Sunday, September 30, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Charles Jackson Signature

I don't have many author signed books as I tend to sell them as quickly as I acquire them, but this one I will be keeping for a very long time. I still remember how I came across it, too. Joe and I were book hunting one weekend, making our way through the western suburbs, and stopped in at a Frugal Muse store in Darien, IL. Next door to the main store they were having a $1 book sale. We found a few old mysteries but also this astounding book signed by the author.

On the back wall stuffed in among a bunch of modern books, there was this copy of The Lost Weekend (1944) by Charles Jackson. It turned out to be a first edition. On the inside there was a bookplate with the author's name and an inscription from the author. All that for $1! How could anyone resist such a find?

The Lost Weekend as many of movie fans know is the basis for a groundbreaking film about the horrors of alcoholism. It starred Ray Milland as the tortured drinker and was nominated for a seven Academy Awards winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Director.

It was also Charles Jackson's first novel. The book catapulted him into the forefront of the literati. In his relatively brief writing career from 1944 to 1967 he wrote numerous short stories collected in three volumes and three other novels, one of them the story of a man who falls in love with a young Marine -- The Fall of Valor -- another groundbreaking book about a touchy, if not completely taboo, topic for his era. Jackson never topped the success of his debut novel though.

Dogged research proved the above signature to be authentic. But my scouring of biographies and articles about Jackson's life failed to turn up any clues about exactly who Harry and Elvie were or where they lived. At the time the book was inscribed Jackson was living in New Hampshire after a brief stay in Hollywood while the movie was being made. Books travel as much as people do. Harry and Elvie could have been living anywhere. Interesting that the book appeared to be his own as it also has his bookplate which is starting to lift off of the front endpaper.

Side by side comparison of the author and his bookplate shows a strange similarity.  Was it intentional to make Jackson appear to be Shakespeare? Or am I reading too much into that?

A fairly accurate brief biography of Jackson's life appears on this Wikipedia page.  He had a life just as unhappy and tortured as his fictional protagonists.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

FFB: A Gentle Murderer - Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Scribners, 1951, 1st US edition
A murderer confesses his crime to a priest who is deeply troubled by what he hears and decides to find out who the confessor is and what exactly happened. Sounds a bit like that Montgomery Clift/Alfred Hitchcock movie, doesn't it? But it's the basic plot of Dorothy Salisbury Davis' third novel A Gentle Murderer (1951), yet another under-appreciated cornerstone in crime fiction. While it still clings to the basics of a detective novel Davis is more interested in the effect of the crime on the characters.

Father Duffy is almost as conflicted as the haunted young man who confesses his crime. He wants the unknown man to go to the police, promises he will visit him and help him make right of what is clearly sinful. Only when the priest learns of a bludgeoning death of a prostitute, coincidentally one of his parishioners, does he realize that the killer may have been the anonymous young man in his confessional. After all, there was all that obsessive talk of a hammer that disturbed the priest. Father Duffy turns sleuth and aims to learn as much as he can about the victim. In doing so he eventually learns the identity of the young man confessor and why he committed such a brutal crime.

The novel is built around the framework of a detective novel with a simultaneous police investigation playing out as Father Duffy does his more humanistic detective work. Occasionally the two stories meet and priest and lieutenant share with each other what they have learned. All the while the emphasis is always on character and behavior and not the plot or the crime.

Davis' strength is in character work, especially women like Mrs. Galli and her daughter Kate, and a masterful replication of the Irish voice. Her own background as the daughter of Irish immigrants reveals itself in the many Irish Catholic characters and their unique manner of speaking. In addition to following the thoughts and actions of Father Duffy, Lt. Holden, and Sgt. Goldberg, Davis gives us a third point of view -- that of Tim Brandon. As with nearly every modern crime novel on our shelves today we get Tim's entire back story which slowly uncovers the reasons he has become a killer. It is this unusual triple point of view narrative and the focus on character rather than plot that makes A Gentle Murderer a stand out in the evolution of the crime novel. No surprise then that it appears on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, a list of notable detective novels of the 20th century.

