Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hazell Plays Solomon - P. B. Yuill

"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”

IN BRIEF: The Sins of the Father - John Blackburn

“What sort of mind could wish to free and harbour a group of compulsive murderers and then release them again? Men and women as dangerous as bombs, bullets or… Or hydrophobia.”
-- Marcus Levin in
The Sins of Our Father
A rash of crimes committed by criminally insane murders who have coincidentally all escaped from the institutions where they were incarcerated has General Kirk and a committee of prison reform experts more than alarmed. Is it possible that some mad genius is engineering these escapes with a nefarious purpose in mind? You betcha. And since this is a John Blackburn book can be sure that not only is there an evil mastermind at work but that some insidious virus will be uncovered and that some sort of supernatural power will be worked into the story.

The less than subtle "Prologue" to The Sins of the Fathers (1979) neatly ties in the title to an incident in the life of a notorious Nazi war criminal known as Papa Otto Fendler, "a geneticist far ahead of his time." Seems ol’ Papa was fond of a select group of children at the concentration camp where he conducted a variety of unseemly experiments. Just what he did to those children will not be fully revealed until the final chapters. And is it possible that Papa Otto has survived the destruction of the camp and is controlling a now adult group of his favorite human guinea pigs?

With ace bacteriologist Sir Marcus Levin on hand partnered with his wife Tania, a former KGB spy, the sinister plans of Papa Otto are proven to involve a form of germ warfare with humans used as a missile substitute. In a pulpy twist many of the infected madmen and madwomen exhibit symptoms indicative of rabies. Blackburn concocts several scenes where this unfortunate rabid-like victims attack innocent bystanders like so many wannabe vampires by taking healthy chomps out of their arms, hands and faces.

It’s not one of Blackburn’s more original stories. He seems to have culled together plot elements from several of his previous books. Interestingly, this book has a few didactic asides in the committee members heated debates. Blackburn raises all sorts of issues related to prison reform. Overcrowding, segregation of prisoners, and reinstatement of the death penalty are among the hot topics discussed at length. This was one of his last books and it may indicate a trend towards social criticism, a path so many genre writers seem to take in their later career as they tire of the so often formulaic structure of crime and thriller fiction. Nazis, viral experimentation on humans, grisly murders and mind control have all been featured in Blackburn's other novels.

Still it’s a neatly plotted book, swiftly paced and jam packed with pulpy adventure sure to satisfy fans of this kind of over-the-top thriller. The climax taking place in the catacombs of an ancient church with our heroes in peril of drowning by the impending flood from the underground River Larne more than makes up for any of the book’s recycled shortcomings.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card – E1: “Book with a Detective Team”

Friday, March 28, 2014

FFB: Death Goes to a Reunion - Kathleen Moore Knight

I went through a period last summer of reading Kathleen Moore Knight's detective novels and romantic suspense thrillers. A while ago I came across her name in a list of underrated mystery writers and since I had a small boxful of her books I thought it was about time to catch up on her. She was one of the best selling writers in the stable of popular American writers published by Doubleday's Crime Club and turned out to be rather prolific, creating three different series characters (one under the pseudonym Alan Amos). Knight showed variety and range in her subject matter which includes country house detective novels set in New England, urban crime and mayhem set in New York City with publicity agent turned amateur sleuth Margot Blair solving the mysteries, and a wide array of adventure thrillers and early forms of romantic suspense almost all of them set in Central and South America.

 I started with two of her books featuring her First Selectman Elisha Macomber who lives on the fictional Penberthy Island (most likely modeled on Nantucket) in a village so small there is no official police department.  Death Blew Out the Match (1935) and The Clue of the Poor Man's Shilling (1936) are admirable novice examples of quasi HIBK with a smidgen of fair play detective novel clues thrown in for good measure.  The second is far superior to the first. Though both of them end with the heroine bound and gagged in a cabin at the mercy of a token villain ...Shilling has tighter plotting, readable prose, a surprise reveal in the murderer's identity, deftly drawn characters, and one of the best examples of life on an isolated New England island in a detective novel of the late 1930s.

