Friday, August 11, 2017

FFB: Angel Loves Nobody - Richard Miles

THE STORY: You think Holden Caulfield was a problem child? Take a look at Angel Martine, the sullen, smirking, reticent leader of an army of teen-age misanthropes at Betsy Ross Junior High somewhere outside of Los Angeles. How perfect that a teen rebel should be leading a revolution at a school named after one of the legendary heroes of the 18th century. The teachers have no idea that Angel is plotting a bloody massacre. He's arming his gang with knives and they plan to murder the teachers during sixth period on Friday afternoon that he's dubbed Zero Hour. The novel Angel Loves Nobody (1967) tells of the lives of the students and teachers in the days leading up to Zero Hour and the unexpected events of the day itself.

THE CHARACTERS: Like many novels of the 1960s this is a densely packed episodic exploration of character. Though named for the teenage leader of would-be Executioners (as they all dub themselves) the real protagonist is 27 year-old teacher Tim Nielsen. He is the replacement art teacher at Betsy Ross Junior High and this is his first job teaching young people. We get to know the staff through his eyes and on occasion through the more skewed perceptions of Angel and his band of terrorizing teens. Tim is trying to balance his new career with a burgeoning romantic relationship with Margie, his artist girlfriend who works at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles. But he is sensing something not quite right with his new group of students, especially the oddly quiet, antagonistic vibe he gets from Angel Martine. It doesn't help that his youthful idealism clashes with the senior faculty at the school, many of them several decades older than he and all of them grown jaded with teaching, utterly indifferent towards their students' lives and outside interests.

As the reader watches Angel recruit his Executioners, spies and armorers in preparation for Zero Hour one can't help feel that some of these adults deserve at least a good punch in the face if not the gruesome death Angel has planned for them. The principal William Conrad, nicknamed "ConRat" by the kids, is an overweight lecher always ready to put the moves on the typists in his administrative offices. Roger Post is a lout who insults the women, picks fights with the men, tells horrible off color jokes and is in general an asshole for much of the book. The few scenes of him at home also reveal him to be a misogynistic husband who treats his wife as nothing more a sexual plaything. Elderly Cleaire Devereux doesn't earn much sympathy either. As the most senior teacher in the school she has little interest in anything other than lunchtime when she gets to gossip with her female friends about life outside of the school.

INNOVATIONS: Angel Loves Nobody seems to be the first of its kind in depicting high school violence as a sort of horror novel. Although the blurbs on the rear cover of the Dell paperback compare it to the juvenile delinquent nightmares depicted in The Blackboard Jungle and Up the Down Staircase Richard Miles' second novel takes teen angst and juvenile rebellion to the extreme in the planning of a high school massacre. I know of only one other infamous book that dealt with such a real life horror before we all suffered the 21st century plague of nightmare gun violence. In 1977 Stephen King, under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, wrote Rage about a boy who kills two teachers and holds a schoolroom of students hostage. Several teens used it as inspiration to commit violent acts in schools throughout the 1980s, but after a 1997 shooting in Paducah, KY King withdrew it from publication. He has never allowed it to be reprinted since.

While King's novel tells the story of a single violent youth, Angel Loves Nobody is concerned with a kind of mass hysteria conjured up by one very angry young man and the skill with which he manages to coerce and manipulate his army of angry and hateful kids. While it does ends in violence, altogether much differently than Angel ever planned, the telling of the story is controlled and never sensationalized. The book can be likened to a suspense novel, notably in the very tense and nervewracking final two chapters, but it really belongs to mainstream pop fiction. Miles is interested in a lot of what isn't noticed about the outcasts and loners among teens as well as the misfits of the adult world. There are insightful parallels drawn between the personalities of the students compared with those of the teachers that most "school in trouble" fiction of this sort never addresses.

