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.

Friday, June 8, 2018

FFB: And to My Beloved Husband - Philip Loraine

THE STORY: Not all ugly ducklings will transform into swans. But despite her plain looks and less than warm personality Beatrice Templer manages to win the hand, if not the heart, of her handsome prince. Aspiring novelist Michael Kinman, stunningly gorgeous, described as a "beautiful angel" by too many women, learns of Beatrice's recently inherited millions from a previous marriage of convenience and takes advantage of her besotted attraction to him. Soon they are married, living a life that not too many would describe as happily ever after. Michael has his mistresses and Beatrice has a diary into which she pours out her secret longing. Then one summer evening Beatrice drops dead at during a cocktail party with friends. Her last words are "Mikey, oh, Mikey..." as she looks right into his eyes with that usual cold blank stare. An autopsy reveals she died of an overdose of her combination anxiety reducer and sleeping pill. Could a woman so obviously in love with her beautiful younger husband have killed herself? Inspector Keen begins his investigation doubting that premise and is determined to uncover the dirty truth behind Beatrice's unexpected death.

THE CHARACTERS: And to My Beloved Husband (1950) is the debut novel by a writer who would go on to a prolific and rewarding career as a screenwriter. This first effort already shows his talent for rich characterization and adroit, well-delineated voices in his often acerbic dialogue. The novel opens with a scene between too supporting characters -- friend of the Kinman family Humphrey Orton and the lawyer Alexander Perowne. Orton is sort of a clone of Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins' odious villain. Like Fosco his repellent physique is offset by his wit and charm. He describes himself as both a procurer of and chaperone for Michael's mistresses. We learn almost all we need to know about Michael and Beatrice in this opening chapter, the most telling tidbit being that Orton will be escorting Michael's most recent paramour Helen Langton (the very antithesis of Beatrice) to the weekend party.

When the story moves into the Kinman home we find a divisive household, some utterly devoted to Michael and others duty bound to Beatrice. Constance Snagge is Beatrice's secretary companion, a mousy spinster in her mature years as besotted with her employer as Beatrice is in love with Michael. Michael too has his share of idol worship in the person of Beatrice's stepson Adrian Templer, a handsome painter with an erratic personality given to bursts of anger and resentment if he learns that anyone is talking ill of Michael or treating him poorly. These two also give Inspector Keen a lot of inside information about their adored figures that no other character is privy to.

Detective Inspector Keen is aptly named, as sharp as a knife with an personality edge just as cutting. Unlike many of the policemen who turn up in novels where a household is divided into two camps of slavish devotion and bitter jealousy Keen is not created as a peacekeeper. In fact, he's one of the more devious characters in the cast. More manipulative than Beatrice herself he exploits his role as a policeman during his brutal interrogations with casual insults, personal attacks, and caustic remarks intended to wound egos and weaken the suspect's carefully cultivated facades. He's as relentless as he is indifferent. All that matters to him is that he find a killer. For he is certain in this household of impassioned remarks and fervent emotions that someone has murdered Beatrice.

INNOVATIONS: The novel has an artful structure that alternates between the present and the past. Just after Beatrice's death takes place the following chapter gives us a detailed history of her past from her career in nursing to her caring for her future husband, many years her senior, ultimately leading up to a Mediterranean vacation where she meets Michael. The omniscient narrative voice allows us to know Beatrice is a detached way well suited to her enigmatic personality. Loraine adopts a cheeky tone often tinged with patronizing judgments and snide wit wholly suited to a novel where the characters are mostly putting on fronts or hiding behind an officious veneer created to protect fragile emotions.

Nearly every character is treated to exhaustive backstories highlighted by neat personal touches and unusual details. Loraine's omniscient narrator gets deep inside each character and the writing reflects how we are meant to think about each person in his choice of vocabulary which is brutal in its honesty, just falling short of what can become, in less talented hands, the voice of a godlike observer passing judgment on fallible and weak people.

THE AUTHOR: In the author bios on the dust jackets of "Philip Loraine's" early books it was clear the writer was not interested in revealing his real name or letting anyone know much about his life. There have never been any photos on his books and his name was not revealed until much later in his career. Robin Estridge, in fact, had a more successful career in the movies as both a screenwriter of original work and adapter of other writer's novels. His most well known book is perhaps the novel The Day of the Arrow (1964) which he adapted for the screen and became the weird neo-Gothic thriller The Eye of the Devil. Most of his novels were a mix of suspense thrillers and espionage adventures. And to My Beloved Husband is one of his few crime novels that could be classified as a traditional mystery.

Estridge had two other novels adapted for the screen by other writers: The Break in the Circle and Nightmare in Dublin. For his own work in screenwriting he received a BAFTA award for The Young Lovers (aka Chance Meeting, 1954) co-written with playwright and novelist George Tabori and five years later was nominated for a BAFTA for his script North West Frontier, a wartime adventure. His more than fifteen other scripts include Checkpoint, a crime drama (1956); Beware of Children, a comedy (1960); and The Boy Cried Murder (1966), a remake of The Window based on a Cornell Woolrich story. He died in 2002 at his home in Oregon.

EASY TO FIND? Though born in England Estridge eventually settled in the USA. Many of his early Philip Loraine books are easier to find in US editions on this side of the Atlantic. And to My Beloved Husband was published in three different editions available from American publishers. The UK edition was titled White Lie the Dead (1950) and is apparently a genuinely rare book as I could find no copies for sale. There are only two known copies in UK library systems. Luckily, the used book market has a good number of copies in all three US editions, one hardcover and two paperbacks, all of them shown in the post. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 1, 2018

FFB: The Weird World of Wes Beattie - John Norman Harris

THE STORY: Wes Beattie, chronic liar and hapless young banker, is on trial in Toronto for a capital crime. No one seems to believe his fervent and outrageous tale of a conspiracy to frame him. He claims total innocence and is doing his best to tell the truth about a man and woman who have not only framed him for the theft of a handbag but the murder of his uncle. So bizarre is his story that a psychiatrist has turned him into a unique case history and hits the lecture circuit presenting Wes and his grandiose delusions and pathological lying as a treasure trove of psychosis. However, Sidney Grant a lawyer who attends one of those lectures hears something in Dr. Heber's talk that bothers him. Intrigued and fascinated by a kernel of truth in what appears to be nothing but fanciful possible paranoid ramblings, Sidney starts to look into The Weird World of Wes Beattie (1963) intent on proving Wes' story of conspiracy to be truth and to uncover the motive for the frame-up. What he finds is a preposterous labyrinth of interconnected coincidences and random bizarreness that proves more and more that Wes is indeed telling the truth. And when the full story is revealed hardly anyone can believe it including Sidney.

THE CHARACTERS: Though the title seems to indicate that this is Wes' story, the real protagonist is our hero lawyer/sleuth Sidney Grant and his small band of cohorts in truth-seeking. Sidney is dubbed "the Gargoyle" for his menacing and imposing attitude described by his colleagues "like some evil figure leering down from a Gothic cathedral" and "frowning down on his guests like some Mephistophelian judge. Really though Sidney is an attractive and likable young man "called to the bar only a few months before" who respects the law and abhors the abuse and incompetence of his lessers, sometimes even his betters. Sharp as a tack and more than clever Sidney manages to coax his friends and colleagues, along with the daffy June, Wes' sister, as a junior league of con artists and co-detectives as he manages to trick a motel voyeur into revealing the truth about what happened when Wes supposedly stole the woman's handbag from her parked car in the motel lot. This scene is a highlight in a comic novel that satirizes everything from Canadian law to Canadian banks, from the 60s phenomenon of wife swapping and drunken swinger parties to hockey and ice fishing.

June Beattie is one of the best characters of the books. She's the antithesis of her uptight and haughty wealthy family members, entirely devoted to her brother for whom she feels ample amount of sisterly love. Moreso than anyone she understands why Wes has retreated into his fanciful world and why he cannot help but embellish the truth with his overly active imagination. In some respects this satirical mystery novel is a retelling of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" taken to utterly absurd extremes. You can't help but join in June's caring for her brother when she relates in her amusing narrative voice just why Wes is the way he is.

There are also some fantastically rendered minor characters who come into the story for such brief moments but leave long lasting impressions. Sidney recruits a "second story" man who he had previously helped acquit of burglary charge due to lack of physical evidence. This thief along with the reliable June travels with Sidney to the Ontario backwoods where he assists Sidney in breaking into a cabin in a remote forest to find incriminating evidence that will help prove the guilt of one of the conspirators. What they find in the cabin only further complicates the already mind-boggling plot.

INNOVATIONS: The modern reprint of The Weird World of Wes Beattie touts the novel as "the first truly Canadian mystery". This is a gross exaggeration that publishers like to plaster on their books to help sales, but after completing the novel I can see why the original writer of that phrase felt it necessary to label the book as such. It certainly is filled with every Canadian cultural tidbit that you can think of -- hockey, ice fishing, officious banking to name only a few. Harris works very hard to tie the book to his native Toronto and its environs and the book really feels like it could not have taken place anywhere other than Canada. But as far as the first Canadian mystery that is far from the truth. The prolific writers Grant Allen and Frank Packard were publishing well before Harris was born and Douglas Sanderson (aka "Martin Brett") was writing thoroughly Canadian private eye novels set in Montreal a full decade before Harris' novel was published.

Notably the entire structure of the book recalls the intricately plotted and coincidence-laden novels of Harry Stephen Keeler who practically invented the "webwork" crime novel. The Weird World of Wes Beattie is one of the finest examples of this kind of maze-like storytelling where everyone and everything is tied to a seemingly simple crime like the theft of a handbag. The conspiracy to frame poor Wes Beattie is an ingenious and awe-inspiring work of finely tuned plotting and a brilliant use of apparently innocuous events -- the way an old school chum is snubbed in a mechanic's garage, for example -- that all fall into place like a skilled magician shuffling a pack of cards. As in real life it's the oddities the characters tend to remember and these odd incidents, no matter how trifling or insignificant, have great importance and are compounded tenfold within Harris' truly awesome plot.

The climax takes place in a Canadian courtroom and Sidney's expert cross examination of one of the key witnesses is on par with -- perhaps even surpasses -- the legal fireworks and melodramatic courtroom pronouncements of Perry Mason at his ruthless best. So astounding is the preponderance of incredible evidence that Sidney in essence gets a confession from the witness stand without the testifier actually verbally admitting his guilt. A real coup in crime writing, I'd say.

John Norman Harris (age 23)
in his RAF uniform, 1938
THE AUTHOR: John Norman Harris (1915-1964) was a former RAF pilot with an astonishing wartime life that included being shot down in Germany, taken as prisoner of war, and planning "one of the greatest prison breaks of all time" which he used to form his award-winning short story "Mail" (Maclean's, 1950). He worked in public relations for Bell Canada as well as advertising for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, two careers which obviously provided him with ample fodder to lampoon in his first novel. In addition to the two comic crime novels featuring lawyer Sidney Grant, Harris wrote about military life and the Canadian air force in Knights of the Air: Canadian Aces of World War I (Macmillan, 1958).

EASY TO FIND? Those interested in a first edition may not be too lucky. I found my US edition with the rare DJ a few months ago on eBay for a pittance and it was in very good condition. But a search of used book markets show very few US or UK hardcover editions from the 1960s when it was originally published. There are numerous paperback reprints (Corgi in the UK, Popular Library in the US) offered at very affordable prices. But the best news is saved for last. Happily, ...Wes Beattie was reprinted by Felony & Mayhem several years ago. (Such good news for a change, eh?) Harris' last novel published after his death -- Hair of the Dog (1989), a sequel of sorts featuring Sidney and his new bride June -- was also reprinted by Felony & Mayhem this year and with it came a new edition of The Weird World of Wes Beattie. Both books are available in either paperback or digital format. If you prefer eBooks you need to buy it directly from Felony & Mayhem. Click here and you'll be taken to the page for the book with Kindle already selected for you. They also sell the book in EPub format. Use the pull down menu to find the other digital version.

Friday, May 25, 2018

FFB: Stranger on the Highway - H. R. Hays

THE STORY: Insurance investigator Kennedy needs to follow up on an anonymous letter hinting at foul play in the death of recently departed Eliza Bates. Unexpectedly his car breaks down and he is stranded in the podunk Indiana town of Stubblestone while he awaits the part to be delivered from Alexandria, fifty miles away. Resigned to an unplanned overnight stay he manages to coax a room out of local Jane Pearson and while he reluctantly settles in over the next day and a half he listens to stories and anecdotes about Eliza. It becomes clear that she was not well liked and that someone may have murdered her. He orders an exhumation and autopsy. The surprising findings in turn unearth a nest of secrets and reveal a calculated killer with a very strange motive.

THE CHARACTERS: Kennedy makes for an interesting fish out of water, accidental detective. He's only trying to do his job, but he never expects to become police consultant and a neophyte forensic pathologist. But he finds himself needling and cajoling the lackadaisical Sheriff Tibetty interested only in preserving his reputation as a peacekeeper and intent on winning the next election by not pursuing a possible capital crime among his citizens. Later in the book Kennedy finds one of his only allies in Dr. Nelson, an eccentric physician who acts as the town's coroner. Nelson's fascinating speech patterns are peppered with cryptic wisdom and Confucian epigrams. Kennedy is meant to be one of the few voices of reason in Stranger on a Highway (1943). Surrounded by the motley crew of outspoken, mercurial inhabitants of Stubblestone the novel reads like a WW2 era trip into a madcap middle America Wonderland. The townfolk would be right at home with the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the rest of Carroll's iconic characters.

Take for example the pre-adolescent wild child Anastasia Jones. Foul mouthed, insolent, and a little violent, "Stacy" brags about what she knows and how she won't tell a soul. When ignored she offers provocative secrets that she can't keep to herself like how she just killed a kitten that day just to see how it felt. She's a little monster who would put to shame the murderous acts of Rhoda Penmark. But such characters should never be underestimated nor wholly ignored. Anastasia will also be instrumental as an eyewitness to an incident that will prove to be the murderer's undoing.

Then there is the garrulous, overweight Molly Huckle whose manner of talking is a mixture of refreshing frankness and embarrassing revelation. She has no filter and isn't ashamed to speak her mind on everyone and anything that pops into her head. At first she seems like a grotesque caricature of small mindedness. As the story progresses Molly will grow in stature as a figure of resolute vindication for all the wrongs perpetrated over the past months in Stubblestone. She has a marvelous scene at the climax of the book where her outspoken manner allows her a grandiose moment as Nemesis for the murderer's victims.

Rounding out the cast are the central figures of the novel in the Pearson household where Kennedy has been holed up. Jane Pearson, a widow raising her only daughter, is a typical hardworking stubborn opportunist making the most of the imposition of becoming a hostess of a temporary boarding house. Her daughter Rose longs to go on a date even if the only person currently interested in her is Luther, a dull and unattractive country bumpkin. So desperate is her longing that she will take any attention paid her. Rose has been trapped in her home and the town, driven into a state of fretful anxiety and comes across as a timid rabbit for most of the book. Her mother rules the house with an iron will and has passed on her forlorn hope of ever leaving Stubblestone. Rose hopes that maybe Kennedy will be the catalyst for change not only in the town but in her home allowing her escape, possible her long overdue romance. And poor Henry Budd, a half-wit handyman who really does nothing at all other than live with the Pearson's is an enigma to Kennedy. He is tolerated by Mrs. Pearson, treated like a teenage boy though he is approaching his fifth decade. Henry's strange chattering seemingly meaningless talk provides Kennedy with a few clues about what might have happened to Eliza Bates. And Henry will prove to have a few secrets of his own among the women in town.

ATMOSPHERE: Though the tentative investigation of a suspicious death provides a neat framework for a well done mystery plot the novel is mostly concerned with the dissection of rural life and the consequences of poverty. As each character is introduced and the town is revealed in numbing routine of ordinary folk living unexciting lives Stubblestone is seen as a representation of all that is wrong with rural America. The maliciousness of the Jones family, in particular, with the nearly insane Anastasia as its prime example can be seen as a direct result of a family so used to having nothing and never being offered opportunities for change that they have grown indifferent to each other. The Jones children are constantly crying, the mother does nothing but slap them and strike them out of exhaustion and uselessness. Her cries of "Shut up" are like prayers for peace. It never comes of course, the noise and anger and frustration only grow to a fever pitch. Anastasia has seen too much, resigned herself to pessimism at only 9 years old. Yet even in her nasty insinuations, her parody of a flirtatious minx, she lapses into little girl behaviors like singing nonsense songs and skipping around the yard.

Poverty, Hays tells us, reduces us to outrage or madness or worse. Whether we can cope or not will decide who we become. But how can one cope and how to react when everyone seems to be so trapped and isolated? Human interaction is essential, but in Stubblestone everyone seems to have turned on each other.
H . R. Hays as photographed
in the New York Public Library
(1944, Life magazine)

In the character of Dr. Nelson Hays finds a way to make several points about the insidious nature of poverty and how indifference festers there. He observes that no one really cares for anyone, that there is no sense of community because everything defeats them and "in turn they defeat each other." He is the most compassionate of the characters as well. Pointing out to Kennedy how Molly is "something riotous in the muck" and truly a good woman despite her "barging around in other people's lives." Also he sides with Henry Budd offering a bit of wisdom so seldom acknowledged by the sane experts of the world: "He's happy. ...Why do we always associate insanity with the threat of violence?"

There is a recurring image throughout the book - one of both sight and sound. There is an express bus that passes through town on the only highway that cuts through Stubblestone. The bus zooms along the road, never stopping, moving on and away to Alexandria and beyond. It's a reminder of how only other people are allowed this kind of travel, an image of escape to other places that ignore Stubblestone, places that don't care that towns like Stubblestone even exist.

INNOVATIONS: Hays (perhaps without really knowing he was doing so) has created one of the finest examples of country noir I have read in the past ten years. This was a remarkable find. Stranger on the Highway was not marketed as a detective or suspense novel when it was released back in the 1940s, but it succeeds as both an entertaining, suspenseful tale of dirty doings in the backwater towns of rural America and as an indictment of the detrimental effects of poverty. The characters reminded me of the people you find in the mystery novels of A. B. Cunningham and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the eerie landscapes recall the Gothic mood of Herman Petersen's settings in his handful of mystery novels. The sense of doom that befalls everyone in the final pages is as inevitable as what occurs in the climaxes of James Cain's novels and the work of all his acolytes.

QUOTES: "Solitary drinking's not good. But who would I drink with? I see too much. And somehow I never make up my mind. The editors don't like what I write. I suppose the design, the form is lacking. There's no love story. No plot. People must have a plot with a happy ending."

Behind him lay Stubblestone, its poverty, its grimness, its raw hates and desires, clinging to its narrow plot of earth like some tenacious insect, nourished on dirt and misery.

He could still see the post office with its weathered sign...all the gray weathering of unpainted boards and the grayness of lives equally eroded, equally stripped of the colors and graces, the privacies and comforts that soften men's communal living.

"Indignation..." the doctor said. "We ought to shout, smash things. We have the power. Why should a man willingly spend his life in an outhouse?"

THE AUTHOR: Hoffman Reynolds Hays (1904-1980) was a poet, playwright, lyricist, translator, social anthropologist, historian of zoology and natural sciences, and an educator. He was educated at Cornell and Columbia University and spent most of his early writing life as a playwright with the politically minded Living Newspaper, an offshoot of the Federal Theater, during the 1930s and early 1940s. His most famous work was Medicine Show (1940), an unusual theater piece more pageant than play, that celebrated the benefits of socialized medicine. After a fairly successful run with Living Newspaper Medicine Show was mounted on Broadway where it ran for only 35 performances. In 1937 Hays collaborated with Kurt Weill on a musical adaptation of his play The Ballad of Davy Crockett, but it was never produced. The songs with music by Weill and lyrics by Hays are almost entirely lost. Some were recorded in 2000 on a small classical German label.

His most noteworthy literary achievements are translations of Bertolt Brecht's plays including Mother Courage and Her Children (notable also for its indictment of the opportunism of business and the ravages of poverty in wartime) and for his pioneer poetry anthology 12 Spanish American Poets (1943), largely responsible for introducing future Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda and others to an English speaking audience.

Primarily a poet and playwright with over twenty television scripts to his name Hays wrote only a handful novels, two of which are crime novels. Lie Down in Darkness, his other tale of murderous intent, will be reviewed here later this year.

EASY TO FIND? There are no modern reprints of Stranger on a Highway that I know of, but some enterprising publisher ought to jump on this one. Those interested in finding a copy need to scour the used book markets both in the real world and the digital one. There are several copies available, but not many. The book was published in the US by Little, Brown & Co. and also in the UK by Robert Hale in 1947. No paperback reprints exist that I could verify.

I found the book to be riveting and truly one of the better examples of country noir with a refreshing modern feel in its poetic prose, sprinkling of raw language and resonant observations. Frankly, this is better than Cain or anything from the 1950s.