Jul 252014
A house party in a 12th century Norman castle in Wales is the setting for Death on Tiptoe (1931). The characters make up quite a Christie-like cast: young dissolute and irresponsible heir; portrait artist and womanizer; flirtatious heiress; pouty melodramatic young woman jilted by the artist; lovestruck governess; two bratty children; vengeful British Major; reserved and sensible barrister; failed diplomat who is an utter twit; his wife who is love with someone else; and the host and hostess, Sir Harry and Lady Undine Stacey.

It is Lady Stacey — a transplanted French woman with pretensions to becoming a great baronial estate holder — who is the victim. The opening chapters quite brilliantly plant the seeds for her cruel murder, and there are at least four characters who outright threaten her prior to her body being discovered three weeks later in a chest in the attic where she had hid during a game of hide and seek, an entertainment she arranged for her guests.

Cleverly done, fairly well clued, with quite a bit of misdirection. The novel culminates in a melodramatic ending with a somewhat surprising murderer and an intriguing motive. Ashby would later expand the idea of this Gothic detective novel in He Arrived at Dusk (my review of that book is at Mystery*File here ), a far better book with more effective use of folklore, legends and supernatural content.

R(uby). C(onstance). Ashby is the alter ego of Ruby Ferguson the name under which she is better known. From 1949 through 1965 Ferguson was a popular writer of children's books and romance novels. As Ashby (her maiden name) she wrote a handful of detective novels and suspense thrillers with Gothic overtones. A few years ago Death on Tiptoe was reprinted by Greyladies Press, an independent publisher located in Scotland, but I checked their website and that edition is no longer for sale. However, you might luck out on the used book websites and find a copy.

(This is a slightly altered version of a review I originally wrote for Steve Lewis' superb website Mystery*File.)
 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Jul 182014
Troy Bannister has flown to Taxco from her safe New York job at Frobisher’s where she is the jewelry buyer. She is to judge a contest of silver designs and the winner will be set up in a private studio to make a line of custom made jewelry for her employer. The contest was her idea and the winner unbeknownst to her employer has already been chosen. He is Jerome Blake, her old flame whom she has tracked down to Taxco. She is sure that when he is chosen the winner and given the $5000 prize money plus the opportunity to work in his own studio back in New York that she will finally have a chance to win him back and marry him. But when she learns of a local silversmith who is regarded as the best of the contest’s entrants she sees her deceitful plan start to crumble. She must see exactly what this talented artist, an immigrant Polish man named Casimir Lazlo, can create and if is indeed a superior craftsman find a away to eliminate him from the competition.

Someone does that job for Troy. Shortly after she has met Lazlo and seen his exquisite workmanship on an intricately stamped necklace, he is murdered. Troy’s guilty conscience and unethical ways get the better of her. Imagining the worst and thinking that she might actually be thought the killer she stages the scene of the bloody murder to look like a suicide. She flees Lazlo’s studio but not before impulsively stealing the copper plate that made the beautiful design in the silver necklace. All of this occurs in the first two chapters. This is our protagonist? Knight seems to be writing a Patricia Highsmith novel with a love mad female version of Tom Ripley, a woman who cares for no one really but herself.

Bracelet designed by Taxco silversmith
Hector Aguilar (circa 1940s)
Soon word is out that Casimir has committed and suicide yet no one can believe it. The other artists who have entered the contest recognize that their chances are now greatly increased for winning the coveted prize money and the job as jewelry designer in New York. But someone suggests that Casimir was murdered in order to achieve that advantage. When they also discover that Troy had visited Lazlo prior to the judging day they are in a furor and begin to think that the contest was rigged from the start. Troy has few friends among the artists including Jerome, living under the alias of Joe Blank, who is quick to uncover most of Troy’s deceit and her involvement in Lazlo’s death. Eventually it is Jerome/Joe, with the aid of Lazlo's daughter, who will take over as the lead character and solve not only Lazlo's murder but another murder of a local Mexican artist who was secretly entering a creation of his own in the contest.

The tone and language of The Blue Horse of Taxco (1947) is completely different than the Elisha Macomber (her best known series detective) novels in Knight’s early writing period. It’s darker, not at all lighthearted, and fueled with the illogical passions of impulsive desires not unlike the novels of pulp and noir writers. She is finding a way to tell a story of crime without resorting to old-fashioned thriller tropes and set pieces that seem lifted from cliffhanger serials. Gone are the quaint clues and girl sleuthing sequences found in her early books. Knight’s focus now is on character as opposed to multi-layered puzzling plots which is not to say that she has completely abandoned the puzzle. There is still the mystery of the pieces of the figurine of the title that will feature in the plot. But overall the story arises out of the characters’ behavior and thinking and their relationships not an artificial manipulation of events created only to bamboozle the reader.

