Friday, September 6, 2019

FFB: Case of the Cold Coquette (a rerun)

Here's another rerun for you pulled from the back files of Pretty Sinister Books. I read nearly all of the Jonathan Craig police procedurals and wrote them up over a three year period.  The only two not reviewed on this blog are the last two books in the series. Though they were popular posts (one in particular garnering over 1700 hits) I got very few comments on them when I first ran them. This may be in part because -- with the exception of one post -- none of them were part featured as a Friday's Forgotten Books. Enjoy this late summer rerun!

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In the opening pages of Case of the Cold Coquette (1957) Eddie Macklin is shoved into the path of an oncoming subway car. His corpse is a mess, the police have to take him away in pieces. The medical examiner jokes, "I could practically do the autopsy right here without lifting a scalpel." Gallows humor is the only way to survive the mean streets of Lower Manhattan. Selby and Rayder examine the contents of Macklin's clothes and find nearly $500 in cash and receipts from a theater ticket agency and an after hours liquor joint that show Macklin to be a man of expensive tastes. Why then is he wearing cheap off-the-rack clothes and unpolished battered shoes?

The two cops learn that Macklin was leading a double life in two separate homes. One residence is a small room in a cheap tenement on West 24th Street where he talked to no one, never had visitors, and played his guitar and sang folk tunes that annoyed his cranky landlady. His other place is a swank midtown apartment near Columbus Circle that he shared with Marcia Kelpert, the "cold coquette" of the title.

Marcia Kelpert is a high priced call girl who specializes in long term commitments to only very rich clients. She's found her latest wealthy lover in Macklin. She provides Selby and Rayder with their first real leads and through her stories they begin to understand the dual life of Eddie Macklin. She mentions Eddie's hatred of Peggy Taylor, a popular jazz singer with whom he attempted to collaborate on a recording of some folk tunes. Eddie was an expert in the origins of American folk tunes, an amateur guitar player and a fairly good singer. But his partnership with Peggy ended after a nasty fight. This bit of info will lead the cops to Taylor and her agent, the equally shady George Sullivan.

Craig focusses the story on the life of the victim which will become the growing trend in much of crime fiction, especially the police procedural, from the late 1950s to the present. Each interview provides another layer of Macklin's complex life: his multiple addresses, his primary source of income as a bookkeeper, the basically friendless life he led, and his mistrust of nearly everyone. Selby soon realizes that Macklin's source of wealth was related to another of his non-musical interests -- blackmail.

As in The Dead Darling when the story moves to Greenwich Village (the two cops' usual beat) Craig takes advantage of that colorful neighborhood to introduce us to a variety of oddball characters. There is Ace Wimmer, a newspaper seller who fancies himself a secret journalist even to the point of wearing a hat with a fake press card tucked into the band; Mercator, who gets his quirky nickname from his hobby of selling maps of the Village with special locations for secret thrills; Teddy Sheaffer, an ex-vaudeville ventriloquist who haunts the local bars with his dummy plying drinks from tourists and doling out info on Village denizens; and Alice from the Movies, a statuesque prostitute who appeared in some News Reel footage of Times Square that garnered her a lot of attention and provided her with her odd nickname. But one of the strangest characters is Dukey Nardo.

Nardo is a snipe grabber. Provided with a report from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Selby discovers that Nardo had been examined at Bellevue where it was revealed that Dukey Nardo derived "sexual gratification from obtaining the unsmoked portion of a cigarette - provided it was being smoked by a young and attractive girl - and finishing it himself." He started out by sitting near a smoking girl and switching cigarettes with her in a shared ashtray and moving up to the daring and extremely creepy job of plucking a cigarette right out of the woman's hand or mouth and running off with it to drag on it ecstatically. Snipe grabber. Don't tell me you can't learn something from reading old mystery novels.

Another thing you will learn is of two unusual medical conditions that affect the circulatory system. Knowledge of these medical conditions provides a huge clue to Selby in recognizing the identity of the murderer. I guess if you've gone to medical school or have an extensive knowledge of diseases you might be able to recognize the killer when first introduced, but don't count on it. The identity of the killer came as a complete surprise to me. This is one of Craig's skills in writing these books. You're wrapped up in the unravelling of Macklin's confusing and fascinating life that you lose sight of the hunt for the killer and things just slip right by. These are not just police procedurals, but cleverly constructed and subtly clued detective novels.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

On the Roof, It's Peaceful As Can Be

Here are some photos of flowers and a short video of visitor activity on our rooftop garden. This year we planted in mid June rather than the end of May. Then due to intense rainfall throughout late June and most of July we had to wait to do our big chore of staining the deck. We needed to wait until August before the deck was completely dry for a four day period. Then had to move EVERYTHING off the main deck in order to scrub, wash, and then stain the entire deck. Joe and I did it all alone. No one has any interest in what goes on up on our rooftop deck. There are six other apartments in our building and for the past three years we rarely encounter anyone up there. As the years go by it continues to be a private retreat for us even though it's open to everyone who lives here.

We planted sunflowers and assorted wildflowers (many of which I still don't know the names) from seeds. Everything else was purchased as small single plants from a local nursery. This is the first year that everything has exploded in color and expanded to large numbers of blooms. All of it continues to thrive now that we've reached September.

All summer long various butterflies, bumble bees and honey bees, and on occasion a hungry bird have stopped by. I spotted a goldfinch chowing down on sunflower seeds from one of the tallest flowers one afternoon back in August, but I didn't have my phone/camera with me so missed an opportunity to get a video of that. But here's a bit of bee activity for you.

Our Mexican Torch plant (above) had its first bloom only two days ago when in past years it was the very first flower to bloom and would last well into late September.  I don't think we'll have many more blooms on that plant because it's already beginning to cool down with temps rarely reaching 80.

Friday, August 30, 2019

FFB: Death at "The Bottoms" - A. B. Cunningham (a repeat)

Busy planning a vacation and tending to our rooftop garden (splendiferous photos coming tomorrow!) so I've little time for a new post. Here's a rerun for you instead, a review originally posted back in 2011. This is one of my favorites by Cunningham, a sorely underappreciated American mystery writer who wrote about crime in rural Kentucky.

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Here's an odd cast of characters for you: Snotnose Kale, Bigfoot Paden, Dummy Axling, Carlyn Aljor, Wib Turner, Butch Thord, Keb Folden, and Rod Kloth. Are we in Harry Stephen Keeler territory here? Maybe some kind of Damon Runyon tale with quaintly dubbed gangsters? Could it be some Lil Abner style murder mystery? The last guess isn't too far off. These are the people of A.B. Cunningham's WW2 era Kentucky in his fourth novel Death at "The Bottoms."

This is the first book by Cunningham I've read and I'm glad I chose this one as my introduction to his work. It's one of those old-fashioned backwoods detective novels that has echoes of the kind of detection done by Hesketh Pritchard's November Joe and not a little bit of Sherlock Holmes.

The victim is Vivian Beck and she appears to have been attacked by a pack of dogs that has been roaming and attacking livestock. Her body has been found in deep snow with several sets of dog tracks surrounding the immediate area. Farmers in town have been keeping their shotguns by their doors in case they hear the marauding canines. Sheriff Jess Roden, Cunningham's series detective, almost immediately sees that the wounds that caused her death could not have been made by dogs or any other animal. Why? Because many of them contain rust stains and flecks of corroded metal. Roden's investigation of the crime scene is only the first instance of some interesting fundamental detective work.

In a surprisingly violent scene early in the book a group of overgrown delinquents bent on ending the dog pack attacks go on a killing spree savagely and sadistically doing in a number of pets unfortunately running loose in the area. When Roden gets word of the dog killing spree he and a friend set out to avenge the town's pets. Roden sets his own dogs (he owns five) on the men with a hidden agenda in mind. He wants to have a few of the men incur dog attack wounds so that he can compare them with the wounds in the corpse of Vivian Beck. This is how the law works in rural Kentucky in the early 1940s.

As the book progresses it becomes increasingly odd. It seems to be suffering from a schizoid identity. While it is definitely a detective novel, the characters, the extreme violence and the dark tone make me want to treat it differently. It's almost as if Cunningham managed to create his own version of country noir not unlike the plots found in Daniel Woodrell's crime novels which were written more than forty years after this book. Although there is no real doomed obsessive love story here as in noir, there is a love triangle of sorts. Also, the characters are grotesque enough to have been created for a typical noir story.

Bigfoot Paden is a moonshine maker with a still hidden away in an abandoned mine. Carlyn Aljor is a femme fatale of a nurse taking care of Ivy Martin, an ungrateful invalid, but spends her time seducing Chas Beck, the victim's handsome husband, whenever she has a chance. Then there's Dummy Axling, a deaf mute who is a key witness but whose communication skills are almost completely absent. His wild gesticulating and grunting lead only to more confusion rather than clearing up the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of Vivian Beck.  Finally, there's Big Nig, the token stereotyped black character complete with insulting phonetic dialect.  He's deputized by a US marshal in order to persuade moonshiner Bigfoot Paden to cooperate with the law. Big Nig's major scene is a Kentucky duel of sorts with the moonshiner. Bigfoot is armed with a fish gig and the giant black man threatens to cut Paden to ribbons with his straight razor he conveniently carries on a string around his neck. You don't find these kinds of characters in Agatha Christie, do you?

The finale has a few nice twists in store and I was genuinely taken by surprise when the murderer was unmasked. There's the usual summing up in the final chapter in the manner of a typical detective novel and all the odd angles of the story suddenly are revealed in their true light. The grotesqueness of some of the characters is what serves as the main form of misdirection in this book. The reader spends so much time appalled by their actions and words that he fails (as does Roden) to see what is really going on. Cunningham must be given credit for putting a very American spin on his mystery novels.

Friday, August 23, 2019

FFB: Secret Sceptre - Francis Gerard

THE STORY: The preposterous plot of Secret Sceptre (1937) reads like a matinee cliffhanger serial overloaded with harrowing incidents, gruesome murders, hairsbreadth escapes and eleventh hour rescues. Sir John Meredith investigates a murder by decapitation carried out by men in armor and eventually uncovers an ancient secret society made up of men entrusted with protecting the Holy Grail.

THE CHARACTERS: Our hero is the inscrutable Sir John Meredith, a Foreign Office agent who becomes a policeman almost by accident. In this seventh book in sixteen book series he is aided by Sergeant Beef (who is nothing like his namesake created by Leo Bruce) and some other associates from both Scotland Yard and both Foreign and Home Offices. Meredith is not at all a likable man in this book. He comes off as arrogant, classist, and racist. Surprised? I'm not. He has little patience for anyone, insults people to their faces passing it off as wry wit, is constantly telling his colleagues to shut up and is generally one of the worst examples of the ubermacho self-styled aristocrats found in pre-WW2 era fiction written by British men. Took a while for me to warm up to him, but even then I didn't' think him the ideal candidate for the protagonist of a sixteen book series. Maybe he becomes less haughty and sarcastic as the series progresses.

Thankfully the book is filled with interesting and colorful characters along the way like Dermot O'Derg an Irish mercenary "born several centuries too late" whose "out of time persona" makes him the stand out in the very large cast. O'Derg is a powerful red haired man who might have been descended from Vikings despite his obvious Irish speech and heritage. He falls hard for the requisite "pale beauty" of the novel -- Daphne Birrell, sister of sculptor Nicholas Birrell, of one the many handsome young men who met a grisly end over the course of the book.  (For some reason Gerard likes to kill of "handsome young men" with an almost gleeful sadism.  No sooner has a "handsome young man" appeared within the story he is almost immediately dispatched with callous cruelty. Wonder what that's about!)

Apart from O'Derg it's the villains who steal the show. There is the sadistic American who speaks with an indeterminate foreign accent Al Cartell-Ardew, the master criminal of the novel who is constantly slapping the face of his Asian-Jewish servant Li-Fu Isaacs. There is a Russian secret agent who join forces with Cartell-Ardew. And let me not forget the motley crew of oddball criminals Cartell-Ardew hires in order to free a prisoner who he needs for his master plan. In one of the more hilarious portions of this very odd book Cartell-Ardew engineers a prison break that seems like a Mission: Impossible episode as written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. The group of crooks masquerade as French prison experts and demand a tour of Broadhurst prison then manage to ferret out their targeted inmate all without once resorting to violence.

INNOVATIONS:  Secret Sceptre is a strange mix of straightforward adventure with hard edged violence and loopy farce. I'm convinced that Gerard was in fact parodying all of the superhero protagonists of British pulp fiction. The prison break sequence alone is evidence enough. Gerard's irreverent humor mixes groaning puns, Abbott & Costello wordplay, a couple of dirty jokes (one about "Lord Hereford's Knob" amazingly escaped the blue pencil of the 1937 editor at MacDonald), and low farce clearly are all signs of high spirited fun. Nothing is meant to be taken too seriously here. Witness this pointless and ridiculous exchange between Daphne and Nicholas as they snack on pieces of melon while lounging in their pajamas and dressing gowns:

"Why must you make those disgusting sucking noises, Nick?"
"Can't help it," he replied, "the damn thing drips so and I haven't got a bib."

En route to the Welsh coast in order to get to Fishguard where Slim Shardoc, an American crook is being held for questioning Meredith has a car accident. While speeding down the foggy road a boy on a bicycle appears seemingly out of nowhere and he swerves and skids to avoid hitting the boy. He gets of out of the wrecked car and swears up a storm in Hindustani which Gerard graciously translates for us: "Now may Shaitan gather thee to his bosom in the nethermost pit which is seven times heated."  And then -- "John put his head back, raised his fists to the sky, opened his mouth and howled like a wolf, at which the small boy, hastily remounting his bicycle, peddled frantically into the darkness."

As the outrageous story progresses, the bodies pile up, the offbeat sense of humor becomes increasingly ludicrous and the climax seems like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail four decades before that comedy troupe ever thought up their King Arthur saga parody. Even if Gerard's description of the Knights of the Holy Grail is presented as deadly serious, the mix of nationalism and sanctimonious dogma in which the secret society members espouse their mission "to keep England English and Christian," the scene and group ultimately come off as absurdly risible while simultaneously being scarily resonant in our isolationist narrow-minded age. The Knights exploit the local superstition about a haunted abbey where they are headquartered by dressing as white robed monks thereby hoping to be seen as ghosts if anyone might accidentally encounter them in their nightly vigils. Typical of Gerard's eccentric humor the Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Grail is an ornithologist whose keen observational skills aided by his high powered binoculars prove very helpful at a key moment.

I'll leave it at that. You must read the book to discover the rest on your own.

