Friday, June 29, 2012

FFB: Be Silent, Love - Fan Nichols

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1960)
Once in a while I come across a writer whose work has been labeled uneven to mediocre, often dismissed or derided, who has nonetheless written a single book that will redeem that writer's maligned reputation in my eyes. Such a writer is Fan Nichols. The book in question is Be Silent, Love (1960).

Don't be put off by the title which seems to evoke a romance novel or a HIBK mystery. Be Silent, Love is neither. It's not often I resort to catch phrases and reviewer speak, but here I have to. This book a page turner par excellence.

The story can be reduced to a single sentence: a hit and run accident brings misfortune to an adulterous couple who try to cover up the accident. Their predicament is further complicated when the victim, a teen age high school football star, dies of his injuries. If you were to read such a capsule blurb you would probably choose to pass on reading it. Sounds way too familiar, right?  Smacks of  movie-of-the-week melodrama -- or worse -- sentimentalism.  You would be very wrong.  And you'd be missing out on a thriller that truly thrills.

The UK edition (T.V. Boardman, 1961)
Nichols has concocted cliffhangers at the end of each chapter so that it is nearly impossible to stop reading. The tension mounts, the plot complications always increasing. The story is a study in Hitchcockian relentlessness. The more Kay Hubbard tries to do good the worse things get. Her lover, David Drake, was driving the car. It was his idea not to stop. His reasons are plentiful: he may be separated from his wife, but he is legally still married to her; the car, a prize won in a charity raffle, is uninsured and Kay has no driver's license; and most importantly he has his reputation as a rising executive in his advertising firm always in mind.  David appears to be concerned about Kay's safety and possible arrest, but really he only cares about himself.  The reader knows this, Kay doesn't. This makes for some interesting plot developments as the story winds its way through a maze of misadventures, coincidences and machinations.

While Kay and David do their best to deceive the police and newspaper reporters little do they know that Pete Lockley, the owner of the cabin they have been using for their trysts, has seen David drive away at night in the red Thunderbird that caused the accident.  Later Pete who thinks Kay is married to David sees her in the company of Bill Webb, a high school teacher who is doing some sleuthing about the accident on his own.  Lockley who has some questions about the night of the accident innocently calls out to Kay: "Mrs Drake!" and she freezes.  Bill is confused.  Kay is scared out of her wits but thinks quickly and dismisses Lockley as a man who has mistaken her for someone else.  This seemingly innocuous incident will have dangerous repercussions for the rest of the book. It is an example of how tightly plotted the story is, how nothing is misplaced in the intricate structure, how everything that happens matters to the story.  It really is a marvel of storytelling.

Fan Nichols began her career as a mainstream novelist, then ventured into the romance genre, eventually blending her fondness for career driven female characters with a penchant for seedy and tawdry settings.  Slowly she added criminal themes to her books and the bulk of her work was sold to publishers who specialized in genre paperback originals.  Her stories of backstage romances with Machiavellian show girls and bar room temptresses sport titles like Angel Face, Ask for Linda and Devil Take Her.  While some of them can be labeled crime novels (often with a minimum of bad deeds) most of them are pale imitations of the kind of book James M Cain wrote far better.

Be Silent, Love, however, is a fully developed crime novel and probably Nichols' most gripping story. There is a lot at stake.  The characters are desperate, trapped, driven, using and abusing each other all in an effort to get at the truth or, in David's case, to escape punishment. And poor conflicted and tortured Kay is caught in the middle.  Whose side will she turn to?  Will she give in to David's selfish scheming?  Or will she confess all to Bill who suspects she is hiding an awful lot? Will Pete Lockley use his eyewitness testimony for personal gain? Or will he do the right thing and go to the cops? This is certainly one of Nichols' two best books. The other is The Loner, a dark and frightening study of a mad killer obsessed with strippers. But while that story tends to dip a bit too deeply in the lurid and fantastical, Be Silent, Love is more realistic yet just as gritty and dark.

Luckily, the critics and publishers recognized the greatness of this little book as there are at least three different editions available: a US hardcover, a UK hardcover, and a US paperback reprint with the not much better altered title The Girl in the Death Seat.  All three are available through a variety of online selling entities and all copies I found (for a change) are sensibly priced. Any reader in search of an entertaining read loaded with genuine suspense, a page turner for the summer, a "really good beach book," should look no further than Be Silent, Love. Just overlook the poor title and dig right in.  I guarantee you won't be able to stop after the first chapter.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Fond Inscriptions

An inserted card,  a note, and a flyleaf I excised.  Some interesting examples of handwriting here.  Does anyone even write real letters or notes anymore?  I rarely see any form of cursive handwriting among the 20- and 30-somethings I work with these days.  Everyone has strange amalgamations of print and scribbling that are very difficult to read. And signatures tend to be illegible scrawls.

