Friday, May 31, 2013

FFB: Too Many Bones - Ruth Sawtell Wallis

Long before Kathy Reichs was writing forensic anthropology mysteries there was the long forgotten academic and physical anthropologist Ruth Sawtell Wallis who perhaps unknowingly created the first mystery that would eventually become a very popular subgenre. Her book Too Many Bones (1943) uses the study of a group of closely related skeletal ancestors as the intriguing background for her debut mystery novel. The involved study of those bones are integral to the solution of a mysterious death that occurs in the story.

Kay Ellis finds herself in the lucky position of assistant to Dr. John Gordon, a bookish and of course stunningly handsome scientist, currently very involved in studying the skeletons of the Holtzermann Collection housed in the William Proutman Museum in the Midwestern town of Hinchdale. Most of the staff is surprised that the K. Ellis they were expecting turns out to be a woman, but none so taken aback than the imperious director of the museum Zaydee Proutman, young widow of recently deceased William. Zaydee not only keeps her eye on the business of the museum but on the handsome Dr. Gordon in whom she is very interested. Mrs. Proutman is none too happy that the museum's new assistant is a 21 year-old woman with brains and looks.

A bitter rivalry starts up almost immediately between the two women and is worsened by the outbursts of alcoholic musician Randy Bill who has been spurned by Zaydee. Add into the mix the sinister Alpheus Harvey who would like to be running the museum himself while Zaydee he thinks is only fit for publicity fundraisers and newspaper photo-ops; spinsterish Alice Barton, the museum's librarian who has a waspish tongue and a taste for gossip; an opinionated Swedish immigrant engineer in charge of the museum's faulty furnace and heating system; and a friendly but secretive janitor named Esquire who would like to marry Mrs. Proutman's personal maid Isabelle but is prevented from doing so and you have all the ingredients for impending murder.

When Randy perishes in a horrific car accident and Zaydee disappears the very same night Sheriff Barton Brown suspects foul play. The museum and the town are searched thoroughly but it yields no sign of Zaydee or her belongings. Brown rushes through an inquest in order to put the blame solely on Randy calling it murder and suicide. Kay, however, sees lots of holes in Brown's hastily closed case. She turns detective to uncover the reason for Zaydee's sudden and convenient disappearance. In the course of her work she learns the grisly truth about what happened to Zaydee, digs up several deep dark secrets, and reveals an elaborate conspiracy to cover-up murder.

When Wallis finally gets around to making her book a real mystery -- more than halfway into the involved plot -- it picks up in momentum and interest. Prior to Kay's turning amateur sleuth the book reminded me of the kind of romantic suspense novel that was the specialty of Phyllis Whitney whose first mystery, Red Is for Murder, was coincidentally published the same year as Too Many Bones. Wallis' book is mostly about the rivalry between Zaydee and Kay and their attraction to the Byronic Dr. Gordon. There is a bit too much time spent in introducing her rather large cast and setting up the numerous motives for a possible murder. But her writing is always top notch, never dull, never stupid. There is some sly feminist commentary slipped into the story, too. Kay's complaints of the treatment of women in academia, especially unfair wage differences between men and women, make the book seem timely and resonant even for a 21st century reader.

The anthropological background enlivens the story when the soap operaish elements threaten to take over the book. Late in the story Kay talks about what the FBI can do with bones in determining blood type that made me think that Wallis was way ahead of her time in terms of new spins with the mystery novel. Even more remarkable is Wallis' treatment of the two black characters who have their own love story and are primary suspects in the murder investigation. Frequently in Golden Age detective novels (and nearly all popular fiction for that matter) minority servant characters serve as comic relief or are practically invisible in the story. Both Esquire and Isabelle have rather large supporting parts and are given a human dimension atypical for the era. Their roles, in fact, are larger and less cartoonish than than the gaggle of D.A.R. ladies who visit the car wreck site and gawk and gossip in one of the odder moments in the book. It's no wonder that for these innovations Wallis received the Red Badge Detective Novel Award from publisher Dodd Mead joining a list of writers that includes Clifford Knight, Hugh Pentecost, Christianna Brand and Marco Page.

Ruth Sawtell Wallis was herself an academic. Her work as a mystery writer was a happy accident and only a small portion of her professional life. Wallis' real body of work is devoted to anthropology and includes a book on the first Azilian remains found in France, children's growth studies for the Bureau of Home Economics, and with her husband an ethnography of the Micmac Indians in Eastern Canada. A brief overview of her work in the field of anthropology can be found here.

For once in a long time I have reviewed a book that is relatively easy to find. Too Many Bones was published in hardcover by Dodd Mead, reprinted in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap, and once again in paperback by Dell. The Dell mapback can sometimes be found for $3 in used bookstores in North America. I found at least ten copies for sale online ranging from $7 to $20. Happy hunting!

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: And finally -- Too Many Bones serves as my last book in the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. This fits the category Yankee Doodle Dandy for any mystery set in the USA.

