John

Jul 252014
 
A house party in a 12th century Norman castle in Wales is the setting for Death on Tiptoe (1931). The characters make up quite a Christie-like cast: young dissolute and irresponsible heir; portrait artist and womanizer; flirtatious heiress; pouty melodramatic young woman jilted by the artist; lovestruck governess; two bratty children; vengeful British Major; reserved and sensible barrister; failed diplomat who is an utter twit; his wife who is love with someone else; and the host and hostess, Sir Harry and Lady Undine Stacey.

It is Lady Stacey — a transplanted French woman with pretensions to becoming a great baronial estate holder — who is the victim. The opening chapters quite brilliantly plant the seeds for her cruel murder, and there are at least four characters who outright threaten her prior to her body being discovered three weeks later in a chest in the attic where she had hid during a game of hide and seek, an entertainment she arranged for her guests.

Cleverly done, fairly well clued, with quite a bit of misdirection. The novel culminates in a melodramatic ending with a somewhat surprising murderer and an intriguing motive. Ashby would later expand the idea of this Gothic detective novel in He Arrived at Dusk (my review of that book is at Mystery*File here ), a far better book with more effective use of folklore, legends and supernatural content.

R(uby). C(onstance). Ashby is the alter ego of Ruby Ferguson the name under which she is better known. From 1949 through 1965 Ferguson was a popular writer of children's books and romance novels. As Ashby (her maiden name) she wrote a handful of detective novels and suspense thrillers with Gothic overtones. A few years ago Death on Tiptoe was reprinted by Greyladies Press, an independent publisher located in Scotland, but I checked their website and that edition is no longer for sale. However, you might luck out on the used book websites and find a copy.

(This is a slightly altered version of a review I originally wrote for Steve Lewis' superb website Mystery*File.)
 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Jul 182014
 
Troy Bannister has flown to Taxco from her safe New York job at Frobisher’s where she is the jewelry buyer. She is to judge a contest of silver designs and the winner will be set up in a private studio to make a line of custom made jewelry for her employer. The contest was her idea and the winner unbeknownst to her employer has already been chosen. He is Jerome Blake, her old flame whom she has tracked down to Taxco. She is sure that when he is chosen the winner and given the $5000 prize money plus the opportunity to work in his own studio back in New York that she will finally have a chance to win him back and marry him. But when she learns of a local silversmith who is regarded as the best of the contest’s entrants she sees her deceitful plan start to crumble. She must see exactly what this talented artist, an immigrant Polish man named Casimir Lazlo, can create and if is indeed a superior craftsman find a away to eliminate him from the competition.

Someone does that job for Troy. Shortly after she has met Lazlo and seen his exquisite workmanship on an intricately stamped necklace, he is murdered. Troy’s guilty conscience and unethical ways get the better of her. Imagining the worst and thinking that she might actually be thought the killer she stages the scene of the bloody murder to look like a suicide. She flees Lazlo’s studio but not before impulsively stealing the copper plate that made the beautiful design in the silver necklace. All of this occurs in the first two chapters. This is our protagonist? Knight seems to be writing a Patricia Highsmith novel with a love mad female version of Tom Ripley, a woman who cares for no one really but herself.

Bracelet designed by Taxco silversmith
Hector Aguilar (circa 1940s)
Soon word is out that Casimir has committed and suicide yet no one can believe it. The other artists who have entered the contest recognize that their chances are now greatly increased for winning the coveted prize money and the job as jewelry designer in New York. But someone suggests that Casimir was murdered in order to achieve that advantage. When they also discover that Troy had visited Lazlo prior to the judging day they are in a furor and begin to think that the contest was rigged from the start. Troy has few friends among the artists including Jerome, living under the alias of Joe Blank, who is quick to uncover most of Troy’s deceit and her involvement in Lazlo’s death. Eventually it is Jerome/Joe, with the aid of Lazlo's daughter, who will take over as the lead character and solve not only Lazlo's murder but another murder of a local Mexican artist who was secretly entering a creation of his own in the contest.

