Saturday, June 3, 2023

Green For Danger, by Christianna Brand


Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2023
originally published 1944
284 pp


I'm still working at restoring my mental mojo, but that doesn't mean I've been idle readingwise. I'm just very, very behind and now I've got a stack of like five books sitting here waiting for me to post about. Not to worry -- I'll get there.

Green for Danger is book number two in Christianna Brand's Inspector Cockrill series, preceded by the series opener, Heads You Lose (which I'm reading now).  I'm just thrilled that it is a part of the British Library Crime Classics collection, since the copy I have is an old mass market paperback in pretty beat-up condition.   I enjoyed Green for Danger so very much that I immediately bought the remaining books,  including preordering Death of Jezebel (also from British Library Crime Classics and arriving in August) -- that's how very good it is.  

World War II serves as the backdrop for this clever, closed-circle mystery, which takes place at a former sanitorium now serving as military hospital at Heron's Park just outside of Heronsford in Kent.  The seven main players have all been called to duty there, and they are introduced one by one  (along with a bit of each person's backstory) via their acceptance letters which are being delivered by  postman Joseph Higgins.  The male contingent consists of Dr. Gervase Eden, a surgeon from Harley Street, Mr. Moon, another surgeon hailing from Heronsford, and Dr. Barnes (Barney),  a local anesthetist; the women are   Jane Woods  (Woody), who has been called as a VAD nurse as have Esther Sanson and Frederica (Freddi) Linley, and finally Sister Marion Bates.  Offering the tiniest bit of a clue as to where this story is headed, as Higgins takes himself and his bicycle up the hill leading to Heron's Park, the author tells us that he "could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer."  

Within that year, the hospital working routine of these new arrivals has been established, romance and more than a bit of sexual tension hangs in the air, and air raids are regularly bringing in casualties.  One of these is Joseph Higgins himself, admitted with a fractured femur.   His surgery is routine, "only a little operation, hardly anything at all," so when he dies before the operation begins while the anesthesia is being administered, everyone is surprised.  After all, "the old boy was all right" physically, and no one can find anything wrong in the equipment or the procedure that might have caused him to die so unexpectedly.  Goodness knows things like this can happen "for no rhyme or reason," but the problem is that this wouldn't be the first time that Barnes had lost a patient while administering anesthesia.  Major Moon tells him that if anything comes of Higgins' death, he'd be happy to call in "the high ding-a-ding" Inspector Cockrill  to ensure that "there isn't a lot of undue fuss."   At first Cockrill (who often goes by the nickname Cockie) doesn't "see what all the fuss is about," but it isn't too long before he realizes that Higgins' death was definitely suspicious, and definitely a murder.  He also realizes that it's one of our seven main characters who is responsible, but as to motive, he has no idea.  It seems however, that the murderer isn't quite finished, as there is a second death, again in the operating theatre.  

 Original first edition cover, from Wikipedia

As a person who often figures out the who long before the big reveal comes, I have to say that I was extremely delighted not to have done so this time.  I actually had two different suspects in mind but Brand came along and pulled the rug right out from under me.  That's not too surprising, since the author sort of toys with her readers by planting doubts (and thereby possible motives) about each of the seven suspects. In hindsight, all of the clues were definitely there, and it was like a "how did I miss that?"  kind of moment when Brand actually unmasked the killer.  Add to this the very realistic and credible sense of place and the atmosphere that the author delivers pretty much from the start, all making Green For Danger a pitch-perfect mystery. 

from Cinema Sojourns

I have the old black-and-white film (1946, Pinewood Studios) on DVD as part of my Criterion Collection movies, so I watched it right after finishing the novel.  While it deviates a bit from the book I could have cared less.  Alastair Sim definitely steals the show here in the role of Inspector Cockrill, often playing his scenes for laughs, which at times given the dark and actually somewhat sinister atmosphere underlying this film, can be a welcome relief.  He is eccentric, but underneath his quirkiness there is definitely a sense that he is a wise detective with a keen sense of justice.  The supporting cast, including Trevor Howard, also does a great job.  I would definitely recommend both book and movie, in that order.  

