Friday, February 28, 2020

FFB: Shadows Before - Dorothy Bowers

UK Reprint (Hodder & Stoughton, circa 1940)
THE STORY: Mrs. Weir needs a companion to keep her out of harm's way.  The woman seems to be suffering from early senility -- drifting into her past memories, calling people by the wrong names -- and needs careful watching. But her newly hired caretaker is unable to prevent Mrs. Weir's death by arsenic poisoning.  Inspector Dan Pardoe investigates uncovering a household rife with greedy relatives and secretive employees. Complicating the overall investigation is the shadow of a previous crime still haunting the family. Mr. Weir has recently been acquitted of the murder of his sister-in-law, also poisoned. Is he in fact guilty of that crime and still on an arsenical rampage? 

THE CHARACTERS:  Shadows Before (1939), Dorothy Bowers' second detective novel, is quite a complicated story. We think at first that the story will focus on Aurelia Brett, the newly employed caretaker who was to prevent Mrs. Weir from doing herself harm and to perhaps also prevent anyone else from doing her harm. The entire first section "Coming Events" deals almost exclusively with Aurelia, her job interview, her new career plans and her settling into the Weir household. We get to know everyone through her point of view. When Mrs. Weir dies Inspector Pardoe enters the picture and the point of view shifts entirely. The lives of the Weir family are revealed, several motives and opportunities are uncovered. Aurelia, who was drugged the night of the murder to keep her away from Mrs. Weir, almost disappears into the background. It's an odd shift in point of view, but not one without a purpose.

US edition (Doubleday Crime Club, 1939)
Aurelia is hired mostly as an adult babysitter rather than a nurse. Mrs. Weir has a habit of taking long walks and gathering wild plants for an "herbal tea" she enjoys making.  In her muddled state of mind the Weir household are fearful she may pick some wrong plant and poison herself. She has already had a few bouts of illness that may have been caused by her tea. And so Aurelia becomes Mrs. Weir's constant companion, keeping a watch on her and her plant gathering/tea making rituals.

Religious zealot and imperious housekeeper Mrs. Kingdom accuses Alice Gretton, former tenant in a cottage near the Weir home, of causing Mrs. Weir to become ill.  Every time she visited Alice Mrs. Weir's health would deteriorate within a day or so. Because Mrs. Kingdom also espouses a vehement fundamental Christian worldview her ranting is dismissed; no one takes any of her warnings seriously. Alice has mysteriously vanished without a word to anyone other than placing a sign on her home "No Milk" to cancel deliveries from the milkman. Mrs. Kingdom is certain that Alice was a malicious woman, inveigling her way into Mrs. Weir's affections and trying to wheedle her way into the will in order to rob the family of the Weir fortune. The murder investigation and the disappearance of Alice will later intersect in one of the novel's most ingenious plot turns.

The other suspects include Mr. Weir's nephew Nick Terris, an Oxford student who rather enjoys pontificating on the subject of euthanasia; Augustus Weir, the widower's brother, an affected poet who runs a literary magazine in dire need of a financial boost; William Mond, a sinister butler guarding several secrets;  Miss Leith, an actress and friend of Matthew Weir; and Andrew Pitt, another Oxford student and friend of Nick's, invited to the Weir home for the Easter holiday and whose presence puts a few people on edge.

Adding to the fun of this intricately plotted tale are additional mysteries uncovered during the investigation like the previously mentioned disappearance of Alice Gretton.  We also must contend with the whereabouts of someone named Fenella Pagan, an actress last known to have been living in Australia; a group of gypsies living near the Weir home; and the reason for automotive sabotage that results in a near fatal car crash.

I liked the interaction between the two primary policemen though there are some other interesting bits with very minor cop characters, too. Pardoe is assisted by Sgt. Salt, a younger and insightful detective whose unconventional theories and deductions provide clarity for Pardoe's more reasonable ideas about the case. They make a good contrast of two generational styles police work -- the often brash, quick to judge, youthful learner and the calmer, more rational, seasoned veteran.

