Sunday, June 30, 2013

FLASH FICTION: The Terrible Thing at the Edge of the Lake

Yvette who blogs at "In so many words..." offered up a Flash Fiction Challenge for today.  Participants were to write a brief story about what's going on in the painting by Mario Cooper shown at the left. The picture was used to illustrate a story in one of the many magazines for which Cooper often did artwork. Writers were to ignore the original story (I don't even know what it was) and make up their own tale of why the young man in the swimsuit and the woman in the flouncy dress were locking the door.

Mine is a very strange blend of psychological and material horror. Today also happens to be Gay Pride Day in Chicago and I believe I was visited by the ghost of a certain playwright whom I have always admired. So here's a tribute to him. Apologies to the man for borrowing one of his characters and quoting a few of his lines. I secretly think might see the humor in it all.

*     *     *

The Terrible Thing at the Edge of the Lake

Why they called it a summerhouse was a mystery to her. It was barely more than a single room, sparsely furnished with a tiny fireplace in the corner as its sole source of heat. Far too small for a house, you could barely call it a cabin. A shack really. But a cozy shack someone transformed into a private retreat here tucked away in the woods just a few yards from the shoreline of Moon Lake. The casino was only a ten minute walk through the neglected path and polka music was drifting from the ballroom. She glided to its syncopated rhythm thinking to herself. She came here for an escape, to meditate, quietly summoning the courage she needed. In her mind she carefully constructed the sentences, choosing the words carefully, trying not to make it as hurtful as she knew it was going to be.

The door burst open. A rugged young man drenched from head to toe in a tight fitting swimsuit that showed off his athletic build came rushing in. He was startled when he saw her dancing with herself.

"Huh? What are you doing here?"

"Oh Allan, you've been swimming. Come here by the fire."

"Allan? You've got the wrong guy." He headed for a small bureau, opened a drawer and pulled out a towel and began drying himself.

"You know what's going on out there?"

"Dancing, gambling, drinking, laughing. They're all too gay for me. Such a sad night this is. The loss of love is always sad."

He stared at her and smirked. Drunk. Sure as hell she's drunk. Dancing with herself in this shack.

"Someone said a guy fell in the lake. I jumped in and pulled him out. His throat was torn open, his head's a bloody mess. Looks like some kind of animal got him."

"Allan, I know all your secrets. There's no use covering them up with romantic tales."

The music stopped by now. Sounds of a crowd replaced the lilting jaunty melody. A woman screamed.

"Listen, I'm not Allan, lady. I told you that. What are you doing here? This is for the lifeguards only."

"I saw you with him. Caught you in flagrante delicto. Disgusting it was. No… that's not right. You. You disgust me! Yes. That's it."

She paused, took her scarf from her neck, and draped the lampshade. The light in the room softened and was tinged with the colors of roses and lilacs that made up the printed pattern. She started to sway to a melody only she could hear.

"Say… Do you know something about that kid out there?"

"A boy. Only a boy. And so beautiful."

"Well, I wouldn't call him a boy. Looked to be early twenties. I don't know about beautiful either. His face was pretty much gone. And there were weird footprints around the shore edge, too. Some kind of animal attack, I'm sure. But never seen any prints like those."

Another scream. This time not a woman's. Something bestial. Something from the abyss.

"What the--?" He ran to the door and threw the bolt. Grabbed the only piece of furniture, an overstuffed armchair, and shoved it against the doorway.

"Don't be frightened, Allan. You are what you are. A temptation to everyone, both women and men."

"Stop calling me Allan. Didn't you hear that? That thing by the lake out there?"

"Je suis la Dame aux Camellias. Vous etes --Armand?" She smiled at him. "Do you speak French?"

"Cripes! I'm stuck in this shack with a kook. We've gotta get outta here. There's a way out through the basement I think. Come with me, lady."

"Call me Blanche, please. After all, we're husband and wife, Allan." She was at the other window seemingly ignoring him and the threat at the door. She looked out into the cloud covered sky. "I've been looking for the Pleiades tonight -- the Seven Sisters -- but those girls are not out tonight."

A shot. Then another and another. More screams and shooting. Once more that terrible unearthly cry echoed in the woods, closer this time. Footsteps crunching in the pine needles strewn in the pathway to the door of the shack. Scratching at the door. A pair of gleaming eyes peering in the window.

"God Almighty!"

The window burst in a shattering of glass. A hairy clawed arm intruded into the space. The young man who wasn't Allan grabbed a log from the pile near the fireplace and beat furiously at the arm, claws digging into the wood, then his wrist. He let loose with an excruciating wail of pain.

"Help me! Blanche! Help!"

She stood in place with a look of concentrated effort. Thinking of the lack of stars in the night sky, thinking of the right words for Allan. She watched as the young man who wasn't Allan was dragged out of the window frame screaming for his life, screaming for Blanche.

"Sometimes -- there's God -- so quickly," she whispered.

The music started up again. Blanche unbolted the door and made her way back to the ballroom. She resolved to have one last dance with Allan. She would abandon him there with the choice words she just composed. He was never really hers. And it was all so disgusting. She cocked her head and caught that haunting tune again. She started to cry. That melody -- that lively polka of the Varsouviana -- would never sound the same to her after tonight.

