Saturday, July 17, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: One Cried Murder - Jean Leslie

It's too bad that the striking cover illustration at left for this debut mystery novel by Jean Leslie, and the introduction to her decades long association with Doubleday Doran's Crime Club, is no indication of the story within. One Cried Murder (1945) has nothing to do with a horde of bats invading a town nor does it feature anything vaguely resembling  Gothic motifs. The story could have done with a few macabre and outre touches. But as it stands it is still one of the best academic mysteries I've read by any American writer of this era, including the many academics who hid behind pseudonyms and wrote mystery novels set on university campuses. In One Cried Murder Professor Peter Ponsonby makes his first appearance in what would be a three book series and turns amateur sleuth when faced with the apparent suicide of a psychology professor at a small university somewhere in California. This is one of the few academic mysteries of the WW 2 era where I got any inkling that the writer actually was a teacher (Leslie was a psychology fellow and taught for a while early in her career). The detail of university politics, the hierarchy of the deans and the faculty and how they influence and affect the various departments and division heads rang 100% true. I say this having worked in academic medicine for the past 24 years.

The only reason Ponsonby, an English professor, gets involved with the psychology department is because he wanted to talk with his friend Marshall d'Arcy, a child psychologist who was noticeably absent from his office on the day of Ponsonby's visit. In trying to locate d'Arcy Ponsonby enters the office of Prof. Wagner, a psychology professor of German heritage, and finds the man dead from a bullet wound to his head.

The gun it seems was astoundingly used as a prop in a variety of psychology experiments. Yes, a real gun, not a toy gun, not even a replica of a gun. A real gun. I guess that's another sign of the extreme changing times. I was flabbergasted that teaching professionals would allow a real gun to be used as a prop and handled by students in an experiment when a replica, or even a photograph of one would serve the purpose. The experiment is not crucial to the plot but is explained in detail and there is no reason why a real gun is necessary at all. [It's just a novel, I know. I'll calm down.] In any case, this gun used a prop, is never loaded during the experiments. But -- of course -- there is a box of bullets stored with the gun and anyone had access to both gun and bullets. It is kept stored in an unlocked supply closet which was covered by only a curtain. When Ponsonby finds the box two bullets are missing. He had no time to examine the gun and assumes that the second bullet is still loaded in the gun.

Suspects are many and the motives start to pour in when Ponsonby discovers that Wagner was an unethical psychologist who used confidential medical files to blackmail former patients. There is also some discussion as to the cabal of foreigners -- mostly German and Italian heritage -- who live within close proximity of one another and keep their offices just as close. Ponsonby toys with the idea of a conspiracy of Axis spies on the campus but this is soon dismissed as absurd by Mara Mallory, a secretary in the psychology department. She accuses the English professor of allowing his imagination to get the better of him. You see, Ponsonby is also a writer of murder mysteries. His most recent novel, rather popular and selling well, has a silly alliterative title. And Mara, the sassy secretary, pops off the percussive title with this derisive exclamation: "The Poison Pen Puzzle by Professor Peter Ponsonby, Purveyor of Pulp. What a comedown!"

Peter and Mara have a Benedict and Beatrice relationship that blossoms into a sleuthing partnership (albeit begrudgingly on Mara's part) as well as a cocktails and dancing partnership. He convinces Mara to allow him access to her boss' files and in return he'll take her out for a night on the town. This romantic subplot is handled with some wry humor, a sophisticated game of literary quote dropping, and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo the likes of which I've never encountered in any Crime Club novels. Jean Leslie seems to have taken a lesson from her hardboiled contemporaries when it comes to expressing the male libido and does so with relish. At times it gets to be a little much like when Ponsonby listens to one of the oversexed psychology faculty members talk about his hobby of watching the co-eds wearing skimpy gym costumes at archery practice outside his office windows. "Do you like legs?" he asks while "grinning offensively" to which Ponsonby replies, "I like legs, but I prefer them a pair at a time."

Leslie's plot meanders at times and she can't seem to make up her mind if she wants the book to be about the burgeoning romance between Peter and Mara or if she wants Peter to stick to his initial decision to match wits with his own creation, French criminal psychologist George Bouchet.  When Peter is left to his Q&A sessions with the various teachers, students, faculty wives and others Leslie displays some fine work at creating characters. The scenes with Drs. Ring, James, George and the graduate student Kurstein are highlights in the novel.  A mystery woman Ponsonby encounters in the waiting room near d'Arcy's clinic and dubs the "star sapphire woman" for the brooch she was wearing also provides him with some intriguing information about the staff.  As Ponsonby delves further into his snooping and questioning the list of blackmail victims grows, motives multiply and he inadvertently stumbles onto an undercover FBI operation which seems to validate his conspiracy of German spies among the faculty.

I enjoyed this book even if it took me three times as long to read it as it should have. The rambling nature of the story is crammed with red herrings and minutiae that prove in the long run to be pointless. Still, Leslie was clearly having fun with her story and her characters.  When Peter's mom appears it was like having a cameo by the British actress Frances De la Tour show up for some grandiosely arch comic relief. Agatha, his mother, is a radio personality with a cooking and housekeeping tips program. She also happens to have stopped by for a spontaneous chat with the wife of a faculty member. That chat comes in very handy in clearing up some alibi issues. It's characters like Agatha, Dr Ring, R.H.J. James and others among the supporting cast that will be keep me coming back for more in Jean Leslie's mystery novels.

I'll leave you with this one quote I thought was telling about how college life and college teaching in America has not changed one iota.  Dr Ring ,the self-confessed "hack professor" and the most senior member of the faculty int he psychology department has this to say about his survival and long lasting tenure:  "If I do no good I also do no harm. It is not my wish to call myself to the attention of the administration. I might also add that by the same token I never flunk a football player."

Prof. Peter Ponsonby Detective Novels
One Cried Murder (1945)
Two Faced Murder (1946)
Three Cornered Murder (1947)

Friday, July 9, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: E. L. Withers - The Man Who Used His Wife’s Name

Pseudonyms are a funny thing. In mysterydom we often find women hiding behind androgynous or obvious male names. Anthony Gilbert, Leslie Ford, Craig Rice and John Stephen Strange are all women using such names. The opposite tactic – men employing women’s names – is less common but still prevalent if you read enough genre fiction. Prolific author John Creasey, the Emperor of Crime Fiction Pen Names, used Margaret Cook and Elise Fecamps when he wrote romance novels. Michael Avallone, as much a pracitcal joker as a mystery writer, used a feminized version of his private eye character Ed Noone when he invented Edwina Noone, his alter ego when he wrote a brief series of outlandish Gothic and horror novels. The Golden Age mystery writer John Haslette Vahey (aka Vernon Loder, et al.) we now know was the real man behind the “Henrietta Clandon” mystery novels. That’s just a sampling. But using your wife’s name as your pseudonym? That’s an odd choice even if it's meant as a sign of affection and admiration. Bill Potter did just that when he used the pen name E. L. Withers, the actual initials and maiden name of his wife Emily Louise Withers.

George William Potter, Jr.  (1930 – 2010) was born and raised in Missouri and lived most of his life in Kansas City in that state. Of all the writers I’ve so far highlighted in my "Moonlighters" feature Potter earns the title of genuine Renaissance man. He studied music at Kansas City University where he met his wife Emily and the two married in 1956. An accomplished piano composer Potter was also an artist. He exhibited pen and ink drawings in the US and the Netherlands and was a notable supporter of the arts in his home state having served on the board of directors for The Kansas City Ballet, Elizabeth Post Memorial Art Reference Library and was a trustee of his alma mater UMKC Conservatory of Music from 1988 – 2000.

His love of fine art encompassed a wide range from Renaissance paintings to Faberge to antique English oak furniture. Over his lifetime he amassed a fine collection of antique furniture, paintings and scuplture. According to his New York Times obituary “the breadth and scope of [Potter’s] understanding of fine arts was unparalleled." The obituary goes on to describe how he and his wife traveled the world collecting art and furniture pieces to add to his Missouri home. This massive collection was auctioned off after his death inside his Kansas City showplace home that Potter himself transformed into a replica of a Tudor Style castle.