Ombres (Albin Michel, 1950)
French edition
INNOVATIONS:  By the time I had reached the penultimate chapter I marveled at one aspect of this novel more than any other. Some standard detective novel conventions are put to good use here: excellent misdirection that actually fooled me coupled with the labyrinthine use of multiple identities and masquerade. Most readers will catch on quickly that some of the characters aren't who they say they are, especially when you read one letter in the  final epistolary chapter of the first section. But the sheer number of aliases in this book rivals anything in the Victorian sensation novels I love so much in which beggars turn out to be policemen and actors are unmasked as private detectives and servants are revealed to be escaped convicts and what all else. Bowers shows some real hutzpah in this book. She manages to lead us down the garden path leading our attention to what she wants us to see as we overlook what should have been clear from the onset.  I simultaneously was admiring her and shaking my head at the overkill.

QUOTES:  These talks with Salt always served Pardoe as an admirable clearing-house for ideas that too often seemed at their most confusing before light broke. All the better if Salt, as was frequently the case, propounded a conflicting theory. The clash of inference acted as a stimulus on the Inspector, who had more than once pounced upon a truth hidden from both until they had found themselves in opposing camps.

THINGS  I LEARNED:  The V.A.D. is mentioned in passing to explain why one of the women characters is so savvy about poisons.  (I forgot to write down which woman.)  As many well read detective fiction fans know this is the Voluntary Aid Detachment, organized by the Red Cross in England to help civilians, mostly women, become part of the war effort. Volunteers in the V.A.D. worked alongside military nurses and physicians. The V.A.D. is the same outfit that Dame Agatha joined as a young woman during World War I. Similar to the character in Shadows Before Christie's experiences there helped her gain her vast knowledge of poisons and toxicity of abused medications.

Dog in the manger turned up again!  But it seems to have been inappropriately used in this context:  "Andy's a guest here, and I know he didn't want to be dog-in-the manger and squash Freddy..." Nick Terris is the one speaks that line. Maybe this was supposed to indicate his poseur university student persona.  I can't imagine that Bowers, who is an intelligent and informed writer, would have misused it by accident.

THE AUTHOR: Dorothy Bowers (1902-1948) and her work have been been discussed at length all over the blogosphere. No real need for me to go in to any great detail on this blog. A lovely capsule of her life can be found here at the Moonstone Press website. Everyone concedes that had Bowers lived longer she would have been quite a contender for some of her contemporaries in the world of mystery fiction.  Robbed of life by the ravages of tuberculosis Bowers died before she reached the age of 50.  Her five detective novels did get her noticed by the crime fiction world and she was about to be inducted into the Detection Club just prior to her death.

EASY TO FIND?  Huzzah! This one is available in multiple editions, one of them brand new from last year.  All of Dorothy Bowers' mystery novels have been reprinted in handsome editions by Moonstone Press, the same wonderful publisher who brought us The Perfect Alibi by Christopher St. John Sprigg along with three other of his detective novels. Additionally, all of the Rue Morgue Press reprint editions of Bowers' five books are still out there in abundance in the used book market.  So take your pick brand spanking new or barely old from the early 2000s. For those with more cash to spare and who want the real thing, as it were, you can dig a little deeper by using Hodder & Stoughton in yuor search terms and turn up a handful of vintage UK copies, albeit reprints rather than first editions. There are sadly no copies for sale online of the US Doubleday Crime Club edition though I have provided the very cool dust jacket with the skull illustration courtesy of Mark Terry's Facsimile Dust Jackets website.

Previously reviewed on this blog are two other equally well plotted and entertaining Bowers mystery novels: Fear for Miss Betony and A Deed without a Name.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Home Is the Prisoner/The Little Lie Gets Booklist Rave

Some of you may know that I was involved in another Jean Potts reprint from Stark House Press. After the rousing success of the first Potts twofer -- Go Lovely Rose/The Evil Wish -- the publisher followed up with another two-in-one volume. That book, Home Is the Prisoner/The Little Lie, was released earlier this month. Greg Shepard sent me yet another glowing review from Booklist.  Although this one didn't achieve a "Booklist Starred" rating like last year's Potts reprint the two new novels clearly come highly recommended.  See the full review below.