Friday, June 28, 2013

FFB: Forty Lashes Less One - Elmore Leonard

I wanted a western for today's tribute to Grand Master Elmore Leonard so I chose Forty Lashes Less One (1972) And here were my reasons: very odd title sure to have some unusual meaning, the very cool cover with two gun-toting characters in threatening poses and early 20th century prison garb, and a mention in a 2009 blog review that the book was going to be a Quentin Tarantino movie. While he may have been inspired by this book Tarantino's Civil War era spaghetti western Django Unchained, which won him his second Academy Award for Original Screenplay, has little in common with Leonard's novel. I have not seen the movie but based on the trailer and reviews I have read the only thing it shares with Forty Lashes Less One is a lead character who sticks it to the white man. And but good!

Based on the cover of the original 1972 paperback (seen at left) I expected this to be a prison break novel. I was pleased to discover it's more than that. There is a helluva a lot going on in this book beyond the actual plan to escape from jail. Ostensibly set in 1904 in a crumbling prison in the Arizona desert where the inmates are awaiting transfer by train to a brand new facility it felt more like a book set in the 1950s. No matter, the characters and situations are the selling point as they usually are in any book by Leonard. Everett Manly, a failed minister, volunteers to serve as interim superintendent of the Yuma prison and while there decides to try some inventive forms of prisoner rehabilitation involving an unusual combination of Bible thumping sermons, lessons in the origin of different races, and -- of all things -- athletic competitions.

It's all sort of an accident how it comes about. Harold Jackson, a wily black prisoner, and his cell mate the simple-minded Raymond San Carlos, an Apache who likes to think of himself as Mexican, have not been getting along. The insult each other and have been fighting regularly. The usual punishments don't seem to be working. Mr. Manly is determined to bring out the good in each man and make them friends, but his Bible lectures fall on indifferent ears. Until he makes the mistake of saying "We are all related by blood" leading to a hysterical discussion that begins with Adam and Eve and leads to talk of incest and miscegenation. Harold and Raymond grill Manly mercilessly. At first Manly taken aback but since he finally has gotten their interest he answers their questions getting into deeper water as he goes. Then he hits upon a brilliant idea. He talks of the legacy of Geronimo as a hero to the Apaches and the legends of the Zulu warriors of Africa. Manly shows that not only do Harold and Raymond share metaphoric blood they share an ancestry of heroic warriors. It's an epiphany of sorts for all three.

Soon Mr Manly finds he has two warriors in training on his hands. There are foot race competitions and handmade spear throwing contests. Harold and Raymond now make up their faces with stripes of iodine and white paint inspired by illustrations they saw in Mr. Manly's books. Harold even says all that is missing is a real lion for him to spear. The prison yard becomes an arena for a mini Olympics between Black man and Indian with all the white prisoners acting as their audience of gamblers and hecklers. And all the while Mr Manly never realizes that his seemingly naive pupils are waiting for the precise moment to prove what they truly are capable of.

While the dubious religious education and more successful athletic transformation of Harold and Raymond is going on Alpha prisoner Frank Shelby and his gang of sycophants are plotting their escape. With the help of Frank's brother Virgil who makes weekly visits each Sunday Shelby is hoping to sabotage the train that will transport the prisoners from Yuma to the new prison in Florence and free the gang of eight including Norma, one of two female prisoners who has a few tricks up her sleeve. But no fictional prison break ever goes as planned and with two warriors on the verge aboard the train, underestimated by both Shelby's gang and Mr. Manly, there is plenty of action and revenge waiting to explode.

This was one quirky western. I liked the subversiveness of it all. The characters are so utterly unexpected in how they change from beginning to end.  Harold and Raymond seem like patsy symbols, dumb and dull at first but Leonard cleverly undermines the entire story as roles are reversed and Black man and Indian once sworn enemies become ever sure and true allies. Manly who you want to succeed at his goofy experiments is a character to be both ridiculed and pitied. Shelby is typical of the villains Leonard creates -- vile and loathsome without one redeeming quality you're hoping for an equally vile end for the man. Somehow everyone around Shelby suffers worse than he does. Glib, self-assured, conceited, and essentially untouchable, he's a bad guy you'll see again and again in Leonard's books. Does he get his comeuppance? You'll have to read the book to find out. The ending is absolutely perfect. If you don't bust out laughing I guarantee that you'll break out in a broad grin.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: Book of the Month Club Advert, 1929.

This was found inside one of the many copies of The Omnibus of Crime I have purchased over the years.  The Omnibus of Crime was the Book of the Month Club selection for August 1929. Inside the copy I bought was the ad seen below for the September BOMC selection, Ultima Thule by Henry Handel Richardson, a book and author I knew nothing about until I did my research for this post.

The Book of the Month Club was only three years old in 1929.  Weren't they polite in their requests? And that deadline date in giant red letters is very helpful.  I remember being a member of one of their offshoots, Quality Paperback Book Club, in the 1980s and the reminders were not anything like the one above. I usually lost the dumb postcard or forgot to mail it back by the deadline and ended up with books I had no desire to read let alone own.

"Henry Handel Richardson" turns out to be the pseudonym for Australian writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson who you can read about at the website for the Henry Handel Richardson Society.  (Is there a society for every forgotten author of the past?). Ultima Thule is the final novel in a trilogy about an Australian physician named Richard Mahony and is based in part of Richardson's own father and her upbringing. The three novels that make up the trilogy are Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929). All three were later published in an omnibus edition and titled The Fortunes of Richard Mahony in 1930.  For a synopsis of Ultima Thule click here. Interestingly, it was only with the publication of the final volume that the entire trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, was suddenly recognized as a great work of fiction.