THINGS I LEARNED: Arabic lessons! Meredith suspects that Al Cartell-Ardew is not American at all. Using his knowledge of Arabic and Muslim culture Meredith tells his police colleagues that the man's name is an Anglicization of al kātil adū which translates as "deadly enemy." The actual 21st century transliteration of the Arabic for deadly enemy is alqatil aleaduu.

QUOTES:  John Meredith had the reputation of a complete lack of scruple, but this applied only to his methods, not to the end in view. He was one of those men who believe that if you have to fight at all, every weapon is justifiable.

THE AUTHOR: The most complete and interesting biographical information written about Francis Gerard appears on the rear flap of the Tom Stacey reissue of Secret Sceptre, the edition I own. Most of the bio blurb is quoted verbatim below with some additional trivia in brackets added by me:

"Francis Gerard was born in London in 1905. His father was French and much of his childhood was spent in France. He began to write while working in London as a dealer in precious stones. His first stories appeared in The Thriller [a weekly magazine that published the work of several well-known and prolific crime fiction writers like Gerald Verner, Berkeley Gray, Leslie Charteris and James Ronald].

"During the war he served as Major in the Essex Regiment, while his wife worked at the foreign Office. In 1946 he moved, with his family and aging parents, to Natal where he became a South African citizen. Gradually he wrote less and less, devoting much of his time to politics instead. Springbok Rampant, a semi-autobiographical account of his reasons for leaving Britain, was published in 1951. [The title is a heraldic reference pointing out Gerard’s lifelong interest in heraldry and coats of arms, an interest which featured prominently in Secret Sceptre and frequently turns up in his other fiction.]

"He married twice and had three children by his second wife. He died in 1966."

Sir John Meredith Adventure & Crime Novels
Number 1-2-3 (1936) (US title: The 1-2-3 Murders)
Concrete Castle (1936) (US title: The Concrete Castle Murders)
The Black Emperor (1936)
The Dictatorship of the Dove (1936)
Fatal Friday (1937)
Red Rope (1937)
Secret Sceptre (1937)
The Prince of Paradise (1938)
Golden Guilt (1938)
Emerald Embassy (1939)
The Mind of John Meredith (1946)
Sorcerer's Shaft (1947) - only in a minor role
Flight into Fear (1948)
The Prisoner of the Pyramid (1948)
The Promise of the Phoenix (1950)
Transparent Traitor (1950)
Bare Bodkin (1951)

Friday, August 16, 2019

FFB: Girl Missing - Edna Sherry

THE STORY: Carlton “Carlo” Ives is the epitome of a ne’er-do-well playboy. He’d rather spend money at the race tracks, fancy restaurants and hotspot bars. He’s never had a real job in his life. Now he owes $14,000 to hardnosed bookie and OTB kingpin Nick Archer. Last ditch attempt to reconcile with his wealthy father who had offered his son employment and a chance to redeem himself proves futile. When approached by Archer with an offer he can’t refuse Carlo finds himself agreeing to act as Archer’s racetrack agent. After signing a contract that will award Carlo 10% of all jobs undertaken and 40% of “special projects” Carlo learns he has been hoodwinked into taking part in a kidnapping scheme.

THE CHARACTERS: Girl Missing (1962) implies an abduction or kidnapping, but for a while it almost seems as if our unlikable but stunningly gorgeous (of course) young couple will turn out to be the criminals not the victims. Maybe not robbing banks with machine guns, but causing trouble and wrecking lives all the same. They are definitely bad news when they get together. Veronica Sheldon confesses to Carlo that she is “short on morals” and she’s a rebellious thrillseeker. She agrees to go out with Carlo, a profligate of the worst sort in the eyes of her parents and hoity-toity sister Libby, just to piss off her family. Carlo secretly pursues Ronny in a petty form of jealous revenge for the way her sister openly snubbed and insulted him. Carlo has already been presented to us as an anti-hero but one that the reader is not exactly rooting for. When Carlo is recruited unwittingly into Nick Archer’s kidnap scheme Ronny Sheldon is the first person he thinks of as the best target for a quick and easy payoff. Ironically, Carlo’s entry level criminal act will be a transformative one for both he and his intended victim.

Sherry gives us lots of background in an economically told story. We learn of Carlo’s love/hate relationship with his father and the reasons he feels entitled to a life of luxury, his short lived relationship with Libby Sheldon, and his resentment and anger towards everyone who he believes gave him a raw deal leads to a crescendo of petty revenge.

Likewise, we get a capsule life history of Nick Archer (born Archezzo) from his indoctrination as a teen into the world of betting as a debt collector and gofer to running several off-track betting parlors and becoming a figure of intimidation in the horseracing world. Sherry tells of his devotion to his family, how he and his deaf mute sister were orphaned at an early age and how Nick took care of them both afterward. We also get a brief tale of how Nick met his right hand man Harry, a Korean War veteran, who saved Nick from an attack by couple of juvenile delinquents who tried to mug the betting parlor impresario. Harry turns out to be loyal but with a bitter ingrained streak of sadism leftover from his war days that makes it all too easy for him to be groomed into Nick’s hitman permanently taking care of crooked employees who cross the boss.

Nick is being pursued by federal agents for tax evasion in a subplot that will have significance in the final chapter. Nick’s wants to escape trial for what all gangsters usually go to prison for. With Harry’s help he dreams up a kidnap plot and will use the ransom to help fund an escape plan that will get them to Mexico and then Switzerland. They exploit Carlo Ives’ $14,000 debt coming due in less than two days and figure they can allow him to be their patsy. Archer secures Carlo’s involvement with cleverly thought out frame-ups. Basically he extorts Carlo to carry out the kidnapping out of fear of being accused of other worse crimes, crimes that never actually took place but for which enough proof will be concocted to make them seem not only possible but plausible and with Carlo at the center of them all.

The kidnapping takes place exactly as planned but when Carlo discovers he is also to become one of the victims he begins to see the error of his ways. At this point there is a major shift in the action and an almost sudden transformation in Carlo’s character. Carlo is determined to turn the tables on his captors, rescue both he and Ronny, and turn the real kidnappers over to the police. The final chapters are rife with action sequences that seem perfectly engineered for the movie screen and Sherry inserts more than a couple of neat surprises for both Carlo and the reader before the final page is reached.

INNOVATIONS: Sherry does a neat job of making a thoroughly detestable character like Carlo Ives into someone the reader wants to win and in the end will admire. Even if it seems as if he has an all too easy epiphany and metamorphosis from spendthrift playboy into daring hero willing to risk his life for his girl, Sherry manages to make it fairly convincing. But Carlo doesn’t get off scot free. Ronny will have the last word; she’s far from forgiving when she discovers the truth.

Oddly, Nick seems to be the most sympathetic of the bunch. Having read Tears for Jessie Hewitt a few months ago I’m intrigued by the way Sherry skillfully creates these seemingly villainous men who still have a smidgen of humanity in them for either their family or a loved one. In Nick’s case it is his devotion to his sister that redeems him and keeps us from seeing him as utterly bad. Though Anna is present throughout the entire crime (Nick and Harry use her farmhouse as the kidnap hideout) it is always clear that she will never be implicated in any way. Nick always has in mind her safety first. Several arguments take place when the murderous Harry wants to eliminate all witnesses, but Nick is adamant that Anna is not to be harmed . She is after all incapable of speaking which reluctantly Harry sees as an excuse to leave her alone. Ultimately, Anna’s inability to hear or speak save her life.

