Tuesday, May 29, 2012

IN BRIEF: The Lord Have Mercy - Shelley Smith

Shelley Smith enters the territory usually visited by writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong in this exploration of how gossip destroys the fabric of a small town's population. The criminal element is kept to a minimum in The Lord Have Mercy (1956) while the author spends much of her time examining the private lives and idiosyncratic hobbies of her large cast of characters.

The focus is on Editha Mansbridge, the shrewish wife of the town doctor, who is both an object of desire and a target of derision. The US paperback reprint takes advantage of this persona in an edition retitled The Shrew is Dead. When Editha dies unexpectedly of an apparent drug overdose the rumor mill begins churning up story after story. Suicide, accident and murder plots are intermingled with whispered discussions of marital infidelity and same-sex wantonness.

Smith enjoys creating a multiple vignettes with ultra minor characters. Some of the more amusing ones involve a small army of old biddies seated at their sitting room windows with binoculars and notebooks and the tea time gossip sessions that follow their Gladys Kravitz acts. Other highlights include a feuding lesbian couple, Naomi and Crispin, who spend much of their time arguing over Crispin's attempts at luring Editha into an adulterous affair; and the surprise visit of Harry, Editha's rogue brother, always in need of money and his eventual hook-up with a lonely widow who he cajoles into helping him finance a brothel.

Yet the episodic nature of the book tends to be self-defeating. It's more akin to an episode of "Peyton Place" transplanted to the U.K. than a tightly constructed crime novel. The teeming soap opera and melodrama flood the pages drowning any real suspense. All the detailed stories of the supporting players continually crowd out the main story which is that of Editha's husband, Robert, accused of his wife's murder and Catherine, a female stalker who is madly in love with Robert. Eventually the subplots are tied up or fade into the background allowing Robert, Catherine and a police inspector to take center stage.

However, when the revelation of who is responsible for Editha's demise comes it does so anti-climatically. A final ambiguous sentence left me in a daze rather than having the story resolved satisfactorily.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

JACKET REQUIRED: Murder in the Last Frontier

In response to Steve Lewis' review of Murder Wears Mukluks by Eunice Mays Boyd posted a few days ago at Mystery*File I mentioned that I owned all her books in DJ.  But when I went to my shelves I was proven wrong.  Of the three books only two had DJs.  And so here they are with a lovely map frontispiece doing an understudy bit for the missing DJ.

She wrote only three mysteries, all set in Alaska, the first mystery writer I believe who used that state for the primary setting. Her detective character is F. Millard Smyth, a "little mild-mannered grocer."

All of these photos are at the original size, so clicking won't enlarge them this time.

Boyd's first book - 1943
Honorable Mention in the "3rd Mary Roberts Rinehart Mystery Contest"

from Doom in the Midnight Sun - 1944
The book is simply red with titles on the spine only. Makes for a boring photo.

Her third and final book - 1945

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Pretty Sinister Coterie

John Chandler's amazing mess of a store - Bookman's Corner
One of my favorite places in Chicago
A while back I mentioned that I expected to attain a grand total of 50 followers in my first year.  I fell short by about 15. But today I logged in to discover I now have attained my meager goal.  51 Followers!  If I were to die in a freak accident tomorrow I'd be happy: one follower for each year of life on this planet.

All this achieved in 16 months. Not bad for a blog that is devoted to writing about out of print and hard to find books and dead writers. Some people never get a single follower or any comments at all. I'm lucky.

Thanks to all of you who read the blog whether you have "officially" chosen to follow by clicking on that Blogger/Google button or whether you drop by every now and then.  I nearly pulled the plug on this two months ago due to a sharp decline in hits and diminishing comments.  I thought I had become boring and I didn't know what to write about anymore.  I realized all that had happened was a lack of inspiration.

So thanks to followers numbers 50 and 51 for giving me that little nudge to keep on writing about obscure books and writers consigned to Limbo.

Friday, May 25, 2012

FFB: Mr. Diabolo - Anthony LeJeune

A ghost-like figure clad in Victorian wardrobe complete with cloak, flamboyant waistcoat and stovepipe hat appears and disappears in a haunted alley known as Devil's Lane. Hours later a man is found strangled in a locked room. Has a long forgotten specter returned and killed again? I can a smell a John Dickson Carr homage at ten paces. In Mr Diabolo (1960) Anthony Lejeune tries his hand at what many other crime writers have also attempted -- to write a convincing impossible crime tale with a multiple puzzling mysteries and a tantalizing locked room murder worthy of the master. He almost succeeds.

