Sunday, July 31, 2011

Newberry Library Book Fair 2011

Well, I went. I wasn't going to because in the heat of Thursday evening the short three block walk from the Clark & Division subway stop to the library was something I didn't look forward to. Walking even one block in 90 degree weather causes me to break out in back drenching sweats. But I'm glad I did brave the sun. I found two books that made me open my eyes wide in surprise.

The Newberry Library is one of the leading research libraries in the Midwest if not the whole country. They are probably best known for their awe inspiring collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts and are also one of the most famous genealogy libraries in the world. I have yet to set foot in their stacks. I keep meaning to but have yet to come up with a research interest that would make it purposeful. However, I do attend their special exhibits somewhat regularly. Several years ago there was an amazing Sherlockiana exhibit and I made sure to get there for that. Daniel Stashower, a mystery writer and Edgar award winning Doyle biographer, was there as a speaker and I remember having a pleasant chat with him about his detective novels featuring Harry Houdini. I got most of my Stashower books signed by him that day as well.

I thought I'd probably find five or less books. I didn't want to spend a lot of money because I went a little overboard in Minneapolis (see this post) and I'm trying to rein in my accursed bibliomania and save some money for my upcoming trip to St. Louis in September. But the book gods (demons?) smiled upon me and I left with a lot more than I expected I would. And for only $27 which is usually the cost of one book for me who is seriously addicted to vintage 1st editions in dust jackets.

For you viewing pleasure, here are the highlights of another big take. As always click on the images for much larger pictures. And you know the clicking drill by now.

The Third Eye
Sinister Light (aka Put Out the Light) both by Ethel Lina White
White wrote The Wheel Spins which later became the excellent Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes. In the 1960s all of her books were reissued by Paperback Library as "Gothic suspense." None of them really are. She's more in the Eberhart tradition of the "woman in peril" suspense novel. A few of her books can be classified as detective novels as well. White is one of those hit and miss writers. She can write something that becomes a classic like The Wheel Spins but then she can deliver something plodding and formulaic. I tried reading While She Slept last year and I was bored with it and gave up. But I've been wanting to read some of the more weird ones like The Third Eye (which is probably the one that closest resembles a true Gothic) for quite a while. All of her books were for sale. In fact, scattered throughout the paperback mysteries was someone's huge collection of Gothic suspense and Gothic romance novels. There were hundreds of them including many by Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden, and Charlotte Armstrong books (see below about Armstrong).

No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
Hardboiled detective novel. Author's first mystery. Based on the strength of this book alone she (yes, she!) was invited to Hollywood to help with the screenplay on Howard Hawk's The Big Sleep. Impressive. Knowing this I had to find a copy and read the book.

The Murderer Invisible by Philip Wylie
Another book linked to the long gone days of classic Hollywood movie making. This was used in part as source material for the Universal horror movie The Invisible Man. Although it is largely the story of the H. G. Wells novel the screenwriters combined elements of the two books. The madman turned misanthropic murderer element is what was taken from Wylie's book.

Lay On, MacDuff! by Charlotte Armstrong
Author's first mystery novel. It's a true detective novel once again in the Eberhart vein and not a Gothic Romance. What a ridiculous and trite cover! Nothing to do with the story. It's also one of the most difficult Armstrong books to find in any edition. Took me over 10 years to find this one. A post about her neglected and forgotten detective character MacDougall MacDuff is coming soon. 

When Michael Calls by John Farris
This was turned into a TV movie back in the 1970s. Long before slasher movies replaced true scares with gross-out horror there were some very effective and creepy TV movies made in the 1970s. I'll always remember this one from my days as a scary movie addicted teen. A woman starts receiving phone calls from her nephew who supposedly died years ago. I don't think you can make movies about the terror of anonymous phone calls anymore. Cell phones have pretty much removed the terror. People simply don't answer anymore. Looking forward to revisiting this to see if it has any power as a book. Farris went on to write some classic modern horror novels most notably The Fury turned into a movie directed by Brian DePalma and with Farris as screenwriter.

TCOT Village Tramp by Jonathan Craig
This has eluded me for a few months. While I wish it could have been the Gold Medal original, I'll settle for this Belmont reprint. It's in nice condition, so that helps. Only one more 6th precinct book to find - Morgue of Venus. These are a series of police procedurals all set in the Greenwich Village of 1950s. Eventually all of Craig's books will be written up here at Pretty Sinister Books.

Hardcovers with Dust Jackets
101 Years' Entertainment edited by Ellery Queen
A seminal anthology of detective short stories. The introduction is one of the best surveys of Golden Age detective fiction. If you come across a copy of this book and it costs less than $5 (like mine did) I'd snap it up for the introduction alone. It has a few stories by some obscure writers worth reading like Vincent Cornier and Arthur Porges in addition to those well known authors listed on the DJ. And I'm a sucker for any old book with a DJ in great condition like this one.

