Thursday, October 31, 2019

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 2: Kthulhu Reich - Asamatsu Ken

Rudolf Hess battles the elder gods. Adolf Hitler monkeying around with black magic books after he dropped out of art school. A female vampire lures Nazi soldiers to her castle and tricks them into setting in motion an apocalyptic plot. So you thought Dennis Wheatley was the only writer obsessed with Nazis and black magic? Think again.

Kthulhu Reich (2019) is a collection of bizarrely over-the-top, sometimes ludicrously entertaining, horror stories from the fertile imagination of Asamatsu Ken. The tales have been meticulously translated into English by Jim Rion, an expatriate English teacher and translator formerly of Kansas now living in Yamaguchi prefecture. Publisher Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press assures me that while Rion’s translations seem to be near parodies of the Weird Tales school of writing they are accurate and in the spirit of the original Japanese texts. I found them to be generously peppered with enough American vernacular and colloquialisms to give the stories a retro-pulp magazine feel. Lipsett joked that though I may think they may be too Western or “Americanized” these are German characters written by a Japanese writer who speak in Japanese in the original stories and now English in this translation. But in all accounts they should be speaking in German! No matter. They do indulge in the typical “Ja wohl, Herr Kapitän!” we are used to hearing from British accented actors who play Nazis in the old war movies of days gone by.

I didn’t really know what to make of this book before I cracked it open. I figured I should prepare myself for some kind of Dennis Wheatley/H. P. Lovecraft mash-up by way of Japanese worldview. Was I ever wrong! These stories could easily have been lifted from the pages of any of the American shudder pulps. Rion, the translator, must clearly be a fan of the kind of stories Lovecraft and all his imitators wrote back in the day. So faithful are these stories to the spirit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that the entire book is annotated with scholarly footnotes that make it sound as if the creatures encountered in the pages are actually real. In addition to the detailed descriptions recounting the history of Lovecraft’s many “elder gods” that appear in the book, along with the lives of Lovecraft characters (and those created by Derleth, Bloch and Robert E. Howard) there are eye-opening footnotes on the historical facts surrounding the occult interests of Rudolf Hess and his influences on Hitler. We also learn about the members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who were also wrapped up with the Axis powers and German soldiers. Who knew there were magicians in wartime England sympathizing with the Nazis?

But onto the stories themselves…

Those that are modeled after Lovecraft and pay homage to his Cthulhu Mythos are by far the most entertaining. Minor stories like “The Colonel’s Self-Portrait” and “April 20, 1889” rely too much on gimmicks. The first is a shaggy dog story with an ending I should’ve seen coming from page two. The other is done as a collection of diary entries and letters. Both stories are less effective if the reader is an avid student of World War 2 history. The title of the second is a dead giveaway to the final twist and lessens the power of what might have been an eyebrow raising surprise on the last page had it been named anything else. And a warning to the fainthearted (are there any among horror fiction fans?) -- "April 20, 1889" also deals graphically with the Jack the Ripper murders and goes into disgustingly obscene detail in how the crimes were committed. Splatterpunk fans have something to look forward to there.

The most successful and effective stories of the seven in this volume are those that abandon the traditional trappings of vampires and witchcraft and go all out in depicting the wild adventures of trippy black magic obsessed Nazis.  The footnotes tell us that a lot of this stuff is based on fact. That's double the trippiness for your buck right there.

First published in separate issues of Hayakawa S-F in 1994 and 1995 two stories make up one long novelette of recurring themes and characters. These two should be read in the order as arranged and saved for last for they are truly the cream of the crop in this nifty book. The first of this double feature "The Mask of Yoth Tlaggon" is like a Hammer horror movie on paper. Instead of Charles Gray as the evil sorcerer I'd cast the more appropriate Klaus Kinski as the evil Rudolph Hess, Hitler's Deputy Führer, bent on mastering the universe and conquering Third Reich with the help of an ancient artifact that allows the wearer to commune with powerful gods from an alternate universe.  It's a wild ride of a story that almost tops the best scenes in Dennis Wheatley's masterful occult thriller The Devils Rides Out. Hess is joined by Tatewaki Goto and Clara Haffner, two intelligence agents in disguise as diplomats. Clara is also "a runic magus" well versed in reading the language of ancient spells that will come in handy during the rousing climax, an operatic showdown of black magic and phantasmagorical visions.

