Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Make Out with Murder - Chip Harrison

The dedication page to Make Out With Murder (1974) says: "This is for REX STOUT, whoever he might be." If you're one of those ardent readers who scrutinizes every page of a book this dedication will not only bring a smile to your face but will provide you with a tantalizing hint as to what lies within its pages. For this is not just another book starring and written by Chip Harrison exaggeratedly dubbed "a one man anti-chastity movement" on the cover it is a love letter to the traditional mystery novel.

Why the Stout dedication? And why that crack implying no one knows him? Well it's all due to Leo Haig, an aspiring private detective who has modeled himself on the practice of Nero Wolfe. And he actually believes -- as many people believe of Sherlock Holmes -- that Wolfe is a real person living a reclusive life somewhere in Manhattan where Haig has also set up business. He also believes that Rex Stout is the clever pseudonym chosen another real person, Archie Goodwin who according to Haig is not only Wolfe's right hand man but his most respected biographer. You'll have to read the book to find out Haig's theory about the origin of the Stout pen name. It's insanely funny and almost believable.

But it isn't just Wolfe that Haig admires. He knows and honors all the great detectives of fiction. In fact everything he knows about being a detective he has learned from his extensive collection of murder mysteries that crowd the shelves of his home. Look carefully and you'll also find several fish tanks artfully inserted in the many bookcases in Haig's house. Just like Wolfe has his obsession with orchids Leo Haig is overly devoted to the care of his large collection of rare tropical fish.

But enough about Haig. The book is really about Chip Harrison, who Haig has handpicked to be his own Archie Goodwin.  This third book is more of a first book in that it introduces Leo Haig and refashions Chip as his legman and biographer. It's a legitimate murder mystery serving as Chip's crash course in dealing with the temptations of femmes fatale of all ages and hair color. As if he hadn't already had his fill of women. In the previous two books Chip is a randy young man itching to lose his virginity. Those books are all about sex and bawdy humor not crime and dark motives.

Chip is head over heels in love with doomed Melanie Trelawney who has a morbid fear of dying. Two of Melanie's sisters died violently and suspiciously and she is certain she will succumb to a similar fate. Within days her death wish comes true and Chip is convinced that her death by heroin overdose is a vicious murder. Too many things are fishy. Like how Melanie was found dead on her air mattress bed but was overly cautious with sharp objects being anywhere near the bed let alone on it. Leo and Chip team up and show up the loutish cops who seem more interested in closing the case as another junkie suicide than in finding Melanie's killer.

The real fun reading this book is in revelling in Block's combination of ribald humor and Chip's slang-filled narration expressing a youthful worldview that comes across as utterly authentic. Detective fiction fans will enjoy the seemingly endless references to crime writers and their books. Haig promises his young employee that by drinking deep of murder mysteries he'll gain the knowledge he needs. Chip is impressed when Haig tells that all he knows of philately he picked up from The Scarlet Ruse, a Travis McGee book. Similarly, Sayers' The Nine Tailors taught him about the art of bell ringing. When Chip learns that one of the murder suspects is a numismatist he follows his employer/tutor's advice and reads Chandler's The High Window plus a book by Michael Innes to learn all he can about coin collecting.

Chip does all the legwork, gets beat up, and has a few bedroom interludes but it is Haig who comes up with the dazzling solution. This case of multiple murder will turn out to be more reminiscent of Ross Macdonald than Rex Stout -- a bit of detective fiction trivia Haig cannot help pointing out to Chip. While the killer may be a bit easy to spot as the body count climbs that doesn't mean this isn't worthy of your attention. I had a lot of fun meeting Chip and Leo. And I'm eager to read about them again in their second (sadly last) adventure set partially in a strip club and called The Topless Tulip Caper. Stay tuned for more...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Searchin" by Leiber & Stoller

A new feature every Saturday for a couple of weeks, gang. I'm calling this "Covering Their Tracks" since it has a perfect dual meaning for both music and mystery fiction. I've become obsessed lately with random allusions to fictional detectives in pop and rock music. Over at Patti Abbot's blog I heard yet another rock tune that arbitrarily inserts a Sherlock Holmes reference and it reminded me that a couple of months ago I attempted to get the Tuesday Night Bloggers to do a salute to Golden Age mystery writers and their characters in pop music lyrics. Didn't go over well with the one person I approached so I didn't even ask anyone else. Now I'm doing it myself.

Travelling way back to 1957 (there will be many modern tunes a-comin' my friends, don't worry) we have this allusion loaded tune. The melody is simplistic, jaunty, a bit too repetitive but the lyrics make it my first choice. So I had to start with this one.

Originally written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller for The Coasters "Searchin" was later covered by The Hollies, Neil Sedaka, The [Silver] Beatles (in the Peter Best days), Spencer Davis Group and The Grateful Dead (my least favorite) among many others. Musically the arrangement I like the best is the Spencer Davis Group cover but they cut all the lyrics about the detectives -- sacrilege! The Silver Beatles cover mixes up the lyrics something awful and they cut out Boston Blackie and add Peter Gunn instead. So I'm going with the true original. Here's The Coasters appearing on Dick Clark's short-lived second TV show "Saturday Night" from the episode aired March 19, 1960.


