Friday, March 30, 2018

FFB: I Met Murder - Selwyn Jepson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EASY TO FIND? I'll deliver the bad news first. Neither the first US nor the first UK edition are common. In fact, I found absolutely no copies of the UK edition and only two of the Harper & Brothers 1930 edition for sale. The good news is there are many copies available, all of them priced affordably, of the reprint issued by Modern Publishing Company sometime in the 1950s. Exactly when in that decade I haven't a clue because this publisher does not bother with printing copyright information in any of their books. The dust jacket doesn't even identify their own company anywhere! Even better news is that a contemporary reprint exists. But you'll have to be able to read Italian. Polillo Editore released the first Italian translation in 2012 as part of their classic mystery imprint "I Bassotti". Typically for this publisher, the title has been changed and rendered as Tutto iniziĆ² con un calice spezzato (It All Started with a Broken Goblet). I suspect this was done because the original English title is a subtle fair play clue, almost a spoiler, reminiscent of the kind of thing Helen McCloy used to do with her titles.

Friday, March 23, 2018

FFB: Go, Lovely Rose - Jean Potts

US paperback edition (Berkley, 1961)
THE STORY: Coreyville is rid of its worst pest. Rose Anthony has fallen down her cellar stairs and suffered a fatal head wound. Rachel Buckmaster travels from Chicago to settle the estate with her nineteen year-old brother Hartley. Both are relieved the horrible housekeeper who was willed the house by their father and had helped raised the two after their mother's death is finally out of their lives. They plan to sell the place and each can be free of her miserable hold over them...and everyone else in town. But when Rose's look-alike sister Mrs. Pierce arrives to get to the bottom of the accident circumstances arise that lead her to believe Rose was murdered. She has Hartley arrested and is determined to see him on trial for murder. Rachel and young Dr. Craig are equally determined to foil Mrs. Pierce's vengeful plans by proving Hartley's innocence. But things do not look good for the boy.

THE CHARACTERS: At first we think that the story will be told primarily from Rachel's viewpoint, but it is Dr. Craig who mostly takes over the narrative. He acts as a sort of amateur detective while the primary murder investigation is in the hands of Sheriff Jeffreys and a police detective known only as Mr. Pigeon. But over the course of the novel we are allowed to know the thoughts of nearly everyone in the book with only Hartley consigned to the background. He spends most of the book in jail while the others do their best to look for the evidence they need to bring to the police and get him out.

Essentially it is the story of two families: the Buckmasters and the Bovards. In Rachel we see the beginnings of the new crime fiction heroine -- outspoken, willful, risk taking and thoroughly independent. Similarly, Beatrix "Bix" Bovard is the kind of teenager who seems more real than those normally depicted in fiction. Bix is a conflicted young woman on the verge of adulthood, incapable of reining in her volatile emotions, mimicking speech and dialogue from the movies, and generally looking for good time whenever possible. Her homelife is messy, her mother has rejected her and she has a difficult love/hate relationship with her father to whom we know she is utterly devoted. She's a breath of fresh air when she's unself-conscious and poignant in quiet moments when Potts allows us to enter her troubled mind burdened with familial conflicts and her presumed role as a loyal daughter.

Penguin UK paperback
Dr. Craig has his own share of troubles and secrets. Rumor and gossip follow in his wake about how he left his bad marriage and where his wife is now. A minor subplot concerns his attraction to Rachel who complicates matters with her suspicion of ulterior motives. Is the physician interested in helping Rachel clear her brother's name only to be physically closer to her?

The most fascinating person in the cast may be Francis Henshaw, dubbed Francie by the townspeople. In his youth Francie was a go-getter, a handsome young man engaged to marry a banker's daughter and voted most likely to succeed at anything by his high school classmates. That marriage was ruined by Rose and her evil machinations when Francie ended up chained to Rose for decades in a loveless marriage. Now long divorced from his "abomination" of a wife he has fallen into a pathetic hermit's existence. Running a second hand furniture shop he retreats into a world of dusty chairs, rusting metalwork and the cobwebs of his past. A candlestick turns out to be the murder weapon and has gone missing from Rose's home. It's mate was taken out of spite by Francie as part of the spoils of their divorce. Now Bix and Rachel are sure that both candlesticks are hidden somewhere in Francie's shop. The climax of the book involves an elaborate hunt for the murder weapon leading to violence and a showdown with Henshaw in the local hospital.

INNOVATIONS: Go Lovely Rose (1954) won Jean Potts the Best First Novel Edgar award for her debut mystery novel. It belongs to the burgeoning domestic suspense subgenre already becoming more prevalent and popular with the work of her contemporaries like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, neither of whom had written their best books by 1954 making Potts' novel all the more noticeable in her debut. And its quite a performance for a first novel.

