Friday, May 20, 2016

* back to the movies we go: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase


9780615336268
Bruin Books, 2010
203 pp

paperback

Rant.

After finishing this book, I went back to the front pages where there is a "note to the reader."  There I learned that this edition "is yet a further update for the latest generation of readers," and I was appalled.  I thought this was a new publication of Chase's original novel, but no.  It's been revised.  So here's my question: if people in "the latest generation of readers" pick up this book, knowing that  was originally published in 1939, why in the hell would they need an "update"? Also published in 1939: Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- does that now need an update to make it  more appealing to "the latest generation of readers?" I think not, she says.  But the story continues, since in my quest to discover the actual text from 1939, I read three more versions of this novel before finally finding the original.  One version even had televisions in it!  The horror!  And, as if that wasn't frustrating enough, I then watched two film versions of this novel -- the original "No Orchids for Miss Blandish," from 1948 which made me want to launch things at the TV, and "The Grissom Gang," another adaptation of  this book, from 1971. That one was almost okay in terms of following the novel, but on the whole, for me sort of missed the boat coming down to the ending.  Frustrating experiences all around.

- end of rant -

The book, though,  stands as a  monument to bleak, raw, and downright depressing crime fiction  -- anyone expecting to find any amount of happiness in this book is definitely not going to want to read this novel.  I think I was in shock by the time I turned the last page, but, actually, overall I thought it was great.  No sappy sentimentality or smiley happiness here, none at all. Zero, zip nada.

When a gang of crooks kidnaps an heiress in the process of a botched robbery,  their dreams of easy money are thwarted when a rival and much tougher, more deadly gang steals their victim. Miss Blandish becomes the hostage of the Grisson Gang, led by Ma Grisson.  Ma (likely modeled after the infamous Ma Barker), has "for the past three years ... built up the reputation of the gang," but among other gangs, the Grissons were  still viewed as "good third-raters."  She knows that the kidnapping of Miss Blandish would turn the gang into "the richest, the most powerful and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City," building its clout -- at the same time, the half million the Grissons will be getting from Miss Blandish's wealthy father is also nothing to sneeze at.  However, complications ensue when her son Slim takes a shine to Miss Blandish and wants her for himself.  Slim, who used to torture animals for fun as a child, began to "develop homicidal tendencies" by the age of eighteen.  The only person with any amount of control over Slim is Ma, who "won't face up to the fact that he isn't normal," since she is "blinded by a mother's love."  When Slim decides that he loves Miss Blandish and won't give her back, things within the Grisson gang start to change.  Ma's not happy  -- she's jealous of Miss Blandish for one thing, and for another, she truly believes that "more gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops."  Just how prophetic her statement will prove becomes evident throughout the rest of the novel.  One the other side, the story follows the efforts of former reporter now private detective Dave Fenner, who's been hired by Miss Blandish's father to find his daughter.   That's all I'll say about the novel for now, except that this is one of the most raw, most twisted novels I've ever read, and despite the apparent misogyny found within this book (it was the 30s, after all, so I can sort of overlook it), I enjoyed it.





So - now to the films.  First, there's the original version, made in 1948, which, if I hadn't read the book before seeing the movie, I would have had trouble believing that the two were related. What really misses in this movie is that it comes across as some kind of strange love affair (and not of the Stockholm Syndrome variety, either) between Slim and Miss Blandish rather than a psychological story of a psychopathic captor and his captive.  I mean, seriously -- I was okay with it up until the point where Miss Blandish has the opportunity to walk away but she chooses to stay (a truly WTF moment) --  that's when it all went sideways for me, and it didn't get any better as the movie progressed.



The second version, "The Grissom Gang"  (1971)  is a bit more faithful to the novel, even though the family's name is Grisson, not Grissom.  It's also much more true to the period (and with no British actors badly faking American accents); however, there are still some major changes that were made in the storyline.  The biggest one comes at the end, which fails (in my opinion) to capture the flavor of the originally ending of the novel, which was just downright pathetically tragic.  However, between the two movie versions, if someone's looking for the one which more or less captures the main thrust of the novel, this is the one I'd recommend -- the portrayal of Slim in this one was just brilliant, more or less the way I pictured him while reading the book.

