Wednesday, June 29, 2011

VIDEO & MUSIC: Happy 100th Bernard Herrmann

Film composer Bernard Herrmann would've been 100 years old today. Here are two of my favorite pieces - both of course from crime & suspense films.

The title sequence and theme from North by Northwest (1959)

A portion of the concerto used in the titles sequence from Hangover Square (1945)

(Thanks to Mike Nevins for this info courtesy of his post at Mystery*File)

NEW STUFF: Still Waters - Nigel McCrery

"Flowers really do intoxicate me." ~ Vita Sackville-West

There are plenty of mysteries out there that fall into the "gardening cozy" category.  Most notably Charlotte Macleod wrote a series of mysteries with an agricultural professor and as Alisa Craig she created the Grub and Stakers, gardening enthusiasts turned amateur sleuths, but her "gardening cozy" mystery novels are nothing like the story of the garden obsessed killer in Still Waters. The flowers that bloom in the spring (tra la!) have plenty to do with this case. A horticultural shrine to poisonous plants plays an important part in this highly unusual detective novel.

It also boasts one of the creepiest characters I've encountered in a while. Violet Chambers is an elderly, murderous, sociopathic identity thief. In fact, Violet Chambers isn't even her real name. She will change it twice more before the book's end when we finally learn who she really is. If you can imagine a senior citizen female version of Tom Ripley you might begin to understand what McCrery has in store for you.  But unlike Ripley, who you ironically want to succeed in his criminal activities, in Violet there is a villain you love to hate and eagerly await her comeuppance.

The reason I picked up this book is for the very unusual detective character. He is Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie, on "gardening leave" when the book opens as he is suffering from a condition that has gotten the better of him. He's had it for life, but it's ruining his ability to live. All because the sounds of the world - voices, music, chatter, even the ringing of his cell phone - cause him to taste a variety of pleasant and unpleasant flavors. Lapslie is one of the rare sufferers of synaesthesia, a neurological disorder that confuses sense perceptions and rewires the brain sending mixed messages. Some sufferers see colors when hearing sounds, some smell odors when hearing sound, some hear sounds when touching objects. The mixing of the sense is particular to each individual and can be bizarrely varied. Lapslie's affliction is primarily in tasting sounds and voices - most of it is not at all tasty. When he hears the Beatles tune "A Ticket to Ride," for example, he is overcome with the flavor of rotting meat in his mouth. On the other hand, the voice of his partner Emma is reminiscent of lemon and grapefruit. There's good and bad, but it often comes at inappropriate times and can be jarring to the point of dizzying distraction. It's a handicap that for Lapslie is intrusive, impossible and robbing him of so much that is enjoyable in life not the least of which is eating a meal without the interruption of surprise flavors due to the background noises wherever he may be.

This is an inverted detective novel. We know the culprit from the beginning. And we watch as Lapslie and his crew put together the pieces of the murder investigation, slowly and meticulously, while Violet carries on oblivious to the cops hot on her trail.  Lapslie homes in on Violet with a combination of sound detective skills, a strange lie detector talent built into his synaesthesia, and a little bit of sheer luck. Then Violet catches by chance a headline in a newspaper and realizes she has made a terrible mistake.  Through a series of unlucky events she was forced to dispose of one of her victims in a public place. When the corpse is identified and the victim's car is traced the story then becomes a competition between the cop and the killer.

You're never rooting for this killer thankfully. I've had my fill of attractive anti-heroes and anti-heroines these days. I want the bad guy -- or gal in this case -- severely punished.  For those with a strong desire for justice in crime fiction you won't be disappointed with the outcome in this book.

A warning to the queasy and those who demand likable characters with whom you "must identify" -- stay away. This is a graphically written, extremely disturbing book. Violet gleefully watches her victims die in agony and methodically narrates what each of her victims will experience as they endure their poisonous throes. McCrery then goes overboard in detailing the throes and spasms of the hapless victims. Afterwards, I almost wanted to get a bucket and mop and clean up the room where I was reading the book. I admit to crying out "Oh God!" a few times and skipping right over a few of the more repulsive paragraphs. Yet like the rubberneckers on the highway who have a grotesque fascination in bloody car accidents, I was drawn into the story ever increasingly in a way that shocked me. For the combination of an intriguingly original detective and a nightmare version of the senior citizen murderer, a character usually portrayed comically when it is written about at all, Still Waters offers something unusual and potent for crime fiction readers who are tired of watered down whodunits.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Faces in the Dark - Boileau & Narcejac

Originally published in France as Les Visages de l'Ombre (1952)
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury for Hutchinson (1955)

For decades it seems (only about eleven years though) I have been trying to get a hold of the extremely scarce novels of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Only a handful of them have been translated into English and although they were published in mass market paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s finding an affordable copy these days is like trying to locate the Holy Grail. I was thunderstruck when I found not one, not two, but three all at once hidden in a glass enclosed cabinet in one of my favorite bookstores here in Chicago. I had to ask special permission from the curmudgeon of an owner to open the cabinet so that I could see them and check out what I thought would be the astronomical prices he was charging for them. Considering their condition I thought the prices (amazingly lower than what I expected) were not only fair, but practically a steal. I took them all. And in the coming weeks I will be reviewing all three. Here is the first in the series.

Knowledgeable readers of crime fiction may know why I was so eager to read these books. Boileau and Narcejac are the authors of two novels which have been immortalized on screen as two iconic crime movies. The first novel Celle qui n'était plus became the hauntingly original thriller Les Diaboliques. The other book, D'entre les morts(translated as The Living and the Dead in the English book version), became Hitchcock's classic tale of murder and obsessive love Vertigo. I was hopeful that the first book I selected - in fact the second the two men wrote together - would be just as chilling and twisty as those two films I count as two of my favorites in the cinema of crime.

The first paragraph promised much. A man is struggling with his first book in Braille and gives up in utter frustration. He explodes in a fit of uncontrolled temper practically destroying his bedroom in the process. He is Richard Hermantier, a inventor and owner of a lamp manufacturing company, who is recovering from a freak accident involving a hand grenade left undiscovered from WW2 that he accidentally exploded while doing yardwork. (The book takes place in 1948.) The accident left him blinded and he is being helped slowly back into the real world by his wife, Christiane, and his business partner, Hubert. Richard is visited by a friend Bleche just prior to a convalescent stay at his villa in Vendee where the accident took place. Their discussion provides us with all the background on the accident and Hermantier's past life. Prior to leaving for Vendee, however, strange events are already taking place in the Hermantier household.

Christiane has let go their long time servant Blanche and hired a younger girl named Marceline. Clement, the family chauffeur, has become surly and disrespectful. Richard suspects that he and Marceline have become lovers and care more for each other than they do their employer. Richard also has become less of a commanding presence in his own household now that he has lost his sight and finds that the servants are patronizing to him, that they reluctantly take his orders deferring instead to his wife who apparently has taken control of everything. Left only with his remaining senses of smell, hearing and touch his perceptions are governed more by his imagination than reality. The loss of his sight has trapped him in a world of his own paranoid imaginings. Or are they something more sinister?

A true businessman whose life was his work Richard feels useless and impotent not being back at work. Christiane undermines his every attempt to gain control of his company and return to work. Hubert also seems to be a threat - even a menace - to Richard's plans to get a new-fangled lamp into production at his plant. Left alone in his bedroom he hears rustling and thinks that someone is in the room with him. The authors do an impressive job of conveying the terror Richard is experiencing.

