Monday, December 15, 2014

out today -- The Devil in Montmartre: A Mystery in fin de siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus, 2014
256 pp

arc -- my grateful thanks to the author and to the publisher for my copy

The truth of the matter is that books like The Devil in Montmartre used to be my go-to favorites for a very long time -- historical crime fiction, set in a specific time period in a specific place. I  read so many novels in that subgenre that I burned myself out after a while and had to move on to something else entirely -- in fact, I can't even remember the last time that I made an active decision to read a period crime novel.  Now after reading this one, I remember why I used to enjoy them so much.  Plus, any book with Toulouse-Lautrec as a character definitely has my vote.  Even though it's very much lighter than my normal fare, it's still quite good. 

The year is 1889, and it's only two weeks before the closing ceremonies of that year's Expedition Universelle. A year earlier, London had been in the grip of fear because of the horrific acts perpetrated by Jack the Ripper.  So when a female torso is discovered in a city sewer, the police want to catch the murderer as quickly as possible to stifle any rumors that the Ripper has crossed the channel and set up shop in Paris. The chief inspector of the Sûreté Paul Feraud, knows that he needs his best man for the job -- and that just happens to be Inspector Achille Lefebvre.  Only thirty, Lefebvre is "a new breed of detective," one who believes wholeheartedly in applying modern investigative techniques in his work. And he's going to have his work cut out for him.  But he gets lucky:  the autopsy report reveals a startling clue that points Lefebvre in a particular direction even though someone is doing his level best to put the frame on someone else, and the report of a missing woman gives him a potential lead on who the victim might be.  He has to work quickly, though -- while he's working hard to make sure he gets everything right, his rival in the police department has his own ideas about how to bring a quick end to the case, one that could definitely incite mob violence in a city where the divisions caused by the Dreyfus affair are still fresh and are still on everyone's mind.  

The Devil in Montmartre is set in the Paris of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, where the whirling skirts of can-can dancers mesmerize the customers of the Moulin Rouge, where the small boîtes serve as meeting places for professionals and street people alike, a place where art and artists flourish. The author easily captures this atmosphere and the beautiful parks with their gardens visited by tourists from America and England; in contrast to the beauty and excitement of the city, he also takes his readers into dirty back streets and alleys and out into areas controlled by the city's criminals, places that most visitors to the city never see. It's also very obvious that the author put in a LOT of time on research, especially in the area of police work and contemporary investigative methods.  Putting that together with his character construction,  it's impossible to believe that this is his first mystery novel. And anyone who's ever read what I write here knows that I'm not averse to saying exactly what I think, so that's high praise.  Trust me -- I've read enough first novels to feel qualified to judge. On the other hand, and this is probably more on my end rather than his since it isn't all that obvious, I figured out the who quite early into the story. I wasn't overly keen on the romantic parts either, but that's a personal thing and an area where I tend to find myself in the minority.   However, I will say that the book made for fun reading. 

Hopefully there will be a sequel some day, but in the meantime, The Devil in Montmartre should especially appeal to fans of historical crime fiction or historical fiction in general. It's lighter than my normal crime preferences, but there is definitely  a good central mystery to be solved, and even though a headless torso may make some people maybe want to think twice about picking up the book, the violence is not anywhere near graphic nor is it overused or used gratuitously in any way. That in itself is commendable these days.  I think Mr. Inbinder has done a fine job here with his first book. I hope it's the first of many. 

another one from the vault: They Rang Up the Police, by Joanna Cannan

Rue Morgue Press, 1999
154 pp
originally published 1939


"The bother about detective stories is that they're not the least like life."

They Rang Up the Police is Book #3 in my ongoing quest to read books by obscure women crime writers -- both novels and authors that have been either forgotten or never heard of in the first place.  In the case of all of three, it's been the latter for me. So far I've been batting a thousand in my choices: first with Dorothy Bowers and more recently, Marjorie Alan, and now with They Rang Up the Police, which is a most unusual mystery novel published in 1939.

