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.

Friday, July 6, 2018

FFB: Death Wishes - Philip Loraine

Unpleasant people. Unpleasant situations. You can’t escape them if you’re going to read crime fiction. I’m always amazed when I read a review of a crime novel that states the reviewer did not like the book because the characters were unlikeable, unpleasant, untrustworthy, and in general just UN-anything. Why bother reading crime fiction then? Nice people don’t steal, swindle, beat up, torture or kill other people. There are nothing but unpleasant people in Death Wishes (1983) one of Philip Loraine’s last books published in his lifetime. But just because these people are not nice doesn’t make them not worth your attention. This is one crafty bunch of characters and their two-timing and lying make for some fascinating reading.

Basically what we have here is another story about a group of avaricious relatives fighting for the estate of a wealthy patriarch who had little love for anyone other than himself. Edward Walden has one daughter, an alcoholic ex-wife now dead, and a couple of illegitimate children who will crop up during this twisty story of deceit and betrayal. His mistresses and their offspring as well as his servants are expecting to be the primary legatees when the will is read. Imagine their surprise when they hear that the entire estate is left to Catherine, his estranged daughter who has been living in the United States for over twenty years. The household is in a mild uproar and those who were apparently disinherited insist that there was a new will that cut out Catherine and left them the estate to divide into five equal shares.

Catherine who has traveled southern France to the Walden estate (but conveniently skipped out on Daddy’s funeral) finds herself the target of a couple of dangerous young men, their scheming mothers, and a wily butler out for himself. Who will find the correct will? And will Catherine survive the weekend before it turns up? I’ll say no more. Loraine has constructed a neatly plotted story, deceptively simple on the surface but teeming with background intrigues only hinted at in the first few chapters. But in the masterful, exciting finale those intrigues take center stage. All hell breaks loose with a furor of tempers flying, accusations of attempted murder, and a flurry of bizarre revelations and ugly truths finally exposed.

Short and sweet this week, eh? The only thing I’ll add in closing is that in this fourth to last novel of Loraine’s not only are the characters more base but so is his writing. Casual swearing crops up frequently as well as casual sex. Loraine decided to go whole hog with the unpleasantness. Those easily offended by F bombs in language and in the bedroom ought to look elsewhere for their entertainment. For me, Death Wishes hit the right notes of venal and criminal behavior on the printed page. Guess I was sick of niceness this past week.

Friday, June 29, 2018

FFB: Dreamland Lake - Richard Peck

THE STORY: Philip "Flip" Townsend and Brian Bishop, two teen boys guided by a dated book on the history of their hometown Dunthorpe, Illinois set out to find and explore an abandoned amusement park near the shores of Dreamland Lake (1973). To their horror they stumble across a skeleton and they make the local newspapers and receive celebrity status for a few weeks as adventurers. They continue to return to the ruins of the amusement park and discover some sinister artifacts and a weird shrine decorated in swastikas. With a new found tag-along friend Flip and Brian will be forced to confront the fragility of friendship, the stigma of being ostracized and the inevitability of death.

THE CHARACTERS: Flip and Brian are perfectly realized 1970s teen boys. They talk and behave like thirteen year-olds and the adults around them seem just as real. I can speak from authority here because I was thirteen myself in 1973, the year the book was published. The entire story rang true with an astonishing resonance that at times it seemed as if Peck had stolen glimpses from my own life. Everything from their slang, their past times like a very 1970s obsession with old time monster movies on late night TV, the problems with finding a sub for Flip's paper route when other activities take precedence and even their hero worship of a twenty-something athletic and down-to-earth swimming coach -- all of it was spot on. The two boys never once seem older than their years and in fact get a healthy dose of life lessons from Peck's finely rendered adult characters like a teacher trying desperately to instill a respect for modern poetry in her students; Old Man Sanderson, an anal retentive curmudgeon typical of the bullying paper route customer who is out for blood any time Flip deviates form the rules of newspaper delivery; and Old Lady Garrison who I'll talk about in a section below. Not to be left out is the pathetic figure of lonely outcast Elvan Helligrew, a perfectly named misfit who is eager to become Flip and Bri's best friend. Elvan is willing to do anything to impress them. The two boys exploit Elvan for their own ends fooling the boy into thinking he has become "cool" in their eyes. But what happens to the three boys will have dire consequences for all of them and will be the most painful growing experience for Flip and Brian.