Ruth Sawtell Walllis' Mystery Novels
Too Many Bones (1943)
No Bones About It (1944)
Blood from a Stone (1945)
Cold Bed in the Clay (1947)
Forget My Fate (1950)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: The Pepsi Generation

We have, in addition to my insanely large collection of vintage crime, adventure & supernatural fiction, a modest collection of vintage cookbooks thanks to Joe's interest in regional American cooking. The item below was found in a cookbook that appropriately enough focuses on low calorie dishes.

Who knew gardening burns more calories than a game of tennis? That seems wrong to me. I know I sweat a lot more gardening than I do bicycling, but that's mainly due to the unshaded place where we are growing our vegetables and sunflowers.

Pepsi-Cola was invented in 1893 by a druggist in New Bern, North Carolina and first was known as Brad's Drink. Five years later it was christened Pepsi-Cola, mostly to compete with the older Coca-Cola. Diet Pepsi didn't come along until 1963 and was the first diet soda sold in the United States. Originally it was called Patio, but I found that at Wikipedia so it may be dubious. It was primarily competing with Tab. Remember Tab? I think I saw a can of it somewhere recently. Who is making it again?

Pepsi has undergone a variety of changes in the formula, logo and its marketing jingle. I know the earliest tune was "Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces that's a lot/Twice as much for a nickel too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you." I sang it in a goofy little musical comedy called The 1940s Radio Hour back in my theater days and I managed through the miracle of YouTube to find a medley of the earliest Pepsi jingles in the clip below.

And for those of you of my generation or older (and perhaps a little younger) you may recall being part of "The Pepsi Generation." I thought this was the name of a long running jingle for Pepsi's ad campaign in the 60s and 70s, but the actual title is "You've Got a Lot to Live." It was on TV all the time throughout all of my teen years in the 1970s. "It's the Pepsi Generation/Comin' at ya, goin' strong" still pops into my head nearly every time I see a can of Pepsi Throwback -- the new name for the very old, original formula which is made with sugar and not the evil high fructose corn syrup that has ruined the taste of everything from soda to fruit juice to cereal. And I will dismount my nutritional soap box before I go off on a tirade.

Here's the full length 1970s version in a tempo I remember celebrating a variety of multi-cultural, multi-racial people in a typically upbeat and Utopian version of the turbulent 1970s:

Saturday, May 25, 2013

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Superintendent Cobham

Superintendent Cobham is on the case in Between Twelve and One (1929) by prolific (but sadly overlooked) Golden Age detective novelist Vernon Loder. Cobham is a likable detective who does an early form of what Columbo did -- he misleads suspects into thinking he's absent-minded or less than intelligent.  He also has the habit of humming operatic arias and music hall tunes while puttering about the crime scenes or waiting for suspects to be show into his office. He's one of the more human and eccentric characters I've come across in a long time.

THE CASE:  Speculating financier Mr. Cupoli invites nine of his investors to his home for a weekend. While entertaining his guests he plans to make an announcement about the project in which they have put their money -- an industrial plant that will extract nitrates from polluted air.  Before he can meet with his guests he is taken ill by an apparent overdose of cocaine. Next morning after a rousing and frightening thunderstorm Cupoli is found stabbed in his bedroom.  His body is found half hanging out a window and medieval poniard is on the floor. But there is no blood on the poniard.  The textured design of the blade should've caught flash or viscera, the medical examiner tells Cobham. However, the blade is absolutely clean. The poniard does not appear to be the weapon. What then caused the fatal stab wound?

Cobham does some nimble detection.  Most of the time we get fair play mode but sometimes it's of the "he put it in his pocket" variety.  That is, Cobham finds a piece of evidence and pockets it or does something inexplicable and the reader hasn't a clue what it means. Case in point -- the chair in Cupoli's bedroom.  Cobham marks an X on the chair's underside then removes it to his office at Scotland Yard. Why? We only find out in the final chapter. And it has a great significance to what happened to the actual murder weapon.  But the true detection in the novel makes up for these slight cheats in the narrative.

One of the better sequences involves the discovery of scratches on the outside window ledge indicating the use of a grappling hook. Later a grappling hook is retrieved from a pond. The hook is covered in fish spawn and bears traces of oil. The police will also find a brand new rope attached to a windlass of an ancient well that has been saturated with brackish, non-potable water.  Cobham will eventually prove that the murderer went to great lengths to give the impression that someone climbed into the bedroom window using the rope and grappling hook, but his genius lab workers prove this all to be a charade. Comparison of well water and pond water; the life cycle of the roach, a fish that lives in brackish water, and other arcana enter into unveiling one of the most elaborate red herrings I've encountered in the genre.

There is are several clever sequences.  One involving the investigation of the ancient well and what they find there. Another when Cobham asks suspect Vance Maud to give him a tour of a country club. He especially wants to see the locker rooms.  Maud thinks the policeman has lost his mind, but nonetheless obliges with his odd request. Clive Merton, Cobham's right hand man, is also baffled. He thinks Cobham is being frivolous and unprofessionally curious about the operation of a country club and not focussing on the real reason for being there which is to find the possible hidden location of some missing money. But of course it's all Cobham's sly way of further proving his theories.

