Jan 232015

Sir Anthony West is an addicted gambler. He is in debt to the tune of £1000 and he hasn’t a clue how to dig himself out. As luck (and abounding coincidence we will soon learn) would have it Jasper Morgan knows of his troubles and offers him a challenge that might put Sir Anthony back in the black. Morgan knows that West is an avid car enthusiast and likes to race around the countryside where the police tend not to care about speeding. Morgan offers the use of his Mercedes and dares West to race the car in excess of 40 mph through a well known speed trap just outside of Comlyn, the city in Cornwall where The Comlyn Alibi (1915) takes place. If he succeeds without getting caught £1000 is his to do with as he chooses. But if he is caught by the police and arrested in order to get the £1000 West will have to pass himself off as Jasper Morgan. That will help to explain why West happens to be driving Morgan’s car. Also, Morgan insists that there be a passenger seated next to him who can verify that West successfully made it through. If stopped and arrested, West will just have to explain to the witness why he’s impersonating Morgan. Emboldened by the challenge and seeing it as his only chance to pay off his creditors West agrees. The same day that West is speeding through Comlyn in the borrowed Mercedes Jasper Morgan’s wife is shot in the orchid house on his estate and her expensive jewelry is stolen. Seems there was an ulterior motive for Morgan making the bet. Now he has an ironclad alibi and West cannot reveal anything of the bet without implicating himself.

The Comlyn Alibi is an entertaining example of a plot that sticks to a sensation novel formula and almost succeeds as a fine modern crime novel. Headon Hill, pseudonym for Francis Edward Grainger, has a no-holds barred style of telling a story with rapid pacing and well drawn characters most of whom escape rigid stereotyping. While there is still the garrulous landlady, the conniving vixen, comic cops, an ex-convict turned butler, and unctuous villains Grainger also manages to add a bit of originality into the tired old formula of upright do-gooders matching wits with utter baddies. Supt. Noakes, for example, is not your typical policeman buffoon. He speaks in an ersatz intellectual patter trying to pass himself off as an educated man but he exploits his position of authority in order to obtain free food and drink in the homes of those he interrogates. Most of his attention is not on the case but on his stomach. As he polishes off glasses of expensive whiskey he lectures the suspects on his “h’axiom” of looking for the husband whenever a wife is murdered. But he is puzzled when Morgan seems to have an airtight alibi having learned of his arrest at the speed trap and his subsequent overnight stay in the Comlyn jail. Noakes is a stand out among the minor characters.

Oh yes! He really does say that.

This is more of a thriller but not without aspects of a puzzler of a detective novel. Morgan and his cohort, Professor Zimbalist are clearly villains from the get-go. There is never any question that Morgan is responsible for his wife’s death if he is not the actual murderer. But what exactly is this nasty duo up to at the old abandoned tin mine? They are witnessed by several people digging around and pocketing small rocks. Zimbalist claims to be an archeologist and assures Mavis Comlyn, daughter of an elderly squire who owns the land where the mine is located, that the two men are interested in fossils. She suspects little, but the reader knows better. Morgan has designs on Mavis; he wants her as his wife. Once he is married to her Morgan hopes he will be able to gain access to the land as part of her inheritance. Mavis seems doomed.

Coincidentally, as in the case of the previously reviewed Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square, there is a teen amateur sleuth. This time a 14 year-old boy not a girl. Tom Burbury spends much of his time lurking about the old shipwreck where shifty Mike Hever, descendant of a family of smugglers, has taken up an unlikely residence. Morgan and Zimbalist are seen visiting the wreck and Tom eavesdrops on several key conversations that reveal the wedding plot being hatched. Tom discovers quite a bit and drawing on his keen interest in geology knows exactly what the rocks found at the old mine contain. They are teeming with uranium ore. Tom knows the value of radium that can be extracted from that ore, if not the then unknown dangers of its radioactivity.

Grainger was a rather prolific writer beginning his career in 1895 and continuing well into the late 1920s. His plots seem to belong to the world of Collins, Braddon and Richard Marsh what with forced marriages, blackmail galore, and heroes using a variety of disguises in order to ferret out the villains. His prose can often feel stodgy and melodramatic if not risible (“Tony was the bravest of the brave, but he realized that lying dead in the sand he would be of no use to Mavis in her dire extremity.”). Nevertheless, he manages to give the books a contemporary feel and he knows how to tell a suspenseful and entertaining tale.

Several of his books are rather unusual (not to mention extremely scarce) like The Divinations of Kala Persad, a collection of short stories that mix crime and the occult and feature a protagonist who is a snake charmer/fakir/sleuth. His series character Sebastian Zambra appeared in two volumes of short stories but never in a full length novel that I know of. Many the “Headon Hill” books are available in digital versions from a variety of online websites either free or for a nominal fee. Expect to pay a chunk of change for any of the original books from the Edwardian era if you are lucky to find any of them in a used bookstore or online. Few of Grainger’s books as “Headon Hill” were published in the US with the majority of his work having only UK editions making them all that more scarce.

