Friday, June 11, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Bedeviled - Libbie Block

THE STORY: The malicious, exploitative and deeply disturbed wife of Willem Himbert, symphony conductor, becomes the target of Elizabeth Beel's undying animosity when the wife begins to concoct a fantasy in which she is the object of John Maicey's desire.  John is Elizabeth's boyfriend, perhaps soon-to-be husband, but Coca has other plans for the promising composer. Elizabeth's deep seated hatred is further fueled by the fact that she knows that Coca has infiltrated herself into the romantic lives of other musicians who at one time were Himbert's proteges.  She will not see John's chances at fame in the music world destroyed by Coca's petty and devious scheming.  She plans Coca's murder in her head almost nightly, various methods and means, until she doesn't know the difference between her fantasies and reality.  When Coca ends up dead Elizabeth is unsure if she carried out her murderous plan and turns detective to find out if it was she --or someone else -- who put a permanent end to Coca's twisted soap opera-like machinations.

THE CHARACTERS: Bedeviled (1947) consists of a relatively small cast of characters which allows for a claustrophobic atmosphere to build up in this melodramatic microcosm of musical composition and performance. Two couples --  Willem/Coca and Elizabeth/John -- are almost all we need in this story. Elizabeth, our narrator for much of the novel, provides  us with detailed but often skewed perceptions of the other characters for we can only "see" what she sees and reports to us.  Consequently, Coca appears to be a wily vixen reminiscent of the kind of villainesses you love to hate from the bygone era of night time soaps. The archetype of this superbitch is probably Alexis Carrington from the US TV show Dynasty.  Block's talent is in presenting us Coca as seen only through Elizabeth's eyes -- eyes that may be hateful but also part of a troubled mind. As much as Elizabeth wants to believe that Coca is some sort of female demon we never really know if she is exaggerating the truth  There are scenes with John in which he defends the conductor's wife and dismisses her attentions as juvenile flirting. So we are left to decide for ourselves whether or not Coca is the truly wicked woman Elizabeth would have us think she is.

Part of Elizabeth's trouble is that her love for John is intertwined with her desire to see him succeed as the "new discovery" of modern symphonic music.  The conflict arises out of the fact that Himbert can bring John much needed exposure by performing his works but Coca is included as part of that package.  Elizabeth cannot break John's relationship with Himbert and therefore she cannot break his relationship with Coca; the two are inextricable. She allows everything to take place simply because she wants John to succeed in his career.  This is the kind of supposed self-sacrifice done in the name of love that we keep finding in post-WW2 mainstream bestselling novels like the infuriating soap opera plot in Stella Dallas, the stereotype of the martyr mother, and crime infused melodramas like Mildred Pierce. 

We also get Elizabeth's perceptions that Willem Himbert is surreally devoted to Coca, in love with her in a way that seems to defy common sense. She finds it hard to believe that Himbert cannot see through his wife's scheming and deceit and her dangerous manipulation of his own love for her.  But is Coca really as thoroughly bad as Elizabeth sees her? Despite all the examples she reports of Coca's destructive plots and the careful construction of possible secret love affairs with Himbert's proteges and his intense jealousy of men who show the slightest interest in his younger,  strikingly beautiful wife we never really know if what Elizabeth is telling us is truth or a twisted interpretation of the truth.  Not until the introduction of a character late in the novel do we see Coca for what she truly is.

INNOVATIONS: Intriguingly, Block has inserted non-first person narrative sections into the story in which we are allowed to view the cast from a distant omniscient observer.  The sections with Elizabeth as narrator are labeled with the chapter heading "Inside" while the other sections are labeled "Outside" and there is one transitional chapter titled "Wayside" in which we get to see the murder happen. What appears at first to be a cleverly constructed inverted detective novel following the murderer's thoughts and deeds unexpectedly shifts in this pivotal "Wayside" section into a whodunnit. Then Elizabeth slowly adopts the role of a very reluctant sleuth when she tries to prove that she is not the killer.

Similar to The Evil Wish by Jean Potts Bedeviled is a fascinating portrait of a woman with a desire to murder who is left with a criminal plan that is unfulfilled. Those who have read Pott's brilliant book know that the characters who had a plan to kill ended up carrying out far worse criminal deeds having been infected with the mark of Cain, so to speak. But what happens to that murderous drive in Elizabeth's case in this book written more than a decade earlier?  She is tortured for much of the book truly believing that she did stab Coca to death but has no memory of the act. Even her sole confessor (who is also her employer) finds it hard to believe that she is anything but guilty.  She is so confused by the haunting blend of reality and fantasy that she often refers to herself in the third person, a classic example of dissociative behavior, perhaps the product of a guilty conscience, and one of the more compelling and prescient devices Block employs to add a sophisticated level of psychological insight to her gripping story.

