Friday, August 24, 2018

FFB: Mystery at Olympia - John Rhode

THE STORY: Nahum Preshore was not particularly fond of cars so when he told everyone he was going to the Motor Show at the Olympia people were more than surprised. Surprise turns to shock when they learn he has dropped dead in a crowd of people near the Comet Car display. The autopsy reveals no obvious cause of death, but suspicion is raised when his maid is taken ill the same day. She's been eating his special stock of olives and the olives when examined turn out to have been poisoned with arsenic. Was Mr. Preshore poisoned too? Superintendent Hanslet takes over the case and uncovers a bizarre conspiracy and nearly nabs the wrong suspect. Leave it to Dr. Lancelot Priestley, professor of mathematics and wizard at solving baffling murders to reveal the real murderer.

THE CHARACTERS: Like many of the John Rhode mysteries Dr. Priestley plays only a minor role in Mystery at Olympia (1935). He listens with rapt attention to the story of Nahum Preshore's sudden death and becomes more and more intrigued when it is learned that there have been several attempts on his life. Hanslet, however, is the main detective in this case and he dominates the narrative. Aided by several policeman, lab technicians, and physicians he digs through the curious incidents involving a tainted inhalator, the shotgun wound on Preshore's leg, the poisoned olives, and the strange rules about no one using the rear entry in Preshore's house. He come up with some unusual theories portions of which prove to be true. There seem to be multiple people who wanted Preshore dead. Which one of the several suspects was successful in achieving that goal?

Was it Philip Bryant whose name keeps cropping up in all the interviews? Bryant was Preshore's lawyer and was privy to the contents of his unusual will. Was it Betty Rissington, Preshore's niece who was to be the primary heir to his estate? Could it have been George Sulgrave, a Comet Car salesman who talked Preshore into attending the auto show? Maybe Mrs. Sulgrave, a friend of Betty's, who seemed to be secretly plotting something with Betty? What about the servants in the Preshore household? Mrs Markle, the housekeeper was also in the list of legatees in Preshore's will and as a childhood friend she was to receive a sizable inheritance. Maybe Odin Hardisen who had a feud with Preshore over an unpaid loan of £1000. And what of Micah Preshore, the long lost step-brother who was supposedly living in Argentina? Had he returned to England without anyone knowing? Who was that woman that was overheard talking with Preshore in his forbidden study? No one was allowed in Nahum's private retreat and yet a lace handkerchief was found there one morning indicating the visit of a female with expensive tastes. Preshore's life was filled with secrets and motives for murder. Someone did him in and it takes some clever interrogation and gathering of evidence to ferret out the real culprit and uncover the real motive for his murder.

INNOVATIONS: There is always something ingenious or clever in a John Rhode detective novel. In this case (as with a few others) the story involves multiple attempts to kill a character and make the death look either accidental or non-violent. The idea of poisoning medicine is a detective novel staple, but only John Rhode would think of an attempt to poison someone with carbon monoxide by placing zinc and calcium carbonate in a inhalator. The chemical reaction of the two when heated would produce the gas and lead to suffocation. The actual murder method (which I will not discuss) is equally bizarre. Only when Dr. Oldland comes across an unusual citation in a forensic medicine textbook do the detectives consider the most likely means of Preshore's death.

Other than Rhode's trademark of bizarre murder methods Mystery at Olympia is rather a standard detective novel. It's one of Rhode's most straightforward tales, filled with a cast of interesting characters (the liveliest of the bunch being Odin Hardisen), a plethora of excellent clues and a satisfying if not so stellar finale. After all the complexities this tale of murder boils down to a fairly simple way of doing someone in and a time worn motive that should have been guessed at from the start.

Readers unfamiliar with Rhode would do well to start here. It's an excellent introduction to his style of detective novel with just the right amount of his trademark technical lectures and abundance of odd murder means. If Priestley only shines in the finale that is no real drawback; his solution and accusations are succinct and brilliant. This relatively early book (number 21 out of over 80) is one of the better in the very long series that tend to be middling to awful in his later career.

