Monday, December 24, 2018

To Face Unafraid, The Plans That We Made

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

In a shameless promotion for a local theater group -- the Tony award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company -- I offer up this little holiday confection. It's a one minute montage of scenes from their original Christmas pantomime adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier."  I saw this with Joe as part of my birthday theater extravaganza, four plays over two days.  It was by far the best of the lot -- a magical, enchanting and transformative theatrical experience for us both.  If you live in the Chicago area I highly recommend you get tickets before it closes on January 13.  It's one of the most unique and inventive productions I've seen in the 32 years I've been living here. You may feel you were transported to Victorian era England just as we were.


Here's wishing you all a wonderful and memorable holiday season.


May all your wishes come true and may we all

look forward to a saner, more beautiful 2019.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Advent Ghosts 2018: Bring Me Flesh & Bring Me Wine

Another holiday season, another Advent Ghosts Day. Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites writers to dabble in a yuletide drabble each year at this time. It's his way to help honor the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time and also bringing together the blogging and writing community. Drabble? That's a short short story, a micro story I'd call it, of exactly 100 words. No more, no less. Below is my contribution for this wintry ghostly time of year -- a bit of holiday terror, a bit of #MeToo.

"Bring Me Flesh & Bring Me Wine"

“Naughty or nice?”

“Step aside, Chad.”

“Where’s your Christmas spirit? Check it out.” He pointed to the sprig of mistletoe above his head.

She stared him down, sized him up and decided her quick method would work best.

“You want a holiday treat?” She grabbed him by his hair, planted her lips on his and using supernatural strength deeply inhaled with hurricane velocity. Chad was sucked into her mouth, disappearing inside her. No need to bite or chew with this one. She wiped her mouth with Kleenex, made her way to the bar. A sudden feast makes a girl thirsty.

Friday, December 21, 2018

FFB: Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, vol. 3

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, vol. 3 (2018) is a brand new book, but the contents are mostly forgotten. In reviewing the Table of Contents I recognized only three writers' names: Mrs. Riddell, Hugh Conway and Mrs. Henry Wood. There is a Quiller-Couch, too. But this one is Lilian, Arthur's younger sister.  And the old reliable and immensely prolific author "Anonymous" crops up five times. Edited and introduced by Simon Stern, an associate professor of literature and law at the University of Toronto, this latest volume of Valancourt's annual tribute to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories is the usual mixed bag of maturely written and neatly constructed stories and a handful of trifles and vignettes embarrassingly showing their age. Gallivanting among the usual angry specters and troubled ghosts seeking retribution we get a haunted oven, a haunted churchyard, and a literally hitch-hiking creepy yellow-eyed child ghost. Only Mrs. J. H .Riddell's "Walnut-Tree House" seems to have been anthologized before; it was the only story I recognized here.

There are nineteen stories and one silly poem in this latest volume. About one quarter of the tales are mere wisps, two or three pages short, more vignettes and drawn out anecdotes than full-fledged stories. The earliest dated original publication in this collection is the story by Mrs. Henry Wood, "The Ghost of the Hollow Field," which appeared in Newry Commercial Telegraph on Dec 25, 1867.  The remaining tales are taken from newspapers and magazines published mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, with a few taken from the 1870s.

I was slightly disappointed to find three separate homages to Ebenezer Scrooge. "The Wicked Editor's Christmas Dream" is an obvious parody of Dickens and intended as a satire of commercial journalism, while another is straight out plagiarism. Prosaically titled "A Christmas Ghost Story" it substitutes Scrooge for a miserly mill owner named Frank Underwood visited by a single ghost that guides him to three separate scenes of his life which remind him of his cruel and avaricious ways. It all leads to an overnight personality transformation just as with Scrooge. Nothing original at all and one of the many Anonymous tales. Clearly no one wanted to be sued for plagiarism by attaching his or her name to that blatant rip-off.  The third is a rather well done re-telling of the Scrooge and Cratchit work relationship with the clerk almost as villainous as his employer. 

