Friday, May 15, 2020

FFB: Murder Goes to the Dogs - Timothy Brace

THE STORY: Inexplicably, prize-winning greyhound Sweetheart turns and runs in the wrong direction just as she is about to win the final race at the Everglades Kennel Club racetrack. Moments later Vincent Wells, Associate Judge, is stabbed in the presence of the large crowd. No murder weapon is found and no one seems to have been near the victim prior to his death. Anthony Adams assists the sheriff in figuring out who killed the judge, what happened to the knife, and why the dog ran the wrong way.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder Goes to the Dogs (1938) is the third outing for gentleman criminologist and sometime private investigator Anthony Adams and his faithful manservant Thurber. In this short series Adams and Thurber are often called upon by Sheriff Ernest Chase to help solve baffling crimes that sometimes, as in this case, include impossible crime and locked room elements. In this case Chase and Adams need to figure out how the victim was stabbed in full view of a crowd without anyone seeing anything and find out how the weapon was disposed of since everyone was searched and nothing was found.

Adams belongs to the intuitive school of detectives and will most likely remind readers of Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. He has a vast knowledge of arcane subject matter and likes to speak in a highfalutin manner that is completely out of place in this largely colloquial styled entertainment. His loyal manservant Thurber is one of those wannabe Watsons who begs to be included in the sleuthing. Thurber's previous assists (alluded to throughout this novel) resulted in a second victim and he is reluctant to mention his ideas and theories to Adams lest his suspect also turn up dead. Seems that Thurber has more of a role as legman in this book than in the first two of the series and I thought he did a nifty job in digging up some dirt on some of the suspects. Adams likes to toy with Thurber and has a unlikable way of belittling his employee who risks his life at least twice. There wasn't much to like about Adams in this book. I wonder if he's as patronizing in the other books.

The suspects are a motley group with most of them involved in the world of dog racing. Several dog owners, breeders and trainers make up the rather large cast of suspects. One of the dog breeders is a woman and it's hinted through supercilious description and gossipy dialogue that she is most likely a lesbian. All of the other dog racing characters are men and every one is belligerent, loud mouthed, brash and a heavy drinker. There aren't many nice people in this crowd. The two youngsters -- Peter Lane and his fiancee Frances Warr -- are the only two who resemble real people even if they, too, have shallow personalities.

The most interesting duo consists of Leo Sunday, an actor who is "resting" in Florida (translation: currently unemployed) and his partner Patsy Grant, an aspiring showgirl and actress who works at the local drive-in as a "curbgirl". They are working on an unusual act together and hope to hit the vaudeville circuit soon. Leo despite his charm and easy going nature has a slightly sinister side. He seems to be hiding something. And his extreme good looks disturb Sheriff Chase who distrusts "pretty boys." Thurber is sure that Sunday's act has something to do with the missing murder weapon. Sunday, of course (you've probably guessed), is a knife thrower.

INNOVATIONS: You may not believe this but this is the 17th murder mystery wherein I have encountered knife throwing in the plot. And it was entirely unexpected for a book that deals primarily with greyhound racing, dog breeders and the world of gambling in 1930s Florida. Knife throwing was first discussed on this blog in one of the most popular posts of 2012. In that book there were four knife throwing characters. Still haven't topped that one. In this book there are merely two, but at times it seems there could be more characters with this hidden talent of tossing around cutlery. There are two different scenes in which Leo Sunday shows off his skill and the climax of the book uses knife throwing to entrap the culprit.

THINGS I LEARNED: Dogtrack racing, a form of gambling that is almost completely gone from American culture, was hugely popular in Florida for close to a century. The oldest was in St. Petersburg which began operations in 1925. The only other greyhound dogtrack racing mystery I know of features Mike Shayne, one of the Golden Age's early Floridian private eyes who was based in Miami. In Tickets for Death (1941) he uncovers a counterfeiting ring at the dogtrack with phoney tickets being cashed in for prize money. Murder soon follows. I think there may be a few other mystery novels featuring dog racing but I was unable to confirm the titles after extensive a-Googling.

