Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Don't Rely on Gemini - Vin Packer

What’s your sign, girl?
Is it compatible to mine?

If your sign matches mine
Think of what we'll have
We'll be making babies together, forever

“What’s Your Sign, Girl?” - Danny Pearson/Tony Sepe

When I first moved to Chicago I religiously checked my own horoscope on my birthday in the Sun-Times because they include a section called “If Your Birthday Is Today…” and below would be a paragraph about what the coming year had in store for me – and the thousands of other people born in the same day, of course. I would cut it out, put it on my fridge, and review it on the day before my birthday. Invariably it was 90% wrong. But I never bothered to think about all those other people who were born on the same day in the sign of Sagittarius. How did the year work out for them?

That’s the premise of Don’t Rely on Gemini (1969), “a suspense and astrological novel” from the wildly inventive Vin Packer, aka M. J. (Marijane) Meaker. I didn’t for a second believe the hype on the paperback's cover promising “the most gripping spellbinder since Rosemary’s Baby.” For some reason throughout the early 1970s anything that remotely had anything to do with occult, supernatural or even New Age topics were tied to either Rosemary’s Baby (1967) or The Exorcist (1971) or both. The astrology element in this book is used merely to study the concept of parallel lives. A savvy and better-read editor would have done well to compare Packer’s novel to the works of Charles Dickens because coincidence and family secrets run rampant in this book. But would a quasi-literary analogy like that sell books? You bet your crystal talisman, it wouldn’t.

So let’s start with this concept of astro-twins living parallel lives. Astro-twins are unrelated people, complete strangers, who were born in the same year on the same date at the same time. Everyone has at least one astro-twin – well, actually everyone has hundreds, perhaps thousands of astro-twins. And that ought to make all you only children feel a lot less lonely, right? You have myriad siblings who are your astro-twins. But in all likelihood you will never meet them or know them. Regardless, they may be living a life similar to your own. That’s at the core of Don’t Rely on Gemini. And yes, the astro-twins we will meet are born under the sign of Gemini. According to all the mumbo jumbo we are forced to read Gemini is apparently one of the least favorable signs of the twelve in the crazy mixed-up world of the Zodiac. Not just unreliable and mercurial in temperament and obsessive about jobs and hobbies and projects, but apt to lose interest in those projects because of that gosh darned unreliable, mercurial personality.

Archie Gamble is the head writer of a TV special featuring the renowned astrologist Anna Muckermann. In order to add legitimacy to the show Mrs. Muckermann wants to talk about astro-twins and have a few on the air to talk about their lives. Mrs. M has documented evidence of several cases of astoundingly parallel lives in astro-twins that she offers up to Gamble, one case dates back to the days of George III. She insists that the TV show will be a huge draw if people are confronted with the truth of two strangers with the same star charts leading similar lives. This she claims will be proof that the rotation of the planets and other celestial activities do indeed rule our lives. When the moon in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars not only will peace guide the planets but the ratings will probably go sky high. Or so Mrs. Muckermann and Archie hope.

Staff members including Archie Gamble himself give out their birthday info and ads are placed in newspapers to lure in prospective volunteer astro-twins. There are several bites. The most fascinating comes from Margaret Dana who volunteers her husband Neal as a match to Gamble’s birthday data. She invites Gamble and his wife Dru to her home to meet her husband and discuss the possibility of appearing on the TV show. Sounds like fun, right? But this is a crime novel. Guess what follows? Worse than Mercury in retrograde, my friends. Being born in the house of Gemini with Saturn rising adds up to a volatile Molotov cocktail of a star chart as we will soon find out.

A fight happens at the Dana household just as the Gambles are about to arrive. In the course of the heated argument someone dies as the result of an accident and then – Ding, dong! It’s Archie and Dru on the front porch ready for dinner. And a dead body at the foot of a staircase inside. A bottle of wine is not going to solve this inconvenience.

But that’s not the worst of it. Neal Dana never knew about the Gambles coming because his wife was being coy in holding back the surprise of the evening. Neal, you see, was hoping that his wife was going out to her Italian lesson so he could have yet another secret tryst with his adorable mistress Penny. While making up a tale about his wife leaving the house and ushering the Gambles off his porch Dru Gamble hears a woman crying in a back room somewhere. She is sure it’s Margaret but she and Archie agree to leave because something certainly is not right and they are clearly not welcome. So the Gambles drive away.

