Friday, March 30, 2012

FFB: The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester

Sometimes it takes me several decades to catch up to the rest of the world. Reading The Demolished Man (1953) is one of those long overdue experiences. I seem to have been collecting editions of the book but never taking the time to read the book even though I know it to be the kind of genre blending tale I enjoy that mixes crime with science fiction. I kept putting it off. After coming across yet another copy of the book (the second paperback printing seen at left) I felt the universe was trying send me a subtle message and so I bought it -- making my fourth copy of the book -- and finally read the thing. Talk about Amazing Stories! Why did I ever wait this long?

It's the 24th century and crime is practically non-existent in the world thanks to a highly developed psychic police force and other Espers who can read the minds of individuals with criminal tendencies. The Espers using their psychic powers weed out the criminal thought patterns and can put an end to the crime before it even begins. Multimillionaire Ben Reich is determined to acquire the business of his rival D'Courtney. When D'Courtney refuses to accept his business offer after several Reich decides to eliminate his competition thus making it easier to acquire his business. He enlists the aid of an easily corrupted and bribeable Esper, buys an ancient 20th century pistol from a crooked pawnshop dealer, and carries out his murder plan on the night of a hedonistic party at the home of D'Courtney's wealthy and addle-brained neighbor.

But the plan goes awry. D'Courtney's daughter interrupts Reich in the very act of the crime. She witnesses Reich shoot her father and flees the house clad only in a nightgown. Reich then pursues her thinking it should be easy since she is inappropriately dressed and that ought to slow her down, but she manages to elude his capture. The hunt is on for her so that his crime can be the perfect one he planned.

On the very first page I knew this was going to be something unique.  Here is a sample of the unusual ideas Bester employs in his futuristic setting:
He lay quietly in the hydropathic bed while his heart shuddered and his eyes focussed at random on objects in the room, simulating a calm he could not feel.  The walls of green jade, the nightlight in the porcelain mandarin whose head nodded interminably if you touched him, the multi-clock that radiated the time of three planets and six satellites, the bed itself, a crystal pool flowing with carbonated glycerine at ninety-nine point nine Farenheit.
 From the opening paragraph in which we learn that Reich is being haunted by a recurring dream starring "The Man With No Face" to the strangely named characters with symbols in parts of their names (Sam @tkins, Duffy Wyg&) or just plain strange (Chook Frood, Snim Asj) to the satellite of a faraway planet that has become an adult playground that goes beyond even the fantasies of Westworld to the deadly weapon Reich uses that is a weird combination of pistol and knife (see the excellent realization in the UK DJ at left) this book is jammed pack with originality.  Nearly everything may seem old hat to a modern reader because it has been heavily borrowed from by writers like Dick, Vonnegut and dozens of SF screenplay writers. This book held me in its spell for a brief day and a half.  I couldn't get enough of it and sped through the pages at a lightning pace.

I know this is hardly a forgotten book among the SF cognoscenti, but I'm not part of that elite bunch. To those of you who don't read any SF for fear it will brand you "one of the geeks" (as I once feared ages ago) forgive me while I lapse into my fanatical mode. READ THIS ONE! It's science fiction for people who don't like science fiction and it will change your opinion of the entire genre. I am sure of it. Now I'm on the hunt for Bester's others works including The Stars My Destination which I found last year in its 1st paperback edition and foolishly passed it up, placed it back in the box where I found it only to see it snapped up immediately by a young woman standing right next to me. One of the cognoscenti, no doubt.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Locked Room Fans Take Note

Martin Edwards just alerted me of a new reference book on the locked room subgenre that I and so many other vintage mystery bloggers enjoy. It's called Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction by Michael Cook and it tends to have a historical and academic flavor.

Martin writes:

...the book is not quite what I expected, for a number of reasons. The author’s starting point is interesting. He suggests that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” set a pattern for detective fiction with an emphasis on “enclosures, death and references to sequestered lives”. So although there is quite a bit of focus on Golden Age fiction, when – most people would accept, I think – the locked room mystery was in its hey-day, the book includes extensive discussion of some stories that one wouldn’t really associate with the locked room sub-genre. A key example is that splendid Charles Dickens story, “The Signalman”.
Unfortunately, like all academic tomes it's a pricey book and will run you well over $50 (plus shipping depending on where you find it). To purchase a copy of the book try the usual bookselling sites. I found it listed at and (free shipping always!).  It may be at other sites as well.

For more on the book see Martin's post Narratives of Enclosure at his blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Case of the Green Felt Hat - Christopher Bush

Here's a good example of giving a writer another chance. I attempted to read two Christopher Bush books in the past and each time I was put off by his tendency to drag out the proceedings with lots of tangential chit chat and extraneous business that had little to do with the real story. I never finished those books. Recently I found a rare title in Bush's large output and thought I'd give him one more chance hoping this wouldn't be his third and final strike. The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) proved to be one of his more engrossing efforts – a detective novel in which it appeared nearly everyone had an alibi the day and night the crime was committed. Throughout this book (and presumably the entire series) Ludovic Travers, Bush's amateur sleuth, has the uncanny ability of "alibi busting" and it is mentioned repeatedly by those who have worked with him in the past. His talent is put to impressive use in this book in which so many alibis appear to be completely fabricated but turn out to be true and others which seem to be iron-clad are painstakingly smashed open. As an added bonus the book also turns out to be part of a popular subgenre from the 1920s and 1930s – it's a golf mystery.

