Friday, July 25, 2014

FFB: Death on Tiptoe - R. C. Ashby

A house party in a 12th century Norman castle in Wales is the setting for Death on Tiptoe (1931). The characters make up quite a Christie-like cast: young dissolute and irresponsible heir; portrait artist and womanizer; flirtatious heiress; pouty melodramatic young woman jilted by the artist; lovestruck governess; two bratty children; vengeful British Major; reserved and sensible barrister; failed diplomat who is an utter twit; his wife who is love with someone else; and the host and hostess, Sir Harry and Lady Undine Stacey.

It is Lady Stacey — a transplanted French woman with pretensions to becoming a great baronial estate holder — who is the victim. The opening chapters quite brilliantly plant the seeds for her cruel murder, and there are at least four characters who outright threaten her prior to her body being discovered three weeks later in a chest in the attic where she had hid during a game of hide and seek, an entertainment she arranged for her guests.

Cleverly done, fairly well clued, with quite a bit of misdirection. The novel culminates in a melodramatic ending with a somewhat surprising murderer and an intriguing motive. Ashby would later expand the idea of this Gothic detective novel in He Arrived at Dusk (my review of that book is at Mystery*File here ), a far better book with more effective use of folklore, legends and supernatural content.

R(uby). C(onstance). Ashby is the alter ego of Ruby Ferguson the name under which she is better known. From 1949 through 1965 Ferguson was a popular writer of children's books and romance novels. As Ashby (her maiden name) she wrote a handful of detective novels and suspense thrillers with Gothic overtones. A few years ago Death on Tiptoe was reprinted by Greyladies Press, an independent publisher located in Scotland, but I checked their website and that edition is no longer for sale. However, you might luck out on the used book websites and find a copy.

(This is a slightly altered version of a review I originally wrote for Steve Lewis' superb website Mystery*File.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

FFB: The Blue Horse of Taxco - Kathleen Moore Knight

Troy Bannister has flown to Taxco from her safe New York job at Frobisher’s where she is the jewelry buyer. She is to judge a contest of silver designs and the winner will be set up in a private studio to make a line of custom made jewelry for her employer. The contest was her idea and the winner unbeknownst to her employer has already been chosen. He is Jerome Blake, her old flame whom she has tracked down to Taxco. She is sure that when he is chosen the winner and given the $5000 prize money plus the opportunity to work in his own studio back in New York that she will finally have a chance to win him back and marry him. But when she learns of a local silversmith who is regarded as the best of the contest’s entrants she sees her deceitful plan start to crumble. She must see exactly what this talented artist, an immigrant Polish man named Casimir Lazlo, can create and if is indeed a superior craftsman find a away to eliminate him from the competition.

Someone does that job for Troy. Shortly after she has met Lazlo and seen his exquisite workmanship on an intricately stamped necklace, he is murdered. Troy’s guilty conscience and unethical ways get the better of her. Imagining the worst and thinking that she might actually be thought the killer she stages the scene of the bloody murder to look like a suicide. She flees Lazlo’s studio but not before impulsively stealing the copper plate that made the beautiful design in the silver necklace. All of this occurs in the first two chapters. This is our protagonist? Knight seems to be writing a Patricia Highsmith novel with a love mad female version of Tom Ripley, a woman who cares for no one really but herself.

Bracelet designed by Taxco silversmith
Hector Aguilar (circa 1940s)
Soon word is out that Casimir has committed and suicide yet no one can believe it. The other artists who have entered the contest recognize that their chances are now greatly increased for winning the coveted prize money and the job as jewelry designer in New York. But someone suggests that Casimir was murdered in order to achieve that advantage. When they also discover that Troy had visited Lazlo prior to the judging day they are in a furor and begin to think that the contest was rigged from the start. Troy has few friends among the artists including Jerome, living under the alias of Joe Blank, who is quick to uncover most of Troy’s deceit and her involvement in Lazlo’s death. Eventually it is Jerome/Joe, with the aid of Lazlo's daughter, who will take over as the lead character and solve not only Lazlo's murder but another murder of a local Mexican artist who was secretly entering a creation of his own in the contest.

The tone and language of The Blue Horse of Taxco (1947) is completely different than the Elisha Macomber (her best known series detective) novels in Knight’s early writing period. It’s darker, not at all lighthearted, and fueled with the illogical passions of impulsive desires not unlike the novels of pulp and noir writers. She is finding a way to tell a story of crime without resorting to old-fashioned thriller tropes and set pieces that seem lifted from cliffhanger serials. Gone are the quaint clues and girl sleuthing sequences found in her early books. Knight’s focus now is on character as opposed to multi-layered puzzling plots which is not to say that she has completely abandoned the puzzle. There is still the mystery of the pieces of the figurine of the title that will feature in the plot. But overall the story arises out of the characters’ behavior and thinking and their relationships not an artificial manipulation of events created only to bamboozle the reader.

(The above is a slightly edited portion from a longer essay on Kathleen Moore Knight I wrote for issue #68 of Geoff Bradley's fine journal Crime and Detective Stories (CADS). The issue will be coming out in a few months.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

FFB: Twisted Clay - Frank Walford

Jean Deslines is worried about losing her identity.  Her father keeps talking about putting her away in a mental institution for her own safety. Jean has been bragging about her flirty seduction of the local clergyman in her Australian home of Katoomba. She's also been reading up on psychology books at the suggestion of her cousin Myrtle who knows a psychosexual aberration when she sees one. Now Jean's head is overloaded with Freudian psychoanalytical jargon and discussions of female hormones, the lack of which she believes is at the root of her troubles. She's also starting to have surreal dreams in which she envisions a female gladiator who takes the form of the goddess Minerva slaughtering her enemies. And every now and then she hears the sounds of bells and an ethereal voice giving her private instructions on carrying out the murderous events in her dreams. Is it any wonder her father is worried about her? Oh, I forgot to mention Jean is only fifteen years old.

To preserve her identity and prevent any tinkering with her mind and soul at the hands of interfering psychiatrists Jean is advised by that Voice to murder her father. And she does so in a lovingly savage way. It's the beginning of her descent into a surreal world of hallucinations, indulgent sexuality and violent murderous attacks. Imagine if you will a most bizarre mix of the selfish child murderess Rhoda Penmark, vindictive pathological liar Mary Tilford, and seductive teen age vixen Lolita and you have only a smidgen of an idea of what Frank Walford has created in Jean Deslines. It's difficult to believe that a fifteen year old girl is narrating this lurid tale of madness, pansexuality and brutal murder. Jean may very well be crime fiction's first bisexual serial killer.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Twisted Clay was published in 1933.

Frank Walford
This week Patti Abbot Asked us to read a book about a femme fatale. Though typically we don't find a femme fatale this young until the pulp writers of the 1950s in books by writers like Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Jonathan Craig and most of them aren't clinically insane Jean Deslines is about as fatal a femme as you can find in the genre fiction of the 1930s. So horrific are the events described in Walford's book it was banned almost immediately upon publication and remained out of print for decades. Modern readers will find so many of what is now considered formulaic in serial killer literature and yet no one was writing about such things in Walford's time. Even Lawrence Block didn't write about a serial killer prostitute until 2012's Getting Off and even then he used his lesbian erotica pseudonym Jill Emerson. Walford was way ahead of his time in creating his surreally intellectual, linguistically gifted and very dangerous teenager. Way, way ahead.

Twisted Clay has been reissued by Australian British indie press Salt Publishing under their horror imprint Remains Classics in a handsomely designed facsimile of the original first edition complete with replication of the original dust jacket. The book comes with a foreward by Remain's editor Johnny Mains as well as a biographical and literary introduction to Frank Walford by critic and supernatural fiction maven Jim Doig. It's a fine reissue of a landmark book in the genre. Highly recommended for literary connoisseurs, genre fiction addicts and anyone curious about those obscure books that sometimes reach legendary status due to their unavailability. This is one instance when the legend cannot even approach the actual content of the book.

For more wicked women, amoral temptresses, and literary femme fatales in forgotten books of the past visit Patti Abbot's blog.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Update

I'm on vacation in Washington state (first time here, only seven more states left and I'll have been to all 50 at least once) and didn't have time to get my Friday's Forgotten Book post up. In fact I left all my notes for the past five books at home and I won't be able to write any reviews or essays until I get back home. Without my notes I'm lost. I read too many books each month to remember everything about the characters and plot details.

Life has been very chaotic and I've been forced to change a lot about how I live. I'll spare you the stories of my adventures with the two physical therapists I am currently seeing. Because of that I haven't been up to sitting at my computer for long periods of time to write the many reviews I am behind on.

In lieu of my usual FFB I'm going to list all the books I plan to review this month (all but one of them read in June) and also take this opportunity to catch up on my Golden Age Bingo Card in Bev's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge

Rare photo of Richard Wilson Webb posing as "Q Patrick"
Death in the Dovecot - Q. Patrick
"Book with an animal in the title"
This is the British title for Murder at the Womens' City Club, a very rare Q Patrick title that I was very excited to find on eBay for a bargain price. The book is most interesting in that's it's the second of Richard Wilson Webb's mystery novels and the second (and last) book he wrote with his first collaborator Martha Mott Kelley.  An almost all female cast of characters (only three men) is an additional unique aspect to this detective novel.

Return to the Scene - Q. Patrick (Webb & Wheeler)
"Book featuring a mode of transportation"
Boats are featured in this mystery set in Bermuda. The victim falls overboard and people are constantly going back and forth to a small private island where the body washed up. I'm proud to say that I figured identity of the murderer, the motive and the method of one of the murders in this book. But I also think, while the killer is a surprise, veteran mystery readers will also be able to figure whodunit in this one. Reminded me of Christianna Brand because all the characters are lying and protecting one another and colluding during the murder investigation.

Come and Be Killed! - Shelley Smith
"Book featuring cooking or food"
Poisoned food is the killer's choice in this book. One of the best "badass biddy" books I've read. A groundbreaking book, I think, way ahead of its time. Reminds me of the best of Ruth Rendell but it was published in 1947. The murderous Mrs. Jolly (how's that for a killer's name?) almost tops my favorite spinster killer Claire Marrable in The Forbidden Garden. The climactic scene where one clever woman confronts the villainess is classic.

The Blue Horse of Taxco - Kathleen Moore Knight
"Book set in country other than US or UK"
Set in Mexico. A fascinating near noir thriller cum detective novel, very different from her Cape Cod books featuring Elisha Macomber. Troy Banister, the woman protagonist, is the closest I've come the discovering a female Tom Ripley. One of the first anti-heroines in detective fiction who at first is utterly despicable and then suddenly you find yourself sympathizing with. Plus, an unusual background in silver jewelry design and the silversmith industry which is still what Taxco is known for today. Very interesting and mature work from this unappreciated and very forgotten American mystery writer.

And the fifth book I will leave a mystery. It's the book I read for the July 11 "Femme Fatale" theme. And it's ready to go for next Friday. I guarantee no one has heard of it nor reviewed it since FFB has been going. It's a book that has been incredibly hard to find for decades and was just reprinted two months ago by a British indie press.

There's enough to tease you for the coming days. In depth reviews on all books listed above are coming when I return from Washington. Stay tuned...

Oh! and I now have a total of four Bingo rows on my Golden Age Mystery bingo card. I've read more than the mere 29 books shown on the card below. Some of the books were reviewed but didn't qualify for the challenge because I couldn't find a category to apply to the book. I'm excited that with half the year gone I have only seven more books to read (that will fit the categories left) and I've filled the card.