Saturday, November 26, 2016

FOND FAREWELLS: Jean Bowden (1920-2016)

Jean Bowden, whose mystery novel The Fetish Murders written as "Avon Curry" I reviewed here, died earlier this month.  A reader of this blog who apparently was one of her neighbors was kind enough to post a comment on the review for The Fetish Murders to let me know.  Later, in trying to locate her obituary, I found this post at The Gumshoe Site:

Jean Bowden died peacefully on November 04 in London, UK. The former book editor wrote more than 100 novels (ranging from historical to romance to suspense to detective mystery) under 10 different pseudonyms (Jennifer Bland, Avon Curry, Lee Mackenzie, and Barbara Annandale among others) before her retirement on her 90th birthday in 2010. Her first book was non-fiction; GREY TOUCHED WITH SCARLET (1959; reprinted-issued and retitled NURSES AT WAR, 2015) about the true story of the experiences of nurses in the Second World War. As Tessa Barclay, she authored a series about amateur detective Crown Prince Gregory of Hirtenstein, and the last Gregory novel, DIAMONDS IN DISGUISE (Severn 2010), was also her very last novel. She was 96.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: Fatal Flourishes - S. S. Rafferty

Another re-post from the archives.  This week I'm re-running a review of a unique historical mystery book, actually a collection of detective stories set in Revolutionary War era America, as part of the continuing month-long salute to history and mystery for the Tuesday Night Bloggers.

Captain Jeremy Cork first appeared in "The Margrave of Virginia" in the August 1975 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Further exploits of this 18th century inventor, speculator and amateur sleuth of "social puzzles" would appear over the next year and half. Eventually author S.S. Rafferty penned one adventure with Cork and his yeoman financier Wellman Oaks for each of the original thirteen colonies. All thirteen stories were collected in a rather scarce, but nonetheless noteworthy, book called Fatal Flourishes (1979).  It was later reissued as part of the "Library of Crime Classics" imprint by International Polygonics under the title Cork of the Colonies (1984).

Like Lillian de la Torre's detective stories about Samuel Johnson and Boswell Rafferty's tales are loaded with 18th century history and lore. But unlike the Johnson stories Captain Cork is an entirely fictional creation. Described by his sidekick as "six foot six inches of insouciance" Cork is similar to many of the Holmesian inductive detectives in that he almost immediately knows the solution, alternately challenges and rebuffs Oaks, his long suffering Watson, and indulges a bit too much in his own vanity. The cases he stumbles across which he prefers to call social puzzles involve a variety of crimes from theft to murder and include a handful of puzzling elements ranging from mildly diverting to devilishly ingenious.

Each story has the additional feature of focusing on some little known aspect of pre- and post- Revolutionary War era America. You'll learn of South Carolina's Charles Town as a sort of 18th century Las Vegas with parties, drinking and hedonism on display 24/7. The highlight of the story is that state's strange ritual of the cicisbeo lottery, an 18th century game of gender role reversal borrowed from the Italian aristocrats, in which married women draw names of single men to be their Cavalier Servente for one week. "The Georgia Resurrection" deals with vodo (Rafferty's spelling), African superstitions, and tribal herbal medicine. You'll also learn about the execution practices of that colony and the differences between the duties of hangman and coffin maker. He even gives us the origin of the now too familiar horror icon -- the zombie, or zombi as Rafferty spells it. No eating of brains in sight which may come as a huge disappointment to some 21st century zombie fans.

For me there was also an abundance of new learning related to life in the original colonies. I always thought that the big cash crops of the South were cotton and tobacco. Rafferty tells me, however, that it was rice and indigo that were making the colonists all their money. There was frequent talk of slavery and the treatment of slaves (Cork is an abolitionist) and in one story, "The Witch of New Hampshire," slavery is at the heart of the disappearance of several young women in a town still clinging to century old superstitions.

