Friday, December 27, 2019

FFB: The Haunted River - Charlotte Riddell

THE STORY: Margaret and Georgie Vernam are sisters who have grown tired of living in London. They've spent much of the summer house hunting for a quaint cottage they can afford in the countryside. When they come across a bargain priced house near a dilapidated mill they feel they have found their dream hone. But the house and the mill have a dreaded past and their landlord begins acting rather suspiciously once they move in. By Christmas Day Margaret will witness mysterious events, confront possible apparitions and solve a horrid crime that almost goes unpunished.

THE CHARACTERS: The Haunted River (1877) is narrated by Margaret Vernam whose full name we do not until well into this novella. Prior to this we know her only as Peg, a nickname her sister has given her and one Margaret loathes but endures because she cannot but help but love her darling sister. Like many Victorian heroines of this late period she is a strong-willed, plain looking and sensible woman striving to be self-employed as a painter and sketch artist following in the footsteps of her much more successful painter father now deceased.

Her sister Georgie is typically the opposite of Margaret -- drop dead gorgeous, vivacious and gregarious, liked by everyone she meets, equipped with a disarming personality that even ruffians and nasty spirited children can be tamed by her gentle approach. A bit dreamy and flighty Georgie is the one who convinces Margaret to keep looking for their country dream house. It is Georgie who finds the advertisement for the bargain cottage near the mill, a remarkably spacious home with an expansive grounds, offered at a rent of only £50 a year.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the business of house hunting, wheeling and dealing with unctuous Mr. Lauston who claims he is acting as an agent for an unnamed third party. Lauston is a contradiction. He finds himself attracted to Margaret's business acumen and enjoys negotiating with her, but he almost immediately reneges on many of their agreements. As the story progresses Margaret will discover he has ulterior motives and -- like any true unctuous Victorian character -- he guards a secret in his past.

Scattered through the the narrative characters relate the past of the haunted mill, the horrible events that happened by the river banks and the legends that keep the locals away from the property. Only Margaret will be witness to events related to those stories of the past. in one of the earliest scenes she creates a painting with a strange man standing by an oak tree. When her servant looks at it she is aghast that Margaret has painted an exact likeness of Mr. Dingley, the former mill owner, who died several years ago. More surprising is that the reader knows that Margaret painted the man from life as she saw him standing by the tree while she was painting at her easel outdoors in the bright sunshine of a summer afternoon.

In the final third of the novel the sisters encounter a poor old woman being taunted by cruel children. Georgie manages to stop the rock throwing and foul language and the two of them take the woman into their home. She tells them yet another story about Mr. Lauston's niece Clara. Filled with the typical trappings of Victorian sensation fiction -- a child born in secret, shame and guilt ridden characters, child abduction, and incarceration in an asylum -- it is a truly horrible tale she tells. Margaret is appalled. Clara we learn is the victim of a Collins-like conspiracy reminiscent of the fate of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. It will fall to Margaret to set all things right late one night in the house when a strange woman, dripping wet and barefoot guides Margaret to a secret location in the house where some all important documents have been hidden.

Ultimately The Haunted River is indeed a ghost story as well as a sort of occult detective tale with Margaret acting as an accidental detective and her Watson turning out to be a ghost. Or was she real? The final 30 pages of the story are rife with thrilling set pieces, heightened emotions and evocative writing. Best of all the final ghostly apparition actually appears on Christmas Day in true Victorian tradition.

INNOVATIONS: Unlike the conventional Victorian ghost story writers who confined their hauntings to indoor settings with creaking staircases, darkened corridors and shadow filled homes Charlotte Riddel dared to write of ghosts and apparitions appearing in broad daylight. And not only broad daylight but in the wildness of outdoors. She would specialize in what S. M. Ellis called "open air" ghosts and enjoyed writing stories about haunted farms, forests and in the case of this novella a river.

QUOTES: At all events, whenever the evening was fairly fine, I paced the garden path slowly, watching and thinking as the evening closed and the darker shadows stole on.

Even in the daytime one could scarcely distinguish where the ivy began and the laurels ended; where the barberries had their roots and the rhododendrons fought with clustering briony and the fatal convolvulus for life; but when twilight came the whole corner of the bridge resolved itself into one dark mass of dense foliage.

Two or three times on the evening after Anne told me of Miss Lauston's story, I fancied I heard a stir and movement amongst this greenery, that when I stopped to listen I felt something more animate than the leaves was moving in the cover.