Friday, June 21, 2013

FFB: According to the Evidence - Henry Cecil

"Mr Duffield," interrupted the judge, "I am always loath to intervene when counsel is addressing the jury, but there is a limit you know. You are not entitled to tempt the jury to acquit the accused just because good may have resulted from the crime." -- Mr. Justice Pantin in According to the Evidence

There are probably other legal mysteries that spoof the court system but I have never encountered any of them. There is Rumpole of the Bailey, but I don't recall the humor in those stories being specifically related to the law. The humor there arises out of character relationships. And when a writer is part of the legal system himself, like Henry Cecil, the books tend to be rather serious. If any attack is made on the course of circumvented justice or loopholes in the law that they tend to be scathing and admonishing. Not so with Cecil's series of courtroom hijinks and legal satires. He slays the fearsome dragons of the law with a rapier wit not the sword of wrath.

What would happen if witnesses were canny enough about the law to make choices that they legally and rightfully can make and yet manage to obstruct the course of true justice? What would happen if a private enquiry agent like Ambrose Low were hired to prove an absolutely guilty man were innocent? These dilemmas and more are posed in the often witty story in According to the Evidence (1954), one of the many comic crime novels of Henry Cecil, a County Court judge in England for several decades.

One can imagine that many of the strange incidents recounted in this book were experienced first hand by Cecil. Either that or he took something like the confusion of a garrulous witness' testimony and thought: "What if this witness' accounts were crucial to the prosecution's case and yet because the witness is so entirely literal minded the process of eliciting his testimony becomes a verbal farce?" Such is the case with Colonel Brain who has been manipulated by Low to give eyewitness account which can possibly exonerate his client of a murder accusation.

The basic plot involves serial killer Gilbert Essex who is acquitted of one murder only to be released and kill again. Alec Moreland, an artist and former soldier, decides to take the law into his own hands and execute the unjustly freed Essex. Through a combination of chance and his own confession to Jill, his fiancee, Alec is arrested for the murder. Jill approaches Ambrose Low and pleads with him to help her man escape the gallows. It was a service to the community killing that acquitted murderer, she tells Low.  Alec is sure to be found innocent. But in an ingenious twist to the story rather than discovering (or even manufacturing) evidence to prove Alec innocent Low engineers a series of events that will prove him even more guilty. And the literal minded Colonel Brain is Low's patsy. But the plan backfires spectacularly and hilariously.

Cecil begins with satiric attack on the legal bureaucracy and piles on comic episodes in quick succession. He has a lot of fun with spoofing the overly formal way in which lawyers and judges address one another with their string of "my learned friends" and "your Worships." As they grow ever exasperated and frustrated with the confusing trial the implied courtesy in their address erodes into subtle ironic insults. The satire then turns to all-out farce when dealing with Cecil's obvious favorite (and my personal favorite), the blustery and amiable Colonel Brain. The resulting badinage is worthy of Tom Stoppard. The farce continues into the jury room when one of those good and true twelve is revealed to have a limitation that results in a ludicrous retelling of the events and nearly leads to a mistrial. That would be a disaster for Duffield, the counsel for the defense, whose intent is to have the trial stopped. Duffield is a master of oratory and his tactics and delays are positively magical examples of legal language put to its extreme test.

With its combination of linguistic wizardry and dazzling Socratic method According to the Evidence is a comic achievement. This book (and I suspect several of the others by Henry Cecil) would make an exceptional TV program or movie. I did a quick search at to see if any of his books were adapted and I see only one short story and one novel. But apparently Cecil made it to TV with two series. Whether or not they are based on characters in his books I can't say.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cobweb House - Elizabeth Hughes Holloway

A decrepit house on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, an oppressive household overseen by the hawk-like Captain Jasper Yancy, a cook who practices voodoo, and a mysterious death should make up the ingredients for an exciting bloodcurdler of a mystery. I was all set for something along the lines of Mary Roberts Rinehart in a Southern Gothic setting.  But Elizabeth Hughes Holloway's first and only attempt at a detective novel is a largely unimpressive mixed bag.  Part of the problem can rest on the shoulders of her insipid heroine Anna Sue.

A batch of chatty letters written by Anna Sue to her boyfriend Jim serve as our introduction to the cast of characters made up of her grandfather Captain Yancy; two aunts, Aurelia and Maude; Veechie, the cook; Mr. Webley, the family lawyer; and a mysterious man on the beach. We never really understand why her grandfather invited her to visit or why she has decided to stay for several days since she seems to dislike the house intensely and is more than worried about the relationship between her two submissive aunts and the domineering Captain. Anna Sue is kept up at night by the typical noises and strange going s on in the creepy mansion and does the requisite spying on family members, targetting Veechie as her enemy and the wicked villainess of the piece.  So dark is the portrait of Veechie seen only through Anne Sue's prejudiced eyes that I was convinced she would be redeemed in the end as a genuinely decent and good woman. Anna Sue, on the other hand, grows increasingly childish as the story progresses.

Amid all the fear and dread and oppression Captain Yancy dies in his bedroom. A sudden death, all agree, yet most likely natural due to his seventy years and failing health. But suspicious circumstances once again witnessed by Anna Sue lead her overly developed imagination to the conclusion that murder was done. She writes to Jim to come to the house and get to the bottom of the mysterious events. Jim arrives and learns of Aunt Aurelia's sleepwalking incident, the weird voodoo rite Veechie performed in the kitchen, and the disappearance of $200 in cash and over $15,000 in securities from the captain's study.  Criminal behavior and murder seem more and more likely.

