Saturday, December 31, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: The Secret of Bogey House - Herbert Adams

Herbert Adams' first mystery novel is typical of the kind of crime fiction that was in ample supply in the early 1920s – a blend of the detective novel and the action thriller. This is the first appearance of Adam's lawyer detective Jimmie Haswell, but here he has a relatively minor role. Instead it is Tony Bridgman, a professional golfer and Haswell's buddy, who is our intrepid sleuthing hero. Interestingly enough The Secret of Bogey House (1924) begins with the search for a lost golf ball.

Golf will play a prominent role in Adam's later detective novels (sample these titles: The Body in the Bunker, The Golf House Mystery, Death off the Fairway, The Nineteenth Hole Mystery). It is usually the one thing that Adams is remembered for in his contributions to the genre. Both Jimmie Haswell and Adams' later detective Roger Bennion are avid golfers. The game is almost always present in some way in the majority of his mystery novels and in some cases takes center stage. Here golf serves only as atmosphere in a tale of a murdered man found dead in a sportsman's private hotel.

While hunting for a treasured golf ball in Mr. Teesdale's backyard Tony Bridgman is invited inside and quickly charms the old man and his young ward, Molly. Upon learning that Tony is the famous golfer Teesdale entrusts him with the task of discovering what happened to his nephew, David Gregson. The nephew recently asked for a loan of £2000 from his uncle but did not mention why he needed it so urgently. He then left with the money and has been not heard from since. Last word Teesdale had was that David had been staying at a private hotel for sportsmen run by James Mitchell. Entry to the hotel is by Mitchell's personal invitation and Teesdale hopes that Tony will be able to charm his way using his celebrity as a golfer as added incentive. Once inside he is sure Tony can learn what happened to David Gregson.

Tony finagles an invitation and sets up his investigation using Jimmie Haswell as an outside resource. Gregson does eventually return to the hotel but that very night is found stabbed (in the eye!) in a secluded area on the hotel grounds leading to a boathouse. No sign of a weapon but Tony is the only one at the scene of the crime making him suspect number one.

The story has some standard examination of physical evidence for a few chapters, but the mysterious activities of a Polish count, his reticent daughter who seems to be hiding a secret, and the sinister Mitchell overtake the story displacing any hopes for a legitimate novel of detection. Tony spends a lot of his time making midnight trips to the boathouse, eavesdropping behind curtains, risking his life swimming around the boathouse, and eventually finds a secret passageway (not so secret thanks to the first edition dust wrapper illustration) leading to an underground cave filled with smuggled antiques. A side trip to Belgium, a shifty antique dealer and his thuggish sons also feature in the fast paced story. All the while Tony is wooing Molly and trying his best to impress upon her that he is not just a dumb jock with a great tee shot.

For someone like me who usually dislikes the "starry-eyed-young-lovers-mixed-up-with-sinister-criminals" plot I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this. Adams writes a ripping yarn and has a deft touch in creating a likeable hero and heroine, not the usual sappy love birds. His obvious romantic streak is prevalent in all his books. I think in addition to golf Adams is deserving of mention for being perhaps the preeminent detective novel writer who knew why and how to incorporate love and romance into a story about murder.

Making a nice segue into this plug:  Stay tuned for the "Neglected Detective" series, a soon-to-be regular feature on this blog that will discuss at length forgotten amateur sleuths from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  First up:  Jimmie Haswell who, when he takes the lead role, will turn out to be quite a sharp-witted young man.

Friday, December 30, 2011

FFB: The Poisoner's Mistake - Belton Cobb

I'm not sure there are many vintage detective novels set on New Years' Eve but I serendipitously found one in The Poisoner's Mistake. I thought it would be perfect for this week's Forgotten Book as 2011 draws to a close. Belton Cobb will not be a familiar name among many of you. I only purchased the book due to its inclusion on a "Best of" list posted by Curt Evans at Mystery*File back in October 2010. With this one book, a startling shake-up of the old English manor murder mystery, Belton Cobb won me over. So impressive is this second novel of his I broke my rule of splurging on new books by obscure writers and purchased three more Cobb mysteries from UK online dealers and am eagerly awaiting my post-Christmas gifts to arrive in the mail.

The Poisoner's Mistake (1936) is Cobb's second detective novel with his wily police detective Inspector Cheviot Burmann in the lead role. He is called to the home of Rupert Bole on New Year's Day following the sudden death of one of Bole's party guests who was hospitalized for stomach pains. Turns out he was poisoned but just how that poison was administered is only the first of several puzzling incidents in this twisting and deviously told story.

The New Year's Eve dinner is followed by an elaborate game of anagrams and was to end with a traditional midnight toast with "Auld Lang Syne" playing on the gramophone while all guests joined hands around a table singing along. But a sudden fire in the garage adjoining the mansion interrupts the festivities. All the men run out to extinguish the blaze while the women stay indoors and call for the firemen. No one drank any of the cocktails intended for the midnight toast and Mary asks for them all to be cleared away when the fire puts a damper on the party atmosphere.

Young Bobby Letchworth complains of stomach pains and a doctor is called to care for him. It appears Bobby is suffering from food poisoning. The doctor orders Bobby to be taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. But all efforts are futile. In the morning Letchworth is discovered dead in his hospital bed. The diagnosis is now changed to arsenic poisoning.

