Friday, May 17, 2019

FFB: The Perfect Alibi - C. St. John Sprigg

THE STORY: Cruel and vicious Antony Mullins who promised misery upon his wife and her various lovers is found dead in his blazing garage. At first thought to be a strange suicide or an accident it is soon discovered that he was shot in the back of the head. Mullins was a very rich man and some surprising legatees named in his will arouse suspicion by both police and those who expected to be named in the will. Yet the three most likely suspects all have iron-clad alibis. When the police are stymied unable to break what appears to be The Perfect Alibi (1934) Sandy Delfinage and her friend painter Francis Filson turn amateur sleuth to ferret out a very clever murderer.

THE CHARACTERS: In this fairly large cast every character is superbly drawn, lively and quirky, most with wry sense of humor. Here are the people who stand out:

Patricia Mullins - Anthony's widow who seemed to have a long line of admirers and may have been involved romantically with more than one of them.

Ralph Holliday - Antony's nephew who has travelled to Berlin on a business trip and has not been heard of since.

Francis Filson - a portrait painter who doesn't do much painting.  He takes two days to sketch Pat and the painting has not even been started before Mullins turns up dead.  Mullins believes Filson and his wife were having an affair and that that the portrait will never materialize.

Dr. Eustace Marabout - oddball physician who studies occult and supernatural lore then actually begins to believe in the existence of vampires, demons and werewolves citing examples he has met in his life.

Mrs. Murples - runs a boarding house for athletes and trains boxers. She's foul-mouthed, tough and strangely very likeable. I love the scenes in which she appeared.

Sandy Delfinage - in charge of the stables at the Mullins estate. She's an able equestrian and the most sharp witted person in the book.  Not too trusting of Mrs. Mullins. Has her eye on Frank, and not just as a possible suspect. Is certain that the murderer is...

Dr. James Constant - a major legatee named in Mullin's will. His Society for Scientific Research receives a sizeable bequest leading Sandy to suspect him of killing Mullins for the money. His odd habit of wearing a fake beard is not just a trademark of his vanity as the police try to convince Sandy. She, instead, finds it both ridiculous and sinister.

Constable Lawrence Sadler - young police officer whose keen intelligence and athleticism draw attention of Scotland Yard.  He is instrumental in tracking down Mrs. Mullins in the climax which leads him from England to France to Spain and rescuing her from a diabolical deathtrap.

A very minor character who has only a few scenes but was truly one of the best in the book is Vicomte de Grandlieu, a feisty aristocrat with a sense of romance and adventure. He is all too willing to help PC Sadler get to Catalonia with the aid of his private airplane. It helps that the Vicomte is an ace pilot who has racked up several record breaking solo flights all over the world.

Eventually Sprigg's series detectives Charles Venable, a crime writer, and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appearance. Though Sandy and Frank do much of the sleuthing in the book, Charles and Bray have the final say in solving the murder and explaining other various mysteries that crop up in he intricately plotted story.  But it may never have been solved without the imaginative thinking of Sandy Delfinage.

Yum! Marmite brand yeast extract advert inside front cover

INNOVATIONS: The title is one of the cleverest parts of the book. The Perfect Alibi applies to four characters, one of whom probably never needed an alibi at all. It's something of a tour de force employing a detective novel convention that became the hallmark of writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, Milton Propper and Christopher Bush. Sprigg turns the whole notion of a perfect alibi on its head and does so with a sense of ironic humor when the solution is revealed. The book utilizes other crime fiction motifs as well like masquerade, cover-ups, frame-ups, manipulation of evidence, and multiple false and true confessions all of it done with originality and unusual spins on what are often tired conventions employed with little verve or imagination.

Early in the book it seems as if the novel will be an impossible crime murder complete with locked room. The local police attempt to write the strange death off as a suicide. But Inspector Trenton raises two points: "The door was locked.  We've searched the garage and haven't found the key. How could he get in without a key, or get rid of it once he had locked himself in? How could he shoot himself and then get rid of the revolver?"  While there is an element of impossibility to the murder and the fire that destroyed the garage and incinerated most of the corpse the locked room aspect is dismissed well before the halfway mark.

QUOTES:  Venables: "The case could have been solved on the facts known a the very outset of the investigation. Every fact and clue we needed was given to us. It was like the fairest possible detective story in the world, in which the reader is let into every material circumstance needed to enable him to guess the solution. And yet I couldn't guess it! It is something to be ashamed of."

THINGS I LEARNED:  One of the places where Mrs. Mullins hides out in the action-packed finale is the Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris. In the early 1930s it was still being used as a tourist and residential hotel. But my internet research revealed the hotel has rich history, most of it fairly recent. In the post-WW2 era the Hotel de Talleyrand was used by the US State Department in talks related to the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery. Owned by the wealthy Rothschild family for over 100 years it was eventually purchased from them in 1950 by the State Department and became the home of the US embassy in France. Later it was renamed the George C Marshall Center. In a nine year multimillion dollar project lasting from 2008-2017 largely financed by private donations the main rooms were restored and renovated to their original 17th century splendor. For more about the hotel and its transformation into a global seat of diplomatic discussions see this website.

