Friday, November 3, 2017

FFB: To Catch a Thief - Daphne Sanders

Let's get one thing out of the way. This is not the book on which the Alfred Hitchcock movie was based. That novel was written by David Dodge who created two very interesting series characters, one of which was "Whit" Whitby, a CPA turned detective (and is a writer I ought to have written about on this blog years ago). Now that's over with let's get on with this version of To Catch a Thief (1943), a post-war revenge story written by a writer most of you are familiar with.

"But, John," (I hear you cry while scratching your head) "I've never heard of Daphne Sanders!"

That's because it's a pseudonym, silly Reader. But I bet you know her under her other more recognizable pen name -- Craig Rice. That ol' trickster Georgiana loved to make up alter egos when writing her books. Usually including private jokes like using the name of one of her fictional murder victims when she adopted the pseudonym of "Michael Venning" for three murder mysteries featuring private detective Melville Fairr.

The book? Well, it's one of her more mature efforts not an alcohol drenched, comic romp like those featuring her series characters John J. Malone, Jake and Helene Justus. This is a somber tale indeed about faked identities, vengeance and post-war American economics. It's rather a timely tale in this day of sociopathic corporate greed, vigilante justice and utter lawlessness.

Our anti-hero is "The Man with Two Faces" who leaves behind quasi anonymous notes signing himself N. N (as I prefer to call him though Rice lays it on heavy with his other multi-word nickname) has been ruined in a stock market manipulation scheme and he sets out to wreck havoc and get his revenge in a Robin Hood style redistribution of wealth. We know from the outset the identity of the thief who is robbing the businessmen of their valuable antique jewelry and Old Masters paintings. But when the men behind the stock market start turning up as corpses along with their wives it looks as if another vengeance seeker is on the prowl with a more deadly aim in mind.

A private detective named Donovan is on the case hired by Lucius Abernathy, one of the stock market crooks who received a note from N. Abernathy fears for his life ever since Renzo Hymers turned up dead a few days after the theft of Hymers' prized emeralds. In addition to protecting himself Abernathy has his own treasure to safeguard -- the "Starflower necklace". Donovan soon uncovers a trail of bodies -- first Hymers' widow, then her lover a professional dancer and gigolo whose legs have been smashed in a particularly gruesome style of murder. Are the thefts and murders related? Is there a deadlier game that N is playing. Could there possibly be two revenge seekers? Our thief known as N knows he is not the killer and he turns detective as well in order to clear his name.

So we have two plots unfolding simultaneously in this well thought out, intricately constructed blend of inverted detective novel, murder mystery and caper novel. Donovan is on the trail of thieving N who he is sure is also the mad killer while N doggedly pursues leads and clues to uncover the real killer. Rice has some intriguing things to say about identity in this book which should come as no surprise to readers who know that her own identity was a hodgepodge of fiction and reality.

What may come as a surprise, however, is her completely different writing style revealing, in addition to her flair for comedy, her skill in creating tension and mounting suspense. As a bonus we also get intermittent beautifully written, often poetic passages showing her talent for literary metaphor not seen elsewhere in the mostly colloquial prose of the Malone comic crime novels. In one sequence where N visits his cohort in crime -- a pawnbroker/jeweler who acts as his fence -- we get a mini lecture on the life in jewels. Marcus, the jeweler, talks of the personality of gemstones: "...some can be friendly, some unfriendly." Diamonds he tells N "are neither one nor the other. They simply do not care. They are much too self sufficient to be concerned about human beings. It is not for nothing that they have the color of ice."

Later in the book one of the killer's many victims is discovered by Donovan: "...the dead girl's love for bright colors showed everywhere in the room. ...the bathrobe on the bed was a gaudy flame, patterned with black and the bathrobe cord around the colorless throat seemed to be one vivid slender flame. Poor little night blooming flower, Donovan thought. Not one of the moths that hover too close, but one of the flames themselves. Only the flame had been blown out now."

I was genuinely impressed with To Catch a Thief. It shows a thoroughly new side to Craig Rice's writing and gives us an insight into her darker more serious worldview, a philosophy I think perhaps reflects her true nature rather than the frothy worldview we get in her comic crime novels. This is definitely a book worth reading and seeking out. While the hardcover first edition is now a rarity and extremely difficult to find, there tend to be some US paperback reprints (Handi-Book #26, 1944) that show up now and again in the used book market. You might also find it in the 3-in-1 Detective Book Club reprint which includes the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Buried Clock and Headlong for Murder by Merlda Mace. To Catch A Thief is one book hunt worth your time and effort.

10 comments:

  1. Good to see a new post, John! And this one sounds intriguing!!! As a fan of the Hitchcock film, I appreciate you setting the record straight right off. This storyline actually sounds better!

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  2. Welcome back, John! We missed you. This book sounds terrific - I love lots of dead bodies in a plot. Ha! I've never read a Craig Rice book so I'll definitely be looking. Terrific review, as usual.

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  3. I had no idea. I've tried a couple of the Craig Rice books and was unimpressed, not finishing the second. This, however, does sound interesting enough to maybe try. Thanks for this one, John!

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  4. It is nice to have you back, John. Hope things are better now. I have read one Craig Rice: Innocent Bystander which was pretty good. I'll see whether I can get a copy of this one. Your review is good but I missed "Things I Learnt" sub-section. Always fun to read that.

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    1. Taken me a while to find new things to say about some of the good books I've read. I read this back in August and took hardly any notes because I breezed right through it finding it utterly fascinating in its blending of subgenres. Nothing really new learned in this one. I abandoned the usual "sub-section" format because I only wrote down page numbers with the interesting metaphors which I quoted.

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  5. I did not know about this pseudonym for Craig Rice, John (or had forgotten). I will put it on a list to look for. Thanks.

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  6. John, great review. This is a fantastic Rice book, one of her best and perhaps the most difficult to find. The 2nd most difficult to find would likely be Jethro Hammer, which is a personal favorite of mine.

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    1. Actually the first two of the Michael Venning books are the most difficult to find and purchase. They've always been priced over $100 (with or without DJ) when I've seen them either in a store or online. I spent way too much money getting those two books. I've seen more copies of Jethro Hammer in my lifetime than The Man Who Slept All Day (extremely rare!) or Murder Through the Looking Glass combined. I found my copy of Jethro Hammer here in Chicago for $12 because the bookstore owner had no idea that "Michael Venning" was a pseudonym for Rice. If he had he told me he would have priced it much higher. HA!

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  7. Embarrassed to admit I'd not known of Craig Rice, but now I do! And it's great to see you back, John! (there, I've used up my quota of exclamation points for the day)

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  8. Welcome back John - you've been missed :)

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