IN BRIEF: Coffin, Scarcely Used – Colin Watson

 Colin Watson, comic crime, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on IN BRIEF: Coffin, Scarcely Used – Colin Watson
Apr 012015

Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958) is the first of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough comic crime novels and sets the tone for all that followed in the series. It may not be the most successful of his books but I wager it was pretty daring for its time. Watson shakes up the cozy English village by populating his town with an assortment of venal businessmen, randy husbands, duplicitous housewives and bemused policemen. Sex and greed serve as the primary motivators in a mixture of scandalous criminal activity, base revenge, all oddly livened with Watson’s usual absurd antics.

While the denizens of Flaxborough are trying to make sense of the outrageous death of the editor of the town’s newspaper who is found electrocuted at the foot of a power pylon Inspector Purbright is confronted with some incongruous evidence. Why would Mr. Gwill make a impulsive midnight climb up the pylon with slippers on his feet? What of that odd daffodil shaped burn embedded in Gwill’s right palm? Nothing on the pylon comes anywhere close to looking like a flower. And then there are the marshmallows found in Gwill’s pocket and in his stomach. That’s some kind of strange last meal for anyone. To Purbright and Sgt. Sid Love it looks like a murder cover-up. They need to find out where Gwill was really killed and why he was moved and why someone would think anyone be fooled by the implication that he fell from a power pylon.

Investigation of Gwill’s death leads Purbright to the newspaper offices of the Flaxborough Citizen and some strange personal ads setup by Gwill himself. They all seem to indicate an unusual interest in buying and selling curios and antiques and the numerous replies, all sent to Gwill’s personal box, all too coincidentally make mention of evening appointments and all include deposits of eight pounds. Purbright begins to imagine that some kind of underground conspiracy is at work. He is sure the ads have nothing to do with buying old furniture. Eventually he uncovers a surreal secret code that seems modeled on bad spy novels and an eye opening surprise in the examination rooms at a physician’s offices.

The sexual content in Coffin, Scarcely Used may have prevented it from being published in the US until ten years after its original appearance in England. Watson seemed decades ahead of his fellow crime writers (at least those who confined their plots to charming British villages) in terms of dealing with sex in the crime novel and doing so it such a bawdy and preposterous way.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space E1 – “Book with a detective team”
 Posted by at 3:50 am

Charity Ends at Home – Colin Watson

 Colin Watson, comic crime, Reading Challenges, satire  Comments Off on Charity Ends at Home – Colin Watson
Mar 252015

Once again two stories unfold at once in Charity Ends at Home (1968), Colin Watson’s fifth satiric exploration of life in the less than idyllic village of Flaxborough. Mortimer Hive is a private detective working on a routine divorce case yet as an apparent former Foreign Office worker he acts if he is on a spy mission. When reporting to his client he resorts to absurd code names and narrates his surveillance of the philandering couple in a grandiloquent jargon.

While Hive is alternately flirting with the local barmaid and making his telephone reports Inspector Purbright and the Flaxborough police are investigating the peculiar drowning death of Henrietta Palgrove who was found upended in her ersatz wishing well used as a home for her pet goldfish. Mrs. Palgrove was noted in Flaxborough for her avid volunteerism and her ongoing letter writing campaign to her favorite charities. Pet charities, one might say. Quite literally. Mrs. Palgrove was devoted to rescuing animals, most especially dogs. She had recently fired off an insinuating letter to the secretary of the Flaxborough and Eastern Counties Charity Alliance (FECCA) threatening her with exposure of mismanagement of funds from the Rover Holme charity. And who is that secretary? None other than the irrepressible Lucilla Teatime.

The two plotlines converge when Purbright’s team begins questioning Leonard, Mrs. Palgrove’s husband. It soon becomes apparent that Leonard is not only considered the prime suspect in his wife’s death but is also somehow involved in the case Mortimer Hive is working on. But is Leonard Hive’s client or his target? a series of anonymous letters proven to have come form Mrs. Palgrove’s typewriter also add a bit of mystery to the case. It appears she was in fear for her life and the content implies a murder conspiracy had been in place. Miss Teatime proves to be quite a linguistic sleuth using her knowledge of charity publicity to make sense of the ambiguous letter solving one mystery that Purbright failed to see through.

 The ending may a bit to similar to Watson’s previous book (Lonelyheart 4122) with another scene in which the killer tries to silence someone who knows too much. Still, Charity Ends at Home is as lively and engaging as all of Colin Watson’s crime novels. This time Watson unsheathes his satirist’s rapier wit and targets the indifferent authority of schoolmasters, the bluster of self-important civil servants, the paradoxical selfishness of charitable work and the zealotry of its devoted volunteers.

Mortimer drives the story with Miss Teatime riding shotgun compared to her starring role in Lonelyheart 4122. Despite his pompous speech, his chauvinistic view of women and his undeserved vanity Mortimer Hive is a thoroughly affable character. In the dialogue sequences with Miss Teatime we get a hint of not only a close friendship but some shady business in their past. It’s clear that Hive and Miss Teatime are miscreants of one sort or another but Watson isn’t letting us know exactly what they got up to in their checkered past. It’s one reason that you’ll want to keep reading more books in the series. I’m going to be a bit let down when I get to the end. There are only nine left for me to read out of the total of twelve books.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space E6 – “Borrowed from a library”

 Posted by at 12:07 pm
Mar 202015

Two plot lines unfold simultaneously in Lonelyheart 4122 (1967), a combination detective novel and sophisticated con artist caper involving a couple of missing women and the dating service they both joined. Inspector Purbright, Sgt Sid Love and the rest of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough police are on hand to solve the disappearance and possible murders of the two middle-aged women. But it is Lucilla Teatime who steals the show in the second story that deals with her burgeoning romance with a retired Navy officer. It seems more than likely that Member 4122 of the Handclasp House dating service was responsible for the disappearances. Is Lucy doing some investigating of her own? She certainly seems to have an ulterior motive in seeking out a specific type of man when she too joins Handclasp House.

After reading a series of mediocre detective novels, crime novels that really weren’t crime novels for the past three weeks I’ve finally hit my stride this month with a group of very entertaining books that take basic formulas of the private eye novel (I Found Him Dead), the police procedural (The Late Mrs D), and now the predatory fortune hunter plot and turned them inside out and made them altogether fresh and exciting. Watson’s style is a blend of graceful wit, intricate plotting, and all out farce. In Lucilla Teatime he has created one of the most sophisticated badass biddies I’ve encountered in the genre. She continually surprises the reader with her own devious plans and her impressive knowledge encompassing everything from amateur botany to the mechanics of French sports cars. There are some acutely realized comic scenes that might have been lifted from Fawlty Towers like her surreptitious unearthing of a bunch of primroses just prior to her face to face meeting with Commander Jack Trelawney (Ret.) or her attempt to hire a sporty Renault from a car rental agency.

I so enjoyed this book I took not a single note about the plot. Usually I have several pages worth as well as paragraph citations, but there was too much to take in all at once with this book. This time I came out with one Post-It note with two page citations for the scenes I mentioned above. It’s best to know as little as possible about this story in order to fully enjoy it. I just went along for the ride enjoying each hair rising turn and sudden jolt along the way. Watson has a talent for making even the simplest of exchanges laugh out loud funny and he does it all with an elegant prose and witty finesse. Most of the fun comes from trying to figure out if Miss Teatime is a rogue like Trelawney or a a true heroine performing the most underhanded form of amateur sleuthing. It’s never really clear until the final chapter. And what an ending!

While Purbright and his crew are the primary series characters in Watson’s comic crime novels about the bizarre criminal activity that plagues Flaxborough Miss Teatime was such a hit in Lonelyheart 4122 Watson made her a recurring character in later books.  I’m eager to read more of his novels and see what mischief she gets up to in future adventures. This is one of the better examples of a comic crime novel that is consistently funny yet never succumbs to raucous slapstick nonsense. Amid the wit and humor Watson still maintains a good deal of suspense in the deadly serious parts involving an insidious plot. This has been one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.  Go find a copy now!

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Reading Challenge updates:  Silver Age card, space I2 – “Number in the book’s title”
Book published in 1967 for Rich Westwood’s “Year of the Month” reading challenge.

 Posted by at 1:41 pm
Mar 142014
1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)

Slick fantasy. Now there’s a new term for me. I discovered it is a sort of catch-all subgenre “usually in short-story form, which deals with such matters as Pacts with the Devil, Three Wishes, Identity Exchange, Answered Prayers, Little Shops of the Heart’s Desire, etc.” and were often published in the slick magazines as opposed to the pulps. This is one of the terms invented by John Clute and John Grant, the editors of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). Writers of slick fantasy include John Collier and Lord Dunsany and it is suggested that much of the work of  F. Anstey and Thorne Smith can also be included.

Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in “slick fantasy.” I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.

Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of “Black Bart”, an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias “Black Bart”. After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart’s stashed loot.

Extremely scarce paperback edition

Soon the estate is overrun with visitors and prospective buyers interested in the property. The weather turns nasty. Legend states that with the approach of thunderstorms comes the ghost of Sir Richard. The guests and two new owners prepare for ghostly visits by locking themselves up in their rooms. But the temptation of the jewels and money keep most of the guests busy by sneaking out. Much confusion and wackiness accompanied by slamming of doors, bedroom switches and women dressed in flimsy nighties ensues.

Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers’ similar fault — “drowning in words.” In my first encounter reading Alexander as “Joan Butler” I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.

As for the “slick fantasy” element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say “The devil take you!” on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.

The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles — Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 — are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I’m hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm

The Robbery at Rudwick House – Victor L Whitechurch

 comic crime, P. G. Wodehouse, Reading Challenges, Victor L Whitechurch  Comments Off on The Robbery at Rudwick House – Victor L Whitechurch
Feb 102014

The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929) is the third of only five crime novels written by Victor L. Whitechurch, cleric turned mystery writer and one of the first members of The Detection Club. Interestingly, like Anthony Berkeley who founded the Detection Club some of Whitechurch’s books are far from the usual traditional mystery of the other members. He liked to experiment with the form. This book, originally published as Mixed Relations in the UK, is as far removed from a detective novel as possible. In fact, there is very little detection in the book at all.

Whitechurch attempts to tell the story of a comedy of manners slowly introducing elements familiar to readers of comic crime — mistaken identity, leaping to conclusions, and the farcical possibilities of bringing together characters of contrasting class backgrounds. Selina Lakenham, an American woman and her son Alexander travel overseas to the home of her brother-in-law Archdeacon Lakenham who has been entrusted with getting Alexander into Oxford University. Cyril Lakenham, whose brother recently died, learns from an odd codicil in his brother’s will that he will earn $10,000 if he can safeguard a place for his nephew at Oxford and upon completion of his studies and graduation from university will receive another $10,000. He assures everyone that the money is not the impetus for his meeting with his sister-in-law and nephew. He really has the young man’s educational interests at heart.

Simultaneously, another story is unfolding. The Vicar has recently employed Leonard Brooks, a new manservant, who we learn almost immediately is not at all who appears to be. He is leading a double life in an elaborate disguise under the assumed name of Major Greynell. Something fishy is going on. And when another woman Babs Morris and young man posing as her son show up the stage is set for an obvious case of mistaken identity and silliness galore. Mrs. Lakenham and Alexander will soon be mistaken for Babs and her “son” who is really her brother Alan.  The police are hot on the trail of the two con artists; Mr. Gillingham, the Archdeacon’s lawyer is trying to sort out the mess of who is who; and Sir Henry Middleton has recently lost a valuable addition to his unique collection of antique snuff boxes. With all this going on there is ample opportunity for farce and laughs galore.

Canon V. L. Whitechurch

Here’s the problem. The story is not very funny at all. It’s too familiar. The mistaken identity gimmick is easily spotted and the reader can predict everything pages before it happens. This is a shame because Whitechurch has proven he can be a master of the unexpected with offbeat humor in his creation of Thorpe Hazell. The comedy of an Edwardian health nut still has resonance for and can elicit a smile or a giggle from a 21st century reader. The humor in …Rudwick House, however, is hackneyed. The strength of the book is perhaps in the satirical touches about life at a vicarage and the politics of the clergy, something very close to Whitechurch.

The Robbery at Rudwick House is a pale imitation of an P.G. Wodehouse novel. All the jokes are about making fun of crass Americans. There are too many scenes like those in which the vicar’s houseguest Lady Caroline is horrified by the Americans’ vulgarity. Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont made a career exploiting this kind of character contrast. Frankly,  I’d rather be watching Groucho so naturally and ebulliently make fun of Dumont than read a book that consists of labored comedy. Nothing brings a frown to my face faster.

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This counts as the seventh book in my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I’ve counted it as space G3 (“A Book with a Crime Other Than Murder”).

 Posted by at 1:45 am

The Ghost Knows His Greengages – R. B. Saxe

 comic crime, Damon Runyon, gangsters, obscure writers, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on The Ghost Knows His Greengages – R. B. Saxe
Feb 042014

Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car “the boot” or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy’s peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.

Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series

“Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket.”

“…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle.”

“…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills.”

“…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts.”

“My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel.”

“The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic.”

The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That’s the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:

“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”

See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

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Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age “Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge” Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”).”

 Posted by at 5:32 pm

The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone – Richard Shattuck

 comic crime, obscure writers, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone – Richard Shattuck
Jan 202014

The New York Times reviewer for The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (1940) called it “…hilariously funny…a real mystery”. Marcia Muller wrote a praiseworthy essay for 1001 Midnights calling the same book “wonderfully amusing…with rich bawdy (for its time) humor.” I know I have a sense of humor, but maybe mine is a bit more refined or too quirky. I didn’t find much of this book hilarious at all. In fact, I thought much of the humor was simple-minded and tedious.

The unusual title comes from Coleridge’s Gothic poem The Ancient Mariner and each chapter begins with an epigram from the same poem.  As the book takes place during the honeymoon of Sue and Ty Grant it seems appropriate to have a poem about doom and death during a wedding celebration as an ironic source from which to draw allusions. The characters also inexplicably and surprisingly make several highbrow literary references during the action. I say surprisingly because they all act like imbeciles for the bulk of the book. You’d never think they had the smarts to read half the works they make reference to.

The entire plot is predicated on the old screwball mystery gimmick of hiding a dead body. Craig Rice did it in The Corpse Steps Out, Jack Trevor Story did it in The Trouble with Harry, but those books at least made me crack a smile. I was rolling my eyes while reading Shattuck’s book. Not one chuckle. Not even a snicker. Even with the early bedroom farce bits with Sue running around in her nightgown and crawling into bed (nude, it is implied) with the dead body I failed to see the humor.  Later, in an equal opportunity semi-nude scene, her husband runs around town in his underwear. Hilarious.

One of the problems with the plot lies in the reasoning for hiding the body in the first place. Four people enter a conspiracy in order to protect Sue — including Milly, the owner of the hotel “hilariously” named La Cucaracha — all because they don’t want Sue’s honeymoon ruined and have the police crawling all over the place. Plus, the murder victim just happens to be one of those characters everyone hates, though the reader never gets to see any behavior that would support the antipathy everyone feels for him. Once he’s dead he becomes a prop. He never was human even when he was so briefly alive in the story.

Title changed in this digest edition,
also the 1st paperback edition.

So the first half of the book is filled with “hilarious” hiding the body sequences. They take him to a walk in refrigerator, then when the meat is delivered they move him somewhere else at around 2 AM using the ancient and unreliable elevator. Guess what? That’s right — the elevator breaks down. More “hilarity” ensues as the people in the elevator are rescued via a ladder and the attempts to get the now rigor mortis-ized corpse out of the elevator. They are forced to leave the corpse there and wait until someone accidentally discovers it the next day when the elevator is summoned. But, of course, the corpse vanishes and the conspirators have no idea where it went. Until the police show up and tell them.

When they aren’t hiding the body they’re all drinking. And drinking. They’ve all attended the Thorne Smith School for Hilarious Heavy Drinking Fictional Characters. The assortment of cocktails and libations that turn up include lime rickey, sidecar, Tom Collins, sloe gin fizz, brandy (and anything that uses it as an ingredient),  whiskey and splash (also ordered as “corn and ditch”), and whiskey straight up for the battle-scarred WWI veteran who hardly speaks at all over the course of the book. Even the cops are pouring whiskey and knocking back drinks while interviewing the suspects! There was one drink I’d never heard of — an angel’s kiss. Apparently it contains apricot brandy and is topped with whipped cream. Sounds more like a dessert!

The only interesting aspect of the novel to me was a barbecue party at a “dude mine.” One of the wealthier characters, Cedric Jones, has purchased an old mine and turned it into a sort of adult playground where people can simulate what it feels like to be a miner by descending into the caverns wearing denim overalls and carbide light helmets and play at digging for gold. Problem is Cedric also simulates realistic perils that endanger the lives of his guests. Getting trapped two hundred feet below ground by an engineered rock slide! Hilarious, ain’t it?

2nd paperback edition (Collier, 1968)

This didn’t do it for me at all. Even the mystery itself is lacking in the kind of puzzle elements that make a mystery entertaining for me. The culprit is fairly obvious as he is depicted as the most hateful person in this group of clowns and buffoons. The clues about his character are all there in his dialogue. Real evidence is lacking. A convenient eyewitness in the form of a little old lady turns up at the eleventh hour in order to give the only real proof of the murderer’s guilt. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax when the murderer is named and caught.

I was excited about finding a copy of this hard to find book but utterly disappointed in its content.  Here’s another case of a mystery highly praised that turns out to be nothing but hyperbole. If you want real hilarity I say stick with Alice Tilton or Craig Rice. You’d best skip Richard Shattuck…who is really Dora Shattuck anyway.

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This counts towards another space filled on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo Card.  The space is O1 (“A Book Published under More Than One Title”).
 Posted by at 5:18 pm
Dec 202013

Gaylene Ffrench isn’t bothered by typecasting. In the role of Maddalena in the Northern Opera Company of Manchester’s latest production of Rigoletto she is relishing playing a vulgar prostitute. But if you ask her fellow cast members they’d tell you she’s not acting at all.

The more we get to know Gaylene the more we see that she is loud, brash, rude and licentious. Between her promiscuous come-ons to every male member of the cast and her frequent insults hurled at the more talented female singers Gaylene has managed to make enemies of the entire company. They dislike Gaylene so intensely that when two attempts are made on her life they are not taken seriously. Especially when, in her constant grasping at any type of publicity, she runs to the newspapers rather than the police. However, when she dies bizarrely via an electrified doorknob outside her dressing room the opera company must reassess those previous accidents and start looking for a murderer among themselves.

Death on the High C’s (1977) was Robert Barnard’s third detective novel. He has a field day satirizing the many vain and egotistical performers so often lampooned in novels about opera singers, but he is also highly knowledgeable about the world of opera. As is the police detective Superintendent Nichols who at first plays dumb about the music in order to catch the cast and crew off guard. If there is anything to criticize it is an assumption on Barnard’s part that his readers are as expert in the world of opera as he is. As much as I dislike “info dumping” a little more background on some of the plots of the operas and composers would have been appreciated by a rookie opera fan like myself. I resorted to Google to help fill in the gaps that Barnard and Nichols and the Northern Opera Company omitted.

The writing is at times arch and ostentatious with a wry humor that on occasion made me laugh out loud. Every now and then the satirical touches are tempered with moments of quiet drama as in the scene when we learn that the singer playing Rigoletto is taking care of a severely disabled young girl in his home, a fact he’d prefer to keep very private. For the most part though this early Barnard mystery novel is less somber than some of his later books. His wit and clever plotting reminded me more of Christianna Brand than Agatha Christie who he greatly admired.

Today is a salute to the recently departed Robert Barnard. For more about his wonderful detective novels and crime fiction please visit Patti Abbott’s blog where you will find links to the other contributions for Fridays Forgotten Books.

 Posted by at 1:28 pm
Nov 062013

Who was Nicholas Olde? No one seems to know. In addition to this collection of clever and often quite funny mystery short stories, Olde apparently was also the author of two slim volumes of poetry published in pamphlet form in the early 1930s. It is generally thought that Olde was a pseudonym and attempts to uncover any biographical data on him have yielded nothing. Whoever he was he certainly read a lot of G. K. Chesterton. The plots and dialogue are rife with the kind of paradox that Chesterton imbued his mystery stories—not only with Father Brown but also in the Gilbert Pond stories and the tales found in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Another Chestertonian aspect of some of the stories is an element of the supernatural and the impossible crime, or more often an impossible problem. Chesterton employed these often in the Father Brown stories. Readers will surely find analogies between many stories. “The Windmill” by Olde and “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton share similar solutions to their crimes, for instance. “The Monstrous Laugh” tells of a town haunted by phantom laughter and a local superstition that is similar to the seemingly supernatural aspects of “The Ghost of Gideon Wise,” “The Dagger with Wings” and several other Father Brown tales.

Robert Adey in his excellent bibliography of impossible crime stories and novels, Locked Room Murders, makes a side comment about Olde’s book having been undeservedly passed up for Queen’s Quorum status. Had it been listed in that Hall of Fame listing of seminal short story collections in the detective fiction genre, Olde would perhaps not have been condemned to obscurity and the book might not have descended into the limbo of forgotten and neglected works. In the countless anthologies devoted to crime and detective fiction published since the 1930s, only three publications have ever included a Rowland Hern story: “The Windmill” in Twelve Murder Tales, one of Jack Adrian’s anthologies for Oxford University Press (1988); “The Accidental Disembowelment of John Kensington” and “The Invisible Weapon” both in Japanese translation, the first in Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine (#468, 1995) and the other in a 1990s locked room story anthology, the title of which is Japanese (I cannot reproduce it here). It’s a shame this has happened because The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern contains some of the most ingenious and funny detective stories of the 1920s.

Like most detective fiction fans I had never heard of Nicholas Olde or Rowland Hern. No surprise given the fact that Olde and the quirky Rowland Hern have both been overlooked (or shunned) by nearly all of the crime fiction historians and critics. Through sheer serendipity — that miracle that usually leads me to a treasure of a book — I was lucky enough to obtain a copy through the internet in the spring of 2005. Lucky, because as I later discovered, it is among one of the rarer books in mysterydom and sought after by collectors of impossible crime stories. Later research revealed that the copy I stumbled upon was the only copy being offered via the internet and has been the only one for several years. An attempt to locate other copies, even in academic libraries or public libraries, showed less than ten copies held in the US and UK. There may be other copies in private collections, but I’ve been unable to verify the existence of even one. All of this made me think that someone ought to reissue this book. And the sooner the better.

As I delved into its pages I discovered the book to be filled with the bizarre, the surreal and the outrageous. Throughout the fifteen stories in the volume the reader is treated to several wicked clergymen, a devious physicist, a vengeful botanist, and many murderous lords, earls and other titled gentry. The plots involve a secret code in a lost language, a murder committed with an invisible weapon, a tell-tale beard, a near disembowelment, a village where no one laughs, and a killer whose motive is linked to a literal battle of wits.

The more I read the more I thought Olde cannot really intend these to be taken seriously. They must be detective fiction parodies. As such they are perhaps some of the earliest examples. I can think of only Philo Gubb, the correspondence school sleuth created by the American humorist Ellis Parker Butler, as the earliest of intentional detective fiction parodies in short story form. The first clue that Olde’s mood is far from somber in …Rowland Hern are the characters’ decidedly British and often alliterative monikers. Here’s a brief line-up of these unusual suspects: Pounceby Brisket, K.C., Sir Chudleigh Chalfont, Mrs. Tregaskin Simpson, Hercules Herklot, Sir Pendragon Higginbotham and Porteous Pemberton- Drysdale. And the names give only a hint of the oddities that the reader will encounter.

In “Potter”, one of my favorites in the collection, Hern and his nameless sidekick head off to a boutique that specializes in the sale of exotic animals. Why? Because Hern is in need of an armadillo and the emporium has several sizes to choose from. Their advertisement is certainly enticing to anyone in search of exotic animals: “Potter & Hara, Wild Beast Merchants. Tigers from £85, certified Man-eaters 5s extra. Snakes and crocodiles a specialty. Free burglary insurance policy presented to each customer.” How can one go wrong with those promises? Exactly why Hern needs that desert beast is never explained. And must we really know? The mere fact that he needs an armadillo is surreal enough. How many fictional detectives have ever required an armadillo to solve a case? Or for anything!

Olde’s sense of humor reaches its pinnacle in “The Mysterious Wig-Box.” For a story written in 1920s it displays a truly contemporary black humor presenting us with legal professionals who make light of killing and death during a sensational murder trial. Their lively repartee receives hearty laughter and applause from the irreverent courtroom attendees. The trial ends in a surprising acquittal of the serial killer thought to be obviously guilty. Later the defense attorney (one of the punning wits of the courtroom) is found decapitated in his home and his head decorated with his barrister’s wig is found in a wig-box in a railway station. Hern sees in this bizarre crime a particularly nasty sense of humor. The victim lost his head, after all, along with his ears and nose. What appears to be a wanton and insane act is in fact a purposeful and vengeful crime. When Hern reveals the killer’s identity his cohort is astonished. He says, “Apparently [they] were on the best of terms. […] They were even joking with one another during the trial.” Hern replies, in his characteristic Chestertonian paradoxical manner, “Yes, and that was the trouble.” It was their sense of humor which led to the crime. The first time I know of in crime fiction that the telling of jokes served as a motive for murder.

For decades The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern was one of the legendary and unattainable books of the genre. Thankfully, that is a thing of the past.  Mystery fans now have an affordable edition to enjoy available from Ramble House. Nicholas Olde’s original sleuth need no longer be imprisoned in that limbo of forgotten and neglected fictional creations. I suggest you acquaint yourself with him soon.

(This is an abridged, slightly altered version of my introduction to the Ramble House edition of The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern first reissued in 2005.)

 Posted by at 4:36 am
Jun 212013

“Mr Duffield,” interrupted the judge, “I am always loath to intervene when counsel is addressing the jury, but there is a limit you know. You are not entitled to tempt the jury to acquit the accused just because good may have resulted from the crime.” — Mr. Justice Pantin in According to the Evidence

There are probably other legal mysteries that spoof the court system but I have never encountered any of them. There is Rumpole of the Bailey, but I don’t recall the humor in those stories being specifically related to the law. The humor there arises out of character relationships. And when a writer is part of the legal system himself, like Henry Cecil, the books tend to be rather serious. If any attack is made on the course of circumvented justice or loopholes in the law that they tend to be scathing and admonishing. Not so with Cecil’s series of courtroom hijinks and legal satires. He slays the fearsome dragons of the law with a rapier wit not the sword of wrath.

What would happen if witnesses were canny enough about the law to make choices that they legally and rightfully can make and yet manage to obstruct the course of true justice? What would happen if a private enquiry agent like Ambrose Low were hired to prove an absolutely guilty man were innocent? These dilemmas and more are posed in the often witty story in According to the Evidence (1954), one of the many comic crime novels of Henry Cecil, a County Court judge in England for several decades.

One can imagine that many of the strange incidents recounted in this book were experienced first hand by Cecil. Either that or he took something like the confusion of a garrulous witness’ testimony and thought: “What if this witness’ accounts were crucial to the prosecution’s case and yet because the witness is so entirely literal minded the process of eliciting his testimony becomes a verbal farce?” Such is the case with Colonel Brain who has been manipulated by Low to give eyewitness account which can possibly exonerate his client of a murder accusation.

The basic plot involves serial killer Gilbert Essex who is acquitted of one murder only to be released and kill again. Alec Moreland, an artist and former soldier, decides to take the law into his own hands and execute the unjustly freed Essex. Through a combination of chance and his own confession to Jill, his fiancee, Alec is arrested for the murder. Jill approaches Ambrose Low and pleads with him to help her man escape the gallows. It was a service to the community killing that acquitted murderer, she tells Low.  Alec is sure to be found innocent. But in an ingenious twist to the story rather than discovering (or even manufacturing) evidence to prove Alec innocent Low engineers a series of events that will prove him even more guilty. And the literal minded Colonel Brain is Low’s patsy. But the plan backfires spectacularly and hilariously.

Cecil begins with satiric attack on the legal bureaucracy and piles on comic episodes in quick succession. He has a lot of fun with spoofing the overly formal way in which lawyers and judges address one another with their string of “my learned friends” and “your Worships.” As they grow ever exasperated and frustrated with the confusing trial the implied courtesy in their address erodes into subtle ironic insults. The satire then turns to all-out farce when dealing with Cecil’s obvious favorite (and my personal favorite), the blustery and amiable Colonel Brain. The resulting badinage is worthy of Tom Stoppard. The farce continues into the jury room when one of those good and true twelve is revealed to have a limitation that results in a ludicrous retelling of the events and nearly leads to a mistrial. That would be a disaster for Duffield, the counsel for the defense, whose intent is to have the trial stopped. Duffield is a master of oratory and his tactics and delays are positively magical examples of legal language put to its extreme test.

With its combination of linguistic wizardry and dazzling Socratic method According to the Evidence is a comic achievement. This book (and I suspect several of the others by Henry Cecil) would make an exceptional TV program or movie. I did a quick search at to see if any of his books were adapted and I see only one short story and one novel. But apparently Cecil made it to TV with two series. Whether or not they are based on characters in his books I can’t say.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm