Jan 232015
 
Sir Anthony West is an addicted gambler. He is in debt to the tune of £1000 and he hasn't a clue how to dig himself out. As luck (and abounding coincidence we will soon learn) would have it Jasper Morgan knows of his troubles and offers him a challenge that might put Sir Anthony back in the black. Morgan knows that West is an avid car enthusiast and likes to race around the countryside where the police tend not to care about speeding. Morgan offers the use of his Mercedes and dares West to race the car in excess of 40 mph through a well known speed trap just outside of Comlyn, the city in Cornwall where The Comlyn Alibi (1915) takes place. If he succeeds without getting caught £1000 is his to do with as he chooses. But if he is caught by the police and arrested in order to get the £1000 West will have to pass himself off as Jasper Morgan. That will help to explain why West happens to be driving Morgan's car. Also, Morgan insists that there be a passenger seated next to him who can verify that West successfully made it through. If stopped and arrested, West will just have to explain to the witness why he's impersonating Morgan. Emboldened by the challenge and seeing it as his only chance to pay off his creditors West agrees. The same day that West is speeding through Comlyn in the borrowed Mercedes Jasper Morgan's wife is shot in the orchid house on his estate and her expensive jewelry is stolen. Seems there was an ulterior motive for Morgan making the bet. Now he has an ironclad alibi and West cannot reveal anything of the bet without implicating himself.

The Comlyn Alibi is an entertaining example of a plot that sticks to a sensation novel formula and almost succeeds as a fine modern crime novel. Headon Hill, pseudonym for Francis Edward Grainger, has a no-holds barred style of telling a story with rapid pacing and well drawn characters most of whom escape rigid stereotyping. While there is still the garrulous landlady, the conniving vixen, comic cops, an ex-convict turned butler, and unctuous villains Grainger also manages to add a bit of originality into the tired old formula of upright do-gooders matching wits with utter baddies. Supt. Noakes, for example, is not your typical policeman buffoon. He speaks in an ersatz intellectual patter trying to pass himself off as an educated man but he exploits his position of authority in order to obtain free food and drink in the homes of those he interrogates. Most of his attention is not on the case but on his stomach. As he polishes off glasses of expensive whiskey he lectures the suspects on his "h'axiom" of looking for the husband whenever a wife is murdered. But he is puzzled when Morgan seems to have an airtight alibi having learned of his arrest at the speed trap and his subsequent overnight stay in the Comlyn jail. Noakes is a stand out among the minor characters.


Oh yes! He really does say that.
This is more of a thriller but not without aspects of a puzzler of a detective novel. Morgan and his cohort, Professor Zimbalist are clearly villains from the get-go. There is never any question that Morgan is responsible for his wife's death if he is not the actual murderer. But what exactly is this nasty duo up to at the old abandoned tin mine? They are witnessed by several people digging around and pocketing small rocks. Zimbalist claims to be an archeologist and assures Mavis Comlyn, daughter of an elderly squire who owns the land where the mine is located, that the two men are interested in fossils. She suspects little, but the reader knows better. Morgan has designs on Mavis; he wants her as his wife. Once he is married to her Morgan hopes he will be able to gain access to the land as part of her inheritance. Mavis seems doomed.

Coincidentally, as in the case of the previously reviewed Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square, there is a teen amateur sleuth. This time a 14 year-old boy not a girl. Tom Burbury spends much of his time lurking about the old shipwreck where shifty Mike Hever, descendant of a family of smugglers, has taken up an unlikely residence. Morgan and Zimbalist are seen visiting the wreck and Tom eavesdrops on several key conversations that reveal the wedding plot being hatched. Tom discovers quite a bit and drawing on his keen interest in geology knows exactly what the rocks found at the old mine contain. They are teeming with uranium ore. Tom knows the value of radium that can be extracted from that ore, if not the then unknown dangers of its radioactivity.

Grainger was a rather prolific writer beginning his career in 1895 and continuing well into the late 1920s. His plots seem to belong to the world of Collins, Braddon and Richard Marsh what with forced marriages, blackmail galore, and heroes using a variety of disguises in order to ferret out the villains. His prose can often feel stodgy and melodramatic if not risible ("Tony was the bravest of the brave, but he realized that lying dead in the sand he would be of no use to Mavis in her dire extremity."). Nevertheless, he manages to give the books a contemporary feel and he knows how to tell a suspenseful and entertaining tale.

Several of his books are rather unusual (not to mention extremely scarce) like The Divinations of Kala Persad, a collection of short stories that mix crime and the occult and feature a protagonist who is a snake charmer/fakir/sleuth. His series character Sebastian Zambra appeared in two volumes of short stories but never in a full length novel that I know of. Many the "Headon Hill" books are available in digital versions from a variety of online websites either free or for a nominal fee. Expect to pay a chunk of change for any of the original books from the Edwardian era if you are lucky to find any of them in a used bookstore or online. Few of Grainger's books as "Headon Hill" were published in the US with the majority of his work having only UK editions making them all that more scarce.

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Reading Challenge updates: Second book for Rich Westwood's 1915 Book Read and O4 ("Author Never Read before") on the Golden Age Bingo Card.



 Posted by at 4:07 pm
Jan 162015
 
Chances are if you are asked to name one woman mystery writer from the early twentieth century you wouldn't immediately think of Natalie Sumner Lincoln. I'd wager that you are probably reading her name for the very first time. She was a contemporary of Anna Katharine Green, Isabel Ostrander and Carolyn Wells all of whom are better known and all of whom she was clearly trying to emulate.  Ostrander was the most innovative and talented during the heyday of these women's careers. Green gets all the accolades for being the Grandmother of Female Mystery Writers. Carolyn Wells.... um... she has a special place all her own in the history of mystery fiction. Lincoln, however, is truly forgotten and most of her books have been out of print for close to a century, some longer than that.

