Friday, May 17, 2019

FFB: The Perfect Alibi - C. St. John Sprigg

THE STORY: Cruel and vicious Antony Mullins who promised misery upon his wife and her various lovers is found dead in his blazing garage. At first thought to be a strange suicide or an accident it is soon discovered that he was shot in the back of the head. Mullins was a very rich man and some surprising legatees named in his will arouse suspicion by both police and those who expected to be named in the will. Yet the three most likely suspects all have iron-clad alibis. When the police are stymied unable to break what appears to be The Perfect Alibi (1934) Sandy Delfinage and her friend painter Francis Filson turn amateur sleuth to ferret out a very clever murderer.

THE CHARACTERS: In this fairly large cast every character is superbly drawn, lively and quirky, most with wry sense of humor. Here are the people who stand out:

Patricia Mullins - Anthony's widow who seemed to have a long line of admirers and may have been involved romantically with more than one of them.

Ralph Holliday - Antony's nephew who has travelled to Berlin on a business trip and has not been heard of since.

Francis Filson - a portrait painter who doesn't do much painting.  He takes two days to sketch Pat and the painting has not even been started before Mullins turns up dead.  Mullins believes Filson and his wife were having an affair and that that the portrait will never materialize.

Dr. Eustace Marabout - oddball physician who studies occult and supernatural lore then actually begins to believe in the existence of vampires, demons and werewolves citing examples he has met in his life.

Mrs. Murples - runs a boarding house for athletes and trains boxers. She's foul-mouthed, tough and strangely very likeable. I love the scenes in which she appeared.

Sandy Delfinage - in charge of the stables at the Mullins estate. She's an able equestrian and the most sharp witted person in the book.  Not too trusting of Mrs. Mullins. Has her eye on Frank, and not just as a possible suspect. Is certain that the murderer is...

Dr. James Constant - a major legatee named in Mullin's will. His Society for Scientific Research receives a sizeable bequest leading Sandy to suspect him of killing Mullins for the money. His odd habit of wearing a fake beard is not just a trademark of his vanity as the police try to convince Sandy. She, instead, finds it both ridiculous and sinister.

Constable Lawrence Sadler - young police officer whose keen intelligence and athleticism draw attention of Scotland Yard.  He is instrumental in tracking down Mrs. Mullins in the climax which leads him from England to France to Spain and rescuing her from a diabolical deathtrap.

A very minor character who has only a few scenes but was truly one of the best in the book is Vicomte de Grandlieu, a feisty aristocrat with a sense of romance and adventure. He is all too willing to help PC Sadler get to Catalonia with the aid of his private airplane. It helps that the Vicomte is an ace pilot who has racked up several record breaking solo flights all over the world.

Eventually Sprigg's series detectives Charles Venable, a crime writer, and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appearance. Though Sandy and Frank do much of the sleuthing in the book, Charles and Bray have the final say in solving the murder and explaining other various mysteries that crop up in he intricately plotted story.  But it may never have been solved without the imaginative thinking of Sandy Delfinage.

Yum! Marmite brand yeast extract advert inside front cover

INNOVATIONS: The title is one of the cleverest parts of the book. The Perfect Alibi applies to four characters, one of whom probably never needed an alibi at all. It's something of a tour de force employing a detective novel convention that became the hallmark of writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, Milton Propper and Christopher Bush. Sprigg turns the whole notion of a perfect alibi on its head and does so with a sense of ironic humor when the solution is revealed. The book utilizes other crime fiction motifs as well like masquerade, cover-ups, frame-ups, manipulation of evidence, and multiple false and true confessions all of it done with originality and unusual spins on what are often tired conventions employed with little verve or imagination.

Early in the book it seems as if the novel will be an impossible crime murder complete with locked room. The local police attempt to write the strange death off as a suicide. But Inspector Trenton raises two points: "The door was locked.  We've searched the garage and haven't found the key. How could he get in without a key, or get rid of it once he had locked himself in? How could he shoot himself and then get rid of the revolver?"  While there is an element of impossibility to the murder and the fire that destroyed the garage and incinerated most of the corpse the locked room aspect is dismissed well before the halfway mark.

QUOTES:  Venables: "The case could have been solved on the facts known a the very outset of the investigation. Every fact and clue we needed was given to us. It was like the fairest possible detective story in the world, in which the reader is let into every material circumstance needed to enable him to guess the solution. And yet I couldn't guess it! It is something to be ashamed of."

THINGS I LEARNED:  One of the places where Mrs. Mullins hides out in the action-packed finale is the Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris. In the early 1930s it was still being used as a tourist and residential hotel. But my internet research revealed the hotel has rich history, most of it fairly recent. In the post-WW2 era the Hotel de Talleyrand was used by the US State Department in talks related to the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery. Owned by the wealthy Rothschild family for over 100 years it was eventually purchased from them in 1950 by the State Department and became the home of the US embassy in France. Later it was renamed the George C Marshall Center. In a nine year multimillion dollar project lasting from 2008-2017 largely financed by private donations the main rooms were restored and renovated to their original 17th century splendor. For more about the hotel and its transformation into a global seat of diplomatic discussions see this website.

EDITION: Cherry Tree Books were published by Withy Grove Press, Ltd. They were the British equivalent of the ubiquitous US digest publications of years past. Similar to the practice of American digests the Cherry Tree Books were abridged versions of the original hardcover editions. Unlike the US equivalents, however, the books are not noted as being abridged. All of them were no more than 95 pages long and were typeset in an extremely small font size making it very hard on the eyes of even the most healthy and youthful reader. You're reading this blog in font around 11 pt. But the book is typeset like this, in 8 pt type. The books have ads all over the place, inside the covers, the back cover and even within the book, and all of them are for horrid food products like yeast extract and Bovril's meat powder which is supposed to be some sort of flavor enhancer. My copy of The Perfect Alibi also has an ad for Cadbury's Bourn-Vita, "the Protective Food", some sort of health food powder to be mixed in water and drunk. This from a chocolate manufacturer. Not sure I want to know what it's made of.

Would you dare read 95 pages of this?
This is the first Cherry Tree Book I've managed to finish. I abandoned others because of eyestrain; the font size is agonizing to deal with. But this book was too good to give up on so I endured the possible hazards of further ruining my already severely myopic vision and managed to survive relatively unscathed with without suffering any headaches. I'll be reading a few more of these Cherry Tree Book in the months to come because they tend to be the only edition I can buy of some extremely rare titles by mystery and crime fiction writers I've been wanting to read for may years now.

EASY TO FIND? Not at all, my friends. Ages ago the Doubleday Crime Club edition occasionally would turn up in the used book market usually at a rather high price, but I've not seen a copy for sale in almost 20 years. I was very lucky to find this Cherry Tree paperback about five or six years ago. I had no idea any of Sprigg's books were reprinted in paperback during his short life. Currently there are absolutely no copies of this book for sale from online dealers. Apparently an indie press was planning to reprint some of Sprigg's detective novels and had included The Perfect Alibi as a promised release. But to date they seem to have suspended all plans for future books.

Friday, May 10, 2019

FFB: Death Croons the Blues - James Ronald

THE STORY: Ex-con burglar Bill Cuffy cannot resist what he thinks is an easy theft. He'll break in and steal as much as he can from night club singer Adele Valée while she is out performing. In the midst of his gathering jewelry and cash he discovers her dead body in a gruesomely bloody bathroom. Cuffy flees the murder scene and foolishly (yet unknowingly) takes with him the bizarre murder weapon, an exotic knife from Asia. He ends up in the home of Julian Mendoza who finds Cuffy's story hard to believe but is willing to take a chance on the crook. Mendoza tells Cuffy to turn himself in for the burglary and he will back him up. He promises that he will find the real culprit and get Bill out of jail before the police can formerly charge him with Adele Valée's murder.