The intricately told murder investigation is fascinating but perhaps a tad overly methodical. The events of the party are dissected and examined minutely. Every detail is paid close attention -- from where the cocktail glasses were placed before the fire occurred to who picked them up and where the glasses were later found. The roles of the servants and their activity, usually a routine entry in similar stories of this period, are just as crucial as the main suspects' behavior during the party. For instance, we learn that one cocktail glass was broken from the set of ten that was intended for use at the midnight toast. One of the maids secretly substituted another glass from a cheaper set and did her best to make sure her finicky and temperamental boss Mr. Bole did not receive the odd glass. But of course things do not work out as she planned. That odd glass also was placed in a ring of books arranged to hide the anagram answers and supposedly was not touched for the entire evening. But somehow it ended up across the room hidden in a recess by the fireplace. Who moved it? Was that the glass that contained the poison? If so, it must have been Rupert Bole who was the intended victim posits Inspector Burmann. And so an elaborate plan is laid out that will both protect Rupert from a poisoner who is most likely hiding among the members of his household and flush out Bobby's murderer.

The book is not only dazzling in its presentation of the minutiae of the night of the poisoning but lays out several clues cleverly hidden in seemingly mundane snippets of dialog. The motive for the crime is mentioned in an odd exchange between two characters, for example, that is so jarring I knew it had to have something to do with the crime. In the final chapter in which Burmann explains all there are footnotes with page numbers directing the reader back to these cleverly planted hints recalling Mrs. Bradley's Notebook Pages in the addenda of Gladys Mitchell's early novels as well as C. Daly King's "Clue Finder" at the end of his Obelist books.

I find it very difficult to come up with "Best of the Year" lists.  Were I to make up my own list of exciting discoveries and the best books among my vintage crime reading this year I think that I would place The Poisoners' Mistake at the top of the list. The structure of the story is an enviable display of misdirection that almost outdoes the overall narrative of Rebecca. There is a sardonic humor on display and the plot is constantly shifting with neat twists and surprises. When the titular fatal error of the culprit was pointed out and the villain was unmasked I was more than satisfied and should have seen it all along.

This is an impressive work by a little known writer who somehow fell though the cracks. Of his more than forty detective novels and thrillers published in England only two were published in the US during his lifetime and few received paperback reprints in his own country. But copies of his books are out there in the used book market and (for now) remain very affordable.  Though Cobb had a long career in crime fiction lasting well into the early 1970s it is his early work from the 1930s through the mid 1940s that is worth your attention and The Poisoner's Mistake certainly serves as solid proof.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Have a Cool Yule!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all the rest of it, gang!

Time to disappear for a while. I'll be back on Tuesday.

Here's an urban tribute to Christmas with Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell and Fred Mertz...uh, William Frawley in The Lemon Drop Kid. A great little movie based on a short story by the brilliant Damon Runyon.

(If the embedded video won't play just click here and watch it at YouTube)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NEW STUFF: An Uncertain Place - Fred Vargas

There is no one quite like Fred Vargas in crime fiction today. You have to go back to the "webwork" novels of Harry Stephen Keeler and John Russell Fearn to find any writer who comes close to her unique way of constructing novels that blend the weird, the bizarre and the absurd into a mind-tripping, eye-opening, jaw-dropping phantasmagoria. Luckily with Vargas you also get dreamy readable prose and not convoluted syntax or wacky word-winging as in the case of Keeler or mysteries with transparent solutions as in the case of Fearn. In the Vargas universe everything is truly connected. There is a ubiquity of significance in her books. The absurdities and oddities of life cease to be merely strange and carry a hidden meaning that sometimes borders on the supernatural. She brings the mystery back to the mystery novel on so many levels.

Randomness has no place and there are no coincidences. In a Keeler book, for example, the works of George Barr McCutcheon, a mysterious violin playing thief, and the science of acoustics all come together in the plot of The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman. A man eating a bowl of chow mein nearly chokes on a tiny hand made of jade in The Green Jade Hand, but the scene is not there merely to make us laugh it will have some greater importance to the story. Similarly, with Vargas the birth of a kitten is not thrown into the story offhandedly for cuteness factor; it will have repercussions throughout the entire novel. Likewise other events and discussions that seem to be mentioned in passing -- a brief talk about a man who decided to eat his wooden wardrobe piece by piece, the macabre history of Highgate Cemetery including what was discovered when the body of Dante Rossetti's wife was exhumed nine years after her death -- all have later ramifications in this hypnotically addictive book.

The ripple effect begins when Adamsberg who is in England for an international police conference quite by accident stumbles across a bizarre crime. Eighteen pairs of shoes have been found in front of Highgate Cemetery. And the shoes still contain feet. They have all been cut from nine different corpses and none of them are English. The shoes show signs of Eastern European manufacture and many of them are decades old. It appears that the feet have been collected over a period of years. But who on earth has dismembered several dead bodies and placed their feet in front of a cemetery with a past of legendary proportions? What have those feet do to with the horribly mutilated corpse of a reclusive Frenchman whose body quite literally was chopped up to tiny bits? Why are so many variations of a single name continually turning up in the course of the investigation - Plogerstein, Plögener, Plogoff, Plogodrescu.These names become so prevalent that one of the characters coins the term "Plog" as an exclamation denoting significance or surprise.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg will face one of the most unusual criminals in his career. He will discover that nearly everything in his life will be related to the solution of the crime. The people he encounters and takes for granted will play major roles. And most importantly he will discover that a long forgotten night in his past will come back to haunt him with a startling revelation. The less said about the wild fantastical plot the better.

