Friday, December 30, 2016

FFB: Sing Me a Murder - Helen Nielsen

THE STORY: Shortly after his wife perishes in a house fire struggling playwright Ty Leander stages a fake suicide in the room of a murdered waitress to generate publicity. Then he announces he feels his life is so worthless that he intends to prove he was responsible for a death of the waitress. When it is later revealed that Ty's wife Julie, a well known jazz recording artist, and the waitress were look-alikes Ty turns sleuth and uncovers a wickedly nasty revenge plot.

THE CHARACTERS: Sing Me A Murder (1960) is a combination music and theater mystery. Nearly everyone in the case is involved in the entertainment industry in some way. There is an element of that heightened reality that pervades novels that take place in the artifice of the world of theater. Emotions are passionate, dialogue is rich with metaphoric expression, and behavior runs to the melodramatic. Mary Brownlee, the waitress whose murder trial serves as the background for the novel, was bludgeoned to death and her face burned with acid. She also happened to be wearing an outfit that was a replica of one Julie wore on the album cover of her latest record. An ex-boyfriend of Mary's is on trial accused of a crime of passion with Cole Riley, Ty's best friend, acting as his defense attorney. When Ty learns that Mary was a Doppelgänger for his singer wife Julie San Martin he begins to think that some kind of switcheroo might have happened. What if Mary is alive and the victim is really Julie? Ty is a troubled, mildly paranoid, man obsessively in love with his dead wife. He will do anything to make the circumstances of the house fire and Mary's murder fit into his private worldview. The more he digs into the past the more complicated it becomes.

Many of the characters do their best to extricate Ty from his fantasy world by alternately cajoling or chastising him to return to his writing. Marcus Anatole, Ty's agent; Alexis Draeger, a set designer who also designs houses on a commission basis; and even Cole Riley all do their best to counsel Ty against his foolish mucking up of the murder trial. Lt. Janus, however, is intrigued by some of Ty's insights and continues to investigate the murder of Mary Brownlee.

As usual there are minor characters who shine in Nielsen's work. Mary's landlord Mr. Gruenther is a portrait of a hot headed, narrow minded bigot. Mrs. Herbert is a comic kind of Glady Kravitz nosy busybody whose habit of spying on her neighbors Ty exploits. She also has a neat scene with Marcus Anatole who is sure she is holding back information in one of the pivotal moments at the end of the book. The two gas station attendants, Nick and Orin, have great moments too since Julie's car maintenance is crucial in finding out where she was on the night of the house fire. The monologue Orin Peters gives about his beagle and the living doll metaphor and how that relates to how men love is one of the highlights of the book. I'm always impressed when the real meat of a book and the most incisive dialogue comes from relatively minor and inconsequential characters. To me this rings true. I'm always being given advice and having important things pointed out to me by relative strangers and never the people who mean the most to me. Nielsen understands this often overlooked bit of real life brilliantly including in all of her books.

INNOVATIONS: The plot itself I think is highly original. I've never encountered a story with a attempted suicide that was arranged in order to implicate the suicide in a murder he didn't commit. Nielsen never ceases to amaze me in how she shakes up the genre with new angles and inventive ways for characters to turn sleuth.

I also was very intrigued by the idea of the haunted man motif in Sing Me A Murder. Janus tells Ty "Rooms are never haunted, Mr. Leander--only people" and Nielsen makes the most of this piquant observation throughout the novel. Ty is desperate to believe that Julie is still alive and nearly everything that happens in the book tends to reinforce his stubborn refusal to accept her death. In scene after scene, her music plays continuously on the records she made. Her image shows up repeatedly. Her clothes mysteriously reappear in her closet when they should've been burned in the fire.

THINGS I LEARNED: A major plot point involves an oil change and the mileage on Julie's Ferrari. I learned all sorts of things about the way gas stations are run in 1960. For instance Nielsen writes that a gas station attendant was "resettting one of the automatic pumps" when Ty pulls in to talk to him. Then the same attendant "writes up a service ticket" for a filling up his tank and cleaning his windshield. Credit card slips are featured in the plot as well as one of the major clues. I can still remember when we had to present our card and have it run through that sliding machine in order to get an impression of the number on the carbon copy. I guess the "service ticket" was actually the credit card slip. Also an oil change sticker is found on the hinge side of the car's body and not on the door where it is normally found leading Ty to realize that the oil change was done in a place other than their regular service station.

1960 CULTURE: Ty and Julie's home in Malibu Canyon is described in great detail. It was one of the many custom built houses designed by Alex Draeger who specializes in eco-friendly home design. Not only does Alex use natural materials in the construction of the house she takes advantage of the natural surroundings as part of the overall design.

When asked about the kinds of records played in Mary's apartment, Herman Gruenther says he can't tell the difference. "They sounded the same... All this new music sounds the same to me. Somebody bangs some kettles, and somebody else blows a horn, and some female moans."

QUOTES:  "There's hatred beyond fear; a hatred beyond love. There's the eye of the hurricane in us all, the quiet place where the storm ceases and the only reality left is the one thought--kill. We all kill, in one way or another, those who refuse to love us."

Marcus Anatole, the cynic of the book: "Love? What is love? A form of egotism. Ty's lost a mirror he was fond of gazing into to admire his own reflection."

Lt. Janus pops peppermint candies into his mouth periodically to cover his bad breath. He tells Ty: "Wife's order. 'Too much smoking,' she said. She's right, too. That's the trouble with having a nagging wife, they're nearly always right."

"I've never forgotten what Mr. Leander said that morning when I told him his wife was a living doll. I hope he's forgotten. 'Dolls,' he said, 'are pretty to look at and to play with, but, believe me, they shouldn't be living.' I sure hope he's forgotten [he said that]."

EASY TO FIND? Ample copies available for sale in the used book market. In addition to the original US and UK hardcover editions, there are three paperback reprints and a Detective Book Club three-in-one volume which also includes The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald and Murder After a Fashion by Spencer Dean. The most recent reprint of Sing Me a Murder was in 1988 as part of the series of reissued crime novels published by Black Lizard. Though Prologue Books has released several of Nielsen's crime novels in digital editions Sing Me A Murder is not among them. Sorry eBook fans. But happy hunting to all the rest of you!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

It Wouldn't Be a Party If It Didn't Have You

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

And speaking of jazz-- Here's some swingin' holiday cheer. Jane Lynch and pals singing in perfect harmony just for you.


Make the most of this holiday season. Don't take it all too seriously. I never do.
Ho, ho, ho to all you wonderful people out there in the dark.


Friday, December 23, 2016

FFB: Vicious Circle - Manning Long


THE STORY: Gordon Parrott receives an urgent message from his Aunt Hester in upstate New York. She demands he come for a family gathering at Christmas, not just as her nephew but in "his official capacity." Parrot is an assistant district attorney in Manhattan an he has a feeling that something shady may be going on in the Allison household. At dinner two nights after they arrive an unexpected guest shows up -- Ruth Matlick. She claims to be married to Clifford Allison, Hester's son who is engaged to someone else. All hell breaks loose and later that night the woman is found dead in her room. Liz and Gordon turn detectives to find out who killed Ruth and why Aunt Hester wanted Gordon there in the first place.