Below are the lyrics with the list of detectives. For all you young'uns out there Boston Blackie was a safecracker and thief turned detective created by writer Jack Boyle. The first story appeared in the July 1914 issue of The American Magazine. The Boston Blackie stories were adapted for both silent and talking movies, radio and TV from 1919 through the late 1950s. That's a long life for a detective and now of course he's almost entirely forgotten.

Yeah well, Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade
They got nothing, child, on me
Sergeant Friday, Charlie Chan
and Boston Blackie
No matter where she hides
Man, she's gonna hear me comin'
I'm gonna walk right down that street
Like Bulldog Drummond

Cause I've been searchin'
Woah Lord now, searchin'
For goodness, searchin' every way which way, oh yay
I'm like a Northwest Mountie
You know I'll bring her in someday

Friday, August 26, 2016

FFB: As Old As Cain - M. E. Chaber

THE STORY: Recently married insurance investigator Milo March has his newlywed bliss interrupted in As Old As Cain (1954). His boss asks him to travel to Athens, Ohio where a movie company has been loaned a collection of 18th century antiques and old books to be used as furnishings and props in a bio pic of an obscure Ohio pioneer. Milo is asked to make sure the security guards in charge of watching over the one million dollars' worth of insured antiques are legit and that theft is deterred. The day after he meets with the guards, the movie producer and scriptwriter, several antiques and books go missing and the guard is murdered. An in-depth police investigation, more murders and plenty of trouble follow. But the biggest mystery may be this: Will Milo ever get out of Ohio to be with his wife so he can start his honeymoon?

THE CHARACTERS: Just prior to the main plot of the guard's murder and theft of the antiques Milo rescues ten year-old Ernesto Pujol from New York immigration authorities. Seems Ernesto, who was Milo's junior Watson in an earlier case that took place in Spain, stowed away on an ocean liner and was promptly arrested when he landed on US soil. Milo consults with lawyers and manages to adopt Ernesto to prevent him from being deported and returning home in shame. It's an odd tangential plot element that doesn't seem to fit at all. Ernesto came to the US to fulfill Milo's prediction that one day they would work together again on another exciting case. The boy speaks no English and so his dialogue begins with Spanish and then trails off into a stilted English to indicate that he's speaking Spanish with Milo. He serves absolutely no purpose to the story except as a comic character since most of his scenes show him learning Hollywood movie slang and gangster-speak from Curtis Hoyt, the scriptwriter. Very odd too is that Ernesto is perhaps the most misogynistic 10 year-old in crime fiction. He has nothing good to say about women or the entire female sex for that matter. He's presented as a miniature parody of Spanish machismo. It's not really funny when coupled with the boys' obsession with eating ice cream, playing with firecrackers, and acting like a stereotype of a boy from a 1950s American TV show. I wonder if Ernesto disappears later in the series just as Greta, Milo's wife does. She serves no purpose in this story either.

But those are my only gripes with this book. The supporting cast of primary suspects are a varied lot and come off more colorful than those characters I'm used to from Ken Crossen's early pulp career. In his guise as "M.E. Chaber" Crossen has matured as a writer. The characters have distinctive voices and personalities. We have Hoyt, the wise acre Hollywood scriptwriter; a shapely, sex-obsessed, but vapid movie actress; an eccentric history professor obsessed with Athens Ohio's intriguing past; two feuding waspish spinsters more interested in their family reputations than anything else; and an assortment of policemen some clever, some bumbling.

INNOVATIONS: This is a legitimate detective novel and not anything like the espionage adventure thrillers that make up the bulk of the Milo March series. From what I have read on other mystery websites and from the allusions to the two previous books in the series March is often sent to foreign countries often undercover to deal with insurance fraud. Here Milo assists the police with a murder investigation that also involves theft. The story is handled like a traditional detective novel with the usual discovery of physical evidence, the odd red herrings, and Q&A of the suspects. Of primary interest among the missing antiques is a diary that was given to Curtis Hoyt. He pulled out of the diary some of the more fascinating incidents of the pioneer woman's life for inclusion in the movie. He also hints that he discovered something that will make for another movie in itself, one that he plans to call As Old As Cain. The history professor was eager to get his hands on the diary, and cannot understand why a Hollywood writer was the only person allowed to read the thing since it is of greater importance to the town. The story turns out to be something of a bibliomystery when the contents of the diary prove to be the underlying motive for all the criminal activity.

QUOTES: "What are you going to do -- slip over to the morgue and cut little slices off of Enoch to sell as souvenirs in the Brown Derby?"

"I'm not quite sure what you are. Certainly not a woman. You've got all the motions down pat, but the role is a little much for you. When the lines aren't written on the prompt card, you can't ad lib." (This delivered to the Hollywood sexpot right after he has sex with her! That's right--one day after he was married. Nice guy.)

"He drank," Mrs. Singer said. Her tone made it clear that this explained everything.

"Something must be done. Land's sake, a body just isn't safe in her own bed."
Lady, I thought, you'd be safe in anyone's bed.

