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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I've knocked another title off my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card. This one fits space O5 - "Method of murder in the title". Trying to get this card filled by October 15. Think I can do it?
 Posted by at 3:56 pm
Sep 192014
 
Act of Fear (1966) is the first book in a series of private eye novels featuring Dan Fortune, the one-armed detective created by Dennis Lynds under his "Michael Collins" pseudonym. This is the first I've read of Fortune and so I can't speak for the other novels but his origin of how he lost his arm when he was a teenage hooligan and why he's reluctant to tell the truth about it provides a fascinating basis for who Dan Fortune becomes in his adult years. The setting for the most part is 1960s Chelsea in lower west side Manhattan and Lynds paints an eye-opening portrait of that neighborhood long before it was turned into a gentrified haven for well-to-do New Yorkers.

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 4:04 pm
Sep 122014
 
"How very losable your identity was, Caroline thought, lulled and drowsy. Stripped of your social security card, your charge plates, that old, old reminder from your dentist, you became nobody, or anyone at all."

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deadly Climate in the words of Anthony Boucher is "a throat-clutcher in the absolute, tightly and economically written." A better summation I could not devise myself. Copies of the book are readily available in both hardcover and paperback (four reprint paperback editions at my count) in the used book market. I'm sure her books will be found in your local library. Curtiss was quite popular in her day and was the kind of writer that librarians loved to keep on their shelves. None of her books, to my knowledge, are currently in print. More's the pity for lovers of excellent crime fiction.
 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Aug 292014
 
From the Shameless Self-Promotion Department:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book serves as part of Rich Westwood's 1952 Crime Novel Reading Challenge for August and another book knocked off my Bingo card for Bev Hansen's year long Golden Age Reading Challenge.
 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Aug 082014
 
Sometime this blog has a confessional tone and today I’m surrendering again to a not-so-whispered admission. The “Badass Biddy” category (a label I invented myself) is my perverse guilty pleasure. This subgenre deals with elderly women plotting malicious crimes and doing in each other with abandon. I’m not sure I want to explore why exactly I get such a kick out of reading these kinds of books (I dearly loved my two grandmothers so don’t even think about going there, Dr. Freud). Let’s just say almost every time I encounter one of these books the characters are so outrageously nasty they fascinate and delight me and the plots are filled with double crossing and the kind of cat-and-mouse mind games that make for a rip roaring read. I’m thoroughly entertained. I’m a little sicko, right? Not really true because sometimes the books go over the top into gross-out gore as in Nigel McCrery’s Still Waters and his sadistic psycho senior citizen murderess Violet Chambers. And for me that is always a turn-off. In the case of Shelley Smith’s novels, however, there is restraint mixed with suspense and a dash of macabre wit. Come and Be Killed! (1946), its ironic title already hinting at the black humor within its pages, is one of the best examples of the Badass Biddy crime novel.

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 3:32 pm