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 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 ghost. 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 hve 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, but yet the final solution 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 with superstition and many tales told about the ghost who first fell to her death that add to the fated atmosphere and Lobaugh's 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.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Death of an Editor - Vernon Loder

The newspaper crowd has descended upon Marsh House but not without an invitation. The impromptu house party consists of a gossip columnist, an advertising man, two reporters from France, and a serial fiction writer. All of them are waiting to speak with Hay Smith, editor of The Daily Record, one of the papers owned by publisher Sir James Sitheby. The guests are kept busy at recreations devised by Miss Roe Gay, a professional hostess tending to the various guests while Sir James is up in London. But no one has a chance to see Hay Smith. Right after a game of miniature golf the group disperses and someone finds Smith dead in the study. He’s been shot in the head and facing a window left open that looks out on the nearby seashore. Inspector Brews investigates this Death of an Editor (1931) and soon the murder reveals a complex web of questionable journalistic ethics and possible espionage. 

 Though I was disappointed that this mystery novel lacked the surreal qualities and outrageous touches that I thought were Loder's hallmarks this was a competently constructed and engaging police procedural.  Loder probably belongs in the camp of the "humdrum" detective novelists because his detective novels are very much about puzzling out the how and the why of the murder moreso than about exploring character or creating atmosphere.  The characters here are a bit flat and tend to fall into familiar stock roles of popular fiction.

Interestingly, Brews is the first of only two police detectives Loder created who appeared in more than one novel.  This is his second outing after his debut in The Essex Murders (1930), reviewed here under the US title The Death Pool.  While there may not be any blow guns and poison darts or murder victims who fall into their own death trap I found the complexity in this one above par for the usual Loder mystery novel.

First off, it's a quasi impossible crime.  All evidence seems to make it appear that Smith was the victim of a sniper's rifle fired from Sir James' yacht that was moored a few hundred yards form the open window of the study.  Brews finds signs that a rifle was fired from an open porthole and a strange wire mesh target was still in the porthole leading one to believe that the shooter used the intersecting wires as a sight.  when Smith's head appeared in the center intersection the shooter fired at his victim. But then why leave the wire mesh behind?  It seems not only sloppy on the murderer's part but might be manufactured evidence.  Are the police supposed to believe someone outside the house is the killer?

There is a lot made of everyone's alibis.  Some of the guests were together seemingly ruling them out while others were engaged in solitary habits.  The shooting took place almost directly after a malfunctioning car backfired several times.  No one could tell which were the gunshots and which sounds same from the ailing car. One of the most intriguing bits of evidence is the corners of several pieces of paper found still clutched in Smith's right hand.  Was something torn from his hand just before he died?  And if so, was it the killer who took the papers?  Or was someone in the study after the murder and took the papers from Smith when he was already dead?  

These several mysteries will all be explained with one of the most surprising elements being the actual method and manner of Smith's murder.  The documents in question are a sort of Hitchcockian McGuffin.  Loder never really needed to explain what they were (though he does vaguely allude to state secrets and British occupation in India);  they are merely an object "of great importance" to most of the characters in order to further the plot.  When the Home Office gets involved and wants to retrieve those missing documents an element of espionage enters the story.  Impostors, multiple chase sequences, and even Brews taking on the disguise of a gamekeeper further complicate the story as he tries to suss out the killer, find the missing weapon and attempt to recover those vitally important missing documents.  Death of an Editor morphs from a rather cut-and-dried quasi-impossible crime mystery to an engaging adventure thriller with Brews hot on the trail of a ruthless and devious French woman who holds the key to all the various mysteries.

THINGS I LEARNED: The world of bore guns or what Loder calls collector’s guns was revealed to me in the pages of Death of an Editor. Eventually the murder weapon is discovered to be a .410 bore rifle. He describes a weapon that was marketed to young men and teens in the advertising pages of boy’s magazines. I did some a-Googling and found several photos of these guns along with a couple of pages from period weapon catalogs. In the March 2022 issue of The Vintage Gun Journal I found an article titled “The Poacher’s Companion” all about these unique folding rifles. The article said this was the rifle of choice for poachers because they could easily fold up the gun and shove it out of sight into the deep pockets of their ulster or hunting jacket. Loder mentions that they were often called collector’s guns because there were used by people who collected bird specimens. Apparently the shot fired would kill the bird without obliterating the delicate body the collector would then take to a taxidermist.

