Friday, December 29, 2017

FFB: Merridrew Follows the Trail - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY:  A series of gruesome murders in which the victims are mutilated and bodies disposed of in quicklime are plaguing the denizens of Double Peak, Arizona. Mayor Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew joins forces with Sheriff Brad Wood to discover who has a grudge against the family of Jacob Tilsden, long deceased head of a dye manufacturing company.

THE CHARACTERS: This is pretty much a stock in trade western with a unique murder mystery tacked on that probably would've been better as a short story. The book is dragged out to novel length with a series of set pieces drawn from American western movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are barroom fights, shootouts in the hills, an engineered landslide to trap some bandits, chases on horseback, and a barrage of bullets flying from Derringers, pistols and rifles. And like a typical B movie Western we have stock characters with typically Hollywood style names. There's Rock McAllister, the villain dressed in black and his posse of bad guys menacing the townspeople and out to get Merridrew; Mike Tanner, the saloon keeper who's just hired West Virginia transplant Sylvia Danning as his latest singer/ hostess for the entertainment of his mostly male patrons; Clem Dawlish, the lugubrious undertaker with plenty of bodies to bury; and my favorite -- Hap Hazard, whose name tells you all you need to know about him. Hap, of course, is not his real first name, but he's pretty much a loser from the get go and is Sheriff Wood's prime suspect as the murderer of the various members of the Tilsden family.

Merridrew is the most colorful of the bunch. He's a former butler who emigrated from England and somehow became mayor of the town after first serving as valet to Wood. Oddly (and in a forced kind of humor) he still serves as manservant to Wood while at the same time leading the town as mayor. He has an arch sense of humor, a sophisticated vocabulary and is a sharpshooter of the highest order. Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953) is his final adventure in a quintet of books. I'm guessing his origin and how he came to be mayor is detailed in the previous titles. Here we get only a few sentences to fill us in on his background. Like many of Fearn's detectives, he has a unique blend of basic science knowledge and arcane information to stun both the characters and the reader. Here we get a mini lecture on various dying processes since that is a crucial element of a very original crime plot.

INNOVATIONS: Those of you familiar with H. Rider Haggard's only detective novel Mr. Meeson's Will (1888) will probably catch on to the one truly unique aspect of the crime plot. Because I'm familiar with that book it was easy for me to figure out why the bodies were being mutilated or disposed of in quicklime.

ATMOSPHERE: One of my problems with the book is that I never really knew if this was supposed to be 19th or 20th century American West. Modern references to fingerprints, medical examination of the bodies, and legal aspects of the story seemed to indicate a contemporary setting. But then the absence of cars, phones, even a telegraph made it all seem ersatz 19th century. Most of the story seemed more like Fearn was drawing from Hollywood's imagining of the Old West than he was from genuine history. Everyone lives on a ranch, vigilante style justice is rampant, disputes are settled more often with gunfire than with common sense. Wood and Merridrew are often forced to resort to violence as much as they try to keep the peace among the rowdy, lawless citizens.

THINGS I LEARNED: The crux of the plot involves a secret dye manufacturing process. I learned about something called Turkey red, a deep rich red dye made from the root of the madder plant. The name of the dye refers to its country of origin and not the edible fowl. There is lots of talk about various sources of black dye and the importance to the textile industry in finding dyes that are resistant to sun fading, especially in the arid, sun-drenched desert climates of the American West.

A buckboard is "an open, four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage with seating that is attached to a plank stretching between the front and rear axles," basically a type of wagon used to deliver goods. Merridrew is often hopping aboard one or borrowing one from the Double Peak general store keeper to get out to the remote ranches where the various murders take place. The name refers to the wooden board that protects the rider/driver from the hazards of bucking horse hooves.

EASY TO FIND? Like most of John Russell Fearn's books this one has been reprinted by the UK publisher Linford Western Library in a large print format edition. They publish nearly all of his traditional detective novels and crime fiction under their Linford Mystery Library imprint. Luckily, for all your 21sst century readers this title (as are many of Fearn's westerns) is also available as an eBook. I found my copy, the incredibly scarce first edition, in one of my lucky book hunting searches. I've never seen a copy since I bought mine. The DJ shown at the top of this post has got to be a true rarity and I'm sure that the hardcover book is just as uncommon.

Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew Western Detective Novels
Valley of the Doomed (1949)
Merridrew Rides Again (1950)
Merridrew Marches On (1951)
Merridrew Fights Again (1952)
Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening?

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

Every year the CTA, Chicago's bus and train service, decorates one bus and one train for the Christmas season. In the past I've managed to ride the Holiday train through sheer accident on my commute home. Other times Joe and I made a concerted effort to wait for the train at the Red Line station only a ten minute walk from our home. Here's a long video that shows what's up with both the 2017 Holiday train and Holiday bus which I've never been on since it tends to visit Southside and Far West neighborhoods not served by the trains. Both transports are shown travelling throughout numerous areas not often shown in video promotions of the city. Enjoy!

We're having a snowfall as I type this.
White Christmas for Chicago!
Here's wishing you a wonderful, magical time whether
it's a wintry cold or sunny bright time.

Friday, December 22, 2017

FFB: The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: Viola Ross is awaiting the verdict from the jury who are deliberating on her fate in the trial of her husband's murder. Novelist Richard Arnold is the only person convinced of her innocence and he adamantly refuses to budge from his not guilty vote. The trial ends in a hung jury and Richard leaves the courthouse determined to clear Viola's name, spare her the indignity of a second trial, and find the real murderer. But his delving into amateur sleuthing leads to anonymous letters, murder attempts and other unexpected twists of Fate.

THE CHARACTERS: For nearly half the book we have no idea who Richard is. He never tells us his name himself nor does he talk much of his work as a novelist. We have to wait until his fiancée Mary "Bunty" Friar addresses him by his first name. Later a policeman or Arthur Crook himself (I forget which) calls him by his last name. That I thought was very odd from a first person narrator. But then this is an Anthony Gilbert mystery novel and the reader ought to expect high doses of the unusual and oddities galore.

Like Irene Cobb, the first person to confront Arnold on what she feels is his obstruction of justice. She was Teddy Ross' secretary and through a gossipy friend she learned that Arnold was the jury member who was responsible for the mistrial. She warns him that he better not pursue his plans and reminds us all of the telltale clue that gives the book it's odd title. Ross had set an alarm clock and was planning to wake up to conclude some business. The clock never went off and instead was found wrapped in a scarf inside a hatbox. The police and everyone believe the murder did this in order to sneak into the room and kill Ross by smothering him with a pillow. But the murderer foolishly forgot to replace the clock. If the clock had been on the bedside and Ross been discovered dead no murder investigation would ever have taken place. The death would have been ascribed to Ross' heart condition and age. Miss Cobb knows that only Mrs. Ross was at home and is most likely the guilty party. When Arnold starts receiving anonymous letters he is sure that Miss Cobb is continuing her vendetta.

Among the other possible suspects is Ross' son Harry who had a shaky relationship with his father. Teddy Ross had hired a private investigator to follow his wife because he was convinced she was having an affair. Mrs. Ross had been giving Harry money to help with his schooling and future career which angered the old man. In his rage he accused her of more than financial assistance and consorting with her stepson in a sordid romance. Did Harry and Viola plot do in Ross in order that they could use his money as they wished without his interference?

Mentioning any of the other characters would spoil the bizarre developments that take place. Suffice to say Arthur Crook does figure into the complicated case when Richard Arnold seeks out his help. There is some unique detective work throughout the story, but the true appeal in this novel is Gilbert's flair for an unusual treatment of a familiar plot that mixes courtroom mystery, detective novel, pursuit tale and Hitchcockian suspense into one mindblowing crime novel

INNOVATIONS: The more I read Gilbert the more I think her contribution to the genre is her unusual genre blending technique. I haven't read a single novel yet that is anything like a formulaic traditional detective novel that presents a mysterious death, myriad suspects and a detective who proceeds to find out the who, what, and why of the crime. In every book the story borrows elements from several of the subgenres within crime fiction and skillfully melds them, folding and interweaving so many apparently disparate features into what turns out to be an intricate storyline that connects seamlessly. No loose threads are left hanging and you are sure to be left gasping at the many ironic twists in a Gilbert plot. I could go on to mention that this is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel. I thought Death Knocks Three Times (1949) was a tour de force, but The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is also worthy of that laudatory label. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this novel is just plain ballsy. Lucy Malleson had nerve when she wrote this one and she pulls it off rather well. The entire structure of the novel is an innovation from the opening chapter that gives us a judge's summing up, the mention of the tell-tale clue that is the murderer's undoing, and the labyrinthine plot that follows as Richard Arnold does his best to free Viola Ross from the hangman's noose.