Some of the psychology is perhaps too Freudian for a modern reader's tastes, but nonetheless there is a sophistication in the presentation of a man whose dysfunctional homelife leads him to a life of crime. It is sympathetic portrait Davis paints and never with lurid colors.

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: The Doctor's Murder Case

Another installment in my continuing series on alternative genre mystery writers -- those oddballs who try their damnedest to stump their readers with legitimate detective novels or try to spook and scare their readers with terrifying horror but often bungle in their attempts. Yet they persevere! And amazingly continue to be published, more often than not by second or third string publishing houses. Today I honor Robert Portner Koehler, one of the many writers from that diehard house of unintentional detective story hilarity -- Phoenix Press.

A more boring title could not have been slapped on this intriguing effort than The Doctor's Murder Case (1939). And it cheats the reader, too. The doctor is merely the narrator; it's not his case to solve. The subject matter rather than the narrator should've been celebrated in the title. The chapter titles are far more evocative of the true content of this typically convoluted Phoenix Press mystery. Try these on for size: "The Poltergeist", "The Devil Comes to Leams", "Death of a Witch", "Dark Necromancy", "The Passing of the Witch's Devil", and "Wizardry's Last Stroke." Any of those chapter titles would've been deserving for the book's title. You'd think that this book has all the makings of a John Dickson Carr or Gladys Mitchell mystery. Well, not quite.

Narrated by the fairly colorless Dr. Garrison who is treating an invalid spinster in the rural Massachusetts town of Leams the story is about the freakish bludgeoning death of Judy Priest (I know!), a local woman thought to be a witch. There are a few elements to the unusual murder that almost make it a true impossible crime novel. Arnold Grant, the crazed sexton, has been holding secret meetings of his cult group in a nearby barn. He's been whipping up some of the weak-minded ignoramuses of the town into a religious hysteria. Among his several pet topics is Judy Priest who he denounces as a witch because she happens to practice herbal medicine.

One night he gets his group so riled up that they head to Judy's house and start shouting at her and throwing stones at her house. She won't come out. Would you? Then a hysterical maid curses Judy and they hear a horrible scream inside the house. When they break into the house through a window they find that Judy has been struck down and killed. Was it a supernaturally caused death? Or did someone from the group manage to find a way into the locked house? Police questioning reveals that no one seemed to have left the group throughout their taunting.

Lieutenant Carson is the police detective who handles the case. He has a few odd detection methods (a Phoenix Press detective novel staple), one of which is paying close attention to slips in grammar:
"I warn you now, Lieutenant, wild horses won't drag that person's name out of me."
"Oh, it's a woman, is it?"
I showed my surprise.
"Don't avoid a pronoun, if you want to hide a person's sex. If it had been a man, you would have said his name without hesitating. Now, wouldn't you?"
As the investigation proceeds all manner of the supernatural, whether it be witchcraft or curses or poltergeist behavior, evaporates. The story focuses on Judy's long dead child and a possible connection with a kidnapping of years ago. What starts out as a creepy tale with Gothic atmosphere, freaky characters, madness and paranoia, ghoulish graveyard scenes, and talk of the criminal mind that reminded me of similar lectures in the work of Charles Dutton devolves into a pedestrian mystery with a kooky, "deep dark secret" lifted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. That is, if the Grimms had been writing while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. A second murder involving a bottle of beer that was somehow poisoned while remaining capped offers a second near impossible problem until the solution is propounded, one that is even more lame than the puzzle of how Judy was killed in her locked house.

The detection is mostly good, but towards the end it becomes laborious and confusing.  It's a shame that the story begins with such promise and ends up where it does. Koehler tries his best but just can't deliver a smashing ending without resorting to implausible motivations and moronic actions that only come from the minds of bad characters in hastily written detective novels.

