Saturday, August 13, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: The Templeton Case - Victor L. Whitechurch

Victor Whitechurch is best known for his short story collection Thrilling Stories of the Railway with his vegetarian detective Thorpe Hazell and for being one of the founding members of the Detection Club.  He wrote a mere five detective novels and one comic crime novel (which is not very funny at all) as well as penning the first chapter of the seminal round robin detective novel The Floating Admiral.  I was thinking a lot about that round robin novel while reading The Templeton Case (1924), his first foray into detective fiction. Reginald Templeton is found stabbed in his yacht while moored off the coast of Marsh Quay, a tiny village situated near an estuary. Sailing and boating feature prominently in the story and there are myriad suspects who were in and around the yacht before and after the murder.  Several intriguing puzzles surrounding the murder crop up leading to some excellent examples of early 20th century detection in a murder mystery.

Our persistent and clever detective is Det-Sgt. Colson ably assisted by a lawyer and inadvertent detective of sorts in the person of Canon Fittleworth.  To be truthful the Canon is an accidental obstructor of justice because he finds and pockets a distinctive cigar label rather than handing it over to the police.  For a while I thought perhaps Whitechurch meant us to think this absentminded member of the clergy was involved in a cover-up. Whitechurch, being a canon himself, would never stoop to such a sacrilege. Eventually the Canon hands over the cigar label at the inquest which leads to an intriguing sort of shell game that I immediately picked up on though I was incorrect in my assuming who did the switcheroo.

Victor L. Whitechurch in his youth
I also liked many of the supporting characters including Mrs Yayes, the owner of the local pub; a young mystery man who claims to be a painter and seems very suspicious; a handful of hired boating men; and Colson's very perceptive and imaginative wife with whom he discusses the case. She gives her husband several ideas about the murder mystery. Unfortunately towards the end of the book we meet an ugly portrayal of a Jewish man and the book descends into the typical kind of "Jew talk" that pollutes so much of early 20th century British fiction. It didn't ruin the book for me but I can imagine it would make for a "skipping it" deal-breaker for lots of readers these days.

In addition to the puzzle of the cigar label there is a clever bit of code breaking of sorts when Colson and his crew discover a blotting pad with a string of words missing some letters. We are courteously given that string of letterless words in the text and can return to it repeatedly as the story unfolds.  Colson's lawyer friend keen on puzzle solving mulls it over and using a combination of intuition, logic, and a lot of luck remarkably comes up with the actual sentence and identifies the name of a key player in the mystery.

The Crown & Anchor and Harbor View house in Dell Quay

 Templeton was an explorer and his past life in South Africa coupled with the discovery of a single raw diamond on the yacht will lead Colson to a dark motive and a web of past criminal activity.  I thought the reveal of the murderer was a delightful surprise.  Never saw it coming and it seems to be something of an original rule breaking coup. I've never encountered this twist in any detective novel I've read to date.  So hats off to Canon Whitechurch for this clever and engaging debut.

THINGS I LEARNED:  The geography was so specific in describing an estuary that Templeton's man navigated that I thought perhaps all the towns mentioned were real.  They weren't.  But I looked up those I knew were real and followed the course of the yacht as described by Whitechurch.  It lead me to the small town of Dell Quay not far form Chichester which just happens to have a famous cathedral.  I think that this is exactly the area that Whitechurch set his story. It certainly fits in with all the descriptions and definitely follows the sailing route of Templeton's hired yacht, Firefly.

As this is out of copyright I was planning to reprint The Templeton Case but someone beat me to it earlier this year.  I guess that's from whom I bought my truly cheap copy of the US first edition a few months ago.  The Templeton Case is now available in paperback and digital format from an outfit called Spitfire Publishing.  They sell their books on that giant internet source of nearly everything under the sun.  If intrigued by this review you can get a cheap eBook or modestly priced paperback.  Despite the depiction of the Jewish man at the end I thought this was rather good.  Even Jacques Barzun in his Catalog of Crime thought it was a notable effort for a first try at writing a detective novel.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

IN BRIEF - A Shroud for Unlac - S. H. Courtier

In Courtier's fourth detective novel once again this Australian writer explores an aspect of the culture in the land Down Under.  This time it's sheep ranchers, and specifically sheep ranchers who are involved in selling wool to textile companies.  But as Courtier is also one of the finest practitioners of bizarre crime novels he adds an extra twist that borders on science fiction. A Shroud for Unlac (1958) opens just prior the the opening of a textile exhibition on the grounds of Robert Unlac's vast sheep ranch  A secret area cordoned and fenced off contains his greatest invention, or rather cultivation, that will be unveiled at the exhibition.  Before the exhibit can officially open Unlac dies in a tragic fire that destroys most of this cultivated product and the storage of valuable seeds. Autopsy reveals that Unlac, though burned so dreadfully, actually died of a heart attack.  And oddly his clothing was apparently drenched in gasoline. Was it an accident or diabolically arranged sabotage and murder?  Superintendent Ambrose Mahon is on the scene to uncover a horrible plot and unmask the killer. 

So what exactly is this cultivation?  What's going on at Lirra Down Sheep Station that has all the ranchers of merino wool sheep on edge, some truly frightened?  It's the acres and acres of a new cotton hybrid that Unlac has developed.  Fibers of this miracle cotton he calls ininja yield an equally miraculously durable textile impervious to ripping and tearing and nearly all staining. It's no wonder that someone tried to destroy the fields where thousands of the plants were growing behind heavily secured fencing. And no wonder why Unlac was killed. A miracle fabric would not only put sheep wool ranchers out of business but make possible millions for the owner of the plant seeds  and the secret hybridization process.

Courtier in his usual manner weaves a complex plot that involves jealous business men, deep dark family secrets, and a cultural war between aboriginal people and modern Australians interested only in making money. The cast of characters is once again a varied group of Aussies and "abos". I learned a new word (as I always do reading Courtier's books).  Myall is obsolete Australian slang derived from aboriginal languages that means "stranger" or "ignorant person."  Like most local dialects it was appropriated by white men and turned around to a mean "wild" or "uncivilized" or used in a negative connotation as a synonym for any aboriginal person. No matter what meaning the reader chooses for this odd term there is a nearly anonymous man, described only as a myall, who early in the book is found strangled outside the grounds of Lirra Down. This crime almost dismissed by the police (almost forgotten by this reader, as well) has later repercussions as the story unfolds.

The murder of Unlac is presented as something of an impossible crime for it is unknown how the killer managed to get to the odd storage area where the body was found burned to an unrecognizable corpse. Nor is it known how the killer could have escaped such a conflagration. Having read many of Courtier's books I should have known how this would be explained as the solution uses a detective novel convention repeatedly employed in his books even if it is a cliche device. However, in the story's context this cliche is pulled off with ingenuity.  Some diabolical wizardry utilized in the arson recalls John Rhode's gadget-ridden detective novels.

