Friday, July 24, 2020

The Singing Clock - Virginia Perdue

THE STORY:  In the middle of the night Jacklin Bogart discovers the dead body of her cousin Antoinette and proceeds to cover up the crime. She is certain she knows who is guilty. We watch her remove the weapon from the scene and bury it far away, then she washes blood off her clothes. Lt. Brady arrives on the scene and is too clever to be fooled by Jacklin's charade. He knows she is shielding someone and perhaps trying to incriminate one of her relatives she so hates. Soon we learn that Jacklin is highly suspicious of nearly all her relatives and suspects someone guilty of not only killing her mother but trying to do in her beloved grandfather. When another murder occurs in the home it is clear to Brady that Jacklin's meddling is endangering the lives of the entire Crandall household.

THE CHARACTERS: Jacklin is one of the earliest renditions of the now tired cliche of "the unreliable narrator".  We never really know whether to believe her outrageous claims that someone not only arranged the accidental death of her father, but manged to drive her mother to commit suicide. Or perhaps killed her and made it look like suicide. Despite her beliefs her parents' deaths are not viewed as crimes by anyone,  but only by Jacklin herself. Her hatred of her relatives infects her every interaction. Her desire to avenge her parents' death affects her close relationship with her grandfather who she also believes is being targeted by the same homicidal manic who killed her parents. Everard Crandall, is an irascible old man who seems to be as misanthropic as his granddaughter. But someone still manages to poison him, a botched attempt to kill him that does not go unnoticed by the police or the relentless killer who will try again later in the story.

David, Antoinett'es former fiance, who had an argument with the murder victim the very night she was killed.  It seems that David whose reputation is tainted by his volatile temper had a prime motive and all eyes turn to him as suspect number one.  Was Jacklin protecting him with her monkey business at the scene of the crime?  Further complicating the case is that fact that Jacklin has an obsessive love for her cousin, Ward, who was training to become a doctor in Germany but was forced to return to the US in 1939 when the war broke out. She dreams of marrying him, and longs to be a Crandall so she get get rid of the odious name Bogart and all the hateful things it reminds her of.

The Crandall household is typical of these GAD fictional homes populated with troubled wealthy people all waiting for an ailing relative to die. The eccentric standout is Aunt Mel, Antoinette's mother. She is a religious zealot obsessed with New Age style movements like the one that celebrates The Great Life Force she is currently proselytizing about. In one of the book's highlights she lets loose with a tirade of invective at Everard accusing him of bringing about her daughter's death and cursing him to die.

Everard's housekeeper Mrs. Wollaston, was at one time his lover and they intended to marry, but the family prevented their union in holy matrimony. Mrs. Wollaston, nevertheless moved into the house to stay by the man she loved and care for him.  But is it possible her love is all a sham and she is actually in love with Everard's money?

ATMOSPHERE: The title of the book comes from a musical antique grandfather clock that has a prominent place in the home. Throughout the novel Jacklin hears the clock chiming an hour and a portion of the lyrics of "My Grandfather's Clock" run through her head. The song itself lodges in her mind like an earworm, and each time the clock chimes a new hour she hears another line of lyrics singing to her. Often the phrases ironically comment on the action that just occurred or will foreshadow future incidents in the narrative. Perdue uses this motif to add an eerie menace as the murder investigation unfolds. The rhyme includes the line "But it stopped short, never to run again, when the old man died" and Jacklin is fearful that if the clock stops it's tune or stops its incessant ticking Everard Crandall will in fact drop dead. She is determined to save him and is on constant watch as people continually enter and exit his bedroom where he spends much of his time.

INNOVATIONS: I thought this was going to be a suspenseful inverted crime novel and that Jacklin was guilty from the start on page one when we follow her destroying evidence and covering up the murder. But The Singing Clock (1941) is in fact a legitimate whodunnit, an ingenious blend of psychological suspense and detection. Filled with shifts in tone, surprise revelations, astonishing secrets and some transgressive touches like marijuana addiction and borderline incestuous love, The Singing Clock is one of the most remarkable crime novels to be published by Doubleday's Crime Club and a minor masterpiece from Virginia Perdue, a sorely underappreciated American crime fiction writer. The last chapter of this book is bonechilling and genuinely thrilling with Perdue's final unexpected shocking revelation. All that preceded suddenly shifts, characters are seen in a new blindingly altered light, and the story all makes perfect sense. The last few paragraphs are literally bloodcurdling with a scene reminiscent of the violent movies of Quentin Tarantino and the nightmarish tales of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch. For me the final chapter of The Singing Clock is utterly ingenious and makes this book a breathtaking pioneering novel of misdirection in crime fiction. I was both impressed and astonished, a rare reaction these days.