Saturday, April 8, 2023

A Helping Hand, by Celia Dale


Valancourt Books, 2023
originally published 1966

173 pp

Before I start chatting away about this book, I have to say that we had a death in our family that left us mentally flat at the end of January, continuing on through February and well into most of  March. It's been absolutely terrible, and as I said elsewhere, it's  really only now that I'm getting back to the mindspace to be back reading and posting my thoughts.  I have a bit of a post backlog that needs catching up but hope to get to everything asap. 

Valancourt Books has recently published new editions of two of Celia Dale's novels, A Dark Corner and this book, A Helping Hand.  I read A Dark Corner some time ago and have plans to reread it soon, but A Helping Hand is completely new to me.   As I discovered, even at less than two hundred pages it's worth taking your time on this one -- if ever a novel could be labeled as a creeping slow burn, it is this one; on the flip side it's also one of the darkest books I've read in quite a while as well as a true gut puncher.

Maisie and Josh Evans  are on holiday in Italy.   While Josh sits and takes in the sun, Maisie brings a couple of British ladies along with her to the terrace to meet her husband and have tea. The older woman is the widow Mrs. Cynthia Fingal, the younger her niece, Lena Kemp.  Mrs. Fingal had come to live with Lena, and they are also on their holiday, eager for some sun.  As Maisie explains, she and Josh had needed a break after the death of "Auntie Flo," who had been living with the Evans' while being  nursed by Maisie.  The four get along splendidly, and decide to meet up later in Rimini.  When they reconnect, Mrs. Fingal takes a definite liking to Josh, spilling forth all her woes about living with Lena, while Lena finds an audience for her problems with her aunt in Maisie.  Long story short: before the respective couples return to England, it's been arranged that Mrs. Fingal will come to live with Josh and Maisie.  Back at home, after having moved in as a "paying guest," Mrs. Fingal soaks up the attention paid to her by Josh, which she greatly craves and which he doesn't mind giving. At first it seems that the arrangement was a good one all around,  but it isn't too long before the reader starts noticing that things are more than a wee bit off and that there's something not quite right at the Evans home.  I will say no more -- to tell in this case is definitely to spoil. 

from goodreads

On the back cover there's a blurb from the Buffalo News that most perfectly describes A Helping Hand as  "A little gem of a thriller ... evil most monstrous."   It's a good thing that I am one of those readers who doesn't need to find something likeable with the characters in a book because with only one or two exceptions, the people in A Helping Hand are absolutely vile.  The author writes so vividly that at times I felt like I was right there in the house as an observer of the appalling wretchedness, and I had to stop reading every so often just to move out of the dark and back into the light because she is so good at creating a claustrophic atmosphere.   

While the usual elements of a standard crime story will not be found in this novel, what happens here certainly falls within the realm of the genre, and given that this book was written in the 1960s, it remains extremely pertinent in our contemporary world which makes what happens even more frightening.  The one and only thing I found to be on the negative side is that right after a rather stunning twist the story comes to a quick, almost rushed ending which was a bit disappointing, but in the long run it's really more about the getting there. 

I can most certainly recommend this one, and my thanks to Valancourt for bringing it back into print.  My advice: find a nice sunny spot for reading -- you'll need it.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Bad Kids, by Zijin Chen


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
translated by Michelle Deeter
332 pp

paperback (read earlier this month) 

Continuing to try to catch up on my posts here,  Bad Kids by Zijin Chen is yet another book in the Pushkin Vertigo collection, available in English for the first time.   There is another book by this author that has been translated from Chinese to English by Michelle Deeter, The Untouched Crime, published by Amazon Crossing.  Needless to say, when I found out about that one, I hit the buy button immediately.   

