Friday, April 9, 2021

FFB: At the Sign of the Clove & Hoof - Zoë Johnson

THE STORY: The Clove and Hoof is the hot spot in Larcombe for a pint of bitter, a good story and some laughs. It's also the focal point of a bizarre series of murders for the only connection the victims have seems to be that they all frequented the local pub. Strange pranks, a spate of anonymous letters all painted in blue watercolor, and a decapitated head found floating in the stream near Starehole Gap all lead to the police uncovering unusual criminality dating back 20 years.

THE CHARACTERS: The story of At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof (1937) is memorable for its offbeat sense of humor and the colorful characters who inhabit the village of Larcombe. This is a world of kooks, oddballs and eccentrics galore. Only an oddball would create anonymous letters with a child’s watercolor paint kit, right? And what kind of person would think that playing pranks by leaving a fish in someone’s bed, placing a ticking metronome outside a bedroom door or using a airgun to blast pepper shot at windows would be viewed as terrorism and result in hysteria? A nut job for sure, right? At first the novel seems to be no more than a Wodehousian satire of folksy villagers with a smattering of farcical scenes but the pranks and the oddness turn sinister and deadly as the story progresses.

Two policemen of decidedly differing approaches to crime solving head up the professional side of the investigation. We begin by meeting the officious Inspector Percy Blutton aided by local cops Jack Marsden and P.C. Jipps. Blutton questions the various habitués of the Clove and Hoof with vigorous impatience and makes up his mind fairly quickly who killed Vicar Ernest Pratt, the first victim of the mad killer, who was found shot in the head at the base of a cliff not far from his car. Footprints indicating a hobnail boot and a pegleg are found around the vehicle suggesting that Captain John Thomas Ridd, the only one legged man in the village, was near the car wreck recently. But Ridd has a solid alibi having been on his boat returning home to Larcombe the night Pratt was killed. Blutton disbelieves him and hounds Ridd for the rest of the novel. That is, until Ridd suddenly vanishes without a trace.

Our other policeman is Det. Sgt. Plumper from Scotland Yard. Considerably younger than Blutton he has a more subtle style of interrogation allowing the men of the village and the few women (nearly all of whom are servants) to chatter away and gossip while he nonchalantly inserts pertinent questions to catch them off guard and almost always getting a quick and truthful answer. Blutton finds this tactic strange and pointless but is ironically envious that it works for Plumper as often as it does. Plumper also exhibits impatience with the locals but manages to get the truth quicker than Blutton. Unfortunately, Plumper’s ego gets in the way and he allows himself to be hoodwinked by a clever ruse in the highly interesting final chapter.

Of the various suspects we have Bert Yeo, the pub owner who seems the most reticent of the lot; Sebastian Hannabus, aging antiquarian and jack-of-all-trades who counts among his various professions taxidermist, antique dealer, and barber; Lionel Gedling, ancient recluse who lives in the crumbling mansion known as Old Barton who is the victim of the various odd pranks; his mysterious manservant Costigan a man with a closed lip and a secret he’s hiding; Jeremy Scoutey, the local grocer, and his daughter Alice who is one of the several people in town who owns one of the paint sets that might be the source of the anonymous letters; Rosa, the barmaid with a fickle heart; and the star of the book Christian Peascod, dilettante of the arts and amateur detective.

Peascod is the best thing about At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof. He dominates the action whenever he appears with his larger than life personality, his arch humor and grandiose manner of speaking. Fancying himself both a poet and painter but good at neither he is also well versed in detective fiction having read the works of “Bailey, Doyle, Van Dine, Roger East, Freeman, Wills, and Croft and the Misses Sayers and Christie.” I love that bit Freeman, Wills and Croft. A real in-joke for hardcore devotees of mystery novels. I take it that Freeman is R. Austin Freeman and Wills refers to the now ultra obscure Cecil M. Wills whose books are as scarce as Johnson’s are now.

