Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Star of Wonder, Star of Night

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all the rest of it, gang!

Through sheer serendipity this turned up on YouTube and I had to post here it here.  Loads of twinkling lights, Christmas trees, the CTA's famous Holiday Train and fireworks in December -- what more could you ask for? Enjoy this one minute of laptop or armchair travel to our fine Windy City.

This year for my Christmas music video I decided to introduce you to one of my favorite alternative bands, one you've probably never heard of: Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Here's their brand new Christmas song "Every Little Light"

Whoever or whatever you believe in, however you celebrate this end of the year, have a memorable and magical time. Make the most of it you wonderful people out there in the dark. Looking forward to more literary Lost in Limbo discoveries and sharing them with you in 2015.

Friday, December 19, 2014

FFB: Give Me Back Myself - L. P. Davies

Stephen Dusack has a bit of a problem. After suffering major injuries in a train derailment he is under the care of both doctors and psychiatrists. He has been interviewed multiple times about his life history and each time he tells his story about growing up in South Africa, working for a mining company, and recently leaving that country for England where he hoped to start life anew in the little village of Studdold all the medical staff tend to give the impression that they doubt his veracity. They all think he is David Orme and send Stephen home with Orme's secretary and business associate Howard Downey. Broke and without even having started his new job Dusack reluctantly agrees. At Orme's massive estate protected by electronic gates and a gun toting chauffeur Stephen's identity crisis plunges into a nightmare world of conspiracy, paranoia and murder attempts.

Davies spent most of his writing career riffing on themes of identity confusion and amnesia. He wrote in all genres often blending and hybridizing well known tropes of detective fiction (amnesia victims) and science fiction (mind altering drugs) into a kind of new subgenre of his own invention. Psychogeist (1966) tells of a young man who cannot remember who he is and alternates with his hallucinatory dreams of an alien world that parallel the story of his recovery from amnesia. Or is he actually an alien who crash landed on Earth? Probably his best known crime novel treatment of identity loss is his second novel Who Is Lewis Pinder? (1965), originally titled Man Out of Nowhere in the UK. Give Me Back Myself (1971) belongs with Davies' crime fiction novels. It presents the story of Stephen's search for his true identity as a tale of an unbelievable conspiracy with no introduction of either supernatural or science fiction elements.

In these amnesia novels we are always hoping for the hapless protagonist to find at least one ally who will believe his story, help him uncover the truth and bring the villainy to light. Stephen finds his allies quite by accident when he asks for directions of his next door neighbor Ambrose Kenny. Later Kenny's daughter Fran will stop by for her weekly visit and she will turn out to be both confidante and detective cohort. The manner in which Stephen and his two allies slowly uncover the plot is done with ingenuity and a few startling surprises. You have to credit Davies with a fertile imagination in continually finding new methods to essentially tell the same story repeatedly.

Though his books are out of print copies of nearly every one of Davies' fascinating books are easily found in the used book market at very affordable prices. I'm sure many of his books, not just Give Me Back Myself, can be find both in US and UK libraries as well.

I read this book for both Bev Hankins' Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and Rich Westwood's 1971 Mystery Reading Challenge. For more on L. P. Davies breathtaking displays of variation on the theme of amnesia and identity confusion see Sergio Angelini's reviews of Man Out of Nowhere and The Alien.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Ghosts 2014: Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire

Another holiday season, another Advent Ghosts Day. Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites writers to dabble in a yuletide drabble each year at this time. It's his way to help honor the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time and also bringing together the blogging and writing community. Drabble? That's a short short story, a micro story I'd call it, of exactly 100 words. No more, no less. Below is my contribution for this wintry ghostly time of year. It's a twofold tribute to Victorian ghost stories and the cautionary tales that warn children to behave themselves...or else.

"Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire"

The little boy placed the Yule log on the andirons along with kindling, struck a match and set the log ablaze.  He sat there transfixed by the crackling and popping sounds and the dance of the yellow and orange flames.  It was his private fire, his alone.

Then an explosive pop and the log split in two. Smoke poured into the room like a carpet of soot unfurling. Out of the smoke a scaly clawed hand was reaching for something.

