Friday, October 19, 2018

FFB: Two Cases for Inspector Knollis

The contrast between Francis Vivian's early detective novels and his final two is rather striking. While the early novel show Gordon Knollis tirelessly uncovering evidence, delegating orders to his police team, and restraining his impatience with less than honest suspects, in the final two novels Knollis is relegated to the background and his keen detective skills seem to have lost their sharpness. In fact, he fails to find the correct culprit in one case. The introduction of Brother Ignatius, a Nestorian priest, in The Ladies of Locksley (1953) allows Vivian to explore his personal interests and his belief in mystical philosophy and psychic connections. This is further developed in the final Knollis detective novel Darkling Death (1956) in which the priest becomes the accidental sleuth of the novel.

First, take a look at how Vivian initially approached the detective novel in The Laughing Dog (1949), the fifth book in the series and about the exact midpoint of his crime writing career. It's as traditional as it comes. It may, in fact, be one of the better examples of a finely plotted detective novel with an extremely limited number of suspects along the lines of Cards of the Table, for we are only given four possible suspects in the bizarre strangling murder of Dr. Hugh Challoner.

The plot has a taint of an impossible crime about it without being a locked room mystery for the scene of the crime has several entrances and exits and there were multiple witnesses watching those doors before and after the murder took place. These eyewitness accounts reminded me of similar scenes in Carr's The Emperor's Snuffbox and The Ten Teacups. But rather than being a case of no one exiting or entering it is the opposite -- too many people were seen coming and going from the room, sometimes within minutes of having left. Knollis finds himself with a confounding case, one in which time and opportunity are all important in finding out exactly who among the many people who went into Challoner's consulting room to meet with the doctor was the person who also killed him.

Vivian also has a field day with the title of the book which turns out to be not only the prominent feature in Dr. Challoner's caricature, but also a doodle that turns up repeatedly on pieces of paper and in the doctor's diary. The term recurs throughout the novel until Knollis and his team finally realize what it truly refers to. By then secrets from the doctor's past come exploding into the present further complicating the case and providing ample fodder for motives for his murder.

The detection in The Laughing Dog is some of the best in the few books I've sampled in this brief series. Knollis does an excellent job of sharing information and doling out terse orders to the many police who make up the investigative team. Often the novel succeeds as an excellent police procedural in its depiction of police work and the way Vivian tells it all give the book a very contemporary flavor. There are some well done scenes between Knollis and Sgt. Ellis that elaborate on their friendship which only enhances the way the two work together. Ellis is forever being chided about his meerschaum pipe and the obnoxious tobacco he prefers which Knollis jokingly disparages as a blend of "Devil's Brew, Copper Beech and Senna Pods." Ellis is also an avid cinema-goer and will often suggest they take in a show with Disney cartoons to free up their mind on the case. He tells one cop that Mickey Mouse was responsible for Knollis coming up with the solution to one case. Finally, Knollis is often cajoled into stepping into a cafe where Ellis can indulge in his addiction to tea cakes and pastries along with a nicely brewed cup of tea. They make for an affable team and their discussion of the cases --a mixture of friendly banter, fraternal teasing and hardcore logic -- is a lively meeting of the minds.

While The Laughing Dog may be one of Vivian's better forays into pure detection following the fair play technique rather well and sometimes with the use of ingeniously planted clues, the same cannot be said of Darkling Death, a more somber affair as is suggested by the grim title. Here detection fades into the background as Vivian explores the psychological ramifications of a suspect who has lost his memory on the day of the crime. Brandeth Grayson, a writer of crime stories, was last seen entering the study where his odious brother-in-law Herby was found shot to death. But apart from recalling leaving for a walk he cannot remember exactly what he did and begins to doubt himself and more and more comes to believe he is responsible for the death.

The novel is dominated by Grayson's attempt to clear his name but also is teeming with tangential discussions. Vivian covers a wide range of topics including Peter Damian Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence, Lahsen's beliefs in reincarnation, Nestorian Christology, the merits of popular fiction vs. highbrow poetry, and numerous theological and philosophical debates between Grayson and Brother Ignatius. Detection often steps aside to make room for much domestic melodrama between Grayson, his wife and his pre-teen daughter Natalie. In addition to having been evicted from Herby's home the Grayson marriage is on the rocks. Corinne has made up her mind to be a wife to her husband in name only for the sake of their daughter, the intimacy shared by husband and wife she has forsaken. Bran Grayson, however, is determined to regain her heart as well as clearing his name of the murder charge.

And where is Knollis in all of this? He appears very late in the novel, featured in only a few sections with his most prominent scenes in the last two chapters. But rest assured he is dutifully digging through the numerous stories and veiled confessions of the many suspects. It seems as if everyone Knollis meets believes Grayson to be guilty of the murder, but none of them want the writer arrested and tried. Knollis must weed through a handful of implied confessions and dexterously told half-truths to find out who is lying and uncover the true criminal. But his rigid pursuit of the truth in this case may cost him his reputation. A near fatal assumption is averted in the  final scenes when Brother Ignatius proves to have the solution of the crime. And the priest must reluctantly break the seal of a confession in order to spare wrongful arrest and prevent besmirching Knollis' career.

Francis Vivian is an intriguing writer of crime fiction often finding clever ways to intersperse his personal philosophies with interesting commentary that surprisingly rarely detracts from the storyline. His belief in psychic connection is playfully hinted at (albeit as a red herring) in The Laughing Dog with the "prediction" of Dr. Challoner's past life when Aubrey Highton draws the caricature of the dog. But by the publication of Darkling Death Vivian has found a way in which his novels can be stories that exemplify his philosophy of recurrence of existence, psychic connection and the laws of karma. For real invigoration of the traditional detective novel Vivian's later novels provide challenging fodder for crime fiction devotees while his earlier novels will satisfy those readers who prefer the daunting task of matching wits with the author and fictional detective in trying to figure out whodunit.

As mentioned previously in my review of The Threefold Cord all ten of the Inspector Knollis detective novels have been reissued by Dean Street Press.  Each book is available in paperback or as a digital download.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

FFB: Voices in an Empty Room - Philip Loraine

THE STORY: Psychic experiments, decades old family secrets, ghostly possession, a forgotten crime... Something strange is happening in the house at 337 Gilman Street in San Francisco. Ellie Owen Spencer and her brother Richie have rented the main house to two women who every night conduct psychic experiments with the spirits of Ellie's ancestors. She and her brother know nothing of what's going on in the house ever since the took up residence in the adjunct coachouse. But then Ellie starts calling her brother and fiance John Lamb by the name Michael. When one night Ellie will not stop writhing on her bed in an apparently paranormally induced sexual ecstasy repeating the name Michael in a dark reverie John and Richie turn to Dr. Hillier for help. The mysteries are only beginning. What exactly happened in the house so long ago? What are those women up to? Are they responsible for what appears to be a case of spiritual possession?

THE CHARACTERS: Voices in an Empty Room (1973) is told from multiple viewpoints. John Lamb is the primary story teller, but Loraine has divided his book into four cleverly constructed sections that allow him to shift viewpoints and alternate plot lines among the cast of characters. The main plot seems to be about the mystery surrounding Ellie's sudden personality transformation and how this affects the burgeoning romance between John and his fiancee. But Loraine adds more to his labyrinthine story.

A second storyline follows the weird ghostly communications manifested by Lulu Jenkins at the behest of Amelia Guardi. Lulu is a bona fide medium with clairvoyant powers, she can see and hear then vocally recreate scenes from the past by channeling various spirits, and yet also predicts the future. She had these uncanny abilities since she was a child. But she is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and has been easily manipulated by keener, more intelligent people like her former husband who was eager to make a quick buck off of her supernatural ability. Mrs. Guardi, a wealthy woman from Boston who has come to San Francisco to write a book about spiritualism, takes advantage of Lulu's acute powers in an effort to collect proof of life beyond death and that communication with the dead can indeed benefit the living. She is planning to write a book on the subject and gain fame, if not notoriety, in peeling back the veil that separates the living from the dead.

