Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Maigret (and Simenon) again: The Night at the Crossroads

read in January

Penguin, 2014
originally published as La nuit du carrefour, 1931
translated by Linda Coverdale
151 pp


"The whole thing's a scream, don't you think?"

Yes indeed it is, and woe be to anyone who decides that the 151 pages comprising this book can just be breezed through in no time, because this is a clear case of brevity disguising complexity.  On the other hand, it's a novel that packs more of a punch when read in one sitting, which is how I did it -- as in the case of A Man's Head, I didn't want to stop reading once I started it.  It is a hell of twisty story, with Maigret at the helm once again to decipher just what's going on here.

The Three Widows Crossroads is situated along the main road from Paris to Étampes, just three kilometers from the town of Arpajon.   It is home to Carl Andersen and his sister Else, insurance agent Monsieur Émile Michonnet and his wife, and Monsieur Oscar, the owner of the garage/repair shop/gas station there.    It is also the site of a murder.  It seems that M. Michonnet's brand new car had gone missing, with Andersen's old "rattletrap"  car left in its place.  Michonnet called the police, who search Andersen's garage and discover Michonnet's car there.  They also find the body of a man who'd been shot in the chest in the driver's seat.  His papers identify him as Isaac Goldberg, a diamond merchant from Antwerp; Andersen and his sister  have fled on foot to Arpajon to catch the first train for Paris where they are picked up by the police.  As the novel begins, Maigret and his colleagues have been taking turns interrogating Andersen, who claims to know absolutely nothing about, his story never waivering throughout the entire seventeen-hour ordeal.  It is a case where the inhabitants at the Crossroads neither saw nor knew anything, let alone have an alibi.  Making his way to the Crossroads after Andersen's release, he speaks to Else Andersen and learns nothing.  He is expecting the arrival of Goldberg's widow, and she gets there while Maigret and his colleague repeatedly make their way "up and down from the crossroads" several times.  As she begins to get out of the car, a shot rings out in the dark hitting and killing Madame Goldberg, bringing the murder toll to two.  As one might guess, finding the culprit isn't going to be easy, especially with the suspects at hand. 

As Night at the Crossroads begins, a mist is hovering over the Seine, turning to fog in the wee hours of the morning as dawn makes its appearance.   Usually when a story begins in this manner, it tends to signal the reader that things are going to be hazy or unclear.  Combined with the darkness that enfolds much of the action at the Three Widows Crossroads, that is definitely the case here. I don't want to say anything else about the plot or how it unfolds, except that like most of the Maigret novels I've read so far, the plot is secondary while the psyche takes center stage. 

Once again, a number of readers found the reading to be slow or boring, which is sad for me to see because it's neither.  Perhaps the temptation to buzz through the novel without thinking overtakes people or maybe it's that there is very little in the way of physical clues to follow  as in a normal police procedural novel, where you follow along as the lead detective finds and makes known his or her dazzling discoveries.  This is not that, nor was it intended to be. Reading Simenon requires a measure of patience and some thought;  he doesn't hand it all to you on a plate.   Personally, I had great fun trying to put all of the pieces together in this strange puzzle where nothing is as it seems, and discovered more than one surprise while doing so.

from imdb

Off to watch the film.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Man's Head, by Georges Simenon

read in January.

The story goes that when Georges Simenon  approached Arthème Fayard publishers to pitch his first detective novels, the reaction he got wasn't what he'd hoped for.  As quoted in Lucille Becker's Georges Simenon: 'Maigrets' and the 'romans durs' (Haus Publishing, 2006),  they came back with
"It's not a detective novel! It's not a real puzzle! It's not a chess game; it isn't even a good novel because there are neither good nor bad people, there is no love story, and it almost always ends badly ... [Furthermore], your detective is nondescript and not particularly intelligent. You see him seated for hours in front of a glass of beer! He is painfully ordinary!" (41)
The reality is that Simenon's Maigret is quite intelligent.   He sits. He observes. He drinks a lot of beer while doing both. He lets a roomful of suspects get on each others' nerves until the actual criminal reaches a breaking point.  He listens. He makes his way into people's heads so that he can empathize, sympathize and learn what makes them tick, something he manages to do not just with criminals but with everyone concerned.  Reading through what readers have to say about him, the inevitable comparison with Poirot or Holmes comes up a number of times, mostly when readers have been disappointed with the Maigret novel they've just read.   I don't really read crime fiction solely for plot or action; I could also care less if there's a love story involved, unless it's relevant to the evildoing.   I'm like Maigret -- I'm far more interested in the  motivating factors that speak to the why.  