Marley Grange in rural Oxfordshire is the home of the Cathcarts. Unlike the older families living nearby, the Cathcarts do not have roots in the area, but rather had  "made their money," a fact that sets them apart in the local class scheme.  Living at Marley Grange are Mrs. Grace Cathcart and her daughters,  Nancy, Sheila and Delia.  There was a Mr. Cathcart at one time, but old Humphrey is "at rest now," a situation that Mrs. Cathcart prefers, since there is
"... no stamping in the dressing room, no snores, no clearing of a smoker's throat, no arguments about the number of blankets, no sounds, no movement, no will but her own."
The sisters are all homely spinsters, the youngest 38, and Delia, the eldest at 43 is "the most worldly of the Cathcarts, and is referred to as "the man of the family."  Sheila is "the highbrow," while Nancy is lovingly known as "our home bird," the sort of woman who would rather stay home and sew.  It is a harmonious household,  so it seems, and Grace has worked hard to bring up her daughters "to be as courteous and considerate to each other as they were to strangers."  The sisters address each other as "darling," and Delia carefully watches over her siblings and runs the household capably, taking care of every problem down to dealing with the servants.  She also hunts and breaks in horses.

As the heat ratchets up in the summer, Delia has taken to sleeping outside in a secluded area of the yard next to the house in a small camp bed.  One night she goes to her "mannish" bedroom, puts on her "serviceable striped silk pajamas and a woolen dressing gown," and heads on outside for a good night's rest.  The next morning, Delia has disappeared. The rest of the family is in a dither, and after Nancy drives around the country lanes to look for her, they decide to call around to see if anyone's seen her. When that proves to be futile, "they rang up the police." Then they make a strange discovery: Delia's suitcase is missing, along with a blue-flowered dress, her hat, and a pair of shoes.  The police, represented at first by local Superintendent Dawes, sees a love affair in the disappearance; the rest of the women quickly shut that idea down.  After Dawes, described as "common," and  an "ordinary policeman" by Nancy, bids them goodbye, Mrs. Cathcart decides they'll just have to find Delia themselves. In calling around to Delia's acquaintances, they discover that another local resident is missing --  a Captain Willoughby of Lane End Farm, a horse-riding friend of Delia's.  Could there be a connection?  Grace has had enough -- and she pulls some family strings and gets the attention of someone at Scotland Yard.  Inspector Guy Northeast, whose career literally hinges on solving this case, is called in to get to the bottom of Delia's disappearance.

While my description of the story in  They Rang Up the Police may make this book sound like yet another novel in the English country murder mystery tradition, it is really anything but. Yes, there's a grand house with servants, stables, and a tennis court, and yes, there are a number of clever red herrings built into the story to keep the reader guessing.  However, the hedges that keep Marley Grange out of public view off of the main road also hide something else that is more sinister (okay, I know this word is way overused, but it fits) than what's normally found in the standard, garden-variety, traditional-genre tropes.  Unfortunately, the gut punch comes at the very end of the book, so I can't really go there.

Aside from the cringeworthy, nails-scraping-a-chalkboard Cathcarts, Cannan has populated her novel with some very bizarre characters one doesn't normally find in a book like this one. My favorite is Gerda Willoughby, a would-be artist, philosopher, self-proclaimed member of the intelligentsia whom the Inspector refers to as "Yet another Ancient Mariner," and "quite tiresome enough to drive a man from home without the incentive of an affair with another woman." In modern parlance, she's a total flake, and her antics are laughworthy but also sad because of how they reflect her sense of alienation among the people in this society. There's a socialist chauffeur, his boss who is a grumpy old curmudgeon, a drunken veterinarian who hides secrets of his own, and the list of suspects goes on.  Cannan also has a winner in her Inspector Guy Northeast, a farm boy who did not want to be a farmer, but who instead had dreams of being a Mountie in the RCMP.   After leaving home, he finds a supporter in an aunt who encourages him to follow his dream of being a policeman. After some minor successes, he finds himself on the promotion track and achieves the rank of inspector at Scotland Yard.  However, he bungles an otherwise open-and-shut case so he's on the receiving end of all of the cases that his superiors at the Yard find too dull to take on themselves, and his career is definitely at risk by the time he takes up the case at Marley Grange. At times in this case he displays a definite nostalgia for farming, mostly because as a farmer no one is around to tell him what to do. He has to deal with the likes of the local policemen who can't fathom that anyone of the upper crust might possibly be involved, that the answer to the strangeness of any of the female characters is due to "sex repression," and that more likely than not, it's going to be a member of one of the working classes who is guilty.  Once again, class difference is a major theme that runs throughout the entire book.

