Jul 112014
 
Jean Deslines is worried about losing her identity.  Her father keeps talking about putting her away in a mental institution for her own safety. Jean has been bragging about her flirty seduction of the local clergyman in her Australian home of Katoomba. She's also been reading up on psychology books at the suggestion of her cousin Myrtle who knows a psychosexual aberration when she sees one. Now Jean's head is overloaded with Freudian psychoanalytical jargon and discussions of female hormones, the lack of which she believes is at the root of her troubles. She's also starting to have surreal dreams in which she envisions a female gladiator who takes the form of the goddess Minerva slaughtering her enemies. And every now and then she hears the sounds of bells and an ethereal voice giving her private instructions on carrying out the murderous events in her dreams. Is it any wonder her father is worried about her? Oh, I forgot to mention Jean is only fifteen years old.

To preserve her identity and prevent any tinkering with her mind and soul at the hands of interfering psychiatrists Jean is advised by that Voice to murder her father. And she does so in a lovingly savage way. It's the beginning of her descent into a surreal world of hallucinations, indulgent sexuality and violent murderous attacks. Imagine if you will a most bizarre mix of the selfish child murderess Rhoda Penmark, vindictive pathological liar Mary Tilford, and seductive teen age vixen Lolita and you have only a smidgen of an idea of what Frank Walford has created in Jean Deslines. It's difficult to believe that a fifteen year old girl is narrating this lurid tale of madness, pansexuality and brutal murder. Jean may very well be crime fiction's first bisexual serial killer.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Twisted Clay was published in 1933.

Frank Walford
This week Patti Abbot Asked us to read a book about a femme fatale. Though typically we don't find a femme fatale this young until the pulp writers of the 1950s in books by writers like Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Jonathan Craig and most of them aren't clinically insane Jean Deslines is about as fatal a femme as you can find in the genre fiction of the 1930s. So horrific are the events described in Walford's book it was banned almost immediately upon publication and remained out of print for decades. Modern readers will find so many of what is now considered formulaic in serial killer literature and yet no one was writing about such things in Walford's time. Even Lawrence Block didn't write about a serial killer prostitute until 2012's Getting Off and even then he used his lesbian erotica pseudonym Jill Emerson. Walford was way ahead of his time in creating his surreally intellectual, linguistically gifted and very dangerous teenager. Way, way ahead.

Twisted Clay has been reissued by Australian British indie press Salt Publishing under their horror imprint Remains Classics in a handsomely designed facsimile of the original first edition complete with replication of the original dust jacket. The book comes with a foreward by Remain's editor Johnny Mains as well as a biographical and literary introduction to Frank Walford by critic and supernatural fiction maven Jim Doigs. It's a fine reissue of a landmark book in the genre. Highly recommended for literary connoisseurs, genre fiction addicts and anyone curious about those obscure books that sometimes reach legendary status due to their unavailability. This is one instance when the legend cannot even approach the actual content of the book.

For more wicked women, amoral temptresses, and literary femme fatales in forgotten books of the past visit Patti Abbot's blog.
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jun 112014
 
Claim of the Fleshless Corpse (1937). Great title, isn't it? The title alone would have got me to read the plot blurb. Conjures up all sorts of gruesome images and violent crime. Perfect title for a story in a shudder pulp like Dime Detective. A story that screams out for a lurid painting of a woman in bondage herself screaming out in terror while a madman hovers over her with a red hot poker or some other tool of devilry. But a fleshless corpse is after all nothing more than a skeleton, right? And that's what insurance investigator John "Toughy" Nichols faces in the furnace room of Albert Browning's "elegant residence" in the tony Long Island town of Briarcliff Manor. An incinerated skeleton but still a skeleton. Claim of the Incinerated Skeleton just doesn't trip off the tongue, does it?

