Monday, May 31, 2021

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Morrison Sharpe in Death Goes by Bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 30, 2021

LEFT INSIDE (again!): Mystery Writer Autographs

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

 

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

 

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


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


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


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


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

 

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

Friday, May 28, 2021

FFB: The Man Whose Dreams Came True - Julian Symons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 21, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: The Dead Take No Bows - Richard Burke

The Dead Takes No Bows
(1941) gives us the origin of Quinny Hite, a former cop turned opportunistic private eye, two splendid plans – one of the scene of the crimes, the other of a gizmo used to carry out the quasi-impossible crime – and a preposterous story of revenge among theater people who seem to have lost their grip on reality.

In his former life as a cop Hite was honest and decent. One day he raids an illegal dice game, arrests all present ignorant of the fact that one of the gamblers is the District Attorney’s brother-in-law. Newspapers sensationalize the arrest making sure to note the arrest of the D.A.’s relative and as a result the lawyer loses his bid for re-election. In retaliation the D.A. has the Police Commissioner fire Hite. This kind of topical political pettiness gave me the impression that I was in for an intriguing satirical mystery novel. Unfortunately, Richard Burke seems to have been more fascinated with the novelty and fantasy of detective fiction because the plot resembles something that Harry Stephen Keeler might have dreamed up. It's a weird story of oddball performers lost in a limbo of nostalgia, obsessing on their faded glory and past achievements, and dominated by the stereotypical high voltage emotions and passions that are supposedly inherent in theater people.

The book opens with Joan, Quinny Hite’s fiancĂ©e, waiting patiently for her man to show up for their wedding to be held downtown at City Hall. She is dressed to go and he is late as usual. Just as Quinny shows up offering apologies murder intrudes. A hotel maid screams from the apartment above them and Hite rushes to the scene.

He discovers two veteran vaudeville actors shot in the head -- Louis Lothrop, comedian and theatrical producer, and Desiree La Fond, his one-time lover. Both murder victims are dressed in 18th century costumes from The Girl from Dieppe, an 30 year old musical revue set in the French Revolution era. An unusual reunion of the 1908 show’s cast had recently taken place, one at which every wore their costumes that was apparently held every year on the anniversary of the show’s opening night. There are odd clues throughout the hotel suite that serves as Lothrop’s extravagant home. Bullet wounds suggest two separate guns – a pistol and a rifle. A walking stick or wand of some type wrapped in a silk cloth is found on a mantelpiece near the dead bodies. A dog costume is found in a clothes closet. After the police arrive and Lothrop’s much younger wife Phyllis shows up unexpectedly with Lothrop’s former partner, David Earle, Hite is taken aside and secretly hired by Phyllis to find the murderer. She doesn’t like the way she and Earle were being questioned by police and she promises Hite that both she and Earle are innocent and have alibis. Hite jumps at the easy $500 retainer and the promise of more to follow when he solves the case.

Of course by this time he has completely forgotten about poor Joan and the wedding is indefinitely postponed. Joan is miffed but not very angry. It’s typical of Quinny apparently. Nice guy, huh?

The plot involves digging into the history of The Girl from Dieppe, the performers’ past lives, and the messy relationships that grew out of their involvement in the production. Forget about typical lover’s triangles and hotheaded romantic tiffs and spats. This company was infected by a lover’s tetrahedron. Nearly everyone was jealous of each other and romantic desires overlapped in quadruplets. Some turned to drink, some turned to drugs to comfort them when they were rejected and couldn’t get their object of desire.

Hite focusses on the raging jealousy between Carlo Ralph and Lothrop. Carlo Ralph was a stage magician and Desiree was his assistant and partner in the act. Lothrop stole Desiree away from Ralph. When Ralph’s magician career started to fail without his attractive female partner Lothrop cast him in The Girl from Dieppe giving him the thankless role of a pantomime dog. The costume found in the closet was the one Ralph wore in the show. Hite is certain Ralph is the killer. But when he learns that Ralph was presumed dead during WW1, that he never returned home and was listed as MIA Quinny is forced to look elsewhere for the murderer. Further investigation turns up more dirty secrets and forlorn love.

