Friday, April 21, 2017

The Reek of Red Herrings - Catriona McPherson

Today a deviation from the usual Friday's Forgotten Book and instead a review of a neglected modern mystery writer in honor of upcoming Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that I will be attending next weekend. In a rare instance of acting responsibly I chose to read a handful of the books nominated for Malice's Agatha Awards. Some of them were not at all to my liking and I abandoned them quickly. But I was very glad I chose to read Catriona McPherson's books. She knows how to write a mystery and I think those of you who have never heard of her might want to know that her latest is one of the best traditional mystery novels I've read in a very long time.

The Reek of Red Herrings (2014, US edition 2016) is in essence a missing person story but not without an element of a macabre whodunit plot. Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, McPherson's private detective series characters, are hired by fish merchant Mr. Birchwood to find out why several of his herring barrels included some unexpected ingredients -- body parts. They need to go to Gamrie, where the fish barrels were purchased, and to prevent any others from being sold. But at all costs they cannot let anyone know why they are in the town or that Mr. Birchwood has hired them. He is trying his best to prevent a horrible scandal from ruining his business and this is why he refuses to let the police know of the secret of the herring barrels. Of course if they also manage to uncover the identity of the dismembered man more power to them. That part of the mystery doesn't seem to concern Birchwood as much as preserving his reputation and saving his business.

Dandy and Alec make their way to Gamrie in the guise of philologists researching the local patois along with Scottish folklore. They hope by pretending to gather anecdotes and cataloging the unusual Scots vocabulary they will also be able to get the Gamrie people to talk openly about the events of the past few days. They get more than they bargained for when over the course of their many interviews they learn of several strangers who turned up in town and then suddenly disappeared. The mystery of the body parts and the identity of that man becomes complicated when the a total of seven missing men of various physical descriptions turn up. Which one of those missing men could be the one who was chopped up as a herring garnish?

The story is an engaging mix of utterly wacky characters and unnerving menace. You'll meet all the fisherman's wives and daughters, a couple of eccentric taxidermists, and learn more than you ever expected about life in a Scottish fishing village, circa 1930. In addition McPherson finds ways to incorporate a variety of unusual Scottish traditions like handfasting and the accompanying marriage rituals like feet washing and feet mucking and the practice of dousing a bride-to-be with ginger infused mucky milk to prevent Auld Clootie (the Devil) from finding her attractive and spiriting her away prior to her wedding. In their disguise as "language experts" McPherson allows the story sometimes to become overburdened with Scots dialect making the use of a glossary almost necessary. She does allow the local characters to translate their lingo for Dandy and Alec, but not as often as I wish she had. Much of the meaning needs to be gleaned through context. Still, all of it is utterly fascinating for anyone interested in learning about fading culture and mores. Notably the discussion of "teenames", a peculiar nicknaming tradition necessary to keep distinct all similarly named residents, is one facet that astute readers ought to pay close attention to for it has one of the best hidden clues key to solving the many mysteries uncovered by our sleuthing duo.

If you are familiar with McPherson's work then you will know that she has a penchant for Scottish Gothicism. I get a sense of Stevenson and Buchan sneaking their way into her narratives. She makes excellent use of creepy landscapes, eerie natural landmarks, abandoned and dilapidated estate houses, and terrifying meteorological events. Most of the Dandy Gilver books are set in the late 1920s, (though ...Red Herrings is the first to take place in 1930) and take advantage of dialectical language plus a variety of Scottish legends which are always intrinsic to the her intriguing and intricate plots. Compare these with her stand alone books, all set in present day, and you find the same motifs and techniques employed. The stand alone mysteries also give her an opportunity to explore the darker side of her imagination. The Child Garden (2015), for example, is just as macabre as The Reek of Red Herrings making use of some supernatural legends and lore to great effect.

While the Dandy Gilver books lean heavily towards a lighthearted vein generously sprinkled with a sardonic humor they do have their share of harrowing scenes and moments of gravitas. The climax of The Reek of Red Herrings is suitably neo-Gothic with a wild winter snowstorm complete with toppling trees and damaging floods all leading to a cataclysm on an epic scale. The finale reminded me of one of those act of God climaxes that occur so frequently in the detective novels of Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells.

