Monday, July 8, 2019

and we say goodbye to 1922 with The Lyttleton Case, by RAV Morris

9780008216245
Harper Collins
originally published 1922
212 pp

hardcover

I know it will take some doing, but anyone who plans to read this book ought to skip the dustjacket blurb and move right on into the text.   Once again, and to my great dismay, whoever wrote it has given away one of the elements of the plot.  Seriously? Who does that?  For shame.

Ronald Arthur Vincent Morris, the author of The Lyttleton Case, never wrote another mystery novel after this book's publication; with no follow up, as Douglas A. Anderson notes in the introduction to this edition, the novel "lapsed into obscurity."   Indeed -- I'd never heard of it until I started collecting volumes of Harper Collins' reprinted Detective Club novels.  Trust me, the ending is a complete surprise which I didn't see coming.  When the editor of the original detective story club edition says "the secret is well kept and the reader is left guessing, almost to the last page," he or she was not exaggerating.



the collection, so far, with more on the way....


Two mysteries begin this novel.  First comes the disappearance of wealthy financier James Lyttleton, who goes off to work as usual one day and is never seen again.  Telegrams sent to his daughter Doris  from various locations keep her posted about where he is, but after a wire from New York, he is not heard from again.  Doris' fiancé, journalist Basil Dawson, decides to travel to the Big Apple to try to locate him, but he is presented with a set of baffling clues that lead nowhere.  Turning over what little he has to the NYPD, Dawson returns to England to give his information to Scotland Yard, and to wait along with Doris for Lyttleton's return.   The second mystery unfurls as James Candlish, Chief Inspector of the Yard's CID,  a man who has a "passion" for natural history, has started his annual vacation time, which he's spending in  "an exploration of the flora and fauna of the Southshire Downs."  After a "most satisfactory morning's work," he takes some time next to a stream to have lunch and to write down his observations in his notebook, but his idyllic moment is disturbed with the discovery of a man's body.  The Coroner observed that the dead man was between twenty-eight and thirty-five, he'd died of natural causes, and had been in the water most likely four to five days.  Even though there isn't much to go on, when Candlish returns from his holiday, his interest in the case never wanes.  He is also put in charge of the Lyttleton case, and as the investigation progresses, a few too many coincidences crop up for his liking.  There are so many coincidences, in fact, that after reaching the halfway mark, I thought that it was game over and that I had it completely sussed, but no.  So a word of advice -- when you think you know what's what, you may want to think again. 

Around the mysteries to be pondered in this novel, there are a number of interesting people who caught my attention, beginning with James Candlish.  He tends to take a Zen approach to solving crime:

"He had found by experience that by dismissing his work entirely from his mind for a while, he was able to return to it with renewed energy, clearer perception, and deeper insight. In fact, as he sometimes told his cronies, it was only when consciousness was wholly taken off a subject, that the subconscious mind was given a chance on working on it."  
Then there's Police Constable Hutchinson, "a diligent reader of detective fiction," who smokes "shag" like his idol Sherlock Holmes when contemplating a problem.  In his room he has a violin, a syringe ("that rather as a reminder of his great prototype than for actual use"), and a dressing gown, all in emulation of his idol. His current reading project is  Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920)  but he's also a huge fan of Gaboriau's Lecoq and of Poe's M. Dupin.  In the introduction to this novel, Anderson notes that the mentions of these various detectives exemplify the author's "familiarity with the detectve fiction genre," but it also gives the story a bit of a comic interlude.   Finally, Miss Doris Lyttleton made my favorite character list -- she is not only portrayed as a modern woman but for reasons I cannot divulge, she turns out to be a first-class heroine in her own right.

The themes that recur throughout the novel  are pretty obvious so I won't go into them, and there's more than one foray through London streets and environs which added to the story.  And while I genuinely enjoyed The Lyttleton Case, the mechanics of the solution seem to take forever in the telling at the end.  On the other hand,  it really is,  as Anderson notes, quoting Barzun and Taylor, a "well-written, slow, carefully plotted puzzle."  It's also highly entertaining which is never a bad thing.  Recommended for fans of vintage crime; cozy readers would enjoy it as well with the caveat that this book was written in 1922 so it's not nearly as fast paced as most modern cozies. It really is a shame that Morris never wrote another crime novel -- given how enjoyable is his one and only, a second one would have been more than likely top notch indeed.