As an amateur sleuth Jim does yeoman work though it's offset by long interruptions and distractions that take the form of several lover's tiffs and arguments with his soon-to-be wife. Anna Sue has a tantrum every twenty pages or so forcing Jim to pause in his detective work to placate and soothe her. She provides most of the clues for Jim but due to her intense dislike of the servant Veechie, who admittedly is painted as a spooky menacing presence, she never sees things clearly. Jim tells her she'd never make a good detective and Anna Sue responds, "I'd never want to be one." Holloway stops short of having her stick out her tongue and saying "So there" but the reader can read between the lines.

Cobweb House (1931) includes an introductory note from the author giving credit to Magic Island by William Seabrook as her source for all voodoo related information. With that bibliographical tidbit under her belt I expected a lot more voodoo in the story. But there is really only one scene and it is partially witnessed by Anna Sue. A cross made of burned matchsticks is found and elicits terrified reactions from Veechie and a few locals for it is a death omen. It seems to be the only proof that a voodoo practitioner is either in the house or visited recently. One barely described ritual in a dimly lit kitchen and a burned cross are all Holloway picked up from Seabrook's utterly intriguing book? Sad.

Chemical analysis done on a medicine eye dropper is the only real evidence Jim has to prove a case of murder. The scene at a college professor's chemistry lab, however, is ineptly handled. Holloway either doesn't understand or never bothered to research how a chemist would find poison in a distillate. He ends making a dilution of a trace of dried liquid found in the eyedropper and injects that into a guinea pig. When the animal dies the professor is satisfied the liquid was poison. Never mind that the victim supposedly took the substance orally in a glass of medicine. Doesn't sound like an experienced professor of chemistry to me. More like mad scientist nonsense lifted from a Universal Studios monster movie. A supposedly scientific scene like this makes me question if Holloway ever read Seabrook's book for her other research. No wonder the voodoo scenes are so sketchy.

In spite of all these disappointments and an overall lack of verisimilitude I stuck with the book to the final page. If the revelation of the murderer is not all that surprising (after all, there are only five suspects) at least the unmasking is done with flourish. Veechie transforms from voodoo spook into Captain Yancy's Nemesis achieving a satisfying, appropriately melodramatic finale when she pulls off a trick that requires no voodoo magic. Jim takes credit for solving the case, but it is clear that Veechie did all the work.

Cobweb House is sometimes easily found in its very attractive, surreally illustrated, Dell mapback edition. I found a copy for $6 at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago a few weeks ago. Almost thirty copies are currently available on-line at prices ranging from $15 for a collectible copy to $2 for a battered reader. The hardcover edition is rather scarce.  I have yet to see a first edition of this book with a DJ, but courtesy of the huge collection of DJ facsimiles at Mark Terry's website I am displaying it here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

COOL FLICKS: A Life at Stake (1954)

Crime and noir film devotees know the insurance policy plot is as old as Double Indemnity. Probably even older. A Life at Stake is yet another spin on the hapless mark duped into taking out a life insurance policy and realizing almost too late he's put a bullseye on his back. Just who is being duped in this story is something that is not all that clear at first. Screenwriter Russ Bender provides more than an ample amount of twists to what could have been a tired story.

Angela Lansbury turns in a neat performance as an unlikely temptress. She shows a glimmer of her monstrously manipulative mother soon to be unleashed in The Manchurian Candidate, a performance that earned her a third Academy Award nomination. As Doris Hillman she can flip the switch from sexy dame with dulcet voice and shapely gams to terrible termagant ready to slap a man's face and scream a torrent of abuse.

He-man hunk Keith Andes is Edward, the mark with a love of money and booze. In a gratuitous shirtless scene the viewer knows our hero is a manly man from the get-go. As the movie unfolds we may be watching him slowly wrapped around Doris' fingers but the director wants us to know that though he's weak of mind he's no Casper Milquetoast in the physique department. We also get to watch him fall in love with his framed $1000 bill, a chunk of cash that will come back to haunt him repeatedly.

As Doris' kid sister Madge, Claudia Barrett proves to be the biggest surprise of the movie. At first we think she's just hanging on to the muscular, lantern-jawed hero for a little thrill, stir up some sisterly jealousy. By the midpoint, however, she'll prove to be every bit as wily as Doris and her scheming husband. She adds a double dose of the twists to the plot with schemes of her own. The $1000 is released from its prison of a picture frame transforming itself from prop to a sort of a supporting character.

I liked this movie a lot. The plot seems heavily borrowed from Cain's novel but there's a delicious quirkiness to this movie's self-conscious low budget attitude. Offsetting Andes' mostly wooden monotone acting is the polished and sparkling performance from Lansbury and occasional inspired bits from Barrett combined with several expertly shot noirish scenes that lift A Life at Stake out of the realm of forgettable B flicks to make it something of a cult classic.

Jane Darwell: "He's a weird one. Him and his thousand dollar bill.
Framed like a picture and a-settin' on the table."