Potter wrote six crime novels each as different as the other in his brief novelist career as "E. L.Withers." I own three of these books (and read two book so far) and was struck by how unusual each one is. From the suspense novel about a 11 year-old girl trying to outwit her murderous stepfather to a crime novel about murder at a uranium mine to the decimation plot in his best known whodunnit Diminishing Returns Potter was as unique an experimenter in post WW2 era crime fiction as were his predecessors in the Golden Age. Like Jefferson Farjeon Potter employed narrative tricks and unusual shifts in point of view. He loved arcane subject matter like many of the Golden Age detective fiction authors and reveled in creating wickedly amoral characters like the hardboiled writers of 1940s American crime fiction. None of Potter’s crime novels is similar in any way.

The House on the Beach (1957) tells a fairly simple story of a young girl at the mercy of her amoral and avaricious stepfather. I thought I was going to get a variation of Let’s Kill Uncle combined with the terror and dread of Potter's popular contemporaries Ursula Curtiss and Doris Miles Disney who in 1957 were at the height of their powers. The fear and dread are there but the cat-and-mouse aspect I was expecting is fairly absent. What we get instead is a sort of Perils of Pauline with a pre-teen cast in the role of imperiled heroine.

The novel takes place over a mere three days and during that short time Katherine is caught in three near deathtraps and must extricate herself from those almost entirely on her own. She spends the last third of the book trying to convince the one adult she trusts to believe what sounds like a preposterous story: “Paul is trying to kill me!” But like the boy who cried "Wolf!" she comes across like a child with a wild imagination. Does Mr Wetherby believe her?  And will he call the police? It doesn't seem as if he does. Then Katherine is forced to run away and hide for a third time.

The cast of characters is limited to Katherine, her aloof but frighteningly unhinged stepfather Paul, her Aunt Millicent (apparently her mother’s sister), an elderly and not too bright housekeeper and two neighbors who live in the small, isolated beach community somewhere on the west Coast. Interestingly Potter tells the entire novel from the viewpoint of Katherine. The narrative voice is a mature one, often far too mature for Katherine’s life experience. Her thoughts are expressed in inappropriately sophisticated vocabulary that was jarring. On rare occasions Potter succeeds in coming up with some understanding of an 11 year old’s thinking and expresses it perfectly as in the sequence when Katherine is stuck on the roof and expects her Aunt Millicent to know exactly how to get her down. But instead Katherine must explain to her aunt where to find a ladder, how to place it and to hurry up about the whole thing. Her exasperation would be funny if it weren’t for the rainstorm that clearly makes her rescue a real emergency. However, too often the third person narrative voice is like an omniscient being watching Katherine and acting as a doom-filled voice judging the girl’s every movement and thought. She’s certainly plucky and brave given all she has to endure before the literally breathtaking final pages.

Potter followed up this pure suspense thriller with The Salazar Grant (1959). Hendrick Van Doorn, a Dutch mining engineer, travels to the "arid wastes and abandoned mining towns of the Southwest and into a delirium of brutal and vicious murder" according to the dustjacket blurb on the first American edition.  Van Doorn is investigating a lead on undetected uranium deposits but instead finds a corpse on the "long-unworked mines of the Salazar Estate."  I've not read the copy I purchased, but it seems to be a legitimate detective novel employing Potter's extensive knowledge of his primary career as president of Ortiz Mines, Inc.  Despite being published in both the US and the UK that there were no paperback reprints of The Salazar Grant (unlike his first and third novels) seems to suggest that the book did not sell well. Hopefully, this will prove to be a fascinating read and an enlightening one as well because I know about as much about uranium mining as the average mystery reader.  I'll be writing it up in a separate post later in the summer.

His third novel Diminishing Returns (1960) apparently was his most popular book. According to contemporary reviews used to help sell the book it seemed to better received than The House on the Beach.  The abundance of copies available for sale in the used book market underscores the book's popularity as it must have been bought and read by many people, at least in its paperback reprint edition.

Potter starts with an enticing premise – someone is killing off a group of friends and managing to make all the deaths seem like accidents. The catch is the deaths only occur when all members of the group are together in one place. The initial death occurred at a post-dinner cocktail party where all members were poisoned from the same tainted bottle of liquor. And the gimmick (which I really shouldn’t reveal but will) is that what should have been a simple murder plan failed at that cocktail party and the culprit must improvise in order to kill the intended target for the remainder of the novel. But a series of genuine accidents that result in death are also mixed into the murder plot and the story devolves into a messy and disappointing finale.

A neat surprise is that Mr. Wetherby, the kindly lawyer from The House on the Beach, shows up as the detective of sorts in Diminishing Returns. He manages to see through the elaborate scheme using a combination of keen observation and – towards the latter portion of the novel – a very odd reenactment of the events leading up to one of the fatal accidents on a penthouse terrace. He’s a likeable character, a bit more shifty than he appeared in his debut, but he’s no great shakes as a detective when it’s all over and done with.

Potter tries for a sort of variation on And Then There Were None and borrows heavily from the Mignon Eberhart school of suspense and terror. He slips in some ballsy rule breaking plotting, but I found the whole thing utterly preposterous. The murder plot has to be improvised as the story continues and it becomes increasingly over-the-top and stretches the limits of anyone’s suspension of disbelief. When the finale comes and the motive is explained there is too much conjecture and guesswork on Wetherby’s part. Some highly questionable tactics that were employed in committing the final murders come off as ludicrously improbable. One involves the apparent murder of complete strangers just to come up with corpses! No explanation of who they were or where they came from is given and that omission taints the story just like the poisoned cocktails that started the whole mad scheme. I can’t really recommend a book that leaves such a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, July 2, 2021

SWAN SONG: The Intimate Journal of Warren Winslow - Jean Leslie

Today I introduce a new category for the blog -- the "Swan Song" post.  This will be devoted to a writer's final book in the crime fiction genre if not their final book altogether. Often I read a last book of a writer that's new to me without realizing that it was in fact their final book in their entire output.  Rarely do I do this consciously. I prefer to start at least in their mid-career if not at the very beginning when sampling a new writer. And so I thought I'd give a category to last books since it seems to be a n odd and coincidental reading habit of mine that is happening more and more frequently.  

The Intimate Journal of Warren Winslow (1952) is also one of the many books I've purchased this year that were tagged by Doubleday's Crime Club with the ! logo as a mystery that promises "Something Special.” I've previously written about this tagging/categorization of the Crime Club books from the late 1940s through the early 1960s in other posts. Most recently I specifically wrote about the "Something Special" category which has been a lure for me over the decades in choosing books published by the Crime Club imprint,  in my post on The Magic Grandfather by Doris Miles Disney.  

Warren Winslow is a bestselling novelist suffering from a heavy case of self-doubt as he impatiently waits to hear from his publisher on when his latest novel is to be released.  Both his agent and the publisher seem to be dragging their feet in making a decision. To pass the time and occupy his obsession Winslow creates a diary capturing his thoughts and emotions on everything that is haunting him including his failing relationship with his wife, his dwindling creative powers, his past life as the wunderkind of the bestseller list and the insidious seed of jealousy that grows monstrously out of control. By the time the first diary is filled with his invective towards John Bailey, a rising writer who respects Warren and pays too much attention to Warren's wife Robin, Warren Winslow reveals himself to be a man overcome with a dangerous mixture of jealousy and self-doubt. He starts a second diary with the news of the fate of Thence to a Lonely Dwelling, a novel that he thinks will be his crowning achievement.  The manuscript, however, has been rejected.

The diaries soon grow to four full volumes and jealousy gives way to murderous rage.  We not only read of Warren's dwelling on his past glory as a novelist, but learn of his tortured childhood, his strange relationship with his wife and her mother, how he met both women, the affair he thinks Robin and Bailey are having, and his plans to put an end to John Bailey as his rival in love and the bestseller list. The murder plan is carried out but there are surprises in store for both Warren Winslow and the reader when he begins to realize that the truth was clouded by fantastic imaginings. But by then it is too late for him.

As a portrait of a vain, petty man who fails to see his days in the limelight are long over The Intimate Journal... initially makes for some difficult reading. The first diary is dominated by the outpourings of a mean-spirited man angry he has grown old,  envious of better writers, jealous of younger men with good looks and wholly possessive of his much younger wife who seems to be straying from him. Only when the novel begins to focus on Winslow's nasty murder scheme does the book become taut with tension and less off-putting as the non-stop name calling and insulting of everyone he meets gives way to an obsession of revenge.

