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
May 272014
 
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-3122668-3
643 pp. $18.00
May 27, 2014

It may be unfair of me but all the while during the first 100+ pages of Joël Dicker's mammoth The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair I kept hearing the strains of the Twin Peaks TV theme music.  And I pictured the beaming face of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer each time Nola Kellergan appears in the many flashback sequences.  Both Dicker's novel and the cult TV show of the 90s tell the story of a missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the slow reveal of who killed her. But as the labyrinthine story unfolds the Twin Peaks similarities soon dissipate and give way to something more subtle and subversive and -- dare I say it -- impressive.

Unwittingly Joël Dicker, a young Swiss novelist, has unleashed a Frankenstein's monster with the publication of this book. Part whodunit, part satire of the publishing industry, and part writer's handbook it has essentially become a work of fiction come to life.  In Dicker's novel a young writer Marcus Goldman becomes a sensation in the literary world when he publishes a book called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  (Oh yes, this is a also a work of metafiction.)  The book is an instant sensation and he becomes the darling of the media. So too has Dicker whose novel first published in Europe has become a mega-hit resulting in interview after interview and travel all over the globe to talk about this unique example of reality mirroring fiction. So much travel, in fact, that he has temporarily made his home in London to make air travel simpler rather than remaining at home in Geneva where direct air flights are at a minimum. Already an international bestseller for the past year Dicker's novel has at last been translated into English and is being simultaneously released in the UK and the US today, May 27.

Not only has Dicker become the flavor of the month in crime fiction, his book (only his sophomore effort no less) has won three European literary awards including the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Française. Has Dicker really written a mini masterpiece, whether it be mainstream or genre fiction? Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of fun trying to figure out both the mystery of the ridiculously complex plot as well as trying to understand the reason for all the hype attached to this new writer's book.

At its core ...Harry Quebert Affair is a literary detective novel. Quebert, a literary sensation himself in the world of the novel, was Goldman's college writing instructor, mentor and eventually a good friend. While visiting Quebert for some inspiration during Goldman's severe writer's block crisis a horrible crime is literally unearthed and Quebert is thrust into the limelight as prime suspect. The body of Nola Kellergan, a teenage girl who went missing back in 1975, is unearthed in a hidden grave located on the grounds of Quebert's New Hampshire retreat. Goldman is determined to clear the name of his beloved friend and writing mentor and for the next 600+ pages (!) we follow his dogged investigation into the past of Somerset, New Hampshire, a typical New England village with more than its fair share of dirty secrets.

Joël Dicker ©Jeremy Spierer
But Dicker is not satisfied only with telling a crime story with as many twists as the Kumba roller coaster in Busch Gardens. He has cast the novel in the framework of a handbook for writers complete with boxing metaphors that might cause Philip Roth to smirk in its obvious homage. Oddly, the book chapters are also numbered in reverse numerical order (a gimmick that utterly eludes me) with each chapter preceded by sage advice from Harry to Marcus as to how a rookie should proceed in writing the Great American Novel. Problem is the advice is thoroughly hackneyed. The obvious advice and words of so-called wisdom have been given to novice writers for centuries. Why do we need to read all this? Well, Dicker has a clever and subversive reason for couching this novel as a sort of handbook for writers. It turns out to be only one aspect of a multitude of ironies culminating in the true meaning of the title itself.

I could use this review to write about the tangled plotlines, the shifts in viewpoint, the dizzying twists that keep changing how Nola is perceived or how the relationship between Marcus and Harry undergoes rifts and changes more harmful than good. But that's what all the other reviewers are writing about. What really ought to be marvelled at is what Dicker does with the genre itself. The novel is an consummate example of the ultimate challenge between reader and mystery writer, a sure temptation for readers who loved to devour the old-fashioned puzzlers of the Golden Age. Once upon a time we read mysteries to be baffled, to be fooled and to have a clever storyteller pull the rug out from under us and leave us gasping for breath or laughing in admiration for having been outsmarted. Dicker mixes both hoary old clichés (anonymous messages, secret diaries) with contemporary thriller standbys (grisly crimes, psychosexual abnormalities, a hint of tawdriness) and comes up with a crackerjack tale that both entertains and manipulates the reader.

