Friday, July 21, 2017

FFB: Dead Reckoning - Bruce Hamilton

"Well written, but most unpleasant tale" -- penciled remark by a Previous Owner left in my copy of Dead Reckoning

THE STORY:Tim Kennedy is a successful dentist and happily married to Esther. Until one evening his vivacious, attractive wife goes chasing after her hat on a busy roadway. She is struck by a car and suffers multiple injuries. Her recovery is a painful and disheartening one. She is left horribly disfigured, crippled on one side of her body, and drained of her lust for life. Taking care of Esther becomes a burden to Tim, his love and devotion dwindling, eventually finding himself drawn to the much younger Alma Shepherd. Tim begins to daydream of how easier his life might be without Esther leading to what he thinks is the perfect murder.

THE CHARACTERS:The original title of Dead Reckoning (1937) in England was Middle Class Murder. That title is a good cue to the kinds of people to expect in its realistic rendering of a dentist, his patients and friends. But it is Hamilton's juxtaposition of mundane homelife and a routine workplace against the secret criminal plotting of our anti-hero that make the book more than just a mainstream novel which in the first half it very much resembles. From the very first page we know Tim Kennedy is planning on killing his wife, one of several half-started, then abandoned plots that will come back to haunt him in the final chapters.

The story is told in third person but everything is viewed through Tim's perspective. He at first seems like an amiable man, well respected in his profession and well liked among his small circle of friends and acquaintances. As the story progresses he gradually transforms into a figure of pathetic desperation. Aching for the sex life he once had, longing to be desired, suffering through the worst kind of middle age crisis and coming to the most heinous decision on how to transcend his depression and unhappiness. Remarkably, it is Hamilton's skill in turning our sympathies toward Tim when he becomes the victim of a nasty blackmail plot that make this book unique of a British version of a James M Cain tale of infidelity and murder.

We know poor Esther is doomed from the start and yet she never becomes sentimentalized. Her recovery is painful to read of while her burgeoning friendship with Alma, Tim's object of desire, is an ironic high point of joy in her brief post-accident life. Tim's partner Adam, who becomes his nemesis in Book Two, is a fine portrait of a little man attempting to life a life of big dreams yet revealing instead nothing but amoral corruption and small-minded greed. The lack of police throughout the story highlights another world of Hamilton's creation fraught with omnipresent danger, paranoia and near lawlessness.

INNOVATIONS: Hamilton's brother Patrick is best known for his playwriting skills, but Dead Reckoning shows the elder Hamilton to have a similar gift for drama played out in skilled dialogue sequences that reveal character. There is a excellent section devoted to a tennis party ostensibly thrown together for Esther's benefit but in reality a way for Tim to get to see Alma. Hamilton uses the tennis party to introduce a few minor characters who will reappear in other functions in the second half of the novel as well as allowing us to see Esther experience the joy of her former self. The dialogue is cleverly rendered with innuendo between Alma and Tim; we know Tim's thoughts as well as his words, but can only guess at Alma's thoughts and feelings based on ambiguous remarks. A later scene where Tim takes Alma on a private tour of his home leads them to a room with a rocking horse. Alma sits down and rocks herself while Tim continues his veiled flirtation with her. It's a remarkable piece of writing that shows the older man pursuing a younger woman while at the same time ridiculing him as we see her acting in such a childlike manner.

The crime novel features take over in Book Two when Tim find himself the victim of a blackmail scheme. In eerie anticipation of Robin Maugham's well known novel The Servant Tim finds himself at the mercy of his employee who in effect takes complete control of his life, commandeering his finances and forcing Tim into committing more acts of final desperation. This coupled with some bad news about his supposed property inheritance from Esther sends Tim into a continual downward spiral. It's a chilling portion of the novel. One cannot help side with the hapless dentist and hope that he can turn the tables on the avaricious and amoral Adam. There are some violent action set pieces and an eleventh hour scene where we think Tim may have indeed thwarted the plot to reveal him as Esther's killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: In one of the many dentist office scenes (some of them rather fascinating) Tim runs out of a special mouthwash preparation. He calls his assistant, Adam, to make him some more, but there is no reply. Because the patient is in the chair in mid-surgery he is forced to come up with an alternative: "Eventually he telephoned the chemist (whose boy proved to be out) and made do with lysol." Lysol as a mouthwash? I can't believe that. Hamilton must've intended Listerine and got confused. I looked up the history of Lysol products and it was never used as mouthwash. It was, however, used as a vaginal douche. I'll spare you anymore of my findings.

EASY TO FIND?If you speak and read French you're in luck. The most affordable copies are paperback editions in French (Portrait d'un meurtrier) but there are only five that I could find. No good news for the original English language editions. A single copy of the UK title Middle Class Murder is available if you're willing to pay $324 (£250) while only two US editions are for sale priced at $30 (no DJ) and $250 (with DJ). Looks like your local library may be the best bet.

Friday, July 14, 2017

FFB: Something about Midnight - D. B. Olsen

THE STORY: By day she's Ernestine Hollister, dedicated English literature student at Clarendon College, but at night she transforms herself into Ernestine Hall, sultry dance hall girl flirting with every young naïve sailor she can find. Her motives are founded on bitter revenge but she's not talking about her past with anyone. Not even Freddy Nixon who's been trying to get her to notice him for weeks at her regular haunt at the amusement pier. He finally gets up enough nerve to talk to her, she relents out of boredom, and accepts his invitation to visit Mrs. Lacoste, an elderly woman who has been his weekend companion for several weeks now. This strange trio of characters drink, laugh and discuss Mrs. Lacoste's missing grandson who has gone AWOL from the army or is MIA. It's all very ambiguous. Mrs. Lacoste isn't offering any real details, she'd rather drop a few sleeping pills in her beer creating a "goofball cocktail" and get deliriously drunk. Freddy and Ernestine notice the abuse of drugs and alcohol but keep it to themselves. That night Ernestine vanishes along with her sporty convertible Packard. Professor Pennyfeather is asked to find the missing Ernestine by her seriously frightened cousin Rae Caradyne who also happens to be one of his students. Four hours later he finds the missing student at the foot of a cliff. A typewritten note left in her car indicates suicide. Or did something far more sinister happen?

THE CHARACTERS:Something about Midnight (1950) is the fourth mystery novel featuring D. B. Olsen's (aka Dolores Hitchens) inquisitive English professor Mr. Pennyfeather. Hitchens has once again dreamed up a cast of fully human often complicated characters. It's almost a shame that poor Ernestine gets knocked off so early in the book because she is one of the most fascinating young women I've encountered in Hitchens' mystery novels. Intelligent yet petty, Ernestine's sardonic hipster attitude masks a deep-seated anger mixed with sorrow. Only after she's dead do we fully realize what motivated her to adopt the alter ego of Ernestine Hall who teased and exploited the young sailors looking for female companionship at the dance halls. The opening chapter with its strange visit to the home of Mrs. Lacoste is at the heart of the mystery and the numerous violent deaths. Mrs. Lacoste herself is an odd character, but compared to others she seems relatively sane even in her choice to live in an alcoholic stupor.