And now a word about the oft forgotten yet very important translator. Sian Reynolds' translation is an intricately built, ingenious example of how translation can become a true art. Finding the right word is less important than crafting sentences that retain the original flavor of the author's native language. Vargas' books are intrinsically French and in this case have an added international dimension when Adamsberg must travel to England and later Serbia where he does not speak either language. There are ample opportunities for linguistic wordplay in these new settings. There are amusing scenes with Adamsberg repeatedly mispronouncing the name of a British police officer and his habit of calling the infamous cemetery Higg-gate and in Serbia he goes out of his way to learn a handful of Serbian words to better impress a woman who runs the guest house where he is staying. Finally, there is a policeman on Adamsberg staff who speaks in alexandrines a French verse of 12 syllables which Reynolds has confessed to being one of the most difficult tasks she tried to duplicate in English. For that alone she deserves the awards she has garnered from the CWA.

This is the time of the year when everyone is making lists of the Best of the Year. I can never make one of those lists. But I can tell you that An Uncertain Place is definitely a book I would consider to be included as one of the best of the new books, if not the absolute best, I have read this year. A little masterpiece of a book that is also an enviable work of contemporary fiction. It may not be to everyone's taste judging from a variety of indifferent and confused reactions in other reviews I've come across on other blogs. For me, however, this is pretty damn awesome crime fiction.

VIDEO: Dean Martin and "The Christmas Blues"

Here's an antidote for anyone like me who is tiring of "Frosty the Snowman," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and the rest of those novelty Christmas tunes being piped in everywhere you go.

I had never heard this song until yesterday and I thought I knew all the sad Christmas songs ever written. It's kind of swingy and upbeat for a song that's all about loneliness.

Music by David Holt, lyrics by the incomparable Sammy Cahn. Vocal by the coolest member of the Rat Pack (IMO). I think he had a few too many cocktails before coming onstage.

If the video doesn't play in the window below you can watch it here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Shadow on the Glass - Charles J Dutton

This is the third book featuring John Bartley as detective and narrated by a Watson character named Pelt (no first name) who makes Captain Arthur Hastings look like a candidate for Mensa. The story is slight and seems to have been written with Carolyn Wells' The Technique of the Mystery Story within easy reach. Filled with reiterative "tabulation scenes" the book could easily have been of novella length had all those portions been omitted making the story streamlined and the action unimpeded.

On the eve of his daughter's wedding Frank Rich, a millionaire book collector is found battered to death in his locked library, accessible only by private elevator and that elevator is guarded by two private detectives hired to watch over the wedding gifts. In addition to the murder it is discovered that a valuable rare book of Italian sonnets worth $30,000 and a box containing $5000 in gold coins (one of the many wedding gifts) are both missing. Donald Maxon, a spiteful cousin, who disapproved of the wedding goes missing the next day and is thought to have drowned in the ocean. For some reason the bulk of the novel is spent looking for this supposedly drowned character rather than trying to find out who killed Rich. Numerous "tabulation scenes," (a Dutton staple) an unnecessary inquest scene, and other extraneous action set pieces were surely inserted for the pulp magazine audience but serve only as padding and do not propel the story forward.

To be honest nothing much really happens in this very slight story except the endless repetition of the events of the crimes and the continual pronouncements of how puzzling it all is. The detection is negligible. Every three chapters something missing will be found in an obvious place. The "drowned" man turns out to be very much alive though this too is hardly surprising. Even with its tantalizing locked room problem the mystery is sadly routine with familiar tropes and more than a handful of "hackneyed devices." The only interesting piece comes at the end when the locked room is finally explained. But it turns out to be a faked locked room -- a definite anticlimax.

The book is chock full of lectures that are bound to annoy a 21st century reader. You will learn all about the inferiority complex and why at least two characters are thought to be suffering from this condition and will have to trudge through long paragraphs of psychological behavior. There are, however, some interesting passages on collecting medieval books as well as the art of the erotic engraving and how scandalous it was thought to own such a "dirty book" in the 1920s.

I have read several of Dutton's books but mostly those with his second detective, Harley Manners, in the lead. Manners is younger and more of an action hero than John Bartley who belongs to the old scientific detection school. This is pretty thin stuff even for Dutton whose early work first appeared in serial format in the pages of pulp magazines like Detective Story Magazine and Star Novels Magazine. Elsewhere on the internet I have written up plot summaries of some much better books by Dutton and talked about why I think he is worth reading for his insights into the early form of criminal profiling used in hunting down a multiple murderer. But I have yet to read one of his books that does not suffer from the reiteration scenes so necessary to the serial format with all those variations on how to convey "our story thus far." Sad to say that this is perhaps Dutton's poorest effort.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Drawing on the Past: CYRUS CUNEO

Work: The Thief of the Night: Further Adventures of A. J. Raffles by E.W. Hornung
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905)
First American Edition

Artist: Cyrus Cuneo (1878 - 1916)

Apart from Arthur I. Keller who I wrote about briefly several months ago I think I have more books illustrated by Cyrus Cuneo than any other artist of his period. His work can be found in all sorts of adventure, crime and lost race novels: Queen's Sheba's Ring and Nada the Lily both by H. Rider Haggard, The Weird Picture (reviewed on this blog here) and The Viking's Skull both by John Carling, The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, Dr. Silex by Harris Burland, The Red Room by William LeQueux, and nearly all the work of Charles Gilson, author of The Lost Island, The Lost Empire, The Race Round the World and other adventure and lost race novels.

American born Cuneo spent most of his life in San Francisco, moved to Canada where he did some paintings for Canadian Pacific Railway, and then moved onto England in the early 1900s where he remained painting, doing much of his work for magazines, newspapers and books. He died very young, only 37, from blood poisoning incurred after he was accidentally stabbed by a hat pin at a dance. For a brief overview of Cuneo's life and work go here. The essay is written by his son Terrence Cuneo, a British artist well known for railway studies and strange paintings of mice.

Below are seven of the ten illustration plates found in this excellent collection of short stories about literature's most famous gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles. Click to enlarge for better appreciation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

FFB: The Third Lady - Shizuko Natsuki

The paperback cover of this excellent crime novel from the "Agatha Christie of Japan" proclaims that it "recalls Stranger on a Train." That quote comes from none other than Edward Gorman, who goes by a less formal moniker these days. And while there is a slight similarity to Highsmith's novel in this very different murder by proxy tale I would say that if you were going to look for a better analogy in the Hitchcock vein it would be in the obsessive romance of the private eye in Vertigo. For in the end The Third Lady is not so much a thrilling suspense novel about murder as revenge, but rather a subtle and haunting study of the illusions of love and the folly of pursuing the fantasy of an ideal lover.

Kohei Daigo is waiting in a salon of a Parisian hotel when he is drawn to a woman. He does not see her face but hears only her hypnotically entrancing voice. He is also intoxicated by her unique perfume. They have an enigmatic conversational exchange and suddenly the lights go out throughout the entire hotel. The two are told by a passing hotel employee to remain in the room until the lights can be turned back on. And so Daigo talks with the strange woman who reveals that she is longing to revenge herself on an evil woman she knows to have murdered a dear friend.

Daigo finds himself ever more attracted to the woman – the darkness of the room, her voice and her sincerity all allow him to become far too intimate all too quickly. He also confesses to know an evil man– a professor in a chemical research lab who inadvertently used a poisonous ingredient in the manufacture of a popular brand of cookie then covered up the mistake with forged documents released to authorities. The ingredient caused cancer in several hundred children and their families. Many of the children died. Daigo admits that he would like to murder the man. The woman tells him her name and a few details about her work as a translator and after a brief moment of shared intimacy makes a quick exit. He has never seen her face throughout their brief meeting, but he is certain he has fallen deeply in love with her. What he does not realize is that he has also created a fatal bond between them that will lead to murder.

A few days later the professor is found dead in his home. He has been poisoned and a mysterious woman was seen in the vicinity of the dead man's' house. Several clues and coincidences eventually lead Daigo to believe that Fumiko, the woman he met in the hotel, is most likely responsible for the man's death. He starts to receive strange phone messages from a woman, a post card from a hotel is sent to his house and it dawns on him that all these things are related to the "evil woman" alluded to in Fumiko's conversation with him weeks ago at the hotel. Is he to track down the woman and kill her as well? He is devoted to Fumiko and vows to prove his love for her by doing just that. His life becomes increasingly complex as he adopts a variety of assumed identities, tells exaggerated lies to gather information about his intended victim, and stalks her like a predatory animal. Simultaneously he tries to locate Fumiko using clever detective work and an arsenal of alter egos.

The novel is mostly told from the point of view of Kohei Daigo. An alternating narrative is added by the halfway mark when the reader is allowed to follow a police investigation by two teams of detectives from two different cities. They begin to make amazing connections between the poisoning of the professor and a crime in the past. Slowly the police begin to suspect a conspiracy involving murder by proxy and are soon hot on the trail of Kohei Daigo.

It is not often that a crime novel packs so powerful a punch as this one does. The finale includes a gasp inducing twist that is poignant, sorrowful, and tragically inevitable. In the end this story of a frenzied obsessive love based on the slightest of contact but mostly the tortured imaginings of Daigo becomes a tale of remorse and shame that is deeply tied to the cultural mores of Japan. It is hard to imagine that this could have been written by a Westerner and turn out as believable and as moving as it is told here. If you have never read a Japanese crime novel here is the quintessential work. Cleverly plotted, imaginatively realized, beguiling and intriguing on so many levels The Third Lady transcends the genre to reveal the complexities of not only Japanese culture and Japanese philosophy but the intoxicating and mysterious power of love.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Carolyn Wells Technique, or: How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Love the Mess

It is always unpleasant to contemplate the hanging or the electrocuting of the fiction criminal. For this reason he not infrequently takes poison (which he has ready in his pocket), as soon as he is discovered, and dies peacefully, close upon the last words of his confession. This is one of the conventions adopted to spare the reader's feelings. For a criminal that can hold the reader's interest throughout the story is often too attractive a character to be permitted a horrible taking off.
from The Technique of the Mystery Novel by Carolyn Wells

One of the most prolific American writers of the early 20th century Carolyn Wells did it all – childrens' series, poetry, light verse, humorous fiction, a parody of Sinclair Lewis' best selling Main Street called Ptomaine Street, non-fiction essays, and of course her numerous detective novels. With only four published detective novels to her name she felt to be such an authority on the genre that she was the first to write a manual on writing detective fiction called The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913). That it was published by a firm calling itself The Home Correspondence School may tell you something about the intended target audience. It must have been popular, though in reading select chapters I really can't see why, for it remained in print through 1928.

For anyone acquainted with Wells' own oddball brand of detective novel reading her handbook for writers can be as unintentionally funny as reading her mystery novels. She repeatedly advises writers to avoid cliched mystery novel conventions that she herself used ad nauseam. An example is this paragraph taken from the chapter called "Devious Devices"
Another hackneyed device is the secret panel in the wall, which slides open by pressing a hidden spring. This was overdone in sensational fiction, before Detective Stories began, but was seized upon as a valuable device for Mystery tales. But it is easily suspected, and is unsatisfactory in modern settings.
Wells was IN LOVE with secret passages, hidden entryways, and secret panels. It is laughable that she would call them "unsatisfactory in modern settings" when her books are littered with them. One particularly egregious example occurs in Spooky Hollow - the worst of the books I read - in which the solution of a missing jewel relies on not one, not two, but three secret panels hidden in a wall safe -- itself a hidden panel operated by a hidden spring! Perhaps she thought this some kind of neat twist but to me it was self-parody.

