Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1976 Book: The Giant Rat of Sumatra - Richard L Boyer

Original PBO (Warner Books, 1976)
Part of the fun of Rich Westwood's Crime of the Century meme at the Past Offences blog is looking back on the topical elements that may crop up in any given book of a particular publication year. But for two consecutive months now I've chosen a book that is not set in the year of its publication. This month we were to read a book published in 1976. Since another Rich --Richard Robinson of Tip the Wink-- had invited me to help him celebrate his month long Sherlock Holmes reading binge I decided to knock off two birds with one big rock.  I chose Richard L. Boyer's wonderfully authentic, good old fashioned detective-horror-thriller The Giant Rat Of Sumatra.

All you Holmes fans know the title is "the story for which the world is not yet prepared" alluded to at the start of "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire". Boyer, himself an avowed Sherlockian, does an admirable job at capturing the character of the detective and his doctor friend. Though at times Watson is embarrassingly denser than he usually appears in the original tales and he actually faints at one point late in the book!) and Holmes resorts to some equally embarrassing melodramatic statements that seem over-the-top for even a pastiche I thoroughly enjoyed this book. And this was the second time I read it! I remember coming across the book when it first came out back in my high school days, devouring it in a quick reading immersion. I've remembered it ever since. Reading it again I was happy to discover that it lost none of its entertainment value. It works exceptionally well as a fine tribute and celebration of the great detective, as a somewhat gruesome and horrifying thriller, and as a superb traditional detective novel.

1991 hardcover reprint
A scarce collectible!
The story is rife with allusions to the Canon with one work in particular being the primary reference point. When Watson is examining the wounds of a grisly murdered corpse he remarks, "They were, I fear, incisors-- or, if we can give even the slightest credence to Sampson's tale, the teeth marks of a giant rat!" You get the idea, right?  Each time the reader spots an allusion to the Canon he would do well to do more than smile.  Make a note of it, write it down, they are as important as the well placed clues. This is a sort of a Sherlockian wet dream of a pastiche. And the ending, I think, is gasp inducing.

There is a kidnapping of young girl, several truly horrible murders, some sinister gypsies, Holmes in disguise at couple of points, and of course that mysterious beast of the title.  What exactly is it?  Do giant rats actually breed in Sumatra?  Read and become enlightened, my friends.  I truly love this book and will say no more about it for fear of giving away some of its wonderful surprises.


 
Lucky for all of you The Giant Rat of Sumatra has been reprinted as part of Titan Book's impressive "Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series which includes all sorts of fun pastiches with Holmes and Watson meeting up with everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Dracula. The book is available in paperback or digital format.  And there are even cheaper copies of the 1976 Warner Books paperback original for sale in the used book market.  So grab a copy now!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

LEFT INSIDE: A Soldier's Tale

It's been a very long time since I've found anything inside one of my books.  This one was one of those rare instances that I came across while I was actually reading the book.  Tucked into page 79 of my copy of Murder by Request by Beverley Nichols was this:


Transcription:  "Dear Major Steeves,  Thank you for you order and hope the book is to your satisfaction.  I would also like to thank you for your service to the country.  Yours sincerely, B Storey

Send cheque (in another handwriting) -- I'm guessing Major Steeves wrote that.

Remember the days when a bookseller would you send a book prior to your paying for it?  I met only one person in my lifetime who would agree to searching for a book and send it to a customer trusting that payment would follow.

There is nothing noteworthy on page 79 of the book where I found the note.

Printer's Devil or Ignorant Editor?

Santosh has reminded me that I intended to mention in passing a particularly egregious error I came across in my 1933 reprint edition of The Z Murders reviewed only a few days ago on this blog.

I did in fact mention it on the internet, but in a comment on someone else's blog. So here it is for my readers' entertainment. Along with photographic proof of the embarrassing error.

On page 95 of my edition Richard is attempting to broach a topic and wants to start the conversation in a way that will catch her off guard. He fails miserably:


Poiret?!

I was so appalled I took out my mini Post-It note pad, scrawled off this note and stuck it to the page as a reminder to bring it up in my review.


But the Post-It got moved to the inside cover (see above) and that in turn was covered by an index card. So I never saw it and I forgot to write about it.

