Friday, July 19, 2019

FFB: The Djinn - Graham Masterton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 7, 2019

LEFT INSIDE: Pall Mall Building Society card, ca. 1938

This was left inside my copy of One Man's Muddle by E. Baker Quinn, a 1938 reprint of a book originally published in 1936.  The card itself is undated so I can only guess it comes from no earlier than 1938 and probably no later than 1940 prior to the Blitz.  I can't imagine there would be too many solicitations for building societies offering such a high interest rate after London was bombed.


Building societies seem to be peculiar to Europe. From what I gather they are analogous to credit unions in the United States as they are owned by all its members. They also sound like a savings and loan institution which used to be prevalent in the US prior to the scandals that rocked the financial world back in the 1990s. All three types of financial organizations used the members money to make mortgage, car and other personal loans to its membership.

The British building societies date back to the late 19th century. On this Pall Mall Building Society solicitation card they remind you of that with the statement: "Incorporated under the Building Societies Ats, 1874 to 1894."  Pall Mall apparently did not have a long life.  I can find nothing about the group on the various historical financial websites I visited. A Wikipedia article on building societies only lists current histories dating back to the 1990s and does not track anything that went out of business or was acquired by another banking institution prior to 1944.


The Honorable Ralph Roper-Curzon (1899-1979), the Secretary of the building society to whom the card is addressed, was the second son of Henry John Philip Sidney Roper-Curzon (1837-1936), the 18th Baron Teynman. Ralph served in both World Wars, was wounded during WW1 and achieved the rank of Captain and Acting Lieutenant-Colonel in the Scots Guards. Two photographs of Ralph are part of the extensive collection in the National Portrait Gallery but they have not bothered to digitize either. Darn! However, his father and older brother who were both listed in Burke's Peerage had their photos taken by Bassano Ltd have been digitized and can be viewed online. You can see Henry here, and Christopher John (1896-1972), his brother,  here.

Friday, July 5, 2019

FFB: Voice from the Grave - Doris Miles Disney

1st US Paperback
(Macfadden, 1970)
THE STORY: Adele Van Ostrand refuses to believe her son and his friend died in a canoeing accident when they went away for a camping trip and never returned. Neither body has been found, but the smashed remains of the wooden canoe washed up along the river banks leading police to believe that both boys drowned. Adele holds out hope that Howie survived while her family, friend Ursula, and police try to convince her otherwise. Then the phone rings. Howie is on the other end. He begs her not to tell anyone he is alive. Something has happened and he needs money. He outlines a plan and pleads with his mother to carry it out. And so begins a sinister plot tinged with deceit and exploitation of grief culminating in a truth more horrible than Adele could imagine.

THE CHARACTERS: In Adele Doris Miles Disney has created one of the least sympathetic portraits of a grieving mother in all of crime fiction. Voice from the Grave (1968) is both an exploration of mother too in love with her son whose devotion spills over into co-dependence, an obsessive need to control and a delusional hope that the person who is exploiting her must be no one other than her boy Howie. Only when her friend Ursula gives her solid proof that Howie and Dennis both must have died does Adele begin to suspect that she is being used. When she relents  she turns her attention against her step-son Lee, a young man who she has basically ignored all his life.

Adele has been married three separate times and has several step-children while only Howie is her own child. Unable to give love or see it offered from others, Adele is a pathetic picture of narcissism, and selfishness. She claims others are self-interested, like her step-son Lee, but cannot recognize her own self-absorption. The reader cannot really sympathize with her in anyway. She is being victimized by someone, whether it is Howie or not, we feel that she absolutely deserves it.

US 1st edition (Doubleday, 1968)
The only real satisfaction in reading the book is trying to figure who is on the other end of the phone and why that person is taunting Adele and taking from her everything they can -- money, her trust and eventually her sanity.  Is it some sort of revenge for the past?  But there is another aspect of the novel that will tie into the Adele/Howie story.

Disney also uses this novel to write about troubled young people desperate to find themselves, to be free from controlling and suffocating adults, and who in their rebellion lead themselves down the path of destruction. The opening of the novel tells us that two teenage boys have broken into an elderly man's home in order to steal his prized collection of whiskey. Caught in the act and fleeing from the house one of the boys strikes out at the man causing him to fall. The man hits his head on the stone steps in front of the porch and is sent to the hospital in critical condition. the reader awaits the old man's fate and the boys worry that if he dies they will be then guilty of a felony -- death caused during the commission of a robbery.

The camping trip that Adele thinks is going to be nothing more than canoe paddling and fishing turns into a hedonistic indulgence of underage drinking, picking up girls at the beach, and wild partying. When news surfaces in town of a young girl who has gone missing, the reader starts to put together the cleverly dropped hints that Howie and Dennis must have got up to no good and may be responsible for her disappearance.

These ostensibly independent plot threads must connect somehow leading the reader to ask multiple questions. Who survived the canoe accident?  Was it merely a sham? Are both boys dead?  Is someone pretending to be Howie? Who would want to prey on Adele and keep asking for her to drain her bank account? And is the missing girl dead or alive?  Could she be involved in causing the canoe accident?  Is she behind all the mysterious phone calls?

QUOTES: [Adele's] skin looked too tight for the bones of her face, Her pallor made her eyes look even bluer than they were. She had an indestructible elegance, Ursula thought, that neither time nor sorrow would ever take from her.