The strong contrast between the two women is handled masterfully and not without a sardonic wit and frequent ironic jabs. It is clear that each will pay dearly for their experiments in the paranormal and mucking about with concepts and events they have no control over. Lulu, a pathetic portrait of wasted talent who is victimized and exploited by corrupt individuals, is not without one fine moment of heroism. In one of her best scenes Lulu's transformation from mouse to lion is brought on by her memory and occurs when Mrs. Guardi repeats a line that Lulu first heard years before uttered by her con artist husband just before he robbed her of her savings and abandoned her. It's a perfect moment, but is ultimately one tinged with irony and failure.

Richie, Ellie's brother, seems initially to appear as a comic character. He's a typical caustically witty queen who turns up in 1970s pop fiction from writers who wanted to appear hip by tossing into their books a token gay character. That Loraine insists on referring to him as a homosexual throughout lessens the intended humor and yet Richie really does have most of the best lines. Luckily, Richie proves to be a firebrand in a couple of key scenes. Hell hath no fury like an angry gay guy. Don't mess with Richie, especially when he's doing his damnedest to save his sister from a hellish malady.

Dr. Hillier, the family physician guarding too many family secrets, and Godfrey Bellfort, the brother of the deeply troubled Stella Bellfort Spencer whose spirit is living again through Lulu round out the cast. Each of these men is as finely drawn as the lead characters and each have striking moments of importance related to the multi-layered story.

INNOVATIONS: Loraine has divided the book into four separate sections: The Living, The Psi, The Dead, The Coming Together.  As each title suggests the story progresses from an expository first section introducing us to the main players, then adding in the supernatural elements in the second section (psi is a term used both by the parapsychology world and pop culture to collectively refer to psychic phenomenon). The third section further develops the plot when the book turns into a literary detective story as John and Richie delve into the archives of the Lilienthal library and we are given a richly detailed history of the Harold Spencer and Owen Spencer families and the incidents that led to a covered up crime. Finally, in the last section both plotlines meet up and culminate in a unexpected twist followed by the resolution in a suitably Grand Guignol style grisly and bloody finale.

Voices in an Empty Room is one of the better supernatural novels to come out of the 1970s when books featuring psychic powers and demonic or ghostly possession exploded in popular fiction and dominated the shelves of the newly created Horror sections in bookstores. Drawing on the motifs and conventions of Victorian sensation and Gothic fiction Loraine has written a tale of madness, ghosts, and corporeal possession that seems less a story of 1973 than one more suited to the era of its influences. He contemporizes these motifs with an ample amount of sex (example: Ellie's possession by the ghostly Micheal is triggered by a lovemaking session with John) and topical references, but the emphasis on family honor, closely guarded secrets, and the preservation of the fabricated story of a troubled relative's life is far removed from the hipper themes of most 1970s novels.

Nevertheless, Loraine's masterful talent in storytelling and his often incisive writing hold sway over the reader. He has structured the novel in such a way with his alternating storylines and slow revelation of multiple secrets that the reader is compelled to move on anxious to get to the end. This page turning frenzy is coupled with the delivery of a truly surprising eleventh hour shock.

QUOTES:  Lamb had always believed that any city worth loving must not only be beautiful but full of interesting looking people, with a dash of eccentricity; San Francisco was well endowed with these virtues. He liked a city to be capable of instant generosity, as well as of reserving more secret and more intimate pleasures for those who will love her more deeply...

...the whole persona of this sibylline apparition scared the hell out of [Ellie]; and at the same time she was sure that unlike other people who used the expression "Believe me, I know," Mrs. Jenkins was speaking the exact truth. There was no doubt in Ellie's mind that she did know--but what? It seemed that this question was going to remain forever unanswered...

Mrs. Guardi was a woman who made careful plans and carried them out to the letter and to their conclusion. That there was something almost manic in her determination did not worry her; in this flabby and directionless world, it was the only way to get things done; it was true that occasionally other people had to suffer, but then people had always had to suffer for any great cause.

EASY TO FIND? I found several copies for sale of both US and UK editions,  hardcover and paperback. Most of them are affordably priced. Only a few of Loraine's books have been released in digital editions, but not Voices in an Empty Room.

Friday, September 28, 2018

FFB: The Threefold Cord - Francis Vivian

THE STORY: Horror of horrors! Someone has done in poor Mildred Manchester's pets. First her beloved budgerigar Sweetums and then her cat. Both were savagely strangled and loosely wrapped around the neck of each animal was a blue silk cord. Are these warnings that a person is next on the list? Mildred's arrogant husband Fred, a wealthy furniture dealer, demands that Scotland Yard investigate not trusting the police of his local CID who he deems incompetent. But before Inspector Knollis can even set foot on the Manchester premises he gets word that the furniture dealer has been brutally butchered with an axe, his nearly decapitated corpse found in the greenhouse containing his prized cactus collection. And stuffed into of Manchester's jacket breast pocket -- a blue silken cord.

THE CHARACTERS: Gordon Knollis is the detective created by Francis Vivian and he's one of the more interesting of the humanistic detectives. He treats everyone with decency and compassion though he may tend to lose his patience with reckless drivers like young Sir Giles. The Threefold Cord (1947) is his third case and proves to be both macabre and puzzling. Undaunted by the odd clue of the blue ribbons and the prelude of the pet slaughter Knollis quickly gets to the bottom of a murder case that stems from someone's haunted and scandalous past. He's a detective who stands out as a real hero as well as a fine sleuth and he makes the book all the more exciting for his presence.

Among the suspects are a trio of servants (chauffeur, maid and cook/housekeeper) who unlike in most of the formulaic whodunnits of this era are not relegated to the background or offered up as comic archetypes. Rather all three are integral to the plot and solution of the various crimes. The maid, who is in love with the chauffeur, provides some crucial eyewitness testimony and evidence that help Knollis discard some theories and lead him to the correct culprit. Also a stand out is the haughty actress Dana Vaughan, who puts to shame some of Christie's finely drawn actor/actress characters in terms of ego and vanity. Miss Vaughan is starring in a psychological thriller called The Hempen Rope and it will feature prominently in the solution of the crime. Strangulation also occurs in that play. Vaughan is so intense an actress, and the role so torturous to perform, that she suffers from sleepwalking episodes during which she reenacts the strangling scenes. The latest such unexpected victim of one of her "spells" was her dresser at the theater. The play, Knollis will discover, is also coincidentally based on true life and borrows heavily from the past life of one person among the list of suspects in Manchester's murder.

INNOVATIONS: Though nothing really stands out as innovative Francis Vivian's plotting is intricate and his storytelling talent is remarkable for being humorous, engaging and a challenge to any reader who likes to match wits with the fictional detective. Fair play clueing is competent if not stellar or ingenious. Vivian's strengths are his characters and his lively wit, something I think that most detective novels are lacking in and an aspect of mystery fiction I find more and more to be almost imperative.

QUOTES: "You ask very impertinent questions, Inspector."
Knollis nodded as he turned to the door. "Yes, Miss Vaughan, but you must remember that Death has no manners as a general rule. In this instance he was a reformed character, and knocked twice before entering."

"When I left the station I was astounded by the way in which Londoners rushed about, as if the bus coming up the road, or the Tube train coming out of the tunnel, was the last one for hours instead of the last one for two minutes. I felt sorry for them allowing themselves to be caught up in such an idiotic race. Two days later I discovered myself running down an escalator to catch a train that wasn't even signalled in. Silly, isn't it? One sheep goes though the gap in the hedge, and all the others follow. There's a moral in it somewhere."
"Yes. I'm afraid that the human race is more notorious for its stupidity than for anything else. [...] We seem to be rushing to destruction as fast as our legs can take us."

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer,
from a frontispiece in a later
edition of his famed work 
THINGS I LEARNED: On page 133 Knollis, frustrated with his inability to think quickly of the significance of the blue color in the silken cords, cries out "I need a Brewer!" The policeman he is with is puzzled and jokingly replies, "If you need a drink to stimulate your brain..." Then Knollis elucidates: "I mean Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable." This is a reference book that has been in print since its original publication in 1870, but is a book of which I knew nothing. The dictionary is a mammoth volume, the culmination of a lifetime of research into folklore, mottoes, slang and phraseology from everyday life. The author was Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897) who is also known for Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar (1841) and an unusual history book aimed at youth and written in rhyme and verse called Poetical Chronology (of Inventions, Discoveries, Battles, and of Eminent Men, from the Conquest to the Present Time...) (1853). An example from the book: "One-thousand-sixty-six from France the Norman CONQUEROR came/And 20 years by rigour sought the British soul to tame." For more on what can be found in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as well as a brief biographical sketch on Brewer and his awesome research see this fascinating blog post on the Cambridge Library Collection website, the publisher who still keeps Brewer's work in print.

