Dec 192014
 
Stephen Dusack has a bit of a problem. After suffering major injuries in a train derailment he is under the care of both doctors and psychiatrists. He has been interviewed multiple times about his life history and each time he tells his story about growing up in South Africa, working for a mining company, and recently leaving that country for England where he hoped to start life anew in the little village of Studdold all the medical staff tend to give the impression that they doubt his veracity. They all think he is David Orme and send Stephen home with Orme's secretary and business associate Howard Downey. Broke and without even having started his new job Dusack reluctantly agrees. At Orme's massive estate protected by electronic gates and a gun toting chauffeur Stephen's identity crisis plunges into a nightmare world of conspiracy, paranoia and murder attempts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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