Wednesday, December 23, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Will Oursler, Son of a Mystery Writer

The first novel Will Oursler wrote was also his first detective novel. The Trial of Vincent Doon (1941) is presented as if it were an actual murder case and consists entirely of a facsimile of the court transcript accompanied by drawings, house plans, photographs and a full set of People’s Exhibits. No doubt this was inspired by the latest fad -- solve-them-yourself murder puzzles like those in the Baffle Books published by Doubleday Crime Club and the crime dossiers created by Dennis Wheatley and J. G. Links with titles like Murder Off Miami and Who Killed Robert Prentice? These dossiers included not just photographs of the evidence as in Oursler’s novel, but the actual evidence: pieces of threads, real fingerprint sheets, and in one case a cellophane envelope containing real hair. The Trial of Vincent Doon is unique as a first novel in its structure and gimmickry, but as a novel it is not very original nor even thrilling.

Philip Strong, is the criminal defense lawyer for Doon and is clearly modeled on Perry Mason. His partner James Matthew acts as the narrator/compiler and periodically makes commentary on Strong and the case in footnotes a la the Van Dine detective novels. The story involves a lover’s triangle that leads to a stabbing murder of strait-laced Edwin Hallet. The accused is a jealous painter, Vincent Doon, who was working on a portrait of Betty Van Eyck. Hallet was to marry Betty but Doon claims she never loved her fiancée, that she was really in love with him.

Though Oursler may think he was being clever and original l this book is heavily reminiscent of Gardner’s Perry Mason series, especially the later books which contain lengthy courtroom scenes designed mostly to live up to the formulaic TV series. Like the Perry Mason TV series and most of the books the most interesting parts of Oursler’s story are not the complicated plot, unusual motivations and surprise confessions on the stand, but the quirky trivia-laden testimony of expert witnesses. In The Trial of Vincent Doon the most fascinating part of the book, the most interesting to read, is the testimony of a telephone repairman!

He answers a series of seemingly irrelevant questions which are objected to by the prosecution but are allowed by the judge. Strong insists that the phone repair and the ringing of a phone at a certain time on the night of the murder is crucial to understanding the apparent alibis of people other than Doon. And so the reader is treated to some intriguing and true telephone repair tricks like a special code that repairmen can dial into any phone that will make the phone ring after hanging up. This is definitely true. As a teen back in the 1970s I was given that special code (which changed over the years and was different depending on where you lived in the US) by some savvy friend of mine whose father was in telecommunications. I would play tricks on my brothers and my mother all the time by dialing the three digit code, hanging up and leaving the house.



Apart from the telephone repairman’s testimony and frequent displays of Strong’s devious methods in getting witnesses to reveal their true character on the stand the book consists entirely of a run-of-the mill courtroom drama. Oursler even manages to manipulate circumstances so that the killer confesses on the stand. Perhaps one of the few innovations prior to it becoming cliché. And thanks for that can go entirely to the Perry Mason TV series.

Much better is Oursler’s sequel Folio on Florence White (1942) once again with Matthews, this time as full-fledged first person narrator, and Strong as defense attorney cum detective. The gimmick of the casebook forgoes the courtroom transcript and People’s exhibits but as the title tells us it is indeed a folio. Interspersed between narrative chapters we get letters, memos, phone messages, transcripts of depositions all designed with different fonts and illustrated elements to give the illusion that they are actual documents.

The cast of characters is relatively familiar in this story of wealthy businessmen, adultery, corporate malfeasance and the theft of company assets. Florence has been wrongly convicted of theft of securities two years ago and has recently been released from prison. Her rival who testified against her, Evelyn Emory, is killed by cyanide poisoning. Flo is arrested. Later, another witness from the old security theft crime is also killed. His wife thinks it is a heart attack. But autopsy proves poisoning by cyanide. Is someone getting even for Flo’s wrongful imprisonment?



In one of the novel’s most memorable sequences Strong does some actual sleuthing at a potter’s field, based on an actual cemetery with a gruesome history (see THINGS I LEARNED section). A visit to Harlem gives us a scene relatively free of prejudice in which Strong and Matthews feel out of their element when they realize they are treated as outsiders and intruders. While there is an open hostility expressed Oursler does not go the 1940s PC route by making the white people seem like they know everything. Nor are the Blacks turned into ludicrous cartoons for comic effect. Strong and Matthews learn a lot about themselves in this scene and the Black characters are depicted with sympathy and wisdom.

Complicating the story of Flo’s supposed guilt in the murder of Evelyn is the disappearance of Harvey Mason, owner of Mason Aircraft where she and Evelyn worked. A tramp dies with no form of identity found on his body and the after the legal limit of waiting for a relative to claim the body it is sent to a potter’s field. Strong orders an exhumation of the corpse thinking they can prove that the trap is actually Harvey Mason who was put into tramp’s clothing. When the coffin is opened, the body is gone. Shades of John Dickson Carr!