Ken Crossen and friend, circa 1950s
THE AUTHOR: "M. E. Chaber" is one of the many alter egos of the prolific mystery writer and magician Kendell Foster Crossen whose pulpy impossible crime novels I've reviewed here and here. He also wrote as "Christopher Monig" and "Richard Foster". Interestingly, M.E. Chaber comes directly from mechaber, the Hebrew word for writer or author. You can read more about Crossen and Milo March on his Wikipedia page and at the Thrilling Detective website.

THINGS I LEARNED: As Old As Cain is utterly rooted in its time and is filled with 1950s style namedropping. I was constantly looking up names so I could understand the allusions in Milo's dialogue.

1. Edmund Bergler was a minor follower of Freudian psychoanalysis and made a name for himself in his theory of "psychic masochism", a self-punishment theory of aberrant human behavior "as the basic neurosis from which all other neurotic behaviors derive." He also wrote a book called Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? (1956) which was apparently considered "groundbreaking" at the time though much of it today reads as nothing more than legitimized bigotry and bad science.

2. Abe Lastfogel (spelled Lastvogel in the book) was the president of William Morris, the nations' premier talent agency. He ran the USO Camp Shows for WW2 military personnel throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

3. The McCarren Law of 1952 was one of the earliest immigration reform laws. It was primarily concerned with restricted immigration into the U.S. Truman vetoed the bill criticizing it as an example of isolationism but the veto was overridden by the House and Senate. From Wikipedia:  "The 1952 Act retained a quota system for nationalities and regions. Eventually, the Act established a preference system which determined which ethnic groups were desirable immigrants and placed great importance on labor qualifications." The rules defined in the Act regarding deportation of immigrants was exploited to keep out anyone associated with Communism.

4. I learned all about Philip Sidney's influential epic romance of the 16th century The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia which is mentioned in passing as one of the handful of old books among the stolen antiques. I'll spare you what I found fascinating about the work. It's egghead stuff only old Brit Lit codgers like me and nerdy Renaissance Lit fans would find interesting.

EASY TO FIND? All 21 Milo March books were reprinted by Paperback Library during the early 1970s. It's those books that you will most likely come across if you're a frequent stalker of used bookstore, thrift store or flea market oldies. The first nine Milo March books (excluding the title reviewed here) were originally reprinted in paperback by either Popular Library or Pocket Books between 1953 and 1960, often with alternate titles. As Old As Cain was reprinted as a first paperback in digest format by Lawrence Spivak's "Bestseller Mystery" imprint and retitled Take One for Murder (1955). This is often mistakenly listed as separate title in the Milo March book bibliographies elsewhere on the internet. The hardcover editions of the M.E. Chaber books are scarce, especially the earliest books in the series published in the 1950s. There are no modern reprints either in print or digital format that I am aware of.

I enjoyed this book despite the odd presence of the pre-adolescent woman-hating Ernesto and the almost pointless marriage and talk of Greta who is relegated to the background cropping up only now and then in Milo's passing thoughts. The plot is strong and the culprit's identity is fairly well hidden though becomes a bit obvious after the third murder. But the motive is unique and very much part of the 1950s mindset. I'll be checking out more of the series later in the year and seeing if the detective aspects hold up or if the espionage/adventure side takes over.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

IN BRIEF: The Case of Naomi Clynes

Basil Thomson is a writer I had no interest in reading until I came across TomCat’s review of The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934), the third case for Thomson’s perfunctory detective Inspector Richardson. The story of the investigation of an apparent suicide is soon proved to be very suspicious. Evidence shows her body was most likely dragged across the floor and placed with her head in her kitchen gas stove. Autopsy reveals poison in her system. Dogged investigation leads the police team and his unlikely colleague, a publisher of the dead woman’s detective novel, to France where they uncover an intricate plot involving impersonation, forgery, and a plot reminiscent of Victorian sensation novels replete with wicked guardians and imperiled heirs.

The story is told in a matter of fact manner, highlighted with a healthy sense of humor, some pointed satiric touches, and plenty of good old fashioned detection. Thomson has an imaginative streak in coming up with unusual clues like threads found on a protruding floorboard nail that match the dead woman’s clothes that serve as the foundation for the murder theory. The most clever of all is a cancelled postage stamp. Dorothy L. Sayers was greatly impressed that Thomson managed to spin such an ably constructed and complex plot out of something so seemingly insignificant. And I have to agree.

Apart from the skillful way in which Thomson turns the investigation of a burgeoning mystery writer’s strange murder into a Buchanesque pursuit thriller the most fascinating part of the novel is how Thomason teaches the reader about the differences between how police investigations are dealt with in the US and the UK. With the arrival of the publisher’s uncle who travels from America to England in order to help his nephew there follow several passages in which Thomson discusses the process of trial and punishment in both countries. The uncle is very critical of the US form of justice and sees it as a terrible cycle of repeat offenders being jailed, serving their time, freed on parole, and invariably caught and tried again when they return to a life of crime. Recidivism, apparently, was just as much a chronic problem in the 1930s as it is now. Some things never change.

