Thursday, October 31, 2013


Happy Halloween! For your viewing and hearing pleasure a couple of creepy movie openings. Love the music on both of these.

Drag Me To Hell (title sequence designed by Picture Mill, music by Christopher Young)

Ed Wood (title design by Paul Boyington & Robert Dawson, music by Howard Shore)

Monday, October 28, 2013

COOL FLICKS: I Put a Spell on You - Halloween Movie Fest

The one, the only -- Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe)
Even though I am already seeing Christmas ads on TV (!) and my local café is prominently displaying a selection of “holiday” cards beside the Kind bars, breath mints, and other impulse buys near the cash register it is still the "Season of the Witch" for me. Thankfully, Jack-o-lanterns far outnumber Christmas wreaths in my ‘hood.

With only three days left before the big costume parade on Halsted Avenue and trick or treating everywhere else I have time to sneak in my suggestions for a Halloween mini- movie festival for your DVD player. Most of these films are easily available on DVD and a few can be found online. Looking for unusual frights and shivers? Sample a few or all of these suitably chilling Halloween movies all having to do with spell casting whether literal or metaphorical. We begin with the most recent and travel back in time to the oldest.

Outcast (2010) – an original take on witchcraft and spell casting from a Scottish TV writer/director Colm McCarthy is his feature film debut. A young man is being stalked by a powerful warlock and his mother (Kate Dickie) resorts to witchcraft and runic spells to protect him. Meanwhile a mysterious beast terrorizes the countryside committing gruesome murders. The stories intersect in a chilling climax. A brutal horror film that is also at its heart the story of mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child.

Travel to the Louisiana bayou for a little lesson in hoodoo of the American south. Not at all the same as voodoo as you will learn in The Skeleton Key (2005). Kate Hudson -- normally not at all one of my favorites -- plays a hospice worker who is charged with taking care of the dying patriarch (John Hurt at left) of an old plantation family. Hurt at first seems to be dying of a terminal illness, but is he actually being scared to death? What is he so frightened of? Is his loss of speech a medical condition or the result of spellcasting?

Secrets in the attic, midnight strolls in a spooky Southern Gothic mansion, and a whole lot of witchery and superstition are the ingredients in this combination fright flick and mystery story. Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard round out the fine cast. Hudson is actually rather good in this one and the story is so well told (original script by Ehren Kruger who also wrote the very fine Arlington Road as well as Impostor and The Ring) and shot you soon find yourself completely engrossed in the mysterious and very spooky goings on.

Rufus Sewell succumbs to the siren song of a deadly mermaid
She Creature (2001) was part of a somewhat successful attempt to revisit old monster movies from the 1950s in a cable TV series called "Creature Features." The original was also called She Creature but that is all they have in common. This remake (the best of the series, IMO) uses the legends of mermaids and the Sirens of Greek mythology, sets the film in Victorian England and is a vast improvement. I enjoyed it a lot.

Sewell & Gugino notice a change in the catch of the day
Sebastian Gutierrez wrote and directed this homage to old Hammer horror flicks and casts Rufus Sewell and Carla Gugino as a couple of con artists trying to pass off Gugino as a mermaid in a lame sideshow act. When they find a real mermaid they capture her, cage her and exploit her for a money making exhibit that will outdo their previous pathetic attempts. They get a lot more than they bargained for with this very angry mermaid. The ending is completely over-the-top but just plain perfect for a monster movie. Sewell and Gugino are splendid, but the real stars of this retro monster movie are the make-up designer and the special effects team.

While not a legitimate horror movie per se Apartment Zero (1988) is still one of the creepiest and under-appreciated films out there. Definitely scary enough to add to any evening of Halloween films. It may be the only arty slasher film in existence. Colin Firth in one of his earliest screen performances shows just why he deserves that recent Oscar. He plays Adrian LeDuc, a loner art film theater owner, who out of financial need rents a room in his apartment to mysterious stranger Jack Carney played by 80s hunk Hart Bochner. The two develop a very strange friendship and soon LeDuc is shielding his roommate when Jack is suspected of being a serial killer. Written and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Martin Donovan whose real name is Carlos Enrique Valera y Peralta-Ramos.

