Tuesday, March 31, 2015

IN BRIEF: Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958) is the first of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough comic crime novels and sets the tone for all that followed in the series. It may not be the most successful of his books but I wager it was pretty daring for its time. Watson shakes up the cozy English village by populating his town with an assortment of venal businessmen, randy husbands, duplicitous housewives and bemused policemen. Sex and greed serve as the primary motivators in a mixture of scandalous criminal activity, base revenge, all oddly livened with Watson's usual absurd antics.

While the denizens of Flaxborough are trying to make sense of the outrageous death of the editor of the town’s newspaper who is found electrocuted at the foot of a power pylon Inspector Purbright is confronted with some incongruous evidence. Why would Mr. Gwill make a impulsive midnight climb up the pylon with slippers on his feet? What of that odd daffodil shaped burn embedded in Gwill’s right palm? Nothing on the pylon comes anywhere close to looking like a flower. And then there are the marshmallows found in Gwill’s pocket and in his stomach. That’s some kind of strange last meal for anyone. To Purbright and Sgt. Sid Love it looks like a murder cover-up. They need to find out where Gwill was really killed and why he was moved and why someone would think anyone be fooled by the implication that he fell from a power pylon.

Investigation of Gwill’s death leads Purbright to the newspaper offices of the Flaxborough Citizen and some strange personal ads setup by Gwill himself. They all seem to indicate an unusual interest in buying and selling curios and antiques and the numerous replies, all sent to Gwill’s personal box, all too coincidentally make mention of evening appointments and all include deposits of eight pounds. Purbright begins to imagine that some kind of underground conspiracy is at work. He is sure the ads have nothing to do with buying old furniture. Eventually he uncovers a surreal secret code that seems modeled on bad spy novels and an eye opening surprise in the examination rooms at a physician’s offices.

The sexual content in Coffin, Scarcely Used may have prevented it from being published in the US until ten years after its original appearance in England. Watson seemed decades ahead of his fellow crime writers (at least those who confined their plots to charming British villages) in terms of dealing with sex in the crime novel and doing so it such a bawdy and preposterous way.

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

FFB: Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland

There is nothing more satisfying to a mystery novel addict like me than to chose a book fairly at random and from the first amazing sentence to the final paragraph be thoroughly entertained.  I wanted to read a good old fashioned puzzling whodunit this week after indulging in too many suspense style crime stories. One with a gory murder or two, a weird murder method and enough clues to keep me guessing whodunit to the end. Never did I imagine that the book I chose would deliver on all counts, that it would surpass every expectation and that I would actually figure out the culprit and hit all the proper clues and motivations in coming up with my solution. Every single one!

You couldn't find a more unusual detective novel than Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938). From it's quasi Shakespearean allusion in the title to the quote lifted from The Pickwick Papers that serves as the novel's epigraph a hardcore mystery fan couldn't ask for a more literate and witty refresher in the genuine traditional mystery. Harriet Rutland in her debut as a mystery writer not only adheres to the tenets of the fair play detective novel she adds her own subversive spin to a motley group of what at first appear to be just another assortment of cliche country house archetypes. Among the large cast of characters are two retired career soldiers, a haughty aristocratic doyenne, a dithery hypochondriac, a lady author of detective novels, one sexy young femme fatale, a variety of servants including maids, housekeeper and chauffeur, a no nonsense police inspector and the mysterious detective consultant who seems to be mucking up the investigation. Not one of them ever descends to the level of cliché.

