Friday, December 12, 2014

FFB: The Shop Window Murders - Vernon Loder

Tobias Mander is the founder and owner of Mander Department Store, his brainchild for an innovative place that will combine "cheapness with luxury." He also is an airplane fanatic and has an engineering lab in his home. Having procured many of the best experts in the retail trade he is set to open the flagship Mander store to the accompaniment of much fanfare. One of his more audacious publicity stunts was to have his new design for a portable gyrocopter unveiled by having the flying contraption land on the roof of the store much to the chagrin of police and local authorities who felt it unsafe. He dubbed the invention the Mander Hopper. Marketed as "a plane you fold up in a room and land in a tennis court" the retail wizard was planning to sell them his store and was taking orders prior to starting a manufacturing line. All those plans come to a crashing halt when Tobias Mander is found dead during the opening festivities. Someone shot him, dressed him up as a mechanic, and placed him among other mannequins in a display window at the front of the store.

All this unfolds in the first chapter of The Shop Window Murders (1930) one of Vernon Loder's more complicated and highly unusual detective novels. The events at the store's gala opening only get more strange once the police arrive. They find that one of those storefront mannequins, a woman dressed in an outlandish costume adorned with a print that advertised the Mander Hopper, is not a mannequin at all. It's Effie Turnour, fiancée to the store's manager Robert Kephim. And she's dead too. She's been stabbed and placed in a chair in an unflattering pose right next to Mander's corpse. Someone obviously was not happy about Mander's plans to take over the retail world.

Enter Inspector Devenish, another of Loder's humane and intelligent policemen. He's willing to admit he's flawed, eager to listen to what everyone has to say no matter how hysterical or ranting they become. But woe to the fiendish murderer behind these bizarre crimes for Devenish is sharp enough to envision all angles and possibilities. During the investigation he uncovers department store rivalries, a conspiracy behind the actual identity of the inventor and desiger of the Mander Hopper and a hotbed of vice among the store's employees.

The Hafner Gyroplane
From a postcard series illustrated by Howard Leigh, March 1938

The cast of characters is a lively one. There's Mann, a night watchman who turns out to be another in a long line of mystery fiction characters similar to Sayer's Bunter and Allingham's Lugg. Mann was a batman to store executive Jameson Peden-Hythe during WWI and he still retains a loyalty to his older comrade who saved his life during the war. Devenish suspects Mann assumed Peden-Hythe guilty of the murders and in order to protect his battleground Samaritan altered the crime scene and manufactured fake evidence. Or how about Webley the embittered and hostile mechanical engineer who claims that Mander stole the design from him? He's suspect number one in Devenish's book yet Webley's belligerent attitude doesn't help clear his name any faster even though he seems to have an ironclad alibi. There is also Mrs. Hoe, a shrewd journalist always popping in at the most unexpected times. Devenish is impressed by her insight and intelligence. But Mrs. Hoe is hiding a secret of her own and has an interest in the murders other than great newspaper copy and eye-catching headlines. She is keeping tabs on a couple of the suspects for more personal and financial reasons. That's right -- she's a reporter by day and a blackmailer by night. Finally, there is a platoon of Loder's usual lower echelon policeman some of whom provide comic relief but one able-bodied sergeant in particular is responsible for uncovering the most unusual piece of evidence that eventually leads to the startling conclusion.

I'd love to go into great detail about the denouement which once again showcases Loder's most unique trademark in all his detective novels, but I fear I'd be giving away the game. Suffice to say that Loder is fascinated with the idea of criminals who get their comeuppance even before the police know a crime has occurred. There always seems to be one victim who falls prey to their own scheming.

And I will say no more other than if you ever lucky enough to come across a copy of The Shop Window Murders (yes, my friends, it's an incredibly scarce title) you ought to snap it up. This one is not only entertaining it may be Loder's most complicated and original spin on a gimmick he seems to have invented. Other than in the work of Anthony Wynne, who has his own favorite tricks like the twice murdered corpse, I have yet to come across so many variations on this odd idea for detective novel crimes. While I'm recommending this book I would suggest you keep your eyes out for any book with the Vernon Loder pseudonym on the cover. They make for fascinating reading and are as different from the standard whodunits of his colleagues as champagne is to soda water.

20 comments:

  1. "All this unfolds in the first chapter…" You mean like a Mander Hopper?

    This sounds like one of the most entertaining mysteries I could ever hope to read. Thanks for pointing it out, John.

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  2. This sounds wonderful, and the humor is communicated by the great cover art. Me want.

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  3. John, you amaze me with your selection of vintage and forgotten novels. Almost every novel you review is new to me, as is the author behind them. How do you hear of them?

