Friday, June 8, 2018

FFB: And to My Beloved Husband - Philip Loraine

THE STORY: Not all ugly ducklings will transform into swans. But despite her plain looks and less than warm personality Beatrice Templer manages to win the hand, if not the heart, of her handsome prince. Aspiring novelist Michael Kinman, stunningly gorgeous, described as a "beautiful angel" by too many women, learns of Beatrice's recently inherited millions from a previous marriage of convenience and takes advantage of her besotted attraction to him. Soon they are married, living a life that not too many would describe as happily ever after. Michael has his mistresses and Beatrice has a diary into which she pours out her secret longing. Then one summer evening Beatrice drops dead at during a cocktail party with friends. Her last words are "Mikey, oh, Mikey..." as she looks right into his eyes with that usual cold blank stare. An autopsy reveals she died of an overdose of her combination anxiety reducer and sleeping pill. Could a woman so obviously in love with her beautiful younger husband have killed herself? Inspector Keen begins his investigation doubting that premise and is determined to uncover the dirty truth behind Beatrice's unexpected death.

THE CHARACTERS: And to My Beloved Husband (1950) is an early novel by a writer who would go on to a prolific and rewarding career as a screenwriter. This sophomore effort already shows his talent for rich characterization and adroit, well-delineated voices in his often acerbic dialogue. The novel opens with a scene between too supporting characters -- friend of the Kinman family Humphrey Orton and the lawyer Alexander Perowne. Orton is sort of a clone of Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins' odious villain. Like Fosco his repellent physique is offset by his wit and charm. He describes himself as both a procurer of and chaperone for Michael's mistresses. We learn almost all we need to know about Michael and Beatrice in this opening chapter, the most telling tidbit being that Orton will be escorting Michael's most recent paramour Helen Langton (the very antithesis of Beatrice) to the weekend party.

When the story moves into the Kinman home we find a divisive household, some utterly devoted to Michael and others duty bound to Beatrice. Constance Snagge is Beatrice's secretary companion, a mousy spinster in her mature years as besotted with her employer as Beatrice is in love with Michael. Michael too has his share of idol worship in the person of Beatrice's stepson Adrian Templer, a handsome painter with an erratic personality given to bursts of anger and resentment if he learns that anyone is talking ill of Michael or treating him poorly. These two also give Inspector Keen a lot of inside information about their adored figures that no other character is privy to.

Detective Inspector Keen is aptly named, as sharp as a knife with an personality edge just as cutting. Unlike many of the policemen who turn up in novels where a household is divided into two camps of slavish devotion and bitter jealousy Keen is not created as a peacekeeper. In fact, he's one of the more devious characters in the cast. More manipulative than Beatrice herself he exploits his role as a policeman during his brutal interrogations with casual insults, personal attacks, and caustic remarks intended to wound egos and weaken the suspect's carefully cultivated facades. He's as relentless as he is indifferent. All that matters to him is that he find a killer. For he is certain in this household of impassioned remarks and fervent emotions that someone has murdered Beatrice.

INNOVATIONS: The novel has an artful structure that alternates between the present and the past. Just after Beatrice's death takes place the following chapter gives us a detailed history of her past from her career in nursing to her caring for her future husband, many years her senior, ultimately leading up to a Mediterranean vacation where she meets Michael. The omniscient narrative voice allows us to know Beatrice is a detached way well suited to her enigmatic personality. Loraine adopts a cheeky tone often tinged with patronizing judgments and snide wit wholly suited to a novel where the characters are mostly putting on fronts or hiding behind an officious veneer created to protect fragile emotions.

Nearly every character is treated to exhaustive backstories highlighted by neat personal touches and unusual details. Loraine's omniscient narrator gets deep inside each character and the writing reflects how we are meant to think about each person in his choice of vocabulary which is brutal in its honesty, just falling short of what can become, in less talented hands, the voice of a godlike observer passing judgment on fallible and weak people.

THE AUTHOR: In the author bios on the dust jackets of "Philip Loraine's" early books it was clear the writer was not interested in revealing his real name or letting anyone know much about his life. There have never been any photos on his books and his name was not revealed until much later in his career. Robin Estridge, in fact, had a more successful career in the movies as both a screenwriter of original work and adapter of other writer's novels. His most well known book is perhaps the novel The Day of the Arrow (1964) which he adapted for the screen and became the weird neo-Gothic thriller The Eye of the Devil. Most of his novels were a mix of suspense thrillers and espionage adventures. And to My Beloved Husband is one of his few crime novels that could be classified as a traditional mystery.

Estridge had two other novels adapted for the screen by other writers: The Break in the Circle and Nightmare in Dublin. For his own work in screenwriting he received a BAFTA award for The Young Lovers (aka Chance Meeting, 1954) co-written with playwright and novelist George Tabori and five years later was nominated for a BAFTA for his script North West Frontier, a wartime adventure. His more than fifteen other scripts include Checkpoint, a crime drama (1956); Beware of Children, a comedy (1960); and The Boy Cried Murder (1966), a remake of The Window based on a Cornell Woolrich story. He died in 2002 at his home in Oregon.

EASY TO FIND? Though born in England Estridge eventually settled in the USA and most of his books were only published here. Many of his early Philip Loraine books are easier to find in US editions on this side of the Atlantic. And to My Beloved Husband was published in three different editions available from American publishers only. The used book market has a good number of copies in all three editions, one hardcover and two paperbacks, all of them shown in the post.  Happy hunting!

Friday, June 1, 2018

FFB: The Weird World of Wes Beattie - John Norman Harris

THE STORY: Wes Beattie, chronic liar and hapless young banker, is on trial in Toronto for a capital crime. No one seems to believe his fervent and outrageous tale of a conspiracy to frame him. He claims total innocence and is doing his best to tell the truth about a man and woman who have not only framed him for the theft of a handbag but the murder of his uncle. So bizarre is his story that a psychiatrist has turned him into a unique case history and hits the lecture circuit presenting Wes and his grandiose delusions and pathological lying as a treasure trove of psychosis. However, Sidney Grant a lawyer who attends one of those lectures hears something in Dr. Heber's talk that bothers him. Intrigued and fascinated by a kernel of truth in what appears to be nothing but fanciful possible paranoid ramblings, Sidney starts to look into The Weird World of Wes Beattie (1963) intent on proving Wes' story of conspiracy to be truth and to uncover the motive for the frame-up. What he finds is a preposterous labyrinth of interconnected coincidences and random bizarreness that proves more and more that Wes is indeed telling the truth. And when the full story is revealed hardly anyone can believe it including Sidney.

THE CHARACTERS: Though the title seems to indicate that this is Wes' story, the real protagonist is our hero lawyer/sleuth Sidney Grant and his small band of cohorts in truth-seeking. Sidney is dubbed "the Gargoyle" for his menacing and imposing attitude described by his colleagues "like some evil figure leering down from a Gothic cathedral" and "frowning down on his guests like some Mephistophelian judge. Really though Sidney is an attractive and likable young man "called to the bar only a few months before" who respects the law and abhors the abuse and incompetence of his lessers, sometimes even his betters. Sharp as a tack and more than clever Sidney manages to coax his friends and colleagues, along with the daffy June, Wes' sister, as a junior league of con artists and co-detectives as he manages to trick a motel voyeur into revealing the truth about what happened when Wes supposedly stole the woman's handbag from her parked car in the motel lot. This scene is a highlight in a comic novel that satirizes everything from Canadian law to Canadian banks, from the 60s phenomenon of wife swapping and drunken swinger parties to hockey and ice fishing.

June Beattie is one of the best characters of the books. She's the antithesis of her uptight and haughty wealthy family members, entirely devoted to her brother for whom she feels ample amount of sisterly love. Moreso than anyone she understands why Wes has retreated into his fanciful world and why he cannot help but embellish the truth with his overly active imagination. In some respects this satirical mystery novel is a retelling of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" taken to utterly absurd extremes. You can't help but join in June's caring for her brother when she relates in her amusing narrative voice just why Wes is the way he is.

There are also some fantastically rendered minor characters who come into the story for such brief moments but leave long lasting impressions. Sidney recruits a "second story" man who he had previously helped acquit of burglary charge due to lack of physical evidence. This thief along with the reliable June travels with Sidney to the Ontario backwoods where he assists Sidney in breaking into a cabin in a remote forest to find incriminating evidence that will help prove the guilt of one of the conspirators. What they find in the cabin only further complicates the already mind-boggling plot.

