Friday, November 8, 2019

FFB: The Reluctant Medium - L. P. Davies

THE STORY:  A self-described "business consultant" is recruited into becoming a ghostbuster when strange apparitions manifest themselves at Butchart House. Either a ghost is seeking retribution or a very clever and cruel human is serving up a nasty bit of revenge. David Conway, with the help of his policeman friend Clifford Pearson, digs up the past and unearths secrets spookier than a mere ghostly visitor.

THE CHARACTERS: Jennifer Rawson, ward of the ancient invalid Matthew Rawson, turns to her friend David Conway to help root out the truth of the ghostly visitor who scared the daylights out of her houseguest Sheila Brand.  The apparition complete with lemony scent and wailing and moaning seems to be the ghost of Walter Hudd, a former business associate of her "uncle" who was framed for a crime he never committed.  He committed suicide several years ago vowing shortly before his death to get his revenge on those who wronged him.  When a sample of Hudd's handwriting delivered in person by a woman spiritualist who claims the message was part of an seance and automatic writing she composed while under a trance even Matthew Rawson, Jennifer's foster father and guardian can be convinced that something supernatural is happening.  David Conway is however not so gullible.

This is a fine example of the ghostbusting occult detective subgenre wherein an amateur detective is determined to prove ostensibly supernatural events are nothing more than the work of clever frauds and con artists.  Fictional accounts of these types of detective novels were very popular in the days following World War 1 when spiritualism had a resurgence and fraudulent mediums were quick to capitalize on the overwhelming number of people grieving for loved ones lost to the carnage of war.  The Ghost Girl (1913) by Henry Kitchell Webster, is one of the best examples of crooked mediums preying on the grief-stricken and draining their bank accounts with the promises of communication form the Great Beyond.  In The Reluctant Medium (1967) we find two questionable spiritualists in a mother and son team, Mrs. Proudfoot and Sidney. David Conway visits their very freeform operation run out of the Proudfoot home hoping to see some of the usual tricks and gimmicks of fraudsters. A surprise is in store for David when, while in an attempt to communicate with one of the regular client's dead relatives, Mrs. Proudfoot in a weird trance begins to utter words and phrases that have meaning only to David.  He is spooked and shaken and leaves the Proudfoot home thinking that the old woman may in fact have a supernatural gift.
UK 1st edition with original title:
Tell It to the Dead (1966)


Later he hears a confession from Sheila Brand, the witness to the ghostly manifestation at Butchart House. She too feels that she has some sort of talent. To her it is a curse, not a gift.  Eerie things happen wherever she goes: strange visions appear, odd smells manifest and other worldly voices cry out to her.  She is convinced the ghost is all her fault and begins to behave increasingly neurotic with paranoid imaginings. Everyone around her fears she is headed for a nervous breakdown. David listens attentively, leaves Sheila in the care of the women, but treats all he hears and sees with suspicion. He is sure that Simon Proudfoot is colluding with Walter Hudd's son Leslie in a sort of combined blackmail and psychological revenge scheme.  The bulk of the story is spent in some complex detective work as David looks into the past lives of Walter and Rose Hudd and the bizarre trail of foster families where Leslie ended up after his father committed suicide and his mother refused to raise her own child.

Then tragedy strikes. Just as David is about to visit Mrs. Hudd for a second time and get the full details on Leslie's past history and some connections to the Rawson family she has a fatal accident. It seems all too convenient to David, ever quick to suspect bad deeds and devious characters at work behind the scenes. He convinces Det.-Sgt. Pearson to treat the accidental fall as a possible murder. Together the two conduct a covert investigation combining the ghost activity at Butchart House with Mrs. Hudd’s death. What they uncover will prove to be more astonishing than the possibility of a real ghost or genuine psychic ability.

INNOVATIONS:  Of all the books I have read by L. P. Davies this one comes closest to a traditional detective novel. That is also an occult detective novel is an added bonus. There are well planted clues, lots of genuine detective work, surprises galore, several shocking deaths beside Mrs. Hudd's, and a final twist right out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. Yes, literally out of the pages of a Christie novel. I dare not tell you the book that has the exact twist, but that Davies managed to fool me is the highest praise I can give both the writer and this book.  Once again, I found myself gasping aloud on the bus when I read a single sentence in the penultimate chapter.  "Just like in UNMENTIONABLE TITLE by Agatha!" I said to myself. I challenge any Christie fan to read this mystery novel and pick up on the trick Davies uses. The story is so well told that never once did I ever suspect anything off in the narrative and still he easily pulled the wool over my eyes. It was masterfully accomplished and yet should have been all too obvious!