QUOTES:  "How does one solve a murder? All the clue hunting and the rationalization seem so easy when I read mystery books [...] But this is a strange murder to solve. As though a bloodhound were sent to follow a long weary, and devious trail, with the full expectation that at the end he would tree -- himself!"

"I don't want to be different. I don't want to be a murderer. In this strange new afterward which will cost me my life and which has already cost me John, who is the very reason for my life, I can no longer understand the woman I used to be, the woman who fondled the idea of murder like a doll, dressing it in one bizarre scheme after another until the plaything took life and destroyed its keeper."

"I planned murder so many times, that like an automaton, I committed it. I have destroyed myself. And, my God, I am afraid. I am a coward. I don't want to die."

THE AUTHOR: Libbie Block (1910-1972) was born in Colorado, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father was a dentist who practiced in Denver.  She met her husband, an executive at Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, in Los Angeles, California where she lived for much of her life and where her two children were born. The author of over 250 short stories and three novels many of Block's writings were adapted into movies or TV shows.  

Labelling this post "First Books" maybe a misnomer and certainly a bit misleading for Bedeviled was her first crime novel, but not her debut as a novelist.  Her real debut book, Wild Calendar (1945) with a soap opera-like plot of a girl from Denver who marries a rich man, moves to New York, then leaves him to raise her child on her own, was made into the movie Caught starring Barbara Bel Geddes in one of her first starring roles opposite James Mason and Robert Ryan as the men in her life. One of her short stories was made into Pin-Up Girl as a vehicle for Betty Grable to show off the dancer/singer's talents. Two other stories were adapted for a couple of television anthology series:  "The Night the Doorbell Rang" appeared in season eight on The Loretta Young Show and "Last Concerto" was on Cosmopolitan Theatre in 1951. Several of her short stories were collected and edited by her husband Patrick Duggan and published under the title No Man Tells Everything (1959).

Friday, June 4, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Blood on the Common - Anne Fuller & Marcus Allen

"I got a feeling that I'm goin' to have to arrest one of my neighbors this time, and I never done that. It's hell to be a constable sometimes."

Dan Morgan in Blood on the Common

Small Town, USA.  It's been the setting on thousands of mainstream novels. Placing a story in a small town or village can offer a burgeoning novelist the chance to dissect the stereotypes of Americana by exposing the small-mindedness that usually infects these insular communities.  An outsider enters the town and all hell breaks loose. In their first mystery novel Anne Fuller and Marcus Allen expose not only small-mindedness but the insidious nature of gossip and the havoc it wrecks on the citizens of Small Town, USA.

Interestingly, Blood on the Common (1933) starts with an act of kindness when Pastor Andrew Stevens sees what he believes to be the local town drunk passed out by the Revolutionary War era cannon on the town common.  It's extremely early morning and he figures he'll spare Tug Bailey the embarrassment of being seen yet again as a symbol of alcoholic indigence by rescuing him and taking him somewhere out of sight.  As an afterthought he also is concerned about the dangers of hypothermia and exposure. But really he's most concerned about the townspeople and the ugly rumor mill that will start grinding out gossip if someone sees Tug passed out in plain sight.  He summons the help of Jake Smeed who reluctantly allows himself to be dragged out of his home and together they attempt to move Tug to a safe space indoors. When they move in closer they discover it's not Tug at all.  They have no idea who it is. And he's not drunk. He's dead with a bullet in his chest. 

What follows is an intricately constructed detective novel focusing on first the identity of the corpse, why he was killed, and why he was left out in plain view for anyone to stumble across. As the story unfolds we are introduced to nearly everyone in town. Constable Dan Morgan leads the investigation at first unsure of how exactly to deal with the first murder to occur in the town of Welbourne.  He is assisted by undertaker Pete Hill who also acts as the coroner and later by reporter Larry King from the big city. A bit more sophisticated than Dan, Larry is used to asking subtly intrusive questions in order to elicit the right response. Larry has a gentler way compared to Dan's direct brusque approach, but nevertheless is shrewd and insightful in ways that Dan could never be. 

Luckily, the team of investigators are given a couple of very handy clues to help with identification -- an engraved pocket watch and an initialed ring that reveal the man is Harvey K. Oliver. Another ring seems to have been removed from the man's left hand leaving a bloody scratch below some age old swelling indicating the ring was probably worn for a long time and never taken off. A wedding band perhaps? 

Suspects are numerous of course. But Clara Bisbee, an unrepentant malicious gossip is convinced that Julia Guilford shot Oliver.  She runs to Dan Morgan and reports that she saw Julia leave her house in the middle of the night and didn't return for breakfast.  Clara is Julia's landlady and spends too much time checking up on not only her tenants but everyone in town. Now she says that Julia is in bed suffering from "a cold or pneumonia or something" and that proves she was outside at night in the damp weather for many hours. When Dan questions Julia she is reticent about her activities the night of the murder.  It will be some time before Dan and Larry get Julia to tell all about where she went and who she met late that night.

