Wednesday, December 23, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Will Oursler, Son of a Mystery Writer

The first novel Will Oursler wrote was also his first detective novel. The Trial of Vincent Doon (1941) is presented as if it were an actual murder case and consists entirely of a facsimile of the court transcript accompanied by drawings, house plans, photographs and a full set of People’s Exhibits. No doubt this was inspired by the latest fad -- solve-them-yourself murder puzzles like those in the Baffle Books published by Doubleday Crime Club and the crime dossiers created by Dennis Wheatley and J. G. Links with titles like Murder Off Miami and Who Killed Robert Prentice? These dossiers included not just photographs of the evidence as in Oursler’s novel, but the actual evidence: pieces of threads, real fingerprint sheets, and in one case a cellophane envelope containing real hair. The Trial of Vincent Doon is unique as a first novel in its structure and gimmickry, but as a novel it is not very original nor even thrilling.

Philip Strong, is the criminal defense lawyer for Doon and is clearly modeled on Perry Mason. His partner James Matthew acts as the narrator/compiler and periodically makes commentary on Strong and the case in footnotes a la the Van Dine detective novels. The story involves a lover’s triangle that leads to a stabbing murder of strait-laced Edwin Hallet. The accused is a jealous painter, Vincent Doon, who was working on a portrait of Betty Van Eyck. Hallet was to marry Betty but Doon claims she never loved her fiancée, that she was really in love with him.

Though Oursler may think he was being clever and original l this book is heavily reminiscent of Gardner’s Perry Mason series, especially the later books which contain lengthy courtroom scenes designed mostly to live up to the formulaic TV series. Like the Perry Mason TV series and most of the books the most interesting parts of Oursler’s story are not the complicated plot, unusual motivations and surprise confessions on the stand, but the quirky trivia-laden testimony of expert witnesses. In The Trial of Vincent Doon the most fascinating part of the book, the most interesting to read, is the testimony of a telephone repairman!

He answers a series of seemingly irrelevant questions which are objected to by the prosecution but are allowed by the judge. Strong insists that the phone repair and the ringing of a phone at a certain time on the night of the murder is crucial to understanding the apparent alibis of people other than Doon. And so the reader is treated to some intriguing and true telephone repair tricks like a special code that repairmen can dial into any phone that will make the phone ring after hanging up. This is definitely true. As a teen back in the 1970s I was given that special code (which changed over the years and was different depending on where you lived in the US) by some savvy friend of mine whose father was in telecommunications. I would play tricks on my brothers and my mother all the time by dialing the three digit code, hanging up and leaving the house.

Apart from the telephone repairman’s testimony and frequent displays of Strong’s devious methods in getting witnesses to reveal their true character on the stand the book consists entirely of a run-of-the mill courtroom drama. Oursler even manages to manipulate circumstances so that the killer confesses on the stand. Perhaps one of the few innovations prior to it becoming cliché. And thanks for that can go entirely to the Perry Mason TV series.

Much better is Oursler’s sequel Folio on Florence White (1942) once again with Matthews, this time as full-fledged first person narrator, and Strong as defense attorney cum detective. The gimmick of the casebook forgoes the courtroom transcript and People’s exhibits but as the title tells us it is indeed a folio. Interspersed between narrative chapters we get letters, memos, phone messages, transcripts of depositions all designed with different fonts and illustrated elements to give the illusion that they are actual documents.

The cast of characters is relatively familiar in this story of wealthy businessmen, adultery, corporate malfeasance and the theft of company assets. Florence has been wrongly convicted of theft of securities two years ago and has recently been released from prison. Her rival who testified against her, Evelyn Emory, is killed by cyanide poisoning. Flo is arrested. Later, another witness from the old security theft crime is also killed. His wife thinks it is a heart attack. But autopsy proves poisoning by cyanide. Is someone getting even for Flo’s wrongful imprisonment?

In one of the novel’s most memorable sequences Strong does some actual sleuthing at a potter’s field, based on an actual cemetery with a gruesome history (see THINGS I LEARNED section). A visit to Harlem gives us a scene relatively free of prejudice in which Strong and Matthews feel out of their element when they realize they are treated as outsiders and intruders. While there is an open hostility expressed Oursler does not go the 1940s PC route by making the white people seem like they know everything. Nor are the Blacks turned into ludicrous cartoons for comic effect. Strong and Matthews learn a lot about themselves in this scene and the Black characters are depicted with sympathy and wisdom.

