Thursday, January 31, 2013

IN BRIEF: Case of the Village Tramp - Jonathan Craig

Another Jonathan Craig book and you know what that means -- sex and crime. The victim in this sixth book about cops of the 6th precinct is found wearing nothing but a chastity belt and tiara. A genuine medieval chastity belt. Museum quality, my friends. And the key is missing. Talk about a titillating start.

I read this back in December and I made no notes so I'm relying solely on my memory of the book. Sorry to report though only one month has passed I don't remember much. Craig really has a knack for dreaming up some of the strangest people to populate these police procedurals. But this time no real standouts in the cast , but the cast of male characters is made up of a variety of the usual weirdos and oddballs. There's a Casper Milquetoast medievalist, a very strange doctor who seems to have strayed out of a Sax Rohmer book from the 1920s, a hired killer who uses an icepick as his weapon of choice, and one of those drop dead gorgeous Lotharios Craig always throws into the works. Apart from the victim who turns out to be a nasty piece of work the women characters, usually one of Craig's strengths, failed to stick in my cluttered mind.

This one was rather a low point in the series for me. Craig seems to be repeating himself and made the plot overly complicated this time by adding a mobster subplot with a hitman looming in the background. The victim turns out to be yet another in a long line of blackmailers who went too far. I'm tiring of that angle. Pete and Stan do yeoman-like police work as usual. Detection is not as good as in some of the other entries, but there's enough to elevate this book away from some of the lesser, similar Gold Medal crime novels.

Another censored Belmont Tower cover
FREAK OF THE WEEK: One character I didn't forget is the creep who gets this regularly awarded dubious honor. This time the badge goes to a cop -- a captain no less --whose passion is aural sex. He loves listening to the details of the sex crimes and goads his fellow police officers into lingering over the details of the manner and method of the crime. When he hears about the chastity belt he's in his element. The reader gets the picture when Pete Selby says the captain leaves his hands in his pockets during the interview. Not the kind of guy you want as your co-worker, let alone your superior.

As those voiceovers go on TV here's the "previously on Pretty Sinister Books" section. Titles marked with an asterisk are the best of the bunch.

The Dead Darling (1955)*
Morgue for Venus (1956)
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)*
Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)
So Young, So Wicked (1957)* - not part of the Pete Selby/Stan Rayder series
Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958)*
Case of the Nervous Nude (1959)*

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Terrible Two

This blog now officially enters its third year. I missed posting about the second anniversary for this blog's birth which occurred Jan 26. It wasn't too terrible this second year of the blog. Less posts, more followers. Passing the milestone 300th post and the 100,000th first time visitor. (It was probably a Google image search.) An astonishing 116 books read but only 75% of those books reviewed here. Plus -- acknowledgement by several readers as being a blog worthy enough for one of those badge awards. Not bad at all.

Thanks to all of you who continue to stop by regularly whether you comment or not. I am constantly surprised how this tiny corner of cyberspace has become a cult favorite with vintage mystery lovers, crime and horror movie fans, and spam referral services. Well, not so surprised by that last group for whom I have some choice words none of which include thank you. But I'll spare the rest of you an R rated tirade. I close with a simple "Happy Belated Birthday to Pretty Sinister Books!"

Sunday, January 27, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: A Bright Idea

Below you will see a Commonwealth Edison utility receipt found inside my treasured 1st edition of Raise the Titanic! I bought it for $2 at a library sale in Glen Ellyn, Illinois several years ago.  I had the sense to mark on the item itself when I found the book. Sometimes I remembered to do this, other times I used a Post-It note if the item seemed to me it might have a resale value.

The interesting thing here, apart from comparing the price of electricity in 1980 to what it is now, is the section marked BULB SERVICE. This is a bonus service I'm not sure many utility companies offered in addition to providing electricity. We never had it in Connecticut or Pennsylvania when I lived in those states that I remember. For a fee of less than a dollar per month you could subscribe to the "bulb service" which allowed you to pick up two free light bulbs each month at any ComEd payment center. This was ended sometime in the 1990s, I think. I tried to find out the exact date, but my Internet searches failed me.

When incandescent lights were attacked for using up too much energy and the federal government enacted a law forcing the bulb industry to make the now ubiquitous CFL (compact fluorescent lamps) bulb and LED bulbs, ComED discontinued the bulb service. By 2014 incandescent bulbs will become obsolete. Already the 100 watt and the 75 watt bulb are no longer made.

40 cents a month and you get two free light bulbs. Such a deal!

This customer has a very unusual last name, but I had to blur it out.
He still lives in Illinois, though in a completely different town now

To encourage customers in the transition from the old to the new bulbs ComEd replaced the old "bulb service" with one that allowed people to purchase at a 60% discount CFL bulbs in more than 350 stores throughout northern Illinois. It was the largest such program in the entire Midwest. In Chicago free CFL bulbs were given out to the first 500 customers to take advantage of the program. Overall, one million bulbs were purchased or given out free through this program.

