Monday, October 4, 2021

Winners of Pray for the Dawn giveaway...

The winners of the two copies of the new Ramble House reprint of Pray for the Dawn were chosen entirely at random using our arcane method of colored tokens and coded entrant names.  And they are:

1. Jeff F.

2. Brad, from the "Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog"

I've already emailed each winner and I eagerly await your replies.  The sooner I get your address the quicker I can put your book in the mail.

Congratulations to the lucky winners. And thanks to all for playing. 

(Shown at right is a portion of the original DJ illustration from the 1946 British edition of Pray for the Dawn by Eric Harding)

Monday, September 27, 2021

GIVEAWAY: Pray for the Dawn Released!

Two book giveaways in one month?  What is the world coming to?  (BTW, there was almost a third,...but I'm saving that one for October) For that matter what is this blog turning into?  Seems as much as I've eschewed all forms of social networking, I've succumbed to what the internet does best and become yet another self-promotion marketing machine, my friends. Sorry to disappoint.

I'm happy to hear from at least one of the previous book giveaway winners that the last prize, a copy of A Case for Solomon by Bruce Graeme, proved to be:

"...brilliant. Apart from being a true bibliomystery, it also pulls off one of the best plot surprises/twists I have come across. Thank you for introducing me to such an inventive and innovative series."

 And I can assure you that Pray for the Dawn is just as innovative and surprise filled. Just released from Ramble House last week the new edition of this EXTREMELY scarce book is available nowhere for free online and has never before been reprinted until this year  Here's your chance to win a brand spanking new, hot off the laser jets, copy.

Those who may have read my rave review back in April already are prepared for pulpy horror, genuine thrills, and paranoid ravings from terrified characters who are trying to survive the weekend in creepy house on an isolated island. Paranoid and terrified because they are at the mercy of a murderous and apparently revived corpse. And it's a detective novel to boot!  What do you need to do to win a copy? Just this...

Leave a comment and name your favorite mystery about a group of strangers stranded somewhere at the mercy of a crazed killer. I have two copies and will award one each to two different people. This new edition with an attractively gruesome cover illustration by Gavin O'Keefe also comes with an informative and amusing Afterword by Yours Truly done in a suitably offbeat Ramble House style of banter and wisecrackery.

1.  Open to all readers who live in the USA, Canada or UK.
2.  Winners must provide me with a legitimate email address and name (or nickname) when they leave the  comment.  Comments marked Anonymous or Unknown are not eligible.
3. Winners will be contacted by email and then must provide me with a legitimate shipping address in one of the three countries listed.

CONTEST CLOSED. 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

LEFT INSIDE: A Variety of Bookplates

Pandemic boredom led me to amassing about three boxes of books (most of them still not read) and I noticed in reorganizing them and cataloging them that many had some intriguing bookplates.  And here they are for your viewing pleasure...

This woman was married to an optometrist in Ohio. There are various Scudder family trees found on various genealogy sites. But when I stumbled across a medical association book I found online I found out the entire family history of this particular Scudder family. She was born in Iowa in 1870, lived in Chicago and settled in Ohio. Her first husband died in 1900 and apparently she married the guy's younger brother, also a doctor, in 1909 when she was 39.


Over ten years ago I bought several books from this man's library when they were initally offered on eBay.  Apparently many of them are still floating out there among the many used booksellers because I bought this one only a few months ago.

 

One of the many popular bookplates from the famed Antioch Bookplate Company in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  I've seen multiple copies of this bookplate in dozens of books (from obviously various owners) I've either owned or perused over the past twenty years. 




Over the years I've owned several books form Oscar's library also. Quite a reader of mystery and adventure fiction.  This is also a popular bookplate design as I've seen it many time in various books.


I wish I knew who this artist was.  I see the initials LCD at the edge of the book.


This is a mystery to me.  George M.R. Holmes' name appears in a small banner beneath this ornate heraldry symbol, but I'm completely at a loss to understand what was granted by the Queen.