In the opening chapter, "The Coming of Mr. Diabolo" we learn of the specter's legend which dates back to the days of young Lord Farrant, one of the founders of the College of Western Studies, who staged "mysterious midnight parties in his rooms."  Professor Cornelius describes the origins of the specter:
His rooms smelled of incense or, some said, of brimstone. his servant found the stubs of black candles and once, half burned, a kitten's paw. And sounds were heard. In short, people became quite convinced that young Lord Farrant was indulging in the black arts. [...] his friends were less discreet, particularly in their cups. They were overheard speaking of somebody who was present at their meetings called 'Mr. Diabolo.'
A conference of the Anglo-American Literary and Political Society ("the Alps" to its members) has brought together academics from both the US and the UK to the campus of the college, a former monastery dating back to the 15th century. The story is narrated by Foreign Office agent Alastair Burke who is allowed to participate in the criminal investigation as a liaison for the Americans attending the conference until a lawyer can be found to represent them. He continues to be involved int eh case when he becomes a witness to a second attempted murder. It is the mysterious Arthur Blaise, however, former associate of Burke's in the spy trade, who unravels the mystery of the disappearing Mr. Diabolo and the locked room murder of Bill Frazer.

As is the case with many mysteries of this subgenre the characters are obsessed with the miraculous circumstances that obscure the crime. Burke and the lovely Barbara Tracey act as the amateur sleuthing duo who do their best to gather data from the suspected members of "the Alps" all the while remaining mystified by the unscalable wall that surrounds the alley, the pile of clothes left behind by the vanished specter, and the door locked on the inside of Frazer's sealed room. Arthur Blaise, like Fell and Merrivale, will not succumb to the impossibilities. He absorbs and examines the evidence, weeds through the lies and deceit, holding back most of his thoughts until the final pages when he explains away all the obfuscating mysteries as the magician's tricks they really are.

"Anthony Lejeune" is in reality Edward Anthony Thompson, crime fiction reviewer, thriller writer, and close friend of Dennis Wheatley. His debut spy thriller Crowded and Dangerous (1959) was described as "snugly readable, bustling Buchanish" by esteemed critic Maurice Richardson with a plot summed up by Violet Grant of the Daily Telegraph as "the trail leads from a Chelsea houseboat to a ship in the London docks, sailing under an Iron [C]urtain flag." Lejeune later created series character Adam Gifford, a reporter and spy, who appeared in at least three other mysteries one of which is the tempting The Dark Trade (1966), published in a US paperback reprint as Death of a Pornographer. In the 1980s he returned to writing mysteries with an academic background and created Professor Lowery who solves crimes in two books.

Japanese edition from 2010
One of the 10 Best "honkaku"- orthodox mysteries
Mr. Diabolo is for the most part an engaging read but my attention began to wander with the probing exploration of Frazer who we discover is a womanizing cad with a taste for blackmail. The bulk of the tale is sidetracked by more and more secrets uncovered related to Frazer's past life and the women in the cast. Too much attention is spent in discussing the architecture of the building, the numerous stairwells, the abundance of keys to all the rooms,  and other minutiae which tend to confuse and overwhelm the reader. There seems to be a lot of clutter in this mystery.

Thankfully, when the solution comes there is one brilliant surprise -- perhaps a nod to a famous Anthony Boucher novel which also shares a similar trick -- that redeemed the book for me. With such a great opening, the macabre legend, and the baffling vanishing of a ghost-like killer Lejeune's novel aspires to true greatness and promises to dazzle the reader. Sadly, he only manages to raise a faint glow of surprise just falling short of book that might have been a real classic in locked room mysteries.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

IN BRIEF: So Young, So Wicked – Jonathan Craig

When Steve Garrity comes home one night to find a paper match bent into the front door frame of his apartment he knows it's not a good sign. Vince Licardi has been there again. And when Vince shows up Steve knows he has to give up his regular gig as a piano player in a local night club and do another favor for the syndicate. The favor always means someone has to die.

This time it's Leda , a fifteen year old girl living in a upstate New York suburb. Just why Leda has to do die is never explained to Steve. All that is stressed is her death must appear to be accidental and needs to happen fast. It's one of Steve's most difficult jobs for the gangsters he has become enslaved to. Years ago he beat a man to death and in order to escape prison and eventual execution in the electric chair he agreed to a Faustian pact of sorts. He would have to kill someone for the mob and continue to accept hit man jobs whenever called upon in exchange for his life and protection.

Craig provides the usual well drawn cast of supporting players. Small town gossips provide Steve with all the info he needs on Leda without having to probe too deeply.  Offering up all the dirt on the town and Leda's life are a slovenly misanthropic hotel owner, the ineffectual and nosey bellhop Ollie, and a friendly bartender. A former NYC cop, now chief of police of the small town, serves as the shrewd detective who begins to suspect Steve may not be what he pretends to be.

So Young, So Wicked travels down the dark noir road. There is no detection or real justice as in the books detailing the cases of cops Pete Selby and Stan Rayder of the 6th Precinct. Instead we get plenty of steamy sex and scheming. Steve gets in way over his head when he foolishly decides to use Leda's aunt, Nancy Wilson, as a way to get to know his intended victim. Posing as a man interested in opening a music store in the space that formerly housed Nancy's financially disastrous gift shop, Steve decides to pursue her romantically. The phony relationship gets out of hand, Nancy falls madly for Steve, and Leda then uses the two against each other in order to outwit Steve at his own game. Some readers may find the portrait of Leda, a nasty little Lolita with a case of the Bad Seed syndrome, a bit repellent by the end which is as bleak as most real noir should be.

