Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Ah, Sun-Flower! weary of time"

Some photos of our rooftop garden.  Sunflowers, zinnias, lantana plants and a slew of others. We had many early blooming plants this year due to lots of rain in late June and early July. Probably the best flowers we've grown. All the sunflowers were grown from seed, others were small plants purchased from nurseries and transplanted to large containers. In some cases those small plants are now four times their original size.

The sunflower varietals are named (in order as shown below) Evening Sun, Lemon Queen and Mexican Torch. A few more with even odder names have yet to bloom but I expect them to all explode in a burst of color by the end of this week.


Friday, July 29, 2016

FFB: All for the Love of a Lady - Leslie Ford

THE STORY: More murder and mayhem among the rich and wealthy in Washington, DC occurs in All for the Love of a Lady (1944). This time Grace and Colonel Primrose encounter the bizarre poisoning death of a chauffeur and the later strangling of his employer. Are they connected? Was the chauffeur an accidental victim and was D.J. Durbin -- irascible, ailurophobic, war profiteer -- the intended target? The poison method in the first murder and the strangling in the second set Colonel Primrose to thinking that they may be two culprits in the case and perhaps one more murder to follow.

THE CHARACTERS: This is my first encounter with both Grace and Primrose. They have a long history together and though Grace alludes to the rumors of a burgeoning romance and the whispers of "Why aren't they married yet?" I don't get much of a sense of anything other than fondness for one another. Although this is the 12th book in the series Primrose still doesn't call her by her first name, instead insisting on the more formal Mrs. Latham anytime he addresses her. Nevertheless as a duo they are a lot more interesting to me than many of the married sleuthing couples created by Ford's mostly American contemporaries. Grace and Primrose have an edge to their relationship and rarely does it descend to the witty banter, frothy kind of fake love relationship you get in the married detectives books. Primrose is involved in intelligence with either the War department, the FBI, the Justice department or some other secret unnamed adjunct office at the Pentagon. Grace is never really sure and Primrose doesn't talk much about his work. As a detective team they have the typical mix of male/female differences in thinking and are often at odds with one another. In one important sequence Grace allows one of the suspects to destroy evidence and never lets Primrose know until it's too late. He is justifiably very angry with her.

There is a relatively large cast of characters in this outing. The women always tend to stand out in Ford's books, but the mostly male cast in this book is a strong group of distinct personalities each with their own way of speaking and interacting. I'll make mention of Durbin's wife (the person who destroys evidence) and Corinne Blodgett (the wife of an officious lawyer) as the stand outs among the women. Courtney Durbin is much younger than her husband but has been in love with a man her own age for years. She, the younger man, and his wife are the subjects of a volatile lover's triangle. It may be that Courtney is the lady of the title for whom someone committed murder in order to free her from the prison of an unhappy marriage. Corinne is a comic character but one with an important role in providing clues to the final solution. She has some brilliantly realized farcical scenes. Ford's books have some very cinematic moments and I'm surprised none of her books were ever made into movies in the 1940s.

Among the noteworthy men there is Duleep Singh, a self-confessed charlatan of a psychic who has been advising several of the characters on everything from their love lives to their finances. There is another brilliant scene between Singh and Grace which shows some of Ford's penetrating insights into how easy it is to observe people and know them better than they know themselves. It was probably my favorite section in this very smart, excellently plotted detective novel.

ATMOSPHERE: The war looms large over the story. Durbin and his cronies have been spending time traveling to all corners of the world trying to find new sources for rubber and other natural products for their profiteering businesses. Now that Burma has been invaded by the Japanese they have lost access to their primary source.

Colonel Primrose is wily enough to know the effect of referring to men by their military rank in order to get the proper responses in his interrogation. He addresses Randy Fleming as Lieutenant and expects him to respond like an officer rather than a civilian and to behave honorably as well as truthfully. Grace spots this strategic interviewing tactic and Ford has her explain it to us in case we miss it. And I would have missed it for its sheer subtlety had she not pointed it out. I thought that was a very clever bit of WW2 type behavior that most modern writers would never think of.

