Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Geoffrey Homes & the Reporter Sleuth

The Man Who Murdered Himself (1936) - Geoffrey Homes

Reporters make good detectives. Well versed in the five Ws of fundamental journalism, armed with sharp wit, innate curiosity, and usually gifted with manipulative interviewing skills they are a natural choice for a mystery writer's protagonist. Add a sarcastic sense of humor, a jaded outlook on life, and a mistrust of humanity in general and you've got the makings for the prototype of a private eye. Although one of the earliest reporter detectives is Joseph Rouletabille created by Gaston Leroux back at the turn of the 20th century, the journalist sleuth is a typically American choice of hero for crime writers. There's Kent Murdock and Flash Casey (both reporter/photographers); the numerous reporter heroes in the wacky novels of Harry Stephen Keeler; the newspapermen (both editors and reporters) in Fredric Brown's books; an entire library full of the Phoenix Press mystery novels, a publishing house that seemed to require that the lead character be a reporter detective. Geoffrey Homes' (in reality Daniel Mainwaring, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter himself) contribution to this popular type of fictional detective is the one-time alcoholic journalist turned private eye Robin Bishop.

Bishop's first case is an involved tale of multiple missing persons that leads to the discovery of multiple dead bodies. His employer, Oscar Morgan, runs a private detective agency that specializes in missing persons and Morgan selects the most financially rewarding cases by scanning the local newspapers and keeping a eye out for life insurance policies with large pay outs. At the start of the story Morgan proposes to Bishop that they go after the missing brother of a recent apparent murder victim.

Allen Hastings, an unemployed pilot is found drowned in a reservoir. He has also been shot in the abdomen. Broken chair and bloodstained walls in his kitchen indicate a struggle there. A .32 caliber bullet is pulled out of the living room wall. Smart aleck and lazy cops assigned to the Hastings murder find a way to manipulate the coroner's inquest jury to return a verdict of suicide. The newspapers rage at the cops. Next day, in retaliation for the absurdity of the inquest findings the papers are calling Hastings "The Man Who Murdered Himself."

Hastings has a brother, Robert, who the police can't locate. He's the sole heir to a $20,000 life insurance policy. Morgan figures he and Bishop should track down Robert, give him the good and bad news, and maybe they will get a cut of the insurance money. This is the standard operating procedure at Morgan & Company. Bishop agrees to start the search for Hastings by visiting his brother's rooming house. In the basement he finds a trunk and when the landlady is distracted by a phone call which takes her back upstairs he manages to steal the trunk, load it into his ca,r and take off. Inside the trunk he finds a cache of hidden letters - the first piece of evidence that will take him on a wild chase throughout southern California as he unearths secret after secret in the two Hastings brothers' lives.

Homes depicts the police in this book as lazy, irresponsible dullards. They simply don't want to do any investigating. If the case has even the slightest appearance of an accident or suicide they'll do their best to monkey with the evidence to close the case so that it is never treated as a murder. It is Bishop and a fellow reporter, Guy Bentley, who do all the real work. There are several scenes where the reporters badger the police, show them up at their own game, reveal that they have more evidence than the police (they usually hit the crime scenes first and steal the evidence), and pretty much make the police look like a bunch of fools. Bentley even boasts that he found one of the missing people in the morgue. The chief of police shoots him down by saying "You found Raymond Harris in the morgue" (an alias for the true identity of the dead body). Splitting hairs, to be sure, and a feeble attempt by the police to save face.

Homes has a laconic style, serves up a fast paced action based story, and is most adept at creating dialog that sings with realism and wit. The story gets very involved and hints at the convoluted noir masterpiece that would be his final novel Build My Gallows High, later turned into a classic film noir Out of the Past. The plot machinations involving two different life insurance policies are almost unnecessary because in the end they are nothing but red herrings. The solution and the identity of the killer do come as a big surprise but we learn everything second hand in a lengthy monologue from Bishop who tells of his findings to Bentley and Mary, the secretary at Morgan & company.

I'll be reviewing the rest of the Robin Bishop books in the coming weeks. This is a short series and I'm interested in reading them in order to see how Homes continues his views on reporters whom he purports to be better at detective work that actual police detectives. For a book written in 1936 it's one of the best of the semi-tough subgenre of the hardboiled school (I think some call it soft-boiled, but that's too evocative of diner food to me). More smarts here than brawn. Maybe the witty wordplay and verbal sparring give way to more physical fighting later in the series. But to be sure this was a most promising debut of one of the best of the reporter detectives of the American Golden Age.

