John

Sep 152014
 
Better late than never. Yvette at "in so many words..." issued a Flash Fiction Challenge to come up with a short short story inspired by one of three paintings she found. The sotries were to have been posted yesterday, September 14. We took a sudden trip and I was away from the computer all day. Didn't have a chance to upload my story along with the painting. But enough excuses... Without further ado, here is my contribution.

Come Like Shadows

Sorcery’s a bitch. Especially when you’re an amateur like me. My mistake was being too curious, too ambitious, not patient enough. What’s that piece of advice your schoolteachers always direct at the impatient, hyperactive students in the class – take your time and you’ll make less mistakes. Haste makes waste, right? In my case haste made a monkey of my girlfriend. Literally.

She was a sucker for strange jewelry. That’s really what started all the trouble. Never satisfied with a diamond ring or stud earrings or a simple necklace. No, not Amelia. To her a tennis bracelet was literally just that – a bracelet made up of a fine gold mesh tennis net with charms shaped liked rackets and balls. I’m surprised she didn’t want the umpire sitting in his chair as well as a couple of ball boys. She was always adding to her collection and the more bizarre the better. She was attracted to Egyptians bangles with carved hieroglyphs, amulets inspired by medieval mythological creatures and brooches shaped like dragonflies. Insects were really big with her for a couple of months. Somehow they became more alluring less alien once they were bejeweled and bedazzled. But when she got hooked on endangered species inspired jewelry I really had to put an end to it.

And why sorcery? Surely there was a simpler way to get her off her eccentric jewelry addiction. Well, you see I sort of was responsible for that too. OK, I was responsible for that. Let me own up to the whole mess right now. She never paid me any attention and I made her like me. But as usual with my adventures in potion making I improvised and the whole thing backfired. What started out as an attraction potion took on a different dimension because of my ad libbing with the formula as well as Amelia’s unpredictable behavior. I was supposed to hand her the charmed object and a say a certain phrase but no -- Amelia couldn't wait. We're a lot alike that way -- impatient and demanding. She grabbed it out of my hand and well, now I not only have a devoted girlfriend I have devoted girlfriend who demands that I give her odd pieces of jewelry. And to counteract an unnatural behavior like this, one that isn’t of her choosing, I have to resort to more magic. So I started more experimenting. Before I could find the solution to that mistake another one occurred.

To be honest she brought it on herself. Yes, she did. She barged right into my alchemy lab after one of our hedonistic nights on the town. She was more than a little tipsy on those foo foo cocktails she loves more than her gaudy jewelry. You know those concoctions with flavored vodka. Geez, whatever happened to good ol’ fashioned Old Fashioneds or a plain gin and tonics? But I digress... Her eyes headed straight for a transmogrification figurine I was working on for one of my irritating neighbors. She chittered and screamed like a friggin' monkey and I was ready to turn her into one. Amelia sees that golden figurine shaped like a monkey and she had to have it. Right up her alley, right? Endangered species and "cute as a puppy" like she says all the time. Before I could knock the cursed thing out of her hand I watched as her human shadow morphed into the shape and form of a capuchin monkey. Tail growing out of her designer gown and Amelia disappearing into the fabric till she was chattering and screeching like my annoying neighbor next door. There she was wailing and clawing at her dress trying to figure out what the hell just happened to her. And me wishing I could just chain her to an organ grinder like some prop in a 1930s screwball comedy. My life had become a screwball comedy. All thanks to my inept attempts at black magic. I looked at this absurd picture of me and Amelia and saw exactly the opposite. It was Amelia who really made a monkey out of me. And not for the first time.

Yeah sorcery’s a bitch. What kills me is it took me six months to get all the proper ingredients for that charm. And now it’s going to take me another half a year to get another batch of the same stuff. You know how I had to rack my brains to come up with a clever way to record the sound of a cat’s footsteps? It involved a xylophone and a super sensitive reel-to-reel tape recorder. A reel to reel! P.S. That was harder to find than the damn xylophone. I may have to cut corners again and to hell with the consequences.

Aw, who am I kidding? I learned my lesson the hard way. Now I’m burdened with trying to gather up all the ingredients needed to turn Amelia back into a normal jewelry addicted young woman before her appetite for tropical fruits transforms my home into a subsidiary warehouse for Chiquita and Dole. Without the aid of sorcery. This time I'm following the directions to the letter. No improvising. No substitutes. No ad libbing. 100% genuine ingredients and no cheating whatsoever this time.

