John

Jan 282015
 
The residents on the lower floors of the Cressingham Apartments have no idea what's going on above them.  Catering to the needs of the exclusive, the reclusive and the unobtrusive this tower of an apartment building is known to be the home of some of Montreal's most wealthy snobs.  All night long men are seen entering the Cressingham in groups and sometimes paired up with attractive women in tailor made outfits.  They pass the doorman, the telephone operator and porter heading for the self service elevator that will take them to the upper floors for an evening of private entertainment.  It's one of the most well kept secrets in Montreal -- a privately run prostitution enterprise free from the control of mobsters or police graft. Mike Garfin's latest case in Blondes Are My Trouble (1954) lands him smack in the middle of a mess that leads to the busy bedrooms of this elite den of iniquity.

At the start of this second novel in a brief series featuring Montreal's tough guy private eye Mike has reluctantly accepted Trudi Hess as his client.  She's being followed by a mysterious well-dressed blond man and wants to know who he is. Garfin learns that Trudi is a dressmaker who had a shop catering to clients with refined tastes and is a recent immigrant from Germany. Currently she devotes her time at an employment agency specializing in finding jobs for immigrants. When pressed for more details Trudi clams up though she's more than willing to accept Garfin's advances when he grabs her in his arms and kisses her wildly.

This is not just a gratuitous pass or an example of the hero's uncontrollable libido you usually find in a private eye novel of this era.  Garfin doesn't take advantage of his attractive female clients.  He has a hunch about Trudi's real line of work from the way she poses, the way she talks, the extreme mood changes that flip on and off like hot and cold water faucets. So he makes a pass at her and her over eager reaction is a sure indicator that his hunch is right. This is Garfin's kind of detective work. A few chapters later he'll being doing some more detecting in Trudi's apartment in the Cressingham.

Prior to Trudi's arrival Garfin was preparing for a one night only job as security man at an elaborate birthday bash for one of Montreal's debutantes.  He's been hired by Mrs. Alverton, society matron who has her eyes on the father of the Elizabeth Endicott. She is using the party as an excuse to get her hands on the rich father.  Garfin is there to guard the treasure trove of expensive birthday gifts that Elizabeth is bound to receive when the posh guests arrive. He shows up in black tie and tails looking handsome and impressive, receives his instructions to mingle with the guests. Mrs. Alverton even encourages him to dance with any of the women if he feels so inclined. To Garfin it all seems a little too relaxed for a security gig.

As the party gets under way, the young women twirl their way across the dance floor Mike can't help but notice one particular girl whose clothing makes her stand out -- not in a good way -- from the rest of the girls in their gowns and finery.  This girl is trying to push away the pawing hands of an obese middle-aged man and isn't succeeding.  Mike steps in, gives the older guy a lecture and a shove or two and rescues the girl from a possible ravishing.  Once alone with Mike the girl pleads with him to take her away from the party and to the police.  He's puzzled and conflicted.  While he wants to help her and can't really abandon his job and risk losing his pay for the night. He has to leave her momentarily in trying to sort out his dilemma and when he returns he sees he being pushed into a sedan that speeds away. Thinking quickly he borrows a car rather forcefully from a guest and races after the sedan where it pulls into a truck stop cafe. It doesn't end well when the girl is found crushed beneath the tires of an eighteen-wheeler.

The two stories -- Garfin's pursuit of the mysterious stalker after Trudi Hess and the seeming accidental death of the girl at the truck stop -- eventually merge in the hallways of the Cressingham, a hotbed of vice and violence in Montreal.  Along the way we meet a few characters previously introduced in Hot Freeze.  There is the French Canadian Captain Masson who refuses to learn English and who has little patience for Garfin's habit of stumbling over dead bodies. More importantly we get to spend a lot more time getting to know the intimate relationship between Mike and his girlfriend Tess whose line of work comes in very handy during this seedy case.

Though Mike Garfin first appears to be your typical wise guy private eye as the reader delves further into this second adventure in Montreal's dark underbelly we see Garfin is far from your run-of the mill gumshoe, in fact he's something of an intellectual.  Once again we are reminded he would rather listen to classical records at home rather than rock and roll.  And he goes out of his way to show off his arcane knowledge of the Praguerie when one of the suspects claims he is visiting Montreal form his home base of Manhattan in order to finish a thesis on this aspect of medieval French history. I never heard of the Praguerie and I consider myself college educated.  It was kind of jaw dropping having a private eye lecture me on Charles VII, the Hundred years' War and the revolt of French nobility modeling themselves on Bohemian aristocrats.

1st US hardcover edition
with Brett's original title
Similarly there is an atypical emphasis on women's clothing and wardrobe throughout the story. Frequent references to the way women dress, their make up, and how clothes enhance their figures are not there solely for salacious appetites.  Garfin's keen eye for the way a lady looks helps him connect the dots in the case, or more accurately helps him connect Trudi Hess' past to the well dressed women in the Cressingham.  The reader would do well to pay close attention to Garfin anytime he starts talking about clothes.  One particular observation he makes early in the book could lead the read to discover a surprising connection, one of the biggest shocks in the twisty and incredibly violent finale.

