Friday, March 15, 2019

FFB: The Flight of the Doves - Walter Macken

In celebration of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day weekend activities out here in Chicago here's a perfect book that embodies of the idea of the Luck of the Irish.

THE STORY: Fed up with the abuse of their cruel stepfather Finn Dove and sister Derval run away with plans to find refuge with their kindly grandmother who lives in Ireland. Their journey entails crossing the ocean by boat and then relying on their wits, what little money they've scraped together, and the kindness of strangers to help them reach their destination. But the police and nasty "Uncle Toby" (the nickname they call their stepfather) are hot on their trail.

THE CHARACTERS: Finn and Derval make for an immensely likeable pair. Finn is devoted to his sister often acting as surrogate parent since the death of both of their mother and father. He arranges their escape, pools their limited funds, packs clothes and comes up with the clever, if burdensome, idea of wearing multiple layers of clothes to lighten their makeshift luggage that will allow room for more important items like food and drink. He's wily and street smart knowing that children can seem invisible if they are in the company of adults. So he tries to make it appear that he and his sister are part of a large family in order to get aboard the boat to Ireland.

Remarkably, his resourcefulness need not be tested or challenged too much for the two children seem to be watched over by the powers of good wherever they travel. Nearly everyone they encounter helps them move along to their final destination ranging from some ruffian boys playing football to a truck driver whose sideline is dealing in stolen goods. The Doves also meet up with a family of Irish travellers who temporarily adopt them, escape being handed off to the police for a £100 reward, and repeatedly manage to outwit the police and their "Uncle Toby" by a hair's breadth until they come to a much needed rest in Carraigmore.

Derval & Finn Dove
illustration by Charles Keeping,
from 1st UK edition (1968)
Along the way a police inspector named Michael in charge of the children's search becomes one of the most unexpected Good Samaritans of the novel. After hearing of the overly dramatic reaction of Toby, the stepfather's seemingly genuine weeping and how he manipulates the entire police force into consoling him Michael suspects something false in the melodramatic display. If this man's sorrow were genuine indicating a caring and compassionate guardian then why did the Dove children flee his home? Something must not have been right. He decides to resign from the case and go "on holiday" with his supervisor's permission. In reality he goes undercover to find the kids himself and secretly helps them to their grandmother's home. Michael will play a big role in straightening out the legal mess of the children having been made Wards of the Court, ensuring they are released from Uncle Toby's clutches, and that they get their just rewards of their inheritance from a distant relation and a home where they can be genuinely loved.

INNOVATIONS: Intended as a children's book The Flight of the Doves(1968) often reads like a fairy tale for adults. The best of children's literature can appeal to a wide audience and it never seems as if Macken is limiting himself to younger readers though he clearly set out to write it for kids. As with most children's books there are lessons to be learned. He reminds us that Michael the conflicted police officer is a representative of the legal system and must not ever break the law even if he finds himself bending the rules a bit in order to help the children achieve their goal. It is the overarching theme of connectedness, responsibility, and innate decency that make the book so enjoyable and mature. Macken manages to do all this without once becoming treacly or sentimental in any way. Derval is the only character in the book who suffers from cuteness (excusable for a child so young, I guess) but everyone else has an edge to them in spite of being kind and extravagantly generous. Even Granny O'Flaherty when we finally meet her is far from the saintly type of grandmother one encounters in children's books. She's tough as nails and puts up a fight using her steadfast Irish common sense and an iron will. The law will not take her grandchildren away from her if she has any say.

QUOTES: "If it wasn't for you we would have been caught," said Finn.
"How do you know?" Michael asked. "Something else might have happened. You might have got away. If a fellow wants a thing badly enough, he will get it."

[Michael] would have to be prepared to meet the law with the truth. This was what the law was about. Truth had no law to fight. He hoped the children could keep free for the time he required to find the truth that would really free them. He thought, with Finn's determination, that they might.

"No! Don't tell me. I like mysteries, see. I can be makin' up stories about it for the rest of time. If I knew, there'd be no fun in it. [...] Most stories has no mysteries in them. It's just nothing when you hear the truth. Sometimes lies is better than truth for the sake of adventure."

Movie tie-in edition
Pan Books (1971)
THE MOVIE: The Flight of the Doves was filmed in 1971 starring 19 year-old Jack Wild as Finn, Dorothy McGuire as Granny, and Stanley Holloway as the Judge. The movie also reunited Wild with his Oliver! co-star, delightful British character actor Ron Moody who played Hawk Dove, a new character created especially for the movie. I believe Hawk was the brother of the kids' father (so their real uncle) who is next in line to inherit the money if anything should happen to the children. In the film Moody is the main antagonist as he tries to find the kids and ...uh... dispose of them so that the trust fund money can be his alone. He adopts a variety of disguises (I think he was a failed actor, but my memory is fuzzy) in order to cajole and befriend Finn and Derval. Despite Finn and Derval's attempt to disguise themselves by reversing their genders, they cut their hair, dye it, and change clothes, Hawk Dove is able to track them down. I saw the movie ages ago when it was first released in movie theaters back in the 70s when I was a kid and just recently watched a few clips on the TMC website to help refresh my memory. But none of the clips I viewed were of scenes with Moody and the two children. Basically it's very similar to the book with the added tension and suspense of a murderous relative trying to do in the kids. The movie is available on DVD and various clips are on both the TMC website and YouTube.

THE AUTHOR: Walter Macken (1915-1967) was born in Galway and began his career in theater as an actor then playwright and director. In his youth he was with the Little Gaelic Theater in Galway where plays were presented in his native Irish language in which Macken was fluent. In 1948 he joined Abbey Theater where his playwriting flourished. His play Home is the Hero was the first Abbey production to travel overseas to Broadway and was also filmed three times (once for German TV). The 1959 film of Home Is the Hero was the first movie to be produced and filmed at Ardmore Studios in Dublin and featured the entire company of the Abbey Theater with American actor Arthur Kennedy as Willie O'Reilly the only non-Irish performer in the cast. Macken later turned to novels and is best known for his trilogy of books -- Seek the Fair Land (1959), The Silent People (1962) and The Scorching Wind (1966) -- forming an epic saga about the struggle of Ireland to gain freedom from England. He wrote one other children's book The Island of the Great Yellow Ox (1966) prior to The Flight of the Doves which turned out to be his final work. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Galway at the age of 51.

EASY TO FIND? To my great surprise I discovered that The Flight of the Doves has remained in print since it was first published. It's most recent edition is dated 2007. There are hundreds of copies for sale in the used book market, mostly paperback editions from both US and UK houses. The UK first edition appears to be a genuine rarity though just last year I managed to find a copy with a DJ much to my delight. It should not be difficult to locate a copy of this book no matter where you live. I'm sure it's still on the shelves of library children's sections, too.

I loved this movie when I was a kid and have never forgotten it. I only just read the book for the first time this year. It brought back a flood of memories and it was such a welcome relief from the gruesome and horrific novels I have been reading for the past couple of weeks. For some The Flight of the Doves may seem to be overflowing with convenient plot incidents, coincidence, and too much of the kindness of strangers.  For me, however, it was just the book I needed. This adventurous story will remind any reader that  goodness does exist in the world and of how we all have a responsibility to each other to do the right thing no matter how much the world seems to be against it.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Death of a Doll - Hilda Lawrence

Death of a Doll, 1st edition DJ
Simon & Schuster, 1947

Hilda Lawrence was not a prolific mystery writer. However, in her small output of only five books, she gave us a fascinating type of crime novel that included detection and psychological suspense, some of the earliest cases of genre blending in the post-WW2 era. Her first novel Blood upon the Snow (1944) introduced a private eye who nearly met his match with two elderly spinsters, Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, sort of a 1940s version of the Snoop Sisters minus the mystery writing angle. Mark East, the private detective, would return two more times accompanied in each book by Beulah and Bessy.  Death of a Doll (1947) is the third and last case for this highly unusual sleuthing trio and it may be their most complex and intriguing crime solving case of the the lot.