Robin Bishop detective novels
(Books reviewed elsewhere on this blog have colored links)
The Man Who Murdered Himself (1936)
The Doctor Died at Dusk (1936)
The Man Who Didn't Exist (1937)
The Man Who Murdered Goliath (1938)
Then There Were Three (1938)
(This last novel introduces Humphrey Campbell,
a milk drinking private eye who replaced Bishop
as Homes' series character.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Drawing on the Past #1: HERMANN HEYER

I think I'll alternate between dust jacket art and illustration art for a while. I have a large file of scans of internal illustration from books I sold over the years. The two below are taken from Through the Wall by Cleveland Moffet (Appleton, 1909). The artist is H. Heyer. My diligent internet searching failed to come up with the artist's first name.*

*December 23, 2013 UPDATE. Thanks to an assiduous reader doing research on this artist who just happened to stumble across this post we now know the first name of the artist. See his email to me below:

"I happened to be searching for the illustrator H. Heyer on the internet when I ran across your blog. This morning I found an old book, part of the 'Famous Pepper Books' 12 volume series, published by Norwood Press, Norwood Mass., U.S.A., copyright Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, authored by Margaret Sydney. This one, copyright 1891 & 1893, is titled, 'Five Little Peppers Midway.' What caught my attention was the wonderful illustrations in this book (I haven't even read it, yet)! The inscription at the bottom of one of the illustrations, as well as being listed as illustrator on the title page, is Hermann Heyer. A few others say H. Hyer or are untitled. This name didn't give any Google results until I tried H. Heyer which led me to your blog. The illustrations in this book certainly are similar to those posted on your site. I hope this helps. Two other books by Margaret Sydney are 'The Little Maid of Concord Town' & 'The Little Maid of Boston Town', which may be illustrated by Hermann Heyer as well."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Old Corner Book Store Ad

An advertisement for a long gone Boston institution and apparently one of the best bookstores on the East Coast. The post card advertisement is dated April 1960 (lower corner in first photo). Like everything in Boston the building itself is loaded with history.

It was home to the retail space for historically important Ticknor & Fields, publisher of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain and nearly every literary giant of the 19th century. In 1864 the building was sold to E.P. Dutton. Later it would be home to Henry Houghton who would merge his own printing outfit, The Riverside Press, with Ticknor & Fields to form the powerhouse publishing company of Houghton & Mifflin. The bookstore tenants left the building several decades ago, but the building continues to be referred to as The Old Corner Bookstore. Photos of the building as it looks today can be found here.

I like the logo in the upper corner of the first photo with the omnipresent patriotic symbol of the eagle with the encircling words that read: "For a Better Read / Better Informed America.  Wake up and Read." Amen to that.

Friday, May 27, 2011

FFB: The Flying Death - Samuel Hopkins Adams

1905, Montauk Point, Long Island.  The guests at Third House have been awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of a shipwreck not far from shore near a hazardous area known to the  local fishermen as Graveyard Point. They rush to help the life saving crew already trying to rescue the sailors. One man turns up dead with a horrible stab wound to his back. A witness swears that the dead man was perfectly fine when he was on board, but somewhere between leaving the sinking ship and reaching the rescuers in the storming sea he was stabbed.  It's seems impossible. And that's only the first of the mysterious deaths.

The following morning several sheep are found mutilated.  Young Dick Colton goes for a stroll along the rocky cliffs and finds some weather kites torn to shreds, the strong twine cut by a sharp blade. A local visitor has been missing for an entire day. The kites were his tools in an atmospheric experiment. As Dick and two other men explore the terrain they come across the body of Mr. Ely, the weather experimenter. His head is crushed and a strange stab wound in his neck.  And the next day yet another victim with similar strange wounds is found on the beach.  No human footprints are anywhere near his body but Dick and Professor Ravenden find gigantic claw-like marks in the sand. It appears there is a homicidal maniac at work. But how is he accomplishing his fiendish acts without leaving a trace?

Originally serialized in a magazine in 1905 the story was finally issued in book form by McClure Company in 1908. This is one of those dusty tomes that cannot manage to shake off its old-fashioned origins.  The writing is redolent of antique furniture, mustache wax and elderberry wine. The dialogue tends to waver between florid and stilted. Prof. Ravenden calls his daughter Princess and she likes to dub her father Petit Pere. Dick Colton, our fine young hero, is described on the second page in this manner:
...Providence had equipped him with a comely and powerful body, which his own manner of life had kept attuned to strength and vigor, and because Heaven had blessed him with the heart and face of a boy, whereof his own fineness and enthusiasm had kept the one untainted and the other defiant of care and lines...
In other words he's the typical hot young dude who regularly works out and takes it easy on the gingerbread,  tea cakes, CrackerJacks, whatever the junk food equivalent was in 1905. Prof. Ravenden's daughter Dolly will not overlook his unlined handsome face either. I managed to suffer through most of this stuffiness because the story and the mystery inherent in it was fascinating. There's plenty of legitimate detection including some good examples of early forensic medicine. Plus arcane knowledge imparted on insect life, the use of spears in the Orinoco River of South America, the habits of Portuguese thugs, meteorological phenomena... It's a veritable Pandora's Box of wonders. Stuffy verbose prose is somewhat forgivable in light of all these story bonuses.