Home Is the Prisoner/The Little Lie is available online by visiting the Stark House Press website or any of the usual online bookselling sites. This volume includes another foreword by me about Potts' literary style and innovative contributions to the genre as a crime fiction pioneer.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

NEW STUFF: Tears Are for Angels - Paul Connolly

Tears Are for Angels by Paul Connolly
A Black Gat Book/Stark House Press
ISBN: 978-1944520922
200 pp. $9.99
Publication date: February 24, 2020

Flashbacks. I like a little time travel in my crime fiction. You get it a lot in mystery fiction, whether it’s a simple telling of a client’s reason for hiring a private eye, or the apparently guilty heir coolly going over his actions the night his wealthy uncle was bashed on the head with a silver plated candlestick. It’s nearly inescapable in the conventional formula of the Q&A style of “Where were you on the night of…?” you get in everything from English manor whodunnits to hard-edged police procedurals to melodramatic courtroom battles. But rarely are flashback techniques used with such stunning effect as in Tears Are for Angels (originally published 1952) the final crime novel Tom Wicker wrote as “Paul Connolly” before he decided to use his own name on his work.

Here's the bare bones story:  The murderous result of a jealous husband’s rage, his insane method of covering up the murder as a suicide, the bizarre self-mutilation done to bolster his claim of self-defense which later leads to amputation and disfigurement, and the subsequent amateur investigation of his wife’s previously unknown friend trying to get at the truth of that violent death.

Wicker uses multiple viewpoints in his detailed flashbacks as both narrative experiment and to create suspense in a story of duplicity, mistrust and hidden desires. There is an element of the unreliable narrator in the storytelling that always leaves the reader questioning which story he should believe. Is anyone telling the truth? Much as we get a tortured confession from Harry London at the outset is he just making it all up? And is Jean, his wife’s supposed good friend from the Big City, to be trusted with her story? Is she too creating a story of her relationship they had as a sympathetic diner customer looking after a lost and needy waitress?

On the surface this novel may seem nothing more than a tawdry tale of revenge, but there is more to this sex and violence tale than a retread of another familiar getting even story. Surprisingly, for a tale that ostensibly seems to be about crime and revenge Tears Are for Angels turns out to be a novel of love and forgiveness, for redemption and rebirth. Wicker has his protagonist come to this eyebrow raising realization:

I had never really loved Lucy [his wife]. What I had thought was love was only conceit, because she had been my property, because I had made her my property. I know what love is, I thought. Now I know. It's what I feel for this woman who lies naked and sleeping beside me. It's something I never knew existed in this world or any other. It's what you feel when you are able to do anything and suffer anything and endure anything and give anything, any time, anywhere, for someone else. Or at least it is for me. That's what love is for me. 

A more lusty and transformative love has rarely been depicted so intensely or unexpectedly as in this compact novel. For all its action oriented scenes, for all the desire captured in passionate and desperate moments this final work as "Paul Connolly" is one of Wicker's most mature works. We still get a shocking climax in which one final plot twist is delivered with a hefty punch, but the ending of what might have been a deeply disturbing noir tale delivers not only redemption for Harry, but for the memory of his dead wife. More importantly, Tears Are for Angels promises a glimmer of light for our two protagonists after a descent into the abyss. This was the book Tom Wicker needed to write in order to pave the way for his later, even richer novels like The Devil Must (1957) which were published under his own name.  here is a minor classic, in my opinion, and one of the few paperback originals that absolutely deserves this new reprint from Black Gat/Stark House.

Highly recommended!  Grab a copy now.

Friday, February 21, 2020

FFB: Case of the Talking Dust - John Donavan

THE STORY: Sgt Johnny Lamb and his superior Inspector Cross are teamed up an intriguing case of a murdered man found with a mutilated face and no identification. In addition to determining the identity of the corpse through ingenious detective work the two policeman find the case complicated when they uncover a privately funded expedition to Scandinavia, a suspicious sculptor whose studio figures into the crime, and a wealthy patron of the arts whose recently felled beech trees were exploited by the murderer for an unusual purpose.

THE CHARACTERS: The Case of the Talking Dust (1938) is the second of the short series featuring Sgt. Johnny Lamb, the son of a renowned forensic pathologist who like his father is equipped with keen scientific mind. Lamb draws on his vast knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology to aid him in his detective work much to the exasperation of his superior Cross, a by-the-book policeman guided by routine principles and a bit skeptical of Lamb’s often byzantine approach to a crime scene. The contrast in their two methods as detectives makes for engaging often fascinating reading. Lamb is ironically often the teacher to his more experienced senior officer and Cross finds himself stubbornly listening to mini lectures on chemical compounds and skeletal deformities. In the end Cross is often marveling at Lamb’s observations.

