Friday, December 8, 2017

FFB: 30 Days to Live - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: A shout of "Fire!" in Everard Hope's home The Brakes. Panic ensues as the occupants rush out of their rooms armed only with candles to find their way. A ripped carpet leads to a fatal tumble down the staircase. The miserly Hope is dead. The next day Hope's lawyer Midleton (one D, please) arrives to read the newly changed will. Not one of the relatives who had been invited to Hope's house will be inheriting a shilling. Instead the entire estate of £100,000 will go to Dorothea Capper, someone not one of the disinherited has ever heard of. But lucky Dorothea will only inherit the money and the house after the passage of thirty days. The relatives turn detectives to track down Miss Capper and try to bargain with her. But someone is plotting to ensure Miss Capper doesn't live to see that thirtieth day. Several attempts on her life are made. Is it just one person? Or they all out to do her in? When Arthur Crook enters the picture he suggests that Dorothea turn the tables on her attackers and fight back. But will the two succeed in their battle against the horde of greedy and murderous relatives.

THE CHARACTERS: This is another book with a cast of oddballs. Lucy Malleson (aka "Anthony Gilbert") was one of the Golden Age's best detective novel satirists. 30 Days to Live (1943) is probably more of a classist satire than it is a detective novel, but there is plenty of crime and a couple of mysteries to solve. Really what Malleson is having fun with is the presentation of a naive 38 year old woman who leads a sheltered life, spends too much of her time comparing real life with the plots of movies and popular fiction she devours with glee. The original title, The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball, is an indication of just what we're to think of Dorothea Capper. At first a figure of utter ridicule in her brown dress, brown hat, brown shoes and bag to match plus her beige way of thinking Dorothea soon grows likeable as her predicament grows ever more perilous. She's lucky that Crook intervenes on her behalf to show her the cruelty of the world she tends to overlook and the opportunists who seem to want only the best for her when in fact they have their own selfish interests in mind. Dorothea slowly learns how to navigate herself in a world where suddenly she has become what appears to be the center of everyone's attention.

Arthur Crook, mysterydom's finest rogue lawyer turned detective, appears only incidentally in two scenes in the early portion of the book but will figure more prominently in the final third of the novel. He's just as shifty and unscrupulous as he always is. When he unveils his extravagantly melodramatic scheme to outwit the would-be killer and the other ruthless relatives we are definitely rooting for Dorothea to survive and earn what is rightfully hers.

Among the gold-digging relatives there is Julia Carberry who assigns herself as Dorothea's protector, barging into her home ahead of the others and directing Dorothea like a stern schoolmarm. There's another shifty lawyer in the mess -- Garth Hope, who tries his best to become Dorothea's advisor but learning too late that Crook has got to her first. Cecil Hope and Hugh Lacey are cousins and prospective suitors who both dare to invite Miss Capper out on dates in order to sway her to their side and wishing for her to split the inheritance with them. In the company of all three men bizarre accidents take place, one of them leading to a fatality of a stranger and the other two nearly landing Dorothea in her grave.

ATMOSPHERE: World War two is ever present throughout the story as a reminder of the real dangers of life that Dorothea and everyone have taken for granted. The nearly mundane references pop up so regularly it's as if war has become commonplace routine. Characters are pestered by having to draw the blackout curtains each night; a sign in a church pew reminds churchgoers to gather up their belongings, including their gas mask, before they leave; a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the National Savings Campaign illustrates foolish spending on imported goods by depicting a man and woman being threatened by a shark sporting a swastika on its fin, the caption reads "Would you buy if you had to swim for it?"; and small talk includes offhand mention of German bombs that have destroyed local landmarks and statues ("I remember seeing a broken arm lying at her feet the next morning.")

INNOVATIONS Stories about greedy relatives with murder on their minds hatching plots to do in the rightful heir date back to Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. From the persecuted Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas to the titular serial killer in Israel Rank inventive writers have found ways to ring out new changes in what could easily become tiresome and predictable. Malleson's clever mix of paranoid imaginings, genuine danger and classist satire all blend together in an unexpectedly witty take on this familiar tale of avarice and vanity. It's an unusual choice to have your protagonist such an utter fool at the mercy of such wily and treacherous villains and yet somehow it works. While we're busy laughing at Dorothea's often embarrassingly girlish behavior -- dressing up in an inappropriately bright yellow dress and overly elaborate hat to impress Hugh Lacey, for example -- we overlook the subtle manipulation Malleson has of making us complicit in the relatives' criminal thinking. We are privy to everyone's thoughts and we know that many of the characters are desperate for the money that Miss Capper may inherit. And she's such an idiot at times we almost want her to fall out of a window and be done with her. It's a devilish trick that Malleson plays with the reader in getting us to sympathize with Dorothea yet also wishing her dead almost simultaneously.