UK 1st edition under the original title
(Collins, 1929)
The detection in this novel is much improved from The Mystery at Stowe. Cobham's sham act manages to fool not only the innocent among the suspects but the arrogant murderer as well.  It's a shame that this appears to be his only appearance in Loder's vast output as he is one of the more original policeman characters of this era. The uncanny similarity to Lt. Columbo one I couldn't get out of my head.  For that reason I think this book would be of great interest to fans of that brilliant TV series.

Of all of Loder's books Between 12 and 1 -- which was originally published in the UK under the bland title Whose Hand? -- is the easiest to get a hold of.  A few copies are available for sale via online bookselling sites and one copy can be had for as little as $10.

Friday, May 24, 2013

FFB: Thirteen Women - Tiffany Thayer

I really don't know what to make of Thirteen Women (1932) by the eccentric stylist Tiffany Thayer. Is it a thriller? Is it a character study? Is it some kind of allegory on Fate? What I do know is it's tawdry, vulgar, lyrical, pulpy, poignant, disgusting, frustrating, infuriating, and utterly addictive. It's sort of the equivalent of driving by an utterly gruesome car wreck on the highway. You don't want to look, you know better. You, of course, are not a gawker or a rubbernecker. But when you get close enough you do slow down and you stare in horror and then look away, but you look back and you gape again. Then you move on. That's what it's like to read Thirteen Women. What can you say about a book that in the first chapter includes a dinner party scene in which the guests discuss a sex act that a depraved nanny performed on her charge and who ended up giving the boy a venereal disease? Of course it's all done in a sly innuendo type of writing, but it's just down right wrong, isn't it?

Thayer is not interested in making you comfortable as a reader. He wants you to squirm and recoil and shudder. He's a bit too obsessed with the nastiness and cruelty of life. He revels in pointing out his character's flaws -- their ignorance, their stupidity, their hedonism. The book is, I guess, meant to be a nihilistic view of the early years of depression era America told mostly from the viewpoint of female characters. But these women are merely symbols and puppets for Thayer's intensely cynical and fatalistic philosophies. Few of them resemble anything approaching a real person. The plot involves an absurd revenge plot decades in the making that stems from the villainess' life of abuse, neglect and bullying. She blames a group of schoolgirls for all her problems and vows vengeance on them all. She devises a ridiculous plan in which she creates the persona of an astrologer who sends letters to all the women in her past. The astrologer foretells death, suicide and disease for everyone.  And when the predictions start to come true one of the women sees not the power of superstition and Fate at work but a very real murder plot starting to unfold at the hands of a mad genius.

Illustrations from the 1st edition by David Berger

Laura Stanhope take her collection of letters to the police along with a packet of powder she received from the astrologer who goes by the preposterous name of Swami Yogadachi (a Japanese swami?). The powder was to be given to her son on his birthday according to the Swami's instructions and is meant to save the boy from a potentially fatal disease he predicts. Laura suspecting it harmful never did a thing but instead of disposing of it she saved it. For five months! She had to or else it wouldn't further the plot, right? The police have the powder analyzed and it turns out to be a highly poisonous compound usually intended as a pesticide for vermin. Thus begins the hunt for the murderous Swami Yogadachi and the search for the other recipients of his letters to prevent any further deaths.

The story is a veritable Pandora's box of ills and pestilence released upon the reader. Murder, suicide, insanity, venereal disease, abortion, sex addiction -- it's all there in abundance. In keeping with the shock factor Thayer also includes a lesbian romance and makes it as tawdry and unattractive as one can imagine for a 1930s audience. Simultaneously making fun of the butch/femme stereotypes and also writing in such a manner as to titillate the easily aroused. It's not as tasteless as the sex addicted nanny story -- at times the relationship between Hazel and Martha is touchingly rendered -- but clearly the scenes are there for the reader who picked this book to be shocked.

Thirteen Women is told in a hodgepodge mess of letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, and author omniscient narration. We get to know the women through their own voices in their letters, but also through the condescending viewpoint of Thayer's narrator who at times is the author himself. Often Thayer steps into the story addressing the reader as "you" and giving his opinions of his characters as if they are real people ("You can't have Josephine Turner. Make up your mind to that. In the first place, I want her myself.") It's only one of the many unexpected parts of the book that make it a genuine head-scratcher yet strangely entertaining in a very offbeat way.

Tiffany Thayer's life, however, would make for a much more interesting book than any of his novels. There is a fascinating article here that goes into great detail about his beginnings as a writer, his friendship with Charles Fort, the origins of the Fortean Society which Thayer helped found, and his megalomaniac takeover of the society and its first magazine/newsletter Doubt. Someone should write a biography of the man. I'd read that with great interest. But as for further investigating the fiction of Tiffany Thayer I have had my fill after indulging myself in the pages of Thirteen Women.