A Shroud for Unlac is fairly scarce these days. Luckily, exactly two copies are available for sale online.  Act now! as they used to say in old 70s American TV commercials. This book comes highly recommended as do most of the mysteries by Sidney H. Courtier, an undeservedly forgotten writer who continually surprises with his originality and invention. A review of one of his best novels -- almost topping The Glass Spear, his incomparable debut mystery novel  -- is coming next week.  It's a retro Golden Age mystery with a corker of an ending worthy of the intricate plotting of the much lauded Crime Queens who flourished in the 30s and 40s.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Ghost of Thomas Penry – Kenneth O’Hara

Howard Stavey is tasked with creating a treatment for a TV program the subject of which will be Thomas Penry, a Welsh man known for his research into the occult and psychic phenomenon. If it meets with director and production team approval he may be allowed to write the script.

After meeting with one of the Penry’s sole living acquaintances Howard uncovers some intriguing info on Penry’s wife Madeleine who froze to death with her child one winter decades ago. Her death was always thought to be a tragic accident, but Howard’s research reveals she may have been killed and that the child may not have been Penry’s. Madeleine claimed to have psychic abilities her husband was envious of coupled with the fact that letters reveals she most likely was apparently in love with another man who could be the child’s father. Prime motive that signals Penry killed his wife. This murder mystery angle decides the director that the story is worth filming and he orders the script be written and he starts to gather up a production team.

O'Hara does an excellent job in displaying the conflict between writers, actors, director and crew members. We also get unusual insight into dealing with actor’s egos, especially since they are planning to portray real people. Initially reluctant to do a movie about a man who played with spooks Tom, one of the actors, changes his mind when he starts to believe he has psychic ability. He begins to not only believe in The Ghost of Thomas Penry (1977) but that he is the reincarnation of the man he has been hired to play on film.

Gwenillen, owner of the house and distant relative to Penry, after much dilly dallying finally takes the production crew and actors into the basement and reveals the chapel. It’s vast and apparently untouched since the scandalous ritual that ended with the death of Ruthven Douglas back in the WWI era. Chests contain silver, medieval tapestries and ritual wardrobe. Ros who has an eye for lavish clothing is drawn to the purple and gold cloak. Natalya, the production designer, has a fit. “Don’t touch it!” The fabric is of course fragile and it may fall apart in the hands of the careless actress. Tom & Ros go up to a balcony and fight. An enormous vase comes crashing down barely missing Adrian the director. Is it an accident? Or an angry ghost?

Eliphas, a former professional magician, is the production’s magic and occult consultant. He finally speaks on p. 104 with a lengthy discussion of the house, Penry and the group of amateur psychics who gathered in the underground chapel. Howard replies, “I’d like to believe” in a long monologue. Eliphas laughs then offers his opinion of Penry and the chapel. A disagreement of ceremonial magic follows. Howard says there is no proof. Eliphas points out the care given to the chapel and its contents proves otherwise. Harriet (researcher and co-writer) prefers to come straight to the point. “He tried to summon demons.” But Eliphas says there is no proof of any of that. Penry was too evasive in his diaries and notebooks. He thinks Penry had psychic power and was ashamed of it.

Eliphas tells Howard that Tom had a vision of what the interior of the house looks like just before he entered the building. Tom described to Eliphas in great detail the furniture, the architecture, the layout, and when he enters it is almost exactly what he uttered. Does he have genuine psychic ability? A vase levitates when he mutters some mumbo jumbo near the art object and he is convinced that he has “the gift.”

During a second visit to the chapel another vase falls – or is shoved – and someone is killed. Everyone thinks it’s Ros because the corpse is wearing the purple and gold cloak. But when the body is turned over they discover it is someone else.

Joe, the crew's cameraman and electrician, Howard and Harriet piece together all the accidents and chicanery. The trio turn sleuths to find out who among them is a murderer and why. A major clue in the victim's wallet leads Harriet to uncovering the dead person’s true identity and why he got himself hired onto the crew. The ultimate reveal is a gobsmacking surprise and explains all of the serious psychic moments and mysterious phenomenon in the supposedly haunted chapel.

 This is a highly recommended read for those like me who can't get enough of detective novels that feature supernatural phenomenon -- be it genuine or faked.  There is plenty to admire here, especially the completely unexpected manner in which all events unfold, the identity of the victims, and the unmasking of a devious killer. The background of a TV film crew is 100% authentic, too.  Read on to learn of the author's real name and various professions.

THE AUTHOR: Margaret Jean Morris (1924 - 1996) began her writing career with the mainstream novel Man and Two Gods (1953).  She also penned a handful of plays and several detective and crime novels using the pseudonym Kenneth O'Hara.  Her first mystery novel, A View to a Death (1958), features Dr. Alun Barry, a director of research at an engineering firm, who accidentally becomes a detective while on a vacation.  She is probably best known under her other pen name, "Jean Morris",  as the author of several juvenile fantasy novels starting with A Path of Dragons (1980).   Her young adult books have been compared favorably to Ursula Le Guin's.  Morris also spent much of her life as a TV scriptwriter and notably wrote episode four ("Anne of Cleves") for the BAFTA and Emmy award-winning series The Six Wives of Henry VIII  shown on both BBC and American TV on PBS in the early 1970s.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Death Walks Softly - Neal Shepherd (Nigel Morland)

THE STORY: Inspector Michael Tandy makes his debut in Death Walks Softly (1938) an excellent example of three subgenres:  police procedural, scientific detective novel and impossible crime mystery.  Tandy using his expert knowledge in chemistry quickly disproves that a chemist supposedly committed suicide in his locked office, accessible by only one door and a private elevator that can only be summoned from the ground floor with a special key. Murder, theft and burglary are the many the crimes that arise in a complicated case involving professional jealousy and romantic entanglements. Heavy use of scientific detection makes for a dizzying yet fascinating detective novel.

THE CHARACTERS: The action is set primarily in a research facility where Robert Sherry, a reclusive anti-social chemist, was working diligently on two chemical formulas -- one for a universal solvent and another for stainless steel alloy that would be able to contain the solvent. Sherry has the use of only his left arm, his right having been amputated years ago.  He is found in his locked office with an injection mark in his usable arm and some Veronal found nearby.  Everyone in the company assumes he has committed suicide.  Tandy quickly asserts it cannot be suicide because 1. drug users addicted to Veronal do not inject the drug, it is ingested orally and 2. the injection was administered into the left arm.  Since Sherry is left handed and cannot use the artificial limb on his right arm as he would a hand with fingers he could not have injected himself.

Suspicion immediately falls on Mrs. Sherry who says her husband was more in love with chemistry than her and Daniel Lyne, the CEO of the chemical company. Lyne and Mrs. Sherry were carrying on a not very discreet affair.  Though the police know that Mrs. Sherry stopped by the office many times for visits, the CEO will not elaborate on the real reason. He is, however, quick to draw Tandy's attention to an embittered former employee Alan Talaver, who not only lost his job to Sherry but swore to kill him. When Tandy tracks down Talaver he turns out to be not only embittered but paranoid.  He volubly criticizes everyone at the chemical lab, rants about conspiracy theories and reveals a marked persecution complex. 