THE CHARACTERS: Liz Parrott appears in her second mystery adventure but the first time as wife to Gordon who she met in Here's Blood in Your Eye. Liz is not a favorite of Aunt Hester's. Gordon asks her to be on her best behavior and downplay her life as an artist's model that so offends Gordon's haughty aunt. Instead Liz decides to play act and turn herself into the exact opposite of a glamorous artist's model. She does her hair up into a librarian's bun, shuns all use of make up, alters her fashionable form fitting dresses to appear frumpy and pretends to be a dishrag of an intellectual. She even drops Latin phrases into her speech to further annoy her husband. Gordon in retaliation flirts with Amy Thorne, Clifford's intended fiancee. When Ruth is poisoned and Liz was known to be the last person to see her alive the family points the finger at Liz as the primary suspect.  Never mind that several family members have much better reasons to have knocked off the unexpected guest.

In addition to the problem of having a poisoner under their roof Liz is intrigued by the mystery of Clifford's book on Russian culture and politics, The Quality of Mercy, every copy of which has unaccountably disappeared from the house.  There are whispered accusations of Clifford having plagiarized the manuscript. Three of his writer friends claim to have written the book themselves though Clifford managed to publish it under his own name. Added to this literary mystery is the puzzle of Clifford's possible near bigamous marriage to Amy. Liz is determined to get to the bottom of all the mysteries whether Gordon likes it or not.

The other supporting players include Aunt Mina, Hester's mannish sister always wearing "horse togs" and always seeming like a weak minded minion to the stronger willed matriarch; George Prentice, the handsome devil of the book, another writer friend of Clifford's who spent time in Russia with him and has his eye on Liz; Amy Thorne, Clifford's wife-to-be and the foil to Liz, spends much of the book toying with all the men and taunting Liz with outrageous theories of why she killed Ruth.

INNOVATIONS: Vicious Circle (1942) is divided into three sections. Part one, subtitled "Set 'Em Up", is basically an expository lead-in to the murder done as a screwball comedy. Much of the story in this section relies on Liz and her antics in disguise, her teasing Gordon, and the catty remarks exchanged between Amy and Liz. Part two, " Knock 'Em Down", introduces the murder mystery and Liz drops her disguise in order to turn detective. "Drag 'Em Out" is the final part in which another death occurs and the mystery centers around the true authorship of Quality of Mercy.  Liz spends a lot of time tracking down a MacGuffin she calls "the bulge" because she saw George hide something in his ski parka one day and secretly run off to hide it somewhere. The "bulge" will prove to have significance in the bibliomystery portion of the novel.

The more the book progresses the more I got a sense of the kind of household one finds in the work of Ross Macdonald. There are many family secrets Liz will uncover and a sense that someone was determined to keep all of them buried even if murder had to be the last resort.

THINGS I LEARNED: There are several scenes at a local saloon where Liz likes to play the jukebox. Though I like to compliment myself on a vast knowledge of WW2 era music (I was entranced by my parent's rare record collection) most of the songs I had never heard of including "I Give You My Word" and "Can I Forget You?" There's some singing in the book, too. While taking a bubble bath Liz lets loose with some lyrics from an innuendo filled tune called "She's Sellin' What She Used to Give Away", a 1938 tune written by Buster Jones and recorded by his brother Buddy. Gordon sings and his voice is compared to "a fine Kenny Baker tenor." Kenny Baker was a singer on Jack Benny's radio show in the 1930s and appeared in several movie musicals from 1938 to 1946 including Goldwyn Follies and The Harvey Girls.

Liz mentions "The Bride of the Mistletoe" several times in the last section of the book and it's also one of the chapter titles. Druid legends tell of a virgin sacrificed to Druid priests under mistletoe. From what I gather this is not human sacrifice, but the rape of a virgin performed for the satisfaction of a tree god. There is a 1908 novel that bears the same title written by Kentucky writer James Lane Allen that makes use of the legend as a metaphor for a wife's obedience to her husband. Nice.

A pul-motor was an early device used in performing CPR. The police need to use one on Liz in the climactic scene that takes place in the Allison household attic.

EASY TO FIND? Pretty scarce this one. Currently there are seven copies available for sale in a variety of editions, paperback and hardcover, both US and UK. In my search for photos I uncovered a 1940s edition in a French translation. Apparently all of her books were translated into French. Remarkably, Manning Long's only detailed biographical information on the internet can be found in an article on the French version of Wikipedia. She obviously has her Gallic admirers.

Friday, December 16, 2016

FFB: The Spook Lights Affair - Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini

THE STORY: Sabina Carpenter's latest gig is more suited for a professional chaperone than a private detective. She's one half of the team of Carpenter and Quincannon and she's got loads of experience as a former Pink Rose with the distinguished Pinkerton Detectives. But watching over spoiled rich girl Virginia St. Ives whose rebellious nature is getting the ire of her father has landed Sabina with this job that's one part nanny and one part spy. At a fancy ball Virginia throws a tantrum, rushes to a cliffside gazebo, climbs atop a parapet and throws herself over to the rocks below. Sabina is beyond shocked and sounds the alarm about Virginia's melodramatic suicide.  But when they get to the cliffs the body is gone. Meanwhile John Quincannon is on the hunt for $35,000 stolen from a Wells Fargo office and with luck nab the thieves in the process. The ten percent reward for recovery of all the money is more than enough incentive to get the job done. The two detectives compare notes on each other's cases and soon learn there are linking suspects in both and are further surprised when an additional case involving ghostly manifestations at a makeshift seaside village provides them with the key to the solutions of what happened to Virginia and who stole the money.

THE CHARACTERS: John Quincannon first appeared in a few western novels written solely by Bill Pronzini back in the 1980s.  He began his exploits as a Secret Service agent battling counterfeiters and later teamed up with Sabina in a book of short stories when they start their own detective agency. Sabina and John have a good working relationship, a nice way of playing off each other's personalities and methods.  Sabina is the no nonsense type while Quincannon tends to be more blustery and impulsive; she leads with cool logic and he with gut instinct. He's also a bit conflicted in his attraction for her but Sabina will have none of that. Apparently this is a recurring subplot in the series.

The remaining cast make for a motley crew with some of the typical Western archetypes you'd expect (the stagecoach driver with the heart of gold subbing for a similar taxi driver found in private eye books of the 40s and 50s, for example) along with a handful of historical figures (Adolph Sutro is the host of the party at the novel's opening) and some well done supporting characters like Lucas Whiffing, the bicycle shop employee who strikes Virginia's fancy; Bob Cantwell, a no good gambler; Miss Kingston, one of Virginia's friends who is of major help to Sabina; and the oddball mystery man who appears mysteriously on the scene in order to help both John and Sabina with his amazing finds and world class detective work. Oddball because the guy claims to be Sherlock Holmes.

INNOVATIONS: The book is structured with alternating viewpoints as we follow Sabina and John each taking care of their own cases. With the introduction of the third case which gives the book its title the two detectives find their cases intersecting and overlapping with more and more mysteries revealing patterns of behavior in Lucas Whiffing and David St. Ives and several others.

As might be guessed Virginia's suicide is actually a clever bit of fakery that involves a variation of an impossible crime that well read mystery fans might be able to pick up on.  Even if they don't' recognize the one book with a very similar "miracle problem" the authors have done a fine job of planting f some well hidden clues that will help the reader figure out how Virginia made it look like she plummeted to her "death" then disappeared. The identity of the murderer (for wherever missing money is involved there are sure to be dead bodies eventually) is a nice surprise with some more well done work with dropping clues among the red herrings.  Overall, there is a pleasant retro feel to this mystery novel not only because it is set in days of yore, but for the plotting that recalls some of the better Golden Age and traditional mystery novels of the past.

THINGS I LEARNED:  There is a lot about the history of San Francisco's mayor Adolph Sutro whose wise investments in real estate and land made him one of the richest men in mid 19th century California. He was responsible for building an aquarium, developing the adult playground known as the Sutro Baths, and planted hundreds of eucalyptus to take advantage of tax free status of 'forested' areas.  He opened his estate to the public charging each person a small fee for the pleasure of strolling through his grounds but security guards made sure no one turned the stroll into a picnic. No food baskets were allowed on the grounds.