In doing research into her later books I also came across several book reviews in "The Criminal Record", a monthly column in the old Saturday Review in which "Sergeant Cuff" gave capsulized reviews of mystery books. One of Knight's books received high praise earning her the enviable adjective "ingenious" from the usually tough to please Cuff.  That book was Death Goes to a Reunion (1952).  I had to find a copy and see if it lived up to my own high standards.

Just last month I finally found an affordable copy.  I'm glad to report that while it may not be what I'd call ingenious it certainly has been the best of Knight's books I've read to date.

Essentially, what we have is yet another country house murder mystery with a small group of suspects. A group of sorority sisters who went to college in 1911 have gathered at the home of Helena and John Myrick for a 40th reunion. Oddly enough, all of the women at one time dated John, known as "Jocko" back in the day and still lovingly called by that nickname by his devoted granddaughter Nella. One afternoon during the reunion weekend a maid enters Jocko's study and finds him dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. It's hard for anyone to believe that he would've committed suicide, especially during a reunion of his wife's friends. All signs, however, seem to point to that end. Elisha Macomber steps in and begins his own investigation enlisting the aid of Nella and her fiance Peter as well as Henry, a simple-minded, talkative handyman who finds new confidence and an improved self-image in his role as assistant detective. Later, it is also necessary to call in Chief Buck, the police chief at the down-island town of Medbury, when there is another death and Macomber is certain a revenge crazed murderer is hiding among the ex-sorority sisters.

Knight does something very daring with this book. Each time a death occurs she allows the reader to see the scene played out. Because it is clear she intends that her killer be a woman Knight can still make the killer anonymous through the use of feminine pronouns. Since there are really only two male supporting characters it's still a fair play technique. Knight also manages to shift suspicion among the six or seven women suspects several times. It's done convincingly with both character observations and skillfully laid out clues. She had this reader reassigning the role of murderer at least four times before finally picking the correct culprit based on a single well planted yet rather subtle clue.

Macomber, unlike the early books I've read, has an increased lead role as detective. Knight is obviously more comfortable with her creation to give him so much stage time. He has grown older and now in his early sixties he has softened a bit and recognizes his flaws. While often self-deprecatingly calling himself "a doddering old blunderbuss" or "a ruminating old codger" he picks out the genuine evidence from the misleading red herrings and points out clearly to all just why the two victims did not die accidental deaths but were callously murdered by a very clever killer.

Finally, in this book Knight makes some pointed observations in her writing. Each character has their chance to shine and there are no extraneous "bogey characters" inserted into the story as filler or red herrings. The reader sees several of the suspects in solo scenes with many of these sequences displaying impressive writing. One cannot help but be moved by lines like "One mourned -- not with the grief of loss, but because of the emptiness where love should have been" when Jocko's widow is meditatively recalling her reactions to her husband's death. In addition to the improved construction of the detective novel plotting this book is highlighted by similarly quiet yet powerful moments.

If you ever want the proper entry point for the detective novels of Kathleen Moore Knight I'd suggest you start with Death Goes to a Reunion. It's a stunner both as detective novel and a study of love gone terribly wrong. Agatha Christie would've been proud.

The Elisha Macomber Detective Novels
Death Blew Out the Match (1935)
The Clue of the Poor Man's Shilling (1936)
The Wheel That Turned (1936)
Seven Were Veiled (1937)
The Tainted Token (1938) (paperback reprint retitled: The Case of the Tainted Token)
Acts of Black Night (1938)
Death Came Dancing (1940)
The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946)
Footbridge to Death (1947)
Bait For Murder (1948)
The Bass Derby Murder (1949)
Death Goes to a Reunion (1952)
Valse Macabre (1952)
Akin to Murder (1953)
Three of Diamonds (1953)
Beauty is a Beast (1959)

Friday, March 21, 2014

FFB: The Chill and the Kill - Joan Fleming

The vicar of Marklane was already the subject of gossip for time he was spending with Maudie Grey. He was young and distant and had a few radical ideas. But when he knocked down teenage Rita Side with his car he lost what few friends he had made in the village. Then Rita begins to show signs of a dormant psychic power. Just after being treated by the locum tenens she predicts the doctor will soon be found in a car wreck at the edge of a forest. it causes chills in those present, especially her mother a God fearing woman who fears anything remotely supernatural. The young doctor is found dead shortly thereafter of a self-inflicted gun wound in his wrecked car. At the edge of a forest. Rita apparently has acquired Second Sight and she becomes the talk of the town.

