Sunday, June 28, 2015

Constable Guard Thyself! - Henry Wade

What's needed in any copy of Constable Guard Thyself! (1934) -- at least for a poor ignorant US reader like myself -- is a list of characters with a chart explaining their police rank and where they fall in the hierarchy. Perhaps a brief explanation detailing the difference between police rank and military rank. The complicated and twisty plot in this excellent detective novel didn't confuse me but the way the policemen referred to one another by job title, police rank and sometimes military title was headache inducing. Luckily, I take notes for all these blog posts and referring back to them helped straighten everyone out. This is a police procedural that is very much about job duties, job rank and the policemen's military past. Wade gets a lot of mileage out of all three elements.

The opening chapter introduces the band of policemen who make up the Brodshire Constabulary in the fictional town of Brodbury.  In the first few pages Wade links several characters to one another via their time in France during World War 1. After some rambling and reminiscing about the war from visiting General Cawdon the talk turns to Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had been sent to prison for poaching and murder.  He was one of three arrested but the only one brought to trial.  The others became soldiers but lost their lives during the war.  Coincidentally, those two men were under the leadership of Captain Anthony Scole, the current Chief Constable at Brodbury police station.  These two incidents -- military service at Somme and how the three men were caught during a night time police stakeout -- are not mentioned in passing as colorful background.  They turn out to be the most important elements of the intricate plot.

You can see already that the use of Captain and General was confusing to me. Unlike US police ranks which borrow sergeant, lieutenant and captain from military ranking British police ranking has its own peculiar set up. Though Scole is a policeman and a Chief Constable he is repeatedly referred to as Captain Scole, a reference to his military rank back in the days of WW1. I was reminded of the hundreds of Chief Constables in books by the myriad writers I've read in the past who were Colonels in one army or another and still retained use of that rank. Took me to this long to realize that the military rank and the title of Chief Constable were completely different. Adding to my confusion is the fact I had always thought a Chief Constable was an appointed position in rural areas where police departments were made up almost solely of constables. Call me a slow learner. Took me to about the halfway mark to get used to the mix of military and police ranks.

But back to the engaging story of this very modern police procedural...

Hinde harasses and threatens Scole both in person and in letters. A few days later Scole is shot dead in his office at the station. Suspicion immediately falls on the ex-prisoner and the hunt is on for him.  Begrudgingly, Superintendent Venning (now the acting Chief Constable and in charge of the station) calls in Scotland Yard and they send over Inspector Poole and Detective Sergeant Gower, two of Wade's series characters. After a day or so of bristled relations between urban and rural policemen and an odd admission of somewhat unethical police procedure on Venning's part, the two agree to put aside their prejudices and work together on finding the real murderer of Capt. Scole.

Map of Brodbury police station
(frontispiece in my edition)

As evidence is uncovered and alibis are made clear all are astonished that Hinde could not have committed the murder. When letters hinting at blackmail and a scandal within the Brodbury police department are unearthed Poole is convinced that a policeman killed Scole. Furthermore, Scole was hiding a personally amassed fortune of close to forty thousand pounds and was parsimonious and secretive about his money. He kept control of his wife and daughter by giving them mean allowances leading them to believe he was not well paid. Motives for murder begin to multiple and the suspect list slowly grows.

Overall, the book has a surprisingly modern feel to it.  The way the characters talk to one another, the detail of the police relationships both professionally and personally, and the urgency with which the police behave towards finding the killer of one of their own are all hallmarks of a thoroughly contemporary crime novel. Remove the talk of World War I and this might read like any modern day bestseller.

Wade also has a talent for making each character uniquely human.  We learn that Inspector Tallard is an amateur magician who entertains at children's parties, Gower has skills of a gymnast that come in handy when asked to scale a rain pipe in a reconstruction of the crime, and Venning's attempts to be the station ballistics experts are fraught with human error. Scole's daughter likes Poole because he is down to earth and easy to talk to not all stuffy like most of the policemen she has met.  She has a few amusing scenes when after receiving her inheritance she buys a new car and takes Poole for a reckless joyride around town nearly causing several motor vehicle accidents along the way.

This is a rather hard to find title in Wade's prolific output. It's too bad it's so scarce because I found it fascinating on all levels. If the identity of the murderer is perhaps too easy to discover through a few blatant clues in the very first chapter it is no fault of Wade's. He more than makes up for that slip with an elaborately constructed story, multiple twists and sub-developments, and a cast of very human and complex characters.