INNOVATIONS: The modern reprint of The Weird World of Wes Beattie touts the novel as "the first truly Canadian mystery". This is a gross exaggeration that publishers like to plaster on their books to help sales, but after completing the novel I can see why the original writer of that phrase felt it necessary to label the book as such. It certainly is filled with every Canadian cultural tidbit that you can think of -- hockey, ice fishing, officious banking to name only a few. Harris works very hard to tie the book to his native Toronto and its environs and the book really feels like it could not have taken place anywhere other than Canada. But as far as the first Canadian mystery that is far from the truth. The prolific writers Grant Allen and Frank Packard were publishing well before Harris was born and Douglas Sanderson (aka "Martin Brett") was writing thoroughly Canadian private eye novels set in Montreal a full decade before Harris' novel was published.

Notably the entire structure of the book recalls the intricately plotted and coincidence-laden novels of Harry Stephen Keeler who practically invented the "webwork" crime novel. The Weird World of Wes Beattie is one of the finest examples of this kind of maze-like storytelling where everyone and everything is tied to a seemingly simple crime like the theft of a handbag. The conspiracy to frame poor Wes Beattie is an ingenious and awe-inspiring work of finely tuned plotting and a brilliant use of apparently innocuous events -- the way an old school chum is snubbed in a mechanic's garage, for example -- that all fall into place like a skilled magician shuffling a pack of cards. As in real life it's the oddities the characters tend to remember and these odd incidents, no matter how trifling or insignificant, have great importance and are compounded tenfold within Harris' truly awesome plot.

The climax takes place in a Canadian courtroom and Sidney's expert cross examination of one of the key witnesses is on par with -- perhaps even surpasses -- the legal fireworks and melodramatic courtroom pronouncements of Perry Mason at his ruthless best. So astounding is the preponderance of incredible evidence that Sidney in essence gets a confession from the witness stand without the testifier actually verbally admitting his guilt. A real coup in crime writing, I'd say.

John Norman Harris (age 23)
in his RAF uniform, 1938
THE AUTHOR: John Norman Harris (1915-1964) was a former RAF pilot with an astonishing wartime life that included being shot down in Germany, taken as prisoner of war, and planning "one of the greatest prison breaks of all time" which he used to form his award-winning short story "Mail" (Maclean's, 1950). He worked in public relations for Bell Canada as well as advertising for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, two careers which obviously provided him with ample fodder to lampoon in his first novel. In addition to the two comic crime novels featuring lawyer Sidney Grant, Harris wrote about military life and the Canadian air force in Knights of the Air: Canadian Aces of World War I (Macmillan, 1958).

EASY TO FIND? Those interested in a first edition may not be too lucky. I found my US edition with the rare DJ a few months ago on eBay for a pittance and it was in very good condition. But a search of used book markets show very few US or UK hardcover editions from the 1960s when it was originally published. There are numerous paperback reprints (Corgi in the UK, Popular Library in the US) offered at very affordable prices. But the best news is saved for last. Happily, ...Wes Beattie was reprinted by Felony & Mayhem several years ago. (Such good news for a change, eh?) Harris' last novel published after his death -- Hair of the Dog (1989), a sequel of sorts featuring Sidney and his new bride June -- was also reprinted by Felony & Mayhem this year and with it came a new edition of The Weird World of Wes Beattie. Both books are available in either paperback or digital format. If you prefer eBooks you need to buy it directly from Felony & Mayhem. Click here and you'll be taken to the page for the book with Kindle already selected for you. They also sell the book in EPub format. Use the pull down menu to find the other digital version.

Friday, May 25, 2018

FFB: Stranger on the Highway - H. R. Hays

THE STORY: Insurance investigator Kennedy needs to follow up on an anonymous letter hinting at foul play in the death of recently departed Eliza Bates. Unexpectedly his car breaks down and he is stranded in the podunk Indiana town of Stubblestone while he awaits the part to be delivered from Alexandria, fifty miles away. Resigned to an unplanned overnight stay he manages to coax a room out of local Jane Pearson and while he reluctantly settles in over the next day and a half he listens to stories and anecdotes about Eliza. It becomes clear that she was not well liked and that someone may have murdered her. He orders an exhumation and autopsy. The surprising findings in turn unearth a nest of secrets and reveal a calculated killer with a very strange motive.

THE CHARACTERS: Kennedy makes for an interesting fish out of water, accidental detective. He's only trying to do his job, but he never expects to become police consultant and a neophyte forensic pathologist. But he finds himself needling and cajoling the lackadaisical Sheriff Tibetty interested only in preserving his reputation as a peacekeeper and intent on winning the next election by not pursuing a possible capital crime among his citizens. Later in the book Kennedy finds one of his only allies in Dr. Nelson, an eccentric physician who acts as the town's coroner. Nelson's fascinating speech patterns are peppered with cryptic wisdom and Confucian epigrams. Kennedy is meant to be one of the few voices of reason in Stranger on a Highway (1943). Surrounded by the motley crew of outspoken, mercurial inhabitants of Stubblestone the novel reads like a WW2 era trip into a madcap middle America Wonderland. The townfolk would be right at home with the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the rest of Carroll's iconic characters.

Take for example the pre-adolescent wild child Anastasia Jones. Foul mouthed, insolent, and a little violent, "Stacy" brags about what she knows and how she won't tell a soul. When ignored she offers provocative secrets that she can't keep to herself like how she just killed a kitten that day just to see how it felt. She's a little monster who would put to shame the murderous acts of Rhoda Penmark. But such characters should never be underestimated nor wholly ignored. Anastasia will also be instrumental as an eyewitness to an incident that will prove to be the murderer's undoing.

Then there is the garrulous, overweight Molly Huckle whose manner of talking is a mixture of refreshing frankness and embarrassing revelation. She has no filter and isn't ashamed to speak her mind on everyone and anything that pops into her head. At first she seems like a grotesque caricature of small mindedness. As the story progresses Molly will grow in stature as a figure of resolute vindication for all the wrongs perpetrated over the past months in Stubblestone. She has a marvelous scene at the climax of the book where her outspoken manner allows her a grandiose moment as Nemesis for the murderer's victims.

Rounding out the cast are the central figures of the novel in the Pearson household where Kennedy has been holed up. Jane Pearson, a widow raising her only daughter, is a typical hardworking stubborn opportunist making the most of the imposition of becoming a hostess of a temporary boarding house. Her daughter Rose longs to go on a date even if the only person currently interested in her is Luther, a dull and unattractive country bumpkin. So desperate is her longing that she will take any attention paid her. Rose has been trapped in her home and the town, driven into a state of fretful anxiety and comes across as a timid rabbit for most of the book. Her mother rules the house with an iron will and has passed on her forlorn hope of ever leaving Stubblestone. Rose hopes that maybe Kennedy will be the catalyst for change not only in the town but in her home allowing her escape, possible her long overdue romance. And poor Henry Budd, a half-wit handyman who really does nothing at all other than live with the Pearson's is an enigma to Kennedy. He is tolerated by Mrs. Pearson, treated like a teenage boy though he is approaching his fifth decade. Henry's strange chattering seemingly meaningless talk provides Kennedy with a few clues about what might have happened to Eliza Bates. And Henry will prove to have a few secrets of his own among the women in town.

ATMOSPHERE: Though the tentative investigation of a suspicious death provides a neat framework for a well done mystery plot the novel is mostly concerned with the dissection of rural life and the consequences of poverty. As each character is introduced and the town is revealed in numbing routine of ordinary folk living unexciting lives Stubblestone is seen as a representation of all that is wrong with rural America. The maliciousness of the Jones family, in particular, with the nearly insane Anastasia as its prime example can be seen as a direct result of a family so used to having nothing and never being offered opportunities for change that they have grown indifferent to each other. The Jones children are constantly crying, the mother does nothing but slap them and strike them out of exhaustion and uselessness. Her cries of "Shut up" are like prayers for peace. It never comes of course, the noise and anger and frustration only grow to a fever pitch. Anastasia has seen too much, resigned herself to pessimism at only 9 years old. Yet even in her nasty insinuations, her parody of a flirtatious minx, she lapses into little girl behaviors like singing nonsense songs and skipping around the yard.