Right off the bat this a very different Mark East mystery because it is set in the heart of Manhattan. The previous two books took place in isolated rural communities far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Lawrence has a knack for finding the darkness no matter where she sets her books. Like the previous two mysteries in the trilogy of detective novels Death of a Doll is fraught with tension, long hidden secrets and one of the most sinister murderers to spring from the macabre imagination of its writer. Lawrence delves into the dangerous side of female friendships, the petty jealousies that can turn from mean spiritedness to treacherous revenge to murderous rage.

The mystery itself centers on Hope House, a women's boarding house and its mix of working class women residents and its all female staff.  Ruth Miller, is the newest resident, a shop girl employed at the somewhat ritzy department store Blackman's. Two girls who work in Blackman's storeroom currently live at Hope House and let Ruth know of a recent vacancy. She is excited to be moving in and shares this excitement with one of her favorite customers, Roberta Sutton (newly married, fresh out of the previous book A Time to Die). This conversation will come back to haunt Roberta when days later she hears of some very sad news. Ruth died shortly after moving in from a fatal fall out of her apartment window.

Prior to the accident Lawrence lets us know that Ruth has been carrying with her a terrible secret. One she was sure that she would never have to confront. But on her first day all her buried fears, her angst about this secret and her life prior to New York City, come rushing back in a flood of memories when she sees and hears something.  She actually tries to flee and escape confronting this past but she is dragged back by Monica Brady, one of the two women in charge of Hope House, who senses something strange in Ruth's behavior. She wants to help the girl but also has some suspicions and wants to get at the truth.

No one can prevent what happens. Lawrence allows us to see Ruth meet up with her past and we know that she never suffered an accidental fall that more and more the police want to rule as a suicide. Roberta Sutton is sure of Ruth's death was neither accident nor suicide based solely on the conversation she had with Ruth. Seeing her giddy excitement, knowing that she was ready for change and improvement in her life Roberta is convinced that Ruth would never take her own life. She asks her friend Mark East to look into Ruth's death and prove her right. With the help of his two old lady assistants and in cooperation with Inspector Foy of the NYPD  Mark digs into Ruth's past and discovers a killer like no other he's met before.

What Lawrence does so well here is shake up the conventions of the private eye urban world with an offbeat and decidedly female perspective of her two spinster detectives who tackle the big city environment with gusto. Beulah is tough, nearly humorless and shrewd. Bessy is flighty, garrulous, overly imaginative and has tendency to dip into the sherry bottle too often. Both are formidable each in her own way. Beulah manages to instill a bit of terror in the residents of Hope House when she goes undercover as Ruth's disabled aunt (she fakes a limp) and starts asking a lot of prying questions.  In addition to exploiting their age and appearance they are imaginatively resourceful. They manage to find a dry cleaner and an eye doctor by thinking exactly like Ruth and knowing how she would choose those services based on her character of a small town girl just getting used to a big city.

The detective work tends to be a mixture of the kind of psychological probing of the victim's life you find in most mystery fiction (more prevalent in post-WW2 private eye fiction), and the oddball clue finding of the traditional mystery already seeming quaintly old-fashioned by 1947. Ruth's death took place during a costume party in which all the residents were dressed in identical rag doll costumes. A music box is used as a murder weapon. One of the residents is blind, her childlike inquisitive nature adds an eerie chill when she appears on the scene. Then there are taxi chases and insensitive grilling sessions that are stock in trade of private eye novels. The balance between the two seemingly disparate types of mystery blend well and are almost indistinguishable from each other. It's as if Lawrence has invented her own subgenre, and one that seems a delightful paradox for mystery writing -- the cozy urban murder mystery.

Even more challenging, perhaps Lawrence's strongest quality as a novelist, is that nothing is ever really spelled out. Her writing and narrative structure is done in such a way that much of what is key to the story must be gleaned from the storytelling itself. Ruth's secret is presented to the reader piecemeal but with well planted clues.  A phone call made early in the book and a passing reference to a number written down comes back to provide a major clue for the detective trio.  Nothing that seems an inconsequential detail is put there without a reason. With a large cast of women characters resorting to the pronoun "she" often adds a level of confusion and mystery. Just who is she talking about among all the women? But it is all done for conscious effect.

 The plotting here is strong, there is an abundance of detective work from two different schools, and the characters are never boring. The two old women do provide for an ample amount of humor but never at the expense of the mystery plot. It all works splendidly together culminating in a finale tinged with disturbing tragedy and not a little unexpected sadness.

Agora Books 2019 new edition cover
Death of a Doll has been released in a new edition (paperback and digital) from the fine folks at Agora Books, a UK based outfit doing excellent work in reissuing classic crime novels. Many of you are familiar with the Richard Hull editions that have been coming out for the past two years. Here is their first American mystery writer added to their catalogue. Hilda Lawrence is not only an excellent addition to the Agora Books line, but a writer who has been long overdue for new look, new editions and a new audience. Anyone interested in the history of the genre, in a true original who invigorated the mystery world with unusual genre blending techniques would be well advised to check out Death of a Doll.

*  *  *

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence
Agora Books
£9.99 Paperback
£3.99 Digital (UK buyers only)
ISBN: 9781913099237

Friday, March 8, 2019

FFB: They Walk in Darkness - Gerald Verner

They Walk in Darkness (1947) opens with a dinner party held on Halloween night. The main topic of conversation is hardly palatable for any dinner party no matter what the date. In the village on Fendyke St. Mary children have been disappearing, five over an eighteen month period. Only one has been found so far. The Robson’s infant was taken from its pram but three days later was found horribly butchered, its throat cut and the body dumped in “a clump of reeds at the edge of Hinton Broad.”

You can imagine all the characters reaching for the whiskey, gritting their teeth, clutching the arms of their chairs. You imagine they would want to change the subject as soon as possible. But no one does. Can there be more? Oh, yes there is--

The prelude to this ghastly murder and subsequent disappearances of other children was the slaughter of lambs killed in a similar fashion and just as ignominiously disposed of. Verner's narrative style is so detached, so British, presenting such monstrous acts in as tasteful a manner as possible.  The guests feel more challenged by how to conduct themselves with decorum rather than show their true feelings. The men shake their heads and dismiss it as the actions of a lunatic, the woman utter euphemistic platitudes. Collectively the dinner party basically shakes their head mumbling about “nasty work”. We expect outrage but get lackadaisical resignation.

If that weren’t enough their hostess Helen Wymondham is more concerned about how the evening was ruined, "all gaiety vanished" no matter how many “valiant efforts” she made to restore it to a pleasant evening for all. She babbles on interminably as she tries to say her good nights to her nephew Peter Chard and his wife Ann: “Such a dismal atmosphere, I’m really quite relieved that the evening is over. I do wish it hadn’t happened today of all days. It would have been so nice if we could have had a really jolly evening…”

Of course this is just a precursor to more unspeakable acts.

The next day four people, two men and two women, are discovered dead at another party held in a reputedly haunted house known as Witch House. It had snowed on Halloween and footprint trails travel towards the house showing all four entered, but none travel away showing anyone left. The door was locked from the inside and had to be broken down. All four people are found seated at a dinner table, some meats are still on a sideboard, a wine bottle is empty,  and all four have eaten and drunk wine. There is a fifth place setting at the table but the plate and glass are untouched, empty of food or drink. Examination of the bodies indicates cyanide poisoning, later corroborated by autopsy, administered via the wine. When mass suicide is ruled out the police are faced with what appears to be a locked room and four impossible murders. Who poisoned the wine, locked the room, and escaped without leaving footprints in the snow?

