John

Oct 252014
 
I continue to knock off book after book in my daunting attempt to cover both Bingo cards as part of the "Golden and Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Bev Hankins at My Reader's Block.  However, I haven't been regularly attaching the scans of my progress on those cards with each post.  So here on one page is the current record of all books read so far in both challenges. As you can see I have quite a way to go on the Silver Age. I'll be focussing on those books for the remainder of this year or else I'll never achieve my goal of filling in both cards.

I've picked up another seven books in the Silver Age categories, but only one book that fit a category on the Golden Age card.  Still that one book gained me my sixth Bingo line. If all goes well it looks like the Golden Age card will be finished in three weeks.  I've selected all the books I just need to read them now without being distracted with books like The Longbow Murder (review posted here) which sadly didn't fit any of the remaining open categories on that card.

If you are participating in this challenge how is your progress?  Have you got at least one Bingo line by now?  I hope so.


Golden Age:  30 books read out of 36 with 6 Bingo lines.


Silver Age:  18 books read out of 36. No Bingo lines so far.  Exactly halfway done.
 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Oct 242014
 
Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Robin Hood, aka Dickon Bendbow) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also rather quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, yon, and prithee elicited more eyeball rolling than smiling.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion over the course of the novel. However, the solution of the murder is dependent on two vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" Some lapses in verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also in loyal knights service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the middle ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the middle ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series. Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- many of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the middle ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.
 Posted by at 3:15 pm
Oct 172014
 
Since I've returned to the original purpose of this blog -- reporting on obscure and utterly forgotten writers of popular genre fiction -- I've been combing my shelves for books I've owned for years but never gotten around to reading. Charles Forsyte is one of those writers. Often these long overdue yield multiple rewards. In the case of Forsyte both the books and the discovery of who he really was made for some fascinating reading. I initially purchased two of his books because they fall into the "impossible crime" category. I'm glad to eprot that both can hold their own against the best of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of this favorite subgenre. Forsyte it turns out was not one but two people -- a husband and wife writing team. Gordon Philo, the husband, was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. All of which are skills and talents that he puts to good use in his ingenious detective novels.

Forsyte's series character is Inspector Richard Left, one of the humanist policeman detectives of fiction who knows his police procedure but is more apt to rely on his keen understanding of human nature to help him solve the baffling murders he encounters. In his first adventure, Diplomatic Death (1961) he is sent by Scotland Yard to the British embassy in Istanbul to help sort out the puzzling murder and eventual disappearance of the British consul stationed there. He was found in his locked office and only minutes later the corpse vanished without a trace. Left must discover who killed the man and why and how the body disappeared from a locked office without anyone seeing it done. Like Ellery Queen's infamous The Greek Coffin Mystery, a classic detective novel with multiple solutions and one egregious error on the part of Queen, Left comes up with a variety of solutions to the crime and makes an assumption that proves to be his biggest mistake. The solution to this impossible crime is simple and surprising and perhaps obvious to the most astute reader. But the story is told with elegance and wit and carried off with panache. It's a fine debut which made me want to read more by Forsyte.

This debut novel has a lot in common with many of the great writers of the Golden Age. When Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Queen and Christie. A more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson whose impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks. The murder victim Left learns had an eclectic taste in reading and finds among the books in his office library a copy of The Life of Houdini and a few books by Agatha Christie. Left himself is fascinated with magic since he was a boy, a hobby he shares with his creator Gordon Philo. Similarly, the skill with which the plot is developed and the sprinkling of unusual clues harkens back to the old-fashioned puzzle mysteries of days gone by. Left will finally come to the final and actual solution to the mystery based on three bizarre elements -- a golf ball left on the victims' desk, the Houdini book, and one witness' remembering at the eleventh hour the rigidity in the murder victim's right arm as they checked him for signs of life.