 Another coat of arms, but rather simple compared to the Holmes one.

 

Friday, September 24, 2021

FFB: No Questions Asked - Edna Sherry

Police procedural gives way to domestic melodrama then morphs into a full blown cat-and-mouse thriller in No Questions Asked (1949), Edna Sherry’s sophomore novel in name only. No “wise fool” at all Sherry shows the hand of a master in her second crime novel by expertly plotting two simultaneous storylines that converge in a thrilling climax putting two rival cops practically at each other’s throats.

Steve Lake is a veteran cop, now captain of a homicide squad in Manhattan. As the story opens he is in charge of a murder investigation that smacks of Russian spies and stolen documents a triple combination that is sure to threaten “The American Way.” As if that wasn’t enough on his plate Steve is beginning to question his young wife’s fidelity when he catches her in multiple lies about how she has been spending her afternoons. Early on we get pitch perfect sampling of urban cop detection when in showing how Steve’s inherent mistrustfulness is infiltrating his home life Sherry has the cop trap his wife with easily proven misstatements about what happened at the horse track she claimed to have visited. Sherry must have loved horse racing for this is the first of three crime novels to feature that pastime so popular throughout the late 1940s and into the 1960s. So upset is Steve with Vicki’s obvious and flimsy lies that he begins to follow his wife to find out what she’s doing when she claims to have taken a train to Belmont betting on horses that don’t even exist. When he sees Vicki in the company of a Slevna, a well-known concert pianist and the man who has been tutoring her musician brother, Steve is enraged. Not so much angry that his 22 year-old wife is cheating on him, but furious that she’s doing it with a man old enough to be her father.

Mistrust leads to paranoia which in turn gives way to wild imaginings based on this one eyewitness account of Vicki seen with Slevna. Soon Steve Lake finds himself contemplating a violent revenge. But as with most revenge plots in well written crime novels -- and this one surely is -- the spontaneous plan, ostensibly foolproof in Steve’s crazed mind, backfires spectacularly. As the law of crime fiction irony would have it Steve is also faced with the outrageous coincidence that Slevna is involved in the murder and subsequent corporate espionage his team is investigating.  More than that basis for an intricately constructed and intriguing plot ought not to be revealed.

Sherry’s novel is a brilliant mixture of multiple subgenres, a well-oiled machine of suspense and complex conflicted characters. Steve is enraged with jealousy on one page then overcome with guilt on the next. His snarky and mean spirited lieutenant, a bully of a rival back at the station house, is an opportunistic cop eager for the captain’s desk at the start of the book then morphs into one of Steve’s allies by the end. Vicki is torn between telling her husband the truth and continuing with her weakening deceit. The novel is also an intriguing study of the tacit policemen’s code of honor and what cops will do for one another when one of their own is implicated in behavior that could ruin his career and life. In that regard this book is more timely than ever and might be cause for debate among those highly critical of such unwritten and questionable ethics.

No Questions Asked would have made an excellent film or TV episode. Brimming with cinematic details, excellent characters, and the requisite twisty plot peppered with unexpected moments this is a second novel that shows a real pro at work. Some enterprising Hollywood type ought to get a hold of this still resonant and suspenseful novel and could make it as memorable as Sherry's debut novel Sudden Fear that in its cinematic adaptation garnered four Academy Award nominations. With only two books under her belt Sherry's reputation as a solid crime novelist was firmly cemented in the annals of crime fiction history. She proved to be a contender with later novels Tears for Jessie Hewitt (reprinted by Stark House Press just this year), Backfire and Girl Missing, the last of these three being one of the most widely praised of her later novels.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Winners of Terhune Book Giveaway...


C
hosen using an extremely unscientific but completely random method here are the winners of last week's book giveaway. May I have the envelope please? And the free copies of A Case for Solomon go to...

1. Allan H
2. Eric
 
Please email your name and preferred mailing address by clicking here
 
Thanks for playing! Congrats to all the winners.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Moonstone Press Giveaway - A Case for Solomon

What makes September a happy month? Another book giveaway, of course.

As announced last month A Case for Solomon, the third of Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune series of detective novels and reprinted by Moonstone Press, has been released. I received my box of books a few days ago and I’m offering two copies in a giveaway.  That's right -- two copies!  One copy each to two lucky people.

Terhune reviews a courtroom transcript of a 20 year old murder trial over the course of the novel and uses the transcript as if it were a literary work, gleaning clues as to the personalities of those testifying based solely on their speech and language as recorded in the court documents. To enter this giveaway, just leave a comment below and mention your favorite courtroom detective novel. If it’s been out of print for decades you might want to mention that and I’ll see what we can do to get it back in print. I’ve been rather successful on the front lately.

This contest is open to readers in USA, Canada and UK. I’m afraid all other parts of the world are affected by significant mail restrictions or delays that are too worrisome for me to risk mailing anything from the US. I’ve read all the warnings from the USPS website and as of August 26 airmail delivery, especially to Australia and New Zealand, is too unpredictable. If you live in either country I apologize that you miss out again.

Anonymous comments will not be eligible. Please make sure that you leave your name or some sort of ID when you leave your comment. If you win you will be responsible for emailing me your name and mailing address. Runners-up will be selected if I do not hear from winners within three days.

CONTEST CLOSED

Friday, August 27, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Somebody's Walking over My Grave - Robert Arthur

I may be cheating calling this a First Book, but it most definitely is this writer's only crime novel written for an adult audience. So it's a qualified First of sorts. And yes, it's the very same Robert Arthur who gave us The Three Investigators and many anthologies attributed to Alfred Hitchcock filled with stories intended for younger readers. I had to visit the tribute website for Arthur to verify this book was written by the same man I knew from that boy sleuth series of books I devoured when I was a pre-teen. There I also learned that it's actually a revised and expanded version of an earlier novella written for Mercury Magazine (more on that later.) 

Somebody's Walking over my Grave (1961), a much better title than the original, is influenced by and descended from the long line of fictional American private eyes.  Max London, our detective protagonist, supplements his income as a private investigator with work as a photographer and journalist.  At the start of the book Max is helping his brother with a story on the death of his brother's girlfriend. Pete London is convinced that she was murdered by a notorious gangster Tony Reiner who will end up having a large role in the case L Max will soon be handed.  The story of Max, Pete and the death of Millicent, Pete's fiancee, serves an extraneous subplot that will ultimately reveal a secret that Max is hiding.

When the novel opens we find Max taking photographs of model Selma Carle lying on the beach completely nude as the ocean waves "curl up to lick daintily at her naked body." Her risque poses are meant to duplicate the sad death of Millicent who drowned when she supposedly fell off Tony Reiner's yacht.  Max and Pete think she was thrown over.  Selma seems like an extraneous character, too, but she'll turn up later in the story in a surprising link to the multiple crimes that are committed throughout.  She's the character who utters the line which gives the book its title when she feels an unnatural chill on the sunny beach where Max is photographing her.  She mentions the superstition of somebody walking over your grave when you get a chill as something her mother used to tell her.  It's a not only an apt title it's an eerie foreshadowing of Selma's fate.

The main plot involves Max trying to buy back some IOUs for Jonothan Grigsby, a wealthy businessman and innovative inventor in the world of television sets. Grigsby has invented "a lens that will change any black-and-white television broadcast into color at the receiver."  Patricia Parson, Grigsby's business partner,  attempts to explain it all to Max but he tells her to skip it. I was glad he did that because the television invention is another subplot element that, in the end, also has nothing to do with the real story either.  And the few sentences Patricia starts to rattle off sound like science fiction than anything resembling real physics.

Dally with a Deadly Doll by John Mill
is the other book you get in the Ace Double
with Arthur's revised novel

  
It's those IOUs left behind by Grigsby's first wife Larraine that the story is all about. Larraine was considerably younger than Rigsby (what else is new?) and addicted to life in the fast lane. She spent most of her brief life drinking, driving fast, gambling and spending time with men other than her husband. One night after a hedonistic night of roulette, poker and booze she drove off the road, crashed her car and died in a blazing car wreck. Now Grigsby needs to clean up the mess she left behind and pay off her debts

Max wheels and deals with gambling hustler Marshall Dunn to buy back the IOUs at a bargain basement price.  Dunn wants an outrageous $50,000 (more than the total debt) but Grigsby is certain Dunn will accept only a portion of that.  He knows that Dunn is desperate for money because he too owes someone.  And it turns out to be none other than Tony Reiner.

Shortly after Max gets Dunn to accept the discounted pay-off  Dunn turns up dead.  Max is found at the scene of the crime unconscious and his gun prove to be the murder weapon used to kill Marshall Dunn. It appears to be one of those messy frame-ups private eyes are always falling victim to.  Max then has to work his tail off trying to prove he was set up and find out who killed Dunn and made off with the money he was carrying to buy back the IOUs.

For the most part Somebody's Walking over My Grave is typical of private eye novels of this era.  Plenty of violence, fistfights galore, Max survives several conks on the head, women are put in peril, he beds a couple of them and we get one dirty joke about an erection from one of his sex partners. This made me laugh out loud but at the same time seemed more like something you'd find in a 1970s book and not one from 1961...or even 1956. (Yes, it's in the original version. I had to check.)

As a detective novel it works well and there are even some clever and innovative clues like one involving cigarettes that are stamped with someone's name. Max first thinks the letters left behind on the butt of the used cigarette are s-o-n perhaps indicating Patricia Parson was at the scene of Dunn's murder.  But when he finds a box full of new cigarettes with the same personalized stamp and can examine the full name he finds that he was mistaken in what he thought the letters were. It was a rather nifty clue based on typography that is just like the kind of arcane, barely noticeable thing the Golden Age writers loved to employ in their detective novels.

In the final chapter Arthur decides to use the old gather the suspects and lecture to them scene once again hearkening back to the Golden Age.  The denouement, typically long winded in explaining all the details of the several murders, comes with exactly the sort of shocking pronouncement you'd find in Carr, Christie, Queen or Brand.  I had guessed two aspects of the solution but had not realized that both those aspects were intertwined.  Max talks about a dead giveaway clue that should have tipped him off much earlier and might have prevented one of the deaths.  And when he describes that one clue I practically slapped myself on the forehead for missing it.  It's so obvious that it would never have made the twist in the final chapter a surprise at all.

FIRST VERSION: Robert Arthur's first adult crime novel originally appeared under the title Epitaph for a Virgin in Mercury Mystery Magazine (Sept. 1956) as the lead story.  You can see Selma on the front cover illustration over there on the left. Though she is lying on the beach at the start of the book she's been decently clothed in a swimsuit or negligee in the photo and not scandalously naked.  Took me a while to locate a cheap copy of this magazine.  Several ignorant and greedy sellers are asking ludicrous amounts for reading copies of this digest sized magazine that contains nothing of any real value other than this oddity by Robert Arthur.  I didn't read this version from start to finish, but rather flipped through the pages and I found nothing about Pete or Millicent. Apparently the original ending was slightly altered in Somebody's Walking Over My Grave but I didn't do a strict comparison of the two books. Later tonight I'll look it over and revise this section if I find anything drastically different.

THE AUTHOR:  While perusing the pages of the Robert Arthur page on a website that celebrates The Three Investigators I discovered that Arthur was also a veteran writer of  for the pulp magazines which I don't think I knew at all.  Maybe I saw the name on the cover of a pulp years ago but probably thought it was some other Robert Arthur. Now I know it was the very same man. Robert Arthur (1909-1969) wrote over 100 stories using his own name and dozens more using a variety of pseudonyms that include Andrew Benedict, A. A. Fleming, Robert Forbes, Jay Norman and Pauline C. Smith. His work regularly appeared in nearly every pulp magazine that specialized in crime stories.  From 1933 though 1948 Arthur was published in Clues, Dime Mystery, Baffling Detective, Thrilling Detective, Double Detective, Popular Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly. I even found his name on the cover of an issue of the seminal Black Mask. Throughout the  1950s and 1960s his stories appeared in three top selling mystery magazines that sported the names of Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock and Mike Shayne in their titles. His work as a radio script writer won him an Edgar award and he would go on to helm the editorial staff at Mysterious Traveler Magazine based on the radio program he worked on from 1942 to 1953. His radio work led to some script writing for TV shows including Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Television and his Hitchcock association culminated in his work as editor for some of the first Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies (for which he wrote introductions in the style of the Master of Suspense) and the creation of the series featuring the boy sleuths known as The Three Investigators.

More on Robert Arthur can be found on his daughter's tribute website here and various author pages on The Three Investigators fan site.

Friday, August 20, 2021

FFB: Fatal Friday - Francis Gerard

THE STORY: What at first appears to be a straightforward shooting followed by a confession by the confused gun toting Lord Colchester turns into a puzzling murder. When the autopsy proves that the bullet in the victim does not match the gun that Lord Colchester fired at him the police are baffled. Sir John Meredith is coaxed into helping the local police uncover the surprising truth behind the murder of Gerald Fairfax on that Fatal Friday (1937).

THE CHARACTERS: I should have found this book tiresome and routine.  It is after all yet another of the myriad English  country house weekends gone wrong that serve as the background for hundreds of Golden Age mystery novels.  True, this familiar story is chock-full of stock characters like the annoying twit aristocrat Geoffrey Tracy who talks like a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey combined with Bertie Wooster peppering his inane sentences with "Eh whats?" and "I say ol' chaps".  We also have a hard of hearing Dowager Countess with a wicked sense of humor and a barely competent Chief Constable in the person of Colonel Merryweather-Winter, a recurring character in Gerard's early detective novels.  Even the blackmail plot that seems to be the motive behind the shooting of Fairfax was far from original.  It all should have bored me.  But it didn't. 

Gerard's lively sense of humor, his love of wordplay and farce are turned on full force in Fatal Friday.  In later books his love of farce is sharpened and becomes increasingly absurd the more outrageous his stories become. Though the characters seem to be carbon copies of the usual gang of suspects that populate these country house type whodunits Gerard has a knack for throwing in reversals of character traits and personalities.  For example, the Dowager's hearing loss is not used as stupid comic relief but rather as a ploy to manipulate the rest of the characters and to make fun of them.  She is well aware that people will talk too loudly and her supposed deafness comes and goes on a whim.  She hears nearly everything and plays at being deaf only to humiliate and embarrass the guests in her son's home.  I was hoping that she would turn out to be the villain and literally have the last laugh on the whole lot of them as well as the reader.  But the Dowager is present merely as a comic figure. Her scenes, not at all crucial to the multiple crime plots, are some of the best in the book. The story would have been a thousand times more entertaining had she been a pistol packing mama as well a trickster who pretends to be deaf.

Fairfax, too, comes from a long line of familiar murder victims you love to hate and who come to a well deserved violent end.  He's a cad of the worst sort who was rumored to have been having an affair with Lady Prunella Colchester, the Earl's much younger wife, when they were spotted at the same French hotel.  Fairfax who has desired Lady C from afar never bothered to deny the rumors choosing instead to play them up and enhance the rumors with suggestive comments to the press.  When he shows up again at another hotel that Lady C is staying at the press goes wild. Again, Fairfax does not deny what is clearly gossip and allows the papers to spread the story of Lady Colchester spending time not only with him but having a string of lovers.

Meredith enters the story when Geoffrey Tracy and his wife Stella learn that Prue is being blackmailed.  Someone has gotten hold of steamy sexually explicit letters she wrote to a boyfriend in her past. He travelled to Malaysia to take a job on a rubber plantation and while he was gone she became engaged Lord Colchester.  But all the time she carried a torch for this other man, who oddly enough is also named Gerald -- Gerald Fawcett to be specific, though he goes by the ridiculous nickname of Pussy.  [What the hell is that about?  This is the fourth book I've read since doing this blog where a British man is nicknamed Pussy. Beyond strange!]   And why would any writer choose to give two of his male characters the same name, I hear you ask?  You best not be asking that of a mystery writer. I knew immediately there was a secret purpose behind that apparent lack of imagination.

A pair of identical leather suitcases with engraved initial plates turn up. What are those initials?  G.F.!   Of course the suitcases are mistakenly switched and... Ta-da!  The reason for the two Geralds is made clear.  Or is it?  Turns out those two suitcases and their contents are extremely important to the plot and the ultimate explanation of who owned them is one of the many surprises Meredith exposes in the finale.

The mystery of who shot Fairfax is also deviously plotted.  Though Lord C has confessed to the crime the bullet fired from his gun is not found in Fairfax's body.  A .35 caliber bullet is extracted from the body and the .35 caliber gun that fired that bullet belongs to Gerald Fawcett.  He told a tale of what he did with that gun in Malaysia and how he unconsciously packed the gun out of habit and brought it with him to the house party. Everyone who heard that story the night before Fairfax was killed knows that Gerald had a gun in his room. But all events surrounding the night before and the day of the shooting keep coming back to Fawcett. His gun killed the man, his footprints were found in mud outside the open window of the library where Fairfax was shot, and Fawcett himself lies repeatedly about his whereabouts because he wants to protect Prue from further damaging her reputation.  Meredith is sure that Fawcett is the murderer and arrests him. 

At the inquest even the jurors return a verdict that specifically names Fawcett as the murderer.  And then we read of two trials - one for Lord Colchester charged with manslaughter and one for Fawcett charged with premeditated murder.  Things turn out well for one man, but not for the other.  Is the story over at that point?  Is it all anticlimactic and all too easily solved?

Juanita Meredith refuses to believe that Fawcett is guilty of the murder.  She insists that her husband investigate further.  Many a man has been hanged on circumstantial evidence she reminds her policeman husband. Don't let it happen to Gerald Fawcett. He is innocent, she protests, and her husband are responsible for that mistaken arrest and conviction. After looking into a few troubling aspects of the crime Meredith begins to see his wife's side of the story.  Ultimately he finds the truth behind the blackmail scheme and Fairfax's murder. When he reveals the truth it comes as a shock to all involved.

INNOVATIONS:  Gerard loves the kind of absurd misinterpretation of words in conversations and interrogation scenes that Abbot and Costello did so well in the routines like "Who's on First?" and the Monty Python troupe reveled in for so many years.  The inquest and courtroom sequences when Geoffrey Tracy must testify are like something you'd find from either of those comic geniuses.  Readers of Henry Cecil's satirical courtroom mysteries might also enjoy these scenes that Gerard does so well. The humor threatens to become a bit too silly but I always welcome silliness in detective novels that might otherwise become ponderous in these all to frequent dull Q&A rehashes during inquests and courtroom scenes.

Gerard engages in some clever plot machinations with the manner in which the murder was pulled off. It's sort of a reversal of an impossible crime or locked room mystery. Rather than a room in which all doors and windows were sealed when Gerald Fairfax was killed in a room in which all the doors and windows were open. When the bullet from Lord Colchester's gun is found embedded in the brick wall of the garden outside the police then look for where another bullet could have been fired. Lord C talks about a "echo" that followed shortly after he shot Fairfax and how Fairfax didn't fall immediately after he fired his gun.  That echo Meredith determines was the sound of the second gun being fired. But from where was it fired?  From the gallery above the library?  From outside through the window in the corner?  From within the library in a cleverly hidden gizmo of some sort?  The nicely drawn floor plans (included here as illustrations)  come in very handy when Meredith and his police team began to look for all possibilities for the origin of that second shot.

The more I read of the John Meredith books the more I realize that Francis Gerard was a genuine fan of detective novels.  Often he makes allusions to the genre itself and it happens here again when the contents of one of those suitcases reveals, among many other items, a handful of mystery novels by Sayers, Carr, Christie and Charteris.  He enjoyed playing with conventions, upending expectations of stock characters and their cliched personalities, and devised some clever criminal plot twists.  As the series went on the books become more fantastical as he added aspects of fantastic adventures, supernatural and occult, and even elements of the lost race subgenre.  One thing is for sure with their offbeat sense of humor and an outrage for amorality and wickedness these books are never dull.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Pretty Sinister Influence, or News on Reprints & Reissues

Lots of news on my overwhelming influence in getting books back into print.  OK, that's an exaggeration.  But suggestion and influence seem to commingle these days.

First. the Bruce Graeme Project of reissuing the Theodore Terhune mystery books continues with the release of the third title from Moonstone Press: A Case for Solomon.

It's been on sale since the beginning of this month at various internet sites in the UK and should be available from the US based Amazon very soon. At Book Depository the listing for this book does not have Bruce Graeme's name as the author, but instead has mine as the author of the introduction. Oops! But my often bruised ego doesn't mind that at all.

The rest of the Terhune mysteries will follow in quick succession:
Work for the Hangman in September, Ten Trails to Tyburn in October, A Case of Books in November, And A Bottle of Rum in December.

A few months ago Stark House sent me a copy of their latest Black Gat paperback reprint of Tears for Jessie Hewitt by Edna Sherry. I was surprised and happy to see this back in print. Back in 2019 I reviewed Sherry’s novel and had good things to say about it. For those of you who like noir fiction it comes recommended. A snippet from my blog post appears inside the book as the last laudatory blurb. You can read my full review on Tears for Jessie Hewitt here.  

Out of curiosity I wanted to what else Greg Shepherd had reprinted in his Black Gat imprint. These are single, smaller books in old-fashioned 4.25" x 7" size rather than his 2-for-1 volumes in larger trade paperback size. Imagine my delight when I saw this:

Yet another book I raved about on this blog.  And there's a portion of my rave right on the front cover! If you want to read the rest of the review for So Young, So Wicked click here.

Saving the best news for last.  The long awaited reprint of Pray for the Dawn by Eric Harding will soon be out from our good friends at Ramble House.  As soon as I get my copy I'll be sure to let everyone know it’s available for purchase.  In quirky style so suited for Ramble House Pray for the Dawn will have an Afterword by Yours Truly rather than a foreword.  With an afterword I was able to talk about all sorts of surprise elements in the book without worrying about ruining the story for anyone. 

Expect book giveaways and fun contests to win copies when the Moonstone and Ramble House books are ready for sale.

Friday, August 13, 2021

FFB: Murder's Burning - S. H. Courtier

Stewart Hamilton revisits the site of a devastating fire in Murder’s Burning (1967) Several years ago fire raged over an Australian ranch destroying multiple homes, killing livestock, and claiming the lives of eight people including Hamilton’s friend Pete Carruthers. Two bodies were never found in the ruins and Hamilton feels compelled to literally rake over the past in search of clues to the fire’s origin and what happened to the two missing men.

The story is a mix of two first person narratives and follows the style of many epistolary murder mysteries of the 19th and early 20th century. As Hamilton narrates the bulk of the story interspersed are reminisces of letters Carruthers wrote and sent to his friend when Hamilton was living and working in New Guinea. So we have Hamilton in the present revisiting the past via Carruthers’ first-hand accounts in the letters. There is some detection on Hamilton’s part as he digs and rakes through the five year old debris at the site of the fire. But ingeniously many of the clues to the multiple mysteries are to be found in Carruthers’ letters which are filled with richly detailed anecdotes and intensive character studies and psychological probing. Carruthers, who worked as a schoolteacher at the station school, we learn was fascinated with the people he met and lived with and was something of an armchair detective of the soul.

The book gives some insight into how Australian ranches – or stations in the local parlance – are run highlighting the advanced firefighting methods and various escape plans always hovering in the minds of people who live with the threat of wildfire on a daily basis. But was this vast and destructive conflagration really a wildfire? As the story progresses more and more evidence turns up to suggest that the fire was set intentionally. Hamilton is sure he knows the identity of the arsonist but the real mystery, besides what happened to the bodies of Wallace Shelton and Saul Leguier, is why the fire was necessary. He begins to formulate theories and comes up with several conspiracies dominated by an overarching conspiracy of silence about why the fire was set and what happened to the missing men.

A running theme of the book is “Sheltonian madness” a phrase used to describe the eccentric and wild thinking of Wallace Shelton who owned one of the stations. Apparently all the Sheltons had a tinge of madness in them which leads many of the survivors Hamilton talks with to believe that Shelton destroyed his own property. Subplots involve arranged marriages in the Shelton family; crazed criminal Rory Corbett, the local pariah and a scourge on the community; and na├»vely flirtatious Lothario, Billy Chad, who has been handing out cheap jewelry with juvenile inscriptions of love to various women. All these stories and people complicate the story and lead Hamilton in various directions as he searches for a motive for the arson.

Even more unusual than the Australian setting and the multiple storylines of the many families living in an around the station is the macabre twist that dominates the story around the last third of the novel. Hamilton uncovers a secret passageway behind the ruins of a fireplace hearth on the Shelton property. After descending a small stone staircase Hamilton finds an underground labyrinth where eventually he discovers something that one would expect from a 18th century Gothic horror novelist. Believe me you will not be rolling your eyes or groaning in disbelief but gasping in horror once you learn what Hamilton finds in the cavernous rooms beneath the fire ravaged ranch. All I can add without ruining the novel is that the large one word blurb plastered on the rear cover of my paperback edition -- “Grisly!” New York Times -- is an understatement.

As much as this bizarre touch was completely unexpected and a little over-the-top it made for a truly thrilling finale. And the ultimate surprise reveal of the lone survivor of the fire who has been living underground for years was the icing on the cake. I was not only led down the garden path by Courtier and his expertise in employing dual narrators I was more than pleased that the Gothic excesses ultimately all made sense and explained almost all the mysteries that Hamilton uncovered during his dredging up of the past.

The recurring motif of “Sheltonian madness” also comes to dominate the story. We learn that the madness is both figurative and literal and affects several of the characters, not just Wallace Shelton. If the reader is wise enough to read everything in the book (as I repeatedly mention one ought to do with any book) ) then the Acknowledgment that serves as a brief foreword to the novel will have prepared the reader for an unusual plot element towards the hair-raising finale. I did read the two sentences that precede the story, but had almost forgotten about it by the end And then I remembered, “Oh yes there was supposed to be something about insects in this, wasn’t there?”

Sidney H. Courtier’s superior debut detective novel The Glass Spear (1950) was previously reviewed here back in 2014 and is very much deserving of a reprint. Murder’s Burning, written 17 years later, is just as good for a variety of reasons, but it does have a rather slow burn until Hamilton discovers the secret passageway. Then it kicks into high gear and makes the trip to the end all the more exciting. I have more reviews of Courtier’s books coming in the fall. I think his books surpass Arthur Upfield’s as some of the best of Australian crime writing in giving readers unfamiliar with the land Down Under excellent insight into Australian culture, climate, geography and sociology.

TRIVIA: Oh! one final note that only true book collectors and rabid mystery fans like me will appreciate.  My paperback copy was previously owned by Edgar award winning American mystery writer Joe Gores (1931-2011).  He signed the book and dated it (see photo at right). The SF, I surmise, means San Francisco where he bought the book. He also lived there much of his life and that noir drenched city of both fiction and real life is where his own private eye character Dan Kearney lived and worked,

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.