Not for cozy readers, for sure, but any true pulp/vintage crime addict like me will want to experience this book. Once is enough, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

the last o' the vacation reads -- The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, by Joyce Carol Oates

9780802124883
Mysterious Press, 2016
315 pp

hardcover

My many thanks to Mysterious Press for the copy that showed up at my door.

There are six stories in this rather dark collection, and once again the author has focused on human horrors rather than anything supernatural.  While I admit I wasn't overly in love with each and every story  in this book, I will say that the author's ability to create atmosphere continues here as it does in most of her short-story collections. If you've read her work in the past, you know exactly what I mean.  As usual, she delves deeply into the human psyche to examine an odd collection of disturbed minds, and in some cases goes on to examine the effects on the unsuspecting (or in one case, overly suspicious) people falling within their orbit. Trust me, the results are not at all pretty -- some minds are just freakin' deranged here, and belong to people you'd much rather avoid.

I won't go into any great detail, subject or thematic so as not to wreck things, but the six stories in this book start with the titular tale, "The Doll-Master," a story that whets the reader's appetite for more. While I wasn't chilled to the marrow by this one, it made for a good opener, since here she goes into what exactly it is that might make a serial killer tick, given his past,starting a path for Oates' examination of deranged minds.   The next story, "Soldier," is also very dark, hitting on current and relevant issues as we're asked to try and understand why a racist is turned into a model soldier of his cause. This one really bothered me precisely because of today's racist climate in this country, and the growing and widespread acceptance that racism should become the status quo.  She nailed this one.     Moving along, not a fan of "Gun Accident," which like "Equatorial," the next story, could have actually been more suspenseful had it been shorter and had it actually got to the "terror" more quickly. Instead, I found both too long, killing any horror or chills  I might have otherwise gleaned. By the time I got through "Equatorial," I didn't care what was going to happen at that point. "Gun Accident" looks at the aftermath of a single night in a woman's life, while "Equatorial" follows the story of a woman who is either very paranoid, or who is sure that she's in some kind of danger.  These are followed by "Big Momma," the ending of which I saw coming from a mile away.  There is one excellent story in this book, though, a little gem called "Mystery, Inc.," which follows a conversation between two book lovers who have big surprises for each other. That one I really, really liked -- my favorite story of the six.

To me it's much more of a book where predators tend to play with their prey before pouncing; I think had she not given the subtitle the moniker of "and Other Tales of Terror," I may have approached it differently. I was expecting to have hackles on my neck, but I think that with all of the dark fiction reading I do, it's starting to take more and more to actually terrify.  Another thing -- to me, the best short fiction gets the reader coated in atmosphere immediately, starts the uneasiness rolling as you realize that something's just a wee bit off kilter, and then finally moves in for the big shockaroonie.  Nothing too drawn out, just pure and simple bam!  This process didn't really happen here for me, but people are really enjoying this book, so once again it's probably just a matter of my expectations when I see the word "terror" in a title. So my verdict -- like any other collection of short fiction, it's a bit hit and miss.  But when she hits, she hits big time for sure.


Monday, May 16, 2016

another dynamic duo during dedicated down days, this time from Valancourt Books: Wax, by Ethel Lina White and Gilded Needles, by Michael McDowell

 Valancourt Books publishes old crime fiction, supernatural fiction, horror fiction and long-ago forgotten novels, and they've kept me entertained ever since I discovered they existed. My shelves are teeming with their books, precisely because I crave the obscure and because I haven't yet met a Valancourt  novel I didn't like.  Two more books now join the vacation reads:  Wax, by Ethel Lina White and Gilded Needles, by Michael McDowell.  They are two totally different animals -- Wax is pure vintage British mystery while Gilded Needles is more of a dark, historical crime novel of revenge set in New York in 1882.  Gilded Needles gave me a case of the willies and as I noted somewhere, caused me to pretty much stop breathing during the last 1/4 of the book.  Wax, on the other hand,  is more along the lines of a whodunit set in a most incredibly creepy atmosphere that doesn't let up throughout the entire novel.  Both, though, gave me the most intense satisfaction, which is all I can hope for when I'm enjoying vacation time.  I only brought a limited number of books with me, so I got very lucky with these two.  