Meanwhile on the homefront more mundane facets of the war crop up in everyday behaviors. The comic scene I mentioned with Corinne Blodgett involves her chasing after a red coupon when it flies out of her ration book just as a bus is pulling up to a stop. The driver is forced to stop short to avoid hitting Corrine who has run out into traffic chasing after the precious coupon. We learn that Lilac, Grace's housekeeper, has never once touched her ration coupon book for fear of being thrown in jail for misuse. Grace needs to explain to her that tearing the coupon out is part of its intended purpose, but Lilac won't touch them.

On page 83 is a passing remark showing how the war is always on everyone's minds: "The light in the back room was on, but she didn't answer the bell. I was worried, because I knew she wouldn't go away and leave a light on, in case of a blackout."

QUOTES:   She stopped abruptly half inside the door. It was not unlike the Queen Mary deciding to reverse engines in the middle of the Potomac Basin.

He looked very much as if he were supporting the whole [doorway]...Atlas in a banker's gray business suit, though I don't remember in any of the accounts I read of Atlas's pausing to spit, as Sergeant Buck did then into the tangled grass beside the rotten steps.

I don't really believe in the buzzard's shadow, though my kids half do because Lilac taught them to when they were babies, and fear has a substratal contagion you can laugh at if you keep you fingers crossed and knock on wood.

She was swathed in one of those indefinite things...a lot of misty blue-rose-gray chiffon that made her look rather like an ambulatory cloud with a solid center.

People's lives may be open books, but there's no use for those who can read them to go around doing it aloud.

It's invariably the obvious things you never give a thought to that rise up and smite you. It's like taking elaborate precautions against cracking up in a helicopter and breaking your neck because you forgot there was ice on the front steps.

Duleep Singh: "If telling her that [she is pure of heart], when she needs confidence in herself and in her own standards, is the trick of a charlatan, then I am a base one indeed."

THINGS I LEARNED: There is a lot of talk about superstitions especially those related to black cats. We learn that Durbin is deathly afraid of cats and someone uses the word ailurophobia in discussing his abnormal fear. He also uses the word galeanthropy. Never heard the word or ever seen it. According to the character galeanthropy is similar to lycanthropy except that it is a cat rather than a wolf that the person is afraid he is transforming into. Sure enough Merriam-Webster confirms his definition. I thought for sure this was a neologism of Ford's creation.

p. 160: "He's a great wag, Inspector. Always full of practical jokes, like putting breakfast food into your bed on the plane." WHAT? There were beds on passenger planes in 1944? Yes, indeed! In the mid 1940s through the late 1950s some jumbo jets had berths similar to those on trains for sleeping passengers. Not surprisingly the cost of a ticket for this type of air travel was extremely expensive. The Boeing Stratocruiser (shown above), for instance, could "carry up to 100 passengers on the main deck plus 14 in the lower deck lounge; typical seating was for 63 or 84 passengers or 28 berthed and five seated passengers". For a personal anecdote read "When Airplanes Had Beds" on the Smithsonian magazine website.

EASY TO FIND: The answer is yes, but not in a modern edition. I'll not discuss the insulting lack of reprints of Leslie Ford's books again. There's a very stupid reason for it and it angers me to no end. You'll have to resort to the used book market and you should have no difficulty finding a copy. There are a variety of paperback and hardcovers out there to choose from and many copies for sale. When people claim that Ford's books are hard to find I'm puzzled. Her books are very easy to find if you're willing to buy them used. You're reading this on the internet now. Why not do a simple search? Use this website -- -- and you'll find a huge selection. They're out they waiting to be purchased. You'll make a used bookseller very happy, too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Dead Man at the Window - Jean Toussaint-Samat

