Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: Death Walks on Cat Feet - Paul Haggard

That's supposed to be a skull in a hatbox.
Sometimes I get tired of reading the same old kind of whodunits - bodies in the library, find the hidden will, missing husbands masquerading as avenging killers. You know the kind of book I'm talking about. Every now and then I need a little jolt of the weird. Blowpipe murders, liquid nitrogen pouring out of a shower head, the search for a headless skeleton. You get the picture. I'll go browsing along my shelves for a book that's been sitting there for several years and when I dig into the pages of a select volume I usually get more than I ever bargained for. That's what happened when I started reading Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938) by Paul Haggard (aka Stephen Longstreet -- one time cartoonist, 1950s novelist,  and screenwriter). Once again I find I've stumbled across a book that not only seemed way ahead of its time but is also one of the many books featured in Gun in Cheek Bill Pronzini's love letter to "bad" mystery novels.

Death Walks on Cat Feet is either Haggard's second or third mystery book (two books were published in 1938) using this pseudonym and the only one to feature amateur criminologist, museum curator, and former coroner Sam Macabre. Perfect name for a coroner, eh? Not only is the lead detective suitably named but his strange museum housing an odd collection of artifacts dealing with notorious murderers and their crimes is called Macabre, Inc. And macabre is an understated adjective to describe the near necrophilic atmosphere that pervades this grisly, often stomach churning, and very pulpy detective novel.

It's the only book of the Golden Age I've ever read where coroners takes center stage as the amateur sleuths. The only policeman in this novel, Captain Fielding, does hardly any police work at all and allows Sam Macabre to run the show along with the current coroner of Manhattan. The really strange thing is that the majority of the book takes place in Miami, Florida and that Macabre, Fielding and the NYC coroner (named -- believe it or not -- Doc Savage) fly to Florida in search of a missing body, find another murder victim and take over the investigation of that crime in conjunction with the original murder that occurred in New York. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself and probably already confusing you.

Joy Rogers, Sam's niece, is charged with suspicion of murder when she accidentally stumbles across the corpse of Ludwig Elm, theatrical producer, who is discovered with a human skull left on top of his body. In fleeing the scene she leaves behind her monogrammed handbag and a hatbox with a one of a kind hat she intended to wear to her upcoming wedding. She seeks help from her Uncle Sam who decides to send her to an upstate New York sanitarium for safekeeping. An autopsy reveals that Elm died of natural causes, but that the skull reveals two bullet holes at the rear base. The investigation then shifts to discovering the identity of the person whose skull it is and what happened to the rest of the body.

The author circa 1975
(courtesy of the Stephen Longstreet website)
Captain Fielding is in charge of the case. He reluctantly takes Sam's word that Joy is innocent. Macabre challenges Fielding to a bet. If the police avoid arresting Joy for one week, Sam will use that time to hunt down the real murderer. Fielding agrees and the first thing they do is head to the home of Sam's oddball Polish sculptor friend. Why? To reconstruct the face of course. This is the first time I have ever seen something so completely modern done in a detective novel of this era.

A zany scene introduces the Polish sculptor who of course brilliantly creates an astonishing female likeness on the skull with the aid of modelling clay and his nimble fingers. You'd think it would take a couple of days, but no this genius does it all in a couple of hours. Facial reconstruction while you wait.  Sam then asks for photos of Ludwig's ex-wife who coincidentally has disappeared within the past few days. The sculpted face and the photos are a match. Now to find out who killed Mrs. Elm and why. The investigation takes them into the world of Broadway theater where we meet these colorful characters:

Eddy Prentiss – stage manager and ex-con with a rap sheet including petty theft, burglary and murder. Sam keeps him in mind as suspect number one.

Baroness Higgins (aka The Princess) – former crooked medium now a theatrical angel and wanna-be actress. Planning to marry Elm as soon as he could divorce his wife.

Freddy Martin – another stereotyped gay character who happens to be the costume designer for Ludwig Elm's current show that is intended to be a vehicle for the Baroness

Fern Deshaw – bad actress trying to pass herself of as Southern Belle who shows too much interest in Elm's murder and has a lust for diamonds. Turns out she too has a rap sheet, hers includes assault and battery.

Robert Deshaw – Fern's stepfather. Breeds and sells tropical fish. Rented a cottage to Elm's wife in Miami where Mrs. Elm fled when she left her husband. The one scene in which he appears is loaded with everything you never wanted to know about the care of tropical fish in home aquariums.

Dumpling Joe – pro wrestler turned bodyguard. Hired to keep an eye on Joy when she is stalked by Prentiss at the sanitarium. Coincidentally (of course) he also was bodyguard for Mrs. Elm who had a collection of valuable diamonds she loved to wear and needed protection from avaricious thieves.

Skulls, skeletons, missing diamonds, an obsession with graphic descriptions of autopsies, a disgusting scene devoted to the evisceration of fish, and a pool of flesh eating lampreys. What more could you ask for in weirdness?

As for detection:  How about Sam's esoteric knowledge of a 16th century Duke related to the Borgias who killed his rival's wife and dangled her decapitated head in front of his victim essentially giving him the fright of his life that helps Sam figure out that Ludwig Elm must've been frightened to death by the sight of Mrs. Elm's skull. Or Sam's arcane insight into a species of red ant known only to a certain area of Miami that helps him determine that an object was hidden under the bathroom tiles of Mrs Elm's home where said red ants were thriving. This book has weirdness in spades. Weirdness galore!

"Wait! Did you say flesh eating lampreys, John? But lampreys are only bloodsucking parasitical fish. They aren't carnivorous."

Oh you smart aleck, kid. You didn't even raise your hand. But of course lampreys aren't carnivores. That doesn't stop Mr Haggard or Longstreet or Weiner (pick a name, any name) from putting them in his book. This is an alternative classic mystery novel. There are no rules here. And especially no rules for grammar, syntax or metaphorical language. Making a nice segue to these select passages from Death Walks on Cat Feet.