Friday, July 5, 2019

Murder in the Crooked House, by Soji Shimada

9781782274568\
Pushkin Vertigo, 2019
originally published as Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, 1982
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
paperback

345 pp

A few years ago I read and loved Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders so it was a no-brainer as to whether or not to buy his newest, Murder in the Crooked House.  As in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,  at one point in the action, everything comes to a full stop as the author throws out a challenge to his readers, letting us know that at this point in the game we have everything that we know to solve the mystery.   The question is "Can you solve this case?"  The answer:  no, not I.  I did manage to figure out the who but not the why and not the how, and even that  small victory came only after making my way through a wriggling school of red herrings thrown in throughout the story.  To those of you who solved it by the time the "challenge to the reader" is thrown down,  I would love to have your brains, because I was kept in the dark pretty much throughout.






And small wonder.  I don't know how anyone could have possibly solved this while reading because the solution is so farfetched and so out there, well beyond the norm of many of the locked-room crime novels I've read.  In fact, whenever reading in this subgenre, I flip the switch in my brain to "suspend disbelief" mode so that I'm prepared when the denouement comes.  On the other hand, once I knew how Shimada made it all happen, I found myself going back to the diagrams scattered throughout the novel trying to put things together and doing the inner "aha" as I saw how it could have been pulled off (sort of).     I have to admire the author's creativity here, and  I have to wonder how many hours he must have given to setting up the entire story, not to mention how much fun he must have had in doing so.



from CDJapan
In the long run, this is a book where it is best to know next to nothing about the story.  What little I'm willing to spill here is that the action takes place in a house somewhat like the one pictured here on the Japanese cover.  As we learn,
"At the top of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, on the very tip of Cape Soya, there's a high plain that overlooks the Okhotsk Sea. On this plain stands a peculiar-looking structure known by the locals as 'The Crooked House.' " 
At present it sits empty, on the market for many years, and "will probably stay that way."  One might think that it's because of its remote location, but in reality,
"it's far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away."
The house's actual name is the Ice Floe Mansion, built and owned by Kozaburo Hamamato, a somewhat eccentric industrialist who, at the time of the events that took place here, was in his late 60s.  He occupies the tower, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the leaning one in Pisa; his eccentricity even includes a drawbridge that connects with the rest of the house.  Hamamoto refers to it as "this old man's whimsical mansion," because, as the back blurb notes, it is a
"maze of sloping floors and strange staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny dolls."
His daughter Eiko and three household staff also occupy the "crooked house," and as the story begins, the Hamamotos have opened their house to a number of guests for the Christmas holidays, 1983.  The first night of the guests' stay turns out to be anything but normal, but things become even more off-the-wall weird once daylight brings the discovery of a most bizarre murder.    Going back to the blurb once more, the victim has been "found murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances," in a locked room which is accessible only from the outside, the murderer having left no footprints in the snow either coming or going.  While a few of the houseguests take on the puzzle the killer has left behind, the local police are called in and do their best to try to put the limited (and strange) clues together to form a picture of what had happened.  When another death occurs, in circumstances that are perhaps even stranger than the first murder, they have their hands full and call to Tokyo for help, bringing Kiyoshi Mitarai and his friend/sidekick Kazumi Ishioka to Ice Floe Mansion.  But even then ....

[as an aside, Mitarai and Ishioka are names readers will recognize from Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I actually did a double take when I came across them here for the first time on recognition since I had no idea that this was their second adventure. ]

To say more would be to spoil and I don't want to do that at all because it would be wrong to take away someone's fun in trying to piece together exactly how these crimes were committed.  What I will say is that the use of masks in this story  is most appropriate as  it seems that most of the people staying in this house over the holidays have things they desire to keep hidden, each masking his or her inner self behind a very different public persona while in the company of others.   I could go on here, but it would also be a spoiler to do so.

I loved the eerieness of the setting  in this book, which added an atmospheric quality to the novel.  Combining such a remote location, the howling winds during a blizzard, the greyness of the sea during the winter with the fact that the people in the house are all pretty much trapped there until the mystery is solved gives the story a claustrophobic feel that only heightens the strange events that take place.

  In comparing Shimada's earlier book with the present one,  I have to say that Murder in the Crooked House is much more reader friendly, moving much more quickly through to the solution than was the case in Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I also felt that this time around, as I said earlier, I had to keep myself in the state of suspension of disbelief a bit longer than while reading the first book. When all is said and done, I had a lot of fun with this novel and certainly recommend it, most especially to people who find pleasure in reading locked-room/impossible crime novels, which are in many ways a very different breed than your average crime/mystery novel and may take a bit of getting used to.