QUOTES: "[Y]ou can't force him to do something he hates. It's terrible -- I mean, it's so fatally easy to make the wrong decision, and once it's made you have to abide by it forever."

"You know what Sherlock Holmes said."
"About eliminatin' all the impossibles and takin' whatever's left, however improbable, as the only answer? Yes, I know. I'm thinkin' of havin' that put up over my desk. It'll save a lot of trouble. It must be nearly as popular as 'Laugh and the world laughs with you.'"

"Innocence costs more than a lot of people would like to believe. Take my word for it, it costs a hell of a lot. But then it's worth a lot. If morality weren't damned expensive it wouldn't have any value at all. Show me any mug who wants it for its own sake."

"You meet coincidence everywhere except in novels. Novelists are such conceited chaps, they won't be grateful for coincidence. Everything's got to fit together, with a meaning. There ain't much meaning in life, dear boy. That's what you can't get 'em to understand."

And here's something amusing. Arthur Crook quotes another lawyer:
"[A murderer's ] first job is usually his last, and even if he's successful it's as much luck as anything. And as Scott Egerton always said, the last trump always lies with fate and she bein' female, there's no telln' how she'll play it."
Scott Egerton is the first detective Malleson/Gilbert created but soon abandoned for the livelier, unscrupulous Arthur Crook.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
THINGS I LEARNED: The phrase "Lombard Street to a china orange" popped up twice in the story. It's a very old British colloquialism meant to indicate the odds against something happening favorably. Lombard Street was the center of London's banking world since the 12th century according to Oxford Reference. As for the china orange part, they have this to impart to us: "The sweet orange (Citrus aurantium) was first sold in London in the mid-17C and by the 19C it was used figuratively to mean anything of minimal value." Oxford Reference also says that the phrase can be found as Lombard Street to a Brummagem sixpence, an eggshell, ninepence.

Arthur Crook says late in the book "You remember Balder" and then proceeds to quote a poem that starts "Better to live a slave, a captured man..." Balder rang no bells with me. Crook is alluding to the work of Victorian poet Matthew Arnold who wrote a poem called "Balder Dead". The full quote which I won't print here is reminiscent of Lucifer's sarcastic line "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Actually, Gilbert misquotes the poem because the true first line is "Better to live a serf..."

EASY TO FIND? Here's one Christmas present that'll be hard to find for you or anyone else on your list. Took me several years to find an affordable copy. Even though it was published in both the US and the UK followed by a couple of paperback reprints it's a very scarce book. But if I were an enterprising reprint house I'd jump on this one as well as several other Anthony Gilbert books. So many of these are truly worthy of a new life for 21st century readers. Gilbert was more modern than most of her Golden Age contemporaries and The Clock in the Hatbox has a remarkable freshness to it that has not dated at all. This one has a lot to say about innocence, guilt, justice, and the legal system. Plus it's really one of the most innovative and gutsy detective novels in her large output, if not the entire genre.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

FFB: Dead on the Island - Bill Crider

Truman Smith is not so successful private eye living in Texas. He spent a long time searching for his missing sister, never finding a trace of her, and his failure still haunts him. In his retirement he'd rather work his way through Faulkner's novels than devote any more time to tracking down missing people. Somehow he gets talked into accepting another job and he's off to locate Sharon Matthews, a teenage girl who disappeared. The search will take him to a sleazy heavy metal bar, encounters with crooked businessmen and a gang of thugs, one attractive shopkeeper, a kidnapping scheme, and a couple of dead bodies. What a way to re-enter the world of a Texas private detective.