The story also appealed to me since it happens to have a resonance for me as one of the many people living with a wrecked retirement fund and who is attempting to recover from the financial ruin of the American economy. The murder victim is an ex-con who moves into a peaceful little village of Pettistone that just happens to be populated with several people who were targets of his financial chicanery. They all lost lots of money in his crooked investment schemes. Hanley Brewse unknowingly chose the town thinking he could start his life anew with a new identity, but he is unmasked by none other than Travers who has a memory for criminal faces and their checkered pasts. He reveals Brewse's past to Colonel Feen, Pettistone's chief constable, who for a lark then tells the town gossip, a nosey Parker by the name of Anthony Guff-Wimble. Guffy (as he is deprecatingly referred to by all) is shocked and outraged. He gathers together others from the town who he knows were robbed by Brewse and together they decide to oust the man from Pettistone.

Of course, you can guess what happens. Someone decides to help Brewse exit Pettistone in a manner that will ensure he never returns. He is found dead in a pile of cow manure with only his feet sticking out near a blazing woodshed. When the fire is extinguished and his body is extracted from the dung heap it is discovered that Brewse has been shot squarely in the chest. (A fitting fate I can easily fantasize for many of the avaricious executives of Enron and Shearson Lehman Brothers.) The scene where the police and Travers try to figure out if the body was meant to be incinerated in the dung heap is hysterical. A local farmer educates the city men on the not so inflammable properties of manure:
"But suppose there was paraffin or petrol in it?"
Haylock grabbed another handful or two of the manure heap and smelt it, then pushed one handful under Feen's nose.
"There you are sir. Do you smell for yourself. There ain't no paraffin nor nothing like that."
"Excellent," Feen said, and again was only too glad to take his word for it.
Travers, Colonel Feen, and George Warden (a visiting Scotland Yard inspector), spend much of their time interrogating the suspects, examining alibis, and weeding out the lies from the truth. The detection is not just confined to routine questioning, though much of that is complex and wily. There is some devious and amusing business with making plaster casts of shoe tread patterns found near the dead body. Travers dreams up an elaborate ruse in order to trick one of the suspects into stepping into fresh mud so that he can later make casts of the shoe prints to match up against those found at the crime scene.  Remarkably there are two automobile breakdowns on the same day within the vicinity of the crime that will be the focus of much discussion. There is also a neat map (see below) that serves as the frontispiece. The map hides a very subtle clue that eventually leads Travers to the final solution. An acute reader may also spot it, but it eluded me.

An act of vandalism adds additional mystery. A team of slanderous pranksters paint an insulting message outing Brewse as a former criminal and disguise it as a movie advertisement. "Now Showing CONVICT 99" is part of the elaborate sign found painted on Brewse's home. The artwork is discovered the morning after his body is dragged from the manure pile. Travers and crew decide it must have been done prior to the murder by more than one individual based on its size and detail as such a message would've been meant to be seen by Brewse and would hardly be a worthwhile effort had it been done after the man was killed.

Throughout the story golf also plays an important part. Similar to the novels of Herbert Adams Bush uses golf as a social setting that serves as a stratagem in talking about the crime. The dialogue during these golf matches is not the only thing that will help in unmasking the culprit. A keen reader will do well to pay attention to the numerous descriptions of expert golfing as well as errant shots and where missing golf balls turn up. The game of golf itself will play a very important part in the final solution. The manner in which the murderer planned the crime is devious but it will be complicated by the intrusion of both accidental and purposeful misdirection on the part of other suspects who monkey with evidence.

In this novel Travers is newly married to Bernice Haire, a former actress. Bernice joins her husband in the detection by acting as confidante to several of the women characters who all invite her to play golf. Her conversations provide Travers with some pertinent background that help him in his "alibi busting." Bernice's sister Joy, a talented impressionist and actress herself, makes a cameo in the final pages. Joy will also play an important part in the investigation by using her acting skill and her very malleable vocal cords. Travers' clever plan to employ her talents, however, nearly backfires when yet another unexpected event takes place.

I'm glad I gave Bush a third go. This turned out to be a real page turner with some expert misdirection, a cleverly thought out crime with all its oddities and red herrings explained, and a couple of well done surprises in the end. The detection is varied and unusual. The characters are colorful and original. Just when you think someone like Norman Quench, Pettistone's vicar, is just another detective novel cliche Bush surprises you when the vicar turns out to be one of the finest golfers in the bunch with some impressive trick shots. The book has a lot of nifty surprises like that. The overall flavor is more modern than many of the books of this pre-WW2 era. Finally, and most importantly for me, nothing is superfluous here, everything has a purpose, which is the way I prefer a genuine detective novel from this era.

