Thursday, March 31, 2016

Curtain for a Jester - Frances & Richard Lockridge

Today I guess might be called April Fool's Eve. Coincidentally, Curtain for a Jester (1953) opens at a party on April Fool's Day.  The host is Byron Wilmot, owner of Novelty Emporium, and an inveterate practical joker. Not the fun kind of joke good for a harmless laugh, but the nasty kind. Wilmot is a prankster of the cruelest, most sadistic type. Most of his guests become victims of one sort of humiliating prank or another at his mean spirited party. Two guests arrive in costumes Wilmot provides for them -- as a witch and a boy in short pants -- only to be embarrassed when they discover they are the only ones in Halloween get-ups. The costumes also reveal how Wilmot perceives their relationship as the woman is an unattractive spinster and her date is a boyishly handsome man four years younger. Wilmot's nephew, a recovering alcoholic, is (not too realistically) goaded into drinking by his uncle and quickly falls off the wagon in a very ugly fashion.

Then there's the shooting prank involving a red haired mannequin and a cap pistol. It's the most disturbing of all the jokes played out that night. Not so much for the toy gun being fired off in rapid succession but for the target. This bothers Pam North more than anyone. She just can't dismiss the image of that weird red hair on the plastic model nor the strange scar on its face. The following morning Wilmot is found stabbed and the mannequin has been thrown out the penthouse window smashed to pieces on the street below. But the red wig is still there clearly making it identifiable as the mannequin seen at Wilmot's party.

And so Pam and Jerry North are embroiled in another strange murder case. The police would like to overlook its puzzling aspects but Pam in her relentless prodding will not let them go ignored. The book might very well be subtitled Or, The Riddle of the Auburn Dummy so prevalent is the repeated talk of this redheaded mannequin. At one point Jerry makes a crack that was for me the only truly funny line in the book: "Or for red hair read red herring."

Of course Jerry is wrong and Pam is right. The dummy, its scar, and the hair all prove to have significance and the shooting prank eventually points to a dark secret in the past of one of the party guests. A subplot involving an FBI investigation into undercover activities at the novelty shop and warehouse is not so interesting and seems thrown in to fill up the pages. Sadly, the mystery of who killed Wilmot and why is not as mysterious as the Lockridges would have us believe. It's all rather obvious even if they manage to put a bit of a twist into the plot.

That I made it all the way through this book is sort of an achievement. I guess what I learned most about reading this is that I really can't stomach Mr. and Mrs. North. The book is filled with loads of ersatz Manhattan sophistication and phony humor lifted from 1950s TV and B movies. They have a trio of cats named after alcoholic beverages (Gin, Sherry, and Martini) two of which have an uncanny knack for sensing the bad guys in the cast. The policemen sport comic Irish names like Aloysius Mullins and Artemus O'Malley. Everyone is always being offered cocktails at all hours of the day and night. Pam spends a lot of time discussing how she likes her martini prepared (with a lemon peel, no olive) and whether or not they live up to her standards. But at least she drinks them with gin and vermouth and not vodka and chocolate liqueur.

Worst of all the climax is meant to be a melodramatic pursuit with eerie overtones but only succeeds in being unintentionally ridiculous. Rather than the intended action sequence lifted from 1950s TV crime show the finale is more reminiscent of a Judy Bolton mystery or -- to flash forward to the 1970s -- a Scooby Doo cartoon. The villain dons a Punch outfit complete with oversized mask that completely encloses the head. The DJ illustration, therefore, is not a metaphorical image but a literal one. It depicts exactly how the disguised killer is described in the final scene as he chases Pam North and the spinster secretary through the warehouse. When caught the killer tries to commit suicide but the knife he's grabbed off a countertop turns out to be a gag knife with a collapsible metal blade. It's all meant to thrill the reader, but it's all sort of pathetic.

And the Lockridges have the most irritating writing style. It's stilted and arch and the sentences tend to be broken up with parenthetical clauses that would be better dispensed with. Here's an example of some of the worthless drivel you have to wade through:
"Pamela North had been sure there was another can of coffee. She had remembered distinctly that there was another can of coffee. She had known precisely where it was; it was where the coffee always was.  It wasn't."
Cue tittering laughter. I'm afraid I was not even smiling. I was scowling.

I know exactly how she feels.
I wanted to strangle myself, too.
The rest of that page goes on for another eight paragraphs, mostly made up of brief lines of dialogue, with Pam and Jerry arguing over where the coffee disappeared to and whether or not Jerry should stay for breakfast once they find the coffee. Jerry eventually leaves for work and Pam heads to the grocery store and the breakfast drivel goes on for two more paragraphs starting with this:
"Pamela bought coffee--also oranges, bacon which would turn out to have really been cured and could be returned if not (and which had not, and was not returned), English muffins, a dozen eggs and a jar of red caviar."
"...and a jar of red caviar." For breakfast. There's some of the ersatz 1950s sophistication for you. See that unnecessary and awkwardly written jokey parenthetical comment? There are loads of those. What has any of this to do with the murder of the sadistic practical joker? Absolutely nothing. Who would care about this? This is a perfect example of the lighthearted mystery gone haywire.

I'm afraid I've had my fill of Gerald and Pamela or Pam and Jerry, whichever you prefer. The Lockridges don't seem to know which names they prefer either. Nor do they seem to care about writing a mystery novel that sticks to crime rather than domestic riddles and marital squabbles that would be better left to the world of dreary soap operas.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

IN BRIEF: No Pockets in Shrouds - Louisa Revell

THE STORY: Self-confessed murder addict Julia Tyler has been keeping a scrapbook of interesting murder cases. She spies in one of her newspaper clippings a photo of an acquaintance and she takes advantage of that friend's open invitation to visit her and nose around in the murder. The story takes her to Louisville, Kentucky. Seems a butler was poisoned in the household of a wealthy Kentuckian and no one seems to know why he was killed. Julia thinks perhaps the patriarch was the intended target. Sure enough murder happens again while she is doing her Jane Marple impression. Involved inquest, suspicious relatives, plots and stratagems, and Revell's arch humor make for an engaging often very funny detective novel.

QUOTES: “It isn’t that I’m not scared to death; I am. The trip we took to New York scared me so I didn’t think I’d live to get there. But I did, in exactly one hour and seventeen minutes, and it taught me a lesson. You can stand almost anything for an hour and seventeen minutes.”

Her opinion of a tramp committing the butler's murder:
“A tramp on the fourth floor of a Louisville townhouse, especially anno Domini 1945 when -- whatever the other ills of our country -- tramps are as extinct as the American buffalo!”

On taking advantage of her friend’s gift for gab and asking prying questions about the murder:
“Charlotte was like the husbands who never dream their wives have married them for money.”

Real murder vs. fictional murder:
“That’s why for every fantastically reasoned murder book there are a dozen about rich people killed before they can change their wills. Fantasia makes interesting reading sometimes, but the old moth-eaten plots are real.”

Her instant dislike of Dr. Jordan:
“I admitted [I was a friend of the family], and added “Idiot” under my breath. Who did he think I was, the paperboy?”

SOME SOUTHERN IDIOMS: Title of the book comes from a Southern Black aphorism:
“[Gus] thought it was fine for [Breckenridge] to leave money to the church or the university library and the charities he was interested in: ‘There ain’t no pockets in shrouds, and the best pocket to leave your earthly substance in is the pocket of the Lord.’ said Gus to Breckinridge just before someone poisoned him.”