OTHER EDITIONS:  The Reluctant Medium was originally published in England under the title Tell It to the Dead (see cover of that edition above). It is this edition that is most easy to find in the used book market.  The US edition, a copy of which I found only few weeks ago as a cheap ex-library book in surprisingly excellent condition, is very scarce. The book was released under one of Davies' many pseudonyms. He wrote two novels as "Leslie Vardre" and apparently wrote several short stories using that pen name, too.  I have yet to see any of his short stories under any name, let alone his own.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 2: Kthulhu Reich - Asamatsu Ken

Rudolf Hess battles the elder gods. Adolf Hitler monkeying around with black magic books after he dropped out of art school. A female vampire lures Nazi soldiers to her castle and tricks them into setting in motion an apocalyptic plot. So you thought Dennis Wheatley was the only writer obsessed with Nazis and black magic? Think again.

Kthulhu Reich (2019) is a collection of bizarrely over-the-top, sometimes ludicrously entertaining, horror stories from the fertile imagination of Asamatsu Ken. The tales have been meticulously translated into English by Jim Rion, an expatriate English teacher and translator formerly of Kansas now living in Yamaguchi prefecture. Publisher Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press assures me that while Rion’s translations seem to be near parodies of the Weird Tales school of writing they are accurate and in the spirit of the original Japanese texts. I found them to be generously peppered with enough American vernacular and colloquialisms to give the stories a retro-pulp magazine feel. Lipsett joked that though I may think they may be too Western or “Americanized” these are German characters written by a Japanese writer who speak in Japanese in the original stories and now English in this translation. But in all accounts they should be speaking in German! No matter. They do indulge in the typical “Ja wohl, Herr Kapitän!” we are used to hearing from British accented actors who play Nazis in the old war movies of days gone by.

I didn’t really know what to make of this book before I cracked it open. I figured I should prepare myself for some kind of Dennis Wheatley/H. P. Lovecraft mash-up by way of Japanese worldview. Was I ever wrong! These stories could easily have been lifted from the pages of any of the American shudder pulps. Rion, the translator, must clearly be a fan of the kind of stories Lovecraft and all his imitators wrote back in the day. So faithful are these stories to the spirit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that the entire book is annotated with scholarly footnotes that make it sound as if the creatures encountered in the pages are actually real. In addition to the detailed descriptions recounting the history of Lovecraft’s many “elder gods” that appear in the book, along with the lives of Lovecraft characters (and those created by Derleth, Bloch and Robert E. Howard) there are eye-opening footnotes on the historical facts surrounding the occult interests of Rudolf Hess and his influences on Hitler. We also learn about the members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who were also wrapped up with the Axis powers and German soldiers. Who knew there were magicians in wartime England sympathizing with the Nazis?

But onto the stories themselves…

Those that are modeled after Lovecraft and pay homage to his Cthulhu Mythos are by far the most entertaining. Minor stories like “The Colonel’s Self-Portrait” and “April 20, 1889” rely too much on gimmicks. The first is a shaggy dog story with an ending I should’ve seen coming from page two. The other is done as a collection of diary entries and letters. Both stories are less effective if the reader is an avid student of World War 2 history. The title of the second is a dead giveaway to the final twist and lessens the power of what might have been an eyebrow raising surprise on the last page had it been named anything else. And a warning to the fainthearted (are there any among horror fiction fans?) -- "April 20, 1889" also deals graphically with the Jack the Ripper murders and goes into disgustingly obscene detail in how the crimes were committed. Splatterpunk fans have something to look forward to there.

The most successful and effective stories of the seven in this volume are those that abandon the traditional trappings of vampires and witchcraft and go all out in depicting the wild adventures of trippy black magic obsessed Nazis.  The footnotes tell us that a lot of this stuff is based on fact. That's double the trippiness for your buck right there.

First published in separate issues of Hayakawa S-F in 1994 and 1995 two stories make up one long novelette of recurring themes and characters. These two should be read in the order as arranged and saved for last for they are truly the cream of the crop in this nifty book. The first of this double feature "The Mask of Yoth Tlaggon" is like a Hammer horror movie on paper. Instead of Charles Gray as the evil sorcerer I'd cast the more appropriate Klaus Kinski as the evil Rudolph Hess, Hitler's Deputy Führer, bent on mastering the universe and conquering Third Reich with the help of an ancient artifact that allows the wearer to commune with powerful gods from an alternate universe.  It's a wild ride of a story that almost tops the best scenes in Dennis Wheatley's masterful occult thriller The Devils Rides Out. Hess is joined by Tatewaki Goto and Clara Haffner, two intelligence agents in disguise as diplomats. Clara is also "a runic magus" well versed in reading the language of ancient spells that will come in handy during the rousing climax, an operatic showdown of black magic and phantasmagorical visions.