I subscribed to the light bulb service for the first five or six years I lived in Chicago (from 1986-1992) but stopped when I realized that I hardly ever remembered to pick up my bulbs before the month was out. I was living in tiny studio apartments and only used them for my two lamps and ceiling lights in the kitchen. I didn't need many then, though I got my fair share.

Anyone else have a "bulb service" program they remember back in the day?

Friday, January 25, 2013

FFB: The Avenging Saint - Leslie Charteris

Here's another well known character who is most assuredly not completely forgotten, but I think the novels are at least overlooked these days. No doubt many people are familiar with Simon Templar in one of his many TV or film incarnations. I think I had only read one or two stories in my teen years and had never bothered with the novels. The Avenging Saint (1930) is the US paperback title for Knight Templar, the third novel featuring Simon Templar and the second part in a trilogy detailing his battle with criminal mastermind Dr. Rayt Marius. It's probably best to read all three in order starting with The Last Hero (or The Saint and the Last Hero) in order to get the true effect of the books.  Having begun with The Avenging Saint -- a bracing action-packed thriller -- I feel compelled to go back to the first before continuing onto Getaway (aka The Saint's Getaway).  The first book is frequently referenced here and the ghost of Norman Kent (the last hero of the first book's title) hovers over this second entry.  I want to know him as the man not the memory.

Simon Templar is sort of a forerunner to all the superspy characters that became all the rage in the 1960s. Though he is a direct descendant of the gentleman thief character (he starts off as a criminal with a gang of Robin Hood style thieves) I found The Saint to have more in common with hero pulp characters like Doc Savage and even James Bond.

Sonia and Vassilloff are married (UK reprint)
The story is very simple. Templar is out for revenge after one of his friends is killed at the hands of Marius, a weapons expert bent on starting the next world war. There is a kidnapping of a millionaire's daughter, an elaborate plan to arouse the ire of her oil tycoon fiancee by forcing a marriage to a Russian aristocrat. There are confrontations with the villains, daring escapes and rescues, more disguises and false beards than an Arsene Lupin book, fist fights galore, and several jaw dropping stunt sequences. I dare any reader to resist succumbing to the pull of this story.

It all sounds terribly old fashioned like something out of E. Phillips Oppenheim when I reduce it to its bare bones, but it's so breezily told with wit and verve you can't help but get swallowed up. When Templar strips naked, dives into a frigid ocean and single-handedly overtakes a motor boat by punching out one of Marius' thugs, lashing him to the wheel and then manipulating the controls with a makeshift rudder and ropes tied to the tiller while being dragged behind the boat in the water you can only marvel at the preposterous ingenuity of it all. Charteris seemed to have been a born screenwriter rather than a novelist who was decades ahead of Hollywood in terms of stunts and thrills. And he was only 23 when he wrote this book.

Simon Templar alternates between a flippant and condescending adventurer to a stern and humorless Nemesis throughout the book. He can exhibit a gleeful almost boyish attitude calling all the bad guys "sweetheart" and "old dear" in one moment then delivering an expert jab to a rogue's jaw rendering neatly unconscious with that one blow. I think he did this about twelve times over the course of the book. And there is a running gag about how he always looks immaculately dressed after all his fights. He even goes the the trouble of saving his clothes in the boat escapade by neatly tying them into bundle he ties to his head while he's steering the boat. Later, he takes that bundle apart, dresses himself on board the villain's yacht looking as if he's ready to join a posh dinner party. You have to smile and laugh at it all.

Charteris can get carried away with himself though. He has a terrible weakness for purple prose of the gaudiest kind. Here are a few examples:

"The jaws of the perambulating mountain oscillated rhythmically, to the obvious torment of a portion of the sweetmeat which has made the sapodilla tree God's especial favour to Mr. Wrigley."   (describing Inspector Teal, a large portly policeman who enjoys chewing gum)

"...and the quintessential part of the plot, so far as Simon Templar was concerned, was how soon -- with a very wiggly mark after it to indicate importunate interrogation."  
(I'd just use the question mark and forgo the cuteness)

This kind of silliness tapers off thankfully.  I made only five notations of egregious examples of these kind of indulgent lapses. The two above were the most flagrant. As I read on the purple prose either disappeared or I was no longer being critical of the lapses. It was Simon Templar himself who won me over.