Donohoe doing her snake act
Can there be a more hysterically funny, bizarrely surreal, and ridiculously erotic horror movie than The Lair of the White Worm (1988)? If there is, I haven’t found it yet. Ken Russell has taken Bram Stoker’s weakest novel of the supernatural and transformed it into a campy, slithery, fright fest that could also be a very perverted herpetophile’s wet dream. A mix of surreal nightmare sequences, over the top sex scenes, a generous helping of offensive blasphemy, and an absurd use of snake and phallic imagery The Lair of the White Worm is one head trip of a horror movie. Add to that hodgepodge one of the most delightfully weird performances in the person of the sexy and witty Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh and you can't go wrong. Hugh Grant is the hapless hero caught up in Lady Sylvia’s serpentine spell. The first time I saw this movie I couldn’t believe half of what I was seeing. To this day I have yet to see a horror film this daring when it comes to mixing sex and laughs and scares.

Looks like 1988 was a banner year for spooky movies. The Serpent and the Rainbow is also from that penultimate 80s year. Bill Pullman plays a doctor who travels to Haiti because he has heard of a drug used in creating a state of suspended animation that might be the origin of zombie mythology and inadvertently stumbles into the dangerous world of voodoo. Zakes Mokae is the powerful voodoo priest who utters the line “I want to hear you scream” in one of horror cinema’s truly bloodcurdling and nerve-wracking torture sequences. Based on a true story of a botanist who did research into the toxic and hallucinogenic plants used in Haitian voodoo rituals.

What's Halloween without a monster or two? I’ve always loved Roddy McDowall and when he plays slimy villains he’s at his best. He does a sort of Norman Bates redux role in It! (1967), a remake of the old silent German expressionist film The Golem (1920). The movie also has Jill Haworth and it is largely due to these two actors that the movie isn’t an utter disaster. Unintentionally funny and campy beyond belief It! does what all monster movies do well -- takes a preposterous story and make it thoroughly entertaining.

Watching ol’ Roddy become master of the murderous statue and using it to eliminate everyone who angers him is too much fun. His performance makes it easier to forgive the story's frequent lapses in common sense. But that’s what makes it one of my favorite monster flicks. What may not be so easy to forgive or overlook is the ridiculous apocalyptic ending involving nuclear warheads that should’ve obliterated half of England.

Conjure Wife is one of the more intriguing treatments of witchcraft in a modern setting. Charles Beaumont, best known for his work on TV’s Twilight Zone adapted Fritz Leiber’s novel for the screen and it remains faithful to the themes of the book. Retitled Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) (or The Night of the Eagle, depending on whether you live in the US or UK) the story works both as satire and horror story. Burn, Witch, Burn is nonetheless a chilling tale of superstition, spells and black magic. Perhaps the least gory of the films appearing on my Halloween film fest list this year it still holds a high place on the honor role of effective movies involving witchcraft. Also it earns special points for simultaneously being an intelligent movie that skewers the world of academia for its satiric touches on the bureaucracy of universities and the way in which wives control their husband’s destinies.

Janet Blair resorts to witchery to save her husband's life and career

Friday, October 25, 2013

FFB: The Cook - Harry Kressing

What makes a book a cult classic? Is it the writing alone? The subject matter? Must a cult novel by virtue of the word cult be something strange or weird or offbeat or...? (pick a similar adjective of your choosing) Maybe all of these criteria go into the making of a cult novel. One thing for sure cult novels usually are treasures of the bookshelf we like to label Forgotten Books. Learning of one through a cult novel's devoted reader for me is akin to the high a mountaineer must get once he's reached the apex after a grueling climb. I only heard of The Cook (1965) through one of the many comments when I asked followers of this blog to offer up titles of books they'd like to see put back in print as part of the giveaway for The Starkenden Quest last week. A very grateful thank you goes to Kelly R for mentioning this book as one of her favorites and one she would love to see reprinted. The Cook was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've had this year. So utterly unique, deceptively simple, positively hallucinatory.