Penguin, 2014
originally published 1931
translated by David Coward
169 pp

"It was a war of nerves."
The days are numbered for the prisoner in cell number 11 at the Santé Prison,  and he can't believe his luck when on October 15 he is able to walk out of his cell and onto the streets of Paris.  Actually, someone had left this convicted double murderer a note three days earlier, letting him know that his door will be left open, and that the guards' attention will be focused elsewhere.  The note also contained instructions that he was to follow in making his way out of the prison.  What Joseph Heurtin didn't know was that Maigret and the police were not only watching his every move, but had set up his escape.   Maigret himself had arrested him, but wasn't completely convinced that he was guilty.  As he had said to the examining magistrate, "That man is either mad or he's innocent," and decided he would prove it via an "experiment" to be "morally sure;" he also believes that once out on the streets, Heurtin will lead him to the real culprit since he is sure that the convicted man was not alone at the time of the crime.  A man's head is at stake, and  Maigret has ten days; once Heurtin walks out of the prison, the clock is ticking.   

Maigret has no idea of what he's let himself in for when he finds himself going head-to-head with an adversary whose disturbed psychology and "dangerously sharp intellect" seems tailor made for Maigret's method of getting into his opponents' heads, giving the title of this novel a definite double meaning.  Little by little, with some measure of imaginary nail biting I waited  for that moment when, with Maigret's help, the bad guy would crack and the "war of nerves" could finally come to an end; only then did I realize how much tension I was holding inside.  While some readers found the lack of action to be an issue, the telling flat  and in some instances "boring," I found myself so caught up in it that I needed to finish the novel with no interruptions.  What happens in  A Man's Head  so nicely highlights, as Scott Bradfield so aptly describes it in a 2015 essay for The New York Timesthat Maigret "rarely solves crimes; instead he solves people,"  which is precisely why I read and love these books.  

Very much recommended for people who are more all about the whys in their crime reading.  


from imdb

I recently watched the 1933 film based on this book via the Criterion Channel,   La tête d'un homme directed by Julien Duvivier, and let me just say that anyone who found the book a bit on the dull side would not say the same thing about the film, which as one imdb reviewer  noted the director had turned into "something approaching a Gothic horror tale."   Holy crap -- that's a great description of it, for sure.    I was a bit taken aback at the beginning when the entire crime that put Heurtin in prison played out in full instead of unraveling little by little as was the case in the novel, but it worked and worked extremely well, since there's much more of a sense as to the disturbing psychological makeup  of Maigret's adversary from the outset.  This character is so creepy that the same imdb reviewer noted about the actor who portrays him, "With him on screen, one could even describe the screen itself as haunted."  Also a great description, and beyond apt.

from La Serie Maigret

If you prefer, you can catch the French Maigret series episode based on the novel on MHz, starring Bruno Crémer, my favorite Maigret.   The TV version  offers a version that is more subdued and sticks closely to the novel.

both are terrific.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

pure writing excellence: Dread Journey, by Dorothy Hughes

Penzler Publishers/American Mystery Classics, 2019
187 pp 


Every once in a while (with mega-apologies for the cliché about to be used), I run into a novel that not only knocks my socks off storywise  but also leaves me confident that for the duration of my reading I am in the hands of a master of the craft.   Dread Journey is one of those, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with Anthony Boucher who said of this book (to quote one of the editorial reviews on Amazon)  that it is "Not to be missed under any circumstances."

