Saturday, December 15, 2018

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018, part two

Here's my second nomination for our vintage mystery blogging community competition to name the "Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018." As you know, last week we all wrote about our first of two books that we think deserve the digital award and the high outpouring of love from the blogging community - that's you! -- who will help decide the winner. For all the details see Kate Jackson's post over at Cross Examining Crime. But enough of this obligatory introduction. Onto the announcement!

Once again I find myself bending the rules because I want to nominate an entire series of books that have been reprinted. Similar to last week's choice of The Threefold Cord by Francis Vivian, I thoroughly enjoy the character of the lead detective. Also, like Vivian this author I'm nominating is a literate writer who is unsparing with his sense of humor. Finally, I think the plots are original and the books are fine examples of the traditional detective novel which of course means that the books include the fast diminishing art (not altogether lost as of yet!) of "fair play clueing."

And so Pretty Sinister Books would like to nominate the newly reprinted detective novels of R. T. Campbell released by Dover, a publisher that seems to be unnoticed by almost everyone in the vintage crime fiction blogging community. And as the best of the lot I select ...drum roll...

Death for Madame by R. T. Campbell

To entice you, like a manipulative marketing maven, behold the blurb taken directly from the back cover:

Max Boyle was hoping for a quiet life after the rough and tumble of World War II, but "my life with Professor Stubbs had been nothing more than one damned murder after another, and even in between murders I'd had no peace." As the professor's/amateur detective's assistant, Max is inevitably drawn into the latest imbroglio, this one involving Stubbs' drinking buddy, an amiable lunatic known as Mr. Carr. It seems that Mr. Carr's dotty old Aunt Lottie, who ran a tawdry hotel in Notting Hill, was found strangled in her rocking chair. Each boarder is mentioned in her will, and all of their alibis are weak.

There's more but I'll stop. You get the three best characters listed above, most importantly the detective Professor Stubbs.  Here are my unconventional reasons for selecting this book:
  • Another under-the-radar author of detective novels that everyone shoukd know and read. I only learned of Campbell thanks to Dover's reprints of the first two Prof. Stubbs back in the 80s and now we have four of the seven books available for our reading pleasure.
  • A delightful amateur sleuth who may remind hardcore fans of such stalwart heroes of our genre as Sir Henry Merrivale, Arthur Crook, and Reggie Fortune. Stubbs is another rotund, irreverent, beer guzzling, brilliant man who suffers no fools gladly.
  • Clever plots with lively characters, literate writing and the best of all--
  • Laugh out loud humor like this passage from Chapter 3
He appeared in the doorway wrapped in a voluminous and violently tartan dressing gown, so violent, in fact, that I suspect that it must have been responsible for the interdict on tartan after the 1745 rising. I knew that it would have frightened the guts out of me if I had had anything in the way of a hangover.
Only Bev at My Reader's Block seems to be aware of the adventures of Professor Stubbs. Her review of Bodies in the Bookshop (click on the link to read it) is proof that Campbell still has the power to delight the most discriminating of detective fiction readers. Bev with her often perspicacious reviews has proven time and again to be highly discriminating.

Death for Madame falls at the end of the brief series of seven books, but of the two newest reprints best exemplifies Campbell's approach to the detective novel. The final book in the series Swing Low, Swing Death, has also been reprinted by Dover along with Unholy Dying and Bodies in the Bookshop which were the only Stubbs books available in reprint editions since the late 1980s. Swing Low... is one of the most unusual of the Prof. Stubbs mysteries. As much as I enjoyed it for a whole different set of reasons I couldn't offer it up as the "Best Vintage Crime Reprint" because it is mostly a satire of the modern art world than it is a detective novel.

I know that neither of my nominations will get many votes, (if any at all!) but it did give me a chance to once again remind everyone of the Francis Vivian mysteries with my mention of The Threefold Cord and to clue everyone in about the fine work that Dover Publications is doing in this Vintage Crime Fiction Renaissance. In addition to Campbell's books, over the past year Dover has managed to reprint (all without any fanfare or marketing blitz) books by Frances & Richard Lockridge, Ellis Peters, Joan Fleming (one of my favorites), and even Bill Pronzini and Max Allan Collins.  Time for us to pay a little more attention to the American publishers rather than limiting ourselves to Dean Street Press, British Library Crime Classics and HarperCollins as the hallowed triumvirate of vintage crime reprints.

Voting starts next week and the winner will be announced soon. Good luck to all the nominees!

Friday, December 14, 2018

FFB: The Auctioneer - Joan Samson

THE STORY: Harlowe, New Hampshire has a new resident. Perly Dunsmore set up house in the old Fawkes place and is asked to help raise funds for a new crew of deputies for the town’s meager police force. Perly is a talented auctioneer whose charismatic charm is his primary tool in getting the townspeople to donate their unwanted belongings to the auction that will help raise funds for the deputy’s pay. The success of the first leads to another until the auctions begin to occur almost weekly. With each new fundraiser Perly requires more things to sell. His simple requests for donations become more demanding until people find their homes invaded, their possessions taken away without consent or given up only after violent threats. The Auctioneer (1975) tells the story of a town at the mercy of Perly Dunsmore, his transformation from Good Samaritan to powerful controller of everyone and everything in Harlowe, and the dire effects of giving up and giving in to promises that may never come true.

THE CHARACTERS: Rather than seeing the effect Perly has on the entire town and getting multiple viewpoints and stories of several characters as a contemporary novelist might approach this intriguing set up, Samson focuses her story on the Moore family (John, Mim, daughter Hildie, and John’s mother) who have been farmers in Harlowe for generations. We watch them slowly lose everything they possess, everything they hold dear, including the love they have for each other. On occasion Samson has Mim visit her friends and we get some painful and harrowing vignettes featuring other families. Through Mim’s eyes we see how her friends are dealing with Perly’s sinister command of Harlowe and the treacherous ease with which he simply takes what he wants whenever he wants it.

After having lost her treasured vanity table, a wedding gift from her mother, and watching John’s milking cows taken away for one of the many auctions Mim travels into town to visit Agnes Cogswell, the wife of one of Perly’s chief deputies. Here in a home that the reader thinks may have been spared from Perl’s rapacious collection of furniture and livestock Mim finds just the opposite and worse. Agnes and her husband Mickey have not only given up their belongings, Angie has sacrificed even more – her sanity. Word has travelled fast about the perils of fighting back and refusing Perly’s demands. There have been fatal accidents to some residents while others are leaving town taking whatever little they have left. Agnes, fears not for her own life, but for the life of her children. Mim finds Agnes babbling in her kitchen, barely coherent, but clearly not of sound mind. More disturbing is the fact that the Cogswell’s eldest teenage son is patrolling the grounds with a shotgun and two Dobermans to protect the home from unwanted visitors. Mim leaves fearing that she too may succumb to paranoid imaginings and rushes home to make sure that Hildie is unharmed, but deep in her heart praying that her daughter is actually still in the house.

That we never get to know Perly’s thoughts unless he in the company of other characters is Samson’s most effective tool. Everything he does and says is seen through the eyes of the victimized. Perly is rarely seen alone and we never get to know his inner thoughts the way we do those of John and Mim. His dialogue more than his actions is the most terrifying part of the book. His grandiloquent speeches promise a new life for the people of Harlowe – that prosperity is certain the more you spend, that even more riches will follow once you surrender your treasures and prizes that only have sentimental value.

With each sale Perly rewards those who “donate’ their goods with a pittance of a rebate. John’s first check is for $3. By the time he earns $300 for the sale of his own land that brought in $5800 he would rather destroy the money than accept it. Most insidious is the first scene where Perly manages to get Hildie to give away her favorite toy – a red wagon. John is forced to buy it back for $1.50. After that Perly wins the friendship of Hildie who agrees to attend his Sunday school classes. What exactly goes on in those classes we never find out. But it can’t be good.

