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 and the list of characters and their relationship at the front of the book was extremely helpful. 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 his 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.

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 an amazing baseball player and Sue's idea about the affair and jealousies that were rampant lead her to believe that the woman might have managed to throw 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.

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.

Andy and Sue are one of the better husband/wife sleuthing team s of from this era. There is no artificiality in their banter, they are devoted to one another, both are intelligent and exacting intheri detection. Thankfully Sue shows not an iota of vapid whimsy or absent-minded wackiness. Too many wives in these detective duos act as the Gracie Allen of the piece and they tend to irritate me. 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 lead to the final solution.

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 four copies of Murder under Construction and seven of Grand Central Murder.  One copy of the book reviewed here is being sold for only $12.  Hurry before it's gone! That these books were published only in the US and not reprinted in paperback editions makes it all the more difficult to find them. 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.

And now an offer -- if you'd like to read this book I will sell my copy (without DJ) to the first one who asks. Price somewhat negotiable and free shipping in the US or Canada. If you live anywhere else you'll have to pay for the shipping.

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.

Friday, August 18, 2017

FFB: Murder Cancels All Debts - M. V. Heberden

Those who know the many novels of M.V. Heberden are probably more acquainted with Desmond "Des" Shannon, her tough private eye modeled very much on the 1940s movie version of a typical private eye. But she also wrote three books with a much older detective -- war veteran, and former Naval Intelligence Officer Rick Vanner who after his service in the US forces briefly ran his own private detective agency with government contractors as his primary clients. Then he stepped out of that life. But he wasn't to abandon entirely his life as a detective for long. Murder Cancels All Debts (1946) is his first appearance in a novel. Despite its flirting with an awful Alternative Classic style title the mystery is engaging and often original in plotting. Heberden's crisp writing, her sharp ear for quips, and her observations about post-WW2 life in America and the xenophobia that infected the country that make the novel worthy of attention.

The story is almost run-of-the-mill in that we have a unlikable woman as the victim, several unhappy marriages, flagrant adultery, and couple of stock characters. The clueing sometimes falls short of the mark. There is, for instance, a missing dinner napkin that shows up in the pocket of a woman's raincoat and everyone begins to suspect her of the crime. Apparently, we are supposed to infer that it was used by the killer to fire the gun that killed Celeste Mather though this is never outright stated. There were other aspects of the crime that were much more important and telling, but for some reason everyone gets all riled up about the napkin.

The minor flaws in plotting, however, are easy to overlook because the real point of the novel is Heberden's commentary on the treatment of refugees in the US, the differing views of war from European's perspective as opposed to an American's, and her criticism of the complacency of Americans who can so easily mourn a fallen soldier overseas while their country, its citizenry and their homes remain relatively unscathed. She has much to say in the character of Polish pianist Paula Ronosky who constantly reminds the reader that Americans do not understand war at all. This is not just grandstanding on Heberden's part. The immigrants and ex-pats who make up a small portion of the cast turn out to be the most crucial figures in the story. The reader should be playing close attention to Paula's philosophy when she speaks; the behavior of Manuel, the Mexican chauffeur; and the slightly cryptic conversations that Vanner has with Manuel in Spanish (rendered in English, of course). These mystery novels that focus on the outsider or "the other" are always fascinating to me. Heberden's wartime observations seem obvious to us now, but I'm sure she was in the minority among all the flag waving patriots of the era who swallowed up our own self-aggrandizing propaganda and never truly experienced what the true horror of war is about.

Initially I was drawn to her talent for epigrammatic dialogue and a skill in turning out quips. Here's a sample:

"There's nothing in the world more desperate and ruthless than an unmarried woman of thirty. Nothing in trousers is safe within a mile of her."

"Sailors on leave are notorious for their lack of discipline."

She went over to the piano with the feeling that perhaps it would like to be played. Musical instruments should be played as pearls should be worn.

He was too far away to hear the conversation, which annoyed him on the principle that all knowledge in murder cases -- even apparently irrelevant things like other people's telephone conversations -- is useful.

"There are very few moments when the truth is a good idea."

Sympathy, generosity, kindliness [she found everywhere in the U.S.], but no understanding. They still didn't know what war was all about except the few who had been in it and returned. And they seldom talked. Even those with sons and husbands overseas didn't understand. They suffered and they feared, but it seemed to take a European to understand.

In the end I was won over by her flair for the dramatic. There are quiet, deftly done moments like when Delia, a minor servant character, pauses in a doorway to listen to Paula's piano playing and allows herself to be taken away from the madness of the murder investigation if only for a brief instant. But the dominating atmosphere of impeding doom is the masterstroke. The characters are at the mercy of a torrential rainstorm which threatens to cause massive flooding. They flee the scene of the murder and take refuge in the Blane house, next door to the Mather estate on much higher ground. When the dam bursts as they all feared, the river floods the town, washes out a bridge and leaves them all isolated. There follows a power failure and a climax that takes place in the candlelit Blane household where a killer is hiding among the stranded survivors.

M.V. Heberden as photographed
in a fashion spread in Vogue
(circa late 1930s, early 1940s)
Mary Violet Heberden began her life as an actress in England. She then emigrated to the US and found a variety of supporting parts in 13 Broadway productions ranging from Kaufman & Hart's Merrily We Roll Along (an unusual play told in reverse chronology and later adapted into a musical by Sondheim) to the long running drama Victoria Regina starring Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. Her stage career lasted from 1929 to 1941 and during this period she began writing detective novels. Her first novel, not too surprisingly a theatrical mystery, was Death on the Door Mat published in 1939. Under the pen name "Charles L. Leonard" (the name is a combined tribute to her father a mother) she wrote espionage and adventure thrillers, most of them featuring another military man and war veteran, Paul Kilgerrin, as her series detective.

