Saturday, October 24, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: The Half Pint Flask - DuBose Heyward

"Strange the obsession that an imaginative woman can exercise over an unimaginative man.  It the sort of thing that can follow a chap to his grave."

 One of the more unusual offshoots of collecting supernatural fiction is hunting for the numerous editions of one short story or novella published as a single volume. Lovecraft's The Shunned House, the horror author's first work to be published in book form, is such a volume. Not so elusive as it used to be, but exorbitantly expensive should you find a copy in an antiquarian bookshop. There are other more readily obtained books and much more affordable and often much more interesting as both entertainingly creepy genre fiction as well as well written literature. The Half Pint Flask by DuBose Heyward belongs to this other category. I recently re-read it for our monthly "Friday Fright Night" meme hosted by Curt Evans and a found it to be as chilling and evocative as I did when I first read over twenty years ago.

The book itself was handsomely produced in both a limited numbered and signed edition as well as a trade edition. Both editions are fully illustrated with three full page black and white line drawings by Joseph Sanford as well as head and tail pieces and numerous vignettes. Of the two editions the latter is much easier to find but not so easy to find with its exceptionally scarce dust jacket (see photo above, courtesy of Eureka Books in California).  I only learned of the fine binding in a limited and numbered edition when I went looking for the first edition dust jacket. My copy is a serviceable reading copy, jacketless with rather worn boards but with pristine pages inside.  It was very cheap when I bought it two decades ago and you'll be hard pressed to find a copy without jacket for under $25 these days.

The story is a fable of sorts teaching a lesson about respect for the dead, the sacred nature of cemeteries and ultimately a cautionary tale to greedy collectors of curios and objets d'art. DuBose Heyward, an expert on his home state of South Carolina and its native Gullah community, incorporates African legends and mythology, Black American superstition and funereal rituals, a tinge of witchcraft, and one appearance of a ghost. Its 55 pages tell a tale of collector's mania, desecration of a grave site, covetousness of a rare antique glass flask, and retribution from the ethereal world. The sections on African mythology and religious rites that mix with a suggestion of black magic are eye opening and rendered with a flair for authenticity without ever seeming sensational or lurid. Heyward had deep respect for the Black community of his home state and was fascinated with the Gullah culture, its language and customs. The reader learns quite a bit about the Gullah world in the telling of his tale.

The Half Pint Flask (1929) is narrated by Mr. Courtney, a writer of fiction, who plays host to Barksdale, a would-be anthropologist who has traveled to Ediwander Island in South Carolina Gullah country to write a "series of articles on Negroid Primates."  The term annoys and angers local Courtney who describes Barksdale's demeanor and tone: "Uttered in that cold and dissecting voice, [the phrase] seemed to strip the human from the hundred or more Negroes who were my only company..."  Courtney goes on to explain that the local Blacks are descended from the slaves who worked the largest rice plantation in South Carolina and that their isolation may seem have kept them "primitive enough."  This provides even more incentive for for Barksdale's impending research.

On route to their lodgings the two men pass by a cemetery reserved for burying the Blacks. The gravesites are covered with "a strange litter of medicine bottles, tin spoons, and other futle weapons that had failed in the final engagement with the last dark enemy."  Barksdale has the eagle eye of a manic collector and he immediately spots a treasure.  We learn he is a collector of antique glass, in particular a rare type of glassware found only in South Carolina. He orders the carriage to stop and races to the gravesite where he plucks the glass flasks from the mound and brings it back with him.  

"Do you know what this is?" he demanded, then rushed triumphantly with his answer; "It's a first issue, half pint flask of the old South Carolina state dispensary. It gives me the only complete set in existence. No another one in America."

Courtney warns his fellow writer that he ought not to mess with the graves of the local Blacks.  The objects placed on the graves are as sacred to them as the remains they protect. He pleads with him to put it back immediately.  But Barksdale will not hear him, dismissing all his warnings as superstition and nonsense. He assures Courtney he will offer a good sum to whoever placed the flask on the grave. Unfortunately, he never follows through with that empty promise. It is his undoing.

The rest of the story details the aftermath of Barksdale's rash act and disregard for the traditions and beliefs of the locals.  Eerie sounds and thundering seem to descend upon the house where he and Courtney are staying. The droning and weird vibrations that infect the household cause insomnia and headaches. Drumming and singing, strange chants fill the night air:

I have always had a passion for moonlight and I stood long on the piazza watching the great disc change from its horizon copper to gold, then cool to silver as it swung up into the immeasurable tranquility of the southern night. At first I thought the Negroes must be having a dance, for I could hear the syncopation of sticks on a cabin floor, and the palmettos and moss-draped live oaks that grew about the buildings could be seen the full quarter of a mile away, a ruddy bronze against the sky from a brush fire. But the longer I waited listening the less sure I became about the nature of the celebration. The rhythm became strange, complicated; and the chanting that rose and fell with the drumming rang with a new compelling quality, and lacked entirely the abandon of dancers.
That night Courtney beholds the vision of Plat-eye, a legendary figure of the Black community based on a African god of vengeance. "Plat-eye is a spirit which takes some form which will be particularly apt to lure its victims away," Courtney has earlier explained to Barksdale. It is clearly a foreshadowing of the climax of the book.

And Barksdale himself becomes a haunted man in the worst way. His mania for glass has turned a fascination into a curse. His flouting of the very subject of his writing which is filled with facts about the "deeply religious nature of the American Negro" results in a deadly lesson for the fatuous writer and puts an end to his collecting and studying for good.

DuBose Heyward, 1929
(photo by Ben Pinchot for Vanity Fair)

DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina and spent much of his writing career exploring the lives and culture of the Black people of his hometown and state.  Author of poetry, short stories, plays and novels his name nor face might not be familiar to most readers but certainly his one work should be remembered by many.  In 1925 he wrote Porgy, a novel of the tragic life of its disabled Black hero and his love for a woman being abused and dominated by a local criminal. Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, a frequent writing collaborator, turned the novel into a stage play which had a successful run on Broadway in the 1927-28 season. George Gershwin saw the play and approached Heyward with the hope of turning the play into an opera. That collaboration along with Gershwin's lyricist brother Ira gave us Porgy and Bess, the first American operatic work to have a cast of exclusively Black performers.  Since its first performance in 1935 the opera has been revived on Broadway seven times over a span of nine decades its most recent Tony award winning production ran for  between 2011 and 2012. The opera was also adapted into a movie musical in 1959 starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr.  Heyward also is known for his novel Mamba's Daughters, also adapted for the stage with his wife.

 

Friday, October 16, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: London After Midnight - Marie Coolidge-Rask

London After Midnight
– the stuff of legends. For those of you not in the know let me fill you in. It’s one of those “lost films” from the silent era, meaning that no known prints exist today. The negative was destroyed in a warehouse fire back in the 1960s. The hunt continues for anyone on the planet who might have a copy of the movie. Interest in this supposed horror movie – one of many from Tod Browning, the child of the night who gave us macabre silent movies like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), the notorious circus thriller Freaks (1932), and the first movie version of Dracula (1930) – was so obsessive that back in 2002 a movie maven “reconstructed” the film using photo stills and a copy of the screenplay. I’ve never seen it, it’s been called everything from "a brilliant video evocation" to "a huge waste of time and energy." All this leads me to my own fascination with the movie. I had hoped one day I would see it after learning about it in a book on movie monsters I read when I was about 13 years old. But later around my college years when I discovered its legendary status as a lost film I all but gave up hope. Then sometime around 1999 or 2000 I stumbled upon a copy of the Photoplay Edition of London After Midnight through sheer serendipity at an antique mall.

