Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.


THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.

Friday, May 12, 2017

FFB: Hell on Friday - William Bogart

THE STORY: Johnny Saxon, once a highly popular short story writer, has given it all up to become a private eye. His latest case will take him back to his roots in the pulp magazine world when he's asked by his former publisher to find Dulcy Dickens, a rising star in the field of wartime romance stories. Hell on Friday (1941) might easily have been called "Everyone Is Looking for Dulcy" because Saxon finds himself in a sort of bidding war as two more people ask him to locate the woman, each time the retainer fee increases considerably. Then the missing person case turns deadly and dangerous when a rival publisher is murdered and Saxon is implicated as the killer.

CHARACTERS: The story is almost exclusively confined to the world of pulp magazine publishing and nearly everyone is involved is a writer, publisher or distributor. Saxon's best friend and colleague Moe Martin is a literary agent with a dwindling list of employable clients. A variety of characters seem to have parallels in the real world of 1940s pulp publishing. Sam Sontag, the murdered magazine publisher in the novel, is loosely based on publisher Harry Donenfield of Spicy Detective fame. Joe Rogers in the book is inspired by Rogers Terrill, editor-in chief of Popular Publications. Or so muses Will Murray in his essay that prefaces the reissued omnibus.

Jasper Ward is one of the more unusual guys of the bunch. He sports garishly colored shirts and ties with his tweed suits just like some kind of hood from Guys and Dolls. That's because while nominally he calls himself a magazine distributor, Ward is nothing more than a hood himself. Unethical and tough with his competitors he conspires with Sontag to undermine Rogers' discovery of Dulcy Dickens by trying to get Bogart to find her for them. Ward and Sontag plan to create a new magazine, just like Rogers is planning, that will be the vehicle for Dickens' wartime romance tales. As the story progresses we learn that the pulp industry is truly a cut-throat business and this kind of copycat publishing happened all the time. Publishers dropped the prices of their magazines along with the pay for their writers in order to be the most popular and bestselling in each genre.

A mystery man named Baron von Elman shows up and is the third person to hire Saxon to locate the missing lady writer. His finder's fee is $5000 making it the least refusable offer of the bunch, but also raises Saxon's suspicions. The Baron has never met Dulcy, but he insists he absolutely must locate her. Saxon wants to find out who the Baron really is and why he is so desperate and eager to pay the highest price to find Dulcy. When the Baron turns out to be the owner of a used bookstore with an interest in French novels Saxon suspects there is more to Dulcy Dickens than anyone has imagined. The mystery of finding her is complicated by learning who she is, where she came from, and uncovering the miracle of her prolific writing talent (she claims she can write four stories in a week!).

INNOVATIONS: The book reads like a B movie script and is chock-full of the conventions of private eye movies. In addition to the missing person main plot and a couple of murders, we get a prison break, gangsters in the pulp biz, two "Follow that cab!" chases, and more than the requisite number of gratuitous "shapely dame" passages. In one sequence Saxon spies on a women getting dressed while in front of her apartment window while he's talking on the phone in his office opposite her building. We get our fill of the usual wiseacre private eye talk and several variations on a running gag that always ends with "That would make a great story title." ("It was getting dark now, and it was snowing again. Winter in Manhattan. That's a good title, Johnny thought.")

QUOTES: Girls walking through the streets with fur-topped galoshes framing their pretty legs, dresses swirling in the wind, or wrapped against slim legs; people hurrying home from offices, leaning into the icy blasts that faced the canyonlike side streets; lights coming on, flickering diamonds that chased away the drabness of night. Taxi horns bleating. Newspaper boys huddled at street corners, flapping their arms, screaming, "Huxtra! Huxtra!" An ambulance yammering down the Avenue. People, weary people, pushing and cramming into subway kiosks like moles burrowing into the damp earth; others fresh and bright, just starting the day. [...] A man without a hat standing in the gutter, waiting quietly while his leashed dog sniffs an automobile tire. A taxi rushing by, its tires quietly making wet, sloppy sounds in the black slush. Mud splashing up. The dog owner cursing, "You louse!" Winter in Manhattan. People on an island. Millions of people. The pulse beat of a nation.

THINGS I LEARNED: The entire book is a fascinating study of the pulp magazine business and the life of a pulp writer. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the poor pay writers had to accept and the justifications that publishers gave for their "penny a word" or even "half a penny a word" pay scales. Only when a writer proved that his name on the cover would sell a magazine did the pay ever increase, but never by much. Saxon, we are told, was "prince of the pulps", one of the most popular and highest paid pulp writers at the top of his game. Then he just quit because there was no excitement in it for him anymore and "his stuff went stale." The background details also cover production, including the importance of the cover illustrations and the life of the much put upon artists; the intense rivalries between magazine publishers; and the surprising number of corporate informers who spy on the competitors for a price. Bogart drew on his personal experience in the pulp world and much of what is described in Hell on Friday actually took place when he was writing for the magazines.

William Bogart (circa 1946), from the
rear DJ panel of The Queen City Murder Case
THE AUTHOR: William Bogart was a prolific pulp writer who penned crime, detective and weird menace stories. Under the house pseudonym "Kenneth Robeson" he wrote several stories for the Doc Savage series. In addition to the Johnny Saxon trilogy of private eye novels he wrote two other crime novels: Sands Street (1942) and a novelization of the movie Singapore (1947) with Fred MacMurray as a skipper looking for a cache of hidden pearls and his missing girlfriend (Ava Gardner). Singapore was directed by horror and crime movie specialist John Brahm who had great success as a TV director throughout the 50s and 60s.

EASY TO FIND? Hell on Friday in its original hardcover is a scarce book and even more scarce in the US digest paperback edition I own retitled Murder Man (1945). There are three different paperback reprints under the title Murder Man, a digest from Tech Books (US), Harlequin #57 (Canada) and Phantom Books #640 (Australia). None of Bogart's private eye novels were published in the UK. All three reprints are relatively scarce in the used book market, the last two being genuinely rare.

Thankfully, all three books featuring Johnny Saxon have been conveniently reissued in a three-in-one omnibus. The hefty volume is called Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (Altus Press) and can be purchased either new or used from the regular bookselling outlets in this vast digital shopping mall we call the internet. The Altus Press reissue includes an informative foreword by Will Murray, an expert on Lester Dent and the Doc Savage series, who provides a detailed biography of Bogart and interesting background on the real people who inspired many of the characters in the first book. Oh! almost forgot. That omnibus volume is also available for purchase for a Kindle thingamabob from that well known e-tail giant.

Johnny Saxon Private Eye Novels
Hell on Friday (1941) also as Murder Man (Tech Mystery, 1945); (Harlequin 57, 1950); (Phantom 640, 1955)
Murder Is Forgetful (1944) also as Johnny Saxon (Harlequin 114, 1951)
The Queen City Murder Case (1946)
----
Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (2010) All three of the above in one omnibus

Friday, May 5, 2017

FFB: What Happened to Hammond? - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Shipping magnate Benson T. Hammond is being threatened with anonymous letters promising his imminent demise.  As if that isn't enough to worry him his daughter announces her engagement to a man he thinks is a fortune hunter. Hours after an argument with the young man during which he refuses permission to marry his daughter Hammond is found dead -- 60 miles from a house he was seen to last enter but never exited. Inspector Garth much to his consternation is forced to once again collaborate with the irascible Dr. Hiram Carruthers, physicist and genius detective, to discover who killed Hammond and how his body ended up being so mysteriously transported from the house to Worthing Road such a far distance in less than ten minutes.

