Friday, April 30, 2021

FFB: Evidence Unseen - Lavinia R. Davis

Lavinia Davis apparently struggled her whole life to improve her writing and to be taken seriously. Primarily known for her children’s books she wrote five mystery novels for adults, two of which feature antique dealer Eleanor “Nora” Hughes who meets her future husband, lawyer Larry Blaine, in the first book Evidence Unseen (1945) and settles into married life in Connecticut in the sequel Taste of Vengeance (1947). Well suited to detective novel conventions having knocked off a handful of mysteries for young readers Davis shows a flair for offbeat clueing and unusual details that make her plotting stand out from others of her school -- the women in peril crime fiction subgenre pioneered by Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

In Evidence Unseen Nora Hughes has just finished an involved transaction related to the sale of a miniature desk that has been restored by an expert craftsman who specializes  in antique doll furniture and miniature pieces. Dealing with the temperamental Italian woodcarver and furniture restorer has been more than she can bear. The abrupt way the sale is ended forces her to take a break from her successful antique business. She hands over the reins to her assistant and heads to the bustling seaside resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

No sooner has she checked in but she finds a dead body in her room. She learns the room she entered was originally assigned to Professor Elmer Hughes. The same initials on their luggage and the same last name caused a mix-up and Nora was given the wrong key. Was the victim intending to meet Prof. Hughes or Nora? Complicating matters is the fact Nora actually met the victim. He rode up with her in a limo along with a middle-aged society woman named Eudora Singleton and her companion/servant Minna Plevins. She made a note of the odd conversation in the limo as well as the package the future murder victim was carrying with him because it had the distinctive wrapping paper of the famed toy store F.A.O. Schwarz.

Famous bell tag of F.A.O. Schwarz
often attached to gift wrapped packages

Nora uses her profession to her advantage as a sometime sleuth. Though not actually trying to solve the murder puzzling aspects of the crime linger in her imagination. As she makes friends and slyly questions people about what they were doing the day the man was stabbed in the hotel she studies her surroundings. Nora is always taking note of decor and furniture as a revelation of personality and character. Her keen vision and other senses also pick up unusual details like the bell logo on the package in the limo that signified it came from F.A.O. Schwarz, a missing black rubber cap from a walking stick or the bloody bandage on Prof. Hughes’ hand the day after she and Miss Singleton investigate a burglary in a cellar that was entered by a broken window. When speaking to a supposedly Swiss maid with a theatrically French accent Nora remembers that the maid slips into derogatory German slang when insulting an unliked female guest. And while pretending to sleep she hears a door open and catches a whiff of an exotic and distinctive perfume as someone enters, a perfume that can only belong to one person.

 THINGS I LEARNED:  Davis reminded me of Helen McCloy in her habit of dropping arcane literary references throughout her book.  Nora is clearly well read, highly educated, and in tune with 1940s pop culture as evidenced by the following matter-of-fact allusions:

1. Unable to sleep or even relax after having literally stepped on a dead body Nora takes a sleeping pill. As the drug takes effect and she starts to drift off Davis has Nora recite this obscure poem:  "Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,/Murmuring (sic) like a noontide bee."  It's from "To Night" by Percy Shelley, and I'm sure these days is only known to students and professors of Romantic poetry.

2.  In describing Eudora Singleton Nora cannot help compare her to the cartoons of famed New Yorker artist Helen Hokinson.  I had to find out what these society matrons so well remembered by Nora looked like.  So here's one of Hokinson's finest examples decorating the magazine's cover (she had several New Yorker covers as a matter of fact). Very suitable for this blog and this post. You can get an perfect image of what Miss Singleton looks like and how she behaves if you study the many Hokinson cartoons found online.

3. After a night of too much drinking celebrating her engagement to Larry Nora wakes up with a slight hangover.  She thinks of Pegler's New Year's column: "Dear Teacher, Cocktails, wine, and brandy do not mix."  Off I went to find out who she was talking about. I unearthed a wealth of info on James Westbrook Pegler, notoriously outspoken columnist, "the angry man of the press", harsh critic of Roosevelt's New Deal, and most recently accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and Fascist. Here’s an overview that gives both sides of the man. More on Pegler from William Buckley here and from J.C. Sharlet here.

Evidence Unseen, overall a rather simple murder mystery incorporating a smidgen of an espionage plot, is more noteworthy as one of the finest crime novels by an American mystery writer depicting effects of war on civilian life. During the final months of the war Atlantic City has been transformed into a temporary home for soldiers waiting for reassignment or who are recuperating in a special hotel converted into a military nursing home. In fact, nearly all of the hotels in this seaside resort have been turned over to the US military and are housing hundreds of enlisted men from the Army, Marines and Navy. Nora is staying in only one of three hotels still serving as stopovers for the dwindling tourist trade.

These soldiers on the surface seem to be joking young men, happy to be home, far from combat, but the war is never far from their memory. While traveling on a commuter train Nora and Larry are jolted when the train comes to an unexpected jerking halt. Larry tells Nora that a solider pulled the emergency cord when he heard several airplanes flying overhead. Then he apologized when he realized his mistake. Even Larry is not immune to flashbacks to combat when he grabs Nora and pulls her to the ground on the Boardwalk when a car backfires. One passage is particularly moving when Nora begins to notice why the wounded soldiers are different from the other military men:

It was not the bandages that made her throat suddenly tighten, nor even the pitiful slowness of their steps. It was their silence which was almost unbearable. The other squads of soldiers who had passed had been singing or had stepped out proudly to the gala blaring of a band. But these old young men were absolutely quiet. As they passed beneath the sundeck there was no sound except the distant thudding of the sea and the pitiful lagging rhythm of their footsteps.

