Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Murder from the Grave - Will Levinrew

Professor Herman Brierley, chemist and amateur criminologist, is one of the most obscure of the American scientific detectives. He made his debut in The Poison Plague in 1922 when the story was originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly. In that tale Brierly stops a mass murderer from decimating the population of New York with an exotic poison launching him on a career of investigating bizarre and grotesque crimes. Multiple murders, especially murder by poison, became the specialty of the series. Murder from the Grave (1930) is no exception.

While it may not be as utterly outrageous as the second book in the series, Murder in the Palisades (1930), it presents the reader with an opening tableau rarely encountered in a detective novel from this period. A murderer strikes in five different cities in New Jersey and New York over a period of only three hours and manages to kill four of his seven intended targets. Levinrew invented spree killing, in essence, decades before that criminal phenomenon was headline making news.

As the title suggests the murders appear to be the work of a person who has died. Rodney Borger, the cruel patriarch of a feuding family, visits Brierly to ask for his help in trying to flush out the person who he suspects of poisoning seven of his relatives at a dinner party a few weeks ago. He is convinced someone is trying to get to his money. But Borger has worked out a revenge. He also reveals to Brierly a will outlining his curious terms for his legatees. In order to inherit any money or property the surviving oldest Borger must live in the family estate and specifically in Rodney's bedroom for a prescribed period of days. During that time the survivor cannot leave the house. Brierly smells lunacy in the air, a little bit of paranoia, and is hesitant to take on the case. His delay proves fatal to Borger. He dies a few days later long with four other Borgers, all apparently the victims of yet another poisoning binge. The burning question, of course, is how the poison is being administered at different locations almost at exactly the same time.

The first Professor Brierly detective novel
The book is really more of a howdunit than a whodunit. The victims, intended victims and suspects are all members of the Borger family who we learn are descended from the infamous Borgias, the Italian Renaissance family known for their adept skills in concocting and administering poisons. Cute, right? But the emphasis is always on the eccentric character of Professor Brierly and his reporter colleague Jimmy Hale who serves as the book's Watson. No other character in the book (and there are many) rises above the level of a surface sketch or an utter cliché. In some cases we never get to meet the character thanks to the rapid elimination of family members at the hands of the maniacal poisoner.

The most jaw dropping part of this book is Brierly's unconventional method for detecting poisons. He tastes the food! Not only that he has other people taste the food and some of them do so willingly because they trust him. In one case, however, he is not so forthright. He dupes a woman into tasting coffee that he has doctored with tobacco from one of Hale's cigarettes so that he will jar her taste buds into "remembering" the flavor of the tainted coffee she drank the night of her attempted poisoning. She screams in terror when she detects the same flavor and accuses Brierly of trying to kill her. "Calm down, dear lady," he tells her. "You have merely confirmed my suspicions of nicotine poisoning." Ah, the days of the arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth! How I miss them.

The book has some fair play detection, some interesting chemical experiments, lots of taste testing (!) and a bit too much grilling of the suspects. But the murders themselves and the mysterious method keep the reader glued to the pages. Brierly learns that the mad killer has used a variety of poisons and has found a fiendish way to introduce those poisons into each household. I was impressed by the method having guessed a portion of it early on by heeding the few clues dropped rather obviously in the narrative. Admirers of the detective novels of John Rhode, the master of the murder means, might find the death traps in this book to be the most ingenious parts of Levinrew's sensationalized murder tale. Those hoping for a touch of the supernatural alluded to in the title will not be disappointed in the final chapters.

Paperback retitled version of the
ultra rare Murder at the Palisades
I am slowly working my way through my collection of Scarlet Thread Mysteries after doing an illustrated feature on the art work which you can view here. When writing about them I realized that I have never read any of them. No time like the present! You can look forward to all seven books I own being reviewed over the coming months this year. Improvements in the storytelling will be a blessing for the remainder of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries, but I am not too optimistic. Perhaps having low expectations for this imprint will fend off any future disappointment.

The Professor Brierly Detective Novels
The Poison Plague (1929)
Murder at the Palisades (1930)
    also publ as The Wheelchair Corpse (1945)
Murder from the Grave (1930)
For Sale - Murder (1932)
Death Points the Finger (1933)

READING CHALLENGE NOTE:  This will serve as one title off the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for 2013. This one fits the category Murder Is Academic since Brierly is a chemistry professor at a New Jersey university.

Friday, February 22, 2013

FFB: President Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

What do South American spiders, neurotoxic drugs, booby-trapped sewers and Huey Long have in common? Why President Fu Manchu (1936), of course. Fu Manchu turns 100 years old this month. I know it's hard to believe because he always seemed so ancient in the books, but it's true nonetheless. The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (published in the US as The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) was published in February 1913 and introduced to the world one of the greatest master criminals in all of crime fiction. He lived out his nefarious deeds in thirteen novels and one collection of stories. Remarkably, five of the titles were just reprinted by Titan Books last year. What better way to end President's week than to salute Rohmer's immortal creation in the most unusual book of the series.

But Huey Long? Really? I hear you ask in your usual puzzled voice. Well, a reasonably facsimile of Huey Long. Much to my surprise Rohmer ripped his plot from the headlines circa 1935 and fashioned the only Fu Manchu novel set in the good ol' U S of A, soon to be the writer's adopted home. Just as Sinclair Lewis was inspired by Long's politics to write It Can't Happen Here Rohmer turned social and political critic in writing the eighth adventure of the Asian evildoer. To the possible nightmare of a totalitarian American government Rohmer adds his unique pulp action ingredients resulting in the oddest of books in the series. For after all no one can really overthrow a government without resorting to drug-induced amnesia, assassination by post-hypnotic suggestion and eliminating your enemies with venomous spiders, now can they?

If you're a good student of American history then you know all about Huey Long. Even if you're a good student of cinema or literature you should be relatively acquainted with him. All the King's Men, anyone? Long, of course, was the outspoken Louisiana governor who ruled the state like a tyrant, was elected to the US Senate, and attempted a bid for presidential nomination. His dream of becoming America's first dictator ended with an assassin's bullet. About the time of Long's race for the White House Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial priest with a radio talk show and former supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, took to the airwaves to help boost Long's chief executive aspirations.

In Rohmer's novel Long is transformed into Harvey Bragg; Coughlin becomes Patrick Donegal, the Abbot of the Holy Thorn; and Long's political rival, socialist Norman Thomas, appears as Dr. Orwin Prescott. The similarities are uncanny extending even to Bragg's organization of followers called the League of Good Americans and his catchphrase "America for every man and every man for America" which reflect the motto "Every Man is King" for Long's Share Our Wealth Society. How's that for ripped from the headlines? If Rohmer were alive today would he be a scriptwriter for Law & Order? Imagine how more fun that show would be with plots borrowed from current affairs and then gussied up with exotic poisons derived from tropical plants and zombie-like murderers on the rampage in Manhattan.

Fu Manchu is everywhere!
Detective Comics (August 1938)
An upcoming debate in which Bragg will go opposite Dr. Orwin Prescott (modeled on a debate Long had with Thomas) is the focus of an involved plot orchestrated by Fu Manchu's ubiquitous network of spies and killers. In a scene that foreshadows The Manchurian Candidate by nearly three decades we watch as a nearby Si-Fan agent utters the key word "Asian" and Herman Gosset, a thug for hire previously drugged and now under the influence of post-hypnotic orders, shoots Bragg dead in full view of spectators during the debate. Chaos ensues! Meanwhile Dr. Prescott, also under the influence of a mind altering drug, has been left babbling a  maze of meaningless words and is looking like a boy lost at the World's Fair.

It's up to Nayland Smith (formerly of Scotland Yard and now a Federal Agent #56 in the employ of the US government) and his Marine captain associate Mark Hepburn to put an end to Fu Manchu's reign of terror and prevent his choice for the presidential nomination from capturing the hearts of America the way Bragg had. But with The League of of Good Americans now in the hands of the Si-Fan and slowly taking over the agriculture and business worlds it may be already too late for the country.

Any attempt to overlook Rohmer's usual race issues will frustrate the reader. Discussions of race are as omnipresent as the myriad cast of Si-Fan agents popping up on every page. Depending almost exclusively on race or nationality characters are labeled as sexual predators ("negroid" and "quadroon"), devious (Jews) and untrustworthy (Italians) to name the most blatant examples. Is it any surprise that Paul Salvaletti, the person elected as Fu Manchu's real presidential hopeful, is of Italian descent? Never mind that someone born in Italy could never be elected to the presidency. This little matter of the Constitution seems to have eluded both the world's most devious master criminal and Rohmer himself. Or is it all just literary license?