ATMOSPHERE: Gothic touches come in striking and unexpected sequences as with the omen of poison ivy that slowly encroaches onto the Moore property. John says he will tend to it but he never follows through. Mim sees the aftermath of the ivy infestation when she visits an untended grave in their private family cemetery on the grounds of the farm. With her bare hands she tears out the poison ivy ("It climbed around and around the trunks of the old cheery trees and coiled its way along the branches, like snakes moving toward robins' nests.") and of course suffers the consequences. This leads to a new forced isolation “for fear of starting the plague’ on Hildie and her husband who is already avoiding her and now shuns her in bed.

After telling of her visit with Agnes to John (“She counts her children every night.”) and expressing her fears of farm country being developed into a city of Perly’s imagination John grabs Mim and holds her dearly. Around them the elements seem to rise up and express the dread and fear the Moore’s are feeling:
“John held Mim. The house banged and creaked and clattered as if it were full of secret footsteps. The November wind outside blew over the pond and the pasture and the stand of heavy white pine. It pulled at the shingles of the empty barn and rattled the loose sash, searching out the couple who lay in each other’s arms listening g to the warm breath of the child on the floor beside them.“

QUOTES: "You see me runnin', Ma?" John asked, jolting to his feet so that Hildie slid to the floor.
"Like a jackrabbit, boy," said Ma. "Where you think it's goin' to get you to?"
"Next time I'll stand up and let him shoot me," John shouted. "Then where'll you be?" He yanked the door open.
Ma took a step toward him. "And that's just another way of runnin'," she shouted back.


Mim stood at the sink scraping carrots. "Could we get ourselves on welfare, do you think?" she asked. "It's hardly shameful nowadays."
"Since when?" Ma said. "Maybe not for folk who ain't got sense enough to hang on to what's theirs."


"Things is things. But they can’t take your flesh and blood. And they can’t take the land because we’re on it."
"Words, John. That’s not stoppin’ them."
"This is still America, Mim. They can’t. There’s limits."


THE AUTHOR: Joan Samson attended Wellesley finished her undergraduate work at University of Chicago, received her M.A. from Tufts and married twice. After an interesting nomadic life (that included a home and job in London) she settled in New Hampshire. She held various teaching positions through the 1960s at elementary schools both in the US and the UK, then later became an editor at a literary journal. In the Viet Nam era she and her second husband Warren Carberg became active in the anti-war movement. Her first published work was a non-fiction book, Watching the New Baby, intended to teach children about what it's like having a new sibling. She also began writing short stories. Encouraged by Carberg she expanded one of the stories into The Auctioneer. It was rather a sensation during its day with a huge marketing campaign, rave reviews, sales of over one million copies and even a screenplay option which sadly never led to a movie. In one of life's cruel twists of Fate five months after the book was published Samson succumbed to a terminal illness and died. She has, however, lived long after achieving a cult status with The Auctioneer, her only novel and one that is well remembered, powerfully affecting anyone who has read it.

EASY TO FIND? After being out of print for over three decades The Auctioneer was reprinted this year by Valancourt Books. In this reissue you get the full novel, plus added bonuses of an informative introduction by horror fiction enthusiast and novelist Grady Hendrix, and afterword titled "Remembering Joan Samson" by Warren Carberg. Valancourt offers their books in paperback, hardcover or digital editions. Those who like the feel and smell of old books are in luck as well. There are dozens of copies of both US and UK editions with the US Avon paperback leading the pack. Most of these copies are extremely cheap, but check their condition before ordering. Vintage paperback editions of Samson's only novel far outnumber the hardcover editions. The US first edition is now rather scarce and those with dust jackets in G to VG condition range from $45 to $110.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018, part one

Here’s a list for you. Tell me if you know what they all have in common.
  • Heart to Heart by Boileau-Narcejac
  • Withered Murder by Anthony & Peter Shaffer
  • The Midnight Mystery by Bertram Atkey
  • Three Dead Men by Paul McGuire
  • Thirteen Stannergate of G. M. Wilson
  • Murder on the Day of Judgment of Virginia Rath
  • Stranger on the Highway by H. R. Hays
Pretty easy, I’d say. All of them are fantastic crime novels that still have not been reprinted and the original editions are difficult to  impossible to find now. Plus, all of them are books I’ve written about on this blog praising them and often dropping hints in the final paragraph to publishers that here is a title they ought to reissue. In some cases like G.M. Wilson and Boileau-Narcejac every single book ought to be reprinted. These are the books, I believe, readers would like to see back in print. The gems that have been languishing in Out-of-Printdom (some for over eighty years) and copies of the original editions are disappearing from the face of the planet. Literally! It’s very frustrating to me to see books that readers have been longing for, books that seriously cannot be found anywhere, being passed over for others that are getting their second, third and fourth lives.

Why all this talk about reprints yet again?  Because as we approach the end of 2018 Kate Jackson has rounded up a coterie of in-the-know vintage crime book bloggers who will offer up their opinions on the "Best Vintage Crime Reprint of the Year." It's an unofficial ceremony with no real trophy, only a virtual reward and a round of applause from all the readers of vintage detective and crime fiction. The best part? You get to choose the winner!

Kate will gather all the links to the various blogs at her home Cross Examining Crime.  For the next two Saturdays bloggers will write about two of their favorite books that were lucky enough to be reprinted this year. Then you help decide the winner by voting for your favorite among the 20 books that will be discussed.

I know that I have a completely different idea of what books deserve to be reprinted as opposed to publishers who want to reprint books that will sell. Also, I'm sure I have a radically different idea of what makes an award-worthy reprint from the rest of my book bloggers in this community of  Mystery Fiction worship.  So when I turned to the very long list of reprinted titles throughout this year I was looking for two things
  1. A truly forgotten author, long out of print
  2. Writing and plotting that contributes substantially to the genre
I’m not one who wants to reward a book for finally being reprinted when thousands of copies have been available for decades and people were unwilling to actually buy an old edition. And so I’m not going to be screaming for joy that Patrick Quentin, Christopher Bush or others like them have been reprinted. It’s wonderful to see new editions of these books, but with the exception of a handful of Bush’s mysteries none of them have been truly difficult to find if you wanted to read their books. I’m more interested in discoveries and clever writers who went of print very fast, who were overshadowed by their contemporaries, who never really had a long life in print, never got paperback editions in their lifetime but should have. In short, I'm the champion of the underdogs and the dismissed.

I was excited to see Vernon Loder’s books come back into print. I smiled when The Shop Window Murders caused a minor sensation in the vintage crime blogging community. When I wrote about the book on my blog in 2013 it was one of the most commented on posts of that year. That’s the kind of writer who deserves a revival. That's the kind of book I'm always looking for -- an unusual and imaginative detective novel, filled with humor, oddball characters, bizarre situations. That’s what the genre was all about. That's a book that deserves and award. But someone beat me to that title and picked it first.

And so I move on to my first choice for Best Reprint of 2018:

The Threefold Cord by Francis Vivian
(Actually I wanted to list all of the Inspector Knollis books, but I have to pick one title to signify the best of the lot)

Reasons?
  • I’ve never heard of Vivian before it was announced that his books were being reprinted by Dean Street Press.
  • His books are very difficult to find in original editions. Some cannot be found at all!
  • He is an imaginative writer, inventive with his plots, and engaging in his storytelling.
  • The Threefold Cord has not one, but several, damn good mysteries.
I'm not going to discuss the book. I've already done that here.

That’s the kind of book I want to see more of in this exciting age of renewed interest in detective and crime fiction of the past. Give us writers we’d never find on our own, books that are truly impossible to get hold of. And find books that celebrate the imagination – the one gift that should be the hallmark of a novelist in any genre. Believe me, these are the ingredients of books that will sell. And they make readers happy and eager to read more.

Tune in again next Saturday for my second nomination for Best Reprint of 2018. Oh, and you can wish me a happy birthday then if you'd like.