Rutland gives each one a jab of her satirist's poison pen. Colonel Simcox spends much of his time knitting multicolored socks instead of reminiscing of his old soldier days. He's more interested in mastering his knitting and purling and wondering what do with the green yarn when he needs to work on the blue. Mrs. Dawson, the lady author, who brags of having written three books and is starting on her fourth has not had a single work published though her agents keep promising great offers are in the works. The aristocrat is a big phony whose title comes via her now dead husband, a former grocer who made his money in the flour business and earned a honorary title from his philanthropy once he became wealthy. The hypochondriac claims to be abused at the hands of her cruel nurse but in fact spends much of her day devising ways to cause her own near fatal accidents. Here is the first sentence of the book in which we meet the accident obsessed matron:
Mrs. Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked around to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.
The car misses Mrs. Napier, thankfully, but not a soul goes to her aid. They would much rather laugh at her and insult her. Mrs. Napier does this sort of thing every day at the Presteignton Hydro where the novel takes place. Nurse Hawkins begrudgingly goes to pick her up all the while Mrs. Napier complains of bruises and manhandling. Dr. Williams, the director of the resort, wants to murder her. So do a lot of the others. But it's not Mrs. Napier who ends up dead at all. It's the sexy and alluring visitor Miss Blake.

Some deadly looking vintage knitting needles
Appropriately, size 13.
Miss Blake has been turning the heads of all the men and arousing the ire of the women. Her wardrobe is scandalous, her manner brazen, her humor off color. Miss Blake is vivacious and good natured and everything the other women residents at the Hydro are not.  Following the weekly amateur talent night where Miss Blake stood in as piano accompanist for all the singers and became the focus of nearly everyone's attention she is found dead in the lounge. Slumped over in the settee, the maid finds Miss Blake still wearing her slinky evening gown and a knitting needle sticking out of the base of her neck. Someone apparently didn't care for her music. Or her love of life.

Throughout the novel Rutland continually brings up the insidious nature of gossip and the prejudices and bigotry of all the residents at this health resort. It's clear she is having fun ridiculing the small-mindedness of hypocrites but there is something sinister about the way most of the characters are so mean spirited in their hatred for one another.  The atmosphere is one of brooding menace and there is evil at work here amid all the satire. At the Presteignton Hydro the clacking of knitting needles is like the clanging of a death knell.

While Inspector Palk and Mr. Winkley, the mysterious "free lancer" who casually inveigles his way into the murder investigation, are trying to make sense of the murder the killer manages to strike two more times. And each time the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle.

Not much is known about the writer. Olive Shimwell, who wrote under the pseudonym Harriet Rutland, is rather a mystery herself. I attempted to try the magic of internet searching and remarkably discovered that she at one time lived in a house in Ireland that was on the very grounds of a popular Victorian and Edwardian era hydropathic resort (see above illustration of the grounds). It was called St. Ann's and was shut down in the late 1920s. I'm tempted to spend a couple of weeks sending out emails to the locals in Blarney to see if perhaps anyone remembers if the house known as Hillside on St Ann's Hill was part of the hydropathic estate. It seems more than likely. And it really is too much to believe that it is pure coincidence that her first mystery novel is also set at such a health spa.

Sorry to report that this book is yet another one of those ridiculous rarities in the mystery world as the lack of a dust cover on this post will probably signify. After five years of hunting for a copy I finally found one and paid close to $60 for it. There isn't a single copy for sale today.  According to Worldcat.org there are only seven copies in university libraries that subscribe to that library database and about six in British, Scottish and Australian libraries. You may want to try your own local library.

I've reviewed her second novel The Poison Fly Murder, about devilry amongst fly fishing vacationers in Wales, previously on my blog.  It was published under the much better title Bleeding Hooks in the UK. I enjoyed that one as well. Soon her third and last book, Blue Murder, will be reviewed here as well.  Of the three Blue Murder is the most easily found in the US since it was reprinted by the estimable Detective Book Club and it can be found in a three-in-one volume along with The Yellow Violet by Frances Crane and The Gift Horse by Frank Gruber. Should you ever be lucky to come across any of Rutland's mysteries I suggest you grab it.  They're as odd as they come and exceptional mysteries to boot.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O1 "TBR Pile first lines"


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charity Ends at Home - Colin Watson

Once again two stories unfold at once in Charity Ends at Home (1968), Colin Watson's fifth satiric exploration of life in the less than idyllic village of Flaxborough. Mortimer Hive is a private detective working on a routine divorce case yet as an apparent former Foreign Office worker he acts if he is on a spy mission. When reporting to his client he resorts to absurd code names and narrates his surveillance of the philandering couple in a grandiloquent jargon.