Sir Basil Thomson, KCB (1861-1939)
For me Sir Basil Thomson’s life is much more interesting than his fiction. I think I’d prefer his biography over his fictional creations as lively as they can be. Martin Edwards’ introduction gives us not only a fine overview of Thomson’s eight detective noels, but also a taste of this remarkable man’s life. We discover his varied career path took him from foreign service in the South Pacific to British civil service to law enforcement ending as a knighted Asst. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the post World War 1 era only to have his life almost ruined by a shameful incident that remains a hazy blur of half-truths, hearsay and sensationalized rumor. Was he guilty of consorting with a prostitute in public? Was only partially guilty? Was he completely innocent? We may never know now.

The Case of Naomi Clynes along with the other seven detective novels by Basil Thomson have all been reprinted by the admirable Dean Street Press. They are available for sale directly from the publisher's website and through the usual online bookselling sites in both paperback and digital versions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

1954 STORIES: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 1954

In my mad obsession with the year 1954 for Past Offenses blog's monthly Crime of the Century meme I've completely immersed myself in writings from that year. This issue of EQMM was brought to my attention when I read that it included a story by L. Frank Baum reprinted for the first time since its original publication in an obscure magazine at the turn of the 20th century. TomCat, our resident locked room/impossible crime enthusiast, mentioned Baum's "The Suicide of Kiaros" as one of the stories he came across in a different locked room mystery anthology. Of course I had to track down a copy of the magazine. Luckily , I found a copy on eBay (why don't I have this kind of luck in casinos?!) and managed to make an offer for a price I thought more suitable for a 50 year old magazine. And when I pored over the table of contents what did I find but a more fascinating serendipitous discovery. The very first story by William Link and Richard Levinson, creators of Columbo and many other TV crime dramas and movies, when they were only 20 years old and still students at the University of Pennsylvania.

As readers of EQMM might know each first time writer's story is accompanied by a brief intro by the editors giving some biographical info on the writer and how the story came about. In the case of Levinson and Link the bio is longer than usual and filled with tidbits that you most likely will not find anywhere else on the web whether it be their separate pages or the Columbo tribute website. I learned that they knew each other since junior high in Philadelphia and became a writing team as early as their teen years. While still in high school they wrote and produced a musical comedy "that was so great a success that both were inspired to pursue a writing career." Having their first taste of "show business" the two college boys went on to write radio scripts in college and humor pieces for the UPenn humor magazine as well as detective short stories. They probably never imagined that their writing hobby would eventually lead to a career as the leading mystery writing duo of TV just under twenty years later.

"Whistle While You Work" is a neat little tale of a henpecked mailman who everyday looks forward to leaving his claustrophobic household dominated by his shrewish wife. Over a period of days a series of weirdly addressed letters in blue envelopes with black borders turn up in his mailbag all addressed to women. Later each woman who received such a letter is found brutally murdered. It's kind of a James Thurber meets James M. Cain story displaying a mature voice, an ironic sense of humor, and some keen insight for a couple of 20 year old college boys. If I were to give you the story to read and you knew nothing about the writers you'd imagine each might be a cynical old 50-something who had his fill of harpy of a wife.

The L. Frank Baum story is also a crime story rather than a detective story. It presents the life of a brazen bank teller with a gambling addiction and a taste for embezzlement who seeks out the help of a money lender to help him pay his debts and cover his "loans" from the cashier's till. He seizes an opportunity to make off with a sizable amount of the moneylender's cash only after resorting to murder. He then cleverly seals up the room and makes the crime look like suicide. Does he get away with it? The unusual ending -- especially for a story written in 1897 -- probably made jaws drop. I'm sure the story was shocking and considered tasteless and immoral by Baum's contemporaries.

Included also in the issue are a familiar Hercule Poirot story about poisoning and an unusual murder method ("How Does Your Garden Grow?"); a Lester Leith story ("The Candy Kid", first published in 1931 in Detective Fiction Weekly) featuring Erle Stanley Gardner's version of the urbane, wealthy playboy sleuth popular in the pulp magazines long before he created Perry Mason; and stories by John D MacDonald, Charles B Child and Peter Godfrey. I particularly liked an odd puzzle story by Laurence Blochman ("The Man with the Blue Ears") in which the reader is asked to find 18 intentional mistakes within the story. Some of them were easy to spot like knowing that lapis lazuli is a blue gemstone not a red one or that Washington and Lincoln appear on the $1 and $5 bills not Jackson and Hamilton. But lots of the errors like the mention of Pisco punch being made with Brazilian brandy (it's made with Peruvian brandy) or "a .32 police positive" (it should be a .38) went right over my head. Van Deen test for bloodstains? If you work in a forensic lab maybe. A regular Joe Reader knowing this? Probably not. Apparently Blochman, whose adventure thrillers and detective novels set in India I know very well and recommend highly, wrote a series of these type of "Spot the Mistake" stories for EQMM during the 1950s. This is also one of EQMM's more literary issues with reprints of two crime stories by Jack London and Roald Dahl ("Only a Chinago" and "Taste",  respectively).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise! Surprise!

Yesterday I went to the mailbox and found yet another review copy from a publisher who often sends me ARCs. The timing couldn't have been better; I had just finished a book and was looking for a new read for this week's daily commute. I thought to myself, "Hmm... I wonder if this one is worth reading." I opened the package and burst out laughing. It was an ARC for a reprint of The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen. (But you probably already knew that because of the picture over there on the left.) Yes, the very same book I had just finished and written up for FFB three days ago.