One of the Detection Club's founding members Wade was highly regarded by his peers as an ingenious plotter. If Constable Guard Thyself! is considered one of his weaker efforts I am eager to read more and find out how he can improve upon his talents so obviously on display here. This one is enthusiastically recommended with all its minor faults. But good luck finding in a copy!

GOOD NEWS UPDATE! Of all of Henry Wade's book this one is the only title available for a free download from Hathi Trust Digital Library.  Click here for the book. And happy reading!

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update:  I read this for Rich Westwood's monthly Crimes of the Century meme. During June we were to read a mystery published in 1934.

Friday, June 26, 2015

FFB: Harlem Underground - Ed Lacy

Lee Hayes, the rookie patrolman protagonist of Harlem Underground (1965), has been summoned by his captain. He's sure that he is about to receive a promotion to detective for his recent nabbing of a serial rapist. Imagine his disappointment when he hears from a fellow cop that he's being transferred to an uptown station to work as a typist. Can't be true, he thinks. He did some incredible work on that rapist case.  It's all a smokescreen for his fellow beat cops. The typist job is a cover so word won't get out about his real assignment. Chosen specifically for his youthful looks and street smart sensibility the 23 year-old Lee is to go undercover as a teenager and infiltrate a gang known as the Bloody Blacks who are responsible for several violent hate crimes against whites and are rumored to be plotting something worse than muggings and stabbings.

Lee experiences first hand ugly racism in his brief job as a garment district rack boy, gets into a fistfight with his employer and is fired on the very first day.  All this is to serve to build a reputation as a bad boy to make him more attractive as a recruit for the Bloody Blacks.  He finds a cheap room in the home of the Johnsons where he befriends teenager Ace, a hooligan braggart who dreams of owning his own fighter jet and dropping bombs on Klansmen in the South. Lee listens to ridiculous stories that have filled Ace's easily manipulated mind all of which come from the brains behind the Bloody Blacks -- an intimidating man known only as "Purple Eye."  With the help of fellow police officer Mary Parenti, working undercover in the guise of a social worker, he is to find out the identity of Purple Eye and stop the secret plan that has only been hinted at in the rambling bravado talk of gang members like Ace.

While both Lee and Mary do some impressive detective work the mystery novel aspects are thin here.  True, there is final reveal of the identity of Purple Eye but it's not all that surprising.  Nor is that Lacy's intent. The story serves only as a method to explore race relations at a time when the civil rights movement already seemed to be failing. Lacy allows for several fervent speeches about race relations, some delivered with thoughtfulness and understanding like the scenes between Lee and Helen Johnson. But there are more instances of the zealotry of Black Power and bigotry as nasty as the ingrained unfairness whites inflict on blacks.  This ranges from the intolerant thoughts of the West Indian grocery store owner to the unbridled hatred for whites exhibited in the inflammatory dialogue of Solmen, superintendent of the building where the Johnsons and Lee live.

Harlem Underground is a remarkably resonant book for our time. Considering what just happened in South Carolina its also a sober reminder that things never seem to change. Written only months after the Harlem race riots and with the murder of Malcom X still fresh in the minds of everyone Harlem Underground is an angry book filled with volatile emotions, didactic speeches, intolerance on multiple levels. Eerily, when the nightmarish plot of the Bloody Blacks is uncovered Lacy foresees the kind of terrorist acts that have become nearly commonplace today. Lacy intersperses the story of Lee's undercover work with journalistic passages (some actually lifted verbatim from newspaper accounts) describing the struggles and  unfair treatment of the people of Harlem.

Among these accounts are the story of a pregnant teen who doesn't know or care who the father of her baby is, a black teen sent to the store to buy a can of chili but who shocks his father when he steals it, a black youth riding the subway who pretends to help a fearful white man fix his radio but takes it and runs, and Lee's rejection by a prospective employer who is shocked when a black man turns up at the interview.  Lacy presents all these stories in a straightforward style telling each vignette in a first person narrative. So true and natural are these voices they come across as though he transcribed their words from an interview tape. Though fictional they are as true as a story on the nightly news. One can't help but join in their anger and buy into all the rationalizations each character gives for their behavior.