Peter Chard, a thriller writer, and his wife assist the police in the murder investigation. Eventually, the lamb slaughter, the vanished children, and the poisonings are all tied together when Peter’s wife Ann suggests that everything smacks of ritual and superstition. Peter’s Aunt Helen who hosted the dinner party tells them stories about the house where the murders took place, and of the ugly history of witchcraft and executions that took place in the village centuries ago. Ann dares to suggest that a coven of witches may be active in the village and Peter begins to seriously contemplate that possibility. The truth, however, is far worse -- more outre, more bone-chilling.

The detection and clues are here, but Verner is sloppy in his handling of his sinister plot. While we watch Peter discover things like an ornate jeweled brooch in the shape of capital L in the home of victim Laura Courtland, and read up on witchcraft and horrid occult rituals in the library of Anthony Sherwood other pieces of detective work are shaded in ambiguity or just plain unfair. There are two blatant references to an aspect of one character’s unusual past that stick out like a sore thumb indicating a major clue as to how the the impossibility was pulled off, but on the other hand we never learn (until the last chapter) what Peter found when he investigated the front porch of the Witch House. All the reader knows is that he sees it, smiles and walks away.

Verner seems to lack the confidence to play fair with his readers. He’ll hide a couple of aces up his sleeve but then let one drop out onto the table ineptly. Too much detection happens offstage or is described so obliquely that the reader is unclear what has been discovered. The clues are a mix of the utterly absent or completely obvious. When the solution to the impossible crime comes many readers may be disappointed by its familiarity in the impossible crime subgenre, a gimmick used almost as frequently as knife throwing.

In the end They Walk in Darkness comes off as an inferior homage to a Dennis Wheatley occult thriller moreso than a traditional detective novel. Verner has been described as being inspired by Edgar Wallace in that even when he sits down to write a detective novel he ends up with action oriented thrillers, often with gangsters and career criminals as the antagonists. However, the more I read of Gerald Verner the more I'm reminded of a similarly prolific crime writer who wrote under multiple pseudonyms. Edwy Searles Brooks whose "Ironsides" Cromwell books written in his “Victor Gunn” guise are very much in line with what Verner wrote. Both include impossible crimes, haunted houses, Gothic atmosphere galore, elements of weird and supernatural fiction always rationalized, and the standard heightened melodrama exemplified by this Lovecraftian passage:

Something had come into that quiet, warm, cosy room -- a disturbing, unpleasant something, as though a door had partially opened and through the crack had come writhing abominable and hideous things from an unspeakable hell.

Luridly cliche? Yes, but a perfect evocation for what's to come. And it would have been fine if Verner ended the chapter there. Instead he undermines the terror with the prosaic by tacking on this absurd coda:

Peter slid the brooch into his pocket."Let’s go to bed, shall we?" he said soberly. "I think I’ve had enough horrors for one day.…"

Despite all the flaws in construction and fair play technique Verner is a born story teller and the book does not fail to grip hold of the reader.  Of all the books I've read this one seems his most mature, he is trying to do something than merely entertain.  There is social criticism and satire of British stoicism in the face of "nasty business." Amid the lathered on histrionics and the intentionally melodramatic prose there is a subversive thread being played out. They Walk in Darkness slowly transforms from occult thriller with detective fiction elements into a contemporary morality play with a motive for murder steeped in vigilantism presented as the only true course for justice and retribution. We watch the disintegration of a community and witness them suffer in helplessness, rise up in anger and violence in order to stop the unseen malevolent force terrorizing their village. Who among them will be brave enough to dispel the superstition and at long last see the truth no matter how improbable?  The novel begins in tragedy and ends in tragedy when at last two characters step out of the shadows take the law into their own hands and fight evil the only way they can. Even Peter Chard recognizes this as the only solution possible in the final pages.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

NEW STUFF: The Wolf & the Watchman - Niklas Natt och Dag

The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt och Dag
orig published as 1793
translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg
Atria/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-5011-9677-5
373 pp. $28
Publication date: March 5, 2019

Stockholm, 1793. One year after the assassination of King Gustav III at a masked ball. Two years after the Swedish navy defeated the Russians at the Battle of Svensksund that ended to the Russo-Swedish war. There is new albeit limited religious freedom for Roman Catholics and Jews, torture as a tool to gain confessions from prisoners has been outlawed, capital punishment is limited to only a short list of crimes. And yet amid all these reforms the city is a seething brutal cesspool of political corruption, lax morality, and heinous murder. Recently recovered from the filthy (formerly freshwater) lake known as the Larder is a horrific find -- the limbless corpse of a man who has also been blinded had his tongue cut out. Two men join forces to track down the vile murderer and also discover the identity of the pathetic victim.

The Wolf and the Watchman of the title are the two men who from a detective duo of sorts. Cecil Winge, is the wolf -- a lawyer who is called in by the Swedish police to help in unusual criminal cases. He is aided by the man who pulled the body from the fetid water, war veteran and sometime watchman Mickel Cardell. Mickell is also an amputee who regularly suffers from "phantom limb syndrome" years after his injury. His experience of losing his arm to a literal hack of a shipboard surgeon is of benefit to Winge when the two examine the gruesome wounds on the corpse. Mickell is able to show the age of each wound based on how it has healed, the look of the scar tissue, the manner in which skinflaps were grafted. He does a better job at revealing how the man must have suffered for days or weeks than the coroner, an indifferent bureaucrat who barely cares.

Winge also find clues about the body based on an embroidered cloth that the body was wrapped in. Clever questioning of area drunks and vagrants reveals that a sedan chair with unusual green paint and matching curtains was abandoned temporarily within walking distance of the Larder. Winge then follows the clues of the sedan chair and the embroidered cloth to a notorious brothel where he learns of an unthinkable fate the victim underwent prior to his death and disposal in the polluted lake.

Here is a historical novel that mixes some intensely perverse nightmares of the past with modern day horror worthy of yet another installment in the already too long series of Saw murder movies. Natt och Dag seems to be exploiting Sweden's dismal past as a commentary on our own dark and seedy times. Uncontrolled pollution, rampant disease, sexual indulgences are described with an almost gleeful relish while power plays, sadism and wicked revenge dominate the narrative. There is little room left for goodness.

Rare are the times when Cardell is allowed to voice his moral outrage in his vociferous voice and violent reactions. When those moments come the reader finds himself wishing for the villains to at last receive their comeuppance. This is a nihilistic world, one where survival of the fittest means nothing, it is only about survival. The weak have more than their fair share of struggling to survive while the powerful abuse and exploit all in their way.

Winge is among the weak though he does a good job of hiding it. He is suffering from the end stages of tuberculosis. He wonders if he will live to see the close of this murder case with the offensive criminal not only brought to justice but mercilessly executed. There is one such execution scene described with the kind of raw, grisly detail that makes the book often difficult to stomach.

The novel is divided into four books and the second part titled "The Blood and Wine" is probably the toughest section to wade through. It tells the story of Kristofer Blix. His selfish carousing and gambling land him at the mercy of a slavish moneylender who then sells Blix's debts to a mysterious and reclusive nobleman. Blix is basically imprisoned in the nobleman's home, kept at bay by a savage and hungry dog, exploited for his skills as an apprentice surgeon, and forced to commit acts of atrocity that will haunt him for the rest of his brief life.

Niklas Natt och Dag
(photo: © Gabriel Liljevall)
Part three ("The Moth and the Flame") relates the life of Anna Stina Knapp who, of course, also suffers a cruel trick of Fate. She is accused of prostitution by a man whose sexual advances she rejected, arrested, found guilty in a kangaroo court and sentenced to a year and a half in prison. Then the bulk of the section deals with life in a prison workhouse for women who toil endlessly at spinning wheels creating wool thread for textile manufacturers. Their sentence is literally measured out in threads rather than years. The Greek mythological analogies we are thankfully spared. One cannot help but think of Dickens and Atwood's Alias Grace while reading of Anna's harsh life and the foul treatment of the women at the hands of the sadistic guards and a sanctimonious preacher.

