Friday, December 29, 2017

FFB: Merridrew Follows the Trail - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY:  A series of gruesome murders in which the victims are mutilated and bodies disposed of in quicklime are plaguing the denizens of Double Peak, Arizona. Mayor Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew joins forces with Sheriff Brad Wood to discover who has a grudge against the family of Jacob Tilsden, long deceased head of a dye manufacturing company.

THE CHARACTERS: This is pretty much a stock in trade western with a unique murder mystery tacked on that probably would've been better as a short story. The book is dragged out to novel length with a series of set pieces drawn from American western movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are barroom fights, shootouts in the hills, an engineered landslide to trap some bandits, chases on horseback, and a barrage of bullets flying from Derringers, pistols and rifles. And like a typical B movie Western we have stock characters with typically Hollywood style names. There's Rock McAllister, the villain dressed in black and his posse of bad guys menacing the townspeople and out to get Merridrew; Mike Tanner, the saloon keeper who's just hired West Virginia transplant Sylvia Danning as his latest singer/ hostess for the entertainment of his mostly male patrons; Clem Dawlish, the lugubrious undertaker with plenty of bodies to bury; and my favorite -- Hap Hazard, whose name tells you all you need to know about him. Hap, of course, is not his real first name, but he's pretty much a loser from the get go and is Sheriff Wood's prime suspect as the murderer of the various members of the Tilsden family.

Merridrew is the most colorful of the bunch. He's a former butler who emigrated from England and somehow became mayor of the town after first serving as valet to Wood. Oddly (and in a forced kind of humor) he still serves as manservant to Wood while at the same time leading the town as mayor. He has an arch sense of humor, a sophisticated vocabulary and is a sharpshooter of the highest order. Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953) is his final adventure in a quintet of books. I'm guessing his origin and how he came to be mayor is detailed in the previous titles. Here we get only a few sentences to fill us in on his background. Like many of Fearn's detectives, he has a unique blend of basic science knowledge and arcane information to stun both the characters and the reader. Here we get a mini lecture on various dying processes since that is a crucial element of a very original crime plot.

INNOVATIONS: Those of you familiar with H. Rider Haggard's only detective novel Mr. Meeson's Will (1888) will probably catch on to the one truly unique aspect of the crime plot. Because I'm familiar with that book it was easy for me to figure out why the bodies were being mutilated or disposed of in quicklime.

ATMOSPHERE: One of my problems with the book is that I never really knew if this was supposed to be 19th or 20th century American West. Modern references to fingerprints, medical examination of the bodies, and legal aspects of the story seemed to indicate a contemporary setting. But then the absence of cars, phones, even a telegraph made it all seem ersatz 19th century. Most of the story seemed more like Fearn was drawing from Hollywood's imagining of the Old West than he was from genuine history. Everyone lives on a ranch, vigilante style justice is rampant, disputes are settled more often with gunfire than with common sense. Wood and Merridrew are often forced to resort to violence as much as they try to keep the peace among the rowdy, lawless citizens.

THINGS I LEARNED: The crux of the plot involves a secret dye manufacturing process. I learned about something called Turkey red, a deep rich red dye made from the root of the madder plant. The name of the dye refers to its country of origin and not the edible fowl. There is lots of talk about various sources of black dye and the importance to the textile industry in finding dyes that are resistant to sun fading, especially in the arid, sun-drenched desert climates of the American West.

A buckboard is "an open, four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage with seating that is attached to a plank stretching between the front and rear axles," basically a type of wagon used to deliver goods. Merridrew is often hopping aboard one or borrowing one from the Double Peak general store keeper to get out to the remote ranches where the various murders take place. The name refers to the wooden board that protects the rider/driver from the hazards of bucking horse hooves.

EASY TO FIND? Like most of John Russell Fearn's books this one has been reprinted by the UK publisher Linford Western Library in a large print format edition. They publish nearly all of his traditional detective novels and crime fiction under their Linford Mystery Library imprint. Luckily, for all your 21sst century readers this title (as are many of Fearn's westerns) is also available as an eBook. I found my copy, the incredibly scarce first edition, in one of my lucky book hunting searches. I've never seen a copy since I bought mine. The DJ shown at the top of this post has got to be a true rarity and I'm sure that the hardcover book is just as uncommon.

Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew Western Detective Novels
Valley of the Doomed (1949)
Merridrew Rides Again (1950)
Merridrew Marches On (1951)
Merridrew Fights Again (1952)
Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening?

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

Every year the CTA, Chicago's bus and train service, decorates one bus and one train for the Christmas season. In the past I've managed to ride the Holiday train through sheer accident on my commute home. Other times Joe and I made a concerted effort to wait for the train at the Red Line station only a ten minute walk from our home. Here's a long video that shows what's up with both the 2017 Holiday train and Holiday bus which I've never been on since it tends to visit Southside and Far West neighborhoods not served by the trains. Both transports are shown travelling throughout numerous areas not often shown in video promotions of the city. Enjoy!

We're having a snowfall as I type this.
White Christmas for Chicago!
Here's wishing you a wonderful, magical time whether
it's a wintry cold or sunny bright time.

Friday, December 22, 2017

FFB: The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: Viola Ross is awaiting the verdict from the jury who are deliberating on her fate in the trial of her husband's murder. Novelist Richard Arnold is the only person convinced of her innocence and he adamantly refuses to budge from his not guilty vote. The trial ends in a hung jury and Richard leaves the courthouse determined to clear Viola's name, spare her the indignity of a second trial, and find the real murderer. But his delving into amateur sleuthing leads to anonymous letters, murder attempts and other unexpected twists of Fate.

THE CHARACTERS: For nearly half the book we have no idea who Richard is. He never tells us his name himself nor does he talk much of his work as a novelist. We have to wait until his fiancée Mary "Bunty" Friar addresses him by his first name. Later a policeman or Arthur Crook himself (I forget which) calls him by his last name. That I thought was very odd from a first person narrator. But then this is an Anthony Gilbert mystery novel and the reader ought to expect high doses of the unusual and oddities galore.

Like Irene Cobb, the first person to confront Arnold on what she feels is his obstruction of justice. She was Teddy Ross' secretary and through a gossipy friend she learned that Arnold was the jury member who was responsible for the mistrial. She warns him that he better not pursue his plans and reminds us all of the telltale clue that gives the book it's odd title. Ross had set an alarm clock and was planning to wake up to conclude some business. The clock never went off and instead was found wrapped in a scarf inside a hatbox. The police and everyone believe the murder did this in order to sneak into the room and kill Ross by smothering him with a pillow. But the murderer foolishly forgot to replace the clock. If the clock had been on the bedside and Ross been discovered dead no murder investigation would ever have taken place. The death would have been ascribed to Ross' heart condition and age. Miss Cobb knows that only Mrs. Ross was at home and is most likely the guilty party. When Arnold starts receiving anonymous letters he is sure that Miss Cobb is continuing her vendetta.

Among the other possible suspects is Ross' son Harry who had a shaky relationship with his father. Teddy Ross had hired a private investigator to follow his wife because he was convinced she was having an affair. Mrs. Ross had been giving Harry money to help with his schooling and future career which angered the old man. In his rage he accused her of more than financial assistance and consorting with her stepson in a sordid romance. Did Harry and Viola plot do in Ross in order that they could use his money as they wished without his interference?