INNOVATIONS: Ostensibly a book written solely for a young audience, Dreamland Lake has the remarkable paradox of being a book so fully and truly realized as a microcosm of what is what like to be a kid in the 1970s that it seems almost like a novel of nostalgia. To a kid in 1973 reading this book probably would have seemed almost mundane with its everyday details like Flip's paper route difficulties or the dullness of being forced to compose a modern poem in English class -- called Language Arts in a typically 70s education reform re-labeling. But to an adult reader in the 21st century reading the book now it was like the most vivid trip down Memory Lane. Interestingly, as Peck's writing career progressed he would become increasingly drawn to the past and one of his most successful books was an adult memoir he wrote of his own boyhood. In writing a contemporary book about boys growing up in 1970s Illinois, where Peck himself grew up, he had already mastered a kind of reality that few writers -- both those writing for adults and children -- ever really accomplish.

The mature themes of confronting the ugly truth of Life's finality, particularly unexpected death, is a topic that many 1970s children's writers were incorporating into their work. Often the topic of death in kids' books is ever so gently introduced into the story, sometimes cloyingly depicted and discussed. Peck talks openly about death in Dreamland Lake. The scene where the boys are invited to Mrs. Garrison's home and she relates the story of how she lost her son in a horrible milk truck accident is handled matter-of-factly and without a drop of sentimentality. Mrs. Garrison is not the typical wise old woman who pontificates on somber Very Important Subject Matter the way other writers would use a character like her. She's lived a comfortable life, still grieves for her son, and in telling her tale shows the boys that death is ever present. Better to get used to it at a young age, she tells them, rather than have to deal with it unprepared as an adult. You didn't get scenes like this in kid's books during the 30s, 40s, 50s and rarely in the 60s. The 70s were the decade when children's books were finally growing up.

I’m no real expert in what is now known as young adult genre, but I do know that when I was growing up children’s writers were only just beginning to tackle formerly taboo subject matter for children’s books like puberty, divorce, child abuse, date rape, racial inequality, and even -- as in Dreamland Lake -- facing one’s own mortality. Cute books about talking animals, stories inspired by fairy tales or similar tame "kiddy fare" were no longer making up the majority of children’s books. Children increasingly wanted to read about themselves and their very real problems. Gone too were the teen sleuths who chased after crooked real estate agents and avaricious treasure hunters. The teen protagonists were often criminals themselves – shoplifters, bicycle thieves, burglars and gang members. Flip and Brian engage in some less than legal activities themselves.  Richard Peck was definitely a ground breaker along with his fellow 1970s young adult writers Paul Zindel, Judy Blume and S. E. Hinton.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Flip and Brian talk about their days of swim classes at the YMCA where they were required to swim nude. Believe it or not, this was a national rule in the United States. Nude swimming was required of all males who used YMCA public pools from about 1926 to 1962. This was mandated by the American Public Health Association and thousands of high schools and middle schools that gave swimming lessons also enforced the rule of nude swimming for boys which continued well into the mid-1970s. Girls, luckily, were allowed to wear swimsuits in school swimming pools.  I had to find out more so I went a-Googling. As early as the 19th century when swimsuits were made of woolen textiles, fibers would clog the early filtration systems making for added work of cleaning them almost hourly. To alleviate this unnecessary, time consuming labor the rules about nude swimming were instituted. There were also some supposed added benefits that the APHA created in order to justify the lack of swimsuits in public pools. Prior to getting in a YMCA pool all men's bodies were examined for open wounds or indications of infectious disease. The changing social attitudes towards nudity in YMCA pools and the entire history of nude swimming in the US is outlined in a fascinating article you can read here.

