Friday, November 30, 2012

FFB: Murder Yet To Come - Isabel Briggs Myers

The first thing that struck me as remarkable about Murder Yet to Come (1930) was the author's gutsy use of The Moonstone and several other Wilkie Collins novels as a framework for her plot. Can it be altogether coincidental that the crux of the story is about a jewel stolen from an ancient Indian idol and later stolen again years later in a different country? Is the shared similarity of a heroine suspected to be the victim of inherited madness (see The Woman in White) yet another coincidence? I think not. I think Isabel Briggs Myers knew her Collins and knew it well. Wisely she cribbed from the best. Murder Yet to Come was her first detective novel and it won her $7500 in a writing contest for new mystery writers. It was a well deserved award, too.

Malachi Trent, eccentric millionaire, is found dead in a locked room. It appears that he has fallen from a ladder while searching for some books on the highest shelf in his bookcase lined library/study. Playwright and amateur detective Peter Jerningham soon points out that Trent has been murdered by a blow to the back of his head and the entire scene is a hastily staged scene to give the illusion of an accident by falling. Out of date textbooks stored on the highest shelf are strewn about the body? Algebra, a foreign language ancient history. Why would Trent need all of them at once and why would he select such out of date books even if he were doing some sort of research? The wound to the head is so powerful it could not have come from an accidental fall. A statue in the room shows trace signs of the victims' hair and blood. Murder has been done. But if so, then how did the murderer escape? The room has two doorways, but the main entrance was bolted shut and was broken down to gain entry. The other door at the rear of the room was nailed shut. And what happened to "The Wrath of Kali" – the huge ruby Trent kept locked away in his safe? It carries with it a curse from the goddess Kali herself who will strike down anyone who dares to defile the idol from where it was taken. Could Malachi Trent have been killed by supernatural means?

The plot thickens when Linda Marshall, Trent's 17 year old ward, is found hiding in the room. Is she the killer? Was she an eyewitness? Or did she enter afterwards? She has absolutely no memory of how she got into the room or why she was there. As the story progresses it is learned that Linda has frequent blackouts and memory losses. She also displays erratic and melodramatic behavior. There is talk of insanity. Only recently has she returned from an asylum where she was under the care of a psychiatrist and Trent had threatened repeatedly to send her back for good.

1995 reprint from CAPT, a publisher
specializing in research on psychology type.
The household has two sinister servants – Mrs. Ketchum who makes cryptic references to black magic and witchcraft and has a habit of laughing wickedly at the most inappropriate times. There is also Ram Singh, a servant who came with Trent from India, who seems to have control over Linda. It is suggested that he is using hypnotic power to manipulate Linda as an instrument of Kali's vengeance. Or is it Mrs. Ketchum who has the mind controlling power? And if so, what is her motive?

The book has some excellent detective work all reminiscent of the Van Dine school. In addition to the quick work done to reveal the staged accident, there is the unraveling of the illusion of the locked room; some clues involving an inkwell, broken eyeglasses, and backward handwriting on a blotter; and an alphabetically coded safe's combination that is solved through deduction and inference. By the midpoint there is an increasing emphasis on psychology and subconscious suggestion. This leads Jerningham and his detective cohorts into a intense discussion of hypnosis focusing on the differences between cheap tricks seen in vaudeville theaters and hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. It is this psychological element in combination with the expert fair play detective work that make for an engrossing, lively and very smart mystery novel.

Isabel Briggs Myers' name may ring a bell. Especially if you are a student of psychology or are in the Human Resources field. Myers, along with her mother Katharine Briggs, developed one of the most widely used personality assessment tools now known as the MBTI, or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Elsewhere on the internet in essays about Murder Yet to Come you will find people claiming that the book outlines Myers' theories of personality types inspired by the work of Carl Jung and his archetypes. I found none of that in the book. It is a straightforward detective novel with a love story subplot, very much influenced by S.S. Van Dine and Wilkie Collins. It's an admirable debut novel, but to look for signs of the future MBTI within its pages is a fool's errand. Her real work in the field of personality type didn't emerge until well after the start of World War 2.