Plumper listens to Peascod’s fascinating ideas about how and why the various crimes were committed -- all of it inspired by his favorite writers. Much to the would-be poet’s delight the Scotland Yard officer allows him to continue his investigations as a sort of unofficial deputy. But all the time Plumper has Peascod in mind as suspect number one. It was Peascod’s metronome found at Gedling’s home. Peascod was present at Starehole Gap the day the head came floating up out of the water. That Peascod is also fond of watercolor as his preferred medium for his laughable artwork is also a huge mark against him.

By the time the police have sorted the red herrings from the facts, discarded all the surreal nonsense obfuscating the murderer’s motive, six people will have died, Plumper and Jack Marsden will be attacked and nearly killed, and Christian Peascod will have a last laugh on the police who scoffed at his ideas.

INNOVATIONS: Though there is a protracted denouement which consists mostly of a cliché of traditional detective fiction I am beginning to detest – the villain who performs a monologue of his life while outlining the reasons for his actions—ultimately the book ends with some stunning surprises. Johnson has dared to flout the tacit and written rules of detective fiction and come up with a solution that defies all those conventions. I loved it and it made me grin in admiration. This finale reminded me how rare it is to encounter an unconventional rule breaker who thumbs his or her nose at the supposed rules and how much I mentally applaud them when they do show up.

THINGS I LEARNED: Johnson loves language and words and sprinkles her novel with unusual vocabulary. The adjective corybantic cropped up to describe the men in the pub when they get rowdy and it led me to find out its origin. It comes from Corybant, the name given to a priest who worshipped Cybele in ancient times. Their ecstatic celebrations to the goddess included fervent dancing that came to be described as corybantic.

QUOTES: Starehole Gap was beauty spot. Not a commercial and official Beauty Spot with Tea Rooms run by languid, rapacious genteelwomen and with Period Car Parks for char-a-bancs. No; it was just a pretty, unnoticed place, the private property of Lionel Gedling and part of his small estate on Larcombe Head. The Gap itself was a steep little glade sloping down to the sea, whose chief attractions were a delicate waterfall and a deep green pool. People said that had Lionel Gedling not been so thick-skulled and simple and crazy, he could have made money out of it simply by changing its name to the Faery Grotto, hanging lanterns in the trees and opening it to the holiday public at a shilling or more per head.

Christian was only too pleased to go. He had already got the first two couplets of Ode to the Bloodiness of Man, and he knew he would forget them if he tarried much longer.

“Our man’s certainly a colorful humorist,” [Plumper said.] “Like Peascod, he’s read his detective novels. The Clue of the Wooden Leg. The Clue of the Headless Body. The Clue of the Painted Letter, and now the Clue of the Bloody Handkerchief. Rich – very rich. Too rich.”

But Plumper was scowling. He was angry and he was worried because he had a strong feeling now that he was up against a maniac of some sort; one who was treating crime as a game, taking fantastic risks because he was too crazy to care about personal danger, playing mysterious tricks because it amused him to do so, acting from inconsistently abnormal motives. The whole business was too theatrical, too Grand Guignol.

“Merciful heaven! The man asks has it anything to do with this business?” Peascod was almost prancing with excitement. “This [letter] has come straight from the murderer, don’t you realize that? Hot from his bloody hand. Don’t just stand there dithering, man. Don’t you realize you hold the key to everything? All unwitting, you’ve stumbled on the villain’s secret! Quick, quick what is it you’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled, dreamed?”

THE AUTHOR: Finding biographical information about Zoë Johnson was next to impossible. Other than the very few listings for this book, one of two that were for sale in the past six months, I found nothing online about her. With such a dearth of info I was convinced that Zoë Johnson is a pseudonym for some well-known mystery writer. The book itself – with its primarily male cast of characters, a hard-edged satirical sense of humor, knowledge about the life of a fisherman, and the emphasis on men gathering in a local pub for camaraderie and entertainment – seemed to be the work of a man rather than a woman. But this could be a combination of sheer bias and utter ignorance. I thought of other writers published by Gregory Bles who shared the same sense of offbeat humor and dreamed up similar bizarre plots like Reginald Davis, John Haslette Vahey under his “Henrietta Clandon” guise and John V. Turner writing as “Nicholas Brady.” I guess only copyright information on Johnson’s two books published with Bles would reveal the truth, that and the actual contracts. William Collins & Company (creator of the Collins Crime Club imprint) purchased the publishing house of Gregory Bles in 1953 and most likely still holds the copyright for Johnson’s novels. My feeble attempts at uncovering the copyright info turned up nothing. Then after a few days of compulsive searching of the multiple online updates at Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV I found this:

JOHNSON, ZOË (GREY?). 1913(?)-1992(?). (Adding somewhat more likely
middle/maiden name and dates for the author of two 1930s novels in CFIV.)

Good heavens, I thought. She’s a real person! If I had the patience to carry on with this data digging I might be able to verify her birth date and death date with records from Ancestry.com or some other similar genealogy website. But I really can’t spend any more time trying to figure out who she is or where she lived. I’m hoping someone who has some knowledge about Zoë Johnson will read this post and leave a comment below. It’s a real shame she only wrote two books and that the other one, Mourning After (1938), is so rare that no copies are offered for sale at all. This is yet another book I’d love to reprint in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: Helen Knowland - Senator’s Wife with a Dark Imagination

Madame Baltimore (1949) received quite a bit attention when it was first published. First, its author is Helen Knowland, wife of a prominent California senator at the time. Second, the book itself was one of the darkest studies of marriages gone awry in crime fiction to date. Had Knowland been more talented and dedicated as a writer she probably wouldn’t be the one hit wonder she became. Her personal life, however, interfered (more on that later). Still, one book is more than enough from Helen Knowland. She manages to cram a lot into her twisted portrait of infidelity and betrayal.

Madame Baltimore is quite a first novel and a signal for a type of suspense novel that would dominate crime fiction in the decades to come. Knowland was way ahead of her colleagues, the veterans of mysterydom, who were just beginning to acknowledge the transformation of the traditional detective novel into the novel of crime as psychological character study. In many ways Madame Baltimore looks back to the pioneering work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding in the late 1930s and Margaret Millar’s early novels on the early 1940s as well as prophesizing the school of domestic suspense that would thrive in the 1950s and 1960s.

Our narrator is disillusioned Harriet Berkeley who has become completely obsessed with Washington DC wonder boy Foster Ford. In the first chapter she reveals her extramarital affair with Ford now lasting for over a year and that has been paying him $500 every month for the past four months. Initially, it seems as if she was paying Foster to remain her lover, but as the story progresses in its unique structure that travels backward in time we find out the money is for an entirely different reason, one that Harriet herself is responsible for having created. Harriet is not a nice person. The more we read about her the more we discover that she has allowed her desire for Foster to ruin her life and all those she thought she loved.

From the start we know that Foster himself is a cad because very soon into the story Harriet tells us she is being blackmailed. Foster demands he continue handing over $500 or he will tell her husband that she is not only cheating but that she is paying him and let Bob, her husband, draw his own conclusions about the money. There is an air of doom about them. Someone is going to pay dearly and Harriet will decide who that person is.

A discussion about a letter from an anonymous woman Harriet insultingly terms “Madame Baltimore” comes up in conversation. Harriet is incensed that Foster appears to have another lover. She wants to end their affair but Foster threatens blackmail. Then we learn that the letter is written by Harriet in an elaborate scheme to create another fictitious mistress so that she can break up Foster’s marriage. It all begins to seem like some dreadful soap opera plot. But things turn deadly very quickly.

As with all simplistic fantasizers Harriet gives no thought to possible consequences such as Drucie, Foster Ford’s wife, not willing to act according to Harriet’s plan despite her having confided that she is more than attracted to charming Charles McAllister. Funny how people have minds of their own, and often act out of a character. In her naïve imagination where Foster belongs only to her Harriet consistently fails to see that the people she ought she know well – her friends, her husband and even Foster himself – can make their own decisions and do so in ways that repeatedly backfire.

