Monday, November 28, 2011

The Smiling Death - Francis D. Grierson

Edgar Wallace seemed to have a great influence on many of the crime writers in 1920s England. His thrillers were less concerned with the fair play detective puzzles and focused instead on the behavior of the criminals, particularly the special brand of master criminal (Silinski, White Face, The Twister) and criminal syndicates (The Fellowship of the Frog, The Green Ribbon, The Crimson Circle) that make up the bulk of his work. I saw a lot of Wallace in The Smiling Death (1927), a book that begins as a detective novel but quickly turns into a crime thriller with a typical Napoleon of Crime matching wits with a dogged police inspector and his expert sleuth companion.

This is the sixth book featuring series character Professor Wells, a expert in chemistry, friend and consultant of Inspector Sims who team up to solve baffling crimes over the course of twelve novels and one collection of short stories. A dead man is found in Tottenham Court Road with a strange smile-like expression on his face. Sims explains that the body may be one of many in a string of unexplained deaths originally attributed to heart failure and dismissed that date back to 1908. All the victims were wealthy, all bore the risus sardonicus on their faces. Wells is quick to mention that this "smiling death" is often associated in cases of tetanus and some strychnine poisonings. This is an intriguing start, but Grierson almost immediately dispenses with all the mystery in a matter of pages.

The 5th book in the series (1926)
The detection here is not fair play at all. It takes the form of lectures and in one single chapter Wells discusses his findings with Sims based on meeting Gregory Marle, handing him his walking stick after Marle drops it on the floor, and noticing a tiny pinprick in the neck of the corpse. He tells Sims he knows the murderer and the method based on these three things, but is not sure of the motive. Later in the book Sims will do some detection of his own that follows this pattern: he sees an object, examines it cursorily, then pockets it intending to discuss it with Wells when Grierson sees fit to reveal it to the reader.

While the story seems to be presented as a typical whodunit it is not Grierson's intention to withhold the identity of the killer until the final pages. We learn who he is well before the half way mark. He is Gregory Marle, a seemingly kindly bookseller who is watching over his pretty ward Pamela Fayne. In reality Marle is a master criminal and master of disguise, with a small army of local crooks and thugs at his command. Fooled into thinking this is a puzzle style whodunit the reader soon discovers he has instead picked up a crime thriller with the author's primary interest being the criminal's behavior and not the detective skills of the sleuthing protagonists.

One of the best sections in the book occurs when Marle confronts Wells and attempts to bargain with him. The two have an interesting exchange of ideas in which Marle discusses his life as a murderer and criminal and Wells reacts with a mixture of horror and admiration.  Marle concludes the visit with a warning: Leave him alone and he will do nothing, interfere and he promises Wells will die. Wells accepts that, but tells Marle he has no intention of letting him continue with his criminal plans to which Marle, ever the gentleman master criminal, replies: "Professor Wells, I am going to kill you. And yet, if you would allow me, I should like to shake your hand."

The 8th book (1929)
Typical of so many of these thrillers the story is drawn out and padded with incident. Marle wastes no time in trying to eliminate Wells. But the professor foils the first attempt with a ploy similar to the one Holmes whipped up in "The Empty House" to fool Colonel Moran. Scotland Yard assigns a policeman to guard and follow the professor and there is a long, nearly pointless, sequence with Wells playing "lose the tail" with his inept policeman shadow. A subplot about a stolen string of pearls and a sequence detailing a strange method of relaying secret messages embedded in crossword puzzles also figure in the action-filled plot. The book is littered with incidents like this that seem more filler than substance. They also made me think the book was originally serialized which I later learned was true. The Smiling Death first appeared in Everybody's Magazine in four installments from April through July of 1927.

13th and final book in series (1935)
The final third of the book begins with Red Joe Smith, one of Marle's cronies, turning police informer when he recognizes the man he is assigned to kill as his former commanding officer Captain Roger Kent. Kent saved Smith's life on the battlefield years ago and Smith swore he would repay Kent for that heroic deed. After Smith gives all his information on Marle to the police there is a race to arrest him before he flees the country in a boat with two women (the love interests of two minor characters) as hostages.

It's all familiar and formulaic to a modern reader and slightly disappointing after such an interesting beginning. Only the character of Gregory Marle kept me interested in reading to the end. His dialog, like all great villains, is the best part of the book like this sample taken from his tête-à-tête with Wells:
Murder? It is a word used by the ignorant with a sort of religious awe. But let us call it the taking of a life. [...] I will admit that I have taken more than one life. I have lopped off from the parent tree certain useless branches just as a surgeon lops a gangrenous limb from a human body.

This was the first and probably last Professor Wells Book I will read. I also own the very first Wells & Sims book, The Limping Man, but after sampling four chapters I find that it too suffers from quickly resolved mysteries, no fair play detection, and too much of the thriller writer's love of action over puzzle for me to continue with it.  I may try some of his other books, however,  outside of this series to see if he has anything closer to a traditional detective novel.

Grierson wrote a homage to his idol, "Edgar Wallace: The Passing of a Great Personality," in The Bookman (March, 1932, pp. 3101). However, I was unable to find a complete copy of the text online. Some further digging required when I make my next trip to the Chicago Public Library.

*     *     *

Inspector Sims & Professor Wells Novels
The Limping Man (1924)
The Double Thumb (1925) - short stories
The Lost Pearl (1925)
Secret Judges (1925)
The Zoo Murder (US title: The Murder in the Garden) (1926)
The Smiling Death (1927)
The Blue Bucket Mystery (1929)
The White Camellia (1929)
The Yellow Rat (1929) (reissued in 1932 as Murder at the Wedding)
The Mysterious Mademoiselle (1930)
Murder at Lancaster Gate (1934)
Death on Deposit (1935)
Murder in Black (1935

NOTE: Francis D. Grierson should not be confused with an American non-fiction writer who shares his name. The Grierson who wrote detective and crime novels was a Irish man born in 1888 while the other Grierson was a British born, naturalized American born in 1848. The older Grierson isn't even a real Grierson. His real name is Benjamin Henry Jesse Shepherd, a concert pianist, who wrote under the pseudonym "Francis Grierson" and penned a number of books incorporating his interest in mysticism and spiritualism including The Valley of the Shadows and Abraham Lincoln, the Practical Mystic.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Barrington Fair Ticket, Sept. 1940

The bi-weekly feature where I pull odd things from my ephemera collection of objects found in my books returns! I hope to keep this going every other Sunday from now on. Today's is an interesting item for anyone who lives in the area of Massachusetts surrounding the Berkshires, specifically Great Barrington and the now defunct Barrington Fair.