Interestingly, So Young, So Wicked must've been a big seller for Gold Medal  It's one of Craig's books that received two Gold Medal printings.  The one pictured up top (#954) is the second edition with a picture of a mature and teasing teen age Leda as she is described in the book. The first printing (#669) at right makes Leda look like a magazine model in her 30s. Neither of the cover artists chose to dress Leda in her drum majorette outfit that she sports in an incriminating photo, an integral part of the plot. How much of a fetishist's dream is a teenager in a drum majorette outfit? How could Gold Medal have missed that opportunity? Maybe someday there will be a reissue with Leda shown the way Craig intended her to be depicted.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: More Unique Bookplates

Two custom bookplates I found in two books I was preparing to sell.

Found inside a copy of Vanishing Point by Patricia Wentworth. The text reads: "Black is the raven/Black is the rook/But Blacker the child/Who steals this book."  Now there's a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.  I think I'd substitute child for person to make it an all-encompassing warning for book thieves.

Found inside a copy of My Own Murderer (Julian Messner, 1940) by Richard Hull.  A genie bookplate!  I don't see many of those.

Friday, May 18, 2012

FFB: The Case of Mr Cassidy - William Targ

Tower Books edition (1944), most common of the two
I have a fondness for "alternative classics" of crime fiction as frequent readers of this blog may have already learned. I have already written about Amelia Reynolds Long, Paul Haggard, Michael Avallone and perhaps the Queen of Alt Crime -- Carolyn Wells. Add to that list William Targ and his only foray into mystery writing The Case of Mr Cassidy (1939 and 1944). [Hey! Why are there two dates in parentheses, John? OK, Eagle Eyes, settle down. More on that later.] While the other writers have their moments of lucidity and occasional lapses in poor judgment, Targ's book is one of the alternative crime classics that not only goes overboard into the outrageous he seems to wallow in the sea of absurdity for his own entertainment. Often with alternative classics we get a bonus and in this case we get several -- Targ's story is a bibliomystery, it's set in Chicago, and he makes his detective a gourmand and a naturist. Aha! I knew that would get your attention.

Hugh Morris, amateur criminologist and bibliophile, inveigles his way into the murder case of a wealthy book collector. At first it appears to be another victim of a serial throat-cutter dubbed "The Fiend" by the local press, but further investigation proves otherwise.  Morris is one of the most grotesque detectives in mysterydom -- an obese, gluttonous, nudist. While in the privacy of his apartment he spends much of the book naked, typing his notes, playing the piano for inspiration, and eating. And eating. And eating. Thankfully, his fondness for flopping his flabby body around his home is curtailed when he must leave his sanctuary of nakedness and is forced to wear clothes in public.

The plot seems to be about the theft of a rare edition of Poe's first published book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, actually a pamphlet we are told by the knowledgeable Morris, and several murders disguised as work of The Fiend by the person intent on owning the rare volume. But the story gets more and more convoluted as it progresses and digresses and its difficult to decide what exactly Targ wants the book to be about. Throughout the circuitous storytelling there is lots of talk of books, Targ's bailiwick, which makes for some fun and learned reading if you happen to be a bibliomaniac like me. One of the few real surprises in the book is a cameo appearance of Vincent Starrett, fellow bookman, mystery writer, Sherlockian and personal friend of Targ.

The book is mostly set in Chicago, where Targ lived in his early life as a budding independent publisher and bookman.  Inexplicably, there are unforgivable lapses in geography. Morris' apartment is on Dearborn/Pearson, then Ohio/Rush, then Dearborn again. Characters walk south to get to destinations that can only be arrived at by walking in the opposite direction and take now defunct train lines to Iowa. Portions of the book are set in the border town of Clinton, Iowa -- still a quaint place situated along the Mississippi River on the northwestern edge of Illinois.

As with all good alt classics there is a plethora of bad writing. Bad B Movie dialog mixes with pretentious often ludicrous purple prose, and absurd philosophical digressions. Here's a sampling:
From childhood, when we derive pleasure from pulling out the wings of flies, up through youth, when the spirit of sport is dominant and we strive to defeat by humiliating or killing others, all of us have murder in our hearts.
He performed his work stark naked, and the sight of his huge pink body seated at the typewriter or at the piano would have been an inspiration to a Rubens.
It's all an enormous hashish hallucination, blossoming with gorgeous non-existent blossoms, fragrant with odors unknown to any perfumer, sonant [sic] with the crashing, melodic chords of a thousand piece orchestra, peopled with moon-breasted houris reclining languorously on cloud-quilted divans.
That last bit is Morris' supercilious opinion of burlesque theater and night club life, by the way.  It goes on for about the entire length of the page.