Dead on the Island (1991) may have been published in the early 90s but it sure seems like it's stuck in the mid 80s. The book is dripping with popular culture references that reminded me of my college days of 1979-1983 and not my first years in Chicago. Talk of Luke and Laura on General Hospital, Miami Vice, MTV, Nike Air sneakers dominate the frequent pop culture chit chat that fills the pages of folksy dialogue.  I'm not a fan of topical references because they really date a book and in this case date it to the period the book was apparently written.  However, my own dislike for this kind of talk should not put you off from discovering what amounts to a truly different take on the private eye novel. As a mystery, the book is well plotted, cast with a nifty group of colorful characters who aren't too run-of-the-mill, and the setting of Galveston and its history make for an often engaging story.

Tru is regular guy, a little too down home for me. He's single and shares his record strewn home with a moody cat called Nameless ( a nod to Pronzini's series detective, maybe?).  We get to know he predilection for Big Red soda (locally made in Waco), his love of 50s and 60s obscure rock and pop music, and his ambitious project of reading all of the novel sof  William Faulkner.

This was Crider's first attempt at the private eye genre and it's sort of by the numbers for me.  I saw through all the plot mechanics, pegged the bad guy from almost his first appearance, and easily predicted the kidnapping element before it is officially announced in the first third of the story. however, as a private eye novel there is too little action for my tastes While there are the requisite violent murders and sadistic villains who pop up to dole out beatings to our dogged detective there are also lots of Q& A scenes that slow down the pace. It's all so laid back. Much time in the first half of the book is spent discussing daily routines, how Tru makes his sandwiches, when he goes to bed, what the cat is doing, where it's going... We learn that Dino, Tru's high school buddy who hires him to find the missing girl is a TV addict and obsessed with the soap opera General Hospital. One of the characters lives in a mansion, has several servants, gives the appearance of being a refined and polished lady but would rather drink Mogen David than imported expensive French wines.

I did enjoy learning about the history of Galveston, that it was once the focal point of the state, the richest, the biggest, the most populous city. Crider delves into the way Texans think, pointing out the short-sightedness of their not realizing that the oil boom would not last forever, that it wasn't a bottomless magic supply that would continue to allow so many Texans to live the high life. Galveston is now a shadow of its former glorious city. The contrast of past and present is striking, enlightening and not a little affecting. Those were the sections that kept me reading and wanting more.

Tru Smith went on to appear in four more books.  I've not read any others and know nothing about how he may change over time.  Dead on the Island is a good first stab at a private eye character, the Galveston setting is authentic and rich with an engaging unusual history making for an enjoyable read. I'm just not sure I'm interested enough to get to know Tru better.

Truman Smith Private Eye Novels 
Dead On The Island (1991)
Gator Kill (1992)
When Old Men Die (1994)
The Prairie Chicken Kill (1996)
Murder Takes a Break (1996)

Friday, December 8, 2017

FFB: 30 Days to Live - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: A shout of "Fire!" in Everard Hope's home The Brakes. Panic ensues as the occupants rush out of their rooms armed only with candles to find their way. A ripped carpet leads to a fatal tumble down the staircase. The miserly Hope is dead. The next day Hope's lawyer Midleton (one D, please) arrives to read the newly changed will. Not one of the relatives who had been invited to Hope's house will be inheriting a shilling. Instead the entire estate of £100,000 will go to Dorothea Capper, someone not one of the disinherited has ever heard of. But lucky Dorothea will only inherit the money and the house after the passage of thirty days. The relatives turn detectives to track down Miss Capper and try to bargain with her. But someone is plotting to ensure Miss Capper doesn't live to see that thirtieth day. Several attempts on her life are made. Is it just one person? Or they all out to do her in? When Arthur Crook enters the picture he suggests that Dorothea turn the tables on her attackers and fight back. But will the two succeed in their battle against the horde of greedy and murderous relatives.

THE CHARACTERS: This is another book with a cast of oddballs. Lucy Malleson (aka "Anthony Gilbert") was one of the Golden Age's best detective novel satirists. 30 Days to Live (1943) is probably more of a classist satire than it is a detective novel, but there is plenty of crime and a couple of mysteries to solve. Really what Malleson is having fun with is the presentation of a naive 38 year old woman who leads a sheltered life, spends too much of her time comparing real life with the plots of movies and popular fiction she devours with glee. The original title, The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball, is an indication of just what we're to think of Dorothea Capper. At first a figure of utter ridicule in her brown dress, brown hat, brown shoes and bag to match plus her beige way of thinking Dorothea soon grows likeable as her predicament grows ever more perilous. She's lucky that Crook intervenes on her behalf to show her the cruelty of the world she tends to overlook and the opportunists who seem to want only the best for her when in fact they have their own selfish interests in mind. Dorothea slowly learns how to navigate herself in a world where suddenly she has become what appears to be the center of everyone's attention.