The Cook starts off like a fairy tale and as its very simple plot unravels it becomes a dark fable on all of the seven deadly sins. Vanity, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Pride, Wrath, Sloth -- all are here, some more prominent than others. Conrad Venn is entranced with the Gothic castle known as the Prominence situated on a remote plateau outside the town of Cobb. Though the grounds are beautifully kept and the imposing presence of the castle is hypnotically fascinating Conrad wonders whether it is inhabited. He travels into town and learns from a tavern keeper of the legend of the castle and the feud between the Hills and the Vales, descendants of A. Cobb, the original owner of the Prominence. Conrad also learns of Cobb's strange will that prevents the Prominence to be occupied again until the two families quit fighting and are joined through marriage. The tavern keeper says the feud is long over, but the Hills and Vales still live apart from one another with little contact. Each family is dying off with the last of the Vales being Daphne Vale, an enormously fat young woman who rarely goes out, and Harold the only son of the surviving Hills her only prospect for marriage. With this legend planted in Conrad's mind and the fact that the two families seem to be obsessed with outdoing each other when it comes to their cooks Conrad takes it upon himself to unite the families and re-open the doors of the Prominence.

Cooking and food and the etiquette of lavishly prepared meals are the strange tools of Conrad's trade. He is a Machiavellian wizard in the kitchen and his nearly magical meals cast a spell over Mr. and Mrs. Hill and their son Harold. He acts as cooking tutor, nutrition consultant and financial advisor. Transformations of both body and mind begin to take place as everyone eats his amazing food. Fat people become thin, thin people become fat. Master becomes servant and servants rebel against employers. All the while Conrad remains untouched, unaffected and his eye is ever on the Prominence. He wants it so badly he can taste it. He'll stop at nothing to possess his castle and become its king.

Kressing tells his story with a mix of black humor and brief explosions of unexpected violence. Conrad is feared and admired by everyone he encounters. With only a hint or a subtle suggestion he gets everyone to do his bidding. He is an untouchable magician, the wise man on the mountain, and always a formidable presence. Even when he nearly severs the hand of a man he intentionally injured he somehow manages to come out the hero of the day. The Hills, the Vales and the entire town of Cobb are at his mercy. He gets what he wants from each person he meets, using them and playing up to their vanities and vices. Conrad always wins; his associates and students often pay a heavy price.

The Cook is a fable, an allegory, a thriller, a satire. It's a phantasmagorical and intoxicating read. Like eating a fine meal in the best restaurant reading The Cook is one of those rare pleasures you don't want to end. It's not surprising to me at all that those who have discovered this book return to it over and over for more tastes of something one just can't get enough of.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

STAGE BLOOD: Veronica's Room

Just a few days ago I learned of a local production of Veronica's Room by Ira Levin and it received rave reviews from all the Chicago newspapers plus a few theater blogs.  So I had to see it.  I had read it many years ago and never seen a production and have always wanted to.  A perfect creepy night out just a week before Halloween. Did it live up to all the raves? Well, yes and no.

A college age student named Susan Kerner is cajoled into impersonating a long dead girl named Veronica in order to appease an older couple who are taking care of a dying woman named Cissy.  As her dying wish Cissy longs to see Veronica, who she believes to still be alive, so she can finally put to rest her fear that Veronica died angry over some sins of the past.  Susan thinks it'll be fun and sees it also as the act of a Good Samaritan.  No harm could possibly come from such a charade that has at its heart good intentions.  Well, that's what she thinks.  The charade starts to veer into the fearful when moments after agreeing to the impersonation she is locked in Veronica's room and left alone for a very long time.