The Case of the Green Felt Hat is the 20th book in a series which began in 1927 and ran all the way into the late 1960s. This particular title is available in both UK and US editions. A few copies are out there, but tend to run in the pricier range with the cheapest offered at $31 for a reading copy of the Thriller Book Club edition and the most expensive priced $296 for a copy of the Cassell first edition described as "very good" with no other supporting information. I think the higher prices are due to this particular title's scarcity and the sudden cultish status of Christopher Bush among collectors of Golden Age detective fiction.

Monday, March 26, 2012

IN BRIEF: The Youth Hostel Murders - Glyn Carr

Abercrombie Lewker, a garrulous, somewhat pompous Shakespearean actor and avid mountain climber is one of the more unusual amateur sleuths in detective fiction. In his travels and rock climbing adventures he inadvertently stumbles across violent deaths that invariably turn out to be nasty murders.

Here, in the third book in the series Lewker's annoying, very artificial speech is considerably diluted from his debut in Death on Milehigh Buttress which I never finished because of the arch dialogue. Lewker has an irritating habit of peppering his speech with quotes from Shakespeare, Webster, Wilde, Shaw and other classic writers of the British stage. But I muddled through the first three chapters of this one and the engrossing story overshadowed all the dialogue eccentricities.

The story includes witchcraft, Welsh legends and lore, and hidden cache of paintings. I figured this one out very early on, but the rock climbing and the character contrast between the youthful suspects and the middle-aged Lewker made for a good read nonetheless.

Most of the good books in this series, including this title, have been reissued by Rue Morgue Press. One of their reissues - Death under Snowdon - is a book that is practically impossible to find in its original edition. A handful of the other Lewker books (not reissued by RMP) are also very scarce and fetch exorbitant prices in the used book trade.

Last year I reviewed Lewker in Tirol, one of the later books in the series. The post can be found here along with the full bibliography of the Abercrombie Lewker series.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Another Road Trip, Another Book Haul

The lovely mess of Choctaw Books
(rare book room through the archway at left)
Just returned last night from the annual road trip to the south. This year, at my insistence, we traveled to Florida via Mississippi and Alabama, two states I had yet to set foot in. I figured there had to be a few interesting old bookstores in Mississippi with its rich Civil War history and being the home state of several literary giants (Faulkner and Welty come immediately to mind). Well, the book hunting there was pretty darn sad for most of the time. It was only at the very last stop where everything brightened. A shop I was thinking would be mostly nonfiction based on its decidedly Native American name of Choctaw Books held a jackpot of vintage mysteries.

For those who live in the area I highly recommend Choctaw Books located at 926 North Street in Jackson, MS. The place is a chaotic mess - just the way I like used bookstores. Often you need to literally dig through some of the piles. But thankfully there was a room devoted solely to mystery books where everything was shelved alphabetically. I had little need of a shovel in there.

Below are the books I found there as well as a few choice titles picked up in Florida.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

FFB: The Party at No. 5 - Shelley Smith

Mrs. Roach stood there like a stock, with her hands clasped, thinking: Twenty-two pounds for a piece of useless bric-a-brac that could be smashed to fragments in an instant; and this was the woman who moaned that she could not pay the rates and made a scene over the telephone bill and turned away a poor, humble working man because he had done her out of a few shillings! Either the woman was mad or she was abominably cruel.
There should be a subgenre of crime fiction called Badass Biddies. It would encompass all the novels, movies, and plays about criminal old women ranging from Arsenic and Old Lace to the gruesome Still Waters reviewed  here last year. Falling somewhere in between the outright farce of Kesselring's play and the violence of McCrery's novel are the nasty acts perpetrated by the two women in Shelley Smith's The Party at No. 5 (1954). Here is a duo with whom you find yourself alternately sympathizing then pitying then loathing. It's something of a tour de force from this writer who specialized in genteel malice domestic and created a wide variety of despicable characters – often favoring middle-aged women as her criminal minded protagonists.

Contemporary crime fiction like the Golden Age is beginning to become increasingly formulaic with a variety of favorite conventions. One of them is the unreliable narrator. Patrick McGrath, for example, frequently used it often to great effect in his novels Asylum, The Grotesque and Spider. Others are less successful in creating characters whose wildly told stories are imbued with a haze of ambiguity. What is real and what is surreal? How much is truly happening and how much is the jumbled perception of a troubled or insane mind? Smith does an impressive job of presenting two women both of whom we learn of through a third person narrator and both of whom are not quite to be trusted in what they say and how they behave. It is only when each of the women is alone or thinking their private thoughts that we see them as they truly are.

Luna Rampage lives alone in a massive house cared for only by a single servant. She eagerly awaits a weekly letter from her daughter who has travelled with her husband to Malaya. She has few friends, but one among them, Cissie, is concerned for Mrs. Rampage. Cissie suggests Mrs. Rampage take in a companion who might also act as a second servant to help with the upkeep of the nearly empty house. Mrs. Rampage is insulted. She is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and dislikes the idea of her ordered private world being invaded by a stranger. The expense is first and foremost in her mind. Extra food, more electricity being used, more water being used. She'd have to go chasing after a boarder making sure lights weren't left turned on throughout the house. Regardless, Cissie returns a few dyas later and introduces Mrs. Norah Roach. She is the epitome of kindness and gentility. Despite all her fears and her initial antagonistic attitude Mrs. Rampage surprises herself by accepting Mrs. Roach into her home. And the war begins.