“Aunt Charlotte would have had a duck with lavender feathers if I’d stuck my nose out of the family vault.”

Isn't that bizarre? My parents used to say “Don't have a conniption fit”. In the 70s my friends and I used to say "Don't have a cow, man. Lighten up." I've read similar things like “have kittens” to express the same thing. All versions of a hyperbole for "being upset". But "having a duck with lavender feathers"? That one cracked me up.

THINGS I LEARNED: In my first blog post about Julia Tyler I mentioned the large part of the novel devoted to the toxic properties of sodium fluoride which was alternately fascinating and horrifying. Click here if you missed that post or are interested in knowing about that.

Hattie Carnegie, a popular clothing designer who I had never heard of, apparently is credited with inventing the “head to toe” designer look. She mass produced not only ready-to-wear designer clothing but various accessories meant to go with her clothing. In the long run she became best known for the accessories like her costume jewelry and hats rather than her clothing. Most of her clothes seem to be of the "sensible fashions" variety. But I did find some photos from vintage fashion magazines that seem fairly glamorous for the period like the one over there on the right.

Revell makes a big deal about the Kentucky Derby not being held in May for the first time since 1875. But this is wrong. It *was* held in May; on May 5, 1945 to be precise. There were times when it was held in June but every year during WW2 it was held in May. I have no idea what she was thinking or why she would make a statement so false, especially since this book wasn’t published until 1948.

Friday, March 25, 2016

FFB: Breathe No More - Marion Randolph

THE STORY: At the start of Breathe No More (1940) N. B. Guardet has summoned friends and family to a weekend celebration during which he plans to make an announcement. There's plenty of French food, an exotic frozen dessert especially ordered from a local caterer, and champagne is flowing. The new air conditioning ordered only two weeks prior is cooling the mansion and keeping the Connecticut summer heat at bay. Until the system fails and everyone feels groggy and N.B. is found dead in his bedroom. Asphyxiation is the cause. He has breathed his last. Unfortunate accident as a result of the new air conditioning? No, my friends. A cleverly engineered and very bizarre murder.

THE CHARACTERS: N. B. Guardet has modeled himself on a very famous person. Let's see if you can tell who. Guardet lives in a palatial estate called Malmaison furnished almost exclusively with early 19th century French antiques. His two daughters are named Josephine and Marie-Louise. And even his short stature of only five feet three inches matches that of his idol. Got it? Yes, those first two initials stand for Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his namesake Guardet rules his family like a military man. Upon his death his two daughters feel released from his tyranny and openly confess their hatred of him. In fact, nearly everyone from the servants to his business associates admits to similar feelings ranging from tolerable dislike to outright enmity. It's left to Jeremy Gaunt, Josephine's publisher friend who is quickly rediscovering a deep attachment to the elder daughter, and Dr. Knowlton to investigate the accident and prove murder was done.

Knowlton is the coroner in Rowdean, CT but he oddly behaves more like a homicide detective. Since the primary reason for the investigation is tied to the inquest, and finding proof of whether or not the strange accident that befell Guardet is actually a murder, his behavior in the context of this novel seems somewhat justified. Still, with the few policemen taking direct orders from a coroner it's a bit unsettling that Dr. Knowlton has so much clout and is the primary representative of the law here. He's sort of a 1940s era Quincy, M.E.

Among the other suspects are the drop dead gorgeous butler William Fish, who is the object of desire of three of the women; an unctuous overweight lawyer; and Guardet's middle-aged fiancee whose money may have been the primary draw for the impending engagement.

True crime inspiration for the deadly means
1st edition (Doubleday Doran, 1937)
INNOVATIONS: The murder method (which I won't discuss in detail) is perhaps the most ingenious part of the book. The same means was used in a very well known mystery by John Dickson Carr published in 1941. Obviously, if I give you the name of Carr's book that will spoil much of the reading if you're not familiar with it. Interestingly, Randolph actually beat the master at his own game by using the method one year earlier. Though it's scientific plausibility as a means of murder is described in detail Randolph seems to have got the idea from a true crime book. In the plot the murderer has found a review copy of a book that Jeremy Gaunt was about to release called The Doctor Looks at Murder. This is a real book published in 1937 and written by M. Edward Marten who was Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in New York. The book turns up in an unlikely place with the stamp of Gaunt's publishing house inside the front cover. Trying to find out who recently visited his office and who might have been the thief forms part of the murder investigation.

Randolph also employs a standard detective novel motif known as the tabulation scene -- basically, the recap which occurs midway through the book. Here it is presented in reverse chronological order and written out, at the suggestion of Dr. Knowlton, as a study of the many coincidences that occurred on the night of Guardet's death. The idea was originally suggested by Gaunt when he talked of the use of too many coincidences in fiction as being "unreal" and that perhaps all of the coincidences they have encountered as sleuths might in fact be part of a deviously engineered plan.

She also employs another of my personal favorites of the many detective novel motifs of the Golden Age which unfortunately must remain unnamed. It's this aspect of the plot that almost qualifies the book for the label of "impossible crime mystery", more than that I cannot say without ruining it all. I will mention for diehard fans that the best practitioners of this motif were two British writers whose best work was in the 1930s: Vernon Loder and Anthony Wynne. Both of these writers, especially the unjustly forgotten and underrated Loder, have been written up in great detail on this blog.

THE BONUS: Like a real good old-fashioned murder mystery there are these very cool floor plans that serve as endpapers.  For some reason on the second floor plan where the name Gaunt should appear there is the name Jones!  Did Randolph originally name her publishing sleuth Jeremy Jones? Later changing his name to Gaunt just prior to publication?  We may never know. In any case it's a pretty egregious error for a top line publisher like Henry Holt.

You can click to enlarge to see both of these plans up close and personal.

THE AUTHOR: Time to reveal the secret identity of the writer. "Marion Randolph" is the alias for Marie Rodell, a prominent literary woman who began her career as an assistant editor at William Morrow eventually landing as mystery fiction director at Duell, Sloan and Pearce, home of Lawrence Treat, H.H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher), Lenore Glen Offord and Dorothy B. Hughes, among many others. The DJ blurb for Breathe No More says of this find of the season: "We discovered [the novel] on the desk of a mystery editor for another New York City publishing enterprise. It turned out that the author-editor was reluctant to publish a self-created story. So Marion Randolph is not the author's real name..." Rodell later left editing to start her own business as a literary agent. She eventually was responsible for publishing Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and in 1958 the first non-fiction work by Martin Luther King, Jr. Notable for crime fiction fans is that she served as secretary for the Mystery Writers of America for a brief stint in the 1940s and wrote a text book on crime fiction, Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique.  In 1949 she was awarded a Special Edgar from the MWA for her editorship of the "Regional Mystery" series. She said of the statuette that Poe's face reminded her of her first husband John Rodell, a ne'er do well playwright, of whom she rarely spoke and never kindly (Linda Lear, p. 153). More on Rodell can be found in Sarah Weinman's web article "The Women Who Edited Crime Fiction" and in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear, which includes intriguing biographical detail on Rodell and her working relationship and friendship with Carson.