So for the handful of you who read my Friday's Forgotten Book post a few days ago here's some fantastic good news for you. A new paperback edition of this very fine noir thriller (which is also a detective novel) is coming to you in November.  Can you stand the waiting?

I bet Stark House never had this kind of ESP/synchronicity from the vintage book blogs for any of their planned reprints. Ever. I seriously had no clue that anyone had any interest in reprinting anything by Helen Nielsen. I am very, very happy that this book is being reprinted. And talk about advance reviews!

PLUS! Here's my first giveaway in many moons. Be the first person to email me with your interest in reading Nielsen's excellent book, and your mailing address of course, and I'll mail this ARC to you. I don't need it at all obviously since I already have a 1954 paperback as well as a 1st edition hardcover.


Sunday, August 21, 2016


David McKay Company, another publisher based in Philadelphia (see previous Main Line Mystery and Lippincott Masked Man posts), joined the post-World War Two era mystery imprint mania around the mid 1940s. They seemed to have copied their line of crime fiction imprints along Doubleday's Crime Club 1940s model which used a set of cartoon drawings to denote the subgenre of each of the books being sold ranging from a magnifying glass to signify "Favorite Detective" to a grinning skull for "Comic Crime". McKay Company also chose to broaden the definition of detective fiction to include spy novels and adventure thrillers that supposedly also include detective novel elements. On the rear panel of each book included in the imprint there was a key to help the buyer determine what kind of crime novel they were holding in their hands. But while Crime Club used distinctive icons McKay used a subtle system of color coding employed in the imprint's very clever logo of man reading in an armchair. And if you couldn't figure it out for yourself they just told you as shown in the example below.

The "Armchair Mystery" dust jackets began with a uniformly designed dust jacket at the start in 1945. The entire DJ had a yellow background with full color art work on the front panel, an ad for another Title on the rear panel, and the logo key explained on the rear flap along with another ad for the upcoming book in the series. The imprint logo or title was placed on the front board and spine of the book and on all panels of the DJ: front, both flaps, rear panel and spine panel. In the years after 1945 this formula was dropped and DJ art no longer used the yellow background and the logo key was eventually eliminated as well.

The leading writers in the "Armchair Mystery" imprint were Bruno Fischer, W. T. Ballard, and "Edward Ronns" who writing under his own name, Edward S. Aarons, became one of the bestselling writers for Gold Medal when he created the "Assignment" series featuring Sam Durrell, a CIA agent.

The imprint, however, was extremely short lived and ran from 1945 to 1948. I can find no sign of any of David McKay's detective, crime or espionage fiction after 1948 published as part of the "Armchair Mystery" imprint. If anyone knows that this one lasted longer, I'd appreciate knowing of some or all of the later titles.

Friday, August 19, 2016

FFB: The Woman on the Roof - Helen Nielsen

THE STORY: Wilma Rathjen is The Woman on the Roof (1954). She spends a lot of time watching her neighbors from her rooftop apartment that overlooks the courtyard building next door. One night while spying through their open, well lit windows she sees a dead woman in a bathtub but says nothing about it to anyone. Instead through her rash actions she unwittingly implicates herself in what turns out to be a murder set up to look like a terrible accident. When Wilma is targeted by the killer who thinks she knows too much Wilma flees making more foolish decisions and endangering others.

THE CHARACTERS: The viewpoints switch between Wilma and John Osgood, a police sergeant investigating the death of Jeri Lynn, an exotic dancer and would-be actress who was electrocuted in her bathtub. Told in the third person we get to know the intimate thoughts of only Osgood and Wilma. Their perceptions of the case vary wildly since Wilma is introduced as a paranoid neurotic from the very first page. Osgood eventually comes to see that what others interpret as the ravings of a "madwoman" are in fact truthful events but told to the police in such a hysterical fashion that she seems to be completely delusional if not guilty of the crime herself. The scenes with Wilma and Osgood alone are penetrating and we see that Wilma is hardly unbalanced but rather sharp witted and keenly observant. It's only her past that continues to haunt her and colors everything that could possibly be seen as threatening to her. The real pull of the story is in following Osgood's slow realization that everything that Wilma has done and everything she has seen and told him are not delusions but a slanted truth of sorts. She is holding back some key information and once he can get her to feel comfortable enough to tell all he knows he can solve the case. Yet at every turn in this often complex and highly suspenseful story Osgood is hindered by a killer who takes advantage of chance and coincidence and Wilma's mental imbalance.

The supporting players are a cross section of working class California and wanna-be entertainers. Nielsen knows this side of the Hollywood outskirts and the losers and dreamers very well. There are two show girls who act like the typical Hollywood starlets heightening mundane moments with melodramatic speech, a drop dead gorgeous hunk who likes to wash his sports car wearing nothing but his tight yellow swimming trunks, a has-been saloon singer who tries to befriend Wilma, the blowsy outspoken woman who runs a strip club, and the nosy ancient handyman who conveniently has keys to everyone's apartment and who can't help but do a little spying and sleuthing on his own.

