Mar 272015
 

There is nothing more satisfying to a mystery novel addict like me than to chose a book fairly at random and from the first amazing sentence to the final paragraph be thoroughly entertained.  I wanted to read a good old fashioned puzzling whodunit this week after indulging in too many suspense style crime stories. One with a gory murder or two, a weird murder method and enough clues to keep me guessing whodunit to the end. Never did I imagine that the book I chose would deliver on all counts, that it would surpass every expectation and that I would actually figure out the culprit and hit all the proper clues and motivations in coming up with my solution. Every single one!

You couldn’t find a more unusual detective novel than Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938). From it’s quasi Shakespearean allusion in the title to the quote lifted from The Pickwick Papers that serves as the novel’s epigraph a hardcore mystery fan couldn’t ask for a more literate and witty refresher in the genuine traditional mystery. Harriet Rutland in her debut as a mystery writer not only adheres to the tenets of the fair play detective novel she adds her own subversive spin to a motley group of what at first appear to be just another assortment of cliche country house archetypes. Among the large cast of characters are two retired career soldiers, a haughty aristocratic doyenne, a dithery hypochondriac, a lady author of detective novels, one sexy young femme fatale, a variety of servants including maids, housekeeper and chauffeur, a no nonsense police inspector and the mysterious detective consultant who seems to be mucking up the investigation. Not one of them ever descends to the level of cliche.

Rutland gives each one a jab of her satirist’s poison pen. Colonel Simcox spends much of his time knitting multicolored socks instead of reminiscing of his old soldier days. He’s more interested in mastering his knitting and purling and wondering what do with the green yarn when he needs to work on the blue. Mrs. Dawson, the lady author, who brags of having written three books and is starting on her fourth has not had a single work published though her agents keep promising great offers are in the works. The aristocrat is a big phony whose title comes via her now dead husband, a former grocer who made his money in the flour business and earned a honorary title from his philanthropy once he became wealthy. The hypochondriac claims to be abused at the hands of her cruel nurse but in fact spends much of her day devising ways to cause her own near fatal accidents.  Here is the first sentence on the novel in which we meet the accident obsessed matron:

Mrs. Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked around to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.

The car misses Mrs. Napier, thankfully, but not a soul goes to her aid. They would much rather laugh at her and insult her.  Mrs. Napier does this sort of thing every day at the Presteignton Hydro where the novel takes place. Nurse Hawkins begrudgingly goes to pick her up all the while Mrs. Napier complains of bruises and manhandling.  Dr. Williams, the director of the resort, wants to murder her. So do a lot of the others. But it’s not Mrs. Napier who ends up dead at all.  It’s the sexy and alluring visitor Miss Blake.

Some deadly looking vintage knitting needles
Appropriately, size 13.

Miss Blake has been turning the heads of all the men and arousing the ire of the women. Her wardrobe is scandalous, her manner brazen, her humor off color. Miss Blake is vivacious and goodnatured and everything the other women residents at the Hydro are not.  Following the weekly amateur talent night where Miss Blake stood in as piano accompanist for all the singers and became the focus of nearly everyone’s attention she is found dead in the lounge. Slumped over in the settee, the maid finds Miss Blake still wearing her slinky evening gown and a knitting needle sticking out of the base of her neck. Someone apparently didn’t care for her music. Or her love of life.

Throughout the novel Rutland continually brings up the insidious nature of gossip and the prejudices and bigotry of all the residents at this health resort. It’s clear she is having fun ridiculing the small-mindedness of hypocrites but there is something sinister about the way most of the characters are so mean spirited in their hatred for one another.  The atmosphere is one of brooding menace and there is evil at work here amid all the satire. At the Presteignton Hydro the clacking of knitting needles is like the clanging of a death knell.

While Inspector Palk and Mr. Winkley, the mysterious “free lancer” who casually inveigles his way into the murder investigation, are trying to make sense of the murder the killer manages to strike two more times. And each time the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle.

Not much is known about the writer. Olive Shimwell, who wrote under the pseudonym Harriet Rutland, is rather a mystery herself. I attempted to try the magic of internet searching and remarkably discovered that she at one time lived in a house in Ireland that was on the very grounds of a popular Victorian and Edwardian era hydropathic resort (see above illustration of the grounds). It was called St. Ann’s and was shut down in the late 1920s. I’m tempted to spend a couple of weeks sending out emails to the locals in Blarney to see if perhaps anyone remembers if the house known as Hillside on St Ann’s Hill was part of the hydropathic estate. It seems more than likely. And it really is too much to believe that it is pure coincidence that her first mystery novel is also set at such a health spa.

Sorry to report that this book is yet another one of those ridiculous rarities in the mystery world as the lack of a dust cover on this post will probably signify. After five years of hunting for a copy I finally found one and paid close to $60 for it. There isn’t a single copy for sale today.  According to Worldcat.org there are only seven copies in university libraries that subscribe to that library database and about six in British, Scottish and Australian libraries. You may want to try your own local library.

I’ve reviewed her second novel The Poison Fly Murder, about devilry amongst fly fishing vacationers in Wales, previously on my blog.  It was published under the much better title Bleeding Hooks in the UK. I enjoyed that one as well. Soon her third and last book, Blue Murder, will be reviewed here as well.  Of the three Blue Murder is the most easily found in the US since it was reprinted by the estimable Detective Book Club and it can be found in a three-in-one volume along with The Yellow Violet by Frances Crane and The Gift Horse by Frank Gruber. Should you ever be lucky to come across any of Rutland’s mysteries I suggest you grab it.  They’re as odd as they come and exceptional mysteries to boot.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O1 “TBR Pile first lines”

  

 Posted by at 5:54 am

Madmen Die Alone – Josiah E. Greene

 insane asylums, obscure writers, psychiatrists, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on Madmen Die Alone – Josiah E. Greene
Mar 052015
 

There’s another lunatic on the lam in the opening chapters of Madmen Die Alone (1938) and Dr. Richards doesn’t want any bad publicity for his institution. Of course it’s Joseph Parisi who’s gone missing. Parisi is the most violent of the patients at Exeter Hospital in the frozen north of Minnesota. At the suggestion of one of his junior staff members he calls Captain Louis Prescott of the Exeter Police. Richards knows Prescott can be discreet and prevails upon him to take this up as a personal not a police matter. Perhaps he’ll be able to locate Parisi within a few hours, return him safely to his room, and thus prevent scandal and embarrassment befalling the hospital. But when Prescott arrives and is given a meandering tour of the hospital they discover the corpse of Dr. Herbert Sylvester, Exeter’s genius psychiatrist, and the only staff member who could reasonably handle the unpredictably violent Joseph Parisi with a minimum of outbursts. Now there’s not only a lunatic art large but a possibly murderous lunatic.