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Reading Challenge updates: Second book for Rich Westwood’s 1915 Book Read and O4 (“Author Never Read before”) on the Golden Age Bingo Card.

 Posted by at 4:07 pm
Jan 152015

Here’s another pop trivia quiz for all you detective fiction mavens out there. Earliest girl detective in the genre? Don’t even think Nancy Drew, gang. Go back further. Violet Strange — did I hear someone say? Even further than 1915. Try the turn of the 20th century, 1899 to be exact, and meet little Gracie Death (yes, Death!), all of 12 years old and one of the pluckiest girl sleuths in the literature. Gracie pulls off some of the most dangerous legwork in Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square (1899) while engaged as first mate to Dick Remington’s captain on what Remington dubs their private voyage into criminal detection. She also locates her missing father and does so by a combination of surreptitious eavesdropping and communication via her dreams. Yes, she’s not only one of the youngest and earliest girl detectives she’s also one of the youngest psychic detectives. And to top it off she does all this while suffering from a debilitating unnamed respiratory ailment (probably bronchitis or severe asthma) that often has her coughing her lungs out in a pitiful display. Time for Gracie to be recognized for her achievements. Cough or no cough she gets the job done.

Crammed into these 465 pages author B. L. Farjeon relates the murder of the odious moneylender Samuel Boyd who puts to shame Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep in terms of miserly opportunism and heartless avarice. Compounding the mysterious strangling death of Boyd is the disappearance of his clerk Abel Death, Gracie’s father, who was summarily discharged by Boyd several hours before his employer was sent off to his just reward. And the grounds for the firing? Death was caught dissembling about a visitor to the business, a direct violation of Boyd’s paranoid command to keep out everyone unless he is present. When Boyd learns that the visitor in question is his son Reginald whom he has practically disowned he lets loose with a tirade unparalleled in sensation fiction and fires Death on the spot.

Dick Remington who we think will be the heroic detective of the piece is introduced as a young Renaissance man who has tried and succeeded in a variety of trades from professional actor to yeoman journalist, but suffers from ennui and a sense of being unchallenged with each new success. Only when he decides to clear Reginald Boyd of the murder charge does he find that he has true purpose in life. Reginald also happens to be rival in affections for Florence Robson, daughter of Dick’s foster father and uncle Inspector Robson. This fact serves as the primary motivator for Dick to win the affection of his cousin while simultaneously giving him another chance to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his Uncle “Rob”. In true Dickensian style Farjeon has Reginald and Florence grow deeper in love with each new plot complication. Dick must decide if his adventure in amateur detective work is self-serving or selfless. Meeting Gracie Death alters his objective. When they join forces it is clear that Dick is beginning to mature in ways he thought previously impossible.

While the book begins as a puzzling detective novel Farjeon soon reveals the villains behind a massive conspiracy to frame both Reginald and Dick for the murder of the moneylender. Thankfully Farjeon does this by the midway point for the villains are so obvious the reader wonders why the police and everyone else can be so easily taken in by their machinations. Gracie isn’t taken in but, of course, no one is going to believe a 12 year old girl. Except Dick Remington, that is. From its perfectly archetypal opening in which the characters are at the mercy of a menacing London fog to the perilous derring-do of Dick climbing a brick wall with rope and grapnel hook to the underhanded sleuthing of Detective Dennis Lambert of the Yard Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square contains all that any reader has come to expect from a gaslight thriller. 

With the revelation of the diabolical duo Samuel Boyd… becomes an all-out suspense thriller complete with cleverly handled courtroom sequences. The murder case becomes a cause célèbre attracting the attention of everyone in town including “members of the learned profession”, actors actresses, writers and other celebrities along with merchants, housewives and their children.  So crowded is the courtroom that some of the witnesses have to be escorted in from the hall. First we get a protracted inquest that frustrates coroner John Kent to distraction. The proceedings are hampered by a far too inquisitive jury member who is being goaded into asking intrusive, inappropriate and barely legal questions of several witnesses in order to sway the verdict towards implicating Reginald Boyd as the murderer. The novel ends in a climactic murder trial with the typical eleventh hour revelations including testimony from a French detective searching for an escaped master criminal and the unmasking of two characters’ dual identities.