And a scratchy snarling voice cried out from the hearth, "Playing with matches again? Here's your coal, you naughty boy!"

For more Christmas themed drabbles please visit Loren's blog where he has collected the links to all the participants' blogs. There are also a few stories posted here for those who don't have blogs. They make for quite a variety of chilling holiday visions and events.

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction, part 2

Cartoon ©2014 by Nina Paley
Alexander Pope wrote "A little learning is a dang'rous thing/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring" Oh, I like a very deep drink from that mythical fount of knowledge. Spare the sipping straw and hand me a ladle. Better yet give me one of those yard long glasses -- the Coachman's Quaff! I'll be there for hours gulping away until my thirst for little known facts is quenched. I can't help it but I am one of those people whose curiosity never dies and who can't keep his fingers away from the Google search box. Throw an arcane nugget my way. Go on! I will not sleep until I find out exactly what it means or refers to. For your reading delectation here's another potpourri of esoterica gleaned from my reading of obscure murder mysteries and adventure novels.

1. Almoner is an odd word I’ve never seen nor heard in all my fifty plus years. In the some hospital scenes in the suspense thriller Give Me Back Myself (review coming soon) I understood an almoner to be a person who arranges for welfare benefits for indigent patients. It was never really explained outright. The word was dropped into conversation and I had to glean meaning from the context. Further internet searching taught me that the word dates back to the medieval era when almoners were more prominent as distributors of alms. Usually an almoner was a monk, priest or other member of the clergy. It’s a distinctly British word (explains why I’ve never heard it even in all my decades working in hospitals) but I suspect that its use is probably passé these days. Anyone serving in a hospital as an almoner is almost certainly called a social worker or perhaps even may be a chaplain with extended duties.

2. Chances are if you’re a drinker you’ll know what a Manhattan is. But have you ever heard of a Bronx cocktail? Never came across it in books or bar menus. Never heard it ordered by my worldly college drinking pals who were known for their predilection for unusual potent potables. A Bronx turned up in a list of cocktails Waldo Lydecker ordered in Laura. I was hoping for something strange but a Bronx is a nothing more than a standard martini (gin mixed with both sweet and dry vermouth) plus orange juice. No olive, of course. Sounds dreadful, frankly. Who wants to ruin good gin with fruit juice of any kind?

3. Reading The City of Whispering Stone was like getting a crash course in 1970s Iranian politics and culture. It enlightened me about that country’s oppressive past and how the Shah, despite his charismatic persona as portrayed in US media of the 1970s, was a pretty nasty fellow especially regarding his suppression of political dissenters in consort with SAVAK, the Iranian secret police.

4. I have for some years now been reading and writing about witchcraft and devil worship as a motif in the detective novel. I thought by now I knew everything there is to know about the history of witchcraft in Europe and America. Wrong! Though I was hip to Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, and his nightmarish campaign against witches in 17th century England I did not know of his book The Discovery of Witches. In Witchwater G. M. Wilson also tells us that within this notorious memoir, more a handbook for torture than a historical document, Hopkins lists the names of the most popular witch’s familiars. Paddock and Graymalkin who are beckoned by Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters are there as well as Pyewacket (Kim Novak's pet in Bell, Book and Candle). Another cat familiar named Elemauzer is mentioned too, though it is spelled Ilemauzar in the illustration below taken from a copy of Hopkin's original text. And it is a stray black cat named Elemauzer that ultimately provides the detective in Witchwater with his most important piece of evidence.

5. Cultural enlightenment in art, music, and theater came to me at the most unexpected times. I learned all about the Mexican silversmith trade in Kathleen Moore Knight’s excellent South of the Border mystery The Blue Horse of Taxco. Charles Willeford fooled me into thinking that numerous artists and painters he invented in The Burnt Orange Heresy were real so compelling were their portraits. Imagine how frustrated I was when no one turned up in my Google searches. I actually started to laugh as my own gullibility. A Sad Song Singing by Thomas B. Dewey gave a documentary feel to the early 1960s folk music and coffeehouse and hootenanny scene in New York City’s lower east side.