The book is peppered with unusual 19th century terms (someone's face is the "color of clabbered milk") to give it a nice period flavor.  But as with most contemporary mysteries that are set in the past there is a tendency to lapse into 21st century vernacular and thinking. Not a major flaw but it can be jarring when someone begins to contemplate whether or not Virginia was "feeling depressed" and if that led to her suicide. Quincannon has a trove of 19th century exclamations that made me smile. Similarly, when one of the villains lets loose with a rant of foul language the authors have fun in conveying them without actually resorting to swear words.

EASY TO FIND? The Spook Lights Affair (2013) came out only three years ago. It's hardly a forgotten book. Of course it's easy to find. You'll be able to choose print or digital with no problem. Knock yourself out. I enjoyed it a heckuva lot and look forward to more of John and Sabina's adventures.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

1960 BOOK: Sleep with Slander - Dolores Hitchens

Private eye Jim Sader deals with a lot of missing persons cases, but his latest is pretty odd to say the least. Seems that his new client, Hale Gibbings, wants Sader to locate a child who is apparently being abused by his latest foster parents. The odd part? The child is his grandchild who was given up for adoption five years ago, but the Champlains his adopted parents are dead, father died in plane crash, mother drowned and her body was never recovered. Gibbings has no idea who became the child's guardian, some relative of the Champlains he guesses. He also doesn't want his name involved in the case at all. No mention of the adoption, his daughter's terrible past, or his name must ever be given out during his investigation. Think this is going to be missing person case? Think again. Before Sader finally locates the boy in the home of a long dead sculptor located in the northern California forests there will be a couple of murders and several attempts on his life.

Sleep with Slander (1960) has been touted repeatedly as "the best private eye novel written by a woman". The quote comes from a review by Bill Pronzini in 1001 Midnights and shows up on the UK paperback reissue from 1989 as well as many reviews all over the internet. While it may not be the "best" private eye novel written by a woman it certainly captures an authentic tone and feel reminiscent of a traditional hardboiled crime novel of the mid-1940s. It also has a uniquely feminine take on a missing persons case. Rather than a missing persons case that deals with two timing lovers or a con artist who has good reason to want to disappear Hitchens focusses on a missing child. As one might expect where the search for a missing child is the impetus for a crime plot the role of mothers, married or otherwise, plays a crucial part in the story. Though it starts with a brief prologue in which the reader knows that the child is being mistreated cruelly there is never any sense that the book exists solely as a social critique on unwed motherhood, adoption, or child abuse. The situations all grow out of a carefully constructed crime plot that has all the grit and sizzle and deftly handled twists of any story penned by Hitchen's male colleagues.

Even more striking is the way in which setting and locales reflect the characters in the story. It's almost as if Hitchens had a set designer who whipped up multiple lush interiors that give us an idea of who we are about to meet and what Sader should expect from each of the people he questions. There is a cinematic quality to the descriptions of the many apartment rooms, bars, and richly decorated homes that appear throughout the story. Each one is described in meticulous detail with deft touches like the Asian motif recurrent in one home's decor that give an idea of who Wanda Nevins is and what she dreams of, how Sader notices the abundance of exotic figurines and "dustcatchers" in the sculptor's house in which the harrowing climax takes place (shown on the DJ of the UK edition at the top of this post. Those Easter Island like stone heads really are in the story!)

Another of the more intriguing bits of detection takes place in an infant clothing store. Sader finds a box marked "Betty's Baby Shoppe" at the fire-ruined home of Tina Champlain and takes it to the store. He wants the owner to look over the items hoping that something might jog her memory about who bought them. Inside she finds a hand knit baby mitten among the scraps of fabric and silk ribbons. The mitten is the work of a woman who did hand knit items for the store and whose work is utterly distinctive and easily identified by the pattern used. The knitter also happens to be the shopowner's mother. You would never find something like that scene in a book by Hammett, Chandler or any of their imitators.

Sleep with Slander is teeming with similar unusual, womanly touches and yet the hardboiled atmosphere never once veers into the realm of cutesy or cozy. Each subtle detail betrays the work of a woman writer who has cleverly woven commentary on the nature of motherhood and the care of children into what is very much a tale of violence and cruelty. When tenderness arises out of this admittedly very tough story it is arresting and provides a welcome respite from the fights and bloodletting.

We also get a sense of a private eye whose business is his entire life. Sader is doing a favor for his partner Scarborough (away in San Francisco) by housesitting at Scarborough's aunt's house where he must also care for an overly friendly, attention starved Irish setter and an irascible parrot. We see a domestic responsible side to this single guy that might never appear in a private eye book written by a male, I would guess. These brief scenes comment on his seemingly empty private life and show a devoted friendship that complements his business partnership.

QUOTES: The dog cocked his head as if something in his mistress' voice puzzled him--perhaps the effort to sound honest.

There was some whole item like a screw loose in a crippled machine, that was fouling it all. He couldn't find it but he could sense it. He could sense the lack of orientation in himself, the failure to come to grips, the fumbling with chaos like a puzzle that didn't fit and wouldn't fit until the pieces that didn't belong had been tossed out. Where was the screw loose? "I'm damned if I know," he told the windowpane. "I'm full as hell of similes but I can't figure worth a hoot."

1960s CULTURE: There's a timeless feel to this story. Even if today Sader would be resorting to the internet to do the majority of his investigating his many face-to-face encounters with the colorful supporting characters in the large cast don't seem strictly a part of the sixties. Language is modern, sharp, often witty, and never rings false. There are no topical references that often seem like commercial breaks as in other books of this era. Only occasionally does the year 1960 come into view but ever so quietly.

1. Sader periodically checks in with his answering service, a type of business that seems as redundant as answering machines these days.

2. Our private eye hero has a habit of pulling into drive-in restaurants for a burger every chapter or so. In one scene Sader is in such a rush to pay his bill and motor away he disregards drive-in etiquette by blaring his horn instead of politely blinking his headlights. I liked this offhand aside that closes one of his many food pitstops: "The carhop came and thanked him for the tip and took the tray away. As she walked into the light her legs shone like silk below the fluffy skirt, and Sader yawned, and the thought, My God, I really must be beat. I don't even want a second look."

Is this really "the best private eye novel written by a woman"? I always hesitate to comment on superlatives that seem so limiting and final. I find it hard to make lists of the best of anything, frankly. But as for the second half of that quote often left off "--and one of the best written by anybody" I will wholeheartedly agree. Sleep with Slander is well worth your time. You may, however, run into trouble locating an affordable copy now that it's become something of a cult classic in private eye literature. But such is the price of fame -- and superior writing.

*   *   *

This is my first of two (maybe three) novels published in 1960 for December's "Crimes of the Century" blog meme hosted by Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offenses. Make sure to check out the rest of the reviews and essays on 1960's crime fiction.

Friday, December 9, 2016

FFB: Gallows for the Groom - D. B. Olsen

THE STORY: Professor Pennyfeather is summoned by Fatty Enheart, a long lost cousin, to a bird sanctuary in southern California where the cousin is employed. Enheart has a dilemma and it involves a collection of antique spoons with the figures of the twelve apostles on the handles. When he arrives he learns that Jo Fontyne, daughter of Fatty's employer, is planning on having a scavenger hunt for the apostle spoons which are not only a family heirloom but extremely valuable. The participants in the hunt are three men vying for Jo's attention and their relatives. As an added incentive in the hunt Jo has promised that she will marry the man who finds the spoon collection. But arson, murder, and the discovery of a skeleton on the estate turn the scavenger hunt into a criminal investigation.

