Friday, March 15, 2019

FFB: The Flight of the Doves - Walter Macken

In celebration of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day weekend activities out here in Chicago here's a perfect book that embodies of the idea of the Luck of the Irish.

THE STORY: Fed up with the abuse of their cruel stepfather Finn Dove and sister Derval run away with plans to find refuge with their kindly grandmother who lives in Ireland. Their journey entails crossing the ocean by boat and then relying on their wits, what little money they've scraped together, and the kindness of strangers to help them reach their destination. But the police and nasty "Uncle Toby" (the nickname they call their stepfather) are hot on their trail.

THE CHARACTERS: Finn and Derval make for an immensely likeable pair. Finn is devoted to his sister often acting as surrogate parent since the death of both of their mother and father. He arranges their escape, pools their limited funds, packs clothes and comes up with the clever, if burdensome, idea of wearing multiple layers of clothes to lighten their makeshift luggage that will allow room for more important items like food and drink. He's wily and street smart knowing that children can seem invisible if they are in the company of adults. So he tries to make it appear that he and his sister are part of a large family in order to get aboard the boat to Ireland.

Remarkably, his resourcefulness need not be tested or challenged too much for the two children seem to be watched over by the powers of good wherever they travel. Nearly everyone they encounter helps them move along to their final destination ranging from some ruffian boys playing football to a truck driver whose sideline is dealing in stolen goods. The Doves also meet up with a family of Irish travellers who temporarily adopt them, escape being handed off to the police for a £100 reward, and repeatedly manage to outwit the police and their "Uncle Toby" by a hair's breadth until they come to a much needed rest in Carraigmore.

Derval & Finn Dove
illustration by Charles Keeping,
from 1st UK edition (1968)
Along the way a police inspector named Michael in charge of the children's search becomes one of the most unexpected Good Samaritans of the novel. After hearing of the overly dramatic reaction of Toby, the stepfather's seemingly genuine weeping and how he manipulates the entire police force into consoling him Michael suspects something false in the melodramatic display. If this man's sorrow were genuine indicating a caring and compassionate guardian then why did the Dove children flee his home? Something must not have been right. He decides to resign from the case and go "on holiday" with his supervisor's permission. In reality he goes undercover to find the kids himself and secretly helps them to their grandmother's home. Michael will play a big role in straightening out the legal mess of the children having been made Wards of the Court, ensuring they are released from Uncle Toby's clutches, and that they get their just rewards of their inheritance from a distant relation and a home where they can be genuinely loved.

INNOVATIONS: Intended as a children's book The Flight of the Doves(1968) often reads like a fairy tale for adults. The best of children's literature can appeal to a wide audience and it never seems as if Macken is limiting himself to younger readers though he clearly set out to write it for kids. As with most children's books there are lessons to be learned. He reminds us that Michael the conflicted police officer is a representative of the legal system and must not ever break the law even if he finds himself bending the rules a bit in order to help the children achieve their goal. It is the overarching theme of connectedness, responsibility, and innate decency that make the book so enjoyable and mature. Macken manages to do all this without once becoming treacly or sentimental in any way. Derval is the only character in the book who suffers from cuteness (excusable for a child so young, I guess) but everyone else has an edge to them in spite of being kind and extravagantly generous. Even Granny O'Flaherty when we finally meet her is far from the saintly type of grandmother one encounters in children's books. She's tough as nails and puts up a fight using her steadfast Irish common sense and an iron will. The law will not take her grandchildren away from her if she has any say.

QUOTES: "If it wasn't for you we would have been caught," said Finn.
"How do you know?" Michael asked. "Something else might have happened. You might have got away. If a fellow wants a thing badly enough, he will get it."

[Michael] would have to be prepared to meet the law with the truth. This was what the law was about. Truth had no law to fight. He hoped the children could keep free for the time he required to find the truth that would really free them. He thought, with Finn's determination, that they might.

"No! Don't tell me. I like mysteries, see. I can be makin' up stories about it for the rest of time. If I knew, there'd be no fun in it. [...] Most stories has no mysteries in them. It's just nothing when you hear the truth. Sometimes lies is better than truth for the sake of adventure."