Sporting Blood edited by Ellery Queen
Detective short stories that deal with professional sports. I guess the editors couldn't find enough good stories about the usual sports and so also covered are stories featuring games like croquet and hobbies like stamp and coin collecting.

The Queen's Awards, 7th series (1952) edited by Ellery Queen
More detective short stories including the only short story published in book form by A.H.Z. Carr who wrote the Edgar Award winning novel Finding Maubee.

The Mardi Gras Murders by Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning
The Mystery League books are collected primarily for the DJ art and not for the content in the books themselves. This is one of the better examples of the DJs in the series and one that's fairly hard to find. Although there are a few really good stories (The Secret of High Eldersham and Death Walks in Eastrepps in particular) most of the books are utterly dreadful as mystery novels written by deservedly forgotten writers. One of these days I should write something about these odd books published by The Mystery League. Some have earned "alternative classic" status like Turmoil in Brede about a hairdressing salon that is a front for a hypnotizing blackmail ring. That book was ripped off by the writers of the campy "Batman" TV series for the final episode with Zsa Zsa Gabor as Minerva -- the owner of a hair dressing salon who brainwashes her customers and steals from them.

The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Had to have this for the DJ even if there is an ugly price tag scar on the front. Why do used book store owners and antique mall owners put price tags on old dust jackets? It's sacrilege as far as I'm concerned. The scar was already there when I bought the book. Newberry prices everything in pencil on the flyleaf. The rear of this particular DJ is one big advertisement for other books in the George H Doran catalog circa 1925 when this book was first published. Waste not, want not. Both sides of the dust jacket served their purpose back in the early days of book publishing.

And the Grand Prize...

Powers of Darkness 
by Robert Aickman
(Collins, 1966) 1st edition in the original dust jacket

This is a stupendous find to anyone well versed in collecting supernatural fiction. The book is the second collection of Aickman's "strange stories" and a true rarity in the antiquarian trade. I was stunned to find it sitting far away from the science fiction, fantasy and horror books where it should have been. Instead it was ignominiously lodged in the mystery section amid a pile of ratty old book club editions of some author I can't even recall. I opened it up expecting to see a price tag well over $25. The tiny pencil scrawl on the flyleaf said $2. I laughed and said "Now that was a big mistake!" The man next to me peered over my shoulder but I closed the book and added it to me pile before he could see. Then I headed for the cashier area to pay for my booty.

There are only three copies with a dust jacket for sale on the internet. When I checked my secret book search engine that brings up over 30 sites all over the world those were the only three for sale in the entire world. Go ahead and look up this book. Look what the prices are for those three books. Two bucks was grand larceny. Sometimes the book gods are not only smiling down on me they are laughing hysterically. Just like me.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Uncle Edgar's Book Shop - Minneapolis, MN

Our second visit to Minneapolis was a trip devoted to exploring the city's well maintained labyrinth of bicycle trails. This could well turn into a twice annual adventure. Our first time here we didn't bring the bikes and regretted it even if the weather that time was less than desirable for wheeling around the city. When we discovered that Minneapolis is easily the most bicycle friendly city in the entire country we knew we had to come back with our portable set of wheels. This time we had gorgeous weather unlike Chicago which got torrential storms that flooded most of the city.

I had only one day to sneak in a visit to a bookstore and there were two I wanted to visit, but since the other was in St. Paul I had to make due with just the one. So I ended up at Uncle Edgar's, one of the best and oldest mystery bookstores in the country. In 1974 the store began as Uncle Hugo's named for Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories magazine, the first pulp to foster the development of the science fiction short story. It was solely a science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction bookstore and remains the longest running and oldest science fiction bookstore in the U.S. Uncle Edgar's (named for you know who) came along in 1980 and takes up the entire rear of the store with a huge selection of both new and used books.

Apart from The Mysterious Bookshop in New York I have yet to find a mystery book store with a more impressive collection of out of print and vintage mystery fiction of all types. Usually I can browse a mystery bookstore or the mystery section of a used bookstore and be done in less than an hour. The types of books I'm interested are hard to find in the typical used bookstores. At Uncle Edgar's I was practically lost without my want list which I rarely carry with me anymore. I kept rushing back and forth between the old and the new areas and then between the two paperback sections -- one for mass market paperbacks from all decades, the other for vintage paperbacks mostly 1940-1970 though there were some 1980 reprints of earlier titles in here as well. Nearly all of the vintage paperbacks were protected in mylar plastic covers which is always a sign of a used bookstore that cares about what they sell.

