John

Feb 272015
 
And now for something completely different....

I've been reading a lot of early transgressive fiction as research for an essay to be included in a book slated for 2016. This has led me into a strange and fascinating world of crime novels with plots that touch on formerly taboo topics mostly to do with sexual preference and unusual sexual practices. So when I fortuitously came across a book called The Fetish Murders (1973), with that cover seen at left, I had to read it. It's not at all transgressive fiction as I thought it might be since it has at its core a respect for morality and normalcy and does not revel in all things rebellious or counterculture. Thankfully, it did not turn into a serial killer novel as the title seems to imply. It's an attempt to present what most people in the 1970s (and I guess quite a few these days, too) would view as a distasteful subject -- erotic fetishism -- in a humanistic compassionate setting. It succeeds to a degree, but it disappoints on a whole other level.

The Fetish Murders begins with a comical scene in which June Hissock, "Carnival Queen of East Ganford", storms into the police station to report being attacked. She is the latest victim of a scissors wielding maniac who has been cutting locks of hair from young blond women. June is incensed; her hairdo is ruined. And the attack occurred just before she was to award some prizes at a school in one of her many beauty queen publicity gigs. Smart aleck journalists have alternately dubbed this hair crazed phantom the Demon Barber and Jack the Snipper. The newspapers also make a lot of allusions to Pope's "Rape of the Lock". It's all tongue in cheek and ridiculing and all a bit wrong. For they have no idea just how dangerous this hair clipping creep will become.

No one has ever seen Jack the Snipper, not even the women whose hair he is collecting. Each young woman has been attacked from the rear, the hair quickly snipped from the nape of the neck and the attacker fleeing before the victim even knows what's been done. Sergeant Pinnett is a bit worried that the attacks seem to be on the rise. He has a daughter who also has blond hair. What if she should be next?

You can guess what follows. Not only is Marjorie Pinnett next on the list she is also fatally stabbed with the scissors in what appears to be an attempt to fight back. And now the Demon Barber is no longer just a creep but a murderer.

This is very bad news for reporter Peter Stack. He had just written an informative news feature on fetishism in which, quoting expert advice of psychoanalyst Dr. Luton-Bailey, he explained the harmlessness of the attacks. The article was to reassure the public and prevent hysteria and vigilantism. He's alarmed by the murder and even moreso when he learns the victim is the daughter of a police officer who he overheard vowing to seek revenge on the Demon Barber. Stack revisits Dr. Luton-Bailey to try to understand why the fetishist suddenly became violent. When the psychologist hears that this particular hair clipping attack happened from the front he comes to the conclusion that the Demon Barber must've been recognized by Marjorie. And in that moment he felt it necessary to kill.

Luton-Bailey is one of the better realized characters. His psychology is modern and sound, even sympathetic, but still a bit too Freudian. I was disappointed that here was yet another instance of a psychological suspense story that dealt with aberrant behavior that must be explained away by an absent father, a domineering mother, and a belittled and abused child who grows up to be a deeply disturbed adult living out "perversions" in order to deal with trauma. No attempt is made to discuss fetishism as a form of eroticism without the taint of mental illness. Not all sexual fetishism is about mommy and daddy issues. There's a lot more involved in the fetish world that Avon Curry didn't seem to want to explore.

Bringing us to the writer. That name is an obvious pseudonym and by page 20 I was sure that the androgynous sounding Avon Curry was probably a woman writer. The way that Marjorie and her friend Nancy are depicted, the detailed talk of women's clothes and hairstyling, the sensitive nature of so many of the male characters -- this seemed not to be a male writer at all. And I was right. After consulting The Dictionary of Pseudonyms I learned that Avon Curry was one of several pen names used by the prolific writer Jean Bowden.

Jean Bowden, retired at age 90
There is a lot about Bowden online these days after she formally announced at a 2009 SWWJ conference she was retiring from professional writing. She had a varied career beginning as an editorial assistant for a variety of British paperback houses including Panther and Four Square, moved on to become assistant fiction editor at Women's Own, and ended as editorial consultant for Mills & Boon. She has been credited with discovering Catherine Cookson and a few other bestselling writers. Concurrent with those publishing positions from 1958 to 2009 she used seven different pseudonyms to write over fifty novels consisting of romance, historical fiction, family sagas, crime and detective fiction and tie-in novels for the UK TV series The Brothers and Emmerdale. Her most recent incarnation as novelist is "Tessa Barclay". Using this name she wrote a series of crime/adventure thrillers featuring a series character, the ex-Crown Prince Gregory of Hirtenstein.

