Friday, March 26, 2021

FFB: The Man Who Slept All Day - Michael Venning

THE STORY:
There’s a house party at Frank Faulkner’s -- come one, come all. But who exactly are these people? Why don’t they know one another? Faulkner is a stockbroker with expensive taste, but with no sense of style, he aspires to be an American aristocrat and falls short. His brother George loves practical jokes and prying into people’s private lives for his own amusement. Seems it was George’s idea to invite this motley group of unacquainted guests. He apparently has the dirt on all of them. And one of his jokes goes too far. He ends up stabbed in his bed. The remarkable bit about this unusual yet not too surprising murder is George’s body keeps being found repeatedly as the various guests trespass into his room. As each person looks for some bit of evidence George holds over them they find him dead but say nothing to anyone about the corpse in the bedroom. After all George is known as The Man Who Slept All Day (1942) and it’s very convenient for all to let it appear he’s merely asleep and not brutally murdered. Who will finally have the courage to say what’s really happened?

THE CHARACTERS: First to stumble upon George the dead practical joker is Marilee Dixon who happens to see through the slightly ajar door her Chinese slippers at the foot of George’s bed. Wondering what they are doing in there she tiptoes into the room, sees that George is asleep, picks up the slippers and then notices the blood on his pajamas. She immediately thinks of the fight Tom, her husband, had with George the night before and Tom’s rashly uttered threat “I could kill you, Faulkner.” Marilee fears Tom lost control and carried out the threat. She decides to literally cover up the crime, pulls the sheet over the body and arranges the corpse so that it faces away from the door. Then she leaves the room pulling the door shut behind her. She will speak of the death to no one. Not even Tom.

It does no good. Over the course of the novel everyone in the house will enter the death room for one reason or another. And everyone will discover that George is dead. But still no one says a thing. Not even the dutiful butler Bletsom who we soon find out is actually an out of work actor with no experience as a butler except for the several bit parts he’s played as a servant on stage. He’s not the only person harboring an odd secret. George managed to release all the skeletons in the not-so-tightly sealed closets of the guests’ past lives and was ready to ruin them all. Not for money; he is no blackmailer. He does this as a hobby, it amuses him to expose everyone's closely guarded secrets.

  • Reno Brown is a criminal lawyer tries to regain a letter George has that has the details of someone living in a sanatorium. Someone that Reno was responsible for putting there.

  • Kitty Riley, Reno’s fiancée, worked as a chorus girl in her youth and knew some unsavory characters. She is looking for a photo George unearthed that shows her in the company of a man charged with murder.

  • Verna Rawlinson enters George’s bedroom also to recover a damaging letter that has proof of “photographs of Diana in her infancy.” Who exactly is Diana and why is she so important to Verna?

  • Cliff Rawlinson, Verna’s husband, is in search of some bit of evidence George got hold of that will reveal the true reason he had to leave England and set up home with Verna in the USA.

The Man Who Slept All Day is not so much a murder mystery as it is a crime novel about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve their apparently well-cultivated and comfortable life. The consequences of not reporting George’s murder to the police, letting Frank know his brother is dead and not even confiding in their own partners or spouses are never taken into consideration by these characters. They only care about protecting themselves.

The novel reminded me of a sort of variation on And Then There Were None. George is cast in the role of U. N. Owen, knowing the deep dark secrets in the lives of the houseguests, invites them to his home to confront them all for his perverse entertainment. Little did he think someone would strike back at him. Many of the secrets are related to crimes, some are only lapses in character but with possibly long lasting damage to reputation and social standing if the secret were ever made public. What Craig Rice (using her amusing alter ego “Michael Venning”) has done with this set-up is to explore guilty consciences as Christie did in her landmark novel, but with considerably less at stake than having everyone be a secret killer. Really what is delved into is the devotion of married and soon-to-be married partners and their complicated relationships. Repeatedly we are told that each couple belongs with each other, that each couple recognizes in the others an example of “true love,” of fidelity over all else, of devotion that take the phrase “till death do us part” to literal extremes.

The most mysterious of the guests is Melville Fairr described consistently as a “shadow of a man”, a ghost, a man barely noticed, an invisible person whose smile was more a shadow than a sign of emotion. He is an living riddle until the final pages when he reveals who he is and why he came to the odd house party. Clearly he will be the detective, but why he is present is more intriguing than the reasons that the guests refuse to report George’s murder. For the bulk of the novel Fairr merely sits back and observes everyone. He makes enigmatic remarks, offers up sage advice, speaks in that typically oracular fashion of the omniscient detective. Yet no one ever catches on that he could possibly be involved in with the law. He is suspected of being a murderer, but never as someone who might solve all their problems had someone spoken up quickly about the crime.