In this second novel Miles also shows a more mature side to his writing rather than the often vulgar and melodramatic excesses of That Cold Day in the Park, his debut as a novelist. There are frequent vignettes with powerful evocative images, many of them capturing perfectly the struggles of the teens to reconcile their conflicted feelings about Angel's plans with their secret desires and dreams. One of the more unusual uses is a scene where Maria Estragon, one of the first students to regret her involvement in the plot, is leaning up against a wall and as she feels the surface of the bricks she imagines them to be small houses in a valley and she pretends "that each valley had its small houses filled with small people and children and dogs." She continues to imagine a blissful Utopia that includes beautiful blue eyed and brown eyed people and Mr. Nielsen smiling at her. Then she is brought back to reality when her body warms the bricks and a drop of sweat trickles down her back. "She tried to turn the drop into a tear from one of the blue eyes, but the tear was too big, and the eyes were too small, and the whole dream just ruined."

QUOTES: They went past the drugstore window, Angel stopping briefly to inspect some war games that were simulating a battlefield across a strip of phony cellophane grass. Between the signs TOOTH-PASTE REGULAR 69¢ TODAY ONLY 59¢ and GOOD FOOD, there was an impressive display of submachine guns, toy soldiers, and doctor kits next to a display sized bazooka. PLAY VIETNAM, said a hand-lettered sign.

Angel: "We gonna kill 'em each one in a special, poetic, proper, diff'rent way like they deserve. It wouldn’t’ be fair to kill 'em all the same way. Charley, would it? […] Some people deserve to die, don't they, Charley, if they don't fight back? Or if they fight so good but not quite good enough?"

"You force [people] to be uncultured. Everything they see is their culture. You take advantage of a child's natural selfishness, his natural cruelty, and prolong it by pandering to it until he becomes a cruel, selfish adult, proud of his cruelty and selfishness because it conforms to the national ideal."

Tim: "Television is practically everywhere. In a few more years there won't be a house anywhere that doesn't have a set. ...[W]hen the kids are home from school, till the time they're supposed to be in bed, you have nothing on any of the channels except things that are educational, but well done."
Marge: "That's ridiculous. [...] You're talking about nationalizing. You're talking about 1984"

THINGS I LEARNED: Miles had a prophetic vision for quality children's programming on national television broadcasting. The section (partially quoted above) where Tim talks to Marge about the power of TV and how it can be a force of good in helping to shape young minds beneficially was amazingly on target. Only two years after this book was published Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" spoke before a Senate Committee on Communications in order to preserve multimillion funding for children's programming on public TV. After an impassioned argument he quoted the lyrics from one of his songs that reminds a child that he or she is always control of his emotions, that he can pause in a moment of anger and do something better, something constructive. When Rogers was done Senator John Pastore said, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars." You can view Fred Rogers' testimony on YouTube here.

Richard Miles, age 22, seen in
"The Betty Hutton Show"
THE AUTHOR: There is a brief biographical sketch about Richard Miles and his previous life as a child actor in movies and TV on the page for my review of his first, less controlled, more histrionic novel That Cold Day in the Park. I'll only elaborate here on the unusual way that Angel Loves Nobody came to be published. Miles won the Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1966. It was apparently first written as a script because the Samuel Goldwyn awards are for a screenwriting competition for TV and movie writers. Miles received extensive critique on the story and suggestions for its improvement. Apparently he decided to convert it into a novel and later earned a contract with Prentice-Hall for its publication.

EASY TO FIND? Miles' novel was published in both the US and UK. It was also reprinted in paperback in both countries. Despite the fact that there were four separate editions in two countries it seems to be rather scarce. I found only 15 copies for sale online, a mix of all four editions, in prices ranging from a $3.97 paperback to $35 for a copy of the US first in fine condition. You may want to check your local library. I found the book utterly fascinating, eerily prescient and, sadly, extremely topical and still relevant in our violence ridden world. It's very much recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: The Arrow Points to Murder - Frederica de Laguna

THE STORY: All is not well at the New York Academy of Natural Sciences. The Hall of Mammals is closed for rehabbing and redesign, the sea otter exhibit is moth eaten and in need of a taxidermy repair, one scientist's paper all ready for publication now looks as if it will never see print. The entire staff is on edge, at each other's throats with jealousy and animosity for one reason or another. Then there's the collection of South American artifacts being catalogued and prepared for loan to a foreign museum. Museum director Dr. Oberly insists on reviewing the group before it gets shipped off to Russia. Hours later Oberly is dead, apparently having accidentally cut himself on the arrow blade still tainted with curare. Was it an accident? Oberly was not at all well liked, had made several employees angry or upset, and seems a perfect target for violent revenge. Was the accident a cleverly disguised murder? Dr. Richard Barton turns sleuth and uncovers more secrets than he cared to know about.