This time I went in primarily interested in the vintage paperbacks which I barely looked at the last time I was in the store. My interest in them has been renewed now that I have this blog. I keep coming across writers previously unknown to me whose work only appears in paperback originals. After the vintage paperbacks I went through the hardcover books as well, but soon was overwhelmed and lost without a list of specific titles. Nonetheless, as headache inducing as it seemed, I came out with quite a pile of treasures.

And here's the take from Uncle Edgar's.


The Body Vanishes by Jacquemard-Sénécal
I wrote about The Eleventh Little Indian, their first book, last month. This is the only other book of theirs that has been translated into English. Score! They had two copies of The Eleventh Little Indian, too. There seems to be a copy of every mystery every published at Uncle Edgar's.

Séance for Two by Mark McShane
The sequel to Séance on a Wet Afternoon, a book I own but have never read. I have seen the movie version with Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough, though. Excellent! I plan on reading both for a future post. McShane is sort of a cult mystery writer. His books are strange and weird and wonderful. Under another pseudonym (Marc Lovell) he wrote a series of supernatural thrillers about occult investigators doing Shirley Jackson style haunted house research and a couple of books about a con artist/hypnotist.

Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell
This was an unfortunate mistake of a purchase. I thought it was her first book but that title is Murder in Hospital. See what happens when you forget your list and have a middle-aged memory that is quickly losing its former youthful powers? [...sigh...] I'll read it anyway. This one was originally published in 1944 and it's her ninth book. She's kind of hit and miss in her later career as opposed to when she first started writing in the late 1930s. Hopefully, I lucked out with a better one. Nine has been a lucky number for me.

The Man with My Face by Samuel W. Taylor
One of the most outrageous spins of the doppelgänger motif in suspense fiction. Author's first crime novel and it's a corker, gang. There are a lot of dog attacks in this one. Pretty savage for a book published in 1948. Could be the first book to introduce the Doberman as one of the most fearsome of dog breeds. Remember all those Doberman movies in the 1970s? When I was growing up in Connecticut way back then no one wanted anyone to own one. Now I hardly ever see one anywhere. A really entertaining action packed book that hardly perfect (it's riddled with novice writer flaws) is really worth seeking out. A review is coming on Tuesday.

TCOT Cold Coquette
TCOT Nervous Nude
TCOT Laughing Virgin
TCOT Silent Stranger all by Jonathan Craig
I am determined to read this entire series. I now have every title except Morgue of Venus. Since that's the second in the series and Cold Coquette is third my plan for reading the series in chronological order just went out the window. But no matter. Like Sergio over at his Tipping my Fedora blog who intends to read and write reviews for all of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series I hope to have reviews of all of Craig's 6th precinct books up on this blog.

A Talent for Murder by Anna Mary Wells
This author's first book. I reviewed Murderer's Choice last week for the Friday's Forgotten Book series. According to one of the first reviews for this detective novel first published in 1941 "the discovery of the villain is a decided shock." We shall see just how shocking.

The Man Who Left Well Enough by Mark McShane
I like this writer as I've mentioned above in the hardcover section. I couldn't resist the hyperbolic ad copy on the front cover? A brief mention of this book in 1001 Midnights first brought this to my attention. Been on my want list for several years. Lucky find!

Tomorrow the treasure trove of book finds and purchases continues with my surprising haul at the Newberry Library Book Fair. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 29, 2011

FFB: Murderer's Choice – Anna Mary Wells

There are few female private detectives in the novels and stories of the 1930s and 1940s. Some made appearances in the pulp magazines alone (Violet McDade & Nevada Alvarado, Carrie Cashin), some made it to novels by bestselling writers (Dol Bonner created by Rex Stout, Bertha Cool created by Erle Stanley Gardner). It's understandable that Grace Pomeroy, who makes her only appearance as a P.I. in Anna Mary Wells' second mystery novel, could get lost in the history of the genre. But Grace deserves some mention for her interesting background. She was formerly a psychiatric nurse and appeared as such in Well's debut mystery novel A Talent for Murder. In her second appearance, newly employed in her second career, Grace solves the strange case of an odious man who apparently committed suicide in order to frame his cousin for murder.

The story has an intriguing premise and is handled deftly in the first third of the book. Mystery writer Charles Osgood confronts his cousin Frank for whom he harbored a lifelong loathing with a horrifying prophecy. Osgood will commit suicide and make it look as if Frank killed him. He has taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy to provide the motive and assures Frank that evidence will surface that will lead police straight to Frank's door. When Charles dies of seemingly natural causes Frank seeks out Miss Pomeroy at the Keene Agency to help him find the evidence that will lead to his arrest and conviction before the police manage to find it.

