Feb 152015
 
"You couldn't ever expose Dr Dysert. [...] He's been too clever for too long. They believe in him, probably with a good deal more conviction than they believe in the Holy Ghost, though they declare it every Sunday."

Jethro John has quite a task set before him. He knows that the three deaths of Dr. Dysert's previous wives are anything but what they appear to be -- death from alcoholic coma, a suicide, and an accidental fall. Is any man that unlucky that all of his wives die so unexpectedly and, in two cases, so violently? To Jethro it is far from coincidence and he is determined to prove that each death was orchestrated somehow by Dr. Dysert as part of his sinister design to gain control of his spouses' wealth. In the guise of a journalist Jethro gets to know the locals and through their stories combined with some keen detective skills uncovers the grim truth.

The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert (1955) is more than yet another mad wife killer mystery. There are several mysteries for Jethro to uncover as well as a few for the reader to puzzle out, notably just why Jethro John has come from America to dig into Dr. Dysert's past. Fleming's teasing narrative voice hints that Jethro is not at all what he appears to be. It will be well past the halfway mark, however, before he finds someone who he can trust enough to reveal his true mission in coming to Greenyard.  There are those strange deaths of the women, too.  If indeed each one was a carefully designed murder just how did the good doctor pull them off?  And what did the women truly die of if not the causes stated on their death certificates? It's a slowly played out duel of wits between Jethro and Dr. Dysert.

Dysert jokingly refers to himself as "Dr. Deadcert" alluding to the local's steadfast trustworthiness in his healing powers.  He has nearly the entire town in the palm of his hand.  His charm and easy going manner win over everyone. And his power to use his voice to control behavior and even hypnotize adds greatly to his seeming invincibility and omnipotence.  Jethro has his work cut out for him trying to convince anyone of his suspicions when faced with such a formidable presence.

Luckily, Miss Bettyhill, an elderly woman attracted to Jethro's frank American manner, is open minded enough to listen to his case. He has gathered an oral history from Katharine Mortlock, Dysert's secretary and would-be fiance, in which she tells the detailed stories of Dysert's three wives and their sudden deaths. Now armed with a manuscript he has transcribed verbatim he has some proof of the doctor's guilt. He compliments Miss Bettyhill on being one of the few "real people" he has met in this English village where everyone seems under the physician's influence.  Jethro persuades Miss Bettyhill to read the manuscript and "read between the lines" to see if she cannot see what he is certain is the truth. She accepts and together this incongruous duo turn amateur detectives, risking their lives in order to save Katharine from becoming wife and victim number four.

Fleming begins her story in a lighthearted manner introducing the locals and Jethro in a sort of "Gentle Reader" narrative voice.  She manages to create an ambiguity in the story so that the reader's allegiance wavers between Jethro and Dysert. One is never truly certain if Jethro's interest in the doctor is not tinged with a sinister plan of his own. Why has he travelled from America to accuse a small town doctor in an English village of being a notorious Bluebeard? The narrative tone slowly maneuvers away from archly wry to one of gravitas as the truth becomes clearer. And she manages to increase the tension when Dysert's actions are revealed in their true colors. The closing chapters are a marvel of cat-and-mouse games even if she allows Dysert an egocentric indulgence in a villainy monologue.

All of Joan Fleming's books have been released as digital books by Orion Publishing Group though only available for purchase from the UK amazon site or iBooks. Some of Fleming's books were also released in limited paperback editions by Orion back in 2013. The Deeds of Dr.  Deadcert was one of those titles, but it is now apparently out of print. Of course you can also find the book in the usual online used bookstore websites. The 1950s and 1960s paperback editions are often cheaper then the electronic version.
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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age space G5 "Medical Mystery"
Also, the second of two books I read for Rich Westwood's "1955 Book" for February.
 Posted by at 11:52 pm
Feb 132015
 
Anne Chamberlain's debut novel The Tall Dark Man (1955) can barely be called a crime novel. Why this book was marketed as a cat and mouse thriller is beyond me. It's not. Yes, there is a crime. But the story is one of those experimental psychological novels that used to flood the shelves in the 1950s. What makes it noteworthy is the voice of the protagonist -- a 13 year old girl. And she is one troubled little girl.

