Friday, February 26, 2016

FFB: She Who Was No More - Boileau & Narcejac

The crime novel plot motif of losing a corpse is often the basis for a black comedy romp. Craig Rice used this gimmick repeatedly in her novels featuring Jake & Helene Justus and John J. Malone, and it shows up in hundreds of movies notably Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. But in the hands of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac a disappearing corpse is hardly a laughing matter. Celle Qui N'Etait Plus (1952) was the first collaboration between these two French writers who previously had both won French crime fiction awards for their solo efforts. The success of the duo's first book would lead to a long lasting friendship and over thirty more books as a writing team. In a nod to the novels of James Cain we get an avaricious, adulterous couple who drown the man's wife in a bathtub then manage to lose the body after dumping it in the lavoir (a French communal laundry near a river). It's a study in guilt, remorse and madness more than it is a detective novel. In fact, there is only one policeman who appears and he's a traffic cop who makes a brief cameo at the very start of the book. Boileau and Narcejac are more interested in the terror that resides within the mind of a guilt ridden murderer than they are the usual criminal investigation plot.

There is very little action in this book with most of the novel focusing on the thoughts and delirium of the main character. You may know the story from one of the several movie adaptations, but they are just that - adaptations. The film tells the story of two women drowning a husband while in the book a philandering couple murder the wife. The only things the book and the film have in common are a bathtub and the guilty imaginings of one of the killers. While the film takes a very different path to convey the terror of a guilt ridden mind with some indulging in horror movie motifs, the book is a bit more mundane in the way the same terror is depicted.

The main character in the novel is Fernand Ravinel, the husband. Fernand is an ineffectual travelling salesman who hawks sporting goods. His special talent is designing and creating fishing flies which take up an entire page in his company's fisherman's supply catalog. But Fernand is otherwise dull, unassuming and in frail health the result of a minor heart attack. He and his mistress Lucienne, a doctor, conspire to do in Fernand's wife Mireille and claim the insurance money. It is Lucienne who does the dirty work while Fernand unable to watch his wife being drowned in a bathtub leaves the room and listens to the murder being carried out. His only act as an accomplice drugging a beverage his wife drinks and fetching the andirons from the fireplace that will hold the body under water. It's a clinical murder carried out with the precision of a surgery. Later they transport the body to the Ravinel's home and unload her into the river that flows through the lavoir. When Fernand coaxes one of his bar mates to visit the lavoir under the pretense of a assessing it for repairs he is shocked when his wife's body is no longer there. Thus begins his slow descent into a surreal world of strange events and morbid imagination.

There is an abundance of fog imagery throughout the novel. Boileau and Narcejac use this old Gothic novel trapping in a unique way. Since his childhood Fernand was obsessed with fog and used to play an odd game in which he disappeared into the fog, sort of an astral projection, where he sent his mind into the fog imagining that he has crossed over from the living to the dead. This idea of crossing over is further elaborated throughout the novel as Fernand tries to come to terms with whether or not Mireille is actually dead. She keeps turning up in their house leaving notes. There is even a report that she visited her brother though he was the only witness. The brother-in-law's wife resents that Mireille did stay long enough so she could see her too. This fact plants the seed in Fernand's mind that his wife may have been a ghost. Then he obsesses about a small detail -- Mireille kissing her brother's cheek. He wonders how the kiss felt, if it actually took place, or if Germain (the brother) was merely telling a story to make him jealous. Is she a ghost? Is she alive? If so, why does she not show herself to him? Did the murder take place or has he completely lost his mind?

There is a subtle suggestion that Mireille and Lucienne are the real adulterous lovers. Typical of the 1950s Lucienne is described as "mannish" and being stronger than Fernand. He cannot remember why he was attracted to her or what started their affair. A telling moment of his ignorance -- of his own life being enveloped in a thick fog of overlooking the obvious -- is when he finds photographs of a vacation the three took together. The pictures show Lucienne and Mireille smiling and joyful. Fernand is absent from them all. He cannot even remember taking the photographs himself. All he wonders is "Where am I? Why did no one take any photos of me?"

What little action there is comes in brief moments between Fernand and one other character. Very rarely are more than two people ever present in any scene. The novel is one of isolation. The real setting of the book is Fernand's mind. The story is almost exclusively made up of his thoughts, memories, reveries, and the "fog game". This novel sets the groundwork for future Boileau and Narcejac novels which are always centered on the aftermath of murder and how the criminal is in some ways more of a victim of his crime than the actual corpse. Like many of their best books this debut comes with one gut wrenching, shocking scene and a surprise twist in the final sentences. She Who Was No More attempts to blend the conceits of a ghost story with a murder tale resulting in a claustrophobic, dreary world of doubt and mistrust. It is a loveless world with no real hope culminating in one of the most downbeat endings that rivals any American noir. French crime novels seem to be drenched in self-inflicted misery, more deeply affecting to the characters than the most violent crime.

