Sunday, July 28, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: Smith & Wesson Advertisement

Not really left inside, but found inside a 1915 magazine while I was doing some research for an article. Thought it a timely example of how some things haven't changed in over a century.




Friday, July 26, 2013

FFB: The Dogs Do Bark - Jonathan Stagge

I have this idea that Richard Wilson Webb still hadn't recovered from his intensely lurid thrill ride with his writing partner Mary Aswell when the two of them concocted the brutal and savage crimes depicted in The Grindle Nightmare. One year later in what appears to be his first collaboration with his partner (in more ways than one) Hugh Wheeler he once more delved into noir territory in creating the murders in The Dogs Do Bark (1936). Oddly enough the book first appeared in England under the title Murder Gone to Earth before it was published by the estimable Doubleday Doran Crime Club under the title reviewed here. Although the level of violence never reaches the heights (depths?) of the butchery in The Grindle Nightmare this is definitely a book anyone would describe as grisly.

A nude woman's dismembered corpse is uncovered in a fox burrow at the tail end of a hunting expedition in the Massachusetts town of Kenmore. The body has been decapitated and is missing both arms. While the head does not turn up until the penultimate chapter the arm bones are soon found in the kennel that houses the bloodhounds for a hunt club. The flesh had been completely devoured by the ravenous dogs the night before. All this happens in the first two chapters. Grisly enough for you? But there's more.

Dr. Hugh Westlake, in his debut as Stagge's series detective, is promptly deputized by the local policeman giving him the chance to turn amateur detective with some authority. Prior to the discovery of the murdered woman Westlake had been consulted by Louella (Aunt Lulu) Howell, one of those garrulous fearful invalids that turns up in mysteries of this era. She is fearful of the baying hounds a sure omen of horrible things to come. Nurse Leonard who had been caring for the Aunt Lulu has recently been fired for indiscretions observed on the job. She was convinced the nurse was dallying with her husband, an unattractive dumpy man who Westlake has hard time envisioning as an object of desire. But could the nude corpse be Nurse Leonard?

Then there's Elias Grimshawe. A Bible thumping fundamentalist of the worst kind (yes, they had them back in the 30s, too) he has been battling with the horsey crowd and their obsession with fox hunting for a long time. That the body is found on his property during another of their bloody hunts angers him beyond reason. His daughter Anne who is rumored to have been carrying on with several men, some of them married, has also gone missing. Grimshawe startles Westlake and Inspector Cobb when in referring to the murder victim he quotes an Old Testament passage about Jezebel being fed to the dogs. No one but the the detective duo knew about the dog kennel business. They ask Grimshawe to go to the morgue to identity the body. Grimshawe is adamant that the victim is Anne.

The atmosphere builds to one of Gothic dread set up perfectly with the opening paragraph in which Dawn, Westlake's ten year-old daughter, is seen chanting an old nursery rhyme ("Hark, hark, the dogs to bark/The beggars are coming to town...") while standing at an open window and listening to the howling bloodhounds. Little does she know exactly why they are howling, but her precocious allusion is just as chilling as Aunt Lulu's prediction of horrible events to come. Once again as in The Grindle Nightmare animals are at the mercy of the murderous fiend on the loose and soon a horse is killed by an unusual method nearly killing its owner in the process.

Horses and hunting will play a prominent role throughout the story. So too will the Grimshawe property which Westlake and Cobb learn Anne would have received on her twenty-fifth birthday. The property is of interest to several characters in the book and provides an obvious motive, especially for Walter, Anne's handsome and athletic brother.

Handsome men with athletic builds are another recurring motif in the book and in others in the series. The descriptions of male physique stand out like posing gym boys in comparison to how the women are described and signal to me another kind of fascination of the authors. At times the rhapsodic physical accounts approach the kind of recitals of male beauty you would expect to find in the pages of a bodice ripper. I wouldn't exactly call these passages homoerotic, but they are very noticeable and perhaps revealing of the two men who wrote the book.