Anna plots an escape with the help of some other prisoners. This is actually the most exciting part of the book and the least repellent for it deals mostly with a strong minded woman tenaciously holding onto her dignity, her chastity, and her moral conscience. Will she triumph? Will she succeed in her escape? And how does she figure in the tale of the unfortunate limbless and nameless body so horrifyingly slaughtered? We find out all the answers in part four when the story returns to the detective duo and their murder investigation with Anna appearing towards the end in one of the novel's unexpected plot machinations.

Natt och Dag won an award for Best Debut of 2017 from the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers. The book is being praised by several European newspaper reviewers and literary experts. It's been compared to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, The Alienist and any other novel that mixes detective fiction with history. All of this praise is a bit excessive for the book is far from a masterpiece, not really very original, nor even very enlightening or factual about Sweden's history in 1793. What it is -- a truly unabashed 21st century sensation novel inspired by the penny dreadfuls of the past, also overloaded with gore, sadism, and unspeakable acts. Admittedly, some sections have truly thrilling edge-of-your-seat excitement and much of the plot is not at all predictable. Still it is more than indulgent in heaping on the depths of human degradation and perversity that crowd its pages. What we have here basically is a "shilling shocker" in sham literary packaging. A novel meant for this New Age of Horrors Unlimited. And if there's also an award for that, I wouldn't be surprised at all.

Friday, March 1, 2019

FFB: The Doctor's First Murder - Robert Hare

THE STORY: Dr. Amos Truppen meticulously plans the death of Henry Updike in order to steal his formula for a medicine that supposedly can cure cancer. Truppen feels that if he can get that formula he'll be a very wealthy man. On the day of the murder Truppen stages a car accident and does everything according to his elaborate plan. But when the time comes to the actual murder Truppen discovers his intended victim is already dead, killed in exactly the same bizarre manner that Truppen had planned. Who got there first? But more importantly -- who knew of Truppen's plan and why did they kill Updike in exactly the same manner?

THE CHARACTERS: Like many other crime novels that detail the plans of a murder gone awry The Doctor's First Murder is told entirely from the viewpoint of the killer. Amos Truppen is disillusioned with his practice, less than satisfied with his partner Dr. Claude Dastin and eager to find a way to improve his reputation and position in town as one of only two physicians. We think that the story will be about Truppen and the way he will elude detection and get away with his ostensibly "perfect crime."  But when he is outwitted by another killer we see the novel transform immediately into an engaging suspense novel with some very good detective work both on Truppen's part and other characters.

Dastin, his physician partner, is highly suspicious of the accident and points out some odd details like the roofing tile nail supposedly causing a blowout that led to the car crashing into an oak tree and killing Updike.  Dastin points out that no houses anywhere on Updike's route had been recently repaired and that no one in town had a roof repair in years. Where did the new nail come from and how did Updike accidentally drive over it? Of course this was part of Truppen's plan to make it appear that the car had an accident. The reader knows this having watched Truppen drive the nail into the tire with a hammer after he let the car coast in neutral into the tree and crash there. This is only the first sign that Truppen's plan was not as perfect as he envisioned. Updike's apparent cause of death involves a broken glass vial that stabbed him and this also raises questions. When the body is exhumed Truppen really begins to sweat.

The bulk of the novel is an excellent portrait in guilt commingled with paranoia. Truppen is an intelligent and shrewd man and is determined not to be tried and executed for a crime that he may have planned but that someone else carried out. However, he is not immune to fear. He finds himself haunted, losing sleep and dwelling repeatedly on a paranoid refrain in his imagination: "I'm caught! I'm caught! I'm caught!"  The story becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse as Truppen matches wits with his unknown antagonist. He focuses first on Dastin who seems to stumble on clues too easily, but Dastin's long visit with Sir Jeremy Henders gives him an alibi for the night of Updike's death.  Truppen then sets his eyes on Updike's wife, Rascha, a research scientist who helped her huband create and improve the formula.

The introduction of Meino Voss into the story allows Hare to address the question of Fate. Voss is a composer and was Updike's only patient receiving the secret medicine that had been doing miraculous wonders. But Voss is a melancholy man and his latest composition a symphony, inspired by his impending death from a terminal illness, is a dark and brooding piece of music.  He talks to Truppen about how he is trying capture in sound and tone the quality of Nemesis expounding on both the Greek mythological figure and its place in his music. The names of Fate and Nemesis as well as their shared concepts and role in Truppen's life will recur throughout the novel until the staggering and ironic finale.

INNOVATIONS: The Doctor's First Murder (1933) seems at first to be an inverted detective novel from the very first sentence. The ingenious surprise at the end of Chapter Two transforms the book into a detective novel. Truppen finds himself ironically changing from incipient murderer into full-fledged detective then again into an agent of retribution. There are other books that use this convention, but this is not only one of the first to be written combining both subgenres it is also one of the best constructed and impressively inventive in plotting. The final chapters are fraught with tension and suspense and the ending is an unexpected shocker.

Hare makes use of excellent examples of detective novel conventions like the decoding of a strange message in a New Year's Day card sent to Truppen from someone signing himself Trench, and the examination of a substitute formula found in Updike's waistcoat that appears to have been composed on Truppen's typewriter. The more Truppen uncovers the more it seems that someone had been watching his every move, knowing exactly what he had planned, and finding ways to make it appear that no one other than Truppen could have anything to do with the death. Yet we know he did not kill Updike! It's a marvel of psychological torture. We see Truppen slowly falling apart only to finally see the truth and turn Nemesis himself.

The recurring motif of Fate and Nemesis is one of the novel's literary strengths.  Voss describes his symphony to Truppen as a work that embodies the idea of struggle directed towards "the joy of approaching triumph" only to be crushed with a "punishment that awaits the man who dares to lift his head as high as that of the gods." The reader knows that this is both foreshadowing and a compact message of the novel's intent.

QUOTES: Voss: "You note that the Scherzo is the shortest movement."
Dr. Truppen nodded.
"Is not triumph always short-lived, Amos?"

...[H]ow had he ever discovered Truppen's plan? No secret had been guarded more closely. It had been shared with no one. It had been closeted in his mind, in the depths of it, in the very innermost part where, one might say, this curious, rhythmical repetition of questions was hammering away. Going on and on...

It was so like a spider enticing a fly into its web, and he wondered whether a spider could be so attracted to its victim as he was to Rascha; whether he could see beauty actually in the thing he wished to destroy. His feelings were torn by two opposing desires which struggled against each other within him: the one to take Rascha in his arms and embrace her, the other to set his fingers about he throat and kill her.

It gave [Truppen] enormous satisfaction to know that he could deceive her. It was a weapon which he might have occasion to use later on.

THE AUTHOR: Robert Hare Hutchinson wrote three detective novels and a handful of articles for magazines. His first book, interestingly, was a nonfiction work that may indicate what his first profession might have been: The Socialism of New Zealand (1916). The research for that book was done in collaboration with his wife while both were on their honeymoon. Fun couple! Hutchinson married into a wealthy Philadelphia family with an rich literary heritage. His wife Delia Farley Dana, on her father's side, was the granddaughter of Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of the sailor's memoir Two Years Before the Mast and an attorney well noted for his work defending slaves brought to trial under the Fugitive Slave Act. Delia's maternal grandfather was the noted "Poet Laureate of the Atlantic magazine" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once a mainstay of elementary and high school literature classes in the USA. A search of newspaper articles featuring Hutchinson and his wife turned up the notice in the Philadelphia Enquirer of their unusual marriage ceremony in 1913 which made the front page. They were married in an "ethical eugenic" wedding ceremony, a practice that the Dana family made somewhat popular at the time. The entire text of the marriage, wholly absent of any religious verbiage or theological content, was included in the article and included this bizarre statement Delia uttered to her husband to be: "I, Delia Farley Dana, take you, Robert Hare Hutchinson, to be my lawful husband, and I hope so to live that you may be enabled to attain your highest efficiency." The Hutchinsons lived for a time in Philadelphia but eventually emigrated to England and lived in London, no doubt in order to live under the type of socialist government they had studied and preferred. This also explains why although Hutchinson was an American his detective novels appeared first in UK editions.