For a story essentially about high priced hookers this is a bloody and brutal tale. The original title of the book is The Darker Traffic. Less appealing for a private eye novel but so much more fitting as an expression of Brett's visceral feelings about this seamy world. In one of the review blurbs on my paperback edition Brett is compared to Mickey Spillane and Garfin to his namesake Mike Hammer and rightly so. I don't recall Hot Freeze being such a free-for-all when it came to fistfights, beatings and bullets. The story is one of the earliest novels daring enough to expose the greed and corruption of the soulless people using and abusing women as commodities. The surprising villains of the piece stop at nothing when Garfin tries to upset their cushy business in the flesh trade. What begins as a formulaic lecture by Garfin accusing the bad guys of amorality turns into a literal explosion of revenge and last minute trigger pulling.  There is little empathy spared for those who have exploited women so miserably and cruelly. It's clear how Brett feels about what one time was thought of as a victimless crime.  Once you finish reading this depiction of the effects of prostitution on the women involved you may come to see how poor a euphemism and misnomer is the phrase "victimless crime."

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Reading Challenge update: G6 "Book with a professional detective" on the Golden Age card.
 Posted by at 7:30 am
Jan 252015
 
Not only do I collect books in DJs sometimes I collect photos of DJs that I encounter in book catalogs and on the net. Here are a few attractive rarities I wish I could buy. I own a few of these without DJs like the ultra scarce 1st American edition of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The 5:18 Mystery and both Bertram Atkey books. Upgrading to copies in jacket would cost me a mini fortune.  I'm content just to look at the DJs I wish I could afford if I were a lot more wealthy.

The DJ shown for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir below is not for my US edition, but for the incredibly rare UK 1st edition. The price tag on that book ranges from $465 to $1200 depending on condition.  The mind boggles.












 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Jan 232015
 
Sir Anthony West is an addicted gambler. He is in debt to the tune of £1000 and he hasn't a clue how to dig himself out. As luck (and abounding coincidence we will soon learn) would have it Jasper Morgan knows of his troubles and offers him a challenge that might put Sir Anthony back in the black. Morgan knows that West is an avid car enthusiast and likes to race around the countryside where the police tend not to care about speeding. Morgan offers the use of his Mercedes and dares West to race the car in excess of 40 mph through a well known speed trap just outside of Comlyn, the city in Cornwall where The Comlyn Alibi (1915) takes place. If he succeeds without getting caught £1000 is his to do with as he chooses. But if he is caught by the police and arrested in order to get the £1000 West will have to pass himself off as Jasper Morgan. That will help to explain why West happens to be driving Morgan's car. Also, Morgan insists that there be a passenger seated next to him who can verify that West successfully made it through. If stopped and arrested, West will just have to explain to the witness why he's impersonating Morgan. Emboldened by the challenge and seeing it as his only chance to pay off his creditors West agrees. The same day that West is speeding through Comlyn in the borrowed Mercedes Jasper Morgan's wife is shot in the orchid house on his estate and her expensive jewelry is stolen. Seems there was an ulterior motive for Morgan making the bet. Now he has an ironclad alibi and West cannot reveal anything of the bet without implicating himself.

The Comlyn Alibi is an entertaining example of a plot that sticks to a sensation novel formula and almost succeeds as a fine modern crime novel. Headon Hill, pseudonym for Francis Edward Grainger, has a no-holds barred style of telling a story with rapid pacing and well drawn characters most of whom escape rigid stereotyping. While there is still the garrulous landlady, the conniving vixen, comic cops, an ex-convict turned butler, and unctuous villains Grainger also manages to add a bit of originality into the tired old formula of upright do-gooders matching wits with utter baddies. Supt. Noakes, for example, is not your typical policeman buffoon. He speaks in an ersatz intellectual patter trying to pass himself off as an educated man but he exploits his position of authority in order to obtain free food and drink in the homes of those he interrogates. Most of his attention is not on the case but on his stomach. As he polishes off glasses of expensive whiskey he lectures the suspects on his "h'axiom" of looking for the husband whenever a wife is murdered. But he is puzzled when Morgan seems to have an airtight alibi having learned of his arrest at the speed trap and his subsequent overnight stay in the Comlyn jail. Noakes is a stand out among the minor characters.


Oh yes! He really does say that.
This is more of a thriller but not without aspects of a puzzler of a detective novel. Morgan and his cohort, Professor Zimbalist are clearly villains from the get-go. There is never any question that Morgan is responsible for his wife's death if he is not the actual murderer. But what exactly is this nasty duo up to at the old abandoned tin mine? They are witnessed by several people digging around and pocketing small rocks. Zimbalist claims to be an archeologist and assures Mavis Comlyn, daughter of an elderly squire who owns the land where the mine is located, that the two men are interested in fossils. She suspects little, but the reader knows better. Morgan has designs on Mavis; he wants her as his wife. Once he is married to her Morgan hopes he will be able to gain access to the land as part of her inheritance. Mavis seems doomed.

Coincidentally, as in the case of the previously reviewed Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square, there is a teen amateur sleuth. This time a 14 year-old boy not a girl. Tom Burbury spends much of his time lurking about the old shipwreck where shifty Mike Hever, descendant of a family of smugglers, has taken up an unlikely residence. Morgan and Zimbalist are seen visiting the wreck and Tom eavesdrops on several key conversations that reveal the wedding plot being hatched. Tom discovers quite a bit and drawing on his keen interest in geology knows exactly what the rocks found at the old mine contain. They are teeming with uranium ore. Tom knows the value of radium that can be extracted from that ore, if not the then unknown dangers of its radioactivity.

Grainger was a rather prolific writer beginning his career in 1895 and continuing well into the late 1920s. His plots seem to belong to the world of Collins, Braddon and Richard Marsh what with forced marriages, blackmail galore, and heroes using a variety of disguises in order to ferret out the villains. His prose can often feel stodgy and melodramatic if not risible ("Tony was the bravest of the brave, but he realized that lying dead in the sand he would be of no use to Mavis in her dire extremity."). Nevertheless, he manages to give the books a contemporary feel and he knows how to tell a suspenseful and entertaining tale.