The poorly retitled US paperback edition
In addition to her parsimonious lifestyle Mrs. Rampage also is in love with collecting antiques and curios. She won't spend extra money on unnecessary electricity, but will dish out money for a rare objet d'art. Isn't that always the case with an obsessed collector? Mrs. Roach may seem all sugar and spice on the outside but she is as selfish as Mrs. Rampage. She also hides behind a sanctimonious religious mask that irritates Mrs. Rampage even more. While Mrs. Rampage calls Norah a "filthy cockroach" Norah prays for Luna's soul, followed by nightly diary entries in which she outlines her plans to slowly divest Mrs. Rampage of her precious belongings and secretly sell them so she can start building up a savings. When Mrs. Rampage starts to notice things going missing and turning up in Mrs. Roach's apartment the relationship shifts to a more dangerous level. The teasing and name calling escalate to mental torture and other mind games. A feud ensues of "your word against mine" with Norah maintaining her pseudo-friendly, passive veneer while Luna loses control, becomes volatile and vociferous. Luna is on the rampage and it leads to ruin.

The menace slowly builds throughout the novel and the shift in sympathies is alarming. The scheming and plotting and lying of one contrasts sharply with the melodramatic outbursts of the other. In spite of all her meanness and nastiness I began hoping some character would believe poor Luna's ravings. I also kept eagerly waiting for someone to slap Norah upside the head. I was reminded of how I found myself feeling so terribly sorry for the illiterate housemaid in Ruth Rendell's A Judgment in Stone only to be shocked when her frustration in trying to read leads the maid to that book's horrifically violent climax. Similarly, in Smith's book an incredibly loathsome woman is being victimized by a phony saint and you can only hope for a reversal of roles. But hope is futile here.

I also enjoyed Smith's choice of character names. Like the people you find in a Restoration comedy the names reflect the characters' personalities. In addition to the so perfectly named Luna Rampage and Norah Roach there are Lily Graveyard, a morbid housemaid obsessed with illness; Cissie Getaway, the friend who drops in and out of Luna's life like an express train; Henrietta Purvis, Luna's antique store owner confidante; and Jonquil Bracebridge, Luna's daughter who makes an eleventh hour appearance in attempt to bring some order to the chaos. If you're wondering where are the men - there are a few but they play very minor roles, usually as authority figures like Luna's lawyer "the Venerable " Geoffrey Bede and a visiting doctor. Completing the male side of the cast and not to be outdone by the thievery and duplicity of the women is the obsequious Mr. Peacock, a gardener who has some petty criminal deeds of his own he is trying to keep undercover.

I have three other Smith books I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. Her work is an excellent example of the kind of crime novel that I have become fascinated with in the last ten years or so. I find the subtleties and ambiguities of human behavior more intriguing than the cerebral puzzles of the detective novel. Slowly discovering what makes characters tick is a lot more interesting to me these days than poring over endless Q&A sessions while a detective tries in vain to figure out why Lord Fortescue lied about taking the 7:08 train to Luton only to stumble upon the answer by chance.

The Crime Novels of Shelley Smith
Background for Murder (1942)
Death Stalks a Lady (1945)
This Is the House (1945)
Come and Be Killed! (1946)
He Died of Murder! (1947)
The Woman in the Sea (1948)
Man with a Calico Face (1951)
Man Alone (1952) - U.S. title: The Crooked Man
An Afternoon to Kill (1953)
The Party at No. 5 (1954) - U.S. title: The Cellar at No. 5
The Lord Have Mercy (1956) - U.S. paperback: The Shrew Is Dead
The Ballad of the Running Man (1961) - also The Running Man (made into a movie)
A Grave Affair (1971)
A Game of Consequences (1978)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vegetable Duck - John Rhode

Around the middle of the 1940s Dr. Lancelot Priestley, John Rhode's professor of mathematics and sometime detective, became more of an armchair detective and less of an active participant in the intricately plotted crimes he encounters.  In these later books Priestley usually appears at the halfway point and serves as a consultant to the primary police detective. In the case of Vegetable Duck (1944) -- also published as Too Many Suspects in the US -- Priestley has only three scenes in which he makes subtle suggestions to Inspector Jimmy Waghorn. Priestley does one bit of dazzling detective work involving the mystery of an envelope with an inexplicable damp stain, but otherwise he merely entertains the police and forensic investigators at three different dinner parties and makes deprecatory remarks or frowns at Waghorn when he delivers his mostly wrong findings. But Waghorn is no dullard policeman, he picks up on Priestley's hints and finally gets it all right.

The book is almost an inverted detective novel. Waghorn does what so many real life policemen seem to do – they pick a primary suspect and become so obstinate in wanting that suspect to be guilty that they rearrange the evidence to fit the suspect conveniently overlooking things that "don't fit" rather than examining the true circumstances of the crime by including all of the evidence and using that to determine the proper criminal. On several occasions Priestley points out Waghorn's faulty reasoning and his fixation on one particular suspect who just happens to have a shady past.