Without giving anything away, it is ultimately the psychology behind the crime which, along with the unusual character makeup,  makes this book extremely readworthy and sets it apart from the work of Ms. Cannan's more well-known and more popular contemporaries.  When all is said and done, all of the zaniness leading up to the ending fades away into a heartbreaking sense of sadness that left me feeling sympathetic rather than antagonistic toward the offender, something that rarely happens, but in this case just feels right.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Holmes is dead and darkness falls" -- Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 2014
304 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

The first word that came to my mind after finishing Moriarty was this: "clever." 

If you've read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, then you know from Watson's account  "The Final Problem" that  Holmes and his arch-rival Professor James Moriarty toppled over into the falls, marking the end of the world's greatest detective and the world's most sinister criminal.  You also know that it was just a clever ploy on the part of Holmes so that he could flush out Moriarty's remaining network of evildoers.  Back in London, though, the bad guys didn't know that part of the story, so you'd think they would be having a field day.  But they're not. Moriarty's death left a big vacuum just begging to be filled, and sadly for the criminals in town, the new crime boss is  even more ruthless than Moriarty ever was. The criminals in this book are far nastier than any Conan-Doyle has ever dreamed up; there is a no-holds-barred attitude in this story when portraying just how evil and downright sadistic this new criminal contingent actually can be. Sadism, murder, and torture are just a few of their erstwhile talents, and their reputation has already spread quickly through the streets of  London and the criminal underworld as well. 

Our narrator offers his name right away. He is Frederick Chase, a senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency out of New York. Chase was actually at Reichenbach five days after things went down.  After taking the reader quickly through the main events of the story, he then says that the story that he "must" tell begins on the fifth day after the deaths of Holmes and Moriarty.  It is on that day that a man has been fished out of  Reichenbach Brook, and the day that Chase first meets Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones. Jones is a major devotee of Sherlock Holmes and has been since he helped the great detective with events in the story that came to be known as "The Sign of Four," and before Chase could say anything, Jones offers a brief demonstration of the deductive powers he's learned by studying Holmes' methods.  He deduces that Chase is a Pinkerton's agent and that only one week earlier, he'd "set off for England in the hope of tracking down Professor James Moriarty."  Needless to say, this demonstration and the fact that Chase needs British police assistance in his task is the start of a friendship as well as a cooperative effort -- with no Holmes to safeguard the streets of London, the two find themselves up against a group of criminals now under the aegis of their new and cruel  master. 

The character of Jones, who had been portrayed by Watson as rather incompetent in "The Sign of Four," and again as a"laughing stock" in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," is by far the most interesting of them all here.  While recuperating from a case of rickets after his work in that case, he had "dedicated the year of his hiatus to the betterment of his career as a detective." He had been "beaten" by Holmes twice, and so vowed to "make himself the equal of the world's most famous consulting detective." His home office is more like a shrine, where he's "read everything that Mr. Holmes has written," and has "studied his methods and replicated his experiments,"  making "Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life."  According to Jones' wife, who doesn't have the same feelings for Holmes, Jones actually believes that he is Holmes' "equal."  So obviously, he has something to prove here, and it made me wonder if perhaps he's gone a little off the rails mentally. He literally becomes a walking pastiche of the great detective, a trait that ultimately will do him little in the way of favors. 

 Given that the man wants to be Holmes, it's no surprise whatsoever that  there are a number of Holmesian tropes in play here, and it's also not surprising that the author has fun with them.   There's one particular scene that I quite liked and thought worked very well.  All of the detectives who had ever worked with Holmes come together in one room for a meeting, some praising Holmes while lamenting his demise; others who are ready to "embrace his going as an opportunity" for the detectives to "achieve results" on their "own two feet." What all agree on, though, is that at least they won't find themselves "caricatured" by Watson any more.  

As good as those scenes are, and surprising as some parts may be, it takes a while for this story to get off the ground actionwise since the reader is being introduced to the main players and we get a replay of Reichenbach Falls.  Then there are some moments of tedious description here and there (do we really need to know what was in the stew?) and sometimes the story just sort of plods along with exposition.   However, if you're not a Holmes purist looking for any sort of Conan-Doyle style of perfection,  Moriarty turns out to be a fun - not great - just fun read with a surprising scene toward the end leading to a finish that I won't divulge. I've seen some reviews that say it was contrived -- and maybe there's something to that, but hey - it was still a fun book. 

