Wednesday, December 23, 2015

If Only In My Dreams

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

In sympathy for all of you who will be traveling and may experience weather delays I offer this upbeat holiday tune from Nick Lowe.

And this one from Greg Lake so gracefully captures the true meaning of Christmas.

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.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Ghosts 2015: Two Short Short Ghost Tales

Each year at this time Loren Eaton who writes at his blog I Saw Lightning Fall invites creative writers to challenge themselves with the micro short story called a drabble. One hundred words -- no more, no less. The only other rules are that each story must have a Christmas theme and must be in the ghost story tradition.  Some take the traditional Victorian road paved with eerie frissons and visited by wispy ghosts, others travel down the darker, bloodier pathways of contemporary horror.  I whipped up two frothy concoctions this year. One intended to make you smile, the other to chill your heart. Be sure to check out at Loren's blog where he is gathering all the links leading to other stories throughout the holiday blogosphere.

The Fire Is Slowly Dying

Christmas Eve and he was flat on his back unable to move. So damn hot. It's December! Makes no sense. He tried to focus. Three silver buttons pushed into his chest. Where were his clothes? His skin was turning golden brown in this heat. All around him that sickly aroma. Sugary, spicy.  Not cologne, more like…a bakery? Ahead of him was a door with a large window and a gigantic face looked at him. A gigantic smiling girl. An alarm, the door opened, then a bellowing voice: "Don't burn yourself! Use the oven mitt. Mmm, don't they look tasty?"

*     *     *

Figure Eight

Every year he returned to watch her skate. The pond was wild, dangerous. She found inspiration outside, surrounded by birch trees and chirping sparrows. She was free. Today she was doing what she did every Christmas Day. Tracing the numeric pattern with studied practice, etching the symbol of her future. No cracking or splintering of the ice so many years ago, no plunging into freezing water.

When she was done she vanished. Not quickly, more like a slow fade as wintry fog surrounded her and took her back. Back into infinity. The symbol she traced when turned on its side.

Friday, December 18, 2015

FFB: The Coordinator - Andrew York (a holiday rerun)

We were Christmas shopping last weekend and I saw this new holiday item being shoved onto the consumers. It's a special copper mug intended to serve a Moscow Mule. Amazing how some alcoholic beverages becomes trendy and manufacturers create ways for you to think you absolutely must join the latest bar trend by buying an item that you absolutely must use in order to drink it. Bah humbug! Anytime I see the words "Moscow Mule" I immediately think of fictional superspy Jonas Wilde and his penchant for odd cocktails. So here's a rerun from years ago (Oct 8, 2011) on one of my favorite spy novel series. Though this title has not been reissued, three other books in the series have been reprinted by Top Notch Thrillers, an imprint edited and coordinated by crime writer and all around good guy Mike Ripley. The Top Notch Thrillers are available through all the usual bookselling sites as well as direct order from Ostrara Publishing.

* * *

The second in this series featuring Jonas Wilde, an assassin in the employ of a secret British espionage unit, is just as good as the first. The book peripherally comments on the action of the first book (see my review here) but does so without spoiling the first book making it fine to read out of sequence. Wilde is assigned to eliminate Gunner Moel, a Danish swimwear designer, who in the Hitler years was an operative for the Allied powers and is now playing a pivotal role in communist espionage. As with The Eliminator this book is divided into two sections: Part one is called “The Bait” and the other is “The Trap.” Based on those structural clues it should be obvious that Wilde’s assignment will turn out to be more than he expected it to be.

Prior to his visit to Copenhagen we know that Kaiseret, one of the villains from The Eliminator, attempted to have Wilde assassinated. It failed when Jonas caught the hit man on board his boat, fought with him and delivered the usual fatal karate blow. When Wilde reports to Mocka, his superior in the covert unit, he informs his boss of the blundered assassination. Mocka claims to know nothing of that plot.