Mentioning any of the other characters would spoil the bizarre developments that take place. Suffice to say Arthur Crook does figure into the complicated case when Richard Arnold seeks out his help. There is some unique detective work throughout the story, but the true appeal in this novel is Gilbert's flair for an unusual treatment of a familiar plot that mixes courtroom mystery, detective novel, pursuit tale and Hitchcockian suspense into one mindblowing crime novel

INNOVATIONS: The more I read Gilbert the more I think her contribution to the genre is her unusual genre blending technique. I haven't read a single novel yet that is anything like a formulaic traditional detective novel that presents a mysterious death, myriad suspects and a detective who proceeds to find out the who, what, and why of the crime. In every book the story borrows elements from several of the subgenres within crime fiction and skillfully melds them, folding and interweaving so many apparently disparate features into what turns out to be an intricate storyline that connects seamlessly. No loose threads are left hanging and you are sure to be left gasping at the many ironic twists in a Gilbert plot. I could go on to mention that this is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel. I thought Death Knocks Three Times (1949) was a tour de force, but The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is also worthy of that laudatory label. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this novel is just plain ballsy. Lucy Malleson had nerve when she wrote this one and she pulls it off rather well. The entire structure of the novel is an innovation from the opening chapter that gives us a judge's summing up, the mention of the tell-tale clue that is the murderer's undoing, and the labyrinthine plot that follows as Richard Arnold does his best to free Viola Ross from the hangman's noose.

QUOTES: "[Y]ou can't force him to do something he hates. It's terrible -- I mean, it's so fatally easy to make the wrong decision, and once it's made you have to abide by it forever."

"You know what Sherlock Holmes said."
"About eliminatin' all the impossibles and takin' whatever's left, however improbable, as the only answer? Yes, I know. I'm thinkin' of havin' that put up over my desk. It'll save a lot of trouble. It must be nearly as popular as 'Laugh and the world laughs with you.'"

"Innocence costs more than a lot of people would like to believe. Take my word for it, it costs a hell of a lot. But then it's worth a lot. If morality weren't damned expensive it wouldn't have any value at all. Show me any mug who wants it for its own sake."

"You meet coincidence everywhere except in novels. Novelists are such conceited chaps, they won't be grateful for coincidence. Everything's got to fit together, with a meaning. There ain't much meaning in life, dear boy. That's what you can't get 'em to understand."

And here's something amusing. Arthur Crook quotes another lawyer:
"[A murderer's ] first job is usually his last, and even if he's successful it's as much luck as anything. And as Scott Egerton always said, the last trump always lies with fate and she bein' female, there's no telln' how she'll play it."
Scott Egerton is the first detective Malleson/Gilbert created but soon abandoned for the livelier, unscrupulous Arthur Crook.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
THINGS I LEARNED: The phrase "Lombard Street to a china orange" popped up twice in the story. It's a very old British colloquialism meant to indicate the odds against something happening favorably. Lombard Street was the center of London's banking world since the 12th century according to Oxford Reference. As for the china orange part, they have this to impart to us: "The sweet orange (Citrus aurantium) was first sold in London in the mid-17C and by the 19C it was used figuratively to mean anything of minimal value." Oxford Reference also says that the phrase can be found as Lombard Street to a Brummagem sixpence, an eggshell, ninepence.

Arthur Crook says late in the book "You remember Balder" and then proceeds to quote a poem that starts "Better to live a slave, a captured man..." Balder rang no bells with me. Crook is alluding to the work of Victorian poet Matthew Arnold who wrote a poem called "Balder Dead". The full quote which I won't print here is reminiscent of Lucifer's sarcastic line "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Actually, Gilbert misquotes the poem because the true first line is "Better to live a serf..."

EASY TO FIND? Here's one Christmas present that'll be hard to find for you or anyone else on your list. Took me several years to find an affordable copy. Even though it was published in both the US and the UK followed by a couple of paperback reprints it's a very scarce book. But if I were an enterprising reprint house I'd jump on this one as well as several other Anthony Gilbert books. So many of these are truly worthy of a new life for 21st century readers. Gilbert was more modern than most of her Golden Age contemporaries and The Clock in the Hatbox has a remarkable freshness to it that has not dated at all. This one has a lot to say about innocence, guilt, justice, and the legal system. Plus it's really one of the most innovative and gutsy detective novels in her large output, if not the entire genre.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

FFB: Dead on the Island - Bill Crider

Truman Smith is not so successful private eye living in Texas. He spent a long time searching for his missing sister, never finding a trace of her, and his failure still haunts him. In his retirement he'd rather work his way through Faulkner's novels than devote any more time to tracking down missing people. Somehow he gets talked into accepting another job and he's off to locate Sharon Matthews, a teenage girl who disappeared. The search will take him to a sleazy heavy metal bar, encounters with crooked businessmen and a gang of thugs, one attractive shopkeeper, a kidnapping scheme, and a couple of dead bodies. What a way to re-enter the world of a Texas private detective.

Dead on the Island (1991) may have been published in the early 90s but it sure seems like it's stuck in the mid 80s. The book is dripping with popular culture references that reminded me of my college days of 1979-1983 and not my first years in Chicago. Talk of Luke and Laura on General Hospital, Miami Vice, MTV, Nike Air sneakers dominate the frequent pop culture chit chat that fills the pages of folksy dialogue.  I'm not a fan of topical references because they really date a book and in this case date it to the period the book was apparently written.  However, my own dislike for this kind of talk should not put you off from discovering what amounts to a truly different take on the private eye novel. As a mystery, the book is well plotted, cast with a nifty group of colorful characters who aren't too run-of-the-mill, and the setting of Galveston and its history make for an often engaging story.

Tru is regular guy, a little too down home for me. He's single and shares his record strewn home with a moody cat called Nameless ( a nod to Pronzini's series detective, maybe?).  We get to know he predilection for Big Red soda (locally made in Waco), his love of 50s and 60s obscure rock and pop music, and his ambitious project of reading all of the novel sof  William Faulkner.

This was Crider's first attempt at the private eye genre and it's sort of by the numbers for me.  I saw through all the plot mechanics, pegged the bad guy from almost his first appearance, and easily predicted the kidnapping element before it is officially announced in the first third of the story. however, as a private eye novel there is too little action for my tastes While there are the requisite violent murders and sadistic villains who pop up to dole out beatings to our dogged detective there are also lots of Q& A scenes that slow down the pace. It's all so laid back. Much time in the first half of the book is spent discussing daily routines, how Tru makes his sandwiches, when he goes to bed, what the cat is doing, where it's going... We learn that Dino, Tru's high school buddy who hires him to find the missing girl is a TV addict and obsessed with the soap opera General Hospital. One of the characters lives in a mansion, has several servants, gives the appearance of being a refined and polished lady but would rather drink Mogen David than imported expensive French wines.

I did enjoy learning about the history of Galveston, that it was once the focal point of the state, the richest, the biggest, the most populous city. Crider delves into the way Texans think, pointing out the short-sightedness of their not realizing that the oil boom would not last forever, that it wasn't a bottomless magic supply that would continue to allow so many Texans to live the high life. Galveston is now a shadow of its former glorious city. The contrast of past and present is striking, enlightening and not a little affecting. Those were the sections that kept me reading and wanting more.

Tru Smith went on to appear in four more books.  I've not read any others and know nothing about how he may change over time.  Dead on the Island is a good first stab at a private eye character, the Galveston setting is authentic and rich with an engaging unusual history making for an enjoyable read. I'm just not sure I'm interested enough to get to know Tru better.

Truman Smith Private Eye Novels 
Dead On The Island (1991)
Gator Kill (1992)
When Old Men Die (1994)
The Prairie Chicken Kill (1996)
Murder Takes a Break (1996)

Friday, December 8, 2017

FFB: 30 Days to Live - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: A shout of "Fire!" in Everard Hope's home The Brakes. Panic ensues as the occupants rush out of their rooms armed only with candles to find their way. A ripped carpet leads to a fatal tumble down the staircase. The miserly Hope is dead. The next day Hope's lawyer Midleton (one D, please) arrives to read the newly changed will. Not one of the relatives who had been invited to Hope's house will be inheriting a shilling. Instead the entire estate of £100,000 will go to Dorothea Capper, someone not one of the disinherited has ever heard of. But lucky Dorothea will only inherit the money and the house after the passage of thirty days. The relatives turn detectives to track down Miss Capper and try to bargain with her. But someone is plotting to ensure Miss Capper doesn't live to see that thirtieth day. Several attempts on her life are made. Is it just one person? Or they all out to do her in? When Arthur Crook enters the picture he suggests that Dorothea turn the tables on her attackers and fight back. But will the two succeed in their battle against the horde of greedy and murderous relatives.

THE CHARACTERS: This is another book with a cast of oddballs. Lucy Malleson (aka "Anthony Gilbert") was one of the Golden Age's best detective novel satirists. 30 Days to Live (1943) is probably more of a classist satire than it is a detective novel, but there is plenty of crime and a couple of mysteries to solve. Really what Malleson is having fun with is the presentation of a naive 38 year old woman who leads a sheltered life, spends too much of her time comparing real life with the plots of movies and popular fiction she devours with glee. The original title, The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball, is an indication of just what we're to think of Dorothea Capper. At first a figure of utter ridicule in her brown dress, brown hat, brown shoes and bag to match plus her beige way of thinking Dorothea soon grows likeable as her predicament grows ever more perilous. She's lucky that Crook intervenes on her behalf to show her the cruelty of the world she tends to overlook and the opportunists who seem to want only the best for her when in fact they have their own selfish interests in mind. Dorothea slowly learns how to navigate herself in a world where suddenly she has become what appears to be the center of everyone's attention.

Arthur Crook, mysterydom's finest rogue lawyer turned detective, appears only incidentally in two scenes in the early portion of the book but will figure more prominently in the final third of the novel. He's just as shifty and unscrupulous as he always is. When he unveils his extravagantly melodramatic scheme to outwit the would-be killer and the other ruthless relatives we are definitely rooting for Dorothea to survive and earn what is rightfully hers.

Among the gold-digging relatives there is Julia Carberry who assigns herself as Dorothea's protector, barging into her home ahead of the others and directing Dorothea like a stern schoolmarm. There's another shifty lawyer in the mess -- Garth Hope, who tries his best to become Dorothea's advisor but learning too late that Crook has got to her first. Cecil Hope and Hugh Lacey are cousins and prospective suitors who both dare to invite Miss Capper out on dates in order to sway her to their side and wishing for her to split the inheritance with them. In the company of all three men bizarre accidents take place, one of them leading to a fatality of a stranger and the other two nearly landing Dorothea in her grave.

ATMOSPHERE: World War two is ever present throughout the story as a reminder of the real dangers of life that Dorothea and everyone have taken for granted. The nearly mundane references pop up so regularly it's as if war has become commonplace routine. Characters are pestered by having to draw the blackout curtains each night; a sign in a church pew reminds churchgoers to gather up their belongings, including their gas mask, before they leave; a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the National Savings Campaign illustrates foolish spending on imported goods by depicting a man and woman being threatened by a shark sporting a swastika on its fin, the caption reads "Would you buy if you had to swim for it?"; and small talk includes offhand mention of German bombs that have destroyed local landmarks and statues ("I remember seeing a broken arm lying at her feet the next morning.")

INNOVATIONS Stories about greedy relatives with murder on their minds hatching plots to do in the rightful heir date back to Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. From the persecuted Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas to the titular serial killer in Israel Rank inventive writers have found ways to ring out new changes in what could easily become tiresome and predictable. Malleson's clever mix of paranoid imaginings, genuine danger and classist satire all blend together in an unexpectedly witty take on this familiar tale of avarice and vanity. It's an unusual choice to have your protagonist such an utter fool at the mercy of such wily and treacherous villains and yet somehow it works. While we're busy laughing at Dorothea's often embarrassingly girlish behavior -- dressing up in an inappropriately bright yellow dress and overly elaborate hat to impress Hugh Lacey, for example -- we overlook the subtle manipulation Malleson has of making us complicit in the relatives' criminal thinking. We are privy to everyone's thoughts and we know that many of the characters are desperate for the money that Miss Capper may inherit. And she's such an idiot at times we almost want her to fall out of a window and be done with her. It's a devilish trick that Malleson plays with the reader in getting us to sympathize with Dorothea yet also wishing her dead almost simultaneously.

QUOTES: ...since the English persist in confounding morality with ability, he knew he didn't stand a chance [at promotion] if his name were being bandied about in the Divorce Court.

He looked across the room and caught Dorothea's eye and smiled. It was ravishing, that smile. [...] It made him look so young and youth in the other sex appeals to women as no virtue or mental qualification can do.

"When a lawyer's on speaking terms with the police," Crook was explaining, "you can hope to see Heaven opened and the angels of God descending on the sons of men."

...had Miss Capper asked him to prove that she hadn't bumped off her relatives one after the other, he would have accepted the commission and gone to all lengths to win the case. Not that he thought she had. All his professional life, he would mourn, he had been looking for Lucrezia Borgia in modern dress and it was his grief that, even if he did meet her, some other fellow would step in front of him and mess the matters up.

THINGS I LEARNED: More new cocktails added to my ever growing list of odd potent potables. This time the Grand Guignol. Hugh Lacey orders up several of these and Dorothea pops them back like a natural lush.  It sounds sickeningly sweet: 1.5 oz of dark rum, mixed with .75 oz of yellow chartreuse, cherry Heering (a liqueur I also had never heard of), and fresh lime juice. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Grand Guignol is usually used to describe lurid murder stories as it comes from the name of a puppet company that used to perform such plays. Then it became the name of the theater and its company of live actors who basically invented the idea of what slasher movies are all about. They performed plays that existed solely for gorey stage effects that shock and revolt the audience. Very odd name for such a cloying cocktail. I'd expect it to look bright red and not a muddy unappealing orange.

by-blow is a colloquial term or maybe a euphemism?) used when talking about illegitimate children. Merriam Webster tells me it's been around since the 16th century, but I don't think I've ever encountered it in Shakespeare, Webster, Johnson or in any of the many Jacobean revenge plays that I studied back in college days.

Jessie Matthews (left) as Dorothea and Beatrix Lehmann as
 Julia Carberry (now a sinister housekeeper!) in Candles at Nine (1944)
THE MOVIE: This is the second of three Anthony Gilbert novels that were adapted for the movies during the 1940s. Retitled Candles at Nine (in reference to Everard Hope's nightly ritual of shutting off the electricity in his house and resorting to candles for illumination) it stars Jessie Matthews as Miss Capper, Beatrix Lehmann as Julia Carberry, and John Stuart as an Arthur Crook stand-in of little import and mysterious origins named William Gordon. The movie preserves the basic story of Miss Capper needing to remain alive for one month in order to inherit but adds that she must live in The Brakes for those thirty days. The only other element that remains the same are the characters' names. The wit and satire is replaced by farce and music hall style comedy. The story is a messy mix of this low comedy and dire overacted melodrama. Only two of the five attempts on Miss Capper's life are included in the movie. Gordon gets attacked and trussed up in a closet at one point, something that absolutely does not happen to Crook. And need I mention the gratuitous musical numbers? At one point there is a two minute dance sequence that is supposed to show off Matthews' terpsichorean talents but it's a dreadful hodgepodge of ballet, jazz and tap dancing. She spends more time twirling about the stage and assisted into posing in arabesque positions by her tuxedo wearing partner than she does any real dancing. The movie is further ruined by the intrusion of the actors playing Hugh and Cecil Lacey (renamed Charles) who serve as the music hall duo delivering risqué one-liners (two of them pretty dirty for a 1944 film) and pointless banter. Very little of the exciting story is retained. The ultimate indignity of this movie adaptation is that Julia Carberry, one of the best realized and complex characters, is transformed into a cheap Mrs. Danvers wannabe who bears not a trace of Malleson's original Julia. The movie is not recommended at all.