I read this book through the generosity of the publisher and through TLC book tours, and you can follow what others have to say as it makes its way through several readers by clicking here.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

may she rest in peace: PD James has passed away at the age of 94

I've just read that P.D. James, who has entertained me for many, many years, has passed away.  You can read more here, but I will just say that not only have I enjoyed each and every Dalgliesh novel she's ever written, but I had just last week finished watching the dramatization of her Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Mystery.

rest in peace - and thank you

Monday, November 24, 2014

another really obscure writer: Marjorie Alan -- Dark Prophecy

MS Mill, 1945
originally published in England as Masked Murder
188 pages


Talk about obscure -- while researching this author, all I could find on her is the following:

real name: Doris Marjorie Bumpus
born: 1905
number of books: eight, published between 1945 and 1956 

One would think that a crime writer with eight novels under her belt would be more widely known, but I've scoured the internet and have come up with absolutely nothing other than what I've written here, absolutely bupkus on Bumpus. If anyone at all has any information about this author, please share -- I would love to know more.

I found my copy of Dark Prophecy online -- a true 1945 edition with a little tiny blurb about the printing just before page one --
"This book is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all government regulations controlling the use of paper and other materials."
-- a product of the War Production Board of the time, which 
"directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.[2] It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper[3]and plastics."
 So much for the history (although I do think it's kind of cool). Dark Prophecy, as I learned at the mysteryfile blog, falls under a subgenre I've never heard of called "Had I But Known." In fact, the review posted  there by William F. Deeck, says
Had I but known, I wouldn’t have begun the book. But unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey."
Well, I'm not so quick to shrug it off (I mean, seriously...what the hell kind of review is that?)  but Dark Prophecy reads like an English country-house murder mystery with a little hint of romance thrown in.  The main character of this story is Valerie Beech, formerly of Abbott's Rest, but now living in a bedsit in London. It seems that Valerie's father was up to his eyeballs in debt and sort of never told anyone; when he died, Valerie discovered that the family home had been mortgaged.  To try to cover the debt, she sold what furnishings she could, but  that didn't even come close to what the old man had owed. Now Valerie's a "hard-up business girl" in the city, so when she receives an invitation to a weekend house party at Wayfarers, the estate next to Abbott's Rest, she decides after some hedging back and forth to attend.  Wayfarers is the home of Frank and Carol Logan; Frank was once Valerie's fiancé until Carol stole him away. Because of Valerie's shame at losing Abbott's Rest and because of the marriage between Carol and Frank, she hasn't been back to that part of the country in a very long time, but she decides to go despite all of the past history.  The minute she gets on the train at Paddington she realizes "in a clear, definite premonitory flash," that she probably shouldn't go, but she does anyway.  Even though she's a bit uncomfortable at first, things go well for a while until hostess Carol receives a death threat in the mail. But even a death threat won't stop the festivities -- Carol has planned a lavish costume party. She dresses like a bride, wearing a black mask, and outfits Valerie in a "Moorish costume" with "wide mauve trousers and a yashmak," another word for a face-covering veil.  It seems like everyone is having a good time and Carol decides to play a trick on one of her male guests. She asks Valerie to exchange costumes with her -- and while Valerie is reluctant, she decides to play along with the gag.  While she's waiting for a signal to come downstairs and rejoin the party in her new garb, someone takes the opportunity to get rid of Carol in the room next door. Enter Inspector Ferris, who is a friend of one of the guests, and who has his work cut out for him with a large cast of potential killers -- and first on everyone's list, of course, is Valerie.

While the book's publication date is 1945, there's very little in the way of clues as to when the action in this novel actually takes place. My assumption is that it's set during the 1940s, however, I may be wrong here. There's pretty much nothing here that touches on World War II: the men at the house are all young, none of them have any wartime or post war-involvement  issues, and the war isn't even brought up anywhere.  While Valerie is obviously from an upper middle-class background and Wayfarers is filled with people who seem to be quite well off (at least one guest is an artist whose wife lives in London while he paints in the country), the only hint of any class issues is Valerie's father's financial problems that have set her apart from her former neighbors and sent her to London to work.

 Getting back to Deeck's review, I find it to be pretty harsh, considering that by his words " . . . unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey, " he probably never actually read it. True, the wording of the book will make you work a little harder while reading (but it's not nearly as stilted, for example, as something by John Dickson Carr), and true, the story takes pretty much forever after the murder to get to the solution. It's also a little too much romance for my taste, but to her credit, it's less simpering-heroine-type stuff than I expected.   When all is said and done, however,  Alan reveals that basic human nature doesn't really change underneath the veneer of  the well-kept lawns, the at-home tennis courts, and the Rolls Royces of the rich.