As examples of early 20th century detective novels her work is not the best of their kind. An intense perusal of multiple magazine reviews of Lincoln's more exemplary work published between 1915 and 1925 indicates she was popular during her time and probably sold a lot of books. Based on my reading of The Official Chaperon (1915), the first book I've read of hers, I think she may also be a candidate for inclusion in that dubious Hall of Fame known as Alternative Mystery Classics.

Lincoln was born and raised in Washington DC where she worked as a newspaper reporter and later editor and where the majority of her novels are set. The Official Chaperon, while not exactly typical of the kind of detective novel she was known for, is a template for the characters and situations Lincoln was obsessed with. It tells the story of a group of entitled wealthy Washington socialites and politicians who are primarily concerned with their reputations and social standing. When a string of thefts upset their status quo they are alternately forced into both protecting their loved ones at whatever cost and outing the kleptomaniac hiding in their society.

Margaret Langdon as
illustrated by Neysa McMein
Margaret Langdon is the primary suspect. She has been hired as a chaperone to Janet Fordyce, only a few years younger than herself, and together they attend dances, parties and make social visits to wealthy households. Each time Margaret and Janet make one of their visits someone loses a valuable item. Jewelry, lace handkerchiefs (apparently highly prized in this era), and money are stolen. Coupled with these thefts is the fact that Margaret was recently fired from her secretarial position in the home of Admiral Lawrence when the codicil to his dying wife's will went missing. He accused Margaret of destroying it in order that her sometime boyfriend Chichester Barnard, Lawrence's nephew, would benefit from Mrs. Lawrence's estate. Eventually through a series of absurd coincidences and plot contrivances Margaret comes to be accused by multiple characters as the ballroom thief. But the reader knows better.

Early in the book Margaret witnesses Janet Fordyce pocketing a valuable jeweled brooch. She manages to retrieve the brooch and attempts to return the item to it rightful place. Of course she is caught doing so by the woman who owns the brooch. And of course it appears that Margaret is taking the jewelry not replacing it. The entire story is predicated on this kind of cliche incident. Lincoln manages to reinvent this scene about four or five times over the course of the story making Margaret seem like a true kleptomaniac.

Margaret catches Janet in the act
(illustration by Edmund Frederick)
Here's a perfect example of her plotting. Janet and her soldier boyfriend Captain Tom Nichols are caught in a speed trap. Tom asks Janet not to use her real name if the police ask for it. Whose name do you think she uses as her alias? That's right. Poor ol' Margaret Langdon. When they have to pay a fine of $50 (admittedly very steep for 1915) and Tom doesn't have enough money he offers to use a combination of his $23 in cash and Janet's bracelet as collateral. The police agree to the loan of the jewelry (!) as long as Tom returns the same day with a cash balance. It turns out the bracelet is not Janet's. She lifted it from a society matron and ten minutes later the matron's husband is also pulled over by the cops at the speed trap. He also has to pay a fine and sees the bracelet on the cops' desk. He immediately recognizes it and asks who left it behind. The cop refers to his arrest records and says: "Oh some woman named Margaret Langdon."

This is not really a detective novel at all. It's not even a crime novel though thievery makes up much of the plot. It's nothing more that an early twentieth century version of a 1980s nighttime soap opera. It all reminded me of episodes of Dynasty in which wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes (a lot of space is devoted to the wardrobe descriptions), drink champagne, carry themselves haughtily and accuse each other of stealing each others spouses and partners rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs.

While there's no adultery going on in The Official Chaperon there is a lot of philandering mostly by the ne'er-do-well Chichester Barnard, the obvious villain of the piece. There's even an Alexis Carrington in the cast. Pauline Calhoun-Cooper (how do you like these hoity-toity names?) adds a contemporary spice to the proceedings and at least made me laugh with her constant accusations, her bitchiness and superior attitude. Only nineteen years old Pauline is also one of the youngest women in the cast of characters. So young, yet so old. Sigh...

Speaking of bitchy -- Lincoln has quite a way with her dialogue. Here are some zingers that I particularly enjoyed:
"Life is too short to bother with ill-bred and stupid people. I came to Washington to avoid them."

"Congressmen of today belong to the ancient and honorable order of inkslingers."

"If thee made virtue less detestable, Becky, thee would have more converts."  (Spoken by Madame Yvonett, a Quaker who likes her thees and thys, to her cousin Rebekah, an uptight religious hypocrite)

But these quips and intentional moments of humor are rare. Lincoln reserves her dialogue writing talent for paragraph long tirades filled with melodramatic pronouncements of anger and pitiful displays of desperate "love-making." Most of it is over-the-top even for 1915. I found myself laughing at most of these moments of high drama when I wasn't rolling my eyes.

And now a warning... (Now a warning?) Here comes a HUGE SPOILER. You may want to skip this paragraph...but I'd continue if I were you.

Most ridiculous of all is the novel's resolution when the reader learns that Janet is not really a kleptomaniac at all. Through the erudite pontifications of psychiatrist Dr. Paul Potter we learn that Janet's thievery was achieved through hypnosis.  She was the victim of an insidious post-hypnotic suggestion triggered by the mesmerist villain's blowing in her ear! This ending was so absurd and out of left field I could only think of Harry Stephen Keeler. He had yet to write a single story in 1915 so I can't even credit him as one of Lincoln's influences. But you can be sure I'll be reading more books by Natalie Sumner Lincoln. My hope is that she outdoes herself in terms of the absurd ending of The Official Chaperon. Stay tuned!

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Reading Challenges:  1.  1915 Book for Rich Westwood's challenge.
2. Golden Age Bingo card space G3 - "Book with a crime other than murder." In fact, there is no murder in this book at all!
 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Jan 092015
 
Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is at her most frustratingly oracular and infuriatingly intuitive mode in Groaning Spinney (1950). I hesitate to call this a detective novel because frankly it isn't though there is the barest trace of Mrs. Bradley's keen detective skills put to use. This is a crime novel with an obvious set of criminals; there are no real surprises in the denouement for those who crave that in their mystery fiction. Still there are an intriguing enough set of circumstances surrounding a couple of puzzling crimes that kept me reading.