One of the bits of evidence found in Sherry's lab is a thumb mark with a scar running across the print.  Talaver, surprisingly, is quick to show that he has such a thumb mark and offers up no real alibi for the night of the poisoning murder. Nevertheless, he maintains his innocence. This confession of sorts will lead to one of the most remarkable aspects of the murder mystery and recalls a similar incident in one of the memorable Carter Dickson impossible crime mystery novels

Then there's Frank Donegal, Sherry's lab assistant.  Donegal gives a fuller picture of Sherry's misanthropy and utter immersion in his work. He was also the only person with an apparently iron-clad alibi having been in an enclosed study room at the research library across the street.  Reading Cabinet #5, Donegal's favorite place to study, is located at the rear of the library and is constructed similar to a telephone booth. The reading cabinets are shown to be occupied by a red light on the outside wall activated when someone sits down and the door is closed.

The impossibility of the locked room involves Sherry's office elevator that leads to a hidden doorway in the alley behind the lab building (see the plan at left). Oddly designed the elevator can only be operated with a key that summons the elevator from the ground floor to the office above.  The key must be also used to exit the elevator. Any time the elevator is used the car returns to the ground floor automatically. There is a lot of business about a load meter installed in the elevator that helps to save on the firm's electric bill. This portion sort of went over my head, but Nigel Morland in his "Neal Shepherd" guise certainly turned on his expert mode during this electrical engineering lesson. Tandy retrieves the time graphs -- basically reports of each instance the elevator went up and down -- in order to determine if the elevator was the murderer's method of escape from the locked office.   

INNOVATIONS:  Tandy studied chemistry prior to becoming a police officer.  He mentions this to many of the scientists he interviews and it helps him to get some of the suspects to talk more freely and, of course, more expertly on the scientific aspects of the murder case.  There are several lectures on chemical alloy structures, the previously mentioned mechanical and electrical design of the elevator, the creation of plastic molds, chemical nature of poisons and a lot more. After one of these long lectures that goes on for nearly four pages (!) Sgt Bill Holland, Tandy's hero worshiping colleague, is astonished: "Holland's eyes opened wide. This was the type of detection he had hitherto believed existed only in detective novels."

French edition of Death Rides Swiftly
translated less poetically as Death is Swift
Bill is right of course. But not in the ironic sense that Morland intends.  It is the kind of detection that exists only in detective novels and not ever in real life.  Rarely do real life criminals engage in the kind of guile and scientific trickery employed in this deviously constructed and often ingenious mystery novel. But this trickery is also what makes the "Napper" Tandy mystery novels so fascinating to read and mark them as stand-outs of the impossible crime and scientific detection subgenres at the tale end of the Golden Age.

I hope to get three of these novels reprinted by the middle of next year. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate an English language copy of Death Rides Swiftly though I do have the other three.  But I have not given up my search for that elusive fourth title.

 Inspector "Napper " Tandy Detective Novels
Death Walks Softly (1938)
Death Flies Low (1938)
Death Rides Swiftly (1939)
Exit to Music (1940)


Monday, July 25, 2022

Reprints Looming on the Horizon

I was hoping that I would be able to give you some wonderful news about a few reprints, but alas there are delays with one exciting reprint that was supposed to be out this fall.  Some of you may have already discovered that it's in the works if you've been out there a-Googling.  But I promised the publisher not to promote it until the rights are officially cleared and it's taking some time.  But rest assured the book will be here, just a bit later than planned.  Assiduous readers will find more details in a recent comment exchange at the bottom of a past post on said book.  I will say no more until I'm allowed to.

However! Don't get your panties in a bunch, gang.

There is other exciting news I can announce -- Cecil Wills detective novels are coming back!

Those lovable rascals who run Ramble House have teamed up with yours truly and they will be reissuing two rather scarce, very early Wills mystery novels featuring his series detective Geoffrey Boscobell. Both should be out by the end of this year, possibly sooner.  Author in Distress, Will's debut mystery  novel and the first with Sgt. Boscobell, will be the first released followed shortly thereafter by a new edition of the third Boscobell mystery novel Death Treads.  Plans are to reissue both as retro mapbacks the way many of the early Ramble House detective novels and mystery novels paid tribute to the highly collectible original Dell Mapbacks back in the early 2000s when RH was first reprinting Golden Age mystery fiction.  With artwork by Gavin O'Keefe and partly inspired by the maps and floor plans found in the original books I have provided these promise to be attractive new editions.  I'll be writing up a brief study of the Boscobell detective novels as a foreword to both new editions.

But that's not all, kiddos!

Galileo Publishers -- the same fine company that reprinted Clifford Witting's mysteries and will continue to do so over the next couple of years -- have secured the rights to the extremely hard to find mystery novels of Joan Cockin.  Her quirky detective novel, Villainy at Vespersabout the arcane art of brass rubbing, smuggling and bizarre murders was reviewed here at PSB back in February 2020.  All three of Cockin's detective novels starring her policeman Inspector Cam are planned for release over a two and half year period.  Villainy at Vespers will be the first. I believe it comes out in the fall or around Christmas.  It will be followed by Curiosity Killed the Cat (actually the first of the three mysteries) and end with Cockin's  highly elusive (dare I say rare?) and last mystery novel Deadly Ernest.  I've never seen a copy of that third book in my lifetime and I'm eager to get my hands on a review copy.

And the pièce de résistance, mes amies?

After years of thinking about creating my own imprint it's finally happening.  If all goes well Pretty Sinister Books will burst forth into the indie press world with the complete works of forgotten American writer Elma K. Lobaugh in the coming months.   I also have plans to reissue the nearly impossible to find detective novels by the highly original, utterly inventive, deliciously witty and thoroughly bizarre Reginald Davis. The line-up will then focus on dozens of under-appreciated and overlooked early 20th century American mystery writers whose books have languished in the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom for too long.

So much to look forward to as we head into the dog days of summer and autumn wends its brisk breezes and falling leaves our way.

Onward and upward!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

She Never Reached the Top - Elma K. Lobaugh

Elma K. Lobaugh's first mystery She Never Reached the Top (1945) was lauded by the editorial team at Doubleday Doran's "Crime Club" as "unusually competent."  But that, my friends, is an understatement like all true raves.  Very few first time popular fiction writers bother with thematic elements in that much maligned genre known as the whodunnit. A murder mystery is often dismissed as a trifle of a book, a mere entertainment as Graham Greene used to categorize his action-filled yet wholly intellectual espionage thrillers. Lobaugh's story is imbued with an soupçon of superstition and other-worldly events that not only add a frisson of terror to the house party haunted by past violent deaths and literally haunted by a ghost but enhance her theme of random violence as an act of chance and fate.  This is a thought-provoking murder mystery, and ultimately a bit of a transgressive novel in how Lobaugh treats her subject matter and how her "detectives" deal with the murder that only they have uncovered -- and then covered up.

Like many of Lobaugh's books this one is set in Indiana and like her later I Am Afraid (reviewed here) the story takes place in a house on the dune-lined shores of Lake Michigan.  The house itself features prominently and its bizarre unfinished state pays homage to the many weird architectural features of houses in books by John Dickson Carr, Carolyn Wells and Hake Talbot. The house in She Never Reached the Top, as the title may imply, has some missing staircases and incomplete steps leading to the second floor. Years ago a woman fell to her death from one of these unfinished staircases while using the DIY solution, a ladder that had no guardrails on the unexposed side.