Or more precisely Charteris' exuberance for Templar won me over. Whether steering motorboats with ropes while submerged in the sea or descending a rope from an airplane onto a moving train the Saint is the premiere action guy. A superhero whose only super powers are sheer guts and bravado.  Forced marriages, bondage ropes, fisticuffs and firearms, the delirious dreams of a warmonger are no match for this one man army. The world of Simon Templar may be old fashioned but I find it utterly addictive. I'm off to read more right now.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Murders in Volume 2 - Elizabeth Daly

Murders in Volume 2 (1941) was the sole Henry Gamadge book to remain out of print for decades. In the late 1970s when Bantam reprinted Daly's books in order to capitalize on Agatha Christie's admission that Daly was her favorite American mystery writer it once again escaped being reprinted. Not until 1994 did it finally reappear when Otto Penzler inexplicably included it in his Classic American Mystery Library series. I say inexplicably because the books reprinted in this series were marketed as the American versions of the better known "English puzzle mystery." Justly included were books by S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, each of them devilishly constructed murder mysteries requiring intense application of logic to unravel the complicated plots. Daly's book does not compare. In fact, I found absolutely nothing puzzling in the book other than its inclusion in Penzler's reprint series.

The structure of the book led me to believe with all the literary references (Byron, John Webster and Shakespeare) that manuscripts and books would play a big role in the story. Not at all the case. Although the Byron book serves as the springboard for the plot and a duplicate volume eventually turns up they serve only as props. Nothing to do with motive, no codes, no faked pages. Allusions to Webster's play The White Devil crop up repeatedly since one of the characters, a matriarch actress, is planning to raise funds to produce the play in the hopes of reviving her already dead career. All hope of some hair-raising melodrama in light of the violent Jacobean murders in Webster's play evaporate as the story progresses. And the Shakespeare allusions are present as intellectual ornament only.

At the heart of the story is volume 2 from a set of Byron's poetry, a book which may or may not be a forgery. Gamadge is an expert in manuscript and book authentication who has a career in weeding out forgeries and doctored books made to appear antique. Gamadge is asked to investigate the book's odd reappearance.  Odd because in 1840 a governess disappeared from the Vauregard family gardens carrying the Byron book. The book never resurfaced when the governess vanished without a trace. Now she has just as mysteriously reappeared dressed exactly as the day she went missing and carrying the Byron book. It can't possibly be the same woman -- an entire century has passed -- and yet she has the very same book in hand. Or is it a brilliantly constructed fake book?

What a great hook for a story. Sadly little ever develops from that hook. Gamadge practically solves the mystery instantly by dismissing all thoughts of the fantastical. She cannot have time traveled and she is not a ghost. The anecdote of the woman disappearing along with the book is also too private to have become public knowledge and was never publicized so it could not have been learned about in an old newspaper. This leaves only one solution -- that she is a fraud and that someone in the household informed her of the story and got her to play a part. The only real mystery to solve is why the big charade.

Not even the death of Uncle Imbrie, who owned the book, is that interesting. He is assumed to have died of natural causes. Eventually it is learned poison was administered. Daly isn't concerned with creating mystery as much as she is creating a story populated with eccentric characters and letting them entertain us with talk. There is an excessive amount of superficial dialogue that contributes little to the plot. The pages are filled with theater gossip, discussions of the Webster play, occult and New Age philosophies, chit chat and prattle. The talk is incessant and brings the story to a grinding halt several times.

There is little detection after the business with authenticating the book is dispensed with. The majority of the plot is devoted to revealing the suspects as liars. Gamadge spends much of the time trying to get the woman claiming to be the "ghost from the past" to engage conversations, but she manages to elude him or remain silent. Where's the drama in that? When Gamadge fails he turns his efforts toward unmasking the coach/informer among the family members and meets with more denials and cover-ups. It all gets to be extremely tiresome.

I kept plodding on hoping against hope for some sort of improvement. It was like going on a hike in the mountains and hoping for great vistas when all you end up doing is climbing higher and higher with all views obscured by dense forest. The clearing never comes and the ridge eventually flattens out leading you to a panorama of nothing but leaves and branches.

When I was done the only real mystery that I solved was why the book remained out of print for so long. Mediocrity is undeserving of anyone's attention.

Friday, January 18, 2013

FFB: The Dark Light - Bart Spicer

"The uneasy breath of a nasty idea kept pace with me." -- Carney Wilde in The Dark Light

For anyone who has read all the Philip Marlowe books and all the Paul Pine novels and still craves a private eye in a similar vein with more than a few nods to the great Chandler I recommend the work of Bart Spicer. His Carney Wilde is a tough guy with a heart and in his debut The Dark Light (1949) is struggling to make a living at his game. Enter Deacon Andrew Jackson who wants Wilde's help in locating Matthew Kimball, the missing preacher from the Shining Light Church. As with all missing person cases in a private eye novel Wilde will face some dirty doings and a few murders along the way.

There is touch of Ross Macdonald in this first book but I'm guessing it's mere coincidence since only The Moving Target had been published by 1949. That Spicer chose to include one of the typical wealthy and morally corrupt families in this book is not all coincidence but the similarities to what Macdonald would soon be known for are. The Prentices really aren't all that bad as the story progresses but there is a creepy mother-son relationship depicted in Mrs. Prentice's devotion to her hunky son Alec. Also her daughter Alicia at first appears to be one of the many predatory females that populate private eye novels. She gets an eyeful of Wilde and wants more. So she invites herself along in Wilde's investigation by sitting in his car and refusing to leave until he starts the car and takes her with him.

