Friday, July 19, 2019

FFB: The Djinn - Graham Masterton

US reprint paperback, (Tor, 1982)
THE STORY: Not all genies come in bottles. Or djinns either. And not all of these supernatural beings are grateful to be freed from whatever container that imprisons them. The Djinn (1977) in this case is trapped in an ancient piece of pottery, a jar intricately designed with folkloric figures and is of great interest to a Middle Eastern antiquities consultant who would like it returned to Iran from where it was illegally procured. Now the jar is in a sealed room in the home of Max Greaves, a deceased oil tycoon, and his widow and her companion want no one going anywhere near it. Enter Harry Erskine, Greaves’ godson, whose trade is fortune telling and whose curiosity gets the better of him when it comes to the jar and its mysterious contents.

THE CHARACTERS: Harry Erskine is an interesting addition to the collection of occult detectives in supernatural fiction. He’s not a legitimate clairvoyant by any means. He’s nothing more than an opportunistic con artist. Sure he’s taken the trouble to learn the ropes with cartomancy (both tarot and regular playing cards), the Ouija board and, on occasion, reading tea leaves and gazing into a crystal ball, but he has no real powers at all. No talent other than sarcastic banter and bad puns which are very welcome in the otherwise histrionic and often gruesome novel The Djinn.
Erskine stars in one of the more original horror novels to float to the surface of the flood of 1970s supernatural mass market fiction that deluged bookstores following the success of huge bestselling books like The Exorcist and The Other. In fact the marketing team at Pinnacle Books in an effort to attract the insatiable horror crowd liken The Djinn to successful horror works like The Omen and ‘Salem’s Lot neither of which remotely resemble what you find in Graham Masterton’s unusual book. Masterton was never interested in vampires or your standard evil child possessed by the devil or even the offspring of Lucifer. He was more like a 1970s version of Abraham Merritt who penned a handful of horror classics drawing from forgotten ancient cultures and their mythology and folklore. The Djinn is a crash course in all things ancient Persia and the lore of demonic djinns.

UK 1st paperback, (Star, 1977)
Harry teams up with Anna Modena, the antiquities consultant and “America’s foremost expert in ancient folklore and Middle Eastern culture” Professor Gordon Qualt. Together the three combine their knowledge about djinns, night clocks, and the evil sorcerer Ali Babah and do their best to prevent calamity falling upon southern Massachusetts. They have their work cut out for them when the lean that widow Marjorie Greaves seems to have been overtaken by some other-worldly entity and Marjorie’s mousy subservient companion Miss Johnson starts to show an unnatural interest in the jar and what lies inside.

Anna and Qualt remind me of the occult experts you’d encounter in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. The two of them are teeming with information and both seem to be illogical in their obsession to get at the jar and the djinn inside. Ann moreso than Qualt is determined to rescue the jar as an ancient work of art. It happens to be decorated with intricate drawings of a mythological horse that had no eyes, the only known remaining illustrative example in the modern world of this particular Persian figure. Qualt astounds Erskine (and the reader) with the true story of “Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves”, which turn out not to be a group of thugs robbing gemstones for their ringleader but a sorcerer and his demon servant. The “forty thieves” are a metaphorical explanation for the two score entities the nasty demon can manifest before it completely possesses a human by stealing its face then inhabiting its body. A surprise is in store when the three demon fighters must contend with Miss Johnson who has a bizarre story of vengeance dating back centuries, one that rivals anything the MeToo movement could ever envision in payback for monstrous sexual assault. And in this case it is both literally and figuratively a monstrous assault. Read the book for the gory details, I’m not going there at all.

UK limited edition reprint - (Telos, 2010)
INNOVATIONS: Whether Masterton researched his story of Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves or he made it up entirely out of his twisted imagination there is no denying that his metaphorical reworking of a well-known Arabian Nights story is ingeniously diabolical. Additionally he seems to have invented a Persian tool of sorcery called a night clock that allows the black magic practitioner to commune with the powers of the moon in order to call up beings from another dimension to do one’s bidding. No rubbing lamps and wishing for riches and success in this story. The dead seem to walk, faceless zombies appear from the shadows, all in service of an age old vow of revenge. The Djinn is teeming with a wealth of unusually imaginative supernatural gadgets, lore and incantations making it all the more fascinating for readers who crave genuine supernatural content in their horror novels.

Interestingly, embedded within all the arcane lore, ancient mythology, black magic, demonic possession and manifestations is a bit of a detective story. There is a mystery surrounding Max Greaves' cause of death and why he disfigured himself, also there is a mystery that is solved quite by accident pertaining to the identity of a sinister robed figure that keep appearing on the grounds of the Greaves estate, Winter Sails.

Masterton is Scottish but nearly all of his books are set in America and feature almost exclusively American characters. One of his greatest talents is his talent for duplicating American syntax in his character’s speech. His dialogue is spot on and his ear for American speech rhythm, slang and colloquialisms is uncanny. More than any other non-US writer Masterton is the king of American dialogue writing.

Inside cover of US 1st edition,
(Pinnacle, 1977) 
QUOTES: Masterton has a lot of fun with Erskine’s irreverent sense of humor. He has mentioned in interviews the necessity for humor in horror novels and can’t abide writing them without someone cracking jokes or uttering a ridiculous pun. Here’s a typical sequence:

Anna: "Professor Qualt was in the newspapers not long ago when they turned up that marble smuggling racket out of Iraq. He’s very keen on keeping treasures in the environment where they were originally created."

Harry: “I agree with him. I hate to see people losing their marbles.”

THE AUTHOR: Graham Masterton was one of the leading horror novelists of the 1970s and continues to thrill readers with his ingenuity and innovative storytelling today. He began his career as an editor at Penthouse and his first book was not fiction but one of the most successful sex manuals of all time -- How To Drive your Man Wild in Bed (1976). He’s written in all popular fiction genres, written for adults, children and teens, and continues to publish books with at least one new book every year for the past forty years -- in some cases as many as four books in a year. He has recently turned to crime fiction and thrillers and has created at least two series characters. For more on Masterton and his work visit his website.

Friday, July 12, 2019

FFB: The Man Who Fell through the Earth - Carolyn Wells

THE STORY: There's a load of mystery going on at Puritan Trust Company. First, lawyer Tom Brice witnesses what appears to be two men in a violent argument in the office opposite him shortly followed by a gunshot. Then a dead body is found in a secret private elevator. Then a young man disappears without a trace. Olive Raynor, the young ward of Amos Gately, the murder victim, is Suspect #1 in the eyes of lazy Chief of Police. But she'll have none of that. She may not have liked her "uncle" who acted as an ever watchful guardian but she would never have killed him. She hires Tom Brice as her lawyer and then suggests he hire a private investigator to look into the murder and find evidence to clear her name. Tom seeks out Pennington Wise and his spooky assistant Zizi and together they unravel the various mysteries including that of the amnesiac title character.

THE CHARACTERS: In a scene late in the book when Tom and his resourceful and witty secretary are discussing the mystery of Case Rivers (the title character), Norah comes up with an outlandish idea of what might have happened and why Rivers has also seemingly disappeared. Tom says to her "Oh Norah! come off! desist! let up! Next thing you know you'll be having him in the pictures, for you never thought up all that stuff without getting hints for it from some slapstick melodrama." Norah replies, "Oh, well, people who are absolutely without imagination can't expect to see into a mystery!" That's exactly the kind of person Carolyn Wells would not want for her target audience. Imagination in abundance is on display in The Man Who Fell through the Earth (1919) perhaps one of her best detective novels. For all her talk of the differences between fiction and "real life" over the course of the novel the "real life" of her story is more colorful and bizarre than any real gritty urban crime that plagued early 20th century Manhattan where this story is situated.

Tom and Norah make a fine duo of sparring amateur detectives. Their scenes are sparkling with humor, affability and gentle jibing. Norah is the abstract thinker while Tom is the logical minded man, of course, and together they offer up some interesting ideas about who and how Amos Gately was killed in his private offices. But more interesting among the various mysteries is the discovery of some financial chicanery, possible blackmail and the unexpected revelation of a spy working for Germany. Then there is the title character and his own strange story.

1st US edition, front cover
(George H Doran, 1919)
Note the snowflakes!
Case Rivers is the name an amnesiac man gives himself as an alter ego while he tries to sort out who he is and what happened to him. All he remembers prior to his being pulled out of the East River nearly naked, wearing only ragged and torn underwear, is a terrifying fall. He is certain he literally fell through a hole in the ground in Canada and ended up in the frigid waters of the East River. Everyone who is treating him for his loss of memory and helping him to recover his identity knows this is absurd, that he must be speaking figuratively. Tom at first thinks Rivers might be the missing Amory Manning, Olive's supposed fiancé, but when he meets the amnesiac he knows they cannot be the same person for they look nothing alike. When it is discovered that Manning is working for the US government the idea of kidnapping suddenly enters the picture.

Norah is sure Rivers has something to do with Manning's disappearance. Zizi is certain Rivers is Gately's killer. Tom and Pennington Wise disagree with the women and have their own ideas about who did what to whom. The reader is left to sort through the various theories, discard the red herrings, and pick one of the many detectives in this case with whom to side.

Among the handful of suspects one of my favorites in the first half of the book was Jenny Boyd, a floozy office worker --  a ubiquitous stock character in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Jenny is first described by Tom, our first person narrator, as "the yellow ear-muffed stenographer" alluding to her Princess Leia-style hairdo and goes on to detail her "cheaply fashionable" clothes and her irritating habit of chewing gum. She shows up to the police interrogation wearing a risque V-neck dress with a short skirt. Then he concludes his paragraph on Jenny with this hilarious sentence: "Her air of importance was such that I thought I had never seen such an enormous amount ego contained in such a small cosmos." Keep in mind that this cliched portrait of a not-so-bright secretary who thinks she's sexy was written in 1919! It always gives me a mild shock to encounter such early examples of character types we think were created much later in popular fiction and entertainment. Jenny, however, is not just present as a figure of ridicule, another Wells trademark. She is crucial in protecting someone hiding behind the scenes -- a surprise villain who opens up a whole new plot thread that only complicates discovering who killed Amos Gately and why.

1st UK Edition (Harrap, 1924)
INNOVATIONS: Well's typical formula is followed here with the amateur detective collaborating with the police in the first half, her series character (the supposed "star" of the book, but not so in this case) showing up just after the halfway mark, and the pros and amateurs teaming up to solve the mystery in the second half. Remarkably, this is the first Wells mystery novel I have read in which there are literally four different theories being played out between the pros and the amateurs. It's a daring way to deal with a detective novel plot and she artfully manages to juggle all the balls in mid-air dazzling the reader with a variety of solutions to the multiple baffling mysteries. There are plenty of unusual clues and more crimes than one ever expects.

A quasi-impossible murder, a mysterious disappearance, a possible kidnapping, an abduction, espionage, featuring a coded message with an odd method of decoding the cryptogram, and the mystery of identity related to Case Rivers are all met with intelligence and sometimes indulgent fantasy, which would later be the downfall of Wells as a mystery novel plotter and writer. Despite the tendency for characters like Norah and Zizi to dream up ludicrous theories this is one detective novel that Wells managed to concoct in its purest form.

Imagine reading this book when it first appeared 100 years ago and one can see why Wells was seen as a forerunner to what we now consider quintessential Golden Age detective fiction. She first employed all the conventions and motifs we now see as old hat long before the truly great writers re-engineered them in engaging and baffling mystery novels that soon overshadowed her work. Wells draws on previous writers for sure, notably Conan Doyle, and her frequent references to Holmes, detective story writers, and well known plot motifs show not only her vast knowledge of the genre but an obvious love and respect for the form.

