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.

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Silver Age Bingo card update: Space I6 - "Book with a woman in the title"
 Posted by at 5:40 am
Nov 142014
 
In the opening chapter of Murder by the Day (1953) we learn that Mortimer Rutherford, a millionaire with a morbid fear of dying in an inferno, has completely fireproofed his penthouse. How then was he found incinerated in his newly purchased designer armchair? A chair, that like the rest of his home, was most recently treated with a new fireproofing compound he helped develop with a chemist friend. Furthermore, Rutherford's interior designer, Althea Tamblyn (one of the more colorful characters in the book), had also purchased several of those chairs for other tenants in the building. Mysteriously, the chairs keep turning up in the oddest of places. Murder by the Day might well be subtitled The Case of the Flip-Flopped Furniture along the lines of an alliterative Perry Mason title. It's well suited for the Mason series for just like Gardner's obsession with switching guns and bullets in the Mason books Johns has her characters switching and moving those chairs around the Rutherford House apartment complex with the rapidity and deftness of a con man running a shell game.

Mercury Mystery digest paperback (1954)
But it isn't just the bizarre murder method that makes Murder by the Day worth your while. Webster Flagg, ex-performer whose talents on the stage took him from the vaudeville circuit to Shakespearean repertory, is the Rutherford's butler and housekeeper who also is employed by several other residents at Rutherford House. Flagg is the amateur sleuth of our piece, the only actor turned butler turned detective I know of in the genre. Oh, but he's also one of the earliest African American amateur detectives in the genre, too.

Beating out both Ed Lacy's private eye Toussaint Moore who first appeared in 1958 and Chester Himes' policemen who debuted in 1957 Webster Flagg is perhaps the first of the modern amateur black detectives. But unlike Lacy's and Himes' creations you'll find no tough guy demeanor here. Flagg (two G's, please, if you don't want to unduly upset him) is a sixtyish gentleman in every sense of the word, restraining himself with the suavity of Jeeves, reining in his temper and never resorting to harsh words when he's taunted by his mercurial clients. Drawing upon his acting talents and his clever insights into his client's personalities based solely on how messy or tidy they lead their lives he makes for a formidable detective. Johns' characterization of a black servant in a very rich and very white environment makes for some enlightening reading. She makes her point especially in a flashback when Webster has to deal with one of his employer's frequent fits of rage and his repeated use of the "N word". Johns' handling of the scene shows only one of the many reasons that Webster is one of the most dignified and sophisticated of black detectives in the history of crime fiction.

Servant's Problem (1958) 1st US edition
The second and last Webster Flagg mystery
This is a detective novel with all the goods on display. Johns' has a lively writing style with a talent for turning a phrase and incorporating clever wordplay. Sometimes a bit self-consciously clever ("...slip covering herself in a kennel of blue poodles flaunting magenta ribbons") or awkward ("Her second Gibson laced her stays."), nonetheless, her writing is always vibrant and alive, never dull. At times tongue in cheek, but never silly; deadpan serious, but never preachy, as when dealing with the subtle and insidious racism that shows its ugly face at key moments. Her women characters are more colorful than the men ranging from the harried Priscilla Taylor, neglected wife who discovers the body, to the smug and haughty decorator Althea Tamblyn to the dumb blond hick Margie Peters whose naïve country ways are typical of the kind of comic character you get in a crime novel set in urbane Manhattan. Even the temperamental Black Angus, Rutherford's pet cat, gets to shine and provides more than a few clues to the solution of the murder. But this is no cat mystery. Angus has a few scenes of importance and never takes center stage, thank heaven.

Let me not overlook the essential ingredints of any good mystery novel -- the detective work and laying out of clues. There is an abundance of both. A stolen house key, the cat in the dumbwaiter incident, Rutherford's collection of valuable Impressionist and abstract paintings, an ingeniously painted copy of a Cezanne, reading glasses found in a recipe file, and the game of musical chairs in which the furniture moves around in dizzying circles rather than the people are among the numerous puzzling events and clues Webster will deal with as he sorts out fact from fiction in this literal case of in flagrante delicto.

Hush, Gabriel! (1941)  Atlas paperback edition
Johns' first mystery novel featuring Agatha Welch
Not much is known about Veronica Parker Johns other than her writing career. In addition to only five detective novels -- two with a spinster detective named Agatha Welch, one stand-alone mystery, and two with Webster Flagg -- she wrote a non-fiction work about her unusual hobby of collecting sea shells titled aptly enough She Sells Sea Shells. A number of her short stories appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and she is perhaps best known for her story "A Gentleman Caller" which was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour starring Roddy McDowall in the tile role. A review of the second and last Webster Flagg mystery Servant's Problem will be appearing here soon. Stay tuned.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo -- space E2, "Book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title". Another Bingo line! And only four more books left to fill the card.
 Posted by at 4:43 pm
Nov 072014
 
Los Que Aman, Odian (1946) was the only collaboration between Argentinian writers and husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. It's both a love letter and a send-up to the detective novel. Translated by another collaborative team, Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, this short novel showcases the two writers' fascination with surreal and fantastic events while simultaneously presenting a story of what Ocampo says encompasses her credo: "not to forget what is most important in the world: friendship and love, wisdom and art."