This review was suggested to me by Curt Evans who has written about Tiffany Thayer's publisher Claude Kendall here. This week we chose to write about Thayer's bookend titles Thirteen Women and Thirteen Men. His review of Thirteen Men can be found at his blog The Passing Tramp.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

JACKET REQUIRED: Book Buying Binge

Throughout last month and this month I've been buying a bit more than I thought I would. Most of these were acquired for $2 or less at book sales throughout the Chicago Area. Some came from New Orleans used and antiquarian book stores when I was on vacation back in April. And a handful were purchases done over the internet from one source or another.

Click on images to enlarge. Enjoy!

Friday, May 17, 2013

FFB: Scream for Jeeves - P.H. Cannon

Sheer serendipity, this one. Was in the library looking for something completely different and saw the title of this little book just to the left of some Victor Canning books. P. G. Wodehouse's best loved characters entering the world of the Cthulhu Mythos? How could I resist?

The subtitle for Scream for Jeeves (1995), seen on the book's cover, is "A Parody" and that it is. With Bertie Wooster narrating, Jeeves supplying his usual brand of wry wit and wise advice, and creatures from other dimensions, seen and unseen,  looming ominously in the background it's not exactly going to be all that terrifying. Especially when Cannon creates absurdly apt characters like Captain Tubby Norrys who "resembled one of those Japanese Sumo wrestlers after an especially satisfying twelve course meal" and who "shook in gratitude like a jelly -- or more precisely like a pantry full of jellies." The juxtaposition of Wodehouse and Lovecraft does make for some bizarreness. Witness this section taken from the first story "Cats, Rats and Bertie Wooster":

"The walls are alive with nauseous sound--the verminous slithering of ravenous, gigantic rats!" exclaimed the master of the manse.

"You don't say. As a child I think I read something about a giant rat of Sumatra--or at any rate, a passing reference."

Towards the end of the story Jeeves pronounces a typical warning to the reader found in all of Lovecraft's work: "We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went, sir, for it was decided that such secrets are not good for mankind."

You get the idea. It's lightweight parody getting just the right flavor of a frothy airy cappuccino. In addition to pastiches of Wodehouse and Lovecraft there are allusions to the work of Arthur Machen, Conan Doyle, Poe and even "Fawlty Towers." I had a fun evening reading the tales. Knowledge of both Wodehouse and Lovecraft is not all that necessary, but I imagine the enlightened and well read will better appreciate the stories.

There are three stories in the brief volume, the other two are "Something Foetid" and "The Rummy Affair of Young Charlie."  The book concludes with the essay "The Adventure of Three Anglo American Writers" in which Cannon -- who claims membership in three societies devoted to Conan Doyle, Wodehouse and Lovecraft -- describes among many observations, the friendship between Doyle and Wodehouse; Lovecraft's admiration for Sherlock Holmes; Wodehouse's familiarity with Lord Dunsany's stories; and manages to find similarities in the works of all three writers. Sometimes Cannon is convincing in his analogies, sometimes he stretches them far too thin.

The Jazz Age style illustrations are by J.C. Eckhardt. The homage to the two writers extends even to paired initials in the book's creators.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I'd Rather Buy a Jaguar, Thanks

Just had to share this with my readers, many of whom are collectors like me or who just like to buy old mystery books every now and then. I doubt, however, any among you has the spare change to pick up the book advertised below. And it's so attractive, too. Foxed pages, chipped and foxed DJ. Definitely a keeper.

Just in case you're wondering it is indeed scarce, but there is a reputable seller with a copy minus the DJ who is selling it for $245. Standard pricing for a copy of any book without a DJ is to deduct approximately 75% from the price if it did have a DJ. So the naked copy is rather a steal. That is, if you believe this book is truly worth the equivalent price of a 2013 Jaguar XF with all the extras. Even a first edition of Fer De Lance in DJ (a much more important and collectible book in the genre) would never fetch over $60,000.

Click here for more details on this book. While visiting that page (yes, it's on that infamous auction site) you can view more pictures of this damaged book that someone thinks is the Hope Diamond of mystery fiction.

UPDATE (May 17, 2013): The seller appears to be playing a game with this item's listing. Each day the price drops. Tim Prasil caught it at £39,500. Today I see it has been further reduced to £38,750. How do you spell crackpot?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Real Star Trek (w/ a nod to David Bowie)

While everyone else is excited for the new Star Trek movie to open. I was astounded by this real life star trek from astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Because I love David Bowie a friend sent me this video. I am not a Twitter follower and I'm not really up on the latest in astrophysics or the space program, but Hadfield's amazing video makes me wish I had been paying a little more attention to his stay out in space. The video below is mind blowing and awesome in the genuine sense of that much overused word.