THINGS I LEARNED: This is the second novel of Sherry’s I’ve read that involves horse racing and gambling. This time I learned all about the world of off-track betting and how the unusual methods in which money is collected. Early in the story, during a section explaining how Nick became such a “star” in the eyes of his gambling parlor mentor Frankie, we watch as Nick in his teen years acted as a spy who helped ferret out a couple of crooked employees who were stealing from Frankie.

QUOTES: The taxi driver, looking at [Carlo & Ronny] in the rear mirror, summed them up with admiration touched by envy: As good-lookin’ as anything in the movies. An’ prolly rolling. Some people have all the luck. But luck has a way of running out.

Carlo: “We’ll give the classy joints a miss so you won’t be spotted.”
Ronny: “Oh skizzy. Take me to a real low dive.”

The place was crowded with young married couples in the middle-income bracket from all over town who liked good food and enjoyed dancing. But to Ronny’s artless, enraptured eyes, they were all branded with delicious sin. She sprinkled her comments with carefully memorized beatnik phrases. The couples were, of course, “shacked up,” the band was “far out,” Carlo was a “cat” she could “relate to.”

Friday, August 9, 2019

FFB: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn - Philip Craig

US 1st edition (Doubleday, 1969)
THE STORY: A quartet of unlikely exploring adventurers set out for a little known island off the coast of Sweden. There they hope to find proof that the events described in the epic poem Beowulf were based on historical fact. Professor Cyril Ashman is sure that they will find Beowulf's tomb and a hoard of ancient treasure on the island.

THE CHARACTERS: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1969) is narrated by grifting poker player Luther Martingale who has a past littered with trouble and scandal. He was forced out of Weststock College by an angry manipulative literature professor who learned that Luther was responsible for getting his niece pregnant. Subsequently she chooses to have an abortion. Prof. Ashman not knowing the truth of the matter suspects that Luther abandoned her and left her to take care of matters on her own. Luther's future depends on his getting a college degree and that degree has to be from Weststock all because of his wealthy relative. Aunt Delia has taken a liking to her nephew and is proud of the Martingale men having a long history of being matriculated from Weststock. If Luther manages to graduate successfully with a degree from Weststock he will be her sole heir and stands to gain millions from her estate.

As the novel opens Luther is engaged in an elaborate scheme to win as much money as he can in a series of poker games from his very poor card playing opponents. Hopefully he can use the winnings to bribe his way back into the good graces of the Weststock admissions team. Astoundingly, he finds himself with the title to a yacht after a round of feverish games (and a combination of wily skill and incredible luck) in which he trounced a foreigner named Beorn Wiglafson. Luther having taken all his money leaves Wiglafson with no other choice but to offer up the yacht as collateral in lieu of cash poker stakes.

"Beowulf fights the dragon"
illustration by Lynd Ward
(Heritage Press Ltd Ed., 1939)
When Luther learns that Prof. Ashman has an obsession with discovering the tomb of Beowulf, who he is certain is not just a legendary figure of the epic poem but a real person, Luther comes up with a plan to make the literature professor's dream come true. Using his newly acquired yacht, a few choice crew members, and some obscure manuscripts the professor owns, he will find the island and Beowulf's tomb and burial site.

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the story of the band of adventurers made up of Luther; Dottie, Luther's former girlfriend and hopefully future wife; Professor Ashman, her uncle; and Beorn who after a violent attempt to re-possess his yacht is surprisingly recruited to helm Gate of Horn and navigate safely across the Atlantic to the Scandinavian coastline. The bulk of the story is made up of a detailed nautical adventure in which slowly but surely Luther and Beorn become comrades at sea, Beorn's gruff malevolent nature gives way to his inherent affability and the two become an excellent team as they sail the alternately calm and furious ocean. Without Beorn's near supernatural knowledge of weather and oceanography Luther would never have made it to the island. When they two men meet up with Uncle Cyril and his niece (who wisely flew to Copenhagen ahead of the sailors) everyone is in for awesome shocks and marvelous surprises on the island of Beowulf's ancestors.

UK 1st edition (Macmillan, 1970)
Craig has a deft manner in sketching out his four characters. There are fascinating cat-and-mouse scenes between Prof. Ashman and Luther in both the beginning of the book and the ironic finale. He tries his best to make Dottie appear to be an independent woman not so easily taken advantage of, but we only see her through Luther's arrogant chauvinistic eyes and she often comes across as a horrible depiction of an abused woman. At one point he refers to her as "a sexy wench by any standard" and actually says this about her when she refuses his advances in their post-abortion relationship: "I watched her undulate away. If only I had the character to assault her! A good rape might do her good." It's extremely hard for me to see this as wit or ironic humor in the context of the first 45 pages. Thankfully this is the only instance of raunchy offensive chauvinism but it ruined my opinion of Craig as a writer. He was 35 at the time and working in a liquor store after being fired from a college for being too liberal with his teaching methods and too coarse in his writing. Callow youth? Who knows.

Truly the best part of the book is Beorn. The way Craig manages to transform his character from indignant and malevolent poker loser to comrade at sea to deceitful Judas is remarkable. Beorn is described as a giant Viking, ageless in appearance, menacing in his physicality, and otherworldly in his knowledge of Mother Nature and her fickle ways. At one point I was certain it would be revealed that he was an immortal descended from Beowulf's ancestors and warrior colleagues. As it turned out I was not far off the mark. There is one glaring clue Craig gives very early in the book and does not refer back until the climax once the four adventurers reach the island. It's an ingeniously calculated moment. I'm sure most readers will miss it and the climax will come as a nifty and gasp inducing surprise. Beorn is genuinely the best character in the book and it is thanks to his magnetic presence I whipped through this 190 page novel in practically a single day.

THINGS I LEARNED: As you can imagine sailing and ship navigation are prominent throughout the story. I learned loads of yachting terms and all sorts of unusual facts like the use of a completely different set of sails during stormy weather.

Beowulf, illustration by Lynd Ward
There are several sections that discuss the history of the Beowulf epic poem, its various translations, and the continuing (at the time) debate on whether or not the poem is based on historical fact. Prof. Ashman uses Schliemann's discovery of Troy as proof of the historicity of Homer's Iliad as the basis for his own expedition to prove Beowulf was real. Among the many facts I learned (perhaps relearned since I did study Beowulf in my high school Brit Lit class) was the earliest English translation dates to about 1000, three centuries after its initial Scandinavian composition.

The novel's title comes from a passage in The Odyssey when Odysseus is speaking to Penelope of dreams and she answers him that dreams are hard to understand. The passage Ashman quotes from memory is: "Twain are the gates of shadowy dreams,/The one is made of horn, the other ivory;/Such dreams as pass the portals of ivory/Are deceitful, and bear tidings that are unfulfilled./But the dreams that pass through the gate of horn/Bring true issue to whoever of mortals behold them." Beorn's yacht is named Gate of Horn.

QUOTES: It was no surprise that men of those times, unlettered, unable to know anything of the world beyond their senses, except for what old men and bards told of past days and far lands, were so filled with fatalism and superstition. In literal darkness, it is easy to accustom yourself to the fragility of life, to the necessity of bravery, and to the ready belief in monsters. How else could a man of that time feel? Without books to tell him of his history, to keep his mind sure, in the accumulated experience of the men who preceded him and wrote down their experience, he was, in every generation, a First Man in an unknown world.

Men alone, without history. No wonder that the bards sang of heroes, for the people were in need of heroes to prove by their might and valor that men could survive or, failing that, could, in death, triumph against their enemies and, nearly, death itself.

