Friday, March 27, 2020

FFB: The Cast to Death - Nigel Orde-Powlett

THE STORY: Murder interrupts an annual fishing trip for a group of four friends. Dissatisfied with the police the victim's brother calls on his friend Tony Rillington, a criminologist for hire (sometimes), to do a more thorough job of finding out how and why the murder occurred.

THE CHARACTERS: Benjamin Blaggs, a fussy banker, is the most uptight and upright of the four men on their fishing holiday. We think at first the story is going to be told exclusively through his point of view since we meet him on page one and follow him for several chapters. Once the others are introduced Orde-Powlett unleashes one of my pet peeves in Golden Age mystery fiction -- the narrative voice as a separate character. In The Cast to Death (1932) this narrative voice acts as a sort of tour guide telling us things like: "Before proceeding any further with this narrative it will be as well to describe briefly (as the examiners used to say) the general daily programme adopted by the four anglers..."

Blaggs introduces us to Reggie Lenton, a business associate certainly not friend.  Loud, brash, and rambunctious Lenton has the irritating habit of slapping Blaggs on the back, laughing uproariously at the most inappropriate times and -- the worst insult of all -- calling him Ben. The others are Lenton's business partner Alfred Gascall and the oldest member of the group Henry Skane in his mid-fifties while the others range between early thirties to mid-forties. Once Reggie's body is found -- soaking wet, dragged across the ground from a fishing platform, stabbed twice on either side of his upper chest and a scraping wound on his neck -- the story veers away from Blaggs' point of view and we get a wide variety of characters to follow.

The author, age 55
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Supt. Farnis is the policemen who zeroes in on Gascall as his prime suspect. While we follow Farnis in his thoughts and methods in a few chapters, a later chapter has us tracing the actions of Gascall and his subversive attempt to lead the investigation away from himself with a few neatly placed letters in Lenton's office. The room is locked and sealed by the police forcing Gascall to resort to underhanded methods in order to plant the letters. It's a rather cleverly done scene and made me think that the book was going to transform into an inverted mystery with each of the three suspects doing something to alter the facts of the case. Rest assured it remains a traditional detective novel.

Skane also gets some good scenes when he teams up with Tony Rillington and offers some inside information about Lenton's fishing habits and routine. Each of the three surviving anglers gets to shine in one way or another as the murder investigation takes two routes. Farnis and his narrow minded approach is contrasted with Rillington's more wide ranging style highlighted by several ingenious re-enactments of events on the night of the murder and some subtle questioning and keen observations.

Rillington belongs to that select group of eccentric amateur detectives who have a talent for abstract thinking and get by on gregarious charm. James Lenton, the victim's brother, describes Tony as "a friend of mine, who has made the science of crime detection both his business and his hobby. He is not a private detective in the ordinary sense; in fact, he refuses more cases than he accepts..." Tony is "young, virile and good looking." Of course! He has a quiet sense of humor and is very affable. Blaggs, the fussbudget who dislikes nearly everyone, takes an immediate shine to the young man. He is later belittled for this "man crush" by Gascall. I liked the way Rillington went about questioning the suspects allowing them to feel comfortable with him, letting them to talk too much thus revealing info they might otherwise never have offered up. The only drawback to Tony's investigation is one scene where he goes off to interview a publicist for a travelling circus that take place offstage. The novel would have been improved had that scene been presented to the reader.

Map of the crime scene in The Cast to Death, as drawn by Tony Rillington
(click to enlarge)

That travelling circus tripped me up. I thought for sure that this murder mystery would employ one of my favorite oddball detective novel motifs -- a character who is a knife thrower. I was wrong on that account, but the circus still plays an important part in the finale. It's just that Orde-Powlett has Rillington announce its significance in an eleventh hour moment that made me cry out "So unfair!"

The rest of the primary cast includes Mrs. Helton, landlady of "The Crystal Ball", the inn where the anglers are staying; Mother Dawn, a gypsy woman who lives in a nearby caravan; her daughter Mollie, a ravishingly beautiful but feeble-minded servant at the inn; and Jack, Mrs. Helton's teenage  son who serves as the anglers' guide and ghillie. Minor characters include various unnamed witnesses called in at the inquest by the equally anonymous coroner.

Speaking of the coroner... Infuriatingly, all of Chapter 19 is a rehash of the inquest when it is re-adjourned and we go through the entire first half of the book again. Plus, we must endure the coroner summarizing the entire testimony of the witnesses to the inquest's jury. In total we get three iterations of one inquest, two of those versions appear in the same chapter!

