character. There is a third degree scene in which he badgers her about the purple pajamas until she finally cries out, "I don't know! stop -- for God's sake, stop asking me questions!" 

Like most mystery novels of the Alternative Classic School to which this book assuredly belongs there are frequent passages of unintended comedy.  Here is a random sampling:
At this point, you assisting detectives may well point out my stupidity and utter uselessness of my method of procedure.

Once a man becomes vexed and loses his temper, fifty percent of his efficiency and powers of deduction are destroyed. You can't reason when the blood is circulating too freely.

Silence persisted then for a long moment...

I felt abruptly tantalized; as though I were a little boy being teased; as though some disgusting prank-player had run a grater over my skin and irritated it.

It was a fertile thought; it came to me with large chunks of logic and interesting possibilities.

I simply can't be a fictional detective, so I must admit that the servants had meant little to me in connection with the case. I had, of course, blundered stupidly in not questioning Parker [the butler] -- but then, how was I to know that the poor fellow was to be murdered...?
The repeated comparison between real life and fiction like that last quip above gets to be grating. Why do writers think this is clever? Additionally, Kent constantly brings up his Harvard education which as the story progresses becomes an increasingly dubious claim. Either that or he was in the bottom of his class. In this case the mention of an Ivy League education has nothing to do with Kent's intellect. He is counter-intuitive to the point of exasperation. Despite his claim about "large chunks of logic" filling his "fertile thoughts" many of his so-called unorthodox techniques are not radical, but inane.

There is an interesting coda to the publication of this book. It appears to be a novelization of a screenplay. Wilson Collison named his narrator/author in A Woman in Purple Pajamas after movie producer and screenwriter Willis Kent. This seems to be some kind of in-joke between Collison and Kent. It can be no coincidence that the title of the movie, A Scarlet Week-End, is blatantly used to promote the book on the rear panel (see photo at right). I was unable to unearth anything else about the reasoning for using Kent's name as the policeman narrator.

The film version is apparently a lost movie according to the imdb.com entry even though the website links to a review of the film on Cinefania, a Spanish movie website . Reading the brief review it seems that the film is very much in line with what I read in the book. But is it a legitimate review? Does the film truly exist? Or did the reviewer read the book and write a summary passing it off as a review of the movie? There is all sorts of similar fraudulent review and ratings of lost films are perpetrated on the internet day in and day out. If anyone has truly seen A Scarlet Week-end I'd be interested to know what the movie is really like.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE:  This serves as the second book in the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block.  The book fulfills the category Colorful Crime. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Category 1: Murder is Academic
Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew (also a "Scarlet Thread Mystery" coincidentally)

Friday, March 15, 2013

FFB: The Man Who Missed the War - Dennis Wheatley

For some time now I've been meaning to give a small tribute to Dennis Wheatley whose black magic thrillers I greatly admire.  But the first post on Wheatley will be on a book described by Jessica Salmonson as "a lost race extravaganza." It is indeed! Once having read The Man Who Missed the War (1945) it is difficult to shake the fantastical scenes from memory.  In only 288 pages Wheatley manages to tell a story that spans eight years and includes a spectacular shipwreck during wartime, an ordeal by sea, an attack by giant land crabs, a journey to Antarctica, and an evil mind controlling lost race of descendants of Atlantis who are responsible for the rise of the Nazi party. Extravaganza is an understatement, I think. The book is a mini epic displaying Wheatley's still fervent imagination and crammed with more action than a book twice its length.