There is one more death before anyone says a word about the dead body in the upstairs bedroom. When all is explained Rice delivers a whopping triple twist. Perhaps this overdose of surprises is a bit too much for all that preceded the denouement.  To be honest I should have seen some of it coming pages before I reached the final chapter.

STRUCTURE: The novel is unique in that it takes place over two days. Each chapter is named after an hour in one day with the final chapter taking place at 5 AM on the final day of the weekend. In the “2 PM” chapter each of the characters starts reminiscing about their childhood and the past. They compare their life now to then, drawing analogies from incidents in their past to the troubling problem of a murder that no one wants to report or talk about. Each time a new character becomes the focus the narrative take son their voice and personality. The writing is skillfully handled with each voice wholly distinct from each other. Verna and Cliff have a decidedly British flavor in their syntax and vocabulary, Kitty “thinks” in 1940s era slang popular with entertainers of the time, Marilee views everything through the lens as Tom’s newlywed wife, Tom cannot help but take on the viewpoint of “up and coming lawyer” a phrase used repeatedly to signify his career is paramount. This device sometimes used ineptly in the hands of less talented writers. But Rice is right on target in creating truly distinctive voices for each of her characters from all of the houseguests to Frank Faulkner even to the baffling “butler” Bletsom whose backstory is perhaps the most unusual of this intriguing cast.

THE AUTHOR: Craig Rice created her alter ego Michael Venning when she wrote the trio of Melville Fairr novels. The Man Who Slept All Day is the first of the three books. Its release in 1942 also marked the debut of publisher Coward McCann’s mystery imprint dubbed A Gargoyle Mystery. I mentioned earlier that the name Rice chose as her pseudonym is amusing and that’s because it’s not the first time Michael Venning appeared on a Rice novel. Michael Venning is the name of one of the murder victims in The Right Murder (1941), one of Rice’s favorite books in her series of comic crime novels featuring the sleuthing trio of John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand Justus.

EASY TO FIND? It’s been a while since I included this section but I have to for this book because the answer is an excited shout of “Yes!” That is, if you like your books in digital format. Once one of the most ridiculously rare books in Craig Rice’s varied output, The Man Who Slept All Day is now reprinted as an eBook available from Open Road Media and The Mysterious Press. And at a mere $7.99 for this new edition I’d quickly convert to a reader of digital books. If you want an actual book I’m afraid you’re out of luck. There are zero copies offered for sale, though you might luck out with finding one in a library. I spent a pretty penny for my hardcover edition and found it seven years after I managed to score a pristine dust jacket salvaged from a warehouse filled with book salesman samples of a variety of mystery novel dust jackets. It’s the first time I’ve ever found a dust jacket first, paid next to nothing for it and then waited almost a decade before a copy of the book turned up. Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

And the Terhune Books Go To...

T he Pretty Sinister Books random drawing for the Theodore Terhune books took place a hour ago. Slight change in outcome... I randomly decided to award one book each to two people. Why not? More winners, more happy readers.  Especially thought it better when I saw a couple of bibliomystery titles that have supernatural or horror content. And so through an eccentric unscientific process (but entirely random, I assure you) the winners are:

Polly CurtissSeven Clues in Search of a Crime

edbucksHouse with Crooked Walls

Congratulations!  If you are a winner please email me and send your full name and mailing address. I'll mail the packages as soon as I get your info.

Thanks to all who participated.


Friday, March 19, 2021

FFB: Stormy Night - Christopher Hale

THE STORY: It was a dark and stormy night… Isn’t it always at some point in a crime novel? During this particular storm in upstate Michigan Dr. Lawrence Shuler is desperate to find his sister who went wandering off into the night. Problem is his sister is severely disturbed. A neurotic who shuns all socializing, avoids any people if she can Florence is known for taking solitary walks on her own but she always returns home well before dark. Dr. Shuler gets the unwanted assistance of Ann York who insists on helping him look for the woman. Together they find poor Florence dead at the edge of the swimming pool on the property of wealthy Curtis Graham. But only a few feet away Graham is also found dead. Both have been shot, apparently by each other. Ballistic studies prove the gun near Florence fired the bullet in Graham’s body and the gun by the man’s body matches the bullet in Florence. But there is a very peculiar find when State Trooper Bill French has the state medical examiner do a thorough autopsy. Two bullets turn up in the single bullet wound in Florence’s body! That’s only the beginning of multiple mysteries in this bafflingly complex tale.