INNOVATIONS: The murder method is perhaps the only reason to read this book should you ever be lucky enough to find a copy. The plot is something of an impossible crime as Tony Rillington learns that no one was seen going anywhere near Reggie Lenton from the several witnesses who happened to be within viewing distances of the anglers alongside the river. How then was Lenton stabbed in three places by a long cylindrical blade resembling a lead pencil? Tony also determines that none of the three other vacationers were likely to have committed the crime no matter how much the evidence and uncovered motives seem to implicate two of the men. The clueing related to the murder method is somewhat fair, but there are only two bits of information given to the reader in the narrative prior to the solution and one is rather blatant. Exactly how that one blatant clue relates to the way the murder is carried out is left to the reader's imagination. Rillington reveals all in the final chapter and when he tells Supt. Farnis how the wounds were administered to Reggie Lenton the reader is apt to squirm. It's a grisly way to meet one's demise.

THINGS I LEARNED: The Cast to Death takes its place alongside the handful of other vintage detective novels and mysteries using the sport of fly fishing as its background. Other notable angling mysteries include Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, Death Is No Sportsman by Cyril Hare, Five Red Herrings by Sayers and Scales of Justice by Marsh. When I went trolling the internet for other fly fishing mysteries I found a cascade of modern mysteries, close to 80, including an entire series about a washed-up private eye and fly fisherman who lives in a ramshackle home in Montana decorated with fishing flies. That series by Keith McCafferty totals seven books and sports such evocative titles as The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders and Cold Hearted River.

"The Strike" - watercolor painting by T. Victor Hall (circa late 1930s)

The fly fishing lore and background is even more detailed in The Cast to Death than in the only other fly fishing mystery I've written about here (Bleeding Hooks).  Orde-Powlett uses terminology I was unaware of. Perhaps it's outdated now, that I can't tell you. For instance, I always thought a rod and reel used fishing line.  The characters refer to this as the cast. Not just using the word as a verb but as a noun to describe the line that the flies are tied to.

The men spend much of their time fishing at night, between nine and ten o'clock. I've never heard of this. They are obsessed with "the rise" -- the time when fish rise to the river’s surface to feed on insects. Specific flies are used to mimic the look of these nighttime insects. A sedge fly (see photo at left) features prominently in the story. The four men all quit well before ten when the moon becomes full and the sky is free from clouds. In dialogue it is implied that they think the fish can see their movements in the bright moonlight. I thought this was fascinating. No idea if this actually still goes on today. Anglers out there, please clue me in.

Also, 1930s fishing line was obviously not made of plastic filament as it is today but instead made of woven or braided textiles like silk and linen. When the line got saturated it would sink rather than float and so anglers would have to grease the cast. A tin of fisherman's grease and where it is found at the crime scene is one piece of puzzling evidence that seems to incriminate one of the anglers, but Rillington proves its location clears the man of all suspicion.

QUOTES: "We found the clue all right. Rillington found it; but I saw it afterwards, quite plainly."
"What was it?"
"Two holes in the end of the plank [where Lenton was fishing]. It solves the whole case."
"How on earth does it do that?" Gascall asked.
"I haven't the least idea," Blagss admitted, "but Rillington said so, and I feel confident that he is right."
"Your trust in that fellow is positively childish," Gascall exclaimed impatiently. "If he told you the moon was inhabited by giraffes I believe you would believe him.

Nigel Orde-Powlett, age 28
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
THE AUTHOR: To my great surprise I found a wealth of information on this author who I thought was utterly obscure. In the world of mysterydom that may be true. But Nigel Amyas Orde-Powlett (1900-1963) comes with an aristocratic pedigree, a title, and family of some renown. He is the 6th Baron Bolton, descended from Thomas Orde-Powlett (1740-1807), the first Baron. You can read all about the various Barons, how the title came into being, where Thomas Orde got his hyphenated surname and other fascinating bits of baronial trivia at the page for Baron Bolton on Wikipedia.

Nigel like many of his family was military man, served in two wars, and later became Justice of Peace for the magistrates' courts. He was Deputy Lieutenant of County of North Yorkshire and a member of the Royal Agricultural Society. For the Society he wrote several monographs on horticulture and forestry. In 1956 he authored Profitable Forestry (Faber & Faber, 1956). In addition to his two detective novels bibliographic research turned up and a volume of poetry Vale, and other poems (Ballantine & Co, 1918) apparently published privately while he was in Eton College.

EASY TO FIND? Although this was the only book of the two mysteries from Orde-Powlett that was published in both the US (Houghton Mifflin, 1932) and the UK (Ernest Benn, 1932) it is still absurdly scarce. In my search today I found absolutely no copies for sale online. That is not to say that some seller who eschews online catalogs may have it...somewhere. Academic and public library listings reveal eight copies in US libraries, three in UK libraries and one at the University of Sydney, Australia.

