Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Notting Hill Mystery Back in Print!

Under the hypnotic influence of the evil Baron R**
illustration from The Notting Hill Mystery
Just read this great article in The Guardian announcing the reissue of The Notting Hill Mystery (1863), an excellent Victorian sensation novel of crime and the supernatural that has been called by genre historian and crime writer Julian Symons "the first detective novel." The book caused a minor sensation over at Mystery*File where I reviewed the novel  back in December 2010 and then a few weeks later Paul Collins dogged investigative work turned up the long hidden true identity of the novel's author who had been hiding behind the pseudonym "Charles Felix" for centuries. Collins' article was published in the New York Times in January 2011. My review of the book was linked to the Wikipedia article on The Notting Hill Mystery three days after the Collins article appeared.

The new issue published by The British Library includes the original illustrations (including the one pictured above) by Georges Du Maurier (writer, artist, and grandfather of Daphne) that accompanied the first publication of the novel when it was serialized in Once a Week magazine starting on Nov. 29, 1862. The book also includes an introduction by Mike Ashley, who has done great work for Ash-Tree Press, Midnight House and other independent publishers.

Very excited about this.  I'm ordering my copy pronto. You can too by clicking here.

Thanks to the gang at Shotsmag Confidential for the link to the article.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Murder in Shinbone Alley - Helen Reilly

Barbara Baron, a student in fashion design at the International School of Design, is found in Shinbone Alley a forgotten byway in lower Manhattan. She plummeted to her death from the rooftop smoking terrace after modeling her winning design in the school's annual competitive fashion show. The sight of her body clad in her handmade bridal gown provides an ironic comment on her planned marriage to the school's president Jorden Fairchild. Suicide and accident are soon ruled out when McKee discovers evidence on the smoking terrace that Barbara had a visitor who gave her a fatal shove.  And it turns out that lots of people might have wanted to send her flying as Babs was a supercilious and loathesome woman.

For the first few chapters this is a fairly routine detective novel that I expected to have more insight into 1940s era police work. But truly it's more of a traditional fair play detective novel than it is police procedural. I was worried when the first few clues turn out to be tired cliches of the genre (a initialed handkerchief, used match sticks, for example) that it would continue down the pathway of the hackneyed. Then the theft of an Indian dagger used by one of the life models is stolen. McKee fears that the dagger will be used on one of the suspects who he is sure saw something on the terrace, but is unwilling to reveal his secret to the police. At this point the story picks up in pace and interest and all my fears of a lackluster story filled with familiar elements were assuaged.

The art school and the various characters who make up the teaching and business staff make for an atypical background and liven the proceedings. Suspicion falls on Nairn English, one of the students, and Philip Mountain, an art instructor. McKeee knows that each is withholding information and in the manner of Trent's Last Case seem to be protecting each other thinking the other is the killer. When the mentally challenged errand boy of the school, Willie Cleet, is found stabbed and Philip is seen fleeing the crime scene and climbing a wall with bloody hands McKee focuses his investigation on finding the art teacher and has his men follow Nairn hoping she will lead him to their suspect.

Highlights of the book include the scenes devoted to the minor police characters' contributions to the murder investigation. Todhunter, a mousey nearly invisible cop, has an uncanny ability to transform himself into other personae. He does a mean drunk impersonation and uses that skill to gain access to Nairn English and gets her to confide in him without letting on he is actually a policeman. Another officer, Captain Pierson, has a great scene where her pursues Nairn though the cemetery at Barbara Baron's funeral. He falls in a shallow grave muddying himself, loses his subject, picks up her trail again and finally tails her to Mountain's hiding place. It was one of the most cinematic set pieces in the book reminding me of a similar graveyard chase on foot in Hitchcock's Family Plot.

Helen Reilly was a pioneer in the police procedural novel. She was one of the first women writers tackling this subgenre as early as the late 1920s. Howard Haycraft said in Murder for Pleasure (1941) that her novels about McKee "are among the most convincing that have been composed on the premise of actual police procedure." Perhaps her other books show off her knowledge to better effect. Surprisingly, the books ends with one of those "gather the suspects in one room" scenes and McKee's seems like something out of an old Agatha Christie novel than the kind of book contemporary police procedurals are these days. Still, Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940) is an enjoyable detective novel with a truly surprising least likely person revealed as the murderer.

AVAILABILITY:  Luckily, this is a book that was reprinted in paperback edition by Macfadden and it went into two printings.  Multiple copies of one or the other are available online ranging from $2 to $15.  Not bad when I usually recommend books that 1. you can't find or 2. will cost you the equivalent of a winter month's heating bill.

This marks seventh book in the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain
Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson

Thursday, February 23, 2012

FFB: The Leprechaun Murders - Adrian Reynolds

Second only to Carolyn Wells is Amelia Reynolds Long in the race for the title Queen of the Wacky Detective Novel. Long lived her entire life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where she began her writing career with science fiction. Several of her early stories are considered classics (though whether they also classify as "alternative classics" I cannot tell you as I have read none of them). She tired of science fiction and weird fiction in the late 1930s and moved onto detective fiction in 1939 when she penned The Shakespeare Murders which feature themed murders related to the works of the Bard. Literary murderers were to be a favorite topic of Long's and she would revisit them in Murder by Scripture (1942) in which the Bible is used as an inspiration for killing and Death Looks Down (1944) with its killer using Poe as a murderous muse. She wrote under her own name and two other pseudonyms: Patrick Laing and Adrian Reynolds. As Reynolds she wrote three books featuring Professor Dennis Barrie, an American literature college professor, who quite by accident becomes an amateur detective. The Leprechaun Murders (1950) is his second appearance. It is a blend of the puzzle whodunits Agatha Christie wrote which Long loved and her own unique brand of the fantastic and the bizarre.

In the opening pages Professor Dennis Barrie has a chance encounter in a bar with Owen Maloney who latches onto him and drunkenly introduces his new friend Mr. Hannigan, an Irish gent with a suspicious resemblance to the cigar chomping fairy godfather character in the Barnaby comic strip. He also has a habit of being invisible just like Harvey, the pooka. Barrie wants to escape from Maloney's company when Maloney explains that Mr. Hannigan is a leprechaun and he has made a bargain with the leprechaun. He will pay him $5000 in order for a wish to come true. And that wish is to make his niece Eileen happy by making her husband disappear. Maloney having exhausted himself (and the reader) with an overload of exposition soon passes out (or is that just the alcohol?). The bartender is ready to throw him out but Barrie volunteers to be a Good Samaritan and drive Maloney home after learning he lives relatively nearby. When he arrives at Maloney's home he discovers an impromptu party with several neighbors and town locals in attendance. We meet almost the entire cast of characters at this party scene. They include:

Eileen Maloney - Owen's niece and her husband the unliked, unloved Bert Henderson
Michael Maloney - Eileen's twin brother, a budding poet Owen calls "the new Thomas More"
Eric Kingsley - a musician in love with Eileen
Sheriff Warner - an ex-private eye from San Francisco now in charge of the law in this Pennsylvania town
Phillip Benson ("The Great Bensoni") - an itinerant ventriloquist on a theatrical circuit currently living in the boarding house next door who provides a bit of entertainment for the party-goers
Mabel Marple - the busybody landlady of the boarding house where Kingsley and Benson live (Yes, they call her Miss Marple throughout the book. Some nerve that Amelia has, eh?)