There's Rae Caradyne, an all too somber, rather humorless college student who first brings Mr. Pennyfeather into the case. She comes off as a near caricature of the ugly duckling, bespectacled loner. But her seriousness rings false to Mr. Pennyfeather. He is sure Miss Caradyne is hiding her real self behind the mask of a dull Plain Jane.

The most colorful of the cast is Ernestine's uncle Stephen Dunne. He too is a loner, but of an entirely different sort. He lives the life of a reclusive artist in a seaside ramshackle house where he collects driftwood and seaweed for his unusual mix of sculpture and painting in the weird landscapes he creates on mesh frameworks. He has a deep love for his niece and cannot accept that she killed herself which is how the police want to deal with her death and thus avoid any type of real investigation. Uncle Stephen waxes poetic with some nicely done monologues in his discussions with Pennyfeather. Hitchens does a fine job with Stephen in reminding us how violence brings out a person's deep philosophical side, how it makes us reflect on the fragility of life, what we value most and how often we never realize that worth until it is taken from us. Stephen Dunne is cantankerous, witty and often profound. He was my favorite of this well-rounded group of intriguing characters.

INNOVATIONS: Of all Hitchen's mid-career books this one seems to mark her transition from the traditional mystery to her darker crime novels that border on genuine noir. The story of Ernestine and her past are reminiscent of the plots that Ross Macdonald revelled in with his corrupt, well-to-do California families. Hitchens' noir touches will be fully realized in her brief series featuring private eye Jim Sader who appeared in Sleep with Slander (1960) and two other novels. That's not to say that this still isn't a intricately constructed and subtly clued detective novel because it is. The academic setting for once is intrinsically intertwined in the story of Ernestine's violent death. Her insightful study of literature and love of poetry manifest themselves in quotes from "The Garden of Proserpine" by Algernon Swinburne which will be of great help in leading Pennyfeather to the truth. Also, a rather Christie-like bit of clueing comes in the letter Freddy Nixon sends to his secretary alerting her to his possible murder. He reports an overheard conversation and quotes some dialogue that appears to be college slang but will turn out to have a completely different meaning.

The novel tends to veer into thriller territory in the final third when Mr. Pennyfeather is abducted and the story shifts into high gear with one action set piece after another. Highlights include a climactic fire in a California forest and an unusual hand-to-hand fight between the middle-aged man and the very surprising villain of the piece. Still with all these action sequences Something about Midnight rightly belongs in the traditional detective novel category.

QUOTES: Dunne looked gloomily out upon the sea. "So damned lonely...as lonely as death itself. Would she have come up here in the middle of the night to jump off into the roaring black surf? I don't think she would have. Not at midnight. There's something about midnight, something gruesome."

There were no lights, and the fog concealed the gleaming radiator until it was too late. The car was there, a juggernaut, and [he] was there, its victim. And Death was there, too, waiting for the not unhandsome fellow who had liked to linger on the beach to pick up girls.

Mr. Pennyfeather turned over and over in his mind the circumstances of the case, the outright, miraculously lucky breaks that had seemed to occur one after the other, making everything seem so smooth, logical and easy; and he was aware, as before, of an uncomfortable hunch that there was a ghastly hitch in it all somewhere, and that under the whole reasonable tightly knit structure of his solution some demon of the perverse was laughing at him.


EASY TO FIND? Looks pretty good, gang. As usual it's the paperback reprint that tends to be available for sale more than any other edition. The book was published in the UK and the US, but US editions are more plentiful on the internet. There are approximately 30 or so copies available all at reasonable prices. Only two copies of the first US edition hardcover (a Doubleday Crime Club book) show up for sale. One with the scarce DJ is $25 and the other without is $20. Both are real bargains, I say. The Pocket Book paperback is your best bet. Sadly, none of Hitchens' books under her D. B. Olsen moniker have been reprinted in modern editions. Someone ought to rectify that soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEW STUFF: A Talent for Murder - Andrew Wilson

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-5001-4506-3
310 pp. $26
Publication date: July 11, 2017

Back in 1978 I remember reading (and later seeing the movie) Agatha by Kathleen Tynan. This was the first attempt by an novelist to concoct a reason for Agatha Christie’s mysterious two week disappearance in December 1926, following an argument with her husband about his affair with a young woman. Christie's strange relocation to a spa at Harrowgate (where she was registered under the same last name as her husband’s lover) was attributed to amnesia and depression. But before she was found the press dreamed up wild stories ranging from an elaborate publicity stunt to help sell her books to kidnapping to possible murder. Tynan’s story reduced the mystery to a preposterous revenge plot completely out of character for the real Agatha Christie. Now Andrew Wilson, biographer of Patricia Highsmith and many others, has tried his hand at spinning his own thriller to explain the same period when the Grand Dame of Mysterydom vanished for several days in A Talent for Murder (2017). Having completed extensive biographical and literary research Wilson’s story is more in keeping with Christie’s personality and temperament but it is nonetheless just as implausible. Knowing that he was first interested in the life and writing of Highsmith ought to prepare you for what is clearly a crime novel inspired by both women’s books.

Wilson has fashioned an odd story of grief, depression and murder by proxy. Like Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train he has created his own version of Charles Bruno in the person of Patrick Kurs, a megalomaniac physician who is tired of his invalid wife and wants her gone. He manipulates Agatha into carrying out the murder of his wife by threatening her with exposure of her husband’s affair which he knows far too much about. Agatha is just beginning to enjoy success as a bestselling writer thanks to the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and any publicity of her philandering husband would be scandalous to her personal life and detrimental to her professional life.

Kurs has read …Ackroyd, of course, and commends Agatha for the tour de force novel. He cannot stop talking about it and how he greatly admires the character Dr. Sheppard, who he feels is one of Mrs. Christie’s greatest creations. In fact, he regards the fictional doctor “something of a hero” much to Agatha’s horror. Even more horrifying is Kurs' additional threat of doing harm to Agatha’s young daughter Rosamund if the novelist does not follow Dr. Kurs’ implicit instructions on how to do in his wife.

A parallel story follows when Agatha meets Una Crowe and her friend John Davison. Una aspires to become a reporter and will have ample opportunity to do so when Mrs. Christie suddenly goes missing. Sensational newspaper headlines spur on Una who is determined to beat the pros at their own game and reveal the truth herself. Her amateur sleuthing uncovers Archie Christie’s affair which leads her to Nancy Neele, the mistress, and eventually to the office of Nancy’s confidante, her private physician Dr. Patrick Kurs.

Wilson has done an admirable job of incorporating Christie’s biography into A Talent for Murder. However, there is an unfortunate avalanche of this information within the first two chapters that almost ruins the crime plot before it has a chance to even start. Wilson has chosen to emphasize the recent death of Christie’s mother and he allows Agatha to spend much of her time wallowing in nostalgia and reminiscing about her childhood. This is how she is coping with her grief, but coupled with the knowledge that her husband is cheating on her and planning to leave her Agatha’s emotional life and state of mind are always at the near breaking point.