The book is almost a retelling of The Window that remarkable movie with Bobby Driscoll as a boy known for telling lies who witnesses a murder and his desperate attempt to get any adult to believe what he saw was true. Driscoll's character is harassed and hounded by the villains and we fear for him legitimately. Sarah Gross, Chamberlain's heroine of sorts, also is an overly imaginative youngster with a flair for spinning tales but what she sees may not have been real. Unlike the Driscoll character Sarah is more akin to Mary Tilford from The Children's Hour, a mean spirited liar intent on causing harm.

Sarah lives under the shadow of an ugly reputation as a vindictive rumormonger after she tells a very nasty story about one of her male neighbors who slighted her one day. We learn that Sarah spends most of her lonely childhood gazing out of windows, dreaming up stories of the strangers she watches often ending those stories with a lurid finish. In the opening chapter Sarah witnesses a violent fight between two men in hunting garb that ends in a savage and bloody death. But who is going to believe the girl who told such a whopping lie about an adult and impugned the character of some of her schoolmates? Sarah lingers too long at the window and almost too late realizes in horror the murderer is staring at her through his binoculars.

Knowing she cannot tell anyone what she saw without being thought a liar again Sarah is forced to resort to her manipulative ways to escape the school and elude the murderer who she is sure is after her.  Having failed to convince any of the adults to accompany her home or drive her away (she usually walks to school) Sarah holes herself up in the girls' bathroom hoping against hope that the "tall dark man" doesn't get inside and finish her off. Over the course of the book, which takes place in a single evening, the reader gets to know Sarah and her secret life as storyteller and dreamer, her sad upbringing in a home where her father gambled away their savings, a home of heated quarrels and little love. Sarah retreats into her imagination further frustrating her mother and her teachers who have already suggested Sarah be taken to a child psychologist.

The book is a strange mix of psychological study of a borderline antisocial child and an allegory of childhood fears. Chamberlain manages to saddle poor Sarah with a closetful of character flaws ranging from self-loathing to pettiness to desperate longing for one single friend. She's a sad little girl and often one scary little girl as well. In one chilling passage she actually believes that she caused the "tall dark man" to kill the other and begins to identify with the killer recognizing in herself a streak of cruelty that could easily lead to violence. It's hard not to see her as a forerunner to a nastier, less victimized Carrie White. In the first paragraph she makes mention of having had her first period in the past six months and hating herself for "[becoming] a woman". There is a later sequence where she and her mother discuss menstruation with Sarah becoming ever more indignant and spiteful towards her mother when she tries to explain her daughter's ongoing biological changes.

Lost in all of Sarah's ruminating and fixating is the tall dark man of the title. As the story progresses he becomes less a murderer in search of an eyewitness and more of a hazy marauding symbol of everything that a 13 year-old can possibly be afraid of. Chamberlain's writing also tends to waver in and out of nightmarish surrealism and cozy naturalism.  At times her gift for naturalistic dialogue, much of it rendered in spot on Midwestern idiom, gives way to a jarring kind of heightened theatricality peculiar to allegorical playwriting.

The story languishes too much in Sarah's past. Chamberlain heaps on pop psychology explanations for Sarah's tortured emotions. Her continual trips into her past trying to sort out her conflicted feelings for her father and her stepfather grow tiresome. At it weakest moments the story devolves into the well trodden terrain of soap operas. What's at stake and what Sarah fears for in the present is too often abandoned. Intermittently we are reminded of the looming threat when the murderer appears outside windows as a ghostlike face or is seen loitering by the school flagpole. However he never really seems like a menace. He's more of a lingering shadow than a palpable danger.

There are lighthearted moments amid all this grim and self indulgent dreaming. When they do come they are more than welcome. A scene between two janitors complaining about the slovenliness of teenage girls in the third floor girls' bathroom is hysterically funny. Later when a group of students rehearsing a play invade Sarah's bathroom sanctuary she at last finds a handful of allies and much longed for companionship and some long overdue compassion. For me the scenes with the drama students were the best part of the book.

The Tall Dark Man received numerous accolades when it was first published. The paperback edition I have is loaded with blurbs from laudatory reviews that highlight its suspenseful nature. All of the quotes used make the book seem like a real nailbiter and a page turner. One reviewer claims she started the book at 1 AM and didn't put it down until she finished three hours later. But this is a case of exaggeration coupled with overlooking what the book is really about. The final two chapters are the only sections I found to be fraught with tension and the only times I received a smidgen of a frisson. I enjoy being misled in the context of a plot when I read crime fiction, I don't like being misled by marketing hype.