No amount of movie special effects can match what is contained in the frame below. Reminds me of some words from Jeff Weiss -- playwright, clown, tragedian, old soul, and once a good friend:
"We dance like puppets in the candlelight...the immensity of heaven, the terrible smallness of man."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction

The more I dig into all these forgotten mysteries of the past the more my curiosity is aroused. I end up discovering more unusual tidbits about pop culture, world history, medicine, physics, animal behavior, what have you. For instance, a character will mention he played a game of bezique and I react with a cry of "What?" sending me off to my laptop a-Googling into the vastness of cyberspace in an attempt to quench my thirst for more trivia.

Here's a list of the most recent learning in my extracurricular education.

1. Bezique is a trick taking card game for two players. It can be traced back to the early 19th century in France. Winston Churchill apparently loved it. The scoring seems arbitrary and rather complicated. I am determined to learn how to play it if I can get Joe to stay of out of the garden for a couple hours in the coming months. (mentioned in Death Comes to Cambers by E.R. Punshon)

2. The Maginot Line, France's attempt to build a series of fortifications along the French-German border with the hope that it would contain fighting along the borders and prevent interior attacks, had a system of underground barracks interconnected with railways. A very cool set of map endpapers in Papa Pontivy and The Maginot Murder by Bernard Newman was pretty much the deciding factor in my purchase of this book. Still reading it and a review is soon to come.

3. August Wimmer (1872-1937) was a Danish psychiatrist who pioneered the field of study involving dissociative identity disorder back as early as the 1900s. The disorder is more commonly (and inaccurately) referred to as multiple personality disorder. I later learned one of his most important works, Psychogenic Psychoses (1936), wasn't even translated into English until 2003. (Can't reveal the name of the book where I learned this or the entire story is ruined.)

4. The first postage stamp was created in England in 1840 and is known as the "penny black." Stamps created for the island of Mauritius because a printing error (I later learned this was a myth) were at one time the most highly prized stamps in the world of philately.  Does anyone still collect stamps? (Mentioned, along with lots of other philatelic history in the excellent stamp collecting mystery A Most Immoral Murder by Harriette Ashbrook

5. The Monkey Gland Cocktail created sometime in the 1920s was named after a trendy surgical procedure developed by Serge Voronoff. (mentioned in The Dead Walk by Gilbert Collins)

6. Playing time on records of any given musical composition can vary from record to record depending on who is singing or conducting. This may seem obvious to most of you but it was a bit of an eye opener for me. (Murder Plays an Ugly Scene by L.A.G. Strong)

7. There is a fish called a roach native to Europe that is often found in brackish freshwater. When spawning they get violent and often jump out of the water. (Between Twelve and One by Vernon Loder)

8. I learned more than I ever dreamed of about aerodynamics, the science of wind tunnels, and their importance in designing aircraft in the fascinating military mystery Death Flies Low by "Neal Shepherd", aka Nigel Morland.

9. For an FFB post back in February I ended up researching the life of Huey P. Long after learning that his bid for the U.S. Presidency had inspired Sax Rohmer to write President Fu Manchu.

10. Elevator design does not seem all that much improved from 1930. OK, this one is facetious. This is mostly based on my frustrations in the new building where I work where all the staff elevators despite being computerized behave as if they are being operated by hand crank. (suggested by the elevator problems in From This Dark Stairway by Mignon G. Eberhart)

This may be a continuing series.  Let me know if anyone wants more trivia in the coming months.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blog Bytes Follow-up

My thanks to Bill Crider for the free publicity in his "Blog Bytes" column of the July 2013 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Finally located a place (very close to where I live, in fact) that sells the magazine and will be able to pick it up regularly now.

Turns out there is an amazing newsstand in Evanston, the oldest newsstand in the area dating back to the turn of the century. The photo of the neon sign (at left) is from the original location for Chicago-Main Newsstand which was shuttered between 1993-2001 while it underwent a change in ownership and extensive rehabbing and restoration. This Evanston location is considerably smaller than the City Newsstand on Chicago's west side, but they had EQMM and AHMM among many, many other literary and fiction magazines.  I found a magazine called Book Source which I never heard of and had to buy. Book Source includes articles about the antiquarian book trade including lists of book fairs, sales, auctions and even a column about extremely rare books for sale.  I may even subscribe to that magazine.

For all those who haven't seen the bit about Pretty Sinister Books in EQMM, here it is:

All those posts appeared during the month of February this year, so that gives you some idea of the deadline schedule of the mystery magazine. Bill must've written the piece around February 10 when the latest of those articles "LEFT INSIDE: Ann's Library Card"  was posted.

Other blogs mentioned in the column are Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, The Graveyard Shift, International Noir Fiction and Men Reading Books. They are all more interested in the present than I am, so if contemporary crime fiction is more your thing then head on over for opinions, reviews and interviews of the new stuff out there.  And keep on coming back here for the obscure, forgotten, and well worth reading.

Thanks again, Bill!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

FFB: The Kind Man - Helen Nielsen

A recent post on Friday's Forgotten Books host site, pattinase, asked us "Do Men Read Women?" I know I do, but I thought I read a lot more women writers than I have done so far this year. Out of my total of 45 books in 2013 I have read only a measly twelve books by women writers. With Mother's Day around the corner and my guilty conscience nagging at me I thought I'd write up another overlooked and very good crime writer who is a woman.