Then… Archie loses control of his car going down the treacherous hill that leads to and from the Dana house. He crashes into a tree. They have to go back to the house and ask for help. Just as Neal Dana is about to bury the body in the backyard!

Don’t Rely on Gemini sounds initially like a lurid tale from the preposterous world of pulp fiction. Noirish to the core everyone seems utterly doomed amid the insanely surreal action and a pile-up of plot contrivances. Meaker, however, is playing with a loaded deck here. Each contrivance and coincidence is carefully calculated to twist the story toward her theme as she dares to play with superstition and fatalism in allowing her characters to surrender to fate rather than make well thought out decisions. She manages to juggle the ostensibly absurd moments with a very deadly combination of characters who are easily manipulated and those who give in to obsessive thoughts. Mrs. M proves to be perhaps the most dangerous person of all. In her zealous beliefs and dire pronouncements she contaminates the Gamble’s marriage and their relationship by planting seeds of doubt and foretelling impending doom if the couple does not follow her advice. Saturn is ruling their lives; failure to heed all the warnings will lead to disaster. The law of astro-twins does not lie!

The real conflict, however, has nothing to do with astrology. It is the Gambles’ perception of reality. They know nothing about Penny and Neal, unlike the reader, and they assume that a car that belongs to Penny is actually Margaret’s, that each time they see the green scarfed woman in the Ford Falcon they think they see Margaret. Dru learns of Margaret’s affair with a young man from a diary and letters she finds through yet another one of the many coincidences Meaker packs into her story. At the same time Archie is trying to decide whether Neal’s parallel life is worth putting on TV Dru is trying to protect Neal Dana from discovering his wife’s affair.

But, of course, we know what Archie and Dru don’t – that Margaret is dead. That Neal is having an affair of his own with Penny. Neal becomes dangerously obsessive about Margaret, his guilt overpowering him. Penny is fearful she is losing her older lover and she’s right. She can never hope to gain back his attention when he’s drowning in such a powerful nostalgia, she cannot compete with the memory of the perfect wife he is creating in his mind. Nothing can tarnish that memory just as no one can bring Margaret back to life. Someone is going to have to pay the price for that horrible accident. But wait…was it an accident? Didn’t Penny push Margaret down the stairs?

Don’t Rely on Gemini is not only an intriguing thematic exploration of the perils in surrendering to fate it’s also a pop culture smorgasbord of late 1960s America. The book is brimming with brand names, musicians, movie stars and authors including mystery writers Margery Allingham and Mary Stewart. Everything from various models of domestic and imported automobiles to Barry Farber, radio talk show host on WOR and WMCA. Even the plus size dresses and a joke about the maternity line of Lane Bryant crop up in the story. Rock and folk music play in the background of certain scenes as much as Archie’s favorite recordings of operatic arias. Neal disappears into his record collection as well in one of the telling moments playing up the parallel life angle. He plays selections from The Pajama Game original cast album or classical piano music from a William Kappell record to conjure up memories of his dead wife. At other times it feels as if the characters are like the intellectuals of Helen McCloy’s sophisticated Manhattan of the 1940s for the novel is also inundated with literary allusions covering Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence and the 17th century poem “The Meditation” by – get ready for another coincidence – the obscure philosopher and theological poet John Norris. I could have written an entire blog post on "Things I Learned" alone there was so much popping up within this story.

This was the last novel Meaker wrote using her "Vin Packer" pen name.  The 1970s found her turning to juvenile novels which apparently were her most successful books.  I have acquired several of the Packer books over the years, but oddly this most recent one (originally purchased for last year's "Friday Fright Night" meme but proved less suited for that Halloween feature) is the first I've read.  I'll be digging out the other Vin Packer books I own and tearing through them throughout the rest of this year. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 19, 2021

FFB: The Hidden Light - Max Dalman

THE STORY: Loathsome portrait painter James Garrow is shot in his locked, bolted and barred studio. There are only two entrances and Garrow has the only two set of keys. One set of those keys is kept locked in a safe and only the painter has the combination. His death appears to be a suicide but we know better because in the opening chapter we know that someone entered the studio while Garrow was drawing a pastel portrait of a woman who was haunting his thoughts. And our detective hero David Marchant knows better when he breaks into the room and sees chalk dust on Garrow’s fingers but a visibly clean weapon. Who got into the room and shot Garrow and managed to leave it locked if the only keys were still in the room?