A brief word about Bad Kids:  the back-cover blurb labels this novel as "Dark, heart-stopping and violent," and I'll agree to dark and certainly to violent, but "heart-stopping" is a bit over the top.  However,  it is certainly one of the most twisty novels I've enjoyed in a while, meaning that just when you think the endgame has played out, there's more.  And then some.  

It's July, 2013, and Zhang Dongsheng has taken his wife's parents for an outing at Sanmingshan, "the most famous mountain in Ningbo," and now a nature park. The in-laws are happy to be there -- it's a popular and crowded place on holidays but on the day of their visit the park is "practically empty."   The "filial son-in-law" suggests that they make their way to an observation point,  where they'll take a break.  Once there, he looks around and sees no one nearby except three kids "clowning around near a pavilion," but "dismissed them as unimportant," then offers to take the in-laws-  picture with the great view behind them as backdrop, convincing them that they should sit on the wall for a better photo.  Once they've done that, he puts his hands on their shoulders as if to position them just so, and then, with a smile on his face, picks up their legs and it's 再见 (zaijian, bye-bye) to the in-laws as they go tumbling down the mountain.  Zhang knows that there is no way they could have survived that fall, yet a few people had heard the in-laws scream so he has to make it look legit and calls for help.   Outwardly he looks panicked; inwardly he's smiling at the thought that he'd committed the perfect crime; even the police label it accidental death.   What he doesn't know (and this is not spoiler territory -- it's on the back cover) is that while he thinks he got away with it,  those "unimportant" kids have inadvertently caught it all on video.  

Two of the three kids,  a boy by the name of Ding Hao and his friend, a girl called Pupu, had run away from an abusive situation in an orphanage  in Beijing,  and not wanting to return to their respective homes, had made their way to Ningbo and to the home of the third, Zhu Chaoyang, Ding Hao's friend in primary school.  To make a very long and complicated story a bit shorter,  Chaoyang's father gives him an old camera, and the kids decide to go to the nature park at Sanmingshan, where Chaoyang's mother works; it just so happens that they were there at the same time that Zhang Dongsheng was knocking off his in-laws.  The kids spend time taking photos, making videos and goofing around with the camera, and after arriving back at Chaoyang's place (and just before heading to KFC), Pupu discovers that they've picked up something completely unexpected on video -- the death of Zhang Dongsheng's in-laws as it really happened.   Chaoyang is ready to report the murder to the police, but is stopped by Pupu, who reminds him that the police just might ask who the other kids were on the video, and would likely send them back to the orphanage, which is an unacceptable choice.  As the back cover blurb notes, "an opportunity for blackmail presents itself," with Pupu deciding that she and Ding Hao could use the cash for their futures.   And so it begins ... with consequences unforeseen for all involved.  

If this were all there was to the plot, it would still be good.  But Zijin Chen isn't quite finished with his readers yet.  There's much more going on outside of the blackmail as one of the characters takes it upon himself to commit a horrific act that will also generate some serious fallout for everyone involved, and then, well let's just say that there will be more deaths than those of Zhang Donsheng's in-laws.   There is, of course, a police inspector looking into these, but for me the story was less about the investigation than the choices that were made in each instance and the resulting consequences.  

Bad Kids was a fun novel to read, and little by little as all of the unexpected twists and turns came into play, and characters played various battles of wit with each other,  it was seriously difficult to put the book down.  I have to admit to a few eyerolls here and there and thoughts of "as if" at different points, but the novel makes for hours of entertainment even as the author shines a light on the complicated nature of family relationships and more than a few social issues that show up within the story.  And by the way, the ending was perfect.  After reading this one,   I would really love to see more Chinese crime novels in translation (hint hint, Pushkin Vertigo).   

Recommended to people who enjoy twisty crime novels and who don't mind going deep into the dark in their reading.  