Madmen Die Alone is one of the better detective novels set in a mental institution.  Never once are we given a variety of cartoon nut cases. Each patient is presented with compassion; their diagnoses don’t label them. Often Prescott thinks the patients are perfectly normal and wonders why someone as friendly and lucid as Mrs. Windowmore is in the place at all. Greene seems to be using the novel as a primer in humane understanding and a less clinical approach to the treatment and care of the mentally ill. Dr. Sylvester, frequently described as a genius by his co-workers, is someone who in this day and age might be said to have an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. Sylvester is talked about as someone with great empathy, who often knows what someone wants better than the person himself knows. He treats everyone with amazing equanimity whether they were a patient, co-worker or friend. As Johnny Dennis explains to Prescott Sylvester never thought lesser of someone if they exhibited what might be seen as negative traits such as being lazy, unambitious, moody or sullen. But Sylvester was also unconventional in his treatment methods and tended to use the patients as guinea pigs in a variety of unusual psychological experiments. A rumor begins to circulate that he intentionally let Parisi free and that it backfired on him leading to his grisly death.

Prescott learns that Parisi was criminally insane and that he came from a family of con artists and thieves. His interrogation of the family reveals that they all seem a little bit off and D.r Richards even suggests that there is a genetic tendency towards mental illness in the Parisi family. Further investigation shows that they have ties to some mob activity and Parisi’s father was seeking revenge on a rival businessman and a fellow Italian immigrant. When the rival also turns up dead the same night Prescott begins to think that an elaborate vendetta was put into action with the escaped madman part of the plan and the intent of using Joseph as a scapegoat.

However, the two storylines don’t mesh all that well. When the plot is focused on the Exeter hospital, it’s staff and patients the book is both engaging and informative, often enlightening in Greene’s ideas about how to better understand mentally ill people. When the plot travels outside of the hospital into the city and we are dealing with the Parisi family, a couple of teenage thugs and a posse of stereotyped Italian American gangsters the book devolves into the netherworld of pulp magazine cliches. Much of the plot becomes too predictable and a final twist in the revelation of Sylvester’s murderer comes not as the intended surprise but as an anticlimax.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space D6- “Author has name with initial same as me”
Josiah and John both start with J.

 Posted by at 2:46 pm
Feb 132015
 

Anne Chamberlain’s debut novel The Tall Dark Man (1955) can barely be called a crime novel. Why this book was marketed as a cat and mouse thriller is beyond me. It’s not. Yes, there is a crime. But the story is one of those experimental psychological novels that used to flood the shelves in the 1950s. What makes it noteworthy is the voice of the protagonist — a 13 year old girl. And she is one troubled little girl.

The book is almost a retelling of The Window that remarkable movie with Bobby Driscoll as a boy known for telling lies who witnesses a murder and his desperate attempt to get any adult to believe what he saw was true. Driscoll’s character is harassed and hounded by the villains and we fear for him legitimately. Sarah Gross, Chamberlain’s heroine of sorts, also is an overly imaginative youngster with a flair for spinning tales but what she sees may not have been real. Unlike the Driscoll character Sarah is more akin to Mary Tilford from The Children’s Hour, a mean spirited liar intent on causing harm.

Sarah lives under the shadow of an ugly reputation as a vindictive rumormonger after she tells a very nasty story about one of her male neighbors who slighted her one day. We learn that Sarah spends most of her lonely childhood gazing out of windows, dreaming up stories of the strangers she watches often ending those stories with a lurid finish. In the opening chapter Sarah witnesses a violent fight between two men in hunting garb that ends in a savage and bloody death. But who is going to believe the girl who told such a whopping lie about an adult and impugned the character of some of her schoolmates? Sarah lingers too long at the window and almost too late realizes in horror the murderer is staring at her through his binoculars.

Knowing she cannot tell anyone what she saw without being thought a liar again Sarah is forced to resort to her manipulative ways to escape the school and elude the murderer who she is sure is after her.  Having failed to convince any of the adults to accompany her home or drive her away (she usually walks to school) Sarah holes herself up in the girls’ bathroom hoping against hope that the “tall dark man” doesn’t get inside and finish her off. Over the course of the book, which takes place in a single evening, the reader gets to know Sarah and her secret life as storyteller and dreamer, her sad upbringing in a home where her father gambled away their savings, a home of heated quarrels and little love. Sarah retreats into her imagination further frustrating her mother and her teachers who have already suggested Sarah be taken to a child psychologist.

The book is a strange mix of psychological study of a borderline antisocial child and an allegory of childhood fears. Chamberlain manages to saddle poor Sarah with a closetful of character flaws ranging from self-loathing to pettiness to desperate longing for one single friend. She’s a sad little girl and often one scary little girl as well. In one chilling passage she actually believes that she caused the “tall dark man” to kill the other and begins to identify with the killer recognizing in herself a streak of cruelty that could easily lead to violence. It’s hard not to see her as a forerunner to a nastier, less victimized Carrie White. In the first paragraph she makes mention of having had her first period in the past six months and hating herself for “[becoming] a woman”. There is a later sequence where she and her mother discuss menstruation with Sarah becoming ever more indignant and spiteful towards her mother when she tries to explain her daughter’s ongoing biological changes.

Lost in all of Sarah’s ruminating and fixating is the tall dark man of the title. As the story progresses he becomes less a murderer in search of an eyewitness and more of a hazy marauding symbol of everything that a 13 year-old can possibly be afraid of. Chamberlain’s writing also tends to waver in and out of nightmarish surrealism and cozy naturalism.  At times her gift for naturalistic dialogue, much of it rendered in spot on Midwestern idiom, gives way to a jarring kind of heightened theatricality peculiar to allegorical playwriting.

The story languishes too much in Sarah’s past. Chamberlain heaps on pop psychology explanations for Sarah’s tortured emotions. Her continual trips into her past trying to sort out her conflicted feelings for her father and her stepfather grow tiresome. At it weakest moments the story devolves into the well trodden terrain of soap operas. What’s at stake and what Sarah fears for in the present is too often abandoned. Intermittently we are reminded of the looming threat when the murderer appears outside windows as a ghostlike face or is seen loitering by the school flagpole. However he never really seems like a menace. He’s more of a lingering shadow than a palpable danger.

There are lighthearted moments amid all this grim and self indulgent dreaming. When they do come they are more than welcome. A scene between two janitors complaining about the slovenliness of teenage girls in the third floor girls’ bathroom is hysterically funny. Later when a group of students rehearsing a play invade Sarah’s bathroom sanctuary she at last finds a handful of allies and much longed for companionship and some long overdue compassion. For me the scenes with the drama students were the best part of the book.

The Tall Dark Man received numerous accolades when it was first published. The paperback edition I have is loaded with blurbs from laudatory reviews that highlight its suspenseful nature. All of the quotes used make the book seem like a real nailbiter and a page turner. One reviewer claims she started the book at 1 AM and didn’t put it down until she finished three hours later. But this is a case of exaggeration coupled with overlooking what the book is really about. The final two chapters are the only sections I found to be fraught with tension and the only times I received a smidgen of a frisson. I enjoy being misled in the context of a plot when I read crime fiction, I don’t like being misled by marketing hype.

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Reading Challenge update: One of two books I read for Rich Westwood’s “1955 Book” for February.