My edition has an intriguing publicity blurb giving the reader an explanation not only for Wheatley's absence from the bestseller lists of Britain, but insight into his contributions during World War 2.  He was for three years "a member of the Joint Planning Staff in the Offices of the War Cabinet" where he was privy to classified information.  While working there he chose to go on hiatus as a spy novelist and he did not want to be tempted to borrow from reality. The preface further explains:
...he felt it a wise precaution to refrain form chronicling...further thrilling deeds until a little time [had] elapsed for major war secrets to be given to the public through official releases and war histories.
Dennis Wheatley, circa late 1930s
Instead of continuing his usual espionage novels with Gregory Sallust, Duke de Richelieu and Julian Day, he decided to write this tale of a Philip Vaudall who misses the war through a series of bizarre escapades, death defying adventures, and a fantastic discovery at the South Pole. During the eight years from shipwreck at sea to landing at the Antarctic Philip will spend most of his time with Gloria, a spunky survivor intent on getting back to America. Through chance and Fate, however, she becomes Philip's companion, advisor, and common law wife. They even manage to raise a family over the course of the book. All this despite being held prisoner by a tyrant of a king who rules over a pygmy race of slaves.

Is this enough to whet your appetite?  Those among you who scoff at this kind of adventure novel would be missing out as much as Philip Vaudall.  I found a passing reference denigrating the book in Antarctica in Fiction by Elizabeth Leane who called it "a very forgettable fantasy."  I am here to countermand that slur! I found it to be one of those incredible yarns so brimming with imagination and the surreal as to be fairly intoxicating. Revealing any further details of the dense plot would deprive any armchair adventurer from revelling in its remarkable pages.

Luckily, this book and nearly every other book in Wheatley's output are available in multiple editions, both paperback and hardcover, all of them affordable.  Wheatley is an acquired taste but his fiction has been wrongly disparaged for decades due to the revelations by biographers of his political and personal beliefs.  Some may find it hard to separate the man from his work. I am not one of them.  True fiction lovers who dare to sample any of his early adventure novel, but in particular The Man Who Missed the War, may just find themselves in awe of the depth of his imagination. Fantastic, outrageous, even ridiculous -- call it what you will -- it's a enviable achievement for a writer to let himself go to the edge the way Dennis Wheatley always did.

For more info on The Man Who Missed the War visit this website. It's not so much a review as it is an in- depth plot summary that is spoiler laden. Caveat lector. And for everything you ever wanted to know about the author stop by the absolutely awesome Dennis Wheatley Website.  I'd start in the museum section if I were you. But be warned -- I was there for two and half hours last night!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

FLASH FICTION: Manual Transmission

Another Flash Fiction Challenge dreamed up by Patti Abbott.  Inspired by the appearance of an unmarked white van on her street and the strange man who lived in it she asked bloggers and writers to concoct their own story about a man in a white van.  Below is mine.

More stories and links to other writers who participated can be found here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the links.

MANUAL TRANSMISSION

I opened the notebook, consulted my stopwatch, and jotted down the time. The white van was across the street again. Same weird license plate -- DARKO -- which I guessed was his unusual African name, nothing to do with that cult movie I'd seen years ago. From the looks of the guy it suited him. Out of state (Arizona plates), and probably out of the country, too. We didn't have too many black families in my white bread New England town. I'd been studying him for weeks now but only knew a portion of what he was up to.

2:37 PM Thursday, January 16

Three minutes earlier than last week. Today DARKO driver was not wearing his usual unseasonable attire of T-shirt, fleece and jeans. He was dressed in dark blue coveralls, boots and one of those goofy winter hats with the flaps and strings that make guys look like they have pigtails. Couldn't catch me dead in one of those. Looks like the winter weather was finally affecting his Arizonan or African blood. It was a break in his routine. I wasn't taking it as an omen or anything like that. That was a mistake on my part.

This was the routine: DARKO driver would open up the back of the van, go inside. He'd take about four and half minutes inside. Then he'd come out with a plain cardboard box as white as his unmarked van and get on a bicycle and ride off down the street. He'd be gone for nearly half a hour --sometimes a bit more, sometimes a little less -- but on the average I had calculated he was gone 27.5 minutes.