The Doctor's Murder Case is Koehler's third novel.  He would go on to write an even dozen more mystery novels even branching out to create three series characters who appear in a trilogy of books each.  I have one more Koehler novel to try out, his sixth with series character Pecos Appleby and set in New Mexico.  I'll be reporting back on whether he manages to improve. I'm not too hopeful.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Serial Killer Soup: I've Had My Fill

What do you get when you cross a serial killer novel with a spree killer novel? Oh, you think they're the same thing? Don't tell that to Paul Cleave who would like you to believe that they are not. His latest thriller The Laughterhouse is supposedly about a spree killer, but his murderer on the loose behaves exactly like your stock serial killer plucked from the pages of any contemporary thriller written in the last fifteen years. In all honesty I expected to loathe this book. I didn't. But I didn't love it either.

First off, the book has been stripped of all it's New Zealand color for an American audience. What is normally called the boot of a car has been changed to trunk, the bonnet of a car is now a hood. This kind of dumbing down irks me. The characters even refer to their money as bucks! I know the Kiwi currency is the dollar but do they really use American slang? There isn't anything in my edition that gives me a sense of Christchurch at all. The diner is even a ripoff of American culture as is the food. It was very strange. Was that part of Cleave's idea in this book. That New Zealand is no different than our crime ridden vulgar pop culture obsessed U S of A? No. Turns out  there is another culprit. A quick email to Paul Cleave verified the changes were made at the insistence of his American publisher.  Why am I not surprised?

What I do like is Cleave's unabashed, in your face, grisly descriptions of violence. He doesn’t hold back and he doesn't play favorites among his characters. If you're going to write a book like this you can't censor yourself or treat it palatably. I also like his sardonic sense of humor. But does everyone in the book have to exhibit that humor? After a while everyone started to sound the same. Even an 11 year old girl turns smart ass when she calls the murderer a "perv" and insults him like a cynical 20-something with lines like this one to her 8 year-old sister: "Deluded. See, Katy. I struck a nerve." It's a little too much to expect from even the most precocious child to be that sassy in the face of a man who has just bound her and is planning to stab her multiple times.

This book is like a soup made from every leftover in the refrigerator of a lazy cook. Chop it up, throw it in, stir it up, let simmer for over 400 pages. A little goes a long way, my friends.

Apart from the serial/spree killer there's series character Theo Tate, an ex-cop turned private eye trying to get over a "personal tragedy." I haven't read any of the other books that came before this but it didn't matter. One book's entire plot is discussed at length including giving away the ending so I felt like I've read at least two of Cleaves' books now. In addition, there is the ego-maniacal psychic Jonas Jones who wants to collaborate with the police. Through utterly contrived plot mechanics the killer also consults psychics on a regular basis hoping that one day he'll meet someone with genuine paranormal abilities. Sometimes the book with everything is a taste sensation, but in this case it's just flavor overload.

And so I have to ask – why? This subgenre has truly been exhausted. We already have a serial killer who is in love with her policeman nemesis (the books of Chelsea Cain) and a serial killer who kills criminals who have escaped the law (Dexter) among the many hundreds of variations, each one usually labeled "daring" and "original"by fawning critics. Is writing about a spree killer any more original? Especially one who doesn’t behave like a genuine spree killer but instead behaves like a stock fictional serial killer. And after what happened in Colorado at the Batman premiere can anyone truly say that crime fiction about spree killing is a legitimate form of entertainment?

There is an audience for this kind of book but more and more I am discovering that I do not count myself among these readers. The combination of excess, gross-out violence and the pop psychology pat answers to a killer's behavior have really worn out their welcome with me.

Friday, September 21, 2012

FFB: Curse of the Island Pool - Virginia Coffman

I wonder if Coffman read any Anne Radcliffe.  She seems to have taken the formula of the late 18th century Gothic thriller and given it the modern update that everyone is now familiar with.  In her third novel Curse of the Island Pool (1965) she gives us a textbook example of what would become the template for all Gothic suspense books in the craze that developed in the mid 60s and lasted well into the early 80s. Young American heiress travels to an exotic country where she meets a modern day Byronic hero, several superstitious and secretive servants, a puzzling mysterious death and most important of all a house and estate with a terrible secret. It's a good one, my friends.