Browning was carrying a hefty $500,000 life insurance policy and "accidental death gets him two-for-one" as Nichols puts it. He's sent by his boos to check out the incinerated body and find out if it is indeed Browning or yet another case of insurance fraud. In the first two chapters Nichols treats us to three separate cases of fraud and it seems like his job is a never ending battle with no good con artists trying to dupe their insurance agents with a shifty get-rich-quick scheme. With Nichols on the case, an expert in all sorts of fraud, Continental Insurance has been saving thousands of dollars a day. But when the case gets too scientific Nichols turns to his surgeon pal Dr. Lester Lawson, one of those wizard geniuses of pulp fiction. Lawson has an arsenal of up-to-date medical techniques that help him prove accidental deaths have been faked.

This story is very early forensic techno-thriller with all sorts of scientific detection. Over the course of the book Dr. Lester Lawson gives mini-lectures on Hans Müllner's technique of making a plaster cast of hand prints and fingerprints; George Weber's perfection of the Müllner technique used to get a "shadow" of a footprint off of a concrete floor; Dr. E. M. Hudson's method of getting latent prints from cloth, wood, metal or anything without a shiny or glossy surface; and the involved process of moulage used to reconstruct a face on a skull. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is old hat to crime fiction readers. All of it, however, was probably new to a 1937 reader. It might have been a lot more interesting and less frustrating to read had Bruce decided to make Lawson more of a gentleman.  Lawson's petulance and sarcasm outdo even the wisecracking narration we get from Nichols. The surgeon and the claims investigator are an oil and vinegar kind of detective team; somehow despite their bickering and insult trading they manage to solve the case.


Yes, Hans Müllner was a real criminologist.  The others are real men, too.

Of course the body turns out to be someone other than Browning. It is through the combination of this unlikely duo's investigative skills that the fraud is uncovered. Lawson's diligent scientific detection leads to the true identity of the corpse. Nichols' legwork and scene of the crime investigating uncovers the unusual method of faking an electrical accident in the furnace room.

But I've filed this book under "Alternative Crime." That means you get a fair share of absurdities and implausibilities amid all the scientific and criminological facts. Not to mention a less than literary writing style. Bruce's wordsmithing is pure pulp. Examples? I knew you'd want some.

Wise guy insults galore:
Lawson: "And you probably couldn't spell corpse."
Nichols: "I'll show you, you flat-faced, mummy-pussed, belly-opener. All I need is a lot of paper and pencils."
Lawson: "And the prayers of the congregation. And listen, you spell it c-o-r-p-s-e."
Nichols: "Try n-u-t-s!"

And the usual plethora of quirky metaphors:
"She was a swell kid, too, with her head in the right place and her heart ditto."
"...because the old boy had picked a pretty bizarre way of chucking in his chips and kicking off for the Styx." 
"...at this point my old brain did a few nip-ups of its own."
"...whether this tall story that Lawson's been assembling in his junkshop has any angles to it I'd dare take to [my boss] without a catcher's mitt and knee-pads."

Lawson pulls off a few crazy Holmesian miracles of observation and inference as in his assumptions about the lifestyle of the fleshless corpse. He tell Nichols to look for a "...a man who has hung around barrooms, who hasn't been so damned particular about keeping himself clean. When he worked he was a stone-cutter or a stonemason... The day before he died he had a job unloading flour from a truck." Quite a bit of info all gathered from a burnt up skeleton! It's all explained in the final chapter but I didn't buy much of it.

And all this work to identify the body! What's the first thing most police would do with when confronted with an incinerated skeleton and intact skull? Check the dental records, of course. Why then doesn't this dawn on anyone -- including the genius Dr. Lawson -- until page 174? But wait, the best is yet to come.

The skeleton is taken to Lawson's private hospital lab where he does the full autopsy and reconstructs the skull. Clearly the police are too inept to do it right. Then the "fleshless corpse" is transported (by ambulance no less) back to the police station! The station itself, not the morgue. Dr. Lawson wants the body now with its simulated face to be dressed in clothing and put into a line-up for policeman to study! I couldn't stop laughing throughout this section.