Once again York has created in Mrs. Inger Morgan-Browne one of his strong woman character portraits. She is every inch a match for Wilde in determination, job focus, and ruthless survival. Steely and cold as ice Inger doesn't even have a sense of humor something Wilde thinks is essential to staying saner in the spy world. She turns out to be the Irene Adler of the piece succeeding masterfully where all others have previously failed in overcoming the seemingly invincible Jonas Wilde. She is assigned as his partner in an elaborate escape plan once he kills Moel. But when the original assignment backfires and Wilde needs to escape sooner than planned he makes his way to the hotel and discovers that Inger’s husband has been murdered and Stefan, the chauffeur/thug in Moel’s employ who shot him, is waiting for Mrs. Morgan-Browne. Wilde surprises Stefan in the Morgan-Browne's hotel room, he fights and subdues him tying him up and waits for Inger. When she shows up she wastes no time in putting a bullet in Stefan's brain. A new plan must be improvised and Inger rises to the occasion defying Wilde’s preconceptions and taking matters into her own hands with a handy hypodermic syringe loaded with a potent narcotic cocktail. She captures Wilde, keeps him drugged, and returns to Copenhagen to bargain with the group that Wilde thought was the enemy but who she assures him are the good guys.

The second half of the book displays York's usual spy/adventure novel wizardry. Double and triple crosses, numerous fight scenes with the two women characters proving themselves to be as tough as the men, a ghoulish torture sequence involving rats, and even a cameo from a mad scientist all serve to make this fast paced and very smart book a thrilling read.

Something different about this book is the addition of Bond-like gadgetry and fiendish deathtraps. Gunnar Moel was blinded in a flying accident and he manages to navigate his way through this house via "sonic torch principle." He wears a pair of glasses outfitted with a sound transmitter that sends out a beam which reflects off of solid objects and the signal is picked up by a transmitter behind his left ear. As the beam reflects a different tone for different materials. Much of the furniture in his house is made of glass or chrome to distinguish from the plaster and wood of the walls and doorways and help him find himself around. It also makes for a scenically bizarre home.

Later, in an over-the-top pulpy climax, Wilde and Inger become human guinea pigs in an early form of cryogenic experimentation. They race against time trying to escape from an apparently foolproof glass chamber as the temperature gradually decreases from 20 degrees Celsius to -70 degrees. It's a deathtrap designed by a mad scientist who might have escaped from the pages of Doc Savage story and worthy of a James Bond movie or even the campy Batman TV series though it might be difficult to film (even these days) since both of them are completely naked at the time.

A refreshing Bijou - newly trendy in bars.
An added bonus to reading these stories is learning the names and ingredients of esoteric cocktails. Can a cocktail be  really be described as esoteric? Just ask for a Moscow Mule, a Bijou or a Frisco from your local bartender and I'm sure you'll get puzzled looks and a sarcastic comeback. Either that or an honest "What's in that?" While Jonas tends to favor Bacardi laced drinks he is known to sling back a few gin concoctions as well. A Bijou, for instance, is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, green chartreuse, orange bitters and a twist of lemon. Some enterprising marketing person should've come up with the Jonas Wilde Cocktail Handbook to help promote the series. If these books were published today you can be sure there would be something along those lines sitting right next the scantily clad women on the covers of "The Eliminator" series.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I'll Respect Your Opinion If You Don't Steal Mine

Source Look! I cited the URL where I found this photo. Not hard at all.
What a nice birthday present I discovered today. On December 15 (my birthday) a series of "reviews" on the works of Harriet Rutland appeared on and and every single one of them says the same thing. Here is what the reviewer posted:

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 whodunit 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, every single one!

Does that sound familiar to anyone? It should. It's merely a cut and paste of the opening paragraph of my review for Knock, Murderer, Knock.  Just compare them. OK, there may be a few words deleted, and some others altered here and there like all bad plagiarists will do. But that will never change the fact that I wrote those opinions. Those are my thoughts. Clare, the "reviewer" from amazon, did not write them.

It's so brazen!  Cut and pasted not only to Knock, Murderer, Knock but to the other books Rutland wrote as well. The same paragraph with commentary written specifically for one book is applied to two others with no regard for the content of each book. Just slap the review on all items created by Harriet Rutland. This is not thinking or book reviewing, this is mindless consumerism. I bet Clare never read one of these books.