One of Rita's most ardent fans is Angel Ordinal whose own private astrologist and "fortune teller" Mrs. Peckham recently died. With the news of Rita's new powers to foretell the future she strikes up a business relationship with her and plies her with probing questions in exchange for a few pounds. Rita reluctantly gives in to Angel’s demands and warns her to beware of a stranger. Angel laughs this off as the typical line a carnival or church fair fortune teller might pronounce: "Beware a tall dark stranger." She wants specifics. Who exactly is this man? Why should she beware of him?" Rita will say no more. But the reader knows that most of Rita's visions of the future are all related to death. One can only assume the worst is to come for Angel. And it comes violently.

The Chill and the Kill (1964) is one of Joan Fleming's most unique novels not just for its inclusion of genuine supernatural events, but for the fact that the crime element is added almost as an afterthought. While there is a murder and some amateur detective work in the final third of the novel the real story is that of Rita's psychic ability and the effect of that strange power on her family and the villagers of Marklane. Fleming's character work in this story is rich and varied from Rita's cantankerous grandfather Trinity Bend to the sophisticated Lady Veronica (Angel's best friend) to the slightly sinister antiques dealer Mr. Gundry who throws a party at which his guests are allowed to quiz Rita and test the authenticity of her Second Sight. Fleming has a keen eye for social satire but on occasion lets slip some supercilious snobbery. The mystery plot when it comes seems not only intrusive amid all the character studies, but it is almost a parody of the whodunit in its outrageous motive and the identity of the murderer, not to mention the bizarre circumstances involving the victim.

Even with these caveats I'd recommend this as an introduction to Fleming's literate and intelligent novels of suspense. Though I'm just beginning to acquaint myself with her work (see my previous review of When I Grow Rich) I am eager to read more. In her heyday Fleming received rave reviews, not the least of which came from Anthony Boucher who praised her originality saying " two of her mystery novels resemble each other in anything save artistry". Fleming can be uneven at times which may explain why she has fallen into the Limbo of Forgotten Writers, but more often than not you'll find her books to be offbeat and odd and far from formulaic.

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Reading Challenge Update: This is my first book on the Silver Age Bingo Card: V1 - "Read a book by an author you've read before"

Thursday, March 20, 2014

NEW STUFF: The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone

The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone
by Will Storr
Marble Arch Press/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4767-3043-1
367 pp. $16 (trade paperback)
Publication date: March 11, 2014

Killian Lone had a childhood that even a Dickens orphan would find nightmarish. Punished cruelly with burning cigarettes and beatings by his man–hating mother who taught him to withstand pain and not cry out in order to toughen up, subjected to a humiliating attack by a teenage thug that nearly blinds him, it’s no wonder he finds it necessary to escape to his Aunt Dorothy’s Gothic retreat in the Sussex countryside. There, with his Aunt as teacher and mentor, he learns to cook mouthwatering meals filled with tantalizing exotic ingredients Under his aunt’s patient instruction coupled with the only kindness he ever receives Killian blossoms into a chef of enviable skill and invention. He decides to pursue his love of cooking at a culinary school where his talent does not go unnoticed by the headmaster. Soon Killian finds himself apprenticed to his hero, the brilliant celebrity chef Max Mann whose restaurant “King” is one of the best in London. But the world of the professional chef is no better than a military boot camp with its grueling exercises and initiation rituals for the grunts. Killian once again finds himself the target of sadism and cruelty on the scale of a Grand Guignol production.

When Aunt Dorothy dies she promises Killian will be rewarded. To his parent’s horror that reward is the family estate. His mother is enraged, his ineffectual father merely disappointed, when Killian refuses to sign over the property so that his parents can sell the place and use the money to start their lives afresh. He leaves his parents and takes up residence in Dor Cottage. In his exploration of the foreboding house he comes across a library of cook books in a locked attic. Among those books he finds a few apparently written by his ancestors who were known to indulge in witchcraft. One of the books, an eerily illustrated volume of herbs, discusses strange plants he has never heard of and their culinary and medicinal properties. He later discovers these very same mysterious plants are growing wild on the estate in a forbidden garden that has been walled up for centuries. And just like those curious characters in fairy tales temptation gets the better of him. Killian breaks down the walls and gathers some of those herbs for his own cooking experiments with some surprising results.