Potts helped forge the way for more women writers who were fascinated with dissecting the underbelly of rural and suburban life, rooting out callousness and seemingly inexplicable malicious behavior from which no good comes. As an examination of a horrible woman's vindictive lifestyle and its effect on not just two families, but an entire town, Go, Lovely Rose is easily one of the most arresting and perceptive crime novels of the 1950s. Potts succeeds in finding the balance between attack and compassion in her critique of the small-minded and malicious Rose and the long lasting wounds she has caused. The murder investigation, as is the case in many of these domestic suspense novels, is both a revelation and healing for all. But the restitution of well-being and equanimity for all families involved always comes at a costly price.

Go, Lovely Rose, US 1st edition (Scribner, 1954)
Potts has a writing style both colloquial and sophisticated with a talent for turning phrases that smack of real truth. With so many damaged people in the cast she is never patronizing or judgmental. Potts examines her characters from all angles often resorting to an omniscient narrative voice. She shines her unflattering spotlight on the most conflicted people like Bix and Rose's ex-husband Francis revealing them at their most vulnerable and truthful selves despite their outwardly deceptive ways. She has a fine ear for the way people talk, especially in her two teenage characters, "Bix" Bovard and Hartley Buckmaster. Bix in particular has the most unique speech pattern, kind of a junior 1950s Mrs. Malaprop, in her mispronunciation of ten dollar (scintillating with an "sk" sound) and a general misuse of words she's only seen in print but never heard.

At the heart of the story's mystery is Althea Bovard's unending grief for the death of her son, Ronnie. His ghost hovers over the Bovard house and his name is never far from his mother's lips. No conversation is free from the mention of some memory or wisp of Ronnie's short, difficult life. Ronnie has died more than 15 years ago when Bix was an infant and he is still Althea's favorite child. Primarily because Ronnie was severely disabled, born with Down syndrome though that genetic disorder is referred by its uglier 1950s terms -- Mongoloid and Mongolism. It is a rare writer of any period, let alone the 1950s, who gives us insight into the turmoil and struggles of a parent raising a child like Ronnie. Althea cannot forgive herself for not allowing him a longer life, for failing to find ways for him to adapt. Her grief is her punishment. Ronnie's death will prove to be the most significant aspect of the book, the key to gleaning everyone's unspoken resentments, and the ultimate answer to understanding why Rose Henshaw was such an odious woman.

QUOTES: The morning after Hartley's arrest Dr. Craig woke up late, realized it was Sunday, and lay for a few minutes contentedly surveying his cluttered little back room and his own large feet which stuck out beyond the end of the studio couch. He had forgotten to pull the shades again, and the winter sunshine lay in lemon-colored wafers on the dusty congoleum rug. Simultaneously the Methodist and Presbyterian church bells began ringing, loud and bossy-sounding, as if they were quarreling over the souls of Coreyville. They had something to quarrel about all right, thought Dr. Craig affably. A real prize package: the soul of a murderer.

The detective's name turned out to be Mr. Pigeon, of all things. And he couldn't have looked less like a detective if he had actually had pink feet and a fantail.

"So you're engaged to Etta Kincaid," Rose had said to him. "How nice. And you work down at the bank, for her father. How nice." Thus, with a flick of Rose's tongue, was love reduced to expediency.

"Oh, he's in it all right. He's up to his neck. As for motive -- well, you never can tell about these eccentric old birds. They get notions. They brood over some little thing, magnify it till it turns into what is, to them, perfectly good grounds for murder. It happens all the time -- people get killed for picking their teeth, or wearing the wrong color necktie."

THINGS I LEARNED: That mention of the congoleum rug in that first quote above was a puzzler for me. I always thought that congoleum was a floor tiling. It actually is an offshoot of a roofing material called Congo (supposedly named for the fact that asphalt used as a saturate in the roofing material came from that African region) created in 1902 by the United Roofing and Manufacturing Co. Here's the lowdown from the Congoleum Corporation's "History & Heritage" web page: "It soon became evident that the three foot wide strips of Congo roofing material could easily be used as floor runners to deaden noise and minimize dust and dirt collection in traffic patterns. It was also more durable than the rubber mats which were being used at the time. To differentiate between the Congo roofing and the flooring material, the flooring was given the name Congoleum." So really they were mats. But by the mid 1920s the company managed to make intricate decorative patterns in the material in order to mimic the look of an area rug. There's also another story about how congoleum and linoleum became cousins when two companies merged and the Congoleum Corporation simplified the costly and laborious manufacturing process for making linoleum. Click here for more on flooring material history and development.

THE AUTHOR: Jean Potts was born and raised in Nebraska. After graduation from Nebraska Wesleyan University she became a journalist for a Nebraska newspaper. Later she moved to New York to continue her journalism career and branching out into fiction for magazines. In 1946 her first story was published in Collier's ("The Other Woman") and she continued writing domestic melodramas for other "slicks" like McCall's, Cosmopolitan and Redbook throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After the great success of her award-winning debut mystery novel Go, Lovely Rose she focused more on crime fiction though she would occasionally write a "woman's story". Her crime fiction consists of a handful of short stories nearly all published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and fourteen novels. According to a Nebraska literary website Go, Lovely Rose had been optioned by a London movie company and her 1963 novel The Evil Wish (an Edgar nominee) was supposed to have been filmed with Barbara Stanwyck and Sir Ralph Richardson. Neither movie was made, nor can I find any confirmation that either piece of information is true. Jean Potts died in New York in 1999.