Movie tie-in edition
Pan Books (1971)
THE MOVIE: The Flight of the Doves was filmed in 1971 starring 19 year-old Jack Wild as Finn, Dorothy McGuire as Granny, and Stanley Holloway as the Judge. The movie also reunited Wild with his Oliver! co-star, delightful British character actor Ron Moody who played Hawk Dove, a new character created especially for the movie. I believe Hawk was the brother of the kids' father (so their real uncle) who is next in line to inherit the money if anything should happen to the children. In the film Moody is the main antagonist as he tries to find the kids and ...uh... dispose of them so that the trust fund money can be his alone. He adopts a variety of disguises (I think he was a failed actor, but my memory is fuzzy) in order to cajole and befriend Finn and Derval. Despite Finn and Derval's attempt to disguise themselves by reversing their genders, they cut their hair, dye it, and change clothes, Hawk Dove is able to track them down. I saw the movie ages ago when it was first released in movie theaters back in the 70s when I was a kid and just recently watched a few clips on the TMC website to help refresh my memory. But none of the clips I viewed were of scenes with Moody and the two children. Basically it's very similar to the book with the added tension and suspense of a murderous relative trying to do in the kids. The movie is available on DVD and various clips are on both the TMC website and YouTube.

THE AUTHOR: Walter Macken (1915-1967) was born in Galway and began his career in theater as an actor then playwright and director. In his youth he was with the Little Gaelic Theater in Galway where plays were presented in his native Irish language in which Macken was fluent. In 1948 he joined Abbey Theater where his playwriting flourished. His play Home is the Hero was the first Abbey production to travel overseas to Broadway and was also filmed three times (once for German TV). The 1959 film of Home Is the Hero was the first movie to be produced and filmed at Ardmore Studios in Dublin and featured the entire company of the Abbey Theater with American actor Arthur Kennedy as Willie O'Reilly the only non-Irish performer in the cast. Macken later turned to novels and is best known for his trilogy of books -- Seek the Fair Land (1959), The Silent People (1962) and The Scorching Wind (1966) -- forming an epic saga about the struggle of Ireland to gain freedom from England. He wrote one other children's book The Island of the Great Yellow Ox (1966) prior to The Flight of the Doves which turned out to be his final work. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Galway at the age of 51.

EASY TO FIND? To my great surprise I discovered that The Flight of the Doves has remained in print since it was first published. It's most recent edition is dated 2007. There are hundreds of copies for sale in the used book market, mostly paperback editions from both US and UK houses. The UK first edition appears to be a genuine rarity though just last year I managed to find a copy with a DJ much to my delight. It should not be difficult to locate a copy of this book no matter where you live. I'm sure it's still on the shelves of library children's sections, too.

I loved this movie when I was a kid and have never forgotten it. I only just read the book for the first time this year. It brought back a flood of memories and it was such a welcome relief from the gruesome and horrific novels I have been reading for the past couple of weeks. For some The Flight of the Doves may seem to be overflowing with convenient plot incidents, coincidence, and too much of the kindness of strangers.  For me, however, it was just the book I needed. This adventurous story will remind any reader that  goodness does exist in the world and of how we all have a responsibility to each other to do the right thing no matter how much the world seems to be against it.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Death of a Doll - Hilda Lawrence

Death of a Doll, 1st edition DJ
Simon & Schuster, 1947

Hilda Lawrence was not a prolific mystery writer. However, in her small output of only five books, she gave us a fascinating type of crime novel that included detection and psychological suspense, some of the earliest cases of genre blending in the post-WW2 era. Her first novel Blood upon the Snow (1944) introduced a private eye who nearly met his match with two elderly spinsters, Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, sort of a 1940s version of the Snoop Sisters minus the mystery writing angle. Mark East, the private detective, would return two more times accompanied in each book by Beulah and Bessy.  Death of a Doll (1947) is the third and last case for this highly unusual sleuthing trio and it may be their most complex and intriguing crime solving case of the the lot.

Right off the bat this a very different Mark East mystery because it is set in the heart of Manhattan. The previous two books took place in isolated rural communities far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Lawrence has a knack for finding the darkness no matter where she sets her books. Like the previous two mysteries in the trilogy of detective novels Death of a Doll is fraught with tension, long hidden secrets and one of the most sinister murderers to spring from the macabre imagination of its writer. Lawrence delves into the dangerous side of female friendships, the petty jealousies that can turn from mean spiritedness to treacherous revenge to murderous rage.

