Friday, May 24, 2019

FFB: Ominous Star - Rae Foley

THE STORY: Mary Turner befriends an elderly book collector and antique dealer while working at her new job in an antiquarian bookstore in Manhattan. Out of gratitude for their many delightful evenings together, talks of books and antiques, and platonic friendship Charles Sheridan gives her the deed to a cottage, a place he knows she will appreciate. But she can only accept his gift on one condition -- upon his death she must find a locked box in the attic and destroy its contents. She must never look at or read what's in the documents in this box. A few weeks later someone robs Charles of a few rare antiques. He catches the thief in the act, they exchange words, the thief punches Sheridan in the face, he falls striking his head and later dies. When the police learn that Mary was willed the cottage they suspect she had a hand in the theft and Sheridan's death. Then a mysterious man enters Mary's life and the two of them decide to beat the police at their own investigation and find out the truth behind the theft and how Sheridan died.

THE CHARACTERS: The summary above makes this Ominous Star (1971) sound like a Phyllis Whitney novel, a suspense novel with fanciful elements drawn from Gothic mystery novels of the past. Young female protagonist and elderly erudite gentleman become friends, and he entrusts a secret task to the other. But the whole business with the box and its contents is akin to a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie. It merely serves as an object, or in this case a task, that will propel the plot. The real story is about who stole the antiques from Sheridan's home and how and why he died. There is also a subplot involving Miller, Sheridan's butler and confidante, and his deep, dark secret. The novel turns out to be a surprisingly well plotted detective novel along the lines of a police procedural. Nearly three quarters of the story deals with the police investigation. Mary appears only at the start of the book and the last couple of chapters, with the obligatory damsel in distress sequence to serve as a climax.

Hippie hitchhiker, circa 1968
A rich kid in disguise?
(photo © Getty Pictures)
The supporting players were more to my liking than Mary (a rather drab and cookie cutter style heroine one finds in these woman in peril novels). I thought for sure I had pegged Randy, Sheridan's black sheep relative, who spends most of his time in a hippie disguise, as the villain. Had this been a Phyllis Whitney book he most definitely would have turned out to be a handsome rogue. I'll not reveal whether I was right or wrong but I was a bit surprised by the way this book turned out. Especially with the anticlimactic business with the box and its contents.

However, two of the supporting women characters were well worth the trip through these pages. Phoebe Cortlandt ("Oh, that Cortlandt!" everyone says when they finally meet her) is a highlight in this novel. She's a rich kid living in a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side and despite her well-to-do and entitled roots she is completely counterculture. She dresses like a Mod and fancies herself an artist. She is upset that the "true artists" of New York never get a break in the snobby galleries of the city. In retaliation she has opened her home as a gallery to her friends so they can display their work. She even invites the police to the art exhibit. It's going to be a party, of course. She promises food, drink, lots of interesting people and eye-opening art. Several people the police want to interview in relation to the Sheridan crimes will be present at the party and Petersen instructs Sgt. Carpenter to get some good clothes and make an appearance. The scenes with Phoebe are filled with wry humor and off kilter characters and allow Elinore Denniston (the real name of "Rae Foley") to make some fascinating commentary on the art scene, the hippies and young people of the 1970s.

I also enjoyed a silly sequence when a floozie secretary flirts with Sgt Carpenter at the office of the grandiose and odious Kenneth Wilkinson. She's a very minor character, appears only once and serves no other purpose than as a sexpot comic part. The entire sequence made me laugh out loud. Whether this was Denniston's intent or not didn't matter to me. I thought it was hilarious and very un-PC all at once.

INNOVATIONS: Denniston uses the bohemian and artist scene of the 1970s Manhattan to comment on the pop culture phenomenon of Hippies and the "groovy scene." Some of the best elements in this book are the characters' reactions to meeting people like Phoebe and Randy. Randy's ludicrous disguise is clearly meant as a chance for Denniston to ridicule the ubiquitous hippie look. Randy chooses probably the most cliche look of all: fringe vest, long blond wig, wildly colored shirt, tight pants, and a guitar case with actual guitar inside. This last bit is overkill; a stupid prop that he carries with him everywhere. But I don't recall that he even plays the thing.

QUOTES: Instead of quotes of the author's writing I thought I'd show you how much Dennison was entranced by literature, mostly the work of playwrights. I've read three of her mysteries so far, all of them overloaded with literary allusions. The title of this one comes from John Webster's bloody revenge tragedy The White Devil ("This thy death/Shall make me like a blazing ominous star/Look up and tremble.") Everyone seems to be well read in her fictional worlds. I mean everyone! From the erudite sophisticates of the Upper East Side to the cops, every character in Ominous Star loves to quote famous writers or allude to literary works.

Charles Sheridan: "I'm no philanthropist. I have no use for what Shaw called 'the undeserving poor,' the world-owes-me-a-living type."

and: "I feel like Sir Walter Raleigh. Do you remember his bitter lament after having been forced to attend a garden party? ..." And then he goes on to recite from memory a six line verse in doggerel which I will not reproduce here.

plus: "like Leacock's horseman I ride my hobby off in all directions."

also: "Do you remember Maggie in What Every Woman Knows or has our nudist theater made [James M.] Barrie part of the general discard?"

OK, enough of Charles. The first chapter alone has close to fifteen allusions uttered by him.

Peterson: "As Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, 'Rich people are different.'"

Vincent Young, Sheridan's financial advisor on Kenneth Wilkinson, a fatuous lawyer: "The Falstaff of the legal profession without the wit; a sponge without will."

Phoebe Cathhart: "What is he really up to? Is he threatening to cast you in the role of First Murderer?" (Macbeth allusion referring to one of the two dull-witted killers enlisted to murder the Macduffs.)

THINGS I LEARNED: Yet another allusion but one so arcane I needed to do some research. Lt. Peterson is talking to his sergeant about the suspects and when they get to Miller, the butler and the sergeant's easy target for Sheridan's killer, Peterson says, "Your King Charles's head." Clearly this refers to the execution of Charles I and seems to imply that the sergeant was stuck on one idea. But I needed to know its origin. The phrase stems from a character in David Copperfield, Mr. Dick, who has been trying to write an autobiography on the King and is "regularly defeated by the intrusive image of King Charles' I head" after execution. To speak of "King Charles' head" is basically the same concept as the folk saying "to have a bee in your bonnet." It's a bothersome or obsessive idea that one finds difficult to get rid of.

EDITION: The first batch of the Rae Foley Dell paperback reprints had a uniform look and were illustrated and marketed to look as if the books were romantic suspense or neo-Gothic novels. (See the image above in the QUOTES section.) In many cases with Foley's books this is utterly misleading. The plot summary of Ominous Star makes it seem as if the lead character is Mary Turner, but the bulk of the book is a police investigation with Peterson, the Homicide detective being the focus. If anything this is more like a Helen Reilly or Elizabeth Linington novel than it is part of "romantic suspense" subgenre. The "romance" angle is thrown in as an afterthought taking up less than two chapters towards the end. It seems totally out of place, too and is rather unbelievable.

EASY TO FIND? A handful of copies of Ominous Star in various editions, including one in French translation, are currently offered via the usual used bookseller websites. One handsome US first edition with a nearly pristine dustjacket is offered via eBay at a very affordable price. But the majority are either Ulverscroft large print editions or Dell paperbacks. Happy hunting and reading!

Rae Foley's Non-Series Mystery & Suspense
No Tears for the Dead (1948)
Bones of Contention (1950), US paperback: The Other Woman (1976)
Wake the Sleeping Wolf (1952)
The Man in the Shadow (1953)
Dark Intent (1954)
Suffer a Witch (1965)
Scared to Death (1966)
Wild Night (1966)
Fear of a Stranger (1967)
The Shelton Conspiracy (1967)
Malice Domestic (1968)
Nightmare House (1968)
Girl on a High Wire (1969)
No Hiding Place (1969)
This Woman Wanted (1971)
Ominous Star (1971)
Sleep Without Morning (1972)
The First Mrs. Winston (1972)
Trust a Woman? (1973)
Reckless Lady (1973)
The Brownstone House (1974), UK title: Murder by Bequest (1976)
One O’Clock at the Gotham (1974)
The Barclay Place (1975)
The Dark Hill (1975)
Where Helen Lies (1976)
Put Out the Light (1976)
The Girl Who Had Everything (1977)
The Slippery Step (1977)

Friday, May 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yum! Marmite brand yeast extract advert inside front cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE, 7/31/19: TomCat's comment below is right on target. As of today, some of Sprigg's mystery novels are available from Moonstone Press, the indie outfit I alluded to in the paragraph above. The Perfect Alibi is one of four mystery and detective novels by Christopher St. John Sprigg that they have reprinted. The link to The Perfect Alibi will take you to Moonstone's ordering page for that title. I see that only 100 copies are available. I have no idea how many have been bought so far or if that count will be adjusted as new copies are purchased. Get yours now before all 100 copies are gone.

Friday, May 10, 2019

FFB: Death Croons the Blues - James Ronald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At the age of fourteen James Ronald, a native of Glasgow, came home from school and announced that he would never return. His mother was distressed, insisting that she would not have an idler in the family, so from then until he was seventeen he was in and out of a series of jobs, about thirty in all. He even ventured as far as Chicago where his experience included everything from a job paying four hundred a month to a job as dishwasher when he slept on cold park benches. At twenty-one he inherited $10,000 but it took him only nine months to spend it. Back in England again floating from job to job he was seriously injured in an automobile collision and for three months was in the hospital with a broken hip. Crippled for a year he spent his time writing short stories and his success at the job of writing has kept him at it ever since. He is the author of eight highly successful mystery novels. During the fall of 1939 he was an air raid warden in England. He is in the United States now for an indefinite period being ineligible for military service because of the motor accident injury.”

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

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

Sunday, May 5, 2019

IN BRIEF: The 3-13 Murders - Thomas Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 3, 2019

FFB: Nine Days' Panic - Reginald Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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