Intermingled with the story of Winslow's murder plot and jealousies is a subplot involving Winslow's secretary who has been entrusted with rewriting portions of Thence to a Lonely Dwelling in order to make the book more attractive to the publisher.  This at first seems to be merely story filler, a way to flesh out Winslow's struggle to confront his dwindling creative powers and compromising himself for the sake of money and a contract, but will prove to be one of the more intriguing twists to the novel as a whole.

One of the most interesting characters is Dr. August Fremling, a psychologist who is also one of Warren Winslow's biggest fans. Fremling keeps asking Winslow to visit him to look over his fine collection of glass, something that Winslow belittles in his diary confessing that the many invitations are unwelcome while publicly he dons his genteel mask of the urbane sophisticate and politely and repeatedly declines. Eventually he finds himself at a party at Fremling's home and he reluctantly enters the room with Fremling's glass collection. Winslow is astonished by the collection, ironically entranced by something he disparaged as a childish hobby. He goes into great detail describing the way the art objects are arranged and how the light passes through each object and fills the room with color. This unusual scene gives way to an odd intimacy between the two men and a mutual admiration builds up almost instantly.  Fremling then slyly offers up some observations about Winslow's life, insights that are frankly shocking to Winslow, all the while paying homage to his writer hero and flattering him with deft praise.

Jean Leslie cleverly has inserted Dr. Fremling into the story as a sort of detective of the soul. Leslie was not only a mystery writer but also an academic in the field of psychology. She uses Fremling as a sounding board for theories that she must have learned and taught in her studies. Winslow's family doctor has a brief speech about the importance of psychiatry to heal the minds and souls of modern men.  The scenes with Fremling also contain some of Leslie's most compassionate writing and allow us to see Winslow in a new light, dimming some of the glare of his reprehensible traits and allowing a soft glow of humanity to emanate from his bitter, envious body.

And she adapts her love of all things psychological in the context of this story about writers and writing, the struggles of creativity, and the burden of a guilty conscience. Winslow at one point offers up a not too original, but still insightful observation that novelists and actors have much in common. Later Dr. Fremling expounds on his theory of the writer's life as a source for his supposedly fictional work. His keen understanding of Winslow comes almost entirely from having pored over the novels, sometimes reading his favorites more than once. For Fremling Winslow's novels reveal exactly who is he and where he came from. Having already read some of the anecdotes from Winslow's past life in the pages of the first three diaries we know that Fremling has nailed the man with an eerie accuracy.

QUOTES:  All novelists are actors. What else is a novelist but a man playing many parts? He must be able to project himself into a dozen roles if he is to write with authority.

This morning I awakened in a state of great mental perturbation... It was as though I had come back suddenly from some black abyss and I could not help but wonder if I would have died in my sleep if I had not awakened when I did and defied the Dark Stranger.  Reason tells me this is fanciful, but the feeling persists. [...] It is childish to be afraid of the truth, but I am afraid.

Bailey is dead. He died to save our marriage. Then what is this new ghost that stands between [Robin and I]?  Is there any peace for me, anywhere?

"Are we to call Sabrina inventive genius or are we to assume that Bailey wrote from that great reservoir of experience which is man's private world? Does he "dream up" the conflicts, as you say, or does he express his own conflicts disguised in such a manner that we accept them as fiction? I say this is what the writer does, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously," Fremling said. "I would go further that that and say that the intensity of the inner struggle is positively correlated with the need to write."

Dennis Malcolm, Winslow's physician:  "Our culture has placed certain restraints upon a man so that he may not handle them for himself.  Confronted with a situation in which his behavior would be anti-social he must take his choice between driving the conflict underground or letting a psychiatrist help him to face it."

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS: Still Life with Pistol – Roger Ormerod

In Still Life with Pistol (1986), the second outing featuring ex-police detective Richard Patton and his paramour Amelia, we find the two taking part in a private art teaching seminar sponsored by Bruno Fillingley, reformed art forger turned teacher and mentor of the arts. Lucky participants rich enough to spend the high admission price get to spend a fortnight (that’s two weeks to us North Americans) at Bruno’s art-filled mansion painting, sculpting, drawing and indulging in whatever other medium tickles one’s fancy. Bruno provides not only lodging, meals and studio space in the price tag but tips and guidance to bring out the artist’s best work. Amelia is the artist of the two while Richard is merely along as an observer. He had formerly consulted with Bruno on an elaborate electronic security system to help protect the valuable collection of impressionist paintings and Chinese pottery Bruno has amassed over the years. The alarms are turned off during the day and go back on at 11 PM sharp each night. Only Bruno knows the secret code words that set the alarms.

So we have the setting for a possible art heist, don’t we? And it all sounds very much like Ormerod’s sophomore mystery novel, The Silence of the Night, previously reviewed here at PSB. The security system, Chinese vases, fake art work, a burglary and a violent death that might be accident or might be murder are all features of that other novel. But there the similarity ends. There is no theft – fake or otherwise – in this novel. It’s an unequivocal murder that takes place.

Like most of Ormerod’s books we also are dealing with a crime in the past in the intricate plot. The victim is former police detective Roy Towers, currently Bruno’s newest security man and a painter in his own right. And he was the lead detective responsible for arresting a murderer in a crime of passion that involved Roy's former mistress. That murderer, now behind bars, has a wife who is hounding Roy for sending her husband to prison. The oddity is that woman was Roy’s mistress and the reason for the murder her husband was convicted for. That old murder case seems to be at the core of the motive for the killing that takes place at Bruno’s estate.

Roy’s odd hobby is taking part in the bi-weekly art seminars and working on an acrylic still life that gives the book its title. He has painted the same still life made up of a Chinese vase with yellow flowers, a hunter’s trumpet and a pistol (see the illustrations on the dust jackets) for several months. The full set is handled by a gallery owner in London and bizarrely the paintings are extremely popular and sell quite regularly. [Still lifes popular in the 80s? And selling repeatedly? Hard to believe.] Roy’s latest painting and the still life props are crucial to the plot of this mystery. Most interesting is that the novel involves not one, but two impossible problems! Nowhere is this indicated on the book jacket of my copy or anywhere else. You won’t know this until you actually read the book...or this review.

Roy is found shot and through ballistics tests the gun from the still life is proved as the murder weapon. But Richard who found the body had noted that the gun had been sitting on the table unmoved and matching exactly the position as depicted on Roy’s canvas. Further complicating the impossibility of the gun being used to kill Roy is the fact that there were four flower petals on the gun itself, also seen on the exact spots on the gun in the painting. Richard who just happened to have his trusty Konica with him immediately takes several photographs of the crime scene in case the police disturb the still life while conducting their investigation. The problem of how the petals were on the real gun and the one in the painting will be a cause of much debate and obsession for Richard, Amelia and the police inspector in charge of the case.

This impossible problem reminded me of the clever ideas Edward D. Hoch dreamt up in the hundreds of stories he wrote for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It would be a fantastic idea for a short story. But it wears out its welcome in this novel. The two possible solutions can be thought out rather quickly by any reader with a modicum of common sense. Richard and Amelia come up with the more improbable of the two solutions. But it takes Inspector Poynton to point out to Richard the real explanation of how the gun was used to kill Roy and still end up on the table in the exact spot with the flower petals undisturbed.

What does keep the book interesting as a murder mystery is trying to figure out which one of the guests at the art seminar killed Roy. There are multiple suspects and multiple motives, some of which are trickily exposed in the usual surprise-filled chapters Ormerod so often delivers in his crime fiction. The second impossible problem, one of lesser intricacy but still quite baffling, is the puzzle of the Chinese vase and the nine fakes up on display in a corridor upstairs. How did the genuine vase used in the still life get switched with a fake one after the murder when the studio was locked and sealed? And why is one of the artists who is interested in recreating that Chinese vase so intent on getting into the studio to use the kiln to fire his vase?