The paperback reprint published under Longstreet's
other pseudonym and given a more lurid & fitting title
Describing Sam Macabre's problem with a bumpy ride on the flight to Miami:
Sam felt his stomach coming north on an elevator.

Describing the sounds of a gospel choir:
The obligattos of hosannas took on a strange grandeur.

The art of the simile:
Mrs. Elm's former cottage was as silent as an obelisk.

Metaphor a la Haggard:
The nine foot cyclone-fence, that did monkey shines around the estate, was topped with thick arteries of extra tough barb wire...

Wiseacre dialog:
"Lives there a dame who isn't a pushover for any kind of stinking gallantry?"

I could fill the page with examples of this memorable writing. But you must discover the rest on your own. If you dare...  Copies of Death Walks on Cat Feet are incredibly scarce but you can find a few copies under a different title and a different pseudonym (see photo at right) for between $15 and $23.  Or you can purchase my "well read" copy in the original hardcover using the original more poetic title. Just drop me an email.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

One Year Old!

It's been one year and two days for Pretty Sinister Books in the blogosphere.  I missed the big one year anniversary.  Life is too busy these days.  So Happy Belated Birthday to the blog!

Just wanted to take the time to thank all those who are now regular readers and specifically the two people who welcomed me so warmly and openly (Bev and Yvette, that's you). Without all the many comments and varied insights I would've thrown in the towel long ago.  That this is such a success is a constant surprise and delight to me.  Thanks for coming back day after day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

FFB: Do Not Disturb - Helen McCloy

Edith Talbot has fled Paris and her ex-husband to return to New York for a well deserved break. She takes up residence in the Hotel Majestic where she begrudgingly is given the only room available. It turns out to be next door to Room 1404 from which horrible crying can be heard – the crying and sobbing of what she believes to be an adult male. She is tempted to knock on the door but notices the "Do Not Disturb" sign on door and decides to honor the request.

The next day she mentions the incident to the desk clerk who reveals that the room she is staying in was reserved by the man in Room 1404. He is Dr. Melchior, a psychiatrist, traveling with his son who is suffering from a painful ailment. Melchior wanted to reserve the room adjacent (where Edith is staying) but not use it so that no one would be bothered by his son's frequent crying and moaning. The desk clerk reluctantly gave the room to Edith because she was insistent on staying in the hotel. Edith thinks the doctor's reasoning is odd but returns to her room.

The second night she hears a piercing scream and rushes to the room next door to find out exactly what is going on. This time she ignores the "Do Not Disturb" sign and knocks until she gets an answer. The man who opens the door identifies himself as Captain Gorgas of the New York Police. After Edith's persistent questioning he tells her they are interrogating a suspect in a crime and she should return to her room and forget anything she may have heard. It's none of her business. He closes the door in her face leaving her puzzled as to where Dr. Melchior and his son might be since they are the ones who should be in the room.

Edith leaves to visit a friend the next day and when she returns that night she discovers a dead body in her room. The man resembles one of the men she had seen when Gorgas opened the door to Room 1404. And she does what any character in a suspense novel would do – she flees the hotel in search of help.

But by doing so she inadvertently sets herself up as the accused. Soon her photograph is in all the newspapers as a woman wanted for questioning in the man's murder. Everywhere she turns she thinks someone is part of a plot to capture her and turn her into the police. She spends the entire book trying to find somewhere that is safe, someone who she can trust, who will believe her story and help her find who really killed the man in her hotel room.

This is not a detective novel, though there are elements of crime solving. Dr. Basil Willing, McCloy's usual series detective, is nowhere in sight. This is a pure cat-and-mouse pursuit thriller. But Do Not Disturb (1943) is not as fast paced as it could be due to McCloy's usual fondness for didactic passages in both the dialog and the prose. While there tends to be far too much intellectualizing on Edith's part, and lots of talk about the psychology of criminal behavior, there is also some fascinating background on life in WW2 era America – both urban and rural viewpoints. Gas rationing and its impact on traffic, air raid patrols, blackouts in buildings of fifteen stories or taller all play an important part in the story as Edith flees the city, with the police hot on her heels, to head for Pennsylvania to seek refuge with her former high school friend.

There is a very odd scene where she is helped by an overly friendly couple in the Pennsylvania hills. After escaping from a bus full of inquisitive passengers one of whom recognizes her from her infamous newspaper photo and sends out the alarm she trudges through the woods, comes across a house. Comforted by a German Shepherd and a black cat that greet her and practically invite her inside she enters the unlocked home just like Goldilocks in need of food and shelter. Inside, the unnamed man and woman treat her like their own child, feed her, chit chat with her about their life, then leave her to watch over the house while they head out for a church function. Edith is rightly suspicious of their behavior but after more rationalizing and intellectualizing decides they mean well. As it turns out she is not as safe as she thought when they leave the house. It is one of many scenes that McCloy creates to lull the reader into a false sense of Edith's safety only to let loose with a barrage of unexpected violence.

I was reminded of so many Hitchcock films like The Wrong Man, and especially The 39 Steps, while reading McCloy's book. It is relentless in its themes of pursuit and the wrongly accused. It even employs Hitchcock's favorite plot gimmick of "find the MacGuffin" as so many of the villains believe that Edith is in possession of that "something special" yet she hasn't a clue what it is.