EASY TO FIND? This one is very scarce. At least based on what I could find in online bookselling catalogs. Less than ten copies seem to be out there for sale. I looked under both titles too. Copies using the original title The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball are more common. I was surprised to see it was reprinted at least three times under that title, once as a large print edition done in the 1980s. The White Circle paperback edition using the title under which the book is reviewed here is from Collins' Toronto paperback reprint publishing arm and it's a true rarity; only four copies available. Those of you living in the UK may be lucky with local libraries and used bookstores.

This is now my second favorite of the Anthony Gilbert books I've read. It's highly recommended should you be lucky enough to find a copy. Next up is The Clock in the Hatbox which I managed to locate through a miracle of sorts. Eager to read and review that one since it comes highly recommended from Neer and a few other bloggers.

Monday, December 4, 2017

NEW STUFF: The Other Passenger reprint coming soon!

Valancourt Books tells me that their exciting reprint of The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross will be released on December 12.

Exciting for at least two reasons:

1. It's the first time this landmark collection of supernatural and weird fiction has been reprinted in its entirety since its original publication in 1944.  In 1961 an abridged reprint of nine stories, omitting half of the total 18 tales in the original, was released by Ballantine Paperbacks.

2. This edition has a new introduction by some know-it-all genre fiction expert named J. F. Norris. He sure gets around.

They dared to put my name on the front cover. Such a honor. And if you get out a magnifying glass you can even see it!

I had a lot of fun researching this one. Learned all about Keir Cross' juvenile mystery and fantasy fiction (discussed in my The Other Side of Green Hills post), his career as a radio program scriptwriter, and his influence on other genre fiction writers.

Go order your copy (hardcover, paperback or digital) today! Please. Click here to go to the Amazon page for the book.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Calling All Johnny Fedora Fans!

A few days ago I received an email from Desmond Cory's son Richard McCarthy announcing the latest eBook release in the Johnny Fedora series. Here's the publicity for it:

A British secret agent in a deadly manhunt at the dawn of the Cold War.
Trieste 1952.
Johnny Fedora, a debonair British secret agent, knew he had only one week to prevent the Communists taking over Trieste - if he could stay alive to find the dreaded political genius Panagos, whose acumen for anarchy had left a trail of bloody revolution across the continent.
Spy adventure in the historical background of Europe soon after WWII.
In a relentless race against the clock, Johnny finds: a dead man's last message, a beautiful woman falling into his arms, a hidden photograph, and three unknown women whose initials spell out an A B C code.
Winner of the Sunday Times' Best Crime novel of the year, Desmond Cory delivers yet again a near-perfect mystery novel, written with intelligence and laced with wit, mystery and suspense.

This is not a brand new book. Intrigue is the fourth espionage novel in the Johnny Fedora series. Also published as Trieste in the US, the book originally appeared in 1954. That Best Crime Novel line is referring to the 1954 winner. I believe that Richard is hoping to release as many of his father's books as he can in digital format. We exchanged emails several years ago when he released Cory's previously unpublished novel On the Gulf as an eBook. I've remained on his email contact list ever since.

The email ends with this paragraph:

You are also very welcome to post a review of what you think of the book on Amazon - all opinions about the book are very welcome.

Lastly, please feel free to visit the new Johnny Fedora website for more information about this series.

Friday, December 1, 2017

FFB: Flashpoint - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Oscar Bilkin, grocer and fishmonger in the village of Halingford, receives an anonymous letter warning he and his family to "GET OUT BEFORE TOMORROW. YOU ARE ALL IN DANGER". He has no idea why he was warned nor who might have sent such an ominous letter. his family is convinced it's a nasty joke so Bilkin asks around and approaches a local known for stupid pranks. Everyone including the prankster (aptly named Wagstaff) denies sending the note. He heads to the police thinking it may not be a joke at all. They provide him with protection for the next two days. The policeman sent to guard the place will intervene if he sees anything remotely suspicious about to take place. the next day shortly after the daily delivery of Bilkin's ice he does as he always does - takes a hammer and chisel to the big slab to break it up for the fish display. After one strike of the chisel there is a horrible explosion and the Bilkin's shop goes up in flames. Everyone in the vicinity is knocked to ground. Mr. Bilkin does not fare as well. The police seem to have a sinister arsonist in their midst. Soon another building is targeted. Can the police prevent another raging fire and stop a mad arsonist from destroying the village?

THE CHARACTERS: Flashpoint (1950) is unlike many of the previous Dr. Hugo Carruthers detective novels I've read. First, Inspector Garth is nowhere in sight. Instead we have Supt. Denning and his crew of policeman in Halingford. Also, the suspect pool is much larger than usual and Fearn does a good job of making the arson attacks appear to be the work of several different people with different motives over the course of the story. There are more women characters than usual with a surprise coming in the form of Claire Denbury, a chorus girl who provides one of the more satisfying dramatic moments late in the book.

In this second outing in a relatively short series Dr. Carruthers proves to be less irascible than usual and reveals a hidden romantic side. He has hired as his assistant Gordon Drew recently returned to his hometown after losing his job when the London firm he was working for was destroyed in a fire. Pure coincidence that arson rears its ugly head again when Gordon comes to Halingford? Drew claims to have come to town to renew his friendship with Janet Lloyd, his former sweetheart. Dr. Carruthers approves and makes light jibes about Gordon and Janet whenever he has a chance. But of course the real reason he is on hand is to help the police solve the mystery of the fires. How did someone manage to start a fire in what appears to have been an explosive chunk of ice? Later the physicist is asked to explain the eerie purple color of a second fire (reminding me of The Case of the Violet Smoke by Nigel Morland writing as "John Donavan") and how the arsonist managed to set fire to a building when the place was under constant guard. Students of basic chemistry might be able to uncover these two mysteries pages before Carruthers stuns everyone with his knowledge.

INNOVATIONS: The means of the first arson is extremely clever. I managed to figure it out based solely on the description of how the ice was delivered and its odd appearance. Going into anymore detail might ruin what amounts to several well hidden clues. The second quasi-impossible fire was less impressive but did include similar unusual chemical properties that made it less than an average firebug's crime.

Apart from the chemistry involved in the arson Fearn neatly handles other clues related to motive and the identity of the culprit behind the fires and a later murder. By far this is the most mature detective novel of Fearn's I have read. It suffers not from Fearn's usual pulpy style of writing or the sense that it was a padded short story. All the characters were much more human, and believable than in other books in this series. This one resembles more closely the style of the Maria Black detective novels with their emphasis on character relationships and human drama, rather than outlandish plotting and detective novel gimmickry.

QUOTES: "The modern criminal, my boy is one of the most scientific beings alive," Caruuthers answered. "... The average murderer you'll find plastered in every newspaper in the country, but not the ingenious one--unless he's caught. That's where I come in--and other experts like me. We are dedicated to the task of defeating the new criminal, the man or woman who makes use of modern methods to perpetrate his or her villainy. ...Why else do you imagine the Yard has become so highly scientific these days? Only to keep pace with the even more subtle ways of the scientific evil-doer."

