Wednesday, June 30, 2021

IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS: Still Life with Pistol – Roger Ormerod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: Victor Wolfson - A Playwright Dabbles in Gothic Dread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: Bedeviled - Libbie Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 4, 2021

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

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

Dan Morgan in Blood on the Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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