 Once again, hats off and major applause to anyone who solved this crime before the answers were made known.  I was left completely in the dark. And that's okay.








Thursday, June 27, 2019

back in my mystery happy place once again with an Edgar Wallace double feature

Two books, both written by the same author in the same year, 1922.   An iffy proposition, running the risk of getting something same old same old with the second after reading the first.  Luckily, that was not the case here.

Edgar Wallace was a highly-prolific author; he wrote so much in fact that I didn't even bother to count the total number of works in his bibliography to give here because there are so many.  And given my penchant for crime/mystery fiction, one would think that I would have read one of his books by now, but no.  The Angel of Terror and The Crimson Circle are the only two of Wallace's novels I've read, although his books take up nearly one entire shelf in my British reading room.  



9781842326589
House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
209 pp
paperback


Also known as The Destroying Angel,  The Angel of Terror begins in the courtroom at the end of the Berkeley Street Murder Trial as the judge is about to pass sentence on one James Meredith, who had been convicted of murder.   The jurors and the judge could not but believe the story told by Meredith's ex-fiancée and cousin Jean Briggerland, and ultimately the judge sentences him to death.  His sentence is commuted to a long prison stay, but his attorney and friend Jack Glover knows that Briggerland gave false testimony for what she would consider good reason.  As his cousin,  she will inherit the bulk of James' fortune, since according to Meredith's father's will, if James had not married by age thirty, the money  would go to his aunt and her "heirs and successsors," aka  Jean Briggerland and her father.  His 30th birthday is coming up quickly and   Glover comes up with a bizarre plan to keep the money out of Briggerland's hands:  he has selected a young woman named Lydia Beale,  who is deeply in debt and is struggling to survive to become Meredith's bride.  Seventy-five summons of judgment against her for her father's debts have overwhelmed her;  she will get a huge sum of  money up front, and never has to have any sort of dealings with Meredith.  As the book's back blurb notes, "it is a proposal she cannot afford to ignore."   Glover temporarily springs Meredith via a medical excuse allowing him to escape long enough for the nuptials to be performed.  Lydia becomes not only Mrs. Meredith but also the widow  Meredith all within a matter of moments.  Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, James had written his own will prior to the marriage, so on his death, Lydia receives his estate.  But now that she has Meredith's fortune, the Briggerlands become her heirs, and as Jack Glover so rightfully states, "--there's going to be hell!"   Truer words were never spoken.
In this story, there is absolutely no question of the identity of the "Angel of Terror."   We know from the outset that Jean Briggerland is  one of the most cold-blooded, evil-minded and absolutely mercenary women villains who has ever graced the pages of a crime novel. She is a woman who openly states that what she fears more than death is a "life without money."  However, because of her beauty and her great acting abilities, no one but Jack Glover believes she could possibly be guilty of anything, that she has no qualms about killing, and he will do what it takes to keep Lydia out of her clutches. 

The Angel of Terror was fun, but a bit farfetched considering that Lydia remains clueless for the duration of the novel.  I was looking at what readers said and time and time again they come back to Lydia being either hopelessly naive or absolutely stupid, and in all honesty her character can become a bit exasperating.  However,  I found the story to be more about whether or not justice will ever be served, a point on which the reader will have to make up his/her own mind at the end.




9780755114818
House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
220 pp
paperback





    Of the two, The Crimson Circle was much more to my liking because it has that pulpy feel to it that I love so much.  Who wouldn't love a book about a secret crime organization and a detective that uses "psychometrics" to help his clients?  It also happens to have one of the most twisty endings, where not one but two surprises await the reader.   This one also got the silent "bravo" in my head after I'd finished it.

Private detective Derrick Yale is called into the home of James Beardmore, who has received four letters from "The Crimson Circle" demanding one hundred thousand pounds.  Beardmore has no fear of the Crimson Circle, but perhaps he should have heeded that fourth letter, since he later turns up dead.  But Beardmore is only one of many victims of this shady organization:  it seems that many members of the upper class have been blackmailed with the threat of death looming if they do not pay.  In each occurrence, something is left behind with the sign of a red circle, and the victims take the warning seriously enough to give the Crimson Circle exactly what is demanded.   Exactly who is the mastermind here is what Chief Inspector Parr has been tasked with discovering, but so far, his efforts have yielded few, if any, results.  Now his bosses have thrown down the gauntlet:  "if he cannot run the organization to earth he must send in his resignation."