Will Storr, an award winning investigative journalist, has crafted a modern tale of horror that capitalizes on the popularity of celebrity chefs, gourmet cooking and the egos at war in the professional kitchens of Michelin rated restaurants. Storr has a gift for unusual metaphor, evocative descriptions, and well thought turns of phrase ("It was a flavour that took ordinary beauty and violently challenged it; that took perfection and humiliated it.") His obvious love for Gothic settings are both homages to traditional supernatural tales of the past and excitingly contemporary with original details and imaginative spins. Dor Cottage and its creepy gardens might well be at home in the stories of Lefanu, Machen and Blackwood, yet the plants Storr invents are monstrous things with horrifying traits; so life-like they seem like supporting characters not just leaves and stems. The book is most effective when Killian is alone at his aunt's home cooking, exploring the house and grounds, and experimenting with the plants. When confined to the brilliantly realized Dor Cottage where Killian is under the influence of century old powers he cannot comprehend the story is genuinely thrilling and filled with mystery.

The bulk of the story takes place in the restaurant world, however, where Storr indulges in the modern trend in horror to repulse and nauseate with gore and torture. The intensity of the cruelty, the relentless troment and humiliation of Killian and his co-workers at the hands of the sadistic head chefs had this reader longing for a scene of violent revenge and role reversal in victims and tormenters. Yet when it comes there is no true catharsis for either reader or victimized characters.

Killian begins as a figure of pity but in his hunger to become London’s – if not the world’s – best chef we see him metamorphose from anguished victim to ambition crazed, loyalty obsessed madman. Though Killian begins to show his natural talent in food preparation and a desire to transcend the tired nouvelle cuisine of his icon Max Mann the reader soon discovers that Killian’s dependence on the powerful herbs and their near magical properties are the true cause of his success. It is therefore difficult to side with Killian as he skyrockets from apprentice to master chef eclipsing the fame of Max Mann to become the new darling of the restaurant scene.

Hunger and ambition, interestingly, are used interchangeably throughout the book. The howling is done both in pain and in longing. Killian refers to himself as a "turnspit dog", he constantly talks of the loyalty dogs have for their masters, and is obsessed with the idea of loyalty. The title's metaphors recur and morph as the story inexorably makes its way to a tragedy hinted at in the opening pages. Storr's novel in the end is a cautionary tale of blind ambition and an unquenchable thirst for stardom. But Killian doesn’t ever seem to learn anything. Beaten, burned, scarred both physically and emotionally, one hopes for an epiphany that will redeem Killian in his quest for love and acceptance.

Further frustrating the reader is the knowledge that Killian is a fraud. All his declamatory talk of loyalty is just so much hot air. He traps himself and becomes enslaved to a success based on lies, lies that he continues to tell his friends, co-workers and even himself. His ultimate sacrifice in the final pages seems more like a writer’s cop out than a real deserved catharsis for a character who seemed paradoxically to live and long for pain and not the love and attention he so fervently craved.

Friday, March 14, 2014

FFB: Sheet Lightning - Joan Butler

1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)
Slick fantasy. Now there's a new term for me. I discovered it is a sort of catch-all subgenre "usually in short-story form, which deals with such matters as Pacts with the Devil, Three Wishes, Identity Exchange, Answered Prayers, Little Shops of the Heart's Desire, etc." and were often published in the slick magazines as opposed to the pulps. This is one of the terms invented by John Clute and John Grant, the editors of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). Writers of slick fantasy include John Collier and Lord Dunsany and it is suggested that much of the work of  F. Anstey and Thorne Smith can also be included.

Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in "slick fantasy." I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.

Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of "Black Bart", an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias "Black Bart". After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart's stashed loot.