After decades being out of print and nearly all scarce paperback editions in English translation having being bought up by covetous collectors She Who Was No More is once more available in a new paperback edition from Pushkin Vertigo. They have reprinted the original 1954 English translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury (published as The Woman Who Was No More) rather than having a new edition translated. He does a fine job though he lapses into a stilted British idiom a bit too often. Nevertheless, fans of Boileau and Narcejac and those familiar with Les Diaboliques (or The Fiends), as it is known in the movie version, ought to grab a copy soon. Reading the novel is a revelation and an education into the beginnings of a writing team who unlike many lived up to the promise of their first book and proved to surpass this experimental crime novel with a handful of similarly groundbreaking work.

Friday, February 19, 2016

FFB: Three Green Bottles - Dominic Devine

THE STORY: A teenage girl is found strangled at the edge of the golf course in a quiet village. Suspicion turns to the last men seen with her. When the prime suspect is found dead a few days later of an apparent suicide the village slowly settles back into routine. The man’s brother comes to town and is not satisfied with the suicide verdict suspecting his troubled brother was not only innocent but was murdered because he knew something about the girl’s death. Then another girl is found dead killed in the same manner and left at the same scene. Is Mark Kendall right about the possibility of a serial killer hiding in the quiet village?

INNOVATIONS: Three Green Bottles (1972) is told in five separate parts narrated by three different characters. Each section is preceded by a “prologue” told in an author omniscient voice. Parts One and Five are narrated by Mandy Armitage, an eighteen year old part time Sunday school teacher and volunteer for an organization that helps developmentally delayed children (or “spastics” as the British called them until very recently). Parts Two and Four are told by Mark Kendall, the physician brother of Terry Kendall who was found dead at the foot of a cliff. Mark serves as an amateur sleuth of the piece. There is also a police investigation going on but we learn of it only through Mark’s encounters with Inspector Hugh Robens. Part Three, the most interesting portion of the novel, is narrated by the most fascinating character – Celia Armitage, a 13 year old girl with a reputation for being stupid, unruly, and thoroughly nasty. Her voice is unique and feels utterly authentic for a foul mouthed little girl. Her worldview is that of an opinionated brat who at times lets her nasty nature and artfully developed mask of a brat drop to reveal that she is very misunderstood and almost completely unloved. She’s quite a creation and one of the most original facets of this tricky, plot heavy novel.

THE CHARACTERS: Because of the various viewpoints we get a variety of presentations of the fairly large cast of characters. It is up to the reader to make decisions about the authenticity of each narrator and their perceptions of the characters in the story. Who is telling the truth, who is prejudiced? There are several teenage girls who we get to know through the narrative of the two Armitage sisters, actually half sisters as they have different mothers. Mark Kendall’s two narrative sections tend to spend most of the time figuring out the mystery surrounding his brother’s plunge off the cliffside and he does quite a bit of amateur detective work trying to find out what Terry knew about the death of Janice Allen, the first victim. Suspicion falls on some women and even Celia who had threatened to kill many of the girls for treating her so poorly. But this is almost immediately dismissed by police since the girls were strangled and left naked on the golf course. The crimes suggest a male sexual predator at work though a coroner’s reports prove none of the girls were sexually assaulted. Among the suspects are Tom Baines, a history teacher dubbed “peeping Tom” by the girls for his supposed proclivity for looking up their dresses; Dr. Ben Radford, who shows an unusual interest in Celia and has an altogether too close relationship with Baines; Miss Carey, another teacher at the girls’ school who has a habit of giving rides to the children if she thinks they ought not to be walking around at night alone. Celia also does a fair bit of girl sleuth work as she spies on one girl and is witness to some events that might lead to the capture and arrest of the killer, but she has no desire to share what she knows with the police until it is almost too late.

Dominic Devine as seen on the US edition DJ
Photo by Ian Joy, (C) 1972
THINGS I LEARNED: A “lilo” is a slang term for an air mattress in England. Just like other eponyms like Xerox -- a trademarked brand name which has come into use as a verb -- Frank Lilo, inventor of a type of inflatable raft, has had his surname turned into a word. Though Lilo’s invention was a kind of raft used in pools and at the beach rather than an air mattress meant to be a substitute bed or a piece of rec room furniture the lower case lilo can mean any type of air mattress. Seems to be strictly a British term. I’d never heard or read of it before.