The case focusses on a trio of characters who on the surface seem unconnected . After learning the name and profession of the corpse, Percy Dalby a pugnacious explorer given to impulsive journeys to points exotic and remote, the two policeman trace Dalby to financier Gregory Shard. Our heroes soon learn Shard was backing Dalby’s private expedition to Norway, the purpose of which he is reluctant to discuss since it involves business that may prove lucrative and he wants to protect his interests from competitors or as he puts it “we [have] to take the utmost precautions against leakage.” So guarded is their business that resort to using a special code in their correspondence. When some encoded telegrams from Dalby turn up after the murder is committed Shard and the police believe that Dalby is still alive. And if that is the case, then who is the corpse? And why was it disguised in Dalby’s clothes?

Pavilion Gardens in Buxton, UK
Beech tree sculpture (
© 2014, Andrew Frost)
The second and third characters are connected via money and sponsorship as well. They are Derek Hirsch, a sculptor of contemporary statues made from tree wood and bark, and his wealthy patron Jacob Essler. Hirsch comes into the story when his electric boat is proven to have transported the corpse to the scene of the crime.

Essler’s estate contains a grove of beech trees some of which he wanted cleared and he invited Hirsch to visit the grove to select a few choice trees for future artwork projects. Evidence of bloodstains prove that the cut down trees were used to help transport the corpse to the crime scene several miles from Essler’s estate. If this is the case Lamb reasons then the murder victim – Dalby or not – was killed on Essler’s grounds. How did he get there and why was he killed there in the beech tree grove? Lamb is determined to link Dalby with Shard, Hirsch and Essler and get to the bottom of an overly complicated crime committed by a murderer with a strange sense of humor.

INNOVATIONS: Nigel Morland writing as “John Donavan” is in his element in the series of books featuring Johnny Lamb. These intricately plotted books reveal Morland’s early interest in criminal behavior and strange motivations which would later become an obsession leading Morland to write a handful of non-fiction works on criminal psychopathology. The detective work here is mindboggling in its complexity. The title refers to some dust found at the crime scene purposely scattered on the hinges of a trapdoor that leads to a underground passage. Lamb has it analyzed and finds it to be a combination of two types of dust, one sample includes lead and radioactive lead to boot. This will be a major breakthrough in the case for the police duo.

Other pieces of ingenuity involve Lamb’s observations of the tailored clothing found on the corpse and the unusual construction of lapels that he knows are the signature work of only a handful of London tailors. They visit the editorial offices of a registry of tailors and manage to pinpoint the exact maker of the corpse’s jacket who of course knows the owner from memory.

In addition to this sartorial investigation other brilliant detective work highlights dentistry, radioactive isotopes, tides and river water movement, the differences between electric boats and gasoline powered boats, and the most impressive bit of all – the examination of the bill of lading from the truck that delivered the beech tree lumber to Hirsch’s studio and how Lamb uses his knowledge of tree wood weights (!) and some simple math to figure out that the excessive weight of one lumber bundle must have included something other than just the cut down trees.

Much of the detection in this book reminded me of the tour de force kind of plotting and ingenuity you find in the work of J. J. Connington and John Rhode. Morland can certainly be classed among those other so-called “humdrum” detective writers who wanted their mystery novels to be first and foremost about the art of detection. In his guise as “John Donavan” (and also “Neal Shepherd”) Morland was approaching true art in the detective novel.

THINGS I LEARNED: Lamb and a physician have a discussion devoted to the recent work of radioactive elements as a treatment for cancer which I thought was a much later development in medicine. And pages of talk are about the physics of lead isotopes, radioisotopes and the radioactive decay chain all of which led me to a-Googling to see whether or not it was true and accurate. Of course it was.

QUOTES: “I really don’t know how Hepplewhite does it. It’d have taken me days to collect all this when I was a junior.”
“Gradual mental evolution of the race,” Johnny remarked. “Alertness and vigour, the essence of modern youth.”
“Laziness and cinema-minded, more like.” Cross’s voice was savage.