Parr knows that the Crimson Circle  "had agents in all branches of life and in all classes."  None of them, however, knew the identities of the others nor their "chief," and each had his own "function to perform."  We, the readers know who some of these people are, including the beautiful Thalia Drummond, a known thief who eventually becomes Yale's secretary.   Time is ticking for Parr, so  he joins forces with Parr  to unmask the ringleader, while one man already knows who he is.  To say more is to spoil but jeez Louise, this was a lot of fun.



from IMDB
I liked it so much, in fact, that I watched the English-dubbed film from 1960 after finishing the novel.   The movie, of course, is not quite as good as the novel, but still manages to get the basics correct, although the shockers from the book don't play out as well on screen.  Of course, it could be that I already knew the ending, so there's that.

Overall, both books were fun reads, but I enjoyed The Crimson Circle a whole lot more than I did The Angel of Terror. One thing they both have in common besides the year in which they were written are strong women who take center stage.     Readers of old pulp fiction would certainly enjoy The Crimson Circle, or anyone who is exploring the work of Edgar Wallace certainly could not go wrong starting with this book which is definitely the better of these two.  I'm sure I'll be back for more Wallace novels in the future.



Wednesday, June 19, 2019

South of Evil, by Brian Dunford

9781794434288
287 pp
paperback



The blurb starts like this:
"Special Agent Walter Curtis finds drug dealers by the trail of money they leave. He followed the money and found a vicious cartel operating in secret across the border. But no one believes him."

Curtis is an agent with the IRS and he has really messed up as the book begins.  He had the perfect case nearly in hand, along with the arrest of a very powerful player named Edouardo Mendes.  He could have put away much bigger fish,  but  Curtis didn't quite fully do his homework and  the case he'd been working for years went completely south.  He's lost the respect of other agents who spent time and energy on the case, and his reputation is shot.    All is not completely lost though -- he can still make a case against his prisoner on related counts, and Mendes will still spend time behind bars.   Curtis knows that Mendes is the kind of man "who would be terrified of one night in prison," and he has a vision of Mendes granting him an interview and Curtis walking away with "seized assets, intelligence, and confessions," that would fix the mess in which Curtis now finds himself with his botched case.  Instead, Mendes offers up the story of three million dollars buried in the desert.  Together with his friend Marc Virgil, a Boston cop whose career is currently on the skids, Curtis decides to go into Mexico and find the money, which was, as the back-cover blurb relates, "hidden by a long dead drug lord."  But things aren't going to be that easy, and soon the two find themselves with targets on their backs as they make their way through the harsh Mexican desert.

 While I'm not a regular reader of thrillers by any stretch (more on that below),  I am interested in what motivates people in books, and the author has obviously put a lot of work into building backstories and focusing on why his characters do what they do, and given that this is his first novel, he did it rather well.   As he noted in an interview, most of the people in this book have "serious moral flaws" that cause them to make "terrible decisions," and around that idea is where I kept my own focus, like I do in pretty much all of the books I read.    He also said that the people who make these really bad choices are  more interesting than characters who make good ones, and I found that to be the case here as well.    For example, Curtis has been "ridiculed" and "put out to pasture," after having "bet everything" and lost. He worked very hard and diligently on his case  and he is truly desperate to get the chance to prove he wasn't wrong and that he is "not a joke." His friend Virgil  has had a long career that went south after a "bad" shooting so basically he has nothing to lose.  And then there's the one cop in this book in a small station in Mexico who believes in his job and who joined the force for a reason -- he does what is morally right but in the end finds no reward for  his actions, in fact, quite the opposite.  The storylines of each of these people (and others) intersect eventually both present and past,  and reveal more than  a few unexpected surprises before coming to a downright twisty ending.

I was sort of hesitant about reading South of Evil since I don't as a rule do thriller novels with nonstop action.  The author was so nice though that I couldn't say no even though I did warn him that thrillers weren't my thing, and I have to say that it was a bit too much on the violent side for my taste.  If it is possible to cringe while reading, I think I did that, so  I'm probably not quite the intended audience for this book since it's  more likely to be enjoyed by people who prefer action-packed thrillers as opposed to  someone like me who prefers a gentler mode of crime writing.* I'm well aware that any book about a cartel will likely come complete with bent cops and hit men and that they're not going to be sitting around discussing the weather or good books over tea and cookies, so this is a me thing and not the fault of the author.  Currently this book has a 4-plus star reader rating on both Goodreads and Amazon, so evidently there are a number of people who regularly enjoy this type of story who find it a very good read. 




personal ps/ to the author:  Thanks so much, apologies for taking forever, and finally,  the line at Franklin's can be about three to four hours on a good day, and you still have to hope that they haven't run out of food before you make it to the door.  But it's worth it.


*
And staying in tune with my more mild crime-reading preferences, and in contrast with the author's choice of narco skull for his cover, my choice of (henna) narco-style tattoo in May in Puerto Vallarta  drifted toward a skull with hearts for eyes and a hair ribbon.



Monday, June 17, 2019

back to the 20s again (finally!) with The Red Redmaynes, by Eden Philpotts

I am beyond proud to have three different sets of initials I can tack on to the back of my name, and then there's the one I'm not all that proud of: QSP, or queen of sporadic posting. Hopefully I can get my act together again (although I blame life, not myself here) and get back into the business of journaling my reading. 



0486242552
Dover, 1982
originally published 1922
377 pp
paperback


Eden Phillpotts was an incredibly prolific author (he wrote all manner of fiction, plays, etc. outside of the crime genre, but you can see his detective works here, both under his own name and that of Harrison Hext); he was a friend of Agatha Christie's, and The Red Redmaynes was also admired by Jose Luis Borges, ending up at number 39 in his A Personal Library project that he never had the chance to finish. 

About this novel, Barzun and Taylor have to say that it is a "classic detective story that has never received due recognition".  (427)  Looking at what a number of readers have to say about it, it's certainly not one they're falling over themselves to praise.   I not only had fun with it, but part of the draw for me is that it is so very different  than other crime/mystery novels I've been reading as I've been flipping through the history of mystery and crime fiction, and quite frankly, I enjoyed it immensely.   This story begins with a CID detective on his holiday who suddenly finds himself in the middle of what appears to be a kidnapping and a murder.   Not having come to Dartmoor "to catch murderers, but to catch trout," he is determined to stay out of things, until he is summoned by the victim's wife, Jenny Pendean, who had heard that he was in the area and now asks for his help.   According to the local policeman, "it's all pretty plain sailing, by the look of it," but for Mark Brendon, it will be anything but, as he steps into one of the strangest mysteries of his career, one that will take him from Dartmoor to Cornwall to Italy and into the lives of the four Redmayne brothers, Jenny's uncles, one of whom has been accused of the crime.    When Brendon has done all he can but things go south anyway, an American named Peter Ganns steps in to help. Gann's "strong suit," he notes, is his "linking up of facts," and he is only too quick to point out that Brendon had it all wrong from the start.  While Brendon isn't exactly pleased at being told about his mistakes, time is of the essence and the two must work together to prevent another tragedy. 

While this is anything but your standard 1920s British murder mystery, it's not without its flaws, and the biggest one of all is that  after a while it is only too easy to figure out what exactly is going on here. While there were several inner eyeroll moments, I will admit that this time around I didn't mind that so much --  the whole story is so very strange, and so out of the ordinary  that it completely merits following it to its conclusion.  It was also nice (although admittedly frustrating towards the end)  to see a detective with his own flaws  -- while Ganns seems larger than life at times, Brendon on the other hand is very much a person who is only too human. 

The Red Redmaynes is a novel I can certainly recommend to readers who like their crime stories a bit more on the out-of-the-box, stranger side.  There will definitely be more Phillpotts novels coming to my shelves in the near future.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag


9781501196775
Atria, 2019
originally published as 1793, 2017
translated by Ebba Segerberg
370 pp
hardcover


Now I'm only two weeks behind; I finished this book some time ago and I have to say I hardly moved while reading it. 

Scandinavian crime novels are no strangers to my shelves. I've been reading them a very long time, well before they became all the rage at some point with the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  They can be bleak, dark, and in the hands of some Scandinavian authors, downright disturbing (a la Jo Nesbø's serial killer novels like The Snowman).   In more than one case Scandinavian crime  writers have also taken their characters delving into the past to understand what is happening in the present, and The Wolf and The Watchman follows this pattern.  As the back-cover blurb from Kirkus Reviews notes, it
 "examines the effects of a brutal murder on those who investigate it - and explores the psychological causes for the crime..."
The story  is set in 1793, which also places it into the category of historical crime novel. while there's more than just crime here, it's not at all pretty -- the author goes all-out grisly in the telling, which sort of detracts from more than one of the underlying themes the author tries to bring out. More on this soon.

