Apr 162014
“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

* * *

Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"
 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Apr 092014
Nancy J. Cohen

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.


It’s important to stay in viewpoint because otherwise you’ll lose immediacy, and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.”

This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you see what hasn’t yet come to pass?

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques while staying within the character’s point of view. Here’s another out of body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” [okay, who can see around that corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!]

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” [if the characters missed the story, who saw it?]

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” [speaking again from the future looking back]

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” [ditto]

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” [then who did spot the tall figure? You got it--the author]

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Stick to the present, and end your chapter with a hook that stays in character.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, my first mystery novel. These hooks are meant to be page turners:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her town house. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

dead woman

Personal decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader turns the page to see if the hero misinterprets her actions. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice, wherein he puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he decides. Or his decision is an ethical one with no good coming from either choice. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep on track to find out what happens next.

To summarize, here’s a quick list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:
1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Another character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Puzzle
7. Sex
In a romance, end chapter with one viewpoint, and switch to partner’s viewpoint in next chapter. Or end a scene of heightened sexual tension with the promise of further intimacy on the next page.


Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What other techniques do you use?

Feb 282014
Genre-Bending Thrillers - Google+:

You guys! We haven’t done one of these group author chats in a while, but now we’ve finally got one on the books: this time around, we have three brilliant authors who play with the boundaries and conventions of suspense. Sign up to watch the conversation unfold on March 10th.

Feb 072014
The introduction to Just an Ordinary Day (1997) written by two of Shirley Jackson's grown children tells how they received a box of manuscripts, carbon copies and typewritten sheets of unpublished stories as well as the original manuscript for The Haunting of Hill House and character notes for that novel. The two siblings began to think about putting together a volume of their mother's unpublished work.  In doing research they uncovered even more published work that had never been reprinted in book form.

Just An Ordinary Day brings together thirty vignettes and stories that were never published in Jackson's lifetime in the first half of the book. A second section reprints an additional twenty-two stories that originally appeared in a variety of magazines between 1943 and 1968. Though mostly women's magazines bought Jackson's stories I was surprised to see among the list of publications Harper's, Vogue, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy. Three stories were purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction but I have to say the fantasy content is very slight and none of them would I classify as science fiction by the widest leap of imagination. I can't believe they made it to that revered magazine. Clearly, Jackson was able to appeal to a wide audience even if her themes and topics seemed to be very similar as I moved along from story to story.

I'll admit I did not read this volume cover to cover. I randomly selected stories based on the titles or by the magazine in which the story was originally published. Admittedly this was not a very good way to discover what I wanted to read -- Jackson's darker fiction dealing with crime, the supernatural or domestic suspense tales. I hit gold with only three stories. "Nightmare" tells a story of surreal paranoia when a woman feels she is the subject of a bizarre advertising gimmick that seems to have taken over the city. An eerily evocative supernatural tale of people trapped in a painting ("The Story We Used to Tell") is a brief but chilling example of Jackson's gift for making the flesh creep. "The Possibility of Evil" about an anonymous letter writer was my favorite story of the batch I selected.

While perusing the other stories I learned that the bulk of Jackson's fiction was about suburban life, married couples and troublesome children ("Arch Criminal" and "I.O.U."), the problem with gossip in small towns ("The Very Strange House Next Door"), the malaise of housewifery and the desire to escape ("Maybe It Was the Car"), the dependence on neighbors for help and advice ("When Things Get Dark" and "I.O.U." again) and other similar themes. But in all of them Jackson managed to undercut the mundane and the superficial with an uneasiness and a cruelty that was often disturbing.

One of the most interesting things that Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart have done with this material is to point out the way Jackson liked to recycle plot ideas and even characters from story to story. The most fascinating juxtaposition is of two versions of the same story called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" in one version and "The Mystery of the Murdered Bride" in the other. In the former the story is more fleshed out, more direct with little ambiguity except for perhaps the very last line. In the second, and probably the first version, the story is vague and hazy. It seems unpolished. There's too much left to suggestion and the final sequence is just muddled. Jackson is trying to plant the idea that Mrs. Smith is oblivious that her new husband might be a wife killer with a couple of bodies buried in his past. I think the version called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" is the more successful of the two. Similarly, the entire plot of "Nightmare" was lifted and inserted as a minor incident in "The Omen", one of her stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction that to my mind is representative of neither genre.