 Dread Journey is certainly not your average mystery story.  I had an inkling that such was the case on reading the first words of the novel:
"I'm afraid." 
The woman who spoke those words hadn't meant to say them out loud, and it isn't too long before we find out a bit more of what's behind her reasoning:
"It wasn't a tremble of fear. It was a dark hood hanging over her head. She was meant to die. That was why she was on the Chief speeding eastward. This was her bier."
Movie actress Katherina (Kitten) Agnew realizes that it doesn't have to be this way, since she has another option open to her.  She could go to the director of the film she is scheduled to star in (also on the train) and "release him of all obligation," and "from the verdict of death."  Vivien Spender would then be free to star his "newest discovery," young Gratia Shawn, as Clavdia Chauchat in his planned movie production of Mann's The Magic Mountain, the role which he had had in mind for Kitten when he'd first discovered her.   The thing is though, that Kitten won't back down.  Knowing what had happened to those who had come before her, the "innumerable Clavdias," encompassing

"The one in a home for alcoholics. The one picked up soliciting. The one who jumped from a window while Viv was in Florida with the new. And the others, returned to the drabness from which they had once hopefully emerged, walled behind counters, playing walk-ons"

she had hired an attorney to draw up an "unbreakable contract for the role."  But Spender wants Gratia, and Kitten knows from past experience with the man that he usually gets what he wants.  Hence the "Dread Journey," and the suspense begins from Kitten's not-meant-to-be-spoken-out-loud comment and is maintained throughout the story to the point where the book becomes absolutely unputdownable.  

Had this been the sum total of the novel, it still would have been good, but Hughes puts her characters under serious scrutiny here.   As Sarah Weinman notes in her excellent introduction, the author's use of "omniscient viewpoints," allows the reader to examine

"the characters' inner sancta and excavates their fears, their desires, their jealousies, their dreams with the most exacting literary scalpel."

Along with the building suspense, it is Hughes' ability to get her readers directly inside of her characters' heads that elevates Dread Journey well beyond just another crime/mystery/suspense novel, pushing it well into the literary zone, as she has done with the other books of hers I've read. 

 1947 Pocket Books edition, from Goodreads

As just one of the many characters populating this novel, it is the porter James Cobbett who is the most interesting of them all.    He is a man who "had pride in himself," someone who "didn't consider a man equal to him unless he were equal in dignity and pride."  Given that he is African-American, it's to Hughes' credit that she didn't stoop to the racist stereotypes of her time or those which came before.   Cobbett is a sort of outsider, detached from the action of Kitten, Spender, and the other members of this drama; at the same time after  years of doing this job, he has an incredible understanding of human nature.  He sees himself as "responsible for this car and its tenants," and knew instinctively when "something was wrong."    In one absolutely perfect run of prose that lasts for nearly five pages in Chapter Six, it is through Corbett's observations that we see what's happening as he watches his group of passengers while suffering under an unshakeable "weight of depression," and it is not too far off the mark here to say that when "Something cold touched the root of his spine" as he sat watching,  something cold also touched the root of my own spine.  It is a most chilling five pages that I will  never forget.

I love Hughes' books,  and this one is no exception.   It is all about the writing and her ability to direct us immediately into the minds of her characters here, and on top of all that I've mentioned so far in this post, she has an underlying story about the abuses of power and a look at how things really worked in the Hollywood of her time, which is not at all pretty.  It is also a window on the times, with characters down on their luck and affected by the war.  There is so much happening in this little book that keeps it from being just another crime story, and  I'm delighted that Penzler Publishers has released this new edition of Dread Journey.  Despite the fact that Hughes' books are great, she is still widely unknown, so hopefully people will pick up a copy and discover her writing genius for themselves.    I'd recommend it to Hughes readers who perhaps haven't made their way to this novel or readers who, like me, prefer the more literary side to their reading across genres.

I LOVED this book -- it is pure writing excellence and pure reading pleasure.  I can't ask for more. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Inugami Clan, by Seishi Yokomizo

ICG Muse, 2003
originally serialized 1951-1952
translated by Yomiko Yamazaki
327 pp


"...we hear good tidings...

Having finished Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders, I moved right away into his The Inugami Clan -- a) it's the only other novel in this series to have been translated into English and b) I've had this edition sitting on my shelf forever so it was readily accessible.  Pushkin-Vertigo will be releasing another translated edition of this book called The Inugami Curse, available from the UK in February and here in the US in August of this year. 

Yokomizo opens his story with a scene that will be familiar to many readers of crime and mystery stories:  in a "labyrinthine" house on the shore of Lake Nasu, an elderly man is in his death bed surrounded by his relatives all waiting for the end.   The man is "the so-called Silk King of Japan" and family patriarch, Sahei Inugami, and while everyone "sat silently, listening to the old man's breathing,"  it doesn't take long before it becomes obvious that they're not actually there out of grief.  It seems that no one in the family has a clue about Sahei's "intentions" toward his "enormous fortune;" and as he moves toward his end,  the impatience  of the the eldest daughter, "unable to restrain herself,"  leads her to ask him bluntly about his "last wishes."  The family attorney, also in attendance, announces that he is in possession of Sahei's will, explaining that its contents cannot be made known until Sahei's grandson Kiyo returns home.  After the war, he was last known to be in Burma, but no one has seen him in some time.    If that fails to happen,  the attorney is authorized to read the will on the one-year anniversary of Sahei's passing.  As the head of the Inugami family silently slips away to his final moment of life, the narrator, looking back,  reveals that it was his death  that "set in motion the blood-soaked series of events that later befell the Inugami Clan."

 Some months later, Detective Kosuke Kindaichi arrives in Nasu, summoned by a mysterious letter penned by one of the family attorneys who writes of his fears of "events soaked in blood," and "One family member after another falling victim..."    Kindaichi's arrival coincides with the news that the missing Kiyo Inugami has finally been located and will be returning home,  allowing for the reading of Sahei's will upon his arrival.   The unexpected and explosive contents of this will, as the back-cover blurb notes, will trigger

"a chain of gruesome and bizarre murders as the members of the Inugami family are pit against each other in a desperate contest for his fortune." 
At this point, anyone thinking "been there, read that" is sadly mistaken.  While greed is often the underlying motive of many a mystery story,  Yokomizo cleverly adds to the mix long-buried family secrets, gruesome murders that leave even the most experienced policemen baffled and shaking their heads, a certain measure of sleight-of-hand, a unique crime pattern, several grotesque elements that would be perfectly at home in many a Gothic novel, and an unmistakable  pulpy vibe underneath it all.   While there are a number of plot elements that are certainly familiar to regular readers of mystery or crime fiction in this book, it's important to consider that much of what happens here, as in The Honjin Murders, is rooted in the time and postwar cultural vibe surrounding these events.    As an aside, Sari Kawana's Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture is a great resource for regular readers of Japanese mystery novels; it's very helpful, and one I'd recommend for readers wanting more out of these books than simply story.

1976 movie poster from MyDramaList

My issues with this novel were not so much with plot (which I thought was very nicely concocted), but with Yokomizo's penchant for leaning toward the melodramatic and downright cheesy in his word choice/writing style, and then there are his descriptions of certain characters that became repetitive over time to the point where they tended to grate on my inner ear.   All the same, I had great fun with this novel and ended up liking it very much, despite the fact that it was not too difficult to figure out the who behind it all.   While that's an issue in my crime reading most of the time, it bothered me less with this book because it's not just the identity of villain that matters,  since there is so much more going on here. Parts of the plot are seriously demented and even horrific, making it much darker than many Japanese mystery novels I've read, taking it out of the realm of Agatha Christie  (where so many readers have placed it) and into much darker territory, where as a mystery reader I feel most at home. 

I would certainly recommend The Inugami Clan to readers who have some familiarity with older Japanese crime novels.  They're sort of in a class unto themselves and take some getting used to, but I genuinely appreciate these old books and I'm happy to see them being published again. 

ps/ my copy of the 1976 film will be here shortly -- I can't wait to watch it!!