The scarce Phoenix Press 1st edition (1939)
As for the detective novel aspects of the book they trend to be of the cheating variety and are hardly fair play.  At one point Morris tracks down a rare watermark on a piece of paper. The reader is never made aware of the watermark when the paper is first discovered. Morris travels to Chicago's famed research library The Newberry where he identifies the watermark in an esoteric volume found in the stacks. The bibliophile parts of the book are some of the more entertaining and enlightening parts of an otherwise wacky and surreal story.

William Targ wrote The Case of Mr Cassidy in partnership with Lewis Herman whose name appears on the true first edition of the book published by Phoenix Press, a house known for books of a less than literary quality. When Targ managed to become the editor in chief of Tower Books at the World Publishing Company he finagled a deal to reprint his mystery novel in slightly altered version in 1944, but this time with Herman's name obliterated as co-author.  And there we have the reason for the two dates of publication mentioned above.

The suave William Targ
(Tower Books DJ photo by Dordick)
Targ's bio on the rear of the Tower Books edition mentions his other work as a poet, bibliophile and Poe bibliographer.  From this lengthy vainglorious blurb we also learn that Targ owned a bookshop in Chicago and that he has "the looks, suavity, and geniality" that are lacking in his fictional bookseller counterpart, Mr. Todd, who appears in The Case of Mr Cassidy. Author bios are never found on Tower Mystery editions, most of which are cheap reprints, but when you are in charge of the imprint as well as being the author I guess you're allowed a bit of indulgence.

For an inside look into the world of book collecting circa the late 1930s, a local writer's opinion of Chicago, and a truly unique detective you can't beat The Case of Mr Cassidy. Copies of the Tower Books edition pop up every now and then in the used book trade. I've owned and sold several copies over the years. You can usually get one for under $15, sometimes with a dust jacket. The true first edition, however, published by Phoenix Press has become a scarce and "collectible" book and will require you to plunk down between $100 and $350 for a copy in very good condition.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Bishop at Sea – Andrew Greeley

A haunted aircraft carrier is the scene for this locked room mystery featuring Bishop John Blackwood Ryan. As in the case of the previously reviewed Happy Are Those Who Mourn there is the presence of a malevolent ghost. This time, however, there is not a murder in a locked room but a naval officer who seemingly vanishes from a locked room. Compounding the mystery are two additional disappearances of naval officers, cronies of a martinet of a commanding officer whose terrorizing and intimidation of the USS Langley crew led to a breakdown in morale. The crew believes that the vanished men were killed and tossed overboard. Strange manifestations and creepy events especially among the women's quarters lead some of the more superstitious crew members to think that "Digby" Hoy, the most recent of the missing officers, is haunting the ship. Like the other book The Bishop at Sea is less a mystery novel than it is a sounding board for Greeley to discuss sociopolitical issues. In this case, the major issue is the role of women in the military.

Frustratingly, the mystery aspects become less and less important to the book as Blackie gets closer to the heart of the evil on board the carrier. The locked room is presented as puzzling but the solution is prosaic. The ghost is not at all a ghost. The disappearances are not disappearances. Greeley alludes to Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" repeatedly with teasing references to the crew to look for the mailman on board the aircraft which automatically telegraphs the solution to one that will involve disguise of some sort.

Rather than being a mystery novel The Bishop at Sea is really about didactics. Not only is the role of women in the military discussed ad nauseam with an ace woman pilot acting as a symbol for how women are maltreated, abused, and taunted, but the role of the military itself in United States politics is intensely discussed. Greeley gets to voice his opinions of how much government money is wasted on the military force especially with regard to aircraft carriers; how the military protects and covers up bad behavior and dangerous hazing that borders on attempted murder; and how there are two schools of thought in the military – the old veterans running everything who never wanted women in any roles whatsoever and the younger members, rising in rank, who see women in less traditional roles than their older superiors. As the parade of characters (and this is a huge cast) continues and Blackie probes further into the mystery the book seems less a novel than a protracted essay with characters' monologues serving as Greeley's bullet points in his lectures.

Based on other reviews elsewhere on the internet this is supposedly the best of the Blackie Ryan books. I will have to strongly disagree. Whereas Happy Are Those Who Mourn was a genuine mystery novel with an investigation that uncovered secrets that were integral to the story, The Bishop of Sea is a political diatribe disguised as a mystery novel. The mystery aspects of the book are always an afterthought, the solutions to those mysteries are not at all satisfying and presented way too matter-of-factly. The interrogation of the crew members becomes more and more an excuse to discuss controversy and "issues" with the mystery continually pushed to the background.

In the final pages when the mystery is sloppily solved the action explodes in violent gunfire, multiple bloody deaths, with the women saving the day. While I agree with many of Greeley's points the manner in which he uses his characters to put his theories and opinions into practice smacks of the contrived in this particular book. For this reason I felt cheated on multiple levels. I felt like a consumer who bought a mislabeled product then demands his money back on his purchase.