THINGS I LEARNED: This book was teeming with trivia and odd vocabulary. I haven't included this section in a while so here's a delayed avalanche for all you who have missed this regular feature.

Prior to his unfortunate death Mr. Bilkin spends the morning "arranging cabbages in the form of an Aunt Sally". I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Off to the internet I went. Took a couple of searches before I came up with the right Aunt Sally. Turns out Fearn was alluding to a traditional pub game (see illustration at right). Players throw sticks at a model of a woman's head that had come to be called Aunt Sally. The game dates back to the 17th century apparently and today is still played by teams in pubs. However, the Aunt Sally now resembles something like a giant chess pawn than it does a woman's head.

pernoctation - multisyllabic, fancy way to say night vigil. Comes from the nearly obsolete verb "pernoctate" meaning "to stay up or out all night; especially: to pass the night in vigil or prayer."

Hans Gross is mentioned in passing when Carruthers is discoursing on the psychology behind and methods of arson. I vaguely recalled his name but had to resort to Googling to refresh my memory. Gross is a name that crops up many times in Golden Age detective fiction, especially in the works of John Dickson Carr. An Austrian psychologist who specialized in criminal behavior Hans Gross has been dubbed the "father of forensics" in various website articles. His seminal work, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (1893) was a groundbreaking manual for the intended audience of police coroners but also was useful for judges and lawyers. In it Gross called attention to the psychology of the criminal mind and warned members of the police and legal professions to pay heed to everything over the course of a criminal investigation. He stressed preserving the integrity of a crime scene, to treat all physical evidence with care, and even discussed the importance of noting the body language of the accused while in the courtroom.

Chemical properties of elements and compounds are discussed in detail with an emphasis on flame color and smoke color. I can't say anything else about this or else the mystery of the arson methods will be spoiled.

EASY TO FIND? This was at one time one of the most difficult titles in John Russell Fearn's large output of detective fiction. Originally published under his pseudonym "Hugo Blayn" it was reprinted at least four times according to the copy I own. But used hardcover copies of this 1950s edition are rare these days. According to the email exchange I had with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor and tireless champion of his friend's work, this book will be reprinted by Endeavour Press and made available as an eBook. I'm unsure when it will be released. Until then you can find Flashpoint in a paperback, large print edition put out by Linford Mystery Library. Currently, there are at least five used copies available for sale online.

NEWS FLASH! Be sure to read TomCat's post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn", a guest post consisting of a long letter that Philip Harbottle wrote to me. But he made an error in typing my email address and it went into digital limbo. He then asked for TomCat's help in contacting me. Eventually I got the letter and he and I also exchanged some emails of our own. In the meantime TomCat had an idea to share this letter with everyone and Phil granted permission to have the letter uploaded to TomCat's blog.

Friday, November 24, 2017

FFB: Comets Have Long Tails - Madeleine Johnston

I've read a lot of "Yellow Peril" thrillers in my day with the Fu Manchu saga leading the list but I don't think I've come across a more humanistically offensive murder mystery than Comets Have Long Tails (1938). First off I hadn't a clue what the hell the title meant but when I learned within the first two chapters that the victim is a Chinese woman (dubbed White Flower!) cast in the role of exotic and amoral villainess I thought for sure I was going to learn of some obscure Confucian snippet that led to the title. I was sort of right, but we don't really learn of the true meaning of that odd metaphor until the final pages of the last chapter. Until then we must be affronted with the despicable life of the murder victim who certainly had it coming to her and yet at the same time discovering that this Chinese woman is one of the worst stereotypes of the "evil Oriental", and an "exotic female evil Oriental" at that, in all of Golden Age crime fiction. I couldn't wash away the bad taste in my mouth with each new revelation and racial slur Johnston felt it necessary to use.

Our super sleuths on the case are Noah Bradshaw and Tony Craig, rival reporters from two different newspapers. Craig's editor is so impressed with the reporters' detective skills he asks why he is a cub reporter rather than a cop. Craig, ever the wisecracker, replies, "Feet aren't flat enough." This is another book along the lines of Daniel Mainwaring's series (writing as Geoffrey Homes) where reporters are more observant, more astute, and generally better at everything than the police. Even D.A. Teasdale jibes the Chief of Police, "If the newspapers keep on there won't be any need for a detective bureau. Why don't you try training journalists instead of Sherlock Holmeses?" The somewhat overly complicated plot treats us to Bradshaw's expertise in the Chinese language and its various dialects (he had worked there for several years) and the fact that Tony at one time dated White Flower and was in love her.

Bradshaw and Craig are tasked with aiding the police and in one case challenged to actually solve the murder of White Flower, the adopted ward of Beulah and Roger Allison. White Flower is found hidden behind a hedge in a park wearing only black pajamas and strangled with a dog leash . It's a sordid crime perfectly suited as tabloid fodder. Add to that the young woman is Chinese whose looks are constantly described as "almond eyed" and "exotic" and you know that the story is headed for lurid and murky waters. Is it because she's Chinese that she will turn out to be a truly nasty young woman? A thieving blackmailer of the worst sort, a seducer of young men tempting them with her body and her charm, and plotting the worst sort of revenge. Is she just a symbol of exotic decadence or is there something more insidious at the heart of the book? I don't know what to make of it all.

Here's some choice writing for you to mull over:

Anything that peps me up is a nice fresh murder now and then. And if it had to be anybody I'm glad it wasn't someone who would be a loss to the community. Like a husband and father. Now this Chinese gal--"

"Why was the girl bumped off if not to get possession of the jade bracelet?"
"Why anything," Lt. Hogan demanded, "when it come to the yellow race? Revenge, some ancient grudge dating back to God knows when -- the first century, or dynasty, or whatever it's called in China. [...] When a Chink gets his mad up it's handed down from generation to generation."

The girl would play with him, drain his manhood, drive him insane with jealousy, but she would not marry him. No. She was playing with bigger fish. She would not marry [him]... But she would ruin him.

He was only a reporter. But he had eyes. And ears. And -- what was it [his editor] had said of him? -- a nose for crime. Well, this crime was beginning to smell unpleasantly Chinese.

It was the oriental equivalent of "Get the hell out of here."

It was pure "Pekingese", which to the Chinese language is what true "Parisian" is to the French.
(On closer reading that's really just an example of snobbery.)

Oh, how about this one? A rare case of a racist joke:

"Wong not know. Not sure. White man all lookee like same man."

There is another victim. Guess what? He's Chinese. Guess what happens to him? Strangling is not enough to dispatch him. He's also mutilated and tortured in a grotesque manner. The book is not only drowning in Chinese stereotypes and xenophobia. Bigotry is liberally sprinkled on all the non-whites in the cast. There are stereotyped Jews and a black servant character. She is introduced as "a large black woman of the mammy type" and then referred to as "the Negress" and "the servant." But she is never given a name. Of course she speaks in an "Amos & Andy" style comic dialect. It's all way too much. And when it's laid on this thick can it all really be satire? I'm not so sure.

At one point in the novel a character says to himself, "What in hell is this anyway? A murder investigation or a Mickey Mouse cartoon?" No comment.