"Call of Cthulhu"
(courtesy of redskullspage.tumblr.com)

The saga of the Mask of Yoth Tlaggon continues in the story immediately following “In the Wasteland of Madness” in which a young aristocratic Nazi, Major Erich von Müller, is forced to wear the mask and report what he's seen. His visions offer up clues of an impending expedition to the Antarctic where Kriegsmarine Leutnant Krenze, the brawny, blond haired "very model of a German soldier" expects to uncover the lost world of Thule, believed to be the origin of the Aryan race. What they discover there instead is more horrifying than beautiful.  Lovecraft fans will eat this one up. Once again the plethora of footnotes fills in the background on the origins of the strange creatures, the lives of the historical figures who appear or are mentioned in passing, and the litany of arcane occult texts and forbidden books created by Lovecraft and his acolytes. It's hard to believe that the Nazis genuinely were involved in explorations of the occult and black magic, but there are documented facts to reveal it is in part true. The legendary and secretive exploration of the Antarctic seems to be more anecdotal and apocryphal than factual though many people believe it did take place. What the German soldiers discovered there is left to the imagination of the true believers and writers like Asamatsu.

This is a bizarre and surreal example of mash-up of fact and fiction that delivers the goods in three of the seven stories. Reading these stories seemed like a flashback trip to the 1960s drive-ins that used to show Hammer horror movies overstocked with bloodthirsty vampires and vengeful creatures from the dark side.  I had a blast reading this book, loved the Lovecraft homage, and recommend it to  the horror hounds out there in search of something completely different.  Dennis Wheatley and Lovecraft I'm sure are smiling somewhere in the Great Beyond knowing that this book exists.

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 1: The Shapes of Midnight - Joseph Payne Brennan

I've known Joseph Payne Brennan as the creator of Lucius Leffing, a Sherlockian style consulting detective, who appears in two books.  Although I own one other collection of Brennan's more varied horror tales and ghost stories I've never read any of them. Then I stumbled across this paperback in one of my all too infrequent (these days at least) bookstore jaunts. With the introduction by horror guru Stephen King I figured it was about time to acquaint myself with Brennan's short stories without Leffing.

The Shapes of Midnight (1980) contains Brennan's classic story "Slime", perhaps the most often anthologized of his stories. First appearing in print in a 1953 issue of Weird Tales "Slime" tells a gruesome tale from a twisted imagination reminiscent of a more terrifying version of The Blob, that old monster movie starring a very young Steve McQueen before he became a 1970s movie icon of action films. It's one of the best stories in a decidedly mixed bag most of which are variations on the themes of haunted houses and witchcraft.

King, as is usual when he gets into his fanboy mode, is gushing in his praise for Brennan's work. Too often I found most of the sotires to be familiar in plot and theme and I wasn't sure what King wsaw in these stories. There was lots of imitation of better writers like Hodgson and Blackwood and more than an ample amount of Lovecraftian homage. However, King's favorite of this volume, "Canavan's Back Yard", is justly praised as a work of ingenuity, originality and genuine thrills. It most resembles Hodgson's classic novel of an alternate universe The House on the Borderland, yet I could not help but draw comparison to "The Open Door" by Saki in that both tales deal with the horror of the unknown. What's really out there? is the question the reader asks himself when reading "Canavan's Back Yard." Unlike Saki's story, which turns out to be nothing more than a nasty girl's joke, Brennan's story of the desolate and decaying backyard is one of true terror.  He relies on the reader's imagination, for the most part, to fill in the blanks. These are the best types of horror stories. No gut spilling, blood soaked explosions of violence, just the eerie quiet of a man haunted by a compulsion to wander into the "blowing brindle grass and rotting trees" of his ugly and forbidding backyard. What is it that draws him there?  What did he see that left him literally speechless when he returned?  The narrator and the reader are curious to discover what lies out there waiting to be discovered. If the quasi explanation that Brennan supplies is less than satisfying that is no real fault of the storyteller.  But I wish he had spared us the few paragraphs that discuss a witch's curse, an utterly prosaic touch in light of the truly chilling effects he had created throughout the story by mere suggestion.