The title of the book comes from another bit of British trivia I knew nothing about. “Ten Green Bottles” is a monotonous and annoying children’s counting rhyme similar to the equally monotonous and annoying “99 Bottles of Beer” we have in the US. Both have a countdown method with the green bottles rhyme having the line “If one of those bottles should accidentally fall” matching the US line “Take one down and pass it around”. I think it’s a rather weak metaphor for the three victims in the book since they don’t die one right after the other, several months pass between each killing.

EASY TO FIND? At one time Three Green Bottles was fairly easy to find at affordable prices in the used book market. It was published by the Doubleday’s Crime Club in the US and by Collins in the UK. There was also a reprint edition for a book club in the UK. No paperback edition exists that I can confirm. I’ve seen US book club editions a long time ago, but they all seem to have vanished now. Only a few copies are for sale and many of them are steeply priced. You might try your local library. But be warned: some of the US editions had a horrible printing error. Pages 165-188 were printed twice and bound in the book and pages 141-164, including the prologue to Part Four, Chapters 1, 2 and some of Chapter 3 of Mark Kendall’s second narrative section, are completely missing! This may explain why so few US copies are for sale. My guess is most of those misprinted books were returned to the publisher who then disposed of them.

At one time Devine’s books were very popular and he was in many US and UK libraries. His first crime novel, My Brother’s Killer (1961), seems to be his best known book and has been reprinted several times in paperback editions, the most recent by Arcturus about three or four years ago. Some of his other books were made into movies or TV shows including The Fifth Cord which was adapted into an Italian giallo thriller starring Franco Nero.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

O Rare Arthur Bray!

I maintain a list of wants of extremely obscure books and rare titles on several bookselling websites. Periodically, I get an exciting email that one of those books is being offered for sale. I usually hold my breath, close my eyes and hit the link. Then I slowly exhale and open my eyes to see if the price is something I think is not only reasonable but affordable. More often than not I can afford the book and I buy it without hesitation. A few days ago I got an alert that one of those very rare "wants" turned up.

Here's the listing (with some typos corrected):

Title: The Clue Of The Postage Stamp

Author: Arthur Bray

Publisher: Alex Thom and Co, London and Dublin

Publication Date: 1913

Binding: Hardcover

Edition: 1st Edition

First edition. in original illustrated boards as issued. With original 'fake' postage stamp to front board as required. 8vo, frontispiece,371pp. Showing overall wear, rubbing to spine. edges and corners. Inner hinges firm, some wear and tenderness to outer. Overall marking and discolouration. Pencil annotation to f.e.p. stating 'very rare and almost unobtainable'. More images available on request. 9370. Eric Quayle p.88 the Collector's Book Of Detective Fiction.

And the price? A mere £2400 or $3535.61. Plus shipping! (the tightwads)

This title had been on my want list for nearly ten years. Patience is a virtue, right? At least I know it actually exists. Perhaps I need to heed my own tongue-in-cheek advice given to one blog visitor a while ago: "Take comfort in knowing that you can't have everything." ...sigh...

SURREAL UPDATE: Another copy of this extremely elusive book has suddenly popped up for sale from a different UK dealer on the same website. Based on the photos and description this second copy seems to be in much better condition and -- bonus! -- it's signed by the author, though for some reason the seller does not offer a photograph of the signature. Remarkably, it's cheaper than the one I was alerted about. You'll save four hundred pounds if you have £2000 in pocket change to buy this more attractive second copy. Photos of the other handsome copy can be viewed at the bookseller's own website.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

NEW STUFF: The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Quick! Give me the name of a Finnish novelist. Or any  writer from Finland.

Aha! I thought so. Somehow Finland gets overlooked in the world of letters. I certainly couldn’t come up with someone. Not even an obscure writer of a forgotten award winning book though Finland does boast such a writer: Frans Eemil Sillanpaa, winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature. Just in case you’re wondering he wrote over fifteen novels, the most well known of which was Nuorena nukkunut translated into English as The Maid Silja (or Fallen Asleep While Young). News to me.

I do know one Finnish writer now. His name is Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen but this knowledge comes only after I’ve finished reading his first novel Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta (2006), translated into English as The Rabbit Back Literature Society (English transl., 2015). Where has he been all my life? Well, he’s been writing short stories with a science fiction/fantasy bent for the past twenty plus years while also teaching Finnish language and literature in an “upper secondary school” which I guess is Finnish high school. A prizewinner himself of a handful of Finnish genre fiction awards for his stories Jääskeläinen's first English translated book will perhaps open the door for a wider audience. A quick look at the bookselling sites already turn up two works – his award winning short “Where the Train Turns” and another story in the Finnish speculative fiction anthology It Came from the North, both offered in digital versions only.