Poverty, Hays tells us, reduces us to outrage or madness or worse. Whether we can cope or not will decide who we become. But how can one cope and how to react when everyone seems to be so trapped and isolated? Human interaction is essential, but in Stubblestone everyone seems to have turned on each other.
H . R. Hays as photographed
in the New York Public Library
(1944, Life magazine)

In the character of Dr. Nelson Hays finds a way to make several points about the insidious nature of poverty and how indifference festers there. He observes that no one really cares for anyone, that there is no sense of community because everything defeats them and "in turn they defeat each other." He is the most compassionate of the characters as well. Pointing out to Kennedy how Molly is "something riotous in the muck" and truly a good woman despite her "barging around in other people's lives." Also he sides with Henry Budd offering a bit of wisdom so seldom acknowledged by the sane experts of the world: "He's happy. ...Why do we always associate insanity with the threat of violence?"

There is a recurring image throughout the book - one of both sight and sound. There is an express bus that passes through town on the only highway that cuts through Stubblestone. The bus zooms along the road, never stopping, moving on and away to Alexandria and beyond. It's a reminder of how only other people are allowed this kind of travel, an image of escape to other places that ignore Stubblestone, places that don't care that towns like Stubblestone even exist.

INNOVATIONS: Hays (perhaps without really knowing he was doing so) has created one of the finest examples of country noir I have read in the past ten years. This was a remarkable find. Stranger on the Highway was not marketed as a detective or suspense novel when it was released back in the 1940s, but it succeeds as both an entertaining, suspenseful tale of dirty doings in the backwater towns of rural America and as an indictment of the detrimental effects of poverty. The characters reminded me of the people you find in the mystery novels of A. B. Cunningham and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the eerie landscapes recall the Gothic mood of Herman Petersen's settings in his handful of mystery novels. The sense of doom that befalls everyone in the final pages is as inevitable as what occurs in the climaxes of James Cain's novels and the work of all his acolytes.

QUOTES: "Solitary drinking's not good. But who would I drink with? I see too much. And somehow I never make up my mind. The editors don't like what I write. I suppose the design, the form is lacking. There's no love story. No plot. People must have a plot with a happy ending."

Behind him lay Stubblestone, its poverty, its grimness, its raw hates and desires, clinging to its narrow plot of earth like some tenacious insect, nourished on dirt and misery.

He could still see the post office with its weathered sign...all the gray weathering of unpainted boards and the grayness of lives equally eroded, equally stripped of the colors and graces, the privacies and comforts that soften men's communal living.

"Indignation..." the doctor said. "We ought to shout, smash things. We have the power. Why should a man willingly spend his life in an outhouse?"

THE AUTHOR: Hoffman Reynolds Hays (1904-1980) was a poet, playwright, lyricist, translator, social anthropologist, historian of zoology and natural sciences, and an educator. He was educated at Cornell and Columbia University and spent most of his early writing life as a playwright with the politically minded Living Newspaper, an offshoot of the Federal Theater, during the 1930s and early 1940s. His most famous work was Medicine Show (1940), an unusual theater piece more pageant than play, that celebrated the benefits of socialized medicine. After a fairly successful run with Living Newspaper Medicine Show was mounted on Broadway where it ran for only 35 performances. In 1937 Hays collaborated with Kurt Weill on a musical adaptation of his play The Ballad of Davy Crockett, but it was never produced. The songs with music by Weill and lyrics by Hays are almost entirely lost. Some were recorded in 2000 on a small classical German label.

His most noteworthy literary achievements are translations of Bertolt Brecht's plays including Mother Courage and Her Children (notable also for its indictment of the opportunism of business and the ravages of poverty in wartime) and for his pioneer poetry anthology 12 Spanish American Poets (1943), largely responsible for introducing future Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda and others to an English speaking audience.

Primarily a poet and playwright with over twenty television scripts to his name Hays wrote only a handful novels, two of which are crime novels. Lie Down in Darkness, his other tale of murderous intent, will be reviewed here later this year.

EASY TO FIND? There are no modern reprints of Stranger on a Highway that I know of, but some enterprising publisher ought to jump on this one. Those interested in finding a copy need to scour the used book markets both in the real world and the digital one. There are several copies available, but not many. The book was published in the US by Little, Brown & Co. and also in the UK by Robert Hale in 1947. No paperback reprints exist that I could verify.

I found the book to be riveting and truly one of the better examples of country noir with a refreshing modern feel in its poetic prose, sprinkling of raw language and resonant observations. Frankly, this is better than Cain or anything from the 1950s.

Friday, May 18, 2018

FFB: The Cross of Frankenstein - Robert J. Myers

THE STORY: Victor Saville discovers he is the illegitimate son of the notorious Victor Frankenstein. He is approached by Frederick Greene, a visitor from Baltimore, to concoct a chemical formula drawn from the work of Victor's father. By accepting this unusual commission Victor puts into motion a fantastical scheme involving exhumation of the dead and subsequent reanimation for an unimaginable purpose. His adventure will take him to Scotland and then to America where he will confront the horrors of his father's legacy and try to put a stop to Greene's unspeakable plot.

THE CHARACTERS: Victor Saville is a fine replication of Shelley's original Victor Frankenstein. He is perhaps more moral than his father whose scientific experiments he abhors. He already knows of the dangerous and murderous character of the Monster his father created and who has survived these forty years since the original tale of Frankenstein published in 1818. Victor is accompanied in his adventures by Felicia McInnes, his aunt's ward, the daughter of an evangelical minister who died from cholera along with Felicia's mother. She begins as his confidante but soon he is falling in lust love, with her and will do anything to protect her. Felicia is kidnapped and falls into the clutches of a bizarre religious cult led by another evangelical minister, the half sane Reverend Ritter. Victor sets out to rescue her and avenge himself on Greene.

Greene, Ritter and Victor's former valet all turn out to be the rogues and villains of the piece much more than Frankenstein's Creature, or rather Monster (with a capital M) as Myers refers to him throughout the novel. All of them seem to be in thrall to the Monster who though he has also managed to make it to America has a part so small in the plot that he is almost relegated to a cameo. Myers' Monster is like a stand-in for an animated statue of Baal. He is treated as an idol, worshipped and looked to as a conduit for the salvation of dead souls through resurrection. But unbeknownst to the foolish cultists led by Rev. Ritter the Monster is wholly evil, bent only on desturciton and killing.

The bulk of the story takes place in Virginia and its environs with the climax set in a networks of caves where a bizarre religious cult have made their home. They are formed of true believers awaiting the resurrection of their beloved dead relatives. In one of the many labyrinthine caverns Green has set up a laboratory similar to Victor's father's lab. Unlike the sacred resurrection of Jesus Christ which most of the cultists believe will occur with their loved ones Greene has, unknown to the cultists, hacked to pieces and reconstructed in a parody of surgical procedures all of the dead just as Frankenstein did. Greene has hopes of creating an army of what he hopes will be a slave population to work the mines and lumber mills of the American South. But the essential ingredient to making these reanimations possible is the formula that Victor was entrusted to replicate. All depends on the manufacture of this artificial purple blood.

ATMOSPHERE: The story is rife with adventure set pieces from horseback and carriage chases in the mountains to pursuit by canoe on the whitewater rapids near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. At times the book takes on the spirit of a James Fenimore Cooper novel and I expected Natty Bumppo to race out of the forests and come to Victor's aid at any minute. It is these sections where the writing is at its best, the excitement is genuine, and the reader waits with breath held awaiting what will happen next.

Sadly, the climax of the story takes an anachronistic detour into the land of sleazy sex. It was after all written and published in the 1970s when sex scenes seemed to be almost mandatory in popular fiction. When it happens in The Cross of Frankenstein (1975) the story ceases to be firmly rooted in the mid 19th century and reminds us of contemporary times. There is an absurdly graphic description of a blasphemous sexual ritual that ends in an orgiastic romp with the cultists coupling like mad rabbits in the caves. Felicia under the influence of Reverend Ritter's rhapsodic preaching allows herself to be ...how do I put this tastefully?... Oh heck, basically a zombie rape occurs. So it's not only a sex scene tainted by blasphemy with Reverend Ritter quoting Biblical passages, intoning about God's plan and all, but it is also a necrophilia scene. Doubly Gothic, eh? The sequence is just plain ridiculous especially when you note that much of the writing uses ill-chosen metaphors like "as a shank of lamb seeks the skewer" to describe the sexual activity. It's all unintentional hilarity. Maybe hysteria is a better word. The book takes on a decidedly salacious tone with Victor instantly transforming into a horndog obsessed with Felicia's naked body because (of course) she has managed to lose her clothes at this point and never bothers to cover up anything. I'm far from a prude, gang, but this was truly absurd and laughable and completely wrong for the book.