One of the most intriguing incidents in the book from a history of the genre standpoint occurs when the two villainous doctors are fiddling with a newfangled camera of Dr. Pye’s invention (see the illustration at left). It requires a strong burst from a magnesium flare and can illuminate the darkest unlit street from his second story study window. He has been photographing Samuel Boyd’s house and has been seeing rather mysteriously the appearance of a face that resembles Boyd’s even though he is dead. Pye then relates an anecdote about how useful and powerful the camera can be, especially in terms of “psychic photography”. He asks his cohort, Dr. Vinser, to believe that a photographer friend of his used the camera to take a picture of a murder victim and when studying the photograph “…there under the lens of a powerful microscope was the portrait of the murderer upon the pupils of the dead man’s eyes.” The retained image, usually involving the retina not the pupils, on a corpse’s eyes is a myth that shows up in late 19th century and early 20th century crime and detective fiction well into the 1930s, but this is the earliest recorded version I’ve come across. Apparently scientific fact is not the primary concern of these two doctors. But credit is due Farjeon with making these two doctors charlatans so we’ll never know if he intended this sequence to be taken as satire of the gullible Victorian mind. Soon enough the reader learns the two men use phony titles to exert authority over others and have no background in medicine or science of any type.

But lapses into scientific myth aside if there is anything legitimate to criticize about Farjeon’s storytelling and writing it is his tendency to elevate his heroes and heroines to the status of sainthood while consigning his antagonists to behavior just shy of a mustache twirling and sneering vaudeville villain. From his very early career Farjeon modeled his work after that of Charles Dickens and we see in this late novel (he would write only three more books before he died in 1903) how he still aspires to the kind of triumphant overturning of detestable villainy by the virtuous and pure that was the hallmark of his idol. Rather than light touches of the sentimental paintbrush Farjeon slathers it on with sweeping broad strokes. Modern readers cry out for complexity and ambiguity in characters and incidents. You’ll find no subtlety here. Even Dr. Vinsen, the more interesting villain of the two and seemingly modeled on Count Fosco (“My heart is large,” says Vinsen obsequiously. “It bleeds for all”), has a sudden transformation within the span of a few sentences from sinister Machiavelli to cringing coward. But then sometimes it’s a welcome and refreshing change to know exactly who ought to get a rotten tomato thrown at him amid all the boisterous cheering for the good guys.

B. L. Farjeon, at home, 1899

Benjamin Leopold Farjeon led a vivid and colorful life born and raised in England, travelling to Australia where he began his writing career as a yeoman reporter and eventually working his way up to business manager of Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, New Zealand. He deserves a post all his own on his fascinating life. For an overview see this richly detailed biographical article at TE ARA, the internet encyclopedia of New Zealand. His writing career was just as richly varied and includes short stories, ghost and detective fiction, plays, a very original and modern supernatural thriller called Devlin the Barber, Newgate novels, and a series of mainstream novels that are among the earliest to denounce anti-Semitism and present Jews of Victorian England in a positive light. Early in his writing career he reached out in a letter to Charles Dickens, his idol, and sending him a copy of his “Shadows on the Snow”. Dickens replied and so moved was Farjeon by Dickens’ letter he literally packed his bags, resigned his job at the New Zealand paper and headed back to England to become a novelist. All of this can be read in an absorbing interview Farjeon had with Dicken’s granddaughter Mary Angela Dickens in the February 1899 issue of Windsor Magazine, published only a few months before the book edition of Samuel Boyd… was released.

Those interested in reading Samuel Boyd of Catchpole Square have their choice of a variety of print on demand books (be warned of optical recognition transfers littered with typos!) and a couple of online versions that I investigated which conversely look to be well done. Copies of the actual book currently for sale are few and far between. I know that there were at least two editions in the UK from Hutchinson and one in the US from New Amsterdam Book Company. My copy is offset from the New Amsterdam edition and published by stalwart reprint house Grosset & Dunlap. It includes four glossy plates by Edith Leslie Lang, some are used to illustrate this post. Should you be lucky to find one a reading copy of Samuel Boyd… should cost you no more than $10 to $15 compared to a genuine UK first edition (Hutchinson, 1899) which in good to very good condition ranges from $46 to $150.

For an entertaining Victorian viewpoint of B.L. Farjeon’s writing straight from the reader’s pencil see this post on Curt Evans’ blog where he shows us the written remarks made by a Victorian gentleman in his copy of Farjeon’s other mammoth sensation novel Great Porter Square: A Mystery.

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Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge update: L4 (“Man’s name in the title”) on the Golden Age card

 Posted by at 2:21 am
Apr 102014

1980s UK reprint (Severn House, 1986)

 Psst. Over here. Got a secret I wanna tell ya. Closer. Closer! Come on, don’t be shy. That’s right.

When you’re dealing with one of those hit-or-miss writers like they say Gladys Mitchell is, one of the those “acquired taste” writers, it’s best to stick with the hits. That way you’re sure to keep coming back for more. Dance to Your Daddy (1969) is one Of Gladys Mitchell’s hits. Best of the 60s, they say. I’d agree.