Doubly stinging is the bitter comment from Professor Hughes who, standing nearby Nora, compares the indolent beachgoers and overweight tourists to the soldiers: “This is the place where those who have given most and those who have given least appear to meet.”

Unfortunately in this debut the mystery plot is mishandled in the final chapters. Melodramatic chaos ensues as Davis rushes to resolve the conflict and explain the motive for the stabbing death. The villain shows up with an entourage of thugs and proceeds to talk endlessly, feeble fights ensue, everyone is bound and gagged or hit unconscious, a fire is set to cause smoke and catch the eye of passing soldiers…. Piling up all these clichés on top of one another over the span of a mere five pages is the only aspect I can fault her as a novice writer for adults. Up to the less than satisfying ending Evidence Unseen is an excellent book, mostly for its wartime background and vivid characters. Davis’ commentary on wounded soldiers, the aftermath of combat, and what befalls those who saw actual fighting, killing and destruction all make this one American mystery set during the end of Word War 2 worth seeking out.

Finally, I must mention that Evidence Unseen is yet another mystery novel that uses knife throwing in the story. The way in which the idea is introduced is novel. Larry is watching several laborers amusing themselves by tossing their pocketknives at a target with Hitler's face on it.  He then asks one man what kind of knives work best for throwing and how far they can be tossed. Intriguingly, knife throwing is not used as means to commit the murder but rather as a way to get rid of the murder weapon. Though she gave us a flawed debut detective novel this odd touch seems to underscore how Lavinia Davis was trying to invigorate some of the conventions of detective fiction.  I have two more of her books to dig into.  Let us hope her plotting tightens up, she dispenses with hackneyed motifs and her unusual touches continue to multiply.

Friday, April 23, 2021

FFB: Pray for the Dawn - Eric Harding

THE STORY:  The relatives of explorer and trader in African artifacts Nathan Claymole are summoned by invitation to visit him at his remote home isolated on a island surrounded by a torrential stream called the Boa. Some will be meeting him for the first time in their lives. In the letters of invitation Nathan has promised that each person will "learn something to your advantage." Little do they know what the night has in store for them.  A weird ritual is about to take place on this night of the full moon, the dead will rise, and the family will fear for their lives as they Pray for the Dawn (1946).

THE CHARACTERS: The novel is narrated by ballet dancer, and sometime actor Barry Vane, nephew to Nathan Claymole. Barry is down on his luck due to a disabling injury that has ended his career as a dancer and performer.  Lack of work has resulted in dire financial straits for Barry.  He is hoping that this "something to his advantage" promised in the invitation will be a boost to his impoverished bank account. There are seven other relatives who are also eager to find out why they were invited and what news Nathan has for them.

Caroline Claymole - Nathan's sister. A religious zealot and termagant extraordinaire who spends much of her time harassing and belittling her daughter...

Betsy - mousy bespectacled teenager browbeaten into submission by her tyrant of a mother. She seems to have no personality at all, or has had it eradicated by her overprotective mother's domination.  But Betsy has a shocking secret that will change how she is viewed by everyone later in the novel.

Uncle Oscar - Caroline's wimpy cousin who spends much of the book silent and hiding in the shadows.  But he also has a secret and a hidden aspect to his seemingly Casper Milquetoast persona

Jonah Clay - the oldest of the guests, Nathan's uncle and Barry's great uncle. Ancient and barely able to walk he is described by Barry as "Death outliving the grave." Nearly forgotten by the group he snoozes and mumbles in a corner until it's time to escort him upstairs to his room

Sylvia Claymole - the ingenue of the piece is lovely to look at, generous and kind to Betsy. Drawn to Barry's gentleman’s nature she will soon fall to pieces and become the most paranoid and fearful of the group.

Bret Janson - the American cousin and requisite dashing yet arrogant man that always shows up in these stories of gathered relatives. He spends a good portion of the book drinking heavily to fend off his fears  

Tobias Judd - husband to one of Nathan's nieces who has apparently died unknown to the host. Judd has come in her place eager to learn what was promised to his wife.  He is the most suspicious of the group and Nathan is wary of ulterior motives.  Judd will turn out to be the most human, the one with the most common sense and, as the most level headed and courageous, ultimately he is the detective hero.

Nathan is assisted in his large lonely house by an African servant named Kish.  This is perhaps the one aspect of the book that will prevent it from ever being reprinted. Kish's presence allows Harding to go to unnecessary lengths in talking about "jungle primitives" and the ominous nature of exotic foreigners. The book is littered with paragraphs contrasting civilized British life with the dark impulses of the jungle, the savage nature of Africans. What little interior decoration can be found in Nathan's home consists of African and South African artifacts. Strange masks and weapons decorate the walls and --most bizarrely -- shrunken heads also pop up in the decor scheme. Kish is not just a servant but also the personification of the Voice of Doom constantly uttering ominous statements in his pidgin English like "Dead sometimes come to life" and "Have care Boss. Strange ground."

And of course there is N'olah, the dwarf witch doctor whose corpse has been kept in an alcove room underneath a staircase.  Nathan and Kish have kept a vigil all night, the 10th anniversary of the death of the South American shaman of the lost tribe of the Javiros who live in the Amazon jungles. [Yes, there was a corpse kept in the house for an entire decade.]  Nathan expects that the witch doctor will be resurrected after some odd ritual magic and African mumbo jumbo. His guests are quite rightly disturbed and frightened.