"Call of Cthulhu"
(courtesy of redskullspage.tumblr.com)

The saga of the Mask of Yoth Tlaggon continues in the story immediately following “In the Wasteland of Madness” in which a young aristocratic Nazi, Major Erich von Müller, is forced to wear the mask and report what he's seen. His visions offer up clues of an impending expedition to the Antarctic where Kriegsmarine Leutnant Krenze, the brawny, blond haired "very model of a German soldier" expects to uncover the lost world of Thule, believed to be the origin of the Aryan race. What they discover there instead is more horrifying than beautiful.  Lovecraft fans will eat this one up. Once again the plethora of footnotes fills in the background on the origins of the strange creatures, the lives of the historical figures who appear or are mentioned in passing, and the litany of arcane occult texts and forbidden books created by Lovecraft and his acolytes. It's hard to believe that the Nazis genuinely were involved in explorations of the occult and black magic, but there are documented facts to reveal it is in part true. The legendary and secretive exploration of the Antarctic seems to be more anecdotal and apocryphal than factual though many people believe it did take place. What the German soldiers discovered there is left to the imagination of the true believers and writers like Asamatsu.

This is a bizarre and surreal example of mash-up of fact and fiction that delivers the goods in three of the seven stories. Reading these stories seemed like a flashback trip to the 1960s drive-ins that used to show Hammer horror movies overstocked with bloodthirsty vampires and vengeful creatures from the dark side.  I had a blast reading this book, loved the Lovecraft homage, and recommend it to  the horror hounds out there in search of something completely different.  Dennis Wheatley and Lovecraft I'm sure are smiling somewhere in the Great Beyond knowing that this book exists.

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 1: The Shapes of Midnight - Joseph Payne Brennan

I've known Joseph Payne Brennan as the creator of Lucius Leffing, a Sherlockian style consulting detective, who appears in two books.  Although I own one other collection of Brennan's more varied horror tales and ghost stories I've never read any of them. Then I stumbled across this paperback in one of my all too infrequent (these days at least) bookstore jaunts. With the introduction by horror guru Stephen King I figured it was about time to acquaint myself with Brennan's short stories without Leffing.

The Shapes of Midnight (1980) contains Brennan's classic story "Slime", perhaps the most often anthologized of his stories. First appearing in print in a 1953 issue of Weird Tales "Slime" tells a gruesome tale from a twisted imagination reminiscent of a more terrifying version of The Blob, that old monster movie starring a very young Steve McQueen before he became a 1970s movie icon of action films. It's one of the best stories in a decidedly mixed bag most of which are variations on the themes of haunted houses and witchcraft.

King, as is usual when he gets into his fanboy mode, is gushing in his praise for Brennan's work. Too often I found most of the sotires to be familiar in plot and theme and I wasn't sure what King wsaw in these stories. There was lots of imitation of better writers like Hodgson and Blackwood and more than an ample amount of Lovecraftian homage. However, King's favorite of this volume, "Canavan's Back Yard", is justly praised as a work of ingenuity, originality and genuine thrills. It most resembles Hodgson's classic novel of an alternate universe The House on the Borderland, yet I could not help but draw comparison to "The Open Door" by Saki in that both tales deal with the horror of the unknown. What's really out there? is the question the reader asks himself when reading "Canavan's Back Yard." Unlike Saki's story, which turns out to be nothing more than a nasty girl's joke, Brennan's story of the desolate and decaying backyard is one of true terror.  He relies on the reader's imagination, for the most part, to fill in the blanks. These are the best types of horror stories. No gut spilling, blood soaked explosions of violence, just the eerie quiet of a man haunted by a compulsion to wander into the "blowing brindle grass and rotting trees" of his ugly and forbidding backyard. What is it that draws him there?  What did he see that left him literally speechless when he returned?  The narrator and the reader are curious to discover what lies out there waiting to be discovered. If the quasi explanation that Brennan supplies is less than satisfying that is no real fault of the storyteller.  But I wish he had spared us the few paragraphs that discuss a witch's curse, an utterly prosaic touch in light of the truly chilling effects he had created throughout the story by mere suggestion.

Joseph Payne Brennan (circa 1950s)
This is sadly a formulaic touch that I find a bit disappointing when reading all these stories one after the other.  Brennan tends to undermine the real terror he has created in the reader's imagination by explaining the mystery.  For me, it is the absence of a solution to the otherworldly mysteries in supernatural and classic horror stories that make them successful. A gifted horror writer plants a seed in the reader's imagination and lets it fester there. Those images created by the reader himself linger in the memory long after the book has been closed.

Amid the many haunted houses ("The Horror at Chilton Castle," "The House on Hazel Street," "House of Memory") we get "The Diary of a Werewolf" with its touches of deeply black humor,  the riddle story of an enigmatic creepy barber in "Who Was He?", the village idiot Henry Crotell of "The Willow Pattern" whose curiosity gets the better of him when he finds a partially burned book in the ashen remains of a destroyed house, a radioactive zombie that is "The Corpse of Charlie Rull", and some Lovecraft inspired horror in "The Pavilion", "Slime" and "Disappearance."