I haven't read any of Mitchell's books in anything resembling chronological order. I tend to pick them based on the plot summaries and whether or not a handful of Mitchell experts consider the book one of her best. I guess if I had stuck to a rigid order reading process I might have noticed the subtle change from her parody of the detective novel format (while still remaining somewhat true to the fair play doctrine) to this current style of crime novel where the puzzles really don't matter to her, but the characters and situations do. For obvious reasons I have avoided most of the duds ever since I inadvertently read about three of them back to back and was turned off of Gladys Mitchell for a long time. Mitchell can be, at least to me, incredibly dull and "unreadable" sometimes -- a word Mitchell herself has blithely leveled at John Dickson Carr. Sacrilege! With all my reading history in mind you may understand why Groaning Spinney just passes muster for me, but only for a variety of set pieces and the revelation of one of the cruelest and most sadistic crimes Mitchell ever invented.

Basically, the story is a borderline impossible crime story that incorporates the legend of ghost that haunts the forest of the title. When a dead man is found in the very same position that the ghost likes to adopt (hanging over a stone fence face first) there is superstitious talk of a ghostly murderer wreaking revenge. Then a woman goes missing and the village begins to be plagued with an explosion of nasty and insinuating poison pen letters. Did someone strike back at the anonymous letter writer when the toxic words struck too close to home? Mrs. Bradley, her nephew Jonathan Lestrange, and his wife Deborah all join forces with a curious and baffled police constabulary as well as the rigidly rational Chief Constable to get to the bottom of the villainy. There is confusion about whether or not anyone has been murdered and if so what method was employed which makes this a quasi-impossible crime. There is also the oddity of the positioning of the body and how it got here in the first place that adds to the mystery. But the novel is focused mostly on character and a brilliantly realized country setting.

The ghost element is weakly handled, not really as creepy as in other better Mrs. Bradley books that deal with possibly supernatural events surrounding a murder. But a completely different type of near supernatural aspect was utterly fascinating. This is in the character of Ed Brown, who reminded me of how Dickon from The Secret Garden might have turned out in his adulthood. Ed has an uncanny ability to befriend wild animals, especially birds. There is not a single scene where he appears in the book where some creature doesn't walk up to him fearlessly or a robin flies down from a tree to perch on his shoulder. His animal magic comes in handy in the final uncovering of the convoluted murder plot involving insurance fraud and impersonation. Ed Brown was the most original and my favorite character in the book. His presence alone was worth the price of admission.

Young Gladys as she is depicted on
vintage Penguin editions of her books
That is not to say that Aunt Adela (why does she waver between wanting to be called Beatrice and Adela? Yet to figure that out.) is not in fine form here. We get to see her being a crackshot with a pistol yet again and in the climactic fox hunt we see she is quite the badass equestrian putting to shame men half her age with her athletic skill on horseback. Her detecting talents here are mostly confined to the usual oracular and enigmatic statements about knowing who the culprit is early on but not telling anyone her thoughts. "To the devil with your metaphors and quotations,!" the exasperated Chief Constable shoots back at Mrs. Bradley in one of Mitchell's wittier moments. Later in this sequence Mrs. Bradley says, "You have no fear, and I will have no scruples," much like a cloaked and bedrugged Sibyl. Yet amid all the banter and allusion dropping the reader can't help become frustrated with the author for not letting him in on her lead character's thoughts. Mrs. Bradley intuits too much, guesses a lot, and -- of course -- everything she has mentioned or alluded to is proven correct in the end. But we'd never know if she was telling the truth or not, would we? I really find this kind of detective novel tactic tiresome and sometimes infuriating.

This is a rather unusual Mitchell novel in that I kept finding analogies to other books I've read in the past. Most of her story telling is unique and all her own, but this time Gladys seemed to be borrowing a lot although I will admit it's just all coincidence. I couldn't help but feel as if I was reading a Patricia Wentworth novel. Mrs. Bradley was acting exactly like Maud Silver without the supercilious coughing and clacking of knitting needles. Most eyebrow raising to me were the echoes of the savagery on display in that horror-cum-detective novel The Grindle Nightmare in both the method and teamwork of the culprits involved in Groaning Spinney. Fans of noir and gruesomely dispatched murders might like this book but it's along haul to get to the violent and truly horrific pay-off.

Leading me to a warning: there are animal deaths in this book. They all occur offstage and therefore the reader is spared the gory possibilities, but the discovery of some dead dogs will not endear Mitchell to any lovers of man's best friend. I've read several books in the past with torture and slaughter of household pets and mentioned it almost off-handedly in my reviews only to learn many readers of this blog avoid any book with animal deaths. So I thought I'd throw this out as a cautionary label.

Groaning Spinney has been out of print for ages but thanks to amazon.com's Thomas & Mercer line and the UK branch of Random House's Vintage Crime imprint this scarce title is available again both as a physical book and an electronic one. In the US you can get only a digital version, but in the UK you have your choice of either. Granted the Vintage Crime Classics are not at all attractive books with their unimaginative typographic covers on a scarlet background and they are manufactured print on demand, but there are perfect replicas of the original first UK editions inside. And they are still a heck of a lot cheaper than shelling out over $200 for a crappy reading copy. In a fit of book buying mania I bought about five Mitchell books I've been wanting to read for over ten years now but have never been able to find in the used book market. You can be sure that I'll be reporting on those, both good and bad, when I'm done with them.
 Posted by at 4:49 pm
Jan 022015
 
The opening sentence to The Mysterious Mr. Badman (1934) is a corker:

When at two o'clock on a sultry July afternoon Athelstan Digby undertook to keep an eye on the contents of the old bookshop in Keldstone High Street, he deliberately forgot to mind his own business.