Adams lectures on the origin of the greyhound telling Thurber the dog shows up in ancient Assyrian artwork, medieval European tapestries, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Bible. He goes on to discuss a treatise on the dog breed written by Xenophon as well as a similar essay by Herodotus. Even Shakespeare, Adams says, "often uses [the dog] as an example of keenness and alertness." I detect an overwhelming whiff of Philo Vance, don't you? There are footnotes all over the novel about dog racing lingo, too.

As of this date dog racing is illegal in 41 states and only four states legally allow greyhound racing: West Virginia, Texas, Iowa and Arkansas. On January 1, 2021 Florida —currently with three operating racetracks —has a new law going into effect banning greyhound dog racing and all tracks will be forced to shut down. The one racetrack in West Memphis, AR will shut down in December 2022. I imagine none of them -- or any gambling establishment, for that matter -- are doing well in this age of COVID-19.

QUOTES: I enjoyed the plot and the unusual relationship between Adams and Thurber. But Adams has a grating pretentious style of speaking no doubt influenced by watching too many Philo Vance movies. Here's a collection of Adams droning on in ersatz sophisticate mode alternating with with clever wise guy mode that not once sounds authentic:

"...surely you have the first crawlings of suspicion. Certainly within your breast there stirs some little worm that bores so irritatingly that it creates a bothersome repression."

"Encroach as much as you want. And bring your encroaching to the car later."

"I feel the need for an excursion. It may clear the functioning of the thing I believed to be my brain."

THE AUTHOR:  "Timothy Brace" is the pseudonym used by Floridian novelist Theodore Pratt (1901-1969), a popular writer of every type of fiction imaginable. He is best remembered for his lighthearted novel The Barefoot Mailman (1943) and the comic fantasy Mr Limpet (1942) turned into a movie in 1964 starring Don Knotts as the title character who transforms into a fish. Those like me who haunt the listings of eBay may recognize his name from the numerous lurid potboilers and paperback originals that crop up for sale. He wrote a slew of them with titles like Handsome (1951), Escape to Eden (1953), Smash-Up (1954), and The Tormented (1950) about a nymphomaniac which unsurprisingly was a huge bestseller.

I uncovered several photographs of Pratt and his wife posing in front of the trailer he built and customized himself. For several years this was their home as they traveled all over Florida while Pratt researched the state's past for what would result in a trilogy of novels about Florida's native people. That unusual habitation surely fueled his imagination for one of the Anthony Adams mystery novels he called Murder Goes in a Trailer. I managed to find copies of all four of his mystery novels and I'll finish up with one more post on Pratt and Anthony Adams in a "Neglected Detectives" post later this year.

Oh, one bit of odd trivia. Apparently Pratt chose "Timothy Brace" for his alter ego to amuse his friends and wife. It turns out to be the name of his pet cat.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Magicians and Mediums and Murder! Oh My!

Magic fans, impossible crime aficionados, and those interested in the parallels between mystery writers' use of misdirection and a magician's sleight of hand talents might be interested in the latest podcast from JJ's on going series "In GAD We Trust." Of course in that punny title the letters GAD stand for Golden Age of Detection.

Not too many recognizable detectives turn up in this discussion because frankly most of the magician detectives from the Golden Age are found in the pages of long forgotten pulp magazines from the the early 20th century. Too few of those thousands of stories have been reprinted in collections for 21st century readers. But we do cover The Great Merlini created by magician mystery writer Clayton Rawson as well as another of Rawson's magician detectives who appeared only in pulp short stories. The impossible crime mystery masterpiece The Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, also a magician turned mystery writer, is discussed with admiration too.