From "Walnut-Tree House"
Illustrated London News, Dec 28, 1878
"Old Simons' Ghost!" with its miserly old man who runs a business of questionable integrity is the best of the Dicken's inspired stories.  The story explores the work relationship between Simons and his beleaguered clerk who finds himself unemployed only a few days before Christmas when Old Simons drops dead in his chair. The clerk dubbed "Artful" Bruff knows that Simons has no relatives and sets up his home in the business determined to find Simons' hidden trove of money. Then on Christmas Eve Bruff is delivered a mysterious triangular shaped trunk with the warning "Not To Be Opened Until Christmas."  It's not hard to anticipate the contents of that trunk nor what follows in the conclusion. Despite the familiarity of the plot the anonymous author, in an ironic send-up and reversal of the usual Dickens sentimental style, tells an interesting story of how Bruff finds himself taking on the traits and attitudes that he despised in his employer. Of note, this is one of two American stories in the anthology. I can only imagine that there were dozens of these homages, on both sides of the Atlantic, after the wild popularity of Dicken's A Christmas Carol in 1843.

Of those I've sampled so far, a handful of the stories contain mystery elements and crimes gone unpunished with themes of revenge featured frequently. A ghost literally points to hidden evidence of who killed her in "The Haunted Ashchurch",  a mother's ghost wanders the streets trying to warn her son of impending danger the same day that a horrible murder occurs in "The Ghost of the Hollow Field",  and "A Dead Man's Face" (by Hugh Conway) haunts a man eager to marry a beautiful American woman who harbors a ghastly secret.

There are a few examples of the comic ghost story including the previously mentioned "...Wicked Editor...";  "The Barber's Ghost," a shaggy dog story that could be told in a few sentences rather than two pages; and the very strange story of "The Haunted Oven" by W.L. Blackley. I had a heck of time getting through this one because Blackley decided to use the voice of an Irish narrator and rendered all of the dialogue and the narration in Irish dialect. Thick Irish dialect. But it's a very bizarre idea for a story - bread baked in the titular oven comes out with dire warnings of impeding death spelled out in reverse letters. The reason for this "haunting" is rationalized with a mix of black humor and absurdity.  It says a lot about the resourcefulness of the Irish characters when building materials are lacking. Why not use old tombstones to finish off building a fireplace oven?

As a quintessential example of what the Victorian ghost story can achieve when in the hands of a talented and imaginative writer look to Lilian Quiller Couch's story "The Devils' Own".  She makes use of her penchant for folklore and presents a tale that is seemingly based on fact. This story features the creepy yellow-eyed child I mentioned above. Poor Octavius Nottage is relentlessly pursued by this hitchhiking apparition whenever he sets out on his wagon making his deliveries. Octavius is ridiculed by the townspeople who never once seriously believe in the ghost child he claims is haunting him.  Only Admonition Ellery feels sorry for him and in her sympathy slowly finds herself falling in love with "Ocky".  In order to get her man she tells him she believes him and lies about witnessing the specter while they ride together on his wagon cart. Then she comes up with a solution to his haunting.  After consulting with her aunt who has knowledge of occult ways she tells Octavius that he must ride with his promised bride, hold her hand, and utter a rhyming spell to chase away the ghost. When Ocky tells Admonition he has no promised bride she looks at him imploringly. And with that one look he understands everything. But there is one more ghastly event before all will turn out well.

Love and ghosts go hand and hand in the Victorian ghost story, especially those told at Christmastime.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018, part two

Here's my second nomination for our vintage mystery blogging community competition to name the "Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018." As you know, last week we all wrote about our first of two books that we think deserve the digital award and the high outpouring of love from the blogging community -- that's you! -- will help decide the winner. For all the details see Kate Jackson's post over at Cross Examining Crime. So enough of this obligatory introduction. Onto the announcement!