Heberden had a fondness for travel and lived and worked in South America. At one time she was in charge of a timber company in Brazil. She also traveled extensively in Europe and settled in Rome for a while sometime in the 1950s. Her career as a crime writer seemed to be a secondary source of income but she was prolific, sometimes having four books published in a year, and her writing career lasted close to twenty years. Her final novel was published in 1953. She died in 1965.

Other than Engaged to Murder (the second in the Rick Vanner series) reissued back in the 1980s most of Heberden's books under her name and as Charles L. Leonard have not been reprinted. The used book market is flooded with a variety of her titles in both US and UK editions, but most of them are the older hardcovers as there were few paperback reprints during her lifetime. I'll be looking at her private eye Desmond Shannon in the coming months and maybe sample one or two of her thrillers as Leonard. Stay tuned.

The Rick Vanner Trilogy
Murder Cancels All Debts (1946)
Engaged to Murder (1949)
The Sleeping Witness (1951)

Friday, August 11, 2017

FFB: Angel Loves Nobody - Richard Miles

THE STORY: You think Holden Caulfield was a problem child? Take a look at Angel Martine, the sullen, smirking, reticent leader of an army of teen-age misanthropes at Betsy Ross Junior High somewhere outside of Los Angeles. How perfect that a teen rebel should be leading a revolution at a school named after one of the legendary heroes of the 18th century. The teachers have no idea that Angel is plotting a bloody massacre. He's arming his gang with knives and they plan to murder the teachers during sixth period on Friday afternoon that he's dubbed Zero Hour. The novel Angel Loves Nobody (1967) tells of the lives of the students and teachers in the days leading up to Zero Hour and the unexpected events of the day itself.

THE CHARACTERS: Like many novels of the 1960s this is a densely packed episodic exploration of character. Though named for the teenage leader of would-be Executioners (as they all dub themselves) the real protagonist is 27 year-old teacher Tim Nielsen. He is the replacement art teacher at Betsy Ross Junior High and this is his first job teaching young people. We get to know the staff through his eyes and on occasion through the more skewed perceptions of Angel and his band of terrorizing teens. Tim is trying to balance his new career with a burgeoning romantic relationship with Margie, his artist girlfriend who works at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles. But he is sensing something not quite right with his new group of students, especially the oddly quiet, antagonistic vibe he gets from Angel Martine. It doesn't help that his youthful idealism clashes with the senior faculty at the school, many of them several decades older than he and all of them grown jaded with teaching, utterly indifferent towards their students' lives and outside interests.

As the reader watches Angel recruit his Executioners, spies and armorers in preparation for Zero Hour one can't help feel that some of these adults deserve at least a good punch in the face if not the gruesome death Angel has planned for them. The principal William Conrad, nicknamed "ConRat" by the kids, is an overweight lecher always ready to put the moves on the typists in his administrative offices. Roger Post is a lout who insults the women, picks fights with the men, tells horrible off color jokes and is in general an asshole for much of the book. The few scenes of him at home also reveal him to be a misogynistic husband who treats his wife as nothing more a sexual plaything. Elderly Cleaire Devereux doesn't earn much sympathy either. As the most senior teacher in the school she has little interest in anything other than lunchtime when she gets to gossip with her female friends about life outside of the school.

INNOVATIONS: Angel Loves Nobody seems to be the first of its kind in depicting high school violence as a sort of horror novel. Although the blurbs on the rear cover of the Dell paperback compare it to the juvenile delinquent nightmares depicted in The Blackboard Jungle and Up the Down Staircase Richard Miles' second novel takes teen angst and juvenile rebellion to the extreme in the planning of a high school massacre. I know of only one other infamous book that dealt with such a real life horror before we all suffered the 21st century plague of nightmare gun violence. In 1977 Stephen King, under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, wrote Rage about a boy who kills two teachers and holds a schoolroom of students hostage. Several teens used it as inspiration to commit violent acts in schools throughout the 1980s, but after a 1997 shooting in Paducah, KY King withdrew it from publication. He has never allowed it to be reprinted since.

While King's novel tells the story of a single violent youth, Angel Loves Nobody is concerned with a kind of mass hysteria conjured up by one very angry young man and the skill with which he manages to coerce and manipulate his army of angry and hateful kids. While it does ends in violence, altogether much differently than Angel ever planned, the telling of the story is controlled and never sensationalized. The book can be likened to a suspense novel, notably in the very tense and nervewracking final two chapters, but it really belongs to mainstream pop fiction. Miles is interested in a lot of what isn't noticed about the outcasts and loners among teens as well as the misfits of the adult world. There are insightful parallels drawn between the personalities of the students compared with those of the teachers that most "school in trouble" fiction of this sort never addresses.

In this second novel Miles also shows a more mature side to his writing rather than the often vulgar and melodramatic excesses of That Cold Day in the Park, his debut as a novelist. There are frequent vignettes with powerful evocative images, many of them capturing perfectly the struggles of the teens to reconcile their conflicted feelings about Angel's plans with their secret desires and dreams. One of the more unusual uses is a scene where Maria Estragon, one of the first students to regret her involvement in the plot, is leaning up against a wall and as she feels the surface of the bricks she imagines them to be small houses in a valley and she pretends "that each valley had its small houses filled with small people and children and dogs." She continues to imagine a blissful Utopia that includes beautiful blue eyed and brown eyed people and Mr. Nielsen smiling at her. Then she is brought back to reality when her body warms the bricks and a drop of sweat trickles down her back. "She tried to turn the drop into a tear from one of the blue eyes, but the tear was too big, and the eyes were too small, and the whole dream just ruined."