I'm wondering why no eagle eyed editor caught that error. True, as my note remarks there had only been seven Poirot novels published by 1933 when this reprint came out, but you would think that someone at Collins might know the correct spelling of a fictional character by one of their own authors who was selling a lot of books by that time.

I have been told that the error does not exist in the 2015 reprint British Library Crime Classics edition. At least in the 21st century someone was on the ball.

Friday, September 25, 2015

FFB: The Jefferson Farjeon Reprint Mystery

In light of the unusual interest in long forgotten mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon and the unrivaled popularity of the recent reprint edition of Mystery in White I thought I'd look at some of his novels that aren't getting the attention of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. Seven Dead (1939) is one they somehow overlooked yet to me is a better candidate for a reprint edition as it highlights Farjeon's skills in narrative experimentation, suspense and is overall one of the more original spins on a detective novel plot from the Golden Age.

As the title suggests the crux of the plot is the discovery of seven corpses found in a locked and shuttered room in a remote seaside cottage. They all show signs of the throes of a violent death but no trace of wounds on any of their bodies. The crime scene is investigated first by amateur Tom Hazeldean, a reporter and yachtsman, and Inspector Kendall. Entranced by a portrait of a young girl that has been inexplicably pierced by a bullet Hazeldean is determined to track down the subject of the painting, now a grown woman. She and her uncle were the occupants of the cottage called Haven House and he is sure they know what happened to the victims. Hazeldean heads to Boulogne after some initial inquiries indicate that Mr. Fenner and his niece were headed that way.

The book begins with the viewpoint of an itinerant pickpocket and thief who stumbles upon the crime scene after breaking into the house through the only open window, shifts to Hazeldean and then Hazeldean and Kendall. When Hazeldean heads off to France (for nearly one third of the book) the book morphs from detective novel into an adventure novel with the reporter as protagonist and Dora Fenner as the damsel in distress. The plot also takes on the air of a romantic thriller with several set pieces featuring our hero and heroine being captured and rescued and several supporting characters filling in as villains of one color or another. This section ends with a cliffhanger and then the story flashes back to England.

Back at Haven House the narrative style and mood switches back to the original detective novel mode as we follow Inspector Kendall and his police team through their investigation of the multiple murders and their desperate attempt to uncover the victims' identities. Most of all the plot is concerned with why all seven people were dispatched at once in the locked room. However, Farjeon has not devised an impossible crime mystery, for the murderer merely locked his victims in the room and left them to their fate in a fiendishly devised deathtrap. Rather the author is more concerned with the slow reveal of the motivation for the mass murder.

Like a good old fashioned detective novel we are treated to the discovery of tire tracks, footprints, other odd clues, and a mix of insightful deductions based on observation of human behavior. There is a well done scene in which Kendall and his Dogberry-like cohort Sgt. Wade follow the trail of a bicycle and discover the surprise method of the killer's escape. "If you weren't smarter than your conversation, Wade," Kendall says to his sergeant, "I'd have you in the bush to join the bicycle. Fortunately, during the past few hours I've found out that you are much more useful than you sound, even if sometimes it's only by accident." Poor Sgt. Wade is the butt of many such insulting jokes. Not as oblivious as Shakespeare's premiere sputtering and ineffectual head of the night watch Wade is nonetheless included for comic relief.

In the end Farjeon once again resorts to a shift in the narrative point of view and has the entire story resolved in an intricate tale of a shipwreck, survival on a desert island, and a horrific revenge plot all of which is recorded in the pages of a diary. The finale has a tendency to go way over the top in Farjeon's insistence on adding twist after twist, but you can't deny that he knows the definition of thriller when he sets out to write one. Seven Dead is a prime example of Farjeon at the top of his game and exemplifies his hallmark in the genre -- the use of narrative tricks and stylistic experimentation.

The same cannot be said of The Z Murders (1932), a much earlier effort that owes a lot to the work of John Buchan than it does to John Dickson Carr. Barely containing a smidgen of the usual plot elements of the traditional detective novel though it is in essence the story of the tracking down of a serial killer, The Z Murders is an outright pursuit thriller calling to mind in many of its scenes classic adventure novels like The 39 Steps.