EASY TO FIND? Glory hallelujah, is it ever! After decades of no easily available John Rhode books Harper Collins have managed to reissue three of the Dr. Priestley novels and they are available in either paperback or digital editions. The new reprint of Mystery at Olympia was released for US purchase just this month after having been first released in the UK back in April. Those of you looking for a vintage copy will be hard pressed to locate the original UK edition; it's a true rarity. And keep in mind that the book was published under a different title in the US. Murder at the Motor Show was the revised 1936 title in order to alert American readers where the book was set and that cars and automotive engineering, frequent topics in Rhode detective novels, were featured.

Friday, August 17, 2018

FFB: Three Dead Men - Paul McGuire

Three Dead Men (Brentano's, 1932). US first edition
THE STORY: Prim, restrained, fairly unadventurous Herbert Chuff Horner while vacationing in Brinesey Bay goes sunbathing for the first time. There by the seashore he chances to look up at the cliffs just as a man goes plummeting off a precipice to the rocks below. Mr. Horner is convinced the man did not jump or fall. There was no scream for one thing and the way he fell without flailing his arms or legs is suspicious. Maybe, Mr. Horner tells the police, he was already dead. Several other strange circumstances lead the police to agree with Mr. Horner and he is soon unwillingly enlisted to aid in the investigation which soon uncovers two connected deaths.

THE CHARACTERS: Three Dead Men (1931) begins with an arch, lighthearted, dryly satiric tone as we are introduced to Mr. Horner who we think will be a sort of amateur sleuth and who will outshine the police. But as the novel progresses Horner retreats to the background and Detective-Inspector Cummings of Scotland Yard takes over as lead investigator. Horner does indeed have an innate curiosity and keen observational skills that make him a perfect accidental detective and Cummings takes advantage of those traits. They make a fine duo playing off of each other. The real surprise is that the bulk of the novel is one of the finest examples of a police procedural from the 1930s. Like any contemporary crime novel published these days we are introduced to a battalion of policemen each with his own specialty. There is a fingerprint technician, a tire track expert, the ballistics guy, and even a detective who knows automotive mechanics so well he is brought in to determine exactly how a car's gasoline tank was meticulously emptied so that it would run out of gas at a specific remote spot where one of the victims was then waylaid and murdered. That section was an amazingly modern touch and it felt as if I had time travelled out of 1931 to a techno-thriller of the 21st century.

The suspects are a varied and engaging group consisting of a mix of local yokels, quick witted (for a change) police, and some mysterious hotel guests. Stand outs in the large cast of characters include vile tempered, vulgar and hostile tavern owner Mr. Prump; lovely Miss Temple who seems to be hiding a secret; Covey, a poacher who raises a insanely violent ruckus in order to be deliberately arrested and put in jail; and Dr. Supple who is called upon to perform autopsies and has an odd habit of unexpectedly turning up in the most surprising locations.

McGuire has a talent for replicating a variety of local dialects using a combination of phonetics and unusual grammar peppered with regionalisms and slang. The dialogue is rendered so well I could actually hear distinct accents and voices while reading. Each person in the novel is singularly designed and speaks uniquely in character revealing their personality moreso than what they do.  That's a true writer's gift. McGuire might have been a great talent as a playwright or a screenwriter had he chosen that career path. That this was only McGuire's second novel impressed me even more.

Three Dead Men (Skeffington, 1931) UK edition
INNOVATIONS: I liked the way this novel changed tone and tenor over the course of the story. The wry Wodehouse-like narration that starts us out gives way to a typically puzzling murder mystery, transforms into a fascinating police procedural, then morphs again into a sort of gangster thriller by the time the climax is reached. I have purposely been shying away from vintage fiction this summer. But having immersed myself in a book so thoroughly Golden Age as Three Dead Men I was so pleasantly surprised and fairly rapt from first chapter to the very last page. This book delivers the goods. You definitely get more than you would ever expect from a book with such a boringly pedestrian and unimaginative title. It's overloaded with expert detective novel plotting and ingenious detection with nicely planted clues. There's even a nod to Sherlock Holmes when Cummings and Horner manage to identify an unusual type of tobacco from the remains of a rolled and crushed cigarette. Of course it turns out to be bizarre -- a Brazilian tobacco rolled in a maize leaf! The whole book is filled with wonderful Golden Age details like that. Reading Three Dead Men was like a homecoming for me and renewed my love for the genre that I seem to have a love/hate relationship with these days.

