Friday, October 19, 2018
First, take a look at how Vivian initially approached the detective novel in The Laughing Dog (1949), the fifth book in the series and about the exact midpoint of his crime writing career. It's as traditional as it comes. It may, in fact, be one of the better examples of a finely plotted detective novel with an extremely limited number of suspects along the lines of Cards of the Table, for we are only given four possible suspects in the bizarre strangling murder of Dr. Hugh Challoner.
The plot has a taint of an impossible crime about it without being a locked room mystery for the scene of the crime has several entrances and exits and there were multiple witnesses watching those doors before and after the murder took place. These eyewitness accounts reminded me of similar scenes in Carr's The Emperor's Snuffbox and The Ten Teacups. But rather than being a case of no one exiting or entering it is the opposite -- too many people were seen coming and going from the room, sometimes within minutes of having left. Knollis finds himself with a confounding case, one in which time and opportunity are all important in finding out exactly who among the many people who went into Challoner's consulting room to meet with the doctor was the person who also killed him.
Vivian also has a field day with the title of the book which turns out to be not only the prominent feature in Dr. Challoner's caricature, but also a doodle that turns up repeatedly on pieces of paper and in the doctor's diary. The term recurs throughout the novel until Knollis and his team finally realize what it truly refers to. By then secrets from the doctor's past come exploding into the present further complicating the case and providing ample fodder for motives for his murder.
The detection in The Laughing Dog is some of the best in the few books I've sampled in this brief series. Knollis does an excellent job of sharing information and doling out terse orders to the many police who make up the investigative team. Often the novel succeeds as an excellent police procedural in its depiction of police work and the way Vivian tells it all give the book a very contemporary flavor. There are some well done scenes between Knollis and Sgt. Ellis that elaborate on their friendship which only enhances the way the two work together. Ellis is forever being chided about his meerschaum pipe and the obnoxious tobacco he prefers which Knollis jokingly disparages as a blend of "Devil's Brew, Copper Beech and Senna Pods." Ellis is also an avid cinema-goer and will often suggest they take in a show with Disney cartoons to free up their mind on the case. He tells one cop that Mickey Mouse was responsible for Knollis coming up with the solution to one case. Finally, Knollis is often cajoled into stepping into a cafe where Ellis can indulge in his addiction to tea cakes and pastries along with a nicely brewed cup of tea. They make for an affable team and their discussion of the cases --a mixture of friendly banter, fraternal teasing and hardcore logic -- is a lively meeting of the minds.
The novel is dominated by Grayson's attempt to clear his name but also is teeming with tangential discussions. Vivian covers a wide range of topics including Peter Damian Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence, Lahsen's beliefs in reincarnation, Nestorian Christology, the merits of popular fiction vs. highbrow poetry, and numerous theological and philosophical debates between Grayson and Brother Ignatius. Detection often steps aside to make room for much domestic melodrama between Grayson, his wife and his pre-teen daughter Natalie. In addition to having been evicted from Herby's home the Grayson marriage is on the rocks. Corinne has made up her mind to be a wife to her husband in name only for the sake of their daughter, the intimacy shared by husband and wife she has forsaken. Bran Grayson, however, is determined to regain her heart as well as clearing his name of the murder charge.
And where is Knollis in all of this? He appears very late in the novel, featured in only a few sections with his most prominent scenes in the last two chapters. But rest assured he is dutifully digging through the numerous stories and veiled confessions of the many suspects. It seems as if everyone Knollis meets believes Grayson to be guilty of the murder, but none of them want the writer arrested and tried. Knollis must weed through a handful of implied confessions and dexterously told half-truths to find out who is lying and uncover the true criminal. But his rigid pursuit of the truth in this case may cost him his reputation. A near fatal assumption is averted in the final scenes when Brother Ignatius proves to have the solution of the crime. And the priest must reluctantly break the seal of a confession in order to spare wrongful arrest and prevent besmirching Knollis' career.
As mentioned previously in my review of The Threefold Cord all ten of the Inspector Knollis detective novels have been reissued by Dean Street Press. Each book is available in paperback or as a digital download.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
THE CHARACTERS: Voices in an Empty Room (1973) is told from multiple viewpoints. John Lamb is the primary story teller, but Loraine has divided his book into four cleverly constructed sections that allow him to shift viewpoints and alternate plot lines among the cast of characters. The main plot seems to be about the mystery surrounding Ellie's sudden personality transformation and how this affects the burgeoning romance between John and his fiancee. But Loraine adds more to his labyrinthine story.