When Emily the maid is found dead in her apartment surrounded by candles in a what appears to be a mockery of a shrine Hite is baffled. A letter suggests she confessed to the murders and committed suicide. But why all the candles? Is the suicide faked? Maybe Emily saw something she shouldn’t have the night she found the two bodies in Lothrop’s suite.

The fantastical elements of The Dead Take No Bows threaten to turn the book into a self-parody. Burke seems to have modeled his first detective novel on a mixture of private eye action of pulp magazines and the nonsense found in Philo Vance mystery novels. The gimmick here is a murderer who tried to baffle police by using two weapons. And Hite obsesses on the theory that the guns were fired simultaneously. Why would that matter at all? It turns out that the killer created an elaborate bit of machinery using a strange contraption found in the Lothrop home in order to do just that. But I wondered why anyone would bother with it. It seemed an utter waste of time, something dreamed up for sheer theatricality and to puzzle the police, something that would only happen in a detective novel. If the killer was present in the room with the two people and he had a gun he could simply shoot both with one gun and leave.

Dare I mention that the hotel suite has special entrances that allow for anyone to enter the theater next door unseen? Lothrop owned the theater and had a bridge built at the uppermost floor connecting to his hotel suite so he didn’t have to leave his hotel and take the extra five minutes to enter the theater through its front door. Another piece of odd business that exists only to make the story strange and weird. And, of course, allow the killer to gain entrance to the crime scenes repeatedly without being seen.  If that wasn't enough tow other secret doors and entrances are discovered that connect the Lothrop suite to other places within the hotel and the theater. It’s like Burke took the worst gimmicks from Carolyn Wells and the absurd “impossibilities” in the poorer S.S. Van Dine novels (remember the pencil under the massively heavy sarcophagus in The Scarab Mystery Case?) and threw them all into his story with no regard for common sense. In the end Hite solves he case, gets his money from Phyllis, and marries Joan. But the finale is as ludicrous as the manner in which the murders were committed.

Burke can prove to be engaging and insightful as in the scene between Quinny Hite and Dorothy Earle, David Earle’s actress daughter who shares with the detective her observations about the sad lives of her father’s friends. She comments on the tragedy of turning your back on the present and disappearing into the past. Her frequent startlingly poetic statements (“Poor Uncle Lou… he was just sifting ashes.”) are so poignant they seem to belong to another book altogether and not this off-the-wall, Keeleresque murder mystery. For that reason I’m interested in reading the other few Quinny Hite novels I’ve acquired over the years.

Inspector Pierson (William Demarest, left) and Mike Shayne
(Lloyd Nolan) confer over the dead body of Desiree La Fond
(played by a mannequin)

Intriguingly, The Dead Take No Bows was sold to the Hollywood and turned into a vehicle for Lloyd Nolan in the Mike Shayne private eye series. That’s rather remarkable for a first time novelist, I think. Even moreso for having been turned into a movie so quickly after the book was published. Most of the Mike Shayne movies, oddly, used different books other than the original Brett Halliday stories and substituted Shayne in the role of private eye. So in Dressed to Kill (1941), the renamed movie version of Burke’s book, Quinny Hite is gone, but Joan is still there trying marry Nolan as Shayne.

I found the movie uploaded to YouTube and watched it a few nights ago. I was flabbergasted to learn that the plot was almost 100% true to Burke’s kooky novel. The only noticeable changes were that Phyllis, Lothrop’s second wife, was transformed into a society matron; Dorothy was relegated to one dumb scene in a taxi and robbed of her poignant monologue; one minor character became a potential second murderer in the slightly rewritten finale; and the original method for killing the two actors was dispensed with and a similar idea was substituted, one more plausible and possible but still rather ludicrous when you examine it closely.

There are a handful of fairly affordable copies of The Dead Take No Bows out thee for sale, including some with the rare DJ. But instead I recommend you look up the movie and watch it. It’s so faithful to the story it’s almost like reading the book. One warning in advance: Be prepared for Manton Moreland and Ben Carter doing some awful scaredy-cat Black man "humor" in one of the few wholly original, but insulting, scenes in the movie.

