Friday, December 24, 2021

Take Courage, Night's Falling / And You're Not Alone

A bit of holiday music for you as we near the end of 2021. The first is an original tune from Andrew Bird, one of my favorite offbeat musicians who often plucks away on his violin like it was a ukulele (as he does on this track from his Christmas album "Hark!") and whistles beautifully.  He also hails from Chicago, though I don't think he lives here anymore.

The other comes from an ancient (well, only circa 1955, but it feels ancient) Christmas record that my parents once owned and that I listened to repeatedly while growing up in Connecticut. I went looking for it online in a fit of nostalgia and -- of course!-- it turned up on YouTube. Doesn't everything musical eventually pop up there?


Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all that jazz!

Whoever or whatever you believe in, however you celebrate this end of the year, have a memorable and magical time. Make the most of it you wonderful people out there in the dark. Let us hope and pray that in 2022 we will finally be free from the shadowy spectre of the viral villain that has haunted us for two full years.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent Ghosts 2021: "Who Comes This Night, This Wintry Night?"

There may be no snow on the ground in Chicago, but the Christmas lights are up, the wreaths are hanging on front doors and the sidewalks are bustling with frantic shoppers. It's the holiday season and that means it's Advent Ghosts time. Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites bloggers and creative writers to contribute vignettes for his Advent Ghosts celebration. It's a Flash Fiction Challenge of sorts but with a word limit set at exactly 100. No more, no less.  The only other rule is that we write in homage to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  Be it old-fashioned, chain rattling specters or more terrifying visions of bloody horror each writer makes up his or her own mind how to interpret that rule. 

Here's my contribution inspired by vengeful, angry gods of the forest at wintertime. 

Who Comes This Night, This Wintry Night?

No one was going to spoil his Christmas hunt. He was keen on bagging a ten pointer, heard there was a stag worthy of a mounted trophy. Hoof marks in the snow! Easy tracking now.

Through the fog he saw antlers. No stag’s head beneath those horns. A sardonic grin on an eerily handsome human face. Powerful arms swung out and struck down the rifle.

“Peace on Earth, Hunter.”

A flock of starlings took flight. Their shrill calls drowned out a human scream in the forest.

Cernunnos made his way back through the wood satisfied with another Winter Solstice sacrifice.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2021, part two

Here's my second nomination for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2021.I've chosen a male wirter for this second book, a classic writer whose books deserve wide readership, and a book that has been ought of print for nearly a century.

But first some mandatory plugging. Reprint of the Year (I still refer to it by the original, longer, and more specific title) is the brainchild of Kate Jackson. Everything you need to know about this years' contest can be found at her blog Cross Examining Crime. There will be two nominations from each of the twelve participating in-the-know crime fiction mavens. The first nominations were posted on everyone's blogs last week. Voting opens tomorrow, December 19 and the winner will be announced on December 30.  Head over to Kate's blog to cast your all important votes. 

Without further ado, Pretty SInsiter offers for your consideration vintage mystery reprint #2:

The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

  • Berkeley, of course, is one of the giants from the Golden Age.  Any reprint of one of his books is cause for celebration, especially in the US where during his lifetime very few of his books were ever reprinted. As far as I know only his crime fiction under his pen name "Francis Iles" was reprinted in paperback during the 1940s and maybe 1950s. Though many of Berkeley's books were reprinted in the US in hardcover (prior to the invention of the mass market paperback in 1939) I can't think of a single Anthony Berkeley mystery that was reprinted as a paperback in the US.
  • The Wintringham Mystery is a rarity in Golden Age Detective Fiction.  It appeared originally as a newspaper serial in the UK then received a modest printing in hardcover under a new title -- Cicely Disappears.  After that just like its title character it disappeared into the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom for a very long time.  It's wonderful to have it back finally among the living.  I'd never seen a copy at all until this reprint came out.
  • Check out the nifty floor plan at the top of this post!  I love floor plans and maps of the scene of the crime.  Give me more of them in modern crime fiction books, please.  Publishers and writers are you listening?
  • The Wintringham Mystery first appeared in 1926 as a serial.  A year later under one of Berkeley's oddball pseudonyms (A. Monmouth Platts) it was published in book form by John Long Ltd. As one might expect for such an early detective novel it's teeming with conventions and tropes that even in this early time were probably considered tiresome or predictable. Yet typical of Berkeley he subverts most of these conventions and employs fanciful and innovative ideas in his plotting that makes the book a corker of a mystery.  Notably, for much of the book there is no murder! And when a violent death occurs -- once again typical of this inventive writer -- one never knows if the victim suffered an accident, murder or committed a weird type of suicide until the final chapter when all is explained.
  • The plot features an amateur sleuthing duo of a young man and woman who eventually fall in love.  It reminded me of the early Christie books of the 1920s in which adventure seeking Bright Young Things did battle with secret societies as well as the detective novels of Herbert Adams who always let his detective duos find not only the killer but love in the finale.
  • Readers familiar with the detective novels of Vernon Loder and John Rhode might be excited to  know that Berkeley makes use of a motif that those contemporaries of his would later use in numerous detective novels: death by devilish mechanical means. Like Loder he also employs a detective novel convention (one I have still have not revealed on this blog) that makes that death doubling surprising.
  • Finally, though the book is mostly about a mysterious nearly impossible disappearance there is also a mystery about the violent death. The explanation for that death makes use of one of the Golden Age's hoariest of clichés and made me smile in the way that Berkeley manages to subvert that one as well.