QUOTES: “Look at the fever for all kinds of quack psychology in America. Every detective novel is full of it, and, what is worse for the police there, the country is infested with alienists, and experts full of mouth-filling words, who can prove that any criminal is not a criminal, but only ten years old.”

“There is a tendency...among newspapers to forget the purveying of news, and attempt the purveying of politics.”

Psychoanalysts to the contrary, [Brews] did not believe that egotists killed people. Narcissism is a full-time job.

“I have the advantage and the disadvantage of being a provincial, even a country detective -- that is to say, I am expected to do the work of a wise man while being regarded as an inevitable fool.”
“Which is the most advantageous, Mr. Brews?” she asked laughing.
“Being regarded as an ass,” he replied promptly.

Hard work and team work form the basis of police investigations; with a superstructure of observation and inquiry rather than lucky intuition. But, when the ends of the threads do begin to show, there is no one better at synthesis than your experienced detective. He knots up much faster than he unravels....

Monday, February 28, 2022

IN BRIEF: The Queen's Gate Mystery - Herbert Adams

Jimmie Haswell receives a note from his friend Capt. Gregory Bruden inquiring about the legality of finding something of value in a home in which the owner died.  Is it a case of finders keepers?  Or does the cache of treasure still belong to the estate, the heirs of the dead former owner of the house. What if the finder then buys the house?  Is it legally his property because it was found in the house?  Jimmie is mulling over these various legal riddles when he learns of a murder in a house that was for sale.  And the corpse turns out to to be Capt. Bruden.  Could Bruden have been killed because of the letter?  Was there some hidden cache of something valuable in that supposedly empty house now for sale where Burden  was found bludgeoned?  Well, of course the two are tied together!  That's the core of The Queen's Gate Mystery, a quasi detective novel of murder, hidden treasure and a gang of ruthless criminals.

The Queen's Gate Mystery (1927) is Jimmie Haswell’s third outing as an amateur detective.  He  is a lawyer --a solicitor, not a barrister -- recently married to Nonna, a French woman he met and fell in love with in his previous adventure The Crooked Lip.  Nonna convinces Jimmie to investigate the various legal questions posed in Bruden's letter and to prod the police into tying the letter to the murder.  The two of them get in over their heads and soon what began as a detective novel transforms into a full blown action thriller rife with the kind of 1920s set pieces that would make this novel suitable for the afternoon serials of Adams' contemporary cinema. 

Nonna is abducted, Jimmie must rescue her.  Jimmie is attacked, bound and gagged and must escape. The search for the treasure intersects with a subplot of a ring of criminals some of whom are looking for the treasure, others who have their own reasons for using the house.  Secret passageways which featured prominently in Haswell's debut (The Secret of Bogey House, 1924) are key to solving the mystery of how the crimes are committed but this is no surprise at all and rather obvious early in the book.

Jimmie says late in the book, "What an ideal place golf links must be for conspirators to meet and plan their crimes."  Golf courses recur as settings for murders and the game crops up in a variety of ways throughout Adams' novels. Here it isn't so much the game itself as it as an aspect of golf.  One of the clues Haswell stumbles across while searching the rooms of the murder site -- actually it's Nonna who finds it -- is a golf scorecard that includes a hole-in-one. The scorecard is prominently stamped with the name of the golf course and club. Knowing that this high achievement in golf is almost always celebrated at the course and talked about in the clubhouse Haswell heads to the course and with clever questioning discovers the person who made the shot. He then sets out to prove that person was present in the house around the time of the murder.  Eventually, that ace golfer is implicated in several other crimes as well as the murder.

As always romance plays an important role in the story. Haswell often riffs on the life of a newlywed with some amusing remarks. His devotion and love for his wife spur him on giving him a sort of superhuman talent in rescue and survival. Nonna is interested in getting the other couple to repair their relationship after a damaging quarrel seems to turn them against one another. Never fear. They all make up and both Jimmie and Nonna and Philip and Enid foil the villains and live happily ever after.