There are multiple puzzles in this engrossing detective story. It's one of those rare detective novels in which the story is completely concerned with the solution of those puzzles with little filler action or the kind of local color usually found among the minor characters. The cast of characters is rather large as the story tends to shift locales frequently. Among the most interesting in the colorful supporting cast are Sir Oswald Horsham, the forensic expert; Frederick Massingham, a shifty private detective; Ellen, the garrulous cook and servant in the Fransham home; and P.C. Purbeck, a wily constable in the town where Charles Fransham relocates after his wife's death.

The murder investigation is primarily focused on the death by poisoning of Mrs. Fransham who dies while eating the vegetable duck of the original title. This is a dish of a large squash stuffed with mincemeat and vegetables. At first it is though that she somehow ingested food doctored with a prescription liniment for her arthritis that included two highly toxic ingredients. (I wondered what physician in his right mind would prescribe a medicine that seemed to be made up of nothing but poison, but this is dismissed by nearly everyone in the book. Strange.) The actual poison turns out to be the fairly innocuous digitalis, a heart medication which can be deadly in higher doses and fatal to someone without a heart condition. Savvy murder mystery readers will almost immediately pick up on the herbal origins of digitalis as I did and come to the conclusion that gardening and knowledge of plants will feature in the plot. In fact, one, of the characters is an avid horticulturalist and through him the reader learns all about raising vegetable marrows, specifically the unusual method a gardener employs to achieve super-sized marrows used for displays or to enter in gardening competitions. This method is exploited by the murderer in one of the many fiendish murder methods that are the hallmark of Rhode's books.

Waghorn's primary suspect is Mrs. Fransham's husband, Charles, who was involved in an accidental shooting that most people, including retired Superintendent Hanslet, believe was a disguised murder.  Hanslet provides Waghorn with the background of the shooting death revealing in the storytelling process the usual convoluted will in the plot. Money seems to be the central motive for the wife's death.  As the investigation unravels and becomes further complicated suspicion shifts to a little known son from Fransham's first marriage who had a less than loving relationship with his stepmother.  Waghorn refuses to heed Priestley's warnings of his rash behavior by jumping from suspect to suspect as he pieces the evidence against each man. Only in the final chapter does Waghorn see his folly and begin to pay attention to some apparently meaningless coincidences that turn out to be crucial to the correct solution.

Most of the book is deals with scientific experiments and discussion that reminded me of the best of R. Austin Freeman and J. J. Connington.  A trial and error experiment with test portions of the woman's final meal being injected into laboratory frogs recalled the elaborate camera experiment in The Sweepstakes Murder by Connington and a variety of esoteric scientific examinations by the brilliant Dr. John Thorndyke in Freeman's books.  But there is also an elaborate finale in which several characters are figuratively unmasked that made me think of some of the more outrageous denouements in Christie's work like Murder in Mesopotamia. There's a lot that will appeal to a wide variety of crime fiction readers in Vegetable Duck whether you like puzzles, scientific detection or endings that have an element of the surreal.

This completes 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
Murder in Shinbone Alley - Helen Reilly
Vegetable Duck (aka Too Many Suspects)

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Collaborative Act

Nick Jones, who writes the Existential Ennui  blog and is one mad book collector I'd like go shopping with if I ever get to the U.K. again, asked me to participate in an interview with Christopher Nicole, author of numerous historical novels and as "Andrew York" is the writer of the Jonas Wilde spy novels. I came up with some rambling, harebrained questions about his spy fiction that go on and on in my avidly curious and probing fashion while Nick came up with some more pertinent and streamlined questions that address Nicole's entire career as a writer. Nicole's answers are surprisingly terse and in some cases disappointingly prosaic. But the entire interview makes for great reading. It's always fascinating to get inside the head of a writer, I think.

Please visit Nick's blog here to read the interview. You'll learn more about Christopher Nicole's work outside of the spy novels (a very small portion of his prolific output), discover his personal favorites among his books, and many other interesting tidbits including why Jonas Wilde stopped drinking Bacardi.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Custom Bookplates

Here's a collection of custom bookplates.

The only person I was successful in discovering anything about was the man at left. Mr. Ryan attended University of Illinois at Chicago during the 1930s where he studied business and accounting. I know nothing about anyone else whose names appear on these bookplates.

Neil McKnight seems to have a vague ring about it.  It's possible he may be either a collector of note or someone in the book trade - a critic or bibliographer perhaps.  A Google search, however, turned up zippo on him.

I've seen the Neil McKnight bookplate several times and they tend to turn up in science fiction and supernatural books.  I can't remember which book this fell out of.

Friday, March 9, 2012

FFB: Ten Little Wizards - Michael Kurland

Impossible crimes and locked room murders. An Agatha Christie homage. An alternative universe where monarchies rule all of Europe and the New World. Magic supplants real science and sorcerers hold positions of power and authority. What more could you ask for? Well, a better constructed mystery, for one. And a lot less in-jokes and filler for another.