McGuire is daring enough to kill off one of the lead characters at the midway point and considering who that character is it comes as quite a shock. I better not say anymore, but I feel compelled to raise that point because for a 1930s detective novel I was wholly unprepared for the scene. I imagine when this book  was first published readers were gasping aloud. I almost did. I definitely raised my eyebrows when the third dead man turns out to be... Oh! almost went too far there.

QUOTES:  McGuire's writing can often be striking and caught me offguard at the most inopportune moments. There are some typically 1930s sentiments that are inexcusable today (I included one below), but he also displays a knack for lyricism juxtapoised with irony.

"We begin to know something about the mentality of the criminals, Mr. Horner; and you don't fit in. The type is the clever fool, the kind that allows his own cleverness to cloud his vision. If you'll excuse me saying it" --his smile would have pleaded for high treason-- "you're not what I call clever, and you're not, most definitely not, a fool."

"They're fools to kill a policeman. No criminal gets away with that, unless he has the luck of a Chinaman or the help of the Devil."

"They committed murder," said Mr. Horner, and Cummings --who was the model-- could not have said it more impressively, "and they did not remember the noose."

Cummings was genuinely interested; but then he had a patience that was almost like an artist's patience and an artist's curiosity about life as it is variously lived.

A blackbird was singing on an elderberry bush, quite heedless of the cars roaring up and down the road, quite heedless of Mr. Chief Inspector Cummings, quite heedless...of this mortality, of accident and death.

THE AUTHOR: Paul McGuire was born in Peterborough in 1903, educated at Christian Brothers College, Adelaide, and later University of Adelaide. During World War 2, Paul McGuire served with Naval Intelligence, reached the rank of Commander, and was made a CBE in 1951. He had a distinguished career as a diplomat serving as an Australian minister in Italy, Ambassador to Rome, served in the Holy See where he worked with Pope John XXIII and was honored with numerous awards for his services to both Church and state. After his naval service he worked briefly as a journalist for Melbourne Argus which led to fiction writing, literary criticism and an author of history and travel books. His crime fiction began with Murder in the Bostall (1931) and ended with The Spanish Steps, aka Enter Three Witches (1940). He wrote a total of sixteen novels.

EASY TO FIND?  Well...  Oh yeah. You know the drill by now. It's another scarce one, gang.  Only five four! copies offered for sale from online bookselling sites. And with the exception of one copy priced at a steal of $14  they ain't cheap. [...sigh...] Check your local library. I'm guessing if you live in Australia your chances are better than the rest of us.

[UPDATE: That $14 copy is sold as of 12:15 PM, Central Daylight Time. Damn! I wish I could earn a referral commission for all these books I manage to sell for other people once I write about them.]

Friday, August 10, 2018

FFB: The Midnight Mystery - Bertram Atkey

THE STORY: Prosper Fair, vagabond sleuth, has set up his current temporary home and campsite in the forests of Wolf's Head. Shortly after building a fire and settling in for the night he encounters a mysterious figure clothed only in an animal skin, mounted on horseback, and galloping past him in a fury. Prosper's pet dog chases after the man on horseback and returns with an object in his mouth apparently dropped by the fleeing rider. Upon closer inspection Prosper discovers a prehistoric ax made of flint and a rough hewn wooden handle, the stone blade is bloodied. Has murder been done in this dark midnight forest?

