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.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Upstairs and Downstairs - Carol Carnac

Though written in an era well past the heyday of the Golden Age of detective fiction Upstairs and Downstairs (1950) is redolent of books that flourished two decades earlier. So far I’ve only read this one mystery novel by Edith Rivett in her “Carol Carnac” guise, but it is definitely a candidate for the Humdrum school of detective fiction. Carnac creates a baffling crime dependent on gadgetry and a web of questionable alibis that rival anything found in the pages of John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts, two of the masters of that subgenre in which the plot and puzzle take precedence. The story is almost exclusively devoted to painstakingly reconstructing how the murder was committed and who was where when the victim was killed. Almost entirely absent is any delving into character, relationships and motives. In fact, I found only two of the characters compelling enough to talk about in this review.

Upstairs and Downstairs despite a title that seems to allude to servants and their masters is not set in a manor house or country estate. Rather the setting is a research hospital where the upstairs crew is made up of doctors and executives running the facility while the downstairs staff consists of the varied men and women who deal with the massive amounts of paperwork stored in a complex filing system that takes up two entire floors.

The murder victim is head file clerk, Mr. Chindle, an odious man hardly well liked and little respected. His daily battle with the majority of women who make up the filing team is aggravated by his misogyny, foul breath and rank body odor. He had habit of undermining everyone, eavesdropping on conversations and committing petty thefts in order to cover his debts incurred as the result of addictive gambling and extravagant bets on long shots at the horse races. The day of the murder a pearl necklace belonging to June Banbrugh, the most recently hired file clerk, goes missing. It’s no surprise when he is found with his head bashed in from a fire escape ladder that apparently became accidentally dislodged from its hinged mount.  The pearl necklace turns up in Chindle's pocket.

Inspector Julian Rivers investigates the apparent accident and immediately suspects that the ladder was tampered with. An elevator near the fire escape ladder has proven to have an eccentric mechanical flaw. Passengers can hit the “Stop” button and cause the car to change direction from up to down, and vice versa. Rivers begins to imagine that the elevator may have been employed to create a death trap. As the case progresses he will find numerous bits of evidence to support his theory and the case begins to look more and more like deliberate murder.

Mechanics and gadgetry are the fascination of this plot. In addition to the fire escape ladder used as a murder weapon and the odd elevator that can change direction in mid-journey there is a telephone system with poorly installed wiring that allows people to pick up extensions and listen in on conversations. Entire chapters are devoted to Rivers and his police crew monkeying with the ladder in a variety of experiments to see how it falls, investigating the elevator shafts and making various phone calls to find out which lines are affected by the wiring and acoustical anomalies. I enjoyed Julian Rivers a lot more than Rivet’s other policemen Inspector Macdonald who appears in her detective novels written as “E. C. R. Lorac”. Rivers has a slightly more lively personality, exhibits a sense of humor ("Aren't you [fond of bed]?  I am. I was born lazy") and often is smiling at various stages in the story. In contrast I’ve always remembered Macdonald as dour and uninteresting, a personality-less cipher.

Among the supporting characters the best scenes feature Wilson, the head of security, or chief porter as Carnac calls him in the novel. He is an intelligent man with a lot of opinions but who is unwilling to augment those opinions with gossip. He is the most helpful of anyone in the research facility. The doctors on the other hand are a secretive bunch, duplicitous and deceitful giving contradictory statements frustrating Rivers at every opportunity. Highly protective of the work they are doing on viruses and the common cold they are stubborn in revealing what they were doing when Chindle was killed.

Another memorable sequence has Rivers visiting a boarding house where Chindle lived.  Mrs Mason, the landlady, gives some info that further proves Chindle was a thief then with some prodding allows Rivers to see his room.  Because she is tired of policeman entering the house and mucking about which has led to her boarders gossiping about the murder victim's life she insists that Rivers pretend to be a prospective boarder. They role play as if she is allowing him to view the apartment as a possible renter.  In this little bit of improvised theater Mrs. Mason reveals more about her character as a landlady and how she views her lodgers. Carnac does a neat job here once again resorting to wry humor and allowing us to see Rivers as a man of humor and unusual bent of will who will indulge in others' whims to get what he needs.

Overall, I enjoyed this mystery novel.  It's rather complex and sometimes a bit convoluted, but it was never really dull.  Wilson, Mrs. Mason, Rivers and some of the doctor characters held my interest, though admittedly the doctors at the facility seemed entirely interchangeable and not too well delineated.  The murder method turns out to be overly elaborate and rather ingenious.  I couldn't help but think of books like The Death of Laurence Vining, Fatal Descent (aka Drop to his Death) and Elevator to the Gallows (aka Frantic) when the focus turned to the elevator rather than the ladder than crushed Mr. Chindle. Carnac's subtle sense of humor was a welcome addition to the book and made me want to read more of the books featuring Julian Rivers and avoid the Lorac books which for the most part I have found rather dry and dull. And so there will be more Carnac reviews coming in the next month.  Stay tuned.