But here's something I started to do just to put the book into less offensive and modern context. I recast White Flower as an Islamic girl or a Latino girl or any other non-white and I started looking at all of the anti-Chinese remarks and all the racial slurs as if she were one of the many maligned and ostracized "minorities". In fact I made her all of them at once. Suddenly the book was like something that was out of the front page headlines of the past five years. Because really nothing changes when it comes to bigots finding "the other" and ostracizing them, casting them in the roles of monsters or freaks or infidels or sinners or what have you in order to make them less human, less worthy. Just lesser than anyone. Perhaps Johnston was only holding a mirror up to us and showing us the ugly truth. That, at least, is my hope to help explain why she wrote what amounts to a very ugly detective story.

Madeleine Johnston wrote only two detective novels and much to my surprise Coachwhip Publications has reprinted both of them in an omnibus edition entitled Bradshaw Investigates. Included with Johnson's debut is Death Casts a Lure, a sequel of sorts, both featuring --as the title implies-- Noah Bradshaw as the reporter/sleuth. Despite this unusual choice in a vintage murder mystery reprint I'm not sure I'm interested in further exploring Johnston's world.

Friday, November 17, 2017

FFB: Murder under Construction - Sue MacVeigh

THE STORY: Enter the exciting world of railway construction in the pre World War 2 era. No really. Come on along. It's not as boring as you might think. At least not in the hands of Sue MacVeigh, the ostensible author of Murder under Construction (1939) and the narrator and wife of railway detective Andy MacVeigh. Her husband has been hired to find out if a series of accidents are actually attempts to murder Winthrop Mason, the head of a railway bridge construction job in Slocum, New York. Andy has asked Sue to tag along as his Watson. They're going to pose as a civil engineer and his wife and infiltrate the small colony of engineers and contractors to find out who might want Mason dead. But someone still manages to kill the much loathed engineer and MacVeigh's job leads him to collaborating with the police in a murder investigation.

THE CHARACTERS: A large cast requires extra concentration so the list of characters and their relationships at the front of the book was extremely helpful in keeping everyone sorted out. Mason married into a wealthy family of railway people. His wife Gwendolyn, the daughter of the railway president, is a beautiful young woman very protective of her husband's reputation which as the story unfolds turns out to be pretty much a sham. Mason knew next to nothing at all about construction, let alone the intricate physics behind railway bridge construction. As Andy and Sue dig into the lives of the construction crew they learn that Mason was most likely responsible for ruining the project. The bridge is already collapsing due to poor judgment, bad planning and inferior materials. Andy reveals that Mason was faking his knowledge and putting everyone else's reputations at risk, to say nothing of the dangers and unsafe conditions at the bridge site. Motives are aplenty among the workers when Andy further learns of the anger and hatred that have been brewing around Mason's inept handling of the project.

Hillman Publ. #10, 1948
(digest paperback)
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the story is the subplot involving of the wives of the railway engineers. Sue learns that they are a close knit group of women who share nearly every facet of their lives with one another. She uncovers some secrets including a burgeoning extramarital romance. Between the professional rivalry and the bedroom shenanigans Sue and Andy have their hands full of possible murder suspects.

INNOVATIONS: Mason's murder is utterly mysterious. He's found halfway between his home and the construction site with his head bashed in. The ground is fairly muddy but there are no footprints around the body. No murder weapon can be found. It's a nearly impossible murder. One of the women turns out to be a highly skilled baseball player, especially in pitching. Sue remembers the affair and rampant jealousies leading her to believe that the woman might have thrown some heavy object at Mason from her backyard which abuts the murder scene. But the solution is much more complex and horrifying. The murder means, the weapon itself, is one of the most unusual choices to kill someone.

Andy and Sue are one of the better husband/wife sleuthing teams from this era. There is no artificiality in their banter; they are devoted to one another, very much in love; both are intelligent and exacting in their detection. Thankfully, Sue shows not an iota of light hearted whimsy (Haila Troy), vapid domesticity (Anne MacNeill) or absent-minded wackiness (Pam North). Too many wives in these detective duos act as the Gracie Allen of the piece and can have a tendency to irritate. While Andy is the lead detective dealing mostly with police and engineers Sue does her fair share of noticing the tell-tale clues and making suggestions to her husband that will lead them to the final solution.

THINGS I LEARNED: Obviously the setting itself and the microcosm of this railway construction village is teeming with opportunities to educate a curious reader. You learn all about the physics and math and geometry knowledge needed on a construction site of such complexity. And the human element of how the wives figure into the world of the project both as advisors and advocates was even more fascinating than all the work and labor involved. The role of women in this mystery was much more involved that I ever would have expected.

THE AUTHOR: "Sue MacVaigh" is obviously a pseudonym. Hardcore vintage mystery fans know this gimmick of character-as-author was used frequently in Golden Age crime fiction as exemplified in everything from the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen books to the short-lived Gale Gallagher series I wrote about two years ago. In reality the writer was Elizabeth Custer Nearing, a newspaper reporter living in New Jersey who wrote for three different newspapers including the New York Telegram and Philadelphia Ledger. She was married to a civil engineer involved in the railway business. Based on those credentials I'm guessing that everything you read in Murder under Construction is 100% accurate. This was her debut mystery novel and she went on to pen three other mysteries featuring the MacVeighs involved with trains, the railway business and murder. Her second novel Grand Central Murder, was turned into a very good movie with Van Heflin starring as an Andy MacVeigh stand-in named Rocky Custer. You can find it at various online movie websites for free since it has apparently has fallen into the public domain.

EASY TO FIND? MacVeigh's first two books turn up more often than the others in the series. Currently there are eight copies of Murder under Construction and four of Grand Central Murder. One copy of the book reviewed here is being sold for only $12. Hurry before it's gone! These books were published only in the US, yet even with reprints from Grosset & Dunlap and paperback digest editions all four titles are still scarce. Ah well. Did you really think otherwise? Libraries and used bookstores may turn up a copy or two. I serendipitously found my copy of Murder Under Construction in a Boise, Idaho bookshop on our vacation this past summer. That it came with a undamaged DJ in nearly pristine condition was astounding to me. And at only $22 I felt like I was stealing it from the bookstore owner.

Sue & Andy MacVeigh Detective Novels
Murder under Construction (1939)
Grand Central Murder (1939)
Streamlined Murder (1940)
The Corpse and the Three Ex-Husbands (1941)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NEW STUFF: Ten Dead Comedians - Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians
by Fred Van Lente
Quirk Publications
Hardcover ISBN: 9781594749742
e-Book ISBN: 9781594749759
288 pages
Release Date: July 11, 2017

The blurb on the back cover of Ten Dead Comedians tells it all. One deserted island, two nights of terror, three secret rooms... (see photo below) Actually one of those is a red herring, but it’s number five you ought to pay attention to. Yes, there really are five critical clues. In fact I think there are more than that. And yes those five clues can lead you to the solution of the mystery. This is not only an often laugh out loud funny satire about Hollywood self-involvement and unmanageable egos, or a dead on evisceration of the world of stand-up and improv comedy, it’s also one of the best plotted, fairly clued modern mysteries I’ve read this year. It takes a lot to impress me and Fred Van Lente did it.

The sometimes clunky opening chapter takes some concentration. It’s that kind of necessary evil in any send-up of the And Then There Were None style mystery novel overloaded with exposition and character introductions. Yes, as the back cover might have sounded all too familiar to a seasoned mystery reader, this is another clone of And Then There Were None. No, not a clone. An evil twin. A cackling, jibing, nasty spirited evil twin. And I mean all of that in a good way.