The Potter's Field on Hart Island, 1898
(courtesy of Bowery Boys website)
THINGS I LEARNED: The history of the island is described in detail which led me to check up on the story. Turns out Oursler merely changed the name to Planker’s Island and described it as having once been owned by a rich Dutchman named E. Van Dyrk Planker who after his death bequeathed the island to New York City for use as dumping ground for 'refuse and trashe.'  He based the setting on a cemetery located on Hart Island, written up lately in various online articles as “a place of strangeness and sorrow” and “New York City’s potter’s field.” The New York City Corrections Department maintained and supervised burials for in its earliest life the island was home to a Confederate soldiers’ prison. For decades after the Civil War prisoners were tasked with burying bodies of unclaimed corpses that had been consigned to New York City’s morgue. To this day prisoners still tend to the grounds and bury the dead on Hart Island, but the prisoners come from Riker’s Island as the prison on Hart Island is long since abandoned and fallen into ruins. Hart Island has also been used to bury HIV victims during the AIDS crisis and victims of Hurricane Sandy. Most recently hundreds of people killed by COVID-19 have been buried here. Oddly, these days Hart’s Island is under the direction of the New York Department of Parks and Recreation but the public has never been able to visit. This may be changing soon in light of the consequences of the pandemic.

THE AUTHOR: Will Oursler (1914-1985) whose work was previously featured and discussed here back in 2015 was the son of mystery writer, journalist and Catholic spokesperson Charles Fulton Oursler, better known to vintage mystery fans as “Anthony Abbot.”  Oursler, the son, also made his living in journalism as a war correspondent, appeared on talk radio as a panelist and wrote several books, like his father, on religion or with theological themes. I call him a moonlighter because out of a total of 45 books (fiction and non-fiction) only eight of his novels qualify as detective fiction. Remarkably, I recently discovered he served as Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. So I guess he was very much involved in the crime fiction world and not really a dabbling moonlighter at all. In addition to the two books featuring Strong and Matthews as protagonists Oursler wrote two other novels modeled on these folios without the lawyer duo, two Gale Gallagher books in collaboration with Margaret Scott using the main character, a female skip tracer/private eye, as their pseudonym and as "Nick Marino" an additional two crime novels.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Advent Ghosts 2020: A Pair of Ghostly Vignettes

Once again we find ourselves in the week before Christmas and Loren Eaton of I Saw Lighting Fall has invited various writers to contribute their frissons of ghostly yuletide frights and visitations from beyond.  The catch?  Each micro story is a drabble consisting of precisely 100 words. No more, no less. And each must be a ghost story or an eerie tale or a twisted Roald Dahl story with a nasty surprise.  However they take shape, whether it be a traditional ghost story with an uncanny spirit or a tale of gruesome horror, they have all manifested themselves today, December 19. Here are my two contributions.  Not as nasty I usually whip up, but given these days when many loved ones have slipped away from omnipresent illness and disappeared into the ether I thought perhaps these were more suitable and slightly more hopeful.

 


   "If Only in My Dreams"


This was her favorite. Every year they saved it for last and placed it at the apex of the tree. Not a traditional star, but a glass blown dog -- long ears, comical Santa hat and sad-happy eyes. This year she’d go it alone.  Uncle Sebastian was another casualty of the ubiquitous virus.

Sudden movement distracted her from her reminiscence. The ornament left her fingers and was guided to the treetop.  In disbelief she stepped up, reached out for the floating dog, felt a warm touch.  Her hand and one unseen were placing the ornament as they did every year.





"Mark Ye Well the Song We Sing"

So what if he couldn’t see the Christmas lights anymore.  More like light pollution than Christmas spirit.  Vision going, going, soon to be gone… But his hearing was sharp and keen as ever.  Music saved him.  The carolers were approaching.  He opened the door to get the full effect.  Hazy shapes, no faces discernible.  But the sound, oh the sound.  Harmony, melody, true song.  He felt like inviting them in.  Were they even clothed?  They could do with a Irish coffee with plenty of whiskey.  Sound faded, hazy visions melted like ice and not even a footprint was left behind.




Sunday, December 6, 2020

Behind the Bolted Door? - Arthur E. McFarlane

 Browsing through the pages of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders I came across an obscure book from the early 20th century by an utterly forgotten writer with the impossible situation described as a "death... in a locked room with a swimming pool."  I immediately went looking for Behind the Bolted Door? by Arthur E. McFarlane and found a handful of copies. One was being sold by someone on eBay who happened to live in Illinois so I know I would get the book quickly. Was it worth the $30 I shelled out?  Well, certainly not for its shoddy condition. (I'll spare you my rant and email exchanges with the seller) But as an example of early 20th century detective fiction it was worth obtaining (perhaps at not such an inflated price) and reading for it serves as a template for other writers who improved on the many conventions and motifs employed in the book. At times it was a puzzling story, frequently it was entertaining, but in the end it proved to be an infuriating read.

Unfortunately, Adey uses a word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? (1916) that somewhat ruins the entire book because the apparent cause of the murder -- a blow to the head -- is not the actual method at all. The method and cause of the murder are not revealed until the final five paragraphs of the last chapter! I don't think he should have employed that word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? Luckily, I had completely forgotten that word while reading McFarlane's book. It was the swimming pool in the apartment building that utterly fascinated me -- especially for a book written in 1916.  The murder is committed in a puzzling fashion, but then the story is overloaded with too much silliness that distracts and frustrates the reader. It was easy to overlook the obvious. This novel is unnecessarily convoluted, slipshod in its storytelling, and crammed full of melodramatic incidents, cliffhanger chapter endings and an attempt to add some supernatural elements that were frankly laughable and not in the least bit eerie as presented.  I could see this as one of the many books John Dickson Carr might have read as a teenager and had in the back of his mind when he became the master of apparently supernatural events leading to an impossible crime.  