Myers wrote one more detective novel, Give Me Death (an extremely rare book in the collector's world) before she completely abandoned the genre. I am sorry she didn't continue with a few more books. Based on this effort alone I think she would've given Ellery Queen and Philo Vance a run for their money.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Singular Case of the Multiple Dead - Mark McShane

It's hard to believe that this utterly silly crime novel of the absurd came from the typewriter of Mark McShane. Better known for his deadly serious thrillers that mix the supernatural with the criminal McShane's early work bears little trace of the outlandish humor on display in The Singular Case of the Multiple Dead (1969). A melange of the surreal humor of Monty Python, Abbot & Costello's punny wordplay routines, classic slapstick and bedroom farce it seems that this book might appeal to everyone's idea of what's funny. Maybe I was hungry for nonsense because I happened to find its cast of lunatics and their kooky antics to be the perfect tonic for my late autumn blues.

Lady Madge Severn has collected a group of misfit wannabe artistes and formed a salon she dubs the Bloomsbury Group Junior. During their latest meeting they discuss a paltry tax of one shilling levied on theater seats. It is the latest in a series of insults upon the British public and serves as the proverbial camel's back breaking straw. Lady Severn is outraged and she hopes to incite her group into action. Something must be done. All nine members have a brainstorming session resulting in three possible schemes to oust the Chancellor of Exchequer, the man responsible for the tax. They will force him to resign through blackmail, create a scandal and get him fired, or -- as a last resort -- assassinate him.

The oddballs in the Bloomsbury Group are:

Tony Zero – a vain pretty boy who does absolutely nothing but pose and stare vacantly while imagining his latest discounted assignations in his failed attempts to be come a gigolo for hire.

Virginius Twyce - the Casper Milquetoast of the group. Twyce is so terrified of being caught when asked to perform a simple task like buying a lock and chain that he imagines exaggerated scenarios in which shopkeepers suspect him of plotting the overthrow of the nation. Understandably, this makes it difficult for him even to set foot in a store let alone make eye contact when handing over his money.

Minerva Droplet – watercolor artist who fantasizes with regularity how the gossip columnists will discuss her latest adventures.

Ace paperback gives the impression
this is a spooky chiller. Wrong!
Sid Fourpenny – a budding poet more interested in bedding down the women in the group than putting pen to paper. His impersonation of the C of E, however, is one of the highlights of the book.

Jean Quin – aspires to be the next Greta Garbo. Jean uses her consummate acting skills and her tempting body to ensnare staff members working in the C of E's office.

Relentable Cease - How's that for a name? A professional musician Cease creates anthems for the group and tends to sit back while everyone else does the dirty work.

Jem Gate – taciturn to the point of one word utterances, to get a full sentence out of Gate would be quite a feat. He's a gravestone carver whose specialty is getting the breasts just right on his inappropriately shapely angels. He is the one member intent on carrying out the assassination plan if only he can find a hitman willing to kill someone. Everyone he encounters will only injure, maim or dismember.

Have you noticed the uncanny similarity of each character's surname? The numeric similarities are a gimmick I thought would be a feature in the plot but it turns out to be yet another indication of McShane's penchant for silliness. I particularly liked when Fourpenny impersonates the C of E at a Swedish war toy convention and insults a food vendor by spitting out the tea cake he is sampling. Lady Severn was sure that this would cause an international incident of scandalous proportions making headlines and lead to the firing of the C of E. Needless to say it backfires monstrously.

This will give you an idea of the loopy fun McShane indulges in:

Amid all the nonsense members of the group are being systematically killed off, hence the strange title. Unbeknownst to the Bloomsbury Group Junior (but disclosed to the reader) is that each victim has been contemplating leaving the group prior to their sudden often bizarre demise. Apparently membership in Bloomsbury Group Junior is for life; resignations will not be tolerated.