EASY TO FIND? As far as I know none of Jean Potts' novels have been reprinted. Few of her books turn up for sale in the used book market, but there are a handful of paperback copies of both the US and UK editions of Go, Lovely Rose. The US first edition is truly scarce and finding one with a dust jacket is next to impossible. I found no images online of the original first edition dust jacket proving that copies probably haven't been for sale for a long time. (BUT! thanks to Bill Pronzini I now have a photo of the US 1st edition DJ up there in the Innovations section.) Currently there is exactly one copy with a DJ offered for purchase from a Minnesota dealer but that's an ex-library copy.

Friday, March 16, 2018

FFB: Cast a Cold Eye - Alan Ryan

In honor of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow here's an eerie Irish ghost novel.

THE STORY: Jack Quinlan has travelled form the USA to small village of Doolin in western Ireland so that he can research the Irish potato famine for his new book. He plans to spend three months. But within days of settling in he begins to see visions of the past. One in particular --a thin, gaunt girl dressed in tattered clothes -- appears more and more frequently. Even manifesting when he travels to Galway for a getaway. Unsure if he has immersed himself too far in his research and allowing his imagination to run wild or if he is actually in the company of ghosts Jack reluctantly reaches out to Father Henning, the local priest. But he gets little help and some strange warnings. Meanwhile, a group of older men in Doolin are keeping their eyes on Jack for their own secret purposes that have their roots in ancient ceremonies.

THE CHARACTERS: While the story of Cast a Cold Eye (1984) is primarily focused on Jack it is the Irish villagers who give the book its life. Jack meets a young woman Grainne who works in a bookstore and a love relationship slowly develops. Mrs. Mullen is Jack's housekeeper who comes with the cottage rental as part of a package deal. She is also the link to the strange ritual the old men are preparing. The group of old men provide most of the eeriness to the book with so much mystery surrounding their brief meetings and ambiguous conversations. What exactly is going on in Doolin? What do they want of Jack? And will the seemingly kindly Father Henning prove to be less of a holy man than Jack thinks he is?

Jack is something of a frustrating character. Like many of these writer characters in books of the supernatural he is determined to go it alone. He is reluctant to confide in anyone for fear of what they will think of him. The writer and his ego come into play a lot here and often its tiresome. It should be obvious that something is not at all right in the village of Doolin. Many of the townspeople are well aware of the ghostly figures that appear around the perimeter of the village. Instead of relying on his innate inquisitiveness (he is researching a book after all) Jack keeps his thoughts to himself and only too late turns to Father Henning who, of course, is not too forthcoming with answers or explanations. Supposedly this is a tactic to add mystery and suspense, but this approach tends to work against the book.

INNOVATIONS: Ryan's novel belongs to the pagan ritual type of supernatural horror that seemed to explode onto the popular fiction scene back in the 1970s. Cast a Cold Eye (1984) with its overpowering religious motifs, secret ceremonies and blood sacrifices comes a decade after better known books with similar themes like Harvest Home and the cult movie The Wicker Man. I couldn't help but think of the whole lot of them and probably spent too much time trying to outguess Alan Ryan and what he had in store for Jack in the final pages.

The book is strong on atmosphere. Ryan does a fine job of evoking both the beauty of the barren Irish countryside as well as the an unsettling creepiness as we follow the story of a man out of his element. The people of Doolin are not typically sinister as one might find in pulpier versions of this kind of story. Rather, they are genuinely friendly and yet simultaneously distant, holding back a bit, harboring secrets in a tacit way that causes concern. The church scenes reveal a lot about the people of Doolin. These portions of the novel are depicted with great reverence and solemnity and one gets the feeling that the only time the people of Doolin ever feel safe and secure are within the walls of the Church while reciting their Catholic prayers. There is ample mystery here -- both theological and other worldly.

When the finale comes, however, the mystery remains and little is really explained. A strange ceremony does indeed take place. It's disturbing, not really as eerie or gory as Ryan probably intends it to be, and yet the reader hasn't much of a clue what it all means or why it is happening.

The biggest mystery left unexplained -- one that seems the biggest cheat of all -- is why we never get to see or read about the Irish famine. Jack comes to the country to do research on this and we never actually see him do any of that. So much lost opportunity for some rich detail and lore on this important part of Irish history. We are meant to associate the famine with the army of emaciated ghosts, I guess. But it's all as hazy of the foggy Irish bogs Jack strolls through.