[Lamb] had seen something of Hirsch’s work, and what he had seen had been a revelation. He suddenly felt convinced that a man who could do such work could be no killer. Whatever its artistic merit – and Johnny did not feel competent to judge, though he had been impressed – this was creative. And he could not associate the man who had done it with the idea of destruction.

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. After reading TomCat’s laudatory review of Case of the Rusted Room, the first Johnny Lamb mystery novel, a few weeks ago I was reminded that I still had not found a copy of …Talking Dust and decided to look one more time Lo and behold! I found a copy for sale in a mystery bookshop I had visited in Minneapolis several years ago. The store now has an annex within the same shop devoted to the sale of vintage mystery novels and the entire stock is available via their store website. I don’t think that vintage mystery annex was there when I visited or else I would’ve bought a lot of their stock. Of course, I bought the book since it was only $20 and I had been wanting a copy for over 20 years now. Good luck finding another copy. Apart from The Case of the Plastic Mask (1940) this is the most difficult title in the Johnny Lamb series to find.

Sgt. Johnny Lamb Detective Novels
The Case of the Rusted Room (1937)

The Case of the Talking Dust (1938)

The Case of the Beckoning Dead (1938)

The Case of the Coloured Wind (1939) (US title: Case of the Violet Smoke)

The Case of the Plastic Man (1940) (US title: Case of the Plastic Mask)

Friday, February 14, 2020

FFB: The Devil Must - Tom Wicker

US paperback edition
Popular Library G291 (Dec. 1958)
THE STORY: The murder of a farmer appears to be the work of a disgruntled hired hand who happens to be Black. Reporter Sandy Martin and his editor Al Harris are given the privilege to review the crime scene by Sheriff Tyree Long. They are asked to handle the news story with discretion as this is an election year and Long wants to avoid unnecessary racial disputes. When the suspect is arrested and thrown in jail he begins to exhibit unusual trance-like behaviors, becomes withdrawn and nearly catatonic. Another Black man in a nearby cell tells Sandy that old Jumbo is hexed. And the murder starts to take on a sinister aspect when Sandy hears stories of witchcraft, spell casting and the power exerted over the superstitious denizens in the Black community.

THE CHARACTERS: The Devil Must (1957) contains a huge cast encompassing nearly every single person in the small North Carolina town of Marion. We follow the actions and thoughts of protagonist Sandy Martin, a cub reporter who hasn’t left his hometown since birth. He is disgruntled with his broken family: a devil-may-care brother has left the state to make a name for himself up North, his sister who he still loves dearly has fled the town, supposedly living with a man she chased. He’s not heard from her since she left town years ago. Sandy is carrying the torch for his high school sweetheart, now working as everyone’s favorite waitress in a whites joint aptly named Purity CafĂ©. Not too surprisingly given her name is Honey she has a reputation for being flirtatious and indiscreet with her affections. This family baggage and frustrated romance help to color the way Sandy views his boss, Al, and the rest of the people he comes in contact with. His many grudges, hidden prejudices and misperceptions of characters will be put to the test when he must willingly accept that the motivations of the murderer seem to be grounded in superstition and an insidious use of mind control in the form of actual witchcraft and hexes.

Marion is riddled with Southern prejudice against Negroes. The 1950s PC term and the ugly slur are used with equal frequency by all characters. Those who use Negro we know are supposedly the good guys, those who throw around the other N word are the baddies. Or so it seems.

The Sheriff wants the case of Carl Roger’s bludgeoning murder wrapped up quickly and is eager to fit evidence to the primary suspect poor, weak minded, and barely literate Jumbo James who protests his innocence until he can literally not speak a word and curls up into an immovable ball on his jail cell cot. Sandy openly listens to Nathaniel, Jumbo’s much older brother, relate horrific stories of how Mrs. Rogers, the real town tramp, has been caught having sex in public places and then threatened Nathaniel with her weird powers. He tells a bizarre tale of how she performed a frightening ritual involving fire and convinced Nathaniel that he was in her power. It is this unnervingly effective story that gives Sandy the idea that deeply held superstitious beliefs are as profound as deeply held religious faith. That the capacity for profound faith in either belief system can subvert common sense. That one human being literally can be in the hands of another who is savvy enough and perverse enough to exploit the talent of sympathetic understanding into tyranny of the mind.