While Hive is alternately flirting with the local barmaid and making his telephone reports Inspector Purbright and the Flaxborough police are investigating the peculiar drowning death of Henrietta Palgrove who was found upended in her ersatz wishing well used as a home for her pet goldfish. Mrs. Palgrove was noted in Flaxborough for her avid volunteerism and her ongoing letter writing campaign to her favorite charities. Pet charities, one might say. Quite literally. Mrs. Palgrove was devoted to rescuing animals, most especially dogs. She had recently fired off an insinuating letter to the secretary of the Flaxborough and Eastern Counties Charity Alliance (FECCA) threatening her with exposure of mismanagement of funds from the Rover Holme charity. And who is that secretary? None other than the irrepressible Lucilla Teatime.

The two plotlines converge when Purbright's team begins questioning Leonard, Mrs. Palgrove's husband. It soon becomes apparent that Leonard is not only considered the prime suspect in his wife's death but is also somehow involved in the case Mortimer Hive is working on. But is Leonard Hive's client or his target?  A series of anonymous letters proven to have come from Mrs. Palgrove's typewriter also add a bit of mystery to the case. It appears she was in fear for her life and the content implies a murder conspiracy. Miss Teatime proves to be quite a linguistic sleuth using her knowledge of charity publicity to make sense of the ambiguous letter solving one mystery that Purbright failed to see through.

 The ending may a bit too similar to Watson's previous book (Lonelyheart 4122) with another scene in which the killer tries to silence someone who knows too much. Still, Charity Ends at Home is as lively and engaging as all of Colin Watson's crime novels. This time Watson unsheathes his satirist's rapier wit and targets the indifferent authority of schoolmasters, the bluster of self-important civil servants, the paradoxical selfishness of charitable work and the zealotry of its devoted volunteers.

Mortimer drives the story with Miss Teatime riding shotgun this time unlike her starring role in Lonelyheart 4122. Despite his pompous speech, his chauvinistic view of women and his undeserved vanity Mortimer Hive is a thoroughly affable character. In the dialogue sequences with Miss Teatime we get a hint of not only a close friendship but some shady business in their past. It's clear that Hive and Miss Teatime are miscreants of one sort or another but Watson isn't letting us know exactly what they got up to in their checkered past. It's one reason that you'll want to keep reading more books in the series. I'm going to be a bit let down when I get to the end. There are only nine left for me to read out of the total of twelve books.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space E6 - "Borrowed from a library"

Friday, March 20, 2015

FFB: Lonelyheart 4122 - Colin Watson

Two plot lines unfold simultaneously in Lonelyheart 4122 (1967), a combination detective novel and sophisticated con artist caper involving a couple of missing women and the dating service they both joined. Inspector Purbright, Sgt Sid Love and the rest of Colin Watson's Flaxborough police are on hand to solve the disappearance and possible murders of the two middle-aged women. But it is Lucilla Teatime who steals the show in the second story that deals with her burgeoning romance with a retired Navy officer. It seems more than likely that Member 4122 of the Handclasp House dating service was responsible for the disappearances. Is Lucy doing some investigating of her own? She certainly seems to have an ulterior motive in seeking out a specific type of man when she too joins Handclasp House.

After reading a series of mediocre detective novels, crime novels that really weren't crime novels for the past three weeks I've finally hit my stride this month with a group of very entertaining books that take basic formulas of the private eye novel (I Found Him Dead), the police procedural (The Late Mrs D), and now the predatory fortune hunter plot and turned them inside out and made them altogether fresh and exciting. Watson's style is a blend of graceful wit, intricate plotting, and all out farce. In Lucilla Teatime he has created one of the most sophisticated badass biddies I've encountered in the genre. She continually surprises the reader with her own devious plans and her impressive knowledge encompassing everything from amateur botany to the mechanics of French sports cars. There are some acutely realized comic scenes that might have been lifted from Fawlty Towers like her surreptitious unearthing of a bunch of primroses just prior to her face to face meeting with Commander Jack Trelawney (Ret.) or her attempt to hire a sporty Renault from a car rental agency.

