Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Empty Bed - Herbert Adams

I read three books that were set around or on Christmas Day during December and have managed to finish only one in time for the end of 2022. One I stopped because it was so dull in its 33 pages of exposition but online reviews encourage me to finish it. It's only a novella of 79 pages and I thought I'd be done with it in a few hours!  The third I only started yesterday afternoon.  So those other Christmas mystery reviews will be showing up next week.

The Empty Bed (1928) features Jimmie Haswell, Adam's first series character, a solicitor who has a habit of stumbling into puzzling murder cases.  In this fourth book in the brief nine mystery novel series Haswell and his newlywed wife Nonna are invited to spend Christmas at "The Cedars", the estate of his friend Joyce Gurney.  Accompanying him are his friends Tony and Mollie Bridgman who both appeared in Adams' first mystery novel The Secret of Bogey House, also Haswell's debut.

When they arrive they soon learn that Joyce's Uncle Silas was bludgeoned by a medieval mace on Christmas Eve. Apparently he had interrupted a burglar who was attempting to rob the household.  A window was cut out in the hallway near the body and there are signs of a struggle. But soon Jimmie and the police dismiss the bludgeoning burglar theory when various puzzling aspects of the crime reveal themselves.

1.  Why was Vivian Gurneys bed not sleep in ?  Where did the nephew disappear to in the night?  And why has he not returned on Christmas Day? This seems to be the empty bed of the title. However, another empty bed will provide another clue in the denouement.

2. Who let loose the bloodcurdling scream that awoke the entire household?  Why will no woman admit to the scream?

3. Who took Vivian's knife and left it near the window in the hallway?  Was it used to cur out the glass from its leaded housing to make it appear a burglary took place?

4. Who left the mysterious note signed by "J" mentioning a secret late night tryst changed from midnight to one o'clock in the morning? Was it Joyce?  Or Jasper? Or someone else with a J initial outside of the home?

Silas is one in a long line of curmudgeonly misers with many relatives awaiting his money in the world of mysterydom so there are plenty of suspects and motives.  As the investigation proceeds there is also a lot of lying and covering up.  Jimmie begins to distrust his friend Joyce when she will not come clean. Eventually we learn of her secret engagement and that her fiancee showed up at "The Cedars" late Christmas Eve.  The fiancee becomes the prime suspect and shortly after the inquest the police arrest him.  Jimmie is sure the police have arrested the wrong person and works tirelessly to clear his name and find the real murderer -- a much more dangerous person who will strike again shortly after the arrest and even attempts to kill Jimmie.

No Herbert Adams mystery is without at least one game of golf. Despite the melting snow and sodden greens Jimmie and Tony make it to the links.  Really it's one of the most incidental and superfluous uses of the game in the plot.  In other Haswell mystery novels the murder happens on a golf course, in the clubhouse or nearby a golf course and the game takes more prominence.  In one mystery a character arranges a game of golf and in the guise of friendly conversation during the game coaxes vital info out of a suspect.

Another recurring aspect in Adams mystery is romance and love. In The Empty Bed we have a couple about to be engaged, one broken engagement, and a beautiful maid the object of many men's admiration. Love and romance are always on Adam's mind.  All works out well for all the various couples, but this time we also have the ugly side of sexual attraction and unbridled womanizing in a cad named Captain Hugh Rollings who makes passes at every woman in the story. He's like a Harvey Weinstein of the the 1920s. Rollings' kissing and groping (it has nothing to do with the mistletoe, that's just his excuse) lead to a nasty fistfight. Defending his wife, one of many women Rollings kissed and fondled without consent, Jimmie gives the Captain a sound beating suffering a few blows himself in the process. Merry Christmas, creep!

The Empty Bed seems to be Adam's first genuine detective novel.  Previously his novels mixed two genres - the adventure novel and the detective novel with the adventure aspect winning out. Though there is some fair play clueing in The Empty Bed, the finale is laden with too much inference and guesswork on Haswell's part.  In the last chapter we discover there was an eyewitness to the murder, someone who was protecting the murderer and guarding another secret.  This witness conveniently verifies everything that Haswell guessed at. I was slightly disappointed with that lazy way to explain away all the last minute clues thrown at us. Still The Empty Bed shows promise and by the time Adams writes The Crime in the Dutch Garden (1931) -- so far the best of the Haswell mysteries I have read and a superior fair play example of the bizarre murder method mystery plot -- Adams will have proven himself a contender in the genre.  That he was never elected into the Detection Club seems clearer to me based on so many detective/adventure hybrids and too much intuitive detective work in his first decade of writing.

As a Christmas tale the setting is only incidental and proves an excuse to get a houseful of murder suspects together. What surprised me, however, were the timeless insights into how Christmas celebration and holiday traditions haven't changed in over a century. Here are some choice holiday themed quotes from various characters:

What magic there is in the very name Christmas! None is too old to feel some thrill as the day dawns, and few too cynical to look forward to it without some hope of happiness beyond the ordinary.

