Monday, April 27, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: W. Stanley Sykes, Anesthesiologist Obsessed with Crime

There are mystery writers whose work in their primary field is far more interesting than their dabbling in genre fiction. Then there are those who dabbled whose work is so strong on plotting, character and imaginative use of detective novel motifs they should have kept on writing books for decades. Such is the case of William Stanley Sykes, an anesthesiologist (or anesthetist as they say in the UK) who was a pioneer in his field. His monumental Essays on the First Hundred Years of Anaesthesia, a three volume work, is still held in high regard, mostly for his painstakingly researched history and the evolution and development of treatment methods. But his interest in criminology, ingenious murder methods and the exacting nature of police work in the pre-WW 2 era resulted in only three novels and three solve-them-yourself mysteries. It's a shame we have no more than that small output from him. He had a real flair for the genre.

His first novel The Missing Moneylender (1931) was published with the prosaically dull title The Man Who Was Dead in the US. Of his three novels this is the most easily obtainable title for it was reprinted several times by Penguin in paperback editions. ...Moneylender has been reviewed favorably by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Ron at Vintage Pop Fiction and is examined in a highly opinionated, post-modern approach that is completely ignorant of detective fiction conventions at A Penguin a Week. His second The Harness of Death (1932) is the focus here. It's the only Sykes mystery novel I own and one of two remaining works not reviewed anywhere in the blogosphere.

Unlike his debut mystery novel Sykes decided to make The Harness of Death an inverted mystery novel. The first chapter we watch a blackmail scheme go terribly wrong. The victim Edgar Marston turns on his tormentor, the snide and weasely owner of Reinhold Metal Works and foundry. Even though the blackmailer is holding his victim at bay with a revolver Marston manages to turn the tables, disarm Reinhold and bash in his brains. He then disposes of the body in the metalwork's foundry furnace.

Chapter Two follows in a different setting which interestingly occurs almost simultaneously as the action in the preceding chapter. The attendant in charge of the stored luggage at Southbourne Station notices blood seeping out of a trunk, opens it and discovers a "disarticulated leg." He is horrified and immediately calls the police. The police set up a trap for the owner of the trunk. When he shows up to claim his property the police learn there was a terrible misunderstanding. Dr. Hemsworth, the owner of the trunk, tells them: "I don't blame you for arresting me. But the person who owns that leg is very much alive." It seems Hemsworth has a research project and he was allowed to take the leg from a recent amputation at the hospital where he works. He foolishly left the trunk too long at the storage room due to some delays at his job. Now the leg is spoiled and useless for his research. The police find this all hard to believe so they drag the doctor to the station and have a parade of hospital employees come in to verify his identity and story.

These two incidents will eventually link up in the first of several eyebrow raising surprises in a book replete with criminal ingenuity and viciously executed murders. The case is investigated by Sykes' series detective Inspector Dennis Drury and his capable team of policemen and law officials. The foundry is a front for an intricate criminal operation populated with myriad scoundrels and duplicitous employees with secrets in their past. The police wonder why someone didn't bash in Reinhold's brains years ago, he turns out to have made several enemies. Drury is always turning up someone he remembers from his days as a beat cop as he interviews the various employees at the foundry. The final third of the book is taken up with a pursuit at sea as the police track down their quarry and attempt to prevent another murder. Deep sea fishing is described with expert gusto that would have Ernest Hemingway dripping with envy. The climax is heightened by a battle to hook a 200 pound tuna with two men harnessed into a high tech rod and reel and fisherman's chair. Who will do in whom?

William Stanley Sykes, 1939
photo © by Howard Coster
(Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)
Not only is the plot intricate and engaging but Sykes has a talent for making even the most minor characters like Sam Garside, the stowed luggage attendant, fully human. Like George Bellairs who also enjoys giving us micro-biographies of characters who appear on only a few pages, Sykes has fun with filing us in on the quirks and homelife of his supporting cast while often revealing secrets the police will never uncover. Garside spends much of his workday working the contest crossword puzzles in the newspaper longing to strike it rich with the prize money. Wayland Harrison, Reinhold's crooked partner, likes to cheat at golf. Marston is embezzling funds from Reinhold to help finance his expensive, sometimes dangerous, hobby of tuna fishing. Black humor and untold criminality add satiric spice and enliven his detective plot.

The life and medical career of William Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) has been written about extensively all over the internet and I'm not going to reiterate any of it. The most detailed and concise summation is his obituary that appeared in the British Journal of Anesthesia.  I was fortunate to find two portraits of him at the National Portrait Gallery's vast database. So there he is over on the left as he appeared in 1939, seven years after the publication of The Harness of Death. As for his fiction writing I have lots to report.

Sykes' third and last detective novel is The Ray of Doom (1935) which incorporates elements of science fiction was published only in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton. This is the rarest of his detective novels. The Worldcat.org database tells me that there are only 9 copies held in a mix of US, Canadian, UK and Australian libraries. Currently, two copies are offered for a sale from online dealers, but they both appear to be battered ex-library books. Pass! No one is getting $129 (plus postage) from me for a dirty, beat up book no matter how rare it is.