INNOVATIONS: Myers' attention to details in the life of Frankenstein are spot on. He clearly knows the book very well. The whole story begins as Shelley's Frankenstein begins with the introduction of Margaret Saville and talk of her correspondence with Captain Walcott. The entire first chapter in which Victor learns he is not her son, but was adopted and raised by her, soon becomes a miniature summary of Shelley's novel. Victor discovers his true parentage and of his unwanted inheritance, that he is the son of the infamous and immoral Frankenstein who dared to rival God as Creator. From the start, too, Myers has managed to capture the flavor of Shelley's 19th century prose and mostly manages to maintain the proper level of pastiche, until of course those sleazy sex scenes.

I liked especially the metaphor of slavery that pervades the novel setting up the sequel The Slave of Frankenstein (1976) in which Myers will more fully explore his idea of the reanimated dead as servants to mortal men. Frequently Myers has some pointed turns of phrase and sections where he discusses the difference between creating life and merely reanimating a corpse. While not heavy on philosophy or theology the inclusion of these passages gives the novel an extra heft that makes it more that just a potboiler thriller.

QUOTES: "Electricity and the fluid, then, were the essence of life. Not life -- animation. Life as I knew it had a spiritual and moral quality absent in the Monster. The hand of God touched not on this ghastly enterprise."

"Born without sin. Not the original sin, that is true. But I already knew that he was born from refuse, the offal of the charnel house, this soulless creature with no sense of right or wrong, a cleverness that passed for kindness to these simple folk, and cunning that knew no moral ends."

THE AUTHOR: Robert J. Myers had a rich life in Washington federal service and journalism. He began life as an Asian specialist in foreign service and was recruited during World War 2 by the OSS to work on a project to mobilize Koreans in the war against Japan. After the war he joined the CIA and continued assignments in Asia before becoming the station chief in Cambodia and deputy chief of the Far East division in the early 1960s. In 1965 he started a career in journalism. He founded Washingtonian magazine and later became publisher of the New Republic where he remained for more than a decade. In addition to the two novels based on Shelley's Frankenstein Myers also wrote The Tragedie of King Richard, the Second, a political satire and allegory in which Nixon becomes an avatar for the king.

EASY TO FIND? Very good news for this title. Close to 200 copies of The Cross Of Frankenstein are currently for sale in the used book markets on the vast shopping mall we call the internet. You have your choice of every available edition from the 1st US edition with its 19th century woodcut style DJ illustration to the paperback sporting Boris Karloff's iconic face of the Creature. Prices are very affordable based on what I saw, even the hardcovers with DJ are between $10 and $25 each. Happy hunting!

NOTE: The sequel to this first novel, The Slave of Frankenstein, will soon be written up as part on my ongoing "Frankenstein @ 200" series which so far includes posts on Frankenstein in Baghdad, Clay by David Almond and Monster by Dave Zeltserman.



Friday, May 4, 2018

FFB: Alias Basil Willing - Helen McCloy

THE STORY: Dr. Basil Willing encounters a man claiming to be him when he stops in a local cigar shop for some cigarettes. Intrigued he follows the impostor in a taxi. He ends up at a dinner party of the prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Zimmer. At the party Basil learns that one of the guests, Katharine Shaw, knows him and has hired him to do something for her -- or rather she has hired the man pretending to be Dr. Basil Willing. Confusion follows when the fake Basil shows up and both eventually leave the party headed for a restaurant where Basil intends to uncover why the man is pretending to be him. But the impostor suddenly dies, apparently poisoned by codeine, yet not before uttering a cryptic phrase; "And no--bird--sang..." Basil needs to solve several mysteries, including two murders, and find out if he was in fact the intended target of a killer.

THE CHARACTERS: The party guests make up the majority of the cast and of course provide us with a large pool of murder suspects. Basil must help the police interrogate all of the party goers a as well as the host Dr. Zimmer and his sister Greta Mann who lives with him. Over time Willing discovers that most of the guests are also Zimmer's patients and that the dinner parties are held regularly as part of Zimmer's unconventional treatment plan. Zimmer disapproves of typical Freudian psychoanalysis which he says relies on "the passive dream-side of the mind." By observing his patients in a social setting he can study the patient "in his most completely active, conscious state--when he is reacting to the people in his life." But Basil begins to see a strange pattern in the behavior of the guest/patients and is troubled by this odd style of psychiatric treatment.

Typically for McCloy most of the characters come from Manhattan's elite society and the stand-outs in the cast include the amoral Rosamunde Yorke, who was acquainted with Basil prior to his marriage to Gisela; Stephen Lawrence, an aged and ailing poet and his neurotic daughter Perdita; and the warring married couple Hubert and Isolda Canning. The Cannings allow McCloy a chance to skewer post-WW2 American life in this couple grown tired of each other and living in a sterile "modern" apartment done up in the latest trends of personality-less interior decoration while drowning their sorrows and anger in numerous bottles of booze and cocktail glasses. They are a sad couple and the portrait McCloy paints is as ugly a commentary the highbrow high life as you will find in her books.

INNOVATIONS: Perhaps the only reason one should red this book is the motive for the crimes. I was reminded of a forgotten novel by Guy Boothby called The Woman of Death and an equally forgotten short novel by Robert Louis Stevenson as it became clear to me what was going on at Zimmer's home. It's a terrifying notion.

The detection in the novel, however, is also a highlight and recalls some of McCloy's finest work in her early career. Alias Basil Willing (1951) comes almost exactly in her mid-career and is one of her last genuine detective novels before she turned to suspense and psychological thrillers in the 1960s. The clueing is fair play with teasing classic gimmicks like ambiguous initials in a cryptic diary entry, a dying message, and a devilish murder method. This time, however, the clues consist largely of intellectual and literary references that may have some readers crying "Foul!" If you're a fan of Innes, Crispin and other literary-minded detective novelists, then you may enjoy Alias Basil Willing all the more. There are ample references to romantic poetry including Keat's Gothic masterpiece "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and a very obscure Victorian short story collection called Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy (more on that in the "Things I Learned" section below). Kipling and Coleridge are also quoted at length, but it is Keats and a writer named Charles Allston Collins whose work provide the biggest clues to the solution. Students of British literature will truly have a field day with this particular murder mystery of Helen McCloy.

QUOTES: Here are two examples of McCloy's prose. Both are fine examples of character descriptions. The first ends with an unusual metaphor I envy. The second is absurdly arch yet perfectly suited for the pseudo-sophisticate McCloy is describing.

Basil had spent too much time in hospitals not to see at a glance that Stephen Lawrence was a man chronically ill. [...] It wasn't altogether a matter of frial body, sunken cheeks, thinning hair and faded blue eyes. It wasn't even the lightness of this breathing, the slowness of his motions and the gentleness of his manner. It was rather his singularly sweet-tempered smile and his look of detached serenity. He was like paper which has burned away so slowly that the dead ash retains the shape of solidity yet actually is so fragile that it will crumble to dust at the firs touch.

Charlotte fumbled at her jabot and detached a long, slim, Italian lorgnette, silver worked in a repoussée design. Daintily she peered though the lenses at the grubby scrap of paper.

THINGS I LEARNED: Bizarre vocabulary word of this book: fissiparous. The sentence was of no help to me: "When the fissiparous process was completed Basil found himself beside Yorke." The definition is "inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups." Its root is the noun fission. I would have chosen a simpler synonym or just use "break-up" and forget about the adjective. McCloy does like to show off her erudition quite often.

Basil recalls a book called Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy which he claims is the work of Charles Dickens. This is only partly true, as the book is a collection of short stories by a variety of writers. The story he is talking about is really by Charles Allston Collins, a painter and writer, who coincidentally married Dicken's daughter. Originally written as Christmas stories in the magazine All the Year Round during the mid 1860s each tale is related by one of the lodgers in a boarding house run by Mrs. Lirriper, sort of a Canterbury Tales of the Victorian era. The second story in the collection, "A Past Lodger Relates A Wild Story of a Doctor," is the one Basil recalls. The main character and what he does is a direct echo of the action in Alias Basil Willing and leads the psychologist sleuth to the solution of the crimes.

EASY TO FIND? My ritual search of used bookselling sites turned up quite a few copies of this book in a variety of editions. Published both in the UK and US, Alias Basil Willing was reprinted in paperback only in the UK for some reason. But of the about fifteen or so copies I uncovered nearly all of them are priced affordably. For those who like digital books Orion has reissued many of McCloy's mystery novels as eBooks as part of "The Murder Room." Alias Basil Willing is one of those reissued digital books. At one time they offered Alias Basil Willing in a paperback edition, but this imprint stopped printing all paperback editions a few years ago. I found one Murder Room paperback edition being sold online, but no others. Good luck in your search!