First up is Wax, by Ethel Lina White, probably best known for her novel The Lady Vanishes. 

9781941147597
Valancourt Books, 2015
187 pp
paperback

Sadly, this particular version is not available in the US, but I bought mine at Book Depository and it was here in no time. Luckily,  Kindle readers  can get a copy for about six dollars.   It is an old novel originally published in 1935, and as soon as I opened it to the first page, I found myself already soaking in atmosphere.  At two a.m., Mr. Ames, who along with his wife serves as a caretaker for the old waxworks museum just outside of the small town of Riverpool, wakes up and remembers that he may have left a candle burning in "the Horrors."  When his wife goes to investigate, she gets a creepy vibe from the wax figures, "a company of -- poisoners" whom she felt "resented her presence," since "At this hour, the gallery belonged to Them." Her fear drives her home in a hurry, where she tells Mr. Ames that
"...those figures were up to some business of their own. And I felt in my bones that it was no good business either." 
Seriously -- what a cool opening!   The Waxwork Gallery was built in 1833, and had been "almost unlucky almost from its beginning." Evidently, the builder had hanged himself in the Hall of Horrors, then in the next decade a dead "tramp" was discovered there.  In the 1890s, a prostitute was murdered there in the alcove, "wherein was staged -- appropriately -- the final tableau in the career of Vice."  Moving the show into the 20th century, the body of a "commercial traveler" was discovered, this time with Virtue as a companion.  Opening the door of the Waxwork Gallery reveals a dimly-lit space with panelled walls draped with black velvet, coated in dust. Some of the figures have seen better days; for example, Mary of Scotland is wearing moth-eaten black velvet and is described by Mrs. Ames as being "germy" and in need of replacement.

When young Sonia Thompson comes to town to take a job at the local newspaper, the Gallery is the first place she visits, and thinks she sees two people come to life. Mrs. Ames tells her that she herself saw no one, so Sonia puts it down to an illusion.  However, she's not at all comfortable -- as we are told,
"She saw the Waxworks, not as harmless dummies, but as malign agents in a corrupt traffic..."
and feels as if the walls themselves were rocking in the "rushes of darkness."  She was, in short, "filled with horror of the Gallery."  As Sonia begins to acquaint herself with the people of Riverpool, she is warned away from the wax museum more than once -- sage advice, as it turns out, since a body is discovered there.  But it's not just the Waxworks that give Sonia the willies, since she soon finds herself wading knee deep into closely-held secrets that no one, absolutely no one, wants revealed and people who will go to great lengths to keep these hidden.   Sonia can't help herself though -- after all, she is a reporter and she wants to discover exactly what is going on in this small town.  She decides that there is only one way to get to the truth, and that is to spend a night on her own inside the Gallery.

Yowie zowie -- what a fun book!  What sets this book apart from a number of other works of the time is the The Gallery, which as I noted earlier, is the focal point of this book, and is in its own way, connected to pretty much everything that goes on in the town. It is not as taut as I generally like my mystery novels to be, and it took a while to get to used to the author's sort of rambling style. On the flip side, what I discovered is that although it seems like there is a wee bit o' the babble going on here, there are important clues to be uncovered throughout the story, so there were places that I went back to in order to pick up what I'd missed.  I have to say that I was hooked immediately, and that the novel turned out to be a fun read with a quite an ending.   Vintage crime readers will definitely enjoy this one, as will readers looking for something just a bit off the beaten path.  I will be revisiting Ethel Lina White later this year, as I plan to read her Some Must Watch (aka The Spiral Staircase) as well as her The Man Who Was Not There, both of which became films in the 1940s.

And now, moving right along to part two of this post, Gilded Needles is one of the darkest, creepiest tales of revenge that I've ever had the pleasure to have read.