Joseph Payne Brennan (circa 1950s)
This is sadly a formulaic touch that I find a bit disappointing when reading all these stories one after the other.  Brennan tends to undermine the real terror he has created in the reader's imagination by explaining the mystery.  For me, it is the absence of a solution to the otherworldly mysteries in supernatural and classic horror stories that make them successful. A gifted horror writer plants a seed in the reader's imagination and lets it fester there. Those images created by the reader himself linger in the memory long after the book has been closed.

Amid the many haunted houses ("The Horror at Chilton Castle," "The House on Hazel Street," "House of Memory") we get "The Diary of a Werewolf" with its touches of deeply black humor,  the riddle story of an enigmatic creepy barber in "Who Was He?", the village idiot Henry Crotell of "The Willow Pattern" whose curiosity gets the better of him when he finds a partially burned book in the ashen remains of a destroyed house, a radioactive zombie that is "The Corpse of Charlie Rull", and some Lovecraft inspired horror in "The Pavilion", "Slime" and "Disappearance."

Modern horror fans will find "The Impulse to Kill" one of Brennan's most compelling and prescient stories. In it we follow the rantings of a nameless murderously obsessed narcissist who sees himself as a vigilante of sorts. Originally published in 1959 this story foreshadows the entire serial killer genre and in particular the kind of sociopathic killer like Dexter who kills criminals and amoral people who have escaped capture, trial and imprisonment. To these self-appointed executioners they deserve to die. This story more than any of the others disturbed me deeply. The tone is bleak and narcissistic. The story perfectly encapsulates the nihilistic ego at work in all its destructive power. "The Impulse to Kill" has echoes of Robert Bloch's early stories about mad murderers and the work of crime writers like Jim Thompson whose book The Killer Inside Me is eerily similar in tone, style, and worldview. And Brennan accomplishes in a mere ten pages what Thompson needed a full length novel to explore.

For those eager to sample Brennan's work there is good news. Dover Publications has reprinted two of his collections including this one. Both were released back in July of this year. I'm sure they are easy to find at your favorite online bookseller, if not directly from Dover.

Friday, October 25, 2019

FFB: The Mystery of the Creeping Man - Frances Shelley Wees

THE STORY: Professor Edgar Murchison has vanished, but his family is not too concerned. His wife has not reported him missing and seems none too worried. But she becomes unusually alarmed when her tenant Tuck Forrester currently renting the Murchison home while school is out of session for the summer returns a smoking pipe she found in the house. Apparently Murchison was never without his pipe. Why was it left behind if he went off on an unannounced trip? Suspicions are further raised when a body turns up in the professor's clothes and a mysterious shadowy creeping figure is seen lurking in the forest near the Murchison home.

THE CHARACTERS: The Mystery of the Creeping Man (1931) is the second appearance of husband and wife sleuthing team Michael and "Tuck" Forrester. Commissioner Davies who worked with them in The Maestro Murders (1930, Wees' debut mystery novel) has them take up residence in the Murchison home for the summer break. He expects them to dig into the local gossip and see if they can ferret out any info on what happened to Prof. Murchison. They do more than the policeman ever could have imagined when they uncover missing diamonds, a mystery man roaming the woods, bizarre experiments in a university research lab, an unhinged scientist, and a killer with a taste for both human and animal victims.

I did enjoy this book ...up to a point. The characters are a lively bunch. Tuck and Michael are easy to like, they have some nifty banter and a couple of very well handled scenes theatrically presented. Tuck acts like Jane Marple at a garden party she engineers purely to draw information out of the easily baited gossips in town. Some of the supporting characters were spot on, especially Alix Lissey, a snobbish and elitist spinster, whose outsider status allows for some ironically perspicacious observations that will be her undoing.

But it was the outrageously complex and surreal plot that kept my interest...that is until it derailed in the final chapters.

INNOVATIONS: Part of the detective work involves solving an unusual code in jigsaw puzzle format. The code made up of several pieces of paper with strange symbols eventually point to a stonework pattern on a sundial in the backyard of the Murchison property. And the amateur sleuths find a valuable prize embedded in the edging of that lawn ornament. The code is rather elaborate and something that only characters in a detective novel would dream up in order to hide a valuable item. It requires a miraculous imagination in order to piece together, literally in this case, the code. Proves that Wees' characters are a bit too smart for their own good. The whole thing was lost on my tired brain even taking into consideration that an academic with lofty intellect invented the arcane code.