I particularly liked this Chandleresque passage that comes early in the book:
I got in my car and went home for a cold bath. I lay back in the water, getting up enough interest to keep my date with Alicia. I had the courtroom stink in my nose and it didn't mix well with Alicia. The dead sourness of unwashed bodies and disinfectant and brutality and fear and the clumsy maneuvering of justice. I got out of the tub and tried to rub some of it off.
What makes Spicer's private eye different from most of the detectives of this type is that Carney Wilde is first and foremost a businessman. He's worried about his small firm and in his debut he's just learning to play the game. The entirety of Chapter 6 is devoted to his backstory in which we learn he was a member of the CID in the army who returned to work as a house detective for a department store. His former boss at that store, an astute businessman who made a killing in real estate and banking, hired Wilde as a security consultant and with that money he was able to start his own private detective firm. But the clients aren't rushing in. When they do show typically they are like Deacon Jackson, barely able to afford a day's work. But Wilde needs business and he takes what he can get. The chapter also goes into great detail outlining his work with an insurance company. It's a contact Wilde desperately needs. If he can get an insurance company as a regular client he'd have it made. He is hoping to earn some extra cash by giving testimony in a robbery case of great concern for a certain insurance company. With that money Wilde envisions buying a new car, a new office with a staff of three, and plenty more.

UK edition, (Collins, 1950)
The detection in this book is also a highlight. Unlike most private eyes who rely on intuition and guesswork Carney Wilde has the skills of a logical detective more often seen in the work of Ellery Queen. In tracking down Matthew Kimball to a Manhattan hotel he finds the illusion of a inhabited room but a few odd elements that make him suspect Kimball was never in the room. Chief among those clues are a radio speech without the changes he made on the original and a pair of eyeglasses with an old prescription. Combining these finds with some astute questioning of Deacon Jackson and the staff of Kimball's optometry store Wilde is faced with the fact that an impostor checked into the hotel.

What begins as a simple missing persons case soon becomes almost more than Wilde can handle. He finds himself enlisting the aid of his old army buddy who also happens to be a private detective working in New York to do some legwork and save on his commuting from Pennsylvania. He also finds himself collaborating almost against his will with Lt. Grodnick who thinks Kimball will turn up alive somewhere with a woman on the side. Wilde who has a much better understanding of human nature and without ever having met Kimball knows this is the wrong read on the preacher. Wilde will end up confronting blackmailers, an angry bigot with a sexually ravenous daughter, some talkative bartenders, and a nosey landlady before he manages to put all the pieces together and stop a killer who wants to protect a deep, dark secret.

Bart Spicer as he appears on the
rear DJ panel of the 1st edition
At journey's end Spicer piles on too much melodrama in what Grodnick calls "a Philo Vance like set up" but just getting to know this detective, a wise guy with a compassionate heart, in his debut was well worth the trip. I'm ready to start on the second and third books in the series and will report back on Carney Wilde's progress in the private eye biz.

For more on Carney Wilde and  Bart Spicer see the excellent info on this page at The Thrilling Detective Website.

The Carney Wilde Private Eye Novels
The Dark Light (1949)
Blues for a Prince (1950)
The Golden Door (1951)
Black Sheep Run (1951)
The Long Green (1952)
The Taming of Carney Wilde (1954)
Exit, Running (1959)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guest Post on John Irving's Work

I have a guest post this week. I am part of the Best & Worst Series at the At Home with Books blog.  Believe it or not, I do read lots of other kinds of books beside mysteries, supernatural novels, and ripping adventures. I chose John Irving because here at Pretty Sinister Books I rarely get to talk about all those other writers that I enjoy reading outside of crime and ghosts and espionage. He was more suited for Alyce's blog.

This guest shot at Alyce's blog was supposed to happen last year, but things got a little crazy around my original assigned slot (it was my birthday weekend bash in New York) and I completely forgot about the post. Gosh darn all that celebrating. So I was pushed up to the first post of 2013.  Fittingly, it appears on my dear departed father's birthday.  He would have been a grand old 91 years old today.  He fostered my reading and -- more importantly -- my writing talents when I was  a lad and I miss him terribly.  That I chose to write about a book that is about a father figure and his protege is utterly perfect for today.

Please stop by Alyce's great blog, read the post, and leave a comment if you like. Click on link here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: Grow Your Own Sprouts!

This is a 1970s era greeting card with a newsy letter that includes a helpful hint about growing alfalfa sprouts. It was left inside a copy of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, a short story collection of Holmesian pastiches and parodies that at one time aroused the ire of the Conan Doyle Estate.

Click to Enlarge

Transcription of the message for those of you unable to read script writing (I hear there are many people under the age of 25 who can't!):

Dearest Micah,

Do hope you are O.K. Not hearing from you am concerned.