Most importantly to fans of traditional mysteries is the structure of the novel itself as well as her skill with the multi-layered plot. McPherson has a deft way of dropping clues into the narrative and has some subtle methods of foreshadowing that will help readers discover along with Dandy and Alec just what all the multiple mysteries add up to. It is rare that I encounter a modern mystery writer who still honors the traditions of the fair play detective novel and can do it so well. McPherson does an admirable job in laying down the groundwork necessary for clever readers to arrive at the solution almost at the same time as Dandy does. I was impressed with the talent and skill displayed in this genuine detective novel. I hope she continues to find new ways to bamboozle and thrill her readers in all her future mysteries.

UPDATE:  The Reek of Red Herrings deservedly won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 29 on April 29, 2017.  All the more reason to read it, IMO.

Friday, April 14, 2017

FFB: A Beastly Business - John Blackburn

THE STORY: Bill Easter, conman and rogue for hire, will do nearly anything for the right price. He’s recovered stolen goods, he’s located missing persons, he’s even committed murder. Now he’s been hired to dispose of a dead body in the ground floor apartment of a landlord who can’t bring himself to enter the place. The body turns out to be Henry Oliver, a enormously overweight and hirsute recluse who is suspected of having been a mass murderer known as the "Mad Vicar". After successfully disposing of the body employing unorthodox and slightly illegal methods Easter also uncovers some puzzling documents that hint at the existence of a valuable jewel encrusted relic that Oliver brought back from his travels in the Nueva Leone, South America. Easter’s detective work leads him to eccentric adventure J. Molden Mott, also looking for the jeweled relic. Easter along with his sidekick and sometime lover Peggy Tey find themselves in Scotland and knee deep in a macabre adventure that involves Russian spies, a mutating fungus, a mad scientist, the legend of a South American conquistador, and werewolf mythology that all adds up to A Beastly Business (1982).

THE CHARACTERS: Bill Easter is John Blackburn’s lesser known series characters. He, along with Peggy Tey, appeared in four books prior to their last appearance in A Beastly Business. This is also the only crossover novel to feature both Easter and General Charles Kirk, Blackburn’s primary series character whose work with foreign intelligence has often led him into the world of paranormal activity. The Easter books differ greatly from Blackburn’s other occult and supernatural thrillers because they have a very black humor. Easter is a vulgar, opinionated, often foul mouthed rogue who is out only for himself. Peggy is no better. They are often secretly double crossing one another when money, jewels or valuable treasure are involved.

Easter is hired by Allen Smeaton a pseudo-posh banker who thinks very highly of himself. Yet he and his corrupt wife Cynthia are all too easily tempted by the chance to get rich quick. Easter does all the work while they drool greedily in the background demanding he risk his life and what little reputation he has left to recover the treasure and split it four ways. Clever readers know that split is never going to be four equal shares. Someone is bound to be left out if not eliminated altogether.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Blackburn's thrillers we get an abundance of weirdness, macabre deaths, strange legends and his usual trademark touch of an insidious organism, in this case a botanical fungus, as the cause for much of the mayhem. He always found new ways to invigorate old horror motifs.  The werewolves in this novel are like no others you have read about or seen in the movies.

This is much funnier than any of Blackburn's other books I've read, but you do have to be sort of a sicko to enjoy his vulgar jokes and black humor at the expense of other characters. I unapologetically admit to being one of those sickos. Revenge is served piping hot and supersweet in A Beastly Business and I very much enjoy seeing the wicked suffer punishments in Grand Guignol fashion.  Theatre of Blood, one of my favorite satiric horror movies, kept coming to mind as I pored over this entertainingly perverse book. Those familiar with that Vincent Price cult classic will have an idea of what kind of beastly business Blackburn gets up to.

QUOTES: "Owing to your wanton stupidity [Allen] I had to live over a monster. To nurture a viper in my bosom."
An unjust and inaccurate cliche. Even the smallest of vipers couldn't have found shelter between Cynthia Smeaton's skinny breasts, and I wouldn't have blamed her husband if he'd lost his temper and clouted her.

"Peg go could go to bed with [the reverend] if she wanted, though it was unlikely he'd fancy her. But during the last two hours I'd had a dead lamb lobbed at me. I'd been threatened by a twelve-bore shotgun and nearly killed by the bailiff's motor bicycle [...] and earned the displeasure of Sgt. Gillespie. I'd achieved quite a lot and what had Peggy done? Mrs. Tey had confided in an oily non-conformist minister and spilled the beans."

THINGS I LEARNED: One thing I must have known as a kid, but clearly had forgotten. The real name of a well known figure from the Russian Revolution turns up over the course of the book. If you're hip to this facet of world history and know it well, then you won't be taken in by a ruse of General Kirk's. Bill was. I was. And most readers will be. Sadly, part of this ruse is spoiled by the blurb on the rear cover of the new reprint edition. Do yourself a favor and don't read that before you read the book.

