Wednesday, April 30, 2014

NEW STUFF: Syndrome E - Franck Thilliez

Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

COOL FLICKS: That Cold Day in the Park

It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".

Friday, April 25, 2014

FFB: That Cold Day in the Park - Richard Miles


Later US Paperback (Pyramid, 1974)
I first came to know That Cold Day in the Park (1965) in its effectively creepy and sometimes heartbreaking movie adaptation starring Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Dennis plays an extremely lonely woman who takes the term "kept boy" to its literal extreme. I thought perhaps the book might be the female counterpart to John Fowles' first novel The Collector, also turned into a memorable film. While the movie shares its basic premise with its source and both include three key scenes, the story of Miles' original novel is remarkably different.

Madame (we never learn her real name) meets a young man in the Tuilleries, the famous public garden of Paris, befriends him in a short conversation and convinces him to come home with her. Throughout their brief meeting the young man, a stunningly gorgeous blond haired Adonis, never speaks. Madame thinks, as does the reader, that the boy is mute. That he can hear her is made very clear. Only in the second chapter titled "The Boy" do we realize he has chosen not to speak. He often plays the role of a mute in order to manipulate his targets. The boy goes by the nickname Mignon. He and his friend Yves are male hustlers roaming the streets and bars of Paris' less than touristy areas taking advantage of lonely, affection starved men and robbing them.

Mignon stays with Madame most of the time, but escapes his new home each night by climbing out the window and down the fire escape in order to visit Yves. As the book progresses we see that Mignon is both manipulator and manipulated. He is caught between two worlds -- his life of crime with Yves (who he is clearly sexually attracted to) and his freer, more creative life with Madame who is also controlling him and shaping him to become what she wants. She is a hostess, a housemaid, a mother and eventually his lover. The book takes on a sinister element when Madame learns of his nightly escapes. We begin to see the fragile state of Madame's mind when she imprisons Mignon in an attempt to possess him completely.

UK 1st ed (Souvenir, 1966 )
The novel explores this very strange ménage à trois of sorts and its inevitable deceit and betrayal through alternating chapters told in the first person by Madame and in the third person omniscient voice when it focuses on either the boy or Yves. There is a middle section entitled "Interlude" centering on a minor character's visit to a sex club. Here we see the kind of sex trade Yves engages in with both men and women. It's the first taste of what will become a more lurid, sexually graphic, and sensational story.

The key scenes that I remembered from the movie -- Madame bathing the boy, her locking him in his bedroom and nailing the windows shut, and the climactic scene when she procures a prostitute for him -- all are present in the book. It is the story of Yves' relationship to Mignon that was removed in the movie adaptation.

In the novel the boy is conflicted between trying to change himself under the guidance of Madame, who seems to be the only person who doesn't desire him only for his body and good looks, and his life of adventure and crime with Yves -- his best friend, pseudo-brother and quite obviously a surrogate father. As the silent kept boy Mignon is at first a pet, then a student of painting, and finally a lover. With Madame the boy is more compassionate and pitying, emotions he does not feel for the men he robs when he is with Yves. There seems to be hope for both of them in their secret life together.  Yves doesn't want things to change. Mignon must make several decisions -- who is he really, who does he want to be with,  and perhaps most important of all who and what can he become.

In the final pages the book turns into a lurid thriller complete with embarrassingly written sex scenes that reminded me of the worst of 60s erotica ("throbbing rod" and "swelling member"). Madame's character transforms too quickly into yet another psycho-sexual lunatic bent on deadly violence. Miles nearly destroys the interesting contrast in characters that, up to the bloody climax, was the most fascinating part of the book. The story works best in the sections between Madame and Mignon and weakens in the too predictable sequences when Yves appears.

1st UK paperback (Corgi, 1967)
Richard Miles is the pseudonym for a former child actor turned writer and high school teacher named Gerald Perrau-Saussine. He first performed in movies under his slightly shortened, given name (Gerald Perreau) and later as "Peter Miles". His movie roles include Possessed w/ Joan Crawford, The Red Pony w/ Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, Heaven Only Knows and Quo Vadis . As a teenager and young adult he later appeared in a variety of TV shows such as Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Perry Mason. He had a long running role on The Betty Hutton Show where he played brother to his real life sister, actress Gigi Perreau.

That Cold Day in the Park is Miles' first novel. He followed up with Angel Loves Nobody (1967), a prize-winning novel about high school violence and The Moonbathers (1974), a revenge thriller featuring a Japanese secret society. One of his lesser works is the script for one of the worst movies ever made -- They Saved Hitler's Brain. But we all make mistakes, don't we? Don't judge him by that big one.

Tune in tomorrow when I examine Robert Altman's movie version of this book with a screenplay adaptation by Gillian Freeman. It's an example of taking the basic story of an intriguing novel and transforming it into a much improved and resonant character study.

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Reading Challenge update:  Silver Age Bingo card, space  L2 - "Book Made into a Movie"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Devil Made Them Do It

Ira Levin, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer all must be doing gymnastics in their graves.

A few nights ago I saw a trailer for the upcoming TV movie remake of one of my all time favorite novels and horror movies -- Rosemary's Baby. I screamed, "What? Are you kidding me?" at my television once again upsetting Joe who dislikes it intensely when I talk to the TV.

Jason Isaacs, so compelling as Jackson Brodie in the recent UK TV series based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels, has been cast as Roman Castevet. Way too young for the role. Minnie has been renamed Margaux and is played by French actress Carole Bouquet. Minnie is gone! Now I know this is going to suck. Clearly, the producers have decided to rejuvenate another classic and market it to a younger TV viewing audience with no memory of the original film.

Zoe Saldana, an actress I am not impressed with, is Rosemary. Mia Farrow IS Rosemary Woodhouse! To my mind only an immensely talented actress could surpass Farrow's performance. Certainly not someone as mediocre as Zoe Saldana.

