May 022014
 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

* * *


Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space O4 - "An Author You've Never Read Before"
 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Dec 082013
 
Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who'd turn down that party? You'll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the "wrong man accused" and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin's friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet's innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one -- how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn't care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.
 Posted by at 3:12 pm
Sep 202013
 
James Ronald received quite a bit of praise with his first few detective novels from writer August Derleth to novelist and book reviewer Harriette Ashbrook all pointing out his ingenuity and freshness.  Of course you have to take this kind of enthusiastic praise with a grain of salt and maybe a dash of sugar, too.  Book hype has been with us for decades though it has skyrocketed in the past 15 years or so with the kind of gimmicky stunts some P.R. people are pulling.  When I learned that Ronald started out as a bargain basement pulp writer for the British digest publisher Garmol who published his early novels sporting such lurid titles as The Green Ghost Murder, The Man Who Made Monsters, and The Sundial Drug Mystery I was very wary of the blurbs Ronald received for his books. Was it just a fluke or did he really rival the kind of clever plots of a John Rhode or Carr?

They Can’t Hang Me (1938), listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, also offers the added bonus of an impossible crime. Actually, two impossible crimes. Ronald had a lot to live up to. I’m glad to report that despite his background in pulp digests James Ronald does indeed merit all the praise lavished upon him. They Can’t Hang Me is a corker of a mystery novel. Ingenious murder methods call to mind the brilliant John Rhode; two impossible crimes, one of which is worthy of Carr; and witty dialogue reminiscent of Clifford Witting. All are on colorful display in this page-turner of a story.

The plot is familiar to any crime fiction fan and seems lifted from the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s. Lucius Marplay, an inmate from a mental institution, escapes with the intent of carrying out a plan of murderous revenge, threats of which sent him to the asylum in the first place. Each murder is announced in the obituary section of The Echo, the newspaper where the victims work, on the very day of the death leading the police to believe the killer is hiding out in the building. A thorough search of The Echo building and its environs turns up no one who shouldn’t already be there. Though the police are fairly certain the escaped lunatic is the culprit somehow he manages to elude capture with each baffling crime. The title comes from Marplay's claim that his plan is as close to a perfect crime as one can dream up for even if he is caught he can't be hanged as he has already been declared insane. He will just be thrown back into the asylum.

Perhaps what makes the book work so well is Ronald’s sharp sense of humor. Even amidst the terror Ronald still finds ample opportunity to lighten the tone. The book is very funny with handful of well drawn colorful characters who serve as the author’s comic voice. Some of the best wisecracks come from a scene between Agatha Trimm, the guardian of Joan Marplay, daughter to the escaped lunatic and the offbeat private investigator Alastair McNab. Some of my favorites are:

Agatha Trimm: "Cocoa is a perverted taste for a man. I'd be careful of him, Joan."

Alastair McNab: "There's two things I like naked and whiskey's one of them."

Sir John Digby (a psychiatrist fed up with the Freudian imaginings of his female clients): What he longed to say to them was "What you need is more fat here"--slapping them where a woman should be comfortably rounded-- "and then you'd have less fat here" --smacking them on the head.

Later UK edition, circa 1940s
The characters, too, are a lively bunch who hold the reader's interest and keep the story moving at brisk pace:

Mark Peters -- managing editor ready to fire anyone whose actions threaten to ruin the already tarnished reputation of his dying newspaper.

The aptly named Ambrose Craven -- an overweight skirt chaser whose cowardice and fear has him fainting in every other chapter.

Flinders -- an ex-reporter gone to seed and drink, who’ll risk his life when he turns to blackmail in order to feed his alcoholic cravings.

Alastair McNab -- the odd and rambunctious private investigator determined to unmask the murderer and sell his story to a rival newspaper.

Agatha Trimm -- guardian to the plucky heroine Joan Marplay. Agatha is a tough as nails, no nonsense woman distrusting of nearly every man Joan sets eyes on.