Mollie: "Years ago I started a present drawer. A few weeks after Christmas I pop into it all the things we shall never want. Of course we appreciate the kind intention and very often find someone who really likes the gift."

Nonna: "My rule is to give people something I'd like myself. So if you don't care for what you get, please give it back."

Jasper (the ne'er-do-well sarcastic nephew): "Dinner was good, but conversation dull, dealing mostly with dead relatives -- 'Do you remember how Aunt Arabella lost her teeth in the soup?" -- and things like that. Family yarns we drag up every Christmas. After dinner we had a poisonous evening -- some music and old-fashioned whist for penny points."

Sgt Inglis: "Did you quarrel with your uncle?"
Jasper:  "No. There was plenty of time for that. We arrive on Christmas Eve, and seldom quarrel before Boxing Day."

Finally, in the absolute last paragraph of the book I learned something fascinating. Jimmie apologizes to Nonna for their Christmas spoiled by crime and nearly the end of their marriage in that horrific attempt on his life. He promises he will make it up to her: "We'll go to Switzerland for the winter sports."  Was this the Olympics by any chance? I thought. Off I went a-Googling. And voila! Jimmie's mention of "the winter sports" to turned out to be the St. Moritz Winter Games of 1928.  They were, in fact, the first Winter Olympics organized separately, that is apart from the Summer Olympics. How's that for some real life inspirational detective work!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

It's Christmas/ Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Here's some swinging holiday flavored jazz from the past and the present.  First, the great Ella Fitzgerald swings on an old standard accompanied by a birds-eye view (reindeer's eye view?) animated tour of all her international stops from years gone by. In the second clip Jamie Cullum, British jazz piano player, sings one of his original holiday tunes from a couple of years ago.  I enjoy his clever lyrics, especially this part:

Everybody's crowded round the Christmas tree
Digging out the best of themselves
Shove your petty differences right up the chimney, please
At least until the drums of the Twelfth

Our house is filled with upbeat jazz music at Christmas.  No more morose holiday music for me with that oh-so-solemn tone and lugubrious tempos.  I've learned this past year that life is too short not to enjoy and savor every moment.  And so the upbeat joyous songs never stop playing all through December in our home.

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


Whoever or whatever you believe in, however you celebrate this end of the year, have a memorable and magical time. Make the most of it you wonderful people out there in the dark. Wishing you nothing but health and good fortune in 2023!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Best Vintage Mystery Reprint 2022, part two

 The nomination process continues across the vintage mystery blogosphere this weekend.  Others have theirs posted.  I was away the entire day yesterday, up in Milwaukee to see their version of A Christmas Carol, a delightful adaptation with some stagecraft wizardry I'd never seen before, that was partly inspired by the British Christmas pantomime tradition (the artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory, Mark Clements, is originally is from the UK). Anyway, here I am a day late with my second offering for this year's award for the Best Reprint of the Year or the ROY as it has become known among the  mystery novel cognoscenti.

Once again I've picked a book I've already reviewed in previous years.

No Questions Asked by Edna Sherry

Seems it takes a long time for my tastes in books to appear in new editions.  Stark House Press has managed to snag rights to a rare Edna Sherry book that has never seen a reprint since it first appeared back in 1949. The new edition includes the requisite introduction by our own Curt Evans and gives great detail into Sherry's interesting life, both personal and professional.  He traces her writing roots back to her pulp fiction days and mentions her partnering with two male writers (as I did oh so cursorily in one of my Sherry posts) while also offering up fascinating biographical tidbits.

I first read and reviewed the book back in September 2021. Here are a few paragraphs from what I wrote:

Sherry’s novel is a brilliant mixture of multiple subgenres, a well-oiled machine of suspense and complex conflicted characters. Steve [Lake, the cop protagonist] is enraged with jealousy on one page then overcome with guilt on the next. His snarky and mean spirited lieutenant, a bully of a rival back at the station house, is an opportunistic cop eager for the captain’s desk at the start of the book then morphs into one of Steve’s allies by the end. Vicki [Steve's wife] is torn between telling her husband the truth and continuing with her weakening deceit. The novel is also an intriguing study of the tacit policemen’s code of honor and what cops will do for one another when one of their own is implicated in behavior that could ruin his career and life. In that regard this book is more timely than ever and might be cause for debate among those highly critical of such unwritten and questionable ethics.

No Questions Asked would have made an excellent film or TV episode. Brimming with cinematic details, excellent characters, and the requisite twisty plot peppered with unexpected moments this is a second novel that shows a real pro at work. Some enterprising Hollywood type ought to get a hold of this still resonant and suspenseful novel and could make it as memorable as Sherry's debut novel Sudden Fear that in its cinematic adaptation garnered four Academy Award nominations.