I so enjoyed this book I took not a single note about the plot. Usually I have several pages worth as well as paragraph citations, but there was too much to take in all at once with this book. This time I came out with one Post-It note with two page citations for the scenes I mentioned above. It's best to know as little as possible about this story in order to fully enjoy it. I just went along for the ride enjoying each hair rising turn and sudden jolt along the way. Watson has a talent for making even the simplest of exchanges laugh out loud funny and he does it all with an elegant prose and witty finesse. Most of the fun comes from trying to figure out if Miss Teatime is a rogue like Trelawney or a a true heroine performing the most underhanded form of amateur sleuthing. It's never really clear until the final chapter. And what an ending!

While Purbright and his crew are the primary series characters in Watson's comic crime novels about the bizarre criminal activity that plagues Flaxborough Miss Teatime was such a hit in Lonelyheart 4122 Watson made her a recurring character in later books.  I'm eager to read more of his novels and see what mischief she gets up to in future adventures. This is one of the better examples of a comic crime novel that is consistently funny yet never succumbs to raucous slapstick nonsense. Amid the wit and humor Watson still maintains a good deal of suspense in the deadly serious parts involving an insidious plot. This has been one of my favorite books I've read so far this year.  Go find a copy now!

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Reading Challenge updates:  Silver Age card, space I2 - "Number in the book's title"
Book published in 1967 for Rich Westwood's "Year of the Month" reading challenge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Found Him Dead - Gale Gallagher

Radio actress Dawn Ferris wants to hire Gale Gallagher to find out if a recently kidnapped girl is the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1933, fourteen years prior to the action of I Found Him Dead (1947). Dawn's ex-husband, however, seems to be blackmailing her now that her successful career on radio has established her reputation and made her a household name.  Prior to radio she and Eddie Wells were a dancing act on the a vaudeville circuit.  Eddie has a shady past and a long trail of aliases and debts he has run away from. Gale is used to Eddie's type, her business is not really private investigation but skip tracing. She is unwilling to accept the case that might be connected to the high profile kidnapping and therefore an obvious police matter. Dawn then reaches into her purse and plunks down two crisp one thousand dollar bills. Gale suddenly has an offer she can't refuse.

Gale heads off to Eddie's apartment first hoping that she can find proof that he engineered the kidnapping and hand the case over to the police. But she finds someone got to Eddie Wells first and put a bullet in his forehead.  As careful as she tried to be she was spotted by three people entering the apartment and now she tries to leave unseen as fast as possible.

Over the course of the novel we learn quite a bit about Gale's childhood and her father who was a policeman. We are told that her mother died when she was a baby and that her father raised Gale as a single father. He wanted a son but Gale turned out to be his only child. She often resented being treated as a boy and being groomed to follow in her father's footsteps. Though she came very close she ultimately decided not to enter the Police Academy. Now in her odd line of work she continues to draw on everything her father taught her. Having a cop for a father comes in very handy as well as her father's best friend, also a policeman, happens to be her best contact with the law. 

The case will lead her to the home of the wealthy Alexanders, parents of the kidnapped girl, as well as to a disreputable physician named Dr. Alois Wurber whose clinic may be a front for an illegal adoption outfit. Rounding out the cast are Montgomery Baxter, the Alexander's unctuous family lawyer, given to bursts of melodrama that seem like a cover for something very shady and John Bartley Crane, a children's portrait artist whose charm and good looks create an unexpected distraction to Gale's work.  Throw in another gruesome murder in a very seedy location coupled with an Ellery Queen-like dying message and you have the makings for a nifty noirish private eye novel with a very intriguing background.

