Friday, August 10, 2018

FFB: The Midnight Mystery - Bertram Atkey

THE STORY: Prosper Fair, vagabond sleuth, has set up his current temporary home and campsite in the forests of Wolf's Head. Shortly after building a fire and settling in for the night he encounters a mysterious figure clothed only in an animal skin, mounted on horseback, and galloping past him in a fury. Prosper's pet dog chases after the man on horseback and returns with an object in his mouth apparently dropped by the fleeing rider. Upon closer inspection Prosper discovers a prehistoric ax made of flint and a rough hewn wooden handle, the stone blade is bloodied. Has murder been done in this dark midnight forest?

THE CHARACTERS: The detective of The Midnight Mystery (1928) is perhaps unique in all of Golden Age detective fiction. There is no other man like him. Prosper Fair is in actuality the Duke of Devizes, a devil-may-care aristocrat who has shirked his title, renamed himself, and left his home Derehurst Castle in favor of life on the road as a vagabond. He is accompanied only by a trio of animals: Plutus, his three legged terrier; Patience, a dutiful and affable donkey; and most surprisingly of all, Stolid Joe, an elephant rescued from a travelling circus. Needless to say Joe draws more attention than either of the other two animals and least of all Prosper himself.  When Prosper tries to set up in the forests of Wolf's Head it is Joe that Hambledon, the forest ranger, is most concerned with. He immediately asks for Prosper's camping permit which he produces with a flourish. Again it is Joe who arouses the curiosity of passer-by Major Giles Wakeling who strikes up an instant friendship with Prosper while discussing the nature of elephants and their innate humanity. From the Major Prosper learns of young woman named Mollie O'Mourn who was found murdered in the forest and some other intriguing incidents that involve the  horseback figure he saw the previous night. Prosper Fair cannot help but try to track down the whereabouts of the mysterious night rider, learn his identity, and determine whether or not he is responsible for the girl's death.

The whimsical nature of the story is further carried out in some of the characters' names of who sport such monikers as Lady Crystal Sheen and Detective Inspector Meek. Often the names are ironic badges as in the case of Meek who is anything but.

We are also treated to a gallery of sinister supporting characters who seem to be up to no good including a Japanese manservant, a stern and homely housekeeper, and a nasty male secretary recently fired from the employ of tortured playwright Alan Bryne. one of this group seems to be running a blackmail and extortion ring, but which of the three is it?  Or are all three involved in a conspiracy?

Prosper Fair encounters the night rider
Harmsworth Red Magazine (Oct 7, 1927)
INNOVATIONS: The Midnight Mystery is an unusual mix of whimsy and Gothic trappings. Atkey does a remarkable job in making Propser Fair seem like a man out of time, a sophisticated tramp who seems to have stepped out of the 18th century and set foot in the mad world of post World War I. His speech may be antiquated, quaint and endearing, but his observations are wholly serious.  he fully recognizes the horror of what took place in the forest of Wolf's Head. The place names in fact add a macabre element that serves to heighten the Gothic atmosphere.  In addition to Wolf's Head, we visit a lodge called Tufter's Wait, and the whole of the story is set in a village named Normansrood. Atkey never misses an opportunity to add an extra level of creepiness. Alan Byrne, the playwright, is frequently overcome by strange cataleptic fits which leave him frozen in terror, unable to speak or move. The night rider is described as "a creature of darkness" and a "skin clad specter".

The detective work is reminiscent of late 19th century sleuthing. Prosper has plenty to mull over with footprints and hoof prints, a variety of different colored horse hairs found tangled in bushes, and the odd collection of axes that turn up at various points in the novel. After the flint ax is found, one with a carved obsidian blade turns up, then one of bronze, and finally an iron and steel ax. The night rider seems to be working his way through the evolution of weaponry according to the progression of prehistoric ages. Prosper notices this intriguing rather obvious fact but Meek pays no attention to it dismissing it as fanciful nonsense. Each man is focused on different aspects of the various mysteries with Prosper poring over the more bizarre elements while Meek homes in on the hardcore criminal activity. Both methods will lead to the surprising truth of who killed Mollie and the secret identity of the animal skin wearing night rider.

THE AUTHOR: Bertram Atkey was a prolific writer of novels and short stories with career lasting close to forty years. He is probably best remembered as the creator of Smiler Bunn, the gentleman adventurer, who appeared in numerous stories and novels from 1912 to the late 1930s. Prosper Fair, his second detective creation, had a much smaller life appearing in only a handful of stories and only three novels. Atkey's nephew and son-in-law Philip Atkey (he married his cousin and Atkey's only daughter) was also a mystery writer. Under his own name and his better known pseudonym Barry Perowne, Atkey's nephew carried on the adventures of both Smiler Bunn and Prosper Fair in a short lived series of stories. All these stories were published in The Saint Mystery Magazine between 1960 and 1965.