THE CHARACTERS: In his second outing Bill French shows up early in this story and has to sort out the mess started by the incompetent Sheriff Ben Harper who decides to conduct the inquest rather than letting the equally inept coroner do the job. Harper tries to turn the inquest into a theatrical grandstanding opportunity calling witnesses out of traditional order to heighten the drama and reveal secrets and probe into private lives. Most of what he does is utterly irrelevant . in one of the best scenes in the is sections Harper is called out for his protracted questioning of witnesses by the foreman of the inquest’s jury who expected the event to be over in a couple of hours. He needs to get back to running his business and he berates the sheriff for not getting to the point. Eventually Harper blows the whole thing when his attempt at dramatic tactics fail and he has to call for an adjournment. French who has watched the entire inquest from a corner in the back of the hall took copious notes, smiling to himself and drawing attention from most of the women. French, you see, is startlingly handsome, dresses like a movie star in attractive tailor made suits, and drives a Rolls Royce. He’s hardly your average lieutenant with the Michigan State Police. Or any state police for that matter.

As soon as French takes over the double murder of Florence and Curtis Graham starts to be treated with seriousness. He tries his best to find the connection between the two people and uncovers one unexpected fact after another. Among the many suspects he must question and odd incidents he must take into considerations are:

Mathilde York – Ann’s imperious aunt with a habit of spying on neighbors with her binoculars form her bedroom where she spends most of her invalid life.

Amelia Winslow – Aunt Mathilde’s taciturn secretary/companion with a “mellifluous voice” and officious manner. She watches everything and everyone silently and always seem a bit too eager to carry out the old woman’s every whim.

Walter & Dorothy Preston – The York’s neighbors who on the night of the murders suffered severe food poisoning leaving them both bedridden and ill for most of the night

Gordon & Kitty Cuthbert – country club friends of the Grahams who are known to be spongers and loafers. They’ve been invited to stay with the Grahams after losing their house for non-payment of rent. Gordon was coincidentally present on the grounds when Ann and Dr Shuler found the two corpses making him suspect number one in Ann’s eyes. But what would be his motive?

Maria Graham – Curtis’ neurotic wife. With her weak heart she manipulates everyone in the house to get what she needs and throw tantrums when she doesn’t want to talk to police. Heavily protected by Vera, her mannish nurse with the “unusually deep voice”

Jimmy HaverfordAnother ridiculously handsome man in the tale. He’s in his late 20s, rumors circulate of his working in Hollywood movie business. He has every woman in town wrapped around his finger. He uses his good looks and easy-going charm to exploit most of the women and a few men.

Nicholas Post – Wannabe private investigator who brags about working for Graham on a secret project. Keeps dropping hints that he knows exactly who killed Florence and his former employer and more importantly knows why. Says the motive will astound and shock everyone. "Just wait and see!" is his manatra.

Lola – the Preston’s maid whose difficulty in getting some towels cleaned properly leads to her firing., Did she accidentally find out something she shouldn’t have while doing the laundry?

The mysterious man in the trench coat and fedora – overheard talking to Curtis Graham the night he was killed and seen walking around the grounds by some servants just before the bodies were found.

Click to enlarge this map of Riverdale, Michigan

 As the investigation continues two more deaths occur making the connection between Florence and Curtis even more clouded. One of those victims is introduced late in the book, materializing rather conveniently out of Florence's past, has a brief scene where he is questioned by French only to turn up dead four of five pages later. Hale has overloaded the story with gripping incidents at the expense of cohesion. The plot is perhaps much more complicated than need be. An abundance of red herrings are cleverly laid out to distract the reader from a rather obvious culprit. Only the motive is too obscure to uncover on one’s own until French supplies us with the killer’s reasoning. Too much emphasis on melodrama in the first half, some outrageous coincidences (Florence and Mrs. Graham worked as chorus girls together many years ago and a photograph turns up in which they look like twins), and some dipping into the trunk of hoary old clichés make this outing with French less than satisfying. But it’s never boring. On the contrary, despite its flaws I thought it highly entertaining and often very funny.

INNOVATIONS: I liked the contrast between an inept sheriff and the methodical State Police, an organization Hale goes to great lengths to extol. The personal motives of elected officials like the coroner and sheriff, two men not so much concerned with the legalities of their job as how they are perceived in town, are satirized as rural narrow-mindedness and self-interest. At one point a Michigan law is discussed that states all cases of violent death outside the cities must be reported at once by the local sheriff to the State Homicide Bureau. Walter Preston then elaborates that if the sheriff “isn’t well on the way to solution forty-eight hours after the death has occurred, he’s supposed to request the state to take charge.” Ann bemoans this as a “silly law” and wishes Harper hadn’t the chance to “mess it up” for nearly two days. She is fearful he will “ruin all the clues.” And he nearly does. French steps in just in time when Harper embarrasses himself at the inquest.

Enlargement of compass on the map
Poison bottles and pistols!

 
The two bullets in a single wound was a touch I’ve rarely encountered in detective fiction, or any crime fiction for that matter. It’s another way that Hale gets to show the ineptitude of rural elected officials. The local coroner couldn’t be bothered to do a thorough autopsy. Only the state medical examiner found the second bullet (the one fired first and embedded deeper in the wound) which was the actual cause of Florence’s death. To the surprise of all ballistics proves it did not come from Graham's gun.

One of the most fascinating bits doesn’t come until the finale when French recreates a rather confusing gizmo. It’s a way in which the murderer managed to create the illusion of being inside when in fact was outside killing the two victims. The gizmo reminded me of the kind of intricately designed machinery that John Rhode employed as bizarre murder means. This however, was supposedly a simple clockwork device to provide an alibi. An ingenious idea as it is presented in the context of the story, too glibly explained and almost dismissed by French. I’m not so sure if its actual function could be pulled off in real life.

QUOTES:   Mrs. Cuthbert looked very attractive in molded curls and a flowered chiffon frock. She faced him with the bland confidence of the accomplished liar and when her voice came out it was like thick golden honey pouring plausibility over everything she said.

By the fire, in a chintz-covered chair, in an eddy of lavender silk and Mechlin lace, sat [Mathilde York]. She looked as if she had been drawn by Arthur Rackham from her beaky nose to her brilliant eyes. Distributed about her person with the main idea of getting the most on, was a quantity of out-of-date diamond jewelry.

As Bill mounted the steps he glanced at Miss Winslow. The light striking across her glasses hid her eyes, but her mouth was rigidly curved upward. Her smooth brow was serene. Bill wondered why, as he followed her, he had the same sensation as when he watched men balancing in chairs on the parapets of high buildings.

French: “Well, why was Graham being blackmailed? What had he done?”
Post: “I have no idea. [Graham] refused to discuss it with me.”
Bill's opinion of Curtis Graham moved up a notch.

Post: “Have you discovered that Graham was married before?”
French: “Is that so? Are you positive of that?”
“Yes. Well… that is… I deduced it.”
Bill knew by this time that in Nicholas Post’s mind "deduce" was a synonym for "guess," but he made no objections.

I’m on a roll with Christopher Hale -- a great discovery of a writer.  I’m sort of angry with myself for not having read these books earlier. I had at least three Hale mysteries sitting in boxes for years and only just started digging into them. Aptly I chose those with the titles that reflected the bad weather we've been experiencing here in Chicago. I’m sure I’ll find a few more books in her total output that will live up to what she delivered in the very good Dead of Winter.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Return of Theodore Terhune – and Book Giveaway!

I was delighted to go to my lobby and retrieve a pile of packages yesterday, including one big box from Moonstone Press. Inside were five copies of the latest Bruce Graeme books they have reprinted. And now it's time for me to announce a secret I’ve (almost) kept to myself for over a year. Seven of the eight Theodore Terhune mystery novels are slated for reprinting and all of them will be released at scattered months throughout 2021! Moonstone is releasing them in chronological order so you can read the books as they were first published back in the 1940s and 1950s. The first two pictured here have been out since last month and are available in both digital and paperback versions.  Some good news for US readers who prefer physical printed books is that Amazon in the US can do a POD of the book so you don't have to wait for one to be shipped from the UK.

Another bonus: the Terhune series consist entirely of bibliomysteries, a subgenre of detective novels about books and book collecting. Each mystery novel is chockful of intriguing details and lore touching on all aspects of bibliomania including, in one later book, the arcane world of book auctions.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I reviewed Seven Clues in Search of a Crime, the first of the Theodore Terhune books, two years ago. Several comments on that post lamented that the book was impossible to find due to its scarcity and were hoping for a reprint. Voila! Sometimes your wishes come true, my friends. You just need a little patience.

I have been hired to write introductions to all of the books so you’ll get some interesting detective fiction history on how each book fits into the history of the development of the genre, as gaining insight to Graeme’s favorite themes and genre conventions. The publisher of Moonstone Press put me in touch with Graeme’s granddaughter and I was able to get some interesting anecdotes about her memories of him and bits of her emails to me have been included in the biographical section of the intro that appears in House with the Crooked Walls. He was quite a character!

To celebrate this exciting news of more Bruce Graeme books now readily available to the eager devotees of Golden Age of Detective Fiction I’m offering a copy of each of the two newly released books, Seven Clues in Search of a Crime and the equally impossible to find title House with Crooked Walls, to one lucky reader of this blog post.

RULES:

1. Open only to those who live in USA, Canada or UK. (If you live in the EU or somewhere on the Asian continent I hope you have a friend who will accept the package for you in one of the three eligible countries.)
2. Leave a comment below and tell me the title of your favorite bibliomystery.
3. After one week I will assign entries a number then randomly select one of those numbers through an entirely unorthodox but failproof method that has nothing to do with the internet.
4. Winners will be announced here on March 24.

Good luck to all those who enter!

  *** CONTEST NOW OVER ***

Friday, March 12, 2021

FFB: The Crime in the Crystal - Robert Hare

THE STORY: Portrait painter Elton Cleeves sees a vision of his nephew he before the man is found dead. Cleeve’s vision showed his nephew grasping one wrist then holding the other arm outstretched before collapsing. Minutes later Cleeves receives a telephone call informing that his nephew’s body has been found in a wood not far from the uncle’s home, he has been clubbed to death, a wound to the left temple and a bruise on his right wrist – exactly as in the painter’s vision. Believing he is clairvoyant Elton begins to investigate the crime by psychic means. He consults a crystal ball and believes he has seen The Crime in the Crystal (1933)

THE  CHARACTERS: His physician Dr. Adrian Berwick is concerned for Elton’s mental health. He thinks the elderly man is crumbling under stress and suffering from hallucinations. Adrian confiscates the crystal ball and keeps a watch on his patient. A physical examination raises concerns about the possibility of poison. Berwick does some sleuthing by analyzing chemical properties of Elton’s art supplies and uncovers a shocking plot.

Meanwhile Inspector Gearing is beginning his investigation of Dr. Michael Cleeves’ murder. Though the many routine interrogations we learn that Cleeves, the nephew, was an intolerable hedonist, nearly always drunk, gambling, and leading a libertine’s life. Uncle Elton lost all respect for his nephew, had turned his back on him and instead focused his attention and affection on his grandniece, Helena, the physician’s daughter. There are two guests of the physician who have moved into a small cottage on the Cleeve’s estate and they have had an insidious influence on Helena, normally a simple conservative young woman, almost a relic of the Edwardian era like her great uncle, she is surrendering to her father and his guests’ wild pursuit of cafes, bars and urban nightlife. Uncle Elton convinces Insp. Gearing that these guests, a brother and sister named Vincent and Irene Youles, have had a hand in his nephew’s death. Vincent has been paying extra attention to Helena with the intent of proposing marriage. Irene had been flirting with Dr. Cleeves and seemed to be thinking the same. The Youles, Elton tells the police, are nothing but “avaricious adventurers” and he is certain they plotted to do in the doctor hoping that Helena would inherit his money.

The joke’s on them, however, for Elton had several weeks ago disinherited Michael and made Helena his primary beneficiary. This makes the possible poisoning of Elton Cleeves all the more sinister. It is entirely possible that the Youles are so eager to marry rich that they will murder anyone who stands in the way of their plot to gain control of Helena’s money.

INNOVATIONS: Gearing and Dr. Berwick make an interesting detective team. Berwick with his scientific mind and a clearheaded common sense outlook contrasts with the near inhuman determination and obsessive mind of Gearing. Amusingly, Berwick tutors himself on “Investigation, Criminal” by reading a lengthy entry in an encyclopedia in the Cleeves library. He looks to this anonymous article as his inspiration to find the killer of Dr. Cleeves’ and the poisoner trying to murder Elton Cleeves.

All the while the idea of clairvoyance, omens, messages from beyond and the ability to have visions about the past and future haunt both Dr. Berwick and Elton Cleeves. A watercolor portrait of what appears to be Helena as a child turns up, but the date of 1885 proves it cannot be the grandniece because she was not born until 1911. Is it possible that this painting is also proof that Elton has some psychic gift? Could he have foretold the birth of his nephew’s daughter decades before she was even alive?

QUOTES:   All things are born and make their first growth in the dark, and premature exposure may kill them. So it is with ideas.

Was not the whole world made up of strange and extraordinary things which only the dullness of our senses had reduced to the level of the drab and commonplace?

The reawakening of memory! he pondered upon that, and with the thought there came -- as though it had sprang from the crystal itself -- an idea as startling in its inception as it was terrible in its implications, a supposition not quickly to be set aside. The shadows which darken the corners of a room...have a disturbing quality in their shapelessness which induces the beholder to clothe them with images of his own creation; because there is nothing we fear so much as a thing without form. ...[A]re they real, or must we account them the unnatural vapors of a disturbed imagination? For it is to be remembered, Adrian realized, that there are shadows in the corners of the mind as well as in the rooms of an old country house.

SUMMATION: The Crime in the Crystal is the first of three works of ingenious crime fiction by American writer Robert Hare. It’s a remarkable debut, such that in marketing the book Longman’s managed to get bestselling detective novelist J. S. Fletcher to write a laudatory foreword in which he succinctly describes why the book is a noteworthy contribution to the genre. Fletcher summed up Hare's work: "The highest praise that can be given to this first effort is to say that here is a story not only worth telling but told in really distinguished fashion." This is no hype, circa 1933, it's 100% accurate.

Hare’s second novel was an equally praiseworthy amalgam of inverted crime novel and detective novel The Doctor’s First Murder (1933) He rounded out his trio of works with The Hand of the Chimpanzee (1934), an over-the-top homage to weird menace stories of the 1930s pulp magazines like Dime Detective that nevertheless is an ingeniously plotted, albeit lurid and outlandish, traditional detective novel. I have recently discussed ad nauseum all three of these books in the "In GAD We Trust" podcast about rare and hard to find books that deserve reprinting. Having finally read the first of this trio of highly inventive and imaginative detective novels I will just reiterate what we’ve all said many at time: Will some enterprising publisher please reprint these books? Thank you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Only Couples Need Apply - Doris Miles Disney

Jay & Gretchen are looking to relax after a series of “projects” they’ve finished in various states across the country. They find a charming furnished coach house in Connecticut after seeing an ad that states Only Couples Need Apply (1973) and successfully rent it from Mrs. Mercer. They'll stay here before heading to Maine where they intend to retire from their “business.” All is well until we discover that those projects were elaborately planned robberies that drained the bank accounts and financial investments of several unmarried senior citizens. Gretchen gets herself hired as a secretary or companion, inveigles her employer to turn over control of their finances to her and with the help of Jay she robs them blind. The project usually ends (quite unnecessarily) in murder. Are the couple planning to do the same to Mrs. Mercer? It doesn’t seem that way. In fact, nothing much happens at all until Jay gets the egotistical idea to go solo, but this doesn't happen until well past the halfway mark.

When Jay tries burglary on his own mayhem ensues. But all this action and genuine suspense comes too late.  And the tying up of the unusual plot complications is very rushed.

If nothing really happens until the last three chapters then what is the book about? Character study -- and it's mostly in the past. More than three quarters of the book is the story of the five different “projects” that Gretchen and Jay have already completed. Disney attempts to compare and contrast the criminal worldviews of Gretchen and Jay. We get the horrible childhood Gretchen had that led her to stealing and her first thrilling murder. Jay is nothing more than a puppy in training and he’s bitter and resentful in his role of last minute hitman and getaway driver. He wants his own “project” and sees his chance when they land at the coach house in Connecticut. But the needless repetition of these projects with the same M.O. with the same kind of gullible and lonely victim gets increasingly tiresome and dull. Only when the penultimate project is described and we have a very cautious daughter overseeing the interview and hiring process for her invalid mother is there any real variety and a modicum of suspense in what amounts to a litany of thefts and death by gunshot.

And converting the stolen money into traveler’s checks?! It seems such an old person’s habit --especially in the 1970s -- not the practice of a hip young woman in her 30s. Gretchen only makes things more difficult for herself. She has three different sets of traveler’s checks all with different signatures of fake identities. Far from clever this absurd idea unsurprisingly proves to be her biggest mistake.

This is the most hardboiled of Disney’s books I’ve read. I thought she did malice domestic really well, but here she allows the 1970s vibe to intrude in a way that she can’t quite handle. Her dialogue gets stilted when she means Gretchen and Jay to be harsh and cruel. The sex scenes are laughably tame when I think she intended them to be steamy. But the violence and torture is right on target for a hardboiled crime novel. A truly odd mix from this writer.

All the while the entire plot is utterly preposterous. Through a series of plot contrivances Gretchen always manages to find people who do no background checks on her, never see her out of her disguise (a brunette wig, nerd glasses and fat suit) and allow her to take over their money managing as if she were hired to be their CPA. That Gretchen thinks she needs Jay as an accomplice is the biggest flaw of the story. She has a disguise, he does not. She does all the work prior to him stepping in for the final theft and execution of the victim. In the final stage (always the same) he shows up, points a gun at the victim, while Gretchen demands that her employer call the bank and allow her to close the account and leave with cash. Then after all that is done they tie up and shoot their victim. If Gretchen has so cleverly managed to drain the bank account on her own all those weeks why is it necessary for her to ask permission to get the last portion in cash? And why does she have Jay walk in with a gun and not bother with even a simple disguise? He uses the same gun for each murder. Never bothers to get rid of it. His fatal mistake for the book just as Gretchen had hers.

The final three chapters are mixture of suspense and sloppiness. Disney excels at creating tension in parallel scenes like the cinematically inspired section when Jay is committing a burglary in the main house while Mrs. Mercer is on her way home. This particular book, however, is overloaded with plot contrivances and last minute background info that comes at the most inopportune moments. We learn of a deep, dark secret in Mrs. Mercer’s past that changes the way she behaves for the rest of the book. It was a bit outlandish and would have made better sense had we been told the secret much earlier in the book. As it occurs everything from the climax onward to the finale is rushed and compacted. Crucial scenes are condensed to a few sentences that should have taken several paragraphs to lay out. Disney spent so much time on the history of her antihero couple that she seemed to have run out of patience with her characters. Eager to get everything over and done with she has the FBI enter the picture and prove to be super agents in connecting all the murder/theft cases and doing it all in what seems like a couple of hours. They prove Gretchen guilty for all of the murders thus allowing Mrs. Mercer to live happily ever after. Never mind that she herself is guilty of something horrible.

Betrayal. Amanda Blake as Mrs. Mercer
at the mercy of cruel Gretchen played
by Tisha Sterling (in wig cap)

In the end so much of this book is either disappointing or dumb.  Only Couples Need Apply – a title, by the way, that has no real significance – comes very late in Disney’s career, her fourth to last novel. She must have been running out of ideas and watching too many made for TV movies.

Interestingly, many of Disney's books were adapted for TV -- including this one! Only Couples Need Apply was made into the TV movie Betrayal (1974). Amanda Blake (best known as Kitty, the saloon owner, from the ancient but long running western TV series Gunsmoke) stars as Mrs. Mercer with Tisha Sterling and Sam Groom (both 1960s-1970s TV stalwarts) as Gretchen and Jay. You can watch it on Amazon Prime but even with its minor improvements -- only one "project" is shown with Jay as the aggressor in the duo, Gretchen is trying to reform, Mrs. Mercer's secret makes more sense and is introduced earlier in the story [just as I suggested!] -- it still doesn't change the overall ineffectiveness of this sadly unexciting suspense novel.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Hanging Doll Murder - Roger Ormerod

Can a murder mystery about a locked room with a broken window still be considered as an impossible crime?

The bloody shotgun murder in The Hanging Doll Murder (1983) sure seems like one. A man has been found with his face blown off and his hands mangled from the being shot at by both barrels of a shotgun. The entire house was locked from the inside and the front door has swelled from cold weather and cannot be opened. But one window in the kitchen has a hole in it, presumably from a shotgun blast and yet it’s too small and almost too perfectly made. And why is there no glass on the inside of the house if someone shot the victim through the window from the outside. Why is the glass only found outside in the snow covered ground that reveals hardly any footprints?

Is a puzzlement, as the King of Siam used to say.

Ultimately it isn’t the puzzle of the broken window that makes the book such an engaging and devilish bit of detective fiction. With a deviously layered plot, one brilliant piece of misdirection, and a gasp inducing surprise in the final pages here is a throwback to the heyday of detective fiction when story and plotting superseded character study and grim psychological probing. TomCat who blogs at Beneath the Stains of Time has reviewed several Roger Ormerod mystery novels and I finally succumbed to temptation after his most recent review mentioned other Ormerod titles with possible locked room elements that he wanted to investigate. The Hanging Doll Murder was on that list of books.

If the locked room really isn’t completely sealed and the problem of the broken window is only a minor impossible problem that doesn’t discount The Hanging Doll Murder as a fine piece of mystery fiction. But I prefer the original UK title Face Value. It’s much more fitting both for the pun about the identity of the murder victim as well as the colloquial meaning of the phrase. A clever police constable introduces the idea of the title when he says “on the face of it” the crime appears to have be committed one way, but what if the exact opposite were true? I can’t reveal either side of his argument without spoiling one of the many clever ideas Ormerod presents in this story of a violent crime.

A burned out car, a missing husband and the release from prison of a murderer/rapist all culminate in the shotgun murder. Prior to the discovery of the murder a weird plastic doll with a beard glued to its chin was found hanging from a noose in a tree on property belonging to the former prisoner. Later some taunting drawings are found painted on the house itself. Was someone out to kill the prisoner? Who is the victim? The husband? The ex-con? Or someone entirely different? Amelia Trowbridge reported her husband missing and becomes a key suspect when police learn she was instrumental in getting the rapist released from his life sentence.

This is the first of ten novels featuring Richard Patton. It is also the book in which he meets his future wife. Like Lord Peter meeting Harriet Vane during a murder trial in Strong Poison and The Man in the Moonlight in which Dr. Basil Willing first meets his future wife who is a prime suspect in a murder investigation, Patton meets Amelia Trowbridge who the police are highly suspicious of having done something to her missing husband. But unlike those very innocent other future wives of fictional detectives don’t be too quick to cross Amelia off the list of suspects in this instance. Things look very bleak for her indeed and her behavior does not improve matters. Patton is certain she is guilty of something if not murder then some terrible secret.

I really enjoyed this mystery novel. Rarely am I as thoroughly surprised by everything in a story as I was by this book. That it’s fairly contemporary is all the more wonderful. This is an excellent example of a modern mystery that honors the traditions of the Golden Age and still incorporates modern police technique, modern behavior and a motive that will never go out of style. I kept trying to outguess Ormerod at his own game and failed miserably. Patton makes a stunning pronouncement in the final chapter that explains a very minor mystery that I basically dismissed the moment it was introduced. Foolish mistake for that minor mystery is key to understanding the entire solution. It all reminded me of a particular trick repeatedly employed by Agatha Christie with great finesse. There are several amazing twists in the plot not the least of which is what happened to Amelia’s husband which is truly the most brilliant part of the story. Highly recommended. I’m off to find more Roger Ormerod books!

Monday, March 1, 2021

IN BRIEF: I Did Not Kill Osborne - Victor Bridges

This is the year I’ve been reading books by several writers who I’ve known about for a long time and have been dancing around the periphery of my interest level. One of these writers is Victor Bridges (1878-1972) who was born George de Freyne in Bristol. Bridges worked in a bank and as an actor prior to becoming a full time writer.  Eventually he settled in Essex where most of his books are set. After getting several stories published in magazines Bridges turned to novels and averaged one published book a year from 1912 to 1961. Recently, many of his books started appearing for sale online by the dozens. He suddenly became of great interest to me especially when I learned that his career had lasted almost five decades. Surely there must be something to his work for his career to have lasted so long.

I should know better. Being prolific does not necessarily equate with quality or innovation. Bridges mostly reminds me of his equally prolific, bestselling contemporary J. S. Fletcher. Both writers churned out standard thrillers jam packed with action (albeit predictable action).  Here we have popular fiction that appealed to an audience of undiscerning readers who liked all their entertainment to be ripping yarns, easily identifiable and familiar.

Bridges' most enticing title for me seemed to be I Did Not Kill Osborne (1934) so I started with that one.  Ironically, this is an invented title slapped on the book by American publishers. In the UK the book was published as Three Blind Mice (1933), unimaginative and off putting for its nursery rhyme allusion, but aptly symbolic of the three lead characters who get caught up in a dastardly plot oblivious to the danger until it's too late. Despite the difference in titles the premise was intriguing – Nichols Trench, professional sculptor, is on trial for the murder of Jack Osborne, an acquaintance who stole a steel manufacturing formula that would revolutionize construction and engineering. In the opening chapter Nicholas is waiting to hear the jury’s verdict while his defense attorney assures him that he will be acquitted. Of course he is and Nicholas then turns his attention to trying to find out who killed the industrial thief.

Nicholas is aided by #2 mouse Molly O'Brien. She has attended every day of the trial and her presence was not unnoticed by Nicholas’ wandering eye. Molly is the daughter of the formula's inventor and gives us the requisite background on how Osborne became associated with her father back in New Orleans and how he managed to get the formula and return to England. The third of the “three blind mice” is Nicholas’ best friend Sir Jerrold Mordaunt (or plain ol' Jerry to his pals), wealthy heir to a baronetcy, whose money allows the three to finance their impending adventures.  Jerry has a devoted butler at his beck and call and a faithful dog, George, that accompanies the group. Nicholas and Molly set up their sleuthing base at Jerry’s vast estate and together the three hatch a plot to recover the formula and capture Osborne’s real killer. A group of professional criminals are hot on Nicholas’ trail and they kidnap Molly which sets in motion a series of high paced pulp magazine style incidents which don’t let up until the final pages. Any hope of the book being a true detective novel just fizzles out.

It's all fast paced, easy to read, hardly taxing on the brain, yet all too familiar. Many of Bridges’ first books were adapted for the silent screen and he himself had written several plays prior to this novel. No doubt influenced by silent movies and penny dreadful melodrama I Did Not Kill Osborne is so much like hundreds of other books you’ll be overcome with déjà vu long before you reach the halfway mark. “Haven’t I read this before?” you may ask yourself several times. Nicholas saves the girl, punches out several villains, earns several bruises and injuries before the last page. Molly is stoic and brave during her abduction ordeal. Jerry is dashing and charming and witty, like all best friends, ever ready with cash or his trusty butler to help at the last minute. Oh and there's Jimmy, the 12 year-old boy who idolizes Nicholas as an artistic mentor (the boy shows him drawings and wants Nicholas to help teach him how to be a great artist). Jimmy is recruited to help navigate a small boat that takes our intrepid group to Essex where the climax of the book takes place complete with terrifying death trap and an explosion that nearly does in everyone. The villains are dirty, lumbering, stupid and easily defeated except when Bridges needs to delay the finale.  The leader of the crooks turns out to be a Bolshevik spy, a classic cliche of the egocentric villain who talks too much and never sees what's behind him until it bashes him in the face.  Yes, he too is conveniently stupid when Bridges needs him to be.  It all works out well (did you think otherwise?) with a happy ending for our heroes and deserved arrest for the villains.

Oh! Almost forgot. We do find out who really killed Osborne. But there was no detective work involved at all. By the end of the book with Nicholas having nearly died three times and Molly's being abducted, beaten and nearly blown up herself does even matter who killed Osborne?  The revelation is done in a confession by the killer's widow. Huge anticlimax.

In a word, passable. Very attractive dust jacket on the US edition up there at the top of this post. That's probably the only reason to seek out a copy.