Photoplay Editions of silent movies are considered collector’s items to the cognoscenti who are drawn to books adapted for the movies. Photoplay Editions are the actual novels the movies were based on or novelizations of movie screenplays that contain photo stills of the movie. A select few of these Photoplay Editions are considered crown jewel of sorts to bibliophiles and movieholics. London After Midnight is one of them. Of course finding a Photoplay Edition with the remarkable color photo dust jackets would make it even more of a treasure. Mine is unsurprisingly lacking the dust jacket. But all of the eight photographs are intact and unharmed.

All this brings me to the actual book and story of London After Midnight. Marie Coolidge Rask, working from Tod Browning’s screen story and the scenario of Browning's frequent co-collaborator Waldemar Young, penned the novelization of the movie. This is all we have to go by as to the film’s story and content. That and, of course, the myriad movie stills that have been reproduced for decades. Some of the eight stills from the Photoplay Edition are featured as illustrations for this post. I was hoping for an eerie tale of madness, murder and vampires and a few good frights. After all Lon Chaney, the Man of 1000 Faces, was the star of the movie. He was terrifying as the first screen Phantom of the Opera and still, IMO, the best non-singing performer in that role. Based on photos in the book he played two roles in the movie. But as is the case with many of these longed for reading experiences that finally come to fruition reading the story was a huge let down. London After Midnight – at least the novelized version of the story – is a messy and transparent murder mystery couched in Gothic excesses and weird or supernatural incidents that all turn out to be rationalized.

Ingredients: one haunted house, a suspicious suicide, a murder made to look like the work of a vampire, two creepy and kooky neighbors who put on a spook show for the police investigating the murder, a plethora of mysterious incidents and a ridiculous number of characters in disguise or using alter egos. It all reminded me of early 20th century French detective novels with their fascination with policemen in disguise and fantastical plot elements. Browning who concocted the story may well have been a fan of not only Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe but Maurice LeBlanc, Gaston Leroux and Marcel Allain, creator of master criminal Fantomas, the English translations of those books were still selling well in the US in the late 1920s.

 

Pictured left to right: Conrad Nagel as Lucy's lover Jerry Hibbs,
Henry A. Walthall as Sir James and Lon Chaney in his
second role as Prof. Burke(called Colonel Yates in the novelization)


Chaney as the Man in the Beaver Hat

Much of the novel’s mystery involves uncovering the identity of the Man in the Beaver Hat and his sidekick an unnamed female character referred to only as the Bat Girl. We are led to believe that they are vampires, that they can transform into bats which fly about the rooms of Balfour House and roost in the rafters of that reputedly haunted house. Five year sago Balfour House was the site of the suicide of its former owner, Roger Balfour who may be the Man in the Beaver Hat come back to life in the form of a vampire. How else could his name in his exact handwriting appear on a new lease for Balfour House when only the Man in the Beaver Hat signed the contract?

And what of the mysterious appearance of Colonel Yates, straight from India, who claims to be a former military comrade of Sir James Hamlin, the ward of Lucy Balfour, Roger’s beautiful daughter? Why did the Colonel show up so conveniently just as the Balfour House was leased by the Man in the Beaver Hat? Why does Yate know so much about the occult, and vampires in particular?

Rask's storytelling is modeled on a cumbersome Edwardian prose style infused with stilted dialogue, overly complex sentence structure, antiquated vocabulary, and an abundance of histrionics and melodrama. She gives away the fact that the suicide is a murder almost immediately and is clumsy in trying to create suspense and surprise revelations. It is very obvious from the start who killed Roger Balfour and his son Harry. Even the motive is obvious. And that perhaps is the creepiest part of the book. In the book’s denouement the killer has been hypnotized into recreating the Roger Balfour's murder. Reading the killer’s pronouncement of his love for a 15 year-old girl and his “covetousness of her since she was an infant" was nauseating and gave me chills in a manner completely unintended by the writer. Not exactly the kind of thing that reads well at all in the 21st century.

For those readers who absolutely must read London After Midnight to have their curiosity satisfied you are in luck. Couch Pumpkin Classics, a POD outfit, released a reprint of this Photoplay Edition in both paperback and Kindle digital versions. A hardcover is also available in the used book market for a hefty price. I know nothing about Couch Pumpkin's other works (if there are any), but this reprint does contain an informative introduction outlining the history of the movie’s legendary status as a lost film and goes into greater detail about the “reconstruction” of the movie done in 2002 for Turner Movie Classics. But be warned: the story is less than thrilling, a tepid variation of a Scooby-Doo cartoon plot, and I guarantee major disappointment. Better to look at the stills and let your own imagination conjure up your own private version of a fine example of macabre moviemaking with genuine frights and thrills.

Next week’s Friday Fright Night episode will be a vast improvement on this offering.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: Lucifer and the Child - Ethel Mannin

From its first sentence (“On the 18th March, 1618, Margaret and Philippa Flower were burnt at the stake…for witchcraft.”) Lucifer and the Child (1945) sets up what ostensibly will be a novel of witchcraft, black magic and the evolution of a child cursed by her afflicted past. The title is deceptive. True there is a man with horns, there is a child, there is even a bona fide witch, but it is so much more than bubbling cauldrons, sinister incantations, a mysterious and seductive man and the child entranced with his charismatic personality and all things forbidden to her by conservative often indifferent foster parents.

 Ethel Mannin explores ethics, morality, faith, love, the inherent magic of the natural world and the ultimate mystery of devotion -- both earthly and spiritual -- and does so with stark frankness, uncensored sexuality and near mockery of convention. Jenny Flower meets the man she will come to nickname Lucifer – for he is so much like the Angel of Light fallen from grace – when she is seven years old in 1930. We follow her first meeting of the mysterious man and subsequent meetings, each taking place on one of the four witch’s sabbaths over the next seven years. Her introduction takes place in a forest and like Adam and Eve after eating the forbidden fruit Jenny has hers eyes opened to a natural world of splendor and mystery. Her first act of daring, her first lesson of this new world, involves intently staring at a toad in attempt to strike it dead. Much to her surprise she is entranced by the toad, an animal she never actually looked at before. While staring supposedly with true hate she cannot bring herself to kill it and she spares its life. But the more time she spends with Lucifer the less kind she will be with her experiments.

Later she is drawn to the hovel of Mrs. Beadle, the town crone often shunned for being a witch herself. Mrs. Beadle sees in Jenny her younger self and nonchalantly begins to impart some of her arcane knowledge to the girl. They start with astrology, the names of the fallen angels, Lucifer and his followers whose names have become synonymous with demonology, and the Chart of the Characters of Evil Spirits. It is an education in complete reversal of her school and church learning. Soon Jenny and Mrs. Beadle are practicing spells together. The crone is always standing over her bubbling pot stirring up ingredients for unctions, philtres and potions, while simultaneously feeding Jenny’s insatiable curiosity for forgotten magic and unnameable rites.

Marian Drew, a schoolteacher, begins to notice a change in Jenny. She is concerned about her desire to run off to Mrs. Beadle’s, her derision of other schoolchildren. Jenny's constant talk of the man with the horns is alarming and her eager anticipation of his return on Candlemas or Lammas or Halloween, which fatefully happens to be Jenny’s birthday, inspire Miss Drew on a mission to save Jenny from both Mrs. Beadle's baleful influence and the friendship of the mysterious man -- if indeed he even exists.