Modern horror fans will find "The Impulse to Kill" one of Brennan's most compelling and prescient stories. In it we follow the rantings of a nameless murderously obsessed narcissist who sees himself as a vigilante of sorts. Originally published in 1959 this story foreshadows the entire serial killer genre and in particular the kind of sociopathic killer like Dexter who kills criminals and amoral people who have escaped capture, trial and imprisonment. To these self-appointed executioners they deserve to die. This story more than any of the others disturbed me deeply. The tone is bleak and narcissistic. The story perfectly encapsulates the nihilistic ego at work in all its destructive power. "The Impulse to Kill" has echoes of Robert Bloch's early stories about mad murderers and the work of crime writers like Jim Thompson whose book The Killer Inside Me is eerily similar in tone, style, and worldview. And Brennan accomplishes in a mere ten pages what Thompson needed a full length novel to explore.

For those eager to sample Brennan's work there is good news. Dover Publications has reprinted two of his collections including this one. Both were released back in July of this year. I'm sure they are easy to find at your favorite online bookseller, if not directly from Dover.

Friday, October 25, 2019

FFB: The Mystery of the Creeping Man - Frances Shelley Wees

THE STORY: Professor Edgar Murchison has vanished, but his family is not too concerned. His wife has not reported him missing and seems none too worried. But she becomes unusually alarmed when her tenant Tuck Forrester currently renting the Murchison home while school is out of session for the summer returns a smoking pipe she found in the house. Apparently Murchison was never without his pipe. Why was it left behind if he went off on an unannounced trip? Suspicions are further raised when a body turns up in the professor's clothes and a mysterious shadowy creeping figure is seen lurking in the forest near the Murchison home.

THE CHARACTERS: The Mystery of the Creeping Man (1931) is the second appearance of husband and wife sleuthing team Michael and "Tuck" Forrester. Commissioner Davies who worked with them in The Maestro Murders (1930, Wees' debut mystery novel) has them take up residence in the Murchison home for the summer break. He expects them to dig into the local gossip and see if they can ferret out any info on what happened to Prof. Murchison. They do more than the policeman ever could have imagined when they uncover missing diamonds, a mystery man roaming the woods, bizarre experiments in a university research lab, an unhinged scientist, and a killer with a taste for both human and animal victims.

I did enjoy this book ...up to a point. The characters are a lively bunch. Tuck and Michael are easy to like, they have some nifty banter and a couple of very well handled scenes theatrically presented. Tuck acts like Jane Marple at a garden party she engineers purely to draw information out of the easily baited gossips in town. Some of the supporting characters were spot on, especially Alix Lissey, a snobbish and elitist spinster, whose outsider status allows for some ironically perspicacious observations that will be her undoing.

But it was the outrageously complex and surreal plot that kept my interest...that is until it derailed in the final chapters.

INNOVATIONS: Part of the detective work involves solving an unusual code in jigsaw puzzle format. The code made up of several pieces of paper with strange symbols eventually point to a stonework pattern on a sundial in the backyard of the Murchison property. And the amateur sleuths find a valuable prize embedded in the edging of that lawn ornament. The code is rather elaborate and something that only characters in a detective novel would dream up in order to hide a valuable item. It requires a miraculous imagination in order to piece together, literally in this case, the code. Proves that Wees' characters are a bit too smart for their own good. The whole thing was lost on my tired brain even taking into consideration that an academic with lofty intellect invented the arcane code.

I could only smile ruefully when I got the the section that dealt with the intricacies of a bridge game. I immediately thought of our dear, late friend Noah and his bridge affinity and his love/hate relationship with cameo appearances of the game in detective novels. Even while remembering Noah with a smile on my face I confess that I mostly skipped over everything in those seven pages overloaded with bidding, passing, and trick-taking because all the rules of bridge remain an utter mystery to me no matter how much a writer tries to make it appear understandable. Wees didn't try here, she assumed her readers were expert players.

As the book progresses the complex plot gets ever more bizarre. Murderous attacks increase -- some successful, some failed -- until the story transforms into a ludicrous horror movie complete with a mad scientist, secret underground passages and a lab of gruesome surprises hidden in the forest. Wees had no idea how to end her story. What with a bigamous subplot and machinations of two of the primary characters, a boy sleuth investigating the poisoning of his pet dog, and Mrs. Devoe's guilt-ridden conscience, the mystery gets ever more convoluted and teeters on the brink of absurdity.

Sadly, the denouement is littered with threads left hanging and mysteries hazily explained, if explained at all. When Michael keeps saying things like "I don't know how he did that...but he did" you want to reach through the pages and throttle him. One of the murder weapons is an unnamed poison that can kill a dog and cat instantly yet shows no real signs of toxic compounds under scrutiny and laboratory analysis. A touch of pulpy science fiction? More like pure laziness, my friends.

Wees got better in time, but this sophomore effort surely shows that she tried to do it all in one book but just wasn't up to the task as a novice.

THINGS I LEARNED: Before I completely gave up on the bridge section I came across this sentence, "Tell 'em we follow the Rockefeller convention..." and I had to find out what that meant. It's a joke used to describe a phony "convention", an oft used bidding pattern pre-arranged between partners. According to the American Contract Bridge League website: "With only 15 words allowed during an auction and just 13 cards in each suit, bridge players have invented dozens of special bids, called conventions, to describe their strength and hand patterns." Apparently back in the 1930s many of those "conventions" were named after millionaires, hence the joke about the wealthy American family.