Hush #8, January 1931
He contributed three mini short stories that were solve-them-yourself mysteries for Hush, edited by Edgar Wallace and created by William Collins & Company as a way to help market the work of their bestselling mystery writers who were part of Collins Crime Club. It may have been a perk for subscribers who signed up for The Detective Story Club, a short-lived imprint & subscriber book club from Collins that reprinted in cheap hardback format several popular detective fiction books and thrillers from the 1920s and earlier. Three of Agatha Christie's Jane Marple short stories that would eventually appear in The 13 Problems (1932) -- The Tuesday Night Murders in the US -- as well as works by Sydney Horler, the Coles, and J.S. Fletcher all appeared in Hush alongside Sykes' puzzles. The magazine ran from June 1930 to June 1931 and had only 13 issues. Subtitled "Problems in Detection" Sykes' only short stories as such are "How Was the Knife Thrown? (Jan 1931), "The Dangerous Safe" (Feb 1931), and "The Locked Room" (March 1931).

Friday, April 24, 2020

FFB: Death's Bright Angel - Thurman Warriner

It may be that Death's bright Angel,
Will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav'n,
I shall hear that grand Amen.


 -- "The Lost Chord" by Adelaide A. Proctor
Set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1877

THE STORY: Is it possible for love to cure a terminal illness? Julia Lindsey begins to believe that she has thee unusual power and is frightened by it. Andrew Quayne reveals to Julia he has cancer due to radioactivity exposure at his last job in a nuclear research facility in America. He suffers a near fatal collapse after a grueling hike in the country and Julia rushes to find help. Her fiance is rescued, taken to her home where he manages to quickly recuperate each time she holds him in her arms or touches him. Archdeacon Toft and Mr. Ambo, who helped Julia save Andrew's life, take up residence in Julia's home where she lives with her sullen and often angry artist brother Elton. While caring for Andrew the four learn that he is not suffering from radioactive exposure and cancer but instead is being poisoned by his greedy relatives who want Andrew's inheritance and get control of the family business. At least that is Andrew's belief. His relatives behavior to him, secretive and acrimonious, only serves to underscore the theory. The mystery of Andrew's illness is coupled with the strangling murder of Elton's former girlfriend, the well-liked local barmaid May Varley. It is up to Archdeacon Toft, Mr Ambo and their private detective associate John Scotter to rout out the evil, expose the murderer and end a literal reign of terror in the village of Bidderley.

THE CHARACTERS: Warriner's trio of detectives have never been more wise and affable than in Death's Bright Angel (1956). Toft pontificates and blusters like an older, wiser and more sedate version of Henry Merrivale. Mr. Ambo, in his seventies in this outing, is the kind of dear old gentleman everyone wants as his grandfather. We learn more about his past in his intimate conversations with Julia. Ambo's share of insightful observations provide clarity for the characters as they learn the differences between personality disorders, temperament and stubbornness, and genuinely evil behavior. When Scotter the 30ish private eye with good common sense and an earthy sense of humor shows up the story kicks into high action mode. Metaphysics give way to sound detection, the two suspects who seem to be very much involved in May's murder at last stop lying and deceiving and there is race to rescue one more of our protagonists from the clutches of a nasty piece of work.

Julia and Andrew provide a sweet love story that thankfully never descends into the nadir of sentimental drivel. It is Julia's fear of her genuine goodness that makes the book so fascinating. Her paradoxical dilemma provides for some suspenseful moments as she tries to figure out if it is right for Andrew to be so selfishly cared for or if she is doing him more harm than good. Her miraculous touch terrifies her and she truly believes that she might literally kill him with kindness. Her brother, Elton, is the antithesis of Julia. And he provides much frustration for both the detective heroes and the reader.

Elton is an arrogant creative type we find so often in crime fiction. He spends much of his time painting portraits, belittling his own talent, compromising his true art for commercial work for magazines and billboards, and denounces everyone and everything with bitter sarcasm. When May comes to him for money to help raise their child Elton's insensitive cruelty and his dismissal of her plight leads to her doom. Everyone in the village think his sullen moods and anger make him the number one suspect of May's strangling murder. Elton fervently denies he had anything to do with her death but a painting he gave her prior to her leaving his house is found in the fields near her body and it's nearly destroyed. Elton is hiding something and refuses to cooperate with both police and the trio of amateurs. Only when Scotter shows up and practically threatens him with not only arrest but a sound beating does Elton's seething anger explode. Elton's confesion is reminiscent of the climax of An Inspector Calls as he accuses everyone in the room of being responsible for May's murder. As he unleashes his rage he melodramatically reveals a closely guarded secret that simultaneously serves up one of the most gasp inducing surprises in the book.

Andrew's two sisters, cousin and cousin-in-law round out the cast. A more despicable trio of family members could not be found outside of a Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters crime novel. Gilbert Callas is a ne'er-do'well twit who speaks like he escaped from a P.G. Wodehouse farce with all his "Jolly good chaps" and "What ho, mate!" He is ineffectual, foolish and completely lacking in business sense. Phoebe Atwyn Quayne, the elder sister as one might imagine is as pretentious as her name -- a haughty snob who writes romance novels that despite the godawful purple prose (it's read aloud at one point) sell incredibly well and provide her with a lucrative income and entitled airs. The younger sister Tina is something of a cipher. Emaciatingly thin in contrast to her portly sister she is portrayed as a sinister woman who dresses all in black, speaks tersely and reticently, and sneers an awful lot. The only saving grace is Gilbert's wife, Mary, who is described by Mr. Ambo "as good as her very fine name". Mary is Julia's one friend never without a kind word or a pleasing laugh to lighten a story that threatens to give in to portentous anguish.