Left appears again in Dive into Danger (1962), originally published in the UK as Diving Death. This time we find Left on vacation in the south of France where he meets his old archeologist pal Sir Paul Pallet. They catch up on old times and Left inquires of Pallet about a yacht called the Knossos that has been moored close to his hotel. Pallet tells him on board are a group of amateur underwater archeologists digging around the ocean floor. He scoffs at the idea of "underwater archeology" as his life's work is one of precision and meticulous time consuming labor. With no real control in an underwater dig site the potential for disaster is far greater. Dermot Wilson, a millionaire playboy with a lot of money to throw around, is nothing more than a treasure hunter. Wilson is looking for proof that an ancient Greek shipwreck will turn up valuable antiquities, statues and artwork. Pallet ridicules the idea. After all these years they'll be lucky to turn up a couple of broken amphora let alone a "valuable statue."

Left manages to get invited to tag along with the next day's dive. He meets the crew made up of Wilson and his girlfriend, a former military frogman, two professional archeologists, and a secretary on holiday who befriended one of the archeologists. The day goes horrible wrong however, when one of the team seems to have lost consciousness underwater. They drag the body clad in its scuba gear out of the water only to discover that it's the millionaire; a harpoon from a speargun is impaled in his chest. Left sees it as a sort of underwater locked room murder. Soon his vacation has turned into a policeman's holiday as Left finds himself teaming up with local French inspector Philipp Lapointe, learning the fundamentals of scuba diving, and uncovering a murder plot that reveals three previous attempts on Dermot Wilson's life. Why was he so hated and why kill him underwater? As the investigation progresses Left learns that Wilson was a blackmailer of the worst sort who made a lot of enemies and that everyone on board the Knossos had a reason to want Wilson dead.

Forstye's other books include a third detective novel with Inspector Left Double Death (which I have so far been unable to find) and one non-series pursuit thriller with detective novel elements called Murder with Minarets in which the authors return to Turkey. Perhaps the most interesting of all his crime fiction books is The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980). Primarily a literary analysis and history of the numerous writers' attempts from late Victorian era to the 20th century to complete Dicken's unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Philo puts his novelists skills to test in the end by adding his own solution. It is this book for which Philo is best known overshadowing his earlier fine work as a novelist. These first examples of modern day impossible crime mysteries should earn him a place in the Detective Novelist Hall of Fame. They really are that good.

Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky Galsworthy (distant relation to writer John Galsworthy whose "Forsyte Saga" novels inspired their pseudonym) wrote only four murder mysteries in tandem. For a brief overview of Philo's life as an amateur magician and an encapsulation of his life as World War 2 veteran, ex-secret agent in the British intelligence service, and his life as a diplomat in Viet Nam see this fascinating post at the blog "The Ephemeral Collector". Devotees of the use of stage magic in detective novels and locked room fans will find a lot to enjoy and admire in these books about Inspector Left, one of mysterydom's decidedly Neglected Detectives from an undeservedly forgotten but damned good writer.

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)
 Posted by at 4:03 pm
Oct 102014
 
UK 1st edition (Robert Hale, 1963)
"The chilling story of a house that harbored a deadly secret..." is the catch phrase used to market the only paperback edition (see scan below) of Nightmare Cottage (1963). Makes it sound like one of those woman in her nightie Gothic suspense novels. It's not. It's one of G. M. Wilson's many detective novels blending psychic and supernatural events in the context of a murder mystery.

Wilson's series character Miss Purdy (so far I haven't been able to discover her first name) is a mystery writer herself and has a habit of encountering bizarre and inexplicable events that usually end up with someone being murdered. This time she meets an eccentric old woman named Miss Bessiter while both are traveling on a bus tour making stops at the churches and old buildings in Norfolk. Miss Bessiter drops into a faint after looking out the bus window and seeing a house that she has been dreaming of repeatedly.

In her dreams Miss Bessiter enters the house and has made so many frequent tours that she has memorized the placement of each piece of furniture and knicknack on the fireplace mantel. She can describe the patterns in the carpets and wallpaper and  even remarks on the feel of the polished bannisters. She rhapsodizes about the house to Miss Purdy and confesses a desire to go back and visit it to see if it is the same house in her dreams. Miss Bessiter is sure the house holds the key to her cloudy past. Soon we learn she is an orphan and for all her life she has been trying to learn the identity of her real parents and any living relatives.