The mysterious author/detective as
she appears on the rear dust jacket
"Gale Gallagher" was the pseudonym of Will Oursler (son of mystery writer, journalist and novelist Fulton Oursler) and Margaret Scott. They created Gale Gallagher who ostensibly writes her own adventures in response to the flurry of Philip Marlowe knock-off books that were appearing in the 1940s.  I Found Him Dead was successful enough to spawn a sequel Chord in Crimson (1949), but after that Gale Gallagher disappeared from the world of female private eyes.

Her place in crime fiction history is overshadowed by later more well known women private detectives. Though several female private detective characters appeared in pulp magazines throughout the 1930s, Gale Gallagher was most definitely one of the earliest to be closely modeled on a typical tough guy private eye.  I Found Him Dead has a cool urban feel to the story.  Gale is as steely and calculated as her male counterparts. Quick witted and sharp tongued she's just as quick with her pistol all the while keeping a keen eye on her whiskey bottle.  I hesitate to call this hardboiled but it sure comes the closest of any of the female eyes I've read from this early period. This is a debut worth discovering both as a pioneer work in the subgenre of fictional women private investigators and as damn good mystery novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space N5 - "Author uses a pseudonym"

Friday, March 13, 2015

FFB: The Late Mrs. D - Hillary Waugh

Let's get a few things out the of the way first. 1. Hillary is not a woman. 2. He is not related to that other androgynously named author who wrote Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, The Loved One, etc. He was an American crime fiction writer, winner of the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America and a former president of the same group. None of his books are in print and that's a crime. He's best known for his engaging, well plotted police procedurals like The Late Mrs D (1962). But much to my surprise it also turned out to be a top notch courtroom mystery. It was an excellent starting point to discover this underappreciated and nearly forgotten writer.

I picked the book for it's unusual title and the fact that it got a fairly good write up by Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime. I knew only the basic plot taken from this brief blurb inside the Crime Club edition I found: "An anonymous note and $50,000 policy on her life suggested that Celia Donaldson had not died of an abscessed liver, as the medical report indicated. This became a case for Chief Fred C Fellows when the coffin of The Late Mrs. D was exhumed and opened -- and her body wasn't in it." How can you resist that tantalizing hint at a John Dickson Carr style impossible crime? Well, turns out that blurb is a bit misleading. There was a body in the coffin; it just wasn't Celia's. But there's so much more to this well constructed, surprise filled, highly original spin on the well known "suspected wife killer" plot.

From the moment the First Selectmen takes an anonymous letter to Chief Fellows to the legal wizardry displayed in the courtroom climax The Late Mrs. D is one of those rare crime novels that continues to impress and dazzle the reader with unusual characters, unexpected plot developments, and some ingeniously planted clues. On the surface it seems like just another police procedural set in a suburban Connecticut. As the story progresses Waugh reveals some insightful observations about non-urban life in the 1960s. Fellows and his officers work in a small town police station where keeping the peace is largely confined to speeding motorists and teenage vandals. The cops engage in cribbage competitions during the work day to pass the time in the largely crime-free town of Stockford. Then what seems to be a natural death is tainted by murderous suspicions with the arrival of the anonymous letter. And the investigation begins.

The story incorporates the usual ingredients of a police procedural like the bureaucracy involved in running the department and the politics of dealing with a D.A. more interested in his re-election than prosecuting. We get not one but two autopsies, and two inquests due to a bizarre switching of bodies. And the added bonus of a courtroom sequence that rivals anything Erle Stanley Gardner wrote. I suspect Waugh might have been heavily influenced by that famous TV series when he wrote this because the finale had me gasping and laughing in amazement. It seemed as if I suddenly tuned into an episode of Perry Mason with the melodramatic accusations, courtroom trickery and one of the most outrageous courtroom confessions in print.

