Apr 132014
On the inside of the DJ front flap Murder in Black Letter (1960) is billed as "A New Trygve Yamamura mystery." Yamamura, a Norwegian-Japanese-American private eye, is a unique character in crime fiction. He has a splendid collection of samurai swords (the main interest in his award winning debut Perish by the Sword, 1959), he enjoys fencing and judo, and spends much of his time engaging in intellectual conversations with his mostly academically employed friends. But here’s the thing. Yamamura is hardly in the book at all. In fact, he doesn’t even solve the case. He's the most minor of characters in his second book, but he's billed as the lead on the dust jacket. If you’re going to create a series character at least do him the service of having him solve the case even if he’s only going to have a limited amount of stage time. Anderson seems to have grown tired of Yamamura in only his second appearance. Too strange.

That’s strike one.

The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.

That’s strike two.

The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.

And speaking of the final pages. The ending is rushed and absurdly over the top with a fight in a rocky seacoast. Hero and villain plunging from a cliff into the turbulent ocean and grappling with a revolver while trying not to drown. Kintyre manages to judo chop the gun out of the villain’s hands and subdue the bad guy. All of this in the ocean! The final sentence in the book is a single word. “Enough.” I’ll say!

That’s strike three. And strike four, five and six, too. You’re out, Anderson. Really out.

The book has a protracted storyline with a few tangential subplots that are dropped almost as quickly as they are introduced, preposterous motivations from nearly everyone involved, and plenty of action scenes featuring judo (chop, chop) for martial arts freaks. But it’s all a bore. All too reminiscent of too many books and TV shows of this era. It’s all been done before with more excitement and vigor by veteran crime fiction writers more skilled than Poul Anderson, primarily a science fiction writer. His attempt to capitalize on popular crime fiction themes (drug lords and sadistic professional criminals as villains) is ineptly handled. The intersection of a primarily academic setting populated with professors, their office and research assistants, and graduate students with a seedy underworld of professional criminals just doesn’t work. I can usually allow for wild leaps in my suspension of disbelief. This time I didn’t believe it for a minute.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space G5: "Academic Mystery"
 Posted by at 3:30 am
Mar 292014
“What sort of mind could wish to free and harbour a group of compulsive murderers and then release them again? Men and women as dangerous as bombs, bullets or… Or hydrophobia.”
-- Marcus Levin in
The Sins of Our Father
A rash of crimes committed by criminally insane murders who have coincidentally all escaped from the institutions where they were incarcerated has General Kirk and a committee of prison reform experts more than alarmed. Is it possible that some mad genius is engineering these escapes with a nefarious purpose in mind? You betcha. And since this is a John Blackburn book can be sure that not only is there an evil mastermind at work but that some insidious virus will be uncovered and that some sort of supernatural power will be worked into the story.

The less than subtle "Prologue" to The Sins of the Fathers (1979) neatly ties in the title to an incident in the life of a notorious Nazi war criminal known as Papa Otto Fendler, "a geneticist far ahead of his time." Seems ol’ Papa was fond of a select group of children at the concentration camp where he conducted a variety of unseemly experiments. Just what he did to those children will not be fully revealed until the final chapters. And is it possible that Papa Otto has survived the destruction of the camp and is controlling a now adult group of his favorite human guinea pigs?

With ace bacteriologist Sir Marcus Levin on hand partnered with his wife Tania, a former KGB spy, the sinister plans of Papa Otto are proven to involve a form of germ warfare with humans used as a missile substitute. In a pulpy twist many of the infected madmen and madwomen exhibit symptoms indicative of rabies. Blackburn concocts several scenes where this unfortunate rabid-like victims attack innocent bystanders like so many wannabe vampires by taking healthy chomps out of their arms, hands and faces.

It’s not one of Blackburn’s more original stories. He seems to have culled together plot elements from several of his previous books. Interestingly, this book has a few didactic asides in the committee members heated debates. Blackburn raises all sorts of issues related to prison reform. Overcrowding, segregation of prisoners, and reinstatement of the death penalty are among the hot topics discussed at length. This was one of his last books and it may indicate a trend towards social criticism, a path so many genre writers seem to take in their later career as they tire of the so often formulaic structure of crime and thriller fiction. Nazis, viral experimentation on humans, grisly murders and mind control have all been featured in Blackburn's other novels.