Pulls Ferry, Norwich
Probably the most famous tourist site in Norfolk
But the next day Miss Bessiter is found dead in her hotel room. The doctor rules it a natural death brought on by the shock of the previous day. Suspecting all is not right Miss Purdy begins asking questions. She starts with a visit to the troublesome cottage of Miss Bessiter's dreams. When she steps inside she finds it matches word for word the detailed descriptions Miss Bessiter gave her of the dream house interior. Can it be a coincidence? She further learns Miss Bessiter managed to visit the cottage as she had planned. But the current occupants are unwilling to discuss that visit. In her exploration of the house Miss Purdy discovers a cursed room, one that the current owners avoid for it was the scene of an accidental death by gas poisoning and it seems anyone who enters the room begins to suffer strange visions and is overcome with fear, not to mention a powerful nausea.

UK 1st paperback (Digit Books, 1964)
When it is determined that Miss Bessiter's death was due to an overdose of digitalis the police are brought in. Miss Purdy joins forces with her usual policeman cohort Inspector Lovick and together they uncover a trunkful of family secrets, learn the real identity of Miss Bessiter and her connection to Nightmare Cottage. They also uncover a devilish scheme to preserve a family's reputation and their fortune that leads one person to commit murder more than once.

The story unfolds with skillful potting, a good dose of fair play clueing and a handful of nifty tricks and twists. Wilson's love of the Norfolk countryside (her home for many years) plays out in colorful descriptions of the land and architecture as well as a few historical tidbits. Her talent for creating interesting often eccentric characters is put to good display in this strong entry in an often uneven series of detective novels featuring Purdy and Lovick. If you like a mix of the spooky and the gritty and don't mind a bit of ambiguity in the explanations of the uncanny events revealed at the story's end G.M. Wilson's mysteries are a smart alternative to the paranormal nonsense littered with vampires, werewolves and zombies found in contemporary supernatural mysteries.

Wilson's books are unfortunately rather hard to find in the US. Only three titles were published over here with the bulk of her books published only in her native England by Robert Hale Ltd. Added to the difficulty in finding used copies is the fact her books were rarely reprinted in paperback editions. Of those in paperback (all from Digit Books, an imprint of Brown & Watson) the three titles I've read are all worthy of your attention. She's one of the better mystery writers who blends supernatural and detection and makes it all work rather well. Her plotting came sometimes attain the exquisite simplicity coupled with baffling incidents found in the work of Christie or Brand or McCloy. More about Miss Purdy and Inspector Lovick coming next week when I discuss four other books in the series.

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I'm picking off a handful of squares on my Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card this month. This book fulfills space L1, the "Spooky title" book.
 Posted by at 3:23 pm
Oct 032014
 
When Doubleday's Crime Club decided to market the books of British mystery writer Anne Hocking they chose to draw attention to her literary quality rather than the plot of her books. Her first book published in the US, Deadly Is the Evil Tongue, had this unusual disclaimer on the DJ front flap: "...if you want blood and thunder, guns roaring and daggers dripping gore, don't read this book." (The italics are theirs.) They went on to discuss what wasn't in the book rather than what was and that Hocking would appeal to the reader who is "truly discriminating...who prefers finesse to fury." The same might be said of her second book to be published in the US Poison Is a Bitter Brew (1941). Not only did Doubleday draw attention to Hocking's consummate finesse in storytelling they changed the original pedestrian, far from enticing title of Miss Milverton to one that would clue a prospective reader to the Borgia-like proceedings within.

Anne Hocking is another of the many second tier mystery writers who, when she put her mind to it, could concoct a murder tale populated with fascinating characters and perplexing events without a shred of fanciful gadgets, quirky antics from an eccentric detective or any other froth that tends to make a lot of people turn away from detective novels of the early 20th century. Poison is A Bitter Brew is one smart, calculating and thoroughly engrossing story.