EASY TO FIND? Yes, indeed! (Aren't those two lovely words to read in this section?) In fact, in three days you can buy as many Inspector Knollis mystery novels as you want because all ten of them have been reprinted by the estimable Dean Street Press. And I'm sure that all of them contain a knowledgeable foreword by Curt Evans chockful of all sorts of biographical nuggets on the author and critical insights into the Knollis series. I checked the US amazon site and so far all of these books are available in a Kindle edition, but I found only a few in paperback editions for purchase in the US. If you live in the US I'd recommend going to Book Depository to get a paperback edition. All ten titles are available there as print books and they have free shipping at all times. The prices on Book Depository also often tend to be cheaper than amazon sometimes as much as five dollars less.

I've purchased three of these reprints and am eagerly awaiting their arrival in my home. In the meantime I'm preparing a review of the penultimate Knollis mystery Darkling Death for a post to be published in October.  Stay tuned for more about Inspector Knollis and crew!

Gordon Knollis Detective Novels
The Death of Mr. Lomas (1941)
Sable Messenger (1947)
The Threefold Cord (1947)
The Ninth Enemy (1948)
The Laughing Dog (1949)
The Singing Masons (1950)
The Elusive Bowman (1951)
The Sleeping Island (1951)
The Ladies of Locksley (1953)
Darkling Death (1956)
Dead Opposite the Church (1959)*
*(not a central character)

Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Day of Judgment - Virginia Rath

THE STORY: The end of the world is nigh! Or so says self-professed fortune teller, astrologer and psychic Madame Sapphira. She has set up camp in Coon Hollow in northern California followed by a small group of acolytes to wait out the apocalypse. No one really believes the world is ending. They just want to see what will happen. And while cosmic disaster never occurs human disaster does. No one was anticipating three violent deaths nor that someone among them is a vicious murderer. Sheriff Rocky Allan and his wife happen to be among the guests in the campground and together with their friend Theophilus Pope they uncover many secrets, forgotten crimes, sinful behavior and the identity of the killer.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936) is the second appearance of Virginia Rath's series detective Deputy Sheriff Rocky Allan. He first enters the detective fiction world in Death at Dayton's Folly (1935) a case alluded to several times over the course of this story. He is aided by his devoted wife Eleanor. Rath has created a folksy duo who have settled into a comfortable life as husband and wife and her love of these characters is obvious when the story gives way to lots of chatty and humorous conversations. They joke about the perils of cooking at a campground, for example, with instant coffee jibes turning up often. There is a running gag about a Pope's tendency to catch colds easily and he suffers from a bad one with drippy nose and clogged sinuses for much of the book. Rath has a tendency also -- to overburden her novels with this lighthearted domestic touch, here, however, it serves these two well. Their conversations help the reader to understand how much they care not only for each other but their innate empathy for everyone the come in contact with. While Rocky may be the more cantankerous and intolerant of duplicity and cruelty he is balanced out by Eleanor's deep concern and loving care. No surprise when we learn that Eleanor is nurse.

That is not to say that this is an overly cutesy, Pollyanna-ish novel. Rath is writing about con artists, fraud, blackmail and petty jealousies. In the first two victims we see she has the ability to delve into base human motives and the corruption of the human soul.  Sapphira Barlow and Reverend Saul Cheney are two of the most despicable charlatans you may ever come across in this type of crime fiction. Neither of them is as religious as they claim to be and their love of money takes precedence over and displaces any love of God they might have. But it is their hatred for each other that is the root of all evil when violence explodes on the eve of destruction, the day before the supposed apocalypse.

Rath has some interesting tangential commentary on race too. The origins of young handsome Henry Powell, a wannabe movie star who had a singing career in Mexico, and his ancestral roots become a point of inquiry for Allan and Pope.  Why is Henry so desperate to hide his true identity and his parentage? And why is Maggie Corwin, usually so frank and brusquely opinionated, so unwilling to talk about Henry's past?

Two very young characters who feature seemingly as minor characters -- teenage Lisa, Sapphira's adopted ward and David her 11 year-old grandson -- have plenty to do with Sapphira's complicated past which will slowly be revealed as evidence is collected.  Lisa and David slowly take prominence in the novel as the plot reaches its surprising (dare I say shocking?) climax. Hidden letters, secreted newspaper articles, a locket with a photo, a secret inscription encoded with a Biblical reference all eventually tie into a sordid past littered with murder victims, drug dealing, alternate identities, missing relatives and greedy schemes.

INNOVATIONS: On the surface Murder on the Day of Judgment seems to be yet another book typical of the early Doubleday Crime Club mysteries with a husband/wife sleuthing team, the innocuous chit-chat and joking, but the novel takes unexpected turns into darker territory. Set in rural northern California with a cast of fairly sophisticated city dwellers among the campground guests this is a crime novel that rightly belongs in what I call "country noir". Sapphira is a criminal through and through and in her seventieth decade she shows no sign of turning away from a life consisting of getting whatever she wants at whatever cost. Corruption is omnipresent at Coon Hollow, a force of insidious power. One begins to understand why Rocky is so stern and unforgiving with everyone by the novel's finale. We see in the end that Sapphira's influence has tainted everyone or utterly ruined them. Three characters are revealed as pathetic drug addicts, Lisa was being groomed to become a prostitute, David is inculcated into her fortune telling racket and is seen wearing a ridiculous star covered robe and purple turban throughout most of the novel. The finale and the reveal of the murderer is Rath's final touch of subversiveness in what amounts to a Great Depression era version of transgressive fiction. When the chilling denouement comes it's as if she delivered a final slap in the reader's face.

THINGS I LEARNED: On page 141 I came across this: "I seem to be findin' lots of things." Rocky held out a green Eversharp that had been lying on the floor near the door. "Any idea who this belongs to?" I thought maybe it was a fountain pen. I was very close. Invented in 1913 the Eversharp was one of the earliest and most innovative mechanical pencils manufactured in the United States. Called "a truly groundbreaking innovation" by vintage pen expert David Nishimura, the Eversharp was also one of the most popular. He writes: "By 1921, Wahl-Eversharp was turning out 35,000 Eversharps every day, and had sold over 12,000,000 pieces." For all the details on its invention, production and development visit, Nishimura's fascinating website and catalog of vintage pens for sale.

Rocky also makes this remark: "You been readin' too many stories, sister, where the sheriffs is all dumber'n Dora." And here I though that the "Dumb Dora was so dumb" jokes were the creation of the Match Game writing crew back in the 1970s. Tells you how old the writers were!

THE AUTHOR: Born Virginia McVay in 1905, she taught high school in a mountain railroad town in California, married Carl Rath a railroad telegrapher and worked in a railroad telegraph office during World War II. Virginia Rath was active member of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America for nearly all of her career. In addition to Rocky Allan she created Michael Dundas, a fashion designer based in San Francisco who is also an amateur sleuth. Dundas and his wife Valerie appear in eight books published between 1938 and 1947. Her last contribution to mystery writing goes almost entirely unnoticed. It's a chapter in the round robin novel The Marble Forest (1951) published under the odd pseudonym of Theo Durrant, a name Anthony Boucher borrowed from the real life 19th century killer dubbed "The Demon of the Belfry" by San Francisco newspapers of the time.

EASY TO FIND? Like so many writers of her time Virginia Rath has disappeared into the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom. You'll be hard pressed to find any of her books. Other than The Marble Forest none of her books were reprinted in paperback editions in her lifetime making the hunt for her mystery novels all that more difficult. I find nothing in modern reprints or digital books either. Currently there are four copies of Murder on the Day of Judgment offered for sale, but in order to find three of them you need to misspell the last word in the title as Judgement, with the often superfluous E after the G.  (Oh! the perils of online searching.) Try your library, too. Over the years I've managed to acquire nearly all of her books for a pittance. I don't think Rath's books are too cheap these days as paper books become more and more oddities of human civilization and priced as if they were relics of antiquity.

Rocky Allan Detective Novels 
Death at Dayton's Folly (1935)
Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936)
Ferryman, Take Him Across! (1936)
The Anger of the Bells (1937)
An Excellent Night for Murder (1937)
Murder with a Theme Song (1939) - also features Michael Dundas

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Bookselling Absurdity #57: Buy My Prize, Please!