Set in Stockholm, the discovery of a corpse floating in what is known as "The Larder" (once a lake, now a dump for waste of every sort) brings watchman Mickel Cardell to the scene, and what he finds is that the body has been dismembered, with eyes and tongue gone as well.  When the body is more closely examined, Cardell understands that this was no afterthought -- it seems that these mutilations have been done over a long period of time, while the poor victim, who has now been named "Karl Johan" because he was once a human being,  was still alive. With only a couple of actual clues to go on, the chief of police asks attorney Cecil Winge to investigate, knowing that he will do so drawing on his "strength of mind."   The problem is that Winge is suffering from a horrific case of consumption, and his time is ticking down.  Along with Cardell, he starts by examining what little they have on the case, but some questions either get no answers or a door slammed in the face, as people in the know aren't talking.  As Winge worries that the two have "encountered a dead end," the story takes a turn backwards, and the solution to the mystery unfolds slowly in two parts --    first in the account of a young would-be medical student who has come to the city to study but who instead gets caught up in the world of amusements and entertainments until he hits rock bottom, only to find that he hasn't even scratched its surface;  the second told in the story of a young woman who ends up in a woman's workhouse, who faces her own horrors (and those of others), and thinks only of escape -- before returning to the present.

Reading through this book, I couldn't help but notice that there are a number of similarities between the way 1793 Stockholm is portrayed and what's happening in our own modern times; it's certainly not hard to guess that the author had this comparison in mind while writing this story. There is also an underlying thread running through this book that looks at the clash between Enlightenment  thought and the chaotic realities of life, both social and political.  But  reader beware -- while the ideas underpinning this book may offer the reader a lot to consider, their value is somewhat muted at times because it is hard to get beyond the gruesome events that happen in this book.  I've  actually seen this novel labeled as "horror," and in the case of one goodreads reader, "torture porn."  EEK!   Personally, I read a lot of horror but it's on the more cerebral side, meaning that I don't want to read about the gory details or go into any sort of suffering; I feel the same about crime reading.  Having said that, though, I made my own focus on the search for the killer and the  ideas here rather than the violence, reading through the more gross stuff very quickly; the story also has a plot that is not the usual predictable thing I can figure out long before I get to the ending, it's claustrophobic, atmospheric and to be honest,  there are many moments where the excitement had me on the edge of my chair.  Quite frankly, I couldn't help being sucked into this story, even while being repulsed by the grotesqueness of it all.

I sort of get why it's being compared to The Alienist, but this book is definitely not that, so don't go there. This book is darker than dark, it's not cozy material, it's not murder light, there is no happiness or light shining through anywhere here, and it's not at all for the faint of heart.   As far as a recommendation goes, some people seriously detested it while others really loved it. so it's one you'll have to judge on your own.





Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dr. Mabuse, by Norbert Jacques -- pure, unadulterated pulpy goodness.

9780988306271
Bruin Books, 2015
originally published 1921 as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
translated by Lillian A. Clare (1923)