EDITION: Cherry Tree Books were published by Withy Grove Press, Ltd. They were the British equivalent of the ubiquitous US digest publications of years past. Similar to the practice of American digests the Cherry Tree Books were abridged versions of the original hardcover editions. Unlike the US equivalents, however, the books are not noted as being abridged. All of them were no more than 95 pages long and were typeset in an extremely small font size making it very hard on the eyes of even the most healthy and youthful reader. You're reading this blog in font around 11 pt. But the book is typeset like this, in 8 pt type. The books have ads all over the place, inside the covers, the back cover and even within the book, and all of them are for horrid food products like yeast extract and Bovril's meat powder which is supposed to be some sort of flavor enhancer. My copy of The Perfect Alibi also has an ad for Cadbury's Bourn-Vita, "the Protective Food", some sort of health food powder to be mixed in water and drunk. This from a chocolate manufacturer. Not sure I want to know what it's made of.

Would you dare read 95 pages of this?
This is the first Cherry Tree Book I've managed to finish. I abandoned others because of eyestrain; the font size is agonizing to deal with. But this book was too good to give up on so I endured the possible hazards of further ruining my already severely myopic vision and managed to survive relatively unscathed with without suffering any headaches. I'll be reading a few more of these Cherry Tree Book in the months to come because they tend to be the only edition I can buy of some extremely rare titles by mystery and crime fiction writers I've been wanting to read for may years now.

EASY TO FIND? Not at all, my friends. Ages ago the Doubleday Crime Club edition occasionally would turn up in the used book market usually at a rather high price, but I've not seen a copy for sale in almost 20 years. I was very lucky to find this Cherry Tree paperback about five or six years ago. I had no idea any of Sprigg's books were reprinted in paperback during his short life. Currently there are absolutely no copies of this book for sale from online dealers. Apparently an indie press was planning to reprint some of Sprigg's detective novels and had included The Perfect Alibi as a promised release. But to date they seem to have suspended all plans for future books.

Friday, May 10, 2019

FFB: Death Croons the Blues - James Ronald

THE STORY: Ex-con burglar Bill Cuffy cannot resist what he thinks is an easy theft. He'll break in and steal as much as he can from night club singer Adele Valée while she is out performing. In the midst of his gathering jewelry and cash he discovers her dead body in a gruesomely bloody bathroom. Cuffy flees the murder scene and foolishly (yet unknowingly) takes with him the bizarre murder weapon, an exotic knife from Asia. He ends up in the home of Julian Mendoza who finds Cuffy's story hard to believe but is willing to take a chance on the crook. Mendoza tells Cuffy to turn himself in for the burglary and he will back him up. He promises that he will find the real culprit and get Bill out of jail before the police can formerly charge him with Adele Valée's murder.

THE CHARACTERS: Death Croons the Blues (1934) is the second novel to feature James Ronald's only series detective, crime reporter Julian Mendoza. We learn a lot about Mendoza in a few paragraphs. That he has lived a life of adventure as a journalist. Among his many souvenirs he can count a disabling injury he sustained after a run-in with a lion in Africa when he was 33 years old. The injury left him with a partially paralyzed right leg and he now walks with a limp and often must use a cane. He is one of the many reporter detectives who were popular with writers during the heyday of crime reporting. Like Robin Bishop (in the early novels of Gregory Homes) he outsmarts the police at the own game often beating them to the crime scenes, finding evidence that he withholds from them until it suits his purpose. Late in this outing he also recruits a small band of journalist colleagues as watchmen and spies who fool suspects into thinking that they are being watched and guarded by plainclothes detectives. his disability does not prevent him from acting out and defending himself from dangerous criminals. More than a few times his cane comes in handy in disarming gun toting aggressors.

This is a straightforward detective novel with a lot of action sequences. We get some unusual point of view scenes too from the primary suspect Honorable Timothy Brett who was being blackmailed by Adele and who owns the twin to the Ghurka knife that Cuffy took from the murder scene. The two knives are prominently displayed in Brett's home and anyone who knows him would immediately recognize the weapon used to kill Adele. Mendoza is sure that such a blatant use of a unique weapon is sure sign of Brett's innocence and that someone is framing him for the murder. It doesn't help that Adele's nosy neighbor Miss Purdy saw a man knock three times on Adele's front door and enter her apartment the very night she was killed. She also has a eidetic memory and gives an intricately detailed description of the man matching Timothy Brett's likeness perfectly.

Mendoza would like to find Brett and get the truth from him. But Brett is terrified because he also stumbled upon Adele's dead body, got blood on his coat which he left at the scene, and fled to beg for help from one of his friends. He goes into hiding with Mendoza hot on his trail. So is his girlfriend Lady Constance, a formidable aristocrat who wields a revolver, threatens Mendoza twice, and has a violent confrontation with a nasty bigoted landlady that ends with slaps to the harridan's face and a shove into the hallway.