Something else different happened that day. DARKO driver was having trouble locking the van doors on the back. I smiled. Let's see him get out of this one. He had to spend an additional six minutes and eighteen seconds fiddling with the catch before finally giving up. He went to he passenger side door out of view of my binoculars. Less than thirty seconds he was back with a bungee cord that he wrapped around the handles of the rear doors. Clever bugger. Prepared just like a boy scout. But that's not gonna stop me, DARKO driver. Get a move on now. You're behind schedule.

I watched him mount this bike and ride away. Gone for the next 27 to 33.5 minutes.

I put down the binocs, zeroed out the stopwatch, and set the alarm on the watch for twenty seven minutes, DARKO driver's minimum average time. After marking the total time spent in this week's tasks, and capping my fountain pen I put the stopwatch in my pocket, grabbed my back pack with all my supplies and made my way downstairs and outside. Time for my own weekly tasks.

Before removing the bungee cord I noted how DARKO driver had arranged it on the handles so I could duplicate it when I left again. Had to make it appear no one was here. This was so much easier than picking the lock. I guess my repeated break-ins with my hand-fashioned skeleton keys finally took their toll on the ancient van. 1980 something I was guessing. Cars weren't really my thing. Neither were locks. I'm an art lover. And DARKO driver had some very interesting pieces inside his anonymous white van.

That old van had been fashioned into a mobile warehouse. Built-in cabinets and shelves lined both walls holding an awesome collection of imported artifacts and handcrafted objects from exotic lands. I had learned through dogged internet research that he was housing work of ancient Peruvians and Mexicans; aboriginal art of New Guinea and New Zealand; ritual masks from Tibet, Bali and Indonesia; and a variety of figures representing the gods and goddesses from Yoruba mythology. Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America. It was astounding to see so many cultures from four continents in one place. The sights sent me reeling each time I entered the van. Apparently DARKO driver had been delivering pieces in my neighborhood every week for the past three months.

I made my selection quickly and wrapped it lovingly in the polyester airline blanket I used to protect it in transit before putting the wad in my backpack. As I was about to hop out and meticulously reattach the bungee cord I was startled by an unfamiliar sound.

"Hello, my friend. A little shopping today?" DARKO driver was blocking my exit. I froze and couldn't say anything. I gestured like I usually do.

"Wotsamatter? You don't speak sarcasm?"

No, I don't speak at all, smart guy. But signing seemed lost on him. I don't expect fluency in ASL from your average person, but most intelligent people recognize the language of the deaf and the speechless when they see it. I wasn't deaf only aphasic from a neurological trauma. I never really recovered the power of speech but my hands worked well and I learned ASL. Despite all my toil in learning my new language I found myself more and more resorting to primitive signs and gestures when I met the insensitive and ignorant. So I gave him one of my Sad Sack gestures. Feel pity for me, DARKO driver and let me go. Why the hell did you come back anyway?

"Don't tell me you're mute?" He broke up laughing. "Don't tell me-- I'm a bit of a comedian today, aren't I? Wotcha got there, my friend?"

He grabbed my backpack and opened it. He pulled out the blanket and as gingerly as I had wrapped the object removed what I had chosen as today's booty.

"Very nice. Balinese. Used in ritual dance. You have sophisticated taste."

I nodded. I signed again to let me pass. Maybe if I was lucky I could muster up some kind of BBC historical drama empathy from him. Those Victorians sure loved to lavish pity and sympathy on cripples, orphans and social outcasts. I did my best sad puppy eyes and prayed he had a smidgen of goodness in his sarcastic overalled body.

"Tell you what. You keep it. While you're at it, help yourself to another."

My puppy eyes widened in astonishment. His fluency in sarcasm was getting to be too much. He couldn't be serious.

"Aha! you can hear me. Not deaf just speech impaired, eh?"

And there was the sympathy. The use of "speech impaired" is always a good sign.

"Go on then. Anything. Take one more, my friend."

I had almost completed my collection of one example for each culture. I was still missing a few pieces from Africa and Asia. There was no way I could choose by settling on one single item.