The action sequences leave a lot to be desired, however. While I found it hard to believe that he could actually untie knots by simply manipulating the tight cords on his wrist on a hook embedded in a brick wall and do this all with his back against the wall in pitch darkness it still made me smile.  Oh the days of derring-do in 1920s action adventures.  The story is pure cliffhanger movie fodder.  But Jimmie and Nonna are just plain likeable so it's hard to make fun of such familiar stock in trade action and hackneyed devices, as Carolyn Wells liked to call them.

I have a few other Haswell books to get to and then I'll be sampling several of Herbert Adams' non-series detective novels.  But nothing has yet to outshine his remarkable achievement in the baffling and exciting detective novel The Crime in the Dutch Garden.

Jimmie Haswell Crime Novels
(reviews on this blog have hyperlinks)

The Secret of Bogey House (1924)
The Crooked Lip (1926)
The Queen's Gate Mystery (1927)
The Empty Bed (1928)
Rogues Fall Out (1928)
The Golden Ape (1930)
The Crime in the Dutch Garden (1931)
The Paulton Plot (1932)
The Woman in Black (1933)

Sunday, February 27, 2022

LEFT INSIDE: Promotional Post Card from 1938

Today for a change we have a legitimate "Left Inside" find.  I was sort of cheating for the past couple of months using inscriptions and bookplates (and there are more of those to come in case you were suffering from withdrawal) due to a lack of ephemera left inside my books. A plethora of bookplates and POIs  began turning up as well as autographs so I started taking photos and have quite a file to choose from now.  This post card, on the other hand, was a delightful and long overdue find.

And the book itself is an even better find!  One of the best purchases I've made in years. It's an incredibly rare copy of Death Walks Softly (1938) --a Nigel Morland book, one of the Inspector Tandy detective novels he wrote using his "Neal Shepherd " pseudonym. At a mere $35 it was a steal. The description promised the exceptionally scarce dust jacket though based on the price clearly the seller had no idea about that. Overall, the description noted minimal damage and a book in good condition. A bare bones description to be sure and leaving a lot of room for my usually cynical imagination to fill in with all sorts of expected flaws. It could mean anything from genuinely good to battered and worn because "good" in the book trade does not mean good at all. Usually "good" translates to barely good. In truth the rating can be used to cover a condition that ranges from usual wear to beaten to hell.  This counterintuitive grading system that's been in place for centuries frankly still baffles me. 

Imagine my surprise when I opened the package to discover a review copy in Very Good condition!  Minor wear, faint foxing to the foredges, some tanning to the edges of the dust jacket, but absolutely much better than a mere "good."

Laid inside I found a bonus not mentioned in the seller's description. A promotional post card from Constable & Co., the publisher, intended to be sent to professionals in the chemistry world. This makes me think that the book was a review copy and that the recipient was to send the card out to help promote sales. It also alludes to the fact that the book is the first in a new series although that fact is never mentioned outright. The front of the card has a miniature of the dust jacket illustration, but in black and white. The actual dust jacket is in three colors (blue, green and black). Click to enlarge for full enjoyment. You'll most likely have to enlarge the second one in order to read the message.

I own three of the four Neal Shepard books and have been promising to write about them for years now.  I think I've mentioned in passing the plot of Death Flies Low in a couple of comments over the past ten years, but still have not written up reviews of any of the books. They are all scientific detective novels with bizarre murder methods and unusual motives. Along with another brief series featuring Sgt Johnny Lamb that Morland wrote as "John Donavan" they are the best of his detective novels. Expect reviews of all the Neal Shepherd books starting in March and continuing through April. You'll have to wait for the photos of the beautiful copy of Death Walks Softly in the first review in the coming weeks.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

NEW STUFF: Bunny - Mona Awad

What if those stuck-up teens in Mean Girls and the snobby clique in Heathers made it to grad school in order to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing? And what if those girls then decided that their creative powers extended beyond the printed page. So much beyond mere typing or scribbling with a pen that they indulged in witchcraft filtered through a kind of Victor Frankenstein egomania? You’d have Bunny (2019), Mona Awad’s academic satire and utterly bonkers witchcraft novel, a book as far from cuddly and cute as that title implies.