Friday, May 14, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Dead Man's Float - Amber Dean

Set in a summer resort town on the shores of Ogg Lake Dead Man’s Float (1944) deals with the macabre drowning death of Bethine Coit who was married to ineffectual Chester a travelling salesman who sells dental supplies. Bethine was a notorious flirt with all the men at the resort when Chester is not around. And sometime when he is. It all looks to be a horrible accident but Max Johnson and Abbie Harris think someone deliberately sent Bethine to her watery grave.

Our narrator is Alberta “Abbie” Harris who lives with her two middle-aged sisters, Lily, the oldest, and Maggie, the fattest. Their nephew Bill Hunt, son of deceased sister Carrie, is staying with the Harris sisters while he studies aeronautics at a local college and awaits his military assignment. He’s 21 years old and newly enlisted in the army.

Neighbor Max Johnson is responsible for Abbie becoming an adult Nancy Drew almost against her will. Knowing full well that Bethine never swam, hated to get wet, in fact, despite enjoying parading around in her bathing suit Max is convinced that someone took Bethine out on a boat and did her in on the float then disposed of her body in the lake. He has already nosed around looking for her missing skiff and found some odd signs of disturbance on the float. During the annual sailboat regatta Max falls off his boat because someone has cut a jib rope. He nearly drowns during the boat race and is rescued in the nick of time by his sailing partner Bill. It seems someone is not too happy with Max and his amateur sleuthing. But that doesn’t stop him from enlisting help from Abbie to snoop around in the Coit home. He wants he to look for anything that may indicate someone wanted Bethine dead. Maybe she was blackmailing someone. The reason she and her husband turned up at Ogg Lake (presumably somewhere in upstate New York, Dean's home state) is all kind of fishy to Max. They’re not at all the camping, fishing and swimming types at all.

Abbie enters the Coit home through sheer luck, does her Nancy Drew bit and finds some intriguing letters and documents referencing the Harris family finances. Just as she is about to leave she’s shoved down the stairs and blacks out from the fall. When she regains consciousness the letters and documents she had in her hand are gone and a dead man is on top of her bleeding from a fatal head wound. It’s Chester. Looks like someone definitely had it in for the Coits.

The novel is teeming with characters and the first three chapters are dizzying in trying to keep all the neighbors and their children straightened out. We are told who is a local and who is a renter. When the renters are introduced the renters we are also told who owns the cottage (unnecessary info as it has nothing to do with the plot at all). A coterie of college girls have rented one cottage and they intrude with their chatter and nonsense every ten pages or so like the German tourists flitting in and out of the action in Night of the Iguana. They finally disappear after the second murder takes place. Took a while for me to figure out just who I should be paying attention to.

Max is married to a woman named Mommie (!) and they have three impish girls who figure in the plot. But Dean chooses not to give any of these little girls names. They are instead referred to as the oldest, the middle one, and the littlest one. Why don’t they get names? Especially since they are the ones who discover Bethine’s body. The “littlest one” has a larger role than the other two and figures in a scene with Abbie that leads her to discovering a secret in her sister Lily’s sewing basket. Very odd that none of these children gets a full identity with a name.

I liked Dr. Custom, another in a long line of flippant coroners with an irreverent sense of humor that devotees of vintage crime fiction ought to be familiar with. We’re actually still stuck with them on TV crime shows on both sides of the Pond. Still, Dr. Custom is a welcome addition to any scene he appears in bringing a much needed dose of black humor to the sometimes heavy-handed goings-on.

Dean’s frequent ponderous and obvious metaphors don’t do her otherwise fertile imagination real justice. She has the chops for challenging mystery plotting, but her choices when it comes to figurative language are often obvious and flat, at least in her debut novel.

Amber Dean
(circa 1970)
Despite these minor quibbles this is a nicely done mystery with quite a few surprises in its finale. Dead Man’s Float was Dean’s first mystery novel for the Doubleday Crime Club and she went on to have a rather prolific career. She wrote sixteen more books over the next 30 years. Abbie Harris appears in seven of those books. The titles are listed below.