The characters are insightfully realized portraits of small town Connecticut. They certainly ring true to me as I grew up in a Connecticut town very much like Stockford (we even had a First Selectmen instead of a mayor). The charming Dr. Donaldson who has only female patients can do no wrong. He reminds me of an American version of Dr. Dysert in Joan Fleming's The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert reviewed here last month. There is his mousy maid Kathleen Dunkirk whose closely guarded secret will eventually explode the case; Kathleen's smarmy philandering salesman husband; Miss Barnes, a prim and proper nurse as equally devoted to Dr. Donaldson as she is to her profession. Then there is David Johns, Celia's brother. He and his parents opposed Celia's marriage to the doctor. He has little good to say about the doctor accusing him of being both an abortionist and a wife killer. Donaldson has been married three times in five years, each of his wives dying shortly after he married them.

Though Fellows doesn't care for the acrimonious tone David Johns uses in making his case it's hard for him to ignore what seems obvious. When the evidence is sorted out the police, D.A. and coroner relent and end up agreeing with Johns. Donaldson is arrested and put on trial. His wily defense attorney has a few tricks up his sleeve and it seems as if the doctor may be acquitted. Chief Fellows is troubled, however, by some inconsistencies in the case. One simple sentence uttered on the witness stand gives him the final piece of evidence he needs to unmask the real murderer of Celia Donaldson. And when it comes there is quite a fireworks display.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I6 - "Book with woman in title"

Thursday, March 12, 2015

COOL FLICKS: The Two Faces of January (2014)

I'll never pass on a Patricia Highsmith movie. This is one that I was completely unfamiliar with. I have read quite a few of her books, and reviewed one on this blog, but not only have I not read The Two Faces of January I hadn't any idea of the basic plot. Nor did I want to know before I saw the movie. From the opening scenes in which Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst are touring Greek ruins in their elegant attire to the final violent moments I was riveted. It may be one of the few sun-drenched noir movies in existence. Sun and heat and Greek ruins have never been more sinister on film.

I'm not sure I want to discuss the story at all but I urge any Highsmith fan, whether familiar with the novel or not, to see this movie. Viggo Mortenson and Oscar Isaac are fascinating to watch. Kirsten Dunst also does some interesting work in shading her character but the screen is dominated by the presence of the two men as one might expect in a Highsmith story. All of them are crooks of one sort or another. Each of the three leads is corrupt and a master manipulator. Isaac is Rydal a con man of a tour guide exploiting tourists' ignorance of the Greek language and the Greek drachma to his own ends; Mortenson plays Chester the shifty investment banker indulging himself in a life of excess; and Dunst is his wife Colette who hides her fear and hidden desires beneath a veneer of American charm and plastic smiles.

Highsmith's fascination with male bonding, friendship and fraternity is augmented in this story by a very strange surrogate father fixation in the attraction Rydal has for Chester. The catch is Rydal hated his real father who we learn has recently died at the opening of the movie. Yet he cannot help being drawn to Chester who uncannily resembles his dead father. Their initial meeting is all about stares and penetrating gazes and the father/son motif inexorably plays out in a dangerous and ultimately heartbreaking manner.

To me the most intriguing aspect of the film are the looks exchanged between characters and their silences. Often what isn't said is more important than what is and carries more weight. So much is conveyed only through glances or stares. It's an interesting choice not often used these days in movies that seem to be talkative monologue marathons. Not to disparage the intelligent dialogue devised by director/screenwriter Amini who also wrote the excellent screen adaptation of James Sallis' novel Drive. He uses dialogue with economy but is more interested in visuals to tell his story. This is a smart movie about smart and wily characters.

By the time the movie was about halfway done I suddenly had to know if it was being faithful to Highsmith's novel. So I went searching online for a book review or a plot summary and found that it was very much true to her novel with only a few minor tweaks. Having watched this cat and mouse game played out in the blazing Greek sun with more than a few references to it rich mythological heritage not the least of which is the eerie reverse Oedipal psyche I am now eager to read the book. I'm curious if Highsmith focusses more on young Rydal and his twisted family life and also if she delved into mythology as much as Amini did.