Along the way we also meet Jenny's only real friend who she thinks is her aunt. Actually Nell Flower is Jenny's real mother who gave her up to her sister to raise. Nell is a free spirit, glamorous, unconventional who can't be bothered with the responsibility of being a mother. She doesn't even know the identity of Jenny's father nor does she care. She lives for her freedom, her life as a barmaid, her elaborate head-turning wardrobe, her cosmetics. Jenny loves her. Despite Nell's surface friendship and her referring to Jenny as a brat she is devoted and protective of her daughter. However, she never wants Jenny to know that she is her real mother. In an interesting twist of the plot Nell will also try to save Jenny from Mrs. Beadle and sever what the crone and the mysterious man assure is Jenny's cursed past.

Finally there are Jenny's foster parents -- aunt Ivy and her husband Joe. Jenny has two brothers, too, in this sadly loveless household. Ivy loses her patience with her willful but friendless child and never seems able to keep her disciplined. She resorts to screaming, yelling threats, and on occasion beating. Joe, the indifferent father, is also violent. Jenny, however, is immune to punishment of any sort. She seems to be a child of the devil himself. Yet Ivy doesn't seem too worried for Jenny or her slow transformation from a misbehaving yet innocent girl to a worldly, cynical and vengeful teen.

Illustrated front board of
Swan River Press reissue
Mannin’s novel is a wondrous book that raises intriguing questions about faith and love. Miss Drew acts the voice of reason and common sense who argues with Lucifer, a literal Devil’s advocate. She and Jenny are forced to reckon with the inextricably connected dichotomies of good and evil. One cannot believe in God without also believing in the devil, Lucifer constantly reminds the woman and the girl. Are not miracles the scared version of black magic? If you believe in Jesus raising the dead, changing water into wine and walking on water how can you easily dismiss the ability to communicate with dead spirits, making love potions, and flying through the air at midnight? Angels cannot exist without devils. Light is the forever companion of dark. What you truly believe in, your faith, shapes who you are for life. And that faith ultimately makes what you believe in exist. 

The writing often transcends a deceptively straightforward didactic style to achieve true poetry, especially in the sequences when Mannin celebrates the creatures of the forest, the flowers of a spring afternoon, the wild fury of the ocean where Lucifer who says he is a merchant seaman spends much of his life. The words carry a rhythm like beautifully constructed verses, and her frequent repetition of phrases like “the ice-green, ice-cold waters of the Gulf of Finland’ are like the chanting of Mrs. Beadle over her pot of mystery potions. Mannin calls on myth and legend when describing “the bells of lost Atlantis ringing under the sea.” She resorts to ancient archaic spelling like magicke and is compelled to quote Marlowe’s Faustus. Miss Drew cannot help but recall the line “Tis magic, a magic that hath ravished me” when she discovers that she has been willfully seduced by Lucifer despite all her attempts to resist him and draw him away from Jenny. In uttering that line Marian comes to realize that she welcomed the seduction and longs to see him again with a fervor almost as powerful as Jenny’s rabid devotion.

The conflict comes in the fight for Lucifer's attention. Jenny grows ever jealous of his closeness to Marian Drew. Marian slowly realizes she cannot save Jenny and must resort to bargaining. When she asks Lucifer to promise to leave Jenny alone for seven years she cannot foresee that promise will set in motion a fateful plot that will be the undoing for the trio.

Lucifer and the Child uses a supernatural motif that makes one recognize that magic is ever present in the world. That the wonders of the natural world are as hypnotic as any spell or incantation chanted in a candlelit kitchen. And yet there is danger in that attractiveness and seduction of the unknown. In the hands of Mannin's contemporary writers of supernatural and horror this novel might have become a lurid piece filled gruesome scenes and nightmarish apparitions. But as Mannin would have it the horror is more subtle, heartwrenching rather than blood spilling. We watch the irrevocable destruction of a soul, the dissolution of friendships, and a fulfillment of what amounts to a fatalistic worldview.

After being out of print for decades Lucifer and the Child has been reissued.  The adventurous Swan River Press based in Dublin, mostly devoted to reprinting forgotten works by Irish writers of supernatural and fantasy fiction, has published a gorgeous new volume of Ethel Mannin's cult masterpiece. Only available for purchase directly from the publisher ordering info can be found on their website here. The book includes a well researched foreword by scholar Rosanne Rabinowitz which sheds light on the novel's re-discovery and Ethel Mannin's fascinating life as an iconoclast and counterculture figure.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FRIDAY FRIGHT NIGHT: The Come Back- Carolyn Wells

Boo!

It's October, the season of of black cat and witch inflatables on front lawns, jack-o'-lanterns on front porches and pumpkin spice in everything. October and especially Halloween will be different in this age of the COVID pandemic. Maybe there will be fewer jack-o'-lanterns on front porches and definitely fewer children trick-or-treating door-to-door but that doesn't mean we can't still keep the Halloween spirit alive on our vintage mystery blogs. Curtis Evans of “The Passing Tramp” proposed a "Friday Fright Night" meme for the entire month in which we will celebrate all things spooky, eerie and perhaps even terrifying. Right up my alley, friends! I jumped on board in an instant. Without further ado here is this week's contribution...one day late.

The Come Back (1921) is one of the books in my favorite short series from the indefatigable Carolyn Wells. Her most interesting books are those that feature her detective Pennington Wise and his enigmatic, quasi-psychic assistant Zizi. In each of the Penny Wise books this detective duo faces apparently supernatural happenings while Wells presents her murder mystery plot. Often the ghosts, haunted rooms and apparitions turn out to be rationalized.  I have previously reviewed two books in the series: The Room with the Tassels and The Man Who Fell through the Earth.  The Come Back is the fourth book in the eight book series and deals with spiritualism (a favorite topic of early 20th century mystery writers and a blog topic worthy of a post all its own) and the ghost of a dearly departed relative.

Like many of Well's better written books the plot is intricately complex. The story begins with the tale of three friends who go to Labrador in Canada on a hiking and camping trip and fall victim to severe snowstorm. One of the three, Peter Crane, is separated from the group and cannot be found afterward. When months pass and no word is heard from Peter his family and friends give him up as lost and presumed dead. An attempt to find his body when the snow melts in spring turns up nothing. Essentially Peter Crane has vanished.

Peter's mother Helen is a devout believer in spiritism. Peter's fiancée has an affinity with the Ouija board and the two women begin experiments in contacting Peter. When they start receiving messages from Peter via Ouija communication Helen Crane aches to find out exactly what happened to her son on that trip.

Of course there are skeptics and doubters. Christopher "Kit" Shelby, one of Peter's friends who survived the disastrous camping trip, loathes "spook idiots" and tries his best to warns the Crane family and Carly, Peter's fiancee, against accepting the messages from Peter as genuine "words from the beyond world." Julia Crane is Peter's sister and she resents Carly's introduction of the Ouija board into her house, dredging up supernatural nonsense, and making her parents into superstitious obsessives. Gilbert Blair, the third member of the camping trip and other survivor, is also suspicious of the spirit messages. Still, he makes his move on Carly now that she is apparently available for other men.  We know that he expressed an interest in her during an intimate conversation he had with Peter back in the camping trip section of the book.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Crane at the suggestion of a friend involved in the Society of Psychic Research visits the renowned medium Madame Parlato. He wants the help of an expert to prove that Peter's messages are real. She impresses him immediately when she contacts Peter and reveals his nickname "Peter Boots" known only to immediate family members, and details of how he died freezing to death in the snowstorm. How could she know any of this with no time to do any research other than hearing the stories from Peter's own ghostly lips?  Crane continues to visit the medium and becomes as devout in spiritism as his wife. He writes a book about his experiences, it becomes a huge bestseller and revives a nationwide interest in spiritism.