Samuel Hopkins Adams is probably best known among vintage detective fiction collectors as the author of Average Jones - one of the notable short story collections cited in Queen's Quorum.  The Flying Death is his second novel, preceded by a fantastic adventure he co-wrote with Stewart Edward White called The Mystery.  For this second work he once again works some genre blending magic in creating a thriller that is part detective novel, part mysterious adventure novel, and part science fiction horror. Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger would be right at home at Montauk Point for the utterly bizarre finale in which it is revealed that something far from human was responsible for all the damage and death. Great God of Wonders, indeed!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Dead Darling - Jonathan Craig

I can't think of a more unlikely person to rave about a gritty detective novel set in the subcultures of Greenwich Village than P.G. Wodehouse. He was a fan of detective stories and even thrillers, this is true, but it's like seeing a blurb quote from Noel Coward praising the work of Jim Thompson. At least two copies of The Dead Darling, including the one I own, have a blurb by the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves exclaiming the work of Jonathan Craig: "As terse, authentic, thrilling as Dragnet!" All that is true and more. Wodehouse knows his crime like he knows pigs and butlers.

From 1955 to the late 1960s Jonathan Craig, pseudonym for Frank R Smith, wrote a police procedural series about the 6th Precinct. The two detective leads are Pete Selby, who serves as narrator, and his partner Stan Rayder. The police methods are some of the most methodical and bureaucratic I've read in an early novel of this type. Before anyone says "Oh yeah, Ed McBain did that kind of thing and with a bigger cast of cop characters" it should be said that the first 87th Precinct novel (which uses a fictitious city based on New York) was published in 1956. Craig started his series of cop novels in 1954 and dares to use the real New York as his setting. McBain has said that he was inspired by the "Dragnet" TV series. I can't say where Craig got his inspiration but he beat McBain at this idea by a couple of years.

After looking up the actual NYPD precinct maps I learned that it's a fairly large area for police to cover. The 6th precinct serves the entirety of the West Village with the boundaries being 14th Street to the north, Broadway the west, Houston Street to the south and the Hudson River as the eastern border. Greenwich Village in the 1950s was a rich environment for a wide variety of characters. It's an excellent choice for a crime novel. Artists, musicians, poets and writers. Models, actors, jazz singers, and the coffee house scene. And of course the burgeoning gay and lesbian neighborhood that would make headlines in 1968 with the Stonewall riots. In Craig's first outing (despite what my 1970s reissue advertises on the cover shown below The Dead Darling is the first 6th precinct novel) all of these cultures will play some sort of role with the lesbian scene, surprisingly, taking center stage. Well, almost center. Maybe a little down left of center, for a few solo numbers.

1973 reissue - Belmont Tower Books
Jean Proctor is the dead darling of the title. She's found stretched across three chairs with her head in the oven of her tiny kitchen in Greenwich Village. Selby and Rayder are pretty sure it's a staged suicide even if the place reeks of gas. An autopsy shows a recent wound to the back of the neck and it's confirmed that a broken neck was the primary cause of death. Jean was a model who made a living as a handsome head of hair in a big shampoo ad campaign in several leading magazines. A former roommate, Norma Johnson, stumbled across the body. She informs the police that Jean was formerly married to a bruiser of a husband, Halston Proctor, who routinely beat her and she suggests that he is probably the one who killed her. But Selby and Rayder will soon learn that Jean had several men in her life. A handful of them married to other women.

Originally published by Gold Medal, the pioneer publisher of paperback originals in genre fiction, The Dead Darling is bound to have an element of the lurid and the seedy to appeal to their audience of the time. But the characters are never presented condescendingly or as freaks. It's a fine line that Craig walks here. I think he presents them as people well aware of their idiosyncrasies and unabashed in owning up to them.

The prize winner in this book is Paul Cressy, a peeping Tom with a salacious appetite for spying on babes undressing near unshaded windows. He happens to be caught indulging in his hobby in the neighborhood of the victim's apartment a few days after the murder of Jean Proctor. Selby and Rayder grill him hoping to get him to admit to seeing something or maybe even committing the murder. Instead, Cressy gives them an alibi. He goes into great detail describing a party which he spied on in a completely different part of the Village. As Cressy tells it (he could hear as well as see) some women had been to a burlesque show and they dare each other to come up with a better strip tease than what was on the stage. What starts out as a teasing contest results in abundant female nudity on display, then the men join in, and the whole night ends in a pansexual orgy. The two cops then decide to visit the apartment in question and have one of the participates corroborate the story. Amazingly, he does so with a little pressure from the police. Begrudgingly Selby and Rayder concede that Cressy is in the clear. Rayder ends the interview with this comment: "I've seen some characters in my time, Cressy, but you make them seem almost normal, you really do."

