Sunday, June 29, 2014

1963: A Sad Song Singing - Thomas B. Dewey

Folk singers and private eyes. Not exactly a combination you'd expect to turn up in a crime fiction novel. What's so criminal about the 1960s coffeehouse scene and long haired guitar strumming entertainers singing ancient songs of doomed love? The closest you get to danger is if someone decides to sing a song with an strong anti-government theme or a pacifist's paean to the end of the Viet Nam war. But Thomas Dewy manages to tell a story of a missing folk singer, his grief stricken girlfriend, and the mysterious contents of a suitcase she's been entrusted with, and come up with a fast moving, action-packed tale that is basically a pursuit thriller.

A Sad Song Singing (1963) is fairly straightforward. Cresentia Fanio seeks out the help of Mac, Dewey's world weary private eye based in Chicago, and asks him to locate her missing boyfriend, singer Richie Darden. She claims she's been followed, has managed to lose the men on her tail, and needs Mac's help to hide the suitcase and find Richie soon. He's skeptical about the whole thing, especially about the suitcase Richie has given Cress to watch over. She refuses to open it as she promised Richie she wouldn't. When some thugs burst into his office and Mac manages to beat them off and escape with Cress and her suitcase his mind is pretty much made up. He'll do his best to find Richie and get to the bottom of the mystery of why the thugs want the suitcase so badly.

The detective novel elements are at a minimum here. It's the story of Cress and her complete immersion in the folk singing scene that makes for a fascinating read. Dewey creates a variety of coffeehouse locations from swank carpeted establishments that serve meals and alcohol to the dingiest dive serving only regular coffee and apologies for the broken espresso machine from a leotard wearing waitress while college boys play chess and turtleneck attired beatniks strum their guitars on a wobbly wooden stage. The atmosphere feels oddly old-fashioned, almost cliche and yet wholly authentic. Dewey even dreams up a few folk songs with haunting lyrics. You can practically hear the music wafting off the pages. Mac can't help but succumb to the lure of the music and discovers that Cress herself has an unmined talent for singing just waiting to be unleashed on a welcome audience.

At each new singing gig Mac gathers up bits of vital information about the missing singer and begins to wonder if Darden may have been involved in a robbery. When he gets a chance to handle the mysterious suitcase and feels it to be suspiciously lightweight he begins to suspect the worst and fears that Cress is being exploited as a decoy while Darden makes his escape.

Mac is not your typical private eye. Sure he's great in a fistfight and though he carries a gun with a legal license he's reluctant to pull the trigger. This case that forces him on a road trip through the folk singing world with a teenage girl also puts him in the role of surrogate father. We see a tender side to him as he comes to care for her not only as his client but as a lost girl too much in love with a fantasy. At one point he seems utterly lost himself. No longer able to reach her with his compassionate talk, yet knowing he needs to convince her that Darden's disappearance may have very dangerous consequences for he dissolves into frustrated silence. His lament is summed up in a simple painful sentence: "If only I could sing, I thought."

I read this book at part of Rich Westwood's challenge mentioned earlier this month on his blog Past Offences to read a mystery published in 1963. It also fulfills one more book in my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Silver Age edition.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo card, space V4 - "Book with a professional detective"

Friday, June 27, 2014

FFB: Robert Aickman's 100th Birthday

Today marks the centenary celebration of "strange story" writer Robert Aickman who was born June 27, 1914.  As part of the celebration of what would have been Aickman's 100th birthday Faber & Faber has reprinted several of his story collections including the two featured in the post today. Dark Entries (1964) was Aickman's second collection and his first book of stories written solely by him. Cold Hand in Mine (1975) is his fifth collection and is well known to book collectors for the US first edition (Scribner, 1975) has a DJ illustrated by Edward Gorey.

I've written previously about the strange stories (his preferred term) of Aickman in my post on Powers of Darkness. But re-reading these tales in their new editions brought forth some interesting recurrent themes in his writing. Aickman doesn't really write traditional supernatural stories though some of them incorporate tropes of ghost story fiction and horror fiction. There is always an ambiguity pervading the stories, a ghost may not be a ghost at all but the fervent imagining of a disturbed mind. There are some instances of outright horror as in his chilling tale of the walking dead in "Ringing the Changes" found in Dark Entries; the thing that lives in the lake in "Niemandswasser" or the grisly and nightmarish true purpose of "The Hospice" both in Cold Hand in Mine. But more often than not the odd and bizarre events tend to be shrouded in a haze of the characters' twisted perceptions of reality and enhanced by their personal quirks and eccentricities.

In my current reading of the stories I discovered something else. The men in Aickman's stories are often the victims of glamour. Contemporary connotations include glamour as a synonym for stunning beauty but its original meaning (now considered archaic by modern lexicographers) is of supernatural power, mostly of the fairy world, to bewitch or hypnotize and control a human. Whether this inclusion of glamour and spell casting is intentional or not on Aickman's part I cannot say, but in at least five of the stories I read the male protagonists make mention of the captivating beauty of a woman they encounter and they almost immediately fall under her spell. Take for example Carfax, the renaissance man and traveler in "The View." His attraction to the bewitching woman he dubs Ariel leads to him to friendship, romance and an unfortunate fate. He finds himself not only under her glamorous spell, but the spell of the home in which she lives. His room affords him a view that is ever changing in its scenery and by the end of the story he realizes that he has spent not a few days with Ariel but several years.

There are six long stories in Dark Entries and eight in Cold Hand in Mine. Most of them run between 30 and 50 pages. Aickman takes his time telling his tale, like a patient artist at work on a canvas he paints landscapes with carefully chosen words that evoke a sublime atmosphere blending dread and anticipation of the characters' inevitable doom. No one really escapes unscathed in an Aickman story. If they are lucky enough to survive their encounters they will carry with them a haunting memory of the world of the macabre and the weird. Many of Aickman's characters are forever changed and scarred by their inexplicable adventures. And the reader taking in Aickman's narratives cannot help but be affected as well.

For more about Faber & Faber's paperback reprints of Robert Aickman's books visit this page at their website. They plan to release a total of six of his books. It is also worth noting that Tartarus Press, an independent UK publisher of supernatural fiction, has reprinted all of Aickman's books in hardcover editions. All of them are still available. As part of the centenary of Aickman's birth Tartarus has also published this month The River Runs Uphill, an autobiographical volume originally published in 1967. Read more at the Tarturus Press website.

Friday, June 20, 2014

FFB: A Shroud for Grandmama - Douglas Ashe

John Franklin Bardin wrote this delightfully odd genre blender using the pseudonym "Douglas Ashe." A Shroud for Grandmama (1951) begins as a HIBK style Gothic suspense but from the get-go Bardin assures the reader the story will not be your average Gothic with a damsel in a nightie running rampant through a spooky house. To begin with Abigail Longstreet wouldn't be caught dead wearing a nightie. In the second place she stumbles upon her octogenarian grandmother's corpse at the foot of a staircase surrounded by dancing footprints in the dust with no other footprints leading to or from the body. And lastly, dead old Grannie Ella is wearing nothing but a white bikini. Abigail immediately takes care of this embarrassing situation by removing the puzzling footprints that suggest a ghost was present and hauling dead Ella upstairs and making her more presentable by removing the scanty swimsuit and dressing her in the shroud conveniently left in her bedroom closet. Just what the heck is going on at the Longstreet estate?

And then there is Abigail herself. She's only twenty-eight years old but she chooses to dress and speak as if it were 1900 rather than 1950. Her quasi-Edwardian way of narrating the book is exemplified by lines like "Grandmama abhors hurly-burly". She also tells us that her preferred manner of dress includes brocade dresses with high collars, hemlines that are ankle length, and high button shoes. No close fitting revealing clothes or high heels for her. One character calls her a Gibson girl lookalike. She's anachronistic to the max. Yet being a heroine in a Gothic suspense novel she is of course drop dead gorgeous and it's her beauty that entrances handsome young stranger Albert Crump who just happens to be passing by her grandmother's home the night of her mysterious and bizarre death.

Just as soon as Abigail is finished tidying up the scene of her grandmother's death she is interrupted by the perfectly timed appearance of a policeman. Inspector Stephen Elliot is shrewd and crafty and he immediately gets down to business. Turns out he's been a watching the house at the request of an anonymous tipster and he saw Abigail enter, find Ella and rub out the footprints, and take the dead body upstairs. He also stuns Abigail with the news that her grandmother was murdered. Thus begins an expertly told tale of deceit, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and avarice.

Inspector Elliot has his work cut out for him. Each member of the family received a letter purportedly from Ella summoning them to her house. Never mind her being blind. Abigail explains away how a blind woman as disciplined as her grandmother could still painstakingly compose letters in her beautiful copperplate handwriting. There is only a tell tale upslant. Re-examination of the letters shows an absence of the upslant. Elliot thinks the letters are forged. Was the murderer luring everyone to the house to prevent them from having alibis and thus complicating the case?  Is this murderer out for more than just the death of Grandmama Ella?

There are some other Gothic touches like the legend of Sybil, a rambunctious ghost who haunts the house with poltergeist activities when she's not waltzing through the corridors leaving a trail of footprints behind her. And there is the secret of Claude Bryant, Abigail's father, who supposedly died during his service as a soldier but who may still be alive. Finally there is Claude's bastard son whose complicated history is slowly revealed throughout the murder investigation. But my favorite part is when we meet Abigail's sister Maude who is completely caught up in her new found way of life through Dianetics! Bardin has great fun mocking L. Ron Hubbard's pseudo-religion in Maude's dialogue. She spouts forth her zealous beliefs peppered with the ridiculous vocabulary of Dianetics. She does a lot of talking about "engram pressure" and firmly believes that Sybil maybe responsible for killing their grandmother.

This is a lively and entertaining detective novel highlighted by great sleuthing from Elliot who often resorts to verbal trickery and sets a few traps for his deceitful suspects; the utter bizarreness and impossibility of the murder itself; and a fantastic protagonist with an engaging and eccentric narrative style in the person of Abigail Longstreet. The book was reprinted under the title The Longstreet Legacy in its paperback edition and is somewhat scarce in either hardcover or paperback. Still for those who like their detective novels fanciful and odd this one comes highly recommended. The hunt for this scarce book is well worth your efforts.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card - space L1, "Book with spooky title"

Friday, June 13, 2014

FFB: Moon of the Wolf - Leslie Whitten

In honor of tonight's "honey moon" and its rare occurrence on Friday the 13th I dug into the archives for this brief overview of a fitting book. Leslie Whitten's book makes a modern use of the phrase "when the wolfsbane blooms/And the moon and is full and bright.".

Whitten wrote one of the most interesting takes on the werewolf legend with his Southern Gothic novel Moon of the Wolf (1967). In it we get a combination of a murder mystery and an exploration of lycanthropy from a psychologist's perspective. A series of murders seem to be the work of a savage animal. Whitten sets his novel in the 1930s so when the first murder victim also turns out to be a black woman we get the additional layer of social criticism of racism in the south. The police sheriff's investigation leads him to a wealthy white family of plantation owners and whispers of illicit sexual relations.

Angry locals insist the girl was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and set out like a posse of Transylvanian villagers to kill them all. But the skeptical sheriff is not convinced. Medical evidence points to violence by a human hand even amid the signs of an animal attack. His questioning of the locals uncovers their superstitious beliefs, the curious practice of hoodoo with its bottle tree and other witchcraft-like talismans, and an odd reference to "Loup Garou." A psychologist enters the picture and begins to explain the legend of the werewolf and lycanthropy as a legitimate mental illness.

Guy Endore treated the werewolf legend as a mental illness in Werewolf of Paris decades earlier, but Whitten makes his approach more accessible and tells the story in such a way that one never really knows if the werewolf is real or imagined. The finale, of course, will settle all that ambiguity with a somewhat startling revelation.

Moon of the Wolf was made into a TV movie (almost faithful to the book) in the 1970s with David Janssen as the sheriff and Bradford Dillman as the primary murder suspect. You can find several versions of the full movie at YouTube. The best quality version I found is here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: Claim of the Fleshless Corpse

Claim of the Fleshless Corpse (1937). Great title, isn't it? The title alone would have got me to read the plot blurb. Conjures up all sorts of gruesome images and violent crime. Perfect title for a story in a shudder pulp like Dime Detective. A story that screams out for a lurid painting of a woman in bondage screaming out in terror while a madman hovers over her with a red hot poker or some other tool of devilry. But a fleshless corpse is after all nothing more than a skeleton, right? And that's what insurance investigator John "Toughy" Nichols faces in the furnace room of Albert Browning's "elegant residence" in the tony Long Island town of Briarcliff Manor. An incinerated skeleton but still a skeleton. Claim of the Incinerated Skeleton just doesn't trip off the tongue, does it?

Browning was carrying a hefty $500,000 life insurance policy and "accidental death gets him two-for-one" as Nichols puts it. He's sent by his boss to check out the incinerated body and find out if it is indeed Browning or yet another case of insurance fraud. In the first two chapters Nichols treats us to three separate cases of fraud and it seems like his job is a never ending battle with no good con artists trying to dupe their insurance agents with a shifty get-rich-quick scheme. With Nichols on the case, an expert in all sorts of fraud, Continental Insurance has been saving thousands of dollars a day. But when the case gets too scientific Nichols turns to his surgeon pal Dr. Lester Lawson, one of those wizard geniuses of pulp fiction. Lawson has an arsenal of up-to-date medical techniques that help him prove accidental deaths have been faked.

This story is very early forensic techno-thriller with all sorts of scientific detection. Over the course of the book Dr. Lester Lawson gives mini-lectures on Hans Müllner's technique of making a plaster cast of hand prints and fingerprints; George Weber's perfection of the Müllner technique used to get a "shadow" of a footprint off of a concrete floor; Dr. E. M. Hudson's method of getting latent prints from cloth, wood, metal or anything without a shiny or glossy surface; and the involved process of moulage used to reconstruct a face on a skull. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is old hat to crime fiction readers. All of it, however, was probably new to a 1937 reader. It might have been a lot more interesting and less frustrating to read had Bruce decided to make Lawson more of a gentleman.  Lawson's petulance and sarcasm outdo even the wisecracking narration we get from Nichols. The surgeon and the claims investigator are an oil and vinegar kind of detective team; somehow despite their bickering and insult trading they manage to solve the case.

Yes, Hans Müllner was a real criminologist.  The others are real men, too.

Of course the body turns out to be someone other than Browning. It is through the combination of this unlikely duo's investigative skills that the fraud is uncovered. Lawson's diligent scientific detection leads to the true identity of the corpse. Nichols' legwork and scene of the crime investigating uncovers the unusual method of faking an electrical accident in the furnace room.

But I've filed this book under "Alternative Crime." That means you get a fair share of absurdities and implausibilities amid all the scientific and criminological facts. Not to mention a less than literary writing style. Bruce's wordsmithing is pure pulp. Examples? I knew you'd want some.

Wise guy insults galore:
Lawson: "And you probably couldn't spell corpse."
Nichols: "I'll show you, you flat-faced, mummy-pussed, belly-opener. All I need is a lot of paper and pencils."
Lawson: "And the prayers of the congregation. And listen, you spell it c-o-r-p-s-e."
Nichols: "Try n-u-t-s!"

And the usual plethora of quirky metaphors:
"She was a swell kid, too, with her head in the right place and her heart ditto."
"...because the old boy had picked a pretty bizarre way of chucking in his chips and kicking off for the Styx." 
" this point my old brain did a few nip-ups of its own."
"...whether this tall story that Lawson's been assembling in his junkshop has any angles to it I'd dare take to [my boss] without a catcher's mitt and knee-pads."

Lawson pulls off a few crazy Holmesian miracles of observation and inference as in his assumptions about the lifestyle of the fleshless corpse. He tell Nichols to look for a "...a man who has hung around barrooms, who hasn't been so damned particular about keeping himself clean. When he worked he was a stone-cutter or a stonemason... The day before he died he had a job unloading flour from a truck." Quite a bit of info all gathered from a burnt up skeleton! It's all explained in the final chapter but I didn't buy much of it.

And all this work to identify the body! What's the first thing most police would do with when confronted with an incinerated skeleton and intact skull? Check the dental records, of course. Why then doesn't this dawn on anyone -- including the genius Dr. Lawson -- until page 174? But wait, the best is yet to come.

The skeleton is taken to Lawson's private hospital lab where he does the full autopsy and reconstructs the skull. Clearly the police are too inept to do it right. Then the "fleshless corpse" is transported (by ambulance no less) back to the police station! The station itself, not the morgue. Dr. Lawson wants the body now with its simulated face to be dressed in clothing and put into a line-up for policeman to study! I couldn't stop laughing throughout this section.

If you want to find out more, read it for yourself. Those arbiters of eccentric taste in mystery novels over at Ramble House have generously reprinted George Bruce's  wacky book. You can get a nice trade paperback edition of The Claim of the Fleshless Corpse direct from Ramble House (published under the UK title of Corpse without Flesh) or at the usual online bookselling sites. But if you've read this entire review, you have also been warned!

UPDATE - June 11, 2014: Just discovered a detailed biographical article about George Bruce who was indeed a pulp writer as I had guessed. His specialty, however, was airplane adventures and military aviation stories not crime. He also has a few screenplay credits. I should've known someone who wrote wiseacre dialogue as sampled above would succumb to the lure of Hollywood. Please visit the blog Bear Alley for Steve Holland's excellent article on this forgotten pulp writer.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age Bingo card, space E1 - "Book with a detective team"

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Printer's Row Lit Fest 2014

We made our annual trip to Printer's Row for what used to be an exciting book festival. I expected a wow of a festival for the 30th anniversary. There used to be lots of vendors selling collectible and vintage books of all types. Now the book market and the Lit Fest itself has changed. Less antiquarian dealers, a lot more contemporary books. New books everywhere. New writers, too. It's more about coming to hear writers talk about their work and an opportunity for indie press to promote their books.

This year I noticed more self-published writers hawking their wares. With fewer real booksellers showing up that allows more space for self-published writers. I guess that's why it's now called the Lit Fest instead of the Printer's Row Book Fair.

Sadly, it felt more like a flea market this year. Loads of junky books, boxes filled with book club editions that were waterstained and sunned, lots of books with remainder marks. And IMO there were way too many people selling self-published books. I was pretty depressed as I made my way through the booths.

So with fewer dealers selling vintage books I came home with a meager pile of six books. Here's what I picked up. Finding the Q. Patrick reprint pretty much lifted my mood for the rest of the day. I don't care if it's damaged DJ with many rips and tears. Where else could I find a hard to find hardcover by a fantastic mystery writer whose books are all sadly out of print for only five bucks? Made the trip worth it.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Doyle's Kids Quiz Results

Below are the answers to the Literary IQ quiz "Children in Sherlock Holmes Stories"posted a few days ago.

According to the rules a perfect score is 96 and required naming the characters (2 pts each) as well as the stories (10 pts).

Lucky winners are:  Noah Stewart (96) and Neer (94).  Sorry, Neeru you got the character's last name wrong for #8 and I couldn't give you the extra points.  Emails with the prize list of books are going out later today.  Thanks for playing!

I'm off to the Printer's Row Book Fest in an hour.  I'll have a post of my finds/purchases tomorrow.

Friday, June 6, 2014

FFB: Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth

US 1st edition (Lippincott, 1946)
Roger Pilgrim is in fear for his life. He has already barely escaped two near fatal accidents in his ancestral home of Pilgrim's Rest. The home seems to be plagued with accidents. His father recently died when his horse threw him to the ground in a strange fit. Roger thinks someone is trying to prevent the sale of Pilgrim's Rest and most likely taking advantage of a family curse that states all members of the Pilgrim family must remain in the house or face Death if they ever leave. Roger has asked Maud Silver to investigate the possibility of a devious murderer hiding among the residents of the home.

The plot of Pilgrim's Rest (1936) is rather involved. Unfolding simultaneously with the story of Miss Silver's investigation is the story of Judy Elliot who has been forced to take the position of housemaid at Pilgrim's Rest. And there is the story of the Pilgrims themselves -- sisters Columba and Janetta, their invalid brother Jerome -- along with the employees and servants, Jerome's ever watchful nurse Lona Day, butler Robbins and his wife the cook. Miss Silver does some legitimate detective work, but mostly uses intuition to get to the bottom of the deadly accidents and mysterious deaths that befall the Pilgrim family. She coughs repeatedly, alternately as an irritating sign to underscore her impressions or to interrupt when she disagrees with Inspector March. When she's not coughing she's sitting in her chair clacking away with her knitting needles making a sweater for a relative and taking in all that is said. Periodically, she will cough (once she does so "in a hortatory manner"!) then make an observation that no one the book ever thought of.

This was my introduction to Patricia Wentworth and her well loved spinster private detective. While I was impressed with the plot mechanics and the unusual way the story unfolds I have to say I didn't find Miss Silver all that endearing or even much of a real detective. She has an almost psychic ability to ferret out the truth. Frank Abbott, one of the policemen, goes so far as to liken her to a witch. But Inspector Marsh gives a more accurate assessment of her detective skills being linked to keen observations of human behavior and Maud's ability to become an "insider" rather than an outsider as policemen are viewed. March tells Abbot, " the time we come into [the investigation] everyone concerned is hard at work covering up. We don't see people being natural -- she does." Maud reminds me of the Coles' Mrs. Warrender, another elderly woman detective who has uncanny powers of observation who puts her policeman son to shame.

UK paperback (Hodder & Stoughton)
Things I found pretty darn good about this book:

1. The use of cannabis indica as a method of drugging one of the characters in order to control him. In effect, a form of marijuana poisoning.

2. The construction of the house, especially a glass enclosed walkway that leads from the house to the street, being integral to the solution of one murder. Reminded me of John Dickson Carr's obsession with architecture.

3. A subplot involving the story of the daughter of the butler and his wife that becomes the key to the entire book. It's cleverly introduced to the plot as background but it keeps intruding throughout Miss Silver's investigation. By the climax of the book this subplot actually becomes the main plot, an impressive narrative manipulation. Plus, there are some nicely done bits of misdirection in telling of the daughter's plight culminating in one huge surprise.

But in the end the detective novel aspect of the story gives way to a ridiculously melodramatic finale and the book turns into a kind of unintentional parody of a Sydney Horler thriller. The killer kidnaps Judy and at gunpoint forces her to drive them to a remote site in the countryside (see the illustration on the paperback at the right). For about four pages of Judy's driving the killer narrates the motives behind the crime and plans for Judy's eventual death now that "she knows too much." There is a spectacular car wreck, a pursuit on foot and a shoot out. Too much indeed! As if that isn't going overboard the killer escapes yet the unflappable Miss Silver does not admit defeat. She gives Inspector March a few instructions on how the police can identify the killer who she is sure will have adopted a specific disguise and is planning to leave the country. Maud Silver guesses and surmises too much for me.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo, space D6 - " Book out of your comfort zone"

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

FOUND BOUND: Sherlockians Take Note

While researching an obscure book and the opinions it received at the time of its original publication I serendipitously discovered the following quiz in a 1951 issue of The Saturday Review. If you truly know your Sherlock Holmes according to Doyle then dare to take the literary quiz below.

The story of how the quiz was created and how the editors received it is almost better than the quiz itself!

I cannot resist making this a true contest. CONTEST NOW CLOSED.

The Great Detective by illustrator Frank Wiles
I will confess that this is one type of mystery quiz I will never pass. I never bothered to learn the Holmes stories inside and out. I knew the answer to exactly one. Sad, isn't it? (It was #6, by the way, which I think everyone will know.) I know there is at least one brilliant reader of the Canon who knows not only the character names but the stories themselves. Go on and prove me right. I know you're out there.

Answers will be posted on Saturday, June 7. First three people with the highest scores will be named winners. A prize list of vintage paperbacks and review copies of new books I recently reviewed will be sent to each winner and they can pick what they want. This contest is open to all regardless of where you live.

Good luck!