Each time I passed I gave the boughs a shake, so strong was the fancy upon me, and at last I parted the branches, and thrust my arm amongst the tangled creepers.

As I did so, something rushed out, so swiftly, so suddenly, that I started back affrighted. Something soft and cold touched my cheek. Something brushed my dress. Something lithe and shadowy flitted between me and the imperfect twilight in the open garden beyond, and then was gone.

THE AUTHOR: Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906), published under her married name as Mrs. J. H. Riddell, was one of the most prolific writers of short stories and novels in the mid to late Victorian era. She was the first women to write about the City and business life as Arthur Waugh recalls in One Mans' Road. He reminds us that nearly all of her income from her various publishers was lost by her "hopeless husband" a civil engineer who spent her money "on patenting impracticable stoves" among other foolish ideas. She wrote in a variety of genres including romance, domestic melodrama and sensation fiction. But she is perhaps best known for her supernatural fiction, both in long and short form. There is much written about her life on the internet and in long out of print biographies. The best info on Charlotte Riddell is found in Richard Dalby's introduction to the Sarob Press reissue of The Haunted River which draws from an essay by S. M. Ellis in his biographical work Wilkie Collins, LeFanu and Others (Constable, 1931). Ellis had a remarkable correspondence with Charlotte Riddell in the the last months of her life related to tracking down a copy of The Haunted River.

EASY TO FIND? According to Richard Dalby The Haunted River was for decades the most difficult of Mrs. Riddell's Christmas ghost stories to obtain in an original edition. Despite the efforts of E. F. Bleiler uncovering copies of The Uninhabited House and reprinting that novella and issuing an entire volume of her short stories with supernatural content The Haunted River languished in the "Limbo of Out of Printdom" until the 21st century. It was first printed in a limited edition of 300 copies by Sarob Press in 2001 which quickly sold out. Only a few copies of that edition are currently offered by online used booksellers but are all now priced in the "collector's market" range. Luckily, by 2012 all of Riddell's supernatural fiction had been uncovered and reprinted. Leonaur Ltd. took on the monumental task of publishing a three volume set of Charlotte Riddell's entire output of supernatural fiction. The Haunted River can be found in Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mrs. J. H. Riddell: Volume 1 (2012). All three volumes are still in print and available from the usual mega-retail websites who deal in books.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

From Now On Our Troubles Will Be Miles Away

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

I'm feeling ridiculously nostalgic this year at Christmastime. So here's a time travelling video to the good ol' days of Marshall Field's department store and their gorgeous holiday windows. Actually, one of these window displays was designed by the Macy's crew (the Mays company who own Macy's bought Marshall Field's back in 2006 and eventually ruined everything that Marshall Field's was). In 2013 the Macy's windows were a tribute to Marshall Field's and so you will see some animated figures eating in the splendid Walnut Room, some candy makers cooking up a batch of Field's signature holiday Frango mints, and other scenes about the grand department store of Chicago's recent and long past. Enjoy this trip down memory lane for what it was like to have Christmas in Chicago.

Whoever or whatever you believe in, however you celebrate this end of the year, have a memorable and magical time. Make the most of it you wonderful people out there in the dark. Looking forward to more literary Lost in Limbo discoveries and sharing them with you as round out this decade in 2020.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2019, part two

Here's my slightly overdue second nomination for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2019. Based on my hints in last week's post one savvy reader correctly predicted what I would be writing about.  Anyone who has read Friday's Forgotten Book post on December 20 will also know what I'm about to announce.

But first some mandatory plugging.  The Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year is the brainchild of Kate Jackson.  Everything you need to know about this years' contest can be found at her blog Cross Examining Crime.  There will be two nominations from each of the seven participating in-the-know crime fiction mavens. Voting opens today, I believe, and the winner (winners?) will be announced on December 30.

Without further ado my second choice for the best reprint is...

Nothing Is the Number When You Die by Joan Fleming

Dover Publications, an American reprint house that is doing fine work reviving vintage crime fiction writers many of whom have been out of print for 50 years or more, has now reprinted a total of three Joan Fleming novels.  Last year they gave us her two CWA Gold Dagger winning mystery novels. First, Young Man I Think You're Dying (originally published in 1970) and then in Sept. 2018 they followed up with When I Grow Rich (1962) reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books back in 2013. Now they round out a perfect trilogy of Fleming's finest crime novels with the pseudo-sequel to When I Grow RichNothing Is the Number When You Die also features her only series character Nuri Iskirlak, more formally referred to as Nuri bey throughout both novels.