His other detective novel Driven Death (1933) was released only in the UK also by Ernest Benn. Not a single copy of the second book is offered for sale. And according to Worldcat.org only one copy is extant and held by the British Library, St. Pancras. Now that's a rare book!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

FFB: The Inconvenient Corpse - E. P. Fenwick

THE STORY: Maggy Simon, assistant to newspaper columnist Sebastian Evers, reluctantly agrees to accompany him to a Catksills retreat for his annual winter reunion with a group of friends he's known for years. TO everyone's surprise an actress acquaintance of Sebastian's shows up at the rendezvous point in New York City saying that Sebastian u; has invited her along to the Catskills.  He denies it a but she insists and sees it all as a practical joke. Maggy no longer feels like a fifth wheel as Anna Rose lives up to all the cliches of a flashy showgirl attracting the attention of all the men in the group. Jealousies and squabbles eventually flair up on their first night while the wintry weather worsens and threatens to leave the travellers snowbound in the cabin. Then Anna Rose disappears and terror descends on the cabin in the Catskills.

THE CHARACTERS: The Inconvenient Corpse (1943) was E. P. Fenwick's debut as a mystery writer. Maggy is our protagonist and we follow her thoughts and adventures as the novel is told from her point of view, but thankfully in not in first person so we avoid the dreaded HIBK flourishes that I was worried would infiltrate the story. Accompanied by her pet Boston Terrier Sammy Maggy often seems like she tiptoed out of a Tintin comic book. The dog of course is key to uncovering the truth about the actress' disappearance and actually leads Maggy to finding the dead body that gives the book its title. For the most part Maggy escapes the trappings of the usual HIBK heroine. Though she is not constantly regretting what she should have done, she does suffer from Hamlet-like indecision and makes some foolish mistakes in deliberating over her choices and waiting too long reveal the truth. Her overly cautious nature will complicate matters for Sebastian who is suspect number one with the police as well as the rest of the reunioin group. Still Maggy is smarter than your average HIBK gal, not at all ditzy, yet suspicious of everyone including her boss who we think she has a secret crush on.  Her eye wanders to the tall handsome Vic Homan, deputy to Sheriff Caldwell and he returns the flirty gazes when not speedily taking notes with his lightning speed steno skills.

The suspects are pretty much familiar to readers of mystery fiction. Morgan Dillard, the the requisite glamor girl with an aloof and superior nature to provide some sexual tension between the young woman as they vie for attention of Sebastian. At first when Morgan offers to chauffeur Maggy up to the cabin we think she will be Maggy's friend and confidante, but Morgan clearly has ulterior motives. And there's an equally aloof young man, Prof. Harold Jameson, to act as Sebastian's foil. He's obviously attracted to Morgan. This all adds romantic and sexual entanglements in a tale that will eventually be about sex and jealousy.

Anna Rose, of course, is practically wearing a sign around her neck "I Will Be Murdered" when she enters the story. Her flamboyant extroversion, borderline vulgar talk, and shapely figure and stunning face arouse emotions in everyone, both men and women.  She's Trouble with a capital T that rhymes with C that stands for corpse. Poor Anna. She's the only character in the bunch with spice and life in her and we wish she would have had the chance to hang around longer, stir up a lot more trouble, before someone decides to send her to the Theater of Heavenly Footlights.

Rounding out the group of guests is the strange married couple the DeVries. Freddy first comes off as an offensive dirty old man making cracks about the younger women's attractiveness, then transforms into a prissy old man with indignant rants and "How dare you?" remarks that send the reader's eyeballs rolling. His wife is a meek and mild "nervous case" sheltered and protected by her self-righteous husband for the bulk of the story. Susan DeVries seems at first to be a charming New York sophisticate, but she quickly falls to pieces when Anna disappears then turns up dead. Susan spends much of the book confined to her bedroom and Freddy won't let anyone, even the police, near her.

ATMOSPHERE & INFLUENCES: The strength of the book lies not so much in its familiar, overdone plot, but in the atmosphere of terror and paranoia that infects the group as they learn that Anna's flight led to her murder. Suspicions arise and everyone turns on each other. Sebastian is the primary target of all the invective and acrimony as they think he committed a crime of passion. They all believe Anna Rose was his mistress and they had a fight and he killed her. Only Maggy is willing to disbelieve this rather outrageous scenario.