I went looking for a cheap copy of a very easy to find John Dickson Carr book today and stumbled across this absurd listing on eBay. If you've been having a bad day, then prepare yourselves for a well deserved fit of hysterical laughter this will no doubt unleash.

This edition, I believe, is printed on gold leaf pages with platinum ink.

The shipping price is to the US, by the way. We always get the shaft from eBay sellers on international shipping fees even for a paperback that weighs about 5.5 ounces (155 g). You'd hope that this avaricious madman of a bookseller would at least give you free shipping if you live in Australia. But of course if you had this amount of spare Australian cash to spend on a paperback book published in 1986 (or thought you had it) you'd probably be living in a private sanitarium somewhere in Alice Springs.

Friday, September 14, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Marsh - John Ferguson

THE STORY: Francis McNab, crime reporter and amateur criminologist, receives a letter from Ann Cardew asking him to investigate her father's erratic and alarming behavior. Ann is disturbed by such odd incidents like her father repeatedly checking his shoes carefully and shaking them out before putting them on. He is also often seen staring out the windows of their home nervously scanning the horizon for something -- or someone. Before McNab has chance to even interview Cardew the man drops dead on his front lawn under mysterious circumstances. But there is no sign of foul play at all. The coroner's verdict was leaning heavily towards death by natural causes but the inquest is surprisingly adjourned for one week at the insistence of the police who need to gather more evidence. McNab and reporter Godfrey Chance join in the investigation and prove that Cardew's death was "one of the most diabolically ingenious murders in criminal record."

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Marsh (1930) is narrated by Godfrey Chance, friend and colleague of Francis McNab. Friend is a bit inaccurate, they are more rivals. Chance confesses he has been trying to scoop McNab on a juicy crime case for his newspaper. McNab, under the pen name "The Lamplighter," has a reputation for not only reporting on murder cases that end up becoming causes célèbre he does so with an invigorating style. But Chance is petulant, humorless, impatient and intolerant. Qualities that do not serve him well in his journalism career. McNab on the other hand is engaging, eccentric and fascinating. He also has taste for imaginative writing like Lewis Carroll which Chance disdains. Of course only a man who is an imaginative thinker himself could admire such ingenious nonsense like Alice in Wonderland and therefore is able to penetrate the unusual motive and highly baroque murder method used to dispatch James Cardew. If only Godfrey Chance could grasp that concept, indulge in creative thinking, and tap into his burgeoning inner sleuth, he might become a better reporter and writer.

The suspects are the usual myriad of shifty relatives, arrogant rivals and gossipy servants. Sergeant Strood with his inherent curiosity and avid policing skills is a minor standout in the large cast of characters. But for the most part this is a typical traditional detective novel with stock characters; an eccentric, overly intellectual detective who dominates the story; and his one-step-behind-everyone Watson griping and complaining throughout the story.

INNOVATIONS: The detection is everything here. Ferguson, at least in this one mystery novel, reminds me of Rhode, Connington and Crofts in their most persnickety, overly-analytic modes. A sequence following McNab's collection of several newspaper scraps details the analysis of each piece of paper and after consulting with printers and asking about font, paper texture and color, and of course the actual text and layout of each, he manages to determine from which newspaper each scrap came, the day of each issue, and even whether it was the daily, evening or express edition. This analysis went on for pages. Some may find this kind of thing fascinating, but I no longer have the patience for intensely detailed (translation: boring) detective work. There is also an involved discussion of how fingerprints were left on a cigarette case, the method of taking out and later inserting that case into one's vest pocket, how the placement of fingers in that insertion method will sometimes smudge away the fingerprints... etc., etc. I begin to sympathize with Julian Symons dubbing this kind of detective fiction "the humdrum school."

I liked that Chance is an easily irritated Watson and is always grousing about the Francis McNab's odd talent at getting everything right rather than one who is in awe of the genius detective. I also like McNab's frequent bursts of Scottish exclamations. His favorite, by the way, is "Innisbuie!" No idea what it means and neither does Chance so we are left in the dark about that. But I'm sure it sounds startling when exclaimed in the thick brogue McNab is described as having.

As the story progresses it becomes a bit too obvious who the culprit is, but the manner in which clues are laid out from the beginning and the odd pieces of evidence like the blue ribbon with the piece of elastic attached and the cigarette case found at the murder scene are very well done. McNab's sorting out genuine clues from red herrings, his mulling over psychological motives and the thought processes of a killer, all make for entertaining reading even it if at times the ratiocination was a bit over-the-top for my tastes.

Pillion for female horseback rider (circa 1890s)
THINGS I LEARNED: One of the suspects describes someone picking up Ann Cardew on a motor scooter and "taking her home pillion." I had no idea what that meant. In fact, I thought it was a typo. Assiduous Googling led me to discover it was not a printing error at all. "Riding pillion" refers to letting someone ride on the seat cushion behind the driver on a motorcycle. Originally, the word "pillion" was the name of a cushion placed behind a saddle for a woman to ride more comfortably as a passenger on horseback. It now refers mostly to the extra seat behind the driver's seat on a motorcycle.

I learned something else, but I am going to have trouble telling you about it. It's a word with a variant spelling of ...CAN'T REVEAL... which turns out to be the real cause of James Cardew's death. I imagine that anyone trying to find out more about this thing will have difficulty locating the word Ferguson uses in any reference book on the subject matter. I certainly did. The modern and now accepted spelling is very different. I'm guessing he heard the word in another language and then made up his own Anglicized spelling for it. Luckily, the word he invented resembles the modern spelling. Oddly enough, this alternate spelling problem (or completely different naming) specifically related to these things recurs frequently in vintage detective fiction often leading to the reader's confusion. In any case, the facts unearthed about this particular thing were gruesomely fascinating. And that's enough of that skirting-around-the-issue style of writing. Whew!

QUOTES:  "It looks black," [McNab] said; "but, you know, you can build up a case against almost any one."
This seemed mere perversity, as I told him at once. To accuse McNab, the logician, of perversity, was equivalent to accusing a bishop of bigamy.

"One of your chief uses, Godfrey, is that you so often take it upon yourself to act as devil's advocate. It is most helpful. You force me to clarify and purge my thinking processes."

In La Verité et el Criminal that eminent authority, M. Bastin, remarks on the amazing way in which that type of murder which he classifies as a crime of deliberation goes frequently to pieces. That a murder, deliberately planned, should baffle and perplex at first is inevitable. The murderer selects his moment, place and method; he makes at leisure the arrangements he judges necessary to cover all traces, and not till the murder is a fait accompli do the police know anything about it. Then only the intellectual battle begins -- the battle, as McNab put it, of insight against foresight.

THE AUTHOR: Born in Callander, Perthshire in 1871 John Ferguson began his life as a railroad clerk and then was ordained an Episcopal minister which became his primary profession. According to the entry in Scottish Episcopal Clergy, 1689-2000 by David M. Bertie his ministry brought him to Dundee, Guernsey, Glasgow, Drumtotchy. He was chaplain at Eversley School, Kent, from 1915-38, then at Culross, 1939-46. In his writing career he was better known for his plays than his detective fiction. Campbell of Kilmohr in its debut production at Royalty Theatre in Scotland was hailed as 'a new and significant type of Scottish drama' (Glasgow Herald). Ferguson wrote ten crime novels, a mix of suspense thrillers, espionage and detective fiction, between 1918 and 1946. Of those novels five feature criminologist reporter Francis McNab and his rival, Godfrey Chance. Ferguson died in 1952 in Lymington.

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. You're right! Almost impossible. I lucked out in finding my relatively cheap reading copy. Only four copies are currently offered for sale from online dealers, one is a translated German edition. (UPDATE Sept 17, 2018: Astonishingly all four copies were sold within three days after I posted this essay.  I really do want some finder's fees for selling these books.)  I had no luck turning up a digitized version either free online or for sale. Coachwhip Publications has reprinted three of Ferguson's mysteries, however none of them are Murder on the Marsh. The easiest John Ferguson mystery novel to find in the used book market is Death Comes to Perigord reprinted by Penguin in the UK and Dover in the US. Hundreds of copies of that book are out there.