Not enough reasons for you? Well, here's one more. I learned that Sarah Weinman also picked this book (along with two others) as one of her favorite Golden Age reprints for 2021.  I love it. Great minds, eh?

What are you waiting for?  Go buy your copy of this extremely inventive, thoroughly entertaining and 100% old-fashioned detective novel.  It contains everything we love that makes mystery novel reading so fun.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2021, part one

As the ubiquitous commercialization of Christmas invades our lives let us once again turn to the end of the year tradition begun by our dear friend Kate Jackson who blogs at Cross Examining Crime and look at candidates for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year.  2021 offered up a cornucopia of reprint editions of crime fiction and covered all aspects of the genre from traditional detective novels to clever thrillers to tension filled novels of suspense.  There were over 100 books on the list Kate sent us and I found over 50 more on my own, not the least of which was the surprise addition from Penguin of some long out-of-print books by Mabel Seeley, one time bestselling writer in the stable of Doubleday's Crime Club back in the heyday of that seminal publisher.  It was too late for me to nominate The Listening House (1938), her pioneering mystery novel heavily influenced by Rinehart, Eberhart and the rest of the HIBK school,  because I had already chosen my nominees.  But I think I found two excellent books despite not knowing of the Seeley's reprints.

Unlike most of the others who participate in the is end of the year ritual among the vintage mysteyr bloggers I adhere to a personal standard in choosing these "Best of the Year" reprint candidates. For those who missed this extravaganza in past years (or are too lazy to look it up from this blog's archives) I'll give you my own two most important rules for what I feel merit a wise choice of a vintage reprint:

  1. A truly forgotten author, long out of print
  2. Writing and plotting that contributes substantially to the genre

Enough of the preamble.  Here's Nominee #1 from your opinionated maven at Pretty Sinister Books...


Sing Me A Murder by Helen Nielsen

  • Nielsen is an underappreciated and neglected writer over shadowed by her contemporaries Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss who tend to get all the accolades when the talk turns to mid 20th century women mystery writers.
  •  Her crime fiction uses the conventions of traditional detective fiction but often subvert them with innovative plotting, unusual characters, and contemporary insights for fans of history and sociology. Sing Me A Murder incorporates popular music into the storyline (a key character is a singer and recording artist). We also get some intriguing background on 1950s architecture, automobiles and car maintenance!  All of it help in solving the various mysteries in the novel.
  • Nielsen's characters are vibrantly depicted.  Often it is the supporting players in the story who are the most attractive and get some of the best scenes.  I remember a nosy neighbor who stole the show, so to speak, in her scenes. Also a gas station attendant has a couple of great monologues. This rings true to me. That the people we take for granted, the background players in our lives, are often those who consciously or not have the greatest influence on us.
  • She's a damn fine writer with an excellent command of English and sometimes startling uses of imagery and metaphor.
  • Stark House Press has reprinted Sing Me a Murder in a twofer bound with Nielsen's equally innovative and gripping crime novel False Witness.  So you get two Nielsen books for the price of one if you buy the reprint of Sing Me a Murder. (Am I cheating?  Don't care!) 

You can read the full review of Sing Me A Murder back in the archives of 2016 posts by clicking here.  The Stark House Press reprint has been on sale since November of this year.  Highly recommended!  And make sure you read False Witness too!  The review for that second book can be found here

Tune in next week for my male writer nominee, a true classic and a giant of a writer in Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

NEW STUFF: Who Is Maud Dixon? - Alexandra Andrews

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 978-0316500319
336 pp. $28
Publication date: March 2, 2021

I imagine many people have often said “I wish I had his/her life” at a low point when feelings of envy and jealousy often get the better of us. Count yourself lucky if you’ve been perfectly satisfied with your life in comparison to anyone else, especially someone much more successful in a career or wealthier or more attractive or anything that most people perceive as being the hallmark of what leads to happiness. The rest of us have been there. Dreaming of a life better than the one we have, hoping for the one we know we deserve. 

