Friday, November 22, 2019

FFB: The Triple Bite - Brian Flynn

THE STORY: A riddle in rhyme and a complicated alpha-numeric code are the key to a hidden treasure that lifelong criminal Sam Trout has left to two lucky people. One of them is Nigel Strachan, a lawyer who defended Trout in his last criminal trial, and whose kindness and decency is being rewarded by Trout with the chance of finding the treasure. Trout is leaving it up to “the best brain” among the two lucky recipients to solve the riddle and code and find the hidden riches. Nigel brings the code to the Cameron household and hopes his friends will be able to help him find the mystery location by breaking the code. Murder and mayhem follow when a group of crooks learn of the hidden treasure and stop at nothing to get to the treasure first.

THE CHARACTERS: The Triple Bite (1931) is another of Brian Flynn’s experiments in narrative structure. Once again we have a first person narrator – this time a woman in the person of Cecilia Cameron – who finds it necessary to step into the shoes of other people in order to tell portions of the story. Cecilia like Rector Parry-Probyn in Murder En Route (and apparently other Flynn mystery novels according to Steve Barge’s introductory material in the Dean Street Press reprint edition) will often write entire chapters in the third person to tell us of portions of the story when she was not present herself. She later explains that these were told to her afterwards by the people who actually experienced those parts of the action. Usually these scenes feature Bathurst alone muddling over some odd piece of the puzzle or the police interviewing suspects. I wonder what the point of this is. When it would be just as easy to write the whole book in third person. I thought that this was a peculiarity of Brian Flynn, but recently quite by accident while I was reviewing a few of my old posts I discovered that this very mixing of first and third person occurs in Catt Out of Bag (1939) by Clifford Witting. Was it a trend in popular fiction then? Was everyone mimicking one another?

The novel starts out like a dime novel thriller with good guys and bad guys clearly delineated and no real mystery as to who might be the villain of the piece. “Flame” Lampard and his gang of thugs infiltrate the Cameron household, intimidate and threaten, abduct and even bind and gag the housekeeper. A shootout occurs one night as the crooks do their best to get the heroes and heroines to give in to their demands. When Cecilia’s uncle is found dead outside a nearby home, seemingly from natural causes, she finds it necessary to call in Anthony Bathurst. Only then does the plot morph into a genuine detective novel.

Flynn does a good job of sprinkling the gruesome and bizarre events with a healthy dose of lively humor. Cecilia’s Aunt Elspeth is on hand for some moments of comic relief with her supercilious comments and derisive put-downs and Bathurst is always willing to lighten the impending darkness with a quip or two.

INNOVATIONS: In addition to being a nifty genre blending mystery incorporating aspects of a crime thriller and a detective novel with a soupcon of Gothic chills The Triple Bite is a homage to Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction, the kind of stories that seem to have greatly influenced Brian Flynn in his mystery writing. The first and most obvious homage is to Sherlock Holmes. In the brief introductory note that precedes the novel Flynn tells us himself that he was inspired to write his book based on “one line of a [Holmes] short story” by Arthur Conan Doyle. We are not told from which story this one line comes until the final chapter. The line refers to one of the many unchronicled cases of Holmes and Watson, some of them too gruesome or sensational to be told to the general public. The one line appears in an entire paragraph of case references – six in total – found in the short story “The Adventure of The Golden Pince-Nez.” I see no need to hold back that piece of info since Flynn and Bathurst hold back too much already, not only in this novel but in almost every one of his adventures. Even if you look up the paragraph (or know it by heart) it is doubtful you will be able to tell exactly which case inspired the writing of this book.