Richard Peck as seen
on a DJ from a 1989 book
THE AUTHOR:  Richard Peck was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois. He grew up during the Depression era with a father who owned a Phillips 66 gas station and a mother who instilled him at a very early age a love of reading and books.  He was educated at DePauw University, Exeter University as an undergraduate and Southern Illinois University and Washington University in St. Louis, MO as a graduate student. During the late 1950 she served two years in the US Army stationed in Stuttgart where he worked as a chaplain's assistant.

His first novel for young people was Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972) which addresses teen pregnancy and was later adapted as the movie Gas Food Lodging.  He has also covered such formerly taboo topics as stalking and the aftermath of teen sexual assault in Are You in the House Alone? (1976) which was adapted as a TV movie in 1978. This novel won Peck an Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. At the advice of some junior high school readers who he visited with he began to explore the burgeoning popularity of supernatural themes in his books for children. His first efforts resulted in a series of well received books featuring Blossom Culp, a girl with skills of a medium who acted as an occult detective of sorts. Blossom first appears in The Ghost Belonged to Me (1975) narrated by an older man looking back on his youth in 1904. While the book is reminiscent of a Mark Twain novel, complete with an alternating folksy and sarcastic humor, the TV movie adaptation Child of Glass (part of "The Wonderful World of Disney" anthology series) is decidedly different and updated to be set in the 1970s.

In addition to the Edgar Peck has won the Newberry Medal, a Newberry Honor, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and been nominated for the National Book Award. He died May 23, 2018 at his home in New York City following a long illness. He was 84.

EASY TO FIND?  Most of Peck's children's books have remained in print since they were first published, no mean feat for someone so prolific. Dreamland Lake can be found in numerous paperback editions dating from 1975 all the way to 2000. Each edition received multiple printings. His many books continue to be very popular in libraries all over the US and Canada. There should be no problem finding a copy of any of his books. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 22, 2018

FFB: The Angel of Death - Philip Loraine

John Lang likes a challenge like any handsome sociopath does. When he learns that the fabulously wealthy Pietro Fontana has in his enviable art collection a mere copy of Da Vinci's "L'angelo della morte" and the real one still resides in an art museum in Florence he sees it as yet another opportunity to exploit the rich for his own benefit. He proposes that he can acquire the Da Vinci painting for Fontana as long as the price is right. And Fontana almost mockingly accepts the offer. Thus the two enter into a pact that leads to art forgery, theft, betrayal and death. You don't expect this kind of book to have a happy ending, do you?

A few week ago I reviewed the first crime novel in Robin Estridge's career as his alter ego "Philip Loraine." The Angel of Death (1961) is more in line with the kind of book he preferred writing - crime and suspense without the whodunit/detective novel angle. As an example of the art heist/caper novel this book is expertly executed and entertainingly done on a much smaller scale than the better known, overly complex capers novels of Lionel White, Donald E. Westlake and their modern imitators. Though lacking in the expected firework action sequences and techno-wizardry of contemporary caper thrillers it achieves a high level of excitement in the simple yet clever method that the painting is switched with a copy and ferreted out of the museum then past the officious Italian border patrol. Lang enlists only two assistants -- a gifted forger and a skilled antique frame builder -- to pull off the theft and switch of the lusted after painting. Of the two Henry Fletcher, a British oil painter, is the more fascinating character. In fact, Fletcher basically steals everyone's thunder in the final pages.