Much of She Never Reached the Top seems mired in the past and the death of that unfortunate woman who fell from the ladder infects the house with doom.  Especially as the legend of the ghost has attached to it the prophecy that only those "who have been disappointed in love" will be cursed to hear and see the specter. Jennie Simpson, our Eberhart inspired narrator, is such a disappointed lover.  She reluctantly accepts an invitation to join the house party after a recent break-up with her boyfriend Peter.  Actually not much is know about why she and Peter are no longer together.  Did he die?  Was he killed in the war?  Did her just dump her for another woman?  We never really find out.  But thoughts of Peter and "what might have been" are never far from Jennie's mind.  And Jennie does hear the sounds of the ghost running to the ladder and the eerie brief silence just before the inevitable thud.  The reader just knows those noises are not a ghost at all but someone who has met the same fate as the woman from the past. But who could it have been?

Trendy floating staircases pose
similar possible fatal mishaps
When in the morning screams are heard and Pam, the youngest member of the house party, comes running into the breakfast room out of breath, in shock, and muttering, "I stepped on her! Oh my God, I stepped on her!" we have the proof of no ghost and a real corpse. It comes as no surprise that the troublesome wild woman, Margot Spendler, a free spirited, brazenly sexual woman who flirted with everyone including young Pam, was the victim.  But was it only an accident?  Bit by bit Jennie, Skip and Jim find evidence that Margot's death was a cleverly carried out murder. And each time they find evidence one of three either says nothing to the others or destroyys what they find. Will Margot's death be avenged?  Some of the "detectives" think it better to keep it all quiet.  The final chapter is satisfyingly thorough in explaining how the murder was accomplished. And there is a minor surprise in the identity of that killer. The final solution, however,  is entirely unconventional in how Lobaugh metes out her version of Justice.

I particularly enjoyed some of the occult sequences like when Jennie is goaded into reading palms.  Lobaugh treats the scene at first like a parlor game, but lets us know that Jennie takes palmistry very seriously, almost as if she is a psychic.  When Margot insists that Jennie look at her palm Jennie is terrified to discover that the flirtatious sexpot has no heart line. Furthermore, that her life line vanishes when it should extend to the wrist.  Could there be any more doom-laden foreshadowing than that?  There are other scenes tainted by superstition and many tales told about the ghost who first fell to her death that add to the fated atmosphere. Additionally, Lobaugh employs macabre folk songs (Jim is a professional piano player obsessed with melancholy tunes) and frequent recitations of lugubrious poetry to further play up her theme of lives pre-destined to violence.

She Never Reached the Top is (of course) rather hard to find anywhere. Currently, there are only four copies for sale from online sellers.  I never find Lobaugh's books in stores when I go book hunting.  Adding to the difficulty of locating copies is that it was published only in the US and only in hardcover.  Why it never received a paperback reprint (or even a cheap hardcover reprint from Triangle Books or Grosset & Dunlap) during Lobaugh's lifetime is another mystery that perhaps may never be solved.  It definitely deserved another life outside of the Crime Club edition. I'd say that Elma K. Lobaugh's work is due for a revival.  This is not only "unusually competent," it's rather a brilliant example of the mystery novel that defies categorization and one that dares to break several hallowed rules for a still young genre that too often was entirely formulaic.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: Author in Distress - Cecil M. Wills

THE STORY: Novelist Gervoise Trevellyan is an Author in Distress (1934). And first time mystery writer Cecil Wills wastes no time in getting immediately to the story.  On page one Trevellyan calls the police to report that he's shot a man who he believes is a burglar.  The first problem Sgt. Geoffrey Boscobell --and the bigger problem for the novelist-- is that there are two bullets in the body. Trevelyan swears he fired only once.  Trevellyan claims the man broke in and fired at him.  The writer then shot the burglar who was apparently breaking into the safe in the library.  Doubly puzzling is that only one bullet casing is found in the library. And where is the bullet mark from the victim's gun? Things only get more complicated as Sgt. Boscobell and the other policemen further investigate this supposed act of self-defense.

THE CHARACTERS: Geoffrey Boscobell makes for a whip smart and attentive detective.  He rides a motorcycle to get around the various villages in his investigation.  Neat touch for 1935. When the novel is focussed on detection this policeman is one of the best of the Golden Age. And when the novel turns into a thriller he's as heroic and full of derring-do as any dashing matinee idol found in the cinematic cliffhangers of 1930s movie palaces.

 Among the suspects are Myra, Trevellyan's considerably younger wife.  She has a fascinating interrogation scene where she tells the story of her past life in Monaco which reads like an E. Phillips Oppenheim novel in miniature.  Gambling, con artists, the decadent life of the rich and indulgent...and an accidental shooting that ends to death and a cover-up.  It's all there.  I'm guessing Wills read his fair share of Oppenheim.  This section is a neat homage and not altogether gratuitous.  Myra's past and the characters mentioned in her story play a large part in the later unfolding of the intricate plot. Myra has a huge secret that leads to a blackmail scheme Boscobell uncovers.  Did her husband get involved and try to protect her?

Another suspect is the antique glass collector Lawton Holmes, a shady and cruel man with secrets in his past and a roving eye for the ladies. Mrs. Thomas, the requisite gossip, offers up the dirt on Holmes and his theft of a rare glass curio -- The Ravenscroft Goblet.  And here I thought was another detective novel homage. This time to the prolific J. S. Fletcher whose books of the 1920s and early 1930s were filled with jewel and antique thieves sporting titles just like the object Holmes stole.  In fact two of  Fletcher's books are titled Ravensdene Court and The Ravenswood Mystery, not to mention all his detective novels about objets d'art like The Kang-He Vase, The Borgia Cabinet, The Malachite Jar, and The Carrismore Ruby. Definitely another tribute, in my opinion.  I thought the theft of the Ravenscroft Goblet would be the crux of the mystery, but was way off the mark.

One of the best of the supporting characters is Boscobell's girlfriend Audrey, his most trusted confidante.  She becomes his Watson and is present at the scene when they visit Mrs. Thomas.  Boscobell and Audrey spend many a chapter trading theories and bouncing ideas off each other. They discuss a variety of possible situations to explain the evidence as in the case of the missing bullet and where it might be found.  Audrey goes looking for it, in fact, with out telling her policeman paramour.  Also they talk about the footprint in tar found a outside the scene of the crime which Boscobell realizes almost immediately is utterly faked.

INNOVATIONS:  For a first time detective novel Wills shows a deft hand at incredibly intricate plotting and clever clueing making use of familiar detective novel tropes like the burned bits of paper, secret messages, missing bullets, and footprints at the scene of the crime, and even an initialed handkerchief - perhaps the hoariest of all hackneyed devices, as Carolyn Wells might put it.  I also liked the more subtle homages to detective novel conventions like Oglethorpe, Trevellyan's valet and butler, a kind of Bunter character who back in WWI was Trevellyan's batman when both were sappers, soldiers who dug and fought in the trenches.  There is a surprise witness at the very long inquest section which makes for some fairly exciting reading and allows Wills to add yet one more intriguing development in an ever increasingly complex murder case that at times seems too baffling for its own good.  Can a detective novel be complex for complexity's sake?  Author in Distress may be the template for such a mystery novel. As complicated as the story becomes I didn't care.  I was marveling, not complaining, at the labyrinthine story telling, the layering of past and present, the double identities and masquerades the deeper I got into the story.

