Friday, September 28, 2018

FFB: The Threefold Cord - Francis Vivian

THE STORY: Horror of horrors! Someone has done in poor Mildred Manchester's pets. First her beloved budgerigar Sweetums and then her cat. Both were savagely strangled and loosely wrapped around the neck of each animal was a blue silk cord. Are these warnings that a person is next on the list? Mildred's arrogant husband Fred, a wealthy furniture dealer, demands that Scotland Yard investigate not trusting the police of his local CID who he deems incompetent. But before Inspector Knollis can even set foot on the Manchester premises he gets word that the furniture dealer has been brutally butchered with an axe, his nearly decapitated corpse found in the greenhouse containing his prized cactus collection. And stuffed into of Manchester's jacket breast pocket -- a blue silken cord.

THE CHARACTERS: Gordon Knollis is the detective created by Francis Vivian and he's one of the more interesting of the humanistic detectives. He treats everyone with decency and compassion though he may tend to lose his patience with reckless drivers like young Sir Giles. The Threefold Cord (1947) is his third case and proves to be both macabre and puzzling. Undaunted by the odd clue of the blue ribbons and the prelude of the pet slaughter Knollis quickly gets to the bottom of a murder case that stems from someone's haunted and scandalous past. He's a detective who stands out as a real hero as well as a fine sleuth and he makes the book all the more exciting for his presence.

Among the suspects are a trio of servants (chauffeur, maid and cook/housekeeper) who unlike in most of the formulaic whodunnits of this era are not relegated to the background or offered up as comic archetypes. Rather all three are integral to the plot and solution of the various crimes. The maid, who is in love with the chauffeur, provides some crucial eyewitness testimony and evidence that help Knollis discard some theories and lead him to the correct culprit. Also a stand out is the haughty actress Dana Vaughan, who puts to shame some of Christie's finely drawn actor/actress characters in terms of ego and vanity. Miss Vaughan is starring in a psychological thriller called The Hempen Rope and it will feature prominently in the solution of the crime. Strangulation also occurs in that play. Vaughan is so intense an actress, and the role so torturous to perform, that she suffers from sleepwalking episodes during which she reenacts the strangling scenes. The latest such unexpected victim of one of her "spells" was her dresser at the theater. The play, Knollis will discover, is also coincidentally based on true life and borrows heavily from the past life of one person among the list of suspects in Manchester's murder.

INNOVATIONS: Though nothing really stands out as innovative Francis Vivian's plotting is intricate and his storytelling talent is remarkable for being humorous, engaging and a challenge to any reader who likes to match wits with the fictional detective. Fair play clueing is competent if not stellar or ingenious. Vivian's strengths are his characters and his lively wit, something I think that most detective novels are lacking in and an aspect of mystery fiction I find more and more to be almost imperative.

QUOTES: "You ask very impertinent questions, Inspector."
Knollis nodded as he turned to the door. "Yes, Miss Vaughan, but you must remember that Death has no manners as a general rule. In this instance he was a reformed character, and knocked twice before entering."

"When I left the station I was astounded by the way in which Londoners rushed about, as if the bus coming up the road, or the Tube train coming out of the tunnel, was the last one for hours instead of the last one for two minutes. I felt sorry for them allowing themselves to be caught up in such an idiotic race. Two days later I discovered myself running down an escalator to catch a train that wasn't even signalled in. Silly, isn't it? One sheep goes though the gap in the hedge, and all the others follow. There's a moral in it somewhere."
"Yes. I'm afraid that the human race is more notorious for its stupidity than for anything else. [...] We seem to be rushing to destruction as fast as our legs can take us."