No cliché Snidely Whiplash in sight
INNOVATIONS: Warriner writes what I like to call metaphysical detective novels. Archdeacon Toft is always bringing up the topic of evil in everyday life. The villains in these novels are tainted with unrepentant amorality. Refreshingly, Warriner rejects the post-modern idea of the banality of evil. His villains are some of the most fascinating people in his novels for one never suspects them capable of the crimes described. His use of misdirection is comparable to the greats of the Golden Age and there are two brilliant uses of misdirection in Death’s Bright Angel. He certainly fooled me -- both times! In each of his mystery novels Warriner cleverly builds up his case against several suspects, providing motive and opportunity for all, but always manages to reveal the true culprit in an eleventh surprise. This is perhaps one of the best examples of the least likely character being revealed as the killer. It is truly unexpected and sort of blew me away.

The talk of evil is contrasted and amplified by the unusual plot device of Julia's supposed paranormal gift of healing Andrew's cancer. This leads to a discussion of the healing power of love that is never handled in a treacly or New Age way, but with sensitivity and intelligence. Just when it all seems to be a bit too much, a tale bordering on metaphysics and supernatural, Warriner explains all of the scheming and truly evil actions as the work of a talented and thoroughly amoral villain who not only strangles but kills with the power of suggestion.

QUOTES: Toft's retort when Elton in one of his many stubborn fits protests he is innocent until proven guilty: "A man can be guilty of monumental idiocy even if he's innocent of murder."

"Something's going to happen. I can feel it. I believe in evil as a spiritual force capable of incarnation, and I can smell its birth."

A conversation about Andrew's cancer raises thoughts on Church of England dogma and the dangers of splitting atoms:  "No children!" Elton repeated. "Oh God, that's funny! [...] it seems odd to hear a dignitary of the Church say that. Especially when one considers that the chief purpose of marriage, according to the Prayer Book, is the procreation of children."
"We probably need a revised version of the Prayer Book even more than of the Bible," the Archdeacon retorted. "Blame the times, not the Church. In Tudor days it would scarcely be anticipated that mankind would be playing with the dust of God used to build the universe."

Scotter to Elton: "Brother, they'll be making a full-page block of that picture for next Sunday's editions. Accused man's blond girlfriend. Every hag under sixty's beautiful to Fleet Street and every reporter carries a bottle of hair dye in his pocket. Circulation goes up ten thousand every time blonde gets set up in type."

THINGS I LEARNED: Archdeacon Toft describes Gilbert's "What ho" twit talk as "wizard prang." I had no idea what this meant. But as usual the internet delivereth! During WW2 the RAF pilots developed a huge slang vocabulary. Wizard prang is one of the most overused phrases of the era. The definition I found online here is "A bombing mission that resulted in a large amount of destruction." Further research revealed that prang which RAF pilots used to mean "crash" comes from the Malay word for "war". However, the correct Malay spelling is perang. Using "wizard" as a modifier was a way of making any slang term a superlative.

Friday, April 17, 2020

FFB: Fatal Purchase - Anne Rowe

THE STORY: Rhana Haines, owner of an Asian antique gallery in New York City, is sent to Boston by her employer, wealthy Henry Maxfield, to bid on two specific items at an art and antiques auction. Rhana has $5000 and Maxfield wants her to win both items: a Sung ivory of Lao Tse and a Siamese bronze Buddha, neither of which Rhana knows is worth anything near the amount of the check she is given. She spends a mere $238 for both and has little competition during the bidding. An easy job but a curious one. Why does Maxfield want such unassuming and unimpressive trinkets?  On her way out she barely misses a collision with a man in a hurry who she overhears mentioning bidding on the Buddha. But he's obviously too late. Thanks to the wiles of Wong Riley, Maxfield's servant and right hand man, both items had their lot numbers reassigned and moved up in the auction order.  It's the beginning of a series of adventures for Rhana that begin with Maxfield's sudden death, a murder investigation that uncovers family rivalry, art smuggling, espionage and an unexpected secret dating back to Rhana's childhood in China.

THE CHARACTERS: Fatal Purchase (1945) is a fast paced, incident-filled detective novel modeled on the woman-in-peril books that were pioneered by Mignon Eberhart. Anne Rowe has done an excellent job of avoiding the usual formulaic pitfalls of the subgenre in the creations of her willful, smart and sassy heroine Rhana Haines. No whining, no wimpiness, no dithery-brained delayed decisions, no HIBK nonsense here at all. Rhana is on her own after losing her parents to the Asian flu epidemic in China. She was raised by her uncle who taught her all she knows about antiques, especially Asian art. Prior to the opening of the novel her uncle has died and Rhana has taken over the antique gallery in Manhattan. She lives on her own and is doing very well.

Henry Maxfield is one of those middle-aged demi-gods we often encounter in detective fiction of this era. A bit too much time is spent describing his unearthly good looks and powerful build for a man who is over 50 years old. In addition to his handsome looks and physique he' is aloof, mysterious and as inscrutable as the Chinese he so admires. His entire home is a replica of a Chinese palace right down to a re-creation of a Chinese water garden in his immense backyard.