Her darker fiction is not well represented in this hefty volume. There is an ambiguous ghost story that has traces of crime fiction in "The Missing Girl" and "The Friends" is a nasty story of busybody Ellen who decides to put an end to the adulterous affair of her friend Marjorie by commandeering Marjorie's free time. But it is "The Possibility of Evil" where I found Jackson to be at her shining best. Published in the December 18, 1965 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (mistakenly noted as 1968 in this book) we get to know the inner workings of superficially kindly old woman Miss Strangeworth who in her spare time writes poison pen letters to the neighbors she is smiling to on a daily basis. When she has a mishap mailing a batch of those letters and some children help her by hand delivering a letter she dropped Miss Strangeworth gets a bitter taste of her own "good intentions". Deservedly, in 1966 "The Possibility of Evil" won Jackson the Edgar for "Best Short Story". This is the kind of story I've always felt was Jackson's strength. Though she may show traces of the underbelly of apparently peaceful suburban life in her more lighthearted domestic tales it is this kind of portrait of Adela Strangeworth that is her hallmark in American fiction.
 Posted by at 3:57 pm
Jan 172014
"I am in one of my tempers tonight. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort. Do you ever like to see the summer insects kill themselves in the candle? I do sometimes."
-- Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866)

 She has been called the most ruthless villainess in Victorian fiction, practically a prototype for the femme fatale we all love to hate in film noir and paperback originals of the 1950s. With her fiery red hair, her caustic wit, her superficial charm, rapturous beauty, and her undying hatred of men she lives for cruelty and vengeance. She is Lydia Gwilt.  Emotionally warped, spiritually bankrupt, psychologically ruined she is perhaps the most used and abused woman character Wilkie Collins ever created. But is she truly evil? By the novel's end most readers may find themselves shockingly feeling sympathy for Lydia's wrecked life and finding pathos in her final line "I was never a happy woman" as she meets her doom.

Replete with the worst of human behavior including murder, poisoning, bigamy, torture, fraud and all sorts of mental and physical cruelty Armadale is the grand daddy of all noir fiction. The book can easily be seen as The Woman in White (1860) in reverse. Whereas the earlier book has two women at the mercy of two scheming men out to win a fortune through deception and fraud Armadale gives us two men being victimized by two plotting women both of whom are desirous of power and wealth and will stop at nothing to get what they want. In Armadale the reader meets the unscrupulous Madame Maria Oldershaw and the vindictive, man hating Lydia Gwilt who serve as the female counterparts to Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde. Similarly, the light and dark characteristics, both physical and emotional, exemplified in Marian and Laura are mirrored in the portraits of Allan Armadale -- light haired, fair skinned, cheerful to the point of naivete -- and Ozias Midwinter -- his  dark haired, swarthy opposite, a man of brooding darkness and superstition. This dichotomy of the two men is underscored by Collins in a chapter entitled "Day and Night."

Armadale opens with a deathbed confession. A dying man dictates the story of a past crime, a thwarted marriage, and a wicked servant girl's deeds that allow his fortune to fall into the hands of a man who shares his name. The confession taking the form of a lengthy letter addressed to his son concludes with a warning that his son is to avoid at all costs a man named Armadale and the servant girl who he feels caused all their misery.  The letter is delivered to the family lawyer with instructions that it be given to his son when he is old enough to understand the horrible story. Thus the seeds are planted for a tale of Fate and doom and the question of whether chance can really exist.

Despite his father's warning of dire peril that will befall him Midwinter meets Allan Armadale and is almost immediately his bosom friend. Allan, the good natured one, has a series of strange dreams that he relates to Midwinter that will have an eerie hold over the fearful youth who believes wholeheartedly they are dreaded omens.  He does his best to prevent the dreams from becoming fulfilled prophecies. Yet as each segment of the dream comes true he feels more and more that he has made a fatal mistake by befriending Allan and not following his father's instructions. With the entrance of Lydia Gwilt the story becomes one of three lives destined to be inextricably entwined.