Extremely scarce paperback edition
Soon the estate is overrun with visitors and prospective buyers interested in the property. The weather turns nasty. Legend states that with the approach of thunderstorms comes the ghost of Sir Richard. The guests and two new owners prepare for ghostly visits by locking themselves up in their rooms. But the temptation of the jewels and money keep most of the guests busy by sneaking out. Much confusion and wackiness accompanied by slamming of doors, bedroom switches and women dressed in flimsy nighties ensues.

Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers' similar fault -- "drowning in words." In my first encounter reading Alexander as "Joan Butler" I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.

As for the "slick fantasy" element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say "The devil take you!" on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.

The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles -- Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 -- are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I'm hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

NEW STUFF: Original Death - Eliot Pattison

Original Death: A Mystery of Colonial America by Elliot Pattison
Counterpoint Press
ISBN: 978-1-58243-731-6
358 pp. $26
Publication date: August 6, 2013

It’s easy to see why Eliot Pattison is drawn to the Iroquois tribes of colonial America. Previously he had done a fine job of exploring the world of Tibet and its native religions and comparing and contrasting the cultural mores of those people with the threatening militaristic Communist Chinese in his series of mystery novels featuring Inspector Shan, an exiled Chinese policeman living in Tibet. The analogies between Tibet and China with Native American peoples and imperialist Britain of the seventeenth century are remarkable. Just as Shan is an outcast of his own people learning to live in a new and near mystical culture so is Duncan McCallum, former member of the Scottish army, now living among and allied with the Nipmuc people of northern New York state.

In fact this book, third in a series featuring McCallum and his Indian comrade Conawago, might be alternately subtitled "The Last of the Nipmucs". It owes so much (consciously or not) to James Fenimore Cooper’s adventures of Natty Bumppo and even a few western movies like The Searchers, with which it also strongly shares a common theme. The Scot and the Nipmuc are in search of Conawago’s missing nephew, one of the sole survivors of a recent massacre at a settlement of newly converted Christian Indians. The savagery so disturbs Conawago he flees into the surrounding woods where he intends to find solace among the spirits of the forest. There he will garner courage and strength from ancient forces with the hope of returning bolder to battle the enemy soldiers who murdered the settlers and Indians. McCallum is left alone for most of the book and joins forces with some rebel Scots and a few Indians while following the trail of the murderous soldiers who have kidnapped a handful of Indian children including Conawago’s missing nephew.

Along the way McCallum picks up several unexpected allies including Hetty, the fascinating "Welsh witch", who seems to have paranormal powers. She manages to frighten their enemies and perform near miraculous cures. Each time the story deals with the spiritual beliefs of the Indians or Hetty the book takes on an other worldly tone and transcends the thriller genre to reach a mystical headiness that is hypnotically fascinating. Also notable are the portraits of the warrior Sagatchie; Kassawaya, a woman Oneida skilled as an archer; and the two women Iroquois elders, Tushcona and Adanahoe, the latter as equally adept at seemingly supernatural talents as Hetty. The book has thrilling action sequences and moments of poignant humanity. Pattison's keen insight into the indifferent treatment towards those seen as outsiders and the effects of that treatment on marginalized communities are handled extremely well. Those scenes have a powerful resonance for our still troubled, supposedly modern age.

This is the kind of historical fiction that makes for breathtaking reading. Pattison has done an admirable job of researching a little known incident in the history of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylania where the Moravians had several missions and transferred that story to upstate New York. In doing so he turned that historical incident into both a thrilling entertainment and a modern day look at the intolerance and brutality of the military. One cannot help but draw parallels to the violence of US military perpetrated against Islamic civilians whether aggressive and intentional or accidental victims of “friendly fire” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Pub Crawler - Maurice Procter

US 1st edition (Harper & Bros., 1957)
For some reason I have been reading a slew of the books that were reprinted as part of Garland Press' Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction series. There were two sets of these books totaling one hundred examples of what in the estimation of Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor (authors of the seminal detective fiction annotated bibliography A Catalog of Crime) are superlative examples of the genre.  Most of the time, especially those in the first set which includes books published between 1900-1950, I have been very pleased with the choices.  But lately I've been sampling some from the second set spanning 1950 - 1975 and I have to admit great disappointment.  Yesterday I posted an essay on the uneven but entertaining novel The Body in the Beck included in this second set of fifty "classics". Today I regret I have found one that is simply mediocre.

