Friday, March 29, 2019

FFB: The Case of the Gold Coins - Anthony Wynne

THE STORY: It's another detective opera from the pen of prolific impossible crime maven Anthony Wynne. Madness, stabbing, cudgelling, strangling, suicide attempts, and melodrama galore! This time we have a corpse discovered on a sandy beach with not a footprint in sight.  Blood on the sand from the stab wound indicates the man must've died on the spot. The knife that killed the man is still firmly embedded in his back yet no impression in the sand beneath the body would indicate being dropped, thrown or falling from a great height. Airplanes are ruled out immediately. How did he die and who managed such a baffling murder? Dr. Eustace Hailey, expert in maladies of the brain, assists the puzzled and infuriated Captain Ainger to ferret out the killer.

THE CHARACTERS: Dr. Hailey is always in accelerated action mode in Wynne's mid-career novels. He shows off his skill in sailing and piloting boats in The Case of the Gold Coins (1934). In this book Hailey is also at his most compassionate and heroic. As usual we get more than we need about psychological theory of the period which more often than not has more to do with class prejudice than it does with an understanding of human behavior. Hailey is supposedly a psychologist or neurologist or something like that ("I study the human brain") and loves to lecture about who has the capability of being a murderer, what constitutes genuinely insane behavior, and other similar topics, but thankfully we are spared some of the more naive theories we usually get from this pontificating detective. Needless to say his talent for abstract thinking comes in very handy in trying to explain how Lord Wallace's battered and stabbed body ended up where it did. Oh! and adding to the excitement are the two other bodies turning up where they shouldn't.

The is the twelfth Dr. Hailey mystery I've subjected myself too in an effort to read the twenty-two books (out of Wynne's total output of  28) I've acquired over the years. And the good news is that I think I have found the absolute best in the entire series. The plot is non-stop action with very little of the usual Wynne lagging and dullness. The detection is keen and very fairly clued which is not the norm for Wynne. And the impossible crime along with the other two murders and the mystery of the gold coins found at the scene of each death are more than satisfyingly explained. Histrionics and melodrama are still present in ample amounts, but there is a sound resolution to all the problems and a real ending rather than his usual abrupt stop.

More to my liking were the interesting characters, especially the two young women -- Ruth Wallace and Pamela Bolton. Wynne usually throws in a couple of attractive women into his plots for romantic interest but they never really come alive. However, in the person of Pamela Bolton we have one of Wynne's most unusual women, a troubled soul who elicits genuine sympathy. She is conflicted by her filial duty to her irascible father, a prime suspect in the murder of Wallace, and her attraction to her former fiance. Captain Ainger finds himself attracted to Pamela further complicating this woman's fragile emotional state. Hailey at the midpoint in the novel pursues Pamela via boat (like many of the characters she is also an expert sailor) to an island off the shore of the Wallace seafront estate and rescues her from her own rash behavior. Their scene together reveals Hailey's wise old man side as he counsels her and she manages to evade his prying questions with cleverly worded ambiguous statements. Pamela may be troubled, but she's still wily and protective of the men she loves. Though Wynne does tend to play up the hysterical woman stereotype too heavily it nevertheless manages to be one of the best written scenes in any of the Anthony Wynne mysteries I've read.

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff
Just as I picture Maj. Pykewood
I can't leave this section without mentioning the other standout, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Major Pykewood is the requisite kook in the story. Is he mad, is he sane or just very angry? He confesses to the murder of his wife and pleads to be arrested.  He has not one, but two mad scenes that would fit right into any classical opera. His first scene is a hysterical confession which includes this pronouncement: "I am dead. I'm still dead. That is why I want to give myself up to the police. They take charge of corpses." All that's missing from a speech like that is the music. Though it's usually women who have the mad scenes in opera I was envisioning a grandiose aria for Major Pykewood, an intensely guilty man with a masochistic streak for self-punishment. He should get fervent percussion and a keening melody. He literally shakes his fist at the ocean and cries out, "Island, island, island! That's where they used to meet." He goes on to describe his wife's love of the sea, her talent for sailing, and how she loved boats more than men. He believes that Lord Wallace was killed not by a human but by an act of God proclaiming: "Do you know what I had planned to do if God hadn't killed him? I had planned to smash him to pieces." Then he talks about his duck gun and he bangs his hands together to emphasize the deed. A tympani would do just as well. I loved the lunatic Major. He becomes the typical Nemesis in a Wynne novel and provides for a literally explosive finale.