When the body vanishes due to a mix-up in the changing of the guard, so to speak, between Nathan and Kish the guests’ reactions range from unsettled to outright terror.  Many of them actually believe that the corpse has come to life. After hearing the strange story Nathan has told about why he and Kish brought the body back from South America the relatives are convinced the zombie is out for revenge.  A search is arranged with Toby leading one group and Nathan leading another. They two groups head off to find out if the corpse has come to life or if it was ever a corpse to begin with.  Eerie events, fights, scuffles, and attacks occur for the next several hours. Nathan orders that the bridge crossing the violently coursing stream be destroyed which will prevent N'olah from leaving but also prevents all the guests from escaping the island.  When Jonah is found strangled in his bedroom the novel begins to seem more and more like And Then There Were None redux with a zombie on the loose as the killer. At this point horror and hysteria are unleashed at full throttle.

ATMOSPHERE:  Speaking of hysteria unleashed...  Most striking to me is the manner in which Harding sustains the dread, fear and paranoia. It infects the entire group like a horrible virus. Oscar, the wimp, is seen growling and snarling at Barry. Sylvia loses control and keeps ranting about their collective demise: "Eight nooses!  Eight guests!  We're all going to be murdered!"  But it is Caroline's transformation from spinsterish finger-wagging Bible thumper to full-blown religious maniac that serves as the climax of the book.  

In one of the longest and creepiest sections of the novel Barry, Sylvia and Toby pursue Caroline into the labyrinthine cellars of Nathan's ancient home.  There Caroline finds Kish in front of a firelit altar performing an outlandish ritual complete with African chanting, and ecstatic dancing.  She and Kish have a battle and she ends up destroying a wooden idol he was directing his chanting toward.  Caroline has made both a literal and figurative descent into madness all because her daughter has gone missing.  She fears the worst and no one can find Betsy.  In the midst of her insane fight and destruction of the idol she reveals the deep dark secret that is at the core of Betsy's lack of personality.  It's a shocker of a confession and gave me a thought. I suddenly realized that there was a parallel to this book and Stephen King!

Caroline --who is called Carrie by her relatives -- is a religious zealot overly protective of her mousy personality-less daughter who everyone else sees as a freak. Ring any bells? This coincidence just blew my mind. Caroline, her relationship with Betsy, the heavy-handed quoting of Biblical passages and general over-the-top religious kookiness uncannily foreshadow Margaret White and her relationship with her own freak daughter in King's debut novel Carrie written three decades later. Both Carrie White and Betsy Claymole have a secret connected to violence. While Betsy is not a telekinetic monster when enraged she is just as murderously dangerous.  Perhaps it's a wildly imaginative stretch to think that King might have come across Pray for the Dawn in his youth, but he has been known to borrow from everywhere, horror comic books to old TV movies, for his plots.  Of course it might all be coincidence but it's a mighty crazy coincidence, if you ask me.

INNOVATIONS:  Harding includes an "Author's Note" (see the photo at right) at the start of the book stating that Pray for the Dawn is not a detective novel. He goes into detail to justify why the book is structured the way it is and why it shouldn't be considered a "fair play" detective novel, but rather an adventurous thriller. But that disclaimer, of sorts, is a huge red herring. The book is indeed a detective novel, albeit a very unconventional one. Scattered throughout the story are multidinous red herrings all of which I fell for alongside several cleverly planted clues that can lead you to figuring out exactly what is going on, who the murderer is, and why Jonah and one other person were strangled.

It is not unfair of me to reveal that all of the supernatural events will turn out to be rationalized. For all the hysteria and horror encountered within the pages of this genuinely terrifying and thrilling book there is no black magic at work, no ghosts, no zombies.  But it is rather obvious at the midpoint of the book as Toby Judd reminds Barry and Sylvia that the spooky events are all being engineered by some madman. But exactly who is it?  What happened to the dwarf witch doctor's corpse? Why are the nooses being used to strangle the victims? And what is the purpose of the secret dossier on all the guests which reveals the details of their lives including all their secrets?

THE AUTHOR:  Eric Harding is perhaps a pseudonym for a writer that no one knows very much about. He is the author of only two crime novels Pray for the Dawn (1946) and Behold! the Executioner! (1939), both titles so scarce that they are nearly impossible to find anywhere. I found only one person of note who used Eric Harding as a pseudonym but he turned out to be Eric Harding Thiman (1900 - 1975) organist, composer of songs and church music and Professor of Harmony at Royal Academy of Music.  Thiman's biographical information is rich with his accomplishments as a musician, composer and academic and I learned that he wrote a few songs early in his career using the name Eric Harding.  Is he also responsible for these two bizarre crime novels in that guise?  Anyone who knows anything about either man, please feel free to enlighten us all in the comments.

Friday, April 16, 2021

FFB: By Death Possessed – Roger Ormerod

Photographer Tony Hines inherits a painting from his grandmother and takes to it to be appraised by experts on the Antiques Road Show (yes, the TV show). Dr. Margaret Dennis tells him that he has a rare painting by British ex-pat Frederick Ashe. Rare because only six of his paintings are known to exist and are held in a few museums in Europe and in private collections. Tony disbelieves her. He was always told that it was the work of his grandmother. Margaret says she knows Ashe’s brushwork and she points out the distinctive overlaid FA initials in the corner of the painting as his unique signature. “No, you’re looking at that the wrong way,” Tony tells Dr. Dennis. The initials actually read AF which stands for Angelina Foote, the name of his grandmother. Margaret assures him that he is the mistaken one. There is no doubt in her mind that the painting is by Frederick Ashe. She urges Tony to take the artwork home and insure it for £20,000. So begins Tony Hines’ unwanted adventure into the world of manic art collectors, art theft, and con artistry.