The world Dicker creates is wholly artificial as in the best of Golden Age detective novels. We are in an entirely fanciful world where writers are superstar celebrities instantly recognizable from their DJ photos. Everyone knows Marcus Goldman, everyone has read his book. Even Harry and his mega bestseller The Origin of Evil (ironically a love story) receives the same hyperbolic attention. This is a wholly mythologized world of the novelist, something that was barely a reality when celebrity authors regularly appeared on 1970s talk shows. Like the world of John Dickson Carr where ancient estates are haunted by ghosts and criminals commit elaborate crimes in baroquely sealed rooms meant to bamboozle and confound the police so too has Dicker created an entirely artificial world where novelists are hero worshiped as demigods and treated with both awe and sycophancy usually reserved for rock stars or professional athletes. It's a wish fulfillment kind of writing to be sure and yet it is done so with the primary purpose of misleading the reader just as the great Golden Age writers did.

There are faults and irritations as well. The simplistic Confucian-like writer's advice Quebert gives his student, the not so clever boxing metaphors, redundancies in the narrative when Dicker feels it necessary to recap the plot, a crucial character whose poorly reconstructed face after a horrific beating leaves him with a speech impediment that the translator renders in cutesy but more often offensive phonetics all began to wear down the reader's patience. Also Dicker has an obsession with characters vomiting that began to really annoy me. Everyone in the book seemed to have a weak stomach and would throw up at the slightest sign of stress not just when they saw a dead body.

However, when Dicker lays off his nausea motif, discards the gimmick of the novel within the novel (which is often ham-handed), and decides to focus on Nola's perplexing and contradictory life and her mysterious death the novel is utterly engaging. His plot pyrotechnics are his strength. They are audacious and preposterous and yet perfectly suited for his ultimate aim. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the best examples of a retro style crime novel whose only goal is to fool the reader with a gasp inducing finale. Joël Dicker succeeds in pulling off one of the best literary deceptions in years and ought to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of his 600+ page magic trick.
 Posted by at 4:36 am
Apr 132014
 
On the inside of the DJ front flap Murder in Black Letter (1960) is billed as "A New Trygve Yamamura mystery." Yamamura, a Norwegian-Japanese-American private eye, is a unique character in crime fiction. He has a splendid collection of samurai swords (the main interest in his award winning debut Perish by the Sword, 1959), he enjoys fencing and judo, and spends much of his time engaging in intellectual conversations with his mostly academically employed friends. But here’s the thing. Yamamura is hardly in the book at all. In fact, he doesn’t even solve the case. He's the most minor of characters in his second book, but he's billed as the lead on the dust jacket. If you’re going to create a series character at least do him the service of having him solve the case even if he’s only going to have a limited amount of stage time. Anderson seems to have grown tired of Yamamura in only his second appearance. Too strange.

That’s strike one.

The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.

That’s strike two.

The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.

And speaking of the final pages. The ending is rushed and absurdly over the top with a fight in a rocky seacoast. Hero and villain plunging from a cliff into the turbulent ocean and grappling with a revolver while trying not to drown. Kintyre manages to judo chop the gun out of the villain’s hands and subdue the bad guy. All of this in the ocean! The final sentence in the book is a single word. “Enough.” I’ll say!

That’s strike three. And strike four, five and six, too. You’re out, Anderson. Really out.

The book has a protracted storyline with a few tangential subplots that are dropped almost as quickly as they are introduced, preposterous motivations from nearly everyone involved, and plenty of action scenes featuring judo (chop, chop) for martial arts freaks. But it’s all a bore. All too reminiscent of too many books and TV shows of this era. It’s all been done before with more excitement and vigor by veteran crime fiction writers more skilled than Poul Anderson, primarily a science fiction writer. His attempt to capitalize on popular crime fiction themes (drug lords and sadistic professional criminals as villains) is ineptly handled. The intersection of a primarily academic setting populated with professors, their office and research assistants, and graduate students with a seedy underworld of professional criminals just doesn’t work. I can usually allow for wild leaps in my suspension of disbelief. This time I didn’t believe it for a minute.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space G5: "Academic Mystery"
 Posted by at 3:30 am
Mar 292014
 