 Posted by at 6:04 am
Feb 062015
 

I’ve known about Let’s Kill Uncle (1963) for a long time.  But I only knew the movie version as adapted and directed by William Castle. For a teenager growing up in the 1970s that movie was pretty wild stuff.  It’s stayed in my memory ever since I first saw it. Two teenagers in fear of their life plot to do in their nefarious uncle, a former commando highly skilled in martial arts and assassin techniques, before he kills them first. But having seen this movie only twice in my life I was not at all prepared for the book.  The only thing the book and movie have in common is the basic plot and the two first names of the children who are only 10 in the book.  Everything else is completely different.  And the differences are even more wild than the movie.

Rohan O’Grady (pseudonym for Canadian writer June O’Grady Skinner) has concocted a fantastical story that is a glorious mixture of Grimm’s fairy tales, macabre black comedy, ecological critique and a whole lot more.  It’s one of those rare books that defies pigeon holing and classification of any kind.  So unique and original in every facet it’s hard to believe why Castle decided to change the movie and in effect cheapen everything that makes the book so odd and bewildering, charming and bewitching.

Did I just call a book about two potential child murderers charming?  Yes, I did. These ten year-olds, first introduced as holy terrors having nearly destroyed an entire ferry and terrorized the passengers while crossing from Vancouver to an unnamed Gulf Island, undergo a magical transformation in a matter of days. It’s as if the Canadian island where they have been sent for a summer vacation has truly cast a spell on them.  But in truth it is the subtle manipulation of the adults who have little patience for bratty kids that has a positive effect on these little monsters. As the story progresses Barnaby and Christie grow to be great friends and their pact to do in the thoroughly diabolical Uncle Sylvester while fraught with danger and peril is really no more horrifying than Hansel and Gretel shoving the witch in the oven.  It’s a matter of survival and an eerie rite of passage. Even as they plot to kill Uncle they also plan to blame a mentally disabled young man they have befriended.  But wait — how can that be charming? I’m at a loss to explain it all.  By rights it should be revolting, and yet the outrageousness never once seems vulgar or offensive.

June Skinner as seen
on the rear DJ of the US edition

June Skinner’s writing is the key. She guides the reader masterfully avoiding all the pitfalls of quaint and cutesy incidents and never once veering into self-parody.  For the first half I kept asking myself it if it was intended for children.  Past the midway point it is clear that children are not Skinner’s main audience, though I imagine her adult themes (elitism and racism, ravages of war, destruction of wilderness and its consequences, among others) perhaps have a powerful resonance for modern young readers. Still the writing has a quiet soulful mood so peculiar to the best of children’s books, one in which a sonorous voiced narrator is telling a bedtime story. You’re lulled into a world where the writer paints rich pictures of a rural Canadian village, gives each supporting character deep meaningful lives and sharply voiced dialogue. She even gives thoughts and human emotions to animals just as in a fairy tale.

We get to know the animals just as intimately as we do the human characters, especially how they feel about the humans they encounter. There is a misanthropic bull named Iron Duke also plotting a death wish for his cruel owner.  There are dogs, cats, horses, and even a budgie all getting their chance to shine over the course of the novel. Most importantly there is ol’ One-Ear, a cougar as battle scarred and world weary as Sgt. Albert Coulter, the local Mountie still haunted by dreams of being a prisoner of war.  Coulter and the cougar have a lot in common and Skinner does an impressive job of tying these two together over the course of the story.  How many books have you read where a mountain lion is given to expressing ennui when faced with the choice of turning vegetarian or starving?

Remarkably, Barnaby and Christie manage to befriend this cougar suffering from a poor diet and a weltschmerz that nearly outdoes Young Werther’s.  Too exhausted to chase them away or frighten them with a roar One-Ear becomes their playmate and surrogate pet. Barnaby and Christie grow to be friends yet also seem to transform once again into miniature adults playing house with One-Ear as their adopted child.  Just as the adults of the Island have managed to tame the little monsters from the ferry these two children seem to be taming a wild beast.  Barnaby never forgets their mission, however, and soon he finds a way to add One-Ear to the plot to do in Uncle Sylvester.  Will it all go according to plan?  Little do the children know that Uncle has been spying on them with the aid of his high powered binoculars and his surefooted jungle tracking skills.  Just how much has he learned about their plot?  Who will get who?

Woven around the duelling murder plots we get a fascinating character study of Sgt. Coulter.  He has fallen in love with the wife of the Island’s vicar and every night he writes a love letter to her, sharing with her his doubts, fears and hopes for the two kids to whom he has become both a guardian angel and surrogate parent.  He never mails these letters. Just as soon as he has finished pouring out his heart and soul he rips up the letter. Coulter is the most intriguing character in the book, complex, conflicted, compassionate and impassioned. We learn he is probably the only member of the Royal Mounted Police who hates horses. We watch him suffer through nightmare flashbacks to the POW camp and his haunted visions of the aftermath of the concentration camps he was forced to visit before being sent back to Canada. His story is both humorous and poignant and yet another example of how Skinner has crafted a beguiling story.  There’s so much more to this novel than what the title implies.

For a long time this was a very hard to find this book. Luckily, for all it is now readily available in both a paperback edition and digital book from Bloomsbury in their marvelous series that also brought back into print Miss Hargreaves, A Kid for Two Farthings and other well-loved but sadly overlooked novels. Anyone interested in reading one of those rare indescribable books, one that reads like no other you’ve read before, ought not to be put off by the title or the cult movie.  Let’s Kill Uncle is quite a magical and unforgettable reading experience.  In fact, I can’t wait to read the book all over again.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card, space L2 – “Book made into a movie”

 Posted by at 9:07 am
Jan 302015
 

An unusual setting of West Africa in the 1950s, a locked room murder involving death by bow and arrow, evidence of tribal witchcraft rituals in the surrounding village, and a cast of characters whose names seem inspired by the board game Clue. There’s even a map of the scene of the crime. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? So much opportunity for a send-up of the traditional detective novel or an intriguing homage to the works of John Dickson Carr. Why then is Darkest Death (1964) such a dreadful mess? It’s a greater mystery than the one Ralph Stephenson presents us in the pages of his alternately boring and quirky detective novel.

A group of British ex-pats have settled themselves into a cozy unnamed village outside of Accra in the Gold Coast colony of West Africa. Stephenson for some reason sets his story in an unspecified year in the 1950s, but it must be before 1957 when the colony became the independent nation of Ghana. Within the first couple of pages I knew I was probably in for trouble when I noticed that the characters’ names were taken from a box of crayons. Harry and Sally Gray, Jimmy and Heather Brown, Hetty and Tweeny (!) Green, Robert Gold, Dennis and Mona Silver, Mr. and Mrs. Blue… You get the picture. There’s Miss Scarlett, too! Yes, Ann Scarlett with two Ts who instantly made me think that Stephenson was trying to pull off a parody of Clue. Or for Stephenson, I guess, Cluedo is more accurate. No such luck. In fact not one person in the story ever comments on the ridiculousness of everyone having a rainbow array of surnames.