As the Henry Holt publicity people have called this book their "find of the season" so will I. Breathe No More is a real detective novel aficionado's mystery. It has it all: a baffling murder with a truly unusual method; cleverly planted clues, not too complex yet not too obvious; all sorts of timetables and alibi breaking business; a pair of sharply defined detectives -- one amateur, one professional; two nicely done love interest subplots that are directly related to the investigation; nifty floor plan endpapers and other illustrations that serve as fair play clues; and a cast of eccentric characters whose dialog and speech also reveals their character. Overall, this debut mystery novel hits all the right notes with resounding music that may have you cheering for more. I know I'll be reading her other books hoping they'll be two more for the Randolph Hit Parade.

Detective Novels by "Marion Randolph"
Breathe No More (1940)
This'll Kill You (1940)
Grim Grow the Lilacs (1941)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

NEW STUFF: Speakers of the Dead - J. Aaron Sanders

Speakers of the Dead
by J. Aaron Sanders
Plume/Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-312871-7
307 pp. $16.00
March 1, 2016

Grave robbers. Ghouls. Resurrectionists. Call them what you will, the very name usually gives a reader pause. Any one of those terms will conjure up eerie images of creepy characters digging away in cemeteries during full a moon, the sounds of shovels hitting hard soil accompanied by flitting bat wings, hooting owls and howling dogs. It’s old fashioned horror movie imagery thanks to stories dating back to Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers and the gruesome tales of legendary grave robbers for hire Burke and Hare who when they ran out of corpses weren’t too shy of creating a corpse or two with a little murder. And then there are the legitimized forms of grave robbery that fall under the category of archeology which have already been touched upon last week (see review of The Mummy by Riccardo Stephens). Most of the stories of ghouls of this sort come from Britain and very few stories of grave robbers have their origins in the US. J. Aaron Sanders now brings us a brief history of the grave robbers of 19th century America in Speakers of the Dead. These resurrectionists, as they preferred to be called, were providing bodies for medical research just as Burke and Hare started out but Sanders also tells us of the protests from the anti-dissectionist movement that became rather ugly. It was a battle between science and religion as those among the faithful clamored for respect for the dead, peace for a departed soul, and expressing their fear that the many souls will be damned without their body in the afterlife. Science and religion debates. Current events never seem to change no matter how much time passes.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the novel is its hero. He’s young Walt Whitman, not yet in his thirties, still working as a journalist and having just published his little known first novel about the temperance movement, Franklin Evans (1842). While working for the Aurora, a New York City newspaper overshadowed by the more widely read and sensationalistic Herald, Whitman becomes involved in the unjust hanging of Lena Stowe, executed for killing her husband Abraham over his supposed philandering. The murder of Mary Rogers, a popular cigar sales girl whose story was made sensational in the newspapers, is still fresh in the minds of the public and Abraham Stowe has been rumored to have been one of the girl’s many admirers and lovers. The Stowes were the founders of a women’s medical college currently under harsh criticism for their purchase of dead bodies for use in anatomical dissection classes.

Whitman is determined to exonerate Lena Stowe of her husband’s murder and with the help of his fellow journalist and one time lover Henry Saunders they uncover the secret world of the resurrectionists and a political conspiracy that may involve New York’s Mayor Morris who also seems to have been involved in the Mary Rogers murder case. We learn about the violent riots from the anti-dissectionists, the devout often naïve religious beliefs of the public and their desire to end the looting of cemeteries so their loved ones can rest peacefully in the afterlife, and the inherently corrupt politicians more interested in their own welfare than the people’s.

Walt Whitman (circa 1852)
Poet, reporter, nurse, grave robber
The historical background is richly detailed and fascinating, especially when concerned with the public riots and the vandalism done to medical schools. The lapses in 19th century behavior and mindset, however, and the swearing habit of the crude villains who speak like Martin Scorsese gangsters is more than a bit jarring. Swear words I know date back to the middle ages but can’t a cussing villain have a tirade with more period flavor than the usual f-ing this and f-ing that?

Also, the use of the present tense in a book that is meant to be a depiction of the mid-nineteenth century was my biggest pet peeve. There is a brief justification for the use of the present tense when we learn that Whitman’s journalism tended to be experimental with an unorthodox shifting from stating the facts to the sudden insertion of first person narration ("adopting a narrative style much like that of the stories he’s been publishing") to give his stories immediacy. ("He wants the reader to feel what he felt, to be called to action as it were.") For my personal tastes, however, it took some getting used to a novel using present tense when the events supposedly happened more than two hundred years ago.

The most engaging and imaginative portions of the novel are those that deal with Sanders’ intent in writing the novel in the first place. In the “Author’s Notes” that follow the novel we are told that Sanders wanted to understand how “the average Whitman of 1842”, a reporter and failed prose writer, transformed over a period of thirteen years into “the genius Whitman of 1855” who published his landmark book of poetry Leaves of Grass. “The quality of his writing is not only different in technique but in scope and understanding,” Sanders points out. The events of the novel are meant to give some idea of what Whitman might have encountered that could plausibly have served as the basis for the transition from prose to poetry and a change in his values and worldview. Two scenes are pivotal to this thesis of Sanders.

The first is when Whitman witnesses the dissection of a fetus. Already we know that Whitman shares some of the religious values of the anti-dissectionists and he has difficulty trying to reconcile the importance of anatomical study of corpses with the sanctity of the human body and “the salvation of the soul” as one character puts it. It is only when he sees with his own eyes rather than with his mind and heart that he begins to understand that science is also like art. “Whitman was struck by the precision of what had seemed to him before to be strictly theoretical act—the body is a machine that can be understood by taking it apart—and he wants to tell this... I understand it now, he wants to tell them.” He begins to understand that even in someone as seemingly crass and vulgar as Dr. Quigley who collects body parts and preserves them in jars that he and all others like him are “preserving the stuff of humanity,” meaning a much more ineffable stuff than mere body parts. Moments later he has a brief argument with Elizabeth Blackwell, the teaching doctor at the medical college, about Quigley’s obsession and his grisly museum. He listens to her criticism yet manages to see both sides as key to comprehending how we all must treat the human body.

“He yearns for a way to articulate beauty’s expansiveness, its cathartic pricking of the soul and its gross fecundity of decay. It strikes him that this might be why Henry prefers his poetry to his prose. Poetry has the capability, like a painting, to capture an object without the constraints of linearity. Walt feels as if something is opening up, and he’s able to see the complexity of beauty through Elizabeth Blackwell’s careful and political respect for the human body and through Eli Quigley’s reckless admiration for its beauty in all phases of life and death, the way the body demands attention of all our senses.”

The second scene comes where Whitman visits the Runkels’ home. Their daughter Maggie was one of the most recent victims of the resurrectionists. He meets Abby, Maggie’s eight year old sister, who tells him that she prayed to God to send someone to help them recover her sister and she is convinced that Walt is the family’s savior. She continues to talk frankly and in a way that’s “so much like a grown-up.” Just before Walt leaves she gives him a present. “I don’t draw so good, so I wrote you a poem,” she tells him. “You can read it when you get home.” He forgets about it until the paper falls out of his coat pocket after a particularly grueling incident. The poem is a final plea to find Maggie’s body and includes the poignant final lines “I cry to think of her in little pieces/all about the room/Please bring her to me, Mr. Whitman,/Bring her to me soon.” He is touched by the words, its frankness, and the honest emotion expressed from a little girl. It’s a reminder of how he once used the literary form to express his heartfelt emotions as well.