Ironically, it is John the Baptist Jones, the incarcerated minister arrested on suspicion of raping one of his own parishioners, who explains to Sandy the importance of the belief in hexing and its dire effects on his community. There are many cultural lessons Sandy learns from people like Nathaniel and John the Baptist. Once he has in his hands a piece of surprise evidence in the form of a letter written by the murder victim and sent to a respected lawyer Sandy begins to formulate a plan that will redeem Jumbo, save the town of Marion from further harm, and deal with the true killer in a satisfyingly retributive manner.

INNOVATIONS: The Devil Must explores race relations in the dawn of the civil rights movement by examining superstition and its powerful effect on the Black community of the American South. Wicker has managed to use the exploitation of superstition in order to explore the prejudice and subjugation. He does so with an incisive, angry intelligent prose. The climax of the novel becomes nearly allegorical with the villain of the story serving as a symbol of all the iniquitous treatment of not just Black people, but everyone ignorant and foolish enough to give themselves over to hollow cant and vicious threats. After a story that at times seems to drown in Sandy’s romantic entanglements, his personal prejudices against all those he sees as threats to his pure love for Honey (all of this clearly meant to mirror the superstition of Jumbo and Nathaniel) the novel pays off big time with its true message of the treacherous nature of empty belief systems that have no foundation in genuine truth. And yet that truly terrifying finale is evidence to all the characters (and the reader) that witchcraft can be a real and useful tool for those immersed so deeply in its rituals and curses as to bring about healing change. The novel ends in an authentic conflagration in which fire purifies and allows for a phoenix-like rebirth for those lucky enough to survive.

QUOTES: Mrs. Rogers was not pretty; she was too dark and too hard and too worn out. But that night hate brought her close to beauty. Hate flashed in her eyes and stiffened her figure. She stood straight, seeming taller and slimmer than she was: and I was glad it wasn’t me that she hated.

…he clapped his hat on his head and, as if it were a crown, it made him the old Tyree Long, the powerful politician who shaped Jasper County with his shrewd plump hands.

US 1st edition, Harper & Row (1957)
I thought about Carl Rogers. I couldn’t place him out of all the milling half-glimpsed Saturday gallery of farmers’ faces. But he had been a human being; and where now was all that laughter and all that sorrow and all that hope that ought to have filled his life—anybody’s life? It seemed there ought to have been at least a trumpet blowing to mark the passage of so much humanity.

A Southerner – that is, a man who lives in what used to be the Confederate States of America – has to condone segregation of the races. He has no choice. It doesn’t matter what he believes; it doesn’t even matter if he is a learned man to whom people listen or pretend to listen, what he says on the radio or writes in the newspaper. Every day of his life in the South he gives tacit approval to segregation. He does this when he eats in a restaurant. He does it when he attends a motion picture or travels by public conveyance or stops at a hotel or motel or sits in a doctor’s waiting room or joins a civic club or sends his children to school.

Al Harris, the editor of the town newspaper, to Sandy: "You and Street [a lawyer] are doing just what you claim Tyree did, building up something that could have happened into something that did happen. I have always thought that it was just as bad to be blind in one eye as in the other."

Flanking the French doors was a pair of oil paintings of some earlier Kirby men, statesmen or educators or wielders of vast private influence, such as Kirbys had always been. … That room stood for order, for permanence, for security. It spoke for men of property and pride and it sheltered their affairs. It would brook no new light under its gloomy ceiling. … And, in its own way, its spell was as profound as that of any witch. It’s grip on the minds of those who lingered here would be as unshakable.

Nathaniel blinked, secretively, wisely, suddenly he seemed old and profound and powerful. Sitting there …amid his poverty, and in his ignorance, he still knew more than either of us; a party to dark deeds we feared to credit he dwarfed our rational assurance with his secrets.

courtesy of New York Times, 1976
THE AUTHOR: Tom Wicker (1926-2011) was one of the nation’s leading sociologically observant reporters for much of the later 20th century. He first made name for himself writing up his eyewitness account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He wrote an Edgar award-winning nonfiction book about the Attica prison riot. He was involved in a lifelong quest to speak up for the maligned and ostracized portions of American society, and was hugely involved in the civil rights and equal rights movements of the late 60s and early 70s. In addition to several non-fiction works Wicker penned a handful of pulp thrillers as equally affecting as The Devil Must. These were all published under the pseudonym Paul Connolly. I’ll be reviewing one of those books, reissued by Stark House this month, in a few days. Wicker’s fascinating and important life as journalist, novelist, analyst and activist is captured in his laudatory obituary available for all to read (without subscription!) on the New York Times website.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