If you want to read a political treatise on women in the military and the role of the government in an aging backward military force then this is the book for you. As a mystery novel, however, The Bishop at Sea is a miserable failure.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

NEW STUFF: Racing the Devil - Jaden Terrell

Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell
The Permanent Press, 2012
ISBN 978-1-57962-271-8
264 pp.    $28

I am pretty sure that there is one thing about Jared McKean that sets him apart from all the other characters out there in Noir-land.  He knows a thing or two about horse massage. Equine sports massage, apparently, is the proper term. I am convinced there isn't another private eye in the contemporary crime fiction who has this skill or knowledge. Being a Tennessee horseman it's probably something that's necessary. Jared is also an ex-cop and now a private eye.  There are a couple other things about Jared that set him apart from the usual suspects:  he has a gay roommate, has a son with Down syndrome from his previous marriage, and he seems to have a superhuman ability for solving the emotional tangles and traumas of all his relatives when they themselves are at a loss to cope.  He's part of that new breed of P.I. -- the sensitive tough guy.

Racing with the Devil has some of the best opening scenes of any new book I've read in a long time. Private eye Jared McKean meets Heather, a seductive woman in a bar, has a fling with her in a motel and then discovers the following morning that he's been framed for murder of an unknown woman in the very same room he had his one night stand. Shortly thereafter he's arrested and thrown in jail with a cell full of thugs and tough guys who are told that their new cellmate is not only wanted for murder he's been charged with possession of kiddie porn. You can guess what happens. Major fight scenes with McKean given the opportunity to show off his skills in Tae Kwan Do. I wondered if the book could keep up this level of action and interest. It was so well done I felt like I was reading a Gold Medal paperback original from the 1950s. The story does get more and more interesting, but like most of contemporary crime novels these days action and main plot give way to the obligatory back story, personal life and tangential subplots, and (bane of my reading experience) wardrobe updates that seem more intrusive than integral.

That's not to say that I didn't like reading about Jared's gay roommate, Jay, and his rocky love life;  or that Jared's teenaged nephew is having a sexual identity crisis and is tempted to join a group of Goth/neo-vampires in a seedy club in Nashville; or being introduced to his newly remarried ex-wife and the husband "who has taken his place" and all the rest of it. It's just I was more interested in why Jared was set up for the murder of a woman he never knew; in the true identity of Heather, the woman who chose him as the patsy; and just why the chauvinistic Reverend Avery, leader of a church that seems to have a lot in common with that awful fundamentalist Christian movement known as the Promise Keepers, reminds Jared so much of a child molester he helped convict years ago.

I read crime novels for the mystery and crime elements. The private eye angle of the story is well plotted when Terrell decides to tell that story. There is some good detection intermingled with all the interrogation and disguises and you learn a bit about modern police techniques. When the story focuses on the McKean family members the book starts to fall flat with dialogue and scenes lifted from TV movies and domestic dramas..

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is all the horse talk. One of the suspects, Valerie Shepherd, runs a Arabian horse farm. Jared goes undercover as a prospective buyer of one of her horses. In these scenes I learned about the care and feeding of horses, the fascinating technique of horse massage, the differences in horse temperaments in the various breeds, and a whole lot more in the equestrian world. The book is set in Tennessee -- Nashville and surrounding towns.  Horses are almost required background.  I enjoyed this portion of the book immensely.  Terrell clearly is a horse expert and horse lover.

The frame-up is only the springboard for this well done story.  The skill with which Terrell manages to weave the fairly large cast of characters into her near webwork plot is remarkable.  Rev. Avery, Valerie, the victim's husband, a mysterious blond man with a Corvette, and even Jared's own brother Russell all become suspects with motives for the murder of Amy Hartwell who all of Nashville believes to have been Jared's lover though he has never seen nor heard of her prior to her death. When the story focuses on the murder and the several mysteries surrounding Amy's brutal death and the amazing frame-up the book is a gripping read. The family elements and subplots were less thrilling and interesting to me.

A second novel, A Cup Full of Midnight, featuring Jared McKean (and presumably the new girlfriend he acquires int he final pages) will be out this summer.  I'm interested to see how he has grown and whether or not Terrell can top this debut which was quite a stunner.

Friday, May 11, 2012

FFB: The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton - Russell H. Greenan

Algernon Pendleton's best friend is Eulalia. They have intimate conversations. She advises him on life's dilemmas. He compliments her on her musical voice and beautiful porcelain. That's not a porcelain complexion, though. That's literally porcelain. Eulalia, you see, is a Worcester pitcher. And she talks. But only to Algernon.

Russell Greenan's fourth book The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton (1973) is a rarity in the crime fiction world that these days clings to gritty and violent realism. It's a wryly humorous book and a wondrous amalgamation of the fantastic and the criminal. It's all done stylishly in the literate sometimes fussy voice of Algernon, Al to his friends, who narrates the novel.