US first edition (Farrar & Rinehart, 1943)
courtesy of The Passing Tramp blog
Given this very familiar storyline, it's all too easy to figure out what's going on and who the culprit is. No real fault of the writer who is very talented in conveying paranoid fear and true terror. Fenwick seems to be drawing form a couple of very popular writers of her time - Mignon Eberhart and Dorothy B. Hughes. Maggy is very much modeled on the kind of protagonists we find in Eberhart's novels of women in peril, drawn to a man suspected of murder and eager to clear his name. But it is Hughes' crime novels riddled with frissons of terror, psychopathic criminals, paranoia in wartime when anyone might turn out to be a killer or a spy that The Inconvenient Corpse most resembles. Maggy's discovery of Anna Rose's body is one of the most chillingly effective parts of the entire book, even if she is accompanied by a curious Boston Terrier. Fenwick allows us into Maggy's head at key moments in the book sharing in her fear, the claustrophobia of the cabin in a wintry landscape, and the hypocrisy of Sebastian's friends. The emphasis is on terror and not detection. When the story is focused on Maggy's fears and suspicions it is at its most engaging and thrilling.

Working with a such a small group of character in a confined setting usually lends itself to a puzzle that will be less than puzzling. What matters here are the fireworks of volatile emotions and the intriguing dynamics between a gorup of friends who find out they have little in common, too many secrets, and they begin to see the verity in the motto "an honest enemy is always better than a friend who lies."

THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Phillips Way (1916-1996) wrote both crime fiction and mainstream novels as "E. P. Fenwick" and later "Elizabeth Fenwick". In 1948 she befriended Flannery O'Connor when they were both living and working at the writers' colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY. I'll not bother wth anymore as Curt Evans has done a good job of digging up some tidbits on the life of Fenwick. You can visit his blog post for all you want to know to about her and view a few rare photos off the writer. He has also reviewed five of her books. The first three she wrote as E.P. Fenwick are cursorily discussed in this post. He also reviewed Poor Harriet and Disturbance on Berry Hill back in 2015.

EASY TO FIND? There are no modern reprints of The Inconvenient Corpse that I can verify. The book was published only in the US by Farrar & Rinehart and had one paperback reprint three years after the hardcover edition (Pony Books #62, 1946). The Pony Books edition is the most common in the used book market offerd at trelatively afforadble prices. The striking surreal cover illustration is most likely the work of "Im-Ho", the duo of Sol Immermann and Lawrence Hoffman, prolific book cover illustrators throughout the 1940s. For the short lived history of Pony Books (only 22 books over it's one year of business) see this in-depth article and bibliography by book collector and historian Kenneth Johnson.




Friday, March 13, 2020

FFB: Inspector Rusby's Finale - Virgil Markham

As usual I have discovered a delightful book that others found “nightmarish” and “disturbing.” I am beginning to think that many critics out there in the blogosphere have no sense of humor, fail to see the obvious, and cannot see a parody when it’s right in front of them. I can only view Virgil Markham’s fifth crime novel, one that plays with mystery motifs, as a parody of the detective novel. Like many of his other books it is a mix of absurdity, head scratching incidents, eccentric characters, and a soupçon of Gothic horror. But even with a single scene that truly is disturbing I found the book to be a frothy adventure, with a dash of detective novel plotting, that culminates in a romantic ending.

Inspector Rusby’s Finale (1933) as the title tells you right away is the story of a policeman’s last case. It is a lesson in jumping to conclusions, not seeing the forest for the trees, and allowing one’s prejudices to cloud one’s judgment. The book is also a very funny and lighthearted send-up of everything English found in the Golden Age of Detection. Markham, people seem to forget was an American, not a Brit. in this unusual mix of detection, romance and Gothicism he has mastered replicating the highbrow prose style that is the hallmark of most Golden Age detective novels of his contemporaries while simultaneously satirizing aristocrats, detective novel clichés like jewels that go missing at social events, the war of classes between wealthy homeowners and servants, even the very idea of a house party. His books all seem to be playing with the form of the detective novel in one way or another, exaggerating the conventions and motifs to the point of absurdity. In The Devil Drives (1932) we have a prison tale that gives way to a bizarre murder – how did a man drown in a locked house? Inspector Rusby’s Finale treats us to yet another miracle problem – an entire houseful of people vanish overnight with not a trace of them to be found in the world outside. Sound nightmarish? Perhaps. But the story does not begin there. The opening chapter of the novel is a huge clue to what follows.

With chapter headings that allude to the world of theater -- "second act", "scene shifting", "command performance", etc. -- we are given subtle hints to the overarching theme of make believe and illusion. Markham starts off with a prologue entitled "curtain raiser" (no capital letters in any of these chapter headings, BTW) set in the sunny Italian Riviera town of Rapallo. There a group of unnamed women are having a going away party, sending off one of their friends before she heads to England. This seemingly nonsensical sequence filled with catty gossip and gift giving should hint to any reader that the book is going to be a lighthearted story of love and getting even with misbehaving boyfriends. Given this ostensibly strange and out of place prologue it is not hard to figure out what is going on in the first section of the book. Some readers may attempt to match the named women in the first half of the book with the unnamed women from the party who sport only nicknames like Picture Hat, Shy Mouse, and Departing One. They would do better to home in on the gifts bestowed on the Departing One and the snippy remarks related to her paramour.