When his black sheep brother Maxime shows up unexpectedly for a visit the story shifts gears. Maxime is something of a libertine.  He borrows money that he never repays, drinks to excess and seduces women with abandon. Marceline becomes his latest conquest leading to domestic complications in the Hermantier household. Maxime is also suffering from a respiratory ailment due to his smoking habit and his indulgent lifestyle. When he disappears in the night without a word Richard's imagination kicks into high gear and the book finally becomes the terror filled story it promised at the start. Two of the best scenes are when Richard is alone in his bedroom yet he is certain someone is there watching him and, towards the end of the book, in a graveyard using only his fingertips as his guide Richard discovers something horrifying.

And yet in the end it's all too familiar. Everything that follows Maxime's disappearance can be guessed at by any well read devotee of crime fiction. Even the requisite final twist in the the last pages fails to deliver the kind of gasp that one would expect from the creators of something as powerful as Les Diaboliques. I am hoping for something better in the other books I have yet to read.  Stay tuned for more on Boileau and Narcejac later this summer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Drawing on the Past #3: ARTHUR I. KELLER

Work: The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green (Bobbs Merrill, 1906)

Artist: Arthur I. Keller (1866 - 1924)

Keller trained as an artist at the National Academy of Design in his teens and later went to Germany to study under Ludwig von Loeffiz at the Munich Academy of Art. The Romantic style inherent in that academy's teaching would stay with Keller throughout his career. He tried to make it as a painter but succumbed to the attention he gained as a illustrator and completely abandoned the studio by the early 1900s.  His work can be found in the books of popular and bestselling authors of the early 20th century, a few of which were George Barr McCutcheon, Robert W. Chambers, John P. Marquand and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Vintage book lovers may know that he did the drawings for some interesting collectible American books:  the first edition of The Virginian by Owen Wister (Macmillan, 1902),  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Bobbs Merrill, 1906)A Christmas Carol (David McKay, 1914) and the first US edition of The Valley of Fear by Doyle (George H. Doran, 1914).

For more information on Arthur I. Keller visit this American Art Archives page. While there you can also see several beautiful examples of Keller's work in color. He was a master at not only capturing action scenes, but in color composition. I have a copy of The Valley of Fear which includes some of his finest work, however the plates are foxed and would make poor scans for your viewing here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

FFB: The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991) by Tom Spanbauer

"It was the human-being hand reaching out the touch that feels so good you hurt for all the times you never felt it."

The rainbow flags have been unfurled and are flapping madly in the Windy City. There's a heavy smell of tanning oil and hair gel in the air, too many lean muscled men are wearing tank tops, I hear an increase in Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson and Scissor Sisters music around the old 'hood. It can only mean one thing - the Gay Pride Parade is a-coming to Boys' Town. As my nod to our annual summer bacchanalia in the streets of Chicago's north side I have chosen a book that has absolutely nothing to do with crime or the supernatural. In fact, if I had to slap a label on it I would call it my favorite western.  But I'm not gonna slap nothin' on The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. (Yeah, yeah a double negative = a positive. Tough. I'm adopting a character voice for this piece. Live with it.)  It's a book that defies categories and labels even if it features cowboys and Indians and prostitutes and man-on-man action in the old American west.

I will never do this book justice if I start in on a plot synopsis. It's too dense. Too rich. It's loaded with wisdom and humor and suffering and pain.  All the good stuff in Life.  Oh yeah, and there's a whole lot of sex talk and sex scenes. And of course a mess of raunchy words,  crude references to the male and female anatomy,every four letter word you can think of and couple with a lot more than four letters. If that's a big turn-off then I feel something awful sorry for you. You're just gonna miss out on something truly different. Plus you will never learn the secret of Moves Moves. (I'm not giving it away here. Read the book.)

I could go all analogy crazy like I usually do and come up with nutty stuff like this is The Adventures of Augie March reinterpreted by Karl May (if Karl May were gay). Or imagine Deadwood if it had been written by Armistead Maupin. Or how about the first pansexual Bildungsroman set in the wild west? But I won't. And yet I did. But it was the part of me that's not me that did it. So that's all right. Let's talk about that concept of me and not me that is so eloquently put forth in the telling of this tale.

The story is told through the eyes of Out-In-The-Shed, a young half tybo (that's white to all you non-Indians), half Shoshone or half Bannock or half something. He really can't remember. He's stuck in two worlds and so are most of the people he meets. Forget that most of the people who are taking care of him and educating him about Life are white people. They aren't tybo at all. Just like Shed is not Indian and not tybo, but something in between. He refers to "the part of me I like to call the part not me" throughout the book. In every coming of age story there is the struggle with identity.  Shed has more than his fair share of those troubles.

He is taken in by Ida Richilieu who runs the whorehouse in the old Indian Head Hotel and she puts him to work immediately. Shed is a berdache and he's kind of a specialty of the house. He only takes on male clients who like a little taste of the exotic. Dellwood Barker is one of those clients.

Dellwood tells Shed that berdache is also an Indian word (Bannock or Shoshone or something else, maybe) for "holy man." He's kind of Shed's tutor in Life teaching him a whole lot of interesting words and how to spell them and a whole lot about sex and telling stories. He's a philosopher. But let him speak for himself:
Smoke and wind and fire are all things you can feel but can't touch. Memories and dreams are like that too. They're what this world is made up of. There's really only a very short time that we get hair and teeth and put on red cloth and have bones and skin and look out eyes. Not for long. Some folks longer than others. If you're lucky, you'll get to be the one who tells the story: how the eyes have seen, the hair has blown, the caress the skin has felt, how the bones have ached. What the human heart is like. How the devil called and we did not answer. How we answered.
Tom Spanbauer (photo by Jerry Bauer ©1991)
This is a book that is practically screaming, "Read me aloud!" Every sentence is a kind of microcosm. Shed's voice is so authentic, so original that the words want to be given true voice. What difference whose voice? Your voice is just as good as his. The words are the key. And since I can't read all my favorite passages to you via this blog I'll do the next best thing. You read them aloud yourself.

That's how the devil is: how he is looking to you isn't how he is. Your eyes see one thing while your heart is seeing another.

What you were doing, though, was a telling a story. [...] Good fucking is bartering, wrestling, swapping tales back and forth and telling lies 'til you get to the truth.
Some of what I learned, if you want to say out loud, there's words for, some not. Most of what I learned though, I'm still thinking about -- probably always will.
There's only so much pain you can feel before you start forgetting. Pretty soon pain is your mother. Lost is your mother. Pain and lost is your home. You got to know who you are and why you live before you can find your way home.
"Most folks are damned fools," Dellwood said, "and have no idea they're making themselves up. But you're different, Shed. You live with the knowledge and understanding that who you are is a story you've made up to keep the moon away.  And since you know what it's like to live without a story, you've made yourself an expert on stories and what stories do."

Telling stories. That's really what this book is about. Shed even reminds us that sex when done right is really nothing more than two people telling each other their most intimate story. "The best stories,"  Dellwood is always telling Shed, "are the true stories." Just as the best people to talk to and listen to are the people who tell you their stories. When you get right down to it blogging is nothing more than telling stories. Even when you're writing about stories - telling the story of the story - you haven't escaped it. It's all part of the human being essence. The way we connect. The way we live.

