Friday, May 30, 2014

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest - Peter Dickinson

“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”
I seem to be on a roll with anthropological mysteries. First, The Glass Spear taught me all about aboriginal Australia, coming soon a visit to Peru and the ancient Incans, and now I get the amazingly inventive world of the Ku tribe as imagined by Peter Dickinson in his debut mystery novel. Dickinson is a much underappreciated writer, something of an acquired taste, and always surprising in how different each book can be.

James Pibble is a Scotland Yard inspector who is assigned the oddball cases. The murder in The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968) is typical of the strange crimes that have become his specialty. In a house where the last surviving members of a little known tribe from New Guinea have settled one of their members has been found bludgeoned. The weapon is a wooden balustrade ornament in the shape of an owl. What makes the crime so unusual is that the tribe have been living according to their laws and cultural mores and the victim is a revered elder. Men and women live in separate areas of the house in dorm-like bedrooms and it is forbidden for either sex to visit the quarters of the opposite sex. The rules of tribal interaction are complicated but strictly adhered to and it seems that no one among the Kus could have committed the murder. Who then did in the old man? It's an impossible crime of sorts which make the sharp witted inspector imagining bizarre entries into the house. He even contemplates the possibility of an outsider having climbed up the side of the stone house and entering through an easily opened window.

The imagination involved in creating an entire culture is impressive. Dickinson invents social customs, tribal rituals, a hierarchy of members and gender role rules that make the Ku tribe seem to be as real as any group studied by Margaret Mead or Richard Leakey. The murder investigation reveals multiple hidden relationships and ulterior motives among some the tribe members. The youngest Ku, for instance, seems to be exploiting beliefs in magic for his own ends. But no one is talking and Pibble is continually frustrated by the reticence and stubbornness of the Kus.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the story is the relationship between Eve Mackenzie, daughter of Scottish missionaries who was raised in New Guinea, and her husband Paul Ku. She fell in love with Paul as a young girl while still living in New Guinea and becoming an anthropologist there. The Kus forbid marriage outside of their tribe but oddly male/male relationships outside of the tribe are allowed. In order to allow Eve and Paul to fulfill their love the tribe members decide to view and treat Eve as if she were a man, referring to her as him. They make her undergo a special ritual that allows for a male/male love relationship. Paul is then somewhat of an outcast and viewed less than a man, but he and Eve are allowed to "marry."

Flagg Terrace, the metaphorical glass-sided ants' nest (ant farm to us Americans) of the title, becomes a prominent character too. All of the tenants suddenly become suspects in the murder of Aaron Ku. When it is learned that he served as member of the trust that owns the property and that he was intent on selling the entire building Pibble begins to see motives multiplying. Other real estate schemes are uncovered. Pibble needs to sort through skulduggery in the business world as well as the intricacies of the Kus' tribal life and their reluctance to reveal the truth of their relationships to the outside world.

There is a lot of good character work here. Notable among the supporting players are Mr. Evan Evans, a real estate agent; and Nancy Hermitage, an "actress" and "professional escort". They are the most colorful and fascinating of the large cast of characters. Dickinson also has a great skill at creating character through dialogue, a talent that is all too often lacking in contemporary fiction of any kind. People talk and we immediately know who they are, not just in what they say, but how they say it. Vocabulary changes drastically from character to character. This is the hallmark of a genuinely talented novelist.

Pibble went on to play the lead in five other detective novels. Each one is unique and strange. Dickinson concocts mystery novels like no other writer of his era...or any era for that matter. The Old English Peep Show tells of a murder in a Victorian country house turned into a theme park, long before the theme park craze took over popular culture. ESP and telepathy are side effects of a mysterious disease afflicting the children in Sleep and His Brother. Pibble must attempt to free his friend Sir Francis who seems to be a prisoner of a weird cult awaiting the apocalypse in The Sinful Stones. Readers looking for something truly different and original in mystery fiction ought to investigate the James Pibble novels or any of the many unusual crime novels by Peter Dickinson. Unique is the best adjective I can come up with to describe his books, but even that word seems an understatement.

James Pibble Detective Novels
The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968) (aka Skin Deep)
The Old English Peep Show (1969) (aka A Pride of Heroes)
The Sinful Stones (1970) (aka The Seals)
Sleep and His Brother (1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space E6 -- "A book you have to borrow." I found this one in my local library.