Another kind of intriguing lowlife is Nancy Ford, a police informer who envisions herself as a historian. Four years ago she put to use her considerable skills as a historian of Greenwich Village by collecting private life information and in the guise of literary research blackmailed several prominent and wealthy people. She made a bit of cash with the weaker more vulnerable targets. Foolishly she did this through the mail and after contacting a few smarter and braver people learned too late that she had laid a trail of evidence that sent her directly to jail.

Nancy likes her history and her wine. Selby always brings along a bottle or two in exchange for his information. Nancy hasn't even cracked the bottle open before she's offering up lots of tidbits about the lesbian clientele at Orrie's, a popular ladies only bar where Nancy used to get a lot of her history, and continues to frequent now that she's doing research for the police. Her dialog is great. She knows who she is and isn't ashamed being a stool pigeon as long as she gets paid and a couple of bottles of wine are thrown in as part of the deal. I pictured her being played by Joan Blondell or a younger Thelma Ritter. Her scenes are a highlight in the book.

As mentioned earlier Jean Proctor was a flirt with the men and led a few husbands astray. Consequently, there are a few wronged women in the cast. The Dead Darling might well be re-titled Hell Hath No Fury. Three different women get burned by their lover or husband during the investigation of Jean Proctor's death and each woman deals with her mate's infidelity in a unique way. One wife rushes to protect her husband, another tries to implicate him in the crime and punish him in a cruelly passive aggressive manner, and still another seems a bit too aloof about the affair as if she was immune to her husband's attraction to a considerably younger woman. Then there's poor Betty Calder, the artist used and abused by the thrill-seeking Norma Johnson.

When we first meet Norma we know she's bad news. She's discovered the body and she tells an elaborate story that is full of holes. Selby knows she's holding back on the truth and continues to pursue her and grill her. He even assigns a policewoman to tail Norma. When Norma is spotted putting $450 down on a fur coat Selby is sure he's got his chance to break her down. After all, where does a rookie lingerie model get that kind of money in 1955?

Much of the story is told through monologues. The dialog is lively and quirky. It's very much peppered with 50s slang and lingo which is something that appeals to me. I get a kick out of old time vocabulary. At one point late in the book an angry drunk says "Forn off!" I wasn't sure if this was supposed to be an attempt at a drunken slur or if the publisher was censoring Craig's more pungently flavored dialog. Yet even with all the talking there is a good amount of legitimate detection. That most of it comes at the end of the story and in a flurry may speak to Craig's pulp magazine roots (he had several stories in Manhunt prior to his novels), but it's no real fault. These are great police detective books - well told, fast paced, intelligently written, some compassionate treatments of marginalized characters, and often the story comes with a surprising twist at the end.

*    *    *

6th Precinct Novels w/ Pete Selby & Stan Rayder
The Dead Darling (1955)
Morgue for Venus (1956)
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)
Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)
Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958)
Case of the Nervous Nude (1959)
Case of the Village Tramp (1959)
Case of the Laughing Virgin (1960)
Case of the Silent Stranger (1964)
Case of the Brazen Beauty (1966)

Other Crime Novels
Alley Girl (1954) -- reissued as Renegade Cop (1958)
Red Headed Sinners (1953)
So Young, So Wicked (1957)
Come Night, Come Evil (1957)

Sunday, May 22, 2011


For your viewing pleasure a variety of death themed DJs whether the use of the word in the title or artfully rendered victims in their final moments of life.  Refreshments served in the parlor after you've paid your respects. Donations accepted in lieu of flowers.

As usual the first and last are at full size.  Click on the other images to get the full effect.

LEFT INSIDE: Patent Medicine Ad

Lane's Tea is one of the many popular patent medicines that was in use as early as 1906.  I found it mentioned in an ephemera catalog devoted solely to patent medicines, an advertisement in a 1909 Albany NY area newspaper, and a passing reference in a 1922 medical address given to the Indianapolis Medical Association titled "Physical Inequality of School Children." 