Compared to her earlier work it’s clear that Mitchell changed with the times. This book is very modern and told almost exclusively in dialogue. The sometimes ponderous prose passages of her books published in the 1930s-40s are at a minimum. She opens with an unusual scene that establishes character in only a few sentences. From that point on she continues to nail her characters in sharply written often terse portraits. Action is plentiful and swift and Dame Beatrice (no longer Mrs. Bradley!) is on stage 90% of the book. She may be cackling less often and she doesn’t poke anyone in the ribs even once, but she’s still the wily Mrs. Croc readers have grown to love and admire. Armed with sharp wits, acerbic humor, and in a couple of scenes her trusty revolver she tackles a murder victim of questionable identity, a will with convoluted legacies that almost puts Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce to shame, and plenty of scheming and plotting to outdo the best of the Victorians.

From the very start Dame Beatrice alludes to the melodramatic aspects of the case she has undertaken at the request of her distant relative Romilly Lestrange. “The situation here is fascinating, macabre and in many ways incredible,” she tells her secretary Laura Menzies Gavin. “I am living in a world of Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and the Brontes.” She has been asked to verify the sanity of Trilby, Romilly’s niece, who has taken to throwing objects off a cliff into the ocean, dresses in baroque costumes and to all outward appearances seems to have lost her mind. The young lady is on the verge of turning twenty-five and will soon inherit her grandfather’s wealthy estate, but if she can be proven to be mentally unfit the estate defaults to her uncle. Her grandfather Felix’ will is a lot more convoluted than that, however. I’ll spare you the other conditions.

A brief interview with Trilby (who insists her real name is Rosamund) leaves Dame Beatrice questioning the truthfulness of both Uncle Romilly and his dually named niece. Completely different stories, denials on Rosamund’s part, counter denials from Romilly which are backed up by the stories of his housekeeper/paramour Judith. Are they keeping Rosamund prisoner as she claims just like some doomed heroine from a Victorian sensation novel? Do they have evil designs on her? She fears for her life and claims a few murder attempts have already occurred. Who is to be believed — uncle or niece?

2014 reprint (and eBook) from Amazon

The plot is a mix of the usual Mitchell staples — absurd and bizarre antics, a body that no one can identify, an unusual setting and landscape features (in this case the body discovered on the Dancing Ledge, a perilous seaside ledge below a precipitous cliff) that add to the menacing mood, and her unique brand of black humor. Once again a wicked villain tries to send Dame Beatrice to an early grave but her sharp wits and devious mind save her. On hand are also some of her recurring characters including Dame Beatrice’s barrister son Sir Ferdinand, and her secretary Laura, now married with two children. Even Laura’s parents make a brief appearance when Dame Beatrice in order to prevent another murder, decides to stow Rosamund at Laura’s Scotland home for safekeeping.

The book opens with the baptism of Laura’s newborn daughter Eiladh, a child she mentions more than once that was not planned for nor wanted. Ah, motherhood! Laura does her best to escape her maternal duties leaving the baby in charge of Hamish, her elementary school age son, and husband while she assists Dame Beatrice. She doesn’t get in on as much of the action as she hopes. Laura is tart tongued, petulant and overly sarcastic throughout the book. She wasn’t very welcome for me this time. But everyone else in the cast does a fine job, whether villainous or virtuous or a combination of both. The surprising finale is typical of Mitchell’s sometimes ambiguous resolutions and her unusual ideas about justice.

Dance to your Daddy has been out of print for decades and was until last month very hard to find. Luckily, this title along with 59 others (including all of Mitchell’s books written under her “Malcolm Torrie” pseudonym) have been released by Amazon.com’s book publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer. As of last month Dance to Your Daddy is available in both paperback and eBook formats. Most of the Mitchell reprints are only available in digital format for now. There may be the possibility of paperbacks for some of the other titles. Residents of the UK (and anyone living outside who wants to have the books shipped) are luckier. A variety of paperback reprints of Gladys Mitchell’s mysteries are available from Vintage Books. See their list of 29 titles here. This is a great way to introduce yourself to the world of Gladys Mitchell.

She may be hit-or-miss according to many critics (me included) but Dance to Your Daddy,  a cleverly plotted, lively story with a cast of engaging characters is definitely among the hits, my friends. Grab your copy now!

Other Gladys Mitchell books available in new Thomas & Mercer eBooks include these titles that I also highly recommend: Here Comes A Chopper (reviewed here), The Rising of the Moon, The Devil at Saxon Wall, The Twenty-Third Man, Brazen Tongue, St. Peter’s Finger and The Greenstone Griffins.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space V5: “A Mystery that Involves Water” In this case the water is the Atlantic Ocean sweeping over the Dancing Ledge.

 Posted by at 3:28 pm
Jan 172014

“I am in one of my tempers tonight. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort. Do you ever like to see the summer insects kill themselves in the candle? I do sometimes.”

— Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866)

 She has been called the most ruthless villainess in Victorian fiction, practically a prototype for the femme fatale we all love to hate in film noir and paperback originals of the 1950s. With her fiery red hair, her caustic wit, her superficial charm, rapturous beauty, and her undying hatred of men she lives for cruelty and vengeance. She is Lydia Gwilt.  Emotionally warped, spiritually bankrupt, psychologically ruined she is perhaps the most used and abused woman character Wilkie Collins ever created. But is she truly evil? By the novel’s end most readers may find themselves shockingly feeling sympathy for Lydia’s wrecked life and finding pathos in her final line “I was never a happy woman” as she meets her doom.

Replete with the worst of human behavior including murder, poisoning, bigamy, torture, fraud and all sorts of mental and physical cruelty Armadale is the grand daddy of all noir fiction. The book can easily be seen as The Woman in White (1860) in reverse. Whereas the earlier book has two women at the mercy of two scheming men out to win a fortune through deception and fraud Armadale gives us two men being victimized by two plotting women both of whom are desirous of power and wealth and will stop at nothing to get what they want. In Armadale the reader meets the unscrupulous Madame Maria Oldershaw and the vindictive, man hating Lydia Gwilt who serve as the female counterparts to Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde. Similarly, the light and dark characteristics, both physical and emotional, exemplified in Marian and Laura are mirrored in the portraits of Allan Armadale — light haired, fair skinned, cheerful to the point of naivete — and Ozias Midwinter — his  dark haired, swarthy opposite, a man of brooding darkness and superstition. This dichotomy of the two men is underscored by Collins in a chapter entitled “Day and Night.”

Armadale opens with a deathbed confession. A dying man dictates the story of a past crime, a thwarted marriage, and a wicked servant girl’s deeds that allow his fortune to fall into the hands of a man who shares his name. The confession taking the form of a lengthy letter addressed to his son concludes with a warning that his son is to avoid at all costs a man named Armadale and the servant girl who he feels caused all their misery.  The letter is delivered to the family lawyer with instructions that it be given to his son when he is old enough to understand the horrible story. Thus the seeds are planted for a tale of Fate and doom and the question of whether chance can really exist.

Despite his father’s warning of dire peril that will befall him Midwinter meets Allan Armadale and is almost immediately his bosom friend. Allan, the good natured one, has a series of strange dreams that he relates to Midwinter that will have an eerie hold over the fearful youth who believes wholeheartedly they are dreaded omens.  He does his best to prevent the dreams from becoming fulfilled prophecies. Yet as each segment of the dream comes true he feels more and more that he has made a fatal mistake by befriending Allan and not following his father’s instructions. With the entrance of Lydia Gwilt the story becomes one of three lives destined to be inextricably entwined.

As with most of Collins’ novels the book is made up of multiple viewpoint narratives, letters and diaries.  When the focus is on Midwinter the novel delves into a near supernatural realm with his obsession with Allan’s dream and the inescapable thought that he has no control over what appears to be a doomed and very short life.  But when the book is told from Lydia’s viewpoint it attains the most chilling moments, the most cynical observations and paradoxically its most poignant scenes. She also has the best lines in which Collin’s displays a wicked sense of humor.

Lydia Gwilt and the “Gorgons”

“There are occasions (though not many) when the female mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason.”

“She looked at the ground with such an extraordinary interest that a geologist might have suspected her of scientific flirtation with the superficial strata.”

“Half the musical girls in England ought to have their fingers chopped off, in the interests of society — and, if I had my way, Miss Milroy’s would be executed first.”

“I am sadly afraid the man is in love with me already.  Don’t toss your head and say, ‘Just like her vanity!’ After the horrors I have gone through, I have no vanity left; and a man who admires me, is a man who makes me shudder.”

“Did you ever see the boa constrictor fed at the Zoological Gardens? They put a live rabbit into his cage, and there is a moment when the two creatures look as each other. I declare Mr. Bashwood reminded me of the rabbit!”

“After bewildering himself in a labyrinth of words that led nowhere, he took her — one can hardly say round the waist, for she hasn’t got one — he took he round the last hook-and-eye of her dress…”

“Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.”

Lydia may be the star of the novel but she does not completely overtake the stage as villain supreme. Madame Oldershaw has just as many moments of wry and bitchy humor and a few cross purposes to boot. To watch the decrepit and fawning Mr. Bashwood, errand boy and spy, fall in love with Lydia is to view a portrait of bathos and creepiness. By the novel’s finale he may remind one of Victorian fiction’s male equivalent of Miss Havisham. The unctuous Dr. Downward appears in the final section of the book and proves to be quite a match for Lydia. Finally, Captain Manuel, a man from Lydia’s secret filled past, nearly outdoes her in nastiness.

Pedgift , Sr.