First introduced to us in her San Francisco home as Cathy Blake, our heroine quickly learns that she is the long lost heir to the Amber fortune and is now the new owner of the plantation formerly owned by her dead cousin Ellen Amber. Cathy flies to a little island in the Antilles (called St. Cloud in the book but in reality St. Vincent) where she meets her other cousin Michael Amber, our dark and mysterious Byronic hero. Almost immediately Cathy's head is filled with colorful anecdotes about Ellen's unusual death in the island pool of the title. Slightly sinister Soochi, a young maid in the Amber household, frequently talks of Ellen's ghost haunting the grounds and Miss Nell, the elderly housekeeper and Ellen's only friend, warns Cathy to beware of all the Ambers. They are up to no good and she is convinced one of them caused Ellen's death. If all this whispered gossip and chattering superstition were not enough Cathy is woken almost every night by the sound of drums in the forest. There are hints that the locals use the area around the lagoon for voodoo rituals and God knows what else.

JMW Turner's painting of La Soufrière erupting in 1812.
Usually the house is the star in any true Gothic. Donald E. Westlake has joked that a Gothic is a book where the girl gets a house. A lampooning reduction of the often complex and involving plots but true nonetheless. However, in Curse of the Island Pool it is the surrounding grounds that become the foreboding presence in a role usually given to the house. The pool is the scene of Ellen's mysterious death a site Cathy finds herself drawn to repeatedly finding clue after clue all of which point to the possibility of not an accident but murder. Ominously, the island also has an active volcano La Soufrière -- literally "the sulfur one" -- smoking and belching and threatening to erupt in a violent display of ash and lava any day.

This is the grand stuff I expect from a Gothic. Far from the tawdry trash most people think of when Gothic novels are mentioned Coffmans' books are plot driven with unusually drawn characters. It should be larger than life, with a creepy setting that dominates the atmosphere and nearly controls the characters' lives. Coffman scores big with her setting. She found ways to invigorate the Gothic genre by choosing exotic settings rather than the usual damp castles in Germany and England.

Coffman is also a subtle stylist with a gift for language. We know this genre is based on well worn archetypes, but in Coffman's hands the Gothic gets a well-deserved facelift. Sure, Cathy takes her first step outdoors at night wearing the requisite nightgown (or, because she's in the French Antilles, her peignoir) but each time Coffman visits one of these now cliche scenes she makes it come alive with her storytelling skill, her vibrant descriptions and, occasionally, a remarkable gift for creating the perfect frisson. What more can you ask for?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Drawing on the Past #8 - BORIS ARTZYBASHEFF

Work: The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney
Publisher: Ben Abramson, 1945 (a reissue of the 1935 1st)
Artist: Boris Artzybasheff (1899 - 1965)

I first came to know of the work of Boris Artzybasheff through his dust jacket illustrations for Doubleday Doran's Crime Club mystery novel imprint. He did nearly every book of Clyde Clason's as well DJs for books by Stuart Palmer, Todd Downing and Aaron Marc Stein.  Those are the few who I can think of off the top of my head.  I'm sure there are more.

I always thought his trademark was fantastic surrealism. But he is a talented artist of many moods and styles. He illustrated several children's books and even wrote a few of his own. Writing must be in the family genes -- his father was noted novelist Mikhail Artzybasheff.

In my exhausting internet research on Boris (there is a wealth of info out there) I discovered a huge portion of his work was done for Time magazine.  Between 1941 and 1965 he did 215 covers, a mix of bizarre mechanical nightmares, humorous surreal illustrations, and surprisingly realistic portraits.  Among the more famous are his portraits are Josef Stalin, jazz musician/composer Dave Brubeck, and mystery writer Craig Rice.

For this post I have chosen some of his vividly imagined, other worldly drawings. To me it's very reminiscent of the artwork of Hannes Bok of Weird Tales fame. The illustrations below are taken directly from an illustrated edition I own of The Circus of Dr. Lao, the allegorical fantasy by Charles G Finney.  It became a very different story in the 1964 movie retitled The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao with Tony Randall in the title role(s).  Click on images for full appreciation.