Still Life with Pistol seems to be thought out too intricately and I confess that its complexity left my mind reeling a couple of times. I found myself re-reading passages trying to keep straight which vase was where and who was trying to get into the studio. The plot smacks of the kind of overly fanciful plots that hearken back to the Golden Age. Of course Ormerod is a huge fan of these types of mystery novels, but there is a kind of overkill in Still Life with a Pistol that defies logic. The methods employed in the murder scheme are baroque and time consuming and in the end senseless. Even the motive seems unreal. And then Ormerod delivers one more unexpected touch in the melodramatically macabre final pages. It all ends with a kind of a fizzle despite the sound of the final bang from a pistol in the last scene.

But... even lesser Ormerod is good Ormerod. Unlike Reginald Hill who criticized his mystery writer colleague for being overly complicated in devising his crime plots and accusing him of being a failure I disagree. I’ll keep coming back for more. Roger Ormerod has a fascinating and teeming imagination. There was enough here to tantalize me and keep me reading to the end.

I have more Roger Ormerod books to read and more reviews planned throughout the summer. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 25, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: Victor Wolfson - A Playwright Dabbles in Gothic Dread

A little digging is a dangerous thing, to paraphrase Alexander Pope.  His original quote about a little learning continues: "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."  Often I find that my digging into the past lives of these obscure authors unearths a treasure trove of information that I hit that spring and before I can sample it I find I'm drowning in it.  Buried in data about the writer's lives I try to sort it out and assemble it and then I forget about writing about their books. In the case of Victor Wolfson, a prolific writer of plays, television scripts and a handful novels, there are just a couple of crime novels to his name.  So it should be easy to toss off a brief review of this one before I unleash the torrent of info on his other writing. I think he was a little embarrassed by this one book for he hides behind the androgynously odd pseudonym of Langdon Dodge.  Perhaps a signal that he was planning to dodge metaphorical bullets fired from the typewriters of harsh or indifferent book reviewers.

Midsummer Madness (1950) is the one of two books Wolfson left fans of crime novels and it's as odd as his choice of pseudonym (the source, inspiration or meaning of which I was unable to determine in my digital shovelling through his past).  I've tagged this as a "badass biddy" suspense novel but truthfully the two women battling each other for the affection of the Byronic hero and possibly the wealth he is due to inherit are far from biddy age.  Selena our protagonist and heroine is barely forty years old while her antagonist the extremely unbalanced and duplicitous Zilla is just entering her middle aged years.  And Zilla's no biddy in the looks department.  Described by Dodge as a sort of Jayne Mansfield type gone off the deep end Zilla is Rubenesque, blond and deeply disturbed. Still, at its core Midsummer Madness is very much in the tradition of what I like to call "badass biddy" novels in which two women go to great lengths to do each other in, or drive one or the other to the brink of madness. Selena is not really the target here but her charge is -- the young son of Gayden Goodale.  Wolfson's early playwriting days betray him here in his use of awkwardly and groan inducing alliterative names as odd as the consonance of his pen name.

In a nutshell this is Jane Eyre redux with an overdose of nasty cruelty and murderous avarice.  Selena is cast in the role of Jane, Gayden is Rochester, and instead of Adele as the governess' charge we have Bobby, Gayden's asthmatic son.  While there is no real counterpart for the crazed ex-wife kept hidden away in an attic Wolfson does offer up an invalid mother in the person of Mrs. Goodale, the specter of a long dead wife named Lucy who may have been murdered, and of course the nasty villainess Zilla.  So Mrs. Rochester's spirit at least is present albeit divided into three different characters.  The structure is Jane Eyre no matter how you look at it. But the conflict is pure badass biddy crime novel.  Zilla is out for the Goodale money and she is intent on eliminating every one of the Goodale family starting first with Bobby whose respiratory ailments and frail physique make him a prime target for Zilla's devilry.  And she has some extremely cruel and nasty methods of attempting to do in the poor boy. One of which involves trapping Bobby on a speedy roller coaster at a local carnival and preventing him from leaving as they repeatedly ride the coaster as he screams to be let off.

Rounding out the cast of characters are Zilla's bullying son Allan; a sinister butler named Collins who seems to know more than anyone at Hawk's End; a Polish handyman who speaks no English; Millie, an easily intimidated simpleton of a maid who attempts to become Selena's ally and fails, and Mrs. Goodale the archtype of the imperious invalid matriarch confined to her bedroom who is policed and tended to by an overly protective matron nurse.

French paperback edition.
That can only be Zilla on the cover!

The Gothic elements continue into the marvelous setting. Thornfield Hall is replaced by Hawk's Head, a rambling estate near oceanfront cliffs in northeastern United States, perhaps somewhere in New England. The house is ironically claustrophobic in its immensity and the typical brooding atmosphere of dread and paranoia infects the place. Two key scenes take place at a summerhouse situated on the precipice of the seaside cliffs. It is a place that the boys were warned to avoid because of its rickety wooden railings and a porch in disrepair. You just know that something awful its going to happen there. And it does. Twice! 

Midsummer Madness for all its stereotypical trappings and familiar character types makes for an interesting read.  The battle of wits and two hand-to-hand battles --these are tough women!-- between Selena and Zilla hold the reader's attention for the most part even if the filler story is easily guessable.  Zilla is never meant to be ambiguous as the villain of the novel.  Though Wolfson tries to make Gayden seem like he may be a baddie he's too steeped in the Gothic traditions to be anything but a requisite Byronic hero. Selena is smart, strong willed, outspoken and athletic.  A refreshing change from the guileless nitwits one usually finds in neo-Gothics.

Best of all -- the climax of the book, the ultimate reveal of what happened to Lucy, and the revelation of Zilla in all her malevolence includes a neat surprise in the person of the sinister Collins who turns out to be not so sinister after all. And whose knowledge of the household is matched by his knowledge of foreign languages. I'll say no more. There are plenty of copies of Midsummer Madness out there to be found and you will have to discover the thrilling escapades and nasty schemes of Zilla, her tortured victim Bobby, and the resourceful heroine Selena all on your own.  You can find it in both hardcover editions under the Langdon Dodge pseudonym and paperback editions under Wolfson's real name.

Victor Wolfson (1909 - 1990) began his professional career "organizing acting clubs for striking miners in West Virginia" according to his New York Times obituary. Theater was apparently his first love and from 1926 through 1955 he worked as an actor, assistant stage manager, director and producer in addition to his seven contributions as a playwright.

Though his career as a playwright did not yield many memorable or long running plays despite the star power of Shirley Booth in the shipboard comedy Excursion (1937) or Gloria DeHaven, Ricardo Montalban and Bea Arthur in Seventh Heaven (1955), a musical for which he supplied the book, Wolfson would go on to become highly successful as a television script writer. He wrote for several anthology series throughout the 1950s when such shows were at the height of popularity. Among his TV credits are scripts for Suspense (14 episodes!), Kraft Theater and Climax. The episode "No Right to Kill" on Climax (Aug 9, 1956), starring John Cassavetes and Terry Moore, was based on Wolfson's own stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment which had been on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater in 1935. Most notably Wolfson wrote six scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The Hitchcock TV scripts include some of the best of that series, some of which were based on well known short stories by master crime fiction writers.  Wolfson wrote the scripts for "The Specialty of the House" and "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" both based on the stories by Stanley Ellin, "Malice Domestic" based on Philip MacDonald's story and "The Perfect Murder" taken from the story of the same name by Stacy Aumonier, an underrated crime writer of short stories whose work was made more famous thanks to at least three episodes on the Hitchcock TV series.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Wolfson's years in TV came in 1961 when he won an Emmy for his work on ABC-TV's 26 part mini-series "Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years."  

Some of his mainstream novels all published under his real name are The Lonely Steeple (1945), reprinted as The Passionate Season (1966);  The Eagle on the Plain (1945); and Cabral (1972), his second crime novel. My Prince! My King! (1962), a novel based on several of his autobiographical stories, focuses on his days as a child of Russian immigrants. The stories originally appeared in The New Yorker back in the 1940s told, amongst other things, the story of his mother's grief following the death of Wolfson's father. His nonfiction works include The Man Who Cared (1966), a biography of Harry S Truman; and The Mayerling Murder (1969), in which he examines the legends and myths surrounding the still unsolved apparent murder–suicide pact of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover, Mary Freiin von Vetsera.