QUOTES: ...since the English persist in confounding morality with ability, he knew he didn't stand a chance [at promotion] if his name were being bandied about in the Divorce Court.

He looked across the room and caught Dorothea's eye and smiled. It was ravishing, that smile. [...] It made him look so young and youth in the other sex appeals to women as no virtue or mental qualification can do.

"When a lawyer's on speaking terms with the police," Crook was explaining, "you can hope to see Heaven opened and the angels of God descending on the sons of men."

...had Miss Capper asked him to prove that she hadn't bumped off her relatives one after the other, he would have accepted the commission and gone to all lengths to win the case. Not that he thought she had. All his professional life, he would mourn, he had been looking for Lucrezia Borgia in modern dress and it was his grief that, even if he did meet her, some other fellow would step in front of him and mess the matters up.

THINGS I LEARNED: More new cocktails added to my ever growing list of odd potent potables. This time the Grand Guignol. Hugh Lacey orders up several of these and Dorothea pops them back like a natural lush.  It sounds sickeningly sweet: 1.5 oz of dark rum, mixed with .75 oz of yellow chartreuse, cherry Heering (a liqueur I also had never heard of), and fresh lime juice. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Grand Guignol is usually used to describe lurid murder stories as it comes from the name of a puppet company that used to perform such plays. Then it became the name of the theater and its company of live actors who basically invented the idea of what slasher movies are all about. They performed plays that existed solely for gorey stage effects that shock and revolt the audience. Very odd name for such a cloying cocktail. I'd expect it to look bright red and not a muddy unappealing orange.

by-blow is a colloquial term or maybe a euphemism?) used when talking about illegitimate children. Merriam Webster tells me it's been around since the 16th century, but I don't think I've ever encountered it in Shakespeare, Webster, Johnson or in any of the many Jacobean revenge plays that I studied back in college days.

Jessie Matthews (left) as Dorothea and Beatrix Lehmann as
 Julia Carberry (now a sinister housekeeper!) in Candles at Nine (1944)
THE MOVIE: This is the second of three Anthony Gilbert novels that were adapted for the movies during the 1940s. Retitled Candles at Nine (in reference to Everard Hope's nightly ritual of shutting off the electricity in his house and resorting to candles for illumination) it stars Jessie Matthews as Miss Capper, Beatrix Lehmann as Julia Carberry, and John Stuart as an Arthur Crook stand-in of little import and mysterious origins named William Gordon. The movie preserves the basic story of Miss Capper needing to remain alive for one month in order to inherit but adds that she must live in The Brakes for those thirty days. The only other element that remains the same are the characters' names. The wit and satire is replaced by farce and music hall style comedy. The story is a messy mix of this low comedy and dire overacted melodrama. Only two of the five attempts on Miss Capper's life are included in the movie. Gordon gets attacked and trussed up in a closet at one point, something that absolutely does not happen to Crook. And need I mention the gratuitous musical numbers? At one point there is a two minute dance sequence that is supposed to show off Matthews' terpsichorean talents but it's a dreadful hodgepodge of ballet, jazz and tap dancing. She spends more time twirling about the stage and assisted into posing in arabesque positions by her tuxedo wearing partner than she does any real dancing. The movie is further ruined by the intrusion of the actors playing Hugh and Chris Lacey (renamed Charles) who serve as the music hall duo delivering risqué one-liners (two of them pretty dirty for a 1944 film) and pointless banter. Very little of the exciting story is retained. The ultimate indignity of this movie adaptation is that Julia Carberry, one of the best realized and complex characters, is transformed into a cheap Mrs. Danvers wannabe who bears not a trace of Malleson's original Julia. The movie is not recommended at all.

EASY TO FIND? This one is very scarce. At least based on what I could find in online bookselling catalogs. Less than ten copies seem to be out there for sale. I looked under both titles too. Copies using the original title The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball are more common. I was surprised to see it was reprinted at least three times under that title, once as a large print edition done in the 1980s. The White Circle paperback edition using the title under which the book is reviewed here is from Collins' Toronto paperback reprint publishing arm and it's a true rarity; only four copies available. Those of you living in the UK may be lucky with local libraries and used bookstores.

This is now my second favorite of the Anthony Gilbert books I've read. It's highly recommended should you be lucky enough to find a copy. Next up is The Clock in the Hatbox which I managed to locate through a miracle of sorts. Eager to read and review that one since it comes highly recommended from Neer and a few other bloggers.