THINGS I LEARNED: Irish writers don't pay taxes. I thought this was a joke in a brief dialogue exchange between Jack and Father Henning. Then I had to find out if it was true. Sure enough, it is. Well, it's slightly true. They do pay taxes, but the law is an exemption for a certain type of income. From an Irish history website: "Between 1969 and 2010, Ireland allowed writers and other artists who actually lived in Ireland to exempt all of their royalty income from taxation." The regulation was altered in 1997 in order to redefine what constituted residency and outline the rules related to advance royalty payments. From what I gather this law is still in place. As of January 2015 the maximum exemption allowed for all royalties earned is €50,000.

THE AUTHOR: Alan Ryan was born and raised in New York. He spent his early years as an English teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in Bronx. Ryan's writing career began with literary criticism, then book reviewing, and later as an editor. He wrote several short stories and a handful of novels during the 1980s. Valancourt Books says at that time "Ryan was hailed as one of the bright new lights in the horror field." His other horror novels include The Kill (1982) and Dead White (1983). His short fiction was collected in Quadriphobia and The Bones Wizard. As an anthologist Ryan served as editor and contributor to Night Visions I (1984), Halloween Horrors (1986), Vampires (1987) and Haunting Women (1988). Alan Ryan eventually moved to Brazil where he resided for the latter portion of his life. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple copies of various paperback editions available, both US and UK, in the used book market. The majority of those copies are extremely affordable. Readers who want a new edition can choose from hardcover, paperback or digital all from the masterful Valancourt Books. Cast a Cold Eye was reprinted by this fine publisher in 2016.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

F@200: Monster - Dave Zeltserman

Happy 200th Anniversary to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein! Today marks the bicentennial of the re-release of the novel after its anonymous publication on Jan 1, 1818 and subsequent temporary pull from sale. Shelley's name did not appear on the book until an 1823 edition published in France.

I doubt that those select few who have actually read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley will recall the one page in which Victor Frankenstein describes his initial foray in his quest to absorb all knowledge of natural philosophy. At the age of 15 Victor devoured the occult teachings and arcane books written by Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and the medieval German bishop and alchemist Albertus Magnus. He then describes how he is ridiculed for this immersion in the occult by his professors when two years later enter enters Ingolstadt University to study science and medicine. But Dave Zelterserman did not forget this passage. In composing his spin-off of the tale of monster and creator he took off with this bit of information like a madman fleeing a burning Gothic castle pursued by pitchfork armed villagers.

Monster (2012) is the the tale of Frankenstein told from the creature's viewpoint with Victor Frankenstein cast in the role of sorcerer and alchemist. We learn that the monster is not so much a stitched together body of the best physiques of mortal men but a former apothecarian's assistant who is well versed in physical sciences and chemistry. Friedrich Hoffman is his name and he has sworn vengeance on Frankenstein for what he has done to him. Hoffman was engaged to a marry his beloved Johanna but Frankenstein murdered her and framed Hoffman for the crime who was then arrested, tried and executed in a particularly horrific manner. Then Frankenstein used Hoffman's corpse in his experiment in reanimation while also casting a powerful black magic spell that held Hoffman in Frankenstein's power.

Victor and creature by Harry Brockway
Frankenstein (Folio Society, 2004)
The novel is a fine pastiche of a true 18th century Gothic novel yet also a mash-up of a contemporary noir novel of revenge. You can bet there will be no real happy endings. Zelterserman does his best to replicate the tone and flavor of the Gothic novel's origins with some adept prose style but lays it on thick with horror novel motifs. Hoffman escapes from his prison and sets out to find Frankenstein plotting a revenge that is not so much "eye for an eye" as it is the typical "I'll get you sucker" plot crime fiction fans have read in countless paperback originals of the past and still be being recycled in books, movies and TV. The crime plot is out of place in this overloaded Gothic horror novel replete with Satanists in the woods, supernatural wolves, vampyres (Zeltserman's preferred spelling), black magic spells, and perverse sexual orgies with more than the required debauchery and depravity.

The word depraved occurs repeatedly throughout the story. Monster is clearly meant to be not only a revenge novel but a savage satire on the perversities that pass for thrill-seeking among the soulless and bored. The scenes of human degradation passed off as private entertainments are luckily few. Much of the story is filled with the basic ingredients of penny dreadful shockers of days past with hairbreadth escapes from the numerous villains, several daring feats of rescuing the handful of imperiled women, and an assortment of violent hand to hand fights.

Victor's obsession with alchemy and the occult have so tainted him that he has lost all sight of his former self. Unlike Shelley's conflicted man of science and religion this Victor is amoral in the extreme. Hoffman is not only his creation but his slave held captive with the aid of black magic. In a complete role reversal from his inspiration Zelterserman makes Hoffman the true man of science. using his skills as an apothecarian and his knowledge of chemistry he will succeed in counteracting the magic with a concoction of herbs and chemicals. Later, he also turns the tables on Frankenstein when he steals a page from one of the occultist's secret books planning on using a spell on his creator. The revenge of course smacks of 21st century irony in another nod to noir plotting.