If you want to find out more, read it for yourself. Those arbiters of eccentric taste in mystery novels over at Ramble House have generously reprinted George Bruce's  wacky book. You can get a nice trade paperback edition of The Claim of the Fleshless Corpse direct from Ramble House (published under the UK title of Corpse without Flesh) or at the usual online bookselling sites. But if you've read this entire review, you have also been warned!

UPDATE - June 11, 2014: Just discovered a detailed biographical article about George Bruce who was indeed a pulp writer as I had guessed. His specialty, however, was airplane adventures and military aviation stories not crime. He also has a few screenplay credits. I should've known someone who wrote wiseacre dialogue as sampled above would succumb to the lure of Hollywood. Please visit the blog Bear Alley for Steve Holland's excellent article on this forgotten pulp writer.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age Bingo card, space E1 - "Book with a detective team"
 Posted by at 12:06 am
Apr 252014
 

Later US Paperback (Pyramid, 1974)
 I first came to know That Cold Day in the Park (1965) in its effectively creepy and sometimes heartbreaking movie adaptation starring Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Dennis plays an extremely lonely woman who takes the term "kept boy" to its literal extreme. I thought perhaps the book might be the female counterpart to John Fowles' first novel The Collector, also turned into a memorable film. While the movie shares its basic premise with its source and both include three key scenes, the story of Miles' original novel is remarkably different.

Madame (we never learn her real name) meets a young man in the Tuilleries, the famous public garden of Paris, befriends him in a short conversation and convinces him to come home with her. Throughout their brief meeting the young man, a stunningly gorgeous blond haired Adonis, never speaks. Madame thinks, as does the reader, that the boy is mute. That he can hear her is made very clear. Only in the second chapter titled "The Boy" do we realize he has chosen not to speak. He often plays the role of a mute in order to manipulate his targets. The boy goes by the nickname Mignon. He and his friend Yves are male hustlers roaming the streets and bars of Paris' less than touristy areas taking advantage of lonely, affection starved men and robbing them.

Mignon stays with Madame most of the time, but escapes his new home each night by climbing out the window and down the fire escape in order to visit Yves. As the book progresses we see that Mignon is both manipulator and manipulated. He is caught between two worlds -- his life of crime with Yves (who he is clearly sexually attracted to) and his freer, more creative life with Madame who is also controlling him and shaping him to become what she wants. She is a hostess, a housemaid, a mother and eventually his lover. The book takes on a sinister element when Madame learns of his nightly escapes. We begin to see the fragile state of Madame's mind when she imprisons Mignon in an attempt to possess him completely.

UK 1st ed (Souvenir, 1966 )
The novel explores this very strange ménage à trois of sorts and its inevitable deceit and betrayal through alternating chapters told in the first person by Madame and in the third person omniscient voice when it focuses on either the boy or Yves. There is a middle section entitled "Interlude" centering on a minor character's visit to a sex club. Here we see the kind of sex trade Yves engages in with both men and women. It's the first taste of what will become a more lurid, sexually graphic, and sensational story.

The key scenes that I remembered from the movie -- Madame bathing the boy, her locking him in his bedroom and nailing the windows shut, and the climactic scene when she procures a prostitute for him -- all are present in the book. It is the story of Yves' relationship to Mignon that was removed in the movie adaptation.

In the novel the boy is conflicted between trying to change himself under the guidance of Madame, who seems to be the only person who doesn't desire him only for his body and good looks, and his life of adventure and crime with Yves -- his best friend, pseudo-brother and quite obviously a surrogate father. As the silent kept boy Mignon is at first a pet, then a student of painting, and finally a lover. With Madame the boy is more compassionate and pitying, emotions he does not feel for the men he robs when he is with Yves. There seems to be hope for both of them in their secret life together.  Yves doesn't want things to change. Mignon must make several decisions -- who is he really, who does he want to be with,  and perhaps most important of all who and what can he become.