All this came as a surprise to me because the plot sounded very run-of-the-mill. At the heart of the story you have your basic "Who killed the heirs?" tale and one in which money seems to be the underlying motive for a series of poisoning deaths. But which death is an accident and which is murder? And could one of them actually be a suicide? This is all left up to Chief Inspector William Austen to discover as he infiltrates the repressed household of Augusta Milverton and her odd group of relatives. There is a restrictive legacy attached to the Milverton estate and Augusta is forced to deal with its misogynistic instructions from her long dead, woman-hating father. The Milverton money can only be passed down through the male lineage as outlined in her father's will and Augusta, one of these familiar "spinster for life" women we encounter in detective fiction, is not happy with the group of nephews who are her immediate relatives nor how they line up in their chronology. Charles Temple, the youngest, least responsible yet the most appealing of the nephews is her favorite. She would like him to be the primary legatee but cannot change her will thanks to the legal entanglements created by her father. She is stuck with the philandering dullard George Hayle, the oldest and first in line to her fortune followed by the asexual and aloof Osbert Garstin. Neither earn much respect or affection from Augusta.

When the nephews start dying from mysterious causes, possibly poisoned, the immediate suspect is Charles Temple. But no one in the household nor the town can believe such a likable young man, so full of life and personality and good humor would ever contemplate murder. Augusta refuses to believe her favorite nephew would dare harm anyone. she reminds Inspector Austen that Charles is much too preoccupied with his current love affair with wealthy vivacious Anstice Castle whose father is making Charles' proposed marriage plans very difficult. He needs to come up with an income to match Anstice's exorbitant lifestyle before her father will consent to anyone marrying her. A watercolor artist with barely £500 per month to his name is hardly a desirable son-in-law. Mr. Castle sees Charles as nothing but a fortune hunter. And the police think this may not be too far from the truth.

It's all very familiar, isn't it? Hundreds of detective novels have been written revolving around this timeworn plot. But Hocking makes the story immensely readable. The characters are so well drawn from the usual garrulous and devoted servant Tamsin, who knows all and intuits more, to the central character of imperious Augusta Milverton. Even Austen has some traits that raise him out of the middle ground of second rate detectives. Hocking who comes from a literary family also has fun with literary allusions. The characters quote from poetry and literature, there are references to detective fiction with Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey name-dropped at two key points. One notable highlight: Austen lectures his cohort Sergeant Pendarvis on the merits of reading detective fiction. He says the books remind him of what many policemen tend to forget is key to crime solving -- "the insistence on the importance of the human factor." Hocking believes this wholeheartedly as well. As the story progresses in Poison Is a Bitter Brew Hocking increasingly focusses on the complexity of the "murderer personality" as she has Austen call it. He comes to the astonishing conclusion based on evidence and circumstance that there are most likely two killers in the house, both of whom share a similar psychological make-up. Family devotion takes on a far serious note and characters flittering about in the shadows will advance to center stage in an eyebrow raising denouement that mixes justice with sorrow.

Anne Hocking's books were mostly published in the UK with a only a few titles receiving US editions. Of all her books Poison is A Bitter Brew seems to be the most easily found. It's the first book I've read of hers and according to her bibliography the third of her detective novels featuring Inspector Austen. Though on the surface it may appear to be a tale all too often told in Hocking's capable hands this story of money and love, greed and desire, is carried off with panache and grace.

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I've knocked another title off my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card. This one fits space O5 - "Method of murder in the title". Trying to get this card filled by October 15. Think I can do it?
 Posted by at 3:56 pm
Sep 272014
 
US first edition (Avon, 1959)
"The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books."

-- Chester Himes in The Several Lives of Chester Himes (Univ Press of Mississippi, 1997)

I wonder if Chester Himes would be at all surprised that the world he created, one he insisted was not at all a real depiction of Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, has manifested itself as something all too real in the 21st century. Gangs of teenage thugs now flourish more than ever, shootings have become almost a daily occurrence, and indifference for human life and disrespect for any kind of authority trumps all civil behavior.  These are the kinds of events and symptoms of Harlem that Himes held up to ridicule.  His gang of teenagers who call themselves The Real Cool Moslems" dress up in robes and turbans pretending to be Arabs.  People are routinely murdered just so a new gun can be tried out. Young girls allow themselves to be humiliated and insulted just so they will be paid attention to by boys.  I guess it was funny almost fifty years ago.  I just kind of shook my head at how things haven't changed at all.

