Friday, May 15, 2020

FFB: Murder Goes to the Dogs - Timothy Brace

THE STORY: Inexplicably, prize-winning greyhound Sweetheart turns and runs in the wrong direction just as she is about to win the final race at the Everglades Kennel Club racetrack. Moments later Vincent Wells, Associate Judge, is stabbed in the presence of the large crowd. No murder weapon is found and no one seems to have been near the victim prior to his death. Anthony Adams assists the sheriff in figuring out who killed the judge, what happened to the knife, and why the dog ran the wrong way.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder Goes to the Dogs (1938) is the third outing for gentleman criminologist and sometime private investigator Anthony Adams and his faithful manservant Thurber. In this short series Adams and Thurber are often called upon by Sheriff Ernest Chase to help solve baffling crimes that sometimes, as in this case, include impossible crime and locked room elements. In this case Chase and Adams need to figure out how the victim was stabbed in full view of a crowd without anyone seeing anything and find out how the weapon was disposed of since everyone was searched and nothing was found.

Adams belongs to the intuitive school of detectives and will most likely remind readers of Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. He has a vast knowledge of arcane subject matter and likes to speak in a highfalutin manner that is completely out of place in this largely colloquial styled entertainment. His loyal manservant Thurber is one of those wannabe Watsons who begs to be included in the sleuthing. Thurber's previous assists (alluded to throughout this novel) resulted in a second victim and he is reluctant to mention his ideas and theories to Adams lest his suspect also turn up dead. Seems that Thurber has more of a role as legman in this book than in the first two of the series and I thought he did a nifty job in digging up some dirt on some of the suspects. Adams likes to toy with Thurber and has a unlikable way of belittling his employee who risks his life at least twice. There wasn't much to like about Adams in this book. I wonder if he's as patronizing in the other books.

The suspects are a motley group with most of them involved in the world of dog racing. Several dog owners, breeders and trainers make up the rather large cast of suspects. One of the dog breeders is a woman and it's hinted through supercilious description and gossipy dialogue that she is most likely a lesbian. All of the other dog racing characters are men and every one is belligerent, loud mouthed, brash and a heavy drinker. There aren't many nice people in this crowd. The two youngsters -- Peter Lane and his fiancee Frances Warr -- are the only two who resemble real people even if they, too, have shallow personalities.

The most interesting duo consists of Leo Sunday, an actor who is "resting" in Florida (translation: currently unemployed) and his partner Patsy Grant, an aspiring showgirl and actress who works at the local drive-in as a "curbgirl". They are working on an unusual act together and hope to hit the vaudeville circuit soon. Leo despite his charm and easy going nature has a slightly sinister side. He seems to be hiding something. And his extreme good looks disturb Sheriff Chase who distrusts "pretty boys." Thurber is sure that Sunday's act has something to do with the missing murder weapon. Sunday, of course (you've probably guessed), is a knife thrower.

INNOVATIONS: You may not believe this but this is the 17th murder mystery wherein I have encountered knife throwing in the plot. And it was entirely unexpected for a book that deals primarily with greyhound racing, dog breeders and the world of gambling in 1930s Florida. Knife throwing was first discussed on this blog in one of the most popular posts of 2012. In that book there were four knife throwing characters. Still haven't topped that one. In this book there are merely two, but at times it seems there could be more characters with this hidden talent of tossing around cutlery. There are two different scenes in which Leo Sunday shows off his skill and the climax of the book uses knife throwing to entrap the culprit.

THINGS I LEARNED: Dogtrack racing, a form of gambling that is almost completely gone from American culture, was hugely popular in Florida for close to a century. The oldest was in St. Petersburg which began operations in 1925. The only other greyhound dogtrack racing mystery I know of features Mike Shayne, one of the Golden Age's early Floridian private eyes who was based in Miami. In Tickets for Death (1941) he uncovers a counterfeiting ring at the dogtrack with phoney tickets being cashed in for prize money. Murder soon follows. I think there may be a few other mystery novels featuring dog racing but I was unable to confirm the titles after extensive a-Googling.

Adams lectures on the origin of the greyhound telling Thurber the dog shows up in ancient Assyrian artwork, medieval European tapestries, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Bible. He goes on to discuss a treatise on the dog breed written by Xenophon as well as a similar essay by Herodotus. Even Shakespeare, Adams says, "often uses [the dog] as an example of keenness and alertness." I detect an overwhelming whiff of Philo Vance, don't you? There are footnotes all over the novel about dog racing lingo, too.