EASY TO FIND? Those savvy devils at Valancourt Books have done fans of 60s & 70s horror a great service in reprinting John Blackburn's books. A Beastly Business is yet another in their ever growing library of forgotten classics being revived for new generations of lovers of the macabre, be they the lugubrious and melancholy horror of 18th century Gothics or 20th century monsters on the rampage. I don't often see used copies of the original UK edition of A Beastly Business for sale as it's one of his scarcest titles.  If a copy should turn up expect to see it outrageously priced. Best to stick with the $17 paperback from our good friends at Valancourt. This new reprint is also the first and only US edition.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

NEW STUFF: Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Last year Hogarth Press began their release of a series of novels inspired by Shakespeare plays. So far four books have been published with four more planned over the next five years. While some of them I have absolutely no interest in reading (Gillian Flynn retells the story of Hamlet, coming in 2021? I can definitely wait.) others caught my eye. The most intriguing of the current lot is Hag-Seed (2016) by Margaret Atwood. Savvy students of the Bard will recognize the title as the one of the many epithets hurled at poor ol’ Caliban and it has great resonance for most of the characters in her retelling of The Tempest. The novel is set at Fletcher County Correctional Institute and the inmates there are involved in a theater program. They all identify with Caliban for multiple reasons, some not immediately obvious, when they are told to read The Tempest in preparation for their latest production.

The protagonist of Hag-Seed is Felix Phillips, a theater director ousted from his role as artistic director of a cutting edge theater company modeled after the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. After his ignominious (and rigged) firing he goes into a self-imposed exile in a hovel somewhere in the Canadian countryside where he plots his revenge just as Prospero did. Eventually he manages to get hired on as the new director of Fletcher Correctional’s theater program designed to enhance the inmate’s literacy skills. Felix plans to re-mount his previously envisioned extravaganza of The Tempest which never was realized at Makeshiweg when he lost his job.

Much to my surprise Hag-Seed is not only a story of revenge but is actually something of a caper novel. Felix and the prisoners conspire together to present two separate productions of The Tempest, one which will be videotaped for the rest of the inmates and prison staff to watch and another secret production that will be engineered to bring about the downfall of the villains who were responsible for Phillip’s removal at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and essentially ruined his career as a theater director. I will say no more about how this scheme is achieved, but knowing in advance of the caper angle ought to attract the attention of crime fiction fans who enjoy genuine caper thrillers like those by Lionel White and the trademark comic capers of Donald Westlake. It’s one helluva of scheme with all parties affected receiving their just deserts.

Atwood uses all themes, motifs and characters of The Tempest with enviable skill, the most telling of course is that the play is rife with prison imagery and prisoner references. She riffs on multiple meanings of the play's story, finds analogies between the magical creatures of Prospero’s island and the criminals who are tasked with telling Shakespeare’s story. Their hip and modern update incorporates everything from digital and electronic special effects to rap music to eccentric choreography created by the hired actress playing Miranda (she's not a prisoner) who also happens to be skilled in martial arts.

One of the most innovative and amusing bits stems from Felix’s insistence that no one swear during the rehearsal process. All curse words must come from the text itself. Points are deducted from each prisoner’s final grade (it is, after all, a legitimate class in a literacy program) for each use of a 21st century swear word instead of a 16th century curse. As Felix explains: “Too much shit is monotonous and monotony is anti-Shakespeare.” A curse word littered argument erupts when twelve of the fifteen cast members are vying for the role of Caliban who has appeal not only because he is Prospero’s prisoner and slave:

"Caliban should be First Nations," says Red Coyote [a Native Canadian]. "It’s obvious. Got his land stole."

"No way," says Ppod. "He’s African. Where’s Algiers anyway? North Africa, right? That’s where his mother came from. Look on the map, pox brain."

"So he’s a Muslim? I don’t whoreson think so." VaMoose, another Caliban aspirant.

"No way that he's smelly-fish white trash, anyways,” says Shiv, glaring at Leggs. "Even part white."

"I score," says Leggs. "You heard the man, fen head, it’s final. So suck it."

"Points off you swore," says Ppod.

"Suck it’s not a swear word," says Leggs. "It’s only a diss. Everyone knows that, and the devil take your fingers."