Speaking of formidable let me not overlook Mrs. MacDougall, Mendoza's landlady who becomes his right hand man in couple scenes. You don't want to mess with her either. And she doesn't need a pistol to make her frightening. She manages to subdue Cuffy in the opening chapter in an unexpected way that made me laugh. Later we see her wise and compassionate side when she and Mendoza help rescue the ailing Mrs. Cuffy from that nasty cow of a landlady. They stow her safely in a nursing home retreat to prevent her from becoming the next victim of a murderer who will do anything to cover his tracks.

INNOVATIONS:  Death Croons the Blues is the closest to a traditional detective novel of the books I've read by James Ronald. The story still has its "thrillerish" elements, but the detection is sound, clever and often adheres to fair play techniques.  Mendoza reminds me of Perry Mason in his earliest adventures, when he would infiltrate crime scenes, monkey with evidence, switch guns and do anything to protect his client.  Mendoza resorts to exactly the same shenanigans but does it all for himself in his thirst to scoop a news story that will sell lots of papers. He finds Brett's overcoat at Adele's place, goes through the pockets and finds papers that he keeps for himself. He only turns over evidence to the police when he's good and ready. Thanks to these leads Mendoza also manages to question suspects long before the police even know a person is linked to the murder case. His actions infuriate Inspector Howells who would prefer that Mendoza either cooperate or just go away. Of course there are also consequences to Mendoza's brazen flaunting of the rules and he endangers the lives of several people in his desire to uncover the truth.

QUOTES:  Rooms. No beds. No board. Just "rooms." Four walls and a door. It was one of those houses in which every corner lodges an individual, or a whole family; in which every tenant has his own sticks of furniture and rags of bedding, his own greasy sink and grease spotted stove, his own domestic troubles. In which one bathes standing up with a sponge and a basin of water. In which before gassing oneself to extinction one must insert a pocketful of coppers in the voracious mouth of a slot-meter. In which no one cares if the occupant of the neat room lives in sin or dies in misery. In which one can hide...

"Sorry if I hurt you... But a woman with a gun always makes me nervous."

"He denies it, of course. But, then, he wouldn't be the figure of finance he is if he weren't a facile liar."

THINGS I LEARNED: The murder weapon is described as a Ghurka knife. This is a poor s misspelling of Gurkha, the name given to a group of Nepali speaking soldiers who served in India. A drawing of the knife appears on the dust jacket illustration of the US first edition above, but is inaccurate.  That sword looks more like a saber to me rather than a knife. The Gurkha knife or kukri, as it is known in its native Nepal, has a blade that looks bent rather than subtly curved (see photo above).  It was developed and used by the Nepalese army centuries ago and has been adopted for use by contemporary Indian and Pakistani military.

On page 58 a policeman quotes a witness who lives in Adele's apartment building: "She told me she'd seen a man m running down the fire-escape. A big, beefy man with matted hair and ferocious expression -- Carnera or King Kong by her description." He is referring to Italian boxer Primo Carnera (1906-1967) who was 6' 6" tall and 275 lbs. at his heaviest, one of the most massive and imposing boxers of the pre-World War 2 era. From June 1933 to June 1934 he was the World Heavyweight Champion. In addition to his boxing career he appeared in a handful of movies in the USA, England and Italy between 1931 and 1959.

In the 1930s in England members of the Automobile Association were given their own personal keys to open the A.A. call boxes which had emergency phones inside. Apparently you could call anyone, not just emergency services or the police. Mendoza uses an A.A. box to call his newspaper offices and dictates his solution of the crimes to his editors and copy staff so that he can scoop everyone in the next edition of Morning World.

THE AUTHOR: There is little information about James Ronald on the internet. In the back of one of my US editions of his novels there is a lengthy biographical blurb. I'm not sure how truthful it is but it makes him seem to be a colorful and humorous man, and it made me smile. Ronald writes that he voluntarily left the UK, but another source I found says that he was deported. For what reason I have no idea. He lived in Fairfield, Connecticut for most of his adult life.  Here's the blurb that Ronald no doubt wrote himself:

“At the age of fourteen James Ronald, a native of Glasgow, came home from school and announced that he would never return. His mother was s distressed, insisting that she would not have an idler in the family, so from them until he was seventeen he was in and out of a series of jobs, abou thirty in all. He even ventured as far s Chicago where his experience included everything from a job paying four hundred a month to a job as dishwasher when he slept on cold park benches. At twenty-one he inherited $10.000 but it took him only nine months to spend it. Back in England again floating from job to job he was seriously injured in an automobile collision and for three months was in the hospital with a broken hip. Crippled for a year he spent his time writing short stories and his success at the job of writing has kept him at it ever since. He is the author of eight highly successful mystery novels. During the fall of 1939 he was an air raid warden in England. He is in the United States now for an indefinite period being ineligible for military service because of the motor accident injury.”

Julian Mendoza Detective Novels
Cross Marks the Spot (1933)
Death Croons the Blues (1934)
The Frightened Girl (1941)
  by "Michael Crombie", a rewrite of
Cross Marks the Spot with Mendoza now a private eye rather than a reporter

Julian Mendoza in The Thriller Library
Baby-Face (Jan 2, 1937)
Hard-Boiled (May 8, 1937)
The Sucker (Dec 18, 1937)
The War-Makers (Oct 7, 1939)