Monday, December 4, 2017

NEW STUFF: The Other Passenger reprint coming soon!

Valancourt Books tells me that their exciting reprint of The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross will be released on December 12.

Exciting for at least two reasons:

1. It's the first time this landmark collection of supernatural and weird fiction has been reprinted in its entirety since its original publication in 1944.  In 1961 an abridged reprint of nine stories, omitting half of the total 18 tales in the original, was released by Ballantine Paperbacks.

2. This edition has a new introduction by some know-it-all genre fiction expert named J. F. Norris. He sure gets around.

They dared to put my name on the front cover. Such a honor. And if you get out a magnifying glass you can even see it!

I had a lot of fun researching this one. Learned all about Keir Cross' juvenile mystery and fantasy fiction (discussed in my The Other Side of Green Hills post), his career as a radio program scriptwriter, and his influence on other genre fiction writers.

Go order your copy (hardcover, paperback or digital) today! Please. Click here to go to the Amazon page for the book.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Calling All Johnny Fedora Fans!

A few days ago I received an email from Desmond Cory's son Richard McCarthy announcing the latest eBook release in the Johnny Fedora series. Here's the publicity for it:

A British secret agent in a deadly manhunt at the dawn of the Cold War.
Trieste 1952.
Johnny Fedora, a debonair British secret agent, knew he had only one week to prevent the Communists taking over Trieste - if he could stay alive to find the dreaded political genius Panagos, whose acumen for anarchy had left a trail of bloody revolution across the continent.
Spy adventure in the historical background of Europe soon after WWII.
In a relentless race against the clock, Johnny finds: a dead man's last message, a beautiful woman falling into his arms, a hidden photograph, and three unknown women whose initials spell out an A B C code.
Winner of the Sunday Times' Best Crime novel of the year, Desmond Cory delivers yet again a near-perfect mystery novel, written with intelligence and laced with wit, mystery and suspense.

This is not a brand new book. Intrigue is the fourth espionage novel in the Johnny Fedora series. Also published as Trieste in the US, the book originally appeared in 1954. That Best Crime Novel line is referring to the 1954 winner. I believe that Richard is hoping to release as many of his father's books as he can in digital format. We exchanged emails several years ago when he released Cory's previously unpublished novel On the Gulf as an eBook. I've remained on his email contact list ever since.

The email ends with this paragraph:

You are also very welcome to post a review of what you think of the book on Amazon - all opinions about the book are very welcome.

Lastly, please feel free to visit the new Johnny Fedora website for more information about this series.

Friday, December 1, 2017

FFB: Flashpoint - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Oscar Bilkin, grocer and fishmonger in the village of Halingford, receives an anonymous letter warning he and his family to "GET OUT BEFORE TOMORROW. YOU ARE ALL IN DANGER". He has no idea why he was warned nor who might have sent such an ominous letter. his family is convinced it's a nasty joke so Bilkin asks around and approaches a local known for stupid pranks. Everyone including the prankster (aptly named Wagstaff) denies sending the note. He heads to the police thinking it may not be a joke at all. They provide him with protection for the next two days. The policeman sent to guard the place will intervene if he sees anything remotely suspicious about to take place. the next day shortly after the daily delivery of Bilkin's ice he does as he always does - takes a hammer and chisel to the big slab to break it up for the fish display. After one strike of the chisel there is a horrible explosion and the Bilkin's shop goes up in flames. Everyone in the vicinity is knocked to ground. Mr. Bilkin does not fare as well. The police seem to have a sinister arsonist in their midst. Soon another building is targeted. Can the police prevent another raging fire and stop a mad arsonist from destroying the village?

THE CHARACTERS: Flashpoint (1950) is unlike many of the previous Dr. Hugo Carruthers detective novels I've read. First, Inspector Garth is nowhere in sight. Instead we have Supt. Denning and his crew of policeman in Halingford. Also, the suspect pool is much larger than usual and Fearn does a good job of making the arson attacks appear to be the work of several different people with different motives over the course of the story. There are more women characters than usual with a surprise coming in the form of Claire Denbury, a chorus girl who provides one of the more satisfying dramatic moments late in the book.