Al may have spent far too much time alone in the house he inherited from his famous great grandfather, a noted Egyptologist. In his loneliness he has found companions in the hundreds of objects and a few plants that fill the cavernous home. The house has become a veritable museum of valuable and rare antiquities and treasures of the pharaohs. When Al's finances are in danger of plummeting to the poverty level he helps himself to one or two of those treasures, takes a trip to Mahir Suleyman's junk/resale shop where they haggle over a price, and Al leaves with a chunk of change in his pockets. Life is easy - chats with Eulalia, a few gossipy whispers from the philodendrons, selling an ushabti or statuette of Bast every now and then. Then Norbie drops in unexpectedly for a visit.

Norbie is apparently Al's only human friend. They go back several years to their army days. Norbie saved Al from drowning after their ship was bombed in the Pacific. Al owes a lot to Norbie. And when he comes with suitcases in hand and a hard luck story of a failed marriage and failing health Al can't turn him out. Norbie becomes his roommate for an indeterminate stay. One night Norbie introduces Al to the lost art of drinking absinthe (complete with sugar cube and special spoon) and when Norbie goes to retrieve that cursed liquor from his suitcase he inadvertently reveals a huge cache of money - $60,000 to be exact. The next day Al confesses his wonder at the mysterious amount of money to Eulalia and she begins to fill his head with criminal ideas.

Mahir will figure prominently in the tale. As will Madge Clerisy, a professor of archeology, who is suspicious of a junk store that has a regular supply of extremely rare Egyptian artifacts. Al succumbs to the temptations of Eulalia but gets in way over his head. Soon all three are inextricably linked in a conspiracy of blackmail and extortion. And there I had better stop. To reveal any more would ruin a reader's own discovery of the ingenuity and sheer originality of the story.

Greenan's first book It Happened in Boston? (1968) is something of a cult novel uniquely mixing the surreal, the absurd and the sinister in what has become his trademark in these hard to classify books. He went on to write several books each one utterly strange, utterly different. The Queen of America (1972) details the story of a couple of too smart for their own good teenagers, one of whom has a nasty habit of making tape recordings of his neighbors' conversations, and the menacing female motorcyclist who becomes part of their lives. In Heart of Gold (1975), a story similar to Anthony Rolls' The Vicar's Experiment (aka Clerical Error), we learn of the life of a duplicitous, sometimes murderous, minister. Another story of antiques, theft and murder is The Bric-a-Brac Man (1976), a book which reveals Greenan's arcane knowledge of Japanese netsuke and the world of antiques in which he spent some time as a buyer and seller. Some of his latest fiction is now available via Smashwords. His work is vastly underrated and one of those rare writers who once sampled will be savored.  I guarantee after reading any one of his books you'll be back for more.

 For more about Russell H. Greenan visit this tribute website owned and maintained by his relatives.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

COOL FLICKS: Sleep, My Love (1948)

From the opening sequence with Claudette Colbert waking in horror to discover she is on a speeding train headed to who knows where Sleep, My Love immediately catches the viewer's attention and never lets go. The blend of familiar crime film gimmicks (amnesia, hypnosis, Cainesque scheming lovers) are never boring due to the grand slam combination of a witty and suspenseful script by St. Clair McKelway and Leo Rosten (from his novel), top notch performances by an extremely well cast group of actors and frequent artistic touches from director Douglas Sirk.

Anyone familiar with the classic Gaslight will catch on fairly quickly to the basic plot.  Alison Courtland (Colbert) is being victimized by her philandering husband (low key and monotoned Don Ameche) who wants her locked up in the loony bin so he can live happily ever after with his lover Daphne, (sultry Hazel Brooks in a text book femme fatale role) a wicked city woman who works in a photo studio and likes to parade around in flimsy negligees.  Joining in this conspiracy to drive poor Alison out of her mind are Daphne's sinister photographer boss (menacing George Coulouris) and his mousy ill-informed wife (ubiquitous character actress Queenie Smith turning in another sharp portrait). Raymond Burr also makes a brief appearance in two scenes as a police detective.

Grace Vernay (Smith) finds a gun in Alison's purse
Charles Vernay (Coulouris) insulted once again by his negligee clad employee Daphne (Brooks)
Alison wonders what happened to the butler in her shadow filled home
Dick and Daphne drink, dance and deceive (Daphne wears her only dress in this scene)
Alison compares her husband to Bruce (Cummings) in a moment of drunken candidness
Colbert makes a fine victim here appropriately terrified and confused throughout most of the film. Unlike similar roles of the plotted against wife Colbert never comes across as cloyingly self-pitying. Nor is the noir plot as amoral and claustrophobic as something like The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Ameche and Coulouris do great work as conspiring villains but the very nature of the scheme involving drugs and hypnosis teeters on the brink of absurdity. Sirk counters this with nighttime interiors drenched in shadows and directs Ameche, an actor better known for light-hearted and comic roles, to deliver his lines in a menacing monotone and keeps his performance restrained and low key.  It's a subtle touch and it allows Ameche to carry off his villainous part with panache even as we watch him daintily stirring a cup of doctored cocoa.