The Hidden Light (1937) of the title refers to a second mystery related to the murder. Just after Garrow was found dead a light went on in the room indicating that perhaps the murderer was still inside looking for something. The sun was beginning to go down and interior light from lamps was needed to see anything in the room. It was not a flashlight as the witnesses who reported seeing the light go on were servants well acquainted with the lamps in the room. A few minutes later it went out again and of course no one was in the room when Marchant and two others entered to find Garrow’s body. So we have a genuine locked room murder and an impossible problem of the “hidden light”.

THE CHARACTERS: David Marchant was hired by Garrow for an unknown reason but his summons was urgent and so he headed out to the Garrow home as quickly as he could. We, however, know that Garrow hired Marchant to investigate death threats sent to him in a series of anonymous letters. We see Garrow poring over these letters in the very first scene of Chapter One prior to his murder. Some letters were left out on his desk when he died, but when Marchant breaks into the studio the letters are gone. This is an interesting use of dramatic irony, a convention not often employed in traditional detective novels. Dalman allows the reader to know things ahead of the detective and we keep waiting for Marchant to stumble onto existence of the letters so he can make progress quicker than the police.

Kay Garrow, the painter’s much younger wife, was trapped in a loveless marriage suffering almost daily emotional abuse from her cruel husband, She becomes suspect number one in the eyes of the police. But Marchant is reluctant to accept this premise. In an another ironic moment Mrs. Garrow offers up the local gossip that she is having an affair with Richard Garstane, another artist Garrow hired to restore some frescoes in a chapel on the grounds. Garstane is emotionally unbalanced and perhaps more in love with Mrs. Garrow than she is aware of. Mrs. Garrow gives Marchant this information in an attempt to appear frank and honest. She swears she is innocent and asks Marchant if he will work for her in order to clear her name. He accepts on one condition – if he she discovers all evidence leads to her guilt then she must relent and allow him to turn her in to the police. Mrs. Garrow accepts his challenge.

But there are others in the house who have motive and opportunity. Jessica Garrow, the painter’s daughter from his first marriage, spent some time in a hidden alcove nearby the entrance to the studio supposedly reading a book. Peter Amberwood, Garrow’s secretary, was in a nearby room and was quick to come running when Marchant demanded to be let into Garrow’s studio. It is not hard to see that Jessica and Peter are trying to hide an intimate relationship; Marchant sees their sly glances at each other and is positive they are in love. They are caught in several lies and cover-ups before Marchant gets them to tell the truth of what they were doing the night of the murder.

In true Golden Age tradition the servants are far from minor characters in this story. Each one. from butler Keyne to maid Alice maid and even the cook. will all have important information to divulge to Marchant and the police before the culprit is uncovered. Alice, the maid, in fact has one of the most surprising secrets to reveal in the entirety of the book.

INNOVATIONS: And who is the woman in the pastel portrait that has been hidden under Garrow’s body? When Marchant finally turns over what he thought was a blank piece of paper and sees the face drawn in pastels he lets out a gasp. He recognizes the features of the woman and is truly taken aback. Dalman sends Marchant on a strange detour into the past lives of some of the suspects, uncovers false identities and a secret in Garrow’s past that will turn the case upside down.

The discovery of the anonymous letters coupled with the face in the pastel portrait lead to some marvelous detective work on Marchant’s part. He studies the postmarks on the envelopes, compares the towns to train schedules and pinpoints Bristol as a hub from where the letter writer must have been based. Once in Bristol he sets to work in libraries digging into Garrow’s past looking for a link to Bristol. This section is one of the cleverest and most exciting parts of the novel.

SUMMATION: The Hidden Light was my third Max Dalman mystery and, coincidentally, Dalman’s third mystery in his chronological output. The story is highly entertaining, the action never flags and all of the characters are fascinating to read about. Not a dullard in the bunch. Dalman almost succeeded in being as clever as he was in Poison Unknown which was my first and still my favorite of the Dalman detective novels. But I will have to admit that when it came to the denouement in The Hidden Light much of what was so intriguing and puzzling was revealed to be distressingly prosaic. The solution to the locked room is hardly brilliant, the mystery of the hidden light is rather obvious, and the identity of the villain relies on one of the hoariest clich├ęs. I literally groaned. It’s so laughably bad that I’ve only encountered it three times in the hundreds of books I’ve read. Most mystery writers dare not ever employ it for fear of being ridiculed. Ah well…

Moving onto mystery number four in my small pile of Max Dalman books. He can write well and he is often genuinely imaginative with ingenious methods of detection. Hoping I find one as dazzling as Poison Unknown in the next three books I’ve lined up.