THE AUTHOR: Though born in the United States Frances Shelley Wees (1902-1982) grew up in Saskatoon, lived and worked in Ontario province, and finally settled in British Columbia on Denman Island. Many of her books are set in Canada. According to a talk she gave in 1948 at Regina Women's Canadian Club at the Kitchener Hotel she became a professional writer by accident. Her husband found a manuscript of a novel she wrote, read it, and thought it worth publishing so he typed it up and sent it to New York. The book was indeed published and sold over 50,000 copies. Her life as a novelist was off to a great beginning.

Prior to writing full time she had been a primary school teacher, the Canadian director of the speaking engagement syndicate known as Chautauqua, and lastly worked in public relations for a Toronto firm. She was married for over fifty years to Wilfred Rusk Wees, who taught psychology at the Camrose Normal School and was executive vice-president of Gage Publishing Ltd.

Wees wrote 22 books, a mixture of romance, detective, and suspense novels for adults and a handful of juvenile mystery books. Ten of those novels can definitely be classed as crime or detective novels for adults. Most of her crime novels remain out of print and are only available through libraries or the used book market. However, her 1956 suspense novel The Keys of My Prison was recently reprinted by Canadian publisher Véhicule Press. Brian Busby, the series editor for their Ricochet Noir crime fiction imprint, wrote a rave review about the novel on his blog The Dusty Bookcase and helped bring the book (and Wees) out of the shadows of obscurity. That later book is worth your time, her early mysteries like The Mystery of the Creeping Man perhaps not so.

Friday, October 18, 2019

FFB: Here's Murder Done - Charles Ashton

THE STORY: Irritating philatelist Ambrose Merrow was not liked by his neighbors for he never stopped talking about his treasured stamp collection. But was that any reason for someone to brutally stab him? And how did the murderer do the foul deed in a locked house in the presence of three people then escape the crime scene without being seen? Inspector Dick Sangster matches wits with a clever killer and uncovers a nasty blackmail scheme and a past murder before he brings the culprit to justice.

THE CHARACTERS: Here's Murder Done! (1943) is populated with a variety of theater people and though it gives us some insight into the world of playwriting and arts criticism it is not truly a theater mystery. Still, theater and acting most definitely play a part in the story. Ashton gives us two playwrights, one music critic, and an actress in his cast of interesting characters. Godfrey Taversham, playwright #1, and his fiancee Diane Harlow, an actress, are two of the three witnesses present when Merrow is killed in his house. They, along with Constable Hockey, are on the front step, see Merrow stick his head out the window of an upper level and wait patiently for him to open the door. I was sure that some kind of impostor gimmick was being pulled on us here but that turned out completely wrong.  Nevertheless, theatricality does play a part in the rather ingenious solution to this near impossible crime. Who got into the house while the front door was being watched and the back door was locked from the inside? And how did the killer get away unseen?

Sangster employs some unorthodox eavesdropping tactics and overhears Taversham and Diane having a conversation about a missing ladder and the unusual experiment Sangster and his sergeant performed proving how someone might have got onto the Merrow property without leaving any footprints. As he listens in Sangster discovers they are acting like amateur sleuths attempting to sort out the real clues from the red herrings. By the end of the conversation Taversham is certain he is onto the solution while Diane wants him to keep his mouth shut. Will their detective work prove too dangerous for their own good?

I liked the outspoken music critic Rupert Carrington who after a series of routine Q&A scenes with Sangster and the various suspects and witnesses was a delight of sarcasm, impatience and sardonic wit.  He thoroughly loathed Merrow calling the murder victim one of the most annoying men he ever met. He also can't stand the pompous writer Peppington (playwright #2 and aspiring novelist) whose lofty opinions prove he is nothing more than a dilettante and a windbag. Carrington tells Sangster that if anyone would have had an argument or had it in for Merrow it would be Peppington, a man whose disdain for everyone in town surpasses the minor irritations of Merrow and his nonstop blather about stamps.

And of course there is Peppington himself, not to mention his equally supercilious wife Amelia and their out of control six year-old son Sebastian.  They are clearly meant to be satiric portrayals of the kind of pseudo-intellectuals who were cropping up during wartime. Peppington has a grandiose manner and an insufferably egotistical persona of the sensitive artiste "living on a higher plane." He and his wife have ascribed to the new permissive notions of raising a child without discipline. Their unrestrained parenting results in a foul-mouthed son who calls his parents by their first names and challenges every authority figure he meets. Sebastian treats Inspector Sangster like a fraud, calling him a liar to his face when the policeman teasingly refers to himself as Father Christmas. The scenes with the Peppingtons are hilarious showing off Ashton's talent as a farceur and a skilled writer of absurd dialogue.