Canadian actor Patrick J Adams is playing Rosemary's husband. He appeared on a cable TV series called Suits most recently. Never seen him in anything. Beats me if he has the stuff to even match Cassavetes' portrayal of the overly ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse who makes a diabolical pact in exchange for success on the Broadway stage. Looks like so many baby-faced young actors these days. He's got that trendy scruff to make him look older for this part.

I'm not impressed by the TV script adaptors credits either: Final Destination 3, Queen of the Damned, and that train wreck of a TV series American Horror Story. The only saving grace might be director Agnieszka Holland who made such memorable movies as Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden (w/ Maggie Smith) and who most recently has been making a career of directing cable TV shows like Treme, The Killing, and The Wire.

The movie -- a four hour, two parter -- will be broadcast in May on NBC. For more info see this webpage at NBC.com.

Anyone else think this is a horrid idea? Anyone planning to watch this? I'm not sure I'm even mildly curious about what they've done to update it. Some movies should never be remade. This, I think, is one of them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Kentish Manor Murders – Julian Symons

Here’s a great example of not judging a book by its title. Turns out The Kentish Manor Murders (1988) is not at all a country house detective novel. It’s the title of a manuscript that is supposedly the work of Arthur Conan Doyle -- his last Sherlock Holmes novel, in fact, and written in the author's own hand. The manuscript has turned up in the hands of a private collector who is looking for authentication before offering the manuscript up for sale. Sheridan Haynes (who previously appeared in Symons’ novel A Three-Pipe Problem), renowned for his TV portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, is approached about helping to authenticate the manuscript. But complications ensue as Haynes makes his way to Copenhagen where he will be performing one of his famous readings from the Canon to The Silver Blazes, a Danish group of Holmes enthusiasts.

This has all the makings for an intriguing bibliomystery. But Symons adds a series of subplots early on in the book that unnecessarily complicate the story. We start in Castle Baskerville, the heavily secured isolated estate of millionaire eccentric, hypochrondiac, and celebrated Sherlockian Warren Waymark. He wants Haynes to perform one of his Conan Doyle reader's theater performance pieces for a private audience of one. Haynes is not up to the task as he is getting ready for his Copenhagen visit for a much larger audience in a real theater. Haynes is also immediately suspicious that Waymark might be an impostor. The millionaire is kept in a dimly lit room, he wears sunglasses indoors claiming to be sensitive to all light, and he speaks in a gravelly indistinct voice. His meeting with Waymark seems to be carefully orchestrated and Waymark does seem to know his Canon very well, but the interview feels completely wrong to Haynes.

We think Haynes is going to start checking into the possibility that Waymark was done away with and his invitation to the Castle is linked to the discovery of the manuscript. But no sooner are we invested in this plot hook thinking we are in the hands of a master concocting a devious Sherlockian pastiche, Symons pulls the rug out from under us and sends us in another direction -- literally and figuratively. Suddenly we are off to Denmark and then the Netherlands for a series of random incidents. Bombarded with plot twists and new characters that seem unrelated to the introductory story of Haynes and Waymark the reader is frustrated and confused and eager to return to the more interesting puzzles first presented at Castle Baskerville.

Like all thrillers of this era with an international flavor we also get subplots galore. And they of course include drug dealing, black market activities, and a variety of shifty underworld characters in a variety of seedy bars and nightclubs. There will be a signifying event (already hinted at in the very Edgar Wallace style “Prologue”) that ties the subplots to the main plot but these complications seemed burdensome and padded. Several extraneous incidents could have been dispensed with as they had nothing to do with the real story.

A superior distasteful tone pervades the book, too. Homophobic remarks, xenophobic comments bordering on bigotry, whiny intolerance for the “march of time” expressed in Haynes’ disdain for the proliferation of fast food restaurants and tourist traps that have ruined Amsterdam. I guess this passes for humor with some people. I found it snobbish and patronizing and not a little prejudicial. The book is set in 1988 and yet there is not one mention of the brown cafes where marijuana is legally sold but there is ample talk of sinister, underhanded drug dealing. For someone who is trying to paint a "seedy" portrait of Amsterdam I wonder why Symons skips over the Zeedijk and Warmoesstraat and all the sex trade those areas are known for. It didn’t ring true at all as 1980s Amsterdam.

Overall, this book has a schizoid identity: one third bibliomystery, one third international thriller, one third detective novel with a murder mystery crammed into the last 40 pages. It's not a bad book by any means, but for my tastes it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. The story becomes overcrowded with plot complexities that seemed arbitrary. I preferred the first book with Sheridan Haynes -- A Three-Pipe Problem (1975), more focused, livelier and wittier -- than this second jumbled affair.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space R2 - "Book with a place in the title"

Monday, April 21, 2014

IN BRIEF: An Easter Egg Hunt - Gillian Freeman


US 1st ed., (Congdon & Lattes, 1981)
Easter Sunday, 1915. The students at Madame Pennington's private school for girls have decided to have a charitable fundraiser for the Red Cross. The students have invited the locals to an Easter egg hunt and for the price of one penny are invited onto the school grounds to find as many eggs as they can within an allotted time. Prizes are offered. During the hunt it is discovered that Madeleine Marshal, the 17 year-old ward of Mme. Pennington has disappeared. A thorough search of the school and its grounds, including the lake, turns up no sign of the missing girl. Madeleine has vanished. Decades pass and she never returns, nor has her body ever been found. What happened to her?

An Easter Egg Hunt (1981) is a pastiche of Edwardian sensation novel told in a unique fashion. The book is presented as a three part manuscript sent to a fictional magazine called An Argosy of Mystery Stories over a period of 25 years. It's presented as a literary detective story on the part of the author who reveals herself to be one of the students at the girls' school. Part one describes in a vignette the day of the egg hunt and Madeleine’s disappearance.