THE CHARACTERS: Garth and his crew of policemen do most of the real detective work. About three quarters of the book is modeled on a standard police procedural. There are several constables and sergeants who do much of the legwork and a pathologist who delivers all the gruesome news about What Happened to Hammond? (1951). Carruthers is called upon late in the book, a bit past the midpoint, when the case seems to involve a strange invention that most likely has something to do with radio transmission.

Hiram Carruthers is one of Fearn's series detectives and he belongs to the group of what I've grown to call the "arrogant prick" detectives. He likes to call himself the "Admirable Crichton of Science" alluding to James Barrie's play in which the title character, a butler with common sense, saves his employer and a group of know-nothing aristocrats when they are shipwrecked on a deserted island. I can't imagine a more inappropriate nickname for Carruthers since the Crichton of Barrie's play is the model of civility. Obviously it's meant to be ironic. Carruthers is ridiculously egocentric, belittles everyone for their ignorance, openly insults Garth and his colleagues, and loves to flaunt his knowledge unchecked by anyone. He alone solves the bizarre case by managing to rebuild the strange invention that was discovered dismantled with several parts disposed of in an underground river. He accomplishes this feat with little help from anyone other than a few clever engineers who build him some custom parts, and using the design plans recovered from a safe in the offices of one of the suspects.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Fearn's novels, most of which are structured as long form short stories, he has a limited number of suspects. Figuring out who the guilty parties are in this very short novel is rather easy. The bulk of Fearn's work was in short story format and I think he found it easiest to write his longer works, including all his novels, using the basic rule of short story writing that only the essentials are necessary. Red herrings in the form of characters rarely occur in his novels. We get only the people who are needed to tell the story. In this book there is the additional element of multiple culprits, when all is revealed and the villains are identified there is hardly one innocent character left over.

When originally published in 1951 the solution was perhaps a shocker. More than any other of his mystery novels I've read here Fearn resorts to science fiction in explaining just how Benton Hammond disappeared from the house on Stanton Street and ended up on Worthing Road. Modern readers may find it easy to guess what happened without needing any real understanding of physics or radio transmission since many of us are familiar with some well known TV shows that employ similar mysterious inventions. As the plot progressed I was reminded of the experiments depicted in a cult horror movie based on a story written in 1957. Turns out my analogy was right.

THINGS I LEARNED: Hammond suffers from fragilitus ossiumtarda, a genetic bone disorder now known as osteogenesis imperfecta or "brittle bone disease," an incurable condition that forces the sufferer to live a life of diminished athletic activity less they fracture a bone doing something as simple as running or lifting a heavy object. When Hammond's body is found nearly every bone in his body has been reduced to a jelly-like state making the police think that he fell from a great height. The real solution to his death is grounded more in science fiction than reality.

THE AUTHOR: John Russell Fearn was a prolific pulp writer who is better known for his science fiction though he also wrote many detective stories and mystery novels, even dabbling in romance. Sometimes he wrote detective stories like What Happened to Hammond? in which the solution melds with the world of science fiction. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms and finding his work in original format tends to be a chore if you are not familiar with his assortment of odd pen names like Vargo Statten, Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross among many others. The Dr. Hiram Carruthers detective novels apparently did not first appear in the pulps like many of his other work and were written under the pen name "Hugo Blayn." Luckily, much of Fearn's fiction has been reprinted under his real name and can be found in Linford Mystery Library series, part of F.A. Thorpe Publishing's large print reprint series for readers with poor eyesight. Wildside Press has also reprinted a lot of Fearn's crime fiction.

You can find a lot of bibliographies and biographical information on John Russell Fearn through a general internet search, but you will most likely turn up only his science fiction stories and novels and little about his crime fiction. Thanks to TomCat at the Beneath the Stains of Time blog most of Fearn's impossible crime novels have been reviewed in depth, including nearly all of the books in the Garth/Carruthers series. You can read about them by clicking here.  I hope to review the only "un-covered" Hugo Blayn book left -- Flashpoint -- later this month.

Dr. Hiram Carruthers/Inspector Garth Detective Novels
Except for One Thing (1947) - without Dr. Carruthers
The Five Matchboxes (1948)
Flashpoint (1950)
What Happened to Hammond? (1951)
Vision Sinister (1954)
The Silvered Cage (1955)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Reek of Red Herrings - Catriona McPherson

Today a deviation from the usual Friday's Forgotten Book and instead a review of a neglected modern mystery writer in honor of upcoming Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that I will be attending next weekend. In a rare instance of acting responsibly I chose to read a handful of the books nominated for Malice's Agatha Awards. Some of them were not at all to my liking and I abandoned them quickly. But I was very glad I chose to read Catriona McPherson's books. She knows how to write a mystery and I think those of you who have never heard of her might want to know that her latest is one of the best traditional mystery novels I've read in a very long time.

The Reek of Red Herrings (2014, US edition 2016) is in essence a missing person story but not without an element of a macabre whodunit plot. Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, McPherson's private detective series characters, are hired by fish merchant Mr. Birchwood to find out why several of his herring barrels included some unexpected ingredients -- body parts. They need to go to Gamrie, where the fish barrels were purchased, and to prevent any others from being sold. But at all costs they cannot let anyone know why they are in the town or that Mr. Birchwood has hired them. He is trying his best to prevent a horrible scandal from ruining his business and this is why he refuses to let the police know of the secret of the herring barrels. Of course if they also manage to uncover the identity of the dismembered man more power to them. That part of the mystery doesn't seem to concern Birchwood as much as preserving his reputation and saving his business.

Dandy and Alec make their way to Gamrie in the guise of philologists researching the local patois along with Scottish folklore. They hope by pretending to gather anecdotes and cataloging the unusual Scots vocabulary they will also be able to get the Gamrie people to talk openly about the events of the past few days. They get more than they bargained for when over the course of their many interviews they learn of several strangers who turned up in town and then suddenly disappeared. The mystery of the body parts and the identity of that man becomes complicated when the a total of seven missing men of various physical descriptions turn up. Which one of those missing men could be the one who was chopped up as a herring garnish?

The story is an engaging mix of utterly wacky characters and unnerving menace. You'll meet all the fisherman's wives and daughters, a couple of eccentric taxidermists, and learn more than you ever expected about life in a Scottish fishing village, circa 1930. In addition McPherson finds ways to incorporate a variety of unusual Scottish traditions like handfasting and the accompanying marriage rituals like feet washing and feet mucking and the practice of dousing a bride-to-be with ginger infused mucky milk to prevent Auld Clootie (the Devil) from finding her attractive and spiriting her away prior to her wedding. In their disguise as "language experts" McPherson allows the story sometimes to become overburdened with Scots dialect making the use of a glossary almost necessary. She does allow the local characters to translate their lingo for Dandy and Alec, but not as often as I wish she had. Much of the meaning needs to be gleaned through context. Still, all of it is utterly fascinating for anyone interested in learning about fading culture and mores. Notably the discussion of "teenames", a peculiar nicknaming tradition necessary to keep distinct all similarly named residents, is one facet that astute readers ought to pay close attention to for it has one of the best hidden clues key to solving the many mysteries uncovered by our sleuthing duo.