In the parallel story of Una Crowe there is also the shadow of a recent family death. We learn just as much about Una’s interior life as we do Agatha’s. The idea that fragile women both dealing with overpowering grief are channeling their energies into writing and sleuthing is an interesting one. While Una is determined to solve the riddle of the missing mystery writer, Mrs. Christie is determined to outwit Dr. Kurs in his bizarre murder plot and expose him at his own game. Each woman is doing her best to live up to the memory of her lost relative as well as finding a way back to herself and the real world. The juxtaposition of these two stories and their eventual intersection and overlap are the most successful aspects of this often gripping book.

Unfortunately, the character work is often heavy handed and one gets the feeling that Wilson couldn’t decide between his two crime novelist influences. Several scenes with the stubborn Supt. Kenward who suspects Archie Christie of killing his wife become repetitious in how Christie continually denies all accusations levelled at him increasingly losing his patience and temper with the unimaginative policemen. There are also elements of Christie’s Westamacott novels that threaten to drown the story in domestic soap opera. But then Wilson will insert a delicious scene with ambiguous dialogue and hidden motives straight out of Highsmith that invigorates the narrative.

Andrew Wilson
(photo ©Johnny Ring)
The use of unusual poisons in the plot, however, remind us we are clearly in the world of Agatha Christie. There are several chapters devoted to Agatha’s research into choosing a unique poison with chemical properties that will allow her to thwart Dr. Kurs’ murder plot. The final third of the novel in which Agatha finally meets up with Flora Kurs, their joining forces against the amoral doctor coupled with the story of Una Crowe’s near coup de grace in uncovering the truth about Agatha’s disappearance make for the most exciting parts of this on-again-off-again thriller.

If in the end the novel is less of a whodunit honoring Christie and more homage to Highsmith’s fascination with criminal behavior and the dark recesses of human emotion that is no real fault. The reader unfamiliar with Agatha Christie’s personal life will benefit from Wilson’s intensive research with an ample amount of biographical background that renders her more lifelike and true than Kathleen Tynan’s Agatha. Wilson’s love of Christie’s work and respect for her storytelling and plotting skills are also on grand display. There are some well done Christie-like touches and requisite plot twists that may catch a few readers off guard and perhaps even elicit a gasp or two.

Friday, June 30, 2017

GUEST POST: Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

In lieu of Friday's Forgotten Books this week I have a guest post by blogger, mystery novelist, genre historian and friend, Martin Edwards.  This is part of the blog tour to help promote his crime fiction survey The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Over to you, Martin --

 *  *  *

One of the joys of delving into the world of “forgotten books” is that there are so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Over the years, I’ve come across quite a few as a result of following Pretty Sinister Books –- examples that spring to mind include Q. Patrick’s The Grindle Nightmare, and Claude Houghton’s I Am Jonathan Scrivener.

In writing The Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins), I tried to offer fellow enthusiasts a guide to a range of books produced by members of the Detection Club in the Thirties, as well as talking about the authors’ lives, the real life crimes that inspired many of their novels, and the way the times in which they lived influenced their work. My latest book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library) has a different angle. I’ve tried to offer a fresh look at the way in which the genre evolved over the first half of the twentieth century.

The approach is broadly chronological – from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train (and wow, mention of those two very different books illustrates the remarkable scale of that evolution over fifty years!) – but along the way I examine a variety of themes. So there are chapters devoted to stories about impossible crimes, country house mysteries, and so on.

Conan Doyle’s novel, and Highsmith’s masterpiece, are exceptionally famous, but there are plenty of titles which I hope will come as a surprise to readers, however well-versed they are in the genre. The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius and Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr are just two examples. This is, after all, not a list of “the best” (supposedly) or even my own special favorites, but rather a book that focuses on an eclectic mix of novels (plus a smattering of short story collections) with a view to telling a story. Some of the choices may seem controversial, or even just idiosyncratic, but I hope that readers who come to the narrative with an open mind will find that the selections make sense – kind of! We will see.

I must just add that John Norris’s perceptive critiques have made Pretty Sinister Books one of my favorite blogs about forgotten mysteries. Thanks, John, for hosting this guest post. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be travelling around the blogosphere, talking about different aspects of the book, and of classic crime. Here’s a list of the remaining stops on my blog tour:

Sat., Jul 1 – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview)
Sun., Jul 2 – Eurocrime
Mon., Jul 3 – Tipping My Fedora
Tue., Jul 4 – Desperate Reader
Wed., Jul 5 – Clothes in Books
Thu., Jul 6 – Emma’s Bookish Corner
Fri., Jul 7 – Random Jottings

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books will be published in the UK on July 7 by the British Library, and in the US on August 1 by Poisoned Pen Press.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Story of Classic Crime Blog Tour

This Friday there will be no Friday's Forgotten Book.  Instead I'll be one of the ten participating bloggers in a promotional web tour for the upcoming release of Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  Similar to 1001 Midnights and the more recent Books to Die For Martin's survey of overlooked detective and crime fiction addresses decidedly obscure and utterly forgotten books in the genre which nevertheless helped shape the evolution of what we know as the modern crime novel.

Below is the full schedule with links to all the blogs. As the posts continue to appear over the next week and a half I'll update the links to take you to the specific post of n the tour (Right now they go to the blog home page).

All of the posts were written by Martin himself and are designed for each blog and its particular audience. The post for Pretty Sinister Books talks about our mutual obsession for obscure detective fiction and how my blog helped contribute to the creation of the book. Quite an honor, I think! One post will be written by the blog host -- Margot Kinberg ("Confessions of a Mystery Novelist") -- who will interview Martin. That one ought to be one of the more interesting pieces to read.

Hope you stop by to read each post and get some insight into why Martin wrote the book and how it came into being. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books will be released on July 6 in the UK and August 1 in the US. Pre-orders via internet bookseller sites are, of course, available now.


The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books Blog Tour

Wed., June 28 – Lesa’s Book Critiques
Thurs., June 29 – The Rap Sheet
Fri., June 30 – Pretty Sinister Books
Sat., Jul 1 – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview)
Sun., Jul 2 –Eurocrime
Mon., Jul 3 – Tipping My Fedora
Tue., Jul 4 – Desperate Reader
Wed., Jul 5 – Clothes in Books
Thu., Jul 6 – Emma’s Bookish Corner
Fri., Jul 7 - Random Jottings

Friday, June 16, 2017

FFB: The Other Side of Green Hills - John Keir Cross

One of the serendipitous rewards of having created this blog is discovering another side to a writer I am already familiar with. Take the case of John Keir Cross, an obscure Scottish writer whose collection of strange and supernatural fiction The Other Passenger I thought was his only noteworthy book. In researching his work as part of my preparation for a foreword to the upcoming reissue of The Other Passenger from Valancourt Books, I learned that the bulk of his work was in children's fiction under his own name as well as his fictional alter ego of "Stephen McFarlane." He wrote a mix of science fiction, detective novels and fantasy for children with much of it published only in the UK. One of the more obscure books published in both the UK and the US is The Owl and the Pussycat (1946) reviewed here under its more familiar US title The Other Side of Green Hills. Also, I thought I would arouse your interest using the US title since the original one is an allusion to the well known nonsense poem by Edward Lear and might cause a bit of confusion as it did me.

