Sunday, July 29, 2012


For a change I've done a post based on the DJ artist rather than a theme or motif in the design. In my brief research I learned that Vera Bock not only was a DJ artist for the "Crime Club" imprint from Doubleday, she was a noted children's book illustrator and WPA poster designer. More about her work and life can be found here.

In addition to the Crime Club DJs I knew of I went hunting the interweb for as many other examples as I could find. I thought she was primarily a surreal artist, but it turns out she had many moods as you can see for yourself.

Friday, July 27, 2012

FFB: The House Next Door - Lionel White

Best known for his novel Clean Break which became the stunning noir caper movie The Killing directed by Stanley Kubrick and with the crackerjack cast of Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Vince Edwards and Elisha Cook Jr (among others) Lionel White is the last writer you may think of comparing to Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or Dorothy Cameron Disney. But while reading The House Next Door (1956) those are the three writers who came immediately to mind. White's seventh novel is a true departure - an exposé of what happens to the homeowners in a suburban housing development when murder literally lands on someone's front lawn.

The novel opens with a near perfect crime that goes terribly wrong. Gerald Tomlinson and his partner Danny Arbuckle are planning to rob Angelo Bertolli who makes a nightly deposit from a racetrack bookie joint in an after hours bank depository slot. All Tomlinson needs to do is wait for the mark, knock him unconscious, grab the money and run. Simple, clean, easy. What he doesn't plan on is Mrs. Manheimer, a little old lady news agent, who is headed to make her own deposit at the precise minute the bookie's agent is at the bank. When she sees Tomlinson raise his hand clenching a gun and striking Bertolli on the head she lets out a piercing scream. In the confused chaos that follows Bertolli produces a gun he always carries with him and fires two shots as the robbers drive off. Danny, the driver, has been shot and he needs a doctor's attention. Tomlinson has a lot to deal with now that his perfect plan has blown up in his face.

Meanwhile, Len Nielsen has been celebrating his recent job promotion. He's not much of a drinker but to placate his boss he keeps accepting drink after drink. Drinks at dinner lead to a celebratory champagne toast with two friends and later more drinks at an after dinner bar crawl. Len is sloshed by the time he heads home. He climbs into a cab and directs the driver to Fairlawn, a suburban development with a maze of streets where all the homes look exactly alike. The cabbie is left to his own devices when Len barely coherent can't tell him the precise location of his house. As Len leaves the cab he manages to lose his hat and his glasses and isn't sure where he's walking. His key doesn't seem to fit the front door so he has to climb in a side window. But when he gets inside his wife Allie, who has been expecting him for hours, isn't anywhere in sight. She isn't even in the bedroom when he stumbles in noisily bumping into furniture that he doesn't recognize. Then he notices the garish purple wallpaper with mauve roses. He's in the wrong house. And on the bed is a dead man with a bullet in the center of his forehead.

The two plotlines - the botched bank robbery and Len's unintentional discovery of a dead body - will eventually meld together. But not before the brutally beaten body of a teenage babysitter is found on a neighbor's yard and Len is arrested for suspicion of murder. Unlike White's previous three books published by Gold Medal and the two hardcovers for Guilt Edged Mysteries The House Next Door is not so much a study of how criminals turn on one another but rather how crime affects everyday people. Fairlawn's families range from the McNallys, an embittered married couple dealing with infidelities and dissatisfaction, to the staid Kitteridges, British expatriates who hold their neighbors in slight contempt all the while wearing plastered smiles on their faces. As the story progresses the carefully constructed facades of neighborliness crumble to reveal the ugliness at root in these households.

U.K. 1st edition (T.V. Boardman, 1957)
The crimes will also transform some of Fairlawn's inhabitants, notably Allie Nielsen who is compelled to prove her husband's innocence when Lt. Giddeon refuses to accept her protestations. Allie turns snoop like a younger American version of Jane Marple in order to get at the truth of the babysitter's murder. As she goes door to door asking questions, once adopting a false identity, the final third of the book turns into a neat pastiche of an amateur sleuth detective novel.

There is an element of HIBK in this book, too, which was rather alarming for a writer who is better known for tough-edged noirish thrillers. Reading sentences like "if it hadn't been first for Mrs. Manheimer, and then later for that certain fifteen-year-old girl, Tomlinson's plans would have been without flaw" call to mind the work of Dorothy Cameron Disney and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Jarring to say the least.  It's a recurrent stylistic choice, but not without effect. White's unusual method of creating suspense definitely had me turning the pages more quickly.

White juggles the multiple storylines, the large cast of characters and the plot machinations with the ease of any carnival entertainer.  It's an invigorating, insightful, and incisive read. Amid all the domestic squabbles, the brutality and violence, The House Next Door is not without its compassionate moments.  There are several touching portraits on display to offset the nastiness. White rarely made of use of the balance of light and dark moods in his later career. That he dedicated this book to his wife noting his deep love for her may be the most telling point of all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review Copy Avalanche

In the past two weeks I've been inundated with review copies. I can't even remember if I requested them all. Some I have been eagerly awaiting, others seem to have just turned up. Hopefully I'll be able to get to them all. For those of you interested in what may be coming in the all too infrequent NEW STUFF category here at the PSB scene here's what I've received.

To be released August 7 (hope I can get the review posted by then)

4th book in a series set in South Africa.  Never read any of them

A New Zealand author I've never read.
The plot blurb sounded very enticing.

These are two crime novels about biker clubs in the U.K.
I did ask for these because they sounded utterly fascinating

Confession: I got this one in May.
Still haven't read or reviewed it. Oops

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colfax Book-plate - Agnes Miller

First, a little serendipitous trivia. This article -- my 300th post! -- is a review of not only a little known detective novel by an obscure author, but a bibliomystery. Apparently it is the only bibliomystery in the entire genre to deal with bookplates. As you may know from reading my frequent posts as part of the monthly "Left Inside" feature bookplates are something of a fascination with me. To have come across a book this unique that encompasses everything that this blog was meant to be about when I first created it (book collecting, detective fiction, obscure and forgotten books) and to have it serve as a milestone post makes me near ecstatic. And this wasn't even orchestrated by me. It was sheer chance.