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is the best kind of story. A true story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

COOL FLICKS : The Missing Person (2009)

It was bound to be written. A private eye story that uses the events of 9/11 as a backdrop. The Missing Person is story that begins as yet another clever riff on the standard private eye story and slowly unfurls into a multiply layered tale of identity, loss, redemption and second chances. I was completely taken aback by how subtly profound this movie turned out.

John Rosow (commandingly portrayed by Michael Shannon) is an ex-cop who fled New York for personal reasons. He's living in squalor, adding whiskey in his morning coffee, and eking out a miserable living as a private investigator in Chicago. He's a sad sack who covers up his depression and troubles with the private eye's favorite defense mechanism - wise cracks. A mysterious lawyer, Drexler Hewitt, hires him to follow a man headed for Los Angeles on the California Zephyr, Amtrak's express train from Chicago to L.A.

The first half of the movie is more of a road trip flick than a private eye movie. We get to meet a variety of colorful characters from the surly waiter on the train to a barfly with a hidden agenda (Margaret Colin) to a motley crew of taxi cab drivers. One cabbie in particular, Hero Furillo (a very funny John Ventimiglia) has one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. In trying to find out where Furillo is taking his passenger (Rosow's target man) the two of them discuss being New Yorkers, their old neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, and the real life cop Serpico who inspired the book and movie that sport his name. This New York bond with Furillo helps Rosow more than he expected. Having broken the ice he persuades (with a bit of cash) to let Furillo stow him in the cab's trunk and let him out when he arrives at his fare's final destination.

It turns out to be a remote farmhouse over the Mexican border. He's caught spying on his tail, is beaten and dragged to the farmhouse owner, Don Edgar (Yul Vazquez). There he is told that the man he is following, Harold Fullmer, is affiliated with an orphanage on the grounds.  Don Edgar stresses that Harold is saving children from their hellish lives and brought to Mexico to the orphanage where there are given clean clothes, food, shelter and educated in Catholic schools. Rosow finds it all a little hard to swallow, but gives in, and is allowed to leave relatively unharmed.

He reports all of this to his employer Drexler Hewitt and Hewitt's associate Miss Charley. Hewitt then has to let slip some information. Harold is wanted by his wife back in New York City. Rosow's job is to pick up Harold's trail again, find him and convince him to return to New York to his wife or take him back forcibly.

After a few more adventures Rosow finds Harold who reveals he is a survivor of the 9/11 disaster. A few other secrets get aired as well. It is here that the story takes on a new dimension with Rosow's new job of taking Harold home to see his long abandoned wife. He must convince Harold to live up to his responsibility as a husband, to give up his new found freedom even if it means sacrificing a life that finally gave him purpose.

There's a lot going on in the story at this point. The movie ceases to be just another homage to noir classics and private eyes of days gone by. There's a poignancy that slowly rises to the surface. Rosow's hard edge gives way to a tender side, and we start to see the reason for his despondency. It links him to Harold in a way that shocks him.

In my estimation, here lies the true beginning of the real story of The Missing Person. Rosow, we already know, is haunted by a someone from his past. He dreams of a woman constantly. The dreams he has are vividly colorful and underscored by romantic soft jazz music. It's quite a contrast to the rest of the film which has a murky drab palette in wardrobe, setting, and lighting all accompanied by a soundtrack dominated by wailing saxophones. Rosow and Harold will discover they have quite a bit in common as the film progresses towards its satisfying, somewhat surprising ending.

The Missing Person
Written & Directed by Noah Buschel
starring Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Frank Wood, Linda Emond, Paul Sparks, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Yul Vazquez, and others.
The movie is available on DVD from the usual movie outlets on the internet, Netflix, and hopefully your local video store.  It's highly recommended for a very different take on the private eye in film.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


I may be the only mystery reader in the world who hasn't fallen in love with Nero Wolfe.  I've read only three Wolfe books and they didn't do much for me.  I read them in my teens, however, when I was a devoted follower of the fair play British puzzle detective novel.  The only American writers I liked were those whose books were puzzle first, character second.  My friends had to keep pestering me to read Rex Stout.  I did and I just didn't like them.  I stayed away from them for 30 years.

Now I'm dipping into the Stout waters again, slowly and cautiously, like a beginning swimmer afraid that the shallow end of the pool will suddenly drop off into the dangerous deep end and I'll be lost with nothing beneath my feet.  For my re-entry experimental reading I decided to read all the non-series mystery novels by Stout this summer.  And I was surprised that in Alphabet Hicks I found the kind of quirky characters and puzzling plot that I craved when I was so much younger.

Alfred Hicks earns his nickname from his odd business cards. They are printed with his name and only a string of seemingly nonsensical letters forcing everyone he hands a card to ask, "And what's that stand for?"  M.S.O.T.P.B.O.M. = Melancholy Spectator of the Psychic Bellyache of Mankind.  C.F.M.O.B. is translated as Candidate for Mayor of Babylon.  Not Babylon, Long Island.  The Old Testament Babylon.  Hicks is quite the sarcastic cut-up.  He's also a disbarred lawyer who mostly ekes out a living as a taxi driver when he isn't trying to be a private detective.  It's in his role as cabbie that he is recognized by one of his fares, Judith Dundee, who hires him on the spot.

Her husband Dick Dundee, president of a plastics manufacturing company, suspects her of turning traitor and selling corporate secrets to his rival. Mrs. Dundee tells Hicks her paranoid husband has turned against her and is threatening to end their marriage.  At the core of his paranoia is evidence that proves she has been in cahoots with Jimmy Vail, the owner of the competitor plastics firm. Her price for hiring Hicks is too much to resist. He takes on her case and is soon embroiled in a messy murder and a corporate spying plot.

1st US edition: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941
The paperback reissue title of the book (and all subsequent editions of the book, in fact) is The Sound of Murder. It's a perfect title.  Better than the original even, for the crux of the plot is the search for a missing record used in an early eavesdropping machine called a sonotel in the book but it seems no more different than an early phonograph recording device with a hidden microphone to record and a record player for play back. The record contains the evidence the husband claims is incriminating his wife as an industrial spy. Like the illustration on the Dell Mapback cover the record becomes a metaphorical tornado spinning out of control and threatening to destroy the lives of all involved.  The record contains a conversation between a woman and Jimmy Vail.  But just who is the woman? Is it Judith Dundee as her husband claims it is? Or is it the voice of Martha Cooper? She is the murder victim found on the grounds of R.I. Dundee & Co. the very day Hicks trails her from a train station to the plastics firm.  Both have amazingly similar voices.  What Stout does with this highly original idea of two sound-alike characters and the mileage he gets out of that plot gimmick is impressively done. He keeps the story moving adding multiple plot complications that make for a twister of a story.

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BLOG LONGEVITY NOTE:  This marks the 100th post for this blog which is approaching its half year anniversary.  I'm glad it happened to be a post on a book from the Golden Age of detective fiction since that was supposed to be my focus when I started this writing adventure back in late January of this year.  But all in all, I like how this blog has morphed into something all-encompassing in crime fiction (and other related genre fiction). It's almost as if it's trying on different personas just like a child growing up.  Here's to another 100 before December 31!

Friday, June 17, 2011

FFB: The Horizontal Man - Helen Eustis

There is a mystery attached to The Horizontal Man far and above the mystery in the book. Sophisticated and well read devotees of crime fiction will catch on to the twist fairly early on. It doesn't help much that Reader's Digest, in their "Best Mysteries of All Time" uniform reissue library, includes a little pamphlet that ties the book to a well known work by Robert Louis Stevenson. But even for those can't see through the obvious the surprise is telegraphed at least four different times before the true denouement. At the end of Chapter 26, for example, the surprise is given away in a melodramatic confrontation between two of the main suspects. The culprit will be officially unmasked eight chapters later in a prescient scene that foreshadows the remarkably similar ending of a classic thriller whose author and title I dare not mention.

The mystery then is why a book so clumsily plotted with a tendency towards overwrought writing won the Edgar Award for "Best First Mystery" and continues to make "Best Mystery" lists over and over. I offer up a couple of ideas. Although Eustis has a heavy hand at metaphor and lays on the poetic prose a little thick, however much she tries to conceal the ace up her sleeve while letting it fall several times throughout the story, her debut novel is noteworthy for its exploration into the realm of dark psychology. It should be recognized as a landmark suspense thriller for its time.

Only Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar, two similar writers, had entered the terror territory earlier than Eustis' 1946 debut. Hughes created quite a few horrifying psychopaths in her books. Millar was expert at unveiling the terrors hidden in a superficially mundane life.  Eustis takes both those aspects of the psychological crime novel and then adds her own personal ingredients in this story of the aftermath of a crime passionnel. There is an abundance of melodrama and numerous characters who easily might be at home in a Grand Guignol piece.

I suspect that this book is probably the first instance in crime fiction of employing a now overused, nearly cliche writer's trick. In the hands of more clever and polished writers that trick has fooled many a reader. One book in particular, though, has in effect stolen Eustis' thunder and overshadowed her early effort. But it should be pointed out the book I am cryptically referencing came fifteen years after The Horizontal Man was originally published.

The story is set in a women's college in Connecticut and the victim is Kevin Boyle, English professor, poet and a self-professed sexual Lothario on campus. He is found in his apartment bludgeoned with a fireplace poker and left to die in front of his still blazing fireplace. The immediate suspect is Molly Morrison, a deeply troubled, half mad, freshman whose puppy love crush on the teacher sent her over the deep end into a crazed obsession. When she learns of his death she completely falls apart and is sent to the college infirmary where she spends the bulk of the book ruminating over the emotional baggage of her screwed up family life, dwelling on her behavior that she believes led to Boyle's death, and ultimately undergoing analysis at the hands of Dr. Julian Forstmann, a psychiatrist brought in by the college president. She is only one of many pathetic portraits.

The cast includes Leonard Marks, college librarian and Boyle's confidante. He's painted as your typical Casper Milquetoast, an ineffectual loner "with no personality" who craves friends and friendship, but is clueless as to how to interact with anyone. He gets the worst treatment of any of the characters in the book. You can't help but feel sorry for the poor sap. I was rooting for him to get even with someone, but he's truly a pathetic case. When he writes poetry that attempts to express his passionate feelings it only sounds ridiculously anachronistic, like something from the 18th century. As the story progresses there are hints that he may have been sexually attracted to Boyle.

There's also George Hungerford, the Shakespeare professor, who on the surface appears to be just another crusty dig of an academic, but who the reader discovers is longing for death. His failed suicide still haunts him. His "nervous breakdown," so euphemistically mentioned throughout the story, is like the albatross hanging from the Ancient Mariner's neck. He needs sleeping pills to relieve his tortured anxiety and dreams of alternate methods of suicide that will end successfully.

The women do not escape Eustis' cruel writer's paintbrush either. Freda Cramm (there's a perfect name for a hateful character) is a two-faced temptress. The original 1940s audience would probably call her Jezebel. A modern reader would call her a cock tease. Others still might simply apply that catch all insult – bitch. She comes across as a hypocritical, self-absorbed, disingenuous woman remembered as a lazy student by the senior faculty. One of the older women at the college recalls that Cramm pursued the male staff as often as a student as she does now that she's on faculty herself. She and Marks have a war of the wills each seeing the other as an enemy. Cramm is wily and devious in the way she plays with Marks' trust and emotions, but Marks when he finally recognizes Cramm for what she is goes so far as to call her evil.

The book is told in the omniscient voice allowing Eustis to reveal each character's personal thoughts. It makes for an uncomfortable, practically claustrophobic, atmosphere as each chapter shows these people to be selfish, secretive, lonely, disturbed, haunted and tortured. There doesn't seem to be one, well-balanced,  trouble free soul on campus. With such extreme emotions at play they seem to have no other recourse than to act in the most extreme manner. Spying on one another, breaking into apartments, taunting and insulting each other with relish. Can there be no relief?

Thankfully, there are two characters who breathe a little fresh air into the proceedings. Kate Innes, a tomboyish intelligent student, and Jack Donnelly, a young tabloid reporter, meet, hit it off and turn amateur sleuths. Donnelly is the only character in the book who treats sad sack Leonard Marks with any decency. Innes seems to be the only female character in the book with common sense. She is willing to go out on a limb and try to save the reputation of Molly Morrison, reviled and ridiculed by the rest of her fellow students. Together Kate and Jack (with the college president's approval, of course) are allowed to interrogate the staff and student body in order to find something that will give Molly an alibi, saving her from jail and further humiliation, as she attempts to recover her mental health and well being.

While working together closely Kate and Jack develop an interest in each other. Their banter makes for a kind of Beatrice and Benedict love/hate relationship that is the only trace of humor is a book so dark it might as well be called an ebony suspense thriller. That they succeed in helping save Molly Morrison is a bright spot in the story for which the reader is truly grateful.

Why a crime plot set in the academic world with hardly one redeemable character in the story? I'd expect something of this nature to be a satire, but it's not the route Eustis chose. Reading the book made me squirm and raise my eyebrows more than a couple of times. Apart from the surprise revelation of the killer's identity I couldn’t see why all the characters had to be such messes - especially for a book written in the 1940s. I did a little research and came up with a bit of biographical information on Eustis that reveals all.

Eustis' first husband, Albert Fisher, was a philandering English professor and sometime poet just like the fictional Kevin Boyle. According to the autobiography of Daniel Aaron, a professor at Smith College and founder of American Studies, Fisher was known to "have charmed a number of Smith women into his bed." A valid point has been raised that The Horizontal Man is Eustis' savage revenge on her adulterous first husband's extramarital exploits. Perhaps this is why the book tends to be blacker than a moonless night.

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Patti Abbot is taking a break this week.  For the rest of Friday's Forgotten Books please go to our guest host's blog Todd Mason's Sweet Freedom.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Séance - John Harwood

Imagine if you can a crime fiction pastiche that is a mash-up of Wilkie Collins and John Dickson Carr and you will have Harwood's second novel The Seance.  Here is an unabashed homage to the Victorian sensation novel and the early 19th century Gothic: a little of Mary Shelley, a little of Anne Radcliffe, a dollop of Walpole and even a dash of Trilby thrown in for good measure.  There are loads of supernatural overtones, a locked room mystery, several mysterious vanishings, a sinister doctor who practices mesmerism, and one gruesome murder by an explosive device. Reminiscent of the works of the Brontes or LeFanu with their memorable settings this story takes place in the intensely Gothic Wraxford Hall, a haunted and decaying mansion, and the surrounding grounds known as Monk's Wood.

