Apr 182014
 
Good Friday. Today Catholics all over the world will attend special masses on this holiest of Holy Days of Obligation and remember the passion of Jesus Christ, the suffering and humiliation he endured on the day he was crucified.

In The Body (1983) Dr. Sharon Golban and her team of volunteer student archaeologists uncover a tomb in Jerusalem.  At first it appears empty, but then Sharon finds a wall of bricks unlike the stone walls of the rest of the tomb and when she removes some of those bricks finds a secret room. In that room there is a skeleton with orangish marks on the leg bones that are almost certainly an indication of oxidation from iron spikes, proof that the body was crucified. She also finds a kiln-fired piece of pottery inscribed with the Aramaic words Melek Yehudayai. Jewish King. Like the scientist she is Sharon considers these facts. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution reserved for criminals. A king would never be crucified. This must be an sign of a game of mockery that Roman soldiers engaged in. But wouldn't the disc say something more like King of the Thieves? The only person she can think of crucified and called a Jewish King was... But, no, that can't be. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His body shouldn't have remained on Earth in a secret room bricked up in the tomb where he was laid to rest. Sharon knows this could be a devastating discovery. She has to report it to her superiors.

Word spreads to the Vatican and they set up an international search to find a special man to head an investigation to prove or -- hopefully -- disprove that the body is that of Jesus. They select a very unusual Jesuit priest from Boston College named James Folan. Though many of the candidates for the job have backgrounds in science and archeology Father Folan does not. He is a college administrator who occasionally teaches a class in history. But he is also a former Marine who later worked in Laos for one year as part of an information gathering network for the CIA.  Because of some of his unique answers to the candidate interview process he is chosen as the man to lead the investigation in Israel. It will be a test of all he believes in leading to some drastic changes in his worldview.

Sapir is best known as one half of the writing team who created Remo Williams, aka "The Destroyer", one of the most popular and successful action heroes in the world of men's paperbacks. He also wrote a science fiction adventure novel called The Far Arena (1979) about the discovery of a Roman gladiator encased in ice who is brought back to life through some fanciful mad scientist experiments. Though much of The Body examines the political and religious implications of the possibility that all of Catholicism is based on a lie Sapir's background in pop fiction adventures unfortunately bleeds into the story. Sharon Golban is smart, feisty, and -- of course -- incredibly beautiful and highly sexualized. Father Folan does his best to fight his attraction to her, but succumbs to temptation. This is the only part of the book I found troublesome. Once Folan starts having sex with Sharon the whole books pretty much falls to pieces. His character and way of thinking drastically change. He nearly forgets the reason he is in Israel is as an emissary of the Pope for a very important task that could have earth shattering results for those who believe Jesus is God. Having Folan and Sharon become lovers cheapens a book that prior to these scenes was a thoughtful meditation on the mystery of faith and the importance of faith in the lives of devout Catholics.

I took an incredible amount of notes on this book and will try to put them into a digest form in a second post tomorrow. The Body has a lot to recommend it and provides a lot of food for thought. It would make a fantastic book club selection at any time of year not just this Easter/Passover season. Sapir includes all types of religion in the story with some provocative scenes that include radical orthodox Jews and a Palestinian living in Russia. Golban herself is half Iranian and her father an immigrant from Iran (though for some reason Sapir insists on calling it Persia). That's just scratching the surface.

The Body was also made into a movie in 2001 starring Antonio Banderas as Father Matt Gutierrez (Folan) and Olivia Williams as Sharon Golban. From one review I read online it seems to be very much updated to include all sorts of computer technology not present in the book and rewritten as one can guess by having a Latino priest in the lead rather than an Irish Catholic from Boston. It also apparently is pretty awful. Nevertheless, I've added it to my Netflix queue and plan on watching it soon. It'll be interesting to see just how different the movie is from Sapir's dense and thought provoking novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space I4 - "Author You've Never Read Before"
 Posted by at 12:33 pm
Apr 112014
 
The Cornish Coast Murder
by John Bude
British Library Crime Classics
(US distributor: University of Chicago Press)
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5715-9
286 pp. $15.00
Publication Date: April 2014
(originally published in 1935)

In the first chapter of The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) appropriately titled “Murder!” we meet Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr. Pendrill for a Monday evening ritual consisting of diner, cigars, post-prandial drinks and the opening of a very special package. Inside the package is a pile of detective novels by the likes of Fletcher, Farjeon, Sayers, Crofts and their old friend Agatha Christie. Dodd hopes that the new book includes “new adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot.” The two men proceed to discuss their favorite books, plotting techniques and murder methods. It's clear form this opening scene that the author is a fan of the traditional detective novel and all its trappings. And we get more than a fair share of puzzles and mysteries all solved by both a police inspector and an amateur detective. It's pretty clear that Reverend Dodd will fill the role of the amateur sleuth and he stuns Inspector Bigswell with some ingenious examples of both intuitive and scientific detection.

The story centers around the shooting death of irascible Julian Tregarthan, local magistrate, who disapproves of his niece Ruth's attention for young writer Ronald Hardy who lives along the coast. At first all evidence points to Ruth who had recently had a volatile argument with her uncle who afterwards stormed out of the house and made way for Ronald's cottage. Later, Inspector Bigswell believes that Ronald may have in fact killed the magistrate. then as more evidence pile sup including "the puzzle of the footprints" he think that the two are perhaps in collusion and are covering up for one another. Reverend Dodd, however, is convinced both of the o young lovers are innocent and sets out to prove Bigswell's theories to be incorrect.

The very rare 1st UK edition (Skeffington, 1935)
The clergyman relies heavily on intuition as the basis for solving and theorizing his solution. Bigswell like a true policemen prefers to examine facts and evidence. In an effort to match brains with technique the wily Reverend resorts to an elaborate experiment involving string measurements in order to find the converging point of the path of the three bullets found at the murder scene. It’s an impressive and wholly imaginative piece of work. It reminded me of some of the baroque scientific experiments in the detective novels of J. J. Connington, notably the photographing of shadows in The Sweepstakes Murder. Reverend Dodd also impresses both the reader and Bigswell with his explanation for the absence of footprints which are directly related to where he believes the gun was fired.

For a debut mystery novel this is admirable work though not without a few faults. The surprise reveal of the murder is somewhat anticlimactic in that the solution involves minutiae. The murderer, as in most detective novels of this era, turns out to be the least likely suspect but as his motive is tied to a picayune plot point mentioned only once it seems less than fair for a mystery that up till the denouement follows all the tenets of a fair play detective novel. Nevertheless the writing is straightforward, the characters are believable and appealing and there are enough puzzles to keep the reader both engaged and mystified. Reverend Dodd would have made for a nice series character, but Bude chose not to develop him further.

The Cornish Coast Murder includes a immensely readable introduction by crime writer Martin Edwards who sheds light on the little known life and career of Ernest Elmore, aka “John Bude”. Bude’s sophomore mystery The Lake District Murder has also been reprinted by the British Library as part of their classic mystery imprint. Both are available for purchase through the regular bookselling outlets on the internet. John Bude is a welcome addition to an exciting explosion of classic crime reprints from a variety of independent presses and the British Library seems to be leading the way in discovering forgotten writers well worth reading. You’d do well to acquaint yourself with his entertaining mysteries.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space L3 - "A Book with an Amateur Detective." This gives me my first Bingo. Woo-hoo! I could stop now, but I'm shooting for the whole card.
 Posted by at 7:30 am
Apr 042014
 
If you guessed that the based on the title alone The Case Against Myself is a courtroom drama told in the first person from the defendant's point of view you would only be partially correct. The Case Against Myself (1950) is indeed a courtroom drama, a murder trial to be specific. In part. It is told in the first person by the defendant Catherine Benedict. In part.

Why then isn't it called The Case Against Catherine Benedict? You may wonder this as I did. Because there are fifteen narrators in this novel each telling a portion of the story from their viewpoint. Among those narrators are several jurors, the defendant's husband, the husband's secretary, his second mistress, her husband, the judge, both trial lawyers, and even a private eye hired by the defense lawyer. All of them telling the story and each time adding another layer to a labyrinthine at times confusing plot. All of them, to some extent, tell the story of the case against themselves. In one way or another nearly all the narrators is complicit in the crime and has complicated the events surrounding the murder of Margo Chalmers, mistress to notorious gossip columnist Bernard Benedict. Yes, even a few of the jurors are guilty of some sort of lying or fraud. The choice of the title provides some hearty food for thought by the end of the book.

You would think with all these narrators author John Franklin Bardin (it's him all right writing under the pseudonym "Gregory Tree") would be experimenting with voice and style. But oddly because of his choice of title Bardin has also given his narrating characters a sound alike voice. When expressing their thoughts in narrative form there is a strange stilted nature in the deliberate avoidance of contractions and much of the vocabulary tends to be similar. It's as if he has created one collective unconscious. Only when the characters speak their dialogue do we get distinctive voices. It makes for an overall sinister tone to the book. The levels of paranoia and neurotic behavior that go hand in hand in any Bardin story become all the more unnerving when written in this often cold and distant narrative style.

Bardin, best known for a trio of psychological suspense thrillers dealing with mental illness, both real and feigned, is once again obsessed with psychiatry and abnormal psychology in this novel. One of the two characters who helps uncover the truth behind the confusing events surrounding the death of Margo Chalmers is psychoanalyst Dr. Noel Mayberry who, surprisingly, was treating both Catherine and her husband Bernard for their neuroses and morbid obsessions. Mayberry appears twice in the story. First, in a section narrated by Bernard, the doctor appears as a typical psychiatrist goading his patient to relax and tell his story calmly. Secondly, in the final pages in which he reveals both Catherine and Benedict were his patients and that he has been privy to more than his fair share of secrets. Only after the trial has ended can Mayberry finally discuss his patients' lives in detail and help the police explain the muddle of Margo's inevitably cruel murder.

To go into the complex plot any further would spoil this near brilliant example of a crime novel that is an amalgam of so many subgenres. It's a psychological suspense novel, it's a courtroom thriller, it's a private eye novel. In the final pages it's even a traditional detective novel ending with all suspects gathered in one room awaiting the moving finger to point out the identity of the murderer among them.

The book's only flaw is a tendency towards high melodrama in the final chapter aptly told from the murderer's point of view. But the killer is one of Bardin's typical psychos and has a narrative style so over-the-top that to a reader who has devoured thousands of crime novels will be all too familiar. It's not hard to pick out the culprit once the killer starts elaborating on so many kooky thoughts.

Prior to the murderer's unveiling, satisfying if overwrought, the story is very well done. There are many genuine surprises that while at times overburden the plot with twists and irony yet make sense when considering Bardin's intent as hinted at in his unusual title. There are a veritable French farce hotel's worth of nighttime visitors who infiltrate the crime scene, convenient witnesses who see all those visitors enter and exit the home, and crazy coincidences that multiple as the real truth is slowly uncovered. What begins as a tawdry domestic crime inexorably transforms into a nightmare worthy of the fervent imagination of Cornell Woolrich. Everyone is guilty of something -- a cover-up, a crime, a lie of omission, even the creation of fake evidence. No one escapes culpability in the final scene. That was Bardin's brilliance shining through and the most satisfying part of the book.

Dr. Mayberry and defense lawyer William Bradley appear in a sequel called The Case Against Butterfly, another courtroom drama told in multiple narratives involving a murder in the fashion business and featuring two sisters who are fashion models. This first book under the Tree pseudonym was inventive and imaginative enough to get me to track down the other. Hopefully, I'll have a review of the sequel sometime later this year.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age Bingo Card space D2: "A book with a lawyer, courtroom, judge, etc."
 Posted by at 1:49 pm
Mar 282014
 
I went through a period last summer of reading Kathleen Moore Knight's detective novels and romantic suspense thrillers. A while ago I came across her name in a list of underrated mystery writers and since I had a small boxful of her books I thought it was about time to catch up on her. She was one of the best selling writers in the stable of popular American writers published by Doubleday's Crime Club and turned out to be rather prolific, creating three different series characters (one under the pseudonym Alan Amos). Knight showed variety and range in her subject matter which includes country house detective novels set in New England, urban crime and mayhem set in New York City with publicity agent turned amateur sleuth Margot Blair solving the mysteries, and a wide array of adventure thrillers and early forms of romantic suspense almost all of them set in Central and South America.

 I started with two of her books featuring her First Selectman Elisha Macomber who lives on the fictional Penberthy Island (most likely modeled on Nantucket) in a village so small there is no official police department.  Death Blew Out the Match (1935) and The Clue of the Poor Shilling (1936) are admirable novice examples of quasi HIBK with a smidgen of fair play detective novel clues thrown in for good measure.  The second is far superior to the first. Though both of them end with the heroine bound and gagged in a cabin at the mercy of a token villain ...Shilling has tighter plotting, readable prose, a surprise reveal in the murderer's identity, deftly drawn characters, and one of the best examples of life on an isolated New England island in a detective novel of the late 1930s.

In doing research into her later books I also came across a book review in "The Criminal Record", a monthly column in the old Saturday Review in which "Sergeant Cuff" gave capsulized reviews of several books. One of Knight's books received high praise earning her the enviable adjective "ingenious" from the usually tough to please Cuff.  That book was Death Goes to a Reunion (1952).  I had to find a copy and see if it lived up to my own high standards.

Just last month I finally found an affordable copy.  I'm glad to report that while it may not be what I'd call ingenious it certainly has been the best of Knight's books I've read to date.

Essentially, what we have is yet another country house murder mystery with a small group of suspects. A group of sorority sisters who went to college in 1911 have gathered at the home of Helena and John Myrick for a 40th reunion. Oddly enough, all of the women at one time dated John, known as "Jocko" back in the day and still lovingly called by that nickname by his devoted granddaughter Nella. One afternoon during the reunion weekend a maid enters Jocko's study and finds him dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. It's hard for anyone to believe that he would've committed suicide, especially during a reunion of his wife's friends. All signs, however, seem to point to that end. Elisha Macomber steps in and begins his own investigation enlisting the aid of Nella and her fiance Peter as well as Henry, a simple-minded, talkative handyman who finds new confidence and an improved self-image in his role as assistant detective. Later, it is also necessary to call in Chief Buck, the police chief at the down-island town of Medbury, when there is another death and Macomber is certain a revenge crazed murderer is hiding among the ex-sorority sisters.

Knight does something very daring with this book. Each time a death occurs she allows the reader to see the scene played out. Because it is clear she intends that her killer be a woman Knight can still make the killer anonymous through the use of feminine pronouns. Since there are really only two male supporting characters it's still a fair play technique. Knight also manages to shift suspicion among the six or seven women suspects several times. It's done convincingly with both character observations and skillfully laid out clues. She had this reader reassigning the role of murderer at least four times before finally picking the correct culprit based on a single well planted yet rather subtle clue.

Macomber, unlike the early books I've read, has an increased lead role as detective. Knight is obviously much comfortable with her creation to give him so much stage time. He has grown older and now in his early sixties he has softened a bit and recognizes his flaws. While often self-deprecatingly calling himself "a doddering old blunderbuss" or "a ruminating old codger" he picks out the genuine evidence from the misleading red herrings and points out clearly to all just why the two victims did not die accidental deaths but were callously murdered by a very clever killer.

Finally, in this book Knight makes some pointed observations in her writing. Each character has their chance to shine and there are no extraneous "bogey characters" inserted into the story as filler or red herrings. The reader sees several of the suspects in solo scenes with many of these sequences displaying impressive writing. One can't help but be moved by lines like "One mourned -- not with the grief of loss, but because of the emptiness where love should have been" when Jocko's widow is meditatively recalling her reactions to her husband's death. In addition to the improved construction of the detective novel plotting this book is filled with similarly quiet yet powerful moments.

If you ever want the proper entry point for the detective novels of Kathleen Moore Knight I'd suggest you start with Death Goes to a Reunion. It's a stunner both as detective novel and a study of love gone terribly wrong. Agatha Christie would've been proud.

The Elisha Macomber Detective Novels
Death Blew Out the Match (1935)
The Clue of the Poor Man's Shilling (1936)
The Wheel That Turned (1936)
Seven Were Veiled (1937)
The Tainted Token (1938) (paperback reprint retitled: The Case of the Tainted Token)
Acts of Black Night (1938)
Death Came Dancing (1940)
The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946)
Footbridge to Death (1947)
Bait For Murder (1948)
The Bass Derby Murder (1949)
Death Goes to a Reunion (1952)
Valse Macabre (1952)
Akin to Murder (1953)
Three of Diamonds (1953)
Beauty is a Beast (1959)

 Posted by at 10:56 am
Mar 212014
 
The vicar of Marklane was already the subject of gossip for time he was spending with Maudie Grey. He was young and distant and had a few radical ideas. But when he knocked down teenage Rita Side with his car he lost what few friends he had made in the village. Then Rita begins to show signs of a dormant psychic power. Just after being treated by the locum tenens she predicts the doctor will soon be found in a car wreck at the edge of a forest. it causes chills in those present, especially her mother a God fearing woman who fears anything remotely supernatural. The young doctor is found dead shortly thereafter of a self-inflicted gun wound in his wrecked car. At the edge of a forest. Rita apparently has acquired Second Sight and she becomes the talk of the town.

One of Rita's most ardent fans is Angel Ordinal whose own private astrologist and "fortune teller" Mrs. Peckham recently died. With the news of Rita's new powers to foretell the future she strikes up a business relationship with her and plies her with probing questions in exchange for a few pounds. Rita reluctantly gives in to Angel’s demands and warns her to beware of a stranger. Angel laughs this off as the typical line a carnival or church fair fortune teller might pronounce: "Beware a tall dark stranger." She wants specifics. Who exactly is this man? Why should she beware of him?" Rita will say no more. But the reader knows that most of Rita's visions of the future are all related to death. One can only assume the worst is to come for Angel. And it comes violently.

The Chill and the Kill (1964) is one of Joan Fleming's most unique novels not just for its inclusion of genuine supernatural events, but for the fact that the crime element is added almost as an afterthought. While there is a murder and some amateur detective work in the final third of the novel the real story is that of Rita's psychic ability and the effect of that strange power on her family and the villagers of Marklane. Fleming's character work in this story is rich and varied from Rita's cantankerous grandfather Trinity Bend to the sophisticated Lady Veronica (Angel's best friend) to the slightly sinister antiques dealer Mr. Gundry who throws a party at which his guests are allowed to quiz Rita and test the authenticity of her Second Sight. Fleming has a keen eye for social satire but on occasion lets slip some supercilious snobbery. The mystery plot when it comes seems not only intrusive amid all the character studies, but it is almost a parody of the whodunit in its outrageous motive and the identity of the murderer, not to mention the bizarre circumstances involving the victim.

Even with these caveats I'd recommend this as an introduction to Fleming's literate and intelligent novels of suspense. Though I'm just beginning to acquaint myself with her work (see my previous review of When I Grow Rich) I am eager to read more. In her heyday Fleming received rave reviews, not the least of which came from Anthony Boucher who praised her originality saying "...no two of her mystery novels resemble each other in anything save artistry". Fleming can be uneven at times which may explain why she has fallen into the Limbo of Forgotten Writers, but more often than not you'll find her books to be offbeat and odd and far from formulaic.

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Reading Challenge Update: This is my first book on the Silver Age Bingo Card: V1 - "Read a book by an author you've read before"
 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Mar 142014
 
1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)
Slick fantasy. Now there's a new term for me. I discovered it is a sort of catch-all subgenre "usually in short-story form, which deals with such matters as Pacts with the Devil, Three Wishes, Identity Exchange, Answered Prayers, Little Shops of the Heart's Desire, etc." and were often published in the slick magazines as opposed to the pulps. This is one of the terms invented by John Clute and John Grant, the editors of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). Writers of slick fantasy include John Collier and Lord Dunsany and it is suggested that much of the work of  F. Anstey and Thorne Smith can also be included.

Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in "slick fantasy." I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.

Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of "Black Bart", an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias "Black Bart". After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart's stashed loot.

Extremely scarce paperback edition
Soon the estate is overrun with visitors and prospective buyers interested in the property. The weather turns nasty. Legend states that with the approach of thunderstorms comes the ghost of Sir Richard. The guests and two new owners prepare for ghostly visits by locking themselves up in their rooms. But the temptation of the jewels and money keep most of the guests busy by sneaking out. Much confusion and wackiness accompanied by slamming of doors, bedroom switches and women dressed in flimsy nighties ensues.

Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers' similar fault -- "drowning in words." In my first encounter reading Alexander as "Joan Butler" I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.

As for the "slick fantasy" element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say "The devil take you!" on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.

The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles -- Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 -- are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I'm hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.
 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Mar 072014
 

UK 1st edition (Herbert Jenkins, 1938)
 Elizabeth Curtiss' debut mystery novel Nine Doctors and a Madman (1940) first came to my attention in a brief review at Mystery*File. Interestingly, the evocative title and its subject matter -- the murder of a sadistic, egocentric psychiatrist at a mental institution -- sparked a lengthy discussion in the comments of detective novels set in asylums and mystery plots that deal with madness. A shame that somehow Curtiss' book was lost in the shuffle because it is not only one of the more fascinating debuts by a mystery writer, but it is a classic case of a book that breaks several rules and still succeeds as a fair play detective novel.

Dr. Frank Blythe is one of those characters in detective fiction who well deserve their violent end. Despised and mistrusted by every one of his colleagues at the asylum where he works he believed he had the power to manipulate and "hypnotically control" anyone he encountered. He even bragged that he could put a weapon in the hands of a violent inmate and prevent him from committing a murder. When he is found stabbed to death in a patient’s room it at first looks as if his arrogance has got the better of him and his experiment fatally backfired. But the placement of the body leaves room for doubt that the patient had anything to do with the crime. Furthermore, the unusual murder weapon was an item known to only three people and was always hidden in Blythe's apartment in the staff housing separate from the patient quarters. That weapon, an antique British Meat skewer, was presented as a gift to his wife Myrna, a woman who lived in fear of her husband. Who wouldn’t be frightened of a man who gives a meat skewer as a gift? A skewer that is engraved with the Latin phrase Hoc me occide, si audeus (translated in the book as "Kill me with this if you dare") -- the very same phrase the Borgias engraved on murder weapons they gave to their enemies.

As the title suggests there are nine other doctors in the cast of characters who are immediate suspects. Yet all of them have near iron-clad alibis for the time of the killing. There is not one madman but several in the cast, but as the story progresses the reader learns that perhaps the titular "madman" is one of the doctors. The case is investigated by Dr. Nathaniel Bunce aided by his resident intern Dr. Theophilus ("Call me Phil") Bishop who also serves as narrator. Bishop is no dullard like Captain Hastings nor is he the awestruck and sometimes confused John Watson. He is sharp as a tack. It helps that he is the son of a district attorney. But under Bunce's tutelage as both a student of psychology and criminology Bishop has lots to learn.

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937)
Complicating the story of Dr. Blythe's murder is the fact that Bunce is assisting the police in a case of strychnine poisonings. Is there a serial killer on the loose killing men of "small, unprepossessing appearance and effeminate physical type"? Do those poisoning murders have anything to do with the twelve guinea pigs in Dr. Gina Fiske's lab that have all mysteriously died of some poison? Could the killer be among the staff at the asylum?

The story is rife with clues and red herrings. A button torn from a nurse's uniform, a set of missing spoons, a nurse who manages to appear in two different places within a span of one minute, a noisy and powerful X-ray machine that when in use causes all the lights in the institution to dim, and a sparrow's nest in a clock tower are among the more imaginative bits that make for quite a puzzling case. Add in a group of patients who have taken to swallowing objects like pieces of pottery and kitchen utensils and Dr. Blythe's cruel antipathy for alley cats that led him to order the groundsman to shoot them on sight and you have more than enough ingredients for a bubbling cauldron of suspicion and intrigue.

Perhaps most striking of all is Curtiss' handling of the denouement. The final pages are reminiscent of some of the cases of Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Beatrice Bradley where a fictional detective decides to become both sleuth and judge. Dr. Bunce presents alternate theories about what actually happened in the patient’s room. He hints that the death of Dr. Blythe was a just one and finagles the evidence and manipulates the police inspector in charge of the case to think that one of the solutions he presents is the correct one, when in fact it is not. In the final chapter Dr. Bishop and another psychologist discover for themselves the true identity of the killer and are astonished at the unethical practices of Dr. Bunce.

Nathaniel Bunce appeared in only one other book (Dead Dogs Bite, 1939) and Elizabeth Curtiss seemed to abandon the genre completely afterwards. What a shame. Based on her debut alone she showed great promise. She might have been one of the few ingenious woman mystery writers of this era, one who could've shaken up the tired formulas of the genre and given her seasoned colleagues a real run for their money
 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Feb 212014
 
I think to many mystery readers the specialty mystery is a relatively new idea. There was discussion on a few other vintage mystery blogs a few weeks ago as to what constitutes the "cozy mystery" - a term I am growing to loathe. I hear that term and rarely think of the traditional mystery of the Golden Age, but instead of these new specialty mysteries that deal with bakeries, cheese shops, pet sitting services and amateur sleuths who enjoy home crafts like needle point and sponge painting on walls. Assiduous readers of vintage mysteries already know that these types of specialty mysteries -- books set in a specific milieu with crimes directly related to that setting and solved by either an amateur or professional detective -- were rather common in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the first creators of a specialty mystery was Zelda Popkin who gave us Mary Carner, a department store detective. In her debut appearance, Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938), Mary helps the New York police solve the murder of an executive at Jeremiah Blankfort & Company, a rival to world famous Macy's.

Not long after the doors of Blankfort's have been opened for a gala celebration and huge store wide sale marking the 50th anniversary of the store, the body of Andrew McAndrew, the store's credit manager is found strangled, his body shoved into a small space between salesman’s cubicles in a remote area open only to store employees. The body was discovered by a professional shoplifter who had previously stowed a suitcase containing some ladies' lingerie he was planning to take out of the store unpaid for. He is held for questioning while Mary makes her way (under orders from her boss Chris Whitaker) to McAndrew's office. She is told to change the locks to his office doors, but her innate detective instincts take over while doing that relatively routine task. She notices several unusual things, like a woman’s handkerchief and some torn papers that arouse her curiosity.

Soon the interrogation begins and motives and secrets are uncovered like new merchandise being put on display. The hysterical Evelyn Lennon, McAndrew's secretary confides in Mary that she was having an affair with her boss. Not one for discretion Evelyn's fling with McAndrew was well known among her gossipy co-workers and even McAndrew's wife. When Mrs. McAndrew is brought in for questioning there is a nasty catfight that escalates from bitchy insults to face slapping and hair pulling. Mary and Chris have to intervene before the two women suspects are carted off to jail.

The structure of the story is borrowed from the Van Dine school with Mary in the Philo Vance role (minus all the snooty erudition) and a team of Manhattan police, the D.A. (a former judge in Popkin's book) and Mary's boss Chris Whitaker all working together to solve the murder. In the course of the investigation Popkin gives us a neat little seminar in the business aspects of department store, the importance of store detectives and the fine art of shoplifting. Popkin and her husband were at one time involved in their own publicity firm and handled several department store accounts providing her first hand knowledge of pre-World War Two era retail.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Popkin wastes no time in getting straight to the action. From the very first sentence when we know shoplifter Joseph Swayzey is up to no good to the discovery of the murdered credit manager a short time afterwards the story moves at a brisk pace. The investigation is non-stop with few side trips to the land of backstory. I found it to be engaging, fast paced and populated with excellent characters. In addition to the delving into the backstage of a department store Popkin 's great strength is in creating a lively group of fully realized characters all of whom have distinctive voices. She has a gift for real dialogue and also adds a nice period flavor in her frequent use of shop girl slang and urban idiomatic speech.

Death Wears a White Gardenia was Zelda Popkin's first mystery novel. Mary Carner, her department store detective, went on to solve more murders in five other books. Three of Popkin's mystery novels were reprinted in the Dell Mapback editions. For those who enjoy browsing and hunting used book stores or the various online markets they are usually easy to find and very affordable. Boson Books, a small press, has also reprinted Death Wears a White Gardenia as well as Time Off for Murder.

For more about Mary Carner’s sleuthing adventures read TomCat's reviews of Murder in the Mist and Dead Man's Gift at his blog Beneath the Stains of Time.

Zelda Popkin's Detective Novels
Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938)
Murder in the Mist (1940)
Time Off for Murder (1940)
Dead Man's Gift (1941)
No Crime for a Lady (1942)
So Much Blood (1944)

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This book serves as yet another space filled in on my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card (Golden Age version). It's space D4 "A Book with a Professional Detective"

 Posted by at 5:01 pm
Feb 142014
 
"If there's any flumdiddling of the police to be done, I'm the one to do it."

--Sir Henry Merrivale in My Late Wives

There is a lot of flumdiddling and farcical doings amid the criminal mischief and baffling murders in My Late Wives (1946), Carter Dickson's follow-up to the infamous The Curse of the Bronze Lamp.  I say infamous because in that book Dickson included a kind of twist that I consider something of a cheat in a murder mystery.  The rear panel on the DJ for My Late Wives hints that Dickson has surpassed the impossibilities of his previous book.  Did he really write a better mystery?

The story is pure fancy, one that could only take place in the pages of a detective novel. We learn that someone has written a play based on the life of a murderer and sent the script to a well known actor. His friend and colleague, Beryl West, would love to direct the play even though it may be libelous but it has a weak ending. The play is based on the life of Roger Bewlay, a known multiple murderer who killed and disposed of the bodies of his four wives. The requisite Dicksonian impossibility appears in the last murder. Bewlay managed to murder his wife in a house watched by two policemen and witnessed by another woman outside. But when the police broke into the house there was no sign of a murder and no body. What happened to the murder victim? And what happened to all the other bodies of his dead wives?

Bruce Ransom, the actor who receives the play, is challenged by Beryl to act out in real life the part and test the weak ending of the play. He is to pretend to be Roger Bewlay, court a young woman and all the while let slip that he is a wife killer and let that spread throughout the town. Then just as the girl is ready for Bruce to ask her to marry him he reveals that everything is a sham. He's really an actor and he's not a murderer at all, that it's all research for an upcoming play.  Crazily enough, Ransom accepts the challenge and the story takes off like gangbusters.

Enter Sir Henry Merrivale explosively. Literally. He makes his appearance in this novel accompanied by his Scottish golf instructor in an amusement arcade which he manages to destroy in one of Dickson's usual over-the-top low comedy sequences. As extreme as it was I burst out laughing. I guess I needed a dose of Three Stooges style nonsense that day. The book is filled with these usual blustery Merrivale escapades. A silly fight on a golf course and the following argument initially seem like filler, but will have greater significance in the final pages. However, it's one of the least clever bits of misdirection in the book, one that led me to the solution of how Roger Bewlay's victims were disposed of.

Merrivale is not really onstage all that much and that is part of the problem with the book. Though he gives a lot of advice to Dennis, Beryl's lawyer friend, and drops hints that he knows the real Roger Bewlay has shown up in the town where Bruce is doing his play-acting/research he does not really solve the case. Dickson allows the actor to have a melodramatic confrontation with the killer that might as well have taken place in a theater while Merrivale, Dennis and Beryl watch in an adjoining room. Bruce nearly is done in by the maniac and Merrivale steps in at the eleventh hour to stop one last murder.

The plot is difficult to summarize since the playscript, the story of Roger Bewlay's life of crime, and Bruce Ransom's "research" all intersect and overlap as the novel progresses. There are multiple mysteries to solve and it got a little dizzying for me as Merrivale tried to explain to Dennis and Beryl how he knew Bewlay committed all his wife murders, knew where the bodies were hidden and hinted at one more murder that might take place. Of course it does occur and both Denis and Beryl are devastated that they could have prevented it if only Merrivale hadn't been so damned ambiguous.

Such is the world of John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson. His plots are all fancy and contrivance.  Who would ever write a play based on a murderer's real crimes, divulging previously undisclosed evidence, and then send it to an actor? Wouldn't someone just call the police and tell them what they knew? Asking questions like this when reading a book by Carter Dickson or John Dickson Carr is futile. You must surrender to his fantastical plots and absurdities or the book can never be enjoyed for the baffling puzzle it ought to be.

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This counts as another book on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I've counted it as space G6 ("A Book Set in the Entertainment World").  I seem to be doing this haphazardly with no intention of trying to get a Bingo line, right?  But there is indeed a method to my reading selections. Solve that mystery if you can!

 Posted by at 6:51 am
Feb 072014
 
The introduction to Just an Ordinary Day (1997) written by two of Shirley Jackson's grown children tells how they received a box of manuscripts, carbon copies and typewritten sheets of unpublished stories as well as the original manuscript for The Haunting of Hill House and character notes for that novel. The two siblings began to think about putting together a volume of their mother's unpublished work.  In doing research they uncovered even more published work that had never been reprinted in book form.

Just An Ordinary Day brings together thirty vignettes and stories that were never published in Jackson's lifetime in the first half of the book. A second section reprints an additional twenty-two stories that originally appeared in a variety of magazines between 1943 and 1968. Though mostly women's magazines bought Jackson's stories I was surprised to see among the list of publications Harper's, Vogue, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy. Three stories were purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction but I have to say the fantasy content is very slight and none of them would I classify as science fiction by the widest leap of imagination. I can't believe they made it to that revered magazine. Clearly, Jackson was able to appeal to a wide audience even if her themes and topics seemed to be very similar as I moved along from story to story.

I'll admit I did not read this volume cover to cover. I randomly selected stories based on the titles or by the magazine in which the story was originally published. Admittedly this was not a very good way to discover what I wanted to read -- Jackson's darker fiction dealing with crime, the supernatural or domestic suspense tales. I hit gold with only three stories. "Nightmare" tells a story of surreal paranoia when a woman feels she is the subject of a bizarre advertising gimmick that seems to have taken over the city. An eerily evocative supernatural tale of people trapped in a painting ("The Story We Used to Tell") is a brief but chilling example of Jackson's gift for making the flesh creep. "The Possibility of Evil" about an anonymous letter writer was my favorite story of the batch I selected.

While perusing the other stories I learned that the bulk of Jackson's fiction was about suburban life, married couples and troublesome children ("Arch Criminal" and "I.O.U."), the problem with gossip in small towns ("The Very Strange House Next Door"), the malaise of housewifery and the desire to escape ("Maybe It Was the Car"), the dependence on neighbors for help and advice ("When Things Get Dark" and "I.O.U." again) and other similar themes. But in all of them Jackson managed to undercut the mundane and the superficial with an uneasiness and a cruelty that was often disturbing.

One of the most interesting things that Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart have done with this material is to point out the way Jackson liked to recycle plot ideas and even characters from story to story. The most fascinating juxtaposition is of two versions of the same story called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" in one version and "The Mystery of the Murdered Bride" in the other. In the former the story is more fleshed out, more direct with little ambiguity except for perhaps the very last line. In the second, and probably the first version, the story is vague and hazy. It seems unpolished. There's too much left to suggestion and the final sequence is just muddled. Jackson is trying to plant the idea that Mrs. Smith is oblivious that her new husband might be a wife killer with a couple of bodies buried in his past. I think the version called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" is the more successful of the two. Similarly, the entire plot of "Nightmare" was lifted and inserted as a minor incident in "The Omen", one of her stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction that to my mind is representative of neither genre.

Her darker fiction is not well represented in this hefty volume. There is an ambiguous ghost story that has traces of crime fiction in "The Missing Girl" and "The Friends" is a nasty story of busybody Ellen who decides to put an end to the adulterous affair of her friend Marjorie by commandeering Marjorie's free time. But it is "The Possibility of Evil" where I found Jackson to be at her shining best. Published in the December 18, 1965 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (mistakenly noted as 1968 in this book) we get to know the inner workings of superficially kindly old woman Miss Strangeworth who in her spare time writes poison pen letters to the neighbors she is smiling to on a daily basis. When she has a mishap mailing a batch of those letters and some children help her by hand delivering a letter she dropped Miss Strangeworth gets a bitter taste of her own "good intentions". Deservedly, in 1966 "The Possibility of Evil" won Jackson the Edgar for "Best Short Story". This is the kind of story I've always felt was Jackson's strength. Though she may show traces of the underbelly of apparently peaceful suburban life in her more lighthearted domestic tales it is this kind of portrait of Adela Strangeworth that is her hallmark in American fiction.
 Posted by at 3:57 pm

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