Thai Buddha
Rhana feels she has traveled back in time while staying at the Maxfield home where she has been hired to catalog the vast collection of Asian art. It is so eerily reminiscent of the home where she was born and raised. But the vaguely recalled memories become tinged with Henry's perverse obsession. Reluctantly Rhana agrees to dress in a gown that was previously owned by Maxfield's deceased Chinese wife. Later, Rhana sees a life size portrait of the woman and notices that they are uncannily similar in looks. Is Henry trying to have Rhana replace his wife? She shudders at the thought but doesn't have much time to worry about the dangers of such a weird role playing because shortly after the dinner where she made her odd clone appearance Henry is found impaled on the dagger-like point on the Siamese Buddha's headdress.

There are other family members who arrived that night after the auction and the successful purchase of the art object that becomes a murder e weapon. Henry's second wife Edna, her daughter Connie, and Edna's paramour Frederic Trueman-March, a Czech aristocrat who has anglicized his name. The three are antagonistic to Rhan from the start. Family relations are bitter and tainted by avarice and jealousy. Connie is a haughty, vain wannabe actress with dreams of Hollywood and a rich husband. Edna and Fredric seem to have some sly plot they are cooking up. The Czech claims to be interested in Maxfield's vast and valuable Asian art collection but Rhana hears him says things that clearly indicate he hasn't a clue. Trueman-March has shifty con artist written all over him, she thinks. Could he also be a murderer?

Who would have wanted Henry dead beside his family? Well, there's John Kilbourne, a granite quarry manager who has wanted to take over the business since his father's death. Maxfield owns the quarry, likes John well enough but does not trust his business sense. There's Judd Norton, a mysterious stranger and associate of Maxfield's. Who exactly is he? Why is he immediately deputized by Sheriff Web Walker? Why does he seem to be in charge of the murder investigation with the sheriff following Norton's lead? What exactly was his business connection with Maxfield? Is he also an art collector as he claims? Rhana is highly suspicious of Norton especially since he appeared at the front door minutes after she found her employer's body in his study. SO was I. My notes have this comment: "It's The Unexpected Guest gimmick." I won't say if my intuition proved right or wrong. Let's just say Rowe has lots of tricks up her sleeve in this novel.

Another Thai Buddha, with a point
that looks like it could be fatal

The murder seems to be about the acquisition of the Siamese Buddha, an art object of unknown value that only Henry Maxfield seemed to understand. But then Trueman-March and Edna are also showing an abnormal interest in the item. Sheriff Walker and Norton won't let anyone near the statue. It's evidence now. Rhana is puzzled as the Buddha is hardly as valuable as some of the other treasures she has uncovered in Maxfield's collection. Some of them seem to be unique copies of Japanese masterpieces, but Maxfield assured Rhana that he had the originals. However, she knows the originals are practically priceless and are held in government museums. The mystery of the art objects' origins will be revealed along with the unusual motive for Maxfield's murder in the triple twist finale.

The star of the book is not our plucky heroine at all. Wong Riley, a Chinese-Irish servant who might as well have stepped out of a Harry Stephen Keeler novel, steps into that spotlight and rarely leaves. He has been with Henry Maxfield for close to thirty years and is more of his friend and confidant than his chauffeur, butler and man-of-all-work. Unique among all the characters in the book Wong has an odd split personality flitting between a colloquial Irishman who speaks fluent, unbroken and unaccented English peppered with "to be sures" and an "inscrutable Oriental" adopting both oracular enigmatic speech and the expected deferential demeanor. Rhana isn't the least bit disturbed by it, she finds this personality switching to make Wong all the more endearing. Though there is a point in the novel when it seems that Wong may in fact be a sinister turncoat, the reader can rest assured that he is the true hero of the novel.

Hikone screen section
THINGS I LEARNED: Reading Fatal Purchase is like taking a crash course in Asian art history. Rowe has scattered fascinating cultural and historical tidbits throughout the story, but never overwhelms the action with marathon lectures. I have two pages worth of "T.I.L." notes but I'll only mentions two.

Maxfield owns what Rhana thinks is a copy of the Hikone screen. He claims it's the original. Sections of this 15th century Japanese work fo art have been duplicated as posters, post cards and wearable art over the past two centuries when art became commercialized by museums. You'd immediately recognize some of its images like the one at the left. The six-panel byobu is dated to be from the Edo Period’s Kan’ei era (1624-44) according to Japanese website about the Shiga Prefecture. First displayed to Western culture at the Paris Exposition of 1900 the Hikone screen, considered a National Treasure, is now housed in Hikone Castle Museum.

Guanyin by Muqi
Rhana also finds the White Kwannon by Mokkei in Maxfield's fabulous collection. Once again he claims it is the true original though Rhana doubts him. I learned that this is now known as the white-robed Guanyin by the 13th century Chinese monk and artist Mu Ch'i or Muqi. The Guanyin is the central panel of a triptych that is officially named Guanyin, Crane, and Gibbons found at Daitoku-ji, a Buddhist temple, in Kyoto. Mokkei is the Japanese name of the artist. The use of Mokkei is a clue for Rhana indicating that Truefield-March has gained his knowledge of Asian art from Japanese sources.

Unlike many American mystery novels the war features prominently. Rhana mentions the dim-out helping her hideout on the estate at night. Much of the plot eventually involves POW exchange and espionage work. The setting is Maine where there were several work camps for German POWs. Maxfield owns several quarries that provide limestone for rock wool. Prior to the invention of Fiberglass, our most modern form of building insulation, there was rock wool, a fibrous mineral composition. This insulation product is used for improved sound absorption and fire protection in residential wood & steel construction projects. The rock wool from Maxfield's quarry is, as John Kilbourne says: "...needed for the war effort. Don't ask me for what. They're not telling me." More secrets to unfold!

