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 Kendall 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.

7 comments:

  1. I bought several "M. E. Chaber" paperbacks largely for the cool Robert McGinnis covers. I read a couple and enjoyed them.

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  2. Wow, thanks for all the amazing info as well as the review John - really makes a difference with a book that seems very removed in some respects from the world today (sic). Sounds like another book I have to find chum!

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    1. I'm interested in reading more in the series. Of all of Crossen's books I've read this is by far the best. Such an improvement over his pulp stuff under his "Richard Foster" and "Ken Crossen" monikers. All of the Milo March books were originally published in hardcover by Rinehart (later Holt, Rinehart & Winston) which was known for a strong editorial staff. I bet they whipped him into shape!

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  3. You have convinced me. I will be looking for some books by this author. And the cover looks great too. Thanks, John.

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    1. I can't get over the fact that the guy looks just like James Coburn. Practically a dead ringer. But not at all how I picture Milo March. The cover artist is Robert McGinnis, one of the few paperback cover artists whose work is considered highly collectible.

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    2. Based on the first comment above, I thought it might be a McGinnis but did not know for sure. I have a couple of books on his art. And some paperbacks with cover illustrations by him, but would love to have more.

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  4. Insightful, informative and well-balanced review, John. I was unfamiliar with Chaber...until now. Now I'm also interested in Milo March!

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