The plot thickens when Gilbert Blair is poisoned in an impossible crime situation. This may or not be related to an architectural prize that Blair was competing for with his jealous architect/illustrator roommate McClellan Thorpe. Blair had recently accused his roommate of stealing ideas. Perhaps someone in Madame Parlato's close circle of friends killed Gilbert because he was close to exposing her as a fraud.  Or... Is Peter's ghost seeking revenge?  Or --even more miraculous -- is Peter still alive and out for retribution for those he feels abandoned him months ago in Labrador?

The book is filled with all sorts of seance sequences, and the kind of spook busting detective work that is the hallmark of early 20th century mystery novels involving mediums and contact with the dead. The characters who disbelieve the supernatural elements, Kit and Julia are intent on exposing Madame Parlato as a fraud.  At one of the seances a tobacco pouch with Peter's initials materializes. Mr Crane begins to suspect that Peter is alive and hires a private detective. This is where Penny Wise and Zizi enter the book (very late in the story as per usual with Wells). Oddly, Wise himself does very little in this story.  It is Zizi and Julia who are the detectives and they do some admirable sleuthing.

The overall mystery is not difficult to figure out and all supernatural elements, of course, are in the end rationalized and the mediums exposed as frauds. But that doesn't take away from its genuinely entertaining story. Many unusual twists and complications enliven the story and make for some page turning excitement. There is a mysterious man named John Harrison, a reporter named Douglas who shows up at the Crane house asking prying questions, a movie called Labrador Luck that becomes all the rage and, in a reverse of most spook-buster mysteries, a blackmail scheme that involves enlisting the help of Madame Parlato to entrap the murderer.

Zizi is fast becoming one of my favorite female sleuths in early American 20th century mystery fiction.  She has intelligence, sarcastic humor, spunk and a fertile imagination. She often resorts to chicanery and con artistry with her boss in order to unmask the villains and miscreants in the books in which she appears. I highly recommend investigating these little known books. There are the best of Wells' early mystery writing career and do not infuriate the reader with the kinds of fantastical and improbable murders that arise from ludicrous motives in her later books of the 1930s and '40s.

Like many of Carolyn Wells' early novels The Come Back is in the public domain. It appeared at the Project Gutenberg over a decade ago and as a result has been pirated by profiteering "reprint publishers" who download the entire novel and repackage it under their "publishing name." So you have myriad editions to choose from. You can buy a pirated copy from about ten different repackagers of free content or download the book for free from Project Gutenberg.  Local libraries may have a copy on their shelves. A few actual used copies of the 1921 editions are out there for sale as well, including an A.L. Burt reprint in a beautifully intact and colorful DJ.

For more ghosts, monsters and things that go bump in the night visit Cross Examining Crime, My Reader's Block, The Passing Tramp and Clothes in Books.  And tune in next week for more Vintage Horrors!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

HORROR SHOW: Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

"But Harriet's condition...had blinded Mrs. Ogilvy to the fact that the world contains many people who are far from decent."

If you had never read anything about Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth Jenkins -- not a review, not a blurb, not anything on the back covers of its many editions -- you would never expect it to turn out the way it does. From page one Harriet prepares the reader for a mesmerizing trip into England's Victorian past from the author's attention to domestic details, to the class hierarchy, to the painstakingly rendered 19th century syntax and language. It appears on the surface to be a homage to the age old story of a ne'er-do-well fortune hunter flirting with an ugly duckling heiress, successfully manipulating her easily swayed emotions and eventually marrying her for her money.  Henry James told a similar story in Washington Square, countless romance novelists have capitalized on this plot in hundreds of cheap entertainments.  What makes Elizabeth Jenkins' novel striking, no less appealing as an entertaining suspense novel, is that the ugly duckling heiress is also developmentally handicapped. Harriet Woodhouse is called a "natural" (a Victorian euphemism for someone who is mentally retarded) by her mother and those who have an affection for her.  She is called much worse by those who treat her with indifference, jealousy or outright cruelty. Above all what makes this novel most shocking is that Jenkins based her story on a notorious criminal case in which four people were charged with criminal neglect, wanton cruelty and eventual murder of a young woman and possibly her child. The story of Harriet is not the product of a novelist's imagination. It actually happened in 1875.

From the outset we know that Lewis Oman is no good. He has no real job, he enjoys using woman, and thinks nothing about turning Harriet into an object of ridicule. He tells his lover Alice Hoppner that he will become the charmer for Harriet. "She's going to fall a victim to my fascinations. You keep a straight face, and we'll have some fun." Alice watches with a combination of revulsion and jealousy as Lewis' aimless flirting transforms into something far more dangerous and cunning. His attentions cease to become fun and games when Alice notices Harriet has fallen in love with him. Then Lewis learns Harriet has a small fortune held in trust that will become hers as soon as she marries and, of course, he homes in on Harriet with relentless charm and smarm. Harriet is no longer a plaything but the means to instant wealth for this schemer.

Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet's mother, is onto Lewis from the start and attempts to prevent the marriage. She tries reasoning with him but is too shrewd. She tries to block the marriage legally by exploiting Harriet's mental disability and making her a ward of the state.  But Lewis knows Mrs. Ogilvy who loves her daughter and treats  could never take the next step which would require her to put her daughter in a state run institution.  He also threatens the woman by promising to tell Harriet of her plans. If he does so he promises Mrs Ogivly that would be the end the mother/daughter relationship she has so carefully cultivated.

 

But there are others who become involved in the destruction of Harriet's carefully sheltered world. Once she has married Lewis her exploitation begins and with it the inexorable ruin of her health, her personality, and her soul. Harriet has a child almost without Jenkins having told us and she is quickly shuttled off to Lewis' brother Patrick where she is set up as a long term house guest and then months later as a prisoner.  The horror of Harriet's story, the ingenuity of the novel as a whole, is the skill with which Jenkins manages to capture a flavor of Victorian comfort and domesticity and how the introduction of an unwanted guest slowly erodes the veneer of civility among the household's would be aristocrats.

Elizabeth Hoppner Oman, Alice's sister and Patrick's wife, seems like the one person who might become an ally for Harriet. But when Harriet moves into her home Elizabeth, once ever proper and courteous, soon grows weary of having to deal with Harriet's childish demands, putting up with her imperfect grammar and most of all Harriet's lack of comprehension in learning how to care for her own son. Elizabeth is more concerned with propriety and her relationship to Lewis and Alice who is now being passed off as Lewis' real wife, though he is legally married to Harriet. Astonishingly, for someone who presents herself as upright Elizabeth turns a blind eye to the immorality and deceit of this pretense. When Lewis tells Patrick that Harriet should remain isolated in an upstairs bedroom and not be allowed outside Elizabeth is relieved to be spared the humiliation of telling everyone that Harriet is the real Mrs. Oman. The ultimate revelation of Elizabeth's remarkably repellent transformation comes when she utters a statement she thinks excuses not only her own indifference but the cruelty of her barbaric husband who beats Harriet: "After all, it isn't as if she feels anything..."