Arthur Crook, mysterydom's finest rogue lawyer turned detective, appears only incidentally in two scenes in the early portion of the book but will figure more prominently in the final third of the novel. He's just as shifty and unscrupulous as he always is. When he unveils his extravagantly melodramatic scheme to outwit the would-be killer and the other ruthless relatives we are definitely rooting for Dorothea to survive and earn what is rightfully hers.

Among the gold-digging relatives there is Julia Carberry who assigns herself as Dorothea's protector, barging into her home ahead of the others and directing Dorothea like a stern schoolmarm. There's another shifty lawyer in the mess -- Garth Hope, who tries his best to become Dorothea's advisor but learning too late that Crook has got to her first. Cecil Hope and Hugh Lacey are cousins and prospective suitors who both dare to invite Miss Capper out on dates in order to sway her to their side and wishing for her to split the inheritance with them. In the company of all three men bizarre accidents take place, one of them leading to a fatality of a stranger and the other two nearly landing Dorothea in her grave.

ATMOSPHERE: World War two is ever present throughout the story as a reminder of the real dangers of life that Dorothea and everyone have taken for granted. The nearly mundane references pop up so regularly it's as if war has become commonplace routine. Characters are pestered by having to draw the blackout curtains each night; a sign in a church pew reminds churchgoers to gather up their belongings, including their gas mask, before they leave; a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the National Savings Campaign illustrates foolish spending on imported goods by depicting a man and woman being threatened by a shark sporting a swastika on its fin, the caption reads "Would you buy if you had to swim for it?"; and small talk includes offhand mention of German bombs that have destroyed local landmarks and statues ("I remember seeing a broken arm lying at her feet the next morning.")

INNOVATIONS Stories about greedy relatives with murder on their minds hatching plots to do in the rightful heir date back to Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. From the persecuted Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas to the titular serial killer in Israel Rank inventive writers have found ways to ring out new changes in what could easily become tiresome and predictable. Malleson's clever mix of paranoid imaginings, genuine danger and classist satire all blend together in an unexpectedly witty take on this familiar tale of avarice and vanity. It's an unusual choice to have your protagonist such an utter fool at the mercy of such wily and treacherous villains and yet somehow it works. While we're busy laughing at Dorothea's often embarrassingly girlish behavior -- dressing up in an inappropriately bright yellow dress and overly elaborate hat to impress Hugh Lacey, for example -- we overlook the subtle manipulation Malleson has of making us complicit in the relatives' criminal thinking. We are privy to everyone's thoughts and we know that many of the characters are desperate for the money that Miss Capper may inherit. And she's such an idiot at times we almost want her to fall out of a window and be done with her. It's a devilish trick that Malleson plays with the reader in getting us to sympathize with Dorothea yet also wishing her dead almost simultaneously.

QUOTES: ...since the English persist in confounding morality with ability, he knew he didn't stand a chance [at promotion] if his name were being bandied about in the Divorce Court.

He looked across the room and caught Dorothea's eye and smiled. It was ravishing, that smile. [...] It made him look so young and youth in the other sex appeals to women as no virtue or mental qualification can do.

"When a lawyer's on speaking terms with the police," Crook was explaining, "you can hope to see Heaven opened and the angels of God descending on the sons of men."

...had Miss Capper asked him to prove that she hadn't bumped off her relatives one after the other, he would have accepted the commission and gone to all lengths to win the case. Not that he thought she had. All his professional life, he would mourn, he had been looking for Lucrezia Borgia in modern dress and it was his grief that, even if he did meet her, some other fellow would step in front of him and mess the matters up.