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Reading Challenge update: One of two books I read for Rich Westwood's "1955 Book" for February.
 Posted by at 6:04 am
Jan 162015
 
Chances are if you are asked to name one woman mystery writer from the early twentieth century you wouldn't immediately think of Natalie Sumner Lincoln. I'd wager that you are probably reading her name for the very first time. She was a contemporary of Anna Katharine Green, Isabel Ostrander and Carolyn Wells all of whom are better known and all of whom she was clearly trying to emulate.  Ostrander was the most innovative and talented during the heyday of these women's careers. Green gets all the accolades for being the Grandmother of Female Mystery Writers. Carolyn Wells.... um... she has a special place all her own in the history of mystery fiction. Lincoln, however, is truly forgotten and most of her books have been out of print for close to a century, some longer than that.

As examples of early 20th century detective novels her work is not the best of their kind. An intense perusal of multiple magazine reviews of Lincoln's more exemplary work published between 1915 and 1925 indicates she was popular during her time and probably sold a lot of books. Based on my reading of The Official Chaperon (1915), the first book I've read of hers, I think she may also be a candidate for inclusion in that dubious Hall of Fame known as Alternative Mystery Classics.

Lincoln was born and raised in Washington DC where she worked as a newspaper reporter and later editor and where the majority of her novels are set. The Official Chaperon, while not exactly typical of the kind of detective novel she was known for, is a template for the characters and situations Lincoln was obsessed with. It tells the story of a group of entitled wealthy Washington socialites and politicians who are primarily concerned with their reputations and social standing. When a string of thefts upset their status quo they are alternately forced into both protecting their loved ones at whatever cost and outing the kleptomaniac hiding in their society.

Margaret Langdon as
illustrated by Neysa McMein
Margaret Langdon is the primary suspect. She has been hired as a chaperone to Janet Fordyce, only a few years younger than herself, and together they attend dances, parties and make social visits to wealthy households. Each time Margaret and Janet make one of their visits someone loses a valuable item. Jewelry, lace handkerchiefs (apparently highly prized in this era), and money are stolen. Coupled with these thefts is the fact that Margaret was recently fired from her secretarial position in the home of Admiral Lawrence when the codicil to his dying wife's will went missing. He accused Margaret of destroying it in order that her sometime boyfriend Chichester Barnard, Lawrence's nephew, would benefit from Mrs. Lawrence's estate. Eventually through a series of absurd coincidences and plot contrivances Margaret comes to be accused by multiple characters as the ballroom thief. But the reader knows better.

Early in the book Margaret witnesses Janet Fordyce pocketing a valuable jeweled brooch. She manages to retrieve the brooch and attempts to return the item to it rightful place. Of course she is caught doing so by the woman who owns the brooch. And of course it appears that Margaret is taking the jewelry not replacing it. The entire story is predicated on this kind of cliche incident. Lincoln manages to reinvent this scene about four or five times over the course of the story making Margaret seem like a true kleptomaniac.

Margaret catches Janet in the act
(illustration by Edmund Frederick)
Here's a perfect example of her plotting. Janet and her soldier boyfriend Captain Tom Nichols are caught in a speed trap. Tom asks Janet not to use her real name if the police ask for it. Whose name do you think she uses as her alias? That's right. Poor ol' Margaret Langdon. When they have to pay a fine of $50 (admittedly very steep for 1915) and Tom doesn't have enough money he offers to use a combination of his $23 in cash and Janet's bracelet as collateral. The police agree to the loan of the jewelry (!) as long as Tom returns the same day with a cash balance. It turns out the bracelet is not Janet's. She lifted it from a society matron and ten minutes later the matron's husband is also pulled over by the cops at the speed trap. He also has to pay a fine and sees the bracelet on the cops' desk. He immediately recognizes it and asks who left it behind. The cop refers to his arrest records and says: "Oh some woman named Margaret Langdon."

This is not really a detective novel at all. It's not even a crime novel though thievery makes up much of the plot. It's nothing more that an early twentieth century version of a 1980s nighttime soap opera. It all reminded me of episodes of Dynasty in which wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes (a lot of space is devoted to the wardrobe descriptions), drink champagne, carry themselves haughtily and accuse each other of stealing each others spouses and partners rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs.