Constance Fuller is the narrator and remarkably outspoken protagonist of The Colfax Book-plate (1926), the sole adult mystery novel by Agnes Miller who previously was known for a brief series of unusually literate juvenile mysteries called The Linger-Nots featuring a group of girls from a Dramatics Society who stumble upon puzzling adventures all having to do with historical eras. The third book in that series, The Linger-Nots and Their Golden Quest (1923), interestingly shares a key plot point with The Colfax Book-plate.

Constance has worked her way out of the confines of the stenographers' pool at the busy downtown Manhattan book shop Darrow's to a place that better suits her intelligence and sophistication. She works in the rare book room - specifically a section devoted to prints and engravings. Bookplates make up a sizable portion of this collection. As the story opens Constance is in charge of cataloging a large group of books recently purchased from a judge who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Among those books is a limited edition printing of a book entitled Notes on Medical Statutes in the Virgina Code by W. Clarihew. This particular copy, number 239 of 300, has an unusual pictorial bookplate thought to be the work of Hugh Colfax, a Revolutionary War era engraver whose work primarily has only been seen in England. If the bookplate should prove to be genuine and for it to appear on a copy of an American published book would cause a sensation in the bookplate collecting world and probably the world of bibliophilia at large. The US 1st (and only) edition, by the way, sports a replica of the bookplate exactly as described in the story as a paste-down on the front board.

Click to enlarge.
The amazing fine details in this bookplate are
integral to the intricacies of the plot.
Peter Burton, who had been sent to the book auction to purchase as many of the judge's books as possible paid $501 for the Clarihew volume only because he fell for a young girl who pleaded that he not let another man get a hold of the book. Constance soon learns no less than six people seem to be after the book and will stop at nothing to get it. It is the bookplate inside that will turn out to be the cause of all the covetous plotting. When a man collapses in the law section of Darrow's from a mysterious hemorrhaging wound just after handling the book and then later dies in hospital the death is deemed a possible murder. All the bookstore employees fall under suspicion. A criminal investigation is launched to uncover the weapon which apparently vanished from the store, the identity of the man who died, the identity of the young girl who fainted and pleaded with Peter to "Keep it for me," and whether or not the death was in fact a deliberate murder. All the while Constance has her catalog she needs to finish before an impending printers' strike explodes and the store is left without any publicity prior to the mad Christmas holiday shopping days. Yet even with the deadline looming over her head she cannot stop herself from doing a bit of independent detective work. She is compelled to solve the mystery of the bookplate and why it seems to be so prized among the many people who have been pursuing it and the Clarihew law book.

Constance makes for a sharp witted and sharper tongued narrator with little tolerance for flighty shop girls, her former harridan of a supervisor Miss Wilkes, or the manipulations of damsels in apparent distress. She's also a bit of a snob. There is a very funny scene in which she disparages the "fad" of crossword puzzles which has so hypnotized two of the other women characters. As an employee she is a mental match for her Scottish boss, Mr. Roberts the manager of the store who alternately applauds and insults her for being too intelligent. It is mainly due to her presence that The Colfax Book-plate is such a fast moving, absorbing read.

Miller has more than a few surprises in store. Like the maze-like aisles of Darrow's Constance finds herself travelling deeper into a circuitous world of deception, thievery and betrayal. The Clarihew volume and the bookplate itself will reveal multiple layers of secrets. And that's a literal image not a figurative one. The climax of the book provides for several eyebrow raising surprises, and a few that made me laugh, in a book already brimming with twists and sudden reveals.

While Miller's writing style suffers from a heavy Victorian syntax overloaded with descriptive clauses and asides set off by commas, the story is still engaging and uncommonly modern for a book published in the late 1920s. She endows Constance with a very modern sensibility that foreshadows the feminist heroines who populate the mysteries and Gothic Romances of the 1970s. In fact, all of her female characters seem to be stronger than the men. Though Miller has a policeman detective, Benjamin Almy (his rank is never mentioned), among her cast he does most of his detective work offstage. It is Constance, Nancy Burton (Peter's sassy garrulous sister) and a seemingly dumb blond shop girl named Daisy Abbott who all do clever girl sleuthing on their own offering up sections of the complex solution at key points in the tale.

The UK edition (Benn, 1927)
No bookplate, though
One person who cannot be overlooked in the supporting cast is the under-appreciated Ulysses S. G. Jackson, Darrow's superstitious janitor. He may speak with one of those phonetic drawls so often found among black characters in books of this era, but he will prove to be one of the most knowledgeable and honorable offstage detectives in the entire book. Like Peter who withholds a bit of information in order to protect Julia, the fainting woman, Ulysses too has some personal knowledge he keeps to himself for the entire length of the story only divulging it at the 11th hour when he is sure the person he is protecting is in the clear.

And now the bad news. (Oh yes, you knew it was coming.) Agnes Miller's finely constructed novel is yet another of those scarce detective books. My catalog notes tell me I bought mine back in 2005 from a well known, reputable mystery novel dealer for $30. Now the mere dozen copies offered for sale range from $18 for an ex-library copy to $135 for a book that sounds from its description to be in comparable condition to my own copy with its discolored and spotty boards. Perhaps if you're lucky you may stumble across a cheap copy or one in your local library. It was published originally in the US by Century Company and one year later in the UK by Ernest Benn so there is equal opportunity of finding one on both sides of the Atlantic.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Trafficking in Old Books

For sometime now I've wanted to do a very simple post that listed the popular search terms in my stats that have led the Googling hordes to my blog. I thought of doing this last year in the summer when I was getting an awful lot of traffic from Eastern European countries and parts of the Middle East with search terms that were either vulgar and smacked of someone addicted to porn or had to do with torture against women. Made me cringe actually to see those words.  I decided to go for the odd, the unusual, and the weird rather than the sick and disgusting terms.