The rainy weather continues to worsen and Barrie is invited to stay and spend the night (such hospitable strangers). He accepts the offer. During the night he is disturbed by some activity in the yard. He wakes and from his window watches a strange hunched over figure running across the lawn and into a shed in the backyard of the Maloney property. He continues to watch as the figure climbs through an open window in the shed, turns back to close the window and reveals its face -- it looks exactly like the ventriloquist's dummy. The following morning Miss Marple stumbles across a dead body just outside the shed and goes next door to get help from the Maloney. Barrie and several others come out but the body is gone though there are definite traces of a corpse having been there. When it is also learned that Bert Henderson is missing the police are contacted and a search is instituted for Bert or perhaps his dead body. Prof. Barrie is reluctant to reveal what he saw the previous night. For who would ever believe him if he offered his idea that 1. a leprechaun has made a drunk's wish come true and 2. that a ventriloquist's dummy came to life.

The author in 1931
As is usual with Long we get an entire trunkful of detective novel tropes. The story is a mish mash of gimmicks and plot devices she must have picked up in her extensive reading of old mystery fiction. She borrows heavily from the Carolyn Wells bag of tricks with a secret passage (part of the Underground Railway of the Civil War era no less) that no one seems to be aware of that amazingly connects all the cellars of the homes in the neighborhood. Henderson turns out to have a dirty secret in his past that led to his murder - a nod I'm sure to Long's hero Agatha Christie. And -- conscious borrowing or not -- one of the most outrageous parts of the book is a direct descendant of an eerie short story by John Keir Cross now virtually a cliche in mystery and horror fiction. Yet though this book may seem a compendium of other writers' trademarks Long still manages to make this one a real page turner. I had to keep going to see how much she could tip the scales in terms of the preposterous. She does an impressive job, my friends.

Like a true alternative classic mystery writer Amelia Reynolds Long has a unique way with metaphoric language. Chapter 18, the most Gothic section of this particular book, offers the best of Amelia's descriptive talent.

The dark hall in which they stood was like the inside of a pocket.

He fumbled about on the wall just inside the door for a moment, then located the light switch. As he pressed it, a small orangish bulb set close against the ceiling flashed on. Before its mellow glow, the darkness fled down the hall and scuttled up the staircase. [...] he felt the roots of his hair suddenly prickle, while the skin at the back of his neck seemed to be trying to climb up to join his scalp. From somewhere behind him, a huge snake hissed!

There is no monstrous serpent in the house, of course. It turns out that Sheriff Warner was only whispering "Professor!" to get Barrie's attention and the college man's fearful imagination took over.

While some of Long's books turn up in cheap paperback editions and relatively affordable used copies of UK editions, The Leprechaun Murders received only a single printing in hardcover in the US. Sorry to say that it is one of the most difficult of her titles to find. I located only two copies being sold on-line, both of them with the DJ shown above. One is $26, the other is $50. Don't all rush at once! If you live in Chicago you can always check out the copy I found at the library. Believe it or not it's been returned to the shelves of the main branch eagerly awaiting new readers. Luckily it happens to be in excellent condition or else it would've suffered the same fate as Long's other four books that used to be on the shelves.

A complete bibliography of Long's mystery novels is available at her tribute website.  While there you can also read one of her rare interviews conducted by fantasy and horror writer and fellow book collector Chet Williamson shortly before Long's death in 1978.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Predator - Andrew York

1st US paperback (Berkley, Oct 1969)
Here's the book in which Jonas Wilde is forced to use a gun instead of his hands to deal with his enemies. It's a survival tactic and he must resort to firing a Derringer (of all things) to take out one of three pursuers in the final pages of The Predator (1968). This is only the third book and Wilde came close to being eliminated himself three times in the course of another plot that delivers action and thrills and the usual Yorkian surprise twists.

But I'm starting with the end first, aren't I? Sorry.

At the start we learn that Wilde has been officially retired from the Elimination Sector formerly known as "The Route." (see my review of The Eliminator) Yet only one day later he is picked up by trench coat wearing men who refuse to identify themselves and take n to the Five Star Photography Studio. This was formerly the front for the offices of Mocka, his much younger commander. Now it is the scene of three violent murders. One of the victims is Julia Ridout who gave Wilde his walking papers the previous night then proceeded to give him a farewell in her bedroom. Wilde was just getting over the murder of the first woman he fell for and now he's faced with a another murdered lover. The rage within him can hardly be contained.

Mocka provides Wilde with the background. It all seems to be tied to the disappearance of a CIA agent, Charlie Klaeger. Klaeger was following up leads related to the arranged prison escape and subsequent murder of Alfonso Torrio, an Italian mobster with ties to the American underworld. Klaeger, Mocka reports, must have been tortured and given the location of the photography studio and some hoods from Torrio's syndicate then infiltrated the studio trying to find out what Klaeger was after.  They finished the job by killing everyone on site. Mocka hints that Wilde may be able to find the killers in Rome who have been placing personal ads in English language European newspapers hoping to lure in unsavory types for an underground academy specializing in mercenary skill.

1st UK paperback (Arrow, 1969)
With the help of some of his criminal contacts he obtains some phony ID and becomes "Johnny Foxley" – a London thug who is interested in becoming a killer for hire. He travels to Italy and answers the ad and discovers the he has enrolled in an assassination academy run by a woman with the spectacular name of Glorious Torrio, the daughter of Alfonso Torrio. Along the way he also meets a Antonia Del Rivia, a heroin addicted would-be painter with pansexual tastes, her brother Cesare he is second-in-command at the killer academy, and Paul Sanger, the primary teacher in the art of murder.

Something I have started to note in this series is that Wilde ages chronologically. In this book age and youth are always on his mind. He is bothered by the fact that at only 37 years he is already an "old man" in the spy game. Mocka, his boss, is ten years younger than he is. The students at the assassin academy also are all considerably younger than Wilde. And then there's his troublesome sciatica and muscle problems; they are his greatest weakness at a time when he must be in peak physical condition. His bad back is his undoing on more than one occasion in The Predator and it makes him seem less of a comic book superhero or a mindless athletic killing machine. A spy with chronic back problems is real. I'll take that over the old gunshot to the shoulder cliche which seems to be the only thing that tends to slow down the rest of the fictional spies I've encountered.

York's strength once again is in the creation of hypnotically fascinating woman characters like Glorious (or Glo to her friends). The women are always the most complex and intriguing characters in the Jonas Wilde books, but in Glorious Torrio York seems to have outdone himself. Smart and deadly, she is an Amazonian athlete with a heart of steel, a teasing sexual allure, and a bloodlust to match her carnal appetite. She is the closest to being Wilde's female match as a ruthless emotionally detached killer. It'll take some imagination to surpass this woman in viciousness and cunning. She nearly succeeds in sending Wilde to his great reward on more than one occasion.