If  you can find a copy, and if you're a diehard classic British mystery fan or a fan of country-house murders  looking for another author to read, I'd say give it a try. I  plan on trying to hunt down some of her other works to add to my library of obscure women crime/mystery writers.  The fact that Alan is such an enigma actually appeals to me and makes me want to read more of her books.  Definitely not a novel for those who want a quick read.

Friday, November 14, 2014

pure vintage: Postscript to Poison, by Dorothy Bowers

Rue Morgue Press, 2005
originally published 1938
190 pp


Originally published in 1938,  Postscript to Poison is the first of only five books by British author Dorothy Bowers, who died only ten years later after a battle with tuberculosis.  Bowers had wanted to "make creative literary work" her career, but found herself the owner of  “a fairly regular spate of rejection slips from various editors”  instead.  She also read a great deal, and discovered an "intermittent" attraction to detective fiction, selecting "only ...the best." She eventually started writing mystery novels herself which ultimately led to her being inducted to the detection club in 1948, but her novels soon went out of print.   Thanks to Rue Morgue Press, her works live on and are widely available.  Sadly, she's been overlooked or forgotten at mainstream crime fiction/mystery  info sites like, an oversight which, imho, needs to be corrected. I've already ordered her second book in this series, Shadows Before, which I'm definitely looking forward to reading after having finished Postscript to Poison, so obviously it means that I enjoyed this one enough to merit another.

When the epigraph in the first chapter of a novel has to do with Lady Macbeth, it's definitely notice worthy. Good old Lady Macbeth -- that ambitious,  ruthless and very powerful woman -- could almost be an alter ego to the matriarch in this family drama. I say almost -- unlike Lady Macbeth, Cornelia Lackland is an elderly widow and she dies by the end of chapter two. It's only after her death that the full scale of her tyranny is revealed, which brings to light just how much everyone at Lacklands hates her, and with what I'd say is good reason. She probably would have made a good murderer had she not been a victim.

Before Mrs. Lackland dies, however, there is some monkey business at work in the town of Minsterbridge. Her physician, Dr. Faithful, has received a couple of nasty poison pen letters accusing him of poisoning his patient, and decides to turn them over to the police. While Mrs. Lackland had been ill, she'd recently been making a very good recovery, and was healthy enough to have been excited about the coming visit with her solicitor Mr. Rennie. But even though the good doctor has given her a good prognosis, he is called out to Lacklands one night only to find her dead.  He refuses to give a certificate of death, and calls for the coroner, ultimately leading to the involvement of Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe of Scotland Yard, who quickly discovers how very much the old lady was hated by just about everyone in the household and that she had a rather shady past.  He has to sort through not only this mess, but also has to find whoever may be responsible when a second death occurs.

the detection club  from
Postscript to Poison has its moments, but the author keeps the best one,  the revelation of the murderer, a secret up until the very end. There are so many people who qualify as suspects, all with motives, means and opportunity,  keeping the reader involved until all is said and done. With such a large cast of possibles, the red herrings can't help but multiply, so things are never dull.

Even though it's the 1930s, some Victorian attitudes still prevail in this novel, for example, with the use of the term "hysteria."  Our intrepid detective from New Scotland Yard has a "natural man's horror of hysteria," and is surprised when Mrs. Lackland's companion, Emily Bullen, doesn't live up to his expectations.   The same character is also described by the inspector as "a crafty, hysterical, harmful, but ultimately stupid type."  There are more uses of this word scattered through the book, but you get the idea.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how much of herself the author may have put into Bullen's description when she says
"She has all the traits of the disappointed spinster that has to face a future of starved affections and economic insecurity." 
According to Bowers'  bio at Rue Morgue Press,
"Like her sister and many of her Oxford friends, she never married. If there was ever a man in her life it was an aspect of her existence that she chose not to share with her friends. "
Furthermore, in a article from The Independent about forgotten authors, Christopher Fowler notes that
"Bowers struggled for years to find a job as history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling crossword puzzles." 
Then again, I could be totally wrong here, but these are a definitely a couple of interesting and possibly noteworthy parallels!