They are listed below in order by page view count. Explanations and trivia follow the stats.

pretty sinister - 148  Just for the past 30 days.

el morro - 49 Review of The Sentry-Box Murder by Newton Gayle. El Morro is a fort in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and is the setting for the mystery in that detective novel.
drag me to hell helena - 48  Post on top movies to watch around Halloween
RECURRENT THEME. This happens to be the most viewed post on my blog. Of course a blog devoted primarily to books would have as its most popular post an article about horror movies, right? Oy. Various movie stills used to illustrate the piece turn up in other search terms, but the photo of actress Lorna Raver as the gypsy woman is the most viewed. This photo alone is responsible for making the post so popular. I wonder if those hundreds of people bothered to read the article.

dion fortune - 44 Review of The Secrets of Dr. Taverner.
Dion Fortune was the adopted name of Violet Firth, occultist, devotee of magick and member of the infamous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She wrote supernatural fiction espousing her personal beliefs in the hereafter and the occult.

angry polar bear - 16 My flash fiction piece "The Dream of a Golden Mantled Tamarin," a story about animals angry about being caged in a zoo. The post has a photo of such a bear used as an illustration

colombo - 30 I used to have a tribute page to Peter Falk when he died.
Note that misspellings often take you to places you don't want to go on the interweb. Isn't Colombo the capital of a country? I have since deleted the Peter Falk post and all other posts about people who died. I didn't like the inordinate amount of traffic by obituary obsessed people that was skewing my stats. For a long time the most popular post on my blog was my piece about Nigel Williams, a favorite bookseller of mine who died back in 2010. I was also getting lots of weird comments on that page. Creeped me out.

fleur de lis tattoo for men - 16 My flash fiction piece "I Carry It with Me Wherever I Go" about a man who reveals his secret life of sexual experimentation and BDSM.
RECURRENT THEME. There have been multiple variations on searches using the terms "fleur de lis" and "tattoo" for the past year and a half ever since I posted my story. In the post I use a very attractive illustration of a fleur-de-lis to enhance the look. I think it's very odd that someone wanted to find a fleur-de-lis for a man. Are there fleur-de-lis symbols that are more macho than others? The mind boggles.

brothel bedroom red black - 6 Review of India Black by Carol Carr
Sex, sex, sex.  And prostitutes, of course.  The internet is for porn, isn't it?  I'm sure everyone has freaky search terms like these turning up in their stats. I'll spare you some of the more lewd and perverted ones.

hangman board lolita - 2  ???
I haven't got a clue where this would take someone on my blog. I don't even know what it means. Something to do with surfing with adolescent vixens perhaps?  It's the internet.  It could mean anything.

Friday, July 20, 2012

FFB: The Hatter's Phantoms - Georges Simenon

It took me three tries before I found a Simenon novel that I could get lost in. I chose to avoid Maigret and was searching for something different.  In browsing through our library's vast selection of his books I picked up a copy of The Widow (made into the superb movie La Veuve Couderc with Simone Signoret and Alain Delon) which had a lengthy introduction by Paul Theroux that revealed he was quite well read in Simenon's oeuvre. There were so many titles mentioned with tantalizing plot tidbits tempting me to try any number of them. It was the first time I learned of the term roman durs which Simenon himself coined to describe his more serious books as opposed to those he considered his popular fiction. Among those novels are The Man Who Liked to Watch Trains Go By, Red Lights, Dirty Snow, and Monsieur Monde Disappears. Apparently The Venice Train is also considered one of these "hard novels." I read that book but I found it to be a straightforward crime novel along the lines of A Simple Plan about a man who comes into possession of a great deal of money which may or may not be connected to the murder of a woman. It had in common a few plot points and themes with another psychological crime novel that I found a lot more interesting -- The Hatter's Phantoms (orig. French ed. 1949, English transl. 1976).

Léon Labbé has a secret life that is uncovered by the slightest of glances. One night while in a cafe, his neighbor across the street, a timid tailor named Kachoudas, sees a tiny piece of newsprint stuck to the cuff of Labbe's pants. It is carefully trimmed to a perfect square and consists of two letters, n and t. Kachoudas is unaccountably rendered speechless and quietly points to it. Labbé picks it off his cuff thanking the tailor. Later that evening as part of his nightly routine Kachoudas follows Labbé out of the cafe down a dimly lit street and becomes an accidental eyewitness to a crime. Labbé appears out of the shadows and gives the following warning: "You'd be making a mistake, Kachoudas."

In the next scene we see Labbé at his home sitting at a table with a newspaper meticulously snipping letters, words and sometimes complete phrases and gluing them to a sheet of paper. This is one of the many anonymous letters describing in detail his most recent late night exploit. He is the man the newspapers have dubbed "the Strangler" and he has been murdering old women with a garrotte made from an old cello string attached to two blocks of wood. Labbé is sure that his neighbor has linked the piece of paper with those anonymous letters which have been the subject of a local journalist's columns on the murders.

What begins as a routine study of a murderer and his crimes gradually becomes a more absorbing study of a criminal who falls victim to his own morbid imagination. The story details how Labbé, the hatter of the title, has fashioned a world of order and routine that masks his true murderous self. In addition to the several old women he killed the reader learns that he has constructed an elaborate charade in which he makes it appear that his invalid wife is still alive though she too was one of his vicitms. Part of the hatter's nightly routine is watching Kachoudas in his squalid studio apartment. So poor is the tailor none of his windows have curtains making it easy for Labbé to spy on the Kachoudas family. Like the hats he crafts and tends to in his day job Labbé fabricates a relationship with the tailor in which the two become both friend and foe. The hatter imagines the tailor plotting to turn him in for the 20,000 franc reward while simultaneously dreaming of adding Kachoudas to his roster of victims. His toying with the tailor is often more insidious than the actual murders.

Michel Serrault as Labbé  in Claude Chabrol's 1982 film
Simenon gets a lot of mileage out the plot motif of the criminal who obsessively dwells on how others perceive and think about him. The daydreaming becomes tainted and poisoned until it is converted into mad imaginings run wild. In trying to maintain a facade of normalcy the Simenon protagonist will sacrifice his integrity, morality and often his sanity. The fascination lies in reading how reality can never live up to his plans and ideas, how his crushing guilt usually leads to a tragic end. This theme can be found in any number of his crime novels and was the most noticeable similarity in all three books I read, though in The White Horse Inn (my least favorite of the trio) its presence was more subtle.

