Aug 082014

Sometime this blog has a confessional tone and today I’m surrendering again to a not-so-whispered admission. The “Badass Biddy” category (a label I invented myself) is my perverse guilty pleasure. This subgenre deals with elderly women plotting malicious crimes and doing in each other with abandon. I’m not sure I want to explore why exactly I get such a kick out of reading these kinds of books (I dearly loved my two grandmothers so don’t even think about going there, Dr. Freud). Let’s just say almost every time I encounter one of these books the characters are so outrageously nasty they fascinate and delight me and the plots are filled with double crossing and the kind of cat-and-mouse mind games that make for a rip roaring read. I’m thoroughly entertained. I’m a little sicko, right? Not really true because sometimes the books go over the top into gross-out gore as in Nigel McCrery’s Still Waters and his sadistic psycho senior citizen murderess Violet Chambers. And for me that is always a turn-off. In the case of Shelley Smith’s novels, however, there is restraint mixed with suspense and a dash of macabre wit. Come and Be Killed! (1946), its ironic title already hinting at the black humor within its pages, is one of the best examples of the Badass Biddy crime novel.

Smith dedicates this novel to her Auntie Annie “who gave me six years of peace during six years of war”. I can’t help but wonder if that too isn’t a bit ironic having completed the book. There is little peace in this book and quite a bit of scheming and battle of the wits between expert poisoner Mrs. Jolly and Phoebe Brown, the actress bent on avenging her foolish sister’s mysterious apparent suicide. There is so much going on in this book I’m hesitant to discuss any of the intricate plot. Smith has structured the book deftly and she manages to shift the tone from satiric novel of manners to psychological portrait of a murderess to a page turning cat-and-mouse thriller.

Come and Be Killed! is divided into three parts. Part one introduces Florence Brown, a whining hypochondriac dependent on her sister Phoebe’s assistance. Phoebe is a self-involved actress of questionable talent and limited success. Florence begs her sister to accompany her on a vacation that a doctor has prescribed for her health. But Phoebe sensing it to be more a plea for money than companionship rejects her and rewards Florence instead with a vacation in a nursing home that is actually a mental institution. When Florence realizes that Phoebe has duped her and sent her to live with crazies she feels even more lonely than ever and is determined to escape. Turns out it’s easier than she could imagine. She simply walks out one day while the staff is preoccupied with a busy outdoor recreation event and soon finds herself at a train station. There she is almost immediately befriended by the solicitous Mrs. Jolly. Florence begs for train fare to help her get back to her sister, but Mrs. Jolly has a better idea. The two women go off together leading to Mrs. Jolly offering her home to Florence. And poor Florence does not live very long in that household. For Mrs. Jolly we soon learn has a habit of knocking off her elderly lady roommates.

In the second part Smith travels back in time and we learn that Mrs. Jolly was born Violet Russell (why are all these badass women named Violet?). This section reveals Violet’s life story and the origin of her murderous inclinations. The finale and third section is the closest to a detective novel if more of the inverted type. Smith continues the story of hapless Florence and her sister. Phoebe is now remorseful over her indifferent treatment to Florence. “We are never kind enough, are we?” she laments. “And the dead remind us bitterly by their absence of lost opportunity.” The actress begins to suspect that her sister’s death was no accident. Fed up with incompetent police work Phoebe manages to track down Mrs. Jolly and, using her skills honed on the stage, play acts and matches wits with the killer in a dangerous and deadly climactic showdown.

Come and Be Killed! has been reprinted twice in the US since its first publication in 1946. Once in a 1940s era digest paperback from Mercury and again forty years later in 1988 by Academy Chicago. In the UK it was reprinted at least three times in paperback, two of those editions are used to illustrate this post. There are multiple copies in both US and UK editions, paperback and hardcover, available at very affordable prices in the used book market as of this writing. If you’re like me and admit to this guilty pleasure or if you like the kind of crime novel where wily characters match wits with one another you’re sure to find Come and Be Killed! a delectable treat. Without hesitation I recommend this finely written, expertly plotted and thoroughly entertaining book.

 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Jul 042014

I’m on vacation in Washington state (first time here, only seven more states left and I’ll have been to all 50 at least once) and didn’t have time to get my Friday’s Forgotten Book post up. In fact I left all my notes for the past five books at home and I won’t be able to write any reviews or essays until I get back home. Without my notes I’m lost. I read too many books each month to remember everything about the characters and plot details.

Life has been very chaotic and I’ve been forced to change a lot about how I live. I’ll spare you the stories of my adventures with the two physical therapists I am currently seeing. Because of that I haven’t been up to sitting at my computer for long periods of time to write the many reviews I am behind on.

In lieu of my usual FFB I’m going to list all the books I plan to review this month (all but one of them read in June) and also take this opportunity to catch up on my Golden Age Bingo Card in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge

Rare photo of Richard Wilson Webb posing as “Q Patrick”

Death in the Dovecot – Q. Patrick
“Book with an animal in the title”
This is the British title for Murder at the Womens’ City Club, a very rare Q Patrick title that I was very excited to find on eBay for a bargain price. The book is most interesting in that’s it’s the second of Richard Wilson Webb’s mystery novels and the second (and last) book he wrote with his first collaborator Martha Mott Kelley.  An almost all female cast of characters (only three men) is an additional unique aspect to this detective novel.

Return to the Scene – Q. Patrick (Webb & Wheeler)
“Book featuring a mode of transportation”
Boats are featured in this mystery set in Bermuda. The victim falls overboard and people are constantly going back and forth to a small private island where the body washed up. I’m proud to say that I figured identity of the murderer, the motive and the method of one of the murders in this book. But I also think, while the killer is a surprise, veteran mystery readers will also be able to figure whodunit in this one. Reminded me of Christianna Brand because all the characters are lying and protecting one another and colluding during the murder investigation.

Come and Be Killed! – Shelley Smith
“Book featuring cooking or food”
Poisoned food is the killer’s choice in this book. One of the best “badass biddy” books I’ve read. A groundbreaking book, I think, way ahead of its time. Reminds me of the best of Ruth Rendell but it was published in 1947. The murderous Mrs. Jolly (how’s that for a killer’s name?) almost tops my favorite spinster killer Claire Marrable in The Forbidden Garden. The climactic scene where one clever woman confronts the villainess is classic.

The Blue Horse of Taxco – Kathleen Moore Knight
“Book set in country other than US or UK”
Set in Mexico. A fascinating near noir thriller cum detective novel, very different from her Cape Cod books featuring Elisha Macomber. Troy Banister, the woman protagonist, is the closest I’ve come the discovering a female Tom Ripley. One of the first anti-heroines in detective fiction who at first is utterly despicable and then suddenly you find yourself sympathizing with. Plus, an unusual background in silver jewelry design and the silversmith industry which is still what Taxco is known for today. Very interesting and mature work from this unappreciated and very forgotten American mystery writer.

And the fifth book I will leave a mystery. It’s the book I read for the July 11 “Femme Fatale” theme. And it’s ready to go for next Friday. I guarantee no one has heard of it nor reviewed it since FFB has been going. It’s a book that has been incredibly hard to find for decades and was just reprinted two months ago by a British indie press.

There’s enough to tease you for the coming days. In depth reviews on all books listed above are coming when I return from Washington. Stay tuned…

Oh! and I now have a total of four Bingo rows on my Golden Age Mystery bingo card. I’ve read more than the mere 29 books shown on the card below. Some of the books were reviewed but didn’t qualify for the challenge because I couldn’t find a category to apply to the book. I’m excited that with half the year gone I have only seven more books to read (that will fit the categories left) and I’ve filled the card.

 Posted by at 9:10 am
Aug 212012

It’s the story of a girl, a gun and a killer. The girl wants the gun, the killer wants the girl and his gun, and the police want all three. What makes this movie different than other typical noir trios is that the girl this time is literally a girl. That’s right. She’s twelve years old. Like most girls she falls for the killer, but it’s strictly platonic. She knows the guy is good at heart, she’s seen him that way. She’ll do anything to protect him. Even –gasp– lie. And in some ways this relationship is much deeper and purer than any of those other girl meets killer tales in crime drama cinema.