I enjoyed this sequel more than the first of the Nuri bey books.  While it was fun to get to read about 1960s era Turkey in When I Grow Rich, what makes this second novel more fascinating is the culture clash of a conservative man of Islamic faith travelling to the Swinging 60s of modern Oxford, England. He is barely equipped to face the vast differences between his homeland and this Brave New World.

The focus of the story is on two college age young people. Jason Yenish is a young man who Nuri has been tasked with tracking down and convincing him to return to school. Jason's wayward paramour, Ronda, has sent him derailing off his university track and careering down some very dangerous roadways as he tries to save the girl from her self-destructive drug and sex addiction.

The book is both a detective novel that follows an old "find the missing person" plot mixed with an action packed pursuit thriller. Nuri must also contend with a sinister Turk who is after a hidden cache of drugs. In acting as part detective, part counsellor and part action hero Nuri discovers a wealth of hidden traits and talents he never thought he was capable of.

For a detailed review go here.

And now let the voting begin!  Good Luck to all the nominees.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Advent Ghosts 2019: And Since We Have No Place to Go

Each year at this time Loren Eaton who writes at his blog I Saw Lightning Fall invites creative writers to challenge themselves with the micro short story called a drabble. One hundred words -- no more, no less. The only other rules are that each story must have a Christmas theme and must be in the ghost story tradition.  Some take the traditional Victorian road paved with eerie frissons and visited by wispy ghosts, others travel down the darker, bloodier pathways of contemporary horror. My contribution is like a quick trip to the world of Rod Serling style nightmares with a suitably old time Christmas music soundtrack. 

"And Since We Have No Place to Go..."

In the past they never saw each other at Christmas time. Such a shame. He claimed he hated winter, that he was afraid of snowstorms inevitably altering his travel plans, fearful of missing his much anticipated return flight. How could a son be so ungrateful? But she fixed that, changed his attitude permanently. And now she can see him anytime of the year. For him it would always be winter. One more furious shaking of the snow globe. She smiled wickedly watching miniature tantrums. These were blizzards worthy of dread. Dean Martin’s singing was the added punishment. "Let it snow…!"

Friday, December 20, 2019

FFB: Nothing Is the Number When You Die - Joan Fleming

THE STORY:  What seems to be a simple job of finding a university student who took an extended leave turns into an adventure worthy of a private eye movie. Nuri Iskirlak finds himself interrogating college girls, landladies and aging aristocrats. With each visit he learns more of the student's intriguing life outside of Oxford. Nuri is pursued by the sinister Arnika, uncovers the tawdry life of a promiscuous co-ed and her trail of pregnancies and boyfriends, and stumbles upon the location of a missing cache of pure heroin.

THE CHARACTERS: Nuri bey was previously encountered in Fleming's CWA Award winning thriller When I Grow Rich (1962) and his adventures in Nothing Is the Number When You Die (1965) make up an almost direct sequel. Unfortunately, the finale of the previous book is spoiled more than once in the telling of this novel so it is best to read the books in order saving this one for last. Fleming models the book on an old-fashioned 40s noir film with Nuri acting as a private eye albeit without the handsome retainer to entice him to carry out the work. As a friend of the family he is asked to track down the son of Torgüt Yenish, whose wife Tamara Nuri knew as a teenager. Complicating matters is the fact that Nuri has been in love with Tamara his entire life, and regrets not having the courage to have confessed his love to her decades ago. The Yenish boy, Jason, is a student at Oxford where is has just up and vanished from his classes. Rumor has it that he has taken up with a bad girl who is leading him down a path of temptation and self-destruction. Nuri agrees to travel to England and find the boy, convince him to return to his studies and to contact his family. The job will prove not to be as simple as he thinks. For that night Yenish is shot in the head in his study. Now it seems as if his son's disappearance is connected to some criminal enterprise.