6. Had I been as curious as I usually am when I encountered the names of François Arago, Boisgiraud, and Sir Humphrey Davy, pioneers in the field of electromagnetic physics, I would’ve had one of the most ingenious mysteries I read this year ruined. And of course I’m not telling you the book’s title or even who wrote it. If you’ve already had the pleasure of reading this particular book you’re sure to know the title and author.

Tjitjingalla corroboree, circa 1901
7. One of my favorite reads of 2014 was The Glass Spear, Australian writer Sidney Courtier’s first novel and a corker of a mystery. Within its pages I uncovered a treasure trove of Aussie lore and Aboriginal rites and celebrations including the corroboree, a ceremonial ritual involving tribal costumes and masks, dance and acting as well as kurdaitcha, a kind of aboriginal magic usually tinged with evil intent.

8. Joanna Cannan’s near parody of a detective novel The Body in the Beck was rife with literary allusions to -- of all things -– mountaineering poetry! I learned more than I have ever wanted to know about those minor poets from the dusty halls of truly forgotten literature.

9. Even new books have a lot to teach me. I had a full-on immersion in the Inuit culture while reading The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath. Though I didn't get a chance to review this book during my hectic summer it's a highly unusual mystery that I recommend to readers who like an anthropological challenge. You may come away with a whole new appreciation for Nunavut cuisine which includes pickled walrus flippers and aalu, a dipping sauce made from caribou meat, fat and blood.

10. I got pages of info dump when reading Syndrome E, another contemporary thriller, ranging from the neuromarketing trend in advertising to the fundamentals of splicing and editing 16mm celluloid. But the most gruesome bit of arcana came when I read of a shameful part of Quebec's history in the tragedy of the Duplessis orphans.  There's an example of a horror story in real life that one hopes is never repeated.

Friday, December 12, 2014

FFB: The Shop Window Murders - Vernon Loder

Tobias Mander is the founder and owner of Mander Department Store, his brainchild for an innovative place that will combine "cheapness with luxury." He also is an airplane fanatic and has an engineering lab in his home. Having procured many of the best experts in the retail trade he is set to open the flagship Mander store to the accompaniment of much fanfare. One of his more audacious publicity stunts was to have his new design for a portable gyrocopter unveiled by having the flying contraption land on the roof of the store much to the chagrin of police and local authorities who felt it unsafe. He dubbed the invention the Mander Hopper. Marketed as "a plane you fold up in a room and land in a tennis court" the retail wizard was planning to sell them his store and was taking orders prior to starting a manufacturing line. All those plans come to a crashing halt when Tobias Mander is found dead during the opening festivities. Someone shot him, dressed him up as a mechanic, and placed him among other mannequins in a display window at the front of the store.

All this unfolds in the first chapter of The Shop Window Murders (1930) one of Vernon Loder's more complicated and highly unusual detective novels. The events at the store's gala opening become stranger once the police arrive. They find that one of those storefront mannequins, a woman dressed in an outlandish costume adorned with a print that advertised the Mander Hopper, is not a mannequin at all. It's Effie Turnour, fiancée to the store's manager Robert Kephim. And she's dead too. She's been stabbed and placed in a chair in an unflattering pose right next to Mander's corpse. Someone obviously was not happy about Mander's plans to take over the retail world.

Enter Inspector Devenish, another of Loder's humane and intelligent policemen. He's willing to admit he's flawed, eager to listen to what everyone has to say no matter how hysterical or ranting they become. But woe to the fiendish murderer behind these bizarre crimes for Devenish is sharp enough to envision all angles and possibilities. During the investigation he uncovers department store rivalries, a conspiracy behind the actual identity of the inventor and desiger of the Mander Hopper and a hotbed of vice among the store's employees.