9781941147917
Valancourt, 2015
paperback, 284 pp


The setting of Gilded Needles is New York, 1882.  The first thing that struck me on opening the book was the most excellent panoramic view of the city as the old year changes into the new.  The author provides us here with a glimpse across the spectrum  into what's happening at that moment, giving us a peek at the lives of  "... the poor whose poverty was such that they would die of it," the "criminals whose criminality was no final guarantee against the poverty they tried to escape," the "mildly prosperous and moderately respectable," and finally, for the "very rich who needn't trouble themselves with respectability." But most importantly for the purposes of this book, there is the "Black Triangle," a "little space that lies west of MacDougal, between say Canal and Bleecker Streets."  It is a place where "horror festers," located "within half an hour's walk of the most fashionable houses of the city."  It is in this small slice of the city that "Black" Lena Shanks and her family run their criminal enterprises; everything from illegal abortions, receiving stolen goods, selling dead bodies, you name it.  However, the denizens of the Black Triangle aren't limited to the poor or the criminal -- it is also a favorite locale for the more "respectable" citizens on its outskirts for gambling, picking up prostitutes, and whatever other pleasures they desire that are definitely not found say, in Gramercy Park.

It is just one of these "respectable" people who sets this story in motion.  Young Benjamin Stallworth is having his fun slumming in the Black Triangle, when he notices Lena.  She recognizes his eyes, remembering the time when a certain Judge Stallworth sentenced her husband to death and had her children taken away while she also went to prison.  In the meantime,  the Judge and his son-in-law, Duncan Phair, have decided to build their political and social clout by trying to take down the criminals and exposing the "evils" of the Black Triangle, publicizing their efforts in the newspaper.  But while the plan seems to be working, one particular event sends Lena and her family over the edge, and now she's looking for revenge.  And it definitely isn't going to be pretty.  The novel goes back and forth between the Shanks family and the Stallworths, who really don't help themselves with their own arrogance and their lack of understanding of human nature.

Gilded Needles is written in a way that reminds me so very much of the 19th-century "city mysteries" novels I've read,  exposing the city's dark, seamy underbelly and scratching off the veneer of respectability.  McDowell has captured the style of this sort of old novel while making it his own; he is one of the best dark fiction writers whose work I've had the pleasure to have read.  Gilded Needles  is one of the most horrific non-horror stories I've read in a while -- bleak, very Dickensian and well, let's just say that it's definitely not for the faint of heart.  At the same time, it is absolutely one of those books that once picked up will not easily be put down, and to be honest, I was still shaking after I'd  finally turned the last page.   I highly, highly recommend this one -- a definite no miss for readers of dark fiction and historical crime fiction.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

and we're back, with a Pushkin Vertigo double feature: The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses, by Augusto de Angelis


I have just loved the Pushkin Vertigo books I've read so far, enough to where I've preordered every single book with this imprint that I don't already have. One I had to go to the UK to buy (not physically, obviously), but I'm good through December of this year. I hope this imprint goes on for a very, very long time -- much like my favorite press Valancourt Books, PV is bringing back some old vintage crime stories that have either been long forgotten or frankly, novels which I've never heard of.   The crime novels by Italian author Augusto de Angelis are a great example of a series I didn't even know existed; I've read two now and really, really, really want to read more.

The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of Three Roses both absolutely  hit the spot while sitting out on my hotel balcony last week during my vacation. Written in the 1930s, the mysteries in these books for me are highly satisfying, but they are also notable for their explorations of human nature. In the first one de Angelis introduces his main character, Police Inspector Carlo DeVincenzi, Commissioner of Public Safety in Milan, whose raison d’être as a police officer is "an interest in human justice."  However, de Vincenzi often finds it difficult to solve his cases because of reluctant witnesses who may tell a part of what they know, but for their own reasons tend to hold back on information that would actually allow DeVincenzi to do his job in a timely manner.  In the two I've read, de Angelis has characters who have been heavily burdened with secrets; his people run the gamut from starving artist to wealthy financiers, each with his or her own conflicts, desires, weaknesses and strengths,  which if not actually having some bearing on the solution of the crimes,  still offer a picture of what made people tick at a certain time in a certain place.  


9781782271703
Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
paperback, 187 pp
"...above all, there's an interest in human justice, which I believe in and which I must uphold..."