INNOVATIONS:  With a first half made up almost entirely of Sangster's straightforward interrogations I thought that Here's Murder Done! was going to be just another run-of-the-mill detective novel, relying on tired formulae and plot gimmickry. I was completely taken aback by three well-handled twists of the plot, two of which were shockingly surprising to me. There is a second death of a character one would never expect to be knocked off by the writer. It sort of defies the expectations of detective novel conventions and really made me gasp. The second was a neatly pulled off introduction of a surprise relative of the murder victim that changes the entire structure of the plot and sends the reader off into a whole new realm of motivations. By the halfway mark Ashton has done quite a bit of leading the reader down the garden path and I was completely taken in.  I could kick myself for overlooking the most blatant clue involving the world of theater people. Best of all the solution to the impossibility of the murderer's escape is simple and eloquently presented when Sangster delivers his findings in the final chapter.

Here's Murder Done!, for me, was an excellent example of a second tier writer matching the ingenuity of the Grand Masters point for point. The clues I was meant to see are cleverly hidden, often appearing in conversations that any reader would dismiss as "filler" and the red herrings were so masterfully handled that I paid more attention to those than the genuine clues. This mystery novel ended up being one of my favorite reads this year.

THE AUTHOR: Back in 2016 I wrote a piece on how I discovered who Charles Ashton (1884-1968) was. A perfect mini biography turned up on Imdb.com when I learned that he was a former actor in silent cinema. Here is that bio: "Not long after receiving a medical discharge from the army due to injuries he received at the Battle of Ypres Charles Ashton became a movie actor. He made his film debut in Pillars of Society (1920). He appeared in a string of films for such well-known directors as Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville. Ashton was one of the many silent-era actors whose career ended with the advent of sound, and he made his last film in 1929. However, he did begin another career as a successful novelist in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly of crime thrillers." The bio is the work of "frankfob2@yahoo.com", a knowledgeable cinephile who wrote hundreds of profiles on movie performers and directors for that oft-used movie website.

Charles Ashton created one series detective named Jack Atherley who supposedly appeared in at least eight titles. Only those marked as such in the list below can be confirmed. Atherley does not appear in Here's Murder Done! Ashton's books were published only in the UK by Robert Hale, Ivor Nicholson and Museum Press, not exactly top of the line publishers. Several of his books were reprinted in paperback editions by Withy Grove Press, Ltd as part of their often abridged "Cherry Tree Book" paperback digest imprint. These seem to be the only extant copies available for sale. I managed to purchase three of them over the past year so there will be more reviews on Ashton's mystery novels coming. None of his books were published in the US or Canada in his lifetime. There are no other known editions during his lifetime except for two translations of Fates Strikes Twice (1944): one in French (Le destin frappe deux fois), the other in Swedish (Döden Slår Till).

For those interested in Ashton's cinema career he appeared in at least 21 movies between 1920 and 1929. Among them are The Monkey's Paw (1923) in which he played the doomed son (a "sarcastic performance" according to someone who actually saw the film) and a bit part in a 48 minute version of Sweeney Todd (1928), unusual in that it features a man who dreams he is the murderous barber after reading a newspaper account of the crimes. For more on Ashton, just visit his IMDB page.

Charles Ashton's Detective Novels
Murder in Make-Up (1934) w/ Jack Atherley
Tragedy after Tea (1935)
Death Greets a Guest (1936) w/ Jack Atherley
Calamity Comes to Flenton (1936) w/ Jack Atherley
Stone Dead (1939)
Death for Two (1940)
Here's Murder Done (1943)
Fate Strikes Twice (1944)
Murder at Melton Peveril (1946)
Dance for a Dead Uncle (1948)

Friday, October 11, 2019

FFB: The Sutton Place Murders - Robert George Dean

THE STORY: Murder and mayhem in the financial world of 1930s Manhattan. Insurance investigator Paul Andrew Thompson (he goes by Pat, the first initials of his name) is hired to prove a suspicious death is suicide so his firm can avoid paying out the $250,000 policy. But when another suicide occurs Thompson is certain that a killer is disguising his work, what the newspapers will soon dub The Sutton Place Murders (1936).

THE CHARACTERS: While the story seems dominated by men (police, lawyers, the district attorney and several business associates of Harry Mitchell, the drowned man the insurance company believes killed himself) the real interesting characters are the women. Susan Barton, is Thompson's girlfriend who as a reporter has access to the "morgue" and archives of her employer. She is enlisted to help dig up dirt in the past lives of several female suspects. Susan has several theories about how the crimes were committed. The scenes with she and Pat are probably the best in the book.

Whenever Pat is interacting with a woman character like sly and evasive Alice Woods or vamping Laura Hess the book becomes much more interesting. Even the eccentric widow Louise Mitchell and a seemingly insignificant maid like Madeline Hine are better delineated with intriguing quirks than the many cookie cutter male characters we have encountered over and over in crime and detective fiction of this era. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the women are the ones the police should be paying attention to. Plots and schemes are uncovered and a deadly game of blackmail seems to be at the root of all the mysterious deaths.