You can find all sorts of information about this artist all over the internet. But I recommend starting here for the best variety of his artwork.

The endpapers

Friday, September 14, 2012

FFB: Antidote to Venom - Freeman Wills Crofts

I wonder how many vintage mystery readers out there are like me and read every page of a book. I mean every single page, my friends. I read the dedications and make notes of odd messages then do research on the mystery men and women mentioned. I read the copyright pages looking for unusual notations. And I always read author notes and prefaces. If I didn't I would never have known that Antidote to Venom (1938) was Crofts' "two-fold experiment" in crime fiction. In his own words " is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively." Curious that second part, don't you think? I think he succeeds even if it comes about in the most manipulative fashion.

First, a crash course on terminology. The inverted detective novel is a departure from the traditional whodunit which focuses on the murderer and his motive. Instead of the murderer's identity being kept hidden until the final chapter we know the murderer from the onset and are privy to all his thoughts and plans. The suspense comes in following the detective as he tries to uncover the fatal mistake that upsets the apparently perfect crime presented to the reader through the murderer's point of view. R. Austin Freeman and his detective Dr.Thorndyke were the models of this subgenre during the Golden Age. The TV show Columbo has become the modern day equivalent and is how almost everyone has become familiar with this version of the "howdunit" or perhaps more accurately "howdhescrewup."

George Surridge finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. He finds his only joy at work in his busy life as director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo. But he is in deep financial straits. His wife Clarissa has been living well beyond their means and George has kept secret from her his gambling problem. He owes an awful lot of money to debtors. But then there is his ailing aunt and her modest estate. If only she would die soon he could have about £8000 that would more than cover his debts and allow he and Clarissa to live comfortably again. George begins to daydream of murder plots.

One day he meets Nancy and a pleasant day of chit chat and an impromptu tour behind the scenes at the zoo soon leads to secret trysts at country inns and teashops. Before they know it the two are engaged in a full blown romance. George's criminal thoughts about murdering his aunt are displaced by his deceitful cover-up of his secret love life.

When his aunt's illness worsens leading to her death George finally thinks the legacy due him will solve all his problems. But he learns from his aunt's lawyer, David Capper, that the money is gone. The lawyer admits he stole from the woman to cover some bad investments. There is nothing left. The two of them are in similar predicaments, each needing to pay back debts with expediency. But there is another option - Capper's rich uncle. Coincidentally, this rich uncle also happens to be Professor Burnaby who was working with George in obtaining snake venom for use in his medical research. The lawyer proposes a murder by proxy scheme that will provide each of them with money they need. George will need to do four things one of which involves the deadly Russell's viper at the zoo. He will be clear of any possible guilt as he will have no motive for the death of the professor. Capper assures George he will also have an alibi the night of the murder. Driven to desperation and thinking he will be in the clear George agrees to become an accomplice to the murder.

The rest of the book details the amazing detective skills of Inspector French and the local police. At first the death of Professor Burnaby is seen as a freak accident. The snake appeared to have escaped through negligence on the part of the zookeeping staff. It also helps Surridge that a keeper had recently been let go for dereliction of duty. The local police see the snake theft as a mad revenge scheme gone wrong and look to the fired zookeeper as suspect number one. George of course is sweating bullets throughout the entire investigation. French suspects something more serious than a mere accident. Too many things seem too coincidental. Above all he is bothered by one thing: how did the snake bite the professor and then end up drowned in a rain barrel that was yards away from the body? French demands not only an autopsy of the professor's body but one for the snake.