Santosh asked me last night on a different post if the Grinches are spoiling my holiday spirit. No, Santosh, not exactly. They're f----ing pissing me off! This is the third instance in the past month alone (!) of my work being lifted and passed off as someone else's. Only a few weeks ago I sent an email to a blogger who last year allegedly tried to get permission for a post I wrote on another Harriet -- Harriette Ashbrook -- but couldn't get my email. So she just cut and pasted my entire post on Ashbrook that appears on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wiki (clearly with my byline and the date I wrote it) and blithely ignored the fundamental rule of citing where she found it.

I sorted everything out with that women and the post now includes full attribution with my name as author and the original source for the paragraph she cut and pasted onto her blog. She, like Clare, clearly changed a few words here and there like removing every reference that compared Spike Tracy (Ashbrook's private detective hero) to Philo Vance in an attempt to disguise the original source. She denied passing the work off as her own, but the fact that she altered the paragraph proves to me exactly the opposite of what she told me.

The internet is rife with this kind of indifference and laziness with regard to other people's work. It' s this kind of thievery that makes me want to just quit writing altogether and abandon this blog for good. The justifications and excuses you get for the laziness and outright thievery are astounding!

I've reported every post that Clare "wrote" about Harriet Rutland's books on both amazon sites. With luck each "review" will be deleted and I'm hoping she'll be banned from reviewing on either site. But, of course, people like this always find a way to resurface under another username.

UPDATE - Dec 29, 2015:  My relentless accusations and comments on the amazon pages for the Harriet Rutland book reviews paid off. All of Clare's "reviews" were deleted a few days ago.  Guilty conscience on her part or amazon's doing?  I don't really care as long as they're all gone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Is A-Comin'

I love this!  It's just the right combination of weird and old fashioned, unusual music and quirky-sorta-creepy Christmas imagery to put me in the right kind of holiday spirit. Music and singing courtesy of American blues artist Leadbelly, turn of the 20th century movie making courtesy of who knows.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2015

FFB: Death Goes to School - Q. Patrick

It's parents' weekend at Craiglea, an English boarding school for boys, at the start of Death Goes to School (1936). Several events have been specifically scheduled to show off the students' skills in athletics and other non-scholastic areas. Parents have traveled far and wide to visit with their boys and see how the Craiglea faculty are molding them into specimens of fine young men. During the weekend one boy is found dead in a linen closet.

Early on in the police investigation we learn that the boy is the son of a United States judge who had been threatened by Nazi sympathizers when he sentenced to death two criminals for anti-Semitic terrorist acts. The threats manifest in attacks on his two sons. A failed attempt at kidnapping prompts the judge to remove his sons from any further danger by sending them overseas to the boarding school. The prime suspects for the threats and botched kidnap plot are a brother and sister named Heller who are related to the criminals the judge sent to the electric chair.

An American private eye named McFee is hired to keep an eye on the boys. As vigilant as he thinks he is his talents as a bodyguard fall short of the mark when one of the boys dies. In order to redeem himself he turns sleuth to discover who killed one of his charges. As in all good detective novels he finds an accidental sidekick in the person of the headmaster's daughter who serves as Craiglea's music teacher. He also recruits a precocious student who he believes witnessed the murder to be another partner in sleuthing and to do some digging into the other schoolboys' secrets.

Death Goes to School is the very first collaboration between Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler as far as novels go.They had previously collaborated on several short stories which mostly appeared in American Magazine. (see this post). Already we can see themes and motifs that will recur in their later work such as the incorporation of taboo subject matter (child murder) and homoerotic descriptions of the handsome male characters. There always seems to be at least one Adonis in a book written by Wheeler and Webb. This time it's Harvey Nettleton, an English teacher at Craiglea.

The writing duo also display their penchant for the supernatural in the legend of the Grey Lady, a nurse who through negligence was responsible for a student dying of an infectious disease. Ironically, she succumbs to the same disease and dies. Her ghost is said to haunt the hallways of Craiglea. The boys tell stories of the Grey Lady moaning and wailing in grief and remorse for the loss of her ill patient. She makes a few appearances over the course of the book. Or is someone taking advantage of the students' superstitious fears?