(courtesy of
THE AUTHOR: Philip R. Craig was born in 1933 in Santa Monica California, raised on a small ranch in Colorado. He studied religion and philosophy at Boston College during the late 1950s where he facetiously claimed he really majored in fencing and minored in bridge (two pastimes that crop up in his mystery fiction much later in his life). In 1962 he achieved an MFA in creative writing at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and went on to teach English and writing at several small colleges in Massachusetts. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn was published by Doubleday's Crime Club in 1969, but he would not have another novel published for two decades. He is best known for a series of mystery novels set on Martha's Vineyard where he and his family eventually settled (his wife was originally from Edgartown). A longtime member of several crime fiction writing associations and attendee of many mystery writing conferences Craig's career includes over twenty mystery novels and one cookbook written in collaboration with his wife. He died in 2007. For more on his books and a detailed and wittily composed biography visit his website, still maintained by his family.

Friday, August 2, 2019

FFB: The D.A. Calls It Murder - Erle Stanley Gardner

THE STORY: Newly elected district attorney and sheriff for Madison County, California, Doug Selby and Rex Brandon, have their work cut out for them. A dead body is found in Room 321 of the Madison Hotel and the owner and police want to hush it up as a suicide but The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937). Doug Selby takes charge of a case involving alternate identities, blackmail, arcane divorce laws and a missing heir.

THE CHARACTERS: Doug Selby is the polar opposite of Perry Mason. Mason is a criminal defense attorney while Selby is a prosecutor. Mason is shifty manipulator willing to do anything, even break the law in order to protect his client who is almost always innocent. Selby is upstanding and thoroughly decent, but with a very short fuse of a temper. In his first outing Selby must prove himself to be the people’s choice for D.A. and stand up to the inherently corrupt and grifting locals who have come to depend on the graft laden police and former D.A. When the owner of the Madison Hotel wants the possible suicide hushed up as quickly as possible to prevent bad publicity Selby must deal with ingratiating demands, implied favors and tacit bargains that Sam Roper, the former D.A. had in place with the hotel management. Selby will have none of it. He knows that something is suspicious about the death of the minister. And publicity cannot be avoided when they learn that the minister is not who he says he was. After bringing in the widow all the way from Nevada to identify the body she insists that the man is not her husband. Who was he? And why was he pretending to be Rev. Charles Brower?

1st US paperback, 1944
(8 printings over six years
with this cover)
Selby has a gal pal reporter in the person of Sylvia Martin. She represents a paper that backed Selby in the election and she wants the scoop on the minister’s murder. If Selby will give her the facts first she promises to report the truth and wipe away the bad press he is getting from an ugly tabloid whose specialty is insinuations and innuendo. The editorial staff are eager to besmirch Selby’s good name and make him look not only incompetent in his first week as district attorney but imply that he’s more corrupt than Sam Roper, his predecessor.

Selby also has to contend with the secretive actress Shirley Arden who has a special room at the Madison Hotel c complete with private entrance and all-expense paid for by an anonymous benefactor. She enters the case because Selby and Sheriff find among the personal effects of the dead minister a pile of press clippings with Shirley’s name and photo all over them. There are also newspaper articles about a high profile lawsuit involving the rightful heir to the Perry estate. Both the mystery surrounding Shirley Arden’s private retreat at the Madison Hotel and the Perry lawsuit will tie in with the murder of the mystery man in Room 231.

1950 Pocket edition, (9th prtg)
INNOVATIONS: Gardner was a master at convoluted plotting and The D.A. Calls It Murder is one of his trademark stories filled with interlocking subplots and neat little twists. Only Gardner could manage to find a way to make the nasty poisoning of a German Shepherd and the subsequent rescue of the dog become one of the most crucial clues to the unraveling of all the mysteries.

This particular novel is remarkable for Gardner’s portrayal of the women characters who usually come off as either wiseacres or vamps. But Shirley Arden is far from a typical wily vixen archetype found in his pulp fiction. Gardner has a unique understanding of the perils of celebrity in Hollywood and gives Shirley a monologue both trenchant and poignant about how she views her fan base and how she values her private life.

One of the most unexpected scenes comes when Sylvia accompanies Selby to the home of Mrs. Larrabie, the real widow of the murder victim. Together they deliver the dismal news of her husband’s violent death and his curious masquerade as a different person. The scene is a rare example of Gardner's understanding of women and how they are better suited to take care of each other in times of trouble. Selby may have the difficult task of breaking the news, but it is Sylvia who takes on the burden of comforting Mrs. Larrabie, a total stranger, and who is overcome with emotion herself when she sees how the widow takes the news stoically. In an ironic touch Sally finds herself being comforted by the grieving widow.

Cardinal C-295, 1958 1st thus
QUOTES: Shirley on how she views her public: "They're like telegraph poles whizzing by when you're traveling on a Pullman train, if you know what I mean. They tell me things about themselves and I smile at them sympathetically and work my eyes; but all the time I'm thinking about my last income tax return, how long I'm apt to be working on this present picture, whether the director is going to listen to what I have to say about the way I should say "Farewell" to my lover or whether he's going to insists on doing it according to some standards which don't register with me. I give my fan my autograph and turn loose my best smile on him. I know I'm never going to see him again and he's in sort of a daze anyway which he's conjured up to wrap around me as an aura."

Shirley on her keen observational skills: "Men who tell me how much they admire my acting are quite numerous, but it's not very often one comes in contact with a man who's so completely genuine, so wholeheartedly sincere as this man [the murder victim]. Naturally, as a woman, I noticed his clothes."

"You're a very prickly porcupine. When your quills are out, Mr. Selby, you're exceedingly difficult to deal with."

THINGS I LEARNED: A portion of the problem with determining the rightful heir to the Perry estate has to do with a marriage that was performed when an interlocutory decree of divorce was still in effect. The most concise definition comes from "Interlocutory decrees were most commonly used in divorce actions, in which the terms of the divorce would be in force until a final decree could be granted... The theory was that this would allow for a period [of time] during which a reconciliation might be [reached...]. Interlocutory decrees of divorce have been abandoned as a procedure in most states because they seldom had the desired effect and appeared to waste the parties' time." California still allows for
interlocutory decrees in divorce; the time period can not exceed six months.

In the novel Charles Perry marries Edith Fontaine while he was in effect still married to his first wife. Edith has a child and Charles thinks this is his rightful son, but in the eyes of the law he was not legally married to Edith since his first marriage was still in effect under the interlocutory decree. When the first wife died it is generally believed that Charles never remarried Edith again in a legal ceremony and so his son could not truly be considered his heir. Charles brother Herbert is contesting the will and claims he is the true heir. A search is on to find out whether or not Charles ever remarried Edith and who might have performed the ceremony and where it took place so a certificate of marriage can be produced. This is why the several ministers in the story become extremely important.

Doug Selby Detective Novels
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

Friday, July 26, 2019

FFB: Possession - L. P. Davies

US 1st edition
(Doubleday Crime Club, 1976)
THE STORY: After his half brother Eddie dies in a motorcycle crash Morgan Astey travels to the quiet Wiltshire village of St. Martin to visit Eddie's grave and gather his belongings. To his shock he discovers the gravesite desecrated. Rumors surface of the cemetery vandalism being related to Macumba, a Brazilian syncretic religion that blends worship of Catholic saints with rites and rituals of African religions. Among other things Macumba followers believe that spirits of the dead can temporarily inhabit the living. As Morgan tries to find out why someone would dig up Eddie's grave Albert Cranshaw, a local gardener and odd job man, begins to behave strangely. He shows up in Eddie's old room, sits down to tea with Eddie's old landlady, and calls people by nicknames only Eddie knew. Is it possible that Eddie has returned from the grave and has Albert in his Possession (1976)?