From then on the play strays into a strange and surreal world of make believe and time travel. Has Susan lost her mind?  Is she the genuinely crazy one?  Or is she the victim of an elaborate mind game engineered by two insane servants?  What did Veronica really do?  Is she still alive?  All questions are answered as the plot is slowly unveiled and the architects of the nightmare step out of their roles to reveal their true selves and, more importantly, their deeply twisted secrets. 

From the reviews I read I was expecting something truly frightening.  But the production falls short of all the hyperbolic praise.  In the lead role of the terrorized and terrified Young Girl Amanda Jay Long does a convincing job of the woman in peril. You feel for her plight. The scene when she realizes what she must do in order to escape her nightmare packs an emotional wallop. She does an enviable job of getting the audience to feel her imprisonment. The intimacy of the theater itself adds to a atmosphere of claustrophobia and entrapment.  Long is making her Chicago debut in this production and she is certainly one young actress I'll be looking out for in the future. She has a range of emotion and talent on display here though she's still a little raw.

The bravura performance I would single out is that of Sarah Wellington (above, extreme right) in the role of the Old Woman.  Over the course of the eighty minutes Wellington plays four different parts, is the only actor who masters all the accent and regionalisms the script calls upon her to replicate, and is a powerhouse of strength, determination and eventually madness.

Reading Veronica's Room just doesn't compare to seeing it performed. Theater and role playing are such an integral part of the drama that a performance is truly the only way one can appreciate this deliciously devilish and perverted little thriller.  If you live in Chicago I recommend it for a creepy evening out during this Halloween season. Just don't believe all the hype. It'll give you a chill or two,  but you won't be scared out of your wits.

Veronica's Room plays through October 27 at the Heartland Studio (a tiny little storefront theater with a very intimate performance space) just north of Lunt on Glenwood Avenue.  It's a short two minute walk from the Morse Red Line stop.  The play was produced by Boho Theater Ensemble.

Friday, October 18, 2013

FFB: To the Devil -- a Daughter - Dennis Wheatley

Christina Mordant cannot enter a church without getting ill. The very smell of a chapel is enough to make her nauseated. Animals shy away from her and growl for apparently no reason when she walks by. When night falls her usual polite and timid demeanor gives way to an indulgent and hedonistic personality that is more cruel than kind. What is going on with this young woman who has been abandoned by her father and left to fend for herself in a small house in the south of France?

Long before The Exorcist almost single handedly was responsible for an explosion of suspense novels and thrillers about demonic possession there was To the Devil--a Daughter (1953) Dennis Wheatley's first book to deal with the supernatural phenomenon. He handles the subject matter less luridly than those more familiar books of the 1970s displaying his usual staunch occult beliefs and a detailed look at Black Magic rituals. It's all wrapped up in a fast moving adventure novel that outdoes much of what is found in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s.

To the Devil -- a Daughter is one of Wheatley's later novels incorporating his fascination with all things occult. Because it was written in the 1950s the Satanists turn out to be a bunch of dirty Commies not Nazis, his usual target for villainous evil.

Wheatley has a kind of Ann Coulter rant he lets loose early in the book outlining his ideas about all things evil:

Now that more than half the people in the world have become godless, they have also become rudderless. Once they have put away from themselves the idea of the hereafter they think only of their own selfish ends of the moment. That leaves them easy prey to unscrupulous politicians.  Before they know where they are, they find themselves robbed of all personal freedom; their family life, which is their last tie with their better instincts, is broken up, and their children are taken from them, to be educated into robots lacking all individuality. That is what nearly happened in Nazi Germany and what has happened in Russia; and if that is not the state of things that Satan would like to see everywhere, tell me what is?
The story is pretty much a by-the-numbers pursuit adventure story with a smattering of witchcraft and black magic to spice up the usual fist fights, kidnappings and other derring do. Wheatley has a real gift for making the most cliche adventure set piece come alive with genuine excitement and suspense. The scene where Molly Fountain's son John, the over confident hero, manages to get aboard the villain's yacht, subdue a bad guy and make his way to rescue Christina, the imperiled heroine, is a great example of taking the standard potboiler action sequence and enlivening it with character traits that humanize both the good guys and bad guys. John is flawed, not a superman and acts with a trace of guilt always thinking of the consequences of committing murder. (At the time the guillotine was still the death sentence for capital crimes in France.) The bad guys are devilishly smart not stupid. And Canon Copely-Syle, a corrupt clerical figure intent on attaining "Oneness with God," outshines any of the wicked sorcerers and occultists created by Sax Rohmer. Wheatley was probably one of the first writers to take the conventions of pulp thrillers with their over-the-top action and superhuman heroes and make them more believable and realistic.