The Fetish Murders begins as a crime novel and slowly evolves into a psychosexual mystery but is never a true detective novel. Early in the novel Bowden reveals the identity of the killer and the existence of his mysterious girl friend Angela Good. The book alternates between Peter Stack's sleuthing -- both as a quasi psychological profiler with Luton-Bailey's assistance and a physical evidence gathering detective -- and the tortured behavior of Dennis Justinson determined along with Angela's help to shift the blame to an imaginary mad killer. There is one final twist Bowden adds towards the end of the book that is no real surprise to a modern crime fiction reader and sadly so ineptly handled that it fairly ruins the book. When the end comes it is violent as expected, tragic, a bit pathetic but wholly contrary to how the author led us to believe she felt about her antagonist. When Peter Stack calls Dennis "that thing" I was not just disappointed, I was pissed off.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card R5 -"Author who uses a pseudonym"
 Posted by at 5:32 am
Feb 202015
 
Norman Pink is not your average private detective. He's not chasing after shapely women clients, sneaking pulls on a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk drawer or stumbling into a fistfight every ten pages or so. More likely he's stumbling over the rocky terrain of the English countryside, puffing on his asthma cigarettes, and making excuses for not being home to his very tolerant wife. On occasion he'll indulge in his never-ending work in progress -- a short story parody of Doyle's Great Detective who he has dubbed Sherbolt Houses (his partner is Dr. Tylersdad and housekeeper Mrs. Thames).  It's pure silliness and Norman knows it will probably never be published. Norman is in his mid sixties, a semi-retired ex-policeman, and happily married to a Beth who affectionately calls him Dad. Employed by Peerless Private Inquiry Agents, Ltd, Pink is passing his semi-retired life doing routine work mostly consisting of dreary and sordid divorce cases. But he has an obsession and it is this obsession that serves as the foundation of his first adventure in The Girl Nobody Knows (1965) by Mark McShane.

Years ago he was one of many who witnessed a horrific train wreck. Among the many victims was a young girl Norman had been watching prior to the crash. True to his policeman's instincts he had been wondering who she was, where she was going and why a 12 year old was on a train platform unaccompanied by any adult. When her body remains unclaimed after several days Norman saves her the ignominy of a potter's field burial by paying for her funeral and having a gravestone marking the site with "The Girl Nobody Knows" followed by the number 27 signifying her death statistic in the train wreck.

For the past twelve years Norman has been visiting the cemetery on the anniversary of the train wreck always alone, always seemingly the only person who cares about this anonymous girl. Until the day that opens this book when he chances upon another visitor at the girl's grave site. It's a woman dressed all in brown who seems oblivious to Norman's presence a few feet away. He approaches and gets close enough to see her face but she rushes away. In that brief moment Norman's policeman's training registers the woman's most telling feature -- she has one blue eye and one brown eye.

And so he begins his search for the drably dressed woman with an optical abnormality. With the aid of personal ads, clever role playing and some phone calls to eye doctors he comes up with a list of suitable women from which he begins the painstaking process of elimination until he quite by chance stumbles upon the cemetery visitor. Much to his surprise the woman played a small part in a case he had as a policeman many years ago. And slowly that case proves to be linked to the "Girl Nobody Knows."

This first outing is a real page turner. Pink is one of the most unusual private detectives I've ever encountered and his concern for the dead girl is at times heart wrenching. One night after a long night of searching and questioning Beth asks him, "You don't care too much, do you?" He asks what she means. "That we never had children." "I never even think about it," he assures here. They clasp hands and turn their attention to the TV. But the reader knows better. Norman has created an identity for the girl in the anonymous grave calling her Violette in honor of the color of the dress he last saw her wearing and imagines all sorts of possibilities for what her life was and could have been. He is determined to learn who she is so both he and the girl can finally have some peace.

Norman's second outing Night's Evil (1966) is as far removed in tone and subject matter as his first adventure. The story starts with a typical private eye opening: a wife wants to learn the truth about her husband's death. Elaine Bland hires Norman to find out why her husband Otis was visiting a carnival where he ended up stabbed to death. Strangely, she doesn't care who killed him. She want to know if he had been seeing another woman. She had suspicions about him for months and his violent end seems fitting to her. She only wants her suspicions proven or disproved. Norman first has to track down the location of the traveling carnival and then infiltrate the tightly knit world of its performers and employees.  Secretly he is also interested in finding out the identity of the murderer but he keeps that as close to himself as he did his relationship with Violette in the first book.