Friday, April 27, 2018

FFB: The Evil Wish - Jean Potts

THE STORY: The Knapp sisters are planning to murder their domineering physician father who is hoping to marry his much younger nurse assistant and then disinherit his daughters. Should the doctor's plan come to fruition the two sisters will be forced to leave the only home they have ever known and give up a comfortable life. The very day the murder is to take place, however, Dad and Pam the nurse both perish in a car wreck. The Evil Wish (1962) -- as Jean Potts reminds us in the epigraph that precedes the story -- is most evil to the wisher, some words of wisdom she quotes from the Greek poet Hesiod. Marcia, the elder sister, extends that thought to a troubling, haunting reality when she tells Lucy that their father has tricked them once again. "Cheating us out of what we were primed to do, and so here we are with a leftover murder on our hands." How they deal with this burden of guilt for a crime they never actually committed is told in a unnerving tale of cat and mouse with deceit and betrayal lurking around every corner of their home.

THE CHARACTERS: Marcia and Lucy are compelling portraits of two sisters clearly devoted to one another and yet at odds with each other. They are also described as opposites in both physical attractiveness and psychological make-up. Typically for Potts she describes these women with a huge dollop of irony. Lucy is the radiant beauty of the two but she's also socially awkward, emotionally stunted, and dangerously neurotic. Marcia, on the other hand, is darkly attractive, cynical, outspoken and a bit too protective of her younger sister. Since their youth the two have engaged in a game of eavesdropping that has made them privy to their father's secrets. An architectural anomaly in the basement, situated directly below his doctor's office, has allowed the sisters to listen in on conversations. They have continued to do this into adulthood. Their surreptitious behavior will recur throughout the novel and have dire consequences for both. What they never realize is that other people who live and work in the house have also discovered this ideal place to listen in on conversations while never being seen.

Most interesting about this book is that there does not seem to be a real protagonist the reader can root for while antagonists are plentiful. Lucy and Marcia may be presented as the central characters but neither is truly likeable or sympathetic. In effect they are a duo of anti-heroines similar to the men one finds in a Patricia Highsmith novel. While there may be some elements of pathos about Lucy's fragile mental state one can never truly side with her plight. Marcia comes across as the more wily of the sisters and yet she too will be revealed to be as sinister as the two men the women find themselves at the mercy of over the course of the novel.

Original painting for the ACE G-541 reprint
(Artist uncredited)
The menacing handyman Hansen is as vile a villain as those found in Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Just like an old-fashioned stage melodrama baddie Hansen, an embittered employee who never felt appreciated by the Knapps, is someone you want to throw rotten vegetables at and boo and hiss whenever he enters the stage. In Potts' frequent use of unusual animal imagery Hansen is likened to a slovenly bear "rigged out in men's khaki work pants and shirt" who "shambles" his way through the house grunting and mumbling his resentful complaints.

In contrast to Hansen there is C. Gordon ("Call me Chuck. Everybody else does.") Llewellyn, a portrait photographer, interested in Pam the nurse's personal belongings left behind in her office. Chuck is is first described as a "bouncy, phoney guy, trying to seem younger than he was." He's also interested in leasing out Dr. Knapp's office if he can successfully cajole and manipulate the sisters into meeting his demands. But does he have an ulterior motive? When he finds Pam's diary why does he refuse to allow the sisters to read what's written inside? His sporting manner and affable charm mask a darker core and hidden motives. Chuck's presence sets Lucy on edge and sends her easily triggered morbid imagination into a frenzy of paranoid fantasies. Marcia is leery of Chuck, but she treats him with kid gloves.

Lucy's unfortunate obsession with the disposal of an old gas heater is not easily forgotten by Hansen who was entrusted to get rid of it quickly after the two deaths. She alternates between fretting about what Hansen knows and obsessing about where Chuck has hidden Pam's diary.  Either man might be able to expose the failed plot to do in her father. Growing suspicions of foul play surrounding the car accident lead to a battle of wits between the two men and two women as they attempt to outguess and out maneuver one another. And it won't end well for anyone.

The cast is rounded out by two quirky, gossipy neighbors who rent rooms on the second floor of the house. Each woman is a pet owner and they frequently are seen trotting out with their dogs, one of which is dressed in outfits that match its owner. Mrs. Sully and Mrs. Travers (aka "La Traviata" so dubbed for her large physique and grandiose manner) are clearly objects of ridicule, but also exist oddly as the two voices of reason in this household of fear, paranoia and scheming. Ironically, as grotesque and foolish as they are painted the two neighbors appear to be the only characters who see things clearly yet as loudly as they speak no one will pay them any attention.

INNOVATIONS:  Potts' ingenuity lies in the exploration of evil deeds not carried out and the festering remains of criminality that never come to fruition. To say that the novel is merely about the guilty consciences of these two sisters is to undermine its complexity. Take for example, the scene where Marcia executes a caterpillar by whacking it in two with a trowel:
Absently she scuffed some crumbs of dirt over the caterpillar. One of God's creatures. All right; but so were roses, and you had to make a choice. You had to accept the fact that some of God's creatures were no good. The law of rose-preservation, as basic as the law of self preservation.
The ease with which Marcia so callously and brutally severs the bug in two is mentioned repeatedly after this scene.  Potts' has created that resounding image as a reminder of how that evil wish has corrupted Marcia, how strong that desire to carry out violence is not only much easier for her but almost necessary.

QUOTES: "Yeah, but if Lucy planned it... It must do something to you, to plan a thing like that. You know what I mean? It's like you've crossed a line or something, and you can't ever get back to what you were before."

After finding a photo of Dr. Knapp and Pam: "Who's the guy?" Mr. Llewellyn asked, and she could not speak. She did not have to; she had one of those expressive faces, and that was Mr. Llewellyn's business, noticing faces.

Fear. How strange to live with it, get used to it, even thrive on it. It was like a fever running in her, sharpening her perceptions and quickening her to an abnormal animation. How strange, how different from other fears. [...] Instead of the old abject helplessness, she had a feeling of zest, sometimes even of power.

EASY TO FIND? This one looks good. Published in both the UK and the US The Evil Wish was also reprinted in the US twice in two different paperback editions. My search of the most popular bookselling sites turned up a little under 20 copies of the book in various editions. Of all of these versions the most common copies found are in the Ace Books (G-541) paperback, most of them reasonably priced. Happy hunting!

Friday, April 13, 2018

FFB: Murder En Route - Brian Flynn

THE STORY: It's a foggy and wet night on the bus route from Esting to Raybourne and one passenger insists on sitting on the upper deck even though the bonnet was not installed that night. A little drizzle is nothing to him. No other passengers went up to join him for the remainder of the trip. But when the conductor goes up to check that all passengers have left the bus he finds the lone man still in his seat. Closer examination proves he is dead -- strangled. How was it possible to strangle the man when no one went near him since his ticket was purchased and the only way up and down is by the stairwell that passes right by the conductor's platform?

THE CHARACTERS: Anthony Bathurst is called upon to assist in solving the murder of the man on the bus in Murder En Route (1930), the eighth book in a long series featuring this consulting detective. I've not been too impressed with Bathurst in the two other books I read. One I finished (The Billiard Room Mystery) and found to be run-of-the-mill and the other (The Ladder of Death) was so dull and stagnant that I closed the book and never finished. Clearly I picked two of his lesser efforts. Murder En Route opens with a baffling murder in the very first chapter. As the crime is investigated the story gets more and more puzzling and will intersect with a secondary story about a missing heir to a vast fortune.

This time Bathurst is not the vain fop I so disliked in the other books. He is engaging and likeable, with a keen eye for minutiae and a skill in getting to people to open up. Granted he still exhibits an egocentric manner in his omniscient detective ways but the usual accompanying arrogance seen in so many similar fictional detectives is absent here. Rather Bathurst is eager to enlist as many people as he can to help him. He has a regular battalion of aides in this outing including our sometime narrator Rector Parry-Probyn, the rector's son Michael often found behind the wheel of Bathurst's Crossley as they travel to and from the multiple locations, and a father and son lawyer team. Of course the police are on the case as well but oddly Bathurst manages to make it seem as if they are working for him rather than vice versa.