From the very first sentence ("Molly Fountain was now convinced that a more intriguing mystery than the one she was writing surrounded the solitary occupant of the house next door") the reader knows this is a book that will tell a gripping story. The manner in which Wheatley unveils the secret life of Christina, how thriller writer Molly Fountain slowly puts together the pieces, and the discovery of the mysterious plot behind Christina's strange exile in the French Riviera and her instructions to talk to no one of her past are all masterfully executed. The story is everything here and it is easy to forgive the frequent lapses into ultra-conservative political tirades like the one previously quoted.

Bloomsbury has purchased the reprint rights for all of Dennis Wheatley's novels. All of them will be available in eBook format with a select few also released in paperback.  The first few have already been released and To the Devil--a Daughter is one of three titles that will be released in both formats. The other paperback editions released this month are The Forbidden Territory (Wheatley's first novel) and the classic black magic thriller and one of Wheatley's truly excellent books The Devil Rides Out. Click here to read more about Bloomsbury's Dennis Wheatley reprints in both paperback and digital editions.

A movie version (very loosely adapted) of To the Devil--a Daughter was done in 1976. It was the last of Hammer Horror movies and starred veteran Hammer actor Christopher Lee as an excommunicated priest bent on world domination. It's nothing at all like the book and Wheatley hated it. He even called it obscene! Now that's strong criticism coming from a secret sadist.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Winners of the Raven's Head Press Giveaway

Though I am reluctant to reveal the unusual process by which the winners were selected at random (a pasta bowl was involved and I will say no more) I am nonetheless happy to announce the winners of the two free copies of The Starkenden Quest are:

1. "Manfred Arcane" - who coincidentally is a lost race fan! (Seriously, his name was truly pulled out at random)

2. "Level 1 Homemaker" - I only wish it were a copy of a Clifford Witting novel I could give you

To each winner: please send me an email with your name and mailing address. You might also tell me if you would like me to autograph the book.

Thanks so much to all those who left comments. I was overjoyed by the many responses and the hearty well wishes. Thanks also to Jeff Pierce who gave me an extra boost when he linked to my post over at The Rap Sheet, his stellar and informative crime fiction blog.

You might be interested to know that in the short three year history of this blog the Raven's Head Press announcement garnered the most comments out of all my posts. Yes, all posts over a three year period! Was that because free books were involved?  Hmm... Michael Hudson and I thank you all from the bottom of our hearts.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Raven's Head Press Takes Flight

"Never say Nevermore!"

At long last I can formally announce my involvement with the new independent publisher Raven's Head Press. Our first book -- reviewed here back in March -- is The Starkenden Quest by Gilbert Collins. Plans are to reissue adventure, crime and supernatural fiction that exemplify the kind of gripping and exciting stories published in the long gone pulp magazines and the vintage paperback imprints like Dell Mapbacks and Gold Medal. Future titles being discussed include many books previously reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books which garnered a lot of interest from you lovely readers in your comments.

We are currently looking at books by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ramona Stewart, Lionel White, Hugh Wheeler (aka Patrick Quentin and Q Patrick), Samuel Taylor and Walter Van Tillburg Clark. We are also in negotiations to obtain exclusive American reprint rights for the reissue of the books of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. An idea to create a Kickstarter campaign to help bring about this coup is also being considered.