For the full details on "The Best Reprint of 2018" see this post at Kate's blog.

Friday, December 7, 2018

FFB: Death at the Wheel - Vernon Loder

THE STORY: Two bodies found in cars, both shot dead, within days of one another.  The first is a policeman who has been investigating a sting of jewel robberies. The second corpse is a two bit (or six penny since this is England) fortune teller who calls himself Osiris. The question is - are these two murders or a murder and suicide? Rufus Tate (aka Osiris) seems to be implicated in the jewel robberies and it appears he may have killed the cop and then himself. Arthur Way, the Sulcote chief constable, doubts the verdict at the double coroner's inquest. Too many oddities make the suicide highly unlikely. With the help of a large crew of police, both local and Scotland Yard officials, as well as some surprise ideas from Clare, his fiancee, Arthur uncovers a very strange truth.

THE CHARACTERS: Death at the Wheel (1933) features a large cast led by Arthur Way, a rural chief constable at odds with the more experienced city cops of Scotland Yard.  Arthur, however, sees this unusual set of crimes as an opportunity to shine as the detective he always wanted to be. He has some very ingenious ideas how to approach the crime and is complimented for his contributions.  Scotland Yard should be assisting only at his instruction but that doesn't stop Assistant Commissioner Cance from setting up a rather unethical undercover operation with his ace detective Inspector Brow. When Arthur stumbles upon Brow in the disguise of a fly fisherman on holiday he becomes very angry.

Meanwhile, Clare's stepfather Holroyd Sayce is targeted as the primary suspect as the mastermind of the jewel robberies.  Sayce happens to be in the jewelry business making it all the more likely that he may be involved with a ring of thieves who are all carnival workers who have always been nearby each time a home was burglarized. 

Loder's signature wit is not lacking here. Clare Winkton is definitely a highlight with her brash wit and good sense. Clare is always teasing her stepfather nicknaming him Holly and treating him irreverently. Paradoxically she also seems to be protecting him from the police.She provides Arthur with one of the cleverest ideas when they brainstorm about where Smith, the master crook, might be hiding out.  She also points out to Arthur that a slip of paper that he is convinced is an intricate code is actually nothing more than a series of dates and initials.  The reader knows this as quickly as Clare does. In his attempt to prove himself a great detective Arthur does tend to overthink a lot of the obvious

Also I liked the bit part of Sir Guy Lunt, owner of an amber necklace that was stolen and broken up for its gemstones. Lunt is a foppish hypochondriac with a malingering case of "bronchitic tendencies." He reminded me of the vile Frederick Fairleigh in Collin's The Woman in White who never stepped out of his dressing gown and complained of aches and pains while pawing over his pornographic drawings.  Sir Guy Lunt is just as ludicrous, a perfect satiric creation and one more character in Loder's collection of worthless aristocrats who pop up frequently in his mystery novels.

INNOVATIONS: Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too many policemen don't spoil this detective novel. There are a slew of policemen that I didn't really think I needed to keep straight. The more that were added to the story the more I kept thinking that this might have been Loder's attempt to imitate Henry Wade.  By the midpoint of the novel I was truly impressed with how different this was form the usual Loder detective novel which is usually brimming with eccentric touches, bizarre murder methods and outlandish incidents.  In a high contrast to his first eight books Death at the Wheel is grounded in real crime, murder committed with guns, dogged police work and career criminals.  It's a genuine police procedural and one of the best of its type by any of his contemporaries.  Loder can stand shoulder to shoulder with Wade, Nigel Morland or Helen Reilly, three of the best practitioners of true police procedurals, meaning detective novels that not only show us how police solve crimes but also explore the culture of police stations and the collegiality of policemen.
Guns & bicycles!  The murder weapon was
manufactured by this company based in St. Etienne.

Loder manages to juggle parallel storylines and we follow Arthur's raw edged, ingenious and experimental style of detection which is in strong contrast to the polished technical police work of the Scotland Yard men and local police.  The book might very well have been called The Case of the Three Shells for the bulk of the novel deals with the bullets, casings and shells of a French made .22 handgun, the murder weapon in both shootings.  Arthur spends a lot of time thinking about three .22 shells, where they were found, the lack of fingerprints on some when they should be present. He creates a variety of involved experiments like  the one with a pair of trousers worn by one of the victims. Arthur tires to discover if a fingerprint on a shell casing could be worn away over time if placed in a tight fitting pocket. He also studies wear patterns in the fabric to determine whether or not a gun could have been habitually carried in a certain pocket in the trousers. This was a fascinating section of the book showing off Loder's masterful plotting techniques and unusual ideas about crime solving.


THINGS I LEARNED:  At the end of Chapter 10 Clare makes this quip in reference to Smith, the burglar the police are hunting: "No one would knowingly put Charles Peace in the post of chief clerk, where jewels were bought and sold."  I had no idea who Charles Peace was and so off I went a-Googling.  I guess I should have known because he turns out to be one of the most notorious criminals in the history of British criminology.  Peace, a talented musician, in the guise of a travelling violin player and bric-a-brac peddler committed multiple burglaries over a three year period. He became wanted for two murders and one attempted murder of a policeman. He was pursued by police, arrested and tried in 1879. In a record breaking 12 minute jury deliberation Peace was found guilty and executed.  Peace has been immortalized in the penny dreadfuls of Victorian fiction, has music hall songs written about him and his life story was filmed at least three times. The most well known movie of his life and crimes may be The Case of Charles Peace (1949) directed by Norman Lee.

Arthur Way utters this odd sentence late in the book: "If he died, he died very suddenly. And like the dead donkeys, which they say no one ever sees, sir, he buried himself rather mysteriously."  I figured this was some sort of British slang so I went looking in various reference books. I'm not sure I got the actual origin, but this fit as close as possible. I was looking for something to do with dead donkeys never being seen. What I found is a "dead donkey" comes from the world of journalism, a phrase that refers to a story that is so trivial it can be killed to make room for more newsworthy story that deserves to be in print. Supposedly the phrase comes from a 1990s UK sit com called Drop the Dead Donkey and many people think it was created by the writers. But obviously since the phrase appears in a book in 1933 it's a lot older than the TV show. If anyone knows more about this odd allusion and phrase, please let me know in the comments.

QUOTES:  One of these mystery story writers would have made something of that, he mused. There would be a masked gang...with headquarters in some riverside dive. Clare would be their languid queen, at one moment in a Paris gown at some elegant hotel, at another clothed in black tights burgling the suite of a duke...

Arthur Way was a man with an active mind, and even the most busy of country Chief Constables finds that the routine of his job does not highly try his faculties. The idea of doing a bit of detective work on his own appealed to the boy which is latent in most of us.

"Good luck to you," said Cance, "but try to use your imagination, Brow! Common sense is a fine thing, but there isn't much of the X-ray about it!"

Clare: "...I could have skipped down to the gun-room, got one of Holly's shotguns and peppered the brute.  I wasn't really afraid."
That was like her.  It had always struck him that she was both cool and courageous.

EASY TO FIND? If you want a real book you're out of luck. It's a rarity.  But the good news for readers who have Kindle devices and live in the UK or Europe is that you can purchase a digital copy of Death at the Wheel from Black Heath Classic Crime.  TomCat has been reading the Nicholas Brady books put out by Black Heath so I guess they're OK. The fact that they don't have their own website makes me think these are pirated digital books and I'm not comfortable helping to promote them. But if this is the only way you can read the book, then go ahead and spend your money on them. They are ridiculously cheap, that's for sure.

It's a solid police procedural, one of Loder's better books filled with creative ideas and invention.  But as such it's very different from the weirdness that was displayed in the more original and bizarre mystery The Shop Window Murders recently reprinted by HarperCollins.