"Too difficult? How 'bout I make it easier?"

He went to one of the cabinets in the back and unlocked a drawer. This one had a lock I had failed to master. I had never got inside. What treasures lay within that specially secured area? The drawers were felt lined with a variety of what appeared to be authentic idols older than anything displayed openly on the shelves and racks. He handed me a strange figure with large hands held up against its ears. The expression on its round face was a mixture of wonder and surprise. Or it could be whistling, I guess. I loved it. So bizarre and the carving in the stone was a marvel to behold.

"Take it. You two have something in common. This is a mute god from a little known South Pacific cult. A mute god who sings and tells stories. Kinda weird, yes? Mythology is filled with contradictions and paradoxes."

It looked to be me that the figure was listening not talking. I took my cue from the object. Just listen and you'll get out of here safe. I kept chanting to myself a mantra of protection. Just listen. Listen. You'll be OK. In listening I followed his command. I took the small idol in my hand.

Then he grabbed my wrists and held them tight. DARKO driver looked down at my hands studying them, admiring them. He pulled me closer to him. I could smell a pungent but not offensive cologne. His breath was tinged with spearmint. I found myself looking into his deep brown eyes in the dim light of the van. He smiled. It seemed he really did think of me as a friend. If only he'd loosen his tight grip.

"Hands. So useful. You use them to speak. I use them to create. I made quite a few of the objects here, you know. I'm a bit of an artist and a bit of a con man." One more tug closer to him. I could see the pores in his mocha colored skin. He lowered his voice to a throaty purr. "I find you anywhere near this van again I will make sure you are permanently speechless."

That'll scare the hell out of any mute person. I gulped and nodded.

He finally released me. "Enjoy your gifts. Now… Vamoose!"

I kept my daily vigil with notebook, binoculars and stopwatch for a few days afterwards, but the white van never returned to my street that winter. I dreamed of DARKO driver for while, too. They weren't nightmares. Surprisingly, I got over the initial fright of being trapped and caught in his hands quickly. It was just that I couldn't get his words out of my head. His calling me friend, I believed, was truly the recognition of us as compatriots. We were both admirers of beauty. I liked to recall his being part artist and part con man. I imagined the kind of people he had fooled with his replicas of ancient artifacts. I also thought about his talk about hands, their usefulness, what I like to call the manual transmission of both speech and artistry. I made up an entire life for DARKO driver.

And I remembered how I was indebted to the idol for teaching me to listen. I still listen to it. On still nights when the only sounds I hear are faint sirens and night noises of invisible animals I turn to look at the stone idol on my bedside table and the figure speaks to me. He tells the story of DARKO driver, of his talent and speech, of his minty breath and perfumed skin, of his hands and the magic they create and the terror they instill.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

COOL FLICKS: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

The opening scene of Cast a Dark Shadow was so bizarre I couldn't resist.  A woman screams in extreme close-up and we discover she's inside one of those dark rides at an amusement park. Intercut with her reactions to the fake monsters popping out of coffins and the whizzing and whirring of sirens we watch Dirk Bogarde's boyish face. The titles appear superimposed over various shots of Bogarde's sinisterly lit face, half in darkness, half in shadow. He continues to study the woman sitting next to him with a blank stare on his face. There is clearly something going on in his head but you may not want to know exactly what it is. When they exit the ride we see he's been sitting next to a woman who is considerably older than him. She could be his aunt or grandmother and when we finally recognize her as Mona Washbourne we know she just has to be a good and decent lady. You just have to stick with this movie and find out why this young guy has taken this woman to a spook house ride.

They head to a tea shop and we soon learn that the two are married. Despite his earlier creepy glares in the dark ride Teddy seems to be genuinely devoted to his wife, Monica "Mony" Baer. Wait, does that make him Teddy Baer? Yes, it does. And the relationship seems more like mother and son than husband and wife.