Some of the reviews of the time:

"The best tale Q. Patrick has written, with an original finale. The setting seems to indicate that English schools are growing dangerous ground. Surely the fifth or sixth murder in a school, within the past few months!" - Kirkus Reviews, Feb 24, 1936

"Though slightly unfair in denouement the telling is good, the dialogue and background interesting." - Saturday Review Feb 29, 1936

This is a quick read and has some excellent scenes, especially between McFee and his boy sleuth. Some of the clueing is rather obvious but there is indeed rather an unfair twist in the final pages. As an example of Webb and Wheeler's interest in original, lively characters and adept plotting technique Death Goes to School is worth a look for the more discriminating reader of detective fiction. But don't break your back looking for a copy. Most of their later work under any of their three pseudonyms is much better as well as much more easy to find.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A-Haunting We Will Go: Supernatural Elements in G. M. Wilson's Detective Novels

I have ghosts on my mind lately, as many of you probably can guess, so I thought I'd take the time to write up two effective examples of the use of ghosts and the supernatural in murder mysteries. G. M. Wilson, whose work I've discussed before, wrote books I find to be of striking originality. Her fascination for occult and eerie events shows up frequently -- sometimes ingeniously -- in her detective novels.

Through sheer luck I managed to come across a copy of Wilson's first attempt at a supernatural detective novel, an extremely scarce book to come by no matter where you live. Bury That Poker (1957) is not only her debut as a mystery novelist it is one of the rare examples of a detective novel that incorporates genuine supernatural content rather than a rationalized explanation of the ghost activity and hauntings. Quite aptly Wilson subtitles her book "A Detective Story in a Haunted House" and from the very first paragraph she sets up an ominous atmosphere:
It hung by the living-room fireplace, an ordinary domestic iron poker. Well, not ordinary, perhaps; its age alone lifted it out of the commonplace. [...] It's chief claim to distinction was the handle, which the maker--a grim Puritan craftsman with analogies of hell-fire on his mind--had hammered into the likeness of a grinning Satanic face.
How can you stop reading, right? A diabolic fireplace poker with a handle carved to resemble the face of Satan? Give me more, I say.

We then learn of the history of the poker and the horrible fate that befell the Venner family. A cursed object, the poker was used as a weapon in three murders, one of which was dubbed the "Cain and Abel" murder because the victim was named Abel and the killer was his brother. The poker continuess to hold power over anyone who comes in contact with it it. An old woman dying in prison summons inspector John Crawford in order to make a deathbed confession and mumbles something to him about a poker.  A painter named Paul who claims to have "psychometric ability" has flashbacks to the 17th century when he handles the poker.  Knowing all this about the poker the title begins to make a lot of sense. No one should have that horrible thing around their house.

Wilson manages to incorporate her usual crime in the past to complicate matters, all sorts of family secrets are dredged up, and a young girl who is triggering poltergeist activity figures in the intriguing plot. The detective aspects are very well done with some nicely imagined fair play clueing like the alarm clock in the attic business. Still as a first book it is not without some minor faults the most telling is her indecision about which of her policemen characters (Crawford and Lovick) she wants to be her leading man.

She wavers between the two as primary sleuths - Crawford acting as the Fox Mulder half of this duo being more willing to accept paranormal activity than the skeptical Lovick who can't be bothered with ghosts and poltergeist and cursed objects. Oddly, though Crawford is Lovick's equal he is treated almost like the brilliant amateur whose theories are dismissed if not entirely ignored. The strengths of the story lie in the intensity of Wilson's treatment of the supernatural sequences which are genuine and not fraudulent. The denouement of Bury That Poker is rather spinetingling. This is one book I'd like to see turned into a movie.

It Rained That Friday (1960) was her fifth detective novel and it is much more accomplished.  This time Wilson turns to the world of psychic phenomena rather than ghosts as the springboard for one of her more original and well thought plots. In the middle of a blistering summer Rose Todd sees and feels rain, autumnal weather and remembers a specific afternoon in October. Once again the opening paragraph sets the tone perfectly:

It was the name that did it. When you're looking for a quiet cottage to retire to, and you find one for sale on an island called Todd's island, and your own name happens -- quite fortuitously -- to be Todd, too, why then you can be excused for looking on it as the finger of Fate.