Friday, November 30, 2018

FFB: Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert

Don't Open the Door (1945) is Anthony Gilbert's seventeenth novel featuring lawyer-detective Arthur Crook with an opening that calls to mind cliches of 19th century sensation fiction and old black and white movies we used to watch on "The Late Show". Very late at night, walking down fog covered streets, Nurse Nora Deane makes her way to the home of her latest charge, an invalid named Adela Newstead. Nora is helped along through the maze of fog by a passing Good Samaritan. While safely ushering her to the Newstead's front door he finds out her occupation, her employer's name, her age, that she's an orphan and basically friendless. She learns only his name -- Sammy. Nora clearly doesn't subscribe to the old adage about strangers and conversation.

When Nora meets Mrs. Newstead she seems frightened and agitated. A soon as her husband leave the two alone together Adela gives Nora an address book, tells her to call Herbert and not to tell her husband. Nora promises to do so, but foolishly waits until the next day. That night Mrs. Newstead dies unexpectedly.  The reader a cannot but help suspect foul play and the culprit seems to be no one else but Arthur, the husband.  But can it really be as simple as that?

I was expecting this to turn into something along the lines of the Had I But Known School of mystery fiction pioneered by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart. Nora truly seemed to be one of those dimwitted heroines who sees everything too late and then regrets not taking action earlier. So much of the first few chapters seemed all too familiar, I'd read it before many times. I was haunted by similar scenes in Eberhart's The Patient in Room 18, Rinehart's The Window of the White Cat, Some May Watch by Ethel Lina White as well as her chilling short story "An Unlocked Window". The US publishers must have recognized this aspect of the book for they changed the original prosaic title to the luridly Gothic Death Lifts the Latch.

US 1st edition (Smith & Durrell, 1946)
But I should have known better than to expect anything formulaic from Anthony Gilbert who excelled at using well-worn motifs of mystery fiction and exploiting them in unusual ways. For soon Nora is following up on Mrs. Newstead's request to get in touch with Herbert Webster who turns out to be her brother and only living relative. Herbert is very suspicious of his sister's sudden death. When Sammy turns up at the Newstead home looking for Nora, Albert begins to get a little panicky. And the reader too is certain that Arthur is guilty of his wife's murder. But just how did he manage it?

The brilliance of Don't Open the Door lies in a clever touch in the the narrative structure. Gilbert has us follow the murderer in certain sections told from that point of view. We are almost convinced who we are supposed to think he is. Yes, the murderer is identified with a male pronoun late in the novel. But the story is told in such a way that the person we think he is turns out to be completely wrong.

Once again this mystery novel is remarkable for Gilbert's skillful blend of subgenres. Never fully satisfied with the confines of detective novel formulas Gilbert will always veer out of whodunnit territory into the land of thrillers. Equally comfortable in either mode Gilbert often enjoyed exploring viewpoint, playing with narrative, and focussing on the culprit's actions and motives while the heroes and heroines desperately try to uncover the truth before more mayhem occurs. In Don't Open the Door the touches are so matter-of-fact the reader is convinced that Gilbert has all but told us the killer's name. However, the final pages come with Gilbert's trademark unexpected twist, one that may come as a real shock to those not keen to her tricks or who failed to pay close attention to subtle details.

US 1st paperback
(Bantam #768, 1950)
Crook enters the story in the final third after Nora is abducted. Together with Sammy Parker and a reporter Roger Trentham the trio race against time to find the missing nurse. There will be another murder, a mysterious car wreck at the bottom of a cliff known for suicides, and some last minute surprises before all turns out well and an ingenious killer is literally unmasked.

QUOTES: Arthur Crook: "The woman with a conscience. If you ask me a conscience is like a Rolls-Royce. It's ostentatious unless you're sure you can afford it."

Getting past Crook was something quite different. Because in spite of what he'd just said he knew a lot about Crook, and he'd sooner be cornered by a rat. You can kick a rat off sometimes, but Crook would be as difficult to escape as an octopus.

He grinned in his turn; and he went on grinning till he looked like the wolf after it had eaten Red Riding Hood's grandmother.

"Marriage can be as wild as the jungle. I ought to know. I sometimes wondered if I'd married the original Tarzan."

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Death Has Many Doors - Fredric Brown

A G rated drawing for the cover. In the novel
Sally is found dead au naturel
In the fifth book featuring Ed Hunter and his Uncle Ambrose the two have set up shop in their own private eye agency. Death Has Many Doors (1951) is the story of a young woman named Sally Doerr who wants to hire the two detectives because she fears for her life. She is convinced that someone is going to murder her. And that someone happens to be a Martian. When Sally dies in her locked bedroom on her third floor apartment with all possible ways in and out of the room guarded or impossible to access Ed begins to wonder if something extraterrestrial really did have something to do with her death.

To be honest this was a very middling detective novel. While there seems to be a lot going on when you start to look at it closely you see it as a formulaic Q&A style detective novel with lots of padding. And lots of alcohol.

Sally is plied with alcohol at a bar when Ed, in an earnest attempt to show concern, tries to convince her that she doesn’t need a private detective she needs to see a psychiatrist. (One, two cocktails, “Oh no more please…” pleads Sally. Three, "I really shouldn't" four) Then off they go to her apartment where she asks him to spend the night ("In the other room, please.") because she’s so frightened. To Ed’s shock she dies in her room about three hours later.

More imbibing follows. Ed seems to find it necessary to bring alcohol wherever he goes. He gets Sally’s sister Dorothy drunk on whiskey and then they go skinny dipping by moonlight near the shores of Indiana Dunes State Park. She insists on the swimming, he cannot get her to change her mind. That doesn’t go very well. I wonder why! Drinking and swimming is just as stupid and drinking and driving. Dorothy is the second corpse to turn up in the book. No one bothers to question whether the whiskey she drank had anything to do with her death. In real life it most definitely would have. The real reason for her death (it’s a murder by proxy, sort of) is ridiculously far-fetched, probably literally impossible to accomplish. Brown relies on a detective novel gimmick that I thought went out of fashion in the mid-1940s.

The landlord at Sally’s apartment has lots of info to offer up, but once again Ed decides it’s best to cajole him with whiskey not flattery. All this booze bribing! It was not only disheartening, it was sickening. The landlord not only gives up all the details on the building's occupants, how long they’ve been there and all their personal business (were there ever really landlords this involved in their tenants’ lives?), but he gives Ed the keys to Sally’s apartment so Ed can come and go as he pleases and continue his investigative work. Or what passes for investigation.

By the way, there is only one policeman in the story -- their friend Frank Bassett. Ed and Uncle Am report their findings to him while he shares with them the lack of evidence. But strangely he’s curious about what they have turned up. Which is hardly anything. This is the only example of a negative detective novel I’ve ever come across. The more the two detectives delve into the case the less they find.

Here’s the pattern of how this detective novel unfolds. Ed wanders all over Chicago’s North and South sides with side trips to Evanston and Indiana constantly telling himself he’s stupid, he can’t figure anything out and that he’ll never get enough evidence to convict the killer. He goes into Sally’s apartment, finds nothing. Insert several mediocre action scenes. Then he visits again, still finds nothing. Insert scene brimming with sexual innuendo featuring Ed and Monica Wright, the gorgeous blond secretary. Does he go a third time? You betcha. What does he find? More self-doubt and psychological masochism. After each instance of miserable failure and beating himself up guess what he does? That’s right. Seeks out a bottle of whiskey.

Should I tell you about his interview with Sally’s ex-fiance in Evanston at a used car lot? That Ed never introduces himself or states his purpose or even tells the guy that Sally is dead. How the guy misinterprets who Ed is and how they get into a boxing match. Oh, too late.