Monday, December 26, 2022

coming your way in January: Awake and Die, by Robert Ames

Stark House Press, 2023
178 pp


I just noticed that my last post here was in July. Ouch! On the other hand, July through September is usually spent reading the Booker Prize longlist, and truth be told, I haven't read my usual volume of books this year. According to goodreads, it's just 70 to date, but with this book, Awake and Die, we can up that to 71.  

In the brief author bio in the back of this book, we learn that  Robert Ames is the pseudonym of Charles Lee Clifford (1890-1991), who wrote two other books under this name:  The Devil Drives (1952) and  The Dangerous One (1954).  Memo to self: I need to have these.    Awake and Die is part of Stark House's  fantastic Black Gat collection, but was originally published in 1955,  number 518 in the old Fawcett Gold Medal series.  This  Stark House reprint duplicates the cover of the Gold Medal edition, minus the blurb 

"Murder was a pleasure and women were a pain." 

 Just to be very clear here, Awake and Die is not a whodunit; all you need to do is to read the basic outline  laid out on the back cover blurb to know that this is not an armchair detective sort of thing.  More importantly though, at the very beginning of the novel the narrator, Will Peters, wants the reader to judge whether he is a "cold-blooded killer" or if he "was off in the head," recounting events that take him up to the present day.  As he also says, "it wasn't anybody's fault, except fate's," which in my opinion sort of also challenges the reader to decide whether or not that's how it was.  

from Bookscans

It seems that Peters had been injured during the war in Korea when a bullet had pushed a piece of his helmet into his head.   After three operations, doctors finally managed to get it "all cleaned out."  Being "an outside man," after his surgeries Peters makes his way home to New Jersey to a place called Bayhaven, where he works as a clamdigger; he is to report every couple of weeks  "to be checked" by an Army Reserve doctor in the area.  One day as he lifts his basket of clams out of his boat (to be given to the doctor, a Dr. Algee, as thanks), he notices a gorgeous woman who offers her help with the heavy load, and it seems to be a mutual, instant attraction.  Claire Grace is her name, and after a while he learns among other things that she lives in the "richer part" of Bayhaven and that she's married.  After they spend some time at a bar with a couple of drinks and a dance, she scoots off after Will invites her to his place, making the excuse of not realizing how late it was.  Still, Will can't get his mind off of her, thinking that Claire was "the kind of woman a man ought to have."  

When he finally makes it back to his place, he notices a light on in the house and thinks maybe Claire might have taken him up on his offer.  The thought makes him "feverish," but it's only his former girlfriend Mae there, with her "brassy-dyed hair," her "glaring white makeup with bright-red lipstick" and her fake British accent, waving her cigarette around.   As Peters notes, "it was remembering Claire Grace, and comparing her with this drunken babe, that so enraged me."   Suffice it to say that this is the point when this story truly takes off, leaving bodies to pile up one after the other, a detective with a need to prove himself  who will not give up under any circumstances, and yet another woman who could very easily put Peters in the big house for life.  

Even though this is not a whodunit (as I noted earlier),  there is more than enough here to satisfy any reader of older crime fiction, especially because of  the many twists the author throws into the basic plot, some expected, some definitely not.     Ames lays on the sleaze factor a bit thickly in this story, which given the time of its writing is not unusual, but on the flip side, he was a fine plotter and a pretty good writer, keeping me reading and not wanting to put the book down, tying up a lot of loose ends so that I wasn't left in the dark about anything.    Evidently he was also not without a sense of humor.  One of Peters' neighbors is an old recluse who speaks to others via his seagull, his dog and his cat, each with its own distinct personality and voice; it seems that any one of them (she says, tongue-in-cheek) could potentially make the rest of Will's life miserable. [I really had to chuckle at this bit -- my dog often answers me back or makes comments in a thick New Yawk accent when I'm feeling a bit silly.]  