Rose and her sister Charlotte end up buying Todd House where fifty years ago Mary Todd ran away and was never seen again. The strange thing is that Mary disappeared in July. Why then is Rose having visions of a rainy Friday in October? Is Rose having delusional hallucinations? Can she really see into the past? Or is she having visions of events yet to come?

A few weeks after moving into their new home their neighbor and Mary's sister, Louise, is found stabbed to death in a glade. Lovick and Crawford are on the case again and almost immediately they turn up a puzzling piece of information: there is no official record of Rose Todd being a sister of Charlotte. As the investigation continues there are a number of accidental deaths and the uncovering of more secrets in the past, a favorite Wilson plot device. The key to understanding the motive for all the killings is hidden among all those secrets. Crawford and Lovick ferret out the truth with a little help from Rose and her psychic skills.

The characters in It Rained that Friday are just as well drawn and individual as those in Bury that Poker. Wilson tends to be fond of populating her books with eccentric spinsters though Jem Roker, the troubled groundskeeper of Todd House, is one of her better fully dimensional male characters. The Norfolk settings in both novels are always a highlight with all the sights, scents and sounds that make for an immersive reading experience. Like P. M. Hubbard, whose books feature settings so alive they become integral characters, Wilson has a similar talent in evoking places that are as vital and breathing as any human.

G. M. Wilson's Mystery & Detective Novels
(Books with known supernatural or occult content are marked with *.  Books reviewed on this blog have hyperlinks.)

*Bury That Poker (1957)
*I Was Murdered (1957)
*Thirteen Stannergate (1958)
*Shadows on the Landing (1959)
*It Rained That Friday (1960)
*Witchwater (1961)
Three Fingered Death (1961)
Roberta Died (1962)
*Nightmare Cottage (1963)
*Murder on Monday (1963)
Shot at Dawn (1964)
The Devil's Skull (1965)
*The Headless Man (1967)
Cake for Caroline (1967)
Do Not Sleep (1968)
Death Is Buttercups (1969)
*A Deal Of Death Caps (1970)
The Bus Ran Late (1971)
She Kept on Dying (1972)
Gipsies Don't Have Them (1974)
She Sees Things (1975)
*Death on a Broomstick (1977)

Friday, December 4, 2015

FFB: Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland

Time for a rerun.  When I first posted this review back in 2011 on The Poison Fly Murders I received no comments. That's probably because there were absolutely zero copies to be found in the used book market.  Now that all of Harriet Rutland's books have been reissued, and this particular title is not receiving the amount of attention I feel it is due, I'm re-posting my original review.  I highly recommend everyone get their hands on a copy of this book (so far my favorite of the three Rutland mystery novels) as well as the other two.  All are available from Dean Street Press via all of the sites throughout the world.  Both paperback and digital versions are for sale.  Enjoy!

*   *   *

"Butcher" - a trout fly
The original title of this book is the far more evocative Bleeding Hooks. It also happens to be an exclamation uttered frequently by Major Jeans, one of the most colorful characters in the story. An intriguing and devilish puzzler Harriet Rutland's second mystery novel is set in a Welsh sporting lodge that is host to a group of fly fishing Britishers on holiday. One day during the lunch break, on a small island several miles from the lodge, the body of Mrs. Mumsby, a middle-aged woman more interested in the men at the lodge than the fish in the lake, is discovered on the beach. Her face is blue, her body contorted, and in her palm a fishing fly has become deeply embedded. It is thought she died of a stroke or heart attack. Among the group is Mr. Winkley, Rutland's series Scotland Yard detective, serving as yet another policeman on a "busman's holiday," who almost immediately suspects foul play.

"Munro's Killer" - a salmon fly
There is lots of talk about fly fishing, the role of the ghillie (a fisherman's guide and oarsman, I gathered from the reading), the art of fly tying, the difference between fly fishing and regular angling, and the difference between trout and salmon fishing. I thought this would get dull, but none of it was. On the contrary, Rutland manages to make fly fishing rather fascinating. As an example, when talking of fly tying Major Jeans refers to his flies by the macabre names he gave them: "Avenging Murderer," "Blinkin' Bastard," and "The Bloody Butcher."