Richard Temperley operating on a mixture of gallantry and instinct goes out of his way to protect a person of interest in a series of murders. In turn he is pursued by police who feel Temperley will lead them to Sylvia Wynne, the person of interest. The murders seem inspired by the kind of thing found in the pages of Edgar Wallace as a crimson Z made of metal has been left at each crime scene. Intended to baffle the police and signify the work of a mad killer working for some secret society a modern reader may easily see through the deception almost immediately. This is the kind of hackneyed device, already overused in the 1930s, is astonishingly still being used by modern writers of gruesome serial killer novels.

Farjeon writes of his characters being "implicated in the same mosaic." Mosaic is a good analogy for this kind of conspiracy thriller. Seemingly random encounters and strangers act as the colored tiles of a mosaic. When assembled together in the proper pattern they create the full picture and lead to a clearing up of the mystery. This "all things are connected" philosophy shows up again at the beginning of Chapter 17 ("What Happened at Midnight"). Farjeon points out the ironic positive effects of crime and uses as examples the taxi drivers and newsboys who benefit from a sudden rise in their income.

Fast paced and action filled The Z Murders' through line is impeded by repetition notably in the tiffs and spats Richard and Sylvia engage in. Sometimes this banter is entertaining and reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick's sparring wit but in Farjeon's hands each reiteration becomes increasingly annoying. Another irksome gimmick is Richard's tendency to have conversation with himself. His thinking to himself rather than described in prose is rendered as dialogue and the narration even takes on his persona. While this is yet another instance of Farjeon's experimentation I found it to be cutesy and bothersome. Similarly, a Q&A between a police inspector and a "village idiot" rendered as a prose monologue rather than dialogue exists only as a writer's trick and fails to serve the story. The entire middle section of the book drags with the aforementioned tiffs, narrative play and protracted scenes of melodrama. The fifth example of an argument between Richard and Sylvia in which he demands information and she offers nothing almost had me closing the book and never finishing it.

Ultimately, The Z Murders is far too familiar and not as exciting or original as Seven Dead. Why then was something as tiresomely formulaic as The Z Murders chosen to be reprinted while a book as daring and convention breaking as Seven Dead continues to languish in the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom? The mysteries of reprint publishing are often too baffling for me to contemplate.

The Z Murders is available from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. They have also reprinted Farjeon's Thirteen Guests which seems to be more in the line of Mystery in White, being yet another country house style detective novel. I have not read that book, but I'll continue to delve into the work of Jefferson Farjeon. He is one of the most unique narrative experimenters of the Golden Age alongside Milward Kennedy. By the way...why aren't his books being reprinted?

Friday, September 18, 2015

FFB: Murder by Prescription - Jonathan Stagge

"Why should the body live when the heart is dead?"

I'm beginning to think that Richard Wilson Webb was a secret sadist and hated animals. Murder by Prescription (1937) is the third detective novel and the second in the Dr. Westlake series in which cruelty to animals is on shocking display yet again. Not satisfied with the torture of horses and dogs in The Grindle Nightmare, not having worked out of his system even more brutality to horses and dogs in The Dogs Do Bark Webb and his collaborator Hugh Wheeler fill the pages of Murder By Prescription with kidnapped rabbits, a garroted cockatoo, and a dungeon-like warehouse of caged and starved cats that serve as experimental subjects for a couple of borderline mad scientists. All this in a story that is ultimately about the best way to alleviate suffering in terminally ill patients. The writers raise many questions about the practice of euthanasia and whether it is actually murder.

The original title of this second book in the Dr. Westlake detective novel series is Murder or Mercy? which underscores the main dilemma of the police when confronted with a series of ambiguous deaths.  Even the Italian title La Buona Morte (literally The Good Death) alludes to the central theme of mercy killing. Dr. Westlake has his reputation at stake all thanks to a newspaper account that mistakenly identifies him as a doctor who made a polemical speech about euthanasia at a community gathering. The real doctor who delivered the speech was a Dr. Westbrook, "an old quack" who "had a passion for getting into the newspapers". And it is this physician who Mrs. Talbot intended to have call on her when she makes her plea to have her life ended. But it's Westlake's name in the newspaper and it's Westlake who makes his visit to her bedside.

He listens to her veiled request to be put out of her misery and also indulges her by witnessing and signing a paper she scrawls out hastily. He leaves with her daughter Hermia a small amount of morphine pills and instructs her to give them as needed. Later that night Mrs. Talbot dies, presumably by her own hand. Police investigation discovers that although Hermia left all the pills by her mother's bedside the envelope containing the morphine fell behind the bed and was out of Mrs. Talbot's reach. Westlake notices that more than half of the 100 pills he started with that night are missing from the morphine bottle. When an autopsy reveals morphine poisoning it is clear to both the coroner and the police that Mrs. Talbot was murdered.