After your phone call to me, sent you the little book, enclosed in my letter, re arthritis, and the literature in same about Zarumin. Did you get the book?

I am just taking the alfalfa tablets and eating alfalfa sprouts. Bought the seed in the health store.

In a small cake tin I sprinkle the bottom with water to hold seed.  Cover with aluminum paper and each morning, with a salt cellar filled with water, sprinkle the seed. In five days it's fully sprouted & I eat it. Delicious in salad.

If I buy it, I can't eat it fast enough, goes bad. This way it[']s always fresh.

Have a nice day.


Oh yes, I had to Google Zarumin. I'll spare you the trouble. It was an old rheumatism and arthritis drug marketed from the 1950s through the late 1970s. My guess it's a defunct drug as its trademark has expired. It was developed by a company called Pharmaceuticals, Inc based in Newark NJ that also brought us such miracle drugs as Niron (appetite stimulant), Viragex (geriatric dietary supplement) and Chlorofem (relief of menstrual pain). The most bizarre thing I discovered is that each of these drug trademark registrations was filed under "Leather goods (non-clothing)". What? Were these drugs derived from leather? Or was it a huge error in the trademark filing process? Who knows.

Poor Mildred. At least she was eating fresh sprouts. And you ought to do the same! Sounds very easy to start your own sprout garden. What are you waiting for? Get those seeds now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

FFB: From This Dark Stairway - Mignon G Eberhart

From This Dark Stairway (1931) is Eberhart's fourth book to feature the sleuthing team of Nurse Sarah Keate and policeman Lance O'Leary. It follows her bravura locked room detective novel The Mystery of Hunting's End and nearly surpasses that book with yet another impossible crime. A physician enters an elevator with his patient on a hospital gurney headed for an operating theater. The elevator seems to malfunction or stall. When the elevator opens the physician is dead and patient and gurney are gone. But no one saw anyone get off or on at any of the other floors. The only explanation seems to be that patient killed doctor and fled. But how did he get away without anyone seeing him leave the elevator?

As is usual with Eberhart she sets the scene with a moody descriptive section that gives us a perfect rendition of the creepy stairway that the hospital employees are forced to use due to the mechanical problems of the only elevator that serves the four floors of Melady Memorial Hospital.  Sarah Keate tells us out of expediency she finds the stairway a better option even if it is dimly lit and rickety and spooky. There is a fair amount of HIBK type of narration in the opening chapters but this soon gives way to a tale of a motley group of nurses, doctors and eccentric patients all of whom become suspects in the murder of Dr. Harrigan.

There are cleverly placed clues, a few red herrings (remember them?), and an impressive show of misdirection especially in the final chapter. In addition to the puzzling and nearly impossible murder and disappearance in the elevator there is also the theft of an antique Chinese snuff bottle, the desire to find the formula for a new anesthetic drug called Slaepan, a missing surgical knife, the discovery of chewing gum on the doctor's body, and perhaps most significant of all the death of an unnamed Negro patient. In fact, in the penultimate chapter Lance tells Sarah that if the Negro patient had not died on that very night there would have been no murder.

I have read other reviews and criticism of the Sarah Keate novels which all seem to play up the HIBK elements and dismiss the detective novel portions as being middling to absent. Not so here. Keate does real detection even if much of it comes by accidental discoveries and coincidence. She seems to be present more often than is necessary during police interviews. Eberhart, however, gets away with this by making nearly all of the patients hysterics and oddballs who require a nurse present (at least according to head physician Dr. Kunce) so that the interrogation does not overly upset them.

I liked Eberhart's use of humor in this book, too. Sarah can often come across as a stuffy, old-fashioned spinster with Edwardian views about everyone's behavior, but here she shows off a modern self-effacement. There is a running gag about the mispronunciation of Dr. Kunce's name that wears thin by the midpoint of the book, but other nice touches include some digs at Sarah's spinsterhood, specifically her lack of sex appeal that she sarcastically acknowledges in her reporting of Sgt. Lamb's veiled insults.

Eberhart was known to me primarily as a suspense novelist and this is my first encounter with one of her true detective novels. She does an admirable job here. The characters are lively and strange. The action is well paced, the atmosphere grows increasingly eerie as the story approaches the denouement. I was never bored. The hospital setting even if set in the 1930s still felt modern to me with its staff adhering to stringent administrative protocol and the references to patient by their room number rather than their name. Three of the minor characters are called 301, 302 and 303, for example. This happens all the time in the real world of hospitals no matter how often nurses and residents are told to call a patient by their name. I know since I've worked in hospitals all my life.