Part two then tells the story of Madeleine -- her arrival at the school and how her gregarious personality and striking beauty affect everyone in the school. Too old to be a student, but too young to be a staff member, Madeleine is caught between adolescence and adulthood. She is allowed to teach French to the students but spends most of her time as a professional chaperon for the younger girls and also assists with housekeeping duties. Her very presence brings about a huge change in the way the girls behave and how the school is run.

Nearby the girl's school is a military training camp, a flight school for young cadets learning to be fighter pilots. Several of the young men are keen on some of the girls. When Madeleine arrives Will Kent falls madly in love with her. The two of them start a secret friendship meeting in a nearby cave for trysts that eventually lead to a sexual relationship. But when a horrible airplane accident ends that relationship Madeleine becomes an emotional wreck. Her changed state then affects the students and staff at the school.

UK 1st ed., (Hamish Hamilton, 1981)
The third part of the story, entitled "The Answer", reveals the true reason for Madeleine's disappearance, why she left the school and what ultimately happened to her. Encapsulated like this the brief novel seems too familiar, like an old-fashioned soap opera. Yet Freeman manages to defy all expectations of the familiar and routine. She tells her story in a compelling manner with an economy of deft prose and artful character portraits. She has an unexpected way of conveying raw emotion and turns up surprisingly poignant moments in this ultimately tragic tale of love, illusion and self-deception in wartime.

Gillian Freeman is best known perhaps for her work as a screenwriter, but has also written a handful of novels touching on often taboo topics (for the time) like gay relationships and pornography. Her first book The Leather Boys, a seminal work in gay fiction, tells the story of two young men both members of a motorcycle gang and their tenuous sexual relationship. Her screenplays include an adaptation of her first novel; I Want What I Want, one of the earliest films to deal with transgenderism; and the psycho-sexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park -- a dual review of movie and novel which is coming soon.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo Card, space E2 - "Book w/ Time, Day, Month, etc. in Title" I figure Easter in the title can be applied to the "etc".

Saturday, April 19, 2014

More Thoughts on The Body

Here are my notes taken while reading the beguiling novel The Body (reviewed yesterday) transcribed in digest format. This book more than any other I've read in a long time elicited some penetrating and meditative thoughts on my part.
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Favorite quotes:

p. 59 "A person had to be quiet to hear what [the past] said, because the past talked in whispers of truth so random and fragile any preconceived opinion could blow it away before the opinion's organized and determined noise." (Sharon considers talking to her niece about her findings in the tomb, but holds back)

p. 73 after hearing Cardinal Pesci claim that nothing that happens in Israel is not political Folan thinks to himself: "[He] could have disputed that point for an hour and not begun to fully bury (sic) a statement so broad as to be untenable past junior high school. It was just the lazy man's way to explain away the cast and incomprehensible multitude of what went on."

p. 138 Flan to Sharon "Where do you get evidence that scientists are somehow more trustworthy than holy men?" She replies: "When you people give as much knowledge, as much light, instead of flames to the world, as archaeologists, I will give you that respect."

p. 208 Discussion between Sharon and Folan. She offers up "many possible scenarios" for why Mary Magdalene and the apostles would think they saw something that they didn't. "They were totally invested in Him. They must've been distraught." Mary could have entered the tomb and thought it was empty. Peter had given up his life as a fisherman to follow Jesus. Matthew stopped being a tax collector. They made sacrifices to be with Him for life. Folan calls them "scenarios" and Sharon calls them possibilities. Fiction vs. reality

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The Dead Christ Mourned by Annibale Carracci (ca. 1604)
(sometimes called The Three Maries)
FAITH -- the ultimate mystery. The book blends politics and religion, culture and all sorts of ideology but is ultimately about Faith. Everyone's faith. What a person believes in, what makes them LIVE and go on living. Not just a faith in God or Jesus. To me having any kind of Faith is truly the ultimate mystery. Where does it come form? How do we hold on to it? What happens when you lose it? Can faith be restored? Once lost can it ever be regained and held fast? What might happen to someone when they lose Faith forever? It's such a fragile gift that needs to be cared for and nurtured.

Folan's scene w/ the true believer Mark, volunteer at the dig. "Why do you believe God's word?" This is recurring throughout the book. Folan questions everyone's beliefs, getting them to question themselves. Mark, after some obvious and naive attempts to convince Folan, finally replies: "I know my heart. If you need more, then I feel sorry for you."

1st instance of a fragile faith. Father Pierre Lavelle. Heart wrenching character. Was once a Communist but stopped e believing when the Communists became allied with Nazis (he says this based on his personal experience). Folan questions him on this ease of turning on/off a belief. Was it ever valid if it could be so easily given up? Is this why he so easily accepts that the skeleton is that of Jesus without any skepticism with out any proof to the contrary?

Lavelle kills himself! Is this going to get really ugly now?

Richard Ben Sapir
(Photo credit: Patricia Chute Sapir)
This is great! Folan is like an eccentric amateur detective: "What did you eat that day?" "What were the people at the dig wearing?" "What sort of mood were you in that day?" All sorts of idiosyncratic questions of the witnesses and the volunteers at the dig and all those involved in the discovery. Odd Qs about the mundane in order to understand the event as a whole. Also tests the veracity and the memory ks skills of those involved. Brilliant tactic

Detective work examples -- Folan learns of the odd biological phenomenon of skeletal little toes and pinkies crumbling to nothing over time.

Folan impressing Reb Nechtal with his knowledge of the Talmud. Loved this. Points out the Talmud law about proper burial, manipulates this law to his own advantage. Does not tell rabbi why the body needs to be studied but argues why it can be removed according to Talmud. Almost wins over the rabbi, but scores major points all the same, esp w/ the followers. They reach a compromise. p. 223 "The righteous Gentile is as blessed as the high priest himself." Wow!