The book shifts into a quasi-spy thriller when Edith is abducted (for the third time!) and returned to New York where she encounters more suspicious police and a lawyer named Charles Henderson who is adamant that Edith has that "something special" in her possession and demands its return. Strangely, her ex-husband Lucien will turn up in the course of the twisty plot and prove to be her most trustworthy ally. Or is he really at the core of it all? Typical of these kinds of suspense thrillers the element of paranoia, Edith's constant weighing of who is trustworthy or not, takes over. Though we see the action only through Edith's eyes it is just as difficult for the reader to determine who are the good guys and who are the baddies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas

What a lucky find this was! I went into one of my favorite used bookstores looking for two Ed McBain books which I knew I would find. Before leaving I skimmed the shelves for odd hardbacks with DJs like I always do hoping some treasure will magically appear and I saw the spine of a book way up on a top shelf and I could only read VINING. "Is that what I think it is?" I mumbled to myself. I had to grab a stepladder, climb up, and pull it off the shelf. Lo and behold! The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) -- an impossible crime novel I've been on the hunt for years. And when I opened the cover to check the price and saw it was under $10 I had to buy it. I was in the midst of finishing a book for the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge but I set it aside so I could finally read this incredibly hard to find book, let alone one with a dust jacket. (That's the tattered DJ over to the left - I take what I can get these days, especially for $9.25) I was pleasantly surprised that this book turned out to live up to its reputation as a minor classic with a very original spin on the detective novel and an ingeniously thought out impossible crime.

Laurence Vining is an arrogant, supercilious wanna-be criminologist who dabbles in solving crimes with the aid of his sidekick Dr. Benjamin Willing (no relation to psychiatrist Basil, BTW). After recently receiving more accolades from local newspapers for his capture of the killer in the notorious "Shop Murder" he returns home to find a letter from someone signing herself "Red Hat" who desperately needs his help. The letter instructs Vining to meet her in the Hyde Park tube station the following day at 3:25 PM and seek her out near the elevators. She'll be wearing a red hat, of course. Vining asks Dr Willing if he wants to join him, but Willing declines. That afternoon Vining is discovered stabbed, a ceremonial Malaysian dagger sticking out of his back, after descending alone in the elevator at Hyde Park station. There were only two people present at the time and both were on the platform to witness Vining falling out of the elevator. No one was inside the elevator and no one was on the upper level from where he descended. How was it done?

The Scene of the Crime - one of three diagrams in the book (click to enlarge)

I was expecting that Dr. Wiling would take over as the main sleuth having always lived in the shadow of Laurence Vining. But it is the shrewd and intolerant Inspector Widgeon who takes charge of the case and will solve the complicated murder.  Widgeon suffers no fools gladly often rudely interrupting long-winded suspects and urging them to get to their point quickly.

DJ illustration from 1st US edition, Lippincott (1929)
Soon after the discovery of Vining's murdered body his nephew Jack who was longing to marry Vining's secretary vanishes. Also the trusted Malaysian servant Suleiman flees the household when he learns that the weapon used to dispatch Vining was the very same rare artifact of religious importance stolen from a locked cabinet in Vining's study.  Widgeon has two teams of policemen searching for both missing men while he continues to interrogate Vining's servants and the tube station employees looking for some motive for the bizarre crime. In the process he uncovers some strange sexual relationships among the suspects, an adulterous affair, Vinings' intent to disinherit Jack, and an outlandish secret involving Jack's true parentage that rivals anything in a Dickens novel.

The whole book is something of a send-up of the traditional detective novel. The amateur sleuth is the victim, the sidekick disappears into the background becoming almost invisible, the policeman sleuth is brusque and far from gentlemanly, and several of the suspects are presented as burlesques of the stereotypes found in the genre. While there is a trace of comedy here the book is not intended as a parody. The complexity of the plot, the singularity of the murder method, and the motive are all deadly serious at heart.Most impressive to me was discovering how meticulous the murder was planned. Not only was the deed itself thought out to the last detail, but all variations of the "impossibility" being ruined by unexpected tube passengers, ill timing of the elevators, absence of the lift man who opens the elevator doors, etc. were all taken into consideration so that the actual murder would only take place in the presence of two specific witnesses and no one else. If anything occurred to prevent this from happening the plan would be abandoned.  It's truly a bravura performance on the part of Thomas.

This is the third book in the Perilous Policemen portion of my adventure in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Below are the other titles I have read so far in which the primary investigator is a policeman. Five more will follow and then I'll move on to Part Two of my three part challenge.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King

Friday, January 20, 2012

FFB: Benefit Performance - Richard Sale

"Don't ever die before your time. If you die, make sure you're playing the part yourself. You find out very unkind things about the human race otherwise."
--Kerry Garth in Benefit Performance

For the first few chapters of Richard Sale's Benefit Performance (1946) I thought I had stumbled upon an overlooked alternative classic. The plot became increasingly insane reminiscent of one of the paranoid menace thrillers of Cornell Woolrich. There were prize sentences chockful of idiosyncratic adjective choices that were signaling Loony Tunes music cues in my imaginary soundtrack for the book and sent me thumbing through my Funk and Wagnall's for elucidation. Most of them all occurring in one chapter, strangely enough.
The slap sent his dark glasses free-wheeling across the room, raised galactic meteors on the curtain of his mind and stung like the devil.
His innards felt like cold madrilene.
Death's xanthic hue, its pinched fingers, its hollow repose had lent Barnes a classical look.
The sun vanished in the well-ordered and dramatic delitescense of the joint.

Madrilene? Unless you're a sous chef or a gourmet I doubt that will ring a bell. Turns out it's a fancy soup, specifically "a consommé flavored with tomato, often served jellied and chilled." Delitescence? Over my head again. The lexicographers of the interweb tell me it means obfuscation or concealment. Learned a new word, but I doubt it'll find its way into everyday use for me.

Once we clear the wreckage of Chapter 12 the writing slowly descends from the orbit of pulpy outer space and returns firmly to planet Earth. The story is fast paced maze of deception and murder plots, peppered with typical wise cracking dialog, and populated with shapely, scantily clad dames and pistol packing thugs. Though most of the characters are involved in the movie industry we might as well be in the underworld of New York or Chicago what with all the stolen guns and bullets flying everywhere.
In a nutshell...or maybe something slightly bigger:  Kerry Garth, movie actor, awakens from a drunken stupor to discover he's been shot and killed.  Or rather that his movie stand-in has been shot and killed. Garth's controlling press agent, Casey Jones, reminds him of the events of the past 24 hours.  The two of them asked Joshua Barnes, the stand-in, to take Garth's place at a movie premiere so Garth could get a long rest from the grueling production. Casey thinks that someone intended to kill Garth and he is not safe.  He devises a wild plan for Garth to impersonate Barnes until he can sort things out.  But on the first night in his new role Garth learns that the man he's pretending to be was mixed up with gambling gangsters, a songbird for whom he was a piano accompanist, and a married woman who was planning to bump off her husband with Barne's help.  Suddenly it looks as if Barnes was worse than no good -- he was rotten to the core and was probably the true victim of the gunsel who shot him. Garth is eager to discover the truth and sets out to play detective to his own murder.