The group seems to take the deaths all in stride, a mere side effect of the life of a political activist. Lady Severn sets aside a suitable mourning period of fifteen minutes for each shocking accident and asks that the surviving group members put their gifts and talents to use for the memorial services. Fourpenny provides solemn odes and Cease composes dirges, for example.

The police are conspicuously absent from the farcical proceedings leaving the detective work -- or more accurately the guessing game -- up to the reader alone. But figuring out who is behind the fatal accidents is not really the point in this comedy of errors. In its madcap pointlessness laughter may be all that McShane intended to produce. It worked for me, at least.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Challenge to the Reader Trivia Contest #2

The "So You Think You Know Vintage Mysteries? Trivia Challenge" returns, my fellow detective novel bibliophiles! And I've renamed it "Challenge to the Reader" in honor of the early Ellery Queen novels. As I promised this year is much lighter on obscure authors like Hulbert Footner and John Donavan (aka Nigel Morland) who were never reviewed on my blog (and probably nowhere else either!) I have thoroughly researched these questions and teasers to ensure against possible multiple answers and  blatant errors. I'm knocking on wood that it is trouble free. I'm sure to hear from someone if something slipped by me.

Send your answers via an email to bibliophile61 AT gmail DOT com (and change those capitalized words to the symbols). Make sure the answers use the headings I have labeled each section and are properly numbered within each section. Type TRIVIA CONTEST in the subject area so the email doesn't go to my spam folder. Please also include at least your first name when submitting a contest entry.

Contest closes in three weeks. Make sure to submit your answers no later than midnight (US Central time) on December 16. Prizes for first, second and third place consist of winner's choice from a list of vintage mystery novels taken from the boxes of duplicates and discards in my inventory. No junk books - have no fear. Winners will be notified by email and on this blog on December 18 (or thereabouts).

Feel free to Google to your heart's content, use reference books, this blog and other mystery blogs. I can't stop you anyway. Good luck to all!

UPDATE:  The winners are determined by total number of points. I neglected to point that out.  Point values are now listed in parentheses after each section heading.  Perfect score, therefore, is 110 (including all bonus points).

I. ALTERNATE TITLES (1 point each)

Mystery novels more than any other form of fiction have the curious habit of changing titles as they cross the Atlantic Ocean. Below are titles of books published in England. You must give the renamed title in its American edition.

1. Mr Jelly's Business
2. Vegetable Duck
3. Surfeit of Lampreys
4. The Ten Teacups
5. There Came Both Mist and Snow
6. Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
7. The Hollow Man
8. Find Actor Hart
9. The Box Office Murders
10. Burglars in Bucks

Now do the opposite. Below are the American titles, you supply the British title.

1. The Hand of Fu Manchu
2. Remembered Death
3. Curse of the Bronze Lamp
4. The Crime on the Solent
5. A Wreath for Rivera
6. The Problem of the Green Capsule
7. The Face of the Man of Saturn
8. Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap
9. No Footprints in the Bush
10. Knocked for a Loop

II. EVIDENCE (1 point each)
Match the clue to the book in which it appears.
Answers should take the form of "NUMBER. LETTER" not the other way around.

  1. Handpainted door with recent smears                  A. Too Many Cooks
  2. Bookshop fronting a pornography operation        B. The Case of the Seven of Calvary
  3. Scarab fired from a slingshot (catapult)                C. The Moonstone
  4. Decaying corpse found in a deed box                   D. The Stars Spell Death
  5. A pair of missing boots                                         E. The Chinese Orange Mystery
  6. Doctored pitcher of cocktails                                F. Warrant for X
  7. Recipe for saucisse minuit                                    G. The Big Sleep
  8. Handkerchief embroidered with an H                   H. The Hound of the Baskervilles
  9. Murder victims' clothes turned backwards            I. The Scarab Murder Case
10. Decapitated head found in pot of stew                  J. Murder on the Orient Express
11. An antique automaton                                            K. Smallbone Deceased
12. Cryptic drawing on a slip of paper                         L. Murder Must Advertise
13. An astrological chart                                              M. The Crooked Hinge
14. An Egyptian sarcophagus                                       N. The Deadly Truth (McCloy)
15. A forgotten shopping list                                        O. The Rising of the Moon (Mitchell)

Match the murder method to the book in which it appears. Though there are several obscure titles here a clever sleuth can deduce from the title alone the method employed from the list without ever having read the book. And, of course, you can always read my reviews on this blog.