Folan and Sharon have sex. Repeatedly. Somehow I knew this would happen. Pisses me off.

Folan "lies to himself" repeatedly afterwards. He rationalizes his life as a celibate Jesuit. Sex seems to change him radically. This is going overboard. The "Sexual epiphany" is a literary device that belongs to a much older time period and to a much younger character, I think. I can't accept this in a book publ in 1983. Even from a priest -- who was not a virgin. He had sex prior to becoming a priest. That hang up about pre-ejaculation... Is this Folan's version of what happened to Lavelle when he left the tomb? Is that Sapir's point? Sex is belonging to another? Jesus is no longer Folan's best friend (he said that several times earlier in the book). Sharon is taking that place now. Hmm... Trying to justify this choice of Sapir's, but it's really bothering me.

Folan and Sharon are acting like crooked cops now! Co- conspirators trying to find evidence that will support their theories rather than looking at what they found at the dig, the evidence of the tomb.

The "specialists" are onto them. Pointed questions, F & S resort to deceit and become evasive. Sometimes outright lying. (Has sex turned Folan into a liar too?) Dr. Sproul, the bone expert, is giving them what they don't want. Calls the skeleton a laborer, possibly a carpenter. HA!

Friday, April 18, 2014

FFB: The Body - Richard Ben Sapir

Good Friday. Today Catholics all over the world will attend special masses on this holiest of Holy Days of Obligation and remember the passion of Jesus Christ, the suffering and humiliation he endured on the day he was crucified.

In The Body (1983) Dr. Sharon Golban and her team of volunteer student archaeologists uncover a tomb in Jerusalem.  At first it appears empty, but then Sharon finds a wall of bricks unlike the stone walls of the rest of the tomb and when she removes some of those bricks finds a secret room. In that room there is a skeleton with orangish marks on the leg bones that are almost certainly an indication of oxidation from iron spikes, proof that the body was crucified. She also finds a kiln-fired piece of pottery inscribed with the Aramaic words Melek Yehudayai. Jewish King. Like the scientist she is Sharon considers these facts. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution reserved for criminals. A king would never be crucified. This must be an sign of a game of mockery that Roman soldiers engaged in. But wouldn't the disc say something more like King of the Thieves? The only person she can think of crucified and called a Jewish King was... But, no, that can't be. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His body shouldn't have remained on Earth in a secret room bricked up in the tomb where he was laid to rest. Sharon knows this could be a devastating discovery. She has to report it to her superiors.

Word spreads to the Vatican and they set up an international search to find a special man to head an investigation to prove or -- hopefully -- disprove that the body is that of Jesus. They select a very unusual Jesuit priest from Boston College named James Folan. Though many of the candidates for the job have backgrounds in science and archeology Father Folan does not. He is a college administrator who occasionally teaches a class in history. But he is also a former Marine who later worked in Laos for one year as part of an information gathering network for the CIA.  Because of some of his unique answers to the candidate interview process he is chosen as the man to lead the investigation in Israel. It will be a test of all he believes in leading to some drastic changes in his worldview.

Sapir is best known as one half of the writing team who created Remo Williams, aka "The Destroyer", one of the most popular and successful action heroes in the world of men's paperbacks. He also wrote a science fiction adventure novel called The Far Arena (1979) about the discovery of a Roman gladiator encased in ice who is brought back to life through some fanciful mad scientist experiments. Though much of The Body examines the political and religious implications of the possibility that all of Catholicism is based on a lie Sapir's background in pop fiction adventures unfortunately bleeds into the story. Sharon Golban is smart, feisty, and -- of course -- incredibly beautiful and highly sexualized. Father Folan does his best to fight his attraction to her, but succumbs to temptation. This is the only part of the book I found troublesome. Once Folan starts having sex with Sharon the whole books pretty much falls to pieces. His character and way of thinking drastically change. He nearly forgets the reason he is in Israel is as an emissary of the Pope for a very important task that could have earth shattering results for those who believe Jesus is God. Having Folan and Sharon become lovers cheapens a book that prior to these scenes was a thoughtful meditation on the mystery of faith and the importance of faith in the lives of devout Catholics.

I took an incredible amount of notes on this book and will try to put them into a digest form in a second post tomorrow. The Body has a lot to recommend it and provides a lot of food for thought. It would make a fantastic book club selection at any time of year not just this Easter/Passover season. Sapir includes all types of religion in the story with some provocative scenes that include radical orthodox Jews and a Palestinian living in Russia. Golban herself is half Iranian and her father an immigrant from Iran (though for some reason Sapir insists on calling it Persia). That's just scratching the surface.

The Body was also made into a movie in 2001 starring Antonio Banderas as Father Matt Gutierrez (Folan) and Olivia Williams as Sharon Golban. From one review I read online it seems to be very much updated to include all sorts of computer technology not present in the book and rewritten as one can guess by having a Latino priest in the lead rather than an Irish Catholic from Boston. It also apparently is pretty awful. Nevertheless, I've added it to my Netflix queue and plan on watching it soon. It'll be interesting to see just how different the movie is from Sapir's dense and thought provoking novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space I4 - "Author You've Never Read Before"

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Family Matters - Anthony Rolls

“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Man Who Could Not Shudder - John Dickson Carr

US 1st edition (Harper, 1940)
In slowly working my way through the works of John Dickson Carr I think I may have found a book to surpass the devilry and ingenuity of He Who Whispers as my favorite of Carr’s books. The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) is an intriguing mystery that not only features Carr’s most frequent recurring motif (a haunted house or haunted room) it presents two of the most ingenious impossible murders in the Carr (and Dickson) books I have read so far.

