Friday, April 26, 2019

FFB: Devil by the Sea - Nina Bawden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

NEW STUFF: The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2019

FFB: Dangerous to Me - Rae Foley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiram Potter Detective novels
Death and Mr. Potter (1955) APA: The Peacock Is a Bird of Prey (1976)
The Last Gamble (1956)
Run for Your Life (1957)
Where Is Mary Bostwick? (1958), APA: Escape to Fear (1958)
Dangerous to Me (1959)
It's Murder, Mr. Potter (1961), APA: Curtain Call (1976)
Repent at Leisure (1962), APA: The Deadly Noose (1963)
Back Door to Death (1963), APA: Nightmare Honeymoon (1976)
Fatal Lady (1964)
Call It Accident (1965)
A Calculated Risk (1970)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2019

FFB: The Crowing Hen - Reginald Davis

THE STORY: "Whistling women and crowing hen/Are neither good for God nor men." This rhyme serves as epigraph to this intensely Gothic, very creepy story of a village plagued by fears and superstition and menaced by a ghastly creature with a strange crowing call and claw-like hands they've dubbed The Crowing Hen (1936). Danes Priory is to be sold to a young couple about to be married but they might be changing their minds when one of the estate agents falls to his death out of a second story window supposedly at the hands (claws?) of The Crowing Hen. Is the house haunted by the 15th century ghost of this horrible creature or is a sinister human behind all the horrors?

THE CHARACTERS: The book is populated with a coterie of Dickensian characters who sport odd names that might have been lifted from a late 19th century sensation novel. There is the vicar Melton Fellnoakes, an antiquarian and bibliophile whose avocation is studying the legends of the Fitz Dane family and keeping up on superstitious beliefs. The vicar has a wizened snoop of a housekeeper named Harriet Weevil. Bob Scotcher is the local antiques dealer who has a sideline in stolen goods made known to us in the very first scene. A travelling pedlar (Davis' preferred spelling) is hawking his lucky charms to anyone foolish or superstitious enough to buy them. The estate agents intent on getting rid of the white elephant property Danes Priory are named Vowles and Sprigge. And a local pub haunt named Smarty Wiffen seems to be in cahoots with Bob Scotcher, both of them are responsible for the theft of Lady Herdley's diamonds -- which will feature in a subplot throughout the telling of the story. Some of this motley crew will fall victim to the Crowing Hen and no one will escape the watchful eyes of the police inspector who eventually reveals himself after taking off his disguise just like a supersleuth out of a dime novel of days gone by.

Terry Hyland and his fiancee Shirley Esdale are much taken with Danes Priory and want to make it their home after their wedding. They know little about its storied past. But when Fellnoakes lectures Terry about the Fitz Dane dynasty, the bizarre birth of a monstrous child and the madness that befell its mother Terry is certain that someone is exploiting the village legends in order to keep curious minds away from the house. Davis makes no secret that Dane Priory is being used for criminal purposes, showing us the criminals hiding out in its dusky rooms and stowing their stolen goods in secret compartments. But could they too be victims? It appears that a mad killer is after anyone that goes near or enters the house.

There is yet another character, more of a narrative device I suppose, that is definitely reminiscent of 19th century fiction. That is our omniscient narrator who often directly addresses the reader, taking us on detours out of one scene and directing us to another part of the village to eavesdrop on a conversation, or watch one character take up some amateur sleuthing on the grounds of Danes Priory, or follow someone into a secret passageway. Davis manages to construct simultaneous scenes that resemble parallel editing in a movie -- two scenes in different locations playing out simultaneously  -- and uses his narrator's voice to guide us by the hand as it were from one location to another. Thankfully we are spared the Gentle Reader address but that doesn't stop Davis from indulging himself in sentences like this one: "But there is ample time, while P.C. Westerner is telling Terry about the one or two things noticed by him that enabled him to put two and two together, for us to hurry down the hill after [the] Detective Inspector."

ATMOSPHERE: The Crowing Hen (1938) is teeming with Gothic excesses and a macabre set pieces. There is even an impossible problem. After the first victim has been placed into a coffin inside the church while awaiting burial, bloody footprints are found on the floor encircling the coffin. And a statue known as "Flat Face" which has a habit of teetering from its pedestal is missing. Somehow all this was done while the church was completely locked and no one was seen leaving while it was under watch. The statue eventually turns up in an unexpected location that may recall a plot device used by John Dickson Carr.

Michelham Priory, one of England's most haunted places.
Possible inspiration for Danes Priory?
Davis draws from a litany of Gothic romances from the past piling on as many plot conventions and features as he can. In addition to the omnipresent bloody footprints and the non-stop eerie crowing of the bird-like creature haunting Hayes Coombe we get premature burial, an animated statue, deaths from sheer fright, talking and reanimated corpses, a voice from beyond the grave that makes telephone calls, and dead chickens found in locked chests.