Grace patiently listens to Frank's outrageous story but it takes some effort on her part to completely believe him. Her investigation of the odd circumstances surrounding Osgood's death takes her to lawyer Marcus Winterbottom who informs her that Osgood has squandered his fortune yet there is no record of how he managed to spend so much money in such a short period of time. No bills, no paperwork of any kind. And there is no record of the life insurance policy Frank insists Charles purchased prior to his death. Grace tells this to Frank and he gets the idea to gather all the interested parties in the case at Osgood's Connecticut estate where they will all hunt through the house in search of any documents that will support Frank's case and explain what happened to all the money.

At this point the story devolves into a spin on the typical Mary Roberts Rinehart novel with a variety of characters -- Frank's histrionic fiancee Kay, his domineering mother, a stolid housekeeper who wants the $1000 promised her in Osgood's will, the lawyer, and an ex-chorus girl claiming to be Charles' wife -- alternately bickering and insulting each other as they tear apart the house in search of hidden treasure, in this case the life insurance policy. I was also reminded of that old silent movie The Cat and the Canary minus the phantom jewel thief/killer. When Frank is found passed out in the wine cellar hallucinating and babbling it is at first thought that he is drunk until Kay reminds everyone that Frank doesn't drink alcohol. Then Grace, using her knowledge of nursing, suspects that he may have been poisoned. What if Charles had also been poisoned, she thinks? And Frank has just discovered the evidence of that poisoning in the cellar. Did Charles also intend that Frank be killed?

Wells has some fun with the detective novel tropes and even the work of her fellow mystery writers. Part of Grace's research into Osgood's motivation for his bizarre plan to incriminate Frank involves her reading eight of his novels back to back in one evening. In her reading she learns that Osgood specialized in the impossible crime type of mystery novel (a Polish countess has her jeweled necklace stolen from her while she's wearing it in a well lit ballroom, a man is shot in the chest surrounded by several cronies in his locked dining room, girl disappears without a trace while walking to the grocery store). His detective Silas Smith is a "rough and ready Midwestern farmer" who solves his cases "either by analogy from the simple homely experiences of the farm or by induction based on abstruse quotations from the works of Mark Twain or William Dean Howells." In an earlier scene she asks a hair salon employee if she has ever heard of Charles Osgood the mystery writer. The hairdresser, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, can't even distinguish between a writer and a fictional character. She says, "Is he the fat one? [...] No, he's named after an animal or something. Do you mean the lawyer?" Apparently she's read a few but can't even remember the names of Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason or even Mr. Moto who she rudely calls "the Jap."

The plot to frame Frank and possibly kill him turns out to be even more complicated that originally thought. Grace using a combination of skilful interrogation, her knowledge of psychiatry and behavior, and a little medical research into the poisonous properties of herbs comes up with a whopper of a solution. What she does with her information is even more surprising in an ending that is rather subversive at the time of the book's publication.

NOTE:  Our congenial and ever efficient guest host this week is Todd Mason.  Click here to see the rest of the list for this week's edition of Friday's Forgotten Books.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

FFB: The Room with the Iron Shutters - Anthony Wynne

"Behind the mystery of the room, believe me, lies the deeper mystery of the man."

When it comes to dreaming up preposterous variations on the locked room and devilish murder methods in the detective novels of days gone by one of the most imaginative writers was Anthony Wynne. In his fairly steady output of nearly 30 novels from 1925 to the late 1940s more than three quarters of them contain some type of locked room, impossible crime or miracle problem. Very often the books had combinations of all three in the often convoluted and excessively melodramatic plots he concocted. So why is he forgotten these days? Well, to be perfectly honest he was not a very good writer. The books are somber, humorless and contain dull passages of didactic dialog in which his detective, Dr Eustace Hailey, pontificates on "modern" psychology and "newly discovered" scientific methods. Reading them seventy years after they were originally published can provoke reactions ranging from the disconcerting to the risible. On occasion Wynne does a good job of combining his outlandish methods of doing in fictional characters, his love of melodrama and scientific lecturing with sound story telling and a unique atmosphere and theme. One of those instances of where he gets it right is in The Room with the Iron Shutters.

I'm willing to forgive Wynne for the drawbacks in his books. I'm in them for his frightening ideas about committing murder and disposing of corpses. Often there are fantastic elements that seem to border on science fiction horror worthy of an episode from Fringe or The X-Files. Wynne was one of the first crime writers to use the following unusual murder methods: poison cat claws, anaphylactic shock through insect bite, blood poisoning, and miniature surgical blades hidden in everyday objects. He also managed to find numerous ways in which to have the corpse reanimate for its last dying breath. Many of his victims suffer cruel deaths traveling from one place to another while dying agonizingly from their wounds. In some cases the victims are completely unaware that they've been mortally wounded. The reader should expect a wild ride when he picks up a book by Anthony Wynne.