Dawn, who will later become more active in the series, is depicted here as a cute little prop used mostly for comic effect. For the most part she behaves like a kid but often she has an oddly precocious and inconsistent vocabulary. In one scene Webb and Wheeler have her confuse the word distinguished for extinguished. Then later she will correctly use the word ominous in sentence. She has a kind of schizoid role -- at times a mysterious oracle as in the opening paragraph and later when she helps her father with offhand comments, at other times a goofy awkward kid obsessed with rabbits. Dawn has always a problem for me in these books. It doesn't help matters much that Westlake refers to her by the ironic endearment "brat" and rarely calls her by name. Still in this first appearance the relationship between father and a daughter is honest and affectionate. Dawn didn't annoy as much as she does in other books.

The Dr. Westlake books would go on to feature equally bizarre and unusual crimes with a tendency towards the Gothic. Turn of the Table has a murderer who might be a vampire. The Stars Spell Death uses astrology and superstition as a springboard for the plot. In The Yellow Taxi the writers recycled the equestrian themes found in the first book as well as lifting the climactic barn fire towards the end of The Dogs Do Bark and duplicating it even to the point of Westlake's escape through an upper level window. Perhaps the most haunting and chilling entry is The Scarlet Circle with its unearthed graves, corpses daubed with lipsticked circles, and the creepy Talisman Inn.

As a beginning to a short-lived series The Dogs Do Bark shows great promise. Veteran detective novel readers may catch on early to the surprise twist in the tale, but that won't ruin what is essentially a fine example of a traditional detective novel with an ample amount of puzzling plot points, intriguing characters and evocative atmosphere.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

VIDEO: Water's Edge - Robert Bloch

One of the few examples of true noir that show up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour "Water's Edge" (season 3, episode 3 - 1964) is adapted from the short story by Robert Bloch. The story originally appeared in Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine in 1956. Interestingly, the story was rejected by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and ironically appeared in an anthology of short stories called Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV published in 1957.  Apparently several of those prohibited stories did eventually make their way to the anthology series.

Rusty Connors (John Cassavetes) is about to be released from prison. For months he has listened to the stories of his cellmate Mike Krause, bank robber and killer, who has been obsessed with his bombshell of a wife Helen. Now as Mike is dying of pneumonia he makes a deathbed confession. The money he stole years ago is still with his partner Pete. As soon as Rusty is out he plans to find the sexy Helen who he hopes to charm and seduce and that she will lead him to Pete and the money. When Helen turns out to be played by Ann Sothern Rusty immediately sees she has not kept her ravishing figure over time. He nearly scraps his plan. After an exchange of less than flattering remarks she agrees to meet Rusty.  Later, the two team up to locate Pete and the stolen money. You can be sure things do not work out as planned.

The script almost exclusively is a two character piece with a fascinating reversal on the noir trope of the sexy femme fatale and her gullible mark. This time we get an overweight frump and a slick and greedy Romeo. Cassavetes does a fine job, but it is Ann Sothern's interpretation of a character so completely against her usual type that makes this episode one of the highlights of the series. When Rusty first meets Helen in the diner she eats scraps off a customer's plate and licks her fingers; a perfect touch. Rusty is disgusted that he may have to seduce this slobby, porcine ex-sexpot. As the story progresses Sothern's subtle facial expressions hinting at her hidden motives are a nice contrast to Cassavetes' more overt emotional displays. You just know that this Mutt and Jeff team are out for themselves and not each other. The violent finale set in a rat infested, waterfront shack is one of the most gruesome and brilliantly filmed among the Hitchcock TV shows.

Albert Hayes wrote the teleplay adaptation that sizzles with sarcasm and irony. Bernard Girard, who began his career as a screenwriter back in 1948 and later became a prolific director for TV, brings top notch cinematic techniques to this above average entry in the series.

Highly recommended. The entire episode can be watched below.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

SUMMER PHOTOS: Alien Visitation and High Trestle Trail

It's summer time and that means less blogging, more travel, more bike trail explorations, and lots of tending to the several gardens we have. I was watering the plants up on our newly stained roof top deck -- forgot to mention agonizing home improvement chores as well -- and discovered a flying visitor who had paused for a rest on the very top of a barren twig on one of our red maple trees.

I ran down to get my camera hoping the dragonfly would be there when I returned. Luckily it was. Quickly I took as many photos as I could. In my haste I forgot to adjust the autofocus to allow for a wider range and some of these images are blurry at the outer edges. Still, the zoom lens captured the eerie science fiction quality of this alien visitor.  Click to enlarge each image for all the detail.