Why Ferguson's books haven't been resurrected by an outfit like British Library Crime Classics is another mystery that will have to go unsolved. He certainly fits the bill for the kind of traditional mystery novel they like to reprint. In many instances I found this one much more engaging, livelier, and more innovative than most of what you find in the BLCC reissues. Murder on the Marsh, probably most importantly, has a satisfyingly baffling murder to figure out. Determining the method itself and how the murder was done is perhaps the only reason a mystery addict would want to read this book. Though in the end it's not at all my preferred style, I have to admit that I really liked the character of McNab despite all his fastidious working out of the murder scheme.

Francis McNab Detective Novels
The Man in the Dark (1928)
Murder on the Marsh (1930)
Death Comes To Perigord (1931)
The Grouse Moor Mystery (1934)
Death of Mr. Dodsley (1937)

Friday, September 7, 2018

FFB: The Ghost It Was - Richard Hull

THE STORY: Amberhurst Place has a history like all homes that date back to the Tudors, including the bonus of two ghosts. Brothers and rivals for the affection of a lovely lady, according to the legend. James Warrenton, the latest owner of Amberhurst Place, is not too happy that the legend has been publicized in a local newspaper. But as a staunch believer in spiritualism he is more than eager to witness his spirits when they fortuitously materialize on the parapets of the abandoned tower on the far end of Amberhurst. All this occurs the very night he invites all his nephews to his home for a dinner party. A second apparition follows on another night with more dangerous results when one of his nephews is found dead at the foot of the tower dressed in an elaborate costume having impersonated one of the ghosts. Was the first apparition as false as this second? And was there a real person also seen in the tower or was that a genuine ghost?  Inspector Percival, a coroner, and the surviving members of the Warrenton clan all turn sleuth to find out if ghosts can murder.

THE CHARACTERS: The Ghost It Was (1936) is populated with the lively Warrenton family led by irascible Uncle James who can barely tolerate his four nephews and one niece let alone his patronizing butler Rushton. Hull is a master of this kind of dry British humor and this is a proper satiric send-up of the old Golden Age convention of the heirs battling out for attention and hopefully a huge legacy from the ancient patriarch. James is far from ailing but any reader will know that he is far from safe, especially when the black sheep of the Warrenton family turns up on the doorstep of Amberhurst Place in the guise of an investigative journalist. Gregory Spring-Benson, is the loathsome nephew without a shred of decency and he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for everyone including Uncle James. His interest in the ghosts oddly seems genuine and he is most definitely up to no good. He spends an awful lot of time chatting with Rushton, the butler and they work out an intriguing switch of rooms prior to the first ghost visitation. Arthur Vaughn, however, is onto Gregory and is determined to expose him as a wannabe reporter and an opportunist. He wants Gregory out of the picture, out of the house and out of Uncle James' will. There are a lot of ghost plots in the works. When one of the plots backfires and an impossibility presents itself in just how a second human could have been on the tower the police and other heirs begin to suspect foul play.

Gregory and Rushton tend to steal the spotlight. From the start Gregory seems to be the protagonist, an anti-hero of sorts and we know nearly everything he is plotting. However, the narrative will sharply detour many times and we will get multiple shifts in viewpoint as the plot gets ever more complicated. Rushton, the overly articulate, pompously grammatical butler is supercilious to such an extreme he becomes hysterically absurd. Reading his elaborately constructed sentences and watching as the police routinely complain over his vocabulary only adds to the comedy.

Everyone has the shining moment with the possible exception of Aunt Julia, the only bogey character, who seems to have no real purpose other than as the token dowager and appears in three brief scenes. Even mousy Emily, a bookish dishrag of a character bullied and ridiculed by all the men comes into her own when she witnesses a second crime right after her own bit of totally unexpected derring-do. Bravo for Hull for tossing in this bonus scene of surprising heroics from the least heroic member of the cast. And a hearty "Brava!" to Emily for risking her life in the process.

INNOVATIONS: Hull is mostly known for his experiments in the inverted detective novel and The Ghost It Was is definitely a melding of inverted and traditional detective novel. While there are not many clues as to whodunnit there are indeed more than enough clues, both physical evidence and psychological clues, as to the howdunnit. Really the fun of this novel is in trying to figure out not who the culprit is (that is sadly rather obvious) but just exactly how poor Arthur met his demise and the equally baffling manner in which the second victim was killed. This is Hull’s homage to John Dickson Carr — ghosts, haunted tower, two impossible crimes, all told with wit and farcical comedy and an ample amount of genuine creepiness.

Interestingly, in the final wrap-up the real detective of the piece (a very cleverly done surprise) delivers all the reasoning without stating outright who the killer is. The reader has to glean from how the policeman delivers the information who the true guilty party is. I've come across gimmicks like the writer naming the killer in the final sentence of the book, but this is the first time I've encountered a detective never announcing the name of the killer in a declarative sentence, rather only implying guilt and culpabiilty of the person responsible for all the violence and scheming.

QUOTES: The novel is overloaded with witty comments, juicy barbs, veiled insult humor, nasty quips, and a long section that ridicules wine snobbery that I thought was hysterical. I could quote pages of the book, but I'm picking one perfect exchange to encapsulate Hull's mastery in satiric writing.

"Don't try to be sarcastic, Gregory, it only makes Uncle James more angry."
"Thank you, Henry. I am not angry. I am only being just -- or at any rate," he went on hurriedly, becoming aware of the fact that the last sentence was quite incredible, "justly irritated."

EASY TO FIND? The Penguin reprint of The Ghost It Was is fairly easy to find in the used book market and copies tend to be moderately and fairly priced. The first editions, either the US or UK, are extremely scarce. Those with dustjackets are exorbitantly priced. One UK first (Faber & Faber, 1936) with a DJ in remarkable condition is tagged at US$1500 from a Canadian dealer. The good news (at least for UK customers) is that a digital version will soon be released by Agora Books, the same outfit that brought you eBook editions of two of Hull's other early crime novels Keep It Quiet and Murder Isn't Easy. The targeted release date is early 2019, not next month as I originally wrote.

Friday, August 24, 2018

FFB: Mystery at Olympia - John Rhode

THE STORY: Nahum Preshore was not particularly fond of cars so when he told everyone he was going to the Motor Show at the Olympia people were more than surprised. Surprise turns to shock when they learn he has dropped dead in a crowd of people near the Comet Car display. The autopsy reveals no obvious cause of death, but suspicion is raised when his maid is taken ill the same day. She's been eating his special stock of olives and the olives when examined turn out to have been poisoned with arsenic. Was Mr. Preshore poisoned too? Superintendent Hanslet takes over the case and uncovers a bizarre conspiracy and nearly nabs the wrong suspect. Leave it to Dr. Lancelot Priestley, professor of mathematics and wizard at solving baffling murders to reveal the real murderer.

THE CHARACTERS: Like many of the John Rhode mysteries Dr. Priestley plays only a minor role in Mystery at Olympia (1935). He listens with rapt attention to the story of Nahum Preshore's sudden death and becomes more and more intrigued when it is learned that there have been several attempts on his life. Hanslet, however, is the main detective in this case and he dominates the narrative. Aided by several policeman, lab technicians, and physicians he digs through the curious incidents involving a tainted inhalator, the shotgun wound on Preshore's leg, the poisoned olives, and the strange rules about no one using the rear entry in Preshore's house. He come up with some unusual theories portions of which prove to be true. There seem to be multiple people who wanted Preshore dead. Which one of the several suspects was successful in achieving that goal?

Was it Philip Bryant whose name keeps cropping up in all the interviews? Bryant was Preshore's lawyer and was privy to the contents of his unusual will. Was it Betty Rissington, Preshore's niece who was to be the primary heir to his estate? Could it have been George Sulgrave, a Comet Car salesman who talked Preshore into attending the auto show? Maybe Mrs. Sulgrave, a friend of Betty's, who seemed to be secretly plotting something with Betty? What about the servants in the Preshore household? Mrs Markle, the housekeeper was also in the list of legatees in Preshore's will and as a childhood friend she was to receive a sizable inheritance. Maybe Odin Hardisen who had a feud with Preshore over an unpaid loan of £1000. And what of Micah Preshore, the long lost step-brother who was supposedly living in Argentina? Had he returned to England without anyone knowing? Who was that woman that was overheard talking with Preshore in his forbidden study? No one was allowed in Nahum's private retreat and yet a lace handkerchief was found there one morning indicating the visit of a female with expensive tastes. Preshore's life was filled with secrets and motives for murder. Someone did him in and it takes some clever interrogation and gathering of evidence to ferret out the real culprit and uncover the real motive for his murder.