The internet is never ceases to astound me. Nearly everything under the sun can be found in some remote corner of the digital airspace. Had I only a library to help with my research I would have come up with little or nothing at all on this item. With Google at my fingertips and the magic search terms "Great Barrington Fair Massachusetts" I found a wealth of photos, a Facebook page, and several messages left on on-line forums all reminiscing about this fair that apparently was the oldest running state fair in all of New England. The fair has quite a colorful history and a rather a sad ending.

Here's the object that was left inside one of my books:

(Click to enlarge either photo)
No Post-it was attached nor was there a penciled notation to remind me what book it came out of. It was probably one I bought in New England. I took a trip there back in the summer of 2000 and we hit bookstores in Boston, some towns in the Boston suburbs, several towns in New Hampshire including Derry, Portland, North Hampton and all the way up to Portland, Maine. I remember we bought so many books we had to ship them home in a large duffel bag we brought along.

Here are some highlights in the history of the Barrington Fair taken directly from the Facebook page. Gary Leveille posted a timeline of the fair and I am taking all of this directly from that post.

1771: The local townspeople petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for “having a fair established in this town” to promote agriculture and increase trade.

1841: The Housatonic Agricultural Society is formed. A plan is formulated to hold an agricultural fair in Great Barrington at the end of September, 1842. Farmers are encouraged to exhibit their livestock, fruits, vegetables and other items of interest. Prizes are awarded.

1848: The fair is incorporated. More events are added. By 1853, a brass band performs, as does a choir. Dinners are offered for 75 cents.

1854: The Society pays $3,024.69 for nineteen acres of land south of town for a permanent fairground. Two years later the society erects a building and lays out a track for showing horses. William Cullen Bryant is the principal speaker.

1868: The Wild Men of Borneo are exhibited.

1875: Barbed wire had been invented and is exhibited at the fair.

1876: Special Centennial exhibition in honor of the 100th anniversary of the USA.

1881: The Society purchases additional land to expand the fairgrounds.

1900: A baby is born at the fairgrounds in October. The parents are members of a band of gypsies camped there to offer fortune-telling.

1918: A war tax of 10% is charged on all admissions.

1920: Motorcycle races are held.

1932: Night programs are added.

1937: Sulky racing ends, and lucrative pari-mutuel horse race betting begins.

1940: Edward Carroll purchases the fair from the Barrington Fair Association, successor to the Housatonic Agricultural Society. Carroll also owned Riverside Amusement park in Agawam.

1943: Horse racing is expanded to ten days.

1952: Barrington Fair is the first in the country with electric ticket dispensers at the pari-mutuel windows.

Post Card of the fair,  circa 1950s
1977: Michael Abdalla purchases the fairgrounds. The Rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears appears.

1984: State Racing Commission denies horse racing for six years.

1991: Horse racing returns.

1995: Memorial Day tornado devastates the fairgrounds. Owner Henry Vara rebuilds the fairground buildings after being promised seventeen days of horse racing. The fair limps along for several more years and then closes. In its hey-day, the Great Barrington Fair was the longest consecutively running agricultural fair in the country.
Based on what I read and photos I viewed, it seems the last fair was in 1999. Most of the photos of the fairgrounds I find on the internet reveal a weed overgrown place with buildings that have been attacked by spray can painting graffiti artists, smashed windows and destroyed metal furniture, and other signs of hooligans and vandals wreaking havoc. I'd hoped to post pictures of the original fair, circa 1940, to go with the ticket I have, but all that I find are copyrighted images from the past or images like those at this website showing the present ignominious state of the fairgrounds.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Spitting Image - Michael Avallone

The “alternative classic” is a term Bill Pronzini created when he wrote Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek, two entertaining and enlightening books about those hair-brained detective and mystery novels with loopy plots and even loopier writing. Pronzini loves them. And so do I …to a point. Before I had even heard of Pronzini’s books or heard of the term I had stumbled across more than my fair share of alternative classics. The Case of Mr. Cassidy by William Targ, The Palgrave Mummy by Florence M. Pettee, and Murder on the Palisades by Will Levinrew are three outrageous examples of the kind of book discerning readers of crime fiction now call alternative classics. They may be bad, but we love them all the more because of their very badness. Ludicrous plots, wacky detective work, far-fetched murder methods, and some atrocious writing are all in great supply in each one of those books. I read them years before I learned they all ended up both celebrated and disparaged in one or the other of Pronzini’s books. Some writers are even lucky enough (if lucky is the right word) to get an entire chapter to themselves in the Gun in Cheek books. Such a lucky one is Michael Avallone.

I managed to acquire five of Avallone’s private eye novels featuring Ed Noon in my various book store hunts this year. After decades of looking for them they all started turning up with increasing frequency and all at very affordable prices. Last week I finally sat down to read one and after debating whether to go with the very first one (The Tall Dolores) or one that Pronzini wrote about with great affection (The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse) or the one with the strangest cover (The Voodoo Murders) I finally settled on choosing the one with the most intriguing and appealing story - The Spitting Image. It also happens to employ one of my favorite overused detective novel tropes – twins – and I wanted to see what Avallone did with that. As it turned out this was perhaps the best book to start my Avallone initiation. It turned out to have a wild plot with a surprise ending that blew me away. I should’ve seen it coming miles ahead of the reveal, but I didn’t. I loved that.

The Spitting Image (1953) is the second Ed Noon novel and tells the story of April and June Wexler, twin sisters who both fear the other is planning to do her in. There’s a convoluted will (a la Harry Stephen Keeler) that their wealthy oil tycoon father drew up stating if by the date of their twenty-first birthday one of the twins dies, the other will inherit his two million dollar estate. If both survive, none will inherit anything and the estate goes to a charity. Was there ever a more inviting incentive for a murder to take place? Prior to the novel's opening chapter three attempts were made on June Wexler and she tries to hire Noon to protect her and put a stop her murderous sister’s plot. When a chandelier comes crashing from the ceiling nearly killing both girls Noon is not sure which woman is the intended target. Then April secretly tries to hire Noon as her bodyguard until her birthday which is quickly approaching. A movie star handsome lawyer, his thug of a male secretary, and couple of goons from Central Casting all figure into the storyline as well.