In the final pages the book turns into a lurid thriller complete with embarrassingly written sex scenes that reminded me of the worst of 60s erotica ("throbbing rod" and "swelling member"). Madame's character transforms too quickly into yet another psycho-sexual lunatic bent on deadly violence. Miles nearly destroys the interesting contrast in characters that, up to the bloody climax, was the most fascinating part of the book. The story works best in the sections between Madame and Mignon and weakens in the too predictable sequences when Yves appears.

1st UK paperback (Corgi, 1967)
Richard Miles is the pseudonym for a former child actor turned writer and high school teacher named Gerald Perrau-Saussine. He first performed in movies under his slightly shortened, given name (Gerald Perreau) and later as "Peter Miles". His movie roles include Possessed w/ Joan Crawford, The Red Pony w/ Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, Heaven Only Knows and Quo Vadis . As a teenager and young adult he later appeared in a variety of TV shows such as Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Perry Mason. He had a long running role on The Betty Hutton Show where he played brother to his real life sister, actress Gigi Perreau.

That Cold Day in the Park is Miles' first novel. He followed up with Angel Loves Nobody (1967), a prize-winning novel about high school violence and The Moonbathers (1974), a revenge thriller featuring a Japanese secret society. One of his lesser works is the script for one of the worst movies ever made -- They Saved Hitler's Brain. But we all make mistakes, don't we? Don't judge him by that big one.

Turn in tomorrow when I examine Robert Altman's movie version of this book with a screenplay adaptation by Gillian Freeman. It's an example of taking the basic story of an intriguing novel and transforming it into a much improved and resonant character study.

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Reading Challenge update:  Silver Age Bingo card, space  L2 - "Book Made into a Movie"
 Posted by at 8:16 am
Apr 162014
 
“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"
 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Mar 292014
 
"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Mar 072014
 

UK 1st edition (Herbert Jenkins, 1938)
 Elizabeth Curtiss' debut mystery novel Nine Doctors and a Madman (1940) first came to my attention in a brief review at Mystery*File. Interestingly, the evocative title and its subject matter -- the murder of a sadistic, egocentric psychiatrist at a mental institution -- sparked a lengthy discussion in the comments of detective novels set in asylums and mystery plots that deal with madness. A shame that somehow Curtiss' book was lost in the shuffle because it is not only one of the more fascinating debuts by a mystery writer, but it is a classic case of a book that breaks several rules and still succeeds as a fair play detective novel.

Dr. Frank Blythe is one of those characters in detective fiction who well deserve their violent end. Despised and mistrusted by every one of his colleagues at the asylum where he works he believed he had the power to manipulate and "hypnotically control" anyone he encountered. He even bragged that he could put a weapon in the hands of a violent inmate and prevent him from committing a murder. When he is found stabbed to death in a patient’s room it at first looks as if his arrogance has got the better of him and his experiment fatally backfired. But the placement of the body leaves room for doubt that the patient had anything to do with the crime. Furthermore, the unusual murder weapon was an item known to only three people and was always hidden in Blythe's apartment in the staff housing separate from the patient quarters. That weapon, an antique British Meat skewer, was presented as a gift to his wife Myrna, a woman who lived in fear of her husband. Who wouldn’t be frightened of a man who gives a meat skewer as a gift? A skewer that is engraved with the Latin phrase Hoc me occide, si audeus (translated in the book as "Kill me with this if you dare") -- the very same phrase the Borgias engraved on murder weapons they gave to their enemies.

As the title suggests there are nine other doctors in the cast of characters who are immediate suspects. Yet all of them have near iron-clad alibis for the time of the killing. There is not one madman but several in the cast, but as the story progresses the reader learns that perhaps the titular "madman" is one of the doctors. The case is investigated by Dr. Nathaniel Bunce aided by his resident intern Dr. Theophilus ("Call me Phil") Bishop who also serves as narrator. Bishop is no dullard like Captain Hastings nor is he the awestruck and sometimes confused John Watson. He is sharp as a tack. It helps that he is the son of a district attorney. But under Bunce's tutelage as both a student of psychology and criminology Bishop has lots to learn.