EASY TO FIND?  The Prosper Fair books are extremely scarce and of the three titles The Midnight Mystery appears to be a true rarity. There are currently no copies for sale from any online bookselling site I looked at. Arsenic and Gold (1939) (shown above), featuring Smiler Bunn, with exactly ten copies currently offered for sale seems to be the easiest Atkey mystery book to get a hold of.

Prosper Fair detective novels
The Pyramid of Lead (1924)
The Midnight Mystery (1928)
The  House of Strange Victims (1930)

Friday, July 27, 2018

FFB: The Little Lie - Jean Potts

When asked where her fiance Chad has gone Dee Morris tells a lie, The Little Lie (1968). A fib really. She says he's gone to California on business. And because Dee has a habit of telling these little lies and truly believing in them, depending on them to construct her own personal reality, to protect her preciously cultivated status in town, that one little lie leads to more lies. A fib becomes a grand deceit and soon Dee finds herself desperately trying to reconstruct the truth without ever being found out. She can't admit to the lie, she is incapable of admitting to mistakes. And that's her fatal flaw. A plane crash leads everyone to believe that Chad has perished along with all the other passengers and Dee admits to it. But what will happen when everyone finds out that Chad is really alive? To what lengths will Dee go to make sure that her version of the truth remains undisturbed and undiscovered? Dee learns that not everything is in her control and that nothing can ever be predicted.

So many great works of literature have been created out of the concept of "the bigger the lie the more it will be believed". The Children's Hour (1934) by Lillian Hellman being one of the earliest and still one of the finest examples of the power of rumor and lies to change the viewpoint of all people those rumors touch while simultaneously bringing to light deeply hidden secrets. Few writers, however, have been challenged by the concept of the dangers of a fib. In an age when we are confronted with lies by people in power on an almost daily basis, by leaders who manufacture their own reality and wholeheartedly believe in that falseness, The Little Lie reminds us of the dangers of trusting too easily and more perceptively the concept of the liar as manipulator and puppeteer. Like our own misguided and narcissistic President, Dee Morris is trapped in a private world of her own creation, utterly self-absorbed, concerned only with her carefully crafted worldview, her status, and her tenuous happiness. Everyone else be damned. Woe to anyone who crosses her.

Even the slightest interference will only add to the snowballing trouble. The elderly schoolteacher Mr. Fly, a well-intentioned interloper who only wants the best for everyone. His habit of eavesdropping (a favorite plot device of Jean Potts) and gossip leads to a deadly confrontation between Dee and her sister-in-law Erna. Mr. Fly appears to be some sort of adult male version of Pollyanna trying to spread happiness wherever he goes, but only succeeds in augmenting trouble and bringing about ruin instead. In dealing with his intrusions Dee only becomes more desperate. Desperation makes her intractable. Her every action is about self-preservation. If people won't stop talking and gossiping then she will have to take matters into her own hands and permanently silence them.

The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts' finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee's most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie. And it's perfectly fitting in the last paragraphs that it is Mr Fly, the foolish interloper, who discovers Dee finally broken, caught in the web of her own creation, surrounded by her final act of violence with nothing left to do but collapse in a pitiful ironic fit of laughter.

Friday, July 13, 2018

FFB: The Devil & Ben Franklin - Theodore Mathieson

THE STORY: Young Ben Franklin is just starting out his career as a printer in Penn's Town (aka Philadelphia). His most recent editorial in his fledgling newspaper, however, has raised the ire of Colin Magnus, a shipping magnate who seems to have everyone under his control, especially his three daughters and son. Magnus demands a retraction of what he claims is a libelous editorial but Franklin refuses because it is all true. Magnus, a megalomaniac and religious hypocrite, curses Franklin justifying his invocation of Satan to ruin the printer's life as just another act of God who is all too ready to do Magnus' bidding. Shortly thereafter Franklin's printer's assistant is found dead and his journeyman disappears. With the discovery of eerie mark of a burned cloven hoofprint at the scene of each crime it looks as if the curse is flourishing insidiously. The townspeople want Franklin out and a mob rule takes over. Franklin fights back once more by enlisting the services of a fire and brimstone preacher who admonishes the entire town in a magnificent oratory display. The congregation leaves feeling humiliated and chastised. The curse backfires when Colin Magnus is found only a few days later stabbed with a sword in his locked study and another hoofprint left burning near the body. Franklin asks the Lord Mayor for a special commission allowing him to turn investigator. He promises to root out the very human cause of all the deaths and violence, and put an end to the madness of the citizenry who are falling prey to superstition and believing that the Devil, witches and warlocks are in control of Philadelphia.

