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 soup├žon of superstition and other-worldly events that not only add a frisson of terror to the house party haunted by past violent deaths and literally haunted by a ghost but enhance her theme of random violence as an act of chance and fate.  This is a thought-provoking murder mystery, and ultimately a bit of a transgressive novel in how Lobaugh treats her subject matter and how her "detectives" deal with the murder that only they have uncovered -- and then covered up.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 11, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: Author in Distress - Cecil M. Wills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sgt. Geoffrey Boscobell Detective Novels

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

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