Friday, July 13, 2018

FFB: The Devil & Ben Franklin - Theodore Mathieson

THE STORY: Young Ben Franklin is just starting out his career as a printer in Penn's Town (aka Philadelphia). His most recent editorial in his fledgling newspaper, however, has raised the ire of Colin Magnus, a shipping magnate who seems to have everyone under his control, especially his three daughters and son. Magnus demands a retraction of what he claims is a libelous editorial but Franklin refuses because it is all true. Magnus, a megalomaniac and religious hypocrite, curses Franklin justifying his invocation of Satan to ruin the printer's life as just another act of God who is all too ready to do Magnus' bidding. Shortly thereafter Franklin's printer's assistant is found dead and his journeyman disappears. With the discovery of eerie mark of a burned cloven hoofprint at the scene of each crime it looks as if the curse is flourishing insidiously. The townspeople want Franklin out and a mob rule takes over. Franklin fights back once more by enlisting the services of a fire and brimstone preacher who admonishes the entire town in a magnificent oratory display. The congregation leaves feeling humiliated and chastised. The curse backfires when Colin Magnus is found only a few days later stabbed with a sword in his locked study and another hoofprint left burning near the body. Franklin asks the Lord Mayor for a special commission allowing him to turn investigator. He promises to root out the very human cause of all the deaths and violence, and put an end to the madness of the citizenry who are falling prey to superstition and believing that the Devil, witches and warlocks are in control of Philadelphia.

Ben Franklin Wooing Deborah Read
(from the Granger Collection)
THE CHARACTERS: The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) is set in Philadelphia of 1734 when Ben Franklin is only twenty eight. In this well researched and authentic feeling 18th century historical mystery he is living with his common law wife Deborah Read (affectionately called Debby throughout) and his son William is still an infant. His print shop and work on the Pennsylvania Gazette are his life. We get a sense of his involvement in public life through his volatile writing in the guises of both Poor Richard and Alice Addertongue, his journalistic alter egos. His dialogue -- occasionally sprinkled with the kind of epigrammatic wit he is well known for -- declares strong beliefs, a fervent disdain of superstitious nonsense and a rejection of tyranny in all its forms. That the novel uses a detective story format to reveal his burgeoning career as statesman and philosopher is one of its strongest appeals.

We learn a lot about Franklin's creation of his men's discussion group the Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club. We meet all of its members who will also serve as suspects in the various crimes committed throughout the story. The club as Mathieson envisions it is made up of tradesmen (cobbler, scrivener, bookseller and printer, surveyor) as well as notable public figures like a lawyer and a magistrate. These men are some of Franklin's closest friends. Magnus approaches several of the Junto in an attempt to break up the club. He bribes them, threatens their businesses and does his best to make the curse he invoked come true. His goal is the total ruination of Franklin in family, career and social standing in Philadelphia.

Also featured prominently in the story is Colin Magnus' family. His three daughters are involved with men who also happen to be members of the Junto neatly tying together the two plot threads. Complicating matters is the sudden appointment of Robert Grace (another Junto member) as executor of the Magnus estate after his murder. Magnus who had been controlling his children, preventing them from marrying and in effect imprisoning them in his house wants Grace to carry out his dictatorial wishes by continuing a 24/7 watch on his family. His daughters unfortunately are once again prevented from marrying until they reach legal age. Unknown to Grace and only to Franklin is the fact that Jennifer Magnus is pregnant and planning to elope with the father of her child, William Maugridge (yet another member of the Junto) before he condition becomes too noticeable. Grover Magnus, the only son, who hated his father with an intensity is the prime suspect of his father's murder but he soon falls ill and everyone thinks once again the Devil's curse is manifesting itself and that the remaining members of the Magnus family may soon become targets of violence.