 My many and very grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy -- I've just recently bought a couple of their books, Only the Good, by Mary Collins (1942) and a two-volumes-in-one edition of The Make-Believe Man (1963) and A Friend of Mary Rose (1961) written by Elizabeth Fenwick, but looking through the little book pamphlet included with those, I'm super, super excited about reading Jay Dratler's Pitfall, which they list as "First in a series of Film Noir Classics."  I'm actually so stoked about that one that I'm going to go buy it now.    

Awake and Die is a big yes for me and it should most certainly be for those people who enjoy indulging in crime from yesteryear.  Recommended, definitely. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Death on Gokumon Island, by Seishi Yokomizo


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
originally published as Gokumon-To, originally serialized 1947-1948
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
310 pp


Completely overjoyed when I learned last year that this book was going to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, I hit the preorder button at lightning speed.  At the same time, I bought a dvd of the 1977 film made from this novel, directed by Kon Ichikawa, which I watched last night after finishing Death on Gokumon Island.  More on that later.    

It's September, 1946 and as the novel opens, a ferry is making its way to a few different islands in Japan's  Seto Inland Sea.   It drops its passengers until there are only three left, all heading for a small island, Gokumon-to, which translates to Hell's Gate Island.  One of these people is Kosuke Kindaichi, who overhears a conversation between the other two -- a priest who had gone to pick up the once-confiscated, now-returned bell belonging to Senkoji Temple, and another man who informs the priest that someone named Hitoshi was "supposed to be coming home soon."  He had heard the news from a soldier in Hitoshi's regiment who had come to the island a few days earlier, when the guy had turned up to tell the family that Hitoshi had sent him to let them know not only that he would be returning, but also that he hadn't been injured in the war.  The priest then asks about someone named Chimata, which captures Kindaichi's attention, sparking a conversation among the three men.  It turns out that Kindaichi, a friend of Chimata, had come to Gokumon-to let the Kito family know of his death aboard a transport ship just a month earlier. 

Kindaichi, "like every other young man in Japan," had been drafted into the army, where he had spent two years in China before being deployed "between different islands to the south." His last stop had been in Wewak, New Guinea, where his division had been defeated, causing them to retreat; his division had joined others and it was then that Kindaichi had met and befriended Chimata-san,  helping him through his bouts of a very bad case of malaria and spending time together while the other soldiers "fell one after the other."   While they eventually made it out okay when the war ended,  each time Chimata fell ill Kindaichi noted that he suffered from "an extreme fear of death."  All was well, it seemed, until Chimata fell ill on board the repatriation ship; before he died he had told Kindaichi that he didn't want to die, and that he had to go home.  Otherwise, he said,  his "three sisters will be murdered."    Exactly why this might be is not explained until the end, but by then, it's too late -- it seems that Chimata had been right, and now our detective must try to discover who is behind these (quoting the back cover) "grotesquely staged" deaths that start not too long after he lands on the island. 

1971 cover from Mandarake

He will definitely have his work cut out for him, since the islanders tend to regard anyone not from there as suspicious; he is even arrested once by the local police sergeant who has no idea of his prowess as a "famed detective" and who views him as prime suspect in the case.  With the arrival of his old friend Inspector Isokawa (from The Honjin Murders) Kindaichi is released (to the sergeant's great  chagrin, I might add), but even then it will not be smooth sailing because, as he says to Isokawa, "everyone here on Gokumon Island is crazy. They're all out of their minds."   Perhaps, but while the Inspector makes note of the insanity behind the murders, Kindaichi eventually realizes that there is most certainly a method behind the madness on the part of whoever is responsible.  

What is done very well is the description of the longstanding power structure on the island and then there's the novel's  immediate postwar setting which captures the  demobilizations that are still ongoing, the families who continue to wait for their loved ones to return home and sit by the radio to hear the latest repatriation news, and a real sense of how the war has interrupted the flow of life for most people such as Isokawa, whose career had basically stalled during World War II and remains unsettled at the moment.   At the same time, the real payoff  in reading Death on Gokumon Island must wait for the end.  I was actually becoming a bit frustrated partway through because the story becomes more than a bit muddled and clunky at times; to be fair to the author, he does toss out clues here and there but they are on the impossible side of figuring out until all is revealed and things fall into place.  Trust me -- even the most seasoned armchair detectives will not be able to figure this one out.  Word to the wise: pay attention to the list of characters offered up front; I found myself returning to it several times.

 So far, Pushkin Vertigo has published four of the books in Seishi Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi series:  The Honjin Murders, The Inugami Curse, The Village of Eight Graves and now this one.  According to Thrilling Detective, there are seventy-seven books featuring Kindaichi, so with any luck (crossing fingers) we may be seeing more in translation.   As I've noted before, my favorite is The Inugami Curse apa The Inugami Clan, but with another seventy-three left, who knows what little gems are yet to be uncovered in this series!  Despite my reading reservations at times,  Gokumon Island ends up being not only clever, but the author injects more than a twisted sense of destiny as well as a sort of tragic irony into this story once all is said and done.  Recommended for fans of the series and for Japanese crime fiction in general; it may be a bit slow in the telling but the reward is well worth waiting for. 

from TMDB

The Japanese film (1977) based on this novel (directed by Kon Ichikawa, whose The Burmese Harp I could watch on a continuous loop) starts with the same premise as the book, but for some reason I still can't fathom, the powers that be here then changed the storyline, including the identity of the killer.  Also unexpected and producing a very loud "wtf"  was a decapitation scene, and I have to say that I actually cringed every time Kindaichi scratched his head releasing clouds of very visible dandruff. Ick.  On the other hand, it streamlines the rather convoluted story making it easier to follow, but I'm glad I read the novel before viewing the movie.   All in all a fun experience but in my humble opinion, not quite as well done as the movie based on Yokomizo's Inugami Clan, also done in the 70s but miles better than this one.  

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A Taste for Honey, by H.F. Heard

Penzler Publishers, American Mystery Classics, 2019
originally published 1941
197  pp


Still following the séptimo circulo list, up next after Night Over Fitch's Pond comes H.F. Heard's A Taste for Honey (#25),  published in 1941 and reprinted in 2019 via Penzler Publishers' American Mystery Classics series.    The book was made into a 1966 film called The Deadly Bees, but more on that later.  

Last week my insomnia flared up again and I grabbed this book  hoping I'd read until drifting off.  The complete opposite happened -- once I started it I couldn't stop.  It wasn't because it's a great book, but more because what happens here was so far out of the range of most mystery/crime novels of the period and so completely unexpected that I knew there would be no sleep that night.    The story is related by Mr. Sydney Silchester, a reclusive  sort of fellow who had come to a small village in the countryside for peace and quiet. He lives under a self-made rule of "keeping myself to myself," wanting to be "left alone, at peace," preferring his own company to that of others.   Evidently something has happened to shatter his solitude and he feels the need to "set it all down" so that his record (narrated retrospectively), will let people know that he had very little blame in the matter, the whole thing having been "forced" upon him.  What follows is not exactly a mystery but a sort of bizarre story that borders on pulpy horror (not the supernatural type but more like a sort of mad-scientist adventure caper), and while there is some  detection involved here,  this is by no means a whodunit.   And it all begins with Silchester's fondness for honey, which he buys regularly from a certain Mr. Heregrove, the local village apiarist.   At one point Silchester discovers that he's running low on the stuff, and while considering his next visit to the Heregrove's farm, he learns from his house cleaner that Mrs. Heregrove had met an untimely end after being stung to death by her husband's bees.  Though the coroner's inquest arrives at a verdict of accidental death, Heregrove has been ordered to destroy his hives, which leaves Silchester without a supplier.  Not keen on asking around the village due to his "dread of business dealings" that might lead to "social entanglements," he finds himself in luck one day while out on a long walk, when he happens upon a sign advertising "a certain amount of honey" for sale.   Happy to find a new supplier,   he goes on to meet the man who posted it, a certain Mr. Mycroft, who, along with the honey, also provides him with an interesting theory.   As the back-cover blurb says, Mr. Mycroft "senses the bloody hand of murder,"  meaning that he believes that Mrs. Heregrove's death was not an accident at all.   That will be it for plot, I'm afraid, because there is no way that I'm going to ruin the show for potential readers.  

Despite some testing of my patience with Silchester and Mycroft because of their often lengthy expositions on various topics,  I had great fun with this novel.   I have to seriously offer a tip of my hat to the author on even coming up with this crazy plot, which had it not been for Mycroft's habit to  (and pardon the pun) drone on and on, might have made for better reading.  On the other hand, the nature of the villainy revealed here allows for the author to discourse about the limitations of the law which, in this case, leaves these two men no alternative but to handle things themselves.    As Mycroft notes,
"The law protects us from the sudden, unpremeditated violence of the untamed blackguard. It is helpless against the calculating malice of a man who patiently and deliberately studies to get around its limitations  When you have really faced up to the fact ... that the law, the magistrate and the village policeman are helpless to protect you, then you will be free to consider the unavoidability of step two of doing what we can do."
The situation comes down to a battle of the minds, with uncountable lives at stake if things go wrong.

 I should warn potential readers to leave the introduction for last as Otto Penzler reveals "one of the surprises in this book" in his assumption that "the secret has been revealed often enough that few readers will be astounded."  I suppose he never thought that perhaps there are still some readers like me who have neither read this book nor discussed it with anyone before, so that's certainly a big oopsie on his part.   And as to that secret, well, it's not hard to figure it out pretty much right away with all of the clues offered by the author. Trust me, that's the least concern in this novel.  Also, if you are one of those readers who must find something likeable or relatable about the characters, it's very likely you won't find it here.  All in all it was a fun read, not perfect by any means, but still very much worth the time.  

movie poster, from filmaffinity

As to that movie (an Amicus production) I mentioned earlier, the original screenplay was written by Robert Bloch,  but the director of the film, Freddie Francis, evidently didn't like it and along with Anthony Marriott, decided to change it.  That's a shame really, and according to the B&S About Movies blog, Bloch never saw the film but did say that Deadly Bees "buzzed off into critical oblivion, unwept, unhonoured and unstung."   It would probably appeal only to true-blue diehard connoisseurs of old horror films because it was pretty bad, with the plot centering around a pop singer who has gone to Heregrove's farm for a rest after fainting from exhaustion during a television performance.  The roles are actually flipped in this film, with Mr. Mycroft (still painfully expository) as the bad guy.    I couldn't actually lay hands on a copy to watch but I did find an MST3K (of which I've been a huge fan for eons) episode on youtube which didn't actually quite deaden the pain; even the sarcastic bot banter couldn't save the experience. 

MST3K version, my photo

I  also watched an episode of the Elgin Hour, "Sting of Death" (1955), which stars Boris Karloff and hews much closer to the novel than the later 1966 film.  This one is worth the watch, although  the scope is rather limited, I suppose,  due to the allotted television time. It also won the Edgar Award for best TV episode in a series in 1956.  


Boris Karloff as Mr. Mycroft

Bottom line: book fun, movie bad; book recommended just because it's so very different and strange, movie is definitely skippable unless you are a masochist.  

Friday, June 3, 2022

Night Over Fitch's Pond, by Cora Jarrett


Houghton Mifflin Company, Riverside Press, 1933
292 pp

"There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog." 

Night Over Fitch's Pond is number 24 on the Borges/Bioy list of mystery novels, and it is my introduction to author Cora Jarrett (1877-1969).  As a brief aside, I did read number 23, ECR Lorac's Black Beadle (1939), but it was a long while ago, I didn't really care for it all that much, and I was well behind reading schedule so I didn't post about it.  Oh well.  Things are FINALLY settling here at home (after what, two-plus years?)  so I'll just be moving on.   