Abbie Harris Detective Novels
Dead Man's Float
(1944)
Chanticleer's Muffled Crow
(1945)
Call Me Pandora
(1946), also published as The Blonde Is Dead
Wrap It Up
(1946)
No Traveler Returns (1948)
Snipe Hunt (1949)
August Incident (1951)

Friday, May 7, 2021

FFB: The Silence of the Night - Roger Ormerod

THE STORY:
Weary of the world of police work David Mallin is now in security work, his most recent assignment is to guard the artwork – in particular, a Chinese vase from the T’ang dynasty – at an upcoming gala in the home of Hillary Keane, art collector and real estate mogul. But the night before the gala Keane’s home is burglarized, a man is murdered, and the vase is smashed to pieces. Mallin offers to help find out exactly what happened when his girlfriend’s uncle is implicated in the burglary and possibly the murder. Because Mallin was on site at the time of the burglary and was suspiciously knocked out by an unknown assailant the police immediately suspect the security guard of being involved in the crimes. Mallin works furiously to clear Elsa’s uncle and himself of all culpability.

THE CHARACTERS: Dave Mallin is modeled on the American private eye heroes of the 1940s. The entire book is imbued with the conventions of an action-filled pulp thriller. He speaks just like one of the generic wiseguy private eyes from books and movies of a bygone era. Very odd for a British book published in 1974. But he’s inherently likeable as a protagonist and I liked his irreverent treatment of his former police colleagues. He has all the inside dope on how police officers think and operate and this gives him an advantage over them as he resorts to a battle of both wits and methods in figuring out what happened at Killington Towers.

Elsa seems to be present only as a foil for Mallin’s coarse personality. In contrast to her boyfriend Elsa is refined, a wannabe sophisticate, who longs for a better behaved, more gentlemanly man in her life. She’s constantly bickering with Mallin and adding insult to injury flirts with all the well-to-do art collectors. One of these men, Martin Vale, spends a lot of time with Elsa. She accepts his attention mostly to irritate Mallin and because the guy has a Porsche. There is a running gag about her own car that has a faulty starter and a kind of stupid subplot about trying to get it repaired. Her Rover sometimes starts up fine, and at other times fails to start at all. This serves as a gimmick to keep the arguing flowing throughout the story. But what at first I thought was just dumb jokes and filler turns out to be an important plot point. Cars, their engines and whether they run well or not all turn out to be significant to the story and help Mallin defeat the villain in the end.

Speaking of subplots -- in addition to all the talk about art and antiques, specifically ancient Chinese porcelain, there is a parallel story about 17th century playwright manuscripts making this both an art mystery and a bibliomystery. The murder victim is Cameron Frazer, an oddball researcher obsessed with proving that Christopher Marlowe was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. He has managed to infiltrate the Keane household without invitation and holed himself up in the library refusing to leave. All this because in addition to the fine art collection Killington Towers houses a library of rare books and manuscripts. Keane inherited the library from the previous owner. Among those rare manuscripts is a Shakespearean first folio that Frazer was poring over at the time of his death.

T'ang dynasty jar with lid
Even more intriguing is the fact that Frazer is deaf. This presents an intriguing impossible crime of sorts. The police presume that the burglar was startled in his theft of the vase, dropped it, broke the thing, and then murdered the researcher so that he could not identify the burglar. But Mallin maintains that the murder was an inside job and that the killer must have known that Frazer was deaf otherwise he would not have attempted the burglary in the first place. So if it was an inside job why was Frazer, a deaf man, killed? He would not have heard anything, not a door being jimmied or a window being raised, and certainly not the smashing sound of the vase when it broke. It’s all rather mysterious. Mallin wonders which was the intended crime – the murder or the burglary? Was there even any crime at all? Was the burglary faked? Was the murder an accident?

Elsa’s uncle was involved in a shady deal trying to acquire the first folio for one of Keane’s collector friends, Alton Bloome who is visiting from Minnesota. Bloome is also interested in the Marlowe/Shakespeare conspiracy theory and has made manuscripts a hobby of sorts. The police are convinced the murder is the primary crime and that the vase being smashed was an accident as the murderer fled. But Mallin is not so sure it’s as easy to explain away. Elsa insists Mallin get to the truth and prove himself worthy after having failed to do his job of protecting the vase and other artwork.