A quick visit to Grandma Angelina for background and the final word on the real artist behind the painting reveals a secret relationship and the discovery of Tony’s true heritage. His grandmother was in an arranged and loveless marriage but prior to the actual wedding had an affair with Ashe when she lived in Paris. She returned to England engaged to marry the man she did not love and pregnant with Ashe’s child. Tony's father was that child making Ashe Tony's grandfather.

She tells Tony that Ashe recognized in her a talent for painting that he fostered. As a joke she learned to paint exactly like Ashe and had so much fun that they made a ritual of their art creations. They would literally stand beside one another and paint the same scene or person, but each with a slightly different viewpoint, at a slightly different angle. It was almost impossible to tell the two paintings apart from each other as they both painted in the same style, used the same brushstrokes, shading and even shared the same palette of paint. They also signed their works using the same overlaid initials of F and A. That was Frederick’s idea – a monogram that would work for both of them on paintings that each of them had created.

Shortly after this remarkable life history Tony’s grandmother dies unexpectedly but not before he has uncovered 81 paintings in the attic. But who painted them? There is a story about the other set of paintings that involved Angelina’s enraged husband who in a fit of jealousy destroyed all the art work by Ashe and his wife – all but one painting that Angelina managed to rescue from a huge bonfire her husband lit in their backyard. It is this painting that Tony had appraised. His grandmother cannot remember exactly which ones were burned and which managed to survive. She is sure that Ashe’s were all destroyed. Only one other person may know the truth -- Angelina’s lifelong companion and servant Grace with several secrets of her own.

Together Margaret and Tony do some complicated detective work trying to figure out who painted the 81  paintings stored in the attic. They track down a British collector of rare art work with the wonderfully evocative name of Renfrewe Coombes, who claims to own two of Ashe’s paintings. Coombes is like a modern day Count Fosco in both his physical appearance and his sinister persona.  As disreputable as Wilkie Collins' archetypal Victorian villain Coombes surrounds himself with thugs and bodyguards and a secret treasure trove of rare art work. Tony at one point dwells on Coombes as a formidable adversary:  

 "I realize now that I must have been in a state of euphoria, brought about by the sheer magnitude of Coombe's villainy. To a person like me, he was so far from anyone I had ever before met I was quite unable to contemplate him as a serious obstacle. I was nervous, but strangely confident.  I was over simplifying."

Will Coombes be able to help Tony and Margaret or is he after the Ashe paintings to complete his own collection?

I may have given too much info about the set-up for this novel but all of that happens in only the first three chapters!  By Death Possessed (1988) may seem like pure suspense, but it is a definitely murder mystery with some surprising twists which I have learned to expect from the inventive and devious mind of Roger Ormerod.  I enjoyed this book quite a lot.  Some readers may feel there is an avalanche of double crossing in the finale and that some of the wrapping up is too pat and convenient. Despite that I'm all for a writer who will fully enter the world he has created. Ormerod is not afraid to wallow in the Machiavellian betrayals of these people who will do anything to own one of kind art.

This is quite a good example of the art caper subgenre and a nifty addition to the many crime novels featuring an Average Joe caught up in a world of con artists and criminals who uses his own knowledge (photography, to be specific ) to outwit them at their own game. Ormerod was a photographer himself and we get abundant detail on how Tony's photo lab operates. It's not just the author showing off, it's all for a purpose. Pay attention to the sections on photography and you may see what Tony is up to.  I missed it all and it was right in front of me.

Recommended for both Ormerod fans and those who enjoy mystery novels about art forgery and rare paintings.  By Death Possessed, like many of Ormerod's books is now available as a digital book (Kindle format) from Lume Books and -- luckily! -- is available for purchase in both the US and the UK.

Monday, April 12, 2021

IN BRIEF: The Bank with the Bamboo Door – Dolores Hitchens

In the introduction to Dolores Hitchens’ The Bank with the Bamboo Door (1965), another knockout reprint from Stark House Press, Curt Evans quotes Anthony Boucher’s book review. Boucher wrote of Hitchens’ seedy exploration of small town California: “It’s a little as if a Lionel White Big-Caper plot had wandered into the midst of Peyton Place.” And a better precis could not have been done in less than twenty words. Those aching for that Big Caper plot will be sorely disappointed, it never gets past the initial planning stages. A past crime plays a bigger part in the story floating over the action like a funereal shroud and taking shape as a ghost of sorts to haunt many of the characters in Hitchens’ novel. There was an attempt at a caper long ago. A bank heist went spectacularly wrong ending in murder of several bank employees and the arrest of nearly all the thieves. Legend has it that $65,000 of the bank’s money went missing and may still be somewhere in the maze of underground tunnels, remnants of an old Chinatown in which the shopkeepers had connected all the buildings with a network of passages in the cellars and basement. But there is plenty of crime, planned or pending or commissioned. And, of course, a murder.

For much of the book it was hard to shake the Peyton Place mood. Perhaps Edge of Night is the more apt analogy if soap operas must be mentioned. For this is a town mostly plagued by criminal impulses and a bank robbery no one can forget. In the episodic narrative we learn a lot about a large assortment of people fairly quickly. Unhappy marriages, terminal illness, all manner of emotional problems --the stuff of soap opera melodrama -- are par for the course. While many of the local social club’s women dish the dirt about the “horrifying” possibility of a Jewish woman among their membership and a doctor’s wife mulls over an ambiguous medical diagnosis, crime festers beneath the town’s surface. A bitter doctor plots a permanent end to the blackmailer draining his finances, a woman ponders how and where to get an abortion without anyone finding out, a drug addicted nympho craves morphine while shiftily gathering the latest hush money payment from her victim, the co-owner of a pet shop cum garden supply store is drawn to the mysterious new customer interested in the basement of her store, and that mysterious man soon reveals he’s planning on searching for the missing bank money no matter what it takes.