The novel mixes traditional detective novel structure and plotting with espionage and inverted detective novel narrative. We get a mistrustful wife, jealous cop, rival cop looking to shame his colleague and take his place as captain, a Red Scare subplot with a dash of spy stuff, and because this is an Edna Sherry novel some colorful scenes at the horse racetrack. I enjoyed this book quite a bit for its intriguing mix of subgenres and the action oriented story.  I'm glad Stark House brought it back from the limbo of Out-of-Printdom and hope it gains a wide audience. Edna Sherry deserves to be known for all her work not just her debut, Sudden Fear, an excellent crime novel in its own right.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Advent Ghosts 2022: A Star, A Star Dancing in the Night

The houses, apartment buildings and yard are ablaze with Chistmas lights and absurd holiday inflatables. It's the dawn of the holiday season and that means it's Advent Ghosts time. Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites bloggers and creative writers to dabble in a yuletide drabble for his Advent Ghosts celebration. What's a drabble? It's a Flash Fiction Challenge of sorts but with a word limit set at exactly 100. No more, no less.  The only other rule is that we write in homage to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  Be it old-fashioned, chain rattling specters or more terrifying visions of bloody horror each writer makes up his or her own mind how to interpret that rule. 

This year I was inspired by two terms:  fairy lights and chasing lights.

What if they were taken literally?

"A Star, A Star Dancing in the Night"

Someone had decorated a Christmas tree with blinding lights in the lot where trees were sold. Reverse vandalism? It’s always something. Better than another stolen baby Jesus.

He’d heard of chasing lights but these were moving. Actually moving, not twinkling or blinking. Moving in and out of the branches, hovering around then plunging in.  One took shape, an arm?  A tiny arm with an even tinier finger beckoned and a chorus of whispers commanded, “Come hither.” And he obeyed. Entranced by the light and succumbed by their glamour he disappeared in the boughs becoming one with them and the light.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Best Mystery VIntage Reprint of 2022, part one

"It's that time of year
"When the world falls in love
"Every song you hear seems to say
"Merry Christmas, may your
 "New Year dreams come true"

There's some idealized seasonal wishing, right? It's also a song I keep hearing everywhere I go in December.  Those somewhat schmaltzy lyrics remind me once again we are in the midst of our end of the year tradition involving optimistic wishing and dreams coming true. At least as those dreams and wishes relate to old murder mysteries.

Our dear friend Kate Jackson who blogs at Cross Examining Crime has initiated phase one of the two part nomination process for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year, or the ROY as we who offer up our nominees have come to call it.  2022 continued the exciting Renaissance in vintage crime fiction with an avalanche of reprint editions that immersed us in all aspects of the genre from traditional detective novels to novels of suspense.  This year topped last year's list with over 160 books on the list Kate sent us.

As an annual reminder I like to tack on my personal standard in choosing these "Best of the Year" reprint candidates. The two most important rules for what I feel merit a wise choice of a vintage reprint:

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

Here's Nominee #1 from your opinionated maven at Pretty Sinister Books...

Villainy at Vespers by Joan Cockin

I discovered this book through serendipity while poring over various vintage mystery listings on Ebay.  The full review was posted back in 2020 before most people even knew of Joan Cockin's existence or the three mystery novels she wrote while she was working in British foreign service. 

Cockin's second mystery in her trio of novels is a thoroughly engaging traditional detective novel that invigorates the subgenre category of the "Policeman's Holiday" with wit and verve.  The opening paragraph (a photo of which appeared in the tempting Ebay listing) was intriguing enough to get me to buy the book and I eagerly read the book tearing through it in a few days.  You will meet her series detective Inspector Cam, his wife and children, and myriad offbeat characters as he reluctantly helps the local police solve the gruesome death of an unidentified naked corpse found ritualistically slaughtered on the altar of the local church.  In addition to her satirical skewering of tourism in English seaside villages the book treats the reader to the lore and art of brass rubbing, a spurt of thefts of antiques, chicanery among antique dealers and the legends of smugglers in the Cornish town where the story takes place. We even get the bonus of a ghost story featuring a visit from Satan.

Cockin's book is literate, delightfully amusing and devilishly plotted.  The crimes are all presented with fair play clueing and I thought the finale was truly unexpected if a bit outlandish.  But then I love rule breaking writers of detective novels. The more outlandish a plot the more I'll love it. That Galileo has decided to reprint this excellent example of post WW2 mystery writing is cause for celebration for all devotees of the genre.  It is a "must read" for anyone who cares about what makes mystery novels one of the best forms of popular entertainment.

And the best news is that Cockin's other books will follow over the next two years.  Looking forward to telling you about her debut novel Curiosity Killed the Cat later this month.  Also, I am eagerly awaiting the reprint edition of her third and last novel Deadly Ernest.  I've never seen a copy of that in my lifetime.  It's a truly rare book.  One, I hope, as entertaining as Villainy at Vespers.