Complicating the story of Flo’s supposed guilt in the murder of Evelyn is the disappearance of Harvey Mason, owner of Mason Aircraft where she and Evelyn worked. A tramp dies with no form of identity found on his body and the after the legal limit of waiting for a relative to claim the body it is sent to a potter’s field. Strong orders an exhumation of the corpse thinking they can prove that the trap is actually Harvey Mason who was put into tramp’s clothing. When the coffin is opened, the body is gone. Shades of John Dickson Carr!

The Potter's Field on Hart Island, 1898
(courtesy of Bowery Boys website)
THINGS I LEARNED: The history of the island is described in detail which led me to check up on the story. Turns out Oursler merely changed the name to Planker’s Island and described it as having once been owned by a rich Dutchman named E. Van Dyrk Planker who after his death bequeathed the island to New York City for use as dumping ground for 'refuse and trashe.'  He based the setting on a cemetery located on Hart Island, written up lately in various online articles as “a place of strangeness and sorrow” and “New York City’s potter’s field.” The New York City Corrections Department maintained and supervised burials for in its earliest life the island was home to a Confederate soldiers’ prison. For decades after the Civil War prisoners were tasked with burying bodies of unclaimed corpses that had been consigned to New York City’s morgue. To this day prisoners still tend to the grounds and bury the dead on Hart Island, but the prisoners come from Riker’s Island as the prison on Hart Island is long since abandoned and fallen into ruins. Hart Island has also been used to bury HIV victims during the AIDS crisis and victims of Hurricane Sandy. Most recently hundreds of people killed by COVID-19 have been buried here. Oddly, these days Hart’s Island is under the direction of the New York Department of Parks and Recreation but the public has never been able to visit. This may be changing soon in light of the consequences of the pandemic.

THE AUTHOR: Will Oursler (1914-1985) whose work was previously featured and discussed here back in 2015 was the son of mystery writer, journalist and Catholic spokesperson Charles Fulton Oursler, better known to vintage mystery fans as “Anthony Abbot.”  Oursler, the son, also made his living in journalism as a war correspondent, appeared on talk radio as a panelist and wrote several books, like his father, on religion or with theological themes. I call him a moonlighter because out of a total of 45 books (fiction and non-fiction) only eight of his novels qualify as detective fiction. Remarkably, I recently discovered he served as Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. So I guess he was very much involved in the crime fiction world and not really a dabbling moonlighter at all. In addition to the two books featuring Strong and Matthews as protagonists Oursler wrote two other novels modeled on these folios without the lawyer duo, two Gale Gallagher books in collaboration with Margaret Scott using the main character, a female skip tracer/private eye, as their pseudonym and as "Nick Marino" an additional two crime novels.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Advent Ghosts 2020: A Pair of Ghostly Vignettes

Once again we find ourselves in the week before Christmas and Loren Eaton of I Saw Lighting Fall has invited various writers to contribute their frissons of ghostly yuletide frights and visitations from beyond.  The catch?  Each micro story is a drabble consisting of precisely 100 words. No more, no less. And each must be a ghost story or an eerie tale or a twisted Roald Dahl story with a nasty surprise.  However they take shape, whether it be a traditional ghost story with an uncanny spirit or a tale of gruesome horror, they have all manifested themselves today, December 19. Here are my two contributions.  Not as nasty I usually whip up, but given these days when many loved ones have slipped away from omnipresent illness and disappeared into the ether I thought perhaps these were more suitable and slightly more hopeful.


   "If Only in My Dreams"

This was her favorite. Every year they saved it for last and placed it at the apex of the tree. Not a traditional star, but a glass blown dog -- long ears, comical Santa hat and sad-happy eyes. This year she’d go it alone.  Uncle Sebastian was another casualty of the ubiquitous virus.

Sudden movement distracted her from her reminiscence. The ornament left her fingers and was guided to the treetop.  In disbelief she stepped up, reached out for the floating dog, felt a warm touch.  Her hand and one unseen were placing the ornament as they did every year.