THE CHARACTERS: The primary cast of characters is made up of the rather large staff of the Museum. Everyone from security guards to administrative staff to all the scientist are introduced in a whirlwind first chapter, one right after other, and it took many pages for me to keep everyone straight. I made a checklist with character names, their museum affiliations, and field of study and needed to refer back to it frequently before I had finally kept them all straight in my head. That was well past the halfway mark. Once that task was accomplished I was able to sink into the very intriguing plot.

Barton is our hero detective and he is part of the American Studies section of the museum. His knowledge about the South American Goajiro tribe and the methods of making and using arrow poisons is key to uncovering the murder method and in part the killer's motive. He is sure that the murderer unintentionally showed his ignorance of ethnology in choosing the arrow as a murder weapon while the police think it all may be a blind. When another murder related to the arrow collection -- even more bizarre and horrific in its execution -- takes place Barton and the police know for certain that Oberly's death was no accident.

INNOVATIONS: When Doubleday Doran first published de Laguna's book in 1937 part of the publicity for the book claimed that it was "the first fictional presentation of backstage life in a large museum...by an archeologist (sic) who knows and appreciates the color and fascinating detail of that type of work." Like most publishing PR this is slightly exaggerated. There had been a handful of other detective novels published much earlier that also involve museums and even one with an arrow murder in a museum (The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917) by Anna Katharine Green), but the claim of the authorial expertise on the academic side of museum work probably holds true as a first in fiction publishing.

The plot makes use of anthropological forensic science and unusual poison experiments in a way like no other detective novel I know of. De Laguna admits frankly in her foreword to the 1999 paperback reprint that she took liberties with the operation of the Medical Examiner's Office in order to make the plot more exciting.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Arrow Points to Murder (1937) is replete with anthropological lectures, cultural tidbits, and tangential scientific trivia all related to museum work. I learned about the importance of entomology in helping to date Egyptian mummies (some species of lice are being studied by one of the staff members). There is considerable background in the "publish or perish" mindset of working in academia and how the continual delay of a manuscript affects the eccentric ethnologist Carstairs, who for much of the book seems to be the most likely suspect as Oberly's killer. And of course I got a crash course in arrow poison sources and the manufacture of those poisons. De Laguna includes a complex recipe for curare which consists of samples of bark from five different species of tree and the roots of two other plants! I discovered that some poisons remain lethal for years even though they appear to have dried on the arrowhead.

Frederica De Laguna
(circa early 1930s)
THE AUTHOR: Frederica de Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1906, the daughter of two philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College where she eventually would study politics and economics. She later studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University which led to a travel expedition focussing on the study of connection between Eskimo and Paleolithic art. She travelled throughout Europe on a fellowship awarded to her from Byrn Mawr and had a variety of ethnological and archeological experiences all culminating in her decision to pursue anthropology as a career. In the early 1930s she held a position at The University of Pennsylvania Museum which provided her with much of the background that shows up in The Arrow Points to Murder. De Laguna founded the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College where she taught from 1938 to 1972. In 1975, along with Margaret Mead, she was one of the first women to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Her life is rich with fascinating work and you can find out a lot about her from various books and websites. For the most interesting take on her long career visit this informative, often intimate, tribute website.

In addition to her many books on anthropology and ethnology De Laguna wrote two mystery novels, both to offset a period of unemployment during the depression. The Fog on the Mountain (1938) followed The Arrow Points to Murder and is in part based on her expedition to Cook Inlet, Alaska to discover traces of Paleo-Indians and her study of the Athapaskan people.

EASY TO FIND? The Arrow Points to Murder was originally published only in the US by Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club".  There is no UK edition. Copies of the original hardcover are --surprise!-- exceptionally scarce, though I managed to find one in a Half Price Books outlet for a mere $25 only a few months ago. But your chances are better if you look for the 1999 paperback reprint from a one time independent Alaskan operation called Katchemak Country Publications. This indie press also reprinted her second detective novel Fog on the Mountain, another equally scarce mystery book. De Laguna intended to have all of her books, her two novels and all of her non-fiction work, reissued by a publishing enterprise she created herself prior to her death in 2004.  But few of her books have been reprinted according to the website catalog.

