Mar 292014
"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
 Posted by at 5:14 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 152014
Phineas Spinnet is the creation of Andrew Soutar, an incredibly prolific British writer during the 1920s and 1930s whose popular fiction mostly consists of romances and domestic melodramas. Soutar also wrote a handful of detective and crime novels some of which feature Spinnet who was popular enough to have appeared in a radio series during the 1930s. But based on this one adventure of his I can’t see what the appeal is.

Spinnet is part of that subset of supercilious private “inquiry agents” inspired by Sherlock Holmes. What Soutar fails to capture in all of Phineas Spinnet’s arrogance and misanthropy is the kind of respect Holmes demands. Spinnet is just plain unlikeable. He has intuitive skills rather than a talent for detection, an ego as immense as the Atlantic Ocean, and a coterie of lackeys who do most of the real work while he sits back insulting nearly everyone he encounters. He smokes his expensive cigarettes sneering and dismissing everyone around him as incompetent. It’s only the unusual background of the primary characters’ connection to British colonies in India and Ceylon that held my interest in this adventure of Spinnet’s aptly titled Facing East (1936).

The story begins with a great hook reminiscent of the best of John Dickson Carr. Sir Cuthbert Bale asks for Spinnet’s help in finding out why the legendary Death Watch specter has reappeared and is haunting the grounds of Grimston Hall, Bale’s ancient Tudor estate located in Crowhurst, Sussex. Captain Leech, a visiting ex Indian Army soldier has dropped dead while visiting Sir Cuthbert and witnesses claim that an apparition with a skull like face was most likely the cause. Any time the Death Watch phantom appears someone is sure to die shortly thereafter.

Spinnet makes his way to Grimston Hall where he meets up with a group of suspicious servants led by the sinister Lycett, Sir Cuthbert's Indian butler. The story begins to shift in point of view and soon it is clear that the overall mood and structure will be that of a thriller and not a detective novel. The servants are busy at night doing some mysterious digging on the grounds and explain that they are looking for a mineral spring for the possible construction of a well. Spinnet knows better that to believe such an implausible story. His suspicions of ulterior motives are confirmed when the chauffeur reveals that he has been reading up on the history of Grimston Hall in some library books and has learned of treasure that may be buried in the vicinity of the house. Then the chauffeur disappears one night after one of the midnight digging sessions.

St George's Church, Crowhurst, Sussex
scene of the criminal activity in Facing East
When Drugmann, an old friend of Sir Cuthbert’s turns up unexpectedly – again after travelling in parts of Asia – Spinnet is convinced there is some conspiracy at work to get control of the estate. Then Drugmann drops dead from mysterious causes though Spinnet is convinced he was poisoned, a fate similar to that of Captain Leech. Yet how was the poison administered in full view of three other people? The method of the poisoning, however, will not be revealed until the final chapter. Though there was ample opportunity to play fair with just how and what form the poison took Soutar chooses to allow Spinnet dazzle everyone with his intuitive skills in a gathering of the suspects in the drawing room scene. It is a surprise and rather an ingenious way to kill someone but I was disappointed that Soutar couldn’t plant a few more clues for the benefit of the reader.

Several macabre set pieces (again almost a homage to Dickson Carr) manage to maintain the reader's interest. These include an illegal exhumation, the surprise of a missing corpse in the coffin, some grisly antics in a family vault and the reappearances of the Death Watch specter in and out of Grimston Hall. Spinnet is assisted by Timson, an ex-convict manservant in the manner of Magersfontein Lugg, and a reformed con artist named Marie Crosby Dick who has a talent for acting. The two of them pose as a "Lady Blythe Kenny" and her servant "James" and hole up in a local inn in order to keep tabs on some other bad guys outside of the Bale household.

10 1/2 days back in 1930
Other interesting facets of the book include a section devoted to passenger air travel and the business of a commercial aerodrome that takes up all of Chapter 24. In this chapter I learned that, in 1936 at least, it took four days to fly to Australia including all stops for refueling and stocking of provisions. Also that in order to talk to one’s fellow passenger the use of special earphone/headsets was required to cut down on the deafening noise of the propellers. I thought it was the best part of the book.

I’m not sure I’ll be investigating any other adventures of Phineas Spinnet. He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him. Eccentric detectives were all the rage back in the heyday of the Golden Age but this detective who cares more about his jigsaw puzzle collection than people is just not the kind of character I’m interested in reading about. Give me detective with quirks and humanity, not this odious megalomaniac.

Nearly every book featuring Phineas Spinnet is exceptionally hard to find anywhere. Those that are offered for sale tend to be inappropriately expensive for such an obscure and unread author as Andrew Soutar. Facing East was the first one I came across that was relatively affordable. But save yourself the trouble of hunting, my friends. Here’s one Neglected Detective who is best forgotten.

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On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Feb 042014
Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car "the boot" or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy's peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.

Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series
"Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket."
"…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle."
"…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills."
"…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts."
"My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel."
"The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic."
The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That's the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:
“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”
See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

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Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”)."

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Jan 202014
The New York Times reviewer for The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (1940) called it "...hilariously funny...a real mystery". Marcia Muller wrote a praiseworthy essay for 1001 Midnights calling the same book "wonderfully amusing...with rich bawdy (for its time) humor." I know I have a sense of humor, but maybe mine is a bit more refined or too quirky. I didn't find much of this book hilarious at all. In fact, I thought much of the humor was simple-minded and tedious.

The unusual title comes from Coleridge's Gothic poem The Ancient Mariner and each chapter begins with an epigram from the same poem.  As the book takes place during the honeymoon of Sue and Ty Grant it seems appropriate to have a poem about doom and death during a wedding celebration as an ironic source from which to draw allusions. The characters also inexplicably and surprisingly make several highbrow literary references during the action. I say surprisingly because they all act like imbeciles for the bulk of the book. You'd never think they had the smarts to read half the works they make reference to.

The entire plot is predicated on the old screwball mystery gimmick of hiding a dead body. Craig Rice did it in The Corpse Steps Out, Jack Trevor Story did it in The Trouble with Harry, but those books at least made me crack a smile. I was rolling my eyes while reading Shattuck's book. Not one chuckle. Not even a snicker. Even with the early bedroom farce bits with Sue running around in her nightgown and crawling into bed (nude, it is implied) with the dead body I failed to see the humor.  Later, in an equal opportunity semi-nude scene, her husband runs around town in his underwear. Hilarious.

One of the problems with the plot lies in the reasoning for hiding the body in the first place. Four people enter a conspiracy in order to protect Sue -- including Milly, the owner of the hotel "hilariously" named La Cucaracha -- all because they don't want Sue's honeymoon ruined and have the police crawling all over the place. Plus, the murder victim just happens to be one of those characters everyone hates, though the reader never gets to see any behavior that would support the antipathy everyone feels for him. Once he's dead he becomes a prop. He never was human even when he was so briefly alive in the story.

Title changed in this digest edition,
also the 1st paperback edition.
So the first half of the book is filled with "hilarious" hiding the body sequences. They take him to a walk in refrigerator, then when the meat is delivered they move him somewhere else at around 2 AM using the ancient and unreliable elevator. Guess what? That's right -- the elevator breaks down. More "hilarity" ensues as the people in the elevator are rescued via a ladder and the attempts to get the now rigor mortis-ized corpse out of the elevator. They are forced to leave the corpse there and wait until someone accidentally discovers it the next day when the elevator is summoned. But, of course, the corpse vanishes and the conspirators have no idea where it went. Until the police show up and tell them.

When they aren't hiding the body they're all drinking. And drinking. They've all attended the Thorne Smith School for Hilarious Heavy Drinking Fictional Characters. The assortment of cocktails and libations that turn up include lime rickey, sidecar, Tom Collins, sloe gin fizz, brandy (and anything that uses it as an ingredient),  whiskey and splash (also ordered as "corn and ditch"), and whiskey straight up for the battle-scarred WWI veteran who hardly speaks at all over the course of the book. Even the cops are pouring whiskey and knocking back drinks while interviewing the suspects! There was one drink I'd never heard of -- an angel's kiss. Apparently it contains apricot brandy and is topped with whipped cream. Sounds more like a dessert!

The only interesting aspect of the novel to me was a barbecue party at a "dude mine." One of the wealthier characters, Cedric Jones, has purchased an old mine and turned it into a sort of adult playground where people can simulate what it feels like to be a miner by descending into the caverns wearing denim overalls and carbide light helmets and play at digging for gold. Problem is Cedric also simulates realistic perils that endanger the lives of his guests. Getting trapped two hundred feet below ground by an engineered rock slide! Hilarious, ain't it?

2nd paperback edition (Collier, 1968)
This didn't do it for me at all. Even the mystery itself is lacking in the kind of puzzle elements that make a mystery entertaining for me. The culprit is fairly obvious as he is depicted as the most hateful person in this group of clowns and buffoons. The clues about his character are all there in his dialogue. Real evidence is lacking. A convenient eyewitness in the form of a little old lady turns up at the eleventh hour in order to give the only real proof of the murderer's guilt. It's all a bit of an anticlimax when the murderer is named and caught.

I was excited about finding a copy of this hard to find book but utterly disappointed in its content.  Here's another case of a mystery highly praised that turns out to be nothing but hyperbole. If you want real hilarity I say stick with Alice Tilton or Craig Rice. You'd best skip Richard Shattuck...who is really Dora Shattuck anyway.

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This counts towards another space filled on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo Card.  The space is O1 ("A Book Published under More Than One Title").

 Posted by at 5:18 pm
Jan 192014
There's trouble at Mayfield Sanitarium now that Dr. Carl Koenig, their kindly director is dead. Someone has bludgeoned him with a miniature replica of the famous Discus thrower statue. His office is in a shambles: medical records shredded and torn, books thrown about the place, a crystal lamp overturned. It appears that one of the patients lost complete control and turned into a homicidal maniac. But of course it only appears that way. James Dundee makes this crucial observation. The crystal lamp in intact as if it were delicately placed on its side and not knocked over. The books are artfully arranged and not lying open if they were thrown to the floor. And a single drop of blood is found on the upper corner of the doctor's desk. Why did the murder clean up all traces of blood but miss that one drop?

One Drop of Blood (1932) is the penultimate detective novel by little known American writer Anne Austin. Based on this one book I'd say she was influenced by the works of Van Dine and Queen. The detective work involving the reason for the oversight of a single drop of blood is an example of the kind of outside the box thinking that made Philo Vance and Ellery Queen so distinctive in the realm of amateur sleuths. Dundee is perceptive and insightful whereas Captain Strawn (who has annoyingly nicknamed Dundee "Bonnie" due to  his Scottish heritage) is the typical gruff, impolite cop who jumps to conclusions. Each time a new suspect shows the possibility of being in the vicinity of the murder scene Strawn spends the next two paragraphs coming up with faulty reasoning and absurd motives for that suspect being the killer.

Unlike Queen and Vance Dundee is no amateur. He makes his living as a Special Investigator for District Attorney Sanderson in the mythical Midwestern town of Hamilton, the actual state is never named but is probably somewhere in eastern Michigan based on Hamilton being in the Eastern time zone and a five hour train ride from Chicago. Dundee is so good at his job his sleuthing skills are known to law officers all the way in Los Angeles. Dundee soon discovers that in 1919 three of the patients at Mayfield were all under the care of Dr. Sandlin at the Good Hope facility in California. This is one of those crazy coincidences you just have to accept in order to keep going with the story.

In addition to the mystery of who killed Dr. Koenig Austin manages to concoct multiple past lives of five patients far more interesting and puzzling than the mysteries at the murder scene. Like many a detective novel from this era the solution to the murder lies in the secret filled past. Dr. Koenig we are told early in the novel made a supplemental income as an expert witness in trials where insanity is the defense. Several of the patients' case histories are discussed in detail and the reader is treated to a litany of mental illnesses -- some still legitimate diagnoses, some outdated -- ranging from dementia praecox to nymphomania. As long as you can accept the 1932 setting and forgive some of the passe, often risible, psychobabble and focus on Austin's much more impressive handling of the mystery plot you'll enjoy this forgotten writer's book. I'm already on the search for more to see if the rest live up to this impressive job.

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This is my second book for the 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for which we are to fill in Bingo style cards. My goal is to fill in both cards -- Golden and Silver Age with 36 books on each card. This one fulfills the requirement for space O2 ("A Book with a Number in the Title") on the Golden Age Card.

 Posted by at 4:44 pm
Dec 132013
 Michel Garfin is the man to go to in Montreal if you have a particularly nasty family secret you need to keep quiet. But call him Mike.  Only the Chief of Police calls him Michel and only because he doesn't speak any English.  Oh, and while we're talking about his name its GAR-fin, pronounced just like its spelled, not Gar-FAN as if it were French. He's Irish/French Canadian and though he's bilingual and lived in Montreal most his life where he was once on the Royal Mounted Police Force he could have stepped out of an office in Hammet's San Francisco or Chandler's L.A.  Hot Freeze (1954) marks Mike Garfin's first appearance out of three crime novels.

Montreal is a frigid violent world of illegal casinos luring gamblers to the barbotte and fan tan tables, brothels where the prostitutes serve as both companions and informers, and home to a wealthy dysfunctional family that would be all too familiar to Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe. The sexual imbroglio in the Astley/Remington household may call to mind the tawdriness of The Big Sleep or the family secrets that dominate Ross Macdonald's novels. But its the omnipresent near paranormal influence of the wintry weather in Montreal becoming a formidable additional character almost as brutal as the human villains that reminds the reader he this is far from the mean streets of California.

Mike is hired by Mrs. Remington to find out how her son Gerald is obtaining such a large amount of money.  he receives an allowance but he's becoming ostentatious in his spending and she is suspicious of how Gerald is getting the money. Mike soon learns that there are actually two families in the Remington home and that Mrs. Remington was previously married. Gerald and his sister Geraldine provide us the earliest examples of the unbridled sexuality that pervades the book.

Gerald is yet another of the handsome indiscriminate gay men, always flirting, always alluding, that one finds in 1950s private eye novels. Its his sex life that triggers the blackmail flag in Mike's mind as the possible source of the extra money. Geraldine is clearly a Carmen Sternwood  knock-off but her insatiable taste for men will eventually unearth a surprising facet to her character that will all but erase any reminders of Chandler's teenage nympho. Then there's Marian, Mrs Remington's stepdaughter, who makes all too clear that she despises all of the Astleys and resents them living in her home.

Originally Mike plans to tail Gerald, find out his habits and bring the case to a quick close. Mike is sure that Gerald is blackmailing some wealthy influential man who can't risk having his sexual predilections uncovered. But Gerald surprises Mike by inviting him along to a barbotte casino and all thoughts of blackmail are almost entirely put out of Mike's mind when he sees how incredibly lucky Gerald is at the gaming tables.

Enter Tom Littleton, Mike's one time partner in the Mounties when they were both cops back in Winnipeg.  Littleton is undercover as part of a narcotics investigation and he urges Mike to keep him that way but not mentioning his name. Mike in order to save his hide however, lies about working with the RCMP and lets Littleton's name. When he returns later that night to find Littleton dead in the courtyard of his apartment building he is devastated. Up to this point Mike was all tough guy like many of the eyes of his day, but now we see a new side. A crowd of gawkers gather round the fence when Littleton''s body is being taken away and Mike overhears them gossiping about another dead drunk who froze himself to death.
I kept my mouth shut, not answering any questions. I climbed into the back of the wagon when they were ready to go and sat near the bunched up thing that had been Tom. Grown men, they say, don't have such emotions. Grown men do. I sat with the tips of my fingers touching his frozen head and vowed to do slow murder to avenge this one.
The addition of this fraternal love between former police partners at times is heartbreaking.  Mike is overcome with emotion several times during the novel. He suspects an insidious murder method and when it is confirmed that drugs are involved it only fuels his vengeful drive.

Brett toys with Chandleresque prose but makes it all his own as Montreal and Canadian culture dominate the proceedings. Hot Freeze is one of the better examples of a private eye novel that will appeal to a variety of crime fiction tastes. Enough tough guy manner and sex to satisfy the hardboiled crowd, real crimes committed for believable reasons for those who crave documentary style realism, quirky characters of truly original molds (including an acrobat dwarf with a sadistic side!), and good investigating with a few examples of well placed clues for the detective novel fans. Above all there is an humanizing emotional undercurrent that controls every behavior in the violent and corrupt world of a bitter and savage Montreal.
 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Dec 082013
Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who'd turn down that party? You'll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the "wrong man accused" and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin's friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet's innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one -- how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn't care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.
 Posted by at 3:12 pm
Nov 202013
Chances are you have no idea who Mavis Doriel Hay is. She wrote only three detective novels in her brief career and none of them were published outside her native England. But obscure or not and regardless of her brief output the British Library has decided to revive an interest in this forgotten woman by reprinting all three of her books. Fittingly, as we approach the holiday season, her third mystery The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) is the first to be released with others to follow in June 2014.

The plot is classic for the era. Set in the home of Sir Osmond Melbury wealthy patriarch who is rumored to be writing a new will in favor of his very officious and very young secretary The Santa Klaus Murder is practically a textbook version of the English country house mystery novel. During the Christmas morning celebrations Sir Osmond is shot dead in what appears to be his locked and shuttered study. The suspects include his son and three daughters, their spouses and a handful of servants and houseguests. Yet only one person – a guest dressed as Santa who also discovered the body – appears to have had the opportunity to have committed the crime. And he is without a motive for doing so. The story has all the makings of an impossible crime for those who had real motives have perfect alibis at the time of the murder.

The detection is top notch and there are multiple mysteries the police inspector must solve in addition to the baffling murder. As with many mystery novels of the day seemingly airtight alibis may be completely fabricated as many of the suspects lie and collude in order to protect one another. The book also includes such familiar components as a map of the crime scene and a list of characters and their relationships to one another. The well drawn map of the first floor detailing the unusual architecture of the Melbury estate serves as the frontispiece. The reader will find himself referring to it frequently in order to understand the complex arrangement of where each suspect was at the time of the murder.

Well placed clues are easy to spot and lend themselves to a nicely done competition between the reader and Colonel Halstock, chief constable who serves as one of the several narrators. A surprise element that comes as a late discovery to the characters will seem rather obvious to well-read detective novel readers. For the highly astute it is indeed possible to solve the complicated plot as this is a rather well done example of a fair play detective novel with all clues and evidence provided to the reader and nothing withheld or produced at the eleventh hour. In fact there is a "Postscript" explaining all the clues that reminded me of the notebook pages of Mrs. Bradley in Gladys Mitchell’s mystery novels. Let this be a warning to those who like to peek: the last chapter mentions the name of the murderer many times over in an enumerated list detailing motive, means and opportunity.

For those not as entranced with the puzzle elements of the plot The Santa Klaus Murder also has much to offer in intriguing characters. Hay has a few words to say on the misery of a shell shocked World War 1 veteran (ironically named Evershot) and the effects he has on his wife and relatives. Edith, Sir David Evershot’s haunted and conflicted wife, is probably the most interesting and complex of the women characters and her role adds a much needed gravitas to the sometimes lighthearted proceedings. As in most detective novels there is the recurring motif of role playing compounded by a literal masquerade in the use of the Santa Klaus costume that the murderer uses ingeniously in order to confuse everyone’s notion of time and location.

Hay’s other mystery novels Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell will be released in new editions by The British Library in the early summer of 2014. Curt Evans has already given us a taste of Hay’s earlier work in his review of Murder Underground, though it does not sound as engaging or clever as this last book.
 Posted by at 3:26 pm

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