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer,
from a frontispiece in a later
edition of his famed work 
THINGS I LEARNED: On page 133 Knollis, frustrated with his inability to think quickly of the significance of the blue color in the silken cords, cries out "I need a Brewer!" The policeman he is with is puzzled and jokingly replies, "If you need a drink to stimulate your brain..." Then Knollis elucidates: "I mean Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable." This is a reference book that has been in print since its original publication in 1870, but is a book of which I knew nothing. The dictionary is a mammoth volume, the culmination of a lifetime of research into folklore, mottoes, slang and phraseology from everyday life. The author was Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897) who is also known for Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar (1841) and an unusual history book aimed at youth and written in rhyme and verse called Poetical Chronology (of Inventions, Discoveries, Battles, and of Eminent Men, from the Conquest to the Present Time...) (1853). An example from the book: "One-thousand-sixty-six from France the Norman CONQUEROR came/And 20 years by rigour sought the British soul to tame." For more on what can be found in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as well as a brief biographical sketch on Brewer and his awesome research see this fascinating blog post on the Cambridge Library Collection website, the publisher who still keeps Brewer's work in print.

EASY TO FIND? Yes, indeed! (Aren't those two lovely words to read in this section?) In fact, in three days you can buy as many Inspector Knollis mystery novels as you want because all ten of them have been reprinted by the estimable Dean Street Press. And I'm sure that all of them contain a knowledgeable foreword by Curt Evans chockful of all sorts of biographical nuggets on the author and critical insights into the Knollis series. I checked the US amazon site and so far all of these books are available in a Kindle edition, but I found only a few in paperback editions for purchase in the US. If you live in the US I'd recommend going to Book Depository to get a paperback edition. All ten titles are available there as print books and they have free shipping at all times. The prices on Book Depository also often tend to be cheaper than amazon sometimes as much as five dollars less.

I've purchased three of these reprints and am eagerly awaiting their arrival in my home. In the meantime I'm preparing a review of the penultimate Knollis mystery Darkling Death for a post to be published in October.  Stay tuned for more about Inspector Knollis and crew!

Gordon Knollis Detective Novels
The Death of Mr. Lomas (1941)
Sable Messenger (1947)
The Threefold Cord (1947)
The Ninth Enemy (1948)
The Laughing Dog (1949)
The Singing Masons (1950)
The Elusive Bowman (1951)
The Sleeping Island (1951)
The Ladies of Locksley (1953)
Darkling Death (1956)
Dead Opposite the Church (1959)*
*(not a central character)

Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Day of Judgment - Virginia Rath

THE STORY: The end of the world is nigh! Or so says self-professed fortune teller, astrologer and psychic Madame Sapphira. She has set up camp in Coon Hollow in northern California followed by a small group of acolytes to wait out the apocalypse. No one really believes the world is ending. They just want to see what will happen. And while cosmic disaster never occurs human disaster does. No one was anticipating three violent deaths nor that someone among them is a vicious murderer. Sheriff Rocky Allan and his wife happen to be among the guests in the campground and together with their friend Theophilus Pope they uncover many secrets, forgotten crimes, sinful behavior and the identity of the killer.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936) is the second appearance of Virginia Rath's series detective Deputy Sheriff Rocky Allan. He first enters the detective fiction world in Death at Dayton's Folly (1935) a case alluded to several times over the course of this story. He is aided by his devoted wife Eleanor. Rath has created a folksy duo who have settled into a comfortable life as husband and wife and her love of these characters is obvious when the story gives way to lots of chatty and humorous conversations. They joke about the perils of cooking at a campground, for example, with instant coffee jibes turning up often. There is a running gag about a Pope's tendency to catch colds easily and he suffers from a bad one with drippy nose and clogged sinuses for much of the book. Rath has a tendency also -- to overburden her novels with this lighthearted domestic touch, here, however, it serves these two well. Their conversations help the reader to understand how much they care not only for each other but their innate empathy for everyone the come in contact with. While Rocky may be the more cantankerous and intolerant of duplicity and cruelty he is balanced out by Eleanor's deep concern and loving care. No surprise when we learn that Eleanor is nurse.