Green Hills is the name of a house in the Scottish countryside where several children are spending their Christmas holiday. The "other side" refers to an elaborate alternate dimension on the grounds where the Owl and the Pussycat live. These are not literally two anthropomorphic creatures as in Lear's poem, but an elderly violin playing gentleman and his companion, a little girl about ten years old. The focus of the story is on Geraldine, one of the youngest of the children spending her holiday a Green Hills. It is her uncanny ability to penetrate the Other Side that allows all the children to see and speak with the Owl whose real name we never learn, and the little girl known only as Pussycat.




Sounds a bit too strange already, right? I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles in which another world is accessible through that magical wardrobe located in Professor Kirke's massive home. In The Other Side of Green Hills Geraldine first discovers the alternate universe when she falls into a secret basement after uncovering a trapdoor in a cottage she and her friends are exploring. After being rescued she claims that she was pushed though no one was anywhere near her as she is told by the older children in the group. Later when all the children are visited by the elderly eccentric Owl and the angelic, forever young Pussycat we learn that there are weird creatures known as Moon People who are the enslaved minions of the wicked sorcerer Titus. They are trying to kidnap Geraldine for an unknown purpose. The elderly Owl knows why, but is too terrified to reveal the secret of Titus' motives until it is almost too late.



The Owl talks a lot of paradox which he first introduces to the children in an optical illusion included in the many macabre illustrations done by artist Robin Jacques. He explains this familiar drawing of cubes done in black and white (see illustration at left) as a tool in appreciating how the Other Side exists. "It all depends on how you look at it," he tells the children." Then as he so often does he bursts into song: "Look once, look twice./Look round about --/And in a trice/What's In is Out." Staring at the drawing the children discover that the cubes look as if they are going in or rising out of the paper. And this is also the key to understanding how adults are unable to see into the Other Side or be visited by any of its occupants. Adults, of course, grown too lazy in their thinking and accustomed to their grown up ways tend not to have the ability to see differently as do children the Owl explains.

Though the story begins with a lighthearted fantastical tone as The Owl regales the children with anecdotes of the Other Side and revealing his philosophy of life through a series of songs with seemingly nonsensical lyrics much of the story descends into a dark realm atypical for a children's book of the 1940s. The story will turn into the age old battle between good and evil, innocence and experience, with the children helping rescue Geraldine from the clutches of Titus and the Moon People. Eventually the Owl will divulge the secret motivations of Titus and his search for missing pages in a Book of Secrets the children find. The story is imbued with an increasingly eerie atmosphere, magic rarely is used for good, and the reader cannot help drawing an analogy with the battle that takes place in the climactic pages as a fantastic rendering of post World War 2 England after the Blitz.

Interestingly, these eccentric fantasy characters and incidents echo what is found in Cross' strange adult stories of wanton cruelty, inescapable violence and haunted individuals who populate the pages of The Other Passenger (1944). The theme of an alternate world is explored more metaphorically as characters discover they are trapped within their cursed interior lives. I'll have more about that book in the coming months along with news about its reissue and release date.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

VERDICT OF US ALL: The Shadow of the Wolf - R. Austin Freeman

JJ at "The Invisible Event" has revived the once somewhat regular meme on the vintage mystery blogs in which participants ramble on a particular topic. This month we talk about our favorite book by a writer who we don't care for or have avoided over time because we just don't like his or her style of mystery writing. Took me a while to come up with one for this because most bad mystery writers in my experience don't really have much to recommend in their overall work unless you want to read the books as self-parodies or "Alternative Classics." But that's not the point of this week's topic. So I had to reach back in time to remember one single book by a writer who I just don't read anymore because... well... frankly he bores me to death. And that's R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman as we all know was a pioneer in the scientific detective short story and also the inverted detective story. He also wrote several inverted detective novels but only one of them stands out in my mind as something rather remarkable. The Shadow of the Wolf (1928) is one of his more complex mystery novels loaded with the kind of arcane scientific talk (like a long dissertation on the formation of barnacles on a ship) that aid Dr. John Thorndyke in tracking down his elusive murderous prey. And yet despite what might have been yet another droning, boring book I found it utterly fascinating. There's a paradox worthy of Father Brown. It's one of the few Thorndyke novels that I found truly suspenseful. Another of Freeman's inverted detective novels we therefore know the identity of the murderer in The Shadow of the Wolf from the outset. Thorndyke's methods, however, are so odd and unusual in this novel, a nautical mystery about ships and the sea, that I was transfixed. I tend to write a lot about the "Things I Learned" in books of this type and there is a lot to fill the head of the insatiably curious reader in The Shadow of the Wolf.

I rarely go back to Freeman's books because they belong to an old-fashioned type of detective story that no longer excites me. His obsession with all things related to Egyptology gets tiresome; his characters don't ring true as human beings to me; and his often stodgy prose hasn't aged well. But I will always recommend The Shadow of the Wolf for its faster than normal pace (for Freeman, that is), its unusual subject matter, and a story that unravels with true suspense and a couple of thrilling surprises.

Friday, June 9, 2017

FFB: The Thing in the Brook - Peter Storme

THE STORY: Biologist James Whitby's scientific studies are interrupted when he inadvertently becomes one of two men who discover the grisly body hanging from a tree above the brook in the rural village of Brookdale. The victim, a much loathed local, was strangled, bludgeoned and then hanged. Someone definitely wanted him dead. Could this be another victim of the legendary thing that is said to haunt the waters of the brook? What happened to that young woman so many years ago? Her clothes were found in a neat pile by the bank but not a trace of her body ever turned up.

THE CHARACTERS: Whitby narrates the story, but he's not at all interested in solving the baffling crime of a thrice murdered victim. He'd rather attend to his involved study of the local Myxomycetes. That's slime mold to all us non-scientific schmoes. Slime molds! You'd think that this was a parody of detective novels the way the opening chapters play out. What with Whitby's reluctance to cooperate with the state troopers, the motorcycle cop who keeps showing up to interrogate the villagers, and Whitby's overeager house guest Henry Hale (a murder mystery addict and budding amateur criminologist) sticking his nose into the investigation like some junior Philo Vance. There is a wry humor that pervades the story, but the plot turns very grim and serious by the midpoint.

So is it a parody? Not really. A homage to the intuititionist school seems more likely. Despite frequent deprecating allusions to fictional detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey and Vance, Whitby fails to deter Henry from his goal of uncovering the identity of Howard Stanton's killer. Two more deaths will occur before the surprising finale.

Hale is sort of a run-of-the-mill amateur sleuth that you find in numerous American mystery novels of the mid-1930s. I was reminded of the Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge novels because the of the bizarre nature of the murders, the creepy atmosphere, the legend of the "thing" of the title, and a slightly macabre obsession with murder and occult phenomena.

Leading me to the most interesting character of the book -- Mr. Marigold, an overweight, florid man of middle age who lives alone with his cat Herman. Marigold regales Hale with a litany of grotesque murders from the annals of crime reveling in the lurid details of violence and unusual weapons employed from medieval times to the post-WW1 years. Later, Marigold discusses his interest in psychic research with Whitby.

INNOVATIONS: There is a strong hint that something paranormal is going on in Brookdale, but sadly this never really pans out. Still, the story has a neat resolution that may raise a few eyebrows and frustrate traditionalists in its iconoclastic disregard for the finer rules of detective novel writing.