Back home we meet the equally devoted and simple-minded maid Effy (Kathleen Harrison) and an officious family lawyer Philip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng). Mortimer is there to discuss Mony's new will. He advises her against leaving the estate to her layabout unemployed husband. She should keep the present will leaving everything to her sister Dora who lives in Jamaica with her wealthy husband. Leave Teddy the house and keep the money in the family the lawyer suggests.  "Teddy is my family. All the family I've got," Mony counters.  She is adamant that the new will take effect especially after a recent bout with influenza that seemed fatal.  She is worried about Teddy's future. "I always thought your marriage to Philip was a mistake," sneers Mortimer.  Perfect cue line for Teddy's entrance.

Teddy (Bogarde) plies his wife with brandy and tea and more brandy
Mony in her rocking chair, which becomes a heavy handed symbol by the movie's end
Lawyer Mortimer (Flemyng) informs Emmy (Harrison) she will inherit £200
Just before Mortimer leaves he warns Teddy that even with a new will he should not be surprised when he doesn't get all he expects. He'll be back tomorrow for Mony to sign the will and alludes to her keeping everything in the family. Suddenly Teddy is worried. Anyone can see where this is leading. Older ailing woman, younger devil-may-care husband, suspicious lawyer, new will in the offing... But if you think the movie is just another run-of-the-mill fortune hunter thriller you'd be wrong. True, Mony meets with an untimely and purportedly accidental death, but the remainder of the film has a few surprises in store.

One of those surprises is Freda Jeffries played with vulgar relish by Margaret Lockwood. A more complete opposite of Mony could never have been found.  Self-assured, crass, flippant, bawdy, and most importantly wily, Mrs. Jeffries is a recent widow with some new wealth made from wisely invested money inherited from her late husband. She becomes Teddy's latest target.

Lockwood's character gives the movie just the right edge to lift it out of the realm of the ordinary. She has the best lines in the movie which give it a wicked sense of humor.  Sitting in Mony's chair and learning that she is in the room where the death occurred she says, "Oh? So we're in the morgue," and throws back her head in irreverent laughter.  Her scenes are cleverly written with an ambiguity reserved for only a few other characters.  It's never clear whether she has designs on Teddy herself or if she truly has agreed to the terms of their strictly financial arrangement disguised as a marriage.

With the entrance of Charlotte Young (cool and distant Kay Walsh) a third opportunity for making money complicates the plot. Jealousy rears its ugly head. Freda appears to be possessive not only of the house but of Teddy -- something we wouldn't have expected. Charlotte appears to be just as shady as Teddy. And the film becomes a battle of scheming women vying for Teddy's attention and property.

Based on the stage play Murder Mistaken by Janet Green, later novelized in collaboration with mystery writer Leonard Gribble, the movie successfully escapes the confines of its theatrical origins. John Creswell does a superior job with his screenplay adaptation in taking the story out of its single drawing room set by adding several nicely done exterior scenes, visits to the teashop, a local cabaret (the song "Leave Me Alone" is an ironic commentary on Teddy and Freda's burgeoning relationship), and allowing us to see more of the enormous house. Cinematographer Jack Asher, who would later become known for his camerawork on various horror and crime films for Hammer Studios, gives the film a distinctive noirish look when called for bathing the actors and the oppressive home in menacing shadows.

With the highly melodramatic finale, however, all the creakiness of the play's familiar territory and the staginess of a single room collapse onto what previously had been an above average and often stylish thriller. The dialogue becomes heavy handed, the symbolism of Mony's rocking chair intrudes too often, and the actors chew the scenery with abandon. Kay Walsh resorts to theatrical tricks and postures more suited for the stage than film. Dirk Bogarde so restrained and effectively sinister with terse speeches, unleashes a madman with the fury of a hurricane. His constant shouts of "Get out!" make no sense until the final twist is revealed. What previously been a contained film of cat-and-mouse tactics transforms into a full blown action thriller.