Partly on holiday, partly to advise his nephew Jim Pickering on whether or not to take up a physician's locum tenens position nearby Mr. Digby has been minding Daniel Lavender's bookshop where he has been temporarily given a bedsit while visiting the town and his nephew. On his first day in charge Mr. Digby is visited by three successive customers all looking for the obscure work The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan, best known for his religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.  Mr. Digby is intrigued.  Even more so when not too coincidentally a copy is brought into the store by a young man selling a pile of old books.

Based on the title alone you have probably guessed that this is not a book about a "bad man" but rather a bibliomystery about the desire to own a book. But is the book all that valuable?  Turns out the book holds a rather incriminating letter with information that could be damaging to noted M.P. Sir Richard Mottram.  No sooner has Mr. Digby found this letter the shop is broken into and the book stolen.  Then one of the inquisitive customenrs is found propped up against a tree, a pistol in his hand, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gun shot.  Is his death related to the stolen book?  Or the letter inside the book?  Was it suicide or murder? The search is on for not only the book but for the other two men who were inquiring after the volume.

Mr. Digby is joined in his amateur sleuthing by his nephew Jim and Sir Richard's stepdaughter Diana Conyers who was the person who gave the books to the boy to sell in the first place.  Together the three of them uncover an extortion plot, some political machinations, and one of those familiar unctuous gentleman villains so popular in thrillers of this era. Harvey combines some excellent detection with the usual tropes of the pursuit thriller. Mr. Digby puzzles out the method and motive for the murder based on the hairs of a mountain goat, some wood shavings and a missing sleeping bag! How's that for some amateur detective work?  Jim and Diana engage in subterfuge, farcical impersonation and all sorts of wily Q & A style detective work in order to get to the bottom of the skulduggery. And with a cast of characters with names like Olaf Wake, Euphemia Upstart, Neville Monkbarns and Kitchener Lilywhite you know you in for a bit of whimsy along with the mayhem.

The Mysterious Mr. Badman was a delight from start to finish, the perfect book to end last year's indulgence of vintage mystery obscurities.  Quite a surprise to me also since I had known William Fryer Harvey, prior to finding this elusive book, only as the writer of excellent macabre and supernatural short stories that tend to be a lot more somber than this often lighthearted novel.  He is probably best known for his horror story about a possessed piano player that became the movie The Beast with Five Fingers. Harvey's creepy M. R. James influenced paranormal story "August Heat" is found in numerous anthologies devoted to the best of supernatural fiction.

A bit of research proved to me that Athelstan Digby previously appeared in an equally rare book of short stories in which he apparently first appeared as an amateur sleuth. Whether or not Jim Pickering also appears in The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby (Swathmore,  1920) I will never know.  I remember a copy of this genuinely rare book turned up for auction on eBay a while ago but I failed to win the book. It sold for over £200 if I remember correctly.

Currently there are four copies of ... Mr. Badman for sale online and they range from $70 to $115.  I paid £1 for mine back in 2005. Very lucky! Chances of finding one in a US library are slim unless you have access to the University of Arizona or UCLA libraries where two copies are held. As ...Mr. Badman was published only in the UK by Pawling & Ness, a very minor and short-lived publisher, I imagine that you might have better luck if you live in the UK or Canada and consult your local interlibrary loan services.

UPDATE:  Some fun news related to William Fryer Harvey's other detective stories. A reader of this blog sent me an email with a link to another blog where anyone interested can read the stories from The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby.  Just click here.

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This was the very last book I read for the Vintage Mystery Golden Age Bingo Reading Challenge.  It filled in the card completely on space L4 "Book with a Man in the Title."  Thought I'd be done with 36 books a lot sooner.  I was reading until the stroke of midnight on December 31.  For those interested, all the books I read for both the Golden Age and Silver Age Bingo Cards are listed in this post.
 Posted by at 5:01 pm
Dec 192014
 
Stephen Dusack has a bit of a problem. After suffering major injuries in a train derailment he is under the care of both doctors and psychiatrists. He has been interviewed multiple times about his life history and each time he tells his story about growing up in South Africa, working for a mining company, and recently leaving that country for England where he hoped to start life anew in the little village of Studdold all the medical staff tend to give the impression that they doubt his veracity. They all think he is David Orme and send Stephen home with Orme's secretary and business associate Howard Downey. Broke and without even having started his new job Dusack reluctantly agrees. At Orme's massive estate protected by electronic gates and a gun toting chauffeur Stephen's identity crisis plunges into a nightmare world of conspiracy, paranoia and murder attempts.

Davies spent most of his writing career riffing on themes of identity confusion and amnesia. He wrote in all genres often blending and hybridizing well known tropes of detective fiction (amnesia victims) and science fiction (mind altering drugs) into a kind of new subgenre of his own invention. Psychogeist (1966) tells of a young man who cannot remember who he is and alternates with his hallucinatory dreams of an alien world that parallel the story of his recovery from amnesia. Or is he actually an alien who crash landed on Earth? Probably his best known crime novel treatment of identity loss is his second novel Who Is Lewis Pinder? (1965), originally titled Man Out of Nowhere in the UK. Give Me Back Myself (1971) belongs with Davies' crime fiction novels. It presents the story of Stephen's search for his true identity as a tale of an unbelievable conspiracy with no introduction of either supernatural or science fiction elements.

In these amnesia novels we are always hoping for the hapless protagonist to find at least one ally who will believe his story, help him uncover the truth and bring the villainy to light. Stephen finds his allies quite by accident when he asks for directions of his next door neighbor Ambrose Kenny. Later Kenny's daughter Fran will stop by for her weekly visit and she will turn out to be both confidante and detective cohort. The manner in which Stephen and his two allies slowly uncover the plot is done with ingenuity and a few startling surprises. You have to credit Davies with a fertile imagination in continually finding new methods to essentially tell the same story repeatedly.