We also recently returned from a biking trip to the High Trestle Trail just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. The trail is 25 miles long stretching between the towns of Ankeny at the southern end and Woodard at the northern end. Only the last 3.8 miles (Madrid to Woodard - total of 7.6 round trip) were planned since it was exceedingly hot and oppressively humid. We didn't want to kill ourselves biking a total of 50 miles in near 90 degree heat. The highlight of the High Trestle Trail is a 130 feet high converted trestle bridge originally used for a railroad back in 1912. The photos below will show what makes it so unique for both bicycles and pedestrians.

View from north end closer to Woodard looking in the direction of Madrid, Iowa.
Your mystery addicted host can be seen hiding in the shadows

Opposite side of the same entrance/exit. (Me again on the right)

Many walkers -- none of whom had flashlights! -- make for a hazard for bikers.

Decades ago this was Iowa mining country.
The lights were arranged to give the illusion of traveling through a mine.

Long shot showing the illuminated portion
in relation to the entire length of the bridge.

A few people have made videos while riding the bridge at night.  The one below led to our decision to travel all the way to Iowa and ride it for ourselves.



Friday, July 19, 2013

FFB: Blues for the Prince - Bart Spicer

Harold Morton Prince, popular jazz composer and musician is shot dead in his home at the start of Blues for the Prince (1950). His collaborator, a song arranger named "Stuff" Magee, is seen fleeing the crime scene and is expertly knocked down by a cop who uses his billy club as a boomerang. Now Magee is hospitalized with a coma. Found on Magee is a briefcase with documents proving that the Prince was a fraud. His one time collaborator claims he wrote all of the Prince's music. He wanted the Prince to admit it and split his fortune or Magee would go public and ruin Prince's reputation and essentially end his career.

Carney Wilde is hired by Larry Owens, ex-fiance of the Prince's daughter. He wants closure and he wants the truth. Owens hopes learning the truth might help repair his relationship with Martha Prince. Wilde takes the case because he's a jazz enthusiast himself and is a great admirer of the Prince's music. He thinks the whole scheme of Magee's is nothing more than lies and the work of a desperate blackmailer. He wants to prove the Prince was a true musician and that his music is his own. But soon he learns his jazz idol is not the folk hero that newspapers and the fans have made him out to be.

From Martha he learns that her father was "a cheap loud man with bad taste...primitive in his music just as he was in life." From Lt. Grodnik he uncovers the Prince's a "foot long" police record of drunk and disorderly charges. The Prince was also addicted to drugs and at this late stage in his career apparently needed the junk to calm him down so he could perform civilly in front of an audience. Carney is none too happy to have taken up the case. The digging up of dirt gets messier and uglier the more questions he asks.

Eventually the case turns to the hunt for Arabella Joslin (aka Bella Joe), a singer in cahoots with Stuff Magee to defraud the Prince out of royalties and discredit him as an original songwriter. When we finally meet the singer she turns out to be a hardass of a pistol packin' Mama. She hates cops and loathes private eyes. Carney barely escapes with his life when she pulls out her double barrelled Derringer.

Spicer knows his jazz music and the story is as much an exploration of the jazz scene as it is another early version of the corrupt family crime dramas like those of Ross Macdonald. Notable too is Spicer's handling of race issues that are rather advanced for a book published in 1950. Carney Wilde manages to clear the Prince's name, repair a bit of the musician's scarred reputation, and heal a very wounded family when he finally discovers how and why the blues man died. Though purists may object to one of the last twists in the finale the novel still has Spicer's trademark realism, honesty in emotion, and an unexpected poignancy in the story's resolution.

Previously on PSB is this review of The Dark Light, Bart Spicer's debut mystery novel and the first of seven books featuring Carney Wilde.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

IN BRIEF: The Death Pool - Vernon Loder

US 1st edition (William Morrow & Co., 1931)
Mystery writer Ned Hope is excited to have purchased Fen Court for the unheard of sum of £750 when at face value the property is worth several times more. Imagine his surprise when in making a tour of the grounds he comes across three corpses in the ornamental pond. His bargain basement purchase is sure to hit the sub-basement level in property values. Not to mention inviting visits from morbid scene of the crime tourists. What’s a mystery writer to do but solve the mystery of the three bodies.