The Hafner Gyroplane
From a postcard series illustrated by Howard Leigh, March 1938

The cast of characters is a lively one. There's Mann, a night watchman who turns out to be another in a long line of mystery fiction characters similar to Sayer's Bunter and Allingham's Lugg. Mann was a batman to store executive Jameson Peden-Hythe during WWI and he still retains a loyalty to his older comrade who saved his life on the battlefield. Devenish suspects Mann assumed Peden-Hythe guilty of the murders and in order to protect his battleground Samaritan altered the crime scene and manufactured fake evidence. Or how about Webley the embittered and hostile mechanical engineer who claims that Mander stole the design from him? He's suspect number one in Devenish's book. Webley's belligerent attitude doesn't help clear his name any faster even though he seems to have an ironclad alibi. There is also Mrs. Hoe, a shrewd journalist always popping in at the most unexpected times. Devenish is impressed by her insight and intelligence. But Mrs. Hoe is hiding a secret of her own and has an interest in the murders other than great newspaper copy and eye-catching headlines. She is keeping tabs on a couple of the suspects for more personal reasons. Finally, there is a platoon of Loder's usual lower echelon policeman some of whom provide comic relief. One able-bodied sergeant in particular is responsible for uncovering the most unusual piece of evidence that eventually leads to the startling conclusion.

US 1st edition (Morrow, 1930)
I'd love to go into great detail about the denouement which once again showcases Loder's most unique trademark in all his detective novels, but I'd definitely be giving away the game if I elaborate any further. Suffice to say that Loder is fascinated with the idea of criminals who get their comeuppance even before the police know a crime has occurred. There always seems to be one victim who falls prey to their own scheming.

If you are ever lucky enough to come across a copy of The Shop Window Murders (yes, my friends, it's an incredibly scarce title) you ought to snap it up. This book is not only entertaining it may be Loder's most complicated and original spin on a gimmick he seems to have invented. If he didn't invent it, then he certainly perfected it. Other than in the work of Anthony Wynne, who has his own favorite tricks like the twice murdered corpse, I have yet to come across so many variations on such an odd idea for detective novel crimes. While I'm recommending this book I would suggest you keep your eyes out for any book with the Vernon Loder pseudonym on the cover. They make for fascinating reading and are as different from the standard whodunits of his colleagues as champagne is to soda water.

UPDATE: Fantastic news! As of November 2018 The Shop Window Murders has been reprinted by HarperCollins as part of their continuing reissue of all of the books in the Detective Crime Club Classics imprint which originally appeared in the 1930s. The book is available in hardcover or digital editions. I hear that I'm mentioned in Nigel Moss' introduction. And this blog post is quoted on the DJ. Exciting!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

IN BRIEF: Witchwater - G. M. Wilson

Witchwater, 1st UK paperback (Digit, 1963)
"It's easy to scoff at devil worship, and blood pacts, broomstick riding and other sorceries when you're safe at home in broad daylight, within easy reach of human companionship; not so easy when you're alone in the cold and darkness with only a strip of Stygian, mist haunted water between you and the so-called witch's cottage."

I thought that all of Wilson's books had the team of Miss Purdy, mystery writer "of a certain age" and apparently no first name, and Inspector Lovick. But this early entry in Wilson's bibliography reveals that Miss Purdy was not in every book. There is another policeman who often works in tandem with Lovick by the name of John Crawford. In Witchwater (1961) Crawford calls upon Lovick's help in the case of a questionable death of young girl and a series of attacks on some women in a Norfolk village still haunted by the legend of Mother Daw, a 17th century witch executed in the broads and marshes on the outlying edge of the town.

Against his better judgment Dr. Patrick Mallard approaches Inspector Crawford and pleads with him to look into the recent death of a little girl Nelly Pizey who died suddenly supposedly of natural causes. Dr. Mallard thinks otherwise. Her shivering, her inability to speak, and refusal to eat he ascribes to one cause -- she received the fright of her life and succumbed. In other words, she was scared to death. After asking a few questions of her parents and siblings he discovers she had been sneaking outside to visit a friend and upon her return home must have encountered something terrifying, perhaps the Devil himself. Crawford scoffs at this superstitious explanation. Mallard goes on to report the Mr. Pizey's story of a strange black cat with a silver collar that has been seen around the marshes near the Pizey home. Mallard is certain the cat is connected to legend of Mother Daw, ancient witch, and urges Crawford to investigate the supposedly abandoned cottage known as Witchwater.