The basic set-up for this one: Lord Gerald Glen is discovered dead in his locked and shuttered study. He has been stabbed through the heart. No weapon is found in the room. The room was watched from both inside near the locked door and outside where the iron shutters of the title were bolted shut. The majority of the detection is devoted to close scrutiny of the room itself and its architecture. It is gone over umpteen times throughout the course of the story in an attempt to discover how the murderer managed to escape. The rest of the time is spent in trying to figure out who is telling the truth. There are plenty of liars in this book and many lies of omission that impede the investigation for both Dr. Hailey and the clever policeman Inspector Verrey. Verrey even manages to come up with the first viable and logical solution to the murder. But he forgets one piece of evidence that plays a crucial part in the actual solution. Hailey, of course, gleefully points this out to the inspector.

Hanging over the story is the presence of alcohol. I can't recall encountering a detective novel where the victim is an avowed teetotaler and a crazed proselytizing teetotaler at that. For Lord Glen his abstention from alcohol has become a dangerous monomania. Two of the suspects will be revealed to be alcoholics. Glen's vehement feelings towards those characters and his slighted relationship with them both affect the events that follow his death. Wynne gets a lot of mileage out of this. I thought it well done and an intriguing period style temperament in a murder victim. It also allows for logical reasons for characters to lie, then recant, then lie again. And in the instance of the second murder the alcoholic's secret hiding place for his stash of brandy nearly saves him from his own death. How's that for originality in a detective novel? For once Dr. Hailey's discussions of abnormal psychology (the behavior of alcoholics, in this case) makes sense and have a firmly accepted resonance to them. Usually his psychological observations are weak and flimsy seen through a modern reader's eyes. At one point, Hailey makes mention of "the deeper mystery of the man" in discussing the personality of the murderer. When that deeper mystery is ultimately revealed the reader is faced with an intriguing personality type with an unusual motive for murder, one that may even strike a resonant modern chord.

There have been issues taken with the fair play aspect of this particular title. Without a deeper knowledge of 1920s experimental radiology and hematology (both are discussed cursorily in the context of the story) you may never completely solve the murder of Lord Glen. For this reason there is a surprise in the final chapters that is indeed unfair, but I never care about this when reading the detective novels featuring Dr. Hailey. It's like playing cards with a really good bluffer. You know you're going to have to accept that most of the time he's lying about what's in his hand but you accept it and go ahead and make a bet because that's part of the excitement of the game. You raise the stakes yourself. When you're proven wrong anyway you can't be angry because you made the decision to be fooled from the start. That's how I feel about reading these books by Anthony Wynne.  I want to be completely taken in by a great bluffer and, flaws and all, I admire that talent.

Friday, July 15, 2011

FFB: The Eleventh Little Indian - Jacquemard-Sénécal

I told someone a while back that Agatha Christie would never appear on this blog. I wanted to devote my time to writing about the books that people overlook or have never heard of. Well, rules are meant to be broken. In my latest mini-obsession with French mystery writers I have just read a extremely clever novel inspired by the works of the Grand Mistress of the Whodunit. And so here - at least in passing - is my first post about the writer I said would never appear on these pages.

Yves Jacquemard and Jean-Michel Sénécal are two actors and playwrights who collaborated on over twenty plays for the French stage. They also wrote a handful of mystery novels - two of which were translated into English. Their second mystery novel is inspired by one of the Christie books adapted for the stage -- Ten Little Indians or, as it is known in the US edition, And Then There Were None.

The idea is an intriguing one. A French director writes his own adaptation of the Christie novel sticking to the grisly and depressing ending and not the relatively happy ending of the stage and later movie versions. He also adds expressionistic make-up (of his own design) and other late 1970s style theatrical gimmicks in his new version of the Christie standard. We are introduced to the entire cast of the play, the director, the theater owner and other employees of the theater in a quick four chapters in which some deep, dark secrets are hinted at, petty jealousies are revealed, and volatile emotions expressed. Then in Chapter 5 ("The Day of the Tragedy") the entire cast of the play - save one actor - is discovered murdered, the custom make-up that all the actors wear has been poisoned. Adding to the mystery is one unknown dead man found in the dressing room of the lone survivor. The tabloid newspapers dub this mystery corpse "the eleventh little Indian." In a typically ironic twist the survivor of the cast, and the one who discovers the bodies of his fellow cast members, is the actor who is playing the judge.