If you are familiar with McPherson's work then you will know that she has a penchant for Scottish Gothicism. I get a sense of Stevenson and Buchan sneaking their way into her narratives. She makes excellent use of creepy landscapes, eerie natural landmarks, abandoned and dilapidated estate houses, and terrifying meteorological events. Most of the Dandy Gilver books are set in the late 1920s, (though ...Red Herrings is the first to take place in 1930) and take advantage of dialectical language plus a variety of Scottish legends which are always intrinsic to the her intriguing and intricate plots. Compare these with her stand alone books, all set in present day, and you find the same motifs and techniques employed. The stand alone mysteries also give her an opportunity to explore the darker side of her imagination. The Child Garden (2015), for example, is just as macabre as The Reek of Red Herrings making use of some supernatural legends and lore to great effect.

While the Dandy Gilver books lean heavily towards a lighthearted vein generously sprinkled with a sardonic humor they do have their share of harrowing scenes and moments of gravitas. The climax of The Reek of Red Herrings is suitably neo-Gothic with a wild winter snowstorm complete with toppling trees and damaging floods all leading to a cataclysm on an epic scale. The finale reminded me of one of those act of God climaxes that occur so frequently in the detective novels of Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells.

Most importantly to fans of traditional mysteries is the structure of the novel itself as well as her skill with the multi-layered plot. McPherson has a deft way of dropping clues into the narrative and has some subtle methods of foreshadowing that will help readers discover along with Dandy and Alec just what all the multiple mysteries add up to. It is rare that I encounter a modern mystery writer who still honors the traditions of the fair play detective novel and can do it so well. McPherson does an admirable job in laying down the groundwork necessary for clever readers to arrive at the solution almost at the same time as Dandy does. I was impressed with the talent and skill displayed in this genuine detective novel. I hope she continues to find new ways to bamboozle and thrill her readers in all her future mysteries.

UPDATE:  The Reek of Red Herrings deservedly won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 29 on April 29, 2017.  All the more reason to read it, IMO.

Friday, April 14, 2017

FFB: A Beastly Business - John Blackburn

THE STORY: Bill Easter, conman and rogue for hire, will do nearly anything for the right price. He’s recovered stolen goods, he’s located missing persons, he’s even committed murder. Now he’s been hired to dispose of a dead body in the ground floor apartment of a landlord who can’t bring himself to enter the place. The body turns out to be Henry Oliver, a enormously overweight and hirsute recluse who is suspected of having been a mass murderer known as the "Mad Vicar". After successfully disposing of the body employing unorthodox and slightly illegal methods Easter also uncovers some puzzling documents that hint at the existence of a valuable jewel encrusted relic that Oliver brought back from his travels in the Nueva Leone, South America. Easter’s detective work leads him to eccentric adventure J. Molden Mott, also looking for the jeweled relic. Easter along with his sidekick and sometime lover Peggy Tey find themselves in Scotland and knee deep in a macabre adventure that involves Russian spies, a mutating fungus, a mad scientist, the legend of a South American conquistador, and werewolf mythology that all adds up to A Beastly Business (1982).

THE CHARACTERS: Bill Easter is John Blackburn’s lesser known series characters. He, along with Peggy Tey, appeared in four books prior to their last appearance in A Beastly Business. This is also the only crossover novel to feature both Easter and General Charles Kirk, Blackburn’s primary series character whose work with foreign intelligence has often led him into the world of paranormal activity. The Easter books differ greatly from Blackburn’s other occult and supernatural thrillers because they have a very black humor. Easter is a vulgar, opinionated, often foul mouthed rogue who is out only for himself. Peggy is no better. They are often secretly double crossing one another when money, jewels or valuable treasure are involved.

Easter is hired by Allen Smeaton a pseudo-posh banker who thinks very highly of himself. Yet he and his corrupt wife Cynthia are all too easily tempted by the chance to get rich quick. Easter does all the work while they drool greedily in the background demanding he risk his life and what little reputation he has left to recover the treasure and split it four ways. Clever readers know that split is never going to be four equal shares. Someone is bound to be left out if not eliminated altogether.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Blackburn's thrillers we get an abundance of weirdness, macabre deaths, strange legends and his usual trademark touch of an insidious organism, in this case a botanical fungus, as the cause for much of the mayhem. He always found new ways to invigorate old horror motifs.  The werewolves in this novel are like no others you have read about or seen in the movies.

This is much funnier than any of Blackburn's other books I've read, but you do have to be sort of a sicko to enjoy his vulgar jokes and black humor at the expense of other characters. I unapologetically admit to being one of those sickos. Revenge is served piping hot and supersweet in A Beastly Business and I very much enjoy seeing the wicked suffer punishments in Grand Guignol fashion.  Theatre of Blood, one of my favorite satiric horror movies, kept coming to mind as I pored over this entertainingly perverse book. Those familiar with that Vincent Price cult classic will have an idea of what kind of beastly business Blackburn gets up to.

QUOTES: "Owing to your wanton stupidity [Allen] I had to live over a monster. To nurture a viper in my bosom."
An unjust and inaccurate cliche. Even the smallest of vipers couldn't have found shelter between Cynthia Smeaton's skinny breasts, and I wouldn't have blamed her husband if he'd lost his temper and clouted her.

"Peg go could go to bed with [the reverend] if she wanted, though it was unlikely he'd fancy her. But during the last two hours I'd had a dead lamb lobbed at me. I'd been threatened by a twelve-bore shotgun and nearly killed by the bailiff's motor bicycle [...] and earned the displeasure of Sgt. Gillespie. I'd achieved quite a lot and what had Peggy done? Mrs. Tey had confided in an oily non-conformist minister and spilled the beans."

THINGS I LEARNED: One thing I must have known as a kid, but clearly had forgotten. The real name of a well known figure from the Russian Revolution turns up over the course of the book. If you're hip to this facet of world history and know it well, then you won't be taken in by a ruse of General Kirk's. Bill was. I was. And most readers will be. Sadly, part of this ruse is spoiled by the blurb on the rear cover of the new reprint edition. Do yourself a favor and don't read that before you read the book.

EASY TO FIND? Those savvy devils at Valancourt Books have done fans of 60s & 70s horror a great service in reprinting John Blackburn's books. A Beastly Business is yet another in their ever growing library of forgotten classics being revived for new generations of lovers of the macabre, be they the lugubrious and melancholy horror of 18th century Gothics or 20th century monsters on the rampage. I don't often see used copies of the original UK edition of A Beastly Business for sale as it's one of his scarcest titles.  If a copy should turn up expect to see it outrageously priced. Best to stick with the $17 paperback from our good friends at Valancourt. This new reprint is also the first and only US edition.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

NEW STUFF: Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Last year Hogarth Press began their release of a series of novels inspired by Shakespeare plays. So far four books have been published with four more planned over the next five years. While some of them I have absolutely no interest in reading (Gillian Flynn retells the story of Hamlet, coming in 2021? I can definitely wait.) others caught my eye. The most intriguing of the current lot is Hag-Seed (2016) by Margaret Atwood. Savvy students of the Bard will recognize the title as the one of the many epithets hurled at poor ol’ Caliban and it has great resonance for most of the characters in her retelling of The Tempest. The novel is set at Fletcher County Correctional Institute and the inmates there are involved in a theater program. They all identify with Caliban for multiple reasons, some not immediately obvious, when they are told to read The Tempest in preparation for their latest production.