Mrs. Fisher, the philanthropic wife of a science professor, is found with her head bashed in the locked hall that contains a swimming pool in her luxury duplex apartment in midtown Manhattan. A strange circular indentation is found in the head wound and her body has been moved from its original position. All rooms leading to the swimming pool hall have been locked on the inside, the only entrance to the corridor is from a staircase and no one was seen leaving that way.  (see the plan below)  By all accounts it seems to have been an impossible crime. If it was an accident then who moved the body and why? And if it was murder how did the killer escape undetected?

 

Judge Bishop listens
to the werid voice

The crime is investigated by a trio of detectives none of whom are policemen. Dr. Laneham, a neuropath "who possessed a name fast becoming international," is assisted by two young people who are considered suspects -- Walter "Owly" Willings, who runs a settlement house and is involved in charitable work on the Lower East Side, and Daphne Hope, secretary to Judge Fulton Bishop, the newly elected District Attorney. The kindly Chief of Police McGloyne allows Laneham and the two young people a few days to gather evidence and thereby clear their names and deputizes them giving them some authority to question suspects. Willings claims to have a better understanding of the mindset of poor people and Laneham as a psychologist is intrigued by alternate forms of police investigation when dealing with unruly suspects, and in one case a different cultures. One of the suspects is the immigrant Italian maid who fled the Fisher household the day that Mrs. Fisher was killed.  Compounding her possible guilt is the fact that she was recently released from prison and was given her job as part of a mission to reform prisoners and give them a second chance at "going straight."

In addition to these social justice aspects that make the novel somewhat revelatory for its era McFarlane brings up an odd psychological technique that becomes the main theme of the novel. He has Dr. Laneham mention Emile Zancray, a supposedly pioneering French psychologist, and his ideas about the behavior of criminal suspects. It is referred to as "Zancray's postulate" which states "that practically never does any friend of the victim tell everything. Either for his own good, or for the good name of the gentleman murdered, the helpful friend will always hold out something." Over the course of the novel this will hold true. Willings, Daphne, Jimmy the butler and others will all withhold vital information, sometimes seemingly trivial bits, but all of which impedes the investigation and leads to further consequences.  In fact, in one case withheld information leads to the death of a policemen.

Obviously McFarlane is trying to make a point. But that he needed to justify his thesis by couching it in  psychology theory is troubling. For a thorough search of early 20th century psychology texts turn ups no one named Emile Zancray.  I entered multiple phonetic French spellings as search terms in my many internet searches in case McFarlane had never seen the name in print (Sancré, Cincré, Zancré, etc.) and came up with no one at all resembling this Zancray and his postulate. LeRoy Lad Panek in The Origins of the American Detective Story (2006) has a section in which he discusses the novelist's desire to make crime fiction seem authentic by name dropping both real and imaginary experts of criminological breakthroughs. Bertillon, the famed French criminologist, turns up in dozens of early 20th century detective novels and short stories, and Panek cites many of them, so too do myriad psychologists and other men of science. Most of them are real, some of them never existed. Zancray is mentioned in Panek's study as is McFarlane's book but Panek does not tell us if he found that either Zancray or his postulate were factual.

I mention all this because McFarlane gives away that he is a naive and lazy writer. At two points in the book when Dr. Laneham is supposedly trying to sound an expert or prove that he is a talented "neuropath" McFarlane reveals his ignorance. Reading this book was mind-boggling in the amount of misinformation, lazy writing and just plain wrong “facts”. I was reminded of a book which on the first page purported that a character had been hunting tigers in South Africa. An utter impossibility because tigers are indigenous only to India and a few other Asian countries. Here are the two most egregious examples of McFarlane's lack of expertise:

1. The German for “world” is die Welt, and not der Mund.

McFarlane must be confusing Romance languages which are all similar in spelling and phonetics — mondo (Italian), mundo (Spanish) and monde (French) — with his understanding of the various translations of word “world.” German, however, is not a Romance language. Mund means mouth! Always has and always will. He had his detective make the very false statement that “mund is German for world” not once in the book, but twice. The second time to a native German speaker! I was prepared for an outburst from Professor Fisher (whose name should be spelled Fischer if he’s a real German). But no, the professor given to many an outburst throughout the story says nothing and never bothers to correct Dr. Laneham.

2. Hypnosis is achieved almost exclusively using verbal cues. Rarely is any touching involved. And most importantly the subject must be willing to undergo hypnosis.

Dr. Laneham manages to hypnotize the fiery tempered and foul mouthed Italian maid Maddalina by massaging her temples and “smoothing the skin” on her arms and face. She never consents to being hypnotized either. After wildly resisting arrest and clawing at the faces and arms of her captors she is subdued. Laneham somehow manages to stand behind her and without her consent he hypnotizes her by touch. Then with an assembly of props in front of her -- and without any verbal instruction whatsoever! -- she replicates a series of activities using those props thus incriminating herself in the theft of Mrs. Fisher’s money. According to McFarlane hypnosis is some sort of magic act that can be achieved through a combination of simple massage and telepathy. In order to get Maddalina out of her tactilely created trance he merely has to slap a pair of handcuffs on her wrists. She not only snapped out of the trance instantaneously she once again became a “female hellion” slapping at anyone near her and swearing up a storm in two languages.

So is Zancray a real person? I sincerely doubt it.