EASY TO FIND? Well, this is quite a surprise to me. Four days ago when I checked there were three copies of the US first edition available for sale and one other reprint. Today there is only one copy (the reprint) offered. I feel a bit like Dr. Truppen: Who knew I was going to review this so favorably and went looking in advance to buy one of the few copies out there?  And not just one person -- three people! [insert Twilight Zone theme]

I'm not sure anyone would want the reprint I mentioned. That lone copy is being sold by Gyan Books Pvt. Ltd based in Delhi, India, another internet pirate who manufactures POD copies. Gyan Books is different from most of these thieves however, because they make their pirated copies seem like a collector's item. They bind their editions in "leather" boards and include a ribbon book marker. Here's how they describe the process: "This book is printed in black & white, sewing binding for longer life, Printed on high quality Paper, re-sized as per Current standards, professionally processed without changing its contents." It's only $33 (cheap for a leather bound book, I think) and they offer free shipping. Someone ought to buy one of these (I'll never patronize an internet pirate "publisher"; they're really only printers) and let me know if it's worth the money or if it's, as I suspect, shoddily produced.

Robert Hare's Crime & Detective Novels
The Crime in the Crystal (1932)
  -- UK title: Spectral Evidence
The Doctor's First Murder (1933)
The Hand of the Chimpanzee (1934)

Friday, February 22, 2019

FFB: The Silent Murders - Neil Gordon

THE STORY:  Inspector Dewar and Superintendent Bone are faced with the enigma of a series of murders where at each crime scene the body has been tagged with a numbered piece of cardboard. When the book opens victim #3 has been found. All the men are middle-aged, some have been stabbed, most have been shot by an air rifle that scores the bullets in a peculiar way. What can they possibly have in common besides their age, the murder method, and the numbered cardboard tags? When the linking element is found the policemen find themselves in a race against time to identify the potential victims from a brief list and prevent the last of the murders.

THE CHARACTERS: Dewar and Bone are a great team. Bone is the senior official and he enjoys razzing Dewar for being both very young (only 32) and Scottish. He constantly jibes Dewar about his hometown of Dumbartonshire often referring to his junior as "Dumbarton", always in a friendly joshing manner. He is respectful and impressed by Dewar's abstract thinking and his gifted detective's instinct. It is only because of Dewar that they literally uncover another murder while investigating the truth behind the serial murders.  It's one of many clever layers to this intricate plot.

Dewar though the junior member of the team is clearly the lead detective of the novel.  He is driven and dedicated to his job. A single man who eats, sleeps, and breathes police work he is well liked by all his colleagues. And it's largely because of the mutual admiration between Dewar and Bone that this detective novel which relies heavily on methodical police work never lags interest and never suffers from "procedural" monotony which is often the case with this subgenre.  We never have to watch these men fill out paperwork, talk about the bureaucracy that stalls their work, or any of the other less glamorous aspects of police work. They are on the hunt, they mean business, and they most definitely get their man.  In fact they get their man about three times in this wildly, fast-spinning and ever changing pursuit of a relentless killer hiding amongst many criminal types.

INNOVATIONS:  One of the earliest of serial killer novels The Silent Killers (1930) still seems very modern because it uses as the major thrust of the plot the now familiar motif of looking for patterns. But not analyzing the killer's psychological profile, rather looking at the lives of the victims for a connection to warrant such mass murder. Unlike other tales of multiple murder of the Golden Age in which the acts are horrifyingly random and committed by a lunatic The Silent Murders has a murderer with a clear cut, understandable motive unshrouded by psychopathology and free of any baroque hidden meanings. He may be leaving calling cards counting out the murders, but that is the extent of the adornment, so to speak. The police work is entirely focussed on trying to find an underlying connection between all the victims.  It's rather baffling since two deaths occurred in Canada, one of the victims was a tramp, and two were high-powered, prominent British businessmen. The police are forced to dig deep into the past and they hit the jackpot with a business deal in South Africa that took place around 1907, twenty-five years prior to the events of the novel. The case seems almost at an end until their prime suspect flees along with a servant.

The plot shifts to a pursuit for their suspect, but a truly surprising event at about midway through the book causes the entire case to fall apart and Dewar and Bone must start from scratch. When that happens there is a very subtle element of fair play clueing is dropped allowing the reader to figure out the killer's motive for the seemingly unending mass murder. I am proud to say that it dawned on me literally two paragraphs before Inspector Dewar announces it. It's an invigorating moment whether the reader guesses before Dewar or not for it also comes as the recognition that this may in fact be the very first book ever to employ such a novelty plot element in a detective story.  The characters talk about the motive with such alarming horror that it seems totally fresh within the context of the story even if it is now a tiresome cliche in the genre as a whole.

Body Found Stabbed (1932) by John Cameron,
another of Macdonell's pseudonyms
QUOTES: Dewar: "Where does a harmless Methodist tradesman who's never been farther from Reading than Lyme Regis connect with a gang of murdering cutthroats and [diamond brokers] and gunrunners from Jo-burg and Angola and Belgian Congo?"
"Most eloquently put," said Bone, "and quite unanswerable."

The quietness and simplicity of it were terrifying. No one had seen a figure approaching the victims. No one has seen a figure hastening from the scene of the murders. ...each murder committed with ruthless efficiency and each retreat effected without fuss or hurry.  "Like a cat in the night hunting a bird," thought Dewar.

A. G. Macdonell, 1939
(photo © Bassano, Ltd.)
THE AUTHOR: Neil Gordon is one of two pseudonyms used by Archibald Gordon Macdonell when he was writing detective and thriller fiction. Macdonell began his writing career as a journalist, writing mostly theater reviews for London Mercury.  In 1933 his novel England, Their England received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and it is this book for which he is most likely best remembered. Another satirical novel The Autobiography of a Cad (1938) has garnered something of a cult reputation lately. In addition to novels and a handful of plays he wrote at least one book on military history. As "Neil Gordon" he wrote five detective novels; a Buchanesque political thriller called The Factory on the Cliff (1928); and The Bleston Mystery (1928) done in collaboration with Milward Kennedy, one of the founders of the Detection Club. Under the pen name John Cameron he wrote two other detective novels with similar sounding titles: Seven Stabs (1929) and Body Found Stabbed (1932). In 1941 Macdonell died unexpectedly at the age of only 45 in Oxford.

EASY TO FIND? Luckily, yes! (From now on I will only be including this section when the answer is positive.) Many of Macdonell's novels have been reprinted by Fonthill Media, a British indie press known primarily for their line of military, aviation, and maritime non-fiction. Only two of the Neil Gordon detective novels were reprinted and have been released under Macdonell's real name -- The Silent Murders and The Shakespeare Murders. Currently all the Macdonell books are offered at 20% off the original retail price if you buy them from the Fonthill Media website. For anything else you'll have to resort to used bookstores, both online and the few remaining brick and mortar stores out there.

Friday, February 15, 2019

FFB: Death Sends a Cable - Margaret Tayler Yates

THE STORY: Dr. Hugh McNeal, Navy physician and his wife Navy nurse Anne Davenport McNeal have been stationed in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the Navy runs a telegraph station in cooperation with the American Cable Company. "Davvie" (the nickname Anne prefers) has been comforting a Navy widow grieving over her husband's recent suicide, but May Patterson is convinced that her husband Tom was murdered and that his death is related to the accidental death of another navy officer who drove off a cliff a few weeks earlier. Things get more complicated when an undercover FBI agent shows up to investigate both deaths after Mrs. Patterson leaves the naval station, heads back to the mainland and complains to the US government.  Davvie starts poking around, asking lots of questions and uncovers officers in disguise, possible German spies, coded telegraph messages, a plot to steal a resident mathematician's formula, and the truth about the two suspicious deaths.