The protagonist of Hag-Seed is Felix Phillips, a theater director ousted from his role as artistic director of a cutting edge theater company modeled after the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. After his ignominious (and rigged) firing he goes into a self-imposed exile in a hovel somewhere in the Canadian countryside where he plots his revenge just as Prospero did. Eventually he manages to get hired on as the new director of Fletcher Correctional’s theater program designed to enhance the inmate’s literacy skills. Felix plans to re-mount his previously envisioned extravaganza of The Tempest which never was realized at Makeshiweg when he lost his job.

Much to my surprise Hag-Seed is not only a story of revenge but is actually something of a caper novel. Felix and the prisoners conspire together to present two separate productions of The Tempest, one which will be videotaped for the rest of the inmates and prison staff to watch and another secret production that will be engineered to bring about the downfall of the villains who were responsible for Phillip’s removal at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and essentially ruined his career as a theater director. I will say no more about how this scheme is achieved, but knowing in advance of the caper angle ought to attract the attention of crime fiction fans who enjoy genuine caper thrillers like those by Lionel White and the trademark comic capers of Donald Westlake. It’s one helluva of scheme with all parties affected receiving their just deserts.

Atwood uses all themes, motifs and characters of The Tempest with enviable skill, the most telling of course is that the play is rife with prison imagery and prisoner references. She riffs on multiple meanings of the play's story, finds analogies between the magical creatures of Prospero’s island and the criminals who are tasked with telling Shakespeare’s story. Their hip and modern update incorporates everything from digital and electronic special effects to rap music to eccentric choreography created by the hired actress playing Miranda (she's not a prisoner) who also happens to be skilled in martial arts.

One of the most innovative and amusing bits stems from Felix’s insistence that no one swear during the rehearsal process. All curse words must come from the text itself. Points are deducted from each prisoner’s final grade (it is, after all, a legitimate class in a literacy program) for each use of a 21st century swear word instead of a 16th century curse. As Felix explains: “Too much shit is monotonous and monotony is anti-Shakespeare.” A curse word littered argument erupts when twelve of the fifteen cast members are vying for the role of Caliban who has appeal not only because he is Prospero’s prisoner and slave:

"Caliban should be First Nations," says Red Coyote [a Native Canadian]. "It’s obvious. Got his land stole."

"No way," says Ppod. "He’s African. Where’s Algiers anyway? North Africa, right? That’s where his mother came from. Look on the map, pox brain."

"So he’s a Muslim? I don’t whoreson think so." VaMoose, another Caliban aspirant.

"No way that he's smelly-fish white trash, anyways,” says Shiv, glaring at Leggs. "Even part white."

"I score," says Leggs. "You heard the man, fen head, it’s final. So suck it."

"Points off you swore," says Ppod.

"Suck it’s not a swear word," says Leggs. "It’s only a diss. Everyone knows that, and the devil take your fingers."

Other popular substitute swear words and insults include red plague, freckled whelp, pied ninny, scurvy, and of course hag-seed which by the end becomes a badge of honor rather than an insult for the entire team of performer prisoners.

Because the program is meant to be part of a literacy program Felix is a teacher and runs his rehearsals like a literature class. Actually this is no different from most professional Shakespeare productions which always tend to be part literature class. In the final pages we get to read the prisoner’s assignments in which they must a imagine how life treats the characters after the curtain falls and what they become. We get some insightful and realistic views, sometimes frighteningly violent, of how human and cruel these characters would be in real life. Atwood mentions in an “Afterword” that she read several non-fiction accounts of prison literacy programs and this enlightening ending is clearly reflective of her research into how real prison theater programs are conducted.

I was thoroughly delighted with this book and whipped through it in almost in a single day. It’s funny, vulgar, warm, angry, poignant, enchanting, majestic, suspenseful, and wise -– all things wondrous, in fact, and everything expected from any superbly mounted Shakespeare production. Hag-Seed  will appeal to theater addicts, Shakespeare scholars of all ages, both professional and avocational, and anyone who enjoys thoroughly imaginative fiction. I’ve not read anything remotely like this before and wish that every new book I picked up was half as powerful and affecting in its telling. No thing of darkness here but ah! what rough magic and wonders await the reader in the pages of Atwood's novel.

NOTE: Hag-Seed along with all the others in Hogarth's "Shakespeare Retold" series are available now in their various UK editions: hardcover, paperback and digital. Those who want a US edition of Hag-Seed will have to wait until May 2017. But a warning -- the cover of the US edition is very unattractive (at right) compared to the striking UK version shown on top of this post.

Shakespeare Retold Series (...so far)
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood (The Tempest)
Shylock Is My Name - Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice)
The Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew)
The Gap of Time - Jeanette Winterson (A Winter's Tale)

Friday, April 7, 2017

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Mordecai Tremaine

If you were to tell me that you just discovered a great new series of mystery novels in which a sixty-something retired tobacconist who liked to read romantic fiction magazines was the amateur sleuth I would probably turn and run the other way. Too twee for me. I had my fill of sentimental romantic subplots in the mystery novels of Herbert Adams. I’m certainly not going to read a detective novel in which the sleuth passes the time filling his head with fictional stories of true love and happily ever after lovers. Or so I thought. If I actually followed my preferences and avoided the Francis Duncan mysteries where this character solves baffling crimes then I would have missed out on some of the most mature and thoughtful detective novels of the mid twentieth century.

I didn’t know anything about Mordecai Tremaine when I bought three of the new reprints of Francis Duncan’s mystery novels and read them in quick succession. Yes, Tremaine is a retired gent who unabashedly likes to pass the time reading issues of Romantic Times. That aspect is not really pointed out in selling the books. It’s only incidental to the books (thankfully) but it appears in all three books I’ve read and in one case figures into the story. This unusual pastime also gives you some insight to the humanity of the man. Tremaine has another hobby. Not surprisingly it turns out to be criminology. Like all fictional amateur sleuths he has a close friendship with a police inspector and has a remarkable habit for stumbling across murder cases often while he’s on vacation. Mordecai is one of the better humanist detectives. Even more appealing is that Duncan's crime novels are grounded in a morality and sense of justice in direct contrast to the trend of post-WW 2 crime writers who were increasingly creating anti-heroes and exploring the effects of morbid psychology. In one of the truly rare instances of discovering a forgotten but exceptionally well done mystery series I read these three books in an order in which they got better and better ending with the best of the lot.

Murder Has a Motive (1947) involves an amateur theatrical troupe. It’s also something of a bibliomystery in that the script that’s being produced by the troupe (which shares the title of the novel) is being used as a guidebook of sorts by the murderer. There is also a subplot mystery as to the identity of the playwright. The plot is in effect coming to life in the village as it is being rehearsed on the stage. One by one cast members are being killed just as they occur in the play.

William Underhill , aka "Francis Duncan"
Lydia Dare, the stage manager, is the first victim. Prior to her death she had an abnormal fear that “something ugly, and horrible, and obscene” is infecting the town and its people. She talks of a “black power brooding over us all, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.” This theme of murder as an malevolent force pervades the novel. Murder in the village of Dalmering becomes a horror transforming the town as a disease affects the body. Tremaine fells a “monstrous villainy” everywhere he looks. “Always he could see ruin and destruction and human sorrow.” Even the shining sun becomes “indescribably evil” as Tremaine contemplates how Lydia’s death has deeply affected –more accurately as she herself said has infected everyone -- including himself. He succumbs to his sentimental side and obsesses about her wedding that will never be and watches helplessly as her fiancé Gerald Farrant descends into a morose depression. He needs to stamp out the evil and find the murderer.