Original illustration from "The Adventure of
the Flitterbat Lancers" (Windsor Magazine, 1896)
In his introduction Steve Barge, our resident Flynn maven, makes some conjectures about this particular Holmes case and its use in The Triple Bite, but I’m surprised he completely overlooked the other detective fiction allusion in the novel. In attempting to solve the riddle/code in Sam Trout’s note Bathurst is reminded of a similar use of jargon in a case solved by Martin Hewitt, Arthur Morrison’s consulting detective whose adventures were published in The Strand and Windsor Magazine the same years as the Holmes stories. There is an unfortunate typo when the case is mentioned in this reprint edition. Whether the error was in the original text used to create this edition I do not know, but someone ought to have corrected it. The case is “The Adventure of the Flitterbat Lancers”-- rendered as Dancers in this edition. Anyone acquainted with that tale will know that it features a discussion of criminal underworld argot. You learn the meaning of slang terms like horney which means a street musician who plays the cornet, and an unusual use of the word dancer. This truly arcane term is wholly unfair to the reader unless he happens to be a veteran of Victorian era crime or a diehard fan of Martin Hewitt’s exploits. Luckily, Flynn explains the peculiar meaning both in Morrison’s story and as it applies to the case Bathurst is trying to solve.

My only complaint was the endless talk in monologue form. Bathurst does go on at length too often. Conversations are dominated by one character who drones on and on, rather than making the scenes more dynamic with input from all the characters. And Flynn has a regrettable habit of letting his paragraphs run on interminably for entire page lengths when in fact they are made up of multiple paragraphs. He needed a real editor back in the day. With this new edition there was an opportunity to improve ease of reading by breaking up those long paragraphs into smaller ones. A minor quibble and a personal taste of mine when it comes to reprinting older works.

Though this novel may owe too much to century old detective stories it was overall one of the better Brian Flynn mystery novels I’ve read. The bizarre murder means, the inclusion of a code and riddle (one easy to solve, one overly complicated) and the general good humor expressed throughout the novel all made it well worth reading. Still it’s no Murder En Route. I’m hoping that soon I’ll read one of Flynn’s mystery novels that lives up to the ingenuity and high entertainment quality of that book.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Wealth of Wells - Pulp Covers of Carolyn Wells' Stories & Serials

After finding a five page long list (!) of Carolyn Well's work published in magazines from 1897 - 1940 I was curious to see the covers that promoted her stories in the numerous pulp magazines over her long career.  Some of them were so striking and evocative had I been alive decades ago I would've easily been tempted to spend my last dime or quarter on one of these magazines.

I picked out a selection of the finest examples, mostly those that advertise a serial that was beginning in the given issue, some are promoting a short story like "Common Sense Cutler." Nearly all of these are Fleming Stone detective novels that were later published by either George H. Doran (until about 1922) and then Lippincott, her book publisher for most of her career. The final one pictured (Skeleton at the Feast) is a Kenneth Carlisle mystery and he was the detective character who was published by Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club."

Scroll away, gang!

One of Well's serials that appeared in a "slick" magazine rather than a pulp. Her work also regularly appeared in the dream publication of her era -- The Saturday Evening Post. Usually it was her poetry and humor they bought. OH! The title of the book the boy is reading is How to Develop a Pleasing Personality. Took me a while to discern that!

Friday, November 15, 2019

FFB: Boo Hoo: Not So Scary Houses of Horror - Carolyn Wells & Michael Crombie

Today's Friday's Forgotten Book post is on two books that belong more to Alternative Mystery category and are forgotten with good reason. Both published in the early 1930s each book shares some conventions already becoming mystery novel cliches in this early period. Horror House is an example of Carolyn Wells at her most turgid and unimaginative self pulling out every hoary cliche -- or as she would put it "hackneyed device" -- and then some. Michael Crombie (aka James Ronald, one of my favorite unsung and under-appreciated writers of the Golden Age) does the same in The House of Horror but at least he does it with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Both writers are known for their offbeat sense of humor: Wells was a punster and wordplay enthusiast, while Ronald was a master of witty banter and bitchy comebacks. But while both writers show their skill at comic scenes and dialogue neither book is a very good detective novel.