Labbé has a lot in common with Justin Calmar of The Venice Train who is entrusted by a complete stranger to deliver a briefcase he discovers contains over 200,000 francs in various currencies. The two men are utterly trapped in their heads, spending every waking hour trying to outwit and outguess the behavior of everyone they encounter. They also expend an enormous amount of energy deceiving their friends and family in constructing complex dual lives. The hatter must make his shop assistant and maid believe his wife is alive while Calmar convinces his wife that he has become an avid and very lucky horse race fanatic. In the end their lies and scheming get the better of them. These are criminals who seem to be screaming out to be caught no matter how much they may appear to be acting the opposite. And when the tragic end comes, for the most part, it is their greatest relief.

This week as part of Friday's Forgotten Books we are paying tribute to the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon.  For more a full list of reviews and insights into his work (there's bound to be a few Maigret books in the bunch) go to Patti Abbot's blog here.

And for those interested in a fine example of atmospheric film making, beautifully shot, framed, and lit, you can watch the scene in which Labbé lures Kachoudas to the site of his future crime from Claude Chabrol's film Les Fantômes du Chapelier by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ALTERNATIVE HORROR: The Craghold Creatures - Edwina Noone

A well read private eye fan won't even have to open this book to know that it's one of the many pseudonyms of Michael Avallone. His private, after all, was Ed Noon. Avallone was a big prankster when it came to pen names. So much of  a prankster that he includes one of his own alter egos as a character in this book.  And I could only think as I was reading this loopy book that a whole lot of women readers who used to snap up Gothic suspense books by the bucketful back in the 60s and 70s must've thought the "woman" who wrote this book had smoked a little too much weed or dropped a bit too much acid.  It's not at all like any Gothic suspense novel you will ever read.

Anyone familiar with Avallone's work would recognize his tell-tale style in an instant. Forget that giveaway pen name. Forget that the book is all about a movie production company and is peppered with numerous references to old movies and movie stars. How could anyone overlook the prose style of the samples below?

She tried to scream--and couldn't. The tendons, cords and nerve centers of her throat were locked into one spasmodic, cramped complex that refused to respond to the telegraphed messages of terror from her mental batteries.
"Oh, Soldier...what was it? How can there be such a isn't couldn't be. Not even a Z movie ever had anything like that in it..."
His blood ran cold, the mercury dropping like a shot in a thermometer.
Moria Shearer! -- that was it. Cornelia was pretty much a ringer for that English doll from the Red Shoes.
Craghold House. He had been right the first time.  A Grade A, certified Zombie Depot. You'd better believe it!
There is only one person who writes like that. Michael Avallone.

I loved this book. I only wish there were more over-the-top Gothic novels like this one. It dares to combine an obsessive movie fan's love of title allusions and movie star name dropping with weird horror set pieces that aspire to a Lovecraftian pastiche.

Movie mogul Max Wendel sends his right hand lady Cornelia to scout locations for their upcoming blockbuster-to-be movie adaptation of a best selling horror novel called The Six Sidneys. Cornelia and her helicopter pilot assistant (nicknamed Soldier) find the perfect spot in Kragmoor, Pennsylvania. Little do they know that Craghold House, now a converted hotel, has a rich and gruesome history of hauntings, murders and unexplained supernatural events. Of course it would make the ideal setting for the movie --the house itself is a horror show. As the cover blurb proclaims "She searched for perfection and found a house that was perfectly evil..."

The house has unspeakably chilly rooms, hidden crypts, a monstrous occupant in the basement -- name your favorite Gothic motif and it's sure to be somewhere in Craghold. Even the current proprietor of the hotel looks like something that escaped from a zombie movie. Rest assured that Cornelia, Soldier, and the mysterious Dr. N. Waldo Ow, a guest at the hotel who is researching the occult properties of herbs, will all encounter more than their fair share of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go slurp, slop, squish in the night.

As for in-jokes and Avallone trivia the book is busting to the seams with his pranks. The heroine is named Cornelia Rich. Ring any bells crime fiction fans? It's a feminization of Cornell Woolrich. In case you missed that Edwina literally spells it out for you later in the book. Zombie Depot (mentioned above) is the title of a book Avallone wrote for the Satan Sleuth series but due to poor sales the series was dropped and that manuscript never made it to a published book. One of the other characters is Mark Dane. See if he reminds you of anyone.

Dane wasn't interested in magical healing herbs. Nor in any drugs of any kind, Mark Dane did not need any artificial stimulants to stay alive. He had a burning opiate of his own, one that never allowed him to rest or stay down too long or up high forever. He was a writer in the truest sense of the title. [...] He was drunk with the magic of the English language and it had remained his mistress for a greater length of time than any woman he had ever known.
This page long paragraph goes on to cite Dane's "over a hundred" novels consisting of "spy yarns, private eye capers, police procedurals, Gothic romances, armchair detective puzzles." And he had used "five masculine and three feminine pen names." Can this be any more of a celebration of Avallone himself? Mark Dane just happens to be one of the many pen names Avallone used. A quick look through Hubin's Bibliography of Crime Fiction show a few movie script novelizations by Avallone as "Mark Dane."

I need to read the rest of the books in this Craghold series to see if they live up to the awesome outrageousness that can only by Michael Avallone. Can the other three books make me smile as much as this one? I certainly hope so.

Edwina Noone's very special brand of Gothic Novels
Dark Cypress (1965)
Corridor of Whispers (1965)
Heirloom of Tragedy (1965)
Daughter of Darkness (1966)
The Second Secret (1966)
The Victorian Crown (1966)
Seacliffe (1968)
The Cloisonne Vase (1972)
Tender Loving Fear (1984)

The Craghold Series
The Craghold Legacy (1971)
The Craghold Curse (1972)
The Craghold Creatures (1972)
The Craghold Crypt (1973)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Pass Beyond Kashmir - Berkely Mather

The P.R. materials I received with my copy of the recent reprint of The Pass Beyond the Kashmir (1960) call it a "ripping yarn." While that is a perfect marketing catchphrase it is something of a disservice to this remarkable novel by John Weston-Davies, former military man who served in both Australia and India. Writing as "Berkely Mather" Weston-Davies created three series characters Peter Feltham, British spy Jack Wainwright, and Idwal Rees who debuts in this book. Amazingly, this action packed story is Mather's second novel. It's a masterfully balanced story that blends literate prose, spirited characters, cultural insights and suspenseful action. So impressively done The Pass Beyond the Kashmir is practically a textbook on how to write the perfect adventure page-turner.