Things go from bad to worse for Dr. Westlake when the newspaper account with his name turns up in Mrs. Talbot's hand. And what of that handwritten paper with his signature? It's nowhere to be found. Was it a last minute change in her will? How convenient it would be for the doctor to take advantage of his euthanasia stance by subtly persuading the woman to kill herself after learning she intended to leave his nine year-old daughter $10,000.

Woven into this fiendish plot to frame Westlake as a sort of 1930s Dr. Kevorkian are some of the most bizarre characters ever created by Wilson and Wheeler. Mrs. Talbot's second daughter Gail and her husband Conrad Fiske are the creepiest, most atypical married couple to ever appear in a 1930s mystery. Conrad, a genius medical student working on experimental narcotics in a fancy home lab, seems to be a precursor to the modern 21st century dude. With his sloppy attire, his permanently unshaven face and unkempt hair he could easily be mistaken for any hipster college student of our age. His wife is similarly unconcerned with her appearance, shying away from the usually heavily made-up faces of 1930s women her own age. But it's her manner that is most shocking. Rude, brusque and entitled she has no boundaries in expressing her opinion. To her Westlake is no better than a servant. She helps herself to medicine from his medical bag, openly insults the man, and dismisses him when he dares to confront her with inappropriate behavior. Wilson and Wheeler do a good job of setting up this unlikeable duo as the villains of the book. They may act like borderline sociopaths and ultra self-absorbed spoiled rich kids thinking nothing of the inhumane experiments and animal victims, but are they really capable of murder?

Italian edition depicting the grisly
discovery of a strangled cockatoo
Westlake's precocious daughter Dawn is probably the most interesting in this book as well. She serves as a foil to the burgeoning romance between Westlake and Hermia Landreth, Mrs. Talbot's martyr-like daughter. Dawn proves herself to be quite the girl sleuth when her father recruits her to find a crucial piece of evidence in the finale. She pulls off her adventurous assignment with the aplomb of Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton and gleefully delivers into his hands the last bit of proof needed to unmask the murderer.

The Westlake series tends to bring out the macabre side of this mystery writing duo. Here is a book that shows us their penchant for Poe-like grotesquery and scenes of unnerving horror. Wilson who was the primary plotter of the two writers knew there are some taboo topics that just weren't meant for books intended as light entertainment and indulges himself with abandon. The sequence in which Westlake and the suspicious butler Josephs make their way to a dingy and fetid cellar and break into the storeroom where the Fiskes keep their animal subjects is as grotesque as the discovery of the walled up corpse and wailing feline in "The Black Cat". The only relief the reader gets from this stomach churning scene is Westlake's rescue of a couple of Belgian hares he bought as his daughter's birthday present. Later in the book the significance of the rabbits' unscarred and healthy appearance will serve as a big clue to one of the book's final surprises.

Murder by Prescription while only the second book in the Dr. Westlake series is perhaps the most unsettling and disturbing mystery written by Wilson and Wheeler. From the series of murders committed seemingly without motive to the horrors of the animal experiments to yet another death trap from which Westlake must escape this detective novel is teeming with nail biting thrills. The various scenes alternating between inflicting pain and relieving pain and the continual reference to the phrase "murder or mercy" make for some moments of uneasy reflection about the right to die and the role of science in medicine. For a book written in the 1930s it still has some resonance for a 21st century reader. Why these books haven't been reprinted since their original publication is a bigger mystery than those presented in the story.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

STAGE BLOOD: Holmes for the Holiday

Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, George C Scott, Stewart Granger, Rupert Everett, and Benedict Cumberbatch have all played the great detective. Add to this list now the most preposterous of casting decisions: David Arquette!

Yes, good ol' goofy David Arquette perhaps forever ingrained in moviegoers' minds as the affable, slightly inept policeman Dewey Riley from the Scream movies will be playing the latest re-envisioned version of Sherlock Holmes. And on stage no less! Arquette will be touring in the award-winning production originally mounted in Montreal by director Andrew Shaver and playwright Greg Kramer who died unexpectedly and rather mysteriously on the eve of the final rehearsal.