Which reminds me, now that you be heard this whole crazy story –

You don’t happen to know where I might find a genuine witch’s mummy, do you?


 Posted by at 8:22 pm
Sep 122014
 
"How very losable your identity was, Caroline thought, lulled and drowsy. Stripped of your social security card, your charge plates, that old, old reminder from your dentist, you became nobody, or anyone at all."

Caroline Emmett has been sent to a rest home in Wicklow, Massachusetts upon orders form her doctor. There she will recuperate from pneumonia and mental duress after she discovers her husband has been dallying with a young woman half his age. Walking in the countryside she finds to be more therapeutic than any treatment from her nurses and doctors at the rest home. One evening she takes a detour from her regular path and climbs up a hill. She witnesses a brutal beating of a woman at the hands of a bulky figure wearing a man's raincoat. Or so she thinks. He shines his flashlight on her leaving it there for several minutes and Caroline flees. Bad weather -- rain and wind -- force her to seek shelter before she can return to her room. She manages to gain entry to the home of the Olivers where she tells her story while they listen with a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. She'll remain here for the next twelve hours while the killer in the raincoat tracks her down.

This is familiar territory to be sure -- the eyewitness to a crime who seems to have imagined everything. Of course no body is found where Caroline said she saw the attack. But don't expect the story to fall into the trap of a well-worn formula and an obvious unfolding of events. Enter Carmichael, the editor and owner of the local newspaper, with a nose for news and a healthy dose of common sense. He is the only one who believes Caroline. With the permission of a lackadaisical and skeptical policeman named Trunz the newsman heads out to the crime site to do some real work. He quickly finds two sets of footprints in the mud and a woman's patent leather shoe. Size 9. Something bad has happened he is sure. And he begins his dogged search for the woman with one shoe. Or her dead body.

Ursula Curtiss was the daughter of Golden Age mystery writer and police procedural pioneer Helen Reilly. She came to writing fiction late in her life unlike her prolific mother, but seemed to have inherited her mother's talent for tight plotting, lively and original characters, and well rendered settings. She surpassed in mother with an enviable talent not too easily mastered in crime fiction.  Curtiss' mastery in nearly all her books is her skill in creating mounting dread and terror. In The Deadly Climate (1954) she creates a household of suspicion and paranoia. Caroline seems to have found a haven from the mysterious attacker but no one, not even the practical minded and forthright teenage daughter Lydia Oliver, is really on her side. Over the course of a single night the killer stalks Caroline, makes two attempts on her life, disables the only car available to the Olivers and turns their would-be refuge into one of peril. "It was infinitely worse...with the shades drawn," Curtiss writes of Caroline's racing thoughts. "Like breaking uncontrollably into a run, or giving way to tears, this hiding from the night let down the frail barrier of pretense."  Dread builds to the point where even a rambler rose scratching up against a makeshift cardboard window pane gives rise to fearful glances from the characters and a chill or two from the reader.

The world Curtiss creates is also one of arbitrary happenings, oddities and the just plain weird. While Caroline is attempting to gain allies in the Oliver family two strangers interrupt the night's already chaotic events. A young man appears selling storm windows and a middle-aged woman comes collecting donations for the Red Cross. Coincidence or devilish design? Everyone who makes an entrance in the story is questionable in their apparent innocent motives. Who sells storm windows during a storm? Only the most opportunistic of salesman, right? Is he even a salesman? Why does a woman go ringing doorbells in the rain asking for charitable donations? And why does Lydia insist that the woman is not Mrs. Vermilya as she claims she is?

Carmichael's investigation of the victim is the highlight of the story. Here Curtiss shows she knows how to spin a good detective novel. We watch him turn to the newspaper clippings in the morgue and ask for help from his reporter colleagues as far away as Pennsylvania. He begins to put together a jigsaw puzzle of the past that sheds light on a crime involving an illegal abortion operation and a suspicious suicide. Not that it's all fun and games for Carmichael. One of the more interesting moments is the unease and discomfort he experiences while rummaging through the victim's belongings in her hotel room. His discovery that she mended all her clothes including a wispy and intimately sheer nightgown allows him a moment of sadness mixed with shame. He sees her as a lonely woman who cared too much for her clothes but clearly had no money to spend on herself.

