Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Glass Heart - Marty Holland

Down on his luck Curt Blair is waiting out a rainstorm in a “ritzy hash joint” just outside of Hollywood, USA when he steals a fancy camel hair overcoat then flees intending to sell the coat. It’s how he makes his living these days – ripping off suckers' coats, rifling the pockets for treasures and cash, then selling the ransacked coat. But this time all hell breaks loose and he’s being chased. While hiding from his pursuers he ends up in the backyard of Virginia Block’s home. She mistakes him for the handyman she recently hired from an agency. Curt being the opportunist that he is wisely plays along and learns the job comes with a free room and kitchen privileges. So he accepts the job, gains a cheap salary of $20/week and a place to stay and eat.

Later the same day aspiring actress Lynn York shows up at the boarding house. She is paying $60/month for an upstairs room, but no kitchen privileges for her. Mrs. B is greedy and a miser we soon figure out. Within hours Curt and Lynn are hooking up and doing the dirty deed in the dirty basement where while putting the moves on Lynn Curt is bothered by the irritating sound of a dripping pipe. He vows to fix the leak though that task is not on the insanely long list of arduous work Mrs. Block expects of him.

While dealing with the plumbing problem Curt discovers a gruesome surprise and jumps to conclusions.  A bit of detective work supports his rash theory and he sees dollar signs. He schemes to blackmail his landlady and employer. Soon he finds his paltry salary increased to a cool $1000/week.

And if you haven’t already figured out that the tables will be turned then you don’t know your crime fiction.

Reading The Glass Heart is like travelling back in time to a 1950s movie palace watching a B movie programmer. It’s crammed full of action, double dealing, manipulation, greed, lust and crime. Everyone is out for himself or herself. James M Cain, who penned multiple densely packed novels about two timing lovers and how greed controls their lives admired the book so much he 1. wrote a praiseworthy blurb for the Julian Messner first edition dust cover and 2. wrote a screenplay adaptation that unfortunately was never produced.  Even he recognized the cinematic potential of this hard to resist story.

While it’s not hard to predict that Curt and lovely Lynn will hook up within hours of meeting I doubt many readers will be able to predict the unusual plot twists. Soon a handful of supporting characters descend upon Mrs. Block looking for handouts including Elise, Lynn's future roommate and a member of an evangelical church devoted to enlisting new members and coaxing money out of them to help build their new church.

The story is overloaded with plot and incident. It’s almost like reading two books in one at the same time. There’s almost no time in the action-filled pages to question the often outlandish turn of events. But I did! And frequently. Some of my nagging questions included: Why on earth is Mrs. B such a pushover? Why didn’t she just throw Curt out of her house rather than be bled dry? And why is Lynn so simple minded and easily manipulated? I guess there is no room for common sense in potboiler fiction. The book exists solely to explore crime and base motives (mostly dealing with lust and avarice) but offers no insight into any of the reasons the characters need so desperately what they long for. I wasn’t asking for heightened literary reasons just a few mundane ones.

Late in the book it all turns a bit ridiculous. Elise receives a telegram that her husband was killed in action overseas. She refuses to accept this and in her religious mania keeps praying that hubbie be returned to her. Like a true believers she’s asking for a miracle. One guess as to how that turns out. Because of course every absurd coincidence one can possibly imagine will be crammed into these 192 pages.

Why have one kook when you can have two? Mrs. B is later revealed to be a bit of a loon herself. Lynn spends much of her time eavesdropping throughout the book and hears her landlady talking to herself and singing in a little girl’s high pitched voice. She has conversations with her dead husband, very intimate and revealing conversations. It all leads to a confrontation between the two woman involving a revolver and a golf club that doesn’t end well at all.

Do you think anything will end well in a book of this sort? Think again!

It starts off as noir but some odd detours and intrusive subplots among the minor characters transform the book to a quasi romance. This schizoid state results in a near parody of noir by the time you get to the two climactic moments. Remarkably – almost unbelievably – for something so laden with doom, insanity and murder, both intentional and accidental, it all ends with a cop out finale that includes a wedding and happily ever after honeymoon in New Mexico! I gather that Holland opted for a hearts and flowers finale because she wants the real villain of the piece to be revealed as a vile monster who “deserved” to die. And she seemed to want to make her leads into decent people who were victims themselves. Really strange considering they were crooked and corrupt from the get-go. When the penultimate chapter exposes the villain’s wide ranging schemes of cheating, thievery and mean-spiritedness one wonders if Holland had a horrible landlady somewhere in her life and this was a revenge piece.

Marty Holland (1919 - 1971)
And yet though I sound like I’m disparaging this book I found it all utterly addictive. The Glass Heart is, I confess, a guilty pleasure. I couldn’t stop reading and had to know where each ludicrous scene would lead and of course how it all would end. It truly is one of the best examples of a genuine B movie on paper. And no wonder – the author Marty Holland was a secretary at Republic Pictures, one of the leading producers of B movie programmers, for many years. She was writing pulp fiction in her spare time, wrote the book that became the classic noir thriller Fallen Angel, and a story treatment for another crime movie classic The File on Thelma Jordan. Typing all those scripts at Republic Pictures taught her well, I guess.