The only reason to keep reading is to find out how Sally and Dorothy were killed. Brown does a good job of making the reader believe that the two deaths were cleverly disguised murders. I wanted something startlingly inventive to be part of the solution to both murders. But the end comes as something of an anticlimax. The major clue is provided to us in the third to last chapter by a whiz kid 11 year-old boy who (after being talked about frequently) makes his only appearance in that chapter. In order to come up with a smidgen of the final solution the reader needs to apply what the boy talks about to something that Ed saw in Sally’s bedroom. While Sally’s death fits into the realm of a scientifically sound yet bizarre murder method, Dorothy’s cause of death (as mentioned previously) is pure fantasy. If all this isn't disappointing enough for you the identity of the murderer is not at all surprising. It all ends in an electrical fizzle instead of a satisfying explosive bang.

Despite the bizarre murder methods Death Has Many Doors is a pseudo-mystery. Those metaphorical doors open to bring about death, but no other doors open to bring about a fair play resolution. This is a book I’d not recommend unless you enjoy reading about fictional characters drinking heavily and fantasizing about getting naked and dancing between the sheets.

Nevertheless, I’m moving on to some other Fredric Brown books I have uncovered on my shelves. I’ll be reporting back next month. For a couple of  other opinions on Death Has Many Doors see the links below, both less scathing but neither very complimentary.

TomCat's post at Beneath the Stains of Time
JJ's post at The Invisible Event

Friday, November 23, 2018

FFB: The Devil Snar'd - George R. Preedy

THE STORY: Grace Fielding and her writer husband Philip have come to Medlar's Farm in Northumberland as an escape from their marital discord.  Philip is in love with Angela Campion.  Grace acknowledges the affair but refuses divorce. Perhaps this getaway will help repair whatever went wrong in their marriage. But Grace continues to obsess about Angela and her husband's philandering. When she learns of the gruesome past at Medlar's Farm, a murder by poison, and the ghost of Susanna Vavasour, Grace's life soon becomes a mix of domestic strife and psychological terror.

THE CHARACTERS:  The story in The Devil Snar'd (1932) is almost entirely told from Grace's point of view.  What begins as a tale of a stubborn woman trying to work out marital difficulties with her writer husband soon gives way to a story of obsession, jealousy, morbid imagination and revenge. The house at Medlar Farm is the site of a horrible crime of passion. Philip is thinking of using the story of the murder of an unfaithful husband that backfires as the basis for his new novel. He's unwilling to discuss his work, but Grace finds the manuscript and begins to read his novel as it progresses. She begins to see too many parallels between her life with Philip and the story of Susanna's life. She feels compelled to visit Susanna's grave before it is forever lost when engineers building a reservoir will submerge it and the neighboring church.

The relatively small cast of supporting characters include Mrs. Mace (the landlady and neighbor), a chemist, a doctor and some minor servants. The novel is almost entirely dominated by Grace and her eventual merging with the personality of long dead Susanna, either an accused murderess or a victim. One is never really sure which is true until the final pages.

ATMOSPHERE:  Grace's slow mental deterioration is conveyed with macabre touches reminiscent of Poe's morbid imagination as well as 18th century British Gothic writers. Spider and insect imagery dominate the eerily descriptive narrative.  They appear everywhere, crawl over everything, then disappear into the ever present shadows at Medlar Farm. The novel takes its title from images on a carved stone keystone above the arch of the doorway to the Crompton Old Church which guards the graveyard where Susanna Vavasour is buried: "a grotesque fiend with medieval horns and tail was pursuing a thin creature in grave-clothes who turned at bay, and with an expression of the utmost horror, cast a net over the enemy who writhed in astonished helplessness." It's a powerful image that will haunt Grace for the rest or the book - this idea of the seemingly helpless victim who "suddenly became the aggressor." She cannot help but link this shrouded figure with her vision of Susanna, though she has no idea what the woman ever looked like.

At the midpoint in the book Grace tells her husband is a story of a man who was practicing the "evil eye" by staring at toads and striking them dead ("Just get them somewhere where they could not move and gaze at them until they died.")  Then one day he got a toad "which seemed to suspect his designs," it tried to escape and then when flight was not possible turned itself on the man and stared right back at him. The man found he could not look away and they continued to gaze at one another until it was too late. The man has completely lost the power of his "evil eye." In the morning the man was found dead on the floor of his laboratory. Similar to the images of the stone carving known as "The Devil Snared" Grace cannot erase this story from her mind. It reminds her of the legend of the murder at Medlar Farm. Soon she is seeing Susanna's ghost, they have conversations, and together they begin to plot a murder inspired by the crime that cost Susanna her life.

QUOTES:   In the big house it was not [sane and normal] -- the maladjustment between herself and Philip seemed to affect everything.

The loneliness penetrated deep into her being; the shut-up church, the empty house--were far more emblematic of solitude than the lonely land and water. The people who had lived here, been buried here, had left behind them a heritage of utter desolation.

She was so horrified by this lurid illumination which was worse than any darkness, that she tried, for the first time in her life, to pray, to honestly send up an appeal for help to some high and merciful Power. She could not do this, but she could check the horror which had been breaking on her -- and she remained for a while mute and immobile, crouched below the corner..."

She remembered a horrid experiment which she had once read of: a mouse and a scorpion were once set by some inquisitive man of science under a glass bell, where finally, after a dreadful duel, the timid beast killed the poisonous insect (sic). The same story, of course, as that of the man and the toad. It was her story.

"How fond you are of that word decent," smiled Mrs. Fielding. "What does it mean, nowadays, I wonder?"

Marjorie Bowen, circa 1939
(photo by Howard Coster,
courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
THE AUTHOR: "George Preedy" is one of the several pseudonyms used by Gabrielle Margaret Long, a prolific writer perhaps best known under her most popular alter ego of Marjorie Bowen. Using a variety of pen names Long wrote some fine examples of ghost stories as well as Regency romances, adventure and crime fiction. As "Joseph Shearing" she wrote a series of historical crime thrillers, based on actual murder cases, some of which are the best examples of that subgenre.

EASY TO FIND? This is a true rarity. I was lucky to stumble across a copy being sold for the unheard of price of £3.99 from a UK bookshop who clearly hadn't a clue what they were selling. Currently there are only two copies for sale from online booksellers each priced at $300 or more. This short novel was first published by Ernest Benn Ltd. as part of their "New Ninepenny Novels", a short-lived experiment in mass market paperbacks comprised of stalwart bestselling writers in genre fiction categories of mystery, romance, adventure and fantasy. There is one UK reprint issued by Cassell & Co in 1933 that includes The Devil Snar'd along with Dr. Chaos, another of Bowen's short (and very scarce) horror novels written under the Preedy pen name. There is no US edition at all.

The Devil Snar'd is so startling and arresting in its use of Gothic imagery and horror motifs I cannot understand why it hasn't been reprinted in over 75 years. Probably because it's so damn hard to find. I'm very willing to offer up my copy to any enterprising publisher interested in reviving this minor Gothic masterpiece. It deserves rediscovery by a wide audience appreciative of macabre fiction.

Friday, November 16, 2018

FFB: The Roses of Picardie - Simon Raven

THE STORY: Two academics follow a trail of clues encoded in 16th century paintings, ancient manuscripts and medieval legends hoping to find the location of a lost treasure – The Roses of Picardie (1980), a necklace of rubies that carries a deadly curse.

THE CHARACTERS: This adventure novel of epic scope follows two teams of treasure hunters led by the two academics Jacquiz Helmut, the Collator of Manuscripts at Lancaster College, and Balbo Blakeney, a biochemist now disgraced and dismissed from his post for alcoholism. Jacquiz is teamed up with his wife Marigold and they travel from England to Greece to France pursuing stories and legends while sifting through all the material for clues. Balbo begins his quest as a solo adventurer but is soon paired up with Sydney Jones, an ex-professional cricket player turned spy. Jones has been sent to find Balbo and bring him back to the UK by a secret society interested in Balbo’s WW2 era work as a biochemist and — bizarrely — rat behaviorist. Along the way these two pairs of treasure seekers meet up with an outrageous cast of supporting characters that include a foul mouthed dowager, a Greek midget and his vampire servant, a Greek man intent on learning English while picking up as many scatological slang phrases as he can, and a mysterious young man with a beautiful face and the body of a god who manages to turn up everywhere at the most surprising moments.