As with most of Collins' novels the book is made up of multiple viewpoint narratives, letters and diaries.  When the focus is on Midwinter the novel delves into a near supernatural realm with his obsession with Allan's dream and the inescapable thought that he has no control over what appears to be a doomed and very short life.  But when the book is told from Lydia's viewpoint it attains the most chilling moments, the most cynical observations and paradoxically its most poignant scenes. She also has the best lines in which Collin's displays a wicked sense of humor.

Lydia Gwilt and the "Gorgons"
"There are occasions (though not many) when the female mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason."

"She looked at the ground with such an extraordinary interest that a geologist might have suspected her of scientific flirtation with the superficial strata."

"Half the musical girls in England ought to have their fingers chopped off, in the interests of society -- and, if I had my way, Miss Milroy's would be executed first."

"I am sadly afraid the man is in love with me already.  Don't toss your head and say, 'Just like her vanity!' After the horrors I have gone through, I have no vanity left; and a man who admires me, is a man who makes me shudder."

"Did you ever see the boa constrictor fed at the Zoological Gardens? They put a live rabbit into his cage, and there is a moment when the two creatures look as each other. I declare Mr. Bashwood reminded me of the rabbit!"

"After bewildering himself in a labyrinth of words that led nowhere, he took her -- one can hardly say round the waist, for she hasn't got one -- he took he round the last hook-and-eye of her dress..."

"Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner's inquest lets so many people see it."

Lydia may be the star of the novel but she does not completely overtake the stage as villain supreme. Madame Oldershaw has just as many moments of wry and bitchy humor and a few cross purposes to boot. To watch the decrepit and fawning Mr. Bashwood, errand boy and spy, fall in love with Lydia is to view a portrait of bathos and creepiness. By the novel's finale he may remind one of Victorian fiction's male equivalent of Miss Havisham. The unctuous Dr. Downward appears in the final section of the book and proves to be quite a match for Lydia. Finally, Captain Manuel, a man from Lydia's secret filled past, nearly outdoes her in nastiness.

Pedgift , Sr.
On the other hand there are also some finely drawn supporting characters on the side of our manipulated heroes. Reverend Decimus Brock is Allan's guardian and Midwinter's confidante, the man who for over three quarters of the book is the only one privy to Midwinter's secret identity and his haunted past. Among my favorites is Augustus Pedgift Sr., a wise lawyer who attempts to advise Allan Armadale of his folly in keeping a friendship with Lydia. When Pedgift is featured the novel shows clearly how well Collins engineers suspense and reveals Lydia's true character. A pity that Armadale is so infuriatingly naive and cannot see what to everyone else is so obvious.

For a prime example of Victorian Sensation at it most lurid and thrilling look no further than Armadale. Collins pulls out all the stops in this novel incorporating supernatural elements, trenchant humor, bitter cynicism, genuine suspense and dizzying plot twists. You'll pray for the heroes and condemn the villains. But by the novel's inevitable conclusion you may be surprised by your feelings for one of Victorian literature's most splendid of wicked women. Lydia Gwilt, you may learn, may not be all that bad after all.

*  *  *

This is my first book in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block.  I've assigned this book the spot I call D1 ("An Author I've Read Before") on the Golden Age Bingo Card. Only 35 more to go on this card. Oy!

 Posted by at 9:04 am
Dec 062013
A mysterious death, a bizarre murder method, a locked room, inheritance schemes, fraudulent wills, secrets galore and a horde of suspects unwilling to cooperate -- all the makings of a grand old detective novel of the old-fashioned school. Dorothy Salisbury Davis takes these intriguing ingredients of a traditional whodunit recipe and created The Judas Cat (1949). She whips up a tale of long held family secrets while simultaneously exploring the effects of small town's population at the mercy of corrupt businessmen and an opportunistic mayor.

The death of 92 year-old Andy Mattson arouses the curiosity of reporter Alex Whiting and Chief Waterman. The man is found in his locked home with a starving and out of control cat prowling the outer room. Mattson died from an apparent heart attack according to the coroner, but with a look of utter terror on his face that leaves Alex Whiting asking several questions. What exactly happened in that room to terrify the old man? Was he frightened to death? Why was the room locked? Why did the cat need to be killed to prevent it from attacking the two men investigating the scene? Delving into the life of the reclusive nonagenarian Whiting and Waterman uncover a secret side to Andy Mattson known to only a few. He was a toymaker of ingeniously designed wooden wind-up figures and had sold many of them to a toy manufacturing factory in the next town over. Mattson was also a mathematical wizard with superior engineering skills and had collaborated on some designs for hydraulic equipment during World War 2. Both the toy designs and hydraulic equipment lead to another inquiry into the legal ramifications of patent ownership that complicate the plot and provide a strong motive for Mattson's possible murder. Add to these facts the search for a hidden will and there is quite a bit of fuel that make Mattson's death seem less than natural.