Map endpapers in the 1st US edition (Dodd Mead, 1939)
(click to enlarge)

I haven't had much luck with finding books by Freeman Wills Crofts that were exciting or engaging. He is primarily known for detective novels in which trains and boats and their timetables are examined and studied ad nauseum as part of the murder investigation. I have been bored by a lot of them and never finished those. Luckily, there isn't a train table in sight in this book. And for once with Crofts I was completely caught up in his story. George is both an object of pity and fascination. As presented his criminal thoughts and philandering ways are completely understandable. He is shocked by his actions and yet cannot stop himself. It's a fine examples of a character who is completely human falling victim to inexplicable desires and wholly succumbing to them transforming into a person he never thought he'd ever become. For a writer often derided for his shallow characterizations I think Crofts pulled off one of the most difficult jobs in crime fiction -- a compelling portrait of a sympathetic murderer.

While there are some convenient inspirational moments and leaps of imagination in French's mulling over the oddities of the crime the real detection in the book outweighs those minor quibbles. Much of the best detective work is in French's research about the snake and the examination of a workroom of one of the suspects. I liked all of the zoo background which is most likely authentic based on Crofts' acknowledgments to a herpetologist who helped him with research.

The murder method alone is one of the most astonishing and bizarre deathtraps of this period in detective fiction.  It puts to shame the mechanical ingenuity of the gizmo in Fatal Descent by Carr and Rhode, a machine I still cannot understand. I think Crofts can be proud of this thoroughly diabolical and unfathomably constructed device for killing someone.  Even with a detailed schematic I couldn't see how anyone could dream it up - let alone build it and make it work. I imagine John Rhode letting loose with an impressive whistle when he read this book seventy plus years ago.

And about that bit about Crofts' "an effort to tell a story of crime positively"? I can't really give it all away. Let me just say it all has to do with guilt and justice and, oddly enough, an eleventh hour moment of prayer perfectly placed to achieve Crofts' desired effect. To me it seemed too pat and neat. It was an ending manipulated through coincidence and contrivance. A story of a crime positively told? Perhaps, but better to have labeled it the story of a crime with a moral lesson.

Friday, September 7, 2012

FFB: The Vampire of N’Gobi - Ridgwell Cullum

Through a ridiculously baroque method that involves subterfuge, pickpocketing and mistaken murder an African adventurer is sent a map so that he can find the most direct route to a lost city hidden outside of Zimbabwe. It appears that a queen who claims to be a reincarnation of an ancient sorceress wants the adventurer to be her mate and co-ruler. The actual journey to the city is the most interesting part of this book. The adventurer is accompanied by a Cockney cohort and a Bantu who wants nothing more than to kill as many “yellow men” as he can. A trip through an underground river leads them to the Gorge of White Death where they discover a forest of carnivorous trees or a man-eating fungus. It’s never really explained what they are. When he finally arrives in the city he is greeted by Queen Ramaanita who drives him (yes, they have cars and electricity in this lost city) to another hidden cave where the ruins of a human sacrifice amphitheater are located.

These are really the only interesting incidents in the book. There is no supernatural element and the “vampire” of the title is meant in the “dangerously seductive woman” manner. A deus ex machina finale culminating in three outrageous incidents -- one of them being a last minute rescue of the hero by a squadron of airplanes from the Rhodesian police force -- leaves the reader exhausted and unsatisfied.

Cullum is better known for his western novels none of which I have read. His style takes some getting used to, it's densely verbose with tangential or parenthetical comments interrupting the flow. About one third of the book is nothing more than exposition. No editor would stand for that kind of writing these days! The book as a whole is very episodic and overly done. For example: several extraneous characters are introduced early on, do their thing, and then never appear again. The real adventure, the real story for the search of the lost city, does not occur until well into the halfway mark of the book.

The Vampire of N'Gobi (1936) is a rather difficult title to find these days. As is usual with scarce titles the copies being offered online are expensive. The cheapest I found was $50 and seemed to be in collectable condition. In my opinion, though it's not really worth tracking down. The story is intermittently interesting however, with the exception of the fantastical elements mentioned above, rather run-of-the-mill. But that is one heckuva DJ, isn't it? Looks to be the same artist who did the covers for all the lost race books by Mark Channing that Lippincott published in the late 1930s.