There are multiple cameo appearances of historical figures like Horace Greeley, publisher James Gordon Bennett and because the story is about Mary Rogers and grave robbing Edgar Allan Poe shows up as well. Poe had been working on a fictional treatment of the Mary Rogers case which became his tale “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. Like Whitman Poe is interested in the political cover-up of the truth behind that story and how it is linked to the resurrectionists. He and Whitman take part in the climactic scene in which both of them turn fiction into reality by becoming ghouls themselves and disinterring the body of Abraham Stowe to prove an autopsy report was falsified.

J. Aaron Sanders
(photo credit: Ryan Krafthefer)
As a fictional treatment of Walt Whitman’s young years, and especially his burgeoning life as a gay man, the book leaves a lot to be desired. Whitman is often played as naïve and petulant suffering from a bleeding heart syndrome that seems more twenty-first century than nineteenth. The brief love affair with Henry is tame and vanilla for someone as passionate as Whitman and, of course, he must lose his love to a terrible fate in order that he feel the depth and purity of what he at first took for granted. But as a fictional record of a forgotten chapter in social history -- the accounts of the resurrectionists, the political corruption of New York, the religious beliefs and the shocking protests and mindless violence that followed in their wake -- Speakers of the Dead is an eye-opening and educational reading experience. For those reasons the book has moments of affecting resonance for a modern reader.

Whether or not Walt Whitman continues in a series of books as an amateur detective of sorts remains to be seen. I may just check out his second adventure if Sanders has another book in him. Depite its minor faults this portrayal of Walt Whitman shows not only a love for the man and his work, but a markedly imaginative blending of historical fact and characterization leading to the genesis of a writer’s philosophy that gave us a long lasting, visceral body of work. That’s an admirable job for a first novel.

Friday, March 18, 2016

FFB: The Mummy - Riccardo Stephens

Believe it or not, during the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras there was another Scottish doctor who turned to writing novels, some of which were detective novels, some mainstream and two with elements of the supernatural. His name was Riccardo Stephens and like Arthur Conan Doyle he set up practice in Edinburgh but moved on later to northern Scotland prior to serving as Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War One. His writing career lasted from 1896 to 1912 and he died in 1923 at the age of 63. His last novel, The Mummy (1912), is an unusual blend of detective novel, occult thriller and the mad scientist novel. Those looking for some- thing similar to a Universal horror movie with a revived mummy hunting for his reincarnated lover will be sorely disappointed. This mummy barely makes an appearance in the novel, though the mummy case is very active.

The novel is narrated by Dr. Armiston (no first name ever given) who becomes involved in the deaths of two men, both of whom die under suspicious circumstances in their homes. Both men had been host to a mummy that because of a strange wager has been making the rounds in several private houses for a period of two weeks. So far each man who has hosted the mummy has died. The bet was dreamed up in order to scoff oat the curse attached to the mummy, but in light of the deaths it seems to be true. Inexplicably, the group insists on continuing with the ritual of hosting the mummy. Dr. Armiston is asked to join the group after serving a consultant in finding the causes of death for the two men.

The bet was begun by a subset of a group known as the Plain Speakers, a private social club whose members enjoy the luxury of uninhibited truthful conversation on any subject. The only rule being that all talk must be straightforward - plain spoken - with no habits of evasion, circumlocution so often resorted to in polite society when one is faced with potentially embarrassing topics. The subset of these Plain Speakers are known as The Open Minds and they gather in secret to tell stories of unusual encounters with paranormal and seemingly inexplicable events. When Professor Maundeville tells a tale of his mummy and the s curse it seems to carry one of the members devises the bet that each man must live with the mummy under his roof for a fortnight in order to dispel the supernatural legend and prove Maundeville wrong. The host is selected by dealing out a deck of cards and the one who ends up the ace of spades takes home the mummy for two weeks.

Eveleigh Nash, 1912 - the rare 1st ed.
(courtesy of Sotheby's auction results:
English Literature & History Books, London,
Lot #291, Dec 15, 2005)
This is the crux of the plot but it is not at all the real meat of the book. Stephens uses an incident so well known to readers of Sax Rohmer's thrillers as a skeletal framework for a novel that is more concerned with ethics in medicine, the fad of miracle drugs, and the desire for long lasting youth well into middle age. Other topics raised include respect for antiquity, the responsibility the living have for the dead and the ethics of archeological digs that one character likens to culturally supported grave robbing.  As is usual with novels of this era there is a woman at the center of all the trouble as well and jealousy and obsession play a big part in the melodramatic moments towards the finale. For a while I was certain he was going to pull something along the lines of She Who Sleeps, but I was letting my imagination run away with me. While Stephens is at first tempted by the occult his ultimate aim is much more grounded in a harsher reality than any of the lurid plot tricks of Sax Rohmer.

Reading the novel is a constant surprise for the title seems to have nothing to do with what Stephens is really after with his characters. Armiston and Professor Maundeville become the focus with the professor increasingly taking on a sinister aspect. He seems to have uncanny talent for magic and performs breathtaking illusions at a birthday party to the delight of the children but unsettling Armiston who sees it as an almost supernatural gift.  When Maundeville begins to talk of his experiments in rejuvenation and strength enhancing drugs Armiston finds himself becoming seduced to "the lure of the hypodermic".

It seemed to me that this summer the prolongation of life became what I am inclined to call more shriekingly fashionable than ever. To turn one's face to the wall and die decently seemed the last thing possible.

Riccardo Stephens
(illus from The Bookman, June 1898)
There is a large section of the novel devoted to Armiston's reactions to the quack remedies and patent medicines being hawked. Advertisements for miracle drugs are inescapable and he remarks that everyone is being told they are ill or suffering from some complaint. Armiston is disgusted by it all. The physician's responsibility for maintaining health and encouraging wellness seems to have disappeared overnight from medicine. All has been replaced by talk of disease and illness, the possible cure for any ailment or the alternative of death. It's a powerfully resonant scene for a modern reader who is also assaulted with TV and magazine ads for every prescription drug under the sun.

The Mummy has been long unavailable and is one of those books that has achieved ultra rare status in the used book market.  In this 21st century renaissance of reissuing extremely hard to find books Valancourt Books has once again rescued a noteworthy novel from Limbo.  The Mummy is their latest reprint and can be purchased in handsomely designed hardcover, paperback and digital editions. This new edition, the only reprint in nearly a century, includes an informative introduction by Mark Valentine covering almost all of Stephens' work with some enticing details on four of his other novels. For those who like their genre fiction unclassifiable I highly recommend this unusual book. A mix of detection, other worldly mystery, and social criticism The Mummy is an extraordinarily resonant book in our age of the relentless pursuit of the fountain of youth, both literally and metaphorically.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

FIRST BOOKS: Method in His Murder - Thurman Warriner

US edition (Macmillan, 1950)
It’s rare to encounter a discussion of evil in crime fiction these days. Why is that? Why is there such a stigma placed on the word? The use of the word has not only been weakened by post-modern analyses of “the banality of evil” it has been overused in pulpy horror fiction and movies where the word is used to conjure up cliché ideas of evil residing within demons who then possess humans and “make them evil.” Evil in genre fiction, if not being discussed in medieval or supernatural connotations often goes hand in hand with religious discussions and theological concepts. Every now and then writers of the Golden Age dabbled in talk of evil but more often than not it was coupled in a plot that mixed crime with witchcraft, demonology, and malevolent ghosts. When a book like Method in His Murder (1950) dares to talk about the existence of evil among everyday humans without once bringing up the supernatural the tendency is for a modern reader to balk at the writer’s ideas or laugh at the characters or both. Thurman Warriner is one of the few crime fiction writers who can discuss evil in a grounded, humane way without resorting to heavy handed talk of the Devil or grow tiresome with the usual historical references that exemplify the evil of mankind.