Chance plays a cruel part in the outcome and the most tenuous of threads will result in deadly connections. Despite the tendency to lean heavily towards episodic melodrama, Hitchens does an admirable job of interweaving the various storylines with some startling intersections of lives and unexpected crossed paths. The finale is as noirish as her fine private eye novel Sleep with Slander and some of her other equally nightmarish suspense novels.

As is their usual practice Stark House Press has paired The Bank with the Bamboo Door  with another Dolores Hitchens suspense novel, The Abductor.  The two-in-one trade paperback was released in March 2021 and is now available from the usual online bookselling sites.

Friday, April 9, 2021

FFB: At the Sign of the Clove & Hoof - Zoë Johnson

THE STORY: The Clove and Hoof is the hot spot in Larcombe for a pint of bitter, a good story and some laughs. It's also the focal point of a bizarre series of murders for the only connection the victims have seems to be that they all frequented the local pub. Strange pranks, a spate of anonymous letters all painted in blue watercolor, and a decapitated head found floating in the stream near Starehole Gap all lead to the police uncovering unusual criminality dating back 20 years.

THE CHARACTERS: The story of At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof (1937) is memorable for its offbeat sense of humor and the colorful characters who inhabit the village of Larcombe. This is a world of kooks, oddballs and eccentrics galore. Only an oddball would create anonymous letters with a child’s watercolor paint kit, right? And what kind of person would think that playing pranks by leaving a fish in someone’s bed, placing a ticking metronome outside a bedroom door or using a airgun to blast pepper shot at windows would be viewed as terrorism and result in hysteria? A nut job for sure, right? At first the novel seems to be no more than a Wodehousian satire of folksy villagers with a smattering of farcical scenes but the pranks and the oddness turn sinister and deadly as the story progresses.

Two policemen of decidedly differing approaches to crime solving head up the professional side of the investigation. We begin by meeting the officious Inspector Percy Blutton aided by local cops Jack Marsden and P.C. Jipps. Blutton questions the various habitués of the Clove and Hoof with vigorous impatience and makes up his mind fairly quickly who killed Vicar Ernest Pratt, the first victim of the mad killer, who was found shot in the head at the base of a cliff not far from his car. Footprints indicating a hobnail boot and a pegleg are found around the vehicle suggesting that Captain John Thomas Ridd, the only one legged man in the village, was near the car wreck recently. But Ridd has a solid alibi having been on his boat returning home to Larcombe the night Pratt was killed. Blutton disbelieves him and hounds Ridd for the rest of the novel. That is, until Ridd suddenly vanishes without a trace.

Our other policeman is Det. Sgt. Plumper from Scotland Yard. Considerably younger than Blutton he has a more subtle style of interrogation allowing the men of the village and the few women (nearly all of whom are servants) to chatter away and gossip while he nonchalantly inserts pertinent questions to catch them off guard and almost always getting a quick and truthful answer. Blutton finds this tactic strange and pointless but is ironically envious that it works for Plumper as often as it does. Plumper also exhibits impatience with the locals but manages to get the truth quicker than Blutton. Unfortunately, Plumper’s ego gets in the way and he allows himself to be hoodwinked by a clever ruse in the highly interesting final chapter.

Of the various suspects we have Bert Yeo, the pub owner who seems the most reticent of the lot; Sebastian Hannabus, aging antiquarian and jack-of-all-trades who counts among his various professions taxidermist, antique dealer, and barber; Lionel Gedling, ancient recluse who lives in the crumbling mansion known as Old Barton who is the victim of the various odd pranks; his mysterious manservant Costigan a man with a closed lip and a secret he’s hiding; Jeremy Scoutey, the local grocer, and his daughter Alice who is one of the several people in town who owns one of the paint sets that might be the source of the anonymous letters; Rosa, the barmaid with a fickle heart; and the star of the book Christian Peascod, dilettante of the arts and amateur detective.

Peascod is the best thing about At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof. He dominates the action whenever he appears with his larger than life personality, his arch humor and grandiose manner of speaking. Fancying himself both a poet and painter but good at neither he is also well versed in detective fiction having read the works of “Bailey, Doyle, Van Dine, Roger East, Freeman, Wills, and Croft and the Misses Sayers and Christie.” I love that bit Freeman, Wills and Croft. A real in-joke for hardcore devotees of mystery novels. I take it that Freeman is R. Austin Freeman and Wills refers to the now ultra obscure Cecil M. Wills whose books are as scarce as Johnson’s are now.

Plumper listens to Peascod’s fascinating ideas about how and why the various crimes were committed -- all of it inspired by his favorite writers. Much to the would-be poet’s delight the Scotland Yard officer allows him to continue his investigations as a sort of unofficial deputy. But all the time Plumper has Peascod in mind as suspect number one. It was Peascod’s metronome found at Gedling’s home. Peascod was present at Starehole Gap the day the head came floating up out of the water. That Peascod is also fond of watercolor as his preferred medium for his laughable artwork is also a huge mark against him.

By the time the police have sorted the red herrings from the facts, discarded all the surreal nonsense obfuscating the murderer’s motive, six people will have died, Plumper and Jack Marsden will be attacked and nearly killed, and Christian Peascod will have a last laugh on the police who scoffed at his ideas.