My favorite bit of info comes from the Sept 24, 1938 issue of Journal of American Medical Association.  In a lengthy column titled "Bureau of Investigation" abstracts taken from FDA notices and judgements are listed.  Lane's Tea is one of the guilty parties
Lane's Tea.—Kemp & Lane, Inc., LeRoy, N. Y. Composition: Claimed to consist of senna, anise seed, fennel seed, licorice root, elecampane root and coriander seed. Specimen was reported infested with insects. Fraudulently represented as a remedy for "faulty intestinal elimination." —[AT. J. 26816; July 1937.1]
This advertisement shown below is in the form of a four page pamphlet. I scanned all four pages in order from front to back. I found it in an old book that dated from the 1920s.  I learned from the National Museum of American History website that Lane's Cold Tablets (illustration of box inside the ad) wasn't manufactured until after 1927. That pretty much dates this pamphlet to 1927 or later.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FFB: The Green Jade Hand - Harry Stephen Keeler

I have a special fondness for this book by madcap Harry S. Keeler for a variety of reasons.  It was the first of his books I ever found in a real book store by sheer chance (most of his books I bought online). It was the second of his novels I ever read.  And it was the first book I own that included the "Dutton Clue Mystery" insert (more on that later).

Even without all those collector milestones how can anyone resist the subtitle? "In Which a New and Quite Different Type of Detective Unravels a Mystery Staged in Chicago, Bagdad of the Lakes, London of the West!" The exclamation mark is part of the subtitle, by the way. Just like an old-time Broadway musical. And wouldn't this make a surreal bit of musical theater?

Casimer Jech, crooked curio dealer, is approached by millionaire Amos Carrington and together they hatch a scheme to acquire a rare manuscript mistakenly labeled as something fairly worthless to be auctioned off at an Evanston estate. Jech will pull a switcheroo and steal the book. If he pulls it off, Carrington will reward him with $5000 for the con. Only a few minutes after Jech replaces lot #122 with a doctored fake Horatio Silverthorne enters the auction and discovers that lot #122 is not what it should be. He soon learns that a man answering to Casimer Jech's precise description had previously looked at it. Silverthorne is sure Jech stole the book.  He must have the book at any cost.

Enter Dirk Mattox, young inventor of the Mattox Noiseless Platen for silent typewriters. He is in love with Iolanthe Silverthorne, Horatio's daughter. Silverthorne makes a deal with Mattox. If Dirk can use his wiles and skillful bartering to acquire or purchase the rare book, Silverthorne will grant him his daughter's hand. Dirk has recently been offered a considerable sum for the patent on his invention. This may come in handy when bargaining with Jech. But Fate will deal several hands of funny cards to Dirk before he gets a chance to purchase the book. The first being the murder of Casimer Jech at the hands of a supposed safe cracker.

As usual with Keeler a multitude of characters and absurd coincidences complicate the plot. Luke McCracken, yeggman implicated in the shooting death of the curio shop owner; Thomas Steever, a hobo who finds the tiny jade hand of the title in his chop suey; the mysterious Sadie Hippolyte friend of Wah Hung Fung, Chinatown's "biggy kingie man" all play parts in the madness surrounding the hunt for the missing rare book. And of course there is Simple Simon Grundt, a half-wit janitor adopted by the local police and deputized in an odd way. He's allowed to accompany the cops on their rounds each time an alarm goes off. He fancies himself a great detective and the cops indulge him more for they own entertainment than as a favor to Simon.

It is Simon who through a series of farcical accidents will solve the multiple mysteries in this pure romp. The finale in this ludicrous tale is one of the most outrageous parodies of a Golden Age style detective novel in all of the genre. If you can handle Keeler's idiosyncratic writing (some call him unreadable) you will more than likely get a few laughs out of this.

I mentioned that my copy of The Green Jade Hand has the above rarely seen insert that Dutton included with some of their special monthly mysteries. While it may be possible to solve some of the "Dutton Clue Mysteries" written with the usually accepted methods of a fair play detective novel, I would wager that it is impossible to do so with any Keeler novel. I'd be curious to go through the Dutton archives to see how many of these cards were returned with the correct murderer identified for any of Keeler's books. Or any returned coupons for any book, for that matter. They were eventually dispensed with in favor of a single page bound into the book with a similar but tersely worded challenge and the coupon was absent.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Reader Is Warned - Carter Dickson

Sir Henry Merrivale has no patience for frauds. But he's up against a singularly delusional fraud in The Reader is Warned. Herman Pennik is a self-professed mind reader who believes that he has harnessed a new power he calls Teleforce. He claims that he can kill by thought alone. At the home of Mina and Sam Constable Pennik promises he will put to test his powers with a fatal experiment. At around eight o'clock that night his host Sam drops dead. No other cause than literally dropping dead can be found. It seems that Pennik managed to pull off his experiment with the expected deadly result. Merrivale and the reader know better. There is a fiendish murderer loose in the house taking advantage of the supposed power of the charlatan.