QUOTES: They went past the drugstore window, Angel stopping briefly to inspect some war games that were simulating a battlefield across a strip of phony cellophane grass. Between the signs TOOTH-PASTE REGULAR 69¢ TODAY ONLY 59¢ and GOOD FOOD, there was an impressive display of submachine guns, toy soldiers, and doctor kits next to a display sized bazooka. PLAY VIETNAM, said a hand-lettered sign.

Angel: "We gonna kill 'em each one in a special, poetic, proper, diff'rent way like they deserve. It wouldn’t’ be fair to kill 'em all the same way. Charley, would it? […] Some people deserve to die, don't they, Charley, if they don't fight back? Or if they fight so good but not quite good enough?"

"You force [people] to be uncultured. Everything they see is their culture. You take advantage of a child's natural selfishness, his natural cruelty, and prolong it by pandering to it until he becomes a cruel, selfish adult, proud of his cruelty and selfishness because it conforms to the national ideal."

Tim: "Television is practically everywhere. In a few more years there won't be a house anywhere that doesn't have a set. ...[W]hen the kids are home from school, till the time they're supposed to be in bed, you have nothing on any of the channels except things that are educational, but well done."
Marge: "That's ridiculous. [...] You're talking about nationalizing. You're talking about 1984"

THINGS I LEARNED: Miles had a prophetic vision for quality children's programming on national television broadcasting. The section (partially quoted above) where Tim talks to Marge about the power of TV and how it can be a force of good in helping to shape young minds beneficially was amazingly on target. Only two years after this book was published Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" spoke before a Senate Committee on Communications in order to preserve multimillion funding for children's programming on public TV. After an impassioned argument he quoted the lyrics from one of his songs that reminds a child that he or she is always control of his emotions, that he can pause in a moment of anger and do something better, something constructive. When Rogers was done Senator John Pastore said, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars." You can view Fred Rogers' testimony on YouTube here.

Richard Miles, age 22, seen in
"The Betty Hutton Show"
THE AUTHOR: There is a brief biographical sketch about Richard Miles and his previous life as a child actor in movies and TV on the page for my review of his first, less controlled, more histrionic novel That Cold Day in the Park. I'll only elaborate here on the unusual way that Angel Loves Nobody came to be published. Miles won the Samuel Goldwyn Award in 1966. It was apparently first written as a script because the Samuel Goldwyn awards are for a screenwriting competition for TV and movie writers. Miles received extensive critique on the story and suggestions for its improvement. Apparently he decided to convert it into a novel and later earned a contract with Prentice-Hall for its publication.

EASY TO FIND? Miles' novel was published in both the US and UK. It was also reprinted in paperback in both countries. Despite the fact that there were four separate editions in two countries it seems to be rather scarce. I found only 15 copies for sale online, a mix of all four editions, in prices ranging from a $3.97 paperback to $35 for a copy of the US first in fine condition. You may want to check your local library. I found the book utterly fascinating, eerily prescient and, sadly, extremely topical and still relevant in our violence ridden world. It's very much recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: The Arrow Points to Murder - Frederica de Laguna

THE STORY: All is not well at the New York Academy of Natural Sciences. The Hall of Mammals is closed for rehabbing and redesign, the sea otter exhibit is moth eaten and in need of a taxidermy repair, one scientist's paper all ready for publication now looks as if it will never see print. The entire staff is on edge, at each other's throats with jealousy and animosity for one reason or another. Then there's the collection of South American artifacts being catalogued and prepared for loan to a foreign museum. Museum director Dr. Oberly insists on reviewing the group before it gets shipped off to Russia. Hours later Oberly is dead, apparently having accidentally cut himself on the arrow blade still tainted with curare. Was it an accident? Oberly was not at all well liked, had made several employees angry or upset, and seems a perfect target for violent revenge. Was the accident a cleverly disguised murder? Dr. Richard Barton turns sleuth and uncovers more secrets than he cared to know about.

THE CHARACTERS: The primary cast of characters is made up of the rather large staff of the Museum. Everyone from security guards to administrative staff to all the scientist are introduced in a whirlwind first chapter, one right after other, and it took many pages for me to keep everyone straight. I made a checklist with character names, their museum affiliations, and field of study and needed to refer back to it frequently before I had finally kept them all straight in my head. That was well past the halfway mark. Once that task was accomplished I was able to sink into the very intriguing plot.

Barton is our hero detective and he is part of the American Studies section of the museum. His knowledge about the South American Goajiro tribe and the methods of making and using arrow poisons is key to uncovering the murder method and in part the killer's motive. He is sure that the murderer unintentionally showed his ignorance of ethnology in choosing the arrow as a murder weapon while the police think it all may be a blind. When another murder related to the arrow collection -- even more bizarre and horrific in its execution -- takes place Barton and the police know for certain that Oberly's death was no accident.