The entire novel is a whirlwind of retro mystery novel plotting and detection. In true Golden Age tradition it also has a map, a timetable, and an alibi chart to help illustrate the complexities of the story. A forgotten crime in the past, a typical Christie device, resurfaces to serve as a potential motive for the mass slaughter of actors and actresses. Hovering in the background is the figure of a dead actress - Edith Terray - who keeps coming up in conversation and eventually becomes the link connecting all the characters in the story. Intricately layered with dozens of surprise revelations this is quite an entertaining romp. I enjoyed it so much I am already in search of the only other Jacquemard-Sénécal novel translated into English. If I was better at French than my few rudimentary cafe and Metro phrases I'd read all the rest of their books as well.

One caveat, however. Unless you are familiar with And Then There Were None you probably should not read this book. At one point in the story the theater director mentions a character and identifies it as the killer in the play they are working on.

But for those many of us who already know the source material whether it be the novel, the movie, or play version, this is a highly enjoyable homage to the traditional whodunit and Agatha's works. Should you have a deeper knowledge of the Christie canon than just the one book you will enjoy it even more. There are many allusions to other Christie novels. I spotted references to Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Peril at End House, The Mousetrap, and Witness for the Prosecution. For this first time in a long time I can enthusiastically recommend this book for all Christie aficionados and for anyone who loves a good old-fashioned style detective novel.

NOTE: As can be seen in the book scans I used to illustrate this post, the French and British editions of this book use the original forbidden word in the title. The US version substitutes the word "Indian" as was done for the 1965 movie of Christie's novel and all subsequent versions.

The Mystery Novels of Jacquemard-Senecal

Le crime de la Maison Grün, 1976 (winner of Prix du Quai des Orfèvres 1977)
   translated into English as The Body Vanishes (1980)
   features their police detective Lancelot Dullac
Le Onzième Petit Nègre, 1977
   translated into English as The Eleventh Little Indian (1979)
Meurtre dans les corons, 1978
L'enigme du Puits D'Enfer, 1979 
   with Dullac
Qui a tué Scarlett O'Hara?, 1981
   with Dullac
Un crime en Lorraine ou "Corbeau ascendant Vierge", 1991
   with Dullac

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Journey into Darkness - Frank Belknap Long

It was jury duty for me yesterday. I know all too well what that means. A day of nothing but reading. And I get paid for it! As my nephews would say, "Sweet!" Granted from the city of Chicago I only get $17.20 for sitting in a quiet room filled with strangers and reading crime fiction all day, but luckily I have a real job with genuine benefits and jury duty pay is one of them. I could write a whole other post on jury duty and my insane run of bad luck and fill that post with ridiculous anecdotes and tales of Cook County bureaucracy gone haywire, but I'll spare you. This is a blog about books.

While I was sitting and waiting for my jury panel number to be called I managed to read an entire paperback novel and three short stories from The Department of Queer Complaints by Carter Dickson. The Dickson book will be reviewed later when I finish it. For now you get a review of the novel. I picked it because it seemed like it would be a detective novel with fantastic elements. But it turned out to be a Lovecraftian style horror/sf story with a lot of gruesome murders and a heck of a lot of new age crapola. The blurb was definitely misleading. But surprisingly I found the book was something I could not put down.

Frank Belknap Long was one of those frenetically prolific writers in the heyday of the pulp magazine era. He wrote everything. Horror, fantasy, science fiction, Gothic romances, and a couple of scripts for comic books including Green Lantern, Superman and Captain Marvel. I have a paperback reissue of The Hound of Tindalos and in that book there is a mini biography of his writing career passed off as an introduction. He tells some amazing anecdotes and he writes lucidly, clearly and entertainingly of his life as as "fictioneer" and of his fellow writers. Long's fiction writing is another thing altogether.

Journey into Darkness was the first novel by Long I've read having only been familiar with a handful of his stories penned for Weird Tales. It's dense and rambling, hypnotic and maddening, revelatory and derivative. A cornucopia of contradictions. While much of it irritated me I never found it boring. I couldn't stop reading. It seems like you know what's going to happen then he'll thrown in some off the wall sequence and the story takes off in a completely different direction.  Forget about the utterly bland title that tells you nothing about the story. What begins as a story eerily similar to Samuel Hopkins Adams' The Flying Death slowly reveals itself to be a re-telling of Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space."  Long even directly references that story (without coming right out and naming it) in a four paragraph sequence that also discusses Wilhelm Reich, his fascination with the color blue and the male orgasm, and his bizarre theory of orgonomy.