THE TITLE: Gallows for the Groom (1947) is a bit of a misnomer for a title. None of the men is married though one is widowed. Neither is anyone hanged. Maybe I'm being too literal minded, but I can't even see it as an apt metaphor. I haven't a clue why the title was chosen or whether its an allusion to a poem or other work of literature. There's no epigram to indicate that it's a quote from anything. Perhaps Dolores Hitchens (the true identity of "D. B. Olsen") chose it because the first Pennyfeather book is titled Bring the Bride a Shroud and she felt having a title about a groom would signify this book was a sequel. But it could just as easily have been an editorial decision for that very reason and not Hitchens' choice at all.

THE CHARACTERS: Professor Pennyfeather is an accidental sleuth of sorts. This is only his second appearance and he reluctantly travels to Willow Cove to help his cousin who he barely remembers from his childhood because a letter that was supposed to alert him of Fatty's phone call was stolen from his mail slot, ripped to shreds, and the pieces scattered throughout his yard and neighborhood. That was enough to arouse his curiosity and send him off on the long journey from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the bird sanctuary located somewhere on "the peninsula". Once again there are several murders as well as attempts made on Pennyfeather's life. The grisly discovery of the skeleton of a Fontyne relative adds to the escalating mysteries.

The three suitors show up with their mothers, and in one case a teenage daughter, in tow. All of them turn out to have secrets of one sort of another and all of them are considered possibly dangerous by Professor Pennyfeather. From the drop dead gorgeous southern boy named Rebel to the affable father Ted Thacker and his daughter Marjorie, Pennyfeather has his work cut out for him. Friendliness and good looks cannot keep him from suspecting anyone of the insane crimes committed over the three day weekend. He has his fair share of conks to the head and a near strangling as well.

I also should mention that the guessing game of Pennyfeather's unusual first name inspired by Greek mythology once again becomes a running gag. And just as in the first book we learn his embarrassing first name on the final page. I wonder if eventually Hitchens gave up on this gag in later books.

INNOVATIONS: Despite what may seem like a quaint "cozy" style mystery based solely on the plot synopsis I gave at the top of this post this is a violent and creepy story. The murders are gruesome which tends to be a hallmark of Olsen's detective fiction. Yet again there's an ax -- or rather hatchet -- wielding killer on the prowl. (Hitchens and Mary Roberts Rinehart seemed to be obsessed with axe murders.) And this killer enjoys setting places and people on fire, too. The culprit of Gallows for the Groom is not only ruthless but clearly crazed; prime material for the loony bin. As in other Olsen books animals and pets are targeted and suffer violent attacks. I seem to have a real knack for uncovering the Golden Age mysteries that share the bizarre trend of enraged killers who will stop at nothing to get what they want including doing in a pet or two.

The apostle spoons are not just the MacGuffin of the plot, they provide the obvious motive for all the crimes. There is an element of that weird serial killer plot gimmickry where murderers leave notes or symbols beside the corpse. In this case, at the scene of each crime the killer leaves behind one of the apostle spoons tying each violent death to the martyrdom of a particular apostle depicted on the spoon. That's a clue to the mindset of the killer. Like the lead character in Hive of Glass this is a collector whose desire to possess objects of beauty has transformed into the madness of monomania.

THINGS I LEARNED: While I was well aware of the odd hobby of collecting spoons, whether antique or not, I'd never heard of apostle spoons before reading this book. Most sets consist of all twelve of Jesus' disciples. The handles of each spoon can either be miniature busts of each apostle or full figures. The set of apostle spoons in Gallows for the Groom consists of thirteen spoons, the last being a spoon with the figure of Judas. The Judas spoon has some added significance in the final chapter.

EASY TO FIND? Bad news this time. This title is very hard to come by. Though Gallows for the Groom was published in both the UK and the US there is currently one single copy of the Crime Club edition (no DJ, sadly) offered for sale. That's it. One copy. There was a reprint in the pulp magazine Two Complete Detective Books (September 1948), but I rarely see those pulps offered or sale anywhere, not even on eBay. There was no paperback reprint reissued between 1947 and 1980 nor do I think there are any current reprints or digital versions available.

Monday, December 5, 2016

IN BRIEF: A Silver Spade - Louisa Revell

Julia Tyler is reluctant to accept the job as teacher of Latin at Camp Pirate Island in Maine. She’s been approached by the camp’s founder and owner, Mrs. Turner, to fill in for the previous Latin teacher who’s unexpectedly up and quit. Was it the exceptionally intelligent girl, one with an IQ of 140, that scared away the teacher? No, it was the rash of strange anonymous letters with hints of violence that sent her packing. Anonymous letters? Julia asks for more details and once she has been filled in she can’t pack quickly enough and find the first plane from Virginia to Maine. Retirement can wait. Her inner detective smells a mystery that needs to be solved. A Silver Spade (1950) is Julia's third adventure and perhaps the most satisfying of the entire series.

The title takes as its inspiration a song lyric. In the setting of the summer camp Revell indulges us with frequent scenes in which the girls let loose in a rousing chorus of a campfire song. One of these songs is adapted from a blues tune with a variety of lyric alterations. Julia Tyler hears the words “You can dig my grave with a silver spade/Cause I ain’t gonna be here no longer” and is chilled to the bone. The melody is quite pretty but the macabre lyrics and sentiment leave a lot to be desired and will foreshadow the deadly events to come. Digging has indeed been going on in secret at night

Accusations of Nazi sympathies, covert nighttime activities that suggest espionage, a member of the staff who was a member of the French resistance -- all play a part in the exciting plot. No one is spared scrutiny, no one is ever considered off limits. At one point a group of girls are considered as having committed murder. This is the kind of mystery novel I truly enjoy and the kind that is all too rare.

As I chronologically work my way through the Julia Tyler detective novels by Louisa Revell I find that each book improves upon the previous one. By the time I got to this third title I found the one that I will heartily recommend if you are interested in reading this writer. Everything about it surpasses the previous two. From the highly unusual setting of an academic summer camp for girls to the exciting finale reminiscent of a Christianna Brand novel. As in most of Brand's mysteries, and sometimes Ellery Queen, several suspects are accused of being the culprit until someone who played an exceedingly minor role in the book reveals all in a solution that makes such perfect sense it should have been obvious from the start to any astute reader.

Friday, December 2, 2016

FFB: The Man Who Didn't Exist - Geoffrey Homes

THE STORY: Robin Bishop, California newsman, stumbles across a sport coat left on the beach late one night. Pinned to the jacket is a note that seems to indicate the owner of the coat committed suicide. It's signed by Zenophen Zwick, a famous bestselling mystery writer whose true identity has been kept hidden from the public. Intrigued by this mystery and emboldened by a newspaper clipping, also found in the jacket, that teases about five possible men who might really be the mystery writer Bishop sets out to find the truth about Zwick, who he is, and what might have happened to him. Is it all a publicity stunt? Did he kill himself by walking into the ocean? Or did something far more sinister happen to the mystery writer?