INNOVATIONS: The Woman on the Roof is a rare example of a writer using a mentally ill character as a protagonist and not really caring if that lead role comes off as sympathetic. Still, Nielsen does an admirable job of presenting an obviously deeply troubled and neurotic woman well aware of her fears and paranoia and not turning her into the typical nut job you find in crime fiction of this era. Initially it's hard to like Wilma for all the seemingly ludicrous things she does but we do come to feel how trapped she feels. Sympathy does not come easy from Nielsen's pen but eases out over the course of the story. Her handling of Wilma's incarceration in a sanitarium at the hands of her brother sends mixed messages for most of the book. Was it the best choice or merely an easy way out for her often indifferent brother? Curtis Rathjen is more concerned about his public image as a rising star in real estate business and a possible political career than his sister's welfare. The role that Osgood plays, however, in teaching others about how to handle Wilma is perhaps her master touch in The Woman on the Roof.

Osgood comes to understand that seeing the crime through Wilma's skewed perception and trying his best to step into her shoes rather than dismissing everything she says as "crazy" is the key to finding the person responsible for the murder of Jeri Lynn and all the other crimes committed. Osgood not only learns a lot about his own prejudices about mentally ill people he comes to be Wilma's only friend in the book. In the course of this self-discovery of sorts he also manages to teach his police colleagues a thing or two about compassion and the role of witnesses despite preconceived notions of their fantasies or lies. This is one of the better crime novels I've ever read in how it deals with mental illness and the fear that tends to ruin the lives of those afflicted with alternate perceptions and misaligned realities.

QUOTES: There was no mistaking Curtis' step--quick and firm as if each one cost good money and he was determined to get full value for every expenditure.

Wilma Rathjen looked normal enough, neat, simply dressed, certainly not like the obvious characters who could be seen any day parading the streets like a road company of The Snake Pit.

Wilma tried to stand tall and proud, but there wasn't enough of her to stand tall, and she looked about as proud as a Christmas tree on the day after New Year's.

"He's got the breath of a baby, providing the baby smokes cheap cigars."

Maybe [Wilma] was as guilty as the evidence indicated. Maybe she was crazy enough to keep in a cage and he wasn't far behind, but some of those questions would have to be answered before he could be sure. Even a crazy woman deserved that much of a chance.

When Wilma walked into the room Osgood felt sick. He'd seen women in the same condition thousands of time, but not this woman. Not a woman so fastidious in her dress and conduct, and so pitifully proud of her furniture and her [china] cups. In the forty-eight hours since he'd seen her last the woman seemed to have matriculated from hell.

Maybe he couldn't square the world, but he could at least square himself. Living was a private enterprise anyway; a man could break his neck trying to see which way the crowd went.

"Insane is a pretty strong term , Mr. Rathjen. If you had my job you'd stop thinking of your sister as a freak. This city is crawling with frightened people just like her. Maybe they've lost a loved one and can't get used to being alone; maybe they've just committed the terrible sin of getting old and unemployable. One way or the other, they're left with a lot of time on their hands and too many scare artists screaming in their ears."

THE AUTHOR: For more on Helen Nielsen and her crime fiction see my previous reviews of The Kind Man and Obit Delayed. Also check out Curt Evans' review of Gold Coast Nocturne, reprinted under the title Dead on the Level.

EASY TO FIND? The paperback edition pictured at the top of this post seems to be very common in the used book trade and offered at mostly affordable prices. The hardcover editions, both US and UK, are much more scarce. While I was reading this I made a trip to Omaha and visited Jackson Street Books for the first time. An amazing store that reminded me of the best of the old and now gone antiquarian bookstores in Chicago. In my poring over their mystery fiction shelves I found a first edition with the very scarce DJ of The Woman on the Roof . Of course I bought it. At only $12.50 it was practically a steal. That's how I managed to have two illustrations for this post. Proving that the constant search for vintage crime fiction often turns up a serendipitous find when you least expect it.

* * *

This is my second of several 1954 books and stories I read for this month's Crime of the Century meme hosted by Rich Westwood at Past Offenses.

Friday, August 12, 2016

FFB: The Cat and Fiddle Murders - E. B. Ronald

THE STORY: Rupert “Brad” Bradley has been hired to find out who is spending time with the wife of night club impresario and antiques collector Arthur S. Barlowe. Bradley takes a single night to complete this easy shadowing job and reports back that Barlowe's wife Elaine is two timing him with Donaldson, his business partner. But the night Bradley wants to deliver the news he discovers that the "Cat and Fiddle" security guard has been coshed and the prized Guarnieri violin kept on display in the night club has gone missing. A search for the violin turns up the dead body of a musician in one of the several employee boarding rooms. Now Bradley is tasked with locating the missing violin and clearing his name as a suspect in The Cat and Fiddle Murders (1954).

CHARACTERS: Bradley talks and behaves like an American private eye borrowing his shtick from the pages of Chandler and all his imitators. But his syntax and vocabulary give him away as a bona fide Brit. Why the phony American talk and passable accent? He apparently has spent time in Missouri for a while and picked up the lingo and the accent while living there. He finds it somewhat to his advantage to pretend to be a Yank. I guess this was the writer’s attempt at wry or ironic humor but it all felt unnecessary and a bit cheap to me. Imagine a Marlowe-wannabe uttering a sentence like this: No one in the US talks like that especially a private eye in a novel. He insists that everyone call him Brad rather than Rupert a name he obviously hates calling it “his mother's idea.”