The story begins with a New Year’s Eve party with lots of drinking and dancing and transparent exposition clumsily handled. The cast of characters are introduced in dizzying (but colorful) succession. The women chit chat endlessly about clothes, gossip about characters we never meet, and indulge in other pointless banter. The men practically slap each other on the back while tossing off cocktails and speaking like the worst sort of British stereotypes. “The war” is mentioned repeatedly. I’m guessing they are all WW2 veterans, but no one is ever very specific about which war they are talking about. Only Dennis Silver’s entrance brings any kind of interest and mystery to these opening chapters when he begins an info dump monologue on African witchcraft. This seems to be taken verbatim from the two books Stephenson felt it necessary to acknowledge in the “Author’s Note” that precedes the first chapter. Those books are Sir James George Frazer’s seminal study on symbology, rites and rituals in religion The Golden Bough and Religion and Art in Ashanti by R. S. Rattray. In an offhand comment that concludes an early chapter (not cleverly hidden among the rest of the chit chat) we get the tantalizing tidbit that Sally Gray and Hetty Green look remarkably similar from the back in their striking black gowns. An alarm bell couldn’t have sounded any louder to signal an imminent mistaken identity murder.

Sure enough a day later Sally Gray is found murdered in the locked and barred sitting room of the Green’s jungle bungalow. Entry to the house is only via French windows serving as doors that line a veranda extending alongside the entire perimeter. The veranda is covered with a fine mesh of mosquito netting and all the windows and doors are faced in burglar bars. (see the map below) But the front door is locked from the inside as is the rear entry to the house. Summoned by terrifying screams three men run to the house and break down the door. But it’s too late. Sally has died from a fatal strike to the chest from a tribal bow and arrow. How on earth did the murder use the weapon and escape from a locked and barred house? No holes are found in the netting outside the veranda and the bow is nowhere to be found.

Plan of the Green’s Bungalow (click to enlarge)

 When the police arrive the story starts to become interesting. But I immediately noticed more funny business with the names: Supt. Stalky Heron, James Raven, and Charles Finch. Apparently having tired of his Crayola muse Stephenson resorted to a Peterson Field Guide for the rest of his characters’ names. Only the local doctor escaped the bird dubbing. His name is MacGregor. No real relief though for MacGregor is saddled with a cartoon Scottish dialect. Six of one, half a dozen of the other as my mother used to carp.

Nothing is made of these names. To a mystery fan like me this was more than troubling. Such an obvious choice is rife for possibility in a detective novel and was completely ignored. Not even a joke mentioned in passing by any of the characters. Nothing! A writer like Ellery Queen for example would have made a choice like this and run with it planting red herrings all over the place related to the surnames, maybe even reserving an entire chapter to what seems like a coincidence but in fact a sinister design. Not so with Stephenson. It must’ve been a case of the writer chuckling privately to himself. I kept rolling my eyes.

Ashanti warrior

The detective work leaves a lot to be desired. An obsession with fingerprints and police photography mixes with the usual endless parade of suspects being interrogated in Q&A sessions. In an effort to avoid revealing the dirty secrets among the many adulterous men who were keeping company with the trampy Hetty Green the Europeans accuse the African servants and obfuscate the police work with gossip of witchcraft. Silver, the anthropology expert, points out Green’s missing black cat is a sure sign of some local having kidnapped and slaughtered it for an essential ingredient used in an invisibility spell. Isn’t it possible Sally Gray’s murder actually involves supernatural methods? When Silver fails to convince the police the rest of the men (and a few women) offer more accusations against the African servants because, you know, they’re just plain shifty and some of them have filched spare change and food from their employers.

In one of the most patronizing parts of the book Finch (the primary detective) talks in Pidgin English to the servants. They also reply in pidgin English making it seem as if the book has been transplanted to the Limehouse district of a Sax Rohmer novel and the Africans transformed into the worst kind of Yellow Peril novel supporting cast. It doesn’t help that all of the Africans refer to all of the European characters as Master or Missy. Sometimes you just can’t overlook this kind of petty racism.

Darkest Death would’ve been a much better book with its promising plot and exotic setting in the hands of a much more talented writer. I can imagine how gasp inducing the finale would have been had this been a John Rhode book or one by Carr or Queen. In the hands of this mediocre writer the locked room mystery is a fizzle with a borderline preposterous solution, the revelation of the murderer comes with a lame forced confession, and the climactic pursuit of the villain on the run  leads to the beach and ends in a swimming race with half naked policemen trying their best to prevent a suicide by drowning. Stephenson tacks on a happy ending coda in which our detective heroes raise glasses in a champagne toast commending themselves on a job well done while simultaneously congratulating Stalky Heron for snagging Ann Scarlett as his wife to be.

Well gang, they can’t all be winners.

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READING CHALLENGE update: My first book on the Silver Age bingo card. It covers S2 – “Book set anywhere except the US or England”

 Posted by at 6:50 am

Blondes Are My Trouble – Martin Brett

 Canada, Mike Garfin, obscure writers, Private Eyes, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on Blondes Are My Trouble – Martin Brett
Jan 282015
 

The residents on the lower floors of the Cressingham Apartments have no idea what’s going on above them.  Catering to the needs of the exclusive, the reclusive and the unobtrusive this tower of an apartment building is known to be the home of some of Montreal’s most wealthy snobs.  All night long men are seen entering the Cressingham in groups and sometimes paired up with attractive women in tailor made outfits.  They pass the doorman, the telephone operator and porter heading for the self service elevator that will take them to the upper floors for an evening of private entertainment.  It’s one of the most well kept secrets in Montreal — a privately run prostitution enterprise free from the control of mobsters or police graft. Mike Garfin’s latest case in Blondes Are My Trouble (1954) lands him smack in the middle of a mess that leads to the busy bedrooms of this elite den of iniquity.

At the start of this second novel in a brief series featuring Montreal’s tough guy private eye Mike has reluctantly accepted Trudi Hess as his client.  She’s being followed by a mysterious well-dressed blond man and wants to know who he is. Garfin learns that Trudi is a dressmaker who had a shop catering to clients with refined tastes and is a recent immigrant from Germany. Currently she devotes her time at an employment agency specializing in finding jobs for immigrants. When pressed for more details Trudi clams up though she’s more than willing to accept Garfin’s advances when he grabs her in his arms and kisses her wildly.

This is not just a gratuitous pass or an example of the hero’s uncontrollable libido you usually find in a private eye novel of this era.  Garfin doesn’t take advantage of his attractive female clients.  He has a hunch about Trudi’s real line of work from the way she poses, the way she talks, the extreme mood changes that flip on and off like hot and cold water faucets. So he makes a pass at her and her over eager reaction is a sure indicator that his hunch is right. This is Garfin’s kind of detective work. A few chapters later he’ll being doing some more detecting in Trudi’s apartment in the Cressingham.

Prior to Trudi’s arrival Garfin was preparing for a one night only job as security man at an elaborate birthday bash for one of Montreal’s debutantes.  He’s been hired by Mrs. Alverton, society matron who has her eyes on the father of the Elizabeth Endicott. She is using the party as an excuse to get her hands on the rich father.  Garfin is there to guard the treasure trove of expensive birthday gifts that Elizabeth is bound to receive when the posh guests arrive. He shows up in black tie and tails looking handsome and impressive, receives his instructions to mingle with the guests. Mrs. Alverton even encourages him to dance with any of the women if he feels so inclined. To Garfin it all seems a little too relaxed for a security gig.