These mini lectures on fly fishing, and all its arcane skill and art, are interspersed throughout the narrative with much of it being vital to the story of the unraveling of Mrs. Mumsby's strange murder. Mr. Winkley conducts his own legitimate investigation gathering evidence to prove the death is, in fact, a nasty murder. He is convinced that the fishing fly was poisoned then somehow dragged into Mrs. Mumsby's palm perhaps by a skilled fisherman with a rod. While this is going on, two young people step up and try their hand at amateur sleuthing and do their best to discover the killer on their own. In the process, one of the amateurs' life is endangered and another attempt at murder is made. Adding to the oddness is a young man aspiring to be a stage magician who owns a pet monkey that mysteriously disappears shortly after Mrs. Mumsby's death.

"Reid's Assassin"
- another trout fly
There are a couple of neat twists in this clever plot, many secrets revealed and a finale that gives three surprises one right after the other. Most surprising -- to both Mr. Winkley and the reader -- is the final chapter in which it is revealed that the murderer has perhaps pulled off a perfect crime. The last bit makes this book something of a little masterpiece in my opinion.

My only criticism is the author's penchant for cutesy character names. The young couple, a 21 year old woman and man of the same age, acting as amateur detectives are named Pansy Partridge and Vyvyan Gunn, but the reader gets to know them by their nicknames:  Pussy and Piggy.

Harriet Rutland's Detective Novels
Knock Murderer, Knock (1938)
Bleeding Hooks (1940) - US title: The Poison Fly Murders
Blue Murder (1942)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction, part 3

For a quasi Luddite like myself a smart phone was one of the last things I ever wanted to purchase. Begrudgingly I have come to recognize how handy the phone can be. Like satisfying my never waning curiosity. In the "pre smart phone" days if I came across some arcane tidbit while reading I would make a note of it and then wait until I had computer access to look it up. Now I just pull out the phone and get the answer immediately. Odd names, unfamiliar places, historical events, mythological creatures, even foreign words and phrases are no longer mysteries that remain to be solved along with who did in Lady Gertrude Horsey-Ridingsworth in the locked, sealed and unusually hot conservatory. All my questions are answered instantaneously with a few simple keystrokes.

And with that long winded introduction out of the way let’s segue into this year’s annual post dedicated to only a smidgen of the really cool trivia I’ve gleaned in my reading of both long forgotten and contemporary crime and supernatural fiction.

1. Ever hear of the kylin? Probably not. All you sinologists probably prefer qilin, the accepted transliteration of this Chinese word. In fact, it took me a while to find it online since it was spelled kwylin in The Golden Salamander by Victor Canning where I first came across the word. It’s a mythical Chinese creature and according to a Chinese cultural website the qilin (kylin or however you wish to spell it) "is somewhat like a deer, with horns on the head and scales over the body. Its tail is like that of an ox's. The kylin is said to be an animal of longevity that could live for 2,000 years. It is also believed that the beast could spit fire and roar like thunder." Supposedly the kylin appeared to presage the arrival or passing of a wise person or a powerful leader. Its image is used on talismans, art and sculpture to signify good luck, prosperity and intelligence. One of the "Four Divine Creatures" the kylin is second only to the dragon in terms of importance in Chinese mythology. So how come we’ve never heard of it? We’ve certainly seen plenty of them in movies, post cards and Chinese restaurants. Check out the photo used here. Time to start a "Remember the kylin!" movement.

2. British life jackets were made of cork during World War 2 and blackout procedures so well known on land throughout urban England were also in place on ocean liners. This comes to you courtesy of the madcap plot in Nine -- And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson , also known as Murder in the Submarine Zone. I also learned all about George Robey (1869-1954), a music hall performer who is mentioned in passing in the novel. He apparently was very popular in the pantomime scene in the early part of the 20th century and was well known for his crazy eyebrows exaggerated and enhanced by make-up.