THE AUTHOR: Anne von Meibom Rowe (1882-1961) has very little about her life or work on the internet.  I only found this ultra brief biosketch at the FictionMags Index. "Born in Germany; married Leon Randall Rowe; died in Alameda, California." That's it! Very few of her books have been reviewed in the vintage mystery blogosphere. Two reviews are at Mystery*File (Too Much Poison and Up to the Hilt) and Tomcat has also reviewed Too Much Poison.  A terse opinion (along with culled info from multiple websites) of her debut, Curiosity Killed a Cat is here.  Now with my review we have covered three of books. I own five of her six books and will be reading and writing about the remaining titles very soon. I'm looking into the mystery of a seventh book that I am suspicious might be one of the US titles re-dubbed by a UK publisher.

She had two series characters neither of whom appear in Fatal Purchase, her only stand alone, mystery but one of four books set in Maine, a favorite locale for her mysteries. Her first series detective is Inspector Josiah Pettingill, a policeman based in Maine who appears in two books, the other is Inspector Barry from Manhattan who is in three books. Mystery*File lists a UK title The Painted Monster with Pettingill, a title that appears to have only been published in the UK. But I am sure this is incorrect. I think Painted Monster is an alternate title for Up to the Hilt which is a Barry mystery novel. I have some photos coming my way to either prove or disprove this literary detective work. I'll update the post when I know for sure.

Anne Rowe's Detective Novels
Curiosity Killed a Cat (1941) [Pettengill]
The Little Dog Barked (1942) [Pettengill]
Too Much Poison (1944) [Barry]; UK title Cobra Venom (1946)
Fatal Purchase (1945)
Up to the Hilt (1945) [Barry]; possible UK title (?) The Painted Monster (1945)
Deadly Intent (1946) [Barry]

Monday, April 13, 2020

HORROR SHOW: Tiger Girl - Gordon Casserly

Despite the subtitle on the original first edition cover of this genuine supernatural novel Tiger Girl (1932) is not really a love story. But is most definitely set in the jungles of India. True, there is an underlying love triangle being played out between two men vying for the attention of the young woman, but it is not the focus of the plot. Why it was marketed as a romantic love story amazes me. Anyone hoping for a hearts and flowers traditional romance would have been sorely disappointed -- most likely appalled -- at what they found in the pages of this outlandish ghost story. Here's just a sample:
  • Vampiric gray-furred tiger
  • Demonic female phantoms
  • Reanimated corpses
  • Astral projection
  • Telekinesis
  • Death by mind control
  • Cult that performs human sacrifice
Personally, I was not expecting a love story at all. And I was genuinely thrilled with what I found in this enthralling and thoroughly researched work of supernatural fiction. More thrills than I ever expected, in fact.

Alan Stuart is our hero, Margery Webb our plucky heroine, and Morton, Stuart's rival and the novel's human antagonist. When a a grey skinned tiger invades the Indian tea plantation owned by Margery's father Stuart turns hunter determined to track down the man-killer. He is warned by the superstitious locals that this will be no easy task for the tiger he is looking for is not an animal but a demon. Legend has it the shaitan kills only women and drains their bodies of blood. Bullets do not seem to harm this predator as Stuart soon finds out in his several battles with the phantom beast.

Meanwhile Morton plots revenge after he is spurned by Margery who he was hoping to marry. Morton allies himself with a powerful yogi who practices black magic and has paranormal skills including astral projection and the ability to revive corpses. Stuart must also contend with a mad elephant on the rampage and a bizarre religious cult that worships Kali for whom the tiger acts as a sort of human sacrifice delivery service.

A scene in which a minor character who, while looking for the rogue elephant hides himself high in a tree, witnesses the cult's ritual ceremony is one of the most gruesome in the book. But the climax of the book surpasses the cult sequence with genuine horror and follows with several scenes of more mystery and supernatural incidents. The action keeps building to an unnerving finale with a completely unexpected twist similar to something one might encounter in a murder mystery.

Tiger Girl has been one of the most elusive supernatural thrillers for decades having been out of print for over seventy years. Vintage copies are difficult to track down or absurdly priced when they ever so rarely turn up for sale. Thanks to Bruin Asylum and the efforts of some savvy collectors of supernatural fiction there is a new and affordable edition of this minor classic. Bruin Asylum's reissue has a brief but detailed biography of Gordon Casserly, highlighting his military service and life in India, as well as discussing his handful of adventure and supernatural novels. The new edition ends with an appendix consisting of an engrossing chapter from Occult Science in India and Among the Ancients (1875) by Louis Jacolliot, a non-fiction work briefly mentioned in the novel's story. His writing is just as evocative, fascinating and thrilling as Casserly's fictional story.

I urge fans of  forgotten supernatural and horror novels to buy a copy of this formerly out of print minor masterpiece. This attractively produced volume proves that it really was worth the long wait to have a new copy at a very affordable price.