Once again I find myself bending the rules because I want to nominate an entire series of books that have been reprinted. Similar to last week's choice of The Threefold Cord by Francis Vivian, I thoroughly enjoy the character of the lead detective. Also, like Vivian this author I'm nominating is a literate writer who is unsparing with his sense of humor. Finally, I think the plots are original and the books are fine examples of the traditional detective novel which of course means that the books include the fast diminishing art (not altogether lost as of yet!) of "fair play clueing."

And so Pretty Sinister Books would like to nominate the newly reprinted detective novels of R. T. Campbell released by Dover, a publisher that seems to be unnoticed by almost everyone in the vintage crime fiction blogging community. And as the best of the lot I select ...drum roll...

Death for Madame by R. T. Campbell

To entice you like a manipulative marketing maven, behold the blurb taken directly from the back cover:

Max Boyle was hoping for a quiet life after the rough and tumble of World War II, but "my life with Professor Stubbs had been nothing more than one damned murder after another, and even in between murders I'd had no peace." As the professor's/amateur detective's assistant, Max is inevitably drawn into the latest imbroglio, this one involving Stubbs' drinking buddy, an amiable lunatic known as Mr. Carr. It seems that Mr. Carr's dotty old Aunt Lottie, who ran a tawdry hotel in Notting Hill, was found strangled in her rocking chair. Each boarder is mentioned in her will, and all of their alibis are weak.

There's more but I'll stop. You get the three best characters listed above, most importantly the detective Professor Stubbs.  Here are my unconventional reasons for selecting this book:
  • Another under-the-radar author of detective novels that everyone shoukd know and read. I only learned of Campbell thanks to Dover's reprints of the first two Prof. Stubbs back in the 80s and now we have four of the seven books available for our reading pleasure.
  • A delightful amateur sleuth who may remind hardcore fans of such stalwart heroes of our genre as Sir Henry Merrivale, Arthur Crook, and Reggie Fortune. Stubbs is another rotund, irreverent, beer guzzling, brilliant man who suffers no fools gladly.
  • Clever plots with lively characters, literate writing and the best of all--
  • Laugh out loud humor like this passage from Chapter 3
He appeared in the doorway wrapped in a voluminous and violently tartan dressing gown, so violent, in fact, that I suspect that it must have been responsible for the interdict on tartan after the 1745 rising. I knew that it would have frightened the guts out of me if I had had anything in the way of a hangover.
Only Bev at My Reader's Block seems to be aware of the adventures of Professor Stubbs. Her review of Bodies in the Bookshop (click on the link to read it) is proof that Campbell still has the power to delight the most discriminating of detective fiction readers. Bev with her often perspicacious reviews has proven time and again to be highly discriminating.

Death for Madame falls at the end of the brief series of seven books, but of the two newest reprints Death for Madame best exemplifies Campbell's approach to the detective novel. The final book in the series Swing Low, Swing Death, has also been reprinted by Dover along with Unholy Dying and Bodies in the Bookshop which were the only Stubbs books available in reprint editions since the late 1980s. Swing Low... is one of the most unusual of the Prof. Stubbs mysteries. As much as I enjoyed it for a whole different set of reasons I couldn't offer it up as the "Best Vintage Crime Reprint" because it is mostly a satire of the modern art world than it is a detective novel.

I know that neither of my nominations will get many votes, (if any at all!) but it did give me a chance to once again remind everyone of the Francis Vivian mysteries with my mention of The Threefold Cord and to clue everyone in about the fine work that Dover Publications is doing in this Vintage Crime Fiction Renaissance. In addition to Campbell's books, over the past year Dover has managed to reprint (all without any fanfare or marketing blitz) books by Frances & Richard Lockridge, Ellis Peters, Joan Fleming (one of my favorites), and even Bill Pronzini and Max Allan Collins.  Time for us to pay a little more attention to the American publishers rather than limiting ourselves to Dean Street Press, British Library Crime Classics and HarperCollins as the hallowed triumvirate of vintage crime reprints.