Lee Hayes does get his promotion.  He appeared one more time, this time as a police detective partnered with Jewish cop Al Kahn, in Lacy's final polemical Harlem novel aptly titled In Black & Whitey (1967).  The only paperback edition of this book touts "Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture!" but I'm not sure it was ever made. Lacy's entry at doesn't list any movie or TV episode resembling the novel. Movie mavens can feel free to enlighten me in the comment section if I'm wrong.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R3 -  "Book with place in title"  This is the corresponding missing category that should've been on the Silver Age Bingo card in the last column.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Polly Put the Kettle On - Joan Fleming

Could this be the only nursery rhyme that Agatha Christie left untouched when she plundered the pages of Mother Goose for inspiration in plots and quaintly ironic titles?  I think it's an unfortunate tongue in cheek choice on Joan Fleming's part. Although there is a character named Polly in Polly Put the Kettle On (1952) and there is a tell-tale kettle left boiling on a stove as a clue to murderous intent the tone of the book does not lend itself to ironic or cutesy titles. This may be why it's one of Fleming's least known books.  It never received a reprint in either her home country or overseas here in the US where nearly all her books were reprinted in easily obtainable paperback editions. Such a shame because not only is it her only locked room detective novel that I have so far encountered, but it also seems to be her homage to James M. Cain.

Derek St. George Sudley has been released from prison in the opening pages of the novel. He intends to stay away from the city where he got himself into trouble and eventually arrested for robbery with violence.  Now having served three years of a five year sentence he's out to make a better life as a laborer. After a few words of advice he learns that Hill Farm may be looking for a new gardener and having spent much of his time tending to the ground of the prison gardens George (as he prefers to call himself) heads to the farm to meet with Eli Edge, his soon-to-be employer.

A gardener is not really what Edge needs. Instead, he offers George a chance to be a farmhand and help out with the cows in the dilapidated barn. Not exactly thrilled with this substitute job George is about to turn him down but when he catches a glimpse of Edge's extremely attractive and much younger wife, Polly, the former prisoner quickly accepts. Hard work might be easier on the hands with such a sight who's so easy on the eyes. And here we enter the territory of Cain with the ex-con trying to make the moves on the brutish husband's wife and the wife doing her best to ignore the hired hand's obvious advances. She's one of those ladies who protests too much and George knows how she really feels. You can bet that no good will come of their trysts in the barn.

But George is not your typical ex-con. He's an exceptionally literate former burglar.  He freely quotes Francis Bacon, Thomas Mallory and John Keats.  In his first person narration he sprinkles literary allusions with the ease of an Oxford don. There's even an ironic reference to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss which will make sense to anyone familiar with that novel that features quite a bit of repressed sex and sudden bursts of passion in the Yorkshire countryside. With the entrance of Madge Clay, a neighbor who breeds Keeshonds on her nearby farm, we have the addition of another woman interested the virile George.  Madge with her vulgar humor, her lust for life and liquor, and a very forward pursuit of George is an obvious foil for the prim and obedient Polly. But of course it is always the forbidden often married woman that these men would rather pursue and never the single very available and readily willing woman. Madge warns George to stay away from Polly, that Eli is not the dumb farmer George may think he is. Trouble is a brewin', my friends. And it ain't tea Polly will be making when she puts her kettle on.

Unlike Cain, however, Fleming with her inimitable flair for breaking free of crime fiction expectations includes some clever misdirection. George, who is at first presented as nothing more than a Lothario, becomes rather quickly a figure of sympathy. When Eli Edge is removed from the story in a mysterious accidental death by poison gas, and is found in a locked room from which his pet dog Argo seems to have also mysteriously vanished, suspicion inevitably falls on Polly who seems to be the only person who could have tampered with a coal gas burner in the room where her husband died.

The plot is complicated by a series of incidents in which George quite innocently was trying to help improve the farm with plumbing upgrades and by teaching both Eli and Polly to drive the new Land Rover he convinced Eli to purchase. The farmer been very tight with his money for years until George cajoled him into spending money on the improvements and the vehicle.  No reason to live like 19th century country bumpkins with an outhouse and walking miles to fetch water for the cows when they can have modern plumbing.  Fleming, of course, has a few tricks up her sleeve.  Eli proves to be a poor driving student and a variety of accidents befall him and Polly while he is at the wheel and occur in such a way to implicate George as well.  Things do not look good for George when the police learn those accidents occurred only a few days prior to Eli's death. Discovery of a couple of dead cats near the sofa where Eli's body is found also indicate possible foul play.