One of the more interesting clues that help the team of detectives help learn more about Rivers is his habit of drawing intricately beautiful snowflake patterns. Zizi makes the observation that people tend to doodle while using the telephone and she discovers a doodle of a snowflake in a prominent place that reveals Rivers had to have been there. Finding the snowflake doodle in that spot leads Zizi to form a theory about Rivers possibly having murdered Gately. There is one brilliantly placed clue I completely overlooked that provides the solution to Case Rivers' true identity yet the reader is not even reminded of it until the penultimate page. Wells makes great use of seemingly mundane human behavior taken for granted in real life and then applying observations like Zizi's to her detective novel plot. It's both a refreshing and ironically eye-opening plotting technique that would become the standard of the incipient Golden Age.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Another intriguing clue is a carriage check, a small card issued to hotel guests or theater goers that allowed them to get a taxi or carriage (back in the horse drawn days) and wait in a queue as they pulled up to collect their passengers. I only learned about these by intensive internet searching and picking up this stray sentence in an encyclopedia about vaudeville. The article addresses the short-lived Folies Bergere in Manhattan whose owners Harris & Lasky thought up "other little innovations for theatergoers, such as a call boy inquiring of patrons shortly before the ending of the evening whether they wish a taxi giving a numbered card to those who do, the card becoming the person's carriage call." An illustration of one appears in my copy of The Man Who Fell through the Earth (at right) which I guess must be a good facsimile of what one looked like. A big deal is made about the holes in the card, what purpose they actually serve I have no idea, but in the course of the story they have an alternate more sinister use.

"Papier Poudré" brand powder-papers (click to enlarge)
In their first search of the murder scene Norah and Tom find things the police have overlooked. Norah, truly one of the ablest of the amateurs in this novel, spots a slip of pink paper in the trash can and pockets it. Tom asks her what it is and she tells him to be careful as it might still have fingerprints. "It's a powder-paper. Women carry them -- they come in little books. That's one of the leaves. They're to rub on your face, and the powder comes off on your nose and cheeks."  The conversation then turns to a mystery woman who must have been in the room visiting Gately. Tom remarks in passing: "A bit intimate, isn't it, for a woman to powder her nose in a man's office." Norah jibes back, "Not at all, Mr. Old Fogey! Why, you can see the girls doing that everywhere, nowadays. In the street cars, in the theatre -- anywhere!"

THE AUTHOR: Among Carolyn Wells (1870-1942) first professions were librarian in her hometown of Rahway, New Jersey and a prolific poet and humorist. Her first published work -- "The Poster Girl" -- appeared in 1897. Her first novels starting in 1902 were aimed for children, specifically the popular girls' book market. she came to write detective fiction a bit late only after attending a reading of Anna Katharine Green's That Affair Next Door. Wells' first detective novel, The Clue (1909), featured her long running series detective Fleming Stone. In addition to Stone and Pennington Wise she created Kenneth Carlisle and Lorimer Lane who each appeared in two mystery novels. Writing in multiple genres, both non-fiction and fiction, her work appeared in both the slicks and pulps of her time. Many of her novels were first serialized in popular story magazines like Detective Story (published by Street & Smith) and Munsey's All-Story Weekly.

Wells was one of the most amazingly prolific writers of the early 20th century consistently publishing at least three or four books annually from 1902 to her death. She claimed in an autobiographical work, The Rest of My Life (1937) to have written 170 books, including 70 detective stories—"so far."

Pennington Wise & Zizi Mystery Novels
The Room With the Tassels (1918)
The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919)
In the Onyx Lobby (1920)
The Come Back (1921)
The Luminous Face (1921)
The Vanishing of Betty Varian (1922)
The Affair at Flower Acres (1923)
Wheels Within Wheels (1923)