In May 1990 Wolfson died tragically in a fire in his home a Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He was 81 years old.


Friday, June 11, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Bedeviled - Libbie Block

THE STORY: The malicious, exploitative and deeply disturbed wife of Willem Himbert, symphony conductor, becomes the target of Elizabeth Beel's undying animosity when the wife begins to concoct a fantasy in which she is the object of John Maicey's desire.  John is Elizabeth's boyfriend, perhaps soon-to-be husband, but Coca has other plans for the promising composer. Elizabeth's deep seated hatred is further fueled by the fact that she knows that Coca has infiltrated herself into the romantic lives of other musicians who at one time were Himbert's proteges.  She will not see John's chances at fame in the music world destroyed by Coca's petty and devious scheming.  She plans Coca's murder in her head almost nightly, various methods and means, until she doesn't know the difference between her fantasies and reality.  When Coca ends up dead Elizabeth is unsure if she carried out her murderous plan and turns detective to find out if it was she --or someone else -- who put a permanent end to Coca's twisted soap opera-like machinations.

THE CHARACTERS: Bedeviled (1947) consists of a relatively small cast of characters which allows for a claustrophobic atmosphere to build up in this melodramatic microcosm of musical composition and performance. Two couples --  Willem/Coca and Elizabeth/John -- are almost all we need in this story. Elizabeth, our narrator for much of the novel, provides  us with detailed but often skewed perceptions of the other characters for we can only "see" what she sees and reports to us.  Consequently, Coca appears to be a wily vixen reminiscent of the kind of villainesses you love to hate from the bygone era of night time soaps. The archetype of this superbitch is probably Alexis Carrington from the US TV show Dynasty.  Block's talent is in presenting us Coca as seen only through Elizabeth's eyes -- eyes that may be hateful but also part of a troubled mind. As much as Elizabeth wants to believe that Coca is some sort of female demon we never really know if she is exaggerating the truth  There are scenes with John in which he defends the conductor's wife and dismisses her attentions as juvenile flirting. So we are left to decide for ourselves whether or not Coca is the truly wicked woman Elizabeth would have us think she is.

Part of Elizabeth's trouble is that her love for John is intertwined with her desire to see him succeed as the "new discovery" of modern symphonic music.  The conflict arises out of the fact that Himbert can bring John much needed exposure by performing his works but Coca is included as part of that package.  Elizabeth cannot break John's relationship with Himbert and therefore she cannot break his relationship with Coca; the two are inextricable. She allows everything to take place simply because she wants John to succeed in his career.  This is the kind of supposed self-sacrifice done in the name of love that we keep finding in post-WW2 mainstream bestselling novels like the infuriating soap opera plot in Stella Dallas, the stereotype of the martyr mother, and crime infused melodramas like Mildred Pierce. 

We also get Elizabeth's perceptions that Willem Himbert is surreally devoted to Coca, in love with her in a way that seems to defy common sense. She finds it hard to believe that Himbert cannot see through his wife's scheming and deceit and her dangerous manipulation of his own love for her.  But is Coca really as thoroughly bad as Elizabeth sees her? Despite all the examples she reports of Coca's destructive plots and the careful construction of possible secret love affairs with Himbert's proteges and his intense jealousy of men who show the slightest interest in his younger,  strikingly beautiful wife we never really know if what Elizabeth is telling us is truth or a twisted interpretation of the truth.  Not until the introduction of a character late in the novel do we see Coca for what she truly is.

INNOVATIONS: Intriguingly, Block has inserted non-first person narrative sections into the story in which we are allowed to view the cast from a distant omniscient observer.  The sections with Elizabeth as narrator are labeled with the chapter heading "Inside" while the other sections are labeled "Outside" and there is one transitional chapter titled "Wayside" in which we get to see the murder happen. What appears at first to be a cleverly constructed inverted detective novel following the murderer's thoughts and deeds unexpectedly shifts in this pivotal "Wayside" section into a whodunnit. Then Elizabeth slowly adopts the role of a very reluctant sleuth when she tries to prove that she is not the killer.

Similar to The Evil Wish by Jean Potts Bedeviled is a fascinating portrait of a woman with a desire to murder who is left with a criminal plan that is unfulfilled. Those who have read Pott's brilliant book know that the characters who had a plan to kill ended up carrying out far worse criminal deeds having been infected with the mark of Cain, so to speak. But what happens to that murderous drive in Elizabeth's case in this book written more than a decade earlier?  She is tortured for much of the book truly believing that she did stab Coca to death but has no memory of the act. Even her sole confessor (who is also her employer) finds it hard to believe that she is anything but guilty.  She is so confused by the haunting blend of reality and fantasy that she often refers to herself in the third person, a classic example of dissociative behavior, perhaps the product of a guilty conscience, and one of the more compelling and prescient devices Block employs to add a sophisticated level of psychological insight to her gripping story.

QUOTES:  "How does one solve a murder? All the clue hunting and the rationalization seem so easy when I read mystery books [...] But this is a strange murder to solve. As though a bloodhound were sent to follow a long weary, and devious trail, with the full expectation that at the end he would tree -- himself!"

"I don't want to be different. I don't want to be a murderer. In this strange new afterward which will cost me my life and which has already cost me John, who is the very reason for my life, I can no longer understand the woman I used to be, the woman who fondled the idea of murder like a doll, dressing it in one bizarre scheme after another until the plaything took life and destroyed its keeper."

"I planned murder so many times, that like an automaton, I committed it. I have destroyed myself. And, my God, I am afraid. I am a coward. I don't want to die."

THE AUTHOR: Libbie Block (1910-1972) was born in Colorado, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father was a dentist who practiced in Denver.  She met her husband, an executive at Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, in Los Angeles, California where she lived for much of her life and where her two children were born. The author of over 250 short stories and three novels many of Block's writings were adapted into movies or TV shows.  

Labelling this post "First Books" maybe a misnomer and certainly a bit misleading for Bedeviled was her first crime novel, but not her debut as a novelist.  Her real debut book, Wild Calendar (1945) with a soap opera-like plot of a girl from Denver who marries a rich man, moves to New York, then leaves him to raise her child on her own, was made into the movie Caught starring Barbara Bel Geddes in one of her first starring roles opposite James Mason and Robert Ryan as the men in her life. One of her short stories was made into Pin-Up Girl as a vehicle for Betty Grable to show off the dancer/singer's talents. Two other stories were adapted for a couple of television anthology series:  "The Night the Doorbell Rang" appeared in season eight on The Loretta Young Show and "Last Concerto" was on Cosmopolitan Theatre in 1951. Several of her short stories were collected and edited by her husband Patrick Duggan and published under the title No Man Tells Everything (1959).

Friday, June 4, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Blood on the Common - Anne Fuller & Marcus Allen

"I got a feeling that I'm goin' to have to arrest one of my neighbors this time, and I never done that. It's hell to be a constable sometimes."

Dan Morgan in Blood on the Common

Small Town, USA.  It's been the setting on thousands of mainstream novels. Placing a story in a small town or village can offer a burgeoning novelist the chance to dissect the stereotypes of Americana by exposing the small-mindedness that usually infects these insular communities.  An outsider enters the town and all hell breaks loose. In their first mystery novel Anne Fuller and Marcus Allen expose not only small-mindedness but the insidious nature of gossip and the havoc it wrecks on the citizens of Small Town, USA.

Interestingly, Blood on the Common (1933) starts with an act of kindness when Pastor Andrew Stevens sees what he believes to be the local town drunk passed out by the Revolutionary War era cannon on the town common.  It's extremely early morning and he figures he'll spare Tug Bailey the embarrassment of being seen yet again as a symbol of alcoholic indigence by rescuing him and taking him somewhere out of sight.  As an afterthought he also is concerned about the dangers of hypothermia and exposure. But really he's most concerned about the townspeople and the ugly rumor mill that will start grinding out gossip if someone sees Tug passed out in plain sight.  He summons the help of Jake Smeed who reluctantly allows himself to be dragged out of his home and together they attempt to move Tug to a safe space indoors. When they move in closer they discover it's not Tug at all.  They have no idea who it is. And he's not drunk. He's dead with a bullet in his chest. 