UK Edition (Bles, 1936)
(courtesy of Andrew Parry)
INNOVATIONS: The theft of the diamonds seems to be the only crime amid this abundance of mysteries. No one can really explain how Sprigge fell from the window and the death is labeled an accident though it seems like it might be murder. Still, even with this questionable death and the obvious identity from the start of the diamond thieves The Crowing Hen is very much a traditional detective novel with a crafty policeman and a couple of clever amateur sleuths who unravel all the tangled webs and solve the myriad riddles.

The cinematic touches mentioned above in the narrative structure (parallel editing with words so to speak) and a talent for using dialogue in place of description make me think that Davis might have been involved in either radio scripts or screenplay writing. Maybe both? I was unfortunately unable to prove either surmise.

THE AUTHOR: Reginald Davis wrote three detective novels, the first two of which were published by the estimable Doubleday Crime Club in the US. On the dust jacket blurb for The Crowing Hen, his first novel, he is described as "a young English writer who seems destined to become a figure of importance in the field of mystery fiction." Based solely on this novel he most definitely was a promising talent of the bizarre and outre styled fantastic detective novel. But no one seems to know a thing about him. All of my diligent internet searching came up with nothing. An email to Bill Pronzini (who was kind enough to send me a photo of the extremely scarce dust jacket) was otherwise fruitless in gathering information about Davis. He told me that even Robert Adey, noted detective fiction collector, locked room mystery novel enthusiast and scholar, could dig up little about Davis. If anyone knows anything about Reginald Davis, the mystery writer, any bit of biographical data would be most be appreciated.

EASY TO FIND? Not at all. What else is new around here? I have managed to locate all three books and will be reading and reviewing them in the coming months. Of the three books only his second, Nine Days' Panic, seems easy to find in the used book market. A few days after I completed reading The Crowing Hen I bought the only copy offered via online dealers of his third novel which few people among detective fiction fans knew existed until the late 1980s. That's how obscure Reginald Davis and his mystery novels are.

Detective Novels of Reginald Davis
The Crowing Hen (1936)
Nine Days' Panic (1937)
Twelve Midnight Street (1938)

Monday, April 1, 2019

ODDITIES: The Hand of the Chimpanzee - Robert Hare

Imagine a mystery novel that is an extravagant conglomeration of Planet of the Apes, The Island of Dr. Moreau and that creepy cult classic 1973 TV movie A Cold Night's Death. Is such a melange possible? Oh yes my friends, it is. It's called The Hand of Chimpanzee, written in 1934 by Robert Hare who was inspired to write his fantastical novel after a visit to a primate research center. He even dedicates the novel to four "anthropoid apes" that he observed at that center. And what -- I hear you ask -- exactly goes on in this genre-blending alternative classic? Is it a detective novel? A horror novel? Or science fiction? Do the apes talk as in Pierre Boulle's novel and the later fantastic series of 1970s movies? Calm down, gang. All will be revealed.

The setting is the home and laboratory of Damian Strengland, former medical doctor who was stripped of his license after ethical questions about his research. The man has been involved in some genetics research and behavioral studies of chimpanzees. The usual glandular and endocrine mad scientist stuff crops up in the story and we learn that in addition to producing chimps who are now capable of performing human tasks and following orders guided by simple language commands some of the ape servants are actually hybrids of chimps and humans, altered by experimentally changing their endocrine systems that result in physiological changes like lightening of skin. One of the chimps in fact is completely hairless, wears human clothes and responds in simple, one word guttural syllables that seem like genuine speech. Another chimp has mastered spelling out the word "mad" on a typewriter which later turns out to be a key plot element in the solution of the various mysteries.

Hairless chimps and gorillas are a
natural phenomena of aging apes.
There are several murders, all of them rather gruesome, all of them apparently the work of either the gorilla in the research facility or the most violent chimp named Sebastian. Long finger marks and scratches are found on each of the strangled victims. Fingers that are too long to be human. Everyone is convinced that someone among the lab staff has trained one of the apes to become a killer. Increasingly it appears that Strengland whose behavior becomes more unhinged and erratic might be the culprit. But might it also be Gatrall, the slovenly lab assistant? He view their work as the wave of the future when all menial jobs will be performed by apes allowing humans more free time and better job opportunities in more challenging and cerebral work. Or perhaps De Silva, the primary trainer and caretaker of the apes? An aloof and cynical man DeSilva has the cruel streak of sadism in his blood. And what of Lenka, the sinister Greek housekeeper? Thanks to her creativity the apes have all been named, names which supposedly come from her native language. In my translations, however, I get completely different meanings in English (see THINGS I LEARNED for more).

As the story progresses and Strengland's monomania for his ape research begins to affect his sanity the story often also descends into scenes of unintentional self-parody. During the investigation of the violent deaths the police begin to treat the apes as suspects and Strengland launches into a series of tirades. In one scene after trying to figure out how a window that was always locked is now unbolted and hearing one of his chimps accused of fiddling with the bolt he sees the accused ape in his cage locked and secure. He turns to the others and says: "This ape is innocent. Thank goodness! He's a valuable one!"  Later Strengland rants about the most dangerous animal of all: "The police! What do they know of apes? They think all apes are dangerous. Any young fool in a sports car is ten times more dangerous than an ape!"

One of the many splendid pulps offered for sale at John W Knott Jr., Bookseller

I am so tempted to reveal some of the more outrageously horrific sequences but will only allude to Hare's clear influences of H.G.Wells, Maurice Renard, and a humorous nod to Poe. There is quite a bit of Dr. Moreau in this story and more than a fair share of homage to French crime novels, weird menace pulp magazine stories, and mad scientist movies of the 1930s.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Greek lessons!  Strengland and Lenka (and of course this is really Hare speaking) claim that Vlaha means "blabber" (name of a chittering female chimp) but the closest Greek word I found was Vlacha and that translates as shepherdess; Tima he says means "timid" but I got honors in my translation. Basho (name of the gorilla at the lab) does not come up in the Greek dictionary at all. Hare says its English equivalent is "horrible", but the closest phonetic match (páscho) translates as to suffer.  Only Philologos, the ape who has mastered the typewriter and can speak a few words, has a name that any elementary Greek student could figure out and that's because it's a neologism coined by Hare, an elementary student of Greek himself who perhaps got very poor grades in both transliteration and translation.

I wanted to find out how early ape and primate research was being conducted in the United States and that's how I discovered Robert Mearns Yerkes (1876-1956) who is shown above. Yerkes was a prominent psychologist and academic who studied at Harvard and taught at both Harvard (1902-1917) and Yale (1924-1944).  His research was varied beginning with intelligence studies (he developed as test used by the military during WW2) then moving on to human behavior and eventually correlations between ape and human behavior.  In an article for a 1916 issue of Science he wrote: “I am wholly convinced that the various medical sciences and medical practices have vastly more to gain from the persistent and ingenious use of the monkeys and the anthropoid apes in experimental inquiry.” He founded the research laboratory for primate study in 1930 and based it in Orange Park, Florida. The Yale Laboratories for Primate Biology belonged to Yale University for decades but was sold to Emory University in 1956 upon Yerkes death. It was renamed Yerkes Primate Research Center and eventually relocated in 1965 to its present location in Atlanta where Yerkes' work and vision still continue.

Oliver, a trained chimp that started
the human/ape hybrid insanity
Sometime in the late 1970s and becoming blown out of proportion by the age of the internet in the late 1990s several bizarre conspiracy theories began to surface about human and ape hybridization projects conducted at the Yerkes Primate Research Center. Although there have been factual stories of horrible cruelties perpetuated on the animals during one period of poor management when the facility was under the direction of a non-scientist there has been no proof of the existence of "humanzees" being created at the facility. I wonder if anyone had read this book and used it as fodder for the rumor mill and creating the Wellsian nightmare conspiracy theories.

HARE & YERKES: Robert Hare Hutchinson was a 1910 graduate of Harvard University. After his marriage to Delia Dana in 1912 and their tour of New Zealand he returned to the US and planned on getting his Masters degree at Harvard. He attended the university at the graduate level from 1912-1913. There he met Robert Mearns Yerkes who was Assistant Professor in Comparative Psychology during the same time span. Both men were also active in the eugenics movement. The Hand of The Chimpanzee addresses the concept of eugenics and ethical medicine at various points in the book. The unusual dedication of the novel coupled with their shared Harvard background leads me to believe that Hutchinson kept in contact with Yerkes and must have visited his research center in Florida prior to writing this detective novel.

Don't mess with me, Doctor!
INNOVATIONS:  The first murder to occur in Strengland's home involves a locked laboratory with a body found on a table several feet away from the door and the key still in the corpse's hand.  The two self-appointed amateur sleuths, Evan Heath and his fiancee Jessie (Strengland's niece), try to convince the police that the victim could not possibly have locked the lab and kept the key in his hand afterwards. He would've locked the door, put the key in his pocket or the desk. But the key is found lying loose inside the dead man's hand. And so there is, in fact, a locked room problem, one not listed in Adey's bibliography Locked Room Murders. The solution is suitably bizarre for such a fantastical book.

EASY TO FIND? Those interested in owning their own copy ought to act fast. There are is only five  ONE! copy for sale on the usual bookselling sites. Three copies are priced fairly but have no dust jackets. The other two copy is in better condition, comes with the original DJ, and of course is priced well above $100. Though published both in the US and the UK I only uncovered US editions for sale. I guess the UK first edition is a genuine rarity. I'd suggest trying libraries for other copies out there.

UPDATE:  Please note the strikeouts and grammatical changes in the above paragraph. Once again, within one week after I wrote about an obscure book nearly every available copy was sold to readers of this blog. Where are my referral royalties?