For a book called The Dead Man at the Window (1934: Eng. transl. of Le Mort à la fenêtre, 1933) you would think that the primary focus would be the mysterious appearance of the title character. Well, I expected our brilliant yet altogether aloof detective Commissioner Levert to do so, at the very least call attention to it. But no. He holds back all mention of that figure from both shipping businessman Frédéric Moutte who acts as the novel's narrator and befuddled Watson and in doing so neglects to inform the reader. Levert expects Moutte, simply because he lives in the town, to know exactly why five men have dropped dead on the terrace where directly above a dead man appears at the window on the night of every full moon. Do you know of every local legend in your home town? I doubt it. Not one explanation for who the dead man in the window is, why he is there, and why he is there every full moon. Perhaps it's not a dead man at all but a ghost haunting the house. Levert knows, of course, and will eventually tell us but only in the final chapter. The bulk of the novel is spent investigating the reason why one man apparently died of fright on the terrace while five others committed suicide there over a period of over forty years. If the explanation of the not-at-all-mysterious dead man in the window had been given to both Moutte and the reader when Levert knew there would be no point in telling the story of all these strange suicides. Really this is not a novel at all. It's a short story transformed into a novel with all sorts of completely extraneous information that goes on and on and on.

The story begins as an engaging detective novel of the French school. The entire first section of this book divided into three distinct parts deals with a painstakingly detailed investigation of physical evidence like footprints and clothing to the point that one feels he has traveled back to the days of Emile Gaboriau in the late 19th century. The dead man at the window is dismissed almost as soon as he is mentioned. The owner of the house has one other interesting piece of information: he opened the shutters of that titular window because of the full moon. Does the policeman prod the witness further on this point with these obvious questions: "You open the shutters only during a full moon? And they remain closed at all other times? Why?" No. Certainly in any other detective novel these would be primary concerns. But the answer to these questions if the reader knew would immediately negate the reason for the book. There would be no mystery at all. Almost everything puzzling would be would be explained and a few other questions would be asked and voila! -- C'est fini la comédie.

Toussaint-Samat probably thought he was being clever by dropping these bizarre tidbits as if they are red herrings. No real devotee of mystery fiction would dismiss information related to the title of the book as a red herring. Does this writer think he is fooling his readers? Or perhaps he thinks this is creating an atmosphere of mystery by keeping the reader in suspense. But I would disagree with him. Overlooking or outright ignoring the obvious questions is not the way to create suspense. It is, however, an excellent way to provoke frustration on the reader's part.

How can Toussaint-Samat think that any reader would find this satisfactory? Introduce an intriguing premise in a single sentence, a constant reminder of that premise in the title of the book, and yet never address it? Instead the book goes into great detail about a seemingly insignificant murder of a thief that occurred in the nineteenth century; the arrest, trial and conviction of the two men responsible for the murder; and the life histories of the five suicide victims in absurdly detailed narratives that unfold and refold and overlap with each other. It's beguiling and maddening all at once. You can't help but marvel at the imagination required to dream up five life histories and find a way to tie them all together so cunningly. And yet... Where is the story of the dead man at the window? We want to know. Tell us about him!

illustration by Kay Rasmus Nielsen, Danish artist, for
a never published edition of 1001 Arabian Nights

This Chinese puzzle box narrative structure (which makes up the second section of this triple header of a book) is intended to make seemingly random events have a sinister design. The stories take on the shape of epic adventures in miniature. Unlike the more entertainingly told exercises of this type like The Arabian Nights or Harry Stephen Keeler's parodies of the Asian story-within-a-story motif Toussaint-Samat's novel becomes a tedious slog. The reader wades through nearly pointless stories in order to get to the core of the novel's real mystery. This is part of the novel's conceit -- that the stories will reveal patterns and the overlapping will reveal connections much like the way Ellery Queen would pore over odd clues in order to reveal a pattern of criminal behavior and make sense of the cryptic dying clue or, to take The Chinese Orange ystery as an example, the reason an entire room had everything turned upside down and backwards.