Duncan’s book ought to feel heavy handed with all this talk of evil. Instead he hits just the right note of dread and fright. There is never anything remotely resembling complacence that sometimes enters village murder mysteries. Lightness and flippancy never enter the picture to offset the dire situation of a seemingly mad killer on the loose. The emphasis is always on how violence does indeed wreak havoc and affect everyone in Dalmering. Hate acts as an infectious disease. In his role as detective Mordecai Tremaine becomes both Nemesis and Dalmering’s spiritual healer.

Criminal behavior is explored in another way in Behold a Fair Woman (1954) which deals more with the preservation of reputation. Murderous actions grow out of a desire to protect others at all costs. Duncan has not strayed too far from the amoral influence of the seven deadly sins, however. Whereas hate and wrath was the evil that infected Dalmering the sin that weighs heavily on the occupants of Moulin d’Or is avarice.

In Behold a Fair Woman the character relationships are deeper and richer. I began to see with this second book that Duncan was not only interested in the mystery plot but in writing a real novel that used crime to explore ideas not just to present a puzzle that will entertain. Most of the characters in Behold a Fair Woman have criminal pasts and are trying to escape that past and begin life anew. Resorting to crime in order to preserve their new lives has more credence than would melodramatic emotions and diabolical revenge acted out in frenzied hatred as in the theater milieu of Murder Has a Motive.

By the time I got to So Pretty a Problem (1950) I was convinced that Duncan was more of a novelist than a mystery writer. He was interested in character more than the puzzle and crime would grow out of the character's lives and situations rather than a plot existing as a framework for stock characters to enact. But I was genuinely surprised when the plot in So Pretty a Problem was almost a throwback to the Golden Age of Detection with allusions to famous works by G.K. Chesterton and an impossible crime problem. The characters are just as fully human as in the other books but this time the plot is so filled with truly baffling problems and there are multiple culprits of one sort or another that the book quickly became my favorite of the three.

Adrian Carthallow, a temperamental painter, lives in an isolated house on an island accessible only by one bridge. The island’s cliffs are sheer, the shoreline dangerously rocky and high tides make the ocean front property too perilous to allow for a dock and access by boat. Tremaine is drowsily lounging on the beach when he is awakened by a gunshot. He runs up the path, crosses the bridge and runs into Helen Carthallow who confesses that she has just shot her husband. Tremaine is sure she is covering up for someone and does not rule out the possibility of suicide though when the police arrive evidence does seem to point to murder. But how can it be anyone else?  Only Helen's fingerprints are on the gun. No one was seen crossing the bridge. An invalid neighbor conveniently happens to be a habitual nosey Parker who spies on everyone visiting the artist's home and she is sure she saw no one other than the daily visit of the mailman. It looks like to be an impossible crime.

The story seems simple but Duncan manages to complicate the plot with his usual variety of colorful characters, a few odd sideline mysteries like who slashed the portrait of Helen in Adrian's studio and whether or not Adrian was involved in an art forgery scheme, plus a plethora of jealousies and secrets that provide multiple motives for Adrian's murder. He was not well liked, especially by his wife. Could she actually be guilty? There is one very well placed clue which I spotted but dismissed as a red herring when Tremaine rules out a certain activity. Of course I was fooled, and that one clue was something I ought not to have discarded as meaningless. For that bit of misdirection (probably the best he ever employed) Duncan gets major points and it makes the "impossibility" of how the murder was committed much more clever than I expected. So Pretty a Problem is entirely satisfying, engrossing, thought provoking and with more plausible twists than any of the other two books. I think it is his best novel and best plotted detective story.

Five of Francis Duncan's mystery novels featuring Mordecai Tremaine have been reprinted by Vintage Books in their Death's Head Moth imprint. The other two are In at the Red and Murder for Christmas. They all sport attractive retro style covers and are available in both paperback and digital editions, although the eBooks can only be purchased via the UK amazon site. I highly recommend that you read any of them with a slight nudge towards So Pretty a Problem as his most rewarding and entertaining fair play murder mystery, clearly a homage to the Golden Age. It would be a great service to devotees of traditional detective novels if the rest of Duncan's catalog were reissued. Cross your fingers for more!

Friday, March 31, 2017

FFB: Death in the Dark - Stacey Bishop

THE STORY: Three murders, all committed under seemingly impossible conditions, have decimated the Denny family in Death in the Dark (1930). A locked apartment building and a death by gunshot in a darkened bedroom, another death by gunshot done in full view of five witnesses, and a shooting in a jail cell with no one near the victim nor any gun in the cell. How has the murderer achieved these miracle crimes? Intellectual criminologist Stephan Bayard with the help of police Detective Jules and Bayard's close friend George Stacey Bishop manages to weed through the chaff and get to the heart of all the mysteries. Along the way the reader is treated to various lengthy and esoteric discussions of fine art, the state of modern music in 1930, and the criminality of thymocentric personalities. Once again, the influence of Dr. Louis Berman rears its ugly head in yet another early American detective story plagued with talk of eugenics and the bogus science of determining personality based on endocrinology.

THE CHARACTERS: Stephan Bayard is another of the many American detectives descended from C. Auguste Dupin and Philo Vance. He is as cold and rational as Dupin and enjoys his esoteric monologues like Vance. Within minutes of learning of the death of Dave Denny, a music concert promoter, Bayard is sure that the man has committed suicide. But a key left in a door when it should be hanging on a hook, one of Denny's diehard habits, will bother the criminologist until the final pages. Bayard much like Vance is also a cultural connoisseur and we get several didactic lectures on art, music, and literature with loads of name dropping of both familiar and obscure painters, sculptors, musicians and writers. Bishop is the S. S. Van Dine stand-in of the book and is both mythical author and narrator when in fact "Stacey Bishop" is the pseudonym of modern musician George Antheil.

Dr. Stein, a radical endocrinologist, is one of the many fictional doctors inspired by Louis Berman's work on controlling personality and behavior through use of hormones and surgery of the pituitary and thymus glands. Berman's radical theories and practices which flirt with controversial eugenics theory caught the imagination of many genre fiction writers at the time. Donald Clough Cameron's criminologist, Abelard Voss, for example is another fictional detective who likes to espouse Berman's theories. Antheil takes this specious science to the extremes making Stein something of a mad doctor tinkering with experiments more suited to a science fiction shocker. There is a scene where Bayard and Bishop visit Stein's lab and we see his experiments have led to the development of a bizarre machine that in its description sounds like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It seems to involve the extraction of personality via electricity and the wearing of a metal mask. I read these sections several times and still can't make sense of them. The finale of the novel is straight out of a shudder pulp magazine and is completely out of place for a story that was up till then purely cerebral and focussed on logic and ratiocination.

Floor plan of Dave Denny's murder (click to enlarge)

The suspects are mostly made up of stock characters with paper thin personas like Mrs Denny, a bed ridden wealthy matriarch; John and Frieda Alvinson, composer and his "boyishly handsome" wife who serves as the 1920s exotic female figure; a profligate brother in Aaron Denny who is financially irresponsible and hated by his stepmother; and a handful of servants who are nothing more than symbols. Bayard and Stein are the only characters in the book that approach anything remotely resembling human dimension, even if it is mostly intellectual. Even the murderer comes across as lacking in any real depth until the last couple of chapters when motivation is revealed and we get more nonsense about the thymocentric personality.