THE CHARACTERS: From the very first page The Man Who Didn't Exist (1937) is engaging and not just because of the double whammy mystery related to Zwick's body disappearing and his true identity, but due to the well drawn cast of oddball creative types. The newspaper clipping found in Zwick's jacket mentions five possible men who could be the mystery writer and they include a poet with hardly any sales, a painter of "headless and feetless nudes", a playwright, and a novelist presumed to have died after falling off a cliff. Bishop meets and interviews each of the still living men several of whom reside in the same apartment building (see the rear cover of the Dell Mapback below). Over the course of his Q&A he uncovers even more mysteries and more deaths occur that might never have occurred had he not decided to seek headline grabbing news. His guilt is apparent and pervades the novel at key moments lending an unexpected gravitas to the proceedings not often encountered in the genre. Most amateur sleuths of this era are more keen on arriving at the solution, naming the murderer and being praised for being clever rather than agonizing over the people who died, pondering the what ifs, and owning up to responsibility for violence that might never have been. Homes also has a flair for crisp, crackling dialogue which he later honed to a sharp edge while working as a story and screenwriter in the movie and TV industry from the mid 1940s through the 1960s.

INNOVATIONS: Unique to Homes' series about Bishop, one of the many reporter sleuths in America's Golden Age of mystery fiction, is the reporters are much more adept at detective work than the police. Bishop, his cohort Guy Barton, and even a rival reporter from the Express do 90% of the detective work in this book. Another 10% comes from Bishop's wife Mary who does some literary sleuthing and comes up with proof of which of the five men wrote the mystery novels as Zwick. The police do next to nothing except bluster and scream at the reporters for meddling in their affairs. What is most intriguing is the deal making that goes on. Bishop, as well as Brennan from the Express, get permission to grill suspects, visit crime scenes, and collect evidence for the police only in order to scoop each other with headline stories while making sure that the police get all the credit in print. It's amusing to watch the pompous and nearly incompetent Chief Hallam Taylor contradict himself each time new evidence is presented and new stories are published in the rival papers. Often he hasn't seen the paper in time to comment and must take his cues from the ever present journalists.

Despite the multiple Q&A sequences the story is never static. It's involved and heavy on action. Many of the action scenes seem like cinematic set pieces like a high speed getaway with Mary at the wheel of the car after Bishop has been forced to beat up a cop in order to escape from a storage closet in the basement of the murder scene. Neither overly complex nor convoluted this is a well told, gripping mystery novel with several clever tricks and plot gimmicks. One of those tricks seems almost like an impossible crime in that one of the murder victims was shot and yet none of the suspects in the building could have been able to pull the trigger when the gunshots were heard as they were in the presence of witnesses who saw no gun.

THE AUTHOR: Unlike his creation Zenophen Zwick there is no mystery as to the identity of mystery writer Geoffrey Homes. He was Daniel Mainwaring who like Robin Bishop began his career as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle then slowly transformed himself into short story writer, novelist and script writer for radio, movies and eventually TV. Mainwaring is probably best known for writing the crime novel Build My Gallows High (1946) which became the ultimate noir film, Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum and his then wife Jane Greer. With the success of that one film Mainwaring turned solely to Hollywood for his income. His scriptwriting career outlasted his life as a crime novelist with numerous contributions as screen adapter of his own novels, well over twenty original screenplays, and a handful of episodes for popular 60s TV shows like Cimarron Strip, The Wild, Wild West and Mannix.

QUOTES: Normally I quote from the book, but I thought this was a lot more interesting as it comes straight from the author:

"First I had a detective named Robin Bishop, and I got sick of him. Bishop got married and then got awfully soft, and I got fed up with him. I changed to Humphrey Campbell, who was a tougher one. With Build My Gallows High I wanted to get away from straight mystery novels. Those detective stories are a bore to write. You've got to figure out 'whodunit'. I'd get to the end and have to say whodunit and be so mixed up I couldn't decide myself." (from an interview by Pat McGilligan)

EASY TO FIND? Looks fairly good in the online used book market, but prices are all over the place. Oddly, the Dell Mapback is extremely scarce while multiple copies of the original Morrow hardcover are offered for sale. Of course, once the hardcover has an original DJ then the price is going to be higher. If you're in the mood to own a nearly pristine copy and have a spare $750 you can own a lovely copy of the first edition with a DJ. Otherwise, based on condition, prices range from $15 to $200+ for a hardcover and $18 to $30 for the paperback. I found no UK editions of this title for sale online., but there is one Spanish translated edition from a dealer in Bilbao for a mere seven bucks. But their shipping fee from Spain is a little under $30. (?!) Best deal I found was a Dell Mapback on eBay for $24.99. Pricey for a Mapback, I think, but it looks to be in much better shape than my beat up, water stained Mapback.

Of the few Robin Bishop Books I've read I enjoyed this one the most. Coming soon a look at the Homes' milk drinking private eye Humphrey Campbell and his shady, very corrupt boss Oscar Morgan.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

1975 BOOKS: Sex, Race & Crime

I know, I know. I'm a day late (and a dollar short as my mother would say. These days I'm several dollars short). But I have to get these written up and knocked off, so to speak. I enjoyed them more than the other 1975 book, each for different reasons. And they were much more exemplary of the year 1975 than that book I refuse to name by that American woman. So very quickly here are the highlights of the two other books I read for the Crimes of the Century meme last month when 1975 was the year of books being saluted and celebrated.

The Topless Tulip Caper by Lawrence Block

This is the last book about Chip Harrison, ostensibly also written by him as they were originally published under his name. But he's just another of Block's alter egos working double time on the wiseguy humor and the sex and crime books he wrote for Gold Medal back in the days of paperback originals. It's also the second detective novel featuring the sleuthing team of Leo Haig and Chip who, as all mystery lovers in the know should know, are knock-offs of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Oops. Should I say this is a homage? No way. Block would call that pompous.

As the title implies there's a strip club involved and a stripper is the first victim. Well, really the 124th victim. "124 murder victims?" I hear you cry. "That's some serial killer at work!" Oh calm down. See, this is also about tropical fish collecting and the lost art of breeding fish in an aquarium. (Does anyone still have home aquariums?) As Wolfe has his obsession with caring for and hybridizing various orchid species so Leo Haig has his tropical fish. And the client in this case has hired Haig to find out who slaughtered her prize collection of Scatophagus tetracanthus (You better believe I looked that one up!) They account for the first one hundred and twenty-three victims of the book. Thankfully, we are spared this aquatic carnage as they are mass murdered by poisoned fish food well before the book even begins. Chip knows that Leo is the man for the job as does Thelma Wolinski, aka Tulip Willing, as she is known when she dances in her undies for the salivating male audience at the Treasure Chest strip club. Thelma, you see, is the leading authority on the "Scatty" and has written a couple of articles on how to successfully breed the species for a few ichthyological trade journals. Remarkably, the bizarre death of her stripper colleague Cherry (curare poisoning delivered mysteriously to her ...uh... left breast) is tied to the liquidation of Thelma's fish.

Leo Haig delivers a rousing final chapter lecture just as all great detectives of the Golden Age should do with all the suspects present in his office. Chip has several sexual escapades with the attractive women in the cast all done tongue in cheek and with some meta-fiction jokes at the expense of the people who were Block's editors at Gold Medal. This is a fun and frothy example of a well done off-the-wall detective novel that hits all the marks for me -- bizarre murders, unusual subject mater, raunchy humor and true wit, as well and some randy sex scenes that, as gratuitous as they are, still managed to make me smile because they were never taken seriously.

Snake by James McClure

At the opposite end of the 1975 detective novel spectrum is this police procedural from South African writer James McClure. As somber as Block's book was lighthearted this crime novel depicts the era of apartheid in all its ugliness and bigotry. The book dares to show policemen working together, black and white, Afrikaners and Bantu, without one trace of the political correctness we are suffering from these days. McClure' s main policemen characters are Lt. Tromp Kramer, a white Afrikaner, and Mickey Zondi, a Zulu. Kramer calls the locals coons, wogs and coolies. Zondi doesn't even blink at the use of these terms. There is also Sgt. Marais, one of the most ultra conservative and nationalist Afrikaners in the police force. He often resorts to the term "kaffir" -- a word that was banned from usage in South Africa as it is the equivalent of nigger in the US. Oddly, the word is borrowed from Islam and literally means a non-believer in Allah. But just as "gook", the Korean pejorative in their own language for white men, was turned into an insult for Korean soldiers during that war I can see how a relatively harmless word from another culture was appropriated by South African white men to insult an entire race.