I was prepared to enjoy thoroughly Michael Kurland's continuation of the adventures of Lord Darcy, the Chief Investigator in the court of King John IV, a detective character first created by Randall Garrett in a series of novellas and one full-length novel back in the 1970s. Kurland does a nice job of elaborating on the alternative universe where Richard the Lion-Hearted ruled longer than his actual ten years preventing John I from ever being king and was succeeded by a long line of Plantagenet descendents who have been ruling the Angevin Empire for over seven centuries. But Kurland's skill in creating a viable detective novel that pays tribute to the impossible crimes and locked room mysteries Garrett concocted so imaginatively leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunate because there are three locked room murders with so much promise yet none of them are solved with any ingenuity whatsoever.

Someone is murdering sorcerers and leaving behind slips of paper with taunting rhymed couplets. This and the title are a mere nod, barely an allusion, to Christie. I expected the rhymes to be a clue of some sort to the motives of the murderer or - as in the novel - be related to the murder methods.  But no, the rhymes have no reason. They do sound similar to the Christie poem but "Nine little wizards snickered at fate/One wizard laughed aloud and then there were eight" for example, has little do to with a throat cutting and has nothing to do with the eventual motive or identity of the killer.

One dead wizard is found stabbed in a bakery with all the doors and windows locked from the inside, another dead body is found in the middle of a freshly shellacked ballroom still tacky but showing only the victim's footprints leading into the locked room. The second crime is the most fascinating since the victim had his throat cut in such a way that it appeared someone had to be directly behind him and yet there is no evidence of any other person being present. There is a third locked room murder and two other deaths plus the threat of the assassination of His Majesty the King before the culprit is finally stopped.

There is an awful lot that is similar to Too Many Magicians, the only Lord Darcy novel Garrett wrote. In Garrett's book a convention of sorcerers brings together wizards and magicians from all over Europe. In Kurland's book dignitaries from Poland travel to the court of King John IV for the ceremony which will raise Gwiliam, Duke of Lancaster (the King's younger son), to Prince of Gaul. Polish spies and political conspiracies are also prominently featured in both. There is a lot of backstory on the richly detailed alternate history of this universe and it was better delineated for me here. But the criminal investigation and the real mysteries tended to drift into the background while Kurland introduced more and more minor characters so that he could indulge in witty banter and discuss the political relations between Germany, Normandy, England and Poland and bring up even more talk about the colonies of New England and New France on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of the more original spins in the book is Kurland's poking fun at the lack of real science in this world. One example is in the introduction of a character who has been called upon to help cure the Marquis of Sherrinford's headaches with a newly devised treatment involving talking and listening. The Marquis is astounded that simply talking about his childhood and taking a simple powder dissolved in water can cure him of his nagging stress headaches. The sorcerers at court call it a cheap form of magic (he does give the powder after all) while the Count helping the Marquis calls it Mental Science.

The strength of the book is in the fantasy elements. As in Garrett's work Lord Darcy here is assisted by Sean O Lochlainn, a forensic sorcerer who does all of the magical detective work by whipping up similarity spells that are akin to blood tests and DNA lab work, examining locks for protection tampering, manifesting traces of evil at each crime scene, and even placing a levitation spell on Darcy so that he can hover over the corpse in the shellacked ballroom without making marks on the floor. The cerebral detection and routine interrogation of suspects is left to Lord Darcy. He does yeoman but not spectacular work. When it comes time to reveal the murderer we get an action oriented trap and a messy and rushed explanation of the impossible crimes that turn out to have prosaic and lazy solutions. The murderer isn't even a character who we know among the large group of suspects. He is introduced two pages before he is identified as the culprit. For that I give Kurland a big "Boo!"

If you want to read about Lord Darcy, I suggest you start with the real thing. Read Randall Garret's much better stories. Once you are familiar with his world and characters then maybe you might want to investigate Kurland's two books as a curiosity. I liked his handling of the alternative universe twenty or so years after the original stories took place. He explained the history of this strange world and the magical hierarchy much more clearly than Garrett did, but the detective novel aspects and certainly the impossible crimes pale in comparison to Garrett's original work.

The Lord Darcy Series by Randall Garrett
Murder and Magic - novellas originally published in magazines between 1964 - 1973
Too Many Magicians (1966) - novel
Lord Darcy Investigates (1981) - short stories originally published in magazines between 1974 - 1979
Also, all three books were reissued in an omnibus put out by several different bookclubs called Lord Darcy.

By Michael Kurland (both originally published as paperback originals)
Ten Little Wizards (Ace, 1988)
A Study in Sorcery (Ace, 1989)
Both of Kurland's contributions to the Lord Darcy series have been reissued by Wildside Press.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Grindle Nightmare - Q. Patrick

Sometimes I come across a book in my reading and I wonder how it was received upon it's first publication. So I trundle through the interweb looking for old book reviews. In the case of the fittingly titled The Grindle Nightmare (1935) I found these terse comments:

Animal and human killings in a mystery involving morbid psychology. A pathologist turns sleuth and ferrets out the answer. Good reading.
-- Kirkus Reviews, Aug 10, 1935
Murderous madman loose in New England valley kills animals and humans until young doctor traps him. Summing Up: Hereby awarded Malignancy Medal for 1935. More nasty people and unpleasant events you'll never find between two covers. Verdict: Ghastly
-- Saturday Review, Aug 10, 1935
The Kirkus reviewer seemed to overlook the obvious. Good reading but no warning about the violent, grisly, and over-the-top lurid events you will encounter. Saturday Review hit the nail on the head, and delivered the kind of reaction I would have expected. Near revulsion.