THINGS I LEARNED:  I remember "My Grandfather's Clock" as a nursery rhyme from my childhood. My younger brother and I had it on a kid's record and we used to listen to it over and over as we did with the many odd songs in our large record collection. But apparently it's actually a folk tune that dates to the post Civil War era. Written and composed by Henry C. Work the song was published in 1876. Work is also the composer of a march that memorialized Sherman's invasion of Savanaah called "Marching Through Georgia."

According to a Wikipedia article Henry C. Work wrote a sequel to the song in which the narrator "laments the fate of the no-longer-functioning grandfather clock – it was sold to a junk dealer, who sold its parts for scrap and its case for kindling."

A lyric line from the song inspired "Ninety Years without Slumbering" in the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. Similar to what Jacklin believes in Perdue's novel in the TV show Ed Wynn stars as a man who fears his life will end when his antique clock stops ticking.

For those unfamiliar with the song "My Grandfather's Clock" you can hear Johnny Cash do his own rendition. It's the only one I can listen to now amid the sea of annoying kid's versions.

QUOTES:  "Don't think you can get out of it so easily! You've gone too far, Everard Crandall.  Your wickedness and cruelty have offended against the Great Life Stream!" Jacklin felt a mad desire to laugh. At the same time there was a prickling along her spine. It was only a part of Aunt Mel's latest religious fad. Nevertheless, it was rather horrible.

"Nobody can call his soul his own. Not so long as [Everard's] alive."

There was an air of vigorous health about [Aunt Sarah], a country air, as if she were made of good rich soil instead of ordinary blood and nerves.

And I can't resist adding this one in our days of mask phobia and pandemic viruses:

...the other man gave a harsh laugh which ended in a fit of coughing. He really had a bad cold, Jacklin thought with distaste. Why didn't they stay at home when they were sick. It wasn't fair to go around snuffling and coughing and infecting other people.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Slay the Murderer - Hugh Holman

THE STORY: Owner of a wholesale produce company is found stabbed in a locked room in his house. Also found in the room is an unconscious man named Charles Cole. It is believed Cole who recently had a violent argument with the dead man stabbed him while drunk then passed out. Seems entirely cut and dried. But Cole claims innocence and amnesia; he has no idea how he ended up drunk in the room. Why is the room locked with all windows shut tight? And what is that odor of bitter almonds about the corpse?  The autopsy reveals the corpse was poisoned and stabbed after he was dead. Sheriff Macready investigates hauling Cole to every interview (rather than keeping him locked up in jail) and eventually discovers the startling reason for William Deahl's murder and the real killer.

THE CHARACTERS:  Slay the Murderer (1946) is the second appearance of Macready in a short series of only four novels. Being a Southerner he has a colorful way of speaking, peppering his speech with unusual exclamations, a trait seemingly inspired by the detectives of Holman's close friend John Dickson Carr. He's matter-of-fact, but open minded and willing to listen to Charles Cole's story of his innocence. He's trusting enough (and thoroughly unconventional) to lug Cole around the city with him as his suspect in custody. As a result Cole, desperate to clear his name and discover how he came to be drunk and passed out in a locked room with a corpse, becomes a sort of Watson. The suspects are often taken aback at being questioned by Cole but with Macready's insistence all those being interrogated answer both the sheriff and his suspect #1. In addition to his quirky Southern expressions (see QUOTES) Macready offers up frequent bits of sage advice to Cole and others.  Like this eccentric view of arguments: "You know in every argument there's three sides, not just two--the side you're on and the side the other feller's on and the right side. Shucks, folks around here have got enough sense to know you can't decide right off the bat what's right and wrong. The law's like that too."  This tidbit is adressed to his rival for the office of Sheriff -- Lucius Watters. It's election time and Watters is hoping that by not arresting and charging Cole Macready's incumbent status will be tarnished. Watters is eager to expose Cole as the real murderer.

The Deahl household is filled with unusual characters that help liven up the otherwise routine proceedings. Frances Deahl is the blind matriarch who suffers from a delusion that her two sons are impostors. She claims they committed suicide after the death of her husband and were replaced with fakes. Macready is sure she speaks in a metaphoric language and uses this delusion to protect her from having a complete nervous breakdown. She was truly in love with her husband, but once he died under suspicious circumstances (a heart attack after being on a fishing trip with his sons) she lost her sight and a bit of her mind. Still, she rules the household with her iron will and tart tongue.

Her sister, Alicia, suffers miserably. Nursing her old wounds of being dumped by her lover who chose Frances as his wife rather than her Alicia retreats into a mousy personality. She is presented as the archetypical Victorian biddy still living in the past, surrounding herself with mementos of a bygone era and clinging to fond memories of years long passed. She acts as more of a servant to her sister than a real member of the house. Holman tersely describes her as fragile and dainty, a woman who "speaks as if anesthetized."

The two Deahl sons, Willis and Ralph, had an interest in taking over Deahl Wholesale Produce and seemed willing to do anything to control the company. The investigation will reveal a sinister d side to the two brothers and involve a surprise second murder related to their scheming.

Also living with the Deahls is Rupert Pater, a lodger Frances allows to move in in order to get some extra income. Pater seems to be a red herring character, he is a wannabe poet who lives in a room furnished with a "wispy and delicate" motif. We get to read one of his awful poems , an example of the worse purple prose. Holman seems to be hinting that Pater is less than a man, an ineffectual dreamer with his mind trapped in an anachronistic imagination and perhaps implying that he's gay. We are meant to dismiss him entirely because of his less than masculine attitudes and aspirations. But Rupert is in the story for a reason. Hidden motives will certainly be unearthed. Macready is not too quick to strike off Rupert Pater from the list of suspects especially when he discovers a photographic laboratory in his private bathroom and a missing bottle of cyanide from the collection of chemicals.

M.S. Mill & Company, a subsidiary of William Morrow,
 created "Circle Mysteries." The Sheriff Macready books
 were part of this short-lived mystery novel imprint.
INNOVATIONS:  Holman, primarily a literature professor known for his scholarly work on American South writers, uses language and grammar to effect throughout the novel. Twice Charles notices an "improvement in grammar" -- more often a shift in the use of literate vocabulary -- as an indication of Macready's "internal excitement." Macready also talks about the use of grammar when he is interrogating suspects as a tool in understanding character and possible deceit. Another unusual detective skill, very much tied to the Golden Age, is graphology which comes into play at one key moment in the story. The analysis of handwriting as an understanding of personality was a common feature in plots of vintage crime fiction. You don't often encounter it these days as it has been replaced by the techno-wizardy.

This is a strongly plotted mystery with multiple unusual motives among a motley group of suspects. Digging into everyone's past reveals dozens of secrets and skeletons come tumbling out of myriad closets. It is difficult to pinpoint those which are crucial to the solution of the crimes. In that regard the book is a success. The identity of the killer for me was a true surprise and the motivation is sound for the character if not truly mindboggling in conception.

Sadly, the locked room aspect pales in comparison to the rest of the plot. Despite Holman's professed love of "constructors of complex and elaborate plots and impossible crimes" no Carr-like ingenuity lies behind the reasoning or the method of how the murder room became locked. The locked room is used to ill effect in trying to add an extra twist in the finale. Holman didn't really fool me with that twist. However, the real identity of the killer did. For that reason I'd say this was a well constructed mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

Hugh Holman (circa 1946)
QUOTES:  "By the sacred horns of the hoot owl I can get myself into some of the confoundedest messes."

(and again...)  "No, by the sacred horns of Aunt Lydie's hoot owl, no, it ain't enough!"

"Son, I'd rather try to sell quick-freeze units to South Pole penguins than try to sell that yarn to a self-respecting jury."

Dan Comfort, the coroner: "The odor was enough. Odor of bitter almonds mean anything to you, Mac?"
Macready: "Confound it, Dan, first thing I know you'll have me consulting 'the little gray cells.' So it was cyanide, huh?"

They listened...with the indifference of a sleepy opossum, and set off on the search of the house with the enthusiasm of a hound dog tracking its second polecat.

Jed's laughter had all the humor of a Gestapo trial.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Macready talks about someone who went "to the worst dive in these parts and [lost] four dollars and eighty cents playing Kelly pool" late in the book. Had to look that one up. Kelly pool is an old-fashioned term to describe a game of pool similar to Eight Ball. Each player chooses at random one specific numbered ball, keeps this secret from the other players, and must pocket that ball during the game. According to a Wikipedia article the key difference between this game and Eight Ball: "Kelly pool is a rotation game, which means that players must contact the lowest numbered object ball on each shot first until the opportunity to pocket their own is presented." Here's some more tidbits taken from that entry: "Reportedly invented by Chicagoan Calistus "Kelly" Mulvaney in 1893, kelly pool was a popular game during the early to mid-20th century. Mentions of it were at one time common in US newspapers, often painting it in a negative light as its play was considered a stronghold of gambling. Authorities in various parts of the United States at times called for a moratorium on the game's play. Until 1964, in fact, playing the game was a fineable offense in the state of Montana."

I'll be doing a Moonlighting feature on Hugh Holman when I finish reading the other mystery novels featuring Sheriff Macready. For now I'll forgo the author section. Holman is rather popular on the vintage crime blogs these days thanks to TomCat, who is slowly usurping me as the expert on obscure mystery writers, who reviewed Up This Crooked Way also with Macready. This was shortly followed by a review of Holman's debut (without Macready) Death Like Thunder at The Green Capsule blog.