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  4. This sounds absolutely yummy. Pity it's so scarce -- even more so here in the US, I'd imagine.

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  5. Extremely interesting, John. I've never read anything by Loder,but this sounds intriguing.

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  6. Always making me want something I can't have! shame on you.

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  7. Thanks to everyone for the enthusiastic comments. Santa has read all your wish lists and is hinting at a possible flood of Vernon Loder reprints. Keep your fingers crossed we can make this happen in 2015!

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  8. Sounds great - I'm hoping 2015 will definitely see some of these becoming more generally available chum!

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  9. Fingers crossed. Sign me up. Santa, I've been a good boy all year long!

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  10. Wow, I have just discovered your blog, and I am impressed. I look forward to sorting through all sorts of great reading recommendations. With my new blog (Crimes and Detectives, Inc.) just getting off the ground, I need all the help I can get. Please feel free to stop by now and then in the future when I write about crime fiction: you can help keep me honest. For now . . . all the best from America's Redneck Riviera, where the Bible Belt is firmly buckled and the oysters are almost always fresh and delicious. R.T.

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    1. Welcome, R.T. Pull up a chair and make yourself at home. You've got a lot of catching up to do. America's Redneck Riveria! Hilarious. My guess was Louisiana but the omniscient typists of Wikipedia tell me it's Florida's Panhandle. I spent a lovely time on the beaches of St. George Island several years ago. No one was there and it felt idyllic.

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  11. I have just obtained the book and I will comment further after reading it.
    I only hope that you have not oversold it. :)

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    1. I usually do. Part of the worldwide conspiracy of antiquarian booksellers to get you back into used books stores and buying our books. :^D Oh...or did you get this copy at a library?

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    2. Well, your conspiracy has failed in this case !
      I got the kindle edition from Amazon. The kindle edition was released on 21st December and that too at a very low cost !

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  12. I wanted to insert the smiley at the end of last sentence but it does not seem to be working !

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    1. Blogger templates do not have the HTML conversion code built-in like Wordpress does. You can still type them but they won't convert into an image when you hit the publish button.

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  13. It seems that you have violated the spoiler code of conduct by stating explicitly matters which are revealed to the reader quite late in the book !

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  14. I have finished the book and I cannot rate it more than 3 out of 5.
    Though the plot idea is good, and it is interesting and enjoyable in parts, there is nothing outstanding or remarkable about it and on the whole it is verbose and at times dull.
    I was disappointed since I had high expectations from it after reading your review. (Of course, I did not know about your conspiracy before !)
    It is often verbose. Each and every thought process and musing of Devenish, as he goes over the same points again and again, is described unnecessarily.
    There are many clues, in fact too many clues. Devenish and others have a hard time figuring out which are the real clues and which are simply plants. Also, the witnesses and suspects are often evasive and they have to be questioned repeatedly to elicit the truth from them.
    After so much effort and mental cogitation, is Devenish able to arrive at a solution ? No ! It is only when a person confesses towards the end that the solution is reached. If that person had confessed earlier, , there would have not been so much wasted effort. Of course in that case there would not have been this book !
    Tastes vary from person to person and others may enjoy it more than I did. The kindle edition is available at a low price.
    Incidentally, John, I note that the Comment Approval function has been turned off (insert smiley here).



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    1. Much of what you find fault with here is purposeful and done for humor, I think. Loder's books are extremely well plotted, often very funny and have an interesting gimmick that he likes to re-use. They aren't masterpieces but they are worth checking out for those who enjoy puzzles.

      Thanks for helping others discover the Kindle edition, Santosh. I didn't know about these. Apparently the Vernon Loder books (I counted four of them) are only available via the UK version of Amazon while other books released by this outfit that calls itself "Black Heath Classic Crime" can be purchased from both the UK and US amazon sites. Most of their books are in the public domain. No surprise there. It always makes me think of someone working from a private home. I'm guessing someone is ransacking their local library and scanning these as fast as they can get them up on amazon to make a bit of cash. All of the Vernon Loder books were "released" in December of this year a matter of weeks apart. The Shop Window Murders appeared ten days after this review. Hmm, I thought. Very fishy. So I went through their entire catalog on amazon and found that many of the books I've reviewed on this blog have been produced as eBooks by Black Heath Classic Criem, all of them a few weeks after my review was posted. That's too much of a coincidence for me.

      I was tempted to highlight them in a post, but then I read several reviews that point out very bad errors in the OCR transfer. I have a huge problem with that and I'm not going to promote a shoddy operation. And those covers are horrid. Ugh! Still these eBooks are affordable and can be delivered easily to places outside of the UK faster than real books.

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    2. There is no problem with the quality of kindle edition of this book.

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