I could only smile ruefully when I got the the section that dealt with the intricacies of a bridge game. I immediately thought of our dear, late friend Noah and his bridge affinity and his love/hate relationship with cameo appearances of the game in detective novels. Even while remembering Noah with a smile on my face I confess that I mostly skipped over everything in those seven pages overloaded with bidding, passing, and trick-taking because all the rules of bridge remain an utter mystery to me no matter how much a writer tries to make it appear understandable. Wees didn't try here, she assumed her readers were expert players.

As the book progresses the complex plot gets ever more bizarre. Murderous attacks increase -- some successful, some failed -- until the story transforms into a ludicrous horror movie complete with a mad scientist, secret underground passages and a lab of gruesome surprises hidden in the forest. Wees had no idea how to end her story. What with a bigamous subplot and machinations of two of the primary characters, a boy sleuth investigating the poisoning of his pet dog, and Mrs. Devoe's guilt-ridden conscience, the mystery gets ever more convoluted and teeters on the brink of absurdity.

Sadly, the denouement is littered with threads left hanging and mysteries hazily explained, if explained at all. When Michael keeps saying things like "I don't know how he did that...but he did" you want to reach through the pages and throttle him. One of the murder weapons is an unnamed poison that can kill a dog and cat instantly yet shows no real signs of toxic compounds under scrutiny and laboratory analysis. A touch of pulpy science fiction? More like pure laziness, my friends.

Wees got better in time, but this sophomore effort surely shows that she tried to do it all in one book but just wasn't up to the task as a novice.

THINGS I LEARNED: Before I completely gave up on the bridge section I came across this sentence, "Tell 'em we follow the Rockefeller convention..." and I had to find out what that meant. It's a joke used to describe a phony "convention", an oft used bidding pattern pre-arranged between partners. According to the American Contract Bridge League website: "With only 15 words allowed during an auction and just 13 cards in each suit, bridge players have invented dozens of special bids, called conventions, to describe their strength and hand patterns." Apparently back in the 1930s many of those "conventions" were named after millionaires, hence the joke about the wealthy American family.

THE AUTHOR: Though born in the United States Frances Shelley Wees (1902-1982) grew up in Saskatoon, lived and worked in Ontario province, and finally settled in British Columbia on Denman Island. Many of her books are set in Canada. According to a talk she gave in 1948 at Regina Women's Canadian Club at the Kitchener Hotel she became a professional writer by accident. Her husband found a manuscript of a novel she wrote, read it, and thought it worth publishing so he typed it up and sent it to New York. The book was indeed published and sold over 50,000 copies. Her life as a novelist was off to a great beginning.

Prior to writing full time she had been a primary school teacher, the Canadian director of the speaking engagement syndicate known as Chautauqua, and lastly worked in public relations for a Toronto firm. She was married for over fifty years to Wilfred Rusk Wees, who taught psychology at the Camrose Normal School and was executive vice-president of Gage Publishing Ltd.

Wees wrote 22 books, a mixture of romance, detective, and suspense novels for adults and a handful of juvenile mystery books. Ten of those novels can definitely be classed as crime or detective novels for adults. Most of her crime novels remain out of print and are only available through libraries or the used book market. However, her 1956 suspense novel The Keys of My Prison was recently reprinted by Canadian publisher Véhicule Press. Brian Busby, the series editor for their Ricochet Noir crime fiction imprint, wrote a rave review about the novel on his blog The Dusty Bookcase and helped bring the book (and Wees) out of the shadows of obscurity. That later book is worth your time, her early mysteries like The Mystery of the Creeping Man perhaps not so.

Friday, October 18, 2019

FFB: Here's Murder Done - Charles Ashton

THE STORY: Irritating philatelist Ambrose Merrow was not liked by his neighbors for he never stopped talking about his treasured stamp collection. But was that any reason for someone to brutally stab him? And how did the murderer do the foul deed in a locked house in the presence of three people then escape the crime scene without being seen? Inspector Dick Sangster matches wits with a clever killer and uncovers a nasty blackmail scheme and a past murder before he brings the culprit to justice.