Davis in her first crime novel shows a mastery of both plotting and characterization. Though on the surface it has the appeal of a puzzling detective novel at the heart of the novel is a profound study of the after effects of a violent death on the entire population of a town. From the nosy neighbor Maude who clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to tell to the Machiavellian town mayor to a sinister veterinarian the cast of characters is rife with intriguing personalities with plenty of skeletons in their closets. A climactic town council meeting that s calls into question the investigative methods of Chief Waterman and his unorthodox use of a newspaper reporter as a deputy is one of the highlights of the story. During the meeting the chief accuses the mayor of plotting with wealthy Henry Addison, owner of Addison Industries and is sure that some business chicanery is at the heart of Mattson's death.

Anthony Boucher one of mysterydom's most insightful and prescient critics, called The Judas Cat "rewardingly perceptive novel" and predicted that Davis would be a writer to watch in the future. She proved to live up to the promise of this first captivating novel with a run of top notch suspense stories that further developed the crime novel and elevated out of the realm of the too often maligned whodunit.
 Posted by at 3:55 pm
Nov 222013
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Lives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman
Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0143122548
384 pages $16.00
Publication date: August 2013

Yes, it's a brand new book and it's my choice for Friday's Forgotten Book. I guess this is a cheat of sorts. Since many of these women writers are utterly forgotten (but not by me -- I've written about many of their novels here) and this review is months overdue (I finished this book back in August) it's time to get it up on the blog.

Sarah Weinman has gathered together an impressive array of woman mystery writers who were instrumental in the development of a subgenre she likes to call domestic suspense. The anthology brings together pioneers in crime fiction like Margaret Millar, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong with stalwarts like Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and Dorothy B. Hughes. Rounding out the group are the modern and all too often forgotten writers like Nedra Tyre and Celia Fremlin, and wonderful new finds like Joyce Harrington and Barbara Callahan. There are a total of fourteen women represented with a variety of stories that run the gamut from creepy and atmospheric to outright nasty. There is even a surprise happy ending delivered in "Everybody Needs a Mink", an atypically lighthearted story from Hughes normally known for her novels of paranoia and dread.

I would’ve liked a better story from Margaret Millar than her oft anthologized "The People Across the Canyon", a story even if you have never read it before will seem very familiar as it recycles an idea used too frequently in crime fiction. The story from Shirley Jackson, a master of both the novel and short story, is unfortunately the weakest and least satisfying in the collection. There has to be a better example from her pen than "Louisa, Please Come Home" which lacked bite and pizazz compared with the quality of the others selected. But the rest of the stories each have something to recommend them. Below are highlights from half the collection.

"A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre
Tyre was a regular contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine where she published over forty short stories. In this tale she captures the voice of a loner woman whose only desire is a comfortable life, good food and a nice place to stay. An opportunistic lawyer jumps on her case and turns her into tool to advance his career. But the narrator has a surprise in store for all his hard work.

"Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen
I am a big fan of Nielsen’s novels and also her TV scripts for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In this story she takes the old trope of the anonymous phone caller and gives it a Nielsen triple twist. The story is notable for her narrative trick of weaving back and forth between the past and present in order to build suspense.

"Lavender Lady" by Barbara Callahan
An example of the creepy domestic suspense story and very well done. The story tells the origins of a popular folk tune as narrated by a singer/songwriter. Slowly we learn how her muse has affected her creative life. The repetition of the song lyrics are like the chants and doggerel of doom so often found in fairy tales.

"Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
The most experimental and mature of the lot. As in The Judas Cat and The Clay Hand, both early novels about how violence uncovers the corruption of small town’s population, Davis does in miniature and with an economy of words another story of rural life and crime. The narrative structure is layered with ambiguity and requires assiduous reading to glean all the subtleties. The relationships are revealed through bare bones dialogue and minimal description. It’s almost like a radio drama. Quite an impressive feat, loaded with sharp details and yet it’s the one of the shortest pieces.