The story takes our hero Idwal Rees through a rugged adventure marked by multiple pursuits, captures and escapes as he and an Australian opportunist named Smedley try to make their way from Bombay to Kashmir. There they plan to meet George Polson, a retired British major, who will lead them to the location of documents that may reveal the source of a hidden oil reserve. Aided by Rees' servant Samaraz, a strong-willed Pathan, the two men get off to a bad start when the major vanishes from his home where his wife has been brutally attacked. The local police begin to show an interest in the major's disappearance and based on the probing questions Rees suspects that it may have something to do with the documents. As the three continue eluding and escaping a variety of villains it is clear everyone wants the major and/or the documents. At one point Rees quotes an Indian proverb which aptly sums up the seemingly endless chases: "The Indian night is blind for the watched, but has a thousand eyes for the watcher."

Over the course of these densely packed 190 pages the reader will also be tutored in all things Indian and Asian. Mather is especially adept at interspersing into the action a series of lessons in everything from the Indian caste system to the making of Tibetan butter tea. Below are a few more of the numerous tidbits picked up:
  • In India it is not the Express train that will get you to your destination the fastest, it is the Mail train. The express is actually a local.
  • Speakers of Urdu cannot pronounce an initial S sound with first adding an additional vowel sound. Therefore, Smedley becomes Ish-medley.
  • Only Muslims who have made the arduous journey to Mecca and paid their respects to Mohammed there have earned the right to wear a green turban.  (this may not be so true now apparently)
  • A Pathan is an upper caste Muslim. In the story Samaraz is a particularly intolerant, in fact intensely hateful, of anyone not of his caste.
  • You apparently cannot do anything in India without the help of baksheesh. Rees and friends are lucky to have the wads of rupees with them as they are constantly passing out money to everyone they meet.
The characters are alive and human and so unexpected in how they behave. Along the way Rees will meet a mysterious Sikh of unknown allegiance; Yev Shalom, "seller and buyer of anything" especially information, who is eerily omniscient in how he obtains that information; a tenacious and very clever British nurse who sees through one of the many disguises Rees and Smedley must adopt; a blind brigadier general who helps guide them to Kashmir; and the requisite master criminal who will turn out to have a surprisingly close connection to Rees. These and several others make for a even more entertaining "ripping yarn."

Humor is also abundant amidst the more serious aspects of the story's violence and politics. Smedley becomes the object of Rees' anger several times and Rees deals with his frustrations and sublimated rage when he chooses to give Smedley a variety of humiliating disguises. He at first shaves his hair and eyebrows, uses shoe polish to darken his skin, and passes him off as a lower caste servant. Pathan insults Smedley further by saying he looks like a dung seller. Later, Smedley is forced to wear a burkah and pretend to be a woman. When he takes advantage of this disguise by attempting to board one of the women only passenger cars on a train all hell breaks loose. It seems his physique and gait give him away immediately.

The Pass Beyond Kashmir is one of the many reissued adventure thrillers released by Top Notch Thrillers, that fine imprint of Ostara Publishing. Mike Ripley, editor of the series, has once again uncovered a whopper of a tale, an exciting page turner to rival anything published today. In fact, I prefer something like this book over the padded doorstop tomes we have nowadays. Mather's story not only has the ring of truth and authenticity thanks to his many years of living in India he tells his tale with hardly one diversion into the Land of Backstory and limits himself with psychological character explanations. As I mentioned before this book is a wonderful primer on how to write a thriller, how first and foremost in this genre it is how action can reveal character better than long drawn out explanations of past life experience. An adventure tale more than any other genre should have immediacy and should take place first and foremost in the present. The Pass Beyond Kashmir is as immediate as they come.

The Espionage and Adventure Novels of Berkely Mather

Idwal Rees and Samaraz appear in:
Berkely Mather as he appears on
the DJ of one of his early books
The Pass Beyond Kashmir (1960)
The Terminators (1971)
Snowline (1973)

Jack Wainwright, British spy appears in:
The Springers (1968) aka A Spy for a Spy
The Break in the Line (1970) aka The Break
The Terminators (1971)

Peter Feltham appears in:
The Achilles Affair (1959)
With Extreme Prejudice (1975)

Non-Series Thrillers
Geth Straker (1962) (based on radio scripts of an adventure serial)
The Gold of Malabar (1967)
The White Dacoit (1974)

Mather has also written historical fiction, TV scripts and was the screenwriter for Dr. No and The Long Ships, an unintentionally campy sword and sandal feature about Vikings and Moors in search of a legendary golden bell.  I may write up a review of that movie which he co-wrote with Beverley Cross.

Friday, July 13, 2012

FFB: Ghost Wanted - Finlay McDermid

The very first scene in Ghost Wanted (1943) gives us a rookie mailman in Hollywood making his first delivery to the home of the biggest star he's ever met. It's the home of actress Sally Marsh and he can't believe how plain looking it is, how small and unassuming it appears. He flips through the assortment of letters and packages and finds no less than eight different names in the addresses including the exotic Melisande. How do they all fit in the place, he wonders. In the assortment of letters he has a Special Delivery envelope which requires a signature. When he gets no answer at the front door he makes his way to the back and is greeted by a man in the swimming pool who promptly gets out revealing he's completely naked. The reading of the names on the mail is one of the most innovative examples of how to handle that cumbersome character exposition. The offbeat touch of humor and the odd nude scene are more examples of McDermid's originality. This is his first mystery novel. And it gets more innovative as it progresses.