THE CHARACTERS: Morgan Astey does not plan to spend as much time in St. Martin ,but the disturbance to his half brother's grave raises a variety of question and the news of a possible Macumba cult involved is as fascinating to him as it is aggravating. Another thing that he finds curious is that everyone tells him that Eddie's face was unharmed in the accident, one that should have shattered his body as he supposedly lost control of his motorcycle near a craggy hairpin turn by a rocky cliffside. And yet Eddie's body suffered only a few broken bones and a broken neck. Morgan is further suspicious of foul play after talking to a knowledgeable mechanic working on repairs to Eddie's motorcycle. He tells Morgan of some strange things found on the bike that would be inconsistent with a wreck on that cliffside.

UK 1st edition
(Robert Hale, 1976)
Morgan teams up with Pat, daughter of the owner of St. Martin's newspaper, to ferret out the truth about Eddie's death and the strange behavior of Albert who seems to be "the new Eddie." In their adventures they meet Prof. Boyle, an eccentric academic who studies the slow worm and conducts weird scientific experiments; Boyle's sinister butler/companion George who may have a criminal past; a clique of corrupt millionaire businessmen; and Albert Cranshaw, the man with an inexplicable behavior change that may be rooted in the occult.

One of the memorable supporting players is Detective Sergeant Wright whose skill in manipulating and exploiting people is enviable. Wright has made it his business to know everyone's business and he uses his knowledge of the private lives of St Martin's citizenry to his advantage. So talented is Wright is getting others to do his bidding that Morgan realizes almost too late the policeman has employed him as an unofficial investigator. In suggesting to Morgan mysterious aspects about Eddie's death and inveigling him to seek answers to those questions Wright manages to get Morgan to do his job for him. Toward the end of the book Wright congratulates Morgan for successfully acting out in this unofficial capacity in one of their many tea room conversations. The policeman has an almost unquenchable craving for the various bakery treats offered at the many tea shops and cafes in town. He is always meeting Morgan in one of these shops where he can get yet another sampling of a tasty biscuit or tea cake, always proffering them to Morgan who almost always refuses.

INNOVATIONS: In Possession we have yet another unusual treatment of loss of identity from the pen of L. P. Davies. In previous novels Davies used amnesia in his crime novels or blended loss of identity with science fiction in telling stories of extraterrestrial aliens passing themselves off as humans and vice versa, yet always managing to turn any novel into one of mystery and detection, even if it's more of a metaphysical detection than a police investigation. In his later career Davies turned away from science fiction themes and picked up on the 1970s trend in popular fiction of using occult and supernatural themes in his plots. The background of Macumba in Possession is minimal at best yet makes it all the more intriguing when trying to figure out if the mystery of Albert Cranshaw's personality transformation is a con job and a sinister use of extremely good acting to cover up for ulterior motives or a genuinely mystifying supernatural phenomena. I was reminded of the use of Santeria in Ramona Stewart's The Possession of Joel Delaney (1970) and the eerie other worldly events in The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1973) by Max Ehrlich, two popular contemporary occult novels that would also become movies in the late 19790s.

THINGS I LEARNED: 1. Pat, editor/reporter/Jill of all trades, has a habit of exclaiming “What the Betty Martin?” I thought maybe this was some sort of Cockney slang, but I was wrong. It’s a lot more involved than that. Ready?

On a Linguistics internet forum I discovered that the origin of this phrase first appeared in Brewer’s seminal Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Brewer claims it comes from an anecdote about a sailor who overheard someone in a foreign church utter the Latin phrase “Ah mihi, bea’te Martine” (Ah grant me, Blessed Martine). And that the sailor “could not make much out of it but it seemed to him very much like ‘All my eye and Betty Martin.’” Brewer defines the phrase as a regionalism meaning something seen or heard is all nonsense.

St. Martin of Tours and the beggar
But wait! The Latin is probably wrong another person says. It is probably “mihi beate Mater” (Grant me, Blessed Mother). And then the debate gets very scholarly and someone goes to the trouble of quoting at length references to the phrase in a 1780 book on slang by John Badcock tracing the origin to prayers and invocations made to St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. [A patron for reformed drunkards! Is there one for just plain ol’ sots who haven’t seen the blazing light of sobriety?]

Then there is someone else who believes that the Latin phrase was alluded to in a poem by Coleridge that includes the lines: “ All my I! All my I!/He’s a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin.” And that this led to the phrase becoming misheard and interpreted as “All my eye!” which gives us the commonly heard “All my eye and Betty Martin!” another slang phrase that means basically “What a load of malarkey!” a favorite Irish exclamation in the Norris household. In the US you often hear someone say (usually a mature and older person) “My eye!” when they disbelieve someone or think something is baloney.

All of it sounds like pretty good etymological research to me. You can decide on your own if the Latin for Blessed Martin or Blessed Mater later transmogrified into Betty Martin.

2. The crux of Professor Murton Boyle’s research is studying the behavior of Anguis fragilis, described throughout the novel as a type of worm. Many jokes are made about the poor man’s dreary personality and boring life making a career out of the study of worms. Davies always leads the reader to believe he is talking about the kind of worms the early bird goes after, earthworms that is. But Davies seems not to have understood what the animal truly is. Because it’s not a worm, it’s a reptile! The confusion comes no doubt in misinterpreting literally the layman’s name of “slow worm.” Regardless of its nickname "slow worm" Anguis fragilis is nevertheless a reptile, one of two species of legless lizard and it resembles not a worm but a snake.

The differences between a snake and a legless lizard are numerous: snakes have no eyelids, legless lizards do; snakes have forked tongues, legless lizards do not, etc. In no way could it be confused with a worm. Part of Boyle’s research and one of the unusual mysteries solved involving what Pat and Morgan think is a strange hieroglyphic code reveals that the slow worms Boyle studies were taught to run through mazes. I can imagine a legless lizard, a snake like creature, learning to do this, but I absolutely cannot believe that a worm (as Davies thought the thing was) could be taught to navigate a maze no matter how simple or complex. In any case, he was terribly wrong about the creature that Boyle studies and it sort of ruins the book a bit when you get to that portion of the story.

L. P. Davies (circa 1976)
THE AUTHOR: Leslie Purnell Davies (1914-1988) was born in Crewe, England and graduated from Manchester University. In addition to writing numerous short stories under a variety of pseudonyms as well as twenty crime fiction and science fiction novels he was a pharmacist, optician, a tobacconist, and a painter in Rome. From about 1968 to the late 1970s he lived in Wales, then moved to the Canary Islands where he lived in happy retirement from writing.

Friday, July 19, 2019

FFB: The Djinn - Graham Masterton

US reprint paperback, (Tor, 1982)
THE STORY: Not all genies come in bottles. Or djinns either. And not all of these supernatural beings are grateful to be freed from whatever container that imprisons them. The Djinn (1977) in this case is trapped in an ancient piece of pottery, a jar intricately designed with folkloric figures and is of great interest to a Middle Eastern antiquities consultant who would like it returned to Iran from where it was illegally procured. Now the jar is in a sealed room in the home of Max Greaves, a deceased oil tycoon, and his widow and her companion want no one going anywhere near it. Enter Harry Erskine, Greaves’ godson, whose trade is fortune telling and whose curiosity gets the better of him when it comes to the jar and its mysterious contents.