Samantha Heather Mackey (see that wink-wink allusion to the Daniel Waters’ screenplay?) is the protagonist, an MFA candidate and the outlier in a coterie of young women all seemingly clones of each other. Her fellow writers call themselves Bunny and are the most obnoxious clique ever to have been created in either novels, TV or movies. Their saccharine sweet adoration of one another outdoes the clinginess of the Heathers. Samantha loathes them but of course secretly wants to be part of the group. And so when seemingly out of the blue Samantha is invited to a private writing workshop the Bunnys call their Smut Salon she accepts against her better judgment and the advice of her best pal Ava.

The Smut Salon is an extension, albeit a soft core porn version, of the pretentious nonsense they are subjected to in their writing seminar. In essence it's nothing more than a sharing of sex stories, but the kind of giggly girl stories you’d get from inexperienced pre-adolescents, not young adult women in graduate school. The Smut Salon is only one aspect of their life outside the classrooms. As the novel progresses, we discover their desires and obsessions with creativity manifest in sinister rituals that defy the outrageous spell work seen in TV shows like The Craft, Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the work they do in Workshop, capital W mandatory. The Bunnys are toying with a supernatural method to create life and in keeping with their Smut Salon obsessions they keep creating young men. They are not referred to as boys, however. To the Bunnys they are Hybrids or -- fittingly -- Drafts, mere works in progress as befits the work of a writing Workshop of course. And in the maddest bit of twisted imagination Awad has them create life from another form. The word "alchemy" is overused in MFA programs to discuss the supposed magical quality of writing fiction and Awad grabs a hold of that transformation metaphor and turns it into an absurdity. The Bunnys create life from their own namesakes – cute rabbits they capture from the bunny infested campus grounds.

I told you this was bonkers! It’s also deliciously creepy and madly funny and at times sorrowfully moving.

The catch to all this delving into the dark side of creation is that the Bunnys are not very good at either writing or creating life. In Samantha they see their opportunity to bring someone better at creation into their fold and test her. On the surface however, they belittle her work in the seminar and they make it appear they are going to model shape and improve her underappreciated talent outside of the classroom. We all know that the reverse is true. That just as Samantha envies the close knit friendship among these clannish clones they also envy her outsider status, her individuality and her darkly attractive fiction that actually has a plot.

Awad’s brilliant ironic touch is shown in the men the Bunnys conjure from cute rodents. On the outside they may be gorgeously handsome and resemble movie stars, athletes and rock musicians the girls fantasize having sex with but they are broken and flawed. Their hands never fully form nor do their genitalia. And so they appear to the Bunnys in handsome blue designer suits but wearing black gloves to cover their stumpy clawlike paws. They are never able to actually touch the girls with real fingers or fulfill their desires with a real sex act. It’s a brilliant touch on Awad’s part. Just as the Bunnys passive aggressively critique Samantha’s writing for lack of a character development these girls clearly haven’t mastered that skill in their attempt to create human life in their gory rituals.

When it’s Samantha’s turn to whip up a Hybrid or a Draft she not only surprises herself but shocks the Bunnys. It’s the beginning of the end of the group, a sinister revenge begins to formulate far beyond the reaches of Samantha’s own warped imagination. And the Bunnys never see that the tables have turned and they are being victimized at their own games and rituals.

Bunny seems at first to be just another academic satire. Mean Girls Go to College, might be an apt subtitle. But those rituals change the entire focus of the book. At first I was utterly bamboozled by the fantastic elements of the Hybrid Workshop and the strange literature quoting things resembling good looking young men. It’s this linking of creative writing with creating life as a wish fulfillment for desire and love that makes the book worthy of attention. In years to come I imagine that Bunny will achieve the kind of cult classic status as similar books that explore twisted creation and perverse pursuit of love like the still noteworthy, unclassifiable novel of the fantastic Geek Love by Katharine Dunn.