The cast is fairly large and the many supporting characters all have their shining moments. While so much of the story is devoted to the Junto members, the Magnus family and their relationship to Franklin and the killings there are a few outstanding minor characters who steal the spotlight in The Devil and Ben Franklin. One of the nastier villains of the piece is Ezra Peeples, a vile tavern owner so completely immoral and odious that he will not be satisfied with the fruition of the Devils' curse until Franklin is caught and burned alive as all witches are exceuted. Ezra is responsible for riling up the townspeople and creating the second  instance of mob rule when two more deaths occur.

INNOVATIONS:  Mathieson manages fairly well to carry off a replication of 18th century life in both manner and speech. Only occasionally does the dialogue take on a 1960s contemporary tone. The paranoid atmosphere is maintained with the plot focusing on a Devil's curse and the Philadelphian's descent into superstition and a regression in witchcraft belief.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from Poor Richard's Almanack foreshadowing the action to come often simultaneously making an ironic comment on what will be revealed in that section.

One of the book's highlights takes place when Franklin is forced to flee the town finding refuge in the abandoned Kraft family farmhouse. Or so he thinks. The farmhouse is now home to Franz, a German hermit who is a follower of the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart. Franz is an excellent character, a welcome addition of wisdom and heartfelt humanity after so many pages of wickedness, rancor, and no-win conflict. He becomes an unlikely ally in the war that arises between the Junto members and the mob followers of Ezra Peeples. The climactic scene is a fully realized gunfight and showdown reminiscent of a scene from the western novels so popular only a decade earlier.

The detection ironically is perhaps the weakest portion of the book. Mathieson plants a few clues but relies on some well worn tricks that come as less of a surprise as they do anticlimax. In examining the scene of Colin Magnus' murder the solution to the locked room comes fairly quickly. As it relies on one of Carolyn Wells' "hackneyed devices" that she herself employed several times in her books it is also fairly forgettable. Another "hackneyed device" comes out of nowhere during the denouement and seems to be thrown in just to further rankle the hairs of any traditional detective novel fan.

Even though the finale is somewhat sloppily constructed it in no way diminishes the intelligence and heart of the overall story. I found The Devil & Ben Franklin entirely resonant with our times. Tyranny whether actual or metaphorical is a topic always worth reading about, always worth remembering its dangers.

QUOTES: Ezra Peeples: "What you call goodness is weakness, and I admire no weakling. Evil has its roots in the earth, and good has its roots in the vacant sky. That is why Colin Magnus' curse is more real than a blessing. Enjoy your quiet hour, Ben Franklin, bask in the sun of your success, for be sure it will not last long!"

Why was it that of all the people he knew, Ezra Peeples alone could speak in a way that rimed Ben's heart with ice?

"[God's] given you eloquence Mr. Dakin, there's no doubt of it. And you've convinced me that you may well be the needed savior of a town full of misguided people. If they must wallow in the dust, as you say, let it be the holy spirit and not the evil one that moves them."

"I should like to see His Satanic Majesty chased farther north -- say to New York or Boston, if you can manage it."

Well, if this was the Devil, he told himself derisively, he had shoes on his feet and solid legs, and probably a head to punch if he drew too near without salutation.

THE AUTHOR: Theodore Mathieson (1913-1995)
lived in Oregon for most of his writing career. For seventeen years he taught in California schools, later serving as instructor of English and journalism at Southwestern Oregon College. In 1958 he published his first detective short story "Captain Cook, Detective" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. This led to a further twelve stories all featuring historical figures who used their specific talents and skills to solve murders, many of them involving impossible crime motifs or locked rooms. The detectives included Alexander the Great, Florence Nightingale, Daniel Boone, Stanley and Livingston, and Miguel de Cervantes. A locked room mystery with Leonardo Da Vinci as the detective, called "one of the most ingenious" by Mike Ashley, has been repeatedly anthologized in several short story collections. All of Mathieson's EQMM stories were collected in The Great Detectives (1960). During the 1950s he also published stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, several of which were also later anthologized in other collections. In addition to his adult novels Mathieson wrote juvenile fiction including Island in the Sand (1964) about a 17 year-old boy who exiles himself in Oregon dune country, and two juvenile mysteries featuring The Sleuth Club: The Door to Nowhere (1964), and The Sign of the Flame (1964).