Douglass Dumbrille as Gus reminds his wife who's in charge

Other highlights include Jane Darwell in a cameo as a suspicious landlady and Douglass Dumbrille as Doris' urbanely menacing husband Gus. The melodramatic score is by Les Baxter and the clever script by B movie actor turned screenwriter Russ Bender. Another B movie stalwart, Paul Guilfoyle (dozens of character parts in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Mighty Joe Young, The Mark of the Whistler, Mad Miss Manton and White Heat) does a fine job in his directing debut. Guilfoyle teams up with neophyte cameraman Ted Allen (also his debut as Cinematographer) in creating some moody shots heavily influenced by classic noir movies of the 1940s and getting the most out of his capable cast. Maybe Guilfoyle could have cracked the whip a bit more on Andes. His strongman body deserved and could've taken the blows.

There are a couple of absurdities in the story (like a cabin in the woods with French windows that open onto a cliff side deck that was never finished) and the acting sometimes slips over into grandiose scenery chewing and posing for the camera, but it's such an odd film I was willing to overlook the few faults. In fact, by the midpoint when I realized the plot was headed straight into the land of weirdness I almost wanted more of the absurd and surreal. This is a little known movie that deserves full fledged cult status.  It can be seen in its entirety on several streaming websites for free. As it's one of several movies that has slipped into the public domain you should feel no guilt about watching it on YouTube or downloading it as I did. I've watched it about four times in the past few months and as derivative and hokey as it may be I still find things to enjoy about A Life at Stake.

"I feel just luscious. much insurance do you have?"

Gus Hillman's coffee will send you to sleep rather than keep you awake.

Madge (Claudia Barrett) and Edward discuss putting to good use his treasured $1000.

Doris asks Edward to admire the view from the porch-less French windows.

That's quite a drop. Hmm...

The battle for Edward between two scheming sisters.

Friday, June 14, 2013

FFB: Murder in a Nunnery - Eric Shepherd

Jacques Barzun is quick to point out in his brief Catalog of Crime entry for this humanistic detective novel that the setting is not a nunnery but a convent school. True the primary setting is a school, but where do nuns live but in a nunnery? More hairsplitting from our dear departed academic. Titular misnomers aside Murder in a Nunnery (1940) was quite the sleeper when it was first published. Though published by small press Sheed & Ward it managed to get picked up by the Catholic Book Club in 1940 and turned into a minor sensation. Twenty two years later it was reprinted as a paperback from Dell's Chapel Books imprint and sold thousands of more copies.

Eric Shepherd has written both an engaging detective novel and a primer in the life of 1940s British nuns. Shepherd's sister was a mother superior according to a book review in Rockford, Illinois Catholic newspaper The Observer, (see the article here) so he presumably knows of what he writes. The most interesting thing I discovered was that most of the elderly nuns refer to themselves as Mother rather than Sister. Perhaps that's peculiar to England or to this order, though we are never told to which order these nuns belong. But onto the story itself...

Baroness Sliema, a temporary guest at the convent, has been found stabbed in the chapel during daily mass. Not particularly well-liked by both the staff and the students her death becomes the topic of girlish gossip peppered with flagrant talk of a well deserved violent end. When the police are called in we begin to see what Shepherd has in mind as the secular world meets the religious world head on. The police are in for quite an education themselves as the murder investigation progresses.

First to arrive on the scene is the brash Detective Sgt. Osbert whose insensitivity and rudeness is matched only by his own discomfort at being treated as a guest, not as a cop, by so many old women in funny costumes. He can't wait to call in Scotland Yard and hand the case over to Chief Inspector Andrew Pearson. Pearson is the complete opposite of Osbert -- gentlemanly, suave, decorous to the point of embarrassment. He first mistakenly asks to see the Lady Abbess and is immediately corrected, almost reprimanded, by Mother Peck, second in command:, "Reverend Mother is not in the habit of receiving visitors on the doorstep." Pearson experiences his own level of discomfort as well, but he soon warms up to Reverend Mother Superior in whom he sees kindness, wisdom, and a love of strict discipline. It is the disciplined life of the nuns that most impresses Pearson and he surprises himself in drawing analogies between life in a convent and the life of a policeman. As the case progresses he sees that nuns and police have a lot in common.

There is an element of the rambunctious gang of St. Trinian's among the girl students. Led by Verity Goodchild, who is anything but good or truthful, they are the typical ragtag bunch of unruly girls you come across in books of this sort. Inez Escapado, a tall tale telling South American student, is saddled with thick phonetic accent Harry Stephen Keeler would've been proud of. And Philomene, Verity's best pal, has a temper issue and a speech impediment that comes and goes depending on how emotional she gets. You'd expect them to all turn Nancy Drew and try to solve the murder for themselves but they are more interested in the ghostly figure of a mysterious nun seen wandering the grounds at night. Only Verity is brave enough to wander the school grounds looking for evidence. While trying her best at girl sleuthing she encounters a group of nosy tabloid reporters and photographers and ends up the subject of exploitive glamour shots. One of the photographers rewards her with a piece of cloth he found that turns out to be a torn piece from a nun's veil. Evidence! Apparently, there was someone in a nun's habit roaming the grounds at night. Whether it was a genuine nun or someone in disguise Verity leaves to Chief Inspector Pearson to uncover.