INNOVATIONS: Dean likes to emulate the hardboiled style by laying it on heavy with banter and wisecracking dialogue. "Pat" Thompson could have been a great long-running series character. It's a shame that he appears only in three books. The scenes with Pat and Susan are the liveliest parts of the book and sound similar to the repartee you hear in movies like The Thin Man series and other urban and urbane crime films featuring husband/wife or male/female detective pairs.

The detection in the book is surprisingly well done. One of the better examples involves the typewritten suicide note purportedly left by Laura Hess Pat does some inventive thinking which leads him to believe the suicide was staged and the note clearly not typed by the victim. He also wants to know if Harry Mitchell's death was a suicide then where was his note? Clues related to clothing play a big part in the plot too. Susan offers up some ideas that most of the men would never think of and is convinced that one of the suspects, Louise Mitchell, is a man-hater if not a lesbian as some of the men later surmise.

The talk of lesbianism in the book is done rather frankly and colloquially for a 1930s book. When Susan remarks that Louise Mitchell has no man in her life Pat quips, "You mean she's a Les?" Later eyewitnesses report seeing someone dressed in men's evening clothes having visited Louise in secret. Everyone thinks it's a man, but Susan is certain it was woman in disguise. Many of the men start making bad jokes about lesbians thereafter (see "Things I Learned" section below).

QUOTES: (After waking up with a hangover Pat says to himself:) So this is what comes of trying to drink a woman under the table. Just a sacrifice on the altar of insurance!

The Frenchman was tall and thin like an adagio dancer; his complexion pale, almost sallow; and his face was the type that would be termed handsome by some women for whom life had begun at forty.

Pat: That means you do really adore me, under that scant veneer.
Susan: As one strip of veneer to another, let me repeat for your dull powers of comprehension; I hate you. Vindictively, I might add.

Pat: I'm giving you the chance to a flaunt your deductive powers.
Susan: Mmmm, I see. This is the page where they put the notice: 'Dear Reader, you have been given all the dope; now, it's up to you.' Well you can go to hell Mr. Sporting Opportunity Thompson!

THINGS I LEARNED: Cholly Knick is mentioned in passing. In the context I figured he was a writer. My assiduous Googling revealed the name to a shortened form of Cholly Knickerbocker, the house name for a gossip column created by reporter John W. Keller who started his career with the New York Recorder in the late 19th century. When he left that paper in 1902 to join Hearst’s New York American, later the New York Journal-American, he took the pseudonym and his column with him. One of the more notable Cholly Knickerbockers was Igor Cassini who in the 1940s co-wrote with longtime columnist Liz Smith. For the full history of Cholly Knickerbocker click here.

On page 130 District Attorney Hoffman alludes to a line of poetry from Kipling in an attempt to make a quip about lesbians. He says that “the colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady” (from Kipling’s “The Ladies” ) are lesbians under their skin making the statement when the murder case involves a woman who dresses as a man in order to meet another woman in secret. The actual line is “sisters under their skins” and was never intended by Kipling to imply sexual attraction between two women. Identifying the Kipling quote led me to a fascinating article by grammar maven and lexicon expert William Safire who wrote an essay about the prevalence of misquoting popular writing. Rosie O’Grady, gilding the lily (see Shakespeare’s King John where it is actually “to paint a lily”) and “into the breach” (rather than the actual “unto”) from Henry V were all cited as the three of the most often incorrectly quoted phrases.

The last Tony Hunter novel
UK edition (Boardman, 1954) 
THE AUTHOR:  Robert George Dean (1904-1989) worked as a journalist and drove an ambulance during the war years. In addition to a short three book series featuring "Pat" Thompson and Susan Barton he created Tony Hunter, a private eye who works for the Schmidt Agency. Hunter appeared in ten books between 1938 and 1953. Using the pseudonym "George Griswold" he wrote four espionage/adventure novels with the mysterious Mr. Goode.  I thought maybe one of his books might have been turned into a movie or that he wrote at least one movie script because he's so good at that snappy dialogue you hear in 30s and 40s crime movies. Sadly, his name does not turn up in the Imdb.com listings so the chances of Pat and Susan or Tony turning up on screen are fairly slim.

Pat Thompson & Susan Barton Trilogy of Mysteries 
The Sutton Place Murders (1936)
What Gentleman Strangles a Lady? (1936)
Three Lights Went Out (1937)

Friday, October 4, 2019

FFB: Dead to the World - David X Manners

THE STORY: Mystery writer James Stanley Hunt has been drowned in his bathtub. When he “wakes up” he discovers his wife Chili, a dancer in a musical revue, has summoned his ghost via a spiritualist. She wants him to solve his own murder. He takes up the challenge and is helped by a journey into the past via some strange time travel where he encounters himself.

INNOVATIONS: In Dead to the World (1947) Manner’s sophomore and last work as a detective novelist we have quite a melding of genres -- ghost story, detective novel and a timeslip plot motif so often found in science fiction stories. Other notable novels incorporating the motifs of a ghost who solves its own murder are Post Mortem (1953) by Guy Cullingford and for time travel in the context of a detective fiction plot we have Repeat Performance (1942) by William O’Farrell. While the ghost story aspect is often played for laughs and the time travel is hazily explained there is no doubt that Manners has concocted a legitimate detective novel with more than the requisite plot twists and unexpected developments.

UK edition (Hector Kelly, Ltd., 1954)
Unusual for a time travel story is the conceit that James Hunt-human and James Hunt-ghost occur in several scenes simultaneously. In order to clear up the confusion human James of the past is referred to as “Jim” while the ghost narrates the story as “I”. Takes some getting used to the “I” James Hunt referring to himself as “Jim” but as the story progresses the confusion dissipates and it’s easy to distinguish them as separate characters even though they are in essence the same person.

What isn’t too easy to accept is the way the ghost travels around the city. Because he is a wisp of a being and can’t actually be seen by anyone other than his wife who summoned him he is a bind when it comes to getting from place to place. Since he is invisible to nearly everyone he can’t, for instance, hail a cab, so he finds it necessary to hitch rides by closely following a human inside. His “vaporous fingers” can’t turn on a light switch or grasp and turn a door knob. He must wait for humans to perform these actions for him. Yet when it serves the plot he can easily pass through walls in order to access a room! He also behaves too much like a human, taking off clothes in order to sleep, and putting on shoes before leaving his house. Very odd for a ghost, I’d say. These infrequent inconsistencies in the construct of the fantasy world led me to give Manners a few demerits for laziness.

Still from the film Laura (1944)
Still the plot itself makes up for the admittedly few slip-ups and contradictions. The beginning of the novel is actually the end. James announces that he has solved a murder but several chapters pass by before we realize who was killed. Yes, he is supposedly drowned and dead in the bathtub, but we -- along with “I” -- travel back to the previous events and follow “Jim” through the series of events that lead to the murder of a woman folk singer. A surprise is in store when her corpse is replaced with a nude statue. In fact the identity of the missing corpse is a mystery in itself. Is it Jennifer Dell, the singer, or her friend Muriel Paquette? Was there a mix-up because they were dressed similarly and look somewhat alike? This piece of the plot reminded me too much of Laura (novel written four years earlier than Manners' book and the very popular movie coming out in 1944). And that plot similarity carries through to include one of the biggest surprises in Laura. I was disappointed with that copycat plot but once again Manners accomplishes a nifty coup when he outperforms even Vera Caspary in plot machinations. I was genuinely surprised by the murderer’s identity, if not his very old school motive. There are in fact several murders in the book before we get to the climactic moment when Jim ends up in a bathtub.



All is explained in the end including the quirky reason for the appearance of the ghost in the first place. For such a violent and tough action-oriented book there are happy endings all around with several reunions, a couple of planned weddings and a final smile inducing touch of irony in the penultimate chapter.

THINGS I LEARNED: Towards the end of the book Jim is faced with various domestic troubles in two different families while sorting out possible motives for the killing of Jennifer (or is it Muriel?). Manners writes: “Jim Hunt was feeling suddenly like Mr. Anthony, mender of broken homes.” He is referring to John J Anthony (born Lester Kroll) who had an extremely popular radio show, “The Good Will Hour,” devoted to giving advice to unhappy married people. According to Kroll’s New York Times obituary: “At the peak of his radio career, in 1939, Mr. Anthony was heard on more than 700 stations and his earnings were estimated at $3,000 a week [$55,372 in 2019 money].”

THE AUTHOR: David X Manners (1912-2007) was a highly prolific writer of detective, adventure and western short stories for various pulp fiction magazines. From his first story, “A Striking Resem-blance” (Ten Detective Aces, Nov. 1934) to his last, “The Town that Terror Built"(Adventure, Oct 1959), he was one of the most popular American writers in the second tier magazines. Frequently, his name appeared on the cover of Ten Detective Aces, sometimes he had the featured cover story (see at left). Clearly, the publisher’s thought he was a guaranteed seller for that particular magazine. Though his stories number close to 130 he wrote only two full length crime and detective novels, Memory of A Scream (1946) and Dead to the World (1947).

Oddly, he is best known for being the inventor (according to himself and his family) of the do-it-yourself handbook. An accomplished carpenter and craftsmen he authored several books on DIY home projects some of them still in print today. His nascent career as a pioneer in DIY home repair can be seen in Dead to the World when James Hunt ingeniously uses the knife-like corner of a candlestick as a hatchet and uses it to break open a wooden door (“Remembering that the penetrating power of such things as knives and picks was because all the force behind them was concentrated on a very small point of surface…”). Manners later went on to create his own publishing company devoted to DIY books and a public relations firm which sadly declared bankruptcy last year.

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 featured as part of the Friday's Forgotten Book meme. 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)