On the other hand there are also some finely drawn supporting characters on the side of our manipulated heroes. Reverend Decimus Brock is Allan’s guardian and Midwinter’s confidante, the man who for over three quarters of the book is the only one privy to Midwinter’s secret identity and his haunted past. Among my favorites is Augustus Pedgift Sr., a wise lawyer who attempts to advise Allan Armadale of his folly in keeping a friendship with Lydia. When Pedgift is featured the novel shows clearly how well Collins engineers suspense and reveals Lydia’s true character. A pity that Armadale is so infuriatingly naive and cannot see what to everyone else is so obvious.

For a prime example of Victorian Sensation at it most lurid and thrilling look no further than Armadale. Collins pulls out all the stops in this novel incorporating supernatural elements, trenchant humor, bitter cynicism, genuine suspense and dizzying plot twists. You’ll pray for the heroes and condemn the villains. But by the novel’s inevitable conclusion you may be surprised by your feelings for one of Victorian literature’s most splendid of wicked women. Lydia Gwilt, you may learn, may not be all that bad after all.

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This is my first book in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader’s Block.  I’ve assigned this book the spot I call D1 (“An Author I’ve Read Before”) on the Golden Age Bingo Card. Only 35 more to go on this card. Oy!

 Posted by at 9:04 am
Jan 122014

Work: Armadale by Wilkie Collins
(Harper & Brothers, 1866)
1st US edition

Artists: George H Thomas (drawings)
and William Thomas (engraving)

As a teaser for an upcoming review here are the illustrations taken from the original United States edition of Armadale. This mammoth novel was originally published serially in The Cornhill Magazine from November 1864 to June 1866. The illustrations used in both the first UK and US editions were taken from the magazine serial. While the UK first edition includes all the original illustrations by the Thomas brothers the US edition is missing about five drawings.

George Housman Thomas (1824-1867) studied wood engraving with George Bonner, set up an engraving business in Paris, and illustrated books for both American and British publishers. Some of his work is included in the Royal Collection in England. Perhaps his most notable work appeared in the first US edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While living in New York for a brief period he was also contracted to engrave American banknotes.

William Luson Thomas (1830-1800) did the engraving and signed all the illustrations for Armadale. George, however, is credited as the primary illustrator on the title page of the first UK edition (Smith & Elder, 1866). William founded the illustrated newspaper The Graphic late in his life. Explaining the original concept of the paper he writes: “The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only five pence.”

For detailed biographical information on William Luson Thomas go here. For the life of his brother George visit this website.

Click on the images below for full size appreciation.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
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
Nov 092012
1st US edition (Harrison-Hilton, 1940)

In one of those serendipitous interweb discoveries I stumbled across an advertisement for this book by Joseph Shearing in an old magazine. The ad had a review blurb from prominent humorist, critic and champion of the detective and mystery novel, Will Cuppy proclaiming the book as one of the most surprising mysteries of 1940. Had it not been for that glowingly enthusiastic review I am sure I would never have tracked down this intriguing, beguiling and – yes – surprising historical crime novel.

It’s that title that’s a turn off. The name conjures up an image of some toothless, hairy-chinned, crone from a fairy tale or an old-fashioned kid’s book. She does indeed have a problem with facial hair but she’s far from a cute kid’s story character. Shearing presents her as an alternately endearing, ever helpful spinster and a sinister relative with a mysterious past and hidden motives. With a cast of supporting characters as equally chameleon-like and a brooding atmosphere of unease and mistrust the book evolves into an extremely well done homage to the old Victorian sensation thrillers best exemplified in the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and J. Sheridan LeFanu.

In its most easily obtainable edition, a Berkley Medallion paperback from 1965 (pictured below), Aunt Beardie (originally published in the UK in 1939) has been marketed as yet another in a long line of Gothic suspense novels so popular in the mass market paperback world of the 1960s. All of Joseph Shearing’s books were marketed this way by Berkley regardless of the book’s content. I have to say it is a great disservice to the writer. Hardly as formulaic in plot as that genre and of a literary quality not to be found among any of those dozens of Gothic writers Aunt Beardie is fashioned out of the tropes of sensation fiction with a emphasis on historical accuracy in the story background (often lacking in 60s Gothics) and composed of a stylized, often rapturous prose.

“Joseph Shearing” is in reality Gabrielle Margaret Long who is probably best known under yet another of her many pseudonyms – Marjorie Bowen. As Bowen Long wrote several highly regarded supernatural novels and short stories. Arkham House collected a handful of her more shocking ghost stories and weird fiction for a volume entitled Kecksies (Arkham House, 1976). As Joseph Shearing, however, Long wrote fifteen historical suspense novels spanning periods ranging from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, and populated with deceitful lovers and opportunistic fortune hunters scheming and plotting their dastardly deeds. In some cases she based her novels on historical fact as she notes in a brief preface at the start of Aunt Beardie.