Nifty map of crime scene combined with floor plan of house.  Click to enlarge!

Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the final third when Wills abandons his finely engineered detective novel and transforms the book in a cliche-ridden adventure thriller. Audrey is kidnapped and imprisoned in a tower accessible only by two ladders, a daring rescue involving near fatal perils, the garrulous villain confesses everything on his deathbed. My notes include this brief rant: "Loads of Edgar Wallace claptrap. Ugh!"  Blackmail and an old bank robbery turn up in the eleventh hour and serve as the outrageous motive for the various crimes and murders.  It all seemed so manufactured and random in the summing up and made fro an anticlimactic finale.

But prior to the high speed action-filled, but utterly familiar, final chapters the book is fascinating and engaging for fans of the traditional puzzle-filled detective novel.

QUOTES: I only wrote down one, but it's rather resonant for these days:

"The American, like most of his countryman, carried a gun." 

THE AUTHOR: Cecil M. Wills (1891-1966) had a fairly lengthy career as a detective novel and thriller writer from 1935 to 1961. Can't find much about his life online, but his bibliography is well documented on various crime fiction sites. This is my first reading of his books having only discovered him after seeing his name mentioned in a passing remark in the excellent mystery novel At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof.  Wills' early books of the 1930s featuring Geoffrey Boscobell and Audrey are rather scarce, sorry to report.  There are a handful copies out and (not too surprisingly) several very cheap editions of a French translated edition of The Chamois Murder.  The easier to find Wills mystery novels are his titles from the 1950s.  For several reviews of these later boosk featuring a completely different series detective see the Puzzle Doctor's posts at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Despite its flawed finale chapters I enjoyed Author in Distress.  It's a book I think ought to be reprinted.  In fact, the entire Boscobell series holds promise based on this sole reading experince.  Enterprising and daring publishers take note.  Cecil M Wills deserves a second life, I'd say.

Sgt. Geoffrey Boscobell Detective Novels

Author in Distress (1934)
Death at the Pelican
Death Treads (1935)
Then Came the Police (1935)
The Chamois Murder (1935)
Fatal Accident (1936)
Defeat of a Detective (1936)
On the Night in Question (1937)
A Body in the Dawn (1938)
The Case of the Calabar Bean (1939)
*The Case of the R.E. Pipe (1940)
*The Clue of the Lost Hour (1949)
*The Clue of the Golden Ear-Ring (1950)

*also with Roger Ellerdine who becomes the lead
detective in the remaining Wills detective novels

Saturday, April 9, 2022

ALTERNATIVE CLASSICS: Along Came a Spider - Elizabeth Davis

I'm putting the sinister back into the Pretty Sinister Books blog this month as I tear through a pile of old horror novels and detective novels with supernatural and occult content.  Today's post also touches on the 1970s mania of the demon child in popular horror fiction.  I've read so much of this kind of book over the 11 years this blog has been around that I've finally decided to create yet another tag to label them all. If this is a subgenre in horror and mystery fiction that lights your chandelier you can click on the "Demon Child" tag at the end of this post and read more about them, perhaps find some obscure books dealing with killer children and demon-like adolescents.

Last month I had a mystery novel that incorporated a demon child motif -- well, more of a precursor to the Bad Seed trope -- in I Am Afraid (1948).  Today we go from the sublime and restrained domestic horror of that book to the outrageously ridiculous, horror bordering on parody in Along Came a Spider (1970).

Stephen, the nasty tween in I Am Afraid was 11 years old.  The bad kiddo in Elizabeth Davis' novel (apparently her sophomore effort in horror fiction under a second pseudonym) is remarkably only 9 years old. I found it incredibly hard to believe Anne Bishop, the evil little girl, was this young because for much of the book she comes across as a 45 year-old worldly wise woman.  But as you get to the the over-the-top finale our narrator posits her theory of why little Anne is such an adept sorceress.  She's basically the Wolfgang Mozart of black magic.

However, I'm getting way ahead of myself...

Davis's 2nd occult novel deals
with witchcraft and reincarnation
Inspired no doubt by Rosemary's Baby (1967) which almost single-handedly launched this new subgenre about children spawned from Satan and children possessed by demons, Along Came a Spider has been overshadowed by more well known (and better written) books employing this popular and by now hackneyed horror motif.  We have a wiseacre of a narrator in Eve Mercer whose colloquial voice is filled with idiomatic speech, sarcastic asides and a quasi stream-of-conscious narrative style that works against the suspense when Davis allows Eve to constantly interrupt her own thoughts. The narration is punctuated with dashes and ellipses as Eve trails off from one thought to the next like a distracted housewife running on a permanent caffeine high of extra strength Maxwell House.

The plot?  The Bishop family have moved in across the street and Eve fears her daughter Laurie has fallen under the diabolic influence of creepy little Anne, a primly dressed, too polite, too aloof miniature adult in the guise of a 9 year old girl.  Eve's first high-strung reaction to her daughter's new found friend comes when she learns that Anne is adept at painting. Laurie describes these paintings as nightmarish images of brutish monsters and other weird things she's never seen before.  They're so gory they look like they might have been painted with blood.  But Anne dismisses what was intended as an exaggeration by telling Laurie you can't paint well with blood. "It clots," says Anne's voice of experience, "and won't go on too smoothly."

The absurdity has entered the story early, my friends. This is only page 40!

There is an element of a detective novel in the story when Eve learns that the Bishop family knew a friend of a friend of a friend.  And so she hunts down some phone numbers and makes a couple of phone calls.  She reaches the boyfriend of a girl who died in an automobile wreck recently.  The young man tells Eve that his ex-girlfriend lived in the same building as the Bishops and ran into little Ann one day at the trash chute in the hallway. Anne was startled as she tried to shove something down the chute and quickly ran off leaving the object stuck. The now dead girlfriend went to see what Anne was trying to get rid of and found a mouse crucified on a handmade wooden cross.

It only gets more insane from here on.

There are strange rituals that Anne teaches her playmates. A girl dies in a cemetery but not before uttering a mysterious dying message.  Laurie begins to act strangely.  She has nightmares, disappears from her bedroom and can't be found late at night. Eve continues her detective work by consulting books on witchcraft and demonology and learns that Anne has been teaching Laurie and the other girls the ABCs of summoning demons and makes sure she is nowhere in sight when those rituals are being performed.

Ultimately the book is self-defeating because Davis allows Eve's hysterical imagination to get the better of her too often. The narration grows increasingly hyperbolic and her frequent wisecracks undermine the horror making it all seem like a black comedy.  Eve is also susceptible to superstition and imagines that her husband Jim who recently died has come back from the dead. He sends her warnings in her dreams, she hears his voice intoning "Move away! Take Laurie with you!"  Unfortunately as soon as that ghostly element is introduced Davis never follows through. Jim's ghost literally fades away as soon as he almost appears never to be talked of again. Davis seems to be suggesting that Eve might be headed for a nervous breakdown. Are we to think that Anne is innocent of all that Eve imagines her to be doing? The preposterous finale extinguishes that doubt as quickly as a sorcerer blowing out a scented black candle. But you must discover that on your own...if you dare.

You can read for yourself how this madness unfolds and whether or not Eve is a nut job or Anne is the spawn of a demon by buying one of the many copies available for sale out there in this vast shopping mall we call the internet.  I turned up about a baker's dozen in both English and foreign language translations.  It's an odd book, entertaining to be sure in an Alternative Classic way, but never really frightening at all.

Elizabeth Davis was born Lou Ellen Davis in Pennsylvania and raised her family in Connecticut.  Her fascination with witchcraft and psychic phenomena led to two other novels of crime and occult:  Suffer a Witch to Die (1970) and There Was an Old Woman (1971).  The 1971 novel was adapted for TV in 1972 and re-titled Revenge!  The made-for-TV movie has a script by Joseph Stefano (best known for his screen adaptation of  Psycho) and stars Shelley Winters (in one of the many badass biddy roles she succumbed to in middle age) and Bradford Dillman.

I will be reviewing both There Was an Old Woman and the movie Revenge! later this spring. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: The Seven Sisters - Jean Lilly

Mr. Spencer, a gemologist, visits newlywed Nancy and Stanley Kent at the famed Prentice mansion. He informs them that he is doing research on the renowned Prentice Dowry Chain, an elaborate jeweled necklace made up of seven star sapphires known as the Seven Sisters. Much to Mr. Spencer’s dismay Nancy, Mrs. Prentice’s granddaughter, has never heard of the Prentice Dowry Chain and knows nothing about its existence among the many valuables in the house. Stanley, however, a clever young man if there ever was one, leads Spencer to a portrait of one of the Prentice ancestors. It’s Nancy’s great grandmother who is wearing an elaborate necklace and Spencer stands in awe of the painting sighing almost inaudibly, “The Seven Sisters!” Spencer allows the family to try and locate the necklace and he promises to return at a later date hopefully to examine the jewels in person. Thus begins a strange and macabre adventure involving buried secrets, stolen jewels, and murder.

I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me in the pages of The Seven Sisters (1928), the first mystery novel of Jean Lilly. The rambling narrative meanders through Stanley and Nancy’s courtship, an overview of Prentice genealogy, the setting up of the house, the relegation of the dozens of ancestral portraits that covers the walls, etc. etc. and so forth. This meandering all seemed to be going nowhere for the first 75 pages. Finally when Spencer shows up and delivers his two page monologue on the mineral composition of gemstones, the phenomenon of asterism, the difference between faceted gem cutting and the en cabochon method I started to see this would be yet another mystery novel about a missing item of jewelry and the crimes that follow in the wake of the jewels’ recovery. Little did I know that the story would take a bizarre detour into the land of pulpish gore and macabre thrills.

A star saphhire displaying
the asterism effect
Nancy’s grandmother Penelope, the only occupant in the Prentice home other than the handful of servants, refuses to talk about the Seven Sisters. A few days after Spencer showed up she dies of fright when a different strange man appears and confronts her and her gardener/handyman about the Prentice Dowry Chain. Just before Penelope dies she utters a fragmented message: “Under……” Stephen takes the message to be a literal clue to the necklace’s hiding place, most likely beneath one of the oak trees that line the property. He spends one night digging and to his shock (and the reader’s) he uncovers some skeletal remains. Buried with the bones he finds an engraved pocket watch. Only a capital R is legible while the other two letters in the monogram have been worn away.

Increasingly the story becomes like Harry Stephen Keeler webwork concoction. An apt analogy because this is a book from E. P. Dutton, publisher of Keeler’s books from 1927 through 1942. Along with disinterred skulls and skeletons and the engraved pocket watch we get anonymous letters, a mystery woman residing in Room 34 of a hotel on Andover Road, an acrobatic burglar, and another buried body!

Surprisingly, with a small pile of buried corpses and a break-in at the Prentice home there’s not a single policeman in sight. Stephen in trying to protect the family name does call the coroner but tells him as little as he thinks the coroner needs to know. Stephen may be clever with his dying messages and handy with a shovel but he’s extremely foolish not to report the nuttiness going on at the Prentice property. His foolhardy decision to protect his wife’s family reputation leads to more death and violence. Coroner Bailey then takes matters into his own hands. He and Stephen turn sleuth and ultimately, after various wild adventures and more crime, the greedy culprits are tracked down, the necklace is recovered and the secret of the skeleton buried beneath the oak tree is explained.

Jean Lilly is as mysterious as the goings on in this debut novel. I know more about her husband and daughter than I do about her.  Jean McCoy Lilly (1886-1961) was born in Michigan and died in Pennsylvania.  She married Scott Barrett Lilly, well known professor of engineering at Swathmore College,  for whom an endowed scholarship is still named.  Her daughter Mary, born in 1910, graduated from Swathmore in 1933, studied painting at the Philadelphia Art institute and taught art there. Later she spent much of her life as an art teacher at Charlestown Elementary School in Malvern, PA.

Lilly is the author of four mystery novels with the last, Death Thumbs a Ride (1940), the easiest to find and the only other Lilly book that has been written about on the internet. While her first crime novel has no series character another Lilly mystery novel I own but have yet to read -- Death in B Minor (1934) -- features Bruce Perkins, her lawyer-detective who appeared in the last three books.

The Seven Sisters exists only in one US edition and is the scarcest of all the Lilly mystery novels. It was not reprinted in either hardcover or paperback during the author’s lifetime. While I enjoyed this oddity I wouldn’t break my neck (or bankbook) tracking down a copy. Despite its strange turn of macabre events it’s typical of 1920s American mysteries: not really a traditional detective novel but rather an adventure thriller overloaded with preposterous coincidences. Ultimately it all ends in a sadly predictable finale. With its old-fashioned prose style, unusual narrative tricks and creaky plotting it all reminded me of a book that might have been written in the late Victorian or early Edwardian era by either Richard Marsh or Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

I Am Afraid - Elma K. Lobaugh

THE STORY:  Dorothy marries divorced Edward, a non-fiction writer.  All is well until Edward's children are sent to live with him. Caroline, Edward's ex-wife, has decided to move to California to start life anew and feels the children will only burden her.  If her new life doesn't pan out and she returns to Chicago she'll ask for the children to move back with her.  And so for Dorothy her romantic idyll in Edward's custom built home by the dune-lined shores Lake Michicgan in northern Indian comes to an abrupt end. The children are odd to say the least. And Stephen, Edward's 11 year-old son, is positively creepy.  Life becomes increasingly tension-filled and soon Dorothy feels she is being persecuted by the children, abandoned by her husband, and imagines she is slowly losing her mind. 

