Friday, April 3, 2020

FFB: Murder with Minarets - Charles Forsyte

THE STORY:  Someone is killing the diplomatic staff in the housing complex for the British Embassy in Ankara. Two people have been found dead in their bathrooms, one seemingly of a heart attack and the other electrocuted. In both cases the bathrooms were locked and no one entered the apartment. Were they accidents as the police insist they were? Knowing full well the Turkish police will never pursue these suspicious deaths of foreigners Jan Duquesne, wife of First Secretary & Head of Chancery Stephen Duquesne, and her sister Gina turn amateur sleuths to find proof that both people were murdered. They uncover an ugly blackmail scheme, chicanery involving classified documents and endanger themselves in the process.

THE CHARACTERS: I got the feeling that the female half of the writing duo known as "Charles Forsyte" was in charge of this book. The story has both claustrophobic and heavily domestic atmosphere. We get a lot of catty gossip amongst the wives of the various under-secretaries, commissioners and typists working for H.E. (His Excellency, aka the Ambassador). First we meet Barbara "Ba" Hadley, brassy and opinionated wife with two rascally sons who spends much of the first chapter delivering the novel's exposition in a mix of off color humor and playful devotion to her husband Tom, Her Majesty's Consul in Ankara. They are preparing to go to a dinner party (one of several in the book) and can't get off the topic of Magda, another diplomat's wife who recently had a run-in with Tom about the size of her apartment and made outrageous demands to get a bigger place -- or else.

Magda, a foul tempered vicious women, is another one of those characters who has murder victim written all over her. She is a symbol of superficial sophistication, whose love of expensive clothes and her own self-importance colors her every thought and deed. When slighted she strikes back maliciously spreading rumors about infidelity, suggesting to artist Doune that her husband makes too many frequent visits to the Hadleys' apartment when Tom is never home. Is it any wonder that Magda is the first person to be found dead in her bathtub?

Kocatepe Mosque, Anakara
The focus always seems to be on the women in this story though it is the men who are doing the work at the embassy. Dinner parties and social functions make up most of the action allowing for several scenes with large groups and unusual dynamics in the character relationships. So much of the book's first half is devoted to this interplay that I wondered where the mystery would enter the story. That happens after Magda's death and with the entrance of a visiting archaeologist, Christopher Milner-Browne, the brother of Peter yet another Under-secretary at the embassy.  Both brothers have a bitter sense of humor, almost reveling in their withering glances and caustic humor.  Jan, initially turned off by Christopher's patronizing manner, will learn it is the archeologist's aloof and ever cautious demeanor that leads him to seeing the truth within this claustrophobic microcosm of small-minded diplomats. It always seems to be the outsider who can see through the pretenses.

Other noteworthy people in the cast of Murder with Minarets (1968) include Paul Tranter, Magda's husband who has been acting too secretively of late; Francis Allardcye, Doune's vain and oversexed husband who claims to be a professional violinist but is only a big fish in a small pond relegated to teaching music classes at the Turkish Conservatoire; Laura O'Halloran who has "ear-witness" evidence on the night of second death that implicates a man and a woman; Gina who begrudgingly steps in as Jan's Archie Goodwin doing much of the dangerous legwork; and a couple of Turkish servants whose domestic activities the reader would do well to pay close attention.

INNOVATIONS:  I'm a on a roll with digging up unusual detective novels with complicated or bizarre murder methods. The ingenious method of dispatching the victims in their bathtubs is reminiscent of the kind of thing Christianna Brand would dream up. It lacks the technical expertise of the gadgetry that is the hallmark of John Rhode, another murder means maven of the Golden Age, instead having has a very domestic handyman feel about it. Both Gina and Christopher manage to uncover clues that lead to the revelation of how the deaths were accomplished. Once again, this key moment happens during a cocktail party. Who knew that diplomats spent so much time throwing parties for each other?

Some of the best clue planting is done in casual conversation reminding me again of Brand and also Dorothy Bowers and Helen McCloy. It happens so often that every time I came across something seemingly throwaway and innocuous -- an ashtray being unnecessarily cleared away from a table to make way for the tea things -- I immediately wrote it down. Four of those statements proved to be genuine clues to discovering who the guilty party is. Gold stars for clue planting to Forsyte for this book! For a long time this didn't seem like a detective novel at all. In the end, however, Murder with Minarets proves to be a brilliantly constructed plot with quite a bit of misdirection.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Loads of colorful Turkish locations, some insight into Turkish culture, satiric commentary on the indifferent 1960s era Turkish police all added to the enjoyment of this novel's exotic setting. A picnic that takes place in a seaside park with a view of a "Crusader's castle" (as Jan called it) was described so evocatively it made me long to see it in person.  So I looked up images online and lingered over the photos of Crusader castles on Turkey's coastline. There's one above for you to enjoy.

THE AUTHOR: "Charles Forsyte" is the pen name used by husband and wife writing team Gordon Philo and Vicki Galsworthy. Philo was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. I am assuming that much of the flavor of the domestic life of a diplomat in Murder with Minarets is drawn on his own experiences as diplomat in Turkey between 1954 and 1958. I will not venture to guess if any of the characters was actually based on any of his colleagues or friends. His wife Vicki is a distant relation of writer John Galsworthy whose many novels that make up "The Forsyte Saga" gave the couple their pseudonym.