FFB: Villainy at Vespers - Joan Cockin

The lost art of brass rubbing, crooked antiques dealers, and smuggling all figure in this tale of an unidentified man found naked and ritually murdered on the altar in a Cornish church.  Inspector Cam, on vacation with his family, is asked to help out the local police in this superbly plotted and literary mystery novel.

THE CHARACTERS: Inspector Cam who appears in only three novels by Cockin, is having a field day in this entry in the subgenre known as the policeman's holiday mystery. Nearly every mystery writer has at least one of these novels in which their detective attempts to get away for a vacation until murder interrupts and in a combination of professional routine and curiosity ends up investigating the crime or crimes. Sayers (Busman's Honeymoon) , Christie (Evil under the Sun), Stout (Death of a Dude) and Brand (Tour de Force) come to mind immediately.  But Cam is with his family and we are reminded of his distractions with the crime when his family pop in periodically to get him back to the business of relaxation.  His wife is impatient with him and in his absence and apparent disinterest in their family she befriends Betsey Rowan, an American schoolteacher. Betsey is travelling with a group of rambunctious students who have all set up tents while camping on the beach.  Cam's children pester him hoping they can get an insider's look at the gruesome crime scene simply because their father is a police officer. The harried policeman manages to take it all in stride with good humor and minor irritation, only twice scolding his unruly children for their lurid curiosity.

Joan Cockin has created a perfect microcosm of the Cornish village in Villainy at Vespers (1949) and delights in populating the town of Trevelley with all manner of eccentric locals and oddball tourists. Apart from gregarious and engaging Betsey Rowan and her entertaining gang of students there is a cast lively and eccentric characters.  These include: spinsterish Miss Cornthwaite who is nearly done in by the ruthless villains in an astonishing sequence along a cliff side; Red Cowdrey, a cantankerous old man with a reputation for smuggling and other unscrupulous business; John Briarley, a visiting historian and antiquarian, obsessed with getting the best possible rubbing from the Pollpen brass, a 13th century work of art embedded in the floor of St. Poltraun's; a travelling antique dealer who may know the identity of the naked corpse; and Mr. Copperman, the town vicar, and his wife Mrs. Cooperman who have been sly and elusive in answering routine questions about who the murder victim is and how he came to be in their church.

Leading the investigation is a nearly incompetent and irascible local policeman named Honeywether who enlists the help of Cam though it is mostly the promise of free beer that decides the vacationing copper to join the investigation. Together Cam and Honeywether (though it is mostly Cam doing the abstract thinking and true detective work) uncover the identity of the naked corpse, connect a spate of thefts of art work and artifacts from local churches to the murder, and unravel a web of deceit and cover-ups among the mistrustful citizens who succeed in mixing up the police by not fully cooperating with the murder investigation. Along the way the reader is treated to some fascinating local legends, one ghost story featuring a visit from Satan, and more than anyone would ever want to know about monumental brass rubbing.

INNOVATIONS: Mostly it is Cockin's writing that makes this a noteworthy if completely unknown detective novel.  The first paragraph alone led me to buying the book. It is almost impossible to put the book down after this startling opening:

Human sacrifice --primitive physical sacrifice-- has long been out of favour in England. A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man, naked and with his throat cut was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltraun's Church in the village of Trevelley. Murder -- and from the beginning it was assumed that not even the most theatrically-minded suicide would make his way without his clothes into church, lie upon the altar, and cut his throat with a pruning knife -- murder, then, is at least a diversion from the grim perplexities of the daily news.

With wit and panache Cockin tells an entertaining story of rogues and con men, satirizes British tourism and foreign visitors, pokes fun at the sensational nature of newspapers, and the public's prurient interest and insatiable desire for blood, guts and gore. That we have Cam along as our wise detective with a sense of humor as sharp as his creator makes the reading all the more satisfying.