Thomas Hood
3. I had only heard the name Eugene Aram in the context of an obscure book by Bulwer-Lytton. Little did I know that the man was a real person. Eugene Aram was a resourceful philologist and linguist prior to becoming a notorious murderer. The story of Aram’s crime was made popular one year earlier than Bulwer-Lytton's novel in a lyrical ballad by poet Thomas Hood (1799-1845). Thanks, Joan Fleming, who dropped several allusions to the poem and Eugene’s fate in her crime novel Polly Put the Kettle On.

4. World history has always been lacking in my knowledge. Not much of what I learned decades ago in high school stayed locked in my memory bank. Thanks to my voracious reading, however, I’m always learning something new. In Captain Cut-Throat by John Dickson Carr I received a crash course in the Napoleonic Wars and got more than I ever would want to know about Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Minister of Police who serves as a leading character in one of Carr’s most successful historical crime novels.

A early Murphy drip
It ain't for brewin' java.
5. Long forgotten medical procedures tend to crop up a lot in vintage crime novels. I learned all about the Murphy drip and proctolysis in The Cat Saw Murder. You know what a proctologist studies and treats, right? Well, back in 1909 Wisconsin surgeon John Benjamin Murphy invented a very early alternative to intravenous and subcutaneous injections that focussed on a human's rear end as an entry. It was primarily used like an enema to administer fluids and drugs when the regular oral method was not viable. Here I thought a colonoscopy was the worst possible medical procedure a human could endure.

6. The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter was one of the best historical adventure novels I’ve read in recent years. I learned all about the amoral business practices of the East India Company, how they had their own army (!) and how the company operated on its own agenda disregarding all rules, regulations and humanity in their plan to take over India and subjugate its people. Long live imperialism! (That’s sarcasm, gang.) Yes, it’s a novel but Carter used numerous historical texts and diaries as research in order to tell her story. Eye opening and highly recommended.

7. Ancient Egyptian burial practices and the mythology of Egypt served as the background for The Game of Thirty by William Kotzwinkle. The name of an unrecognizable god or goddess appeared about every five pages and their importance in ancient Egyptian beliefs filled those pages. Rather thrilling for a mythology junkie like me. What wasn’t so thrilling was the pedophile subplot that polluted the rest of the pages. Seemed like every other book published in the mid 1990s was about murderous pedophiles. I always avoid these books and was pissed off that Kotzwinkle included one in his plot.

"Vision after the Sermon" by Paul Gaughin is featured
prominently in Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

8. I learned a heck of a lot about Paul Gauguin and (to me at least) the obscure group of artists who made up the Pont-Aven School in the fascinating German crime novel Death in Brittany (originally published as Bretonische Verhältnisse). I thought Gauguin moved to Tahiti and did all his most well known work in the South Pacific. Little did I know that he founded an entire style of painting in the small town of Pont Aven in Western France, that his early work done here is considered by the locals to be the birth of modern painting, and that he is celebrated throughout Brittany. Someday I’d like to visit this part of France which we completely bypassed the first time I travelled there.

9. Who doesn't learn something arcane when devouring a Christopher Fowler book? Take his latest, The Burning Man. Its pages are chock full of Guy Fawkes facts and legends and the origin of burning effigies that led to the annual celebration of the Gunpowder Plot. But I never need to double check on anything when reading his books because Fowler always gives you *all* the details you'd ever want.  And then some!

10. Even a former Brit Lit student like me needs a refresher in his supposed field of expertise. So when I came across Malbecco in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion in Catherine Aird's excellent impossible crime novel His Burial Too I was not so surprised that he turned out to be a minor character in The Faerie Queen. I wasn’t a fan of Edmund Spenser back in my college days. I tend to forget everything about that epic poem other than the Bower of Bliss section and that I found most of it boring as hell. Turns out that using the name Malbecco is an arcane way to call someone a paranoid jealous husband. He’s in Book III, Canto X (et al.) of Spenser’s seemingly endless poem if you want to read about him. I think an Othello allusion would've sufficed. What a show off that Catherine Aird is. Witty and smart, but a show off.