Storme clearly seems to be inspired by Van Dine and Quentin in his plotting and detective novel structuring. Hale calls himself an intuitive sleuth and not a true detective. He spends much of his time looking for the "psychological pattern" of the crimes foreshadowing the kind of criminal profiling techniques that become very popular in late 20th century crime novels. Hale relies perhaps too much on inference and intuition and does not impress the police even in his long lecture in the final chapter (teasingly titled "Parlor Tricks") when he reveals the truth. Captain Macready reminds us all that guesswork has no place in real police work when he warns Hale, "You'll need better evidence than that." And yet all along Storme has done an admirable job of supplying the reader with subtle clues -- mostly presented in character sketches and dialogue -- so that he too can come to the same conclusion as Henry Hale. The revelation of the motive and methods of the murders may break a couple of rules for traditional detective novels, but I'll give Storme bonus points for subverting the genre just when it needed shaking up.

Philip Van Doren Stern, circa 1940s
THE AUTHOR: "Peter Storme" wrote only one detective novel. His real name was Philip Van Doren Stern, an American historian and short story anthologist who wrote several non-fiction volumes on the Civil War as well as editing a collection of Poe's writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and a noteworthy ghost story anthology. In addition to his writing Stern made a living in the publishing industry working as an editor for Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books and Knopf at various times throughout his lifetime.  Stern's claim to fame, however, will always be his short story "The Greatest Gift" which has been immortalized on film as the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.

EASY TO FIND? At one time it was fairly easy to find either of the two US paperback editions of The Thing in the Brook (1937). But as with the majority of books I enjoy and like to write about this title is becoming increasingly scarce in all its editions. As far as I know there is no UK edition of this book. The original US first edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937) is practically a rare book these days as I found only two copies for sale online. If you do go looking, you will increase your chances of finding a copy knowing that the digest paperback edition was retitled The Case of the Thing in the Brook which was reprinted in 1941.

Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.


THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.

Friday, May 12, 2017

FFB: Hell on Friday - William Bogart

THE STORY: Johnny Saxon, once a highly popular short story writer, has given it all up to become a private eye. His latest case will take him back to his roots in the pulp magazine world when he's asked by his former publisher to find Dulcy Dickens, a rising star in the field of wartime romance stories. Hell on Friday (1941) might easily have been called "Everyone Is Looking for Dulcy" because Saxon finds himself in a sort of bidding war as two more people ask him to locate the woman, each time the retainer fee increases considerably. Then the missing person case turns deadly and dangerous when a rival publisher is murdered and Saxon is implicated as the killer.

CHARACTERS: The story is almost exclusively confined to the world of pulp magazine publishing and nearly everyone is involved is a writer, publisher or distributor. Saxon's best friend and colleague Moe Martin is a literary agent with a dwindling list of employable clients. A variety of characters seem to have parallels in the real world of 1940s pulp publishing. Sam Sontag, the murdered magazine publisher in the novel, is loosely based on publisher Harry Donenfield of Spicy Detective fame. Joe Rogers in the book is inspired by Rogers Terrill, editor-in chief of Popular Publications. Or so muses Will Murray in his essay that prefaces the reissued omnibus.

Jasper Ward is one of the more unusual guys of the bunch. He sports garishly colored shirts and ties with his tweed suits just like some kind of hood from Guys and Dolls. That's because while nominally he calls himself a magazine distributor, Ward is nothing more than a hood himself. Unethical and tough with his competitors he conspires with Sontag to undermine Rogers' discovery of Dulcy Dickens by trying to get Bogart to find her for them. Ward and Sontag plan to create a new magazine, just like Rogers is planning, that will be the vehicle for Dickens' wartime romance tales. As the story progresses we learn that the pulp industry is truly a cut-throat business and this kind of copycat publishing happened all the time. Publishers dropped the prices of their magazines along with the pay for their writers in order to be the most popular and bestselling in each genre.

A mystery man named Baron von Elman shows up and is the third person to hire Saxon to locate the missing lady writer. His finder's fee is $5000 making it the least refusable offer of the bunch, but also raises Saxon's suspicions. The Baron has never met Dulcy, but he insists he absolutely must locate her. Saxon wants to find out who the Baron really is and why he is so desperate and eager to pay the highest price to find Dulcy. When the Baron turns out to be the owner of a used bookstore with an interest in French novels Saxon suspects there is more to Dulcy Dickens than anyone has imagined. The mystery of finding her is complicated by learning who she is, where she came from, and uncovering the miracle of her prolific writing talent (she claims she can write four stories in a week!).

INNOVATIONS: The book reads like a B movie script and is chock-full of the conventions of private eye movies. In addition to the missing person main plot and a couple of murders, we get a prison break, gangsters in the pulp biz, two "Follow that cab!" chases, and more than the requisite number of gratuitous "shapely dame" passages. In one sequence Saxon spies on a women getting dressed while in front of her apartment window while he's talking on the phone in his office opposite her building. We get our fill of the usual wiseacre private eye talk and several variations on a running gag that always ends with "That would make a great story title." ("It was getting dark now, and it was snowing again. Winter in Manhattan. That's a good title, Johnny thought.")

QUOTES: Girls walking through the streets with fur-topped galoshes framing their pretty legs, dresses swirling in the wind, or wrapped against slim legs; people hurrying home from offices, leaning into the icy blasts that faced the canyonlike side streets; lights coming on, flickering diamonds that chased away the drabness of night. Taxi horns bleating. Newspaper boys huddled at street corners, flapping their arms, screaming, "Huxtra! Huxtra!" An ambulance yammering down the Avenue. People, weary people, pushing and cramming into subway kiosks like moles burrowing into the damp earth; others fresh and bright, just starting the day. [...] A man without a hat standing in the gutter, waiting quietly while his leashed dog sniffs an automobile tire. A taxi rushing by, its tires quietly making wet, sloppy sounds in the black slush. Mud splashing up. The dog owner cursing, "You louse!" Winter in Manhattan. People on an island. Millions of people. The pulse beat of a nation.

THINGS I LEARNED: The entire book is a fascinating study of the pulp magazine business and the life of a pulp writer. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the poor pay writers had to accept and the justifications that publishers gave for their "penny a word" or even "half a penny a word" pay scales. Only when a writer proved that his name on the cover would sell a magazine did the pay ever increase, but never by much. Saxon, we are told, was "prince of the pulps", one of the most popular and highest paid pulp writers at the top of his game. Then he just quit because there was no excitement in it for him anymore and "his stuff went stale." The background details also cover production, including the importance of the cover illustrations and the life of the much put upon artists; the intense rivalries between magazine publishers; and the surprising number of corporate informers who spy on the competitors for a price. Bogart drew on his personal experience in the pulp world and much of what is described in Hell on Friday actually took place when he was writing for the magazines.

William Bogart (circa 1946), from the
rear DJ panel of The Queen City Murder Case
THE AUTHOR: William Bogart was a prolific pulp writer who penned crime, detective and weird menace stories. Under the house pseudonym "Kenneth Robeson" he wrote several stories for the Doc Savage series. In addition to the Johnny Saxon trilogy of private eye novels he wrote two other crime novels: Sands Street (1942) and a novelization of the movie Singapore (1947) with Fred MacMurray as a skipper looking for a cache of hidden pearls and his missing girlfriend (Ava Gardner). Singapore was directed by horror and crime movie specialist John Brahm who had great success as a TV director throughout the 50s and 60s.