Friday, April 10, 2020

FFB: The Footprints on the Ceiling - Clayton Rawson

In preparation for my upcoming "In GAD We Trust" podcast with JJ (of The Invisible Event) on stage magic, theatrical devices and misdirection in GAD fiction I thought I'd finish up the series of Great Merlini mysteries which shamefully have been on my shelves for over twenty years and still remain unread. I did not get along with Death from a Top Hat (1938) when I read it decades ago, but I did very much enjoy all of the Don Diavolo stories Rawson wrote as "Stuart Towne" which I gobbled up within days and wished there were more. Since I was approaching this read from an older and wiser perspective and also because I was specifically looking at tricks and misdirection I did enjoy The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) almost as much as the Don Diavolo novellas. There are still elements of the Great Merlini novels that irritate the hell out of me and I'll talk about those in the podcast, but here's my basic impression of the book along with "Things I Learned" (as you will with any of Rawson's mystery stories and novels) that seem to make up about 75% of the book.

This is one of the many mysteries between 1900 and 1940 dealing with spiritualism debunking and the trickery and gadgetry that was (and probably still is) employed by fake mediums and phony psychics.  Two characters from Death from a Top Hat re-appear in Footprints on the Ceiling in an altogether different light and play much larger roles in the novel.

Merlini is going to host a new radio show on NBC called "The Ghost Hour" and his pal Colonel Watrous asks him to come to Skelton Island where their former associate from Death from a Top Hat Madame Eva Rappourt is hosting a seance for agoraphobic Linda Skelton obsessed with psychic phenomena and the drug induced trances she thinks will help cure her of her mental illness. Watrous is beginning to think that Madame Rappourt, whose powers he previously extolled in a book called Modern Mediums, is in fact one of the most clever frauds he ever encountered. Merlini and his playwright friend Ross Harte (our narrator) travel to Skelton Island armed with skepticism and infrared cameras hoping to catch the medium in the act of an elaborate charade and expose her with the photographs they plan to take while the seance is conducted in the dark.

Of course something goes wrong the minute they arrive on the island.  On route to the seance Merlini tells Harte about the legend of a pirate who supposedly haunts the island.  The two men see lights in an abandoned house on the north end of the island and rush to investigate. There they find the rigid dead body of Linda Skelton who has apparently been poisoned with cyanide. How and why did an agoraphobic who never left the main house end up so far away? And who killed her?

The story is one of the most complicated plots I've read of any era, let alone the Golden Age.  It's filled to the brim with baffling incidents that all seem to be impossible. A fire that no one could have started, the transporting of Linda's body to the haunted house, a bullet that seems to have traveled around a corner at 45 degree angle, a seemingly encoded message found on a typewriter ribbon, a nude body found in a locked hotel room, and of course the titular marks found on the ceiling at the scene of Linda Skelton's death. Magic, misdirection, acrobatics and clever gadgets all play a part in the solution of the various mysteries and murders.

There are many mini-lectures in this murder mystery reminding me of one of the issues I had with Death from a Top Hat. Rawson is one of the writers who likes to fill his books with arcane information and minutiae and go on at length. It was like reading a 1930s version of an X-Files script. But at least in the TV show those lectures were brief. We get overly detailed lectures on caisson disease ("the bends") and the precautions needed in decompression to prevent that condition; the diagnosis, causes and treatment of agoraphobia; three pages listing shipwrecks and lost treasures and the 1939 dollar values placed on those treasures ranging between 8 to 100 million; and three other things I'll discuss in the Things I Learned section. Had these lengthy lectures been condensed or removed the book could easily be 25 - 75 pages shorter. OH! and there are Van Dine-like footnotes, too!

The cast of characters consists of so many rascals, evidence tinkerers, vengeful would-be murderers, that at one point it almost seems like a parody of Murder on the Orient Express (1934). As a consequence of the convoluted shenanigans of this shifty devious group, in addition to unmasking the somewhat surprising murderer, everyone is arrested for some offense and hauled away by the police. The many pronouncements of this teeming mass of miscreants and their misdeeds makes for a long trawl through the final chapters consisting of three -- count 'em three -- summing-up explanations unnecessarily peppered with tangential commentary and sarcastic quips from Merlini. It goes on interminably and the many readers will no doubt find themselves agreeing with the impatient and irascible Inspector Gavigan who keeps demanding that Merlini get to the point faster.

Original map of Skelton Island used as frontispiece in US 1st edition
(Click to enlarge for to see all the detail)

THINGS I LEARNED:  Simon Lake (1866-1945) was a mechanical engineer and inventor who specialized in designing and building submarines and salvage equipment for the burgeoning underwater construction industry and salvage and recovery businesses.  He is mentioned in passing and provides a major clue to a fine detail in a portion of the solution. For more on Lake's ingenious work visit this website.

This is more of a refresher for me rather than something wholly new, but Ross Harte launches into monologue mode in the chapter titled "Thirty Deadly Poisons" with a litany of toxic chemicals. He reminds us that photography is one of the most poisonous professions of the pre-World War 2 era and could prove hazardous to one's health if not fatal.

I learned of an unusual dermatological side effect of the use of silver nitrate in medicine called argyria. It's an irreversible condition in which the silver turns one's skin blue-gray. Merlini talks of the Blue Men (and sometimes women) who suffered from this horror and tells Harte and Dr. Gail many of these people joined circus sideshows in order to make a living and escape shame and embarrassment in "normal" civilization.