What impressed me most of all was that From This Dark Stairway is one of the uncommon examples of a Golden Age detective novel in which the murderer's name is not revealed until the final sentence. This book is well worth seeking out for that tour de force bit of mystery writing alone.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Moment of Untruth - Ed Lacy

Touie Moore returns in a sequel of sorts to Room to Swing. Seven years have passed since his debut and he is now married to Fran who he met at the boarding house in Bingsten, Ohio. As the story opens Touie learns his wife is pregnant, but he's not as excited as she is. In fact he's not at all happy about it though he doesn't reveal this to Fran. Shortly after getting the news of his impending fatherhood he calls Ted Bailey, his former private detective partner, to plead for a side job. He's already thinking he'll need additional income when Fran has to quit her job to take care of the baby.

Hoping for nothing more complicated than a guard job on the weekend he soon learns that Ted 's private detective agency is now an "industrial investigating" firm and that Kay Robbens, the PR TV executive from Room to Swing, is Ted's partner in the firm. As it happens they need an agent to take on a job in Mexico. The primary stockholder in a chemical company that Kay is wooing for her PR firm demands Ted's agency send down a private eye immediately. After some cajoling Kay and Ted get Touie to agree to take on the job. Touie sees it as an opportunity to escape his responsibility to his pregnant wife and a chance to distract himself from the major life changing event that he faces.

When Touie arrives in Mexico he learns that the "old bag" Kay was telling him about, Grace Lupe-Varon, is actually a very young and outspoken university professor. She wants Touie to prove that he husband was murdered. She is sure that a prominent matador is behind the death. Her investigative journalist husband had uncovered something about the bullfighter's career and was threatening to expose him. When the husband died of a snake bite she was convinced it had to be a murder. Snake bite? Where did the snake come from, Touie asks? From my collection she tells him. Mrs. Lupe-Varon it turns out is a herpetologist and she has a veritable menagerie of reptiles in her home for her extensive research on snake venom and their medicinal properties.

UK edition: T.V. Boardman (1965)
Complicating matters is the presence of Frank Smith, a mysterious American tourist who befriends Touie based solely on the fact that they are two black men in a foreign country. Smith claims to be a writer, Touie is suspicious. Nevertheless, the two strike up a friendship as often is the case when people of similar background met up by chance in a foreign country. Smith introduces Touie to the world of bullfighting allowing him to see firsthand the artistry of matador superstar "El Indio." But when Smith seems to be following Touie in his investigation of the Lupe-Varon murder the plot takes a sinister turn. Is Smith also a private detective interested in the death of the professor's husband? There is more to Smith than meets the eye as Touie will soon learn from the Mexican police.

Moment of Untruth (1964) as the title may suggest is a mystery about bullfighting. The moment of truth as bullfighting aficionados may know is the point at which the matador makes his kill. The title is one of the biggest clues to the ultimate mystery surrounding the murder of Grace's husband. There are plenty of scenes in the bullfighting arena, lots of background on the art of being a matador and specifically the unusual habits and rituals of "El Indio."

The mystery is much better constructed than Room to Swing and the exotic background makes for a gripping, fascinating read. Though Lacy apparently disliked the idea of a series character he does a fine job of incorporating Touie's life as husband and father-to-be into the detective story plot. And there is plenty of detection and action in this private eye novel. His final adventure in Mexico will force him to make decisions about what he really wants out of his life. That decision will fully explain why he never appeared in another book or story.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Ed Lacy's death. Coincidentally, there happens to be a rise in interest about him just as I have been posting reviews on his work. You can read a tribute to Lacy in Tablet, a Jewish online magazine. Click here for the article.

Friday, January 4, 2013

FFB: Room to Swing - Ed Lacy

I have a thing about the Edgar Awards. I happen to think a lot of the award winners didn't deserve that little statue of Poe. Only occasionally do I come across a truly worthy Edgar winning mystery novel. Room to Swing (1958) won the Edgar for Best Novel. It's most definitely one of the deserving winners. Not only that - it's a little known, little discussed, hardly reviewed at all, landmark novel in the history of crime fiction by a writer who deserves a lot more attention.

Toussaint Marcus Moore is a private detective hired by Kay Robbens, a TV executive, to shadow the subject of a soon to be aired reality TV show that sounds exactly like a 1950s version of "America's Most Wanted." The man, Robert Thomas, is wanted by Ohio police for a rape and assault of a teenage girl and Kay know he is currently living under an assumed name in Manhattan. Moore is to keep an eye on Thomas and make sure he doesn't leave New York until the show is aired. Then Kay hopes some TV viewer will spot Thomas, notify police, and he'll be arrested thus validating the purpose of the TV show and insuring it has a long run. But Thomas ends up dead, Moore is framed for the murder, and he flees the city. Moore is determined to clear his name, but in order to do that he needs to uncover who killed Thomas and why. He figures it's all linked to the rape case.

His travels take him to Bingston, a small Ohio town on the Kentucky border, where he holes up in a makeshift boarding house owned by one of the few black couples in town. This is good for Moore because as a black man himself with an opinionated, unguarded way of speaking he was nearly run out of town by the bigoted police officers in Bingston. He finds an ally of sorts in Frances Russell who immediately sees through his bad impression of an itinerant jazz musician. She will serve as his captive audience (and later a sometime assistant) as he tells his tale to her in a series of flashbacks.