The group of primary suspects at the hyperbolically named Blegg's International Shows is quite a motley crew. From the belligerent owner Alfred Bleggs who has a lot of shady business deals he would rather not be discovered to the lonely dwarf Scurly Steeves, an ex-performer who has become the carnival's self-described PR agent, a job that is really no more than a sign painter and poster hanger. Scurly is secretly in love with the sexy young Molly, step-daughter to one of the amusement ride operators who has a dark secret all her own. She spends most of her time practicing knife throwing and earning a few extra shillings taking photographs of the customers then developing them in her makeshift photo lab in her family's tent.

There's also Charles Meek who shows up looking for work and a mystery woman named Carla.  Meek we soon learn is a former physician. Norman is curious why a well-to-do doctor would give up his career for the life of a carnival handyman who does nothing but fix faulty wiring and mend broken electrical sockets. Meek isn't talking. Carla seems to be the reason he stays on at the carnival yet no one has heard of the woman, let alone seen her. Like all the others Meek has a terrible secret, perhaps the scariest part of the book is when Norman learns the truth about this very mysterious man.

Rounding out the crew is Rosa, the gypsy fortune teller who seems to have a genuine knack for seeing into the future. Her visions of a hellish doom will have an eerie resonance in the cinematically rendered climax.

Because this story is confined to a small group of suspects who rarely leave the grounds of the carnival I found it less engaging than The Girl Nobody Knows. McShane creates some mystery in slowly revealing the secret lives of these troubled people but the overall mystery of who killed Otis Bland never seems to have any urgency or importance. Norman is more intrigued by the odd behavior of Charles Meek, the constant lying of the others and the shifty business practices of Bleggs. It's only in the final thirty or so pages that the book becomes exciting. McShane abandons his wishy-washy psychological suspense and transforms the story into a Grand Guignol revenge scheme gone haywire. The solution to the murder comes quite by accident amid a flurry of flying knives, smoke and fire, and hysterics from a trio of characters.

1st US Edition, Doubleday Crime Club (1966)
The final novel in this trilogy is The Way to Nowhere. It's pretty darn scarce. It was not published in the US making it all that more hard to find. My attempt to find an affordable copy failed miserably.  I have no idea what the book is about as I also failed to find any newspaper or magazine reviews of the book.  Maybe one of you lucky enough to live in the UK or Canada might find it in a local library.

The first book is definitely worth reading. If you like Norman enough you may want to move onto the second title to see a new side of him. Both titles were published in the US and UK and both received paperback reprints in the US. If nothing else Night's Evil gives you a few more silly paragraphs from Norman's ongoing Sherbolt Houses story.  That at least will bring you a smile or a chuckle or two. It certainly made Norman laugh.

The Norman Pink Trilogy
The Girl Nobody Knows (1965)
Night's Evil (1966)
The Way to Nowhere (1967)


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Reading Challenge Update: Silver Age Bingo space S6 "Book with professional detective" and
Silver Age Bingo space I5 "Book with spooky title"
 Posted by at 6:04 am
Feb 152015
 
"You couldn't ever expose Dr Dysert. [...] He's been too clever for too long. They believe in him, probably with a good deal more conviction than they believe in the Holy Ghost, though they declare it every Sunday."

Jethro John has quite a task set before him. He knows that the three deaths of Dr. Dysert's previous wives are anything but what they appear to be -- death from alcoholic coma, a suicide, and an accidental fall. Is any man that unlucky that all of his wives die so unexpectedly and, in two cases, so violently? To Jethro it is far from coincidence and he is determined to prove that each death was orchestrated somehow by Dr. Dysert as part of his sinister design to gain control of his spouses' wealth. In the guise of a journalist Jethro gets to know the locals and through their stories combined with some keen detective skills uncovers the grim truth.

The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert (1955) is more than yet another mad wife killer mystery. There are several mysteries for Jethro to uncover as well as a few for the reader to puzzle out, notably just why Jethro John has come from America to dig into Dr. Dysert's past. Fleming's teasing narrative voice hints that Jethro is not at all what he appears to be. It will be well past the halfway mark, however, before he finds someone who he can trust enough to reveal his true mission in coming to Greenyard.  There are those strange deaths of the women, too.  If indeed each one was a carefully designed murder just how did the good doctor pull them off?  And what did the women truly die of if not the causes stated on their death certificates? It's a slowly played out duel of wits between Jethro and Dr. Dysert.

Dysert jokingly refers to himself as "Dr. Deadcert" alluding to the local's steadfast trustworthiness in his healing powers.  He has nearly the entire town in the palm of his hand.  His charm and easy going manner win over everyone. And his power to use his voice to control behavior and even hypnotize adds greatly to his seeming invincibility and omnipotence.  Jethro has his work cut out for him trying to convince anyone of his suspicions when faced with such a formidable presence.

Luckily, Miss Bettyhill, an elderly woman attracted to Jethro's frank American manner, is open minded enough to listen to his case. He has gathered an oral history from Katharine Mortlock, Dysert's secretary and would-be fiance, in which she tells the detailed stories of Dysert's three wives and their sudden deaths. Now armed with a manuscript he has transcribed verbatim he has some proof of the doctor's guilt. He compliments Miss Bettyhill on being one of the few "real people" he has met in this English village where everyone seems under the physician's influence.  Jethro persuades Miss Bettyhill to read the manuscript and "read between the lines" to see if she cannot see what he is certain is the truth. She accepts and together this incongruous duo turn amateur detectives, risking their lives in order to save Katharine from becoming wife and victim number four.

Fleming begins her story in a lighthearted manner introducing the locals and Jethro in a sort of "Gentle Reader" narrative voice.  She manages to create an ambiguity in the story so that the reader's allegiance wavers between Jethro and Dysert. One is never truly certain if Jethro's interest in the doctor is not tinged with a sinister plan of his own. Why has he travelled from America to accuse a small town doctor in an English village of being a notorious Bluebeard? The narrative tone slowly maneuvers away from archly wry to one of gravitas as the truth becomes clearer. And she manages to increase the tension when Dysert's actions are revealed in their true colors. The closing chapters are a marvel of cat-and-mouse games even if she allows Dysert an egocentric indulgence in a villainy monologue.

All of Joan Fleming's books have been released as digital books by Orion Publishing Group though only available for purchase from the UK amazon site or iBooks. Some of Fleming's books were also released in limited paperback editions by Orion back in 2013. The Deeds of Dr.  Deadcert was one of those titles, but it is now apparently out of print. Of course you can also find the book in the usual online used bookstore websites. The 1950s and 1960s paperback editions are often cheaper then the electronic version.
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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age space G5 "Medical Mystery"
 Posted by at 11:52 pm
Feb 132015
 
Anne Chamberlain's debut novel The Tall Dark Man (1955) can barely be called a crime novel. Why this book was marketed as a cat and mouse thriller is beyond me. It's not. Yes, there is a crime. But the story is one of those experimental psychological novels that used to flood the shelves in the 1950s. What makes it noteworthy is the voice of the protagonist -- a 13 year old girl. And she is one troubled little girl.

The book is almost a retelling of The Window that remarkable movie with Bobby Driscoll as a boy known for telling lies who witnesses a murder and his desperate attempt to get any adult to believe what he saw was true. Driscoll's character is harassed and hounded by the villains and we fear for him legitimately. Sarah Gross, Chamberlain's heroine of sorts, also is an overly imaginative youngster with a flair for spinning tales but what she sees may not have been real. Unlike the Driscoll character Sarah is more akin to Mary Tilford from The Children's Hour, a mean spirited liar intent on causing harm.

Sarah lives under the shadow of an ugly reputation as a vindictive rumormonger after she tells a very nasty story about one of her male neighbors who slighted her one day. We learn that Sarah spends most of her lonely childhood gazing out of windows, dreaming up stories of the strangers she watches often ending those stories with a lurid finish. In the opening chapter Sarah witnesses a violent fight between two men in hunting garb that ends in a savage and bloody death. But who is going to believe the girl who told such a whopping lie about an adult and impugned the character of some of her schoolmates? Sarah lingers too long at the window and almost too late realizes in horror the murderer is staring at her through his binoculars.

Knowing she cannot tell anyone what she saw without being thought a liar again Sarah is forced to resort to her manipulative ways to escape the school and elude the murderer who she is sure is after her.  Having failed to convince any of the adults to accompany her home or drive her away (she usually walks to school) Sarah holes herself up in the girls' bathroom hoping against hope that the "tall dark man" doesn't get inside and finish her off. Over the course of the book, which takes place in a single evening, the reader gets to know Sarah and her secret life as storyteller and dreamer, her sad upbringing in a home where her father gambled away their savings, a home of heated quarrels and little love. Sarah retreats into her imagination further frustrating her mother and her teachers who have already suggested Sarah be taken to a child psychologist.

The book is a strange mix of psychological study of a borderline antisocial child and an allegory of childhood fears. Chamberlain manages to saddle poor Sarah with a closetful of character flaws ranging from self-loathing to pettiness to desperate longing for one single friend. She's a sad little girl and often one scary little girl as well. In one chilling passage she actually believes that she caused the "tall dark man" to kill the other and begins to identify with the killer recognizing in herself a streak of cruelty that could easily lead to violence. It's hard not to see her as a forerunner to a nastier, less victimized Carrie White. In the first paragraph she makes mention of having had her first period in the past six months and hating herself for "[becoming] a woman". There is a later sequence where she and her mother discuss menstruation with Sarah becoming ever more indignant and spiteful towards her mother when she tries to explain her daughter's ongoing biological changes.

Lost in all of Sarah's ruminating and fixating is the tall dark man of the title. As the story progresses he becomes less a murderer in search of an eyewitness and more of a hazy marauding symbol of everything that a 13 year-old can possibly be afraid of. Chamberlain's writing also tends to waver in and out of nightmarish surrealism and cozy naturalism.  At times her gift for naturalistic dialogue, much of it rendered in spot on Midwestern idiom, gives way to a jarring kind of heightened theatricality peculiar to allegorical playwriting.

The story languishes too much in Sarah's past. Chamberlain heaps on pop psychology explanations for Sarah's tortured emotions. Her continual trips into her past trying to sort out her conflicted feelings for her father and her stepfather grow tiresome. At it weakest moments the story devolves into the well trodden terrain of soap operas. What's at stake and what Sarah fears for in the present is too often abandoned. Intermittently we are reminded of the looming threat when the murderer appears outside windows as a ghostlike face or is seen loitering by the school flagpole. However he never really seems like a menace. He's more of a lingering shadow than a palpable danger.

There are lighthearted moments amid all this grim and self indulgent dreaming. When they do come they are more than welcome. A scene between two janitors complaining about the slovenliness of teenage girls in the third floor girls' bathroom is hysterically funny. Later when a group of students rehearsing a play invade Sarah's bathroom sanctuary she at last finds a handful of allies and much longed for companionship and some long overdue compassion. For me the scenes with the drama students were the best part of the book.

The Tall Dark Man received numerous accolades when it was first published. The paperback edition I have is loaded with blurbs from laudatory reviews that highlight its suspenseful nature. All of the quotes used make the book seem like a real nailbiter and a page turner. One reviewer claims she started the book at 1 AM and didn't put it down until she finished three hours later. But this is a case of exaggeration coupled with overlooking what the book is really about. The final two chapters are the only sections I found to be fraught with tension and the only times I received a smidgen of a frisson. I enjoy being misled in the context of a plot when I read crime fiction, I don't like being misled by marketing hype.

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Reading Challenge update: One of two books I read for Rich Westwood's "1955 Book" for February.
 Posted by at 6:04 am
Feb 062015
 
I've known about Let's Kill Uncle (1963) for a long time.  But I only knew the movie version as adapted and directed by William Castle. For a teenager growing up in the 1970s that movie was pretty wild stuff.  It's stayed in my memory ever since I first saw it. Two teenagers in fear of their life plot to do in their nefarious uncle, a former commando highly skilled in martial arts and assassin techniques, before he kills them first. But having seen this movie only twice in my life I was not at all prepared for the book.  The only thing the book and movie have in common is the basic plot and the two first names of the children who are only 10 in the book.  Everything else is completely different.  And the differences are even more wild than the movie.

Rohan O'Grady (pseudonym for Canadian writer June O'Grady Skinner) has concocted a fantastical story that is a glorious mixture of Grimm's fairy tales, macabre black comedy, ecological critique and a whole lot more.  It's one of those rare books that defies pigeon holing and classification of any kind.  So unique and original in every facet it's hard to believe why Castle decided to change the movie and in effect cheapen everything that makes the book so odd and bewildering, charming and bewitching.

Did I just call a book about two potential child murderers charming?  Yes, I did. These ten year-olds, first introduced as holy terrors having nearly destroyed an entire ferry and terrorized the passengers while crossing from Vancouver to an unnamed Gulf Island, undergo a magical transformation in a matter of days. It's as if the Canadian island where they have been sent for a summer vacation has truly cast a spell on them.  But in truth it is the subtle manipulation of the adults who have little patience for bratty kids that has a positive effect on these little monsters. As the story progresses Barnaby and Christie grow to be great friends and their pact to do in the thoroughly diabolical Uncle Sylvester while fraught with danger and peril is really no more horrifying than Hansel and Gretel shoving the witch in the oven.  It's a matter of survival and an eerie rite of passage. Even as they plot to kill Uncle they also plan to blame a mentally disabled young man they have befriended.  But wait -- how can that be charming? I'm at a loss to explain it all.  By rights it should be revolting, and yet the outrageousness never once seems vulgar or offensive.

June Skinner as seen
on the rear DJ of the US edition
June Skinner's writing is the key. She guides the reader masterfully avoiding all the pitfalls of quaint and cutesy incidents and never once veering into self-parody.  For the first half I kept asking myself it if it was intended for children.  Past the midway point it is clear that children are not Skinner's main audience, though I imagine her adult themes (elitism and racism, ravages of war, destruction of wilderness and its consequences, among others) perhaps have a powerful resonance for modern young readers. Still the writing has a quiet soulful mood so peculiar to the best of children's books, one in which a sonorous voiced narrator is telling a bedtime story. You're lulled into a world where the writer paints rich pictures of a rural Canadian village, gives each supporting character deep meaningful lives and sharply voiced dialogue. She even gives thoughts and human emotions to animals just as in a fairy tale.

We get to know the animals just as intimately as we do the human characters, especially how they feel about the humans they encounter. There is a misanthropic bull named Iron Duke also plotting a death wish for his cruel owner.  There are dogs, cats, horses, and even a budgie all getting their chance to shine over the course of the novel. Most importantly there is ol' One-Ear, a cougar as battle scarred and world weary as Sgt. Albert Coulter, the local Mountie still haunted by dreams of being a prisoner of war.  Coulter and the cougar have a lot in common and Skinner does an impressive job of tying these two together over the course of the story.  How many books have you read where a mountain lion is given to expressing ennui when faced with the choice of turning vegetarian or starving?

Remarkably, Barnaby and Christie manage to befriend this cougar suffering from a poor diet and a weltschmerz that nearly outdoes Young Werther's.  Too exhausted to chase them away or frighten them with a roar One-Ear becomes their playmate and surrogate pet. Barnaby and Christie grow to be friends yet also seem to transform once again into miniature adults playing house with One-Ear as their adopted child.  Just as the adults of the Island have managed to tame the little monsters from the ferry these two children seem to be taming a wild beast.  Barnaby never forgets their mission, however, and soon he finds a way to add One-Ear to the plot to do in Uncle Sylvester.  Will it all go according to plan?  Little do the children know that Uncle has been spying on them with the aid of his high powered binoculars and his surefooted jungle tracking skills.  Just how much has he learned about their plot?  Who will get who?

Woven around the duelling murder plots we get a fascinating character study of Sgt. Coulter.  He has fallen in love with the wife of the Island's vicar and every night he writes a love letter to her, sharing with her his doubts, fears and hopes for the two kids to whom he has become both a guardian angel and surrogate parent.  He never mails these letters. Just as soon as he has finished pouring out his heart and soul he rips up the letter. Coulter is the most intriguing character in the book, complex, conflicted, compassionate and impassioned. We learn he is probably the only member of the Royal Mounted Police who hates horses. We watch him suffer through nightmare flashbacks to the POW camp and his haunted visions of the aftermath of the concentration camps he was forced to visit before being sent back to Canada. His story is both humorous and poignant and yet another example of how Skinner has crafted a beguiling story.  There's so much more to this novel than what the title implies.

For a long time this was a very hard to find this book. Luckily, for all it is now readily available in both a paperback edition and digital book from Bloomsbury in their marvelous series that also brought back into print Miss Hargreaves, A Kid for Two Farthings and other well-loved but sadly overlooked novels. Anyone interested in reading one of those rare indescribable books, one that reads like no other you've read before, ought not to be put off by the title or the cult movie.  Let's Kill Uncle is quite a magical and unforgettable reading experience.  In fact, I can't wait to read the book all over again.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card, space L2 - "Book made into a movie"
 Posted by at 9:07 am
Feb 052015
 
Clifford Witting tries his hand at a master criminal style thriller in The Case of the Busy Bees (1952). This mystery is not a Holmesian adventure with apiaries and beekeeping as its background. The Busy Bees are members of a criminal syndicate stretching from "Land's End to John O'Goats" whose nefarious activities include "kidnapping, extortion, forgery, blackmail, smuggling, coining, fraud, dope-peddling, black market offences on a large scale." And of course murder.