As for those "social puzzles" we get the usual tricks of the mystery writer's trade: twins, locked rooms, switched weapons, and some valiant attempts at misdirection. However, there is little fair play technique to be found here. The reader is left feeling as astounded as Oaks when Cork pronounces his solutions in his usual matter-of-fact style when not one clue was ever presented. It is more Cork's behavior and personality that dazzles and entertains rather than the construction of the puzzles and mysteries.

One of the most involved stories is "The Curse of the Connecticut Clock" which features an overly complex cipher based on the musical scale and the Roman numerals on a clock face. The explanation of the code takes up four pages! You have to admire the ingenuity behind the devilry but it seemed more like an ostentatious display by a 20th century writer rather than the revelation of the 18th century imagination of the character who created it.

Historical fiction fans will revel in the detailed portraits of colonial life, the colorful characters, and Captain Cork himself – a combination rogue and savvy businessman who finds much to fascinate him among the criminal element as he travels from North to South.

Friday, November 18, 2016

FFB: A Country Kind of Death - Mary McMullen

THE STORY: Frustrated Connecticut writer Philip Keane wants peace and quiet so he can finish his latest novel. But his sister-in-law comes for a visit, followed only hours later by an unannounced visit from his brother. The house becomes nothing but distractions for him. But dealing with unwanted house guests is nothing compared to what is on the horizon. His two youngest daughters emulate their father by writing stories based on their own limited life experience. The seven year old writes a story that is clearly a fictionalized account of a heated argument she overheard in the backyard hinting at a murder threat. Her 11 year-old sister is alarmed and thinks she ought to tell their father. But the seven year old clams up for fear of implicating a 19 year boy she likes. When the 19 year old’s mother is found drowned in her goldfish pond the two girls fear for their lives. Will Philip Keane ever get his novel finished now?

THE CHARACTERS: The story may sound gripping from that summary above, but it's all handled sloppily. The main problem is that McMullen litters the story with a large cast of supporting characters and seems more interested in their shenanigans, almost all of which are related to overactive libidos. Sadly, nearly the entire cast is utterly unlikeable. With the exception of the two little girls, the most interesting characters, no one held my interest. I cared not one iota for what they wanted nor why they were in the book.

And why was everyone a writer? Philip Keane writes mystery novels, his brother Patrick is a playwright of “domestic comedies”, the next door neighbor is a Pulitzer prizewinner (!), and his nympho of a wife is attempting to write her husband's biography which only inflames his already ugly temperament. There was an intrusive subplot about Fay and Angus (the husband and wife writers) which amounted to Fay hiding her manuscript in the neighbor’s studio and Angus bursting in every ten pages or so, finding a few pages here and there and destroying them. When Fay isn't hiding her manuscript she's pursuing every available man she can fling a sexual innuendo at.

For some reason no one locks their doors in this Connecticut town and everyone can enter the Keane house at all hours as if it were a frenetic French hotel with doors flying open and shut like those in a Feydeau farce. It was nonsensical.

The story should have been about Kit and Donna who in remaining silent about what they know are largely responsible for covering up the murder of the shrewish Mrs. Mint whose death all the adults want to write off as an accident. But over 80% of the book is devoted to all the subplots and non sequitur interior character monologues of uninteresting adults and whiny teenagers. There is no mystery here at all, by the way. And what little suspense we get is undermined by the garbage subplots of Fay and Angus, and the adult women (and one teenage girl) drooling over the Adonis of the piece -- Patrick Keane, the playwright brother.

INNOVATIONS: None. This novel is a mess. It purports to be a crime novel and it isn’t. It succeeds only as a meager satire of 1970s middle class white suburbia. That McMullen won an Edgar for her debut novel published more than twenty years prior to this astonishes me. What happened? There is nothing of a skilled mystery writer on display here at all. There is no detection, little suspense and few thrills. But there's more than enough repellent behavior and dreary depictions of suburban malaise. Even the finale –- an excessively violent and melodramatic basket of clichés -– fails when the so-called villain of the novel (no surprise as to the identity, BTW) is presented as a certified madman, utterly contrary to the way he was portrayed in the first two thirds of the book. It’s a cheap and inauthentic way to attempt to legitimize calling the book a mystery novel.

EASY TO FIND? Do you really want to track this one down? Yes, there are plenty of copies of out there. Understandably so. I imagine most readers couldn’t wait to rid their house of this sad excuse of a crime novel. My copy cost my $2 and I’ll be adding it to our weekly bag of thrift store donations. Unless one of you wants it. I’ll gladly send it to you.

This is the first of three 1975 Books I read for the Crimes of the Century meme at the Past Offences blog. The other two books proved to be vast improvements over this one as well as being more representative of 1970s culture and current events – one is a satire on the sexual revolution in the US and the other touches on apartheid and South Africa’s troubles, and both are genuine detective novels.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: The Longbow Murder (a rerun)

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are saluting historical mysteries this month. I don't often read these anymore, but when I come across exceptional examples I tend to write about them here at Pretty Sinister Books. Below is a rerun (originally posted here in 2014) of a highly unusual historical murder mystery which very well may be the very first one to use a historical figure from medieval times as a fictional detective. Enjoy this Autumn rerun.

* * *

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Dickon Bendbow, aka Robin Hood) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, mayhap, and prithee elicited more frowns than smiles.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion and Star's inability to distinguish reality from fancy. This "misty" trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer's identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" There are a fair share of "Zounds! and "Gramercy!" exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word "Good-bye" to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also loyal knights in service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the Middle Ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the Middle Ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series.

Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- nearly all of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the Middle Ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

Friday, November 11, 2016

FFB: Grieve for the Past - Stanton Forbes

THE STORY: Fifteen year-old Ramona Shaw wants to be a writer. Her literature tastes are eclectic ranging from Hugh Walpole to Ellery Queen. Her dream would be to solve a mystery and write about it. "How about a haunted house?" comes the goading dare from the Coleman sisters. So Ramona heads to what she thinks is the abandoned house in town and meets its sole occupant, Maurice Stone. Over a remarkably brief time she becomes friends with the young recluse. She changes his life when she gets him a job at the local grocer's. With that one act of kindness she initiates a series of adventures she never imagined and fulfills her wish of solving a murder mystery she never dreamed would occur in her quiet Kansas town.

THE CHARACTERS: It's rare for a novice writer to master the difficulty of capturing the worldview of a child without allowing the writer's own adult perceptions to otherwise color the story. But Ramona Shaw, the narrator of Grieve for the Past (1963), is one of the most authentic fictional teens I've encountered in a long time. Though the novel is set in 1930s Wichita it's hard not to draw analogies between Ramona and her easy friendship with the outcast Maurice Stone and the secret relationship that develops between Scout and Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a lot of Harper Lee in this unusual novel which does not resemble anything like a typical detective novel, even though in the end it very much turns out to be a rather good one. All of the characters leap off the page with detailed and individual personalities and voices from Ramona's policeman grandfather in charge of the horrible ax murder case to Ramona's school friends and all the other adults she meets over the course of the novel. In addition to Ramona and Maurice the many memorable characters include the sinister handyman Victor Tabbot, dissatisfied and browbeaten alcoholic Carl Bragdon, vivacious Betty Vincent who thinks Wichita will never give her what she really wants out of life, Ramona's wise policeman of a grandfather and her kindly parents.

INNOVATIONS: Forbes has managed to weave a sly detective novel plot around this youthful coming of age story in an unexpected fashion. We know that Ramona is very much trying to be a budding detective (as well as a writer); her frequent talks with her Sheriff grandfather remind us of that fact. Still the story takes its time unraveling the mystery of who killed Mrs. Kirsten and her son and if indeed there was a hidden treasure in the house as rumor and gossip led everyone to believe. The story really is about Ramona learning about the way the world works, how a teenager grows up fast when unplanned for violence intrudes into her otherwise innocuous and mundane life, how we take for granted our neighbors, and how we tend to ostracize anyone who doesn't fit our ideas of normalcy. With the help of Maurice (who is considered the prime suspect in the murder), her grandfather, and some adult friends Ramona manages not only to solve the murder she has her entire worldview changed.