The ghost of the title is not a specter at all but a writer. The idea of a ghost being someone who does the work for another who takes the credit will become a metaphor in the murder investigation as well. The cast is made up of six - count 'em - six writers: three screenwriters, one playwright turned screenwriter, and two secretary wannabe script writers. More writers than any Hollywood agent could ask for. Providing for a nice segue to Ben Breck -- vile, smarmy, and hated agent for several writers and actors in the book. It's only natural that someone as loathed as he is should up with an Argentinian knife stuck in his chest.

There are parallel stories going on. The first deals with Lt. Bernal from the Sheriff's office who is investigating Breck's murder aided by his team of sharp-witted detectives. At the same time we read of writer John Chumleigh and his actress wife Sally Marsh who are also trying to prove what really happened. Chumleigh has his own name to clear. He's witnessed a lot including seeing his own wife in the vicinity of the murder site and he does his best to withhold infromation or mislead Bernal. When Chumleigh and his wife discover a second corpse -- a duplicitous stenographer with multiple identities and formerly in the employ of Breck -- the desire to protect his wife and friends becomes more urgent.

The story is almost as complex and dizzying as The Big Sleep. It's clear that McDermid has a fondness for that type of hardboiled private eye novel. There's a Christie-like murder in someone's past, a sordid blackmail ring, and the eventual uncovering of multiple deep, dark secrets in the past lives of all of the suspects. Clues are laid as early as the opening with the rookie postman and his batch of letters, and will include a talking magpie that uses curse words, several Helen McCloy-like slips of the tongue, and shockingly a dead cat that had been smothered with a pillow. The detection throughout is excellent by both the police team and the amateurs from Movieland.

Finlay McDermid wrote the story, most likely
 also collaborated on the screenplay for this western
All those writers in the cast and insights into a writer's life and way of thinking are clues to the life of Finlay McDermid. It's clear that McDermid was an aspiring screenwriter himself at the time. A quick overview of his resume at proves that he managed to have a mildly successful career as either story or screenplay writer in both movies and TV with an emphasis on some minor western TV series in the 1950s. The book gives McDermid a chance to show off his screenwriting skills in some cleverly concocted scenes that borrow heavily from movie making techniques. For instance there is a phone call from Tim, one of the writers, to an actress named Marilyn. The scene begins on Tim's end and we get his viewpoint, when he finishes the conversation the scene gracefully segues to Marilyn's apartment, just like a smoothly edited film, and we learn that Sally Marsh is with her and the scene continues from there with the two women discussing what Tim just told Marilyn. The entire book is structured like a movie with cuts, fade outs, and wipes just like filmed scenes. It's pretty damn impressive for novel writing.

The story takes place in the first week of December 1941 with the date December 6 prominently mentioned. No doubt that date had fresh impact on readers in 1943 when the book was first published. It's one of the few American detective novels I've read that uses events of World War Two to directly impact the way a murder investigation is handled. When news of the Pearl Harbor attack reaches the Sheriff's office Bernal is temporarily taken off the case in order take charge of high priority surveillance of ports and harbors. What follows is the one bit of highly improbable plotting – Bernal allows John and Sally to continue their amateur sleuthing as long as they report back to him their findings. They have become ghost detectives for Bernal in the same way John's various secretaries have been trained to become ghost writers for his radio scripts.

Anthony Boucher raved about this book when it first came out and kept expecting another book from McDermid. He was brilliant at the mystery novel based on this debut. But like most writers living in Hollywood McDermid preferred to surrender himself to movies and TV. It would be more than ten years before he tried his hand at another mystery novel. See No Evil was published again by Simon and Schuster in 1958. I recently found an affordable copy and when I've read it I'll let you know if Finlay McDermid still had the stuff that he shows off so well in Ghost Wanted.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

NEW BOOKS: Lucky Bastard - S. G. Browne

I was astonished at how this book undergoes a subtle and winning transformation from broad comedy to moving drama. Here we have the overworked trope of the wise acre private eye who has a talent for getting into trouble, can't keep his mind off of sex, and is always in need of money. He encounters a few wacky characters (nearly all of them unnamed - more about that later), more than his fair share of wild predicaments and all the while not changing one bit from his oversexed, overbearing, overgrown frat boy persona. Until one bizarre life threatening encounter forces him to re-evaluate his entire worldview. Nick Monday also has a special talent that sets him apart from your run-of-the-mill private eye. He can steal a person's luck -- good or bad -- with a simple handshake. His resolute worldview that you can't change luck, that you are either born with good luck or bad luck, however, is thoroughly shaken and turned inside out by the end of his surreal journey.

It all starts with the usual sultry woman entering the private eye's San Francisco squalid office. She wants to hire him for a hush-hush job. But instead of locating a missing sibling or husband she wants Nick to recover her father's luck. Her father turns out to be Gordon Knight, mayor of San Francisco, whose recent change of luck has transformed him from a golden boy of the news headlines to favorite topic of the scandal sheets. Nick can't believe that this alluring woman -- ridiculously named Tuesday Knight -- could possibly have known about his reputation as a "luck poacher" when he has done such a good job of keeping it secret from the masses. But it's hard to resist the job when she offers him $10,000.

Then Nick is approached in quick succession by a Chinese ganglord and an unnamed agent from an unnamed secret branch of the federal government. Both want to hire him for his luck poaching skills - Tommy Wong wants to amass as much good luck as he can in order to dominate San Francisco like any proper master criminal and the federal agent (who is a dead ringer for Barry Manilow) wants Nick's help in bringing down Wong's reign of terror. Nick has no choice but to give in to both when each of his potential employers resorts to blackmail and threatens his family.

These three plot lines are interwoven in a tapestry of coincidence and complexity to rival any webwork epic by Harry Stephen Keeler. Like Keeler there is an eccentric humor as well (though I found much of it in the early part of the book to be tiresome and sophomoric) and the action never lets up. To reveal any more would ruin the pleasure of discovering the many absurd plights Browne has planned for Nick.

