Friday, August 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

FFB: Angel Loves Nobody - Richard Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: The Arrow Points to Murder - Frederica de Laguna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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