Sale gets a lot of mileage out of the role playing business. There are lots of obvious jokes ("This was not in the script, was it, Casey?") and some farcical bits about Garth's disguise which requires him to dye his hair, sport a mustache stuck on with spirit gum, and wear dark glasses to cover his baby blues since Barnes had pale gray eyes. I also liked the classic scene where Garth attends his own funeral and overhears two writers discussing his acting talent. Make that a severe lack of acting talent - especially his mangling of script dialog, the actor's cardinal sin according to most writers. It's the best comic scene among many.
But it's the wacky multi-layered crime plot with everyone turning out to be a crook or a schemer that is Sale's real success here. I whipped through this book quickly and enjoyed every word.  If you're looking for  a good example of the pulpy fun and a send-up of the olden days of the Hollywood studio system look no further than Benefit Performance.  For once I'm reviewing a book that's easy to find in multiple editions.  The second illustration is of the most common edition - the Dell mapback - and there are many copies for sale from online dealers. It might even turn up in your local library.
This book qualifies for another few inches of successfully attained ascent in my 2012 Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Two down and thirty-eight more to go. No altitude sickness yet. I'm crossing my fingers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crime in the Dutch Garden - Herbert Adams

I lied. I said I was going to write up a Neglected Detectives entry on Jimmie Haswell, but this book is so rich and different that I had to give it special attention. Also, the three books I ordered by Herbert Adams turned out to be books without Haswell which threw a wrench into my plan to write up about three or four books with Haswell as the protagonist. What surprised me most about Crime in the Dutch Garden (1930) is that it is one of the few examples where the addition of multiple love stories works because love and the refusal of love are at the very core of the many mysteries of the plot.

Haswell visits newlywed cousin Donald and his wife Nancy (they both appeared in The Golden Ape, the book the immediately precedes this one in Adam's bibliography) and is asked to help solve the violent murder of Annabelle Querdling. She was found crushed to death by the statue of a satyr, something that will prove to be an ironic death when Haswell learns more about her personality.

Previously, Miss Querdling's niece Evelyn and her fiance Lionel Duckworth, visited Haswell to discuss the receipt of anonymous letters threatening Miss Querdling's life. Haswell wonders if her death a culmination of those threats. A chauffeur with a volatile temper is suspected. He had recently been sacked for showing an romantic interest in Miss Querdling's maid. Haswell soon learns that not only did Miss Querdling disapprove of the romance, but she has a neurotic antipathy for all romantic attachments and especially to the idea of marriage. Her revulsion of marriage is so far gone that she wants to prevent even her two nieces ever being happy with a husband and had plans to rewrite her will so that none of her money would go to the women if they were to marry. But the will has gone missing and thorough searches have turned up nothing.

Haswell is first and foremost a lawyer by profession. Similar to the stories by Melville Davisson Post featuring his devious lawyer Randolph Mason strange quirks in the law come into play in several of Herbert Adams' detective novels. The legal issues surrounding the withdrawal of an inheritance if a legatee were to marry are discussed at length and were a very interesting insight into British law.

Italian edition, 1932. Even Adams' name is translated!
The usual action thriller elements of Adams' early work give way to stronger character studies and a thematic exploration of love and marriage in the context of a criminal investigation. We learn that Evelyn is determined to marry Lionel despite her aunt's protestations. Her sister, Marjorie, on the other hand honors the aunt's wishes by remaining unattached. But who is Marjorie sneaking off to meet in the garden? It seems she has more to hide than Evelyn. Even the lives of the servants are affected by Annabelle Querdling's strange anti-romance obsession. Haswell's scenes with Janet, the maid who was engaged to marry the chauffeur, are some of the most poignant in the book. He has quite a humane and compassionate touch in dealing with the sensitive aspects in this investigation as opposed to the colder police methods of Supt. Richmond.

Detection, too, is on ample display in this book. Haswell and Supt. Richmond spend plenty of time going over the crime scenes discovering that a bench had been moved to better allow for an accurate hit when the statue was toppled. The statue itself is thoroughly examined and it is determined it was so finely constructed and keenly balanced that it could not have accidentally toppled from its mount. There is also some business with alibi checking with only Evelyn and Lionel seemingly out of the picture as they had retired to the parlor for piano playing and singing and were heard there fro the entire evening the night of the murder.

Miss Querdling's estate is bordered by a golf course and country club (see that excellent map endpapers below). Like many of Adams' books golf plays its part, but here it serves as more of a social background. A game of golf becomes the perfect excuse for several characters to have private conversations without the eavesdropping ears of other suspects or servants around.

Adams has all sorts of excellent touches in this book that may be overlooked by someone who approaches the book as a mere puzzle mystery. The victim abhors love and seems to shut out beauty, but lives in one of the most beautiful and romantic homes surrounded by artfully designed and lovingly cared for gardens. She is murdered with a statue of a mythological figure that symbolizes lust, a brilliant ironic touch. The site of her murder is one of the many picturesque, serene gardens that also happens to be a place where two characters have been having nighttime trysts.

Map of the gardens at Anabelle Querdling's estate
(click to enlarge)

The gardens themselves play an important role in the book not just serving as an unusual setting. I know this is going to sound pretentious but couldn't help but think of Shakepeare's plays and his forest and garden worlds where lovers are misunderstood or misaligned, where disguise and false identities impede and hinder the course of true love, but where in the end all is put right when foolishness is set aside, magic and illusion are dispelled, and common sense helps let true love prevail. All of this can be found in Adam's detective novel. While there's no fairy magic we can think of Haswell's deductions and brilliant insights as a sort of magic that allows the lovers to achieve their rightful union and deserved happiness.