INNOVATIONS: Raven has subtitled The Roses of Picardie “A Romance” and it is true in every sense of that literary term. Perhaps a better, more accurate subtitle might be “A Romantic Odyssey” for it also belongs to that long line of heroic epics involving quests dating back to Homer. With its rousing mix of bawdy humor, intricately detailed medieval history of the mythical Comminges dynasty who originally owned the necklace, and the teeming anecdotes of arcane folklore The Roses of Picardie is one of the most exhilarating adventure novels of the late 20th century. I’ve not encountered a book so rich with eccentric characters, laugh out loud farcical comedy, and eyebrow raising moments of unexpected thrills in a very long time. One moment the reader is taking in a rich history of the Comminges family and the next there is a Chaucerian incident involving stopped up toilets and ancient manuscripts being used as toilet paper substitutes. In one section you get the history of Devil worshipping Albigensians and then a few pages later you learn of the legend of a French dragon known as the Tarasque and its relationship to St. Martha. The book defies categorization with its marvelous mix of vulgar jokes and farce, sophisticated wit, erudite history, academic satire and multiple lessons in arcane legends and superstitions.

Most remarkable is that Raven seems to have invented the kind of novel that Dan Brown would be credited for decades later in his series of pulp thrillers featuring the symbologist Robert Langdon. There is one sequence, in fact, that most definitely foreshadows The Da Vinci Code when Jones and Balbo “decode” the portrait of Andrea Comminges and discover through hidden images and initials one of the locations where the necklace was hidden. It’s one of the finest examples of this kind puzzle solving that combines a knowledge of cryptography, symbology and ancient history, all of it based on the true facts of artists who left behind messages in their paintings.

THINGS I LEARNED: Where do I begin? I’ve already mentioned several bits above and to go into any further detail about anything like the Tarasque or the Albigensians or the difference between Eastern European vampires and Greek vampires would rob anyone of discovering those juicy tidbits on their own. The entire book is one huge “I never knew that!” moment after another.

I will, however, mention that I happily became acquainted with the existence of the French poet and novelist Paul-Jean Toulet (1867-1920) whose poem "En Arles" is featured in the narrative. One line "Parle tout bas, si c'est d'amour" immediately reminded me of Kurt Weill's "Speak Low When You Speak Love." The final stanza ends with the phrase "Au bords des tombes" which serves as both the title of the final section and as a resounding image that haunts the treasure seekers who have been literally and metaphorically digging around the edges of graves and cemeteries over the course of the entire novel.

Simon Raven (1927-2001)
THE AUTHOR: Simon Raven was born in London in 1927. He studied at King’s College Cambridge where he majored in Classics. (He shows off his knowledge of Latin and Greek a lot in The Roses of Picardie). After graduating university he joined the army and served in the infantry in Germany and Kenya where he commanded a rifle company. He began his writing career as a book reviewer in 1957 and published his first novel The Feathers of Death in 1959. Raven is perhaps best known for his family saga of sorts known as “Alms for Oblivion” which feature recurring characters over ten novels spanning four decades. Readers of supernatural fiction might know him for his handful of ghost stories and the novel Doctors Wear Scarlet (1960), a combination of academic satire and vampire tale. Additionally, Raven wrote for TV and movies with teleplay adaptations of Trollope (The Pallisers), Huxley (Point Counter Point), Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate), and Julian Symons (The Blackheath Poisonings) found on his long résumé.

EASY TO FIND? The Roses of Picardie was published only in the UK.  I found not one US edition since its original appearance in 1980. Paperback editions seem to be plentiful in the used book market. The UK first edition (Blond & Briggs, 1980) is a rarity based on my internet searches. The most recent reprint was a paperback from House of Stratus in 2012. I found no digital editions at all.

Friday, November 9, 2018

FFB: Maynard's House - Herman Raucher

THE STORY: Austin Fletcher has traveled to rural Maine to claim his inheritance. Fresh from war torn jungles of Vietnam Austin has left behind his friend Maynard, one of the many causalities of the war, and bypassed his Midwestern home in order to set up house in the cabin that Maynard willed to him. Maynard's House (1980) is remote, forlorn and reputedly haunted. On the grounds is a tree that casts no shadow that according to legend is the site of the execution by hanging of a 17th century witch. Austin dismisses all the stories he's told as superstition. And then Ada and Froom start visiting him and his new life in Maine becomes even more foreign and strange than his life as a soldier in Vietnam.

THE CHARACTERS: The cast of characters is small and contained. Raucher is more interested in the effects of a solitary man continuing his life of isolation in rural America after the horrendous life of a Vietnam soldier. It's a curious type of war veteran fiction which was popular in the late 1970s and continuing into the next decade. While writers like Tim O'Brien (author of Going After Cacciato, et al.) captured the horror of Vietnam both in and out of the jungles and of the many survivors' nightmares of PTSD, Raucher explores the camaraderie that develops between soldiers to tell a story of a friendship that manages to retain a deep bond even after death. The novel is one of claustrophobia and solitariness. Loneliness also obviously features strongly in the narrative. Austin meets only four people over the course of the novel and he is constantly travelling back in time via his memories to recall those rare moments of quiet when he and Maynard would talk of Maine, the cabin, and life far removed from Vietnam.

US paperback (Berkley, 1981 )
Austin is led to the house by the local train stationmaster and postman, Jack Meeker. Jack is a died-in-the-wool Down Easter, as rigidly New England in speech and manner as one can get. He has a thick accent, a stubborn manner, and the kind of irritating common sense that can drive anyone to distraction. Austin loses his patience more than once with Jack's peculiar matter-of-fact nature. From Jack Austin learns of the legends of the witch tree, Devil's Dancing Rock, and the Minniwickies, a curious race that seem a blend of fairy and Native American according to Jack's odd description. Austin will encounter all three but the reader never knows if at anytime anything Austin is experiencing is the product of his imagination or is actually happening.  Froom and Ada, a young boy and his teenage sister, claim to be Minniwickies. But Ada also tells Austin that Jack and the bear hunter he met late one night are dead. Has Austin been meeting ghosts all this time? Is Ada teasing him or telling the truth? And does Ada even exist?

INNOVATIONS: Raucher skillfully plays with the reader's perception in his clever manipulation of fact and dream and memory. The opening chapters seem to be told in real time and Austin seems to be meeting living people. But by the end of the novel a bizarre, almost science fiction, element is introduced that changes everything that occurred previously. One never really knows what was truth, what was dreamed up from Austin's memory of Vietnam, and what was orchestrated by the powerful presence that manages to control time, place, and all who live in the cabin near the witch's tree. It's one of the most unique contemporary treatments of a haunted house story incorporating fantasy and science fiction elements recalling the work of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft. Raucher's method takes a less weird path than his predecessors, rather the narrative is confined in the tortured mind of a war veteran. Still, the final chapters cannot be dismissed as anything other than some of the best weird fiction writing of the late 20th century.

UK Hardcover (Michael Joseph, 1981)
Austin is truly isolated, friendless, and estranged from family. He and Maynard had in common a love of being alone. Maynard's hero is Henry David Thoreau, and the bookshelves of the cabin are lined with Thoreau's works. Austin finds a diary that serves as a survival handbook and a teaching tool for anyone who might be living in the cabin. Thoreau's philosophy is blended into the anecdotes and instructions with quotes from Walden; or Life in the Woods and other essays strewn throughout the diary/handbook.  Raucher is clearly drawing comparisons to this idealistic desire to become one with nature and the possible side effects of living too extreme of a solitary life. Maynard discovers this too late and tries to warn Austin through various messages, some of which come to him via dreams and memories. But Austin will pay no heed to the warning signs, the many omens, and the terrifying events that happen at night.