Then there is Jonquil Malone, the redheaded American girl Wilde meets on the plane trip down to Rome. She has a habit of turning up unwanted in the most surprising places. She seems to be nothing more than an slightly ditsy tourist looking for a fling with a handsome Brit and she dislikes having been stood up by Wilde not once but twice. She comes off as a stalker and her curiosity gets the better of her. But is she more than just a tourist? Is it all coincidence? Is she just an incredible actress and really a spy?

Writer Christopher Nicole (AKA "Andrew York")
The Predator is a return to a straight thriller. None of the pulpy, quasi-science fiction elements found in The Coordinator are present. Jonas seems to have entered a vigilante stage and appears to be acting entirely on his own until the usual Yorkian twist in the final pages. The expository beginning is a bit to trudge through, but once Jonas lands in Italy the book is nothing but action scenes. And darn good action scenes with little of the requisite monologues that York's characters (mostly the villains) like to indulge in.

This would make a a fantastic movie. Better than Danger Route, the only film version of the Andrew York books. Any action movie producers or screenwriters out there? Here's a book screaming to be adapted into a money making screenplay. It would do phenomenally well at the box office.

From an email I received from Mike Ripley, editor at Top Notch Thrillers and overall good guy:
"…we are doing [The Predator] as a Top Notch Thriller in about two weeks time! I’ve enclosed our cover and in fact Pretty Sinister Books is quoted on page 2 in the before-the-title page. We are also doing The Deviator (which I think is better) and have plans to do The Infiltrator."

I've become part of the blurbing world! Very cool.

The entire line of Top Notch Thrillers – a variety of reissued action adventure, spy and crime novels – are available through amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, bookdepository.com (always free shipping!) and a few other online dealers.

To pre-order a copy of The Predator (release date is mid-March 2012) go directly to Ostara Publishing by clicking here. On that page you will see there is already a link to my review of the book. Thanks, Mike!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mrs. Warrender's Profession - G. D. H. & M. Cole

I ran across this little known volume of novellas at the main branch of the Chicago Public Library (though it may not be there anymore). The book details the accidental sleuthing adventures of Mrs. Elizabeth Warrender, the elderly mother of private detective James Warrender. She is the only other series character created by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole who are better known for their novels and stories about Superintendent Henry Wilson. Mrs. Warrender helps her son and sometimes outright investigates herself using her basic understanding of human nature. She gets to know people through casual but attentive conversation, she learns their habits and manners, most of all she listens to what people say unlike her son who she accuses of being unobservant. He focuses on the criminal behavior which she believes blinds him to true observations and completely overlooks people as they really are. This is all outlined in a brief "biographical" introduction titled "The Detective's Mother" that serves as a prelude to the four novellas. Overall, the collection is a mixed bag of the ordinary, the convoluted, and the intriguing. Apart from the supposed human observation theme running through the stories they also have in common a pronounced fascination with unusual murder methods.

Death in the Sun - Jeremy Haydon, handsome ballroom dancer, loves to work on his tan when he's not whirling women around the dance floor at the Grand Hotel in Madeira. Mrs. Warrender (and everyone else) loves to look at him whether dancing or swimming or just laying in the sun.  She senses something is wrong when she notices several flies on his body are not being swatted during one of his many sun worshiping sessions. Surely if he had fallen asleep so many flies would've disturbed him. She asks Dr. Lang to check on Jeremy who discovers the body is cold to touch even in the blazing sun. Jeremy is dead. A hypodermic needle is nearby and foul play is suspected. The detection here is not fair play, many clues are withheld from the reader and announced later by Mrs. Warrender who alone was privy to them. This is atypical of what little I've read of the Coles.  Maybe I'm wrong and this turns out to be their M.O. for the bulk of their work, but it annoyed me nonetheless. The biggest clue is one of the lousiest examples of a contrived coincidence that even Dickens would never have resorted to. Not one of the best in this collection.

In Peril of His Life – A confusing and convoluted story about the murder of Lady Robinson, wealthy philanthropist and primary supporter of the New Money League, a financial advisory agency disseminating propaganda about an alternative economical system for Britain. Her lawyer, whom she confronted in the past of attempting to kill her with altered food, a trip wire across the stairs, and other wild accusations, is charged with her strangulation murder. Sprinkled throughout the story are interesting allusions to R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark and the borrowing from that novel the use of forged fingerprints to frame an innocent party. Mrs. Warrender is less concerned with who killed Lady Robinson and instead focuses on the disappearance of Lady Robinson's nephew. She is convinced he will turn up dead somewhere while her son and the police think he just fled the country. For me this story was tediously drawn out. The ending is anticlimactic and anyone who is familiar with Christie's Peril at End House will probably have figured it all out as I did.

Fatal Beauty – Jean Dawson, an employee from the Rose Salon, travels to the home of wealthy Mrs. Mortimer to give her facial massages and skin treatments with a specially concocted cream made by Madame Rose, the owner of the salon. Mrs. Mortimer soon dies of poison but the police and authorities are stumped as to how it was administered. Her nephew is suspected and a jealous housemaid implicates him further when she mentions he tried to get his aunt to use a homemade complexion wash made from flypaper soaked in rose water. Jean warned Mrs. Mortimer to avoid using it because of the dangers of arsenic in the flypaper. Mrs. Warrender appears in the final third and solves the crime through sheer luck. When she visits the Rose Salon she recognizes from a past encounter the culprit among the employees. It's a pretty neat tale with another of those revenge crazed killers who takes months to plan an insidious crime so often found in Golden Age detective story plots. However, the method, the culprit, and the frame-up are easy to uncover and nothing is very surprising. The story also is overly long. It could easily have been told without all the introductory background of the salon employees' relationships which takes up the first third of the story. The whole thing has a tiresome domestic air about which is a kind way of saying there was a lot of girlish chit chat about nothing of real consequence or importance to the main plot.

Toys of Death – Easily the best of the lot. A true detective story and the second tale in which Mrs. Warrender is present at the scene of the crime. She also does the only real detective work here (discovering pieces of blue glass for instance) rather than doing her kind of inductive guesswork based on her "observations of real people."

Crampton Pleydell is found dead in his locked study. His death appears to be a suicide from cyanide poisoning. As the story progresses we learn that Pleydell has a strange hobby – replicating Renaissance Italian glass. His specialty was designing duplicates of Vetturi's poison toys – glass ornaments and glass jewelry filled with poisons that were used by the Medicis to commit assassination. This is something that seems to be more up John Dickson Carr's alley than the Coles. That aspect of the story held my interest and make it the most original and intriguing of the bunch. The motive for the crimes (there are other deaths) makes the most sense out of all the stories and the characters are the most interesting. No shop girls, beauty parlor employees, gorgeous dancers or office gossips on hand in this one which was a relief.