(The first photo is at original size. The other two can be clicked on to enlarge.)

This was on the flyleaf and I cut it out of the book because it was done in fountain pen ink which tends to smear over time. I made a note that this was in a "lurid crime novel" but foolishly didn't write down the title.  Can't remember it now, of course.  1919 - could have been a Sax Rohmer book, maybe Arthur Reeves.

Another one where I can't remember the book.  This is a slip of paper that was inserted inside.  I like that some people who gave books as gifts didn't write the inscription in the book itself.  Very considerate.  But remembrance is misspelled, Sonia. Tsk, tsk.

And the best one reveals quite a bit about the writer and the person addressed:

Text reads:

Dear Mr Whitehead
Many many happy returns. Also may you have a fine winter in the land of sunshine & perpetual youth. I shall look forward to seeing you in the spring.
Your sincere friend
Walter Wallace

I wonder if the "land of sunshine & perpetual youth is Florida? Rather formal to address a sincere friend as Mister, don't you think? What fine penmanship Walter has. Bet he won awards when he was a boy.  Maybe he still was a boy and he was addressing an adult.  That might explain the Mr Whitehead and sincere friend bits. I like finding more personal notes like this one.  They're like little time capsules of eras long gone.

Friday, June 22, 2012

FFB: The Brotherhood of Velvet - David Karp

Psst, over here.  Ever hear of the Bechtel Corporation? They've got their hand in everything, you know. How about Opus Dei? Evil Catholics trying to control the world just like Bechtel. Halliburton was behind 9/11. And the Illuminati are everywhere, of course. Conspiracy theorists will tell you all that and a whole lot more if you lend them your ear for an hour or two.  Jim Watterson tells you a similar horror story about a secret society bent on world domination in The Brotherhood of Velvet (1952), David Karp's finely crafted noir nightmare. The group bent on destroying Jim is The Brotherhood of the Bell, a fraternal order he joined back in his prep school days. They have been shaping and controlling his life for the better until poor Ted Appleton keeps making desperate phone calls and Watterston makes the mistake of seeing him in person.

"If you have any of God's mercy, you'll help me, Watterson. Please, please" are a few of the lucid words Ted Appleton manages to get out between hysterical sobbing and cryptic comments about "those bastards" who have somehow managed to get Appleton fired from his job, kill his wife, and ruin his son's future army career just as he is about to graduate from West Point. It's all the work of the Brotherhood. He pleads with Watterson who listens and is both embarrassed and curious, but reluctant to help this man who seems on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  Watterson eventually refuses to help Appleton and a few days later Ted blows out his brains on a park bench.

UK paperback published
under Karp's pseudonym
Then the Brotherhood contact Jim personally.  They want him to get his best friend Clark to resign from his job in the Secretary of State's office where Jim also has a high level position. As a nudge to help Jim engineer the resignation they provide some documents which reveal Clark had indulged in some gay sex practices when he was a teenager.  To Jim's mind this is the worst possible and entirely damning secret to any man's reputation, one that will haunt and ruin him for life.

He follows the Brotherhood's instructions but soon regrets what he has done. Now trapped, and a victim of a plot to destroy his own life, Jim finds his only hope is to expose the Brotherhood and their far reaching and sinister power. But who will believe him? 

Such is the mindset of the "homosexual panic" novels of this era. The title alone was slapped on this book by Lion Books in an attempt to appeal to the salacious reading tastes of the "sleaze" market that churned out gay and lesbian books of dubious merit as cheap thrills. Most of those books are utter junk. This one, however, is not. In fact the gay interest in the book is only incidental. Still Karp uses the increasing overt gay and other "deviant" sexual behavior as an insidious sign of the degradation and moral bankruptcy of 1950s America in an effort to underscore the paranoia Jim experiences.
Sexual deviation was the one thing that no one ever quite forgot. Notorious lechers were still box office idols, reformed drug addicts found their way into civilized company and the American theatre, ex-jailbirds were mayors, and congressmen, panderers and thugs were accepted into American business, and bigamists, usurers, adulterers and murderers were as common and numerous as the household fly -- but publicly exposed homosexuals run a particularly hot and long gauntlet. The sin of adolescent hands and flesh and touch in a wooded darkness of summer lasted a long, long time, bayed wildly and loudly by the wolves of our land.
Karp makes sure we know that Jim is a sexual man with a terrific appetite for his wife Vivian, one of those characters who displays her sexuality freely and wildly often appearing in scenes wearing little but underwear or a loosely open dressing gown. Her body is on constant display when she's onstage. We need to know Jim is involved in a healthy straight marriage with a woman he desires, a job that allows them to live a comfortably rich life before we see him begin his fall at the hands of the Brotherhood. But no sooner has the Brotherhood sent him on his dreadful errand to ruin his friend's life then he begins to succumb to corruption and secret desires himself.  He finds himself sexually attracted to Clark's wife, he refuses the advances of Vivian who then further insults him by making insinuations about his close friendship with Clark calling him "your dear, dear friend."  All sorts of seeds are planted in the reader's mind as we read of Jim's own words (he narrates the story) so that we are often questioning his perceptions and sanity.