I started out not really liking this book or the main character. Nick Monday is the kind of egotistic, womanizing, devil-may-care asshole I can't stand in real life. A fictional character with these traits who is saddled with a sense of humor that matched Kartman's of "South Park" wasn't going to get me to like the book any better. But with the introduction of one of the most endearing characters -- a wigga wannabe gangsta rapper named Doug (aka Bow Wow) -- Browne started to win me over.

It's the relationship between Doug and Nick that kept me reading to the end. Not only do they make for a truly eccentric Holmes-Watson partnership (Doug even calls his boss Holmes) they are something of a surrogate father and son duo. The scenes between these two raise the book from a weary, smart alecky parody to an offbeat buddy story with genuine charm and humor.

Slowly and slyly Browne veers away from his action-oriented parody and instead uses the fantastical elements of stealing luck, acquiring luck and becoming addicted to luck as a way to explore the universal tenet so succinctly put in Howard's End by E.M. Forster: "Only connect!" Nick eventually learns that luck can be changed, that life is richer and better when rather than distancing himself from relationships he genuinely connects to other people. He will soon be bidding good-bye to his smartass solitary life made up of nothing but empty one night stands with "corporate coffeehouse baristas" and lonely hours spent surfing the internet for lucky marks to poach from.

One of the most unique parts of the book is Nick's encounter with a mysterious Eastern European accented luck poacher who has the unfortunate fate of having become a Specter. That is, he poaches only bad luck. It's both creepy and poignant as we read of Nick's reaction to a poacher who has surrendered to the dark side and yet ironically reveals a deeper dimension to his hidden compassion for misfits and outsiders, something we've previously seen in Nick's kindness towards the homeless drunks who hang out in the alleys that line the streets of his favorite coffe joints. This is point when the book becomes richer, more dramatic, and -- most importanly -- more human.

All those unnamed characters further illustrate Nick's isolation and his chosen path of indifference. He never bothers to learn anyone's real name. He gives them nicknames like Scooter Girl, Thug One and Thug Two or dubs them with celebrity names based on their appearance like the fed who is Barry Manilow's twin or the Tommy Wong's cronies who resemble Jake and Elwood of Blues Brothers' fame. Few of the major characters receive full idenities. It seemed odd to me at first this cast of the anonymous or nicknamed. I thought Browne was a lazy writer, but by the end it all made sense. It proved to be one of the more clever aspects of the book by the time I finished it.

Here's a real original in the crime fiction world. A book that mixes comedy and thrills and fantasy into a work of fiction that's both wildly entertaining and uncommonly moving. Lucky Bastard is one of the better contemporary novels I've read in a long time. You'd be a lucky devil yourself if you decided to add it to your list of summer reads.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: The Patient in Room 403

A couple of menus from what I believe must've been a retirement or nursing home. Though it could've been a hospital judging from the blank line at bottom "Nurse in charge."  But were patients allowed to choose their own meals in US hospitals? Made no note of which book these came out of. It was most certainly an old mystery novel.

No year for these, but a handy calendar calculator I found on the interweb tells me that there were only four Monday, December 16ths to choose from: 1930, 1940, 1946 or 1957.  I'm going for either 1930 or 1940 based solely on the font used on the menu, the typed food choices appear to be mimeographed, and the use of a German name brand.

Note the difference between the two meals.  Supper and Dinner!  Both were offered?  Rather a luxurious place. And the patinet/client in Room 403 ordered both meals.  Hungry or gluttonous?

Guess the patinet in Room 403 really hated cheese sauce.  Violent  scratching out of that ingredient.  Allergies? Or just antipathy?  Some of the choices are odd and telltale products of the era helping to date it even further.  Milk or Postum.  Postum is basically fake coffee invented by C.W. Post, the health food fanatic, who founded La Vita Inn in Battle Creek, Michigan.  It was made from wheat bran, molasses and maltodextrin, one of those insidious food additives derived from corn, and was first marketed in 1896. Bleech. I'll pass on even a taste taste of something as vile sounding as that.

Kaffee Hag?  Never heard of it.  A little internet research reveals it is an ancient brand of decaf dating back to Bremen, Germany in 1906, and its still available from Kraft Foods.  It's even spelled the German way rather than the modern brand of Cafe Hag making me think these menus date to sometime in the 1930s prior to WW2 when all things German were anathema to Americans.  I see there were two choices for decaf.  Sanka is the more recognized form.  Plus, it's one of the first instant coffees.

Prune whip!  What no chocolate? I'll skip dessert, thanks all the same.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

FFB: Case of the Petticoat Murder - Jonathan Craig

In this fifth book in the series featuring 6th Precinct cops Pete Selby and Stan Rayder Jonathan Craig finally proves he can write not only a gritty, urban crime novel, but a twisty, red herring laden mystery. In Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958) there are the usual seedy sexual practices, colorful lowlife Greenwich Village characters, and ample amount of routine often dreary police work. This time, however, the crime turns out to be a puzzler cleverly concocted with devious misdirection worthy of a Golden Age whodunit.

Naomi Ellison is discovered hanging by her neck from a steampipe in her Greenwich Village studio apartment. She is completely nude except for a pair of stockings and high heeled shoes. Immediately we get a lesson in crime solving as Selby tutors a novice policewoman in murder disguised as suicide. In a lecture that goes into graphic detail that I will spare you he point s out the angle of the body clearly indicates it was hoisted up after death. Later, the M.E. supports his theory when it is learned that Naomi was strangled with a petticoat found tightly twisted and not so well hidden in a dresser drawer.

The victim, as usual, is a beautiful young woman with a secret life. Though she may have presented herself as a friendly neighbor Selby and Rayder soon discover that Naomi was renting out her apartment to couples who were indulging in illicit love affairs. Her home was in effect an assignation hotel room. Selby starts compiling a list of her customers and through routine interviews with them gradually pieces together a portrait of a women who not only supplemented her income as a hostess for sexual playmates but as a blackmailer. Careful readers should note that Craig's laying down of clues starts first and foremost with the manner in which Naomi's body was displayed. It will turn out to be one of the biggest clues to the identity of her killer.