Hope is “hired” by Bell, his reporter friend, to do a series of articles on the mysterious drowning deaths. Bell tells Ned that his assignment is to be a sort of experiment in feature writing. Ned, primarily a fiction writer, will report on the facts of the crime and as those facts are presented he will work out his own solution. Ned is joined in his combination investigative reporting and amateur detective work by his fiancée Nancy Johnson.

The victims of The Death Pool (1930) are Mr. Habershon, his ward Maysie Rowe and her lover Ivor Rainy. The two young people were thought to have eloped and left the area. In uncovering the multiple layers of a very strange relationship between the three victims Ned and Nancy begin to think that Mr. Habershon killed the other two and then did either did himself in or through negligence accidentally drowned. Most impressive is how Loder manages to invent the different combinations of victims and killer and how each died. Accidents made to look like murder and murders made to appear suicide are only two of the multiple solutions the duo dream up. Amazingly, the final reveal is even more complicated than Ned or Nancy could have imagined.

Inspector Brews makes his debut here doing his best to appear low-key and officious. “As a matter of routine--” is his favorite phrase and becomes something of a running gag throughout the novel. He often frustrates Ned who, after delivering what he thinks is a scoop on the case, learns that Brews knew of it already. As in other Vernon Loder mysteries Ned as amateur detective takes center stage, does most of the legwork and theorizing while Brews, the official detective, retreats into the background then delivers up the correct solution in the final chapters.

UK edition is known as The Essex Murders
Loder’s skill in creating quirky supporting characters is exemplified in the person of Cornelius Hatch. An avid ornithologist Hatch provides for some great scenes and a very different sort of local color. He wants to publish a book of spectacular photographs of birds and their nesting behaviors. The photographs will play a large part in the plot and will add to the mystery when Brews begins to suspect that Hatch is an impostor.

The unusual clues include a discussion of Brazilian coffee, the discovery of a thermos with no fingerprints, a car wiped clean of fingerprints that should show signs of one of the victims having driven it, and a mysterious light seen in the window of a cottage on the grounds of Fen Court. Loder does his best to lay out all the evidence to the reader, but in the denouement presents one crucial bit of information completely out of left field. It is something Brews digs up on his own but the reader is never made aware of until a few pages from the end. Occasionally, Loder cheats and it’s the only flaw that keeps him from being one of the top tier of detective novelists from this era.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Case of the Laughing Virgin - Jonathan Craig

It was bound to happen. I have been disappointed by the latest Jonathan Craig novel I’ve read. This is number eight in the series and there are only two more left. With the best of the lot already behind me I figured the final three might perhaps deliver a clunker among the trio. Case of the Laughing Virgin (1960) is the first letdown in what previously had been a crisply written, offbeat series set in Greenwich Village of the 1950s. In this novel we enter a new decade and already a deeper cynicism has sunk into both the characters and the overall writing.

Craig’s police procedurals are characterized by detail in the bureaucracy of police work and characters consisting of colorful oddballs among what might be called the lowlife of Lower Manhattan. The books nearly always include some unheard of kinky sex practice or fetish as the murder investigation almost always involves sex in any number of practices and preferences. But in this story the situation is seedier than usual, most of the characters are unrelentingly loathsome, and the overall tone is bitter and caustic.

Pete Selby and his partner Stan Rayder trade sarcastic quips more often than usual but the humor is  forced and tone is flippant. The usual crackerjack dialogue is not enhanced with lines like these:

"I was beginning to wonder where everyone was. They must have come by way of Bluefield, West Virginia."  (Says Rayder when his police colleagues finally show up at the murder scene) 

"Once upon a time...there were seven little thespians, all in a row. But the brave and brilliant detective team of Selby and Rayder went to work on them -- and now there are three."

Was Craig getting tired of these guys? Was he in a bad period in his life? Or was he just fed up with sex and crime books?