THE CHARACTERS: Here's Murder Done! (1943) is populated with a variety of theater people and though it gives us some insight into the world of playwriting and arts criticism it is not truly a theater mystery. Still, theater and acting most definitely play a part in the story. Ashton gives us two playwrights, one music critic, and an actress in his cast of interesting characters. Godfrey Taversham, playwright #1, and his fiancee Diane Harlow, an actress, are two of the three witnesses present when Merrow is killed in his house. They, along with Constable Hockey, are on the front step, see Merrow stick his head out the window of an upper level and wait patiently for him to open the door. I was sure that some kind of impostor gimmick was being pulled on us here but that turned out completely wrong.  Nevertheless, theatricality does play a part in the rather ingenious solution to this near impossible crime. Who got into the house while the front door was being watched and the back door was locked from the inside? And how did the killer get away unseen?

Sangster employs some unorthodox eavesdropping tactics and overhears Taversham and Diane having a conversation about a missing ladder and the unusual experiment Sangster and his sergeant performed proving how someone might have got onto the Merrow property without leaving any footprints. As he listens in Sangster discovers they are acting like amateur sleuths attempting to sort out the real clues from the red herrings. By the end of the conversation Taversham is certain he is onto the solution while Diane wants him to keep his mouth shut. Will their detective work prove too dangerous for their own good?

I liked the outspoken music critic Rupert Carrington who after a series of routine Q&A scenes with Sangster and the various suspects and witnesses was a delight of sarcasm, impatience and sardonic wit.  He thoroughly loathed Merrow calling the murder victim one of the most annoying men he ever met. He also can't stand the pompous writer Peppington (playwright #2 and aspiring novelist) whose lofty opinions prove he is nothing more than a dilettante and a windbag. Carrington tells Sangster that if anyone would have had an argument or had it in for Merrow it would be Peppington, a man whose disdain for everyone in town surpasses the minor irritations of Merrow and his nonstop blather about stamps.

And of course there is Peppington himself, not to mention his equally supercilious wife Amelia and their out of control six year-old son Sebastian.  They are clearly meant to be satiric portrayals of the kind of pseudo-intellectuals who were cropping up during wartime. Peppington has a grandiose manner and an insufferably egotistical persona of the sensitive artiste "living on a higher plane." He and his wife have ascribed to the new permissive notions of raising a child without discipline. Their unrestrained parenting results in a foul-mouthed son who calls his parents by their first names and challenges every authority figure he meets. Sebastian treats Inspector Sangster like a fraud, calling him a liar to his face when the policeman teasingly refers to himself as Father Christmas. The scenes with the Peppingtons are hilarious showing off Ashton's talent as a farceur and a skilled writer of absurd dialogue.

INNOVATIONS:  With a first half made up almost entirely of Sangster's straightforward interrogations I thought that Here's Murder Done! was going to be just another run-of-the-mill detective novel, relying on tired formulae and plot gimmickry. I was completely taken aback by three well-handled twists of the plot, two of which were shockingly surprising to me. There is a second death of a character one would never expect to be knocked off by the writer. It sort of defies the expectations of detective novel conventions and really made me gasp. The second was a neatly pulled off introduction of a surprise relative of the murder victim that changes the entire structure of the plot and sends the reader off into a whole new realm of motivations. By the halfway mark Ashton has done quite a bit of leading the reader down the garden path and I was completely taken in.  I could kick myself for overlooking the most blatant clue involving the world of theater people. Best of all the solution to the impossibility of the murderer's escape is simple and eloquently presented when Sangster delivers his findings in the final chapter.

Here's Murder Done!, for me, was an excellent example of a second tier writer matching the ingenuity of the Grand Masters point for point. The clues I was meant to see are cleverly hidden, often appearing in conversations that any reader would dismiss as "filler" and the red herrings were so masterfully handled that I paid more attention to those than the genuine clues. This mystery novel ended up being one of my favorite reads this year.

THE AUTHOR: Back in 2016 I wrote a piece on how I discovered who Charles Ashton (1884-1968) was. A perfect mini biography turned up on Imdb.com when I learned that he was a former actor in silent cinema. Here is that bio: "Not long after receiving a medical discharge from the army due to injuries he received at the Battle of Ypres Charles Ashton became a movie actor. He made his film debut in Pillars of Society (1920). He appeared in a string of films for such well-known directors as Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville. Ashton was one of the many silent-era actors whose career ended with the advent of sound, and he made his last film in 1929. However, he did begin another career as a successful novelist in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly of crime thrillers." The bio is the work of "frankfob2@yahoo.com", a knowledgeable cinephile who wrote hundreds of profiles on movie performers and directors for that oft-used movie website.

Charles Ashton created one series detective named Jack Atherley who supposedly appeared in at least eight titles. Only those marked as such in the list below can be confirmed. Atherley does not appear in Here's Murder Done! Ashton's books were published only in the UK by Robert Hale, Ivor Nicholson and Museum Press, not exactly top of the line publishers. Several of his books were reprinted in paperback editions by Withy Grove Press, Ltd as part of their often abridged "Cherry Tree Book" paperback digest imprint. These seem to be the only extant copies available for sale. I managed to purchase three of them over the past year so there will be more reviews on Ashton's mystery novels coming. None of his books were published in the US or Canada in his lifetime. There are no other known editions during his lifetime except for two translations of Fates Strikes Twice (1944): one in French (Le destin frappe deux fois), the other in Swedish (Döden Slår Till).

For those interested in Ashton's cinema career he appeared in at least 21 movies between 1920 and 1929. Among them are The Monkey's Paw (1923) in which he played the doomed son (a "sarcastic performance" according to someone who actually saw the film) and a bit part in a 48 minute version of Sweeney Todd (1928), unusual in that it features a man who dreams he is the murderous barber after reading a newspaper account of the crimes. For more on Ashton, just visit his IMDB page.

Charles Ashton's Detective Novels
Murder in Make-Up (1934) w/ Jack Atherley
Tragedy after Tea (1935)
Death Greets a Guest (1936) w/ Jack Atherley
Calamity Comes to Flenton (1936) w/ Jack Atherley
Stone Dead (1939)
Death for Two (1940)
Here's Murder Done (1943)
Fate Strikes Twice (1944)
Murder at Melton Peveril (1946)
Dance for a Dead Uncle (1948)

Friday, October 11, 2019

FFB: The Sutton Place Murders - Robert George Dean

THE STORY: Murder and mayhem in the financial world of 1930s Manhattan. Insurance investigator Paul Andrew Thompson (he goes by Pat, the first initials of his name) is hired to prove a suspicious death is suicide so his firm can avoid paying out the $250,000 policy. But when another suicide occurs Thompson is certain that a killer is disguising his work, what the newspapers will soon dub The Sutton Place Murders (1936).

THE CHARACTERS: While the story seems dominated by men (police, lawyers, the district attorney and several business associates of Harry Mitchell, the drowned man the insurance company believes killed himself) the real interesting characters are the women. Susan Barton, is Thompson's girlfriend who as a reporter has access to the "morgue" and archives of her employer. She is enlisted to help dig up dirt in the past lives of several female suspects. Susan has several theories about how the crimes were committed. The scenes with she and Pat are probably the best in the book.

Whenever Pat is interacting with a woman character like sly and evasive Alice Woods or vamping Laura Hess the book becomes much more interesting. Even the eccentric widow Louise Mitchell and a seemingly insignificant maid like Madeline Hine are better delineated with intriguing quirks than the many cookie cutter male characters we have encountered over and over in crime and detective fiction of this era. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the women are the ones the police should be paying attention to. Plots and schemes are uncovered and a deadly game of blackmail seems to be at the root of all the mysterious deaths.

INNOVATIONS: Dean likes to emulate the hardboiled style by laying it on heavy with banter and wisecracking dialogue. "Pat" Thompson could have been a great long-running series character. It's a shame that he appears only in three books. The scenes with Pat and Susan are the liveliest parts of the book and sound similar to the repartee you hear in movies like The Thin Man series and other urban and urbane crime films featuring husband/wife or male/female detective pairs.

The detection in the book is surprisingly well done. One of the better examples involves the typewritten suicide note purportedly left by Laura Hess Pat does some inventive thinking which leads him to believe the suicide was staged and the note clearly not typed by the victim. He also wants to know if Harry Mitchell's death was a suicide then where was his note? Clues related to clothing play a big part in the plot too. Susan offers up some ideas that most of the men would never think of and is convinced that one of the suspects, Louise Mitchell, is a man-hater if not a lesbian as some of the men later surmise.

The talk of lesbianism in the book is done rather frankly and colloquially for a 1930s book. When Susan remarks that Louise Mitchell has no man in her life Pat quips, "You mean she's a Les?" Later eyewitnesses report seeing someone dressed in men's evening clothes having visited Louise in secret. Everyone thinks it's a man, but Susan is certain it was woman in disguise. Many of the men start making bad jokes about lesbians thereafter (see "Things I Learned" section below).

QUOTES: (After waking up with a hangover Pat says to himself:) So this is what comes of trying to drink a woman under the table. Just a sacrifice on the altar of insurance!

The Frenchman was tall and thin like an adagio dancer; his complexion pale, almost sallow; and his face was the type that would be termed handsome by some women for whom life had begun at forty.

Pat: That means you do really adore me, under that scant veneer.
Susan: As one strip of veneer to another, let me repeat for your dull powers of comprehension; I hate you. Vindictively, I might add.

Pat: I'm giving you the chance to a flaunt your deductive powers.
Susan: Mmmm, I see. This is the page where they put the notice: 'Dear Reader, you have been given all the dope; now, it's up to you.' Well you can go to hell Mr. Sporting Opportunity Thompson!

THINGS I LEARNED: Cholly Knick is mentioned in passing. In the context I figured he was a writer. My assiduous Googling revealed the name to a shortened form of Cholly Knickerbocker, the house name for a gossip column created by reporter John W. Keller who started his career with the New York Recorder in the late 19th century. When he left that paper in 1902 to join Hearst’s New York American, later the New York Journal-American, he took the pseudonym and his column with him. One of the more notable Cholly Knickerbockers was Igor Cassini who in the 1940s co-wrote with longtime columnist Liz Smith. For the full history of Cholly Knickerbocker click here.

On page 130 District Attorney Hoffman alludes to a line of poetry from Kipling in an attempt to make a quip about lesbians. He says that “the colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady” (from Kipling’s “The Ladies” ) are lesbians under their skin making the statement when the murder case involves a woman who dresses as a man in order to meet another woman in secret. The actual line is “sisters under their skins” and was never intended by Kipling to imply sexual attraction between two women. Identifying the Kipling quote led me to a fascinating article by grammar maven and lexicon expert William Safire who wrote an essay about the prevalence of misquoting popular writing. Rosie O’Grady, gilding the lily (see Shakespeare’s King John where it is actually “to paint a lily”) and “into the breach” (rather than the actual “unto”) from Henry V were all cited as the three of the most often incorrectly quoted phrases.

The last Tony Hunter novel
UK edition (Boardman, 1954) 
THE AUTHOR:  Robert George Dean (1904-1989) worked as a journalist and drove an ambulance during the war years. In addition to a short three book series featuring "Pat" Thompson and Susan Barton he created Tony Hunter, a private eye who works for the Schmidt Agency. Hunter appeared in ten books between 1938 and 1953. Using the pseudonym "George Griswold" he wrote four espionage/adventure novels with the mysterious Mr. Goode.  I thought maybe one of his books might have been turned into a movie or that he wrote at least one movie script because he's so good at that snappy dialogue you hear in 30s and 40s crime movies. Sadly, his name does not turn up in the Imdb.com listings so the chances of Pat and Susan or Tony turning up on screen are fairly slim.

Pat Thompson & Susan Barton Trilogy of Mysteries 
The Sutton Place Murders (1936)
What Gentleman Strangles a Lady? (1936)
Three Lights Went Out (1937)

Friday, October 4, 2019

FFB: Dead to the World - David X Manners

THE STORY: Mystery writer James Stanley Hunt has been drowned in his bathtub. When he “wakes up” he discovers his wife Chili, a dancer in a musical revue, has summoned his ghost via a spiritualist. She wants him to solve his own murder. He takes up the challenge and is helped by a journey into the past via some strange time travel where he encounters himself.

INNOVATIONS: In Dead to the World (1947) Manner’s sophomore and last work as a detective novelist we have quite a melding of genres -- ghost story, detective novel and a timeslip plot motif so often found in science fiction stories. Other notable novels incorporating the motifs of a ghost who solves its own murder are Post Mortem (1953) by Guy Cullingford and for time travel in the context of a detective fiction plot we have Repeat Performance (1942) by William O’Farrell. While the ghost story aspect is often played for laughs and the time travel is hazily explained there is no doubt that Manners has concocted a legitimate detective novel with more than the requisite plot twists and unexpected developments.