Martin Clarke is planning a weekend house party in which he hopes to show his guests the paranormal phenomena that pervade Longwood House, his newly acquired home with a reputation for fatal hauntings. Seems in the past a butler inexplicably grabbed hold of a chandelier and was killed when it came crashing down from the ceiling and landed on top of him. There have been reports also of furniture leaping out at visitors. The grandfather clock in the hallway supposedly stopped at the precise time the first owner, Norbert Longwood, died. And centuries ago Longwood himself was supposedly seen sitting by the fireplace the night after he was placed in his coffin. Clarke is ready for an all out ghost party and hopes to count among his guests a lawyer, a scientist, an architect, a spiritualist, and a priest. Clarke inadvertently invites danger to the house, too. Instead of fun and games with ghosts and poltergeists he has a weekend of violence. One of Clarke’s guests is horribly murdered and it seems that a ghost was responsible.

Benton Logan is found shot dead in a study in which an antique gun collection has been mounted to the wall above a fireplace. His young wife had entered the room just prior to the murder and swears she saw a gun jump off the wall and fire in midair. No one was in the room but she and her husband yet she was nowhere near the gun nor was her husband. Is it a possible that a ghost picked the gun off the wall mounting and fired it at her husband?

Gideon Fell shows up along with the police to help sort out the real from the illusion. Is there genuine psychic phenomena at work? Is Longwood House a cursed home inhabited by the ghost of a 19th century man rumored to have been involved in witchcraft? Or is it all the work of fiendish human hands adept at fanciful trickery?

UK 1st edition (Hamish Hamilton, 1940)
And remember that tale of the butler who went swinging on the chandelier only to have it become his deathtrap? There will be a chilling echo of that mysterious death and other threats and near murderous attacks before the mysteries are all rationally solved and the ghosts are put to rest. The solution when it comes is one of Carr’s most ingenious and gasp inducing finales. There are three obscure clues planted in plain view that can lead to an understanding of what exactly is going on in Longwood House, but only the most astute readers will catch them.

If you like your detective novels bizarre and puzzling, if the miracle problem or impossible murder is to your liking The Man Who Could Not Shudder will be right up your alley. The abundance of baffling situations will satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s the kind of book that makes a true fan of detective novels want to give the author a standing ovation.

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Reading challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space G4 -- "A Locked Room Mystery". I prefer the umbrella term "impossible crime" under which all "locked room" mysteries fall. Not all impossible crimes have a genuine locked room, but they are all related to the same subgenre.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

LEFT INSIDE: Hotel Elysée Postcard

Here's a postcard advertising a boutique hotel located in Manhattan's posh East Side that was left inside one of the many vintage paperbacks I recently purchased. Didn't make a note of the title of the book, though.

When I first saw this I thought perhaps it was an ad for a European hotel. It seemed too quaint an idea for a luxury Midtown Manhattan place.

Click to enlarge
On the reverse side is a brief blurb about the hotel.


And for those interested in seeing photos of the rooms and learning more visit the Hotel Elysée website.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Murder in Black Letter – Poul Anderson

On the inside of the DJ front flap Murder in Black Letter (1960) is billed as "A New Trygve Yamamura mystery." Yamamura, a Norwegian-Japanese-American private eye, is a unique character in crime fiction. He has a splendid collection of samurai swords (the main interest in his award winning debut Perish by the Sword, 1959), he enjoys fencing and judo, and spends much of his time engaging in intellectual conversations with his mostly academically employed friends. But here’s the thing. Yamamura is hardly in the book at all. In fact, he doesn’t even solve the case. He's the most minor of characters in his second book, but he's billed as the lead on the dust jacket. If you’re going to create a series character at least do him the service of having him solve the case even if he’s only going to have a limited amount of stage time. Anderson seems to have grown tired of Yamamura in only his second appearance. Too strange.

That’s strike one.

The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.

That’s strike two.

The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.

And speaking of the final pages. The ending is rushed and absurdly over the top with a fight in a rocky seacoast. Hero and villain plunging from a cliff into the turbulent ocean and grappling with a revolver while trying not to drown. Kintyre manages to judo chop the gun out of the villain’s hands and subdue the bad guy. All of this in the ocean! The final sentence in the book is a single word. “Enough.” I’ll say!

That’s strike three. And strike four, five and six, too. You’re out, Anderson. Really out.

The book has a protracted storyline with a few tangential subplots that are dropped almost as quickly as they are introduced, preposterous motivations from nearly everyone involved, and plenty of action scenes featuring judo (chop, chop) for martial arts freaks. But it’s all a bore. All too reminiscent of too many books and TV shows of this era. It’s all been done before with more excitement and vigor by veteran crime fiction writers more skilled than Poul Anderson, primarily a science fiction writer. His attempt to capitalize on popular crime fiction themes (drug lords and sadistic professional criminals as villains) is ineptly handled. The intersection of a primarily academic setting populated with professors, their office and research assistants, and graduate students with a seedy underworld of professional criminals just doesn’t work. I can usually allow for wild leaps in my suspension of disbelief. This time I didn’t believe it for a minute.

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CORRECTION:  Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo card, space R5: "Set in the US"

Friday, April 11, 2014

FFB: The Cornish Coast Murder - John Bude

The Cornish Coast Murder
by John Bude
British Library Crime Classics
(US distributor: University of Chicago Press)
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5715-9
286 pp. $15.00
Publication Date: April 2014
(originally published in 1935)

In the first chapter of The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) appropriately titled “Murder!” we meet Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr. Pendrill for a Monday evening ritual consisting of diner, cigars, post-prandial drinks and the opening of a very special package. Inside the package is a pile of detective novels by the likes of Fletcher, Farjeon, Sayers, Crofts and their old friend Agatha Christie. Dodd hopes that the new book includes “new adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot.” The two men proceed to discuss their favorite books, plotting techniques and murder methods. It's clear form this opening scene that the author is a fan of the traditional detective novel and all its trappings. And we get more than a fair share of puzzles and mysteries all solved by both a police inspector and an amateur detective. It's pretty clear that Reverend Dodd will fill the role of the amateur sleuth and he stuns Inspector Bigswell with some ingenious examples of both intuitive and scientific detection.