(The above is a slightly edited portion from a longer essay on Kathleen Moore Knight I wrote for issue #68 of Geoff Bradley's fine journal Crime and Detective Stories (CADS). The issue will be coming out in a few months.)
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jul 112014
Jean Deslines is worried about losing her identity.  Her father keeps talking about putting her away in a mental institution for her own safety. Jean has been bragging about her flirty seduction of the local clergyman in her Australian home of Katoomba. She's also been reading up on psychology books at the suggestion of her cousin Myrtle who knows a psychosexual aberration when she sees one. Now Jean's head is overloaded with Freudian psychoanalytical jargon and discussions of female hormones, the lack of which she believes is at the root of her troubles. She's also starting to have surreal dreams in which she envisions a female gladiator who takes the form of the goddess Minerva slaughtering her enemies. And every now and then she hears the sounds of bells and an ethereal voice giving her private instructions on carrying out the murderous events in her dreams. Is it any wonder her father is worried about her? Oh, I forgot to mention Jean is only fifteen years old.

To preserve her identity and prevent any tinkering with her mind and soul at the hands of interfering psychiatrists Jean is advised by that Voice to murder her father. And she does so in a lovingly savage way. It's the beginning of her descent into a surreal world of hallucinations, indulgent sexuality and violent murderous attacks. Imagine if you will a most bizarre mix of the selfish child murderess Rhoda Penmark, vindictive pathological liar Mary Tilford, and seductive teen age vixen Lolita and you have only a smidgen of an idea of what Frank Walford has created in Jean Deslines. It's difficult to believe that a fifteen year old girl is narrating this lurid tale of madness, pansexuality and brutal murder. Jean may very well be crime fiction's first bisexual serial killer.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Twisted Clay was published in 1933.

Frank Walford
This week Patti Abbot Asked us to read a book about a femme fatale. Though typically we don't find a femme fatale this young until the pulp writers of the 1950s in books by writers like Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Jonathan Craig and most of them aren't clinically insane Jean Deslines is about as fatal a femme as you can find in the genre fiction of the 1930s. So horrific are the events described in Walford's book it was banned almost immediately upon publication and remained out of print for decades. Modern readers will find so many of what is now considered formulaic in serial killer literature and yet no one was writing about such things in Walford's time. Even Lawrence Block didn't write about a serial killer prostitute until 2012's Getting Off and even then he used his lesbian erotica pseudonym Jill Emerson. Walford was way ahead of his time in creating his surreally intellectual, linguistically gifted and very dangerous teenager. Way, way ahead.

Twisted Clay has been reissued by Australian British indie press Salt Publishing under their horror imprint Remains Classics in a handsomely designed facsimile of the original first edition complete with replication of the original dust jacket. The book comes with a foreward by Remain's editor Johnny Mains as well as a biographical and literary introduction to Frank Walford by critic and supernatural fiction maven Jim Doigs. It's a fine reissue of a landmark book in the genre. Highly recommended for literary connoisseurs, genre fiction addicts and anyone curious about those obscure books that sometimes reach legendary status due to their unavailability. This is one instance when the legend cannot even approach the actual content of the book.

For more wicked women, amoral temptresses, and literary femme fatales in forgotten books of the past visit Patti Abbot's blog.
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jun 272014
Today marks the centenary celebration of "strange story" writer Robert Aickman who was born June 27, 1914.  As part of the celebration of what would have been Aickman's 100th birthday Faber & Faber has reprinted several of his story collections including the two featured in the post today. Dark Entries (1964) was Aickman's second collection and his first book of stories written solely by him. Cold Hand in Mine (1975) is his fifth collection and is well known to book collectors for the US first edition (Scribner, 1975) has a DJ illustrated by Edward Gorey.