What's most remarkable about this book is that with all its talk about race relations, its depiction of a complex black man in the 1950s fed up with being called "Boy" by nearly every white man he meets, disgusted with segregated hotels and restaurants and entire portions of cities, and "whites who can sure say the jerkiest things" is that it was written by a white Jewish New Yorker. Leonard Zinberg lived in Harlem all his life. Before creating his private detective (named after two prominent activists in Black history, I might add) Zinberg had always been interested in race relations and leftist politics. As early as 1935 he wrote a story titled "Lynch Him!" a hint at his strong feelings about the treatment of blacks. Later he wrote several stories about boxers, one of them Walk Hard, Talk Loud (1940) is the story of a black boxer and his relationship with a white woman who also happen s to be a Communist activist.

Room to Swing is a fantastic book. Well written, smart without being smart alecky, prescient and insightful in ways that make it seem like you are reading a book written only a few years old rather than decades old. The mystery is a good one if not one that has jaw dropping surprises, but what makes the book noteworthy are the well drawn characters and Zinberg's insights into black/white relations. Touie is one of the best of the earliest of the black private eyes. It's a shame he only appeared in two books.

For more on Ed Lacy I suggest you read Ed Lynskey's well written and very detailed article at Mystery*File. A review of the follow-up book The Moment of Untruth featuring Toussaint Moore in his second and last appearance in an even better constructed mystery than the one here, will be posted tomorrow. Ed Lacy is one writer I'm glad I discovered and whose books I am rapidly acquiring and reading with great interest.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Pick a Category, Any Category

A new year means another Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by my pal Bev at My Reader's Block.  How do you like that new logo for the challenge?  It's from the UK publisher T.V. Boardman's "Bloodhound Mystery" series of books by hardboiled American writers.

This year the challenge is modeled on the party game Scattergories. We pick eight different categories from the list of over 30 and read one book that applies to each. Here's what I plan on doing:

1. World Traveler: one mystery set in any country except the US or Britain
2. Staging the Crime: a mystery set in the entertainment world (the theater, musical event, a pageant, Hollywood, featuring a magician, etc)
3. Cops & Robbers: a book that features a theft rather than murder
4. Murder on the High Seas: a mystery involving water
5. Things That Go Bump in the Night: something spooky, creepy, Gothic in the title
6. Psychic Phenomena: a mystery featuring a seance, medium, hypnotism, or other psychic or "supernatural" characters/events
7. Book to Movie:  a mystery that has appeared on screen (feature film or TV movie)
8. Killed in Translation: Works that originally appeared in another language and have been made available in English

We're all welcome to read more than eight books. Once I'm finished the minimum eight I'm hoping I'll double or triple the total. But I'm not making any promises this year.  Look at yesterday's post here to see how I nearly dug myself a trap and fell in. I picked a few categories that will present somewhat of a challenge, especially the "Cops & Robbers" category with its emphasis on theft. Surprisingly, last year I found two of those without even trying.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vintage Mystery Challenge 2012 Wrap-up

Ever the procrastinator, that's me. Truly it's not so much putting off as it is trying to find the time to sit down and type up these reports. And so here I am with my full report on last year's Vintage Mystery Challenge as hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.

We were asked to read eight books that fit a category from a list provided by Bev. Since practically my entire life seems to be nothing but reading vintage mysteries (it only seems that way, my friends) I chose three categories and expected to read at least eight in each category. I had to make it challenging after all. I officially completed the first eight books in the category of Perilous Policemen and reviewed all eight books within a span of three months. You can see the entire list of all eight books on the very last post I wrote here. But after that I seemed to have forgotten about my other promised 16 books.

Luckily, I keep a monthly list of each book I read. And so now that the year is over I took the time to review my list hoping that out of the 116 books I read there were at least 16 that fell into the proper categories. Turns out I really did conclude the entire challenge as I outlined back in October 2011.

Deadly Decades
I was to read at least one book from each decade listed below and then one "wild card" for the eighth book.

pre-1900 - The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), The Mystery of Orcival (1867), The Female Detective (1864), Dorcas Dene, Detective (1897)
1900s - On the Brink of a Chasm (1900) by L.T. Meade
1910s - "The Call of Wings" one of the stories in The Hound of Death (OK, I'm cheating here)
1920s - Murder on the Moor, The Colfax Bookplate and three others
1930s - The Case of the Green Felt Hat and 20 others
1940s - Ghost Wanted and 19 others
1950s - The Gentle Murderer and 25 others

I also read four books from 1960 though only the year counted and not the entire decade. Those books were The Pass Beyond Kashmir, A Stranger in My Grave, Be Silent Love, and Play It Hard. Two of those books made my best of list for the year. Margaret Millar's book was excellent but compared to others read that month she got nudged out of the top spot. Sorry, Margaret.