Monday, January 16, 2012

FIRST BOOKS: Murder by the Clock - Rufus King

My latest addition to the Perilous Policemen part of the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge takes me back to 1929 and the very first Lieutenant Valcour novel written by the unjustly dismissed Rufus King. It's been a long time since I've read a book from the late 1920s that seems more like something from the mid 20th century. By the time I finished the book I found more comparisons in the brooding psychological private eye novels of Ross MacDonald, the sexual temptresses of nearly every hard-boiled writer during the 1950s, and the paranoid urban households in so many paperback originals of the 1960s. King even flirts with elements of the surreal in this book classified as a detective novel from Doubleday's Crime Club, a publisher better known for traditional whodunits than this kind of literate novel that uses crime not as a means to entertain but as the springboard for delving in the darker recesses of human behavior.

Herbert Endicott, a philandering husband, is found dead in a walk in closet in his bedroom. There are some suspicious signs that lead Valcour to think foul play yet there is no sign of a weapon and no visible wound on the corpse to verify murder. But when the body refuses to stay dead and the suspects begin to voice their utter hatred for the victim I knew the book was going to stray far away from the typical "find the cigarette ash and footprints" stories that flooded the market in the 1920s. King's writing, too, is a big clue that this book is meant to be more than just a time passing entertainment. He has a way of capturing your attention with neat turns of phrase, lyrical styling, and an eccentric sense of humor.
How pleasant it would be he reflected, to come across the perfect imprint of a shoe [...] -- or what was it that was so popular at the moment? -- of course: the footprint of a gorilla. The case would then be technically known as an open-and-shut one. He'd simply take the train for California and arrest Lon Chaney, and-- But enough.

When the body is found there is no sign of any weapon. The police physician at first thinks Endicott has suffered a stroke or heart attack and his death is a natural one. Valcour finds evidence of another person being in the closet, and signs that Endicott's body has been searched. He suspects foul play and orders an autopsy of the body while it is still in the house. That's when the physician discovers that Endicott is still alive. Valcour then sets up a plan to keep Endicott guarded by both a nurse and two policemen to prevent another more fatal attack on Endicott. Perhaps he may even catch the culprit in the act of a second murder attempt.

A notable feature of the story is that it takes place in less than 12 hours, from 8:37 PM to 7:11 AM the following day, with the action almost entirely confined to the Endicott household. Valcour makes a few side trips to interview suspects not in the home and does so in the wee hours of the morning adding a very surreal element to the story. None of the characters seems to be too upset about someone knocking on their door at two or three in the morning – even if it is a policeman. In one case Valcour doesn't even get to identify himself since the woman who answers the door thinks he is Endicott. Valcour even allows her to badger him with questions for a few pages before he bothers to correct her assumption.

King experiments with the narrative. We mostly follow Valcour's point of view but on occasion he allows us into the thoughts of other characters. For example, we learn that Nurse Morrow who is put in charge of watching over Endicott, is a dreamy romantic woman who hopes her life will finally blossom into the kind of adventurous one she always imagined it would be:
The present case looked as a heaven sent oasis. Who knew what might not develop out of it? It awakened all the atrophied hunger of her starved sentimentalism. And even if nothing did result form it -- nothing practical, like marriage, or a good bonus -- it would at least leave her something to think about during those endless, tiresome, tiring hours of the future.
At the halfway mark of the one night's investigation Valcour finds Tom Hollander, a former war buddy of Endicott and who some members of the household think is the only man who Endicott can call a friend. Valcour sends for Hollander hoping that when Endicott recovers from his semi-comatose state he will confide in Hollander and reveal who attacked him. Events do not go as planned, however. Hollander is not the friend he presents himself as. Valcour inadvertently has placed Endicott's life in further danger.

1931 film poster. The movie blended the plots of two
plays, one of which was an adaptation of King's novel.
There is an air of dread that settles over the Endicott household. Like a Gothic novel death settles upon everyone and everything. The characters become brooding, turn inward, and allow their imaginations to run wild. Nurse Morrow comments to the two policeman sharing her watch over Endicott that "there is something sinister" about it all. She notes a eerie quiet that "settled gently on the house. The stillness of a grave." Mrs. Endicott's lugubrious servant Roberts, meanwhile, dwells on her haunted past. She reveals that she cannot abide her employer, pesters Valcour with odd questions like if he believes that "the dead [can] remain in emotional touch with the living." She drops several hints that Mrs. Endicott and Hollander were probably having an affair of their own. But is there proof or is it merely the product of Roberts' jealous and confused mind? Later Valcour describes Roberts as "the shortest step this side of some fervour bred in the swamp of lunacy." Menace, madness, and death are everywhere Valcour turns.

Despite all his efforts to protect Endicott the murderer does make a second and successful attempt on his life. But it seems nearly impossible. With two policeman in the room and a nurse on duty could someone really have fired a gun from the balcony through the small opening where the window was raised and struck Endicott fatally wounding him? In the remaining three hours of the book's plot Valcour manages to unearth more secrets, prevent a suicide attempt, and find the hiding place of the murderer who has remained in the house the entire night.

Murder by the Clock is unlike any other American mystery I have read from this era. True, there is detection and the policeman hero is doggedly determined to bring in the villain of the piece, but the emphasis here seems to be less on the mechanics of the criminal investigation and more on the after effects of the crime as it alters the lives of the Endicott household. In this respect King's novel is far more modern than one would expect for his era. He may have been one of the earliest writers to explore the real drama inherent in crime and its aftermath rather than exploiting a fictional murder as a mere puzzle entertainment.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: A.C. McClurg Bookstore Receipt

This was found inside my copy of Wings by Achmed Abdullah, the only copy to date that I know of that has a dust jacket.  It's a collection of short stories that deal with mysticism and the supernatural elements of Asian religions.  Judging by the date of publication of Wings (1920) and the date on the receipt (April 9, 1921) it's very possible that this is the original purchase receipt from the original owner of this book. But then again, maybe it's just a slip for the purchase of paper and pens.  I notice that there are quantities of 6 and 3 and the only single price is 35 cents.  A hardcover book cost $2.00 in the 1920s.