Voting starts next week and the winner will be announced soon. Good luck to all the nominees!

Friday, December 14, 2018

FFB: The Auctioneer - Joan Samson

THE STORY: Harlowe, New Hampshire has a new resident. Perly Dunsmore set up house in the old Fawkes place and is asked to help raise funds for a new crew of deputies for the town’s meager police force. Perly is a talented auctioneer whose charismatic charm is his primary tool in getting the townspeople to donate their unwanted belongings to the auction that will help raise funds for the deputy’s pay. The success of the first leads to another until the auctions begin to occur almost weekly. With each new fundraiser Perly requires more things to sell. His simple requests for donations become more demanding until people find their homes invaded, their possessions taken away without consent or given up only after violent threats. The Auctioneer (1975) tells the story of a town at the mercy of Perly Dunsmore, his transformation from Good Samaritan to powerful controller of everyone and everything in Harlowe, and the dire effects of giving up and giving in to promises that may never come true.

THE CHARACTERS: Rather than seeing the effect Perly has on the entire town and getting multiple viewpoints and stories of several characters as a contemporary novelist might approach this intriguing set up, Samson focuses her story on the Moore family (John, Mim, daughter Hildie, and John’s mother) who have been farmers in Harlowe for generations. We watch them slowly lose everything they possess, everything they hold dear, including the love they have for each other. On occasion Samson has Mim visit her friends and we get some painful and harrowing vignettes featuring other families. Through Mim’s eyes we see how her friends are dealing with Perly’s sinister command of Harlowe and the treacherous ease with which he simply takes what he wants whenever he wants it.

After having lost her treasured vanity table, a wedding gift from her mother, and watching John’s milking cows taken away for one of the many auctions Mim travels into town to visit Agnes Cogswell, the wife of one of Perly’s chief deputies. Here in a home that the reader thinks may have been spared from Perl’s rapacious collection of furniture and livestock Mim finds just the opposite and worse. Agnes and her husband Mickey have not only given up their belongings, Angie has sacrificed even more – her sanity. Word has travelled fast about the perils of fighting back and refusing Perly’s demands. Some residents have been victims of fatal accidents while others are leaving town taking what little they have left. Agnes fears not for her own life, but for the life of her children. Mim finds Agnes babbling in her kitchen, barely coherent, but clearly not of sound mind. More disturbing is the fact that the Cogswell’s eldest teenage son is patrolling the grounds with a shotgun and two Dobermans to protect the home from unwanted visitors. Mim leaves fearing that she too may succumb to paranoid imaginings and rushes home to make sure that Hildie is unharmed, but deep in her heart praying that her daughter is actually still in the house.

That we never get to know Perly’s thoughts unless he in the company of other characters is Samson’s most effective tool. Everything he does and says is seen through the eyes of the victimized. Perly is rarely seen alone and we never get to know his inner thoughts the way we do those of John and Mim. His dialogue more than his actions is the most terrifying part of the book. His grandiloquent speeches promise a new life for the people of Harlowe – that prosperity is certain the more you spend, that even more riches will follow once you surrender your treasures and prizes that only have sentimental value.

With each sale Perly rewards those who “donate’ their goods with a pittance of a rebate. John’s first check is for $3. By the time he earns $300 for the sale of his own land that brought in $5800 he would rather destroy the money than accept it. Most insidious is the first scene where Perly manages to get Hildie to give away her favorite toy – a red wagon. John is forced to buy it back for $1.50. After that Perly wins the friendship of Hildie who agrees to attend his Sunday school classes. What exactly goes on in those classes we never find out. But it can’t be good.