Among Pearson's primary adult suspects are the haughty Venetia Gozo, a Maltese woman who acted as secretary to the Baroness; Mrs. Moss, the Baroness' companion; Baron Sliema, the victim's son; and Mr. Turtle, the handyman-gardener for the convent grounds. Turtle was my favorite of the lot. He seems to have wandered into the book from the pages of a George Eliot novel complete with Yorkshire accent. He's filled with the refreshing kind of common sense and common talk so welcome after pages of theology and philosophy from Reverend Mother and girlish antics from the students. Turtle is also the only man in this world of women. Having the inspector around gives Turtle a chance to kick back and let down his guard. His invitation to Pearson at the tail end of his interrogation scene is priceless: "And should you ever find the oppression of women too much for you up at the 'ouse, you come down 'ere and refresh yourself with Turtle."

One more thing about Pearson's detective skills. He is equipped with an overly sensitive sense of smell. Throughout the book his olfactory bulb is assailed with a pungent odor that seems to permeate certain rooms. It's vaguely familiar, but each time he tries to put a name to the scent he comes up wanting. The piece of veil Verity finds is reeking with the smell. It trails throughout the cloisters near the scene of the crime. The smell haunts him throughout the story. And it will prove to be the most damning clue in determining the identity of the murderer when that odor's source is discovered and it's given a name.

Margaret Wycherly and Pedro de Cordoba in
the first production of the play version
In looking for images from the various published editions of Murder in a Nunnery I discovered it was also adapted into a play. Emmet Lavery, a screenwriter, condensed the large cast of characters to one of only eight adult female roles, three adult men, and five girls. It was produced in May 1942 for Catholic Theatre Guild of Los Angeles with the playwright also serving as director. Incredibly, for what appears to be a community theater troupe, several of the leading roles were played by film actors. Lavery must have had impressive studio connections. In the role of Reverend Mother Superior was Margaret Wycherly best known as James Cagney's mom in the classic gangster movie White Heat. Inspector Pearson was played by Pedro de Cordoba, a character actor with over 125 of films to his credit including Saboteur, The Mark of Zorro, Juarez, Captain Blood and Anthony Adverse. John McGuire, a B movie leading man and supporting player whose best role is probably as the reporter accused of murder in Stranger on the Third Floor, played the shifty Baron Sliema who in the play adaptation has an added secret and a surprise scene not found in the book. I bet that was some production to watch.

Fourteen years later Eric Shepherd wrote a sequel called More Murder in a Nunnery (1954). I have yet to find a copy so I am unsure if Pearson meets up with Reverend Mother Superior at Harrington Convent School again or if she acts as an amateur sleuth with her sister colleagues without Pearson.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Case of the Frightened Fish - William DuBois

The murder of a lawyer found in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village is tied to the death of a marine biologist in the Bahamas in the unusual and action-oriented sophomore effort The Case of the Frightened Fish (1940) by playwright and journalist William DuBois.  Tabloid reporter Jack Jordan who first appeared in The Case of the Deadly Diary (repeatedly referred to throughout the course of this one) is worried for his friend Dave Yates, a PR man for a millionaire with interests in marine life.  See, the studio apartment belonged to an artist and a painting that Jordan recognized as the work of Dave's fiancee Elsa Ulrich was found near the body. Jordan is worried Elsa may be implicated in the poisoning of the lawyer.  Elsa, we will soon learn is also the daughter of famed ichthyologist Dr. Hubertus Ulrich whose research is being funded by Dave's  millionaire brother Tony Yates.  Feel like you're in over your head already?  Well, grab your life preserver or your fins and mask because the waters only get deeper in this innovative, aquatic themed, and deftly plotted mystery.

Though we start in Bermuda with the expository set up about the murdered lawyer, the missing artist, and the mystery of why Elsa's painting is a the scene of the crime we (along with Jack, Dave and the rest of the cast of characters ) are soon headed on a boat headed for Tony Yates' private island in the Bahamas where he is funding Dr. Ulrich's research with a series of high-tech aquariums all set up for the study of rare fish species and life among the coral reefs. No sooner have they landed but a second body turns up, this time an apparent suicide.  It's "Zoobug" (Alfred to his parents) Strong, one of Dr. Ulrich's research assistants and coincidentally an old college pal of Jordan's.  Through some keen detective work Jordan learns that Zoobug is the missing artist who was renting the studio apartment where the lawyer was killed.  Now he needs to find the link between the two deaths.  Did Zoobug really commit suicide by drowning himself? Or was he too murdered? And why was a marine biologist masquerading as an artist in Greenwich Village?

When another body turns up at the bottom of a tank filled with ravenous barracudas Jordan and Dave are convinced that someone is trying to sabotage the work at the research center. But why? Someone suggests that visiting rival scientist Dr. Karl von Merz, an Austrian, is actually a Nazi spy and wants the island for a submarine station. He'd have easy access to Miami's shoreline -- only a day's travel underwater -- thereby also gaining access to a key US port and naval air station. Nazis and barracudas! How can you pass this one up?

UK 1st edition (Gerald Swan, 1947)
This is a tightly plotted mystery with an exotic setting and background so far removed from the usual detective novels of the period.  There isn't a last will and testament in sight, thankfully.  The stuffy interiors of drawing rooms, studies and libraries are absent and instead we get mostly exterior scenes by boat docks, marine laboratories, the several fish tanks and aquariums and a smattering of exciting underwater sequences including a fight in the ocean that would play just as well in a Bond movie. DuBois' talent as a playwright is shown to great effect in his razor sharp dialogue and his skill at constructing cliffhanger chapter endings.  You can't help but keep reading as the plot grows ever more complicated and the characters reveal hidden motives and deep, dark secrets.