It is the third section where the book just completely falls to pieces. After treating us to genuine French detection in part one, then steeping us in melodramatic and hair-raising adventures in part two, Toussaint-Samat transforms the book into a riff on the lost race fantasy. Illogically, the detective duo find it necessary to travel to French Guiana to interview the only living convict sent to a penal colony after being found guilty of that 19th century crime discussed in part one. He has remained silent all these years and they hope to force the truth from him. He refuses to speak (of course!) and they are compelled to make an arduous months-long journey through the jungles to a pre-Columbian ruin where human sacrifices took place. I kid you not. And there's more. It's not just that this climax is utterly ridiculous and over-the-top that the book fails for me, but because it is filled with factual errors that simply ruin any sense of adventure or even fantasy.

The author confuses South American and Central American mythology, religious rites and cultures. There is a frequent mingling of mythologies in lost race literature, but there is always an attempt on the writer's part to tie them together to make it all plausible. Not so with Toussaint-Samat whose research is specious and just plain wrong.

One of the characters is a woman who is supposedly descended from an Incan princess and who has a tattoo on her chest to prove it. But when she brazenly bares her breasts to expose the tattoo it is of Huitzilopetchli, who she calls the Great Plumed Serpent and claims is a great god of the Incans. Wrong. He is the Aztec god of war often depicted carrying a serpent-shaped scepter (see image at right). The "Great Plumed Serpent" is Quetzalcoatl, also a figure from Aztec mythology. Absurd statements pop up: "All those Inca, Toltec and Kichaun [Quechua] temples are the same." An archeologist or ethnologist would go ballistic over such an erroneous generalization. Unforgivable, I think, for an adult writer living in the 20th century. Even the pulpiest of lost race fantasies so obsessed with undiscovered lands populated with descendants from Atlantis or Aztec and Incan kingdoms never combined all of those cultures in one mishmosh of a story. Nor would they make the fundamental error of misidentifying an Aztec god as an Incan god. And a truly imaginative writer would attempt to explain why a culture known to be confined to the western coast of the continent would show up in the northernmost portion of the land, 1800 miles from their central domain. This is the difference between the suspension of disbelief and just plain disbelief.

And what was accomplished in this journey? A gold case is retrieved from a hidden compartment underneath a sacrificial alter. The gold box was placed there by the other convict who after managing to escape his prison cell fled to the jungle and died in the ruin. In the gold box is... Oh why bother? It's all just utterly ridiculous. I no longer cared about anything in the final summing up, especially when it was revealed that the man who died on the terrace was not even who we thought he was! There was a switcheroo of identities (in yet another eleventh hour revelation) and the entire story descended into the kind of self-parody that Maurice LeBlanc loved to indulge in when writing the later Arsène Lupin novels.

But what about the dead man in the window? (I hear you all cry out in unison.) Dare I tell you that he's not human? Not even a ghost? Not human and not a ghost and still a man? Can't be, can it? I leave that to you wily detectives out there in the dark to figure out for yourself.

Or you could read the book, I guess. But I trust none of you could possibly be that curious or masochistic.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

You Got the Music in You

Sort of fed up with the world at large of late. Endless shootings all over the world, aggressive protests that do nothing but add to the divisiveness, and a hateful sociopath as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Here's a kickass song that has always been my anthem for not giving in to all that seems to oppress us.

Don't let go
You got the music in you
One dance left
This world is gonna pull through
Don't give up
We got a reason to live
Can't forget
We only get what we give...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

IMPRESSIVE IMPRINTS: Holt Mystery, 1939-1941

Henry Holt & Company had an unofficial mystery imprint throughout the 1930s. Around 1939 and for about three years afterward they created Holt Mystery imprint adapting their usual wise old owl colophon to a more sinister looking owl. For two years during wartime they decided to forgo paper dust jackets, presumably to save on paper as all publishers were doing, in favor of pictorial boards with a textured surface.