THE CHARACTERS: Death Croons the Blues (1934) is the second novel to feature James Ronald's only series detective, crime reporter Julian Mendoza. We learn a lot about Mendoza in a few paragraphs. That he has lived a life of adventure as a journalist. Among his many souvenirs he can count a disabling injury he sustained after a run-in with a lion in Africa when he was 33 years old. The injury left him with a partially paralyzed right leg and he now walks with a limp and often must use a cane. He is one of the many reporter detectives who were popular with writers during the heyday of crime reporting. Like Robin Bishop (in the early novels of Gregory Homes) he outsmarts the police at the own game often beating them to the crime scenes, finding evidence that he withholds from them until it suits his purpose. Late in this outing he also recruits a small band of journalist colleagues as watchmen and spies who fool suspects into thinking that they are being watched and guarded by plainclothes detectives. his disability does not prevent him from acting out and defending himself from dangerous criminals. More than a few times his cane comes in handy in disarming gun toting aggressors.

This is a straightforward detective novel with a lot of action sequences. We get some unusual point of view scenes too from the primary suspect Honorable Timothy Brett who was being blackmailed by Adele and who owns the twin to the Ghurka knife that Cuffy took from the murder scene. The two knives are prominently displayed in Brett's home and anyone who knows him would immediately recognize the weapon used to kill Adele. Mendoza is sure that such a blatant use of a unique weapon is sure sign of Brett's innocence and that someone is framing him for the murder. It doesn't help that Adele's nosy neighbor Miss Purdy saw a man knock three times on Adele's front door and enter her apartment the very night she was killed. She also has a eidetic memory and gives an intricately detailed description of the man matching Timothy Brett's likeness perfectly.

Mendoza would like to find Brett and get the truth from him. But Brett is terrified because he also stumbled upon Adele's dead body, got blood on his coat which he left at the scene, and fled to beg for help from one of his friends. He goes into hiding with Mendoza hot on his trail. So is his girlfriend Lady Constance, a formidable aristocrat who wields a revolver, threatens Mendoza twice, and has a violent confrontation with a nasty bigoted landlady that ends with slaps to the harridan's face and a shove into the hallway.

Speaking of formidable let me not overlook Mrs. MacDougall, Mendoza's landlady who becomes his right hand man in couple scenes. You don't want to mess with her either. And she doesn't need a pistol to make her frightening. She manages to subdue Cuffy in the opening chapter in an unexpected way that made me laugh. Later we see her wise and compassionate side when she and Mendoza help rescue the ailing Mrs. Cuffy from that nasty cow of a landlady. They stow her safely in a nursing home retreat to prevent her from becoming the next victim of a murderer who will do anything to cover his tracks.

INNOVATIONS:  Death Croons the Blues is the closest to a traditional detective novel of the books I've read by James Ronald. The story still has its "thrillerish" elements, but the detection is sound, clever and often adheres to fair play techniques.  Mendoza reminds me of Perry Mason in his earliest adventures, when he would infiltrate crime scenes, monkey with evidence, switch guns and do anything to protect his client.  Mendoza resorts to exactly the same shenanigans but does it all for himself in his thirst to scoop a news story that will sell lots of papers. He finds Brett's overcoat at Adele's place, goes through the pockets and finds papers that he keeps for himself. He only turns over evidence to the police when he's good and ready. Thanks to these leads Mendoza also manages to question suspects long before the police even know a person is linked to the murder case. His actions infuriate Inspector Howells who would prefer that Mendoza either cooperate or just go away. Of course there are also consequences to Mendoza's brazen flaunting of the rules and he endangers the lives of several people in his desire to uncover the truth.

QUOTES:  Rooms. No beds. No board. Just "rooms." Four walls and a door. It was one of those houses in which every corner lodges an individual, or a whole family; in which every tenant has his own sticks of furniture and rags of bedding, his own greasy sink and grease spotted stove, his own domestic troubles. In which one bathes standing up with a sponge and a basin of water. In which before gassing oneself to extinction one must insert a pocketful of coppers in the voracious mouth of a slot-meter. In which no one cares if the occupant of the neat room lives in sin or dies in misery. In which one can hide...

"Sorry if I hurt you... But a woman with a gun always makes me nervous."

"He denies it, of course. But, then, he wouldn't be the figure of finance he is if he weren't a facile liar."

THINGS I LEARNED: The murder weapon is described as a Ghurka knife. This is a poor s misspelling of Gurkha, the name given to a group of Nepali speaking soldiers who served in India. A drawing of the knife appears on the dust jacket illustration of the US first edition above, but is inaccurate.  That sword looks more like a saber to me rather than a knife. The Gurkha knife or kukri, as it is known in its native Nepal, has a blade that looks bent rather than subtly curved (see photo above).  It was developed and used by the Nepalese army centuries ago and has been adopted for use by contemporary Indian and Pakistani military.

On page 58 a policeman quotes a witness who lives in Adele's apartment building: "She told me she'd seen a man m running down the fire-escape. A big, beefy man with matted hair and ferocious expression -- Carnera or King Kong by her description." He is referring to Italian boxer Primo Carnera (1906-1967) who was 6' 6" tall and 275 lbs. at his heaviest, one of the most massive and imposing boxers of the pre-World War 2 era. From June 1933 to June 1934 he was the World Heavyweight Champion. In addition to his boxing career he appeared in a handful of movies in the USA, England and Italy between 1931 and 1959.

In the 1930s in England members of the Automobile Association were given their own personal keys to open the A.A. call boxes which had emergency phones inside. Apparently you could call anyone, not just emergency services or the police. Mendoza uses an A.A. box to call his newspaper offices and dictates his solution of the crimes to his editors and copy staff so that he can scoop everyone in the next edition of Morning World.

THE AUTHOR: There is little information about James Ronald on the internet. In the back of one of my US editions of his novels there is a lengthy biographical blurb. I'm not sure how truthful it is but it makes him seem to be a colorful and humorous man, and it made me smile. Ronald writes that he voluntarily left the UK, but another source I found says that he was deported. For what reason I have no idea. He lived in Fairfield, Connecticut for most of his adult life.  Here's the blurb that Ronald no doubt wrote himself:

“At the age of fourteen James Ronald, a native of Glasgow, came home from school and announced that he would never return. His mother was s distressed, insisting that she would not have an idler in the family, so from them until he was seventeen he was in and out of a series of jobs, abou thirty in all. He even ventured as far s Chicago where his experience included everything from a job paying four hundred a month to a job as dishwasher when he slept on cold park benches. At twenty-one he inherited $10.000 but it took him only nine months to spend it. Back in England again floating from job to job he was seriously injured in an automobile collision and for three months was in the hospital with a broken hip. Crippled for a year he spent his time writing short stories and his success at the job of writing has kept him at it ever since. He is the author of eight highly successful mystery novels. During the fall of 1939 he was an air raid warden in England. He is in the United States now for an indefinite period being ineligible for military service because of the motor accident injury.”

Julian Mendoza Detective Novels
Cross Marks the Spot (1933)
Death Croons the Blues (1934)
The Frightened Girl (1941)
  by "Michael Crombie", a rewrite of
Cross Marks the Spot with Mendoza now a private eye rather than a reporter

Julian Mendoza in The Thriller Library
Baby-Face (Jan 2, 1937)
Hard-Boiled (May 8, 1937)
The Sucker (Dec 18, 1937)
The War-Makers (Oct 7, 1939)

Sunday, May 5, 2019

IN BRIEF: The 3-13 Murders - Thomas Black

It isn't often that I am so entranced by another person's review that I find I have to read the book immediately. When I came across a post on an author I was hardly familiar with on TomCat's blog Beneath the Stains of Time I found myself unable to resist temptation. It was really one single sentence that made up my mind:  "The 3-13 Murders is one of the finest and cleverest hardboiled detective novels ever written, which I recommend, unreservedly, to all."

Clever? Yes. One of the finest? No, I don't agree.

The  most notable aspect that makes the book stand out is an unusual murder which TomCat has likened to the use of intricate gizmos and gadgets you'll find in the works of John Rhode.  And I have to tell you that any astute reader will pick up on the two vital clues mentioned none too subtly within the narrative. One of those clues is mentioned three separate times making it rather obvious. Paying close attention to the oddities observed by our private eye hero can easily lead the reader to figuring out how that murder was achieved. At least I did. I know what was created in the room where the murder was committed, but not exactly how the murder was pulled off.  Is this enough to make a book one of the finest, the part that sent TomCat into a rapturous rave?  In my estimation, no.  But then I look at the book as a whole and not simply for the ingenious murders, a surprise identity of the murderer, and other puzzle pieces.

The setting is also unusual for a private eye novel. Black lays the action in the fictional urban milieu of Chancellor City which must be in the Midwest somewhere, close to Wichita mentioned a couple of times. Over the course of the novel Al Delaney, the private eye protagonist, gives us details of his taxi jaunts mentioning specific street names. A close look at street maps of Missouri and Kansas cities reveal a match up with Kansas City, Kansas. Black was born and raised in Kansas. Makes sense that he would want to model his books on his home state.

One other noteworthy feature is Black's use of unusual gangster slang that I've never encountered in any other writer's vocabulary of the underworld.  Taxis are referred to as "Yellows", women in prostitution rings as "whitebirds" (I guess a signifier of white slavery), "percentage girl" is a prostitute who works for a pimp or in a brothel. The title itself reveals a very odd slang term for two types of illegal drugs that I think Black simply made up. He tells us what "3-13" means late in the book and it's a tip-off to another coded remark mentioned earlier that I managed to figure out. At least those other words seemed closer to real slang terms.

This novel turns out to be something of a diatribe against the vices that rule career criminals and make them rich. More than anything The 3-13 Murders recalled to my mind less of Black's hardboiled colleagues and more of Sax Rohmer's Dope. Frankly, had I known that this book was all about gangsters, drugs and prostitutes I think I would've just skipped it.  My least favorite topic in ANY crime novel is drug dealing.

Black is majorly influenced by pulp magazine writers of the era and probably private eye movies since his work comes so late in the heyday of private detective mania. His dialogue reminds me of the type of wisecracking stuff you hear spouted by B movie characters of the 1940s rather than the characters in the books of the demigods of the hardboiled genre like Hammett and Chandler. Many of the characters are very familiar and come across as stereotypes like the vixen client who turns on the sex appeal to manipulate our hero; the motherly landlady; the repellent brothel madame; the faithful secretary; possibly corrupt leader of a weird religious cult (a la The Dain Curse) and a slew of immoral would-be sophisticates. There's even a pretty boy sadistic hitman (a favorite un-PC fictional type) who I thought would turnout to be gay but who surprisingly has a wife.

The plot is well done if mired in the past. A portion of the book to me makes utterly no sense -- the retention of an incriminating letter that leads to one of the murders. Black's reasoning for the character who keeps hold of the letter is very weak (it involves blackmail). He turns the letter over to a neighbor for safe keeping and of course she is then killed in a horrific manner. All of this seemed not to mesh with the rest of the book which is all about venal and greedy people who act on impulse.

Black is a clever writer, I will admit. He does a good job of planting clues. But at this stage in my life I've read so much crime fiction in all of its subgenres that I can't give this too much attention. A well plotted (if overly complex) book with one ingenious murder method doesn't merit being called "one of the finest and cleverest hardboiled detective novels ever written."  There are many more better examples with better realized characters, more maturely thought out motivations, and less -- dare I say it -- contrived storytelling.

But in keeping with my "give 'em a second chance" nature I did buy a copy of Black's The Pinball Murders to see if perhaps he truly was consistently good at dreaming up weird murders and intricate plots or if this book was just a fluke. Stay tuned...

Friday, May 3, 2019

FFB: Nine Days' Panic - Reginald Davis

THE STORY: Nine Days’ Panic (1937) is an absurdist black comedy that is also a send-up of all manner of detective novel conventions. The madcap plot incorporates mysterious disappearances, vanishing corpses, the impossible substitution of people for skeletons, disguises and impersonation, Celtic legends and cult rituals, and ribald and farcical humor.

THE CHARACTERS: Littleford in the Vale is at the mercy of a madman with a bizarre sense of humor. We begin with the theft of a prize winning vegetable marrow and village idiot “Mazed Thomas” playing detective and accusing the Mr. Stiggins, mayor of the village, as the culprit. Shortly thereafter, Thomas' body is found bludgeoned and surrounded by the smashed remnants of the formerly impressive giant squash. On the same day Bessie Luscombe, daughter of the owner of the local pub The Prodigal Son, disappears from her bedroom and a red skeleton is found in her place. Also, a man dressed in obnoxious mustard yellow plus-fours is found hanging from a tree. However, when the police go to look for the body they find only the rope freshly cut and no corpse in sight. Are the events of the night over yet? No! 95 year-old Rowland Pye has also disappeared from his home and yet no one saw him leave through the front door.

What to make of all this madness? Despite the talk of ominous death rattles and the presence of a legendary fetch the police will have none of the local's superstitious nonsense. They know a real human is behind all these shenanigans and they are determined to ferret out the miscreants, pranksters and kidnappers – and a possible murderer.

Over the course of nine days more young women will disappear and more skeletons will pop up in the strangest places. Local P.C. Wilks is relieved when Major Tinmouth, the Chief Constable of Littleford on the Vale, decides to call in Scotland Yard. Inspector Ipswich and his resourceful cohort Sgt. Pike (with a very unusual talent) take over the investigation and soon turn up the corpse of the hanged man, but are baffled by the near daily vanishings of young women. They still haven’t a clue where the women have gone.

Amateur sleuths only complicate matters. After receiving an anonymous note informing him of his impending death Rev. Timity joins forces with Dr. Appleby and Dr. Smyth-Crowcombe, the director of Barrow House, a nearby sanitarium and mental institution. Together the three men examine the clues and try to learn the whereabouts of the missing girls. A note left at the scene of one of the disappearances takes the form of a cryptic rhyme: “I do go with my sisters to search for the way./We go to seek in the valley./Light in the dark. Life in the grave./Karedwan—Karedwan—Karedwan!” Eventually this will lead the physicians to research village folklore and ancient Celtic rituals meant to summon the goddess mentioned in the rhyme’s final line. Davis once again finds ample opportunity to explore his fascination with superstition, this time delving into arcane Celtic legends and the forgotten works of the 6th century poet Taliesin.

The village is thrown into chaos with crimes bordering on the absurd. At one point Dr. Smyth-Crowcombe exclaims, “This is becoming ridiculous!” And of course it is. Yet on reflection it is also terrifying. Fear is exactly what the mysterious force behind all the confusion is after. He (or is it they?) needs the village to be so frightened that they won’t set foot outside their homes. For there is of course an ulterior motive to all the insanity of skeletons in beds, missing girls, and corpses that suddenly turn out to be very much alive. All will be discovered in the intricate underground labyrinth of tunnels that lead to a cavern of secrets and untold horror.