Charles Ambo meets Rhoda Wainfleet, a thoroughly evil woman in his estimation, who in the first sentence arouses this visceral reaction: “…he told himself that if she were his wife, instead of John’s, his thoughts would long ago have turned to murder.” Try as he might to warm up to Rhoda Mr. Ambo is bothered by the way she seems to control her husband, undermining his well being by preventing him from pursuing his love of writing, mocking his hobbies, and in her possession and jealousy seems to be literally destroying the man’s health and well-being.

Wainfleet draws Ambo into his confidence and reveals that he has been living a double life. He has fallen in love with another woman who is the exact opposite of Rhoda. Carolyn encourages his writing and knows him under his alias of “Roger Kirton”, a well regarded novelist. Wainfleet wants Ambo to help him handle some documents that will provide for Carolyn financially should anything happen to him. Ambo wonders if Wainfleet is in fear of his life, but the question is evaded. Ambo fears his thoughts about Rhoda are worse than he imagined. Should she ever learn of the existence of the other woman it would not only by John Wainfleet who would be in danger.

UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton , 1950)
There is a party at the Wainfleet’s and John leaves with two business associates. That night one of the associates -- Rhoda’s brother Laurie -- dies in a car wreck only a few hours after John was dropped off elsewhere. An inquest follows. John has a complex alibi that seems to put him in the clear and despite the involved proceedings at the inquest he is cleared when the coroner’s jury returns a verdict of death by misadventure. Mr. Ambo, however, is troubled by that alibi. It seems too convenient and he is certain that John is not telling the whole truth. He is sure that Laurie Barton was murdered and also believes that Rhoda is somehow involved. No matter how he tries to disbelieve the verdict all evidence keeps pointing to John Wainfleet as a very clever murderer. With the help of private detective J. F. C. Scotter and his ravishing and sharp-witted secretary Lottie Mr. Ambo gets to the bottom of a cleverly engineered murder cover-up.

Throughout the tale we are treated to numerous discussions of evil. This is the first book to feature Warriner’s three series characters -- Ambo, Scotter and the Archdeacon Toft -- all of whom live in his fictional cathedral city of Tonchester. Last year I had reviewed The Doors of Sleep, another tightly plotted puzzling detective novel set in Tonchester, that touched on fundamental concepts of good and evil. Without having knowledge of this first book reading the Archdeacon’s beliefs in The Doors of Sleep came off as retro-medieval to me. But knowing that book is a continuation of the ideas set forth in Method in His Murder everything can now be seen in a different light. Here are examples of Warriner’s concepts of everyday evil:
"[Archdeacon Toft] seems to believe that the Devil has been released on parole, as it were, and that one of his minor activities may be to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by drawing their attention from the wheel at moments when all their efforts should be concentrated on driving."
"You’re not telling me that you actually believe in the Devil, Mr. Ambo?"
"Knowing human nature as I do, I see no harm in keeping an open mind, [Superintendent] Tydd."
Even Scotter gets into the act:

AMBO: "Could you believe that there is someone here in this town who knows John Wainfleet’s torment as well as I do, and take an unholy delight in it? Someone who thinks of his downfall as a personal triumph?"
SCOTTER: "Believe me, brother, if you’ve been a dick as long as I have you wouldn’t jib at anything. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Devil put his cloven foot down the chimney and knocked the teapot right off the table."
Later Scotter is less facetious when he gives this example:
"Remember that Nancy Cardwell case? Nice little kiddy—only seven years old. I was on the edge of it. They made out that Hanson killed her because she was identified with all the decent things he’d lost in his own life. Fellow’s in Broadmoor now. Oh yes, that sort of thing happens!"
The perspicacious summary of a child killer’s motive is telling and will come into play when the reason for Laurie Barton’s death is made fully clear. Rhoda Wainfleet is shown behaving in the same manner when she attempts to destroy a valuable Bible Mr. Ambo owns (he’s an avid antiquarian book collector) by throwing it in the fireplace. He can only see her act as one in which she tries to destroy anything that gives another person happiness. She strikes out impulsively, selfishly and callously. As bleak a portrait as she is painted Rhoda is not the only symbol of evil in this story. The culpability of all will be made apparent in the unexpected finale. While some of the criminal acts seem to be rationalized nearly everyone is shown to have succumbed to the “taint of original sin” Archdeacon Toft mentions earlier in the book.

Method in His Murder is available only in the used book market. The book was published both in UK and US hardcover editions but no paperback reprints exist that I could verify. No modern reprints are currently available in either print or digital format. Libraries are always a good bet, too. For more on Mr. Ambo, Archdeacon Toft and John Franklin Cornelius Scotter see my review of The Doors of Sleep. There is a bibliography for the entire series on that page.

Friday, March 11, 2016

FFB: The Dark Tunnel - Kenneth Millar

THE STORY: Who knew that Detroit was a hotbed of Nazi sympathizers and American traitors? Robert Branch, a history professor at Midwestern University, accidentally learns that one of the most trusted members of the faculty is suspected of being a Nazi collaborator. But his meddling soon leads to attempts on his life, the questionable suicide of a colleague, and the police in hot pursuit of Prof. Branch as prime suspect for the murder of a faculty member. Complicating matters is the reappearance of a former flame he met in Germany who may be involved in the spy ring.

CHARACTERS: The novel is narrated by Branch and shifts between past and present. We get to know of his current work on the War Board at Midwestern University in Arbana, MI (clearly modeled on University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) and his past life as a student in Germany. There he meets Ruth Esch, a part time actress in a Munich theater guild. Ruth also has her own flashbacks where we learn of her life and her involvement in the anti-Nazi underground. But when she resurfaces in Michigan years later Branch begins to question her loyalty and truthfulness. Could she have turned sides? The other main character is Peter Schneider, son of the suspected faculty member Prof. Herman Schneider, and the obvious villain of the piece. He's one of those typical Germans you encounter in spy novels of this era. Eerily handsome, Aryan blond, overtly sadistic. If you're well read in spy novels of this era that description should also set off a red alarm about Schneider's deep, dark, secret which unfortunately is ruined on the cover of one well known paperback edition of this book. It's not really a spoiler for me as it was pretty much a dead giveaway the moment he was described. There are, however, other surprises and twists in the novel that actually are more shocking than that one. Shocking to a 21st century reader's sensibility, that is. But I'll refrain from going into greater detail. It deserves an essay of its own.

QUOTESThe Dark Tunnel (1944) was Millar's first novel, completed while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He, of course, would become better known as Ross Macdonald and the creator of Lew Archer, one of the best private eyes in the genre. Already his talent for metaphor, description and artful prose is on display. Here are some of my favorite passages:

Most of the women wore Paris dresses and had the unreal, glazed look of the too perfectly groomed, the look of orchids and rich men's wives and daughters of top-flight politicians' mistresses.