The story centers around the shooting death of irascible Julian Tregarthan, local magistrate, who disapproves of his niece Ruth's attention for young writer Ronald Hardy who lives along the coast. At first all evidence points to Ruth who had recently had a volatile argument with her uncle who afterwards stormed out of the house and made way for Ronald's cottage. Later, Inspector Bigswell believes that Ronald may have in fact killed the magistrate. then as more evidence pile sup including "the puzzle of the footprints" he think that the two are perhaps in collusion and are covering up for one another. Reverend Dodd, however, is convinced both of the o young lovers are innocent and sets out to prove Bigswell's theories to be incorrect.

The very rare 1st UK edition (Skeffington, 1935)
The clergyman relies heavily on intuition as the basis for solving and theorizing his solution. Bigswell like a true policemen prefers to examine facts and evidence. In an effort to match brains with technique the wily Reverend resorts to an elaborate experiment involving string measurements in order to find the converging point of the path of the three bullets found at the murder scene. It’s an impressive and wholly imaginative piece of work. It reminded me of some of the baroque scientific experiments in the detective novels of J. J. Connington, notably the photographing of shadows in The Sweepstakes Murder. Reverend Dodd also impresses both the reader and Bigswell with his explanation for the absence of footprints which are directly related to where he believes the gun was fired.

For a debut mystery novel this is admirable work though not without a few faults. The surprise reveal of the murder is somewhat anticlimactic in that the solution involves minutiae. The murderer, as in most detective novels of this era, turns out to be the least likely suspect but as his motive is tied to a picayune plot point mentioned only once it seems less than fair for a mystery that up till the denouement follows all the tenets of a fair play detective novel. Nevertheless the writing is straightforward, the characters are believable and appealing and there are enough puzzles to keep the reader both engaged and mystified. Reverend Dodd would have made for a nice series character, but Bude chose not to develop him further.

The Cornish Coast Murder includes a immensely readable introduction by crime writer Martin Edwards who sheds light on the little known life and career of Ernest Elmore, aka “John Bude”. Bude’s sophomore mystery The Lake District Murder has also been reprinted by the British Library as part of their classic mystery imprint. Both are available for purchase through the regular bookselling outlets on the internet. John Bude is a welcome addition to an exciting explosion of classic crime reprints from a variety of independent presses and the British Library seems to be leading the way in discovering forgotten writers well worth reading. You’d do well to acquaint yourself with his entertaining mysteries.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space L3 - "A Book with an Amateur Detective." This gives me my first Bingo. Woo-hoo! I could stop now, but I'm shooting for the whole card.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dance to Your Daddy - Gladys Mitchell


1980s UK reprint (Severn House, 1986)
 Psst. Over here. Got a secret I wanna tell ya. Closer. Closer! Come on, don't be shy. That's right.

When you're dealing with one of those hit-or-miss writers like they say Gladys Mitchell is, one of the those "acquired taste" writers, it's best to stick with the hits. That way you're sure to keep coming back for more. Dance to Your Daddy (1969) is one Of Gladys Mitchell's hits. Best of the 60s, they say. I'd agree.

Compared to her earlier work it's clear that Mitchell changed with the times. This book is very modern and told almost exclusively in dialogue. The sometimes ponderous prose passages of her books published in the 1930s-40s are at a minimum. She opens with an unusual scene that establishes character in only a few sentences. From that point on she continues to nail her characters in sharply written often terse portraits. Action is plentiful and swift and Dame Beatrice (no longer Mrs. Bradley!) is on stage 90% of the book. She may be cackling less often and she doesn't poke anyone in the ribs even once, but she's still the wily Mrs. Croc readers have grown to love and admire. Armed with sharp wits, acerbic humor, and in a couple of scenes her trusty revolver she tackles a murder victim of questionable identity, a will with convoluted legacies that almost puts Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce to shame, and plenty of scheming and plotting to outdo the best of the Victorians.

From the very start Dame Beatrice alludes to the melodramatic aspects of the case she has undertaken at the request of her distant relative Romilly Lestrange. "The situation here is fascinating, macabre and in many ways incredible," she tells her secretary Laura Menzies Gavin. "I am living in a world of Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and the Brontes." She has been asked to verify the sanity of Trilby, Romilly's niece, who has taken to throwing objects off a cliff into the ocean, dresses in baroque costumes and to all outward appearances seems to have lost her mind. The young lady is on the verge of turning twenty-five and will soon inherit her grandfather's wealthy estate, but if she can be proven to be mentally unfit the estate defaults to her uncle. Her grandfather Felix' will is a lot more convoluted than that, however. I'll spare you the other conditions.

A brief interview with Trilby (who insists her real name is Rosamund) leaves Dame Beatrice questioning the truthfulness of both Uncle Romilly and his dually named niece. Completely different stories, denials on Rosamund's part, counter denials from Romilly which are backed up by the stories of his housekeeper/paramour Judith. Are they keeping Rosamund prisoner as she claims just like some doomed heroine from a Victorian sensation novel? Do they have evil designs on her? She fears for her life and claims a few murder attempts have already occurred. Who is to be believed -- uncle or niece?