Each reissue will have an informative introduction by yours truly. For The Starkenden Quest I did extensive research on the work of Gilbert Collins and uncovered an unusual event that might explain the reason his writing career was so short. Additionally, we were lucky enough to get permission to include the original Virgil Finlay illustrations that accompanied the Famous Fantastic Mystery pulp magazine reprint. The book is really a handsome edition. I'm proud to have been a part in freeing it from the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom and placing it back into the hands of modern readers.

I have two copies of The Starkenden Quest I am offering for free in one of the first giveaways to celebrate our first book at Raven's Head Press. All you need to do is leave a comment below and give me the name of a writer or book you've longed to see back in print. On Thursday, October 17 I'll take all the comments, throw them in a hat, and randomly select two winners. And if you like autographed books I can even scribble my name inside for you. Winner's choice, of course. Maybe you'll want your copy unsullied and pristine.

The Starkenden Quest is now available for purchase via on this page. All future titles will also be available via amazon. For more information about what Raven's Head Press has planned please visit our website.

"Never say Nevermore" is our motto. Good books shouldn't disappear into Limbo and be forgotten. We hope to bring a lot of forgotten books of out the past and into the present for a generation of new readers, and hopefully beyond.

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Thanks to all who participated!

Friday, October 11, 2013

FFB: Policeman's Holiday - Rupert Penny

Though Rupert Penny only wrote a handful of books, all published by the esteemed Collins Crime Club, not a single one of his books was published in the United States during his lifetime. It took the ingenuity of Fender Tucker and Gavin O'Keefe, those very busy men over at Ramble House,  to resurrect these fiendishly clever, often preposterous, and genuinely baffling detective novels and allow American readers an opportunity decades overdue to read them.  Policeman's Holiday (1937) is the second of only eight novels featuirng the "talkative policeman" Inspector Beale and his Watson of sorts the financial reporter Tony Purdon. And it's one of the strangest detective novels I've read in a long while.

Rupert Penny is the adopted pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett, a newspaper writer and cruciverbalist when he wasn't concocting incredibly complicated murder mystery plots. In Policeman's Holiday he decided to combine his two passions -- detective novels and crossword puzzles, or more accurately acrostics. The murder victim Bernard Pommery is a J.P., philanthropist, ex-publisher of novelty magazines and an acrostic enthusiast. His body is found hanging in Dillow Woods several miles from his home. In his pocket is an acrostic puzzle that has not one but two solutions (!) each of them providing the police with clues to the killer's motive and means.

I'll forgo any attempt to summarize the intricate, multi-layered plot. Some readers may complain that this book is saturated in plot, that it's nothing but plot. I wouldn't quibble with that observation, but then there are an entire subset of detective novels that exist solely for the plot and the puzzle. Curt Evans has written about some of the better writers in his book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. I'd class Rupert Penny with those "humdrums" as well. As a crossword puzzle constructor Thornett would naturally be drawn to writing detective novels in which puzzles and an abundance of enigmatic clues are integral to the story. His former life as a cryptographer in the British secret service no doubt also aided him in his puzzle-making abilities.

Policeman's Holiday is something of a tour de force in that regard. It's hard not to resist the pull of the puzzle from the moment the body is discovered hanging from the beech tree when all appearances say it must a suicide and all reason says it cannot possibly be so. And Thornett's storytelling pulls the reader just as an expert angler knows how to pick the perfect lure. The manner in which Inspector Beale approaches solving the crime is both entertaining and gripping. True to the style of most Golden Age detective novels Policeman's Holiday is also gussied up with maps and diagrams, including one that shows how nearly impossible it was for the victim to have committed suicide.

The pièce de résistance of Rupert Penny's detective novels is his gimmick of the "Interlude." Occurring a few chapters from the end these breaks in the narrative are similar to Ellery Queen's "Challenge to the Reader" in which the reader is asked to pause, mull over the story, sift through the clues and toss out the red herrings, and come up with his solution before turning the page and reading the actual revelation of the murderer. Just as with Queen a Penny "Interlude" is akin to a medieval knight tossing down his gauntlet. You're in for a real battle, albeit a battle of wits if you dare to take up the gauntlet and attempt to figure out the solution of a Rupert Penny mystery. I've failed three times so far. And as for that acrostic -- I managed to figure out one of the eight diabolically clued lights. I'd be willing to bet a wad of money that no one will be able to get both solutions to that particular puzzle.