The book is relentless and bitter in its depiction of a corrupt world.  Bribery, indulgent sex, heavy drinking, and deceit are on every page.  Jim falls deeply into a mire of sarcastic cynicism. He finds his only solace in bars where strangers become his friends.  Plays the role of a cheap flirt with a cocktail waitress and is embarrassed by what he has become. All due to the machinations of the Brotherhood of the Bell. But is the Brotherhood real at all?  There is an ambiguous aura hovering over the book as is the case with most novels that deal with conspiracy theories. Is it truly a plot or has Jim lost his mind and imagined it all as a result of paranoid schizophrenia?

Dean Jagger & Glenn Ford in the
1970 TV movie adaptation
It's odd to me that Lion Books chose to play up the gay element of the book in a tawdry marketing ploy. It taints the book and has unjustly placed it among other lesser books with which it has little in common. Karp is an intelligent writer. He has trenchant insights and a sharp prose style. This is a noirish thriller that is also great writing, a literate novel as Lion calls it on the rear cover of my copy.  It's not sleaze at all.

I urge you to find a copy in one of its many incarnations. It's been reprinted several times in paperback both in the US and the UK.  Read it or else! The Brotherhood is watching and they will know if you don't follow these instructions.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


A collection of DJs (and a few paperbacks) with father related titles in honor of today's patriarchal holiday. I also tossed in a movie poster of the screen version of a play I've always loved.

And here's the poster.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Old Bones - Herman Petersen

Herman Petersen I gather was a postman in upstate New York for most of his life based on what he has written in Country Chronicle, a combination autobiography and history of his homestate. He also contributed several stories in a variety of genres to fiction magazines during the 1940s. Based solely on his last mystery novel Old Bones (1943) I think he is deserving of our attention.  He knew how to construct a gripping story, create unusual settings, populate those settings with distinctly original characters and wrap it all around an engrossing and puzzling mystery. Not bad for a letter carrier, right?

Old Bones is the last of three detective novels featuring a sharp witted coroner Dr. Thaddeus Miller. In the short series of books Doc Miller is often assisted by Ben Wayne, a farmer, and Paul Burns, the local D.A. The setting is central New York (the reader can infer somewhere in Madison County fairly close to Utica since a train to that city is mentioned frequently) where pea farming seems to be one of the big agricultural industries. The opening scene take place on such a farm with a fight breaking out between a volatile supervisor and a crooked farmhand who is fired for cheating the farm in his bushel counts. Already we get the sense that hidden tempers will lead to sudden violence.

The scarce UK edition (Gerald Swan, 1950)
Ben's wife, Marian, goes off in search of old wood for a project of hers. She visits an abandoned grist mill and quite by accident discovers human skeletal remains in the mill's standpipe. But when Ben and Doc Miller return with Marian to retrieve the bones they have seemingly vanished. Someone who had no doubt been watching Marian got to the bones first.

Some clever detective work, mostly on the part of Doc Miller, leads them to a bundle tied up and stashed in a dark area of the large mill. Miller studies the bones and notices that there is a large break in the skull leading him to believe that the person died a violent death. Furthermore, some of the ribs show a break and set that Miller recalls can only have been performed by himself on Nate Wight, one of the many members of a wealthy local farming family, who supposedly left town five years ago. When a thorough search of the mill following even more clever detective work uncovers a bundle of clothes and a watch that belonged to Nate, Miller is more than convinced they are faced with a murder and a cover-up. The story then becomes a twisting and involved, almost Southern Gothic, tale of family secrets and gruesome revenge.