This book so skillful in its building of suspense and tension not surprisingly proved tempting for scriptwriters. It was adapted and filmed for television twice in Curtiss' lifetime. Once for the 1950s anthology program Climax! with what sounds like a great cast -- Nina Foch as Caroline, Kevin McCarthy as Carmichael and Estelle Winwood as Mrs. Oliver.  It was done again in 1968 for the British anthology series Detective about which I know nothing.

The Deadly Climate in the words of Anthony Boucher is "a throat-clutcher in the absolute, tightly and economically written." A better summation I could not devise myself. Copies of the book are readily available in both hardcover and paperback (four reprint paperback editions at my count) in the used book market. I'm sure her books will be found in your local library. Curtiss was quite popular in her day and was the kind of writer that librarians loved to keep on their shelves. None of her books, to my knowledge, are currently in print. More's the pity for lovers of excellent crime fiction.
 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Sep 052014
 


No Friday's Forgotten Book from me this week. I'm reading a lot, and the reviews are piling up. When I will actually take the time to write them up is a mystery even Holmes can't solve. Too much going on over here.

But I do have some good news.

Chosen completely by an electronic random number generator (the internet is amazing with all these digital gadgets) here are the winners of last week's book giveaway. Each participant was assigned a number based on where they appeared in the list of comments. May I have the envelope please? And the free copies of Bury Me Deep go to...


2. TracyK from Bitter Tea & Mystery

Please send me an email by clicking here and give me your preferred mailing address. If I get all your replies by Saturday morning I can mail the books tomorrow.

Thanks for playing! Congrats to all the winners.



 Posted by at 2:59 pm
Aug 292014
 
From the Shameless Self-Promotion Department:

Revived and Reissued! Brand Spanking New! Eye-catching Design!

It's the latest reprint of a (somewhat) forgotten pulp classic from Raven's Head Press. Bury Me Deep (1947) by Harold Q Masur was the first of eleven fast paced, semi hard-boiled, detective novels featuring the hip and with it Manhattan lawyer Scott Jordan. Taking his cue from Raymond Chandler who he admits was his inspiration to write for the pulp magazines Masur pens a tale of avarice, manipulation, duplicity and murder. A new trade paperback edition was released a few weeks ago and is now available for purchase from amazon.com or by visiting Raven's Head Press. Our new cover design by artist Doug Klauba is a nod to the original 1st paperback edition (see below) published by Pocket Books back in 1948. Verna Ford, the blond in her underwear, has served as the inspiration for two previous paperback covers. Why not? Scantily clad women -- whether lounging and drinking from a brandy snifter or being threatened and menaced by dark men with guns -- have been the iconic imagery for pulp magazines and paperbacks since the 1920s.

It opens with Jordan discovering Verna in her lingerie helping herself to expensive brandy in the appropriate snifter. She's been waiting for someone in Jordan's apartment but it cant' possibly be him. He was away in Miami and cut his trip short to come home. No one was expecting him. Verna tries to put the moves on Jordan but he won't have any of it. Then she downs her brandy and immediately passes out. Jordan foolishly takes her to a cab, bribes the driver to babysit her until she comes to, and asks him to let her off at her home. But the driver soon discovers Verna is not dead drunk, just dead. The lawyer is immediately suspected of doing her in and trying to dispose of the body. So he decides to find out who she is, why she was in his apartment and who poisoned her brandy. The case becomes a lot more complicated when it turns out Verna was involved in a legal battle involving a will that leaves millions of dollars to the proper surviving relative of a husband and wife who died in a car crash. Lots of down and dirty action that turns pretty nasty. Villainy and double crossing galore! It's a corker, gang.

GIVEAWAY TIME! A full review of the book will appear tomorrow, but I wanted to take the time to help promote the Raven's Head Press release of this new editions. As usual I'm giving away three copies of Bury Me Deep. Don't all raise your hands at once. (First of all I can't see you. This is the internet, you know) Sorry, but this giveaway is confined to USA and Canada. If you'd like to be considered simply leave a comment below. Three names will be selected by a highly irrational process involving a blindfold and a dart board. OK, not really. Winners be selected at random, etc, etc. You know the drill. I'll announce the winners probably next Friday to allow for Labor Day revelers who may be drinking and BBQ-ing and whooping it up away from their computers to catch up on their blog reading.