INNOVATIONS: There is always something ingenious or clever in a John Rhode detective novel. In this case as with a few others the story involves multiple attempts to kill a character and make the death look either accidental or non-violent. The idea of poisoning medicine is a detective novel staple, but only John Rhode would l think of an attempt to poison someone with carbon monoxide by placing zinc and calcium carbonate in a inhalator. The chemical reaction of the two when heated would produce the gas and lead to suffocation. The actual murder method (which I will not discuss) is equally bizarre. Only when Dr. Oldland comes across an unusual citation in a forensic medicine textbook do the detectives consider the most likely means of Preshore's death.

Other than Rhode's trademark of bizarre murder methods Mystery at Olympia is rather a standard detective novel. It's one of Rhode's most straightforward tales, filled with a cast of interesting characters (the liveliest of the bunch being Odin Hardisen), a plethora of excellent clues and a satisfying if not so stellar finale. After all the complexities this tale of murder boils down to a fairly simple way of doing someone in and a time worn motive that should have been guessed at from the start.

Readers unfamiliar with Rhode would do well to start here. It's an excellent introduction to his style of detective novel with just the right amount of his trademark technical lectures and abundance of odd murder means. If Priestley only shines in the finale that is no real drawback; his solution and accusations are succinct and brilliant. This relatively early book (number 21 out of over 80) is one of the better in the very long series that tend to be middling to awful in his later career.

EASY TO FIND? Glory hallelujah, is it ever! After decades of no easily available John Rhode books Harper Collins have managed to reissue three of the Dr. Priestley novels and they are available in either paperback or digital editions. The new reprint of Mystery at Olympia was released for US purchase just this month after having been first released in the UK back in April. Those of you looking for a vintage copy will be hard pressed to locate the original UK edition; it's a true rarity. And keep in mind that the book was published under a different title in the US. Murder at the Motor Show was the revised 1936 title in order to alert American readers where the book was set and that cars and automotive engineering, frequent topics in Rhode detective novels, were featured.

Friday, August 17, 2018

FFB: Three Dead Men - Paul McGuire

Three Dead Men (Brentano's, 1932). US first edition
THE STORY: Prim, restrained, fairly unadventurous Herbert Chuff Horner while vacationing in Brinesey Bay goes sunbathing for the first time. There by the seashore he chances to look up at the cliffs just as a man goes plummeting off a precipice to the rocks below. Mr. Horner is convinced the man did not jump or fall. There was no scream for one thing and the way he fell without flailing his arms or legs is suspicious. Maybe, Mr. Horner tells the police, he was already dead. Several other strange circumstances lead the police to agree with Mr. Horner and he is soon unwillingly enlisted to aid in the investigation which soon uncovers two connected deaths.

THE CHARACTERS: Three Dead Men (1931) begins with an arch, lighthearted, dryly satiric tone as we are introduced to Mr. Horner who we think will be a sort of amateur sleuth and who will outshine the police. But as the novel progresses Horner retreats to the background and Detective-Inspector Cummings of Scotland Yard takes over as lead investigator. Horner does indeed have an innate curiosity and keen observational skills that make him a perfect accidental detective and Cummings takes advantage of those traits. They make a fine duo playing off of each other. The real surprise is that the bulk of the novel is one of the finest examples of a police procedural from the 1930s. Like any contemporary crime novel published these days we are introduced to a battalion of policemen each with his own specialty. There is a fingerprint technician, a tire track expert, the ballistics guy, and even a detective who knows automotive mechanics so well he is brought in to determine exactly how a car's gasoline tank was meticulously emptied so that it would run out of gas at a specific remote spot where one of the victims was then waylaid and murdered. That section was an amazingly modern touch and it felt as if I had time travelled out of 1931 to a techno-thriller of the 21st century.

The suspects are a varied and engaging group consisting of a mix of local yokels, quick witted (for a change) police, and some mysterious hotel guests. Stand outs in the large cast of characters include vile tempered, vulgar and hostile tavern owner Mr. Prump; lovely Miss Temple who seems to be hiding a secret; Covey, a poacher who raises a insanely violent ruckus in order to be deliberately arrested and put in jail; and Dr. Supple who is called upon to perform autopsies and has an odd habit of unexpectedly turning up in the most surprising locations.

McGuire has a talent for replicating a variety of local dialects using a combination of phonetics and unusual grammar peppered with regionalisms and slang. The dialogue is rendered so well I could actually hear distinct accents and voices while reading. Each person in the novel is singularly designed and speaks uniquely in character revealing their personality moreso than what they do.  That's a true writer's gift. McGuire might have been a great talent as a playwright or a screenwriter had he chosen that career path. That this was only McGuire's second novel impressed me even more.

Three Dead Men (Skeffington, 1931) UK edition
INNOVATIONS: I liked the way this novel changed tone and tenor over the course of the story. The wry Wodehouse-like narration that starts us out gives way to a typically puzzling murder mystery, transforms into a fascinating police procedural, then morphs again into a sort of gangster thriller by the time the climax is reached. I have purposely been shying away from vintage fiction this summer. But having immersed myself in a book so thoroughly Golden Age as Three Dead Men I was so pleasantly surprised and fairly rapt from first chapter to the very last page. This book delivers the goods. You definitely get more than you would ever expect from a book with such a boringly pedestrian and unimaginative title. It's overloaded with expert detective novel plotting and ingenious detection with nicely planted clues. There's even a nod to Sherlock Holmes when Cummings and Horner manage to identify an unusual type of tobacco from the remains of a rolled and crushed cigarette. Of course it turns out to be bizarre -- a Brazilian tobacco rolled in a maize leaf! The whole book is filled with wonderful Golden Age details like that. Reading Three Dead Men was like a homecoming for me and renewed my love for the genre that I seem to have a love/hate relationship with these days.

McGuire is daring enough to kill off one of the lead characters at the midway point and considering who that character is it comes as quite a shock. I better not say anymore, but I feel compelled to raise that point because for a 1930s detective novel I was wholly unprepared for the scene. I imagine when this book  was first published readers were gasping aloud. I almost did. I definitely raised my eyebrows when the third dead man turns out to be... Oh! almost went too far there.

QUOTES:  McGuire's writing can often be striking and caught me offguard at the most inopportune moments. There are some typically 1930s sentiments that are inexcusable today (I included one below), but he also displays a knack for lyricism juxtapoised with irony.

"We begin to know something about the mentality of the criminals, Mr. Horner; and you don't fit in. The type is the clever fool, the kind that allows his own cleverness to cloud his vision. If you'll excuse me saying it" --his smile would have pleaded for high treason-- "you're not what I call clever, and you're not, most definitely not, a fool."

"They're fools to kill a policeman. No criminal gets away with that, unless he has the luck of a Chinaman or the help of the Devil."

"They committed murder," said Mr. Horner, and Cummings --who was the model-- could not have said it more impressively, "and they did not remember the noose."

Cummings was genuinely interested; but then he had a patience that was almost like an artist's patience and an artist's curiosity about life as it is variously lived.

A blackbird was singing on an elderberry bush, quite heedless of the cars roaring up and down the road, quite heedless of Mr. Chief Inspector Cummings, quite heedless...of this mortality, of accident and death.

THE AUTHOR: Paul McGuire was born in Peterborough in 1903, educated at Christian Brothers College, Adelaide, and later University of Adelaide. During World War 2, Paul McGuire served with Naval Intelligence, reached the rank of Commander, and was made a CBE in 1951. He had a distinguished career as a diplomat serving as an Australian minister in Italy, Ambassador to Rome, served in the Holy See where he worked with Pope John XXIII and was honored with numerous awards for his services to both Church and state. After his naval service he worked briefly as a journalist for Melbourne Argus which led to fiction writing, literary criticism and an author of history and travel books. His crime fiction began with Murder in the Bostall (1931) and ended with The Spanish Steps, aka Enter Three Witches (1940). He wrote a total of sixteen novels.