THINGS I LEARNED: More new cocktails added to my ever growing list of odd potent potables. This time the Grand Guignol. Hugh Lacey orders up several of these and Dorothea pops them back like a natural lush.  It sounds sickeningly sweet: 1.5 oz of dark rum, mixed with .75 oz of yellow chartreuse, cherry Heering (a liqueur I also had never heard of), and fresh lime juice. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Grand Guignol is usually used to describe lurid murder stories as it comes from the name of a puppet company that used to perform such plays. Then it became the name of the theater and its company of live actors who basically invented the idea of what slasher movies are all about. They performed plays that existed solely for gorey stage effects that shock and revolt the audience. Very odd name for such a cloying cocktail. I'd expect it to look bright red and not a muddy unappealing orange.

by-blow is a colloquial term or maybe a euphemism?) used when talking about illegitimate children. Merriam Webster tells me it's been around since the 16th century, but I don't think I've ever encountered it in Shakespeare, Webster, Johnson or in any of the many Jacobean revenge plays that I studied back in college days.

Jessie Matthews (left) as Dorothea and Beatrix Lehmann as
 Julia Carberry (now a sinister housekeeper!) in Candles at Nine (1944)
THE MOVIE: This is the second of three Anthony Gilbert novels that were adapted for the movies during the 1940s. Retitled Candles at Nine (in reference to Everard Hope's nightly ritual of shutting off the electricity in his house and resorting to candles for illumination) it stars Jessie Matthews as Miss Capper, Beatrix Lehmann as Julia Carberry, and John Stuart as an Arthur Crook stand-in of little import and mysterious origins named William Gordon. The movie preserves the basic story of Miss Capper needing to remain alive for one month in order to inherit but adds that she must live in The Brakes for those thirty days. The only other element that remains the same are the characters' names. The wit and satire is replaced by farce and music hall style comedy. The story is a messy mix of this low comedy and dire overacted melodrama. Only two of the five attempts on Miss Capper's life are included in the movie. Gordon gets attacked and trussed up in a closet at one point, something that absolutely does not happen to Crook. And need I mention the gratuitous musical numbers? At one point there is a two minute dance sequence that is supposed to show off Matthews' terpsichorean talents but it's a dreadful hodgepodge of ballet, jazz and tap dancing. She spends more time twirling about the stage and assisted into posing in arabesque positions by her tuxedo wearing partner than she does any real dancing. The movie is further ruined by the intrusion of the actors playing Hugh and Cecil Lacey (renamed Charles) who serve as the music hall duo delivering risqué one-liners (two of them pretty dirty for a 1944 film) and pointless banter. Very little of the exciting story is retained. The ultimate indignity of this movie adaptation is that Julia Carberry, one of the best realized and complex characters, is transformed into a cheap Mrs. Danvers wannabe who bears not a trace of Malleson's original Julia. The movie is not recommended at all.

EASY TO FIND? This one is very scarce. At least based on what I could find in online bookselling catalogs. Less than ten copies seem to be out there for sale. I looked under both titles too. Copies using the original title The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball are more common. I was surprised to see it was reprinted at least three times under that title, once as a large print edition done in the 1980s. The White Circle paperback edition using the title under which the book is reviewed here is from Collins' Toronto paperback reprint publishing arm and it's a true rarity; only four copies available. Those of you living in the UK may be lucky with local libraries and used bookstores.

This is now my second favorite of the Anthony Gilbert books I've read. It's highly recommended should you be lucky enough to find a copy. Next up is The Clock in the Hatbox which I managed to locate through a miracle of sorts. Eager to read and review that one since it comes highly recommended from Neer and a few other bloggers.

Monday, December 4, 2017

NEW STUFF: The Other Passenger reprint coming soon!

Valancourt Books tells me that their exciting reprint of The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross will be released on December 12.

Exciting for at least two reasons:

1. It's the first time this landmark collection of supernatural and weird fiction has been reprinted in its entirety since its original publication in 1944.  In 1961 an abridged reprint of nine stories, omitting half of the total 18 tales in the original, was released by Ballantine Paperbacks.

2. This edition has a new introduction by some know-it-all genre fiction expert named J. F. Norris. He sure gets around.

They dared to put my name on the front cover. Such a honor. And if you get out a magnifying glass you can even see it!