EASY TO FIND? Hell on Friday in its original hardcover is a scarce book and even more scarce in the US digest paperback edition I own retitled Murder Man (1945). There are three different paperback reprints under the title Murder Man, a digest from Tech Books (US), Harlequin #57 (Canada) and Phantom Books #640 (Australia). None of Bogart's private eye novels were published in the UK. All three reprints are relatively scarce in the used book market, the last two being genuinely rare.

Thankfully, all three books featuring Johnny Saxon have been conveniently reissued in a three-in-one omnibus. The hefty volume is called Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (Altus Press) and can be purchased either new or used from the regular bookselling outlets in this vast digital shopping mall we call the internet. The Altus Press reissue includes an informative foreword by Will Murray, an expert on Lester Dent and the Doc Savage series, who provides a detailed biography of Bogart and interesting background on the real people who inspired many of the characters in the first book. Oh! almost forgot. That omnibus volume is also available for purchase for a Kindle thingamabob from that well known e-tail giant.

Johnny Saxon Private Eye Novels
Hell on Friday (1941) also as Murder Man (Tech Mystery, 1945); (Harlequin 57, 1950); (Phantom 640, 1955)
Murder Is Forgetful (1944) also as Johnny Saxon (Harlequin 114, 1951)
The Queen City Murder Case (1946)
----
Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (2010) All three of the above in one omnibus

Friday, May 5, 2017

FFB: What Happened to Hammond? - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Shipping magnate Benson T. Hammond is being threatened with anonymous letters promising his imminent demise.  As if that isn't enough to worry him his daughter announces her engagement to a man he thinks is a fortune hunter. Hours after an argument with the young man during which he refuses permission to marry his daughter Hammond is found dead -- 60 miles from a house he was seen to last enter but never exited. Inspector Garth much to his consternation is forced to once again collaborate with the irascible Dr. Hiram Carruthers, physicist and genius detective, to discover who killed Hammond and how his body ended up being so mysteriously transported from the house to Worthing Road such a far distance in less than ten minutes.

THE CHARACTERS: Garth and his crew of policemen do most of the real detective work. About three quarters of the book is modeled on a standard police procedural. There are several constables and sergeants who do much of the legwork and a pathologist who delivers all the gruesome news about What Happened to Hammond? (1951). Carruthers is called upon late in the book, a bit past the midpoint, when the case seems to involve a strange invention that most likely has something to do with radio transmission.

Hiram Carruthers is one of Fearn's series detectives and he belongs to the group of what I've grown to call the "arrogant prick" detectives. He likes to call himself the "Admirable Crichton of Science" alluding to James Barrie's play in which the title character, a butler with common sense, saves his employer and a group of know-nothing aristocrats when they are shipwrecked on a deserted island. I can't imagine a more inappropriate nickname for Carruthers since the Crichton of Barrie's play is the model of civility. Obviously it's meant to be ironic. Carruthers is ridiculously egocentric, belittles everyone for their ignorance, openly insults Garth and his colleagues, and loves to flaunt his knowledge unchecked by anyone. He alone solves the bizarre case by managing to rebuild the strange invention that was discovered dismantled with several parts disposed of in an underground river. He accomplishes this feat with little help from anyone other than a few clever engineers who build him some custom parts, and using the design plans recovered from a safe in the offices of one of the suspects.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Fearn's novels, most of which are structured as long form short stories, he has a limited number of suspects. Figuring out who the guilty parties are in this very short novel is rather easy. The bulk of Fearn's work was in short story format and I think he found it easiest to write his longer works, including all his novels, using the basic rule of short story writing that only the essentials are necessary. Red herrings in the form of characters rarely occur in his novels. We get only the people who are needed to tell the story. In this book there is the additional element of multiple culprits, when all is revealed and the villains are identified there is hardly one innocent character left over.

When originally published in 1951 the solution was perhaps a shocker. More than any other of his mystery novels I've read here Fearn resorts to science fiction in explaining just how Benton Hammond disappeared from the house on Stanton Street and ended up on Worthing Road. Modern readers may find it easy to guess what happened without needing any real understanding of physics or radio transmission since many of us are familiar with some well known TV shows that employ similar mysterious inventions. As the plot progressed I was reminded of the experiments depicted in a cult horror movie based on a story written in 1957. Turns out my analogy was right.

THINGS I LEARNED: Hammond suffers from fragilitus ossiumtarda, a genetic bone disorder now known as osteogenesis imperfecta or "brittle bone disease," an incurable condition that forces the sufferer to live a life of diminished athletic activity less they fracture a bone doing something as simple as running or lifting a heavy object. When Hammond's body is found nearly every bone in his body has been reduced to a jelly-like state making the police think that he fell from a great height. The real solution to his death is grounded more in science fiction than reality.

THE AUTHOR: John Russell Fearn was a prolific pulp writer who is better known for his science fiction though he also wrote many detective stories and mystery novels, even dabbling in romance. Sometimes he wrote detective stories like What Happened to Hammond? in which the solution melds with the world of science fiction. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms and finding his work in original format tends to be a chore if you are not familiar with his assortment of odd pen names like Vargo Statten, Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross among many others. The Dr. Hiram Carruthers detective novels apparently did not first appear in the pulps like many of his other work and were written under the pen name "Hugo Blayn." Luckily, much of Fearn's fiction has been reprinted under his real name and can be found in Linford Mystery Library series, part of F.A. Thorpe Publishing's large print reprint series for readers with poor eyesight. Wildside Press has also reprinted a lot of Fearn's crime fiction.

You can find a lot of bibliographies and biographical information on John Russell Fearn through a general internet search, but you will most likely turn up only his science fiction stories and novels and little about his crime fiction. Thanks to TomCat at the Beneath the Stains of Time blog most of Fearn's impossible crime novels have been reviewed in depth, including nearly all of the books in the Garth/Carruthers series. You can read about them by clicking here.  I hope to review the only "un-covered" Hugo Blayn book left -- Flashpoint -- later this month.

Dr. Hiram Carruthers/Inspector Garth Detective Novels
Except for One Thing (1947) - without Dr. Carruthers
The Five Matchboxes (1948)
Flashpoint (1950)
What Happened to Hammond? (1951)
Vision Sinister (1954)
The Silvered Cage (1955)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Reek of Red Herrings - Catriona McPherson

Today a deviation from the usual Friday's Forgotten Book and instead a review of a neglected modern mystery writer in honor of upcoming Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that I will be attending next weekend. In a rare instance of acting responsibly I chose to read a handful of the books nominated for Malice's Agatha Awards. Some of them were not at all to my liking and I abandoned them quickly. But I was very glad I chose to read Catriona McPherson's books. She knows how to write a mystery and I think those of you who have never heard of her might want to know that her latest is one of the best traditional mystery novels I've read in a very long time.