Front of receipt
Back of receipt
"Examined / APR 9  1921/ Main Floor"
Receipt found laid inside this book

A.C. McClurg was a leading publisher that began as Chicago's oldest book and stationery store. The publishing house is probably best known among bibliophiles as the firm responsible for bringing Tarzan to a larger reading public. In 1914 they released Tarzan of the Apes as a book after it's first appearance in the October 1912 issue of All Story Magazine.  It was the most popular title in the publisher's history. They went on to publish ten more titles before Burroughs set up his own publishing operation.

From the history of the bookstore at The Newberry Library website:

A.C. McClurg & Co. traces its origins to Chicago’s oldest book and stationery store which was founded in 1844. The young Alexander C. McClurg went to work for the company, then known as S. C. Griggs, in 1859. McClurg resumed working for Griggs after returning from the Civil War with the rank of general. S.C. Griggs lost all its contents in a fire in 1868. But when the store was completely destroyed by the great Chicago Fire of 1871, Griggs decided to sell his share of the company to E. L. Jansen, A. C. McClurg and F. B. Smith. Jansen, McClurg & Co. was established in 1872. The business flourished and in 1873 published its first title, Landscape Architecture by H. W. S. Cleveland. By 1880 McClurg’s ranked as one of the country’s largest book distributors. In addition to its wholesale book business, McClurg supplied to small-town retailers throughout the West and Midwest a variety of merchandise, including “blank books and tablets, stationery, typewriter paper and supplies, hair and tooth brushes, druggists’ sundries, pocketbooks, pipes, pocket cutlery, etc.

For more about the original A.C. McClurg bookstore go here.

To learn about the Newberry Library and their bookstore named in honor of A.C. McClurg go here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

FFB: The Mummy Case Mystery - Dermot Morrah

There are few university set mysteries that are as deeply immersed in academia as the sole detective novel by Dermot Morrah. With few exceptions the entire cast is made up of college professors or university officials and their world is confined to the ivy covered halls of Beaufort College, Oxford. At the heart of the story is an academic rivalry centered on the minutiae of highly specialized Egyptology research. When a dreadful accident occurs and one of their own turns up dead all that matters is that the university not suffer scandal.

A fire occurs in the rooms of Peter Benchley, professor of Egyptology, where a newly purchased mummy was being temporarily stored.  The fire completely destroys his room and only one body is found inside, charred beyond recognition. The only items that can be found to identify the body are a wristwatch and a set of keys.  Denys Sargent, law professor, is not satisfied with the university's quick decision to settle the matter by calling it an accident and voting that Benchley be formally named as the charred corpse.  He wonders if the body is Benchley's, then what happened to the mummy?  And if the body is really the mummy, then where did Benchley go?  And could Benchley's rival, the Russian Egyptologist Feodor Bonoff, have something to do with the fire that is all too suspicious?  Sargent and his pal Humphrey Considine, ancient Assyria professor, set out to discover the answers to these riddles and more.

Even though the book sounds violent and gruesome from my plot summary the tone is lighthearted, the writing sharp, the humor acerbic, and the emphasis always on the cerebral not the criminal.  Over analysis may be the book's one fault. In Chapter 9 entitled "The Examiners" Sargent and Considine review sixteen separate points about the fire and the mysterious circumstances of the body, the mummy and what actually happened to Benchley. They outline all the possibilities and parameters in such detail it is easy to see through the culprit's deception. Yet even if the reader figures out the true identity of the charred body there are still a few delightful surprises in the amusing final chapters.

Of the many academic mysteries out there this is one of the best from the Golden Age.  Satiric, clever, with a very dry British humor - they don't seem to write them like this anymore. And I doubt you will find a better book that mixes crime and universities where the motives of the culprit are so thoroughly intellectual that only a professor could dream up such a scheme.

Luckily, this is one of the rare instances where you can buy a cheap copy of the book.  The Mummy Case Mystery was reissued in a paperback edition by Harper's Perennial Library in 1988 and a handful of copies are available from multiple online dealers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Sentry-Box Murder - Newton Gayle

My attempt to tackle as many obscure writers as possible this year (I have a reputation to uphold after all) turned up this oddity that I had forgotten I owned. So far it is the only detective novel set in pre-World War Two era Puerto Rico I've ever heard of let alone read. The premise - a treasure hunt in an ancient fort with a haunted tower- was so enticing, so much like something John Dickson Carr might write if he were more a fan of exotic locales, that I had to tear into it.

A group of tourists are engaged in a treasure hunt on the grounds of El Morro, a historic fort in Old Juan (and now the only national park on that island commonwealth). Among the participants we find Senator John Monarch; his wife, movie actress Melita Avery; Monarch's lawyer and Melita's sometime lover, Fergus McKelvie; Monarch's nephew Elmer; Stella Tophet, a strident American housewife; Jim Greer, ex-British Secret Service agent; and Robin Upwood his friend and an agent in the British Foreign Office. The treasure hunt ends abruptly when someone quite literally stumbles upon the corpse of the senator in the location of the title. He has been shot in a room with only one entrance, two windows that are no more than slits in the masonry, and that was being watched by two guards. An impossible murder! More Carr influence at work?  Well, not quite.

The book is narrated by Upwood and while he is involved in the action and we get to follow him along on his creepy adventures in the dungeon during the treasure hunt, the true detective of the piece is Jim Greer. Because Upwood is the first person narrator we only know of Greer's activities if the two of them are together. However, Greer is offstage a lot for much of the first part of the book and we only learn of his findings through dialogue exchanges with Upwood. This was beginning to bother me because I prefer fair play detective novels in which the reader and detective discover clues together. But later Greer will team up with Upwood and we get to follow the detection first hand via Upwood's narration.