Stark House has reprinted all of Marty Holland’s crime novels over the past year and a half. The Glass Heart is the newest reprint added to that small pile of books. For decades this novel was unavailable to mere mortals like you and me because the few copies for sale were listed by booksellers at unaffordable collector’s prices. It’s wonderful to have Marty Holland’s books all available to the general public in Stark House’s usual handsomely produced editions. For lovers of noir, kooky melodrama and twisty plotting these books are a must have. Highly recommended – even with all the caveats listed above. The Glass Heart is genuine thrill ride that will leave you both gasping in awe and laughing in shock.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Murder without Clues - Joseph L Bonney

A dead body in a locked room, a house surrounded by undisturbed snow, all suspects have an alibi but one and yet it seems that one person could not have committed the crime.  Another ingenious John Dickson Carr rip-off?  Well, not quite.  Murder without Clues (1940) is a the ultimate Golden Age homage that does a very good job of honoring the work of not only Carr but Queen and Van Dine.  Joseph L. Bonney, in his debut work as a mystery writer, has also thrown in a couple of wink-wink allusions to Conan Doyle to make this a quadruple homage. Does this mystery succeed as yet another in the impossible crime/locked room subgenre. Hmm...You decide.

Henry Watson, a wannabe novelist, is in search of a new apartment and a roommate and his friend suggests he visit Simon Rolfe who is also in search of new digs. The two meet and Watson can't help but be disturbed by Rolfe's emulation of a certain fictional detective. Rolfe has a mysterious origin that is never fully explained, seems to be independently wealthy, plays the violin, smokes a pipe, lounges around in a smoking jacket, and sees clients with puzzling problems which he solves for a modest fee and does so in a single afternoon.  Bonney has a bit too cutely paid homage to Conan Doyle while at the same time allowing his Sherlock dopplegänger to disparage the entire canon in a four page diatribe in which he deconstructs several of the stories as pathetically obvious. Once this tirade is out of the way the story can take place front and center and we have a classic Golden Age locked room populated by ex-vaudeville performers who are stranded in a snowbound house somewhere in upstate New York.

Wicked philandering dancer Lucille Divine is found stabbed in the back in her locked bedroom at the home of Champ Lister. All of Lister's guests and servants were downstairs at the time she screamed, they rush upstairs, find Lister in the hallway at the wrong door, then break down Lucille's door and find her in her last gasps. One man goes to her tries to help her and hears her say "It was the Champ..."  Then she expires. Has she verbally fingered her killer?  Lister denies he had anything to do with her death.  He didn't even know she was in this other bedroom.  He went to the bedroom across the hallway where she usually stayed.

Young Joseph L Bonney
looking suitably nerdy
on the DJ rear cover
As the title implies - there are no clues, at least as far as physical evidence goes. Plus -- no weapon can be found anywhere, even after all the rooms are thoroughly searched. The only window in the murder room is open a crack (Lucille liked fresh air to sleep at night despite the wintry temps) and can't be opened any further.  How did anyone get in, kill Lucille, and escape entirely unnoticed.  The timing of the guests rushing upstairs seems to eliminate Lister who was seen at the other doorway as they came up the stairs. Also, Lister a former vaudeville performer who stunned people with feats of memory and instant recall, listened to a radio program at the time of the murder. To prove it he writes down all the dialogue from memory.  When the police compare it to the actual broadcast it's nearly verbatim. It's all utterly baffling -- until Rolfe starts questioning the suspects of course.

Rolfe fancies himself a detective of psychology who finds this case with no physical evidence right up his alley. He approaches detective work from a different angle paying attention subtleties in language and behavior.  Though he claims to use deduction most of his conclusions are the result of induction. Still Bonney is clever in how he allows Rolfe to expose lies and get the suspects to reveal things they'd rather keep hidden. I was impressed with the dying clue bit which is very reminiscent of several Queen books.  However, in the end Bonney's explanation is a bit of a stretch.  No matter how many people I polled I couldn't get one person to duplicate what he says happened.

Rolfe is also irritatingly an obsessive student of the French philosopher Montaigne who he quotes repeatedly through the book. Only one quote seems to have anything to do with his work as a detective:  "I do not understand; I pause, I examine."  This might serve as Rolfe's (or any worthwhile detective's) mantra.

In the end it's a intricately detailed investigation, perhaps overly so in the manner of Queen and Van Dine,  with Rolfe sharing the stage with Inspector Charles King and a slew of policemen put on guard throughout the household. In a neat touch Henry Watson (Rolfe actually addresses him as "My dear Watson" too many times) provides quite by accident one of the key observations.  The manner in which the crime is committed is perhaps one of the wickedest I've encountered in a American mystery novel of this era.  there is, of course, another bizarre murder means, not quite as original as Bonney may think it is.  This method belongs to a subset of murder means that I can group into Death by... OH!  Better not mention that.  But it has been used in the work of Carr as Carter Dickson, Burton Stevenson, the Coles, and two obscure books by William Morton, and George R. Fox, all of those books and stories pre-dating Bonney's novel. Was the murder means yet another, albeit obscure, homage?