As with Collins there are multiple narratives that take the form of manuscripts, journals, diaries and letters and tells the story of a cursed family and its descendants. It's a gripping and intriguing read with quite a few surprises. A subplot features a bizarre science fiction element in that a character appears to have been experimenting with lightning in the hopes of gaining eternal life. Nice creepy touches include the suit of armor with a secret, the discovery of the hidden room where Cornelius Wraxford met his fate, the ghost that haunts Monk's Wood. The finale gets overly complicated, but all the tangled ends of the plot wrap up in what amounts to three endings.

Monday, June 13, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Kill Me in Tokyo - Earl Norman

By the time I finished Earl Norman's Kill Me in Tokyo I realized I had inadvertently chosen one of the many books mentioned in Bill Pronzini's two volume homage to the "alternative classic mystery." As I was reading I had an inkling that I was going to have a lot of fun pulling out examples of ridiculous Michael Avallone style prose and Richard Prather-like quirky humor. By the final page I thought to myself, "Bill must have used this book in one of his Gun in Cheek books." I grabbed both off my shelf and flipped through the index of each one. There he was: "Norman, Earl" with two page citations in the second volume, Son of Gun in Cheek. But, believe me, Norman deserves an entire chapter for this book alone.

Burns Bannion is slumming his way through life on the GI bill and cleverly managed to get a student visa by claiming he was going to study at Shopia University. It was a con. He does become a student, but it's not books he's cracking. It's his knuckles and the cartilage in his hands and feet. He becomes a student of Professor Mizutani, the local karate master. The incorporation of karate into the plot is what makes these somewhat noteworthy among the private eye paperback originals of the time. Aside from judo which was popular in many pulp stories and novels in the 1920s and 1930s they are the first fictional treatments of a character using a martial art in the context of a crime novel.

But that term "crime novel" is really a misnomer. This is really a travelogue and sexcapade book disguised as a private eye novel. Bannion isn't a real private eye at all. He's mistaken for one by his first client, the drunken American businessman Charles Echardt, who is pining for his missing love. In one of the few clever lines the drunk admits why he knows that Bannion is a private eye. "You look just like this guy with the short white hair and the broken nose that kids around in L.A." A reference no doubt to Shell Scott. That made me smile.

Echardt wants Bannion to find his missing girlfriend known only by her first name, Mitsuko. A wad of Japanese yen the equivalent of US$270 helps Bannion to decide very fast.  After he buys the most important item any private eye needs - a trench coat - he starts on his search for Mitsuko. The alternative title for this book might very well be Too Many Mitsukos for not only is Mitsuko the equivalent in Japan to the ubiquitous Mary or Susan of 1950s America it is the name of nearly every woman Bannion meets throughout the course of the lusty, soft core porn episodes that litter the pages. Stripper, waitress, prostitute, shop girl - they all seem to be named Mitsuko. A last name or even a decent photo would be extremely helpful. Bannion doesn't get either.

Bannion's first interview is with Echardt who he believes will give better info when he is sober. So he visits his client the following day at his hotel. There he finds the man dead. His neck has been broken and Bannion recognizes the bruises as the work of someone far more adept at karate than he is. Now he has a murderer to contend with. Bannion's investigations, however loosely you might term them, however are interrupted by his unrestrained libido.

In the course of the story Bannion finds time to jump into bed or slide across a tatami mat or cavort in a hot spring bath with three of the four Mitsukos he meets. He also has a few bedroom tangles with a stripper he dubs Princess Jade (who turns out to be yet another Mitsuko) while at the same time avidly chasing after and trying to undress a department store worker named (thankfully) Sachiko. There's lots of sex. It seems to be the primary reason the book exists. The rear cover helps promote this with the lurid headline FLESHPOTS OF TOKYO. The crime story that occurs seems almost an afterthought. Bannion stumbles upon a smuggling operation and accidentally witnesses a heist from a sabotaged airplane. It's all chance and coincidence and secondary to the pursuit of women and the explicitly detailed karate fights.

Almost as much space is devoted to describing the history and techniques of karate as the description of the nubile female bodies that populate the book. The reader learns that karate came from China and was invented by a group of radical monks who were planning to lead a revolt against the emperor. As their weapons had been confiscated by the Chinese army they devised a way to fight without weapons turning their hands and feet into lethal weapons. They were later forced out of the country and fled to Okinawa where karate flourished and became mistakenly thought of as a Japanese martial art. Bannion also talks about his own painful study of karate. Professor Mizutani inspects Bannion's hands and smiles as he notes the bruises. He tells his student that soon the normal flexibility of the cartilage will harden over time making it easier for him to deliver deadly blows and chop boards in two. Like they say: No pain, no gain.

Kill Me in Tokyo is perhaps worth a cursory reading of select passages for Norman's views of post-WW2 era Japan as seen through the eyes of an ex-GI. There are numerous sections written with skill and care (Norman can write well when he wants to) that describe aspects of Japanese life and culture. This is what kept me involved. Not the sex and certainly not the haphazardly constructed crime story. The scenes in the geisha houses, a section about samisen musicians, the detailed preparation of a Japanese delicacy called sazae, the way the train stations operate with officiousness and meticulous precision, all of this made for interesting and sometimes enlightening reading.

On the other hand, there are the encounters with a group of transvestite prostitutes that Bannion cruelly calls "herms." This I am guessing is short for hermaphrodites. When talking about them he uses the pronoun it and often refers to the less attractive "herms" as beasts. Had he been as careful as he was in his talk of other aspects of Japanese culture I might have been more forgiving.  He might, for example, made an observation about the Asian fascination with men dressed as women or the influence of kabuki in the dressing and make-up of these characters. But Norman in the persona of Bannion only wants to use them for the "freak factor" and as objects of revulsion earning him a place in the Pretty Sinister Hall of Infamy -- a place I reserve for, among other things, the long list of crime writers who scribble callously and without compassion about the marginalized LGBT community so often dismissed as deviants. The transvestites, by the way, will play an instrumental part in helping Bannion find the killer in the "shocking" finale. But by the time I had arrived there I no longer cared who the karate chopping killer was.

I also have Norman's second book in the series Kill Me in Shimbashi, but I cannot see myself rushing to find out if Burns Bannion ever improves (or even develops) his detective skills or how many more Japanese women he can screw in unusual places. The books that come later in the series are fairly scarce and, of course, are priced exorbitantly in the paperback collector market. They may have attractive artwork on the outside but I wouldn't spend more than five bucks on any of them for what is between the covers. For those of you who need to know below is the complete list of the Burns Bannion "private eye" books. All were published by Berkeley Medallion. The first three remarkably had two separate editions. So they must have been popular with some audience at the time of their original publication.

Kill Me in Tokyo (1958)
Kill Me in Shimbashi (1959)
Kill Me in Yokohama (1960)
Kill Me in Yoshiwari (1961)
Kill Me in Shinjunku (1961)
Kill Me on the Ginza (1962)
Kill Me in Atami (1962)

Four years later two more were published (along with reissues of the previous five books) by an English language publisher based in Japan. They were not released in the US. These two are almost impossible to find unless you have a source in Japan or are willing to pay between $60 to $140 for a collectible paperback.

Kill Me in Yokosuka (1966)
Kill Me in Roppongi (1967)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Herring in the Library - L.C. Tyler

"I'm a wicked city woman. Like your mother warned you about."