The addition of two comic characters - Barby and Bruce - provide the story with a welcome breezy humor. Barby (Rita Johnson) is a mile-a-minute talker typical of the screwball comedies of the 1940s. She is the daffy urbane socialite so often found on screen but never in real life. Her part exists purely for laughs and Johnson does it extremely well - much better than Billie Burke might have done. Robert Cummings as Bruce is the playboy we know will be Colbert's savior. He has an easy suave nature, a charming city wit, and the brains to see through the scheming husband's plot at the very last minute.

The strangest sequence in the film seems like it belongs in another movie. While Dick and Daphne are slumming and scheming in a local dive Alison and Bruce go on an adventure.  Bruce has come to New York to be best man in his business partner's wedding and asks Alison as his date. Turns out the wedding is in Chinatown and his business partner is played by Keye Luke (Number One Son in the Charlie Chan flicks). With music provided by a Chinese string ensemble squeaking and whining in the background Alison proceeds to get delightfully drunk on Asian wine. The wedding reception turns into a series of bits lifted from a romantic comedy with Colbert showing off her exceptional comic acting skills then slowly confessing her dissatisfaction in her troubled marriage. Later Bruce tries to chauffeur the new bride and groom to their hotel in a well known resort, but Alison's misadventures at the hands of her murderous husband interfere.  It's an odd sequence played for laughs that seems very out of place in a film that spends much of its time building up a brooding and menacing atmosphere.

The framing and composition throughout the movie is hypnotic. You can't turn away for a minute lest you miss some artistic choices like those shown above. The way the teacup with the drugged hot chocolate can be seen so ominously in the foreground while Dick's soothing voice puts Alison's fears at ease.  Or how Daphne holds court (once again in a sexy nightie) in the photo studio while Dick in a passive position looks up at her completely under her seductive power.  The use of light and shadow in the nightmarish murder attempt scenes, the perfectly rendered sound effects like Coulouris running his fingernails creepily along the fabric of an upholstered chair, the brilliant use of the Queensboro Bridge as a backdrop for the nocturnal bedroom scenes, and the rousing finale complete with a shootout and pursuit up a staircase to the rooftop - they're all wonderful touches that show Douglas Sirk to be a true cinema artist.

Sleep, My Love is available via the Netflix streaming option or the entire film in a restored print (and not fragmented into parts) can be viewed for free at YouTube here.

Be sure to visit Todd Mason's Sweet Freedom and check out the rest of the insightful comments on unusual films, TV shows, video & audio creations for "Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V)."

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Ancestral Precipice - Jan Ekström

"The John Dickson Carr of Sweden" proclaims the dust jacket of the first UK edition of Ättestupan (1975) translated as The Ancestral Precipice and published nearly ten years later.  Takes a while for the English language speaking world to catch on to a great writer, doesn't it? While there is a baffling locked room murder in this cleverly constructed detective novel its central theme of family secrets and adulterous affairs has more in common with Ross Macdonald than Carr.

Charlotte Lethander, calls to her home her surviving nieces and their families to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. The entire multi-generational family arrives bringing with them plans for blackmail, scheming, adultery and murder. On the very first day of this rocky reunion we learn that the black sheep Victor, a womanizing photographer who likes shooting women nude, has a letter with incriminating information he wants to sell to his father, Martin, and demands 15,000 kronor for its delivery into his hands. Additional avaricious behavior is on display from the nieces, their husbands and children as they vie for the attention of the dying aunt Charlotte. In the midst of all this fawning adulation and scheming a murderer plots a revenge years in the making.

Before the weekend has hardly started Victor and Martin are dead.  It appears to be a murder/suicide. Martin having shot Victor apparently returned to his bedroom, locked his door, and allowed the extinguishing flames in the bedroom fireplace to suffocate him with carbon monoxide. But Martin's children - especially his sharp-witted and sharper tongued daughter Vera - know that the strong-willed man would never submit to Victor's demands and that the suicide has to be a cleverly disguised murder.  But how then did the murderer escape the room? It was locked on the inside. When the police investigate the scene the damper on the flue is open making it seem impossible for Martin to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation. And yet he did.  Further complicating matters is the fact that gun found in Martin's room though recently fired is not the gun used to kill Victor. The case takes an even stranger twist when a second gun is found in the attic with fingerprints of another family member who was thought to have an alibi the night of the deaths.