Among the many people Nuri questions his most intelligent and insightful helpers are women.  From the curious and overly friendly co-ed to the ancient woman who is secretly providing a haven for Jason Nuri finds that Western women are wiser, more compassionate and more resourceful than any of the men he meets in Oxford and its environs. There are comic characters among the women like Lady Mercia Mossop forever tending to her gardens and doing her best to keep her rambunctious dog Fido from intimidating Nuri with affectionate pouncing.  I also liked the scenes with Maisie, the garrulous good-natured aunt of Jason's girlfriend who acts as Nuri's chauffeur for a while. The standouts in the novel are Jason's girlfriend Hannah who reluctantly becomes Nuri's best confederate while the most unlikely and bravest of the lot turns out to be Yenish's widow Tamara who ultimately finds that she most resort to crime in order to save the reputation of her husband before the police discover his own secret criminal past. Tamara also has the most interesting hobby of astrology combined with astronomy. She has a private retreat with a high powered telescope that is her own observatory which will provide her with a brief moment of unusual clarity towards the climax of the novel.

Surprisingly, the crux of the plot will center around not Jason but his equally lost lover Ronda. She is lost in spirit, a directionless young lady who thinks her only worth is in offering herself to any man who will pay attention to her.  She has been pregnant too often,  had too many abortions and now has become Jason's project. He suffers from the Good Samaritan complex and is convinced he can save Ronda.  Nuri bey, on the other hand feels that Ronda is more than trouble -- she is a disaster waiting to happen.  His thoughts about Ronda, however, go unheeded and will serve as a dire prophecy for future horrific events.

INNOVATIONS: Fleming does a fine job conveying the culture shock that Nuri bey faces when he is meets England's Swinging '60s full on. This "fish out of water" kind of story can make for farcical humor, but Fleming chooses to introduce humorous elements in a sly manner. As the story is primarily told from Nuri's viewpoint we get his outsider's opinion of scandalous fashions, wild hair styles and outspoken young women that are all too much for a conservative middle-aged man of Islam. Her satirical descriptions of modern college girls are always done with her customary tongue-in-cheek humor, never appearing to be disguised social critiques.

QUOTES: "Have pity on yourself, man, do not behave like an adolescent schoolboy, nurturing a rattlesnake which will surely grow up and kill you."

"...he doesn't kill for the sake of killing, as you would say. He would kill in desperation and will kill but he's not..."
"No. I would say he is not a person but a figure of acquisition, he lives to acquire."

After witnessing Nuri Bey become uncharacteristically violent to Arnika, the antagonistic and sinister Turk hot on his trail, two railway officials are described: The two officials looked at each other; knowing, as they did, that the travelling public consisted largely of lunatics and raving maniacs, they exchanged sardonic smiles.

A few girls walked up or down but they were of such terrifying aspect that Nuri bey did not dare ask anything of them. Some wore black stockings and had skirts many inches above their knees so that Nuri bey felt they must have lost their skirts. Some wore their hair piled as high as XVIII Century wigs, others had their hair hanging on their shoulders and some wore it over their faces in a kind of yashmak but more concealing and these Nuri bey too to be more ladylike and shy ones. All looked at him but their eyes strayed away with no more interest than if they had alighted upon a hat rack.

The longer I live, Nuri bey mused, the more I find I have to learn and he looked back at the land where the sun goes down, as they used to do in his country in the old days, and marvelled.

THE AUTHOR:  I've written about Joan Fleming many a time on this blog.  Astonishingly, I just learned that this is really the only mystery blog where her work is paid any attention or discussed in detail. There is a single hidden Joan Fleming page containing several book reviews (very old and unsecure so it often so doesn't show up in internet searches) with many reviews of her books by someone who discovered her work, but apparently never really followed through with his plan of reviewing all her novels. The only other places I uncovered posts on Joan Fleming are two brief posts:  one at Mysteries in Paradise and the other -- not too surprisingly-- at Mystery*File.  She's one of my favorite writers. Not one book has ever left me wanting or disappointed. For several years now I have been contemplating setting up a tribute website for her work. As Anthony Boucher so astutely observed in one of his Fleming reviews: " two of her novels resemble each other in anything save artistry."  I agree wholeheartedly; reading Joan Fleming is like coming to meet a favorite writer for the first time over and over.

EASY TO FIND?  Why yes it is! What wonderful Christmas news, right? Tune in tomorrow to find out just how easy. And for those who like their vintage mysteries authentically vintage there are hundreds of copies of both US and UK hardcover and paperback editions. Five pages worth of copies turned up in my simple search. Happy Hunting and Happier Reading!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2019, part one

The Salvation Army is ringing their bells on street corners.  The CTA has decked out their Holiday Train and Holiday Bus for the season.  And I'm running around hitting Chicago theaters, bars and restaurants celebrating my birthday. So you know what's that means. It's time once again for the Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year.