Described by the producer as having "frequent laugh-out-loud moments, melodramatic mysteries and sometimes nightmarish moments [that] proved irresistible" Kramer's Sherlock Holmes has been fashioned as a Victorian steampunk adventure with scenery projected onto high tech metal scrims. The plot is summed up in this tantalizing paragraph:

The opium wars have ended. The Ripper has wreaked his havoc. Electricity is on the rise and Scotland Yard is in its infancy. Lord Neville St. John gives a moving speech in the House of Lords to ban opium and a vote on the matter is imminent. Meanwhile, Professor James Moriarty, notorious criminal kingpin, plots to thwart the upcoming opium vote. When a drowned body is discovered, and Lord Neville goes missing, Scotland Yard turns to “the world’s only consulting detective”.

In the Montreal production Holmes was portrayed by someone who seems an even more outrageous choice than Arquette -- Canadian comic actor Jay Baruchel, part of the Seth Rogen pack who did some very funny work in the apocalyptic farce This is the End.

Jay Baruchel (right) as Holmes in the original Montreal
production at The Segal Center back in 2013.

The tour opens in Los Angeles next month and will make stops in Toronto, Washington DC and --- Chicago! We get to see Arquette as the master detective around Thanksgiving. You better believe I'm buying tickets.

The latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes
For more info about the tour visit the website for the touring production. Oddly, when you click on the "Cast" tab you will not see a list of the actors in the cast, but instead will get info on Arquette, the director and the producer. Guess I'll just have to wait until the curtain goes up on the production to find out who'll be playing Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty all of whom appear in the show according to the production's publicity.

Tune in again around the end of November for my review. I hope I will be as pleasantly surprised and impressed as the self-confessed skeptical Canadian theater reviewer who was quite taken with the show.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

NEW STUFF: Hollow Man - Mark Pryor

Hollow Man
by Mark Pryor
Seventh Street Books
ISBN: 978-1-63388-086-3
260 pp. $15.95
September 1, 2015

Dominic is not having a good day. First, he gets news that his parents who live in England both have died in a freak weather accident. Next, he learns he's being transferred from his prestigious high profile job in the Austin District Attorney's office to a lesser low paying job in the juvenile court. No more jury trials and too much paperwork. To cap it all off when he goes to his night time gig at a local music bar where he plays guitar and sings the owner cancels his performance pending an investigation into an accusation of "music theft." Another musician claims Dom has plagiarized his songs. Is Dom angry? You bet. And he's planning revenge to recoup his lost earnings and his musician's reputation.

Here's the twist. This lawyer/guitarist is a sociopath and he's done a very good job of keeping his secret hidden from his co-workers and friends. He glides through life mimicking the behavior of "empaths" --as he calls the rest of us normal human beings who have real emotions and a moral compass. While drowning his feigned sorrows at the bar with his friend and fellow lawyer/musician Gus they trade war stories in the Austin legal scene. Gus, an immigration lawyer, has been dealing with a local celebrity of sorts -- a former soccer star who's turned slum lord. He tells Dom and a woman Dom met in juvie court the man has bought a platoon of trailers and rented them out to poor immigrants. Every month he travels from trailer park to trailer park collecting their rent. In cash. The woman (who oddly remains unnamed throughout the entire book) remarks that it's an invitation to robbery. Everyone's wheels start spinning. Dom is eager to take advantage of this chance at easy money.

The book has been compared in the promotional materials to the Dexter series as both lead characters are self-aware of their behavioral problems and neurological rewiring. But I found it reminding me of Donald E. Westlake's tightly plotted caper novels.  In fact, Hollow Man has more in common with Parker than he does Dexter. The plot is about the robbery of the rent money and the expected complications when the simple plan does not go well. Dom is forced to recruit a few accomplices, one of whom is his Tristan, his anti-social roommate, a tech wiz/computer nerd who locks himself in his room each night. Personalities clash, fear and guilt take over -- but only for the accomplices. Dom has no real emotions to impede his scheming.

Literary mavens may recognize that the title and chapter headings are taken directly from T.S. Eliot's groundbreaking poem "The Hollow Men". Pryor's savvy allusion to that nihilistic work is a perfect complement to the action as we watch Dom attempt to regain his reputation, his comfortable life, all the while using anyone, and doing anything including taking life in order to get what he wants.