INNOVATIONS: Though there is a protracted denouement which consists mostly of a cliché of traditional detective fiction I am beginning to detest – the villain who performs a monologue of his life while outlining the reasons for his actions—ultimately the book ends with some stunning surprises. Johnson has dared to flout the tacit and written rules of detective fiction and come up with a solution that defies all those conventions. I loved it and it made me grin in admiration. This finale reminded me how rare it is to encounter an unconventional rule breaker who thumbs his or her nose at the supposed rules and how much I mentally applaud them when they do show up.

THINGS I LEARNED: Johnson loves language and words and sprinkles her novel with unusual vocabulary. The adjective corybantic cropped up to describe the men in the pub when they get rowdy and it led me to find out its origin. It comes from Corybant, the name given to a priest who worshipped Cybele in ancient times. Their ecstatic celebrations to the goddess included fervent dancing that came to be described as corybantic.

QUOTES: Starehole Gap was beauty spot. Not a commercial and official Beauty Spot with Tea Rooms run by languid, rapacious genteelwomen and with Period Car Parks for char-a-bancs. No; it was just a pretty, unnoticed place, the private property of Lionel Gedling and part of his small estate on Larcombe Head. The Gap itself was a steep little glade sloping down to the sea, whose chief attractions were a delicate waterfall and a deep green pool. People said that had Lionel Gedling not been so thick-skulled and simple and crazy, he could have made money out of it simply by changing its name to the Faery Grotto, hanging lanterns in the trees and opening it to the holiday public at a shilling or more per head.

Christian was only too pleased to go. He had already got the first two couplets of Ode to the Bloodiness of Man, and he knew he would forget them if he tarried much longer.

“Our man’s certainly a colorful humorist,” [Plumper said.] “Like Peascod, he’s read his detective novels. The Clue of the Wooden Leg. The Clue of the Headless Body. The Clue of the Painted Letter, and now the Clue of the Bloody Handkerchief. Rich – very rich. Too rich.”

But Plumper was scowling. He was angry and he was worried because he had a strong feeling now that he was up against a maniac of some sort; one who was treating crime as a game, taking fantastic risks because he was too crazy to care about personal danger, playing mysterious tricks because it amused him to do so, acting from inconsistently abnormal motives. The whole business was too theatrical, too Grand Guignol.

“Merciful heaven! The man asks has it anything to do with this business?” Peascod was almost prancing with excitement. “This [letter] has come straight from the murderer, don’t you realize that? Hot from his bloody hand. Don’t just stand there dithering, man. Don’t you realize you hold the key to everything? All unwitting, you’ve stumbled on the villain’s secret! Quick, quick what is it you’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled, dreamed?”

THE AUTHOR: Finding biographical information about Zoë Johnson was next to impossible. Other than the very few listings for this book, one of two that were for sale in the past six months, I found nothing online about her. With such a dearth of info I was convinced that Zoë Johnson is a pseudonym for some well-known mystery writer. The book itself – with its primarily male cast of characters, a hard-edged satirical sense of humor, knowledge about the life of a fisherman, and the emphasis on men gathering in a local pub for camaraderie and entertainment – seemed to be the work of a man rather than a woman. But this could be a combination of sheer bias and utter ignorance. I thought of other writers published by Gregory Bles who shared the same sense of offbeat humor and dreamed up similar bizarre plots like Reginald Davis, John Haslette Vahey under his “Henrietta Clandon” guise and John V. Turner writing as “Nicholas Brady.” I guess only copyright information on Johnson’s two books published with Bles would reveal the truth, that and the actual contracts. William Collins & Company (creator of the Collins Crime Club imprint) purchased the publishing house of Gregory Bles in 1953 and most likely still holds the copyright for Johnson’s novels. My feeble attempts at uncovering the copyright info turned up nothing. Then after a few days of compulsive searching of the multiple online updates at Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV I found this:

JOHNSON, ZOË (GREY?). 1913(?)-1992(?). (Adding somewhat more likely
middle/maiden name and dates for the author of two 1930s novels in CFIV.)

Good heavens, I thought. She’s a real person! If I had the patience to carry on with this data digging I might be able to verify her birth date and death date with records from or some other similar genealogy website. But I really can’t spend any more time trying to figure out who she is or where she lived. I’m hoping someone who has some knowledge about Zoë Johnson will read this post and leave a comment below. It’s a real shame she only wrote two books and that the other one, Mourning After (1938), is so rare that no copies are offered for sale at all. This is yet another book I’d love to reprint in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: Helen Knowland - Senator’s Wife with a Dark Imagination

Madame Baltimore (1949) received quite a bit attention when it was first published. First, its author is Helen Knowland, wife of a prominent California senator at the time. Second, the book itself was one of the darkest studies of marriages gone awry in crime fiction to date. Had Knowland been more talented and dedicated as a writer she probably wouldn’t be the one hit wonder she became. Her personal life, however, interfered (more on that later). Still, one book is more than enough from Helen Knowland. She manages to cram a lot into her twisted portrait of infidelity and betrayal.

Madame Baltimore is quite a first novel and a signal for a type of suspense novel that would dominate crime fiction in the decades to come. Knowland was way ahead of her colleagues, the veterans of mysterydom, who were just beginning to acknowledge the transformation of the traditional detective novel into the novel of crime as psychological character study. In many ways Madame Baltimore looks back to the pioneering work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding in the late 1930s and Margaret Millar’s early novels on the early 1940s as well as prophesizing the school of domestic suspense that would thrive in the 1950s and 1960s.

Our narrator is disillusioned Harriet Berkeley who has become completely obsessed with Washington DC wonder boy Foster Ford. In the first chapter she reveals her extramarital affair with Ford now lasting for over a year and that has been paying him $500 every month for the past four months. Initially, it seems as if she was paying Foster to remain her lover, but as the story progresses in its unique structure that travels backward in time we find out the money is for an entirely different reason, one that Harriet herself is responsible for having created. Harriet is not a nice person. The more we read about her the more we discover that she has allowed her desire for Foster to ruin her life and all those she thought she loved.

From the start we know that Foster himself is a cad because very soon into the story Harriet tells us she is being blackmailed. Foster demands he continue handing over $500 or he will tell her husband that she is not only cheating but that she is paying him and let Bob, her husband, draw his own conclusions about the money. There is an air of doom about them. Someone is going to pay dearly and Harriet will decide who that person is.

A discussion about a letter from an anonymous woman Harriet insultingly terms “Madame Baltimore” comes up in conversation. Harriet is incensed that Foster appears to have another lover. She wants to end their affair but Foster threatens blackmail. Then we learn that the letter is written by Harriet in an elaborate scheme to create another fictitious mistress so that she can break up Foster’s marriage. It all begins to seem like some dreadful soap opera plot. But things turn deadly very quickly.

As with all simplistic fantasizers Harriet gives no thought to possible consequences such as Drucie, Foster Ford’s wife, not willing to act according to Harriet’s plan despite her having confided that she is more than attracted to charming Charles McAllister. Funny how people have minds of their own, and often act out of a character. In her naïve imagination where Foster belongs only to her Harriet consistently fails to see that the people she ought she know well – her friends, her husband and even Foster himself – can make their own decisions and do so in ways that repeatedly backfire.

Ultimately, Madame Baltimore is modeled on a classic inverted detective novel. We know that Harriet is a schemer, a faithless wife and deceitful friend and is planning to murder Ford. Like many of these classic forms of the subgenre the reader is waiting for Harriet to discover her fatal mistake that will reveal her as the guilty murderer. The unusual aspect of this inverted novel, in addition to its rather ingenious construction of shuttling between past and present in order to build suspense, is that Harriet has not made one fatal error but a series of mistakes, all of them illogical and stupid, all of them because she fails to think clearly in her moments of madness. It’s the study of an obsessed mind slowly crumbling under pressure. A fantasy of a silly love letter from a fake person leads to more lies and betrayal.

Knowland has written her novel from Harriet’s point of view and yet as Harriet’s state of mind builds from worry to fear to paranoia each of the other characters becomes more and more distrusting. What about that other letter on pink paper, the letter Harriet didn’t write? Who wrote that one? Is there really another mistress in Ford’s life? Or has Drucie caught on to Harriet and playing mind games with her? There is an element of Gaslight that pervades the novel. Even though we know that Harriet is a nasty warped woman we wonder if her friends and husband are just as nasty. Who really knows what’s going on? Is everyone lying?

Knowland loads her story with plenty of unexpected twists. At one point there is an incident that almost makes this an impossible crime mystery. But that mysterious incident is readily explained within a few pages. If anyone ever finds a copy of this with the dustjacket I suggest you not read the spoiler-laden front flap. Not only does the blurb make the story seem as if the book is a whodunnit – and it most certainly is not – it ruins one of the most shocking surprises, a scene that occurs close to the book’s climax, well past the halfway mark! Very poor decision from the marketing team.

That this kind of novel of deceit, lies and betrayal is set in Washington DC is telling. Helen Knowland was married to one her era’s leading and most prominent Republican senators and clearly had inside dope on the movers and shakers in Washington. Foster Ford is supposed to be representative of the smarmier opportunists . She describes Foster as a man who “made a profession of his hobbies, without pay.” While he may not be making much money he is earning plenty of prestige and building a reputation as 1940s style influencer.

Helen Herrick met her husband William Knowland in grade school. Against parental advice stating they were too young to marry, Bill and Helen eloped on New Year's Eve 1926; Helen was 19 and Bill only 18. After a brief stint as a California state senator and following service in the US Army during WW2 Knowland was elected to the US Senate in 1945. He and his wife moved to Washington DC. While a US Senator Knowland served as leader on various committees eventually becoming Senate Majority Leader in the Eisenhower years.  He remained a US Senator from 1945 through 1959.

In 1972, four years shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, the story of Madame Baltimore sadly came true for Helen Knowland. Her husband had left politics to run his father’s newspaper in Oakland but also had been cheating on Helen for decades, the first occurring in 1958 and lasting nearly three years before the woman, Ruth Moody, died of a stroke in 1961. While in Oakland Bill got involved in real estate deals to help cover gambling debts. The mob was involved and his life began to unravel. Helen divorced him in 1972 after his second affair with Ann Dickson was uncovered.  Knowland married Ann but two years later in 1974, overburdened with debt, shame and guilt, he committed suicide. His rise to political power, his years as Republican Majority Leader during the height of the Eisenhower era, his eventual fall from grace in Washington, and his ruinous final years in Oakland are all detailed in the biography One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland by Gayle B. Montgomery & James W. Johnson.

Though Anthony Boucher mentions in his introduction to the digest reprint retitled Baltimore Madame that Helen had several books in the works, including another mystery novel, none of them were ever published. She had dabbled in writing, a few articles and short stories made it to print, but not one of her planned three books  -- a mainstream novel about Washington DC life, a historical western, and a mystery novel. The digest reprint appeared in 1957 during the heyday of her husband's political career. At the time of the reprint's publication William Knowland was Senate Majority leader, at age 45 the youngest senator ever to hold that position, and his dalliances were already surfacing. Perhaps real life was far too dramatic and demanding to ever compete with Helen's dark and criminal imaginings on paper.