Though his books are out of print copies of nearly every one of Davies' fascinating books are easily found in the used book market at very affordable prices. I'm sure many of his books, not just Give Me Back Myself, can be find both in US and UK libraries as well.

I read this book for both Bev Hankins' Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and Rich Westwood's 1971 Mystery Reading Challenge. For more on L. P. Davies breathtaking displays of variation on the theme of amnesia and identity confusion see Sergio Angelini's reviews of Man Out of Nowhere and The Alien.
 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Dec 122014
 
Tobias Mander is the founder and owner of Mander Department Store, his brainchild for an innovative place that will combine "cheapness with luxury." He also is an airplane fanatic and has an engineering lab in his home. Having procured many of the best experts in the retail trade he is set to open the flagship Mander store to the accompaniment of much fanfare. One of his more audacious publicity stunts was to have his new design for a portable gyrocopter unveiled by having the flying contraption land on the roof of the store much to the chagrin of police and local authorities who felt it unsafe. He dubbed the invention the Mander Hopper. Marketed as "a plane you fold up in a room and land in a tennis court" the retail wizard was planning to sell them his store and was taking orders prior to starting a manufacturing line. All those plans come to a crashing halt when Tobias Mander is found dead during the opening festivities. Someone shot him, dressed him up as a mechanic, and placed him among other mannequins in a display window at the front of the store.

All this unfolds in the first chapter of The Shop Window Murders (1930) one of Vernon Loder's more complicated and highly unusual detective novels. The events at the store's gala opening only get more strange once the police arrive. They find that one of those storefront mannequins, a woman dressed in an outlandish costume adorned with a print that advertised the Mander Hopper, is not a mannequin at all. It's Effie Turnour, fiancée to the store's manager Robert Kephim. And she's dead too. She's been stabbed and placed in a chair in an unflattering pose right next to Mander's corpse. Someone obviously was not happy about Mander's plans to take over the retail world.

Enter Inspector Devenish, another of Loder's humane and intelligent policemen. He's willing to admit he's flawed, eager to listen to what everyone has to say no matter how hysterical or ranting they become. But woe to the fiendish murderer behind these bizarre crimes for Devenish is sharp enough to envision all angles and possibilities. During the investigation he uncovers department store rivalries, a conspiracy behind the actual identity of the inventor and desiger of the Mander Hopper and a hotbed of vice among the store's employees.

The Hafner Gyroplane
From a postcard series illustrated by Howard Leigh, March 1938

The cast of characters is a lively one. There's Mann, a night watchman who turns out to be another in a long line of mystery fiction characters similar to Sayer's Bunter and Allingham's Lugg. Mann was a batman to store executive Jameson Peden-Hythe during WWI and he still retains a loyalty to his older comrade who saved his life during the war. Devenish suspects Mann assumed Peden-Hythe guilty of the murders and in order to protect his battleground Samaritan altered the crime scene and manufactured fake evidence. Or how about Webley the embittered and hostile mechanical engineer who claims that Mander stole the design from him? He's suspect number one in Devenish's book yet Webley's belligerent attitude doesn't help clear his name any faster even though he seems to have an ironclad alibi. There is also Mrs. Hoe, a shrewd journalist always popping in at the most unexpected times. Devenish is impressed by her insight and intelligence. But Mrs. Hoe is hiding a secret of her own and has an interest in the murders other than great newspaper copy and eye-catching headlines. She is keeping tabs on a couple of the suspects for more personal and financial reasons. That's right -- she's a reporter by day and a blackmailer by night. Finally, there is a platoon of Loder's usual lower echelon policeman some of whom provide comic relief but one able-bodied sergeant in particular is responsible for uncovering the most unusual piece of evidence that eventually leads to the startling conclusion.

I'd love to go into great detail about the denouement which once again showcases Loder's most unique trademark in all his detective novels, but I fear I'd be giving away the game. Suffice to say that Loder is fascinated with the idea of criminals who get their comeuppance even before the police know a crime has occurred. There always seems to be one victim who falls prey to their own scheming.

And I will say no more other than if you ever lucky enough to come across a copy of The Shop Window Murders (yes, my friends, it's an incredibly scarce title) you ought to snap it up. This one is not only entertaining it may be Loder's most complicated and original spin on a gimmick he seems to have invented. Other than in the work of Anthony Wynne, who has his own favorite tricks like the twice murdered corpse, I have yet to come across so many variations on this odd idea for detective novel crimes. While I'm recommending this book I would suggest you keep your eyes out for any book with the Vernon Loder pseudonym on the cover. They make for fascinating reading and are as different from the standard whodunits of his colleagues as champagne is to soda water.
 Posted by at 4:37 pm
Dec 082014
 
WARNING: This post is loaded with SPOILERS. Stop now if you know nothing about Laura, the book or the movie, and don't want its most unusual surprises given away.

Not such a forgotten book, I guess. The movie is definitely not forgotten. But can you believe that although I've seen the movie about seven times by now, and know it inside and out, I have never read the book until just this past week? It's true.

Reading the book was a revelation; so drastic are the differences. I felt like I was discovering Laura Hunt, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson, Shelby Carpenter and Susan (not Ann ) Treadwell for the first time. I was taken aback by the major changes made in the classic film adaptation of Laura (1942). Changes that seem vital to Caspary's recurring themes of ideals of masculinity and femininity, the worship of beauty both in objects and people, and exploitation of character flaws and human weakness. I learned so much about this story, how it came into being, its origin as a doomed play that never saw a Broadway production and the perhaps by now famous argument Caspary had with Otto Preminger over one key scene in the film that she felt ruined her intent in writing the book in the first place. The biggest revelation to me is that Laura, the novel, is so much more than just a detective novel. Caspary uses the investigation of a horrible murder to explore complex human emotions and unusual psychology of obsessive love and does so with grace and artistry that is at times breathtaking.