Once again Kate Jackson, Mistress of Crossed Examining Crime, has gathered together a group of  mystery mavens and highly opinionated experts who are more than willing to tell you what their favorite books are and which ones are deserving of the coveted virtual award known as Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the year.  or I guess Reprint of the Year for short.  Or even shorter -- The Roty [Not really].

For those who missed this extravaganza last year (or are too lazy to look it up from this blog's archives) I'll give you my own two most important rules for what I feel merit a wise choice of a vintage reprint:
  1. A truly forgotten author, long out of print
  2. Writing and plotting that contributes substantially to the genre
This year I've chose one male and one female writer who show innovation, ingenuity and tend to experiment with the conventions of traditional detective fiction to turn out unusual books.  For part one of the two nominations I've chosen one book by one of the genuinely forgotten writers, but most deserving of being re-introduced to the mystery community.

And now for nomination one.  Drum roll, please....

Murder En Route by Brian Flynn

  • Flynn's books have been out of print for decades, very few of them reprinted in paperback and none of them reprinted in paperback in the USA
  • His plots draw from weird fiction, sensation fiction, and impossible crime mysteries
  • His imaginative plots are kept interesting with lively characters, a nifty sense of humor and his love for detective fiction is infectious. Often he directly references writers who have influenced him like Conan Doyle and Arthur Morrison.
  • Murder En Route has a complex plot, an imaginative impossible crime, a riddle of identity and loads of fair play clues that might lead you to the solution.
Want to know more?  Read my review over here.

Next week the woman mystery writer who has had her two CWA award winning novels reissued along with one other mystery novel. Of note she is yet another writer overlooked by nearly all of the other vintage mystery blogs other than here at Pretty Sinister Books. To my knowledge she has only been covered at Dead Yesterday.

For more about how 2019's Reprint of the Year award nomination process is run and the schedule of visit Kate's blog Cross Examining Crime.

Friday, December 13, 2019

FFB: Murder Comes Back - Harriette Ashbrook

THE STORY: Moira Ballinger, widow of department store millionaire, is found dead in her bedroom shot through the head, apparently self-inflicted. Twenty years earlier her husband supposedly committed suicide in the same manner using the very same monogrammed revolver found in her limp hand. Is it merely a case of eerie déjà vu? Or is it a murder disguised?

CHARACTERS: Initially Murder Comes Back (1940) seems like it will be a run-of-the mill story of greedy relatives clinging tightly to secrets and too easily motivated to kill a vile relative in order to gain their inheritance. Money seems the obvious motive for all those implicated.  But Ashbrook is too clever to resort to tiresome conventions and cliche plot ideas. There are plenty of secrets in the Ballinger household a veritable avalanche of skeletons come tumbling out of multiple closets once Spike Tracy and Inspector Herschman begin questioning the relatives.

The murder investigation gets under way almost immediately with the intrusive presence of Dr. Horatio Pennypacker, a suspicious outspoken family physician who has taken it upon himself to imprison the person he thinks is the obvious murderer. He entrusts the key to a bedroom where he has locked up James Wort, the Ballinger family lawyer. Then Pennypacker enumerates several points about Prentice Ballinger's death and the outrageous coincidences that match up with his wife's recent supposed suicide, the most compelling being that each bedroom was wiped clean of all fingerprints except for those found on the revolver near the hand of each victim. Murder seems a proven fact with that detail in the open. Tracy then adds one more observation to the list of coincidences -- that Dr. Pennypacker was the first person on the scene at each death. That seems to put Pennypacker in his place leaving him quietly seething and shutting his supercilious mouth for the remainder of the chapter.

Tracy will face off with his Irene Adler in this murder case. She is Patsy,  the youngest Ballinger and the only child not even born when her father was killed two decades ago. Patsy seems to be digging through the past and finding bits of evidence that she refuses to share with Tracy.  He curses her in every other chapter calling her all sorts of names but at the same time marveling at her wily intellect and admiring her ability to outwit every policeman sent to keep an eye on her in her lower Manhattan apartment building.