The tone and language of The Blue Horse of Taxco (1947) is completely different than the Elisha Macomber (her best known series detective) novels in Knight’s early writing period. It’s darker, not at all lighthearted, and fueled with the illogical passions of impulsive desires not unlike the novels of pulp and noir writers. She is finding a way to tell a story of crime without resorting to old-fashioned thriller tropes and set pieces that seem lifted from cliffhanger serials. Gone are the quaint clues and girl sleuthing sequences found in her early books. Knight’s focus now is on character as opposed to multi-layered puzzling plots which is not to say that she has completely abandoned the puzzle. There is still the mystery of the pieces of the figurine of the title that will feature in the plot. But overall the story arises out of the characters’ behavior and thinking and their relationships not an artificial manipulation of events created only to bamboozle the reader.

(The above is a slightly edited portion from a longer essay on Kathleen Moore Knight I wrote for issue #68 of Geoff Bradley's fine journal Crime and Detective Stories (CADS). The issue will be coming out in a few months.)
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jul 112014
 
Jean Deslines is worried about losing her identity.  Her father keeps talking about putting her away in a mental institution for her own safety. Jean has been bragging about her flirty seduction of the local clergyman in her Australian home of Katoomba. She's also been reading up on psychology books at the suggestion of her cousin Myrtle who knows a psychosexual aberration when she sees one. Now Jean's head is overloaded with Freudian psychoanalytical jargon and discussions of female hormones, the lack of which she believes is at the root of her troubles. She's also starting to have surreal dreams in which she envisions a female gladiator who takes the form of the goddess Minerva slaughtering her enemies. And every now and then she hears the sounds of bells and an ethereal voice giving her private instructions on carrying out the murderous events in her dreams. Is it any wonder her father is worried about her? Oh, I forgot to mention Jean is only fifteen years old.

To preserve her identity and prevent any tinkering with her mind and soul at the hands of interfering psychiatrists Jean is advised by that Voice to murder her father. And she does so in a lovingly savage way. It's the beginning of her descent into a surreal world of hallucinations, indulgent sexuality and violent murderous attacks. Imagine if you will a most bizarre mix of the selfish child murderess Rhoda Penmark, vindictive pathological liar Mary Tilford, and seductive teen age vixen Lolita and you have only a smidgen of an idea of what Frank Walford has created in Jean Deslines. It's difficult to believe that a fifteen year old girl is narrating this lurid tale of madness, pansexuality and brutal murder. Jean may very well be crime fiction's first bisexual serial killer.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Twisted Clay was published in 1933.

Frank Walford
This week Patti Abbot Asked us to read a book about a femme fatale. Though typically we don't find a femme fatale this young until the pulp writers of the 1950s in books by writers like Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Jonathan Craig and most of them aren't clinically insane Jean Deslines is about as fatal a femme as you can find in the genre fiction of the 1930s. So horrific are the events described in Walford's book it was banned almost immediately upon publication and remained out of print for decades. Modern readers will find so many of what is now considered formulaic in serial killer literature and yet no one was writing about such things in Walford's time. Even Lawrence Block didn't write about a serial killer prostitute until 2012's Getting Off and even then he used his lesbian erotica pseudonym Jill Emerson. Walford was way ahead of his time in creating his surreally intellectual, linguistically gifted and very dangerous teenager. Way, way ahead.

Twisted Clay has been reissued by Australian British indie press Salt Publishing under their horror imprint Remains Classics in a handsomely designed facsimile of the original first edition complete with replication of the original dust jacket. The book comes with a foreward by Remain's editor Johnny Mains as well as a biographical and literary introduction to Frank Walford by critic and supernatural fiction maven Jim Doigs. It's a fine reissue of a landmark book in the genre. Highly recommended for literary connoisseurs, genre fiction addicts and anyone curious about those obscure books that sometimes reach legendary status due to their unavailability. This is one instance when the legend cannot even approach the actual content of the book.

For more wicked women, amoral temptresses, and literary femme fatales in forgotten books of the past visit Patti Abbot's blog.
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jul 042014
 
I'm on vacation in Washington state (first time here, only seven more states left and I'll have been to all 50 at least once) and didn't have time to get my Friday's Forgotten Book post up. In fact I left all my notes for the past five books at home and I won't be able to write any reviews or essays until I get back home. Without my notes I'm lost. I read too many books each month to remember everything about the characters and plot details.

Life has been very chaotic and I've been forced to change a lot about how I live. I'll spare you the stories of my adventures with the two physical therapists I am currently seeing. Because of that I haven't been up to sitting at my computer for long periods of time to write the many reviews I am behind on.