Murderous Miscellany
This category was open to the contestant. I made it "Black magic/Witchcraft in the mystery novel". Much to my surprise without even focusing on that category I did in fact read EXACTLY eight books with that feature in the plot.

Old Bones
The Craghold Creatures
The Curse of the Island Pool
The Doctor's Murder Case
The Hound of Death
For Fear of Little Men
The Curse of Rathlaw
The Ninth Life by Jack Mann (not reviewed on my blog)

Now I can start up the 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge with no guilty conscience. Leading us neatly into a segue for the next post.

Just the Stats, Ma'am

I am astonished that I read a total of 116 books last year. In reviewing my monthly notes I see that a large portion of the books I read last year were paperback originals from the 1950s and 1960s. These books tend to be about 150 pages or less and can be read sometimes in a single day. No wonder I manged to rip through so many books last year.

The average number of books in a month was 9.8. The maximum number was in February when I read 14 books and the least in December with only five. I seemed to slow down around August when I read eight and the totals never got much higher for the rest of the year. In September I must've reached book glut because I read only six books to completion. There is a note in parentheses saying I left many books unfinished in that month. Was I picking badly then? Or was I in a fog of confusion and distraction? December with so much going on in my personal life I only managed to read five books and only one has been reviewed so far.

There was a small list of books I never finished reading, too. The grand total of abandoned books was 17. Some of these I hope to return to this year. I developed an odd habit of reading two or three books at a time last year and this was probably why so many were left unfinished. But I do see that many of them were "just plain bad" as my notes tell me.  Avoid at all costs a book called Too Many Doors by Lee Crosby which I rated BAD (capital letters emphasized) with many exclamation marks after it. It's out of print and hard to find so you will most likely be spared even an accidental encounter with that one. I sadly paid far too much for a copy with a DJ. I'm hoping I'll be able to sell it to a local used book store.

I did not review every single book I read last year either. Of the grand total there were 34 books I did not review for this blog. Many of them were new books that I didn't think needed any more exposure on the book blogs, some of them I took notes on for posts that are still in progress (!), and a few of them were forgettable and not worth writing about at all. But that still leaves more than 75% of the books I read written up here at Pretty Sinister Books. I tend not to write scathing reviews anymore, but there were a few tongue-in-cheek pans of some of the lesser books I read. The truly awful books I don't bother bringing to anyone's attention. Some forgotten out of print books are best forgotten. A book has to have some merit in my opinion to be reviewed here. I don't understand rants and tirades about works of fiction. Seems a waste of energy to get angry over the work of someone's imagination.

Because I find it so difficult to make a real "Best of" list with the most favorite book at number one and all others following in descending order I am resorting to a kind of cheat list in which I list the best book for each month of last year with a few runner-ups worth your attention. Below in the order I read them and not in order of how good each one is you will find the titles and links to the reviews on this blog.

January - The Death of Laurence Vining by Alan Thomas
(runner-up The Moon Murders by Nigel Morland)

February - Exit Charlie by Alex Atkinson
(runner-ups: Jade in Aries by Donald E. Westlake, The Grindle Nightmare by Q. Patrick)

March - The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
(runner-up The Case of the Seven of Calvary by Anthony Boucher)

April - Murder on the Moor by Thomas Kindon
(runner-up An Afternoon to Kill by Shelley Smith)

May - Be Silent, Love by Fan Nichols
(runner-up The Three Corpse Trick by Miles Burton - not reviewed on my blog)

June - The Brotherhood of Velvet by David Karp
(runner-ups: Old Bones by Herman Peterson, The Body Vanishes by Jacquemard-Sénécal)

July - The Pass Beyond Kashmir by Berkley Mather
(runner-ups: The House Next Door by Lionel White, The Hatter's Phantoms by Georges Simenon)

August - The Lesser Antilles Case by Rufus King (not reviewed by me, but see Curt Evan's post)
(runner-up The Cross-Eyed Bear by Dorothy B Hughes

September - Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
(runner-up Aunt Beardie by Joseph Shearing, aka Marjorie Bowen, aka Gabrielle Long)

October - The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy
(runner-up For Fear of Little Men by John Blackburn)

November - The Chill by Ross Macdonald (not reviewed yet)
(runner-ups: Singular Case of the Multiple Dead by Mark McShane, Double Death of Frédéric Belot by Claude Aveline, Burglars in Bucks by the Coles)

December - Room to Swing and The Moment of Untruth by Ed Lacy
(Both to be reviewed very soon)

Writers discovered this year whose work I will be reading a lot of in the future:  Rufus King, Bart Spicer, Ed Lacy, Ross Macdonald (yes, I only started reading his novels this year!), Lionel White, Harriette Ashbrook, Shelley Smith, Russell Greenan, Herman Petersen, Berkley Mather, Richard Neely, Fan Nichols, and Dorothy B Hughes. Hughes is more of a re-discovery since the first book I read of hers was many years ago and I hadn't read any since.