What follows is an intricately constructed detective novel focusing on first the identity of the corpse, why he was killed, and why he was left out in plain view for anyone to stumble across. As the story unfolds we are introduced to nearly everyone in town. Constable Dan Morgan leads the investigation at first unsure of how exactly to deal with the first murder to occur in the town of Welbourne.  He is assisted by undertaker Pete Hill who also acts as the coroner and later by reporter Larry King from the big city. A bit more sophisticated than Dan, Larry is used to asking subtly intrusive questions in order to elicit the right response. Larry has a gentler way compared to Dan's direct brusque approach, but nevertheless is shrewd and insightful in ways that Dan could never be. 

Luckily, the team of investigators are given a couple of very handy clues to help with identification -- an engraved pocket watch and an initialed ring that reveal the man is Harvey K. Oliver. Another ring seems to have been removed from the man's left hand leaving a bloody scratch below some age old swelling indicating the ring was probably worn for a long time and never taken off. A wedding band perhaps? 

Suspects are numerous of course. But Clara Bisbee, an unrepentant malicious gossip is convinced that Julia Guilford shot Oliver.  She runs to Dan Morgan and reports that she saw Julia leave her house in the middle of the night and didn't return for breakfast.  Clara is Julia's landlady and spends too much time checking up on not only her tenants but everyone in town. Now she says that Julia is in bed suffering from "a cold or pneumonia or something" and that proves she was outside at night in the damp weather for many hours. When Dan questions Julia she is reticent about her activities the night of the murder.  It will be some time before Dan and Larry get Julia to tell all about where she went and who she met late that night.

Meanwhile Geoffrey Wayne, an invalid septuagenarian sits at home mulling over the events as he knows them. He has been visited by Dan's wife Ginevra who often stops in to check on Wayne and read to him.  Wayne is the town eccentric, a collector of antiquarian books, an intellectual at odds with the rest of the townspeople.  Wayne has a marvelous scene where he mocks Clara Bisbee as the local nosy Parker. His verbal assault is both well deserved an d hilarious. The book collector unsurprisingly has a rich and varied vocabulary and his tirades read like some of the best insult exchanges from in a Shakespearean comedy.  Clara of course thinks she's doing everyone an immense favor by being such a busybody but her malicious nature seeps out every time she opens her mouth.  Wayne lets her and many others have it with lines like: "Go pollute the air somewhere else!" And "Hell is too good for you. You're not fit to associate with the residents of hell." And "...you inimitable cross between Judas Iscariot and the Marquis De Sade, you have the temerity to call Tug Bailey the scum of the earth? My dear Mr. Smeed, in comparison with you, Tug Bailey is not only an impeccable gentleman, but an illustrious scholar." In the end Wayne does some sleuthing of his own and is instrumental in providing some of the best evidence to Dan and Larry.  He's an armchair detective of the best type, but with his wheelchair serving as the requisite seat.  Geoffrey Wayne is perhaps the only reason to read Blood on the Common.  While at first Wayne seems to be pompous and cantankerous he proves to be a delightful mixture of sarcastic wit, outrage and wisdom.

Wayne has a housekeeper and cook named Birdie, not too smart and yet another closed-mouth woman unwilling to talk about what she has been up to.  Eventually we learn she's been providing shelter and food for Tug Bailey in a temporary home they've cobbled together in a tool shed out in the back of Wayne's property.  She and Tug have a couple of secrets that will also take Dan and Larry quite some time to uncover.

High on the suspect list is Arthur Shelby, the owner of the only hotel in town.  Oliver was supposedly staying there according to a laundry delivery service but Shelby denies that Oliver was registered at the Inn.  In fact, he denies having any guest for the past couple of days. If that is the case, Dan asks Shelby, then how does he explain a bagful of Oliver's clothes that were to be delivered to the man this morning at the Inn? Typical of almost everyone in Welbourne Shelby remains tight lipped. Who if anyone will be willing to talk to Dan and Larry?

Well, Jake Smeed has a lot say.  Belligerent and volatile Smeed has been at war with Tug Bailey for years. His antipathy for the drunk is well known and openly expressed with hostility. Tug had a farm that everyone in town knows Jake stole from him. When Tug lost his land he lost his soul and it drove him to the bottle. Smeed refuses to call his "business deal," a shady manipulation of real estate law and bribery with a highway construction company, stealing Tug's farm. Dan has theory that Oliver was involved in that "business deal" that bordered on fraud and killed him then framed Tug. Larry is unsure if Jake could be that clever or vindictive. But it certainly looks bad for Jake when Tug goes missing.

There is a second murder, one not too surprising and brought about by the behavior of the victim.  It's a neat twist that complicates the case of Oliver's death. And ultimately it's a daring rule breaker for a traditional detective novel written in the early 1930s.  I thought it gutsy for this first time writing duo to add a unexpected twist to an already rather complex plot.


For a mystery novel this shows a real love of the genre, a respect for fair play rules while at the same time flouting them with the second murder.  It's well above average for a detective novel of any era and rather advanced for one in the heyday of the Golden Age, especially from a team of supposed novice writers. Many readers may cavil at the reveal of the villain as it seems rather arbitrary and takes the concept of the least likely suspect to extremes.  Yet all the clues are there pointing to who Fuller & Allen intended to be their murderer from the outset.

Anne Fuller and Marcus Allen wrote only two mystery novels together.  I am sure they were involved in the movie business possibly having contributed to screenplays but I've been unlucky in obtaining any proof.  Despite the fact that I have received many emails from a variety of relatives all saying they are related to Marcus Allen I still have little to offer up about the lives of these two writers. One of these relatives was kind enough to send me a photo (shown above) of an autographed copy of one of their books. So at least we have their signatures and sentiments along with Fuller's husband (or is it brother?) who drew the map in that second novel.

Blood on the Common is much easier to find in used bookstores, but it is Fuller & Allen's Death on the Outer Shoal that is the far superior book of the two.  Both explore small mindedness and insularity in New England villages but the second book adds a thrilling dimension of vigilantism and self-preservation of a community into the mix.

Monday, May 31, 2021

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Morrison Sharpe in Death Goes by Bus

Fictional sleuths are known for their idiosyncratic behavior, unusual occupations and sometimes arcane hobbies and pastimes. From the cultivation and care of Nero Wolfe’s orchids to Hercule Poirot’s addiction to sweet liqueurs, from the book collecting of Ellery Queen (among many other detectives) to hot air ballooning of Lyon Wentworth created by Richard Forrest the list of hobbies is teeming with eccentricity, finely honed skill and hidden talents. The long list can provide fodder for a post all its own but today I’d like to talk about the forgotten detective Morrison Sharpe, one of the many amateur sleuths who is a puzzle addict, specifically competitive crossword puzzles and chess problems published in newspapers as contests. Any puzzle will do — even the plot of a detective story, novel or movie — if it isn’t too easy to figure out. Sharpe makes his debut in Death Goes by Bus (1936) by mystery novelist Leslie Cargill, a former newspaper reporter who briefly makes use of that skill in this first of a brief series featuring Sharpe.

Morrison Sharpe never intended to become a detective, but a murder takes place on a bus ride and its strange circumstances arouse his fascination with puzzles. He finds himself hovering around the police while they try to find the murder weapon and determine how the victim was shot on board the bus without anyone noticing. Sharpe cannot help but comment on what to him appears to be clearly obvious but goes unnoticed by befuddled Sgt. Matthews. Astonishingly, Matthews allows himself to be tutored in his own profession by this crossword puzzle expert. Sharpe is rather proud of himself and a not a little egotistic, but his lectures on “logic” and detection” are often specious. For instance, there is a man in an overcoat who the police are trying to track down. This man was seated near the victim and is now nowhere to be found. Matthews is sure he got off when the driver pulled the bus over after the body was discovered. Sharpe offers up ideas that it could be one of the passengers who remained on board and wore the overcoat to disguise themselves but never addresses what happened to the coat after the crime.

As the story progresses Sharpe’s approach to police work relies on this so-called logic and he is constantly advising Matthews and his inspector superior of possibilities neither of them have entertained. However, he tends to go for the fanciful rather than the obvious. And he is so seduced by his logical approach drawing analogies to the cool processes he employs in working out chess problems or solving tricky wordplay in crosswords that he often comes across not exciting but colorless. When he suggests that the killer took advantage of the faulty mechanics of the bus that is always backfiring and timed the firing of the gun so that it was mistaken for another backfire the police ask him then what happened to the gun. Sharpe dismisses this as unnecessary and tells them it will turn up eventually.