Rare photo of Joan Fleming (no credit given)
George finds himself a victim of circumstance constantly at odds with the police, Madge and Eyvind, the ex-German POW (with a Norwegian or Icelandic name?) who at one time worked at Hill Farm and returns quite unexpectedly in an attempt to win back his job. George not only tries to prevent everyone from discovering his secret of being a former prisoner but tries to shift all blame to Polly who he no longer trusts. As in Double Indemnity when Walter Huff begins to suspect Phyllis of using him George turns on his paramour. He becomes an amateur sleuth doing his best to solve the mysteries of how the dog got out of the locked room and how Eli was poisoned. But it is Eyvind who will prove to be George's greatest adversary not Inspector Hope, the police inspector who has trained his eye on George as the prime suspect.

Luckily, in this renaissance of vintage crime novel reprinting we are experiencing of late Polly Put the Kettle On has been reissued from Orion Books in a new digital version. But it is only allowed for sale in the UK. Used copies of the briefly reissued paperback (or the original hardcover) might also be available to an assiduous book hunter no matter where you live. With a few clicks of your keyboard you'll soon have your hands on this very fine crime novel that blends both traditional detective novel with the impossible crime novel as well as a noirish thriller that would impress Cain and Highsmith.

*  *  *

Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O6 - "Woman in the title"  Et voila!  My first Bingo in the O column. I've now officially completed the challenge. But I persevere in my attempt to fill the card!

Friday, June 19, 2015

FFB: Scarecrow - Eaton K. Goldthwaite

Scarecrow (1945) is a rather fine example of a post WW2 rural detective novel. Two plots unfold simultaneously in Eaton Goldthwaite's densely plotted noirish thriller. On the one hand there is the mystery of the identity of a Navy vet thought to be dead who resurfaces in the coastal Connecticut town. He approaches a plastic surgeon to be "remade", plans to reunite with his wife and take his place as the heir to the Kendall textile mill. The other thread concerns Henry Heath, plant manager of Kendall's mill, who is plotting to take control of the company's stock shares by using to his advantage some unorthodox rules in the company's charter related to preferred and common stock. Playboy Ford Sheppard discovers the scheme and blackmails Heath into making him Chairman of the Board if Heath should be successful in ousting Kendall and his family.

Then two murders occur within hours of one another -- one victim is Ford, the other is an artists' model and Heath's mistress. Could the two deaths be related to the stock scheme? Or is it purely coincidence the two were killed on the same night? And how does the strange disfigured man known as "the scarecrow" figure into the story? Is he really the son of old man Kendall? Or an impostor eager to get his hands on the Kendall's money?

The story is all about self-interest. Money and sex as in most noir thrillers are the motivations. Lt. Joe Dickerson enters the picture as a consultant to the Connecticut State Police and is sickened by the venal people he encounters. Tessie Morgan, who is manipulating most of the men characters, is typical of the murder victims in this subgenre. A go-getter who plies her sexual allure in order to get what she wants but often fails miserably. Dickerson must uncover the multiple relationships both business and sexual she has developed in order to ferret out the reason for her savage murder. While Goldthwaite does rely too heavily on stereotypes of melodramatic crime fiction he also manages nicely with the detective novel aspects of the book.

Dickerson has a knack for reconstructing the crime based on physical and circumstantial evidence. There are two impressive bits of business -- one lengthy scene in which Dickerson and his police colleagues reenact the possible ways Ford Sheppard was shot. By opening and closing a car door in variation the policemen discover the killer must be left handed. The other sequence finds Dickerson, by using only the dimensions of some holes found in the ground near the scene of Tessie's stabbing murder, fabricating a model of the murder weapon. It serves as the major clue in locating the actual missing murder weapon which is cleverly hidden in Tessie's apartment.

The motley supporting cast are not without some finely drawn and original spins on the usual stock characters. There is the bank teller Harold Finch, a Casper Milquetoast type who turns out to be less than honest. Finch is more than eager to rat on those who wronged him when Dickerson starts to threaten him with arrest for some shady dealings with the contents of Ford Sheppard's security box. Two of the characters helping out Dickerson with the investigation have a knack for criminology. Dr. Swayle, the coroner, dabbles in ballistics in addition to performing autopsies and his knowledge of guns and bullets help solve a few puzzling aspects of one murder while Julian Martens enjoys studying the psychological motivations of criminals and helps shed light on how the two murders might be linked.