"The Heroine" by Patricia Highsmith
As I was reading this one I couldn’t help but think of “The Turn of the Screw” and movies like The Nanny. Another one of those stories about a possibly mentally ill woman left in charge of children. Lucille has an obsessive need to prove herself and suffers from a few delusions. You know something is odd about her but you keep hoping that she isn’t a crazed lunatic. The ending is a shocker.

Joyce Harrington (a former actress) confesses
she writes by the Stanislavski method
"Mortmain" by Miriam Allen DeFord
Probably the nastiest story in the collection. Reminiscent of the kind of macabre irony Roald Dahl perfected in his short fiction. DeFord tells the story of a greedy nurse taking care of an ailing deputy sheriff and how her scheme to steal money from his safe goes horribly wrong. Has a gasp inducing ending proving this story to be the only true noir tale in the collection.

For me the gem of the book is "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington, a writer whose work I knew nothing about until I read this tale. It’s a little masterpiece. Each carefully chosen word rings true. The brilliant use of weaving imagery from the work on the loom to the spider spinning its web, the language used to evoke the serenity of Mrs. Moon’s state of mind as she plots revenge on her womanizing husband –- it’s all perfect. Here is the epitome of what Weinman talks about in her informative introduction defining the aspects of domestic suspense. If I were you I’d save it for the very last and savor it like a fine wine. It’s really that good.
 Posted by at 5:30 am
Oct 252013
What makes a book a cult classic? Is it the writing alone? The subject matter? Must a cult novel by virtue of the word cult be something strange or weird or offbeat or...? (pick a similar adjective of your choosing) Maybe all of these criteria go into the making of a cult novel. One thing for sure cult novels usually are treasures of the bookshelf we like to label Forgotten Books. Learning of one through a cult novel's devoted reader for me is akin to the high a mountaineer must get once he's reached the acme after a grueling climb. I only heard of The Cook (1965) through one of the many comments when I asked followers of this blog to offer up titles of books they'd like to see put back in print as part of the giveaway for The Starkenden Quest last week. A very grateful thank you goes to Kelly R for mentioning this book as one of her favorites and one she would love to see reprinted. The Cook was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've had this year. So utterly unique, deceptively simple, positively hallucinatory.

The Cook starts off like a fairy tale and as its very simple plot unravels it becomes a dark fable on all of the seven deadly sins. Vanity, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Pride, Wrath, Sloth -- all are here, some more prominent than others. Conrad Venn is entranced with the Gothic castle known as the Prominence situated on a remote plateau outside the town of Cobb. Though the grounds are beautifully kept and the imposing presence o the castle is hypnotically fascinating Conrad wonders whether it is inhabited. He travels into town and learns from a tavern keeper of the legend of the castle and the feud between the Hills and the Vales, descendants of A. Cobb, the original owner of the Prominence. Conrad also learns of Cobb's strange will that prevents the Prominence to be occupied again until the two families quit fighting and are joined through marriage. The tavern keeper says the feud is long over, but the Hills and Vales still live apart from one another with little contact. Each family is dying off with the last of the Vales being Daphne Vale, an enormously fat young woman who rarely goes out, and Harold the only son of the surviving Hills her only prospect for marriage. With this legend planted in Conrad's mind and the fact that the two families seem to be obsessed with outdoing each other when it comes to their cooks Conrad takes it upon himself to unite the families and re-open the doors of the Prominence.

Cooking and food and the etiquette of lavishly prepared meals as the strange tools of Conrad's trade. He is a Machiavellian wizard in the kitchen and his nearly magical meals cast a spell over Mr. and Mrs. Hill and their son Harold. He acts as cooking tutor, nutrition consultant and financial advisor. Transformations of both body and mind begin to take place as everyone eats his amazing food. Fat people become thin, thin people become fat. Master becomes servant and servants rebel against employers. All the while Conrad remains untouched, unaffected and his eye is ever on the Prominence. He wants it so badly he can taste it. He'll stop at nothing to achieve his castle and becoming its king.

Kressing tells his story with a mix of black humor and brief explosions of unexpected violence. Conrad is feared and admired by everyone he encounters. With only a hint or a subtle suggestion he gets everyone to do his bidding. He is an untouchable magician, the wise man on the mountain, and always a formidable presence. Even when he nearly severs the hand of a man he intentionally injured he somehow manages to come out the hero of the day. The Hills, the Vales and the entire town of Cobb are at his mercy. He gets what he wants from each person he meets, using them and playing up to their vanities and vices. Conrad always wins; his associates and students often pay a heavy price.

The Cook is a fable, an allegory, a thriller, a satire. It's a phantasmagorical and intoxicating read. Like a eating a fine meal in the best restaurant reading The Cook is one of those rare pleasures you don't want to end. It's not surprising to me at all that those who have discovered this book return to it over and over for more tastes of something one just can't get enough of.
 Posted by at 3:25 pm
Oct 252013
Just a few days ago I learned of a local production of Veronica's Room by Ira Levin and it received rave reviews from all the Chicago newspapers plus a few theater blogs.  So I had to see it.  I had read it many years ago and never seen a production and have always wanted to.  A perfect creepy night out just a week before Halloween. Did it live up to all the raves? Well, yes and no.

A college age student named Susan Kerner is cajoled into impersonating a long dead girl named Veronica in order to appease an older couple who are taking care of a dying woman named Cissy.  As her dying wish Cissy longs to see Veronica, who she believes to still be alive, so she can finally put to rest her fear that Veronica died angry over some sins of the past.  Susan thinks it'll be fun and sees it also as the act of a Good Samaritan.  No harm could possibly come from such a charade that has at its heart good intentions.  Well, that's what she thinks.  The charade starts to veer into the fearful when moments after agreeing to the impersonation she is locked in Veronica's room and left alone for a very long time.

From then on the play strays into a strange and surreal world of make believe and time travel. Has Susan lost her mind?  Is she the genuinely crazy one?  Or is she the victim of an elaborate mind game engineered by two insane servants?  What did Veronica really do?  Is she still alive?  All questions are answered as the plot is slowly unveiled and the architects of the nightmare step out of their roles to reveal their true selves and, more importantly, their deeply twisted secrets. 

From the reviews I read I was expecting something truly frightening.  But the production falls short of all the hyperbolic praise.  In the lead role of the terrorized and terrified Young Girl Amanda Jay Long does a convincing job of the woman in peril. You feel for her plight. The scene when she realizes what she must do in order to escape her nightmare packs an emotional wallop. She does an enviable job of getting the audience to feel her imprisonment. The intimacy of the theater itself adds to a atmosphere of claustrophobia and entrapment.  Long is making her Chicago debut in this production and she is certainly one young actress I'll be looking out for in the future. She has a range of emotion and talent on display here though she's still a little raw.

The bravura performance I would single out is that of Sarah Wellington (above, extreme right) in the role of the Old Woman.  Over the course of the eighty minutes Wellington plays four different parts, is the only actor who masters all the accent and regionalisms the script calls upon her to replicate, and is a powerhouse of strength, determination and eventually madness.

Reading Veronica's Room just doesn't compare to seeing it performed. Theater and role playing are such an integral part of the drama that a performance is truly the only way one can appreciate this deliciously devilish and perverted little thriller.  If you live in Chicago I recommend it for a creepy evening out during this Halloween season. Just don't believe all the hype. It'll give you a chill or two,  but you won't be scared out of your wits.

Veronica's Room plays through October 27 at the Heartland Studio (a tiny little storefront theater with a very intimate performance space) just north of Lunt on Glenwood Avenue.  It's a short two minute walk from the Morse Red Line stop.  The play was produced by Boho Theater Ensemble.
 Posted by at 3:32 am
Sep 272013
UK Edition (Heinemann, 1969)
Despite its exotic and desert landscape filled setting of Tunisia The Tremor of Forgery (1969) covers some familiar territory for Patricia Highsmith. There is the usual assortment of strangers befriended by a somewhat dull American, some overt and covert homoeroticism in male friendships, and perhaps most importantly her obsession with duality be it in personality, cultural mores, or political viewpoints. Howard Ingham, the American protagonist, is also a writer. This strong theme of duality is carried through in the title, also the title of a novel Ingham is writing about a banker who is secretly embezzling funds from his employer. Crime will play a role in Ingham's life just as it does with Dennison, his own protagonist, but it is a murky and ambiguous world that Ingham inhabits. We know that Dennison is a criminal and thief; we never know if Ingham is one though it is strongly hinted he may have killed a man.