The mystery itself centers on Hope House, a women's boarding house and its mix of working class women residents and its all female staff.  Ruth Miller, is the newest resident, a shop girl employed at the somewhat ritzy department store Blackman's. Two girls who work in Blackman's storeroom currently live at Hope House and let Ruth know of a recent vacancy. She is excited to be moving in and shares this excitement with one of her favorite customers, Roberta Sutton (newly married, fresh out of the previous book A Time to Die). This conversation will come back to haunt Roberta when days later she hears of some very sad news. Ruth died shortly after moving in from a fatal fall out of her apartment window.

Prior to the accident Lawrence lets us know that Ruth has been carrying with her a terrible secret. One she was sure that she would never have to confront. But on her first day all her buried fears, her angst about this secret and her life prior to New York City, come rushing back in a flood of memories when she sees and hears something.  She actually tries to flee and escape confronting this past but she is dragged back by Monica Brady, one of the two women in charge of Hope House, who senses something strange in Ruth's behavior. She wants to help the girl but also has some suspicions and wants to get at the truth.

No one can prevent what happens. Lawrence allows us to see Ruth meet up with her past and we know that she never suffered an accidental fall that more and more the police want to rule as a suicide. Roberta Sutton is sure of Ruth's death was neither accident nor suicide based solely on the conversation she had with Ruth. Seeing her giddy excitement, knowing that she was ready for change and improvement in her life Roberta is convinced that Ruth would never take her own life. She asks her friend Mark East to look into Ruth's death and prove her right. With the help of his two old lady assistants and in cooperation with Inspector Foy of the NYPD  Mark digs into Ruth's past and discovers a killer like no other he's met before.

What Lawrence does so well here is shake up the conventions of the private eye urban world with an offbeat and decidedly female perspective of her two spinster detectives who tackle the big city environment with gusto. Beulah is tough, nearly humorless and shrewd. Bessy is flighty, garrulous, overly imaginative and has tendency to dip into the sherry bottle too often. Both are formidable each in her own way. Beulah manages to instill a bit of terror in the residents of Hope House when she goes undercover as Ruth's disabled aunt (she fakes a limp) and starts asking a lot of prying questions.  In addition to exploiting their age and appearance they are imaginatively resourceful. They manage to find a dry cleaner and an eye doctor by thinking exactly like Ruth and knowing how she would choose those services based on her character of a small town girl just getting used to a big city.

The detective work tends to be a mixture of the kind of psychological probing of the victim's life you find in most mystery fiction (more prevalent in post-WW2 private eye fiction), and the oddball clue finding of the traditional mystery already seeming quaintly old-fashioned by 1947. Ruth's death took place during a costume party in which all the residents were dressed in identical rag doll costumes. A music box is used as a murder weapon. One of the residents is blind, her childlike inquisitive nature adds an eerie chill when she appears on the scene. Then there are taxi chases and insensitive grilling sessions that are stock in trade of private eye novels. The balance between the two seemingly disparate types of mystery blend well and are almost indistinguishable from each other. It's as if Lawrence has invented her own subgenre, and one that seems a delightful paradox for mystery writing -- the cozy urban murder mystery.

Even more challenging, perhaps Lawrence's strongest quality as a novelist, is that nothing is ever really spelled out. Her writing and narrative structure is done in such a way that much of what is key to the story must be gleaned from the storytelling itself. Ruth's secret is presented to the reader piecemeal but with well planted clues.  A phone call made early in the book and a passing reference to a number written down comes back to provide a major clue for the detective trio.  Nothing that seems an inconsequential detail is put there without a reason. With a large cast of women characters resorting to the pronoun "she" often adds a level of confusion and mystery. Just who is she talking about among all the women? But it is all done for conscious effect.

 The plotting here is strong, there is an abundance of detective work from two different schools, and the characters are never boring. The two old women do provide for an ample amount of humor but never at the expense of the mystery plot. It all works splendidly together culminating in a finale tinged with disturbing tragedy and not a little unexpected sadness.

Agora Books 2019 new edition cover
Death of a Doll has been released in a new edition (paperback and digital) from the fine folks at Agora Books, a UK based outfit doing excellent work in reissuing classic crime novels. Many of you are familiar with the Richard Hull editions that have been coming out for the past two years. Here is their first American mystery writer added to their catalogue. Hilda Lawrence is not only an excellent addition to the Agora Books line, but a writer who has been long overdue for new look, new editions and a new audience. Anyone interested in the history of the genre, in a true original who invigorated the mystery world with unusual genre blending techniques would be well advised to check out Death of a Doll.

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Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence
Agora Books
£9.99 Paperback
£3.99 Digital (UK buyers only)
ISBN: 9781913099237