Any time a mystery novel opens in the fog, I do a little happy dance since I know that what's coming is going to be hazy, murky, and a bit of a challenge in terms of seeing things clearly.  This is definitely the case in The Murdered Banker,  where a "bituminous lake of fog" has settled on Milan, making it nearly impossible to see anything.  The opening scene captures two men "moving across the piazza," as "ghostlike shadows." As it turns out, one of these men is the main character Inspector Carlo de Vincenzi, who is heading into the station just after midnight.  After a while de Vincenzi settles in to read his book, Lawrence's  The Plumed Serpent (not Pirandello, as someone else guessed).   While inwardly musing about why he's a cop, and why he'd become the Commissioner for Public Saftety, he is joined some time later, about 1:30 a.m., by his friend and former classmate Gianetto Aurigi, who has just come in after a night at La Scala seeing Verdi's Aida.  He had watched the opera in the box belonging to Count Marchionni and his family; Marchionni is Aurigi's future father-in-law, as he is engaged to his daughter Maria Giovanna. He claims he's been walking around since and that his wandering had brought him to the station to see the inspector.  But soon he opens up with his financial troubles, revealing that he needs "half a million" -- it seems that he owes this sum to someone, and that it is due that very day.  He can't tell Marchionni without facing the prospect of losing his bride-to-be. While they are talking, the phone rings, calling de Vincenzi to a crime scene. After he hangs up, the inspector instructs Aurigi to remain at the station and leaves an officer to ensure that Aurigi doesn't leave. The reason is not that the inspector wants to continue the conversation when he returns, but that the crime he's been called out to just happens to have occurred in Aurigi's apartment.  As he begins his investigation, it all adds up to Aurigi as chief suspect, but through his "intuition and psychological impressions" the Inspector knows that he's the wrong guy.  As other suspects are brought into the case, each with his or her own secrets, de Vincenzi realizes that if he doesn't get to the truth of the matter, the innocent may be caught up in the "machine that will grind them up." His mission -- to save the innocent, and to bring the guilty to justice.

De Vincenzi believes that a crime, when "not a crime of passion," is "a work of art! A work perversely and criminally artistic," and it's obvious to me that De Augusto's writing reflects this idea.  At the same time, it's not so artistic that the whodunit element gets lost -- The Murdered Banker is a solid mystery story that is not only enjoyable, but also very well laid out in terms of buried secrets that could easily serve as motive, creating a group of possible suspects whom de Vincenzi must eliminate one by one to solve the crime.  He takes his time getting there, but that also is part of the author's craft -- creating the reluctant witness who doesn't want those secrets to come out at any cost.  By the time the actual culprit is discovered, it's a rather eye-opening moment, something I look forward to in any mystery novel.  Here it's done right, and done well, although sometimes the writing itself can be a bit overdone, but a) it's the first in a series which is often touchy, and b) the crime and the investigation are both so well plotted that it's forgivable. 

De Vincenzi is definitely not your ordinary police inspector -- he works, as noted above, through his impressions and his gut feelings. His reading material speaks volumes about who he is as a person -- Plato's Eros, for example can be found in his desk drawer at work. As a policeman, though, it's all about feeling "the poetry of this profession" -- as he notes
"because I am perhaps a poet, ... I feel the poetry of this profession of mine, the poetry of this dusty grey room, of this shabby old table, of the poor old stove, whose every joint suffers in order to keep me warm. And the poetry of the telephone! The poetry of the nights of waiting, with the fog in the piazza coming right up into the courtyard of this old convent -- now home to the police station, housing criminals in place of saints! Of nights in which nothing and everything happens, because in this huge, sleeping city, even as we speak, there are infinite dramas, even if they're not all bloody. Actually, the worst ones don't end in shooting or with a knife." 
He has this ability to size up situations and people, and often sets things up like a stage director, moving his characters here and there, putting different people together to see what happens, etc. etc. until conditions are just right for him to see everything  -- you know, that moment when the fog lifts and things are visible once more.

It is a fine start to a series that so far I am really enjoying.

Moving on to the second book (although seventh in actual publication order),


9781782271710
Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
220 pp
paperback

we come to The Hotel of the Three Roses, the blurb of which promises a "chilling gothic mystery" and "bloody drama." It is an example of one of my favorite sorts of mystery tales in which a tragic, horrific past comes flying back full throttle into the present, and oh, what a chilling tale there is to tell here. 