THE CHARACTERS: The detective of The Midnight Mystery (1928) is perhaps unique in all of Golden Age detective fiction. There is no other man like him. Prosper Fair is in actuality the Duke of Devizes, a devil-may-care aristocrat who has shirked his title, renamed himself, and left his home Derehurst Castle in favor of life on the road as a vagabond. He is accompanied only by a trio of animals: Plutus, his three legged terrier; Patience, a dutiful and affable donkey; and most surprisingly of all, Stolid Joe, an elephant rescued from a travelling circus. Needless to say Joe draws more attention than either of the other two animals and least of all Prosper himself.  When Prosper tries to set up in the forests of Wolf's Head it is Joe that Hambledon, the forest ranger, is most concerned with. He immediately asks for Prosper's camping permit which he produces with a flourish. Again it is Joe who arouses the curiosity of passer-by Major Giles Wakeling who strikes up an instant friendship with Prosper while discussing the nature of elephants and their innate humanity. From the Major Prosper learns of young woman named Mollie O'Mourn who was found murdered in the forest and some other intriguing incidents that involve the  horseback figure he saw the previous night. Prosper Fair cannot help but try to track down the whereabouts of the mysterious night rider, learn his identity, and determine whether or not he is responsible for the girl's death.

The whimsical nature of the story is further carried out in some of the characters' names of who sport such monikers as Lady Crystal Sheen and Detective Inspector Meek. Often the names are ironic badges as in the case of Meek who is anything but.

We are also treated to a gallery of sinister supporting characters who seem to be up to no good including a Japanese manservant, a stern and homely housekeeper, and a nasty male secretary recently fired from the employ of tortured playwright Alan Bryne. one of this group seems to be running a blackmail and extortion ring, but which of the three is it?  Or are all three involved in a conspiracy?

Prosper Fair encounters the night rider
Harmsworth Red Magazine (Oct 7, 1927)
INNOVATIONS: The Midnight Mystery is an unusual mix of whimsy and Gothic trappings. Atkey does a remarkable job in making Prosper Fair seem like a man out of time, a sophisticated tramp who seems to have stepped out of the 18th century and set foot in the mad world of post World War I. His speech may be antiquated, quaint and endearing, but his observations are wholly serious. He fully recognizes the horror of what took place in the forest of Wolf's Head. The place names in fact add a macabre element that serves to heighten the Gothic atmosphere. In addition to Wolf's Head, we visit a lodge called Tufter's Wait, and the whole of the story is set in a village named Normansrood. Atkey never misses an opportunity to add an extra level of creepiness. Alan Byrne, the playwright, is frequently overcome by strange cataleptic fits which leave him frozen in terror, unable to speak or move. The night rider is described as "a creature of darkness" and a "skin clad specter".

The detective work is reminiscent of late 19th century sleuthing. Prosper has plenty to mull over with footprints and hoof marks, a variety of different colored horse hairs found tangled in bushes, and the odd collection of axes that turn up at various points in the novel. After the flint ax is found, one with a carved obsidian blade turns up, then one of bronze, and finally an iron and steel ax. The night rider seems to be working his way through the evolution of weaponry according to the progression of prehistoric ages. Prosper notices this intriguing rather obvious fact but Meek pays no attention to it dismissing it as fanciful nonsense. Each man is focused on different aspects of the various mysteries with Prosper poring over the more bizarre elements while Meek homes in on the hardcore criminal activity. Both methods will lead to the surprising truth of who killed Mollie and the secret identity of the animal skin wearing night rider.

THE AUTHOR: Bertram Atkey was a prolific writer of novels and short stories with a career lasting close to forty years. He is probably best remembered as the creator of Smiler Bunn, the gentleman adventurer, who appeared in numerous stories and novels from 1912 to the late 1930s. Prosper Fair, his second detective creation, had a much smaller life appearing in only a handful of stories and only three novels. Atkey's nephew and son-in-law Philip Atkey (he married his cousin and Atkey's only daughter) was also a mystery writer. Under his own name and his better known pseudonym Barry Perowne, Atkey's nephew carried on the adventures of both Smiler Bunn and Prosper Fair in a short lived series of stories. All these stories were published in The Saint Mystery Magazine between 1960 and 1965.

EASY TO FIND?  The Prosper Fair books are extremely scarce and of the three titles The Midnight Mystery appears to be a true rarity. There are currently no copies for sale from any online bookselling site I looked at. Arsenic and Gold (1939) (shown above), featuring Smiler Bunn, with exactly ten copies currently offered for sale seems to be the easiest Atkey mystery book to get a hold of.

Prosper Fair detective novels
The Pyramid of Lead (1924)
The Midnight Mystery (1928)
The  House of Strange Victims (1930)