UK edition (Hector Kelly, Ltd., 1954)
Unusual for a time travel story is the conceit that James Hunt-human and James Hunt-ghost occur in several scenes simultaneously. In order to clear up the confusion human James of the past is referred to as “Jim” while the ghost narrates the story as “I”. Takes some getting used to the “I” James Hunt referring to himself as “Jim” but as the story progresses the confusion dissipates and it’s easy to distinguish them as separate characters even though they are in essence the same person.

What isn’t too easy to accept is the way the ghost travels around the city. Because he is a wisp of a being and can’t actually be seen by anyone other than his wife who summoned him he is a bind when it comes to getting from place to place. Since he is invisible to nearly everyone he can’t, for instance, hail a cab, so he finds it necessary to hitch rides by closely following a human inside. His “vaporous fingers” can’t turn on a light switch or grasp and turn a door knob. He must wait for humans to perform these actions for him. Yet when it serves the plot he can easily pass through walls in order to access a room! He also behaves too much like a human, taking off clothes in order to sleep, and putting on shoes before leaving his house. Very odd for a ghost, I’d say. These infrequent inconsistencies in the construct of the fantasy world led me to give Manners a few demerits for laziness.

Still from the film Laura (1944)
Still the plot itself makes up for the admittedly few slip-ups and contradictions. The beginning of the novel is actually the end. James announces that he has solved a murder but several chapters pass by before we realize who was killed. Yes, he is supposedly drowned and dead in the bathtub, but we -- along with “I” -- travel back to the previous events and follow “Jim” through the series of events that lead to the murder of a woman folk singer. A surprise is in store when her corpse is replaced with a nude statue. In fact the identity of the missing corpse is a mystery in itself. Is it Jennifer Dell, the singer, or her friend Muriel Paquette? Was there a mix-up because they were dressed similarly and look somewhat alike? This piece of the plot reminded me too much of Laura (novel written four years earlier than Manners' book and the very popular movie coming out in 1944). And that plot similarity carries through to include one of the biggest surprises in Laura. I was disappointed with that copycat plot but once again Manners accomplishes a nifty coup when he outperforms even Vera Caspary in plot machinations. I was genuinely surprised by the murderer’s identity, if not his very old school motive. There are in fact several murders in the book before we get to the climactic moment when Jim ends up in a bathtub.



All is explained in the end including the quirky reason for the appearance of the ghost in the first place. For such a violent and tough action-oriented book there are happy endings all around with several reunions, a couple of planned weddings and a final smile inducing touch of irony in the penultimate chapter.

THINGS I LEARNED: Towards the end of the book Jim is faced with various domestic troubles in two different families while sorting out possible motives for the killing of Jennifer (or is it Muriel?). Manners writes: “Jim Hunt was feeling suddenly like Mr. Anthony, mender of broken homes.” He is referring to John J Anthony (born Lester Kroll) who had an extremely popular radio show, “The Good Will Hour,” devoted to giving advice to unhappy married people. According to Kroll’s New York Times obituary: “At the peak of his radio career, in 1939, Mr. Anthony was heard on more than 700 stations and his earnings were estimated at $3,000 a week [$55,372 in 2019 money].”

THE AUTHOR: David X Manners (1912-2007) was a highly prolific writer of detective, adventure and western short stories for various pulp fiction magazines. From his first story, “A Striking Resem-blance” (Ten Detective Aces, Nov. 1934) to his last, “The Town that Terror Built"(Adventure, Oct 1959), he was one of the most popular American writers in the second tier magazines. Frequently, his name appeared on the cover of Ten Detective Aces, sometimes he had the featured cover story (see at left). Clearly, the publisher’s thought he was a guaranteed seller for that particular magazine. Though his stories number close to 130 he wrote only two full length crime and detective novels, Memory of A Scream (1946) and Dead to the World (1947).

Oddly, he is best known for being the inventor (according to himself and his family) of the do-it-yourself handbook. An accomplished carpenter and craftsmen he authored several books on DIY home projects some of them still in print today. His nascent career as a pioneer in DIY home repair can be seen in Dead to the World when James Hunt ingeniously uses the knife-like corner of a candlestick as a hatchet and uses it to break open a wooden door (“Remembering that the penetrating power of such things as knives and picks was because all the force behind them was concentrated on a very small point of surface…”). Manners later went on to create his own publishing company devoted to DIY books and a public relations firm which sadly declared bankruptcy last year.