Markham overloads the night of the house party with unusual incidents and some mysterious goings-on. They are bound to lead most readers away from what they should be paying attention to. These incidents certainly give Inspector Rusby a very troubling time. Why anyone would find the story disturbing is beyond me. Oh! There is that dead body. The one with the bare feet, scarred and bloody, and a bullet it its head. The one found shoved in a closet with not a trace of ID on it. The appearance of the corpse diminishes the frothiness to something more resembling gravitas. Still, the novel as a whole doesn’t seem too concerned with who the corpse is or who was responsible or even why he was killed. In fact, when another body turns up in the story and you think the book will actually start to resemble a genuine whodunit Markham refuses to treat that dead body with any importance either. By the end of the book both murders will be solved (in a way), the culprit unmasked and dealt with by the police (in a way) but neither dead body will have been given a name or personality. The corpses in the mystery novel are merely props for a story that means to deliver more than just a pat and just solution of criminal acts.

When Judy Merle, Rusby’s flighty and willful niece shows up, the story shifts into yet another mode. Suddenly the characters Rusby is interviewing become more lively and increasingly odd. The humor intensifies into near farce. And – thankfully, for most readers – the plot actually exhibits some genuine detection with Judy playing Watson to her uncle’s Holmes.

Judy insists accompanying her uncle to Stoke New Place, the mysterious house of vanished occupants, and offers up a few clever ideas to explain the various mysteries that baffled her uncle that very strange night. Like where did the voices saying, "Damn!" and "Oh the Romans" come from? Why did a woman with a Dutch accented voice scream at a barking dog? Where did the dog come from? And, of course, how did the dog disappear along with the house guests and servants in the morning? Why does Rusby keep finding pairs of women’s gloves, ornately decorated, all identical, wherever he goes?

Markham is clearly having fun with this book. The characters are unusual and eccentric. He delights in mimicking regional voices and dialects spoken by his myriad characters. On of my favorites is Daniel Churd, a crossword puzzle addicted gardener who gets into trouble with his shrewish daughter Mrs. Taylor.  She is such a castigating intolerant woman that even while Churd is being interrogated by Rusby she unapologetically hurls venomous verbal abuse on her poor father.  Later, there is an excellent scene with another servant of sorts -- Trivett, an ancient sexton at St. Egbert's Church. Rusby questions Trivett while he is digging graves in the St. Egbert churchyard and learns of some inside dope on the two Sir William Rockleys in the story (senior and junior).  The policeman also is handed a surprising revelation in the past of Amos Laxton, a real state agent who Ruby has talked with on numerous occasions and who Rusby suspects of withholding vital information. And of course Judy Merle is the greatest highlight of the book with her rebellious nature, her fathomless optimism and good spirits, and her insatiable curiosity.

Markham's typical hyperbolic wit
found in an inscription in my copy.
(Note: he was living in Missouri at the time!)
No one is really sinister. Only when Markham cannot resist his penchant for Gothic excess does the story become slightly disturbing. When Rusby demands that Dr. Dunbar, the head of a metal institution, cooperate with him and let him see every one of the seventeen patients in the asylum we get a sense of uneasiness. There is a frightening episode involving an experiment with asphyxiation in order to arouse a catatonic patient from his withdrawn state that not only made me raise my eyebrows but mystified me. I wondered if it was an actual “therapy” used in mental institutions in the 1930s. I found nothing remotely resembling the experiment. Electroconvulsive therapy and use of drugs like thyroxine were common in treating catatonia and dementia praecox, but not restricting the patient's breathing. Markham seems to have made it up completely. The way it is described I thought that patient was being anesthetized with some form of gas, but the physicians involved were actually suffocating him! Bizarre seems an understatement. The scene is like a cruel torture sequence you’d find in the pages of Dime Detective or Weird Tales.

Of the handful of mystery novels I've read by Virgil Markham, this one is the most readable, the most entertaining, and the most intriguingly constructed. His mixing of several subgenres, his play with detective novel motifs and his talent for creating lively and fascinating characters make it one of his finest works. If the ultimate reveal in the denouement is not too surprising, and perhaps a bit of a letdown, this is no real fault of the book as whole. I think it's one of the finest parody pastiches of the Golden Age. The prose style alone is something to marvel at for a writer so thoroughly American. Somehow Markham manages to both thumb his nose at the detective novel and a write a modest love letter to the genre.