"Mark Ye Well the Song We Sing"

So what if he couldn’t see the Christmas lights anymore.  More like light pollution than Christmas spirit.  Vision going, going, soon to be gone… But his hearing was sharp and keen as ever.  Music saved him.  The carolers were approaching.  He opened the door to get the full effect.  Hazy shapes, no faces discernible.  But the sound, oh the sound.  Harmony, melody, true song.  He felt like inviting them in.  Were they even clothed?  They could do with a Irish coffee with plenty of whiskey.  Sound faded, hazy visions melted like ice and not even a footprint was left behind.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Behind the Bolted Door? - Arthur E. McFarlane

 Browsing through the pages of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders I came across an obscure book from the early 20th century by an utterly forgotten writer with the impossible situation described as a "death... in a locked room with a swimming pool."  I immediately went looking for Behind the Bolted Door? by Arthur E. McFarlane and found a handful of copies. One was being sold by someone on eBay who happened to live in Illinois so I know I would get the book quickly. Was it worth the $30 I shelled out?  Well, certainly not for its shoddy condition. (I'll spare you my rant and email exchanges with the seller) But as an example of early 20th century detective fiction it was worth obtaining (perhaps at not such an inflated price) and reading for it serves as a template for other writers who improved on the many conventions and motifs employed in the book. At times it was a puzzling story, frequently it was entertaining, but in the end it proved to be an infuriating read.

Unfortunately, Adey uses a word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? (1916) that somewhat ruins the entire book because the apparent cause of the murder -- a blow to the head -- is not the actual method at all. The method and cause of the murder are not revealed until the final five paragraphs of the last chapter! I don't think he should have employed that word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? Luckily, I had completely forgotten that word while reading McFarlane's book. It was the swimming pool in the apartment building that utterly fascinated me -- especially for a book written in 1916.  The murder is committed in a puzzling fashion, but then the story is overloaded with too much silliness that distracts and frustrates the reader. It was easy to overlook the obvious. This novel is unnecessarily convoluted, slipshod in its storytelling, and crammed full of melodramatic incidents, cliffhanger chapter endings and an attempt to add some supernatural elements that were frankly laughable and not in the least bit eerie as presented.  I could see this as one of the many books John Dickson Carr might have read as a teenager and had in the back of his mind when he became the master of apparently supernatural events leading to an impossible crime.  

Mrs. Fisher, the philanthropic wife of a science professor, is found with her head bashed in the locked hall that contains a swimming pool in her luxury duplex apartment in midtown Manhattan. A strange circular indentation is found in the head wound and her body has been moved from its original position. All rooms leading to the swimming pool hall have been locked on the inside, the only entrance to the corridor is from a staircase and no one was seen leaving that way.  (see the plan below)  By all accounts it seems to have been an impossible crime. If it was an accident then who moved the body and why? And if it was murder how did the killer escape undetected?


Judge Bishop listens
to the werid voice

The crime is investigated by a trio of detectives none of whom are policemen. Dr. Laneham, a neuropath "who possessed a name fast becoming international," is assisted by two young people who are considered suspects -- Walter "Owly" Willings, who runs a settlement house and is involved in charitable work on the Lower East Side, and Daphne Hope, secretary to Judge Fulton Bishop, the newly elected District Attorney. The kindly Chief of Police McGloyne allows Laneham and the two young people a few days to gather evidence and thereby clear their names and deputizes them giving them some authority to question suspects. Willings claims to have a better understanding of the mindset of poor people and Laneham as a psychologist is intrigued by alternate forms of police investigation when dealing with unruly suspects, and in one case a different cultures. One of the suspects is the immigrant Italian maid who fled the Fisher household the day that Mrs. Fisher was killed.  Compounding her possible guilt is the fact that she was recently released from prison and was given her job as part of a mission to reform prisoners and give them a second chance at "going straight."