Taking the idea of the yet-to-be-named subgenre of "domestic suspense" to its extreme Jenkins includes several excellent set pieces that highlight a Victorian household turned topsy-turvy when a family member with erratic, unpredictable behavior upsets their comfortable routines. With incredible detail we are shown how meal times are structured, the apparently agonizing selection of clothes, the mundane tasks of getting dressed and having hair meticulously styled. While all the other characters are caught up in the inundation of domestic life the horror of what is happening to Harriet who is being neglected and ignored by everyone but the compassionate maid Clara becomes all the more heartwrenching. Harriet's clothes and her jewelry are appropriated by Alice; her child is taken away from her; she is denied doctor's care when she becomes violently ill; meals are regularly delayed, reduced to nothing more than milk and bread or entirely withheld -- all of this done for the slightest affronts to the household members. All of this leads to a radical transformation in Harriet's already fragile mental state. With each new instance of Harriet's deteriorating mind each family member reacts not with kindness, concern or even alarm but with unnerving cruelty, sometimes giving into savage brutality. When Penguin reprinted Harriet in 1980 they called the novel an "absolutely spine-chilling exploration of the depths of human depravity."

Harriet won a literary prize for its author in 1934, one of the last of the short-lived Prix Femina Vie Heureuse, given out by two French magazines to an English language novel that best presents life in England to a French language audience. The award should actually be for Jenkins' masterful invention of a new genre, the true crime novel. For here is a fictionalized account of a long past actual criminal case characterized by aberrant behavior accurately imagined with vivid insight and keen observations, teeming with paradoxes and riddles of human inconsistency, that it rightfully belongs in the same category as the "non-fiction novel" -- something Truman Capote claimed to have invented three decades later with In Cold Blood.

Her achievements are all the more powerful when you realize that using a non-fictional account (The Trial of the Stauntons), a copy of the court transcript from 1877, and her own imagination she envisioned a world two centuries ago in which something so evil could be carried out with such commonplace ease. As a side note students of true crime might like to know that the Staunton trial is now considered a landmark in appeals cases. In real life though all four individuals charged with Harriet Staunton's murder were found guilty and sentenced to hang no one was executed. A published letter written by a group of physicians protested that the true medical evidence was overlooked during the trial and the judge Henry Hawkins was prejudiced against all four defendants. The court's verdict was overturned:  Alice was pardoned, Louis and Elizabeth were sentenced to hard labor and eventually set free. Patrick who died in prison never reaped the benefits of this unusual decision.  Jenkins did not agree with the overturned verdict and her characters get the harsh punishments and justice she felt was mocked by real life's own cruel ironies.

Harriet is available in a new edition from Valancourt Books published five years ago. This latest edition includes an afterword by literary critic and Victorian scholar Catherine Pope. Readers can also choose from a wide variety of used editions dating back to the US paperback of 1946 (Bantam 64, shown in two illustrations on this post) to the handsome reprint from Persephone Press. There are also French and Spanish language translations in contemporary reprints

Saturday, August 22, 2020

NEW STUFF: The Eighth Detective - Alex Pavesi

The Eighth Detective
(UK title: Eight Detectives)
by Alex Pavesi
Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 978-1-250-75593-3
289 pp. $26.99
Publication date: August 4, 2020

"I think that when you're reading about death as entertainment it should leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable, even slightly sick." -- Julia Hart, The Eighth Detective

Devotees of Golden Age detective fiction are well aware of the may lists of rules that cognizant and often protective writers of the genre have devised as suggestions for those who wish to adhere to the fair play tenets of mystery storytelling that make detective fiction a kind of intellectual competition between reader and writer.  Ronald A. Knox's Decalogue and the 20 Rules of Willard Huntington Wright as "S. S. Van Dine" date back to the early 20th century and for the most part are now tacit instructions followed by novice and veteran mystery writers alike.  There have been countless deconstructions of these rules as mystery fiction faced challenges from post-modern writers like Gilbert Adair and Paul Auster who wrote intellectual send-ups of the detective novel. In the case of Josef Škvorecký's short story collection Sins for Father Knox (1973) a detective story writer defiantly wrote ten stories which break each of the hallowed ten rules set forth by Knox. Now we have yet another deconstruction of the conventions of detective fiction in a new short story collection that is also a clever novel in which the "ingredients" of a generic detective story plot are mixed up and presented in a medley of rearrangements of those ingredients. In essence The Eight Detective gives us variations on the theme of victim, suspects, and detective.

The idea is very simple.  It is 1970 and Grant McAllister, a retired mathematician living a solitary life on an undisclosed Mediterranean island, is visited by an editor eager to reprint his privately published mystery short story collection of thirty years ago, The White Murders, a book that has achieved cult status among crime fiction collectors.  The book contains seven stories that comment on McAllister's  mathematical/literary essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction" published in 1937 in a small journal called Mathematical Recreations. Over the course of the novel Julia Hart, the editor, reads the stories in the presence of McAllister and then discusses them afterward.  We, as readers, are treated to all seven stories and each of the seven ensuing "Conversations." But it is not just a story collection. The stories themselves fuel a mystery that create the story of the novel.

Julia begins to notice oddities in the structure of each story, elements she calls "discrepancies." By the fourth instance of these discrepancies Julia believes they are meant as clues to a larger mystery McAllister has laid out in secret within all seven tales. She is certain the mystery involves a notorious murder that occurred around the time McAllister was writing these stories. Julie believes that the title of the collection The White Murders is not referring to the many settings of white buildings as McAllister claims but instead to an actress and playwright named Elizabeth White who was found strangled back in 1940. Her killer was never found. As the reader progresses from story to story he may find himself matching wits with Julia trying to find the "discrepancy" in each story before she reveals it in the "Conversation" chapter immediately following. McAllister is elusive and cryptic in answering Julia's penetrating and provocative questions. Is he feigning ignorance or is he genuinely telling the truth?  Is Julia imagining wholly coincidental parallels to Elizabeth White's murder?

Those readers who take up the tacit challenge will find themselves turning literary detective and amateur linguist as the solving of a mystery turns away from the standard whodunnit and whydunnit questions and becomes the mystery of syntax and word choice and off putting plotholes. Some examples:  Pavesi has fun with the use of colors throughout the stories (in one story all of the characters are named after colors), unusual choices of adjectives, and allusions to well known detective stories and novels. But is this all there is to the mystery of The Eighth Detective?

Of course not. The Eighth Detective could not be a real detective novel unless it also had some sort of inherent murder mystery. Julia's perspicacious reading uncovers a genuine mystery that relates to Elizabeth White's murder.  No more can I say about this cleverly worked out mix of word puzzles, stylistic mysteries in seven different narratives, and the overarching mystery Julia uncovers. You can only truly enjoy the challenges and imaginative riffs by discovering them on your own.

Alex Pavesi, himself a mathematician, is clearly is a fan of mystery fiction.  He has written seven fine examples of mystery short stories that will recall a variety of writers. Notably, "Trouble on Blue Pearl Island" is most obviously his homage to And Then There Were None (who hasn't written one of these lately?) that answers one of McAllister's variations of the "ingredients" in giving us a story in which all the suspects are murdered. The murder methods are diabolical, far from the kind of thing one finds in Golden Age mystery fiction unless you have indulged in the American shudder pulps of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the plot is clearly a mirror of Agatha Christie's landmark murder mystery it often reminded me more of the Saw horror movie franchise. Be prepared!

Alex Pavesi
Of the other six stories I enjoyed most of all "Death at the Seaside" featuring a Carr-like egomaniacal amateur detective named Winstone Brown and is the most fairly clued of the stories; "A Detective and His Evidence" atypically nasty and amoral in tone which is explained rather brilliantly in the finale; and "The Cursed Village," the most ambitious of the stories in its variation on the theme of both multiple criminals and multiple solutions. In fact, by the time the reader has reached the final page of The Eighth Detective he may discover that the book was also a homage to Christianna Brand, the queen of multiple solutions. 

