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 a unique 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 business partner Adam, who becomes his nemesis in Book Two, is a fine portrait of a little man attempting to live 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 finds 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 for sale. 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 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.