I've written previously about the strange stories (his preferred term) of Aickman in my post on Powers of Darkness. But re-reading these tales in their new editions brought forth some interesting recurrent themes in his writing. Aickman doesn't really write traditional supernatural stories though some of them incorporate tropes of ghost story fiction and horror fiction. There is always an ambiguity pervading the stories, a ghost may not be a ghost at all but the fervent imagining of a disturbed mind. There are some instances of outright horror as in his chilling tale of the walking dead in "Ringing the Changes" found in Dark Entries or the thing that lives in the lake in "Niemandswasser" or the grisly and nightmarish true purpose of "The Hospice" both in Cold Hand in Mine. But more often than not the odd and bizarre events tend to be shrouded in a haze of the characters' twisted perceptions of reality and enhanced by their personal quirks and eccentricities.

In my current reading of the stories I discovered something else. The men in Aickman's stories are often the victims of glamour. Contemporary connotations include glamor as a synonym for stunning beauty but it original connotation hinted at a supernatural power, mostly of the fairy world, to bewitch and hypnotize and control a human. Whether this inclusion of glamor and spell casting is intentional or not on Aickman's part I cannot say, but in at least five of the stories I read the male protagonists make mention of the captivating beauty of a woman they encounter and they almost immediately fall under her spell. Take for example Carfax, the renaissance man and traveler in "The View." His attraction to the bewitching woman he dubs Ariel leads to him to friendship, romance and an unfortunate fate. He finds himself not only under her glamorous spell, but the spell of the home in which she lives. His room affords him a view that is ever changing in its scenery and by the end of the story he realizes that he has spent not a few days with Ariel but several years.

There are six long stories in Dark Entries and eight in Cold Hand in Mine. Most of them run between 30 and 50 pages. Aickman takes his time telling his tale, like a patient artist at work on a canvas he paints landscapes with carefully chosen words that evoke a sublime atmosphere blending dread and anticipation of the characters' inevitable doom. No one really escapes unscathed in an Aickman story. If they are lucky enough to survive their encounters they will carry with them a haunting memory of the world of the macabre and the weird. Many of Aickman's characters are forever changed and scarred by their inexplicable adventures. And the reader taking in Aickman's narratives cannot help but be affected as well.

For more about Faber & Faber's paperback reprints of Robert Aickman's books visit this page at their website. They plan to release a total of six of his books. It is also worth noting that Tartarus Press, an independent UK publisher of supernatural fiction, has reprinted all of Aickman's books in hardcover editions. All of them are still available. As part of the centenary of Aickman's birth Tartarus has also published this month The River Runs Uphill, an autobiographical volume originally published in 1967. Read more at the Tarturus Press website.
 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Jun 202014
John Franklin Bardin wrote this delightfully odd genre blender using the pseudonym "Douglas Ashe." A Shroud for Grandmama (1951) begins as a HIBK style Gothic suspense but from the get-go Bardin assures the reader the story will not be your average Gothic with a damsel in a nightie running rampant through a spooky house. To begin with Abigail Longstreet wouldn't be caught dead wearing a nightie. In the second place she stumbles upon her octogenarian grandmother's corpse at the foot of a staircase surrounded by dancing footprints in the dust with no other footprints leading to or from the body. And lastly, dead old Grannie Ella is wearing nothing but a white bikini. Abigail immediately takes care of this embarrassing situation by removing the puzzling footprints that suggest a ghost was present and hauling dead Ella upstairs and making her more presentable by removing the scanty swimsuit and dressing her in the shroud conveniently left in her bedroom closet. Just what the heck is going on at the Longstreet estate?

And then there is Abigail herself. She's only twenty-eight years old but she chooses to dress and speak as if it were 1900 rather than 1950. Her quasi-Edwardian way of narrating the book is exemplified by lines like "Grandmama abhors hurly-burly". She also tells us that her preferred manner of dress includes brocade dresses with high collars, hemlines that are ankle length, and high button shoes. No close fitting revealing clothes or high heels for her. One character calls her a Gibson girl lookalike. She's anachronistic to the max. Yet being a heroine in a Gothic suspense novel she is of course drop dead gorgeous and it's her beauty that entrances handsome young stranger Albert Crump who just happens to be passing by her grandmother's home the night of her mysterious and bizarre death.

Just as soon as Abigail is finished tidying up the scene of her grandmother's death she is interrupted by the perfectly timed appearance of a policeman. Inspector Stephen Elliot is shrewd and crafty and he immediately gets down to business. Turns out he's been a watching the house at the request of an anonymous tipster and he saw Abigail enter, find Ella and rub out the footprints, and take the dead body upstairs. He also stuns Abigail with the news that her grandmother was murdered. Thus begins an expertly told tale of deceit, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and avarice.

