Friday, August 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2021

FFB: Fatal Friday - Francis Gerard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Pretty Sinister Influence, or News on Reprints & Reissues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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