Many readers may be turned off by what seems an inundation of debauchery and Gothic horror. Yet anyone who is familiar with the work of Walpole, Radcliffe, Francis Lathom and Eliza Parsons will recognize that excess is what Gothic novels are all about. German ghost stories and novels like The Necromancer (1794) in fact served as the inspiration for Shelley's novel. With this in mind one cannot help but admit that Monster is one of the more ingenious retellings of the Frankenstein story. About the only thing missing from this story are wicked nuns and corrupt monks and the body of a child found walled up the cellar of an abbey. As an added bonus, now almost expected in a work of historical fiction, there are cameos from real life figures like Samuel Hahnemann (the founder of homeopathy) and the Marquis DeSade himself. Monster may seem like a deluge of horror, wickedness, and unrestrained cruelty but it all rightly belongs there. However, it is not sustained or resolved in the final pages when disappointment and compromise nearly ruin everything.

We learn that Hoffman, unable to age like a human, is doomed to an eternal life. He survives to see the horrors of both world wars, the invention of automobiles and airplanes, and muses on the horror of modern men and their inventions all of which seem like monsters to him. One day he wanders past a bookstore where he discovers a copy of Frankenstein. After reading the book he is enraged by its contents calling it a nothing but lies. Prior to this sequence Zelterserman had pulled off a well researched, but not quite perfect, pastiche of the nascent Gothic horror thriller. When he resorts to obvious preaching on the well flogged topics of man's inhumanity to man, the inevitability of war, and all the rest of it rather than relying on the strength of allegorical meaning in his use of supernatural legends and Gothic trappings the novel ironically loses much of its power and relevance. Hoffman's anger gives way to a resignation and confession as he takes pen to paper to tell the true story of his creation, his victimization and his many crimes all the whole hoping for forgiveness for what he has done. Eliot's lament from "The Hollow Men" -- "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper" -- comes to mind.

Friday, March 9, 2018

FFB: If Wishes Were Hearses - Guy Cullingford

US edition (Lippincott, (1953)
THE STORY: Sometimes you can get much more than what you wish for as George Martin, a pharmacist in East Anglia, discovers when nearly every person he dislikes suffers harmful accidents or die simply because he speaks ill of them. His family think he's becoming foolishly superstitious and not allowing for random coincidence. Then he thinks of taking his "super power" to the next level by actually doing someone in. When Major Vincent James visits George's chemist shop for his refill of sleeping pills George cannot stand the pompous man's attitude and belittling comments any longer. George adds a single arsenic tablet to the sleeping pills and just before he hands it over to Major his nervousness gets the better of him and he drops the pills all over the floor. He summons his wife to help him clear it all up then sends the Major on his way. That night the major dies apparently of a heart attack, but George believes that his murder scheme happened all too quickly. Overcome with guilt he plains to confess to the police until he discovers that poison apparently had nothing to do with the Major's death. Several cover-ups and murder schemes are revealed over the course of the novel and George even though cleared by the police who have no proof of foul play is convinced the Major was murdered. He turns detective in a strange role reversal in order to prove himself guilty or otherwise find out who killed the odious man.

THE CHARACTERS: Mostly told from George and his family's viewpoint eventually the book opens to up to include the viewpoints of the entire cast. We learn of everyone's involvement in the Major's death including the extramarital affair between his wife, Leonora James, and his physician, Dr. Down, who prescribed the sleeping pills for the Major. There are hints that one or the other might have also been tempted to do in Major James. George's intrusive detective work and meddling persistent questions lead to his insistence that Mrs. James hand over all the Major's medicines to him to destroy. His demands only serve to instill fear and paranoia in the widow and sets the doctor thinking George has descended into a strangely obsessive and dangerous behavior pattern. Superintendent Glubb (a not so bright policeman so perfectly named) also thinks George has "gone barmy" and warns him to stop interfering in a case that has absolutely no sign of criminality.

But we as readers know better. Something fishy is going on in Bloxton. Many people had reason to wish the Major dead. And someone most definitely sent him off to an early grave. The majority of the cast is made up of fascinating women characters with two old biddies topping the list as the most memorable. Agnes De'Ath, who goes by the nickname Auntie, is the owner of the William and Mary pub, a local hang out for the working class. In its heyday the "Willyum" was the choice of the elite citizenry of Bloxton, but times have changed. The 88 year-old pub owner, like many a bartender in both real life and fiction, is the surrogate confessor for her many customers. She knows how to ply her guests with alcohol in order to loosen their spirits and their tongues.

When she joins George in his sleuthing she finds her most easily manipulated target in Mother Brose, a filthy hag who lives in a ramshackle hovel at the edge of town. The old woman distributes herbal concoctions to those seeking out folk remedies when George's pharmaceuticals are too expensive to afford. Mother Brose has a dirty little secret, filthier than her home and her clothes and Miss Death (another perfect name!) is determined to uncover it with the help of a bottle of gin, a few kind words and a begrudging tolerance for Mother Brose's unwelcome aroma.