Eventually the two plot lines mentioned above converge culminating in a harrowing chase, a shootout on a train trestle bridge and a revelation of the least likely suspect as murderer. This was a refreshing surprise of a detective novel that mixes both the hard edged characters usually found in noir crime fiction with the intriguing and imaginative crime solving of the "Transcendent Detective" of the Golden Age. Goldthwaite veered away from traditional detective fiction favoring hardboiled crime stories in his later career. Scarecrow, only his third mystery novel, is well worth tracking down for what appears to be the transition novel in Eaton Goldthwaite's detour from pure detective novel to noir thriller.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space E3 - "Book published same year as birth year of loved one." My sister was born in 1945.

Friday, June 12, 2015

FFB: A Dog's Ransom - Patricia Highsmith

In the hands of other writers the simple story in A Dog’s Ransom (1972) might have been ripe material for low comedy. An anti-social misfit sends anonymous letters to randomly selected people he dislikes for various reasons eventually leading to a dognapping scheme and a demand for $1000. The dog’s owners don’t know the dognapper, have never encountered him even by chance, and have never done anything to merit their dog being snatched and held for ransom, nor has the dog misbehaved in any way to deserve such an attack. You can see the potential for farce here. But this is a Patricia Highsmith novel and the first crime, legally considered a misdemeanor, is handled with her usual flair for sinister and a malicious acts. When the dog is not returned as promised Ed and Greta Reynolds fear the worst. Soon the dognapping spirals out of control into more violent acts. There isn’t any real trace of humor in this book. It’s a study in urban alienation and enmity.

In the eyes of the Manhattan police the crime of dognapping is right down there in the priority list next to jaywalking and parking violations. No one Ed approaches seems to care. Until that is rookie patrolman Clarence Duhammel gets word of his colleagues' indifference. Duhammel -- whose name is often pronounced Dummel by his fellow cops -- is no dummy at all, but there is something a little bit off about his somewhat distant, all too officious behavior. He is primarily interested in helping Ed retrieve his poodle because no one else wants to. And unusual crime like the theft of a dog and a demand for ransom money is a lot more exciting than his uninspired street beat.

Clarence finds his routine life of arresting lowlife junkies and chasing after juvenile delinquent teens pilfering goodies from the local bodegas to be tiresome. Here is a chance to use his college education in police work. Clarence is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied psychology and sociology and he decides to put to use all he learned in textbooks to finding the dognapper. Clarence is on a quest. He is the do-gooder cop defiant of the buddy tactics and cronyism inherent in the NYPD. Using only instinct combined with college boy psychology and some incredible luck he actually finds the dognapper in two days. But the sociopathic Kenneth Rowajinski cleverly manages to implicate Clarence in the dognapping plot. Now the rookie cop must clear his name and do right by his promise to Ed and Greta.

A Dog’s Ransom shows Highsmith at her most misanthropic. It’s more of an indictment against the way Americans live in cities than it is a crime novel. Highsmith’s New York is a sinister city where hostility and self-interest are guiding principles, where contempt for one’s neighbors displaces any warmhearted feelings. Wariness and suspicion override trust and giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. Take the example of Mrs. Williams, an intolerant landlady. When the cops start asking questions about Rowajinski Mrs Williams follows up with her own interrogation and a warning. She’ll have no one living in her home who draws the attention of the police. "I'm not having any creeps in my house," she tells him, "...because I don't have to have them." No matter that Rowajinski pays his rent on time and is basically invisible. The police visit automatically makes him an undesirable and she gives him an ultimatum. If they show up again, she promises he will be evicted on the spot.

Clarence -- too much of an individual, too focused on doing good and too much of an intellectual -- is ironically a failure as a policeman. His biggest fault is not fitting in, not being a team player. He’s targeted by other patrolman as not being one of the guys, not honoring the tacit policeman’s code of watching out for each other first. And oddly Clarence's sympathy for the Reynolds plight gives way to a weird devotion to the Reynolds, a misplaced friendship that at first is met with feigned politeness but becomes increasingly disturbing to the couple, especially Ed. This relationship is contrasted with Clarence's cold and distant attitude with his mother and father. Ed and Greta become almost surrogate parents to him while his blood relatives continue to be puzzled by Clarence's aloofness, his refusal to introduce them to his girlfriend Marylyn and his reluctance to visit them though it's only a short ride on the subway to Queens.