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937)
Complicating the story of Dr. Blythe's murder is the fact that Bunce is assisting the police in a case of strychnine poisonings. Is there a serial killer on the loose killing men of "small, unprepossessing appearance and effeminate physical type"? Do those poisoning murders have anything to do with the twelve guinea pigs in Dr. Gina Fiske's lab that have all mysteriously died of some poison? Could the killer be among the staff at the asylum?

The story is rife with clues and red herrings. A button torn from a nurse's uniform, a set of missing spoons, a nurse who manages to appear in two different places within a span of one minute, a noisy and powerful X-ray machine that when in use causes all the lights in the institution to dim, and a sparrow's nest in a clock tower are among the more imaginative bits that make for quite a puzzling case. Add in a group of patients who have taken to swallowing objects like pieces of pottery and kitchen utensils and Dr. Blythe's cruel antipathy for alley cats that led him to order the groundsman to shoot them on sight and you have more than enough ingredients for a bubbling cauldron of suspicion and intrigue.

Perhaps most striking of all is Curtiss' handling of the denouement. The final pages are reminiscent of some of the cases of Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Beatrice Bradley where a fictional detective decides to become both sleuth and judge. Dr. Bunce presents alternate theories about what actually happened in the patient’s room. He hints that the death of Dr. Blythe was a just one and finagles the evidence and manipulates the police inspector in charge of the case to think that one of the solutions he presents is the correct one, when in fact it is not. In the final chapter Dr. Bishop and another psychologist discover for themselves the true identity of the killer and are astonished at the unethical practices of Dr. Bunce.

Nathaniel Bunce appeared in only one other book (Dead Dogs Bite, 1939) and Elizabeth Curtiss seemed to abandon the genre completely afterwards. What a shame. Based on her debut alone she showed great promise. She might have been one of the few ingenious woman mystery writers of this era, one who could've shaken up the tired formulas of the genre and given her seasoned colleagues a real run for their money
 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Feb 212014
 
I think to many mystery readers the specialty mystery is a relatively new idea. There was discussion on a few other vintage mystery blogs a few weeks ago as to what constitutes the "cozy mystery" - a term I am growing to loathe. I hear that term and rarely think of the traditional mystery of the Golden Age, but instead of these new specialty mysteries that deal with bakeries, cheese shops, pet sitting services and amateur sleuths who enjoy home crafts like needle point and sponge painting on walls. Assiduous readers of vintage mysteries already know that these types of specialty mysteries -- books set in a specific milieu with crimes directly related to that setting and solved by either an amateur or professional detective -- were rather common in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the first creators of a specialty mystery was Zelda Popkin who gave us Mary Carner, a department store detective. In her debut appearance, Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938), Mary helps the New York police solve the murder of an executive at Jeremiah Blankfort & Company, a rival to world famous Macy's.

Not long after the doors of Blankfort's have been opened for a gala celebration and huge store wide sale marking the 50th anniversary of the store, the body of Andrew McAndrew, the store's credit manager is found strangled, his body shoved into a small space between salesman’s cubicles in a remote area open only to store employees. The body was discovered by a professional shoplifter who had previously stowed a suitcase containing some ladies' lingerie he was planning to take out of the store unpaid for. He is held for questioning while Mary makes her way (under orders from her boss Chris Whitaker) to McAndrew's office. She is told to change the locks to his office doors, but her innate detective instincts take over while doing that relatively routine task. She notices several unusual things, like a woman’s handkerchief and some torn papers that arouse her curiosity.

Soon the interrogation begins and motives and secrets are uncovered like new merchandise being put on display. The hysterical Evelyn Lennon, McAndrew's secretary confides in Mary that she was having an affair with her boss. Not one for discretion Evelyn's fling with McAndrew was well known among her gossipy co-workers and even McAndrew's wife. When Mrs. McAndrew is brought in for questioning there is a nasty catfight that escalates from bitchy insults to face slapping and hair pulling. Mary and Chris have to intervene before the two women suspects are carted off to jail.