THE CHARACTERS: Harry Erskine is an interesting addition to the collection of occult detectives in supernatural fiction. He’s not a legitimate clairvoyant by any means. He’s nothing more than an opportunistic con artist. Sure he’s taken the trouble to learn the ropes with cartomancy (both tarot and regular playing cards), the Ouija board and, on occasion, reading tea leaves and gazing into a crystal ball, but he has no real powers at all. No talent other than sarcastic banter and bad puns which are very welcome in the otherwise histrionic and often gruesome novel The Djinn.
Erskine stars in one of the more original horror novels to float to the surface of the flood of 1970s supernatural mass market fiction that deluged bookstores following the success of huge bestselling books like The Exorcist and The Other. In fact the marketing team at Pinnacle Books in an effort to attract the insatiable horror crowd liken The Djinn to successful horror works like The Omen and ‘Salem’s Lot neither of which remotely resemble what you find in Graham Masterton’s unusual book. Masterton was never interested in vampires or your standard evil child possessed by the devil or even the offspring of Lucifer. He was more like a 1970s version of Abraham Merritt who penned a handful of horror classics drawing from forgotten ancient cultures and their mythology and folklore. The Djinn is a crash course in all things ancient Persia and the lore of demonic djinns.

UK 1st paperback, (Star, 1977)
Harry teams up with Anna Modena, the antiquities consultant and “America’s foremost expert in ancient folklore and Middle Eastern culture” Professor Gordon Qualt. Together the three combine their knowledge about djinns, night clocks, and the evil sorcerer Ali Babah and do their best to prevent calamity falling upon southern Massachusetts. They have their work cut out for them when they learn that widow Marjorie Greaves seems to have been overtaken by some other-worldly entity and Marjorie’s mousy subservient companion Miss Johnson starts to show an unnatural interest in the jar and what lies inside.

Anna and Qualt remind me of the occult experts you’d encounter in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. The two of them are founts of endless information and both seem to be illogical in their obsession to get at the jar and the djinn inside. Ann more than Qualt is determined to rescue the jar as an ancient work of art. It happens to be decorated with intricate drawings of a mythological horse that has no eyes, the only known remaining illustrative example in the modern world of this particular Persian figure. Qualt astounds Erskine (and the reader) with the true story of “Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves”, which turn out not to be a group of thugs robbing gemstones for their ringleader but a sorcerer and his demon servant. The “forty thieves” are a metaphorical explanation for the two score entities the nasty demon can manifest before it completely possesses a human by stealing its face then inhabiting its body. A surprise is in store when the three demon fighters must contend with Miss Johnson who has a bizarre story of vengeance dating back centuries, one that rivals anything the MeToo movement could ever envision in payback for monstrous sexual assault. And in this case it is both literally and figuratively a monstrous assault. Read the book for the gory details, I’m not going there at all.

UK limited edition reprint - (Telos, 2010)
INNOVATIONS: Whether Masterton researched his story of Ali Babah and the Forty Thieves or he made it up entirely out of his twisted imagination there is no denying that his metaphorical reworking of a well-known Arabian Nights story is ingeniously diabolical. Additionally he seems to have invented a Persian tool of sorcery called a night clock that allows a black magic practitioner to commune with the powers of the moon and summon beings from another dimension. No rubbing lamps and wishing for riches and success in this story. The dead seem to walk, faceless zombies appear from the shadows, all in service of an age old vow of revenge. The Djinn is teeming with a wealth of unusually imaginative supernatural gadgets, lore and incantations making it all the more fascinating for readers who crave genuine supernatural content in their horror novels.

Interestingly, embedded within all the arcane lore, ancient mythology, black magic, demonic possession and manifestations is a bit of a detective story. There is a mystery surrounding Max Greaves' cause of death and why he disfigured himself. Quite by accident another mystery is solved pertaining to the identity of a sinister robed figure that keeps appearing on the grounds of the Greaves estate, Winter Sails.

Masterton is Scottish but nearly all of his books are set in America and feature almost exclusively American characters. One of his greatest talents is his talent for duplicating American syntax in his character’s speech. His dialogue is spot on and his ear for American speech rhythm, slang and colloquialisms is uncanny. More than any other non-US writer Masterton is the king of American dialogue writing.

Inside cover of US 1st edition,
(Pinnacle, 1977) 
QUOTES: Masterton has a lot of fun with Erskine’s irreverent sense of humor. He has mentioned in interviews the necessity for humor in horror novels and can’t abide writing them without someone cracking jokes or uttering a ridiculous pun. Here’s a typical sequence:

Anna: "Professor Qualt was in the newspapers not long ago when they turned up that marble smuggling racket out of Iraq. He’s very keen on keeping treasures in the environment where they were originally created."

Harry: ":I agree with him. I hate to see people losing their marbles."

THE AUTHOR: Graham Masterton was one of the leading horror novelists of the 1970s and continues to thrill readers with his ingenuity and innovative storytelling today. He began his career as an editor at Penthouse and his first book was not fiction but one of the most successful sex manuals of all time -- How To Drive Your Man Wild in Bed (1976). He’s written in all popular fiction genres, written for adults, children and teens, and continues to publish at least one new book every year for the past forty years -- in some cases as many as four books in a year. He has recently turned to crime fiction and thrillers and has created at least two series characters. For more on Masterton and his work visit his website.

Friday, July 12, 2019

FFB: The Man Who Fell through the Earth - Carolyn Wells

THE STORY: There's a load of mystery going on at Puritan Trust Company. First, lawyer Tom Brice witnesses what appears to be two men in a violent argument in the office opposite him shortly followed by a gunshot. Then a dead body is found in a secret private elevator. Then a young man disappears without a trace. Olive Raynor, the young ward of Amos Gately, the murder victim, is Suspect #1 in the eyes of lazy Chief of Police. But she'll have none of that. She may not have liked her "uncle" who acted as an ever watchful guardian but she would never have killed him. She hires Tom Brice as her lawyer and then suggests he hire a private investigator to look into the murder and find evidence to clear her name. Tom seeks out Pennington Wise and his spooky assistant Zizi and together they unravel the various mysteries including that of the amnesiac title character.

THE CHARACTERS: In a scene late in the book when Tom and his resourceful and witty secretary are discussing the mystery of Case Rivers (the title character), Norah comes up with an outlandish idea of what might have happened and why Rivers has also seemingly disappeared. Tom says to her "Oh Norah! come off! desist! let up! Next thing you know you'll be having him in the pictures, for you never thought up all that stuff without getting hints for it from some slapstick melodrama." Norah replies, "Oh, well, people who are absolutely without imagination can't expect to see into a mystery!" That's exactly the kind of person Carolyn Wells would not want for her target audience. Imagination in abundance is on display in The Man Who Fell through the Earth (1919) perhaps one of her best detective novels. For all her talk of the differences between fiction and "real life" over the course of the novel the "real life" of her story is more colorful and bizarre than any real gritty urban crime that plagued early 20th century Manhattan where this story is situated.

Tom and Norah make a fine duo of sparring amateur detectives. Their scenes are sparkling with humor, affability and gentle jibing. Norah is the abstract thinker while Tom is the logical minded man, of course, and together they offer up some interesting ideas about who and how Amos Gately was killed in his private offices. But more interesting among the various mysteries is the discovery of some financial chicanery, possible blackmail and the unexpected revelation of a spy working for Germany. Then there is the title character and his own strange story.