The Pub Crawler (1956) is a perfect example of a police procedural that fails to excite. Though the central conceit of an undercover policeman should provide the reader with ample opportunity for suspense and detection Maurie Procter instead delivers a plodding story that mixes soap opera melodrama with a fairly routine police investigation. Sam Gilmour, owner of the Starving Rascal, is murdered for his rare coin collection and Bill Knight is the rookie policeman chosen by his superiors to be a "pub crawler", apparently police slang for an undercover cop who haunts bars trying to elicit information from the regular customers. Knight's original task was to gather information on illegal gambling but Gilmour's murder offers his superiors the chance to put him on double duty as a "police spy" a term Knight finds more accurate to describe his unwelcome assignment.

US 1st paperback (Berkeley, 1958)
Soon Knight finds himself set up in a boarding house owned by Mrs. Byles and sitting at the dinner table holding conversations with his landlady and her three children, Gunnar, Rosemary and Junie, in an attempt to get to the bottom of Gilmour's murder. Gunnar is soon implicated as the prime suspect. Junie, only eighteen years old and the youngest of Mrs Byles' children, starts to show an amorous interest in the rugged Knight. When another female suspect, Gilmour's adopted daughter Gay, begins to show signs of jealousy Knight's job is hampered by their rivalry and competing attentions. Unfortunately, soap opera elements threaten to overtake the crime plot at this stage.

But there are the thug characters named McGeen and Frost to keep Knight busy as well. Gunnar is mixed up with these two bookies who may or may not also be involved in the murder of the pub owner. When an attempt is made by McGeen to sell a gold ingot bar to a local junk dealer the police are alerted and the case comes to a startlingly rapid close.

For me there wasn't enough detection in this story to keep interest in the crime plot. The subplot of the women vying for Bill Knight's attention and the repeated beating scenes of the gangster characters kept intruding and distracting me. When Knight is alone and focused on the gathering of evidence -- even if it is a bit unorthodox -- the book approaches true excitement. But these scenes are few and far between. Only when Mrs. Byles is onstage in the soap opera sections does the story hold real interest. Procter's creation of a complex and non-stereotypical working class mother who knows too well that her children are not angels and whose contempt for respectable people fuels her hatred of the upper class kept me reading to the final page. Mrs. Byles was the most complex and unexpected character in a book otherwise filled with rather cardboard, familiar types of 1950s cops-and-robbers melodrama.

The book is far from a classic for any era. I'm dumbfounded how it merits being called one of the fifty best books in a twenty-five year period of crime fiction publishing.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update:  N2 on the Golden Age Bingo Card - "Book with a Place in the Title"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Body in the Beck - Joanna Cannan

There are some detectives in the history of crime fiction who were created for the express purpose of infuriating the reader, I think.  Roger Sheringham was probably one of the first smug detectives who was far from likeable in his first few outings.  There's Philo Vance with his prissy urbanity and show-off erudition.  I recall a police inspector character created by American mystery writer Hugh Austin named Peter Quint who was one rude sonofabitch when dealing with his suspects. And if you flash forward a couple of decades out of the Golden Age it's hard to avoid Joyce Porter's insufferably lazy, rude and sloppy Wilfrid Dover. Some of these detectives are created as comic figures of  ridicule, others seem to have earned their irritating and annoying traits unintentionally. In the school of the detective as object of ridicule we can place Inspector Ronald Price who makes his debut in The Body in the Beck, (1952) one of Joanna Cannan's few forays into legitimate detective fiction.

Price is tasked with investigating the murder of a man found dead in the mountains of the Lake District.  He immediately suspects Francis Worthington, an academic and mountaineer, who discovered the body found beaten and possibly drowned in a small stream (the "beck" of the title).  Cannan sets up Price as a fool of a policeman and proceeds to discredit him both in his professional capacity and in his narrow minded view of humanity.  He is painted as a xenophobic prig uptight about sex.  She reveals him to be pretentious in manner and speech, moralistic about crime, and supercilious in his treatment of suspects he feels are his superiors. Everyone he interrogates is appalled by his lack of respect at an Oxford college where he tries to learn what he can about Worthington.  Old Man Meade, a veteran don, is particularly disturbed by Price's lack of grammatical skill during their interview. This is a remarkable kind of protagonist for any mystery writer to introduce.  Shockingly, Price goes onto appear in four more books.  Cannan must have been amusing herself a great deal.