There are some brilliantly realized and unusual scenes like when Ramona after leaving a summertime dance makes a detour to a speakeasy courtesy of Mr. Smith who is driving her home. When he finds out she's only fifteen things change from fun to nasty very quickly. The climax takes place at an end of the school year prom that is almost like the nightmare prom from Carrie in reverse. Ramona, an ugly duckling of a girl, is transformed into a beauty for the night and becomes the object of all the young men's attention when before they paid her little notice. One of the young men has some inside information about the ax murders and takes her aside to deliver one of the most surprising denouements in mystery fiction.

QUOTES: I thought how funny it was that adults seemed to talk all the time about things they knew all about. Never about anything they didn't know. If they talked about what they didn't know, they might find out something.

I smiled but I didn't really like [being called Miss America]. I knew I was no beauty. [...]what hurt most was that sometimes I felt beautiful. It didn't seem fair that I should feel beautiful and not be beautiful.

Betty Vincent: "I'll get out of this Middle Western, middle class, middle- minded rut I'm in. And somewhere out there, there will be somebody. But not here. There's nobody here."

Betty Vincent again: "Money, mon enfant. D-o-l-l-a-r-s. Even when you're old enough you can't do what you want to, and often the reason is money."

And so they all were right, those who said there was money and those who said there wasn't. Somewhere in the middle had been the truth. I wondered if that was the way with everything.

Ramona: "You can't let someone kill and get away with it."
Grandfather: "There's many a murderer loose in the world , Ramona. And that's the truth."
I closed my notebook and I never did write a story about the Kirstens' murderer. Was there anything in this world that was the way it was supposed to be?

THE AUTHOR: Deloris Stanton Forbes was born in Kansas City, MO in 1923 and was raised in Wichita, Kansas. Her own grandfather was a deputy sheriff making much of what is in Grieve for the Past a fictionalized memoir. She spent the early part of her adult life as a journalist. She wrote for newspapers in Oklahoma, reported crime in Baton Rouge, and finally ended up at a Boston paper when she moved there after marrying her husband Bill Forbes. She settled in Wellesley, MA and covered city government for a weekly community paper while raising her family. In the early 1960s she turned to writing crime fiction and romantic suspense first in collaboration with a fellow journalist and then on her own. Grieve for the Past was her first solo novel using her pseudonym "Stanton Forbes". In the late 1960s she created the character of Knute Severson, a Massachusetts policeman, who appeared in over 15 novels published under her other pen name "Tobias Wells." After living in St. Martin in the Caribbean, where she and her husband ran an apartment building and owned a tourist shop for about 13 years, she finally settled in Florida where apparently she still lives today. Her last novel was published in 2003 and shortly after she retired from writing. She is apparently still alive at 93 years old.

THINGS I LEARNED: Ramona uses Wichita's nickname of "Air Capital of the World" a couple of times. This led me to find out all I could about that claim to fame. Wichita was the center of airplane manufacturing in the 1920s and 1930s. Beechcraft, Cessna, and Stearman Aircraft were among the leading manufacturing companies and the city became a major hub for U.S. aircraft production for over two decades.

One Way Passage starring Kay Francis and William Powell is a movie that Ramona goes to see at one point in the story. It helped me to date the year of the novel's events to no earlier than 1932, the year the movie was released.

EASY TO FIND? Apparently this one is rather scarce. I could find only three copies for sale online, all of them the original Doubleday "Crime Club" edition, also the one I own and shown at the top of this post. There is also an Avon paperback reprint that came out in the 1960s. Forbes' books under both her pseudonyms were very popular during the 60s and 70s and my guess is that you'll be able to find many of them in local libraries throughout the US. I'm not so sure you'll be as lucky if you live in the UK.