Another of his tactics has nothing to do with logic but everything to do with manipulation. He allows the witnesses to talk endlessly hoping that they will reveal themselves in an unprovoked aside or passing tangential comment. Sharpe is good at catching people in lies not because he’s particularly clever or knowledgeable, but because the police are lazy and shortsighted. When someone mentions being served by a waiter at the Golden Lion Hotel Sharpe goes there and learns that the hotel does not employ any waiters but only waitresses. The police never bothered to follow up on that fact. This kind of contrast between professional police carelessness and amateur sleuth genius is contrived.

Death Goes by Bus aspires to be an impossible crime murder mystery, but never really achieves the level of complexity that Cargill hopes for. Sharpe spends much of the book criticizing the police and bragging he knows who killed Caleb Wainwright on the bus, but of course never really shares any of his theories until Cargill sees fit to reveal it to us as readers in the final chapter. The suspects are far more interesting than the detective. When the story turns into one of a massive criminal conspiracy it almost seems as if Cargill has created a version of Murder on the Orient Express on a passenger bus. Nearly everyone on board knew the victim, it will turn out, and many of the passengers have crime in their past. There are cover-ups and betrayals and a plethora of lies to hide the murder motive and the relationships among the passengers and to the victim.

Paperback reprint in Italian translation
(RCS-Corriere della Sera, 2016)

 
It’s really hard to care about anyone, however,  especially Sharpe whose vanity and ego become increasingly annoying. Even when faced with his own demise in the final chapter he is cold, coolly logical, almost inhuman. Only in the cruelly violent and nasty fight with the murderer does the book become remotely exciting. There is the typical villain monologue, after Sharpe confronts the killer and with a gun pointed at him Sharpe is forced into a fight to save himself. The murderer is wounded in the arm, falls to the ground and Sharpe kicks the culprit repeatedly in the head until unconscious. But it’s described so cruelly that our amateur sleuth seems like a closet sadist more than a hero.

Ultimately, the book and its protagonist are a failure. For in the end the impossibility is never fully explained. Sharpe may have uncovered the preposterous conspiracy, unmasked all the crooks and thieves, explained why Caleb Wainwright was shot but never how it all happened. In presenting an impossibility in a murder mystery the author is bound to a tacit pact with the reader to explain everything, not gloss over it out of indifference or laziness. This one very long thread left hanging is infuriating.

Cargill’s books are rather hard to find and I know of only one other Morrison Sharpe book as identified in my edition Hubin’s Crime Fiction which is Heads You Lose (1938). Hardly anything is written about Cargill or his books anywhere. And based on this one book I’m not surprised. There is only one somewhat praiseworthy snippet for Morrison Sharpe and that comes from A Catalogue of Crime (rev., 1989). Of Death Goes by Bus Jacques Barzun wrote: "As routine crime-and detection of its period, this is not a bad work. But it is overlong and the reader becomes skeptical as more and more of the strangers on the bus are found to have dire connections, criminal and passionate. The best part of the tale is the thought and behavior of Mr. Morrison Sharpe, the chess and puzzle expert, who can think one move ahead of both crooks and police. He is quaint and eccentric in just the right way, though short of memorable."  Typical of Barzun, sort of damning with faint praise. Here’s one forgotten and neglected detective who just doesn’t excite me at all.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

LEFT INSIDE (again!): Mystery Writer Autographs

While I was sorting books and replacing books I've read back on shelves I was reminded that three books I recently bought were signed. In two cases this was not mentioned in the description when I bought the books and it was quite a surprise when I opened them. So I thought I'd go through the few books I know are signed by the author, take photos and share them with the world.  Enjoy!

 

John V. Turner also wrote as "Nicholas Brady" and "David Hume." This is rather rare signature. The book came from a stash of books and memorabilia from the home of one of Turner's relatives. The bookseller sent me an intriguing email explaining that in the box of books he purchased there were some old videotapes and one of them apparently showed Turner at his 90th birthday party surrounded by relatives singing "Happy Birthday."

 

This is in my copy of Concrete Kimono by John Paddy Carstairs. This inscription is in gigantic bold handwriting and takes up the entire free endpaper.  Carstairs was a movie and television show director, a painter and novelist best known for his humorous fiction rather than his handful of crime and adventure thrillers. His detective is Garway Trenton a scriptwriter who stumbles into ludicrous crimes with the ease of a klutz slipping on a banana peel. And we're supposed to find the books as funny as such trite pratfalls. I think Carstairs did not mean to be self-deprecating in this inscription but was actually telling the truth -- the books are indeed loaded with nonsense.


Eileen Helen Clements is the author of a series of crime and espionage novels featuring her series character Alistair Woodhead. I reviewed Cherry Harvest earlier this year. Two more reviews of her books are planned for later this year.


Joan Cockin is the pseudonym of Joan Burbidge Macintosh, PhD, CBE, one of the first women to work in British diplomatic service during World War Two.  Her excellent mystery novel Villainy at Vespers, so deserving of being reprinted, was reviewed here February 2020.  I'll be reading the book above and reviewing it in June.


Edwy Searles Brooks is better known by his alter egos "Berkeley Gray" and his Norman Conquest adventure novels as well as "Victor Gunn" in which Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell solves baffling murders many of which are impossible crimes or have Gothic or macabre content.


This one was one of the surprises.  I was reading The Opera Murders by Kirby Williams a few months ago and was curious about the real name of Kirby Williams which I knew was a pseudonym. I had nearly forgotten I owned a copy of The CVC Murders, the first Williams mystery. When I dragged it out of the dusty box in which it was buried I opened it to find this revelation.  The name Kirby Williams was the pen name of Irving Ramsdell.  A simple Google search uncovered Ramsdell's obituary and I learned he went by the name Kirby and not Irving, among many other bits of trivia.  More on Ramsdell and his two collaborators and their two murder mysteries very much modeled on the Van Dine School is coming soon.

 

Aloha Nui Oe! Max Freedom Long wrote three detective novels featuring Komako Koa, a plantation policeman in Hawaii.  I've written about The Lava Murders, Long's second mystery, at Mystery*File website.  This signature appears in my copy of his third novel Death Goes Native, a book I still haven't read. Maybe I'll finally get to it this summer.

Friday, May 28, 2021

FFB: The Man Whose Dreams Came True - Julian Symons

Confession #87: I am not a fan of Julian Symons. Years ago when I was a teenager my treasured copy of Murder Ink introduced me to hundreds of mystery writers I was eager to sample. In that seminal anthology and history of crime fiction I learned of Julian Symons’ unique suspense novel The 31st of February. This was the first Symons “mystery” I read and only because of Dilys Winn’s rave calling it one of the best books with an unforgettable surprise ending. Well, it bored me more than my algebra class. I was only 15 so maybe the gravitas of a man being mentally tortured and hounded by someone who knows he killed his wife was beyond my experience. But shouldn’t the telling at least engage any reader? I’ve also read The Three Pipe Problem (too arch in its humor for my teenage mind), The Kentish Manor Murders (sequel to the previous book, snobby and pompous and tiresome), and The Blackheath Poisonings of which I remember nothing. I’ve tried a handful of others over the past couple of years and never finished them. Why on earth then did I specifically reserve two little read Julian Symons books from the Chicago Public Library?

Confession #88: it was for a silly idea I had. Review a slew of books with titles that begin The Man Who… Symons wrote three of them, one right after the other back in the 1960s. I read one excellent book by Dolores Hitchens (The Man Who Cried All the Way Home) and posted that a few days ago. Now here’s the second in my series of “Man Who…” reviews. And was I ever surprised! This book may single-handedly have changed my mind about Julian Symons.