Sometime in the 1950s the owl logo transformed into an owl wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe. Did some Cockney punning artist decide to come up with Sherlock Owlmes? Unfortunately, I found only one example of this logo in 1952 and nothing afterward. I'm guessing it was just as short-lived as the first owl logo.

Below are examples of dust jacket art and illustrated boards from 1932 to 1952, the only years I can verify when a Holt Mystery imprint existed.

1939 - "A Holt Mystery" appears on spine
1939 - Owl logo not yet created

DJ with the Holt Mystery Logo
1940-first year with no DJs
and use of pictorial boards instead

Pictorial boards continue in 1940
Pictorial boards - 1940

Pictorial boards and for some odd reason the author name is absent
The book is by Donald Clough Cameron in case you're wondering

Brief return to using a DJ in 1941
Author is actually Frank Gruber using a pseudonym
Pictorial boards - 1941

1952 -  new "Sherlock Owlmes" logo
Appears on a few books in 1952 and 1953, then discarded

Friday, July 22, 2016

FFB: Puzzle for Puppets - Patrick Quentin

THE STORY: Lt. Peter Duluth (soon to be senior grade) is on Navy leave in San Francisco. His wife Iris has flown in from Los Angeles where she is finishing up a small part in a movie. Peter's leave coincides with Iris' 26th birthday and they decide to make the most of their limited time together hoping for an amorous weekend where they do not plan to leave their bedroom. That is if they can find one. Hotels are booked up and they're not having much success finding a room. Iris is about to suggest that they stay with her cousin Eulalia Crawford when a vivacious and very loud woman named Mrs. Rose overhears Peter and Iris discussing their hotel room dilemma. Mrs. Rose graciously offers them her room. It seems Iris has touched Mrs. Rose's sentimental side. It also helps that Iris bears a striking resemblance to a woman she knows very well. The Duluths gratefully accept the hotel room, the staff make the registration switch and thus begins an adventure that will include multiple cases of mistaken identity, abounding coincidences, a murdered puppeteer, and some insanity at a circus.

CHARACTERS: Peter and Iris Duluth are one of the most believable married couples in mysterydom. Not only are they truly in love, they have an unabashedly frank way of talking about their attraction for each other. This is a married couple with a sex life that is talked about openly and wittily. They can't wait to get in bed and they can't seem to keep their hands off each other. The sex talk and their attitudes are never vulgar, nor does it descend into wink-wink-nudge-nudge cutesiness. It's just real and human. Iris becomes the center of their truly surreal adventure when she is mistaken for her look-alike cousin Eulalia and she can't help but indulge in her avocation of an amateur sleuth much to Peter's disappointment.

Peter also gets involved in an absurd incident at a Turkish bathhouse leaving him without his navy uniform and without a towel at one point. So we have not only frank talk about their sex lives but an R rated sequence with loads of naked men, including Peter, at the baths. There's even a two sentence bit about Peter being cruised by a young gay boy. This is not your typical WW2 era detective novel by a long shot. But then it was written by two of mysterydom's most famous gay writers. You're bound to get some traipsing into taboo territory with Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler at the helm of your mystery novel.

The supporting cast is suitably fabulous. In addition to Mrs. Rose and her loud laugh and larger than life personality we have two private eyes one of whom helps Peter out of his predicament at the bathhouse. Later this private eye Hatch Williams along with his partner Bill Daggett help the Duluths get to the bottom of the multiple mysteries that begin with who stole Peter's navy uniform and leads to the bizarre stabbing murders of two women, and the identity of a lisping man, the solution to some enigmatic utterings from an inebriated criminologist, and tracking down the man who is running around San Francisco dressed in Lt Duluth's uniform and pretending to be him. Even the smallest walk-on part will turn out to be an important feature in this madcap plot that takes the Duluths on a wild chase throughout the city from the St. Anton Hotel to Eulalia's weird puppet workshop in her studio apartment, from a dive bar in Chinatown to the S.F. zoo, all of it culminating in a near fatal trap in the maze-like backstage corridors and basements of the Lawrence Arena.