EASY TO FIND? There are a handful of copies of Murder with Minarets offered for sale by online booksellers. The book, the last of the four mysteries by Philo & Galsworthy, was published only in the UK and had no paperback reprint that I know of. Copies of the "Cassel Crime" 1968 first edition show up as well as a 1990 reprint in large print from Ulverscroft. More copies of the large print edition can most likely be found in local libraries in the UK and US.  

Friday, March 27, 2020

FFB: The Cast to Death - Nigel Orde-Powlett

THE STORY: Murder interrupts an annual fishing trip for a group of four friends. Dissatisfied with the police the victim's brother calls on his friend Tony Rillington, a criminologist for hire (sometimes), to do a more thorough job of finding out how and why the murder occurred.

THE CHARACTERS: Benjamin Blaggs, a fussy banker, is the most uptight and upright of the four men on their fishing holiday. We think at first the story is going to be told exclusively through his point of view since we meet him on page one and follow him for several chapters. Once the others are introduced Orde-Powlett unleashes one of my pet peeves in Golden Age mystery fiction -- the narrative voice as a separate character. In The Cast to Death (1932) this narrative voice acts as a sort of tour guide telling us things like: "Before proceeding any further with this narrative it will be as well to describe briefly (as the examiners used to say) the general daily programme adopted by the four anglers..."

Blaggs introduces us to Reggie Lenton, a business associate certainly not friend.  Loud, brash, and rambunctious Lenton has the irritating habit of slapping Blaggs on the back, laughing uproariously at the most inappropriate times and -- the worst insult of all -- calling him Ben. The others are Lenton's business partner Alfred Gascall and the oldest member of the group Henry Skane in his mid-fifties while the others range between early thirties to mid-forties. Once Reggie's body is found -- soaking wet, dragged across the ground from a fishing platform, stabbed twice on either side of his upper chest and a scraping wound on his neck -- the story veers away from Blaggs' point of view and we get a wide variety of characters to follow.

The author, age 55
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Supt. Farnis is the policemen who zeroes in on Gascall as his prime suspect. While we follow Farnis in his thoughts and methods in a few chapters, a later chapter has us tracing the actions of Gascall and his subversive attempt to lead the investigation away from himself with a few neatly placed letters in Lenton's office. The room is locked and sealed by the police forcing Gascall to resort to underhanded methods in order to plant the letters. It's a rather cleverly done scene and made me think that the book was going to transform into an inverted mystery with each of the three suspects doing something to alter the facts of the case. Rest assured it remains a traditional detective novel.

Skane also gets some good scenes when he teams up with Tony Rillington and offers some inside information about Lenton's fishing habits and routine. Each of the three surviving anglers gets to shine in one way or another as the murder investigation takes two routes. Farnis and his narrow minded approach is contrasted with Rillington's more wide ranging style highlighted by several ingenious re-enactments of events on the night of the murder and some subtle questioning and keen observations.

Rillington belongs to that select group of eccentric amateur detectives who have a talent for abstract thinking and get by on gregarious charm. James Lenton, the victim's brother, describes Tony as "a friend of mine, who has made the science of crime detection both his business and his hobby. He is not a private detective in the ordinary sense; in fact, he refuses more cases than he accepts..." Tony is "young, virile and good looking." Of course! He has a quiet sense of humor and is very affable. Blaggs, the fussbudget who dislikes nearly everyone, takes an immediate shine to the young man. He is later belittled for this "man crush" by Gascall. I liked the way Rillington went about questioning the suspects allowing them to feel comfortable with him, letting them to talk too much thus revealing info they might otherwise never have offered up. The only drawback to Tony's investigation is one scene where he goes off to interview a publicist for a travelling circus that take place offstage. The novel would have been improved had that scene been presented to the reader.

Map of the crime scene in The Cast to Death, as drawn by Tony Rillington
(click to enlarge)

That travelling circus tripped me up. I thought for sure that this murder mystery would employ one of my favorite oddball detective novel motifs -- a character who is a knife thrower. I was wrong on that account, but the circus still plays an important part in the finale. It's just that Orde-Powlett has Rillington announce its significance in an eleventh hour moment that made me cry out "So unfair!"

The rest of the primary cast includes Mrs. Helton, landlady of "The Crystal Ball", the inn where the anglers are staying; Mother Dawn, a gypsy woman who lives in a nearby caravan; her daughter Mollie, a ravishingly beautiful but feeble-minded servant at the inn; and Jack, Mrs. Helton's teenage  son who serves as the anglers' guide and ghillie. Minor characters include various unnamed witnesses called in at the inquest by the equally anonymous coroner.

Speaking of the coroner... Infuriatingly, all of Chapter 19 is a rehash of the inquest when it is re-adjourned and we go through the entire first half of the book again. Plus, we must endure the coroner summarizing the entire testimony of the witnesses to the inquest's jury. In total we get three iterations of one inquest, two of those versions appear in the same chapter!