This is my contribution to "Tuesday's Overlooked Films & Other AV" sponsored by Todd Mason at his blog Sweet Freedom. For more writings on neglected movies, TV, video, radio and possibly music please consult the list of other posts here

Friday, March 8, 2013

FFB: Murder Among Friends - Lange Lewis

US 1st edition (Bobbs Merrill, 1942)
Kate Farr is about to start her new job as secretary to the Dean of Students at an unnamed medical college in southern California.  She is replacing Garnet Dillon, a woman who up and disappeared leaving behind a cryptic note to her boss and not a word to any of her many friends on campus. Just so happens Kate's one time boyfriend John Greenwood is currently an intern there and he takes her on a tour of the school's many buildings. One of their first stops is the cadaver room where they meet Griswold whose job it is to embalm the bodies donated for science. Kate reluctantly agrees to see their latest donation.  When the sheet is removed from the body the two men gasp. Kate sees a blond woman with long red fingernails.  As Lange writes: "Kate realized that Garnet Dillon had come back."

Murder Among Friends (1942) is the first detective novel by Lange Lewis, the pen name for novelist Jane Benyon. The book introduces readers to Lieutenant Richard Tuck, a policeman who relies on a blend of reason and imagination in solving his cases. When reason fails him as he pores over the evidence he resorts to putting himself in the murderer's place and imagining possible scenarios that often defy logic.  He is described as unsentimental but by the book's conclusion we discover he has a deeply hidden compassion not often seen in the usual tough cops of 1940s era crime fiction. 

Garnet Dillon we learn was more than a secretary. She was a close friend with many of the students, mostly male students who were attracted by her stunning good looks and drawn to her vivacious personality.  Dean Calder, her boss, however quickly points out to Lt. Tuck that his secretary was not too smart and a little too friendly.  He also confides that she seemed to be staunchly conservative in her personal beliefs and more than once hinted that she had an unsophisticated, almost childlike, view of life after death. Tuck will interview many of the close circle of Garnet's friends who make up the pool of suspects, but it is always the victim who is the focus of the investigation.  Lange's book in many ways anticipates the now modern trend of looking to the victim's life first to help understand the crime.

Paperback edition (Bart House, 1946)
The further Tuck delves into Garnet's life the more mysterious she becomes. She is not at all the naive flirt she was thought to be. She had multiple secrets, the most intriguing being one that she left written on some notepaper in which she refers to "the thing that follows me everywhere."  She seems to be haunted by "this thing" yet no one who called her a friend can recall her appearing anxious or fearful.

But there is something for all the woman in town to fear. A stalker has been killing women and taking their purses as trophies. Already five women have been killed in remote areas surrounding the campus.  Not so coincidentally Garnet's purse was stolen from the place where she died. Tuck thinks Garnet may have been the most recent victim of this stalker dubbed "Black Overcoat" by the newspapers and police. Tuck's police co-workers doubt it. After all, the stalker's victims were stabbed and Garnet was poisoned. While the other police track "Black Overcoat" Tuck concurrently continues his investigation of Garnet's death. Eventually the two storylines intersect in an original twist.

Beyond the crime plots, however, is the story of Garnet Dillon's life. When her secrets are uncovered her life takes on a deeply poignant aspect that elevates this novel from its genre roots resulting in an uncommonly moving story. Amid all the modern elements like high tech discussions of the medical effects of digitalis and a character who is conducting genetic research is a heart wrenching story of a woman seemingly doomed by Fate and circumstance and loved too deeply by her friends.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Charing Cross Mystery - J. S. Fletcher

Next to Edgar Wallace I believe J.S. Fletcher was the most prolific writer of detective novels and adventure thrillers in the earliest portion of the Golden Age of crime fiction. His strength was always in dreaming up multi-layered plots, populating them with large casts of characters who usually spoke in fair replications of British and foreign dialects, and keeping the reader's attention engaged with an explosion of action sequences. But like most genre writers who churned out story after story he suffered from a dire case of repetition.