I enjoyed some of the philosophical ideas contained in McAlllister's essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction " and he of course outlines those ideas in one of the many "Conversation" chapters. But the essay is reductive rather than all-encompassing in its discussion of detective fiction in terms only of victims, suspects and detectives.  Julia at one point says his theory is inherently flawed because these four "ingredient" sets and subsets cannot account for a murder mystery with multiple crimes committed by more than one suspect as often occurs in the work of my favorite Golden Age neglected writer Vernon Loder. McAllister dismisses that observation with a lame excuse: "It's cheating really."  Yet as I see it in the 21st century there really can be no cheating when it comes to writing detective fiction.  In this type of imaginative writing there never were any real rules -- only expectations of a defined set of narrative conventions. In the end the entire novel is one huge piece of ironic fiction writing. For what Pavesi does in The Eighth Detective so ingeniously is to point out that even McAllister's "permutations" can be flouted and defied.

Finally -- a warning to those who like to flip and scan ahead.  Do not read the chapter headings before you get to them.  There is a reason there is no Table of Contents in this book.  If you read the chapter headings looking for the story titles you may reveal one last minute surprise that may just spoil the overall brilliance of the book as a novel.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Woman in the Wardrobe - Peter Shaffer

There are some books which have achieved legendary status in the Detective Fiction Hall of Fame simply because they have been largely unobtainable for decades. These are books which for one reason or another disappear from the used book marketplace and libraries yet still retain an aura of mystique, books that whisper to us throughout the ether: "Come and find me! Read me! Yes, I'm that good."  I've been lucky enough to stumble across such books several times over my lifetime and can tell you that often this prestige is dubious at best.  In many cases it would have been better to ignore those whispered temptations and saved that rather large chunk of cash which I usually doled out for one of these "legendary" murder mysteries.  The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) is one of these elusive and legendary books, long out of print, spoken with hushed reverence and nearly impossible to get hold of a copy.  I'm happy to report -- since it is now widely available in yet another attractively packaged volume from the British Library Crime Classics imprint -- this book does still merit its prestigious label, if only for two daring stunts its authors pull off.

As with the other two books in the trilogy of mystery novels featuring the blustering and egocentric Mr. Verity we have a puzzling locked room murder and a variety of eccentric oddballs among the list of suspects. A loathsome blackmailer has been done in in his hotel room at a seaside resort located in the fictional town of Amnestie in Sussex. We learn that Mr. Verity is situated not far from Amnestie in his ostentatious "villa" Persopolis where he lives a rather solitary life surrounded by his vast collection of antiques and esoteric statuary. How else would a brilliant amateur criminologist live?

Alice Bruton, the maid
Not at all the usual minor character

Richard Tudor, the eccentric
Steals the show on every page he appears

 

It's not long before Verity has inveigled his way into the murder investigation -- well, more like barged in and commandeered the proceedings -- leading Inspector Jackson by the hand as they interrogate the residents of the Charter. Together they (and later Inspector Rambler from Scotland Yard) and uncover myriad secrets in the hotel guests' pasts that link them to the much hated Maxwell, found shot and beaten in his locked and bolted room. The telling of the story is, for about the first half, very routine with some discovery of clues and physical evidence but lots of Q&A. I was beginning to lose interest in the story despite the occasional touch of ironic humor and acerbic asides that Verity likes to toss out. Only with the entrance of the bizarrely funny Richard Tudor, a man who envisions himself as the rightful monarch of England, did the novel pick up pace in both outrageous humor, tangential history lessons and unexpected plot machinations.

Mr. Verity

Overall, this is a fine pastiche of the traditional detective novel. So well done in style and genre technique I got faint whiffs of classic authors in the plotting of Shaffer's book. Whether or not any or all of them were inspirations for The Woman in the Wardrobe I leave to your imagination.  Christianna Brand, a pioneer in multiple solutions, comes immediately to mind as Shaffer manages to fit the evidence to nearly every suspect and make it seem possible there are variations on the murderer's identity. As the plot begins to resolve itself we see a further dimension which I cannot reveal but calls to mind the work of Vernon Loder, the master of a particular gimmick that appeared repeatedly in his work. And I noted that the solution of how the victim's hotel room came to be locked was used several times in multiple variations by another neglected impossible crime writer who shares one of the Shaffers' names -- Anthony Wynne.

Peter Shaffer, we are told in the preface by his sister-in-law Elinor, wrote the book on his own but with some help on the complex plot from his brother Anthony. Only in the other two novels of the trilogy would they collaborate more officially in the writing and plotting with each getting credit in the shared pseuodonym of "Peter Antony."  In the US rather than using the pen name for the two sequels to The Woman in the Wardrobe both authors' real names are listed on the cover and title page if only by their first initial and last name. Of the three books I still consider Withered Murder, the final book of the trilogy, to be the best plotted and even more devilishly funny.  It is also long overdue for a reissue. We can only hope that The Woman in the Wardrobe will sell enough copies to make it worthwhile reprinting that far superior mystery.

Shaffer's denouement is something of an eyebrow raiser if it didn't succeed entirely in eliciting that all important gasp of surprise. Interestingly, the finale coincides with the theme explored in a very recent book I've read -- The Eighth Detective, a clever detective novel pastiche of short stories and detective novel conventions.  Tune in later this week when I dissect The Eighth Detective and its mathematical permutations of "detective novel ingredients."  Shaffer amazingly explored the very same ideas in The Woman in the Wardrobe and did so decades earlier without actually outright stating he was doing so.  Which only serves as proof that a true homage to detective fiction tends to rely first and foremost on a love of the genre combined with a shrewd attention to its conventions and plotting tricks.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Poison Unknown - Max Dalman


The Juliot Research Institute in Poison Unknown (1939) is a small facility entirely funded by a philanthropic grant.  The grant allows for paying the salaries of one professor, one teaching assistant (called a demonstrator in the context of the story) and to help finance the housing for four students who can live on the premises while furthering their unique studies.  Many of the students are involved in poison research and because this is a detective novel you can be sure that one of those students has an interest in the obscure often undetectable poisons of South America. Take a wild guess if a poison dart will be among the clues. Of course! and not one but two.

Professor Roseland is found murdered in the laboratory and at first it seems it an accident occurred, that an experiment that went wrong. Inspector Macleod and Supt. Carbis are suspicious and suspect a possible murder staged to look like an accident. There are indications that various hands have altered the scene where the body was discovered.

Sylvia Roseland, the professor's daughter, and Paul Danton, one of the students, turn amateur detectives competing with the police professionals in an underhanded investigation of their own. As their prime suspect the police have targeted Francis Seymour, Sylvia's boyfriend, and the "demonstrator" for the students. Sylvia is determined to clear Seymour's name.

Classics professor Dr. Boynley, interestingly, is a detective fiction fan. He happens to be in the study in an armchair unseen by Sylvia and Paul and thus has overheard their plan to clear Seymour's name. He then says to them:

"I'd be interested to know what models you propose to follow--Lecoq, Sherlock Holmes, the more recent, but infalliable, Dr. Thorndyke... That perhaps would suit you best, Mr. Danton?  the scientific method..."

Together the three devise an elaborate plan in order to prove that Seymour caught a 6:30 train, traveled to London, and attended a conference.  If their plan succeeds, then as Boynley concludes "his innocence is proven."