While there's no adultery going on in The Official Chaperon there is a lot of philandering mostly by the ne'er-do-well Chichester Barnard, the obvious villain of the piece. There's even an Alexis Carrington in the cast. Pauline Calhoun-Cooper (how do you like these hoity-toity names?) adds a contemporary spice to the proceedings and at least made me laugh with her constant accusations, her bitchiness and superior attitude. Only nineteen years old Pauline is also one of the youngest women in the cast of characters. So young, yet so old. Sigh...

Speaking of bitchy -- Lincoln has quite a way with her dialogue. Here are some zingers that I particularly enjoyed:
"Life is too short to bother with ill-bred and stupid people. I came to Washington to avoid them."

"Congressmen of today belong to the ancient and honorable order of inkslingers."

"If thee made virtue less detestable, Becky, thee would have more converts."  (Spoken by Madame Yvonett, a Quaker who likes her thees and thys, to her cousin Rebekah, an uptight religious hypocrite)

But these quips and intentional moments of humor are rare. Lincoln reserves her dialogue writing talent for paragraph long tirades filled with melodramatic pronouncements of anger and pitiful displays of desperate "love-making." Most of it is over-the-top even for 1915. I found myself laughing at most of these moments of high drama when I wasn't rolling my eyes.

And now a warning... (Now a warning?) Here comes a HUGE SPOILER. You may want to skip this paragraph...but I'd continue if I were you.

Most ridiculous of all is the novel's resolution when the reader learns that Janet is not really a kleptomaniac at all. Through the erudite pontifications of psychiatrist Dr. Paul Potter we learn that Janet's thievery was achieved through hypnosis.  She was the victim of an insidious post-hypnotic suggestion triggered by the mesmerist villain's blowing in her ear! This ending was so absurd and out of left field I could only think of Harry Stephen Keeler. He had yet to write a single story in 1915 so I can't even credit him as one of Lincoln's influences. But you can be sure I'll be reading more books by Natalie Sumner Lincoln. My hope is that she outdoes herself in terms of the absurd ending of The Official Chaperon. Stay tuned!

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Reading Challenges:  1.  1915 Book for Rich Westwood's challenge.
2. Golden Age Bingo card space G3 - "Book with a crime other than murder." In fact, there is no murder in this book at all!
 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Dec 192014
 
Stephen Dusack has a bit of a problem. After suffering major injuries in a train derailment he is under the care of both doctors and psychiatrists. He has been interviewed multiple times about his life history and each time he tells his story about growing up in South Africa, working for a mining company, and recently leaving that country for England where he hoped to start life anew in the little village of Studdold all the medical staff tend to give the impression that they doubt his veracity. They all think he is David Orme and send Stephen home with Orme's secretary and business associate Howard Downey. Broke and without even having started his new job Dusack reluctantly agrees. At Orme's massive estate protected by electronic gates and a gun toting chauffeur Stephen's identity crisis plunges into a nightmare world of conspiracy, paranoia and murder attempts.

Davies spent most of his writing career riffing on themes of identity confusion and amnesia. He wrote in all genres often blending and hybridizing well known tropes of detective fiction (amnesia victims) and science fiction (mind altering drugs) into a kind of new subgenre of his own invention. Psychogeist (1966) tells of a young man who cannot remember who he is and alternates with his hallucinatory dreams of an alien world that parallel the story of his recovery from amnesia. Or is he actually an alien who crash landed on Earth? Probably his best known crime novel treatment of identity loss is his second novel Who Is Lewis Pinder? (1965), originally titled Man Out of Nowhere in the UK. Give Me Back Myself (1971) belongs with Davies' crime fiction novels. It presents the story of Stephen's search for his true identity as a tale of an unbelievable conspiracy with no introduction of either supernatural or science fiction elements.

In these amnesia novels we are always hoping for the hapless protagonist to find at least one ally who will believe his story, help him uncover the truth and bring the villainy to light. Stephen finds his allies quite by accident when he asks for directions of his next door neighbor Ambrose Kenny. Later Kenny's daughter Fran will stop by for her weekly visit and she will turn out to be both confidante and detective cohort. The manner in which Stephen and his two allies slowly uncover the plot is done with ingenuity and a few startling surprises. You have to credit Davies with a fertile imagination in continually finding new methods to essentially tell the same story repeatedly.