Wells also calls to tasks her fellow mystery writers of the period for relying too heavily on tiresome plot devices like birds that steal jewels, clothing threads as clues, initialed guns, calling cards and handkerchiefs left at the scene of a crime, and crimes committed during snowy, foggy or rainy weather. In giving examples of some of the better conventions to emulate Wells also reveals the identity of the murderers in five classic mysteries. Nice! Luckily I had read most of them. Finally, she also has the nerve to describe other writers' work as "bordering on self-parody." In response to that I think of a wisecrack one of my theater friends often used for people suffering from lack of self-awareness: "Alice, there's the looking glass!"

I recently went through a sampling of the Wells books I own. I selected three for their locked room and impossible crime elements, a subgenre Wells was drawn to, hoping that at least one of them would show her to be the kind of imaginative teacher she presents herself as in her handbook, one who at least avoids cliches and "hackneyed devices." I was miserably disappointed. Even as "alternative classic" reading it was a torturous couple of days. Only one of the three proved to have any lasting entertainment value. Below are my discussions of the books starting with the worst of the lot and ending with the one that I found most worthwhile.

Spooky Hollow
(1923) Fleming Stone, the Wells detective who appears most often in her abundant output, is the sleuth here. Like many of Wells books he shows up only in the final third of the story. I can't say what he is like in her other work but here he is dull, dull, dull. In this book he has a teenage boy sidekick named Terence "Fibsy" McGuire who actually does most of the detecting even if ALL of it is done offstage. Stone does little but ask a few pointed questions and dismisses nearly everything that the reader would think is important. The most mysterious parts of this book are actually proven to be superfluous in the end. What a cheat! There is the usual Wellsian haunted mansion with a legend attached to it. A murder was committed in the past and the sound of a harp emanates from a mausoleum situated near a bog on the rear of the estate. If anyone hears the harp playing it is supposed to be an omen of violent death to come. The harps plays, of course, and Anne Vincent, sister of Homer Vincent a reclusive eccentric inventor, is found stabbed in her locked bedroom. A visiting stranger also mysteriously disappears that very night and the bulk of the book is spent trying to discover where he went and who he is. But we already know who he is because Wells told us in the very first chapter. Ugh. Stone's supposed detection is nothing more than manipulative grilling of the suspects and melodramatic pronouncements punctuated with an ample supply of exclamation marks. The locked room solution relies on a "hackneyed device" I'm sorry to say, and is the lazy's writer's way out. Anytime I encounter it I groan in disgust. It comes up way too often in the Golden Age and rarely does anyone put enough of a spin on this method to really make it seem clever. The explanation of the ghost-like harp, of course, is not supernatural but it made no sense to me whatsoever. Still, it finally gave a reason for Homer Vincent calling himself an inventor. The fact that it took years to be discovered is absurd when you pause to think about it.

Deep Lake Mystery (1928) The premise of this book seemed very promising. Sampson Tracy, a typical millionaire Wellsian victim, is found in his locked bedroom dressed up like something out of an ancient burial ritual. There is a garland of flowers draped around his neck, a women's scarf on his head, an inverted feather duster propped up behind his head giving him the appearance of an Indian chief. Also, an orange and some crackers are set beside him and a crucifix is placed in his hand. But does any of this come into play in the solution of the crime? No. Once again the most interesting bizarre elements are extraneous. Speaking of bizarre: the murder method is one that is lifted from a real story called "The Nail," by Pedro de Alarçon. At one point a character (who apparently has the same arcane knowledge of crime fiction as Wells does) purports that someone must have read the story and if they can find a copy of it which happens to be in volume eight of Mystery Tales of All Nations then they may get closer to finding the killer. Believe it or not, it will turn out that the book is in the library of someone's home and the killer did in fact read the story!

The majority of the story is annoying and repetitive - a recurring trait of Wells. The Watson character Gray Norris has fallen head over heals in love with the prime suspect Alma Remsen, Tracy's niece. Even though all the evidence points to Alma, even though three separate eyewitnesses claim to have seen her at the scene of the crime (including Norris who watched her paddle a canoe away from the house), no one believes her guilty. Why? Because she is so darling and sweet that she could not possibly have murdered anyone, let alone her own uncle. Nice people never commit murders in a Wells book. Here's some more of Wells' writer's philosophy:
The next character to be chosen must be our criminal. Here again is one, who, if he is to be convicted, must not be too deeply in the reader's sympathy. [...] The drawing of the criminal calls for fine shading and strong effects. He must be both intelligent and ingenious, in order to give the Transcendent Detective a foeman worthy of his steel. The reader must have no liking or pity for him.
Finally, in Deep Lake Mystery we get another Wells staple and another "hackneyed device" for the murderer turns out to be a mad killer of the Mrs. Rochester variety. That's right -- someone who was thought to be dead was locked away in a room, managed to escape one night, and committed the dirty deed. But what of the locked room where the murder was committed? Well, there was that large window and it did happen to be directly above a lake - three stories above, that is. Look for the character who knows how to swim and dive, of course. And make sure that swimmer is the one who could dive perfectly into the safest spot in a rock-filled cove in the middle of the night with only the full moon as illumination. Oh. Are you sorry that I spoiled that for you? Didn't think so.

The Room with the Tassels (1918) marks the first appearance of Wells' series occult detective Pennington "Penny" Wise and his female sidekick Zizi. According to Wells' bibliography this is her twelfth book and if it is any sign of her early work then this is where I suggest people start if they are compelled to sample Carolyn Wells' mystery writing. This book had a lively and witty beginning and had more genuine humor in it than the other two I read. Wise and Zizi are all the more interesting because they are not really detectives - they are con artists. Zizi, when not teamed up with Wise on their "sleuthing" adventures is a silent movie star and she uses her talents as an actress and stuntwoman to her advantage as a sleuth. Wise tends to be drawn to cases that involve apparent supernatural events and he fancies himself a ghost buster. Zizi plays the part of his mysterious assistant and pretends to be psychic. She dresses all in black, floats in and out of rooms as quietly as the specters they are exposing, and frightens the heck out of the suspects with her freakish behavior and insinuating accusations. They're a great duo and it is largely due to their presence that I liked this book the best.

The story opens with a group of bored New Yorkers looking to enliven their dull summer by spending a weekend in a haunted house. They find the perfect place in Black Aspens, a mansion in a remote portion of Green Mountains of Vermont. Years ago a woman killed her husband with cyanide at 4:00 am. She ran out into the street in hysterics proclaiming the deed. A doctor chased her down, brought her back to the house and found what she said was true. He locked her in the room with the dead body and called the police. When they arrived and the room was opened the body was gone and the woman was raving mad. Now the "room with the tassels" where the two were temporarily imprisoned is said to be haunted by the ghost of the murderess who shows up looking for her dead husband. When the New Yorkers decide to take turns sleeping in the haunted room strange events take place. During the weekend two people are poisoned in the room while four others are present and the intended summertime lark of a weekend turns into a month long murder investigation. And later when one of the bodies disappears from the locked room with the tassels the suspects are convinced that a supernatural force is at work. Will it come as a surprise if I tell you there is no ghost? And that the massive pillars in front of Black Aspens have secret all their own? Yes, that's right -- more secret entrances. Double ugh.

For me the major flaw with Wells is her insistence on the inclusion of protracted "confab" scenes. Confab is a favorite Wells term. She uses these scenes repeatedly as "tabulation devices" in which the preceding events are discussed at length and mulled over by the numerous characters. She also has a habit of creating other private detectives as minor characters who come into the story to try their hand when the police (always inept) have failed. So when the series detective finally appears we have usually read about the events of the crime two or three times and must endure yet another confab by the REAL detective of the piece. It's her biggest failure as a mystery writer and yet it is something that she strongly believes is essential to the construction of a suspenseful mystery story. For me this endless reiteration and repetition is a suspense killer. An interest deadener. A brain numbing snoozefest.

In The Technique of the Mystery Story it is clear Wells has a wide reading knowledge of the writers of her period and those who came before her. Doyle, Gaboriau, Zangwill and Green are the most often mentioned in her discussion of what to strive for and what to avoid in writing a mystery story. Other minor writers like Burton Stevenson and Arthur Train are also cited in her numerous examples.  Clearly she knew her stuff from the late Victorian and early Edwardian era. Yet with all this knowledge she still has no real understanding of how to construct and write a detective novel. She is quick to condemn the "hackneyed devices" but will use them herself. She discards useful conventions that move a story forward and invents some of her own that bog down the flow of the action. When it comes to putting it all together Carolyn Wells is more like the wannabe painter who throws buckets of paint on a canvas and sloshes around in it and then expects it to be accepted as art. Anyone else will look at it and call it a mess. But a loveable mess if you have an appreciation for her mastery of the early American alternative classic mystery.

Friday, December 9, 2011

FFB: Dead Man's Watch - G.D.H. & M. Cole

George Douglas Howard and Margaret Cole are a husband and wife team who are probably better known in their academic fields. Douglas (as he preferred to be called, pointed out to me by Curt Evans) was a well known journalist and economist with numerous books in the field still read today while his wife was a classics instructor at a girls' school and later a socialist politician. In their early writing careers they teamed up to write several detective novels and created the popular policeman sleuth Superintendent Wilson. The Wilson books are characterized by satiric humor, sharply defined characters, deftly rendered settings and - for the most part - scrupulous attention to the fair play techniques in plotting. One of their best efforts is Dead Man's Watch.

A drowned man washes up on the banks of a creek in the village of Studleigh Pepperton in Devon. He is discovered by Ronald Bittaford who happens to be passing through the town with his girlfriend, Dorothy. To his shock he notices that the man is his uncle Percy, a relative Ron claims he has not been in contact with for years. Later, other people will step forward to identify the body as Percy's brother Harold, recently arrived from Australia. The problem of the identity of the corpse leads to much confusion among the inept local police and infuriates Sir Charles Wylie, a local baronet and J.P., on whose land the creek flows. He is indignant that the police refuse to see some rather obvious signs that the corpse is most likely a murder victim. In addition to some complicated issues dealing with the tides there is the fact that the corpse has been shaven after death and one witness identifying the body notes that a valuable watch is missing from the personal effects of the body.

The book is divided into three sections. Wilson appears in the first and last sections while the second is devoted mostly to the detective work of Sir Charles Wylie and his reluctant sleuthing partner Dorothy Daniells, Ron's girl friend, who takes to her job with gusto once she settles upon it. Wylie convinces her to spy on the locals in the town where Percy Bittaford was living with his wife. He asks her to write daily reports to him in letters and he will reply in kind with his follow-up detective work. Dorothy's letters are fine examples of the Coles' skill in capturing the language and world view of working class girl in pre-World War 2 era England. They are rambling, chatty, gossip-filled missives that also cleverly manage to contain some of the most important clues to the solution of the many mysteries surrounding the death of the drowned man. This kind of burying of clues reminded me the way Christianna Brand manages to plant her clues in the garrulous chit-chat among the dialog exchanges of her finely drawn characters.

What really grabbed my attention in this quick paced story are the varied cast of characters. From the reporter who inveigles his way into the crime scene and gets his big scoop passing himself off as a police aide to the oddball residents in Marine View, a boarding house right out of an Ealing Studio comedy, every person in this densely populated detective novel has their moment to shine. In addition to Sir Charles and Dorothy (a better and more likeable amateur sleuth pair may not exist in the genre) I liked the unctuous Mr. Fishcote, a landlord who manipulates Sir Charles into buying him drinks and expects a little cash for his dirt on the Bittaford brothers; and also Mrs. Devene, described as a "grass widow," who while waiting for her husband to return from his military duties in India likes to entertain gentlemen privately in her Marine View bedroom under the pretense of having tea. Sir Charles risks embarrassment and marring his reputation by accepting her offer to "go upstairs" so he can ply her for much needed information about the Bittafords.

Reading this book was a welcome surprise to me. A delightful book it is filled with biting humor and multiple puzzling mysteries. Skillful, entertaining, often very funny with a cleverly constructed mystery Dead Man's Watch is one of those rare examples from the Golden Age -- a old book that reads like a contemporary novel. Even with the few period references it holds up well mostly due to the characters' all too human behavior which is the primary focus of the story.

Such a shame that the Coles have been out of print for decades. I highly recommend this book to determined book hounds and devotees of traditional detective fiction; it's well worth reading if you can find a copy. And I would also strongly hint to independent publishers that if ever a detective novel was deserving of a reissue this is definitely it. I plan to review more of the Coles' mystery novels I have managed to acquire over the years. A bigger and unsolved mystery is why I have waited so long to read them.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

IN BRIEF: Fear and Miss Betony - Dorothy Bowers

Emma Betony, former schoolteacher, is contacted by an ex-pupil, Grace Aram who is now the headmistress of a girl's school housed in an old nursing home. Although most of the elderly patients were removed when the building converted to a school , two of the occupants of the nursing home are still residents and one of them is suspected by Grace to be the victim of a murderous plot. She asks Miss Betony to accept a teaching position at the school and use her free time to help Grace sort out the dastardly doings at the school. The memory of Miss Betony's Aunt Mary hovers over the story teasing the reader.

Bowers is one of the few 1940s era practitioners of the fair play detective novel who might have become the only real competition for Agatha Christie. She certainly wrote a lot of books about poison murders. I would guess she must have some medical knowledge based on the way her nurse and doctor characters speak about disease and drugs.

The book is literate and cleverly plotted with one of the best uses of misdirection in a detective novel of this era. I wouldn't call the book "ingenious" (as Tom & Enid Schantz do in their introduction to the Rue Morgue Press paperback reprint) since the device is something Christie herself employed repeatedly in the 1930s. Bowers wrote her book in 1940. Nevertheless Bowers nearly fooled me.

There are some genuine surprises here, all of the characters are very well drawn, suspicion darts between a handful of them. There is a fortune teller who dabbles in black magic featured in the plot and those scenes are some of the best in the book. The puzzles and mysteries surrounding the odd goings on at the school-cum-nursing-home never fail to keep the reader involved and intrigued. The book really is fascinatingly well written, engaging from page one to the last word. Bowers' policeman detective Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe turns up in the final three chapters.

NOTE:  The UK edition's original title is Fear for Miss Betony. The change in title for this US edition seems completely unnecessary to me. But I guess Americans don't often use the imperative mood for the verb "fear" which is how the title is meant to be read, and not as if someone were handing Miss Betony a plate of fear, so to speak. The Rue Morgue Press edition is the most easily found and in some cases can be purchased for under $9 if you are an assiduous book hunter.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Overdue Book Notice, 1954

Today's item left inside one of my books is a postcard notifying someone of their overdue library book. The book, unfortunately, is referred to by its catalog number (damn OCD librarians) and not by its title. However, the stamp cancellation offered me an opportunity to research an interesting aspect of American civil culture during the Eisenhower years.  Once again, I cannot tell you from which book in my collection this card was found.

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I remember when libraries had staff to send out regular notices like this. These days, at least in Chicago, our library is so disgracefully funded they have no one to reshelve the books let alone remind people to return overdue books. Books sit on carts for months before being returned to their proper place in the stacks requiring diligent users (like me) to pore over not only the shelves but the carts which thankfully are at least alpha order. Still, it's a pain in the neck trying to locate books in our main branch these days.

Here's the name and address of the guilty party. Notice the cancellation mark on the stamp.

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Apart from the curiously incomplete address revealing that local mail apparently merely needed the word City to be properly delivered, I noticed the "Wear Your Red Feather Proudly!" proclaimed in the cancellation mark dated Feb 18, 1954. "What Red Feather? Why is it so prominently displayed and so exclamatory?" I wondered. Research turned up these newspaper and magazine ads (which where not left inside a book).

From an ad drawn by Robert Ripley of "Believe It or Not! fame, Life (Oct 5, 1953)
from the Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct 7, 1945
The Red Feather was a honor awarded to anyone in the United States who contributed to their local Community Chest, a fund raising charity that used the money for local community projects. (Yes, it's the same Community Chest on those cards in the Monopoly game, too.) It started in 1913 in Ohio and slowly spread throughout the US and Canada. By 1948 there more than 1000 local chapters throughout the country. The organization continued through the 1950s and in 1963 became what we now know as United Way. The phrase "I gave at the office" is attributed to both these charities.

Friday, December 2, 2011

FFB: Peril at Cranbury Hall - John Rhode

The more John Rhode I read the more I am beginning to admire his skillful handling of certain aspects of the detective novel. His reputation of being a boring writer - one of the "Humdrums" - is truly undeserved. His best books can be found in the mid 1930s to late 1940s. Rhode's use of ingenious murder methods, diabolical death traps, and labyrinthine plots keep me coming back for more. Yet often Rhode lets his hand show several times. In Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930), for example, he has not yet acquired the talent for misdirection that is the hallmark of his contemporaries Christie and Carr. That is not to say that the book should be completely dismissed. There is more than enough here to satisfy most devotees of the traditional fair-play murder mystery novel.

Oliver Gilroy has recently been released from a seven year jail term for fraud. His half brother Arnold Gilroy, a lawyer, is engaged in acquiring an old mansion Cranbury Hall and its grounds for use by Dr. Richards and Professor Verclaes as a nursing home where they will cater to wealthy patients in search of the professor's anti-fatigue "miracle cure." The treatment itself sounds less like bona fide medicine at a nursing home and more like an elaborate con. Cranbury Hall will be transformed into something akin to a luxury spa/hotel designed to make the patients addicted to the comforts and indulgences like fine dining, massage treatments, and an enormous swimming pool, rather than the "miracle inoculations."

While Dr. Richards and the professor will handle the care of the patients, he tells Arnold that he will need a business manager and suggests Oliver for that position. Dr. Richards confesses that he also knows that Arnold has been manipulating the will of his dear departed Aunt Hilda and is planning to cheat Oliver out of his share of her estate. Armed with this knowledge and proof of the true will in a government registry open to the public (but unknown to Oliver) he blackmails Arnold into hiring his half brother.

Then a series of bizarre accidents befall Oliver and it appears that someone is trying to kill him. Dr. Priestley and Harold Merefield just happen to come across Oliver after he suffers a near fatal car accident – the third strange incident that nearly kills the ex-con. From Muriel Verclaes, the professor's daughter, Priestley and Merefield learn of the other accidents and Dr. Priestley is intrigued enough to investigate the possibility of foul play.

Rhode spends much time in letting the reader in on everyone's thoughts and actions prior to the appearance of Dr. Priestley who steps into the story well past the halfway mark. As the story progresses nearly every character will reveal a secret and his reason for killing Oliver. In fact, nearly everyone in the book turns out to be dishonest, a crook, or a cheat of some sort. There is an interesting use of the Iago-like power of suggestion too, put to great use in Christie's Curtain and by Rhode again in his superior Death in Harley Street (1946).

I was reminded of some of the less tightly constructed detective novels of George Bellairs and John Russell Fearn while reading Peril At Cranbury Hall. The clues are prominently displayed as if Rhode had spotlights shining on each one. There is no attempt made to hide anything, no misdirection, and no camouflage. Any sharp-eyed, attentive reader can figure out what's going on fairly quickly. This may be slightly disappointing to many readers, but perhaps a highlight for someone who has never solved a fair play detective novel. In other words, this is a great book for anyone interested in a training manual on how to solve a fair-play mystery novel.

For those who crave real puzzles there is a complex cipher that plays an integral part in the story. An entire chapter is devoted to the explanation of how the cipher works and there are ample opportunities for the reader to join Harold in decoding at least three different messages. However, you need patience and more of a mathematical mind than I have to understand how it works even with Priestley's detailed explanations. I attempted to try my hand at one, but gave up after about three minutes when I got mostly gibberish. I later discovered I misinterpreted the cipher rules and was inverting some letter pairs.

Finally, there is the puzzle of the fourth murder method -- the only successful one which dispatches Oliver Gilroy. Unfortunately, for me this was ruined on the title page of my reprint edition with an ill-advised illustration that gives it all away. Since I had read a murder method similar to what is used in an Agatha Christie novel the actual means was not as gasp inducing as perhaps it was intended. To echo something Patrick (At the Scene of the Crime blog) once said when he encountered a similar illustrated spoiler on an Edmund Crispin novel, there should be a special place in Hell reserved for book designers and illustrators who create these unnecessary ornamentations.

There is no denying that the death traps created in Peril at Cranbury Hall are the one of the main attractions of the novel. Rhode always is impressive in this regard. But it is Dr. Priestley's astonishing  revelation about the multiple murder attempts that truly makes this book one of Rhode's better accomplishments. This violation of one of Father Knox's Ten Rules for Detective Fiction recalls a book by C. Daly King and another by Agatha Christie, both too well known for me to mention outright without ruining what should be a real surprise. Although most of the many mysteries can be easily solved there is this final twist that may be Rhodes' crowning achievement in this particular book. While not on the same level as something like The Claverton Affair (so far the best Rhode I have read) I would say Peril at Cranbury Hall is well worth a read if you are lucky to locate a copy.

NOTE TO COLLECTORS & BOOK BUYERS: This is one of the more difficult to find titles in John Rhodes' prolific output. Although there seem to be two copies for sale at reasonable prices at a site in the UK, I found five other copies for sale on the internet and all of them are priced over $100. One without a DJ (the Dodd Mead first US edition) although described as FINE is, I think, exorbitantly priced at $225.