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!


  1. I knew it! Though I admit I did not know which of the three you would pick. I thank you for the spoiler warning and will read the first one. A friend recommended Young Man decades ago and I remember I liked it. Cannot remember much else though!

    1. I smiled when you were right on the nose. Didn’t want to say anything until this week. The post for the actual announcement is stuck in my draft folder. We had a visitor at our home this weekend so it’s been rather hard to sneak in blogging time. It’ll be up tomorrow.