Ben Franklin Wooing Deborah Read
(from the Granger Collection)
THE CHARACTERS: The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) is set in Philadelphia of 1734 when Ben Franklin is only twenty eight. In this well researched and authentic feeling 18th century historical mystery he is living with his common law wife Deborah Read (affectionately called Debby throughout) and his son William is still an infant. His print shop and work on the Pennsylvania Gazette are his life. We get a sense of his involvement in public life through his volatile writing in the guises of both Poor Richard and Alice Addertongue, his journalistic alter egos. His dialogue -- occasionally sprinkled with the kind of epigrammatic wit he is well known for -- declares strong beliefs, a fervent disdain of superstitious nonsense and a rejection of tyranny in all its forms. That the novel uses a detective story format to reveal his burgeoning career as statesman and philosopher is one of its strongest appeals.

We learn a lot about Franklin's creation of his men's discussion group the Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club. We meet all of its members who will also serve as suspects in the various crimes committed throughout the story. The club as Mathieson envisions it is made up of tradesmen (cobbler, scrivener, bookseller and printer, surveyor) as well as notable public figures like a lawyer and a magistrate. These men are some of Franklin's closest friends. Magnus approaches several of the Junto in an attempt to break up the club. He bribes them, threatens their businesses and does his best to make the curse he invoked come true. His goal is the total ruination of Franklin in family, career and social standing in Philadelphia.

Also featured prominently in the story is Colin Magnus' family. His three daughters are involved with men who also happen to be members of the Junto neatly tying together the two plot threads. Complicating matters is the sudden appointment of Robert Grace (another Junto member) as executor of the Magnus estate after his murder. Magnus who had been controlling his children, preventing them from marrying and in effect imprisoning them in his house wants Grace to carry out his dictatorial wishes by continuing a 24/7 watch on his family. His daughters unfortunately are once again prevented from marrying until they reach legal age. Unknown to Grace and only to Franklin is the fact that Jennifer Magnus is pregnant and planning to elope with the father of her child, William Maugridge (yet another member of the Junto) before her condition becomes too noticeable. Grover Magnus, the only son, who hated his father with an intensity is the prime suspect of his father's murder but he soon falls ill and everyone thinks once again the Devil's curse is manifesting itself and that the remaining members of the Magnus family may soon become targets of violence.

The cast is fairly large and the many supporting characters all have their shining moments. While so much of the story is devoted to the Junto members, the Magnus family and their relationship to Franklin and the killings there are a few outstanding minor characters who steal the spotlight in The Devil and Ben Franklin. One of the nastier villains of the piece is Ezra Peeples, a vile tavern owner so completely immoral and odious that he will not be satisfied with the fruition of the Devils' curse until Franklin is caught and burned alive as all witches are executed. When two more mysterious deaths occur Ezra is responsible for instigating the citizens into violent protests resulting in a lynch mob out for Franklin’s blood.

INNOVATIONS:  Mathieson manages fairly well to carry off a replication of 18th century life in both manner and speech. Only occasionally does the dialogue take on a 1960s contemporary tone. The paranoid atmosphere is maintained with the plot focusing on a Devil's curse and the Philadelphian's descent into superstition and a regression in witchcraft belief.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from Poor Richard's Almanack foreshadowing the action to come often simultaneously making an ironic comment on what will be revealed in that section.

One of the book's highlights takes place when Franklin is forced to flee the town finding refuge in the abandoned Kraft family farmhouse. Or so he thinks. The farmhouse is now home to Franz, a German hermit who is a follower of the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart. Franz is an excellent character, a welcome addition of wisdom and heartfelt humanity after so many pages of wickedness, rancor, and no-win conflict. He becomes an unlikely ally in the war that arises between the Junto members and the mob followers of Ezra Peeples. The climactic scene is a fully realized gunfight and showdown reminiscent of a scene from the western novels so popular only a decade earlier.

The detection ironically is perhaps the weakest portion of the book. Mathieson plants a few clues but relies on some well worn tricks that come as less of a surprise as they do anticlimax. In examining the scene of Colin Magnus' murder the solution to the locked room comes fairly quickly. As it relies on one of Carolyn Wells' "hackneyed devices" that she herself employed several times in her books it is also fairly forgettable. Another "hackneyed device" comes out of nowhere during the denouement and seems to be thrown in just to further rankle the hairs of any traditional detective novel fan.

Even though the finale is somewhat sloppily constructed it in no way diminishes the intelligence and heart of the overall story. I found The Devil & Ben Franklin entirely resonant with our times. Tyranny whether actual or metaphorical is a topic always worth reading about, always worth remembering its dangers.