This is an excellent example of the rural detective novel. There is a lot of examining of footprints and movement in dust as is usual in Golden Age detective novels. But the identification of the body by examining the bone breaks, the subtleties in the dead body's personal effects are some of the more imaginative touches that set it apart from other books of the period. It may be one of the first forensic pathology mysteries long before such a branch of criminology was formerly accepted. And Doc Miller achieves his results without once using a microscope or looking at DNA patterns. That's real detective work. Even better are details like the bundle of bones that has been tied with the unusual "miller's knot" that helps to identify some of the parties involved in the murder and cover-up. Additionally, the behavior of horses, how they are tied up, what the grass looks like where the horses were grazing, all make this the kind of unique mystery that can only take place in the countryside.

Bill Pronzini has said in his 1001 Midnights review of Old Bones that the book "drips with atmosphere." It certainly does. Like A.B. Cunningham one of the preeminent writers of rural mysteries during the 40s and 50s Petersen has a real love for the Gothic. The grist mill is one of the creepiest murder scenes I've come across in my reading this year. The forbidding mill at one time had several windows, now all boarded up requiring the use of flashlights even in the daytime. There is a hidden entrance and a hole cut out for a cat to enter and leave at will. Surrounding the mill is a treacherous swamp in which several foot chases will lead to dangers and perils for the team of sleuths. Later in the book they come across an old tramp's camp site in a forest that reeks of the corpses of dead animals he has captured and slaughtered for food. Several of the carcasses are seen hanging from the trees making for a grisly and olfactory offensive visit. One of the female characters is often referred to as a witch and the appearance and disappearance of the appropriately black cat that visits the mill only adds to the superstitious belief that she is a supernatural being with transformative powers. How's that for dripping atmosphere?

Herman Petersen wrote only four mysteries, the first three featuring Doc Miller and his two partners Ben Wayne and Paul Burns. His final book -- The D.A.'s Daughter (1943) -- is also set in the general vicinity of Utica, NY in a town called Pleasant Hollow, but with a completely different set of characters. Old Bones is probably the best of the lot. It's cleverly structured, suspenseful in all the right places, and holds your attention from it shockingly violent start to the surprising finish. As an early example of what I like to call country noir it ranks among the absolute best from the 1940s.

The Mysteries of Herman Petersen
Murder in the Making (1940)
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943)

Friday, June 15, 2012

FFB: The House of Numbers - Jack Finney

The dilemma Arnie Jarvis faces in The House of Numbers (1957) is how to pull off the absolutely impossible. Arnie has assaulted a guard while incarcerated in San Quentin Prison. It's a severely punishable offense according to the California penal code. Arnie has been told the only witness to the assault - a prisoner who was released a few days after the incident and who kept his mouth shut so he could get out of prison as scheduled - is about to return to San Quentin to give testimony at the behest of prison administrators. And when he does Arnie is doomed. See Arnie may be in the clink for a relatively minor offense (check forgery and fraud) and his sentence may only be a few years but the legal sentence is five years to life. That makes him a lifer. As a lifer who assaulted a guard the penalty for his crime while in prison is death.

And you thought California was one of the progressive states.

Arnie knows his only solution to living a long and healthy life is to get the hell out of San Quentin. That means an escape. But escaping San Quentin is practically impossible the way the prison is now set up. His cell mate Al gives him a long lecture on all the ways inmates have tried and failed: disguised as a priest; hiding in abandoned areas of the yard; even foolishly sneaking into a scrap metal truck, and making the fatal mistake of hiding in a heap of junk that became a death trap. You name it, it's been done, Al tells Arnie. What a prisoner needs to do is think of something impossible like maybe escaping from San Quentin vertically - a helicopter, maybe. But as far as hiding long term or trying to walk out in disguise -- forget it. All those variations are known and escape is easily thwarted by the prison staff these days. They'll find you and then you're in for good.

UK 1st edition, the only hardcover version
With the help of his brother Ben and girlfriend Ruth, however, Arnie comes up with a plan, one that no prison staff would ever dream of. Ben will sneak into the prison and become Arnie's accomplice while both are inside. An extremely dangerous idea and one that is filled with more risks for Ben than Arnie.

Added to the complications is the fact that Ben and Ruth, passing themselves off as a happily married couple in suburbia, have made the mistake of moving into a house right next door to Mr. Nova. Nova is a repellent, slovenly, very nosy neighbor who goes out of his way to tell Ben he knows him from his frequent visits to San Quentin, And how does Mr. Nova know that? Well, he's a guard there. Oops. "Of all the joints in all the San Francisco suburbs he walks into mine" to paraphrase Rick Blaine. Nova becomes Ben's adversary in more ways than one throughout this often tense story.