Inspector Elliot has his work cut out for him. Each member of the family received a letter purportedly from Ella summoning them to her house. Never mind her being blind. Abigail explains away how a blind woman as disciplined as her grandmother could still painstakingly compose letters in her beautiful copperplate handwriting. There is only a tell tale upslant. Re-examination of the letters shows an absence of the upslant. Elliot thinks the letters are forged. Was the murderer luring everyone to the house to prevent them from having alibis and thus complicating the case?  Is this murderer out for more than just the death of Grandmama Ella?

There are some other Gothic touches like the legend of Sybil, a rambunctious ghost who haunts the house with poltergeist activities when she's not waltzing through the corridors leaving a trail of footprints behind her. And there is the secret of Claude Bryant, Abigail's father, who supposedly died during his service as a soldier but who may still be alive. Finally there is Claude's bastard son whose complicated history is slowly revealed throughout the murder investigation. But my favorite part is when we meet Abigail's sister Maude who is completely caught up in her new found way of life through Dianetics! Bardin has great fun mocking L. Ron Hubbard's pseudo-religion in Maude's dialogue. She spouts forth her zealous beliefs peppered with the ridiculous vocabulary of Dianetics. She does a lot of talking about "engram pressure" and firmly believes that Sybil maybe responsible for killing their grandmother.

This is a lively and entertaining detective novel highlighted by great sleuthing from Elliot who often resorts to verbal trickery and sets a few traps for his deceitful suspects; the utter bizarreness and impossibility of the murder itself; and a fantastic protagonist with an engaging and eccentric narrative style in the person of Abigail Longstreet. The book was reprinted under the title The Longstreet Legacy in its paperback edition and is somewhat scarce in either hardcover or paperback. Still for those who like their detective novels fanciful and odd this one comes highly recommended. The hunt for this scarce book is well worth your efforts.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card - space L1, "Book with spooky title"
 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Jun 062014
US 1st edition (Lippincott, 1946)
Roger Pilgrim is in fear for his life. He has already barely escaped two near fatal accidents in his ancestral home of Pilgrim's Rest. The home seems to be plagued with accidents. His father recently died when his horse threw him to the ground in a strange fit. Roger thinks someone is trying to prevent the sale of Pilgrim's Rest and most likely taking advantage of a family curse that states all members of the Pilgrim family must remain in the house or face Death if they ever leave. Roger has asked Maud Silver to investigate the possibility of a devious murderer hiding among the residents of the home.

The plot of Pilgrim's Rest (1936) is rather involved. Unfolding simultaneously with the story of Miss Silver's investigation is the story of Judy Elliot who has been forced to take the position of housemaid at Pilgrim's Rest. And there is the story of the Pilgrims themselves -- sisters Columba and Janetta, their invalid brother Jerome -- along with the employees and servants, Jerome's ever watchful nurse Lona Day, butler Robbins and his wife the cook. Miss Silver does some legitimate detective work, but mostly uses intuition to get to the bottom of the deadly accidents and mysterious deaths that befall the Pilgrim family. She coughs repeatedly, alternately as an irritating sign to underscore her impressions or to interrupt when she disagrees with Inspector March. When she's not coughing she's sitting in her chair clacking away with her knitting needles making a sweater for a relative and taking in all that is said. Periodically, she will cough (once she does so "in a hortatory manner"!) then make an observation that no one the book ever thought of.

This was my introduction to Patricia Wentworth and her well loved spinster private detective. While I was impressed with the plot mechanics and the unusual way the story unfolds I have to say I didn't find Miss Silver all that endearing or even much of a real detective. She has an almost psychic ability to ferret out the truth. Frank Abbott, one of the policemen, goes so far as to liken her to a witch. But Inspector Marsh gives a more accurate assessment of her detective skills being linked to keen observations of human behavior and Maud's ability to become an "insider" rather than an outsider as policemen are viewed. March tells Abbot, "...by the time we come into [the investigation] everyone concerned is hard at work covering up. We don't see people being natural -- she does." Maud reminds me of the Coles' Mrs. Warrender, another elderly woman detective who has uncanny powers of observation who puts her policeman son to shame.

UK paperback (Hodder & Stoughton)
Things I found pretty darn good about this book:

1. The use of cannabis indica as a method of drugging one of the characters in order to control him. In effect, a form of marijuana poisoning.

2. The construction of the house, especially a glass enclosed walkway that leads from the house to the street, being integral to the solution of one murder. Reminded me of John Dickson Carr's obsession with architecture.