Friday, March 6, 2015

FFB: The Corpse on the White House Lawn - "Diplomat"

"Call in the others and we'll see if we can't figure out some way to pin this [murder] on some outsider -- preferably a Democrat"
--Dennis Tyler in The Corpse on the White House Lawn

Dennis Tyler, head of the Current Political Intelligence (CPI) branch of the State Department, is not a fan of exercise. Especially at 7 AM. When he is told to meet a couple of journalists, the White House Press Secretary and an old army pal on the White House lawn for a publicity stunt involving tossing a medicine ball around so early in the morning you can imagine he's not exactly thrilled. But he goes. He's a diplomat after all. He knows how this kind of publicity work in Washington DC. But the exercise doesn't last long. The ball goes astray several times and when he goes searching for it among the dwarf rhododendrons he literally stumbles upon a corpse in a tuxedo. And he's shocked to recognize the face as Ramon Sanchez, a Mexican diplomat and informer for the State Department. Sanchez has been strangled, his silk scarf still wrapped around his neck. Quickly, Tyler enlists the aid of his exercise gang to cover up the crime by moving the body as far away from the White House as possible. They dump Sanchez in the Potomac and hope that he'll remain there for a couple of days giving Tyler time to concoct a story that will spare the President and his staff the taint of a scandal.

Pretty far-fetched, isn't it? But no different from the kind of nighttime drama we are being fed these days on TV shows like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. The difference is this book was written prior to the outbreak of World War Two and is fairly influenced by pulp magazines plot mechanics.

Tyler turns detective and eventually learns of some stolen plans for a unique catapult design that can launch and retrieve airplanes at sea. Essentially, the invention renders an aircraft carrier obsolete. If the plans get in the hands of the enemy it might just wreak havoc with the US naval shipbuilding industry, possibly end it altogether.

Or so the author would have us believe.

The Corpse on the White House Lawn (1932) is the fourth of six novels featuring series character Dennis Tyler. It's an odd blend of detective novel, political satire and espionage. It also suffers from a schizoid identity in the writing. "Diplomat", better known as John Franklin Carter, has absolutely no skill in writing dialogue which leans towards histrionic exclamations, pun laden wisecracks and is generally unrealistic on every level. When his focus is on exposing the hypocrisy of politicians however, Carter has a clever way of turning a phrase. The novel works best when Carter is eviscerating the world he knew so well as a member of the State Department under both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Here's one particularly trenchant passage:

Diplomacy, like Jehovah, works in devious ways its wonders to perform, and [Tyler's wife] had seen one treaty put over merely because the wife of a foreign delegate was regularly taken to the movies by a young foreign service officer, and another treaty completely wrecked because the American delegate had forgotten to lock his bedroom door. Wine, women, and red tape were still the three graces, or greases, which lubricate the government's work.

His characters and their actions seem to have been pulled from the pulp magazine writer's bag of tricks. The plot is filled with spy silliness like fountain pens that shoot tear gas and superhuman feats of daring do. There's a climactic fire in the White House, several near fatal bumps on the head, a kidnapping and some business with codes that use newspaper articles in combination with the number pi. Sometimes Carter has an original idea that seems perfect for his DC Setting. The bad guy, who happens to be an evil traitor selling information to enemy powers, has managed to co-opt the services of several cab drivers and formed a battalion of eager to serve, easily bribed,  getaway drivers who help him escape from the scenes of his spying and killing.

John Franklin Carter is a lot more interesting than the fiction he concocts. You'll find lots of information about him on the internet these days, but nothing to compare with what is discussed in Roosevelt's Secret War by Joseph Persico or an article I found in the Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence.  Carter was just as vain and rebellious as Dennis Tyler. It's hard not to separate the character he created from the author when you read his letters and diaries and know more about his personal life and political aspirations. Dennis Tyler is so obviously Carter's twisted superego realized in fictional form. Both men defy rules and regulations, act on their own authority, all in the name of saving democracy. Carter managed to manipulate FDR and have himself appointed as the head of a secret, off the books, one man intelligence operation created essentially to spy on Roosevelt's own advisers and cabinet members. Roosevelt even manged to siphon money from federally allocated funds to pay Carter so that his salary as a spy for the President wouldn't show up in the records of the State Department.  Like a member of the IMF in Mission: Impossible Roosevelt and the Secretary of State were ready "to disavow any knowledge" should Carter be caught doing something unethical or illegal.