What begins as an eccentric mystery with the theft of a Native American tomahawk from the odd dime museum run by Theophilus Mildwater leads to murder and gangland violence on a grand and brutal scale such as I've not encountered before in any detective novel by Witting. The introduction of a gang of criminals calling themselves the Busy Bees who resort to code names like Apple Nine Zero and Gooseberry One Six, who signal one another with coded phrases and a trademark "Zzzzz" sound effect, and whose leader dubs himself Rex Apis are all plot elements you'd expect to find in a book written twenty to thirty years earlier. But Witting cannot resist this homage to Nigel Morland and Edgar Wallace. And he spares no one as the criminal activity escalates from theft to kidnapping to murder. The body count is high and the surprises come when Witting shows no mercy for any of his often very likable characters. Your favorite is most likely going to end up dead in this book. Even Inspector Charlton, Witting's detective series hero, succumbs to a diabetic coma and is hospitalized for the last third of the book.


I did learn a few things here. Notably the existence of Potter's Museum (now defunct), one of the most bizarre collections of amateur taxidermy in the world. Started by Walter Potter in the summer house near his family owned pub in 1861 his collection eventually grew to over 10,000 pieces. The museum lived out it's nomadic existence in three different locations from the late 19th century through the late 20th century. From 1984 to 2002 much of the collection was exhibited at Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. Finally the museum was shut down in 2003 when the entire collection was sold at auction, sadly realizing in total sales less than what was anticipated. Witting mentions that Potter's Museum served as the inspiration for the Monk Jewel Museum run by Mr. Mildwater in this novel. For those ignorant of Potter's Museum I suggest you take a look at the macabre collection at this tribute website. I guarantee you've never seen groups of stuffed kittens, hamsters, squirrels and bunnies doing the things Potter had them do.

This wasn't one of my favorite Witting books; very atypical compared to his books written in the 1930s and 1940s. The setting is still Lulverton and the surrounding villages. The puzzle aspects are still there. And he planted some devilishly clever clues that show up the errors the villain makes due to his egocentrism and vanity. Most of the solution, however, combining a puzzling murder, the confusing thefts of museum articles, and the identity of Rex Apis is delivered in a lecture with lots of evidence mentioned for the first time in the final chapter. Even with the few fair play clues Witting hasn't delivered a traditional detective novel here. It is pretty much an all-out underworld thriller with a 1920s style homage to a fantasy world of criminals that never really existed.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age bingo card space E5 "Book set in England"
 Posted by at 3:46 pm
Jan 302015
 
An unusual setting of West Africa in the 1950s, a locked room murder involving death by bow and arrow, evidence of tribal witchcraft rituals in the surrounding village, and a cast of characters whose names seem inspired by the board game Clue. There’s even a map of the scene of the crime. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? So much opportunity for a send-up of the traditional detective novel or an intriguing homage to the works of John Dickson Carr. Why then is Darkest Death (1964) such a dreadful mess? It’s a greater mystery than the one Ralph Stephenson presents us in the pages of his alternately boring and quirky detective novel.

A group of British ex-pats have settled themselves into a cozy unnamed village outside of Accra in the Gold Coast colony of West Africa. Stephenson for some reason sets his story in an unspecified year in the 1950s, but it must be before 1957 when the colony became the independent nation of Ghana. Within the first couple of pages I knew I was probably in for trouble when I noticed that the characters’ names were taken from a box of crayons. Harry and Sally Gray, Jimmy and Heather Brown, Hetty and Tweeny (!) Green, Robert Gold, Dennis and Mona Silver, Mr. and Mrs. Blue... You get the picture. There’s Miss Scarlett, too! Yes, Ann Scarlett with two Ts who instantly made me think that Stephenson was trying to pull off a parody of Clue. Or for Stephenson, I guess, Cluedo is more accurate. No such luck. In fact not one person in the story ever comments on the ridiculousness of everyone having a rainbow array of surnames.