Monday, March 9, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Queena Mario, A Diva Kills (on Paper)

For the handful of people who read the last “Moonlighters” article on an actress who dabbled on the side as a mystery writer (Dulcie Gray) you may have thought I started up this feature and promptly abandoned it because the promise of the next installment on a literature professor turned mystery writer never materialized. Did I abandon the idea altogether? (you may be wondering). I say unto you, “Taint true, kiddos!” Today marks the return of “Moonlighters” and I hope to make this a monthly or bimonthly feature for the rest of the year.

Today we have the opera singer Queena Mario, well-loved lyric soprano who performed with five different opera companies and was with the illustrious Metropolitan Opera from 1922 to 1938. While still working as a singer in 1934 she wrote her first of a trio of mystery novels. All three, none too surprisingly, are set in the world of opera with plots revolving around such familiar works as I Pagliacci, Samson & Delilah and Gounod’s version of the Faust story.

I’ve only read her first book and judging from the less than kind reviews of her other two mystery novels it’s probably better to stop right there. Murder in the Opera House (1934) is ably plotted and energetically written with a truly original murder method directly tied to the world of opera and theater. For that reason I would recommend the book to those enjoy vintage detective fiction for its bizarre and outre plot elements. But the characters, unfortunately, left me wanting; they tend to come from a dusty trunk of cliched stereotypes.

Editha Fleischer & Queena Mario in Hansel & Gretel
Metropolitan Opera, Dec 25, 1931
That Mario performed in the Met’s production of I Pagliacci in March 1934 is no coincidence when you discover that the plot of her novel features a dual production of that opera along with Cavalleria Rusticana, both one act operas and both often presented together in a double bill. Are any of these characters modelled on the actual cast members of Leoncavallo’s opera, one wonders? I certainly hope not. Mario’s fictional cast is as temperamental and hot-headed as any cast of opera singers you could imagine in their worst possible stereotypes. From the vindictive and passionate Consuelo Elvado who plays the doomed Nedda in the opera and the victim in the murder mystery to the ludicrously jealous and dictatorial conductor Luigi Velucci, a short-statured egomaniac, sort of a Napoleon of Time …uh, Tempo.

Our detective duo are made up of Carey Van Horn, "the world's greatest criminal psychologist" and Manhattan D.A. Merrick Townsend.  This is there only appearance in her books (the other two have amateur detectives) and they make a good team. But to fill up the pages we are saddled with a love story subplot between Van Horn and Diana Pearson, a character who is not at all a suspect in the crime but who has a slightly suspicious nature related to something else entirely. The entire subplot is a distraction and when Van Horn is with Diana he tends to become embarrassingly boyish.

When Mario sticks with her theater background, her impassioned singers, the efficient stage crew, and focusses on the detective work the book is a mild success. As a debut detective novel from a woman not known for her fiction writing (although she had been a journalist prior to studying singing) Murder in the Opera House is an admirable piece of entertainment. Mario does well with planting her clues, trying her best to throw in a few red herrings, but it is painfully obvious by the middle of the book who the culprit is. As soon as Van Horn discovers one key piece of evidence the game is up. Additionally, her valiant attempt to make the murder an impossible crime -- a shooting that occurs during a performance in front of an audience with no sign of the weapon anywhere on stage or in the wings -- does not quite live up to the reader's expectations.

The most intriguing feature of this theatrical mystery novel is the focus on the backstage world. Specifically, Mario gives us a literal bird’s eye view of how an opera is run. There are two key scenes that take place on the catwalks high above the stage amid the terraced ledges of the fly system and the maze of booms from which the lighting instruments are hung. Very rarely has any mystery writer allowed a reader such a detailed tour into the arcane area of stage management and lighting design. Lighting cues and technical effects are crucial to understanding how the murder was committed. The murder weapon itself is utterly bizarre and incredibly ingenious for a novel of any age, let alone our beloved Golden Age. Something similar may have been employed in more modern theater mysteries, but I am sure that this is a first time it was employed in all of detective fiction.

Queena Mario (1896-1951) was born in Akron, OH to James Tillotson, who was a Civil War drummer boy, and Rose Sinathinos. She grew up in Plainfield, NJ and moved to New York as a young adult to write newspaper columns for The Telegram, The Evening World and The Sun. She wrote under her own name Queena Tillotson and a house name, "Florence Bryan," for a column called "Talks with Your Children." While working as a journalist she saved her money and began taking singing lessons. After being twice turned down by the Met she was hired by Fortune Gallo for his San Carlo Opera Company. She made her professional debut with that company in Tales of Hoffman on Sept 4, 1918. She chose to perform under Queena Mario by shortening her middle name Marion.