Though his books are out of print copies of nearly every one of Davies' fascinating books are easily found in the used book market at very affordable prices. I'm sure many of his books, not just Give Me Back Myself, can be find both in US and UK libraries as well.

I read this book for both Bev Hankins' Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and Rich Westwood's 1971 Mystery Reading Challenge. For more on L. P. Davies breathtaking displays of variation on the theme of amnesia and identity confusion see Sergio Angelini's reviews of Man Out of Nowhere and The Alien.
 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Sep 122014
 
"How very losable your identity was, Caroline thought, lulled and drowsy. Stripped of your social security card, your charge plates, that old, old reminder from your dentist, you became nobody, or anyone at all."

Caroline Emmett has been sent to a rest home in Wicklow, Massachusetts upon orders from her doctor. There she will recuperate from pneumonia and mental duress following her discovery of her husband's dallying with a woman half his age. Walking in the countryside she finds to be more therapeutic than any treatment from her nurses and doctors at the rest home. One evening she takes a detour from her regular path and climbs up a hill. She witnesses the brutal beating of a woman at the hands of a bulky figure wearing a man's raincoat. Or so she thinks. He shines his flashlight on her leaving it there for several minutes and Caroline flees. Bad weather -- rain and wind -- force her to seek shelter before she can return to her room. She manages to gain entry to the home of the Olivers where she tells her story while they listen with a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. She'll remain here for the next twelve hours while the killer in the raincoat tracks her down.

This is familiar territory to be sure -- the eyewitness to a crime who seems to have imagined everything. Of course no body is found where Caroline said she saw the attack. But don't expect the story to fall into the trap of a well-worn formula and an obvious unfolding of events. Enter Carmichael, the editor and owner of the local newspaper, with a nose for news and a healthy dose of common sense. He is the only one who believes Caroline. With the permission of a lackadaisical and skeptical policeman named Trunz the newsman heads out to the crime site to do some real work. He quickly finds two sets of footprints in the mud and a woman's patent leather shoe. Size 9. Something bad has happened he is sure. And he begins his dogged search for the woman with one shoe. Or her dead body.

Ursula Curtiss was the daughter of Golden Age mystery writer and police procedural pioneer Helen Reilly. She came to writing fiction late in her life unlike her prolific mother, but seemed to have inherited her mother's talent for tight plotting, lively and original characters, and well rendered settings. She surpassed in mother with an enviable talent not too easily mastered in crime fiction.  Curtiss' mastery in nearly all her books is her skill in creating mounting dread and terror. In The Deadly Climate (1954) she creates a household of suspicion and paranoia. Caroline seems to have found a haven from the mysterious attacker but no one, not even the practical minded and forthright teenage daughter Lydia Oliver, is really on her side. Over the course of a single night the killer stalks Caroline, makes two attempts on her life, disables the only car available to the Olivers and turns their would-be refuge into one of peril. "It was infinitely worse...with the shades drawn," Curtiss writes of Caroline's racing thoughts. "Like breaking uncontrollably into a run, or giving way to tears, this hiding from the night let down the frail barrier of pretense."  Dread builds to the point where even a rambler rose scratching up against a makeshift cardboard window pane gives rise to fearful glances from the characters and a chill or two from the reader.

The world Curtiss creates is also one of arbitrary happenings, oddities and the just plain weird. While Caroline is attempting to gain allies in the Oliver family two strangers interrupt the night's already chaotic events. A young man appears selling storm windows and a middle-aged woman comes collecting donations for the Red Cross. Coincidence or devilish design? Everyone who makes an entrance in the story is questionable in their apparent innocent motives. Who sells storm windows during a storm? Only the most opportunistic of salesman, right? Is he even a salesman? Why does a woman go ringing doorbells in the rain asking for charitable donations? And why does Lydia insist that the woman is not Mrs. Vermilya as she claims she is?

Carmichael's investigation of the victim is the highlight of the story. Here Curtiss shows she knows how to spin a good detective novel. We watch him turn to the newspaper clippings in the morgue and ask for help from his reporter colleagues as far away as Pennsylvania. He begins to put together a jigsaw puzzle of the past that sheds light on a crime involving an illegal abortion operation and a suspicious suicide. Not that it's all fun and games for Carmichael. One of the more interesting moments is the unease and discomfort he experiences while rummaging through the victim's belongings in her hotel room. His discovery that she mended all her clothes including a wispy and intimately sheer nightgown allows him a moment of sadness mixed with shame. He sees her as a lonely woman who cared too much for her clothes but clearly had no money to spend on herself.

This book so skillful in its building of suspense and tension not surprisingly proved tempting for scriptwriters. It was adapted and filmed for television twice in Curtiss' lifetime. Once for the 1950s anthology program Climax! with what sounds like a great cast -- Nina Foch as Caroline, Kevin McCarthy as Carmichael and Estelle Winwood as Mrs. Oliver.  It was done again in 1968 for the British anthology series Detective about which I know nothing.

The Deadly Climate in the words of Anthony Boucher is "a throat-clutcher in the absolute, tightly and economically written." A better summation I could not devise myself. Copies of the book are readily available in both hardcover and paperback (four reprint paperback editions at my count) in the used book market. I'm sure her books will be found in your local library. Curtiss was quite popular in her day and was the kind of writer that librarians loved to keep on their shelves. None of her books, to my knowledge, are currently in print. More's the pity for lovers of excellent crime fiction.
 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Aug 152014
 
 "Two forces. Interesting speculation indeed. But it had taken a small boy in search of a dog collar to identify the forces and uncover a crime."

Virginia Wales, a waitress in a hash joint in a California-Mexico border town, was a good time girl. Always looking for a laugh, an adventure, one of those "live life to the fullest" women who almost always land themselves in trouble at the expense of a good time. One night someone entered Virginia's hovel of an apartment and bludgeoned her to death with an award she won for jitterbug dancing back in 1937. An ugly crime, and an undeserving end for a woman who never really hurt anyone. But as Mitch Gorman says it was "[a] casual murder that didn't matter because it happened somewhere every night."

Helen Nielsen explores this tawdry, seemingly opportunistic, murder in Obit Delayed (1952), a story that begins as a domestic drama involving a lover's triangle gone wrong. It's a fine example of the detective novel as a character study of the victim. We get to know Virginia Wales, her troubling life masked by the veneer of an extroverted happy-go-lucky persona. She is still hung up on ex-husband and keeps turning to him for help. But as the story progresses Mitch Gorman, a nice example of that detective novel mainstay the reporter sleuth, discovers that it's not Virginia's life that is the key to the solution of the murder.

Mitch Gorman is fascinated by the case. He uncovers a possible connection between Virginia's murder and a drug dealing gangster named Vince Costro. Dave Singer, Costro's lieutenant, had a relationship with the waitress but he is extremely upset over her death belying what he claims was only a casual friendship. Mitch thinks Singer knows who and why Virginia was killed but he's not talking to anyone. When another of Singer's girls, the garrulous gossipy lounge entertainer Rita Royale, turns up dead Mitch is certain the two women got in over their heads in some very nasty business. Business that Costro didn't want revealed. With the addition of these gangster characters the story enters new territory.

Deceptively familiar in its basic plot Obit Delayed is nevertheless a gripping, well told novel of non-discriminatory violence. Nielsen does an admirable job of describing how senseless murder, the fodder of tabloid journalism, can turn even the most cynical and skeptical reporter into a Nemesis of the hapless victim. Aided by society columnist Miss Atterbury (aka "the Duchess"), a smart-alecky colleague who would've been played by Eve Arden had this been a movie, Gorman devotes all his energy to turning a routine police case that might easily lay ignored on a sergeant's desk into a personal campaign for justice.

Multiple copies of the US first edition (Ives Washburn, 1952) and the Dell paperback published two years later will turn up in any internet book search and almost all copies are nicely affordable. The UK edition (Gollancz, 1953) is rather scarce. An eBook version available from Prologue Books. If you are inclined to reading and collecting digital books I suggest you check out their website for a wide variety of vintage crime fiction. Why not start by acquainting yourself with Helen Nielsen's work? You're sure to come back for more after sampling this one.

This book serves as part of Rich Westwood's 1952 Crime Novel Reading Challenge for August and another book knocked off my Bingo card for Bev Hansen's year long Golden Age Reading Challenge.
 Posted by at 3:13 pm
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
May 162014
 
Two teenage boys skipping out on their English class on the last day of school come across a horrible sight while walking through Braxham Wood -- a skeleton half buried in a pile of leaves and wearing only one woman's shoe. They immediately report their grisly discovery to their teacher Tim Brennan who then calls Sergeant Hawkes and soon the entire village of Braxham Parva is caught up in a murder investigation.  Who was this woman? How long had she been dead? Why had no one reported her missing?

Miss Fenny (1957) was later retitled in its US publication The Woman in the Woods and is better known under that second title. The first title refers to the seemingly imaginary friend of a bedridden crippled boy named Daniel. The two of them become the most important characters in the book. Daniel is a petulant, demanding eight year-old, the only son of Nicole Sherratt who spends much of the book fretting over her son and pining for her dead husband. Brennan has been seeing Nicole for several months now and has developed a bond with Daniel. He tells the boy stories, creates nightly drawings for him, and listens to Daniel's fanciful tales of Miss Fenny, trying to win over Nicole in the process but frustrated repeatedly by her obsessive thoughts of her dead husband.

Little do Brennan and Nicole realize that Miss Fenny is far from imaginary. It doesn't take long for the reader to recognize that Daniel at one time befriended the woman whose skeleton was found in the woods. She was indeed murdered and the identity of her killer does not remain hidden for long. The killer also has daily visits with Daniel and when he keeps hearing the stories of Miss Fenny and the facts that Daniel unwittingly reveals in the conversations he has had with her the killer fears he may be found out. The story then becomes not so much a murder investigation but a suspense tale. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf the reader keeps hoping that the adults will finally see the truth in what Daniel has to say about Miss Fenny. Until they do the entire village is at the mercy of a killer who will not stop at more murder to keep his one crime secret.

Blackstock seems to me to be the missing link in the British school of suspense writing bridging the post-war detective novel with the modern day crime or suspense novel. Prior to her appearance on the mystery scene it was the American women writers like Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Usula Curtiss who were pioneering domestic suspense and malice domestic novels. Blackstock brings to mind modern writers like her fellow countrywomen Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters in the use of sardonic humor and the creation of loathsome characters ripe for satiric attacks like the haughty racist Lady Grale, the prattling hypochondriac Miss Brooks, and the vile physician Dr. Heslop more interested in using the contents of his doctor's bag to harm than cure. Among the British women crime writers I can think only of Blackstock's contemporaries Shelley Smith and Joan Fleming who were writing similar tales of menace and murder at the time of the publication of Miss Fenny. What Blackstock does in Miss Fenny, however, is rather remarkable. She has written a story in which not just a violent crime but death itself has an inexorable affect on an entire village. And she does so with the macabre effects of a modern Poe.

Nicole is truly haunted by her husband, almost as if she is in thrall to his ghost. Brennan cannot compete for her love as she is more in love with a memory than anyone alive, including her son. Yet he too finds himself haunted. There is a chilling scene in which Brennan realizes that the skeleton belongs to a woman he held, caressed, and kissed. Linking the corrupted skeleton to a living being and then connecting that to a memory of a tender sexual encounter is something straight out of Poe.

Dr. Heslop, the cruel physician caring for Daniel; Rose, the doctor's simple-minded mistress and office assistant; Matthew Plumtree, an effete writer battling between cowardice and heroism are also key players in the drama and all have had their past encounters with the woman Daniel has come to know as Miss Fenny. When the identity of the skeleton finally comes to light and Daniel's stories are seen to be truth and not fiction it is only a matter of time before the cowards will make bold confrontations and the killer will strike out again.

Anthony Boucher, champion of new crime fiction writers of immense talent, was thoroughly impressed with Blackstock's novel when it first appeared. He noted her "technically faultless" construction, solid characters of "believable complexity" and an "evocative hint of fantasy" in the person of Miss Fenny. But notably as I have mentioned above he writes "...there is a spell of the sharp immediacy of death itself, such as is too rarely cast in our novels of violet crime."  Contemporary writers have since capitalized on this crucial aspect of crime fiction, but it was Charity Blackstock who perhaps was one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the dread power Death has over the living. Her ruminations on this conceit captured in evocative writing and impassioned emotions make Miss Fenny -- or The Woman in the Woods -- a book worthy of your attention.

*     *     *


Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space O6 - "Book with a Woman in the Title"
 Posted by at 12:30 pm
Apr 302014
 
Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.
 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Apr 262014
 
It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".
 Posted by at 3:47 pm