On the deck of a ship traveling between his home and Lake Constance in Switzerland, the author, Norbert Jacques,  happened to sit across from a man who, as David Kalat notes in his The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse (2005), "never moved, never spoke," and caused Jacques to feel "anxious, afraid." There was just something about the man which "cut to the core of Jacques' being,"  that made him not only want to flee, but to also wonder "What was it about this man that exuded some power?"   The journalist in Jacques made him scrutinize this man carefully, studying "his eyes, his forehead, his stature."  It came down to one question for Jacques:
"Was he a hero, or a villain?" 
According to Kalat,
"In this mystery man, who sat motionless and silent all the while, Norbert Jacques read all that was wrong with modern-day Germany"
and on his return home he sat down to "hammer out" Dr. Mabuse der Spieler in a mere fourteen days. It would sell 100,000 copies in its first year, and would go on to sell over a half million copies, making it  one of the bestsellers of its day.  (16)  Kalat says about this book that it depicts
"a criminal Führer who exploits social decay to his private advantage. Under a variety of disguises and assumed names, he has broken free of the traditional class divisions and invaded the previously insulated enclaves of the decadent upper class." (14)
Despite the title, however, the central focus is on the character of the public prosecutor Wenk.  Just as an FYI, Lillian Clare wrote in 1923 that Wenk's actual position was that of Staatsanwalt  word  for which it "is almost impossible to find an English rendering that conveys its full meaning," but for our purposes here we'll continue on with public prosecutor, or as he's also known, the state attorney.   Jacques sets his story in his present-day Weimar Germany, a time during which Wenk believes the nation is "diseased and rotten." It is a time during which money
"was a key that opened all doors, the wearing of a fur coat could conceal any calling, and a diamond scarf-pin shed luster on any character. A man could go into whatsoever company he desired." 
In fact, it is in a gambling club that the novel opens, with a game of vingt-et-un with unlimited stakes.  It is also here that we meet Dr. Mabuse, who is a man of many disguises with seemingly unlimited powers of suggestion that can make his victims do pretty much anything he wishes.  We first see him in action during this game, as one of the players, who is "not really a reckless player" begins to play badly and takes "unreasonable risks" that cause him to lose.  Afterwards, he remembers very little of what had happened during the game, and can't even remember that he was the one who brought the man to whom he had lost to the club.    Some two weeks later, "the circles to whom the life of the day is only a wearisome burden till the hour of play arrives" share stories about the stranger who "simply loaded himself with money wherever he chanced to play," drawing the attention of the public prosecutor, who believes that these are not isolated events, but part of a much a bigger pattern, even though people in the clubs could swear that no wrongdoing had taken place.  He gets his own chance to play against "The Professor," aka Mabuse in yet another disguise, at which point Wenk gets his own taste of Mabuse's immense powers and a sense of just how dangerous this man is.   However, when the public prosecutor is knocked out and his belongings are stolen, including his notebook with all of the information he's gathered about the case, the real game of cat-and-mouse between the two begins.

While the pursuit is on, we learn much about Mabuse, including the fact that he plans to use his monetary gains from gambling, drug smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes to realize his dream of establishing an empire in "the primeval forests of Brazil," where he plans to be the absolute ruler of the Empire of Citopomar.   He is
"self-sufficing. What were men to him? He scattered them at will. Yonder, however, in the future, in Citopomar, there would be none who could oppose him."
Wenk's efforts in trying to catch Mabuse take on a greater sense of urgency as people around him are  murdered, but when Mabuse falls for and puts in his power a woman who happens to be the object of Wenk's own affection, the Countess Told, Wenk pulls out all the stops to find and stop him.  As I've said to a few people, Mabuse's powers out-Svengali Svengali, but on some level he is quite aware of his true inner self. He tells the Countess at one point that he is a "werewolf," that he "sucks man's blood."  As he says,
"Every day my hatred burns up all the blood in my veins, and every night I fill them again by sucking the blood of some human being. If men caught me, they would tear me into little bits." 
  Mabuse, however, has no intention of being caught.



from the film by Fritz Lang, at Fandor
 While I wouldn't call Dr. Mabuse great literature, it is great fun, and it also gives a glimpse into the decadence the Weimar era is known for.  The cat-and-mouse game isn't a simple one; Wenk will find himself beyond frustrated as he gets close but realizes that Mabuse seems to have all the luck.  Then there are a couple of scenes that employ some crazy inventions that Ian Fleming would have been proud of.  But it is best as a look at the "diseased and rotten" society Wenk speaks of.  The gambling clubs are here the very seat of decadence -- in chapter seven, for example,  Wenk and his companions find themselves at a gambling establishment known as the "Go-ahead Institute," where in case of a police raid, a black knob can be pushed that does away with gambling apparatus, turning instead into a decadent club complete with a
"quartette of nude twelve-year-old children were to be seen dancing, upon a new stage, to the strains of fiddles and harps"
 with a "change of programme every week..."  Yikes!

Read at a time when I desperately needed fluff, the book kept me entertained for hours (I read it straight through, actually without putting it down), of course rooting for Wenk the entire time to take down Dr. Mabuse and save the Countess.  This is the stuff of pure unadulterated pulp, but here with purpose.  Even if you don't care about the Weimar era, it's still a good, fast-paced read that will keep you turning pages.

I'd recommend it to serious pulp readers who aren't looking for fine literature but rather a good time.  I can only imagine reading this book in its original serialized form -- my sweet pulpy goodness-loving  self would  have had a field day as each episode came to some sort of cliffhanger and I eagerly awaited the next installment.