The detective plot is scant. It is clear that Worthington is innocent and he sets out to try to clear his name as Price continues to move adamantly forward in an attempt to prove him guilty.  Price lucks out when he runs fingerprints on the victim and learns he has a police record primarily for extortion and crimes related to an intimidation racket. But his obsession with Worthington soon leads the reader to give up all hope on Inspector Price solving the crime.  More and more one looks forward to Worthington's few scenes of detective work. When he sees someone making frequent trips to an abandoned well he begins to piece together the mystery of who, how, and why the victim was killed and dumped in the mountain stream. The identity of the murder therefore does not come as too much of a surprise in the end, though the motive and other aspects leading up the murder do supply a mild eyebrow raising moment.

If the book fails to excite as a mystery novel it cannot be said that it is altogether uninteresting. What distinguishes this book is Cannan's skillful characterizations, especially when the story focuses on the academics and the mountaineering tourists. Her other asset is an often indulgent and wry British humor notably when dealing with Price and his backward social skills. There was one physical description of Price's smile ("revealing pearly dentures, which was meant to be reassuring, but brought crocodiles to mind") that summoned an image of the wickedly acerbic Beatrice Bradley, often called Mrs. Croc in the mystery novels of Gladys Mitchell.

Another remarkable feature of the book is Cannan's obsession with mountaineering poetry.  Apparently there is a very scarce volume of such poems -- The Englishman in the Alps edited by Sir Arnold Lunn (1913) -- she dipped into for repeated obscure literary allusions.  And I of course had to look up every last one of them!  Francis Worthington, his climbing partner Sebastian, as well as a woman psychologist and one of the elderly dons all spout forth passages from arcane poems and long forgotten works of England's literary past, most of which turn up in Lunn's anthology. One poem "Separation" by Walter Savage Landor is often quoted (" Between us now the mountains and the wood/Seem standing darker than last year stood").  Other poets quoted include A. D. Godley, Thomas Macaulay's "The Lays of Ancient Rome" and the initialed near anonymous author known only as B. K. whose "Levavi Oculos" serves as the source for another oft repeated phrase ("Grant I may pass with strength undimmed and find/The sleep that is more ancient than the hills.")

Speaking of hills, the phrase "the hills sleep on in their eternity" crops up a couple of times. Not only is it an allusion to the poem "Friendship" by Hartley Coleridge, but those familiar with Cannan's bibliography may catch that it is a reference to one of her earliest works The Hills Sleep On (1937), a borderline crime novel.

And if her love of undistinguished mountain poetry was not enough allusion play Cannan also has a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of scene in which she makes fun of herself.  Price visits Worthington's sometime mistress Lady Nollis and while waiting for the woman to be summoned by her servants he peruses the titles of her bookshelf. There he finds a miniature library of children's books with the titles like I Wanted a Pony, They Bought Her a Pony, and Plenty of Ponies.  In addition to her mainstream novels and crime fiction Joanna Cannan is probably best known for her pony books written for young girls (and perhaps a few boys). Those titles Price discovered on Lady's Nollis' bookshelves are genuine books written by Cannan and her two daughters, Christine & Diane Pullein-Thompson, who also became writers of horse and pony books.

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Reading Challenge update:  E6 on the Golden Age Bingo Card - "A Book You Have to Borrow."  I took this one out of the Chicago Public Library.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

FOUND BOUND: Ex-Private Eye Turns Writer

For me it's always interesting to see how very well known books were first marketed before they reached their legendary status. Take this book (advertised in the Feb 15, 1930 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature) now a permanent part of American pop culture, for example:

(Click to enlarge and read the fine print)
I think only the most diehard fan knows that Hammett was once an operative with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Sam Spade was also billed a "shyster detective" and a "Don Juan", apparently traits that Knopf thought would sell the book. I won't comment further on the last portion of Spade's description.