The white policemen and the black policemen seem to tolerate one another amid all this obvious dislike. Kramer despite his uncensored language is more than tolerant and has a friendship with Zondi that transcends their work relationship. Occasionally the reader is reminded of the reality of apartheid as in the scene when one of the police officers watches an argument between an African teacher hosting his class on a field trip and a nature museum official. The teacher is not allowed to enter a movie theater in the museum because there is a prominent sign marked "Whites Only".

And why a nature museum in this novel? Because, of course, as the title tells us there's a snake in the pages. The murder being investigated is of an exotic dancer who was apparently strangled by the python she used in her act. The death is described in detail and we know that she was visited by a man who she attempted to seduce in a very unorthodox manner -- well, creepy is the right word, I guess -- by letting the snake slither over her naked body as her visitor slowly undressed himself. Then we see that he kills her when the kinky sex gets out of hand. The mystery is not so much about who or how she was killed, but exactly which of the many male suspects is guilty of the murder.

Told parallel with this murder case is the investigation of a series of robbery/shootings in a poor neighborhood known as Peacedale. This had some powerful resonance for me with the rash of urban crime and bank robberies that have beset Chicago for the past ten years. The depiction of the gangster lifestyle of 70s era South Africa doesn't seem very different at all to what continues to plague 21st century cities in the US. The resolution of this portion of the novel has an interesting twist that further comments on the divisiveness of South African culture during the 1970s.

This is the first of McClure's I've ever read though I've known about them for decades. I found his manner of unrestrained violence and straightforwardness in presenting difficult topics refreshingly honest and real. Kramer, Zondi, Marais and all the rest of the policeman and law officers come alive on the page and are uniquely individual. McClure was a crime reporter for many years so he knows the ins and outs of both writing and the police in his native land. But he also manages to reveal a human side to all of his characters in the brief glimpses we get of his characters' personal lives. Even Marais who for the most part seemed to be a huge asshole had a couple of scenes where he was less hateful and more human. There was one touching scene where Kramer's girlfriend after moving to a new home donates her unwanted furniture and clothes to Zondi and his family. It's done without a patronizing manner and reveals character without one word of dialogue being spoken.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this short series of crime novels. I own copies of almost all of them and they've been set aside for this month and the coming new year.

All in all, here are two books from 1975 well worth your time. Whether you lean towards wild and crazy or somber and humane each of these books give you aspects of 1970s life that are genuine and not artificial.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

FOND FAREWELLS: Jean Bowden (1920-2016)

Jean Bowden, whose mystery novel The Fetish Murders written as "Avon Curry" I reviewed here, died earlier this month.  A reader of this blog who apparently was one of her neighbors was kind enough to post a comment on the review for The Fetish Murders to let me know.  Later, in trying to locate her obituary, I found this post at The Gumshoe Site:

Jean Bowden died peacefully on November 04 in London, UK. The former book editor wrote more than 100 novels (ranging from historical to romance to suspense to detective mystery) under 10 different pseudonyms (Jennifer Bland, Avon Curry, Lee Mackenzie, and Barbara Annandale among others) before her retirement on her 90th birthday in 2010. Her first book was non-fiction; GREY TOUCHED WITH SCARLET (1959; reprinted-issued and retitled NURSES AT WAR, 2015) about the true story of the experiences of nurses in the Second World War. As Tessa Barclay, she authored a series about amateur detective Crown Prince Gregory of Hirtenstein, and the last Gregory novel, DIAMONDS IN DISGUISE (Severn 2010), was also her very last novel. She was 96.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: Fatal Flourishes - S. S. Rafferty

Another re-post from the archives.  This week I'm re-running a review of a unique historical mystery book, actually a collection of detective stories set in Revolutionary War era America, as part of the continuing month-long salute to history and mystery for the Tuesday Night Bloggers.

Captain Jeremy Cork first appeared in "The Margrave of Virginia" in the August 1975 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Further exploits of this 18th century inventor, speculator and amateur sleuth of "social puzzles" would appear over the next year and half. Eventually author S.S. Rafferty penned one adventure with Cork and his yeoman financier Wellman Oaks for each of the original thirteen colonies. All thirteen stories were collected in a rather scarce, but nonetheless noteworthy, book called Fatal Flourishes (1979).  It was later reissued as part of the "Library of Crime Classics" imprint by International Polygonics under the title Cork of the Colonies (1984).

Like Lillian de la Torre's detective stories about Samuel Johnson and Boswell Rafferty's tales are loaded with 18th century history and lore. But unlike the Johnson stories Captain Cork is an entirely fictional creation. Described by his sidekick as "six foot six inches of insouciance" Cork is similar to many of the Holmesian inductive detectives in that he almost immediately knows the solution, alternately challenges and rebuffs Oaks, his long suffering Watson, and indulges a bit too much in his own vanity. The cases he stumbles across which he prefers to call social puzzles involve a variety of crimes from theft to murder and include a handful of puzzling elements ranging from mildly diverting to devilishly ingenious.

Each story has the additional feature of focusing on some little known aspect of pre- and post- Revolutionary War era America. You'll learn of South Carolina's Charles Town as a sort of 18th century Las Vegas with parties, drinking and hedonism on display 24/7. The highlight of the story is that state's strange ritual of the cicisbeo lottery, an 18th century game of gender role reversal borrowed from the Italian aristocrats, in which married women draw names of single men to be their Cavalier Servente for one week. "The Georgia Resurrection" deals with vodo (Rafferty's spelling), African superstitions, and tribal herbal medicine. You'll also learn about the execution practices of that colony and the differences between the duties of hangman and coffin maker. He even gives us the origin of the now too familiar horror icon -- the zombie, or zombi as Rafferty spells it. No eating of brains in sight which may come as a huge disappointment to some 21st century zombie fans.

For me there was also an abundance of new learning related to life in the original colonies. I always thought that the big cash crops of the South were cotton and tobacco. Rafferty tells me, however, that it was rice and indigo that were making the colonists all their money. There was frequent talk of slavery and the treatment of slaves (Cork is an abolitionist) and in one story, "The Witch of New Hampshire," slavery is at the heart of the disappearance of several young women in a town still clinging to century old superstitions.

As for those "social puzzles" we get the usual tricks of the mystery writer's trade: twins, locked rooms, switched weapons, and some valiant attempts at misdirection. However, there is little fair play technique to be found here. The reader is left feeling as astounded as Oaks when Cork pronounces his solutions in his usual matter-of-fact style when not one clue was ever presented. It is more Cork's behavior and personality that dazzles and entertains rather than the construction of the puzzles and mysteries.

One of the most involved stories is "The Curse of the Connecticut Clock" which features an overly complex cipher based on the musical scale and the Roman numerals on a clock face. The explanation of the code takes up four pages! You have to admire the ingenuity behind the devilry but it seemed more like an ostentatious display by a 20th century writer rather than the revelation of the 18th century imagination of the character who created it.

Historical fiction fans will revel in the detailed portraits of colonial life, the colorful characters, and Captain Cork himself – a combination rogue and savvy businessman who finds much to fascinate him among the criminal element as he travels from North to South.