As the party gets under way, the young women twirl their way across the dance floor Mike can’t help but notice one particular girl whose clothing makes her stand out — not in a good way — from the rest of the girls in their gowns and finery.  This girl is trying to push away the pawing hands of an obese middle-aged man and isn’t succeeding.  Mike steps in, gives the older guy a lecture and a shove or two and rescues the girl from a possible ravishing.  Once alone with Mike the girl pleads with him to take her away from the party and to the police.  He’s puzzled and conflicted.  While he wants to help her and can’t really abandon his job and risk losing his pay for the night. He has to leave her momentarily in trying to sort out his dilemma and when he returns he sees he being pushed into a sedan that speeds away. Thinking quickly he borrows a car rather forcefully from a guest and races after the sedan where it pulls into a truck stop cafe. It doesn’t end well when the girl is found crushed beneath the tires of an eighteen-wheeler.

The two stories — Garfin’s pursuit of the mysterious stalker after Trudi Hess and the seeming accidental death of the girl at the truck stop — eventually merge in the hallways of the Cressingham, a hotbed of vice and violence in Montreal.  Along the way we meet a few characters previously introduced in Hot Freeze.  There is the French Canadian Captain Masson who refuses to learn English and who has little patience for Garfin’s habit of stumbling over dead bodies. More importantly we get to spend a lot more time getting to know the intimate relationship between Mike and his girlfriend Tess whose line of work comes in very handy during this seedy case.

Though Mike Garfin first appears to be your typical wise guy private eye as the reader delves further into this second adventure in Montreal’s dark underbelly we see Garfin is far from your run-of the mill gumshoe, in fact he’s something of an intellectual.  Once again we are reminded he would rather listen to classical records at home rather than rock and roll.  And he goes out of his way to show off his arcane knowledge of the Praguerie when one of the suspects claims he is visiting Montreal form his home base of Manhattan in order to finish a thesis on this aspect of medieval French history. I never heard of the Praguerie and I consider myself college educated.  It was kind of jaw dropping having a private eye lecture me on Charles VII, the Hundred years’ War and the revolt of French nobility modeling themselves on Bohemian aristocrats.

1st US hardcover edition
with Brett’s original title

Similarly there is an atypical emphasis on women’s clothing and wardrobe throughout the story. Frequent references to the way women dress, their make up, and how clothes enhance their figures are not there solely for salacious appetites.  Garfin’s keen eye for the way a lady looks helps him connect the dots in the case, or more accurately helps him connect Trudi Hess’ past to the well dressed women in the Cressingham.  The reader would do well to pay close attention to Garfin anytime he starts talking about clothes.  One particular observation he makes early in the book could lead the read to discover a surprising connection, one of the biggest shocks in the twisty and incredibly violent finale.

For a story essentially about high priced hookers this is a bloody and brutal tale. The original title of the book is The Darker Traffic. Less appealing for a private eye novel but so much more fitting as an expression of Brett’s visceral feelings about this seamy world. In one of the review blurbs on my paperback edition Brett is compared to Mickey Spillane and Garfin to his namesake Mike Hammer and rightly so. I don’t recall Hot Freeze being such a free-for-all when it came to fistfights, beatings and bullets. The story is one of the earliest novels daring enough to expose the greed and corruption of the soulless people using and abusing women as commodities. The surprising villains of the piece stop at nothing when Garfin tries to upset their cushy business in the flesh trade. What begins as a formulaic lecture by Garfin accusing the bad guys of amorality turns into a literal explosion of revenge and last minute trigger pulling.  There is little empathy spared for those who have exploited women so miserably and cruelly. It’s clear how Brett feels about what one time was thought of as a victimless crime.  Once you finish reading this depiction of the effects of prostitution on the women involved you may come to see how poor a euphemism and misnomer is the phrase “victimless crime.”

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Reading Challenge update: G6 “Book with a professional detective” on the Golden Age card.

 Posted by at 7:30 am
Jan 232015
 

Sir Anthony West is an addicted gambler. He is in debt to the tune of £1000 and he hasn’t a clue how to dig himself out. As luck (and abounding coincidence we will soon learn) would have it Jasper Morgan knows of his troubles and offers him a challenge that might put Sir Anthony back in the black. Morgan knows that West is an avid car enthusiast and likes to race around the countryside where the police tend not to care about speeding. Morgan offers the use of his Mercedes and dares West to race the car in excess of 40 mph through a well known speed trap just outside of Comlyn, the city in Cornwall where The Comlyn Alibi (1915) takes place. If he succeeds without getting caught £1000 is his to do with as he chooses. But if he is caught by the police and arrested in order to get the £1000 West will have to pass himself off as Jasper Morgan. That will help to explain why West happens to be driving Morgan’s car. Also, Morgan insists that there be a passenger seated next to him who can verify that West successfully made it through. If stopped and arrested, West will just have to explain to the witness why he’s impersonating Morgan. Emboldened by the challenge and seeing it as his only chance to pay off his creditors West agrees. The same day that West is speeding through Comlyn in the borrowed Mercedes Jasper Morgan’s wife is shot in the orchid house on his estate and her expensive jewelry is stolen. Seems there was an ulterior motive for Morgan making the bet. Now he has an ironclad alibi and West cannot reveal anything of the bet without implicating himself.

The Comlyn Alibi is an entertaining example of a plot that sticks to a sensation novel formula and almost succeeds as a fine modern crime novel. Headon Hill, pseudonym for Francis Edward Grainger, has a no-holds barred style of telling a story with rapid pacing and well drawn characters most of whom escape rigid stereotyping. While there is still the garrulous landlady, the conniving vixen, comic cops, an ex-convict turned butler, and unctuous villains Grainger also manages to add a bit of originality into the tired old formula of upright do-gooders matching wits with utter baddies. Supt. Noakes, for example, is not your typical policeman buffoon. He speaks in an ersatz intellectual patter trying to pass himself off as an educated man but he exploits his position of authority in order to obtain free food and drink in the homes of those he interrogates. Most of his attention is not on the case but on his stomach. As he polishes off glasses of expensive whiskey he lectures the suspects on his “h’axiom” of looking for the husband whenever a wife is murdered. But he is puzzled when Morgan seems to have an airtight alibi having learned of his arrest at the speed trap and his subsequent overnight stay in the Comlyn jail. Noakes is a stand out among the minor characters.

Oh yes! He really does say that.

This is more of a thriller but not without aspects of a puzzler of a detective novel. Morgan and his cohort, Professor Zimbalist are clearly villains from the get-go. There is never any question that Morgan is responsible for his wife’s death if he is not the actual murderer. But what exactly is this nasty duo up to at the old abandoned tin mine? They are witnessed by several people digging around and pocketing small rocks. Zimbalist claims to be an archeologist and assures Mavis Comlyn, daughter of an elderly squire who owns the land where the mine is located, that the two men are interested in fossils. She suspects little, but the reader knows better. Morgan has designs on Mavis; he wants her as his wife. Once he is married to her Morgan hopes he will be able to gain access to the land as part of her inheritance. Mavis seems doomed.