3. A subplot involving the story of the daughter of the butler and his wife that becomes the key to the entire book. It's cleverly introduced to the plot as background but it keeps intruding throughout Miss Silver's investigation. By the climax of the book this subplot actually becomes the main plot, an impressive narrative manipulation. Plus, there are some nicely done bits of misdirection in telling of the daughter's plight culminating in one huge surprise.

But in the end the detective novel aspect of the story gives way to a ridiculously melodramatic finale and the book turns into a kind of unintentional parody of a Sydney Horler thriller. The killer kidnaps Judy and at gunpoint forces her to drive them to a remote site in the countryside (see the illustration on the paperback at the right). For about four pages of Judy's driving the killer narrates the motives behind the crime and plans for Judy's eventual death now that "she knows too much." There is a spectacular car wreck, a pursuit on foot and a shoot out. Too much indeed! As if that isn't going overboard the killer escapes yet the unflappable Miss Silver does not admit defeat. She gives Inspector March a few instructions on how the police can identify the killer who she is sure will have adopted a specific disguise and is planning to leave the country. Maud Silver guesses and surmises too much for me.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo, space D6 - " Book out of your comfort zone"
 Posted by at 2:48 pm
May 302014
“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”
I seem to be on a roll with anthropological mysteries. First, The Glass Spear taught me all about aboriginal Australia, coming soon a visit to Peru and the ancient Incans, and now I get the amazingly inventive world of the Ku tribe as imagined by Peter Dickinson in his debut mystery novel. Dickinson is a much underappreciated writer, something of an acquired taste, and always surprising in how different each book can be.

James Pibble is a Scotland Yard inspector who is assigned the oddball cases. The murder in The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968) is typical of the strange crimes that have become his specialty. In a house where the last surviving members of a little known tribe from New Guinea have settled one of their members has been found bludgeoned. The weapon is a wooden balustrade ornament in the shape of an owl. What makes the crime so unusual is that the tribe have been living according to their laws and cultural mores and the victim is a revered elder. Men and women live in separate areas of the house in dorm-like bedrooms and it is forbidden for either sex to visit the quarters of the opposite sex. The rules of tribal interaction are complicated but strictly adhered to and it seems that no one among the Kus could have committed the murder. Who then did in the old man? It's an impossible crime of sorts which make the sharp witted inspector imagining bizarre entries into the house. He even contemplates the possibility of an outsider having climbed up the side of the stone house and entering through an easily opened window.

The imagination involved in creating an entire culture is impressive. Dickinson invents social customs, tribal rituals, a hierarchy of members and gender role rules that make the Ku tribe seem to be as real as any group studied by Margaret Mead or Richard Leakey. The murder investigation reveals multiple hidden relationships and ulterior motives among some the tribe members. The youngest Ku, for instance, seems to be exploiting beliefs in magic for his own ends. But no one is talking and Pibble is continually frustrated by the reticence and stubbornness of the Kus.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the story is the relationship between Eve Mackenzie, daughter of Scottish missionaries who was raised in New Guinea, and her husband Paul Ku. She fell in love with Paul as a young girl while still living in New Guinea and becoming an anthropologist there. The Kus forbid marriage outside of their tribe but oddly male/male relationships outside of the tribe are allowed. In order to allow Eve and Paul to fulfill their love the tribe members decide to view and treat Eve as if she were a man, referring to her as him. They make her undergo a special ritual that allows for a male/male love relationship. Paul is then somewhat of an outcast and viewed less than a man, but he and Eve are allowed to "marry."

Flagg Terrace, the metaphorical glass-sided ants' nest (ant farm to us Americans) of the title, becomes a prominent character too. All of the tenants suddenly become suspects in the murder of Aaron Ku. When it is learned that he served as member of the trust that owns the property and that he was intent on selling the entire building Pibble begins to see motives multiplying. Other real estate schemes are uncovered. Pibble needs to sort through skulduggery in the business world as well as the intricacies of the Kus' tribal life and their reluctance to reveal the truth of their relationships to the outside world.

There is a lot of good character work here. Notable among the supporting players are Mr. Evan Evans, a real estate agent; and Nancy Hermitage, an "actress" and "professional escort". They are the most colorful and fascinating of the large cast of characters. Dickinson also has a great skill at creating character through dialogue, a talent that is all too often lacking in contemporary fiction of any kind. People talk and we immediately know who they are, not just in what they say, but how they say it. Vocabulary changes drastically from character to character. This is the hallmark of a genuinely talented novelist.