In lieu of my usual FFB I'm going to list all the books I plan to review this month (all but one of them read in June) and also take this opportunity to catch up on my Golden Age Bingo Card in Bev's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge

Rare photo of Richard Wilson Webb posing as "Q Patrick"
Death in the Dovecot - Q. Patrick
"Book with an animal in the title"
This is the British title for Murder at the Womens' City Club, a very rare Q Patrick title that I was very excited to find on eBay for a bargain price. The book is most interesting in that's it's the second of Richard Wilson Webb's mystery novels and the second (and last) book he wrote with his first collaborator Martha Mott Kelley.  An almost all female cast of characters (only three men) is an additional unique aspect to this detective novel.

Return to the Scene - Q. Patrick (Webb & Wheeler)
"Book featuring a mode of transportation"
Boats are featured in this mystery set in Bermuda. The victim falls overboard and people are constantly going back and forth to a small private island where the body washed up. I'm proud to say that I figured identity of the murderer, the motive and the method of one of the murders in this book. But I also think, while the killer is a surprise, veteran mystery readers will also be able to figure whodunit in this one. Reminded me of Christianna Brand because all the characters are lying and protecting one another and colluding during the murder investigation.

Come and Be Killed! - Shelley Smith
"Book featuring cooking or food"
Poisoned food is the killer's choice in this book. One of the best "badass biddy" books I've read. A groundbreaking book, I think, way ahead of its time. Reminds me of the best of Ruth Rendell but it was published in 1947. The murderous Mrs. Jolly (how's that for a killer's name?) almost tops my favorite spinster killer Claire Marrable in The Forbidden Garden. The climactic scene where one clever woman confronts the villainess is classic.

The Blue Horse of Taxco - Kathleen Moore Knight
"Book set in country other than US or UK"
Set in Mexico. A fascinating near noir thriller cum detective novel, very different from her Cape Cod books featuring Elisha Macomber. Troy Banister, the woman protagonist, is the closest I've come the discovering a female Tom Ripley. One of the first anti-heroines in detective fiction who at first is utterly despicable and then suddenly you find yourself sympathizing with. Plus, an unusual background in silver jewelry design and the silversmith industry which is still what Taxco is known for today. Very interesting and mature work from this unappreciated and very forgotten American mystery writer.

And the fifth book I will leave a mystery. It's the book I read for the July 11 "Femme Fatale" theme. And it's ready to go for next Friday. I guarantee no one has heard of it nor reviewed it since FFB has been going. It's a book that has been incredibly hard to find for decades and was just reprinted two months ago by a British indie press.

There's enough to tease you for the coming days. In depth reviews on all books listed above are coming when I return from Washington. Stay tuned...

Oh! and I now have a total of four Bingo rows on my Golden Age Mystery bingo card. I've read more than the mere 29 books shown on the card below. Some of the books were reviewed but didn't qualify for the challenge because I couldn't find a category to apply to the book. I'm excited that with half the year gone I have only seven more books to read (that will fit the categories left) and I've filled the card.

 Posted by at 9:10 am
Jun 302014
 
Folk singers and private eyes. Not exactly a combination you'd expect to turn up in a crime fiction novel. What's so criminal about the 1960s coffeehouse scene and long haired guitar strumming entertainers singing ancient songs of doomed love? The closest you get to danger is if someone decides to sing a song with an strong anti-government theme or a pacifist's paean to the end of the Viet Nam war. But Thomas Dewy manages to tell a story of a missing folk singer, his grief stricken girlfriend, and the mysterious contents of a suitcase she's been entrusted with, and come up with a fast moving, action-packed tale that is basically a pursuit thriller.

A Sad Song Singing (1963) is fairly straightforward. Cresentia Fanio seeks out the help of Mac, Dewey's world weary private eye based in Chicago, and asks him to locate her missing boyfriend, singer Richie Darden. She claims she's been followed, has managed to lose the men on her tail, and needs Mac's help to hide the suitcase and find Richie soon. He's skeptical about the whole thing, especially about the suitcase Richie has given Cress to watch over. She refuses to open it as she promised Richie she wouldn't. When some thugs burst into his office and Mac manages to beat them off and escape with Cress and her suitcase his mind is pretty much made up. He'll do his best to find Richie and get to the bottom of the mystery of why the thugs want the suitcase so badly.

The detective novel elements are at a minimum here. It's the story of Cress and her complete immersion in the folk singing scene that makes for a fascinating read. Dewey creates a variety of coffeehouse locations from swank carpeted establishments that serve meals and alcohol to the dingiest dive serving only regular coffee and apologies for the broken espresso machine from a leotard wearing waitress while college boys play chess and turtleneck attired beatniks strum their guitars on a wobbly wooden stage. The atmosphere feels oddly old-fashioned, almost cliche and yet wholly authentic. Dewey even dreams up a few folk songs with haunting lyrics. You can practically hear the music wafting off the pages. Mac can't help but succumb to the lure of the music and discovers that Cress herself has an unmined talent for singing just waiting to be unleashed on a welcome audience.

At each new singing gig Mac gathers up bits of vital information about the missing singer and begins to wonder if Darden may have been involved in a robbery. When he gets a chance to handle the mysterious suitcase and feels it to be suspiciously lightweight he begins to suspect the worst and fears that Cress is being exploited as a decoy while Darden makes his escape.

Mac is not your typical private eye. Sure he's great in a fistfight and though he carries a gun with a legal license he's reluctant to pull the trigger. This case that forces him on a road trip through the folk singing world with a teenage girl also puts him in the role of surrogate father. We see a tender side to him as he comes to care for her not only as his client but as a lost girl too much in love with a fantasy. At one point he seems utterly lost himself. No longer able to reach her with his compassionate talk, yet knowing he needs to convince her that Darden's disappearance may have very dangerous consequences for he dissolves into frustrated silence. His lament is summed up in a simple painful sentence: "If only I could sing, I thought."

I read this book at part of Rich Westwood's challenge mentioned earlier this month on his blog Past Offences to read a mystery published in 1963. It also fulfills one more book in my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Silver Age edition.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo card, space V4 - "Book with a professional detective"
 Posted by at 12:39 am
Jun 272014
 
Today marks the centenary celebration of "strange story" writer Robert Aickman who was born June 27, 1914.  As part of the celebration of what would have been Aickman's 100th birthday Faber & Faber has reprinted several of his story collections including the two featured in the post today. Dark Entries (1964) was Aickman's second collection and his first book of stories written solely by him. Cold Hand in Mine (1975) is his fifth collection and is well known to book collectors for the US first edition (Scribner, 1975) has a DJ illustrated by Edward Gorey.

I've written previously about the strange stories (his preferred term) of Aickman in my post on Powers of Darkness. But re-reading these tales in their new editions brought forth some interesting recurrent themes in his writing. Aickman doesn't really write traditional supernatural stories though some of them incorporate tropes of ghost story fiction and horror fiction. There is always an ambiguity pervading the stories, a ghost may not be a ghost at all but the fervent imagining of a disturbed mind. There are some instances of outright horror as in his chilling tale of the walking dead in "Ringing the Changes" found in Dark Entries or the thing that lives in the lake in "Niemandswasser" or the grisly and nightmarish true purpose of "The Hospice" both in Cold Hand in Mine. But more often than not the odd and bizarre events tend to be shrouded in a haze of the characters' twisted perceptions of reality and enhanced by their personal quirks and eccentricities.

In my current reading of the stories I discovered something else. The men in Aickman's stories are often the victims of glamour. Contemporary connotations include glamor as a synonym for stunning beauty but it original connotation hinted at a supernatural power, mostly of the fairy world, to bewitch and hypnotize and control a human. Whether this inclusion of glamor and spell casting is intentional or not on Aickman's part I cannot say, but in at least five of the stories I read the male protagonists make mention of the captivating beauty of a woman they encounter and they almost immediately fall under her spell. Take for example Carfax, the renaissance man and traveler in "The View." His attraction to the bewitching woman he dubs Ariel leads to him to friendship, romance and an unfortunate fate. He finds himself not only under her glamorous spell, but the spell of the home in which she lives. His room affords him a view that is ever changing in its scenery and by the end of the story he realizes that he has spent not a few days with Ariel but several years.

There are six long stories in Dark Entries and eight in Cold Hand in Mine. Most of them run between 30 and 50 pages. Aickman takes his time telling his tale, like a patient artist at work on a canvas he paints landscapes with carefully chosen words that evoke a sublime atmosphere blending dread and anticipation of the characters' inevitable doom. No one really escapes unscathed in an Aickman story. If they are lucky enough to survive their encounters they will carry with them a haunting memory of the world of the macabre and the weird. Many of Aickman's characters are forever changed and scarred by their inexplicable adventures. And the reader taking in Aickman's narratives cannot help but be affected as well.