His eyelashes and eyebrows were so light that he seemed to have none, and his steady eyes were almost colorless and held no meaning. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Peter Schneider's soul had long ago pulled down the blinds and gone into another room.

But there was a bright light over the main desk and a young man with carefully parted fair hair sat behind it like a saint in a lighted embrasure or a dummy in a show window. A bellhop leaning against the wall by the elevator doors stirred like a reptile at a touch of sun when I came in the door. He saw that I had no suitcase and went to sleep again against the wall.

It sounded like the kind of nonsense a man talks when final disillusion has deprived words of all meaning for him, but his gun was as steady as part of the building. Yet he sounded faintly regretful, like a mosquito-lover who has to kill a mosquito.

When the mind is held awake on the point of sleep, an imagined face will take a hundred shapes, changing like a movie fadeout and fadein from beauty to ugliness, from gracious intelligence to idiot evil and back again to virtue and beauty. [...] I sat and watched Ruth's face change all night.

I felt for him the kind of remote pity I felt for Agamemnon, a weak, well meaning man betrayed and murdered in a forgotten language on a stage that time had crumbled into dust.

Italian paperback edition.
Fencing scene?. Yes. Two, in fact!
INNOVATIONS: So much has been written about Millar in all his incarnations and styles that writing this review is almost pointless. This is a brilliant debut on so many levels, but I'll mention only two. As an academic thriller it has insights into both wartime in the US and the claustrophobic insular world of ivory tower think tanks. As a murder mystery -- and there are several facets of a detective novel here -- Millar constructs two diabolical methods of murder. One could be labeled a quasi-impossible crime in that the killer disguises one murder as a suicide so devilishly it fools the police and nearly everyone else. Not Robert Branch, however, who spots tell-tale clues and pieces together how the implausible suicide of his colleague was a savage murder. It's gasp inducing in its sadism.

THINGS I LEARNED: Where do I start? By page 22 I had already consulted my smart phone seven times! Millar stuffs his pages with esoteric references and literary allusions that eluded me. The wartime references surely would have been fresh in the minds of contemporary readers, but to a 21st century history-ignorant reader like myself I not only craved more background I needed it if I was to understand the novel.

1. Detroit really was a hotbed of spies. One spy ring was led by Grace Buchanan-Dineen, a Michigan society woman known as "The Countess" who recruited everyone from auto workers to doctors to a professor at Wayne State University in gathering information related to the war effort from various universities and industries, notably the aircraft factories in Michigan. There was also Max Stephan who helped German POWs escape form Bowmanville camp near Toronto and helped them settle in Michigan. All of this has been covered in newspapers of the era, several non-fiction accounts, and even a novel featuring Pucci Lewis, a woman Air Corps pilot turned sleuth who appears in Lipstick and Lies, the first of a series of mysteries by Margit Liesche.

2. Wobbly was a nickname for members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a labor union formed in 1905 and affiliated with socialist and anarchists labor movements. AFL, the American labor union organization, was considered extremely conservative while IWW was seen as dangerously radical for their all-inclusive membership policy that allowed women, people of all races -- especially blacks, and immigrants many of whom didn't' speak English to join their ranks. Many IWW members were also aligned with the early Communist party movement.

Kenneth Millar - 1938 Univ of Western Ontario grad
He was 23 when this portrait was taken.
3. Branch is admonished for smoking during the playing of the Horst Wessel song in a key scene in the Germany flashback. "The what," I said?  And why couldn't you smoke during a song that preceded a military procession? Turns out this is the euphemistic term for the Nazi national anthem. No one moved or was supposed to show any disrespect while it played in public. Smoking was also taboo apparently as Branch gets his pipe knocked out of his hand by a stuffy old German man. This is how he meets Ruth who politely intervenes before the encounter turns into a brawl. Anyway,... Wessel wrote the militaristic poem that served as the lyrics for the anthem. Prior to World War Two and Hitler's rise to power Wessel was an SA (Sturmabteilung) Officer, or storm trooper to all us slang loving Americans.

4. Some vocabulary I picked up: arriviste - an upstart, someone promoted to a position of authority but who has not yet earned respect. Branch uses it self-deprecatingly to describe his unworthy assistant professorship.  cenotaph - literally "empty tomb", is a monument erected on a site to commemorate a person or group of people who are buried at a different location.  I've heard the slang term "Sellotaph" before to describe roadside memorials for car accident victims and suicides but never knew that this is obviously a pun on the word "cenotaph".  Sello meaning the cellophane wrapping that come with the flowers and other items left to memorialize the loved one.

EASY TO FIND? Good news to report on this one. All of Ross Macdonald's books, including his early work under his real name, were reissued in paperback and digital books by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media. They used the Macdonald name for all of them so don't go looking under Kenneth Millar if you want a new edition. And of course you can find hundreds of used copies in various paperback editions under either name at very affordable prices. If you have some spare cash on hand you can shell out $350 for a first edition with DJ. Wait! That's with a facsimile DJ. A first edition with a genuine DJ will cost you $1500. The prices only go up from there ending at an audacious price tag of $55,000 for a pristine signed copy. "Ye Gods!" as my mother used to say.

Vintage paperback collectors might know of the alternately titled I Die Slowly in the second Lion Library edition. Wisely, Lion decided to remove all spoiler references from this second edition cover. I'm not showing the cover of the first paperback edition of The Dark Tunnel. You're welcome to find it on the internet and ruin one of the twists in the book all on your own.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Sometimes I am introduced to an author through a very unorthodox method. Take for instance my latest discovery – Louisa Revell. I found a very interesting paperback edition of The Bus Station Murders (1947) published by T. V. Boardman, a UK outfit primarily known for their “Bloodhound Mysteries” imprint in hardcover. These books are almost exclusively private eye novels, mostly by American writers, and if not actually about a private eye tend to be of the hardboiled or semi-tough genre. Boardman published the work of Henry Kane, Fredric Brown, Thomas B. Dewey, and Lionel White and many others whose work is exemplified by dark impulses and violent crime. Judging by the attractive cover art, much of it modeled on the "GGA" (Good Girl Art) style of American paperback originals, they seemed to market the imprint to a male audience. Boardman, however, published very few books by women mystery writers. Only Dolores Hitchens comes immediately to mind, but her excellent private eye novel Sleep with Slander fits their model perfectly. Why then did Boardman choose to reprint Louisa Revell’s book? Not just one, but three of them. They aren’t private eye novels and they are far from hypermasculine.

Louisa Revell’s series character, Julia Tyler, is a 68 year-old retired Latin teacher who has read way too many detective novels and she likes to remind the reader of that very often. The first book in the series is flooded with references not only to fictional detectives and their authors but specific titles which Julia, her great niece Anne, and Anne’s husband Dick Travers talk about with the enthusiasm of today’s comic book fanboys. Since Boardman chose to publish The Bus Station Murders I thought it might be something along the lines of D. B. Olsen’s very bloody mysteries depicting ax murders and violent shootings. Louisa Revell’s style of mystery, however, is as far from Olsen’s gory “pseudo-cozy” as she is from the private eye subgenre. She turns out to have chosen -- of all people -- Leslie Ford as her model detective novelist. References to Ford far outnumber any mention of Hercule Poirot, Mary Roberts Rinehart or Mignon Eberhart who are frequently talked of in the series. That Julia Tyler’s relatives live in Annapolis and the first two books are set in the American southeast may not come as a surprise to readers who know Ford’s books with their Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia locales.