The Kind Man (1951) is Helen Nielsen's debut novel and eerily it shares quite a bit with another book by a woman writer published that year and previously reviewed on this blog -- A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. In both books we have a young man quite obviously troubled, possibly mentally ill, and haunted by his past. In both the two young men are obsessed with killing and a specific murder weapon. In Nielsen's book the tortured soul is Marty Weaver and he has knives on his mind almost all the time. Make that a specific knife. One that he happens to find and take home with him. And he thinks he must use it over and over to kill the people he loves. He's clearly not well, my friends. But is he really guilty of the murders that take place?

What makes this particular knife so special is that also happens to be a piece of evidence that went missing from a murder trial many years ago. That it should happen to turn up now and is used to commit another murder on a person who Marty barely knew is what drives the plot. Nielsen is fascinated with the effects of crime on the people who are left behind. Do the survivors manage to forgive? Can they learn to heal themselves after violence has ripped their inner lives to shreds? Can families ever be the same? Marty's anguished past becomes the key to understanding his obsession with violence, knives, and murder.

Helen Nielsen (from the DJ of Obit Delayed)
Photo by Amos Carr/Hollywood
Though it sounds like a variation on the kind of thing Patricia Highsmith made famous a decade or so after, The Kind Man has its roots in detective fiction. Down to earth Chief of Police Homer Snyder serves as the detective of the piece. His reporter pal Max is a sort of Watson. With some prodding from Snyder Max goes digging into newspapers archives and uncovers Marty's notorious past. Under a different name Marty made headlines when he was a teen and so did the knife, a grisly weapon with a handle fashioned from an animal bone. That knife seems to be an exact replica of the one used to kill Francis Palmer.

The "kind man" of the title is Sampson Case, owner of a cannery business. His much younger wife Lola turns out to be one of those philandering temptresses that populated the paperback originals of the 1950s. Snyder soon discovers she is linked to the murder victim, Palmer, an avid gambler who was relentless in collecting his debts. For a while it looks as if Palmer's death is nothing more than gambling and gangster stuff. Several thousand dollars has gone missing and the search for the money and who took it from the corpse makes up a secondary part of the murder investigation. The case gets rather complicated when the man who discovered Palmer's body, a poor Mexican Sampson Case took pity on, is also murdered with that ubiquitous knife. Now it looks as if Snyder has a homicidal maniac on his hands. Sampson Case will play an important part in the unusual finale and the title of book will have greater significance than merely describing his demeanor.

Nielsen tells a great story. It's a multi-layered, complex plot riffing on the old-fashioned detective novels of the 30s and 40s but with a keen insight into the ravages of violent crime and its long ranging effects on those who have to pick up the pieces in its aftermath. The manner in which Marty's past keeps intruding, and the presence of the eerie knife make for an almost supernatural element controlling the characters. At times Nielsen is so masterful in her writing that she makes the murderer appear to be a menacing omnipresent force haunting Marty and not a real human being at all. And there is mounting suspense in the last eight chapters with gripping incidents following in quick succession. Impressive work from a novice to be sure.

James Farentino can't resist Vera Miles in "Death Scene"
 Helen Nielsen went on to write  more crime fiction including the noir novels Detour (not the basis for Edgar Ulmer's movie) and Sing Me A Murder, both made well known when they were reprinted by the original Black Lizard imprint prior to its purchase by Vintage Books. Her short stories appeared regularly in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine throughout the 1960s and she also wrote frequently for TV, notably two episodes for Perry Mason and several teleplays for both incarnations of Alfred Hitchcock's anthology series. Her story "Death Scene" as adapted by James Bridges for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour starred Vera Miles as a femme fatale mixed up with the chauffeur (James Farentino) for her Hollywood movie director father (John Carradine) and is one of the better episodes in the entire series.

Helen Nielsen's Crime Fiction
The Kind Man (1951)
Gold Coast Nocturne (1951) aka Murder by Proxy (UK hardcover) and Dead on the Level (US paperback)
Obit Delayed (1952)
Detour (1953) aka Detour to Death
The Woman on the Roof (1954)
Stranger in the Dark (1955)
The Crime is Murder (1956)
Borrow the Night (1957) aka Seven Days Before Dying
The Fifth Caller (1959)
False Witness (1959)
Sing Me A Murder (1960) aka The Dead Sing Softly
Verdict Suspended (1964)
After Midnight (1966)
A Killer in the Street (1967)
Darkest Hour (1969)
Shot on Location (1971)
The Severed Key (1973)
The Brink of Murder (1976)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Queen's Recommendation

I received word from a blog reader who goes by the Salingeresque sobriquet Holden that Pretty Sinister Books has been mentioned as a recommended mystery blog in the latest issue (July 2013) of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. And this is apparently the second time the blog was mentioned! Why doesn't anyone tell me anything?  Thanks, Holden for the heads up.