The Reek of Red Herrings (2014, US edition 2016) is in essence a missing person story but not without an element of a macabre whodunit plot. Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, McPherson's private detective series characters, are hired by fish merchant Mr. Birchwood to find out why several of his herring barrels included some unexpected ingredients -- body parts. They need to go to Gamrie, where the fish barrels were purchased, and to prevent any others from being sold. But at all costs they cannot let anyone know why they are in the town or that Mr. Birchwood has hired them. He is trying his best to prevent a horrible scandal from ruining his business and this is why he refuses to let the police know of the secret of the herring barrels. Of course if they also manage to uncover the identity of the dismembered man more power to them. That part of the mystery doesn't seem to concern Birchwood as much as preserving his reputation and saving his business.

Dandy and Alec make their way to Gamrie in the guise of philologists researching the local patois along with Scottish folklore. They hope by pretending to gather anecdotes and cataloging the unusual Scots vocabulary they will also be able to get the Gamrie people to talk openly about the events of the past few days. They get more than they bargained for when over the course of their many interviews they learn of several strangers who turned up in town and then suddenly disappeared. The mystery of the body parts and the identity of that man becomes complicated when the a total of seven missing men of various physical descriptions turn up. Which one of those missing men could be the one who was chopped up as a herring garnish?

The story is an engaging mix of utterly wacky characters and unnerving menace. You'll meet all the fisherman's wives and daughters, a couple of eccentric taxidermists, and learn more than you ever expected about life in a Scottish fishing village, circa 1930. In addition McPherson finds ways to incorporate a variety of unusual Scottish traditions like handfasting and the accompanying marriage rituals like feet washing and feet mucking and the practice of dousing a bride-to-be with ginger infused mucky milk to prevent Auld Clootie (the Devil) from finding her attractive and spiriting her away prior to her wedding. In their disguise as "language experts" McPherson allows the story sometimes to become overburdened with Scots dialect making the use of a glossary almost necessary. She does allow the local characters to translate their lingo for Dandy and Alec, but not as often as I wish she had. Much of the meaning needs to be gleaned through context. Still, all of it is utterly fascinating for anyone interested in learning about fading culture and mores. Notably the discussion of "teenames", a peculiar nicknaming tradition necessary to keep distinct all similarly named residents, is one facet that astute readers ought to pay close attention to for it has one of the best hidden clues key to solving the many mysteries uncovered by our sleuthing duo.

If you are familiar with McPherson's work then you will know that she has a penchant for Scottish Gothicism. I get a sense of Stevenson and Buchan sneaking their way into her narratives. She makes excellent use of creepy landscapes, eerie natural landmarks, abandoned and dilapidated estate houses, and terrifying meteorological events. Most of the Dandy Gilver books are set in the late 1920s, (though ...Red Herrings is the first to take place in 1930) and take advantage of dialectical language plus a variety of Scottish legends which are always intrinsic to the her intriguing and intricate plots. Compare these with her stand alone books, all set in present day, and you find the same motifs and techniques employed. The stand alone mysteries also give her an opportunity to explore the darker side of her imagination. The Child Garden (2015), for example, is just as macabre as The Reek of Red Herrings making use of some supernatural legends and lore to great effect.

While the Dandy Gilver books lean heavily towards a lighthearted vein generously sprinkled with a sardonic humor they do have their share of harrowing scenes and moments of gravitas. The climax of The Reek of Red Herrings is suitably neo-Gothic with a wild winter snowstorm complete with toppling trees and damaging floods all leading to a cataclysm on an epic scale. The finale reminded me of one of those act of God climaxes that occur so frequently in the detective novels of Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells.

Most importantly to fans of traditional mysteries is the structure of the novel itself as well as her skill with the multi-layered plot. McPherson has a deft way of dropping clues into the narrative and has some subtle methods of foreshadowing that will help readers discover along with Dandy and Alec just what all the multiple mysteries add up to. It is rare that I encounter a modern mystery writer who still honors the traditions of the fair play detective novel and can do it so well. McPherson does an admirable job in laying down the groundwork necessary for clever readers to arrive at the solution almost at the same time as Dandy does. I was impressed with the talent and skill displayed in this genuine detective novel. I hope she continues to find new ways to bamboozle and thrill her readers in all her future mysteries.

UPDATE:  The Reek of Red Herrings deservedly won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 29 on April 29, 2017.  All the more reason to read it, IMO.

Friday, April 14, 2017

FFB: A Beastly Business - John Blackburn

THE STORY: Bill Easter, conman and rogue for hire, will do nearly anything for the right price. He’s recovered stolen goods, he’s located missing persons, he’s even committed murder. Now he’s been hired to dispose of a dead body in the ground floor apartment of a landlord who can’t bring himself to enter the place. The body turns out to be Henry Oliver, a enormously overweight and hirsute recluse who is suspected of having been a mass murderer known as the "Mad Vicar". After successfully disposing of the body employing unorthodox and slightly illegal methods Easter also uncovers some puzzling documents that hint at the existence of a valuable jewel encrusted relic that Oliver brought back from his travels in the Nueva Leone, South America. Easter’s detective work leads him to eccentric adventure J. Molden Mott, also looking for the jeweled relic. Easter along with his sidekick and sometime lover Peggy Tey find themselves in Scotland and knee deep in a macabre adventure that involves Russian spies, a mutating fungus, a mad scientist, the legend of a South American conquistador, and werewolf mythology that all adds up to A Beastly Business (1982).

THE CHARACTERS: Bill Easter is John Blackburn’s lesser known series characters. He, along with Peggy Tey, appeared in four books prior to their last appearance in A Beastly Business. This is also the only crossover novel to feature both Easter and General Charles Kirk, Blackburn’s primary series character whose work with foreign intelligence has often led him into the world of paranormal activity. The Easter books differ greatly from Blackburn’s other occult and supernatural thrillers because they have a very black humor. Easter is a vulgar, opinionated, often foul mouthed rogue who is out only for himself. Peggy is no better. They are often secretly double crossing one another when money, jewels or valuable treasure are involved.

Easter is hired by Allen Smeaton a pseudo-posh banker who thinks very highly of himself. Yet he and his corrupt wife Cynthia are all too easily tempted by the chance to get rich quick. Easter does all the work while they drool greedily in the background demanding he risk his life and what little reputation he has left to recover the treasure and split it four ways. Clever readers know that split is never going to be four equal shares. Someone is bound to be left out if not eliminated altogether.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Blackburn's thrillers we get an abundance of weirdness, macabre deaths, strange legends and his usual trademark touch of an insidious organism, in this case a botanical fungus, as the cause for much of the mayhem. He always found new ways to invigorate old horror motifs.  The werewolves in this novel are like no others you have read about or seen in the movies.

This is much funnier than any of Blackburn's other books I've read, but you do have to be sort of a sicko to enjoy his vulgar jokes and black humor at the expense of other characters. I unapologetically admit to being one of those sickos. Revenge is served piping hot and supersweet in A Beastly Business and I very much enjoy seeing the wicked suffer punishments in Grand Guignol fashion.  Theatre of Blood, one of my favorite satiric horror movies, kept coming to mind as I pored over this entertainingly perverse book. Those familiar with that Vincent Price cult classic will have an idea of what kind of beastly business Blackburn gets up to.

QUOTES: "Owing to your wanton stupidity [Allen] I had to live over a monster. To nurture a viper in my bosom."
An unjust and inaccurate cliche. Even the smallest of vipers couldn't have found shelter between Cynthia Smeaton's skinny breasts, and I wouldn't have blamed her husband if he'd lost his temper and clouted her.

"Peg go could go to bed with [the reverend] if she wanted, though it was unlikely he'd fancy her. But during the last two hours I'd had a dead lamb lobbed at me. I'd been threatened by a twelve-bore shotgun and nearly killed by the bailiff's motor bicycle [...] and earned the displeasure of Sgt. Gillespie. I'd achieved quite a lot and what had Peggy done? Mrs. Tey had confided in an oily non-conformist minister and spilled the beans."

THINGS I LEARNED: One thing I must have known as a kid, but clearly had forgotten. The real name of a well known figure from the Russian Revolution turns up over the course of the book. If you're hip to this facet of world history and know it well, then you won't be taken in by a ruse of General Kirk's. Bill was. I was. And most readers will be. Sadly, part of this ruse is spoiled by the blurb on the rear cover of the new reprint edition. Do yourself a favor and don't read that before you read the book.

EASY TO FIND? Those savvy devils at Valancourt Books have done fans of 60s & 70s horror a great service in reprinting John Blackburn's books. A Beastly Business is yet another in their ever growing library of forgotten classics being revived for new generations of lovers of the macabre, be they the lugubrious and melancholy horror of 18th century Gothics or 20th century monsters on the rampage. I don't often see used copies of the original UK edition of A Beastly Business for sale as it's one of his scarcest titles.  If a copy should turn up expect to see it outrageously priced. Best to stick with the $17 paperback from our good friends at Valancourt. This new reprint is also the first and only US edition.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

NEW STUFF: Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Last year Hogarth Press began their release of a series of novels inspired by Shakespeare plays. So far four books have been published with four more planned over the next five years. While some of them I have absolutely no interest in reading (Gillian Flynn retells the story of Hamlet, coming in 2021? I can definitely wait.) others caught my eye. The most intriguing of the current lot is Hag-Seed (2016) by Margaret Atwood. Savvy students of the Bard will recognize the title as the one of the many epithets hurled at poor ol’ Caliban and it has great resonance for most of the characters in her retelling of The Tempest. The novel is set at Fletcher County Correctional Institute and the inmates there are involved in a theater program. They all identify with Caliban for multiple reasons, some not immediately obvious, when they are told to read The Tempest in preparation for their latest production.

The protagonist of Hag-Seed is Felix Phillips, a theater director ousted from his role as artistic director of a cutting edge theater company modeled after the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. After his ignominious (and rigged) firing he goes into a self-imposed exile in a hovel somewhere in the Canadian countryside where he plots his revenge just as Prospero did. Eventually he manages to get hired on as the new director of Fletcher Correctional’s theater program designed to enhance the inmate’s literacy skills. Felix plans to re-mount his previously envisioned extravaganza of The Tempest which never was realized at Makeshiweg when he lost his job.

Much to my surprise Hag-Seed is not only a story of revenge but is actually something of a caper novel. Felix and the prisoners conspire together to present two separate productions of The Tempest, one which will be videotaped for the rest of the inmates and prison staff to watch and another secret production that will be engineered to bring about the downfall of the villains who were responsible for Phillip’s removal at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and essentially ruined his career as a theater director. I will say no more about how this scheme is achieved, but knowing in advance of the caper angle ought to attract the attention of crime fiction fans who enjoy genuine caper thrillers like those by Lionel White and the trademark comic capers of Donald Westlake. It’s one helluva of scheme with all parties affected receiving their just deserts.

Atwood uses all themes, motifs and characters of The Tempest with enviable skill, the most telling of course is that the play is rife with prison imagery and prisoner references. She riffs on multiple meanings of the play's story, finds analogies between the magical creatures of Prospero’s island and the criminals who are tasked with telling Shakespeare’s story. Their hip and modern update incorporates everything from digital and electronic special effects to rap music to eccentric choreography created by the hired actress playing Miranda (she's not a prisoner) who also happens to be skilled in martial arts.

One of the most innovative and amusing bits stems from Felix’s insistence that no one swear during the rehearsal process. All curse words must come from the text itself. Points are deducted from each prisoner’s final grade (it is, after all, a legitimate class in a literacy program) for each use of a 21st century swear word instead of a 16th century curse. As Felix explains: “Too much shit is monotonous and monotony is anti-Shakespeare.” A curse word littered argument erupts when twelve of the fifteen cast members are vying for the role of Caliban who has appeal not only because he is Prospero’s prisoner and slave:

"Caliban should be First Nations," says Red Coyote [a Native Canadian]. "It’s obvious. Got his land stole."

"No way," says Ppod. "He’s African. Where’s Algiers anyway? North Africa, right? That’s where his mother came from. Look on the map, pox brain."

"So he’s a Muslim? I don’t whoreson think so." VaMoose, another Caliban aspirant.

"No way that he's smelly-fish white trash, anyways,” says Shiv, glaring at Leggs. "Even part white."

"I score," says Leggs. "You heard the man, fen head, it’s final. So suck it."

"Points off you swore," says Ppod.

"Suck it’s not a swear word," says Leggs. "It’s only a diss. Everyone knows that, and the devil take your fingers."

Other popular substitute swear words and insults include red plague, freckled whelp, pied ninny, scurvy, and of course hag-seed which by the end becomes a badge of honor rather than an insult for the entire team of performer prisoners.

Because the program is meant to be part of a literacy program Felix is a teacher and runs his rehearsals like a literature class. Actually this is no different from most professional Shakespeare productions which always tend to be part literature class. In the final pages we get to read the prisoner’s assignments in which they must a imagine how life treats the characters after the curtain falls and what they become. We get some insightful and realistic views, sometimes frighteningly violent, of how human and cruel these characters would be in real life. Atwood mentions in an “Afterword” that she read several non-fiction accounts of prison literacy programs and this enlightening ending is clearly reflective of her research into how real prison theater programs are conducted.

I was thoroughly delighted with this book and whipped through it in almost in a single day. It’s funny, vulgar, warm, angry, poignant, enchanting, majestic, suspenseful, and wise -– all things wondrous, in fact, and everything expected from any superbly mounted Shakespeare production. Hag-Seed  will appeal to theater addicts, Shakespeare scholars of all ages, both professional and avocational, and anyone who enjoys thoroughly imaginative fiction. I’ve not read anything remotely like this before and wish that every new book I picked up was half as powerful and affecting in its telling. No thing of darkness here but ah! what rough magic and wonders await the reader in the pages of Atwood's novel.

NOTE: Hag-Seed along with all the others in Hogarth's "Shakespeare Retold" series are available now in their various UK editions: hardcover, paperback and digital. Those who want a US edition of Hag-Seed will have to wait until May 2017. But a warning -- the cover of the US edition is very unattractive (at right) compared to the striking UK version shown on top of this post.

Shakespeare Retold Series (...so far)
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood (The Tempest)
Shylock Is My Name - Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice)
The Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew)
The Gap of Time - Jeanette Winterson (A Winter's Tale)