“What sort of mind could wish to free and harbour a group of compulsive murderers and then release them again? Men and women as dangerous as bombs, bullets or… Or hydrophobia.”
-- Marcus Levin in
The Sins of Our Father
 
A rash of crimes committed by criminally insane murders who have coincidentally all escaped from the institutions where they were incarcerated has General Kirk and a committee of prison reform experts more than alarmed. Is it possible that some mad genius is engineering these escapes with a nefarious purpose in mind? You betcha. And since this is a John Blackburn book can be sure that not only is there an evil mastermind at work but that some insidious virus will be uncovered and that some sort of supernatural power will be worked into the story.

The less than subtle "Prologue" to The Sins of the Fathers (1979) neatly ties in the title to an incident in the life of a notorious Nazi war criminal known as Papa Otto Fendler, "a geneticist far ahead of his time." Seems ol’ Papa was fond of a select group of children at the concentration camp where he conducted a variety of unseemly experiments. Just what he did to those children will not be fully revealed until the final chapters. And is it possible that Papa Otto has survived the destruction of the camp and is controlling a now adult group of his favorite human guinea pigs?

With ace bacteriologist Sir Marcus Levin on hand partnered with his wife Tania, a former KGB spy, the sinister plans of Papa Otto are proven to involve a form of germ warfare with humans used as a missile substitute. In a pulpy twist many of the infected madmen and madwomen exhibit symptoms indicative of rabies. Blackburn concocts several scenes where this unfortunate rabid-like victims attack innocent bystanders like so many wannabe vampires by taking healthy chomps out of their arms, hands and faces.

It’s not one of Blackburn’s more original stories. He seems to have culled together plot elements from several of his previous books. Interestingly, this book has a few didactic asides in the committee members heated debates. Blackburn raises all sorts of issues related to prison reform. Overcrowding, segregation of prisoners, and reinstatement of the death penalty are among the hot topics discussed at length. This was one of his last books and it may indicate a trend towards social criticism, a path so many genre writers seem to take in their later career as they tire of the so often formulaic structure of crime and thriller fiction. Nazis, viral experimentation on humans, grisly murders and mind control have all been featured in Blackburn's other novels.

Still it’s a neatly plotted book, swiftly paced and jam packed with pulpy adventure sure to satisfy fans of this kind of over-the-top thriller. The climax taking place in the catacombs of an ancient church with our heroes in peril of drowning by the impending flood from the underground River Larne more than makes up for any of the book’s recycled shortcomings.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card – E1: “Book with a Detective Team”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Feb 112014
 
Check out that pistol packin' mama!  If Fritzi Haller ever carried a weapon she couldn't look any more threatening. That gorgeous illustration is the cover painting for the latest reprint from Raven's Head Press.  The artist for our new edition is Fernando Vicente whose sexy artwork can be viewed here.

Desert Town by Ramona Stewart is the second release from Raven's Head Press and is now available for purchase here. Our new edition includes a nifty foreword by yours truly detailing the interesting writing career of Stewart from her debut in the pages of Collier's to her offbeat stories for other "slicks" and her culmination as a 1970s occult horror writer.  I'll be receiving a few copies for promotional purposes and once again I'm offering two books as giveaways.

To be eligible for a free copy of Desert Town just leave a comment below. This time in your comment I'd like you to tell me your favorite pulp cover artist or your favorite pulp cover illustration.  Book or magazine, it doesn't matter which.  On Saturday, February 15 I'll announce the two winners who will be chosen by a very amateurish random selection process that I'd rather not divulge.

Unfortunately, the giveaway is limited to the United States and Canada.  We're a small operation here and the shipping is coming out of my pocket. Sorry, I can't afford the $15 or more airmail postage to the UK or parts farther away.

If you missed my review of the book last fall please do read it.