2020: it's all about cleaning out my shelves

The photo above is a messy bookshelf in one room of my house.  See all those books on their sides, and mass-market mystery paperbacks carelessly tossed into baskets?  Notice that there is no room to wedge in even one more book anywhere?  It's become very frustrating, and in an effort to clear this mess up, here and in all of the other shelves in my house which look much the same, my goal this reading year is to focus on books I've owned forever that have never been read.   I don't know how long my willpower is going to last before I buy more books, but I at least have to try.  So this year it's all about the crime novels and mysteries that already live on my shelves (with some new ones I'd preordered earlier).    I don't even know what I have, to be honest, so I'll more than likely surprise myself. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Honjin Murders, by Seishi Yokomizo

Pushkin Vertigo, 2019
originally published as Honjin satsujin jiken, 1946
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
182 pp


Pushkin Vertigo has done it again, this time with the classic Japanese mystery, The Honjin Murders, the first book to feature Yokomizo's "scruffy-looking" sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi.  Making his debut in 1946, he would go on to solve  a further 76 cases over the next thirty-plus years before his creator's death in 1981.  This edition is the first English translation of Honjin satsujin jiken; his The Inugami Clan has been available in English for some time,  but Pushkin Vertigo will soon be releasing a newer edition of that book with the title The Inugami Curse. 

The puzzle set before us in The Honjin Murders  falls under the heading of  locked-room/impossible crime.  I love these books (for the most part; sadly, I've read some pretty bad ones in my time), but for readers who aren't so familiar with what goes on in this sort of thing they can be pretty daunting and even disappointing.   As John Pugmire of Locked Room International notes, they are stories in which the purpose is "purely and simply to baffle while entertaining. It challenges the mind, not the heart or the spirit."  I've often felt that the locked-room/impossible crime really exists in its own sort of universe; although crime fiction it is, the major emphasis seems to be on unraveling the  solution as well as the cleverness of the villain of the piece in its design.   I don't mind that bit at all,  but other mystery readers who may expect major character development or in-depth backstory just might.

The back-cover blurb does a fine job of preparing the reader for what's to come:
"In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming Ichiyanagi wedding. But, amid the gossip, there is also a worrying rumor -- it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions around the village.  Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi household are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house."
The police arrive on the scene, but while they are busy with scattered clues that make absolutely no sense and following up reports of the arrival in the village of a strange man with three fingers on his hand, the dead woman's uncle has his own ideas about getting this horrific crime solved.

one television version of  Kindaichi from Black Hole Reviews

Enter detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whom Uncle Ginzo had met while in San Francisco some years earlier on business.  Kindaichi had left university, finding it "boring," then went to America with "no particular purpose in mind."  He drifted around the country for a while, taking on jobs to support himself, eventually becoming hooked on narcotics.   As the narrator reveals, it was a long-unsolved murder in San Francisco that prevented him from becoming "one of those lost, drug-addicted Japanese immigrants"and turned him into a "hero"  --  Kindaichi solved it when others couldn't, using only "reason and logic in a focused attack on the case."   Returning to Japan, he found his calling and  set up a detective agency. With business somewhat slow at the beginning,  within six months Kindaichi was being honored in the newspapers for his service to the nation by solving a major case.   The question is, can he put his logic and reason together to solve this rather baffling mystery? 

 As it turns out, the plot was particularly ingenious and actually heinous when all is said and done, offering more than one unexpected twist that kept things lively and kept me guessing.  The first time through I was a bit annoyed when the narrator started pointing out  various items of "significance" as if telling his readers that these are things to pay attention to, or at least to keep in the back of their our minds for later.   And before the mystery is completely explained, he reveals the point in the case in which Kindaichi reaches his "aha" moment, which points the reader to a particular avenue of thought.  Again, I found this a bit annoying, but the truth is that this bit of Kindaichi's later insight (without giving the show away, thank goodness)  took the armchair detective in me in a direction I would never have considered.  I was still wrong, but after the second read I was kicking myself for not having figured it out the first time. 

Just one more thing before I finish up here, and that is that it's important to keep in mind when and where this book was written.  While there is not a lot of character development as you read along, there are cultural and social issues that rise to the surface that will become important later down the road.  There is also much to say about the locked-room/impossible crime genre within the story itself, which provides more than just a deft touch to the mysteries at hand, also reading as a bit of an homage to the genre.    My standard practice when reading this sort of thing is to read it twice, the second time to block out the noise of red herrings, etc.  and try to get to the point of  my own "aha" moment.  The story is so nicely plotted that I didn't, even after the second reading when I already knew what had happened.