A second storyline follows the weird ghostly communications manifested by Lulu Jenkins at the behest of Amelia Guardi. Lulu is a bona fide medium with clairvoyant powers, she can see and hear then vocally recreate scenes from the past by channeling various spirits, and yet also predicts the future. She had these uncanny abilities since she was a child. But she is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and has been easily manipulated by keener, more intelligent people like her former husband who was eager to make a quick buck off of her supernatural ability. Mrs. Guardi, a wealthy woman from Boston who has come to San Francisco to write a book about spiritualism, takes advantage of Lulu's acute powers in an effort to collect proof of life beyond death and that communication with the dead can indeed benefit the living. She is planning to write a book on the subject and gain fame, if not notoriety, in peeling back the veil that separates the living from the dead.
The strong contrast between the two women is handled masterfully and not without a sardonic wit and frequent ironic jabs. It is clear that each will pay dearly for their experiments in the paranormal and mucking about with concepts and events they have no control over. Lulu, a pathetic portrait of wasted talent who is victimized and exploited by corrupt individuals, is not without one fine moment of heroism. In one of her best scenes Lulu's transformation from mouse to lion is brought on by her memory and occurs when Mrs. Guardi repeats a line that Lulu first heard years before uttered by her con artist husband just before he robbed her of her savings and abandoned her. It's a perfect moment, but is ultimately one tinged with irony and failure.
Richie, Ellie's brother, seems initially to appear as a comic character. He's a typical caustically witty queen who turns up in 1970s pop fiction from writers who wanted to appear hip by tossing into their books a token gay character. That Loraine insists on referring to him as a homosexual throughout lessens the intended humor and yet Richie really does have most of the best lines. Luckily, Richie proves to be a firebrand in a couple of key scenes. Hell hath no fury like an angry gay guy. Don't mess with Richie, especially when he's doing his damnedest to save his sister from a hellish malady.
Dr. Hillier, the family physician guarding too many family secrets, and Godfrey Bellfort, the brother of the deeply troubled Stella Bellfort Spencer whose spirit is living again through Lulu round out the cast. Each of these men is as finely drawn as the lead characters and each have striking moments of importance related to the multi-layered story.
Voices in an Empty Room is one of the better supernatural novels to come out of the 1970s when books featuring psychic powers and demonic or ghostly possession exploded in popular fiction and dominated the shelves of the newly created Horror sections in bookstores. Drawing on the motifs and conventions of Victorian sensation and Gothic fiction Loraine has written a tale of madness, ghosts, and corporeal possession that seems less a story of 1973 than one more suited to the era of its influences. He contemporizes these motifs with an ample amount of sex (example: Ellie's possession by the ghostly Micheal is triggered by a lovemaking session with John) and topical references, but the emphasis on family honor, closely guarded secrets, and the preservation of the fabricated story of a troubled relative's life is far removed from the hipper themes of most 1970s novels.
Nevertheless, Loraine's masterful talent in storytelling and his often incisive writing hold sway over the reader. He has structured the novel in such a way with his alternating storylines and slow revelation of multiple secrets that the reader is compelled to move on anxious to get to the end. This page turning frenzy is coupled with the delivery of a truly surprising eleventh hour shock.
Lamb had always believed that any city worth loving must not only be beautiful but full of interesting looking people, with a dash of eccentricity; San Francisco was well endowed with these virtues. He liked a city to be capable of instant generosity, as well as of reserving more secret and more intimate pleasures for those who will love her more deeply...
...the whole persona of this sibylline apparition scared the hell out of [Ellie]; and at the same time she was sure that unlike other people who used the expression "Believe me, I know," Mrs. Jenkins was speaking the exact truth. There was no doubt in Ellie's mind that she did know--but what? It seemed that this question was going to remain forever unanswered...
Mrs. Guardi was a woman who made careful plans and carried them out to the letter and to their conclusion. That there was something almost manic in her determination did not worry her; in this flabby and directionless world, it was the only way to get things done; it was true that occasionally other people had to suffer, but then people had always had to suffer for any great cause.
EASY TO FIND? I found several copies for sale of both US and UK editions, hardcover and paperback. Most of them are affordably priced. Only a few of Loraine's books have been released in digital editions, but not Voices in an Empty Room.