A group of British ex-pats have settled themselves into a cozy unnamed village outside of Accra in the Gold Coast colony of West Africa. Stephenson for some reason sets his story in an unspecified year in the 1950s, but it must be before 1957 when the colony became the independent nation of Ghana. Within the first couple of pages I knew I was probably in for trouble when I noticed that the characters’ names were taken from a box of crayons. Harry and Sally Gray, Jimmy and Heather Brown, Hetty and Tweeny (!) Green, Robert Gold, Dennis and Mona Silver, Mr. and Mrs. Blue... You get the picture. There’s Miss Scarlett, too! Yes, Ann Scarlett with two Ts who instantly made me think that Stephenson was trying to pull off a parody of Clue. Or for Stephenson, I guess, Cluedo is more accurate. No such luck. In fact not one person in the story ever comments on the ridiculousness of everyone having a rainbow array of surnames.
The story begins with a New Year’s Eve party with lots of drinking and dancing and transparent exposition clumsily handled. The cast of characters are introduced in dizzying (but colorful) succession. The women chit chat endlessly about clothes, gossip about characters we never meet, and indulge in other pointless banter. The men practically slap each other on the back while tossing off cocktails and speaking like the worst sort of British stereotypes. "The war" is mentioned repeatedly. I’m guessing they are all WW2 veterans, but no one is ever very specific about which war they are talking about. Only Dennis Silver’s entrance brings any kind of interest and mystery to these opening chapters when he begins an info dump monologue on African witchcraft. This seems to be taken verbatim from the two books Stephenson felt it necessary to acknowledge in the “Author’s Note” that precedes the first chapter. Those books are Sir James George Frazer’s seminal study on symbology, rites and rituals in religion The Golden Bough and Religion and Art in Ashanti by R. S. Rattray. In an offhand comment that concludes an early chapter (not cleverly hidden among the rest of the chit chat) we get the tantalizing tidbit that Sally Gray and Hetty Green look remarkably similar from the back in their striking black gowns. An alarm bell couldn’t have sounded any louder to signal an imminent mistaken identity murder.
Sure enough a day later Sally Gray is found murdered in the locked and barred sitting room of the Green’s jungle bungalow. Entry to the house is only via French windows serving as doors that line a veranda extending alongside the entire perimeter. The veranda is covered with a fine mesh of mosquito netting and all the windows and doors are faced in burglar bars. (see the map below) But the front door is locked from the inside as is the rear entry to the house. Summoned by terrifying screams three men run to the house and break down the door. But it’s too late. Sally has died from a fatal strike to the chest from a tribal bow and arrow. How on earth did the murder use the weapon and escape from a locked and barred house? No holes are found in the netting outside the veranda and the bow is nowhere to be found.
|Plan of the Green's Bungalow (click to enlarge)|
Nothing is made of these names. To a mystery fan like me this was more than troubling. Such an obvious choice is rife for possibility in a detective novel and was completely ignored. Not even a joke mentioned in passing by any of the characters. Nothing! A writer like Ellery Queen for example would have made a choice like this and run with it planting red herrings all over the place related to the surnames, maybe even reserving an entire chapter to what seems like a coincidence but in fact a sinister design. Not so with Stephenson. It must’ve been a case of the writer chuckling privately to himself. I kept rolling my eyes.
In one of the most patronizing parts of the book Finch (the primary detective) talks in Pidgin English to the servants. They also reply in pidgin English making it seem as if the book has been transplanted to the Limehouse district of a Sax Rohmer novel and the Africans transformed into the worst kind of Yellow Peril novel supporting cast. It doesn’t help that all of the Africans refer to all of the European characters as Master or Missy. Sometimes you just can’t overlook this kind of petty racism.
Darkest Death would’ve been a much better book with its promising plot and exotic setting in the hands of a much more talented writer. I can imagine how gasp inducing the finale would have been had this been a John Rhode book or one by Carr or Queen. In the hands of this mediocre writer the locked room mystery is a fizzle with a borderline preposterous solution, the revelation of the murderer comes with a lame forced confession, and the climactic pursuit of the villain on the run that leads to the beach and ends in a swimming race with half naked policemen trying their best to prevent a suicide by drowning. Stephenson tacks on a happy ending coda in which our detective heroes raise glasses in a champagne toast commending themselves on a job well done while simultaneously congratulating Stalky Heron for snagging Ann Scarlett as his wife to be.
Well, they can't all be winners, gang.
READING CHALLENGE update: My first book on the Silver Age bingo card. It covers S2 - "Book set anywhere except the US or England"
Today’s your last chance to enter to win an advance copy of Michael Robotham’s forthcoming novel from Goodreads. Have at it!