Friday, November 18, 2016

FFB: A Country Kind of Death - Mary McMullen

THE STORY: Frustrated Connecticut writer Philip Keane wants peace and quiet so he can finish his latest novel. But his sister-in-law comes for a visit, followed only hours later by an unannounced visit from his brother. The house becomes nothing but distractions for him. But dealing with unwanted house guests is nothing compared to what is on the horizon. His two youngest daughters emulate their father by writing stories based on their own limited life experience. The seven year old writes a story that is clearly a fictionalized account of a heated argument she overheard in the backyard hinting at a murder threat. Her 11 year-old sister is alarmed and thinks she ought to tell their father. But the seven year old clams up for fear of implicating a 19 year boy she likes. When the 19 year old’s mother is found drowned in her goldfish pond the two girls fear for their lives. Will Philip Keane ever get his novel finished now?

THE CHARACTERS: The story may sound gripping from that summary above, but it's all handled sloppily. The main problem is that McMullen litters the story with a large cast of supporting characters and seems more interested in their shenanigans, almost all of which are related to overactive libidos. Sadly, nearly the entire cast is utterly unlikeable. With the exception of the two little girls, the most interesting characters, no one held my interest. I cared not one iota for what they wanted nor why they were in the book.

And why was everyone a writer? Philip Keane writes mystery novels, his brother Patrick is a playwright of “domestic comedies”, the next door neighbor is a Pulitzer prizewinner (!), and his nympho of a wife is attempting to write her husband's biography which only inflames his already ugly temperament. There was an intrusive subplot about Fay and Angus (the husband and wife writers) which amounted to Fay hiding her manuscript in the neighbor’s studio and Angus bursting in every ten pages or so, finding a few pages here and there and destroying them. When Fay isn't hiding her manuscript she's pursuing every available man she can fling a sexual innuendo at.

For some reason no one locks their doors in this Connecticut town and everyone can enter the Keane house at all hours as if it were a frenetic French hotel with doors flying open and shut like those in a Feydeau farce. It was nonsensical.

The story should have been about Kit and Donna who in remaining silent about what they know are largely responsible for covering up the murder of the shrewish Mrs. Mint whose death all the adults want to write off as an accident. But over 80% of the book is devoted to all the subplots and non sequitur interior character monologues of uninteresting adults and whiny teenagers. There is no mystery here at all, by the way. And what little suspense we get is undermined by the garbage subplots of Fay and Angus, and the adult women (and one teenage girl) drooling over the Adonis of the piece -- Patrick Keane, the playwright brother.

INNOVATIONS: None. This novel is a mess. It purports to be a crime novel and it isn’t. It succeeds only as a meager satire of 1970s middle class white suburbia. That McMullen won an Edgar for her debut novel published more than twenty years prior to this astonishes me. What happened? There is nothing of a skilled mystery writer on display here at all. There is no detection, little suspense and few thrills. But there's more than enough repellent behavior and dreary depictions of suburban malaise. Even the finale –- an excessively violent and melodramatic basket of clichĂ©s -– fails when the so-called villain of the novel (no surprise as to the identity, BTW) is presented as a certified madman, utterly contrary to the way he was portrayed in the first two thirds of the book. It’s a cheap and inauthentic way to attempt to legitimize calling the book a mystery novel.

EASY TO FIND? Do you really want to track this one down? Yes, there are plenty of copies out there. Understandably so. I imagine most readers couldn’t wait to rid their house of this sad excuse of a crime novel. My copy cost $2 and I’ll be adding it to our weekly bag of thrift store donations. Unless one of you wants it. I’ll gladly send it to you. For free.

This is the first of three 1975 Books I read for the Crimes of the Century meme at the Past Offences blog. The other two books proved to be vast improvements over this one as well as being more representative of 1970s culture and current events – one is a satire on the sexual revolution in the US and the other touches on apartheid and South Africa’s troubles, and both are genuine detective novels.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: The Longbow Murder (a rerun)

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are saluting historical mysteries this month. I don't often read these anymore, but when I come across exceptional examples I tend to write about them here at Pretty Sinister Books. Below is a rerun (originally posted here in 2014) of a highly unusual historical murder mystery which very well may be the very first one to use a historical figure from medieval times as a fictional detective. Enjoy this Autumn rerun.

* * *

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Dickon Bendbow, aka Robin Hood) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, mayhap, and prithee elicited more frowns than smiles.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion and Star's inability to distinguish reality from fancy. This "misty" trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer's identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" There are a fair share of "Zounds! and "Gramercy!" exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word "Good-bye" to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also loyal knights in service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the Middle Ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the Middle Ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series.

Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- nearly all of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the Middle Ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

Friday, November 11, 2016

FFB: Grieve for the Past - Stanton Forbes

THE STORY: Fifteen year-old Ramona Shaw wants to be a writer. Her literature tastes are eclectic ranging from Hugh Walpole to Ellery Queen. Her dream would be to solve a mystery and write about it. "How about a haunted house?" comes the goading dare from the Coleman sisters. So Ramona heads to what she thinks is the abandoned house in town and meets its sole occupant, Maurice Stone. Over a remarkably brief time she becomes friends with the young recluse. She changes his life when she gets him a job at the local grocer's. With that one act of kindness she initiates a series of adventures she never imagined and fulfills her wish of solving a murder mystery she never dreamed would occur in her quiet Kansas town.

THE CHARACTERS: It's rare for a novice writer to master the difficulty of capturing the worldview of a child without allowing the writer's own adult perceptions to otherwise color the story. But Ramona Shaw, the narrator of Grieve for the Past (1963), is one of the most authentic fictional teens I've encountered in a long time. Though the novel is set in 1930s Wichita it's hard not to draw analogies between Ramona and her easy friendship with the outcast Maurice Stone and the secret relationship that develops between Scout and Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a lot of Harper Lee in this unusual novel which does not resemble anything like a typical detective novel, even though in the end it very much turns out to be a rather good one. All of the characters leap off the page with detailed and individual personalities and voices from Ramona's policeman grandfather in charge of the horrible ax murder case to Ramona's school friends and all the other adults she meets over the course of the novel. In addition to Ramona and Maurice the many memorable characters include the sinister handyman Victor Tabbot, dissatisfied and browbeaten alcoholic Carl Bragdon, vivacious Betty Vincent who thinks Wichita will never give her what she really wants out of life, Ramona's wise policeman of a grandfather and her kindly parents.

INNOVATIONS: Forbes has managed to weave a sly detective novel plot around this youthful coming of age story in an unexpected fashion. We know that Ramona is very much trying to be a budding detective (as well as a writer); her frequent talks with her Sheriff grandfather remind us of that fact. Still the story takes its time unraveling the mystery of who killed Mrs. Kirsten and her son and if indeed there was a hidden treasure in the house as rumor and gossip led everyone to believe. The story really is about Ramona learning about the way the world works, how a teenager grows up fast when unplanned for violence intrudes into her otherwise innocuous and mundane life, how we take for granted our neighbors, and how we tend to ostracize anyone who doesn't fit our ideas of normalcy. With the help of Maurice (who is considered the prime suspect in the murder), her grandfather, and some adult friends Ramona manages not only to solve the murder she has her entire worldview changed.

There are some brilliantly realized and unusual scenes like when Ramona after leaving a summertime dance makes a detour to a speakeasy courtesy of Mr. Smith who is driving her home. When he finds out she's only fifteen things change from fun to nasty very quickly. The climax takes place at an end of the school year prom that is almost like the nightmare prom from Carrie in reverse. Ramona, an ugly duckling of a girl, is transformed into a beauty for the night and becomes the object of all the young men's attention when before they paid her little notice. One of the young men has some inside information about the ax murders and takes her aside to deliver one of the most surprising denouements in mystery fiction.