While reading of Ben and Arnie's elaborate plan the reader also learns about 1950s era prison life, surprisingly tame compared to 21st century prisons. Fights break out, that's for sure, but there's hardly any mention of male-on-male sex, the strange protection relationships that develop, or the smuggling of goods in and out of prison. The world of Oz, the TV show that revealed prisons in all their seediness, is several decades off in the future so don't expect too much gritty realism in this depiction of the prison world. Finney apparently did his research by interviewing Warden Harley Teets (to whom he dedicates the book) and making a few visits to the building, but was only willing to go so far in describing the ugly, lonely life of prisoners in the "pastel colored" walls of the modernized San Quentin. He captures the mood and feel of the isolation and claustrophobia, but I know it had to be nastier than the relatively sane, polite, and clean world he describes.

My only criticism of this book is Finney's ill timed brotherly feud in the final pages. Ben decides to announce he and Ruth are in love at the most inopportune moment in the book.  It's beyond awkward -- it's just eyeball rollingly stupid. The two brothers behave like high school kids fighting over their girl while Ruth stands by futilely crying out to them to stop their verbal and physical fighting. All this in the presence of a hostage they have been forced to hold temporarily. It nearly ruined a fast paced, suspenseful story for me.

Jack Palance & Barbara Lang in the 1957 fillm
This is Finney's third novel. At one time it was very hard to find; it's one of those paperback originals that never went into multiple printings. There are currently several copies out there for sale, but most of them are in the "collectible" price range from $16 - $50, a handful of the more pristine copies are priced between $50 and $75.  A UK edition was published in hardcover and that's equally expensive. For $450 you can buy a copy of the Eyre & Spottiswoode hardcover and get a book with age toned pages, shelf lean and a price clipped and chipped DJ. Nice. There's someone I'll never buy books from

The House of Numbers was also filmed and released a few months after the book was published.  In the movie version Ben and Arnie are look-a-like brothers (not twins) making the cell switcheroo more believable. In the dual role of Ben/Arnie is young Jack Palance, just making his way into the tough guy movie roles that would make him famous. The movie has never been released on DVD though it was shown on the big screen during the Noir City Film Festival  in 2011.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

JACKET REQUIRED: Highsmith in the U.S.

Nick Jones at his blog Existential Ennui posted several striking examples of Patricia Highsmith dust jackets on the far better UK editions of some of her books.  I think the artwork on A Game for the Living, a book she has personally called her worst effort, is exceptional.

In response I'm posting some rather uninspiring examples of typographic DJ art (something I'm not a fan of) and some simpler examples of dust jacket illustrations on Highsmith's American editions. These all appear on the first US editions of her books, nearly all of which came after the UK firsts.

The contrast in DJ art design is radical.  Once upon a time US DJ art was evocative and vibrant and attractive.  Here are some early examples of what how DJ art devolved (in my opinion) when post-modernists and digital designers entered the realm of jacket illustration.

And just for the hell of it I'm adding a photo of her lesbian novel The Price of Salt published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

All images can be clicked to enlarge.  Deep Water is already at full size.

Harper & Brothers, 1957
Doubleday / Crime Club, 1964

Lippincott & Crowell, 1980
Knopf, 1974

Knopf, 1992 - Her last novel

Friday, June 8, 2012

FFB: Ray Bradbury's Weird Fiction (a sampling)

In tribute to Ray Bradbury, who recently left us to go travelling for eternity through space and time, I offer up a brief review of some stories I found in my pulp magazines and the anthologies on my overcrowded shelves.

1. From Weird Tales, May 1946: "The Smiling People"

"Nothing is quite so horrible, so final as complete utter silence" is the tagline for this chilling tale about Mr. Greppin who claims to have found true happiness with Alice. She is the love of his life and he remembers announcing his news that they are to be married to his uncle and aunt and how he made them smile. But now something strange has happened. Mr. Greppin's aunt and uncle sit at the kitchen table in utter silence, not moving, not speaking as he prepares to bring Alice to this house. And every sound in the house is amplified. Drops of water sound like harp strings being plucked at a deafening level, even whispers are like screams.

Bradbury has concocted a devilish little portrait of a diseased mind and a pathetic soul that brings to mind the work of Robert Bloch who seems to have been an influence on so many of the writers who contributed to Weird Tales in the 1940s. It's not hard to figure out what happened to Aunt Rose and Uncle Dimity but that's not the point of the story. It's Bradbury's depiction of the house, its sounds, and the supposed absence of sound, the wonderful silence that Greppin thinks he has finally achieved.

This particular passage is sublime, I think:

But of course nothing is perfect. The police make a visit to the house and Greppin's dream world comes to a literal crashing end.