INNOVATIONS: The book is replete with all sorts of amusing literary allusions and folkloric discussions. There is a lengthy section on the existence of ghosts led by Dr. Appleby talking about the “cutting short of a normal span of life by violence” and expanding on the concept of the restless spirit and hauntings so common in ghost stories. Rev. Timity then takes up the discussion adding his opinions on the metaphysical and spiritual sides of the argument.

Daniel Biggs (aka Happy Dandy) is an eccentric young man who as far as the villagers are concerned is the new “Mazed Thomas”, and even battier than the former village idiot. He has a remarkable way of talking leading the reader to suspect Dandy may not at all be as “mazed” or stupid as he seems to be. In one amusing scene he spars humorously with the police by quoting Lewis Carroll. He talks about galumphing back from Moping Copse, the aptly named Gothic scene of the hanging. Inspector Denman then asks, “What’s all this beamish boy stuff?” Dandy tells him he found a bit of rope. “You were going to say you found it on a Tumtum tree, weren’t you? But if you tell me that you’ve been snaring Jubjub birds or slaying Jabberwocks—I’ll slay you!

THINGS I LEARNED: I learned all about Taliesin who is credited with writing a poem called “The Spoils of Annwn” which serves as the inspiration for one of the villain’s bizarre plans. Annwn is the name of the Otherworld in Celtic mythology. In that poem I also learned all about Karedwan – or Cerridwen – an enchantress found in Welsh mythology sometimes referred to as a patron goddess of witches and wizards (according to a mythology website I uncovered). The spelling variations of her name -- from Davis’ Anglo phonetic rendering to Cereduin – made it a bit difficult to find out exactly what Davis meant by Karedwan. Only when Taliesin and his poem were mentioned late in the novel did all my Googling pay off.

QUOTES: The amateur sleuths pore over a hand delivered letter and Rev. Timity says: “Very neatly printed. That eliminates about seventy –five percent of my parishioners, I think.”
“Seventy-five percent? Why Good Lord, Timity, it eliminates ninety-nine point nine percent of the population of Littleford in the Vale!”

One day, a man shuts and locks the door on an empty room in his house and pockets the key. The next, he produces the key, unlocks and opens the door. And what does he see? White rabbits? Pigeons fluttering out of top hats? A magician’s nymph still smiling happily after being tied up in a box and spitted through and through by many swords before your very eyes? No, ladies and gentlemen. This trick has been performed before none of the crowned heads left in Europe. Now – on with the light. Off with the sheet. Hey presto!

One dead man, ladies and gentlemen, with puffy swollen face, and the end of a rope knotted round his throat. No deception whatever.

EASY TO FIND? Of the three mystery novels Reginald Davis wrote this one is the easiest to find. However, very few copies are currently for sale and most of them are in the Doubleday Crime Club US edition. The UK edition is not too surprisingly rather scarce. Finding one in a DJ as I did last month was a rather coup. My copy is a later edition based on its cheaper price 4/6 (rather than the standard 7/6 for a first edition) as well as a complete listing of all three books mentioned on the front flap of the DJ.

Friday, April 26, 2019

FFB: Devil by the Sea - Nina Bawden

THE STORY:  Shortly after she wins a children's talent contest Poppet is paid attention to by a lonely misfit man. Nine year-old Hilary Bray watches both of them jealously and sees the man take Poppet by the hand and lead her away far from the pier and down the beach.  Hilary wonders where they are going and figures the man must be her father or uncle or some other relative.  But her good natured brother Peregrine who never tells lies says, "No he isn't. He's the devil. I saw his cloven hoof." Unknowingly Hilary has just become an eyewitness to what will turn out to be a horrible crime. She becomes obsessed with the man, wants to know him as well as Poppet did, and is determined to find him despite the fact that she truly believes he is the Devil by the Sea (1957).

THE CHARACTERS: Hilary Bray may be the focus of the story but we also get to know the entire Bray family, a collection of disconnected people in a discontented family. What little love they have for each other is buried by petty jealousies, bitter discontent, and longing for the unattainable. Alice is the mother no longer really in love with her husband Charlie who is wasting away from an unnamed illness. Janet, the eldest daughter, has met a posh young university student who she thinks she is in love with and would rather spend all her time with him.  Peregrine, the good child and youngest in the family, is at the mercy of his two sisters who taunt and tease him for being the innocent favorite. The loneliest member of the family is protagonist Hilary who retreats in a world of wild imaginings. She uses Peregrine's story of seeing the Devil as an opportunity to have a real adventure and make a real friend no matter how dangerous it all may turn out.

US PB edition with false ads
likening it to an occult thriller
(Lancer, 1973)
But disconnection is everywhere and is voiced by Charlie Bray in a key scene where he attempts to find closeness to his wife by explaining how far away he feels from everyone and everything.  "Alice, do you ever feel cut off?" he ask his wife. "From other people I mean. It's as if we were each enclosed in a bubble."  He is concerned that he doesn't know anyone or care about anyone.  He sees his life as a malingering illness like the time he had pneumonia and he worries about loneliness. Alice's blunt response? "Pull yourself together and be sensible."

Loneliness is omnipresent in the novel. Hilary's seeks to rectify her solitary nature in her desire for friendship with Dotty Jim, the misfit loner who lives in a caravan up on a hill far from the seaside pier. She manages to visit him and watch him play his pet bird and longs to preserve a secret friendship with him. But she also suspects that he may have been responsible for the disappearance of Poppet. When the little girl is found dead it may be that Dotty Jim is a murderous devil after all.

INNOVATIONS: Devil by the Sea is a dark and brooding story accented by religious beliefs that act as an insidious influence on all of the characters. The only music and songs that appear in the book are hymns or lugubrious folk tunes. Hilary decides to sing a baroque song by Georg Händel ("See Where Golden-Hearted Spring") at the talent contest, entirely inappropriate and a choice that earns her more embarrassment than recognition. Characters chide and taunt each other with sermon-like warnings: "God doesn't like liars" and "God does not like little boys who are greedy."  The children remind each other that consequences of sinful wicked behavior is an eternal afterlife in Hell.

Hilary is convinced that her brother is innately good and virtuous, that because he has never told lies his witnessing the Devil must be true. She is constantly comparing herself with her angelic brother and she casts herself in the role of ignominious sinner, too wicked and base to be deserving of love or friendship or anything of worth. The Devil then must be perfectly suited for her and she pursues Dotty Jim throughout the story ending in a confrontation in the surreal finale that takes place at the Fun Fair. After a delirious time spent on the merry-go-round, the Ghost Train, Helter Skelter and Big Laugh Hilary is pursued through a mirror maze by Dotty Jim. Exhausted and spent Hilary relents and is literally carried off to his caravan. Young Wally Peacock is the only person to notice Hilary is missing from the grounds of the Fun Fair and must convince the adults to help him find Hilary before she too ends up like Poppet.

Attractive wrap-around art on DJ of
children's version (Gollancz, 1976)
CHILDREN'S EDITION:  After Bawden became well known for her children's books she was asked to rewrite Devil by the Sea for a juvenile audience. It is this 1976 rewritten version that is much easier to find than the original 1957 novel. I imagine much of the story about Alice and Charlie and the other adults was completely removed for the children's edition.

QUOTES: She remained quite still, her hands gripping the cold edge of the pipe. She was not surprised. she even gave a small nod of satisfaction as if to say: This is what I expected, after all. If he really were the Devil, they had not been chance encounters. They had been written in her stars. A spring of gladness rose within her. There was no more need to be afraid.

The content of her lie upset [Charlie] more than the lie itself. As a child, he had been taught to believe in the Devil as he had been taught to believe in God. Both the Deity and His counterpart had been invested, for him, with a mastery so awful that to pretend he had actually seen one or the other would have been dreadful sin. He would have been expected to be struck dead on the spot.

She was absorbed in world of new discoveries: that other people are not to be relied upon; that promises can be broken; loyalty abandoned; the world that is also childhood's end.

THE AUTHOR: Nina Mabey Bawden (1925-2013) spent most of her childhood in Essex and during the war was evacuated to Wales.  She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied French then switched to PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics). While married to her first husband Harry Bawden she worked on her first novel, the thriller Who Calls the Tune? (1954) and following this with three other crime novels. She soon abandoned thriller format for mainstream novels that often examined the suburban middle-class family. She wrote her first children's novel in 1963 and thereafter alternated between adult and children's novels every other year. Her fiction has been recognized with wins for the Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and the Guardian Award as well as nominations for both the Booker Prize (Circles of Deceit, 1987) and Carnegie Medal (Granny the Pag, 1996).  Of all her works she is perhaps best known for her children's book Carrie's War (1973), a story in part based on her own years as a war evacuee, which was adapted twice for TV in 1974 and 2004. In addition to her long writing a career she was also a Justice of the Peace serving as a magistrate in London from 1967 until 1976.

UK paperback (Sphere, 1967)
EASY TO FIND?  Because the book was reprinted in 1976 as a children's book it is crucial that you look for editions published between 1957 and 1967 if you are interested in reading the original novel.  All editions published afterward tend to be the children's version. The original was published in 1957 in the UK and 1959  (Lippincott) in the US.  The first paperback editions of the adult version of the novel are published by Sphere (1967) in the UK and Lancer (1966) in the US. The children's version is from Gollancz (UK) or Lippincott (US), each dated 1976. There are hundreds of copies of the book for sale in the used book market, but do be careful about entering publication dates depending on which one you are interested in reading.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

NEW STUFF: The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

Finally, I can pay back a frequent plugger of my posts. Having read a review of
The Stranger Diaries (2018) on the highly entertaining and often eye-opening blog Clothes in Books by blogosphere pal, Edgar Award banquet dinner mate, and one time theater companion Moira Redmond I reserved a copy from my local library. We had to wait until February 2019 for a US edition and it took about a month after its release before one of the 15 copies in our library system came my way. When I got my hands on the the book I read it fairly quickly and enjoyed it immensely. I have only a minor quibble with the less than dazzling ending.

In a nutshell this is the story of a murdered English teacher, the relationships she had with her staff, a secret in the past that occurred at a creative writing workshop, and the eerie ghost story "The Stranger" that has become an obsession with the killer.  Clare Cassady, the protagonist and a co-worker of the victim, happens to be working on a biography of R. M. Holland, the author of the ghost story. The police find that fact a little too suspicious to be mere coincidence.

Elly Griffith's first stand-alone mystery novel is most notable for its literary tricks. She alternates between three different first person narratives plus Clare’s diary, and Georgie’s diary (Clare’s daughter). And of course Holland's “The Stranger” broken up into pieces throughout the novel and then appearing in one continuous narrative including its O. Henry like finale as the closing section of the book.

I liked the frequent literary allusions to detective and ghost story fiction. Clare is an English teacher and a devotee of Victorian novels, notably Wilkie Collins. Georgie has been influenced by her mother’s tastes, one of the consequences is her unhealthy obsession with “The Stranger” which she reads every Halloween night in a ritual that includes lighted candles and a smoking pot of burning herbs.

I found Detective Sgt. Harbinder Kaur’s narrative sections amusing. It always makes me smile when a writer creates literally-minded police (either male or female) who cannot wrap their heads around what makes creative people tick. Harbinder doesn’t understand keeping a journal or a diary, she tends not to find anything related to imaginative thinking useful, and has little sympathy or use for dreamers. She is also absurdly judgmental and prejudiced against beautiful or attractive people. Such a snarky cynic! Her narration is peppered with juvenile digs at Clare’s height, her curvaceous physique, her clothes and her “posh” manner. I imagine that Harbinder doesn’t think much of herself. I think there’s a section where she looks at herself in a mirror and is generally displeased with what she sees. I didn’t mark the page though and I’m not going back to hunt for it. She lives with her parents and has mixed feelings about how she ended up where she is.  An interesting angle to the plot is that she is a graduate of the secondary school where the murder victim taught English. So the murder investigation for her is tainted with unpleasant memories of her teen years and unexpected reminders of her past like discovering that her first boyfriend (a failure of an attempt to be straight) is now a teacher at the school they both attended.

For the most part I thought the young people were spot on in their characterizations. Georgie’s narration tends to be a bit too mature at times, but I started to see where it was supposed to be consciously pretentious in the manner most teens can get when they think they’re being literary on paper. The speech and attitudes of the rest of the teens were pretty accurate and didn’t trouble me at all as unrealistically precocious or cartoonishly immature teens do when I encounter them in fiction.

There is a slight puzzle related to the identity of Mariana, believed to be R. M. Holland’s daughter who supposedly died very young and whether or not he believed her ghost to be haunting him. I figured out that little puzzle instantly because Griffiths plants the one clue for that rather blatantly in the very first chapter.

The identity of the murderer is slightly surprising but I was hoping it was going to be someone different, the truly least likely suspect that would’ve made the novel truly brilliant. As written I sort of went, “Oh, of course!” It’s the only way it could possible make sense what with all the various plot tricks and machinations. But for me the story ended like a 1990s Lifetime channel romantic suspense movie and reminded me also of the worst of Phyllis Whitney and Mary Higgins Clark books. Not as potent as it could have been and fairly obvious if you well acquainted with the conventions of this subgenre that features so many permutations of obsessive-compulsive love/lust.

But there’s no denying that the novel up to its less than startling ending is exciting, full of bizarre mysteries and populated with complex, intriguing and life-like characters. They are some effectively creepy scenes, some genuinely frightening, and I can imagine that The Stranger Diaries has the capacity to scare the daylights out of a lot of readers who have not devoured rooms full of thrillers with similar plots as I have.

Friday, April 19, 2019

FFB: Dangerous to Me - Rae Foley

THE STORY: Answering a personal ad for an unusual job leads Paula Savage to discover the ugly past of Coxbury, Connecticut. What should have been a simple research job for a local historian instead turns into a perilous adventure accented by attempted murder, anonymous letters, an angry lynch mob and the strangling of her employer’s close friend. All the turmoil is linked to a crime committed twenty years ago in Coxbury and the release of the man sent to prison for that crime. Was he in fact innocent all the time? And if so, is the real murderer seeking to keep the truth buried and secret at all costs?

THE CHARACTERS: Paula is a woman with secrets of her own. We don't find out why she desires to escape from New York and take on a job for which she seems ill-equipped until well pass the midpoint. Over the course of the novel we learn of her true profession which she gave up recently, her failed marriage, and the fate of Derek, her possessive and unbalanced husband. Dangerous to Me (1959) though ostensibly about Paula and her new job prospects is really all about the release of Lenny Horgan from prison, the murder of Evelyn Dwight for which he was found guilty, and the truth of why Evelyn was killed and who was really responsible.

In being interviewed for the research position by Helen Quarles, a friend of the Coxbury historian, Paula hears from Helen the story of Evelyn Dwight’s murder, the trial and the fact Helen’s testimony was key in achieving a guilty verdict against Lenny. She feels Lenny Horgan is dangerous to her and she fears for her life when she learns of his release. Her fears prove prophetic when she is found dead outside the Central Park Zoo. Police try to pass it off as a mugging. But when Paula is pushed into the path of an oncoming taxi and saved at the last moment she believes that both she and Helen had information about Evelyn’s death that the real killer wanted kept hidden. But what exactly was it that Helen Quarles told Paula that could have been so threatening to that person? Paula turns to Hiram Potter for advice and help.

Hiram Potter is Rae Foley’s accidental detective. He had appeared in four novels prior to Dangerous to Me and in each of them reminds us that he does not consider himself a private detective. He takes no payment for his help but always ends up questioning townspeople and behaving like a private inquiry agent. He says he cannot help himself, that he has an insatiable curiosity. As Paula’s playwright friend Graham Collinge tells her, “All you have to do is let him scent a mystery and he’ll follow it like a bloodhound.”

French paperback edition
Potter is descended from a long line of fictional bachelors of independent means in detective and mystery novels who see themselves as knights errant on quests of good deeds. He has a knack for charming people into revealing themselves in casual conversation. As a consequence of his probing questions often gets himself into dire situations. In the final pages of Dangerous to Me Hiram finds himself in a Poe-like predicament that while harrowing is also excessively melodramatic and a bit too unbelievable for the culprit to have carried off.
This is ultimately a tale of long hidden secrets, misguided friendships taken to extreme and a perversion of the concept of loyalty. A close-knit group of young men who were all teenagers when Evelyn was killed are the focus of Hiram’s investigations. Also the wife of one of those young men Claire Tooling features prominently. Claire is a vindictive woman who saw Evelyn as her rival. Paula at one point begins to think that Claire might have killed Evelyn herself but Hiram thinks she is more suited for orchestrating an Iago-like conspiracy that led to Evelyn’s death. The truth is ultimately more harrowing than either of their surmises.

Among the most memorable of the supporting characters is Ross Bentwick, an alcoholic actor, whose dissipation allows for an arresting candor. He has a telling scene with Paula in which he exposes the truth Coxbury’s collective guilty conscience, and that there are uglier and worse crimes than murder – “Such as cruelty, malice and all uncharitableness. Such as exploitation and domination. Such as sowing the seeds of hate and fear…” Ross is one of the better examples of the dissolute misfit who no one takes seriously and yet who has a wisdom and insight into everyone he meets and everything he sees. He also has a keen sense of humor and I enjoyed his banter with Paula. When she reveals to him who she really is they develop a kindred soul type of bonding. Together they help Hiram get to the bottom of Coxbury’s messy past and the still unresolved mysteries surrounding Evelyn’s death.

UK 1st edition
(Hammond, 1960)
Despite all the trappings of what appears to be yet another woman in peril thriller mixed with an amateur gentleman as detective plot, Dangerous to Me is ultimately a treatise on “crimes worse than murder” and the terrible effects they have on the small-mindedness of small towns. Foley uses the conventions of a detective novel to explore -- sometimes penetratingly, sometimes too melodramatically -- the consequences of judgmental behavior, prejudices that turn to hatred and the dangers of vigilante style groupthink.

Despite the negative press Foley gets as a poor writer (see this unfairly negative review from 1001 Midnights) I have found that she is a great plotter as well as an imaginative and insightful writer with intelligent ideas. I'm planning multiple posts of some of her more unusually plotted novels as well as her scarcer titles published under her "Dennis Allen" pen name.

"What I am driving at is that the people who cause most of the trouble in the world remain unpunished—hell, sometimes we hail them as great men – but Lenny had paid with twenty years of his life for killing Evelyn Dwight."

"I seem to have a talking jag. I must be high as a kite."
"You are," Paula assured him.
"That’s the little woman. Running true to form. Are you a descendant of Carrie Nation?"
"No," Paula snapped, "but right now I wish I had her ax."
"It wasn’t an ax, it was a hatchet. You are thinking of Lizzie Borden."

"I’ve always told Hiram that he has all the domestic virtues of a man-eating shark."

"There’s only one person who has been dangerous to any of you from the beginning." He looked from face to face. "Yourselves. You hated Evelyn and you wanted her dead."

Rae Foley is the most recognized of three pseudonyms used by Elinore Denniston, a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. She began her crime writing career in 1936 as “Dennis Allen” and wrote four novels under that name over a ten year period often drawing from the private eye tradition. Her first book as Rae Foley is the exceptionally scarce No Tears for the Dead (1948). She continued writing a variety of Mignon Eberhart type “woman in peril” thrillers as well as traditional detective novels and romantic suspense well into the late 1970s. Sadly, because most of her books were reprinted in paperback with Gothic Romance looking covers she has been mistakenly pegged as a Gothic writer. I have yet to find a single book that comes close to what most people think of as Gothic. Foley’s novels tend to be interesting twists on traditional detective fiction and psychological suspense with a smattering of social criticism in her late 1950s and 1960s books.

Theresa Helburn
(from Bryn Mawr Library's
"Women in the Arts" exhibit)
Most interesting to me is her life as a non-fiction writer. Denniston worked for decades as the assistant to theater impresario and pioneering producer Theresa Helburn who as the director of Theatre Guild was responsible for inventing modern musical theater. Helburn suggested that a previously produced Theatre Guild play called Green Grow the Lilacs be turned into a musical and hired Richard Rodgers to do that. He came up with Oklahoma! She did it again when she suggested a little known play by a Hungarian writer be musicalized and Rodgers and Hammerstein created Carousel from that script. In the late 1950s Denniston helped Helburn complete her theatrical memoir A Wayward Quest. Working alongside Helburn whose love of theater as both a performing art and literature was infectious must have left its mark on Denniston. The Rae Foley mysteries are filled with theater references and playful literary quotes from Shakespeare while actresses and actors are often her main characters.

Later, Denniston was hired as assistant and Dictaphone transcriber to Eleanor Roosevelt while she was working on her memoirs in preparation for an autobiography. When mainstream romantic fiction writer Emilie Loring died her two sons asked Little Brown & Company to hire a ghostwriter to complete several unfinished manuscripts. Denniston was that writer and she wrote four books as “Emilie Loring.”

The Girl from Nowhere (1949)
features John Harland, Foley's
other series detective
Rae Foley’s books are all out of print and less than half are easy to find. Copies of Dangerous to Me are rather scarce in any edition. Your best bet for this title is a $2.99 paperback currently offered on eBay in an auction (People still use the auction option!). Most copies of her books offered for sale come in beat-up used paperback copies with those silly Gothic romance style covers or in large print editions from Thorndike. Assiduous searching for the scarcer early titles sometimes turn up reprints in three-in-one volumes put out by the long defunct Detective Book Club. At one time the Rae Foley books were very popular in the US as reflected by the numerous paperback reprints. If you live here you ought to be able to find some of her books in your local library. That is, if they haven’t been culling the shelves lately.

Hiram Potter Detective novels
Death and Mr. Potter (1955) APA: The Peacock Is a Bird of Prey (1976)
The Last Gamble (19560
Run for Your Life (1957)
Where Is Mary Bostwick? (1958), APA: Escape to Fear (1958)
Dangerous to Me (1959)
It's Murder, Mr. Potter (1961), APA: Curtain Call (1976)
Repent at Leisure (1962), APA: The Deadly Noose (1963)
Back Door to Death (1963), APA: Nightmare Honeymoon (1976)
Fatal Lady (1964)
Call It Accident (1965)
A Calculated Risk (1970)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NEW STUFF: The Return of Mr. Campion - Margery Allingham

A few years back someone invited the vintage crime bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic to contribute to a post on Writers Who We Think We’ll Never Read. These were the writers who for one reason or another we’ve managed to bypass or skip over or who we thought we would’ve read but still haven’t. My choice was Margery Allingham. Although I own about ten of her books as well as the biography of her life titled Ink in Her Blood I have always intended to read at least one of the Albert Campion novels (or even one without him like Black Plumes, also sitting forlornly my shelves). Yet as the years passed by I never picked up one, never read any of them. It took Agora Books' reprinting of one of the lesser Allingham story collections to get me to read of Albert Campion’s adventures in sleuthing.

As I was reading the handful of Campion stories in this unusual mix of detective, romance and supernatural fiction from Allingham’s fertile imagination it dawned on me, in one of life’s many supreme ironies, that I had in fact read one Albert Campion story before. The story was included in Ellery Queen Masterpieces of Mystery multi-volume library of short detective fiction that I had subscribed to when I was in high school. That Campion story was “"One Morning They'll Hang Him”, the final story in the volume subtitled The Supersleuths. I recall nothing of that story and perhaps its less than memorable content was the deciding factor in why I never bothered pursuing Albert into the pages of his full length adventures. Now that I have sampled a few more Campion stories I may be finally be tackling those novels.

The Return of Mr. Campion was originally published in 1989 in the US to capitalize on the popularity of Albert Campion who at the time was appearing on US TV via PBS on their Mystery! anthology series. This collection includes only four stories with Albert Campion but two of them are actually stories about a policeman who regales Albert with two tales of his early career as a Scotland Yard inspector. There are three essays including the introduction “Mystery Writer in the Box” which originally appeared in a different Allingham collection. Also in my advance reader copy is “Tall Story” pulled from The Allingham Casebook making this new edition not exactly a reprint of The Return of Mr. Campion, but an entirely new concoction using that original volume with some added material from other books.

Some of the Campion pieces are almost vignettes like "The Dog Day", the brief tale of the guests at a seaside resort whose vacations and interactions change drastically thanks to the appearance of a small dog in the dining hall one night. It is not really a tale of detection and certainly not one of crime, few of the stories involve any mystery at all in fact. There were only three stories that I really enjoyed and the others though well written, brimming with Allingham's sparkling humor and warmth oddly left me indifferent and wanting a bit more.

Of the three detective stories only two engaged me. One is a story of a con artist fortune teller that is enjoyable (The Black Tent") and yet all too predictable. Of all the stories in the collection this is only one in which Campion does some detective work. The other two that qualify as mystery stories feature Divisional Chief Inspector Charlie Luke as narrator and detective while Campion appears only as an audience member to the storytelling. “Tall Story” I enjoyed the most of these two for it offers the reader the challenge of an impossible problem, actually two – how did a criminal manage to get rid of a gun and his loot when cornered in a dead end alley. There are two clues that allow a reader adept at nonlinear thinking to arrive at the solution. But I don’t think it’s classifiable as a genuine fair play style detective story. Luke is a thoroughly entertaining character, a fine example of Allingham writing to entertain herself as well as her reader. In the other story he narrates (“The Curious Affair in Nut Row”) Allingham has fun describing how Luke imitates the people he met by doing vocal impressions and allowing us to “see” his facial expressions and grandiose gestures.

Of greatest interest to genuine Allingham fans will be the three essays about her life as a writer and her affection for her amateur detective. The introduction ("Mystery Writer in the Box”) is an eye-opening explanation of her start as a writer and her influences. We learn about her family who were all writers and of a family friend, the Irish writer George Richard Mant Hearne, whose one piece of advice stuck with Allingham all her life – to write for her own entertainment rather than for the demands of her editors and employers. “My Friend Mr. Campion” is another personal essay giving us insight into the origins and development of her detective. Despite the title of the third essay “What to Do with an Aging Detective” it has very little to do with Albert Campion and turns out to be an imagined conversation between Magersfontein Lugg and Allingham in which they discuss (among other things) her "being sweet" on Albert in his younger days and Lugg's new life in the employ of someone else.

Agora Books edition (2019)
“The Wisdom of Edras” turns out to be a ghost story. But the title is left unexplained forcing me to satisfy my unquenchable curiosity by an in-depth internet search. I learned that Edras is an alternate spelling for the prophet Ezra who is attributed as the author of an apocryphal book in the Old Testament. In one section of that book is a discussion of the soul and what happens to it after death which echoes a brief exchange between two characters in Allingham’s tale. A young man attempts to exorcise a house of female ghost by solving the mystery of her death but all his good intentions lead to disaster. It is an interesting idea for a ghost story recalling some of Margery Lawrence’s work in her volumes about Dr. Miles Pennoyer who in his occult investigations did his best to allow ghosts to rest in peace after uncovering the root cause of their haunting. However, an unsatisfying O. Henry irony in the final paragraphs coupled with the lack of an explanation for the title within the story itself bothered me.

Other non Campion stories include a featherweight tale of a woman who by chance encounters a former paramour while making a journey by train (“Once in a Lifetime”), a jazz age story about musicians (“Sweet & Low”), a holiday time vignette called “Happy Christmas” and "The Beauty King", another romantic story involving a cosmetician's business. Rounding out the volume are two tales with supernatural elements “The Kernel of Truth" (one of the three stories set at Christmas time) and "The Wind Glass".

The Return of Mr Campion is on sale now from Agora Books in a new edition available in both digital and paper formats.

Friday, April 12, 2019

FFB: Murder Draws a Line - Willetta Ann Barber & R. F. Schabelitz

THE STORY: Christopher "Kit" Storm has a moderately successful career as a commercial artist in his Manhattan studio. On occasion he serves as an artistic consultant to police drawing sketches of crime scenes and evidence in lieu of using a police photographer. Kit becomes implicated in a murder when the across-the-hall neighbor is found brutally stabbed inside his studio and the police start viewing Kit as a suspect rather than a colleague.

THE CHARACTERS: The narrator for Murder Draws a Line (1940), and the entire series, is Sheridan Locke, Kit's fiancée in this book, later his wife. Sherry is a children's book writer and is cajoled by her artist paramour into becoming the documentarian, so to speak, of their adventures in murder. But she goes about it in an entirely verbose and overwrought manner. One imagines that Sherry read way too many Mary Roberts Rinehart novels in her day (or at least Willetta Barber did). The narration is drowning in words, bursting to the seams with minutiae and unnecessary tangents, and burdened by the often annoying intrusion of the phrase "Had I known..." Even Rinehart never resorted to those telltale words as often as Barber does in the guise of Sherry Locke. In a review of this book in the August 10, 1940 issue of The Saturday Review the pseudonymous Judge Lynch said "Plot excellent, characters vivid, numerous illustrations -- but superabundance of had-I-but-knowing annoys cranky judge." I started to count them all but gave up when it exceeded 15 instances well before the novel's midway point.

Our heroes: Sherry Locke,
Kit Storm and Det. Tony Shand
I sincerely hope that Barber abandons this type of writing in later books because she is a fine storyteller and an excellent plotter. Her debut novel is a fine example of a traditional detective novel and its most unique aspect, what makes it truly noteworthy, is the inclusion of the illustrations (see "Innovations" section for more). She also has the gift of creating nuanced characters who seem like real people. It's a shame that she manages to undermine all her talent by ruining the suspense with all her heavy-handed foreshadowing. Only once did she make it work to her advantage when she discussed a bloody baseball bat before the bat became bloody. The passing remark (coming as the final sentence of a chapter as nearly all these HIBK remarks do) makes you think that Kit will be attacked yet again after being shot at once. In truth, however, the way the baseball bat gets bloodied has nothing to do with Kit and is one of the most horrific surprises in the book.