One surprise that didn’t impress me at all was Avallone’s depiction of the handsome lawyer. Just as Sax Rohmer created eerily “feminine” looking men and turned them into some of his best villains implying along the way things about their sexuality and planning a grisly end for him, Avallone creates a gorgeous man and goes out of his way to talk about the eerie handsomeness of the character and how it makes Noon extremely uncomfortable. The lawyer is gay, of course, and will turn out to be something of a crook as well. Think he’ll suffer a gruesome death? Of course he will. This kind of thing was pretty much standard for the period. Evil homosexuals who break the law, treat women indifferently or cruelly, and do other reprehensible things like speaking grammatically perfect English must all suffer nasty violent deaths. It shouldn’t bother me these days, but it still does.

Pronzini writes in Son of Gun in Cheek of how Avallone liked to insert his conservative social and political beliefs into his books. The loathsomeness displayed for the lawyer is one of Avallone's more subtle early examples. Apparently he gets more and more right wing in the later books when Ed Noon ceases to be the typical flatfoot and more of a secret agent for the federal government fighting Commies, fags and all other threats to the American Way.  I wonder if lesbians turn up in Avallone’s books. Usually they are treated just as shabbily during the heyday of the paperback original, but also in a sexually prurient and titillating manner.

I almost forget the best part of these books - Avallone’s writing. Let me close with some choice examples of his mastery of the silly simile and other metaphorical wonders:

She came into my office like the first five bars of "Tiger Rag."

She sat down with an effort, crossing a pair of silken legs that were strictly weapons to be used on men.

A volcano was going on inside her and the bubbles were erupting like hot lava.

The floor around him was a pool of vermilion. Like the Red Sea. I'm not being funny. Just descriptive.

His eyebrows rose like a fast elevator.

Randall Crandall. That wasn't a name. It was a voice impediment.

Crandall's nostrils nearly rose in disgust.

I had a headache. A musical headache. All of the scoring was by Max Steiner with just enough Stan Kenton noisy brass section thrown in to keep my skull in an uproar.

This is a good book to start with Avallone even if you read only one.  It has all his hallmarks: goofy writing, nutty characters, loopy story with a surprise twist worthy of some of the great of the Golden Age. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Ed Noon books I own. I've even ordered one of Avallone's Gothic suspense novels written under a clever pseudonym that's more of an inside joke - "Edwina Noone."

More on Ed Noon here and an excellent remembrance on Michael Avallone here.  Both posts include bibliographies.

Friday, November 25, 2011

FFB: Frank L. Packard - The Underworld & Exotic Crime

Today is Friday's Forgotten Books Salute to Canada.  Our guest host for this Black Friday is the ever resourceful Todd Mason. The links for today's other posts are at his blog Sweet Feedom.  Check them out for other (I'm sure) more recent and contemporary writers from Canada.  I had to go with one of the most neglected Canadian writers of crime fiction from the past century.

Although Frank L Packard was born and raised in Montreal, attended McGill University, and worked for years for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a civil engineer he tended to write about the dirty underworld of New York crime or exotic adventure tales set in the South Pacific and Asia like those found in Shanghai Jim (1928). Rarely do you find anything about his books on the internet and so I dove right into his books of which I had amassed quite a few.

Packard's first novels dealt with the redemption of the criminal world.  The Miracle Man (1914) tells of the Patriarch, a healer who has a run in with some con men and the surprise healing of a cripple boy that transforms the lives of the crooks trying to fleece the town. The book was adapted into a stage play and later was a high grossing silent film with Lon Chaney in the role of a contortionist who stuns the town by crawling up the aisle in extreme pain and then after receiving the Patriarch's healing touch unfolds his twisted limbs and walks away apparently cured. Similarly, in The Sin That Was His (1917) a crook falsely accused of a murder disguises himself as a priest in order to escape the police, but in living out his second disguised life undergoes a spiritual and moral change.

Probably his best known character is Jimmie Dale, aka "the Gray Seal," one of many in a long line of gentleman thief characters. Jimmie Dale also shows signs of the hero pulp characters with his secret hideaway, masked costume, calling cards stamped with the figure of a seal. I saw a lot of similarities to Herman Landon's Gray Phantom who is also a devil-may-care playboy who enjoys masquerading as a crime fighter and both use multiple identities. The Gray Phantom stories appeared serially in the pulps as did the Jimmie Dale stories but Packard's character came long before making his debut in 1914 while Landon's Gray Phantom appeared in 1920. While Packard may have borrowed from Raffles, Arsene Lupin, and other similar characters of the late Edwardian period in creating his own version of the gentleman thief who fights crime there can be no doubt that in Jimmie Dale we see the origin of the hero pulp characters culminating in The Shadow, The Spider, and even Batman. For an excellent overview of Jimmie Dale see this article by David Vineyard at Mystery*File.

One of the most interesting of the Gray Seal books is Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder. Herbert Carruthers, the newspaper editor who knows nothing of Dale's secret identity, delivers to Jimmie Dale the news that the Gray Seal is dead. 

A good example of Packard's exotic adventure novel is The Locked Book which begins aboard a merchant vessel sailing through the Malay Archipelago. After surviving an attack by savage pirates led by a white man wearing a crimson sash, Kenneth Wayne vows revenge on those who killed his father, Old Man Wayne, the skipper of the Waratan. Kenneth makes his way to a hotel run by the mysterious M. Fouché and passes himself off as a mining prospector. He succeeds in getting a local guide, a boat and heads off in search of the pirates pretending all the while to be a man looking for gold. Instead he comes across a shrine where an ancient book is being guarded as if it were a god. It's even given a name that sounds like a deity: Itu Konchi-Kan Kitab, which apparently merely means "the book that is locked." The book bound in an ornate stamped dragon that is swallowing its tongue is said to hold the key to a buried treasure of the Rajah Kana-ee-aa. But a native frightened by Kenneth's desecration of the shrine takes the book out of his hands before he can open it and flees in the jungle. Kenneth's vengeance takes a back seat to his interest in the book and the story becomes a mix of chase and intrigue as he attempts to recover the book and discover if it holds the secret to the treasure.