After the book Mrs. Warrender's Profession (1938) went out of print in the UK two small publishers decided to reprint each of the stories separately. They were printed in hardcover format and treated like mini novels complete with very attractive artwork on the dust wrappers. Some of these booklets (it's hard for me to call a 65 page work a book) went through multiple printings, amazingly enough, but were only released in the UK. A similar reissue process was also done with the other Mrs. Warrender stories (and two Superintendent Wilson novellas) found in the ultra rare book A Lesson in Crime (1933). Scans of the covers from those individually published volumes are used to illustrate this post.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Library Date Due Slips

Here's a spin-off on my post of yesterday where I discussed my shock at learning the main branch of the Chicago Public Library likes to pulp unwanted books.  Usually library discards get sold or donated and below is evidence of such books going on to live longer lives now that they have been retired from circulation.

While I tend to avoid buying ex-library copies sometimes a title is so rare or the edition unblievably scarce that I end up giving in and purchasing an ex-library copy.  Most of the time I will do this if it has a DJ and the DJ survived harmful damage unlike the books themselves which are often battered, dogeared, and have numerous food stains and other spillage showing the book's history of multiple careless borrowers.

Most of these ex-lib copies tend to be stripped of all the library tell-tale markings like old card pockets and date due slips prior to being sold. Some, however, escape this denuding process before being sold or perhaps "permanently borrowed" by new owners.

Below are scans of several date due cards for some of the ex-library books I've owned over the years. For a change you will definitely know what book these were left inside. I've marked all of them in the captions. Interesting to see how popular these books were when they were first sitting on the shelves all those decades ago.

From a copy of Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
(purchased at a Milwaukee used book store in 2009)

From Vintage Murder (UK edition) by Ngaio Marsh
(purchased at the Newberry Library Book Fair several years ago)
The House Party Murders by Edgar Allan Poe, Jr.
(purchased from a dealer located in British Columbia)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Mystery of the Vanishing Books

I'm a little bit upset today. I've just learned that all my attention to the forgotten mystery writers whose books still wait to be checked out from the Chicago Public Library may be harmful to the works themselves. To my shock I just learned that the many of the books, right after I have returned them, never make it back to the shelves. They seem to be vanishing.

I think I might have mentioned that I have a habit of taking out books that have not been checked out since 1995 when the library catalog in Chicago first became digital. Often I discover that a book by A.B. Cunningham or Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or Richard Sale or William O'Farrell has not been entered into their database. This has been happening with increasing frequency since I've been trying to find more books via the Chicago Public Library rather than buying a used copy from a dealer. Lack of circulation is one of the factors that will come into play in the future of a book's life within a library system. And today I have discovered that all of the books by Amelia Reynolds Long (who I have lately discovered and whose books will soon be reviewed here) have been pulled from the shelves. But not just pulled from the shelves -- completely obliterated from the Chicago Public Library catalog system. Gone for good.

I had to find out what was happening. So I talked with one of the silky voiced librarians in the Fiction Department. She told me that the library staff regularly weed the collection. They send some poor underling to go through the shelves pulling out beaten up, "well read" books and consign them to one of two fates. Those in good condition (translation: newer books) survive and are offered for sale in the main branch's "used bookstore" which amounts to a single table in a tiny cubbyhole behind a security guard's post on the ground floor. Some store. I don't think anyone even knows it exists!

But here's the sad part. The books I like to read, the books I am always writing about here, the books by writers long gone from our world but whose words live on (translation: the old books) are often just scrapped. Sent to a recycling company with whom the library has a contract. So they are getting a little bit of cash out of killing off these old books. I'm not terribly comforted, I'm sorry to say.

Patron Saint of Libraries - St. Jerome
 I told the librarian that I was interested in two specific books and she said she could check if they had been brought down to that embarrassing closet where old library books await to be purchased for pennies. I told her not to bother. I was convinced that the two Amelia Reynolds Long books are sure to be pulp in a few days. They'll be waiting to be resurrected as a mixed content packing box or the coffee cup you'll get at Starbucks a few months from now or some other form of reincarnated paper product.

I'm wondering if I should just stop taking out the books. It's almost as if I've turned into a book hitman and I've targeted these authors' books for a fate much worse than being sent to the bindery for repairs. In any case, later tonight I will be having a little memorial service for all the books that are being taken from me (and everyone else in Chicago) and destroyed in the name of more shelf space. I may even start saying a few prayers to St. Jerome.

Friday, February 17, 2012

FFB: A Jade in Aries - Tucker Coe

Today Patti Abbot, our host for Friday's Forgotten books, has arranged for a tribute to Donald E. Westlake (and all his various pseudonymous incarnations).  Be sure to visit her blog and click away to your heart's content traveling throughout the blogosphere to read reviews on the wide variety of books this Grand Master wrote. He did it all - tough crime novels, private eye novels, erotica, crime capers, satire, and screenplays. I chose one (well actually two ) of his books he wrote as Tucker Coe, a decidedly different voice from tough guy Richard Stark or the loony comic capers he wrote under his own name.

Mitch Tobin is the series character in the Coe books.  Tobin was forced to resign in shame when in the course of pursuing a daytime adulterous affair he was responsible for the death of his partner who was shot in the line of duty. Tobin was not there to protect him. He's now a bitter and broken man. He spends his days in a sort of occupational therapy building a wall in his backyard. Later in the series when the weather turns bad he puts the wall on hold and instead retreats to the darkness of his cellar where he begins a new project by digging a sub-basement. Tobin is trying to heal. His wife and son are lost to him and long for him to return to them as husband and father. Soon he finds himself in unusual side jobs from people in need who ask him to use his police skills in making their own broken lives whole again.

His first outing is in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death in which he is hired by a mob head to find out who killed his mistress and made off with $80,000 of his money. It's where we first learn that Tobin is utterly conflicted - he knows he needs to start re-entering the world, learn how to interact with people especially his family but he feels that he is a toxic influence on everyone. He doesn't want anyone else to die from his neglect. Eventually he gives in when his wife cajoles him plus he recognizes that the fee he will receive is $5000 that they could really use. The first book is more than just Tobin's search for a killer and recovery of stolen money it's a journey into his own psyche and how the messed up lives of other people reflect his own inner turmoil. The entire series is a study in a broken man's recovery of his true self. And in order to become whole again he will have to enter the world of misfits, outcasts, and the reviled. He takes on cases involving the hippie scene (Murder Among Children), the mentally ill (Wax Apple), and in the book reviewed here the gay subculture of New York.

In A Jade in Aries (1970), the fourth book in the series, Mitch helps Ronald Cornell find the killer of his lover and business partner Jamie Dearborn. Cornell tells Mitch that the police are trying to pass off his lover's brutal beating death as just another case of a bar pick-up gone wrong. But when Cornell is found in the alley behind his men's clothing boutique having survived a fall from the building's roof Mitch is sure that someone is trying cover up the beating by making it look like Cornell attempted suicide over the loss of his partner. As in the first book sexual attraction, love relationships, and cheating partners are the primary focus of the story. Only in this book all the involved parties are gay men.