The detective work is shared by two characters. Joan Marplay who acts a sort of girl sleuth trying to prove her father is not the madman the police and newspapermen think he is. She is sure he was sent to the asylum wrongfully and that his sworn revenge was only a reaction to his furor at being thought mad. Then there is McNab who arrives with a letter in of introduction from the asylum announcing he has been hired to track down the escaped Marplay. With his pronounced Scottish brogue, rendered in a typical 1930s phonetic dialect, and his oddball tastes and habits (like carrying his lunch around in a wicker basket wherever he goes), McNab is the most unusual of the cast. So unusual that he arouses the suspicions of Superintendent Wrenn who has his sergeant investigate McNab's background. McNab is shrewd yet enigmatic. One never knows if he is out for himself or if he really wants to solve the case and apprehend Marplay.

They Can't Hang Me is an excellent example of a crime novel that mixes elements of the detective novel with that of the pulp thriller. So good was this first outing I had to read the other easily accessible crime books of James Ronald. I found most of his other books lean towards psychological crime novels that foreshadow the work of Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons. I'll be reviewing three more later in the fall. Stay tuned.
 Posted by at 3:00 pm
Mar 222013
 
Looking at the table of contents and reading the chapter titles I learned that Vanishing Men (1927) promised five disappearances and a laboratory explosion. Good enough for me. I plunked down my money and bought the book. I was hoping for something along the lines of the scientific impossible crime novels of Nigel Morland under his many pseudonyms. Would this one involve esoteric chemistry experiments like the books featuring Johnny Lamb? Would I learn of mechanical or engineering problems as in the novels Morland wrote as Neal Shepard? Perhaps physics or biology would be featured. I was surprised when the story hinted at invisibility, matter disintegration and experiments with radioactive elements. The solution to the crimes seemed to be heading toward science fiction and fantasy rather than real hard science.

Prosaically titled The Mysterious Disappearances in the original UK edition the story takes the form of a detective novel opening with the theft of diamonds and gems from a jeweler's office and several apparent murders. The biggest mystery that plagues the several policemen from Scotland yard tackling the various crimes, accidents and vanishings is the fact that the victims' bodies cannot be found. Among the many baffling and inexplicable events the police face:
  • A jeweler disappears from his locked office. There is only one door watched by two clerks who saw only a single visitor enter and exit during the work day.
  • The body of a Maharajah disappears from a plane crash site with no sign of footprints or any other disturbances surrounding the wreckage.
  • A policeman enters a building in full view of his colleagues but never returns. A search of the house reveals it to be completely empty of inhabitants.
The primary suspect is Arthur Seymour, a reclusive misanthropic amateur scientist who lives next door to narrator Sir Henry Fordyce. Seymour has been conducting strange experiments with uranium and radium but will not go into details about the specifics of his work. Fordyce happens to be privy to Seymour's personal life and relates how a broken engagement and his one time fiancée's marriage to another man drove Seymour to the brink of madness. The man who stole Seymour's bride-to-be is also the jeweler who disappears at the start of the book. The police are determined to find a connection between all the vanished men and Seymour and thus prove a case of elaborate revenge. They, however, need some vital information from Miss Arnold, the adopted daughter of the jeweler's widow. Inspector Gilmour turns to Fordyce who he believes might more skillfully obtain Miss Arnold's cooperation. She has refused to talk with Gilmour who she finds a boor and Inspector Glynn who she found inappropriately friendly. Fordyce, a dignified middle-aged gentleman, is shocked when in the course of his sly interrogation he finds himself falling in love with the woman, fifteen years his junior.

The book has a somber often humorless tone thanks in large part to the extremely uptight Henry Fordyce as narrator. But the adventures and multiple puzzles keep the reader engaged. Only the introduction of the at times sappy love story subplot periodically detract from what otherwise is an intriguing mystery that soon becomes a science fiction adventure. In the final chapters Seymour's experimental work is revealed to be an early form of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Fordyce finds himself rendering those experiments in very basic layman's terms in an attempt to convey the often difficult mathematics involved which he confesses he does not understand at all.

George McLeod Winsor, apart from sounding like a character found in the pages of a Stevenson novel, was a little known scientific romance writer from the early part of the 20th century. His best known work -- thanks to its inclusion in 333, a bibliography of fantasy, science fiction, lost race and supernatural fiction -- is his novel Station X (1919). The book is a bizarre tale of interplanetary warfare between Mars and Earth. I have not read the book but the plot summary in 333 certainly makes it seem like a War of the Worlds knock-off with the added bonus of alien mind control. But then there are dozens of books published between 1890 and 1920 about evil Martians invading Earth taking all sorts of forms from bat winged humanoids to metal encased tentacled machines. Though no aliens are involved in the mysterious events in Vanishing Men the solution depends on something just as fantastical as Martians or Venusians.
 Posted by at 12:17 pm
Jan 112013
 
From This Dark Stairway (1931) is Eberhart's fourth book to feature the sleuthing team of Nurse Sarah Keate and policeman Lance O'Leary. It follows her bravura locked room detective novel The Mystery of Hunting's End and nearly surpasses that book with yet another impossible crime. A physician enters an elevator with his patient on a hospital gurney headed for an operating theater. The elevator seems to malfunction or stall. When the elevator opens the physician is dead and patient and gurney are gone. But no one saw anyone get off or on at any of the other floors. The only explanation seems to be that patient killed doctor and fled. But how did he get away without anyone seeing him leave the elevator?

As is usual with Eberhart she sets the scene with a moody descriptive section that gives us a perfect rendition of the creepy stairway that the hospital employees are forced to use due to the mechanical problems of the only elevator that serves the four floors of Melady Memorial Hospital.  Sarah Keate tells us out of expediency she finds the stairway a better option even if it is dimly lit and rickety and spooky. There is a fair amount of HIBK type of narration in the opening chapters but this soon gives way to a tale of a motley group of nurses, doctors and eccentric patients all of whom become suspects in the murder of Dr. Harrigan.

There are cleverly placed clues, a few red herrings (remember them?), and an impressive show of misdirection especially in the final chapter. In addition to the puzzling and nearly impossible murder and disappearance in the elevator there is also the theft of an antique Chinese snuff bottle, the desire to find the formula for a new anesthetic drug called Slaepan, a missing surgical knife, the discovery of chewing gum on the doctor's body, and perhaps most significant of all the death of an unnamed Negro patient. In fact, in the penultimate chapter Lance tells Sarah that if the Negro patient had not died on that very night there would have been no murder.

I have read other reviews and criticism of the Sarah Keate novels which all seem to play up the HIBK elements and dismiss the detective novel portions as being middling to absent. Not so here. Keate does real detection even if much of it comes by accidental discoveries and coincidence. She seems to be present more often than is necessary during police interviews. Eberhart, however, gets away with this by making nearly all of the patients hysterics and oddballs who require a nurse present (at least according to head physician Dr. Kunce) so that the interrogation does not overly upset them.

I liked Eberhart's use of humor in this book, too. Sarah can often come across as a stuffy, old-fashioned spinster with Edwardian views about everyone's behavior, but here she shows off a modern self-effacement. There is a running gag about the mispronunciation of Dr. Kunce's name that wears thin by the midpoint of the book, but other nice touches include some digs at Sarah's spinsterhood, specifically her lack of sex appeal that she sarcastically acknowledges in her reporting of Sgt. Lamb's veiled insults.

Eberhart was known to me primarily as a suspense novelist and this is my first encounter with one of her true detective novels. She does an admirable job here. The characters are lively and strange. The action is well paced, the atmosphere grows increasingly eerie as the story approaches the denouement. I was never bored. The hospital setting even if set in the 1930s still felt modern to me with its staff adhering to stringent administrative protocol and the references to patient by their room number rather than their name. Three of the minor characters are called 301, 302 and 303, for example. This happens all the time in the real world of hospitals no matter how often nurses and residents are told to call a patient by their name. I know since I've worked in hospitals all my life.

What impressed me most of all was that From This Dark Stairway is one of the uncommon examples of a Golden Age detective novel in which the murderer's name is not revealed until the final sentence. This book is well worth seeking out for that tour de force bit of mystery writing alone.
 Posted by at 1:53 pm
Sep 282012
 
Another installment in my continuing series on alternative genre mystery writers -- those oddballs who try their damnedest to stump their readers with legitimate detective novels or try to spook and scare their readers with terrifying horror but often bungle in their attempts. Yet they persevere! And amazingly continue to be published, more often than not by second or third string publishing houses. Today I honor Robert Portner Koehler, one of the many writers from that diehard house of unintentional detective story hilarity -- Phoenix Press.

