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 an early novel by a writer who would go on to a prolific and rewarding career as a screenwriter. This sophomore effort already shows his talent for rich characterization and adroit, well-delineated voices in his often acerbic dialogue. The novel opens with a scene between too supporting characters -- friend of the Kinman family Humphrey Orton and the lawyer Alexander Perowne. Orton is sort of a clone of Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins' odious villain. Like Fosco his repellent physique is offset by his wit and charm. He describes himself as both a procurer of and chaperone for Michael's mistresses. We learn almost all we need to know about Michael and Beatrice in this opening chapter, the most telling tidbit being that Orton will be escorting Michael's most recent paramour Helen Langton (the very antithesis of Beatrice) to the weekend party.

When the story moves into the Kinman home we find a divisive household, some utterly devoted to Michael and others duty bound to Beatrice. Constance Snagge is Beatrice's secretary companion, a mousy spinster in her mature years as besotted with her employer as Beatrice is in love with Michael. Michael too has his share of idol worship in the person of Beatrice's stepson Adrian Templer, a handsome painter with an erratic personality given to bursts of anger and resentment if he learns that anyone is talking ill of Michael or treating him poorly. These two also give Inspector Keen a lot of inside information about their adored figures that no other character is privy to.

Detective Inspector Keen is aptly named, as sharp as a knife with an personality edge just as cutting. Unlike many of the policemen who turn up in novels where a household is divided into two camps of slavish devotion and bitter jealousy Keen is not created as a peacekeeper. In fact, he's one of the more devious characters in the cast. More manipulative than Beatrice herself he exploits his role as a policeman during his brutal interrogations with casual insults, personal attacks, and caustic remarks intended to wound egos and weaken the suspect's carefully cultivated facades. He's as relentless as he is indifferent. All that matters to him is that he find a killer. For he is certain in this household of impassioned remarks and fervent emotions that someone has murdered Beatrice.

INNOVATIONS: The novel has an artful structure that alternates between the present and the past. Just after Beatrice's death takes place the following chapter gives us a detailed history of her past from her career in nursing to her caring for her future husband, many years her senior, ultimately leading up to a Mediterranean vacation where she meets Michael. The omniscient narrative voice allows us to know Beatrice is a detached way well suited to her enigmatic personality. Loraine adopts a cheeky tone often tinged with patronizing judgments and snide wit wholly suited to a novel where the characters are mostly putting on fronts or hiding behind an officious veneer created to protect fragile emotions.

Nearly every character is treated to exhaustive backstories highlighted by neat personal touches and unusual details. Loraine's omniscient narrator gets deep inside each character and the writing reflects how we are meant to think about each person in his choice of vocabulary which is brutal in its honesty, just falling short of what can become, in less talented hands, the voice of a godlike observer passing judgment on fallible and weak people.

THE AUTHOR: In the author bios on the dust jackets of "Philip Loraine's" early books it was clear the writer was not interested in revealing his real name or letting anyone know much about his life. There have never been any photos on his books and his name was not revealed until much later in his career. Robin Estridge, in fact, had a more successful career in the movies as both a screenwriter of original work and adapter of other writer's novels. His most well known book is perhaps the novel The Day of the Arrow (1964) which he adapted for the screen and became the weird neo-Gothic thriller The Eye of the Devil. Most of his novels were a mix of suspense thrillers and espionage adventures. And to My Beloved Husband is one of his few crime novels that could be classified as a traditional mystery.

Estridge had two other novels adapted for the screen by other writers: The Break in the Circle and Nightmare in Dublin. For his own work in screenwriting he received a BAFTA award for The Young Lovers (aka Chance Meeting, 1954) co-written with playwright and novelist George Tabori and five years later was nominated for a BAFTA for his script North West Frontier, a wartime adventure. His more than fifteen other scripts include Checkpoint, a crime drama (1956); Beware of Children, a comedy (1960); and The Boy Cried Murder (1966), a remake of The Window based on a Cornell Woolrich story. He died in 2002 at his home in Oregon.

EASY TO FIND? Though born in England Estridge eventually settled in the USA and most of his books were only published here. 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 only. The used book market has a good number of copies in all three 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.