Meanwhile Geoffrey Wayne, an invalid septuagenarian sits at home mulling over the events as he knows them. He has been visited by Dan's wife Ginevra who often stops in to check on Wayne and read to him.  Wayne is the town eccentric, a collector of antiquarian books, an intellectual at odds with the rest of the townspeople.  Wayne has a marvelous scene where he mocks Clara Bisbee as the local nosy Parker. His verbal assault is both well deserved an d hilarious. The book collector unsurprisingly has a rich and varied vocabulary and his tirades read like some of the best insult exchanges from in a Shakespearean comedy.  Clara of course thinks she's doing everyone an immense favor by being such a busybody but her malicious nature seeps out every time she opens her mouth.  Wayne lets her and many others have it with lines like: "Go pollute the air somewhere else!" And "Hell is too good for you. You're not fit to associate with the residents of hell." And " inimitable cross between Judas Iscariot and the Marquis De Sade, you have the temerity to call Tug Bailey the scum of the earth? My dear Mr. Smeed, in comparison with you, Tug Bailey is not only an impeccable gentleman, but an illustrious scholar." In the end Wayne does some sleuthing of his own and is instrumental in providing some of the best evidence to Dan and Larry.  He's an armchair detective of the best type, but with his wheelchair serving as the requisite seat.  Geoffrey Wayne is perhaps the only reason to read Blood on the Common.  While at first Wayne seems to be pompous and cantankerous he proves to be a delightful mixture of sarcastic wit, outrage and wisdom.

Wayne has a housekeeper and cook named Birdie, not too smart and yet another closed-mouth woman unwilling to talk about what she has been up to.  Eventually we learn she's been providing shelter and food for Tug Bailey in a temporary home they've cobbled together in a tool shed out in the back of Wayne's property.  She and Tug have a couple of secrets that will also take Dan and Larry quite some time to uncover.

High on the suspect list is Arthur Shelby, the owner of the only hotel in town.  Oliver was supposedly staying there according to a laundry delivery service but Shelby denies that Oliver was registered at the Inn.  In fact, he denies having any guest for the past couple of days. If that is the case, Dan asks Shelby, then how does he explain a bagful of Oliver's clothes that were to be delivered to the man this morning at the Inn? Typical of almost everyone in Welbourne Shelby remains tight lipped. Who if anyone will be willing to talk to Dan and Larry?

Well, Jake Smeed has a lot say.  Belligerent and volatile Smeed has been at war with Tug Bailey for years. His antipathy for the drunk is well known and openly expressed with hostility. Tug had a farm that everyone in town knows Jake stole from him. When Tug lost his land he lost his soul and it drove him to the bottle. Smeed refuses to call his "business deal," a shady manipulation of real estate law and bribery with a highway construction company, stealing Tug's farm. Dan has theory that Oliver was involved in that "business deal" that bordered on fraud and killed him then framed Tug. Larry is unsure if Jake could be that clever or vindictive. But it certainly looks bad for Jake when Tug goes missing.

There is a second murder, one not too surprising and brought about by the behavior of the victim.  It's a neat twist that complicates the case of Oliver's death. And ultimately it's a daring rule breaker for a traditional detective novel written in the early 1930s.  I thought it gutsy for this first time writing duo to add a unexpected twist to an already rather complex plot.

For a mystery novel this shows a real love of the genre, a respect for fair play rules while at the same time flouting them with the second murder.  It's well above average for a detective novel of any era and rather advanced for one in the heyday of the Golden Age, especially from a team of supposed novice writers. Many readers may cavil at the reveal of the villain as it seems rather arbitrary and takes the concept of the least likely suspect to extremes.  Yet all the clues are there pointing to who Fuller & Allen intended to be their murderer from the outset.

Anne Fuller and Marcus Allen wrote only two mystery novels together.  I am sure they were involved in the movie business possibly having contributed to screenplays but I've been unlucky in obtaining any proof.  Despite the fact that I have received many emails from a variety of relatives all saying they are related to Marcus Allen I still have little to offer up about the lives of these two writers. One of these relatives was kind enough to send me a photo (shown above) of an autographed copy of one of their books. So at least we have their signatures and sentiments along with Fuller's husband (or is it brother?) who drew the map in that second novel.

Blood on the Common is much easier to find in used bookstores, but it is Fuller & Allen's Death on the Outer Shoal that is the far superior book of the two.  Both explore small mindedness and insularity in New England villages but the second book adds a thrilling dimension of vigilantism and self-preservation of a community into the mix.