INNOVATIONS: When Doubleday Doran first published de Laguna's book in 1937 part of the publicity for the book claimed that it was "the first fictional presentation of backstage life in a large museum...by an archeologist (sic) who knows and appreciates the color and fascinating detail of that type of work." Like most publishing PR this is slightly exaggerated. There had been a handful of other detective novels published much earlier that also involve museums and even one with an arrow murder in a museum (The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow (1917) by Anna Katharine Green), but the claim of the authorial expertise on the academic side of museum work probably holds true as a first in fiction publishing.

The plot makes use of anthropological forensic science and unusual poison experiments in a way like no other detective novel I know of. De Laguna admits frankly in her foreword to the 1999 paperback reprint that she took liberties with the operation of the Medical Examiner's Office in order to make the plot more exciting.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Arrow Points to Murder (1937) is replete with anthropological lectures, cultural tidbits, and tangential scientific trivia all related to museum work. I learned about the importance of entomology in helping to date Egyptian mummies (some species of lice are being studied by one of the staff members). There is considerable background in the "publish or perish" mindset of working in academia and how the continual delay of a manuscript affects the eccentric ethnologist Carstairs, who for much of the book seems to be the most likely suspect as Oberly's killer. And of course I got a crash course in arrow poison sources and the manufacture of those poisons. De Laguna includes a complex recipe for curare which consists of samples of bark from five different species of tree and the roots of two other plants! I discovered that some poisons remain lethal for years even though they appear to have dried on the arrowhead.

Frederica De Laguna
(circa early 1930s)
THE AUTHOR: Frederica de Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1906, the daughter of two philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College where she eventually would study politics and economics. She later studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University which led to a travel expedition focussing on the study of connection between Eskimo and Paleolithic art. She travelled throughout Europe on a fellowship awarded to her from Byrn Mawr and had a variety of ethnological and archeological experiences all culminating in her decision to pursue anthropology as a career. In the early 1930s she held a position at The University of Pennsylvania Museum which provided her with much of the background that shows up in The Arrow Points to Murder. De Laguna founded the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College where she taught from 1938 to 1972. In 1975, along with Margaret Mead, she was one of the first women to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Her life is rich with fascinating work and you can find out a lot about her from various books and websites. For the most interesting take on her long career visit this informative, often intimate, tribute website.

In addition to her many books on anthropology and ethnology De Laguna wrote two mystery novels, both to offset a period of unemployment during the depression. The Fog on the Mountain (1938) followed The Arrow Points to Murder and is in part based on her expedition to Cook Inlet, Alaska to discover traces of Paleo-Indians and her study of the Athapaskan people.

EASY TO FIND? The Arrow Points to Murder was originally published only in the US by Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club".  There is no UK edition. Copies of the original hardcover are --surprise!-- exceptionally scarce, though I managed to find one in a Half Price Books outlet for a mere $25 only a few months ago. But your chances are better if you look for the 1999 paperback reprint from a one time independent Alaskan operation called Katchemak Country Publications. This indie press also reprinted her second detective novel Fog on the Mountain, another equally scarce mystery book. De Laguna intended to have all of her books, her two novels and all of her non-fiction work, reissued by a publishing enterprise she created herself prior to her death in 2004.  But few of her books have been reprinted according to the website catalog.

Friday, July 28, 2017

FFB: The Thing at Their Heels - Harrington Hext

THE STORY: The Templer family has been targeted by a mad killer. It appears that a crazed German soldier, someone they call the Man in Black, is killing the heirs in order of their succession according to the legacies listed in family patriarch Sir Augustine Templer's will. Bertram Midwinter, a police inspector, is summoned by Father Felix Templer to find the killer and stop the decimation. But the mysterious Man in Black seems far too elusive and efficient a killer to stop.

THE CHARACTERS: Though published in 1923 The Thing at Their Heels is set in 1919. Most of the characters are still suffering from the aftermath of World War I, two of the Templers are military men who experienced the horror and carnage first hand on the frontlines. The younger of these soldier Templers, Major Montague, is considerably changed by his wartime life. A post-war worldview allows Hext to have his characters serve as mouthpieces for fanatical philosophies and he delivers a variety of debates on everything from the Tao of Lao Tzu to the role of socialism in post-war England. Some characters we don't get to know for a very long at all like Major Templer and his 15 year-old son Tom because they are the first victims of the relentless and untiring killer. Midwinter is one of the most well rounded and grounded characters. He's the detective of the piece and when he is on the scene the book has a truly gripping and thrilling narrative. What the book is most noteworthy for, however, is its non-genre aspects.

INNOVATIONS: True, this is a detective novel and when it sticks to the traditions of the genre it works very well. The book can be exciting and original for one of the earliest mad killer novels of its type. Often Midwinter excels in his theories when applying the evidence found to the many crimes perpetrated. But Hext is really not interested in telling the story of who the real culprit is; the killer's motivations are more to his interest. The Thing at Their Heels is more of a polemic, a critique of zealotry and fanaticism. Sir Augustine's obsession with the Greek playwright Menander and his constant quoting of quips and philosophies found in those comedies is more than irritating. Can anyone have committed to memory so much of a single writers' work? And such an obscure, barely studied writer at that! When he isn't quoting the Greek he is counseling every living Templer on their duty to carry on the family name and become the steward of the Templer estate and family traditions. He is an anachronism in post World War I England -- a feudal lord insistent on maintaining an outdated and dying aristocracy.

He's not the only one with an obsessed mind. The book is littered with chapter-long debates about religion and socialism. Father Felix, a Catholic priest, is also drawn to the mystical qualities of Sufism and Tao Buddhism. Poor Petronell Templer, the only female character of note in this male dominated world, is at the mercy of his manipulative lectures. She is goaded into marrying a man she does not love all in service of God. Later when that man is murdered Father Felix tells her that her only solace is to be found in a life of service to the Lord. Once again she is convinced that she must do as she is told and she plans to enter a convent by the novel's end.

Montague Templer is the voice of reason in the novel and yet he too is one of the many fanatics. He is basically a contrarian to all that Felix and Sir Augustine espouse. Montey is the also an avowed socialist and he utters a single paragraph of dialogue that to me is the most telling clue as to the secret motives of the real killer. I planned on quoting that passage but it turns out to be a dead giveaway and my guess as to the true identity of the Man in Black was 100% correct. So I'm not going to supply that passage.

QUOTES: I will however quote in its entirety the entry for The Thing at Their Heels (1923) as it is found in Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime. It's a laudatory entry, but one not without an unspoken caveat:

Unorthodox in form, but powerful in effect. Seldom has [the writer] used his knowledge of the countryside and his feeling for passionate characters more artfully to produce a series of murders that are clearly described and assiduously investigated -- though without result till the very end, when all the talk about socialism and religion finds its due place as part of the plot and the solution is given without diminishing the stature of Insp. Midwinter. The elimination of the Templer family then appears inevitable though unjust. A masterpiece in a rare variety of the species.

Masterpiece? Not at all. I find this to be overkill in its praise. While I can agree with Barzun's assessment of its strengths as a detective novel, the faults of the novel far outweigh the author's skill. The zealotry expressed by one character is ridiculously heavy handed. I guess it was a shock for its 1923 audience to discover the identity of the killer. But post modern detective novel devotees are inured to this kind of "shocking twist." In presenting a story of three stubborn True Believers who rant and rave about religion and politics and the paramount importance of an aristocratic bloodline Hext has not indulged in the detective novelist's finest trait of misdirection but he has shown his hand all too often. It is fairly easy to spot the mad killer and not because the body count leaves us with only a few living suspects to choose from. It is easy to spot the villain by the third of the five murders because of these drawn out debate sections.

THE AUTHOR: "Harrington Hext" was a pseudonym for Eden Phillpotts, a prolific novelist who wrote in many genres and created about a handful of pioneer works. The Red Redmaynes (1922), interestingly yet another story of a mad killer knocking off members of a single family, is his other noteworthy serial killer novel written under his own name. As Hext he wrote the odd genre-blending science fiction/crime thriller Number 87 (1922) and as Phillpotts he also wrote a much praised science fiction novel Saurus (1938), a satirical novel about a reptilian alien making observations on humans. He wrote a number of detective novels, mostly run-of-the-mill, but is primarily known for his novels of manners and other writing in mainstream literature. He also has an additional fifteen minutes of fame as the primary influence who encouraged Agatha Christie to pursue her life as a detective fiction writer. So for that we all owe him abundant thanks.

EASY TO FIND? I'm not really recommending this novel even as a curiosity in the formation of what we know as the serial killer crime novel. However, for those who need to know a handful of copies are out there for sale. I know of no paperback reprints, but you can find both US and UK hardcover editions in a price range of $30 to $150 depending on condition and the chutzpah of the bookseller. It's probably been uploaded at Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Many of Phillpotts' books are out of copyright and the information pirates(Phillpotts would have loved their obsessive minds and compulsive habits) are always busy uploading books of this type.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books: An Additional Guide for the Curious

My copy of Martin Edward's Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books arrived yesterday and I was rather excited that I've already read and reviewed many of the books listed. As an additional guide to those who are interested in the books Martin discusses I've made a list of the titles that are reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books. Here they are with hyperlinks to each page:

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius
Death Under Sail by C. P. Snow
Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Family Matters by Anthony Rolls
Middle Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton (reviewed under the US title Dead Reckoning)

In honor of Martin's book I've created a new tag "Edwards' 100" and added it to the list of tags for the above posts.  I'll also be using that tag in the future for any book I write about that appears in Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.


Additionally, I have reviewed at least one book (often many more) by these authors though the one book Martin cites is not among any of my posts:

Freeman Wills Crofts
Agatha Christie  and also here (2 books)
H. C. Bailey
Gladys Mitchell (6 books)
Rupert Penny
Anthony Wynne (2 books)
John Dickson Carr (3 books), also Carter Dickson (3 books)
Miles Burton and also John Rhode (4 books total)
John Bude
Newton Gayle
Victor L. Whitechurch (2 books)
Ethel Lina White
J. J. Connington (2 books)
Q. Patrick also Jonathan Stagge, Patrick Quentin (10 books)
C. St. John Sprigg
Henry Wade
Christianna Brand (2 books)
Martin Porlock
Joanna Cannan
G.D.H. & Margaret Cole (3 books)
Patricia Highsmith (2 books, 1 movie)
Georges Simenon
Shelley Smith (5 books, 1 movie)
Julian Symons

I've already read several sections and made notes on about a dozen or so books Martin discusses (or mentions in passing in other reviews) that I'd like to read. And quite by coincidence I will be reviewing about five books that appear as one of the "honored 100" in Martin's book in the coming months. Three of them I've read this year long before I knew they were included in his crime fiction survey.  Like minds, eh?

I also grinned widely and laughed a bit when I saw my name mentioned along with a handful of other booksellers and mystery novel mavens in the last two sentences of Martin's Acknowledgments page. I'm very happy I was able to contribute in my small way to the creation of this book.

(And yes, these are photos of my books. Just a sampling of the many bookcases in this book museum of a house.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

FFB: Dead Reckoning - Bruce Hamilton

"Well written, but most unpleasant tale" -- penciled remark by a Previous Owner left in my copy of Dead Reckoning

THE STORY:Tim Kennedy is a successful dentist and happily married to Esther. Until one evening his vivacious, attractive wife goes chasing after her hat on a busy roadway. She is struck by a car and suffers multiple injuries. Her recovery is a painful and disheartening one. She is left horribly disfigured, crippled on one side of her body, and drained of her lust for life. Taking care of Esther becomes a burden to Tim, his love and devotion dwindling, eventually finding himself drawn to the much younger Alma Shepherd. Tim begins to daydream of how easier his life might be without Esther leading to what he thinks is the perfect murder.

THE CHARACTERS:The original title of Dead Reckoning (1937) in England was Middle Class Murder. That title is a good cue to the kinds of people to expect in its realistic rendering of a dentist, his patients and friends. But it is Hamilton's juxtaposition of mundane homelife and a routine workplace against the secret criminal plotting of our anti-hero that make the book more than just a mainstream novel which in the first half it very much resembles. From the very first page we know Tim Kennedy is planning on killing his wife, one of several half-started, then abandoned plots that will come back to haunt him in the final chapters.

The story is told in third person but everything is viewed through Tim's perspective. He at first seems like an amiable man, well respected in his profession and well liked among his small circle of friends and acquaintances. As the story progresses he gradually transforms into a figure of pathetic desperation. Aching for the sex life he once had, longing to be desired, suffering through the worst kind of middle age crisis and coming to the most heinous decision on how to transcend his depression and unhappiness. Remarkably, it is Hamilton's skill in turning our sympathies toward Tim when he becomes the victim of a nasty blackmail plot that make this book unique of a British version of a James M Cain tale of infidelity and murder.

We know poor Esther is doomed from the start and yet she never becomes sentimentalized. Her recovery is painful to read of while her burgeoning friendship with Alma, Tim's object of desire, is an ironic high point of joy in her brief post-accident life. Tim's partner Adam, who becomes his nemesis in Book Two, is a fine portrait of a little man attempting to life a life of big dreams yet revealing instead nothing but amoral corruption and small-minded greed. The lack of police throughout the story highlights another world of Hamilton's creation fraught with omnipresent danger, paranoia and near lawlessness.

INNOVATIONS: Hamilton's brother Patrick is best known for his playwriting skills, but Dead Reckoning shows the elder Hamilton to have a similar gift for drama played out in skilled dialogue sequences that reveal character. There is a excellent section devoted to a tennis party ostensibly thrown together for Esther's benefit but in reality a way for Tim to get to see Alma. Hamilton uses the tennis party to introduce a few minor characters who will reappear in other functions in the second half of the novel as well as allowing us to see Esther experience the joy of her former self. The dialogue is cleverly rendered with innuendo between Alma and Tim; we know Tim's thoughts as well as his words, but can only guess at Alma's thoughts and feelings based on ambiguous remarks. A later scene where Tim takes Alma on a private tour of his home leads them to a room with a rocking horse. Alma sits down and rocks herself while Tim continues his veiled flirtation with her. It's a remarkable piece of writing that shows the older man pursuing a younger woman while at the same time ridiculing him as we see her acting in such a childlike manner.

The crime novel features take over in Book Two when Tim find himself the victim of a blackmail scheme. In eerie anticipation of Robin Maugham's well known novel The Servant Tim finds himself at the mercy of his employee who in effect takes complete control of his life, commandeering his finances and forcing Tim into committing more acts of final desperation. This coupled with some bad news about his supposed property inheritance from Esther sends Tim into a continual downward spiral. It's a chilling portion of the novel. One cannot help side with the hapless dentist and hope that he can turn the tables on the avaricious and amoral Adam. There are some violent action set pieces and an eleventh hour scene where we think Tim may have indeed thwarted the plot to reveal him as Esther's killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: In one of the many dentist office scenes (some of them rather fascinating) Tim runs out of a special mouthwash preparation. He calls his assistant, Adam, to make him some more, but there is no reply. Because the patient is in the chair in mid-surgery he is forced to come up with an alternative: "Eventually he telephoned the chemist (whose boy proved to be out) and made do with lysol." Lysol as a mouthwash? I can't believe that. Hamilton must've intended Listerine and got confused. I looked up the history of Lysol products and it was never used as mouthwash. It was, however, used as a vaginal douche. I'll spare you anymore of my findings.

EASY TO FIND?If you speak and read French you're in luck. The most affordable copies are paperback editions in French (Portrait d'un meurtrier) but there are only five that I could find. No good news for the original English language editions. A single copy of the UK title Middle Class Murder is available if you're willing to pay $324 (£250) while only two US editions are for sale priced at $30 (no DJ) and $250 (with DJ). Looks like your local library may be the best bet.

Friday, July 14, 2017

FFB: Something about Midnight - D. B. Olsen

THE STORY: By day she's Ernestine Hollister, dedicated English literature student at Clarendon College, but at night she transforms herself into Ernestine Hall, sultry dance hall girl flirting with every young naïve sailor she can find. Her motives are founded on bitter revenge but she's not talking about her past with anyone. Not even Freddy Nixon who's been trying to get her to notice him for weeks at her regular haunt at the amusement pier. He finally gets up enough nerve to talk to her, she relents out of boredom, and accepts his invitation to visit Mrs. Lacoste, an elderly woman who has been his weekend companion for several weeks now. This strange trio of characters drink, laugh and discuss Mrs. Lacoste's missing grandson who has gone AWOL from the army or is MIA. It's all very ambiguous. Mrs. Lacoste isn't offering any real details, she'd rather drop a few sleeping pills in her beer creating a "goofball cocktail" and get deliriously drunk. Freddy and Ernestine notice the abuse of drugs and alcohol but keep it to themselves. That night Ernestine vanishes along with her sporty convertible Packard. Professor Pennyfeather is asked to find the missing Ernestine by her seriously frightened cousin Rae Caradyne who also happens to be one of his students. Four hours later he finds the missing student at the foot of a cliff. A typewritten note left in her car indicates suicide. Or did something far more sinister happen?

THE CHARACTERS: Something about Midnight (1950) is the fourth mystery novel featuring D. B. Olsen's (aka Dolores Hitchens) inquisitive English professor Mr. Pennyfeather. Hitchens has once again dreamed up a cast of fully human often complicated characters. It's almost a shame that poor Ernestine gets knocked off so early in the book because she is one of the most fascinating young women I've encountered in Hitchens' mystery novels. Intelligent yet petty, Ernestine's sardonic hipster attitude masks a deep-seated anger mixed with sorrow. Only after she's dead do we fully realize what motivated her to adopt the alter ego of Ernestine Hall who teased and exploited the young sailors looking for female companionship at the dance halls. The opening chapter with its strange visit to the home of Mrs. Lacoste is at the heart of the mystery and the numerous violent deaths. Mrs. Lacoste herself is an odd character, but compared to others she seems relatively sane even in her choice to live in an alcoholic stupor.

There's Rae Caradyne, an all too somber, rather humorless college student who first brings Mr. Pennyfeather into the case. She comes off as a near caricature of the ugly duckling, bespectacled loner. But her seriousness rings false to Mr. Pennyfeather. He is sure Miss Caradyne is hiding her real self behind the mask of a dull Plain Jane.

The most colorful of the cast is Ernestine's uncle Stephen Dunne. He too is a loner, but of an entirely different sort. He lives the life of a reclusive artist in a seaside ramshackle house where he collects driftwood and seaweed for his unusual mix of sculpture and painting in the weird landscapes he creates on mesh frameworks. He has a deep love for his niece and cannot accept that she killed herself which is how the police want to deal with her death and thus avoid any type of real investigation. Uncle Stephen waxes poetic with some nicely done monologues in his discussions with Pennyfeather. Hitchens does a fine job with Stephen in reminding us how violence brings out a person's deep philosophical side, how it makes us reflect on the fragility of life, what we value most and how often we never realize that worth until it is taken from us. Stephen Dunne is cantankerous, witty and often profound. He was my favorite of this well-rounded group of intriguing characters.

INNOVATIONS: Of all Hitchen's mid-career books this one seems to mark her transition from the traditional mystery to her darker crime novels that border on genuine noir. The story of Ernestine and her past are reminiscent of the plots that Ross Macdonald revelled in with his corrupt, well-to-do California families. Hitchens' noir touches will be fully realized in her brief series featuring private eye Jim Sader who appeared in Sleep with Slander (1960) and one other novel. That's not to say that this still isn't a intricately constructed and subtly clued detective novel because it is. The academic setting for once is intrinsically intertwined in the story of Ernestine's violent death. Her insightful study of literature and love of poetry manifest themselves in quotes from "The Garden of Proserpine" by Algernon Swinburne which will be of great help in leading Pennyfeather to the truth. Also, a rather Christie-like bit of clueing comes in the letter Freddy Nixon sends to his secretary alerting her to his possible murder. He reports an overheard conversation and quotes some dialogue that appears to be college slang but will turn out to have a completely different meaning.

The novel tends to veer into thriller territory in the final third when Mr. Pennyfeather is abducted and the story shifts into high gear with one action set piece after another. Highlights include a climactic fire in a California forest and an unusual hand-to-hand fight between the middle-aged man and the very surprising villain of the piece. Still with all these action sequences Something about Midnight rightly belongs in the traditional detective novel category.

QUOTES: Dunne looked gloomily out upon the sea. "So damned lonely...as lonely as death itself. Would she have come up here in the middle of the night to jump off into the roaring black surf? I don't think she would have. Not at midnight. There's something about midnight, something gruesome."

There were no lights, and the fog concealed the gleaming radiator until it was too late. The car was there, a juggernaut, and [he] was there, its victim. And Death was there, too, waiting for the not unhandsome fellow who had liked to linger on the beach to pick up girls.

Mr. Pennyfeather turned over and over in his mind the circumstances of the case, the outright, miraculously lucky breaks that had seemed to occur one after the other, making everything seem so smooth, logical and easy; and he was aware, as before, of an uncomfortable hunch that there was a ghastly hitch in it all somewhere, and that under the whole reasonable tightly knit structure of his solution some demon of the perverse was laughing at him.


EASY TO FIND? Looks pretty good, gang. As usual it's the paperback reprint that tends to be available for sale more than any other edition. The book was published in the UK and the US, but US editions are more plentiful on the internet. There are approximately 30 or so copies available all at reasonable prices. Only two copies of the first US edition hardcover (a Doubleday Crime Club book) show up for sale. One with the scarce DJ is $25 and the other without is $20. Both are real bargains, I say. The Pocket Book paperback is your best bet. Sadly, none of Hitchens' books under her D. B. Olsen moniker have been reprinted in modern editions. Someone ought to rectify that soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEW STUFF: A Talent for Murder - Andrew Wilson

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-5001-4506-3
310 pp. $26
Publication date: July 11, 2017

Back in 1978 I remember reading (and later seeing the movie) Agatha by Kathleen Tynan. This was the first attempt by an novelist to concoct a reason for Agatha Christie’s mysterious two week disappearance in December 1926, following an argument with her husband about his affair with a young woman. Christie's strange relocation to a spa at Harrowgate (where she was registered under the same last name as her husband’s lover) was attributed to amnesia and depression. But before she was found the press dreamed up wild stories ranging from an elaborate publicity stunt to help sell her books to kidnapping to possible murder. Tynan’s story reduced the mystery to a preposterous revenge plot completely out of character for the real Agatha Christie. Now Andrew Wilson, biographer of Patricia Highsmith and many others, has tried his hand at spinning his own thriller to explain the same period when the Grand Dame of Mysterydom vanished for several days in A Talent for Murder (2017). Having completed extensive biographical and literary research Wilson’s story is more in keeping with Christie’s personality and temperament but it is nonetheless just as implausible. Knowing that he was first interested in the life and writing of Highsmith ought to prepare you for what is clearly a crime novel inspired by both women’s books.

Wilson has fashioned an odd story of grief, depression and murder by proxy. Like Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train he has created his own version of Charles Bruno in the person of Patrick Kurs, a megalomaniac physician who is tired of his invalid wife and wants her gone. He manipulates Agatha into carrying out the murder of his wife by threatening her with exposure of her husband’s affair which he knows far too much about. Agatha is just beginning to enjoy success as a bestselling writer thanks to the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and any publicity of her philandering husband would be scandalous to her personal life and detrimental to her professional life.

Kurs has read …Ackroyd, of course, and commends Agatha for the tour de force novel. He cannot stop talking about it and how he greatly admires the character Dr. Sheppard, who he feels is one of Mrs. Christie’s greatest creations. In fact, he regards the fictional doctor “something of a hero” much to Agatha’s horror. Even more horrifying is Kurs' additional threat of doing harm to Agatha’s young daughter Rosamund if the novelist does not follow Dr. Kurs’ implicit instructions on how to do in his wife.

A parallel story follows when Agatha meets Una Crowe and her friend John Davison. Una aspires to become a reporter and will have ample opportunity to do so when Mrs. Christie suddenly goes missing. Sensational newspaper headlines spur on Una who is determined to beat the pros at their own game and reveal the truth herself. Her amateur sleuthing uncovers Archie Christie’s affair which leads her to Nancy Neele, the mistress, and eventually to the office of Nancy’s confidante, her private physician Dr. Patrick Kurs.

Wilson has done an admirable job of incorporating Christie’s biography into A Talent for Murder. However, there is an unfortunate avalanche of this information within the first two chapters that almost ruins the crime plot before it has a chance to even start. Wilson has chosen to emphasize the recent death of Christie’s mother and he allows Agatha to spend much of her time wallowing in nostalgia and reminiscing about her childhood. This is how she is coping with her grief, but coupled with the knowledge that her husband is cheating on her and planning to leave her Agatha’s emotional life and state of mind are always at the near breaking point.

In the parallel story of Una Crowe there is also the shadow of a recent family death. We learn just as much about Una’s interior life as we do Agatha’s. The idea that fragile women both dealing with overpowering grief are channeling their energies into writing and sleuthing is an interesting one. While Una is determined to solve the riddle of the missing mystery writer, Mrs. Christie is determined to outwit Dr. Kurs in his bizarre murder plot and expose him at his own game. Each woman is doing her best to live up to the memory of her lost relative as well as finding a way back to herself and the real world. The juxtaposition of these two stories and their eventual intersection and overlap are the most successful aspects of this often gripping book.

Unfortunately, the character work is often heavy handed and one gets the feeling that Wilson couldn’t decide between his two crime novelist influences. Several scenes with the stubborn Supt. Kenward who suspects Archie Christie of killing his wife become repetitious in how Christie continually denies all accusations levelled at him increasingly losing his patience and temper with the unimaginative policemen. There are also elements of Christie’s Westamacott novels that threaten to drown the story in domestic soap opera. But then Wilson will insert a delicious scene with ambiguous dialogue and hidden motives straight out of Highsmith that invigorates the narrative.

Andrew Wilson
(photo ©Johnny Ring)
The use of unusual poisons in the plot, however, remind us we are clearly in the world of Agatha Christie. There are several chapters devoted to Agatha’s research into choosing a unique poison with chemical properties that will allow her to thwart Dr. Kurs’ murder plot. The final third of the novel in which Agatha finally meets up with Flora Kurs, their joining forces against the amoral doctor coupled with the story of Una Crowe’s near coup de grace in uncovering the truth about Agatha’s disappearance make for the most exciting parts of this on-again-off-again thriller.

If in the end the novel is less of a whodunit honoring Christie and more homage to Highsmith’s fascination with criminal behavior and the dark recesses of human emotion that is no real fault. The reader unfamiliar with Agatha Christie’s personal life will benefit from Wilson’s intensive research with an ample amount of biographical background that renders her more lifelike and true than Kathleen Tynan’s Agatha. Wilson’s love of Christie’s work and respect for her storytelling and plotting skills are also on grand display. There are some well done Christie-like touches and requisite plot twists that may catch a few readers off guard and perhaps even elicit a gasp or two.