Bunny has been compared to Heathers, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and the movie Jennifer’s Body. Awad’s book has so little in common with those other works. The Heathers analogy is obvious of course, but this book is not so much about individuality vs. group identity or the need to belong or popularity or anything remotely like that. It’s really about the dark force of untethered imagination, the danger of an indulgent fantasy life. Why no one has ever mentioned Frankenstein, Geek Love, or even the charming fantasy novel Miss Hargreaves is beyond me. Ultimately, Bunny is simultaneously a love letter to and a dire warning about the power of imagination. For any person who has ever heard a parent, a friend, or anyone say “Stop pretending!” or “Get your head out of the clouds” or any number of warnings to snap out of it and get back to reality Bunny has a lot to offer, a lot to teach. Real life can be so much more rewarding if we only open our eyes and see what’s right in front of us rather than imagining what we think might be better for us.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Three Detective Novels by Brian Flynn

The more I read of Brian Flynn the more I realize why he was never recognized or remembered for his work. He just isn’t consistently good. First off, he is a terrible prose stylist in his early books with some awful sentence structures that were screaming out to an editor for a full-on assault of the blue pencil.  His page length paragraphs are syntactically irksome, the narrative gets repetitive with redundant “our story thus far” recaps, he uses eccentric vocabulary when plain language will serve better  (vaticinate is a favorite bizarre word choice instead of foretell or prognosticate) All of these sins pile up sometimes on the same page and are detrimental to his engaging plots and lively incidents. I’m trying to forgive him for all of this but it’s hard to ignore when an avalanche of verbosity occurs in the most inconvenient places impeding the enjoyment of the story and interrupting the flow of action.

The biggest of his sins, however, is his failure to honor the fair play tradition. The adventures of Anthony Bathurst are overloaded with last minute reveals with nary a clue offered up that relates to that reveal. He indulges in the unfavorable practice of having a character lowering a speaking voice and not recording what is said. In essence they whisper to each other without the benefit of the reader knowing what was said. Similarly, characters write things on pieces of paper rather than openly speaking their ideas once again leaving the reader left out of the action. Makes me boil.  Grrr...

One thing I particularly dislike – an indulgence I think Flynn must have thought was uproariously funny – is his habit of taking cliches and aphorisms and rewriting them to make them sound like jokes. I found examples of this annoying gimmick in each one of the books I recently read. To do this in one or two books as an homage to the renowned Mrs. Malaprop, say, would be acceptable. But it happens all the time, in all of his books. Flynn never seems to grow tired of his dubious wordplay. Everyone engages in this paraphrasing of proverbs (a preposterous idea for any fiction writer), including Bathurst himself. I’ve cited several of them in the capsule reviews below.

And yet...  somehow I can't get enough of these books!  What keeps me reading are Flynn’s inventive plots, his unceasing imagination and his absolute love for the genre. He really does love a mystery. In The Ebony Stag, for example, Bathurst makes an allusion to Monsieur Hanaud, the French detective created by A.E. W. Mason, best known for his star turn in The House of the Arrow. Detective short stories and novels are repeatedly mentioned as often as Flynn’s habit of having Bathurst cite obscure poems and arcane works of literature. Additionally, Flynn was willing to experiment with the form in his later years deviating from the formulae of the traditional Q&A investigation, evidence gathering and clue hunting to try his hand at pulpish thrillers, Grand Guignol horror, inverted detective novels and in one specific book a rather mature handling of the psychological crime novel specifically dealing with a theme later explored by dozens of crime fiction writers– the infection of a crime on an individual's moral character and conscience. Flynn gets better at plotting once he reached the third decade of his career in the 1940s. I only wish he abandoned some of his irksome writing habits as he seemed to mature in other areas like concocting deviously engineered murders, devising unusual motivations and plumbing the depths of murderous minds with trenchant insight.

The Padded Door (1932),  11th book in the series Dislike the heavy-handed metaphor of the title taken from a line that appears in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" by Oscar Wilde. The line is used an epigraph to the novel. It refers to a prisoner awaiting the "hangman with his gardener’s gloves/Slip[ping] through the padded door."  The novel begins with a well-used plot motif – a man wrongfully accused of murder and the desperate fight to get him acquitted at trial. First half of the novel tells the story of the trial and how the defense manages to pull off a miracle. Second half is a murder mystery when a shocking reveal of a second murder victim upends the plot's main thrust.

I pride myself on seeing through the biggest piece of misdirection in this cleverly told story. Flynn breaks a few rules here, almost pulling off a trick worthy of one Agatha Christie’s best mystery novels. But he let his cards show before the final reveal. Fair play clueing is present for some bits, otherwise I’d not have been tipped off.  In other areas, however Bathurst delivers some info in the final pages without ever letting the reader know what he was doing. The Stilton cheese business, for example, was utterly unfair but easily could have been dealt with in a subtle and fair manner. There is also some unfair business when the doctor who examines the murder victim gives us details about the time of death. Huge cheat on Flynn’s part that may mislead most readers. This is later explained, but the reason is lazy and lame.

REWRITTTEN APHORISM (spoken by Sir Robert Frant, father of the accused on trial) "There are two ends of the candle, you know, and combustion should only be at work at one of them."

The Ebony Stag (1938), #22 in series  This is a splendidly told, exciting mystery. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing. Quite the ripping yarn.  The story is teeming with Golden Age conventions: a rhyming riddle, lost treasure, secret identities, impostors, a bizarre murder method, a nearly impossible crime in an almost locked room.  It’s a real page turner and Flynn’s writing is pretty good in this one. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down towards the end when he resorts to his old bad habits of suspense-killing rambling monologues, ill-timed recapping and a completely pointless tabulation scene the likes of which even Carolyn Wells would shake her head while reading.

But still the good far outweighs the bad here. An elderly retired gentleman is gruesomely murdered by an unknown weapon in his locked cottage. Only a small window was open but the opening was barely big enough to allow entry for a boy who manages to get in and unbolt the door for the gent’s niece. She comes by to check up on her uncle and then must enlist the help of the boy. The figure of the title is found broken by the body. The missing weapon and the reason for the broken stag are pale in comparison to a larger mystery when it is soon discovered that the murdered man is not who everyone thought he was. The story grows ever more intriguing as it progresses. Very much recommended if you’re looking for one of the truly entertaining Anthony Bathurst detective novels.

REWRITTTEN APHORISM (spoken by Bathurst) “But Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, if you remember, once warned a certain Horatio concerning the possibilities continued in heaven and earth that were omitted from their philosophy.” [So clunky. Not funny at all. Why not just quote the line verbatim? Every other mystery writer quoted that line ad nauseam throughout the Golden Age.]

There is also a character named Frederick Gulliver Sparke-Lodge in The Ebony Stag who mixes metaphors and speaks in dozens of these mangled proverbs. I’ll spare you any sampling of that nonsense.

Such Bright Disguises (1941), #27 in the series. Bathurst does not appear until the final third of this truly remarkable crime novel. It’s not really a detective novel until the final third when all that preceded is turned on its head with a final double twist that I thought rather brilliant. The bulk of the novel is, in fact, an inverted crime novel and tells the story of two adulterous lovers who plot the murder of the wife’s husband. There are some mysterious elements introduced in the story that make you doubt what you think was almost a certainty. This is part of Flynn’s clever melding of pure detective novel and inverted detective novel. It’s his attempt to write a mystery novel in the style of Francis Iles, I’d say. Crime fiction fans will draw comparisons to Malice Aforethought, Payment Deferred by C. S. Forrester, This Way Out by James Ronald and the works of James M. Cain. They all came to mind as I read Flynn’s book, but one classic work stood out more.

The deeper I plunged into this dark novel the more I was reminded of Thérèse Raquin, one of Emile Zola’s superior crime novels to explore the guilt of adulterous lovers and how after committing and covering up a murder they are doomed to never forget what they’ve done. In Flynn’s novel Lawrence and Dorothy are the duplicitous lovers. As a consequence of their criminal act their desire and lust wither away under the weight of guilt and remorse. Dorothy has nightmares and is literally haunted by the ghost of her husband. Ultimately, they begin to distrust one another and madness and paranoia begin to set in. There is no happy ending here with Flynn delivering a whopper of a surprise in the final pages. Of the handful of Flynn’s novels I’ve read this is his most mature, almost a melodramatic mainstream novel of psychology with crime as a side dish, rather than a crime novel as the main course.

Psychological crime fans, inverted detective novel lovers and anyone looking for a dark and noirish crime story will be thoroughly satisfied with Such Bright Disguises. I’m convinced it is one of Flynn’s finest novels and I’ve only read seven so far.