Chinatown, San Francisco, circa mid 1940s

ATMOSPHERE: Here is one book published in 1944 that is very much about life during wartime. In addition to all the interesting business about navy officers and enlisted men and the rules they must follow even while on leave, Peter is very much concerned about getting his uniform back. For one thing it cost him $80 and should he be caught by some Navy V.I.P. out of uniform while on leave he'd be in a heck of a lot of trouble. Other references to the war include gas rationing, ration stamps, curfew, and my favorite -- the tattooed lady at the circus sideshow who has "Buy War Bonds" inked across her abdomen ("Surely no other artiste had risen to her country's emergency with such selfless nobility"). The Duluths get around town mostly by using public transportation, especially the trolleys, which allows for some interesting observations of everyday people


"Happy birthday, baby"
"Nylons! Peter, how--how on earth did you get them?"
I kissed her ear. "By selling my body in the right places."

"Something about the room makes me shameless. I think it's the cupids' bare behinds."

"One of the toughest things in the world is explaining to a wife just how you can love her with every part of you and still be raring to get back into battle."

1940s era post card - Bank of America, Owl Drug & cable car turnaround on Powell St.

"I had forgotten what unkind variations age can play on the theme of the masculine form. [...] Men in bulk, without their clothes, lose all personal identity."

"My indignation which had been simmering so long seethed over when I looked down at the Beard snoring his head off on the bed--our bed. That was the ultimate insult."

"I just didn't care. It wasn't as if the mystery ever got nearer to being solved. [...] It was just a succession of doors, one door leading to another door leading to another door leading in an endless chain to the madhouse. Let them all kill each other. Let a howling mob string me up on the nearest lamppost as a mass murderer. I'm through."

THINGS I LEARNED: Adolph Sutro was a wealthy mining and real estate entrepreneur who helped develop several public works and supported the arts in San Francisco. He created Sutro Baths, a huge salt water swimming pool for public use that lasted nearly one hundred years. It was converted into an ice skating rink in the 1950s but was destroyed in a fire in 1966.

Navy officers and enlisted men are required to wear their uniform when in public while on leave. Peter brings with him two uniforms, his regular khaki one at the bathhouse and his "glamour uniform" he brought along especially for Iris' birthday celebration when they go out to eat and dance.

EASY TO FIND? Some good news for a change! There are multiple editions (US, UK and France) of Puzzle for Puppets, especially in paperback. Most of the Peter and Iris Duluth mysteries by Patrick Quentin were reprinted several times since their original publication back in the 1940s. I count at least five different paperback editions, the most recent being the 1989 IPL paperback. There are a few hardcover copies out there, both US and UK, and some with DJs, too.

This is truly one of the best of the Peter & Iris Duluth mysteries.  Excellent plot w/ lots of puzzling riddles, authentic WW2 background, colorful characters, loads of action, and a generous helping of weirdness -- a whole lot of fun.  Happy hunting!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: "Murder à la Carte" by Jean Toussaint-Samat

Sheer serendipity today!

In researching the life and works of Jean Toussaint-Samat, a new to me author whose book The Dead Man at the Window I will soon be reviewing, I came across this nugget of Gallic Golden Age Fiction. As luck would have it's all about poison. Didn't think I'd have anything more to continue the conversation about toxicity in detective fiction, but here you go.

This scarce English translation was published in The Living Age which billed itself as "an eclectic literary magazine" that lasted from 1844 to 1941. Toussaint-Samat's story appeared in the June 1, 1931 issue. It was translated by an uncredited person from the French and originally appeared in Revue Bleue, a "Paris Literary and Political Semimonthly".

All four pages of this short short appear below. Enjoy!