Coincidentally, as in the case of the previously reviewed Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square, there is a teen amateur sleuth. This time a 14 year-old boy not a girl. Tom Burbury spends much of his time lurking about the old shipwreck where shifty Mike Hever, descendant of a family of smugglers, has taken up an unlikely residence. Morgan and Zimbalist are seen visiting the wreck and Tom eavesdrops on several key conversations that reveal the wedding plot being hatched. Tom discovers quite a bit and drawing on his keen interest in geology knows exactly what the rocks found at the old mine contain. They are teeming with uranium ore. Tom knows the value of radium that can be extracted from that ore, if not the then unknown dangers of its radioactivity.

Grainger was a rather prolific writer beginning his career in 1895 and continuing well into the late 1920s. His plots seem to belong to the world of Collins, Braddon and Richard Marsh what with forced marriages, blackmail galore, and heroes using a variety of disguises in order to ferret out the villains. His prose can often feel stodgy and melodramatic if not risible (“Tony was the bravest of the brave, but he realized that lying dead in the sand he would be of no use to Mavis in her dire extremity.”). Nevertheless, he manages to give the books a contemporary feel and he knows how to tell a suspenseful and entertaining tale.

Several of his books are rather unusual (not to mention extremely scarce) like The Divinations of Kala Persad, a collection of short stories that mix crime and the occult and feature a protagonist who is a snake charmer/fakir/sleuth. His series character Sebastian Zambra appeared in two volumes of short stories but never in a full length novel that I know of. Many the “Headon Hill” books are available in digital versions from a variety of online websites either free or for a nominal fee. Expect to pay a chunk of change for any of the original books from the Edwardian era if you are lucky to find any of them in a used bookstore or online. Few of Grainger’s books as “Headon Hill” were published in the US with the majority of his work having only UK editions making them all that more scarce.

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Reading Challenge updates: Second book for Rich Westwood’s 1915 Book Read and O4 (“Author Never Read before”) on the Golden Age Bingo Card.

 Posted by at 4:07 pm
Jan 162015
 

Chances are if you are asked to name one woman mystery writer from the early twentieth century you wouldn’t immediately think of Natalie Sumner Lincoln. I’d wager that you are probably reading her name for the very first time. She was a contemporary of Anna Katharine Green, Isabel Ostrander and Carolyn Wells all of whom are better known and all of whom she was clearly trying to emulate.  Ostrander was the most innovative and talented during the heyday of these women’s careers. Green gets all the accolades for being the Grandmother of Female Mystery Writers. Carolyn Wells…. um… she has a special place all her own in the history of mystery fiction. Lincoln, however, is truly forgotten and most of her books have been out of print for close to a century, some longer than that.

As examples of early 20th century detective novels her work is not the best of their kind. An intense perusal of multiple magazine reviews of Lincoln’s more exemplary work published between 1915 and 1925 indicates she was popular during her time and probably sold a lot of books. Based on my reading of The Official Chaperon (1915), the first book I’ve read of hers, I think she may also be a candidate for inclusion in that dubious Hall of Fame known as Alternative Mystery Classics.

Lincoln was born and raised in Washington DC where she worked as a newspaper reporter and later editor and where the majority of her novels are set. The Official Chaperon, while not exactly typical of the kind of detective novel she was known for, is a template for the characters and situations Lincoln was obsessed with. It tells the story of a group of entitled wealthy Washington socialites and politicians who are primarily concerned with their reputations and social standing. When a string of thefts upset their status quo they are alternately forced into both protecting their loved ones at whatever cost and outing the kleptomaniac hiding in their society.

Margaret Langdon as
illustrated by Neysa McMein

Margaret Langdon is the primary suspect. She has been hired as a chaperone to Janet Fordyce, only a few years younger than herself, and together they attend dances, parties and make social visits to wealthy households. Each time Margaret and Janet make one of their visits someone loses a valuable item. Jewelry, lace handkerchiefs (apparently highly prized in this era), and money are stolen. Coupled with these thefts is the fact that Margaret was recently fired from her secretarial position in the home of Admiral Lawrence when the codicil to his dying wife’s will went missing. He accused Margaret of destroying it in order that her sometime boyfriend Chichester Barnard, Lawrence’s nephew, would benefit from Mrs. Lawrence’s estate. Eventually through a series of absurd coincidences and plot contrivances Margaret comes to be accused by multiple characters as the ballroom thief. But the reader knows better.

Early in the book Margaret witnesses Janet Fordyce pocketing a valuable jeweled brooch. She manages to retrieve the brooch and attempts to return the item to it rightful place. Of course she is caught doing so by the woman who owns the brooch. And of course it appears that Margaret is taking the jewelry not replacing it. The entire story is predicated on this kind of cliche incident. Lincoln manages to reinvent this scene about four or five times over the course of the story making Margaret seem like a true kleptomaniac.

Margaret catches Janet in the act
(illustration by Edmund Frederick)

Here’s a perfect example of her plotting. Janet and her soldier boyfriend Captain Tom Nichols are caught in a speed trap. Tom asks Janet not to use her real name if the police ask for it. Whose name do you think she uses as her alias? That’s right. Poor ol’ Margaret Langdon. When they have to pay a fine of $50 (admittedly very steep for 1915) and Tom doesn’t have enough money he offers to use a combination of his $23 in cash and Janet’s bracelet as collateral. The police agree to the loan of the jewelry (!) as long as Tom returns the same day with a cash balance. It turns out the bracelet is not Janet’s. She lifted it from a society matron and ten minutes later the matron’s husband is also pulled over by the cops at the speed trap. He also has to pay a fine and sees the bracelet on the cops’ desk. He immediately recognizes it and asks who left it behind. The cop refers to his arrest records and says: “Oh some woman named Margaret Langdon.”

This is not really a detective novel at all. It’s not even a crime novel though thievery makes up much of the plot. It’s nothing more that an early twentieth century version of a 1980s nighttime soap opera. It all reminded me of episodes of Dynasty in which wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes (a lot of space is devoted to the wardrobe descriptions), drink champagne, carry themselves haughtily and accuse each other of stealing each others spouses and partners rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs.

While there’s no adultery going on in The Official Chaperon there is a lot of philandering mostly by the ne’er-do-well Chichester Barnard, the obvious villain of the piece. There’s even an Alexis Carrington in the cast. Pauline Calhoun-Cooper (how do you like these hoity-toity names?) adds a contemporary spice to the proceedings and at least made me laugh with her constant accusations, her bitchiness and superior attitude. Only nineteen years old Pauline is also one of the youngest women in the cast of characters. So young, yet so old. Sigh…

Speaking of bitchy — Lincoln has quite a way with her dialogue. Here are some zingers that I particularly enjoyed:

“Life is too short to bother with ill-bred and stupid people. I came to Washington to avoid them.”

“Congressmen of today belong to the ancient and honorable order of inkslingers.”