Extremely adept at copying Renaissance masterpieces and imitating nearly every 15th and 16th century Italian artist including Tintoretto, Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Della Francesca and of course Da Vinci Fletcher is an undiscovered genius languishing in obscurity and dependent on small sales of his landscapes and portraits in minor London galleries. Fletcher turns out to be one of the most fully realized characters in a book with a relatively small cast. Among the duplicitous and avaricious villains (there are many!) Fletcher stands afar from the sociopathic charm of Lang and exhibits less greed than the others who are clearly in it for the money. He is the philosopher of the book and seems to be the sole reason that Estridge wrote this unusual thriller. This misguided but genius-like artist wins our admiration and sympathy more than anyone else. For in the end he is the only man who truly knows himself and one of the few men in the cast with a conscience or a soul. His last minute epiphany is fraught with tragic doom. Ultimately, he remains unrecognized for his unearthly talent and instead is flattered as a mere imitator thus rendering himself almost worthless. Estridge is clearly on Fletcher's side and gives him the best lines in the final exciting section of the book and allows him the most poignant of epiphanies. When everyone begins to turn on one another and the simple plan explodes in a series of betrayals and ironic incidents it is Fletcher who has the last laugh even as he faces his own demise.

Last time I reviewed a Philip Loraine book I skipped over the QUOTES section. This time I'll go overboard in treating you to his acerbic wit and trenchant observations:

Fontana to Lang: "We have something in common: it is the quality of aloneness, of the cat. It is probably the only thing we have in common -- or ever will have. No one can be successful without it."

Paolo, a hired thug, is combing his hair while talking to his employer: "I need [this gun]. But I need not use it. Any more than I need to use this." The comb had vanished, replaced by a flick-knife, blade gleaming.
  Brauner sighed. "Oh for God's sake, why are you Italians such children?"

English women are not used to being called "adorable" by total strangers, no one can blame them for liking it.

They crossed the Croisette and descended to the beach where already the nationalities were being laid out side by side in serried rows like prawns waiting to be canned.

He did not care about the money; he only cared that he was supposed to be a person--a human being with a heart and soul who, it seemed, must always face a world without compassion, a world without kindness, honesty or love. Never in all the years [...] that he had been alone had anything pierced him quite so savagely as this betrayal; and it seemed all the worse because the cause of it -- the money -- did not matter to him. It hurt him physically in the stomach. It was as if a brutal dishonest world had rejected him finally as a human being -- as if he could no longer live on the world's terms.

Fletcher to Lang: "Don't bother to lie anymore; it's a bore, you're a bore. You're a complete and utter write-off, both as a human being and as a crook. All you've got is a pretty face and in a few years even that'll look like anybody else's"

And he thought, If this is the world's reward, this feeling of satisfaction when one looks at a beaten man, then I don't want the world.

John Lang reminded me of a more charming Tom Ripley, no less dangerous or cunning, and the book recalls much of the darker explorations of Patricia Highsmith's world of loners, misfits and solipsistic criminals. But unlike a Highsmith novel here we get an unlikely pair of do-gooders trying their best to thwart the plan's of Lang and Fletcher. Stir in a mysterious man in gray on the trail of Lang at every corner and Fontana's watch dog German secretary into the mix and the caper plot begins to bubble over with double-dealing and mistrust. The story is never too complicated and the suspense is maintained throughout. The reader can't help but try to outguess each of the villains in their double-crossing and urge on Benedetto and Joanna as the eleventh hour heroes.

The Angel of Death was published in both the UK and the US. Copies of the US editions, both hardcover first edition and paperback reprint, are the easiest to come by in the used book market.  Fans of the caper novel, lovers of art history, devotees of thrillers set in scenic locales dripping in cultural richness will find much to their liking in this superior entry in the heist novel. I'm eager to read the next Loraine novel in my ever growing pile of his books. He's one of the best discoveries in crime fiction I've stumbled across in years.

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 the debut novel by a writer who would go on to a prolific and rewarding career as a screenwriter. This first 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. 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. The UK edition was titled White Lie the Dead (1950) and is apparently a genuinely rare book as I could find no copies for sale. There are only two known copies in UK library systems. Luckily, the used book market has a good number of copies in all three US 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.