If I have to find anything to criticize it's DuBois' embarrassing depiction of London, a black handyman and dock worker, described in animal terms best left unquoted.  Although London has the ability to speak, he is not given one line of dialogue. Anytime he does speak it is rendered third hand or quoted by Jordan. I found that really odd, but not as odd as the writer's 18th century love of the "noble savage" idea.  It's a minor fault, really, but still rather jarring in book that otherwise appears to be have been created by a sophisticated and smart writer. DuBois does redeem himself when he allows London to act selflessly and heroically in saving the life of two people in one action sequence and in recovering a piece of crucial evidence that had been submerged by the dock when everyone else failed.

Jack Jordan appears in a third mystery The Case of the Haunted Brides (1941) then disappears, along with William DuBois, from the mystery world. I suspect poor sales forced Little Brown to drop him from their list.  After having had success in the 1930s as a playwright (four plays made it to Broadway though all had short runs), DuBois returned to writing primarily for newspapers with occasional stints as a scriptwriter for radio and the movie screen. Though he gave up as a mystery novelist he did pen at least one other novel, The Island in the Square (1947) about the world of newspapers and theaters in the Times Square district of Manhattan.

Friday, June 7, 2013

FFB: When I Grow Rich - Joan Fleming

The Turkey described in Joan Fleming's award winning When I Grow Rich (1962) is not meant to be a temptation to tourists. This is not picture postcard pretty Istanbul.  It's dirty, fetid, and decrepit city she describes. If we are to believe Fleming the population is made up of mostly self-interested market sellers, rude and foul speaking taxi drivers, outright thieves, and a crowd of bloodthirsty denizens who enjoy the occasional public hanging. Though we are in the 1960s it still feels like the Turkey of centuries gone by. Yet there are glimmers of beauty amid the ugliness. The bibliophile protagonist Nuri Izkirlak who goes by the formal moniker Nuri bey, and his mismatched partner in adventure the teenager Jenny Bolton are the part of that beauty and the true saving grace of the book.

Nuri bey is a philosopher in love with books.  He has few friends and spends nearly all of his time in his home which is more of a library dedicated to the great thinkers of the East and West.  He occasionally visits the home of Madame Miasma, a former member of the old Sultan's seraglio and not one of the pretty ones. At the start of the book we find Nuri bey being asked a favor.  Her female companion Valance has recently died in a freak accident when she fell from a balcony into the sea and Madame is now short handed in the servant department.  She wants Nuri bey to deliver an attache case to a young man waiting at the airport.  He agrees without hesitation and unknowingly enters the Turkish criminal underworld.

The favor seems like the simplest of tasks but of course complications arise. Tony, Madame's courier, is travelling with Jenny Bolton, a ditzy Britisher only 19 who alternates between acting much younger and then much older than her chronological age. When the police show up at the airport Tony flees just as he is about to meet Nuri bey and somehow Jenny ends up with the case. She convinces Nuri bey to help her elude the police and he takes her to his apartment where he tries to figure out what to do now that he has failed Madame Miasma. Soon the story becomes a cat and mouse game between Jenny and Nuri bey on one team, and Madame Miasma and her eunuch henchman Hadjii on the other, as they all try to recover the case and get it back to Tony who seems to have vanished completely.

Madame Miasma at first appears to be an eccentric old woman but she develops into one of the most sinister and villainous characters of the book. Selfish, vengeful, spiteful, and cruel Miasma thinks of herself first and foremost and will stop at nothing to get her case and its mysterious contents back.  Likewise, Jenny initially introduced to the reader as an airhead turns out to be one smart cookie who can hold her own against the malevolent ex-harem girl and her unctuous not to be trusted servant.  But Miasma is wily and manipulative and can turn on the charm when she needs to.  There will be several unfortunate traps that both Jenny and Nuri bey fall into before the Hitchcockian plot comes to its unexpected conclusion.

Though on the surface When I Grow Rich may seem to be yet another pursuit thriller set in an exotic locale Fleming is interested in a lot more than action and crime. The book discusses the still pertinent topic of recreational drug abuse and its insidious effects. Drug trafficking and smuggling play a big part in the plot and Fleming does not waste words criticizing a hedonistic lifestyle. She makes clear also her views on the potential for drug smuggling to create global havoc. But more subtly, and in the end rather powerfully, she is telling a story of obsession and misplaced devotion. Nuri bey comes to realize what a waste his life has been among his books. He loses a great deal over the course of the novel, both physically and emotionally, but that loss leads to a epiphany that changes him for the better. In contrast we get the constant longings of Miasma for riches and her long faded youth and Hadjii's perverted though hidden love for his employer. And there are Jenny's puzzled thoughts of how two people can thirst so wildly for money when they are both so close to the grave.

Fleming won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association for When I Grow Rich and would win it again for the book she seems to be best known for Young Man, I Think You're Dying (1970).  Several of her books have been reprinted as eBooks by The Murder Room, Orion's imprint devoted to reviving out-of-print crime writers' work. Some of the titles are also available in paperback editions.  Joan Fleming is too much overlooked when crime writers of the past are discussed and much of her large body of work still remains out of print. But luckily nearly every title she wrote is available in the used book market in very affordable paperback editions, both from US and UK publishers.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Animation Noir - "The Mystery of You" by Spencer Day

Spencer Day, an original young jazz vocalist, released a new album back in March. Here's the animated video that accompanies the title track "The Mystery of You." It's a film noir in miniature with a jazz vocal soundtrack.