There aren’t many nice or even likable people in this book. Everyone has it in for someone. And most of the antipathy is unfounded. To use the juvenile defense of pre-teens they dislike one another "just because". While there are outright villains like the vile Rojanowski, who finds his only joy in unsettling complete strangers with his creepy behavior and violent acts, the rest of the cast of characters are really no better. A runner-up for the most detestable character of the lot is Manzoni, a bigoted hostile patrolman who is determined to prove Clarence was in on the dognapping. He cruelly harasses Clarence, his parents, and his girlfriend Marylyn. He relentlessly follows Marylyn, interrogating her and insinuating that she is a prostitute being kept in a lust pad. He impersonates a detective in the process when he is no more than a beat cop just like Clarence.

"Why such malice?" Clarence keeps wondering. But when events lead Clarence to committing a crime himself he finds himself trapped and Manzoni's pursuit intensifies with determined hostility and a thirst for retribution.  Clarence turns to the only people he thinks will believe him and help him -- the Reynolds and Marylyn -- making them all complicit in his criminality.

The book is drenched in hatred in all its forms. Racial epithets are thrown around casually to further isolate the characters from one another. Rojanowksi is called the Pole or the Pollack, Manzoni is referred to as the wop. Marylyn, a symbol for the 70s counterculture type mistrustful of any authority figure, after being followed, questioned and insulted by Manzoni begins to hate all police including Clarence.  She calls them fuzz, pigs and worse. A dognapping which should have affected only two people infects the entire cast like a virulent disease and unleashes the worst in their personalities. And though Highsmith lulls the reader into thinking all will turn out well she still manages to pull off a few unexpected sucker punches in the final pages.

It's a fascinating book in the way that the sideshow of circuses long gone have been fascinating. We stare in disbelief, sometimes laugh self-consciously, or shake our heads in pity, but never truly see the manifestations of disfigurement and genetics gone haywire as a metaphor for the ugliness that lies deep within us all. In A Dog's Ransom Highsmith shows that all of us have the capacity to be creeps and freaks. Why is it that we decide to hate someone for no good reason? Why is that sometimes truly awful things happen to decent good people? She has no real explanations for this true mysteries of real life. She only holds up a mirror to ourselves and allows us to see the sudden bursts of unwarranted violence, the vulgar words, the betrayals and deceit and all sorts of freakishness that lie deep within most of us.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I3 - "Animal in the title"

Friday, June 5, 2015

FFB: Who Killed the Pie Man? - Phillips Lore

Leo Roi is a lawyer and a private eye at the same time. Oh now let me correct that. He calls himself an investigative attorney which really amounts to a lawyer who likes to spend most of his time playing sleuth prior to taking up a case that might go to court. In his debut novel Who Killed the Pie Man? (1975) Roi is asked to clear the name of a Northwestern University student implicated in the double murder of a professor and female student. Dr. Wren, the professor victim, is well known in his Evanston, Illinois numismatic circle. A rare collection he at one time owned -- ancient gold coins dating back to the days of the Roman Empire -- seems to be the motive for the murders. He also is known for haunting the local bakeries and consuming pies and other pastries in large quantities leading to his nickname of "the Pie Man".

Roi first visits the home of the female student where he interviews her father, a wheelchair bound millionaire with a temptress wife half his age. The young wife later asks Roi to help her find out who has been blackmailing her and her husband. A lot of poolside chats with the temptress lounging in swimwear. Lots of 1970s girl watching and writing to match the mood.

We're in Chandler territory here with a 1970s flavor. Although "Phillips Lore" (pseudonym of novelist Terrence Lore Smith)dedicates this private eye novel to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin the entire plot seems to be a conflated rewrite of both The Big Sleep and The High Window. T. H. Koenig, the disabled millionaire, is an obvious update of General Sternwood of The Big Sleep. Joanna Koenig, the 20-something wife is a stand-in for Carmen Sternwood. Dr. Wren is Big Sleep's Geiger, the murdered bookstore owner who deals in pornography on the side. And the Roman coin collection is the stunt double for the Brasher dubloon of The High Window. It's practically a photocopy of Chandler.