Other stand-outs in the cast are the two White children, Una and Jack, who are fine examples of the modern 50s child who know better than their parents. Also noteworthy are the two Mrs. Whites -- George's put upon wife Mabel, and his bedridden harpy of a mother Nelly White. The final chapter between Mabel and Nelly provides us with the ultimate twist in a story filled with truly unexpected incidents and thrilling turn of events.

UK edition (Hammond, 1952)
INNOVATIONS: Constance Taylor, the real person behind the "Guy Cullingford" pseudonym, was an early practitioner of the kind of genre blending novel that we all know as the modern crime novel highlighted by suspenseful plotting, complex characters, and relevant social criticism as in this novel's case -- an attack on the prejudices in dealing with mentally ill people. Following in the footsteps of the two great Anthony's of the Golden Age -- Berkeley and Gilbert -- Taylor fashioned her own brand of savagely observant stories of murder among common folk.

If Wishes Were Hearses (1952) defies pigeonholing. Here is a crime novel employing detective novel plotting and fair play techniques all the while serving up a story that is not entirely a "whodunit". There are indeed cleverly planted clues about the sleeping pills and even an odd reference to a half eaten pear that lay the groundwork in revealing the murder plot. In one of the more subversive moments it seems that everyone had their hand in killing the Major. But Taylor has a much more devious intent in writing this book than in providing a mere puzzle. Whether seen as a comedy of manners, a satire of small minded village life, or a trenchant study of the criminal fantasies that lie within the dark corners of the soul If Wishes Were Hearses succeeds on multiple levels. Of the Cullingford books I've read so far this has become my favorite of the lot. The book shows off her strengths -- wit, deft characterization, pithy observations and unique storytelling. She never ceases to surprise in her refusal to follow the rigid formula of detective novel plotting.

QUOTES: ... George took care that his duties in the vestry kept him until the gossipers had filtered through the church porch and out of the churchyard gate, a process which took ten minutes at least, as nobody was in a hurry. [...] There was also a state of rectitude to be enjoyed, an afterglow of satisfaction and righteousness

And the truth was, perhaps, that he had worn his filial chains for so long that when they were removed, like many another emancipated slave, he scarcely knew what to do with his liberty.

Mother Brose spat into the hedge, thus with true economy expressing herself on the subject of Council houses.

'Insanity or insanitary', muttered Mother Brose sulkily, 'That's all the same to me.' Issues of life and death have often hung on a yea or a nay. It is only in East Anglia that one could have been suspended on an 'ar'.

Mrs. Nelly White lecturing Mabel: "Nonsense, guilt doesn't always make you run. If you're guilty you are far more likely to be hardened. It's the soft and innocent who take to their heels more often than not."

The cat was out of the bag with a vengeance. And now that it was, no one could have been more genuinely horrified than she who had been instrumental in undoing the string.

There are times when even detectives are susceptible to humiliation.

Miss Death on her preference to suburban life: "London is all right for a visit now and again, to go to the theatres and do a bit of window-gazing. But as for living in it, I'd as soon take up residence in a sewer. But everyone to their taste."


Lloyd Loom chair, circa 1930s
THINGS I LEARNED: In talking about the future of her pub Miss Death denigrates the popular trend in furniture "Put in a lot of little tables with glass tops, I daresay and those chairs, what do they call them? Welshman's looms. Look like a lot of painted baskets to me." She is referring to a specific chair design invented by the Lloyd Loom furniture company. Lloyd may be a Welsh name but everywhere I looked it was referred to as a Lloyd loom chair, never a Welshman's loom. Oddly enough the chair was invented in 1917 in America so it has no right being called Welsh despite the inventor's surname. Here's exactly how the loom chair came to be invented according to the Vincent Sheppard furniture company website:

"Entrepreneur Marshall Burns Lloyd, who was producing baby carriages and strollers [in 1917], found himself confronted with a severe drop in the supply of rattan as a result of the war. As an alternative, he invents a technique in which paper is twisted around a metal wire and subsequently machine woven into large sheets of woven paper thread. When putting the material to use in his production of baby carriages, he discovers that this new material is not only much stronger, but also a lot more softer and thus more comfortable than rattan. He calls his invention the 'Lloyd Loom' technique."

THE AUTHOR: For info on the author see my post on Conjurer's Coffin. I've never been successful in tracking down a photo of Constance L. Taylor. Frustrating.