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson is captivated by
Laura Hunt's portrait in the 1944 film.

First and foremost are the differences in the character of Waldo Lydecker, the highbrow newspaper columnist and cultural mentor of Laura Hunt. Clifton Webb captured so perfectly the essence of Waldo in the movie but in terms of look and physique he's all wrong. Waldo Lydecker would have been better played by Edward Arnold with a beard and spectacles. Caspary's Waldo is tall, obese and astigmatic. Much as she disavowed using celebrity columnist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott as a model for Waldo the similarities are hard to ignore. Apart from the amazing coincidence of their looks Lydecker and Woollcott are both interested in writing about true crime. The only contrast between the two is that Waldo Lydecker confesses in the very first chapter a complete distaste for detective novels and Woollcott was known to devour them. He even acted as mystery selections editor for the cheap reprint publisher White House during the 1940s.

Secondly, Shelby Carpenter is supposed to be blend of Nietzschean Superman and mythological Adonis. Vincent Price was a handsome and dapper fellow in the movie but not the kind of rugged and athletic Shelby that Caspary created. The words "gentleman" and "gallantry" are liberally used to describe Shelby, Laura's unfaithful fiancé, but as the story progresses we learn that he is as corrupt and exploitive as Waldo and in more insidious way. Unlike Waldo who uses artifice and banter as a mask for charm Shelby's charm is authentic yet he uses it deviously and dishonestly. He also wavers between self-delusion and cognizant disingenuousness as he tries to convince Laura that he really has her best interests at heart, that he is trying to protect her from a malicious cop out to convict her of a violent crime.

That should be a much bigger gun
and aimed a lot closer.
The novel's underlying strength, one that allows Caspary to delve deeply into each of her absorbingly complex characters, is the use of the multiple first person narratives. When Caspary was planning to turn her failed playscript into a novel she was given a bit of remarkable advice by one of her screenwriter friends in Hollywood who suggested she look to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as her framework. All those insightful analogies to Collin's pioneer detective novel are 100% accurate. She really did model her book on Collins'.

Caspary's language and the notable stylistic differences in the various points of view are the highlight of reading the book. Movie dialogue alone cannot begin to convey the richness we get when we hear the characters speak their thoughts in their individual manuscripts. We have the caustic wit, surface urbanity, and self-indulgent prose of Lydecker who lets us know that the only person he loves more than Laura is himself; McPherson's ordinary Joe section is peppered with American idioms and slang but absent of the high society vulgarity he disdains ("It takes a college education to teach a man that he can put on paper what he used to write on a fence."); and Laura Hunt's near neurotic ravings in diary format in which she confesses her love/hate relationship with all the men in her life, a tortured intelligent woman trying to reinvent herself as a career girl in a high paced advertising firm who is in conflict with her private self. A driven and focussed woman in the workplace she gets her job done with little distraction. But when left to her own thoughts she confesses "...my mind whirls like a merry-go-round" as she finds herself at the mercy of master manipulators who have designs on her soul, her body and her money.

At its core Laura is a study of the mystery of love in all its forms. Coming into play throughout all these narratives are varying viewpoints of idealized beauty (both male and female), authenticity of character, questioning gender stereotypes and ideals of manhood and femininity, and a incisive portrait of how weakness and character flaws can be the ruling emotions in the world of love. While there are examples of too obvious symbolism (Waldo's smashing of a glass vase in an antique store and the secret hiding place of the murder weapon -- completely different than the absurd object used in the movie -- being the most heavy-handed) Caspary still manages to tell her story with a wisdom and compassion and depth that can be movingly profound. To have seen the movie is not to know this story of Laura. I urge you to experience the mystery of Laura Hunt and her world by reading the novel. Laura is a rare instance of a book and a movie achieving classic status each in their own right.

**Many thanks to a couple of faithful readers who sent me text files from the cached versions of the original post. Just like the novel here is the resurrected Laura!  [Note to self: Back-up and save all posts in the future.]

And here are the original comments I managed to save from the December 5th cached version:


 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Dec 052014
 
WARNING:  This post is loaded with SPOILERS. Stop now if you know nothing about Laura, the book or the movie, and don't want its most unusual surprises given away.

Not such a forgotten book, I guess. The movie is definitely not forgotten. But can you believe that although I've seen the movie about seven times by now, and know it inside and out, I have never read the book until just this past week? It's true.

Reading the book was a revelation; so drastic are the differences. I felt like I was discovering Laura Hunt, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson, Shelby Carpenter and Susan (not Ann ) Treadwell for the first time. I was taken aback by the major changes made in the classic film adaptation of Laura (1942). Changes that seem vital to Caspary's recurring themes of ideals of masculinity and femininity, the worship of beauty both in objects and people, and exploitation of character flaws and human weakness. I learned so much about this story, how it came into being, its origin as a doomed play that never saw a Broadway production and the perhaps by now famous argument Caspary had with Otto Preminger over one key scene in the film that she felt ruined her intent in writing the book in the first place. The biggest revelation to me is that Laura, the novel, is so much more than just a detective novel. Caspary uses the investigation of a horrible murder to explore complex human emotions and unusual psychology of obsessive love and does so with grace and artistry that is at times breathtaking.

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson is captivated by
Laura Hunt's portrait in the 1944 film.

First and foremost in the differences in the character of Waldo Lydecker, the highbrow newspaper columnist and cultural mentor of Laura Hunt. Clifton Webb captured so perfectly the essence of Waldo in the movie but in terms of look and physique he's all wrong. Waldo Lydecker would have been better played by Edward Arnold with a beard and spectacles. Caspary's Waldo is tall, obese and astigmatic. Much as she disavowed using celebrity columnist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott as a model for Waldo the similarities are hard to ignore. Apart from the amazing coincidence of their looks Lydecker and Woollcott are both interested in writing about true crime. The only contrast between the two is that Waldo Lydecker confesses in the very first chapter a complete distaste for detective novels and Woollcott was known to devour them. He even acted as mystery selections editor for the cheap reprint publisher White House during the 1940s.