I have to admit that I expected this book to be similar to other crime novels about gay men that were written in the 1970s - populated with limp wristed, lisping queens in flower print shirts and leather clad, hypermasculine studs with pumped up bodies.  I was prepared to thoroughly despise the book. But though Mitch and a couple of other bigoted characters do like to throw around the "F" slur a lot the book floored me with its accurate, often complex, human portrayals of the gay men I knew while growing up in the 1970s. These gay men are a mix of the vain and the shy, the self-loathing and the out and proud, the butch and the queens, white guys and men of color. They're all here in all the vibrant color of a Rainbow flag as well as the darker colors of carnal desire and shame.

It's not so much the mystery of who killed Jamie Dearborn (a sexual tease and philandering bedroom thrillseeker much like Rita Castle was in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death) or who pushed his surprisingly conservative, almost square lover Ronald Cornell off the roof that captures the reader's attention here as much as it is Mitch Tobin's slow realization that he may have an awful lot in common with all these faggots (as he first calls them) under suspicion of murder. Westlake displays a quiet compassion and insight into the troubled lives of these gay men. Mitch may not be thrilled having to deal with the strangely emotional, all male world but he has some pointed observations and confessions as the story unfolds. At a scene at a gay party where he walks up a stairwell and over two men into a heavy make-out session Mitch finds that he just sees two people kissing and doesn't think twice about literally stepping over them. Only later does it dawn on him that they were two men and he wasn't sickened by the sight. Earlier in the book Mitch fears his lack of paternal attachment and emotional distancing from his son may "turn" his son gay. A dated and guilt ridden belief to be sure, but a telling one showing that Mitch's interactions with these men are having an effect on him personally and psychologically.

For me the most significant aspect of this story is Mitch's unconscious analogy of the love and intimacy in a gay male relationship with the non-sexual intimacy in a cop's relationship with his partner.

I thought about Jock. I thought about him a lot, conversations we'd had, days of our partnership when specific things had happened. There was nothing homosexual between us, but there are other kinds of closeness than (sic) can become meaningful and real, and we had one of them.

He goes on to draw analogies between the other men and Jock and sees connections to his own life.  He also sees how after having been with these emotionally frank men that he has been able to open up more, to rejoin humanity, to forgive himself and stop living in guilt and shame. It's a powerful section of the book and the real highlight, the true climax of the plot.

My only quibble and the only things that rings false is that not once do any of the men refer to themselves as "gay." Only the words "homosexual" and "faggot," and twice "queer" are used to describe them. While most of the labelling is done by the straight men in the book, two of the gay characters refer to themselves as homosexuals. And it wasn't done archly or sarcastically. That bothered me. It wasn't real at all. Even in 1970 the word gay was being used regularly - both self-referentially and disparagingly. In an old 1970s issue of Kirkus Reviews the writer called the men in A Jade in Aries "Gay Liberationists." A euphemism or a political statement? I'm not sure. But the fact that the reviewer eschewed the clinical and derogatory term homosexual cannot be overlooked. If only Westlake could've seen that and dared to use the word gay -- at least when one of the gayest characters was talking about himself -- then this would truly be a perfect crime novel about gay men in the 1970s. Still and all it's probably one of the best. It sure beats the hell out of something truly dreadful like The Last Woman in His Life by Ellery Queen and some ghostwriter. Don't get me started on that broken record.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

COOL FLICKS: How to Murder a Rich Uncle (1957)

Charles Addams might have liked to introduce his ghoulish cartoon characters to the Clitterberns. They would have got along marvelously. Murder becomes an obsession in the household whether it is as lurid entertainment like the novels (This Is Indeed A Bloody Business is one title) that Mother Clitterbern finds so highly amusing or the means to solving their financially wrecked household.  Fittingly the movie poster for How To Murder a Rich Uncle (at left) was designed by Charles Addams. The Rube Goldberg inspired deathtrap in the illustration is not Addams' exaggerated invention, but rather one of the many methods employed by the desperate Henry Clitterbern who is intent on knocking off his uncle so he can inherit his fortune and pay off his debt ridden estate.

Nigel Patrick (who also directed) as Henry, assisted by Edith, his compliant and devoted wife (Wendy Hiller in a flighty and odd performance) as well as Albert, his dunderhead of a son (Kenneth Fortescue), is determined that visiting Uncle George die a fatal accident. But Uncle George has luck and coincidence on his side as each carefully thought out murder plan is upset and backfires resulting in the death of a member of the family. It's sort of like Kind and Hearts and Coronets filtered through a kind of Murder for Dummies handbook.

The script by John Paxton is adapted from a French farce called Il faut tuer Julie by Didier Daix.  Translated as We Must Murder Julie I have not been able to find anything about that play nor have I been successful locating it under its original French title. But I suspect that it is not the very British and macabrely funny story we watch in the movie.  The script makes fun of American conventions like tea bags, corn flakes, banking and ridicules the old world of post WW2 English aristocrats still clinging to their entitlement and decaying mansions.  I thought most of the cast was perfect especially Hiller, Athene Seyler as her mother (called Grannie in the credits) and Charles Coburn as the apparently oblivious Uncle George.

The scene stealing star of this movie is Katie Johnson in her final movie role. Her penultimate film and her most famous role came right before this when she appeared as the kindly Mrs. Wilberforce in The Ladykillers (1955) starring Alec Guinness. Here as Aunt Alice, Johnson presents herself as a soft voiced, fanciful dreamer taken for granted by Henry and family as nothing more than a doddering old maid. She has a habit of appearing out of nowhere and making some of the most pointed observations giving her, in addition to her childlike qualities, a bit of a spooky Sibyl persona that irritates and frightens Henry more than he is willing to admit. Later, we will learn she has no magical powers or gift for ESP but rather has a penchant for eavesdropping in a variety of secret hiding places. She is a delight to watch and I kept rooting for her to put an end to the madness before she too became an inadvertent victim.  I was sure she would be the last one standing. Her final scene at the inquest is a marvel as she does a turn at spinster sleuth lecturing that rivals anything from Jane Marple.
Nigel Patrick is tutored in the art of the tea bag by Wendy Hiller
Aunt Alice (Katie Johnson) informs Henry she is onto his murder plans
Aunt Alice clears up the muddle at the inquest just like Jane Marple

Two actors who would go on to bigger and better things appear here in small roles. Musical theater actor and composer Anthony Newley is the boyfriend of Henry's daughter and he fancies himself an amateur criminologist who is sure that the accidents are murder attempts though he has the wrong culprit in mind. In a tiny role as Gilrony in which he utters only one syllable repeatedly ("Aye!" in some wretched accent of indeterminate origin) a ruggedly handsome and very blond Michael Caine makes his first credited film role. He's almost unrecognizable in this incarnation.