  1. Victim dragged behind a car                            A. Exit Charlie
  2. Liquid nitrogen sprayed via a shower head     B. The Case of the Velvet Claws
  3. Poisoned in a theater dressing room                C. The Three Taps
  4. Strangulation with blue and pink cords           D. And Then There Were None
  5. Defenestration                                                  E. Cat of Many Tails
  6. Victim shot while in a bathtub                         F. The Judas Window
  7. Natural gas poisoning                                      G. "Lamb to the Slaughter"
  8. Crushed to death by a stone bear                     H. The Grindle Nightmare
  9. Bee stings                                                         I. Murder on Wheels (Palmer)
10. Drowning in a scuttled boat                             J. Rebecca
11. Bludgeoned with a magnum of champagne    K. The Rose Bath Riddle
12. Crossbow                                                     L. Green for Danger
13. Murdered while being operated on                 M. The Clue in the Air
14. Strangled with a lariat                                     N. Vintage Murder (Marsh)
15. Bludgeoned with a hunk of frozen meat         O. A Taste for Honey (Heard)

IV. COMMONALITIES (2 points each)
Aha! And you thought it was easier this year. Once again you are charged with uncovering what each group has in common. First, we have fictional characters.

  1. Todd McKinnon, Charles Latimer, Ariadne Oliver
  2. Sherlock Holmes, Gideon Fell, Nigel Strangeways
  3. Irma, Sumuru, Madame Sara
  4. Pharoah Love, Toussaint Moore, Bubber Brown
  5. Thatcher Colt, Palmyra Pym, Maigret
  6. Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Bulldog Drummond
  7. Tony Murchison, Daisy Armstrong, Chris Dobie
  8. Saul Panzer, Arnie Walters, Paul Drake
  9. Julie Bailey, Virginia Dodge, Linda Goldenberg Arden
10. Tommy Hambledon, Dr. Palfrey, Colonel Granby

In this second part find the commonality in the books named below:

1. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts, The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer
2. The Scarecrow Murders by Frederick Kummer, Sign of Fear by August Derleth
3. The Shadow of the Wolf by R Austin Freeman, The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull
4. Case of the Green Felt Hat by Christopher Bush, The Secret of Bogey House by Herbert Adams
5. Tour de Force by Christianna Brand, The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen
6. Fatal Step by Wade Miller, Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
7. The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie, Department of Queer Complaints by Carter Dickson
8. Turn of the Table by Jonathan Stagge, He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr
9. Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning
10. Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham, Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin


Here's a chance to redeem yourself for any errors made in the preceding four sections.
Below are small sections taken from the front panels of some 1st edition dust jackets. Some are well known, some not so well known. Give me the title and author for each book. You earn two points for each correctly identified book/author.

DJ 1
DJ 2
DJ 3

DJ 4
DJ 5

DJ 6
DJ 7

DJ 8
DJ 9
DJ 10

Sunday, November 18, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Wisconsin Boating Pamphlet

This is may be the largest item I've ever found in a book. Sorry I can't tell you which book though.  It's a 12 page pamphlet measuring 7 1/4" by 3 1/2", that folds out like a map. The first four pages (no photos show in this post) describe how to get a boat registered, where to place the registration info on the boat, a list of what craft are allowed and during what hours, a list of the types of fire extinguishers, and lifesaving and safety info.  I chose to take photos only of the actual boating laws and rules.  Though not dated I would guess this comes from between 1950 and 1969 based on the design, front illustration and the fonts used.

You'll have to click on each image to enlarge it in order to read anything. Enjoy!