In addition to these social justice aspects that make the novel somewhat revelatory for its era McFarlane brings up an odd psychological technique that becomes the main theme of the novel. He has Dr. Laneham mention Emile Zancray, a supposedly pioneering French psychologist, and his ideas about the behavior of criminal suspects. It is referred to as "Zancray's postulate" which states "that practically never does any friend of the victim tell everything. Either for his own good, or for the good name of the gentleman murdered, the helpful friend will always hold out something." Over the course of the novel this will hold true. Willings, Daphne, Jimmy the butler and others will all withhold vital information, sometimes seemingly trivial bits, but all of which impedes the investigation and leads to further consequences.  In fact, in one case withheld information leads to the death of a policemen.

Obviously McFarlane is trying to make a point. But that he needed to justify his thesis by couching it in  psychology theory is troubling. For a thorough search of early 20th century psychology texts turn ups no one named Emile Zancray.  I entered multiple phonetic French spellings as search terms in my many internet searches in case McFarlane had never seen the name in print (Sancré, Cincré, Zancré, etc.) and came up with no one at all resembling this Zancray and his postulate. LeRoy Lad Panek in The Origins of the American Detective Story (2006) has a section in which he discusses the novelist's desire to make crime fiction seem authentic by name dropping both real and imaginary experts of criminological breakthroughs. Bertillon, the famed French criminologist, turns up in dozens of early 20th century detective novels and short stories, and Panek cites many of them, so too do myriad psychologists and other men of science. Most of them are real, some of them never existed. Zancray is mentioned in Panek's study as is McFarlane's book but Panek does not tell us if he found that either Zancray or his postulate were factual.

I mention all this because McFarlane gives away that he is a naive and lazy writer. At two points in the book when Dr. Laneham is supposedly trying to sound an expert or prove that he is a talented "neuropath" McFarlane reveals his ignorance. Reading this book was mind-boggling in the amount of misinformation, lazy writing and just plain wrong “facts”. I was reminded of a book which on the first page purported that a character had been hunting tigers in South Africa. An utter impossibility because tigers are indigenous only to India and a few other Asian countries. Here are the two most egregious examples of McFarlane's lack of expertise:

1. The German for “world” is die Welt, and not der Mund.

McFarlane must be confusing Romance languages which are all similar in spelling and phonetics — mondo (Italian), mundo (Spanish) and monde (French) — with his understanding of the various translations of word “world.” German, however, is not a Romance language. Mund means mouth! Always has and always will. He had his detective make the very false statement that “mund is German for world” not once in the book, but twice. The second time to a native German speaker! I was prepared for an outburst from Professor Fisher (whose name should be spelled Fischer if he’s a real German). But no, the professor given to many an outburst throughout the story says nothing and never bothers to correct Dr. Laneham.

2. Hypnosis is achieved almost exclusively using verbal cues. Rarely is any touching involved. And most importantly the subject must be willing to undergo hypnosis.

Dr. Laneham manages to hypnotize the fiery tempered and foul mouthed Italian maid Maddalina by massaging her temples and “smoothing the skin” on her arms and face. She never consents to being hypnotized either. After wildly resisting arrest and clawing at the faces and arms of her captors she is subdued. Laneham somehow manages to stand behind her and without her consent he hypnotizes her by touch. Then with an assembly of props in front of her -- and without any verbal instruction whatsoever! -- she replicates a series of activities using those props thus incriminating herself in the theft of Mrs. Fisher’s money. According to McFarlane hypnosis is some sort of magic act that can be achieved through a combination of simple massage and telepathy. In order to get Maddalina out of her tactilely created trance he merely has to slap a pair of handcuffs on her wrists. She not only snapped out of the trance instantaneously she once again became a “female hellion” slapping at anyone near her and swearing up a storm in two languages.

So is Zancray a real person? I sincerely doubt it.

 Behind The Bolted Door? seems more inspired by silent movie adventure serials and the nascent pulp fiction of the era than it is any genuine psychology theories and practices. The characters are stock and lacking in any real dimension. Only in the action sequences does McFarlane reveal character. Daphne -- or D. Hope as she is referred to throughout the entire book -- is the typical New Woman: willful, independent, and possessing an athleticism that would rival any superhero. She manages to save "Owly" Willings (so called for the round Harold Lloyd style glasses he wears) from drowning in the frigid and icy East River when Willings jumps in to rescue Jimmy the butler from a rash suicide attempt.  But when she's not in Wonder Woman mode D. Hope is just a starry-eyed female waiting for acknowledgment of love from her reticent do-gooder.  Maddalina, the Italian maid, is an insulting stereotype of the "hellcat", lacking in all self-control, easily riled and quick to claw at eyes and pull hair when she loses her temper which is almost on every page. Two elevator operators are West Indian immigrants and speak in the usual phonetic dialect reserved for Black characters in this era, constantly referring to all the White men as "boss", ever fearful when being questioned. Ghosts, eerie voices and supposedly spectral knocking feature in the plot. When the interrogation turns to these apparent supernatural events the two men are reduced to quivering spooked cartoons.