If you like the good old pulp style action of fist fights in a barroom, slinky dames pawing the detective hero, no good skunks and slimy gangster types, sleazy dives and smoke filled saloons then the Scott Jordan books are right up your alley. I was genuinely surprised that I found Bury Me Deep one of the best of the Chandler imitators. Plus it's set in New York! How can you beat murder and deceit and treachery in late 1940s Manhattan? Harold Q. Masur was quite the interesting guy, too. Read this fascinating interview he gave Gary Lovisi back in 1992 when Masur was 83. Among many intriguing anecdotes he talks about how Bury Me Deep came to be written, his inspiration in Chandler, and how he walked into Simon and Schuster's offices with the manuscript in hand daring them to publish it. What chutzpah! He was also one very involved with the Mystery of Writers of America serving a stint as president in the 70s and as their legal counsel throughout his lifetime.


 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Aug 222014
 
When Agatha Christie discussed The Hollow (1946) in An Autobiography she mentioned that including Hercule Poirot as the detective was a huge mistake.  Consequently, when she decided to adapt it for the stage she removed him entirely.  I imagine if he were missing from the novel not much would be lost because what Christie was doing in The Hollow was decidedly different than most of her Poirot novels; the content borders on the profound. It is intensely serious and maybe the most personal of all of Christie's detective novels.

This book comes in her mid-career, only two years after the publication of what Christie called "the one book that has satisfied me completely." That book is Absent in the Spring, one of her mainstream novels nominally lumped together as her Mary Westmacott romances though to call them romances is to do them a disservice. The Hollow is the least Christie-like of her detective novels of the 1940s; it might even be called the most Westmacott of her detective novels for it shares a lot with what is found in the pages of Absent in the Spring. Identity, self-delusion, misplaced and misinterpreted affections are all on display.  Above all, is one of her most recurrent themes -- the dangers of possessive love. It barely makes the grade as a detective novel, though there is some detection by the variety of characters and Poirot who is, in fact, a supporting character and not the lead. The Hollow is Christie's earliest attempt to write a wholly modern detective novel and uses the tropes and gimmicks that are her hallmark in a most realistic manner.

Ostensibly, The Hollow tells the story of a crime of passion. But as anyone who reads any detective novel knows appearances are always deceiving. What you see isn't always the truth. Gerda Christow is found by the swimming pool of the Angkatell estate with a gun in her hand. Her husband has been shot and three people come running to the poolside. As John Christow lies dying from his fatal bullet wound he cries out, "Henrietta..." who happened to be one of the three almost eyewitnesses who came running. When Henrietta screams at Gerda she drops the gun into the pool. She doesn't seem to remember anything: how she got there, where the gun came from, or whether or not she pulled the trigger. The gun is retrieved from the pool now spoiled of any fingerprint evidence and police lab reports prove that it was not the gun used to kill her husband. What happened to the gun that was used? And what was Gerda doing there?

Christie's writing is markedly different here. The emphasis is on character and not plot. Relationships are more important than who was where when the murder was committed. But most noticeably is the multiple viewpoint in the narration. It's the most author omniscient of her Poirot books. Much of the narrative is spent in the interior life and thoughts of the characters. We get to know more than any other of what they are thinking and what secrets they are harboring. Perhaps And Then There Were None, written seven years earlier, is the first instance of this kind of interior character work, but in The Hollow her effective technique makes the book a stand-out among her entire work.

Poirot may not take center stage in this novel but that is not to say that he is not instrumental in uncovering the truth. Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor and close friend to the Christows, has a notable scene in which she and Poirot discuss knowledge vs. truth. Henrietta likens crime solving to a creative art. She asks Poirot if he considers himself an artist. In response Poirot counters that it is a passion for the truth that trumps any creative power of a detective. "A passion for the truth," Henrietta says. "Yes, I can see how can dangerous that might make make you." The two continue to bandy with words and semantics and Henrietta implies throughout the conversation that she knows more than she is willing to give up. She challenges Poirot to act on his knowledge if he comes to know the full truth. By the book's close Poirot acknowledges that Henrietta was his most formidable antagonist to date.

Anyone interested in discussing Christie as a novelist beyond her skills as a master of the detective novel ought to read The Hollow. The murder is treated not as a puzzle but as a true mystery of human behavior. Complications arise, questions both investigative and philosophical arise out of the nature of this crime. Christie tells a story of devotion and love and protection in a world where violence is increasingly ambiguous. Has a murder actually been committed? In the end Poirot once again acts not so much as the agent of truth but as an agent of mercy.

NOTE: Those of you who live in the US and still like to buy used books in brick and mortar stores should know that many of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions of The Hollow were reprinted under the title Murder After Hours. There are umpteen hundred copies of this book out there in US, UK and Canadian editions and under both titles. The majority of copies for sale through online bookselling sites are very affordable.
 Posted by at 9:17 pm
Aug 152014
 
 "Two forces. Interesting speculation indeed. But it had taken a small boy in search of a dog collar to identify the forces and uncover a crime."

Virginia Wales, a waitress in a hash joint in a California-Mexico border town, was a good time girl. Always looking for a laugh, an adventure, one of those "live life to the fullest" women who almost always land themselves in trouble at the expense of a good time. One night someone entered Virginia's hovel of an apartment and bludgeoned her to death with an award she won for jitterbug dancing back in 1937. An ugly crime, and an undeserving end for a woman who never really hurt anyone. But as Mitch Gorman says it was "[a] casual murder that didn't matter because it happened somewhere every night."

Helen Nielsen explores this tawdry, seemingly opportunistic, murder in Obit Delayed (1952), a story that begins as a domestic drama involving a lover's triangle gone wrong. It's a fine example of the detective novel as a character study of the victim. We get to know Virginia Wales, her troubling life masked by the veneer of an extroverted happy-go-lucky persona. She is still hung up on ex-husband and keeps turning to him for help. But as the story progresses Mitch Gorman, a nice example of that detective novel mainstay the reporter sleuth, discovers that it's not Virginia's life that is the key to the solution of the murder.

Mitch Gorman is fascinated by the case. He uncovers a possible connection between Virginia's murder and a drug dealing gangster named Vince Costro. Dave Singer, Costro's lieutenant, had a relationship with the waitress but he is extremely upset over her death belying what he claims was only a casual friendship. Mitch thinks Singer knows who and why Virginia was killed but he's not talking to anyone. When another of Singer's girls, the garrulous gossipy lounge entertainer Rita Royale, turns up dead Mitch is certain the two women got in over their heads in some very nasty business. Business that Costro didn't want revealed. With the addition of these gangster characters the story enters new territory.

Deceptively familiar in its basic plot Obit Delayed is nevertheless a gripping, well told novel of non-discriminatory violence. Nielsen does an admirable job of describing how senseless murder, the fodder of tabloid journalism, can turn even the most cynical and skeptical reporter into a Nemesis of the hapless victim. Aided by society columnist Miss Atterbury (aka "the Duchess"), a smart-alecky colleague who would've been played by Eve Arden had this been a movie, Gorman devotes all his energy to turning a routine police case that might easily lay ignored on a sergeant's desk into a personal campaign for justice.

Multiple copies of the US first edition (Ives Washburn, 1952) and the Dell paperback published two years later will turn up in any internet book search and almost all copies are nicely affordable. The UK edition (Gollancz, 1953) is rather scarce. An eBook version available from Prologue Books. If you are inclined to reading and collecting digital books I suggest you check out their website for a wide variety of vintage crime fiction. Why not start by acquainting yourself with Helen Nielsen's work? You're sure to come back for more after sampling this one.

This book serves as part of Rich Westwood's 1952 Crime Novel Reading Challenge for August and another book knocked off my Bingo card for Bev Hansen's year long Golden Age Reading Challenge.
 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Aug 132014
 
While I was mourning the untimely death of Robin Williams yesterday (an event that broke my heart and saddened me for much of the day) something else happened in the entertainment world that nearly passed me by. I just now discover this morning that Lauren Bacall died. Clearly, I'm an entire day behind on the rest of the world.

In tribute to this glamorous actress and all around classy dame, a gallery of stills from some of her better crime related roles and movies.




Slim Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944)


Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)


The Happy Couple circa 1947


Irene Jansen in Dark Passage (1947)


Lucy Moore Hadley in Written on the Wind (1956)


Mrs. Samson in Harper (1966)


"Harriet Hubbard" in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
(Caroline Hubbard in the book, but doesn't matter. It's an alias)



Sally Ross in The Fan (1981)
The only musical-slasher-stalker movie I know of in existence.
 Dear ol’ James Garner was her co-star. R.I.P. to you too, Rockford.


Lady Westholme in Appointment with Death (1988)
Not the most successful of the Ustinov as Poirot movies by a long shot.
Good night, Mrs. Bogart, wherever you are.


 Posted by at 5:57 pm
Aug 092014
 
World of Trouble
by Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books
ISBN: 978-1-59474-685-7
316 pp. $14.95
July 15, 2014

Usually I avoid dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. I'm not all that interested in the dark imagination of writers showing human behavior at its most hedonistic and desperate. I live in a chaotic city and I ride public transportation. I get enough of this on a daily basis without the fear of the end of the world literally looming over my head.

Ben H. Winters, however, in his final installment of his "Last Policeman" trilogy has dreamed up a world facing inevitable doom that is plausible in its mix of indulgence and dread. As many readers already know the premise behind this trilogy is Earth's impending collision with asteroid 2011GV1 predicted to strike the planet sometime in October and all of civilization is counting down to that impact date. Over the course of the first two books we have seen towns all across the United States disintegrate in lawlessness and paranoia. But periodically, Winters adds a very human touch in his depiction of this end of the world scenario. Drunks and drug addicts feast on roasted chicken while blaring classic rock until Doomsday.  This is a world where "Bucket List" criminals, fantasists who have always wanted to loot and rape and murder, can now do so without fear of arrest, trial and incarceration.  "Last Call" parties are the trendy way to go out big and those revellers brave enough to take part in one can indulge in one last party cruise before they throw in the towel on Life and allow their cruise director to blow them up at sea. Now there's mass suicide with a twist! Crime and death and traps are omnipresent. And Hank Palace, Winters' last policeman hero, is looking for his sister in this final volume.

In the previous two books Winters was finding both his voice and his way around a new genre.  Though The Last Policeman won an Edgar, and deservedly so for its sheer inventiveness, his work with the structure and tropes of the detective novel were rudimentary and at times very disappointing. In Countdown City, the second book, he abandoned the detective novel format instead opting for an adventure thriller that focussed more on science fiction elements than crime.  Finally, in World of Trouble Winters seems to have found his footing. He treads more assuredly in the land of the detective novel and there are fine touches of retro detection. Palace is forced to resort to the old fashioned methods in this world where the internet has been destroyed and computers and crime labs are useless. He carries with him a magnifying glass and often finds himself examining clues and evidence like the most hackneyed of comic detectives. Yet, in this dystopian world of ravaged shopping malls and citizens armed with high powered rifles a policeman with a magnifying glass is ironically original and inventive.

Ben H. Winters (photo: Quirk Books)
Probably the best parts of the book are when Winters allows Palace long scenes with some of the most endearing yet dangerous supporting characters in the trilogy.  Notable are the young couple living in an RV who befriend Hank Palace and invite him to their daily chicken roast even while pointing automatic rifles at him throughout his visit.  An extended sequence on an Amish farm is the highlight of the book when Hank meets up with Atlee Miller, a man who has stooped to lying and kidnapping to protect his family from the truth of what is in store for the entire planet.
  
The story itself is the age old cherchez la femme plot with Palace trying to locate his sister and his determination to solve one last mysterious murder and learn the identity of the victim. The plot is well done, the detection is genuine and surprisingly fair play, and there are an ample amount of twists and surprises. World of Trouble was well worth the wait and its reassuring to see a young crime writer returning to the fundamentals of the mystery novel and concocting an intriguing and moving novel of raw human emotion. Often in reading these types of trilogies the reader finds as he progresses to the last volume not satisfaction but a let down in an anticlimactic conclusion. Winters has lived up to the promise of his first award winning novel and has delivered a stunning conclusion that mixes the mystery of crime with the mystery of the human heart. As the characters face the inevitable end one of the most powerful images is that of one human reaching out for the hand of another. Winters reminds us that -- Apocalypse or not -- in the end all we really have is one another.
 Posted by at 2:09 pm
Aug 082014
 