Secondly, Shelby Carpenter is supposed to be blend of Nietzschean Superman and mythological Adonis. Vincent Price was a handsome and dapper fellow in the movie but not the kind of rugged and athletic Shelby that Caspary created. The words "gentleman" and "gallantry" are liberally used to describe Shelby, Laura's unfaithful fiancé, but as the story progresses we learn that he is as corrupt and exploitive as Waldo and in more insidious way. Unlike Waldo who uses artifice and banter as a mask for charm Shelby's charm is authentic yet he uses it deviously and dishonestly. He also wavers between self-delusion and cognizant disingenuousness as he tries to convince Laura that he really has her best interests at heart, that he is trying to protect her from a malicious cop out to convict her of a violent crime.

That should be a much bigger gun
and aimed a lot closer.
The novel's underlying strength, one that allows Caspary to delve deeply into each of her absorbingly complex characters, is the use of the multiple first person narratives. When Caspary was planning to turn her failed playscript into a novel she was given a bit of remarkable advice by one of her screenwriter friends in Hollywood who suggested she look to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as her framework. All those insightful analogies to Collin's pioneer detective novel are 100% accurate. Caspary really did model her book on Collins'.

Caspary's language and the notable stylistic differences in the various points of view are the highlight of reading the book. Movie dialogue alone cannot begin to convey the richness we get when we hear the characters speak their thoughts in their individual manuscripts. We have the caustic wit, surface urbanity, and self-indulgent prose of Lydecker who lets us know that the only person he loves more than Laura is himself; McPherson's ordinary Joe section is peppered with American idioms and slang but absent of the high society vulgarity he disdains ("It takes a college education to teach a man that he can put on paper what he used to write on a fence."); and Laura Hunt's near neurotic ravings in diary format in which she confesses her love/hate relationship with all the men in her life, a tortured intelligent woman trying to reinvent herself as a career girl in a high paced advertising firm who is in conflict with her private self. A driven and focussed woman in the workplace she gets her job done with little distraction. But when left to her own thoughts she confesses "...my mind whirls like a merry-go-round" as she finds herself at the mercy of master manipulators who have designs on her soul, her body and her money.

At its core Laura is a study of the mystery of love in all its forms. Coming into play throughout all these narratives are varying viewpoints of idealized beauty (both male and female), authenticity of character, questioning gender stereotypes and ideals of manhood and femininity, and a incisive portrait of how weakness and character flaws can be the ruling emotions in the world of love. While there are examples of too obvious symbolism (Waldo's smashing of a glass vase in an antique store and the secret hiding place of the murder weapon -- completely different than the absurd object used in the movie -- being the most heavy-handed) Caspary still manages to tell her story with a wisdom and compassion and depth that can be movingly profound. To have seen only the movie is not to know the story of Laura. I urge you to experience the mystery of Laura Hunt and her world by reading the novel. Laura is a rare instance of a book and a movie achieving classic status each in their own right.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: Counts as space L2 on the Golden Age bingo card - "Book made into a movie". Two left and the card is covered!
 Posted by at 4:55 pm
Nov 282014
 
Robert "Mongo" Fredrickson is a criminology professor at a New York university who also dabbles in sideline work as a private eye. In his second adventure a missing persons case leads him to the drowning death of another private eye, the revelation of an underground of Iranian secret police living in the US and a rebel organization led by an outspoken Iranian college student living in the US. If this sounds more like a spy novel than a detective novel you get a gold star. It is. But it's an exciting and well told spy story uncovering the often misunderstood world of 1970s Iranian culture and politics.

The Mongo books are probably the most cultish of all contemporary crime novels from the late 1970s-mid 1980s era. Never really big sellers when first published they were nevertheless admired and read by an enduring fan base who appreciated the books for their fascinating blend of occult, supernatural and science fiction elements built around the structure of a traditional hardboiled private eye novel. Chesbro was the first to do this with a series character and his books continue to be more interesting and original than any of the crop of paranormal mysteries and "urban fantasy" we are now inundated with. I haven't mentioned the most intriguing aspect of Mongo himself because by now the you can read about him all over the internet. He even has his own tribute website called DangerousDwarf.com. You see Mongo the Magnificent, as he was once known, is a ex-acrobatic dwarf who performed in the internationally renowned Statler Circus.

City of Whispering Stone (1978) refers to Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia, where amid the ruins of that former glorious city the climax of the book takes place. But we start first in New York when Mongo's former employer Phil Statler asks for the criminologist's help in locating the circus' missing strongman, Hassan Khordad. Mongo reluctantly takes on the case and then asks his brother Garth, a Manhattan cop, to check the files of missing persons. Garth in turn asks Mongo if he happens to know a private eye names John Simpson. Mongo denies knowing him but wonders why Garth mentions him at all. Turns out the other P.I. has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances. It may be murder.

Dutch edition (Spectrum, 1981)
Of course Mongo will soon learn that Simpson and Khordad are amazingly linked through a second disappearance -- that of Iranian student Mehdi Zahedi, a key figure in anti-Shah politics who is raising awareness on US soil of the corrupt police state in his native country. Mongo's search for Khordad becomes a search for Zahedi and when a violent near fatal confrontation in a Persian antique store lands Mongo in the hospital and leads to the death of an innocent friend he is determined to find the answers to what increasingly appears to be a worldwide conspiracy.