Pibble went on to play the lead in five other detective novels. Each one is unique and strange. Dickinson concocts mystery novels like no other writer of his era...or any era for that matter. The Old English Peep Show tells of a murder in a Victorian country house turned into a theme park, long before the theme park craze took over popular culture. ESP and telepathy are side effects of a mysterious disease afflicting the children in Sleep and His Brother. Pibble must attempt to free his friend Sir Francis who seems to be a prisoner of a weird cult awaiting the apocalypse in The Sinful Stones. Readers looking for something truly different and original in mystery fiction ought to investigate the James Pibble novels or any of the many unusual crime novels by Peter Dickinson. Unique is the best adjective I can come up with to describe his books, but even that word seems an understatement.

James Pibble Detective Novels
The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968) (aka Skin Deep)
The Old English Peep Show (1969) (aka A Pride of Heroes)
The Sinful Stones (1970) (aka The Seals)
Sleep and His Brother (1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space E6 -- "A book you have to borrow." I found this one in my local library.
 Posted by at 3:05 pm
May 232014
I love nothing more than a good skewering of the intelligentsia. Charles Willeford has written one of best in his often irreverent depiction of the 1970s art world as reported by James Figueras, an art critic of immense ego and cynical worldview who serves as narrator of The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971). More satire than crime novel yet not without a generous smattering of violent crimes and brutal explosive violence The Burnt Orange Heresy offers Willeford a chance to show off his knowledge of the art world while simultaneously creating one of the most compellingly realistic fictional artists of all time.

Willeford is so cunning in how he tells his tale of modern art and the arcane world of reclusive eccentric painters that he completely took me in. He fooled this gullible reader. While reading the lengthy lecture Figueras gives his girlfriend Berenice about the origins of Nihilistic Surrealism I began taking notes on all the styles and painters mentioned. Utterly foreign to me were the names of Willi Büttner and his Scatölögieschul, Belgian brothers Hans & Hal Grimm nor had I ever heard of Nihilistic Surrealism. I dutifully headed to that miracle we know as Google to scour the internet for signs of life among these names and terms. Results? 100% nothing. Turns out all of them sprang from the imagination of the writer. Willeford was so convincing in his presentation of these artists and their various schools of painting I believed they actually existed. The lecture Figueras gives -- peppered with references to well known artists like Miró, Picasso, De Chirico and Man Ray -- is so eruditely told I just accepted all of it as truthful. Part of the con begins before the reader even starts the book. Willeford dedicates the book to Jacques Debierue and gives his birth and death dates followed by a Latin memorial phrase. Of course Debierue is as fictional as the entire novel, but for a brief moment I was completely taken in thinking all of the painters and artists mentioned were real.

US 1st edition (Crown, 1971)
The biographical sketch in the rear of my Black Lizard edition mentions that Willeford studied art in Paris and Peru and was at one time a painter in his life. The Burnt Orange Heresy is both a love letter to and a diatribe against a con artist's world of contemporary art. Figueras is the perfect personality to become a con artist. When he is offered a rare opportunity to interview the reclusive genius painter Debierue he jumps at the chance. Never mind that in order to gain access to the artist, his home and studio he must also steal one painting and bring it back to the collector who knows where the artist lives. There is no moral dilemma for Figueras. If he can be the first person to interview Debierue and also be the first to view his new set of paintings and artwork he can revive his dying career as art critic, become a celebrity himself. It's the chance of a lifetime. Art theft? A mere stumbling block to a greater vainglorious end.

But there is a one huge surprise in store for Figueras when he finally manages to penetrate the hallowed studio housing Debierue's collection of art. And his discovery of Debierue's secret leads him into more crime and savage violence. The Burnt Orange Heresy makes for some exciting reading both as an excellent example of noir in the art world and a insightful satire of the creation and selling of fine art as the ultimate con game.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo card, space S1 - "Book with a Color in the Title" 
 Posted by at 3:03 pm
May 162014
Two teenage boys skipping out on their English class on the last day of school come across a horrible sight while walking through Braxham Wood -- a skeleton half buried in a pile of leaves and wearing only one woman's shoe. They immediately report their grisly discovery to their teacher Tim Brennan who then calls Sergeant Hawkes and soon the entire village of Braxham Parva is caught up in a murder investigation.  Who was this woman? How long had she been dead? Why had no one reported her missing?