2014 reprint (and eBook) from Amazon
The plot is a mix of the usual Mitchell staples -- absurd and bizarre antics, a body that no one can identify, an unusual setting and landscape features (in this case the body discovered on the Dancing Ledge, a perilous seaside ledge below a precipitous cliff) that add to the menacing mood, and her unique brand of black humor. Once again a wicked villain tries to send Dame Beatrice to an early grave but her sharp wits and devious mind save her. On hand are also some of her recurring characters including Dame Beatrice's barrister son Sir Ferdinand, and her secretary Laura, now married with two children. Even Laura's parents make a brief appearance when Dame Beatrice in order to prevent another murder, decides to stow Rosamund at Laura's Scotland home for safekeeping.

The book opens with the baptism of Laura's newborn daughter Eiladh, a child she mentions more than once that was not planned for nor wanted. Ah, motherhood! Laura does her best to escape her maternal duties leaving the baby in charge of Hamish, her elementary school age son, and husband while she assists Dame Beatrice. She doesn't get in on as much of the action as she hopes. Laura is tart tongued, petulant and overly sarcastic throughout the book. She wasn't very welcome for me this time. But everyone else in the cast does a fine job, whether villainous or virtuous or a combination of both. The surprising finale is typical of Mitchell's sometimes ambiguous resolutions and her unusual ideas about justice.

Dance to your Daddy has been out of print for decades and was until last month very hard to find. Luckily, this title along with 59 others (including all of Mitchell's books written under her "Malcolm Torrie" pseudonym) have been released by Amazon.com's book publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer. As of last month Dance to Your Daddy is available in both paperback and eBook formats. Most of the Mitchell reprints are only available in digital format for now. There may be the possibility of paperbacks for some of the other titles. Residents of the UK (and anyone living outside who wants to have the books shipped) are luckier. A variety of paperback reprints of Gladys Mitchell's mysteries are available from Vintage Books. See their list of 29 titles here. This is a great way to introduce yourself to the world of Gladys Mitchell.

She may be hit-or-miss according to many critics (me included) but Dance to Your Daddy,  a cleverly plotted, lively story with a cast of engaging characters is definitely among the hits, my friends. Grab your copy now!

Other Gladys Mitchell books available in new Thomas & Mercer eBooks include these titles that I also highly recommend: Here Comes A Chopper (reviewed here), The Rising of the Moon, The Devil at Saxon Wall, The Twenty-Third Man, Brazen Tongue, St. Peter's Finger and The Greenstone Griffins.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space V5: "A Mystery that Involves Water" In this case the water is the Atlantic Ocean sweeping over the Dancing Ledge.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

IN BRIEF: Murder Masks Miami - Rufus King

Lt. Valcour solves his last case in Murder Masks Miami (1939), Rufus King's contribution to the subgenre of mysteries known as the policeman's holiday. While on vacation Valcour is asked for help from the decidedly lazy and self-confessed incompetent Floridian Chief Detective Lawrence Goodfriend, a former salesman who "drifted into police work when [his family's] hardware store had gone for bad debts." Goodfriend is one of the most remarkably obtuse and vapid policemen in all of crime fiction. He confesses that the Miami police still have dozens of open homicide cases because "the training was lacking to build up evidence that would stand in court."  Even the rudiments of collecting evidence are lost on him and his associates. It's dumbfounding how lackadaisical he is about his job and his responsibility to the entire department.

So Valcour steps in. What at first begins as lessons and guidance to the Miami Police soon gives way to Valcour's leading the entire investigation. Two women have been found dead from apparent poisoning injected by hypodermic needles. One is the typical elderly imperious and domineering Grand Dame so often found in King's books. The other, found naked in an enclosed sunbathing booth on the roof of a nearby resort, is a much younger, sexually free, and equally unpopular woman. How the deaths are connected makes for part of the mystery. Valcour will uncover multiple adulterous affairs, a murderer with a taste for bizarre disguise, some unusual hazing rituals among sailors, and a very insidious method of murder. The clues are ample, the detective work is fascinating and the characters are some of the most varied and unusual for King who usually limits his suspects and victims to urbane sophisticates.

What is even more noticeable in this novel than any other of King's I have read is the writer's personal interest in male beauty and virility. Repeatedly the male characters' physiques and predilections are discussed in great detail. Mike Grost has mentioned on his website tracing the history of the detective novel that Murder Masks Miami is a homoerotic mystery novel, but I think that's going overboard. None of the men are attracted to each other. Though there are sailors featured in minor roles in the story there is not even the barest hint of male-on-male action in this story. It is clear that King was enamored with male beauty and liked to create characters who were both buff and gruff. Descriptions of masculine beauty don't automatically make a book homoerotic, a term I think that is frequently misused if not abused.

As early as the second chapter the reader knows he's in for more than a fair share of King's celebration of men. A middle-aged man wakes from his bed naked and walks to his hotel window to admire the seaview and doesn't a give damn who might see him below on the beach. It's an very odd scene and one you'd rarely come across in contemporary fiction even in our supposedly enlightened times. There is also Don, the handsome twenty-something lifeguard, whose body is described as rapturously as the older man's. Don attracts the attention of many women (not one man, mind you) and will serve as Valcour's key player in unmasking the killer in the climactic scene aboard a millionaire financier's yacht.

This is one of Rufus King's best detective novels. The story gets to the point quickly, its moves at a fast pace, never lagging in interest or local color. Valcour is less philosophical with his suspects than in the books from the 1920s, but spares no criticism for Chief Goodfriend, his unenthusiastic, somewhat thickheaded student in crime investigation techniques. The supporting characters are a lively bunch and every now and then King indulges in his arch sense of humor. In Murder Masks Miami you get the best of King on land and King at sea. But never confusingly at sea, for the story winds up with a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

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Reading Challenge update:  N6 on the Golden Age Bingo Card - "Book Set in the U.S."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

LEFT INSIDE: Identify this DJ Piece and Win a Book!