The rest of the family are featured in small vignettes but are almost relegated to the background for the bulk of the novel. Sidney, the older brother, is eager to get an investment partner to renew a promissory note for $100,000 lest his business fall into bankruptcy. His money problems make him a prime suspect. David, the other son,  and his wife Paula live in near squalor thanks to Moira's selfishness. He too needs money and could use the Ballinger millions denied him by his haughty disdainful mother. And then there' s Olivia, affectionately called Ollie by Patsy, who lives in lonely spinsterhood in her isolated third floor apartment in the family mansion. Her only friends seem to be the female servants with whom she frequently goes to the movies. Is she harboring a secret that requires money too? Though the Ballinger sons may not feature prominently and Ollie seems to be present only for window dressing all of them play important parts in the solution of the Ballinger murders.

INNOVATIONS: Ashbrook has constructed a complex plot in which an overlooked crime in the past has led to a swath of violence in the present. Prentice Ballinger’s suicide is clearly a murder as is Moira’s death and both seem to be the work of a single person. But several other murders follow in quick succession, one of them rather shocking. Inspector Herschman and Tracy follow the clues believing that one greedy soul is the culprit. In a brave departure from the conventions of traditional detective fiction Ashbrook has allowed her love of violent murder movies to influence the outcome of her gripping story of violence, blackmail and revenge. There are multiple villains in the piece, few people escape guilt for one reason or another, surprise witnesses appear who don’t know they are witnesses, an intricate cover-up is slowly revealed and a genuine surprise in the final pages of who killed Moira and what happens to that criminal. Ashbrook has broken several time honored rules in Murder Comes Back and I enjoyed it immensely as a subversive murder mystery published well before similarly transgressive crime novels would flood the shelves in the post-WW2 era.

QUOTES: The only kind of big game he’s interested in wears lace step-ins.

I’m the only one who has an ironclad alibi for both cases. […] Twenty years ago when old [Prentice] was popped off, I was in what the poets call the 'primordial darkness of the womb.'

And so Spike told him. All. That was one of Pug’s chief virtues. Telling him All was as safe as pouring it down the kitchen sink.

Her artless, foolish, and malicious chatter had lightened one of the most obscure spots in the case -- the spot between four-thirty and six o’clock on a certain afternoon in the life of the late Moira Ballinger.

A female who figures in a murder investigation, even in a minor capacity, should be a ravishing blonde or a flashing brunette. She should be sinister or of touching innocence. She should be an intriguing vixen or an adorable angel. In the light of these requirements Miss Lillian Gillespie was a bust.

EASY TO FIND?  You can buy an eBook version of Murder Comes Back from an outfit called Black Heath Editions who sell their reissued vintage crime novels via amazon. I've been informed that it is available in the UK, EU and USA as well as India. Good news for a digital edition for a change! Even more exciting news is that Black Heath has remarkably reissued all of Harriette Ashbrook's mystery novels. If you like this one, you can read them all! Luckily for those who prefer original and vintage editions there are still a handful of copies of Murder Comes Back in both hardcover and paperback offered via the usual internet bookselling sites outside of amazon. Only one is priced in the collector’s range. Act now!

TomCat who blogs at Beneath the Stains of Time is reviewing many more of Ashbrook's novels over the next couple of weeks. You can find them all by clicking here.  I'll be reviewing at least one more, The Purple Onion Mystery, the final book in the Spike Tracy series.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Wish I Had a River/That I Could Skate Away on

Winter is descending on this frigidly Windy City.  Just stumbled on this James Taylor cover of a Joni Mitchell song that is tangentially about Christmas and winter, but really about something deep and personal. It's a lovely arrangement of Mitchell's "River" summoning up feelings of longing, lost love, and daydreaming flights of fancy and escape that always haunt me this time of year.

Stay warm this season!

[Video montage courtesy of Hans vd Linden at YouTube, who must live somewhere in the frozen wilds of a Scandinavian country judging by the photographs chosen.]

Friday, December 6, 2019

FFB: Flying Clues - Charles J. Dutton

UK 1st edition (Bodley Head, 1927)
Provocative illustration of a character
who appears nowhere in the book
There are a handful of Charles J. Dutton's books that I have recommended repeatedly and I’ll do that again right now before I launch into this review. Dutton had a fascination with criminal psychopathology but is never mentioned in the development of the American mystery novel for being perhaps the first writer of detective fiction to delve into criminal profiling before that methodology actually had a name. The three books I always recommend for this facet alone are Streaked with Crimson (1929), The Crooked Cross (1922) and Out of the Darkness (1922). Unfortunately, Flying Clues (1927) has nothing to do with criminal pathology, serial killer behavior, mental illness as related to homicide, or any genuinely clever plotting.