ATMOSPHERE: Gothic touches come in striking and unexpected sequences as with the omen of poison ivy that slowly encroaches onto the Moore property. John says he will tend to it but he never follows through. Mim sees the aftermath of the ivy infestation when she visits an untended grave in their private family cemetery on the grounds of the farm. With her bare hands she tears out the poison ivy ("It climbed around and around the trunks of the old cheery trees and coiled its way along the branches, like snakes moving toward robins' nests.") and of course suffers the consequences. This leads to a new forced isolation “for fear of starting the plague’ on Hildie and her husband who is already avoiding her and now shuns her in bed.

After telling of her visit with Agnes to John (“She counts her children every night.”) and expressing her fears of farm country being developed into a city of Perly’s imagination John grabs Mim and holds her dearly. Around them the elements seem to rise up and express the dread and fear the Moore’s are feeling:
“John held Mim. The house banged and creaked and clattered as if it were full of secret footsteps. The November wind outside blew over the pond and the pasture and the stand of heavy white pine. It pulled at the shingles of the empty barn and rattled the loose sash, searching out the couple who lay in each other’s arms listening g to the warm breath of the child on the floor beside them.“

QUOTES: "You see me runnin', Ma?" John asked, jolting to his feet so that Hildie slid to the floor.
"Like a jackrabbit, boy," said Ma. "Where you think it's goin' to get you to?"
"Next time I'll stand up and let him shoot me," John shouted. "Then where'll you be?" He yanked the door open.
Ma took a step toward him. "And that's just another way of runnin'," she shouted back.


Mim stood at the sink scraping carrots. "Could we get ourselves on welfare, do you think?" she asked. "It's hardly shameful nowadays."
"Since when?" Ma said. "Maybe not for folk who ain't got sense enough to hang on to what's theirs."


"Things is things. But they can’t take your flesh and blood. And they can’t take the land because we’re on it."
"Words, John. That’s not stoppin’ them."
"This is still America, Mim. They can’t. There’s limits."


THE AUTHOR: Joan Samson attended Wellesley finished her undergraduate work at University of Chicago, received her M.A. from Tufts and married twice. After an interesting nomadic life (that included a home and job in London) she settled in New Hampshire. She held various teaching positions through the 1960s at elementary schools both in the US and the UK, then later became an editor at a literary journal. In the Viet Nam era she and her second husband Warren Carberg became active in the anti-war movement. Her first published work was a non-fiction book, Watching the New Baby, intended to teach children about what it's like having a new sibling. She also began writing short stories. Encouraged by Carberg she expanded one of the stories into The Auctioneer. It was rather a sensation during its day with a huge marketing campaign, rave reviews, sales of over one million copies and even a screenplay option which sadly never led to a movie. In one of life's cruel twists of Fate five months after the book was published Samson succumbed to a terminal illness and died. She has, however, lived long after achieving a cult status with The Auctioneer, her only novel and one that is well remembered, powerfully affecting anyone who has read it.

EASY TO FIND? After being out of print for over three decades The Auctioneer was reprinted this year by Valancourt Books. In this reissue you get the full novel, plus added bonuses of an informative introduction by horror fiction enthusiast and novelist Grady Hendrix, and afterword titled "Remembering Joan Samson" by Warren Carberg. Valancourt offers their books in paperback, hardcover or digital editions. Those who like the feel and smell of old books are in luck as well. There are dozens of copies of both US and UK editions with the US Avon paperback leading the pack. Most of these copies are extremely cheap, but check their condition before ordering. Vintage paperback editions of Samson's only novel far outnumber the hardcover editions. The US first edition is now rather scarce and those with dust jackets in G to VG condition range from $45 to $110.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018, part one