My favorite suggestion for safety -- whether you are a boater or not -- "Keep an alert lookout!"

Friday, November 16, 2012

FFB: The Double Death of Frédéric Belot - Claude Aveline

True 1st US edition (Henry Holt, 1940)
Every now and then a writer not primarily known for his work in crime fiction will try his or her hand at the genre and devise a novel so sublime and so subtle that it outshines the most ingeniously constructed puzzles of the Grand Masters of the trade. Claude Aveline's first attempt at a detective novel, The Double Death of Frédéric Belot (1932), is such a book. Using a typically bizarre double murder, as might be found in any Golden Age whodunit, for the framework of his story Aveline presents a story of deeply human characters and realistic, not melodramatic, motives for the crimes committed. A story that initially comes across as a baffling puzzler of a motiveless murder eventually transforms into one with a truly tragic outcome and a bittersweet poignancy.

Frédéric Belot is a master detective, the genius of his police department, the one to whom all other officers look up and respect. He is even tapped for an important promotion but wants nothing to with a high profile police job that would take him away from real detective work and saddle him with administrative meetings and – the bane of existence – public appearances at important government functions. Scandal hits the police department when his godson, Simon Rivière an inspector in the same department, finds the body of Belot in his recently renovated home on Rue Crimée. He's been shot twice -- once in the chest, again in the head -- and is amazingly still alive. But in the adjoining room Simon and his police team find another shooting victim, this one stone cold dead. The man bears a startling resemblance to Belot from his clothes that are exact duplicates of Belot's to his striking features that make him appear to be his twin. Which man is the real Belot?

Reissue US edition
(Doubleday Crime Club, 1974)
The barely alive Belot is rushed to a hospital while the dead Belot is examined at the scene of the crime. The concierge and her husband are questioned. Simon learns that only two people visited the house recently yet no shots were heard. The police doctor discovers that the corpse is wearing make-up and when it is removed there is only a trace resemblance to Belot. Who then was this man and why was he playing the part of Belot's double?

The title, the reader soon discovers, is a pun. For not only has Belot been murdered twice (his double death) it is his twin, or double, who has been killed alongside him. The play with language and dual meanings is as integral to the story as is the theme of disguise and masquerade.

Aveline also plays with the narrative structure. We begin with an anonymous writer narrating the tale, Simon then takes over telling the story of the shootings and the criminal investigation. At key points in the story the narrative is taken over by M. Regnard, the police chief, with Simon providing a written account of that portion of the story. But within M. Regnard's account there is yet another narrator who takes over in the voice of Andre Féron. It is during this portion of the story it is revealed the true identity of Belot's double and the reason for the masquerade. Minor characters earlier introduced into the story suddenly step from the wings to assume leading roles. Slowly it dawns upon Simon just why Belot had constructed a most bizarre double life. Yet a chance encounter with a lovely woman will alter Belot's carefully controlled dual life. As in real life chance plays an equally important role in the ultimate unraveling of the seemingly puzzling shootings in the apartments on Rue Crimée.

The detective novel aspects of the book are well done and show the kind of bravura performances one expects from the French. Aveline explores the bureaucracy and tedious division of departmental police stations with a insightful look at early police techniques, especially in the Identification department headed by the officious character of Cavaglioni. Interspersed with the police procedure we get the kind of detective work normally seen in puzzle novels as in the scenes where Simon is determined to explain the mystery of how the murderer entered Belot's apartments without being seen. The inclusion of floor plans (four of them!) revealing intriguing architectural features allow the reader to join the detective in uncovering the secret of the house on Rue Crimée. As soon as Simon penetrates the secret of the building he is confronted with even more mysteries and puzzles. Layer upon layer, the book never lets up.

The real draw of the book, however, is the exploration of character and behavior. Aveline's portraits of M. Regnard and all the policemen, Madame Morin and her husband, but especially Féron and Belot show his gift for both complexity and nuance in character. The key to the story lies not so much in the secrets of an oddly renovated building but in the hidden lives of the fascinating characters.  Real people always make for more intriguing mysteries than locked rooms and invisible killers.