There may be the standard pulp trappings of Sax Rohmer to spice up the proceedings, but the most remarkable thing about the book is his insightful observations about the power of rhetoric to build or destroy a politician's career and reputation. Bragg, Donegal and even Prescott are all described to have near magical powers in their speech making and vocabulary. The evil doctor and his Chinaman assistant Sam Pak even discuss their utter fear of Abbot Donegal who is the only man who can single-handedly collapse Fu Manchu's carefully constructed plan. And what is it about the Abbot they fear the most? The information he will relay via a radio broadcast. Words. Nothing but words.

The final chapters offer eyebrow raising scenes with Fu Manchu acting nobly and heroic before he once again eludes a face to face capture at the hands of Nayland Smith. There is also a spectacular disaster that may recall the events of 9/11 to some readers. And in the final two paragraphs Sax Rohmer gives us his most brilliant cliffhanger echoing another famous cliffhanger from a classic short story by another writer. From a Huey P. Long clone to surreal methods of murder to the fear of words and rhetoric and surprising atypical behavior from the master villain himself President Fu Manchu is surely one of the most unusual entries in the whole series.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

COOL FLICKS: The Black Camel (1931)

Tarneverro & Chan discover Shelah Fane dead in the pavilion
The Black Camel (1931) is a good case of a screenwriter's sticking too closely to his source material and falling into a trap of his own making. Normally, I am the first one to decry movies that deviate from the original story in film adaptations based on novels, plays or what have you, and I should be happy with this ever faithful adaptation. But here odd choices on what to leave out of the movie make for some head scratching moments.

Granted if you know nothing about the book The Black Camel is an engaging entry in the Charlie Chan series mostly due to the presence of Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi. But there are moments when one wonders what some characters are doing in the story. Who are Rita Ballou and her husband Wilkie? What about Huntley Van Horn? Why are they there? With larger roles in the novel on screen they have been reduced to little more than stage props. Rita has exactly one scene in which she gives an eyewitness account (also in the book) but that's the extent of her role, while the other two have little to do but express indignation. They are bogey characters, ciphers, mysteries more puzzling than the murder of Shelah Fane. The clues so abundant in the book come at the viewer too rapidly and are never discussed at length or in some cases are introduced then completely forgotten. What about that letter stolen when the lights went out? What was in it? Where did it go? Several fascinating scenes of detection are ripped out of the story to make way for quips and poor excuses for comic relief.

Chan & Julie try to piece together the torn photo
One interesting choice is to allow the viewers to see several of the characters monkeying with the evidence. In the novel these scenes are done offstage and Chan must detect them through examination of evidence and questioning of the suspects. Engaging the viewer by allowing us to see Julie and Tarneverro do their business in an effort to protect another person gives the film a modern touch that the traditional, often old-fashioned, source novel does not provide. It also gives the characters more of an active role in the story rather than being confined as subjects of constant interrogation as is the case in the book.

Mantan Moreland thankfully is nowhere in sight. But we do have Otto Yamaoka. There may not be any cringeworthy Steppin Fetchit-like antics but there are just as many embarrassing moments with Yamaoka as the rookie police detective Kashimo running amok, looking for evidence, and destroying a bedroom in less than one minute while "searching" for a photograph. "Boss! Clue? Another clue?" he says to Chan after popping into a scene every ten minutes or so like an obedient Golden Retriever delivering his master his slippers. When Chan dismisses him with insulting remarks ("Can cut off monkey's tail but he is still monkey.") and facetious orders ("Spend more time hunting for nothing to do!") it is more than welcome and Kashimo disappears for the most of the film.

Lugosi, with only two films behind him after his star making performance in Dracula, shows the promise of what could have been an impressive monster-less career on film. It's a shame that directly after this movie he would be cast in Murders in the Rue Morgue and be consigned to a career of nothing but mad scientists, vampires and sinister villains. Though first he appears to be a cad as Tarneverro he has what turns out to be a heroic part in this movie. Lugosi has a commanding presence, a gift for comedy, and a leading man quality not shown off in his later horror and mystery films. His scenes -- especially those shared with Oland -- are the highlight of the movie.

