Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Glass Heart - Marty Holland

Down on his luck Curt Blair is waiting out a rainstorm in a “ritzy hash joint” just outside of Hollywood, USA when he steals a fancy camel hair overcoat then flees intending to sell the coat. It’s how he makes his living these days – ripping off suckers' coats, rifling the pockets for treasures and cash, then selling the ransacked coat. But this time all hell breaks loose and he’s being chased. While hiding from his pursuers he ends up in the backyard of Virginia Block’s home. She mistakes him for the handyman she recently hired from an agency. Curt being the opportunist that he is wisely plays along and learns the job comes with a free room and kitchen privileges. So he accepts the job, gains a cheap salary of $20/week and a place to stay and eat.

Later the same day aspiring actress Lynn York shows up at the boarding house. She is paying $60/month for an upstairs room, but no kitchen privileges for her. Mrs. B is greedy and a miser we soon figure out. Within hours Curt and Lynn are hooking up and doing the dirty deed in the dirty basement where while putting the moves on Lynn Curt is bothered by the irritating sound of a dripping pipe. He vows to fix the leak though that task is not on the insanely long list of arduous work Mrs. Block expects of him.

While dealing with the plumbing problem Curt discovers a gruesome surprise and jumps to conclusions.  A bit of detective work supports his rash theory and he sees dollar signs. He schemes to blackmail his landlady and employer. Soon he finds his paltry salary increased to a cool $1000/week.

And if you haven’t already figured out that the tables will be turned then you don’t know your crime fiction.

Reading The Glass Heart is like travelling back in time to a 1950s movie palace watching a B movie programmer. It’s crammed full of action, double dealing, manipulation, greed, lust and crime. Everyone is out for himself or herself. James M Cain, who penned multiple densely packed novels about two timing lovers and how greed controls their lives admired the book so much he 1. wrote a praiseworthy blurb for the Julian Messner first edition dust cover and 2. wrote a screenplay adaptation that unfortunately was never produced.  Even he recognized the cinematic potential of this hard to resist story.

While it’s not hard to predict that Curt and lovely Lynn will hook up within hours of meeting I doubt many readers will be able to predict the unusual plot twists. Soon a handful of supporting characters descend upon Mrs. Block looking for handouts including Elise, Lynn's future roommate and a member of an evangelical church devoted to enlisting new members and coaxing money out of them to help build their new church.

The story is overloaded with plot and incident. It’s almost like reading two books in one at the same time. There’s almost no time in the action-filled pages to question the often outlandish turn of events. But I did! And frequently. Some of my nagging questions included: Why on earth is Mrs. B such a pushover? Why didn’t she just throw Curt out of her house rather than be bled dry? And why is Lynn so simple minded and easily manipulated? I guess there is no room for common sense in potboiler fiction. The book exists solely to explore crime and base motives (mostly dealing with lust and avarice) but offers no insight into any of the reasons the characters need so desperately what they long for. I wasn’t asking for heightened literary reasons just a few mundane ones.

Late in the book it all turns a bit ridiculous. Elise receives a telegram that her husband was killed in action overseas. She refuses to accept this and in her religious mania keeps praying that hubbie be returned to her. Like a true believers she’s asking for a miracle. One guess as to how that turns out. Because of course every absurd coincidence one can possibly imagine will be crammed into these 192 pages.

Why have one kook when you can have two? Mrs. B is later revealed to be a bit of a loon herself. Lynn spends much of her time eavesdropping throughout the book and hears her landlady talking to herself and singing in a little girl’s high pitched voice. She has conversations with her dead husband, very intimate and revealing conversations. It all leads to a confrontation between the two woman involving a revolver and a golf club that doesn’t end well at all.

Do you think anything will end well in a book of this sort? Think again!

It starts off as noir but some odd detours and intrusive subplots among the minor characters transform the book to a quasi romance. This schizoid state results in a near parody of noir by the time you get to the two climactic moments. Remarkably – almost unbelievably – for something so laden with doom, insanity and murder, both intentional and accidental, it all ends with a cop out finale that includes a wedding and happily ever after honeymoon in New Mexico! I gather that Holland opted for a hearts and flowers finale because she wants the real villain of the piece to be revealed as a vile monster who “deserved” to die. And she seemed to want to make her leads into decent people who were victims themselves. Really strange considering they were crooked and corrupt from the get-go. When the penultimate chapter exposes the villain’s wide ranging schemes of cheating, thievery and mean-spiritedness one wonders if Holland had a horrible landlady somewhere in her life and this was a revenge piece.

Marty Holland (1919 - 1971)
And yet though I sound like I’m disparaging this book I found it all utterly addictive. The Glass Heart is, I confess, a guilty pleasure. I couldn’t stop reading and had to know where each ludicrous scene would lead and of course how it all would end. It truly is one of the best examples of a genuine B movie on paper. And no wonder – the author Marty Holland was a secretary at Republic Pictures, one of the leading producers of B movie programmers, for many years. She was writing pulp fiction in her spare time, wrote the book that became the classic noir thriller Fallen Angel, and a story treatment for another crime movie classic The File on Thelma Jordan. Typing all those scripts at Republic Pictures taught her well, I guess.

Stark House has reprinted all of Marty Holland’s crime novels over the past year and a half. The Glass Heart is the newest reprint added to that small pile of books. For decades this novel was unavailable to mere mortals like you and me because the few copies for sale were listed by booksellers at unaffordable collector’s prices. It’s wonderful to have Marty Holland’s books all available to the general public in Stark House’s usual handsomely produced editions. For lovers of noir, kooky melodrama and twisty plotting these books are a must have. Highly recommended – even with all the caveats listed above. The Glass Heart is genuine thrill ride that will leave you both gasping in awe and laughing in shock.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Murder without Clues - Joseph L Bonney

A dead body in a locked room, a house surrounded by undisturbed snow, all suspects have an alibi but one and yet it seems that one person could not have committed the crime.  Another ingenious John Dickson Carr rip-off?  Well, not quite.  Murder without Clues (1940) is a the ultimate Golden Age homage that does a very good job of honoring the work of not only Carr but Queen and Van Dine.  Joseph L. Bonney, in his debut work as a mystery writer, has also thrown in a couple of wink-wink allusions to Conan Doyle to make this a quadruple homage. Does this mystery succeed as yet another in the impossible crime/locked room subgenre. Hmm...You decide.

Henry Watson, a wannabe novelist, is in search of a new apartment and a roommate and his friend suggests he visit Simon Rolfe who is also in search of new digs. The two meet and Watson can't help but be disturbed by Rolfe's emulation of a certain fictional detective. Rolfe has a mysterious origin that is never fully explained, seems to be independently wealthy, plays the violin, smokes a pipe, lounges around in a smoking jacket, and sees clients with puzzling problems which he solves for a modest fee and does so in a single afternoon.  Bonney has a bit too cutely paid homage to Conan Doyle while at the same time allowing his Sherlock dopplegänger to disparage the entire canon in a four page diatribe in which he deconstructs several of the stories as pathetically obvious. Once this tirade is out of the way the story can take place front and center and we have a classic Golden Age locked room populated by ex-vaudeville performers who are stranded in a snowbound house somewhere in upstate New York.

Wicked philandering dancer Lucille Divine is found stabbed in the back in her locked bedroom at the home of Champ Lister. All of Lister's guests and servants were downstairs at the time she screamed, they rush upstairs, find Lister in the hallway at the wrong door, then break down Lucille's door and find her in her last gasps. One man goes to her tries to help her and hears her say "It was the Champ..."  Then she expires. Has she verbally fingered her killer?  Lister denies he had anything to do with her death.  He didn't even know she was in this other bedroom.  He went to the bedroom across the hallway where she usually stayed.

Young Joseph L Bonney
looking suitably nerdy
on the DJ rear cover
As the title implies - there are no clues, at least as far as physical evidence goes. Plus -- no weapon can be found anywhere, even after all the rooms are thoroughly searched. The only window in the murder room is open a crack (Lucille liked fresh air to sleep at night despite the wintry temps) and can't be opened any further.  How did anyone get in, kill Lucille, and escape entirely unnoticed.  The timing of the guests rushing upstairs seems to eliminate Lister who was seen at the other doorway as they came up the stairs. Also, Lister a former vaudeville performer who stunned people with feats of memory and instant recall, listened to a radio program at the time of the murder. To prove it he writes down all the dialogue from memory.  When the police compare it to the actual broadcast it's nearly verbatim. It's all utterly baffling -- until Rolfe starts questioning the suspects of course.

Rolfe fancies himself a detective of psychology who finds this case with no physical evidence right up his alley. He approaches detective work from a different angle paying attention subtleties in language and behavior.  Though he claims to use deduction most of his conclusions are the result of induction. Still Bonney is clever in how he allows Rolfe to expose lies and get the suspects to reveal things they'd rather keep hidden. I was impressed with the dying clue bit which is very reminiscent of several Queen books.  However, in the end Bonney's explanation is a bit of a stretch.  No matter how many people I polled I couldn't get one person to duplicate what he says happened.

Rolfe is also irritatingly an obsessive student of the French philosopher Montaigne who he quotes repeatedly through the book. Only one quote seems to have anything to do with his work as a detective:  "I do not understand; I pause, I examine."  This might serve as Rolfe's (or any worthwhile detective's) mantra.

In the end it's a intricately detailed investigation, perhaps overly so in the manner of Queen and Van Dine,  with Rolfe sharing the stage with Inspector Charles King and a slew of policemen put on guard throughout the household. In a neat touch Henry Watson (Rolfe actually addresses him as "My dear Watson" too many times) provides quite by accident one of the key observations.  The manner in which the crime is committed is perhaps one of the wickedest I've encountered in a American mystery novel of this era.  there is, of course, another bizarre murder means, not quite as original as Bonney may think it is.  This method belongs to a subset of murder means that I can group into Death by... OH!  Better not mention that.  But it has been used in the work of Carr as Carter Dickson, Burton Stevenson, the Coles, and two obscure books by William Morton, and George R. Fox, all of those books and stories pre-dating Bonney's novel. Was the murder means yet another, albeit obscure, homage?

Some good news:  copies of Murder without Clues are out there for sale! About eight or nine copies by my count. One 1st edition with DJ is absurdly priced at $495. Be aware that the paperback digest edition (pictured at right) is abridged. But in this case that 's a good thing. I can imagine that all the nonsense about Montaigne and Socrates was eliminated to shorten the book. Also I'm sure that the editors cut to pieces the Sherlock Holmes diatribe that tends to spoil some of the content of the stories.

This is an interesting and engaging read in the locked room subgenre.  I thought for sure that I had pegged the killer and figured out how Lucille was done in. I also thought I had figured out the dying clue. But I was wrong on all counts.  It all turned out to be quite a surprise, though I think a bit flawed.

Having many of the suspects come from the world of vaudeville allows for a slew of red herrings, two of which I fell for and one which did not turn up at all. I was disappointed Bonney didn't include the missing aspect. It would have fit in perfectly with the dying clue.  Missed opportunity!  You can expect at least one knife thrower to show up in the cast. After all, knife throwing and vaudeville go hand in hand in the mystery novel. If you aren't acquainted with this hoary cliche of detective novels read my post on the ultimate knife throwing murder mystery here.