Rupert Penny as he appears on the rear DJ
of a Collins Crime Club edition
Rupert Penny's Detective Novels
The Talkative Policeman (1936)
Policeman's Holiday (1937)
Policeman in Armour (1937)
The Lucky Policeman (1938)
Policeman's Evidence (1938)
She Had To Have Gas (1939)
Sweet Poison (1940)
Sealed Room Murder (1941)

As "Martin Tanner"
Cut and Run (1941)

Friday, October 4, 2013

FFB: The Detective Novels of Harriette Ashbrook

If it hadn't been for an unmentionable book by a writer known only by his initials Harriette Ashbrook might never have become a mystery writer. Just as Agatha Christie was inspired to pen her first novel by reading a poorly written detective novel Ashbrook in a newspaper interview done in 1933 confessed, "I owe it all to T.S. Fine literary style is discouraging to the beginner. It's better to read a terrible piece of tripe and get encouraged." Whatever that book and whoever T.S. might be we have to thank him for the creation of Ashbrook's ne'er-do-well amateur detective Philip "Spike" Tracy.

We first meet Spike Tracy in The Murder of Cecily Thane (1930) and he's a near twin of Philo Vance, who at the time had only appeared in five books. Tracy has got a playboy's philosophy of life, appears to be utterly hedonistic, has no job, and thinks becoming an amateur sleuth might be rather fun. The main difference between Ashbrook's detective and her obvious inspiration is while Vance loves to lecture ostentatiously on esoteric topics like Chinese pottery and ancient Egyptian burial rites Tracy is more down to earth, keenly observant but also a smart aleck. Tracy notices things the police overlook and enjoys pointing out their faults without ever appearing snobbish or patronizing as Vance often is.

Tracy has a brother who is the Manhattan District Attorney. R. Montgomery Tracy is his professional name as it is painted on his New York office door. The R stands for Richard and thankfully he doesn't go by Dick. As Vance has Markham and Sgt. Healy and Ellery Queen deals with a D.A. and his policeman father Tracy is paired with his brother and Inspector Henschmann.  For good measure Ashbrook supplies a medical examiner bored with his job who displays the requisite black humor when examining the many corpses that turn up in the series.

...Cecily Thane is fairly traditional compared to Ashbrooks' later novels featuring Spike Tracy. The victim is the unliked young wife of an older man who allowed her to go out regularly with a "dancer" named Tommy Spencer. Mrs. Thane is found shot in her bedroom with a safe open and robbed of jewels. Turns out another woman was robbed and killed earlier and she too was seen in the company of a dancing gigolo named William Preston. Is there a criminal gang of male escorts turned thieves and murderers?

There are some unusual aspects to the criminal investigation like the search for the murder weapon which was disposed of in an odd manner and turns up in a most unlikely place. Also, a blotting paper clue is reproduced in the book and allows the reader to hold it up to a mirror in order to read the message thus getting a feeling of joining Tracy in his sleuthing. But the cleverest part is that the entire crime hinges on an altered timepiece. Ashbrook's insightful observations about the difference between actual time and perceived time make for one of the more modern features of the story.

The Murder of Steven Kester, UK edition (1933)
She followed her debut with The Murder of Steven Kester (1931) which fans of obscure B movies may know in its cinematic adaptation known as Green Eyes. The movie turns up all over the internet these days as it was released by one of the bargain basement video outfits that churned out hundreds of DVD cheapies of movies now in the public domain. A murder takes place during a masquerade party held at the Long Island mansion of the title character. Kester is dressed as Bottom (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) complete with donkey's head. Tracy comes as a gladiator in an abbreviated costume consisting only of a tiger skin loincloth. When he goes in search of a safety pin in order to prevent an accidental charge of public indecency he stumbles upon the corpse. Ashbrook's offbeat sense of humor and her tendency to be a bit risqué is on flamboyant display in this book. Like many scenes added for comic effect in her books seemingly insignificant minutiae will take on greater importance when the crime is fully explained.

