Friday, February 22, 2019

FFB: The Silent Murders - Neil Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 15, 2019

FFB: Death Sends a Cable - Margaret Tayler Yates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 10, 2019

NEWS FLASH: Jean Potts, Attention Getter

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


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

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

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

Friday, February 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

HORROR SHOW: Crucified - Michael Slade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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