- Lucille Ball in a classic episode of I Love Lucy

I could not help but think of that classic TV scene while reading The Herring in the Library. L.C. Tyler's latest metafictional romp is a farcical treatment of Keat's dangerously seductive "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." Portions of that dark Romantic poem by John Keats serve as apt bookends in yet another exploration of the femme fatale in a crime novel. I'm a literary egghead. I should be drawing allusions, as I usually do, from Victorian sensation fiction and hardboiled crime novels. Lydia Gwilt, Phyllis Dietrichson and Brigid O'Shaugnessy are better genre examples of the women who lead men to their ruin. But in poor Ethelred Tressider's case I could only draw analogies to Tennessee Ernie Ford and Lucille Ball. The femme fatale in Tyler's novel is admittedly far more wily and seductive that Lucy's campy vamp (a burlesque hybrid of Rita Hayworth's Gilda and Louise Brooks' Lulu), but Ethelred is just as gullible as Ernie Ford when succumbing to her tempting ways.

Tyler's La Belle Dame is Lady Annabelle Muntham who Elsie, Ethelred's outspoken agent, sees through immediately. And so should any astute reader. Ethelred has a habit of falling for women who have only their own self interest at heart. His ex-wife was at the core of the shenanigans in a previous book. Will he ever learn? Elsie is there to try and open Ethelred's eyes for the umpteenth time and steer him out of the path of another manipulative user.  She'd have better luck with a blind man.

This time out Ethelred and Elsie face one of detective fiction's most experimental plot devices - the locked room. At the end of a dinner party the guests discover that their host, Robert Muntham, has been strangled in his locked library. It appears to have been impossible for anyone to have done the deed and left the room. The library door had two sliding bolts on the inside. The guests are forced to go outside the house and break the window in order to get into the library. But this is no ordinary locked room mystery.  Don't be upset if there is a lack of wizardry in the Dickson Carr mode, but do look for some conventions turned upside down in Tyler's usual subversive style.  Firstly, no one believes it's a murder and everyone is eager to accept it as suicide. Everyone except one person.

Lady Muntham will not accept the absurd notion of suicide. The police try to convince her that there have been cases of suicide by strangulation and even Ethelred is aware of some noteworthy true crime instances of this unusual method of shuffling off one's mortal coil. She teases and cajoles Ethelred to use his mystery writer skills and do some investigation of his own. Oddly enough, when Ethelred (and ever watchful Elsie, of course) begin their snooping and prodding evidence of an intruder begins to pile up, both physical evidence apparently overlooked by the police and two eyewitness accounts of a mysterious prowler wearing a blue suit. Lady Annabelle seems to be getting everything she wants out of the investigation. Elsie smells a rat. It's all a little too convenient. As the investigation continues each of the dinner party guests has a dirty little secret revealed complicating the plot as only the best of mystery stories do so well. Suddenly motives are popping up all over like...well, like red herrings. It seems that Annabelle may be right that some devilish magician managed to wring her husband's neck and dematerialize from the library.

As an added bonus we get our first look at the fiction of Ethelred Tressider. In his J. K. Elliott guise he writes historical mysteries set in the 14th century. Interspersed throughout the multiple narratives are chapters of this work in progress. Master Thomas, a customs agent and employee of the arrogant and talentless Geoffrey Chaucer who, if we are to believe Ethelred, got all his ideas for The Canterbury Tales from Master Thomas. There is a murder investigation in the book Ethelred is writing and it too has echoes in the locked room mystery of Muntham Court.

This was my favorite of the books so far. It was dense with literary allusions and it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping to my Cambridge Guide to check on all the references. The interconnections of the three story lines, the alternating narrations (a standard device in Tyler's books) and the trenchantly witty dialog (mostly in Elsie's wicked narration) all came together for a winning reading experience. This book deservedly won Tyler "The Last Laugh" award for best comic crime novel at this year's Crime Fest.  A hearty congratulations to him.  I eagerly await my copy of The Herring on the Nile soon to be released in the UK which I ordered several months ago.  I no longer can wait for the US releases of these books.

NOTE (posted one day later): Forget to mention this. Although I own and reviewed the UK edition (pictured in the scan above) the US version should be available this month from Felony & Mayhem as the author himself reminded me in an email he sent. I knew this and had purposely waited to post this review until I knew the book would be available here in the US.

And for those unfamiliar with Lucy's wicked city woman, behold:

Saturday, June 11, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: Crispin Cornucopia

In response to Patrick's furor over a paperback blurb spoiler on a new Edmund Crispin reprint (At the Scene of the Crime blog) and his mention of the old Avon paperbacks with nifty retro covers I'm posting a gallery of the Edmund Crispin first edition DJs. The first three come from Lippincott. The last is a Dodd Mead book. Some of them are not in the best of shape, but "you takes what you gets" these days. I'm happy to have so many Crispin books in DJ - the US editions with dust jackets are very hard to come by at affordable prices.

Special bibliophile's anecdote: The DJ for Dead and Dumb (UK title is Swan Song, by the way) came from a on-line sale of pristine dust jackets that had been stored in a warehouse for an old lending library. I think it was in Oklahoma somewhere. In the old days publishers used to send sample DJs as advertisements for the books that were about to be published. On the inside front flap there is a date stamp, AUG 1947, to tell when the book would be available for publication. So that DJ had never been on a book for over 60 years.

I managed to find a VG copy of Dead and Dumb without a DJ and married the two. It was a quiet ceremony and I toasted them with a can of Dr. Pepper. They're very happy now in the Norris Library. Other good news is they have not been tempted to separate even though a few books away on the same shelf are their foreboding relatives Love Lies Bleeding and The Long Divorce.

As always, a reminder to click on each image to enlarge and get the full benefit for your viewing pleasure.

And here's a portrait of the author at a young age seated at his piano no doubt at work on one of the many musical scores for films he wrote when he wasn't emulating John Dickson Carr. The photo appears on the rear of the DJ for The Moving Toyshop.

Friday, June 10, 2011

FFB: The Coming of Jonathan Smith - Harry Ludlam

Here is another horror novel that uses a detective story plot as its framework. A rash of suicides and accidental deaths on the outskirts of a small English village leads to the discovery of a curse laid down by a woman executed for witchcraft in the 17th century. Allan Tarrant and his cousin Susan (whose sister was one of the curse victims) team up with the local vicar to root out the evil presence that is the cause of the deaths. An eccentric Egyptologist and his sister who live in a decaying Gothic mansion crammed full of cast mummies are at the heart of the mystery.

Very well done, truly spine-tingling in parts, with quite a few original spins on some recognizable horror and occult fiction tropes. At key points it reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Fog and old Hammer horror movies about mummies. The combination of English witchcraft and Egyptian burial secrets is probably the most striking part of the book.