Further research turned up the true identity of Louisa Revell. She was Ellen Hart Smith, an academic with a background in Colonial American history. Under her own name she wrote Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the first notable biography of that member of the First Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and first United States senator for Maryland. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Smith also wrote numerous book reviews on eighteenth century biographies and histories for Maryland Historical Magazine, the journal for that state's historical society. She apparently lived in Maryland for most of her life where she may have been employed by a university but I have been unable to confirm that. I do know that she retired to Owensboro, Kentucky. Is it any wonder that a historian concerned with pre- and post-Revolutionary War era in the American South and an obvious interest in the rigid structure of the naval community in Annapolis would gravitate toward the mysteries of Leslie Ford?

Smith’s knowledge of life in Annapolis, the presence of the navy wives who dominate that society, and the intricacies of naval etiquette form the background of The Bus Station Murders. Like Ford she is very much concerned with the artifice of the American Southern aristocracy, the class and servant issues that betray a South still clinging to its antebellum past and trying to reconcile its racial prejudices. Julia Tyler is a strong personality -- opinionated, slightly snobby and unapologetic in her intolerance for the hypocrites of the world. Oddly, she often resembles those whom she is attacking with her dismissive exclamations. “I didn’t really care for him,” “What an idiot!” and similar thoughts are openly admitted throughout the narratives of the first three books. Her disdain for hypocrites is contrasted by her attraction to unusual personalities. Often she surprises herself when she is enamored of people whose charm may in fact be a cover for a darker personality. Had it not been for her forthright nature in discussing her own contradictory personality in choosing who appeals or doesn’t appeal to her Julia might have become utterly intolerable herself. Strangely, I found that Julia Tyler grew on me the more I read of her adventures.

The Bus Station Murders though published in 1947 takes place during the final months of World War Two. This debut novel is a fascinating read for its portrayal of America at wartime. Even passing references to American culture enliven the book with a wartime verisimilitude not often found in mystery fiction of this era. A visit to a movie theater showing the Bob Hope movie The Princess and the Pirate released in 1944 firmly dates the book’s action. The navy and its tacit societal etiquette are aspects of the novel that perhaps only someone of Julia Tyler’s make up could write about so intriguingly.

When a naval officer’s widow is stabbed on a bus Julia finds herself suspected of the crime along with all the other passengers. The murder investigation allows Julia to meld her passion for fictional murder with real murder. She and Anne and Dick spend their time discussing the peculiarities of the crime (e.g. the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle), the all too convenient coincidences tying several passengers to the murder victim. Interestingly, Julia’s gut instincts about a couple of the passengers dismissed by Inspector Ben Kramer as not being real evidence ultimately prove to be correct. Had the stubborn police officer taken her advice and followed up on her hunches the other deaths that followed might easily have been prevented.

Julia is perhaps the epitome of what an amateur detective should be in fiction. Having no real encounter with real crime but relying only on the fanciful stories of mystery writers she follows the tenets and practices of her favorite characters. With an inquisitive nature and a forthright yet slightly devious way of asking prying questions she gathers information and sifts through the chatty anecdotal dialogue that makes up the bulk of the book. But she doesn’t ever really come to any conclusions. She may be the narrator, we may get to know all the characters through her often patronizing point of view, but as a detective she is unsuccessful. She has hunches but is always missing something important – usually a motive. The cases are always solved by someone else in the story.

If there is any real fault in this series it is a tendency for Smith to use Julia as her spokesperson on every topic that arises. There are flippant remarks about air travel, jibes on the existence of tramps, chit chat about designer clothing and dog breeding. While some of her remarks are often amusing the abundance of them tend to distract from the main story. Julia is not the only one who veers off into garrulous non sequiturs and tangential commentary. No Pockets in Shrouds has a dentist being asked a simple question during a murder inquest. In response he delivers a four page lecture on the history of the use of sodium fluoride in American drinking water. Four pages! From that I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the soil make-up and the agricultural practices in Deaf Smith County in Texas but also that sodium fluoride had been used as ant poison for decades. But the lecture is not entirely arbitrary. The murder victims in that book have, of course, been poisoned with sodium fluoride.

Fans of female detective characters like Maud Silver and Grace Latham will find these mysteries to their liking. Even if Julia is not exactly the best of sleuths she has proven instincts and her observations about human nature have a contemporary American flair that still rings true. And it is hard not to take a liking to her very American sense of humor and the unexpected moments where she lets her guard down and we see her compassionate humble side.

More on Julia Tyler will follow when I write more specifically on each of the three books I’ve read so far. Most of these books were published in both the US and UK with only the UK editions reprinted in paperback editions. Some titles are more easily found than others, but none are currently available in modern reprint editions or eBooks that I know of.

Julia Tyler Detective Novels

(Reviews on this blog are highlighted with links)
The Bus Station Murders (1947)
No Pockets in Shrouds (1948)
A Silver Spade (1950)
The Kindest Use a Knife (1952)
The Men with Three Eyes (1955)
See Rome and Die (1957)
A Party for the Shooting (1960)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

FFB: The Empty House - Irina Karlova

The last time I wrote about a book by Irina Karlova (Dreadful Hollow, reviewed here) I talked about its preposterous vampire plot and the unintentional self-parody that resulted from her overly serious attempt to capture the spirit of an old fashioned Gothic   thriller while retelling the plot of a couple of Universal horror movies. I wasn’t sure she would deliver in her second book – the very rare The Empty House (1944) – a copy of which I serendipitously uncovered through the miracle of want lists. She did not disappoint.

The Empty House is just as creaky as Karlova's debut in its imitation of the lurid 18th century novels of Regina Maria Roche, Francis Lathom, and Eliza Parsons. She also manages to outdo herself in delivering a battalion of clichés resulting in what I like to call the "Icy Fear” school of writing. Yes, it runs through the heroine's veins. It not only runs through her veins it practically races down the street chasing after a catalog of synonyms for "eerie" accompanied by miasmas of fog, lightning that illuminates the street and flickering candles used anytime someone has to explore the two -- count 'em, two -- creepy cellars. It's 1944, by the way, not 1786. No mention of the war, no mention of the blackout, no mention of the bombings in London. Still... Doesn't anyone have a damn flashlight?

Her penchant for using two dollar words and obsolete adjectives when plain old English will suffice only serves to undermine the intended atmospheric touches. She prefers abashed instead of embarrassed, benignant instead of benign. She relies heavily on pet phrases, too. "Cheek by jowl" occurs over twenty times throughout the book. The police inspector uses the term “sanguinary stains” when talking to his sergeant at a crime scene. More than once. "Come on, Irina!" I screamed at the book. "Policemen do not talk like that." I doubt they ever did even in the late 1700s when the Gothic novel flourished.

Amid all the eccentric vocabulary choices, outmoded syntax, derivative plot motifs and outright borrowing of other writer's stories Karlova (aka Helen Clamp) has only one true innovation. Clamp blends psychic phenomena and reincarnation with a case of dissociative personality disorder and creates one genuine mystery of identity and real versus imagined events that are not fully explained until the final pages.