Set in the post–French Revolution era the book’s densely plotted action is split between two time periods and two countries. A vignette of a prologue sets the mood in France just prior to the storming of the Bastille mysteriously hinting at the future activities of an unnamed young man. This leads us into the first section set in the final days of the Reign of Terror where we learn of two cousins, both young girls, fleeing the carnage of France by ship for the safety of England. Then, a flash forward of thirty-five years. Lady Sherlock, the only girl to survive the ship voyage to England, is now a grown woman with her own family. She is visited by the long forgotten aunt of the title. Tante Barbe, as she is first known by her French nickname, announces to Lady Sherlock that she is Vivienne her cousin long thought to have perished after their fateful voyage from a terminal illness. The longer her visit the more the aunt seems to have a hold over Lady Sherlock. Blackmail, deception, masquerades and disguises are teeming throughout the story. Lady Sherlock’s daughter Jenny, keen on discovering the true identity of Aunt Beardie and the real reason for her sudden reappearance in England after so many years, is ultimately compelled to concoct her own plot, one that will force Jenny to make severe often criminal choices. The story is one to be savored for both the lush writing and the suspenseful manner in which the events unfold.

Cuppy is absolutely correct in his “whopping” assessment (seen at right). To spare you all painful eyestrain the full quote in that minuscule font is: “The Shearing cult will get their tummyfull of his special qualities in Aunt Beardie, certainly one of his most sinister novels, one that is built on a firm mystery foundation.” The book is a small wonder of a shocker. Aunt Beardie is one of those rarities I unearth in the seemingly bottomless pit of forgotten books: a work that is undeserving of its Limbo status. It ought to be treasured by legions of bibliophiles looking for a uniquely rewarding read.

 Posted by at 6:47 am
Oct 262012

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester
foreword by Alexander McCall Smith
introduction by Mike Ashley
British Library   $15.00
ISBN:  9780712358781
(distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

The British Library who earlier this year gave us a handsomely designed facsimile reprint of The Notting Hill Mystery have matched their efforts with a second forgotten cornerstone in the history of detective fiction. An informative introductory essay by Mike Ashley traces the authorship of The Female Detective, credited to the pseudonym “Andrew Forrester,” to James Redding Ware (1832 – c.1909) and puts this fascinating series of short stories and novellas into the context of the policeman’s casebook style of fiction popular in the early 1860s that would later develop into stories and novels about consulting and amateur detectives. Ware’s stories dare to cast in the lead role a woman undercover police officer (yes, such a person existed in the mid 19th century) who shows she is made of tougher and smarter stuff than the buffoons and doltish coppers she encounters in her line of work.

Not all of the stories feature the anonymous G___ , who often goes by the nom de guerre Miss Gladden. She at times steps aside to relate a second hand account of a mystery solved by the physician Y___, one of her colleagues in crime fighting, or Hardal “the most eccentric barrister who ever donned a stuff gown and a wig” who resembles in many ways the kind of genius consulting detectives that would soon flood the pages of The Strand in the tales of Conan Doyle, L.T. Mead, Arthur Morrison and others. When she is on her own, however, in the longest of the two stories Ware’s skills as a detective story writer as at their best. Who knew that as early as 1864 there were fictional writers detailing 19th century scientific investigative techniques that would foreshadow the high tech forensic police work that has become standard in any work of crime fiction? Miss Gladden (as I will refer to our anonymous lead) not only makes use of her wily feminine interviewing talents, but is well versed in such varied fields as anatomy, criminal psychology, and Victorian law all of which she makes use of in ferreting out the culprits and their unusual reasons for committing their crimes.

“Tenant for Life” is the first story — really closer to a novella at more than 90 pages — in the volume.  A chance remark from a cabman and his wife leads Miss Gladden to the family at Shirley House.  They may have gone to great lengths to preserve an inherited fortune. But was the stunt involving the switching of children really entirely criminal? Catherine Shedleigh and her brother turn out to be good and decent people though they have perpetuated what amounts to legal fraud in the eyes of the law and Miss Gladden. She is torn between feeling sympathy for the brother and sister and doing her duty as a policewoman. In fact, doing one’s duty is at the heart of this particular story. Miss Gladden is constantly referring to the necessity of the detective in society. She believes they exist to bring about justice. This need for justice guides Miss Gladden first and foremost and leads her to inform on the Shedleighs despite their decency and goodness to which she is greatly attracted. Only later when the truth behind the Shedleighs’ fraud is revealed will she subvert the law in order to protect them and punish someone else she sees to be more guilty, both legally and morally.

In “The Unraveled Mystery” we see a more scientific approach to crime solving. Miss Gladden recounts a past crime involving a dismembered body left in a carpet bag beneath a bridge. It turns out to be Miss Gladden’s cold case having left the police baffled who filed it as unsolved. She displays a virtuoso performance in tandem with her physician cohort Y___.  Together the two combine their talents and devise an entirely plausible solution to how and why the crime was done, what specific weapon was used, who the victim was, and most astonishing of all where he most likely lived.  She derides the routine police methods that often trap and hinder genuine police work. The point driven home in this exercise of detection is “that more intellect should be infused into the operation of the police system.” She would rather have imaginative thinkers on the police force than the brutish, nearly illiterate dullards she almost always must deal with.

Less a tale of detection than a morality lesson is “The Judgment of Conscience.” Here is another example of Miss Gladden’s observations of how crime is done for “noble” reason as as was first hinted at in “Tenant for Life.” In this tale a man intent on murder confesses to a crime committed by another and nearly ends up hanged for it. Miss Gladden’s insistence that ballistics evidence be examined saves him from the executioner’s rope.

There is also “A Child Found Dead – Murder or No Murder?” inspired by the Road Hill Tragedy better known to students of true crime history as the Constance Kent case.  An imaginative but unconvincing argument for a sleepwalking killer being responsible is presented in a second hand account. The solution is founded upon Victorian law and the legal definition of murder. Hardal, the detective in the story is also a lawyer, and he is more concerned with fitting the circumstances of the crime to the legal reasons that constitute murder. Too rigid regarding legalities Hardal dismisses or overlooks the complex human emotions at the root of the murder of the boy which turned out to be a sort of juvenile version of a crime of passion as we know now.

The best story in the volume — one that had been previously collected in an anthology of Victorian detective novels by E.F. Bleiler for Dover Books — is “The Unknown Weapon.”  Closer to a short novel (it runs to just under 100 pages) it is a rich and fascinating story of the mysterious murder of a squire’s son told from the point of the discovery of the body to the involved coroner’s inquest and ending in Miss Gladden’s personal investigation and solution of the crime.

In this tale more than any other we get Ware’s satiric side and his sense of humor. There is a parade of gossipy country servants, a nervous Nellie of a maid who can barely speak the language and is prone to “conniption fits”, and one of the stupidest police officers in all of Victorian fiction. An abundant use of country and lower class dialects is on display in the numerous interrogation scenes Miss Gladden conducts; her interpretative skills are taxed to their limit. Numerous parenthetical translations of the simplest words — Yoa is yes, Whoa is what, for example — are peppered throughout the story in a wry manner.

The Female Detective is a very welcome addition to the ever continuing evolution of the detective novel as we know it.  As more and more of these early texts are uncovered it is becoming clear to me that some of the most modern works of crime fiction came to us from overlooked writers in the earliest part of the 19th century. Ware’s book proves that it can hold its own against modern technical forensic thrillers, psychological suspense, and the intense legal and police procedurals that make up the bulk of contemporary crime fiction. In many cases the subtleties of the characters’ motives and the uncharacteristic and surprising vagaries of criminal behavior explored at the hands of a woman detective in the Victorian era are much more interesting to me than similar themes that have practically become commonplace in contemporary crime fiction.

 Posted by at 2:29 pm
Aug 052012

Work: Dr. Nikola by Guy Boothby
Publisher: Ward Lock, 1902 – a later edition
Artist: Stanley L. Wood (1867 – 1928)

To me Stanley Wood will always be remembered for the iconic portrait of Dr. Nikola. I know you’ve seen it. It’s what I use as my avatar over there to the right in the “About Me” section on this blog.  What surprised me was all the other work he is better known for.

Born in Monmouthshire in 1867 Wood traveled with his father a cement manufacturer to America in 1878. The family settled on a ranch in the Ute Indians territory of what would soon become Kansas. There is an amusing anecdote about how Wood’s mother tried to ward off the Ute Indians when he husband died.  You can read it here. Soon after her husband’s death, Charlotte Wood took her children back to England.  It was in London that Stanley became an illustrator for newspapers and magazines.

In 1888 he was sent to South Dakota by The Illustrated London News where he was better able to study the geography to give his work more authenticity.  Three examples of his western art can be found here, here, and here. From an art gallery website I learned this about Wood:

Book dealer Jefferson Chenoweth Dykes …wrote in Fifty Great Western Illustrators that “no better horse artist ever lived than Stanley L. Wood – there was more action in a Stanley Wood illustration than in the story itself”.

Later in his career Wood would also become well known for his military illustrations.  There are several websites devoted to displaying his work in this genre.  You can visit one of the best ones here.

Below are some excellent examples of Wood’s work taken form Dr. Nikola (originally published in 1896), the second novel about one of the first master criminals in all of fiction. As always, be sure to click on each picture in the tables to enlarge for full appreciation.

 Posted by at 5:15 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