“If thee made virtue less detestable, Becky, thee would have more converts.”  (Spoken by Madame Yvonett, a Quaker who likes her thees and thys, to her cousin Rebekah, an uptight religious hypocrite)

But these quips and intentional moments of humor are rare. Lincoln reserves her dialogue writing talent for paragraph long tirades filled with melodramatic pronouncements of anger and pitiful displays of desperate “love-making.” Most of it is over-the-top even for 1915. I found myself laughing at most of these moments of high drama when I wasn’t rolling my eyes.

And now a warning… (Now a warning?) Here comes a HUGE SPOILER. You may want to skip this paragraph…but I’d continue if I were you.

Most ridiculous of all is the novel’s resolution when the reader learns that Janet is not really a kleptomaniac at all. Through the erudite pontifications of psychiatrist Dr. Paul Potter we learn that Janet’s thievery was achieved through hypnosis.  She was the victim of an insidious post-hypnotic suggestion triggered by the mesmerist villain’s blowing in her ear! This ending was so absurd and out of left field I could only think of Harry Stephen Keeler. He had yet to write a single story in 1915 so I can’t even credit him as one of Lincoln’s influences. But you can be sure I’ll be reading more books by Natalie Sumner Lincoln. My hope is that she outdoes herself in terms of the absurd ending of The Official Chaperon. Stay tuned!

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Reading Challenges:  1.  1915 Book for Rich Westwood’s challenge.
2. Golden Age Bingo card space G3 – “Book with a crime other than murder.” In fact, there is no murder in this book at all!

 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Jan 152015
 

Here’s another pop trivia quiz for all you detective fiction mavens out there. Earliest girl detective in the genre? Don’t even think Nancy Drew, gang. Go back further. Violet Strange — did I hear someone say? Even further than 1915. Try the turn of the 20th century, 1899 to be exact, and meet little Gracie Death (yes, Death!), all of 12 years old and one of the pluckiest girl sleuths in the literature. Gracie pulls off some of the most dangerous legwork in Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square (1899) while engaged as first mate to Dick Remington’s captain on what Remington dubs their private voyage into criminal detection. She also locates her missing father and does so by a combination of surreptitious eavesdropping and communication via her dreams. Yes, she’s not only one of the youngest and earliest girl detectives she’s also one of the youngest psychic detectives. And to top it off she does all this while suffering from a debilitating unnamed respiratory ailment (probably bronchitis or severe asthma) that often has her coughing her lungs out in a pitiful display. Time for Gracie to be recognized for her achievements. Cough or no cough she gets the job done.

Crammed into these 465 pages author B. L. Farjeon relates the murder of the odious moneylender Samuel Boyd who puts to shame Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep in terms of miserly opportunism and heartless avarice. Compounding the mysterious strangling death of Boyd is the disappearance of his clerk Abel Death, Gracie’s father, who was summarily discharged by Boyd several hours before his employer was sent off to his just reward. And the grounds for the firing? Death was caught dissembling about a visitor to the business, a direct violation of Boyd’s paranoid command to keep out everyone unless he is present. When Boyd learns that the visitor in question is his son Reginald whom he has practically disowned he lets loose with a tirade unparalleled in sensation fiction and fires Death on the spot.

Dick Remington who we think will be the heroic detective of the piece is introduced as a young Renaissance man who has tried and succeeded in a variety of trades from professional actor to yeoman journalist, but suffers from ennui and a sense of being unchallenged with each new success. Only when he decides to clear Reginald Boyd of the murder charge does he find that he has true purpose in life. Reginald also happens to be rival in affections for Florence Robson, daughter of Dick’s foster father and uncle Inspector Robson. This fact serves as the primary motivator for Dick to win the affection of his cousin while simultaneously giving him another chance to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his Uncle “Rob”. In true Dickensian style Farjeon has Reginald and Florence grow deeper in love with each new plot complication. Dick must decide if his adventure in amateur detective work is self-serving or selfless. Meeting Gracie Death alters his objective. When they join forces it is clear that Dick is beginning to mature in ways he thought previously impossible.

While the book begins as a puzzling detective novel Farjeon soon reveals the villains behind a massive conspiracy to frame both Reginald and Dick for the murder of the moneylender. Thankfully Farjeon does this by the midway point for the villains are so obvious the reader wonders why the police and everyone else can be so easily taken in by their machinations. Gracie isn’t taken in but, of course, no one is going to believe a 12 year old girl. Except Dick Remington, that is. From its perfectly archetypal opening in which the characters are at the mercy of a menacing London fog to the perilous derring-do of Dick climbing a brick wall with rope and grapnel hook to the underhanded sleuthing of Detective Dennis Lambert of the Yard Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square contains all that any reader has come to expect from a gaslight thriller. 

With the revelation of the diabolical duo Samuel Boyd… becomes an all-out suspense thriller complete with cleverly handled courtroom sequences. The murder case becomes a cause célèbre attracting the attention of everyone in town including “members of the learned profession”, actors actresses, writers and other celebrities along with merchants, housewives and their children.  So crowded is the courtroom that some of the witnesses have to be escorted in from the hall. First we get a protracted inquest that frustrates coroner John Kent to distraction. The proceedings are hampered by a far too inquisitive jury member who is being goaded into asking intrusive, inappropriate and barely legal questions of several witnesses in order to sway the verdict towards implicating Reginald Boyd as the murderer. The novel ends in a climactic murder trial with the typical eleventh hour revelations including testimony from a French detective searching for an escaped master criminal and the unmasking of two characters’ dual identities.

One of the most intriguing incidents in the book from a history of the genre standpoint occurs when the two villainous doctors are fiddling with a newfangled camera of Dr. Pye’s invention (see the illustration at left). It requires a strong burst from a magnesium flare and can illuminate the darkest unlit street from his second story study window. He has been photographing Samuel Boyd’s house and has been seeing rather mysteriously the appearance of a face that resembles Boyd’s even though he is dead. Pye then relates an anecdote about how useful and powerful the camera can be, especially in terms of “psychic photography”. He asks his cohort, Dr. Vinser, to believe that a photographer friend of his used the camera to take a picture of a murder victim and when studying the photograph “…there under the lens of a powerful microscope was the portrait of the murderer upon the pupils of the dead man’s eyes.” The retained image, usually involving the retina not the pupils, on a corpse’s eyes is a myth that shows up in late 19th century and early 20th century crime and detective fiction well into the 1930s, but this is the earliest recorded version I’ve come across. Apparently scientific fact is not the primary concern of these two doctors. But credit is due Farjeon with making these two doctors charlatans so we’ll never know if he intended this sequence to be taken as satire of the gullible Victorian mind. Soon enough the reader learns the two men use phony titles to exert authority over others and have no background in medicine or science of any type.