THE CHARACTERS:  From the opening paragraph we get the sense that Dorothy, our narrator, is a fragile woman easily intimidated and a victim of a runaway imagination. The dust jacket illustration (see image at left) shows several surreal looking eyes that are meant to suggest the eyes in a portrait hanging on her bedroom wall. As Dorothy's persecution (real or imagined we are never really sure until the final chapter) continues the eyes in the portrait take on a sinister aspect and represent to her the eyes of everyone in the house -- her indifferent, apparently unloving, husband and the two judgmental children, especially the elder Stephen.  I Am Afraid (1948) is a reverse fairy tale, a nightmare story for adults with Dorothy cast in the role of a victimized stepmother seemingly at the mercy of sinister stepchildren.  

When Stephen first appears the reader knows there is something not quite right about the boy. He talks and behaves like a middle-aged man.  He treats his stepmother not as a parent, but as someone to pity. Stephen has a patronizing manner about him. In his daily visits to Dorothy's bedroom with her morning or afternoon cup of tea he seems ingratiating and deferential, but Dorothy begins to imagine the boy has an ulterior motive. He doesn't act like a son or even a child when he's around her. She calls him strange and weird. She wonders if the tea should be drunk at all.

It doesn't help that Edward dismisses all of Dorothy's ideas when she attempts to discuss the boy's disturbing behavior. The boy is not athletic, disdains anything remotely boyish and shuns any type of play, preferring to read books. He's already suspect in the eyes of 1940s America.  Imagine any American boy not wanting to play baseball or football and turn into a bookworm! Dorothy becomes increasingly frightened by the children, but especially Stephen. It's not just the bookishness that gives her pause. And it's only a mater of time before the strangeness gives way to malicious and dangerous acts.

There may no other suspense novel as intensely domestic as I Am Afraid. The small cast of characters helps build a claustrophobic atmosphere resulting in a stifling melodrama. Dorothy has no real friends outside of her immediate family and spends much of her energy trying to win over her stepchildren or trying to entice her husband back into her bedroom.  The sex has gone from their marriage now that the children have arrived.  Adding insult to injury Edward has retreated to his writer's den claiming a need for no distractions while he tries to hammer out his articles under the pressure of fast approaching deadlines.

The only other character worth mentioning is the neighbor Frank Henderson, a gym teacher and football coach at the elementary school. Dorothy goes for strolls along the shores of Lake Michigan and chances upon Frank walking his dog.  They have a casual conversation that feels so alive and adult to Dorothy she finds a way to get out and go walking nearly every evening just in order to meet up with the coach and his dog.  Little does she realize that her walks and utterly harmless friendship is under close observation.

French translation of I Am Afraid
SETTING:  While the house may be an oppressive and loveless place filled with portraits of staring eyes and oddball children too much in charge of the adults the locale is contrasted with the outside setting.  Edward's home is situated in the dune lined shores of Northern Indiana. Lake Michigan and the dunes are favorite locations in Lobaugh's crime novels.  For Dorothy the lake, the beaches, and the dunes surrounding the house serve as an idyllic escape from the sterile and claustrophobic home that increasingly seems like a prison.

INNOVATIONS:   With a cast of only three adults, two children and one dog it seems almost as if it was meant to be a script for either theater or the movie screen. It's confined settings also make it prime material for a theatrical adaptation.

I think Dorothy's pre-occupation with her dwindling sex life was pretty modern for a book published in 1948.  Clearly her life with Edward was a happy and passionate one prior to the arrival of the oddball kids, Emily and Stephen. Her private life with her husband all but disappears once the children are in the household. I was impressed with Lobaugh's insistence on making Dorothy a woman with desire and whose life requires sexual expression.  Her descent into depression and isolation has a lot to do with her being ignored by her husband as much as it is about the weird and later thoroughly malicious behavior of her creepy stepson. There aren't many crime novels that address this aspect of marriages gone bad and the consequences of one isolated partners mental health.

INFLUENCES:  The real thrill of this suspense novel doesn't occur until the final third of the book and involves lies, deception and spiteful violence.  I can't help but think that Lobaugh was familiar with Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, a play first produced on Broadway in 1935 with its first of two movie adaptions in 1936.  It became a standard choice of melodrama in colleges and community theaters by the mid 1940s. The ugly rumor spread by Stephen that serves as the climax of the book seems so entirely inspired by the malicious talk of Mary Tilford in Hellmann's play that it can't be mere coincidence.  When Stephen is forced to confess to his lies in Lobaugh's novel the boy's fury and anger is like a madman's hysteria. His character foreshadows all the "Bad Seed" kids and demonic children that would flood the pages of popular fiction throughout the 1960s and 70s.  In this regard Lobaugh's book prophesies an entire crime and horror novel subgenre decades before it became a cliché.

QUOTES:  Their poise was more unnerving than if they'd come in the house screaming.

He kissed me good night, a sweet gentle kiss befitting my supposedly nervous, wrought-up state. I could have slapped him.  He might have kissed me differently--as a woman, as a lover, as a wife.

I began to think that it was too bad we were civilized. If I were to slap him, if he were to hit me at least that would be honest. At least that would be more sincere than this quiet politeness that was a living lie. 

(In reference to the painting that causes so much of Dorothy's paranoid anxiety) of these days I'm going to throw something at that smirking bitch on the wall.  I can pretend she's Stephen.

AUTHOR:  Elma Klinedorf Lobaugh (1907-1997) was born and raised in Indiana where she lived most of her life.  In 1928 she graduated with honors from University of Chicago.  Among her first jobs was labor analyst for the Indiana State Employment Service.  She wrote three crime novels under her own name then disappeared from the Crime Club roster for four years.  In 1946 her melodramatic novel The Devil Is Loneliness was published by the second tier house A. A. Wyn.  Described as a "steel mill soap opera" by one newspaper reviewer it was her only mainstream novel. When she resurfaced in the 1950s as a mystery writer she used the pen name "Kenneth Lowe" and was once again published by Doubleday's Crime Club. The Lowe crime novels are all set in Indiana and at least one (Haze of Evil) deals with murder and crime in the steel industry. Some of them are set in a fictional town called Merrittville which is most likely modeled on the real Indiana city of Merrillville. At least two of her novels were translated into French:  I Am Afraid became A devenir folle (literally "to become crazy) and L'Envoûtements (Bewitchments) was the translated version of her sophomore mystery, Shadows in Succession, a mystery involving voodoo in New Orleans.

Elma K. Lobaugh Crime Novels
She Never Reached the Top (1945)
Shadows of Succession (1946)
I Am Afraid (1949)

As Kenneth Lowe
Haze of Evil (1953)
No Tears for Shirley Minton (1955)
The Catalyst (1958)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Winners of The Lake of the Dead giveaway

I put all the names in a hat so to speak.  Using a random number generator I found on the internet I got two numbers. I matched up those numbers with where your comment fell in the order of comments left on the post.  So the lucky winners of a copy of The Lake of the Dead are:

1. Joel

2. Book Glutton

I was thankful that the numbers matched up to people who had signed heir comment or had an ID attached.  Didn't have to deal with all those Anonymous comments and having to ID you by the book or writer you mentioned. Anyway, if you are Joel or Book Glutton please email me with your mailing address and I will ship your book to you.

Click here to email me. The Subject field should fill in automatically.

If you live in Canada, USA or UK you will be receiving your book from Amazon. Anywhere else I'll be shipping it to you via the regular US mail at my expense.