EASY TO FIND? If you want the real thing you'll be hard pressed to find a first edition. I was unable to verify that it was reprinted in paperback like several of her other books reprinted by Penguin. Finding one with a DJ is next to impossible. Remarkably, the only US edition currently for sale online does come with one. It'll cost you $80 plus shipping. Like all my Cullingford books I bought my copy of If Wishes Were Hearses on eBay years ago for under $10 long before digital books were invented. Speaking of which, all of Guy Cullingford's crime novels (along with a handful of her short stories) are available to those readers who prefer their books digitized. The Murder Room, the vintage crime imprint of Orion Books, offers not only Cullingford's books but several other writer's books and all their reprints come exclusively in digital format.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

FFB: Withered Murder - Anthony & Peter Shaffer

THE STORY: The guests at "The Barnacle," a cozy retreat situated on an island near the Cornish coast, have just returned from watching a rather inept production of Macbeth performed by the local drama society. Everyone is ready for a very late night supper. Some retire to their rooms to freshen up, some remain in the living area, while the rest prepare the dining room for the meal. Everyone gathers together, lights are dimmed, candles are lit for atmosphere and then -- Reverend Radley stumbles in the dark, cries out and faints. When the others come to see what the disturbance is they find the body of Celia Whitley horribly murdered. Who killed her and -- more importantly -- how was it accomplished when her secretary had been writing letters at a table only a few feet from where the body was discovered? Mr. Fathom takes charge, puts the fear of God into all nine suspects, and solves the baffling murder in a short six hours.

THE CHARACTERS: The strangest thing about this detective novel is the detective himself. In the UK editions he is called Mr. Verity while in the US editions he is renamed Mr. Fathom. Why, I have no idea. But the editors did a sloppy job of the renaming. Fathom's original name pops up as Verity twice in my edition of Withered Murder which was published the US in 1956.  Made me scratch my head and pause when it happened the first time and then I had to read about the switch in Hubin as well as an online article about the books.

Whether known as Fathom or Verity (I'll stick with Fathom since that's how I got to know him) he's a blustery wonderful incarnation of the detective as demi-god. Clearly inspired by Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Fathom is a large man of imposing physique with white hair, a dark haired Van Dyke beard, and a loud voice. Like Fell and H.M. it is his manner, speech and approach to crime solving that make him so notable. Fathom has a habit of indulging in grandiloquent speech making and opinionated rants. Insults are frequent during the many interrogation scenes leaving some of his targeted suspects speechless while reducing others to tears.

If the murder victim -- a vain, controlling, predatory former actress -- is painted as a loathsome woman, hated and reviled by everyone, the suspects are not portrayed any better. From the sanctimonious Rev. Radley to the egotistical and temperamental painter Terence Germayne, from curmudgeon of an antiquarian Meredith Blaire to religious hypocrite Mary Arundel there are not many likeable souls to care about. But this is exactly the point; it's a brilliant satire of the English manor house mystery. Every archetype one can imagine is present down to stereotypical gossipy maids who provide Fathom with some subtle clues just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The whole thing smacks of a tongue-in-cheek homage to the traditional British detective novel. We have a baroquely described setting (the hotel is a converted monastery, once the home to a defunct order of fishermen monks known as the Piscatines) entirely suitable for gruesome murder, an evening out to see one of Shakespeare's most bloody and eerie plays, and a set up for a prime motive for Celia Whitey's long overdue death.

Beleaguered Hilary Stanton, Celia Whitely's secretary/companion, is eager to finish up her last duties with her employer and fly off to India to marry her fiance David, a soldier stationed there. But she is being prevented from leaving Celia's service. Hilary's ex-husband, Germayne, and her close friend Colin Grey are incensed. They even toy with the idea of doing Celia harm so Hilary can be free of the controlling woman who seems to want to possess the girl.

INNOVATIONS: The narrative voice is a cruel one -- patronizing, judgmental and quite often sneering in contempt. No one comes off in a good light least of all the god-like Mr. Fathom, the most judgemental character of the lot. Fathom's speech is not only grandiloquent, intended to highlight the book's most melodramatic moments, it is chastising, admonishing, and powerfully accusatory. He stands as the embodiment of Justice and Divine Retribution. Many of his amazingly constructed pronouncements are so dramatic they beg to be read aloud by a stentorian voiced actor. The theatricality of the novel is one of its greatest appeals. Ultimately the intricacy of stage work, illusions and misdirection, and the entire artifice of theater itself will prove to be the greatest inspirations to Fathom and will provide him with the glue that holds together the solution of the two puzzling deaths.

Fathom alludes to several of his previous cases throughout the novel and here the Shaffers get to indulge in their macabre sense of humor and -- I'm guessing mostly Anthony, the real mystery fan of the two -- draw on bizarre details as might be found in the work of John Dickson Carr and Anthony Boucher. One allusion is to a Scottish murderer who incinerated his children on a Yule log then scraped up the ashes and dumped them in his wife's Christmas stocking. Then there is Fathom's mini lecture about Bongo Bey (the Anatolian Slicer) which must be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

It was the most remarkable triumph. Bongo's mistake, you see, lay in slicing the wrong man. He had meant to kill Hussein the Hairy... Instead, however, he shredded a camel-breeder from Baku who was hiding from his creditors behind a knitted beard whose stitches ran at the wrong moment. This was all revealed by the forty-page codicil to his will, found subsequently by myself under the turban of his son-in-law, a fig merchant.