INNOVATION: Death in the Dark is overloaded with intriguing new ways to tell a detective novel. If they all tend to obfuscate the story that's no real failure. They often made me laugh in astonishment rather than in ridicule. Bayard draws up numerous fact sheets that serve as tabulation scenes highlighting the oddities that make each crime impossible. He also informs Bishop that Sir Richard Muir, the lawyer involved in the trial of Crippen, liked to compose "poems" during his case summations which he would read to the jury at the close of a trial. Bayard then composes his own series of blank verse tributes to each of the three impossible crimes pointing out each puzzling incident that is nagging his overstimulated brain. In effect we get two separate and protracted tabulation scenes: one in a bulleted list format, the other in a pseudo-poetic format.

Over the course of the book the impossibilities are each dealt with individually with each solution presented as it is discovered rather than revealed in the concluding chapter as with most detective novels. The problem of a key left in the locked door of the Denny apartment is oddly the one problem that is not explained until the novel's end. The jail cell murder -- the most ingenious of the three crimes -- is surprisingly solved almost immediately but having its roots in more pulp fiction gimmickry the bizarre method adds another incongruous element of the absurd to the overarching somber tone.

THINGS I LEARNED: I absorbed a lot about early American and European modern music and contemporary modern art of the late 1920s. Among the artists mentioned is sculptor Constantin Brancusi and his abstract series known as Bird in Flight. Bayard talks about this shape and the fascination with all things streamlined and draws analogies to the evolving trend of women's physiques becoming more boyish, less shapely. He compares the differences between curvaceous American Gertrude Denny and Russian emigre Frieda Alvinson repeatedly throughout the story. At one point Frieda is compared to a "transvestant" which Bishop points out is a type that is appearing with increasing frequency in New York. (In a brief note after Bishop's preface reprint publisher John Pugmire points out that Antheil's eccentric punctuation and spelling has been preserved so the reader may "experience the full flavor of the original." )

THE AUTHOR: George Antheil was an aspiring modern music composer during the 1920s who is now best remembered, not for his concert work, but for his music scores of movies like Repeat Performance, Knock on Any Door and House by the River. Death in the Dark is supposedly a cathartic revenge book which Antheil wrote in reaction to his disastrous Carnegie Hall debut in 1927 of Ballet Mécanique. Each of the victims in the murder mystery is a thinly disguised version of the people Antheil held responsible for his public humiliation. The story of the novel's creation, the concert and the people who served as the inspiration for the characters is told in an Afterword by Mauro Piccinini. In passing Piccinini also touches on Antheil's other claim to fame -- his physics work and the development of the "frequency hopping spread spectrum" invented in tandem with actress Hedy Lamarr.

EASY TO FIND? John Pugmire has reprinted this extremely rare detective novel as part of his Locked Room International imprint. It's available only as a paperback via amazon.com and nowhere else. LRI does not distribute to bookstores as it is a print-on-demand operation utilizing Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing platform. Don't hold your breath trying to find an original 1930 edition published only in the UK by Faber and Faber in a very small print run. The only copy I've ever seen offered for sale was back in 2010 and was priced at $1500. Currently, the only copies are in a much more affordable $25 paperback edition just released a few weeks ago. Click here to go the book's sale page on amazon.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

We Danced and Swallowed the Night...

Just learned that crime writer Adrian McKinty finds inspiration in Tom Waits songs.


Review of McKinty's excellent locked room mystery Rain Dogs coming soon...

Friday, March 17, 2017

FFB: Garnett Weston, Screenplay Writer & Mystery Novelist

Before the perverse fascination of stories about psychopathic serial killers all but ruined crime fiction, mystery writers liked to indulge in stories about crazed multiple murderers. Free from contemporary psychological profiling that luridly told of abusive twisted past lives the vintage tales where an entire cast seems to be knocked off one by one nevertheless managed to convey the paranoia and fear known to modern readers. Sometimes the emotions are raised to a fever pitch and escalate to a level of hysteria as in the work of Garnett Weston, a Canadian screenplay writer who got his start in silent cinema. Weston was particularly adept at whipping up variations of these histrionic and preposterous murder mysteries. I'll look at two of his mystery novels both of which deal with multiple murder and coincidentally use the old "someone is after the heirs" plot structure.

Weston's first novel Murder on Shadow Island (1933) is an odd story of a group of friends who travel from Manhattan to a remote island in the St. Lawrence river off the coast of Ontario, Canada in order to rescue one of their own from the hands of a mad killer. A glance at a newspaper headline announcing a murder of an artist on Shadow Island sends them off to find out what happened. When they arrive they learn that Tay Burgess, their artist friend, was most likely mistaken for his host Court Mallory, another friend of the NYC trio. Also they learn that a group of British relatives have suddenly descended upon the household on Shadow Island all claiming to be heirs to the fortune of Lady Mary, Court's aunt. The reader is expecting a story in which the heirs start to kill each other off, one by one, but Weston has something altogether in mind as the weird story progresses.

There are several murders but instead of the heirs being targeted it is the group of New Yorkers who start dropping like flies. The friends all turn sleuths and as each gets closer to the truth it is the amateur detective who meets his end. Oddly, the group of squabbling unlikeable heirs (all but the doe-eyed Cora Holland, who serves as rudimentary love interest for our protagonist Kim Hayward) all turn out to be the biggest group of red herrings I've encountered in a mystery novel. The five heirs, more stereotyped sketches than characters, serve no other purpose but to misdirect the reader into thinking one conspiracy plot is taking place when in fact the true murderer and motivation for all the crimes has nothing to do with inheriting Lady Mary's money and house.

A back story involving Court's childhood, how he was adopted by the Holland family, and how he was foster brother to two other boys in the Holland family is at the heart of the overworked plot. The involved story concerns parents dying in accidents and children apparently drowning in a seashore accident. The backstory is so strange and filled with familiar mystery novel trappings that the reader cannot discount it as mere filler. A veteran devotee of detective fiction knows for certain that one if not all of the missing people from the Holland Family past will turn up later as one of the characters in the present day murder mystery. This proves to be true, but it all comes to be revealed in the most convoluted and macabre manner when Kim and Cora learn of a hidden seashore cavern accessible only by swimming through an underwater chamber. The discovery of what is hidden in the cave adds another level of horror to an already incredulous murder story.

Murder on Shadow Island was Weston's first mystery novel, most likely his first novel as well. Primarily a screenplay writer from 1927 through the 1930s his novel is filled with formulaic incidents and plots gimmicks as well as simplistic romance inspired by the movies. Kim and Cora are the love-at-first-sight couple who woo one another during an incongruous fishing trip scene followed by a picnic by the river. Their dialogue is grossly sentimental peppered with sweethearts and darlings in the way only people in the movies talk to one another when falling in love. All this only hours after one of Kim's friends was brutally killed!

Weston's attempts to make the mystery a detective novel never arise above the obligatory Q&A sessions with a load of repetitive alibi breaking scenes. Much of the dialogue consists in badgering the survivors with "Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you?" each time a corpse is found. The heirs all vehemently deny any murderous actions while Cora cringes and wrings her hands in the corner begging Kim to find the murderer before he gets her too. She's not very bright as it should be obvious to all involved that the killer is only interested in killing men from New York. Soon all the friends are dead. Kim is attacked twice and Cora nearly killed merely because she happened to be standing next to him. It becomes more contrived and implausible with each new dead body.

The most exciting part of the book is saved for the final quarter of the book when it should become clear to all the characters, as well as the reader, who the culprit really is and why only the men from New York were murdered. Prior to these genuinely exciting and imaginatively executed scenes the book is something of a drag with too much reliance on hoary old clichés taken from "old dark house" cliffhangers.