My only quibble with the book is that Dom is too self-aware, too hip and ironic for someone who is supposedly dead inside. For all his talk of being soulless Dom has real passion and does seems to show quite a bit of emotion though he claims it's all pretend. For the purposes of the story Pryor thinks he needs to convince us that Dom really is different. In using him as a first person narrator Pryor has Dom often go into tangential commentary about the psychological checklist known as the Hare PCL-R which includes a variety of questions that when answered and tabulated will reveal just how much a person is qualified to be labeled as a psychopath. It's glib and sarcastically presented, of course, but I think the story could have been told by showing Dom's behavior and dispensing with sarcastic explanations and hipster wit.

Pryor knows how to tell a story though. His plotting is clever, he even plants clues that may lead an assiduous reader to uncover the slyly laid out twists revealed in the final pages. Even with what I feel are narrative flaws Hollow Man is one of the more original twists on a caper novel and presents us with an anti-hero complex and fascinating enough to stand alongside Tom Ripley and Parker. Cool headed and aloof (but not quite soulless) Dom leads the reader through the "deliberate disguises" he must craft to survive a world that resembles "Death's twilight kingdom."  Though both Eliot's poem and the final chapter end with "not a bang but a whimper" rest assured that Pryor is once again being ironic.  Hollow Man is a firecracker of a crime novel with an explosively surprising climax.

Friday, September 11, 2015

FFB: Bring the Bride a Shroud - D. B. Olsen

Mr. Pennyfeather (later to become Professor Pennyfeather) is D. B. Olsen’s second series character she created while part of Doubleday Doran’s Crime Club cadre of popular mystery writers. He makes his debut as amateur sleuth in Bring the Bride a Shroud (1945), a book that shares more than a few plot points with Olsen’s first Crime Club published detective novel The Cat Saw Murder (previously reviewed here). The detective is a senior citizen, the setting of the murders is a privately run hotel, and the suspects are primarily made up of the hotel guests. I almost forgot! The murder weapon in Bring the Bride a Shroud is also an ax. Is this the way Dolores Hitchens likes to introduce her sleuths to us? Solving ax murders in hotels? I’ll report on that again later when I delve into her other “first” books written in her early career using other pseudonyms.

The story is just as engaging as The Cat Saw Murder and Pennyfeather, while less active and daring than Miss Murdock, proves himself to be more than capable as a detective in this gruesome premiere. En route to a military base in the fictitious town of Superstition, Arizona the college instructor is planning to visit “Tick” Burrell, a former student. He confides all of this to his seatmate on the bus headed from San Diego to Arizona. She is flabbergasted by this news. She happens to be Martha Andler, Tick’s aunt and sometime guardian who has been advising him on his latest marriage proposal. You see, Tick has a habit of collecting fiancées and then breaking the engagements. So far he’s proposed marriage three times and he hopes that this third time is the charm. Aunt Martha thinks otherwise. She’s on her way to counsel him against marrying his latest.

These various fiancées turn up over the course of the story and two of them coincidentally happen to be staying in the same hotel where Mr. Pennyfeather and Mrs. Andler are staying. When the bus makes a rest stop Mrs. Andler apparently has a run in with a volatile fellow bus passenger in a rest room and sustains an injury. Various suspicious conversations are overheard. Mr. Pennyfeather begins to think that Tick and his women problems may result in something more violent than a cut on the wrist. And his fears come true when Mrs. Andler is found butchered in her bed.

Hitchens does a fine job of presenting a tricky plot involving the various women in Tick’s life and uncovering several deep, dark secrets in the lives of the hotel guests. The story is rife with traditional detective novel motifs and abounds with fair play and puzzling clues. The dust jacket illustration points out many of the pieces of evidence like a button from a sweater, a bloody head bandage and – if you look very closely at the bottom edge of the jacket – a centipede. The centipede is one of those nasty large desert species, the kind with a venomous bite. Our poor hero has a rather nasty encounter with this centipede, a naive but creepy attempt to put an end to his amateur snooping.

The murders are solved with a good old fashioned gathering of the suspects and a lecture provided in tag team style by both Pennyfeather and Sheriff Stacey. But when the savage killer is finally unmasked there is still one more mystery yet to be revealed.