INNOVATIONS: The murder method is perhaps the only reason to read this book should you ever be lucky enough to find a copy. The plot is something of an impossible crime as Tony Rillington learns that no one was seen going anywhere near Reggie Lenton from the several witnesses who happened to be within viewing distances of the anglers alongside the river. How then was Lenton stabbed in three places by a long cylindrical blade resembling a lead pencil? Tony also determines that none of the three other vacationers were likely to have committed the crime no matter how much the evidence and uncovered motives seem to implicate two of the men. The clueing related to the murder method is somewhat fair, but there are only two bits of information given to the reader in the narrative prior to the solution and one is rather blatant. Exactly how that one blatant clue relates to the way the murder is carried out is left to the reader's imagination. Rillington reveals all in the final chapter and when he tells Supt. Farnis how the wounds were administered to Reggie Lenton the reader is apt to squirm. It's a grisly way to meet one's demise.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Cast to Death takes its place alongside the handful of other vintage detective novels and mysteries using the sport of fly fishing as its background. Other notable angling mysteries include Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, Death Is No Sportsman by Cyril Hare, Five Red Herrings by Sayers and Scales of Justice by Marsh. When I went trolling the internet for other fly fishing mysteries I found a cascade of modern mysteries, close to 80, including an entire series about a washed-up private eye and fly fisherman who lives in a ramshackle home in Montana decorated with fishing flies. That series by Keith McCafferty totals seven books and sports such evocative titles as The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders and Cold Hearted River.

"The Strike" - watercolor painting by T. Victor Hall (circa late 1930s)

The fly fishing lore and background is even more detailed in The Cast to Death than in the only other fly fishing mystery I've written about here (Bleeding Hooks).  Orde-Powlett uses terminology I was unaware of. Perhaps it's outdated now, that I can't tell you. For instance, I always thought a rod and reel used fishing line.  The characters refer to this as the cast. Not just using the word as a verb but as a noun to describe the line that the flies are tied to.

The men spend much of their time fishing at night, between nine and ten o'clock. I've never heard of this. They are obsessed with "the rise" -- the time when fish rise to the river’s surface to feed on insects. Specific flies are used to mimic the look of these nighttime insects. A sedge fly (see photo at left) features prominently in the story. The four men all quit well before ten when the moon becomes full and the sky is free from clouds. In dialogue it is implied that they think the fish can see their movements in the bright moonlight. I thought this was fascinating. No idea if this actually still goes on today. Anglers out there, please clue me in.

Also, 1930s fishing line was obviously not made of plastic filament as it is today but instead made of woven or braided textiles like silk and linen. When the line got saturated it would sink rather than float and so anglers would have to grease the cast. A tin of fisherman's grease and where it is found at the crime scene is one piece of puzzling evidence that seems to incriminate one of the anglers, but Rillington proves its location clears the man of all suspicion.

QUOTES: "We found the clue all right. Rillington found it; but I saw it afterwards, quite plainly."
"What was it?"
"Two holes in the end of the plank [where Lenton was fishing]. It solves the whole case."
"How on earth does it do that?" Gascall asked.
"I haven't the least idea," Blagss admitted, "but Rillington said so, and I feel confident that he is right."
"Your trust in that fellow is positively childish," Gascall exclaimed impatiently. "If he told you the moon was inhabited by giraffes I believe you would believe him.

Nigel Orde-Powlett, age 28
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
THE AUTHOR: To my great surprise I found a wealth of information on this author who I thought was utterly obscure. In the world of mysterydom that may be true. But Nigel Amyas Orde-Powlett (1900-1963) comes with an aristocratic pedigree, a title, and family of some renown. He is the 6th Baron Bolton, descended from Thomas Orde-Powlett (1740-1807), the first Baron. You can read all about the various Barons, how the title came into being, where Thomas Orde got his hyphenated surname and other fascinating bits of baronial trivia at the page for Baron Bolton on Wikipedia.

Nigel like many of his family was military man, served in two wars, and later became Justice of Peace for the magistrates' courts. He was Deputy Lieutenant of County of North Yorkshire and a member of the Royal Agricultural Society. For the Society he wrote several monographs on horticulture and forestry. In 1956 he authored Profitable Forestry (Faber & Faber, 1956). In addition to his two detective novels bibliographic research turned up and a volume of poetry Vale, and other poems (Ballantine & Co, 1918) apparently published privately while he was in Eton College.

EASY TO FIND? Although this was the only book of the two mysteries from Orde-Powlett that was published in both the US (Houghton Mifflin, 1932) and the UK (Ernest Benn, 1932) it is still absurdly scarce. In my search today I found absolutely no copies for sale online. That is not to say that some seller who eschews online catalogs may have it...somewhere. Academic and public library listings reveal eight copies in US libraries, three in UK libraries and one at the University of Sydney, Australia.

His other detective novel Driven Death (1933) was released only in the UK also by Ernest Benn. Not a single copy of the second book is offered for sale. And according to only one copy is extant and held by the British Library, St. Pancras. Now that's a rare book!