Even with the long lectures, the complicated plot and several subplots, and Merlini's insufferable ego and sarcasm it cannot be denied that Rawson has made the book exciting and action filled. The opening chapters read more like an adventure novel than a murder mystery. Footprints on the Ceiling mixes haunted house legends, pirate lore, the search for lost treasure, deep sea diving techniques and new inventions, con artists and fraudulent spiritualism, and circus performers in a dizzying plot of inventive murders and ingenious criminality. Rawson almost succeeds in making his second novel a brilliant addition to American mysteries of the Golden Age. His penchant for show off esoterica so reminiscent of the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen novels and the innumerable instances of shunning the fair play techniques of his colleagues, however, keep this mystery novel from being a true masterpiece. As it stands it can only be thought of as a clever and entertaining diversion.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

NEW STUFF: Eight Perfect Murders - Peter Swanson

This is not a review. This is pretty much a diatribe and a warning to anyone vaguely titillated by the premise of Eight Perfect Murders (2020) by Peter Swanson. I have never read any of Swanson's other books. I was only interested in this because it is yet another contemporary crime novel that is paying homage to classic mystery novels -- or rather books (and one play, later a screenplay) that feature murder. The ostensibly "perfect murders" are found in eight different crime fiction works, only three of them genuine detective novels, spanning seventy years from The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne published in 1922 to 1992's The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Interesting that last title. Admittedly as far removed from crime fiction as one can get, Tartt's book is an overhyped 'literary novel' that features murder. It's not really a mystery as I define the genre nor is it anything remotely resembling a detective novel. However, the list in which these books appear is not really concerned with genre of any type even if it was composed by Malcolm Kershaw, a mystery bookstore owner and narrator of Swanson's novel. The list plays with the idea of a supposedly perfectly executed murder on paper that could have allowed the culprit to escape justice. In the novel this list appears to be the inspiration for a serial killer who is copying the murder methods from each book on the list. The killer's murders are similarly made to look like accidents or natural deaths and each victim is someone who deserves death for unpunished crimes.


#1 on the list
#2 on the list
My problem with Eight Perfect Murders is that Peter Swanson blatantly disregards one of the tacit rules of paying homage to any work of fiction, but especially a mystery novel. He ruins every one of the eight books by divulging in great detail the endings. He reveals not only the method of each "perfect murder" but the motivations and the identity of each murderer. Essentially, scattered throughout his own story Swanson has written a Cliff Notes of classic crime works.

#3 on the list
#4 on the list
It was not necessary to explain the entire plot of every book, it was quite easy to discuss the murder method without revealing who the killer was. Not only does he spoil these books once – he does so repeatedly. I got the feeling I was reading a old time serial there was so much repetition. The only thing missing was "Previously on..." or "In our last episode..." He tells us the plot of Malice Aforethought about three separate times. He mentions the ending of The Drowner by John D. MacDonald just as many.

[Aside: Where are the editors, BTW? Asleep at the wheel as usual. This is my eternal woeful complaint about contemporary publishing houses for the past 20+ years.]

#5 on the list
#6 on the list
That Swanson chose not to be circumspect in discussing the various killers' identities makes me think that the writer supposedly paying homage to works of the past is contemptuous of, or at least envious of, those writers and their capacity for ingenuity and originality. Who at Morrow and HarperCollins thought this was a cool idea to give away the endings of all these books? I was beyond disappointed with Swanson I was furious with him. Luckily, I was familiar with all of the old books mentioned, even less well known titles like The Drowner and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford, the latter mentioned only in passing towards the end of the book. [Both of those titles, BTW, are reviewed on my blog.] However, the vast majority of readers will not be familiar with even half of these books. More likely most people will be familiar with the movie and TV versions of five of them.

#7 on the list
#8 on the list
As for Swanson's novel itself? Extremely limited in originality from what is on display here. Since so much of the book is based on the works of more skilled, more interesting, and more imaginative writers Swanson had to surpass all of them in my estimation in order to succeed. He failed. His ideas are pedestrian or derivative of movies and TV shows. The overarching plot and the slow reveal of Malcolm’s true personality is a retread of every damn "unreliable narrator" book (a subgenre I am beginning to grow weary of) published in the past ten years. He even alludes to Gone Girl as a "clue" that Malcolm is just as unreliable as the narrator in that book. And makes it seem like Gillian Flynn invented the concept.

Nothing was surprising at all. The movie-of-the-week style motivations of the protagonist and the horrible secrets of the victims “who deserved to die” (another reprehensible conceit cropping up in modern crime fiction these days) were neither creepy nor spine-chilling. It was all just banal.

Finally, the biggest insult of all. In Malcolm Kershaw the writer has created a bookseller who doesn't read the books he sells, who pretends to have read them when having conversations with his customers and employees. He confesses that he just can't read crime fiction anymore even though this is his chosen profession. Swanson gives an entirely lame reason for Malcolm’s decision to stop reading crime fiction, one that is entirely in conflict with his the bookseller's personality, but tied to his deep, dark secrets in the past. Most readers will figure it all out.

Ultimately, all the twists are mechanical and cliched. Drawing from past writers' plots makes this book nothing more than rehash. As a result the story lacks suspense and the genuinely unexpected events that should be the hallmark of all crime fiction. That most of the rave reviews dismiss the blatant spoilers, Swanson's ballsy borrowing, and focus on what they think is original shows that very few people care about classic crime novels anymore. It's all up for grabs now. It's just a matter of who has the nerve to get there first.