Part of the fun of reading this adventure tale is that the book itself is a replica of the locked book in the story. Shown above is the Copp, Clark Company 1st Canadian edition with the ornate gilt embossed dragon grasping his tail in his mouth. When the book is closed it gives the impression that it too is locked like the book guarded by the natives.

Whether he is writing about gangsters and their molls, crooked antiquarians seeking rare books with hidden secrets, sailors and merchant seamen battling marauding pirates in the South Seas, or Jimmie Dale and crew in the New York underworld, Frank L. Packard was instrumental in the development of crime fiction that shied away from amateur sleuths and focused on the darker and dirtier world that would explode into the violent writing of hard-boiled writers like Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I've Got No Strings

By request, a brief overview of my life as a puppeteer:

Mina sees Lucy as an inviting snack in Dracula
I originally came to Chicago to be a playwright and actor. The playwright part blew up in my face because like any passionate but naive theater artist I thought I was a demi-god and could do it all. Orson Welles minus the financial smarts and bravado. I allowed myself to be bullied and things got very ugly. I gave up playwriting and directing for many, many years. But theater seemed to me my only life. I ended up acting in non-Equity theater from 1987 through 2004. I was member of three different acting ensembles over that time period, I had an agent and went on a handful of awful commercial auditions and modeling go-sees until I decided I hated that part of acting and devoted myself only to the stage. I earned money from everything I did. If it didn't pay, I didn't audition. It wasn't enough to live on, though, so I was also earning most of my income as an office temp worker. But my interest in theater and acting began to dwindle around 1999 when the world of books became my focus.

Somewhere in the late 1990s (I can't recall the exact date) I read of an audition for a puppet company and it turned out to be Hystopolis Productions, a company that was on the rise. They had just put together an amazing adaptation of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine which had gone to the now defunct Jim Henson International Puppet Festival in New York and was quite a sensation there. They were looking to start up a junior ensemble of beginner puppeteers who would tour the Midwest with kid's shows - which had been their focus for years - while the founders, Larry Basgall and Michael Schwabe, continued to develop more advanced adult shows like The Adding Machine and their previous hit Ubu Roi, based on Alfred Jarry's play.

I ended up being selected with two other guys (both strangely enough named Adam) and we were broken in as puppeteers doing Hystopolis' old stand-by version of Rumpelstiltskin. I had seen that show at the many Chicago street festivals in the past. It was an insane blend of Saturday morning cartoon antics, madcap wild action, very adult humor that usually went over the heads of the kids and skillful Bunraku style puppetry. Most of the puppets were hand and glove puppets (like Rump at right), a few were rod puppets, and some were nothing more that objects on a stick. I operated three puppets and did their voices: Puss in Boots (who wanders in from another story as a cameo), a character named Egghead (I can't remember its purpose), and Rumpelstiltskin. We were also required to learn other parts in case one of us was unavailable for a gig. So I also learned to operate three or four other puppets and do my version of those voices as well. Later we developed an original script I devised for a holiday touring show called A Dragon for Christmas. For that play I operated two puppets and did their voices: the Wizard and Queen Foradae. There was also an ill-fated attempt at an African folktale show that was more masks and movement than puppetry. It had a story about Anansi the Spider, a cool leopard, and had an amazing elephant puppet in it. I think we did it only once though. I have not been big on picture taking when it came to theater and casts I was a part of and so I have nothing to show for this part of my life. I do, however, still have the original script for A Dragon for Christmas.

Dracula attacks Professor Van Helsing as Lucy looks on.
Eventually there was no more money to pay us. I think a grant expired. And so the junior touring company was disbanded. Sometime later Larry Basgall managed to track me down and tell me that Hystopolis was back in business at Red Hen Theater (no longer around). They were working on Dracula at the time and he wanted to get me involved in adapting a new kids' show based on "The Three Little Pigs." A series of botched phone messages (remember answering machines?) screwed everything up and I never got involved with them.

Larry and Michael now live in Michigan. Michael, who founded the company back in the late 1980s, still teaches puppetry. According to his Facebook page for Hystopolis Productions he taught a workshop at Ox Bow in Saugatuck this past summer. I miss those guys. We had a blast touring Illinois and making trips to the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis doing all those shows. Getting drunk and high in hotel rooms, laughing a lot, taking turns driving the dilapidated van all over the Midwest, and doing really good puppetry. It was one of the better theater related periods in my life.

For more photos of Hystopolis Productions' fantastically rendered version of Dracula go here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: George Johnstone Bookplate

I bought a book at the Printer's Book Fair earlier this year solely for the book plate firmly glued to the front endpaper.  It announces that the book comes from the library of George Johnstone, an American magician who died in 2004.

Apart from some amusing anecdotes from fellow magicians on several on-line magician forums I could only discover that Johnstone was an avid book collector, appeared on Ed Sullivan, was the opening act for the 1956 Elvis tour, and he started out as an assistant for Blackstone back in the 1930s.

Click on the image to enlarge and you will be able to read all of the book titles.  Each one is a real book considered a classic in the magic world.  I assume that the GJ on the right hand side above the bookend are George Johnstone's initials and that he himself designed the bookplate.

The book came from the huge collection of magic books, magic tricks, stage illusionist posters and ephemera belonging to Chicago magician, ventriloquist and puppeteer Jay Marshall who died in 2005.  I knew Jay for exactly one year and visited his house once when I was a puppeteer with a company called Hystopolis Productions back in the late 1990s.  He was approaching his seventies at the time, but was still a good spirited, very funny man with a devilish sense of humor.  He still did a few tricks at summer parties and enjoyed doing his very adult puppet show for friends only.  I only wish I got to know him better than the few hours I spent in his backyard for that one summer party.

It was sheer luck that I found the book pictured below at the book fair this year.  The dealer was the one who told me she thinks it came from Marshall.  The finest and rarest objects, posters and books from his staggering collection were auctioned off over a three year period between 2007 and 2009 in Illinois and Kentucky at three magic collector annual conventions and a private auction house. You can still view the "Part 3" auction catalog here. (Remember the auction ended over two years ago. Don't get too excited looking.)  It's stunningly impressive, if you are a magic geek like me, filled with rare posters, rarer autographs, vintage magic tricks, and very scarce magic books.