 Behind The Bolted Door? seems more inspired by silent movie adventure serials and the nascent pulp fiction of the era than it is any genuine psychology theories and practices. The characters are stock and lacking in any real dimension. Only in the action sequences does McFarlane reveal character. Daphne -- or D. Hope as she is referred to throughout the entire book -- is the typical New Woman: willful, independent, and possessing an athleticism that would rival any superhero. She manages to save "Owly" Willings (so called for the round Harold Lloyd style glasses he wears) from drowning in the frigid and icy East River when Willings jumps in to rescue Jimmy the butler from a rash suicide attempt.  But when she's not in Wonder Woman mode D. Hope is just a starry-eyed female waiting for acknowledgment of love from her reticent do-gooder.  Maddalina, the Italian maid, is an insulting stereotype of the "hellcat", lacking in all self-control, easily riled and quick to claw at eyes and pull hair when she loses her temper which is almost on every page. Two elevator operators are West Indian immigrants and speak in the usual phonetic dialect reserved for Black characters in this era, constantly referring to all the White men as "boss", ever fearful when being questioned. Ghosts, eerie voices and supposedly spectral knocking feature in the plot. When the interrogation turns to these apparent supernatural events the two men are reduced to quivering spooked cartoons.


The farfetched rescue sequence in the East River is only topped by the bizarre near murder of Dr. Laneham late in the novel.  In trying to figure out how the elevator might have been stalled while traveling to the Fisher home Laneham manages to open the door grate and expose the elevator shaft. A mysterious hand appears from nowhere and gives him a shove. Because the story is inspired by cliffhanger silent movies Laneham expertly grabs hold of the grating and saves himself from a fatal fall. No mention is made of the possible dislocated shoulder or torn and bloody fingers he must have suffered in saving himself. He merely gets a bandage placed on his shoulder.

Oh! Did I mention the knife throwing gangsters that nearly do in one of the policemen guarding the scene of the crime? There. I just did.

Behind the Bolted Door? is a cornucopia of crime fiction conventions and motifs. The novel even has a superfluous seance to round out the "eerieness" just in case the talk of ghosts, spectral knocking and weird voices crying out "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!" weren't enough. Strange objects are manifested in the seance that allude to the murder method the revelation of which causes the murderer to flee the room and plunge to his death in a convenient suicide.

The denouement takes place over three chapters. Three characters must explain the various mysteries that complicated the plot. In addition to the murder, you see, there was the donation of $500 to the settlement project that went missing, a message in strangely ornate copperplate handwriting that appeared to imply Mrs Fisher was being coerced into committing a crime, a burned magazine with a back cover that had only the letters "mund" legible, and a manuscript of a play that enters the story in the penultimate chapter that comes out of nowhere. That the novel was first serialized in a magazine (Maclean's, May through November 1916) easily explains the melodramatic, incident filled story, but cannot excuse the sloppiness in which it is told nor the misinformation that was never corrected by an astute and careful editor.

You can read Behind the Bolted Door? for yourself at Maclean's website of archived issues where all but the last installment have been uploaded.  Inexplicably, the November 1916 issue is missing though Maclean's claim that their archive is complete. You'll get to see all the original illustrations by Henry Raleigh there too.  The original Dodd Mead edition, should you be lucky to find a copy, has only four of the over one dozen pictures Raleigh created for the serial version of McFarlane's novel. I've included several of them in this post. Alternately you can read a PDF of the entire book at Hathi Digital Trust courtesy of The Ohio State University. However you choose to read it, be prepared to be infuriated.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

NEW STUFF: Untamed Shore - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Agora/Polis Books
ISBN: 978-1-947996-92-1
284 pp $25.99
Publication date: February 2020

I can never resist marketing hype. Why? I should know better. I really should. But when I learned that one more person was attempting to liven up the classic noir thriller and that writer was primarily known for her revisionist fairy tales and fantasies and mash-ups of science fiction and the traditional romance novel how could I possibly pass it up? Silvia Moreno-Garcia with three bizarre homage novels of fantasy, supernatural and fairy tale motifs to her credit and a handful of anthologies as editor/compiler has published her first crime novel, Untamed Shore (2020). It’s modeled on the old-fashioned James M. Cain style story of a sucker being led down the road of temptation by a greedy devious woman. But in Moreno-Garcia’s revisitation of this very familiar plot she has reversed the roles. The tempter is a gorgeous and very desirable man and the sucker is a young woman.

Viridiana is hired as a translator/typist to a non-Spanish speaking would-be writer. The writer is rich. He’s married. And his wife’s brother is in tow with them as they rent the ultra-modern mansion called The End located at the very tip of Baja peninsula. It’s the brother, Gregory, who latches onto Viridiana. She may be all starry-eyed but the reader knows she is hardly headed for a happily ever after ending. This kind of role reversal while not wholly original provides an imaginative writer with definite possibilities to shake up a tired formula. I’ve read several Cain style crime novels with reversed roles of temptress/patsy. I’ve even read one where the duplicitous schemers are gay men trying to kill a third man for his money. Did Silvia Moreno-Garcia pull it off? Much to my surprise she did.