Here’s a list for you. Tell me if you know what they all have in common.
  • Heart to Heart by Boileau-Narcejac
  • Withered Murder by Anthony & Peter Shaffer
  • The Midnight Mystery by Bertram Atkey
  • Three Dead Men by Paul McGuire
  • Thirteen Stannergate by G. M. Wilson
  • Murder on the Day of Judgment by Virginia Rath
  • Stranger on the Highway by H. R. Hays
Pretty easy, I’d say. All of them are fantastic crime novels that still have not been reprinted and the original editions are difficult to  impossible to find now. Plus, all of them are books I’ve written about on this blog praising them and often dropping hints in the final paragraph to publishers that here is a title they ought to reissue. In some cases like G.M. Wilson and Boileau-Narcejac every single book ought to be reprinted. These are the books, I believe, readers would like to see back in print. The gems that have been languishing in Out-of-Printdom (some for over eighty years) and copies of the original editions are disappearing from the face of the planet. Literally! It’s very frustrating to me to see books that readers have been longing for, books that seriously cannot be found anywhere, being passed over for others that are getting their second, third and fourth lives.

Why all this talk about reprints yet again?  Because as we approach the end of 2018 Kate Jackson has rounded up a coterie of in-the-know vintage crime book bloggers who will offer up their opinions on the "Best Vintage Crime Reprint of the Year." It's an unofficial ceremony with no real trophy, only a virtual reward and a round of applause from all the readers of vintage detective and crime fiction. The best part? You get to choose the winner!

Kate will gather all the links to the various blogs at her home Cross Examining Crime.  For the next two Saturdays bloggers will write about two of their favorite books that were lucky enough to be reprinted this year. Then you help decide the winner by voting for your favorite among the 20 books that will be discussed.

I know that I have a completely different idea of what books deserve to be reprinted as opposed to publishers who want to reprint books that will sell. Also, I'm sure I have a radically different idea of what makes an award-worthy reprint from the rest of my book bloggers in this community of  Mystery Fiction worship.  So when I turned to the very long list of reprinted titles throughout this year I was looking for two things
  1. A truly forgotten author, long out of print
  2. Writing and plotting that contributes substantially to the genre
I’m not one who wants to reward a book for finally being reprinted when thousands of copies have been available for decades and people were unwilling to actually buy an old edition. And so I’m not going to be screaming for joy that Patrick Quentin, Christopher Bush or others like them have been reprinted. It’s wonderful to see new editions of these books, but with the exception of a handful of Bush’s mysteries none of them have been truly difficult to find if you wanted to read their books. I’m more interested in discoveries and clever writers who went of print very fast, who were overshadowed by their contemporaries, who never really had a long life in print, never got paperback editions in their lifetime but should have. In short, I'm the champion of the underdogs and the dismissed.

I was excited to see Vernon Loder’s books come back into print. I smiled when The Shop Window Murders caused a minor sensation in the vintage crime blogging community. When I wrote about the book on my blog in 2013 it was one of the most commented on posts of that year. That’s the kind of writer who deserves a revival. That's the kind of book I'm always looking for -- an unusual and imaginative detective novel, filled with humor, oddball characters, bizarre situations. That’s what the genre was all about. That's a book that deserves and award. But someone beat me to that title and picked it first.

And so I move on to my first choice for Best Reprint of 2018:

The Threefold Cord by Francis Vivian
(Actually I wanted to list all of the Inspector Knollis books, but I have to pick one title to signify the best of the lot)

Reasons?
  • I’ve never heard of Vivian before it was announced that his books were being reprinted by Dean Street Press.
  • His books are very difficult to find in original editions. Some cannot be found at all!
  • He is an imaginative writer, inventive with his plots, and engaging in his storytelling.
  • The Threefold Cord has not one, but several, damn good mysteries.
I'm not going to discuss the book. I've already done that here.

That’s the kind of book I want to see more of in this exciting age of renewed interest in detective and crime fiction of the past. Give us writers we’d never find on our own, books that are truly impossible to get hold of. And find books that celebrate the imagination – the one gift that should be the hallmark of a novelist in any genre. Believe me, these are the ingredients of books that will sell. And they make readers happy and eager to read more.

Tune in again next Saturday for my second nomination for Best Reprint of 2018. Oh, and you can wish me a happy birthday then if you'd like.

