Monday, August 31, 2015
Callendar Square (1980) is the second novel in her long series featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte. Pitt seems to be more of a supporting player in this second outing while his wife and her sister play at being amateur sleuths. Lady Emily, in fact, does most of the uncovering of shameful secrets (and there are closetfuls of them) and she rushes to Charlotte's home in order to dish the dirt with her sister. Charlotte then divulges those secrets to her husband who embarrassingly must admit that the two women have a skill at getting people to spill the beans in a way he cannot.
There is no mistaking that Perry intended this as a crime novel with plenty of mystery. In the opening pages she delivers a grisly scene straight out of the page of Edgar Allan Poe when two gardeners accidentally unearth human bones while trying to plant some trees. The police are called in and the bones are soon identified as the remains of two babies. An investigation begins into who could've done such a horrendous thing as burying the bodies of infants in a public square. But almost immediately afterwards the novel takes on the air of a satiric novel of manners. Social status and the contrast between aristocrats and their servants dominate the proceedings. The reader is constantly reminded that policeman were part of the working class and treated as servants. Pitt, however, does not behave as expected for a member of his class and is often rebuffed by both servants who are appalled that he uses the front door to call and the heads of the household who find his direct manner rude and his cultivated manner of speech as "putting on airs."
This book is very much fashioned after the mid Victorian era sensation novels. It most reminded me of the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (best known for Lady Audley's Secret) with nearly every character plotting and scheming to protect or achieve their own interests. Blackmail turns out to be a favorite pastime of many of the characters, some are exceedingly better at it than others. Detection takes a back seat, however. Perry is much more interested in the machinations of these characters to whom their social standing is of utmost importance. She takes the plot formula of the old sensation novel and gives it a strangely contemporary twist cleverly inserting some subversive thoughts and modern worldviews into the storyline. While some of her choices are unabashedly anachronistic (a male sex surrogate, for example) she somehow manages to make these concepts revolutionary 19th century beliefs, far removed from what should be shockingly amoral to anyone of this era.
There are some finely drawn moments of dramatic irony that show off Perry's talent in maintaining suspense and creating tension. The reader is privy to many events and secrets other characters are unaware of and we watch some of the best scenes play out with rigorous attention paid to how one character gains control over another. What this novel lacks in the way of fair play clueing related to Pitt's unravelling of the mystery of the babies' parentage and why they were buried it more than makes up for in a total immersion in Victorian mores, speech, fashion and history. While the ending is rushed and sloppy with a motive pulled out of thin air and an overly melodramatic confession from the villain the trip getting there is engrossing, diverting and at times unexpectedly philosophical.
Friday, August 21, 2015
No Friday's Forgotten Book for the next two weeks, gang. I'm trying to finish up three essays that are due by the end of this month. And we have multiple home projects going on that are demanding what's left of my little free time.
And so -- I'll see in you September. Take it away, boys!
And so -- I'll see in you September. Take it away, boys!
Friday, August 14, 2015
A Taste for Honey (1941) by H. F. Heard is one of the earliest and most cleverly disguised Holmes pastiches in the genre. It's an unusual for book for many reasons: Heard's densely rich somewhat self-consciously ornamental prose; the mixture of elements from the traditional detective novel, the horror novel and the mad scientist genre; but most of all the manner in which he wraps the old man detective in a mystery then drapes him in a shroud of enigma (to paraphrase Churchill's famous quote about the Iron Curtain). Though the detective calls himself Mr. Mycroft we never know if this is meant to be his first name or last name. He confesses that it is "only one of my many family names". But who else has retired to the south of England to become a beekeeper? It's all a little too convenient.
And that is all I will reveal of the plot. You really need to read the book yourself to experience the full impact of story. What Heard does with this seemingly simple idea borders on genius. The writing is lush, a bit too fanciful for its own good, but Heard succeeds in transporting the reader to a world of unimaginable horror. The battle of wits between detective and murderer recalls the long gone days where heroic acts trumped villainy, where the unveiling of breathtaking adventures was the only reason for telling a tale of mystery. This is one forgotten book that should never be forgotten. I'd add that it never will be forgotten by anyone who reads it.
Luckily, A Taste for Honey was such a huge success in its time and became something of a cult phenomenon in mystery fiction that is has been reprinted multiple times since its original publication back in 1941. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of paperback copies of this little masterpiece offered for sale in the used book market. I'm sure there must be an electronic version by now, too. Go find one and read it...or else!
Friday, August 7, 2015
I've never read any of the books until a few days ago nor had I even seen the comic strip until I went trolling the internet looking for images to help illustrate this post. But for anyone well versed in spy fiction, adventure novels and, of course, comic strip history, Modesty Blaise will never be forgotten. Truly the first successful and extremely popular female super spy (though that is a very loose term as you will soon learn) Modesty served as the template for all other super heroines of her type. There have been plenty of Modesty Blaise knock-offs in genre fiction, but none come close to capturing the best of her qualities.
She seems to me to be the female equivalent of Simon Templar since she actually began her life as a thief, engaging in capers with her lieutenant Willie Garvin and together amassing a huge fortune that allowed them to live in luxury. Only when the British Secret Service learn of her enclave known as "the Network" does she become a spy of sorts. Sir Gerald Tennant becomes her liaison with the British government and she and Garvin are called upon to help foil a slew of sadistic and ruthless international criminals in a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories, as well as the comic strip adventures.
Garvin is the gadget expert of the books and he has invented several lethal weapons like an exploding tie tack and a lipstick that releases lethal nerve gas. The scene in which he puts the infernal device hidden in his diamond tie tack is one of the most gruesome in the book. I literally gasped and groaned at what happens to the poor vain sap who is given the tie as a gift. The action scenes are more graphic than I expected. Modesty and Willie are both very adept at martial arts and hand to hand combat. Neither will use a gun unless absolutely necessary. The book is nothing more than set piece after set piece as they do battle with the numerous thugs and villains. Revenge is the motivating factor in many of these violent sequences with the villains intent on killing either Modesty or Willie or both. Our heroine and hero suffer more than their fair share of cuts, stabbings and near broken bones, but the villains get what's coming to them...and then some!