Friday, April 3, 2020

FFB: Murder with Minarets - Charles Forsyte

THE STORY:  Someone is killing the diplomatic staff in the housing complex for the British Embassy in Ankara. Two people have been found dead in their bathrooms, one seemingly of a heart attack and the other electrocuted. In both cases the bathrooms were locked and no one entered the apartment. Were they accidents as the police insist they were? Knowing full well the Turkish police will never pursue these suspicious deaths of foreigners Jan Duquesne, wife of First Secretary & Head of Chancery Stephen Duquesne, and her sister Gina turn amateur sleuths to find proof that both people were murdered. They uncover an ugly blackmail scheme, chicanery involving classified documents and endanger themselves in the process.

THE CHARACTERS: I got the feeling that the female half of the writing duo known as "Charles Forsyte" was in charge of this book. The story has both claustrophobic and heavily domestic atmosphere. We get a lot of catty gossip amongst the wives of the various under-secretaries, commissioners and typists working for H.E. (His Excellency, aka the Ambassador). First we meet Barbara "Ba" Hadley, brassy and opinionated wife with two rascally sons who spends much of the first chapter delivering the novel's exposition in a mix of off color humor and playful devotion to her husband Tom, Her Majesty's Consul in Ankara. They are preparing to go to a dinner party (one of several in the book) and can't get off the topic of Magda, another diplomat's wife who recently had a run-in with Tom about the size of her apartment and made outrageous demands to get a bigger place -- or else.

Magda, a foul tempered vicious women, is another one of those characters who has murder victim written all over her. She is a symbol of superficial sophistication, whose love of expensive clothes and her own self-importance colors her every thought and deed. When slighted she strikes back maliciously spreading rumors about infidelity, suggesting to artist Doune that her husband makes too many frequent visits to the Hadleys' apartment when Tom is never home. Is it any wonder that Magda is the first person to be found dead in her bathtub?

Kocatepe Mosque, Ankara
The focus always seems to be on the women in this story though it is the men who are doing the work at the embassy. Dinner parties and social functions make up most of the action allowing for several scenes with large groups and unusual dynamics in the character relationships. So much of the book's first half is devoted to this interplay that I wondered where the mystery would enter the story. That happens after Magda's death and with the entrance of a visiting archaeologist, Christopher Milner-Browne, the brother of Peter yet another Under-secretary at the embassy.  Both brothers have a bitter sense of humor, almost reveling in their withering glances and caustic humor.  Jan, initially turned off by Christopher's patronizing manner, will learn it is the archeologist's aloof and ever cautious demeanor that leads him to seeing the truth within this claustrophobic microcosm of small-minded diplomats. It always seems to be the outsider who can see through the pretenses.

Other noteworthy people in the cast of Murder with Minarets (1968) include Paul Tranter, Magda's husband who has been acting too secretively of late; Francis Allardcye, Doune's vain and oversexed husband who claims to be a professional violinist but is only a big fish in a small pond relegated to teaching music classes at the Turkish Conservatoire; Laura O'Halloran who has "ear-witness" evidence on the night of second death that implicates a man and a woman; Gina who begrudgingly steps in as Jan's Archie Goodwin doing much of the dangerous legwork; and a couple of Turkish servants whose domestic activities the reader would do well to pay close attention.

INNOVATIONS:  I'm a on a roll with digging up unusual detective novels with complicated or bizarre murder methods. The ingenious method of dispatching the victims in their bathtubs is reminiscent of the kind of thing Christianna Brand would dream up. It lacks the technical expertise of John Rhode, the murder means maven of the Golden Age. Instead, Forsyte's method signals the work of an evil domestic handyman. Both Gina and Christopher manage to uncover clues that lead to the revelation of how the deaths were accomplished. Once again, this key moment happens during a cocktail party. Who knew that diplomats spent so much time throwing parties for each other?

Some of the best clue planting is done in casual conversation reminding me again of Brand and also Dorothy Bowers and Helen McCloy. It happens so often that every time I came across something seemingly throwaway and innocuous -- an ashtray being unnecessarily cleared away from a table to make way for the tea things -- I immediately wrote it down. Four of those statements proved to be genuine clues to discovering who the guilty party is. Gold stars for clue planting to Forsyte for this book! For a long time this didn't seem like a detective novel at all. In the end, however, Murder with Minarets proves to be a brilliantly constructed plot with quite a bit of misdirection.


THINGS I LEARNED:  Loads of colorful Turkish locations, some insight into Turkish culture, satiric commentary on the indifferent 1960s era Turkish police all added to the enjoyment of this novel's exotic setting. A picnic that takes place in a seaside park with a view of a "Crusader's castle" (as Jan calls it) was described so evocatively it made me long to see it in person.  So I looked up images online and lingered over the photos of Crusader castles on Turkey's coastline. There's one above for you to enjoy.

THE AUTHOR: "Charles Forsyte" is the pen name used by husband and wife writing team Gordon Philo and Vicki Galsworthy. Philo was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. I am assuming that much of the flavor of the domestic life of a diplomat in Murder with Minarets is drawn on his own experiences as diplomat in Turkey between 1954 and 1958. I will not venture to guess if any of the characters was actually based on any of his colleagues or friends. His wife Vicki is a distant relation of writer John Galsworthy whose many novels that make up "The Forsyte Saga" gave the couple their pseudonym.

EASY TO FIND? There are a handful of copies of Murder with Minarets offered for sale by online booksellers. The book, the last of the four mysteries by Philo & Galsworthy, was published only in the UK and had no paperback reprint that I know of. Copies of the "Cassel Crime" 1968 first edition show up as well as a 1990 reprint in large print from Ulverscroft. More copies of the large print edition can most likely be found in local libraries in the UK and US.