The story centers around the shooting death of Larry Yeager, a no talent actor who blackmails his way into a role in a grade Z play called Grade A about the life of milkmen and the strange notes they find in milk bottles on their delivery route. I can only guess this is Craig’s attempt at humor but it bombs as badly as those lame lines above. Yeager we soon learn managed to purchase a movie featuring a group of six individuals unknowingly caught on film displaying their talent for bedroom acrobatics in a round robin of sexcapades. With the use of clever lighting, a two way mirror, and a hidden camera the evening's activities were filmed without their knowledge and the movie was then shown at a variety of underground stag shows. When Yeager saw the film he recognized several of the unwilling participants in the movie and persuaded the stag show producer and owner of the film to sell him the movie for $1000. Selby and Rayder deduce that he wanted the movie for blackmail purposes. The murder investigation focuses on the search for the missing movie and uncovering the identity of the sex addicted participants all of whom had reason to kill the blackmailing Yeager.

Normally Craig writes about these people with a kind of aloof hipness and tends to make light of the sex underground and its obsession with all things carnal. In previous books these seedy escapades were dealt with almost farcically which took the edge off the freaky. Craig made it interesting, sometimes fascinating, and often amusing to read about. However, the emphasis on pornography and hedonistic sex parties this time is not played for laughs. The writing highlights the squalor of these dens of iniquity, the slobs involved in promoting sex and profiting from it, and the crassness and vulgarity of the people who are their customers and victims. Few characters are presented in a favorable light. Ironically, the only murder suspect who appears to have any decency turns out to be the killer.

Case of the Laughing Virgin has an extremely cynical viewpoint and is unfulfilling as a mystery novel. Craig’s usual offbeat humor which often can elicit a laugh or a smile is all out nasty this time around. Selby and Rayder come off as jaded cops, utterly fed up with the losers and downtrodden types they are forced to deal with day in and day out. Each suspect they question turns out to be selfish, haughty, mean-spirited, brash or unfeeling. The blackmail plot is hackneyed, the detection is at a minimum, and there is not a single twist to enliven the proceedings. (Well, to be truthful there is an attempt at an eleventh hour surprise but it was obvious to me.) I’m moving on to the ninth and tenth books and I’m hopeful for a return to the spark and life of the earlier books.

Friday, July 12, 2013

FFB: Dreadful Hollow - Irina Karlova

This Gothic supernatural novel with detective novel elements wavers between genuinely creepy and outrageous self-parody. At the time I was reading it I wondered if Karlova is a pseudonym for some better known writer. The name seems influenced by Universal horror movie characters and actors. I later learned that I was correct.

The author’s real name was Helen Mary Elizabeth Clamp (sometimes noted as H. M. E. Clamp), and she was extremely prolific throughout her lifetime. In addition to writing three supernatural novels using the Karlova pen name, she wrote over 60 novels from main- stream to romance to adventure under her given name. Using yet another pseudonym -- Olivia Leigh -- she wrote a few more romances and eleven literary biographies on historical figures such as Nell Gwynn, Charles II of Spain, and Louis XV. Her writing career lasted from 1925 to 1970.

It certainly seems to be more than coincidence that those Universal horror films with all the Eastern European atmosphere and characters should share such a similarity with this book written several years after those films were popular. Dreadful Hollow (1942) is peopled with Hungarian gypsies, a mysterious countess of either Czech or Hungarian descent, a stuffed werewolf, and the dread vampire legend looms large over the story.


Although it borrows a framework from the detective novel in that the two narrators do some digging up of clues and interview servants and neighbors, it really is nothing more than a pulpy, over-the-top horror novel with all the usual HIBK trappings of the neo-Gothic novel. Whereas most of those books are pale imitations of a Gothic novel, Karlova’s book is indeed a true Gothic. She does very well with all the Radcliffian elements – emphasis on dreary landscapes and decaying households, a real femme fatale, a ninny of a heroine who suspects she is losing her mind, and genuine supernatural beings and activity.

Interestingly, the structure of the novel seems inspired by Stoker’s Dracula. The first person narrative journal entries of young Dr. Clyde (who seems to have escaped from the pages of a pulp magazine like Speed Detective — he speaks in an entirely American wiseacre slang) are interspersed with third person limited sections focusing on Jillian Dare, the young girl hired to act as a companion to an ancient crone. Unintentionally funny at the most inappropriate moments the mystery is sadly rather obvious from the opening chapters. When young Countess Vera arrives on the scene, any reader who hasn’t instantly figured out the mystery has probably never seen a vampire movie in his or her lifetime.