Other popular substitute swear words and insults include red plague, freckled whelp, pied ninny, scurvy, and of course hag-seed which by the end becomes a badge of honor rather than an insult for the entire team of performer prisoners.

Because the program is meant to be part of a literacy program Felix is a teacher and runs his rehearsals like a literature class. Actually this is no different from most professional Shakespeare productions which always tend to be part literature class. In the final pages we get to read the prisoner’s assignments in which they must a imagine how life treats the characters after the curtain falls and what they become. We get some insightful and realistic views, sometimes frighteningly violent, of how human and cruel these characters would be in real life. Atwood mentions in an “Afterword” that she read several non-fiction accounts of prison literacy programs and this enlightening ending is clearly reflective of her research into how real prison theater programs are conducted.

I was thoroughly delighted with this book and whipped through it in almost in a single day. It’s funny, vulgar, warm, angry, poignant, enchanting, majestic, suspenseful, and wise -– all things wondrous, in fact, and everything expected from any superbly mounted Shakespeare production. Hag-Seed  will appeal to theater addicts, Shakespeare scholars of all ages, both professional and avocational, and anyone who enjoys thoroughly imaginative fiction. I’ve not read anything remotely like this before and wish that every new book I picked up was half as powerful and affecting in its telling. No thing of darkness here but ah! what rough magic and wonders await the reader in the pages of Atwood's novel.

NOTE: Hag-Seed along with all the others in Hogarth's "Shakespeare Retold" series are available now in their various UK editions: hardcover, paperback and digital. Those who want a US edition of Hag-Seed will have to wait until May 2017. But a warning -- the cover of the US edition is very unattractive (at right) compared to the striking UK version shown on top of this post.

Shakespeare Retold Series (...so far)
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood (The Tempest)
Shylock Is My Name - Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice)
The Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew)
The Gap of Time - Jeanette Winterson (A Winter's Tale)

Friday, April 7, 2017

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Mordecai Tremaine

If you were to tell me that you just discovered a great new series of mystery novels in which a sixty-something retired tobacconist who liked to read romantic fiction magazines was the amateur sleuth I would probably turn and run the other way. Too twee for me. I had my fill of sentimental romantic subplots in the mystery novels of Herbert Adams. I’m certainly not going to read a detective novel in which the sleuth passes the time filling his head with fictional stories of true love and happily ever after lovers. Or so I thought. If I actually followed my preferences and avoided the Francis Duncan mysteries where this character solves baffling crimes then I would have missed out on some of the most mature and thoughtful detective novels of the mid twentieth century.

I didn’t know anything about Mordecai Tremaine when I bought three of the new reprints of Francis Duncan’s mystery novels and read them in quick succession. Yes, Tremaine is a retired gent who unabashedly likes to pass the time reading issues of Romantic Times. That aspect is not really pointed out in selling the books. It’s only incidental to the books (thankfully) but it appears in all three books I’ve read and in one case figures into the story. This unusual pastime also gives you some insight to the humanity of the man. Tremaine has another hobby. Not surprisingly it turns out to be criminology. Like all fictional amateur sleuths he has a close friendship with a police inspector and has a remarkable habit for stumbling across murder cases often while he’s on vacation. Mordecai is one of the better humanist detectives. Even more appealing is that Duncan's crime novels are grounded in a morality and sense of justice in direct contrast to the trend of post-WW 2 crime writers who were increasingly creating anti-heroes and exploring the effects of morbid psychology. In one of the truly rare instances of discovering a forgotten but exceptionally well done mystery series I read these three books in an order in which they got better and better ending with the best of the lot.

Murder Has a Motive (1947) involves an amateur theatrical troupe. It’s also something of a bibliomystery in that the script that’s being produced by the troupe (which shares the title of the novel) is being used as a guidebook of sorts by the murderer. There is also a subplot mystery as to the identity of the playwright. The plot is in effect coming to life in the village as it is being rehearsed on the stage. One by one cast members are being killed just as they occur in the play.

William Underhill , aka "Francis Duncan"
Lydia Dare, the stage manager, is the first victim. Prior to her death she had an abnormal fear that “something ugly, and horrible, and obscene” is infecting the town and its people. She talks of a “black power brooding over us all, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.” This theme of murder as an malevolent force pervades the novel. Murder in the village of Dalmering becomes a horror transforming the town as a disease affects the body. Tremaine fells a “monstrous villainy” everywhere he looks. “Always he could see ruin and destruction and human sorrow.” Even the shining sun becomes “indescribably evil” as Tremaine contemplates how Lydia’s death has deeply affected –more accurately as she herself said has infected everyone -- including himself. He succumbs to his sentimental side and obsesses about her wedding that will never be and watches helplessly as her fiancĂ© Gerald Farrant descends into a morose depression. He needs to stamp out the evil and find the murderer.