That is not to say that this is an overly cutesy, Pollyanna-ish novel. Rath is writing about con artists, fraud, blackmail and petty jealousies. In the first two victims we see she has the ability to delve into base human motives and the corruption of the human soul.  Sapphira Barlow and Reverend Saul Cheney are two of the most despicable charlatans you may ever come across in this type of crime fiction. Neither of them is as religious as they claim to be and their love of money takes precedence over and displaces any love of God they might have. But it is their hatred for each other that is the root of all evil when violence explodes on the eve of destruction, the day before the supposed apocalypse.

Rath has some interesting tangential commentary on race too. The origins of young handsome Henry Powell, a wannabe movie star who had a singing career in Mexico, and his ancestral roots become a point of inquiry for Allan and Pope.  Why is Henry so desperate to hide his true identity and his parentage? And why is Maggie Corwin, usually so frank and brusquely opinionated, so unwilling to talk about Henry's past?

Two very young characters who feature seemingly as minor characters -- teenage Lisa, Sapphira's adopted ward and David her 11 year-old grandson -- have plenty to do with Sapphira's complicated past which will slowly be revealed as evidence is collected.  Lisa and David slowly take prominence in the novel as the plot reaches its surprising (dare I say shocking?) climax. Hidden letters, secreted newspaper articles, a locket with a photo, a secret inscription encoded with a Biblical reference all eventually tie into a sordid past littered with murder victims, drug dealing, alternate identities, missing relatives and greedy schemes.

INNOVATIONS: On the surface Murder on the Day of Judgment seems to be yet another book typical of the early Doubleday Crime Club mysteries with a husband/wife sleuthing team, the innocuous chit-chat and joking, but the novel takes unexpected turns into darker territory. Set in rural northern California with a cast of fairly sophisticated city dwellers among the campground guests this is a crime novel that rightly belongs in what I call "country noir". Sapphira is a criminal through and through and in her seventieth decade she shows no sign of turning away from a life consisting of getting whatever she wants at whatever cost. Corruption is omnipresent at Coon Hollow, a force of insidious power. One begins to understand why Rocky is so stern and unforgiving with everyone by the novel's finale. We see in the end that Sapphira's influence has tainted everyone or utterly ruined them. Three characters are revealed as pathetic drug addicts, Lisa was being groomed to become a prostitute, David is inculcated into her fortune telling racket and is seen wearing a ridiculous star covered robe and purple turban throughout most of the novel. The finale and the reveal of the murderer is Rath's final touch of subversiveness in what amounts to a Great Depression era version of transgressive fiction. When the chilling denouement comes it's as if she delivered a final slap in the reader's face.

THINGS I LEARNED: On page 141 I came across this: "I seem to be findin' lots of things." Rocky held out a green Eversharp that had been lying on the floor near the door. "Any idea who this belongs to?" I thought maybe it was a fountain pen. I was very close. Invented in 1913 the Eversharp was one of the earliest and most innovative mechanical pencils manufactured in the United States. Called "a truly groundbreaking innovation" by vintage pen expert David Nishimura, the Eversharp was also one of the most popular. He writes: "By 1921, Wahl-Eversharp was turning out 35,000 Eversharps every day, and had sold over 12,000,000 pieces." For all the details on its invention, production and development visit, Nishimura's fascinating website and catalog of vintage pens for sale.

Rocky also makes this remark: "You been readin' too many stories, sister, where the sheriffs is all dumber'n Dora." And here I though that the "Dumb Dora was so dumb" jokes were the creation of the Match Game writing crew back in the 1970s. Tells you how old the writers were!

THE AUTHOR: Born Virginia McVay in 1905, she taught high school in a mountain railroad town in California, married Carl Rath a railroad telegrapher and worked in a railroad telegraph office during World War II. Virginia Rath was active member of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America for nearly all of her career. In addition to Rocky Allan she created Michael Dundas, a fashion designer based in San Francisco who is also an amateur sleuth. Dundas and his wife Valerie appear in eight books published between 1938 and 1947. Her last contribution to mystery writing goes almost entirely unnoticed. It's a chapter in the round robin novel The Marble Forest (1951) published under the odd pseudonym of Theo Durrant, a name Anthony Boucher borrowed from the real life 19th century killer dubbed "The Demon of the Belfry" by San Francisco newspapers of the time.

EASY TO FIND? Like so many writers of her time Virginia Rath has disappeared into the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom. You'll be hard pressed to find any of her books. Other than The Marble Forest none of her books were reprinted in paperback editions in her lifetime making the hunt for her mystery novels all that more difficult. I find nothing in modern reprints or digital books either. Currently there are four copies of Murder on the Day of Judgment offered for sale, but in order to find three of them you need to misspell the last word in the title as Judgement, with the often superfluous E after the G.  (Oh! the perils of online searching.) Try your library, too. Over the years I've managed to acquire nearly all of her books for a pittance. I don't think Rath's books are too cheap these days as paper books become more and more oddities of human civilization and priced as if they were relics of antiquity.

Rocky Allan Detective Novels 
Death at Dayton's Folly (1935)
Murder on the Day of Judgment (1936)
Ferryman, Take Him Across! (1936)
The Anger of the Bells (1937)
An Excellent Night for Murder (1937)
Murder with a Theme Song (1939) - also features Michael Dundas

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Bookselling Absurdity #57: Buy My Prize, Please!

I went looking for a cheap copy of a very easy to find John Dickson Carr book today and stumbled across this absurd listing on eBay. If you've been having a bad day, then prepare yourselves for a well deserved fit of hysterical laughter this will no doubt unleash.

This edition, I believe, is printed on gold leaf pages with platinum ink.

The shipping price is to the US, by the way. We always get the shaft from eBay sellers on international shipping fees even for a paperback that weighs about 5.5 ounces (155 g). You'd hope that this avaricious madman of a bookseller would at least give you free shipping if you live in Australia. But of course if you had this amount of spare Australian cash to spend on a paperback book published in 1986 (or thought you had it) you'd probably be living in a private sanitarium somewhere in Alice Springs.

Friday, September 14, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Marsh - John Ferguson

THE STORY: Francis McNab, crime reporter and amateur criminologist, receives a letter from Ann Cardew asking him to investigate her father's erratic and alarming behavior. Ann is disturbed by such odd incidents like her father repeatedly checking his shoes carefully and shaking them out before putting them on. He is also often seen staring out the windows of their home nervously scanning the horizon for something -- or someone. Before McNab has chance to even interview Cardew the man drops dead on his front lawn under mysterious circumstances. But there is no sign of foul play at all. The coroner's verdict was leaning heavily towards death by natural causes but the inquest is surprisingly adjourned for one week at the insistence of the police who need to gather more evidence. McNab and reporter Godfrey Chance join in the investigation and prove that Cardew's death was "one of the most diabolically ingenious murders in criminal record."

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Marsh (1930) is narrated by Godfrey Chance, friend and colleague of Francis McNab. Friend is a bit inaccurate, they are more rivals. Chance confesses he has been trying to scoop McNab on a juicy crime case for his newspaper. McNab, under the pen name "The Lamplighter," has a reputation for not only reporting on murder cases that end up becoming causes célèbre he does so with an invigorating style. But Chance is petulant, humorless, impatient and intolerant. Qualities that do not serve him well in his journalism career. McNab on the other hand is engaging, eccentric and fascinating. He also has taste for imaginative writing like Lewis Carroll which Chance disdains. Of course only a man who is an imaginative thinker himself could admire such ingenious nonsense like Alice in Wonderland and therefore is able to penetrate the unusual motive and highly baroque murder method used to dispatch James Cardew. If only Godfrey Chance could grasp that concept, indulge in creative thinking, and tap into his burgeoning inner sleuth, he might become a better reporter and writer.

The suspects are the usual myriad of shifty relatives, arrogant rivals and gossipy servants. Sergeant Strood with his inherent curiosity and avid policing skills is a minor standout in the large cast of characters. But for the most part this is a typical traditional detective novel with stock characters; an eccentric, overly intellectual detective who dominates the story; and his one-step-behind-everyone Watson griping and complaining throughout the story.

INNOVATIONS: The detection is everything here. Ferguson, at least in this one mystery novel, reminds me of Rhode, Connington and Crofts in their most persnickety, overly-analytic modes. A sequence following McNab's collection of several newspaper scraps details the analysis of each piece of paper and after consulting with printers and asking about font, paper texture and color, and of course the actual text and layout of each, he manages to determine from which newspaper each scrap came, the day of each issue, and even whether it was the daily, evening or express edition. This analysis went on for pages. Some may find this kind of thing fascinating, but I no longer have the patience for intensely detailed (translation: boring) detective work. There is also an involved discussion of how fingerprints were left on a cigarette case, the method of taking out and later inserting that case into one's vest pocket, how the placement of fingers in that insertion method will sometimes smudge away the fingerprints... etc., etc. I begin to sympathize with Julian Symons dubbing this kind of detective fiction "the humdrum school."

I liked that Chance is an easily irritated Watson and is always grousing about Francis McNab's odd talent at getting everything right rather than one who is in awe of the genius detective. I also like McNab's frequent bursts of Scottish exclamations. His favorite, by the way, is "Innisbuie!" No idea what it means and neither does Chance so we are left in the dark about that. But I'm sure it sounds startling when exclaimed in the thick brogue McNab is described as having.

As the story progresses it becomes a bit too obvious who the culprit is, but the manner in which clues are laid out from the beginning and the odd pieces of evidence like the blue ribbon with the piece of elastic attached and the cigarette case found at the murder scene are very well done. McNab's sorting out genuine clues from red herrings, his mulling over psychological motives and the thought processes of a killer, all make for entertaining reading even it if at times the ratiocination was a bit over-the-top for my tastes.

Pillion for female horseback rider (circa 1890s)
THINGS I LEARNED: One of the suspects describes someone picking up Ann Cardew on a motor scooter and "taking her home pillion." I had no idea what that meant. In fact, I thought it was a typo. Assiduous Googling led me to discover it was not a printing error at all. "Riding pillion" refers to letting someone ride on the seat cushion behind the driver on a motorcycle. Originally, the word "pillion" was the name of a cushion placed behind a saddle for a woman to ride more comfortably as a passenger on horseback. It now refers mostly to the extra seat behind the driver's seat on a motorcycle.

I learned something else, but I am going to have trouble telling you about it. It's a word with a variant spelling of ...CAN'T REVEAL... which turns out to be the real cause of James Cardew's death. I imagine that anyone trying to find out more about this thing will have difficulty locating the word Ferguson uses in any reference book on the subject matter. I certainly did. The modern and now accepted spelling is very different. I'm guessing he heard the word in another language and then made up his own Anglicized spelling for it. Luckily, the word he invented resembles the modern spelling. Oddly enough, this alternate spelling problem (or completely different naming) specifically related to these things recurs frequently in vintage detective fiction often leading to the reader's confusion. In any case, the facts unearthed about this particular thing were gruesomely fascinating. And that's enough of that skirting-around-the-issue style of writing. Whew!

QUOTES:  "It looks black," [McNab] said; "but, you know, you can build up a case against almost any one."
This seemed mere perversity, as I told him at once. To accuse McNab, the logician, of perversity, was equivalent to accusing a bishop of bigamy.

"One of your chief uses, Godfrey, is that you so often take it upon yourself to act as devil's advocate. It is most helpful. You force me to clarify and purge my thinking processes."

In La Verité et el Criminal that eminent authority, M. Bastin, remarks on the amazing way in which that type of murder which he classifies as a crime of deliberation goes frequently to pieces. That a murder, deliberately planned, should baffle and perplex at first is inevitable. The murderer selects his moment, place and method; he makes at leisure the arrangements he judges necessary to cover all traces, and not till the murder is a fait accompli do the police know anything about it. Then only the intellectual battle begins -- the battle, as McNab put it, of insight against foresight.

THE AUTHOR: Born in Callander, Perthshire in 1871 John Ferguson began his life as a railroad clerk and then was ordained an Episcopal minister which became his primary profession. According to the entry in Scottish Episcopal Clergy, 1689-2000 by David M. Bertie his ministry brought him to Dundee, Guernsey, Glasgow, Drumtotchy. He was chaplain at Eversley School, Kent, from 1915-38, then at Culross, 1939-46. In his writing career he was better known for his plays than his detective fiction. Campbell of Kilmohr in its debut production at Royalty Theatre in Scotland was hailed as 'a new and significant type of Scottish drama' (Glasgow Herald). Ferguson wrote ten crime novels, a mix of suspense thrillers, espionage and detective fiction, between 1918 and 1946. Of those novels five feature criminologist reporter Francis McNab and his rival, Godfrey Chance. Ferguson died in 1952 in Lymington.

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. You're right! Almost impossible. I lucked out in finding my relatively cheap reading copy. Only four copies are currently offered for sale from online dealers, one is a translated German edition. (UPDATE Sept 17, 2018: Astonishingly all four copies were sold within three days after I posted this essay.  I really do want some finder's fees for selling these books.)  I had no luck turning up a digitized version either free online or for sale. Coachwhip Publications has reprinted three of Ferguson's mysteries, however none of them are Murder on the Marsh. The easiest John Ferguson mystery novel to find in the used book market is Death Comes to Perigord reprinted by Penguin in the UK and Dover in the US. Hundreds of copies of that book are out there.

Why Ferguson's books haven't been resurrected by an outfit like British Library Crime Classics is another mystery that will have to go unsolved. He certainly fits the bill for the kind of traditional mystery novel they like to reprint. In many instances I found this one much more engaging, livelier, and more innovative than most of what you find in the BLCC reissues. Murder on the Marsh, probably most importantly, has a satisfyingly baffling murder to figure out. Determining the method itself and how the murder was done is perhaps the only reason a mystery addict would want to read this book. Though in the end it's not at all my preferred style, I have to admit that I really liked the character of McNab despite all his fastidious working out of the murder scheme.

Francis McNab Detective Novels
The Man in the Dark (1928)
Murder on the Marsh (1930)
Death Comes To Perigord (1931)
The Grouse Moor Mystery (1934)
Death of Mr. Dodsley (1937)

Friday, September 7, 2018

FFB: The Ghost It Was - Richard Hull

THE STORY: Amberhurst Place has a history like all homes that date back to the Tudors, including the bonus of two ghosts. Brothers and rivals for the affection of a lovely lady, according to the legend. James Warrenton, the latest owner of Amberhurst Place, is not too happy that the legend has been publicized in a local newspaper. But as a staunch believer in spiritualism he is more than eager to witness his spirits when they fortuitously materialize on the parapets of the abandoned tower on the far end of Amberhurst. All this occurs the very night he invites all his nephews to his home for a dinner party. A second apparition follows on another night with more dangerous results when one of his nephews is found dead at the foot of the tower dressed in an elaborate costume having impersonated one of the ghosts. Was the first apparition as false as this second? And was there a real person also seen in the tower or was that a genuine ghost? Inspector Percival, a coroner, and the surviving members of the Warrenton clan all turn sleuth to find out if ghosts can murder.

THE CHARACTERS: The Ghost It Was (1937) is populated with the lively Warrenton family led by irascible Uncle James who can barely tolerate his four nephews and one niece let alone his patronizing butler Rushton. Hull is a master of this kind of dry British humor and this is a proper satiric send-up of the old Golden Age convention of the heirs battling out for attention and hopefully a huge legacy from the ancient patriarch. James is far from ailing but any reader will know that he is far from safe, especially when the black sheep of the Warrenton family turns up on the doorstep of Amberhurst Place in the guise of an investigative journalist. Gregory Spring-Benson, is the loathsome nephew without a shred of decency and he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for everyone including Uncle James. His interest in the ghosts oddly seems genuine and he is most definitely up to no good. He spends an awful lot of time chatting with Rushton, the butler and they work out an intriguing switch of rooms prior to the first ghost visitation. Arthur Vaughn, however, is onto Gregory and is determined to expose him as a wannabe reporter and an opportunist. He wants Gregory out of the picture, out of the house and out of Uncle James' will. There are a lot of ghost plots in the works. When one of the plots backfires and an impossibility presents itself in just how a second human could have been on the tower the police and other heirs begin to suspect foul play.

Gregory and Rushton tend to steal the spotlight. From the start Gregory seems to be the protagonist, an anti-hero of sorts and we know nearly everything he is plotting. However, the narrative will sharply detour many times and we will get multiple shifts in viewpoint as the plot gets ever more complicated. Rushton, the overly articulate, pompously grammatical butler is supercilious to such an extreme he becomes hysterically absurd. Reading his elaborately constructed sentences and watching as the police routinely complain over his vocabulary only adds to the comedy.

Everyone has the shining moment with the possible exception of Aunt Julia, the only bogey character, who seems to have no real purpose other than as the token dowager and appears in three brief scenes. Even mousy Emily, a bookish dishrag of a character bullied and ridiculed by all the men comes into her own when she witnesses a second crime right after her own bit of totally unexpected derring-do. Bravo for Hull for tossing in this bonus scene of surprising heroics from the least heroic member of the cast. And a hearty "Brava!" to Emily for risking her life in the process.

INNOVATIONS: Hull is mostly known for his experiments in the inverted detective novel and The Ghost It Was is definitely a melding of inverted and traditional detective novel. While there are not many clues as to whodunnit there are indeed more than enough clues, both physical evidence and psychological clues, as to the howdunnit. Really the fun of this novel is in trying to figure out not who the culprit is (that is sadly rather obvious) but just exactly how poor Arthur met his demise and the equally baffling manner in which the second victim was killed. This is Hull’s homage to John Dickson Carr — ghosts, haunted tower, two impossible crimes, all told with wit and farcical comedy and an ample amount of genuine creepiness.

Interestingly, in the final wrap-up the real detective of the piece (a very cleverly done surprise) delivers all the reasoning without stating outright who the killer is. The reader has to glean from how the policeman delivers the information who the true guilty party is. I've come across gimmicks like the writer naming the killer in the final sentence of the book, but this is the first time I've encountered a detective never announcing the name of the killer in a declarative sentence, rather only implying guilt and culpabiilty of the person responsible for all the violence and scheming.

QUOTES: The novel is overloaded with witty comments, juicy barbs, veiled insult humor, nasty quips, and a long section that ridicules wine snobbery that I thought was hysterical. I could quote pages of the book, but I'm picking one perfect exchange to encapsulate Hull's mastery in satiric writing.

"Don't try to be sarcastic, Gregory, it only makes Uncle James more angry."
"Thank you, Henry. I am not angry. I am only being just -- or at any rate," he went on hurriedly, becoming aware of the fact that the last sentence was quite incredible, "justly irritated."

EASY TO FIND? The Penguin reprint of The Ghost It Was is fairly easy to find in the used book market and copies tend to be moderately and fairly priced. The first editions, either the US or UK, are extremely scarce. Those with dustjackets are exorbitantly priced. One UK first (Faber & Faber, 1936) with a DJ in remarkable condition is tagged at US$1500 from a Canadian dealer. The good news a new edition will soon be released by Agora Books (photo of cover at right), the same outfit that brought you eBook editions of two of Hull's other early crime novels Keep It Quiet and Murder Isn't Easy. Paperback and digital editions will be on sale on October 12, 2018 in the US, most likely earlier in the UK.