EASY TO FIND? This one is relatively scarce. The book was published in hardcover and paperback in the US and only a handful of copies are offered for sale at various online bookselling sites. Of the two US editions available the paperback from Popular Library (illustration used for this post) is the more abundant and affordable. I could not verify a UK edition.

Friday, July 6, 2018

FFB: Death Wishes - Philip Loraine

Unpleasant people. Unpleasant situations. You can’t escape them if you’re going to read crime fiction. I’m always amazed when I read a review of a crime novel that states the reviewer did not like the book because the characters were unlikeable, unpleasant, untrustworthy, and in general just UN-anything. Why bother reading crime fiction then? Nice people don’t steal, swindle, beat up, torture or kill other people. There are nothing but unpleasant people in Death Wishes (1983) one of Philip Loraine’s last books published in his lifetime. But just because these people are not nice doesn’t make them not worth your attention. This is one crafty bunch of characters and their two-timing and lying make for some fascinating reading.

Basically what we have here is another story about a group of avaricious relatives fighting for the estate of a wealthy patriarch who had little love for anyone other than himself. Edward Walden has one daughter, an alcoholic ex-wife now dead, and a couple of illegitimate children who will crop up during this twisty story of deceit and betrayal. His mistresses and their offspring as well as his servants are expecting to be the primary legatees when the will is read. Imagine their surprise when they hear that the entire estate is left to Catherine, his estranged daughter who has been living in the United States for over twenty years. The household is in a mild uproar and those who were apparently disinherited insist that there was a new will that cut out Catherine and left them the estate to divide into five equal shares.

Catherine who has traveled southern France to the Walden estate (but conveniently skipped out on Daddy’s funeral) finds herself the target of a couple of dangerous young men, their scheming mothers, and a wily butler out for himself. Who will find the correct will? And will Catherine survive the weekend before it turns up? I’ll say no more. Loraine has constructed a neatly plotted story, deceptively simple on the surface but teeming with background intrigues only hinted at in the first few chapters. But in the masterful, exciting finale those intrigues take center stage. All hell breaks loose with a furor of tempers flying, accusations of attempted murder, and a flurry of bizarre revelations and ugly truths finally exposed.

Short and sweet this week, eh? The only thing I’ll add in closing is that in this fourth to last novel of Loraine’s not only are the characters more base but so is his writing. Casual swearing crops up frequently as well as casual sex. Loraine decided to go whole hog with the unpleasantness. Those easily offended by F bombs in language and in the bedroom ought to look elsewhere for their entertainment. For me, Death Wishes hit the right notes of venal and criminal behavior on the printed page. Guess I was sick of niceness this past week.

Friday, June 29, 2018

FFB: Dreamland Lake - Richard Peck

THE STORY: Philip "Flip" Townsend and Brian Bishop, two teen boys guided by a dated book on the history of their hometown Dunthorpe, Illinois set out to find and explore an abandoned amusement park near the shores of Dreamland Lake (1973). To their horror they stumble across a skeleton and they make the local newspapers and receive celebrity status for a few weeks as adventurers. They continue to return to the ruins of the amusement park and discover some sinister artifacts and a weird shrine decorated in swastikas. With a new found tag-along friend Flip and Brian will be forced to confront the fragility of friendship, the stigma of being ostracized and the inevitability of death.

THE CHARACTERS: Flip and Brian are perfectly realized 1970s teen boys. They talk and behave like thirteen year-olds and the adults around them seem just as real. I can speak from authority here because I was thirteen myself in 1973, the year the book was published. The entire story rang true with an astonishing resonance that at times it seemed as if Peck had stolen glimpses from my own life. Everything from their slang, their past times like a very 1970s obsession with old time monster movies on late night TV, the problems with finding a sub for Flip's paper route when other activities take precedence and even their hero worship of a twenty-something athletic and down-to-earth swimming coach -- all of it was spot on. The two boys never once seem older than their years and in fact get a healthy dose of life lessons from Peck's finely rendered adult characters like a teacher trying desperately to instill a respect for modern poetry in her students; Old Man Sanderson, an anal retentive curmudgeon typical of the bullying paper route customer who is out for blood any time Flip deviates form the rules of newspaper delivery; and Old Lady Garrison who I'll talk about in a section below. Not to be left out is the pathetic figure of lonely outcast Elvan Helligrew, a perfectly named misfit who is eager to become Flip and Bri's best friend. Elvan is willing to do anything to impress them. The two boys exploit Elvan for their own ends fooling the boy into thinking he has become "cool" in their eyes. But what happens to the three boys will have dire consequences for all of them and will be the most painful growing experience for Flip and Brian.

INNOVATIONS: Ostensibly a book written solely for a young audience, Dreamland Lake has the remarkable paradox of being a book so fully and truly realized as a microcosm of what is what like to be a kid in the 1970s that it seems almost like a novel of nostalgia. To a kid in 1973 reading this book probably would have seemed almost mundane with its everyday details like Flip's paper route difficulties or the dullness of being forced to compose a modern poem in English class -- called Language Arts in a typically 70s education reform re-labeling. But to an adult reader in the 21st century reading the book now it was like the most vivid trip down Memory Lane. Interestingly, as Peck's writing career progressed he would become increasingly drawn to the past and one of his most successful books was an adult memoir he wrote of his own boyhood. In writing a contemporary book about boys growing up in 1970s Illinois, where Peck himself grew up, he had already mastered a kind of reality that few writers -- both those writing for adults and children -- ever really accomplish.

The mature themes of confronting the ugly truth of Life's finality, particularly unexpected death, is a topic that many 1970s children's writers were incorporating into their work. Often the topic of death in kids' books is ever so gently introduced into the story, sometimes cloyingly depicted and discussed. Peck talks openly about death in Dreamland Lake. The scene where the boys are invited to Mrs. Garrison's home and she relates the story of how she lost her son in a horrible milk truck accident is handled matter-of-factly and without a drop of sentimentality. Mrs. Garrison is not the typical wise old woman who pontificates on somber Very Important Subject Matter the way other writers would use a character like her. She's lived a comfortable life, still grieves for her son, and in telling her tale shows the boys that death is ever present. Better to get used to it at a young age, she tells them, rather than have to deal with it unprepared as an adult. You didn't get scenes like this in kid's books during the 30s, 40s, 50s and rarely in the 60s. The 70s were the decade when children's books were finally growing up.

I’m no real expert in what is now known as young adult genre, but I do know that when I was growing up children’s writers were only just beginning to tackle formerly taboo subject matter for children’s books like puberty, divorce, child abuse, date rape, racial inequality, and even -- as in Dreamland Lake -- facing one’s own mortality. Cute books about talking animals, stories inspired by fairy tales or similar tame "kiddy fare" were no longer making up the majority of children’s books. Children increasingly wanted to read about themselves and their very real problems. Gone too were the teen sleuths who chased after crooked real estate agents and avaricious treasure hunters. The teen protagonists were often criminals themselves – shoplifters, bicycle thieves, burglars and gang members. Flip and Brian engage in some less than legal activities themselves.  Richard Peck was definitely a ground breaker along with his fellow 1970s young adult writers Paul Zindel, Judy Blume and S. E. Hinton.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Flip and Brian talk about their days of swim classes at the YMCA where they were required to swim nude. Believe it or not, this was a national rule in the United States. Nude swimming was required of all males who used YMCA public pools from about 1926 to 1962. This was mandated by the American Public Health Association and thousands of high schools and middle schools that gave swimming lessons also enforced the rule of nude swimming for boys which continued well into the mid-1970s. Girls, luckily, were allowed to wear swimsuits in school swimming pools.  I had to find out more so I went a-Googling. As early as the 19th century when swimsuits were made of woolen textiles, fibers would clog the early filtration systems making for added work of cleaning them almost hourly. To alleviate this unnecessary, time consuming labor the rules about nude swimming were instituted. There were also some supposed added benefits that the APHA created in order to justify the lack of swimsuits in public pools. Prior to getting in a YMCA pool all men's bodies were examined for open wounds or indications of infectious disease. The changing social attitudes towards nudity in YMCA pools and the entire history of nude swimming in the US is outlined in a fascinating article you can read here.

Richard Peck as seen
on a DJ from a 1989 book
THE AUTHOR:  Richard Peck was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois. He grew up during the Depression era with a father who owned a Phillips 66 gas station and a mother who instilled him at a very early age a love of reading and books.  He was educated at DePauw University, Exeter University as an undergraduate and Southern Illinois University and Washington University in St. Louis, MO as a graduate student. During the late 1950 she served two years in the US Army stationed in Stuttgart where he worked as a chaplain's assistant.

His first novel for young people was Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972) which addresses teen pregnancy and was later adapted as the movie Gas Food Lodging.  He has also covered such formerly taboo topics as stalking and the aftermath of teen sexual assault in Are You in the House Alone? (1976) which was adapted as a TV movie in 1978. This novel won Peck an Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. At the advice of some junior high school readers who he visited with he began to explore the burgeoning popularity of supernatural themes in his books for children. His first efforts resulted in a series of well received books featuring Blossom Culp, a girl with skills of a medium who acted as an occult detective of sorts. Blossom first appears in The Ghost Belonged to Me (1975) narrated by an older man looking back on his youth in 1904. While the book is reminiscent of a Mark Twain novel, complete with an alternating folksy and sarcastic humor, the TV movie adaptation Child of Glass (part of "The Wonderful World of Disney" anthology series) is decidedly different and updated to be set in the 1970s.

In addition to the Edgar Peck has won the Newberry Medal, a Newberry Honor, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and been nominated for the National Book Award. He died May 23, 2018 at his home in New York City following a long illness. He was 84.

EASY TO FIND?  Most of Peck's children's books have remained in print since they were first published, no mean feat for someone so prolific. Dreamland Lake can be found in numerous paperback editions dating from 1975 all the way to 2000. Each edition received multiple printings. His many books continue to be very popular in libraries all over the US and Canada. There should be no problem finding a copy of any of his books. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 22, 2018

FFB: The Angel of Death - Philip Loraine

John Lang likes a challenge like any handsome sociopath does. When he learns that the fabulously wealthy Pietro Fontana has in his enviable art collection a mere copy of Da Vinci's "L'angelo della morte" and the real one still resides in an art museum in Florence he sees it as yet another opportunity to exploit the rich for his own benefit. He proposes that he can acquire the Da Vinci painting for Fontana as long as the price is right. And Fontana almost mockingly accepts the offer. Thus the two enter into a pact that leads to art forgery, theft, betrayal and death. You don't expect this kind of book to have a happy ending, do you?

A few week ago I reviewed the first crime novel in Robin Estridge's career as his alter ego "Philip Loraine." The Angel of Death (1961) is more in line with the kind of book he preferred writing - crime and suspense without the whodunit/detective novel angle. As an example of the art heist/caper novel this book is expertly executed and entertainingly done on a much smaller scale than the better known, overly complex capers novels of Lionel White, Donald E. Westlake and their modern imitators. Though lacking in the expected firework action sequences and techno-wizardry of contemporary caper thrillers it achieves a high level of excitement in the simple yet clever method that the painting is switched with a copy and ferreted out of the museum then past the officious Italian border patrol. Lang enlists only two assistants -- a gifted forger and a skilled antique frame builder -- to pull off the theft and switch of the lusted after painting. Of the two Henry Fletcher, a British oil painter, is the more fascinating character. In fact, Fletcher basically steals everyone's thunder in the final pages.