The power of a mind reader really lies in a face to face confrontation. Reading about someone who claims to read another character's mind is not as impressive as an utter stranger telling you in person what you happen to be thinking. The pronouncement of one's private thoughts is not only invasive but I imagine can be a personal shock. But does the telling alone of an exchange between mind reader and his mark have as great an effect as one in real life? I was dubious how Dickson could pull it off.  Little did I expect how Dickson would exploit the mind reading claim and turn Pennik into the most fascinating character in the book. I was waiting for him to trip himself up and for Merrivale, Dr. Sanders and the irascible Inspector Masters to expose him, but Dickson took the story into another realm. As the story progresses Pennik goes through a metamorphosis of sorts from a mildly amusing charlatan to creepy cocktail party entertainer and finally megalomaniacal avenger. Pennik even takes his story to the radio airwaves and newspapers. The story takes place in 1939.  Hitler is also in the news. The idea of killing by thought alone captures the imaginations of a populace already feeling the threat of imminent war. Soon the entire country seems to be caught up in a paranoia of the terror of Teleforce.

Here is yet another of the ingenious impossible crime novels in which howdunit seems to be far more important than whodunit. In the case of the two deaths in The Reader Is Warned there is the added mystery of whydunit. Both deaths appear utterly motiveless. I began to think that Dickson was using the most unusual of motives also employed by Agatha Christie in her brilliant theatrical detective novel Murder in Three Acts. But I was to be proved wrong. Of course.

Clues are abundant in this book, but I challenge any reader to spot the correct ones. As an example, there is an instance in which Dr Sanders knocks a glass off of a space heater in a room. This is mentioned about five times in the course of the narrative and I knew it was significant. But I spent too much time focused on the broken glass and completely missed the real significance of the repeated mention of the accident. It's a prime example of the mastery of misdirection that is prevalent not only in this baffling novel, but nearly all of the Merrivale books from his best period.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: Have I Seen You Before?

Some examples from my collection of rarely seen dust jackets.  Some not in the best of condition, but a few of them seem to be the only examples.

Click on each images in the tables for the full size. First and last are already at full size.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


The term detective here is used rather loosely. Dr. Palfrey is not really a detective, he is more of a secret agent, although there are elements of the detective novel in the books that feature this early creation of the astoundingly prolific John Creasey. Dr. Palfrey and the agents of Z5 were part of a series of over 30 books Creasey wrote under his own name before he turned to his arsenal of pseudonyms. Palfrey is also one of his earliest creations. The first Dr. Palfrey adventure was Traitor's Doom (John Long, 1942) and the books continued into the 1970s ending with The Whirlwind (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979).

The most interesting aspect of this series of books which started out as straight espionage thrillers is that they grew to be more and more bizarre. Using the tropes of the pulp magazines Creasey was able to explore ecological and political threats that were making news headlines by creating mad scientists and criminal masterminds who were at war with the forces of good. By the 1970s there was renewed interest in pulp writers and their heroes and paperback publishers were re-issuing the adventures of The Shadow, The Spider and Doc Savage. Berkeley Medallion decided to join in by re-issuing the weirder books in the Dr. Palfrey series and market them as neo-pulps. "If you like Doc Savage, you'll love Dr. Palfrey!" the cover of each book proclaimed.

The first book I read in the series, The House of Bears (1946),  was not as strange as I hoped it would be. Palfrey has temporarily left Z5, a secret "peace promoting" organization run by the mysterious Marquis of Brett, to pursue his private practice and attempt to enjoy married life with his wife Drusilla. They are called to the home, an imposing Gothic structure decorated with stonework bears, a bear door knocker and bearskin rugs in nearly every room hence the title.  The think they are going to a see a patient being cared for by their friend Dr. Halsted.  Instead they find they have arrived only minutes after a near fatal accident. A young woman has fallen from a balcony and is severely injured.

Despite his claim that he is not a detective ("There is a big difference between spying and detecting.") Palfrey cannot help but turn Sherlock Holmes. What happened to Dr. Halsted? Where is the patient they were meant to consult on? The young woman, Loretta, apparently has been the victim of a series of near fatal accidents - is someone trying to kill her? An investigation of the woodwork on the balcony proves that it had been tampered with and the fall was an attempted murder. The missing patient turns out to be Loretta's fiance, Garth, a physicist who had been working on a secret project. The various mysteries will prove to be be linked to Garth and his work.

This is basically a straightforward adventure thriller with a few detective story elements in the first part. The second half of the story tells of Palfrey's return to Z5 and his assignment to locate and rescue Garth. There are many set pieces of the spy thriller - Drusilla is kidnapped and chloroformed on a rocky cliff side, Palfrey is tossed over the balcony when looking for a secret compartment in one of the carved bears on the railing, a bomb is thrown into a police conference room, and there is a chase into a cavern with a group of schoolchildren on tour. It's loaded with action, but the weirdness I was hoping for is absent.