The structure of the story is borrowed from the Van Dine school with Mary in the Philo Vance role (minus all the snooty erudition) and a team of Manhattan police, the D.A. (a former judge in Popkin's book) and Mary's boss Chris Whitaker all working together to solve the murder. In the course of the investigation Popkin gives us a neat little seminar in the business aspects of department store, the importance of store detectives and the fine art of shoplifting. Popkin and her husband were at one time involved in their own publicity firm and handled several department store accounts providing her first hand knowledge of pre-World War Two era retail.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Popkin wastes no time in getting straight to the action. From the very first sentence when we know shoplifter Joseph Swayzey is up to no good to the discovery of the murdered credit manager a short time afterwards the story moves at a brisk pace. The investigation is non-stop with few side trips to the land of backstory. I found it to be engaging, fast paced and populated with excellent characters. In addition to the delving into the backstage of a department store Popkin 's great strength is in creating a lively group of fully realized characters all of whom have distinctive voices. She has a gift for real dialogue and also adds a nice period flavor in her frequent use of shop girl slang and urban idiomatic speech.

Death Wears a White Gardenia was Zelda Popkin's first mystery novel. Mary Carner, her department store detective, went on to solve more murders in five other books. Three of Popkin's mystery novels were reprinted in the Dell Mapback editions. For those who enjoy browsing and hunting used book stores or the various online markets they are usually easy to find and very affordable. Boson Books, a small press, has also reprinted Death Wears a White Gardenia as well as Time Off for Murder.

For more about Mary Carner’s sleuthing adventures read TomCat's reviews of Murder in the Mist and Dead Man's Gift at his blog Beneath the Stains of Time.

Zelda Popkin's Detective Novels
Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938)
Murder in the Mist (1940)
Time Off for Murder (1940)
Dead Man's Gift (1941)
No Crime for a Lady (1942)
So Much Blood (1944)

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This book serves as yet another space filled in on my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card (Golden Age version). It's space D4 "A Book with a Professional Detective"

 Posted by at 5:01 pm
Feb 152014
 
Phineas Spinnet is the creation of Andrew Soutar, an incredibly prolific British writer during the 1920s and 1930s whose popular fiction mostly consists of romances and domestic melodramas. Soutar also wrote a handful of detective and crime novels some of which feature Spinnet who was popular enough to have appeared in a radio series during the 1930s. But based on this one adventure of his I can’t see what the appeal is.

Spinnet is part of that subset of supercilious private “inquiry agents” inspired by Sherlock Holmes. What Soutar fails to capture in all of Phineas Spinnet’s arrogance and misanthropy is the kind of respect Holmes demands. Spinnet is just plain unlikeable. He has intuitive skills rather than a talent for detection, an ego as immense as the Atlantic Ocean, and a coterie of lackeys who do most of the real work while he sits back insulting nearly everyone he encounters. He smokes his expensive cigarettes sneering and dismissing everyone around him as incompetent. It’s only the unusual background of the primary characters’ connection to British colonies in India and Ceylon that held my interest in this adventure of Spinnet’s aptly titled Facing East (1936).

The story begins with a great hook reminiscent of the best of John Dickson Carr. Sir Cuthbert Bale asks for Spinnet’s help in finding out why the legendary Death Watch specter has reappeared and is haunting the grounds of Grimston Hall, Bale’s ancient Tudor estate located in Crowhurst, Sussex. Captain Leech, a visiting ex Indian Army soldier has dropped dead while visiting Sir Cuthbert and witnesses claim that an apparition with a skull like face was most likely the cause. Any time the Death Watch phantom appears someone is sure to die shortly thereafter.

Spinnet makes his way to Grimston Hall where he meets up with a group of suspicious servants led by the sinister Lycett, Sir Cuthbert's Indian butler. The story begins to shift in point of view and soon it is clear that the overall mood and structure will be that of a thriller and not a detective novel. The servants are busy at night doing some mysterious digging on the grounds and explain that they are looking for a mineral spring for the possible construction of a well. Spinnet knows better that to believe such an implausible story. His suspicions of ulterior motives are confirmed when the chauffeur reveals that he has been reading up on the history of Grimston Hall in some library books and has learned of treasure that may be buried in the vicinity of the house. Then the chauffeur disappears one night after one of the midnight digging sessions.

St George's Church, Crowhurst, Sussex
scene of the criminal activity in Facing East
When Drugmann, an old friend of Sir Cuthbert’s turns up unexpectedly – again after travelling in parts of Asia – Spinnet is convinced there is some conspiracy at work to get control of the estate. Then Drugmann drops dead from mysterious causes though Spinnet is convinced he was poisoned, a fate similar to that of Captain Leech. Yet how was the poison administered in full view of three other people? The method of the poisoning, however, will not be revealed until the final chapter. Though there was ample opportunity to play fair with just how and what form the poison took Soutar chooses to allow Spinnet dazzle everyone with his intuitive skills in a gathering of the suspects in the drawing room scene. It is a surprise and rather an ingenious way to kill someone but I was disappointed that Soutar couldn’t plant a few more clues for the benefit of the reader.

Several macabre set pieces (again almost a homage to Dickson Carr) manage to maintain the reader's interest. These include an illegal exhumation, the surprise of a missing corpse in the coffin, some grisly antics in a family vault and the reappearances of the Death Watch specter in and out of Grimston Hall. Spinnet is assisted by Timson, an ex-convict manservant in the manner of Magersfontein Lugg, and a reformed con artist named Marie Crosby Dick who has a talent for acting. The two of them pose as a "Lady Blythe Kenny" and her servant "James" and hole up in a local inn in order to keep tabs on some other bad guys outside of the Bale household.

10 1/2 days back in 1930
Other interesting facets of the book include a section devoted to passenger air travel and the business of a commercial aerodrome that takes up all of Chapter 24. In this chapter I learned that, in 1936 at least, it took four days to fly to Australia including all stops for refueling and stocking of provisions. Also that in order to talk to one’s fellow passenger the use of special earphone/headsets was required to cut down on the deafening noise of the propellers. I thought it was the best part of the book.

I’m not sure I’ll be investigating any other adventures of Phineas Spinnet. He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him. Eccentric detectives were all the rage back in the heyday of the Golden Age but this detective who cares more about his jigsaw puzzle collection than people is just not the kind of character I’m interested in reading about. Give me detective with quirks and humanity, not this odious megalomaniac.

Nearly every book featuring Phineas Spinnet is exceptionally hard to find anywhere. Those that are offered for sale tend to be inappropriately expensive for such an obscure and unread author as Andrew Soutar. Facing East was the first one I came across that was relatively affordable. But save yourself the trouble of hunting, my friends. Here’s one Neglected Detective who is best forgotten.

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On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Feb 042014
 
Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car "the boot" or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy's peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.


Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series
"Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket."
"…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle."
"…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills."
"…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts."
"My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel."
"The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic."
The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That's the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:
“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”
See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

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Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”)."

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Jan 202014
 
The New York Times reviewer for The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (1940) called it "...hilariously funny...a real mystery". Marcia Muller wrote a praiseworthy essay for 1001 Midnights calling the same book "wonderfully amusing...with rich bawdy (for its time) humor." I know I have a sense of humor, but maybe mine is a bit more refined or too quirky. I didn't find much of this book hilarious at all. In fact, I thought much of the humor was simple-minded and tedious.

The unusual title comes from Coleridge's Gothic poem The Ancient Mariner and each chapter begins with an epigram from the same poem.  As the book takes place during the honeymoon of Sue and Ty Grant it seems appropriate to have a poem about doom and death during a wedding celebration as an ironic source from which to draw allusions. The characters also inexplicably and surprisingly make several highbrow literary references during the action. I say surprisingly because they all act like imbeciles for the bulk of the book. You'd never think they had the smarts to read half the works they make reference to.