Hey gang, this a combination Left Inside post and a contest!

It's not a mystery to me, but it may be to you. I know the book in which I found this fragment of a front panel DJ being used as a bookmark.  But can you identify that book?



Your only hint: I reviewed the book in the past two weeks. The intact front panel of the original first edition DJ was used to illustrate my post. Your mission should you choose to accept it: Locate that post and match the piece shown here to the correct DJ.

Ignore the purple background.  That was a heavy book I needed to place on top of the DJ fragment in order to get it to stay put on the scanner. Pay attention only to the two letters and the yellow and white of the original design.

DO NOT LEAVE THE ANSWER IN THE COMMENTS. Instead, please email your answer. There is an email link on my profile page here.

First three people with the correct answer will receive a free book of your choosing from a list I will email you. The list will be made up of nearly every book -- both new and vintage -- that I have reviewed since the beginning of the year, plus a slew of review copies from this year and 2013 that I have amassed. Here's a chance to get a scarce vintage book or a relatively new one for free!

Good luck, Mr. Phelps.

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Well, that was over rather fast.  I got several replies within two hours of the post and all (of course!) were 100% correct. The DJ fragment comes from Death Goes to A Reunion by Kathleen Moore Knight. The three winners are:  Brian Busby, Noah Stewart and Kelly Robinson. Shortly, I'll be sending you the list from which you can choose your book. Thanks to all who participated. Good to hear from some of you "lurkers!"

Friday, April 4, 2014

FFB: The Case Against Myself - Gregory Tree

If you guessed based on the title alone that The Case Against Myself is a courtroom drama told in the first person from the defendant's point of view you would only be partially correct. The Case Against Myself (1950) is indeed a courtroom drama, a murder trial to be specific. In part. It is told in the first person by the defendant Catherine Benedict. In part.

Why then isn't it called The Case Against Catherine Benedict? You may wonder this as I did. Because there are fifteen narrators in this novel each telling a portion of the story from their viewpoint. Among those narrators are several jurors, the defendant's husband, the husband's secretary, his second mistress, her husband, the judge, both trial lawyers, and even a private eye hired by the defense lawyer. All of them telling the story and each time adding another layer to a labyrinthine at times confusing plot. All of them, to some extent, tell the story of the case against themselves. In one way or another nearly all the narrators is complicit in the crime and has complicated the events surrounding the murder of Margo Chalmers, mistress to notorious gossip columnist Bernard Benedict. Yes, even a few of the jurors are guilty of some sort of lying or fraud. The choice of the title provides some hearty food for thought by the end of the book.

You would think with all these narrators author John Franklin Bardin (it's him all right writing under the pseudonym "Gregory Tree") would be experimenting with voice and style. But oddly because of his choice of title Bardin has also given his narrating characters a sound alike voice. When expressing their thoughts in narrative form there is a strange stilted nature in the deliberate avoidance of contractions and much of the vocabulary tends to be similar. It's as if he has created one collective unconscious. Only when the characters speak their dialogue do we get distinctive voices. It makes for an overall sinister tone to the book. The levels of paranoia and neurotic behavior that go hand in hand in any Bardin story become all the more unnerving when written in this often cold and distant narrative style.

Bardin, best known for a trio of psychological suspense thrillers dealing with mental illness, both real and feigned, is once again obsessed with psychiatry and abnormal psychology in this novel. One of the two characters who helps uncover the truth behind the confusing events surrounding the death of Margo Chalmers is psychoanalyst Dr. Noel Mayberry who, surprisingly, was treating both Catherine and her husband Bernard for their neuroses and morbid obsessions. Mayberry appears twice in the story. First, in a section narrated by Bernard, the doctor appears as a typical psychiatrist goading his patient to relax and tell his story calmly. Secondly, in the final pages in which he reveals both Catherine and Benedict were his patients and that he has been privy to more than his fair share of secrets. Only after the trial has ended can Mayberry finally discuss his patients' lives in detail and help the police explain the muddle of Margo's inevitably cruel murder.

To go into the complex plot any further would spoil this near brilliant example of a crime novel that is an amalgam of so many subgenres. It's a psychological suspense novel, it's a courtroom thriller, it's a private eye novel. In the final pages it's even a traditional detective novel ending with all suspects gathered in one room awaiting the moving finger to point out the identity of the murderer among them.

The book's only flaw is a tendency towards high melodrama in the final chapter aptly told from the murderer's point of view. But the killer is one of Bardin's typical psychos and has a narrative style so over-the-top that to a reader who has devoured thousands of crime novels will be all too familiar. It's not hard to pick out the culprit once the killer starts elaborating on so many kooky thoughts.

Prior to the murderer's unveiling, satisfying if overwrought, the story is very well done. There are many genuine surprises that while at times overburden the plot with twists and irony yet make sense when considering Bardin's intent as hinted at in his unusual title. There are a veritable French farce hotel's worth of nighttime visitors who infiltrate the crime scene, convenient witnesses who see all those visitors enter and exit the home, and crazy coincidences that multiple as the real truth is slowly uncovered. What begins as a tawdry domestic crime inexorably transforms into a nightmare worthy of the fervent imagination of Cornell Woolrich. Everyone is guilty of something -- a cover-up, a crime, a lie of omission, even the creation of fake evidence. No one escapes culpability in the final scene. That was Bardin's brilliance shining through and the most satisfying part of the book.

Dr. Mayberry and defense lawyer William Bradley appear in a sequel called The Case Against Butterfly, another courtroom drama told in multiple narratives involving a murder in the fashion business and featuring two sisters who are fashion models. This first book under the Tree pseudonym was inventive and imaginative enough to get me to track down the other. Hopefully, I'll have a review of the sequel sometime later this year.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age Bingo Card space D2: "A book with a lawyer, courtroom, judge, etc."