Psychologist John Holloway has invited a group of creative souls (three artists, a singer, and a professor of philosophy) to his East coast retreat-cum-lab for a weekend of personality experiments and treatment methods. The discovery of the gruesomely mutilated body of one of those guests initiates a police investigation (see the blurb on the rear cover at left).  Over the course of the weekend several of the other guests witness strange flying creatures, worm-like manifestations on the beach, and glowing lights in the dunes surrounding the Holloway estate.  More bodies turn up each with similar burn wounds and mutilations.  Two of the guests - Ralph Kilmer, the professor, and Joan Wilderman, the singer/dancer -- turn amateur sleuths in order to learn if these manifestations are real or merely hallucinations caused by Holloway's experiments.  The secret lies in a bomb shelter they discover as they flee yet another creepy amorphous being that pursues them on the beach.

The author in his youth
If all this sounds like a bad marriage between new age intellectualism and a pulp magazine plot that's because it is. But for some reason I had to keep reading. There is even a didactic dialog section that could have come from an episode of The X Files in Chapter 12 where Kilmer lectures on endlessly about the Jungian collective unconscious. He also gives a crash course in the iconography of fear and the power of the mind to transcend imagined horrors. It all got to be a bit grating. I was thankful for the outbursts from Joan who at least displayed a sarcastic sense of humor and shut up Kilmer's new age mumbo jumbo with snappy retorts like: "If that sand starts moving again I'm pretty sure I'm not going to just stand here and fight them with my mind."

But if I hadn't trudged through the book I would never have learned about Wilhelm Reich and his crackpot ideas. Nor would I have been acquainted with the American College of Orgonomy.  Truth can be stranger than fiction. And often even more gasp inducing. For these bits of trivia I will be forever indebted to Frank Belknap Long.

As for jury duty --  it was another day of sitting and reading. I was never called. For the twelfth time in 25 years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Little Grey Cells Not Included

First I read of Judge Dee becoming a martial arts expert and ghost fighting detective in a recent Hong Kong action flick.  Then all this talk about toy detective action figures (see posts at The Rap Sheet and Mystery Fanfare).  It got me hunting the internet for the possibility of action figures more suited to my kind of mystery novel hero. Look who I found!

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Like the Jim Rockford figure this one of the brilliant Hercule is not for sale and is a one of a kind.  Found at the website, an internet fan site devoted to custom action figure making.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Q Patrick & the Pseudonym Enigma

The young and rugged Hugh Wheeler
The Q. Patrick pseudonym is one of those puzzling oddities of the mystery writing realm that has nothing to do with a fictional murder. For still unknown reasons it underwent multiple changes of writing partners. When Richard Webb first started writing detective novels he had as his partner Martha Mott Kelley. Together the duo wrote Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932). In 1933 Webb decided to go it alone as a mystery novelist. His solo effort as Q. Patrick was Murder at Cambridge. Then out of the blue it seemed Webb teamed up with another woman, Mary Louise Aswell, and with her wrote S.S. Murder (1933), The Grindle Nightmare (1935). Sometime in 1936 he found Hugh Wheeler. It is with Wheeler he continued the Q. Patrick pseudonym as a writing partnership until Webb quit writing in 1950. The two men also created another pseudonym - Patrick Quentin - and the marvelous husband & wife detective team of the theater, Peter & Iris Duluth.

Webb and Wheeler wrote quite a few remarkable novels together under both pseudonyms. But I'm wondering if the Q. Patrick novellas I have read in the pages of The American Magazine were the work of Webb alone. These two novellas are markedly different in tone, fairly formulaic in plot, excessively melodramatic with some preposterous ideas, and have some excruciatingly rendered dialog. They don't have the Wheeler-Webb flair. For me it was not so important to learn whodunit in these two novellas as it was to discover who actually wrote the stories. They seem like Q. Patrick impostor works.

"Exit Before Midnight" appeared in the October 1937 issue. It's a fairly routine story employing one of the most overused of detective story tropes - a group of characters in a setting cut off from the outside world who are systematically killed. That they are trapped in a locked office building with a power failure and that a board meeting of shareholders has brought them together did not help to enliven the proceedings for me. I find nothing at all exciting about big business having worked in offices all my life. Even if a corporate merger seems timely in this day and age, one that took place in 1937 between a fictional chemical processing company and a dye manufacturer seemed utterly dreary to me. The stock characters didn't help matters either.

Prior to the shareholder meeting a secretary discovers a threatening note naming seven of the primary shareholders in Leland & Rowley as potential murder victims. The anonymous note writer warns that the vote to merge the two companies must not be passed. If it does, he will begin killing those named in the note and will continue doing so until they change their voting results by midnight. Sound like a 1930 B movie programmer? It is. It does not improve any either.