Friday, April 2, 2021

FFB: Golden Guilt – Francis Gerard

Sir John Meredith is off on another adventure involving kidnapping, revenge and another bizarre cult that hints at supernatural origins. In the prologue of Golden Guilt (1938) two men and one girl are “anointed” and banished to the Place of Fire “never to return until such a time as [they] have restored that which is lost and have avenged the sacrilege.” This outlandish thriller with a smidgen of a detective novel plot is populated with Aztec descendants, Russian gangsters, Mexican terrorists, a gang sporting tattoos of Three Clasped Hands, and a group of zealots from a lost kingdom in search of the legendary Golden Fleece.

THE CHARACTERS: Meredith does his best to prevent the kidnapping of Lord Allingham’s son Bobby with the help of his wife Juanita, Sgt Beef (who is remarkably related to Leo Bruce’s Sgt Beef!), Bradford and Col. Merryweather-Winter. Along the way two characters from previous books turn up, Sir Hector MacAllister and Clifford Craigworth, and assist our heroes in the complicated plot.

Add this title to the ever growing list of mystery novels and thrillers with a burial vault break-in. (I swear I need to do a post on this topic soon). After a funeral the Allingham family vault is discovered broken into and smashed coffins littering the interior of the chamber. Evidence points to the M.O. of “Soup” Smith, a notorious safecracker and burglar who preferred dynamite over picking locks to gain entry. Smith was recently released from prison and the search is on to track him down.

Some of the supporting characters were my favorite people in the heavily populated story and Gerard enjoys taking advantage of their eccentricity to indulge in his ever-present ribald and vulgar sense of humor. Lord Marshington, for example, is an aristocrat obsessed with growing roses. Meredith apologizes for interrupting him while in his garden and Sgt Beef is appalled when he hears his lordship mention he was planning on putting muck into Dorothy Perkins bed. Beef thinks the worst of this “supposed gentleman” who would throw horse manure into a woman’s bed chamber. The scene turns into an Abbot and Costello routine of wordplay and misunderstanding thankfully lasting only a few lines. But even in its brevity it made me laugh out loud.

INNOVATIONS: Like Secret Sceptre Gerard peppers his story with frequent allusions to Golden Age detective fiction writing and characters which supports my theory that these books are meant to be a send-up of the entire genre. See the QUOTES section for some of the better references.

This was my second favorite of the weirder entries in Francis Gerard’s series featuring Meredith, a British Foreign Office agent turned policeman. Brimming with action and eccentric characters Golden Guilt is another is Gerard’s near parodies of the ultra-heroic adventure thriller which originated with H. Rider Haggard and his books about Alan Quatermain and Leo Vincey then carried into the often self-parodying adventures of pulp magazine heroes. As for the capture and reveal of the villains of the piece all is not as obvious as it first appears. Gerard does a fine job of misdirecting the reader into believing that one character is the brains of the kidnapping then performs a nifty reversal in the final pages. In doing so he simultaneously supplies the requisite twist to the crime plot making this more than satisfying as a detective cum adventure novel.

THINGS I LEARNED: One of the women characters is wearing a “…really complicated, though apparently severe black Hartnell dress.” Ignorance of early 20th century designers led me to look up Norman Bishop Hartnell (1901-1979). Probably much better known in the UK than in the US Hartnell was a fashion designer who did most of his work for the Royal Family. He was given the honor of Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to the Queen Mother in 1940 and the same for Elizabeth II in 1957.

QUOTES: “We found everybody’s finger-prints there…!” He snorted “You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, with all this damn silly rubbishy detective-fiction stuff that’s written nowadays that everybody, down to a three-year-old, would know not to handle a thing like that.”

“I’m not really trying to behave like a detective in a book, but you know the more I read detective fiction the more I realize that the detective heroes are quite right to behave as they do and keep their mouths shut until the denouement. After all, nobody likes to look a fool…”

“And you’re equally certain that there’s no pointer anywhere?” suggested Meredith. “No nice bloody thumb-marks left on a clean piece of white paint, for instance? No scented or monogrammed handkerchiefs dropped outside the window? No uneven footprints clearly indicating the presence of a red-haired French sailor off a Dutch boat with a bad limp in his right foot, and no butts of cigarettes of a tobacco only smoked by members of the Egyptian Embassy”? . . . No, I suppose not.” John sighed. “I always think those fellows in fiction have the easier job of the two.”

There had always been an amicable feeling of rivalry between Matthew Beef and his more famous cousin Sergeant William Beef, who has so signally put the amateur detectives in their place in the case which had made his name, and which had been chronicled by Mr. Leo Bruce under the heading The Case for Three Detectives. Moreover, Beef, who rather fancied himself at darts, could never quite beat his cousin William […] who was apt to be a little superior with Matthew over his recent successes.

“A stone jar which contains vitriol contains an evil thing, but the jar isn’t responsible for its contents. Madness is an evil, there’s no getting away from that; but does that necessarily make the madman, the vessel housing this horrible ill-balance, an evil thing?”

EASY TO FIND? Much to my surprise I found several very affordable used copies of Golden Guilt. There are couple of the Thriller Book Club edition (some with dust jackets) as well as the Cherry Tree paperback offered for sale from various online sellers. But be warned – the later Cherry Tree paperback reprints tend to be considerably abridged from the original text. Even more remarkable I also found six copies of the US first edition and two of the UK edition (later printings each) all of them were under $20. One of the UK edition comes with a DJ in better condition that the one I picture here. The remaining of the hardcover copies (with and without DJs) range in prices from $30 for the UK ed in DJ to $100 for a US first edition in “about fine” condition with a “very good or better” dust jacket. As far as I know none of the Francis Gerard books have been reprinted since the 1950s. Happy hunting and reading!