In this second outing in a relatively short series Dr. Carruthers proves to be less irascible than usual and reveals a hidden romantic side. He has hired as his assistant Gordon Drew recently returned to his hometown after losing his job when the London firm he was working for was destroyed in a fire. Pure coincidence that arson rears its ugly head again when Gordon comes to Halingford? Drew claims to have come to town to renew his friendship with Janet Lloyd, his former sweetheart. Dr. Carruthers approves and makes light jibes about Gordon and Janet whenever he has a chance. But of course the real reason he is on hand is to help the police solve the mystery of the fires. How did someone manage to start a fire in what appears to have been an explosive chunk of ice? Later the physicist is asked to explain the eerie purple color of a second fire (reminding me of The Case of the Violet Smoke by Nigel Morland writing as "John Donavan") and how the arsonist managed to set fire to a building when the place was under constant guard. Students of basic chemistry might be able to uncover these two mysteries pages before Carruthers stuns everyone with his knowledge.

INNOVATIONS: The means of the first arson is extremely clever. I managed to figure it out based solely on the description of how the ice was delivered and its odd appearance. Going into anymore detail might ruin what amounts to several well hidden clues. The second quasi-impossible fire was less impressive but did include similar unusual chemical properties that made it less than an average firebug's crime.

Apart from the chemistry involved in the arson Fearn neatly handles other clues related to motive and the identity of the culprit behind the fires and a later murder. By far this is the most mature detective novel of Fearn's I have read. It suffers not from Fearn's usual pulpy style of writing or the sense that it was a padded short story. All the characters were much more human, and believable than in other books in this series. This one resembles more closely the style of the Maria Black detective novels with their emphasis on character relationships and human drama, rather than outlandish plotting and detective novel gimmickry.

QUOTES: "The modern criminal, my boy is one of the most scientific beings alive," Caruuthers answered. "... The average murderer you'll find plastered in every newspaper in the country, but not the ingenious one--unless he's caught. That's where I come in--and other experts like me. We are dedicated to the task of defeating the new criminal, the man or woman who makes use of modern methods to perpetrate his or her villainy. ...Why else do you imagine the Yard has become so highly scientific these days? Only to keep pace with the even more subtle ways of the scientific evil-doer."

THINGS I LEARNED: This book was teeming with trivia and odd vocabulary. I haven't included this section in a while so here's a delayed avalanche for all you who have missed this regular feature.

Prior to his unfortunate death Mr. Bilkin spends the morning "arranging cabbages in the form of an Aunt Sally". I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Off to the internet I went. Took a couple of searches before I came up with the right Aunt Sally. Turns out Fearn was alluding to a traditional pub game (see illustration at right). Players throw sticks at a model of a woman's head that had come to be called Aunt Sally. The game dates back to the 17th century apparently and today is still played by teams in pubs. However, the Aunt Sally now resembles something like a giant chess pawn than it does a woman's head.

pernoctation - multisyllabic, fancy way to say night vigil. Comes from the nearly obsolete verb "pernoctate" meaning "to stay up or out all night; especially: to pass the night in vigil or prayer."

Hans Gross is mentioned in passing when Carruthers is discoursing on the psychology behind and methods of arson. I vaguely recalled his name but had to resort to Googling to refresh my memory. Gross is a name that crops up many times in Golden Age detective fiction, especially in the works of John Dickson Carr. An Austrian psychologist who specialized in criminal behavior Hans Gross has been dubbed the "father of forensics" in various website articles. His seminal work, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik, published in 1863 was a groundbreaking manual for the intended audience of police coroners but also for judges and lawyers. In it Gross called attention to the psychology of the criminal mind and warned members of the police and legal professions to pay heed to everything over the course of a criminal investigation. He stressed preserving the integrity of a crime scene, to treat all physical evidence with care, and even discussed the importance of noting the body language of the accused while in the courtroom.

Chemical properties of elements and compounds are discussed in detail with an emphasis on flame color and smoke color. I can't say anything else about this or else the mystery of the arson methods will be spoiled.

EASY TO FIND? This was at one time one of the most difficult titles in John Russell Fearn's large output of detective fiction. Originally published under his pseudonym "Hugo Blayn" it was reprinted at least four times according to the copy I own. But used hardcover copies of this 1950s edition are rare these days. According to the email exchange I had with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor and tireless champion of his friend's work, this book will be reprinted by Endeavour Press and made available as an eBook. I'm unsure when it will be released. Until then you can find Flashpoint in a paperback, large print edition put out by Linford Mystery Library. Currently, there are at least five used copies available for sale online.

NEWS FLASH! Be sure to read TomCat's post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn", a guest post consisting of a long letter that Philip Harbottle wrote to me. But he made an error in typing my email address and it went into digital limbo. He then asked for TomCat's help in contacting me. Eventually I got the letter and he and I also exchanged some emails of our own. In the meantime TomCat had an idea to share this letter with everyone and Phil granted permission to have the letter uploaded to TomCat's blog.