With the exception of only a few of his thrillers which venture into the realm of science fiction and fantasy if you read one Fletcher novel you can usually predict what the rest of them will be like. A murder or two, a theft of a valuable piece of jewelry, a villain of the Napoleon of Crime variety, blackmail, a handsome and witty amateur sleuth (usually a lawyer or reporter), and a wily policeman who teams up with the amateur. Throw it all into blender, push a high button speed, and serve in a tall frosty glass with a some biscuits or scones.

The Charing Cross Mystery (1923) is less of a detective novel (though it tries very hard to be one) than it is one of Fletcher's rapidly paced pursuit thrillers. It begins in a subway train car headed for Charing Cross station. Superintendent Hannaford (Ret.) confides with James Granett that he has located a woman who escaped arrest for fraud eight years ago. Hannaford has cut out her picture from a newspaper article as proof and shows it to Granett. Shortly after this somewhat confidential talk -- overheard by our hero, a young barrister named Hetherwick -– Hannaford drops dead, the victim of some agonizingly fatal poison. Granett goes in search of a doctor but never returns. Hetherwick is left to explain to the police and a passing doctor what happened.

Intrigued by what he overheard Hetherwick is curious to uncover the identity of the woman in the photo and would like to find Hannaford's murderer. He joins forces with Inspector Matherfield and together they uncover a complex web of multiple crimes related to the fraudulent sale of a diamond necklace.

Soon it doesn’t matter who killed Hannaford and the other victims or really why they were killed. Fletcher is not satisfied with a murder or two in this story. He tosses into his potent crime fiction cocktail every crime one can think of: blackmail, extortion, theft, check fraud, and kidnapping. The kidnapping eventually becomes the focus of the story as Hetherwick, his law office aide, and a variety of policeman led by Matherfield try to locate the kidnap victim and put an end to the reign of terror begun by a duo of master criminals. In addition to this circus juggler's act of criminal activity Fletcher dares to throw into the ring the time worn detective novel cliché of mistaken identity related to twins!

The book is fairly typical of the crime fiction of the time. Nothing very original or surprising occurs though the supporting cast of characters comprised of a lively and colorful bunch provides for some entertaining moments and amusing dialogue. What makes the book slightly notable is the sheer inventiveness of the multi-dimensional plot and the fast pace with which Fletcher manages to churn out set piece after set piece. It would have made a fabulous movie serial during the silent era as the chapters tend to end with cliffhangers or melodramatic pronouncements. The US edition apparently was originally serialized as my copy published by G.P. Putnam & Sons states it is copyright by Consolidated Magazine Corporation, who published among other periodicals The Blue Book Magazine where Tarzan debuted.

The Charing Cross Mystery is now available as the inaugural volume in a series of vintage crime reprints published by Oleander Press. The imprint, dubbed "London Bound", plans to highlight long out of print books that have been recommended by a British bookseller and former judge for the CWA Gold Dagger Award. Here is how they describe the imprint:

LONDON BOUND – A series of classic crime novels, largely from the Golden Age of detective fiction, faithfully transcribed, re-set and reprinted by Oleander under the series name London Bound - owing, unsurprisingly, to their all being set in the nation's capital.
Each title will be released in a limited hardcover edition as well as affordable paperback editions. Other authors whose work will be reprinted include Henry Holt, William LeQueux, and the exceptionally rare detective novel Fatality in Fleet Street by Christopher St. John Sprigg. I was so excited about the Sprigg book I immediately pre-ordered it. That one is not out until June 2013.

For further information visit the Oleander Press website.


UPDATE, JAN 2015:  Oleander Press suspended operations of the "London Bound" imprint series sometime in the summer 2013. Fatality in Fleet Street would be the final title released. The one other title reprinted is Doctor of Pimlico by Wiliam Lequeux.  No word whether or not the other planned titles will ever be reprinted.