Though rife with allusions to bizarre cases and direct references to detective novel fiction and techniques there is, sad to say, not much fair play detection on display. Fathom makes pronouncements of the vital clues as part of his accusatory approach in the interrogation scenes. However, we never see him gather this evidence. The few fair play moments that might lead the reader to the truly unexpected solution are so subtle they are almost invisible. Unlike the way most veteran mystery writers disguise the most blatant clues as what might otherwise be thought of as minutiae, the Shaffers present the important clues in some of the most bizarre incidents in the book. Only in retrospect does it dawn on the reader that they were as obvious as the location of Poe's purloined letter. For instance, shortly before the body is discovered a cat viciously kills a rat in the presence of nearly every guest just as they are about to eat supper. Later, Fathom asks everyone about the rat's slaughter, where they were when it happened, how they reacted. No one can understand why he thinks it is so important. But it is. Similarly, Fathom asks the hotel owner to carry a chair from her bedroom around to the outside of the house and place it just inside the French doors of the room where the body was found. She's irritated by his bossiness as he tells he to move faster all while timing her speed with his watch. She does as he asks begrudgingly but is completely at a loss as to what it all means to him. The clueing turns out to be blatant in both of these cases and yet requires out-of-the-box thinking to apply them to the solution of the mysteries.

QUOTES: "I see before me that mutilated face, professor. I see beyond it to a filthy terror. I do not in any way wish to indulge in macabre hyperbole, but when so much combines in one spot I feel a sense of doom. Doom as the ancients saw it, as we two perhaps saw it from the beginning."

"A very creditable performance though I have never fully understood why the Bard is invariably made the butt of School Certificate examination. I suppose it must be done on the inoculation theory--inject enough of the stuff at birth and a lasting immunity will result."

Peter Shaffer (circa late 1960s)
"It simply amazes me how little developed people's sense of tragedy is. A sense of balance, amazing eyesight, splendid palates, all this they have, but nary a sense of doom. Can't you feel it all about you?"

"This is not the police, stupid man. It is Fathom. Your innocence of this crime, if indeed you are innocent, would still hang round your lean neck like a halter. Like a bracelet of unrealised intentions. It is what you have in common with your fellow guests, Mr. Radley: the depravity of the things you haven't committed."

"A woman like Miss Stanton marries a man because she finds him intriguing and sexually appealing. She really doesn't care a fig whether he paints like Leonardo or Joe Louis. There are very few women to whom a superb canvas is more important than a pair of meaty male thighs and the Cooperative Society bill settled regularly every Saturday morning. It is my opinion that all three functions were beyond you and she did the only thing sensible in rejecting you."

"Two and two make four. What do Collective Implication and Collective Ignorance make?"
"How the devil should I know?"
"How indeed?" agreed Fathom, and left him.

Anthony Shaffer (circa mid 1970s)
THE AUTHORS: Originally published in the UK under the pseudonym "Peter Antony" the three detective novels featuring Mr. Verity/Fathom are the work of playwright twin brothers Anthony and Peter Shaffer. During the 1960s and 1970s the two would become heralded playwrights with Anthony also picking up acclaim for his screenplay work. Peter wrote the award winning plays Equus and Amadeus, both later adapted for the screen. While Anthony created the landmark mystery thriller Sleuth and adapted both Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun for the screen. Of the two brothers, it is Anthony who was the detective novel devotee. In addition to Sleuth he went on to write three other thrillers for the stage one of which was a parody of the English manor murder mystery called The Case of the Oily Levantine, retitled simply Whodunnit? when it was produced on Broadway. Several of his plays make direct references to the work of Christie and Carr. The influence of Carr is obvious in Withered Murder. Their combined love of theater, stage life and acting, however, are the most important aspects to keep in mind while reading this last of the Mr. Fathom mysteries.

EASY TO FIND? Practically impossible I'm afraid to say. I stumbled across a relatively cheap copy back in 2012 and set it aside for years. I only took it down now because a reader of my blog had seen the photo in a post on dust jackets I did back in December 2012 and asked if it was for sale. I looked to see if there were any copies for sale and was amazed to learn there were absolutely zero copies being offered online. Nevertheless, I agreed to sell the book to him. But of course I also had to read it before I shipped it off. I thought about photocopying it prior to the sale, just in case I wanted to reprint it. Apparently the Shaffers were loath to have their detective novels reissued. During their lifetimes no one had ever been successful in getting their mystery novels back into print. I'm sure it will be even more difficult to get the job done now that they are no longer alive. Anyone out there is welcome to try to revive these books. I have zero energy to devote to the bargaining and involved correspondence these deals usually require. The books do deserve reprinting, especially this last one, a diabolically clever and often sardonically funny murder mystery.

The Mr. Verity/Mr. Fathom Trilogy
The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951)
How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952)
Withered Murder (1955)