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.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Celia Dale -- Mistress of Menace

Readers of this blog know the term domestic suspense as a subgenre that encompasses crime novels usually set in sinister suburbs populated with secretive close knit families and dozens of housewives embroiled in perilous journeys, both physical and emotional. Within this subgenre are further subsets of books featuring menacing senior citizens, a group of these I've given my own label of "Badass Biddy"crime novels. Of the dozens of writers who wrote almost exclusively within the realm of "domestic suspense" nearly all of them are women and the best in my estimation are Margaret Millar and Ursula Curtiss in the US and Shelley Smith in the UK. Add to that list one more name.

Up until a few months ago I'd never heard of Celia Dale, a British writer who began her novelist's career in 1945 then turned to crime novels of a very special kind in the mid 1960s.  Dale was writing her books just as her sister in crime Ruth Rendell was emerging on the scene.  Later Rendell would adopt her alter ago of "Barbara Vine" and using that pseudonym she created crime novels of menace that surpass the "domestic suspense" subgenre while clearly still influenced by them.  To my delight I discovered that Celia Dale was writing better, creepier and more nightmarish books before Rendell ever conjured hers into existence.

The Helping Hand (1966) takes the idea of the badass biddy to extremes in that it is not just one sinister senior citizen but a married couple who are the scheming villains.  The story is a slow burning, unsettling tale of Mr. and Mrs Evans who prey on ailing elderly women. On the surface it seemed like The Forbidden Garden, Ursula Curtiss' flipped out story of a middle-aged woman serial killer. Dale forgoes the slaughter of Curtiss' bloody novel preferring the more chilling, passive aggressive form of murder. In fact, Dale's novel is practically a rewrite and modern update of a book I read a while ago that is set in the 19th century.

The victims are twofold -- Cynthia Fingal, an elderly woman travelling with her 40ish niece Lena Kemp. Josh sets his sights on Mrs. Fingal while Maisie Evans targets Lena.  The Evans' are ersatz charmers masking their true natures.  Josh Evans is actually a randy, ogling and groping Casanova while his wife is an unctuous spy gathering info on relatives and their bank accounts. Mrs. Fingal warms up to Josh in no time after his one or two carefully targeted compliments.  Soon she is as garrulous as a shop girl and she travels down memory lane frequently narrating tales of her daughter who died at age 10 and her devoted husband, a soldier in the “Great War”.  She spices up these nostalgic stories with self-pitying remarks about her longing for male companionship.  Josh is eager to fulfill her desires.

Soon Mrs Fingal has moved in with the Evans setting up the major plot highlighted by casual cruelty, saccharine smiles and "There, Theres". The married couple smother the older woman with attention and keep her housebound and under their control.  When Christmas comes Maisie begins a campaign of lies and deceit. Through subtle manipulation Maisie manages to turn Mrs. Fingal and her niece against each other. The nastiest blow is the ease with which the Evans manage to negate Mrs. Fingal's very existence.  They soon turn 180 degrees and deny her every wish, never allowing her to leave the house.  She cannot attend church nor even open her Christmas presents in the morning the way she always did with her husband and daughter. Dale sums up Mrs. Fingal's state of mind with terse heartwrenching sentences: "She would hardly look, hardly listen, withdrawn into the cavern of her misery."

Celia Dale (1912 - 2011)
With the entrance of Graziella The Helping Hand I could not help but recall the remarkably nightmarish novel Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins.  Jenkins' novel tells a similar story of a household supposedly caring for an invalid but whose cruel indifference ultimately tortures her and the maid who is the sole person who is alarmed at the abuse. Graziella is the servant in Dale's novel who serves the same purpose. Yet in the hands of a master manipulator like Maisie it is no use to call out abuse and cruelty.  Graziella without realizing is soon inculcated and succumbs to all of the lies the Evanses manufacture. There seems no hope for Mrs. Fingal's rescue from the clutches of the amoral couple.

The climax of the book includes a disturbing mix of sexual predation and accidental violence. This is domestic noir with no real happy endings for anyone.  Not even the villains.  For in the finale Dale  delivers an ironic blow to all the scheming and plotting that most readers will never see coming.

Dale revisits the theme of a sinister married couple in A Dark Corner (1971). Here we have Nelly and Arthur Didcot who meet young Errol Winston one rainy cold summer night. Errol is looking for an apartment to rent and winds up at the Didcot's home, the wrong house, because he misreads the address on his paper. All seems well when the Didcots offer him their own room instead of the one in his advertisement. But their kindhearted gesture and seeming friendliness are masks for bizarre desires.  Nelly's maternal instincts seem to be transforming into erotic desire with kisses on Errol's cheek giving way to warm embraces that last too long. Arthur becomes an odd tutor of sorts, way too invested in his lodger's adult education by taking him to seedy night clubs and picking up drugged out prostitutes.

This may seem a familiar plot to some ardent readers of unusual crime fiction.  For me I could not help but draw comparisons to Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Joe Orton's satiric and savagely funny sex farce about a married couple in their 60s lusting after the titular hunky young man.  A Dark Corner is neither funny nor satiric.  And while Dale does explore some dark sexual pathology in her novel she recasts the gorgeous Lothario in ...Mr Sloan with a timid young Black man in the person of Errol Winston.  A Dark Room delves into the stereotypical myth of the Black stud compounding that racist ideology with the sexual nature of senior citizens, a topic that most people never want to think about. 

I think of the two books A Dark Corner succeeds both as a crime novel and a psychological horror story more than the creepy story of A Helping Hand.  Probably because A Helping Hand reminded me too much of Harriet which is a true horror story and I couldn't get Jenkins book out of my mind. I tended to dismiss what Dale was doing in her version.  A Dark Corner, however, is transgressive and daring for its time.  More importantly, you feel for Errol's plight and long for his escape more because he is able to leave and go to work and yet somehow manages to be trapped in a way that's more terrifying than Mrs. Fingal's physical entrapment.

Luckily both books have been reprinted for new audiences.  Depending on where you live you'll have to look for the correct edition. In the US Dale's two books reviewed here are reprinted by Valancourt Books but are unavailable for sale in the UK.  That's because Daunt Books has exclusive UK reprint rights for Dale's entire body of work. A Helping Hand is available from Daunt Books and for sale in the UK only.  Daunt Books is also releasing Sheep's Clothing (1988), Dale's final novel, in September. There may be other Celia Dale books planned for subsequent release in the UK.  I'm unsure if Valancourt is reprinting any more of Dale's books. But these two are fine entry points into the world of Celia Dale, both excellent examples of modern crime novels that also serve as superior examples of the novel of psychological terror.