The farfetched rescue sequence in the East River is only topped by the bizarre near murder of Dr. Laneham late in the novel.  In trying to figure out how the elevator might have been stalled while traveling to the Fisher home Laneham manages to open the door grate and expose the elevator shaft. A mysterious hand appears from nowhere and gives him a shove. Because the story is inspired by cliffhanger silent movies Laneham expertly grabs hold of the grating and saves himself from a fatal fall. No mention is made of the possible dislocated shoulder or torn and bloody fingers he must have suffered in saving himself. He merely gets a bandage placed on his shoulder.

Oh! Did I mention the knife throwing gangsters that nearly do in one of the policemen guarding the scene of the crime? There. I just did.

Behind the Bolted Door? is a cornucopia of crime fiction conventions and motifs. The novel even has a superfluous seance to round out the "eerieness" just in case the talk of ghosts, spectral knocking and weird voices crying out "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!" weren't enough. Strange objects are manifested in the seance that allude to the murder method the revelation of which causes the murderer to flee the room and plunge to his death in a convenient suicide.

The denouement takes place over three chapters. Three characters must explain the various mysteries that complicated the plot. In addition to the murder, you see, there was the donation of $500 to the settlement project that went missing, a message in strangely ornate copperplate handwriting that appeared to imply Mrs Fisher was being coerced into committing a crime, a burned magazine with a back cover that had only the letters "mund" legible, and a manuscript of a play that enters the story in the penultimate chapter that comes out of nowhere. That the novel was first serialized in a magazine (Maclean's, May through November 1916) easily explains the melodramatic, incident filled story, but cannot excuse the sloppiness in which it is told nor the misinformation that was never corrected by an astute and careful editor.

You can read Behind the Bolted Door? for yourself at Maclean's website of archived issues where all but the last installment have been uploaded.  Inexplicably, the November 1916 issue is missing though Maclean's claim that their archive is complete. You'll get to see all the original illustrations by Henry Raleigh there too.  The original Dodd Mead edition, should you be lucky to find a copy, has only four of the over one dozen pictures Raleigh created for the serial version of McFarlane's novel. I've included several of them in this post. Alternately you can read a PDF of the entire book at Hathi Digital Trust courtesy of The Ohio State University. However you choose to read it, be prepared to be infuriated.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

NEW STUFF: Untamed Shore - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Agora/Polis Books
ISBN: 978-1-947996-92-1
284 pp $25.99
Publication date: February 2020

I can never resist marketing hype. Why? I should know better. I really should. But when I learned that one more person was attempting to liven up the classic noir thriller and that writer was primarily known for her revisionist fairy tales and fantasies and mash-ups of science fiction and the traditional romance novel how could I possibly pass it up? Silvia Moreno-Garcia with three bizarre homage novels of fantasy, supernatural and fairy tale motifs to her credit and a handful of anthologies as editor/compiler has published her first crime novel, Untamed Shore (2020). It’s modeled on the old-fashioned James M. Cain style story of a sucker being led down the road of temptation by a greedy devious woman. But in Moreno-Garcia’s revisitation of this very familiar plot she has reversed the roles. The tempter is a gorgeous and very desirable man and the sucker is a young woman.

Viridiana is hired as a translator/typist to a non-Spanish speaking would-be writer. The writer is rich. He’s married. And his wife’s brother is in tow with them as they rent the ultra-modern mansion called The End located at the very tip of Baja peninsula. It’s the brother, Gregory, who latches onto Viridiana. She may be all starry-eyed but the reader knows she is hardly headed for a happily ever after ending. This kind of role reversal while not wholly original provides an imaginative writer with definite possibilities to shake up a tired formula. I’ve read several Cain style crime novels with reversed roles of temptress/patsy. I’ve even read one where the duplicitous schemers are gay men trying to kill a third man for his money. Did Silvia Moreno-Garcia pull it off? Much to my surprise she did.