Extremely adept at copying Renaissance masterpieces and imitating nearly every 15th and 16th century Italian artist including Tintoretto, Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Della Francesca and of course Da Vinci Fletcher is an undiscovered genius languishing in obscurity and dependent on small sales of his landscapes and portraits in minor London galleries. Fletcher turns out to be one of the most fully realized characters in a book with a relatively small cast. Among the duplicitous and avaricious villains (there are many!) Fletcher stands afar from the sociopathic charm of Lang and exhibits less greed than the others who are clearly in it for the money. He is the philosopher of the book and seems to be the sole reason that Estridge wrote this unusual thriller. This misguided but genius-like artist wins our admiration and sympathy more than anyone else. For in the end he is the only man who truly knows himself and one of the few men in the cast with a conscience or a soul. His last minute epiphany is fraught with tragic doom. Ultimately, he remains unrecognized for his unearthly talent and instead is flattered as a mere imitator thus rendering himself almost worthless. Estridge is clearly on Fletcher's side and gives him the best lines in the final exciting section of the book and allows him the most poignant of epiphanies. When everyone begins to turn on one another and the simple plan explodes in a series of betrayals and ironic incidents it is Fletcher who has the last laugh even as he faces his own demise.

Last time I reviewed a Philip Loraine book I skipped over the QUOTES section. This time I'll go overboard in treating you to his acerbic wit and trenchant observations:

Fontana to Lang: "We have something in common: it is the quality of aloneness, of the cat. It is probably the only thing we have in common -- or ever will have. No one can be successful without it."

Paolo, a hired thug, is combing his hair while talking to his employer: "I need [this gun]. But I need not use it. Any more than I need to use this." The comb had vanished, replaced by a flick-knife, blade gleaming.
  Brauner sighed. "Oh for God's sake, why are you Italians such children?"

English women are not used to being called "adorable" by total strangers, no one can blame them for liking it.

They crossed the Croisette and descended to the beach where already the nationalities were being laid out side by side in serried rows like prawns waiting to be canned.

He did not care about the money; he only cared that he was supposed to be a person--a human being with a heart and soul who, it seemed, must always face a world without compassion, a world without kindness, honesty or love. Never in all the years [...] that he had been alone had anything pierced him quite so savagely as this betrayal; and it seemed all the worse because the cause of it -- the money -- did not matter to him. It hurt him physically in the stomach. It was as if a brutal dishonest world had rejected him finally as a human being -- as if he could no longer live on the world's terms.

Fletcher to Lang: "Don't bother to lie anymore; it's a bore, you're a bore. You're a complete and utter write-off, both as a human being and as a crook. All you've got is a pretty face and in a few years even that'll look like anybody else's"

And he thought, If this is the world's reward, this feeling of satisfaction when one looks at a beaten man, then I don't want the world.

John Lang reminded me of a more charming Tom Ripley, no less dangerous or cunning, and the book recalls much of the darker explorations of Patricia Highsmith's world of loners, misfits and solipsistic criminals. But unlike a Highsmith novel here we get an unlikely pair of do-gooders trying their best to thwart the plan's of Lang and Fletcher. Stir in a mysterious man in gray on the trail of Lang at every corner and Fontana's watch dog German secretary into the mix and the caper plot begins to bubble over with double-dealing and mistrust. The story is never too complicated and the suspense is maintained throughout. The reader can't help but try to outguess each of the villains in their double-crossing and urge on Benedetto and Joanna as the eleventh hour heroes.

The Angel of Death was published in both the UK and the US. Copies of the US editions, both hardcover first edition and paperback reprint, are the easiest to come by in the used book market.  Fans of the caper novel, lovers of art history, devotees of thrillers set in scenic locales dripping in cultural richness will find much to their liking in this superior entry in the heist novel. I'm eager to read the next Loraine novel in my ever growing pile of his books. He's one of the best discoveries in crime fiction I've stumbled across in years.