"The Smiling People " later appeared in Bradbury's first short story collection Dark Carnival published by the preeminent purveyor of weird fiction Arkham House. August Derleth again selected it to appear in his anthology The Night Side (Rinehart, 1947) and it has since been anthologized in numerous collections in both the US and the UK.

2. From Nightmare Garden, edited by Vic Ghidalia: "Come into My Cellar" (originally published in Galaxy, October 1962)

This is a variation on the themes previously explored by Jack Finney in his classic novel The Body Snatchers (1955). Bradbury takes inspiration from those goofy ads seen in the back of comic books and magazines for do it yourself kits and get rich quick schemes. In this case the ad is for  "Sylvan Glade Jumbo-Giant Guaranteed Growth Raise- them-in-Your-Cellar-for-Big-Profit Mushrooms. Tom Fortnum is terribly excited when he receives his order. Special Delivery no less. Tom's father is less than excited about the postage expense but allows his son to tend to his fungus garden in the dank basement. Meanwhile, Mrs. Goodbody, the paranoid neighbor next door, is fearful about an invasion from outer space and is already beginning the fight in her front yard by spraying all the insects attacking her plants. Is it possible invaders from another world could travel to Earth as insects? Or even tinier forms of life? Spores, perhaps. Once they've arrived what would they do with us? Tom and his family find out all too soon.

3. From Masterpieces of Mystery & Suspense, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg: "And So Died Riabouchinska"
(originally written in 1953)

Which was the first story to play with the idea of duality in the life of a ventriloquist I wonder. John Keir Cross wrote a nightmarish version of this theme in his story "The Glass Eye" back in the mid 1940s. Were there others prior to that story? Bradbury's certainly is one of the earliest and predates the famous Twilight Zone episode "The Dummy." William Goldman's Magic, at one time the most famous ventriloquist movie, borrows heavily from all the stories and movies of the 40s and 50s with twisted dummy handlers. It's worth some research, I think.

John Fabian is a successful ventriloquist with a breathtakingly beautiful doll named Riabouchinska as his partner. Fabian's wife serves as his drudge assistant. When the story opens there is a dead body on the floor of Fabian's dressing room and a police detective named Krovitch is interrogating the ventriloquist, his wife and this press agent. They all deny knowing the dead man. As the story progresses Krovitch confronts Fabian with his many lies. He produces a photograph of Fabian's former assistant who bears a striking resemblance to Fabian's female dummy. The assistant even bears a similar Russian name. She disappeared in 1934 and Krovitch now suspects foul play. Krovitch is relentless in his pursuit of the truth and manages to get Fabian to reveal all in a most unusual manner. The story ends on a surprisingly poignant note.

Claude Rains with the lovely Riabouchinska
(talented radio actress Virginia Gregg did the voice of the dummy)

"And So Died Riabouchinska" was adapted for the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" in a very faithful teleplay by Mel Dinelli who also did fine adaptations of crime novels in his screenplays for The Reckless Moment, The House by the River and The Spiral Staircase. So true is Dinelli to the spirit of the story that he used much of Bradbury's original dialog and managed to craft some of Bradbury's more artful prose into speeches delivered by the great Claude Rains in the role of Fabian. Charles Bronson plays Lt. Krovitch. The adept director was Robert Stevenson, a Hitchcock series regular. It's one of the highlights of the long running series and can be viewed at for free at here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Humdrum Summer Surprise

Two days ago I received my copy of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by fellow blogger and vintage mystery scholar Curt Evans.  It's an in-depth study of three unjustly denigrated Golden Age detective novelists - Cecil Street (who wrote under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton), Alfred W. Stewart (who wrote as J.J. Connington ) and Freeman Wills Crofts.  It's a true labor of love for Curt who spent the last ten years of his life researching, writing and trying to sell the book to a daring publisher.  Finally it paid off.

The "humdrums" is a derogatory term created by mystery writer and critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of crime fiction Mortal Consequences (published in the UK as  Bloody Murder). He lumped together several "dull" and "unimaginative" writers of detective novels mostly from the late 1920s - 1930s and derided them for boring characters, flat writing and tepid plots.  As Curt (and many of us vintage mystery bloggers) will tell you -- nothing could be further from the truth.

A close reading of these three men's books will reveal exactly the opposite. Rhode was ingenious in coming up with bizarre murder methods and, when he put his mind to it, concocted ingenious plots with fine examples of logical and scientific detective work. Similarly, Connington was good with tricky plots and in his early books at least displayed an offbeat sense of humor.  Crofts was the genius of the alibi and the timetable and he loved to write detective stories about trains, boats and ships at sea.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery Curt discusses in detail the best books by these writers and proves Symons to be biased and snobbish in his dismissal of them as "dull" writers.