I have to confess that I was surprised at the level of violence in this book. It ought to have been marketed as a "shocker." When it was twice reissued in paperback editions the sales teams at Popular Library and Ballantine recognized the book for what it really is. Each publisher promised horror and "gruesome surprise" on the covers and chose ominous vultures to symbolize the violent carnage inside the pages. A nice metaphoric touch (the buzzards are mentioned only in passing and never actually appear, by the way) rather than going for a more literal depiction of the book's grisly events. I'm sure that would have revolted even the most bloodthirsty of readers at the time.

The book has more in common with the stories that filled the shudder pulps of the day rather than a puzzling detective novel. I think because of the lurid content no respectable publisher would touch it. No surprise that the hardcover edition was published, not by one of the leading houses of the time, but rather an obscure independent publisher. Hartney Press, a firm that appears to have only lasted one year, released the book and judging by their catalog that included such titles as Tough Little Trollop and Raiders of the Tonto Rim (both by utterly forgotten writers) they seemed to be attracting the readers of pulp magazines. They do have one claim to fame apart from giving us The Grindle Nightmare: one of their books has garnered cult classic status among crime fiction devotees. The Green Shadow by James Edward Grant has become one of those books with an amazing dust cover illustration that is very scarce and highly desirable (translation: outrageously priced) in the collector's market.

I like that punny use of the verb "to ferret." in the Kirkus review above. If you read the book you'll know that several of the victims are animals -- a mix of livestock and household pets -- including two dogs, a kitten, some sheep and goats, and a marmoset. [A what? I hear you say.] You know, that odd primate that fashionable 1930s women desired as an eye catching accessory. If you can't have an ocelot, go for a marmoset, right? One of the eccentric woman characters takes Queenie, her marmoset, everywhere often draping the animal around her neck like some kind of live fur. Very Charles Addams, I say. But enough of all this background and teasing. Don't you want to know what goes on in this wild book? Of course you do –- like a gawking rubbernecker at a highway accident you must be satisfied.

Grindle Oak has fallen victim to a madman on the rampage. Several animals have been mercilessly slaughtered and disemboweled over a period of weeks. Amid all the animal killings little Polly Baines has gone missing. Her father, Jo Baines, asks Dr. Douglas Swanson to help him locate the girl. He doesn't trust the police. Swanson is to meet Baines at the Old Mill Pond the next morning to start their search for Polly. But when Swanson turns up at the site he finds Baines dead, face down in the water. His body is abraded and bleeding, his hands are encased in animal traps. It appears that he has been dragged behind an automobile then his broken torn up body thrown in the creek that feeds the pond. And that's just the beginning of the human violence.

The book is a relentless assault of nightmare visions, a veritable horror show of sadistic torture perpetrated on both human and animal victims. A Sealyham terrier suffers a similar fate to Baines but is rescued before it is strangled by the cord tied around its neck. There is an arson attack, near daily discoveries of eviscerated livestock, and the constant fear that Little Polly will eventually turn up the second of the madman's human victims.

Mark Baines, the mentally challenged son of the murder victim and brother to the missing girl, is one of the more interesting characters in the book. He has a near supernatural command over animals. He can quiet a unruly dog and can run into a burning barn to rescue two horses that seem hypnotized under his guiding hands. But Mark is also known to have been somewhat cruel to some local girls and the townspeople are frightened by his uncanny love for animals and his indifference to people. It is suggested that Mark may have something to do with his sister's disappearance.

Animal research and animal abuse are at the heart of the story. Complaints from anti-vivisectionist groups and the SPCA are directed at the experimental research of Swanson and Antonio Conti, his scientific partner. They are in the process of creating hematologic sera and vaccines and use dogs and other animals as test subjects in their experiments. Both are targeted throughout the story with at least two people and the local deputy gunning for Conti as the sick mind behind the animal killings and torture.

This leads to a discussion of sadism and the possible escalation of a warped mind that finds perverse delight in harming animals to seek out humans as his targets. Abnormal psychology soon becomes the focus of Dr. Swanson's amateur investigation as he begins to suspect that his research partner may indeed have a few screws loose. Then an offhand comment about an infamous historic murder trial sends the story into an arena that is completely unexpected and a surprise ending that caught me completely offguard.

I'll spare you a summary of  the most horrific scenes in the book. You'll have to discover those on your own -- if you dare. I have two copies of this book and am willing to sell either one dirt cheap to anyone who is interested in delving further into its bleak world. But it's not for the faint of heart, as they used to say way back when. Gore hounds will love The Grindle Nightmare. All others stay far, far away.