Let's dispense with Well's horror first. Horror House (1931) is her 51st mystery novel! It comes in her mid career, with 50 detective novels and close to that in juvenile books already under her belt. She was a veteran by 1931 and would write another 31 books before she called it quits in 1942. One would expect some snappy modernity to her writing by this point. But no, like so many of her 30s and 40s novels this one is still redolent of that bygone era when she was only a fledgling mystery writer. Her indefatigable detective Fleming Stone was growing ever grayer -- meaning colorless rather than aging -- and tiresome displaying his "transcendental" gifts at amateur sleuthing. The convoluted and utterly preposterous story is one of Wells' many attempts to emulate her more successful contemporaries. On the surface Horror House most resembles The Greene Murder Case(1928) in that it is yet another of those family decimation plots. A diabolical murderer is knocking off the members of a single household, one by one, using as many methods as he can get his hands on. Not satisfied with bullets (Wells has never used a gun in her books because she said she knew nothing about them and couldn't be bothered to learn) Wells' killer in Horror House dispatches his victims by stabbing, poisoning, automobile sabotage, and strangling.

15 century gauntlet
(courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art website)
The strangulation is particularly baroque as it is carried out with gauntlets taken from a suit of armor, affectionately dubbed Max by the Bailey family. But the victim had also partaken of alcoholic punch spiked with knockout drops in order that the strangling could be efficiently carried out. Clue #1 - murderer is not too strong and therefore either a woman or a feeble old person theorizes our genius Fleming Stone. If you know Wells then of those choices there is only one possibility and the murderer's identity is a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, I pressed on hoping that the book would elicit some cheap thrills, some more weird murders or an odd example of her histrionic melodrama. Instead I got cheap laughs, often at Carolyn Wells' expense.

Luckily not a secret passage in sight in this one, but the absence of that frequently used hackneyed device is made up for in annoyance factor by her choice of vocabulary and her treatment of one of the female characters. Poor Agnes, a housemaid of "exquisite beauty" prone to sneaking into Mrs. Bailey's boudoir to "loll in the luxurious furnishings" and dip into her mistress' cosmetics, is dismissed as an airhead. Referred to as "dumbbell" and having "an unattractive personality" she is relegated to the dumpster of red herrings, yet another example of Wells' overt class prejudice and snobbishness. The servants in Wells' books are never given any signs of cleverness, intellect or vivaciousness. Agnes may be beautiful but her beauty is of the Old Testament 'sinful' type -- to tempt men and be symbolic of the foolishness of vanity.

If you aren't irritated by this supercilious worldview then the strange word choices ought to set your eyes a-rolling. Some examples? Wells prefers inutile to 'useless', persiflage rather than 'mocking banter' pops up twice, a hostile witness at an inquest is heard "murmuring anathema all around". Instead of simply saying that Owen Bailey snorted she writes "well mannered though he was, [Owen] gave utterance to a sound that is colloquially known as a snort." All of those examples occur on a single page! I grew impatient with her florid syntax and antiquated vocabulary. Clearly this is her equally antiquated sense of humor giving rise as we approach the climax of the book, but I just wanted her to get the point as I reached a body count of four victims and occurrence of a second inquest in a nearly 300 page novel.

Her final affront is the constant drawing parallels between detective fiction and "real life." As if the book we are reading is supposed to be some kind of extremely hip and modern 1930s crime novel reflective of the violent world of gangster ridden America. The plot and crimes are as ludicrously fantastic as the fiction she is constantly alluding to.

It was a relief that Wells had not resorted to filling her Horror House with secret passages as she usually does. But the same cannot be said of Michael Crombie. The House of Horror (1935) is a veritable labyrinth of secret passages, underground tunnels, priest holes and hidden rooms. There are so many passageways in Hunter's Keep, Wilmer Basingstoke's house, I was half expecting someone to press on a wooden panel and, rather than sending a gigantic portrait swinging open on its well oiled, hidden hinge and stepping into a shadowy corridor between the walls, to be spontaneously disintegrated and sent into another dimension. For not only are there people creeping about in these hidden corridors there are multiple disappearances of four separate characters, including the bloody corpse of Wilmer Basingstoke himself.