Miss Fenny (1957) was later retitled in its US publication The Woman in the Woods and is better known under that second title. The first title refers to the seemingly imaginary friend of a bedridden crippled boy named Daniel. The two of them become the most important characters in the book. Daniel is a petulant, demanding eight year-old, the only son of Nicole Sherratt who spends much of the book fretting over her son and pining for her dead husband. Brennan has been seeing Nicole for several months now and has developed a bond with Daniel. He tells the boy stories, creates nightly drawings for him, and listens to Daniel's fanciful tales of Miss Fenny, trying to win over Nicole in the process but frustrated repeatedly by her obsessive thoughts of her dead husband.

Little do Brennan and Nicole realize that Miss Fenny is far from imaginary. It doesn't take long for the reader to recognize that Daniel at one time befriended the woman whose skeleton was found in the woods. She was indeed murdered and the identity of her killer does not remain hidden for long. The killer also has daily visits with Daniel and when he keeps hearing the stories of Miss Fenny and the facts that Daniel unwittingly reveals in the conversations he has had with her the killer fears he may be found out. The story then becomes not so much a murder investigation but a suspense tale. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf the reader keeps hoping that the adults will finally see the truth in what Daniel has to say about Miss Fenny. Until they do the entire village is at the mercy of a killer who will not stop at more murder to keep his one crime secret.

Blackstock seems to me to be the missing link in the British school of suspense writing bridging the post-war detective novel with the modern day crime or suspense novel. Prior to her appearance on the mystery scene it was the American women writers like Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Usula Curtiss who were pioneering domestic suspense and malice domestic novels. Blackstock brings to mind modern writers like her fellow countrywomen Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters in the use of sardonic humor and the creation of loathsome characters ripe for satiric attacks like the haughty racist Lady Grale, the prattling hypochondriac Miss Brooks, and the vile physician Dr. Heslop more interested in using the contents of his doctor's bag to harm than cure. Among the British women crime writers I can think only of Blackstock's contemporaries Shelley Smith and Joan Fleming who were writing similar tales of menace and murder at the time of the publication of Miss Fenny. What Blackstock does in Miss Fenny, however, is rather remarkable. She has written a story in which not just a violent crime but death itself has an inexorable affect on an entire village. And she does so with the macabre effects of a modern Poe.

Nicole is truly haunted by her husband, almost as if she is in thrall to his ghost. Brennan cannot compete for her love as she is more in love with a memory than anyone alive, including her son. Yet he too finds himself haunted. There is a chilling scene in which Brennan realizes that the skeleton belongs to a woman he held, caressed, and kissed. Linking the corrupted skeleton to a living being and then connecting that to a memory of a tender sexual encounter is something straight out of Poe.

Dr. Heslop, the cruel physician caring for Daniel; Rose, the doctor's simple-minded mistress and office assistant; Matthew Plumtree, an effete writer battling between cowardice and heroism are also key players in the drama and all have had their past encounters with the woman Daniel has come to know as Miss Fenny. When the identity of the skeleton finally comes to light and Daniel's stories are seen to be truth and not fiction it is only a matter of time before the cowards will make bold confrontations and the killer will strike out again.

Anthony Boucher, champion of new crime fiction writers of immense talent, was thoroughly impressed with Blackstock's novel when it first appeared. He noted her "technically faultless" construction, solid characters of "believable complexity" and an "evocative hint of fantasy" in the person of Miss Fenny. But notably as I have mentioned above he writes "...there is a spell of the sharp immediacy of death itself, such as is too rarely cast in our novels of violet crime."  Contemporary writers have since capitalized on this crucial aspect of crime fiction, but it was Charity Blackstock who perhaps was one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the dread power Death has over the living. Her ruminations on this conceit captured in evocative writing and impassioned emotions make Miss Fenny -- or The Woman in the Woods -- a book worthy of your attention.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space O6 - "Book with a Woman in the Title"
 Posted by at 12:30 pm
May 022014

Australian 1st edition,
(Invincible Press, 1950)
Sometimes the discovery of a forgotten writer yields such a surprising variety of interesting work it's both a blessing and a curse. Exhibit A: Sidney Hobson Courtier who later was published more simply as S.H. Courtier. With the exception of two books reissued by the independent Australian publisher Wakefield Press none of his books are in print and many of them are near impossible to get a hold of. As usual when a writer's books go out of print and copies are hard to come by the prices being charged in the rapidly vanishing used book market are way off base. Why I wonder does someone charge over $50 for a beat up paperback by a relatively obscure writer whose books have been out of print for decades? What is the point? Can the seller tell you anything about the writer? Usually not. Does he even care? "Oh it's scarce," you'll be told. Scarcity does not automatically make a book valuable. Plain and simple. Good books that deserve to be read cannot be had by the general public when avaricious booksellers make these books unaffordable by charging absurdly exorbitant prices. But more to the point why when a writer is as good as Courtier aren't more of his books in print?