"Can't tell the players without a scorecard!"
The very necessary family tree I referred to frequently while reading

Hovering over these two crimes is the death of Mauritz Corn's wife, Stella, who accidentally fell to her death and was discovered at the foot of ättestupan, the ancestral precipice of the title. The letter Victor had in his possession revealed the truth about her fatal plunge long believed to be an accident. Aunt Charlotte delivers a jarring description of the foreboding feature of the ättestupan and also the Nordic legend that attaches itself:
Do you know what was here before the house was built, just where we're standing now, I mean? An ancestral precipice. It's been here since Viking days, though I don't suppose any Vikings lived here, you know, only cultivators. Nature is harsh. [...] You know what an ancestral precipice is, Inspector? Some of the old ones threw themselves down the precipice. Others were given help when they asked for it. I wonder if anyone would want to give me help without my asking for it. For an ancient old hag it would be eminently suitable.
Inspector Durrell, in charge of the murder investigation, must not only get to the truth of the curious events surrounding the death of Victor and Martin, but also the mysterious death of Stella now looking more and more like a murder. Will the letter from Victor's blackmail scheme ever be found?  Who does it name as Stella's killer?  Will the killer strike again?

The story is filled with the kind of brooding aura and dark family secrets that fill the pages of the cases of Lew Archer. When I saw the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I also noted the pervading MacDonald-like atmosphere that imbued that film.  I wonder if Stieg Larsson was familiar with the mystery novels of Ekström who appears to have been influenced not only by Carr but by Ross Macdonald.  Fans of Larrson, Carr or Macdonald will find plenty to admire in The Ancestral Precipice, a real puzzler with plenty of twists and a good example of the least likely suspect revealed as the killer in the final pages.

AVAILABILITY:  The book was first published in the US in 1982 under the blase title Deadly Reunion.  Copies of both the UK and the US editions are readily available through the various internet bookselling sties. To date this is the only novel of the popular Swedish writer Jan Ekström that has been translated into English.

Friday, May 4, 2012

FFB: Fatal Flourishes - S.S. Rafferty

Captain Jeremy Cork first appeared in "The Margrave of Virginia" in the August 1975 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Further exploits of this 18th century inventor, speculator and amateur sleuth of "social puzzles" would appear over the next year and half. Eventually author S.S. Rafferty penned one adventure with Cork and his yeoman financier Wellman Oaks for each of the original thirteen colonies. All thirteen stories were collected in a rather scarce, but nonetheless noteworthy, book called Fatal Flourishes (1979).  It was later reissued as part of the "Library of Crime Classics" imprint by International Polygonics under the title Cork of the Colonies (IPL, 1984).

Like Lillian de la Torre's detective stories about Samuel Johnson and Boswell Rafferty's tales are loaded with 18th century history and lore. But unlike the Johnson stories Captain Cork is an entirely fictional creation. Described by his sidekick as "six foot six inches of insouciance" Cork is similar to many of the Holmesian inductive detectives in that he almost immediately knows the solution, alternately challenges and rebuffs Oaks, his long suffering Watson, and indulges a bit too much in his own vanity. The cases he stumbles across which he prefers to call social puzzles involve a variety of crimes from theft to murder and include a handful of puzzling elements ranging from mildly diverting to devilishly ingenious.

Each story has the additional feature of focusing on some little known aspect of pre- and post- Revolutionary War era America. You'll learn of South Carolina's Charles Town as a sort of 18th century Las Vegas with parties, drinking and hedonism on display 24/7 and that state's strange ritual of the cicisbeo lottery, an 18th century game of gender role reversal borrowed from the Italian aristocrats, in which married women draw names of single men to be their Cavalier Servente for one week. "The Georgia Resurrection" deals with vodo (Rafferty's spelling), African superstitions, and tribal herbal medicine. You'll also learn about the execution practices of that colony and the differences between the duties of hangman and coffin maker. He even gives us the origin of the now too familiar horror icon  the zombie, or zombi as Rafferty spells it. No eating of brains in sight which may come as a huge disappointment to some 21st century zombie fans.

For me there was also an abundance of new learning related to life in the original colonies. I always thought that the big cash crops of the South were cotton and tobacco. Rafferty tells me, however, that it was rice and indigo that were making the colonists all their money. There was frequent talk of slavery and the treatment of slaves (Cork is an abolitionist) and in one story, "The Witch of New Hampshire," slavery is at the heart of the disappearance of several young women in a town still clinging to century old superstitions.

As for those "social puzzles" we get the usual tricks of the mystery writer's trade: twins, locked rooms, switched weapons, and some valiant attempts at misdirection. However, there is little fair play technique to be found here. The reader is left feeling as astounded as Oaks when Cork pronounces his solutions in his usual matter-of-fact style when not one clue was ever presented. It is more Cork's behavior and personality that dazzles and entertains rather than the construction of the puzzles and mysteries.

One of the most involved stories is "The Curse of the Connecticut Clock" which features an overly complex cipher based on the musical scale and the Roman numerals on a clock face. The explanation of the code takes up four pages! You have to admire the ingenuity behind the devilry but it seemed more like an ostentatious display by a 20th century writer rather than the revelation of the 18th century imagination of the character who created it.

Historical fiction fans will revel in the detailed portraits of colonial life, the colorful characters, and Captain Cork himself – a combination rogue and savvy businessman who finds much to fascinate him among the criminal element as he travels from North to South.