The whole book reeks of 1970s hipster nonsense. Cocktails and coffee seem to be the only beverages these people drink. Alcohol is served at all times of the day and night. Roi is offered a cocktail right after breakfast in one scene. People talk to each other via answering services. Not an answering machine in sight here when they were practically household items by the mid 1970s. Most ridiculous are the numerous paragraphs devoted to clothing descriptions. Roi likes to talk about his eccentric wardrobe and his indulgent pastime of dressing up. Here's a classic example of the asides into the land of his bizarre sartorial choices:
I was no longer the racetrack tout. Now I was, in Miss Jean Brodie's phrase, of the crème da la crème; crushed velvet, midnight-blue, double-breasted tux; powder-blue, ruffle-front shirt; crushed velvet, midnight-blue, large floppy bow tie; as I said I like clothes and I spend too much money on them.
First, what's with the overuse of the hyphen? Second, what adult man in the 1970s wore a powder blue tux and thought he was fashionable? Back in my high school days (when this book was first published) the teenage boys who wore powder blue tuxes to the prom were mocked. Leo Roi also adopts the look of a 19th century dandy and a red leather jacket wearing Huggy Bear wannabe. The whole book is filled with these detailed wardrobe updates. I can only hope that Smith meant these to be tongue in cheek commentary on 1970s fashion trends. What with Leo Roi's clothes horse mentality, the 1970s brand name dropping, his taste in fine dining (beef wellington, Riesling wine - really?) he comes off as an utter poseur of ersatz 1970s sophistication. Maybe this is the point.

There are troubled college football players, a scarred and crippled Viet Nam vet, several intellectual professors demanding that justice be done, a couple of crooked cops. Oh and mobsters turn up too. What was a 1970s crime novel without at least one showing of a Mafia character or drug dealing? Yes, there's some talk of pot smoking, cocaine use and dealing, too.

To be fair Smith does have a flair for writing. When he veers away from his supposed tongue in cheek commentary the story has a more mature viewpoint; his tone is serious, the writing incisive and trenchant. Smith delves into Roi's past and we learn he is the privileged son of Andre Roi, a millionaire whose fortune is traced back to the Prohibition era and the Roi family dynasty in bootleg booze. Roi is understandably ashamed of his past. Ironically, his family history will ultimately reveal how he is connected to the missing Roman gold coins. Smith has a lot to say about wealth and privilege and how both can easily give way to greed and corruption.

Terrence Lore Smith wrote three books with Leo Roi. The third, Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980), is a much better book with an unusual locked room plot. Probably his best known book is The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1971) featuring Webster Daniels, a gentleman thief with a world view very similar to Leo Roi's. It was made into a movie starring Ryan O'Neal and led to a not so successful sequel called The Devil and Webster Daniels. Smith had an unfortunately short writing career and life. He died in a freak auto accident in Colorado in 1988. He was only 46.

Leo Roi Private Eye Novels
Who Killed the Pie Man? (1975)
The Looking Glass Murders (1980)
Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Death Takes an Editor - Nigel Morland

For one reason or another in the world of popular fiction some publishers and agents suggest prolific authors resort to using pseudonyms, especially if they are trying out new characters or writing books that veer away from their usual fare. This was a trend that dates back to the Golden Age and carried on into the 1970s.  I guess there are still a few prolific writers who have multiple identities, as it were (I can think of a few male thriller writers still active under several pen names), but it was more common decades ago. Nigel Morland was one of those prolific writers with a schizoid writing career.

Morland's Palmyra Pym police procedural mysteries were his mainstay and were published in the UK and the US by two top-line publishers.  When he chose to write outside of the series, usually under a pen name, his crime novels often tackled unusually technical and scientific concepts in a mystery novel and I guess he had to shop them around. Surefire sellers with recognizable series characters are easier to accept for a publisher while risky or controversial subject matter may not at all be attractive when it comes to selling books. It wasn't altogether clear to me why Death Takes an Editor (1949) wasn't released by his regular publisher in the UK. It seemed fairly straightforward with its newspaper setting, formulaic cast of characters, and an eccentric consulting detective with a background in abnormal psychology. Why did Morland hand over his book to the obscure and long gone publisher Aldus Publications Ltd.? At the halfway mark the book's content makes a startling turn into a lurid world and the answer to that question was made perfectly clear. In 1949 there weren't too many mystery novels that dealt with sadomasochistic sex so candidly.