Thanks for all your comments and special thanks to James Jenkins for linking my review on the Valancourt Books Twitter page.  I'm sure a lot of you otherwise would never have read the review.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Lake of the Dead - André Bjerke (and another giveaway)

"Let's summarize:  A lake that sucks people into it, an invisible phantom that screams and leaves footprints, a crazed double murderer on the loose, wandering around desperately in the dark of night. You might indeed say this is a fitting atmosphere for a psychoanalyst."

-- Gabriel Mørk in The Lake of the Dead (1942)

Is there anyone out there who knows of the existence of Bernhard Borge, the Norwegian author of four eerie detective novels tinged with horror and supernatural elements?  Unless you grew up and read Norwegian popular fiction I doubt it.  Borge is the pseudonym of André Bjerke, a well regarded poet who dabbled in crime and detective fiction during the 1940s. According to James Jenkins' extremely informative intro in this new English edition of the second Borge mystery novel I learned that it was Bjerke who is behind the Borge alter ego.  Jenkins, publisher and founder of the excellent small press Valancourt Books, also serves as translator for the first English edition of what has been deemed a classic in horror and crime fiction by Norwegain readers.  The Lake of the Dead (1942), or De dødes tjern as Norwegians know it, consistently appears on "Best of..." lists as the best remembered classic Norwegian mystery novel. Astonishingly, at one time it outranked even the work of modern Norwegian bestselling crime writer Jo Nesbó.

Let me add a clarifying bit to that statement about Norwegian readers only knowing about The Lake of the Dead.  The book was so popular that it has been filmed twice. It's first cinematic adaptation in 1958 with a screenplay by Bjerke (and featuring the writer in the role of Gabriel Mørk) is still available online from Sinister Cinema in a DVD with English subtitles. If any English speaker does know about the story it is probably because they have seen the movie rather actually reading the original book.

But to the book itself!

Anyone who craves the kind of detective novel that incorporates impossibility and apparently supernatural aspects will get more than they ever bargained for in The Lake of the Dead.  It easily stands beside the mystery novels of John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Eric Harding's Pray for the Dawn for its eerie atmosphere and use of grisly legends. Each time Bjerke describes the lake and its surrounding forest the book amps up the horror and the macabre. All senses are employed as the reader is transported to the Norwegian haunted lake with the stench of rotting marshes, the croaking of frogs "as if calling from the abyss" and the miasma of fog that seems interminably wrapped around the perimeter of its waters.  Paranoia and terror infect the inhabitants of the cabin by the lake recalling the fear of the guests of U. N. Owen in And Then There Were None as they try to prevent more of their number becoming victims of the ghost that lures people to their doom in the lake's haunted waters.

And there's more to draw in fans of Golden Age detective novels here. Like the Philo Vance series Bjerke creates a narrator character along the lines of S. S. Van Dine. Bernard Borge is not only the author of his detective novels he is the narrator.  Borge is paired up with psychoanalyst Kai Bugge who serves as the real detective of the books in which he appears.  According to Jenkins' intro Bugge serves as detective in three of the four Bernhard Borge mystery novels.

Borge opens The Lake of the Dead with a bemoaning monologue in which he tells a group of friends that he is suffering from writer's block and is about to give up on writing altogether. We learn that Borge is a mystery novelist and his friends dare him to tackle a real mystery and challenge his failing imagination. His lawyer pal tells a story about a haunted lake where ages ago a crazed man grabbed an ax and chopped up his cheating wife and her handsome male lover, dumped their bodies in the water, then committed suicide by drowning himself. One of the friends, Bjørn Werner, has recently rented the shunned cabin by the shores of that very lake. The friends decide to visit for a weekend and hope that Borge will be inspired by the haunted locale to write his next mystery novel. When they arrive Bjørn is nowhere to be found, nor is his pet dog he took with him. They discover footprints leading  to the water but none that return to the cabin. It appears he was lured to the lake and disappeared. Or did the ghost of that mad murderer drag Bjørn down into the lake’s rumored bottomless depths?

3rd Borge novel, English title:
Dead Men Come Ashore (1947)
The novel features all sorts of intriguing horror set pieces including a sleepwalking damsel in distress, one attempt on another person's life, a near impossible break-in at the cabin, and --of course-- one genuine murder. Borge and Bugge are like GAD versions of Mulder and Scully, with Borge slowly but surely taken in by the occult lectures he hears from Gabriel Mørk while Bugge is the resident skeptic examining each supposedly ghostly manifestation and other-worldly event with the eyes of a rational scientist. But he's also a psychoanalyst and an avowed Freudian. He's not going to completely abandon his training and career mindset. Part of the most crucial evidence is found in handwritten notes Borge finds detailing one of Bugge's client's dreams. Together they also find Bjørn Werner's diary, the work of what appears to be a raving madman which also includes some bizarre dreams written down. Kai Bugge reminds Bernhard Borge that one of the greatest tools of any psychoanalyst is dream interpretation and he will use his Freudian training to glean from these dreams a more thorough understanding of Werner's troubled soul. Dream interpretation becomes key to helping solve the mysteries, not as bizarrely as Moris Klaw does in Sax Rohmer's Dream Detective mystery stories, but rather as a psychoanalyst approaches his work with patients. 

There are other ingeniously planted clues, much of it related to psychology and psychoanalytic observations. In this regard The Lake of the Dead is reminiscent of the mystery novels of Helen McCloy whose psychologist detective Basil Willing also acted as a police consultant by using his career training to help him understand the psyches of the suspects and the victim. Similarly, readers might recall the Freudian ramblings of Mrs. Bradley in the mystery novels of Gladys Mitchell.  I get a sense from Kai Bugge's character and his intense theorizing that Bjerke understood psychoanalytic methods much more in depth than Mitchell's often specious psychology when it cropped up in the Mrs. Bradley books.

Borge's 4th & final novel
English title: Hidden Pattern (1950)
This excellent mystery novel packs a wallop in the final pages. I want to bring up one final analogy but will have to be circumspect in doing so. Those who come away either gasping in awe or at least raising their eyebrows when reading the penultimate revelatory chapter ought to know that while it may appear to be unique and brand new it is not wholly original on Bjerke's part. The bizarre murder method and motive were both first introduced in a minor classic of English language detective fiction back in the Victorian era.

Whether you are keen on Carr-like supernatural elements, the battle between the true believer in other-worldly events and the rational scientist, or enjoy a detective novel that plumbs the depths of psychological mysteries that lead to crime The Lake of the Dead has a lot to offer. Jenkins is to be commended on his discovery and for making at least this one Borge mystery available to English language readers.  I certainly hope we have not seen the last of Bernhard Borge and the fascinating psychological detective Kai Bugge.

The web page for Valancourt Books edition of The Lake of the Dead will lead you to various other web pages where can purchase a copy.  Or you can enter my giveaway by leaving comment below. That's right I'm giving away two copies of this new edition!  Just tell me anything about a forgotten foreign language mystery or horror novel that you think we all ought to know about - translated into English or not. No geographic restrictions this time because I'm having Amazon ship the book to you!  [Why didn't I think of that before?]  So enter away and leave me loads of comments every one of you out there.  This new edition is really is a cause for celebration.