In the New York Times Book Review of Feb 13, 1927 the anonymous reporter said this about Flying Clues: "With a sextet of mystery stories to his credit it is scarcely surprising that Charles J. Dutton's latest work should show the signs of a practiced hand. Indeed, the presence of those signs stands out in the book as almost a defect." The review goes on to call his book "too accustomed, too usual and much in its matter that is too routine."  Someone one once accused me of writing a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed as "damning with [it] faint praise."  The accuser was wrong and I defended my stance. However, the NY Times reviewer gives us the epitome of that phrase. I will not be so kind nor ambiguous at all in my feelings here.

Flying Clues, though intermittently entertaining and eyebrow raising in its 1920s social commentary, has its share of storytelling flaws and the most egregious is its title. The very last lines in the book consist of the detective telling his Watson (the ultra dull Pelt who has no first name) that the best title for his write up of this case should be Flying Clues. But I tell you it’s not. Why? Because it is a giveaway to one of the “mysteries” that befuddle Professor Hartley and the police. Well, the title tells you everything, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out exactly what kind of flying clues are responsible, especially when Dutton spends two paragraphs describing a flock of what looks like falcons in the sky and another time when some ignoramus sees some birds in a cage on board a ship, birds that look like chickens. They turn out to be pigeons.

Chickens Pigeons roosting in a rooftop coop
Now I know you are asking yourself exactly the same thing I did: “When have pigeons ever looked like chickens?” Is this some odd evolutionary quirk of the 1920s? Doubtful. I’ll tell you when pigeons look like chickens. When a mystery writer is trying his hardest to plant a red herring in his mystery novel by creating some dumb yokel who has never seen a damn pigeon in his life but has seen more than his share of chickens. You’re welcome to blow a raspberry at Dutton as I did. The louder the better. He’s dead, he’ll never hear you, but it’ll feel really good.

So onto the rest of Flying Clues. We have an impossible crime! A murder that takes place in a physician’s private exam room located in his own home. A woman has been stabbed in a chair in his “waiting room” and then moved to the “operating table.” I’m not going to address the operating table in the private exam room. You can do all that research on your own. And good luck.

The murder was committed in a room where the door was open and yet no one managed to see anyone go in or out of the room. A window leads to the outside but after a heavy rain that very night there are no footprints anywhere near the window and no signs of mud or anyone having entered or exited via the window. How was the woman killed without being seen? Trust me. It’s extremely obvious. There is hardly anything that will puzzle even the most neophyte of mystery readers.

A much better detective novel is
Streaked with Crimson (1929)
Still Dutton insists on trying to make it all seem baffling. The police are convinced that the butler did it! He, after all, was the one who was supposedly watching the room and the only person to leave the dining hall adjacent to the exam/waiting/operating room. During the only span of time that the woman could have been killed a dinner party is going. There are twelve possible suspects besides the butler and the physician who hosted the party and yet all of them were in the dining room at the time of the murder. The bulk of the book is spent discovering who the woman is and her connections to the people at the dinner party. None of it really matters. The killer is as obvious as the title.

What is interesting are two other aspects of the book. One is a subplot dealing with a cult religion called the Home of Universal Truth run by scarlet silk robe clad, turban wearing prophet named Savitr. The other is the apparent motive for the killing which involves cocaine smuggling, illegal drug use and widespread drug dealing. Dutton who was a Unitarian minister gives us a theology lesson in comparative religions, focusing on Hindu spirituality, and exposes the false gods that Savitr claims to represent. As bonus lecture we get the fundamentals of Vedic mythology which helps to explain the self-proclaimed guru's odd name.

Prof. Bartley, Dutton's criminologist sleuth, is just as informed on drug dealing as he is on ancient Indian mythology. In a page long lecture he offers up current cocaine pricing:  $14/ounce purchase price for dealers; $300 to $400/ounce for the users. I have to tell you I gasped when I read this. The handy internet US inflation calculator tells me that $400 in 1927 is equal to $4,437 in 2019. In an eerily prescient passage all too resonant for our troubled times Dutton accuses pharmacists all over the USA of being collaborators, whether unintentional or not, in the cocaine problems that plague 1920s America. One can only draw parallel to the opioid crisis we're dealing with now, more than 80 years later.

So if social history is your thing by all means pick up a copy of Flying Clues (if you can find one!).  Otherwise, here is a yet another early American murder mystery that is deserving of its forgotten fate.