But lapses into scientific myth aside if there is anything legitimate to criticize about Farjeon’s storytelling and writing it is his tendency to elevate his heroes and heroines to the status of sainthood while consigning his antagonists to behavior just shy of a mustache twirling and sneering vaudeville villain. From his very early career Farjeon modeled his work after that of Charles Dickens and we see in this late novel (he would write only three more books before he died in 1903) how he still aspires to the kind of triumphant overturning of detestable villainy by the virtuous and pure that was the hallmark of his idol. Rather than light touches of the sentimental paintbrush Farjeon slathers it on with sweeping broad strokes. Modern readers cry out for complexity and ambiguity in characters and incidents. You’ll find no subtlety here. Even Dr. Vinsen, the more interesting villain of the two and seemingly modeled on Count Fosco (“My heart is large,” says Vinsen obsequiously. “It bleeds for all”), has a sudden transformation within the span of a few sentences from sinister Machiavelli to cringing coward. But then sometimes it’s a welcome and refreshing change to know exactly who ought to get a rotten tomato thrown at him amid all the boisterous cheering for the good guys.

B. L. Farjeon, at home, 1899

Benjamin Leopold Farjeon led a vivid and colorful life born and raised in England, travelling to Australia where he began his writing career as a yeoman reporter and eventually working his way up to business manager of Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, New Zealand. He deserves a post all his own on his fascinating life. For an overview see this richly detailed biographical article at TE ARA, the internet encyclopedia of New Zealand. His writing career was just as richly varied and includes short stories, ghost and detective fiction, plays, a very original and modern supernatural thriller called Devlin the Barber, Newgate novels, and a series of mainstream novels that are among the earliest to denounce anti-Semitism and present Jews of Victorian England in a positive light. Early in his writing career he reached out in a letter to Charles Dickens, his idol, and sending him a copy of his “Shadows on the Snow”. Dickens replied and so moved was Farjeon by Dickens’ letter he literally packed his bags, resigned his job at the New Zealand paper and headed back to England to become a novelist. All of this can be read in an absorbing interview Farjeon had with Dicken’s granddaughter Mary Angela Dickens in the February 1899 issue of Windsor Magazine, published only a few months before the book edition of Samuel Boyd… was released.

Those interested in reading Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square have their choice of a variety of print on demand books (be warned of optical recognition transfers littered with typos!) and a couple of online versions that I investigated which conversely look to be well done. Copies of the actual book currently for sale are few and far between. I know that there were at least two editions in the UK from Hutchinson and one in the US from New Amsterdam Book Company. My copy is offset from the New Amsterdam edition and published by stalwart reprint house Grosset & Dunlap. It includes four glossy plates by Edith Leslie Lang, some are used to illustrate this post. Should you be lucky to find one a reading copy of Samuel Boyd… should cost you no more than $10 to $15 compared to a genuine UK first edition (Hutchinson, 1899) which in good to very good condition ranges from $46 to $150.

For an entertaining Victorian viewpoint of B.L. Farjeon’s writing straight from the reader’s pencil see this post on Curt Evans’ blog where he shows us the written remarks made by a Victorian gentleman in his copy of Farjeon’s other mammoth sensation novel Great Porter Square: A Mystery.

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Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge update: L4 (“Man’s name in the title”) on the Golden Age card

 Posted by at 2:21 am

FFB: The Mysterious Mr. Badman – William Fryer Harvey

 bibliomystery, Friday's Forgotten Books, obscure writers, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on FFB: The Mysterious Mr. Badman – William Fryer Harvey
Jan 022015
 

The opening sentence to The Mysterious Mr. Badman (1934) is a corker:

When at two o’clock on a sultry July afternoon Athelstan Digby undertook to keep an eye on the contents of the old bookshop in Keldstone High Street, he deliberately forgot to mind his own business.

Partly on holiday, partly to advise his nephew Jim Pickering on whether or not to take up a physician’s locum tenens position nearby Mr. Digby has been minding Daniel Lavender’s bookshop where he has been temporarily given a bedsit while visiting the town and his nephew. On his first day in charge Mr. Digby is visited by three successive customers all looking for the obscure work The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan, best known for his religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Mr. Digby is intrigued.  Even more so when not too coincidentally a copy is brought into the store by a young man selling a pile of old books.

Based on the title alone you have probably guessed that this is not a book about a “bad man” but rather a bibliomystery about the desire to own a book. But is the book all that valuable?  Turns out the book holds a rather incriminating letter with information that could be damaging to noted M.P. Sir Richard Mottram.  No sooner has Mr. Digby found this letter the shop is broken into and the book stolen.  Then one of the inquisitive customenrs is found propped up against a tree, a pistol in his hand, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gun shot.  Is his death related to the stolen book?  Or the letter inside the book?  Was it suicide or murder? The search is on for not only the book but for the other two men who were inquiring after the volume.

Mr. Digby is joined in his amateur sleuthing by his nephew Jim and Sir Richard’s stepdaughter Diana Conyers who was the person who gave the books to the boy to sell in the first place.  Together the three of them uncover an extortion plot, some political machinations, and one of those familiar unctuous gentleman villains so popular in thrillers of this era. Harvey combines some excellent detection with the usual tropes of the pursuit thriller. Mr. Digby puzzles out the method and motive for the murder based on the hairs of a mountain goat, some wood shavings and a missing sleeping bag! How’s that for some amateur detective work?  Jim and Diana engage in subterfuge, farcical impersonation and all sorts of wily Q & A style detective work in order to get to the bottom of the skulduggery. And with a cast of characters with names like Olaf Wake, Euphemia Upstart, Neville Monkbarns and Kitchener Lilywhite you know you in for a bit of whimsy along with the mayhem.

The Mysterious Mr. Badman was a delight from start to finish, the perfect book to end last year’s indulgence of vintage mystery obscurities.  Quite a surprise to me also since I had known William Fryer Harvey, prior to finding this elusive book, only as the writer of excellent macabre and supernatural short stories that tend to be a lot more somber than this often lighthearted novel.  He is probably best known for his horror story about a possessed piano player that became the movie The Beast with Five Fingers. Harvey’s creepy M. R. James influenced paranormal story “August Heat” is found in numerous anthologies devoted to the best of supernatural fiction.

A bit of research proved to me that Athelstan Digby previously appeared in an equally rare book of short stories in which he apparently first appeared as an amateur sleuth. Whether or not Jim Pickering also appears in The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby (Swathmore,  1920) I will never know.  I remember a copy of this genuinely rare book turned up for auction on eBay a while ago but I failed to win the book. It sold for over £200 if I remember correctly.

Currently there are four copies of … Mr. Badman for sale online and they range from $70 to $115.  I paid £1 for mine back in 2005. Very lucky! Chances of finding one in a US library are slim unless you have access to the University of Arizona or UCLA libraries where two copies are held. As …Mr. Badman was published only in the UK by Pawling & Ness, a very minor and short-lived publisher, I imagine that you might have better luck if you live in the UK or Canada and consult your local interlibrary loan services.

UPDATE:  Some fun news related to William Fryer Harvey’s other detective stories. A reader of this blog sent me an email with a link to another blog where anyone interested can read the stories from The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby.  Just click here.

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This was the very last book I read for the Vintage Mystery Golden Age Bingo Reading Challenge.  It filled in the card completely on space L4 “Book with a Man in the Title.”  Thought I’d be done with 36 books a lot sooner.  I was reading until the stroke of midnight on December 31.  For those interested, all the books I read for both the Golden Age and Silver Age Bingo Cards are listed in this post.

 Posted by at 5:01 pm