THE AUTHOR: Born in Glastonbury, Connecticut Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) lived most of her life in her home state. She published at least one book a year throughout her entire writing career which began in 1943 with A Compound for Death. With the exception of one mystery novel all of her work was published by Doubleday's "Crime Club" who said that Disney's books sold approximately 675,000 copies over her long career.

Her novels were a mix of hardboiled crime novels, domestic suspense, and some of the earliest inverted detective novels set in the 19th century. She created three series detectives -- Jim O'Neill, a cop; Jeff DiMarco, an insurance investigator whose novels are the closest Disney came to writing genuine noir; and a postal inspector named Dave Madden. However, the bulk of her novels feature no series characters and tend to feature guileless senior citizens as the victims; duplicitous husbands and wives plotting murder against each other; adultery and blackmail. Disney employed familiar motifs of noir and hardboiled crime fiction but transplanted the usual urban scenes and gritty city life to rural and suburban settings recalling the work of her contemporaries Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss.

Disney had one daughter, Elizabeth Disney Laing, with whom she was living in Fredericksburg, Virginia at the time of her death. Disney also had two sisters who both lived in Connecticut.

MOVIES & TV: Three of her books featuring her series character Jeff DiMarco, an insurance investigator, were made into movies. Fugitive Lady (1950) (probably taken from her 1946 crime novel Dark Road, aka Dead Stop) was an Italian & British co-production which included Janis Paige the only American actor in the mostly Italian cast; Stella (1950) was an attempt to make a contemporary black comedy based on Disney's much darker novel Family Skeleton (1949), Ann Sheridan stars in the title role along with Victor Mature as DiMarco; and The Straw Man (1953) adapted from the 1951 novel of the same name was a B movie that changes DiMarco's name to Jeff Howard in the script adaptation.

In the 1970s three more novels appeared as TV movies: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971) starring veteran actresses Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick and Sylvia Sidney in a strange tale that combines computer dating and a psychopath; Betrayal (1974) based on the novel Only Couples Need Apply (1973) about an elderly woman, played by Amanda Blake, preyed upon by a murderous con artist couple; and Yesterday's Child (1977) based on her 197 book Night of Clear Choice in which Shirley Jones stars as a mother whose 3 year-old daughter was kidnapped and never returned, fourteen years later someone claims to be that missing daughter.

Friday, June 28, 2019

FFB: Tears for Jessie Hewitt - Edna Sherry

UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton, 1958)
THE STORY: Con artist and thief Victor Clyde (aka Francis Edwards) sees in Jessie Hewitt an easy mark.  He spots her in a two bit Hollywood cafeteria frequented by movie extras and she is crying over a letter she received. He turns on the charm and within minutes learns her father is dying, she is out of a job and down to her last couple of dollars. Vic is trying to flee California after his latest job which left a man dead from a mortal wound administered by the butt of Vic's pistol. So he wheels and deals and cajoles and flatters Jessie. He convinces her to leave the state with him and he'll take her to visit her dying father. Along the way they get married! But who exactly is conning who here? And will the police catch up with Vic and stop his crime spree by the time he ends up on the East Coast?

THE CHARACTERS: Despite the title Tears for Jessie Hewitt (1958) is really about Vic Clyde and his life as a professional burglar. He has a very specific M.O. He scopes out marks while at racetracks and casinos. He pegs the big winners, follows them to their home and then makes a study of their habits. The next big win at a racetrack Vic makes sure he is in the mark's house in his unusual get-up of industrial coveralls and --absurdly-- a clown Halloween mask. He threatens them with a gun then knocks them out if they refuse to hand over the money.  This has worked swell for him until one of his older marks suffered a severe head wound from being coshed with the gun butt. He later dies in a hospital and that makes Vic guilty of a felony -- murder during the commission of a robbery.

In Jessie he finds his escape and also a possible victim anticipating that she will inherit her father's money from a successful hardware business along with his house and farmland. But when Jessie discovers Vic's burglar outfit and his gun she starts asking a lot of questions. She remembers the news stories of the Band-Aid Burglar too, a name the reporters and police gave to Vic when it was discovered that he used Band-Aids to cover his fingertips rather than wearing gloves which he found made his burglary activity too clumsy. To her amazement Vic confesses everything. Oddly, this draws them closer. Jessie loves him for his honesty and is surprised that she admires him for robbing only from people who win their money from gambling. Both of them rationalize that Vic is not taking anything from his marks that is rightly theirs. Vic is an immense egotist, vain in the extreme and he gets off on her devotion. Plus he needs her home as his haven. He inveigles Jessie into joining him on a racetrack caper. And she loves the excitement. One caper leads to another and soon they are married partners in crime. But the police are hot on Vic's trail for the murder of the man in California. He still sticks to his M.O. in his new digs and this bad decision coupled with the accidental loss of one of his Band-Aids at the scene of a crime will be his undoing.

Jessie has a troubled past that will color and shape everything she does. She tells Vic of that her father was an abusive and sadistic man and still suffers from the aftermath of that abuse. Living in a small town like Cawfrey didn't help matters either where ideal gossip is the mainstay. She couldn't hide her bruises or scars and everyone in town knew that her homelife must have been hell. She sees in Vic her redeemer. His charm, his honesty, his apparent love for her are a godsend and she'll do anything to protect him. This will be her undoing as well. The title is a huge hint that a happy life is not in Jessie's future.

US Paperback (Dell #1004, 1959)
with a very poor alternate title
[But that McGiniss cover sold a lot of books, I'm sure]
Lt. Lance Wiley is Vic's adversary in the novel. His fellow cops like to call him "Wily Wiley" for he has an unusual method to crime solving. He can think like a criminal and he playacts by imagining himself to be his targeted suspect. "Let's jump into Benson's skin for minute," he'll suggest to his sergeant and soon he's launching into a recreation "entering his mind, registering what he would do or not do in any given circumstances." Wiley uses this technique to determine how Vic behaves and thinks while committing his thefts. One thing Wiley is certain of: Vic is not as smart as he thinks he is and that Vic's immense ego is his greatest weakness.

Vic chose as one of his racetrack marks a famous popular composer who is the first victim who isn't threatened by his gun. A struggle takes place in the composer's apartment when Vic tries to rob him of a $10,000 racetrack prize, Vic is struck in the face and his pulls the trigger on his gun. It's his first deliberate murder. The composer's death makes it two murders on his future rap sheet. And the city will be out for blood. Killing a nationally known celebrity with a huge TV following was Vic's biggest mistake.

When Lance Wiley is asked to take part in a televised memorial for the composer he uses the opportunity to talk about the suspect who he assures the public will soon be apprehended. He knows this because the criminal they are tracking is stupid,using that very word. When Vic, ever the vain man eager to hear what the police think of him, hears Wiley call him stupid he transforms from charming con men into raging beast. He plans to strike back at the cop and show him just how clever he really is. That's when Tears for Jessie Hewitt takes a decidedly strange detour morphing into a novel of personal revenge combined with a cat and mouse game between Lt. Wiley and Vic. There won't be many winners in this game.

INNOVATIONS: It was a refreshing change to read a crime novel in which a policeman has a well adjusted and happy life. No abusive alcoholics recovering from a lifetime of unhappy marriages on display here. Lance has a loving wife Meg with a lively sense of humor, and a precocious yet endearing 8 year-old son named Sandy.  Sandy's obsession with spelling complicated words is introduced in an interesting prologue and will come into play later in the book to help his father solve a mystery.

The novel is modeled on inverted detective novels since we know exactly how the crimes are committed and we follow the criminal's point of view for most of the narrative. However the book is not without a smattering of genuine detective work. Sherry's use of the Band-Aid clue is probably the most inventive retro clue in the story recalling similar odd yet innovative clues found in the best detective novels of Golden Age.

US 1st edition (Dodd Mead, 1958)
QUOTES:   Just so I don't ignore the title character (who comes into her own in the final third of the novel), here are key moments that reveal the tragic figure of Jessie Hewitt.

"Yes, I'm sorry for him, Vic. A thing like this could haunt a kid -- darken his whole childhood -- I know what it's like to shiver with fear --and be too little to fight back."

...she was still the "crazy mixed-up kid" who had to be controlled and managed and guided carefully wherever he decided to lead.

Her gratitude, plus her physical feeling for him, was a combination guaranteed to muddle a far cooler head than hers. She was like a hot-rodder without brakes, hurtling downhill.

...in the afternoons they went to the races and he was totally unprepared for the comic resultant development: Jessie became a violent horse fan. The crowds, the high stepping thoroughbreds, the colorful jockey silks, and the recurring climax at the finish of each race intoxicated her.

Rachel still offered as a
shade as late as 1962
THINGS I LEARNED: In addition to wearing Band-Aids on his fingers while carrying out his robberies Vic chooses to make them less noticeable by covering them up with cosmetics. He choose a foundation cream with a rachel color, a term that puzzled me. I fell down a cosmetic rabbit hole in the internet as I learned trivia after trivia about the origins of this shade of make-up. First, for centuries face powder and foundations were made only in three colors; blanche, naturelle, and rachel which are likened to modern day white, pink and cream. Then, rachel (a cream color) apparently gets its name from the 19th century French actress, Élisa Rachel Félix. As I learned from a blog called Cosmetics & Skin: "Rachel was known for her beauty, her clear diction and unexaggerated style of acting making her well suited for a stage with brighter light. Talented and beautiful, she was ideally placed to make the most of the new environment. It is understandable then, that her name might be associated with a beauty product. She was an actress, a beauty, and known throughout Europe." Visit the blog and you too can get a lesson in the history of make-up, French theater, and the marketing of face powders over the decades.

When Vic visits the racetrack for the first time Sherry takes the time to explain the process of parimutuel betting, a system in which bets of a particular type are placed together in a pool and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. The fascinating history of the system (also originating from France) can be learned by visiting the betting site Twin Spires.

THE AUTHOR: Edna Solomon Sherry (1885-1967) graduated from Hunter College on Staten Island in 1906 and taught literature there for a while before becoming a full time novelist. She had an interesting early writing career that most people know little about. In the late 1920s she began writing fiction in collaboration with Charles K. Harris. Two of their stories with criminous content were published in pulp magazines in 1927 and 1928.

Serendipitously I also uncovered two novels she wrote with Milton Gropper. Is No One Innocent? (1930), a police procedural mystery, is a novelization of a play she wrote with Gropper titled Inspector Kennedy (1929).  Grounds for Indecency (1931), their second book, published by lowbrow Macaulay sounds like a typical sexploitation novel that was a specialty of that publisher. From the jacket copy:

"Nita... brings the treasure of her beauty and puts it in the scales against her father's debt. One man intervenes not only to save her father but to save her from her own self-sacrifice. But she comes to his apartment against his will to make her payment...."

Sherry's first solo crime novel, and arguably her best known work, Sudden Fear (1948) was adapted into the 1952 movie starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and the ever fabulous Gloria Grahame. One of the better B movies of the last wave of true noir cinema that came out in the 1950s it was nominated for four Academy Awards but won none of them.

In 1909 Edna married Ernest Sherry, a dentist, who was her husband until his death. Tears for Jessie Hewitt is dedicated "To Ernie, with love."

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES - Simon Gale

"By the golden apples of Hesperides!" Simon Gale is one amusingly boisterous detective.

Recently I learned of a trio of books featuring one of Gerald Verner's unusual and least known series detectives, Simon Gale.  The marketing info led me to believe that these were inspired by the books of John Dickson Carr with promises of haunted houses, weird legends, tales of past crimes and a plot similar to those that Harry Stephen Keeler specialized in -- save the wrongly imprisoned person from execution.  While the Carr analogy promised so much the only real thing that Simon Gale has in common with him is his detective's love of beer and the habit of crying out bizarre literary and historical inspired exclamations like "By the seven plagues of Egypt!" and "By the nine lives of Grimalkin!"

To date these are the best mysteries I've read by Verner. Much of their delight and success is due to Simon Gale, a larger than life character who will remind diehard detective fiction fans of other beer guzzling, blustery, and opinionated sleuths like Sir Henry Merrivale and Professor Stubbs. Gale is a professional portrait painter who comes to crime solving by accident.  With only a handful of newsworthy successes Gale has gained a reputation as a criminologist and is more than happy to help when puzzling murders come his way. In his second adventure in crime Sorcerer's House (1956) he encounters a haunted house with an ominous curse. Whenever light appears in the window of Long Room at Threshold House someone will soon will die, usually violently.

Alan Boyce, American publisher, is compelled to investigate during a thunderstorm when a strange light emanates from Threshold House. When he arrive on the scene there are no lights in any windows. But the body of Paul Meriton is found just below Long Room. It appears he has either fallen or jumped from the window.  Perhaps he was pushed? But there is no sign of anyone having been in the house other than Meriton and Boyce. Gale steps in immediately examining the scene personally and starts with prying questions that soon reveal the complicated relationship of Meriton and his wife Fay who supposedly left him for another man but seems to have utterly vanished. There are whispers of mental illness, insanity and hints of murder in Fay's past. Gale is determined to find her and get at the truth, put an end to rumors and learn whether or not she is responsible for not only the death of her husband but two other people as well.

Verner excels at creating a creepy Gothic atmosphere and draws from the conventions of Gothic literature in this detective novel. Tension is relieved by the frequent humorous bouts of beer drinking and the litany of Gale's odd exclamations recalling Dr. Fell's "Archons of Athens!" Unfortunately, once again his plot gets away from him and his attempts at misdirection misfire when he shows his hand too many times. A last minute effort to bamboozle the reader fails miserably and astute readers may find themselves recalling a moment in the early pages during the discovery of Meriton's body that stood out like a sore thumb.  The resolution comes as an anticlimax and makes this second effort the weaker of the two.

Much more successful is Noose for a Lady (1952), Gale's actual debut as a detective. Here Gale is asked to look into the case of Margaret Hallam in prison for poisoning her husband and about to be executed in only a few days. He must race against the clock and sort out who among the seven suspects was the truly guilty party.

Every one of the suspects has a secret involving a crime of some sort. Gale meets up with Mrs. Barrett, the Hallam housekeeper; Miss Ginch, a spiteful church lady; Mr Upcott, an effeminate collector of rare china; Major Ferguson, the typical ex-solider; Mrs. Langdon-Humpreys an archetype of the imperious harridan and her niece Vanessa; and Dr. Evershed, the usual local physician who turns up in these village mysteries. The story begins to resemble a sort of homage to And Then There Were None with each secret revealing each of the seven suspects to be more vile and odious than the preceding one interviewed. Among the crimes are murder, mass slaughter during war, negligence leading to a suicide, out of wedlock childbirth and other social "horrors" of the era. But who among these people felt it necessary to poison John Hallam, a sadistic man who collected books on torture and cruelty, and who also dabbled in blackmail?  Gale aptly sums up this lurid case: "Murder's a queer thing. It's like suddenly turning on a bright light in an old, damp cellar. All kinds of nasty, crawling things go scuttling away to their holes to get out of the glare."

There are at least two well executed shocking surprises before we reach the truth behind Hallam's poisoning murder. The story is an exciting one what with all the secrets being uncovered and the twist before the denouement is actually the most interesting and unexpected part of the book. Yet again I have to admit that Verner has let me down in the end. The ending is histrionic in the extreme, the murderer is ludicrously far-fetched and makes the entire story seem preposterous. Too much is explained away as madness as it is in Sorcerer's House and it is a disappointing finale to an otherwise genuinely fascinating and well constructed detective novel.

Noose for a Lady had an interesting previous incarnation and later life besides being a novel. According to Chris Verner, the author's son, it was first written for radio and later was adapted in a  faithful movie version. The movie poster appears above as it was adapted for the DVD case. John Grant of the Noirish movie blog has reviewed the movie in his usual perspicacious and informative style. However, I don't suggest you read it until after you read the book or see the movie as he gives away several plot elements better left unsaid.

There is a third and final book (The Snark was a Boojum) which I have not purchased nor read.  That last book in the Simon Gale trilogy was unfinished when Gerald Verner died in 1980 and his son has completed it. It was published for the first time by Ramble House a few years ago is is available for sale along with the two other books offered by Endeavor Books in both paperback and digital editions.

Simon Gale is one of the best of Verner's many series detectives. He's colorful, keen eyed and sharp witted, often providing riotously funny laugh-out-loud moments amid the eerie luridness that pervades his investigations. Despite Verner's flaws in plotting and his penchant for high melodrama and operatic displays of villainy in the final pages I highly recommend these two books for anyone unfamiliar with his work. They are most definitely the best of the Gerald Verner mysteries I've read as far as character, atmosphere and detective elements with Noose for A Lady ranking slightly higher than Sorcerer's House in terms of "bang for your buck" mystery quality.

"By the cloven hoofs of Pan!" What are you waiting for? Go buy a copy of one of these books.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

MOONLIGHTERS: Dulcie Gray, Actress & Mystery Writer

This is my inaugural post for a new feature on people who wrote mysteries who were primarily known for a completely different profession. We'll be looking at mainstream novelists, academics, performers, journalists, and a music magazine editor. To start us off I chose Dulcie Gray, stage, TV and movie actress, who was married to Michael Denison, also an actor with whom she often appeared.

Gray's first mystery novel, Murder on the Stairs (1957) is a homage to the old dark house thrillers and draws on traditional detective novel motifs like a bitter family at each other's throats and action confined to an old family estate. Unlike the novels which obviously inspired her Gray experiments with narrative techniques.

Divided into three separate sections we get the point of view first from an ostensible victim, Mary Howard, who we soon learn has been leading us on in her first person narrative. Part two changes narration to third person and we see everyone’s reactions to Mrs Howard’s seeming paranoia and learn that several people may want her dead. We also discover her husband died under suspicious circumstances.  In part three we have yet one more change in point of view when  Dr. Bradley takes over the story as an amateur detective with the added unusual twist of two people who take turns presenting their solutions to Mrs Howard’s murder.  Murder on the Stairs reminded me most of the work of Christianna Brand whose mystery novels also tend to be populated with embittered families, display a sardonic wit, and contain -- her trademark -- multiple solutions to the mysteries.

The difference is that Gray aspires to achieve the plotting techniques and sparkling wit of Brand but falls short of the mar;k. Her dialogue is bitchy and catty reminiscent of the kind of thing that Gray herself must've uttered in many stage melodramas. Her plotting is not as clever and her clueing is weak when it is present. Murder on the Stairs has one intriguing element that made me hope that she was writing a send-up of Murder on the Orient Express. At one point in the second half we discover that three couples (two sets of husband/wife and a duo of female friends) are planning to kill Mrs. Howard. I was hoping that all three couples would pull off each attempt on her life and it would be up to the survivors (and of course the reader) to figure out which murder plan succeeded and who was responsible. However, all hopes were dashed when the murder occurs and it is ineptly pulled off. The cover illustration of the paperback edition I own depicts the crime. The illustration is purposefully misleading but I'll say no more.

I read only one other book -- Epitaph for a Dead Actor (1960), her fourth novel -- but it too suffer from stilted dialogue (especially when the characters express their love for one another) and tired plot elements seen before in the hand of more accomplished writers. I plodded on through the tiresome opening which focused on Louise Ferrar and her relationships with a TV director (called a producer during this era) and her current paramour to make it to the murder of a loathsome womanizing actor who is playing the male lead in a vehicle produced and written for Louise to star in. When he is killed the live broadcast is cancelled and his life is revealed in all its lurid detail. We learn he has been married multiple times and fathered a child out of wedlock, as they used to say.  The more the police uncover the more we learn that Robert Strang has exploited women vilely. His big secret which serves as the motive for the crime is something pulled from the pages of  Victorian sensation novels. I won't mention it but you can easily guess from that obvious hint.

The women characters (apart from boring Louise) are the only thing that held my interest. There is a conspiracy of sorts, a bit of ugly blackmail, and once again some false confessions and therefore alternate solutions to Strang's murder. But in the end there is nothing clever here, all of it so very familiar, the old hat dialogue that seems lifted from a 1940s melodrama is completely inappropriate for a novel written in 1960. Not even the backstage look at how a TV show is put together and rehearsed was enlightening. The setting which has a kind of John Dickson Carr importance in how the architecture and layout make it difficult for people to be seen from certain angles is not handled very well either.

All of the characters (even young Anita Weston, who appears all too briefly yet has perhaps the best written scene in the entire book) seem to be living in an England that died decades before the action takes place. Even the teleplay the actors are rehearsing, called The Schoolmistress, has a hoary plot reminiscent of a script pulled out of a dusty trunk left in someone's attic filled with Edwardian and Victorian memorabilia.

Even when she tries to add some excitement to the book Gray falls into cliche traps. When John Foster, the TV director, turns amateur sleuth the villain in a sort of disguise kidnaps him and locks him in an abandoned warehouse to prevent him from getting too close to the answer. The sequence filled with ludicrous touches just seems stupid in the context of the rest of the book and completely out of character for who the villain turns out to be. Foster spends 48 hours trying to find a way out of his prison and it's all so ridiculously contrived. He can't smash the window and crawl out because Gray invents reasons to prevent that. Instead he accidentally finds a hidden trapdoor that leads to a cellar that then leads to another exit! The whole sequence spread out over three chapters wouldn't pass muster in a boy's adventure book.

One plus for this book: a really cool plan of the murder scene appears on the final page. (see below) Why it wasn't placed at the front of the book eludes me. Thankfully, there's a footnote to draw the reader's attention to its odd placement.


I can imagine that some actors would find their talent in creating and inhabiting characters to be an advantage in writing fiction. After all writing novels and playing a part have very similar artistic skills involved. I think in the case with Gray, she found herself heavily influenced by the dialogue of stage and screen rather than drawing from life.  Her worst fault (clearly stemming from her stage career) is her fondness for lengthy monologues. Everyone talks endlessly and melodramatically. My favorite phrase that occurs in both books I read is when any man gets angry at a policeman and feels personally insulted he exclaims, "Damn your eyes!"  Gray's characters don't behave like real people most of the time and they often sound like they are on a stage entertaining a matinee of blue haired biddies.

Michael Denison & Dulcie Gray, 1951
Dulcie Gray (1915-2011) was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where her father was a judge. She was sent to boarding school in England and returned to Malaysia in 1931. According to one of her autobiographies she ran away from home, managed passage on a cargo ship bound for England and got a job as a governess. In 1938 she gained admittance to Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts where she met her husband, Michael Denison. She had a long career on stage, movies and television. On stage she frequently appeared opposite her husband and she co-starred with him in a few movies.

I watched one of her earliest parts as a housemaid in a mediocre melodrama about a haunted house, A Place of One's Own (1945) starring James Mason, one of the many "Gainsborough melodramas" she appeared in while under contract to that movie studio. I also caught her in a few scenes opposite Denison in perhaps her best known movie, The Franchise Affair (1951) based on Josephine Tey's crime novel. Watching her on screen sort of explains the kinds of books she wrote. She is capable but lacks fire. When called on to perform a character part like the giddy maid she relies on silly stereotypical behaviors. Apparently she was well loved on TV in her late career weh she had to play old matrons. She had a recurring role on an UK TV series called Howard's Way in the late 1980s and also turned up in an episode of Partners in Crime, the 1983 adaptation of Christie's Tommy & Tuppence book starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick.

In addition to her over twenty crime novels she wrote a number of ghost and supernatural stories (many of them found in the Pan Book of Horror anthologies), a couple of theater memoirs and a book on butterflies that draws upon her lifelong hobby of lepidoptery and her noteworthy charitable work as a member of the British Butterfly Conservation Society.

Sorry to say that these two mediocre efforts do not bode well for Dulcie Gray as a mystery writer. I won't be reading any of her other eighteen novels. I will say that her publishers had some talented artists working for them and her books certainly look enticing even if they most likely will not live up to the dramatic cover illustrations. If anyone else has read her other books and had a different opinion on her writing I welcome your comments below.




Next week - a literature professor who chose as his pen name the name of a Elizabethan playwright known for a single landmark bloody revenge tragedy. His books were much more promising. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 21, 2019

FFB: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime - Bruce Graeme

THE STORY: Unwittingly while riding his bicycle home from his bookshop and lending library in Bray-in-the-Marsh Theodore Terhune foils an attack on Helen Armstrong. A group of men were after something in her handbag. Over the next couple of weeks Terhune ferrets out information from Helen and her employer Lady Kathleen Kylstone and uncovers seven clues that lead to one large crime that has its origins in the secret past of two families.

THE CHARACTERS: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941) marks the first appearance of bookseller and accidental detective Theodore I. Terhune. An avid detective fiction reader Terhune has aspirations to become a writer of mystery novels. He has already penned a few stories that were published in Saturday Evening Post. His run-in with Helen and the assault that followed awakens in him an innate talent for detective work. Soon the two learn that the men were after a key that Lady Kylstone had entrusted to Helen. The key had slipped into the torn lining of her handbag and went undiscovered by the thieves. Lady Kylstone then reveals that the key opens the family burial vault and there is an annual ritual surrounding the vault. Every year on October 25 (the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt) the vault is decorated with flowers and opened to the public in honor of the Kylstone ancestors who fought in the battle. Terhune is certain that there is something in the vault that the thieves are after. That night someone breaks into the Kylstone home and steals the key from Helen's handbag. But why bother with going to such lengths to steal the key when in only one day it will be October 25 and the vault will be opened to the public? Theodore's curiosity is piqued and he cannot stop prying and investigating until he knows the answer.

News of his accidental heroism makes its way through the town and in a matter of days everyone is talking about "Detective" Terhune and his exploits. Alicia MacMunn is so entranced by the story of his thwarting of the thieves that she consults with Terhune to solve a mystery of her own. At an impromptu dinner party attended by Mrs. MacMunn, her daughter Julia, and friend Geoffrey Belcher Terhune hears the story of Mrs. MacMunn's bookloving father who was researching the genealogy and heraldic history of Bray-in-the-Marsh's noteworthy citizens. But a few months ago his impressive handmade history was vandalized. Someone stole the first 50 pages (consisting of family names ending in A through D) of the manuscript. Mrs. MacMunn would like Terhune to find out why and if he can to recover those pages.