Her plotting is original but her execution is sometimes faulty. There are some great clues like the evidence of something having been destroyed in the furnace of the Kester home, a suspect's past life as an actress, and a pair of dice that turn up during a scene involving an ostensibly extraneous crap game -- yet another "big clue" disguised in a scene of minutiae that helps Tracy solve the murder. But while the reader is presented with all of this Tracy still withholds some important data. Too much offstage action in this story for my tastes, too many scenes when Tracy goes away and we have no idea what he does until pages later in the denouement.

Ashbrook starts to experiment with unusual themes in her next two books. In one book she touches on abnormal psychology and uses some groundbreaking research in a rather daring surprise reveal while the other gives her a chance to discuss the lonely life of World War 1 veterans, their often tortured lives, and the private demons they must learn to deal with back home far from the brutality of the front.

The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) shows considerable improvement from her first two detective novels. Tracy is on his own in this outing which takes him to the backcountry of Vermont. Ashbrook does an excellent job with misdirection and even manages to include an impossible disappearance. For the 1930s this was probably an astonishing mystery with a gasp inducing, surprise ending. It deals with twin sisters -- Mary, a bedridden invalid, and Jill, an extroverted, highly sexual young woman. Jill believes there is a plot to kill her. She enlists Tracy's aid to prevent her impending murder at the hands of her oppressive and odious guardian and his nurse, but the old man turns up dead first. And Jill is discovered standing over his body with the bloody weapon in her hand.

Though it may all become rather obvious to the 21st century reader Ashbrook must be commended for handling a topic rarely used in detective fiction of the 1930s. A rural Vermont sheriff mentions a well known Victorian novel in the final pages, perhaps the only familiar reference on the topic to a reader of Ashbrook's time. She handles the topic fairly well for a device that is now an overused trick in thriller and mystery fiction. I like ...Sigurd Sharon for its daring invention and its subversive depiction of a sexually free female character.

The theft of a valuable stamp collection, several murders and a handful of attempted murders are at the core of the elaborately constructed A Most Immoral Murder (1935). Tracy is back in Manhattan with the usual supporting characters from the police and D.A.'s office. He also makes frequent trips to New Jersey, notably the fictitious town of West Albion where a secret in the past is revealed to have a connection to the murders and the stamp collection theft. Ashbrook uses a murder investigation to draw comparison between wartime killing and murder in civilian life and has some very strong opinions about each and the effect killing has on soldiers. I found it to be her most mature work even if the plot gets a bit creaky with some old fashioned tropes involving adopted children that seem borrowed from Victorian sensation novels. The unfolding of events, however, is impressively done. The large cast of well drawn characters holds the reader's interest with the stamp expert being the most memorable of the lot.

Harriette Ashbrook wrote only seven novels using her real name then handful more under the pseudonym "Susannah Shane." The Shane novels are a blend of Mignon Eberhart style "women in peril" thrillers and all-out farcical comic crime novels like the work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor and Craig Rice. I prefer her work under her own name.

These days Spike Tracy is utterly forgotten. Sadly, so too is Harriette Ashbrook. I'd recommend tracking down any of her books -- they're entertaining, sometimes devious, and often very original for the time they were written. Spike Tracy was one of the better Vance impersonators but a lot more likable. As Ashbrook says of her own creation, "He's the kind of man I wish I could meet in real life."

Philip "Spike" Tracy Detective Novels
The Murder of Cecily Thane (1930)
The Murder of Stephen Kester (1931)
The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933)
A Most Immoral Murder (1935)
Murder Makes Murder (1937)
Murder Comes Back (1940)
The Purple Onion Mystery (1941) (AKA Murder on Friday)