Still it’s a neatly plotted book, swiftly paced and jam packed with pulpy adventure sure to satisfy fans of this kind of over-the-top thriller. The climax taking place in the catacombs of an ancient church with our heroes in peril of drowning by the impending flood from the underground River Larne more than makes up for any of the book’s recycled shortcomings.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card – E1: “Book with a Detective Team”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Feb 112014
Check out that pistol packin' mama!  If Fritzi Haller ever carried a weapon she couldn't look any more threatening. That gorgeous illustration is the cover painting for the latest reprint from Raven's Head Press.  The artist for our new edition is Fernando Vicente whose sexy artwork can be viewed here.

Desert Town by Ramona Stewart is the second release from Raven's Head Press and is now available for purchase here. Our new edition includes a nifty foreword by yours truly detailing the interesting writing career of Stewart from her debut in the pages of Collier's to her offbeat stories for other "slicks" and her culmination as a 1970s occult horror writer.  I'll be receiving a few copies for promotional purposes and once again I'm offering two books as giveaways.

To be eligible for a free copy of Desert Town just leave a comment below. This time in your comment I'd like you to tell me your favorite pulp cover artist or your favorite pulp cover illustration.  Book or magazine, it doesn't matter which.  On Saturday, February 15 I'll announce the two winners who will be chosen by a very amateurish random selection process that I'd rather not divulge.

Unfortunately, the giveaway is limited to the United States and Canada.  We're a small operation here and the shipping is coming out of my pocket. Sorry, I can't afford the $15 or more airmail postage to the UK or parts farther away.

If you missed my review of the book last fall please do read it.

 Posted by at 5:41 am
Nov 132013
Rustication by Charles Palliser
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-08872-4
336 pp. $25.95
Publication date: November 4, 2013

Back in 1990 Charles Palliser wowed the literary world with his debut novel The Quincunx, a historical pastiche of startling imagination and literary skill that paid homage to Mrs. Henry Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and other British writers who primarily wrote sensation novels in the Victorian era. Palliser’s work has often been compared to Gothic literature but this is a an error on the part of many critics who know little of the difference between a sensation novel and a Gothic novel. The Gothic novel grew out of the romantic novel and builds on fictional tropes that have their roots in fanciful imaginative writing. The sensation novel was an attempt to turn away from romantic fiction and return to the realism of the 18th century novel while at the same time revealing the dark side of human nature. Unlike a Gothic novel which flirts with supernatural and surreal events, whether genuine or rationalized, the sensation novel is rooted in reality. The emphasis is on everyday characters in domestic settings and circumstances not foreign and exotic locales. Crumbling abbeys with corrupt monks and maniacal nuns or haunted castles owned by amoral barons are not to be found in a sensation novel. Nor do ghosts or vampires have any role in creating a feeling of dread and horror. It is base human nature that will make the reader shudder and gasp. Ultimately the sensation novel dares to reveal the seediness beneath a seemingly mundane reality with heroes and villains recognizable from anyone’s life.

In Rustication Palliser returns to the world of the sensation novel and this time far surpasses what he did in The Quincunx and does so in half the length of that book and with a much smaller cast of characters. Deceit and duplicity, betrayal and sacrifice, heartbreak and redemption all play out in the 280 pages of Richard Shenstone’s journal and the scatological poison pen letters that are interspersed within the pages.

Though set in 1863-1864 this heart wrenching story of misplaced devotion, skewed priorities and base self-interest will appeal to many modern devotees of crime fiction. The story has a contemporary ring of truth in its three leads –- mother , daughter and son of the Shenstone family. Mrs. Shenstone, self-deluding and over protective of her children, finds herself more and more caught up in an attempt to regain her rightful and respected place in society all the while blind to the consequences of her short sighted aspirations. Euphemia, her daughter, succumbs to avaricious temptation and is willing to sacrifice her own brother in her attempt to secure a place of wealth and position. Richard, disgraced after being thrown out of college and carrying more than a few secrets of his own, escapes into a world of drug induced sleep and furtive sexual encounters. As the story progresses we learn the true reason of Richard’s expulsion (or as the college euphemistically terms it his “rustication”), the secret of his recently deceased clergyman father’s fall from grace, and the secret designs of his mother and sister in a complicated scheme that finds Richard feeling a hangman’s noose round his neck at every passing hour.