Dorothy Revier vamps it up in 1929
(photo by Walter Seeley)
The other cast members do serviceable work. Dorothy Revier, at one time a popular silent screen actress, is given little to do in her few scenes as Shelah before she is murdered. Her role in the book is larger and we get an idea she is a vain diva who is using her star persona to mask a secret that is terrifying her. Revier conveys her terror in the usual silent era pantomime histrionics and otherwise looks gorgeous in her diaphanous flowing costumes. She really knows how to wear her clothes as they say in the trade. In other words, she lets her costumes do the real acting. Robert Young, looking like a teenager, is appropriately boyish and goofy as Jimmy Bradshaw, the starry-eyed young man in love with Julie O'Neill (Sally Eilers), Shelah's secretary. The only other actor worth mentioning is Dwight Frye in the unbilled role of Jessup. Straight from his turn as the schizoid Renfield in Dracula opposite Lugosi, Frye is cast as the butler (in the book a supercilious septuagenarian) now made into a much younger servant pining for Anna, the maid. In a bizarre twist in the finale Jessup is revealed to be a lunatic allowing for Frye to once again display his skill in portraying a goggle-eyed nutcase.

Despite these quibbles The Black Camel makes for an engaging and entertaining period whodunnit. With Oland as Chan and Lugosi as his rival detective dominating the proceedings the minor faults of  the less talented supporting actors and the silly comic moments with Yamaoka are easily overlooked. But I'd recommend reading the book first before watching the movie.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

JACKET REQUIRED: A Few Scarlet Threads

Something a little different for this month's Jacket Required feature is the "Scarlet Thread" mystery imprint published by Robert M. McBride & Company from 1930 to 1931. The books did not have dust jackets per se, but rather what is called paste-on plates. In effect what would've been the DJ was attached directly to the book. Due to the nature of paste-on plates if they are not protected by a clear vinyl plastic the constant pulling on and off shelves and rubbing up against other books will eventually do its damage.  Most of the plates are heavily rubbed, chipped or damaged in other ways. I keep upgrading the Scarlet Thread books I manage to find hoping one day for the best collection of these unique mystery novels.

A few booksellers out there when they come across a title from this imprint think that the DJ was dismembered and glued to the book. Not true. If you ever come across a description like that in a bookseller catalog the price will likely be very cheap. The bookseller thinks the book was damaged and altered thus making it depreciate in value. Jump on that book and buy it immediately! The Scarlet Thread books are scarce in any condition and cheap prices are just as rare as the books themselves.

I have been trying for years to complete my collection and so far have acquired only five of the titles. There may be more, but I have only confirmed seven books in this imprint. Besides those pictured here I know of The Diary of Death by Wilson Collison and The Woman in Purple Pajamas by "Willis Kent", a pseudonym of Collison's.

In addition to the paste-on plates (one each on the front board, rear board and backstrip) there is the unique fore-edge decoration that give the imprint its name. Running down the outer edges of the pages is the illusion of an unspooling red thread. Over time the red color fades and begins to look more purple than red. In some instances the decoration has completely faded and can no longer be seen. Below is the best example of the decoration on the pages of my copy of Murder from the Grave.

Click on photos to enlarge. Enjoy!

Friday, February 15, 2013

FFB: Coffins for Three - Frederick C. Davis

INT: Club Grotto
Characters: "Joan Doe", Cyrus Hatch, Danny Delevan

"Joan" enters and approaches table with Cyrus and Delevan. Tells them she's waiting for some who she plans on killing. Wants to appear that she's not alone for safety. When she sees her mark she abruptly leaves ready to carry out her plan.

SFX: Gunfire, Screams, Crowd noises

CUT TO: Man shot down on the front steps of the club. "Joan" is spotted fleeing the crime scene accompanied by a mustached dandy who shoves her into a car. Together they speed away before the police arrive.

There's a cinematic opening for you. It all happens within the first ten pages of Coffins for Three (1938), the debut Crime Club detective novel from Frederick C. Davis. Primarily a prolific pulp magazine fictioneer Davis is best known for his stories featuring Mark Hazzard aka Secret Agent X, Steve Thatcher aka the Moon Man, and various weird menace tales. When he turned to novel writing he created Cyrus Hatch, professor of criminology a Knickerbocker College.  Hatch is partnered with ex-prizefight Danny Delevan who acts as his "bodyguard" and man-of-all-work.  Mark Hatch, Cyrus' father and the police commissioner, sees his son as a kind of tougher version of Philo Vance and thinks he needs a good kick in his pants. Rounding out the cast of series regulars is the ever faithful Jane Porter (no not the same one in the Tarzan stories) but rather Hatch's eager to please secretary who envisions herself an amateur sleuth.