EASY TO FIND?  Well...  Oh yeah. You know the drill by now. It's another scarce one, gang.  Only five four! copies offered for sale from online bookselling sites. And with the exception of one copy priced at a steal of $14  they ain't cheap. [...sigh...] Check your local library. I'm guessing if you live in Australia your chances are better than the rest of us.

[UPDATE: That $14 copy is sold as of 12:15 PM, Central Daylight Time. Damn! I wish I could earn a referral commission for all these books I manage to sell for other people once I write about them.]

Friday, August 10, 2018

FFB: The Midnight Mystery - Bertram Atkey

THE STORY: Prosper Fair, vagabond sleuth, has set up his current temporary home and campsite in the forests of Wolf's Head. Shortly after building a fire and settling in for the night he encounters a mysterious figure clothed only in an animal skin, mounted on horseback, and galloping past him in a fury. Prosper's pet dog chases after the man on horseback and returns with an object in his mouth apparently dropped by the fleeing rider. Upon closer inspection Prosper discovers a prehistoric ax made of flint and a rough hewn wooden handle, the stone blade is bloodied. Has murder been done in this dark midnight forest?

THE CHARACTERS: The detective of The Midnight Mystery (1928) is perhaps unique in all of Golden Age detective fiction. There is no other man like him. Prosper Fair is in actuality the Duke of Devizes, a devil-may-care aristocrat who has shirked his title, renamed himself, and left his home Derehurst Castle in favor of life on the road as a vagabond. He is accompanied only by a trio of animals: Plutus, his three legged terrier; Patience, a dutiful and affable donkey; and most surprisingly of all, Stolid Joe, an elephant rescued from a travelling circus. Needless to say Joe draws more attention than either of the other two animals and least of all Prosper himself.  When Prosper tries to set up in the forests of Wolf's Head it is Joe that Hambledon, the forest ranger, is most concerned with. He immediately asks for Prosper's camping permit which he produces with a flourish. Again it is Joe who arouses the curiosity of passer-by Major Giles Wakeling who strikes up an instant friendship with Prosper while discussing the nature of elephants and their innate humanity. From the Major Prosper learns of young woman named Mollie O'Mourn who was found murdered in the forest and some other intriguing incidents that involve the  horseback figure he saw the previous night. Prosper Fair cannot help but try to track down the whereabouts of the mysterious night rider, learn his identity, and determine whether or not he is responsible for the girl's death.

The whimsical nature of the story is further carried out in some of the characters' names of who sport such monikers as Lady Crystal Sheen and Detective Inspector Meek. Often the names are ironic badges as in the case of Meek who is anything but.

We are also treated to a gallery of sinister supporting characters who seem to be up to no good including a Japanese manservant, a stern and homely housekeeper, and a nasty male secretary recently fired from the employ of tortured playwright Alan Bryne. one of this group seems to be running a blackmail and extortion ring, but which of the three is it?  Or are all three involved in a conspiracy?

Prosper Fair encounters the night rider
Harmsworth Red Magazine (Oct 7, 1927)
INNOVATIONS: The Midnight Mystery is an unusual mix of whimsy and Gothic trappings. Atkey does a remarkable job in making Prosper Fair seem like a man out of time, a sophisticated tramp who seems to have stepped out of the 18th century and set foot in the mad world of post World War I. His speech may be antiquated, quaint and endearing, but his observations are wholly serious. He fully recognizes the horror of what took place in the forest of Wolf's Head. The place names in fact add a macabre element that serves to heighten the Gothic atmosphere. In addition to Wolf's Head, we visit a lodge called Tufter's Wait, and the whole of the story is set in a village named Normansrood. Atkey never misses an opportunity to add an extra level of creepiness. Alan Byrne, the playwright, is frequently overcome by strange cataleptic fits which leave him frozen in terror, unable to speak or move. The night rider is described as "a creature of darkness" and a "skin clad specter".

The detective work is reminiscent of late 19th century sleuthing. Prosper has plenty to mull over with footprints and hoof marks, a variety of different colored horse hairs found tangled in bushes, and the odd collection of axes that turn up at various points in the novel. After the flint ax is found, one with a carved obsidian blade turns up, then one of bronze, and finally an iron and steel ax. The night rider seems to be working his way through the evolution of weaponry according to the progression of prehistoric ages. Prosper notices this intriguing rather obvious fact but Meek pays no attention to it dismissing it as fanciful nonsense. Each man is focused on different aspects of the various mysteries with Prosper poring over the more bizarre elements while Meek homes in on the hardcore criminal activity. Both methods will lead to the surprising truth of who killed Mollie and the secret identity of the animal skin wearing night rider.

THE AUTHOR: Bertram Atkey was a prolific writer of novels and short stories with a career lasting close to forty years. He is probably best remembered as the creator of Smiler Bunn, the gentleman adventurer, who appeared in numerous stories and novels from 1912 to the late 1930s. Prosper Fair, his second detective creation, had a much smaller life appearing in only a handful of stories and only three novels. Atkey's nephew and son-in-law Philip Atkey (he married his cousin and Atkey's only daughter) was also a mystery writer. Under his own name and his better known pseudonym Barry Perowne, Atkey's nephew carried on the adventures of both Smiler Bunn and Prosper Fair in a short lived series of stories. All these stories were published in The Saint Mystery Magazine between 1960 and 1965.

EASY TO FIND?  The Prosper Fair books are extremely scarce and of the three titles The Midnight Mystery appears to be a true rarity. There are currently no copies for sale from any online bookselling site I looked at. Arsenic and Gold (1939) (shown above), featuring Smiler Bunn, with exactly ten copies currently offered for sale seems to be the easiest Atkey mystery book to get a hold of.

Prosper Fair detective novels
The Pyramid of Lead (1924)
The Midnight Mystery (1928)
The  House of Strange Victims (1930)

Friday, July 27, 2018

FFB: The Little Lie - Jean Potts

When asked where her fiance Chad has gone Dee Morris tells a lie, The Little Lie (1968). A fib really. She says he's gone to California on business. And because Dee has a habit of telling these little lies and truly believing in them, depending on them to construct her own personal reality, to protect her preciously cultivated status in town, that one little lie leads to more lies. A fib becomes a grand deceit and soon Dee finds herself desperately trying to reconstruct the truth without ever being found out. She can't admit to the lie, she is incapable of admitting to mistakes. And that's her fatal flaw. A plane crash leads everyone to believe that Chad has perished along with all the other passengers and Dee admits to it. But what will happen when everyone finds out that Chad is really alive? To what lengths will Dee go to make sure that her version of the truth remains undisturbed and undiscovered? Dee learns that not everything is in her control and that nothing can ever be predicted.

So many great works of literature have been created out of the concept of "the bigger the lie the more it will be believed". The Children's Hour (1934) by Lillian Hellman being one of the earliest and still one of the finest examples of the power of rumor and lies to change the viewpoint of all people those rumors touch while simultaneously bringing to light deeply hidden secrets. Few writers, however, have been challenged by the concept of the dangers of a fib. In an age when we are confronted with lies by people in power on an almost daily basis, by leaders who manufacture their own reality and wholeheartedly believe in that falseness, The Little Lie reminds us of the dangers of trusting too easily and more perceptively the concept of the liar as manipulator and puppeteer. Like our own misguided and narcissistic President, Dee Morris is trapped in a private world of her own creation, utterly self-absorbed, concerned only with her carefully crafted worldview, her status, and her tenuous happiness. Everyone else be damned. Woe to anyone who crosses her.

Even the slightest interference will only add to the snowballing trouble. The elderly schoolteacher Mr. Fly, a well-intentioned interloper who only wants the best for everyone. His habit of eavesdropping (a favorite plot device of Jean Potts) and gossip leads to a deadly confrontation between Dee and her sister-in-law Erna. Mr. Fly appears to be some sort of adult male version of Pollyanna trying to spread happiness wherever he goes, but only succeeds in augmenting trouble and bringing about ruin instead. In dealing with his intrusions Dee only becomes more desperate. Desperation makes her intractable. Her every action is about self-preservation. If people won't stop talking and gossiping then she will have to take matters into her own hands and permanently silence them.

The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts' finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee's most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie. And it's perfectly fitting in the last paragraphs that it is Mr Fly, the foolish interloper, who discovers Dee finally broken, caught in the web of her own creation, surrounded by her final act of violence with nothing left to do but collapse in a pitiful ironic fit of laughter.