Begrudgingly Crawford decides to look into the matter. He has enough on his plate with the recent escape of George Brown, a young man arrested for a string of smash-and-grab robberies in which nothing but frivolous women's clothing and jewelry was taken. A woman is involved, Crawford tells his policemen crew, perhaps even the instigator and accomplice in the robberies.  Still Mallard's story is so strange and the doctor's concern so genuine Crawford feels obligated to make at least one visit to the site of Nelly's run-in with the cat.

Norfolk broads
Two more reports of cat attacks then follow in quick succession, this time with adult women as victims of the feline menace.  And then the wife of the temperamental sculptor Steve Anderson is found drowned in the marsh with cat scratches on her hands and face.  The superstitious townspeople begin gossiping. Mother Daw is back and witchcraft is being done. Crawford, Lovick and their team need to find the cat, its owner, and put an end to the rash of accidents and injuries before the townfolk turn into a lynch mob and take matters into their own hands.

Witchwater surpasses Nightmare Cottage (previously reviewed here) in terms of creepy atmosphere and suspense. Wilson has a genuine talent for building up tension and ending her chapters with cliffhangers that keep you turning the pages at a rapid pace. The detection is sound with some cleverly placed clues that earn her major points on the detective novel scorecard. While the identity of the criminal may not be as surprising as one would hope certainly the telling of the story is exciting and moody. Though less complicated in plot than some of her later books Wilson should also be credited for the seamless connection of the two storylines -- the robberies ultimately intersect with the story of Jessica Daw, the last of the Daws who fancies herself a junior sorceress.

For a long time Wilson manages to create a series of impossible situations that appear to have occurred only through magical intervention as in the manner in which the sinister cat gains entry to locked houses. Her knowledge of witchcraft trials, the Malleus Maleficarum, and the history of witchcraft in Eastern England all add to the authenticity of the plot. In fact, the cat's weird name Elemauzer -- taken from one of the ancient witch's familiars written down in The Discovery of Witches, Matthew Hopkins' famed witch trial handbook -- will serve as the major clue in solving the string of accidents, two murders and an act of arson. Witchwater is one of the better detective novels of the mid twentieth century dealing with seemingly supernatural events and the malicious exploitation of superstitious beliefs.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: I'm using this to knock off space S3 "Book with a crime other than murder". Theft, arson and other crimes are featured. This gives me my first (and perhaps only) Bingo on the Silver Age card.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Grinches Are Out in Force

You would think that we could all get along out in here in the blogosphere. What is it about the holiday season that brings out the worst in some people? I have no tolerance for mean-spirited and condescending remarks left in the comment section on this blog at any time of the year, but I'm getting more than my fair share in the past four days than I have in the four years I've been writing on the blog. To alleviate this plague of harassment I've decided to turn on the Comment Approval function. Comments will appear when I have a chance to read them in advance and will probably take up to a day to appear now.  C'est la vie...

Monday, December 8, 2014

FFB: Laura - Vera Caspary

WARNING: This post is loaded with SPOILERS. Stop now if you know nothing about Laura, the book or the movie, and don't want its most unusual surprises given away.

Not such a forgotten book, I guess. The movie is definitely not forgotten. But can you believe that although I've seen the movie about seven times by now, and know it inside and out, I have never read the book until just this past week? It's true.

Reading the book was a revelation; so drastic are the differences. I felt like I was discovering Laura Hunt, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson, Shelby Carpenter and Susan (not Ann ) Treadwell for the first time. I was taken aback by the major changes made in the classic film adaptation of Laura (1942). Changes that seem vital to Caspary's recurring themes of ideals of masculinity and femininity, the worship of beauty both in objects and people, and exploitation of character flaws and human weakness. I learned so much about this story, how it came into being, its origin as a doomed play that never saw a Broadway production and the perhaps by now famous argument Caspary had with Otto Preminger over one key scene in the film that she felt ruined her intent in writing the book in the first place. The biggest revelation to me is that Laura, the novel, is so much more than just a detective novel. Caspary uses the investigation of a horrible murder to explore complex human emotions and unusual psychology of obsessive love and does so with grace and artistry that is at times breathtaking.