A more boring title could not have been slapped on this intriguing effort than The Doctor's Murder Case (1939). And it cheats the reader, too. The doctor is merely the narrator; it's not his case to solve. The subject matter rather than the narrator should've been celebrated in the title. The chapter titles are far more evocative of the true content of this typically convoluted Phoenix Press mystery. Try these on for size: "The Poltergeist", "The Devil Comes to Leams", "Death of a Witch", "Dark Necromancy", "The Passing of the Witch's Devil", and "Wizardry's Last Stroke." Any of those chapter titles would've been deserving for the book's title. You'd think that this book has all the makings of a John Dickson Carr or Gladys Mitchell mystery. Well, not quite.

Narrated by the fairly colorless Dr. Garrison who is treating an invalid spinster in the rural Massachusetts town of Leams the story is about the freakish bludgeoning death of Judy Priest (I know!), a local woman thought to be a witch. There are a few elements to the unusual murder that almost make it a true impossible crime novel. Arnold Grant, the crazed sexton, has been holding secret meetings of his cult group in a nearby barn. He's been whipping up some of the weak-minded ignoramuses of the town into a religious hysteria. Among his several pet topics is Judy Priest who he denounces as a witch because she happens to practice herbal medicine.

One night he gets his group so riled up that they head to Judy's house and start shouting at her and throwing stones at her house. She won't come out. Would you? Then a hysterical maid curses Judy and they hear a horrible scream inside the house. When they break into the house through a window they find that Judy has been struck down and killed. Was it a supernaturally caused death? Or did someone from the group manage to find a way into the locked house? Police questioning reveals that no one seemed to have left the group throughout their taunting.

Lieutenant Carson is the police detective who handles the case. He has a few odd detection methods (a Phoenix Press detective novel staple), one of which is paying close attention to slips in grammar:
"I warn you now, Lieutenant, wild horses won't drag that person's name out of me."
"Oh, it's a woman, is it?"
I showed my surprise.
"Don't avoid a pronoun, if you want to hide a person's sex. If it had been a man, you would have said his name without hesitating. Now, wouldn't you?"
As the investigation proceeds all manner of the supernatural, whether it be witchcraft or curses or poltergeist behavior, evaporates. The story focuses on Judy's long dead child and a possible connection with a kidnapping of years ago. What starts out as a creepy tale with Gothic atmosphere, freaky characters, madness and paranoia, ghoulish graveyard scenes, and talk of the criminal mind that reminded me of similar lectures in the work of Charles Dutton devolves into a pedestrian mystery with a kooky, "deep dark secret" lifted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. That is, if the Grimms had been writing while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. A second murder involving a bottle of beer that was somehow poisoned while remaining capped offers a second near impossible problem until the solution is propounded, one that is even more lame than the puzzle of how Judy was killed in her locked house.

The detection is mostly good, but towards the end it becomes laborious and confusing.  It's a shame that the story begins with such promise and ends up where it does. Koehler tries his best but just can't deliver a smashing ending without resorting to implausible motivations and moronic actions that only come from the minds of bad characters in hastily written detective novels.

The Doctor's Murder Case is Koehler's third novel.  He would go on to write an even dozen more mystery novels even branching out to create three series characters who appear in a trilogy of books each.  I have one more Koehler novel to try out, his sixth with series character Pecos Appleby and set in New Mexico.  I'll be reporting back on whether he manages to improve. I'm not too hopeful.
 Posted by at 1:20 am
Aug 102012
 
While the first book the French writing team calling themselves Jacquemard-Sénécal wrote was in fact the second book they had published (Le onzième petit nègre, 1977), their first published book was apparently considered to be more conventional by the publisher though no less ingenious. It won for them the coveted Prix du Quai des Orfevres, the French mystery writer's prize, in 1977. While The Eleventh Little Indian (as it was published in the US) was considered "too daring" I think Le Crime de la Maison Grün or, as the English publishers redubbed the book, The Body Vanishes (1976) is far more daring. The trickery employed in this debut (yet really their second book) and the gasp inducing solution surpass what the two men did in their Agatha Christie tribute.

A drowned woman's body disappears from a river bank. It reappears in the locked and burglarized workshop of Wotan Grün, an antiquarian bookseller. The only thing noted to be missing is a rare 15th century incunabulum, the envy of several collectors and the bookseller's competitors. The woman is soon identified as the lover of Wotan's son Denis, the morose and cynical black sheep of the Grün household. As the intriguing investigation proceeds the entire household is enveloped in a world of treachery and thievery, murder attempts and suicide, and -- believe it or not -- the search for an alchemy formula for turning lead into gold.

The book introduces their series character Lancelot Dullac (cute name, huh?), a police detective who works alongside another policeman named Holz. The detection in this book is mostly of the Q&A type, though there are several instances of Golden Age type originality and cleverness in the few scenes that involve physical evidence. Most notable among those portions is a second impossible murder disguised as a suicide that involves some rigged machinery that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up.

Once again on display a plethora of plot devices and motifs found in the work of their idol Agatha Christie. There are allusions to Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House, Murder at the Vicarage and the many stage related mysteries she wrote. The two writers come from a theater background and once again dig into their trunk of stage tricks and illusions to bamboozle the reader with dazzling misdirection. There is even some dizzying business with rifles and bullets that reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner's gun crazy plots. All in all plenty of wizardry and plot machinations to appeal to any fan of the puzzle driven detective novel.
 Posted by at 3:29 pm
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
May 252012
 
A ghost-like figure clad in Victorian wardrobe complete with cloak, flamboyant waistcoat and stovepipe hat appears and disappears in a haunted alley known as Devil's Lane. Hours later a man is found strangled in a locked room. Has a long forgotten specter returned and killed again? I can a smell a John Dickson Carr homage at ten paces. In Mr Diabolo (1960) Anthony Lejeune tries his hand at what many other crime writers have also attempted -- to write a convincing impossible crime tale with a multiple puzzling mysteries and a tantalizing locked room murder worthy of the master. He almost succeeds.

In the opening chapter, "The Coming of Mr. Diabolo" we learn of the specter's legend which dates back to the days of young Lord Farrant, one of the founders of the College of Western Studies, who staged "mysterious midnight parties in his rooms."  Professor Cornelius describes the origins of the specter:
His rooms smelled of incense or, some said, of brimstone. his servant found the stubs of black candles and once, half burned, a kitten's paw. And sounds were heard. In short, people became quite convinced that young Lord Farrant was indulging in the black arts. [...] his friends were less discreet, particularly in their cups. They were overheard speaking of somebody who was present at their meetings called 'Mr. Diabolo.'
A conference of the Anglo-American Literary and Political Society ("the Alps" to its members) has brought together academics from both the US and the UK to the campus of the college, a former monastery dating back to the 15th century. The story is narrated by Foreign Office agent Alastair Burke who is allowed to participate in the criminal investigation as a liaison for the Americans attending the conference until a lawyer can be found to represent them. He continues to be involved int eh case when he becomes a witness to a second attempted murder. It is the mysterious Arthur Blaise, however, former associate of Burke's in the spy trade, who unravels the mystery of the disappearing Mr. Diabolo and the locked room murder of Bill Frazer.

As is the case with many mysteries of this subgenre the characters are obsessed with the miraculous circumstances that obscure the crime. Burke and the lovely Barbara Tracey act as the amateur sleuthing duo who do their best to gather data from the suspected members of "the Alps" all the while remaining mystified by the unscalable wall that surrounds the alley, the pile of clothes left behind by the vanished specter, and the door locked on the inside of Frazer's sealed room. Arthur Blaise, like Fell and Merrivale, will not succumb to the impossibilities. He absorbs and examines the evidence, weeds through the lies and deceit, holding back most of his thoughts until the final pages when he explains away all the obfuscating mysteries as the magician's tricks they really are.



"Anthony Lejeune" is in reality Edward Anthony Thompson, crime fiction reviewer, thriller writer, and close friend of Dennis Wheatley. His debut spy thriller Crowded and Dangerous (1959) was described as "snugly readable, bustling Buchanish" by esteemed critic Maurice Richardson with a plot summed up by Violet Grant of the Daily Telegraph as "the trail leads from a Chelsea houseboat to a ship in the London docks, sailing under an Iron [C]urtain flag." Lejeune later created series character Adam Gifford, a reporter and spy, who appeared in at least three other mysteries one of which is the tempting The Dark Trade (1966), published in a US paperback reprint as Death of a Pornographer. In the 1980s he returned to writing mysteries with an academic background and created Professor Lowery who solves crimes in two books.

Japanese edition from 2010
One of the 10 Best "honkaku"- orthodox mysteries
Mr. Diabolo is for the most part an engaging read but my attention began to wander with the probing exploration of Frazer who we discover is a womanizing cad with a taste for blackmail. The bulk of the tale is sidetracked by more and more secrets uncovered related to Frazer's past life and the women in the cast. Too much attention is spent in discussing the architecture of the building, the numerous stairwells, the abundance of keys to all the rooms,  and other minutiae which tend to confuse and overwhelm the reader. There seems to be a lot of clutter in this mystery.

Thankfully, when the solution comes there is one brilliant surprise -- perhaps a nod to a famous Anthony Boucher novel which also shares a similar trick -- that redeemed the book for me. With such a great opening, the macabre legend, and the baffling vanishing of a ghost-like killer Lejeune's novel aspires to true greatness and promises to dazzle the reader. Sadly, he only manages to raise a faint glow of surprise just falling short of book that might have been a real classic in locked room mysteries.

 Posted by at 5:23 am
May 162012
 
A haunted aircraft carrier is the scene for this locked room mystery featuring Bishop John Blackwood Ryan. As in the case of the previously reviewed Happy Are Those Who Mourn there is the presence of a malevolent ghost. This time, however, there is not a murder in a locked room but a naval officer who seemingly vanishes from a locked room. Compounding the mystery are two additional disappearances of naval officers who were cronies of a martinet of a commanding officer who was terrorizing and intimidating the crew of the USS Langley a series of that only succeeded in breaking down all morale. The crew believes that all those who vanished were killed and tossed overboard. Strange manifestations and creepy events especially among the women's quarters lead some of the more superstitious crew members to think that "Digby" Hoy, the vanished officer, is haunting the ship. Like the other book The Bishop at Sea is less a mystery novel than it is a sounding board for Greeley to discuss sociopolitical issues. In this case, the major issue is the role of women in the military.

Frustratingly, the mystery aspects become less and less important to the book as Blackie gets closer to the heart of the evil on board the carrier. The locked room is presented as puzzling but the solution is prosaic. The ghost is not at all a ghost. The disappearances are not disappearances. Greeley alludes to Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" repeatedly with teasing references to the crew to look for the mailman on board the aircraft which automatically telegraphs the solution to one that will involve disguise of some sort.

Rather than being a mystery novel The Bishop at Sea is really about didactics. Not only is the role of women in the military discussed ad nauseam with an ace woman pilot acting as a symbol for how women are maltreated, abused, and taunted, but the role of the military itself in United States politics is intensely discussed. Greeley gets to voice his opinions of how much government money is wasted on the military force especially with regard to aircraft carriers; how the military protects and covers up bad behavior and dangerous hazing that borders on attempted murder; and how there are two schools of thought in the military – the old veterans running everything who never wanted women in any roles whatsoever and the younger members, rising in rank, who see women in less traditional roles than their older superiors. As the parade of characters (and this is a huge cast) continues and Blackie probes further into the mystery the book seems less a novel than a protracted essay with characters' monologues serving as Greeley's bullet points in his lectures.

Based on other reviews elsewhere on the internet this is supposedly the best of the Blackie Ryan books. I will have to strongly disagree. Whereas Happy Are Those Who Mourn was a genuine mystery novel with an investigation that uncovered secrets that were integral to the story, The Bishop of Sea is a political diatribe disguised as a mystery novel. The mystery aspects of the book are always an afterthought, the solutions to those mysteries are not at all satisfying and presented way too matter-of-factly. The interrogation of the crew members becomes more and more an excuse to discuss controversy and "issues" with the mystery continually pushed to the background.

In the final pages when the mystery is sloppily solved the action explodes in violent gunfire, multiple bloody deaths, with the women saving the day. While I agree with many of Greeley's points the manner in which he uses his characters to put his theories and opinions into practice smacks of the contrived in this particular book. For this reason I felt cheated on multiple levels. I felt like a consumer who bought a mislabeled product and demands his money back on his purchase.

If you want to read a political treatise on women in the military and the role of the government in an aging backward military force then this is the book for you. As a mystery novel, however, The Bishop at Sea is a miserable failure.
 Posted by at 4:53 pm