Throughout the book Stacey is perplexed why the college teacher will not volunteer his full name to him, in fact, refusing to do so. Pennyfeather offers a couple of hints as to why he never reveals his first name: it’s classically inspired and it’s wholly unsuitable for him. Stacey plays a sort of guessing game a la “Rumpelstiltskin” but never manages to nail the right mythological moniker. Thankfully, the reader is spared the frustration of never knowing when Hitchens delivers the news in the penultimate sentence.

Bring the Bride a Shroud is definitely worth seeking out even if it is — of course! — another one of those hard to find books. I found a copy in the Chicago Public Library system and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have a copy in your local library, too.

Professor Pennyfeather detective novels
(Books reviewed elsewhere on this blog have colored links)
Bring the Bride a Shroud (1945)
Gallows for the Groom (1947)
Devious Design (1948)
Something About Midnight (1950)
Love Me in Death (1951)
Enrollment Cancelled (1952), US paperback title: Dead Babes in the Wood

Friday, September 4, 2015

FFB: Cruel as a Cat - Kyle Hunt (aka John Creasey)

Dr. Emmanuel Cellini is one of the least known in John Creasey’s teeming crowd of series characters. The saga of Cellini begins with Cunning as a Fox (1965) and continues using a simile formula, with and without animals, for another ten titles. Cellini is another in a long line of fictional consulting psychiatrists/psychologists who work with the police. Based on the one entry I’ve read Dr. Cellini isn’t much of a psychologist or even a detective. In fact, he is hardly featured as a supporting player in this fourth entry in the series – Cruel as a Cat (1968).

The plot could’ve worked far better as a short story or novella. As a novel it is very short and very padded with much of the action reiterated and played over repeatedly over the course of its 170 pages. Essentially, it’s one of those “psycho lady holding a person captive” stories. You’ve probably seen a few of these books turned into movies like Die! Die! My Darling! (aka Fanatic), You’ll Like My Mother, and That Cold Day in the Park. Usually this plot formula is played out with a domineering, over-the-edge, middle-aged mother cast as the lunatic captor who is desperately trying to protect some dark family secret while the kidnapped victim is usually a young woman seen as an interloper.

In Creasey’s novel there is a slightly original twist. The loony is Midge Benison, a young woman and her captive is Jim Clayton, a handsome young man who she recognizes from newspaper and TV reports as an accused murderer on the run. Midge agrees to hide Jim and when he foolishly agrees he finds himself trapped in an attic with only one entry/exit that is locked every night. The novel basically tells us the story of Jim's attempts to escape his prison, the police investigation to locate his whereabouts, and the backstory of why Midge behaves the way she does.

Sadly, it’s not really very interesting. Creasey’s writing is matter of fact and sort of dull. The young woman is a cartoon cutout of a "schizophrenic" and we get all sorts of misinformation about that mental illness from the very unknowledgeable Dr. Cellini. What books did Creasey read to get his information? Or was he only drawing on bad movies of the past? It’s an insulting portrait of a mentally ill character and the supposedly psychological explanations for her behavior are reduced -- as expected for this era -- to nymphomania resulting from an abused childhood.

The only reason I kept reading was for the portrait of the landlady Ermyntrude Stern, who catches onto the young woman’s plotting. In fact, Midge -- who is Miss Stern's only lodger -- is so transparent in how she brings men into the landlady’s home for obvious sexual encounters it’s a wonder she wasn’t evicted within a few months. But Ermyntrude is the most human and fully realized character in the story; each time she appears the book truly comes alive. There is a sort of corny fantasized romance she dreams up when she meets Dr. Cellini. The two of them join forces in ferreting out the various hiding places where the young woman has hidden her captive. But Cellini does not really solve anything. It’s Miss Stern who is the real detective of the book.

This is not at all recommended even for the mildly curious. I doubt I’ll be checking out any of the other Dr. Cellini books. For the record the books are published under the pseudonym "Michael Halliday" in the UK and as "by Kyle Hunt" in the US. And of course reprints have Creasey’s names emblazoned across the cover as if he were the world’s leading bestseller writer. Apart from a few of the outlandish spy fantasies featuring Dr. Palfrey I have yet to find a Creasey mystery that I found either gripping or entertaining. They’re all sort of blah to me. This must be the price one pays for being such an outrageously prolific writing machine.