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson is captivated by
Laura Hunt's portrait in the 1944 film.

First and foremost are the differences in the character of Waldo Lydecker, the highbrow newspaper columnist and cultural mentor of Laura Hunt. Clifton Webb captured so perfectly the essence of Waldo in the movie but in terms of look and physique he's all wrong. Waldo Lydecker would have been better played by Edward Arnold with a beard and spectacles. Caspary's Waldo is tall, obese and astigmatic. Much as she disavowed using celebrity columnist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott as a model for Waldo the similarities are hard to ignore. Apart from the amazing coincidence of their looks Lydecker and Woollcott are both interested in writing about true crime. The only contrast between the two is that Waldo Lydecker confesses in the very first chapter a complete distaste for detective novels and Woollcott was known to devour them. He even acted as mystery selections editor for the cheap reprint publisher White House during the 1940s.

Secondly, Shelby Carpenter is supposed to be blend of Nietzschean Superman and mythological Adonis. Vincent Price was a handsome and dapper fellow in the movie but not the kind of rugged and athletic Shelby that Caspary created. The words "gentleman" and "gallantry" are liberally used to describe Shelby, Laura's unfaithful fiancé, but as the story progresses we learn that he is as corrupt and exploitive as Waldo and in more insidious way. Unlike Waldo who uses artifice and banter as a mask for charm Shelby's charm is authentic yet he uses it deviously and dishonestly. He also wavers between self-delusion and cognizant disingenuousness as he tries to convince Laura that he really has her best interests at heart, that he is trying to protect her from a malicious cop out to convict her of a violent crime.

That should be a much bigger gun
and aimed a lot closer.
The novel's underlying strength, one that allows Caspary to delve deeply into each of her absorbingly complex characters, is the use of the multiple first person narratives. When Caspary was planning to turn her failed playscript into a novel she was given a bit of remarkable advice by one of her screenwriter friends in Hollywood who suggested she look to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as her framework. All those insightful analogies to Collin's pioneer detective novel are 100% accurate. She really did model her book on Collins'.

Caspary's language and the notable stylistic differences in the various points of view are the highlight of reading the book. Movie dialogue alone cannot begin to convey the richness we get when we hear the characters speak their thoughts in their individual manuscripts. We have the caustic wit, surface urbanity, and self-indulgent prose of Lydecker who lets us know that the only person he loves more than Laura is himself; McPherson's ordinary Joe section is peppered with American idioms and slang but absent of the high society vulgarity he disdains ("It takes a college education to teach a man that he can put on paper what he used to write on a fence."); and Laura Hunt's near neurotic ravings in diary format in which she confesses her love/hate relationship with all the men in her life, a tortured intelligent woman trying to reinvent herself as a career girl in a high paced advertising firm who is in conflict with her private self. A driven and focussed woman in the workplace she gets her job done with little distraction. But when left to her own thoughts she confesses " mind whirls like a merry-go-round" as she finds herself at the mercy of master manipulators who have designs on her soul, her body and her money.

At its core Laura is a study of the mystery of love in all its forms. Coming into play throughout all these narratives are varying viewpoints of idealized beauty (both male and female), authenticity of character, questioning gender stereotypes and ideals of manhood and femininity, and a incisive portrait of how weakness and character flaws can be the ruling emotions in the world of love. While there are examples of too obvious symbolism (Waldo's smashing of a glass vase in an antique store and the secret hiding place of the murder weapon -- completely different than the absurd object used in the movie -- being the most heavy-handed) Caspary still manages to tell her story with a wisdom and compassion and depth that can be movingly profound. To have seen the movie is not to know this story of Laura. I urge you to experience the mystery of Laura Hunt and her world by reading the novel. Laura is a rare instance of a book and a movie achieving classic status each in their own right.

**Many thanks to a couple of faithful readers who sent me text files from the cached versions of the original post. Just like the novel here is the resurrected Laura!  [Note to self: Back-up and save all posts in the future.]

And here are the original comments I managed to save from the December 5th cached version: