Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Day of Judgment - Virginia Rath

THE STORY: The end of the world is nigh! Or so says self-professed fortune teller, astrologer and psychic Madame Sapphira. She has set up camp in Coon Hollow in northern California followed by a small group of acolytes to wait out the apocalypse. No one really believes the world is ending. They just want to see what will happen. And while cosmic disaster never occurs human disaster does. No one was anticipating three violent deaths nor that someone among them is a vicious murderer. Sheriff Rocky Allan and his wife happen to be among the guests in the campground and together with their friend Theophilus Pope they uncover many secrets, forgotten crimes, sinful behavior and the identity of the killer.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936) is the second appearance of Virginia Rath's series detective Deputy Sheriff Rocky Allan. He first enters the detective fiction world in Death at Dayton's Folly (1935) a case alluded to several times over the course of this story. He is aided by his devoted wife Eleanor. Rath has created a folksy duo who have settled into a comfortable life as husband and wife and her love of these characters is obvious when the story gives way to lots of chatty and humorous conversations. They joke about the perils of cooking at a campground, for example, with instant coffee jibes turning up often. There is a running gag about a Pope's tendency to catch colds easily and he suffers from a bad one with drippy nose and clogged sinuses for much of the book. Rath has a tendency also -- to overburden her novels with this lighthearted domestic touch, here, however, it serves these two well. Their conversations help the reader to understand how much they care not only for each other but their innate empathy for everyone the come in contact with. While Rocky may be the more cantankerous and intolerant of duplicity and cruelty he is balanced out by Eleanor's deep concern and loving care. No surprise when we learn that Eleanor is nurse.

That is not to say that this is an overly cutesy, Pollyanna-ish novel. Rath is writing about con artists, fraud, blackmail and petty jealousies. In the first two victims we see she has the ability to delve into base human motives and the corruption of the human soul.  Sapphira Barlow and Reverend Saul Cheney are two of the most despicable charlatans you may ever come across in this type of crime fiction. Neither of them is as religious as they claim to be and their love of money takes precedence over and displaces any love of God they might have. But it is their hatred for each other that is the root of all evil when violence explodes on the eve of destruction, the day before the supposed apocalypse.

Rath has some interesting tangential commentary on race too. The origins of young handsome Henry Powell, a wannabe movie star who had a singing career in Mexico, and his ancestral roots become a point of inquiry for Allan and Pope.  Why is Henry so desperate to hide his true identity and his parentage? And why is Maggie Corwin, usually so frank and brusquely opinionated, so unwilling to talk about Henry's past?

Two very young characters who feature seemingly as minor characters -- teenage Lisa, Sapphira's adopted ward and David her 11 year-old grandson -- have plenty to do with Sapphira's complicated past which will slowly be revealed as evidence is collected.  Lisa and David slowly take prominence in the novel as the plot reaches its surprising (dare I say shocking?) climax. Hidden letters, secreted newspaper articles, a locket with a photo, a secret inscription encoded with a Biblical reference all eventually tie into a sordid past littered with murder victims, drug dealing, alternate identities, missing relatives and greedy schemes.

INNOVATIONS: On the surface Murder on the Day of Judgment seems to be yet another book typical of the early Doubleday Crime Club mysteries with a husband/wife sleuthing team, the innocuous chit-chat and joking, but the novel takes unexpected turns into darker territory. Set in rural northern California with a cast of fairly sophisticated city dwellers among the campground guests this is a crime novel that rightly belongs in what I call "country noir". Sapphira is a criminal through and through and in her seventieth decade she shows no sign of turning away from a life consisting of getting whatever she wants at whatever cost. Corruption is omnipresent at Coon Hollow, a force of insidious power. One begins to understand why Rocky is so stern and unforgiving with everyone by the novel's finale. We see in the end that Sapphira's influence has tainted everyone or utterly ruined them. Three characters are revealed as pathetic drug addicts, Lisa was being groomed to become a prostitute, David is inculcated into her fortune telling racket and is seen wearing a ridiculous star covered robe and purple turban throughout most of the novel. The finale and the reveal of the murderer is Rath's final touch of subversiveness in what amounts to a WW2 era version of transgressive fiction. When the chilling denouement comes it's as if she delivered a final slap in the reader's face.

THINGS I LEARNED: On page 141 I came across this: "I seem to be findin' lots of things." Rocky held out a green Eversharp that had been lying on the floor near the door. "Any idea who this belongs to?" I thought maybe it was a fountain pen. I was very close. Invented in 1913 the Eversharp was one of the earliest and most innovative mechanical pencils manufactured in the United States. Called "a truly groundbreaking innovation" by vintage pen expert David Nishimura, the Eversharp was also one of the most popular. He writes: "By 1921, Wahl-Eversharp was turning out 35,000 Eversharps every day, and had sold over 12,000,000 pieces." For all the details on its invention, production and development visit, Nishimura's fascinating website and catalog of vintage pens for sale.

Rocky also makes this remark: "You been readin' too many stories, sister, where the sheriffs is all dumber'n Dora." And here I though that the "Dumb Dora was so dumb" jokes were the creation of the Match Game writing crew back in the 1970s. Tells you how old the writers were!

THE AUTHOR: Born Virginia McVay in 1905, she taught high school in a mountain railroad town in California, married Carl Rath a railroad telegrapher and worked in a railroad telegraph office during World War II. Virginia Rath was active member of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America for nearly all of her career. In addition to Rocky Allan she created Michael Dundas, a fashion designer based in San Francisco who is also an amateur sleuth. Dundas and his wife Valerie appear in eight books published between 1938 and 1947. Her last contribution to mystery writing goes almost entirely unnoticed. It's a chapter in the round robin novel The Marble Forest (1951) published under the odd pseudonym of Theo Durrant, a name Anthony Boucher borrowed from the real life 19th century killer dubbed "The Demon of the Belfry" by San Francisco newspapers of the time.

EASY TO FIND? Like so many writers of her time Virginia Rath has disappeared into the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom. You'll be hard pressed to find any of her books. Other than The Marble Forest none of her books were reprinted in paperback editions in her lifetime making the hunt for her mystery novels all that more difficult. I find nothing in modern reprints or digital books either. Currently there are four copies of Murder on the Day of Judgment offered for sale, but in order to find three of them you need to misspell the last word in the title as Judgement, with the often superfluous E after the G.  (Oh! the perils of online searching.) Try your library, too. Over the years I've managed to acquire nearly all of her books for a pittance. I don't think Rath's books are too cheap these days as paper books become more and more oddities of human civilization and priced as if they were relics of antiquity.

Rocky Allan Detective Novels 
Death at Dayton's Folly (1935)
Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936)
Ferryman, Take Him Across! (1936)
The Anger of the Bells (1937)
An Excellent Night for Murder (1937)
Murder with a Theme Song (1939) - also features Michael Dundas

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Bookselling Absurdity #57: Buy My Prize, Please!

I went looking for a cheap copy of a very easy to find John Dickson Carr book today and stumbled across this absurd listing on eBay. If you've been having a bad day, then prepare yourselves for a well deserved fit of hysterical laughter this will no doubt unleash.

This edition, I believe, is printed on gold leaf pages with platinum ink.

The shipping price is to the US, by the way. We always get the shaft from eBay sellers on international shipping fees even for a paperback that weighs about 5.5 ounces (155 g). You'd hope that this avaricious madman of a bookseller would at least give you free shipping if you live in Australia. But of course if you had this amount of spare Australian cash to spend on a paperback book published in 1986 (or thought you had it) you'd probably be living in a private sanitarium somewhere in Alice Springs.