Monday, May 26, 2014

NEW STUFF: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair - Joel Dicker

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-3122668-3
643 pp. $18.00
May 27, 2014

It may be unfair of me but all the while during the first 100+ pages of Joël Dicker's mammoth The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair I kept hearing the strains of the Twin Peaks TV theme music.  And I pictured the beaming face of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer each time Nola Kellergan appears in the many flashback sequences.  Both Dicker's novel and the cult TV show of the 90s tell the story of a missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the slow reveal of who killed her. But as the labyrinthine story unfolds the Twin Peaks similarities soon dissipate and give way to something more subtle and subversive and -- dare I say it -- impressive.

Unwittingly Joël Dicker, a young Swiss novelist, has unleashed a Frankenstein's monster with the publication of this book. Part whodunit, part satire of the publishing industry, and part writer's handbook it has essentially become a work of fiction come to life.  In Dicker's novel a young writer Marcus Goldman becomes a sensation in the literary world when he publishes a book called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  (Oh yes, this is a also a work of metafiction.)  The book is an instant sensation and he becomes the darling of the media. So too has Dicker whose novel first published in Europe has become a mega-hit resulting in interview after interview and travel all over the globe to talk about this unique example of reality mirroring fiction. So much travel, in fact, that he has temporarily made his home in London to make air travel simpler rather than remaining at home in Geneva where direct air flights are at a minimum. Already an international bestseller for the past year Dicker's novel has at last been translated into English and is being simultaneously released in the UK and the US today, May 27.

Not only has Dicker become the flavor of the month in crime fiction, his book (only his sophomore effort no less) has won three European literary awards including the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Française. Has Dicker really written a mini masterpiece, whether it be mainstream or genre fiction? Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of fun trying to figure out both the mystery of the ridiculously complex plot as well as trying to understand the reason for all the hype attached to this new writer's book.

At its core ...Harry Quebert Affair is a literary detective novel. Quebert, a literary sensation himself in the world of the novel, was Goldman's college writing instructor, mentor and eventually a good friend. While visiting Quebert for some inspiration during Goldman's severe writer's block crisis a horrible crime is literally unearthed and Quebert is thrust into the limelight as prime suspect. The body of Nola Kellergan, a teenage girl who went missing back in 1975, is unearthed in a hidden grave located on the grounds of Quebert's New Hampshire retreat. Goldman is determined to clear the name of his beloved friend and writing mentor and for the next 600+ pages (!) we follow his dogged investigation into the past of Somerset, New Hampshire, a typical New England village with more than its fair share of dirty secrets.

Joël Dicker ©Jeremy Spierer
But Dicker is not satisfied only with telling a crime story with as many twists as the Kumba roller coaster in Busch Gardens. He has cast the novel in the framework of a handbook for writers complete with boxing metaphors that might cause Philip Roth to smirk in its obvious homage. Oddly, the book chapters are also numbered in reverse numerical order (a gimmick that utterly eludes me) with each chapter preceded by sage advice from Harry to Marcus as to how a rookie should proceed in writing the Great American Novel. Problem is the advice is thoroughly hackneyed. The obvious advice and words of so-called wisdom have been given to novice writers for centuries. Why do we need to read all this? Well, Dicker has a clever and subversive reason for couching this novel as a sort of handbook for writers. It turns out to be only one aspect of a multitude of ironies culminating in the true meaning of the title itself.

I could use this review to write about the tangled plotlines, the shifts in viewpoint, the dizzying twists that keep changing how Nola is perceived or how the relationship between Marcus and Harry undergoes rifts and changes more harmful than good. But that's what all the other reviewers are writing about. What really ought to be marvelled at is what Dicker does with the genre itself. The novel is an consummate example of the ultimate challenge between reader and mystery writer, a sure temptation for readers who loved to devour the old-fashioned puzzlers of the Golden Age. Once upon a time we read mysteries to be baffled, to be fooled and to have a clever storyteller pull the rug out from under us and leave us gasping for breath or laughing in admiration for having been outsmarted. Dicker mixes both hoary old clichés (anonymous messages, secret diaries) with contemporary thriller standbys (grisly crimes, psychosexual abnormalities, a hint of tawdriness) and comes up with a crackerjack tale that both entertains and manipulates the reader.