She went on to sing with Scotti Opera Company and Ravinia Opera Company travelling across the united States with the former. Finally, on Thanksgiving Day in 1922 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Micaela in Carmen. She also performed for six seasons with San Francisco Opera and sang at the renowned Paris Opera House in 1925. For details on her career in San Francisco see this article and the SF Opera blog. According to her New York Times obituary: "She achieved her greatest popularity as Gretel in Hansel and Gretel and it was as Gretel she bade goodbye to the Metropolitan in a special afternoon performance on Dec 26, 1938." A bit of trivia: the Met's 1931 production of Hansel and Gretel featuring Mario in her first Met performance of her signature role was the first live radio broadcast of a Met opera.

The Times goes on to note: "Beginning in 1931 she taught for three years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She also taught voice and operatic acting at the Julliard Graduate School, and for some years conducted her own private studio."

In addition to Murder at the Opera House Mario's mystery novels include Murder Meets Mephisto (1942) , and Death Drops Delilah (1944). Isaac Anderson, mystery novel reviewer for The New York Times was taken with her debut saying "... she is able to make the setting and the people of the opera fairly convincing, but she is not so successful in her delineation of the other characters in the book. [The book]...is not a great detective story, but it has its exciting moments." Neither of the later two mysteries was as favorably reviewed as her debut. Below are capsule reviews I took from old editions of "The Criminal Record," the mystery novel column that appeared in The Saturday Review for over three decades.



And for true opera buffs here's Queena Mario performing a Pucchini aria during an NBC 1932 radio show: 

Friday, March 6, 2020

FFB: Power on the Scent - Henrietta Clandon

THE STORY: William Power, lawyer, confides with his married novelist friends, Vincie and Penny Mercer, on an unusual murder involving what appears to be a poisoning by inhalation. Evidence suggests that a boutonniere found on the victim's lapel was dusted with cocaine.  The two writers are enlisted as unofficial detectives and together the three solve the murder with a very strange method of killing and even more odd motive.

THE CHARACTERS: William Power along with the Mercers appear in a brief series of detective novels by John Hazlette Vahey writing under the pseudonym Henrietta Clandon. Vahey is better known to readers of this blog as Vernon Loder whose mystery novels incorporate bizarre plots, strange murder methods and his trademark sense of offbeat humor.  Power on the Scent (1937) is the fourth book in the series of five, but only the third in which the three series characters appear together.  Powell appears alone in Good by Stealth (1937) while the Mercers go it alone in the final Clandon novel Fog over Weymouth (1938).

Penny and Vincie are novelists who specialize in crime fiction and detective stories. Penny's last work was released as This Delicate Murder, the previous novel in the Clandon series, and we find out that Penny writes as "Henrietta Clandon" adding an element of metafiction to this series. The previous case is alluded to several times and even footnoted in the text.

Penny comes up with a handful of good ideas as to how the cocaine was administered when an elaborate re-creation of a flower delivery fails to show that the rose used as a boutonniere could have held onto the powdered drug over the rough road the bicyclist travelled. When she learns that the victim had a fondness for the candy Turkish Delight she offers up the traditional coating of confectioner's powered sugar could easily have been doctored and not been noticed. That the victim is also a "snuffer" (translation for US readers: drug snorter) suggests that he may not have sensed the difference to an added sprinkling of coke on his candy. The detective work here is filled with interesting ideas and action like the flower delivery by bicycle re-enactment that Vincie performs for Power and the police.

The title of novel comes into play at various places. We get discussions of the scent of flowers, perfumes, and the apparently fading habit of people smelling flowers. When Power passes by a garden at night and smells the pungent odor of tobacco plants which he tells us release their scent at night he once again gets to thinking of botanical scents.  It turns out to be the detection climax of the book.

Overall, I would call Power on the Scent a didactic detective novel. The bulk of the detection is done via conversations at afternoon tea, restaurant meals and dinner parties. It's detection as a social gathering.  Almost all of it exclusively through dialogue as well. Late in the book is one excellent scene where Powell invites Dr. Terpis, forensic pathologist, to dinner at the Mercer home.  Dr. Terpis is perhaps the liveliest character in the entire book. He was certainly my favorite.

Terpis is described as "no more than thirty, fat, red-faced, with a perpetual smile and a hoarse laugh which broke out on the least provocation."  He is amateur puppeteer and entertains Penny's interest in the art form with tales of his puppet making and his work on writing plays for his gallery of puppets. He enjoys every course of the meal prepared for him ("It was as good as eating yourself to watch his gastronomic pleasure") and is a pleasant raconteur as well as an informative forensics expert.  When Terpis comes to discuss the case he presents fascinating details about the skull of a Great Dane that went over a cliff with one of the suspects, both perished. His findings, both macabre and pertinent to the case, will help clear up some ambiguities, decide the actual method of murder, and lead to the surprising solution to the various mysteries uncovered in the death of Montague Morgan, stockbroker and developer of a unique variety of Rennavy Rose.