The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968) is an inverted detective novel with an anti-hero in the Patricia Highsmith mode. We know from the very first chapter that Anthony Scott-Williams is a cad. He dreams of a life in Venice, Italy while working as a researcher and secretary for an old General who is compiling a memoir that grows ever longer and may probably never see publication. Tony has several different identities. He willfully steals from his employer to supplement his gambling addiction, manipulates his friends and associates, lies and cheats to get what he wants and does it all with good humor and charm. Tony is bound to get mixed up with the wrong people as he continues to exploit the women and men he meets in his life of leisure. His girlfriend turns out to be a con artist but does he learn his lesson with her? No, he tries again with an older woman and his life turns upside down.

At first there is admiration for Tony’s hutzpah and a longing to see him taken down a notch. We briefly watch Tony in action trying to exploit a young woman he thinks is a rich heiress but when it all backfires he is more than a little angry. But when he next plies his charm on another wealthy woman, Genevieve Foster, he surprises himself by falling in love with her. Mrs. Foster has a plan, however, that includes a crime Tony has never dreamed of committing. This time he thinks his life will finally change for the better and he’s willing to anything for Jenny -- including murder her husband.

Like his own creation Symons seems to be playing the reader and exploiting his emotions with twists and layers of irony. First the novelist presents us with a likeable cad, then reveals him as a foolish and rash young man with an anger problem, and then ultimately as a victim of someone much more malicious and self-serving than himself. The shifts are all done with astonishing skill.

The one aspect that is unsurprising is that Tony has had a rather miserable life. We learn about his drunken father who beat him as a child, his ineffectual mother whose love was not enough to protect him from abuse, and his eventual descent into a life of crime. Free from maudlin sentimentality this history is told as cold and distant as an idealistically unbiased journalist. And yet the narrative elicits an affinity for the young man and a hope for a better future. The reader may join Tony in desiring a happily ever after ending no matter what he has to do in order to achieve his dreams.

When the tables are turned and Tony becomes a victim of an obvious frame-up, carried out in a heartlessly malicious manner, it only strengthens the reader’s desire for positive change in Tony’s life. He finds himself on trial for the murder of a man he never met. No amount of explaining to either the police or his wise team of public defender lawyers can muster much sympathy, even when he is forced to confess that he was conspiring to kill someone entirely different than the person he is charged with murdering! All the while the reader knows Tony is telling the truth and is eager for his lawyers to find the evidence that will prove Tony’s innocence. We find ourself rooting for this thoroughly unscrupulous and selfish man who was going to kill but never fulfilled his plans.

A bit past the halfway mark a private detective enters the story. He has been hired by a mysterious benefactor who has Tony’s best interests at heart. Dimmock works for Second to None Agency has been put on this case because the owner Clarence Newhouse trusts his most reliable and senior agent to do the kind of determined work he well known for. While other agents at Second to None may be fiddling with expense accounts and wasting time in pubs drinking away last week’s paycheck Dimmock is always on the case. As Symons describes him: “If Dimmock was asked to find a missing woman last seen in Birmingham he would go on doggedly looking until he found her or was called off the trail.”

The scenes with Dimmock are filled with a humanity and quiet dignity. The man is suffering from a cold while performing his job, the result of spending too much time chasing after witnesses during wet and rainy weather while dressed inappropriately. Sneezing and wiping his nose at nearly every home he visits Dimmock displays a skill in saying the right things to ward off anger and bring out the best in the witnesses who were guarded when questioned by police. With a down-to earth nature, an unapologetic manner, and despite his aggravating cold, Dimmock gets the various people on the list of witnesses for the prosecution to admit to facts that the police were not offered. He turns up crucial observations and perceptions that led him to finding damning physical evidence of Mrs. Foster’s guilt. Dimmock is the real hero of the novel and was my favorite character.

In the end for all its humanity, for all the shifts in sympathy we have for Tony, and even with the surprise of a nifty detective novel in miniature in the chapters that feature Dimmock The Man Whose Dreams Came True proves to be a darkly ironic piece of noir fiction. Can there really be a happily-ever-after for Tony? With a vicious attack on his character, with his ultimate admission of plotting to kill someone completely different than the victim of the murder trial, with that brazen and brave confession as his only defense can Tony receive redemption? He should be on the road to reform and ought to be rewarded with something other than the much desired acquittal. Perhaps a cruel Fate will intrude as happened when he met Mrs. Foster. The fourth section of the novel is titled “How the Dreams Came True” and in it Symons delivers a nasty punch to the gut. Despite all his dreams, despite all his good fortune after the trial, we get a finale that perhaps was the only possible ending for Tony.

QUOTES: “Tony understood that if there had been no threats it was a good thing for him, it meant that he had no reason to worry about the money. This meant also that it didn’t always pay to bring out the truth. Would it be right to say that truth was one thing and justice another?”

“Newton’s hand fell like an accolade on Dimmock’s shoulder as he said that they would need him also in court. That was an exciting prospect, but Dimmock afterward thought of the hour he had spent in those chambers, rather than the session in court, as the crowning point of his career. He had the prescription made up. And although it had no effect upon his cold he treasured the piece of paper to the end of his life.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

IN BRIEF: Man Who Cried All the Way Home – Dolores Hitchens

The Man Who Cried All the Way Home (1966) is a return for Dolores Hitchens to pure detective novel. What makes this novel all the more unusual is the detective. He is Chuck Sadler, a septuagenarian lawyer, slightly crippled who must use a cane to walk, and yet is still sharp as a tack and savvy about criminal procedure. He’s the perfect person to help Dorrie Chenoweth when her husband dies under suspicious circumstances and the police suspect her of possibly causing his death. It helps that Sadler is also her beloved uncle, a cherished friend as well as her elderly relative. Uncle Chuck steps in to help Dorrie identify her husband’s body with battered face found by his wrecked car at the edge of the Borrego Reservoir. Too many odd elements surrounding the man’s death lead Uncle Chuck to believe this is not an accident but a murder and he starts making inquiries on his own to help clear Dorrie’s name.

As he delves into Sargent Chenoweth’s business at his privately accounting firm he discovers the Dorrie’s husband was duping many of his friends and leading a double life. Shady business deals and stock market manipulation are uncovered as well as plans to flee to South America. Uncle Chuck also traces Chenoweth’s secret life to a love nest where he was entertaining a young woman both he and Dorrie knew since the woman was a teen in high school When that young woman now, barely 20 years old, is also found dead Chuck begins to fear that his niece may not be as innocent as she claims to be. The police are beginning to formulate a similar theory as Uncle Chuck, that Dorrie found out about her husband’s infidelity and decided to get rid of both of Sargent and his much younger mistress.

Dogs play a unique role in the story, too. Pete is the Chenoweth’s collie mix that got into trouble and came home injured. Uncle Chuck looks at the dog’s wound and tells Dorrie that its unmistakably a bullet that grazed Pete’s neck and ear causing a furrowed scar. When a variety of suspects turn up at the Chenoweth home as part of Uncle Chuck’s routine Q & A sessions the dog behaves skittishly. There are three separate people the normally friendly dog acts strangely around serving as a clue to the person who probably tried to shoot the dog. But why? Uncle Chuck is certain Pete was around when Sargent was killed. The dog’s odd behavior sets Chuck’s mind imagining an ingenious way to reveal the murderer. He finds a look-alike dog at the local pound and begins an vigorous training program for the quick to learn rescue animal. Ultimately Uncle Chuck’s plan proves to be one of the cleverest and original methods of unmasking a murderer to appear in any detective novel of this era.

Fast paced and a real page turner The Man Who Cried All the Way Home is one of the most engaging books I’ve read from Hitchens’ long career. It’s a definite throwback to her days as D. B. Olsen when she wrote traditional detective novels. The plot is fairly clued and populated with a wide array of colorful suspects all with varied motives. And she delivers the goods here in a rousing action-filled finale that reveals  a totally unexpected culprit.

It’s a shame that this particular title is so hard to find in either its paperback or hardcover editions. Currently, I uncovered only twelve copies for sale in English and some if those are the old Detective Book Club 3-in-1 volumes. Other copies are of French and German translations. I stumbled upon a copy of the ultra-rare Curtis paperback (pictured at the top) with the intention of offering it to Stark House for a possible reprint then learned that the remainder of all of Dolores Hitchens’ reprint rights (including all her books written under her various pen names) were recently outright purchased by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media. Sadly, we won’t be able to get this one in a Stark House reprint. And it may only be a digital version of this book that may turn up in the future…if it ever does.