Meanwhile the police uncover another murder of a woman they believe to be a prostitute who has dallied with several of the men at the Juliot Institute.  When her true identity is discovered and the reason for her secret meeting that led to her death is finally disclosed the murder of the professor takes on a wholly new shape. Further evidence is gathered (in one case, literally extricated) proving that the professor's death was a cleverly executed murder. 

Poison darts, talk of rare and undetectable poisons and the involved study of toxic chemistry may take up much of the investigation, but the ultimate murder means and motive come as a surprise in the end. The plotting was reminiscent of the kind of favorite trick of our mutual friend Dame Agatha often employed in his devilish murder mysteries. And I fell for it. Bravo Mr. Dalman!

Max Dalman (1905-1951) is not much read these days and I found almost nothing about him online.  He was born Max Dalman Binns in Scarborough and is the son of the equally forgotten British mystery writer Ottwell Binns. Both men are sadly lost to the vaults of myriad obscure crime fiction writers.  Based on this single novel which was engaging from page one, filled with unusual ideas, some clever plotting and exciting set pieces of detection I'd say Max Dalman is worth further investigation. Thanks to some luck with Illinois lottery tickets I netted $145 and used those winnings to splurge on buying some more Dalman books. Expect more reviews on his other novels later this year.

Max Dalman Detective Novels
Three Strangers (1937)
The Hidden Light (1937)
Vampire Abroad (1938)
Death on May Morning (1938)
Poison Unknown (1939)
The Missing Grave (1939)
The Burnt Bones Mystery (1940)
Mask for Murder (1940)
Doctor Disappears (1941)
Third Alibi (1942)
Death Before Day (1942)
Herald of Death (1943)
Death Disposes (1945)
Buried Once (1946)
The Elusive Nephew (1947)


Monday, August 3, 2020

Magpie Murders TV Series Coming Soon!

This just in...

Magpie Murders, the meta-mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz about a mystery novel manuscript within a novel, is coming to Masterpiece on PBS here in the US. This most likely means it's already scheduled for UK television and will probably air before we get it over here. 

Unlike the recent spate of mangled Christie programs this is one TV adaptation I'm looking forward to seeing. It will be scripted by Horowitz himself so we can surely expect a faithful adaptation with no ludicrous monkeying around with characters and plot. I'm fascinated to see how a book so much about writing and manuscripts will be translated to the television screen. Can the very excellent Daniel Hawthorne mystery novels also written by Horowitz be next on the slate?

For more on this six part (!) series in co-production with Eleventh Hour Films see this publicity piece on the PBS Masterpiece website.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Murder at Deer Lick - A.B. Cunningham

THE STORY:  Powerfully built, intimidating but respected physician John Bruce is found stabbed. His pistol still in its holster, his fierce and equally intimidating horse is roaming nearby a bit confused. How could the man have been knocked from his horse and killed? The horse was known to be "as savage as a boar hog." No one could have approached the doctor while on the animal without major difficulties. Yet Dr. Bruce was discovered off the horse, contusions on his arms, his throat cut and multiple stab wounds to his body. Even more remarkable, the pistol still in its holster proves the doctor never had a chance to defend himself. It was some sort of surprise attack but from where? The body was found on an open roadway beneath an old tree. Nowhere for anyone to hide. Sheriff Jess Roden is faced with this puzzling murder and some surprising additional mysteries in the aftermath Dr. Bruce's brutal killing.

THE CHARACTERS:  Murder at Deer Lick (1939) is the first detective novel in a long series featuring Sheriff Jess Roden, the sole law official in the fictional county of Deer Lick in Kentucky. Roden, as I've discussed previously here and here, follows in a long line of rural fictional detective who use their knowledge of animals and plants to help gather evidence and solve the crimes. Tracking of footprints in these books is very often not so much about human feet as it is about animal tracks. In the case of Dr Bruce's murder someone has cleverly obliterated all traces of tracks and yet in the end this obliteration turns out to be a dead giveaway as to the identity of the murderer when Roden witnesses exactly the same pattern being made somewhere else while investigating the crime.

In one of the opening chapters we get an elaborately detailed biographical sketch on just how Roden has used his knowledge of the woods, streams and fields of Kentucky. It's a brilliant example of what sets a country detective apart from his urban colleagues and is as eye opening as the first glance of a meteor shower. His talents include identifying fish with only a single clue ("a pike by a single tooth, a bass by the anal fin, a perch by one scale...); secrets of mammal life ("..the difference between the smell of muskrat and mink, the shape of a gray squirrel's teeth,...the deep-heeled track of a polecat..."), reptiles ("the size of turtle eggs..., the smell of a copperhead..."), and birds ("how a [heron] made its nest"). He knows the tastes and scent and texture of dozens of trees by touching, smelling or tasting their leaves, nuts and roots. All these observational skills of the natural world only serve to fuel his observation of humans: "He was aware that Ed Lefferton held his cud of tobacco in his right jaw, ...that Mun Lee was left-handed, that little Bo Strange talked to himself, that Potbelly Losee always wore an asafetida bag suspended from a dirty twine string around his great fat neck."

That last fact is crucial in solving the murder of Dr. Bruce. When Losee is singled out by the townspeople as a possible suspect Roden learns that the treasured asafetida bag went missing and Potbelly was beside himself with worry. Later, that bag is found clenched in Doc's hand and things look bleak for the poor mentally retarded young man. Mute since birth and feeble minded Potbelly can barely understand simple sentences, but his mother has a special way she can communicate with him and calm him where all others fail. She asks Roden to do his best to prove that her son is innocent. Mrs. Losee knows in her heart that her dear son could never have killed anyone though he certainly has the strength to harm grown men.

Other suspects include Mun Lee, a young man with a secret who wants desperately to leave town with his girl and is adamant that Roden has no business knowing why he wants to flee. Roden prevents Mun's flight on several occasions, once resulting in a fist fight. Perhaps the most suspicious of the lot is Ezekiel Stout, a crazed preacher, who had a disagreement with Doc Bruce over the way to treat Middy Wily's smallpox. Stout took Middy out of the physician's care, very much against Doc's direct orders, to a prayer meeting trying to save the isck woman. She died in the makeshift church surrounded by Stout's zealous followers; prayer no aid against the ravages of disease. It doesn't help matters that Roden is prejudiced against the preacher who he views as a hypocrite who he knows is a wife beater and sadist.

No comment on the section of Deer Lick
located on the left side of this map
This last bit is an excellent touch in direct contrast to contemporary novels set in the South in which most law officials back up the local preacher and are devout Christians. Roden has an intolerance for fake religion and disdains blood and thunder style fearmongering in the guise of teaching the Lord's ways. Cunningham seems to be voicing his own opinions about zealotry and religious hypocrisy in addition to adding another dimension to Roden's character as this lengthy section vehemently denounces Stout's methods and his foolish, unquestioning followers.

Roden is assisted by his deputy Cary Davis, a coffinmaker named Ed Lefferton, and the local coroner, who is yet another of those forerunners to the cynical medical examiner with a deep black humor, a now common character type. Cunningham foreshadows another convention of crime fiction series novels in that many of the supporting characters have mini-dramas of their own to deal with. Apart from Mrs. Losee's fear of Potbelly being arrested, tried and hanged for the physician's murder there is the drama of Ed Lefferton's ailing wife Molly, the rivalry between local midwife Aunt Minervy and Rev. Stout, and Mayme, a housekeeper formerly employed by Doc Bruce, who makes several attempts to seduce Roden even managing to inveigle her way into his home with the promise of skilled cleaning and delicious cooking.