The world Dicker creates is wholly artificial as in the best of Golden Age detective novels. We are in an entirely fanciful world where writers are superstar celebrities instantly recognizable from their DJ photos. Everyone knows Marcus Goldman, everyone has read his book. Even Harry and his mega bestseller The Origin of Evil (ironically a love story) receives the same hyperbolic attention. This is a wholly mythologized world of the novelist, something that was barely a reality when celebrity authors regularly appeared on 1970s talk shows. Like the world of John Dickson Carr where ancient estates are haunted by ghosts and criminals commit elaborate crimes in baroquely sealed rooms meant to bamboozle and confound the police so too has Dicker created an entirely artificial world where novelists are hero worshiped as demigods and treated with both awe and sycophancy usually reserved for rock stars or professional athletes. It's a wish fulfillment kind of writing to be sure and yet it is done so with the primary purpose of misleading the reader just as the great Golden Age writers did.

There are faults and irritations as well. The simplistic Confucian-like writer's advice Quebert gives his student, the not so clever boxing metaphors, redundancies in the narrative when Dicker feels it necessary to recap the plot, a crucial character whose poorly reconstructed face after a horrific beating leaves him with a speech impediment that the translator renders in cutesy but more often offensive phonetics all began to wear down the reader's patience. Also Dicker has an obsession with characters vomiting that began to really annoy me. Everyone in the book seemed to have a weak stomach and would throw up at the slightest sign of stress not just when they saw a dead body.

However, when Dicker lays off his nausea motif, discards the gimmick of the novel within the novel (which is often ham-handed), and decides to focus on Nola's perplexing and contradictory life and her mysterious death the novel is utterly engaging. His plot pyrotechnics are his strength. They are audacious and preposterous and yet perfectly suited for his ultimate aim. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the best examples of a retro style crime novel whose only goal is to fool the reader with a gasp inducing finale. Joël Dicker succeeds in pulling off one of the best literary deceptions in years and ought to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of his 600+ page magic trick.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

LEFT INSIDE: Celmer's Books Envelope

Another odd item I've found inside a book is this business reply envelope for a defunct used bookstore in Chicago. Celmer's was run out of a private home in the Buena Park neighborhood throughout the 60s and 70s.  When the store folded John Chandler, owner of the spectacularly messy and utterly awesome Bookman's Corner bought most of Celmer's stock. I own many vintage books from Celmer's (all purchased in John's store) and periodically I'd find one of these envelopes tucked in the back of the book.

I have no idea the purpose of the envelopes. I guess you could use them to request books from Celmer. I never asked about the use of the envelopes though John Chandler did tell me numerous stories about the woman who owned Celmer's. I've since forgotten her first name. 

The biggest mystery, however, is the Astro-Slide trademark on the envelope.

A search of the US trademark registry database reveals that Astro-Slide is a typeset trademark (basically a registered logo design) for a brand of electronically operated door mechanism. It was created and registered in 1971 and owned by a local company called Dor-o-Matic based in Harwood Heights, Illinois.  The trademark has since expired and all Dor-o-Matic products are now distributed under the brand name Falcon, a subsidiary of Allegion which is one of the largest companies involved in safety and security products (door hardware, locks of all types, burglar alarms, security systems, etc.) in the world.

But why is a used book store advertising a door mechanism on their business envelopes?

The illustration by the way is a direct copy of this famous Albrecht Dürer etching. It wasn't part of the trademark, only the font and wording was.

I don't understand the link between electronic doors and a medieval astronomer either.  Maybe I need to take more lecithin in my diet.  My brain just can't perform the kind of overtime work needed to figure out these riddles.

Friday, May 23, 2014

FFB: The Burnt Orange Heresy - Charles Willeford

I love nothing more than a good skewering of the intelligentsia. Charles Willeford has written one of best in his often irreverent depiction of the 1970s art world as reported by James Figueras, an art critic of immense ego and cynical worldview who serves as narrator of The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971). More satire than crime novel yet not without a generous smattering of violent crimes and brutal explosive violence The Burnt Orange Heresy offers Willeford a chance to show off his knowledge of the art world while simultaneously creating one of the most compellingly realistic fictional artists of all time.