I had a lot of fun researching this one. Learned all about Keir Cross' juvenile mystery and fantasy fiction (discussed in my The Other Side of Green Hills post), his career as a radio program scriptwriter, and his influence on other genre fiction writers.

Go order your copy (hardcover, paperback or digital) today! Please. Click here to go to the Amazon page for the book.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Calling All Johnny Fedora Fans!

A few days ago I received an email from Desmond Cory's son Richard McCarthy announcing the latest eBook release in the Johnny Fedora series. Here's the publicity for it:

A British secret agent in a deadly manhunt at the dawn of the Cold War.
Trieste 1952.
Johnny Fedora, a debonair British secret agent, knew he had only one week to prevent the Communists taking over Trieste - if he could stay alive to find the dreaded political genius Panagos, whose acumen for anarchy had left a trail of bloody revolution across the continent.
Spy adventure in the historical background of Europe soon after WWII.
In a relentless race against the clock, Johnny finds: a dead man's last message, a beautiful woman falling into his arms, a hidden photograph, and three unknown women whose initials spell out an A B C code.
Winner of the Sunday Times' Best Crime novel of the year, Desmond Cory delivers yet again a near-perfect mystery novel, written with intelligence and laced with wit, mystery and suspense.

This is not a brand new book. Intrigue is the fourth espionage novel in the Johnny Fedora series. Also published as Trieste in the US, the book originally appeared in 1954. That Best Crime Novel line is referring to the 1954 winner. I believe that Richard is hoping to release as many of his father's books as he can in digital format. We exchanged emails several years ago when he released Cory's previously unpublished novel On the Gulf as an eBook. I've remained on his email contact list ever since.

The email ends with this paragraph:

You are also very welcome to post a review of what you think of the book on Amazon - all opinions about the book are very welcome.

Lastly, please feel free to visit the new Johnny Fedora website for more information about this series.

Friday, December 1, 2017

FFB: Flashpoint - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Oscar Bilkin, grocer and fishmonger in the village of Halingford, receives an anonymous letter warning he and his family to "GET OUT BEFORE TOMORROW. YOU ARE ALL IN DANGER". He has no idea why he was warned nor who might have sent such an ominous letter. his family is convinced it's a nasty joke so Bilkin asks around and approaches a local known for stupid pranks. Everyone including the prankster (aptly named Wagstaff) denies sending the note. He heads to the police thinking it may not be a joke at all. They provide him with protection for the next two days. The policeman sent to guard the place will intervene if he sees anything remotely suspicious about to take place. the next day shortly after the daily delivery of Bilkin's ice he does as he always does - takes a hammer and chisel to the big slab to break it up for the fish display. After one strike of the chisel there is a horrible explosion and the Bilkin's shop goes up in flames. Everyone in the vicinity is knocked to ground. Mr. Bilkin does not fare as well. The police seem to have a sinister arsonist in their midst. Soon another building is targeted. Can the police prevent another raging fire and stop a mad arsonist from destroying the village?

THE CHARACTERS: Flashpoint (1950) is unlike many of the previous Dr. Hugo Carruthers detective novels I've read. First, Inspector Garth is nowhere in sight. Instead we have Supt. Denning and his crew of policeman in Halingford. Also, the suspect pool is much larger than usual and Fearn does a good job of making the arson attacks appear to be the work of several different people with different motives over the course of the story. There are more women characters than usual with a surprise coming in the form of Claire Denbury, a chorus girl who provides one of the more satisfying dramatic moments late in the book.

In this second outing in a relatively short series Dr. Carruthers proves to be less irascible than usual and reveals a hidden romantic side. He has hired as his assistant Gordon Drew recently returned to his hometown after losing his job when the London firm he was working for was destroyed in a fire. Pure coincidence that arson rears its ugly head again when Gordon comes to Halingford? Drew claims to have come to town to renew his friendship with Janet Lloyd, his former sweetheart. Dr. Carruthers approves and makes light jibes about Gordon and Janet whenever he has a chance. But of course the real reason he is on hand is to help the police solve the mystery of the fires. How did someone manage to start a fire in what appears to have been an explosive chunk of ice? Later the physicist is asked to explain the eerie purple color of a second fire (reminding me of The Case of the Violet Smoke by Nigel Morland writing as "John Donavan") and how the arsonist managed to set fire to a building when the place was under constant guard. Students of basic chemistry might be able to uncover these two mysteries pages before Carruthers stuns everyone with his knowledge.