THE CHARACTERS:  Apart from Davvie and Hugh, our lead married couple, there are only a few standouts in this very large cast. Probably because Yates finds it necessary to populate her navy base with as many possible variations on a military married couple the book often seems crowded and it's hard to focus on who you should be paying attention to.  But after the long expository first third of the book with the barrage of character introductions, relationships, friendships and other basic info the reader can settle into the story of the investigation which deals primarily with two FBI agents, Davvie and Babs van Born, niece of a rigid Navy officer.

Babs is 22 years old, seems and acts much younger, and ostensibly appears merely a babysitter/nanny for two rambunctious trouble-making boys of a snobby navy couple. She is presented at first as a starry-eyed dreamer but will turn out to be the most formidable of the gaggle of adventurous and courageous women on the base. Another standout is Bill Duncan about whom I cannot say too much without ruining some of the genuine surprises in Yate's tricky and rather complex plot.

The rest are pretty much stock characters, especially the many stodgy military men. Among the other women characers Kay Brewster, a slangy smart aleck who never seems to have a serious thought in her head, was one of my personal favorites. She doesn't seem real at all, like your favorite supporting character on a sit-com, but she has all the best lines and is often hilarious with her stinging comebacks.

INNOVATIONS: Death Sends a Cable (1938) is Yate's second mystery novel but it turns out to be more of an espionage thriller.  I have not read any of the other books in the short series, though I do have a copy of the fourth book set on Pearl Harbor which uses the Japanese attack as part of the plot.  I'm guessing that since these are military mystery novels set just before and after the start of World War 2 that spies and espionage are featured in most of the plots. Though Yates uses the framework of a detective novel in trying to uncover the truth behind the supposed suicide and the car accident the whodunnit element takes a back seat to all the spying, role playing and secretive gathering of information. The book is filled with several well done action set pieces with the final third becoming rather cinematic as the heroes and heroines race against time during the onset of a tropical storm that threatens to become a hurricane.

For the most part the book reads like many mystery novels written by women during this time period. The female characters are the strongest in the cast, their dialogue and scenes together tend to be a combination of chatty exchanges and catty gossip and there is a lot of lively wordplay and punning that on occasion gets a bit grating. Her style reminded me of Virginia Rath, Kelley Roos, Manning Long and other contemporary mystery writers who specialized in husband and wife couples who get involved in baffling and adventurous crimes. While Yates does have a clever skill with the frequent wisecacre banter, clearly inspired by Hollywood movies, it seems out of place and often the book seems to be emulating a movie screenplay. Kay Brewster, for example, reminded me more of a movie character than a person, the kind of woman that Eve Arden used to play in screwball comedies.

But when Yates is focused on the plot and the action she is in her element; the book comes alive and couldn't be more realistic and believable. Being part of a navy couple herself Yates knows the way military men and their wives think and behave and those portions of the plot make the book definitely worth reading. 
 
QUOTES:  The [gossiping women] said her husband drank in the morning so he could face the food he knew he would get at noon.

"Bull" Durham had heretofore been merely one of my favorite cable men; now he was a young magician who must, I felt, sleep on thunderclouds and eat shredded watts for breakfast.

Some country wanted that formula -- wanted it badly enough to plant agents in our most secret port. There probably isn't another country in the world, I thought, where this would be possible. We shout in the headlines of our isolation until we confuse the term with impregnability. Even in the last war, when we woke with surprise to find our country honeycombed with already well-established spy systems, didn't teach us anything. We cleaned them out and left the door wide open for their return.

THE AUTHOR: Margaret Tayler Yates (1887-1952) was born in Riverside, California and spent her early career as special correspondent for the New York World while living in the Philippines with her husband, Navy Commander R. R. Yates. In 1941 she and her husband were stationed at Pearl Harbor at the time of the infamous Japanese attack. She was sent back to the mainland and settled temporarily in New York while her husband remained in Hawaii. According to her bio on the dust jacket of Murder by the Yard she had two sons and a daughter; the sons were both in the Navy and her daughter was married to an Army Air Corps lieutenant colonel.

Anne "Davvie" McNeal Crime Novels
The Hush-Hush Murders (1937) - set on board a Navy Transport ship in the South Pacific
Death Sends a Cable (1938) - set in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Midway to Murder (1941) - set in the Midway Atoll
Murder by the Yard (1942) - set in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

NEW STUFF: An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good - Helene Tursten

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good
by Helene Tursten
translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Soho Press
ISBN: 978-1-64129-011-1
185 pp. $12.99
Publication date: Nov. 6, 2018

I cannot resist any book about a badass biddy. I've written about the nasty senior citizen women characters found in novels of Shelley Smith, Anthony Gilbert, Ethel Lina White and even an old lady serial killer whose garden is a veritable poisoner's paradise. But not since my meeting Lucilla Teatime in Lonelyheart 4122 have I encountered such a wily, deadly and unexpectedly amusing old lady as Maud, Helene Tursten's 88 year-old spinster who will not have her tranquil easy-going life upset by anyone.

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good is a collection of five short stories each of them detailing Maud's past life and her current reign of terror in an apartment building located in Göteborg, Sweden. Through a legal loophole Maud has been able to live in her apartment rent free her entire life and her neighbors are not too happy about it. They've managed to get her to pay a monthly assessment to help with upkeep and maintenance of the building, but as for any other expense Maud has managed to keep every krona since the end of World War 2. And she's not about to give up her home to anyone who ruffles her feathers in any way.

Each of the five stories begins with an inoffensive slight that most of us would dismiss as minor irritation. But not Maud.  Be it an intrusively friendly neighbor, a squabbling couple in the apartment above her, or the news of her ex-fiance getting married at the age of ninety Maud finds the highest personal affronts in the most innocuous events. In each instance she is compelled to take drastic measures, often to deadly extremes.

Conveniently, in most cases the slights Maud suffers turn out to be covers for more insidious designs and ulterior motives as in the first story about an obnoxious modern artist whose horrifying sculptures express her disdain for the patriarchy.  Jasmin is a figure of obvious ridicule, a parody of the worst of ultra feminism compounded by talentless dabbling in modern art. The story is both a satire of the insanity of modern art and a nasty story of revenge that calls to mind Roald Dahl's wicked sense of humor. Jasmin's latest creation -- a disgustingly laughable mobile of monstrous penises suspended from a height of sixteen feet and dubbed "Phallus III Hanging" --  inspires in Maud nothing vaguely approaching an appreciation of art but rather an ultimatum that deliciously sums up Tursten's ideas of art criticism.  In each of the stories Maud's solutions to her various "problems" become ever increasingly violent and deadly.

Helene Tursten
(photo ©Peter Knuston)
Along the way we get to learn about her rather pathetic life as caretaker to her older sister who suffered what appears to be a grandiose nervous breakdown.  Charlotte, Maud's elder sibling by eleven years, was a concert pianist but then fell victim to what Maud's mother described as "an attack of nerves" that left Charlotte unable to play music and helpless to care for herself. In later stories we discover that this breakdown was a serious mental illness aggravated by paranoia and intense phobias that made caring for Charlotte a truly hellish life for Maud. Added to these troubles is the sad engagement to a man she dearly loved that backfired and left Maud loveless and alone for the rest of her life.  The entire volume depicts Maud's lifelong mission of retribution for everyone who betrayed or wronged her.

As an added bonus the final two stories feature Tursten's series police characters better known from her novels - Irene Huss and Embla Nyström.  They investigate the death of an antique dealer who met a grisly death in Maud's apartment while she apparently was on vacation.  The murder investigation is told in two separate stories: the first ("The Antique Dealer's Death") is told from the viewpoint of an elderly neighbor, in the second ("An Elderly Lady Is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma") Maud's viewpoint sheds light on the ambiguous details of the crime with a two page coda told from the police women's viewpoint. These final two tales (which must be read in the order in which they appear in the book) reveal Maud at her most diabolical and criminally inventive self.