INNOVATIONS: As "Henrietta Clandon" Vahey indulges in a self-consciously witty style, overflowing with puns, epigrams and arch humor.  It's a humor reminiscent of Restoration comedies of Wycherley and Etherege and seems utterly out of place in this detective story plot with its grave consequences involving murderous rage and drug abuse.  Other writers use this arch humor to great effect like Christianna Brand and Colin Watson without characters willfully drawing attention to their own cleverness.  I was bothered by how delighted Penny and Vince were with each other when they came up with yet another ridiculous pun.  Even Powell joins in on the game. The dialogue is loaded with the kind of epigrammatic sentences you find too often in the plays of Oscar Wilde. People don't talk this anywhere except in books, on stage and in cocktail comedies of 1930s American cinema. In a detective novel that does not start out as a farce the self-conscious humor sticks out like a sore thumb. This is not to say I didn't find some of it clever or amusing; some of it is (see QUOTES section). However, when the characters comment on their cleverness and practically pat each other on the back when some witticism is delivered I was rolling my eyes.

THINGS I LEARNED:  The victim's nephew Charles Sibbins has hired Powell to look into his uncle's suspicious death. He's a playboy and spendthrift who at the start of the book is hunting bongos in Afirca.  I always though a bongo was a type of drum. Guess again! Bongos are a type of striped antelope with distinctive curved horns indigenous to to Western Africa. (see photo)  Currently there are only 150 still living in the wild.  Luckily, their home is a preserve in the Kenyan mountains where hopefully they are safe from marauding poachers who seem to be solely responsible for the decimation of hundreds of animals species in that continent.

Penny refuses to use the hateful term macrocarpa to describe a hedge behind which Morgan was found. She says why say that when its easier and smarter to use cypress. A macrocarpa is, after all, a form of cypress -- the Monterey cypress, in fact. The very type of cypress clinging for life on the cliffs of Carmel, CA that has been photographed innumerable times and appears all over the internet.

On page 158 there is this sentence: "Noses, 'narks' as they used to be called, are very useful but rarely men with any moral sense." This is most likely the origin of the crime world slang term spelled as 'narc' in the US. I always thought narc was derived from the word narcotic. Nark and nose here are meant as slang for police informer. Nark first appeared in print in 1859 as the Merriam-Webster wizards of lexicography and etymology informed me. They suggest it derives from nak, Romani (the Gypsy language) for nose.

Another odd word on page 175 "Morgan...might be tempted to risk his money on a stumer..." sent me to the internet dictionaries once more. I learned that this is British slang for fraud or failure, especially a horse race that was rigged or fixed. It can also refer to the person who was victimized from such a rigged horse race.

And -- of course-- dog in the manger cropped up again! ("There was no suggestion of tender passages between them. He was either a dog-in-the-manger, or she was a superlative typist. They are, I hear, rare in the City.") For those who are counting that makes the third appearance of the phrase in two months for the books reviewed here. How have I never heard or read it until this year?

QUOTES: Summing up Charles Sibbins, an avid hunter, as a loudmouth coward Power says:
"You take it from me that if bongos went about with sub-machine guns Sibbins wouldn't collect many."

"You're spoiling the whole thing! You people full of commonsense are the death of all imagination!"

Impartiality is a gift of the gods and they are more sparing of it than anything else.

"The fact is that Withers has got the wind up, and I always find it pays to let the wind do its work," [Penny said]
"Very right," Vincie agreed, "practical and alliterative."

Vagueness is a virtue in a practicing policeman. He can always say that he didn't mean what you mean.

"I warned him against that dog several times. In fact, I hated the beast. It may seem unkind to say so, but over-kind and friendly people, and over-affectionate dogs are definitely dislikeable."

"Does it not occur to you that a man or woman tells the truth more often when he is rude, then when he is civil and polite?"
"Politeness is as much an enemy of the truth as oil is of friction."

EASY TO FIND? But of course! How's that for a welcome surprise. Four of the books written by Vahey using the Clandon pen name have been reissued by the prolific vintage crime novel reprint publisher Dean Street Press. In addition to Power on the Scent you can purchase a copy of Good By Stealth (already favorably reviewed here and here), Inquest and This Delicate Murder. All four were officially released on March 2 and are now available for sale in paperback and digital formats. The original UK editions of the Henrietta Clandon mystery novels are extremely scarce. None of them were published in the US during Vahey's lifetime. Some like Fog over Weymouth have not been available in the used book market in decades. There are a handful out there, but I suggest that you purchase the new editions as they include informative introductory material by Curt Evans who offers up his usual biographical tidbits and insights into the writer's work.