He’s not an unlikeable guy this “Brad” Bradley nor is he incompetent as a detective. But nothing really distinguishes him from the dozens of private eye clones in the post WW2 era, either Brit or Yank. He peppers his speech with the usual smart aleck’s patois, he has a weakness for the ladies yet will insult the more forward of the loose women he meets, and he does yeoman work as a detective. The case involves not only a stolen violin but a cache of diamonds purportedly part of a 16th century necklace that belonged to a courtier of Louis XV. The whole plot smacks of a Maltese Falcon rip-off with the diamond necklace acting as stand-in for the Black Bird; the "Cat and Fiddle" impresario Barlowe serving as a Casper Gutman clone, and Elaine and Donaldson’s shenanigans echoing the Spade/Archer/Iva imbroglio.

Some of the supporting players are worth mentioning so I’ll give nods to the violin expert Professor, a nicely etched portrait of the absent-minded savant; his waspish daughter Jackie, quick with a caustic comment for any of the poseur antique collectors she disdains; Benson, the lummox security guard whose doltish ineptitude provides some comic relief; and the alternately affable and supercilious headwaiter Francis Walters.

(Click to enlarge)

INNOVATIONS: The plot aspires to a locked room/impossible crime novel, but fails to carry it off. The floor plan of the "Cat and Fiddle" points out the various gates that prevent anyone from entering during its strict hours of 7 PM to 3 AM. The writer goes out of his way to explain that there are only two keys that will operate those gates, one in the hands of the owner and the other with his security man. The guard's key is taken from him and remains missing for much of the book but then turns up later in an obscure hiding place. The hiding place of the violin is not much of a surprise and the ostensible puzzle of how the thief got out of the club without being seen is presented as a baffling impossibility until conveniently someone notices something that any reader would've called out as obvious. There's also a lot of talk about the one elevator that is supposedly the only method of entry into the club yet as the story unfolds (and as any reader can tell by the floor plan) that is just not true. In creating this nearly impenetrable night club and his attempt to make it seem like there was an impossible theft and escape Ronald bungles the whole thing.

QUOTES: A sampling of the more nasty side of Bradley's tendency to crack wise
"What do you want me to do? Tell you you're beautiful, fired with the spirit of youth, desirable and that we could make sweet music together? It's all kid stuff. Grow up. Just because you've read a few books on birth control doesn't mean you've got to go to bed with every presentable man you meet."

THE AUTHOR: “E. B. Ronald” is the pseudonym for Ronald Barker, a publishing executive and writer, who penned a handful of private eye novels all featuring Bradley. I haven’t read any of them other than this one , but I suspect that they all have this quasi-American flavor to them even though all of the books are set in England. For more about Barker see my review of Clue for Murder, a non-series mystery and the only detective novel he had published under his own name.

THINGS I LEARNED: Loads of history on the Guarnieri dynasty, an Italian family of violin making geniuses who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries when luthiers were considered demi-gods in the music world. I learned that a Guarnieri violin is much more prized than a Stradivarius or an Amati, especially if it was designed and built by Bartolomeo Giuseppe, a third generation luthier of the Guarnieri family often referred to as “del Gesu”.

There is a legend related about the diamonds and the necklace that turn out to play an important part and the underlying motive in the several crimes and murders. I don’t know if this is a real legend or if Barker made it all up. It was a good little tale nonetheless. Could be the basis for a novel in itself.

EASY TO FIND? The US edition is relatively scarce as I thought it would be with about six copies for sale from various online sellers ranging in price from $6 to $25. Most of them have dust jackets. Exactly half of that number are offered in the original UK edition. I also found one German translated edition given the not so interesting title Nachtklub im Hochhaus (Night Club in the High Rise) that calls attention to the fact that the “Cat and Fiddle” night club is on the eleventh floor of the Metropolitan Hotel but would never signal to me that the story is about crime or detection.

Though most of these copies are relatively cheap I really can’t recommend this one. There is nothing that makes it stand out as exciting or innovative unless you’re interested in learning about the arcane world of antique violins.

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This is one of three novels I've read for the Crime of the Century meme sponsored by the Past Offences blog. For this reading challenge each month participants read books published in a specific year. The books read in August come from 1954.

Friday, August 5, 2016

FFB: The Laughing Fox - Frank Gruber

THE STORY: Small time con artist and traveling book salesman Johnny Fletcher and his business partner muscleman Sam Cragg cross paths with gambling gangsters and the fox fur trade in The Laughing Fox (1940) when they book a room in a hotel near the Cattle Congress in Cedar City, Iowa. After inviting a down on his luck furrier to share their hotel room they take his five bucks (the cost of the room for one night) and treat themselves to steak dinners. When they return they find their guest dead in the bathtub and a black fox running wild in their room. Fletcher turns to playing detective to clean up his already tarnished reputation and escape adding a murder charge to his long string of petty crimes while Sam goes along for the crazy ride.

