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.

* * *

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
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 Doig. 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.

*     *     *


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.

*   *   *


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.

* * *

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)
* * *
 

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