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 from 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 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 1950s he 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 two 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 in 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 brutal honesty of the writing reflects how we are meant to think about each person. His style falls just 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.