Take for instance Courtier’s very first mystery novel. Unique in concept, told with suspense and excitement, an original work both as a fine example of detective fiction and a good novel. In the guise of a confounding murder mystery The Glass Spear (1950) explores the relationship between aboriginal Australian people and the dominating white man. It's a fascinating blend of the traditional country house mystery spiced up with a generous amount of Gothic atmosphere and Australian tribal mysticism. Imagine if you can a detective novel written by Arthur Upfield in collaboration with Charlotte Bronte and Tony Hillerman and you are on your way to understanding how unusual and bewitching The Glass Spear can be.

Dick Thewan fresh out of the Australian army is summoned back to Kinie Ger, the Australian sheep ranch where he grew up. His boyhood friend Jacqueline (Jay to her friends) has appealed to him to help out with the mismanagement of the ranch and some other troubles brewing in the household. A few miles short of the entrance to the ranch a falling tree branch causes a near car wreck almost crushing Dick inside. He can't help but think of it as an omen. Oddly, in his tortured imagination he thinks it might have been a murder attempt. Does someone want him to stay away so much that they would resort to murder?

The homestead at Kinie Ger is in turmoil. Dick's childhood friend and one of the current ranch hands Steve and Jay are odds. Steve, a former prisoner of war, is a volatile personality causing more trouble than he's worth at the ranch. And the reclusive matriarch Huldah seems to have powerful control over everyone as she makes her demands and orders heard through the internal phone system that works as a sort of intercom. For the past several years Huldah has remained in a self-imposed exile at Kinie Ger, never leaving her bedroom suite at the front of the house. She allows only two people to enter her private domain -- Lucy Danes, who acts as cook and housekeeper for her; and Burton Lensell "nominal head of Kinie Ger, intense anthropologist, reluctant sheepman, and bewildered guardian to a set of children who stood in various degrees of relationship to him." Huldah's presence adds a Jane Eyre Gothicism to the story, a mysterious and imperious woman whose motives for shutting herself up remain hidden to all.

US 1st Edition (A. A. Wyn, 1950)
 Burton is busy with preparations for the upcoming Easter corroboree -- a ceremonial ritual involving tribal costumes and masks, dance and acting. Several members of the ranch are involved in the theatrical presentation to take place on a sacred island accessible only by boat. At the climactic moment of the play the participants dance around a tribal mound. Burton notices that the mound so painstakingly created and placed dead center has moved several feet from its original spot. During the dance the actors stab at the mound as part of an aboriginal ritual and in doing so uncover a dead body. It is Henry Carpenty, a depised local rancher and troublemaker. His throat is cut. An autopsy reveals the fatal wound to have been caused by the glass arrowhead of a spear kept in a private museum back at Kinie Ger.

There are hints of the supernatural, too. A prowler has been seen around the grounds. Dick finds footprints that indicate the use of footwear woven of bark, feathers,and fur and believed by natives to render the wearer invisible. This is a work of kurdaitcha -- a kind of aboriginal magic usually with evil intent. When a second murder occurs, this time in the locked museum at Kinie Ger, Superintendent Ambrose Mahon begins to think that a clever murderer is exploiting the fearful aspects of tribal culture to confound the police and frighten the locals.

The Glass Spear is an excellent example of an anthropological detective novel. Courtier includes a glossary of tribal words and Australian flora and fauna to help non-Aussies in understanding the often alien world of the aborigines. The detective work is top notch with plenty of puzzling mysteries surrounding the two deaths not the least of which is the mystery surrounding the intimidating Huldah. The story culminates in a shocking surprise and a revelation of a family secret that has shamed Kinie Ger for decades.

I've read many mystery novels by Australian writers using their country's rich culture and distinctive landscape, but I've never encountered a book like The Glass Spear which is so entirely Australian. Here is a story that can only have taken place Down Under. And I'll say no more for fear of giving away the best parts. If you come across a copy of this book I'd advise you to snap it up and read it. It's one of the most unique novels I've read this year.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space O4 - "An Author You've Never Read Before"
 Posted by at 2:56 pm