Willeford is so cunning in how he tells his tale of modern art and the arcane world of reclusive eccentric painters that he completely took me in. He fooled this gullible reader. While reading the lengthy lecture Figueras gives his girlfriend Berenice about the origins of Nihilistic Surrealism I began taking notes on all the styles and painters mentioned. Utterly foreign to me were the names of Willi Büttner and his Scatölögieschul, Belgian brothers Hans & Hal Grimm nor had I ever heard of Nihilistic Surrealism. I dutifully headed to that miracle we know as Google to scour the internet for signs of life among these names and terms. Results? 100% nothing. Turns out all of them sprang from the imagination of the writer. Willeford was so convincing in his presentation of these artists and their various schools of painting I believed they actually existed. The lecture Figueras gives -- peppered with references to well known artists like Miró, Picasso, De Chirico and Man Ray -- is so eruditely told I just accepted all of it as truthful. Part of the con begins before the reader even starts the book. Willeford dedicates the book to Jacques Debierue and gives his birth and death dates followed by a Latin memorial phrase. Of course Debierue is as fictional as the entire novel, but for a brief moment I was completely taken in thinking all of the painters and artists mentioned were real.

US 1st edition (Crown, 1971)
The biographical sketch in the rear of my Black Lizard edition mentions that Willeford studied art in Paris and Peru and was at one time a painter in his life. The Burnt Orange Heresy is both a love letter to and a diatribe against a con artist's world of contemporary art. Figueras is the perfect personality to become a con artist. When he is offered a rare opportunity to interview the reclusive genius painter Debierue he jumps at the chance. Never mind that in order to gain access to the artist, his home and studio he must also steal one painting and bring it back to the collector who knows where the artist lives. There is no moral dilemma for Figueras. If he can be the first person to interview Debierue and also be the first to view his new set of paintings and artwork he can revive his dying career as art critic, become a celebrity himself. It's the chance of a lifetime. Art theft? A mere stumbling block to a greater vainglorious end.

But there is a one huge surprise in store for Figueras when he finally manages to penetrate the hallowed studio housing Debierue's collection of art. And his discovery of Debierue's secret leads him into more crime and savage violence. The Burnt Orange Heresy makes for some exciting reading both as an excellent example of noir in the art world and a insightful satire of the creation and selling of fine art as the ultimate con game.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo card, space S1 - "Book with a Color in the Title" 

Friday, May 16, 2014

FFB: Miss Fenny (1957) - Charity Blackstock

Two teenage boys skipping out on their English class on the last day of school come across a horrible sight while walking through Braxham Wood -- a skeleton half buried in a pile of leaves and wearing only one woman's shoe. They immediately report their grisly discovery to their teacher Tim Brennan who then calls Sergeant Hawkes and soon the entire village of Braxham Parva is caught up in a murder investigation.  Who was this woman? How long had she been dead? Why had no one reported her missing?

Miss Fenny (1957) was later retitled in its US publication The Woman in the Woods and is better known under that second title. The first title refers to the seemingly imaginary friend of a bedridden crippled boy named Daniel. The two of them become the most important characters in the book. Daniel is a petulant, demanding eight year-old, the only son of Nicole Sherratt who spends much of the book fretting over her son and pining for her dead husband. Brennan has been seeing Nicole for several months now and has developed a bond with Daniel. He tells the boy stories, creates nightly drawings for him, and listens to Daniel's fanciful tales of Miss Fenny, trying to win over Nicole in the process but frustrated repeatedly by her obsessive thoughts of her dead husband.

Little do Brennan and Nicole realize that Miss Fenny is far from imaginary. It doesn't take long for the reader to recognize that Daniel at one time befriended the woman whose skeleton was found in the woods. She was indeed murdered and the identity of her killer does not remain hidden for long. The killer also has daily visits with Daniel and when he keeps hearing the stories of Miss Fenny and the facts that Daniel unwittingly reveals in the conversations he has had with her the killer fears he may be found out. The story then becomes not so much a murder investigation but a suspense tale. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf the reader keeps hoping that the adults will finally see the truth in what Daniel has to say about Miss Fenny. Until they do the entire village is at the mercy of a killer who will not stop at more murder to keep his one crime secret.