Some good news:  copies of Murder without Clues are out there for sale! About eight or nine copies by my count. One 1st edition with DJ is absurdly priced at $495. Be aware that the paperback digest edition (pictured at right) is abridged. But in this case that 's a good thing. I can imagine that all the nonsense about Montaigne and Socrates was eliminated to shorten the book. Also I'm sure that the editors cut to pieces the Sherlock Holmes diatribe that tends to spoil some of the content of the stories.

This is an interesting and engaging read in the locked room subgenre.  I thought for sure that I had pegged the killer and figured out how Lucille was done in. I also thought I had figured out the dying clue. But I was wrong on all counts.  It all turned out to be quite a surprise, though I think a bit flawed.

Having many of the suspects come from the world of vaudeville allows for a slew of red herrings, two of which I fell for and one which did not turn up at all. I was disappointed Bonney didn't include the missing aspect. It would have fit in perfectly with the dying clue.  Missed opportunity!  You can expect at least one knife thrower to show up in the cast. After all, knife throwing and vaudeville go hand in hand in the mystery novel. If you aren't acquainted with this hoary cliche of detective novels read my post on the ultimate knife throwing murder mystery here.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Celia Dale -- Mistress of Menace

Readers of this blog know the term domestic suspense as a subgenre that encompasses crime novels usually set in sinister suburbs populated with secretive close knit families and dozens of housewives embroiled in perilous journeys, both physical and emotional. Within this subgenre are further subsets of books featuring menacing senior citizens, a group of these I've given my own label of "Badass Biddy"crime novels. Of the dozens of writers who wrote almost exclusively within the realm of "domestic suspense" nearly all of them are women and the best in my estimation are Margaret Millar and Ursula Curtiss in the US and Shelley Smith in the UK. Add to that list one more name.

Up until a few months ago I'd never heard of Celia Dale, a British writer who began her novelist's career in 1945 then turned to crime novels of a very special kind in the mid 1960s.  Dale was writing her books just as her sister in crime Ruth Rendell was emerging on the scene.  Later Rendell would adopt her alter ago of "Barbara Vine" and using that pseudonym she created crime novels of menace that surpass the "domestic suspense" subgenre while clearly still influenced by them.  To my delight I discovered that Celia Dale was writing better, creepier and more nightmarish books before Rendell ever conjured hers into existence.

The Helping Hand (1966) takes the idea of the badass biddy to extremes in that it is not just one sinister senior citizen but a married couple who are the scheming villains.  The story is a slow burning, unsettling tale of Mr. and Mrs Evans who prey on ailing elderly women. On the surface it seemed like The Forbidden Garden, Ursula Curtiss' flipped out story of a middle-aged woman serial killer. Dale forgoes the slaughter of Curtiss' bloody novel preferring the more chilling, passive aggressive form of murder. In fact, Dale's novel is practically a rewrite and modern update of a book I read a while ago that is set in the 19th century.

The victims are twofold -- Cynthia Fingal, an elderly woman travelling with her 40ish niece Lena Kemp. Josh sets his sights on Mrs. Fingal while Maisie Evans targets Lena.  The Evans' are ersatz charmers masking their true natures.  Josh Evans is actually a randy, ogling and groping Casanova while his wife is an unctuous spy gathering info on relatives and their bank accounts. Mrs. Fingal warms up to Josh in no time after his one or two carefully targeted compliments.  Soon she is as garrulous as a shop girl and she travels down memory lane frequently narrating tales of her daughter who died at age 10 and her devoted husband, a soldier in the “Great War”.  She spices up these nostalgic stories with self-pitying remarks about her longing for male companionship.  Josh is eager to fulfill her desires.

Soon Mrs Fingal has moved in with the Evans setting up the major plot highlighted by casual cruelty, saccharine smiles and "There, Theres". The married couple smother the older woman with attention and keep her housebound and under their control.  When Christmas comes Maisie begins a campaign of lies and deceit. Through subtle manipulation Maisie manages to turn Mrs. Fingal and her niece against each other. The nastiest blow is the ease with which the Evans manage to negate Mrs. Fingal's very existence.  They soon turn 180 degrees and deny her every wish, never allowing her to leave the house.  She cannot attend church nor even open her Christmas presents in the morning the way she always did with her husband and daughter. Dale sums up Mrs. Fingal's state of mind with terse heartwrenching sentences: "She would hardly look, hardly listen, withdrawn into the cavern of her misery."