For the full details on "The Best Reprint of 2018" see this post at Kate's blog.

Friday, December 7, 2018

FFB: Death at the Wheel - Vernon Loder

THE STORY: Two bodies found in cars, both shot dead, within days of one another.  The first is a policeman who has been investigating a sting of jewel robberies. The second corpse is a two bit (or six penny since this is England) fortune teller who calls himself Osiris. The question is - are these two murders or a murder and suicide? Rufus Tate (aka Osiris) seems to be implicated in the jewel robberies and it appears he may have killed the cop and then himself. Arthur Way, the Sulcote chief constable, doubts the verdict at the double coroner's inquest. Too many oddities make the suicide highly unlikely. With the help of a large crew of police, both local and Scotland Yard officials, as well as some surprise ideas from Clare, his fiancee, Arthur uncovers a very strange truth.

THE CHARACTERS: Death at the Wheel (1933) features a large cast led by Arthur Way, a rural chief constable at odds with the more experienced city cops of Scotland Yard.  Arthur, however, sees this unusual set of crimes as an opportunity to shine as the detective he always wanted to be. He has some very ingenious ideas how to approach the crime and is complimented for his contributions.  Scotland Yard should be assisting only at his instruction but that doesn't stop Assistant Commissioner Cance from setting up a rather unethical undercover operation with his ace detective Inspector Brow. When Arthur stumbles upon Brow in the disguise of a fly fisherman on holiday he becomes very angry.

Meanwhile, Clare's stepfather Holroyd Sayce is targeted as the primary suspect as the mastermind of the jewel robberies.  Sayce happens to be in the jewelry business making it all the more likely that he may be involved with a ring of thieves who are all carnival workers who have always been nearby each time a home was burglarized. 

Loder's signature wit is not lacking here. Clare Winkton is definitely a highlight with her brash wit and good sense. Clare is always teasing her stepfather nicknaming him Holly and treating him irreverently. Paradoxically she also seems to be protecting him from the police.She provides Arthur with one of the cleverest ideas when they brainstorm about where Smith, the master crook, might be hiding out.  She also points out to Arthur that a slip of paper that he is convinced is an intricate code is actually nothing more than a series of dates and initials.  The reader knows this as quickly as Clare does. In his attempt to prove himself a great detective Arthur does tend to overthink a lot of the obvious

Also I liked the bit part of Sir Guy Lunt, owner of an amber necklace that was stolen and broken up for its gemstones. Lunt is a foppish hypochondriac with a malingering case of "bronchitic tendencies." He reminded me of the vile Frederick Fairleigh in Collin's The Woman in White who never stepped out of his dressing gown and complained of aches and pains while pawing over his pornographic drawings.  Sir Guy Lunt is just as ludicrous, a perfect satiric creation and one more character in Loder's collection of worthless aristocrats who pop up frequently in his mystery novels.

INNOVATIONS: Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too many policemen don't spoil this detective novel. There are a slew of policemen that I didn't really think I needed to keep straight. The more that were added to the story the more I kept thinking that this might have been Loder's attempt to imitate Henry Wade.  By the midpoint of the novel I was truly impressed with how different this was form the usual Loder detective novel which is usually brimming with eccentric touches, bizarre murder methods and outlandish incidents.  In a high contrast to his first eight books Death at the Wheel is grounded in real crime, murder committed with guns, dogged police work and career criminals.  It's a genuine police procedural and one of the best of its type by any of his contemporaries.  Loder can stand shoulder to shoulder with Wade, Nigel Morland or Helen Reilly, three of the best practitioners of true police procedurals, meaning detective novels that not only show us how police solve crimes but also explore the culture of police stations and the collegiality of policemen.
Guns & bicycles!  The murder weapon was
manufactured by this company based in St. Etienne.