Apparently not satisfied with what he committed on Shadow Island Weston tried his hand once more with the basic outline of a group of greedy heirs at one another's throats in Dead Men Are Dangerous (1937). This time melodrama and cliffhanger serial action set pieces are replaced with mad hysteria and a ruthlessness more suited to a Jacobean tragedy. Our hero and heroine fair much worse than brave Kim and wishy-washy Cora from Shadow Island. A bigger group of avaricious, back stabbing liars and thieves were never gathered in one household since the 17th century murderous characters stabbed, poisoned and strangled their way to the top of the food chain in the revenge tragedies of Middleton, Ford and Webster.

Art work by Emil Sitka, circa 1930s,
 depicting he and his brother "riding the rails"
Phil and Marion Acres and their son Herbert have been riding the rails with hoboes and tramps in the boxcars of freight trains as they make their way to California with the hope of starting a new life with greater job opportunities. With only $200 in savings preciously guarded in a money belt strapped underneath Marion's dress they endure indignities and assaults from a variety of drifters and vagrants on and off the trains. At their latest campsite on the grounds of an orange grove they are rescued from two thuggish tramps by Captain Rome and taken into his home as guests. There they are bathed, dressed and treated as guests of honor at a dinner where Rome's family have gathered to hear of news of his will. Rome's three daughters, each with a different mother from his sexual dalliances as a globetrotting sailor, and their men are puzzled by the appearance of the two strangers and the boy. Puzzlement gives way to shock when the captain announces that he has disinherited everyone and made Herbert Acres his sole heir and his parents executors of his estate. Oh yes, that means the Acres family just became targets of the greedy heirs.

No sooner than Captain Rome has made out the new will, had it signed and witnessed, he is shot dead. But by who and how? He is found in a room with one open window on a higher floor and no one was seen to enter the room from inside or outside. The gun is nowhere in sight and a search of the house and grounds fails to locate the weapon. And of course the will has apparently vanished. Has it been destroyed? Stolen? Hidden? What follows is an explosion of hate and violence as the members of Captain Rome's family tear apart the house in search of the will while alternately threatening the Acres with torture, then bargaining with them for a share of the estate. Shootings and stabbings escalate, the bodies pile up, but amazingly Marion and her son survive each murderous assault. It seems the room where Captain Rome kept his safe is a death trap. Anyone who tries to open the safe dies. A duplicitous and equally avaricious lawyer serves as the novel's Machiavellian mastermind manipulating everyone he can and playing each character against one another with loathsome ingenuity.

While the plot itself is clearly preposterous, Weston's devilish and ingenious death traps notwithstanding, the real interest of the book is in its compassionate depiction of homeless life in depression era America. The Acres, like Steinbeck's Joad family, represent the marginalized population that no one wanted to be reminded of in the 1930s. Phil Acres has dreams of owning his own ranch, Marion tends to her men and guards their savings with tenacious dignity, and Herbert drifts into a land of make believe never answering to his own name but instead demanding his parents indulge his fanciful alter egos like Orange Eagle, a tough Indian chief. Weston's tendency to sentimentalize his family threatens to cheapen this likeable trio but Weston gives them enough troubles to stave off the treacle. He lays it on a bit heavy with the survivalist instincts of two hoboes who antagonize the Acres family. One would have to believe that the tramps and hoboes were not willing to steal and kill for a scrap of food or clothing but were an interconnected underworld of devious criminals. The sheriff of Dead Men Are Dangerous actually believes the Acres are part of such a thieving gang of killer tramps.

Garnett Weston, circa 1970
(photo ©Tony Archer)
There are police aplenty to assist Sheriff Buller but none of them, like most policemen in detective fiction of this era, are very good at their jobs. The real detective and hero of the novel is a hobo with a secret past vaguely hinted at as being related to a failure in law enforcement. He goes by the nickname "Highway" and he is Marions's sole ally after the unexpected murder of her husband leaves her alone with Herbert and at the mercy of the gang of conspiring heirs. Highway does legitimate detective work, some of it fair play, but most of it done offstage with dramatic revelations and damning evidence produced at the eleventh hour. The story is almost entirely told through the viewpoint of Marion Acre. She appears in every scene and while not always the focus it is basically through her observations that we watch the story unfold. Highway can only speak out if Marion is present. If he leaves a scene and Marion stays behind, then we never get to see where he goes or what he does which is, I think, a major flaw of the book. When he is on stage he lends a delightful air of sophistication, intelligence and wit to a story burdened with base motives and ugly displays of class prejudice, racial prejudice and deceitful, dirty liars evading the truth.

QUOTES: Seedler, the lawyer: "Do you really think I have to be honorable and respectable because the community thinks I am? What's the advantage of being above suspicion if you don't make use of your position?"
Marion: "You're a horrible villain."
Seedler: "No, I'm a thoroughly honorable and respectable and successful attorney."


Michael Lady, reporter: "Screwy things happen in this world. Two guys killed a man the other day in Los Angeles for six dollars. Last year a guy hired himself out for seventy-five cents to a tired husband who wanted his wife out of the way. He was to get five dollars later. The guy did the job for the six bits and never collected the rest. If people kill for chicken feed what'll they do when there's a wad like the Rome money lying around?"

Highway: "I'm a solitary man; I've gone my way with little enough thought of others. But sometimes there comes a thing I can't let pass and hold my head up as a man should. This is one of them. What I do is for my own self-respect as much as for you, ma'am. So you see there's a grain of selfishness in it."

THE AUTHOR: Garnett Weston was born in born in Toronto in 1890. He started writing titles for silent movies in 1927 with The Yankee Clipper. He went on to write stories, scenarios, and screenplay adaptations of novels and plays from 1929 through 1941. Probably best known for his story of the cult horror movie White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi he also wrote or adapted the scripts for Supernatural (1933) starring Carole Lombard, The Ninth Guest (1934) based on the murder mystery The Invisible Host (1930), the first sound film version of The Mill on the Floss (1936), and several entries in the Bulldog Drummond series. In 1942 he left Hollywood, abandoned screenwriting, and moved with his wife and son to East Sooke on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He continued to write novels, short stories and poetry throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. He died at his Canadian home in 1980.

Garnett Weston's Crime & Mystery Fiction
Murder on Shadow Island (1933)
Murder in Haste (1935) (UK title: Death Never Forgets)
Dead Men Are Dangerous (1937)
The Man with the Monocle (1943) (UK title: Citizens - To Arms!)
Poldrate Street (1944) (UK title: The Undertaker Dies - 1940)
The Hidden Portal (1946)
Legacy of Fear (1950)
Death Is a Private Affair (1970) (poetry)

Friday, March 10, 2017

FFB: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - Henry Farrell

On March 5 the first episode of Feud aired on the FX cable network. This mini-series features Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and over the course of the next eight weeks viewers will watch as they re-enact the turmoil and havoc created by those two diva movie actresses on and off the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I’ve seen that cult classic, the grandmother of the badass biddy or hagsploitation suspense movies of the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of times. But I’ve never read the book. Now is as good a time as any to see how closely the movie script sticks to the original forgotten novel.