The breakfast scene in which Uncle George's corn flakes and tea bags create havoc and Edith suggests an extra ingredient they might introduce into Uncle George's tea can be watched here.

The entire movie, broken up into six parts, is available for free viewing at YouTube.

This is my contribution to this week's "Tuesday's Overlooked Film" hosted by Todd Mason at his blog.  Be sure to visit Sweet Freedom and check out the rest of the insightful comments on unusual films, TV shows and video creations.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson

I tend not to like many books with theatrical backgrounds because they never seem real to me. Having spent a good portion of my life in theaters both as an actor and a stagehand I know them all too well. Even Agatha Christie's stories of stage life don't have much authenticity for me. So many mysteries featuring stage backgrounds are informed of cliché ideas employing a cast of egocentric and vain artistes with mercurial temperaments. The focus always seems to be on the actors, the director and the playwright. But the theater has an entire backstage world of techies running the show for those actors, and a business world keeping an eye on the box office take, plus the bustling front of house staff catering to the needs of the audience. These portions are rarely mentioned in any mystery novels using the theater as a backdrop. Not so in the case of the phenomenally good book Exit Charlie (1955) by Alex Atkinson. The author was a former actor and playwright and knows his world inside out and includes it all in this energetic and imaginative detective novel.

Charlie Manion is playing the lead in The Second Warning, an Edgar Wallace style thriller, and he is onstage for almost the entire show. One night he makes his final exit but doesn't return for the curtain call. When the curtain falls and the audience has filed out of the theater one cast member rushes to Manion's dressing room to see what kept him from joining the cast for the bows. He finds Charlie Manion in the final throes of an agonizing death. "They've poisoned me!" he cries out and he dies only seconds later. It appears that he was entertaining a guest for there are two glasses, a whiskey bottle and a crushed cigarette on the floor. While Manion enjoyed a ritual post performance whiskey shot each night he did not smoke. The police and cast believe that whoever was his guest must've poisoned his whiskey. But it's not as simple as that, my friends.

Inspector Furniss, a shrewd policeman who likes to munch on peppermint candies during his interviews, is in charge of the investigation. He is ably assisted by Detective Sergeant Appleby, an amateur thespian himself who likes to show off his theater knowledge and can't help but repeat a tiresome anecdote about his role as Sir Toby Belch in a community theater production of Twelfth Night.  Atkinson has a lot of fun with Appleby's eagerness to educate Furniss in the world of the theater and Furniss who often loses his patience with the endless definition of theater terms and backstage lore.  "I have been to the theater more than once, Appleby," he sternly says at one point hoping that will silence his partner.

Alex Atkinson (photo by Harry Ivell)
The mystery plot is intricately worked out with all sorts of hidden secrets among the cast and crew, the usual display of volatile emotions, jealousies and pettiness. Furniss even learns that an actress who committed suicide was a former girlfriend of Manion and when her name and photo kept turning up he is sure that she has something to do with Manion's death.  But how was it possible for him to be poisoned when nearly everyone was either on stage acting or engaged in running the show?

Clues and evidence are ample as in so many traditional detective novels and while it may be fairly easy to spot the culprit towards the end, it's Atkinson's lively writing, his sense of humor and his excellent portraits that raise this book out of the realm of cliché backstage thrillers. He doesn't confine his tale to the soap opera lives of the actors and actresses. His theater is an all inclusive world incorporating onstage, backstage and front of house staff. Everyone gets their moment to shine. In fact, one of the assistant stage managers and the woman in the tiny box office provide Furniss with his most vital pieces of evidence.  Even Mrs. Holloway, the piano player who provides intermission music, has her own little solo. If you want to read a book about how a real theater operates and want a superb mystery to boot look no further than Exit Charlie.

I'm crossing off another book on my list of copper mysteries for the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Drawing on the Past #6: GORDON ROSS

Work: Ladies in Hades by Frederic Arnold Kummer
(J. H. Sears & Co., 1928)
First American Edition

Artist: Gordon Ross (1872 - 1946)

I can find little biographical data on artist Gordon Ross, but a list of his work found in books is plentiful. Mostly his paintings and drawings turn up in various volumes of The Heritage Press and The Limited Edition Club, two subscription only book clubs started by publisher George Macy. The book clubs specialized in illustrated volumes of classic works of fiction and non-fiction. To this day are still a big hit with collectors -- mostly because of the art work.

Unlike what I am posting here today some of Ross' best work was done in color and can be found in such works as The Pickwick Papers (Heritage Club, 1938), The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (Heritage Press, 1939), and The Sir Roger de Coverly Papers (Limited Edition Club, 1945). Also you can find his work in The Children's Munchausen (Houghton Mifflin, 1921), and a color DJ for Pony Jungle (Doubleday Doran, 1941), a children's book by Lavinia Davis.

Ross was born in Scotland in 1872. As a teenager he sailed to San Francisco where he studied painting and drawing at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. He worked in the art department of the San Francisco Chronicle until 1904. Sometime in the late 1900s he moved to New York where he focused on book illustration. He died in New York City, the day after Christmas, in 1946. His work continues to show up in auction records year after year and sells well.

Below are the comic illustrations from a satiric novel by Frederic Arnold Kummer about the "wicked women of history" including Lillith, Salome and Delilah from the Old Testament; Cleopatra, Sappho, Helen of Troy from ancient history; and Lucretia Borgia from the Renaissance. The novel is subtitled "A Story of Hell's Smart Set." I've included the captions for each picture to give you an idea of the smart ass kind of writing to be found in the book.

And a little about the author (which I rarely do in this feature that's supposed to be about the artist): Kummer wrote plays, the books to musicals and musical revues, straight novels, and humor, but I tend to know him as a writer of several crime and adventure novels. He began writing genre fiction which was serialized in pulp magazines under the pseudonym Arnold Fredericks. Kummer then dropped that and used his own name for his final two detective novels The Scarecrow Murders and The Twisted Face featuring Judge Henry Tyson (soon to be reviewed here).

As usual I suggest you click on the photos to enlarge for better appreciation. I don't use that slide show feature, so clicking will give you a very nice sized photo.  Plus, you can't read the often funny captions unless you enlarge. So click away!

Friday, February 10, 2012

FFB: Post Mortem - Guy Cullingford

Gilbert Worth, adulterous husband and acerbic novelist, is found dead in his study with a bullet in his temple and the smoking gun clenched in his hand. Much to Gilbert's surprise he seems to have survived the murder -- or rather his ghost has survived to look upon his own corpse. While the members of his family believe he has committed suicide Gilbert knows better. Someone killed him. Someone who tried unsuccessfully twice before - once with a carefully placed glass marble on the staircase, the second when his nighttime warmed milk was tainted with something bitter and palatable. He fed it to the cat and it was dead in the morning. Gilbert's spirit seems doomed to walk the Earth until he is satisfied with just who in his household hated him so much to send him off to an early reward. Though it's not so rewarding to Gilbert even if he can pass through walls and enter locked rooms without being seen.