1st US edition, front cover
(George H Doran, 1919)
Note the snowflakes!
Case Rivers is the name an amnesiac man gives himself as an alter ego while he tries to sort out who he is and what happened to him. All he remembers prior to his being pulled out of the East River nearly naked, wearing only ragged and torn underwear, is a terrifying fall. He is certain he literally fell through a hole in the ground in Canada and ended up in the frigid waters of the East River. Everyone who is treating him for his loss of memory and helping him to recover his identity knows this is absurd, that he must be speaking figuratively. Tom at first thinks Rivers might be the missing Amory Manning, Olive's supposed fiancé, but when he meets the amnesiac he knows they cannot be the same person for they look nothing alike. When it is discovered that Manning is working for the US government the idea of kidnapping suddenly enters the picture.

Norah is sure Rivers has something to do with Manning's disappearance. Zizi is certain Rivers is Gately's killer. Tom and Pennington Wise disagree with the women and have their own ideas about who did what to whom. The reader is left to sort through the various theories, discard the red herrings, and pick one of the many detectives in this case with whom to side.

Among the handful of suspects one of my favorites in the first half of the book was Jenny Boyd, a floozy office worker --  a ubiquitous stock character in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Jenny is first described by Tom, our first person narrator, as "the yellow ear-muffed stenographer" alluding to her Princess Leia-style hairdo and goes on to detail her "cheaply fashionable" clothes and her irritating habit of chewing gum. She shows up to the police interrogation wearing a risque V-neck dress with a short skirt. Then he concludes his paragraph on Jenny with this hilarious sentence: "Her air of importance was such that I thought I had never seen such an enormous amount ego contained in such a small cosmos." Keep in mind that this cliched portrait of a not-so-bright secretary who thinks she's sexy was written in 1919! It always gives me a mild shock to encounter such early examples of character types we think were created much later in popular fiction and entertainment. Jenny, however, is not just present as a figure of ridicule, another Wells trademark. She is crucial in protecting someone hiding behind the scenes -- a surprise villain who opens up a whole new plot thread that only complicates discovering who killed Amos Gately and why.

1st UK Edition (Harrap, 1924)
INNOVATIONS: Well's typical formula is followed here with the amateur detective collaborating with the police in the first half, her series character (the supposed "star" of the book, but not so in this case) showing up just after the halfway mark, and the pros and amateurs teaming up to solve the mystery in the second half. Remarkably, this is the first Wells mystery novel I have read in which there are literally four different theories being played out between the pros and the amateurs. It's a daring way to deal with a detective novel plot and she artfully manages to juggle all the balls in mid-air dazzling the reader with a variety of solutions to the multiple baffling mysteries. There are plenty of unusual clues and more crimes than one ever expects.

A quasi-impossible murder, a mysterious disappearance, a possible kidnapping, an abduction, espionage, featuring a coded message with an odd method of decoding the cryptogram, and the mystery of identity related to Case Rivers are all met with intelligence and sometimes indulgent fantasy, which would later be the downfall of Wells as a mystery novel plotter and writer. Despite the tendency for characters like Norah and Zizi to dream up ludicrous theories this is one detective novel that Wells managed to concoct in its purest form.

Imagine reading this book when it first appeared 100 years ago and one can see why Wells was seen as a forerunner to what we now consider quintessential Golden Age detective fiction. She first employed all the conventions and motifs we now see as old hat long before the truly great writers re-engineered them in engaging and baffling mystery novels that soon overshadowed her work. Wells draws on previous writers for sure, notably Conan Doyle, and her frequent references to Holmes, detective story writers, and well known plot motifs show not only her vast knowledge of the genre but an obvious love and respect for the form.

One of the more interesting clues that help the team of detectives help learn more about Rivers is his habit of drawing intricately beautiful snowflake patterns. Zizi makes the observation that people tend to doodle while using the telephone and she discovers a doodle of a snowflake in a prominent place that reveals Rivers had to have been there. Finding the snowflake doodle in that spot leads Zizi to form a theory about Rivers possibly having murdered Gately. There is one brilliantly placed clue I completely overlooked that provides the solution to Case Rivers' true identity yet the reader is not even reminded of it until the penultimate page. Wells makes great use of seemingly mundane human behavior taken for granted in real life and then applying observations like Zizi's to her detective novel plot. It's both a refreshing and ironically eye-opening plotting technique that would become the standard of the incipient Golden Age.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Another intriguing clue is a carriage check, a small card issued to hotel guests or theater goers that allowed them to get a taxi or carriage (back in the horse drawn days) and wait in a queue as they pulled up to collect their passengers. I only learned about these by intensive internet searching and picking up this stray sentence in an encyclopedia about vaudeville. The article addresses the short-lived Folies Bergere in Manhattan whose owners Harris & Lasky thought up "other little innovations for theatergoers, such as a call boy inquiring of patrons shortly before the ending of the evening whether they wish a taxi giving a numbered card to those who do, the card becoming the person's carriage call." An illustration of one appears in my copy of The Man Who Fell through the Earth (at right) which I guess must be a good facsimile of what one looked like. A big deal is made about the holes in the card, what purpose they actually serve I have no idea, but in the course of the story they have an alternate more sinister use.

"Papier Poudré" brand powder-papers (click to enlarge)
In their first search of the murder scene Norah and Tom find things the police have overlooked. Norah, truly one of the ablest of the amateurs in this novel, spots a slip of pink paper in the trash can and pockets it. Tom asks her what it is and she tells him to be careful as it might still have fingerprints. "It's a powder-paper. Women carry them -- they come in little books. That's one of the leaves. They're to rub on your face, and the powder comes off on your nose and cheeks."  The conversation then turns to a mystery woman who must have been in the room visiting Gately. Tom remarks in passing: "A bit intimate, isn't it, for a woman to powder her nose in a man's office." Norah jibes back, "Not at all, Mr. Old Fogey! Why, you can see the girls doing that everywhere, nowadays. In the street cars, in the theatre -- anywhere!"

THE AUTHOR: Among Carolyn Wells (1870-1942) first professions were librarian in her hometown of Rahway, New Jersey and a prolific poet and humorist. Her first published work -- "The Poster Girl" -- appeared in 1897. Her first novels starting in 1902 were aimed for children, specifically the popular girls' book market. she came to write detective fiction a bit late only after attending a reading of Anna Katharine Green's That Affair Next Door. Wells' first detective novel, The Clue (1909), featured her long running series detective Fleming Stone. In addition to Stone and Pennington Wise she created Kenneth Carlisle and Lorimer Lane who each appeared in two mystery novels. Writing in multiple genres, both non-fiction and fiction, her work appeared in both the slicks and pulps of her time. Many of her novels were first serialized in popular story magazines like Detective Story (published by Street & Smith) and Munsey's All-Story Weekly.

Wells was one of the most amazingly prolific writers of the early 20th century consistently publishing at least three or four books annually from 1902 to her death. She claimed in an autobiographical work, The Rest of My Life (1937) to have written 170 books, including 70 detective stories—"so far."

Pennington Wise & Zizi Mystery Novels
The Room With the Tassels (1918)
The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919)
In the Onyx Lobby (1920)
The Come Back (1921)
The Luminous Face (1921)
The Vanishing of Betty Varian (1922)
The Affair at Flower Acres (1923)
Wheels Within Wheels (1923)