Apparently some of the lesser quality books were still in Jay Marshall's world renowned store Magic Inc, a few years after Jay's death in 2005.  This was one of them.  Strangely, the book has nothing to do with magic.  Ladies of the Underworld, as the title suggests, is a non-fiction account of women criminals.  The subtitle is "The Beautiful, the Damned, and Those Who Get Away With It."  There are twenty-six chapters each devoted to a specific woman or a type of female criminal.  Included are such intriguing chapters as "Vera, the High Flyer and the Shooting of Prince Fahmy," "The Cobra Woman, The Parisian Queen of Crime," "Aysah, The Malayan Hell Woman," and other chapters on female spies, forgers, mafia women and one about women living as men.  I haven't read any of the book yet, but just typing all that has made me want to read at least a few select chapters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Twittering Visitors Get a Sample of Keeler-mania

I get linked a lot these days -- mostly from other reading blogs pointing out a great review of an overlooked book. I enjoy when that happens. But I don't know what to make of this latest link.

I noticed an unusually high bit of traffic today to my review of Harry Stephen Keeler's The Green Jade Hand. I know the only way that could've happened was that someone had linked to the post. (Keeler just isn't that popular unless someone draws your attention to him.)  A bit of detective work turned up this tweet from "notjessewalker."
You COULD read the latest Schoen/Caddell column, but really, this makes much more sense:
The link leads to my review of The Green Jade Hand.

Turns out "not jessewalker" IS Jesse Walker, a senior editor at the online magazine and owner of the blog The Perpetual Three Dot Column.  The Douglas Schoen/Patrick Caddell column is here.  They write for The Wall Street Journal.  I don't read that paper and had never heard of them before today.

Here's the dilemma I face:  I'm not sure if Walker is making fun of the columnists' article on their suggestion that Obama drop out of the presidential race and likening their "reasoning" to Keeler's incomprehensible plots or if he's calling my review incomprehensible.  It's clear that "this makes much more sense" is meant as an ironic statement. I'm feeling a little wounded today.

Should I be thanking Jesse Walker for the increased traffic or should I be sending him a flaming email for insulting my writing?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: My Bookman's Alley Take

"If I were a rich man, I would've left with quite a bit more" - to paraphrase Tevye.  But these days I really have to watch my spending.  Here's what I found to my liking among those that I were in my price range. There are lots and lots books still there. He has a first edition of John Irving's first book Setting Free the Bears, but at $1200 even a 30% off discount doesn't make it anywhere near affordable for me.  [...sigh...]

Only the wrap-around art pictures can be clicked on for larger views. The rest are already at full size

Artwork by William Barss
Artwork by Charles Geer, master of the Gothic and Romantic suspense DJ
(Click to enlarge)
Artwork by the fabulous Stanley Wood who created the immortal portrait of Dr. Nikola I use as my avatar.
Artwork by Artur Barbosa (1908-1995). He also did some well known
covers for Georgette Heyer's Regency novels
(Click to enlarge)

And a lone book without a jacket.  One of the most original impossible crime novels by the prolific and utterly forgotten American pulp magazine writer Isabel Ostrander whose work will be showcased here next year:

For more info about Bookman's Alley see my post here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

FFB: A Few Fiends to Tea - Virginia Coffman

Imagine this if you will: you are a successful writer of Gothic and historical romances and you have dabbled in other genres as well like the western novel. Now you want to write a full out crime novel about murder vigilante style. So you dream up a character who is dying of a terminal disease, who has dreams of a career as an artist but who sold out to be a commercial cartoonist, and is disgusted with a news story of a wife killer who managed to be acquitted for murder. Think you can write a suspenseful cat and mouse thriller without resorting to the usual romance novel trappings? Virginia Coffman almost pulls it off. It’s something like a mad combination of the basic idea of Dexter (vigilante killings of murderers who escaped the law) minus the sociopathic pathology. Saddled with the lamentable title A Few Fiends to Tea (1967) it was probably attracting an audience that expected something far more genteel and “veddy British.” But it's one of the few Belmont original paperbacks to receive two editions so it must've sold very well for the third tier publisher. It’s far from cozy and down right nasty. If only Coffman managed to escape her Gothic Romance past the book might be something of a minor classic in the genre.

Deil Connor (I chose to rhyme his first name with "veil" while I was reading) is the artist fed up with life now that he is in the final stages of tuberculosis.  His prey is Roger Tildesley, a man whose three wives have all suffered accidental deaths -- the last two from falls, and he is convinced that the fates of those women is far too coincidental to pass off as mere accidents. He also targets an arsonist who killed his wife and child, and a woman who poisoned the children of the man she loved. But the arsonist is in Paris and the poisoner is in Italy. Conner can’t very well travel all over the world killing acquitted murderers. If he is patient perhaps Fate will work some coincidences in his favor. And there is part of the fault with the story as fresh and as it seems to a 1967 audience. That and Coffman's inability to escape her romance novelist background.

While in Deil Connor she has created a likable character, he is also filled with anger and hatred and not a little bit of misanthropy.  He's of course good looking in that dark Byronic way and his personality suits that melancholia that resides within the true Byronic hero.  At one point he envisions one of his victims slowly suffocated and fantasizes how just it would be for that victim to feel the agonizing pain Connor feels now that his own lungs are ravaged by disease. There are other chilling passages revealing that Connor does indeed have the making of a cruel killer. But... Enter Olivia Brown, his tool to get at Tildesey. As much as I tried not to believe that this mousy, uninteresting character would play a major role in the story she will. And she will capture Connor's heart is a very strange way.