French/English edition for use in classrooms
(David McKay, circa 1950s or 1960s)
The final chapters of this book turn the entire story upside down. What appeared to be a cleverly developed murder mystery turns out to be an impassioned and impetuous act of violence. Only upon closing the book does it all truly sink in how subtly powerful Aveline's story is. Easily distracted by the illogical and the seemingly impossible the police in Double Death... overlook the most basic of human emotions. The human heart is the greatest mystery of all and often acts in a fashion that defies logic or sense.

Aveline would go on to write a handful of more detective novels, three of them -- believe it or not -- featuring Belot as the detective. I can only assume that they are cases from his early career. It is the only instance I can think of a crime writer creating a detective, killing him off in his debut, and then writing a series of prequels.

The Double Death of Frédéric Belot was reprinted several times throughout the 1970s when Aveline who had abandoned the genre for over three decades returned with a bestselling book The Passenger on the U (L'Abonné de la Ligne U) (1963) that was a big hit in France. Publishers then went digging for his earlier translated crime novels and reprinted all of them.  It is likely you will be able to find any of them, including Double Death... , for relatively affordable prices in the used book trade. I have also seen copies of the original French book offered for sale.

NOTE:  In researching photos and scans of other editions I learned that this book was a major inspiration for the crime novels of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, my idols in all of French crime fiction.  I can easily see what they were drawn to when reading this book which is truly mesmerizing in its multiple layers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

IN BRIEF: Flight to Darkness - Gil Brewer

Vet noir. I think there's an awful lot of it. And I always seem to stumble upon it. I recently wrote about a Viet Nam vet up to his neck in bad women and murder (The Sexton Women) and here's another book about a hapless vet under the spell of a seductive woman.

As Flight to Darkness (1952) opens Eric Garth is about to leave a V.A. hospital where he has been given a clean bill of health. After returning from the Korean War traumatized and broken he had been under a psychiatrist's care for a disturbing recurring nightmare in which he murders his brother Frank with a wooden mallet. Now successfully having completed his treatment he hopes to return to Florida and return to his career as a sculptor. Going along for the ride is Leda Thayer, Dr. Prescott's nurse and assistant. Leda gave Eric more than his fair share of TLC while at the V.A. and now he's hoping to sample more regularly Leda's considerable non-nursing talents. But we know that Eric is doomed, for on the very first page he describes Leda as a "lush tropical flower blooming poisonously through a crack in a stretch of hot cement sidewalk." Not exactly a flattering metaphor, is it?

Leda, a truly fatal femme fatale, and Eric her love-struck mark make for quite a wanton couple. Neither can keep their hands or lips or anything else off each other for very long. These men of noir just don’t know the difference between love and desire. It's always their undoing. With Eric Garth you keep hoping he'll finally see the light. It takes him nearly three times before he starts to catch on.

Click to enlarge
He's framed for a hit and run accident, sent to another psych ward in Alabama, but manages to escape to Florida. There he meets up with his brother and learns that he has married Leda. Uh-oh. Then there are those wooden mallets hanging in the sculpture studio. One of them finds its way to Frank's skull and Eric is framed for the murder. Still, he is under the hypnotic sexual spell of Leda who amazingly does everything but get entangled with that randy Zeus/swan. For all his stupidity and thinking with his crotch you keep rooting for Eric hoping he'll see that his ex-gal pal Norma is the right choice and his savior from the path that leads to hell. He's not a bad guy at all, but you know he will never see the light until it's far too late. When he does he's compelled to exact a cruel revenge typical of Brewer's protagonists. But is there also the rare redemption for this Brewer hero? I'll leave that for you to discover.