That isn’t to say the book is not without its deliciously gruesome surprises. There is a disappearance of a young boy that isn’t fully explained until the final pages, for instance. I have to confess that I was alternately raising my eyebrows, gasping and laughing in the final pages which really do get rather wild and bizarre for a book of this era. Even the most jaded contemporary reader will find something to enjoy in Dreadful Hollow.

Clamp wrote two other supernatural books under the name "Irina Karlova" and they are extremely scarce.  I own a copy of Broomstick (1946), a period piece that deals with witchcraft, but her other novel The Empty House (1944) has proven to be as elusive as the Loch Ness monster or a yeti.  If anyone out there has a copy of The Empty House I would love to borrow it...or buy it if you haven't priced it at the equivalent of a monthly car payment.

(This post originally appeared at Mystery*File in December 2010 in slightly different form.)

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Obeah Murders - Hulbert Footner

It takes a while for The Obeah Murders (1937) to live up to its alluring title hinting at black magic practices in the Caribbean. The novel starts off with Phil Nevitt, employee with an American liquor company, being sent to Annunziata, a mythical island of Footner's creation in the West Indies, to learn all he can about the rum distillery of Randall Trantor. I'm thinking this is going to be some kind of industrial espionage story. But the first encounter with one of the Annunziata inhabitants takes the story into a completely different realm.

Nevitt meets Eve Brinsley, a 17 year-old spitfire, who while astride her horse during a pig sticking hunt is seen whipping her black servants for their failure to corral the pig she managed to wound. Nevitt intervenes, rescuing the servant from the whip, receives a harsh reprimand from the teenager and is nearly whipped himself. This is followed in quick succession by a barroom brawl that lands Nevitt in jail, a jail break, and an attempt to smuggle Nevitt off the island before he causes any more trouble. While waiting for his jail break co-conspirators Nevitt learns that Eve has been abducted by the man who he assaulted in the bar. So Phil is off to save Eve from the bad guys. From corporate spying in the booze biz to western movie serial adventures. Where was the West Indian sorcery known as Obeah, I wondered?

The book is well past the middle mark before the Footner remembers that he intended to write a murder mystery. Eve having been rescued from the West Indian version of the guys with black hats is soon being married off to Randall Trantor, the distillery owner and the island's richest man. At the wedding banquet the newly married Trantor gets stupefyingly drunk, orders a special bottle of his private reserve of Spey Royal whiskey, tosses off his umpteenth drink, and immediately drops dead. There are cries of "Obeah! Obeah!" from the superstitious wedding guests for Trantor had earlier been seen stepping over a bad luck charm which signals imminent death. Eve is suspected of committing the crime as she is the one closest to her husband and the bottle was delivered straight from the cellar to their wedding table. The cellar was kept locked at all times and was only accessible with Trantor's key. The bottle could only have been poisoned by someone at the table. Or was it somehow bewitched via black magic?

Portrait of Hulbert Footner by painter Mabel Welch
As the murder investigation proceeds Footner uses the story to raise some progressive ideas (for the late 1930s) about race and power. Talk of skin color and how that decides how one is treated on Annunziata often comes up throughout the story. Though the island is fictional its history is heavily borrowed from the Danish West Indies. Footner goes out of his way to talk about the white invaders from Denmark who took over in the early 17th century and subtly introduces into the narrative topics like miscegenation and oppression of the native people. Skin color is always being brought up whether it be the yellow of the Creole, the brown of the children of mixed marriages, or the black of the natives often referred to by the N pejorative.

I know that I've read several detective novels with plots featuring white privilege in island populations be they in the South Pacific or Caribbean, but this is the only detective novel to date from the era spanning the 1920s through the 1940s I have encountered in which native culture and race relations play an important part in the solution of the crime. In fact race is the key to understanding the motive of the murderer who is striving to achieve a place of power on the island. He does so by exploiting the cultural superstitions of the population and at the same time playing up to the prejudices of the white policemen in charge of the murder investigation. He nearly eludes capture but for some luck and intuition on Phil's part.