I thought it was very appropriate for this blog. Check it out.

The video was created and directed by veteran animator Eric Deuel who is best known for his work on the two Kung Fu Panda movies. More about Deuel at his website here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Drawing on the Past #11: Edwin & Harold Betts

Work: Prince Izon by James Paul Kelly
(A. C. McClurg, 1910)
Listed in 333, a bibliography of lost race, fantasy, super-natural and science fiction works.

Artists:  Harold H. Betts & Edwin Betts, Jr.

One of the many lost race novels that were popular from the late Victorian era through the early 20th century Prince Izon deviates from the usual African and South American tales and instead chooses for its setting the good ol' U S of A. In the story Professor Raymon and his team of explorers, along with their American Indian guide, go in search of a forgotten tribe who are presumed to be living in the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  They get more than they bargained for when they encounter a tribe of Aztec warriors led by the title character.

Harold and Edwin Betts were the sons of Edwin Betts, Sr, a well established artist in Chicago who taught both his sons  and daughter Grace in painting. Edwin Jr. had an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 19th century.  Other than that I could find little info about Edwin.  His brother, on the other hand, has a much more prominent presence on the internet.

Harold Betts was an illustrator for magazines and books and an accomplished landscape and portrait painter.  He traveled to the Southwest and began specializing in the Grand Canyon and its environs making him the perfect choice for illustrating Prince Izon. Like Edwin, Harold also showed his paintings at the Art Institute.  A list I found at the U. S. Department of the State website gives the dates of eight different exhibitions at the AIC. Many of Harold's paintings are part of a large collection at the Smithsonian Institute and show he spent time in Rio Grande Pueblos from Taos to Santa Domingo; in Colorado Springs, Colorado; at the Grand Canyon, on the Navajo and Hopi reservations; and in Southern California.

Among the illustrations Betts did for books are Princess Sayrane by Edith Ogden Harrison and Ruth of the USA by Edwin Balmer.  All of the illustrations in Princess Sayrane can be viewed here.  Some of his paintings sold at auction can be seen at ArtFact, LiveAuctioneers, AskArt, and various other sites. Harold Betts' work is collectible and found in numerous galleries and private collections throughout North America and Europe.

Below are the five full color plates found in my copy of Prince Izon.  Two -- the one used for the plate on the cover and the frontispiece battle scene -- are signed by Edwin Betts, the others are by his brother Harold.  Only the battle scene on the cliffside can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

IN BRIEF: Death Comes to Cambers - E.R. Punshon

Death Comes to Cambers (1935) was my second venture into the work of E. R. Punshon. I was slightly disappointed. The book is epic length for story essentially about one strangling murder and theft of some jewels. Its 288 pages felt twice that long due to long interview sequences between Bobby Owen, Punshon's policeman detective, and each of the suspects. The problem is that each of the suspects is interviewed twice. In some cases Owen returns for a third time to ask even more questions. This see-sawing between suspects draws out the story, lessens tension and frustrates the reader. A detective story while it may uncover the past and deal with past events should move forward in time, ever forward towards the solution. Travelling back to re-interview someone already given ample stage time in the narrative is allowable to a point, but constant instances of repeat interrogation seems to me like a writer who is padding his story unnecessarily.

Additionally, some of the characters take the time to pontificate on their personal views and raise some topical issues that Punshon apparently was taken with at the time. This is the second detective novel in which I have encountered a debate between religious views of the origin of man in stark contrast to a scientist exploiting Darwinian evolution theory for his own ends. An amateur archeologist and a rigidly conservative minister are at odds in their battle between science and faith throughout the novel. Punshon attempts to make this a possible motive for the murders that occur in the story but it's a weak attempt.

The archeologist is convinced his theory of the development of modern man will turn the world of anthropology upside down. He claims man's use of tools and the reason for using them is what separates man from ape. The conservative reverend calls his theories blasphemous.

Only in the final third of the novel when Owen starts to do real detective work as opposed to routine questioning does the book truly get interesting and enter the realm of originality. There are two encoded messages found in a newspaper Personals column Owen must solve. One is so involved the solution to the code rivals that of the mechanism of the Enigma machine that Alan Turing figured out. The murderer's ingenious method of creating his alibi for the time of the murder is what I consider the book's saving grace. And there's one other surprise in the finale that breaks the rules of a traditional detective novel that I also admired.

Unlike Diabolic Candelabra fascinating in its oddities from start to finish, the characters and situations in Death Comes to Cambers are overly familiar and often dreary to get through. The gossipy landlady, the garrulous tradesmen, a barkeep who knows everyone's business all turn up as they do in most of these mysteries set in small English villages. It doesn’t help that in this book Punshon is still clinging to a baroque writing style that belongs to the early Victorian era. He constructs paragraph long sentences that could be trimmed for coherence and readability. Often these long sentences are really several sentences run together with a series of useless commas and dashes. As a matter of course these long sentences then make many of the paragraphs run uninterrupted for the entire page length. Cumbersome is an understatement.

Death Comes to Cambers is a very scarce book, possibly a genuinely rare book. I found a copy in France, but had to pay an exorbitant fee to have it shipped to me. Currently online there are only two copies for sale -- one in English, the other in French. There is a second English edition listed by, but this the one I bought and the seller has obviously not removed the listing from other bookselling sites. I wouldn't lose any sleep over not finding a copy. It's a good novel but it takes some endurance and patience to get to the meat of the story.