Another post on Carter and two of his other books is in the works. Stay tuned!

The Dennis Tyler Political Detective Novels
Murder in the State Department (1930)
Murder in the Embassy (1930)
Scandal in the Chancery (1931)
The Corpse on the White House Lawn (1932)
Death in the Senate (1933)
Slow Dance in Geneva (1934)
The Brain Trust Murder (1935)

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age bingo card, space G1 - "Book with a color in the title"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Madmen Die Alone - Josiah E. Greene

There's another lunatic on the lam in the opening chapters of Madmen Die Alone (1938) and Dr. Richards doesn't want any bad publicity for his institution. Of course it's Joseph Parisi who's gone missing. Parisi is the most violent of the patients at Exeter Hospital in the frozen north of Minnesota. At the suggestion of one of his junior staff members he calls Captain Louis Prescott of the Exeter Police. Richards knows Prescott can be discreet and prevails upon him to take this up as a personal not a police matter. Perhaps he'll be able to locate Parisi within a few hours, return him safely to his room, and thus prevent scandal and embarrassment befalling the hospital. But when Prescott arrives and is given a meandering tour of the hospital they discover the corpse of Dr. Herbert Sylvester, Exeter's genius psychiatrist, and the only staff member who could reasonably handle the unpredictably violent Joseph Parisi with a minimum of outbursts. Now there's not only a lunatic at large but a possibly murderous lunatic.

Madmen Die Alone is one of the better detective novels set in a mental institution.  Never once are we given a variety of cartoon nut cases. Each patient is presented with compassion; their diagnoses don't label them. Often Prescott thinks the patients are perfectly normal and wonders why someone as friendly and lucid as Mrs. Windowmore is in the place at all. Greene seems to be using the novel as a primer in humane understanding and a less clinical approach to the treatment and care of the mentally ill. Dr. Sylvester, frequently described as a genius by his co-workers, is someone who in this day and age might be said to have an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. Sylvester is talked about as someone with great empathy, who often knows what someone wants better than the person himself knows. He treats everyone with amazing equanimity whether they were a patient, co-worker or friend. As Johnny Dennis explains to Prescott Sylvester never thought lesser of someone if they exhibited what might be seen as negative traits such as being lazy, unambitious, moody or sullen. But Sylvester was also unconventional in his treatment methods and tended to use the patients as guinea pigs in a variety of unusual psychological experiments. A rumor begins to circulate that he intentionally let Parisi free and that it backfired on him leading to his grisly death.

Prescott learns that Parisi was criminally insane and that he came from a family of con artists and thieves. His interrogation of the family reveals that they all seem a little bit off and Dr. Richards even suggests that there is a genetic tendency towards mental illness in the Parisi family. Further investigation shows that they have ties to some mob activity and Parisi's father was seeking revenge on a rival businessman and a fellow Italian immigrant. When the rival also turns up dead the same night Prescott begins to think that an elaborate vendetta was put into action with the escaped madman intended as a scapegoat.

However, the two storylines don't mesh all that well. When the plot is focused on the Exeter hospital, it's staff and patients, the book is both engaging and informative and often enlightening in Greene's ideas about how to better understand mentally ill people. When the plot travels outside of the hospital into the city and we are dealing with the Parisi family, a couple of teenage thugs and a posse of stereotyped Italian American gangsters the book devolves into the netherworld of pulp magazine cliches. Much of the plot becomes too predictable and a final twist in the revelation of Sylvester's murderer comes not as the intended surprise but as an anticlimax.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space D6- "Author has name with initial same as me"
Josiah and John both start with J.