I'm off to find a copy later today. There's a newstand on the corner of Michigan and Chicago and they might just have a copy. Or else I will have to take a subway ride to the nearest Barnes & Noble. When I find one I will be updating this post with a scan of the actual article. Yes, I need proof just like all the rest of you Doubting Thomases out there.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: A Cry for Help

This is the perhaps the strangest bit of writing I've ever found inside a book. I recently bought an old paperback edition of The Balcony by Dorothy Cameron Disney and in flipping through the pages (as I always do looking for something hidden inside) I discovered the last blank page was filled with bizarre writing.

I thought it especially ironic that something this desperate and fearful would appear in a book that has a fair amount of "Had I But Known" type narrative. At first I thought it may have something to so with Disney's story, but there are no characters in the book with any of the names in this scrawled message.

Transcription for those who have difficulty with script writing:

Why did Lynn call me to ask how are you doing[?] very odd
Why Linda not call or talk to me[?] its Sunday
Why did Ralph call me[?] very strange and it seems as if my time & Ebbys here is running out
I feel very scared
They get me a nice place he said
I am so sad never been so scared if only Don were here
Eban is very restless for the past 3 days too
I pray to join Don every night

Friday, May 3, 2013

FFB: Alarum and Excursion - Virginia Perdue

The special code on the spine and front flap of this 1944 Doubleday Crime Club novel is an exclamation mark indicating that the editors thought it "Something New." The reader should expect a story that deviates from the traditional whodunit, one that offers more than just "A Chess Puzzle" or "Fast Action" or "Humor and Homicide" as the other categories on the rear of the jacket promise. Turning to the inside jacket blurb and reading that it is yet another in a long line of amnesia crime stories should not deter the reader from opening to the first page. Alarum and Excursion is indeed something new in crime fiction; apart from the unusual story it is one of the earliest noir novels from a woman writer of this period.

There are  number of features that make Perdue's book stand out from the rest of the amnesiac crowd. First, her protagonist Nicholas Methany is 62 years old and the CEO of his own oil company. You can probably guess the story is not going to include any action scenes of youthful derring-do. Plus, he has two grown children and a very young wife. Second, the manner in which Methany's memory returns is orchestrated with some of the most original and realistic scenes in a book of this type. He never completely loses his memory, as I expect would happen in a real amnesia situation. Methany can only recall vague moments and envision hazy glimpses of a specific event -- a lab explosion at his firm Seaboard Petroleum that left him injured.

In two of the most cleverly done parts Methany is given modeling clay and he finds himself unconsciously shaping and forming it into a serpent ready to strike. Later he will find an exact replica of that snake in a drawer in his home and it will have great significance to a plot that slowly is revealed to him. In another scene Hero, his wife, puts out her cigarette in an small earthenware container she uses as an ashtray and Methany is instantly taken back to a similar scene in his past. The smell of a perfume, the sound of a voice, the mention of a name -- all of these will jar his broken memory bank and send him into the past, remembering and piecing together his past life to help him explain his present predicament. It's all carefully orchestrated by Perdue and rings true in every instance.

As his memory of the accident gradually returns into full focus Methany learns that two people died and one was most likely murdered. He also learns that the accident was not an accident at all but a plot to undermine the development of a synthetic fuel his firm was about to release. With gasoline in short supply and the US entering the war, Methany is sure his non-petroleum based alternate fuel will be the saving grace for the war effort. He plans to give the formula to the military free of charge or licensing fees. But there are others in his company who disagree with Methany's altruism and see nicoline (the fuel's name) as the means to financial riches if the formula were offered up for sale.

There is a lot to recommend the book: the structure and plot details are imaginative and well thought out, Perdue's muscular prose that walks a fine line between being tough and sentimental, and a cast of unusual minor characters. I will single out Professor Wyndham, a kooky paleontologist locked up at the Crestview mental institution where Methany is recuperating, who walks three steps forward and one back, talks about life on Mars and Mercury and helps Methany in a daring escape.  Much later in the book we meet the crude saloon piano player, Beulah Westmore, who has some vital information about Methany's son's involvement in the lab explosion and why it happened.

As each characters' true nature is revealed the novel ventures further into the realm of noir. The strange relationship between Hero, her ex-con father Charley Van Norman, and Methany becomes one of seedy corruption , self-interest and base greed. The finale is as dark as any noir of the 1950s. And the last paragraph is one guaranteed to induce a gasp of awe in any reader. I know let loose with a "Wow!" before I closed the book.