When J. Lee Thompson was looking for the child actor to play the lead role in Tiger Bay he was first only looking for boys. But when John Mills came to audition for the role of the police superintendent he brought along his young daughter Hayley whose tomboyish looks and wild antics made Thompson think of a different angle. There was no reason that the part had to be a boy. He had her read for the part and she duly impressed the director with her antics and freshness. No matter that she was imitating TV ads- the character was immediately changed to a girl with Hayley Mills in the role.

Mills made her screen debut aside her father John Mills, and German actor Horst Buchholz, also making a debut of sorts in his first English speaking role. The pairing of Hayley and Horst makes for a scintillating chemistry and it is largely due to these two actors that Tiger Bay remains one of the more remarkable films in the crime and thriller genre.

There have been films prior to this one in which children are eyewitnesses to a crime, notably The Window (1949), but I am almost positive that this is the first in which a child witnesses a crime, covets the murder weapon, and then befriends the killer. The story is fairly simple yet compactly told with strong visuals that emphasize the subtle social conscience of the piece. Spying and lying are recurrent themes that Thompson, along with screenwriters Shelley Smith and John Hawksworth, expresses in some imaginative shots focussing on Gillie’s covert antics and deceitful ways.

Gillie (Hayley Mills) is a tomboy ostracized by the local boys who play violent games with cap guns. She wants to be included but she can’t because he doesn’t have a gun. “But I’ve got a bomb!” she brags referring to a device that sets off caps when it’s thrown to the ground. She’s knocked to the ground herself and the “bomb” stolen from her. A fight ensues between Gillie and two boys. Just when things look like they’re going to get very out of hand an older boy breaks up the fight and gets the bullies to return Gillie her bomb. A passing stranger (Horst Buchholz) – an itinerant sailor on his way to his girlfriend’s house – needs help finding an address. Turns out it the address happens to be the very building where Gillie lives and she points it out to him.

This opening sequence sets the stage for the relationship that quickly develops over the course of the movie. Gillie already intrigued by this sailor who seems to be a decent chap will see him in a new light shortly after meeting him when a violent argument attracts her attention. She sneaks upstairs, peers through the letter slot in the front door of a neighbor’s apartment and witnesses a terrible row between the sailor and a woman – who must be his girlfriend.

The row ends with several gunshots and the woman on the floor. Gillie continues watching as the sailor leaves the apartment with the gun, then hides it behind a radiator in the hallway. Here’s her chance to outdo the boys with mere cap guns. She eyes the gun like a pirate’s hidden treasure and ever so slowly extracts it from hits hiding place. Carefully, tenderly she holds it in her hand and then the door bursts open again. The sailor looks for the gun and it’s gone. He looks up and sees Gillie.

She looks at him defiantly. Then realizes the stupid thing she’s just been caught doing.

There’s a chase sequence with some eye catching high camera angles and clever maneuvering on Gillie’s part to escape her pursuer. Luckily, for Gillie someone happens to be coming up the stairs as the sailor tries coming down. She manages to get in her home with the gun which she stows away in a hiding place.

The gun is Gillie’s key to being ultra cool. She even sneaks it under her choir robes and shows it off to her pal Dai during a church service. She’s better than a boy. She’s a girl with a real gun. But Branik, the sailor, is hot on her trail and has followed her to the church determined to get his gun and keep her quiet. Their meeting in the choir loft will change everything between them. In a matter of minutes Gillie goes from power mad, wannbe tough girl with a gun to frightened kid to compassionate friend. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. It’s a remarkable scene with Buchholz breaking down in utter helplessness and turning to a statue of the Virgin Mary as he prays for guidance to help him out of his dilemma. There’s Gillie watching him fascinated, puzzled and ultimately moved by his sincerity and remorse. It’s this moment that helps create the bond that ties them together for the remainder of the movie. Even with the cutesy storybook pact they make to sail the seven seas together they end up creating a profound relationship that almost transcends casual friendship and approaches pure love.

Like all couples on the run Gillie and Branik will have their romantic idyll, a separation, a series of captures and escapes, a test of loyalty and a final parting. All the while Supt. Graham (John Mills) is trying to get Gillie to recognize that lies do more harm than good. A race against the clock finds Gillie in the hot seat as she tries to spin lie after lie, draw out an already agonizing near third degree, hoping against hope that her dalliance and subterfuge will allow enough time to pass and enable her sailor friend to escape on a ship headed for Argentina.