At first I thought this was going to be one of Morland's strange forays into scientific detection because the police detective is Chief Inspector Jonathan Lamb. Under the pseudonym John Donavan Morland wrote a handful of complex and engaging detective novels with Johnny Lamb, a policeman with a background in chemistry who solves cases involving poisoning via an air conditioning system (Case of the Rusted Room), poisoning by iodine gas (Case of the Violet Smoke), and odd botanical toxins (Case of the Beckoning Dead). But this Lamb is of a completely different wool and he turns out to be the secondary detective.

The real sleuth in Death Takes an Editor is Professor Steven Malone, "the most brilliant medical jurist of his day." A former forensic professor at the University of Egypt Malone worked all over Europe and at the start of this novel he is employed in a "revolutionary Medico-Legal department...attached to Scotland Yard" where he acts as "part of a police organization without being subordinate to it." Malone, like his creator Nigel Morland, also happens to have an extensive knowledge of abnormal psychology and is well acquainted with some of the more sensational cases of the past as detailed in the numerous criminology textbooks he has devoured over his long career. This arcane information serves as the springboard to the solution of a series of murders all having their roots in possessive and controlling love.

The plot includes a few miracle problems like the vanishing of two men from a locked and guarded newspaper office as well as some odd red herrings like a box of poisoned chocolates and the appearance Bernard Ambrus, the mysterious "astropathologist" -- really nothing more than a glorified astrologist who claimed to treat disease. At first the case seems to focus on the puzzling personality of the murder victim Ernest Shipper. Each character presents a completely different perception of Shipper. At first a scold and office dictator disliked by all his co-workers, then a misunderstood quietly tolerant man, then a thrill-seeker slumming for sex in dive bars.

The more he thought about [Shipper] the more seemingly negative characters of the editor took on a full and amazing life. From being a minus sign in human form he was gradually emerging into the full flower of a thoroughly contradictory personality.

One of Morland's many true crime books
Malone however turns his attention on Jill Bethanny, Ernest Shippers wife who chooses not to use her husband's surname. This book is marketed salaciously on the DJ blurb as if Jill is some sort of femme fatale who weaves a spell over all the men in the story. This is not the case at all. She turns out to be a victim of the perverse sexual predilections of her husband. As Malone uncovers more dirty secrets in the Shippers' lives -- pornography in a secret drawer in Shipper's office, S&M paraphernalia hidden in the bedroom, signs that someone was lashed to a water heater -- the novel descends into a& world that Morland would like us to think is amoral and thoroughly evil.

Malone acts as Morland's voice here and it's hard to dismiss the misogyny that completely overtakes the story. Malone quotes from an ancient criminology book called The Female Criminal, gives examples of outdated Freudian psychology and tries to explain the difference between men and women who become criminals. It's all hogwash. Morland tries to shock his readers with a still misunderstood world of alternative sex practices but it just comes out embarrassing. His views (and the books he quotes from) are dated, chauvinistic and hateful. Additionally, these criminal facts color his moral worldview and for Malone (and presumably Morland) there is no room for forgiveness or redemption or a second chance when it comes to indulging in "perversity".

WARNING! ...SPOILERS A-COMIN'... I'm about to give away the biggest "shock" of the finale. Stop here if you don't want the book ruined. Not that it makes much of a difference, IMO.

Jill, we learn, was not only abused by her husband but as a result of succumbing to his will and participating in his hedonism she is doomed and cursed to a life of irredeemable amorality. She commits murder in order to free herself, but by then as far as Malone is concerned it is too late for her. She has become thoroughly corrupted. In the end he plants the idea in her head that she would be better off dead and she commits suicide. Nice, huh? There's some advanced twentieth century thinking for you!


When Death Takes an Editor sticks to police procedure and forensics it makes for an intriguing detective novel. When Morland becomes a moralizing lecturer, however, the book fails disastrously. I'll be sure to avoid any of his other books published by the more obscure houses of the past like Aldus. It's clear to me that the mainline publishers saw some of his books as disguised treatises to espouse his personal beliefs and not as a novel meant to entertain.

* * *

I read this as part of Rich Westwood's "1949 Mystery Novel Challenge" for the month of May. But I so hated this book I decided to wait to write it up until after the challenge was over. I found a much better book -- Death Knocks Three Times by Anthony Gilbert -- to replace this one for that challenge.