The narrator is impressed with Roderick's paintings, and thus attempts to cheer him by reading with him and listening to his improvised musical compositions on the guitar. Roderick sings a song, then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be alive. Eventually The narrator flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of moonlight behind him, causing him to turn back in time to see the moon shining through the suddenly widened crack of the house. As he watches, the House of Usher splits in two and the fragments sink into the sea.
• Amid all the publicity surrounding Paula Hawkins’ debut crime thriller, The Girl on the Train (Riverhead), Crime Fiction Lover surveys the broader field of “railways in crime fiction.” Works by Edward Marston, John Buchan, and (no surprise here) Agatha Christie all figure prominently in the mix.
• I had a good deal to say about the beautiful book The Art of Robert E. McGinnis when it was first published last fall. But blogger Andrew Nette piles on with this recent appreciation in Pulp Curry.
• There’s been lots of news recently from Hard Case Crime. Not only does it have two long-out-of-print Ed McBain works slated for publication (one this coming July, the other--with a McGinnis-painted front--planned for release come January 2016), but it’s readying a brand-new Lawrence Block novel, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, for distribution in September 2015. According to a news release, Block’s book “tells the story of a former New York police officer, now working as a private eye in Florida, who gets drawn into the web of a local wife who’s looking for a hit man to help her become a widow. Block has described the book as ‘a down-and-dirty noir thriller, characterized by my Hollywood agent as “James M. Cain on Viagra.”’”
• “The 50 Sexiest Literary Villains,” according to Flavorwire, include Helen Grayle from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler, Veda Pierce from James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, and Francisco Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee in the 1974 film version of Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun.
• I have never before seen this 1976 British telefilm adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s best-known thriller, Rogue Male. Watch it yourself … before YouTube takes it down.
• For January Magazine, Brooklyn critic Anthony Rainone reviews The Burning Room, the latest entry in Michael Connelly’s popular Harry Bosch detective series.
• Unfortunately, I have two deaths to report: Best-selling Australian novelist Colleen McCullough has passed away at age 77. Although she was known most widely as the author of The Thorn Birds (1977), which was made into a 1983 TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlin and Rachel Ward, McCullough also penned five novels featuring a small-town detective named Carmine Delmonico (beginning with 2006’s On, Off). Meanwhile, Elizabeth Foxwell notes in The Bunburyist that “Helen Eustis, Edgar winner for The Horizontal Man (1946) and the last living author on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list of essential mysteries, died on January 11 at age 98. She was also known for The Fool Killer (1954, adapted for a 1965 film with Anthony Perkins).”
• Friend of The Rap Sheet Tony Black (Artefacts of the Dead) has a stage play, The Ringer, opening for a two-day run at the Gaity Theater in Ayr, Scotland, on Wednesday, February 11. “Told in the raw Scots tongue,” it’s based on his short 2014 novel of the same name. As the Gaity’s Web site explains, this “hard-hitting crime drama … is a cautionary tale of revenge, enacted upon the most unsavory of characters.” Here’s a plot synopsis:
For small-time Glasgow drug dealer Stauner, life is sweet when he meets Monique. With free board and an unpaid servant at his beck and call, the daily trip to the bookies is his toughest chore. It could all be too good to be true, but the misogynist Stauner stupidly believes it’s his due. When the wide boy’s deluded state persuades him that Monique should steal from night-club boss Davie Geddes, however, Stauner’s arrogance gets the better of him. Soon his cloak of small-minded bigotry is stripped from him and he’s forced to pay for the grievous misdeeds of his past.Click here to watch a video preview of The Ringer.
• Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is being called out of retirement once more. The Scottish author isn’t giving much information regarding his next Rebus novel, but he did tweet recently, “I’m keeping the title of my next book under wraps, but am beginning to wish I hadn’t named it after a song with such a catchy chorus …”
• As I’ve mentioned, UK screenwriter and author Anthony Horowitz (House of Silk, Moriarty) has completed his writing on the next James Bond novel, “based on an Ian Fleming idea for a never-made James Bond television series and [with] a setting in the world of auto racing.” Like Ian Rankin, Horowitz isn’t revealing the title of his book yet, but The HMSS Weblog has a suggestion for what it could be.
• Let me go on record as agreeing with Kristopher Zgorski’s comment, in BOLO Books, that Grantchester, the British sleuth drama now showing in the United States as part of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! series, “is a pure delight to watch.” Based on the fiction of James Runcie, it stars James Norton (who played the creepiest of killers in Season 1 of Happy Valley) as Anglican priest and amateur gumshoe Sidney Chambers, who repeatedly comes to the investigative aid of overworked, ill-tempered Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). As Zgorski explains, “The first season of Grantchester is based on the debut novel in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death . Since the book is more of a collection of short stories featuring recurring characters, the television series follows the same format. Each hour-long episode is dedicated to one case that Sidney and Geordie must solve. As one would expect, the mysteries contained within have various levels of complexity, but they are nevertheless entertaining.” Only two of six episodes of Grantchester have been broadcast so far, and Criminal Element’s Leslie Gilbert Elman is keeping close track of them.
• Hmm. I, for one, had never looked at Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire as a mystery. But apparently I should have.
• In the blog Ontos, Mike Gray looks back at three episodes of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) that featured detective and mystery themes. If my memory serves, however, the first time Star Trek incorporated a criminal investigation into its fictional universe was in “Wolf in the Fold,” a 1967 episode of the original series that found the Enterprise’s chief engineer, Montgomery Scott, being suspected of having slain several women during a shore leave on the planet Argelius II.
• I only vaguely recall this Saturday morning cartoon show.
• And don’t forget that the submission deadline for entries to the 2015 Debut Dagger competition, organized by the British Crime Writers’ Association, is this Saturday, January 31. As the CWA Web site explains, “The Debut Dagger is open to anyone who has not yet had a novel published commercially. All shortlisted entrants will receive a professional assessment of their entries. Winning the Debut Dagger doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published. But it does mean your work will be seen by leading agents and top editors, who have signed up over two dozen winners and shortlisted Debut Dagger competitors.”
MEET MR. CALLAGHAN. Eros Films, UK, 1954. Derrick de Marney, Harriette Johns, Peter Neil, Adrienne Corri, Larry Burns, Trevor Reid, Delphi Lawrence. Based on the novel The Urgent Hangman by Peter Cheyney. Director: Charles Saunders.
Every once in a while, if you watch enough old movies on DVD, even the most obscure ones, you run across one that you enjoy so much you know about it. Such is the case with Meet Mr. Callaghan, and luckily I so have a blog by which I can you, at least, about it.
I’ve not been able to confirm that The Urgent Hangman is indeed the Peter Cheyney novel the movie’s based on — that will have to wait — but Slim Callaghan is a British PI who appears in any number of Cheyney’s novels and short stories, and at the moment one mention on IMDb is all I have to work with.
And The Urgent Hangman is the first Slim Callaghan novel, and if it’s as good as the movie, it would be well worth reading. Callaghan is one of those PIs whom, once you hire him, just won’t let go, even if you want to fire him. He’ll do everything in the book on your behalf, even if you come to detest him, as young and beautiful Cynthia Meraulton (Harriette Johns) soon discovers, and even outside the book, as demonstrated on this case.
Callaghan, you see, if one those PIs who believe in manipulating evidence, intimidating witnesses, bribing and double-crossing suspects and whatever else it takes. I was reminded in this regard of Perry Mason, whose actions are also often questionable but always make sense in the end. But Callaghan goes Mason the extra mile. Mason stays within the law, Callaghan skirts just on the other side of it.
The case: Cynthia Meraulton fears that her stepfather may be murdered and she will be set up to take the blame by one of the man’s sons, who are all included in the man’s will. Red flags go up as soon as Callaghan learns that the man has been killed, and quite probably right around the time Cynthia was in his office.
Derrick de Marney, who plays Slim Callaghan, reminded me at times of Robert Mitchum, not so much the droopy eyelids, but on occasions those too. But I’m thinking more of the laconic almost deadpan delivery, but very British in nature. It is difficult to put into words — I don’t believe I’ve come across anything like it before, and de Marney is very very good at it.
There are also several good-looking women in this movie, including Delphi Lawrence, who plays Callghan’s secretary Effie Perkins, who unlike Sam Spade’s Effie, is not loyal, far from it.
The detective work is very good, and the complicated plot holds together, but it’s the overall sense of good humor that really carries the day — not laugh out loud funny, but the mood is light enough to smile almost constantly.
There was a second Slim Callaghan movie made the next year, Amazing Mr. Callaghan, said to have been based on the novel Sorry You Have Been Troubled, but that one stars Tony Wright and was made in France by another filming company altogether, which is too bad, since I’d like to see another one made by the same crew as was responsible for this one.
dealing with mortality, the loss of longtime friends and the existential
traps everyday existence.
Why I write poetry by Tom Piccirilli
available exclusivey from crossroads press