Jääskeläinen’s storytelling is riveting, his skill in creating a sinister atmosphere is palpable, and his writing reveals some trenchant observations that are deeply evocative. No doubt all these qualities are due in part to the efforts of translator Lola M. Rogers who artfully renders Jääskeläinen’s text in English without losing its Finnish flavor. On his blog Jääskeläinen has written: "It’s obvious that English isn’t my native language and I don’t feel completely comfortable using it this way. Finnish is my guitar and when using it I’m like Jimi Hendrix. On the other hand English is for me like a bagpipe in the hands of a rabbit when I try to express my thoughts with accuracy and precision." Nevertheless he was impressed with Roger's work as translator and feels it captures his intent better than he could had he translated himself. Yet to me this book should not be known only as Finnish writing; this is universal writing touching on resonant topics that we all experience regardless of our native tongue.

German edition title is
Laura's Disappearance in the Snow
The novel is an exploration of the art of writing (sometimes the artlessness of writing), the gift for storytelling, the act of creation itself all set in the context of a fantastical mystery involving the disappearance of a Finnish writer of children’s stories, the elite group of young writers she mentored and the possible murder of one of those writers over thirty years ago. This makes it sound like a mystery novel, and it is. To be more specific it turns out to be something of a literary detective story -- but it is so much more as well. In Jääskeläinen's own words it is also a love story, a ghost story and a fairy tale.

Under Laura White’s unorthodox, often nightmarish, tutelage the nine writers of the Rabbit Back Literature Society have matured into bestselling authors and household names each with their own cultish following. Enter Ella Milana, a substitute teacher with aspirations to write, though her first love has always been literary research. Her graduate thesis was on Laura White, the children’s author who gathered the nine young writers under her wing and guided them to the top of Finland's bestseller list. When White comes across Ella’s one venture in short story writing published in the local newspaper she invites Ella to become the honored tenth member of the Rabbit Back Literature Society. While at a party where Ella is introduced to the rest of the members Laura White vanishes. Ella wants to find out why the writer disappeared and where she might be. Her research background turns her into a literary detective as she digs into the buried secrets, both literal and metaphorical, within the cult group she has joined.

We get to know the group through a strange interrogation ritual known as “the Game”. Thankfully, Jääskeläinen veers away from the usual metafiction motif of the writer as demigod and all riffs of creating that usually follow. Instead, he seems to be satirizing the writer's life. These members, though successful and popular with their fans, are at their heart a secretive, reclusive bunch festering in a morass of prurient curiosity and career jealousy. He seems to be vilifying the writer’s life and not celebrating it. He captures perfectly the writer’s capacity for all consuming envy when confronted with an artistry he knows he can never achieve.

We listen as the Society members voice their regrets and confessions of failure when they compare themselves to the original tenth member, a super genius of a writer who wrote mind-bogglingly great stories. That they can never remember his name is telling -– his talent was more important to them than his personality or his identity. They never got to know him, nor did they want to, it was his words, his stories that they desired. He was a cipher of a boy, almost always silent until he was called upon to read from his notebook. Only then did he command their attention and they were awestruck by the power of his words. His notebook soon becomes an object to be coveted by the rest of the group. Her penetrating research and relentless questioning of the Society members leads Ella to believe that the boy’s sudden and violent death might well have been a murder. Who among the Rabbit Back Society was zealous enough to kill in order to possess the boy’s notebook filled with fantastic ideas and literally awesome writing?

Along the way we are treated to metaphysical discussions of identity, the perception of the self, the need for writers to rely on others’ lives for their stories, and the loneliness of living a life as a constant observer rather than a participant. Ella's dreams are revelatory and often prophetic. Dream imagery and mirror imagery dominate the story. There are vignettes about seemingly innocuous incidents as in the sequence when Ella finds herself fantasizing about a stranger based solely on his attractive profile until he turns his head and she sees his face in full. Then everything evaporates and her opinion changes to one of disgust and indifference. It’s a universal moment that we can all relate to eloquently captured and evocatively rendered. It says so much about how Ella thinks and feels and will have repercussions as she begins to uncover and make public the secrets of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Because Jääskeläinen’s first love is fantasy he finds a way to interweave elements of the surreal into his densely packed narrative all the while embracing the Nordic countryman’s love of ancient mythology and folklore. There are gnomes and wood nymphs and water nixies lurking within the town of Rabbit Back. Some of the citizens make a supplemental income as Mythological Mappers who will inspect your house and yard for any variety of creatures and let you know where it is safe to stroll and where you ought to avoid. A subplot involves an inexplicable "infection" that has changed the contents of books in the public library. Ingrid Katz, head librarian and a member of the Society, has made it her mission to destroy all the infected books for fear that the contagion will spread to other books. How can one have all copies of Crime and Punishment end with Sophie shooting Raskalnikov because she feels it her duty to rid the world of an undesirable? What else might happen to other great works of literature if that infected book were allowed to exist alongside others? Laura White is in love with folklore and mythology and her stories -- though she never intended them for children -- are populated with fanciful creatures and talking animals. Martti Winter's home is surrounded by marauding packs of dogs that never stop howling and seem to be on constant patrol guarding something hidden out in the forest.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society sets up many mysteries but does not answer them all. This may frustrate some readers who prefer to have no plot threads left hanging. For others who embrace the mysterious in everyday Life it offers many rewards, plus the opportunity to discuss possibilities for those unanswered questions. Like a gourmet meal it is a book meant to be savored, digested and contemplated. From its highly original opening to the final jaw dropping pages that completely transform the story's narrative this is wholly immersive reading experience. And to carry on with the food analogy it will have you craving more from the writer. Since this first book was published ten years ago Jääskeläinen has written three more novels, none translated into English. Let us hope that this changes. And very soon.

Friday, February 12, 2016

NEW STUFF: The Murdered Banker - Augusto DeAngelis

The Murdered Banker
by Augusto DeAngelis
Translated from Italian by Jill Foulston
Pushkin Vertigo
ISBN: 978-1-78227-170-3
190 pp. $13.95
February 23, 2016

There is a tendency to pigeonhole English language mysteries into two camps - British vs. American, cozy vs. hardboiled, detective novel vs. noir, etc., etc,. and so forth. I try my best not to fall into this labeling habit and I spend more time talking about subgenres within those categories of crime fiction. But once you travel outside the dominant world of the British/American dichotomy it becomes clear that there is a type of detective novel that is very peculiar to European non-English speaking writers. Augusto DeAngelis, a little known Italian (at least to English language readers) may have been the man to have invented it. This would be the humane detective novel, a murder mystery not so much concerned with the intricacies of a puzzling murder but the human drama of crime. Unlike the myriad detective novels with a focus on gathering of cigarette ash and measuring footprints in the snow, the humane detective novel pays less attention to the puzzles obfuscating the crime and concentrates itself on the people involved. You'll find no emphasis on unraveling strange or bizarre aspects like backwards clothing, footprints on the ceiling, or outlandish murder methods. Instead the story is centered on the characters themselves, their volatile emotions and the structure of a detective novel is used as a template to explore the messy aftermath of a violent crime and how it affects those who must live on in the shadow of murder.

In The Murdered Banker (1935) -- the debut of series detective Inspector DeVincenzi, Commissioner of Public Safety in Milan -- the discovery of the corpse in the home of Gianetto Aurigi first appears to an open and shut murder case and that Aurigi could be the only man to have committed the crime. DeAngelis adheres to the rules and formulas of the traditional detective novel of the time, and within a few pages the simple crime becomes a baffling mystery with the introduction of unusual clues like a perfume bottle filled with poison and a jeweled lipstick case. Then there is the entrance of a foppish private detective who will act as foil to DeVincenzi (and perhaps serve as a parody of Poirot). All the while DeAngelis adds generous helpings of Italian philosophizing. DeVincenzi, our policeman hero, has a tendency to wax poetic on topics ranging from his sometimes tedious job to the role of the criminal in society to the futility of preventing murders. Additionally, there are moments of unexpected humor as in this passage when the medical examiner has let DeVincenzi know he has just made a chalk outline around the corpse:

"Everyone does it these days, in Germany, in America... Is there anything else you want to know?"
No, De Vincenzi didn't want to know anything else and he could have done without the chalk outline, even if they did it in Germany and America.

When senior officer Maccari turns over the case to the much younger Inspector DeVincenzi we watch him take charge in an extremely unorthodox manner that includes eavesdropping on suspects and enlisting his sergeant and lower ranking officers to conduct spying missions. He offers this reasoning to justify his methods:

"The usual means, legal, all the rules, are not enough, and they're not helpful in this case. I must have recourse to other methods if I want to get to the truth...My conscience will allow it, and in fact it obliges me, even if the rules and codes forbid it."

All the while he reveals his interest in human nature and personalities rather than physical evidence. He likes to watch and listen to the people involved, very often while hiding behind a door or lurking in the shadows of the next room. He is shrewd, slightly manipulative and certainly less cerebral than the Holmesian school of detectives. Though he does not shun reasoning and logic DeVincenzi follows his heart and gut rather than his brain. He leans heavily on a more humane approach to crime solving and is especially interested in allowing the suspects to let loose with a barrage of passionate emotions. Tempers fly, arguments arise leading to flailing arms and punching fists a good deal of tears while DeVincenzi stands back to watch, listen and intervene at the eleventh hour to prevent any real lasting harm.

The word "ruin" recurs throughout the story. There is a desire among the suspects to prevent the destruction of their reputations, fortunes and futures. DeVincenzi thoughts give way to this bitter insight: "[He knew once the truth was revealed the ground would be seeded with ruin." One suspect is "...confronted with ruin..." while another proclaims "I had to save him from ruin." The lives of the Gianetto, his fiancé Maria Giovanna and her father Count Marchionni are inextricably intertwined with the discovery of the murdered banker who turns out to have been a rather nasty character. Plots are revealed, multiple murder weapons are discovered, and murderous impulses are uncovered in a story filled with passionate explosions and declarations of devotion and undying love. In the process of solving a murder hearts will be broken, a family will be divided then made whole and the revelation of the true villain comes in an unexpected yet ironically familiar twist.

The Murdered Banker is the first of three novels by Augusto DeAngelis to be published by the new crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo. Taking their name from their recent reissue of the Boileau-Narcejac classic suspense novel made even more famous by the Hitchcock thriller Pushkin Vertigo will bring new editions of Italian, Austrian, French and other European writers receiving their first English translations as well as reprints of Japanese writers like Shimada and Yokomizo. I'm excited by these new editions. DeAngelis was called the "father of the Italian detective novel" by critics and genre historians in his own country and I'm eager to read more by him and the other writers that Pushkin will be introducing to the English language readers throughout the world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Death of Nevill Norway - John Rowland

In the coming months I suspect you will be hearing a lot about John Rowland on the many vintage mystery blogs. Two of his detective novels will soon be reissued by British Library Crime Classics. I've already received an ARC of one of his books, but since it won’t be released until April here in the US I can’t post my review yet. There is so much that is interesting about this forgotten writer, however, that I thought I’d get on jump on the rest of the gang out there in the blogosphere.

Rowland began his career as a chemistry teacher, veered into journalism and publishing with an emphasis on philosophical and religious magazines. Somewhere in mid-career as a fairly successful, albeit second tier, detective novelist Rowland began to show an interest in true crime cases. His first fictional account was of the poisoner Dr. William Palmer, published in 1938 as Slow Poison. Drawing from newspaper accounts, courtroom records, the Newgate Calendar and with a bit of the novelist’s embellishment Rowland recounts the story of one of England's most infamous serial killers who though tried and executed for one murder was more than likely responsible for many more, some of them his own children.

Only a few years later he wrote his second fictional account of a little known 19th century murder that took place in his own hometown. Using similar factual and legal accounts as the basis of his slightly fictionalized account Rowland tells the story of The Death of Nevill Norway (1942). Rather than structuring the book as a fair play detective novel Rowland instead chooses the "inverted detective novel" style of storytelling. The culprits are identified fairly quickly in one of the earliest chapters and we follow both the planning and execution of the crime as well as the police investigation as the two plot threads play out side by side.

Rowland was born in Bodmin, Cornwall where he attended school, college and spent his early adulthood. In his own hometown during the winter of 1840, almost eighty years before he was born, a highly respected businessman in the timber trade and sometime philanthropist named Nevill Norway was attacked and murdered by highwaymen. He was robbed of a sizable amount in cash, a debt that he had collected in town from a tradesman who was just about to embark on a journey to Canada. This transaction was witnessed by several people, including one of Norway’s killers.

Bodmin Jail, one of Britain's oldest jails & supposedly haunted
by the ghosts of the prisoners who were executed here.
 Early in the book Rowland reveals the murder plot concocted between the two criminally minded brothers William and James Lightfoot. Their home life is squalid, the two men are both unemployed and married to two harridans. Rowland paints them as despicable criminals with unforgiving wives. He also adds a subplot of his own creation not found in the court records in which the Lightfoot brothers intend to frame a young man who had an violent argument with Norway over his impending engagement to Norway’s niece. Rowland assigns the role of detective to Constable Jackson, the actual London policeman from the true case brought in by the Cornwall magistrate to solve the case when it becomes clear that Norway was murdered and robbed.

In Rowland's novel Jackson is an affable detective in what proves to be a generally unremarkable but capably told inverted detective story. Unfortunately, even with Jackson's uncovering of such clues as a broken pistol hammer, footprints indicating a struggle in the muddy ground of the crime scene, and a horse's bridle and reins stained with blood we as the reader know almost everything before Jackson does. Rowland allows two or three scenes of true detection with only one true surprise in the collection of the evidence that leads to the Lightfoot brothers’ arrest. And then the two turn on each other as the real brothers did in the actual Norway murder case.

What makes the book interesting are the colorful supporting cast including a shrewd farmer who with his keen observational skills suspects a murder long before the police. Other highlights are the well drawn Cornwall setting, a genuine sense of early nineteenth century living and customs with not one shred of anachronism, and Rowland’s talent in replicating the Cornish dialect. He manages to sprinkle the narrative and dialogue with Cornwall regionalisms like “wisht” (slang for miserable) and “thickee” (that) ; both definitions thankfully footnoted. One of the many things I learned related to the vocabulary is that the word “zany” was not only used regularly as an insult to someone’s intelligence during the 19th century, its use dates back to the 17th century according to the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster.

Even more fascinating than the ironic outcome of a case -- one that easily might have been a perfect murder were it not for the brothers' craven nature -- is the utterly surreal secondary true story. Uncovered in the early twentieth century by another writer it seems to have escaped Rowland's research. If only Rowland had uncovered this portion of the story the novel might have been a minor tour de force in the mingling of crime and paranormal.

Noted novelist, mythologist and Anglican priest S. Baring-Gould uncovered a single document from the early twentieth century that sheds a new and eerie light on Norway’s murder. Rev. Baring-Gould tells the same story from the viewpoint of Norway's naval officer brother in “The Dream of Edmund Norway” published in Chambers’s Journal (spelling is correct, BTW) in the August 8, 1908 issue. Drawing directly from Edmund Norway’s captain’s log for the British merchant vessel Orient, Gould reports how Captain Norway dreamed of his brother’s murder while sailing from Manila to Cadiz. The dream vividly details the method including how the two Lightfoot brothers grabbed the horse by the bridle, fired two shots and beat Nevill Norway senselessly with the pistol that jammed. It’s an uncanny report that belongs to the pages of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” and probably did appear there though I ran out of steam looking for it. Baring-Gould does a fine job of submitting for our approval the verbatim pages from the journal clearly dated the exact night of Norway’s murder and giving eyewitness accounts of the journal not having been tampered with after the sensational Lightfoot trial. You can read the story yourself via the miracle of Google Books.

But the fascination does not end there. Norway, it turns out, is the great-grandfather of the novelist Nevil Shute, author of (among many other books) the dystopian post-nuclear novel On the Beach later adapted for the movies with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Perkins in the cast. Shute’s real name – something I never knew – is Nevil Shute Norway! I found an amusing speech delivered by Shute’s daughter Shirley who gave a talk about her father in New Mexico on Jan 16,1999 to a Shute literary society gathered to celebrate the centennial of the writer’s birth. You can find that speech here.

There’s no end to the unusual ways one can be educated reading forgotten crime novels. This particular book turned out to be a treasure trove of unexpected riches.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FFB: So Bad A Death - June Wright

THE STORY: Maggie Byrnes who made her debut in Murder at the Telephone Exchange as a phone operator turned amateur sleuth, is on the case again in So Bad A Death (1949). This time she's married to policeman John Matheson who endures her inquisitiveness with limited tolerance. The newlyweds are in the market for a house and this leads Maggie to her meeting with Cruikshank, the unctuous real estate agent, who works for James Holland, self-appointed "squire of Middleburn".

Holland owns Dower House, a cottage that Cruikshank has been trying to sell for years, and it's a running joke of sorts to show it to prospective clients knowing full well that Holland will refuse the sale. Maggie, self-assured and not a little bit tough, is no match for him. She wins him over and the house is hers. Weeks later "Squire" Holland invites a motley group of his "subjects" to what turns out to be a very odd dinner party and things turn sinister. Holland is not well liked by his family nor the locals and it comes as no surprise when his body is found on the grounds with a bullet in his head. Maggie becomes way too involved in the case and frustrates her husband to the point of exasperation. Over the course of her thorough but entirely unorthodox murder investigation she endangers herself, another woman's child, and her own son. Some amateur sleuths don't know when to stop meddling.

THE CHARACTERS: June Wright has been called Australia's own Agatha Christie. While her plotting can often be intricate it's not a devious or ingenious as Dame Agatha's. And the laudatory comments from new critics and reviewers of her work who purport that she invented the amateur female sleuth are exaggerated to the extreme. Maggie is very much in line with characters like Pam North, Jean Abbot, Anne McNeill, and to a certain extent Haila Troy -- all wives who turn detective alongside their equally nosy husbands. Unlike many of those women Maggie has a stronger, tougher personality. She takes no BS from anyone. Brusque, forward, opinionated and -- dare I say it -- a bully at times, Maggie suffers no fools. She has little room for sympathy in the face of weakness as in this passage where she encounters an enraged and possibly inebriated nurse: "She started to weep in a maudlin fashion. It was disgusting and rather alarming, alone with this foolish woman in the middle of the wood..."

Rather than comparing June Wright's style of detective novel to Christie's work I'd class her with fellow practitioners of domestic melodramas and Neo-Gothics like Ursula Curtiss, Mignon Eberhart (in her 50s period), and even Margaret Millar. The strong female protagonist who recognizes her faults at the eleventh hour and manages to prevent herself from doing real harm as a result of her prying reminds me of the women characters that populate the work of Millar.

The supporting players are highlighted by an assortment of oddballs like the malingering invalid with a waspish tongue Mrs. Power-Potts; her slavish daughter Diane; Ursula Mulqueen who dresses in pink taffeta and cultivates an artificially cheery persona to mask her malaise; Ernest Mulqueen Ursula's rancher father, the most Australian character in the cast; a handsome Lothario with the ludicrous name of Nugent Parsons; and the beleaguered young widow Yvonne Holland who is bullied by her father-in-law while struggling to care for her chronically ailing baby boy.

THE ATMOSPHERE: The depiction of Dower House and the Holland estate are prime examples of the Neo-Gothic oppressive households and the imposing (often haunted) buildings that characterize the old 18th and 19th century Gothic novel. Wright also has a talent in painting frightening pictures and raises a few goose pimples in the formulaic "traipsing through the woods" sequences so often found in this subgenre. The sense of trepidation is well conveyed and she manages to transform the "faux English spinney" surrounding the Holland's Australian estate into a sinister landscape fraught with hidden dangers and prowlers lurking in the shadows. There are a couple of effective scenes when Maggie is looking for evidence and whispered voices and animal noises punctuate the chilly silence.

INNOVATIONS: So Bad A Death touches on two fairly taboo topics in detective fiction -- abortion and child murder. Wright seems to be fairly modern in her understanding of the frustrations of motherhood, the fear of entrusting your children to the care of physicians and nannies, and discussions of the ethics and morality of abortion. These asides into medical ethics also serve as clever bits of misdirection and sway the reader's suspicions while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the real motivations of the villains in what turns out to be an elaborate conspiracy.

One of the best bits is that Maggie's little boy Tony turns out to be a secondary detective, albeit an accidental one. His boisterous play and curiosity lead to the literal uncovering of two key pieces of evidence - one found in the rough of a golf course, the other in a sand pit he was digging in. That Maggie is blithely ignorant of the importance of these items until it's almost too late only serve to underscore Wright's ideas about motherhood and the role of the stay at home wife. Throughout the story we are reminded that Maggie sees raising a child as dreary routine and how often her little boy's behavior is dismissed as not only bothersome but irrelevant. Nothing could be further form the truth. In Wright's mysteries, as in the best whodunits, a seemingly minor incident can prove to be of grave importance.

THINGS I LEARNED: Parthian shot - I have read this phrase many a time and never bothered to look up its origin. It's used to describe a cutting remark or insult made as someone departs or a way to end a conversation rudely. The term comes from an ancient Iranian tribe of warriors known for their archery skill. The Parthian shot was their skillful habit of releasing arrows backwards at their enemy as they retreated on horseback.

Australian lingo often left me in the fog. The word "dummy" is footnoted as being a slang term for a baby pacifier. That was very helpful. But later in the story Maggie picks up a jar of "comforter smear" and I was utterly confused. No footnote for that phrase. Did people actually put some kind of paste on quilts to disinfect them or something? That seemed ridiculous to me. An internet search turned up a very vulgar Twitter comment using both comforter and smear to describe something so disgustingly absurd it made me roar with laughter, but didn't help me to understand what it meant in Wright's book. In the final pages I learned that "comforter" is also a synonym for pacifier and that the comforter smear was a malt extract that was put on the pacifier to make it more tasty. It was crucial to understanding something utterly insidious that the main villain does. To be left in the fog wondering what "comforter smear" was left me feeling a little bit cheated that I couldn't' figure out something on my own that perhaps a British or Australian reader would just take for granted.

EASY TO FIND? Yes, it is! Isn't that good news? So Bad a Death is one of three June Wright mystery novels that have been reissued by Verse Chorus Press. Buy a brand new copy or get one of many cheaper "newer" copies from the many resellers out there in the digital shopping mall we call the internet. I enjoyed this one more than Duck Season Death which I reviewed last year. This book impressed me so much that I went looking for more. I managed to track down a rare June Wright title (not among the reissued titles) purchased from an Australian dealer for a mere $23 and will be reviewing that one next month.