As of this date dog racing is illegal in 41 states and only four states legally allow greyhound racing: West Virginia, Texas, Iowa and Arkansas. On January 1, 2021 Florida —currently with three operating racetracks —has a new law going into effect banning greyhound dog racing and all tracks will be forced to shut down. The one racetrack in West Memphis, AR will shut down in December 2022. I imagine none of them -- or any gambling establishment, for that matter -- are doing well in this age of COVID-19.

QUOTES: I enjoyed the plot and the unusual relationship between Adams and Thurber. But Adams has a grating pretentious style of speaking no doubt influenced by watching too many Philo Vance movies. Here's a collection of Adams droning on in ersatz sophisticate mode alternating with with clever wise guy mode that not once sounds authentic:

"...surely you have the first crawlings of suspicion. Certainly within your breast there stirs some little worm that bores so irritatingly that it creates a bothersome repression."

"Encroach as much as you want. And bring your encroaching to the car later."

"I feel the need for an excursion. It may clear the functioning of the thing I believed to be my brain."

THE AUTHOR:  "Timothy Brace" is the pseudonym used by Floridian novelist Theodore Pratt (1901-1969), a popular writer of every type of fiction imaginable. He is best remembered for his lighthearted novel The Barefoot Mailman (1943) and the comic fantasy Mr Limpet (1942) turned into a movie in 1964 starring Don Knotts as the title character who transforms into a fish. Those like me who haunt the listings of eBay may recognize his name from the numerous lurid potboilers and paperback originals that crop up for sale. He wrote a slew of them with titles like Handsome (1951), Escape to Eden (1953), Smash-Up (1954), and The Tormented (1950) about a nymphomaniac which unsurprisingly was a huge bestseller.

I uncovered several photographs of Pratt and his wife posing in front of the trailer he built and customized himself. For several years this was their home as they traveled all over Florida while Pratt researched the state's past for what would result in a trilogy of novels about Florida's native people. That unusual habitation surely fueled his imagination for one of the Anthony Adams mystery novels he called Murder Goes in a Trailer. I managed to find copies of all four of his mystery novels and I'll finish up with one more post on Pratt and Anthony Adams in a "Neglected Detectives" post later this year.

Oh, one bit of odd trivia. Apparently Pratt chose "Timothy Brace" for his alter ego to amuse his friends and wife. It turns out to be the name of his pet cat.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Magicians and Mediums and Murder! Oh My!

Magic fans, impossible crime aficionados, and those interested in the parallels between mystery writers' use of misdirection and a magician's sleight of hand talents might be interested in the latest podcast from JJ's on going series "In GAD We Trust." Of course in that punny title the letters GAD stand for Golden Age of Detection.

Not too many recognizable detectives turn up in this discussion because frankly most of the magician detectives from the Golden Age are found in the pages of long forgotten pulp magazines from the the early 20th century. Too few of those thousands of stories have been reprinted in collections for 21st century readers. But we do cover The Great Merlini created by magician mystery writer Clayton Rawson as well as another of Rawson's magician detectives who appeared only in pulp short stories. The impossible crime mystery masterpiece The Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, also a magician turned mystery writer, is discussed with admiration too.

We travel all over the magic in mystery spectrum with a somewhat chronological exploration starting with some pulp stories from the very early days of that business and my discovery that Charles Fulton Oursler (aka Anthony Abbot) had been writing weird mysteries, many with magician detectives, between 1919 and 1929.  Ken Crossen and Bruce Elliott turn up, we segue into talk of seances, mediums and the fraudulent spiritualists of the early 20th century a topic that popped up in many novels of the era. The rarely mentioned, quite forgotten, American mystery writer Henry Kitchell Webster makes a long overdue appearance when I discuss his excellent crime novel The Ghost Girl and the talk of seances and mediums in books gives way to TV shows and movies that feature either magicians or seances.

It's quite a hodgepodge of a discussion. We have a lot of fun, there's much more laughter than in the other talks. (It's the American with no real filter talking, after all.)  And you will finally hear what I sound like, why I'm so odd, and why I have been drawn to macabre genre fiction since I was a child.

Why not have a listen! Click on this link Episode 4: Magic, Mummery, and Misdirection.