Ultimately, Madame Baltimore is modeled on a classic inverted detective novel. We know that Harriet is a schemer, a faithless wife and deceitful friend and is planning to murder Ford. Like many of these classic forms of the subgenre the reader is waiting for Harriet to discover her fatal mistake that will reveal her as the guilty murderer. The unusual aspect of this inverted novel, in addition to its rather ingenious construction of shuttling between past and present in order to build suspense, is that Harriet has not made one fatal error but a series of mistakes, all of them illogical and stupid, all of them because she fails to think clearly in her moments of madness. It’s the study of an obsessed mind slowly crumbling under pressure. A fantasy of a silly love letter from a fake person leads to more lies and betrayal.

Knowland has written her novel from Harriet’s point of view and yet as Harriet’s state of mind builds from worry to fear to paranoia each of the other characters becomes more and more distrusting. What about that other letter on pink paper, the letter Harriet didn’t write? Who wrote that one? Is there really another mistress in Ford’s life? Or has Drucie caught on to Harriet and playing mind games with her? There is an element of Gaslight that pervades the novel. Even though we know that Harriet is a nasty warped woman we wonder if her friends and husband are just as nasty. Who really knows what’s going on? Is everyone lying?

Knowland loads her story with plenty of unexpected twists. At one point there is an incident that almost makes this an impossible crime mystery. But that mysterious incident is readily explained within a few pages. If anyone ever finds a copy of this with the dustjacket I suggest you not read the spoiler-laden front flap. Not only does the blurb make the story seem as if the book is a whodunnit – and it most certainly is not – it ruins one of the most shocking surprises, a scene that occurs close to the book’s climax, well past the halfway mark! Very poor decision from the marketing team.

That this kind of novel of deceit, lies and betrayal is set in Washington DC is telling. Helen Knowland was married to one her era’s leading and most prominent Republican senators and clearly had inside dope on the movers and shakers in Washington. Foster Ford is supposed to be representative of the smarmier opportunists . She describes Foster as a man who “made a profession of his hobbies, without pay.” While he may not be making much money he is earning plenty of prestige and building a reputation as 1940s style influencer.

Helen Herrick met her husband William Knowland in grade school. Against parental advice stating they were too young to marry, Bill and Helen eloped on New Year's Eve 1926; Helen was 19 and Bill only 18. After a brief stint as a California state senator and following service in the US Army during WW2 Knowland was elected to the US Senate in 1945. He and his wife moved to Washington DC. While a US Senator Knowland served as leader on various committees eventually becoming Senate Majority Leader in the Eisenhower years.  He remained a US Senator from 1945 through 1959.

In 1972, four years shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, the story of Madame Baltimore sadly came true for Helen Knowland. Her husband had left politics to run his father’s newspaper in Oakland but also had been cheating on Helen for decades, the first occurring in 1958 and lasting nearly three years before the woman, Ruth Moody, died of a stroke in 1961. While in Oakland Bill got involved in real estate deals to help cover gambling debts. The mob was involved and his life began to unravel. Helen divorced him in 1972 after his second affair with Ann Dickson was uncovered.  Knowland married Ann but two years later in 1974, overburdened with debt, shame and guilt, he committed suicide. His rise to political power, his years as Republican Majority Leader during the height of the Eisenhower era, his eventual fall from grace in Washington, and his ruinous final years in Oakland are all detailed in the biography One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland by Gayle B. Montgomery & James W. Johnson.

Though Anthony Boucher mentions in his introduction to the digest reprint retitled Baltimore Madame that Helen had several books in the works, including another mystery novel, none of them were ever published. She had dabbled in writing, a few articles and short stories made it to print, but not one of her planned three books  -- a mainstream novel about Washington DC life, a historical western, and a mystery novel. The digest reprint appeared in 1957 during the heyday of her husband's political career. At the time of the reprint's publication William Knowland was Senate Majority leader, at age 45 the youngest senator ever to hold that position, and his dalliances were already surfacing. Perhaps real life was far too dramatic and demanding to ever compete with Helen's dark and criminal imaginings on paper.