Reflecting the thawing of the Cold War, the lessening paranoia of the communist threat Creasey turned his attentions away from the cloak and dagger action thriller to the neo-pulp adventure. As mentioned earlier he looked to the news headlines for inspiration. In the 1970s especially, when the ecology movement was in its infancy, he found his plots among the increasing problems besetting Mother Nature. Yet even as he added the bizarre and the weirder aspects to the Dr. Palfrey series many of the stories seem to be re-writes and spin-offs of each other.

In Dark Harvest (1947) a criminal mastermind demands a huge ransom or he will begin destroying farmlands with a deadly chemical. This idea is recycled twenty years later in The Famine about bizarre rabbit-like creatures that ravenously consume crops and plants. They also attack and kill any human trying to stop them. There's an element of Monty Python & the Holy Grail in this, but it is an effective pulp yarn with some terrifying moments.

A virus carried by mosquitoes renders people immovable and unable to speak in The Plague of Silence (1958). Silence and immobility is revisited in three other books: The Sleep (1964) is a coma-like state created by a mad scientist bent on controlling humanity, The Insulators (1972) tells of a machine that can remove sound and create lasting silence, and The Voiceless Ones (1973) features prominent government figures who mysteriously lose the power of speech (something that I wish would befall several American senators these days).

Ecological cataclysms are featured in The Smog (pollution clouds descend upon cities suffocating and killing the population), The Blight (an alien disease decimates the world's timber supply), The Whirlwind (machine can create tornadoes and destructive windstorms) and in The Drought Creasey sees the effects of nuclear testing causing a nightmarishly fast global warming as rivers dry up and the polar ice caps evaporate.

While it is easy to dismiss these impressively imaginative stories as potboiler entertainments there is something more substantial that might be overlooked. Creasey seemed to be writing cleverly subversive books. Each of his Dr. Palfrey books from the later period (about the mid 1950s to the final book in 1979) incorporated discussions of topical events. Much like the way Rod Serling circumvented the CBS censors in his "Twilight Zone" episodes by using fantasy and science fiction treatments to write about McCarthyism, racism and other intolerances, Creasey also exploited the pulp adventure format to talk about environmental hazards, political abuses and social apathy. He was one of the earliest crime writers to use the genre as a form of consciousness raising in his readers. For that alone he deserves some commendation as a pioneer in early 20th century crime writing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

FFB: Play to the End - Robert Goddard

In celebration of Robert Goddard's long overdue Edgar Award for the aptly titled Long Time Coming (Best Paperback Original) I have decided to forgo my usual treasure trove of pre-1950s forgotten books and write about one of his fairly recent (published in 2006) and utterly mesmerizing books.  It has all the hallmarks of Goddard: original characters, mind-bogglingly labyrinthine plot, more twists than a hyperactive go-go dancer and a breathtaking finale.

I am hesitant to make any attempt to do even the sketchiest of plot summaries.  If you know Goddard you know that it is practically impossible to due justice to a summary without spoiling some of the surprises.  And he has more surprises in his books than any kid would want on Christmas Day.  But I'll try to give an overview of sorts.

Toby Flood is a sort of washed up actor who's been relegated to stage work in touring companies. As the book opens he's in a newly discovered Joe Orton thriller/farce in Brighton where his ex-wife lives.  She calls him to have him find out who is stalking her. Toby meets up with the peeping Tom - an oddball by the name of Derek Oswin.  Toby tries to reason with Derek and get him to lay off his ex-wife. But Derek has an ulterior motive. His stalking of Toby's wife is part of an intricate plan to meet Toby, take advantage of his pining for his ex-wife, and ultimately use him as an instrument of vengeance.  And I will say no more.

Goddard's books should be studied by anyone who is interested in writing a suspense novel.  His layering and unveiling of the multiple story elements are unmatched. He has an enviable knack of getting the reader to want to know what happens next. The pages can't turn fast enough when you're reading one of his better efforts. Many people complain that he is formulaic. All I can say is that those people have no idea what the word means. He may not be a writer whose books you want to read one right after the other, they're too dense and often Byzantine. But I return to him at least once a month.  For my tastes his books are things of beauty. They dazzle me and I admire him all the more for that.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Bolt - P.R. Shore

Thoroughly intriguing novel by a minor mystery writer who wrote only two books in the genre. This one from 1927 is a classic English village mystery with a haunted green, a resident witch who curses the victim, a spinster narrator, a curate who acts as amateur sleuth with the spinster, and a shrewd policeman. We have two chapters in which the curate and spinster examine train tables to determine if one of the suspects is lying about his alibi. We have much hanky-panky with servants. We have the surfacing of a sinister blackmailing foreigner who reveals the victim’s deep, dark secret. All in all, crammed full of Golden Age plot motifs nearly all of which become tired by the 1930s in their overuse. Reminiscent of the best of early Gladys Mitchell this book also pre-dates Christie’s St. Mary Mead novels with busybody sleuth Jane Marple. It’s witty, a little bit nasty, and extremely engaging from beginning to end.