Lithograph of original brass rubbing done in 1891,
from a British 14th c. monumental brass
(click to enlarge)

THINGS I LEARNED:  The phrase "Dog in a manger" is as old as the hills, but I swear I've never come across it anywhere in my reading until it popped up on page 90 of Villainy at Vespers. I wasn't at all sure of what it alluded to nor was I too clear on its meaning. After diligent Googling I uncovered its source in Aesop's Fables. The phrase alludes to a person who stubbornly refuses to give up something that he is not entitled to and, more importantly, has little real use of just like the dog in the fable refuses to give up his relaxing in the manger to allow the cows to feed.

Palimpsest also comes up over the course of the story.  My only other encounter with this unusual word is seeing it as the title of Gore Vidal's dishy memoir.  The modern definition of the word -- "something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form" -- vaguely refers to its origin from ancient monasteries when supplies for manuscripts were scarce which led to the practice of recycling and reusing old, outdated manuscripts to create new works. In the context of this mystery novel the word applies to the legend that the Pollpen brass may in fact be a palimpsest, that an earlier brass work is possibly visible on the reverse side.  Briarley is excited to get his hands on the brass and examine it to prove that the legend is fact.

QUOTES: Cam: "The work of a police officer in a case like this is to discover and explain the abnormal. It is in the deviation from the normal that a crime reveals itself."

Edmund Crispin allusion (!!):
"A humorist! Do all our village policeman try to model themselves on Gervase Fen, do you suppose?"

"This is no way to spend a holiday. Bothering your heads about death and murder when you ought to be out in the fresh air and sunshine."
"We can do both at the same time," reasoned one [son], but Cam made a threatening gesture.
"I don't want any lawyers in my family. So be off with you and don't give your poor father as much trouble as a Royal Commission."

Mr. Copperman admonishing his congregation prior a ceremony to re-sanctify the despoiled church:
"You are no body of people gathered together for the united purpose of prayer and thanksgiving. Instead, you are inspired by an infinite variety of motives -- curiosity, superstition, vanity, perhaps a little pity, perhaps a little awe. But there is no common ground amongst you. You are spectators, not participants. You have come to take all you can and give nothing."

Cam, at the beach in swimming attire, receives patronizing glares and smirks from younger men:
"Look on. Take your fill. And please heaven that you may one day be like me. Fat, over forty, and free from the need to prove I'm a man by excessive athletics."

THE AUTHOR: I've uncovered another moonlighter!  "Joan Cockin" was in reality Edith Joan Burbidge Macintosh, PhD, CBE, one of the first women to work in British diplomatic service during World War Two. According to to her obituary published in The Scotsman, June 12, 2014 her "illustrious career" was cut short within a few years when she was forced to resign her position as First Secretary to the High Commission in New Delhi after marrying a Scottish banker.  Foreign Office "bureaucratic red tape" prevented women who married non-diplomats from remaining in diplomatic service.

Prior to her diplomatic career she had attended Oxford as a history major and worked for the BBC upon graduation. The Ministry of Information sent her to Washington, DC where she was charged to create anti-Hitler propaganda and encourage Americans to join in the fight against the Third Reich.

In addition to three detective novels she wrote educational books for children as well as local and ancient Scottish history.  Long involved in charitable work dating back to her days in India Macintosh helped found several charitable organizations, and was largely involved in consumer advocacy. She appeared on a Scottish radio program inspired by her work on the Citizen's Advice Bureau which led to her becoming the first chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council. Finally, her work led her to legal advocacy and she held chairman positions on the Scottish Constitutional Commission, Scottish Child Care Centre and was a member of Victim Support Scotland's council.

Macintosh had three children with her husband Ian and died in June 2014.

EASY TO FIND? It's a rare one, my friends. Nothing new there. Only four copies out there as of this writing and all of them rather pricey.  I stumbled across a very cheap copy of the book in some eBay listings which included a photograph of the first page of text.  I read that from beginning to end and wanted to read the rest of the book. So I hit the Buy It Now button. That proved to be one of the best impulsive book buys of the past couple of years. I have already been looking for the other two books with Cam as detective. I've found the first one, Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947), and will be reviewing that one soon.

Inspector Cam Detective Novel Trilogy
Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947)
Villainy at Vespers (1949)
Deadly Ernest (1952)