Friday, May 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

FFB: The Cross of Frankenstein - Robert J. Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, May 4, 2018

FFB: Alias Basil Willing - Helen McCloy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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