The story is of the murder of the not well-liked Mrs. Harrington, a “woman with a past,” who acted the part of the village matriarch and incurred the wrath of nearly everyone she knew – not the least of whom is her own step-daughter. Just as the annual village fete comes to a close Mrs. Harrington’s body is found nearby a sacrificial altar on the village green thought to be haunted by ancient Saxon ghosts. Some stolen air rifles from one of the fair’s game stalls, an “elf-bolt” as weapon (apparently some form of stone artifact), some stolen documents from a secret safe are a few of the unusual clues that will lead to the culprit. Marion Leslie, the village spinster, teams up with the curate Roger Cartwright to help the wily Inspector Grier discover the identity of a very clever murderer.

I read the book in 2007 or so and this "review" of mine is culled from my reading log notes. I nearly didn't post it here. In looking for images of the rare dust jacket I came upon Curt Evans' more thorough review (with similar insights as mine) at Mystery*File. Interestingly, his review prompted three people to go digging through birth records to discover the true identity of the author P.R. Shore - a pseudonym for a woman writer. If you like, you can continue your reading about The Bolt and P.R. Shore here and here.

One last aside:  I attempted to get this book reissued by bringing it to the attention of Tom Schantz of Rue Morgue Press.  He courteously replied that the book sounded interesting and that he had ordered a copy from an online seller.  But to date no word whether he plans to include it in the Rue Morgue catalog. Such a  shame if he passes on it. Based on the comments and discussion after Curt's review I am certainly not alone in noticing that The Bolt is definitely one of the best of the 1920s detective novels.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Strawstack Murders - Dorothy Cameron Disney

Promises, promises. I try my best to live up to them.  Here's my slightly overdue follow-up to TomCat's review several weeks ago on the impressive early work of Dorothy Cameron Disney.

Disney's second novel is practically a text book example of the Rinehart school.  The very first page contains a sentence that encapsulates the HIBK subgenre:
For it seems to me now...that I could have prevented the dreadful series of crimes which so hideously involved us all.
The line is spoken by Margaret Tilbury who will tell us the story of those dreadful crimes and reveal a tale of duplicity and treachery set in motion by a villainess who rivals the actions of Lydia Gwilt or any other  from Victorian sensation fiction. The opening of the book is subtle in its background details and exposition. There seems to be an overload of information and Margaret comes off as a babbling spinster obsessed with her health and her odd relation with her sister and brother-in-law. It is almost as if the story will become a family saga or a domestic soap opera.  But such details as Margaret's being treated for typhoid fever, an overheard phone conversation, and a servant's loss of a milk can are hardly extraneous. Nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing is ever mentioned offhand. Even the most ordinary and mundane activities will take on a sinister aspect.

It is the character of the duplicitous nurse Dorothy Fithian and her bizarre death that will involve the Tilbury household in a conspiracy to protect their own. Dorothy was far from likable. Yet no one no matter how off putting deserves to be strangled, shoved into a strawstack and left to suffocate, and then set aflame. But someone hated Dorothy enough to do that and more. When a member of the household is implicated Margaret and the family lawyer tamper with evidence in order to divert suspicion from one of their own. They replace a pair of gardening shears into a toolbox that they believe only one person could have moved. The family name is far more important to preserve than finding Dorothy 's killer.

Margaret and her relatives all seem to be playing amateur detective. Even the servants get involved. There is an attack on one of the family members (she apparently is struck on the head with a typewriter and survives!), there is the disappearance of some milk cans, a missing typewritten note and several other minor mysteries that follow the death of Dorothy. Margaret is puzzled by them all and wants to solve them before the police do. But Inspector Chant is way ahead of all of them. He confronts Margaret about her evidence tampering. She remains close mouthed about her involvement, Chant warns her that he will get at the truth one way or another and her refusal to cooperate will do more harm than good.

As if her fiddling with a pair of garden shears wasn't enough Margaret will attempt to figure out why a typewriter was placed beneath a bed and what happened to the note that was supposedly left inside. In doing so she endangers herself.  It is the fate of these HIBK heroines to snoop and then suffer strangling, mugging, blows to the heads and other violent attacks when they get "too close to the truth." Margaret will not escape completely unscathed.

As formulaic and drawn out as this novel seems it does keep the reader engaged. Margaret's narrative can sometimes get a bit irritating in its HIBK allusions to what has yet to happen for the reader but has already happened to her, however Disney does her best to keep these intrusions to a minimum. The detective novel aspects of the story are rather well done. It does have a fair play atmosphere. A truly astute reader could, in fact, unmask the killer. Yet Disney so cleverly hides the two crucial clues in the narrative that I am sure it will come as a stunning surprise when the murderer is pointed out by a surprise guest called in at the eleventh hour.