We travel all over the magic in mystery spectrum with a somewhat chronological exploration starting with some pulp stories from the very early days of that business and my discovery that Charles Fulton Oursler (aka Anthony Abbot) had been writing weird mysteries, many with magician detectives, between 1919 and 1929.  Ken Crossen and Bruce Elliott turn up, we segue into talk of seances, mediums and the fraudulent spiritualists of the early 20th century a topic that popped up in many novels of the era. The rarely mentioned, quite forgotten, American mystery writer Henry Kitchell Webster makes a long overdue appearance when I discuss his excellent crime novel The Ghost Girl and the talk of seances and mediums in books gives way to TV shows and movies that feature either magicians or seances.

It's quite a hodgepodge of a discussion. We have a lot of fun, there's much more laughter than in the other talks. (It's the American with no real filter talking, after all.)  And you will finally hear what I sound like, why I'm so odd, and why I have been drawn to macabre genre fiction since I was a child.

Why not have a listen! Click on this link Episode 4: Magic, Mummery, and Misdirection.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

FFB: No Coffin for the Corpse - Clayton Rawson

THE STORY: Dudley Wolff accidentally kills a mysterious man who was attempting to blackmail him. His wife suggest they cover up the crime and bury the body in an abandoned cemetery not far from their Wolff estate. With the help of Dr. Haggard and Albert Dunning, a mousy aide, Wolff gets rid of the body. But soon he is being haunted by visions of the same man in black. Kay Wolff, Dudley's daughter, gets involved and calls on Merlini to prove if the ghost is real or a fake. Ghostly visions and poltergeist activity lead to murder, a locked room mystery, and several other mysterious events all wrapped up in a grand secret about the true identity of the sinister blackmailing man in black and the reason he visited Wolff in the first place.

THE CHARACTERS: No Coffin for a Corpse (1942) is the fourth and final Merlini detective novel. Despite its reputation among diehard locked room fans for being the worst of the four books I found it to be exciting, engaging and intriguing in its abundance of action filled scenes, puzzling events, including a couple of Rawson's signature impossible crimes and miracle problems. Harte, our narrator reporter/playwright, is at the heart of the story with several adventure sequences involving him alone. The illustration on the Dell Mapback version depicts a deathtrap that Harte must escape from underwater during the novel's climax.

A subplot involves Ross trying and failing to get Wollf's consent to marry Kay, Wolff's daughter. Wolff owns the newspaper where Ross works and he threatens Ross with termination he if doesn't leave Lay alone.  There is also the threat of Kay being disinherited.  All of these elements pile up and make Ross and Kay to have motives for murder.

The most interesting characters are found in the supporting cast. Handyman on the Wolff estate, Scotty Douglas, strangely disappears after the burial of the dead blackmailer then just as oddly re-appears. He proves some interesting eyewitness accounts of what actually happened the day of the eerie moonlit graveyard shenanigans. Phillips, is the Wolff butler, who is obsessed with detective novels and has the spooky habit of turning up at the most inopportune moments always when Merlini least expects him. Francis Galt, a psychic whose paranormal research is being funded by wealthy Dudley Wolff, seems to have a hand in the ghostly manifestation. Like Phillips Galt has all too coincidental timing, conveniently popping up just after the manifestations and visions occur.

In a nifty surprise scene that I feel compelled to reveal Don Diavolo, Rawson's other magician detective character, makes a cameo appearance! He is seen rehearsing a stage illusion for a show that Merlini is producing and trying to get last minute funding for. The trick he performs foreshadows the climactic underwater escape that Ross Harte pulls off much later in the book.

INNOVATIONS: Most intriguing about No Coffin for the Corpse is that it starts off as an inverted mystery.  A death occurs, apparently an accident, and we know there is a conspiracy to cover up the crime. When the ghost appears most readers will jump to the conclusion that the blackmailer is really alive, but Rawson does a fine job at making you believe that the death was real and that someone else is trying to make it appear that the corpse came to life. The actual murder problem, the novel's genuine whodunit element, does not occur until well past the first half of the book.  I had no idea who the murder victim would be; a handful of candidates were possible. When the murder does occur I found I had pegged the wrong person as victim.

The reveal of the true identity of the blackmailer is one of the most original parts of the story.  Rawson pulls off a triple twist and a false reveal all at once. I didn't find this a fault. In fact it made me laugh out loud. It was just another example of fooling the reader, but one that may anger others or have them rolling their eyes. Really, most of what will infuriate some rigid traditionalists while reading this complex, trick-laden, and twisty plot are exactly the kinds of inverting of conventions that I enjoy and long for.

The solution to the locked room impossibility is probably a plot trick that will trigger most readers to cry "Foul!" I thought it was the only natural and realistic solution to the problem as the author presented it. While not ingenious or clever it certainly was simple. Rather obvious even! But Rawson has the characters become distracted by what happened to Ross in the same room prior to the discovery of the victim and the other body (he was knocked unconscious, quickly bound, and tossed out the window into the waters of Long Island Sound far below) was handled very well.  I found myself more focussed on why Ross was attacked and thrown into the ocean rather than trying to figure out why there were two people found in the locked room. Even veteran readers can get caught up in the nimble hands of a master manipulator like Clayton Rawson.

I found myself drawing parallels to similar plot devices and motifs in much better known novels. My notes have things like "It's the Deathtrap gambit!" and "I'm getting a Death on the Nile vibe here but who's the other involved?"  Lots of my guesswork and figuring out proved faulty. So Rawson won me over again. When I read mystery novels like this sometimes I more pleased to be wrong, to have been rightly and fairly fooled than to be satisfied by being ever-so-clever in having the correct solution and pointing my finger at the real culprit.

1st US edition (Putnam, 1942)  DJ illustration shows the first ghost
manifestation as witnessed by Merlini and Harte inside the Wolff mansion

THINGS I LEARNED:  Ross Harte tries to trick someone into talking to him and pretends to be calling from Orson Welles office then stops short of impersonating a woman saying, "But I was no Julian Eltinge."  Eltinge was a well known actor who began in theater and then made several silent movies. In the early 20th century he gained fame playing female roles, often starring in plays especially created for him in which he played a male character who must dress as a woman within the construct of the story. At one time he was one of the highest paid male actors in the world.  Eltinge was one of the first megastars who marketed himself tirelessly -- he owned his own magazine, very popular with its mostly women subscribers, promoted a line of cosmetics, designed women's clothes, even had a cigar branded with his name. His ultimate achievement was having a theater built in his honor. The Eltinge 42nd St. Theater lasted from 1914 until 1942 when it was shut down for morality violations and turned into a movie theater. Although Eltinge never performed in the theater named for him it is notable for being the home of The Ninth Guest (Aug - Oct 1930), the Broadway play version of Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning's detective thriller The Invisible Host.  For more info on this fascinating individual visit, this Newsweek article or the Julian Eltinge tribute page.
Wolff has a photoelectric cell security system installed in the windows of his home. I thought this was a type of invention that came decades after the WW2 era. Clearly I was very wrong. Merlini shows off his knowledge of how photoelectric cells work by preventing the loud alarms going off with a simple trick that requires nothing more than a flashlight.

ATMOSPHERE: Misdirection, theatrical techniques, acting and impersonation all play a role in the story.  In fact, this is one of the few Merlini detective novels that could with some minor adaptation (and elimination of extraneous outdoor action sequences) easily be transferred to the stage. So much of the mystery and illusions require isolated settings, proper lighting and a claustrophobic atmosphere that can be heightened by the confines of a stage and an eager and willing audience.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

FFB: The Upfold Farm Mystery - A Fielding

THE STORY: A group of artists staying at Upfold Farm are forced to abandon their creative pursuits and deal with the harsh realities of the life when one of them is found horrible murdered. Playwright Eugene Matlass assists the local detective with the investigation mostly because the policeman is an admirer of Matlass's detective hero Michael Hare who appears in a series of radio plays. Adding intrigue is a strange brass box with a "St. Mark's lion" that seems to be at the heart of a series of mysteries surrounding the death of painter Herbert Walsh. Inspector Pointer makes a last minute appearance and tidies up a complicated and fascinating murder case.