Florence Darrow, the protagonist of Who Is Maud Dixon? (2021), is such a person. With dreams of being a successful writer but not quite brave enough to take the plunge she has consigned herself to working as a lower echelon assistant editor at a high profile publishing house and is surrounded by people who she perceives as better than her – more informed, more sophisticated, more intelligent and hence more successful. Everything she experiences passes through a filter of her inexperience, her Floridian background cursing her and leaving her in the wake of faster moving, hipper co-workers speeding through the fast lane of a Manhattan lifestyle she had only dreamed of back in Port Orange in her teen years. She just can’t keep up. Each day reveals she knows little, lives a shallow too safe life, while her co-workers manage to see all, know all and take everything they want with ease.

Florence is going to try her hand at taking what she wants no matter what. She has no idea what awaits her.

Through a series of embarrassing choices that recall some of the worst revenge stories of the early months of the #MeToo rage Florence loses her job only to land at the feet of her idol – the mysterious Maud Dixon, bestselling novelist whose pseudonym has never been penetrated. Now Florence is employed by the real Maud Dixon -- Helen Wilcox -- and she is in awe of the woman behind the pen name. As unfettered and opinionated as anyone Florence has worked with Helen is sort of an unimaginable caricature of the independent woman. She lives her life large and damns anyone who settles for less: “Middle categories are for middling people” she tells Florence after denouncing the male species with this glib diatribe: “Men are blunt objects. There’s no nuance there.” Within weeks on the job ostensibly a mere transcription gig, turning manuscript into digital pages, Florence finds herself completely trusted by Helen. She is astonished as she is given access to not only the handwritten pages of Helen’s upcoming novel but her bank and email accounts. Even more unexpected Florence is asked to pretend to be Helen on occasion when her employer can’t be bothered to answer business emails, like the never-ending barrage of demands from her literary agent who wants to see the first chapters of the new book. It’s only the beginning of a shift in identity and a thirst to become a successful writer at any cost.

Who is Maud Dixon? has rightfully been compared to Patricia Highsmith though it discards Highsmith’s penchant for primarily male dominated storylines for an nearly all-female cast. Still, the comparison couldn’t be more apt. It’s one of the few contemporary suspense novels I’ve read that is all deserving of a Highsmith analogy. In Helen Wilcox Alexandra Andrews has created a character as ruthless and intimidating as Ripley, as charming as Bruno, as deadly as any of her antagonists driven to murder and steal in order to get what they want. Florence’s hero worshiping personality and her love/hate relationship with her mother Vera recalls the dreamy fantasist Carol who practically wishes her female lover into existence. And the shapeshifting, personality trading practices of Tom Ripley ironically wear rather well on Florence when a near fatal car wreck and mistaken identity allows her to fully immerse herself as Helen in what was previously only role playing.

What follows this quirk of fate is a highly suspenseful novel fraught with tension and devilishly constructed incidents in which Florence must outwit everyone who believes she is Helen and that the Florence is dead. Will she get away with it all? Or is this identity switch something not at all accidental but a sinister plot manufactured to doom Florence/Helen to a life that turns out to be not at all what she thought it would be. In taking on Helen’s identity Florence realizes too late that she must also embrace everything from Helen’s past life – the life of “Maud Dixon” – which slowly reveals itself to be not at all a work of fiction, but terribly and nightmarishly real.

Alexandra Andrews
(photo: Andrew De Francesco)

This is but one of a handful of new books I read this year that surpassed all the hype. And if I have one caveat it is that Andrews allows her characters to get the better of her. There is one scene that smacks of turgid B movie melodrama overloaded with the clichés of a psychotic killer on the rampage. The scene I'm thinking of has no place in a book that was so subtle and devious in its layering of manipulation, exploitation and identity theft. But I’ll excuse it all because I hear this is going to be a movie soon. That scene is going to make for some terrific scenery chewing and some nasty hand to hand combat (with a couple of household cleaning items deployed as weapons) for the two actresses who are lucky enough to be cast in the leading roles.

Who Is Maud Dixon? is highly recommended for those who think intelligent, original, and suspenseful crime thrillers are not being written anymore. It’s simultaneously literate, topical and filled with plot machinations of the kind that diehard crime fiction devotees crave. Patricia Highsmith would be have been proud to see her name invoked to sell this notable and deftly handled debut novel. And I think she might have conceded that after so many pretenders to the throne of Highsmithian suspense Alexandra Andrews is her legitimate heir.

P.S. I read this book last month and I wrote this review just after Thanksgiving despite it only being posted today. Coincidentally, I just learned that I'm not the only one who thinks this is worthwhile reading. Sarah Weinman, the regular crime fiction reviewer for The New York Times these days, selected Andrews' debut crime novel as one of the "Best Mystery Novels of 2021." Can I pick 'em or what?