INNOVATIONS: Cunningham has invented a rather bizarre method of murder in the death of Doc Bruce. This will prove to be an ongoing feature in the Sheriff Roden series like an accidental death that is actually an cleverly engineered poisoning or in another book a death trap of mechanical ingenuity that rivals the imaginative murder means in the John Rhode detective novels. The manner in which Roden stumbles across the actual method of Doc Bruce's murder is both gruesome and efficient. Witnessing this unexpected episode forces Roden to re-evaluate nearly all the evidence he has at hand.

THE AUTHOR:  Albert Benjamin Cunningham (1888-1962) was born in Linden, West Virginia. He was a educated at Muskingum College in Ohio, did graduate work at New York University where he also received a PhD in sociology and psychology. After serving in World War I Cunningham taught English at Texas Tech University from 1930 to 1945. In addition to the 21 detective novels featuring Jess Roden he wrote one crime novel under the pseudonym "Estil Dale" and several mainstream novels as "Garth Hale." During the late 1920s Cunningham also wrote some mainstream novels under his own name prior to turning exclusively detective fiction in 1939.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Singing Clock - Virginia Perdue

THE STORY:  In the middle of the night Jacklin Bogart discovers the dead body of her cousin Antoinette and proceeds to cover up the crime. She is certain she knows who is guilty. We watch her remove the weapon from the scene and bury it far away, then she washes blood off her clothes. Lt. Brady arrives on the scene and is too clever to be fooled by Jacklin's charade. He knows she is shielding someone and perhaps trying to incriminate one of her relatives she so hates. Soon we learn that Jacklin is highly suspicious of nearly all her relatives and suspects someone guilty of not only killing her mother but trying to do in her beloved grandfather. When another murder occurs in the home it is clear to Brady that Jacklin's meddling is endangering the lives of the entire Crandall household.

THE CHARACTERS: Jacklin is one of the earliest renditions of the now tired cliche of "the unreliable narrator".  We never really know whether to believe her outrageous claims that someone not only arranged the accidental death of her father, but manged to drive her mother to commit suicide. Or perhaps killed her and made it look like suicide. Despite her beliefs her parents' deaths are not viewed as crimes by anyone,  but only by Jacklin herself. Her hatred of her relatives infects her every interaction. Her desire to avenge her parents' death affects her close relationship with her grandfather who she also believes is being targeted by the same homicidal manic who killed her parents. Everard Crandall, is an irascible old man who seems to be as misanthropic as his granddaughter. But someone still manages to poison him, a botched attempt to kill him that does not go unnoticed by the police or the relentless killer who will try again later in the story.

David, Antoinett'es former fiance, who had an argument with the murder victim the very night she was killed.  It seems that David whose reputation is tainted by his volatile temper had a prime motive and all eyes turn to him as suspect number one.  Was Jacklin protecting him with her monkey business at the scene of the crime?  Further complicating the case is that fact that Jacklin has an obsessive love for her cousin, Ward, who was training to become a doctor in Germany but was forced to return to the US in 1939 when the war broke out. She dreams of marrying him, and longs to be a Crandall so she get get rid of the odious name Bogart and all the hateful things it reminds her of.

The Crandall household is typical of these GAD fictional homes populated with troubled wealthy people all waiting for an ailing relative to die. The eccentric standout is Aunt Mel, Antoinette's mother. She is a religious zealot obsessed with New Age style movements like the one that celebrates The Great Life Force she is currently proselytizing about. In one of the book's highlights she lets loose with a tirade of invective at Everard accusing him of bringing about her daughter's death and cursing him to die.

Everard's housekeeper Mrs. Wollaston, was at one time his lover and they intended to marry, but the family prevented their union in holy matrimony. Mrs. Wollaston, nevertheless moved into the house to stay by the man she loved and care for him.  But is it possible her love is all a sham and she is actually in love with Everard's money?

ATMOSPHERE: The title of the book comes from a musical antique grandfather clock that has a prominent place in the home. Throughout the novel Jacklin hears the clock chiming an hour and a portion of the lyrics of "My Grandfather's Clock" run through her head. The song itself lodges in her mind like an earworm, and each time the clock chimes a new hour she hears another line of lyrics singing to her. Often the phrases ironically comment on the action that just occurred or will foreshadow future incidents in the narrative. Perdue uses this motif to add an eerie menace as the murder investigation unfolds. The rhyme includes the line "But it stopped short, never to run again, when the old man died" and Jacklin is fearful that if the clock stops it's tune or stops its incessant ticking Everard Crandall will in fact drop dead. She is determined to save him and is on constant watch as people continually enter and exit his bedroom where he spends much of his time.

INNOVATIONS: I thought this was going to be a suspenseful inverted crime novel and that Jacklin was guilty from the start on page one when we follow her destroying evidence and covering up the murder. But The Singing Clock (1941) is in fact a legitimate whodunnit, an ingenious blend of psychological suspense and detection. Filled with shifts in tone, surprise revelations, astonishing secrets and some transgressive touches like marijuana addiction and borderline incestuous love, The Singing Clock is one of the most remarkable crime novels to be published by Doubleday's Crime Club and a minor masterpiece from Virginia Perdue, a sorely underappreciated American crime fiction writer. The last chapter of this book is bonechilling and genuinely thrilling with Perdue's final unexpected shocking revelation. All that preceded suddenly shifts, characters are seen in a new blindingly altered light, and the story all makes perfect sense. The last few paragraphs are literally bloodcurdling with a scene reminiscent of the violent movies of Quentin Tarantino and the nightmarish tales of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch. For me the final chapter of The Singing Clock is utterly ingenious and makes this book a breathtaking pioneering novel of misdirection in crime fiction. I was both impressed and astonished, a rare reaction these days.

THINGS I LEARNED:  I remember "My Grandfather's Clock" as a nursery rhyme from my childhood. My younger brother and I had it on a kid's record and we used to listen to it over and over as we did with the many odd songs in our large record collection. But apparently it's actually a folk tune that dates to the post Civil War era. Written and composed by Henry C. Work the song was published in 1876. Work is also the composer of a march that memorialized Sherman's invasion of Savanaah called "Marching Through Georgia."

According to a Wikipedia article Henry C. Work wrote a sequel to the song in which the narrator "laments the fate of the no-longer-functioning grandfather clock – it was sold to a junk dealer, who sold its parts for scrap and its case for kindling."

A lyric line from the song inspired "Ninety Years without Slumbering" in the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. Similar to what Jacklin believes in Perdue's novel in the TV show Ed Wynn stars as a man who fears his life will end when his antique clock stops ticking.

For those unfamiliar with the song "My Grandfather's Clock" you can hear Johnny Cash do his own rendition. It's the only one I can listen to now amid the sea of annoying kid's versions.

QUOTES:  "Don't think you can get out of it so easily! You've gone too far, Everard Crandall.  Your wickedness and cruelty have offended against the Great Life Stream!" Jacklin felt a mad desire to laugh. At the same time there was a prickling along her spine. It was only a part of Aunt Mel's latest religious fad. Nevertheless, it was rather horrible.

"Nobody can call his soul his own. Not so long as [Everard's] alive."

There was an air of vigorous health about [Aunt Sarah], a country air, as if she were made of good rich soil instead of ordinary blood and nerves.

And I can't resist adding this one in our days of mask phobia and pandemic viruses:

...the other man gave a harsh laugh which ended in a fit of coughing. He really had a bad cold, Jacklin thought with distaste. Why didn't they stay at home when they were sick. It wasn't fair to go around snuffling and coughing and infecting other people.