INNOVATIONS: Wynne's impossible problem is one of the best of the books I've read so far. Unlike the contrived deaths in previous books the puzzle comes about as part of an accident when the murderer attempts to cover up his crime.  And the solution is simple and rather brilliant.  It's the manner in which the problem is obfuscated by the characters' poor observations that always tends to baffle the reader. The mystery of the appearance of the gold coins is also cleverly handled and so well clued that I was able to figure almost all of how the hidden treasure was transported from place to place and how poor Henry the footman (the second murder) met his death.

There is more genuine detection in The Case of the Gold Coins than in any other Wynne book I've read to date. Dr. Hailey does a thorough job of ruling out obvious answers to how Lord Wallace's body turned up on the beach making it all the more puzzling to arrive at the real reason. He manages to deduce where the gold coins were hidden on the island by looking at the growth of seaweed and barnacles on the rocks. In investigating an outside entrance to a cellar he pays careful attention to the way a trapdoor is constructed and discovers how someone could have bolted the door without ever being inside the cellar. All sorts of brilliant stuff, all of it providing the reader with fantastic clues.

Bill Pronzini has praised The Case of the Gold Coins in 1001 Midnights as probably the best of the Wynne books. I have to agree with him. Everything any detective fiction purist would want in a book is here to make for an entertaining and satisfying read.

Friday, March 22, 2019

FFB: Death at 7:10 - H.F.S. Moore

THE STORY: An insatiably curious writer is compelled to investigate the poisoning death of a fellow passenger who died while on board a train en route to Philadelphia. His manner of investigation is unique -- he concocts short stories based on interviews he conducts with the suspects.

THE CHARACTERS: The victim, a vindictive and shallow society woman named Susan Ward Steele, appears in one brief scene in the first chapter. She is presented only through protagonist Mark Kent's eyes and it is only later in his interviews we get to really know her as she is described by others. Her character is therefore is known solely through the perceptions of others. Ultimately, Susan Steele is a complete invention of Mark Kent's. Within the story she is a real woman, but in essence nothing more than a character that Mark creates based on his brief eyewitness account of her interactions with the men in the train car with and his imagining of her personality drawn from his many interviews and the descriptions of others. This is a subtle part of the book that doesn't truly sink in until well into the middle section when Mark begins to master his unusual investigative technique via fiction.

Among the suspects are Gerald Steele, Susan's husband; Robert Ward, Susan's brother; Hallie & Sue Ward, Robert's wife and daughter; Thomas Doone, the Steele's man of all work; Margaret Ryan, a maid who works for Claire Ellis, Susan's old schoolgirl pal and "frenemy"; a radio singer named Lina Lind; and Pierce Carlton, a callous playboy who had affairs with both Susan and Claire. Among these characters we get a mix of shallow stereotyped characterization and a handful of intriguingly complex people.

The servants, Doone and Margaret feature rather prominently in the story and turn out to be boyfriend/girlfriend but both come off as Irish immigrant caricatures rather than real people. But they should not be ignored, especially Thomas Doone. He has a secret connected to one of the suspects in the case which turns out to be one of the biggest plot twists.

Overall, this is a somewhat standard storyline of jealousies and hatred directed at Susan who made very few friends in her selfish life and hedonistic pursuits of sex, drinking and shopping for expensive clothes. I wanted to read more of Gerald Steele's life in the radio broadcast world (he's an announcer for some music programs), but this is largely left offstage and only incidentally mentioned. Robert Ward and his family tend to get a lot of focus in the story, and Ward is yet another stereotype of a priggish, self-righteous moralist, in direct contrast to his indulgent amoral sister. It is Claire Ellis, however, who turns out to be the most fascinating character in the novel.

Claire has only one big scene but she and her maid Margaret do turn up in "Tea Tray for Two", one of the four short stories Mark writes. Claire is a war widow whose husband died in Spain. Just prior to his death she accidentally discovered that he was having an affair with Susan Steele when she spots him paying for a hotel room that Susan and he had shared. Later, she developed a romantic interest in Pierce Carlton and when Susan finds this out Claire is targetted as yet one more victim in Susan's serial man-stealing. More than any of the other suspects Claire seems to have an intense hatred for Susan though she continues to carry on a social friendship with her. Mark is drawn to Claire, feels empathy for a woman so exploited and abandoned but cannot shake from his mind that she seems to have a very strong motive and more than ample opportunity to have poisoned Susan's tea the day she died.

INNOVATIONS: Death at 7:10 (1943) makes use of two intriguing notions. One of course is the brilliant use of a murder investigation that is solely conducted using fiction writing techniques. It is the ultimate meta-detective novel, one that I've not come across at all in my vast reading in the genre. Both the notebook interviews (as close to verbatim dialogue as possible) and the stories contain major clues about character, incident and possible motivation for the murder. The ingenuity comes in Mark's melding of imaginative thinking with hard facts in his reconstructions of events that took place the day of the murder, events he was not witness to and has no evidence of. Instead of physical evidence he has something akin to metaphysical evidence -- memories and narratives. He must decide who is telling the truth, who is covering up, and glean from subtle references and passing remarks in his interviews what is most vital in understanding who wanted Susan dead and when they found the time to give her the poison. The story sections are rich with detail, especially clothing and interior decoration descriptions which Mark uses to great effect to reveal character.

Atropa Belladonna
Speaking of poison, the method of murder is the second most unusual aspect of the book. Susan at first appears to have died from the last drink she took on board the train, a Bromo-Seltzer for her hangover. However, the autopsy reveals poisoning by atropine, a primary ingredient in common medications like eyedrops used by several characters in the novel. Mark learns that the effects of atropine poison are not always consistent. Death can take place anywhere between one and eight hours after ingestion. All day Susan had been visiting with friends and family and drinking all sorts of beverages. As the cover illustration for the Doubleday Crime Club first edition suggests it could have been any one of the many drinks she imbibed throughout the day that had been poisoned. The short stories Mark writes point this out, either directly or indirectly, by mentioning the drink in the title: "Sunday Morning Breakfast" (Susan had coffee), "Cognac at the Barclay", "Pheasant at the Wards" (sauterne was served with ice cubes (!), as well as coffee) and the previously mentioned "Tea Tray for Two." In each story the reader should pay careful attention to who had opportunity to poison any of Susan's drinks. When Mark and Dr. Grant Newton discuss the solution to the murder case in the final chapter we learn that all the clues were present in both the notebook sections and the stories Mark writes.

THINGS I LEARNED: This book is loaded with 1940s pop culture references. On page one alone I had to consult the internet four times to figure out what Moore was talking about! The first troublesome sentence is Mark's first impression of Susan who he sees as a "picture drawn by Petty, disguised and undisguised by Mainbocher." I guess my parents would have had no trouble spotting those two people I've highlighted in bold type, but I was lost. I figured they had to do with the art world, but I was only half right.

George Petty was one of the most popular artists of pin-up drawings in the pre- and post-WW2 era. That's one of his women over on the right. You've seen his influence in the work of artists like Rudolph Belarksi and Rafael DeSoto whose women have graced the covers of both pulp magazines and vintage crime paperbacks.

Mainbocher dress, 1943
Main Rousseau Bocher was an American born fashion designer with a very French name who studied at art academies in Chicago and New York. After brief careers as a lithographer, fashion illustrator for Harper's Bazaar and French fashion correspondent for Vogue, he opened his own design house named after himself, a combination of his first and last names. Mainbocher would gain instant fame and increase his popularity after his wedding dress design for the Duchess of Windsor's notorious marriage in 1937. According to Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker's article at the online Encyclopedia of Fashion: "From the start, Mainbocher specialized in simple, conservative, elegant, and extremely expensive fashions, the luxury of cut, materials, and workmanship that could only be recognized by those in the know. Most importantly, the clothes, exquisitely finished inside and out, gave self-confidence to the women who wore them."

Page 5 features a long paragraph about Susan's clothes which include "the frivolous ribbon of a Lily Daché." This one I didn't have to look up because I'm such an avid vintage cinema fan. I was proud to know this was the name of a famous milliner made world famous by her work for movie stars and whose hats appeared in countless movies. Moore was describing one of the extravagant ornaments on Susan's hat that were Daché's trademark.

Portrait de Madame Paul Guillaume, 1928
© Photo: Josse/Leemage, © ADAGP, Paris
Another art reference crops up as an aside on p. 59: "She wiped off a smudge on the creamy buff woodwork, poked at the blazing logs in the fireplace, straightened the Marie Laurencin over the marble mantel..."

Laurencin was an avant garde Parisian painter, a member of Section D'Or. Most of her early work was done in gray, pink, blue pastel shades. She started as a porcelain painter then transitioned to oil painting on canvas.

I smiled when my old friend the Capehart record changing phonograph made two appearances in the novel. More about that remarkable invention in this post.

In the first chapter Moore makes numerous allusions to Nick Charles when describing Mark Kent in both looks and attitude. But he's talking about the movie Nick Charles as portrayed by William Powell and not the Greek American son of immigrants who appears in Hammett's novel The Thin Man. Here's how Mark is described: "If the woman across the aisle was a Petty drawing Mark Kent was most un-Esquire; he was rather Anthony Eden-Nick Charles-Scott Fitzgerald."

THE RADIO SHOW: I've only recently discovered that Doubleday Crime Club had a radio series. There were actually two versions -- one lasted from 1931 to 1932 and was broadcast on CBS, the other began in 1946 on the Mutual Broadcasting System and lasted just over a year. Both programs were sponsored by Eno's Effervescent Salts. Scripts for the 1946 series were a mixture of adaptations of Crime Club books and original stories. Unlike the multi-part episodes of the first 1930s series the MBS programs were full stories told in a single half hour episode. Death at 7:10 (original air date July 7, 1947) apparently was the penultimate show in the MBS series. The Librarian who serves as host of each episode introduces the story by answering a telephone and telling the caller "Yes, we have that Crime Club novel." Death at 7:10 had a tantalizing catchphrase to end the intro: "The very intriguing story of a beautiful woman who was in love... with death!"

You can hear the entire broadcast via YouTube. For purposes of a 30 minute radio show all the novels needed to be condensed and many of the best characters in Death at 7:10 were eliminated. As a disappointing consequence of these drastic cuts the murderer and motive had to be changed. In the radio show the murderer makes no sense as far as I'm concerned; murder is completely out of character for the person chosen. The book is much better. So we see that even script adaptations from over 70 years ago also suffered the travesty of revision and rewriting and are not solely an affliction of contemporary culture, like the recent spate of Christie manglings for TV and cinema.

For more on the Crime Club radio shows see the page at Digital Deli Too, the most accurate and informative of the old time radio sites.

Friday, March 15, 2019

FFB: The Flight of the Doves - Walter Macken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Death of a Doll - Hilda Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

Friday, March 8, 2019

FFB: They Walk in Darkness - Gerald Verner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

FFB: The Doctor's First Murder - Robert Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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