As the title clearly spells out for us instead of murderers we have jokesters and comics as the intended victims. Once the introductions are out of the way and we head to the thoroughly booby-trapped island the book settles in for a macabre and creepy weekend of horror and laughs. It becomes a real page turner, the characters are fleshed out more, the plot becomes ever more intriguing and the murder methods become ever more baroque. It’s a gruesome story, my friends. At times it seems that Van Lente may have decided to write a mash-up of Christie with the Saw franchise. Imagine such a monster genre-blender with laughs! Difficult I know, but dang it all it works. Just as Christie’s book becomes increasingly serious fueled by fear and paranoia so does Ten Dead Comedians. The book can be downright somber when it needs to be. Yet another facet that impressed me.

Each of the ten chapters is divided into ten sections and separated by ten transcripts. As the book progresses those transcripts, eight of which are actual stand-up routines, display Van Lente’s versatility as a comic writer perfectly capturing a different tone and style for each of his uniquely different comedians. My favorite and the funniest of those sections is Janet Kahn’s relentless and merciless tearing down of a heckler who dared to interrupt her set. The diatribe was recorded on a YouTube video and we read the transcript of that video. The comic highlight of the novel those three pages alone are well worth the cover charge.

In addition to the mystery of who is knocking off all the comedians and why the reader may find himself engaged in a match of wits with the writer in trying to pair up the fictional comics with their real world inspirations. The most obvious to me is Van Lente’s scurrilous parody of the Blue Man Group empire in the person of Oliver Rees and his absurdly infantile Orange Baby Man act which has become an international phenomenon. He’s about to open yet another Orange Baby Man theater at a Sandals resort in the US Virgin islands as the story opens. There is a sardonic female insult comic who is clearly an amalgam of Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and maybe a few others. The rest are a mix of men and women representing all races and every type you can think of from smug late night talk show host to the tirelessly touring washed up comic seeking solace from the bottle and longing for a clean motel room that isn’t near a loud and busy highway or airport. From the quasi feminist woman comic who enjoys talking about her pet dog more than anything to a subversive podcaster who seems to hate everything about stand up and tries (unsuccessfully) to be funny in pointing out their hypocrisies. Van Lente has some original touches to this motley group like the redneck comic who in reality is an ultra snob with a refined taste in modern art, gourmet food, expensive wine and a multisyllabic vocabulary. In fact, the absolute antithesis of his onstage persona, Billy the Contractor. The audience during his act, a self-deprecating celebration of everything working class and mundane, are unaware of their being cruelly mocked and belittled.

The real draw here and the most pleasant surprise of all is that the book is a tightly plotted, well constructed, genuine traditional murder mystery. The average reader may catch on early to the scheme and motivation of the unseen killer as will the veteran whodunit reader, but I guarantee that even the most polished of fans will miss some of Van Lente’s subtle clues that are revealed by an unexpected detective in the triple twist filled final pages. One of the best jokes cannot be revealed here either because it gives away something about that character and how that person acquired such finely honed detective skills. Apart from Janet’s lacerating tongue lashing of her crass heckler it was the one joke that cracked me up the most.

Be warned, however, that Ten Dead Comedians is just like the title of Steve Martin’s third 1970s album Comedy Is Not Pretty! This is a very American, very vulgar, four letter word (and then some) littered story. Those easily offended or put off by Technicolor swearing and cursing might just as well keep on strolling past this title to something tamer and less colorful. That’s not a joke on the rear cover where it brags of "Seven words you can’t say on TV!", that’s Van Lente’s true homage to one of his many comedy heroes – George Carlin – listed on his Acknowledgments page. And yes, each of those seven words appear in the text. Some of them several times.

If your tastes in humor lean toward the tasteless, then step right in. The book is not a laugh riot on every page, but there are moments of comedy gold here. It's the bloody well done murder mystery you're after anyway. Mystery aficionados will eat up the plot looking for the similarities to Christie and others of this ilk as well as thoroughly enjoying having the rug pulled out from under them in the final pages. You’ll get some laughs, some chuckles and some well-earned gasps. Just like comics’ slang for doing well in a set you might say that Fred Van Lente really killed with his debut mystery. Slaughtered them even.

Friday, November 10, 2017

FFB: Reservation for Murder - June Wright

THE STORY: As if the plague of anonymous notes being sent to the young women at Kilcomoden hostel were not enough now a dead body turns up in the garden -- the body of a strange man no one has ever laid eyes on before. Mary Allen had the unfortunate meeting with the corpse. Now she and Mother Mary St. Paul of the Cross, the rectress who oversees the running of the hostel, are teamed up with Detective Inspector Stephen O'Mara and Sergeant Wheeler of the Melbourne police plus a mysterious American who goes only by the name Joe in order to find out who the man is and why he was killed outside the women's boarding house. Is it all tied to the nasty poison pen notes? Or could it be related to a burglary that occurred at the hostel several months ago.

CHARACTERS: Reservation for Murder (1958) is Australian writer June Wright's fourth mystery novel but the first to feature her second series detective Mother Paul (let's stick with the shortened form of her name that she much prefers). In this first outing the elderly nun comes across as a mix of Father Brown and Miss Marple. She has the enigmatic speech patterns so often found in the parable laden tales of Chesterton's priest detective, but she is also a manipulative snoop in the manner of Christie's spinster sleuth. Much of her "detecting" is done by inference and instinctive understanding of human nature. She tends to have an eerie skill at getting others to do her bidding with her kind soft voice, subtle ambiguous suggestions, and implied directives. Unfortunately, she is doing much of the real detective work offstage with the police and leaving Mary to grapple with the shady verbal instructions on her own. And in the end there is a lot of non-fair play narrative that the reader is not privy to until the finale. There are a handful of clues to help guide the reader to the correct solution of the killer's identity, the author of the poison pen letters, and the person responsible for some other dreadful deaths, but in the end the we get an arbitrary resolution of the plot with a silly melodramatic boat chase involving a Napoleon of Crime that just comes out of nowhere.

Still the book is truly engaging. Reservation for Murder is one of the many domestic suspense novels with a mostly female cast that were being written in the US, UK and Australia during the 1950s. The emphasis in this story is on the relationships between the many women in the hostel, their petty jealousies, their closely guarded secrets, the friendships and "frenemy" types who show up in the nearly claustrophobic atmosphere of the all female boarding house. The novels and themes of Patricia Carlon, another underrated Australian crime writer, came to mind as I was getting near the end of this one. Wright is definitely more comfortable writing of female maliciousness as is evidenced in the other books that were reprinted by Verse Chorus Press a few years ago and are easily available to the reading public. The cast of characters is truly what makes this a mystery novel worth seeking out.

We have quite a well drawn cast of women here. Mary has two close friends who were my favorites of the bunch: Fenella King and Clare. Fenella is an Eve Arden type, all wise cracks and common sense, while Clare is the "mannish" athlete who adopts an odd Bertie Wooster style of speech peppering her sentences with "eh whats" and "old girls". They're the most fully developed of what often seems a shallow bunch of women. There is a nasty gossip named Verna, truly a sinister young woman and prime candidate as the author of the poison pen notes; two superficial interchangeable blondes called Betty and Jean chittering on mindlessly and obsessed with make up and clothes; mousy Alison Cunningham nearly always feeling sorry for herself; and mysterious new boarder Christine Farrow, slightly older than most of the 20-something women and a moody artiste with a snappish tongue and a dark secret she's not about to reveal to anyone until it's almost too late. They're all very intriguing characters, but can appear a bit like archetypes or even caricatures at times.

The most caricatured of the cast is the Gorgon widow Mrs. Carron-Doyle, a thoroughly unpleasant over-the-hill bully who badgers her female companion Mabel Jones into submission and treats all the young women like servants when poor ol' Jonesy is not to be found. I was hoping she'd end up a victim of the stealthy murderer. No such luck. However, as a sort of consolation prize to the reader she does get her comeuppance at the climactic fancy dress ball towards the end of the book.