At first I thought this was intended to be a satire of the detective novel. The victim comes back from the dead to solve his own murder?  Surely this has to be done with some sense of humor.  And it is. But Gilbert Worth is hardly a likable character and his children devoutly loathe him. Yet even though Worth tells the story of his mysterious death with a wicked sense of humor and spends much of the book spying on his relatives and the servants in some keen satiric scenes there is a pervasive somber air about the piece with hints of tragedy about the innate dysfunctionality in this loveless family.

In the early part of the book the best scenes were those in which Worth seems to make fun of his plight as a ghost. He attends his own funeral and hears a musical selection that embarrasses his family as it turns out to be an upbeat folk tune that is a particular favorite of Rosina Peck, his mistress and sex-crazed secretary. Later, he finds himself oddly moved by the sermon the minister gives and falls to his knees in guilt ridden prayer. Even Worth's own father appears to him and attempts to guide him into the afterlife but Worth will have none of that until he solves the mystery that faces him. There is also an entire chapter devoted to the servants in which we learn that the timid housemaid Ada Jenkins has a passionate hobby in stamp collecting and is belittled by her co-workers for such a frivolous, money wasting pastime. The cook Mrs Mace, another maid Jessie, and the nasty gardener Mr. Williams are all sharply drawn portraits with carefully rendered individual voices. When even the minor characters receive this kind of attention from an author you know you have a work of fiction worth some notice. Before the book becomes deadly serious and shifts into a neo-Victorian mode this was one of the highlights for me.

The humor dissipates further with Gilbert's "investigation" which he is also writing down in manuscript form. It all becomes excessively melodramatic past the midpoint and by the final scenes I felt like I was reading something by Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Overwrought emotions are on constant display. Multiple confessions of family secrets and murderous impulses force friends and confidantes entrusted with these confessions into dilemmas of moral conscience. Several characters resort to blackmail, there are witnesses to the murder, and witnesses to the witnesses!

This is not meant to disparage the book. On the contrary, Post Mortem (1953) is a remarkable achievement -- begin like a satiric detective novel, add the element of a modern ghost story, then slowly transform the whole work into a Neo-sensation novel. The high emotion is mirrored in the heightened prose sending the story to soaring heights both metaphorically and literally when ghostly husband and haunted wife face each other on the rooftop of Turret House. A neat epilogue written by the son of Worth's publisher brings all the fantasy crashing down to Earth not in anticlimax but in a truly satisfying manner with a final twist that explains both the mystery of Gilbert's death and the riddle of a how a ghost can have written his own autobiography.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Vintage Mystery Book Hunters Red Alert!

Those of you die hard vintage mystery lovers lucky enough to live in Chicago might want to head out to The Gallery Bookstore. I was there over the weekend and discovered that someone who was moving out of the area sold his entire vintage mystery collection to the store. The place which already had an impressive number of titles from hard to find authors has now exponentially increased with mouth watering selections. I should've written down all the writers' names, but below is a sampling of those who I remember had multiple titles available:

Ann Austin
Christopher Bush
John Buchan
H.C. Bailey
Clyde Clason
Mignon Eberhart
R. Austin Freeman (about 15 books, a mix of US & UK editions)
E. Phillips Oppenheim
Ellery Queen  (most of these are unfortunately Book club editions)
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Sax Rohmer
John Rhode and Miles Burton (over 25 books, the most I've ever seen in one store at a single time)

Plus there are many, many other hardbacks and the usual tremendous assortment of vintage paperbacks (most only in reading condition with higher grade books in glass enclosed cases) that continue to crowd the shelves patiently awaiting purchase by eager readers.

I've already picked over the store and spent far too much money, but some of the books I found I may never again see anywhere for a very long time. My rule has always been: If it's scarce, buy it when you see it. There are still lots left for the rest of you. I'm generous that way.

Trek on down to The Gallery at 923 W Belmont (11AM- 8PM Mon - Sat; 11-7 on Sundays) and you will be sure to find something to your liking. The Mystery section is my haunt here, but rest of the store is an amazing place and has lots of treasures to offer, too.  Plus -- he offers everything in the store via mail order for those of you who don't live close enough set foot in the store.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain

A matronly Mrs. Dodge on the 1st ed.
While reading the fairly simple story of Killer's Wedge I was reminded of the disaster movies of my teen years. You know them well, I'm sure. Airport and The Poseidon Adventure are probably the best known but The High and the Mighty really started the formula back in the 1954. A motley group of strangers are thrown together in a contained environment and we the audience are well aware of the impending disaster that awaits them while the characters travel on in blithe ignorance. While we wait in suspense we get to know the inner lives and secrets of all the cast of characters. When disaster strikes (a hijacker's bomb detonates on board a plane, a tidal wave capsizes an ocean liner, an engine malfunction sends a airplane hurtling out of the sky in the examples mentioned above) the characters discover who among them are the heroes and who are the cowards as they face their fate and try to survive.

Ed McBain's suspense novel Killer's Wedge (1959) takes the disaster genre formula and sets it firmly on land. The contained environment is a police station, the impending disaster is personified by the ruthless Virginia Dodge armed with a gun and a bottle of nitroglycerin, and she holds an entire precinct officers hostage while she waits for the return of one cop whom she holds responsible for the death of her convicted felon husband. But when I say fairly simple story I sell this book far short. What it lacks in complexity of plot it more than makes up for in richness and density of character study.

Typical of the 87th Precinct books in the early part of McBain's series (this is the eighth book) there are multiple story lines. While the cops in the detective offices are being held hostage, Steve Carella the object of Virginia's revenge, is single-handedly taking care of a puzzling hanging death in a locked room. As Carella makes his way through the lies and deceit it becomes clear that the apparent suicide is a cleverly concealed murder. While Carella has to wait for inspiration when he watches someone burning branches and leaves in the backyard, the reader already has a big clue to the solution in the title of the book.

The bulk of the story is, however, devoted to the the detectives being held hostage. We get to learn about how they feel and think, who is concerned about his family and who about his police colleagues. Two of the best bits are devoted to clever plans to outwit the frenetic half-mad Mrs. Dodge. One detective, Meyer, asks permission of Mrs. Dodge to type out a report in triplicate but in reality types out an S.O.S. message and manages to throw it through one of the few open windows. Another, Cotton Hawes, surreptitiously manages to turn up the thermostat in the office to maximum hoping that the slowly increasing and sweltering heat on an already hot summer day will distract Virgina so that she will ask for the the heat to be turned down and Hawes can make his way to a hat rack where their captor stowed her purse containing one of the police guns she confiscated. There is also the Puerto Rican prostitute Angelica Gomez who attempts to win over Virginia with feminine wiles, but unwittingly becomes yet another pawn in the madwoman's ever increasing mind games.