One particular thing I'm enjoying about going through the Borges/Bioy list of books is that  it affords me the opportunity to read novels I have never read before, and in this case, an author I'd not heard of before starting this project.   Cora Hardy was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and after studying at Bryn Mawr, The Sorbonne and Oxford,  she entered into what would become a lengthy teaching career and married Edmund Seton Jarrett in 1906.   According to a blurb about her book The Ginkgo Tree at Abebooks, she "began writing in her 50s,"  with Night Over Fitch's Pond  her first novel.  She would go on to write five more novels, a number of short stories and a play, and as Barrie Hayne notes in Reilly's Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers , Jarrett's books are "deep probings into abnormal psychology" (Springer, 2015; 858), which is very likely one reason I liked Night Over Fitch's Pond as much as I did.  

The novel begins as our narrator, Walter Drake, sits by the body of Julius Nettleton in a cottage on Fitch's Pond, "a small solitary lake of great beauty."  Reflecting back on events that led to Julius' death, his mind replays what had happened over that particular summer, looking for any kind of clues as to what might have happened out on the lake that caused Julius to die.   

Julius and Mary Nettleton had first come to Fitch's Pond to visit their son George at a camp on the lake owned and run by a man named Maxon. They had discovered two abandoned cottages there, and Julius bought them both -- one for his family and one to be rented out.   Later, after the Nettletons had spent four summers on the lake, Julius had invited Walter to spend his summer at Fitch's Pond as a guest in their cabin.  Walter soon realizes that the Nettletons are no ordinary couple -- Julius, as he notes, wanted Mary to be  "a housemate only, a housekeeper, a serviceable kind of companion," while Mary had decided to "bear with humors of Julius."  Life at the Nettletons, both at home and at the lake, it seems, is built around what "Julius will want..." with Mary acceding to his wishes despite what she might want.  Walter, it seems, is also secretly in love with Mary but doesn't understand why she caves in so easily to what her husband wants.   

The real trouble begins when new tenants, Rolf and Eloise Deming,  move into the second cottage.  On first meeting Eloise, Drake comes to the conclusion (eventually proving correct) that Eloise would "go over the lot of us like a steam-roller," and secretly hopes that Julius would "get his proper come-uppance from this woman he had brought among us." He also realizes  that it would be Mary who "would pay," also a spot-on insight, especially when it hits him that Mary and Rolf had quietly fallen for each other and that Eloise knows.  Drake goes on to describe a  campaign of mental tortures inflicted on Mary by Eloise  taking readers to that "one fatal evening," which had "brought our whole precarious cardhouse of outward appearance at Fitch's Pond slithering and toppling down."   "Abnormal psychology" indeed -- there's a reason why Eloise is referred to as "an Iago in petticoats," but the one really deserving reader scrutiny here is Julius, as Drake spends that long night "laboring to plumb ... the bottomless dark" of his mind.  

While reading, my thoughts often came back to a  passage I'd marked earlier in the novel where Drake is told by a friend that 
There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog," 
 and without giving anything away, all I will say is that there is much more than a kernel of truth in that statement, played out right up until the end.  To say much else would be criminal; in the long run, while Night Over Fitch's Pond  may not be a typical mystery story,  after the first few slow-ish chapters, I couldn't put it down.  The truth is that I enjoyed it so very much that I bought a copy of Jarrett's Pattern in Red and Black (1934; Coachwhip, 2017)  written under her alias Faraday Keene.  This character-driven story may not be for everyone, but there's just something about the deep delve into people's dark psyches  that appealed to me.  

Recommended, mainly to readers of older mysteries, as well as to people who, like myself, are always on the lookout for something different and who love finding the writings of authors whose works have pretty much faded away into obscurity.