We learn early on that Bathurst, in addition to his renown as a police consultant, is quite a Renaissance man with an encyclopedic knowledge on various arcane topics. He tells Rector Parry-Probyn that he is a musician (we never learn what instrument he plays, however) and proceeds to compliment him on the service he attended and in the process showing off his knowledge of church music. The conversation quickly moves from topic to topic. I'll let the rector explain how Bathurst astonished him:
We began to talk and we went on talking. In the space of an all-too-short hour we touched on football (both codes), rowing, church architecture, ancient monoliths, the susceptibility of the turquoise to polish, sclerosis of the posterior columns and degenerative arterial change, the Black Mass and the Medea of Euripedes.
Anthony Bathurst could give Philo Vance a run for his money in a contest of esoterica and arcane erudition! We also later discover that Bathurst has a wide knowledge of the life of bivalves and the laws pertaining to their collection which proves to be very helpful in connecting the dots to the very involved and baroquely performed murder scheme.

Flynn has a keen ear for local patois and likes to recreate dialects and regionalisms among the minor characters. One of the more memorable scenes takes place in the Quarryman Inn where Bathurst tracks down a codger named Old Orlando who has quite a few stories to tell about the murder victim while a couple of other bar patrons volunteer information about one of Bathurst's cohorts in crime solving.

Really there's never a dull moment in this story with its large cast of well defined characters, some of whom sadly run to stereotypes or are barely fleshed out like Eileen Trevor, one of only two women characters in the novel. Yet none of the story ever feels stale or old hat thanks largely to the lively portrayal of Bathurst in the lead role and the deftly plotted, well thought out, but entirely far-fetched mystery that leads to a melodramatic, thrillingly cinematic climax near an abandoned coal mine.

INNOVATIONS: Flynn does a very odd thing in this book. He starts off in third person and then introduces a first person narration in a fragmented manuscript written by the Rector. And yet in much of the first person narration the clergyman was never present for what is described. We get typically lame sentences like "Of course Michael later informed me of what happened and I have done my best to recreate the conversations to the best of my ability." But three entire chapters revert to the third person when the plot veers into the story of Eileen Trevor, her missing father, and the inheritance he is due. Why not just tell those portions of the story where the Rector is absent in the third person as well? It's just strange to me and mildly annoying as a sign of sloppy method of mixing points of view. My guess is that Flynn so enjoyed the bizarre Edwardian style syntax that comes out of the pen of Rector Parry-Probyn that he could not help himself but give over to that eccentric voice as often as he could get away with it.

The most creative aspects of this detective novel are in its construction of the impossible crime, the dizzying number of impersonations, and the amazing abundance of well placed "fair play" clues. Among the tantalizing evidence Bathurst and the police discover are a mysterious white-gray streak on the back of victim's coat and the powerfully fishy smell that permeates all his clothing; a racing program with some odd numbers in columns marked S, T, D, M; a photograph of two men one of whom is holding a sign that reads "Lifting of the Ban;" the strange reference to a street by its decade's old defunct name rather than its current name; and a pair of glasses with a prescription stronger in the left lens than the right. That's just a brief sample of the avalanche of clues and baffling aspects associated with the murder. There's enough here to keep even the most demanding detective novel reader very much on his toes.

If there is anything to gripe about it is Bathurst's unfortunate predilection in not being forthright with all he is thinking or all he has uncovered. He plays guessing games with the Rector at one point and praises him when he's right, but never fills in the missing pieces when the rector is stumped. This is because Flynn is one of those mystery writers who likes to deliver the full solution all at once in a grandiose unveiling in the final chapter. Some of the info would've been better revealed earlier to make the ending less drawn out and cumbersome.

THINGS I LEARNED: Whether it is Flynn himself or the character of the Rector who allowed Flynn to indulge in numerous allusions, Murder En Route is rife with obscure historical and literary references. Some of these allusions were linked by a single person who I think is a primary influence on Flynn's writing.

When someone remarks that no man can be in two places at once the Rector counters with: "Barring, of course, that he's a bird. I hope that in the circumstance Sir Boyle Roche will pardon the flagrant plagiarism." Roche was an 18th century Irish politician known for his absurd mixed metaphors and poor use of figurative language in his speeches and letters. The Rector's comment directly references Roche's most oft quoted quip: "Mr. Speaker, it is impossible I could have been in two places at once, unless I were a bird." Click here for a selection of Roche's other ill phrased metaphors.

Eileen Trevor is a schoolteacher and plays on the field hockey team at Freyne House where she teaches. Her masterful athletic skill is commented on by a sports writer: "That girl...was more like S. H. Shoveller than any woman centre I have ever seen." Shoveller was the star player on England's Gold medal winning field hockey team in the 1908 Olympics. [Men's field hockey was an Olympic event one hundred ten years ago? Waddyah know.]

On page 125 Flynn goes into rapturous detail about his setting of Glebeshire, "universally acknowledged to be the most beautiful county in England." The entire page is filled with the gorgeous weather, the climate that allows tropical plants and fruits to flourish, and the languorous life of a person blessed enough to have settled there. Except that it doesn't exist. It is the creation of novelist Hugh Walpole who set most of his books in that fictional county. Pretty damn ballsy to steal someone else's fictional setting and plop down your own characters there.

Flynn's Great Influence?
About ten pages further into the mystery story (page 138 to be precise) Rector Parry-Probyn makes a passing reference to Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill and what happened at a breakfast they shared. They don't exist either. They are the protagonists in a novel called Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1911) by... wait for it... Hugh Walpole.

Finally on page 158 Bathurst quotes another English writer when he says "When you want a good wife, M. De Marsac." referring to the title character in A Gentleman of France (1895) by Stanley Weyman. Weyman has been described as a writer of "the finest English historical romances since Scott." Guess who said that about Weyman? Hugh Walpole! Is that too much of a coincidence? I think not. Flynn is mad about Walpole. I'm sure his other books are loaded with Walpole references. His elliptical syntax and repetitive prose is very much reminiscent of some of Walpole's own ornate style of writing.

EASY TO FIND? This one is a strike out, gang. I seem to have bought the only copy available in years. Currently there are no copies available from any online bookselling sites. You may find one at Biblio.com offered by Arroyo Seco but it's gone from their stock. That's the one I bought using their listings on abebooks.com. Now watch one pop up on eBay in a couple of weeks. It's been known to happen after I post about a scarce book. Being one of Flynn's earliest mystery novels Murder En Route was published in both UK and US editions. But obviously both are as rare as a wooden nickel these days. However, if you are lucky enough to stumble across a copy I'd snap it up in an instant. I enjoyed it immensely and it proves that the obscure writers can dish up an engrossing, ingenious and thrilling detective story to match any of the greats of the Golden Age.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

NEW STUFF: A Different Kind of Evil - Andrew Wilson

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Washington Square Press
(Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1501145094
336 pp. $16 (paperback)
Publication date: March 13, 2018

Agatha Christie is back in a sequel to the first book by Andrew Wilson (A Talent for Murder, 2017) which presented an alternative story to the reason for her amnesia episode back in the 1920s. A Different Kind of Evil takes place only two months after that headline making event that brought Christie a bit of international notoriety and has repercussions in her latest adventure in crime solving. Also based on her vacation in the Grand Canary Islands taken in the February following the Harrowgate Incident this second novel allows her to become a legitimate sleuth and not a would-be murderer. Her intended escape to Paradise for rest and relaxation turns into a detour into a den of vice and haven for hellish violence. Fans of Christie's mystery novels who might have been disappointed with the lack of detective novel features in the previous book will have nothing to complain about in this book. There are plenty of dead bodies, lots of clues in a wonderful homage to traditional detective novel storytelling, all culminating in a mind-blowing finale that dares to thumb its nose at those traditions while at the same time delivering a satisfying and thrilling ending to the multiple mysteries.

I hesitate to talk about the plot at all. And, in fact, I'm not going to. Imagine that! This is a book that is best read knowing as little as possible. I suggest you not read the plot blurb or any of the publicity related to it. Still, I cannot resist indulging in my knowledge of the Christie Canon by dropping a few hints for her diehard fans. Know that if you are among the cognoscenti who have read all her books and count among your favorites such prizewinners as Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, Cards on the Table, Murder at Mesopotamia and Triangle at Rhodes there will be plenty for you to enjoy. I found elements of all of those books from a Salome Otterbourne clone in the person of the garrulous Mrs. Brendel to the feuding lovers Guy Trevelyan and Helen Hart who recall several similar couples in Christie's books. The inclusion of some Afro-Caribe occult rituals recall the voodoo business poor Linda Marshall got up to in Evil Under the Sun. Gerard Grenville, the occult master of Tenerife in A Different Kind of Evil and a standout creation among the intriguing cast, will remind Christie fans of many similar sinister types from Mr. Shaitana (Cards on the Table) to the creepy "witch" Thyrza Grey (The Pale Horse). None of these references are spoilers in any way, as they will be quite obvious nods to Christie's books by those well acquainted with them.