Celia Dale (1912 - 2011)
With the entrance of Graziella The Helping Hand I could not help but recall the remarkably nightmarish novel Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins.  Jenkins' novel tells a similar story of a household supposedly caring for an invalid but whose cruel indifference ultimately tortures her and the maid who is the sole person who is alarmed at the abuse. Graziella is the servant in Dale's novel who serves the same purpose. Yet in the hands of a master manipulator like Maisie it is no use to call out abuse and cruelty.  Graziella without realizing is soon inculcated and succumbs to all of the lies the Evanses manufacture. There seems no hope for Mrs. Fingal's rescue from the clutches of the amoral couple.

The climax of the book includes a disturbing mix of sexual predation and accidental violence. This is domestic noir with no real happy endings for anyone.  Not even the villains.  For in the finale Dale  delivers an ironic blow to all the scheming and plotting that most readers will never see coming.

Dale revisits the theme of a sinister married couple in A Dark Corner (1971). Here we have Nelly and Arthur Didcot who meet young Errol Winston one rainy cold summer night. Errol is looking for an apartment to rent and winds up at the Didcot's home, the wrong house, because he misreads the address on his paper. All seems well when the Didcots offer him their own room instead of the one in his advertisement. But their kindhearted gesture and seeming friendliness are masks for bizarre desires.  Nelly's maternal instincts seem to be transforming into erotic desire with kisses on Errol's cheek giving way to warm embraces that last too long. Arthur becomes an odd tutor of sorts, way too invested in his lodger's adult education by taking him to seedy night clubs and picking up drugged out prostitutes.

This may seem a familiar plot to some ardent readers of unusual crime fiction.  For me I could not help but draw comparisons to Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Joe Orton's satiric and savagely funny sex farce about a married couple in their 60s lusting after the titular hunky young man.  A Dark Corner is neither funny nor satiric.  And while Dale does explore some dark sexual pathology in her novel she recasts the gorgeous Lothario in ...Mr Sloan with a timid young Black man in the person of Errol Winston.  A Dark Room delves into the stereotypical myth of the Black stud compounding that racist ideology with the sexual nature of senior citizens, a topic that most people never want to think about. 

I think of the two books A Dark Corner succeeds both as a crime novel and a psychological horror story more than the creepy story of A Helping Hand.  Probably because A Helping Hand reminded me too much of Harriet which is a true horror story and I couldn't get Jenkins book out of my mind. I tended to dismiss what Dale was doing in her version.  A Dark Corner, however, is transgressive and daring for its time.  More importantly, you feel for Errol's plight and long for his escape more because he is able to leave and go to work and yet somehow manages to be trapped in a way that's more terrifying than Mrs. Fingal's physical entrapment.

Luckily both books have been reprinted for new audiences.  Depending on where you live you'll have to look for the correct edition. In the US Dale's two books reviewed here are reprinted by Valancourt Books but are unavailable for sale in the UK.  That's because Daunt Books has exclusive UK reprint rights for Dale's entire body of work. A Helping Hand is available from Daunt Books and for sale in the UK only.  Daunt Books is also releasing Sheep's Clothing (1988), Dale's final novel, in September. There may be other Celia Dale books planned for subsequent release in the UK.  I'm unsure if Valancourt is reprinting any more of Dale's books. But these two are fine entry points into the world of Celia Dale, both excellent examples of modern crime novels that also serve as superior examples of the novel of psychological terror.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Let X Be the Murderer - Clifford Witting

Lookee here-- It's a book that was recently reprinted and one that you can actually purchase without having to take out a second mortgage! I did promise a few books that were much easier (and affordable) to find this week.

I have an interesting history with Let X Be the Murderer (1947).  I bought a first edition with the unusual illustrated dust jacket (bonus points to anyone who knows what is on the cover on that old edition over on the left.  I'll reveal it later in the post) but never received it.  It was one of two very expensive books that was lost or never delivered or --most likely-- destroyed in mountain of mail that went "missing" in my neighborhood of Rogers Park back at the height of the pandemic.  That loss was one of the most gut wrenching lessons I learned and I stopped buying books from the UK and all sellers overseas for two full years because of the combined loss and the general collapse of the Chicago mail delivery service between March 2020 and the summer of 2021.

This year, a few weeks before Galileo released their new reprint paperback edition, a relatively affordable copy of Let X... turned up in the catalog of a US seller I used to buy from regularly. I snapped it up and it arrived back in May.  Then out of the blue Galileo sent me a review copy!  It was completely unexpected and a delightful surprise.  When I opened the package and saw what it was I did remember that Robert Hyde, one of their publicists, had promised me that I'd get the last couple of Witting books that were planned for release as they came out.  I am also supposed to get copies of the other two Joan Cockin books that they have in the works.  