 I hope that The Honjin Murders will gain a following, prompting Pushkin Vertigo to publish more of Yokomizo Seishi's work in the future.  Recommended, certainly for fans of the locked-room mystery, but for readers just testing the waters with this sort of thing, you couldn't go wrong by starting here.

Monday, November 4, 2019

back to the 20s and my happy place again: Inspector French's Greatest Case, by Freeman Wills Crofts

Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2016
originally published 1924
297 pp


With the sun beginning to set earlier now, there is nothing like curling up with a good cup of tea and a mystery that  delivers a bit of a one-two punch of a twist before all is said and done.  The hero of the day is Inspector Joseph French, referred to (behind his back, of course) by his colleagues at the Yard as "Soapy Joe," a moniker based on his reputation as being "quite a good fellow at heart."   In an introduction to this particular edition in which we "Meet Chief-Inspector French" written by the author in 1935 (and also found here at Classic Crime Fiction) we also learn that "Politeness is an obsession with him," and that
"He's decent and he's as kindly as his job will allow.  He believes that if you treat people decently -- you'll be able to get more out of them; and he acts on his belief."  
As far as this particular case being his "greatest," well, I'll admit that I have no clue there, since there will be twenty-nine more cases for the Inspector to solve, the last published in 1957.  In this book, the series opener and the first French mystery I've read, he is brought in to solve the case of a murder of a Mr. Gething, the head clerk of diamond merchants Duke and Peabody.  The firm's safe is open, "three-and-thirty thousand pounds" worth of diamonds are gone, along with a thousand pounds in notes.  Despite a number of clues and a number of suspects, the case is anything but open and shut, and "days slipped by" without any progress, causing the Inspector no end of frustration.  It is a bafflement that will continue to dog French as the case takes him on a series of travels beginning in Switzerland, leading him eventually to a ship on its way to Brazil; he always seems to be close but at each step, just as he feels he's getting somewhere, he hits the proverbial wall as events transpire to put barriers between himself and a solution. 

original British cover, 1924, from The Passing Tramp

In Crofts' introduction he states that
"Anyone about to perpetrate a detective novel must first decide whether his detective is to be brilliant and a 'character' or a mere ordinary humdrum personality."
Speaking of "humdrum," in 1972, Julian Symons would write in his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel that Crofts was
"not just a typical, but also the best, representative of what may be called the Humdrum school of detective novelists..."
of whom "most came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it."   His feeling was that they
"had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than Van Dine and his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles and crossword puzzles."  (118)
As Curt Evans explains in his book Masters of the "Humdrum"Mystery,   Symons was referring to a group of writers who "placed far greater emphasis on puzzle construction and adherence to fair play detection than on characterization and stylish writing," which he notes is "fair enough."   However,  Evans also notes that in his view, "Symons insufficiently values the great technical sophistication of the plots in the best works of these authors,"  and that
"this school of mystery fiction has been unjustly disparaged by Julian Symons and the many critics who have adopted his views."  (2012, Location 191).  
French may not be the most brilliant detective ever (and Crofts reveals in the introduction that "many people call him dull"), but he never lets go, remains completely methodical and detail oriented throughout, and he is not averse to listening to his wife's flashes of insight when she comes up with an idea that sparks the light bulb over his head that will move him another step along in his investigation.  "Thoroughness and perseverance" are qualities that the author has given his detective, and admittedly, French does not "leap to his conclusions by brilliant intuition."   In short, he's a regular guy, he gets things wrong, and keeps trying until he gets it right.   Personally, I found myself rooting for Inspector French along the way and actually feeling sorry for him as things continued to go wrong.  If you want dazzling detective, you won't find that here; Inspector French's Greatest Case has much more in common with police procedurals and Crofts had obviously spent a great deal of time meticulously plotting each step of this mystery. 

As far as the twist, I had actually figured this bit out but it was not too long before French himself did, so the experience was unlike when I read detective novels in which I guess things early on, which is a plus.  And "humdrum" or not, I quite enjoyed Inspector French and I quite enjoyed the book, enough so that  I've been slowly stockpiling these Harper editions so that I can look forward to more of Soapy Joe's cases in the future.