1st paperback edition, rather scarce
Of course there are multiple obligatory love scenes with this naive and dull woman who pines for Connor. He is dark, handsome, dangerous. He lies to her and misleads her into thinking he is a spy for the British government. She is willing to help him spy on his victims, gather information, all because she loves the thrill of it all and she deeply loves him. There is a scene where she accidentally seduces him in the most awkward manner way ending with these embarrassing lines:
The robe came off her shoulders in the struggle, and she lay against him, breathing hard, her face flushed, her eyes very bright with an emotion entirely new to her. [...] "Teach me, darling. Teach me..."
With one arm occupied, he raised the other and snapped off the bluelight.
But having dispensed with the mandatory (and censored) lovemaking scenes Coffman returns to the story. I kept hoping for Connor to return to his former vigilante mode. But it was too late; he was changed. Olivia had captured his heart so to speak. He tries to continue in the role of Nemesis, but his newfound persona and his new way of seeing life have so altered him that he cannot carry out his plans. Connor has changed so much that it has affected his artwork. His illustrations which used to depict the darker aspects of people, revealing their hidden Mr. Hyde, now show his subjects in a sunnier light.

Even prior to his transformation from killer to lover Connor found it difficult to be a murderer. He abandoned one of his plans to kill the arsonist and later the man, drunk from two bottles of brandy, knocks over a lamp in his home, sets his apartment ablaze, and dies a fitting but entirely accidental death. Fate stepped in and did the job where Connor failed. Fate and coincidence reign supreme in this book just like something Harry Stephen Keeler would write, but without his trademark brand of absurd humor.

This disappointed me. I bought the book not knowing anything about Coffman. When I got home I discovered in Hubin's Crime Fiction Bibliography that she was primarily a Gothic Romance writer with titles in her prolific output like Curse of the Island Pool, The House at Sandalwood, Night at Sea Abbey, and an entire series named after Lucifer Cove, a town where witchcraft held sway over its inhabitants and the Devil seduced women. I thought after reading the first few chapters that Coffman was trying to do something very different from a Gothic. The tone was truly dark, sinister and misanthropic. Connor had all the makings of an anti-hero out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. But then there was Olivia. How could I be as naive as she was and believe that she wouldn't hook up with Connor? Live and learn.

There is an interesting subplot that will play a crucial role in the violent finale when Coffman at last returns to her original theme of justice and retribution. A serial killer who preys on people with physical handicaps and poor health is on the loose (The Spiral Staircase, anyone?). He manages through a series of identity changes to escape each time and - just like Tildesey - makes his murders look like accidents. Tildesey is attracted to this killer and goes out of his way to find him for his own vengeful purposes. Connor, you may remember, is in the final throes of tuberculosis.

The beginning of the book, Connors' first encounter with the arsonist, and the finale are the best parts of A Few Fiends to Tea. I could've done without all the romance novel balderdash. Coffman could've created a true crime novel about the urge to kill that resides deep within most of us given the proper circumstances. She's a competent writer, often insightful, sometimes surprisingly good, one who could've easily eschewed all the romance novel trappings. But she knew her audience and she couldn't disappoint or shock them too deeply, I guess. To have done so might have been career suicide back in the heyday of old-fashioned romance novels.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Final Chapter for Bookman's Alley

While browsing around in one of my favorite used bookstores I learned that a completely different bookstore will soon be closing out here and I was shocked. I gasped and said, "No!" and later the owner came over to me to fill me in.

Bookman's Alley, a store in Evanston, IL, and one of the most unique used bookstores I have ever set foot in among the hundreds I've visited across the United States, will be closing its doors in January. The owner, Roger Carlson, is one of the grand old bookman of days gone by. I had many brief conversations with him about my esoteric tastes in genre fiction and I've heard many interesting conversations from his numerous, highly informed book collecting customers in the many many hours over the past twenty years I have been frequenting his store. I can easily estimate that one third of my personal mystery library came from the shelves of Bookman's Alley. I've also used his store as a resource for customers in search of hard to find books when I was selling more often than I do these days. I've bought and resold some of Roger's books as well. It's part of the business, after all.

For those of you who have never visited Chicago and never seen Bookman's Alley (and now probably never will be able to) here are a few photographs.  Because the store is so unique it has been photographed repeatedly and shows up on blogs all over the internet. Sometimes people can't believe that all of the books are for sale. I've heard first time visitors remark that it resembles a museum or an antique store more than a book store.

The Fiction & Literature Section. Through the archway is History. To the left of the wall with the framed pictures is ... MYSTERY!

Art, Science, Music sections and I believe a few shelves with a variety of Animal books.
Out of camera range is the Children's section with a huge collection of amazing 1st edition and later printing Oz books
The rear of the store with a variety of rare works of Fiction (mostly multi volume sets), Native American books, more History, Biography and (as you might guess from all the model ships) Nautical books

Roger Carlson, at home in the front of the store. Behind him
(left & right) are the rare books which I could never afford.
I was really upset when I heard the news that this fine store - truly a cornerstone of downtown Evanston - will soon be gone for good. Book hunting will never be the same for me in the Chicago area now. It's a sad time for used bookstores all over the country, but a damn shame for us out here in Chicago.

Thanks to Roger Carlson for this fantastic store which has been operating since the early 1980s. Thanks also to his son (whose name I never learned), and the other men who have often helped out in the place while Roger was recuperating from a recent illness. I had a blast in your store, bought some great books and enjoyed knowing you while the store was open. To say that you will be sorely missed is the greatest understatement I have ever written.

Bookman's Alley is located in the alleyway between Benson Avenue and Sherman Avenue ("1712 Sherman Ave., Rear" is the exact address) in Evanston, Illinois.  The store is holding a 30% off sale this month and continuing through December until all books are gone.  The store closes in January 2012.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Inugami Clan - Seishi Yokomizo

My knowledge of Japanese detective novel is limited, but if I am to believe what is written on the jacket blurbs of every Japanese mystery novel translated into English, then every Japanese mystery writer is a bestselling and extremely popular author in their homeland, a claim that seems farfetched. I have read the strange stories of Edogawa Rampo ("considered the dean of modern Japanese mystery writers") and a handful of novels by Shizuko Natsuki (dubbed "the Agatha Christie of Japan" on one of my books) who are supposed to be bestsellers. I have also read The Tattoo Murder Case ("among the most read of Japanese detective mysteries") and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders ("still one of the best selling mystery novels in Japan") by two more popular authors and two excellent spins on the locked room/impossible crime subgenre. One week ago through sheer luck I found a copy of The Inugami Clan, a book that is not only written by a best selling author, but is touted as a classic in Japanese detective fiction and the most popular title of the author’s 80 plus books. For once I agree with all the hyperbole on the jacket blurb. This is one Japanese detective novel that all devotees of the Golden Age ought to seek out. I would dare to call it iconic in the mystery and crime fiction of Japan.