For more about Faber & Faber's paperback reprints of Robert Aickman's books visit this page at their website. They plan to release a total of six of his books. It is also worth noting that Tartarus Press, an independent UK publisher of supernatural fiction, has reprinted all of Aickman's books in hardcover editions. All of them are still available. As part of the centenary of Aickman's birth Tartarus has also published this month The River Runs Uphill, an autobiographical volume originally published in 1967. Read more at the Tarturus Press website.
 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Jun 202014
 
John Franklin Bardin wrote this delightfully odd genre blender using the pseudonym "Douglas Ashe." A Shroud for Grandmama (1951) begins as a HIBK style Gothic suspense but from the get-go Bardin assures the reader the story will not be your average Gothic with a damsel in a nightie running rampant through a spooky house. To begin with Abigail Longstreet wouldn't be caught dead wearing a nightie. In the second place she stumbles upon her octogenarian grandmother's corpse at the foot of a staircase surrounded by dancing footprints in the dust with no other footprints leading to or from the body. And lastly, dead old Grannie Ella is wearing nothing but a white bikini. Abigail immediately takes care of this embarrassing situation by removing the puzzling footprints that suggest a ghost was present and hauling dead Ella upstairs and making her more presentable by removing the scanty swimsuit and dressing her in the shroud conveniently left in her bedroom closet. Just what the heck is going on at the Longstreet estate?

And then there is Abigail herself. She's only twenty-eight years old but she chooses to dress and speak as if it were 1900 rather than 1950. Her quasi-Edwardian way of narrating the book is exemplified by lines like "Grandmama abhors hurly-burly". She also tells us that her preferred manner of dress includes brocade dresses with high collars, hemlines that are ankle length, and high button shoes. No close fitting revealing clothes or high heels for her. One character calls her a Gibson girl lookalike. She's anachronistic to the max. Yet being a heroine in a Gothic suspense novel she is of course drop dead gorgeous and it's her beauty that entrances handsome young stranger Albert Crump who just happens to be passing by her grandmother's home the night of her mysterious and bizarre death.

Just as soon as Abigail is finished tidying up the scene of her grandmother's death she is interrupted by the perfectly timed appearance of a policeman. Inspector Stephen Elliot is shrewd and crafty and he immediately gets down to business. Turns out he's been a watching the house at the request of an anonymous tipster and he saw Abigail enter, find Ella and rub out the footprints, and take the dead body upstairs. He also stuns Abigail with the news that her grandmother was murdered. Thus begins an expertly told tale of deceit, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and avarice.

Inspector Elliot has his work cut out for him. Each member of the family received a letter purportedly from Ella summoning them to her house. Never mind her being blind. Abigail explains away how a blind woman as disciplined as her grandmother could still painstakingly compose letters in her beautiful copperplate handwriting. There is only a tell tale upslant. Re-examination of the letters shows an absence of the upslant. Elliot thinks the letters are forged. Was the murderer luring everyone to the house to prevent them from having alibis and thus complicating the case?  Is this murderer out for more than just the death of Grandmama Ella?

There are some other Gothic touches like the legend of Sybil, a rambunctious ghost who haunts the house with poltergeist activities when she's not waltzing through the corridors leaving a trail of footprints behind her. And there is the secret of Claude Bryant, Abigail's father, who supposedly died during his service as a soldier but who may still be alive. Finally there is Claude's bastard son whose complicated history is slowly revealed throughout the murder investigation. But my favorite part is when we meet Abigail's sister Maude who is completely caught up in her new found way of life through Dianetics! Bardin has great fun mocking L. Ron Hubbard's pseudo-religion in Maude's dialogue. She spouts forth her zealous beliefs peppered with the ridiculous vocabulary of Dianetics. She does a lot of talking about "engram pressure" and firmly believes that Sybil maybe responsible for killing their grandmother.

This is a lively and entertaining detective novel highlighted by great sleuthing from Elliot who often resorts to verbal trickery and sets a few traps for his deceitful suspects; the utter bizarreness and impossibility of the murder itself; and a fantastic protagonist with an engaging and eccentric narrative style in the person of Abigail Longstreet. The book was reprinted under the title The Longstreet Legacy in its paperback edition and is somewhat scarce in either hardcover or paperback. Still for those who like their detective novels fanciful and odd this one comes highly recommended. The hunt for this scarce book is well worth your efforts.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card - space L1, "Book with spooky title"
 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Jun 132014
 
In honor of tonight's "honey moon" and its rare occurrence on Friday the 13th I dug into the archives for this brief overview of a fitting book. Leslie Whitten's book makes a modern use of the phrase "when the wolfsbane blooms/And the moon and is full and bright.".

Whitten wrote one of the most interesting takes on the werewolf legend with his Southern Gothic novel Moon of the Wolf (1967). In it we get a combination of a murder mystery and an exploration of lycanthropy from a psychologist's perspective. A series of murders seem to be the work of a savage animal. Whitten sets his novel in the 1930s so when the first murder victim also turns out to be a black woman we get the additional layer of social criticism of racism in the south. The police sheriff's investigation leads him to a wealthy white family of plantation owners and whispers of illicit sexual relations.

Angry locals insist the girl was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and set out like a posse of Transylvanian villagers to kill them all. But the skeptical sheriff is not convinced. Medical evidence points to violence by a human hand even amid the signs of an animal attack. His questioning of the locals uncovers their superstitious beliefs, the curious practice of hoodoo with its bottle tree and other witchcraft-like talismans, and an odd reference to "Loup Garou." A psychologist enters the picture and begins to explain the legend of the werewolf and lycanthropy as a legitimate mental illness.

Guy Endore treated the werewolf legend as a mental illness in Werewolf of Paris decades earlier, but Whitten makes his approach more accessible and tells the story in such a way that one never really knows if the werewolf is real or imagined. The finale, of course, will settle all that ambiguity with a somewhat startling revelation.

Moon of the Wolf was made into a TV movie (almost faithful to the book) in the 1970s with David Janssen as the sheriff and Bradford Dillman as the primary murder suspect. You can find several versions of the full movie at YouTube. The best quality version I found is here.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm
Jun 112014
 
Claim of the Fleshless Corpse (1937). Great title, isn't it? The title alone would have got me to read the plot blurb. Conjures up all sorts of gruesome images and violent crime. Perfect title for a story in a shudder pulp like Dime Detective. A story that screams out for a lurid painting of a woman in bondage herself screaming out in terror while a madman hovers over her with a red hot poker or some other tool of devilry. But a fleshless corpse is after all nothing more than a skeleton, right? And that's what insurance investigator John "Toughy" Nichols faces in the furnace room of Albert Browning's "elegant residence" in the tony Long Island town of Briarcliff Manor. An incinerated skeleton but still a skeleton. Claim of the Incinerated Skeleton just doesn't trip off the tongue, does it?

Browning was carrying a hefty $500,000 life insurance policy and "accidental death gets him two-for-one" as Nichols puts it. He's sent by his boos to check out the incinerated body and find out if it is indeed Browning or yet another case of insurance fraud. In the first two chapters Nichols treats us to three separate cases of fraud and it seems like his job is a never ending battle with no good con artists trying to dupe their insurance agents with a shifty get-rich-quick scheme. With Nichols on the case, an expert in all sorts of fraud, Continental Insurance has been saving thousands of dollars a day. But when the case gets too scientific Nichols turns to his surgeon pal Dr. Lester Lawson, one of those wizard geniuses of pulp fiction. Lawson has an arsenal of up-to-date medical techniques that help him prove accidental deaths have been faked.

This story is very early forensic techno-thriller with all sorts of scientific detection. Over the course of the book Dr. Lester Lawson gives mini-lectures on Hans Müllner's technique of making a plaster cast of hand prints and fingerprints; George Weber's perfection of the Müllner technique used to get a "shadow" of a footprint off of a concrete floor; Dr. E. M. Hudson's method of getting latent prints from cloth, wood, metal or anything without a shiny or glossy surface; and the involved process of moulage used to reconstruct a face on a skull. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is old hat to crime fiction readers. All of it, however, was probably new to a 1937 reader. It might have been a lot more interesting and less frustrating to read had Bruce decided to make Lawson more of a gentleman.  Lawson's petulance and sarcasm outdo even the wisecracking narration we get from Nichols. The surgeon and the claims investigator are an oil and vinegar kind of detective team; somehow despite their bickering and insult trading they manage to solve the case.


Yes, Hans Müllner was a real criminologist.  The others are real men, too.

Of course the body turns out to be someone other than Browning. It is through the combination of this unlikely duo's investigative skills that the fraud is uncovered. Lawson's diligent scientific detection leads to the true identity of the corpse. Nichols' legwork and scene of the crime investigating uncovers the unusual method of faking an electrical accident in the furnace room.

But I've filed this book under "Alternative Crime." That means you get a fair share of absurdities and implausibilities amid all the scientific and criminological facts. Not to mention a less than literary writing style. Bruce's wordsmithing is pure pulp. Examples? I knew you'd want some.

Wise guy insults galore:
Lawson: "And you probably couldn't spell corpse."
Nichols: "I'll show you, you flat-faced, mummy-pussed, belly-opener. All I need is a lot of paper and pencils."
Lawson: "And the prayers of the congregation. And listen, you spell it c-o-r-p-s-e."
Nichols: "Try n-u-t-s!"

And the usual plethora of quirky metaphors:
"She was a swell kid, too, with her head in the right place and her heart ditto."
"...because the old boy had picked a pretty bizarre way of chucking in his chips and kicking off for the Styx." 
"...at this point my old brain did a few nip-ups of its own."
"...whether this tall story that Lawson's been assembling in his junkshop has any angles to it I'd dare take to [my boss] without a catcher's mitt and knee-pads."

Lawson pulls off a few crazy Holmesian miracles of observation and inference as in his assumptions about the lifestyle of the fleshless corpse. He tell Nichols to look for a "...a man who has hung around barrooms, who hasn't been so damned particular about keeping himself clean. When he worked he was a stone-cutter or a stonemason... The day before he died he had a job unloading flour from a truck." Quite a bit of info all gathered from a burnt up skeleton! It's all explained in the final chapter but I didn't buy much of it.

And all this work to identify the body! What's the first thing most police would do with when confronted with an incinerated skeleton and intact skull? Check the dental records, of course. Why then doesn't this dawn on anyone -- including the genius Dr. Lawson -- until page 174? But wait, the best is yet to come.

The skeleton is taken to Lawson's private hospital lab where he does the full autopsy and reconstructs the skull. Clearly the police are too inept to do it right. Then the "fleshless corpse" is transported (by ambulance no less) back to the police station! The station itself, not the morgue. Dr. Lawson wants the body now with its simulated face to be dressed in clothing and put into a line-up for policeman to study! I couldn't stop laughing throughout this section.

If you want to find out more, read it for yourself. Those arbiters of eccentric taste in mystery novels over at Ramble House have generously reprinted George Bruce's  wacky book. You can get a nice trade paperback edition of The Claim of the Fleshless Corpse direct from Ramble House (published under the UK title of Corpse without Flesh) or at the usual online bookselling sites. But if you've read this entire review, you have also been warned!

UPDATE - June 11, 2014: Just discovered a detailed biographical article about George Bruce who was indeed a pulp writer as I had guessed. His specialty, however, was airplane adventures and military aviation stories not crime. He also has a few screenplay credits. I should've known someone who wrote wiseacre dialogue as sampled above would succumb to the lure of Hollywood. Please visit the blog Bear Alley for Steve Holland's excellent article on this forgotten pulp writer.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age Bingo card, space E1 - "Book with a detective team"
 Posted by at 12:06 am
Jun 092014
 
We made our annual trip to Printer's Row for what used to be an exciting book festival. I expected a wow of a festival for the 30th anniversary. There used to be lots of vendors selling collectible and vintage books of all types. Now the book market and the Lit Fest itself has changed. Less antiquarian dealers, a lot more contemporary books. New books everywhere. New writers, too. It's more about coming to hear writers talk about their work and an opportunity for indie press to promote their books.

This year I noticed more self-published writers hawking their wares. With fewer real booksellers showing up that allows more space for self-published writers. I guess that's why it's now called the Lit Fest instead of the Printer's Row Book Fair.

Sadly, it felt more like a flea market this year. Loads of junky books, boxes filled with book club editions that were waterstained and sunned, lots of books with remainder marks. And IMO there were way too many people selling self-published books. I was pretty depressed as I made my way through the booths.

So with fewer dealers selling vintage books I came home with a meager pile of six books. Here's what I picked up. Finding the Q. Patrick reprint pretty much lifted my mood for the rest of the day. I don't care if it's damaged DJ with many rips and tears. Where else could I find a hard to find hardcover by a fantastic mystery writer whose books are all sadly out of print for only five bucks? Made the trip worth it.






 Posted by at 12:26 am