It's 1919, and Inspector De Vincenzi has received a very strange anonymous letter about things at The Hotel of the Three Roses, "an unknown third-rate hotel...not the kind you just just stumble upon," in Milan: 
"...A horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don't intervene in time...the devil is grinning from every corner of that house."
 De Vincenzi is asked by a colleague if he thinks it's a joke, but the Inspector  realizes that "precisely because it is so ridiculous,"  there is something strange going on and that indeed it is definitely not a joke. Just to be on the safe side, he gets the lowdown on the people who are staying there at the moment.  Then, as if on cue, he receives word that there is a dead man at the hotel, one of the five on whom he has gathered information.  Feeling "profoundly disturbed," the Inspector had a "vague presentiment that he was about to experience something dreadful."  After beginning the official investigation into the death, which looks like a suicide, he realizes that it is actually indeed a murder.   The main question for De Vincenzi going into this investigation is precisely this: "Who was Douglas Layng?  And how had this young Englishman ...come to be killed in Italy?"   He realizes right away that this is no ordinary crime, and  that "He would have to battle with the devil. Flush him out, give chase." He also knows that "only the psychological aspects of the crime can reveal the truth."  But before he can devote his full attention to the Layng murder, he finds a clue that warns that  Layng's death just might be the opening salvo in "the beginning of a series." And sure enough, there's another murder. Time is of the essence, and De Vincenzi must solve this one quickly, since as he realizes,
"His adversary was the sort who never misses a chance, and never loses."
However, as in The Murdered Banker, he is again confronted by a hotel filled with suspects, each of whom is reticent to share his or her secrets.

The Hotel of the Three Roses is a fine mystery story with its roots in the past.  Here the inspector finds himself "groping around in the darkness," trying to fit all of the little snippets of clues he's gathered before anyone else becomes a victim.  He also has to figure out how the people currently at the Hotel of the Three Roses are tied together, making for a solid piece of detective fiction.  Once again, though, it's his need for justice that pushes him toward the truth.  As he says,
"What's done is done, unfortunately. The dead don't come back. But human justice does exist, and it must act to defend society." 
Much of this novel is based on the idea of justice -- maybe not in the way that De Vincenzi thinks about it, but justice all the same. Sadly, I can't really say how this is so,  because I don't want to spoil anything for the next reader.

 This book was extremely satisfying for me in terms of the mystery itself, the variety of characters and especially in terms of the process of crime solving.  Again -- often a little overblown writing-wise here and there, but as with The Murdered Banker, the mystery is intense and good enough that the writing just isn't that much of an issue.  I am growing rather fond of the Inspector, so I hope that Pushkin Vertigo continues the series and that more of  de Angelis'  books continue to be  translated for eager readers like myself who love  vintage crime.

both books are definitely recommended!!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

it's weird, it's obscure, but most of all, it's fun: The Mummy, by Riccardo Stephens

9781943910298
Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1912
232 pp

paperback

There are just some times when I want to curl up with a cup of hot chai tea (milk, no sugar,  thank you very much) and read something just for fun. No serious thought needed, no brain strain, just fun. And it doesn't hurt when there's a mummy involved -- it brings back good memories of childhood not only in terms of sprawling on the couch on a Saturday afternoon to watch the old black and white mummy movies, but also of reading countless pulpy stories involving Egypt, which I found fascinating back then. So when Valancourt announced that they were coming out with this book, I pressed that buy button faster than you could say Imhotep. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but when I started reading it, it turned out that it's indeed much more of a good, old-fashioned mystery novel rather than a book where a mummy is brought back to life by tana leaves.  

As it also turns out, it's a book I can't really talk about too much without spoiling things for potential readers. The basic outline goes something like this:  a certain Doctor Armiston, who lives and has his practice in the West End of London, is called upon one day to come to give his opinion on how a man met his death.  He is taken to the Albany where he finds a young man who has died from a broken neck. After giving his opinion on the matter and sending for the police, he gets up to leave.  Opening the wrong door to go out, he finds himself staring at a strange object, which he is told is a mummy case, with a mummy inside.  According to the good doctor,
"It was my first introduction to the Mummy. I wish it had been my last."
And indeed, there will be more deaths, and with each one, the mummy case is on the premises.   Eventually, Armiston learns that the strange writing on the outside of the case contains a curse, promising vengeance on anyone who dares to upset the mummy's rest.  Being a man of science, Armiston isn't buying it, but no one involved is talking.  He is brought in to a society of "Plain Speakers," where, now that he is a member, he is privy to the truth of things.  Armiston will take it upon himself to try and figure out exactly what's behind this so-called curse before there are any further deaths, which are still unexplained.