Friday, July 28, 2017

FFB: The Thing at Their Heels - Harrington Hext

THE STORY: The Templer family has been targeted by a mad killer. It appears that a crazed German soldier, someone they call the Man in Black, is killing the heirs in order of their succession according to the legacies listed in family patriarch Sir Augustine Templer's will. Bertram Midwinter, a police inspector, is summoned by Father Felix Templer to find the killer and stop the decimation. But the mysterious Man in Black seems far too elusive and efficient a killer to stop.

THE CHARACTERS: Though published in 1923 The Thing at Their Heels is set in 1919. Most of the characters are still suffering from the aftermath of World War I, two of the Templers are military men who experienced the horror and carnage first hand on the frontlines. The younger of these soldier Templers, Major Montague, is considerably changed by his wartime life. A post-war worldview allows Hext to have his characters serve as mouthpieces for fanatical philosophies and he delivers a variety of debates on everything from the Tao of Lao Tzu to the role of socialism in post-war England. Some characters we don't get to know for a very long at all like Major Templer and his 15 year-old son Tom because they are the first victims of the relentless and untiring killer. Midwinter is one of the most well rounded and grounded characters. He's the detective of the piece and when he is on the scene the book has a truly gripping and thrilling narrative. What the book is most noteworthy for, however, is its non-genre aspects.

INNOVATIONS: True, this is a detective novel and when it sticks to the traditions of the genre it works very well. The book can be exciting and original for one of the earliest mad killer novels of its type. Often Midwinter excels in his theories when applying the evidence found to the many crimes perpetrated. But Hext is really not interested in telling the story of who the real culprit is; the killer's motivations are more to his interest. The Thing at Their Heels is more of a polemic, a critique of zealotry and fanaticism. Sir Augustine's obsession with the Greek playwright Menander and his constant quoting of quips and philosophies found in those comedies is more than irritating. Can anyone have committed to memory so much of a single writers' work? And such an obscure, barely studied writer at that! When he isn't quoting the Greek he is counseling every living Templer on their duty to carry on the family name and become the steward of the Templer estate and family traditions. He is an anachronism in post World War I England -- a feudal lord insistent on maintaining an outdated and dying aristocracy.

He's not the only one with an obsessed mind. The book is littered with chapter-long debates about religion and socialism. Father Felix, a Catholic priest, is also drawn to the mystical qualities of Sufism and Tao Buddhism. Poor Petronell Templer, the only female character of note in this male dominated world, is at the mercy of his manipulative lectures. She is goaded into marrying a man she does not love all in service of God. Later when that man is murdered Father Felix tells her that her only solace is to be found in a life of service to the Lord. Once again she is convinced that she must do as she is told and she plans to enter a convent by the novel's end.

Montague Templer is the voice of reason in the novel and yet he too is one of the many fanatics. He is basically a contrarian to all that Felix and Sir Augustine espouse. Montey is the also an avowed socialist and he utters a single paragraph of dialogue that to me is the most telling clue as to the secret motives of the real killer. I planned on quoting that passage but it turns out to be a dead giveaway and my guess as to the true identity of the Man in Black was 100% correct. So I'm not going to supply that passage.

QUOTES: I will however quote in its entirety the entry for The Thing at Their Heels (1923) as it is found in Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime. It's a laudatory entry, but one not without an unspoken caveat:

Unorthodox in form, but powerful in effect. Seldom has [the writer] used his knowledge of the countryside and his feeling for passionate characters more artfully to produce a series of murders that are clearly described and assiduously investigated -- though without result till the very end, when all the talk about socialism and religion finds its due place as part of the plot and the solution is given without diminishing the stature of Insp. Midwinter. The elimination of the Templer family then appears inevitable though unjust. A masterpiece in a rare variety of the species.

Masterpiece? Not at all. I find this to be overkill in its praise. While I can agree with Barzun's assessment of its strengths as a detective novel, the faults of the novel far outweigh the author's skill. The zealotry expressed by one character is ridiculously heavy handed. I guess it was a shock for its 1923 audience to discover the identity of the killer. But post modern detective novel devotees are inured to this kind of "shocking twist." In presenting a story of three stubborn True Believers who rant and rave about religion and politics and the paramount importance of an aristocratic bloodline Hext has not indulged in the detective novelist's finest trait of misdirection but he has shown his hand all too often. It is fairly easy to spot the mad killer and not because the body count leaves us with only a few living suspects to choose from. It is easy to spot the villain by the third of the five murders because of these drawn out debate sections.

THE AUTHOR: "Harrington Hext" was a pseudonym for Eden Phillpotts, a prolific novelist who wrote in many genres and created about a handful of pioneer works. The Red Redmaynes (1922), interestingly yet another story of a mad killer knocking off members of a single family, is his other noteworthy serial killer novel written under his own name. As Hext he wrote the odd genre-blending science fiction/crime thriller Number 87 (1922) and as Phillpotts he also wrote a much praised science fiction novel Saurus (1938), a satirical novel about a reptilian alien making observations on humans. He wrote a number of detective novels, mostly run-of-the-mill, but is primarily known for his novels of manners and other writing in mainstream literature. He also has an additional fifteen minutes of fame as the primary influence who encouraged Agatha Christie to pursue her life as a detective fiction writer. So for that we all owe him abundant thanks.

EASY TO FIND? I'm not really recommending this novel even as a curiosity in the formation of what we know as the serial killer crime novel. However, for those who need to know a handful of copies are out there for sale. I know of no paperback reprints, but you can find both US and UK hardcover editions in a price range of $30 to $150 depending on condition and the chutzpah of the bookseller. It's probably been uploaded at Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Many of Phillpotts' books are out of copyright and the information pirates(Phillpotts would have loved their obsessive minds and compulsive habits) are always busy uploading books of this type.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: An Additional Guide for the Curious

My copy of Martin Edward's Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books arrived yesterday and I was rather excited that I've already read and reviewed many of the books listed. As an additional guide to those who are interested in the books Martin discusses I've made a list of the titles that are reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books. Here they are with hyperlinks to each page:

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius
Death Under Sail by C. P. Snow
Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Family Matters by Anthony Rolls
Middle Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton (reviewed under the US title Dead Reckoning)

In honor of Martin's book I've created a new tag "Edwards' 100" and added it to the list of tags for the above posts.  I'll also be using that tag in the future for any book I write about that appears in Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.


Additionally, I have reviewed at least one book (often many more) by these authors though the one book Martin cites is not among any of my posts:

Freeman Wills Crofts
Agatha Christie  and also here (2 books)
H. C. Bailey
Gladys Mitchell (6 books)
Rupert Penny
Anthony Wynne (2 books)
John Dickson Carr (3 books), also Carter Dickson (3 books)
Miles Burton and also John Rhode (4 books total)
John Bude
Newton Gayle
Victor L. Whitechurch (2 books)
Ethel Lina White
J. J. Connington (2 books)
Q. Patrick also Jonathan Stagge, Patrick Quentin (10 books)
C. St. John Sprigg
Henry Wade
Christianna Brand (2 books)
Martin Porlock
Joanna Cannan
G.D.H. & Margaret Cole (3 books)
Patricia Highsmith (2 books, 1 movie)
Georges Simenon
Shelley Smith (5 books, 1 movie)
Julian Symons

I've already read several sections and made notes on about a dozen or so books Martin discusses (or mentions in passing in other reviews) that I'd like to read. And quite by coincidence I will be reviewing about five books that appear as one of the "honored 100" in Martin's book in the coming months. Three of them I've read this year long before I knew they were included in his crime fiction survey.  Like minds, eh?

I also grinned widely and laughed a bit when I saw my name mentioned along with a handful of other booksellers and mystery novel mavens in the last two sentences of Martin's Acknowledgments page. I'm very happy I was able to contribute in my small way to the creation of this book.

(And yes, these are photos of my books. Just a sampling of the many bookcases in this book museum of a house.)