The story is narrated by pompous and smug physician Humberto Huberman who has traveled to a seaside resort called Bosque del Mar to work on a screenplay adaptation of Satryicon.  The egocentric doctor confesses not at all abashedly that he has been commissioned by a film company to write the script. He's a Renaissance man, we learn, but in the worst sense. Huberman is insufferable in the first few pages as he brags about his work, his numerous talents and his tastes in fine art and literature.  He makes allusions to obscure characters from Wilkie Collins, quotes Petronious, and peppers his speech with French. And he hates the detective novel craze with a passion.

It's all tongue in cheek and rather ingenious on the part of the writers to give us a narrator who loathes mystery novels and all the artifice. Dr. Huberman, you see, will become the amateur sleuth of the novel.  In effect his hubris and ego get the better of him. As much as he agrees with Petronious' criticism of a boyhood obsession with pirates and fantastical adventure stories creating a generation of "blockheads" who "neither see nor hear one single thing connected to the usual circumstances of everyday life" and draws analogies to the current fad of detective novels doing the same thing to adults of his own generation he will nevertheless succumb to the detective fever that got the better of Gabriel Betteredge in The Moonstone.

A lover's triangle between two sisters and one man, all guests at the same hotel where Huberman is staying, serves as the fuse setting off tumultuous displays of misplaced love and affection among the hotel's employees and guests. Impassioned arguments between the two sisters, clandestine trysts, amorous advances made in darkened stairwells -- the hotel is a hotbed of desire and sex and eventual murder. Mary Gutierrez, translator of British detective novels into Spanish, is found dead in her room apparently having poisoned herself after a heated argument with her sister Emilia.  Or was the strychnine found in her cup of hot chocolate put there by someone else?

Adolfo Bioy Casares, circa 1940s
Casares and Ocampo have a lot of fun with detective novel tropes. Characters in disguise, a couple of false solutions before the truth is revealed and an abundance of clues all play out in the fast-paced and compactly told story.  The detective novel itself becomes a focus of their story as two police inspectors in an effort to find clues begin to devour a pile of mystery novels found in Mary's room. The cleverest of these clues is the apparent suicide note written by Mary which turns out to be a passage lifted from one of the many books she was working on, a novel by Michael Innes no less! With a nod to Trent's Last Case there are also multiple complications when two characters protect one another believing each committed the murder. Evidence is manufactured and red herrings are strewn about the hotel like confetti at a carnival. Confusion rains down on all but the vainglorious Huberman who makes one insightful observation that leads to the truth and the murderer's identity.

Casares and Ocampo are no stranger to genre fiction. He and his wife were leading practitioners of fantasy, science fiction and magical realist short stories and novels. With his good friend Jorge Luis Borges as partner Casares created the fictional detective Don Isidro Parodi, a sort of parody of Poe's Dupin, who solved puzzling crimes from his jail cell. Casares' best known work is The Invention of Morel, a phantasmagorical novel of identity, illusion and love set in a surreal island paradise.  Ocampo's work is discussed in Levine's informative and teasing introduction. Living in the shadow of her better known and respected sister who founded and owned one of Argentina's most important literary magazines, Silvana wrote short stories that their intimate friend Borges said were imbued with "a strange taste for certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty."  Levine says Ocampo's work is "more perverse" than her husband's and "surreal in the sense of inexplicable." Tantalizing descriptions to me and I'm eager to track down a volume of her stories now.

Silvina Ocampo, circa 1950s
Where There's Love, There's Hate was reissued in English for the first time last year by Meville House Publishing, a Brooklyn based independent press, as part of their Neversink Library.  This imprint line revives a variety of eccentric novels and works of non-fiction from world literature.  Ranging form Charlie Chaplin's autobiography to a Russian novel about a life in a Gulag camp told from a guard dog's point of view (Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov) the series is one of the most impressive collections of overlooked yet pertinent literature to be assembled and reissued by any small press.  Check them out, but most especially make sure to check out this unusual satire of detective novels.

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This counts as my translated book (space E3) in the Golden Age Mystery bingo card reading challenge.  Also, this is the book that inspired me to choose 1946 for Rich Westwood's continuing Reading Challenge in which we all read books published in a particular year.  His post of books read and reviewed will appear at Past Offences at the end of this month when the 1946 Challenge ends.

 
 Posted by at 4:42 pm
Oct 312014
 
Sax Rohmer never ceases to amaze me. For a writer who arguably created fiction's most infamous master criminal and indulged in some of the most macabre aspects of sensation and pulp fiction (some have never surpassed him in my opinion) he also managed to use the thriller as his sounding board for his political views. Am I reading too much into this in light of the recent headline making news of the events in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? I don't think so. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) seems exceptionally pertinent now in light of recent world affairs. It gets my vote for one of the earliest thrillers dealing with religious fundamentalism as a platform for terrorist activity.