Seishi Yokomizo in his final years
The author, Seishi Yokomizo, began writing detective fiction in the late 1940s. The Inugami Clan is his tenth book and was originally published serially between 1950-1951. The story itself is set in 1949 with post-World War 2 Japan fueling a major aspect of the plot. His detective Kosuke Kindaichi is practically an icon in Japanese popular culture having appeared in the movies, TV and graphic novels. The Inugami Clan was filmed twice (1976 and 2006), both times by renowned director Kon Ichikawa.  So popular was Yokomizo's detective that a spin-off character was created who is purportedly the grandson of Kindaichi. I went to YouTube and watched countless video clips from a long running TV series about Kindaichi -- none of it dubbed, all of it completely incomprehensible to me, yet fascinating all the same since I was by then familiar with the character of Kindaichi. I even watched a trailer for a video game version of The Inugami Clan which visually I did understand even if I couldn’t read any of the Japanese phrases being flashed across the screen. The illustrations and characters depicted in that video game trailer accurately and vividly depict what I read in this fascinating and grotesque mystery novel.

Based on the other books I have read (most published in the 1970s) it appears that Seishi Yokomizo truly is the forefather of the modern Japanese detective novel. On display are all of the characteristics that you will find in any Japanese crime novel from the 1940s and onward: an intricate plot that is fairly clued, grotesque murders, family secrets, disguised individuals, false identities, an eccentric detective with wily methods, and efficient policemen clever in their own right but easily baffled by the fantastic elements that accompany the crimes. The Inugami Clan is rife with the bizarre and the grotesque, has a smattering of Japanese lore and culture, and shows more than a few nods to the detective novel tropes so well known to Western readers. The opening scenes, for example, are reminiscent of Peril at End House with a young woman who tells Kindaichi that she barely escaped three outrageous attempts on her life. Yet in its essence the novel is utterly Japanese. The motives of one of the characters make perfect sense in Japanese culture though would strain credulity in a mystery written by a European or North American.

Matsuko Inugami takes a handprint of her son Kiyo in the 2006 film remake
The basic plot is familiar to any devotee of golden Age detective fiction. A family of greedy relatives awaits the reading of the will of recently deceased Sahei Inugami, wealthy owner of a silk factory. The will turns out to have convoluted rules requiring Tamayo, a non-blood relative, to choose her husband from Sahei's three grandsons. She must do so within a required time period or risk losing her inheritance. If she chooses none of them, she forfeits the entire fortune and it reverts to the mysteriously missing Shizuma, a young man rumored to be Sahei's illegitimate son. Needless to say the will infuriates all the relatives, mostly Sahei's daughters - the mothers of the men Tamayo must consider for her husband. Soon the grandsons are being stalked by a fiendish killer who seems to be re-enacting a curse set down decades in the past.

Discovery of the decapitated head of Take Inugami in the chrysanthemum garden (2006 film version)

The story reminded me of an old Gothic sensation novel with creepy settings, frenzied characters, mutilation of dead bodies, and bizarre murder methods employed. The bodies are discovered in unusual places like the eerie garden with life sized dolls all wearing kimonos made of chrysanthemums, or submerged upside down in a frozen lake. One of the most unusual characters is Kiyo who has returned to his home horribly burnt and disfigured from the recent war and wears a life-like rubber mask that resembles the features of his face prior to his hapless service in the war. And of course there is Kindaichi himself - described as a sort of Japanese Columbo elsewhere on the internet. He is an odd man who always dresses in a traditional, albeit shabby and rumpled, Japanese kimono and wears a beaten woolen hat, and for the most part he is of unkempt appearance. He scratches his tousled hair in a fidgety manner when mulling over strange clues, and is given to excitable stammering when on the verge of solving one of the many puzzles attached to the numerous crimes.

French version of The Inugami Clan.
(The ax, the koto & the chrysanthemum are
three family heirlooms that are part of the curse)
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if I managed to figure out many (but not all) of the puzzles in the story it is not a strike against Yokomizo as a mystery writer. He has a Christianna Brand-like plot device with several characters attempting to protect loved ones whom they suspect of being the murderer and manipulating the evidence. Consequently, the crime scenes as discovered by the police and Kindaichi may not always be a reflection of the truth. This was one of the best parts of the book to me. Yokomizo's fertile imagination and plotting make for an entertaining and satisfying read. What is most frustrating, however, are the numerous allusions to previous books in the series which tantalize an English reader like me who would love to read those other stories. Who wouldn't want to find out why the murderer in The Honjin Murders (Kindaichi's first case published in Japan in 1946) displayed the victim hung upside down from a plum tree? Or discover the horrific secret of a body found stuffed inside a temple bell in Gokumon Island (1948)?  These are only two of the six other books mentioned throughout the telling of the strange murders in The Inugami Clan. But - you guessed it - this is the only Yokomizo book to have been translated into English. I'd have better luck if I could read French - there are at least three books translated into that language that I found, perhaps more. I guess I can only hope and wait for some enterprising translator to give us more of Kosuke Kindaichi's adventures in English.

Here is the trailer for the 2006 remake from director Kon Ichikawa. One of the rare versions I found with English subtitles. Enjoy, then go find a copy of the book and read it!

The Thief of Words and Ideas

I have become fascinated with the plagiarism scandal surrounding the publication of Assassin of Secrets by Quentin Rowan (aka Q.R. Markham). After reading numerous reports, including the dogged detective work by Edward Champion, and following link after link from on-line newspaper articles I was finally led to the blog of Jeremy Duns, a spy novelist who gave a "fulsome blurb" (his own words) for Rowan's book. He called it "an instant classic" -- words he now shamefacedly admits were entirely inappropriate.

Duns writes in depth about his experience of reading the book, enjoying it, and now post-scandal he re-examines how he was duped by Rowan's amalgamation of other thriller writers' words. Included are emails sent to him from Rowan throughout the process of "writing" up to the final release of the book that reveal a manipulative sociopath enjoying his moment of glory. Read the essay here. Duns' final paragraph and conclusion so aptly sums up exactly how I feel about this. Rather than joining with the post-modernist fools who claim that Rowan is some sort of "genius" (read this speculation) he calls for all of us to condemn Rowan as the thief that he truly is.