Duncan’s book ought to feel heavy handed with all this talk of evil. Instead he hits just the right note of dread and fright. There is never anything remotely resembling complacence that sometimes enters village murder mysteries. Lightness and flippancy never enter the picture to offset the dire situation of a seemingly mad killer on the loose. The emphasis is always on how violence does indeed wreak havoc and affect everyone in Dalmering. Hate acts as an infectious disease. In his role as detective Mordecai Tremaine becomes both Nemesis and Dalmering’s spiritual healer.

Criminal behavior is explored in another way in Behold a Fair Woman (1954) which deals more with the preservation of reputation. Murderous actions grow out of a desire to protect others at all costs. Duncan has not strayed too far from the amoral influence of the seven deadly sins, however. Whereas hate and wrath was the evil that infected Dalmering the sin that weighs heavily on the occupants of Moulin d’Or is avarice.

In Behold a Fair Woman the character relationships are deeper and richer. I began to see with this second book that Duncan was not only interested in the mystery plot but in writing a real novel that used crime to explore ideas not just to present a puzzle that will entertain. Most of the characters in Behold a Fair Woman have criminal pasts and are trying to escape that past and begin life anew. Resorting to crime in order to preserve their new lives has more credence than would melodramatic emotions and diabolical revenge acted out in frenzied hatred as in the theater milieu of Murder Has a Motive.

By the time I got to So Pretty a Problem (1950) I was convinced that Duncan was more of a novelist than a mystery writer. He was interested in character more than the puzzle and crime would grow out of the character's lives and situations rather than a plot existing as a framework for stock characters to enact. But I was genuinely surprised when the plot in So Pretty a Problem was almost a throwback to the Golden Age of Detection with allusions to famous works by G.K. Chesterton and an impossible crime problem. The characters are just as fully human as in the other books but this time the plot is so filled with truly baffling problems and there are multiple culprits of one sort or another that the book quickly became my favorite of the three.

Adrian Carthallow, a temperamental painter, lives in an isolated house on an island accessible only by one bridge. The island’s cliffs are sheer, the shoreline dangerously rocky and high tides make the ocean front property too perilous to allow for a dock and access by boat. Tremaine is drowsily lounging on the beach when he is awakened by a gunshot. He runs up the path, crosses the bridge and runs into Helen Carthallow who confesses that she has just shot her husband. Tremaine is sure she is covering up for someone and does not rule out the possibility of suicide though when the police arrive evidence does seem to point to murder. But how can it be anyone else?  Only Helen's fingerprints are on the gun. No one was seen crossing the bridge. An invalid neighbor conveniently happens to be a habitual nosey Parker who spies on everyone visiting the artist's home and she is sure she saw no one other than the daily visit of the mailman. It looks like to be an impossible crime.

The story seems simple but Duncan manages to complicate the plot with his usual variety of colorful characters, a few odd sideline mysteries like who slashed the portrait of Helen in Adrian's studio and whether or not Adrian was involved in an art forgery scheme, plus a plethora of jealousies and secrets that provide multiple motives for Adrian's murder. He was not well liked, especially by his wife. Could she actually be guilty? There is one very well placed clue which I spotted but dismissed as a red herring when Tremaine rules out a certain activity. Of course I was fooled, and that one clue was something I ought not to have discarded as meaningless. For that bit of misdirection (probably the best he ever employed) Duncan gets major points and it makes the "impossibility" of how the murder was committed much more clever than I expected. So Pretty a Problem is entirely satisfying, engrossing, thought provoking and with more plausible twists than any of the other two books. I think it is his best novel and best plotted detective story.

Five of Francis Duncan's mystery novels featuring Mordecai Tremaine have been reprinted by Vintage Books in their Death's Head Moth imprint. The other two are In at the Red and Murder for Christmas. They all sport attractive retro style covers and are available in both paperback and digital editions, although the eBooks can only be purchased via the UK amazon site. I highly recommend that you read any of them with a slight nudge towards So Pretty a Problem as his most rewarding and entertaining fair play murder mystery, clearly a homage to the Golden Age. It would be a great service to devotees of traditional detective novels if the rest of Duncan's catalog were reissued. Cross your fingers for more!