And now you can own a copy!  It's published by McFarland & Company, a publisher of mostly academic non-fiction books, and can be purchased directly at their website.  They offer an oversized paperback edition or an eBook version. Or you can try amazon. Since it comes from an independent academic press the price is a bit steep at $49.95. Unfortunately, the book is not offered at any discount prices online. But for those who are truly interested in learning more about these three writers and their fertile imaginations I say it's worth every penny.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Play It Hard - Gil Brewer

A good if not stellar example of the sex and crime thriller.  Reminded me of The Man with My Face in reverse with a bit of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown in.

Steve Nolan wakes up from a drunken (or drugged?) stupor to discover the woman who claims to be his wife is a sexpot impostor.  No one believes him when he insists she is not his wife.  He approaches his pal Bill Rhodes, a cop, then his ex-girlfriend Claire.  They begrudgingly allow for the possibility of truth in his preposterous story.  The two become his only allies.

To save money Steve and his wife live with his bedridden aunt and Dr. Earl Paige and Janice Langford Nolan (the fake wife) seem to be victimizing her for some unknown reason. Even with the frequent visits from Paige Aunt Eda 's health worsens rather than improves.  Could it be all that food Jan keeps preparing? As the story progresses it is clear that Doc Paige, a one time friend of the Nolan family, and the fake Jan have joined in a conspiracy against Steve. But why?

When a dead woman is pulled from a river Rhodes asks Steve to identify her.  Though she's been violently beaten (and later learned been raped repeatedly) Steve is able to confirm that the woman is the real Jan.  To borrow a phrase from Richard Prather  -- Steve is in some kind of pickle now.

Monarch Books, the publisher, was one of the leading marketers of sleazy paperback originals in the late 50s and early 60s.  They loved sex of all kinds -- straight, gay, lesbian, three ways, bigamy -- and even ventured into publishing non-fiction books about "perverts" and "sexual deviants."  It was a prerequisite that any novel published by Monarch contain a heavy dose of sex. Brewer delivered the goods with passages like these:
There were other girls.  When one sells mattresses one has an in. Talk comes quickly to the point.  A woman wants to buy a mattress.  Take it from there.
She didn't say, "Yes." It wasn't combustion, not that time." She asked him point blank, "Oh, damn you! Do it to me -- hurry, before I go crazy! Do it to me, now!"
When he touched [her breasts] she moaned, touching him with a savagery that made him explode, her body a circus of frantic urgency.  And he as wild and frantic as she -- lost in a world of heat and desire.
She laughed with wild abandon, savoring this tumultuous moment, riding her passion like a running steed, hoarsely gasping half-intelligible words.

I can't help but think that last pun was Brewer's private joke at his requirement to fill pages with this kind of thing. Fulsome breasts and erect nipples abound.  Frequent use of the word "savagery" and its adjectival form sum up Brewer's style of sex writing.  The woman's bodies are always described in great detail in these books.  I find it laughable that nothing is ever mentioned about the guys other than their hands. No wonder a lot of these writers were so good at writing lesbian sleaze as well.

The crime plot is typical of this kind of book and not meant to be anything other than a frame-work on which to get a guy in trouble with violent thugs and temptresses of the flesh. This is one of Brewer's lesser books with few twists, but he tells a fast-paced, exciting story. At least you're rooting for Steve to be proven right. Unlike most of his books published for Gold Medal which were bleaker and more cruel this one even has a happy ending.

Friday, June 1, 2012

FFB: A Stranger in My Grave - Margaret Millar

There is no doubt about it.  Margaret Millar is first and foremost a great storyteller.  Her husband, Ross Macdonald, once confessed a deep envy of her ability as a natural born writer as well. The famous example quoted in Tom Nolan's biography (as much a life story of the two crime writers as it is a bio of the creator of Lew Archer)  goes like this:
"F'rinstance" -- and he recited to me a sentence of hers with a simile in it: "Her question trailed off into the room like a faint cigarette track in the air, or something like that. The comparison between the question and the...smoke trailing off, was so perfect; the ear is so fine and the tuning so good, there."
When you combine a "natural born" talent for crafting perfect sentences like the one above with tightly plotted stories and characters who speak dialog with unique voices and who sound like people you meet in everyday life you get an end result that is all too rare in contemporary crime fiction:  real novels with real plots that both entertain the reader as mysteries and stimulate the mind with human insight and literary power.  No better example of Millar's triple whammy of talent can be found than in A Stranger in My Grave (1960), a mystery story that also happens to be a timely modern novel about birth origins, children and parenting.

