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 earliest 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
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
Dec 122014
 
Tobias Mander is the founder and owner of Mander Department Store, his brainchild for an innovative place that will combine "cheapness with luxury." He also is an airplane fanatic and has an engineering lab in his home. Having procured many of the best experts in the retail trade he is set to open the flagship Mander store to the accompaniment of much fanfare. One of his more audacious publicity stunts was to have his new design for a portable gyrocopter unveiled by having the flying contraption land on the roof of the store much to the chagrin of police and local authorities who felt it unsafe. He dubbed the invention the Mander Hopper. Marketed as "a plane you fold up in a room and land in a tennis court" the retail wizard was planning to sell them his store and was taking orders prior to starting a manufacturing line. All those plans come to a crashing halt when Tobias Mander is found dead during the opening festivities. Someone shot him, dressed him up as a mechanic, and placed him among other mannequins in a display window at the front of the store.

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

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

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

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

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

And I will say no more other than if you ever lucky enough to come across a copy of The Shop Window Murders (yes, my friends, it's an incredibly scarce title) you ought to snap it up. This one is not only entertaining it may be Loder's most complicated and original spin on a gimmick he seems to have invented. Other than in the work of Anthony Wynne, who has his own favorite tricks like the twice murdered corpse, I have yet to come across so many variations on this odd idea for detective novel crimes. While I'm recommending this book I would suggest you keep your eyes out for any book with the Vernon Loder pseudonym on the cover. They make for fascinating reading and are as different from the standard whodunits of his colleagues as champagne is to soda water.
 Posted by at 4:37 pm
Nov 142014
 
In the opening chapter of Murder by the Day (1953) we learn that Mortimer Rutherford, a millionaire with a morbid fear of dying in an inferno, has completely fireproofed his penthouse. How then was he found incinerated in his newly purchased designer armchair? A chair, that like the rest of his home, was most recently treated with a new fireproofing compound he helped develop with a chemist friend. Furthermore, Rutherford's interior designer, Althea Tamblyn (one of the more colorful characters in the book), had also purchased several of those chairs for other tenants in the building. Mysteriously, the chairs keep turning up in the oddest of places. Murder by the Day might well be subtitled The Case of the Flip-Flopped Furniture along the lines of an alliterative Perry Mason title. It's well suited for the Mason series for just like Gardner's obsession with switching guns and bullets in the Mason books Johns has her characters switching and moving those chairs around the Rutherford House apartment complex with the rapidity and deftness of a con man running a shell game.

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo -- space E2, "Book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title". Another Bingo line! And only four more books left to fill the card.
 Posted by at 4:43 pm
Oct 242014
 
Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)
 Posted by at 4:03 pm
Jul 252014
 
A house party in a 12th century Norman castle in Wales is the setting for Death on Tiptoe (1931). The characters make up quite a Christie-like cast: young dissolute and irresponsible heir; portrait artist and womanizer; flirtatious heiress; pouty melodramatic young woman jilted by the artist; lovestruck governess; two bratty children; vengeful British Major; reserved and sensible barrister; failed diplomat who is an utter twit; his wife who is love with someone else; and the host and hostess, Sir Harry and Lady Undine Stacey.

It is Lady Stacey — a transplanted French woman with pretensions to becoming a great baronial estate holder — who is the victim. The opening chapters quite brilliantly plant the seeds for her cruel murder, and there are at least four characters who outright threaten her prior to her body being discovered three weeks later in a chest in the attic where she had hid during a game of hide and seek, an entertainment she arranged for her guests.

Cleverly done, fairly well clued, with quite a bit of misdirection. The novel culminates in a melodramatic ending with a somewhat surprising murderer and an intriguing motive. Ashby would later expand the idea of this Gothic detective novel in He Arrived at Dusk (my review of that book is at Mystery*File here ), a far better book with more effective use of folklore, legends and supernatural content.

R(uby). C(onstance). Ashby is the alter ego of Ruby Ferguson the name under which she is better known. From 1949 through 1965 Ferguson was a popular writer of children's books and romance novels. As Ashby (her maiden name) she wrote a handful of detective novels and suspense thrillers with Gothic overtones. A few years ago Death on Tiptoe was reprinted by Greyladies Press, an independent publisher located in Scotland, but I checked their website and that edition is no longer for sale. However, you might luck out on the used book websites and find a copy.

(This is a slightly altered version of a review I originally wrote for Steve Lewis' superb website Mystery*File.)
 Posted by at 3:10 pm