Friday, July 13, 2018

FFB: The Devil & Ben Franklin - Theodore Mathieson

THE STORY: Young Ben Franklin is just starting out his career as a printer in Penn's Town (aka Philadelphia). His most recent editorial in his fledgling newspaper, however, has raised the ire of Colin Magnus, a shipping magnate who seems to have everyone under his control, especially his three daughters and son. Magnus demands a retraction of what he claims is a libelous editorial but Franklin refuses because it is all true. Magnus, a megalomaniac and religious hypocrite, curses Franklin justifying his invocation of Satan to ruin the printer's life as just another act of God who is all too ready to do Magnus' bidding. Shortly thereafter Franklin's printer's assistant is found dead and his journeyman disappears. With the discovery of eerie mark of a burned cloven hoofprint at the scene of each crime it looks as if the curse is flourishing insidiously. The townspeople want Franklin out and a mob rule takes over. Franklin fights back once more by enlisting the services of a fire and brimstone preacher who admonishes the entire town in a magnificent oratory display. The congregation leaves feeling humiliated and chastised. The curse backfires when Colin Magnus is found only a few days later stabbed with a sword in his locked study and another hoofprint left burning near the body. Franklin asks the Lord Mayor for a special commission allowing him to turn investigator. He promises to root out the very human cause of all the deaths and violence, and put an end to the madness of the citizenry who are falling prey to superstition and believing that the Devil, witches and warlocks are in control of Philadelphia.

Ben Franklin Wooing Deborah Read
(from the Granger Collection)
THE CHARACTERS: The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) is set in Philadelphia of 1734 when Ben Franklin is only twenty eight. In this well researched and authentic feeling 18th century historical mystery he is living with his common law wife Deborah Read (affectionately called Debby throughout) and his son William is still an infant. His print shop and work on the Pennsylvania Gazette are his life. We get a sense of his involvement in public life through his volatile writing in the guises of both Poor Richard and Alice Addertongue, his journalistic alter egos. His dialogue -- occasionally sprinkled with the kind of epigrammatic wit he is well known for -- declares strong beliefs, a fervent disdain of superstitious nonsense and a rejection of tyranny in all its forms. That the novel uses a detective story format to reveal his burgeoning career as statesman and philosopher is one of its strongest appeals.

We learn a lot about Franklin's creation of his men's discussion group the Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club. We meet all of its members who will also serve as suspects in the various crimes committed throughout the story. The club as Mathieson envisions it is made up of tradesmen (cobbler, scrivener, bookseller and printer, surveyor) as well as notable public figures like a lawyer and a magistrate. These men are some of Franklin's closest friends. Magnus approaches several of the Junto in an attempt to break up the club. He bribes them, threatens their businesses and does his best to make the curse he invoked come true. His goal is the total ruination of Franklin in family, career and social standing in Philadelphia.

Also featured prominently in the story is Colin Magnus' family. His three daughters are involved with men who also happen to be members of the Junto neatly tying together the two plot threads. Complicating matters is the sudden appointment of Robert Grace (another Junto member) as executor of the Magnus estate after his murder. Magnus who had been controlling his children, preventing them from marrying and in effect imprisoning them in his house wants Grace to carry out his dictatorial wishes by continuing a 24/7 watch on his family. His daughters unfortunately are once again prevented from marrying until they reach legal age. Unknown to Grace and only to Franklin is the fact that Jennifer Magnus is pregnant and planning to elope with the father of her child, William Maugridge (yet another member of the Junto) before her condition becomes too noticeable. Grover Magnus, the only son, who hated his father with an intensity is the prime suspect of his father's murder but he soon falls ill and everyone thinks once again the Devil's curse is manifesting itself and that the remaining members of the Magnus family may soon become targets of violence.

The cast is fairly large and the many supporting characters all have their shining moments. While so much of the story is devoted to the Junto members, the Magnus family and their relationship to Franklin and the killings there are a few outstanding minor characters who steal the spotlight in The Devil and Ben Franklin. One of the nastier villains of the piece is Ezra Peeples, a vile tavern owner so completely immoral and odious that he will not be satisfied with the fruition of the Devils' curse until Franklin is caught and burned alive as all witches are executed. When two more mysterious deaths occur Ezra is responsible for instigating the citizens into violent protests resulting in a lynch mob out for Franklin’s blood.

INNOVATIONS:  Mathieson manages fairly well to carry off a replication of 18th century life in both manner and speech. Only occasionally does the dialogue take on a 1960s contemporary tone. The paranoid atmosphere is maintained with the plot focusing on a Devil's curse and the Philadelphian's descent into superstition and a regression in witchcraft belief.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from Poor Richard's Almanack foreshadowing the action to come often simultaneously making an ironic comment on what will be revealed in that section.

One of the book's highlights takes place when Franklin is forced to flee the town finding refuge in the abandoned Kraft family farmhouse. Or so he thinks. The farmhouse is now home to Franz, a German hermit who is a follower of the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart. Franz is an excellent character, a welcome addition of wisdom and heartfelt humanity after so many pages of wickedness, rancor, and no-win conflict. He becomes an unlikely ally in the war that arises between the Junto members and the mob followers of Ezra Peeples. The climactic scene is a fully realized gunfight and showdown reminiscent of a scene from the western novels so popular only a decade earlier.

The detection ironically is perhaps the weakest portion of the book. Mathieson plants a few clues but relies on some well worn tricks that come as less of a surprise as they do anticlimax. In examining the scene of Colin Magnus' murder the solution to the locked room comes fairly quickly. As it relies on one of Carolyn Wells' "hackneyed devices" that she herself employed several times in her books it is also fairly forgettable. Another "hackneyed device" comes out of nowhere during the denouement and seems to be thrown in just to further rankle the hairs of any traditional detective novel fan.

Even though the finale is somewhat sloppily constructed it in no way diminishes the intelligence and heart of the overall story. I found The Devil & Ben Franklin entirely resonant with our times. Tyranny whether actual or metaphorical is a topic always worth reading about, always worth remembering its dangers.

QUOTES: Ezra Peeples: "What you call goodness is weakness, and I admire no weakling. Evil has its roots in the earth, and good has its roots in the vacant sky. That is why Colin Magnus' curse is more real than a blessing. Enjoy your quiet hour, Ben Franklin, bask in the sun of your success, for be sure it will not last long!"

Why was it that of all the people he knew, Ezra Peeples alone could speak in a way that rimed Ben's heart with ice?

"[God's] given you eloquence Mr. Dakin, there's no doubt of it. And you've convinced me that you may well be the needed savior of a town full of misguided people. If they must wallow in the dust, as you say, let it be the holy spirit and not the evil one that moves them."

"I should like to see His Satanic Majesty chased farther north -- say to New York or Boston, if you can manage it."

Well, if this was the Devil, he told himself derisively, he had shoes on his feet and solid legs, and probably a head to punch if he drew too near without salutation.

THE AUTHOR: Theodore Mathieson (1913-1995)
lived in Oregon for most of his writing career. For seventeen years he taught in California schools, later serving as instructor of English and journalism at Southwestern Oregon College. In 1958 he published his first detective short story "Captain Cook, Detective" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. This led to a further twelve stories all featuring historical figures who used their specific talents and skills to solve murders, many of them involving impossible crime motifs or locked rooms. The detectives included Alexander the Great, Florence Nightingale, Daniel Boone, Stanley and Livingston, and Miguel de Cervantes. A locked room mystery with Leonardo Da Vinci as the detective, called "one of the most ingenious" by Mike Ashley, has been repeatedly anthologized in several short story collections. All of Mathieson's EQMM stories were collected in The Great Detectives (1960). During the 1950s he also published stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, several of which were also later anthologized in other collections. In addition to his adult fiction Mathieson wrote juvenile novels including Island in the Sand (1964) about a 17 year-old boy who exiles himself in Oregon dune country, and two juvenile mysteries featuring The Sleuth Club: The Door to Nowhere (1964), and The Sign of the Flame (1964).

EASY TO FIND? This one is relatively scarce. The book was published in hardcover and paperback in the US and only a handful of copies are offered for sale at various online bookselling sites. Of the two US editions available the paperback from Popular Library (illustration used for this post) is the more abundant and affordable. I could not verify a UK edition.