The Real Cool Killers (first published in France as Il Pleut des Coups Durs in 1958) are anything but cool. The gang Himes creates is made up of a ragtag bunch of bored teenagers led by an arrogant kid calling himself Sheik who taunts and insults everyone around him. A little man in the ghetto who becomes a big man when he has a zip gun or a knife in his hand. Shedding their ghetto identities as they don their ludicrous outfits the "Moslems" all prefer to go by ridiculous nicknames in an attempt to further escape into a world of their own fashioning. The Sheik surrounds himself with an army of sycophants called Choo-Choo, Inky, Camel Mouth, Slow Motion and Punkin Head. Their girls are Sissie, Good Booty and Sugartit. Sugartit turns out to be Evelyn Johnson, daughter to Coffin Ed Johnson, one of the two Harlem policemen who are Himes' series characters. Johnson's partner is Grave Digger Jones whose first name is not revealed in this book. I wonder if it ever is. The two are not your typical policemen and make a strong contrast to the uptight rule-following white cops who are their colleagues and superiors.

The opening of The Real Cool Killers is a whopper. Within the first four pages a barroom brawl breaks out replete with knife attack, a couple of shootings and a hand dismemberment by a very angry ax-wielding bartender. The police are called in when a white man ends up shot.

UK reprint (Allison & Busby, 1985)
Coffin Ed it turns out is still getting over an attack that left his face a ruinous horror. Some punk threw acid on him and he's understandably very touchy about anyone throwing any type of liquid at him again.  When he beats one of the gang members after a a bottle of perfume is thrown at him he is suspended from duty and disappears for the remainder of the book. We are left with Grave Digger Jones, even more intolerant of the inhabitants of Harlem who he finds to be an ignorant bunch of brutes and savages.  He loses his patience, frequently exploding in violence, slapping and beating the gang members when he gets nothing from them but feigned ignorance of the shooting and violence at the bar, loads of lies peppered with plenty of swearing.  The word "mother-raper" appears on nearly every page and I'm sure it was a toned down version of more commonly used slang of the real Harlem.

Grave Digger receives little help from his fellow cops while Coffin Ed is out of commission. He is left to his wits and his brawn in trying to figure out how a white man ended up shot dead when the only gun on the scene can only fire blanks. It's sort of an impossible crime in the setting of a hardboiled -- very hardboiled -- crime novel. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Even more surprising were the characters who at first seem like cartoonish caricatures and stereotypes leftover from an Octavus Roy Cohen comic novel. As the book progresses. however, it is clear that Himes is using these very real stereotypical characters as foils for his intolerance for the "anything goes" lifestyle of the ghetto. His Harlem is filled with people who in order to have any decent life will use and manipulate anyone and everything. Morality goes out the window, crime is almost second nature to some of them. As Grave Digger says to one of the superior white characters: "If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are safe." Grave Digger will not abide pretense of any sort.  Both he and Coffin Ed tell it like it is.

French paperback reprint (circa mid 1970s)
Himes never really set out to write crime fiction. While living in his self-imposed exile in France along with other Harlem expatriate writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright he was approached by publisher Marcel Duhamel who was championing the publication of American crime fiction in French translation, specifically that of the hard boiled school. Himes confessed he hadn't a clue how he was going to write a hardboiled novel and Duhamel told him it was simple: begin with a bizarre incident and then imitate the writing of Hammett and Chandler. You can't fault him for following that bit of advice. Himes has been compared to those two kings of hardboiled crime, but I'd say his real influence is the most hardboiled writer of all -- Carroll John Daly.  Himes himself has confessed that Daly's stories were a big draw for him when he was addicted to reading pulp magazines while in prison during the late 1940s.

All of Himes' books, both his crime novels and his other mainstream fiction, are readily available in a variety of reprint editions. The 1950s and 1960s paperback originals from Avon tend to be priced extravagantly these days due to his new place of honor in the Crime Fiction Hall of Fame. In looking for images of the first edition Avon paperback I saw prices ranging from $16 for a reading copy to $75 for a VG+ copy. If you spent that kind of money on a nearly pristine copy you'd probably never want to open the darn thing.
 Posted by at 3:22 pm

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Sep 262014
 
Ridiculously busy this week and probably for the next month or so...