More reviews on Stanton Forbes and Tobias Wells are coming later this month. She was a diverse and imaginative crime writer who novels tended towards bizarre plots, quirky characters and highly unusual events the more she wrote. With the exception of her series featuring Knute Severson none of her mysteries are vaguely like one another.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

NEW STUFF: Flavia de Luce Transformed

The good news: a new Flavia de Luce book is out. The bad news: she’s aged two decades in a single year.

Alan Bradley originally envisioned this series featuring his precocious girl sleuth and genius chemist to be a homage to the lost culture of Britain and Canada. He wrote intriguing mysteries laced with nostalgic paeans to stamp collecting, a touring puppet troupe, gypsy nomads, and other long gone pastimes and cultural dinosaurs. He said all this in countless interviews when the series first appeared with his award-winning debut The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But as the series progressed he was forced to reckon with the overwhelming popularity of the character herself and her family. The intriguing cultural aspects did not vanish altogether but they have been pushed aside, sad to say, to make way for the De Luce Family saga. Now in this eighth installment a full year has passed. How do I know? Because Bradley has already written one book about Christmas and this one Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (2016) also takes place just before that holiday. Ergo: a new year. Flavia was supposedly eleven years old in the first book and now she’s twelve. But she resembles more a snarky post-college graduate armed with a bad attitude and a trunk full of verbal assaults than she does the quick-witted, irreverent, little girl of previous books.

The mystery element tends to improve as Bradley has progressed with Flavia’s adventures. As the title suggests, which quotes the well known conjuring sequence in Macbeth, there are hints of witchcraft in the plot. The murder victim appears to have been crucified upside down in his bedroom on a bizarre handmade wooden contraption. The plot uncovers double identities, family secrets, and a villain reminiscent of an old Saturday morning cartoon program rather than an adult murder mystery. The detective work is middling, the mystery not too mysterious, and the finale in which Flavia does battle with the killer ridiculously over the top. Without an intriguing mystery plot that leaves us with characters and our intrepid little heroine, but Flavia just doesn’t seem like herself at all this time around.

Here are some of the several hard to swallow scenes that make it hard to believe that Flavia is still a pre-adolescent girl.
  1. In order to gain personal information on the former wife of the victim Flavia pretends to be a professional biographer researching the woman's colorful life. The publisher plays along and we can only suspect that he is either completely bored in his work day or utterly senile to accept the idea that a little girl can be a professional writer of anything let alone a biography of an obscure quasi celebrity.
  2. The non-stop insult humor is disheartening. One of the characters is dumped on by everybody in the book. She's a poor singer who thinks highly of herself and lacks insight into her unskilled musicianship. Of course she's not at all attractive either making her an easy target for cruel quips and "paper bullets of the brain" as ol' Benedick used to say. Example: "Carla could not help it that she was nauseating: the kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge." This is the mindset of a child? Flavia sounds like a 67 year-old curmudgeon. I understand she's supposed to be precocious, very book smart, willing to make obscure literary allusions at the drop of a hat, and ever hip to irony, but she is increasingly presented as an adult in miniature and not a child.
  3. How can you have a little girl spouting forth very adult lines like "And who is your in-house liaison now?" and then ask us to believe she only knows the word privy as slang for a toilet? Such a dumb cheap joke, too.
  4. "Dancing round a bunch of moldy stones in a wet and windy field, naked, in the dark, was not exactly my idea of ecstasy." What eleven year old...excuse me, twelve year old .. ever contemplates the concept of ecstasy?

There's more, but I'll stop there.

Her travel to Canada and short-lived attendance at the private girls' school in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (now there was a good mystery plot!) has somehow transmogrified Flavia from smart aleck kid into mean spirited harpy. That this adventure is obviously meant to be her most painful growing experience to date is no secret either. The not so surprising ending is telegraphed several times throughout the narrative as she constantly reminds herself that she should not be investigating a strange death, but rather visiting her father in the hospital where he is languishing from pneumonia.

But along the way Flavia turns into a misanthrope of the worst sort. With the exception of Dogger, the indefatigable servant and Haviland de Luce’s stalwart friend, she can’t stand anyone in this book and lets us know it repeatedly. In all honesty the only reason I continue to read the books is for the scenes between Dogger and Flavia which happen to have the best of Bradley’s writing and reveal him to be a humane and compassionate writer capable of capturing profound moments of much needed gravitas. Thank heaven we get a glimpse of the original Flavia in these scenes.

Friday, November 4, 2016

FFB: The Joss - Richard Marsh

THE STORY: Mary Blyth learns through unusual message delivery that her Uncle Benjamin has died and she is his sole heir. Part of her legacy is a dilapidated house in Camford street where she must take up residence and follow a series of odd instructions in order to preserve her inheritance and allowance of £488 per year. She must never allow any man to enter the house, she cannot leave until 9 AM and must be sure to return home no later than 9 PM, she must have one female companion as her sole roommate and no other visitors. But Mary is a feisty young woman and she'll have none of these restraints. She flaunts the rules and learns too late the errors of her ways.

THE CHARACTERS: Mary and her pal Emily Purvis are very similar to Maude and Flora who appear in Marsh's previously reviewed novel, The Goddess. Mary is another of the "New Women" who keep popping up in popular Edwardian fiction -- headstrong, rebellious, willful and not about to be intimidated by the inexplicable and fantastic events. Nor will she be governed by the "absurd conditions" her uncle outlined in his strange will. Emily who at first appears to be only a sidekick will take on the lead female role in the second book which she narrates. At first she seems like a younger Maude Juxon (from The Goddess) depicted in Mary's narrative as slightly dithery, full of startled exclamation, and playing up to traditional views of an easily intimidated and weak woman. Later when we see things from Emily's viewpoint we find that Mary -- who oddly has the nickname Pollie -- is not just willful but foolhardy, while Emily is the one with common sense and rightfully is cautious of the weird goings in at Camford street mansion. Emily also becomes the real damsel in distress by the midpoint of the book and the object of affection of one of the many male protagonists trying to find out if Benjamin Batters is still alive and at the root of all the unearthly manifestations.

There are two male characters who narrate the other sections of the novel. Franklin Paine, a typical Marsh hero, is a handsome young lawyer who first gives Mary the mix of good and bad news about her uncle and his dubious estate. Paine gives the reader a detailed background that clears up some of the mysteries about the several men pursuing Mary demanding she hand over the Great Joss and allow them access to the house. The fourth narrator is Captain Max Lander, a merchant seamen, whose section of the novel relates the backstory of where Uncle Benjamin went after he fled England, what happened to him in the South Pacific islands, and his bizarre transformation and later reversion.

ATMOSPHERE: This is more than one of those "girl gets a house" Gothic thrillers. It's almost a parody of the Gothic formula, but Marsh is so good at telling these types of luridly sensational stories that the absurdity of the situations never threatens to undermine the thrilling aspects of the book. This novel may not be as weird as The Beetle, Marsh's best selling blockbuster of the era and the book for which he will always be remembered, but it outperforms many of his other sensation thrillers when it comes to providing genuinely thrilling action sequences. This is practically a template for the Edwardian penny shocker.

INNOVATIONS: The subtitle of The Joss (1901) is "A Reversion" which implies a transformation takes place. We don't learn of one character's startling transformation until the final section in Book Four. When the reversion comes, however, it's something of a let down. A let down only because the reversion promised in the title ought to be just as shocking as all of the action that preceded the "blink and you'll miss it" moment that might be called the reversion. If the slang term "penny shocker" was ever well deserved of any book it is The Joss. Even in this modern age when a jaded reader like myself has become inured to anything that might be called shocking I was still taken aback at many of the unexpected touches that do indeed shock. It's just a shame that the reversion of the title is so mundane in comparison.

The more I read these "penny dreadfuls" of the past the more I marvel that so many of the conventions and plot gimmicks invented in days gone by are still being employed today. The Joss gives us a thrilling haunted house infested with rats and insects and equipped with magical locks, weird traps, and strange architecture; plucky heroines defying authority and disbelieving ghosts are at work; more ravenous rats than a Biblical plague or a sequel to Willard; a horde of exotic villains in pursuit of some MacGuffin they feel is of great value, and an entire section wherein the protagonists are abducted, tied up and subjected to grisly tortures. And that's just a sampling of the action packed 266 pages. These devices must have already been clichés to Marsh and his contemporaries in 1901 yet he employs them with invigorating originality that can still raise an eyebrow or two more than one hundred years after he wrote them. When he wants to indulge himself he certainly never holds back. As an example -- what the villains use to gag their victims is one of the most unnerving sequences in the book. For that scene alone the book deserves being placed alongside better known 20th century horror classics both in print and on film.

QUOTES: "[Benjamin Batters] was no sailor. At least, so far as I know. But he was the most remarkable man who ever drew breath."

Emily: "Let's get out of this awful house. Do, Pollie do! The rats will eat us if we stay in it."
Mary: "Let 'em try. They'll find us tougher morsels than you think. If a rat has a taste of me he won't want another, I promise you that, my dear."

"There's a mystery behind that door. Mark my words, Emily Purvis! It may take the form of decaying corpses, with their brains dashed out, and their throats cut, and their bones all broken, in which case they'll haunt us while we slumber, pointing at us spectral fingers as we lie on our unquiet beds--"
"Pollie!"

More from the tough as nails Mary: "...if I'd known as much before as I do now, I'd have treated myself to a revolver. [...] I only wish that I had something loaded handy at this moment, there's more persuasive power in bullets than in your barricade, my dear."

I did not like the way she spoke to me at all. She might be a walking mystery -- and she certainly was -- but that was no reason why she should be impertinent as well.

I am aware that this is an age of muscularity, and that athletics do cause a woman to run to size. But, for my part, I like them little. [...] Miss Purvis was little. Not a dwarf, nor insignificant in any sense, but small enough.

I wish to set down nothing which suggests the marvellous [sic]. I have an inherent dislike of wonders, being without faith. When men speak of the inexplicable I think of trickery, and of some quality which is not perception.

I remembered to have read somewhere that you ought to know a man intimately for fifteen years before presuming to poke his fire. If that were the case the imagination failed to picture how long a man ought to be acquainted with a girl before venturing to try, with the aid of a pocket handkerchief, to dry her tears.

Franklin Paine: "I was afraid there wouldn't be another woman."
Emily: "Afraid! Women are ever so much more worse than men. And she's -- awful. She says she's the daughter of the gods."

THINGS I LEARNED: Not much unusual in terms of allusions or arcane vocabulary in this book. Marsh does manage to incorporate many quotes from Shakespeare plays, I've noticed, in his writing. He has a particular penchant for Macbeth, not surprisingly. In this book I spotted three Macbeth references including this one: "No sooner did they get a glimpse of me than they stood not upon the order of their going, but went at once."

The most interesting thing I uncovered was after reading the novel and looking up contemporary book reviews. In the Sept 18, 1901 issue of Punch I found a dismissive review of The Joss which calls the author Richard Marsh in one sentence and then Robert Marsh in the very next sentence. It also ends with this line: "Better re-read Wilkie Collins's Moonstone or Edgar Poe's Beetle." I can imagine that Poe's ghost would find it hilarious he was credited with writing a bestseller 48 years after he was put in his grave. But Marsh must've been livid!

EASY TO FIND? Yes, it is, gang! My copy is the 2007 reprint from praiseworthy Valancourt Books who have reissued many of Richard Marsh's novels and short story collections. The original UK edition apparently was printed only once and is extremely rare. There is only one copy for sale that I could find which looks to be in very nice condition and is offered at a whopping £400 or $513.