COMMENTS ARE CLOSED. THE GIVEAWAY IS OVER. - Feb 16, 2014
 Posted by at 5:41 am
Nov 132013
 
Rustication by Charles Palliser
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-08872-4
336 pp. $25.95
Publication date: November 4, 2013

Back in 1990 Charles Palliser wowed the literary world with his debut novel The Quincunx, a historical pastiche of startling imagination and literary skill that paid homage to Mrs. Henry Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and other British writers who primarily wrote sensation novels in the Victorian era. Palliser’s work has often been compared to Gothic literature but this is a an error on the part of many critics who know little of the difference between a sensation novel and a Gothic novel. The Gothic novel grew out of the romantic novel and builds on fictional tropes that have their roots in fanciful imaginative writing. The sensation novel was an attempt to turn away from romantic fiction and return to the realism of the 18th century novel while at the same time revealing the dark side of human nature. Unlike a Gothic novel which flirts with supernatural and surreal events, whether genuine or rationalized, the sensation novel is rooted in reality. The emphasis is on everyday characters in domestic settings and circumstances not foreign and exotic locales. Crumbling abbeys with corrupt monks and maniacal nuns or haunted castles owned by amoral barons are not to be found in a sensation novel. Nor do ghosts or vampires have any role in creating a feeling of dread and horror. It is base human nature that will make the reader shudder and gasp. Ultimately the sensation novel dares to reveal the seediness beneath a seemingly mundane reality with heroes and villains recognizable from anyone’s life.

In Rustication Palliser returns to the world of the sensation novel and this time far surpasses what he did in The Quincunx and does so in half the length of that book and with a much smaller cast of characters. Deceit and duplicity, betrayal and sacrifice, heartbreak and redemption all play out in the 280 pages of Richard Shenstone’s journal and the scatological poison pen letters that are interspersed within the pages.

Though set in 1863-1864 this heart wrenching story of misplaced devotion, skewed priorities and base self-interest will appeal to many modern devotees of crime fiction. The story has a contemporary ring of truth in its three leads –- mother , daughter and son of the Shenstone family. Mrs. Shenstone, self-deluding and over protective of her children, finds herself more and more caught up in an attempt to regain her rightful and respected place in society all the while blind to the consequences of her short sighted aspirations. Euphemia, her daughter, succumbs to avaricious temptation and is willing to sacrifice her own brother in her attempt to secure a place of wealth and position. Richard, disgraced after being thrown out of college and carrying more than a few secrets of his own, escapes into a world of drug induced sleep and furtive sexual encounters. As the story progresses we learn the true reason of Richard’s expulsion (or as the college euphemistically terms it his “rustication”), the secret of his recently deceased clergyman father’s fall from grace, and the secret designs of his mother and sister in a complicated scheme that finds Richard feeling a hangman’s noose round his neck at every passing hour.

While Richard is trying to figure out what happened to his father he finds himself suspected of being the author of several obscene anonymous letters targeting the women of Thurchester. He turns detective in order to clear his name and find the true author behind the poison pen.

But every woman he encounters seems to be a nasty gossip of the worst sort. Whether tart tongued and vicious in their insinuations or outright shocking in their frank accusations the women of the story come across as a gaggle of Gorgons ranging from an supercilious 14 year-old to a septuagenarian busybody. The men fare no better and in the case of a brutal dandy who engages in illegal dog fighting and a barkeep who reserves a dark corner of his pub for male-on-male assignations they seem far worse.

Richard is no purely good hero either with his opium pipe and his seduction of the simple minded maid, but amid this assortment of nasty characters we long for him to redeem himself and provide us with a protagonist of goodness and heroism. In this amoral world of physical and mental cruelty and salacious obsessions there must be some relief in the form of simple human decency. In the end Richard will prove himself to be such a hero but not without making his own terrible sacrifices.

Fans of modern noir will find many of the tropes of that genre in Rustication and may learn a thing or two about the origin of the stories of Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Vin Packer. Contrary to popular belief the basest and darkest impulses of noir fiction really have their roots in Victorian sensation fiction. Adultery, bigamy, sexual addiction, drug addiction, greed, desire for status and power, and brutal murder were not inventions of the pulp fictioneers or paperback original writers, they are all elements of the sensation novel. As Palliser reminds us the basest of human motives are universal and timeless and are always the best ingredients for gripping, page-turning book.
 Posted by at 7:54 pm
Oct 182013
 
Christina Mordant cannot enter a church without getting ill. The very smell of a chapel is enough to make her nauseated. Animals shy away from her and growl for apparently no reason when she walks by. When night falls her usual polite and timid demeanor gives way to an indulgent and hedonistic personality that is more cruel than kind. What is going on with this young woman who has been abandoned by her father and left to fend for herself in a small house in the south of France?

Long before The Exorcist almost single handedly was responsible for an explosion of suspense novels and thrillers about demonic possession there was To the Devil--a Daughter (1953) Dennis Wheatley's first book to deal with the supernatural phenomenon. He handles the subject matter less luridly than those more familiar books of the 1970s displaying his usual staunch occult beliefs and a detailed look at Black Magic rituals. It's all wrapped up in a fast moving adventure novel that outdoes much of what is found in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s.

To the Devil -- a Daughter is one of Wheatley's later novels incorporating his fascination with all things occult. Because it was written in the 1950s the Satanists turn out to be a bunch of dirty Commies not Nazis, his usual target for villainous evil.

Wheatley has a kind of Ann Coulter rant he lets loose early in the book outlining his ideas about all things evil:

Now that more than half the people in the world have become godless, they have also become rudderless. Once they have put away from themselves the idea of the hereafter they think only of their own selfish ends of the moment. That leaves them easy prey to unscrupulous politicians.  Before they know where they are, they find themselves robbed of all personal freedom; their family life, which is their last tie with their better instincts, is broken up, and their children are taken form them, to be educated into robots lacking all individuality. That is what nearly happened in Nazi Germany and what has happened in Russia; and if that is not the state of things that Satan would like to see everywhere, tell me what is?
The story is pretty much a by the numbers pursuit adventure story with a smattering of witchcraft and black magic to spice up the usual fist fights, kidnappings and other derring do. Wheatley has a real gift for making the most cliche adventure set piece come alive with genuine excitement and suspense. The scene where Molly Fountain's son John, the over confident hero, manages to get aboard the villain's yacht, subdue a bad guy and make his way to rescue Christina, the imperiled heroine is a great example of taking the standard potboiler action sequence and enlivening it with character traits that humanize both the good guys and bad guys. John is flawed, not a superman and acts with a trace of guilt always thinking of the consequences of committing murder. (At the time the guillotine was still the death sentence for capital crimes in France.) The bad guys are devilishly smart not stupid. And Canon Copely-Syle, a corrupt clerical figure intent on attaining "Oneness with God," outshines any of the wicked sorcerers and occultists created by Sax Rohmer. Wheatley was probably one of the first writers to take the conventions of pulp thrillers with their over-the-top action and superhuman heroes and make them more believable and realistic.

From the very first sentence ("Molly Fountain was now convinced that a more intriguing mystery than the one she was writing surrounded the solitary occupant of the house next door") the reader knows this is a book that will tell a gripping story. The manner in which Wheatley unveils the secret life of Christina, how thriller writer Molly Fountain slowly puts together the pieces, and the discovery of the mysterious plot behind Christina's strange exile in the French Riviera and her instructions to talk to no one of her past are all masterfully executed. The story is everything here and it is easy to forgive the frequent lapses into ultra-conservative political tirades like the one previously quoted.

Bloomsbury has purchased the reprint rights for all of Dennis Wheatley's novels. All of them will be available in eBook format with a select few also released in paperback.  The first few have already been released and To the Devil--a Daughter is one of three titles that will be released in both formats. The other paperback editions released this month are The Forbidden Territory (Wheatley's first novel soon to be reviewed here) and the classic black magic thriller and one of Wheatley's truly excellent books The Devil Rides Out. Click here to read more about Bloomsbury's Dennis Wheatley reprints in both paperback and digital editions.

A movie adaptation (very loosely adapted) of To the Devil--a Daughter was done in 1976. It was the last of Hammer Horror movies and starred veteran Hammer actor Christopher Lee as an excommunicated priest bent on world domination. It's nothing at all like the book and Wheatley hated it. He even called it obscene! Now that's strong criticism coming from a secret sadist.
 Posted by at 7:16 pm
Oct 122013
 
"Never say Nevermore!"

At long last I can formally announce my involvement with the new independent publisher Raven's Head Press. Our first book -- reviewed here back in March -- is The Starkenden Quest by Gilbert Collins. Plans are to reissue adventure, crime and supernatural fiction that exemplify the kind of gripping and exciting stories published in the long gone pulp magazines and the vintage paperback imprints like Dell Mapbacks and Gold Medal. Future titles being discussed include many books previously reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books which garnered a lot of interest from you lovely readers in your comments.

We are currently looking at books by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ramona Stewart, Lionel White, Hugh Wheeler (aka Patrick Quentin and Q Patrick), Samuel Taylor and Walter Van Tillburg Clark. We are also in negotiations to obtain exclusive American reprint rights for the reissue of the books of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. An idea to create a Kickstarter campaign to help bring about this coup is also being considered.

Each reissue will have an informative introduction by yours truly. For The Starkenden Quest I did extensive research on the work of Gilbert Collins and uncovered an unusual event that might explain the reason his writing career was so short. Additionally, we were lucky enough to get permission to include the original Virgil Finlay illustrations that accompanied the Famous Fantastic Mystery pulp magazine reprint. The book is really a handsome edition. I'm proud to have been a part in freeing it from the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom and placing it back into the hands of modern readers.

I have two copies of The Starkenden Quest I am offering for free in one of the first giveaways to celebrate our first book at Raven's Head Press. All you need to do is leave a comment below and give me the name of a writer or book you've longed to see back in print. On Thursday, October 17 I'll take all the comments, throw them in a hat, and randomly select two winners. And if you like autographed books I can even scribble my name inside for you. Winner's choice, of course. Maybe you'll want your copy unsullied and pristine.

The Starkenden Quest is now available for purchase via amazon.com on this page. All future titles will also be available via amazon. For more information about what Raven's Head Press has planned please visit our website.

"Never say Nevermore" is our motto. Good books shouldn't disappear into Limbo and be forgotten. We hope to bring a lot of forgotten books of out the past and into the present for a generation of new readers, and hopefully beyond.

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GIVEAWAY IS OVER. COMMENTS ARE CLOSED.
Thanks to all who participated!
 Posted by at 4:55 pm
Sep 202013
 
James Ronald received quite a bit of praise with his first few detective novels from writer August Derleth to novelist and book reviewer Harriette Ashbrook all pointing out his ingenuity and freshness.  Of course you have to take this kind of enthusiastic praise with a grain of salt and maybe a dash of sugar, too.  Book hype has been with us for decades though it has skyrocketed in the past 15 years or so with the kind of gimmicky stunts some P.R. people are pulling.  When I learned that Ronald started out as a bargain basement pulp writer for the British digest publisher Garmol who published his early novels sporting such lurid titles as The Green Ghost Murder, The Man Who Made Monsters, and The Sundial Drug Mystery I was very wary of the blurbs Ronald received for his books. Was it just a fluke or did he really rival the kind of clever plots of a John Rhode or Carr?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Can't Hang Me is an excellent example of a crime novel that mixes elements of the detective novel with that of the pulp thriller. So good was this first outing I had to read the other easily accessible crime books of James Ronald. I found most of his other books lean towards psychological crime novels that foreshadow the work of Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons. I'll be reviewing three more later in the fall. Stay tuned.
 Posted by at 3:00 pm
Aug 072013
 
Doing my first book, Pulpografia (2000), I encountered one or two Finnish translations of short stories by one Earl Peirce Jr. His name may have been written "Pierce" in the Finnish magazines. I didn't find any info on him, except that he wrote for Weird Tales and later on crime pulps, such as Detective Tales. I googled him earlier today (for a purpose I'll reveal later) and found out this post on a genealogy site. Someone has really done good work on Peirce, a really little known writer!

I put up Peirce's tentative bibliography here in my bibliography blog.