THE CHARACTERS: Johnny Fletcher may be a clever book salesman with an arsenal of manipulative tactics that help him sell boxes full of Every Man a Samson, a self-help book on how to gain a muscular physique, but he always seems to be running out of money. To supplement his ever dwindling income he resorts to clever cons as well as indulging in horse race betting and gambling at crap games. Sam Cragg, his partner, is really nothing more than a living prop. While Johnny hawks the books and does his spiel about how every man can become a he-man, Sam strips to the waist and goes through a series of Mr. America poses and does a strongman routine by breaking chains strung across his massive chest and showing off with some weight lifting shtick. A few people see through the fakery of the act but most of the time the duo succeeds as they do at the Cattle Congress when they successfully sell two cartons of the books to a gullible crowd of geeky farmers.

The supporting cast includes temperamental policemen and a gaggle of gamblers who seem straight out of the pages of Damon Runyon. The cops all have ugly German names ( Chief Fleishacker and  Sgt. Holtznagle) while the con men sport monikers like No-Dice Coons and Lord Mike Seymour. Among the fox breeders and furrier tradesmen there are two lovely dames that flare up Johnny's appreciation for the female form. Jessie Thompson is one of those women and when her fingerprints turn up on a gun used in the killing of Alfred Orpington the police set their eyes on her as Suspect #1. Johnny is determined to prove her innocence while also trying to clear himself of murder as an unwilling accessory. The body, after all, did turn up in his hotel room.

As the story unfolds we learn that one of the fox breeders - Wallace Erb - is the uncle of a boy who disappeared twenty years ago. The case of the missing Chester Erb was never solved. The verdict is still out on whether Wallace did in his nephew in order to gain control of the Erb fortune or whether Chester managed to build a new life for himself under a new name in a different state. There are clues that support both stories. And when someone claiming to be Chester turns up at one of the crap games run by No-Dice Coons, Johnny 's detective instincts kick into high gear. He goes on a sleuthing mission that takes him to Chicago to find out the truth behind Chester Erb's disappearance.

INNOVATIONS: This is a comic crime novel that reminded me of two great masters of that subgenre. It's intentionally farcical most of the time and the gambling types cannot help but remind one of all those slang infected characters from Guys and Dolls and Runyon's many stories of Broadway and Times Square of the 1930s. Gruber also shows off his cynical black humor that recalls the madcap often gruesome murder romps concocted by Craig Rice.

Additionally, Johnny Fletcher's mix of breaking the law and solving crime belongs to the school of the rogue detective and all the gentlemen thief characters of crime fiction from Raffles to Simon Templar, from Nick Velvet to Dortmunder and his gang. That Johnny will often take advantage of the pulp fiction love of private eye stories and pretend to be a private eye himself in order to get information underscores the con artist element in this series.

THE AUTHOR: Much has been written about Frank Gruber, one of the most prolific of pulp writing "fictioneers". He covered it all -- detective stories, westerns, thrillers, comic crime, spy novels, adventure stories. Pick a genre, any genre. Chances are Gruber wrote a handful of stories or novels in each category. During his more than five decades as a professional writer he counts a stint as a reporter for five different farming magazines when he lived in Iowa during the 1930s. The Cattle Congress and most of the characters who attend that agricultural show are surely based on his own experiences during his Iowa years. Most interesting to me in The Laughing Fox is the inclusion of Judge Orrin, a crooked editor of a self-published journal who extorts advertising in exchange for favorable livestock ratings and blue ribbons at the fairs. I wonder if he was based on someone Gruber knew back in the day. There's crooked business wherever you go, I guess.

THINGS I LEARNED: I had no idea that fox breeding was such a popular trade decades ago. Coincidentally, I've been reading a lot of mystery fiction from the 40s and 30s in which women are decked out in fox and sable stoles. Fox fur, especially the glamorized silver fox, was apparently a very hot item prior to WW2, maybe afterwards too. The climax of The Laughing Fox takes place during a fox fur pelt auction that ends in an unexpectedly violent manner.

New gambling lingo I picked up: Tops are loaded dice that will roll only high numbers. A sheetwriter is the guy in the room who keeps track of each person's bets and the money played out.

EASY TO FIND? Unexpectedly, there are lots of hardcover editions of this book for sale while the paperback copies (four reprint editions I know of) are extremely scarce. This may be because The Laughing Fox's second paperback edition was one of the odd Penguin/Signet combination editions that included a DJ. Paperbacks with DJs have been extremely scarce for many years now and have always been a desirable item for collectors and sellers. When they do turn up for sale the prices tend to be very high. Currently there are close to fifty, mostly hardcover, copies for sale including one in French. Mysterious Press and Open Road Media have reissued in digital format a few Frank Gruber stories that originally appeared in Black Mask, but I found none of the Johnny Fletcher stories or novels among those eBooks.

Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg series
The French Key (1940)
The Laughing Fox (1940)
The Hungry Dog (1941)
The Navy Colt (1941)
The Talking Clock (1941)
The Gift Horse (1942)
The Mighty Blockhead (1942)
The Silver Tombstone (1945)
The Honest Dealer (1947)
The Whispering Master (1947)
The Scarlet Feather (1948)
The Leather Duke (1949)
The Limping Goose (1954)
Swing Low, Swing Dead (1964)