Now, if this doesn't grab your attention, I don't know what will.  Granted, it sounds like the prelude to a horror film, but I can guarantee that this is a first-class mystery with a number of elements that blend with that same pulpy aesthetic that I've always loved. There are gentlemen at their clubs, strange "bohemian" societies, science gone awry, and of course, the element of detection.  On the back of this book there is a blurb that says this book "bears comparison with the works of Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson," and that is a good description that I can live with.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is most certainly mine. Granted, it can be boggy and slow in parts, but patient readers will be rewarded.   Highly, highly recommended to anyone interested in vintage mysteries with a touch of pulp on the side.  Very high on my internal shrieks-of-delightometer.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

talk about dark! Whoa! Eyes Full of Empty, by Jérémie Guez

9781939419439
Unnamed Press, 2015
originally published as Du Vide Plein les Yeux, 2013
translated by Edward Gauvin
181 pp

paperback (read in March)

Ever on the lookout for new crime writers, somehow I found my way to Jérémie Guez.   Eyes Full of Empty is the third in his "Parisian Trilogy." I will skip my customary rant about translations not beginning with the first in series, but well, I'm still thinking it.  This novel is dark, and I do mean dark, sort of a noirish thriller that plays out in the streets of Paris.  Before anyone says  "I thought you don't do thrillers," let me say that there is a huge difference between the same old same old poorly-written action-packed crap and a novel like this one, which is intelligent,  well written and one that above all, made me wonder once again who the true criminals in any society actually are.  This is not also not the average crime novel set in Paris that celebrates the finer things about the City of Light -- most of the action in this book takes place in a Paris where much of life happens in darkness and shadow. 

The main character is Idir, who had been sent to prison and who had served six months.  After he got out, some ten years before the present story begins, his father, a prominent physician,  had wanted him to come home and "rebuild" his life, but Idir realized he just couldn't do it.  Now he works as a sort of PI, where he often takes on some pretty shady jobs for the wealthy, allowing them to keep their own hands clean.   As the novel opens, he's with Oscar Crumley, the very person who'd put him in prison all those years ago after Idir was hired to cave his face in.  Idir needs the money ("It lets me pick up some produce and eat something besides Tuna Helper") although he really wants to destroy Crumley, "just for kicks, because I feel like it and still can." Crumley wants to hire him to find his missing brother, 22 year-old Thibault. But things are about to get strange. Idir's best friend Thomas is obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating on him and Thomas' dad wants his very expensive stolen car recovered.  As Idir starts looking into all of these cases, he starts to get the feeling, and rightfully so as it turns out,  that something is just very, very wrong here. Ultimately, he will find himself in a position of having to balance loyalties while trying to get to the truth. 

Idir is an interesting  character. He's a different sort of self-styled investigator, one who comes from privilege, who went to the best schools, and yet he is someone who is also very much at home on the streets. He comes from a family of Algerian immigrants, with a grandmother who still bears Berber tattoos whose presence "protect her family from the evil eye and mourn her deceased husband" and a father who is a prominent physician.  Family gatherings are difficult for him -- he doesn't feel as though he fits in, since his presence seems to make everyone "uneasy."  Another thing about Idir is that he suffers from "mysterious crying jags," which can occur at any time, "disconnected from the reality of the moment."  He had, prior to prison, worked as a "basic fixer," mostly "doing people favors they were too embarrassed to handle."  Now he describes his work as following women "for jealous men," watching over kids for their parents, and sometimes threatening people if he has to.  He has friends everywhere in Paris, and has built a solid network of people he trusts and upon whom he relies when needed.  He is torn, "a depressive,"  world weary at his young age, looking for meaning in his life, and somehow hopes to find his own place in the universe. 
Eyes Full of Empty is not only dark, but rather bleak. Guez writes with a pessimism that is real; the novel is sharp and very powerful. It is in large part a social commentary on the "economic elite" - not so much in terms of money, but power.  It is also an atmospheric story that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go -- just my kind of book.  
I'm hoping the other two novels will be translated soon -- when they are, I'll have my finger on the buy button. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

*"I didn't know there was a book" -- Bunny Lake is Missing, by Evelyn Piper

15586114745
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004
originally published 1957
219 pp

paperback

(read in March)

"If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say!"