Then it turns out that there is a copy of the T’ang vase in the possession of Martin Vale, local automobile dealer and the same man Elsa has been hanging around. Mallin begins to wonder if the burglary has something to do with collector jealousy and the murder was not at all the primary crime.

INNOVATIONS: As usual Ormerod fills his story with loads of red herrings among the well placed valid clues. I fell for the most obvious red herring while dismissing all the automobile talk as filler. None of the car talk, however, is filler. You don’t need to know the difference between a Rover (Elsa’s car with the faulty mechanism), an Oxford (Mallin’s car) or a Porsche (Vale’s alluring car) but any reader ought to pay attention to scenes when Dave and Elsa are arguing about whether the starter works or not. I should have known better having just read a book where I skipped over all the talk about photography and missed one of the best clues in that other book.

The smashed vase is of greatest interest to Mallin. He collects all the pieces and has it reconstructed by an art forger/expert he knows. When the vase is reassembled there is a small piece missing. This sets Mallin’s imagination afire. Elsa’s uncle was in the area of the library where Frazer was killed on the night of the murder and burglary. But he claims he did not hear the vase being broken. Mallin uses this as proof of his theory that the vase was broken elsewhere and the pieces were scattered around the floor to make it appear that it was broken. The missing piece is most likely to be found in something that belongs to the burglar/murderer. He believes the vase was stolen. He mentions this to the police referring to the incident as “the crash that wasn’t heard” -- The Silence of the Night, as it were. Alwright, the detective in charge, quips, “Like the dog that didn’t bark?” and laughs at Mallin.

ATMOSPHERE: In keeping with the American private eye influences that permeate The Silence of the Night Ormerod creates a cinematic set piece for his climax. All of the car business leads to a breakdown in both mechanics and Elsa and Dave’s relationship. The two hot headed lovers break up seemingly for good and Elsa storms off to find Vale. Mallin ends up being pursued by one of the bad guys and we get a full blown car chase, shoot out culminating in a explosive wreck as the book’s climax.

Humor is interspersed making the book all the more engaging and readable. I particularly liked the absurd bit of business when Mallin wants all the male suspects to speak in a pretentious American accent in order to figure out who faked a phone call. The scene allows Ormerod to make fun of American gangster movies with one of the more amusing characters doing a near perfect impression of James Cagney snarling out 1940s movie dialogue. The tension is cut in an original way and the entire scene undermines the villainy of the professional criminal who was exploited by the murderer.

Overall, The Silence of the Night is an entertaining and unusual detective novel blending traditional Golden Age plot motifs, American hardboiled narrative style and Ormerod’s original use of contemporary and popular culture in spreading out innovative clues. My only complaints are 1. the villain in this book is rather obvious (if not his motive) 2. the only American character in the story, Alton Bloome, tends to speak in British idioms that no American would ever use. For instance, he says “set that down” rather than “put it down over there”. But this is just nitpicking on my part. I enjoyed meeting Dave Mallin, Elsa and the rest of the regular gang and look forward to reading other books in the Mallin series. There are sixteen books in this series, most of which are available in digital book format from Lume Books as well as fairly affordable used copies from online sellers and used bookstores.

BONUS!  Try to find a copy of the 1993 Black Dagger reprint (pictured at top and the one I own). There is a brief introduction with some biographical info on the author written by our friend Martin Edwards!  He was writing introductions back in the 1990s for the CWA sponsored "Black Dagger" reprint series. This book and five others were selected by CWA members Peter Lovesey, Marian Babson, and Peter Chambers.  If all of them are as unique as this book I'll be looking for more of them.

Dave Mallin Detective Novels
Time to Kill
(1974)
The Silence of the Night (1974)
Full Fury (1975)
A Spoonful of Luger (1975)
Sealed With a Loving Kill (1976
The Colour of Fear (1976)
A Glimpse of Death (1976)
Too Late for the Funeral (1977)
This Murder Come to Mind (1977)
A Dip into Murder (1978)
The Weight of Evidence (1978)
The Bright Face of Danger (1979)
Amnesia Trap (1979)
Cart Before the Hearse (1980)
More Dead Than Alive (1980)
One Deathless Hour (1981)