As for the Obeah there is a sprinkling of lore and legend throughout the book. Interestingly, Footner casts in the role of the powerful sorcerer an elderly woman character and she becomes suspect number two in the murder. There is a bizarre and richly detailed scene towards the end of the book showing off how intimidating the magic of Obeah can be even to a skeptical outsider like Phil Nevitt.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: Ox Yoke Inn post card, circa 1950s

We were in the Des Moines/Ames, Iowa area for Fourth of July weekend. At one of the many rest stops where Joe likes to gather brochures and flyers on intriguing restaurants that serve up regional cuisine he found a flyer for the Ox Yoke Restaurant in Amana. I said, "That place still exists?" I was a bit surprised because I have a post card advertising that eatery in my ephemera collection. We tried to get down to the home of the Ox Yoke Inn, but the bike trails kept us very busy. Next time...

The post card was left inside one of my many vintage mystery books (title long forgotten). The restaurant was started in 1940 and is now owned by an organization that owns three different OxYoke Restaurants.



More about the Ox Yoke Inn for those interested can be found at their website here.

Friday, July 5, 2013

FFB: Subject--Murder - Clifford Witting

Fans of Foyle's War, the British television series about a policeman who during World War 2 finds himself solving crimes involving military personnel, might be interested in Subject-Murder (1945) a detective novel by Clifford Witting based on his personal experience as a bombardier in an anti-aircraft detachment.  The detail about military life in a detachment as opposed to a regular army base is fascinating and when the story finally makes its way to the investigation of a murder of a warrant officer Witting once again proves he has the stuff of a high ranking officer of detective novel plotting.

Peter Bradfield, the detective constable colleague of series character Inspector Charlton, is the narrator. Most of the book is devoted to Bradfield's reporting his military training from the summer of 1942 through November 1943. We follow him from basic training in Wales to his various transfers to other posts eventually landing him in an anti-aircraft detachment between the villages of Etchworth and Sheep, and coincidentally just outside of Lulverton where he and Charlton are based as policemen.

Battery Sgt. Major Yule -- "Cruel Yule" to the bombardiers he oversees -- is a sadistic, manipulative and narcissistic bastard. No other words describe him better. Throughout the novel he proves to be one of the most odious villains in the entire genre. In his indifference to human feeling and his perverse joy in causing misery for the soldiers Yule has managed to drive one man to suicide, got men he dislikes transferred to other bases, and punished others with demotions based on trumped up charges.

40mm Bofors Anti-aircraft Gun
When we first meet him through the eyes of Johnny Fieldhouse Yule is seated at a desk in his office taunting a mouse he has trapped under a drinking glass. Fieldhouse, a man of honesty and integrity, is appalled and immediately frees the mouse and gets into a tussle with Yule in doing so. This brief encounter will put Fieldhouse on Yule's list of marked men for the remainder of the book. Though he is consistently warned by Bradfield and others to rein in his self-righteous indignity Fieldhouse pays no heed. He is who he is and cannot change, especially when confronted with the monstrous and amoral behavior he sees exhibited by Yule. Damned be his higher rank, is the bombardier's attitude. Fieldhouse's moral integrity will lead to a world of trouble for him including court-martial, brief imprisonment, and prime suspect in the murder case.

Is it any wonder that Yule in creating false incidents, framing men he dislikes for imaginary offenses while protecting lazy good-for-nothings like himself, becomes the target of everyone's enmity? His demise is long overdue when it comes. Fittingly, he dies a gruesome and horrid death -- dragged by his legs while tied to an enraged horse, trampled and beaten by its hooves. When murder occurs on a military base the structure of a soldier's life -- or rather a bombardier's life -- reverts to that of a civilian.  All men are on equal footing as suspects in a crime; no one can pull rank now as the police become the officers in charge.

Royal Artillery Cap Badge
The detection in this book is top-notch. Clues and red herrings are abundant as in any of the best examples of the fair play detective novel. Charlton is allowed to team up with his old colleague Bradfield and together they uncover such intriguing evidence as unusual knots in the rope and dog leash used to tie up the murder victim, a book on torture practices of the Spanish inquisition that has certain passages bracketed, and the double life of a mysterious soldier named Alexander Templeton.

The large cast of characters of military men and the few civilian women make for a varied bunch. Witting finds ample opportunity to show off a skill in replicating regional dialects and his gift for creating lively dialogue.  Several of the minor characters like Gianella, a clever recruit whose specialty is playing stupid in order to get out of being assigned dangerous tasks, are the highlights of the book. In addition to the detective story plot Witting gives us a few romantic subplots with Bradfield and Fieldhouse both pursuing the girls of their dreams with some interesting sometimes amusing complications that arise.