QUOTES: I thought how funny it was that adults seemed to talk all the time about things they knew all about. Never about anything they didn't know. If they talked about what they didn't know, they might find out something.

I smiled but I didn't really like [being called Miss America]. I knew I was no beauty. [...]what hurt most was that sometimes I felt beautiful. It didn't seem fair that I should feel beautiful and not be beautiful.

Betty Vincent: "I'll get out of this Middle Western, middle class, middle- minded rut I'm in. And somewhere out there, there will be somebody. But not here. There's nobody here."

Betty Vincent again: "Money, mon enfant. D-o-l-l-a-r-s. Even when you're old enough you can't do what you want to, and often the reason is money."

And so they all were right, those who said there was money and those who said there wasn't. Somewhere in the middle had been the truth. I wondered if that was the way with everything.

Ramona: "You can't let someone kill and get away with it."
Grandfather: "There's many a murderer loose in the world , Ramona. And that's the truth."
I closed my notebook and I never did write a story about the Kirstens' murderer. Was there anything in this world that was the way it was supposed to be?

THE AUTHOR: Deloris Stanton Forbes was born in Kansas City, MO in 1923 and was raised in Wichita, Kansas. Her own grandfather was a deputy sheriff making much of what is in Grieve for the Past a fictionalized memoir. She spent the early part of her adult life as a journalist. She wrote for newspapers in Oklahoma, reported crime in Baton Rouge, and finally ended up at a Boston paper when she moved there after marrying her husband Bill Forbes. She settled in Wellesley, MA and covered city government for a weekly community paper while raising her family. In the early 1960s she turned to writing crime fiction and romantic suspense first in collaboration with a fellow journalist and then on her own. Grieve for the Past was her first solo novel using her pseudonym "Stanton Forbes". In the late 1960s she created the character of Knute Severson, a Massachusetts policeman, who appeared in over 15 novels published under her other pen name "Tobias Wells." After living in St. Martin in the Caribbean, where she and her husband ran an apartment building and owned a tourist shop for about 13 years, she finally settled in Florida where apparently she still lives today. Her last novel was published in 2003 and shortly after she retired from writing. She is apparently still alive at 93 years old.

THINGS I LEARNED: Ramona uses Wichita's nickname of "Air Capital of the World" a couple of times. This led me to find out all I could about that claim to fame. Wichita was the center of airplane manufacturing in the 1920s and 1930s. Beechcraft, Cessna, and Stearman Aircraft were among the leading manufacturing companies and the city became a major hub for U.S. aircraft production for over two decades.

One Way Passage starring Kay Francis and William Powell is a movie that Ramona goes to see at one point in the story. It helped me to date the year of the novel's events to no earlier than 1932, the year the movie was released.

EASY TO FIND? Apparently this one is rather scarce. I could find only three copies for sale online, all of them the original Doubleday "Crime Club" edition, also the one I own and shown at the top of this post. There is also an Avon paperback reprint that came out in the 1960s. Forbes' books under both her pseudonyms were very popular during the 60s and 70s and my guess is that you'll be able to find many of them in local libraries throughout the US. I'm not so sure you'll be as lucky if you live in the UK.

More reviews on Stanton Forbes and Tobias Wells are coming later this month. She was a diverse and imaginative crime writer who novels tended towards bizarre plots, quirky characters and highly unusual events the more she wrote. With the exception of her series featuring Knute Severson none of her mysteries are vaguely like one another.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

NEW STUFF: Flavia de Luce Transformed

The good news: a new Flavia de Luce book is out. The bad news: she’s aged two decades in a single year.

Alan Bradley originally envisioned this series featuring his precocious girl sleuth and genius chemist to be a homage to the lost culture of Britain and Canada. He wrote intriguing mysteries laced with nostalgic paeans to stamp collecting, a touring puppet troupe, gypsy nomads, and other long gone pastimes and cultural dinosaurs. He said all this in countless interviews when the series first appeared with his award-winning debut The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But as the series progressed he was forced to reckon with the overwhelming popularity of the character herself and her family. The intriguing cultural aspects did not vanish altogether but they have been pushed aside, sad to say, to make way for the De Luce Family saga. Now in this eighth installment a full year has passed. How do I know? Because Bradley has already written one book about Christmas and this one Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (2016) also takes place just before that holiday. Ergo: a new year. Flavia was supposedly eleven years old in the first book and now she’s twelve. But she resembles more a snarky post-college graduate armed with a bad attitude and a trunk full of verbal assaults than she does the quick-witted, irreverent, little girl of previous books.

The mystery element tends to improve as Bradley has progressed with Flavia’s adventures. As the title suggests, which quotes the well known conjuring sequence in Macbeth, there are hints of witchcraft in the plot. The murder victim appears to have been crucified upside down in his bedroom on a bizarre handmade wooden contraption. The plot uncovers double identities, family secrets, and a villain reminiscent of an old Saturday morning cartoon program rather than an adult murder mystery. The detective work is middling, the mystery not too mysterious, and the finale in which Flavia does battle with the killer ridiculously over the top. Without an intriguing mystery plot that leaves us with characters and our intrepid little heroine, but Flavia just doesn’t seem like herself at all this time around.

Here are some of the several hard to swallow scenes that make it hard to believe that Flavia is still a pre-adolescent girl.
  1. In order to gain personal information on the former wife of the victim Flavia pretends to be a professional biographer researching the woman's colorful life. The publisher plays along and we can only suspect that he is either completely bored in his work day or utterly senile to accept the idea that a little girl can be a professional writer of anything let alone a biography of an obscure quasi celebrity.
  2. The non-stop insult humor is disheartening. One of the characters is dumped on by everybody in the book. She's a poor singer who thinks highly of herself and lacks insight into her unskilled musicianship. Of course she's not at all attractive either making her an easy target for cruel quips and "paper bullets of the brain" as ol' Benedick used to say. Example: "Carla could not help it that she was nauseating: the kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge." This is the mindset of a child? Flavia sounds like a 67 year-old curmudgeon. I understand she's supposed to be precocious, very book smart, willing to make obscure literary allusions at the drop of a hat, and ever hip to irony, but she is increasingly presented as an adult in miniature and not a child.
  3. How can you have a little girl spouting forth very adult lines like "And who is your in-house liaison now?" and then ask us to believe she only knows the word privy as slang for a toilet? Such a dumb cheap joke, too.
  4. "Dancing round a bunch of moldy stones in a wet and windy field, naked, in the dark, was not exactly my idea of ecstasy." What eleven year old...excuse me, twelve year old .. ever contemplates the concept of ecstasy?

There's more, but I'll stop there.

Her travel to Canada and short-lived attendance at the private girls' school in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (now there was a good mystery plot!) has somehow transmogrified Flavia from smart aleck kid into mean spirited harpy. That this adventure is obviously meant to be her most painful growing experience to date is no secret either. The not so surprising ending is telegraphed several times throughout the narrative as she constantly reminds herself that she should not be investigating a strange death, but rather visiting her father in the hospital where he is languishing from pneumonia.

But along the way Flavia turns into a misanthrope of the worst sort. With the exception of Dogger, the indefatigable servant and Haviland de Luce’s stalwart friend, she can’t stand anyone in this book and lets us know it repeatedly. In all honesty the only reason I continue to read the books is for the scenes between Dogger and Flavia which happen to have the best of Bradley’s writing and reveal him to be a humane and compassionate writer capable of capturing profound moments of much needed gravitas. Thank heaven we get a glimpse of the original Flavia in these scenes.