I expected some similarities but I didn’t expect such a reverent translation from page to screen. The first two thirds of the book are literally exactly the same as the movie, from prologue at the turn of the century to the unexpected murder of a supporting character in the Hudson house. There are minor tweaks here and there like the 50ish housekeeper Mrs. Edna Stitt who has a much larger part in the book being transformed on screen into a younger African American housekeeper named Elvira now relegated to the background with only two key scenes. Edwin Flagg also has a larger supporting part in the book and we learn a lot more of his pathetic unambitious slacker life and his sick co-dependent relationship with his mother Del. But other than those minor alterations, the addition in the movie script of one extra surprise meal for Blanche, and a more interestingly rendered finale at the beach in the last two chapters what you see in the movie is exactly what’s in the book. Which is better? If I’m allowed I'd like to take one half of each -- preferring the movie version of Baby Jane and the book version of Blanche. Overall, I’d say that the movie improves upon the story of the book immensely. Lucas Heller, the scriptwriter and adapter, definitely understands suspense in cinematic terms much better than Farrell does in his novel.

For those of you uninitiated here’s my briefest possible summary.  (Those who know the story already can skip this paragraph.) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960) tells the story of two sisters who live together in relative seclusion following their previous success as actresses. Blanche Hudson, the older sister, now crippled for life as the result of a car accident and confined to a wheelchair is under the care of Jane, a former child actress. Jane was a headliner throughout her childhood and the breadwinner for the Hudson family in the days of vaudeville but her fame quickly faded as the sisters grew older.  Blanche became a star of Hollywood romantic comedies, had a much longer career in the 30s and 40s while Jane was consigned to bit parts thanks to a charitable clause written into all of Blanche’s movie contracts that gave her sister those jobs.  Now in their twilight years Jane finds herself acting as nursemaid and waitress to her invalid sister and resenting her more and more each day. A bitter rivalry and jealousy long dormant will now explode in a display of cruel psychological and physical tortures as Jane prepares to make her comeback in a delusional belief that she will finally outshine Blanche though both their stars have long since been extinguished from the Hollywood firmament.

Henry Farrell’s novel offers the reader a chance to know both Blanche and Jane in ways that Davis and Crawford only hinted at in the movie. There are long passages of interior monologues in which their present lives and former lives are described. We know their thoughts more than a close-up can provide. Blanche as an invalid has a rich interior life in which she retreats into her past just as Jane does, but it seems to be more of a longing for what could have been if not for the crippling accident. Jane as depicted in the novel is actually less interesting than what Davis brought to the screen. She’s more loathsome in her delusions rather than the pitiful creature Davis managed to make Baby Jane in the movie. What little empathy we can conjure up for her comes far too late in the final heartbreaking scene in which the truth about the car accident is finally made known.

Jane has one section that I think is the triumph of the novel. She has a true epiphany about how her retreat from reality and immersion in a fantasy life was actually a descent into madness. Her horror of the realization at the monster she has become, how what she valued most -- the love of her sister -- was perverted and abused, and how she has reached a point where she cannot ever go back and try to repair what could have been mended between the two women. The book has a subtly nihilistic viewpoint at this point and it succeeds as a true noir. Prior to those few pages in Chapter 14 (out of a total of eighteen) the book sustains its momentum and macabre fascination with scenes intended alternately to shock and repulse.

QUOTES:  Blanche turned her gaze upward to the ceiling and her lips twisted in a smile of wry amusement. Against a field of vivid blue an artful scattering of stars winked down at her dully. Her smile faded, and she let her eyes fall to the mantel and the framed photograph of the blank-faced girl who had once believed she could actually possess the sky and the stars and had ordered them fixed upon her ceiling. What a vain, profligate child that one had been. What a contemptible fraud, really. And hardly in a position to charge Jane with poor taste.

[Jane] had dwelt for a time in a world removed, utterly, from reality. [...] She was like a child who had shocked herself out of her own temper tantrums by inadvertently breaking a treasured piece of china; the angry delirium was past, but the calm present was made even worse by the imminent threat of some terrible retribution.

She was lost in hell, she told herself in sudden anguish, lost and doomed forever to a burning hell of unavailing remorse. Her madness had begun in her fear of losing Blanche, of losing, at last, Blanche's forgiveness. [...] What was the use of anything? Of anything at all?


The only real criticism I have are in the sections where we see the physical struggles and the intense agony that Blanche suffers in doing something as simple as getting out of her wheelchair. There are three separate scenes where she must act quickly in order that Jane not catch her out of the chair or out of her room or both but her paralysis is her curse. Blanche can't move quickly at all obviously. Farrell goes into intricate detail describing every minute movement as she raises herself up, slips, falls, stumbles, misses a handrail... One scene lasts four pages describing her arduous journey from the gallery on the second floor to the first floor hallway where the only working phone is kept. Another scene goes on for two pages as she lifts herself out of her chair and clutches at the grillwork barring her bedroom window while simultaneously trying to get the attention of the neighbor working in her garden below to whom Blanche wants to toss a handwritten note. I guess this is Farrell's idea of suspense, but those sections are extremely unnerving to read. A few paragraphs could easily have conveyed what Farrell chooses to spread out over pages. There's a kind of sadism on display in his lurid focus on her pain and agony.

MOVIE:  Davis fares more successfully in her grotesque portrayal of the overweight, slovenly, and alcoholic Jane Hudson. Paradoxically poignant in her childish regressions into her past and a fury of hatred in her explosions of unrestrained violence. She was willing to let herself go in way I think she never had in her early career. She understood the character thoroughly, even better than Henry Farrell. Deservedly, she earned her 11th and final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance as Jane Hudson. The bizarre business surrounding her Oscar nomination for this movie while Crawford got nothing is the focus of one of the episodes in Feud.

Crawford, always more of a movie star than an actress, does a fine job but there's something missing. Her acting has always struck me as artificial style consisting of her limited gallery of facial expressions and vocal tricks. She was belittled by Davis for wanting to appear glamorous even though her character is a recluse confined to a wheelchair who had never been outside her home in over twenty years. Crawford's obsession with her looks and her reliance on camera close-ups to do her acting for her were her undoing. She never fully inhabits Blanche, there's a surface element that is more apparent with repeated viewings of the movie. Crawford is too self-conscious of her performance, never surrendered, and wore a mask of fear and paranoia while adopting poses.

Victor Buono made his movie debut in a supporting role in this movie. He brings to life everything that Edwin Flagg is in the novel and moreso. Buono succeeds in making Flagg a lot more human and humorous than Farrell's caricature of a morose, cynical, mother hating boy-man.

In adapting the novel to the screen Lucas Heller (who would go on to collaborate with director Robert Aldrich on five more movies) masterfully makes use of the novel's best scenes, does a little tinkering with story chronology by moving some scenes that occur late in the novel to earlier points in the movie. And he structures the script with parallel storytelling and editing to make the most of cinematic suspense. The movie is pretty much all about Jane and her transformation from bully to murderer to madwoman. Blanche still has her important dramatic scenes as well, but Jane's story as performed by Bette Davis is what everyone remembers even after one viewing.

EASY TO FIND? Approximately 50 copies, mostly of paperback reprints, are available for sale at the usual bookselling sites. Both US and UK hardcover editions are scarce and are not surprisingly priced in the "collectible range" primarily due to the cult status of the movie. I imagine some unscrupulous sellers will raise the prices as soon as they find out about the TV series. No recent reissue came up in my research which seems a genuine missed opportunity for a new edition as a tie-in with the series.

Feud is airing every Sunday night from March 5 to April 23 on the FX cable station. Though the story in the first episode sometimes drags to a standstill in the interview sequences which serve as superfluous narration, whenever Sarandon and Lange are on screen they are riveting. Episodes can be watched after their initial air date via streaming on the FX network website.