Feb 262014
 
Paperback 746: Avon 21 (1st ptg, 1942)

TitleThe Avon Book of Detective and Crime Stories
Editor: John Rhode
Cover artist: NA

Yours for: $10

Avon21

Best things about this cover:
  • The font? Maybe? Also pink. Pink is nice.
  • This old Avon has held up *really* well. I love a good old paperback that's beat-as-f*ck but still perfectly solid and tight. You could read this a hundred times and it would just get more broken in.
  • This is a classic detection bonanza right here. Not really my cup, but a pretty sweet collection nonetheless.
Avon21bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • Shakespeare-Head!
  • Shakespeare likes mysteries and also the US Armed Forces. Heed Shakespeare's plea, y'all.
  • You can store paperbacks in such things as "clothing" or those new-fangled contraptions, "bags."

Page 123~ (from "A Shot in the Night" by The Baroness Orczy)

My experience is that in all emotions and all weaknesses, in all virtues and in all vices, women invariably outdo the men.

But this is beside the point.

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
May 192013
 

You might think of it as a disgruntled author's revenge: an arrogant and well-disliked publisher gets into his small, private elevator on the top floor of his office building. The door locks automatically and the elevator descends. The publisher can even be seen through windows in the locked access doors, and he is standing in the elevator as it descends. The elevator never stops. Yet suddenly a gunshot is heard, and when the elevator car reaches the ground floor, the publisher is dead - shot through the heart. And there is no way anyone could possibly have shot him in that elevator, especially as there is no gun to be found either in the car or in the elevator shaft.

Impossible? Why of course! Welcome to Fatal Descent, by Carter Dickson and John Rhode - or, to give them their correct names, John Dickson Carr and Cecil Street. Both authors were masters of the impossible crime novel as well as being friends - and they collaborated on just this one book, in 1939. Fatal Descent is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

Fatal Descent is a fascinating mystery, with two sleuths who team up to solve it. One, the Police Surgeon, Dr. Horatio Glass, is very much the type of detective favored by John Dickson Carr - full of ideas that give elegant solutions to impossible problems, brilliant in their conception and flawed only in that they are invariably wrong. Chief Inspector David Hornbeam is a realist who seeks the scientific explanations for crime, and he is quite representative of the kind of sleuth that Street wrote about under his "John Rhode" pen-name. Between them, they will eventually solve the case - but only after a second murder.

It’s a fine story, written with wit and good humor, quite fairly clued for the reader who can find the hints, and with some first-rate characters. It’s a pity that Street and Carr only wrote this one mystery together. Readers who enjoy a good impossible crime story really should read Fatal Descent. It’s been out of print for a while, but there is now an e-book edition available.

This is another entry in Bev's My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mysteries Reading Challenge. As this 1939 mystery was originally published under the title Drop to His Death, I am entering it in the category called "A Mystery by Any Other Name," a book that has been published under more than one title.

 

May 162013
 
Just had to share this with my readers, many of whom are collectors like me or who just like to buy old mystery books every now and then. I doubt, however, any among you has the spare change to pick up the book advertised below. And it's so attractive, too. Foxed pages, chipped and foxed DJ. Definitely a keeper.


Just in case you're wondering it is indeed scarce, but there is a reputable seller with a copy minus the DJ who is selling it for $245. Standard pricing for a copy of any book without a DJ is to deduct approximately 75% from the price if it did have a DJ. So the naked copy is rather a steal. That is, if you believe this book is truly worth the equivalent price of a 2013 Jaguar XF with all the extras. Even a first edition of Fer De Lance in DJ (a much more important and collectible book in the genre) would never fetch over $60,000.

Click here for more details on this book. While visiting that page (yes, it's on that infamous auction site) you can view more pictures of this damaged book that someone thinks is the Hope Diamond of mystery fiction.

UPDATE (May 17, 2013): The seller appears to be playing a game with this item's listing. Each day the price drops. Tim Prasil caught it at £39,5000, today I see it has been further reduced to £38,750. How do you spell crackpot?
 Posted by at 1:49 am
Feb 282013
 
Professor Herman Brierley, chemist and amateur criminologist, is one of the most obscure of the American scientific detectives. He made his debut in The Poison Plague in 1922 when the story was originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly. In that tale Brierly stops a mass murderer from decimating the population of New York with an exotic poison launching him on a career of investigating bizarre and grotesque crimes. Multiple murders, especially murder by poison, became the specialty of the series. Murder from the Grave (1930) is no exception.

While it may not be as utterly outrageous as the second book in the series, Murder in the Palisades (1930), it presents the reader with an opening tableau rarely encountered in a detective novel from this period. A murderer strikes in five different cities in New Jersey and New York over a period of only three hours and manages to kill four of his seven intended targets. Levinrew invented spree killing, in essence, decades before that criminal phenomenon was headline making news.

As the title suggests the murders appear to be the work of a person who has died. Rodney Borger, the cruel patriarch of a feuding family, visits Brierly to ask for his help in trying to flush out the person who he suspects of poisoning seven of his relatives at a dinner party a few weeks ago. He is convinced someone is trying to get to his money. But Borger has worked out a revenge. He also reveals to Brierly a will outlining his curious terms for his legatees. In order to inherit any money or property the surviving oldest Borger must live in the family estate and specifically in Rodney's bedroom for a prescribed period of days. During that time the survivor cannot leave the house. Brierly smells lunacy in the air, a little bit of paranoia, and is hesitant to take on the case. His delay proves fatal to Borger. He dies a few days later long with four other Borgers, all apparently the victims of yet another poisoning binge. The burning question, of course, is how the poison is being administered at different locations almost at exactly the same time.

The first Professor Brierly detective novel
The book is really more of a howdunit than a whodunit. The victims, intended victims and suspects are all members of the Borger family who we learn are descended from the infamous Borgias, the Italian Renaissance family known for their adept skills in concocting and administering poisons. Cute, right? But the emphasis is always on the eccentric character of Professor Brierly and his reporter colleague Jimmy Hale who serves as the book's Watson. No other character in the book (and there are many) rises above the level of a surface sketch or an utter cliché. In some cases we never get to meet the character thanks to the rapid elimination of family members at the hands of the maniacal poisoner.

The most jaw dropping part of this book is Brierly's unconventional method for detecting poisons. He tastes the food! Not only that he has other people taste the food and some of them do so willingly because they trust him. In one case, however, he is not so forthright. He dupes a woman into tasting coffee that he has doctored with tobacco from one of Hale's cigarettes so that he will jar her taste buds into "remembering" the flavor of the tainted coffee she drank the night of her attempted poisoning. She screams in terror when she detects the same flavor and accuses Brierly of trying to kill her. "Calm down, dear lady," he tells her. "You have merely confirmed my suspicions of nicotine poisoning." Ah, the days of the arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth! How I miss them.

The book has some fair play detection, some interesting chemical experiments, lots of taste testing (!) and a bit too much grilling of the suspects. But the murders themselves and the mysterious method keep the reader glued to the pages. Brierly learns that the mad killer has used a variety of poisons and has found a fiendish way to introduce those poisons into each household. I was impressed by the method having guessed a portion of it early on by heeding the few clues dropped rather obviously in the narrative. Admirers of the detective novels of John Rhode, the master of the murder means, might find the death traps in this book to be the most ingenious parts of Levinrew's sensationalized murder tale. Those hoping for a touch of the supernatural alluded to in the title will not be disappointed in the final chapters.

Paperback retitled version of the
ultra rare Murder at the Palisades
I am slowly working my way through my collection of Scarlet Thread Mysteries after doing an illustrated feature on the art work which you can view here. When writing about them I realized that I have never read any of them. No time like the present! You can look forward to all seven books I own being reviewed over the coming months this year. Improvements in the storytelling will be a blessing for the remainder of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries, but I am not too optimistic. Perhaps having low expectations for this imprint will fend off any future disappointment.

The Professor Brierly Detective Novels
The Poison Plague (1929)
Murder at the Palisades (1930)
    also publ as The Wheelchair Corpse (1945)
Murder from the Grave (1930)
For Sale - Murder (1932)
Death Points the Finger (1933)

READING CHALLENGE NOTE:  This will serve as one title off the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for 2013. This one fits the category Murder Is Academic since Brierly is a chemistry professor at a New Jersey university.
 Posted by at 3:34 am
Sep 142012
 
I wonder how many vintage mystery readers out there are like me and read every page of a book. I mean every single page, my friends. I read the dedications and make notes of odd messages then do research on the mystery men and women mentioned. I read the copyright pages looking for unusual notations. And I always read author notes and prefaces. If I didn't I would never have known that Antidote to Venom (1938) was Crofts' "two-fold experiment" in crime fiction. In his own words "...it is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively." Curious that second part, don't you think? I think he succeeds even if it comes about in the most manipulative fashion.

First, a crash course on terminology. The inverted detective novel is a departure from the traditional whodunit which focuses on the murderer and his motive. Instead of the murderer's identity being kept hidden until the final chapter we know the murderer from the onset and are privy to all his thoughts and plans. The suspense comes in following the detective as he tries to uncover the fatal mistake that upsets the apparently perfect crime presented to the reader through the murderer's point of view. R. Austin Freeman and his detective Dr.Thorndyke were the models of this subgenre during the Golden Age. The TV show Columbo has become the modern day equivalent and is how almost everyone has become familiar with this version of the "howdunit" or perhaps more accurately "howdhescrewup."

George Surridge finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. He finds his only joy at work in his busy life as director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo. But he is in deep financial straits. His wife Clarissa has been living well beyond their means and George has kept secret from her his gambling problem. He owes an awful lot of money to debtors. But then there is his ailing aunt and her modest estate. If only she would die soon he could have about £8000 that would more than cover his debts and allow he and Clarissa to live comfortably again. George begins to daydream of murder plots.

One day he meets Nancy and a pleasant day of chit chat and an impromptu tour behind the scenes at the zoo soon leads to secret trysts at country inns and teashops. Before they know it the two are engaged in a full blown romance. George's criminal thoughts about murdering his aunt are displaced by his deceitful cover-up of his secret love life.

When his aunt's illness worsens leading to her death George finally thinks the legacy due him will solve all his problems. But he learns from his aunt's lawyer, David Capper, that the money is gone. The lawyer admits he stole from the woman to cover some bad investments. There is nothing left. The two of them are in similar predicaments, each needing to pay back debts with expediency. But there is another option - Capper's rich uncle. Coincidentally, this rich uncle also happens to be Professor Burnaby who was working with George in obtaining snake venom for use in his medical research. The lawyer proposes a murder by proxy scheme that will provide each of them with money they need. George will need to do four things one of which involves the deadly Russell's viper at the zoo. He will be clear of any possible guilt as he will have no motive for the death of the professor. Capper assures George he will also have an alibi the night of the murder. Driven to desperation and thinking he will be in the clear George agrees to become an accomplice to the murder.

Russell's viper (Daboia) -the snake procured
for murderous means in Crofts' book
The rest of the book details the amazing detective skills of Inspector French and the local police. At first the death of Professor Burnaby is seen as a freak accident. The snake appeared to have escaped through negligence on the part of the zookeeping staff. It also helps Surridge that a keeper had recently been let go for dereliction of duty. The local police see the snake theft as a mad revenge scheme gone wrong and look to the fired zookeeper as suspect number one. George of course is sweating bullets throughout the entire investigation. French suspects something more serious than a mere accident. Too many things seem too coincidental. Above all he is bothered by one thing: how did the snake bite the professor and then end up drowned in a rain barrel that was yards away from the body? French demands not only an autopsy of the professor's body but one for the snake.

Map endpapers in the 1st US edition (Dodd Mead, 1939)
(click to enlarge)

I haven't had much luck with finding books by Freeman Wills Crofts that were exciting or engaging. He is primarily known for detective novels in which trains and boats and their timetables are examined and studied ad nauseum as part of the murder investigation. I have been bored by a lot of them and never finished those. Luckily, there isn't a train table in sight in this book. And for once with Crofts I was completely caught up in his story. George is both an object of pity and fascination. As presented his criminal thoughts and philandering ways are completely understandable. He is shocked by his actions and yet cannot stop himself. It's a fine examples of a character who is completely human falling victim to inexplicable desires and wholly succumbing to them transforming into a person he never thought he'd ever become. For a writer often derided for his shallow characterizations I think Crofts pulled off one of the most difficult jobs in crime fiction -- a compelling portrait of a sympathetic murderer.

While there are some convenient inspirational moments and leaps of imagination in French's mulling over the oddities of the crime the real detection in the book outweighs those minor quibbles. Much of the best detective work is in French's research about the snake and the examination of a workroom of one of the suspects. I liked all of the zoo background which is most likely authentic based on Crofts' acknowledgments to a herpetologist who helped him with research.

The murder method alone is one of the most astonishing and bizarre deathtraps of this period in detective fiction.  It puts to shame the mechanical ingenuity of the gizmo in Fatal Descent by Carr and Rhode, a machine I still cannot understand. I think Crofts can be proud of this thoroughly diabolical and unfathomably constructed device for killing someone.  Even with a detailed schematic I couldn't see how anyone could dream it up - let alone build it and make it work. I imagine John Rhode letting loose with an impressive whistle when he read this book seventy plus years ago.

And about that bit about Crofts' "an effort to tell a story of crime positively"? I can't really give it all away. Let me just say it all has to do with guilt and justice and, oddly enough, an eleventh hour moment of prayer perfectly placed to achieve Crofts' desired effect. To me it seemed too pat and neat. It was an ending manipulated through coincidence and contrivance. A story of a crime positively told? Perhaps, but better to have labeled it the story of a crime with a moral lesson.
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jun 072012
 
Two days ago I received my copy of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by fellow blogger and vintage mystery scholar Curt Evans.  It's an in-depth study of three unjustly denigrated Golden Age detective novelists - Cecil Street (who wrote under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton), Alfred W. Stewart (who wrote as J.J. Connington ) and Freeman Wills Crofts.  It's a true labor of love for Curt who spent the last ten years of his life researching, writing and trying to sell the book to a daring publisher.  Finally it paid off.

The "humdrums" is a derogatory term created by mystery writer and critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of crime fiction Mortal Consequences (published in the UK as  Bloody Murder). He lumped together several "dull" and "unimaginative" writers of detective novels mostly from the late 1920s - 1930s and derided them for boring characters, flat writing and tepid plots.  As Curt (and many of us vintage mystery bloggers) will tell you -- nothing could be further from the truth.

A close reading of these three men's books will reveal exactly the opposite. Rhode was ingenious in coming up with bizarre murder methods and, when he put his mind to it, concocted ingenious plots with fine examples of logical and scientific detective work. Similarly, Connington was good with tricky plots and in his early books at least displayed an offbeat sense of humor.  Crofts was the genius of the alibi and the timetable and he loved to write detective stories about trains, boats and ships at sea.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery Curt discusses in detail the best books by these writers and proves Symons to be biased and snobbish in his dismissal of them as "dull" writers.

And now you can own a copy!  It's published by McFarland & Company, a publisher of mostly academic non-fiction books, and can be purchased directly at their website.  They offer an oversized paperback edition or an eBook version. Or you can try amazon. Since it comes from an independent academic press the price is a bit steep at $49.95. Unfortunately, the book is not offered at any discount prices online. But for those who are truly interested in learning more about these three writers and their fertile imaginations I say it's worth every penny.
 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Apr 042012
 
With only a few quibbles I think Sign of Fear (1935) may be the best of the Judge Peck books. Derleth's series about the Wisconsin judge seemed extremely formulaic to me with his love of Gothic households, families ruled by stern matriarchs doing their best to keep in line the back biting relatives, and closets filled with a battalion of skeletons rattling all too loudly. Murder Stalks the Wakely Family, The Man on All Fours, and The Narracong Riddle all seem to be variations on a theme so overplayed that the last book in that list is a very close rewrite of the second. I was planning on reading the entire series but quickly tired of the repetition. Then I found the Sign of Fear – one of the rarest of the Judge Peck books – in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi and had to buy it. As I pored over the pages it became clear that here was a book that breaks away from Derleth's comfort zone and manages to put some truly original spins on his version of the fair play detective novel.

First, the matriarch is absent from the family. Instead we have two unmarried brothers and a female cousin making up Derleth's usual haunted family. Second, there is a mysterious murder method that is not made known until the halfway mark. Third, there is the anthropology background and some fascinating lore on ancient Peruvian superstition and religious symbols in South American culture. Finally, there is a bravura courtroom performance in which Judge Peck acts as defense attorney for one of the brothers who is accused of murder. It all makes for a highly enjoyable mystery.

Incan artifact (© F. D. Rasmussen) 
Christopher Jannichon, archaeologist, has been called back from Peru to his Wisconsin home by a series of strange postcards containing weird markings and ominous warnings. When he arrives at his home he finds similar markings drawn in the snow on the grounds of the Prairie estate and learns his brother Cornelius has also received similar anonymous postcards with odd symbols. The dominate symbol is described as "a cross topped with a cedilla" (though the illustration on the DJ shows a cross topped with a circumflex), known to both brothers through their extensive reading of Incan culture as the "God-help-us!" mark. It is clear to the Jannichons that someone is threatening them and they speculate it may have to do with Christopher's research in ancient Incan life. They consult with Judge Peck who is invited to stay the weekend when several relatives and friends are planning to visit the two Jannichon brothers. That night their cousin Edna suffers a mysterious fatal attack. She is found dead on the floor of her bedroom an expression of terror on her face. Beneath her body is a slip of paper with one of the "God-help-us!" symbols drawn in red ink. The threats have come true, but was Edna the intended victim?

The detection here is well done and, for the most part, follows all the tenets of fair play. Judge Peck learns that both Edna and Cornelius used a similar face powder (Cornelius has sensitive skin and used the powder as an aftershave emollient). On the night of the death Cornelius told his housekeeper the jar of powder in his room was not his and to put it back wherever it belonged. Judge Peck is sure that the powder found in Edna's room was the means of death somehow altered though no sign of poison is found during the post mortem. He is also certain that Cornelius was the intended victim since the powder was originally in his room. Then Christopher suffers a similar attack in which he has difficulty breathing and nearly asphyxiates. He is saved just in time. There seems to be a mad murderer in the Jannichon household armed with some mysterious means of causing death. The investigation will uncover a long lost relative, a convoluted inheritance, and a family history of respiratory ailments that are crucial to the solution of Edna's murder and several murder attempts of other characters.

Judge Peck does an admirable Perry Mason
imitation in Sign of Fear
As is the case in John Rhode's best books it is the painstaking detection, collaboration between medical experts, and Judge Peck's keen intuition that lead to the discovery of a truly diabolical murder method. In the gripping courtroom sequence that might have been lifted out of a Perry Mason novel Judge Peck calls forth witness after witness slowly building his case and making a startling revelation that brings a collective gasp to the entire courtroom. Though there are a few pieces of the overall puzzle that come as last minute revelations in the testimony of two witnesses I still laughed in amazement; Peck's solution makes for a stunning surprise.

If you want to read a Judge Peck book I suggest that you make this your number one pick. Most of the Judge Peck books are extremely scarce with Sign of Fear and Three Who Died being the most uncommon of the series. This book is nearly impossible to find and I count myself among the lucky to have found a copy. There is only the US hardback edition (Loring & Mussey, 1935) and not one paperback reprint in either the U.S. or the U.K. If you're lucky a copy may turn up in a library somewhere.
 Posted by at 6:44 pm
Mar 132012
 
Around the middle of the 1940s Dr. Lancelot Priestley, John Rhode's professor of mathematics and sometime detective, became more of an armchair detective and less of an active participant in the intricately plotted crimes he encounters.  In these later books Priestley usually appears at the halfway point and serves as a consultant to the primary police detective. In the case of Vegetable Duck (1944) -- also published as Too Many Suspects in the US -- Priestley has only three scenes in which he makes subtle suggestions to Inspector Jimmy Waghorn. Priestley does one bit of dazzling detective work involving the mystery of an envelope with an inexplicable damp stain, but otherwise he merely entertains the police and forensic investigators at three different dinner parties and makes deprecatory remarks or frowns at Waghorn when he delivers his mostly wrong findings. But Waghorn is no dullard policeman, he picks up on Priestley's hints and finally gets it all right.

The book is almost an inverted detective novel. Waghorn does what so many real life policemen seem to do – they pick a primary suspect and become so obstinate in wanting that suspect to be guilty that they rearrange the evidence to fit the suspect conveniently overlooking things that "don't fit" rather than examining the true circumstances of the crime by including all of the evidence and using that to determine the proper criminal. On several occasions Priestley points out Waghorn's faulty reasoning and his fixation on one particular suspect who just happens to have a shady past.

There are multiple puzzles in this engrossing detective story. It's one of those rare detective novels in which the story is completely concerned with the solution of those puzzles with little filler action or the kind of local color usually found among the minor characters. The cast of characters is rather large as the story tends to shift locales frequently. Among the most interesting in the colorful supporting cast are Sir Oswald Horsham, the forensic expert; Frederick Massingham, a shifty private detective; Ellen, the garrulous cook and servant in the Fransham home; and P.C. Purbeck, a wily constable in the town where Charles Fransham relocates after his wife's death.

The murder investigation is primarily focused on the death by poisoning of Mrs. Fransham who dies while eating the vegetable duck of the original title. This is a dish of a large squash stuffed with mincemeat and vegetables. At first it is though that she somehow ingested food doctored with a prescription liniment for her arthritis that included two highly toxic ingredients. (I wondered what physician in his right mind would prescribe a medicine that seemed to be made up of nothing but poison, but this is dismissed by nearly everyone in the book. Strange.) The actual poison turns out to be the fairly innocuous digitalis, a heart medication which can be deadly in higher doses and fatal to someone without a heart condition. Savvy murder mystery readers will almost immediately pick up on the herbal origins of digitalis as I did and come to the conclusion that gardening and knowledge of plants will feature in the plot. In fact, one, of the characters is an avid horticulturalist and through him the reader learns all about raising vegetable marrows, specifically the unusual method a gardener employs to achieve super-sized marrows used for displays or to enter in gardening competitions. This method is exploited by the murderer in one of the many fiendish murder methods that are the hallmark of Rhode's books.

Waghorn's primary suspect is Mrs. Fransham's husband, Charles, who was involved in an accidental shooting that most people, including retired Superintendent Hanslet, believe was a disguised murder.  Hanslet provides Waghorn with the background of the shooting death revealing in the storytelling process the usual convoluted will in the plot. Money seems to be the central motive for the wife's death.  As the investigation unravels and becomes further complicated suspicion shifts to a little known son from Fransham's first marriage who had a less than loving relationship with his stepmother.  Waghorn refuses to heed Priestley's warnings of his rash behavior by jumping from suspect to suspect as he pieces the evidence against each man. Only in the final chapter does Waghorn see his folly and begin to pay attention to some apparently meaningless coincidences that turn out to be crucial to the correct solution.

Most of the book is deals with scientific experiments and discussion that reminded me of the best of R. Austin Freeman and J. J. Connington.  A trial and error experiment with test portions of the woman's final meal being injected into laboratory frogs recalled the elaborate camera experiment in The Sweepstakes Murder by Connington and a variety of esoteric scientific examinations by the brilliant Dr. John Thorndyke in Freeman's books.  But there is also an elaborate finale in which several characters are figuratively unmasked that made me think of some of the more outrageous denouements in Christie's work like Murder in Mesopotamia. There's a lot that will appeal to a wide variety of crime fiction readers in Vegetable Duck whether you like puzzles, scientific detection or endings that have an element of the surreal.

This completes the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain
Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson
Murder in Shinbone Alley - Helen Reilly
Vegetable Duck (aka Too Many Suspects)
 Posted by at 11:58 am