QUOTES: "There'll be the Devil to pay, " she said, not waiting for his response, leading him about on the rock instead, dancing him to a music he only faintly began to hear--church bells and strings, too distant to comprehend.

He cupped his hand to her chin, raising the dear face to his, sighting it for a kiss. But the eyes looking up at him were so filled with cold and withering hate that the kiss never came to pass. It lasted for but a moment, that look, but all the same it struck him with the thin rage of a stiletto, inflicting no wound yet inferring a bloodless and incredulous death.

The night passed, Austin becoming accustomed to the amorphous haunts that populated it. His house, for some time, had been schizoid. By day it was as bright and inviting as a house could be--a Christmas card, a Robert Frost poem. But by night it was Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, a foreboding thing of shapeless terrors and a casual shadows, a cold place where no lantern lasted the night and no fire emanated any warmth.

"A house is a place to go back to, to regroup in. A house is a kind of special corner of the universe. It's a place where everyone whoever lived in it still does."
"What you're sayin', Maynard, is what I know. I got a lot of company here."
"That's the nature of a house. It absorbs its occupants, kind of keepin' them forever alive."

THE AUTHOR: Herman Raucher began his career in advertising, but soon had success as a writer for TV programs in the 1950s. He then branched out to movies as a screenwriter. He received notoriety for his first movie script, the racially charged satire Watermelon Man (1970), now a cult movie of sorts, with Godfrey Cambridge in the title role of a bigoted white man who wakes up one morning to discover he has transformed into a black man. His most famous writing is the script for Summer of '42 and its later novelization. Other movie work include a script based on the 1967 Grammy nominated ballad "Ode to Billy Joe" about a teenage suicide and an adaptation of Sidney Sheldon's potboiler The Other Side of Midnight. Raucher's other work include the play Harold (1962), produced on Broadway starring Anthony Perkins and co-starring Don Adams, and the novels A Glimpse of Tiger (1971) and There Should Have Been Castles (1979).

EASY TO FIND? Very good news here. For once this book is fairly easy to find in the used book market. It was published in both the US and UK in hardcover and paperback editions. Dozens of copies are available on various bookselling websites with prices all over the place as is to be expected these days. Paperback copies tend to be the cheapest, but it looks like most of them are also unfortunately ex-library books. The only modern reprint of Maynard's House is a paperback edition from Diversion Books released in 2015. Remarkably, you can still get a brand new copy of that edition. (It's a probably a POD outfit.) For all you Kindle readers there's this additional good news: Diversion releases their books in digital editions as well as paperback. Happy Reading!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Coming Soon: Jean Potts Reprints!

Well, I've just handed in my final draft of the foreword for the next exciting reprint from Stark House Mystery Classics. After reading my piece on Go, Lovely Rose and my astonishment at what a great writer Potts was Greg Shepard began reading her crime fiction. Like me he was impressed with her books, like me he also couldn't stop reading them. In fact he's read more than me as of this date and has pointed me to some of her best ones I still have yet to read. For several months Greg did dogged research, searching for the proper literary executor in order to gain permission to reprint her books. His hard work paid off.

Coming next month (perhaps sooner) the world will have the first paperback reprint of two Jean Potts books in over fifty years. Go, Lovely Rose, her Edgar award winning debut detective novel will appear side by side with her Edgar nominated novel The Evil Wish. That's two of Potts' best novels in a single volume! And both reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books.

When the book is available for purchase I'll make another announcement. But I know this book is ready for the printer and eager to get out there into the world.  Though I didn't do as much work as Greg did I'm very proud to have been largely responsible for getting Jean Potts back into print. This is the first time I can definitely claim that honor after years of being only influential in reviving interest in other writers and seeing their books eventually get back into print. With luck we'll see more of Jean Potts in Stark House Press reprints.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Hands of Orlac - Maurice Renard

Horror enthusiasts, whether of the written word or the cinematic variety, may recognize the title I'm about to discuss.  Unless you've read the novel, however, you have no idea what Maurice Renard was getting at when he wrote The Hands of Orlac (1920).  Those who may have seen one of its many filmed adaptations have never seen the real vision of the novel which is more than the nightmare of two hand grafts gone terribly wrong.  Though populated with ghosts and occultists, several seances and necromancy and all sorts of supernatural trappings, The Hands of Orlac, in fact, is not a horror novel at all. Rather it is a brilliantly fashioned detective novel wherein a series of impossible crimes are made to appear to be the work of supernatural agencies and a spectral being.

Stephen Orlac is a concert pianist who is travelling back to Paris for a long awaited reunion with his devoted wife, Rosine.  En route to the City of Lights the train crashes and there are multiple casualties. Rosine rushes to the scene of the accident and finds her husband under the body of a man clad entirely in white.  The man in white later appears at various spots throughout the wreckage leading Rosine to dub him Spectropheles.  This ghastly figure will continue to haunt her throughout the novel appearing and disappearing at the most unexpected places.

Unlike the man in white, Stephen has survived but has also sustained terrible injuries and must be rushed to a hospital for immediate surgery. He is operated on by Professor Cerral, a celebrity surgeon specializing in neurology and transplants.  Stephen receives two hand transplants and his torturous recovery and attempt to regain his musical skills are the basis of the plot. Those who know the many movie versions know the secret of those hands and I'll not reveal it here. A fairly overused horror movie trope by now this gimmick of the hands seems to be an original idea of Renard's and he may be the first writer to use it in sensationalized genre fiction. The truth of Stephen's new hands is not revealed until the second half of the novel long after a variety of outrageous events occur ranging from ghostly manifestations, "externalized nightmares", an impossible jewel theft and the equally impossible return of the jewels to a safe in a locked rom, necromancy via a painted portrait as well as a seance complete with table tapping.

Original French edition 1920
The first half of the novel is told through Rosine's viewpoint. Though the novel is named for Stephen Orlac he is almost a minor character in this entire section. Everything we see is through Rosine's eyes and we read only of her perceptions. She is distraught that her husband is haunted by a grueling and painful recovery yet she is also terrorized by Spectropheles who she feels is responsible for a series of break-ins and crimes in their home. When the violence leads to murder the police are called in and the novel takes a sharp turn into the land of French detective novels.

It is here that the influences of French pulp writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, creators of master criminal Fantomas, can clearly be seen. The first half of the novel subtitled "The Portents" has faint whiffs of the popular Fantomas serials so popular only five years prior to the publication of Renard's book.  With its constant reiteration and recap of previous action and incidents the story bears obvious structural similarities to a serial and most likely did appear as one in a French newspaper or magazine. Central plot motifs like the ghost of a murderer being responsible for two deaths and the bizarre idea of a rubber glove bearing fingerprints of another person are two ideas that appear prominently in the third Fantomas serial published in book format in English as The Messengers of Evil (1911).  Renard must have been familiar with that serial. He even includes a mythical gang supposedly behind all the criminal activity. His dangerous group, La Bande Infra-Rouge (The Infra Red Gang), is pure French pulp fiction. Apaches and murderous gypsies roamed the pages of French crime stories as much as Italian thugs and Irish gangs would appear in US pulp magazines. When Inspector Cointre, the egotistical policeman who seems entirely fashioned after Eugene Valmont, begins to fasten onto the idea of faked fingerprints all hope of the supernatural has pretty much been thrown out the window.  Cointre has some of the best dialogue in the novel, too. After ripping apart a sofa and finding puppets and props that were used by the fake medium he expounds: "When dealing with mediums, never get you furniture re-covered, or at least keep an eye on your upholsterer."  

At this point it is almost certain that the crimes, especially the murders, will appear to be the work of human hands and not spectral ones. Renard does what the French do so well in the earliest forms of detective fiction. He adds twist after twist. Stephen meets with the murderer who confesses his crimes. Then Renard dares to reveal that this being is in fact a walking dead man!  But Renard is not finished with his twists until the final paragraphs when Cointre reveals the final solution to all the mysteries with an unexpected announcement.

Second English translation, the better one!
(Souvenir Press/Nightowl Books, 1980)
The Hands of Orlac is one of the finest examples of French sensationalist fiction that one can find.  The English translation by Iain White (Nightowl Books/Souvenir Press, 1980) is the second and better version for (unlike the expurgated previous English translation of 1929) it retains the full lurid details, the relentless melodrama heightened with lightning strikes of exclamation marks on nearly every page, and the nearly hysterical voice of Rosine Renard describing in grisly and horrible detail the living nightmare she is experiencing in her home. Dream imagery floods the novel. Omens are inevitable, practically inescapable. Rosine's dreams are prophetic; much of what she sees while asleep later comes true. The words "portent" and "phantasm" occur with such frequency that one often expects for the ghosts to waft off the pages.

The most surprising element in the novel not seen in any adaptation I've watched is that Stephen's father, Edouard Orlac has become obsessed with spiritism. He and his friend Monsieur de Crochans have been dabbling in communicating with the dead.  Though they are suspected of collaborating with fraudulent mediums and police are investigating their activities. In the climax of the first section one of the necromancy sequences seems to be genuine with a shocking surprise for Stephen when he spells out the name of the spirit they have contacted. And yet for all Renard's fascination with the macabre, the abundance of weird and paranormal activity, he is compelled to rationalize everything that occurred in the first half when he relates the second half entitled "The Crimes."

In the last chapters Rosine and Stephen face the inevitable and horrible truth, something the reader has most likely guessed at even if he has never seen nor heard of the several movie Orlacs. But a French detective novel has never been French without the ultimate surprise saved for nearly the final paragraph. When that gasper comes in The Hand of Orlac it is both satisfying for the reader and a godsend for Stephen and Rosine.

Friday, October 26, 2018

FFB: Thirteen Stannergate - G. M. Wilson

THE STORY:  Someone asks Kate Wheeler for directions to 13 Stannergate and though Kate has never been in this town before she somehow knows exactly where the house is and what it will look like. She can even describe the way house looked decades ago, long before she was born -- from the ivy on the outer walls to the wallpaper in the previously locked and shuttered attic. It's that attic that Kate is drawn to, it's been renovated and waiting for a new lodger. She is compelled to rent the room for her new home. But Kate seems to remember something about the window that she dare not go near, let alone touch. And who was Miss Joanna she seems to think was in the room? Is Kate the reincarnation of a former occupant of the room -- a maidservant from the 19th century who committed suicide by throwing herself out the window?

THE CHARACTERS: Thirteen Stannergate (1958) is the third book in a series of supernaturally tinged detective novels featuring G.M. Wilson's pair of policemen -- John Crawford (a prototype of Fox Mulder) and Inspector Lovick (the skeptical Dana Scully of the duo) -- who have an uncanny knack of uncovering weird crimes with seemingly paranormal events surrounding them. "More spooks!" Lovick scoffs yet again. Not at all what he needs ever since he dealt with a haunted mansion and a cursed fireplace poker that killed without any human agency (Bury That Poker, 1957). Lovick is not at all convinced that Kate has some psychic connection with the past occupants of the house and is sure she has seen photographs of the place or visited it before despite all her protestations to the contrary. When Kate has a near fatal accident falling out the same window in the attic she dare not go near. A mere fall or was she pushed? Richard Clare, who bears a striking resemblance to his ancestor Charles, was in the room with Kate when she fell. Witnesses claim he pushed her while he says he was trying to pull her away from the window. The story enters the realm of the eerie when we slowly learn the story of Charles, the maid Alice, and Miss Joanna and the love triangle that led to Alice's death. Charles apparently was responsible. Kate is not only convinced she is the reincarnation of Alice but that Richard is the new form of Charles and that they are doomed to repeat the past.

The house at Stannergate is packed to the roof with oddballs and suspicious types. There's Mr. Geddes the self professed "pedigree hunter" whose obsession with genealogical leads to his uncovering the complicated past of the Clare clan. Ancient Mrs. Clare, the invalid owner of the house has developed a maternal liking to Kate and may be changing her will in Kate's favor, but is wary of the girl's eerie powers and knowledge of the past.  Lee and Lucille Burney are a caustic married couple. He's a portrait painter and she's a direct descendant of the Clare family with an interest in keeping the house in her name. Kindly Miss Doveland is a spinsterish ex-schoolteacher who becomes Kate's guardian and confidante in her time of trouble. Lil Webster is the manager of the house who along with the usual cadre of gossipy servants provide all sorts of juicy tales about the boarders at 13 Stannergate. One of these people is a would be murderer who is determined to end Kate's life. Greed, jealousy or revenge - which of these is the murderer's motive? Will the police uncover the killer and prevent a second and fatal attempt on Kate's life?

INNOVATIONS: Wilson is masterful at creating tension and developing a creepy atmosphere in her detective novels. This has a very Gothic feel in the true sense of the word, absent of any HIBK trappings that could ruin the tone. Kate is only 19 years old but never comes across vapid like most of the ninny heroines one finds in neo-Gothic suspense novels. John Crawford is aware that Kate is unusual, that she may indeed have a sensitivity to the house's history, an extraordinary way of picking up cues from the past if not possessing an actual paranormal ability. He says anyone would be stupid not to admit that aspect of Kate's fragile mindset and her ability to drift in and out of the past and present so easily. Some of the characters, however, exploit this fact by managing to slyly manipulate the truth in order to make it appear that Kate is mentally ill. Lucille Burney, in particular, comes across as the most sinister of the boarders. For many chapters Wilson builds up a good case of Lucile being the guilty party. But it could never be that obvious ...or could it?

Unlike her previous two books (Bury the Hatchet and I Was Murdered) the element of supernatural in Thirteen Stannergate is not overt. The ambiguity surrounding Kate's apparently psychic powers and knowledge of events from the long past are always open to rational explanation. Until, that is, two uncanny events happen unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, Wilson has a tendency to have her detectives talk about the conventions of mystery novels in her books. I wish she didn't have Lovick say one sentence in this novel. Had he not uttered those words I would never have suspected one character. Because of that one stupid line the ending is fairly ruined. It's an act of self-sabotage that Wilson was probably unaware of. Or maybe she thought she was being clever with a double bluff. It didn't work with me, if that was her intent.

QUOTES:  "...one never knows what may be of use till one has uncovered it. That's one of the fascinations of [genealogical] research, the most enthralling by-ways to be explored at every turn with who can tell what treasure lying at the end of them."

Lucille Burney was a dangerous woman. Jealousy and spite lay very near that over-painted, over-powdered surface...

If Alice Dobson had committed suicide, then the impulse, the "badness" remaining in this room, had been directed towards self-destruction, and it was more than possible that Kate had been driven to attempt death in the same way. But if Alice had been murdered--

Murder waiting here in the hours of darkness... Murder perhaps not by a human hand, not even by a dead hand, but by an influence so powerful that it had created the physical sensations as well as the emotions of that [previous] tragedy. Once the borderline of normality was crossed, anything was possible.

EASY TO FIND? Sometimes I feel I should just skip this section. That's right. Another extremely scarce book. Apparently I bought one of only two copies available in the past two years. That second copy -- the one with the DJ shown above-- is now gone. Someone shelled out a lot of cash for that book, if I recall the listing properly. So sadly there are zero copies for sale from the usual online bookselling sites as of this writing. I suggest hitting up Worldcat.org and checking out library holdings.  Most of Wilson's books are not only difficult to find in used bookstores they seem to have vanished off the face of the Earth. I'd like to see all of them reprinted and would like to get a word out to Dean Street Press. Are you reading this, DSP?