INNOVATIONS: The means of the first arson is extremely clever. I managed to figure it out based solely on the description of how the ice was delivered and its odd appearance. Going into anymore detail might ruin what amounts to several well hidden clues. The second quasi-impossible fire was less impressive but did include similar unusual chemical properties that made it less than an average firebug's crime.

Apart from the chemistry involved in the arson Fearn neatly handles other clues related to motive and the identity of the culprit behind the fires and a later murder. By far this is the most mature detective novel of Fearn's I have read. It suffers not from Fearn's usual pulpy style of writing or the sense that it was a padded short story. All the characters were much more human, and believable than in other books in this series. This one resembles more closely the style of the Maria Black detective novels with their emphasis on character relationships and human drama, rather than outlandish plotting and detective novel gimmickry.

QUOTES: "The modern criminal, my boy is one of the most scientific beings alive," Caruuthers answered. "... The average murderer you'll find plastered in every newspaper in the country, but not the ingenious one--unless he's caught. That's where I come in--and other experts like me. We are dedicated to the task of defeating the new criminal, the man or woman who makes use of modern methods to perpetrate his or her villainy. ...Why else do you imagine the Yard has become so highly scientific these days? Only to keep pace with the even more subtle ways of the scientific evil-doer."

THINGS I LEARNED: This book was teeming with trivia and odd vocabulary. I haven't included this section in a while so here's a delayed avalanche for all you who have missed this regular feature.

Prior to his unfortunate death Mr. Bilkin spends the morning "arranging cabbages in the form of an Aunt Sally". I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Off to the internet I went. Took a couple of searches before I came up with the right Aunt Sally. Turns out Fearn was alluding to a traditional pub game (see illustration at right). Players throw sticks at a model of a woman's head that had come to be called Aunt Sally. The game dates back to the 17th century apparently and today is still played by teams in pubs. However, the Aunt Sally now resembles something like a giant chess pawn than it does a woman's head.

pernoctation - multisyllabic, fancy way to say night vigil. Comes from the nearly obsolete verb "pernoctate" meaning "to stay up or out all night; especially: to pass the night in vigil or prayer."

Hans Gross is mentioned in passing when Carruthers is discoursing on the psychology behind and methods of arson. I vaguely recalled his name but had to resort to Googling to refresh my memory. Gross is a name that crops up many times in Golden Age detective fiction, especially in the works of John Dickson Carr. An Austrian psychologist who specialized in criminal behavior Hans Gross has been dubbed the "father of forensics" in various website articles. His seminal work, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (1893) was a groundbreaking manual for the intended audience of police coroners but also was useful for judges and lawyers. In it Gross called attention to the psychology of the criminal mind and warned members of the police and legal professions to pay heed to everything over the course of a criminal investigation. He stressed preserving the integrity of a crime scene, to treat all physical evidence with care, and even discussed the importance of noting the body language of the accused while in the courtroom.

Chemical properties of elements and compounds are discussed in detail with an emphasis on flame color and smoke color. I can't say anything else about this or else the mystery of the arson methods will be spoiled.

EASY TO FIND? This was at one time one of the most difficult titles in John Russell Fearn's large output of detective fiction. Originally published under his pseudonym "Hugo Blayn" it was reprinted at least four times according to the copy I own. But used hardcover copies of this 1950s edition are rare these days. According to the email exchange I had with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor and tireless champion of his friend's work, this book will be reprinted by Endeavour Press and made available as an eBook. I'm unsure when it will be released. Until then you can find Flashpoint in a paperback, large print edition put out by Linford Mystery Library. Currently, there are at least five used copies available for sale online.

NEWS FLASH! Be sure to read TomCat's post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn", a guest post consisting of a long letter that Philip Harbottle wrote to me. But he made an error in typing my email address and it went into digital limbo. He then asked for TomCat's help in contacting me. Eventually I got the letter and he and I also exchanged some emails of our own. In the meantime TomCat had an idea to share this letter with everyone and Phil granted permission to have the letter uploaded to TomCat's blog.