Set in the Canary Islands on Tenerife and its surrounding villages and beaches A Different Kind of Evil includes absorbing detail on mythology, culture and religion of the islands. With two archeologists and one geologist in the cast of characters frequent discussions of those sciences allow Wilson to enhance an already colorful setting. Of particular interest and what made the book even more unique as a mystery novel were the background on the Guanches (the pre-colonial indigenous people of the Canary Islands), their practice of mummification and death rituals, the mythology related to the volcano Mount Teide, and some fascinating details on the demon figures known as Tibicenas. I doubt anyone will be familiar with any of those topics unless they are anthropologists or students of arcane mythology.

Though Wilson's book is ingeniously clued in a manner very much in keeping with the Grand Dame's time honored methods of planting her clues as well as her skill in creating ample misdirection I very much doubt even the most astute readers will be able to outguess Wilson in his brilliant homage to Christie's life and work. With only a few sentimental indulgences when the story veers away from mystery to domesticity and motherhood in dealing with Agatha and her daughter Rosamund, Wilson keeps the focus on the many crimes plaguing Tenerife and its expatriate community. He succeeds in creating a pervading atmosphere of amorality and unnerving random violence when he sticks to his murder mystery plot. By far this is one of the most admirably performed and accomplished Christie pastiches in quite some time. Wilson matches Christie's talent in plot structure and mechanics, use of unusual characters, and multiple compellingly told mysteries in a book worthy of standing alongside any of the Grand Dame of Mystery's books.

Friday, April 6, 2018

FFB: Lady in Danger - Susannah Shane

THE STORY: "The Countess de Pontarlieu requests the pleasure of your company at supper, Sunday evening, June 4th, on the yacht Aguila, South Shore Anchorage, Long Island." So reads the invitation sent to ten guests of a motley group ranging from a stage actress to a gag shop owner keen on practical jokes. Someone wants them dead. After a failed attempt at poisoning the entire dinner party with crepes Suzette laced with rat poison, the killer stages a series of fatal accidents. One by one the group is being killed off. But why? What on earth do a Broadway actress, a gas station attendant, a playwright, a lawyer, a farmer, and the five others who barely know one another have in common that would mean they all need to die? Christopher Saxe, urbane playboy and amateur sleuth, digs into their past and discovers a secret pact dating back twenty years and missing $100,000 stolen from a train that someone wants all to himself.
Cartoon of Harriette Ashbrook
(orig source & artist unknown)

THE CHARACTERS: Lady in Danger (1942) marks the debut of Susannah Shane's series character Christopher Saxe. Similar to Spike Tracy, another amateur detective the same writer created under her own name, Saxe is yet another independently wealthy man-about-town who discovers he has a knack for solving crimes. We get his entire history of his previous cases, his relationship with the Manhattan police, and the origins of his friendship with his best buddy Buzz Batterson. Saxe is a likeable, astute young man with a strong sense of righting wrongs and unmasking criminals. Batterson is the typical wisecracking comic relief sidekick you find in many of these mystery novels of the period.

Because of the large cast of characters and the high body count we don't get to know many of the cast very well until after their deaths. Mark Priestley, the writer and playwright, is one of the first victims and we catch him at work with his loyal secretary in only one scene. His file of story ideas both published and unpublished along with the manuscript for the new play he is writing became crucial to Saxe's understanding of why the dinner party took place and why the killer is targeting the guests. Seems that Mark has a penchant for basing his stories and plays on real life events and he is not good at disguising the sources.

The lady of the title at first appears to be actress Juliet Brinig whose latest starring vehicle is bringing her attention and accolades in the Broadway community. Her role as a willful septuagenarian who marries late in life is the talk of the town and people are comparing her work to Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. Juliet is only in her 40s but she is completely convincing as the title character in The Matriarch Marries. A subplot which eventually ties into the main story concerns Juliet's true identity and her mysterious rise seemingly out of nowhere as a leading lady in theater. But there is another woman who just as easily might fit the role of Lady in Danger. She is Miss Tuttle, Priestley's secretary, who Saxe will discover had another role as record keeper for a investment scheme involving all those present at the dinner party on the yacht.

The characters are all well defined, each has a pointed moment in the spotlight, and all of their actions contribute to the solution of the multiple murders. Shane maintains a good level of suspense as each character's many secrets are uncovered further revealing the closely guarded connections that tie them together. Saxe will uncover them all using a combination of street smarts, intuition, and solid detective work. The story is both a crime novel and a literary detective story of sorts as there is a metafiction element involved with Priestley's stories and plays being based on true crimes.

Lady in Danger (UK ed., 1948)
INNOVATIONS: I enjoyed the use of Priestley's stories as the primary clues that lead Saxe to the truth of what brought the ten people together. There are two stories within the novel's story that the reader is privy to and which align with later plot features. It's a clever use of fiction about fiction and it works very well in the context of this novel. Intriguing clues are plentiful as well including a set of golden cigarette cases all engraved with the same cryptic message that keep turning up in the victims' personal effects, Miss Tuttle's unusual coded filing system that relies on ambiguous initials, and Dennis Neville's odd side trip to a Colorado cemetery with Saxe hot on his trail to find out what Neville is up to. Most of this is done in the tradition of a fair play detective novel, but the clues (especially the events related in Priestley's stories) are more like signals of what's to come leading the reader to anticipate the revelation of the not too surprising murder motive. Saxe makes some cryptic remarks like "I had to look up a word in the dictionary" that are also clues to the solution. The word in question is probably one unfamiliar to many contemporary readers and I imagine they too would find themselves drawn to a dictionary for clarification. But we never really know what that word is until Saxe is good and ready to tell us -- in the second to last chapter to be precise.

Surprises, too, are teeming over the course of this rather intricate and complexly plotted mystery. As much as I thought I knew where Shane was headed with her main plot thread she managed to pull the ultimate unexpected punch when it came to revealing the identity of the murderer. The clues were all there and subtly laid out while the more blatant evidence was discussed and mulled over at length. I'm not sure if this was truly ingenious or just a side effect of having such a complicated plot with so many layers and secrets to keep track of. Still, I was impressed and she wins extra points for fooling me.

THE AUTHOR: "Susannah Shane" was the pseudonym and second life for Harriette Ashbrook's detective and crime fiction career. After realizing that her own name was not among the most respected mystery writers (she enjoyed making fun of a handful of middling book reviews) and that she was not a bestselling writer she invented an alter ego. Start from scratch, so to speak. Her first novel as Shane -- Lady in Lilac, a suspense thriller in the style of Cornell Woolrich -- was a huge success winning her the coveted Red Badge Mystery Novel Prize of $1000 and a book contract with Dodd Mead. Lady in Lilac was reprinted in massive quantities by Books, Inc. as part of their "Midnite Mysteries" imprint and to this day is the easiest of the Susannah Shane books to find in the used book market. It was recently reprinted by Coachwhip Press. Why they haven't picked up any of Ashbrook's other well plotted and entertaining books or the remaining Shane novels mystifies me.

Prior to her mystery novelist career Ashbrook was a freelance newspaper writer whose work regularly appeared in The New York Times, New York Tribune and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle throughout the 1920s. She also apparently contributed to the Kiddie Klub Korner as children's advice giver Aunt Jean. This was a column that appeared in the Evening World, another New York paper, also during the 1920s.

Her writing career was cut short when she died in 1947 at the relatively young age of 50. Had she lived longer we might have seen more of Christopher Saxe or even some other series character. For more on Ashbrook see my post on the Spike Tracy detective novels.

EASY TO FIND? Of her six detective novels written as Shane Lady in Danger is the second most common after Lady in Lilac. I found about ten copies for sale in both US and UK editions. Unlike the last few books under her own name none of the Shane books were reprinted in paperback. One of the other titles was included in a 3-in-1 omnibus as part of the Detective Book Club. If you live in the US you might be lucky enough to find one of the Susannah Shane books in your local library or get it through interlibrary loan. I'd like to see all of Ashbrook's books reprinted. While they may not be stellar examples of the genre they are hugely entertaining. When she was cooking up an intricate plot with neatly planted clues as in the case of Lady in Danger she really did a bang up job with her mystery books.