QUOTES: Ezra Peeples: "What you call goodness is weakness, and I admire no weakling. Evil has its roots in the earth, and good has its roots in the vacant sky. That is why Colin Magnus' curse is more real than a blessing. Enjoy your quiet hour, Ben Franklin, bask in the sun of your success, for be sure it will not last long!"

Why was it that of all the people he knew, Ezra Peeples alone could speak in a way that rimed Ben's heart with ice?

"[God's] given you eloquence Mr. Dakin, there's no doubt of it. And you've convinced me that you may well be the needed savior of a town full of misguided people. If they must wallow in the dust, as you say, let it be the holy spirit and not the evil one that moves them."

"I should like to see His Satanic Majesty chased farther north -- say to New York or Boston, if you can manage it."

Well, if this was the Devil, he told himself derisively, he had shoes on his feet and solid legs, and probably a head to punch if he drew too near without salutation.

THE AUTHOR: Theodore Mathieson (1913-1995)
lived in Oregon for most of his writing career. For seventeen years he taught in California schools, later serving as instructor of English and journalism at Southwestern Oregon College. In 1958 he published his first detective short story "Captain Cook, Detective" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. This led to a further twelve stories all featuring historical figures who used their specific talents and skills to solve murders, many of them involving impossible crime motifs or locked rooms. The detectives included Alexander the Great, Florence Nightingale, Daniel Boone, Stanley and Livingston, and Miguel de Cervantes. A locked room mystery with Leonardo Da Vinci as the detective, called "one of the most ingenious" by Mike Ashley, has been repeatedly anthologized in several short story collections. All of Mathieson's EQMM stories were collected in The Great Detectives (1960). During the 1950s he also published stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, several of which were also later anthologized in other collections. In addition to his adult fiction Mathieson wrote juvenile novels including Island in the Sand (1964) about a 17 year-old boy who exiles himself in Oregon dune country, and two juvenile mysteries featuring The Sleuth Club: The Door to Nowhere (1964), and The Sign of the Flame (1964).

EASY TO FIND? This one is relatively scarce. The book was published in hardcover and paperback in the US and only a handful of copies are offered for sale at various online bookselling sites. Of the two US editions available the paperback from Popular Library (illustration used for this post) is the more abundant and affordable. I could not verify a UK edition.

Friday, July 6, 2018

FFB: Death Wishes - Philip Loraine

Unpleasant people. Unpleasant situations. You can’t escape them if you’re going to read crime fiction. I’m always amazed when I read a review of a crime novel that states the reviewer did not like the book because the characters were unlikeable, unpleasant, untrustworthy, and in general just UN-anything. Why bother reading crime fiction then? Nice people don’t steal, swindle, beat up, torture or kill other people. There are nothing but unpleasant people in Death Wishes (1983) one of Philip Loraine’s last books published in his lifetime. But just because these people are not nice doesn’t make them not worth your attention. This is one crafty bunch of characters and their two-timing and lying make for some fascinating reading.

Basically what we have here is another story about a group of avaricious relatives fighting for the estate of a wealthy patriarch who had little love for anyone other than himself. Edward Walden has one daughter, an alcoholic ex-wife now dead, and a couple of illegitimate children who will crop up during this twisty story of deceit and betrayal. His mistresses and their offspring as well as his servants are expecting to be the primary legatees when the will is read. Imagine their surprise when they hear that the entire estate is left to Catherine, his estranged daughter who has been living in the United States for over twenty years. The household is in a mild uproar and those who were apparently disinherited insist that there was a new will that cut out Catherine and left them the estate to divide into five equal shares.

Catherine who has traveled southern France to the Walden estate (but conveniently skipped out on Daddy’s funeral) finds herself the target of a couple of dangerous young men, their scheming mothers, and a wily butler out for himself. Who will find the correct will? And will Catherine survive the weekend before it turns up? I’ll say no more. Loraine has constructed a neatly plotted story, deceptively simple on the surface but teeming with background intrigues only hinted at in the first few chapters. But in the masterful, exciting finale those intrigues take center stage. All hell breaks loose with a furor of tempers flying, accusations of attempted murder, and a flurry of bizarre revelations and ugly truths finally exposed.

Short and sweet this week, eh? The only thing I’ll add in closing is that in this fourth to last novel of Loraine’s not only are the characters more base but so is his writing. Casual swearing crops up frequently as well as casual sex. Loraine decided to go whole hog with the unpleasantness. Those easily offended by F bombs in language and in the bedroom ought to look elsewhere for their entertainment. For me, Death Wishes hit the right notes of venal and criminal behavior on the printed page. Guess I was sick of niceness this past week.