I just noticed right now while looking at the ISBN on the back cover that at the time this particular edition was published, plans were in the works for a remake of the 1965 Otto Preminger film of the same name. The newer version never materialized, so for now, the '65 film is what we've got, which is kind of sad since the Preminger film has only what I'd say is  a tenuous connection to Piper's novel.

Picture this frightening scenario.  A young mother  has come to pick up her three year old daughter after her first day at preschool.  Since Blanche Lake hasn't been at the school before except just once while dropping off her child Bunny (real name Felicia) earlier that same morning,  she doesn't know any of the other mothers waiting there and, while waiting for her own little one, watches as all of the other kids make their way to their parents.   A search of the school and conversations with teachers and the people in charge reveals that no one remembers even seeing Bunny that day.   The police are called in, but soon it becomes apparent that even they are having trouble believing that little Bunny ever existed -- especially since there is nothing in Blanche's apartment to show that a little girl even lives there, not even a photograph.  In fact, anything that might help Blanche to prove to the cops that she does indeed have a daughter is simply non-existent, not helping Blanche's case at all.  When Blanche catches on that they think she's making this all up, she sets off during the night on a bizarre, at times surreal sort of adventure through streets of New York looking for her child or at least some sort of proof that there even is a child.

But of course, there's way more than just the search for a missing child here.  Blanche has moved to New York City from Providence, where she had an affair with a married man and became pregnant.  Remember -- this novel was written back in the late 1950s, when single motherhood was frowned upon, and as the story progresses, it becomes very obvious that Blanche is trying desperately  to keep her secret from being revealed. Her mom is no help, still not accepting of the situation, and a trusted friend with whom Blanche was staying while pregnant and just after Bunny's birth wanted to "help" her by adopting Bunny.  She is judged and found lacking, not only for Bunny's illegitimacy, but also because she's become some sort of unfamiliar monster in the form of a working mom.  As one person in this drama notes,  "If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say! That's what they learn them in college—how to drop their kids and leave them for others to take care of."  There are also a number of literary references throughout the story that bring the situation into perspective, such as the pronouncement by the shrink Dr. Newhouse, who realized that "this girl believed she was a wicked girl, and that she should be stoned through the streets with a big red A on her bosom."   

When all is said and done, Bunny Lake is Missing is a fine novel that examines motherhood, sexuality, the changing lives of modern women, and societal judgments just as much as it is a crime story.  There is much more, of course; in the edition I have there is an entire analysis in the back of the book which will shed even more light.  It's a very dark story that had me wondering if in fact, there really was a Bunny Lake, or, as is suggested, something horrific had happened to her.  While the ending (and the unraveling of the story) may leave a bit to be desired, the crime aspect of this novel, it seems to me, isn't really the point at all.  



Now to the film, which has some basic elements of the novel, but very few.  Most everything has been changed, including the location -- the story in the movie takes place in London.  Blanche is now Ann (played by Carol Lynley)  and she has arrived from the US to live with her brother Stephen (who is NOT in the novel and is played Keir Dullea)  in an apartment there, owned by a disgusting perv played by Noel Coward.   Bunny Lake does go missing from the school (unexpected joy of all joys -- one of my all-time favorite actresses ever, Anna Massey, plays one of the workers at Bunny's school)  but rather than offering us the story as written, it gets changed big time here, winding down into one of the most bizarre, surreal and downright creepy endings I've ever seen.  The final scenes gave me a big case of the willies -- trust me, I'll never look at a swingset in the same way again.  In this case, book wins hands down, but the movie will definitely disturb and is well worth watching.  

I would read the book and then watch the film; both are definitely recommended.