SIDEBAR: In an attempt to learn more about Virginia Perdue I discovered that she had a special relationship with Robert Heinlein. According to The Heinlein Society website in the 1930s Perdue and Heinlein were friends. She was instrumental in giving the science fiction writer advice on submitting his manuscripts to mainstream magazines, not just the pulps, and encouraged him to write novels. Heinlein's second wife also believed that the relationship went a bit deeper than just writers helping each other out with their careers. A feature article on Perdue (rather than the two paragraphs I found) was supposed to appear in an issue of The Heinlein Journal, but I was unable to find it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Murder Plays an Ugly Scene - L.A.G. Strong

Emmeline Vane is the tough as nails founder and principal of the Kean-Macready Stage School. With a reputation for bullying students and staff she is far from everyone's favorite. Few tears are shed when her corpse is found in a recording booth located backstage of the school's theater. That she was apparently murdered during the school's annual student pageant does, however, shock not only the student actors but many of the staff. Adding to the mystery is the fact that Miss Vane is found both strangled and stabbed, an ornate dagger found sticking out of her shoulder. Did the killer try and fail with the dagger then resort to strangling? Were there two attempts on her life? How was it all done with no one seeing who entered the booth?

The original title of this book is Othello's Occupation (1945) which also serves as the title of the odd little one act the students were performing when Miss Vane met her long overdue demise. The play tells the story of a tenor with a remarkable singing voice who is auditioning for the role of Othello in Verdi's operatic version of the Shakespearean tragedy. The play does not require that the actor cast as the tenor sing, but Miss Vane, a musical enthusiast, wrote a special scene that would allow her to play a recording of a minor Italian tenor singing an aria from Verdi's Otello. She insisted that she alone operate the gramophone in the recording booth. She would be therefore be in the recording room alone during the play's performance. Inspector Ellis Mackay thinks it gave inspiration to a rather devious and daring killer who gave Miss Vane a fatal lesson in her hour upon the stage.

Mackay who debuted in the intriguing All Fall Down (1944), an impossible crime mystery about a bibliophilic malcontent who is crushed under a towering fallen bookcase in his locked study, makes his second appearance here. He is an unorthodox policeman with a sardonic sense of humor and a keen understanding of human nature, idiosyncratic personality types are his forte. When dealing with the students, especially, he shows his compassionate side in catering his questions to each. He succeeds in putting at ease the nervous and insecure Adrian, paradoxically the best actor in the school. When the excellently named Evadne Jebb, a sickeningly egocentric and vicious gossip dares to imply that she was responsible for Miss Vane's death so that she can once again be the center of attention Mackay treats her with near contempt and lectures her on how her selfishness is a danger to the entire school. Though he manages to penetrate the hidden inner lives of these complex young people they also manage to keep several secrets among themselves and conspire to withhold information from the policeman. Their whispered and furtive scenes nearly lead to another unnecessary death.

In the course of the investigation and largely due to the use of a rare recording Inspector Mackay reveals his private passion -- he is an amateur composer and record collector. Mackay's interest in musical composition and his extensive knowledge of classical music helps him identify two separate recordings of the aria Miss Vane used in the play. In one of the most original set pieces in the book he proves, with the help of "ear-witnesses," that the record used in the performance was not the one Miss Vane had in her possession and previously used in rehearsals. So why the switch and what happened to the other record? Mackay's reputation as an audiophile proves to be his fatal flaw, one that affects his entire team and nearly bungles the case. He later admits his embarrassment in missing the obvious solution to a not so puzzling puzzle.

Mackay suffers no fools and has an irreverent streak in him that recalls the flippancy of Beatrice Bradley. At the same time, he seems to be as wise as the Dalai Lama; his insights while not deeply profound are nonetheless compassionate and sometimes poignant. His unusual hobby involving music in all its forms – here given stronger focus and integral to the final solution of the baffling mystery – makes him all the more appealing. But it is his unbridled concern for the students that make this entry in the series perhaps the finest of the lot.

Strong, like Gladys Mitchell, has an obvious love of young people, their talents, their dreams, their foibles and struggles when faced with violent crime that forces them to grow up quickly. Some learn how to adapt and mature like Violet and Adrian, others like the vile Evadne and her sycophantic crony Petronella descend into childish game playing that endangers the safety of all involved. The author allows Mackay to see both good and bad in all the students and Mackay does his best to teach them how to be better people, not just better students, an issue the faculty has managed to overlook in the doling out of an education.

L.A.G. Strong only dabbled in the mystery genre. He is primarily known for his work as a poet, novelist, and short story writer in which he also experimented with crime and even supernatural themes. His list of non-genre novels far outweighs his detective fiction works – or "police diversions" as he dubbed them – which number only six. But in Ellis Mackay he has fashioned one of the most interesting police detectives in mystery fiction from the late 40s and early 50s. I only wish there had been more of Mackay; a mere four novels is short change for such an original, lively and human character.

Inspector Ellis Mackay appears in:
All Fall Down (1944)
Othello's Occupation (1945)
    [aka Murder Plays an Ugly Scene]
Which I Never (1950)
Treason in the Egg (1958)

Other Detective Fiction by L.A.G. Strong
Slocombe Dies (1942)
Odd Man In (1946) - short story collection

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE:  Nearly finished with my required eight books for the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. This marks my seventh and fits the category A Mystery By Any Other Name  for books with alternate titles.