Coincidentally, this book also talks about about detective fiction, but there is an express purpose for it. Basingstoke is a crime writer. He began with true crime, Capote style true crime that uses the conventions of fictional narrative rather than reportage. He then branched out into murder mysteries. We get to read two full chapters of one of his novels over the course of The House of Horror. Peter Wootton, our lead detective -- in an effort to explain the relationship of the victim to the prime suspect, an escaped criminal known as "the Basher" -- pulls down a book from the Basingstoke's crammed library shelves and reads aloud from it to his Watson. Here was a chance for James Ronald (aka "Crombie") to show off his gift for narrative shifting but the tone and style of Basingstoke's book within the book is no different than the book we are reading about the characters at Hunter's Keep. Written with more blood and thunder and colloquial language the book-within-the-book serves no purpose at all. Those two chapters could easily have been replaced with a short dialogue scene. Wooton could have explained in a few sentences how Basingstoke wrote of his adventures in amateur sleuthing by turning them into novels and changing the names of those involved.

The whole of The House of Horror is lacking in any genuine thrills or scares. The title is hyberbolic and obviously meant to attract people like me with a taste for cheap lurid entertainment. The ploy of the title worked, but I can't say I'm at all satisfied with what I got. I'm sure some will find what occurs in its pages to be wildly entertaining. I only kept on reading for a few of the characters.

Philip Lavery and Irma Dering are two perfect embodiments of wealthy layabouts posing as sufferers of ersatz weltschmerz, bored with everyone except each other. Irma is a delight of brusque opinions and catty dismissals, a welcome contrast to the virginal goodness of Lucy Halperin. We're probably meant to hate Irma as much as Lucy does for her superior posturing and cruel barbs, but I thought Irma Dering was one of the best characters in the book. She crumbles under pressure when the body count gets too high and she has a wonderfully frank scene with Lucy where she admits to her fraudulent persona and wishes she could be more real like Lucy. These were the moments that made the book worth sticking with. However, The House of Horror overall is presented like a genuine parody of the country house murder mystery. In terms of plot it is the most stereotypical story I've read from Ronald who usually displays a more original and ingenious imagination in his crime fiction.

Despite the caustic humor and witty banter as a mystery novel this House of Horror is more House of Ho-hum. Ultimately, the various mysteries are self-defeating, the book one long shaggy dog story. Those of you who have read The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson may know what I mean by that. Its abundance of cliches and "hackneyed devices", the ridiculous amount of secret passages and all the rest of its pseudo-Gothic trappings tip off the reader to the anticlimactic revelation in the final chapter. The House of Horrors collapses like a house of cards and the time spent reading of its many "baffling" disappearances and gruesomely bloody deaths proves to have been a waste, the story as flimsy as the pasteboard playing cards metaphorically lying at our feet.

Friday, November 8, 2019

FFB: The Reluctant Medium - L. P. Davies

THE STORY:  A self-described "business consultant" is recruited into becoming a ghostbuster when strange apparitions manifest themselves at Butchart House. Either a ghost is seeking retribution or a very clever and cruel human is serving up a nasty bit of revenge. David Conway, with the help of his policeman friend Clifford Pearson, digs up the past and unearths secrets spookier than a mere ghostly visitor.

THE CHARACTERS: Jennifer Rawson, ward of the ancient invalid Matthew Rawson, turns to her friend David Conway to help root out the truth of the ghostly visitor who scared the daylights out of her houseguest Sheila Brand.  The apparition complete with lemony scent and wailing and moaning seems to be the ghost of Walter Hudd, a former business associate of her "uncle" who was framed for a crime he never committed.  He committed suicide several years ago vowing shortly before his death to get his revenge on those who wronged him.  When a sample of Hudd's handwriting delivered in person by a woman spiritualist who claims the message was part of an seance and automatic writing she composed while under a trance even Matthew Rawson, Jennifer's foster father and guardian can be convinced that something supernatural is happening.  David Conway is however not so gullible.