The plot of Coffins for Three is a mix of pulp action, detective fiction and a generous helping of the utterly bizarre. How bizarre? The search for the real identity of "Joan Doe" leads Hatch to the home of fashion model Rhoda Quinn. When he first encounters her she is in her bathtub. She steps out completely nude, reaches for her gun, and trains it on Hatch for the remainder of the scene never once pausing to grab a towel to cover herself. Halfway through the scene Hatch pleads with her to put on a robe so he can concentrate on what she's telling him. Quite a surprise to me. Not the kind of thing you usually find in a Crime Club novel in 1938, that's for sure.

Want more? Characters resort to leaving secret messages relayed via racing pigeons and -- even stranger -- by knocking off bronze letters on a gravestone. One of the murder victims is strangled with a noose. Later in order to prevent suspicion from falling on a certain someone another character disposes of the body. With the noose still around the corpse's neck and the other end tied to the leg of a grand piano the body is tossed out of an apartment window.  A bypasser sees the hanging body suspended in midair and notifies the police. Gruesome indeed. Typical stuff of a pulp writer.

The plot is as convoluted and complex as a Victorian sensation novel. I'll make no attempt to summarize it here, though I made three pages of notes. There are crooked lawyers, forged documents, blackmail, and a dastardly plot that comes right out of The Woman in White. It's a plot lover's smorgasbord. And on top of it all, carrier pigeons! Coffins for Three may have a grisly title but it is an entertaining, fast moving read.

Cyrus Hatch Detective Novels
Coffins for Three (1938)
He Wouldn't Stay Dead (1939)
Poor, Poor, Yorick (1939)
Let the Skeletons Rattle (1944)
Detour to Oblivion (1947)
Thursday's Blade (1947)
Gone Tomorrow (1948)

[NOTE FROM THE MANAGEMENT: I attempted to replicate the look and feel of a screenplay in the opening of this post. I know very well it is not correct format nor do I use the proper terminology for camera angles and what not. Please refrain from fault finding.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

NEW STUFF: The Invisible Code - Christopher Fowler

Each new Bryant & May crime novel brings with it the anticipatory thrill of discovering more arcana of London that Christopher Fowler loves to share with his readers. (There should be a word for all these nuggets of England's past. Londoniana? Albionisms? Mull those over.) The latest escapade of the Peculiar Crimes Unit or PCU does not disappoint. Within the labyrinthine plot of The Invisible Code (2012) the reader is treated to the fascinating world of Sir John Soane's museum housed at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; the secrets of the "Scarlet Thread" and what it means to the Knights Templar; St. Bride's, the church of journalists; and more tidbits about the occult that always work their way into the adventures London's much maligned and unappreciated specialized police squad. For fans of vintage crime and adventure novels there is the added bonus of allusions to the work of Dennis Wheatley and especially a particular title by Fritz Leiber.

Oskar Kasavian (familiarly known to the PCU staff as The Prince of Darkness), an executive in the Home Office, is the top level overseer of this unusual police unit set up to protect the public. He is also their number one enemy. For years Kasavian has been doing his best to shut them down and now Arthur Bryant and John May are surprised to be called into his office for a personal favor. He needs their specialized help in handling the embarrassing public behavior of his wife Sabira who is becoming increasingly erratic and violent. She's been raving about demons and witches and seems to have submerged herself into a world of paranoid imaginings. Kasavian thinks for that reason the PCU team are perfect for discovering the cause of Sabira's delusions. Or are they delusions? And what about the odd death of the woman found in St. Bride's Church who apparently was the target of some children playing an RPG called Witch Hunter? Like all PCU cases the coincidences prove to have more significance the further the team plows.

Arthur Bryant talks about the importance of connections and patterns at one point in the book. This is the basis for all the PCU books. There is a wealth of information that at first comes at the reader in random incidents, then are fired out in rapid succession. Fowler, unwittingly perhaps, is one of the greatest modern practitioners of an old subgenre known as the webwork novel. Harry Stephen Keeler was the best known American writer of webwork novels. He even wrote a manifesto -- "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction" -- about the art of creating a single story out of random multiple narrative threads. John Russell Fearn, prolific British pulp magazine writer of SF and detective fiction, credited Keeler with influencing him in his SF webwork stories.

Synopsis in diagram form depicting the webwork plot of Keeler's Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1924)
Fowler's story incorporates the mysterious death of Amy O'Connor in the opening chapter, the death of a character in a previous novel, the madness of Sabira Kasavian, and several other apparently random acts of violence in a tour de force of webwork plotting. Webwork might be called the fictional counterpart of a conspiracy theorist's obsessive hunt for nefarious patterns real and imagined in the operations of global conglomerates and world politics. Allusions in The Invisible Code to modern paranoid thrillers like Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and the movie The Parallax View add another level of enjoyment to the randomness that will eventually reveal a pattern of sinister construction. The novel is the best of this type I have read in all of the ten Bryant & May detective series. Though there is sometimes a tendency towards didactic dialogue passages -- the kind typified by forensic crime TV shows and The X Files -- Fowler mostly manages to introduce the Albionisms (I used it!) in a way that flows naturally out of the densely compacted action.

Bryant & May find a victim in St Bride's Church
(Artwork by Keith Page)
 The series characters each have a turn in the spotlight with some interesting developments in Janice Longbright's life and the usually bickering partnership of detective constables Colin Bimsley and Meera Mangeshkar. Dan Banbury and Giles Kershaw do their usual forensic wizardry in the morgue and in the technosphere. Maggie Armitage, the "white witch", is featured prominently offering much lore and occult knowledge to help Arthur Bryant in explaining some of the baffling elements of the case. And, finally, we are introduced to a new character, Mr. Merry, who appears to be a 21st century Aleister Crowley and who promises to be a formidable foe in the future books as hinted at in a teasing final chapter.

Sampling the escapades of the Peculiar Crimes Unit can be an addictive reading experience but also a dangerous one. In relating to us his love for all things bizarre and strange about the city he loves so unabashedly Fowler not only fuels a crime fiction lover's taste for the bizarre he is something of an alluring siren for the armchair traveller in all of us. He sings a song of London better than any music hall chanteuse. This armchair traveller has been tempted more than once to dip into the savings for a overseas trip to see up close and personal the many unusual places recounted in these extremely entertaining books. And that's the kind of connection I like between a writer and his readership.

Bryant & May and The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler
Transworld/Doubleday,  August 2012
ISBN: 978-0857520500 (hardcover in UK and Canada only)
GBP 16.99

Available as an eBook and audio book in the US now
US hardcover edition release date is unknown

Sunday, February 10, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: Ann's Library Card

I was very good about keeping track of my library card when I was growing up.  Losing it would've been a very big deal and I'm sure I would've been extremely upset.  When I moved to Chicago getting a library card was as important to me as getting a phone or setting up my electricity account.  To this day I carry my library card with me in my wallet at all times. Never know when I need to make a spur of the moment visit.

Apparently Ann Felton of Lenox lost her library card sometime in May 1943.  I found it in a book I bought two or three years ago -- appropriately, an ex-library book. That's all I noted. Foolishly I forgot to copy down the title.

Our Ann was a fairly voracious reader.  Most of her books were returned within days.  Maybe she was just fickle.  I like to think she enjoyed most of what she read and couldn't get enough of books.  Though in one case it appears the librarian mixed up the spots. Remember library stamps? Taken out on May 1 and returned on April 26?  Was that the day she read H.G. Wells? I wonder how she felt when she lost her card. She must've been using it as a bookmark.

Lenox is Lenox, Massachusetts. Cliffwood Street still exists. As does the Lenox Library Association which is still housed in a historic building that has served as the library's home since 1874. Below is a photo of the reading room. Swank library!

Friday, February 8, 2013

FFB: The Black Camel - Earl Derr Biggers

Charlie Chan is on the case!

Strange that though he is a member of the Honolulu Police Department there are only two books in the Chan series that take place in Hawaii. One of those (The House Without a Key) is only partially set there. The Black Camel (1929) is the fourth book in the Chan series and the only one which is set exclusively in Hawaii. It is also the first book in which we meet Chan's family. Well, his wife and four of his eleven children to be specific. Where the other seven kids have gone is never mentioned. For the record those four kids are named Rose, Evelyn, Henry and Barry. Barry is a baby in this book and is named after movie actor Barry Kirk who appeared in the novel Behind That Curtain. There's some hardcore Charlie Chan trivia for you! File that away for this year's Challenge to Reader Trivia contest. There's only one other website that goes into detail about the Chan children as described in the books.

But I digress...

Shelah Fane, stunning movie actress, is on her way back to Hawaii after a trip to Tahiti where Alan Jaynes proposed marriage to her. Before she accepts she must consult with her personal advisor the psychic Tarneverro who is also making his way to Hawaii. During her consultation with the psychic Shelah confesses that she has knowledge of the murder of  actor Denny Mayo, with whom she was romantically linked three years ago and whose murder remains unsolved. Tarneverro cajoles her into revealing she was present at the time of the murder and knows the murderer is here on the island. But was there someone listening on the balcony of their hotel room? Just prior to a dinner party Shelah had planned for all her movie co-workers and friends she is found stabbed in a pavilion not far from her main house. Could her murder be related to Denny Mayo's murder? And is the murderer truly on the island as she confessed to Tarneverro?

Academy Chicago paperback reprint
Charlie Chan is soon on the case and finding clue after clue: among them a cigar stub left outside the pavilion window, a stolen letter from Shelah, a torn photo hidden under a potted plant, a broken diamond pin. There seems to be a plethora of clues with each one incriminating a different dinner party guest. Somewhat against his will Chan finds himself teamed up with the psychic Tarneverro who has shown too much of a personal interest in the murder. It is a battle of wits and detective skills between the two. By the end of the book Charlie will learn the true identity of Denny Mayo's murderer, the killer of Shelah Fane, and several deep dark secrets among the entire cast of characters.

This is one of purest American traditional detective novels you may ever encounter. Tightly constructed with multiple clues presented expertly in a genuine fair play technique it has both a familiar and modern feel to it all.  Familiar in the old-fashioned sense of a supersleuth hunting for clues and modern in Biggers' deft and breezy dialogue. The characters, for the most part, would seem right at home in the 21st century rather than the 1920s. From the opening scenes with a terrified and angst-ridden Shelah Fane meeting with Tarneverro to the timeworn gathering of the suspects in the dining room where Chan has them recreate their seating arrangement at the dinner party The Black Camel has all the ingredients to satisfy a true fan of detective fiction.

In 1001 Midnights Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller award this book a coveted asterisk marking it as noteworthy in the development of the genre. Marcia Muller, who wrote the entries for Earl Derr Biggers, also says it's the highlight in the Chan series. I have read three of the Chan novels so far and I have to agree with their assessment. For the Hawaiian setting, the tightly constructed plot, the abundance of clues and a neat final surprise you can't beat this book.

Also worth mentioning is the movie version released in 1931. Of the few film adaptations of the Charlie Chan novels The Black Camel is the most faithful to its source material. With the exception of a minor actress all of the characters from the book appear in the movie and all of them retain their original character names. Warner Oland reprises his role as Chan, Bela Lugosi appears as the sinister Tarneverro, and a very youthful Robert Young is cast as the enthusiastic tourism P.R. man Jimmy Bradshaw who also serves as Bigger's typical starry-eyed young lover in a minor subplot. My review of the movie is now posted here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

NEW BOOKS: Sailor Twain - Mark Siegel

I read this book the beginning of last month having only learned of its existence around Christmas when it was named one of the Best Books of 2012. Sailor Twain was published in October last year and for the past four months has been celebrated by professional reviewers, bloggers and graphic novel fans all over the world. I feel that with so much well deserved attention for this marvelous and singular graphic novel that anything I might have to offer would be like plopping ketchup on the world's most perfect steak. Instead I'll give the most bare bones summary and allow you to get lost in the artwork.

The story takes place in nineteenth century upstate New York and incorporates all sorts of legends and history about the Hudson River, a brief overview of the passenger steamship business, mythology both old and new about mermaids and sirens, and -- probably my favorite part -- displays an obvious love for books and book collecting.

That's it from me. Let Mark Siegel's evocative charcoal drawings mesmerize you as they did me. No doubt you, too, will find yourself under the magical spell of this nameless mermaid, headed against your will to your local bookstore where you will demand a copy of Sailor Twain be produced at once. You'll have to own a copy. It's a beautiful book both as an object and a story, one I know I'll hang onto for a very long time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Greenmask! - Elizabeth Linington

"This is Number One - Greenmask!" proclaims the hastily scrawled note attached to the corpse found in Walt's Malt Shop. On top of the violently beaten body is a book neatly tied with a green ribbon. It's a copy of Thomas' Guide to Los Angeles County. Sgt. Ivor Maddox would rather devote time to unpacking his numerous books in his recently purchased new home instead of sorting out what seems to be the beginning of a lunatic killer on the rampage.

Maddox is also worried that the criminal has, like himself, an extensive knowledge of old murder mysteries and has let those stories run wild in his warped imagination. "Greenmask? Shades of Farjeon," he mutters to himself at the crime scene of the first victim. There's also a bit of Edgar Wallace and...something else. Something that rings a faint bell but he just can't hear loudly enough. That something else will eat away at Maddox until back home weary from routine police work he tries to relax by shelving his vast library. When he unpacks his numerous mystery novels (in neat alphabetical order) he finds that something else among the volumes in his personal library.

"For God's sake, you can't have that!" said Maddox in alarm. "If you get started on Carr, I won't get any useful work out of you for weeks. Here--" He scanned the shelves and gave Rodriguez And Then There Were None. "That's quite enough excitement for you until we've caught up to Greenmask."
Fans of Golden Age detective novels have more than they ever could wish for in Greenmask! (1964) in which a killer uses a fairly well known mystery novel as the template for a series of killings. I won't mention the book for fear of ruining a little surprise (and I would hope that anyone who already knows will also refrain from doing so in the comments). I enjoyed this mystery for the sheer hutzpah it took to write a copycat killer story and rely solely on a book that already exists as a model for the basic plot. I managed to see the connection early on yet Linington's characters kept me reading to the end. There was, however, rather a big letdown for me by the time I got to the final pages.

What makes the book such a fun read is the unusual stream of consciousness style of detective work Maddox engages in. This is his first appearance in a relatively short series. Linington was known in the 1960s as the "Queen of the Police Procedurals" and her series about Luis Mendoza written under the pseudonym Dell Shannon totaling over 40 books seem more like what a reader might expect in a police procedural. Here, the reader sees little of the police work; Maddox delegates routine tasks and questioning to the rookies and grunts and it all happens offstage. they later return and give reports in dialogue scenes. The majority of the detective work is done in Maddox's head and we read of his odd associational style of thinking. Linington attempts to convey Maddox's stream of conscious detective work by composing his thoughts in a telegraphic, abrupt prose style and almost perfectly captures on paper a replication of the way running thoughts crowd themselves and overlap in one's mind.

She extends this running thought fascination in her characters' speech patterns. The dialogue is rendered with many interrupted thoughts, lots of dashes and ellipses. All of the characters interviewed by the police talk this way. Only the police seem to be able to speak in full sentences without being distracted. By midway into the book you just hope for two or three pages of easy dialogue exchanges without someone going off into a non sequitar monologue. Linington reaches hyperrealism overload at the expense of a good story.

Typical of this era we also get a lot of character work focusing mostly on Maddox' personal life which involves his inexplicable sexual allure with women. Yes, you read that correctly. He basically does not understand nor does he like being a sex object. You'd think he'd enjoy all the attention, but weirdly it has placed a strain on his job and stain on his reputation. This allure has been so disruptive that Internal Affairs has called him up more than once. Maddox' magnetism knows no bounds extending even to the lowlifes. One of his biggest fans is a character who seems to have wandered in from the pages of a Jonathan Craig novel -- local lush Maggie McNeill. These scenes are the kind of thing you expect from 1930s vaudeville sketch comedy with Maggie's dialogue rendered in sibilant drunken slurring. More embarrassing than funny.

One caveat is the final solution. After discovering Maddox' library of vintage detective fiction, the multiple allusions to titles he (and presumably Linington) find to be the best of the genre, and the real fun of watching Detective Cesar Rodriguez become an avowed Golden Age detective fiction fan, we get to the denouement. It is uninspired to say the least. In addition to borrowing her plot from a well known writer Linington seems to have borrowed her killer from the pages of true crime history. While she may have thought she had pulled a neat twist circa 1960s what she did was reveal something completely different -- her prejudices and ignorance. Some unsubtle clueing mixes with melodramatic character behavior in what amounts to one of the most oft-repeated cliche villains we encounter in vintage fiction. The unveiling of the culprit is handled so distastefully, showing little compassion or insight into human nature, that it fairly ruined an otherwise enjoyable book.