I was not buying much of the book for its first half. Moreno-Garcia is clearly still very much sticking to the romance novel formula in this her sixth full length novel. To be honest I have not read any of her other books but going purely by the plot summaries I can see that she is in love with love. All of her books feature young women in the lead roles and all of them are entranced by dangerous men. This is the rudimentary ingredient for all romances and especially the Gothic romance novel (two of her most recent novels are heavily influenced by that subgenre). She’s revisiting very well worn territory here. And the romance angle even though it may be ornamented with paragraphs of startling shark imagery and some intriguing lore about shark fishing is overly familiar and hardly eye opening.

Her protagonist saves the book. Viridiana invigorates what might have been just another romance redux book. It's not just her unusual name (her father named her after the lead character in a Luis Buñuel movie he loved) that makes her unique. With her odd job as reluctant tourist guide and interpreter for the 1970s gringos who find her native Baja peninsula Mexican town an exotic attraction Viridiana is the kind of character you want to spend a lot of time with. She has a horrid home life, she’s dumped her dull fiancé and in the process of being willful and independent has alienated both her mother and would-be mother-in-law, not to mention the would-be groom. Viridiana wants desperately to escape her dead end town. Unappreciated, insulted and maligned by nearly everyone in her town, lectured by her mother who constantly reminds her she does not know a good provider is enough to save her its no wonder that Viridiana retreats into solitary fantasy. We know she deserves a better life. And we want that for her – at any cost.

Enter the trio of rich and flashy Americans who bring to life all of her Hollywood fantasies. You see, like her father Viridiana is a movieholic. She can’t help but draw comparisons to Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun as she finds herself drawn into a risky romance with Gregory. All of her references relating to love and sexual attraction are from old movies. She embarrasses herself with her indulgent imagination and finds herself dictating her dreams into a cassette tape recorder her absent father gave her as a substitute for a diary. She knows it’s wrong to dream girlish fantasies, but can’t help herself. And Gregory exploits her Hollywood fantasies with promises of taking her away and setting up a new life in Paris. She wonders aloud in her tape recorded musings if it all is just too good to be true.

You better believe it is.

Soon her employer is found unconscious at the foot of the stairs. They call the police and a doctor. But by the time they arrive at The End, miles away from the town center, he is dead. Convenient accident or murder? Viridiana begins to suspect the worst and sees Gregory and Daisy, his sister, in a wholly new light as the police begin to question them. She even turns snoop and amateur sleuth and uncovers additional mysteries that need explaining. The movie she dreamed of begins to seem more and more like A Place in the Sun. She had forgotten about the death of Shelley Winters in that movie -- an accidental drowning that leads to Montgomery Clift’s being charged with murder. Her movie fantasies become even more terrifying the more she tries to find out exactly who Gregory and Daisy are and why they came to Baja.

At this point the book kicks into high gear shifting in tone and piling on more action, Moreno-Garcia abandons the dreamy introspective narrative that dominated the first half and takes up the motifs and situations of genuine noir and pulp fiction. Con men, gangsters, crooked cops, bribes galore, a convoluted will, a suspicious nephew, ultra bloody violence. We get it all. Viridiana is forced to grow up almost instantly. She recognizes she’s been used and turns the tables on her exploiters.

I’m glad I took the time to stick with this one. It paid off in ways that I didn’t think the writer was capable of. If Moreno-Garcia has not read the typical crime novels to familiarize herself with this genre she at least has watched a lot of movies to get a handle on the right conventions and plot elements. I thought I knew exactly where this was headed but she managed to throw in a few unexpected curve balls and surprised me at least twice. She sure was not afraid of some gory violence and torture either. I usually don’t applaud this in any writer, but after the ostensible false start of the book it was exactly what the novel needed. Without it Viridiana probably never would have changed and realized at least something resembling a Hollywood ending. And, of course, getting the long overdue life that she richly deserved.

Friday, November 13, 2020

FFB: The Dead Have No Friends - John Donavan

THE STORY:
  Intensely disliked, but extremely popular and financially profitable, novelist Emmanuel Cortal is murdered in his unique glass enclosed writing studio.  There is only one entrance and it was locked from the inside. His death may at first seem to have been natural, but police find he has been poisoned with a highly unusual toxin. How was the administered when apparently no one went into the studio the night he died?

THE CHARACTERS: Although The Dead Have No Friends (1952) is by John Donavan Sergeant Johnny Lamb, Donavan's usual series detective is nowhere in sight.  Instead we have Chief Inspector Roger Newlyn, the son of a Marquis who is affectionately referred to as "the Dook" by the policeman on his team or as Mrs. Coker, the cook in the Cortal household, describes him " a reel haristocrat." Despite the deferential attitude of servants who address him as "my lord" and the perks he gets that come with his family name Newlyn would much prefer to be done with his inherited title and just be known as a policeman.  He's efficient,  likeable and very good at his job as are the men who serve under him. Though as prominent as his role is Newlyn surprisingly is not the one who solves the case. Figuring out the strange murder weapon, the way it was administered and the unveiling of the identity of the killer falls to someone else entirely.

That man is Benjamin Scarle, who we first get to know in a scene of outrageous bluster and pompous anger in the office of literary agent T. F. Rodder.  Scarle is a former police commissioner, now retired, and is a bit behind in turning in the manuscript of his memoir he was coaxed into writing. Contentious, opinionated, and formidable Scarle will remind detective fiction fans of similar larger the life sleuths as Sir Henry Merrivale, Professor Stubbs, and Simon Gale.