A British archeological expedition in Iran comes to a halt with the discovery of the murdered body of Dr. Van Berg. The only entrance to his hotel bedroom was the open window thirty feet above ground and yet no ladder could have been used to gain entry without any seen or heard it being done. Adding to the mystery of how the assailant entered the room so swiftly and silently is the aroma of mimosa that pervades the room. A strange nearly intoxicating scent that lingers in the air adding an exotic mystery to the murder scene so typical of Rohmer's books.

Local authorities get word that the expedition is honing in on the site of ancient artifacts belonging to the revered Muslim El Mokanna, known also as "The Veiled Prophet" though someone is quick to point out that this is a misnomer for El Mokanna actually wore a mask. It is the mask, sword and tablets purportedly carrying the text of the New Koran that are thought to be the reason for Van Berg's death.  His murder is viewed as a fatal warning to the crew to stop their digging and searching. Sir Lionel Barton, "the greatest living Orientalist in the Western world", will have none of it. He continues with his work and succeeds in finding those treasures. And then the trouble really begins.

Mask of Fu Manchu is narrated by Shan Greville, Barton's right hand man on the expedition. He is looking forward to ending this project so he and his fiancé can return to London and get married. Anyone who knows anything about books like this immediately knows this love affair will be targeted by the nefarious Fu Manchu and his minions. No sooner does Rima appear but she is threatened and eventually kidnapped. By her own husband to be! Greville himself is abducted when he is tricked into following a figure wearing what appears to be El Mokanna's mask. Turns out it's Fu Manchu's deadly and beautiful daughter Fah Lo Sueee. Greville meets up with Fu Manchu, is restrained by some dangerous African servants, and drugged with one of Rohmer's ubiquitous mind controlling opiates. A drug distilled from the seeds of the mimosa pudica has been used to anesthetize Greville which he quickly associates with the botanical aroma back at the murder scene. We also learn that Fu Manchu has been preparing an elixir of life derived from a rare Burmese orchid. An essential oil created from the flower is the secret ingredient in the formula that has prolonged his life and bestowed an ageless appearance.

You can only marvel at the sheer excess of this story. Fu Manchu is once again aided by a veritable army of Asians, Africans and Muslims all with athletic agility and superhuman strength. In addition to an array of exotic poisons and mind controlling drugs there is a super strong cord created from spider silk that is used as a weapon, a restraint and as means of travelling between the balconies and rooftops of high-storied buildings. Did Stan Lee read these books, too? You can't help but think of Peter Parker's inventions when you get to this part.

Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, of course, make an appearance and are on hand to save the day as they do battle with their perennial nemesis. The story travels from Iran to Cairo to the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza where another impossible event occurs. From Egypt our intrepid band travel via ocean liner back to London where the climax reveals Fu Manchu's real plans for world domination using his duped zealous followers of El Mokanna.



I haven't read a more breathtaking, high speed chase, action thriller like this in a long time. It's no wonder the wizards of Hollywood were continually drawn to these books as a source for the good ol' fashioned cliffhanger serials of the past. Oddly, the movie version of The Mask of Fu Manchu is even more over-the-top than the book. Gone is all of the religion and quasi-politics. The emphasis is not on zealotry and the dangers of blind faith and how easily it is manipulated for ill purposes. Instead the mask and tomb belong to Ghengis Khan and we get an abundance of pulp thriller trappings as indomitable Boris Karloff and ethereally gorgeous Myrna Loy, portraying the evil father and daughter, play havoc with out heroes lives and threaten world peace. Rohmer's love of botanical poisons and drugs are not surprisingly replaced with an arsenal of venomous creatures. Too strange is the torture sequence in which we watch handsome and rugged Charles Starrett as Greville (renamed Terence Granville in the movie) stripped naked and strapped to a table while Karloff looking like an insane surgeon in his mask, gown, and gloves subjects his victim to injections taken from giant spiders and snakes. And Greville isn't the only victim. The entire band of archeologists is captured and restrained in a variety of old movie torture devices from spiked moving walls to a pit of alligators.

As of March 2014 Titan Books has now reprinted eleven of the thirteen Fu Manchu books. Luckily, The Mask of Fu Manchu is one they chose to include. It's available in paperback from most retailers in the UK and US. For those who prefer the older editions, you can find multiple copies of the many US and UK vintage paperbacks available through the used book market, usually for sale at $7 or less per copy. This book review serves as my contribution to the "1932 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Rich Westwood. Visit his blog Past Offences to read more posts on books others found of interest from this exceptional vintage year.
 Posted by at 4:10 pm
Oct 242014
 
Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

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

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

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion and an inabilit for Star to distinguish reality from fancy. This "misty" trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer's identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" There are a fair share of "Zounds! and "Gramercy!" exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word "Good-bye" to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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