The now inaccessible haunted sentry box at El Morro
Greer is one of those know-it-all amateur detectives. He reminded me of a British Philo Vance minus the foppery and quirky exclamations like "Oh my aunt!" He seems to be brilliant and intuitive but has a tendency to jump to conclusions, display his biases and chauvinism and make specious comments that rule out minor characters committing the crime like this: "Oakley [the chief of police] assures me that deliberate murder is totally alien to Puerto Rican character. There's a fair amount of crime of the passionel kind down here, but the local records contain no single case of killing planned in cold blood." I can't believe that the island was that much of an Eden even in 1935.

While the Puerto Rican characters are allowed to speak Spanish with Upwood acting as sometime translator (he is practically fluent in the language), there is the other end of the spectrum embodied in the character of Félise, a maid from the Virgin Islands. She speaks in heavily rendered phonetic dialog and is thrown in as the usual black character intended as an object of ridicule. With her "dems" and "dose" and her talk of spooks and superstition it's the most off putting part in a book which for the most part is very modern and sophisticated. Here's a sampling of Félise's words of wisdom, some keen advice for anyone investigating mysteries (with or without ghosts):
"Dar does be tings dat you believes and tings dat you doesn't believe. Sometime it seem a long way out but den you take a little jump home and it coom."
There is ample amount of detection but most of Greer's energy seems to be focussed on extraneous matters. A packet of shirts found in the bushes with odd scribbling on the cuff on the left sleeves, the search for the owner of a mysterious British accented voice that threatened Monarch with a terrible vengeance, and some strange verse-like scribblings left in a hotel room are only a sampling of the numerous clues that monopolize Greer's investigation. All of these seem to lead to the murderer and I was convinced I had nailed the culprit only to have the rug pulled out from under me in the final paragraphs of the penultimate chapter. While I was disappointed in the identity of the real murderer I must allow a tip of the hat to Gayle in fooling me by leading me down to the garden path to the false culprit. No mean feat for a novice mystery writer. This was, after all, the second book of a total of five.

Aerial view of the entire park enclosing El Morro
The investigation of Senator Monarch's murder is only the second book with Greer and Upwood and yet the story is peppered with allusions to several cases in their past. It happens about five times in the course of the book. The first time is a reference to their first case which was published as Death Follows the Formula (1935). This is understandable and a typical marketing strategy of publishers who want to sell books. Many of the detective novels of the 1930s have these kind of footnotes luring readers to the writer's earlier work. But later Upwood talks about the Stavinsky case "one of those things that cannot yet be told" which also "had been a crime with certain similarities" to the one being investigated in The Sentry-Box Murder. Gayle is trying to make Greer into a sort of Holmes with his own giant rat of Sumatra and other astonishing career adventures. It's irritating, especially since Greer is hardly in the class of Holmes.

More interesting than the book are the biographies of the two people who authored it. "Newton Gayle" is the pseudonym of a writing duo made up of Muna Lee and Maurice Guinness. Lee was a well known poet from Mississippi whose early career included work with the U.S. Secret Service as a confidential translator where she censored mail written Spanish as well as in Portuguese and French. She married another poet from Puerto Rico, Luis Munoz Marin and the two moved to Puerto Rico. While living there she collaborated with Guinness, a Shell Oil executive, on five detective novels most of which feature Jim Greer. Not surprisingly both their backgrounds come into play in their books. Death Follows a Formula deals with a man who discovers an alternative fuel to gasoline and his eventual murder. Their third book, Murder at 28:10 (1936), is also set in Puerto Rico. For more about Lee see this detailed article about mystery writers from Mississippi.

This is my first successfully finished book in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Crampons and ice pick were not necessary on this leg, though they may be required later in the year as I scale the hazardous peaks in the mini-mountain range I call my TBR pile.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sleeping Bacchus - Hilary St George Saunders

Here's a book that has a unique history. It started as a French mystery called Le Repos Bacchus (1938) written by Pierre Boileau (whose collaborations with Thomas Narcejac I have reviewed here, here and here). Saunders, who wrote as "Francis Beeding" with his own collaborator John Palmer, came across the book in a Parisian bookshop and thought it remarkable after reading it. He had hoped to write his own version, but Palmer died in 1944 before the two could collaborate. Still Saunders managed to get permission from Boileau and wrote the book on his own. This led to the publication in English of The Sleeping Bacchus in 1951. I know nothing of the original French version, but according to the brief history on the DJ blurb Saunders felt that the story was slightly outdated and had to update it. I am assuming that the updating had to do with World War Two since many of the characters are either veterans or deserters of that war and it does play a minor part in the proceedings. This is the only case I have encountered where one mystery writer's book inspired a rewritten and updated version of the story by another mystery writer from a different country. In movies we find this kind of thing happening frequently: Japanese, Thai and Korean horror movies remade in the US by the dozens for example. And most recently the US movie versions of the Stieg Larsson books already successful in their original Swedish. I'm curious if there are other instances of rewritten stories in the book world.

Saunders' book is - like Boileau's - the story of an art theft and an apparently impossible art theft at that. the book presents three "miracle problems" with varying degrees of complexity. The large painting of the title was removed from a locked room under guard. While the thief bungled his escape and was captured the painting could not be found anywhere. Later in the book another thief shows up to retrieve the painting and seems to have climbed over an unscalable wall in a matter of seconds while being fired at by his gun toting pursuers. Finally, a third impossibility occurs when a Black Maria vanishes from a road in full view of several witnesses. There is no sign of the prisoner inside and neither the driver nor the policeman guarding the prisoner can be found.