Cortal, of course, is also one of Rodder's clients and this is how Scarle becomes involved in the case.  Though he claims to be retired Benjamin Scarle is one of those policeman who will never give up his work. Often Scarle serves as a consultant in some of the more complex cases involving Scotland Yard.  Newlyn is quick to enlist his aid when he is told the coincidence of Cortal and Scarle being clients at the same literary agency.

I made a long list of characters because the first section of this novel, a scathing satire of literary workplaces, was overflowing with names and personalities.  None of the people at the Rodder agency is pertinent to the murder case other than T. F. Rodder himself.  I wasted an entire piece of paper making notes on the staff and their delightful eccentricities only to never read of many of them after the first three chapters. Nigel Morland, the writer behind the "John Donavan" pen name, clearly was having a lot of fun in poking fun at the world of agents, publishers and writers. I wouldn't be surprised if many of these characters were based on people he knew. Instead of eagerly scribbling down notes on the staff of the agency I should have just waited until the police started their murder investigation. For it is the Cortal household with its myriad servants, Cortal's soon-to-be ex-wife Vivien, his 12 year old son Tony, and actress paramour Gerda Heywood who are the real characters to pay attention to.

INNOVATIONS:  The murder scene, of course, is perhaps the most original element.  Cortal has built for himself a private sanctuary where he can be in isolation while he writes. Within the cavernous ballroom converted into a library of his Georgian mansion he has placed his transparent studio, an entirely glass-enclosed private domain where he can see anyone coming toward him on all sides. Thankfully we are given a beautifully drawn and labeled plan of Cortal's glass room-within-a-room that definitely helps the reader understand how impenetrable it appears to be.

 

But in addition to the odd murder setting Morland adds clueing about the door of the ballroom's main entry which leads to the glass encased writing studio.  One of the maids has a great scene where she mentions the clicking of the door handle. She has exceptionally acute hearing and has always been aware of the odd noise which reverberates through the nearly deserted floor where the ballroom and studio are located.  Much is made of this and Newlyn sensing the young woman's sincere attitude and resolute testimony has his team investigate the door. They determine that the clicking sound only occurs when someone leaves the room. One brilliantly observant cop even shows Newlyn exactly how it makes the noise. This bit of info is crucial to eliminating possible suspects among the list of those who visited the ballroom just prior to Cortal's death.  The whole book is filled with excellent details like the "mystery of the clicking door" in helping the police determine who could have killed Cortal.

Also notable is Cortal's weird museum of African artifacts and medieval weaponry, a hodgepodge of dangerous objects that were left in an unlocked room. I was reminded of the many similar scenes from the crime museum in Isabel Ostrander's The Twenty-Six Clues to the collection of skulls in Freeman's The Uttermost Farthing all the way up to the prominently displayed weapon collection that features in the climax of the recent movie Knives Out.

Much of The Dead Have No Friends reminded me of a classic Agatha Christie novel. The multiple Golden Age motifs and conventions continued to pile up and delighted me the deeper I got into the book. A convoluted will with a cruel legacy, an actress who does more acting in real life than on stage, a murder mystery novel ghost written by one of the suspects, minor characters who seem to be thrown in only to  entertain the reader but who prove to be most important of all -- all of these elements make The Dead Have No Friends a corker of a murder mystery. Morland was always a thriller writer first and foremost, and he cannot resist adding a hair-rising climax worthy of the cinema. It's so well done that I found myself gasping in awe but moreso for it being highly reminiscent of the finale of one of Christie's best mysteries.

QUOTES:  Wessex Street on a Sunday forenoon has a peculiar air, like an old lady in a tube subway waiting for somebody to tell her where to go.

A typical outburst from Benjamin Scarle: "Hell's bell, Malcolm, you're a nasty-minded chap! Don't stare at me like a recalcitrant bacteria, startin' revolutions on a culture plate."

"Your mental dexterity is only equaled by your appalling audacity."

The English worship old customs, colourful anachronisms, and self-opinionated old men with original ways.

Scarle was not a psychic man: he had that quality of all real thinkers, in that he could parade invisible people before him and survey them from a godlike peak, guided by understanding and insight blessed with the incisive, merciless qualities of a scalpel. As the actors in the tragedy...passed before him each was dissected neatly, as if the heart was cut open and its secrets betrayed.

"'Turns out well'?" Scarle waved. "My dear chap, I'm takin' over, aren't I? That's an assurance of success."

EDGAR WALLACE ALLUSIONS:  Morland was Edgar Wallace's protege and friend. His early books were dedicated to Wallace and are modeled on his style of thriller with policemen as protagonists and not an amateur sleuth in sight.  Morland also claimed to be his secretary. Wallace is mentioned two separate times in this book. First, in a faint allusion that only a few might catch. Cortal is described as posing with a cigarette in an extremely long holder "copied from a long dead and still unforgotten writer of detective stories who had been loved as Cortal never would be."  The second time Wallace is directly mentioned when the investigation uncovers the ghost written novel The Pliny Problem. Rodder, the literary agent says: "Don't you recall how people used to say that Edgar Wallace had hacks to write his books? I knew E.W. well and I can assure you it was fatuous nonsense."  A clear case of Morland inserting himself into the narrative.