Postscript to Poison is definitely a yes for anyone interested in golden-age mysteries, in 1930s British crime,  and for anyone like myself who is or has become interested in rather obscure women writers of past decades.  It does have that sort of language that is pretty typical of golden-age mystery works which may seem sort of weighty for a modern reader, but the story does flow pretty well and the characters are all very well established.  It's also a fun whodunit loaded with clues that will satisfy any armchair detective for a few hours. Watch the epigraphs, too!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

noir at its finest: Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes

Prion, 2001
153 pp


"My soul. Cut from such shoddy goods. Faded and patched and shabby." 

There's a lot of talk about "noir" these days -- Nordic noir, Tartan noir, you-name it noir, which personally I don't always agree with. For me, there's only one noir, and Build My Gallows High is a perfect example of the genre.  Geoffrey Homes is the pseudonym used by Daniel Mainwaring, who, aside from his novel-writing talent also enjoyed a productive career as a screenwriter. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for the 1947 film version of this novel called "Out of the Past," which starred Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, and Rhonda Fleming.  The book is chock full of betrayals, double crosses and murder making for a hell of a good straight crime read,  but it can certainly also stand on its literary merits.

PI Peter "Red" Markham and his partner Jack Fisher have taken on their last case together.  They are called to the home of Whit Sterling, who hired them to find his missing girl, Mumsie McGonigle and the fifty-six thousand dollars she ran away with.  The case takes Markham to Mexico, where he locates Mumsie who swears she never took the cash -- only enough to get by on.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, Red falls hard for Mumsie.  He still has to report to Sterling, though, so the two of them return to California, where Markham gives his client the news that he couldn't find her. When he thinks he's in the clear, the two of them move to a little cabin up near Lake Tahoe, planning to stay there "until the snow flies," then move on to Reno so that Red can open an office there. As plans go it's a good one, but that particular future just isn't in the cards.   Flash forward ten years into the future and Red Markham has become Red Bailey. He's left the PI business behind for a gas station that he owns in little Bridgeport, California, and has an entirely new life.   He spends his time off fishing, and has fallen for a much-younger little blonde named Ann.  But underneath his quiet life in this quiet town, Red is just biding his time waiting for his past to catch up with him, which it does in the form of a summons to Reno. From there, Bailey is sent to New York to do a job, and he has no choice but to comply.  It's only after he gets there that he realizes that he's been duped -- and that there may be  no way out.

from wikipedia

Past the initial setup, Build My Gallows High is the story of how Red tries to find a way out the trap that has been very carefully set for him. From the present it moves in and out of the past, making its way back to Red's current situation as he tries to take control of things and clear himself.   It's extremely well crafted -- double crosses and betrayals abound as the figurative noose around Bailey's neck gets tighter with each turn of events.   If the novel rested entirely on its plot, it would be a very good read, but there's much  more to it than simply story.  For example, there is such a keen sense of place here as the author moves back and forth contrasting hard, edgy New York -- its streets filled with young hooligans, cabbies who ply their trade and know when to keep their mouths shut, crooked cops, gangsters and corrupt women who have no qualms about killing -- with the natural beauty of small Bridgeport, with its flowing streams, quiet fishing spots, tree-lined mountains and people living a good life.

What I find the most interesting about this book, though, is not so much the action, but rather the focus on the characters. Without the time or space to go into them all, the standouts begin with Bailey, who's just been waiting for the day the past comes knocking on his door to reclaim him and who knows that the decisions he's made in the past will circle back to haunt him some day.  He is the poster boy for "if only," thinking about how to get out of his present dilemma so that he and Ann might just be free to start the new life both of them really want, but that he's constantly deferring because he lives in this constant state of purgatory.  Then there's Caldwell, the local Bridgeport game keeper, who is in love with Ann and has dreams of the two of them together in his cabin in the woods -- he also makes a decision that may come  to haunt him as well -- but it's a moral one he feels he must make.  Ann is a quiet beauty, blonde, small, willing to please and trying to do what's right by everyone, but there's a very strong-willed woman underneath her quiet veneer.  She is contrasted with the two femme fatales of this book -- Mumsie and another woman named Meta Carson (in New York), both seductive and charming, but each as deadly as the other.

Build My Gallows High is such a fine example of true noir goodness that it's easy to recommend it to anyone who is into the genre but hasn't had the good fortune of reading this book yet. The only flaw I could discern is the tedious, often repetitive conversations among the same gangsters over and over again, but aside from that, it's close to perfect.  It is as dark as dark can be, and reveals that present and future are both inextricably bound by the choices we make. The more I stop and think about it, the more it grows on me, and the more in love with this book I become.