Several of his books are rather unusual (not to mention extremely scarce) like The Divinations of Kala Persad, a collection of short stories that mix crime and the occult and feature a protagonist who is a snake charmer/fakir/sleuth. His series character Sebastian Zambra appeared in two volumes of short stories but never in a full length novel that I know of. Many the "Headon Hill" books are available in digital versions from a variety of online websites either free or for a nominal fee. Expect to pay a chunk of change for any of the original books from the Edwardian era if you are lucky to find any of them in a used bookstore or online. Few of Grainger's books as "Headon Hill" were published in the US with the majority of his work having only UK editions making them all that more scarce.

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Reading Challenge updates: Second book for Rich Westwood's 1915 Book Read and O4 ("Author Never Read before") on the Golden Age Bingo Card.



 Posted by at 4:07 pm
Jan 162015
 
Chances are if you are asked to name one woman mystery writer from the early twentieth century you wouldn't immediately think of Natalie Sumner Lincoln. I'd wager that you are probably reading her name for the very first time. She was a contemporary of Anna Katharine Green, Isabel Ostrander and Carolyn Wells all of whom are better known and all of whom she was clearly trying to emulate.  Ostrander was the most innovative and talented during the heyday of these women's careers. Green gets all the accolades for being the Grandmother of Female Mystery Writers. Carolyn Wells.... um... she has a special place all her own in the history of mystery fiction. Lincoln, however, is truly forgotten and most of her books have been out of print for close to a century, some longer than that.

As examples of early 20th century detective novels her work is not the best of their kind. An intense perusal of multiple magazine reviews of Lincoln's more exemplary work published between 1915 and 1925 indicates she was popular during her time and probably sold a lot of books. Based on my reading of The Official Chaperon (1915), the first book I've read of hers, I think she may also be a candidate for inclusion in that dubious Hall of Fame known as Alternative Mystery Classics.

Lincoln was born and raised in Washington DC where she worked as a newspaper reporter and later editor and where the majority of her novels are set. The Official Chaperon, while not exactly typical of the kind of detective novel she was known for, is a template for the characters and situations Lincoln was obsessed with. It tells the story of a group of entitled wealthy Washington socialites and politicians who are primarily concerned with their reputations and social standing. When a string of thefts upset their status quo they are alternately forced into both protecting their loved ones at whatever cost and outing the kleptomaniac hiding in their society.

Margaret Langdon as
illustrated by Neysa McMein
Margaret Langdon is the primary suspect. She has been hired as a chaperone to Janet Fordyce, only a few years younger than herself, and together they attend dances, parties and make social visits to wealthy households. Each time Margaret and Janet make one of their visits someone loses a valuable item. Jewelry, lace handkerchiefs (apparently highly prized in this era), and money are stolen. Coupled with these thefts is the fact that Margaret was recently fired from her secretarial position in the home of Admiral Lawrence when the codicil to his dying wife's will went missing. He accused Margaret of destroying it in order that her sometime boyfriend Chichester Barnard, Lawrence's nephew, would benefit from Mrs. Lawrence's estate. Eventually through a series of absurd coincidences and plot contrivances Margaret comes to be accused by multiple characters as the ballroom thief. But the reader knows better.

Early in the book Margaret witnesses Janet Fordyce pocketing a valuable jeweled brooch. She manages to retrieve the brooch and attempts to return the item to it rightful place. Of course she is caught doing so by the woman who owns the brooch. And of course it appears that Margaret is taking the jewelry not replacing it. The entire story is predicated on this kind of cliche incident. Lincoln manages to reinvent this scene about four or five times over the course of the story making Margaret seem like a true kleptomaniac.

Margaret catches Janet in the act
(illustration by Edmund Frederick)
Here's a perfect example of her plotting. Janet and her soldier boyfriend Captain Tom Nichols are caught in a speed trap. Tom asks Janet not to use her real name if the police ask for it. Whose name do you think she uses as her alias? That's right. Poor ol' Margaret Langdon. When they have to pay a fine of $50 (admittedly very steep for 1915) and Tom doesn't have enough money he offers to use a combination of his $23 in cash and Janet's bracelet as collateral. The police agree to the loan of the jewelry (!) as long as Tom returns the same day with a cash balance. It turns out the bracelet is not Janet's. She lifted it from a society matron and ten minutes later the matron's husband is also pulled over by the cops at the speed trap. He also has to pay a fine and sees the bracelet on the cops' desk. He immediately recognizes it and asks who left it behind. The cop refers to his arrest records and says: "Oh some woman named Margaret Langdon."

This is not really a detective novel at all. It's not even a crime novel though thievery makes up much of the plot. It's nothing more that an early twentieth century version of a 1980s nighttime soap opera. It all reminded me of episodes of Dynasty in which wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes (a lot of space is devoted to the wardrobe descriptions), drink champagne, carry themselves haughtily and accuse each other of stealing each others spouses and partners rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs.

While there's no adultery going on in The Official Chaperon there is a lot of philandering mostly by the ne'er-do-well Chichester Barnard, the obvious villain of the piece. There's even an Alexis Carrington in the cast. Pauline Calhoun-Cooper (how do you like these hoity-toity names?) adds a contemporary spice to the proceedings and at least made me laugh with her constant accusations, her bitchiness and superior attitude. Only nineteen years old Pauline is also one of the youngest women in the cast of characters. So young, yet so old. Sigh...