This is a fine example of the ghostbusting occult detective subgenre wherein an amateur detective is determined to prove ostensibly supernatural events are nothing more than the work of clever frauds and con artists.  Fictional accounts of these types of detective novels were very popular in the days following World War 1 when spiritualism had a resurgence and fraudulent mediums were quick to capitalize on the overwhelming number of people grieving for loved ones lost to the carnage of war.  The Ghost Girl (1913) by Henry Kitchell Webster, is one of the best examples of crooked mediums preying on the grief-stricken and draining their bank accounts with the promises of communication form the Great Beyond.  In The Reluctant Medium (1967) we find two questionable spiritualists in a mother and son team, Mrs. Proudfoot and Sidney. David Conway visits their very freeform operation run out of the Proudfoot home hoping to see some of the usual tricks and gimmicks of fraudsters. A surprise is in store for David when, while in an attempt to communicate with one of the regular client's dead relatives, Mrs. Proudfoot in a weird trance begins to utter words and phrases that have meaning only to David.  He is spooked and shaken and leaves the Proudfoot home thinking that the old woman may in fact have a supernatural gift.
UK 1st edition with original title:
Tell It to the Dead (1966)

Later he hears a confession from Sheila Brand, the witness to the ghostly manifestation at Butchart House. She too feels that she has some sort of talent. To her it is a curse, not a gift.  Eerie things happen wherever she goes: strange visions appear, odd smells manifest and other worldly voices cry out to her.  She is convinced the ghost is all her fault and begins to behave increasingly neurotic with paranoid imaginings. Everyone around her fears she is headed for a nervous breakdown. David listens attentively, leaves Sheila in the care of the women, but treats all he hears and sees with suspicion. He is sure that Simon Proudfoot is colluding with Walter Hudd's son Leslie in a sort of combined blackmail and psychological revenge scheme.  The bulk of the story is spent in some complex detective work as David looks into the past lives of Walter and Rose Hudd and the bizarre trail of foster families where Leslie ended up after his father committed suicide and his mother refused to raise her own child.

Then tragedy strikes. Just as David is about to visit Mrs. Hudd for a second time and get the full details on Leslie's past history and some connections to the Rawson family she has a fatal accident. It seems all too convenient to David, ever quick to suspect bad deeds and devious characters at work behind the scenes. He convinces Det.-Sgt. Pearson to treat the accidental fall as a possible murder. Together the two conduct a covert investigation combining the ghost activity at Butchart House with Mrs. Hudd’s death. What they uncover will prove to be more astonishing than the possibility of a real ghost or genuine psychic ability.

INNOVATIONS:  Of all the books I have read by L. P. Davies this one comes closest to a traditional detective novel. That is also an occult detective novel is an added bonus. There are well planted clues, lots of genuine detective work, surprises galore, several shocking deaths beside Mrs. Hudd's, and a final twist right out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. Yes, literally out of the pages of a Christie novel. I dare not tell you the book that has the exact twist, but that Davies managed to fool me is the highest praise I can give both the writer and this book.  Once again, I found myself gasping aloud on the bus when I read a single sentence in the penultimate chapter.  "Just like in UNMENTIONABLE TITLE by Agatha!" I said to myself. I challenge any Christie fan to read this mystery novel and pick up on the trick Davies uses. The story is so well told that never once did I ever suspect anything off in the narrative and still he easily pulled the wool over my eyes. It was masterfully accomplished and yet should have been all too obvious!

OTHER EDITIONS:  The Reluctant Medium was originally published in England under the title Tell It to the Dead (see cover of that edition above). It is this edition that is most easy to find in the used book market.  The US edition, a copy of which I found only few weeks ago as a cheap ex-library book in surprisingly excellent condition, is very scarce. In the U.K. the book was released as by "Leslie Vardre", one of Davies' many pseudonyms. He wrote two novels as Vardre and apparently wrote several short stories using that pen name, too.  I have yet to see any of his short stories under any name, let alone his own.