The policemen characters are well done too. Sgt. Wheeler is a typical comic cop and appears in only few scenes until the arrival of his superior. For some reason Wright chooses to treat O'Mara, like Mother Paul. He too has a nearly sinister manner of getting others to do his bidding and he enlists Mary's help as a sort of undercover agent who will observe all the women and report back to him any unusual behaviors or incidents at Kilcomoden. The first meeting they have at a Chinese restaurant is both amusing for Mary's introduction to Asian cuisine and fascinating for O'Mara's masterful method of steering Mary away from her distaste at being a spy to seeing how helpful she can be not only to the police but her fellow boarders.

INNOVATIONS: Wright employs the traditional mystery novelist's gimmick of the dying clue in this book. The man stabbed to death in the garden manages to whisper what sounds like "Jess" to Mary just before he dies. Much of the first half of the book consists of Mary's clever ways to get the women to reveal their middle names, talk about their female relatives, and other methods of trying to uncover who this Jess might be. The answer to that mystery is revealed in the final pages and turns out to be of the most original and devious dying message tricks I've come across in quite a while. Not quite on par with Ellery Queen and probably the kind of clever clue that only a woman writer could dream up.

In fact the book is quite a celebration of all things female. I usually tire of books where women's wardrobes are discussed in great detail. But clothes play a very big part in the book. A favorite dress serves as major clue to prove that an apparent suicide was actually murder. One of the women works at a dress designer's fancy salon and the climax of the book is a dance where all the women spend a lot of time getting dolled up. One of the women is such a overdressed disaster that Betty and Jean, the two glamour girls, insist on giving her a makeover almost against her will. They tie her to a chair, pretty up her face and nails, and leave her in a bathroom while her hair sets. But... Something quite horrible happens to that young woman that was the biggest shock in the book.

THINGS I LEARNED: The book takes place in Melbourne and the setting itself was an eye opener. I'd never heard of a hostel managed by an order of nuns that is in essence a profit making boarding house. While it's never mentioned if the money the women pay to the hostel is then used for charity I'm guessing it is. Not only were there several real hostels run by nuns in Australia there are others throughout Europe and the North America. Some I learned only accept Catholics as guests. Now how do you prove that?

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. That's right. Ridiculously scarce. Amazingly I own two copies and I found both of them online within days of one another, including one with the gorgeous DJ shown at the top of this post. Sheer luck, gang. I can see why this book was not one of the June Wright mysteries that was reprinted. It most likely has limited appeal to a primary female audience, though I readily admit I was truly captivated by the characters and was not entirely put off by its feminine outlook and emphasis on clothes, make-up and bitchy catfighting. If you live in Australia chances are you can find a copy in a local library, especially in the Melbourne area where Wright lived. But it looks to me to be very difficult to find this book anywhere else in the world. If you do come across a copy, I'd say it's worth it for the characters, the two shocking deaths that occur after the stabbing of the mystery man and as a good example of a nun detective in the early history of the genre before nun detectives became tiresome clichés.

Friday, November 3, 2017

FFB: To Catch a Thief - Daphne Sanders

Let's get one thing out of the way. This is not the book on which the Alfred Hitchcock movie was based. That novel was written by David Dodge who created two very interesting series characters, one of which was "Whit" Whitby, a CPA turned detective (and is a writer I ought to have written about on this blog years ago). Now that's over with let's get on with this version of To Catch a Thief (1943), a post-war revenge story written by a writer most of you are familiar with.

"But, John," (I hear you cry while scratching your head) "I've never heard of Daphne Sanders!"

That's because it's a pseudonym, silly Reader. But I bet you know her under her other more recognizable pen name -- Craig Rice. That ol' trickster Georgiana loved to make up alter egos when writing her books. Usually including private jokes like using the name of one of her fictional murder victims when she adopted the pseudonym of "Michael Venning" for three murder mysteries featuring private detective Melville Fairr.

The book? Well, it's one of her more mature efforts not an alcohol drenched, comic romp like those featuring her series characters John J. Malone, Jake and Helene Justus. This is a somber tale indeed about faked identities, vengeance and post-war American economics. It's rather a timely tale in this day of sociopathic corporate greed, vigilante justice and utter lawlessness.

Our anti-hero is "The Man with Two Faces" who leaves behind quasi anonymous notes signing himself N. N (as I prefer to call him though Rice lays it on heavy with his other multi-word nickname) has been ruined in a stock market manipulation scheme and he sets out to wreck havoc and get his revenge in a Robin Hood style redistribution of wealth. We know from the outset the identity of the thief who is robbing the businessmen of their valuable antique jewelry and Old Masters paintings. But when the men behind the stock market start turning up as corpses along with their wives it looks as if another vengeance seeker is on the prowl with a more deadly aim in mind.

A private detective named Donovan is on the case hired by Lucius Abernathy, one of the stock market crooks who received a note from N. Abernathy fears for his life ever since Renzo Hymers turned up dead a few days after the theft of Hymers' prized emeralds. In addition to protecting himself Abernathy has his own treasure to safeguard -- the "Starflower necklace". Donovan soon uncovers a trail of bodies -- first Hymers' widow, then her lover a professional dancer and gigolo whose legs have been smashed in a particularly gruesome style of murder. Are the thefts and murders related? Is there a deadlier game that N is playing. Could there possibly be two revenge seekers? Our thief known as N knows he is not the killer and he turns detective as well in order to clear his name.

So we have two plots unfolding simultaneously in this well thought out, intricately constructed blend of inverted detective novel, murder mystery and caper novel. Donovan is on the trail of thieving N who he is sure is also the mad killer while N doggedly pursues leads and clues to uncover the real killer. Rice has some intriguing things to say about identity in this book which should come as no surprise to readers who know that her own identity was a hodgepodge of fiction and reality.

What may come as a surprise, however, is her completely different writing style revealing, in addition to her flair for comedy, her skill in creating tension and mounting suspense. As a bonus we also get intermittent beautifully written, often poetic passages showing her talent for literary metaphor not seen elsewhere in the mostly colloquial prose of the Malone comic crime novels. In one sequence where N visits his cohort in crime -- a pawnbroker/jeweler who acts as his fence -- we get a mini lecture on the life in jewels. Marcus, the jeweler, talks of the personality of gemstones: "...some can be friendly, some unfriendly." Diamonds he tells N "are neither one nor the other. They simply do not care. They are much too self sufficient to be concerned about human beings. It is not for nothing that they have the color of ice."

Later in the book one of the killer's many victims is discovered by Donovan: "...the dead girl's love for bright colors showed everywhere in the room. ...the bathrobe on the bed was a gaudy flame, patterned with black and the bathrobe cord around the colorless throat seemed to be one vivid slender flame. Poor little night blooming flower, Donovan thought. Not one of the moths that hover too close, but one of the flames themselves. Only the flame had been blown out now."

I was genuinely impressed with To Catch a Thief. It shows a thoroughly new side to Craig Rice's writing and gives us an insight into her darker more serious worldview, a philosophy I think perhaps reflects her true nature rather than the frothy worldview we get in her comic crime novels. This is definitely a book worth reading and seeking out. While the hardcover first edition is now a rarity and extremely difficult to find, there tend to be some US paperback reprints (Handi-Book #26, 1944) that show up now and again in the used book market. You might also find it in the 3-in-1 Detective Book Club reprint which includes the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Buried Clock and Headlong for Murder by Merlda Mace. To Catch A Thief is one book hunt worth your time and effort.