I was not buying much of the book for its first half. Moreno-Garcia is clearly still very much sticking to the romance novel formula in this her sixth full length novel. To be honest I have not read any of her other books but going purely by the plot summaries I can see that she is in love with love. All of her books feature young women in the lead roles and all of them are entranced by dangerous men. This is the rudimentary ingredient for all romances and especially the Gothic romance novel (two of her most recent novels are heavily influenced by that subgenre). She’s revisiting very well worn territory here. And the romance angle even though it may be ornamented with paragraphs of startling shark imagery and some intriguing lore about shark fishing is overly familiar and hardly eye opening.

Her protagonist saves the book. Viridiana invigorates what might have been just another romance redux book. It's not just her unusual name (her father named her after the lead character in a Luis Buñuel movie he loved) that makes her unique. With her odd job as reluctant tourist guide and interpreter for the 1970s gringos who find her native Baja peninsula Mexican town an exotic attraction Viridiana is the kind of character you want to spend a lot of time with. She has a horrid home life, she’s dumped her dull fiancé and in the process of being willful and independent has alienated both her mother and would-be mother-in-law, not to mention the would-be groom. Viridiana wants desperately to escape her dead end town. Unappreciated, insulted and maligned by nearly everyone in her town, lectured by her mother who constantly reminds her she does not know a good provider is enough to save her its no wonder that Viridiana retreats into solitary fantasy. We know she deserves a better life. And we want that for her – at any cost.

Enter the trio of rich and flashy Americans who bring to life all of her Hollywood fantasies. You see, like her father Viridiana is a movieholic. She can’t help but draw comparisons to Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun as she finds herself drawn into a risky romance with Gregory. All of her references relating to love and sexual attraction are from old movies. She embarrasses herself with her indulgent imagination and finds herself dictating her dreams into a cassette tape recorder her absent father gave her as a substitute for a diary. She knows it’s wrong to dream girlish fantasies, but can’t help herself. And Gregory exploits her Hollywood fantasies with promises of taking her away and setting up a new life in Paris. She wonders aloud in her tape recorded musings if it all is just too good to be true.

You better believe it is.

Soon her employer is found unconscious at the foot of the stairs. They call the police and a doctor. But by the time they arrive at The End, miles away from the town center, he is dead. Convenient accident or murder? Viridiana begins to suspect the worst and sees Gregory and Daisy, his sister, in a wholly new light as the police begin to question them. She even turns snoop and amateur sleuth and uncovers additional mysteries that need explaining. The movie she dreamed of begins to seem more and more like A Place in the Sun. She had forgotten about the death of Shelley Winters in that movie -- an accidental drowning that leads to Montgomery Clift’s being charged with murder. Her movie fantasies become even more terrifying the more she tries to find out exactly who Gregory and Daisy are and why they came to Baja.

At this point the book kicks into high gear shifting in tone and piling on more action, Moreno-Garcia abandons the dreamy introspective narrative that dominated the first half and takes up the motifs and situations of genuine noir and pulp fiction. Con men, gangsters, crooked cops, bribes galore, a convoluted will, a suspicious nephew, ultra bloody violence. We get it all. Viridiana is forced to grow up almost instantly. She recognizes she’s been used and turns the tables on her exploiters.

I’m glad I took the time to stick with this one. It paid off in ways that I didn’t think the writer was capable of. If Moreno-Garcia has not read the typical crime novels to familiarize herself with this genre she at least has watched a lot of movies to get a handle on the right conventions and plot elements. I thought I knew exactly where this was headed but she managed to throw in a few unexpected curve balls and surprised me at least twice. She sure was not afraid of some gory violence and torture either. I usually don’t applaud this in any writer, but after the ostensible false start of the book it was exactly what the novel needed. Without it Viridiana probably never would have changed and realized at least something resembling a Hollywood ending. And, of course, getting the long overdue life that she richly deserved.