THE CHARACTERS: As usual with A. Fielding the opening chapters of The Upfold Farm Mystery (1931) are crammed full of exposition, character introductions and relationships, and all sorts of minutiae, some of it extraneous but some extremely important to the solution. The story is all the more interesting because all of the suspects are creative types. There are three painters, a pianist and a playwright as well as two friends staying at the local rectory who make up the motley group. Hillock, is the farmer landlord for four of the men and his daughters Lily and Verbena round out this large cast. Remarkably, every single person figures into the complex plot and there are more than a couple of miscreants among them in addition to a clever killer who manages to complicate the case with machinations and exploitation.

I usually talk about the story along with the characters but this is one that practically defies any type of summary. Just as with my experience with Tragedy at Beechcroft I kept reading at a rapid pace eager to know what else would happen, who else would mess about with evidence, and how much the killer would get away with. In lieu of the usual character sketches and highlighting key scenes I'll give you one of those Dell Mapback summaries and tell you this mystery is about: a brass box with a winged lion atop, a missing clothesline, several well done landscape paintings, a cord with two stones attached at either end, a dying message, a blind eyewitness, and a llama ranch in Peru. The detection here is top notch and the surprises in the final wrapping up are the kind that make me smile with admiration and have me shaking my head at the outrageous manipulation in the storytelling.

INNOVATIONS: Fielding is one of the unsung masters of misdirection in the early part of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. His plots can, as in the case of this excellent novel, be labyrinthine in their intricate construction and teeming with clever red herrings and clues that lead you down the garden path. Among the clues and red herrings in The Upfold Farm Mystery there is one feature in this story that is absolutely mindblowing. Reminiscent of a convention that Christie used repeatedly and expertly I wish I wouldn't fall for this one nearly every time I encounter it. Largely my gullibility is due to giving myself over to an expert teller of tales who, like a good magician, knows where to draw your attention when in fact you should be looking at something else altogether.

Verbena Hillock, the younger daughter, is blind and Fielding inventively uses her as a highly unusual witness. Like many blind characters (especially blind detectives) Verbena is equipped with nearly superhuman senses to make up for her loss of sight. Her hearing is so acute she can tell who is approaching by the sound of footsteps. Changes in the usual rhythm of someone's gait give her hints about their state of mind. If the steps are more rapid, the person is in a rush and preoccupied, for example. She also has refined sense of smell that tells her who is near -- smoke trapped in a woolen coat, perfume and even the dampness of rain on clothing all play a part in the story. This is clueing that most reader's will overlook as colorful detail, just part of her personality. Not so in a Fielding detective novel. One of my favorite parts reminded me of The Moonstone when Verbena pulls off a Rachel Verinder style bit of evidence tinkering that took me by surprise and made me smile a bit too knowingly.

Early in the book the characters bring up of rural superstitions that I thought were going to play a big part in the story, but this talk only serves as atmosphere setting up a tone of ominous menace and hinting at Nature working its uncontrollable way on the lives of the characters. Someone burns elderwood and sends Hillock into a nervous fit as he knows it's unlucky and brings bad luck. A brown owl hoots several times in the daytime also causing uneasiness and worry as an omen of future ill events.

THINGS I LEARNED:  The winged lion on the brass box is referred to as a St Mark's Lion. The lion's raised paw (see DJ illustration above) is supposed to be holding a small book symbolic of Mark's gospel. In the novel the small book has broken off and is lost. The lion seems to be raising its paw as if it were a dog commended to "Shake!" I went looking for images of a St Mark's lion and found a zillion of them! St Mark is, of course, the patron saint of Venice. Why did I not remember that? He and his famous lion can be seen everywhere throughout that Italian city. Several of the most often photographed winged lions, like the one pictured here, are found in and around the Doge's Palace in Venice.