Friday, March 2, 2012

FFB: The Hollow Skin - Virginia Swain

Have I ever talked about a fascinating bibliographic work that has been a reading guide of mine for several years? It's called 333 and it was published back in the 1950s. As the title suggests it is a catalog of three hundred and thirty-three books all of which fall into one of three categories: science fiction, weird or adventure. Within those three broad categories the genres are further categorized as Gothic Romance, unknown worlds, fantastic adventure, lost race, and Oriental. Of course there are some which combine one or more of these categories; it's always hard to pigeonhole this kind of fiction. For years I pored over the plot summaries of these books and slowly but surely managed to acquire or borrow from libraries nearly all of those that interested me. Now that I've pretty much exhausted the weird, fantastic adventure and lost race novels I'm working my way thorough some of the science fiction and fantasy works. Virginia Swain's only novel of the weird, The Hollow Skin (1938), is one of the first books I read that is included in 333. And it's one of the strangest books I've encountered in weird and supernatural fiction, primarily because of its shocking ending that seems to come out of nowhere.

Lex Drummond, a young doctor, travels to the Bahamas as a rest cure for his bothersome bronchitis. There he meets another physician who has been caring for some of the wealthier inhabitants of the island of St. Catherine’s. The elder doctor introduces the younger to Lady Mary, the resident “witch,” a wealthy woman who is obsessed with moving into a mansion located in an isolated part of the island. She is doing her best to coerce the current resident Mr. Percy Isher to leave and apparently is not adverse to tinkering with the occult in order to get her way. Isher is, however, adamant on staying.

The story eventually involves the young doctor’s pursuit of Valentine, a beautiful young girl and her mysterious older female caretaker both of whom he later discovers are staying in the mansion with Isher. The young woman is Isher’s ward and the caretaker her governess who may or may not be Isher’s wife. When Isher’s Bahamian manservant dies after a mysterious accidental fall the young doctor is convinced that something strange is going on in the mansion. Lady Mary hints to the doctor that the death is perhaps related to obeah – a superstition laden local religion not unlike Voodoo of Haiti. Lady Mary seems to know a terrible secret about Isher but is devilishly teasing to the doctors. She will divulge nothing hoping that Isher will reveal himself and thereby allow her to come into possession of the mansion.

The first half of book is thoroughly engaging, but a middle section bogs down with an unnecessary subplot involving Freddie, an English playboy, who is intent on leaving the island even if he has to stowaway on a freight ship. Freddie apparently knew Isher and was his neighbor when he was a small child and gives some interesting background on the odd man and his ward, but ultimately this portion of the story is a bit annoying and intrusive as it takes away from the more interesting characters of Lady Mary, Isher and his daughter.

The book begins as a neo-Gothic with much supernatural content, and excellent handling of setting which enhances the mood in a Radcliffe manner. One expects the main story to be a battle of wills between Lady Mary and Isher. But since Swain insists on telling the story through the viewpoint of the least interesting character – Drummond – we mostly get a sappy love story involving the narrator and Valentine. Only when characters begin to die mysteriously does the book once again become action oriented as it transforms into a detective novel. The plot is complicated by evidence of snake bites on the victims and the book morphs once again into a pulp thriller. The final third of the book ends in an utterly unexpected bizarre twist. And if you intend to go looking for an affordable copy of this book from the usual online third party sites I suggest you avoid reading the plot blurbs in some of those book descriptions. A certain dealer who shall remain nameless (but he's the one who has a photo next to his copy) has a habit of giving away the ending of books like this and ruins the big surprise in The Hollow Skin.

I asked for some help on Virginia Swain's biography and literary life because I had little luck in digging up anything about her. I was curious if she had written anything else in the weird or supernatural fiction genre. I reached out to Douglas Anderson who has two fascinating blogs: Lesser Known Writers primarily devoted to obscure weird fiction writers and Wormwoodiana, the blog offshoot of the journal Wormwood, described as a tribute to "literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent." His knowledge of writers' lives and works is vast and impressive and he has a lot more resources than I do. He graciously obliged by finding this information about Swain who, it turns out, did indeed dabble in weird fiction in short story form:
Virginia Swain (1899-1968) was a journalist in the 1920s after getting a degree at the University of Missouri in 1921. In 1925 she married Philip Duffield Stong (1899-1957), who became a better-known and more prolific writer than Virginia; his best-known novel is probably STATE FAIR (1932). He did edit an fantasy anthology OTHER WORLDS (1941), containing a lot of familiar writers for WEIRD TALES (including Lovecraft), but it also has a story, "Aunt Cassie", by his wife.
One final interesting tidbit I dug up about The Hollow Skin. Apparently there was a contest to name this book. It was released without a title and readers were asked to contribute their own titles. The winner would win a $25 prize plus the honor of seeing their title emblazoned on the hardcover and its dust jacket. There is one dealer offering for sale a copy of the untitled review copy with the contest advertised on the book. It'll cost you an additional $50 plus the promised prize money to own that rare and unusual edition of this book. Several copies of the hardcover with and without the attractive dust jacket are also offered throughout the internet, all (I think) at affordable prices.