THINGS I LEARNED:  The Yost Typewriter is mentioned in a throwaway line and of course I needed to look it up.  Named after its inventor George Washington Yost it is one of the earliest typewriters, created in the last decade of the 19th century. An early ad proclaimed its original features: "No ribbon, direct printing, permanent alignment." As for the remarkable lack of ribbon here is how that worked according to an article at Antiquetypewriters.com: "Inking is done by a felt pad positioned in a full circle around the top of the tower where the type-bars rest. The type-bars travel an intricate half-flip upwards to reach the platen and then are channeled, by an inverse pyramid shaped guide hole, to strike the platen in exactly the same spot every time, giving the accurate alignment that Yost demanded."

I learned all about Acokanthera schimperi a plant indigenous to eastern Africa. Its bark wood and roots are used to make an arrow poison as well as being used in tribal medicines.

SUMMARY:  Written in 1952 and seemingly very modern The Dead Have No Friends simultaneously seems like a retro Golden Age book.  It may have been written years before and sat around waiting for the right time for Morland to submit it. The only sign that it is a later work is his more mature approach to characterization, the moral nature of the resolution, and the focus on psychology which was one of his main interests in the last half of his writing career.  I found little in his writing to arouse my irritation like xenophobic or ethnic slurs, misogyny or any of his other sins for which he has been derided.  The locked room puzzle, the clever murder method, the clues that lead to the solution, the abundance of suspects and motives -- all of this is redolent of the good ol' days of pure detection.  In fact, of all the Morland books I've read, whether under his real name or a pseudonym, I will concede that this is perhaps the best of the lot. As seen on the final page to the left (no spoilers at all in the bittersweet final paragraphs, BTW) the publisher promised more adventures from the thoroughly enjoyable Benjamin Scarle. Sadly, nothing ever came of that. The Dead Have No Friends is his first and only appearance.

It's a shame that this fine book is so ridiculously scarce. Purchased a few months ago my copy is the first I have seen in over 45 years of collecting and reading vintage crime fiction. This is one to add to the list of Must Be Reprinted titles. Here's hope that some enterprising publisher stumbles across this post and takes up the challenge.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Calling All Mystery Mavens!

Have you ever wanted to be a collaborator?  Here’s your chance. I am, in a word, stuck.

I’m having difficulty finishing some research for a piece that will appear in a new reprint come Spring 2021. My brain is in a fog, my internet searches have turned up little, my reference books are lacking in a cross reference for a specific subgenre. Now I find myself as a last resort turning to my fellow readers and experts for help. Here’s your chance to be a research assistant. No pay, folks, just the minor boost to your ego and my undying gratitude.

Please let me know of any detective novels prior to 1950 that feature as the main story a murder by proxy plot. This is a story in which someone commits a murder for someone else, often the story will include the murder trade-off: “You kill this person for me and I’ll kill someone for you.” This is not the same as a character hiring a hitman to do a murder. No money is exchanged at all. The best known example is Strangers on a Train, but I know for a fact it is not the first mystery novel to use this now very well-known plot device. On my own I came up with only two obscure titles by little known writers, but I would like to know of any others preferably by better known, recognizable names.

So please leave your suggestions in the comments below. Give me the title, author, publication date, and the main plot in summary. Thanks in advance for your help. You may see your efforts in print in 2021!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Jules de Grandin Stories - Seabury Quinn

Jules de Grandin may not have been the first occult detective in weird and supernatural fiction but he will always be the original Night Stalker to me.  Around the time that cult TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker was airing in the 1970s a series of paperback books appeared in my local Woolworth's on the paperback racks I used to regularly pore over. The garishly colorful covers with bizarre creatures and titles like The Horror Chamber of Jules de Grandin and The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin were perfect lures for my teenage eyes.  I eagerly bought them all over a period of three or four months that summer.  In them I was introduced to the small but fierce French physician who battled every possible evil creature imaginable and did it all almost entirely in a fictional town in New Jersey.  Of all places - New Jersey!  The only state in the USA that was the butt of jokes of every stand-up comic and episode of Laugh-In during the 1970s.  But from the pen of Seabury Quinn Harrisonville, New Jersey was one of the most terrifying places you would ever want to visit.  A town overrun with vampires, werewolves, reincarnated Egyptian mummies, worshippers of Satan, and myriad evildoers obsessed with immortality and willing to make bargains with any demonic being they could summon and not unwilling to kidnap, steal or murder in the process. Not all the tales took place in New Jersey, but the bulk of the stories that appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 through 1951 did.  I devoured these stories in the six paperback volumes thinking that that was all I could get my hands on.  Now all 92 Jules de Grandin supernatural stories as well as the single novel featuring the occult detective, The Devil's Bride, are available to devotees of pulpy horror in a five volume set. Each volume runs close to 500 pages and there are dozens of tales I'd never heard of or read before.

As George Vanderburgh, owner of the indie press Battered Silicon Dispatch and a Sherlockian of some note, and Robert Weinberg, that renowned collector of mystery and supernatural books and Weird Tales maven extraordinaire, remind us in the detail rich introduction to each volume Seabury Quinn is not the most famous of Weird Tales writers.  But Jules de Grandin, his engaging intelligent and extremely knowledgeable occult detective, was definitely one of the most popular characters among the readers of the magazine. From de Grandin's first appearance in "The Horror on the Links" in 1925 the Frenchman known for his frequent bizarre exclamations like "Barbe d'un chameau!" or "Larmes d'un poisson!" was an instant hit.  Readers demanded more stories from Quinn and the publisher. Every year de Grandin tales made the "best of " lists and were frequently reprinted in later issues.  It's not hard to see why for Jules and his physician sidekick Dr. Samuel Trowbridge are truly likeable and heroic in the manner that the best of pulp fiction characters always are.