Loder manages to juggle parallel storylines and we follow Arthur's raw edged, ingenious and experimental style of detection which is in strong contrast to the polished technical police work of the Scotland Yard men and local police.  The book might very well have been called The Case of the Three Shells for the bulk of the novel deals with the bullets, casings and shells of a French made .22 handgun, the murder weapon in both shootings.  Arthur spends a lot of time thinking about three .22 shells, where they were found, the lack of fingerprints on some when they should be present. He creates a variety of involved experiments like  the one with a pair of trousers worn by one of the victims. Arthur tires to discover if a fingerprint on a shell casing could be worn away over time if placed in a tight fitting pocket. He also studies wear patterns in the fabric to determine whether or not a gun could have been habitually carried in a certain pocket in the trousers. This was a fascinating section of the book showing off Loder's masterful plotting techniques and unusual ideas about crime solving.


THINGS I LEARNED:  At the end of Chapter 10 Clare makes this quip in reference to Smith, the burglar the police are hunting: "No one would knowingly put Charles Peace in the post of chief clerk, where jewels were bought and sold."  I had no idea who Charles Peace was and so off I went a-Googling.  I guess I should have known because he turns out to be one of the most notorious criminals in the history of British criminology.  Peace, a talented musician, in the guise of a travelling violin player and bric-a-brac peddler committed multiple burglaries over a three year period. He became wanted for two murders and one attempted murder of a policeman. He was pursued by police, arrested and tried in 1879. In a record breaking 12 minute jury deliberation Peace was found guilty and executed.  Peace has been immortalized in the penny dreadfuls of Victorian fiction, has music hall songs written about him and his life story was filmed at least three times. The most well known movie of his life and crimes may be The Case of Charles Peace (1949) directed by Norman Lee.

Arthur Way utters this odd sentence late in the book: "If he died, he died very suddenly. And like the dead donkeys, which they say no one ever sees, sir, he buried himself rather mysteriously."  I figured this was some sort of British slang so I went looking in various reference books. I'm not sure I got the actual origin, but this fit as close as possible. I was looking for something to do with dead donkeys never being seen. What I found is a "dead donkey" comes from the world of journalism, a phrase that refers to a story that is so trivial it can be killed to make room for more newsworthy story that deserves to be in print. Supposedly the phrase comes from a 1990s UK sit com called Drop the Dead Donkey and many people think it was created by the writers. But obviously since the phrase appears in a book in 1933 it's a lot older than the TV show. If anyone knows more about this odd allusion and phrase, please let me know in the comments.

QUOTES:  One of these mystery story writers would have made something of that, he mused. There would be a masked gang...with headquarters in some riverside dive. Clare would be their languid queen, at one moment in a Paris gown at some elegant hotel, at another clothed in black tights burgling the suite of a duke...

Arthur Way was a man with an active mind, and even the most busy of country Chief Constables finds that the routine of his job does not highly try his faculties. The idea of doing a bit of detective work on his own appealed to the boy which is latent in most of us.

"Good luck to you," said Cance, "but try to use your imagination, Brow! Common sense is a fine thing, but there isn't much of the X-ray about it!"

Clare: "...I could have skipped down to the gun-room, got one of Holly's shotguns and peppered the brute.  I wasn't really afraid."
That was like her.  It had always struck him that she was both cool and courageous.

EASY TO FIND? If you want a real book you're out of luck. It's a rarity.  But the good news for readers who have Kindle devices and live in the UK or Europe is that you can purchase a digital copy of Death at the Wheel from Black Heath Classic Crime.  TomCat has been reading the Nicholas Brady books put out by Black Heath so I guess they're OK. The fact that they don't have their own website makes me think these are pirated digital books and I'm not comfortable helping to promote them. But if this is the only way you can read the book, then go ahead and spend your money on them. They are ridiculously cheap, that's for sure.

It's a solid police procedural, one of Loder's better books filled with creative ideas and invention.  But as such it's very different from the weirdness that was displayed in the more original and bizarre mystery The Shop Window Murders recently reprinted by HarperCollins.