All these years I was under the impression that Let X Be the Murderer had something to do with mathematics. Anyone would think so based on the title.  Then when you open the book and see that the books is divided into four sections -- Theorem, Hypothesis, Construction, Proof -- once again most readers would be expecting an academic mystery perhaps about a murdered calculus or geometry professor. However, Inspector Charlton does not meet anyone involved in mathematics or geometry or even physics.  Instead it's almost as if he travels back to the 19th century because this detective novel turns out to be very much a homage to the Victorian sensation novel.  As a bonus, adding to the anachronistic atmosphere, Witting throws in eerie occult dabbling and explorations into the world of spiritualism and paranormal events.

Inspector Henry Charlton, Witting's usual protagonist detective, is paired up with the flippant Cockney copper, Det-Sgt Martin this time and they make an amusing pair.  Yet another surprise -- Peter Bradfield (who appears in several other Witting detective novels as a constable and in Subject-Murder as one of the lead characters) pops up in the last couple of chapters to help Charlton carry out some sneaky police business by gathering crucial evidence that might never have been collected. Bradfield eventually makes it to the rank of Chief Inspector, I think, and he becomes the lead detective in Witting's novels that were written and published in the 1950s and 1960s.

In essence this could be seen as Wilkie Collins redux.  The machinations of Mrs. Gulliver, a scheming housekeeper, and the Harlers, a devilish husband and wife, reminded me of the diabolical trio of Count Fosco, Lady Fosco and Percival Glyde in The Woman in White.  Mr & Mrs Harler in Let X Be The Murderer are intent on sending a poor old man to the madhouse just as those other three set their sinister designs on Laura Fairlie. Similarly, the bulk of the novel involves a highly convoluted history of philandering, adultery and questionable parentage. The often dizzying explanations of who was jumping into whose beds and who fathered what child got to be rather head spinning.  The climax of the book involves...well, can't really mention it without ruining a genuine shock.  But I must tell you that event is something that occurred in two other books I recently read and made me not only raise my eyebrows in surprise but burst out laughing.  Not so much because it's both absurd and so utterly unexpected but because who could believe that I would read three different books from three different decades over a period of three months that all featured the same bizarre revelation?  It was beyond surreal!

It's not just the slew of dastardly villains all of whom get what they deserve in the end that make this such an engaging page-turner.  Cast in the role of the apparent victim of the Harler's "Gaslighting" plot is elderly Sir Victor Warringham, head of the household at the dilapidated estate known as Elmsdale. Sir Victor had recently lost his wife and daughter in a wartime bombing and he's been devastated by their deaths. He turns to spiritualism for solace and has been acting increasingly eccentric. Someone caught him playing at witchcraft spells and black magic in the kitchen, he's written a book on haunted houses, and is currently involved in researching folklore and legends.  When Charlton interviews him Sir Vincent reveals what all his experiments have been about. It was a clever bit of misdirection very early in a novel teeming with reversals, upsets and topsy-turvy perceptions.

Perhaps the only drawback to this mystery novel is Witting's tendency to have his characters indulge in long monologues to fill in backstory or to explain themselves.  It's another aspect of the book that recalls a Victorian sensibility; an insistence that characters speak at length about their motivations or to dissemble and mislead.  Clement Harler, in particular, talks voluminously and pompously.  He also calls the lead detective Clayton for much of the book and it's only when Charlton has finally got Harler to come clean and stop lying that he humiliates Harler by sternly correcting him.

Oh yes, about that illustration on the DJ.  It's supposed to depict two different colored flex cords from a bedside table lamp.  The cords are used as a murder weapon in one of the many crimes that occur in the book.  A paper knife is also involved but is oddly not part of the drawing.  Down there in the lower right corner you can see what I think its meant to be the electrical plug.  But there's no way I think anyone would be able to name the objects depicted without having read the book. Anyone guess correctly?

Monday, August 14, 2023

Night's Candles - Anne Hocking

I must give credit where credit is due.  One of my frequent readers who also often buys books from me (yes, I still do that on the side. Feel free to email me!) got me interested in the work of Anne Hocking.  I reviewed one of three books I owned by Hocking way back in 2014 but never returned to  her. Kacper, the blog fan, asked me back in the spring of this year if I had any of her books for sale. Though I enjoyed that lone Hocking book so far reviewed on this blog I never bothered reading the other two books I owned.  Guess now is the time to check them out, I thought.

And so I went hunting for them and uncovered Deadly Is the Evil Tongue (aka Old Miss Fitzgerald as published in the original UK edition) and whipped through it a few days before selling it to Kacper.  It was just as intriguing as Poison Is a Bitter Brew though it seemed all too similar in the story.  All I had to say was that she was excellent in her character renditions and dialogue.  Her writing is literate, witty, and she often has something to say other than merely "whodunnit".  Anne Hocking can hold my interest for hours on end.  Though neither of those books were baffling (in fact, a bit too easy to figure out) that is no discredit to her talent as an engaging and innovative writer.  Kacper assured me that she does indeed have a few cleverly plotted, genuine detective novels in her output. I thought she would be better at the inverted detective novel form as those two other books I read seemed to me more indebted to that form even if they followed the format of the traditional detective novel.   

Well, I found my first "traditional" Hocking a few weeks ago in Night's Candles (1941).  Anne Hocking had plenty of unexpected plotting in store for me.

Modern photo of the same tunnel that
appears on UK 1st edition DJ.

Without her series detective Inspector William Austen, set in a foreign country, literally and metaphorically far away from her favorite topic of embittered wealthy families battling over a dead person's estate Night's Candles may be all the better for departing from the usual Hocking formulae.  Set in Cyprus during September 1939 a few weeks after Germany invaded Poland we find a motley group of travelers on board a ship originally headed for what is now known as Israel who are re-routed and forced to disembark in the coastal town of Famagusta.  Among the persons displaced are Ernest Mannington, an archeologist who was headed to Syria to investigate some ruins there; Arthur Henfield, his mild mannered assistant; Emmeline Moscrop, a garrulously rambling spinster obsessed with the life of St. Paul and the holy sites he visited; a Royal Navy man named Hugh Nesbit serving his time in the reserves; and Tamar Trent, wealthy daughter of an aristocrat recently dumped by her fiance and traveling to forget her troubles.  Of the lot Tamar is by far the most lively and interesting character.  She and Miss Moscrop become friends of sorts and their scenes are highlighted with the best witty dialogue, sometimes hilariously so, and elevate the book out of what could have been yet another weak satire of British people on holiday.

The Pillars of St. Paul, a "must see" for Miss Moscrop
 Cyprus is under British rule at this point in history and must follow all the wartime rules of UK.  And so when they are ordered to blackout all windows of businesses that face the coastline and turn off all street lights the tourists take the opportunity to do a night time stroll of the city to see it as it was in "ancient times," so to speak.  One of their number does not return to the hotel where they were all staying.  It's Mr. Mannington who has apparently fallen to his death in a freak accident in a hidden tunnel at one of the popular ruins.  It is also discovered that he has been robbed of £100, a signet ring, and his valuable antique pocket watch.  Was it a horrible mugging that led to his death?  Or was the robbery an opportunistic crime that occurred hours after the man fell?

Randall Bryant is the local Commandant who takes over the police investigation at the request of British officials.  His wife, Mallory Stewart, happens to be a mystery novelist.  At key points in the narrative Randall consults with his wife who offers up several unusual ideas about what actually happened. Ultimately, her keen insight into human nature combined with her unique ability to imagine how people commit murder leads her to the correct solution but she never tells a soul. She writes down a single sentence on a slip of paper, puts the paper into a sealed envelope and tells her husband to look at it after he conducts his final interview with a key eyewitness.  He opens the envelope in the final paragraph of the book and the one sentence serves as the final words. Mallory was, of course, 100% correct.

"Othello's Tower" in Famagusta, circa 1940s

According to a bio I found on the DJ of a Hocking book I just purchased the author lived for a several years in Cyprus and is clearly well acquainted with the country and its customs. She fills the story with archeological lore, historical facts and utterly fascinating stories about Turkish occupation, the class problems with the local farmers and shepherds, and the never ending  stream of tourists looking to escape the war.  A brief subplot tells of one person on board the ship, a German Jew fleeing his country in hopes of settling in Jerusalem. That he is able to disembark in Cyprus makes him even more happy just as Britain is about to enter the war.

Night's Candles is an excellent novel overall as well as a clever detective novel that just misses being brilliant due to a couple of nasty tricks Hocking pulls in the finale. At one point Mallory Stewart makes this quip: "Besides, I'm Dr. Priestley, the infallible, and I never tell until the last chapter." That line may allude to John Rhode, but I have to say this detective novel owes more to Anthony Berkeley.  For most of the book the narrative structure follows that of a well-plotted detective novel and we are given ample “fair play” style clues. The multiple mysteries and several crimes and attempted crimes keep the reader busy sorting out all the premeditated crime from opportunistic crime and the suspects keep being shuffled around and eventually eliminated as possible culprits. Yet in that final chapter she mimics Berkeley by resorting to a gimmick that he used far too often in his mystery books. I would have been forgiving had she done it once, but she gives us a double whammy and I was greatly disappointed. I don't feel she completely ruined the book because Tamar, Mallory and Miss Moscrop made it a lively and fun read. However, I certainly hope she doesn't do this again.

More Hocking coming in later this month and for the rest of the year.  Hope she rises above this kind of tomfoolery!

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Nice People Don’t Kill – F. W. Bronson

First mystery novels can be fascinating. What does the writer want to try out as an entry point into the world of the whodunit? Will it be a locked room murder? A noirish private eye novel? An inverted crime novel where we follow the murderer through the planning stages to the finally flawed crime? F. W. Bronson was not a neophyte writer when he tackled his first murder mystery. He already had three mainstream novels under his belt, published between 1926 and 1933. I thought this debut as a mystery writer might be an academic mystery judging from his biography that has Yale all over it.  Or maybe an ex-pat novel due to his having lived in Italy and elsewhere abroad in his post-college days. Never would I have thought he would choose to emulate Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart, slightly satirizing the conventions of those Had I But Known mystery writers in his ironically titled Nice People Don’t Kill (1940).

The novel is narrated by Coraly Ames, widow living in an unnamed Connecticut town located on the shores of Long Island Sound. Greenacres is the name of the estate left to her by her husband and it's here she adds to her modest inheritance by renting out the separate beach house to summer tourists. In the opening chapter her husband’s best friend “Mac” suggests she rent to Schuyler Adams, a prominent Wall Street executive. We are quickly introduced to a variety of the locals in town and Coraly’s neighbors who will turn out not too coincidentally to be acquainted with Adams. But of course they are! And those relationships are tainted with secrets and criminal activity. All of which leads to the grotesque murder of Adams while he is sunbathing in what initially appears to be an impossible crime. Sadly that angle is quickly dispensed with as a mysterious man in a white bathing suit was seen by several people. A couple of nervous witnesses also lose their lives, one in a bloody hatchet murder (shades of Rinehart!), when they attempt blackmail or foolishly speak of what they know in cryptic brisk phone conversations and – of course – are overheard.

A plethora of Golden Age-style clues offer up mini-puzzles in addition the overarching mystery of the murderer’s identity. A volume of Keats’ poetry, a book Adams always carried on him, vanishes and reappears several times. Greenacres’ telephones operate on a party line offering several opportunities for eavesdropping when someone picks up an extension – even in the beach house, a ten minute walk away, or in the guest house to the south of the main house. Someone has been staying in the boat house as suggested by sandwiches remnants, paper bags and a makeshift bed found there the day after the murder. Is the person who was surreptitiously using that shed as their private motel also the killer? Could that be the man seen in the white bathing suit digging around in the sand a few feet from the murder scene?


Beautifully detailed map endpapers of the various scenes of the crimes
Nice People Don't Kill
(Farrar & Rinehart, 1941)

Bronson's characters are all familiar types to anyone who has read a mystery novel by Rinehart or Eberhart or any GAD mystery novel for that matter.  In addition to Coraly and her dead husband's pal "Mac" the cast consists of a momma's boy with a respiratory condition and his overprotective jealous mother, a mystery woman with a secret past, gossipy nervous servants, the middle aged military man and his much younger wife, the skipper of Adams' yacht "Blackbird" and the yacht's steward who acts as Adams' valet and cook on land. No one really has any depth and because they are representative of mystery archetypes they are fairly predictable in their thoughts and behavior. Thankfully, Sheriff Davey Jones is an intelligent policeman and provides well needed gravitas, common sense and shrewd detective skills throughout the book. Though Coraly fancies herself an amatuer sleuth she's a bit inept and severely impaired by her obvious biases and favoritism. Only Susan Carlisle, a young woman who appears quite unexpectedly on the scene and ends up staying in the guest house on Greenacres' porperty, comes across as slightly complicated or at least ambiguous in her motivations. She definitely has a past and I was bothered that Coraly seemed to believe Susan’s every word and action. Unlike the easily duped heroine/narrator I suspected Susan was definitely up to no good. Similarly, a gaggle of servants at Greenacres may appear to be just inconsequential supporting characters but the reader should pay close attention to them for they will play major roles later in the novel as their own secrets are also revealed.

With our heroine constantly hinting at future events that the reader has yet to encounter it’s an obvious but often heavy-handed homage to that “feminine” subgenre that detective fiction maven Jacques Barzun enjoyed disparaging. The novel is littered with spins on typical HIBK writing style. I was getting a bit irritated with her too. Here’s a sampling of what occurs in every chapter until the middle of the book:

It's odd to realize now that instead of welcoming Schuyler Adams with practically open arms I should have thrown the money in his face and ordered him off the property.

It didn't seem terribly important at the time--but that bit of carelessness almost cost me my life.

He might have added that my [inquest] testimony -- though of course he didn't know at the time -- contained the most important clue in the whole baffling, nerve-racking case.

Francis Woolsey Bronson
More annoying is her firm belief that “nice people don’t kill” echoing a sentiment that Carolyn Wells highlighted in The Technique of the Mystery Story and often mentioned in her detective novels written 20 years before this book was published. Coraly further elaborates on her sadly stereotypical views of humanity by surmising that the culprit responsible for the savage murders can only be Captain Lipari, the evil looking, mustachioed, limping skipper of Blackbird moored in the nearby harbor. It took me awhile to realize that Bronson was sending up the narrow-minded, overly optimistic women who populate the typical HIBK novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Ultimately, the reveal of the crazed murderer in the final chapters is pleasantly surprising even if Bronson (in the voice of Coraly) decides to present us with a silly melodramatic fake climax fulfilling some of Coraly’s predictions that didn’t quite fool me. Even a HIBK narrator has a few tricks up her sleeve to keep her readers baffled.

F. W. Bronson Detective Novels
Nice People Don’t Kill (1940)
The Uncas Island Murders (1942)
The Bulldog Has The Key (1949)

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Psst... Over Here!

Hello, there! Remember me? I think eight month’s hiatus is a little too long to have taken for what I thought was going to be “a little break”. What have I been up to? Oh, this and that…

I came to realize that like many collectors I had gradually turned into a monomaniac of sorts and I didn’t like it. My literary anecdotes were boring people and more importantly I was boring myself. I wanted to avoid vintage detective fiction for a while. It was long time that I returned to reading contemporary fiction of all types, reading non-fiction (!) that led me to seeking out the histories and memoirs that once upon a time I enjoyed even more than mystery novels. As I veered away from detective and crime fiction I rediscovered my passion for supernatural horror from all eras. In the process I learned that there has been a revival of “traditional” supernatural fiction in the past three years similar to the renaissance in detective fiction (both reissues and new writing). Quite an eye-opening surprise and a delightful one for someone like me who has always loved ghost stories, haunted house novels, and metaphoric treatments of the monster hiding under your bed.

And so after eight months I’ve come full circle and I’m ready to share with you some of the unusual and intriguing titles I’ve devoured since December 2022. Like this one…

Flowers for a Dead Witch by Michael Butterworth

Readers of this blog will know that I love a good mystery novel dripping with Gothic elements and accented with witchcraft, hexes, black magic, voodoo, hoodoo or whatever the author is calling it. Butterworth’s third mystery novel is a brilliant example of the first revival of traditional mystery writing that occurred back in the 1970s. In Flowers for a Dead Witch (1971) he gives us what at first seems to be yet another of those Gothic “romances” that filled bookstore shelves and drugstore spinners five decades ago. Polly Lestrange travels from Canada to Suffolk to visit her bedridden ailing great-aunt in a crumbling medieval manor complete with moat surrounding the entrance. She is greeted by Miss Chesham, the great-aunt’s over protective companion who refuses the Polly’s request to visit the old woman. Even the local physician caring for Great Aunt Granchester insists that Polly leave the old woman alone. Well, what Gothic heroine is going to listen to either person? Certainly not this one and Polly determinedly breaks into the old woman’s room one windy and rainy night (of course it rains a lot in this book. It has too!) to discover… Oh, but that would spoil it all. The old woman has a secret of course and it will only be revealed in the final pages.

Before the startling conclusion – which I confess really took me by surprise – our plucky heroine will encounter a ragtag group of rebellious teens, rumors of a witchcraft cult cavorting naked in the moonlight, an ancient cemetery home to a mausoleum containing the corpse of a woman executed for witchcraft 400+ years ago, and literally stumble upon what appears to be the charred remains of that executed witch. But how is that possible? A 400 year old corpse of a woman burned at the stake would be nothing but rotting bones if not a pile of dust in 1971. The body found in the coffin in the mausoleum is freshly dead, and burned beyond recognition. When both the local reverend and his wife go missing whispers of foul play mix with the rumors of witchcraft.

This was the first book I’ve read by Michael Butterworth (1924 – 1986) who prior to turning his hand to bizarre crime and mystery novels was primarily known as a writer of comic books. Oh! A warning: Don’t confuse him with another (still living) writer of the same name who wrote science fiction novels and SF TV show novelizations. I had to notify the Admin of a crime fiction website that he conflated both Butterworths. I advised him to remove all the SF titles from the mystery writer Butterworth’s bibliography. He speedily updated that page on his website.

If Flowers for a Dead Witch is any indication of what Butterworth is capable of then I’m eager to check out as many of his other books that I can find. Most satisfying is that this is a legitimate detective novel with fair play clueing. Assiduous readers may catch onto what I overlooked as I foolishly fell for all of the writer’s rather clever red herrings. Butterworth mixes the formulaic plot of those 70s Gothic romances churned out by writers like Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart with genuine mystery novel conventions and thankfully improves on both. Of course with a generous helping of creepy superstition and lurid witchcraft legends the plot is considerably spicier and more intriguing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and completed it in a speedy two days. There are several copies available for sale out there in the vast shopping mall of the internet. I’m sure it ought to turn up in local libraries both in the US and UK. Check it out!

Michael Butterworth Crime & Detective Novels

The Soundless Scream (1967)
Walk Softly in Fear (1968)
Vanishing Act (1970) (US title: The Uneasy Sun)
Flowers for a Dead Witch (1971)
The Black Look (1972)
Villa on the Shore (1973)
The Man in the Sopwith Camel (1974)
Remains to be Seen (1976)
Festival! (1976)
X Marks the Spot (1978)
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1983)
  -- adapted into a musical: The Lucky Stiff by Ahrens & Flaherty
A Virgin on the Rocks (1985)
The Five Million Dollar Prince (1986)

As by “Sarah Kemp” – all feature Dr. Tina May, a psychiatrist detective
Goodbye Pussy (1978) (US title: Over the Edge)
No Escape (1984)
Lure of Sweet Death (1986)
What Dread Hand (1987)