BTW - the cover illustration is not accurate. Leda should be wearing a nightgown and Eric should be wearing pajama bottoms only.  But I guess Gold Medal had yet to get really racy with their covers so early in their operation.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Vehicle Registration 1958

I think this is the first piece of ephemera that led me to start my collection.  I thought it incredible that someone would put their car registration in a book and completely forget about it. I wonder what happened when ol' William got pulled over for speeding. Wasn't the car registration supposed to be affixed to the steering column of the steering wheel way back then? Of course I'm too young to know this, but I've seen characters look for it there in old movies.

Can't remember what book it came out of. The scans are at full size already. I have obliterated address information for obvious reasons.

The weight of the car is on the registration! Why? Does it change over time? Who weighed the car initially? The manufacturer?

There is a lot of information on this, isn't there?  They even had to print instructions along the edges both front and back.

Friday, November 9, 2012

FFB: Aunt Beardie - Joseph Shearing

1st US edition (Harrison-Hilton, 1940)
In one of those serendipitous interweb discoveries I stumbled across an advertisement for this book by Joseph Shearing in an old magazine. The ad had a review blurb from prominent humorist, critic and champion of the detective and mystery novel, Will Cuppy proclaiming the book as one of the most surprising mysteries of 1940. Had it not been for that glowingly enthusiastic review I am sure I would never have tracked down this intriguing, beguiling and – yes – surprising historical crime novel.

It's that title that's a turn off. The name conjures up an image of some toothless, hairy-chinned, crone from a fairy tale or an old-fashioned kid's book. She does indeed have a problem with facial hair but she's far from a cute kid's story character. Shearing presents her as an alternately endearing, ever helpful spinster and a sinister relative with a mysterious past and hidden motives. With a cast of supporting characters as equally chameleon-like and a brooding atmosphere of unease and mistrust the book evolves into an extremely well done homage to the old Victorian sensation thrillers best exemplified in the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and J. Sheridan LeFanu.

In its most easily obtainable edition, a Berkley Medallion paperback from 1965 (pictured below), Aunt Beardie (originally published in the UK in 1939) has been marketed as yet another in a long line of Gothic suspense novels so popular in the mass market paperback world of the 1960s. All of Joseph Shearing's books were marketed this way by Berkley regardless of the book's content. I have to say it is a great disservice to the writer. Hardly as formulaic in plot as that genre and of a literary quality not to be found among any of those dozens of Gothic writers Aunt Beardie is fashioned out of the tropes of sensation fiction with a emphasis on historical accuracy in the story background (often lacking in 60s Gothics) and composed of a stylized, often rapturous prose.

"Joseph Shearing" is in reality Gabrielle Margaret Long who is probably best known under yet another of her many pseudonyms – Marjorie Bowen. As Bowen Long wrote several highly regarded supernatural novels and short stories. Arkham House collected a handful of her more shocking ghost stories and weird fiction for a volume entitled Kecksies (Arkham House, 1976). As Joseph Shearing, however, Long wrote fifteen historical suspense novels spanning periods ranging from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, and populated with deceitful lovers and opportunistic fortune hunters scheming and plotting their dastardly deeds. In some cases she based her novels on historical fact as she notes in a brief preface at the start of Aunt Beardie.

Set in the post–French Revolution era the book's densely plotted action is split between two time periods and two countries. A vignette of a prologue sets the mood in France just prior to the storming of the Bastille mysteriously hinting at the future activities of an unnamed young man. This leads us into the first section set in the final days of the Reign of Terror where we learn of two cousins, both young girls, fleeing the carnage of France by ship for the safety of England. Then, a flash forward of thirty-five years. Lady Sherlock, the only girl to survive the ship voyage to England, is now a grown woman with her own family. She is visited by the long forgotten aunt of the title. Tante Barbe, as she is first known by her French nickname, announces to Lady Sherlock that she is Vivienne her cousin long thought to have perished after their fateful voyage from a terminal illness. The longer her visit the more the aunt seems to have a hold over Lady Sherlock. Blackmail, deception, masquerades and disguises are teeming throughout the story. Lady Sherlock's daughter Jenny, keen on discovering the true identity of Aunt Beardie and the real reason for her sudden reappearance in England after so many years, is ultimately compelled to concoct her own plot, one that will force Jenny to make severe often criminal choices. The story is one to be savored for both the lush writing and the suspenseful manner in which the events unfold.