I've often talked about the unusually modern aspects of Craig's books. When first published in the late 50s readers of these books might have been taken aback by not only his frankness in discussing sexual fetishes, but his frequent use of profanity. In the past, editors at Gold Medal have replaced the F bomb with tame euphemisms like "frag." Here we get the real thing. "Bullshit" and "half-assed" are only two of the terms that popped up. I think he may be the first of their authors to get a completely uncensored story in its final published form. And although there really isn't a character saddled with some odd form of sex practice or fetish there is a section which describes the practice of erotic asphyxia, both solo and in pairs, which I think was a pretty daring thing to throw into a crime plot for a book released in 1958.

I liked a lot of his minor characters. Craig is very good at capturing unique speech and slang of working class Manhattanites. And his strength in making those characters original in they way they dress and live is at its best in ...Petticoat Murder. Those who stand out are Josie Daniels, a diner waitress, who provides some vital clues to one of the suspect's hidden past; Marty Hutchins, the elusive athletically built boyfriend who appears in a photo Selby takes from Naomi's apartment, turns out to be something of a "kept boy" with a ferocious temper; Miss Hardesty, a snotty receptionist whose missing alligator handbag will provide one of the more interesting clues to the crime; and Johnny Farmer, the strangest guy of the bunch, a hayseed illiterate Lothario always on the prowl for a shapely willing woman whose home turns out to be one of the most repellent dives ever described in a paperback original.

As for police business, the 6th precinct novels always point out the drab and dreary job that is a real policeman's gig. The paperwork, the forms, the constant phone calls to BCI -- a branch of New York government bureaucracy Manhattan cops are always dealing with -- and, specifically, the Lost Property Bureau all figure prominently in this book. We even get a scene that gives us a little more insight into the irascible nature of Barney Fells, Selby and Rayder's immediate superior. Fells was a cop who loved the street and was an excellent policeman but when the lieutenant retires early he is promoted to fill the spot. Now saddled with a desk job he despises he has become a tool of police bureaucracy, forced to keep his team in line according to the book his moods become ever crankier, his temper always getting the better of him. At one point Selby's flagrant disobedience for strict police procedure so infuriates Fells he predicts Selby's lonely future: "You're hopeless, Pete. Give you another five years and you'll end up in the same damn fix I'm in. And you know something, smart ass? It'll serve you right."

The structure of the book echoes a few aspects of Golden Age detective novels. There is a slow reveal of a murder in the past that Naomi became privy to. There are ample clues and police leads that take the form of stolen items from her apartment that turn up in the hands of various suspects. There is the hunt for a missing address book with numerous secrets. There is the previously mentioned hand tooled, alligator handbag manufactured by a small company that keeps track of its creations by means of serial numbers and registration cards. One of the suspects turns out to be a wife killer on the lam very much in the manner of a frequent plot device employed by the Grand Dame herself, Agatha Christie. I doubt Christie would find much to admire in the book's emphasis on the sex-obsessed characters, but had she read the book straight through she might be forced to give a gold star or two to Craig's tightly plotted puzzle of a mystery with all its clues -- both red herrings and the real McCoys. Case of the Petticoat Murder certainly is teeming with plot twists and subplots.

Finally, I always like to bestow on one character the title of "Freak of the Week." Up until this book that character was always a sexual fetishist. This time, however, the honor goes to a more empathetic little guy. It's Louis Lozeck, an elderly gentleman who visits the precinct when his delusions get the better of him.  He finds refuge in the police offices and has as one of his few friends Pete Selby who sympathizes with the old man's mental illness. Louis, you see, is abnormally afraid of his sister-in-law with whom he lives. Every now and then he fears for his life. He is convinced she is in league with the Devil and is plotting to do him in. When life gets too fearful for him he heads on down to the 6th Precinct for a hour or two of chit chat, he buys Selby some coffee, Selby lets him keep the change. It's a scene of both weirdness and a tenderness rarely given the spotlight in Craig's work. I liked seeing that side of Pete Selby. I hope to see more of that in the remaining five books in the series.

Books by Jonathan Craig previously reviewed on this blog:

The Dead Darling
Morgue for Venus
Case of the Cold Coquette
So Young, So Wicked (not in the Selby & Rayder series)
Case of the Beautiful Body

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

IN BRIEF: Free Ride - James M Fox

Leo Maxwell, an ex-boxer, is being transported via train to Phoenix where he will be tried for manslaughter.  Two cops, Jerry Long and Chuck Conley, are in charge of his safety.  En route they learn that Maxwell managed to win over $20,000 on a long shot bet at a horse racetrack.  Even before the train leaves the station an attempt is made on Maxwell's life.  Sgt. Long handles the three goons with the usual pulp fiction style fistfight.  Turns out they are members of a Sicilian syndicate.  Long and Conley try to get Maxwell to confess the racetrack winnings were a gang related con game. Maxwell refuses to cooperate. Everyone on board seems to know that Long and Conley are cops.  Maxwell in handcuffs seems to be the give away.  As the train continues its journey from New Orleans through several Texas towns onto Arizona more attempts are made on Maxwells' life.

Like the best of the paperback originals that specialize in crime we get the usual ingredients for a quick read. Fistfights and action galore. Lots of James Hadley Chase style ersatz American dialog meaning it's littered with wiseacre period slang that no real person ever used. A myriad of suspicious characters make trouble for the two cops.

Among those characters are:

Homer Finch -- a salesman on his way to a cosmetic convention.  He spends much of his telling stupid jokes and playing pranks with novelty gag items.

Thomas Carpenter -- older gent way too interested in the police business and a bit too interested in other passengers like...

Gloria Starr -- burlesque stripper, con woman who gets Carpenter to pay for her meal in the dining car when she "forgets" her purse

Carol Wallace -- claims to be Maxwell's girlfriend. Attempts to bribe Long with sexual favors in order to free Maxwell. 

Long sends orders to headquarters to run criminal background checks on all these passengers and a few more. He suspects that one or more may be involved in a plot to either free Maxwell and get him off the train or to kill him before the train arrives in Phoenix.  It turns out he's right, but just who is involved is rather hard to figure out. And there are indeed a few surprises before this action tale comes to its violent finale with plenty of fists and bullets flying.