A Stranger in My Grave features one of Millar's favorite crime fiction metaphors - nightmares.  As early as her sixth novel The Iron Gates (1945), her second mystery novel set in her home province of Ontario, Canada, she was playing with the idea of dreams -- more often than not nightmares -- and how those subconscious images interplay with a character's waking life.  In the case of The Iron Gates the nightmare was an expression of a repressed guilt over a past crime and in that novel another character exploits that repression in one of the most wicked forms of revenge ever perpetrated in contemporary crime fiction.  Fifteen years later Millar returned with a similar idea in A Stranger in My Grave. 

Daisy Harker dreams of visiting her own grave and hires Steve Pinata, bail bondsman and sometime private detective, to help her learn more about the date carved into the gravestone. When the two visit the cemetery they discover the grave exists exactly as described down to the unusual tree standing guard over the site. The mystery deepens when the name on the gravestone -- Carlos Camilla -- means absolutely nothing to Daisy.  The investigation then ceases to be less of the search for a "lost day" and rather the search for the connection between Camilla and Daisy.  That search will lead to Daisy's work as a volunteer in a clinic and Juanita Garcia, a woman who had a seemingly incidental contact with Daisy four years ago.

Apart from the tantalizing plot, its labyrinthine intricacies, and the near Dickensian way in which Millar manages to connect all the characters in the story there is an abundant richness of life in her fully realized and original characters. There are too many scenes I want to list as wondrous vignettes that serve as excellent examples of how Millar uses action to reveal character.  She is in many ways more of a dramatist than a novelist for she fully understands the first rule of theater and all good dramatic works -- show rather than tell.

Among the highlights are a scene in which a dog's love for Daisy is used to express her state of mind; the curmudgeon diner owner, Mrs Brewster and how she uses her denim apron as a theatrical prop as an extension of her personality; the contrast between Stan Fielding, Daisy's father and his new wife, Murial, a not too bright woman deeply in love with the man who sees his dreaming and eccentric way of speaking as signs of sophistication rather than posturing and humbuggery as most people do; Fielding's reluctance to steal a woman's purse in order to get the keys to her car -- the only thing he wants to take from her -- and how his hesitancy leads to his being caught; a powerful scene when Juanita, in a furor, attacks a locked door in the home of her religiously obsessed mother by breaking down the door with a crucifix.

And there are, of course, her words:
The promise was as frail as a bubble; it broke before his car was out of the driveway.
She had never called him Steve, and the sound of it coming from her made him feel for the first time that the name was finally and truly his own. [...] [H]e would always be grateful to her for this moment of strong, sure identity.
Time had become a living, breathing thing, attached to him as inexorably as a remora to a shark's belly, never sleeping or relaxing its grip...

The marvel of this particular book and what is most striking in my mind more than any other of Millar's is the structure and the recurring themes of childlessness, orphans, and parenting styles.  Read today in the context of negligent parents, child abuse and pop culture figures like "the Octomom", the story in  A Stranger in my Grave is amazingly timely. Beyond that timeliness is Millar's unique structure of interspersing snippets from a letter as chapter epigraphs. As the story of Daisy unfolds and the hidden truth behind her odd dream is ultimately revealed we also read a letter than was meant to be delivered to her years ago.  Only in the final chapter to we get to read the full letter along with Daisy and discover the truth at the same time she does. Only in the final words, nearly in the final sentence, is the power of the novel fully felt.

For an in-depth study of Millar's work, her relationship with her husband, and how she taught him how to be a better dialog writer read this article originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Mystery Readers International.

Margaret Millar is the featured author this week for "Friday's Forgotten Books." There should be several reviews of her books from the regular contributors. To learn who reviewed a Millar book, and for all the other books featured this week, see the list at our host site, Patti Abbot's blog.

The Crime & Detective Novels of Margaret Millar
The Invisible Worm (1941)
The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942)
The Devil Loves Me (1942)
Wall of Eyes (1943)
Fire Will Freeze (1944)
The Iron Gates (1945)
Do Evil in Return (1950)
Rose's Last Summer (1952)
Vanish in an Instant (1952)
Beast in View (1955)
An Air That Kills (1957)
The Listening Walls (1959)
A Stranger in My Grave (1960)
How Like an Angel (1962)
The Fiend (1964)
Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976)
The Murder of Miranda (1979)
Mermaid (1982)
Banshee (1983)
Spider Webs (1986)