Friday, November 11, 2011

FFB: Creep, Shadow! - A. Merritt

There is more than a touch of Sax Rohmer's malevolent masters of the occult (notably Antony Ferrar and Trepniak) than the usual brand of high fantasy in this penultimate novel by Abraham Merritt.  And thrown in for good measure a generous amount of a Haggard-like lost race/reincarnated souls romance.

Richard Ralston, friend of Dr. Alan Caranac and Bill Bennett, has recently committed suicide inexplicably.  Ralston's death is the latest in a string of suicides of wealthy young men.  At a dinner party for Dr. Rene De Feradel, a visiting French psychiatrist, and his alluring and mysterious daughter Dahut, Bennett promises Caranac that he will reveal a secret Ralston confided in him prior to his death. That secret is tied to Dahut who Bennett is convinced is responsible for Ralston's death. 

The talk at the dinner party involves all sorts of strange topics. Not the least of which is a reference to the story of Burn, Witch, Burn (another supernatural thriller by Merritt featuring Dr. Lowell as narrator and sole survivor).  DeKeradel implies that he knows that Dr. Lowell was instrumental in the destruction of "the dollmaker" in that other book who we learn was a former lover of the French psychiatrist. The hint of a revenge scheme hangs thick in the air. Throughout Bennett's story Caranac keeps his eye on Dahut, watching for any tell-tale signs of incriminating behavior. Strange disembodied shadows seem to pursue Bennett and he has heard from Ralston's own lips prior to his death of similar shadows that appeared with no person anywhere near him to cast the shapes. Bennett suspects Dahut has some paranormal powers that she used to coerce Ralston and the other men to kill themselves. 

There are echoes of Haggard's She, the classic novel of reincarnation in a lost civilization.  A lengthy section of the book is devoted to a past life regression achieved through Dahut's powers of glamour and hypnotism in which Alan Caranac travels back to the ancient city of Ys and meets Dahut in previous life as the Demoiselle d'Ys.  But when the book completely embraces this mode it turns into a pale imitation of Haggard's masterpiece and becomes laughably bad. The romance is highlighted with hokey stilted dialogue that never manages to sit well with a modern audience.

After all the interesting exposition and talk of African witchcraft, ancient legends and the near parody of She the book diminishes into a predictable thriller. The story is slight and repetitious. Not one of Merritt's better tales.  If you need to sample his work I suggest The Dwellers in the Mirage or The Face in the Abyss for lost race adventures.  Most critics agree that his fantasy masterwork is The Ship of Ishtar, a dream-like timeslip novel of a modern day man who travels back to the ancient city of Babylon.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

FFB: Vision Sinister - John Russell Fearn

Scientific detection shows up in the history of the detective novel as early as the late 19th century with the investigations of the physician sleuth who appears in Stories from the Diary of a Doctor by L.T. Meade and Clifford Halifax. Vicious murders are committed with x-rays, micro-organisms, and other unusual methods of a scientific nature. It is further developed in the work of R. Austin Freeman with his Dr.Thorndyke novels, the varied and often fantastical adventures of Professor Craig Kennedy in the work of Arthur B. Reeve, Scientific Sprague created by Francis Lynde, continues into the 1930s with various pseudonymous books by Nigel Morland and well into the 1950s with the Lawrence Blochman's Dr. Coffee, a forerunner of the contemporary forensic pathology detectives.  By the 1950s scientific detective stories were being experimented with by writers mostly known for their science fiction stories. It was probably only natural that John Russell Fearn, who began his career as a science fiction writer, should also turn to scientific detection when he began writing crime fiction.

Professor Hiram Carruthers looks "like a bust of Beethoven," is as obnoxious as Roger Shearingham, and - of course - the only person who can explain the seemingly miraculous and bamboozling crimes that face Chief Inspector Monty Garth in his exhausting job. In Vision Sinister (1954) Garth is forced once again to consult with the irascible Carruthers, suffer drinking the"pallid muck" he calls tea, and endure insults as he asks for Carruthers' advice on yet another unsolvable impossible crime. Carruthers is an egotist of immense proportions and says things like "We have here a most ingenious killer, even one with a scientific turn of mind, but not one with the ability to defeat me." In this particular investigation Garth and Carruthers need to unravel the mystery of a photographic laboratory that vanished in an instant and a murder victim who was transported over mile in less than a few minutes.

Cynthia Harwood and her friend Janice make their way to a basement laboratory of Thomas , Cynthia's fiancee. On the front door the find a sign instructing them to ring the bell and then look through a glass slide. What they see is a man in a lab coat stabbing a woman dressed in a purple evening gown. They call for help and ask the caretaker of the building to unlock the door. When the door is opened the room is completely empty. No lab equipment, no table, no dead body. Nothing, but white room lit by a single overhead light and an empty electric socket in the wall. Only minutes had passed and yet the entire room and its occupants seemed to have vanished. Later that evening a woman dressed in a purple evening gown is found dead in a rubbish heap one mile away from the photo lab. She has been stabbed to death. How did she get from one place to the other?

Unlike the Maria Black novels this is a fast paced tale with a limited amount of suspects. The impossible problem is ingeniously carried out and rivals the death trap machinery in Rhode & Carr's Fatal Descent (aka Drop to His Death), a 1939 mystery of a murder committed in an elevator. There are fine examples of scientific detection in Fearn's book reflecting the advances of modern technology in the 1950s. An early answering machine with a built in tape recorder, three dimensional motion picture photography, push button electronics, and a rudimentary but involved method of voice print technology all play a crucial part in solving the elaborately constructed crime. Fearn was an admirer of John Dickson Carr and this book more than any that I have read of his seems to be the closest thing he came to matching his idol in sheer ingenuity.

In closing, I'll add an interesting bibliographic oddity. While most of the Dr. Hiram Carruthers books were originally published under the pseudonym Hugo Blayn for hardcover publisher Stanley Paul, this one was published by a cheap paperback outfit called Dragon Books and their house name "Nat Karta" was slapped on the cover. Odd because most of the Nat Karta books featured a series character called Dana Dallas or were hardboiled crime stories not the kind of puzzle detective story Fearn wrote when he turned to crime fiction. This is the only instance I have come across of a writer using series characters under two different pseudonyms.