Cuppy is absolutely correct in his "whopping" assessment (seen at right). To spare you all painful eyestrain the full quote in that minuscule font is: "The Shearing cult will get their tummyfull of his special qualities in Aunt Beardie, certainly one of his most sinister novels, one that is built on a firm mystery foundation." The book is a small wonder of a shocker. Aunt Beardie is one of those rarities I unearth in the seemingly bottomless pit of forgotten books: a work that is undeserving of its Limbo status. It ought to be treasured by legions of bibliophiles looking for a uniquely rewarding read.

Friday, November 2, 2012

FFB: Someone Like You - Roald Dahl

A recent post at Patti Abbott's blog (also the host blog for this weekly tribute to forgotten and overlooked books) asked us which writers' short stories we find ourselves coming back to again and again, or which particular volume we often find ourselves re-reading. I surprised myself when I answered Roald Dahl, a writer who I think was my very first introduction to the strange and the weird in adult fiction. I read him long before I discovered the writers found in Weird Tales. In many ways I think it is Dahl's writing moreso than any other writer that led me at such an early age to seek out the weird and the outré in crime fiction.

Most people know Roald Dahl as a children's book writer and creator of fantastic, weird and wonderful characters like Willy Wonka, James and the Giant Peach, the Fantastic Mr Fox. The kid's books have their fair share of wickedness and cruelty as well, but his adult fiction is just as weird and fantastic and lays it on a bit thick in the wicked cruelty department. Those stories introduce us to murderers who escape police detection,  greedy gamblers willing to make terrible sacrifices to get what they want, bickering married couples who resort to murder to end their long standing disagreements and intense dislike of each other, and nightmarish inventions that are the undoing of their curious creators. Someone Like You (1953) is only Dahl's second collection of his adult short stories with original magazine publication dates ranging back to 1948, but I think it is his best.

Take a look at the table of contents which includes such immediately recognizable titles as "Lamb to the Slaughter," "Man from the South",  and "A Dip in the Pool" -- all three having been adapted for television as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series. Dahl more than any other writer is the person whose stories Hitchcock himself directed for the series. Of the five stories adapted from Dahl's work four were directed by the master of suspense, a testament to the storytelling skill and originality on display in Dahl's writing. Hitchcock was never one to take on the mundane or cliche.

In Someone Like You Roald Dahl tries his hand at a variety of genres and moods. While many of the tales involve crime there are also examples of social satire, fantasy, and even two fine stories that could be classified as science fiction. "The Sound Machine" is one of his inventor tales in which a man discovers his machine intended to explore the secret world of inaudible sound has accidentally allowed him entry into a disturbing world of plants he never could have imagined. Among the satires are "Taste" about a wine tasting contest that goes a bit too far and "Skin", a perfect burlesque of art collecting mania and the grotesque extremes one painting enthusiast undertakes to get what he wants. The crime stories are, not surprisingly, my favorites.  How can you not get a little thrill out of the cops talking in the kitchen in "Lamb to the Slaughter" or the grisly final sentence of "Man from the South?"

I was so enthralled with Dahl when I was a teen I wrote him a fan letter. Though sadly the letter was lost with a lot of other treasures when my parents sold our Connecticut home back in the 1980s I still remember verbatim his curt reply to me.
Thank you for your letter which contained many questions none of which I propose to answer. A writer receives many such letters in his life and often cannot take the time to answer them. I am glad you enjoyed the stories.
Roald Dahl

I shouldn't have been surprised that a man who could create such delightfully nasty people would be that brusque with a fan letter from a high school aged American boy. Though I was taken aback and disappointed initially, over time I grew to admire the chutzpah of that reply.  Dahl's letter writing has never diminished my appreciation for his fiction writing.  I still read his stories. And you should, too. At least once.