There are sheets ripped from a desk calendar left on each victim. The remaining characters tremble in fear as they watch the calendar change from December 31 to January 1 then suddenly jumping ahead to January 4. One victim is found, but they know that two more are planned.  Exclamations marks are used in abundance in the dialog. Who is the killer? Who will survive? Does it matter?

It's all handled perfunctorily with wretched dialog, paranoid characters accusing each other histrionically or acting and talking so cool and sarcastic as to be unreal. There is a also a requisite "romance" between the secretary and two of her male suitors that is inserted at a point in the story that slows down the action. It all reminded me of dozens of movies I'd seen before and that were done far better. Although this predates And Then There Were None by about three years, the action in the story for me was too familiar and not at all handled in any original manner. Detection is at a bare minimum and limited to the observations of the secretary who the reader follows from start to finish although she is not the narrator.

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing is the only "trapped in an office building" mystery story that holds any excitement for me. It's far superior to this yeoman effort by Q. Patrick. No surprise that "Exit Before Midnight" has never been reprinted outside of the magazine. At least not according to my reference books and research.

The better of the two novellas (but not by much) is "The Jack of Diamonds." It was the lead work of fiction in the November 1936 issue. It is also --as far as my research tells me-- the first time a Q. Patrick story was published in The American Magazine.

Once again we have a small cast of characters who are cut off from the rest of the world. In this case we have an invited group of guests who are to attend a skating party at the home of Theo Vanderloon. Only a few hours into the weekend there is a snowstorm that makes the roads impassable and the intense wind knocks out the electricity and presumably the telephone. (Another power failure! Didn't Wheeler and Webb have better ideas than these cliches?) The butler must act as maid, cook and footman since the host has sent the other servants away for the weekend. He's the best character in the story. I watched him closely as he was clearly intended to be someone that was to be taken for granted yet it was obvious that the authors (author?) would make him a key player in the denouement.

It's sort of a subversive story since it tells the tale of a group of blackmail victims conspiring to murder their tormentor. They will lure him to the sabotaged lake which has a pre-cut hole in the ice, cause him to fall through the ice and leave him to drown in the freezing water, thereby making his death look accidental. Nice people. That they will be skating at night seems to raise no questions of suspicion among any of them. But I'm sure the police would remark on that immediately. However, the plot backfires. It has to otherwise there would be no real story. And what follows is at least somewhat more interesting and even a bit exciting than what happens in "Exit Before Midnight."

The title refers to a playing card dealt out to one of the characters who is elected to dispatch the nasty blackmailer when their targeted victim fails to fall through the ice as planned. At least it wasn't called "Ace of Spades." That was one bit of novelty in this improvement over the other story.

There is yet another routine romance (love at first sight no less), even more melodramatic dialog, and a bunch of stock characters including an opera singer who bursts into snippets of arias at the most ridiculous and inappropriate times and a young ingenue with the unfortunate name of Carmelite who actually says to her besotted lover "Take me away from all of this!" That was only one of the many examples of hackneyed speech that sent me into fits of eyeball rolling, head shaking and groaning. But this time the story works. And there is actually a bit of suspense. Although I easily managed to figure out one of the tricks in the story there was a final twist in the last few paragraphs that, although not truly surprising, did manage to elude me.

The sappy love at first sight scene in "Jack of Diamonds"
Out of curiosity I went in search of other Q. Patrick stories or novellas that were published in The American Magazine.  At the Fiction Magazine database I found four more, one of which is a story featuring Peter & Iris Duluth and published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym rather than Patrick Quentin. I'll be searching the internet and elsewhere to see if anyone is offering these issues for sale. If affordable, I'll be purchasing some of them.  I'm curious to see if they get any better.  I certainly hope so. 

The involved merry-go-round of Q. Patrick partner changes (both writing and otherwise) is detailed in a series of comments at the Golden Age of Detection website page for Patrick Quentin. You can read about Webb, Aswell and Wheeler at length (little is known about Kelley, sadly) by clicking here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the comments section for interesting tidbits about the three writers and intimations on Webb and Wheeler's personal life.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: Up in the Air Sky High, Sky High

Continuing an aviation theme begun with the FFB post a few days ago and thanks to a comment from my pal Yvette, on display are a variety of dust jackets featuring airplanes and flying machines, pilots and paratroopers, and a spaceman thrown in for good luck. Most of these are from juvenile adventure books from the 1930s - 1950s. You know the drill: click on each photo to enlarge for full gasp inducing enjoyment.

A free can of Dr. Pepper or Vernor's or any other bubbly beverage to the person who tells me where I got the title for this post.

Oh, those 1930s kids' books taught such wonderful things, eh?

Looks like the volcano blew a huge chip out of the DJ on that book on the left. Make sure to click on the Lost Flyers to see why they're so frightened of being in the water.