This is a slight book easily polished off in only a couple of hours.  Yet each story packs a wallop. Tursten can mix black humor with poignancy and have us rooting for Maud to commit the most horrific atrocities and long for her to get away with everything. Her victims may be truly awful people, but is Maud truly worse than them?  She is a woman who seems to no longer care about anything now that she is in her twilight years.  All that matters to her are life's simple pleasures -- travel to foreign countries, warm climates and cool breezes, peace and quiet in her rent free home, and a nice cheese sandwich and a bottle of Carlsberg while watching old movies on TV.

Here is a book highly recommended for those with a penchant for dark farcical comedy and evil thoughts of delicious revenge perpetrated on the ugly people who have wronged us.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

NEWS FLASH: Jean Potts, Attention Getter

As many of you already know Go, Lovely Rose/The Evil Wish will soon be available for purchase from Stark House (release date Feb 15, 2019). Greg, the publisher, received a lovely notice from Booklist -  one of their treasured starred reviews.  Here it is:


Go, Lovely Rose / The Evil Wish.
by Jean Potts
Feb. 2019. 304p. Stark House, paper, $19.95
(ISBN: 9781944520656)
Stark House's ongoing project—reissuing high-class crime fiction from a vanished time—strikes gold with this double-decker release of two fine novels by the nearly forgotten Potts. Go, Lovely Rose dates from 1954; The Evil Wish from 1962. Employing techniques both classic and contemporary, the two tales share the meticulous build-up of tension typical of the Golden Age and the modern tendency to use a crime as an excuse to explore the lives affected. The "Rose" of the first novel is dead when the narrative begins, a crumpled heap with her skull bashed in. There's some detective work here—keep an eye on that headband—but Potts uses rich, vivid language to examine the damage Rose did to a handful of people with their own secrets. If Hitchcock had written a novel, it would have been similar to The Evil Wish, with its study of the corroding effects of guilt. Two sisters plot to murder their father and his fiancée. Turns out they don't have to, but their obsessions—What did the neighbors overhear? What's in that diary?—lead them to near madness. And real crime. Two masterpieces here.    — Don Crinklaw

As the editor of Booklist told us in his cover letter: "A star beside the title indicates a work judged to be outstanding in its genre." More importantly, Booklist is the reviewing and news journal of the American Library Association, the magazine which thousands of librarians across the US use to make their decisions in purchasing new books for their collections. Let's hope that the review can drum up sales for libraries all over the USA. That would make me immensely happy!

From the Department of Life's Unexpected Ironies: The author of this review is writer and English professor Don Crinklaw who not only is the husband of mystery writer Elaine Viets, he also used to be a somewhat regular customer of mine over ten years ago when I was selling books as the owner of Pretty Sinister Books, my former online bookstore.

Friday, February 8, 2019

FFB: Death on the Outer Shoal - Anne Fuller & Marcus Allen

THE STORY: Hammerhead Island, pop. 27. This community of fishermen, their wives and children, have no official organized government nor any police force to ward off crime. When the gruesome accidental death of one of their most beloved citizens, kindly “Preacher” Phineas Benson, turns out to be murder they find themselves with a dilemma. Do they call in the police from the mainland or deal with the crime themselves? It’s up to Jeremiah Corbett, the oldest and most respected leader, to investigate and decide whether the islanders’ “eye for an eye” philosophy should be instituted in meting out Justice.

THE CHARACTERS: Death on the Outer Shoal (1934) is another surprising discovery in a subgenre I like to call country noir. The rural community on Hammerhead Island is perfectly rendered in every detail from the rigorous descriptions of trawl fishing to the finely tuned ear for New England regionalisms and speech patterns that accent the characters’ dialogue. Jeremiah (Uncle Jerry) Corbett is ostensibly the protagonist but this novel seems more like an ensemble theater piece with each of the supporting character getting their moment to shine. Jean McKenzie, a young nurse who as the only medical professional on Hammerhead acts as the surrogate coroner to help Corbett. Jean verifies that the wounds in Benson's neck are not made by the fisherman's gaff stuck there but by a knife because the stab marks have clean edges and go deeper than the gaff's pronged hook. She also finds contusions on his scalp that prove he was stunned by a blunt object in order that Benson could be arranged in the nets near the gaff and then stabbed to give the appearance of an accident. There are gossipy women spying on the Committee men, Otto Wolfe the irascible lighthouse keeper with grudges aplenty, and Hank Thomas, the local alcoholic and wife beater all who have riveting scenes with Corbett.

Widow Grimshaw is perhaps the remarkable figure among the many supporting players. Following the death of her husband Captain Grimshaw she has gone into a permanent state of grief dressing only in black, disappearing into a huge hooded cloak, sporting a scowl cemented into her wizened face. As far as most people are concerned her interminable grieving and anger led to a spiraling descent into madness. The way Fuller and Allen describe her she might as well have stepped out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. If her appearance were not foreboding enough Widow Grimshaw points her accusing crone’s finger and lets loose with regular tirades denouncing everyone in sight. She is like some Puritanical witchfinder with a fervent desire for vicious retribution. She has a habit of heaping her curse on anyone who dares antagonize her.

Her antipathy to all allows for the introduction of another sinister influence – the collective hatred toward the Portuguese fishermen who live in nearby mainland town of Byport. While the Widow’s is the ugliest of bigotry expressed in dialogue, for her niece married one of the immigrants, none of the others on Hammerhead are too fond of the Portuguese either. Nick Dianno and his family tend to be singled out by name regularly. Nick is viewed as an opportunistic wheeler-dealer looking for his chance to buy up land. In the estimation of the citizens that will only ruin the heritage and life of Hammerhead Island and everyone is determined to keep the Portuguese off the island.

INNOVATIONS: The idea that an entire community needs to turn detective to root out an evil scourge is something that you usually find in horror fiction. The preservation of the land's purity, their insular lifestyle, and the inhabitants' desire to keep out foreigners and "outsiders" smacks of the kind of secrets that made fictional places like Cornwall Coombe, Summerisle and Crowhaven Farm the kind of town you'd never call home. And though most likely unintended it was hard to dismiss the vigilante mentality of how Justice prevails on Hammerhead Island. Too often someone quotes the Biblical "eye for an eye" concept that serves as the citizens' primary code of morality.  There are shades of not only Hawthorne here, but eerily prescient hints of the plots of modern thrillers like Harvest Home, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and even Death Wish.

When Hank Thomas is brought before the Committee for drunkenness and wife beating then punished with a beating by a leather thronged scourge I cannot help but think that the authors intended this to be taken as a scene of appalling horror, especially considering that Hank is lashed five times by each of the five Committee members. It's an unexpectedly brutal scene that had me gasping. When it's all over and Hank is about to leave the tavern backroom where he received his beating he breaks down and weeps uncontrollably. It's a mix of horror and sympathy that I was both unprepared for and a bit awed by.

Death on the Outer Shoal was published by E. P. Dutton as part of their "Dutton Clue" imprint.  Included in this book is one of the standard "Stop!" pages that challenge the reader to pause, collect up all their notes (if they made any), think over all the clues presented and try to solve the mystery.  This is, in fact, a rare example of a very fairly clued mystery from Dutton. Some clues are subtle, others blatant and it might be rather easy for a veteran detective novel reader to weed out the correct killer from all the suspects. But the full truth may also come as a real surprise when all is revealed. The ultimate Justice is even a bit ironic with a subversive rather than an Old Testament touch.

Click to enlarge
QUOTES:  Widow Grimshaw: "Am I the only one who speaks to the [Portuguese]? Is Hammerhead the only spot for meeting and talking--and planning? The world is wide. Thieves find straight paths to each other."

"If I but knew [who killed my husband]!" Her old face became hideous with hate. "On him I would heap my curses--curses, not of words, but of blood--and Death!"

Soon the little harbor echoed with the throb of engines, and the Hammerhead fleet of trawlers was once more on its straggling way toward the fishing grounds. In each boat was a man dreading the night, whose dark, uncertain hours stretched ahead of him, and yet glad that here, at last, was work to be done.