Short in stature, athletic in build, blond, bearded, a speaker of several languages de Grandin is like a mix of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and John Silence, all characters he must have been modeled on.  Well, perhaps not so much Poirot for he was only five years old when the first of the de Grandin adventures was published.  But surely Holmes, Silence and perhaps Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson's other well known occult detective might have been Quinn's source as Weinberg and Vanderburgh tell us in their introduction. Letters pored in from readers analyzing the stories, praising and critiquing Quinn's imagination. A cult grew around the character.  As the two men describe the popularity and the phenomenon of de Grandin he began to take on a life and legend similar to Holmes. They write in their intro: "Readers smitten by how believable de Grandin seemed as a character wrote to Weird Tales asked if he was a person in real life."

There is not enough room here to describe all of the stories and I have no way near finished even the first two volumes. At random I selected stories that I haven't read based merely on length (avoiding those over 25 pages in order to read as many as I could in two weeks) and also I was lured by those with odd titles. Vanderburgh and Weinberg's intro also whetted my appetite by pointing out the more grisly and horrific of the stories.  I was drawn mostly to Quinn's fascination with Eastern mythology and religions and his penchant for pitting de Grandin against creatures less well known in the lore of the supernatural. Here is a modest sampling of the strange and fantastic adventures of the French physician turned occult detective. Each tale's first appearance in is in parentheses.

"The Horror on the Links" - The life of the idle rich at a golf country club is no party when an ape-like creature kills a woman and pursues another. Shades of Poe's Rue Morgue and Well's Dr. Moreau meld in a story of revenge and diabolical experiments. (Oct 1925)

"The Isle of Missing Ships" - More of a pirate adventure than an occult detective story it foreshadows Indiana Jones' derring do. Jules Verne set pieces also crop up in this story of a self-proclaimed god who calls himself Goonong Besar and rules an island in the South Pacific populated with the usual cannibalistic inhabitants armed with poison arrows. Seemingly filled with silent movie clichés from its maze-like underground fortress to the scenes of captives tied to stakes being cooked for dinner. Tiresome, not thrilling nor original in the least. My least favorite story of those I selected. (Feb 1926)

"Ancient Fires" - Haunted house, ghost of an Indian princess and reincarnation. Nicely done, but very familiar to anyone who has read a lot of these types of tales. Margery Lawrence handles reincarnation and lost love in her Miles Pennoyer stories better than Quinn. (Sept 1926)

"The Grinning Mummy" - What's an occult detective series without a smattering of Egyptology and a vengeful mummy? Incomplete, that's what. Here's the requisite angry mummified corpse on the rampage.  De Grandin is in fine form acting as a true detective in this outing. It's genuinely thrilling. Jules' habit of bizarre French exclamations adds "Nom d'un porc!" and "Dieu et le diable!" to his ever growing list. (Dec 1926)

"The Gods of East and West" - Jules enlists the help of a medicine man of the Dakotahs to help save Idoline Chetwynde (love that name!) from the grip of a spell cast by the malevolent goddess Kali. Only one bizarre French expression ("Nom d'une anguille!") but the action filled tale, the spells and rites and originality more than make up for the lack of odd vocabulary. A good one! (Jan 1928)

"The Serpent Woman"  - Jules and Dr. Trowbridge prevent a woman 's suicide then hear her story of being accused of her child's murder.  She claims he was not killed but stolen in the night. However, there is no sign of anyone having entered her home.  An impossible kidnapping!  This is one of the rare genuine detective stories in the de Grandin canon. The title of course reveals the culprit, but the discovery of who she is, how and why she accomplishes her misdeeds makes for gripping and entertaining reading. It even makes use of a genuinely surprising reveal. Added bonus: Quinn incorporates the Jersey Devil legend, probably its earliest fictional appearance. (June 1928)

"The Devil's Rosary" - A curse has befallen the Arkwright family. Nearly every one of them has died a violent death and at the site of each death a small red bead is found.  Haroldine Arkwright has found a red bead in her purse and is terrified she will be the next to die. Jules and Dr Trowbridge investigate and uncover another supernaturally enforced vendetta this time at the hands of victimized Tibetan monks. One of the more original stories making use of Quinn's fascination with Eastern religion and mysticism. (Apr 1929)

The five volumes that make up The Complete Tales of Jules De Grandin are published by Night Shade Books.  Each hefty tome is available through the usual bookselling websites in both new and used copies.  The most recent volume, Black Moon (vol 5), was released in March 2019. I still have three more volumes to acquire and with all the other books I have in my mountainous TBR piles I may never finish reading the entire collection.

Seabury Quin wrote pulp fiction in its purest form. It's text book pulp, a quintessential example of early 20th century American popular storytelling and genre fiction. As such these are far from great literature but that doesn't make them any less entertaining. You need to enter the world of Jules de Grandin prepared for not only over-the-top action and melodrama, but xenophobic comments and a generous supply of ultra un-PC descriptions of "foreigners".  But I am never one to be repelled by these sins of the past.  Horror stories and movies from every era are replete with similar embarrassing and shameful depictions. It's the imaginative storytelling that will get me all the time. And I'm a sucker for learning new mythology, superstition and ancient rites. The de Grandin stories are chock full of that too and to me that's what makes them worth reading.

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.