Speaking of bitchy -- Lincoln has quite a way with her dialogue. Here are some zingers that I particularly enjoyed:
"Life is too short to bother with ill-bred and stupid people. I came to Washington to avoid them."

"Congressmen of today belong to the ancient and honorable order of inkslingers."

"If thee made virtue less detestable, Becky, thee would have more converts."  (Spoken by Madame Yvonett, a Quaker who likes her thees and thys, to her cousin Rebekah, an uptight religious hypocrite)

But these quips and intentional moments of humor are rare. Lincoln reserves her dialogue writing talent for paragraph long tirades filled with melodramatic pronouncements of anger and pitiful displays of desperate "love-making." Most of it is over-the-top even for 1915. I found myself laughing at most of these moments of high drama when I wasn't rolling my eyes.

And now a warning... (Now a warning?) Here comes a HUGE SPOILER. You may want to skip this paragraph...but I'd continue if I were you.

Most ridiculous of all is the novel's resolution when the reader learns that Janet is not really a kleptomaniac at all. Through the erudite pontifications of psychiatrist Dr. Paul Potter we learn that Janet's thievery was achieved through hypnosis.  She was the victim of an insidious post-hypnotic suggestion triggered by the mesmerist villain's blowing in her ear! This ending was so absurd and out of left field I could only think of Harry Stephen Keeler. He had yet to write a single story in 1915 so I can't even credit him as one of Lincoln's influences. But you can be sure I'll be reading more books by Natalie Sumner Lincoln. My hope is that she outdoes herself in terms of the absurd ending of The Official Chaperon. Stay tuned!

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Reading Challenges:  1.  1915 Book for Rich Westwood's challenge.
2. Golden Age Bingo card space G3 - "Book with a crime other than murder." In fact, there is no murder in this book at all!
 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Jan 152015
 
Here’s another pop trivia quiz for all you detective fiction mavens out there. Earliest girl detective in the genre? Don’t even think Nancy Drew, gang. Go back further. Violet Strange -- did I hear someone say? Even further than 1915. Try the turn of the 20th century, 1899 to be exact, and meet little Gracie Death (yes, Death!), all of 12 years old and one of the pluckiest girl sleuths in the literature. Gracie pulls off some of the most dangerous legwork in Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square (1899) while engaged as first mate to Dick Remington’s captain on what Remington dubs their private voyage into criminal detection. She also locates her missing father and does so by a combination of surreptitious eavesdropping and communication via her dreams. Yes, she’s not only one of the youngest and earliest girl detectives she’s also one of the earliest psychic detectives. And to top it off she does all this while suffering from a debilitating unnamed respiratory ailment (probably bronchitis or severe asthma) that often has her coughing her lungs out in a pitiful display. Time for Gracie to be recognized for her achievements. Cough or no cough she gets the job done.

Crammed into these 465 pages author B. L. Farjeon relates the murder of the odious moneylender Samuel Boyd who puts to shame Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep in terms of miserly opportunism and heartless avarice. Compounding the mysterious strangling death of Boyd is the disappearance of his clerk Abel Death, Gracie’s father, who was summarily discharged by Boyd several hours before his employer was sent off to his just reward. And the grounds for the firing? Death was caught dissembling about a visitor to the business, a direct violation of Boyd’s paranoid command to keep out everyone unless he is present. When Boyd learns that the visitor in question is his son Reginald whom he has practically disowned he lets loose with a tirade unparalleled in sensation fiction and fires Death on the spot.

Dick Remington who we think will be the heroic detective of the piece is introduced as a young Renaissance man who has tried and succeeded in a variety of trades from professional actor to yeoman journalist, but suffers from ennui and a sense of being unchallenged with each new success. Only when he decides to clear Reginald Boyd of the murder charge does he find that he has true purpose in life. Reginald also happens to be rival in affections for Florence Robson, daughter of Dick's foster father and uncle Inspector Robson. This fact serves as the primary motivator for Dick to win the affection of his cousin while simultaneously giving him another chance to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his Uncle "Rob". In true Dickensian style Farjeon has Reginald and Florence grow deeper in love with each new plot complication. Dick must decide if his adventure in amateur detective work is self-serving or selfless. Meeting Gracie Death alters his objective. When they join forces it is clear that Dick is beginning to mature in ways he thought previously impossible.

While the book begins as a puzzling detective novel Farjeon soon reveals the villains behind a massive conspiracy to frame both Reginald and Dick for the murder of the moneylender. Thankfully Farjeon does this by the midway point for the villains are so obvious the reader wonders why the police and everyone else can be so easily taken in by their machinations. Gracie isn't taken in but, of course, no one is going to believe a 12 year old girl. Except Dick Remington, that is. From its perfectly archetypal opening in which the characters are at the mercy of a menacing London fog to the perilous derring-do of Dick climbing a brick wall with rope and grapnel hook to the underhanded sleuthing of Detective Dennis Lambert of the Yard Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square contains all that any reader has come to expect from a gaslight thriller. 

With the revelation of the diabolical duo Samuel Boyd… becomes an all-out suspense thriller complete with cleverly handled courtroom sequences. The murder case becomes a cause célèbre attracting the attention of everyone in town including "members of the learned profession", actors actresses, writers and other celebrities along with merchants, housewives and their children.  So crowded is the courtroom that some of the witnesses have to be escorted in from the hall. First we get a protracted inquest that frustrates coroner John Kent to distraction. The proceedings are hampered by a far too inquisitive jury member who is being goaded into asking intrusive, inappropriate and barely legal questions of several witnesses in order to sway the verdict towards implicating Reginald Boyd as the murderer. The novel ends in a climactic murder trial with the typical eleventh hour revelations including testimony from a French detective searching for an escaped master criminal and the unmasking of two characters’ dual identities.

One of the most intriguing incidents in the book from a history of the genre standpoint occurs when the two villainous doctors are fiddling with a newfangled camera of Dr. Pye's invention (see the illustration at left). It requires a strong burst from a magnesium flare and can illuminate the darkest unlit street from his second story study window. He has been photographing Samuel Boyd's house and has been seeing rather mysteriously the appearance of a face that resembles Boyd's even though he is dead. Pye then relates an anecdote about how useful and powerful the camera can be, especially in terms of "psychic photography". He asks his cohort, Dr. Vinser, to believe that a photographer friend of his used the camera to take a picture of a murder victim and when studying the photograph "...there under the lens of a powerful microscope was the portrait of the murderer upon the pupils of the dead man's eyes." The retained image, usually involving the retina not the pupils, on a corpse's eyes is a myth that shows up in late 19th century and early 20th century crime and detective fiction well into the 1930s, but this is the earliest recorded version I've come across. Apparently scientific fact is not the primary concern of these two doctors. But credit is due Farjeon with making these two doctors charlatans so we'll never know if he intended this sequence to be taken as satire of the gullible Victorian mind. Soon enough the reader learns the two men use phony titles to exert authority over others and have no background in medicine or science of any type.

But lapses into scientific myth aside if there is anything legitimate to criticize about Farjeon’s storytelling and writing it is his tendency to elevate his heroes and heroines to the status of sainthood while consigning his antagonists to behavior just shy of a mustache twirling and sneering vaudeville villain. From his very early career Farjeon modeled his work after that of Charles Dickens and we see in this late novel (he would write only three more books before he died in 1903) how he still aspires to the kind of triumphant overturning of detestable villainy by the virtuous and pure that was the hallmark of his idol. Rather than light touches of the sentimental paintbrush Farjeon slathers it on with sweeping broad strokes. Modern readers cry out for complexity and ambiguity in characters and incidents. You'll find no subtlety here. Even Dr. Vinsen, the more interesting villain of the two and seemingly modeled on Count Fosco ("My heart is large," says Vinsen obsequiously. "It bleeds for all"), has a sudden transformation within the span of a few sentences from sinister Machiavelli to cringing coward. But then sometimes it’s a welcome and refreshing change to know exactly who ought to get a rotten tomato thrown at him amid all the boisterous cheering for the good guys.

B. L. Farjeon, at home, 1899
Benjamin Leopold Farjeon led a vivid and colorful life born and raised in England, travelling to Australia where he began his writing career as a yeoman reporter and eventually working his way up to business manager of Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, New Zealand. He deserves a post all his own on his fascinating life. For an overview see this richly detailed biographical article at TE ARA, the internet encyclopedia of New Zealand. His writing career was just as richly varied and includes short stories, ghost and detective fiction, plays, a very original and modern supernatural thriller called Devlin the Barber, Newgate novels, and a series of mainstream novels that are among the earliest to denounce anti-Semitism and present Jews of Victorian England in a positive light. Early in his writing career he reached out in a letter to Charles Dickens, his idol, and sending him a copy of his "Shadows on the Snow". Dickens replied and so moved was Farjeon by Dickens' letter he literally packed his bags, resigned his job at the New Zealand paper and headed back to England to become a novelist. All of this can be read in an absorbing interview Farjeon had with Dicken's granddaughter Mary Angela Dickens in the February 1899 issue of Windsor Magazine, published only a few months before the book edition of Samuel Boyd... was released.

Those interested in reading Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square have their choice of a variety of print on demand books (be warned of optical recognition transfers littered with typos!) and a couple of online versions that I investigated which conversely look to be well done. Copies of the actual book currently for sale are few and far between. I know that there were at least two editions in the UK from Hutchinson and one in the US from New Amsterdam Book Company. My copy is offset from the New Amsterdam edition and published by stalwart reprint house Grosset & Dunlap. It includes four glossy plates by Edith Leslie Lang, some are used to illustrate this post. Should you be lucky to find one a reading copy of Samuel Boyd... should cost you no more than $10 to $15 compared to a genuine UK first edition (Hutchinson, 1899) which in good to very good condition ranges from $46 to $150.

For an entertaining Victorian viewpoint of B.L. Farjeon's writing straight from the reader's pencil see this post on Curt Evans' blog where he shows us the written remarks made by a Victorian gentleman in his copy of Farjeon's other mammoth sensation novel Great Porter Square: A Mystery.

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Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge update: L4 ("Man's name in the title") on the Golden Age card
 Posted by at 2:21 am
Jan 122015
 
Once again I am daring myself to cover both the Golden Age and Silver Age Bingo cards in Bev Hankins' Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. I throw down the gauntlet at myself. Do better this year!

This year I think I will have 35 books picked out in advance for each card and allocated to the proper categories. The 36th book for each card is one that must been picked out at random to fulfill the "TBR Pile First Line" category. With 70 books pre-selected I won't be vacillating trying to fit books I read to the categories as I did for almost all the books in last year's challenge. This is part of the reason I never successfully completed both Bingo cards. Another reason was I read way too many new books that I had promised to review for PR agents and their new book advertising campaigns.

As I did with last year's challenge I am a starting off with a 19th century whopper of a novel by a writer I think few people have ever heard of, but who was one of Charles Dickens' protégés. With nearly 500 pages of duplicity, conspiracy, murder and kidnapping there is a lot to discuss. That essay will be posted in the next couple of days.

Rules and sign-up page for Bev's challenges can be found by clicking here. Choose one or both bingo cards. It's up to you. Only one Bingo line is required per card in order to complete the challenge. You really need only commit to six books or twelve for both cards. Very easy to do, I think. Only the book obsessed maniacs like me try to read all 72 books.
 Posted by at 4:54 pm
Jan 092015
 
Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is at her most frustratingly oracular and infuriatingly intuitive mode in Groaning Spinney (1950). I hesitate to call this a detective novel because frankly it isn't though there is the barest trace of Mrs. Bradley's keen detective skills put to use. This is a crime novel with an obvious set of criminals; there are no real surprises in the denouement for those who crave that in their mystery fiction. Still there are an intriguing enough set of circumstances surrounding a couple of puzzling crimes that kept me reading.

I haven't read any of Mitchell's books in anything resembling chronological order. I tend to pick them based on the plot summaries and whether or not a handful of Mitchell experts consider the book one of her best. I guess if I had stuck to a rigid order reading process I might have noticed the subtle change from her parody of the detective novel format (while still remaining somewhat true to the fair play doctrine) to this current style of crime novel where the puzzles really don't matter to her, but the characters and situations do. For obvious reasons I have avoided most of the duds ever since I inadvertently read about three of them back to back and was turned off of Gladys Mitchell for a long time. Mitchell can be, at least to me, incredibly dull and "unreadable" sometimes -- a word Mitchell herself has blithely leveled at John Dickson Carr. Sacrilege! With all my reading history in mind you may understand why Groaning Spinney just passes muster for me, but only for a variety of set pieces and the revelation of one of the cruelest and most sadistic crimes Mitchell ever invented.

Basically, the story is a borderline impossible crime story that incorporates the legend of ghost that haunts the forest of the title. When a dead man is found in the very same position that the ghost likes to adopt (hanging over a stone fence face first) there is superstitious talk of a ghostly murderer wreaking revenge. Then a woman goes missing and the village begins to be plagued with an explosion of nasty and insinuating poison pen letters. Did someone strike back at the anonymous letter writer when the toxic words struck too close to home? Mrs. Bradley, her nephew Jonathan Lestrange, and his wife Deborah all join forces with a curious and baffled police constabulary as well as the rigidly rational Chief Constable to get to the bottom of the villainy. There is confusion about whether or not anyone has been murdered and if so what method was employed which makes this a quasi-impossible crime. There is also the oddity of the positioning of the body and how it got here in the first place that adds to the mystery. But the novel is focused mostly on character and a brilliantly realized country setting.

The ghost element is weakly handled, not really as creepy as in other better Mrs. Bradley books that deal with possibly supernatural events surrounding a murder. But a completely different type of near supernatural aspect was utterly fascinating. This is in the character of Ed Brown, who reminded me of how Dickon from The Secret Garden might have turned out in his adulthood. Ed has an uncanny ability to befriend wild animals, especially birds. There is not a single scene where he appears in the book where some creature doesn't walk up to him fearlessly or a robin flies down from a tree to perch on his shoulder. His animal magic comes in handy in the final uncovering of the convoluted murder plot involving insurance fraud and impersonation. Ed Brown was the most original and my favorite character in the book. His presence alone was worth the price of admission.

Young Gladys as she is depicted on
vintage Penguin editions of her books
That is not to say that Aunt Adela (why does she waver between wanting to be called Beatrice and Adela? Yet to figure that out.) is not in fine form here. We get to see her being a crackshot with a pistol yet again and in the climactic fox hunt we see she is quite the badass equestrian putting to shame men half her age with her athletic skill on horseback. Her detecting talents here are mostly confined to the usual oracular and enigmatic statements about knowing who the culprit is early on but not telling anyone her thoughts. "To the devil with your metaphors and quotations,!" the exasperated Chief Constable shoots back at Mrs. Bradley in one of Mitchell's wittier moments. Later in this sequence Mrs. Bradley says, "You have no fear, and I will have no scruples," much like a cloaked and bedrugged Sibyl. Yet amid all the banter and allusion dropping the reader can't help become frustrated with the author for not letting him in on her lead character's thoughts. Mrs. Bradley intuits too much, guesses a lot, and -- of course -- everything she has mentioned or alluded to is proven correct in the end. But we'd never know if she was telling the truth or not, would we? I really find this kind of detective novel tactic tiresome and sometimes infuriating.

This is a rather unusual Mitchell novel in that I kept finding analogies to other books I've read in the past. Most of her story telling is unique and all her own, but this time Gladys seemed to be borrowing a lot although I will admit it's just all coincidence. I couldn't help but feel as if I was reading a Patricia Wentworth novel. Mrs. Bradley was acting exactly like Maud Silver without the supercilious coughing and clacking of knitting needles. Most eyebrow raising to me were the echoes of the savagery on display in that horror-cum-detective novel The Grindle Nightmare in both the method and teamwork of the culprits involved in Groaning Spinney. Fans of noir and gruesomely dispatched murders might like this book but it's along haul to get to the violent and truly horrific pay-off.

Leading me to a warning: there are animal deaths in this book. They all occur offstage and therefore the reader is spared the gory possibilities, but the discovery of some dead dogs will not endear Mitchell to any lovers of man's best friend. I've read several books in the past with torture and slaughter of household pets and mentioned it almost off-handedly in my reviews only to learn many readers of this blog avoid any book with animal deaths. So I thought I'd throw this out as a cautionary label.