Yet she undermines the entire construct of her novel before the first paragraph starts. For some reason Clamp adds an author note at the start of the book that gives away something that should have been left as a penultimate surprise. That ought to tell you how inept she is at constructing a "Spine-Chiller" that ought to shock, or at least surprise, the reader with unexpected plot twists. I'll attempt to be concise in my summary of the insane story and will most likely spoil a lot in the telling. You may want to skip down to the "Things I Learned" section. But the book is so rare you'll probably never find a copy in your lifetime. Took me close to fifteen years to find this one.

Ready? Here we go…

Catherine Lee has stumbled upon a gruesome murder and is fleeing the scene in a fog ridden street. A gold match case has been shoved into her hand by the dying man who gasps out these final phrases “For God's sake -- take it -- It's murdered me!  give -- police" just before shuffling off this mortal coil. She seeks shelter in the closest house and the Professor who lives there convinces her to stay with him lest she be thought responsible for the crime. Her hands are bloodstained and Clamp has the Professor say, "You have been caught red handed, my dear" and he actually giggles. Her only options, he tells her, are these: 1. Leave and you’ll surely be arrested and hanged for murder or 2. Stay here and I can shelter you and turn you into a beauty. Because she is a ninny of a heroine she believes these are her only two choices and decides to stay. This is her first of many foolish decisions.

Lionel Atwill and friend from
The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
The professor is actually a famed Austrian wax sculptor who lost his mind years ago and turned into a homicidal maniac. His house is filled with "startlingly lifelike" wax figures that "keep [him] company." (One guess as to what they really are.) He makes her a wax mask that transforms her into a beauty and either due to a weird magical chemical bath he immerses the mask into or through hypnosis, or a combination of both, he gets her to believe she is a completely different person while wearing the mask. He calls her Lilith and she soon is switching on and off between these two personas like the atmospheric lightning strikes that occur every ten pages or so. Later, we learn that she is re-enacting the life of Lucretia Borgia, one of the many wax figures in the Professor's long destroyed traveling Chamber of Horrors.

As if a mad scientist/wax sculptor and reincarnation via hypnosis or chemicals or whatever wasn't enough over-the-top plotting Catherine also has a gift for psychic time traveling. She is able to feel the presence of evil and past events and manages to either conjure up the events and relive them or travel back to when the events took place. It’s really not made clear and it’s poorly explained in the final pages by Sir Marcus Syme, the requisite brilliant psychiatrist who “cures” Catherine/Lilith/Lucretia and makes her whole again.

There’s a lot more to this -- murder, abduction, assumed identities, asylum escapes, and the mysterious empty and boarded up house that gives the book its title -- but I’ll spare you all that. Frankly, it’s a mess of a plot so crammed full of horror movie trappings and Gothic excess it was a bit too much even for me. Added to the over-the-top fantasy and supernatural elements is the continual shift in the action between the past and the present. I never knew where I was, what really happened, what was imagined, who was a ghost, who was real, or whatever.

While Dracula served as her template for Dreadful Hollow Clamp chose to pilfer from many sources for her second supernatural “spine-chiller”. She has crammed as much as she can into its brief 167 pages with references to both books and movie scripts, uses every hoary cliché from Gothic writers and pulp magazine fictioneers, and throws in an ample helping of pop psychology circa 1944 no doubt picked up from the magazine racks and Hollywood screenwriters of the era. There are allusions to Bulwer-Lytton’s “The House and the Brain”, Mrs. Danvers, Igor in the Frankenstein movies, as well as blatant "borrowing" of the plots of The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Lost Horizon, The Old Dark House, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and every lurid thriller featuring a gorilla on a rampage made between 1930 and 1943. She tosses everything she can into her blender, turns it on high speed and comes up with a heady potent cocktail guaranteed to give you a nasty hangover.

The killer bears a striking resemblance
to Lord Byron...with very hairy arms
As was the case with Dreadful Hollow the plot twists in The Empty House fall flat because they are so easily predicted. No one could possibly be shocked by the italicized sentences Clamp employs to jolt the reader. Even if there were no drawing of a gorilla on the DJ all her straightforward descriptions of a hairy armed beast with fifteen inch non-human footprints can only mean one thing. The dull policeman in the case, however, clearly has never been to the movies or read Poe. At the halfway mark in the book, and thirty pages after he has been told by a forensic expert that some reddish black tufts of hair found in the gold match case belong to an “anthropoid ape” Inspector Gregory wisely starts to talk about the famous Poe story. Then he muses, "I wonder if in this modern case these mysterious crimes can be traced to a creature whose logic and reasoning powers are sub-human, showing merely a brute ferocity..."

Clamp tries hard to misdirect the reader with this statement and later descriptions of the hairy beast. Could the human villain who looks like Lord Byron and the phantom ape be one and the same? She hints at this throughout the story. I was hoping it would be the first instance of a were-ape in supernatural fiction. No such luck. I have no problem spoiling the fact that the gorilla wears a wax mask of a gorgeous Lord Byron look-alike that makes everyone believe that there is a half human/half ape kidnapping and killing people. "Wait!" (I hear you exclaim.)  "A gorilla manages to keep a wax mask on its face and not rip it to pieces?" Well, my friends, this is one very well trained ape. And those masks are genuine works of art with some sort of chemical magic mixed in. Plus, the ape did come from a traveling circus. Yes, he's a performing gorilla. You gotta love Irina Karlova for her chutzpah.

1. Clamp used the phrase "prunes and prisms" to describe the entire Victorian era. I had never heard this before. Apparently, it was invented by Charles Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit which features a pretentious guardian named Hortensia General who tries to teach the heroine to speak properly by forming her lips around several words that start with P. Two of the words are prune and prism.  The phrase "prunes and prisms" later was adopted to refer to affected, primly precise speech and behavior.  There are mutliple citations in annotated dictionaries showing its use throughout the Victoran era and well into the mid twentieth century. This is the first time I have ever encountered the phrase in anything I've read.

2. The retina image nonsense is used in this book!  I couldn't believe that a police officer seriously considered this as forensic evidence in a book published in 1944. He takes a picture of "the retina and the brain", develops the photograph and sees the last image seen by a murder victim. And it's the face of Lord Byron! As if the performing gorilla wasn't enough she threw that into the works. I literally burst out laughing.

3. More stuff about eyes. Her long Kalmuk eyes glanced his way for a fleeting instant. That sentence occurs on page 36 and I hadn't a clue what it meant.  So I headed to my smart phone and did an internet search. Kalmuk is a variant spelling of Kalmyk, a forgotten group of Asian people also known as Oirats, whose ancestors came from Mongolia and settled in an region now a federal state of Russia called Kalmykia.  I'm guessing Kalmuk eyes is an esoteric and "non-racist" way to say someone had "almond eyes", a very popular term used to describe Asian women in genre fiction back in the day. Even if she recycled other writers' plots at least Clamp found new ways to be offensive.

I so much wanted to like this book, but now that I’ve completed the trio of novels by “Irina Karlova” it is overwhelmingly clear to me why she was not reprinted and has fallen into the limbo of forgotten books. Every now and then there are books I heartily recommend you avoid and not bother searching for. Ever. This is one of them. Farewell, Irina. It was a fun fifteen years looking for your books. Onward and upward!

[Many thanks to fellow obscure mystery fiction aficionado Darrell, way up in Saskatoon, for the scan of the ultra rare DJ. My copy, sadly, is a naked one.]