I have an essay for today's Friday Forgotten Book meme but it's unfinished and I don't like posting essays in one version and then later updating it a few hours later. Usually people don't return to read the full review. So instead I'll alert the few regular readers of this blog to come back later tonight (or tomorrow) when I will have my weekly Friday's Forgotten Book review ready for all.

It will also be my book for the 1958 Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Rich Westwood at Past Offenses. It happens to be the first book I've ever read by a writer who I have been interested in trying out for a long time -- Chester Himes. And it was quite an eye opener. Not at all what I expected. In fact, very, VERY modern for 1958. Of course it was published first in France so Himes was allowed to be more free with his language and attitude. "More anon" ...as they used to say in the Elizabethan funny papers.
 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Sep 192014
 
Act of Fear (1966) is the first book in a series of private eye novels featuring Dan Fortune, the one-armed detective created by Dennis Lynds under his "Michael Collins" pseudonym. This is the first I've read of Fortune and so I can't speak for the other novels but his origin of how he lost his arm when he was a teenage hooligan and why he's reluctant to tell the truth about it provides a fascinating basis for who Dan Fortune becomes in his adult years. The setting for the most part is 1960s Chelsea in lower west side Manhattan and Lynds paints an eye-opening portrait of that neighborhood long before it was turned into a gentrified haven for well-to-do New Yorkers.

Fortune's client in this story is not the typical client any private eye is used to. He's Pete Vitanza, a young man hooked on fancy sports cars and devoted to his best friend Jo-Jo Olson who has disappeared. Vitanza is worried it might have something to do with some tough guys who were in the neighborhood a few days ago. Pete doesn't have a lot of money but he's willing to pay Fortune and he pleads his case giving some hazy reasons why he's avoiding the police. It's enough to convince Fortune to take the case, albeit begrudgingly. Soon Dan Fortune finds that Jo-Jo's skipping town is tied to the mugging of a cop and the murder of a showgirl. And that Pete has a lot more on his mind than seeming loyalty for a missing friend. The engaging plot takes Fortune to some seedy night clubs sporting names like Monte's Kat Klub and The Blue Cellar, a mechanic's garage, and finally to Flamingo, Florida where he confronts his quarry only to learn he's been followed by some New York heavies.

Dan Fortune is one of the new breed of private eye that started to appear in the late 1950s. He's not an out an out tough guy. He's got a lot of humanity and he genuinely cares about people. The book is filled with his philosophical musings about the effect of crime on a neighborhood, how growing up in tough unsympathetic Chelsea can harden a person. We learn of his own teen age life as a juvenile delinquent, the consequences of his actions, and the loss of his arm that is a constant reminder of his past. Even with all the thuggery and villainy from the bad guys Fortune still takes to the time to understand why they became such rotten apples.

I especially liked this observation:
Maybe under pressure we all revert to what is easy, to what we have rejected in our lives. The way a gentle man will often become the most violent when violence is forced on him. As if the thing rejected has been lurking all the time and waiting for its chance to burst out when our painfully constructed rational defenses are down.
Lynds has said in an interview with Ed Lynskey: "I did not set out to write a detective series, but I decided I wanted to write books that probed into the society we live in. We all must relate to others and how we do that determines the kind of society, country, world and universe we will have." Act of Fear gives you a lot to think about and I'm eager to revisit Dan Fortune and get a few more wise words from this world-weary but wholly likeable private eye with a soul.

For more about Dennis Lynds and his writing career see this website and be sure to visit the Dan Fortune page at Thrilling Detective website for the full list of books and more insight into this great fictional detective.

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This fulfills the "Book written by a writer using a pseudonym" for the Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (space R5). I haven't  forgotten my pledge to fill both cards! I'm just slowing down a bit in my posts.

 Posted by at 4:04 pm
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 stories 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 from her doctor. There she will recuperate from pneumonia and mental duress following her discovery of her husband's dallying with a 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 the 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