The entire plot is predicated on the old screwball mystery gimmick of hiding a dead body. Craig Rice did it in The Corpse Steps Out, Jack Trevor Story did it in The Trouble with Harry, but those books at least made me crack a smile. I was rolling my eyes while reading Shattuck's book. Not one chuckle. Not even a snicker. Even with the early bedroom farce bits with Sue running around in her nightgown and crawling into bed (nude, it is implied) with the dead body I failed to see the humor.  Later, in an equal opportunity semi-nude scene, her husband runs around town in his underwear. Hilarious.

One of the problems with the plot lies in the reasoning for hiding the body in the first place. Four people enter a conspiracy in order to protect Sue -- including Milly, the owner of the hotel "hilariously" named La Cucaracha -- all because they don't want Sue's honeymoon ruined and have the police crawling all over the place. Plus, the murder victim just happens to be one of those characters everyone hates, though the reader never gets to see any behavior that would support the antipathy everyone feels for him. Once he's dead he becomes a prop. He never was human even when he was so briefly alive in the story.

Title changed in this digest edition,
also the 1st paperback edition.
So the first half of the book is filled with "hilarious" hiding the body sequences. They take him to a walk in refrigerator, then when the meat is delivered they move him somewhere else at around 2 AM using the ancient and unreliable elevator. Guess what? That's right -- the elevator breaks down. More "hilarity" ensues as the people in the elevator are rescued via a ladder and the attempts to get the now rigor mortis-ized corpse out of the elevator. They are forced to leave the corpse there and wait until someone accidentally discovers it the next day when the elevator is summoned. But, of course, the corpse vanishes and the conspirators have no idea where it went. Until the police show up and tell them.

When they aren't hiding the body they're all drinking. And drinking. They've all attended the Thorne Smith School for Hilarious Heavy Drinking Fictional Characters. The assortment of cocktails and libations that turn up include lime rickey, sidecar, Tom Collins, sloe gin fizz, brandy (and anything that uses it as an ingredient),  whiskey and splash (also ordered as "corn and ditch"), and whiskey straight up for the battle-scarred WWI veteran who hardly speaks at all over the course of the book. Even the cops are pouring whiskey and knocking back drinks while interviewing the suspects! There was one drink I'd never heard of -- an angel's kiss. Apparently it contains apricot brandy and is topped with whipped cream. Sounds more like a dessert!

The only interesting aspect of the novel to me was a barbecue party at a "dude mine." One of the wealthier characters, Cedric Jones, has purchased an old mine and turned it into a sort of adult playground where people can simulate what it feels like to be a miner by descending into the caverns wearing denim overalls and carbide light helmets and play at digging for gold. Problem is Cedric also simulates realistic perils that endanger the lives of his guests. Getting trapped two hundred feet below ground by an engineered rock slide! Hilarious, ain't it?

2nd paperback edition (Collier, 1968)
This didn't do it for me at all. Even the mystery itself is lacking in the kind of puzzle elements that make a mystery entertaining for me. The culprit is fairly obvious as he is depicted as the most hateful person in this group of clowns and buffoons. The clues about his character are all there in his dialogue. Real evidence is lacking. A convenient eyewitness in the form of a little old lady turns up at the eleventh hour in order to give the only real proof of the murderer's guilt. It's all a bit of an anticlimax when the murderer is named and caught.

I was excited about finding a copy of this hard to find book but utterly disappointed in its content.  Here's another case of a mystery highly praised that turns out to be nothing but hyperbole. If you want real hilarity I say stick with Alice Tilton or Craig Rice. You'd best skip Richard Shattuck...who is really Dora Shattuck anyway.

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This counts towards another space filled on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo Card.  The space is O1 ("A Book Published under More Than One Title").


 Posted by at 5:18 pm