This espionage plot is atypical of the Mongo books and I was slightly disappointed that there was nary a hint of the weird and the eerie events that populate the other books in the series. No signs of psychic phenomena like telekinesis and telepathic healing as in Shadow of a Broken Man (1977), no grimoire or black magic addicted professor as in An Affair of Sorcerers (1979) . But this was after all the very first book written in the series, though it was the second to be published. Chesbro was still trying to find his way around the character and playing with unusual themes. The series doesn't really take off into the stratosphere of weird and outre until the fourth book Beasts of Valhalla (1985), often called the absolute best book in the series.

City of Whispering Stone seems to be a very personal book that Chesbro needed to write in order to move on and make Mongo the thoroughly original character beset with all manner of strange and weird. He dedicates to the book to Ori "who loves the land so much". I can only think that this book exists so that Chesbro could dispel the mythology and cut through all the propaganda about Iran that we were being fed via US news reports on an almost daily basis back in the late 1970s. Clearly he had some dear friends who were Iranian who helped him with the background.

Those interested in learning more about George C Chesbro, who sadly died back in 2008, ought to visit the excellent tribute website Dangerous Dwarf where you will find full bibliographies of all the Mongo books and other crime novels Chesbro wrote, a gallery of book covers, a page full of links leading to author interviews on the web, and other interesting tidbits about the writer and his work. There are stories on the internet reporting that Peter Dinklage will soon be appearing as Mongo in an HBO produced mini series. I can't imagine anyone more suited to play the part and I'm hoping that the movie will be made and aired soon.

*  *  *

Reading Challenge update:  This book fulfills space S5 "Academic mystery" (students and professors galore in this one) on the Silver Age Bingo card.
 Posted by at 4:36 pm
Nov 212014
 
I'll have to restrain myself when writing this review.  I'd like to discuss just one aspect of this book at length. But if I did go into great detail then I would reveal one of its most devious parts. I noticed how Michael Gilbert turned his focus away from Superintendent Knott, who is meant to be the protagonist and lead detective, and suddenly spent a lot of time on a supporting character. I thought it a subtle but telling change in point of view. And it's doubly telling for his near genius method of misdirecting the reader while letting us follow this character's actions. Anyone who is looking for a top notch example of a thoroughly contemporary update of the traditional detective novel would do well to find a copy of The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), or as it is published in the UK Death of a Favourite Girl, a much better and suitably ironic title for the story. Gilbert didn't quite fool me, but he pulled off quite a few gasp inducing twists in the final chapters.

At first glance this novel seems to be a routine police procedural with a veritable army of coppers on the case. Scotland Yard, CID, local and area policeman are all enlisted to help solve the bludgeoning death of a local girl who has become sort of a reality TV star of the 1980s. She was well known for being a panelist on "The Seven O'Clock Show", a game show and had made several TV commercials as well. Another story of a local girl who "made it big" in the eyes of her hometown fans. On the surface Katie Steelstock is the "favourite girl." But her brutal death will lead to the truth of who she really was. The routine case becomes extremely involved and will uncover blackmail, suicide, sordid photographs and explode a houseful of skeletons in closets among the townspeople. Turns out the favorite girl was really rather a bad apple. And rotten to the core.

UK 1st edition
(Hodder & Stoughton , 1980)
There are lots of crime novels that tell this story of a victim who appears to be good then turns out to be the opposite, but Gilbert makes his telling utterly fascinating from the get-go. We meet the entire town's population and learn of their relationships while they enjoy themselves at a dance. The young people pair up taking turns on the dance floor while the oldsters sit out on the sidelines watching and gossiping. Secret moonlight trysts take place, we listen in as old hens dish the dirt on the kids and their parents, and slowly realize that this town is seething with pettiness, jealousy and enmity. Something bad is bound to happen.

Lurking in the background is Jonathan Limbery, a volatile and outspoken young man who rants his opinions in a weekly newspaper. When he isn't mouthing off in print he is disrupting church services with his vehement accusations.  Limbery has amassed a following of young schoolboys who admire his rebellious nature and think he can do no wrong. They are eager to defend him when he becomes the prime suspect in the death of Katie. Seems he was not only outspoken in his political diatribes but was a jealous lover as well. The townspeople whisper their own accusations of what goes on in the boys' choir Limbery has organized with his coterie of young admirers.  And it isn't the choice of songs they're worried about.

US first edition (Harper & Row, 1980)
My favorite parts of the book were the contrast between the rural police and the ultra urban but not so urbane Knott whose prejudicial views of country policemen are put to the test when they continue to outperform him during the investigation.  There are obvious biases from both side, but Knott is made to look a fool more than once.  Sgt. McCourt reads up on the use of plaster cast techniques so he can get the tire tracks and footprints at the scene of the crime just right but never lets Knott know.  Sgt. Shilling displays some surprising knowledge of women's cosmetics and deduces that the lipstick and eyeshadow in Katie's handbag can't be her own.  He even goes so far as to sample the shades on the back on his hand like a woman about to get a makeover.  Even quaint period giveaways like the use of a computer to ID a typewriter by its font and taking a matter of minutes rather than weeks got a few smiles from me. The book is filled with nifty touches like these.  Gilbert is constantly finding ways to subvert the reader's expectations and shake up the tired formulas of the standard whodunit.

Gilbert always finds moments of humor amid what turns out to be quite a sordid story of crime and base human indulgences.  Many of the characters have a sharp and biting wit and there are several zingers I could quote but they would fill up pages more on this post. Most surprising to me was a rare and compassionate depiction of a young gay teenager's secret desires and the tragic aftermath that follows a brazen declaration of love.  The Killing of Katie Steelstock is a rarity in crime novels. Satirically funny on one page, a few pages later shocking the reader with descriptions of seamy activities, further on it tugs at your heartstrings or elicits a pang of grief. Gilbert works his way through a gamut of raw human emotion in this very fine novel that works both as a mystery story and a mainstream literary work.  Highly recommended for those with discriminating taste.

*   *   *

Silver Age Bingo card update: Space I6 - "Book with a woman in the title"
 Posted by at 5:40 am