The cast of characters is large and as vivid as Judge Lynch says they are. We get all types of suspects from blustery and temperamental Alessandro Marioti, a failed opera singer, to Albert Putnam, nervous lovelorn singing student of Freda Bransen's. In an attempt to fill in the puzzle of Freda's life Barber finds it necessary to dig into her past and introduce nearly every person she ever encountered. As a result we get several bogey characters who serve no purpose whatsoever and who offer little insight into Freda other than superficial commentary. They exist only as the many examples of vain upper-crusters of Manhattan's elite. However, one supporting player from Freda's past appears to deliver the bombshell piece of evidence. She is a flighty, bubbly and garrulous ex-member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus. Freda has also worked there for a time as did the fiery Marioti. Daisy Jackson (aka Mrs. Elmer Schlummer) is a delight in her one big scene. What she has to say is key to understanding why Freda was killed and wraps up the bigger mystery of why the murder took place in Kit's studio.

The story is fascinating as an early example of a murder mystery that revolves around the identity of the victim and her past life. Kit and Sherry knew very little of their neighbor who lived across the hall. Freda Bransen was a lonely spinster who took in singing students as her sole source of income in her tiny studio apartment. But the day she stops by to deliver a letter for Kit mistakenly put in her mailbox changes her life and brings her past speeding into the present. Both Kit and Sherry slowly discover who Freda was, what she was escaping from, and how her past came to bring about her violent death. In one of the most poignant passages in the book Sherry sums it all up: "All at once, as I sat there listening to Daisy Jackeson's blithe and insensate jabberings, the horror attending [Freda's] dying seemed of no great importance. The real tragedy lay in what her life had been, not in the guise of its end. She had had so little, and that little she had not kept for long. A pitiful few years of happiness, perhaps, before her own dark destiny had caught up with her, never to let her again escape. It seemed to me suddenly unbearable that this should have been so."

Other interesting suspects include the dentist who lives upstairs, Peter Rollins, who seemed to be too interested in Freda's money; John Hunt, another of Barber's ne'er-do-well New Yorkers who at first seems like a superficial guy with no skills or ambition (he's a part time artist's model) but whose background in the military as a psychologist will play a significant factor in an intriguing subplot; and Ralph Whitley, a friend of Kit and Sherry's who stops by frequently to show off his very good caricature drawings but who is harboring a deep, dark secret.

INNOVATIONS: The Christopher Storm mysteries are unique in all of detective fiction because they include Kit's sketches (provided by artist Schabelitz) some of which have clues to help the reader solve the mystery. I believe these novels were the first of their type. Many detective novels, notably the The Baffle Book solve-it-yourself mysteries also published by The Crime Club, often included maps, floor plans and other sketches to help the reader visualize the crimes. No other detective novels from the Golden Age that I know of include a police artist whose sketches reveal his perceptions of the crime scene, the suspects and curious incidents that add to the mystery. As Sherry says of his method: "Kit has long since given up trying to explain that by drawing he sometimes sees things which would otherwise have gone unnoticed. That more than once, what looked perfectly correct to the eye proved completely out of drawing when sketched, thereby giving him a sure clue something was definitely wrong." Tony Shand has learned many times, she continues, the value of Kit's unusual technique in gathering evidence. This is why he often calls on Kit for help and a second eye. Obviously, he cannot avoid Kit's involvement since the crime took place in his own home and workplace. Even more significant is the fact that in this first novel drawing and painting are crucial to the plot. There are two very important sketches which actually reveal the identity of the killer and a work of art that Kit was working on provides one of the most noteworthy clues. The sketches are a mixture of full page portraits, drawings of the rooms, and idly drawn cartoons revealing Kit's thought processes. Most of the sketches include Kit's commentary along the perimeter of the art work. I've included several examples in the post.

THINGS I LEARNED: The deluded and vain Marioti exclaims to the police: "I shall be a great tenor. As great even as Melchior." Not being too much of a opera fan I was clueless who he meant. Are you as curious as I was? Probably not, but I'll tell you anyway. Lauritz Melchior was a Danish American opera singer who was the leading Heldentenor at the Metropolitan Opera for three decades, from the late 1920 through the early 1950s. He specialized in Wagner and made the previously lesser-thought-of German composer one of the better regarded musicians in opera companies. Thanks to Melchior's fantastic singing, a voice remarkable for carrying over the orchestra, Wagner's work became mainstay of opera repertoire in the US.

When Ralph Whitley first appears in Kit's studio carrying a portfolio and talking of his pictures Sherry thinks he is "just another Thornton or Model Guild chap, with the inevitable photos." Once again I was clueless. She is referring to Walter Thornton Modelling Agency, at the time of the story one of the "Big Three" in model agents in New York. Thornton, like many of the characters in this book, started out as an artist's model and then gained connections to the more lucrative fashion photography side of modelling. He opened his agency located in the Chrysler Building in 1929 and it lasted until 1955. Some of his clients included a bevy of gorgeous soon-to-be movies stars like Susan Hayward, Lizabeth Scott, Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly.

THE AUTHORS: Although a newsletter published by the Doubleday Crime Club claimed that Barber and Schabelitz were married this does not appear to be true. Willetta Ann Barber (1911-1977) married Matthew Smith, an actor and writer, in 1948 and there is no record of her marrying any other person. She was the step-daughter of shipping magnate Edward J. Barber, son of Irish immigrant James Barber who founded Barber Steamship Lines of which Edward became president in 1917. [Small Worldism: In 1942, the Barbers lived in my hometown of Ridgefield, CT on a thrillingly hilly street where I regularly rode my bicycle while growing up!] Supposedly Willetta was one of Schabelitz' models according to that same newsletter article. But I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. You can see a photo of her posing on one of her stepfather's passenger ships here. Just scroll down to the entry on Willetta Ann Scott.

DJ illustration by Schabelitz
A Song of Sixpence by Frederic Arnold Kummer
Rudolph Frederick Schabelitz (1884-1959) began his career as a portrait painter and exhibited at a few galleries when he was only 22. Quickly he became better known for his book and magazine illustrations. He was one of several well regarded book illustrators who showed their work at The Society of Illustrators' exhibit in 1919. His work is found in numerous novels of the early 20th century, illustrations for magazine stories, and commercial advertising art. One of the more unusual aspects of his career was when his highly prized fashion drawings were offered by The Woodruff Art Service on a subscription basis to department and clothing stores via a trade magazine called The Haberdasher. He even contributed the interior artwork to two issues of the Shadow pulp: May 1946 (The Curse of Thoth) and June 1946 (Alibi Trail). Schabelitz was married in 1910 and I found no record of a divorce making the tale of his marriage to Barber even more suspicious.

EASY TO FIND? Some of the Kit Storm mysteries were reprinted in paperback, but not his debut in print. Published only in the US by Doubleday Crime Club and later reprinted by Doubleday owned Sun Dial Press, Murder Draws a Line is relatively scarce. I found only eight copies of both first edition and reprints for sale using the usual online book search services. Only two of those come with dust jackets. Prices range from $29 for a reading copy to $100 for a VG/VG copy with DJ. There are an additional six copies held at various US academic libraries as well as The Library of Congress. It's a possibility your local library may have a copy.

Christopher Storm Detective Novels
Murder Draws a Line (1940)
Pencil Points to Murder (1941)
Drawn Conclusion (1942)
Murder Enters the Picture (1942)
The Noose is Drawn (1945)
Drawback to Murder (1946)
The Deed is Drawn (1949)