Christopher Saxe Detective novels
Lady in Danger (1942)
Lady in a Wedding Dress (1943)
Lady in a Million (1943)
The Baby in the Ash Can (1944)
Diamonds in the Dumplings (1946)

Friday, March 30, 2018

FFB: I Met Murder - Selwyn Jepson

THE STORY: I Met Murder (1930) literally starts off with a bang. On the very first page someone attempts to kill John Arden, prominent sociologist and narrator of the book. The wine glass he was holding shatters and a bullet is found in the wall behind him. All this happens while he and five other guests are sitting at the dinner table during a party given by Hamish Page, wealthy businessman and war profiteer. Page soon confesses that someone had attempted to shoot him earlier in the week and that he has hired a private detective to look into the matter. But the next day someone succeeds in shooting Page dead. Was Arden not the intended target at all? When it is discovered that Page has left his entire estate to Anita Skinner, daughter to a professor of mathematics and a weapons designer, suspicion falls on the young lady. Anita turns to Arden as her confidante and enlists his aid in recovering an incriminating letter in which she had threatened Page. If the letter should be found by the police Anita is sure to be arrested. Then a second person is shot dead making it appear that someone has targeted every person at Page's dinner party. Can the police stop the killer before he makes his way through the rest of the guest list?

THE CHARACTERS: Though John Arden is the narrator he is only a sort of Watson character to the main detective of the book. Inspector English is a by-the-book kind of policeman so often found in Golden Age detective fiction. He has his ideas and is rarely open to having them challenged though he is not unaccustomed to compliment his cohorts' detective skills. George Jupp, the private detective hired by Page, conducts his own investigation parallel to the police one. He shares his opinions with English who on occasion can be startled by his perceptions and will begrudgingly accept some of Jupp's theories. Our narrator Arden is mostly along for the ride offering up his few eyewitness accounts, some perceptive observations, but mostly acting as a sidekick to Jupp. Interestingly, in the final chapters two of the main suspects (and last remaining survivors of the massacred dinner party guests) discuss the series of murders and come up with their own astonishing theory of who the killer might be. It turns out to be not too far from the true solution. In effect there are four detectives and two Watsons over the course of the novel.

Out of the lot of suspects it is Anita Skinner and her father Professor Skinner who are the most fascinating. Anita is the primary suspect who has the most obvious motive for killing Hamish Page. But as the body count continues to rise she is eliminated from the pool of suspects. Her father then draws the attention of the police. Skinner's work in weapons design is constantly being discussed. This gives Jepson an opportunity to make the detective plot touch on topical issues in post World War I era when anti-war movement and disarmament debates were always in the news.

Each of the suspects (and later victims) seems to have been created in order to discuss a "hot topic" of the era. Lady Codrington is a writer of erotic poetry that is deemed too overt for publication in Britain. She is called a pornographer by her detractors and enemies and she seeks to have her writing privately published by a small press based in Paris. Jepson devotes several pages to discussing her work and how it affects her life and how she interacts with the others. Likewise, in creating Lionel Lake, a sanctimonious minister who is suspected of having an affair with the poet, Jepson allows for ample talk of religious hypocrisy with an emphasis an issues surrounding sexuality and fidelity.

INNOVATIONS: Jepson presents the reader with multiple puzzling murders many of which involve near impossibilities. The most interesting will turn out to be how the killer managed to shoot through the window at Arden without being seen. The whereabouts of the murder weapon causes a lot of consternation as well. Inspector English and Jupp both comment on the numerous varieties of .22 caliber weapons in Professor Skinner's home and the main suspects' easy access to all of them. But they do not manage to find the correct weapon until the murderer actually shows them where it was secreted.

Despite the humdrum style of plotting with the puzzles overtaking the story and a dry prose style heavy on character monologues the overall tone of the book has a very contemporary feel. Characters like Anita Skinner presented as a willful, devil-may-care "bad girl" bordering on a kind of anti-social amorality is more frequently found in books published thirty or forty years after this one written in the late 20s and published in 1930. The talk about provocative sexuality (Anita confesses to having a three-way with two men), erotic poetry and pornography, gun design and weapon manufacturing, and religious hypocrisy all still have resonance for a 21st century reader.

As far as crime plotting goes every one of the murders comes at the most unexpected moments. Even if you know prior to reading (which I did not) that the body count is rather high in this book it is doubtful that you will be able to predict just who is the killer's next target or when in the story each death will take place. In this regard Jepson's novel impresses with its sophisticated construction and brilliant use of suspense. Like many of the early serial killer novels that deal with insanity I Met Murder focuses a bit too heavily on the question of motive and when that appears to be the investigators' stumbling block they begin to see the killing spree as the work of a madman. Nothing could be further from the truth. The motivations when revealed are less the product of an insane mind than they are the work of a popular and paradoxical type of literary murderer found in the late 1920s and early 1930s detective fiction -- the obsessively moral killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: The book is very much about guns, specifically .22 caliber rifles and the bullets they use. This kind of thing can be both fascinating and utterly boring to me depending on how much gun love the author indulges in. Contemporary crime writers tend to get a bit masturbatory about guns and ballistics and it truly sickens me. Here the gun information is necessary to understand the plot and Jepson clearly knows what he is talking about. Thankfully, the gun talk when it comes sticks to basics. The most interesting discussions were on the difference between rifles that shoot bullets and air rifles, how the barrel determines range and distance a bullet or projectile can travel. There was none of the obsessive often pretentious talk that many writers who are also gun enthusiasts tend to throw in. Because the theme of the novel is very much anti-war and leans towards disarmament often the discussion of guns and the ever increasing changes in design to make them more deadly is highly critical.

QUOTES: Inspector English: "I am very glad to have you with me Mr. Arden, on these occasions quite often you produce a useful piece of information at the right time. If I may say so, you have the makings of a deductive mind."

As long as there are Professor Skinners in the world the peacemakers will never succeed in outlawing war; invent an engine of destruction, and you invent a dozen, for you will set rivals at work. To argue with them, to point out their folly, is a certain waste of time and breath and I had long ago discovered the Professor to be particularly impatient of such evangelistic efforts.

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THE AUTHOR: Selwyn Jepson was the son of noted weird fiction and detective fiction writer Edgar Jepson. He is also the uncle of British novelist Fay Weldon. Like his father Jepson began as a novelist but quickly became involved in screenwriting and his career as a scriptwriter often overshadows his life as an author of crime fiction books. By 1930 Jepson had already published eleven books, a mix of crime and adventure fiction, before he was drawn to the world of movie making. From 1930 through 1953 he wrote or adapted over a dozen screenplays. In the 1950s he wrote for the US anthology television series "Rheingold Theatre." His novel Man Running (1948) was adapted for the movies as Stage Fright directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It features Eve Gill (played by Jane Wyman in the movie), the only true series character Jepson created.

But perhaps it is Jepson's life as a British agent assigned to the Special Operations Executive, the arm of British intelligence during World War II that has become his true claim to fame. As his detailed biography on the Fandango website tells us: "Jepson was put in charge of the recruitment and training of agents. His own, most direct task was personally interviewing potential agents. He usually used the name "Potter" in a now well-recounted procedure that took place in a sparely appointed, totally non-descript office in London." His renowned work with the SOE has been recounted in books and movies like Charlotte Gray, Carve Her Name with Pride, and most recently in Shadow Knights: The Secret War with Hitler by Gary Kamiya, marvelously illustrated by Jeffrey Smith.

EASY TO FIND? I'll deliver the bad news first. Neither the first US nor the first UK edition are common. In fact, I found absolutely no copies of the UK edition and only two of the Harper & Brothers 1930 edition for sale. The good news is there are many copies available, all of them priced affordably, of the reprint issued by Modern Publishing Company sometime in the 1950s. Exactly when in that decade I haven't a clue because this publisher does not bother with printing copyright information in any of their books. The dust jacket doesn't even identify their own company anywhere! Even better news is that a contemporary reprint exists. But you'll have to be able to read Italian. Polillo Editore released the first Italian translation in 2012 as part of their classic mystery imprint "I Bassotti". Typically for this publisher, the title has been changed and rendered as Tutto iniziò con un calice spezzato (It All Started with a Broken Goblet). I suspect this was done because the original English title is a subtle fair play clue, almost a spoiler, reminiscent of the kind of thing Helen McCloy used to do with her titles.