Of course the thefts of the vault key and manuscript pages will eventually tie together in one of the most outrageously complex stories. Terhune's adventure will involve a trip to New York City and Albany, a professional criminal for hire, attempted murder on board a passenger ship, a mystery woman nicknamed "Blondie", an automobile accident that kills four people, and learning the true identity of a salesman who worked for a tire manufacturing company.

Apart from Terhune, Helen and Lady Kylstone -- our trio of heroes -- the story is populated with a large cast of stimulating characters. As with the best of these type of adventure-quest styled detective stories everyone Terhune meets in his travels has a noteworthy scene. A man with a scar who seems to be following Terhune will turn out to be not a villain but an ally while the tart-tongued cocktail guzzling vixen Julia MacMunn who at first Terhune dislikes intensely will prove to be one of the most resourceful and compassionate people he meets.Other notable characters include Det-Insp. John Henry Sampson who enlists Terhune as his unofficial assistant when he sees Terhune has an innate talent for police work and encourages him to delve further; Lt. Kraszewski who has two brief but excellent scenes in the NYC section; and Mr. Ramsay, Margaret Ramsey's father, who has quite a tale to tell that will provide Terhune with lots to mull over on his way back to England.

INNOVATIONS: The entire novel is one of Bruce Graeme's trademark experiments in narrative. Rather than following the standard formula of a traditional detective novel presenting the reader with a crime and having the detective sift through evidence and question suspects Terhune encounters a series of mysterious events that indicate a crime about to happen. Each new adventure leads him to one more clue to the true crime at the heart of all the various mysteries. Among the seven clues of the title are a gold fountain pen with a strange insignia, a cablegram from New York, a piece of paper with the name Blondie and an address, a statue of Mercury, and the intriguing life of Margaret Ramsey, Mr. MacMunn's secretary who moved to New York.

The book is an excellent example of a genre blending crime novel that mixes adventure thriller, quest story, detective novel and satire of English village life into one highly entertaining read. Graeme has a wicked sense of humor and the caustic wit that makes up most of the dialogue is a highlight. The dinner party, for example, during which Terhune learns of the manuscript and the missing pages is one of the funniest scenes in the book what with all the jibing and banter between bitchy Julia, her easily ruffled mother and sarcastic Geoffrey Belcher. Imperious and no-nonsense Lady Kylstone (who is also an American) has some great lines, too. Graeme's mature women characters reminded me of the matriarchs and doyennes of Rufus King whose older women suffer no fools gladly and speak their minds with blunt honesty.

QUOTES: Lady Kylstone: "Diana Pearson would prove a better source for information of that nature. She is a born osteologist where the metaphorical skeletons of the cupboard type are concerned."

Arnold Blye to superficial Julia MacMunn: "I thought you hated books. What are you looking for? A book on cocktails?"

THINGS I LEARNED: This is one of the rare bibliomysteries in which books are talked of with reverence and displays the author's knowledge and love of books of all genres, but in particular detective and mystery fiction. Among the names dropped throughout the story are Dennis Wheatley, Leslie Charteris, Frank Packard, Peter Cheyney, Lawrence Meynell, Edgar Wallace, and Philip Gibbs who was mainstream but who I know wrote two novels with supernatural themes. Every now and then a name cropped up that I didn't recognize like Ursula Bloom, who after I trolled the internet for info I learned is the most prolific woman writer of the 20th century with approximately 560 works to her name and a handful of pseudonyms she used. One book discussed intriguingly was the bestseller of 1940 I Bought a Mountain. This is a memoir written by 21 year-old Canadian born Thomas Firbank describing how he bought a house and land in Wales and became a sheep farmer. It sold thousands of copies all over the world and supposedly made Wales a dream destination for anyone looking for the "good and simple life" that Firbank extolled so beautifully in his book.

THE AUTHOR: Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), better known as Bruce Graeme, also wrote under the pseudonyms David Graeme (claiming he was Bruce's cousin), Peter Bourne, Jeffrey Montague, Fielding Hope and Roderic Hastings. He was astonishingly prolific in crime and adventure fiction writing exactly 100 hundred books and created, in addition to Terhune, five other series characters:  Supt. William Stevens, Inspector Allain of the Sûreté, Det. Sgt. Robert Mathers, Inspector Auguste Jantry, and -- the character he is probably best known for -- Richard Verrell, alias "Blackshirt," a professional thief who becomes a successful crime novelist. Prior to turning to full time novel writing Jeffries was part of the Westminster Rifles during WW1 and worked as both a reporter and a movie producer. His son Roderick Jeffries was also a mystery writer who as "Roderic Graeme" continued the Blackshirt novels before writing crime and suspense fiction under his own name.

EASY TO FIND? Well, what do you know? As of this writing there are absolutely zero copies of Seven Clues... available for sale from the usual online bookselling sites I regularly check on. But don't let that stop you. Worldcat.org tells me that there are two copies held in prominent US university libraries and four copies in UK and Irish libraries. Get a copy via interlibrary loan, why doncha? This is one of the most entertaining crime novels I've read this year. Had I the money I'd reprint this one in a pinch.

Theodore I. Terhune Detective Novels
Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941)
House with Crooked Walls (1942)
A Case for Solomon (1943)
Work for the Hangman (1944)
Ten Trails to Tyburn (1944)
A Case of Books (19460
And a Bottle of Rum (1949)
Dead Pigs at Hungry Farm (1951)

Please note that this list is the only accurate listing of Theodore Terhune books on the web. Elsewhere you will find lists with missing titles that do feature Terhune or incorrect books listed that feature a detective character other than Terhune.

Friday, June 14, 2019

FFB: The Sealed Room Murder - Michael Crombie

THE STORY: Murderous uncle Godfrey Winter does in his snooping nephew Eric and makes it look like natural causes. The victim’s sister suspects foul play and writes a letter to her brother’s friend en route to England from Shanghai. But the uncle learns of his niece’s prying and tries to kill her as well. Friend Alan Napier and reporter Larry Milner arrive in the nick of time to rescue her from the clutches of nasty Uncle Godfrey. Milner is determined to prove that Eric Winter’s death is murder and get the story of a lifetime. He turns amateur sleuth but his hijinks only lead to Uncle Godfrey increasing the stakes. Larry’s detective work may prove deadly for all involved.

THE CHARACTERS: How many novels have I read about the wicked uncle doing in his innocent heirs? This motif dates back to the Gothic novels of the 18th century and probably all the way back to the folk tales and fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In the hands of Michael Crombie (aka James Ronald, one of my favorite crime fiction writers) The Sealed Room Murder (1934) as much as it revisits well-worn territory seems fresh and invigorating thanks to his breezy style, good humor and penchant for action-filled sequences. There’s never a dull moment here.

Patricia Winter plays her part as the damsel in distress without ever resorting to melodramatic hysterics. Alan Napier is your typical hero too prone to the “falling in love at first sight” syndrome, or in his case falling in love at first hearing since her knows nothing of Patricia except what his friend Eric has told him. He has never even seen a photo of her. His first meeting with her is in the letter Patricia writes him that he receives just as the ship pulls into harbor in England.

Like so many detective novels of the 1930s we have another reporter turned sleuth in Larry Milner. And like so many of his kind he is smarter and more resourceful than the police. He is clearly a clone of Ronald’s other reporter/detective Julian Mendoza. The only difference is Larry is younger and more physically fit than the permanently disabled Mendoza who must walk with the use of a cane. Larry also tends to work solo; he has no cadre of reporter colleagues upon whom he can rely to impersonate policemen and bodyguards. In fact he gets fired by his editor for intruding into a police investigation and refusing to stick to his assigned duties. Larry is determined to show up not only his former co-workers, many of whom he holds in contempt, by getting the scoop of his lifetime when he exposes Godfrey Winter as a murderer of the worst kind.

Complicating the plot is Winter’s nosey chauffeur who has retained incriminating evidence related to the car accident that nearly kills Patricia. Surreptitiously he takes photos of sabotage done to the car before the wreck. He later turns blackmailer with dreams of a farm in Kenya and £2000 of hush money to help him realize his African retreat.

Ronald makes good use of all his characters, even the most minor like the chauffeur and a teenage boy who after helping Larry and receiving a compliment for his cleverness decides to turn boy sleuth. The boy hopes to gather more information and get a “big scoop” of his own that will reward him with not just compliments but a pocketful of shillings from the reporter. All the characters have fully realized lives and we are privy to their thoughts, dreams and desires. More importantly, everyone has their time to be noticed and often take center stage for that brief shining moment.

To my mind this is the best kind of popular fiction writing. Every character introduced should serve a vital purpose in the story. Ronald knows this too and his books are all the better for that knowledge.

INNOVATIONS: The Sealed Room Murder is non-stop entertainment, a lively thriller told in the inverted detective style. Knowing that Godfrey is the villain from the start, however, does not diminish any thrills or suspense. The book is loaded with action and incident. There are plenty of unexpected events and shifts in tone and narrative. But perhaps the most unusual part of the book is that the murder that gives the book its title does not occur until the last quarter of the story. There are several deaths and a few murders, but the only locked room murder is of a character who may be the least noticed of the entire cast.

When this murder occurs it is a stabbing death in room with a door locked from the inside and a window that is locked with a “burglar catch.” The solution to the locked room is a baroque one to be sure with only few clues given and requiring some truly abstract thinking to figure it out. So puzzled is Larry that he consults with mystery writers to help yet none of them can provide him with an answer. He turns to a stage magician named Vantelli as well but also gets little help. Only when he builds a model of the room and examines it thoroughly does he get a literal breakthrough. After his frustrating study of the model and perusing he notes that result in nothing useful Larry in a rage throws the model at a window in his apartment drawing attention from the landlady who scolds him for the damage he has caused. Only then does the truth dawn on him.

THE AUTHOR: As “Michael Crombie” James Ronald wrote seven novels. A handful of copies of four titles turn up for sale at outrageous prices, while the other three are so absurdly rare that only one copy each is held in the British Library. Only The Frightened Lady features a series detective (Julian Mendoza, of course) but this really doesn’t count as it is a rewrite of his first mystery Cross Marks the Spot which already had Mendoza as the protagonist detective.

I’ve learned some additional information on James Ronald from Jamie Sturgeon, a British bookseller who I deal with frequently. He told me that he uncovered some newspaper articles that reported Ronald had been deported in 1955 because of money owing to New York State. Ronald also apparently unofficially adopted a boy.

Michael Crombie Crime Novels
The Awakening of Theodore Wrenn (1934)
The Sealed Room Murder (1934)
The Gentleman Crook (1935)
The House of Horror (1935)
Murder!!! (1935)
Life Must Go On (1936)
The Frightened Girl (1941) - US only