Blackstock seems to me to be the missing link in the British school of suspense writing bridging the post-war detective novel with the modern day crime or suspense novel. Prior to her appearance on the mystery scene it was the American women writers like Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Usula Curtiss who were pioneering domestic suspense and malice domestic novels. Blackstock brings to mind modern writers like her fellow countrywomen Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters in the use of sardonic humor and the creation of loathsome characters ripe for satiric attacks like the haughty racist Lady Grale, the prattling hypochondriac Miss Brooks, and the vile physician Dr. Heslop more interested in using the contents of his doctor's bag to harm than cure. Among the British women crime writers I can think only of Blackstock's contemporaries Shelley Smith and Joan Fleming who were writing similar tales of menace and murder at the time of the publication of Miss Fenny. What Blackstock does in Miss Fenny, however, is rather remarkable. She has written a story in which not just a violent crime but death itself has an inexorable affect on an entire village. And she does so with the macabre effects of a modern Poe.

Nicole is truly haunted by her husband, almost as if she is in thrall to his ghost. Brennan cannot compete for her love as she is more in love with a memory than anyone alive, including her son. Yet he too finds himself haunted. There is a chilling scene in which Brennan realizes that the skeleton belongs to a woman he held, caressed, and kissed. Linking the corrupted skeleton to a living being and then connecting that to a memory of a tender sexual encounter is something straight out of Poe.

Dr. Heslop, the cruel physician caring for Daniel; Rose, the doctor's simple-minded mistress and office assistant; Matthew Plumtree, an effete writer battling between cowardice and heroism are also key players in the drama and all have had their past encounters with the woman Daniel has come to know as Miss Fenny. When the identity of the skeleton finally comes to light and Daniel's stories are seen to be truth and not fiction it is only a matter of time before the cowards will make bold confrontations and the killer will strike out again.

Anthony Boucher, champion of new crime fiction writers of immense talent, was thoroughly impressed with Blackstock's novel when it first appeared. He noted her "technically faultless" construction, solid characters of "believable complexity" and an "evocative hint of fantasy" in the person of Miss Fenny. But notably as I have mentioned above he writes "...there is a spell of the sharp immediacy of death itself, such as is too rarely cast in our novels of violet crime."  Contemporary writers have since capitalized on this crucial aspect of crime fiction, but it was Charity Blackstock who perhaps was one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the dread power Death has over the living. Her ruminations on this conceit captured in evocative writing and impassioned emotions make Miss Fenny -- or The Woman in the Woods -- a book worthy of your attention.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space O6 - "Book with a Woman in the Title"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

JACKET REQUIRED: Maternal Instinct

A collection of maternally themed dust jackets (plus one pulp magazine) for Mother's Day.

1st UK edition

1st US edition

1st UK edition

1st US edition

Thursday, May 8, 2014

FFB: Foam of the Daze - Boris Vian

Tam Tam Books ed., English translation
Currently in its 3rd printing
The fantastical world of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (1946) -- punnily translated as Foam of the Daze by Mark Harper -- is populated with kitchen mice that act as miniature housekeepers; deadly tools of assassination like the cop-killer and the heart-snatcher; and a mind boggling invention called a pianocktail, a combination robotic bartender and musical instrument that mixes, blends, and delivers potent potables by simply playing a tune on the keyboard. And Vian’s invention is not only limited to bizarre machines and anthropomorphic animals. The writer, also an accomplished musician, composer and friend of 1940s Parisian jazz and literary elite, was a lover of linguistic trickery and wordplay. Translating his many puns and jokes must’ve been a challenge to Harper who does an admirable job trying to capture the playfulness and humor that, as with most foreign language puns, are often untranslatable. For much of its brief but densely filled 220 pages the story is one of Vian’s most exuberant and joyous works.

Foam of the Daze is an unapologetic romance, a surreal fairy tale, and a literary satire all wrapped up in one delightful package. The story, however, is not all hearts and flowers though those two images feature heavily in the story. Vian scales the heights of delirious newfound love and plummets into the depths of despair when a mysterious illness threatens to end the ecstasy of a young couple’s honeymoon.

Wide eyed jazz lover Colin lives a carefree life enjoying cocktails and playing Duke Ellington records with his musician friend Chick who quickly meets and falls in love with the beautiful Alise. Colin is immediately jealous and longs for his own Alise. No sooner does he make his wish then he meets Chloe, as equally wide-eyed and optimistic as he is. It’s no coincidence that she bears the same name as a popular Duke Ellington song. There are no real coincidences at all in Vian’s world. Every action, every word of dialog has a purpose and is interconnected to every object and character in the story.

Boris Vian, circa 1940s
The most remarkable thing about this love story is the way illness is depicted. So often people talk about how their lives fall apart when a loved one is suffering a terminal illness. That is literally what happens to Colin’s world. His house begins to deteriorate, the ceiling crumbles, glass windows and tiles shatter, rooms shrink and doorways become almost inaccessible. All because Chloe has succumbed to an inexplicable malady, a miracle illness. Somehow a water lily has begun to grow around her lungs and heart. It’s not possible to operate and remove the plant without killing her. The only treatment method is to surround her with flowers and plants, tend and care for them so that in their beauty the water lily is shamed into withering and disappearing from Chloe’s body.

Filled with a soundtrack of Ellington’s music, multiple references to New Orleans and Memphis style jazz, and a subplot involving a satirical jibe at Vian’s good friend Jean-Paul Sartre who appears in the book as pop sensation Jean-Sol Partre, author of Vomit and other works of existentialist bestseller-dom, Foam of the Daze is like no other book I have ever read. Practically unclassifiable in the way it absorbs so many genres Vian's novel is bewitching and strange and hysterical and ultimately deeply moving. It’s an assault on the senses and the intellect. Imagine entering a floral shop crammed full of exotic plants and breathing in the mix of heady scents, taking in the wide array of colors and shapes, all while drinking an unnameable, rainbow hued cocktail with an indescribable yet utterly intoxicating flavor. This is what it’s like to read Vian’s novel.

Graphic novel adapted by Benoît Preteseille
His writing can be hilarious as in the sections making fun of collector mania. When Chick is not satisfied with owning Sartre’s books a wily bookseller coerces the musician into buying the writer’s fingerprints and old pants convincing him the items will increase in value as much as the writer’s books. Only a few pages later Vian tugs at our heartstrings in relating Colin’s desperate attempts to become gainfully employed often humiliating himself in the process so that he can earn enough money to keep buying plants and flowers that will help in his wife’s strange treatment plan. Not only do Colin and Chloe and their house suffer as the water lily infiltrates everyone and everything, but Chick and Alise undergo a rift in their relationship that leads to a surprisingly violent climax.

L’Ecume des Jours has been adapted into a movie by French director Michel Gondry and retitled aptly enough Mood Indigo, after the Ellington jazz standard, starring Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris as Chloe and Colin. The movie has already appeared throughout Europe at a variety of film festivals and will be shown at the Music Box Theater here in Chicago Sunday, May 11, 2014 as part of the Chicago Film Critics Film Festival. The movie has been picked up by Drafthouse Films and should appear in a limited release at art house cinemas sometime in the summer and eventually be released on DVD. A paperback tie-in edition is being released in the summer under the movie’s title. Anyone too impatient to wait for that edition can order Foam of the Daze directly from Tam Tam Books or any on-line retailer right now.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

LEFT INSIDE: Chicago Stadium Club Menu

This was left inside a book Joe picked up at one of our many book sale visits. The book, Single Family Home Plans, is a collection of architectural floor plans. The menu inside indicates that the owner of the book probably had a lot of money to throw around.

The menu below is from the Chicago Stadium Club, a perk for "Club Level" subscribers for Bulls and Blackhawks games. Club Level was formerly known as 200 Level, a specific area of the United Center stadium. A visit to the United Center website tells me that this is an older menu because the Chicago Stadium Club is now located on Lexus Club Level. Nearly everything in the United Center is sponsored and named for the sponsoring corporation these days.

Click to enlarge so you can read the menu.

Friday, May 2, 2014

FFB: The Glass Spear - S. H. Courtier

Australian 1st edition,
(Invincible Press, 1950)
Sometimes the discovery of a forgotten writer yields such a surprising variety of interesting work it's both a blessing and a curse. Exhibit A: Sidney Hobson Courtier who later was published more simply as S.H. Courtier. With the exception of two books reissued by the independent Australian publisher Wakefield Press none of his books are in print and many of them are near impossible to get a hold of. As usual when a writer's books go out of print and copies are hard to come by the prices being charged in the rapidly vanishing used book market are way off base. Why I wonder does someone charge over $50 for a beat up paperback by a relatively obscure writer whose books have been out of print for decades? What is the point? Can the seller tell you anything about the writer? Usually not. Does he even care? "Oh it's scarce," you'll be told. Scarcity does not automatically make a book valuable. Plain and simple. Good books that deserve to be read cannot be had by the general public when avaricious booksellers make these books unaffordable by charging absurdly exorbitant prices. But more to the point why when a writer is as good as Courtier aren't more of his books in print?

Take for instance Courtier’s very first mystery novel. Unique in concept, told with suspense and excitement, an original work both as a fine example of detective fiction and a good novel. In the guise of a confounding murder mystery The Glass Spear (1950) explores the relationship between aboriginal Australian people and the dominating white man. It's a fascinating blend of the traditional country house mystery spiced up with a generous amount of Gothic atmosphere and Australian tribal mysticism. Imagine if you can a detective novel written by Arthur Upfield in collaboration with Charlotte Bronte and Tony Hillerman and you are on your way to understanding how unusual and bewitching The Glass Spear can be.

Dick Thewan fresh out of the Australian army is summoned back to Kinie Ger, the Australian sheep ranch where he grew up. His boyhood friend Jacqueline (Jay to her friends) has appealed to him to help out with the mismanagement of the ranch and some other troubles brewing in the household. A few miles short of the entrance to the ranch a falling tree branch causes a near car wreck almost crushing Dick inside. He can't help but think of it as an omen. Oddly, in his tortured imagination he thinks it might have been a murder attempt. Does someone want him to stay away so much that they would resort to murder?

The homestead at Kinie Ger is in turmoil. Dick's childhood friend and one of the current ranch hands Steve and Jay are odds. Steve, a former prisoner of war, is a volatile personality causing more trouble than he's worth at the ranch. And the reclusive matriarch Huldah seems to have powerful control over everyone as she makes her demands and orders heard through the internal phone system that works as a sort of intercom. For the past several years Huldah has remained in a self-imposed exile at Kinie Ger, never leaving her bedroom suite at the front of the house. She allows only two people to enter her private domain -- Lucy Danes, who acts as cook and housekeeper for her; and Burton Lensell "nominal head of Kinie Ger, intense anthropologist, reluctant sheepman, and bewildered guardian to a set of children who stood in various degrees of relationship to him." Huldah's presence adds a Jane Eyre Gothicism to the story, a mysterious and imperious woman whose motives for shutting herself up remain hidden to all.

US 1st Edition (A. A. Wyn, 1950)
 Burton is busy with preparations for the upcoming Easter corroboree -- a ceremonial ritual involving tribal costumes and masks, dance and acting. Several members of the ranch are involved in the theatrical presentation to take place on a sacred island accessible only by boat. At the climactic moment of the play the participants dance around a tribal mound. Burton notices that the mound so painstakingly created and placed dead center has moved several feet from its original spot. During the dance the actors stab at the mound as part of an aboriginal ritual and in doing so uncover a dead body. It is Henry Carpenty, a depised local rancher and troublemaker. His throat is cut. An autopsy reveals the fatal wound to have been caused by the glass arrowhead of a spear kept in a private museum back at Kinie Ger.

There are hints of the supernatural, too. A prowler has been seen around the grounds. Dick finds footprints that indicate the use of footwear woven of bark, feathers,and fur and believed by natives to render the wearer invisible. This is a work of kurdaitcha -- a kind of aboriginal magic usually with evil intent. When a second murder occurs, this time in the locked museum at Kinie Ger, Superintendent Ambrose Mahon begins to think that a clever murderer is exploiting the fearful aspects of tribal culture to confound the police and frighten the locals.

The Glass Spear is an excellent example of an anthropological detective novel. Courtier includes a glossary of tribal words and Australian flora and fauna to help non-Aussies in understanding the often alien world of the aborigines. The detective work is top notch with plenty of puzzling mysteries surrounding the two deaths not the least of which is the mystery surrounding the intimidating Huldah. The story culminates in a shocking surprise and a revelation of a family secret that has shamed Kinie Ger for decades.

I've read many mystery novels by Australian writers using their country's rich culture and distinctive landscape, but I've never encountered a book like The Glass Spear which is so entirely Australian. Here is a story that can only have taken place Down Under. And I'll say no more for fear of giving away the best parts. If you come across a copy of this book I'd advise you to snap it up and read it. It's one of the most unique novels I've read this year.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space O4 - "An Author You've Never Read Before"