Sometime this blog has a confessional tone and today I’m surrendering again to a not-so-whispered admission. The “Badass Biddy” category (a label I invented myself) is my perverse guilty pleasure. This subgenre deals with elderly women plotting malicious crimes and doing in each other with abandon. I’m not sure I want to explore why exactly I get such a kick out of reading these kinds of books (I dearly loved my two grandmothers so don’t even think about going there, Dr. Freud). Let’s just say almost every time I encounter one of these books the characters are so outrageously nasty they fascinate and delight me and the plots are filled with double crossing and the kind of cat-and-mouse mind games that make for a rip roaring read. I’m thoroughly entertained. I’m a little sicko, right? Not really true because sometimes the books go over the top into gross-out gore as in Nigel McCrery’s Still Waters and his sadistic psycho senior citizen murderess Violet Chambers. And for me that is always a turn-off. In the case of Shelley Smith’s novels, however, there is restraint mixed with suspense and a dash of macabre wit. Come and Be Killed! (1946), its ironic title already hinting at the black humor within its pages, is one of the best examples of the Badass Biddy crime novel.

Smith dedicates this novel to her Auntie Annie “who gave me six years of peace during six years of war”. I can’t help but wonder if that too isn’t a bit ironic having completed the book. There is little peace in this book and quite a bit of scheming and battle of the wits between expert poisoner Mrs. Jolly and Phoebe Brown, the actress bent on avenging her foolish sister’s mysterious apparent suicide. There is so much going on in this book I’m hesitant to discuss any of the intricate plot. Smith has structured the book deftly and she manages to shift the tone from satiric novel of manners to psychological portrait of a murderess to a page turning cat-and-mouse thriller.

Come and Be Killed! is divided into three parts. Part one introduces Florence Brown, a whining hypochondriac dependent on her sister Phoebe’s assistance. Phoebe is a self-involved actress of questionable talent and limited success. Florence begs her sister to accompany her on a vacation that a doctor has prescribed for her health. But Phoebe sensing it to be more a plea for money than companionship rejects her and rewards Florence instead with a vacation in a nursing home that is actually a mental institution. When Florence realizes that Phoebe has duped her and sent her to live with crazies she feels even more lonely than ever and is determined to escape. Turns out it’s easier than she could imagine. She simply walks out one day while the staff is preoccupied with a busy outdoor recreation event and soon finds herself at a train station. There she is almost immediately befriended by the solicitous Mrs. Jolly. Florence begs for train fare to help her get back to her sister, but Mrs. Jolly has a better idea. The two women go off together leading to Mrs. Jolly offering her home to Florence. And poor Florence does not live very long in that household. For Mrs. Jolly we soon learn has a habit of knocking off her elderly lady roommates.

In the second part Smith travels back in time and we learn that Mrs. Jolly was born Violet Russell (why are all these badass women named Violet?). This section reveals Violet’s life story and the origin of her murderous inclinations. The finale and third section is the closest to a detective novel if more of the inverted type. Smith continues the story of hapless Florence and her sister. Phoebe is now remorseful over her indifferent treatment to Florence. “We are never kind enough, are we?” she laments. “And the dead remind us bitterly by their absence of lost opportunity.” The actress begins to suspect that her sister’s death was no accident. Fed up with incompetent police work Phoebe manages to track down Mrs. Jolly and, using her skills honed on the stage, play acts and matches wits with the killer in a dangerous and deadly climactic showdown.

Come and Be Killed! has been reprinted twice in the US since its first publication in 1946. Once in a 1940s era digest paperback from Mercury and again forty years later in 1988 by Academy Chicago. In the UK it was reprinted at least three times in paperback, two of those editions are used to illustrate this post. There are multiple copies in both US and UK editions, paperback and hardcover, available at very affordable prices in the used book market as of this writing. If you’re like me and admit to this guilty pleasure or if you like the kind of crime novel where wily characters match wits with one another you’re sure to find Come and Be Killed! a delectable treat. Without hesitation I recommend this finely written, expertly plotted and thoroughly entertaining book.

 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Aug 012014
 
The prolific and multi-partnered Richard Wilson Webb teamed up with Martha Mott Kelley under his Q Patrick pseudonym and wrote two novels. Cottage Sinister (1931) was their first followed by Murder at the Women's City Club (1932). This second team effort from Webb and Kelley shows some slight improvement mostly in the tight plotting if not their tendency to indulge in nonsensical chit chat and quirky character traits. The most remarkable thing about Murder at the Women's City Club is that there are only three men among the large cast of characters: Inspector Manfred Boot,  Bob Dunn a journalist, and Sebastian Thurlow, fiancé to one of the women suspects.  The mostly female cast, therefore, allows the writing partners to spend a bit too much time with gossip, bitchy verbal catfights and other eccentricities in this dialogue-laden mystery novel. Oddly, while I was bothered by this kind of speech and chit chat in Cottage Sinister it works well in this book and is only enhanced by a baffling series of murders that border on the impossible crime subgenre.

Dr. Diana Saffron, ex-dean of a Women's Medical College and currently Professor of Internal Medicine, is being cared for by her devoted friend Deborah Entwhistle and watched over by her protégé Dr. Freda Carter at the Women's City Club. Dr. Saffron is irascible and demanding and very much disliked among the rest of the residents of the club. Among the permanent guests are Mrs. Mabel Mulvaney, the dictatorial president of the club, Constance Hoplinger, a ditzy mystery novelist; Amy Riddle, dutiful social services worker; and Millicent Trimmer, Secretary-Treasurer of the club and the one burdened with listening to the almost daily complaints from the other members. One night Dr. Saffron is found dead in her room having apparently committed suicide by turning on the gas tap located directly next to her bed. But there are whispers of murder when the Dr. Saffron's room is gone over by Inspector Boot. Too many oddities in the bedroom don't add up to a clear picture of death by suicide, like the partially open window and the puzzling discrepancy of the two gas taps, one open and one closed. When a second death by gas occurs Boot is convinced there is a mad killer hiding amongst the residents of the Women's City Club.




The plot is tricky and a bit convoluted with a neat twist in the finale. Manfred Boot is a gruff, not very pleasant policeman who does admirable detective work. In the end, however, he is upstaged by Deborah Entwhistle. She has been doing detective work of her own both on and offstage and comes up with the somewhat startling solution to the deaths. And there is also a final surprise in the last sentence.

Amid the fine detective work by both professional and amateur is a primary focus on the characters' idiosyncrasies. The action is enlivened by absurd exclamations from Constance Hoplinger (published under the pseudonym "Gerald Strong") who treats the murder investigation as a sort of writer's laboratory. She plans to use the circumstances surrounding Dr. Saffron's death for an exciting chapter in her current still unfinished novel and keeps pestering Boot for insider police information to give her work authenticity. Webb and Kelly have also thrown into the pot a pair of not so funny comic servants. They are a married black couple who, typically for this era, behave and speak like cartoons with their embarrassing phonetically rendered dialogue and foolish superstitious antics as when one literally jumps into a closet to hide from the police. The maid Cornelia, especially, seems to have escaped from the pages of an Octavus Roy Cohen book and seems very out of place here.

I liked the sequence when Boot having had his fill of "Gerald Strong", aka Miss Hoplinger, decides to read one of her books to get an idea if she's smarter than she appears. He discovers in the pages of The Black Serpent a plot with remarkable similarities to the murders committed at the Women's City Club. In Strong's novel the victim was murdered by automobile exhaust and the serpent of the title was a black rubber tube run from the car's tailpipe into a bedroom via a cracked window. He begins to think that either Miss Hoplinger may in fact be a bit more sinister than she presents herself or that one of the women in the club has a perverse sense of humor and has it in for the mystery novelist.

Murder at the Women's City Club is one of the most difficult books in the Q Patrick canon to locate.  Unlike most of the books published under this pseudonym it was not reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in the United States, nor am I aware of a British paperback edition. It exists as far as I know only in a scarce hardcover from the little known (and short-lived) Philadelphia publisher Roland Swain and in an even more uncommon British edition from Cassell under the title Death in the Dovecot. I was lucky enough to find one amid the ocean of used books in the eBay auctions a while ago and paid only $65, but that was an utter fluke. It should've been priced probably twice that amount. While this book has a few elements to recommend it I wouldn't break my back looking for a copy. The few that are for sale online are in the collector's price range starting at $100 and go up to $650.

 Posted by at 3:28 pm