While the later two impossible problems are less than thrilling and easily solved, the theft of the painting and where it ended up is one of those stunning pieces of misdirection worthy of the master himself - John Dickson Carr. The book itself begins as a detective novel but transforms into a cinematic action thriller. It would be a perfect candidate for a movie these days with a large number of car and foot chases, lots of gunplay, several kidnappings, and a cast of witty and intelligent characters. A scene in which our hero John Marriott is tied to a fence while he watches the second thief take flight over the moors towards the "unclimbable" fence and his rescue by a negligee clad, pistol-packing mama is one of the best in the book. She uses Marriott's shoulder to steady her aim and she fires three shots at the fleeing culprit nearly deafening him in the process but nonetheless leaving an impression of her crack marksmanship.

At one time a rather scarce book copies of The Sleeping Bacchus are now easily obtainable. My quick online search turned up several for sale with the intriguing 1st edition dust jacket shown above. As an example of an impossible crime novel without a murder The Sleeping Bacchus is unique in the genre. And it certainly can hold its own against anything by Carr, Halter or any of the other practitioners of the impossible crime mystery.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig

Pete Selby and Stan Rayder are on the case again. And some good news: after appearing as nothing more than a cameo in the first three books with hardly any input Stan Rayder, the apparently junior partner in the team, gets a much bigger role. We learn more about him than the constant look of surprise on his face (it's those permanently furrowed brow lines). Stan comes into his own and I suspect judging by his short temper and conservative worldview he may become something akin to the "bad cop" in a good cop/bad cop duo.

The case involves the murder and apparent rape of a Bonnie Nichols, a commercial artist who has been leading a double life. The detective work here is not as interesting as in the previous books nor is the mystery as puzzling or intriguing. The book emphasizes the duplicitous nature of the victim and the sleazier sexual escapades that gave her a thrill before someone got tired of her Machiavellian ways and gave her the brutal beating that ended her wicked life.

Among the suspects we have these colorful characters:

Mr. Connor - Bonnie's landlord and proprietor of the candy store on the first floor of the building where she lives. He may or may not have a past history of being a child molester. He arouses the ire of his easily jealous wife when he pays a bit too much attention to the pretty women who frequent the candy store.

Ralph Hagan - Bonnie's driving instructor who insists that Bonnie turned on her sex kitten charm nearly every time the two were alone in her car. Is he making it all up or was Bonnie really a predatory woman?

Lori Mason - Bonnie's ex-roommate, also an artist. A catty gossip of a young woman who has nothing good to say about Bonnie. She has plenty of dirt on Bonnie's nightlife with...

Mel Tyner - a pimp who collected money and gifts from Bonnie after her numerous "dates."

Jason Lambert - owner of the perfume company that hired Bonnie to design some labels and bottles for his company. Didn't like Bonnie because of her too close friendship with his wife....

Elaine Lambert - a tart tongued wanna-be socialite trapped in a loveless marriage with her brute of a husband. Her friendship with Bonnie was one of the decent parts of her miserable life.

Pete and Stan do a lot of leg work and interviewing of the suspects. The sexual frankness dealing with child molestation, prostitution, and even talk of one character's vasectomy are the prominent features in this case. Sex lives - or lack of one - play a big role in the crime and the murderer's motive. While the denouement is not as surprising as the previous two books I've read getting to know Stan better and seeing how he and Pete are growing as police partners was worth the reading.

FREAK OF THE WEEK: Each time I read one of these books I discover that Craig loves to throw in some wacko with an odd sexual fetish - usually one I've never heard of. This time it's Mel Tyner. We learn that in addition to being Bonnie's pimp and loves to undress his choice women, have them stand in a bathtub in their underwear and douse them with perfume from some kind of a hardware implement that amounts to a fancy squirt gun. He's a perfume fetishist. We've already had a shameless Peeping Tom caught with his pants around his ankles in public and a "snipe grabber" - a guy who gets off on smoking the cigarette butts of lipstick wearing women. Add "scentophile" to the batch.

Next month, I'll be going back to the beginning of the series with book two - Morgue of Venus - which I finally purchased at a bargain price back in November of last year. Then I'll jump ahead to book five and continue in order until the end of the series.

Other Selby/Rayder books reviewed on this blog are:

The Dead Darling (1955)
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)

*    *    *

This is my first book in Part One of Bev's 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge: Perilous Policemen: 8 books with a policeman as the primary investigator. During January and February I will be focussing on books about cops and police inspectors for this particular section of this reading challenge.

Friday, January 6, 2012

FFB: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Long before Gregory Maguire's first book Wicked became a huge hit on Broadway (3388 performances and still going strong) he was still a fairly unknown writer concocting some imaginative reworkings of familiar fairy tales and children's books. Now with a blockbuster Broadway musical fashioned from his book Maguire has gained the kind of attention his books should have given more than a decade ago. His second book - Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) - still remains my favorite of all his work and ought to be as well known as Wicked.  But I fear it has been overshadowed and is long forgotten due to the musical and the sequels Maguire has written as part of his re-imagined Oz.

Just when you think there have been too many re-imagined versions of well-known fairy tales along comes one that brilliantly reinvents perhaps the archetype of all fairy tales. Maguire, who with Wicked wrote a subversively political tale about Baum's Wicked Witch of the West, surpasses his debut novel with this compassionate tale of beauty and familial duty. Once again his richly detailed prose captures that feeling of a once upon a time that true fairy tales require and does so without ever appearing artificial.

This story of Iris and Ruth, their complex mother Margarethe, and their stepsister Clara of the "afflicted eternal beauty" is filled with wonderfully shaded characterizations that never fall into that good/evil dichotomy that Grimm and Perrault use in telling the original versions of Cinderella. Can kindness reside within ugliness? Is beauty and attractiveness really something to be envious of? Is a mother's apparent tyrannical household an environment that will produce wickedness? Is a nearly mute sibling nothing more than a drudge to babysit? Find the answers to these not so simple questions within Maguire's excellent story and be prepared to be reassess your own prejudices about the ugly and the beautiful.

This review (in a slightly different form) was written for amazon.com back in 1999 when the book was originally published. That's right, it's a new year and already I've become a lazy slob stealing my reviews from the interweb and posting them on my blog.  Shameful.