Friday, July 26, 2019

FFB: Possession - L. P. Davies

US 1st edition
(Doubleday Crime Club, 1976)
THE STORY: After his half brother Eddie dies in a motorcycle crash Morgan Astey travels to the quiet Wiltshire village of St. Martin to visit Eddie's grave and gather his belongings. To his shock he discovers the gravesite desecrated. Rumors surface of the cemetery vandalism being related to Macumba, a Brazilian syncretic religion that blends worship of Catholic saints with rites and rituals of African religions. Among other things Macumba followers believe that spirits of the dead can temporarily inhabit the living. As Morgan tries to find out why someone would dig up Eddie's grave Albert Cranshaw, a local gardener and odd job man, begins to behave strangely. He shows up in Eddie's old room, sits down to tea with Eddie's old landlady, and calls people by nicknames only Eddie knew. Is it possible that Eddie has returned from the grave and has Albert in his Possession (1976)?

THE CHARACTERS: Morgan Astey does not plan to spend as much time in St. Martin ,but the disturbance to his half brother's grave raises a variety of question and the news of a possible Macumba cult involved is as fascinating to him as it is aggravating. Another thing that he finds curious is that everyone tells him that Eddie's face was unharmed in the accident, one that should have shattered his body as he supposedly lost control of his motorcycle near a craggy hairpin turn by a rocky cliffside. And yet Eddie's body suffered only a few broken bones and a broken neck. Morgan is further suspicious of foul play after talking to a knowledgeable mechanic working on repairs to Eddie's motorcycle. He tells Morgan of some strange things found on the bike that would be inconsistent with a wreck on that cliffside.

UK 1st edition
(Robert Hale, 1976)
Morgan teams up with Pat, daughter of the owner of St. Martin's newspaper, to ferret out the truth about Eddie's death and the strange behavior of Albert who seems to be "the new Eddie." In their adventures they meet Prof. Boyle, an eccentric academic who studies the slow worm and conducts weird scientific experiments; Boyle's sinister butler/companion George who may have a criminal past; a clique of corrupt millionaire businessmen; and Albert Cranshaw, the man with an inexplicable behavior change that may be rooted in the occult.

One of the memorable supporting players is Detective Sergeant Wright whose skill in manipulating and exploiting people is enviable. Wright has made it his business to know everyone's business and he uses his knowledge of the private lives of St Martin's citizenry to his advantage. So talented is Wright is getting others to do his bidding that Morgan realizes almost too late the policeman has employed him as an unofficial investigator. In suggesting to Morgan mysterious aspects about Eddie's death and inveigling him to seek answers to those questions Wright manages to get Morgan to do his job for him. Toward the end of the book Wright congratulates Morgan for successfully acting out in this unofficial capacity in one of their many tea room conversations. The policeman has an almost unquenchable craving for the various bakery treats offered at the many tea shops and cafes in town. He is always meeting Morgan in one of these shops where he can get yet another sampling of a tasty biscuit or tea cake, always proffering them to Morgan who almost always refuses.

INNOVATIONS: In Possession we have yet another unusual treatment of loss of identity from the pen of L. P. Davies. In previous novels Davies used amnesia in his crime novels or blended loss of identity with science fiction in telling stories of extraterrestrial aliens passing themselves off as humans and vice versa, yet always managing to turn any novel into one of mystery and detection, even if it's more of a metaphysical detection than a police investigation. In his later career Davies turned away from science fiction themes and picked up on the 1970s trend in popular fiction of using occult and supernatural themes in his plots. The background of Macumba in Possession is minimal at best yet makes it all the more intriguing when trying to figure out if the mystery of Albert Cranshaw's personality transformation is a con job and a sinister use of extremely good acting to cover up for ulterior motives or a genuinely mystifying supernatural phenomena. I was reminded of the use of Santeria in Ramona Stewart's The Possession of Joel Delaney (1970) and the eerie other worldly events in The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1973) by Max Ehrlich, two popular contemporary occult novels that would also become movies in the late 1970s.

THINGS I LEARNED: 1. Pat, editor/reporter/Jill of all trades, has a habit of exclaiming “What the Betty Martin?” I thought maybe this was some sort of Cockney slang, but I was wrong. It’s a lot more involved than that. Ready?

On a Linguistics internet forum I discovered that the origin of this phrase first appeared in Brewer’s seminal Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Brewer claims it comes from an anecdote about a sailor who overheard someone in a foreign church utter the Latin phrase “Ah mihi, bea’te Martine” (Ah grant me, Blessed Martine). And that the sailor “could not make much out of it but it seemed to him very much like ‘All my eye and Betty Martin.’ ” Brewer defines the phrase as a regionalism that means something seen or heard is all nonsense.

St. Martin of Tours and the beggar
But wait! The Latin is probably wrong another person says. It is probably “mihi beate Mater” (Grant me, Blessed Mother). And then the debate gets very scholarly and someone goes to the trouble of quoting at length references to the phrase in a 1780 book on slang by John Badcock tracing the origin to prayers and invocations made to St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. [A patron for reformed drunkards! Is there one for just plain ol’ sots who haven’t seen the blazing light of sobriety?]

Then there is someone else who believes that the Latin phrase was alluded to in a poem by Coleridge that includes the lines: “ All my I! All my I!/He’s a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin.” And that this led to the phrase becoming misheard and interpreted as “All my eye!” which gives us the commonly heard “All my eye and Betty Martin!” another slang phrase that means basically “What a load of malarkey!” a favorite Irish exclamation in the Norris household. In the US you often hear someone say (usually a mature and older person) “My eye!” when they disbelieve someone or think something is baloney.

All of it sounds like pretty good etymological research to me. You can decide on your own if the Latin for Blessed Martin or Blessed Mater later transmogrified into Betty Martin.

2. The crux of Professor Murton Boyle’s research is studying the behavior of Anguis fragilis, described throughout the novel as a type of worm. Many jokes are made about the poor man’s dreary personality and boring life making a career out of the study of worms. Davies always leads the reader to believe he is talking about the kind of worms the early bird goes after, earthworms that is. But Davies seems not to have understood what the animal truly is. Because it’s not a worm, it’s a reptile! The confusion comes no doubt in misinterpreting literally the layman’s name of “slow worm.” Regardless of its nickname "slow worm" Anguis fragilis is nevertheless a reptile, one of two species of legless lizard and it resembles not a worm but a snake.

The differences between a snake and a legless lizard are numerous: snakes have no eyelids, legless lizards do; snakes have forked tongues, legless lizards do not, etc. In no way could it be confused with a worm. Part of Boyle’s research and one of the unusual mysteries solved involving what Pat and Morgan think is a strange hieroglyphic code reveals that the slow worms Boyle studies were taught to run through mazes. I can imagine a legless lizard, a snake like creature, learning to do this, but I absolutely cannot believe that a worm (as Davies thought the thing was) could be taught to navigate a maze no matter how simple or complex. In any case, he was terribly wrong about the creature that Boyle studies and it sort of ruins the book a bit when you get to that portion of the story.

L. P. Davies (circa 1976)
THE AUTHOR: Leslie Purnell Davies (1914-1988) was born in Crewe, England and graduated from Manchester University. In addition to writing numerous short stories under a variety of pseudonyms as well as twenty crime fiction and science fiction novels he was a pharmacist, optician, a tobacconist, and a painter in Rome. From about 1968 to the late 1970s he lived in Wales, then moved to the Canary Islands where he lived in happy retirement from writing.

Friday, July 19, 2019

FFB: The Djinn - Graham Masterton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 5, 2019

FFB: Voice from the Grave - Doris Miles Disney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the 1970s three more novels appeared as TV movies. Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971) starring veteran actresses Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick and Sylvia Sidney in a strange tale that combines computer dating and a psychopath. Betrayal (1974),based on the novel Only Couples Need Apply (1973), is about an elderly woman (Amanda Blake) preyed upon by a murderous con artist couple. Yesterday's Child (1977), based on her 1967 book Night of Clear Choice, stars Shirley Jones as a mother whose 3 year-old daughter was kidnapped and never returned, fourteen years later someone claims to be that missing daughter.