The story begins with a New Year’s Eve party with lots of drinking and dancing and transparent exposition clumsily handled. The cast of characters are introduced in dizzying (but colorful) succession. The women chit chat endlessly about clothes, gossip about characters we never meet, and indulge in other pointless banter. The men practically slap each other on the back while tossing off cocktails and speaking like the worst sort of British stereotypes. "The war" is mentioned repeatedly. I’m guessing they are all WW2 veterans, but no one is ever very specific about which war they are talking about. Only Dennis Silver’s entrance brings any kind of interest and mystery to these opening chapters when he begins an info dump monologue on African witchcraft. This seems to be taken verbatim from the two books Stephenson felt it necessary to acknowledge in the “Author’s Note” that precedes the first chapter. Those books are Sir James George Frazer’s seminal study on symbology, rites and rituals in religion The Golden Bough and Religion and Art in Ashanti by R. S. Rattray. In an offhand comment that concludes an early chapter (not cleverly hidden among the rest of the chit chat) we get the tantalizing tidbit that Sally Gray and Hetty Green look remarkably similar from the back in their striking black gowns. An alarm bell couldn’t have sounded any louder to signal an imminent mistaken identity murder.

Sure enough a day later Sally Gray is found murdered in the locked and barred sitting room of the Green’s jungle bungalow. Entry to the house is only via French windows serving as doors that line a veranda extending alongside the entire perimeter. The veranda is covered with a fine mesh of mosquito netting and all the windows and doors are faced in burglar bars. (see the map below) But the front door is locked from the inside as is the rear entry to the house. Summoned by terrifying screams three men run to the house and break down the door. But it’s too late. Sally has died from a fatal strike to the chest from a tribal bow and arrow. How on earth did the murder use the weapon and escape from a locked and barred house? No holes are found in the netting outside the veranda and the bow is nowhere to be found.

Plan of the Green's Bungalow (click to enlarge)
 When the police arrive the story starts to become interesting. But I immediately noticed more funny business with the names: Supt. Stalky Heron, James Raven, and Charles Finch. Apparently having tired of his Crayola muse Stephenson resorted to a Peterson Field Guide for the rest of his characters' names. Only the local doctor escaped the bird dubbing. His name is MacGregor. No real relief though for MacGregor is saddled with a cartoon Scottish dialect. Six of one, half a dozen of the other as my mother used to carp.

Nothing is made of these names. To a mystery fan like me this was more than troubling. Such an obvious choice is rife for possibility in a detective novel and was completely ignored. Not even a joke mentioned in passing by any of the characters. Nothing! A writer like Ellery Queen for example would have made a choice like this and run with it planting red herrings all over the place related to the surnames, maybe even reserving an entire chapter to what seems like a coincidence but in fact a sinister design. Not so with Stephenson. It must’ve been a case of the writer chuckling privately to himself. I kept rolling my eyes.

Ashanti warrior
The detective work leaves a lot to be desired. An obsession with fingerprints and police photography mixes with the usual endless parade of suspects being interrogated in Q&A sessions. In an effort to avoid revealing the dirty secrets among the many adulterous men who were keeping company with the trampy Hetty Green the Europeans accuse the African servants and obfuscate the police work with gossip of witchcraft. Silver, the anthropology expert, points out Green’s missing black cat is a sure sign of some local having kidnapped and slaughtered it for an essential ingredient used in an invisibility spell. Isn’t it possible Sally Gray’s murder actually involves supernatural methods? When Silver fails to convince the police the rest of the men (and a few women) offer more accusations against the African servants because, you know, they’re just plain shifty and some of them have filched spare change and food from their employers.

In one of the most patronizing parts of the book Finch (the primary detective) talks in Pidgin English to the servants. They also reply in pidgin English making it seem as if the book has been transplanted to the Limehouse district of a Sax Rohmer novel and the Africans transformed into the worst kind of Yellow Peril novel supporting cast. It doesn’t help that all of the Africans refer to all of the European characters as Master or Missy. Sometimes you just can’t overlook this kind of petty racism.

Darkest Death would’ve been a much better book with its promising plot and exotic setting in the hands of a much more talented writer. I can imagine how gasp inducing the finale would have been had this been a John Rhode book or one by Carr or Queen. In the hands of this mediocre writer the locked room mystery is a fizzle with a borderline preposterous solution, the revelation of the murderer comes with a lame forced confession, and the climactic pursuit of the villain on the run  leads to the beach and ends in a swimming race with half naked policemen trying their best to prevent a suicide by drowning. Stephenson tacks on a happy ending coda in which our detective heroes raise glasses in a champagne toast commending themselves on a job well done while simultaneously congratulating Stalky Heron for snagging Ann Scarlett as his wife to be.

Well gang, they can't all be winners.

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READING CHALLENGE update: My first book on the Silver Age bingo card. It covers S2 - "Book set anywhere except the US or England"
 Posted by at 6:50 am
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