Apparently the author, who wrote a somewhat noteworthy biography of Bram Stoker (A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker), discovered the story of the cursed village while doing research for his book on Stoker. Amazing that this book has languished in obscurity since the 1960s. Originally published in 1964 in the UK, it was reissued in paperback one year later, again only in the UK. After being out of print for over 40 years, it is now available in a new affordable trade paperback edition from Ash-Tree Press.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Young Man From Lima - John Blackburn

In the opening pages of The Young Man from Lima William Raven, the Secretary for External Affairs, is assassinated by a snowman. It is yet another in a series of assassinations of government officials throughout the world who happen to be tied to a mythical South American country called Nueva Leon. This is not a fantastical thriller with supernatural beings in the cast as in other Blackburn books. The snowman turns out to be a man covered in snow. Frosty the Hitman, however, is far from your typical hired gun. In fact he is far from being human as we think of humans. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Marcus Levin, a bacteriologist who appears in several other Blackburn books, is called in to consult on an autopsy. A strange life form has been found in the blood stream of the corpse that seems to be living even after the host body is long dead. Also there were elevated levels of serotonin in the body. It is pointed out that elevated serotonin is often seen in addicts who are partial to hallucinogenic drugs. Furthermore a vial of tablets found on the corpse proves to contain enough of a lichen like plant to cause hallucinations similar to those of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. The corpse it turns out is Frosty the Hitman. There is a fear that someone has created an army of assassins whose minds are being manipulated by mind altering drugs. Shades of Sax Rohmer and a bit of The Manchurian Candidate.  But what about that strange microorganism?  Could that be playing a part as well?

Though this Blackburn book is lacking in supernatural content it still has much to raise it out of the realm of your ordinary espionage thriller and into the world of the weird and strange. It has a decidedly X-Files feel to it with a microorganism not unlike the one that caused the black oil in that cult TV series. I was also reminded of the many pathogen thrillers that range from The Andromeda Strain (a contemporary thriller for the time this was published) to a fairly recent book, Dead of Night by Randy Wayne White, that has a remarkably similar and equally gruesome parasite in the role of the vermicidal villain. There's even a bit of the 1950s monster movie thrown in when in the jungles of Nueva Leon our intrepid heroes must do battle with hordes of soldier ants. These are particularly gruesome scenes.

Overall, the story is one that holds your interest and keeps the pages turning at a rapid pace. There are long stretches of didactic dialog (another X Files trait) but it's probably the most interesting choice in delivering the necessary scientific information to educate the reader on the unusual monster of the piece. The politics of the story is another thing altogether. There are only so many Communist threat tales I can stomach these days. Thankfully, all the paranoia is kept to a minimum. When the true villains behind all the bioterrorism are revealed we are back in Sax Rohmer territory for their motives have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with megalomaniacal world domination.

It's a ripping yarn well worth reading if you want an example of what the eco-thriller was like back in the 1960s. Blackburn like John Creasey had a devilish imagination and could dream up the worst possible scenarios based on current ecological dilemmas. You can discover the many other undeservedly forgotten books that have been gloriously revived by Top Notch Thrillers and Ostara Publishing by clicking here. The series is edited by crime fiction writer Mike Ripley who has done a bang-up job in selecting some great titles that have languished in Out-of-Printdom for far too long. Check them out and read them. Or else.

Printer's Row Book Fair - pt. 2

I somehow missed these in my last post.  I even forgot two titles in my list:

Guilty Bystander by Wade Miller (the 1st Max Thursday private eye novel. This is the 2nd printing)
Strange Ones by Ben Travis (an early gay novel about a muscular lifeguard seduced by a randy New York sophisticate and the sexual conflict that follows. Published by Beacon, one of the leading sleaze PB houses)

That brings the total to the 15 books I mentioned in the earlier post.

The 24 page cook book (printed on light blue paper) in the rear of the Rex Stout book is pretty wild. Maybe not so wild if you're a gourmand. I'm not. My most adventurous meal was a venison stew in New York once. I wanted you to see that one dish out of the 32 recipes is named for the gourmand detective himself (click on the image to read it better).  Other dishes include Maryland Terrapin and Philadelphia Snapper Soup (yes, both are made from turtles), Tennessee Opossum which includes as the first direction "Skin and clean the opossum and rub inside and out with salt and pepper."  There are others with equally exotic ingredients, but those three stood out for me as things I didn't ever think of as gourmet food.

I'm not a big Nero Wolfe fan.  Does anyone who is more familiar with these books know if he really ate these things?  Are his meals ever mentioned in the books?

The Time Masters I mentioned on the previous post. The book by William Targ is deserving of a Friday's Forgotten Book post and I will probably write that up soon. It's also an alternative classic with an unusual printing history. As an enticing tidbit to the future post I will let you know that it's a bibliomystery and features the only nudist detective I have encountered in the genre. I certainly hope he's the only nudist detective.  But these days I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising writer in desperation for a gimmick dreamed up another detective who liked to let it all hang out while mulling over whodunit.

Until the next book fair or sale...  There are a lot of them in the summer out here.  And I can't stay away.  Like a lonely sailor entranced by the tempting song of a mermaid I am doomed to follow the allure of vintage books.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Printer's Row Book Fair - June 4 & 5

The Printer's Row Book Fair was this past weekend. It's an annual event here in Chicago in the summer and draws quite a crowd when the weather is good. For the first time in the past three years it didn't rain. To be honest, there were a few sprinkles late Saturday afternoon, but the deluge of rain that ruined the fair for three straight years (and cost several booksellers quite a bit of money in damaged books) was nowhere in sight.

Better weather usually makes for cheerier booksellers and eager spending on the part of the attendees. I know I went a little overboard in spending this year. I'm not divulging the grand total in my spending (except for the price of one terrific find), but I will list and post a few pictures of my haul of books.

They mostly consist of vintage paperbacks. I've rekindled my interest in them now that I have a blog. Several new authors I've just discovered this year only had their work published in paperback so I've been hunting them down for the past few months. I hit gold with one dealer at the fair and also learned they have their own website and will probably be visiting them regularly to add titles by specific authors who interest me.

Here's what I picked up:

Vintage Paperbacks
Kill Me in Tokyo by Earl Norman (first book in a unique private eye series that will soon be featured on this blog)
The Case of the Beautiful Body by Jonathan Craig
 So Young, So Wicked by Jonathan Craig
The Man Who Didn't Exist by Gregory Homes (very excited about this purchase. I now have all the Robin Bishop books and will be reviewing them all in the coming weeks)
The Cheim Manuscript by Richard S Prather
Kill Me Tomorrow by Richard S. Prather
The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker (a sci-fi thriller with detective story elements)
Invasion of Privacy by Harry Kurnitz (AKA Marco Page)
Murder – Very Dry! by Samm Sinclair Baker (A Graphic Mystery. I like the covers on these. Sometimes the writing has an "alternative classic" edge to it and can be unintentionally funny.)

The Case of Mr. Cassidy by William Targ (a reprint with the hard to find DJ)
Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout (a reprint but an actual Farrar & Rinehart book rebound in G&D boards. Includes the rare cookbook found in only a few of the G&D rebound reprints)
Ladies of the Underworld by Netley Lucas (a true crime book that I bought for the previous owner's bookplate which I will be writing about next week)

And the pièce de résistance

Tainted Power by Carroll John Daly – 1st edition in FINE condition.

I knew this to be an exceptionally scarce book. I was astonished how gorgeous the book was. The top stain was still bright green and there wasn't a trace of dirt or soil anywhere on or in the book. It was like it had just been printed. I had to have it.

I found this at a booth where none of the books were priced. You had to ask the dealer what he wanted for each one. I generally don't like this practice. Often when you show an interest in a book the dealer will make up an exorbitant price tacking on an extra $10 or $20 to what he would normally charge. But for this book I was willing to pay good money.

He said, "That's $15."

"I'll take it!" came my automatic and gleeful reply. And I handed over a twenty dollar bill.

As he gave me my change he told me, "That's a very old mystery novel."

"Yes," I said. "I know. The original hardboiled writer."

"Well, not many people know that," he said.

I agreed with him.  "And hardly anyone reads him anymore either," I added.

This little exchange caught the attention of a man to next to me. He asked who it was and I exploded in a rambling speech telling him that Daly was one of the most popular writers in the days of Black Mask, the pulp magazine that pretty much invented the hardboiled school. I also mentioned he created tough guy detectives Race Williams and Satan Hall (although I called him Satan Jones in my excited state). The man hadn't a clue what I was talking about and merely said, "Oh." Well, you try to educate other people and sometimes it just falls on uninterested ears.

When I got home I was eager to discover how many on-line booksellers had copies of Tainted Power. Imagine my shock when I found only two. Both have DJs, one is priced at $1250 and another copy in Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop (which sounds like it's in better condition) is priced at $1750! I was floored. A perfect copy like mine can be priced at 75% of that high end price since it doesn't have a DJ. I think I'll be holding onto this book for a while.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Drawing on the Past #2: FREDERICK C. YOHN

Work: McAllister & His Double by Arthur Train
           (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905)

Artist: Frederick C. Yohn

This was Arthur Train's first book in the crime fiction genre. He is best known for his lawyer character Ephraim Tutt, who appeared in numerous short stories that were collected in several volumes. But this book, also a collection of short stories, is mostly about the criminal element. McAllister is a young clubman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Fatty Welch, a thief who masquerades as a gentleman's valet and then steals from his employers. The tales are more in the vein of comic adventure stories than they are detective stories. A handful of them, however, have some elements of the detective story. Only notable as the author's first book - the contents are run-of-the-mill for the time period.

Yohn is best known for his illustrations of E.W. Hornung's Raffles books in the US editions also published by Scribner's for whom he was a contracted artist.

Friday, June 3, 2011

FFB: The Undying Monster - Jesse Douglas Kerruish

Originally published in England in 1922. The US edition was published in 1936 no doubt with intent to capitalize on the monster movie mania of the early 1930s.

Utterly fascinating from start to finish. Perhaps the best of the earliest attempts at combining a detective novel with a genuinely supernatural mystery. Most supernatural detective novels start with a bizarre murder that seems to have no earthly explanation, but this one starts with a curse that is firmly believed in and accepted by the family members. Features Luna Bartendale (the literature's first female occult detective) who puts John Silence, Carnacki and Miles Pennoyer to shame with her extensive knowledge of occult rites and practices and beats them all with her "super-sensitive" gift of being able to psychically connect with troubled souls and hypnotize them. She is far more colorful and interesting than Jules De Grandin who required Dr. Trowbridge's ignorance as a foil.

There are all kinds of amazing set pieces – the descent into the Hammand mansion cellars that house a 16th century alchemist's workroom, the discovery of the gruesome Hand of Glory buried in the wall, Luna's use of a divining rod to help her distinguish between benign and malevolent forces. In addition to all the supernatural lore and techniques, Luna is an excellent physical evidence detective. Her discovery and subsequent withholding of crucial evidence leads her to the identity of the murderer very early.

So much of this book served as the basis for the numerous werewolf stories that followed throughout the 30s and 40s. Most notably the doggerel curse used as a frontispiece in the US edition seems to have inspired that other well known rhyming curse that crops up in all the Universal werewolf movies ("Even a man who is pure in heart/And says his prayers at night...").

A movie version made nearly a decade after this was published in the US dispenses with Luna and instead gives us a CSI type doctor, circa 1940s, as the central detective figure. Swanhild is renamed Helga (thankfully!) but is no longer a believer in the supernatural and instead scoffs at all the legends and curses hanging over the family. Oliver is still a twit but toned down a bit. The story also eliminates all the Norse legends and the hypnosis. It's beautifully filmed and atmospherically designed. The sets inside the home and the exteriors of the moors are some of the best in a Hollywood monster movie. But the movie fails to thrill. It could've been far more interesting and original and might have been a real cult classic had it stuck to Kerruish's original story.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Lock Artist - Steve Hamilton

A combination of the coming of age story and the crime novel is not exactly the kind of book I am immediately drawn to. I thought I had my fill of teen angst novels (I've certainly had my fill of teen angst in the movies and TV) but this award winning book quickly proved me wrong. 

Mike has suffered a traumatic incident when he was nine years old.  He is nebulous in talking about it, but the reader knows he survived a violent episode that left him an orphan. He is raised by Uncle Lito, a liquor store owner, who has no real parenting skills but does his best to give Mike a life of stability and safety. Though Mike survived the terror of his past he has not spoken since. His silence remains a mystery to the various psychologists, neurologists and other doctors who examined him for years but can find no real medical reason. Typically, they slap a variety of clinical and unhelpful diagnoses on him and send him back to his uncle. It is his silence that will draw him into two different very private worlds.

The title has a double meaning. For not only is Mike skillful with a set of picks and tension bars but he is also a talent with pen and a drawing pad. His drawing pad becomes a refuge from his silent interactions and the attendant mocking and ostracism that follow him throughout his school days. He will meet one fellow teen artist, Griffin, who will become his best friend and gain at least one adult ally in his seemingly cynical art teacher. Mike thinks he will follow in the steps of Griffin by attending art school after graduating high school.  His other talent, however, much to his surprise will prove to be his Fate as he is coerced, or even forced, by nearly everyone he meets to reveal the secret awesome power of opening locks without a key.

Like many new crime novels The Lock Artist has a dual story line told in alternating chapters.  The Sherlockian which I read last fall had a similar alternating structure and the time difference between the two parts was two centuries. Hamilton's book alternates between the mere span of one year - 1999 and 2000 - but the differences in Mike's life from one year to the next are almost analogous between boyhood and manhood.  He undergoes so much in a relatively short period of time.

One half of the book is mostly made up of capers that take place in 2000, the year Mike became a career criminal.  The other (to me, the more interesting half of the book) is Mike's coming of age and the slow reveal of how he went from being a kid who knew how to pick locks to an artist with a magic touch under the tutelage of the mysterious master safecracker known only as "The Ghost."  While there are action scenes galore in the caper portions of the book it all seemed familiar to me.  But the story of Mike committing his first break-in, his punishment at the home of Mr. Marsh, and the very intriguing relationship that develops between Mike and Marsh's artist daughter Amelia all surpass the action of the various lock picking and safecracking escapades.  The connection he finds with Amelia, another one talented in drawing, in their secret illustrated communications makes for one of the more fascinating sequences in the story.  In fact at one point I was so caught up in the artwork exchange between Mike and Amelia that I read only those chapters in quick succession until I came across three characters who I did not recognize.  I had to go back and then read the odd numbered chapters until I got to the point where they were introduced.  By that time I realized that even though the structure was alternating the book was carefully meshed together and that each odd numbered chapter was subtly commenting on the following even numbered chapter.  That'll teach me to cheat while reading a book with this type of structure.

That says something about Hamilton's admirable skill in creating a literally page turning story.  I had to know what happened next.  I found myself furiously flipping pages and skipping huge chunks of the book.  By the time I was midway finished I was keeping one finger of my right hand at the start of every other chapter to make for the smoothest possible transition between the even only chapters and the odd only chapters.  Try that with an eBook all you Nook and Kindle addicts. Bet it's not so easy.

The Lock Artist recently won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of 2010.  I haven't read any of the other nominees, but I can't imagine anything more entertaining, surprisingly poignant or stunningly original than this crime novel.  I sure would've voted for it.  You ought to read it and find out exactly why it won the prize.