While Richard is trying to figure out what happened to his father he finds himself suspected of being the author of several obscene anonymous letters targeting the women of Thurchester. He turns detective in order to clear his name and find the true author behind the poison pen.

But every woman he encounters seems to be a nasty gossip of the worst sort. Whether tart tongued and vicious in their insinuations or outright shocking in their frank accusations the women of the story come across as a gaggle of Gorgons ranging from an supercilious 14 year-old to a septuagenarian busybody. The men fare no better and in the case of a brutal dandy who engages in illegal dog fighting and a barkeep who reserves a dark corner of his pub for male-on-male assignations they seem far worse.

Richard is no purely good hero either with his opium pipe and his seduction of the simple minded maid, but amid this assortment of nasty characters we long for him to redeem himself and provide us with a protagonist of goodness and heroism. In this amoral world of physical and mental cruelty and salacious obsessions there must be some relief in the form of simple human decency. In the end Richard will prove himself to be such a hero but not without making his own terrible sacrifices.

Fans of modern noir will find many of the tropes of that genre in Rustication and may learn a thing or two about the origin of the stories of Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Vin Packer. Contrary to popular belief the basest and darkest impulses of noir fiction really have their roots in Victorian sensation fiction. Adultery, bigamy, sexual addiction, drug addiction, greed, desire for status and power, and brutal murder were not inventions of the pulp fictioneers or paperback original writers, they are all elements of the sensation novel. As Palliser reminds us the basest of human motives are universal and timeless and are always the best ingredients for gripping, page-turning book.
 Posted by at 7:54 pm
Oct 182013
Christina Mordant cannot enter a church without getting ill. The very smell of a chapel is enough to make her nauseated. Animals shy away from her and growl for apparently no reason when she walks by. When night falls her usual polite and timid demeanor gives way to an indulgent and hedonistic personality that is more cruel than kind. What is going on with this young woman who has been abandoned by her father and left to fend for herself in a small house in the south of France?

Long before The Exorcist almost single handedly was responsible for an explosion of suspense novels and thrillers about demonic possession there was To the Devil--a Daughter (1953) Dennis Wheatley's first book to deal with the supernatural phenomenon. He handles the subject matter less luridly than those more familiar books of the 1970s displaying his usual staunch occult beliefs and a detailed look at Black Magic rituals. It's all wrapped up in a fast moving adventure novel that outdoes much of what is found in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s.

To the Devil -- a Daughter is one of Wheatley's later novels incorporating his fascination with all things occult. Because it was written in the 1950s the Satanists turn out to be a bunch of dirty Commies not Nazis, his usual target for villainous evil.

Wheatley has a kind of Ann Coulter rant he lets loose early in the book outlining his ideas about all things evil:

Now that more than half the people in the world have become godless, they have also become rudderless. Once they have put away from themselves the idea of the hereafter they think only of their own selfish ends of the moment. That leaves them easy prey to unscrupulous politicians.  Before they know where they are, they find themselves robbed of all personal freedom; their family life, which is their last tie with their better instincts, is broken up, and their children are taken form them, to be educated into robots lacking all individuality. That is what nearly happened in Nazi Germany and what has happened in Russia; and if that is not the state of things that Satan would like to see everywhere, tell me what is?
The story is pretty much a by the numbers pursuit adventure story with a smattering of witchcraft and black magic to spice up the usual fist fights, kidnappings and other derring do. Wheatley has a real gift for making the most cliche adventure set piece come alive with genuine excitement and suspense. The scene where Molly Fountain's son John, the over confident hero, manages to get aboard the villain's yacht, subdue a bad guy and make his way to rescue Christina, the imperiled heroine is a great example of taking the standard potboiler action sequence and enlivening it with character traits that humanize both the good guys and bad guys. John is flawed, not a superman and acts with a trace of guilt always thinking of the consequences of committing murder. (At the time the guillotine was still the death sentence for capital crimes in France.) The bad guys are devilishly smart not stupid. And Canon Copely-Syle, a corrupt clerical figure intent on attaining "Oneness with God," outshines any of the wicked sorcerers and occultists created by Sax Rohmer. Wheatley was probably one of the first writers to take the conventions of pulp thrillers with their over-the-top action and superhuman heroes and make them more believable and realistic.

From the very first sentence ("Molly Fountain was now convinced that a more intriguing mystery than the one she was writing surrounded the solitary occupant of the house next door") the reader knows this is a book that will tell a gripping story. The manner in which Wheatley unveils the secret life of Christina, how thriller writer Molly Fountain slowly puts together the pieces, and the discovery of the mysterious plot behind Christina's strange exile in the French Riviera and her instructions to talk to no one of her past are all masterfully executed. The story is everything here and it is easy to forgive the frequent lapses into ultra-conservative political tirades like the one previously quoted.

Bloomsbury has purchased the reprint rights for all of Dennis Wheatley's novels. All of them will be available in eBook format with a select few also released in paperback.  The first few have already been released and To the Devil--a Daughter is one of three titles that will be released in both formats. The other paperback editions released this month are The Forbidden Territory (Wheatley's first novel soon to be reviewed here) and the classic black magic thriller and one of Wheatley's truly excellent books The Devil Rides Out. Click here to read more about Bloomsbury's Dennis Wheatley reprints in both paperback and digital editions.

A movie adaptation (very loosely adapted) of To the Devil--a Daughter was done in 1976. It was the last of Hammer Horror movies and starred veteran Hammer actor Christopher Lee as an excommunicated priest bent on world domination. It's nothing at all like the book and Wheatley hated it. He even called it obscene! Now that's strong criticism coming from a secret sadist.
 Posted by at 7:16 pm
Oct 122013
"Never say Nevermore!"

At long last I can formally announce my involvement with the new independent publisher Raven's Head Press. Our first book -- reviewed here back in March -- is The Starkenden Quest by Gilbert Collins. Plans are to reissue adventure, crime and supernatural fiction that exemplify the kind of gripping and exciting stories published in the long gone pulp magazines and the vintage paperback imprints like Dell Mapbacks and Gold Medal. Future titles being discussed include many books previously reviewed here at Pretty Sinister Books which garnered a lot of interest from you lovely readers in your comments.

We are currently looking at books by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ramona Stewart, Lionel White, Hugh Wheeler (aka Patrick Quentin and Q Patrick), Samuel Taylor and Walter Van Tillburg Clark. We are also in negotiations to obtain exclusive American reprint rights for the reissue of the books of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. An idea to create a Kickstarter campaign to help bring about this coup is also being considered.

Each reissue will have an informative introduction by yours truly. For The Starkenden Quest I did extensive research on the work of Gilbert Collins and uncovered an unusual event that might explain the reason his writing career was so short. Additionally, we were lucky enough to get permission to include the original Virgil Finlay illustrations that accompanied the Famous Fantastic Mystery pulp magazine reprint. The book is really a handsome edition. I'm proud to have been a part in freeing it from the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom and placing it back into the hands of modern readers.

I have two copies of The Starkenden Quest I am offering for free in one of the first giveaways to celebrate our first book at Raven's Head Press. All you need to do is leave a comment below and give me the name of a writer or book you've longed to see back in print. On Thursday, October 17 I'll take all the comments, throw them in a hat, and randomly select two winners. And if you like autographed books I can even scribble my name inside for you. Winner's choice, of course. Maybe you'll want your copy unsullied and pristine.

The Starkenden Quest is now available for purchase via amazon.com on this page. All future titles will also be available via amazon. For more information about what Raven's Head Press has planned please visit our website.

"Never say Nevermore" is our motto. Good books shouldn't disappear into Limbo and be forgotten. We hope to bring a lot of forgotten books of out the past and into the present for a generation of new readers, and hopefully beyond.

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Thanks to all who participated!
 Posted by at 4:55 pm
Sep 202013
James Ronald received quite a bit of praise with his first few detective novels from writer August Derleth to novelist and book reviewer Harriette Ashbrook all pointing out his ingenuity and freshness.  Of course you have to take this kind of enthusiastic praise with a grain of salt and maybe a dash of sugar, too.  Book hype has been with us for decades though it has skyrocketed in the past 15 years or so with the kind of gimmicky stunts some P.R. people are pulling.  When I learned that Ronald started out as a bargain basement pulp writer for the British digest publisher Garmol who published his early novels sporting such lurid titles as The Green Ghost Murder, The Man Who Made Monsters, and The Sundial Drug Mystery I was very wary of the blurbs Ronald received for his books. Was it just a fluke or did he really rival the kind of clever plots of a John Rhode or Carr?

They Can’t Hang Me (1938), listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, also offers the added bonus of an impossible crime. Actually, two impossible crimes. Ronald had a lot to live up to. I’m glad to report that despite his background in pulp digests James Ronald does indeed merit all the praise lavished upon him. They Can’t Hang Me is a corker of a mystery novel. Ingenious murder methods call to mind the brilliant John Rhode; two impossible crimes, one of which is worthy of Carr; and witty dialogue reminiscent of Clifford Witting. All are on colorful display in this page-turner of a story.

The plot is familiar to any crime fiction fan and seems lifted from the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s. Lucius Marplay, an inmate from a mental institution, escapes with the intent of carrying out a plan of murderous revenge, threats of which sent him to the asylum in the first place. Each murder is announced in the obituary section of The Echo, the newspaper where the victims work, on the very day of the death leading the police to believe the killer is hiding out in the building. A thorough search of The Echo building and its environs turns up no one who shouldn’t already be there. Though the police are fairly certain the escaped lunatic is the culprit somehow he manages to elude capture with each baffling crime. The title comes from Marplay's claim that his plan is as close to a perfect crime as one can dream up for even if he is caught he can't be hanged as he has already been declared insane. He will just be thrown back into the asylum.

Perhaps what makes the book work so well is Ronald’s sharp sense of humor. Even amidst the terror Ronald still finds ample opportunity to lighten the tone. The book is very funny with handful of well drawn colorful characters who serve as the author’s comic voice. Some of the best wisecracks come from a scene between Agatha Trimm, the guardian of Joan Marplay, daughter to the escaped lunatic and the offbeat private investigator Alastair McNab. Some of my favorites are:

Agatha Trimm: "Cocoa is a perverted taste for a man. I'd be careful of him, Joan."

Alastair McNab: "There's two things I like naked and whiskey's one of them."

Sir John Digby (a psychiatrist fed up with the Freudian imaginings of his female clients): What he longed to say to them was "What you need is more fat here"--slapping them where a woman should be comfortably rounded-- "and then you'd have less fat here" --smacking them on the head.

Later UK edition, circa 1940s
The characters, too, are a lively bunch who hold the reader's interest and keep the story moving at brisk pace:

Mark Peters -- managing editor ready to fire anyone whose actions threaten to ruin the already tarnished reputation of his dying newspaper.

The aptly named Ambrose Craven -- an overweight skirt chaser whose cowardice and fear has him fainting in every other chapter.

Flinders -- an ex-reporter gone to seed and drink, who’ll risk his life when he turns to blackmail in order to feed his alcoholic cravings.

Alastair McNab -- the odd and rambunctious private investigator determined to unmask the murderer and sell his story to a rival newspaper.

Agatha Trimm -- guardian to the plucky heroine Joan Marplay. Agatha is a tough as nails, no nonsense woman distrusting of nearly every man Joan sets eyes on.

The detective work is shared by two characters. Joan Marplay who acts a sort of girl sleuth trying to prove her father is not the madman the police and newspapermen think he is. She is sure he was sent to the asylum wrongfully and that his sworn revenge was only a reaction to his furor at being thought mad. Then there is McNab who arrives with a letter in of introduction from the asylum announcing he has been hired to track down the escaped Marplay. With his pronounced Scottish brogue, rendered in a typical 1930s phonetic dialect, and his oddball tastes and habits (like carrying his lunch around in a wicker basket wherever he goes), McNab is the most unusual of the cast. So unusual that he arouses the suspicions of Superintendent Wrenn who has his sergeant investigate McNab's background. McNab is shrewd yet enigmatic. One never knows if he is out for himself or if he really wants to solve the case and apprehend Marplay.

They Can't Hang Me is an excellent example of a crime novel that mixes elements of the detective novel with that of the pulp thriller. So good was this first outing I had to read the other easily accessible crime books of James Ronald. I found most of his other books lean towards psychological crime novels that foreshadow the work of Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons. I'll be reviewing three more later in the fall. Stay tuned.
 Posted by at 3:00 pm
Aug 072013
Doing my first book, Pulpografia (2000), I encountered one or two Finnish translations of short stories by one Earl Peirce Jr. His name may have been written "Pierce" in the Finnish magazines. I didn't find any info on him, except that he wrote for Weird Tales and later on crime pulps, such as Detective Tales. I googled him earlier today (for a purpose I'll reveal later) and found out this post on a genealogy site. Someone has really done good work on Peirce, a really little known writer!

I put up Peirce's tentative bibliography here in my bibliography blog.

Jul 162013
It was bound to happen. I have been disappointed by the latest Jonathan Craig novel I’ve read. This is number eight in the series and there are only two more left. With the best of the lot already behind me I figured the final three might perhaps deliver a clunker among the trio. Case of the Laughing Virgin (1960) is the first letdown in what previously had been a crisply written, offbeat series set in Greenwich Village of the 1950s. In this novel we enter a new decade and already a deeper cynicism has sunk into both the characters and the overall writing.

Craig’s police procedurals are characterized by detail in the bureaucracy of police work and characters consisting of colorful oddballs among what might be called the lowlife of Lower Manhattan. The books nearly always include some unheard of kinky sex practice or fetish as the murder investigation almost always involves sex in any number of practices and preferences. But in this story the situation is seedier than usual, most of the characters are unrelentingly loathsome, and the overall tone is bitter and caustic.

Pete Selby and his partner Stan Rayder trade sarcastic quips more often than usual but the humor is  forced and tone is flippant. The usual crackerjack dialogue is not enhanced with lines like these:

"I was beginning to wonder where everyone was. They must have come by way of Bluefield, West Virginia."  (Says Rayder when his police colleagues finally show up at the murder scene) 

"Once upon a time...there were seven little thespians, all in a row. But the brave and brilliant detective team of Selby and Rayder went to work on them -- and now there are three."

Was Craig getting tired of these guys? Was he in a bad period in his life? Or was he just fed up with sex and crime books?

The story centers around the shooting death of Larry Yeager, a no talent actor who blackmails his way into a role in a grade Z play called Grade A about the life of milkmen and the strange notes they find in milk bottles on their delivery route. I can only guess this is Craig’s attempt at humor but it bombs as badly as those lame lines above. Yeager we soon learn managed to purchase a movie featuring a group of six individuals unknowingly caught on film displaying their talent for bedroom acrobatics in a round robin of sexcapades. With the use of clever lighting, a two way mirror, and a hidden camera the evening's activities were filmed without their knowledge and the movie was then shown at a variety of underground stag shows. When Yeager saw the film he recognized several of the unwilling participants in the movie and persuaded the stag show producer and owner of the film to sell him the movie for $1000. Selby and Rayder deduce that he wanted the movie for blackmail purposes. The murder investigation focuses on the search for the missing movie and uncovering the identity of the sex addicted participants all of whom had reason to kill the blackmailing Yeager.

Normally Craig writes about these people with a kind of aloof hipness and tends to make light of the sex underground and its obsession with all things carnal. In previous books these seedy escapades were dealt with almost farcically which took the edge off the freaky. Craig made it interesting, sometimes fascinating, and often amusing to read about. However, the emphasis on pornography and hedonistic sex parties this time is not played for laughs. The writing highlights the squalor of these dens of iniquity, the slobs involved in promoting sex and profiting from it, and the crassness and vulgarity of the people who are their customers and victims. Few characters are presented in a favorable light. Ironically, the only murder suspect who appears to have any decency turns out to be the killer.

Case of the Laughing Virgin has an extremely cynical viewpoint and is unfulfilling as a mystery novel. Craig’s usual offbeat humor which often can elicit a laugh or a smile is all out nasty this time around. Selby and Rayder come off as jaded cops, utterly fed up with the losers and downtrodden types they are forced to deal with day in and day out. Each suspect they question turns out to be selfish, haughty, mean-spirited, brash or unfeeling. The blackmail plot is hackneyed, the detection is at a minimum, and there is not a single twist to enliven the proceedings. (Well, to be truthful there is an attempt at an eleventh hour surprise but it was obvious to me.) I’m moving on to the ninth and tenth books and I’m hopeful for a return to the spark and life of the earlier books.
 Posted by at 1:12 am
Jul 092013
It takes a while for The Obeah Murders (1937) to live up to its alluring title hinting at black magic practices in the Caribbean. The novel starts off with Phil Nevitt, employee with an American liquor company, being sent to Annunziata, a mythical island of Footner's creation in the West Indies, to learn all he can about the rum distillery of Randall Trantor. I'm thinking this is going to be some kind of industrial espionage story. But the first encounter with one of the Annunziata inhabitants takes the story into a completely different realm.

Nevitt meets Eve Brinsley, a 17 year-old spitfire, who while astride her horse during a pig sticking hunt is seen whipping her black servants for their failure to corral the pig she managed to wound. Nevitt intervenes, rescuing the servant from the whip, receives a harsh reprimand from the teenager and is nearly whipped himself. This is followed in quick succession by a barroom brawl that lands Nevitt in jail, a jail break, and an attempt to smuggle Nevitt off the island before he causes any more trouble. While waiting for his jail break co-conspirators Nevitt learns that Eve has been abducted by the man who he assaulted in the bar. So Phil is off to save Eve from the bad guys. From corporate spying in the booze biz to western movie serial adventures. Where was the West Indian sorcery known as Obeah, I wondered?

The book is well past the middle mark before the Footner remembers that he intended to write a murder mystery. Eve having been rescued from the West Indian version of the guys with black hats is soon being married off to Randall Trantor, the distillery owner and the island's richest man. At the wedding banquet the newly married Trantor gets stupefyingly drunk, orders a special bottle of his private reserve of Spey Royal whiskey, tosses off his umpteenth drink, and immediately drops dead. There are cries of "Obeah! Obeah!" from the superstitious wedding guests for Trantor had earlier been seen stepping over a bad luck charm which signals imminent death. Eve is suspected of committing the crime as she is the one closest to her husband and the bottle was delivered straight from the cellar to their wedding table. The cellar was kept locked at all times and was only accessible with Trantor's key. The bottle could only have been poisoned by someone at the table. Or was it somehow bewitched via black magic?

Portrait of Hulbert Footner by painter Mabel Welch
As the murder investigation proceeds Footner uses the story to raise some progressive ideas (for the late 1930s) about race and power. Talk of skin color and how that decides how one is treated on Annunziata often comes up throughout the story. Though the island is fictional its history is heavily borrowed from the Danish West Indies. Footner goes out of his way to talk about the white invaders from Denmark who took over in the early 17th century and subtly introduces into the narrative topics like miscegenation and oppression of the native people. Skin color is always being brought up whether it be the yellow of the Creole, the brown of the children of mixed marriages, or the black of the natives often referred to by the N pejorative.

I know that I've read several detective novels with plots featuring white privilege in island populations be they in the South Pacific or Caribbean, but this is the only detective novel to date from the era spanning the 1920s through the 1940s I have encountered in which native culture and race relations play an important part in the solution of the crime. In fact race is the key to understanding the motive of the murderer who is striving to achieve a place of power on the island. He does so by exploiting the cultural superstitions of the population and at the same time playing up to the prejudices of the white policemen in charge of the murder investigation. He nearly eludes capture but for some luck and intuition on Phil's part.

As for the Obeah there is a sprinkling of lore and legend throughout the book. Interestingly, Footner casts in the role of the powerful sorcerer an elderly woman character and she becomes suspect number two in the murder. There is a bizarre and richly detailed scene towards the end of the book showing off how intimidating the magic of Obeah can be even to a skeptical outsider like Phil Nevitt.
 Posted by at 12:45 am

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