Perhaps the most subtle and insidious of her novels The Tremor of Forgery is unusual in how it incorporates criminal behavior into its supposedly simple plot. There are burglaries, thefts, attacks on a dog, one violent death most definitely a murder, and another possible murder. Though crime is present it is a shadow world of ambiguous and puzzling events; mixed perceptions and eyewitness accounts contradict one another throughout the action. We never know whose viewpoint we are to believe -- even that of our ostensibly innocent hero.

Yet crime is not Highsmith's primary concern here. This novel is a study in cultural and political disparity and their effect on visiting long term residents in a foreign country. It is also, strangely, something of a treatise on love. Besides The Price of Salt, I have never encountered in a Highsmith novel more discussions about love in all its forms, from platonic friendship to erotic desire, than I have in The Tremor of Forgery.

US Edition (Doubleday, 1969)
Highsmith's reputation rests largely on her development of what everyone likes to call noir these days - the dark crime novel that explores base motives, criminal impetus and the ugly side of human nature. Ironically, while exploring all these aspects of a noir novel The Tremor of Forgery turns out to be Highsmith's most life affirming and positive work. Even its slightly ambiguous ending is one I would classify as a happily ever after type.

Ingham is in Tunisia at the request of a film director friend who has commissioned the writer to pen the screenplay of a movie he wants to set in Tunisia. But the screenplay is soon abandoned when the director dies suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Ina, Howard Ingham's one time lover, eventually communicates with him via letter to explain the sudden death in a roundabout and vague way. Ingham can't decide whether to return home or remain in Tunisia largely due to the curious and sporadic letters he receives from Ina. Each time he writes he pours out his love to her, but she takes her sweet time replying to his letters. She must be prodded to tell the whole story of John Castlewood's death after Ingham's repeated urgings. One begins to suspect that Ina is complicit in what at first is described as an accident and then a suicide.

In the meantime Ingham toils away on his typewriter turning out page after page of his novel about the duplicitous banker. He is befriended by two men. The first is the overly friendly Francis Adams whose sunny personality masks a political and religious zealotry that will reveal him to be a bigot of the worst sort. The other is the artist Anders Jensen visiting from his native Denmark and making the most of his penchant for sleeping with Arab boys while attempting to bed Howard as well. Jensen has a dog named Hasso that will also play an important part in the story. Jensen tells stories of some attacks of cruelty on Hasso and when the dog suddenly goes missing he fears the worst.

A younger and happier Patricia Highsmith
Since living in Tunisia Ingham has found himself influenced by the apparent lawlessness and amorality of the Arabs he meets. He tells Ina "...if one is robbed five or six times, there might be an impulse to rob back, don’t you think? The one who doesn't rob, or cheat a little in business deals, some comes out in the short end, if everybody else is cheating." Even his discovery of a dead man in the street at night changes him. He finds it unnecessary to report the body and his indifference has dire consequences later when he attacks someone who he thinks is trying to break into his bungalow. Once again he does nothing but discuss the events in a rather vague manner with his true friend and confidante, Jensen, just as Ina danced around Castlewood's death (more duality). But Adams somehow gets word of the attack and begins to suspect that Ingham is trying to cover up the murder of a local thief and outcast who has recently vanished. Adams then shares his thoughts with Ina thus turning her visit from one of a reunion with her lover to one of suspicion, mistrust and betrayal.

The novel unfolds at what some might call a glacial pace. But it is fitting for this languorous story of developing friendships, reconnections, epiphanies and -- yes -- contentment and happiness found at long last. In the final pages Highsmith has a few surprises in store, some of which have been called ambiguous by other reviewers and critics. On closer reading of the subtle clues she drops the unanswered questions all become clearer. The mysterious disappearance of the Arabian thief is suddenly not so mysterious and Ingham may not be the bad man he thinks himself to be. He ends up leaving Tunisia with one final letter in hand, overdue from seemingly endless forwarding, that leads me to believe that he will go on to find the love he had been searching for throughout the book.
 Posted by at 3:01 pm

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