Groaning Spinney has been out of print for ages but thanks to amazon.com's Thomas & Mercer line and the UK branch of Random House's Vintage Crime imprint this scarce title is available again both as a physical book and an electronic one. In the US you can get only a digital version, but in the UK you have your choice of either. Granted the Vintage Crime Classics are not at all attractive books with their unimaginative typographic covers on a scarlet background and they are manufactured print on demand, but there are perfect replicas of the original first UK editions inside. And they are still a heck of a lot cheaper than shelling out over $200 for a crappy reading copy. In a fit of book buying mania I bought about five Mitchell books I've been wanting to read for over ten years now but have never been able to find in the used book market. You can be sure that I'll be reporting on those, both good and bad, when I'm done with them.
 Posted by at 4:49 pm
Jan 082015
 
Periodically, I get very interesting email from readers of this blog.  Some like to discuss their latest find in a rare or used book shop.  Some ask me questions on where they can find books outside of the vast shopping mall we call the internet.  Some just pass on compliments and "keep up the good work" kinds of messages.  But then I get comments left on older posts that while definitely discussing vintage crime fiction are so intriguing or vital they deserve a post all their own.  Also, since these comments appear on posts from years ago chances are not many of you current readers will ever see them.  And so I decide to share them this way. Leading us to this tidbit of news...

Peter Quinones has a blog he calls Postmodern Deconstruction Madhouse, an academic in-joke if there ever was one.  Here he shares with readers a variety of essays and presentations he has made or plans to make at American Library Association conferences.  He has discussed Shakespeare's Macbeth, Saul Bellow, John Updike and most recently and at length the work of Ross Macdonald.

He has come up with a checklist of recurring themes, motifs and conceits in the Lew Archer novels and in his reading he applies them as they occur (or don't) and writes up his impressions.  So far he has covered The Moving Target (Archer's debut in print), The Drowning Pool, Black Money and most recently The Way Some People Die which inspired the title of this post.  Quinones considers this last book he's reviewed the best of the Archer novels. Bet he hasn't read The Chill or The Galton Case yet.

We always seem to be talking about detective novel tropes on the vintage mystery blogs whether we use the literary term or not.  And I know that I'm always looking for writers who subvert those tropes of the traditional detective novel and private eye novel. Those are the crime fiction writers who most appeal to me, whether they are firmly rooted in the past and were trying to reinvent the genre or are contemporary writers blazing new trails. But for anyone interested in this type of literary criticism in detective fiction I highly recommend you trot off to Peter's blog and read his essays.  I enjoyed them a lot.
 Posted by at 2:47 pm
Jan 022015
 
The opening sentence to The Mysterious Mr. Badman (1934) is a corker:

When at two o'clock on a sultry July afternoon Athelstan Digby undertook to keep an eye on the contents of the old bookshop in Keldstone High Street, he deliberately forgot to mind his own business.

Partly on holiday, partly to advise his nephew Jim Pickering on whether or not to take up a physician's locum tenens position nearby Mr. Digby has been minding Daniel Lavender's bookshop where he has been temporarily given a bedsit while visiting the town and his nephew. On his first day in charge Mr. Digby is visited by three successive customers all looking for the obscure work The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan, best known for his religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.  Mr. Digby is intrigued.  Even more so when not too coincidentally a copy is brought into the store by a young man selling a pile of old books.

Based on the title alone you have probably guessed that this is not a book about a "bad man" but rather a bibliomystery about the desire to own a book. But is the book all that valuable?  Turns out the book holds a rather incriminating letter with information that could be damaging to noted M.P. Sir Richard Mottram.  No sooner has Mr. Digby found this letter the shop is broken into and the book stolen.  Then one of the inquisitive customenrs is found propped up against a tree, a pistol in his hand, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gun shot.  Is his death related to the stolen book?  Or the letter inside the book?  Was it suicide or murder? The search is on for not only the book but for the other two men who were inquiring after the volume.

Mr. Digby is joined in his amateur sleuthing by his nephew Jim and Sir Richard's stepdaughter Diana Conyers who was the person who gave the books to the boy to sell in the first place.  Together the three of them uncover an extortion plot, some political machinations, and one of those familiar unctuous gentleman villains so popular in thrillers of this era. Harvey combines some excellent detection with the usual tropes of the pursuit thriller. Mr. Digby puzzles out the method and motive for the murder based on the hairs of a mountain goat, some wood shavings and a missing sleeping bag! How's that for some amateur detective work?  Jim and Diana engage in subterfuge, farcical impersonation and all sorts of wily Q & A style detective work in order to get to the bottom of the skulduggery. And with a cast of characters with names like Olaf Wake, Euphemia Upstart, Neville Monkbarns and Kitchener Lilywhite you know you in for a bit of whimsy along with the mayhem.

The Mysterious Mr. Badman was a delight from start to finish, the perfect book to end last year's indulgence of vintage mystery obscurities.  Quite a surprise to me also since I had known William Fryer Harvey, prior to finding this elusive book, only as the writer of excellent macabre and supernatural short stories that tend to be a lot more somber than this often lighthearted novel.  He is probably best known for his horror story about a possessed piano player that became the movie The Beast with Five Fingers. Harvey's creepy M. R. James influenced paranormal story "August Heat" is found in numerous anthologies devoted to the best of supernatural fiction.

A bit of research proved to me that Athelstan Digby previously appeared in an equally rare book of short stories in which he apparently first appeared as an amateur sleuth. Whether or not Jim Pickering also appears in The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby (Swathmore,  1920) I will never know.  I remember a copy of this genuinely rare book turned up for auction on eBay a while ago but I failed to win the book. It sold for over £200 if I remember correctly.

Currently there are four copies of ... Mr. Badman for sale online and they range from $70 to $115.  I paid £1 for mine back in 2005. Very lucky! Chances of finding one in a US library are slim unless you have access to the University of Arizona or UCLA libraries where two copies are held. As ...Mr. Badman was published only in the UK by Pawling & Ness, a very minor and short-lived publisher, I imagine that you might have better luck if you live in the UK or Canada and consult your local interlibrary loan services.

UPDATE:  Some fun news related to William Fryer Harvey's other detective stories. A reader of this blog sent me an email with a link to another blog where anyone interested can read the stories from The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby.  Just click here.

*   *   *


This was the very last book I read for the Vintage Mystery Golden Age Bingo Reading Challenge.  It filled in the card completely on space L4 "Book with a Man in the Title."  Thought I'd be done with 36 books a lot sooner.  I was reading until the stroke of midnight on December 31.  For those interested, all the books I read for both the Golden Age and Silver Age Bingo Cards are listed in this post.
 Posted by at 5:01 pm
Jan 012015
 
Last year I dared myself to cover both the Golden and Silver Age Bingo cards in Bev Hankins' double-edged Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for 2014. Well, what with my attraction to and immersion in several long newly published books and various other projects that took me away from my pile of Bingo assigned books I didn't quite achieve that goal. Plus those darn categories kept defeating me. I read only 85 books last year which is way down from the over 100 books I read in 2013. That right there ought to tell you that I was busy with many other things than just plopping myself into the comfy couch and poring over dusty tomes. I managed to cover one card and get one Bingo on the other. So I did complete both challenges however disappointed I am in myself for not living up to my daring promise.

Excuses aside I will say that right up to the stroke of midnight yesterday I was still reading one of the books I picked for this intense Reading Challenge. Talk about the "Last Midnight"! (Anyone see the Into the Woods movie, BTW?  Fantastic adaptation for the screen and highly recommended for musical theater fans.) So without further rambling both in and out of parentheses here is my year long devotion to the Golden and Silver Ages of Detective Fiction on Bingo cards.

GOLDEN AGE BINGO CARD - completely filled!
G1 The Ghost Knows His Greengages (color in title)
G2 The Blue Horse of Taxco (set in Mexico)
G3 The Robbery at Rudwick (crime other than murder)
G4 The Man Who Could Not Shudder (locked room/impossible crime)
G5 Death Goes to a Reunion (academic mystery)
G6 My Late Wives (entertainment world, in this case theater)

O1 The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (more than one title)
O2 One Drop of Blood (number in title)
O3 Come and Be Killed! (features food, all victims were poisoned in food)
O4 The Glass Spear (author never read before)
O5 Poison Is a Bitter Brew (method of murder in title)
O6 Miss Fenny (woman in title)

L1 A Shroud for Grandmama (spooky title)
L2 Laura (made into a movie)
L3 The Cornish Coast Mystery (amateur detective)
L4 The Mysterious Mr. Badman (man in title)
L5 Facing East (country house mystery)
L6 Return to the Scene (mode of transportation, lots of boats!) Not reviewed.

D1 Armadale (author previously read)
D2 The Case Against Myself (courtroom, lawyers featured)
D3 Mystery of the Dead Police (fellow challenger read this) Not reviewed. See Noah Stewart's post
D4 Death Wears a White Gardenia (professional detective)
D5 The Deadly Climate (involves water, it rained a lot!)
D6 Pilgrim's Rest (outside comfort zone)

E1 Claim of the Fleshless Corpse (detective team)
E2 Murder by the Day ("day" in the title)
E3 Where There's Love There's Hate (translated work)
E4 Thrilling Stories of the Railway (short story collection)
E5 The Careless Hangman (set in England)
E6 The Body in the Beck (book borrowed from library)

N1 Death in the Dovecot (animal in title)
N2 The Pub Crawler (place in title)
N3 The Real Cool Killers (FREE space, applying category for E1 to cover this space)
N4 Nine Doctors and a Madman (features doctors)
N5 Family Matters (author uses a pseudonym)
N6 Murder Masks Miami (set in the USA)

SILVER AGE BINGO CARD - one Bingo line achieved, 22 out of 36 categories covered 
S1 The Burnt Orange Heresy (color in title)
S2 Dive into Danger (set in France)
S3 Witchwater (crime other than murder)
S4 Diplomatic Death (locked room/impossible crime)
S5 The City of Whispering Stone (academic mystery)
S6 Night of the Toads (entertainment world, theater again) BINGO! Not reviewed.

I3 A Deal of Death Caps (food is featured, mushrooms) Not reviewed.
I4 The Body (author never read before)
I6 The Killing of Katie Steelstock (woman in title)

L1 Nightmare Cottage (spooky title)
L2 That Cold Day in the Park (made into a movie)
L4 Hazell Plays Solomon (man in title)

V1 The Chill and the Kill (author previously read)
V4 A Sad Song Singing (professional detective)
V5 Dance to Your Daddy (involves water)

E1 The Sins of the Father (detective team)
E2 An Easter Egg Hunt (season/holiday in title)
E5 Give Me Back Myself (set in England)
E6 The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (borrowed from library)

R2 The Kentish Manor Murders (place in title)
R5 Act of Fear (author uses pseudonym)
R6 Murder in Black Letter (set in USA)


 Posted by at 7:11 pm