Dr. Das (Marne Maitland) reveals that Branko’s girlfriend was not so faithful.

There are fine supporting performances from a handful of excellent British character actors who all made their mark in crime and horror films. Hammer Horror contract player Marne Maitland (The Reptile, Stranglers of Bombay, Terror of the Tongs, etc.) is Dr. Das, Branik’s landlord. He has a brief yet telling scene with Buchholz (with whom he will later appear in Nine Hours to Rama) that provides some crucial information about Branik’s relationship with his cheating girlfriend. Anthony Dawson, best known as the hapless Swan in Dial M for Murder and for being the hands and voice of Blofeld in two Bond films, plays Barclay — the married man who was housing and clothing Branik’s girl. Even the role of Gillie’s mother is given to an actress from Crime Cinema Hall of Fame. She is played by veteran actress Megs Jenkins who will always be remembered as the plump, slyly witty Nurse Woods in Green for Danger.

Barclay (Anthony Dawson, center) reluctantly admits his secret life to Supt Graham (John Mills, right)
Mrs Phillips (Megs Jenkins, center) wishes her daughter would just tell the truth.

Here is a brief section of the eyewitness murder sequence. The entire film is available from a variety of online film sites. A retail DVD of Tiger Bay exists only in Region 2 from Image Entertainment and is of exceptional quality. Sadly, there is no Region 1 DVD that I could find for sale.

 Posted by at 5:35 am

IN BRIEF: The Lord Have Mercy – Shelley Smith

 Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Shelley Smith, suspense  Comments Off on IN BRIEF: The Lord Have Mercy – Shelley Smith
May 292012

Shelley Smith enters the territory usually visited by writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong in this exploration of how gossip destroys the fabric of a small town’s population. The criminal element is kept to a minimum in The Lord Have Mercy (1956) while the author spends much of her time examining the private lives and idiosyncratic hobbies of her large cast of characters.

The focus is on Editha Mansbridge, the shrewish wife of the town doctor, who is both an object of desire and a target of derision. The US paperback reprint takes advantage of this persona in an edition retitled The Shrew is Dead. When Editha dies unexpectedly of an apparent drug overdose the rumor mill begins churning up story after story. Suicide, accident and murder plots are intermingled with whispered discussions of marital infidelity and same-sex wantonness.

Smith enjoys creating a multiple vignettes with ultra minor characters. Some of the more amusing ones involve a small army of old biddies seated at their sitting room windows with binoculars and notebooks and the tea time gossip sessions that follow their Gladys Kravitz acts. Other highlights include a feuding lesbian couple, Naomi and Crispin, who spend much of their time arguing over Crispin’s attempts at luring Editha into an adulterous affair; and the surprise visit of Harry, Editha’s rogue brother, always in need of money and his eventual hook-up with a lonely widow who he cajoles into helping him finance a brothel.

Yet the episodic nature of the book tends to be self-defeating. It’s more akin to an episode of “Peyton Place” transplanted to the U.K. than a tightly constructed crime novel. The teeming soap opera and melodrama flood the pages drowning any real suspense. All the detailed stories of the supporting players continually crowd out the main story which is that of Editha’s husband, Robert, accused of his wife’s murder and Catherine, a female stalker who is madly in love with Robert. Eventually the subplots are tied up or fade into the background allowing Robert, Catherine and a police inspector to take center stage.

However, when the revelation of who is responsible for Editha’s demise comes it does so anti-climatically. A final ambiguous sentence left me in a daze rather than having the story resolved satisfactorily.

 Posted by at 2:23 pm

An Afternoon to Kill – Shelley Smith

 Shelley Smith, suspense, Victorian sensation  Comments Off on An Afternoon to Kill – Shelley Smith
Apr 152012

There is tendency lately among actors to refer to their career as “their craft.” Fiction writers, too, have been known to call writing a craft. But as far as I am concerned storytelling whether it be done through the page or on the stage should still be considered an art form. And I think Shelley Smith would agree with me. In An Afternoon to Kill (1953) she explores the talent and skill involved in storytelling and makes a sound argument for it not only being a true art but also a powerful tool.

Lancelot Jones is en route to a small town in India where he will take up a teaching post when his plane is inconveniently grounded miles from his destination. The pilot tells him there is a minor mechanical problem and repairs should take only a few hours, perhaps the entire afternoon. Lance decides to take a walk and head to the first building he can see not far off in the horizon. He rings the bell and explains his predicament to the servant who answers. The mistress of the house, Alva Hines, allows him entry and plays hostess to him for the afternoon, providing him with a meal and talking about her love of novels and stories and the power of words to hold sway over the reader. Jones dismisses it all as worthless admitting that he never reads fiction. Alva is taken aback and the subject of books is abandoned. Then Lance says he would much rather learn how Alva came to live in such a remote part of the world. Alva confesses that it is a rather long story. Would her care to hear it all? It might just take the entire afternoon. Lance has little to do but wait until his plane is repaired and he agrees.

This amazing novel is one of those skillful “tale within a tale” books. Alva tells an ever increasingly intricate story that takes us back to the turn of the 20th century. Like the sensation novels of Collins and Braddon that were popular in the late Victorian age Alva’s story involves duplicity, treachery, adultery and murder. Or is the mysterious death that takes place in her story a suicide? Much to Lance’s surprise he is held rapt and finds himself under Alva’s hypnotic storytelling spell, frequently interrupting her with pointed questions. When she concludes her tale Lance confronts her with a startling accusation. The reader I’m sure will follow suit in succumbing to Alva’s alluring story and will be as completely surprised as Lance upon reaching the final page.

I am completely under the spell of this fine writer, one of the several I have recently discovered who deserves to be much better known. More Shelley Smith book reviews coming to this blog. Stay tuned for my next foray into Smith’s fascinating world when she explores the “Fatal Attraction” theme in her suspense thriller The Crooked Man.

 Posted by at 2:09 pm

FFB: The Party at No. 5 – Shelley Smith

 Friday's Forgotten Books, Shelley Smith, suspense  Comments Off on FFB: The Party at No. 5 – Shelley Smith
Mar 152012

Mrs. Roach stood there like a stock, with her hands clasped, thinking: Twenty-two pounds for a piece of useless bric-a-brac that could be smashed to fragments in an instant; and this was the woman who moaned that she could not pay the rates and made a scene over the telephone bill and turned away a poor, humble working man because he had done her out of a few shillings! Either the woman was mad or she was abominably cruel.

There should be a subgenre of crime fiction called Badass Biddies. It would encompass all the novels, movies, and plays about criminal old women ranging from Arsenic and Old Lace to the gruesome Still Waters reviewed  here last year. Falling somewhere in between the outright farce of Kesselring’s play and the violence of McCrery’s novel are the nasty acts perpetrated by the two women in Shelley Smith’s The Party at No. 5 (1954). Here is a duo with whom you find yourself alternately sympathizing then pitying then loathing. It’s something of a tour de force from this writer who specialized in genteel malice domestic and created a wide variety of despicable characters – often favoring middle-aged women as her criminal minded protagonists.

Contemporary crime fiction like the Golden Age is beginning to become increasingly formulaic with a variety of favorite conventions. One of them is the unreliable narrator. Patrick McGrath, for example, frequently used it often to great effect in his novels Asylum, The Grotesque and Spider. Others are less successful in creating characters whose wildly told stories are imbued with a haze of ambiguity. What is real and what is surreal? How much is truly happening and how much is the jumbled perception of a troubled or insane mind? Smith does an impressive job of presenting two women both of whom we learn of through a third person narrator and both of whom are not quite to be trusted in what they say and how they behave. It is only when each of the women is alone or thinking their private thoughts that we see them as they truly are.

Luna Rampage lives alone in a massive house cared for only by a single servant. She eagerly awaits a weekly letter from her daughter who has travelled with her husband to Malaya. She has few friends, but one among them, Cissie, is concerned for Mrs. Rampage. Cissie suggests Mrs. Rampage take in a companion who might also act as a second servant to help with the upkeep of the nearly empty house. Mrs. Rampage is insulted. She is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and dislikes the idea of her ordered private world being invaded by a stranger. The expense is first and foremost in her mind. Extra food, more electricity being used, more water being used. She’d have to go chasing after a boarder making sure lights weren’t left turned on throughout the house. Regardless, Cissie returns a few dyas later and introduces Mrs. Norah Roach. She is the epitome of kindness and gentility. Despite all her fears and her initial antagonistic attitude Mrs. Rampage surprises herself by accepting Mrs. Roach into her home. And the war begins.

The poorly retitled US paperback edition

In addition to her parsimonious lifestyle Mrs. Rampage also is in love with collecting antiques and curios. She won’t spend extra money on unnecessary electricity, but will dish out money for a rare objet d’art. Isn’t that always the case with an obsessed collector? Mrs. Roach may seem all sugar and spice on the outside but she is as selfish as Mrs. Rampage. She also hides behind a sanctimonious religious mask that irritates Mrs. Rampage even more. While Mrs. Rampage calls Norah a “filthy cockroach” Norah prays for Luna’s soul, followed by nightly diary entries in which she outlines her plans to slowly divest Mrs. Rampage of her precious belongings and secretly sell them so she can start building up a savings. When Mrs. Rampage starts to notice things going missing and turning up in Mrs. Roach’s apartment the relationship shifts to a more dangerous level. The teasing and name calling escalate to mental torture and other mind games. A feud ensues of “you’re word against mine” with Norah maintaining her pseudo-friendly, passive veneer while Luna loses control, becomes volatile and vociferous. Luna is on the rampage and it leads to ruin.

The menace slowly builds throughout the novel and the shift in sympathies is alarming. The scheming and plotting and lying of one contrasts sharply with the melodramatic outbursts of the other. In spite of all her meanness and nastiness I began hoping some character would believe poor Luna’s ravings. I also kept eagerly waiting for someone to slap Norah upside the head. I was reminded of how I found myself feeling so terribly sorry for the illiterate housemaid in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone only to be shocked when her frustration in trying to read leads the maid to that book’s horrifically violent climax. Similarly, in Smith’s book an incredibly loathsome woman is being victimized by a phony saint and you can only hope for a reversal of roles. But hope is futile here.

I also enjoyed Smith’s choice of character names. Like the people you find in a Restoration comedy the names reflect the characters’ personalities. In addition to the so perfectly named Luna Rampage and Norah Roach there are Lily Graveyard, a morbid housemaid obsessed with illness; Cissie Getaway, the friend who drops in and out of Luna’s life like an express train; Henrietta Purvis, Luna’s antique store owner confidante; and Jonquil Bracebridge, Luna’s daughter who makes an eleventh hour appearance in attempt to bring some order to the chaos. If you’re wondering where are the men – there are a few but they play very minor roles, usually as authority figures like Luna’s lawyer “the Venerable ” Geoffrey Bede and a visiting doctor. Completing the male side of the cast and not to be outdone by the thievery and duplicity of the women is the obsequious Mr. Peacock, a gardener who has some petty criminal deeds of his own he is trying to keep undercover.

I have three other Smith books I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. Her work is an excellent example of the kind of crime novel that I have become fascinated with in the last ten years or so. I find the subtleties and ambiguities of human behavior more intriguing than the cerebral puzzles of the detective novel. Slowly discovering what makes characters tick is a lot more interesting to me these days than poring over endless Q&A sessions while a detective tries in vain to figure out why Lord Fortescue lied about taking the 7:08 train to Luton only to stumble upon the answer by chance.

The Crime Novels of Shelley Smith
Background for Murder (1942)
Death Stalks a Lady (1945)
This Is the House (1945)
Come and Be Killed! (1946)
He Died of Murder! (1947)
The Woman in the Sea (1948)
Man with a Calico Face (1951)
Man Alone (1952) – U.S. title: The Crooked Man
An Afternoon to Kill (1953)
The Party at No. 5 (1954) – U.S. title: The Cellar at No. 5
The Lord Have Mercy (1956) – U.S. paperback: The Shrew Is Dead
The Ballad of the Running Man (1961) – also The Running Man (made into a movie)
A Grave Affair (1971)
A Game of Consequences (1978)

 Posted by at 5:17 am