A sultry noirish Virginia Dodge on the 1st PB
Mrs. Dodge never once gets a bit of my sympathy. I was hoping someone would just chuck a typewriter at her and end the ordeal. That she manages to keep them all at bay for the majority of the book is sometimes a bit too much to swallow. But McBain tries to cover all aspects of the cops' apprehension and the possible consequences should they be foolish enough to play hero. They are a team and no one is really out for himself here. It's one of the most admirable qualities in the series -- the relationships that develop between police and how they really do care about and protect each other when danger threatens.

This is a quick read and a riveting suspense tale worthy of being called a "real nailbiter." The reader keeps wondering if Mrs. Dodge is bluffing as do many of the cops. Is that a bottle of nitro or is it only water? Who will be brave enough to call her bluff? Will Steve show up before they disarm and subdue Mrs. Dodge? And what about Steve's pregnant wife worried about her husband's late return and is headed to the precinct? Will she too become a hostage? Or those horny college boys who find one of Meyer's S.O.S. papers in the street? Will they believe the message and act on it or will they ignore it and head off to the whorehouse? McBain really gets a lot of mileage out of this hostage story, now something of a cliche in crime thrillers and the movies. He had me hooked and it all pays off with a whopper of an ending.

Fans of the 87th Precinct books would be wise to visit Sergio's blog Tipping My Fedora where he has taken up the daunting task of reading and reviewing the entire series. As of this date he has knocked off fourteen of the over fifty books. Each post is an in-depth study of the book and far more insightful than my offering here.

McBain's book is number five in the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland

Thursday, February 2, 2012

FIRST BOOKS: The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland

The dedication to The Moon Murders (1935), Nigel Morland's debut as a crime fiction author, is to his mentor Edgar Wallace who he also credits with having given him the idea for Palmyra Pym. In the history of all detective fiction Palmyra Pym is the first woman police officer of high rank in command all her investigations. There have been female fictional private detectives and perhaps a few female police officer characters in the crime fiction of the late 19th century and early 20th century, but Mrs. Pym is unique with her high rank of commissioner and therefore a true pioneer for women characters in the genre.

While they display the usual elements of a traditional detective story the Mrs. Pym books are at their core police procedurals. Morland was a true crime addict and journalist and knew how Scotland Yard really worked during his lifetime. The drudgery of paperwork, the backbiting among colleagues, the sergeant trying his best to prove his skills and shine in the eyes of his superior, and the utter bureaucracy of the life of policemen -- Morland captured it all. The Moon Murders is concerned with not only the investigation and apprehension of the criminal but also the inner workings and bureaucracy of police departments and most especially the relationships of police officers with their partners and superiors. The life of police behind the scenes is really what distinguishes a true police procedural from the usual whodunit and will become the hallmark of such later crime writers as John Creasey in his books about Commander Gideon and Inspector West representing the UK and Ed McBain and Jonathan Craig in the their treatments of urban American precinct life. Morland to me seems to have nailed the formula combining detection, police work and police relationships in his first book. It's not just an entertainment it is a real novel of character.

Man from the Moon 's disguise recalls
McCulley's ex-circus performer
Like the oddball characters of Johnston McCulley's pulp magazine stories (The Crimson Clown, Black Star, and the Demon) London is plagued with a master criminal with a penchant for theatricality. Several shooting deaths have been attributed to someone calling himself "The Man from the Moon." At each crime scene police find a calling card stamped with a yellow crescent and a taunting typed message. He makes surprise appearances at Scotland Yard dressed in a billowing shapeless gown, a grisly white mask and a red fright wig and challenges Mrs. Pym to stop him before he strikes again. She is certain that "The Man from the Moon" is not acting alone and it's all a smoke screen for a crime syndicate planning something far more insidious and harmful to the city.

In one of his more daring acts the masked criminal manages to escape her office unseen by a guard on duty foreshadowing Morland's later fascination with detective novels that feature impossible crime aspects. But Mrs Pym will have nothing to do with locked rooms and impossibilities. When anything seeming to be an impossible crime surfaces she quickly dismisses and proves within minutes how the "miracle" was accomplished. One thing a criminal should never do with Mrs. Pym is toy with her unshakable respect for logic and common sense.

Morland takes the Holmesian approach to crime detection to its extreme with Mrs. Pym who tries her best to get her men to see things as they really are. She walks into a room and within minutes can tell you who has been there and she teaches her police to do the same. In her partner Inspector Shott she glimpses the potential for an excellent detective, but their first few days together are like Beatrice and Benedict trading insults. One of the best examples of her amazing detective skills comes in her examination of the rooms at Ensor Mews where a reporter has been kidnapped. Based on indentations in the carpet, an uneaten breakfast, and hand prints left in dust on a table top Mrs. Pym figures out not only precisely what happened in the room, but the height and personality of the kidnapper. Holmes could do no better, I think.

When her loyal Chinese servant and dear friend is killed in a shootout/car chase that results in a fatal car wreck Pym's irascible personality transforms into a powerfully enraged and cruel Nemesis. She vows to bring in all the criminals in the gang headed by "The Man from the Moon" even if she has to kill every last one of them herself. It's an astonishing scene and the metamorphosis is something to marvel at. Rarely do we get this kind of character arc in any detective novel of the period.

Her shift in character and motivation is marked by an ever increasing unorthodoxy and flagrant violation of police protocol. She begins to resemble a brutal American cop not the usual genteel British police officer of a traditional detective novel. We know that she has spent some time in the U.S.A. (Omaha and Nevada are both mentioned) and she confesses that she had some respect for the tactics of the "third degree" favored by American police. She even stoops to bribing witnesses to speed up the investigation and get her closer to ferreting out the killers. Her superiors are shocked and lecture her. Even Shott is appalled by her sudden changes. He is concerned that Internal Affairs might get wind of Pym's "rule bending" and repeatedly warns her to curb her methods lest her actions lead to probation for both or the end of their careers.

The Wallace influence comes into full force when in the final pages Morland creates one action sequence after another in relentless succession. There is an exciting airplane chase complete with a gunfight that could've been lifted from a war movie. Vengeance is hers. Aiming straight at the plane's gas tank Mrs. Pym fires in rapid succession crying out "Frizzle you murderer!!" her fury punctuated with not one but two exclamation marks. Her rage so overcomes her Mrs. Pym doesn't even realize she has been shot in her wrist until she's on the ground. A later shoot out in the villains' hideout is a bloodthirsty barrage of bullets and bodies falling that makes the St. Valentine's Massacre look like a tea party. Mrs. Pym orders her men to open fire and "Give 'em all you got." When she is aiming at one of the nastiest of the lot she addresses him, "Speak well of me to the dead" then empties her gun into him. Mickey Spillane night approve of Palmyra Pym's crime fighting methods, though he would hardly approve of her bulldog features, her less than shapely figure and her taste in mannish attire and ugly hats.

A bibliography of the Mrs. Pym. detective novels can be found here along with an updated and complete list of all other crime fiction Nigel Morland wrote under a variety of pseudonyms. In the coming weeks I will feature an article on all of his Sgt. Johnny Lamb novels written under the name "John Donavan."

The Moon Murders counts as one more book in my Perilous Policeman category of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas