Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bring Back Emperor Norton!

On September 17, 1859 in San Francisco, Joshua A. Norton proclaimed himself "Emperor of the United States and Protectorate of Mexico". Looking back over his various decrees and proclamations I came across one that has resonance for today's troubled times. On August 12, 1869 he issued a decree that dissolved and abolished the Democratic and Republican parties "because of party strife now existing in our realm." What would the dear Emperor make of the Divisive States now? Wonder no more, my friends.

For the past eight years there's been an eccentric dude who lives in San Francisco impersonating the long dead Emperor and carrying on his congenial spirit, the celebration of common sense, human decency and good citizenship. Three days ago this new and improved Emperor Norton issued his latest decree via the miracle of YouTube.

Those of you who live in the Bay area might want to check out the good works of the Emperor Norton who conducts an offbeat tour of the city, every Thursday and Saturday. Next month in honor of the insanity we are now enduring the Emperor will offer his "Alternative Facts Tour" -- a one day only event, this coming Saturday, February 4, 2017. Sounds like a lot of fun. This special event will "tour through Union Square, downtown, the financial district, the Barbary Coast and Chinatown, but every story will be made up and deliberately false." If we must have alternative facts, let them at least be entertaining.

Vive le empereur!

Friday, January 27, 2017

FFB: The Greenstone Griffins - Gladys Mitchell

THE STORY: A pair of antique candle holders in the form of griffins become an obsession for Jessica Denefield, a young teacher living in rural Longwater Sedge. The Greenstone Griffins (1983), as they are known, carry with them an apparent curse; for anyone who owns them violence and destruction follow. The griffins have purportedly been responsible for an accidental fire in a summerhouse, a shooting death, and arson at an antique shop. In the final damning bit of proof that the objects are cursed one of the griffins is used as a blunt instrument in the murder of a mysterious fortune teller named Madame Setier. Jessica is compelled to discover the secret of the griffins and why so much violence is attached to their ownership. She literally stumbles upon the battered body of Madame Setier and becomes the prime suspect in her murder. When Mrs. Bradley happens to visit the town and meets Jessica in order to gain permission in interviewing the schoolchildren for her research into nomadic travelers she learns of the griffins, their sinister history, and the murder. A pattern of violence begins to emerge all of it tied to a crime in the past. Mrs. Bradley's determination to clear Jessica's name leads to the uncovering of family secrets, blackmail and murderous revenge.

THE CHARACTERS: I have a suspicion that this book was written earlier in Mitchell's career and was set aside. The atmosphere of the book is far removed from a modern 1983 and feels much more like the late 1950s. Jessica Denefield loses her teaching job merely because she stumbles upon a murder is the only witness and is subsequently paid close attention to by police. She eventually becomes the prime suspect because Jessica also made the foolish decision to walk into the house as the door was unlocked. To me this is just trespassing, but the police call it breaking and entering. In any case, the way she is treated by the school administration seems absurdly old-fashioned for the 1980s. However, it is set in rural England so it's very possible that this is a reflection of a countrified worldview where people in authority maintain deeply conservative opinions and shudder at any thought of the most minor scandal.

And yet... After Mrs. Bradley criticizes the Education Officer for the way he has treated Jessica he says "Ah, you are a feminist!" intending it as an insult. Never letting the meekest slight affect her the elderly psychiatrist snaps back: "If most of life's ironies and jests were directed against men, I would be on their side, but we must not waste your time and mine on fruitless discussion of Nature's ruthless disregard of the importance of the balance of powers between the sexes--at least as human beings are concerned. I believe the female spider is more fortunate." Later on she attacks a woman for holding antiquated ideas and rebukes her by stating her heartfelt opinion that men and woman have always been equal, that the inequality was an invention of men in power. Granted both Mitchell and her detective character have always been vocal about equality for men and women, but those few instances are the only time I felt like the book rang true for its publication date.

In other ways the book is a real throwback to Mitchell's mysteries of the early 1930s and 1940s.  All of the regulars appear in this book including her loyal servants Celestine, Henri and George her indefatigable chauffeur. George plays a prominent role in this book and even goes undercover to help Dame Beatrice get some inside dope from a scalawag who frequents the "Cow and Lasher," a local pub. There is a new secretary who is a replacement for Laura Menzies who left Mrs. Bradley, got married, and had several children sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. This new secretary I liked a lot. Her name is Miss Cummings and I've never encountered her in the Gladys Mitchell books prior to reading The Greenstone Griffins. She may be in other books, but since I've primarily read Mitchell's early to mid career books rather than her books published between 1970 and 1983 I can't tell you when Miss Cummings first pops up as one of the many employees at Stone House. She's full of wise words, has a passion for dropping literary allusions into everyday conversation, and is deeply concerned for Mrs. Bradley's safety. She thinks her boss takes too many risks for an elderly woman which delights and amuses ol' Mrs. Croc to no end.

QUOTES:  Education Officer: "Don't hit a man when he's down!"
Mrs. B: "I should not stoop to such a proceeding. When a Man is down, that is the time to kick his head in, don't you think? --and that action does not involve any stooping at all, as your committee appears to have realised in the case of Jessica Denefield."

"There are such things as wheels within wheels, Detective Superintendent,"
"You speak in riddles, ma'am."
"Maybe it is the fault of my profession. The Delphic Oracle, if you remember, suffered the same disability."

THINGS I LEARNED: Mitchell is a master at replicating the country dialects of her native land. This book comes alive with all sorts of rural slang amid the dialect heavy dialogue. Mumping is slang for begging. Apparently, it is also in use among police and the working class to mean selling used goods in lieu of begging. Bumby hole is one of the many alternative terms for an outhouse or a public toilet. I never heard that one! Not even in the thousands of British movies I've seen over the years.

EASY TO FIND? All of Gladys Mitchells books are available in digital versions from that giant e-tailer who created the Kindle. Knock yourselves out 21st century book fans! Those of use who like to turn real paper pages with our fingers rather than swiping a screen are less lucky. I found only five copies of The Greenstone Griffins for sale and all of them are priced ridiculously high and will probably stay on their shelves until each seller goes out of business. The book was never reprinted in paperback and exists only in the UK hardcover edition making it all the more scarce. If you happen to have a spare two grand in pocket change you can treat yourself to something unique in book collecting. Mitchell wrote all of her manuscripts out in longhand and sent them out to professional typists before submitting them to her publisher. There is a bookseller who managed to snag the original holograph of The Greenstone Griffins and wants nearly $2600 for it. Do you hear strains of "The Impossible Dream" playing in the background?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Q Patrick Rarity Unearthed

This morning when I checked my email I got an alert than one of my "want list" books was available for purchase. This happens all too rarely. Last year I got one of these email alerts and I wrote about it on this blog because the price of the book was gasp inducing. As I've said before, when I get one of these emails I cross my fingers that I can afford the book. This morning I think I managed quite a coup in book acquisition. Here's the notice I received:

Item Status: Confirmed
Title: Danger Next Door
Author: Patrick, Q. (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler)
Quantity: 1
Book Description: Mysterious happenings have the girl next door frightened and in need of help. Gently bumped with a tape shadow to the front board, foxing to the end papers and edges of the text block. Binding square and solid. Jacket rubbed with long tears, internal and external tape repair. 2 loss to the spine heel, 1/2 to the head, in Brodart. A scarce title by the authors who also wrote under the names Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge.
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Very Good
Book Price: US$ 100.00

Danger Next Door!  The most elusive book in the entire output of Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler. I've never seen a copy for sale in the nearly eighteen years I've been selling books. Nor have I seen one in the four decades I've been buying vintage mystery novels as an incurable collector and fan. This was the most exciting purchase I've made in a very long time. I feel like a little kid and I can't wait for the book to arrive and soak in its pages.

A review on this rarity will definitely be appearing in February. Stay tuned, gang!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Harry Stephen Keeler Remembered

Harry Stephen Keeler in his youth.
On January 22, 1967 the world lost one of its premiere imagineers. Harry Stephen Keeler shuffled off this mortal coil to join his beloved Hazel on that date and the world of mystery fiction became a little less joyful, a smidgen less madcap, and whole lot less fun. Today Richard Polt, founder of The Harry Stephen Keeler Society has put out a special issue of Keeler News, that fanzine dedicated to all things Keelerian, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of this true original. In preparation he asked Society members to join in with their own tributes of one sort or another. I decided to take down from the shelves one of the handful of Keeler novels I hadn't read, devour it as quickly as I could, and churn out something suitably honorary. I missed the deadline of January 15 to make the issue, but just in the nick of time here is my bit to honor the memory of one of mysterydom's most original and audaciously imaginative writers.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown (1935) is quintessential Keeler.  It contains every one of his trademarks that made a Keeler mystery novel unique and absurd, laughable and sweet. We get the usual Keelerian arcane lectures on everything from the history of antique safes to the origin of obscure Texan surnames; a rainstorm of letters handwritten and typed (one lasting over three chapters!) detailing background adventures of the large cast of characters; lunatic dialogue rendered in intricately composed phonetic dialects capturing everything from Southern Black to Southern Texan; and of course the pursuit of an oddball Macguffin, in this case the skull of the deceased clown in the title.

But how can I overlook the story -- or, rather stories, as is the usual case with good ol' Harry. Here's a sampling of one of his most convoluted, interfolding and overlapping, multiply plotted books. George Stannard, salesman for Recherche Shirt Company, tells of his meeting with Harold Colter in Honolulu where he barely escapes the horrors of being drugged with the weird exotic Pau-Ho capable of putting a person in an amnesiac coma for six weeks only to reawaken and be compelled to tell the truth for another 72 hours. Simon Stannard, George's uncle and owner/publisher of 7-Tales Magazine, talks of his brother's $1000 promissory note and how he intends to get George to repay the note in the most ridiculous roundabout way possible by intervening the crooked plans of one Titus Fenwick, con artist, former sleight of hand magician and notorious card sharp. Fenwick (according to a monstrously long letter Uncle Simon has in his possession) got involved with a trio of crooks nicknamed Charon, Nitro and Sparkle-Eyes whose plan to commit insurance fraud involves stealing the skull of one of their now deceased cronies and passing it off as the skull of another dead crook who just happens to have a large insurance policy waiting to be claimed. The identification by skull, by the way, is now a legality thanks to a Supreme Court decision that allows for dead bodies to be identified via phrenological reporting. And wouldn't you know it -- both dead men recently underwent phrenology readings by a new-fangled invention at the Chicago World's Fair and have their skull bump findings meticulously reported and on file in the inventor/doctor's research office. Whew! I better stop there before I further entangle your minds with weirdness.

The true action of the book takes place in a single room and consists of nothing more than a conversation between George and Uncle Simon who has summoned George to his Chicago home for a favor or two. Over the course of 247 pages nephew and uncle share anecdotes of their lives and a horde of letters and telegrams each relating a series of outlandish adventures, stories filled with coincidence and Fate. The long conversation culminates in a journey to El Paso, Texas where George meets up with his Fate and Keeler ends his surreal tale of the Law of Cross and Re-cross with one of his most outlandish twist endings.

Just what exactly is this Law of Cross and Re-Cross? In essence it's Keeler's own way of putting into simple language (if that's remotely possible for dear ol' Harry) the metaphysical idea of Karma. It's one of the first times a character in Keeler gets remotely intellectual or philosophical with an exchange of ideas about Eastern religions and the mysteries of Life. But more importantly its really the crux of the novel and the worldview of the Keelerian universe put forth all at once. For nothing is ever pointless in the world of Harry Stephen Keeler. Each bad act is paid for years down the line just as every good act will be rewarded. Simon Stannard believes that everyone will meet up for a second or third time, in one way or another, with every person they have ever encountered throughout their life. George initially scoffs as such an idea: "Damn Foolery, I would say. Everybody's lives would re-cross--and an infinite number of times, too--if all lived long enough. Doctrine of chances." And Uncle Simon counters with this bit of mumbo jumbo:

"...this theory isn't based on chance, I tell you. It's based on some occult principle that the deviative effect--on each other--of two people crossing one another's paths, diverts their progress in space and time by such a four-dimensional angle that they positively must cross again."

George shakes his head and says it's all way too deep for him. And how!

Yet Uncle Simon manages to prove the theory by producing the monstrous letter mentioned several times already and show how Titus Fenwick has entered his life multiple times. George will also discover how his adventure in Hawaii with the Pau-Ho trickster will come back to haunt him as well as George's decision to have a story called "The Verdict" by one O Lily Sing Lee published as a last minute replacement in Uncle Simon's pulp story rag 7-Tales Magazine.

I ought to mention to all my locked room and impossible crime fans that "The Verdict" appears in its entirety in the novel and is Harry Stephen Keeler's only contribution to the "locked room" crime subgenre in detective fiction, though many of his books contain impossible crimes, whether intentional or not. A man is found stabbed to death in a locked room, the Chinese dagger fallen on the floor.  The only other entrance/exit is an unlocked window "looking down 10 stories into the street and the park." Additionally, the only fingerprints found on the weapon belong to the person who packed the dagger and sent it to the collector. Who stabbed the man and managed to escape from the locked room? The solution propounded by the forensic pathologist is suitably ridiculous as well as bordering on the supernatural which makes it perfect for its appearance as a chapter in The Skull of the Waltzing Clown.

Let it not be forgotten that amid all the raucous dialogue and the absurd shenanigans of the cast of a thousand lunatics that our pal Harry is an incurable romantic. While George is being blackmailed into a criminal enterprise by his wicked avaricious uncle the fickle fingers of Fate conspire in the ethereal shadows of the fourth dimension to work out a scheme that will reward the seemingly hapless young man with something far richer than money. George, you see, has met the girl of his dreams. But he never discovered her name and knows her only by his invented nickname --"the Rebel". She has eyes that are "blue like the stars over Boston on a winter's night---and her hair was stolen from a cornstalk in Fairyland."  If that's not a romantic talking, than I'll eat my winter ski cap with a generous helping of soy sauce! While Keeler's preposterous crime plots are impossible to solve the outcome of his romantic subplots are happily easy to guess. It's no coincidence at all that the only real candidate for being "the Rebel" will cross paths with George just prior to his setting foot in El Paso, that he will have done something previously to increase the young girl's fortune without her knowing, and that they will plan out their lives in an optimistic bliss promising marriage and happy endings. All of this --of course -- will coincide with the thwarted plans of wicked Uncle Simon.

And if that's not the best reason to believe in Fate, coincidence, and the Law of Cross and Re-Cross then I don't know what is.

Friday, January 20, 2017

FFB: Miss Bones - Joan Fleming

THE STORY: Thomas Melsonby accepts a job at Walpurgis, a curio shop specializing in antique paintings, where he will be their art restorer and picture framer. But he has the feeling that something fishy is going on at the antique shop. First indications are the furtive figures running in and out of the shop late at night, the less than reputable people who hang out around the store, and the fact that the owner is unwilling to sell certain paintings in the place. Mr. Walpurgis also enjoys telling Thomas odd anecdotes about his past life, including the story of why he assumed the name of the previous owner. It all makes for an unsettling business relationship especially since Thomas is living above the shop and can't escape the eccentric, demanding neighbor Lady Goole who has a few stories to tell about Walpurgis. When Mr. Walpurgis disappears one night without a word to anyone and does not return for several days Thomas turns amateur sleuth in an attempt to find out where the shop owner went and why. Stolen goods, false identities and murder all figure into this suspenseful and gruesome story.

THE CHARACTERS: Miss Bones (1959) grabs your attention from its snappy opening and never lets go thanks to the intriguing and often oddball characters Joan Fleming has created. Thomas makes for an affable leading man. When he is quickly suspected of doing in Mr. Walpurgis we never once suspect him of any wrong doing and want him to clear his name with almost as much desperation as he shows. There are several mysteries to solve about the strange people who frequent the store. There is the identity of young man who visits the shop late at night. He is often seen in company of an attractive young lady who Thomas first sees in a restaurant devouring a pork chop off the bone and gives her the nickname Miss Bones. As much as she interests Thomas this young lady is only a minor character. The nickname and title of the novel will eventually prove to belong more fittingly to someone completely different and much more dangerous. Walpurgis has a silent business partner named Wood-Bevington who is just as mysterious as the antique shop owner. Thomas tries to track down Wood-Bevington thinking that he might have something to do with Walpurgis' vanishing and never quite manages to find the actual man who proves to be as allusive as Lewis Carroll's mythical Snark.

The entire story has a surreal atmosphere to it in that no one ever seems to be who they say they are. Miss Bones, like many of these "wrong man" suspense novels, takes on a sinister paranoid air that infects all of the proceedings. Thomas begins to fear his neighbors, distrust most of the people he encounters and interviews. Even when he is arrested and thrown in jail for a crime he obviously did not commit he cannot help but wonder why he is visited by a Good Samaritan in the guise of Rodney Lurch, Q.C., a retired barrister who seems to mean well but may have an alternative agenda for freeing Thomas.

QUOTES: "A woman's jewels are as much a part of her wearing apparel, as say," Inspector Feenix had been about to say "panties" but changed it to "costumes."

Since he had stepped from the cab and stood outside the shop of Walpurgis, he seemed to have entered a world a good deal more fantastic than the world he had left; a state of robbery, forgery, murder and mystery where respectable solicitors absconded overnight, young ladies were dressed like whores of the twenties, bridge clubs hostesses were fuddled with drink and his great-grandmother was taking art lessons.

On the whole, Thomas thought as he drove away, we Anglo-Saxons are an astonishingly incurious nation.

THINGS I LEARNED: The nickname Thomas gives the young lady previously mentioned comes from a card game called Happy Families. I'd never heard of it, and needed to understand what it all meant. After researching it on an antique board and card game website I learned that it's similar to the US children's game Old Maid. The original deck was illustrated by John Tenniel (known best for the drawings found in nearly every edition of Alice in Wonderland) who was commissioned by Jaques of London, the famed English game manufacturer who gave us Snakes and Ladders (aka Chutes and Ladders in the US), Snap and Tiddley-Winks. I found a photo of the original Miss Bones card in an antique deck (shown at right). You can see why she would come to mind when Thomas Melsonby saw the young lady eating her pork chop so ravenously.

The WW2 bombing of Sloane Square plays a major part in the denouement of this intriguing little murder mystery. I read about how eyewitnesses were horrified by what they saw. Fleming goes out of her way to drive home the horror of the London bombings by describing how body parts and people were found in the most outrageous places. I'll spare you any quotes of those grisly passages.

There was this line that also sent me a-Googling for answers: "With an arm around her ample waist, Thomas helped her up the stairs feeling like a Pickford's man, single-handed with a grand piano." I guessed Pickford's to be a moving company and I was right. They are one of the oldest moving, storage and removal companies in the UK. Their website traces their history back to the 17th century when in 1646 Thomas Pickford, one of the many road repair Pickfords, decided to make extra income by charging to take supplies back and forth on the roads they were working on. By the 19th century Pickfords was transporting goods via water as well as by road and had constructed their own canal system. More about their fascinating history on can be found on this page of the Pickfords website.

Some of John Tenniel's artwork showing
members of the Happy Family card deck
(click to enlarge for full appreciation)

1959 CULTURE: There were some neat bits about 1959 culture throughout the book. The ugly shadow of WW2 hangs ominously over the story with the anecdotes of the Sloane Square bombing already mentioned. Several passages on clothing and dining out added to the verisimilitude. But the best section was when Thomas visits Coffin Joe's Coffee Bar when Fleming turns her satiric pen to describing the women and the general habits of the poseur clientele who frequent the café. "...customers drank coffee sitting at tales shaped like coffins and candle lit. The décor was designed for despair and the customers sat about as though taking an interval from keening. Some of the females astonished him but he had now become familiar with the new look in young women and had got over his initial feeling of revulsion." This is a reference to his earlier encounters with "Miss Bones" who favors heavy eye make-up, oddly pink dyed hair, and a haphazard wardrobe style that mixes glamor and penury.

Another section about how one character grew up in a family who made their living in the butcher trade is equally fascinating. It also provides the reader with some of the final clues in solving the mystery of who killed who.

EASY TO FIND? Miss Bones was published in both the US and UK and was reprinted in both countries several times. So you have quite a variety of editions to choose from in both hardcover and paperback. I found three US editions and four UK editions. In the US I run across Joan Fleming's books more often in the Ballantine paperback editions (shown at the top of this post) and they always tend to be priced very cheaply in used book stores and online. Most of Joan Fleming's books were reissued by The Murder Room, the vintage reprint arm of Orion Publishing. Miss Bones is one of the few Fleming books that was reissued in both paperback and digital editions. Both are apparently still available for purchase from the UK amazon site. The digital and paperback editions from The Murder Room can only be bought from the UK site because of the rights issues.

Friday, January 13, 2017

FFB: Within the Maze - Ellen Wood

When the discussion of domestic suspense comes up no one ever thinks of Ellen Wood, or Mrs. Henry Wood as she was known back in her heyday as one of the most prolific and perhaps the leading Victorian bestseller writer. Why is that? Granted her books may be incredibly old-fashioned, but they are surprisingly readable. Any brave reader willing to dive into one of her massive tomes (most of them were released in three volumes during her lifetime) cannot fail to draw comparison to the modern work of Margaret Millar, Ursula Curtiss, Charlotte Armstrong, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Wood practically invented the subgenre. Instead of her books being seen as an offshoot of the more criminally minded Victorian sensation novels of Collins, Braddon and Charles Reade she gets clumped together with them. The majority of her novels have nothing to do with crime and are, in fact, domestic melodramas rich with scandalous incident. Victorian soap operas might be a unkind label, but sums them up rather nicely especially considering how soap operas have evolved into tales of passive aggressive schemers only happy when causing unhappiness to others. When Wood does turn her mind to criminal acts, they almost always result in unintentional cover-ups. Her men and women are determined to preserve family reputation and individual honor at all costs. There may a suspicious suicide, bigamy, theft, or even a murder or two, but the story is always centered on the aftermath of the crime teeming with misunderstanding, gossiping busybodies unnecessarily complicating otherwise innocuous events, stubborn refusal to speak without ambiguity, and characters suffering silently in their pain, guilt and shame while tenaciously clinging to what little dignity they have left and resolute in their stance not to expose their secrets.

Within the Maze (1872) is essentially the story of two brothers and their wives and the complex interweaving of family secrets that can be traced back to a single foolish and criminal act. The older brother Adam Andinnian has been sent to prison for shooting a man who was stalking and paying lecherous advances towards Rose Turner whom Adam is secretly married to. Karl Andinnian, the younger brother is engaged to marry Lucy Cleeves but the marriage is not forthcoming because Karl is not seen as suitable in the eyes of Lucy's snobbish parents. Mrs. Andinnian who has always favored Adam over Karl is heartbroken when Adam is sentenced to hard labor for life in a penal colony on a remote British island. She cannot allow him to suffer there, nor can she live without him by her side. And so Mrs. Andinnian schemes with her servant whose husband is a guard at the prison to allow an escape to take place. The prison escape fails miserably, however, and ends in a violent shootout. Adam, another prisoner, and the guard all perish. One of the bodies is never recovered and the man is presumed to have drowned when the boat was attacked by prison officials and police. With Adam now dead and buried Karl has inherited the family title as well as the Andinnian fortune left to them by their grandfather Sir Joseph. The marriage between Karl and Lucy can now take place. All of this happens within the first fifty pages. You think that's involved? I left out a lot of detail and only highlighted the basics. But there's more to come, of course, in this 425 page novel. Karl and Lucy are not going to have a very happy first year as newlyweds.

A religious zealot named Theresa Blake who has her nose in everyone's private affairs becomes a lodger in the home of Karl and Lucy. Miss Blake quickly develops a morbid interest in Sir Karl's frequent visits to a house known aptly as "The Maze" as it is sheltered by a hedge maze. The sole occupant of "The Maze" is the reclusive Mrs. Grey who according to rumor has a husband who lives and does business in London though he has never been seen and very rarely ever visits his wife. Miss Blake being a sanctimonious religious hypocrite obsessed with immorality immediately jumps to the conclusion that Karl and Mrs. Grey are engaged in an adulterous affair. And of course the first person she tells is Lucy. The remainder of the book consists in Karl and Lucy confronting each other about their secrets, a complete misunderstanding of what each other is talking about, and Lucy's descent into a private misery wavering in and out of deep love and devotion to and utter distrust of her husband. Miss Blake complicates matters by her constant eavesdropping, spying and coincidentally being in the same place as Karl at the most inopportune moments. Karl, on the other hand, believes that Lucy knows the true secret of the occupants of "The Maze" and cannot understand why she is making herself more and more depressed and physically ill over something that he is dealing with as best as he can.

This is in fact one of Wood's few genuine crime novels. Eventually, the police get involved when Karl and Mrs Grey inadvertently stumble upon the possibility of another escaped prisoner guilty of forgery and financial chicanery living in the quiet little village of Foxwood. The story then gets doubly complicated with the police misinterpreting Karl's interest in the forger and the appearance of a mysterious man who seems to have vanished in The Maze. Some of those who witnessed his appearance believe him to be a ghost. Detective Burtenshaw is assigned to watch the home. His persistent efforts uncover the presence of a man hiding in The Maze. He is convinced it is the escaped forger Philip Slater, but Karl thinks the police are after "Mr. Grey" and fears his life will fall apart if the identities of Mr. and Mrs. Grey are ever made public, especially by the police. Karl begins to visit The Maze more and more frequently employing clever subterfuge with the help of Mrs. Grey and her servant Ann Hopley to prevent the secret being known. Meanwhile, Miss Blake continues to interfere and gossip and Lucy continues to languish in fear, depression and misguided jealousy making herself more and more ill. Yet in the end all will turn out for the best with some stunning plot twists.

Miss Blake receives a tea-rose from
the mysterious Mr. Smith

You may have guessed the secret of "The Maze" yourself. Remember that missing body that was never recovered after the failed prison break? Who do think it really was? An unrecovered body lost at sea (any missing dead body for that matter) nearly always signals someone is really alive as we all know from reading hundreds of mystery novels. And who do you think "Mrs. Grey" really is? If you aren't clever enough to have discerned the obvious, never fear. Ellen Wood tells you almost immediately in one of her many direct addresses as the omniscient narrator who sees all, knows all, and cannot help but tell all in a sometimes annoying patronizing tone.

The inability for people to communicate properly with one another and harboring their secrets is at the heart of this book very much about the mind and spirit. This theme is brought up as early as the first section when Karl attempts to get his mother to confess her involvement of the prison escape "[Mrs. Andinnian] had always been a strangely independent, secretive woman: and such women, given to act with the daring independence of man, but not possessing man's freedom, may at time drift into troubled seas." The words dishonor and disgrace occur throughout the novel. The characters are fearful of tarnished reputations, afraid of how they will be viewed by others if they ever open up with total candor. Clinging to these secrets not only leads to depression but it makes them physically ill. Lucy, Mrs. Grey, Adam, and Margaret Sumnor all succumb to what amount to psychosomatic ailments. Some of them are chronic, some of them prove fatal. All because no one is willing to speak the truth.

Wood employs the metaphor of the broken heart both figuratively and literally. Lucy more than any other character desires to make her heart whole again, but it is her stubborn refusal to discuss her real troubles and fears with her husband, who she supposedly unconditionally loves, that leads to her dangerous decline in mind and body. She wants to believe he is innocent of philandering, but Miss Blake's malicious gossip she takes as gospel truth. When Mrs. Grey gives birth to a child and Miss Blake delivers that awful blow Lucy nearly dies on the spot. But there is a patient spiritual masochism at play here as well. It is almost as if Lucy, so blithe and optimistic and deeply in love in the first portion of the book, truly wants to suffer and wants to be the wronged woman more than she wants her marriage repaired. When all seems lost Lucy in desperation turns to her well-meaning friend Margaret Sumnor. The words of wisdom Lucy receives are ill advised though they perfectly embody the Victorian mindset: "Whatever your cross may be, my dear -- and I cannot doubt that it is a very sharp and heavy one -- take it up as bravely as you can, and bear it. No cross, no crown." Knowing that she has no real cross to bear at all, that her marriage was never was in disrepair, makes her plight all the more bittersweet, if not maddening. What is unspoken and held close proves time and again to be detrimental to everyone. Secrets can indeed kill in the world Ellen Wood creates. What is more indicative of domestic suspense than these stories in which people will not confide in anyone or too late choose the wrong person as their confessors? Here are people so entrenched in misery of their own making and mired in their inability to "see clearly" so that they are not only at the mercy of interlopers and malicious exploiters but they become victims of their own fantasies.

The busybody Theresa Blake spies on
Sir Karl and "Mrs. Grey" together in London
Within the Maze, may be one of Wood's lesser known novels today, but it was the fourth most popular of her books in terms of sales with over 150,000 copies sold between 1872, when it first appeared as a serial in Argosy, and 1900, one of its many  reprint years. That's nowhere near the 520,000 copies sold in the same time range of her famous potboiler East Lynne, the popularity of which grew evermore with its several stage adaptations. Yet still Within the Maze is notable for having remained in print for thirty plus consecutive years and continuing to be reprinted long after the author had died. With that kind of decades long popularity surely it is time to take notice of why Ellen Wood's books have struck such a resonant chord with readers of all types throughout history. There are indeed many clunkers in her stupendously prolific career ranging from dreary diatribes on the evils of drink to ponderous sentimental tales of women dying slow and languorous deaths, but when she was writing a book like Within the Maze all her talent in suspenseful storytelling kicked into high gear. She is long overdue for being recognized for her contributions to a subgenre still popular today.

Friday, January 6, 2017

FFB: A Corpse for Christmas - Henry Kane

THE STORY: Peter Chambers is hired by Genie Tiny, a fellow private eye, to find Sheldon Talbot and Ok a deal she and her employer Barney Bernandino set up with Talbot. Chambers knows Talbot is a scientist who supposedly died in a truck accident a while ago. Genie assures him that Talbot is alive and waiting for her at a specific address. She can't go because she's in jail awaiting traffic court appearance on a DUI. It's all trumped up, she claims, but she's stuck until she can plead her case. Pete agrees to act as her proxy. When he arrives at the agreed upon location he finds Talbot dead and an 18 year old girl (who looks much older) standing over the body holding a gun. Three more women, all former wives of Talbot, figure into the murder case. And there will be more than one corpse at Christmas before Chambers gets to the bottom of the mess.

QUOTES: The only reason to read Henry Kane is for his unusual style. When anyone thinks of private eye books this is the kind of writing they expect. Quirky use of metaphor, wiseguy dialogue, and that kind of rambling narrative peppered with good ol' boy slang, a faint whiff of world weary misanthropy and a generous dose of chauvinism mixed with veiled misogyny. Next to Robert Leslie Bellem, another oddball stylist who seemed to be parodying the entire genre in his pulp stories, Kane was king of "private eye speak". Kane also has an unnerving hyper-real way of writing dialogue that makes him stand out from the rest of his private eye colleagues. Much of what I read in A Corpse at Christmas (1951) reminded me of David Mamet's terse, realistic dialogue in his early plays. Get an eyeful of this sample:

The book is filled with this kind of Q&A banter. And I like his frequent epigrammatic lines and metaphoric wordplay, too.

There is nothing to divest a party more quickly of its gay constituents than a dearth of the potables.

Have you ever seen a crematorium? It's a place that sort of sifts for itself. Or didn't you ash? Puns from the private eye, ear, nose and throat. That's what happens when you're scared.

Nonchalance missed wider than a banker's piazza.

She was built in luscious bunches, beautifully spaced, marvelously hyphenated.

His face looked like the top of lemon meringue flavored with jaundice.

Lorimar Boulevard was a boulevard strictly under the false license of poetic pretense. It was a narrow, rutty road with more bumps than a grind-girl going crazy in early morning burlesque.

But this paragraph perfectly encapsulates the Pete Chambers books and Kane's worldview:

Somewhere along the stumble to maturity, I had picked up a prohibition against eighteen-year-olds. I am not saying how. Even a private Richard with literary leanings seals up certain sections of the book. Eighteen is delectable, unpredictable, modest, bawdy, constant, fickle, shy, bold--wrapped together and flung at you all at once: trouble. Eighteen is wonderful. I rear up at eighteen like a racehorse against a flying sheet of newspaper. I shy off.

THE AUTHOR: Henry Kane started out as a lawyer. He turned to writing for the pulps in mid-career in the 1940s, wrote a novel called A Halo For Nobody (1947) which introduced Pete Chambers to the world of private richards, and eventually churned out over 60 books. About half of his output features Chambers. He also created a woman private eye named Marla Trent and an ex-cop turned PI named MacGregor. If you want to learn more about Kane you can read a brief overview of his work and life at Thrilling Detective or a bio at Prologue Books, who have reprinted many of his books in digital editions. The most entertaining glimpse of Kane in his later life comes from the memory bank of Lawrence Block who wrote a fascinating piece about Kane for Mystery Scene magazine.

THINGS I LEARNED: There was a running gag about people greeting each other with "White Christmas" rather than saying Hi or Hello. The setting of Christmas adds nothing to the plot nor does the constant snowfall other than to allow Kane a chance to employ this odd way of having characters greet one another. "White Christmas" they say almost as an observation and sometimes Chambers says "Same to you" in reply. Strange.

EASY TO FIND? As mentioned above Prologue Books, a digital reprint outfit, has reissued several of Henry Kane's crime novels as eBooks. But for this book they used one of the two retitled editions and call their reprint Homicide at Yuletide. Apparently it was reissued in the 1966 with that title to help distinguish it from a book by Carter Brown also called A Corpse for Christmas. If you want one of the books with the original title you can also troll the bookselling websites of this shopping mall we call the internet or hunt for a copy in your local thrift store, used bookstore or flea market. There are plenty of copies out there I promise you. At least three paperback editions (one retitled Homicide at Yuletide, another published as A Deadly Doll) and two hardcover editions are out there for sale that I uncovered. As for me I'll be reading more of Kane in the coming months because he's one of the most entertaining "stylists" in the private eye genre I've ever been lucky enough to stumble upon. Stay tuned!