And in each home on the sea-beaten island, an anxious woman wished silently that her man was safe within doors, and prayed that he might come back to her with the next day's sun.

THE AUTHORS:  I could find little biographical data on Anne Fuller and Marcus Allen. I have an inkling that they were perhaps married, but that may not be true at all. My only clues come from the dedication pages in their two mystery novels. Their first mystery Blood on Common Ground (1933) is dedicated to Al Fuller, clearly a relative of Anne's (husband? son? brother?) and also the artist who drew and signed the frontispiece map of Hammerhead Island that illustrates this post. However a bigger clue appears on the dedication page of this novel which reads "To Louise and Richard Connell."  Could that be the same Richard Connell who wrote the iconic short story "The Most Dangerous Game" I asked myself?  Indeed it is.

Richard Connell was married to Louise Herrick Fox in 1919. Louise, like her husband, was a writer and at one time a playwright. Later she became involved in the publishing world first as a proofreader and then a prominent editor for Condé Nast publications. When Connell decided to give up his amazingly prolific career as a short story writer (close to 200 stories appeared between 1929 to 1940) he opted as many writers did for the life of a Hollywood screenwriter. He and Louise eventually settled in Beverly Hills.

Could Fuller and Allen have been part of the movie scene during the 1930s when this book was written? When Connell was just reaching the height of his popularity as a writer of scripts and stories for moviemakers?  Death on the Outer Shoal certainly has a very cinematic feel with its dramatic fishing and boating scenes, the setting of the island itself including the lighthouse and cliffsides, the often heightened dialogue, and an exciting courtroom-like finale. It could've made a gripping movie and might have been written as a scenario prior to it becoming a novel. Anyone who has knowledge about these writing duo your input will be greatly appreciated for filling in the missing details.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

HORROR SHOW: Crucified - Michael Slade

Let’s start with the only reason I kept reading this book -- a kind of "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" reference to one of the great mystery writers of the Golden Age:
"How was Ack-Ack stabbed three times in the back when he was the only airman in the rear turret?" [asked] Liz.
"What we have here," Wyatt declared, "is a locked room puzzle. If we solve the howdunit, we'll solve the whodunit."
"But how do we solve it?"
"We seek help."
"Help from whom?"
"From John Dickson Carr."
An invocation to the god! Crucified (2008) is part thriller, part challenging puzzle mystery, part collection of arcane lore and history, and (unfortunately) part splatterpunk horror. The promise of not one, but two, impossible crimes was good enough for me to stick with this hodgepodge of retro pulp fiction and tangential history lessons...and over-the-top gruesome deaths described in surgical detail. It turned out to be yet another example of a subgenre of crime fiction I try to avoid -- extreme sadism as entertainment. Sure there’s an audience for it, but I don’t want to know who they are. And I don’t want to hear them laugh uproariously and high five each other when the characters “get it but good.” All reasons that I also never watch horror movies in a theater anymore.

I did read the first two sadistic torture killing sequences. That was more than enough for me. Anytime some poor character was about to be dispatched with yet another ancient torture implement I skipped all paragraphs with killing descriptions. In some cases they went on for pages. The book is actually easily and more quickly read if you skip every single chapter told from the killer’s point of view. After the first killing the drawn out sequences are pointless. Because they say exactly the same thing every single time he kills someone.

You learn what weapon he uses – one of several torture devices stolen from a museum that houses artifacts from the Inquisition.  (BTW, we are never shown this scene. But we are expected to believe that the killer/thief made away, single-handedly, with seven different and very cumbersome torture weapons, one of which is a chair with a spike embedded on top. So easy to stuff into a bag and stroll out to an awaiting escape vehicle, right?) You learn that he thinks he is possessed by the Devil. You learn that he is driven to protect the Church from non-believers and all those who impede his path. All reiterated seven different times with seven stomach churning methods of murder. And if that isn’t enough for the gorehounds there are three near murders in the finale all performed simultaneously in the same setting.

To spare my sanity I chose to read only the contemporary chapters dealing with lead character Wyatt Rook and the other protagonists and the historical chapters that take place in World War Two era Germany which detail the missions of a British anti-aircraft fighter squad and the crew of a submarine, both of which feature impossible crimes. In the remains of the airplane which crashed in Germany back in 1944 and is unearthed by a modern day German highway construction company a skeleton is found still in the rear gunner’s seat. The gunner’s chair shows stabs marks and a blade embedded in the bones indicating that the gunner was murdered in his seat before the plane crashed and the knife broken off at the handle. But one witness said all men had bailed out using their parachutes. It was believed that the gunner was killed when the tail section where he was situated was strafed by a German fighter plane. So who could possibly have stabbed the gunner and still escaped?

The entire plot hinges on the search for artifacts and documents related to Jesus’ crucifixion. Those damning artifacts which if they were to be examined for DNA would prove or disprove the entire basis of Christianity. An entire religion could be eradicated with a single scientific test. Shades of The Da Vinci Code? Definitely, but Slade's novel is smarter, more suspenseful and more exciting.

Which brings us to the puzzle of the submarine. The artifacts are wrapped in a scroll and taken on board the submarine. The mission was to be sabotaged in such a way that the person with the artifacts could get them off the sub. But the plan backfires, the sub is wrecked. When the wreck is finally located the sub was still completely sealed and the entire crew had perished with the artifacts nowhere in sight. Amazingly, they had been removed from a sealed and completely submerged submarine. How was that accomplished?

I managed to figure out the solution to the submarine puzzle based on one single clue. The gunner murder solution is a bit more complicated and involves the design of the plane’s interior and who could see what depending on where they were situated during the final moments prior to evacuation via parachute. Both are rather clever puzzles even if the airplane puzzle seems a bit disappointing in its solution.

Rommel, "The Desert Fox"
plays a significant part in
the historical sections
As for the historical and cultural lore lessons you get more than you ever bargained for. This is apparently a staple of Slade's thrillers. Similar to TV shows like The X Files and Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery novels laden with London lore Michael Slade finds neat ways to insert into his books all sorts of arcana and historical tidbits. In Crucified you learn of the horrifying self-flagellation ritual that Catholic zealots in the Philippines subject themselves during Holy Week as well as the reenactments of very realistic crucifixions there; the existence of a secret police in the Vatican; the nightmarishly cruel methods of the Inquisition and the diabolical machines and devices they used to extricate confessions; the operation of an RAF Bomber Command and the intricacies of fighter plane attacks in their airborne battlefields; the highly unglamorous and unsanitary living conditions on board a WW2 era submarine; Rommel's role in flaunting Hitler's direct orders and his possible part in the failed attempt to assassinate the Führer; and loads more.

Then there is, of course, all the gruesome violence. The body count is excessive and the descriptions are over-the-top. The puzzle aspects of this thriller hold attention, but for me, the murders and torture come as gross out interruptions to all the interesting character work and the inventive manner in which Slade ties together all his disparate plot machinations. Despite a finale in which our hero and heroine are saved by a deus ex machina, delivered so nonchalantly and indifferently in a single sentence as to be utterly laughable, the book provides no catharsis for all the violence and blood-soaked action.

Not knowing that Slade was a torture porn maven I bought three of these books. But I’m afraid I'm not eager to read the others, not even for the other homages to the work of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, both of whom Slade apparently holds in high esteem based on things he has written about each in this book and on his website. A pity because I did enjoy all the history lessons, the impossible crime detection which applies Carr's rules from the famed "Locked Room Lecture", and the several X Files–like pontifications from Wyatt Rook throughout the story. Slade does have storytelling skill, of that there is no doubt. I wish he could do it without the torrent of guts, gore, and body fluids.

For a review of Ripper by Michael Slade (one of the books I purchased) see TomCat's blog post.  He somehow managed to endure the "slaughter" that occurs in a house bobby-trapped with a variety of hidden murder means.