Friday, March 7, 2014

FFB: Nine Doctors and a Madman - Elizabeth Curtiss

UK 1st edition (Herbert Jenkins, 1938)

Elizabeth Curtiss' debut mystery novel Nine Doctors and a Madman (1940) first came to my attention in a brief review at Mystery*File. Interestingly, the evocative title and its subject matter -- the murder of a sadistic, egocentric psychiatrist at a mental institution -- sparked a lengthy discussion in the comments of detective novels set in asylums and mystery plots that deal with madness. A shame that somehow Curtiss' book was lost in the shuffle because it is not only one of the more fascinating debuts by a mystery writer, but it is a classic case of a book that breaks several rules and still succeeds as a fair play detective novel.

Dr. Frank Blythe is one of those characters in detective fiction who well deserve their violent end. Despised and mistrusted by every one of his colleagues at the asylum where he works he believed he had the power to manipulate and "hypnotically control" anyone he encountered. He even bragged that he could put a weapon in the hands of a violent inmate and prevent him from committing a murder. When he is found stabbed to death in a patient’s room it at first looks as if his arrogance has got the better of him and his experiment fatally backfired. But the placement of the body leaves room for doubt that the patient had anything to do with the crime. Furthermore, the unusual murder weapon was an item known to only three people and was always hidden in Blythe's apartment in the staff housing separate from the patient quarters. That weapon, an antique British Meat skewer, was presented as a gift to his wife Myrna, a woman who lived in fear of her husband. Who wouldn’t be frightened of a man who gives a meat skewer as a gift? A skewer that is engraved with the Latin phrase Hoc me occide, si audeus (translated in the book as "Kill me with this if you dare") -- the very same phrase the Borgias engraved on murder weapons they gave to their enemies.

As the title suggests there are nine other doctors in the cast of characters who are immediate suspects. Yet all of them have near iron-clad alibis for the time of the killing. There is not one madman but several in the cast, but as the story progresses the reader learns that perhaps the titular "madman" is one of the doctors. The case is investigated by Dr. Nathaniel Bunce aided by his resident intern Dr. Theophilus ("Call me Phil") Bishop who also serves as narrator. Bishop is no dullard like Captain Hastings nor is he the awestruck and sometimes confused John Watson. He is sharp as a tack. It helps that he is the son of a district attorney. But under Bunce's tutelage as both a student of psychology and criminology Bishop has lots to learn.

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937)
Complicating the story of Dr. Blythe's murder is the fact that Bunce is assisting the police in a case of strychnine poisonings. Is there a serial killer on the loose killing men of "small, unprepossessing appearance and effeminate physical type"? Do those poisoning murders have anything to do with the twelve guinea pigs in Dr. Gina Fiske's lab that have all mysteriously died of some poison? Could the killer be among the staff at the asylum?

The story is rife with clues and red herrings. A button torn from a nurse's uniform, a set of missing spoons, a nurse who manages to appear in two different places within a span of one minute, a noisy and powerful X-ray machine that when in use causes all the lights in the institution to dim, and a sparrow's nest in a clock tower are among the more imaginative bits that make for quite a puzzling case. Add in a group of patients who have taken to swallowing objects like pieces of pottery and kitchen utensils and Dr. Blythe's cruel antipathy for alley cats that led him to order the groundsman to shoot them on sight and you have more than enough ingredients for a bubbling cauldron of suspicion and intrigue.

Perhaps most striking of all is Curtiss' handling of the denouement. The final pages are reminiscent of some of the cases of Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Beatrice Bradley where a fictional detective decides to become both sleuth and judge. Dr. Bunce presents alternate theories about what actually happened in the patient’s room. He hints that the death of Dr. Blythe was a just one and finagles the evidence and manipulates the police inspector in charge of the case to think that one of the solutions he presents is the correct one, when in fact it is not. In the final chapter Dr. Bishop and another psychologist discover for themselves the true identity of the killer and are astonished at the unethical practices of Dr. Bunce.

Nathaniel Bunce appeared in only one other book (Dead Dogs Bite, 1939) and Elizabeth Curtiss seemed to abandon the genre completely afterwards. What a shame. Based on her debut alone she showed great promise. She might have been one of the few ingenious woman mystery writers of this era, one who could've shaken up the tired formulas of the genre and given her seasoned colleagues a real run for their money