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 clichĂ© 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.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

'tis the season, part two: He Arrived at Dusk, by R.C. Ashby.

Valancourt Books, 2013
originally published 1933
218 pp


Another book I pulled off the shelf for October reading, He Arrived at Dusk gave me such immense pleasure that I actually applauded at the end.  I do that sometimes (little claps and a "bravo" here and there that no one but myself can hear) when I like a novel as much as I enjoyed this one.  It really is the perfect crime read for the Halloween season, as the author blends mystery and more than a hint of the supernatural, and does it in a rather ingenious fashion.  And what is there not to love about the cover art?

For a short blurb about the author, Ruby Constance Ashby (Ferguson), you can click on through to Valancourt's website. 

As is revealed at the outset,
"The story as here presented is in three parts; three stories in one, three points of view; in fact, murder through the eyes of three men of widely differing mentality and outlook."
The first of these is Mertoun's account, which begins as he is in his club.  Something he's heard has seriously distressed him, and he reveals to another gentleman that he is "haunted."  That man, a certain Mr. Ahrman, has him relate what's happened to him over the previous three weeks; Mertoun agrees, in the hope that Ahrman will believe what will turn out to be a rather bizarre story.    It seems that Mertoun had been engaged by a certain Colonel Barr  to "value the contents" of his remote house in the Northumberland moors, The Broch, which derived its name from a nearby ancient ruin of a tower said to be haunted.   On entering the house to begin his work he immediately experiences a "hideous feeling,"  a "coldness" that hit him like "an electric shock from an unearthly battery."  After waiting some time, he meets Charlie Barr, who reveals to him that his uncle is ill, confined to his room, and is under the charge of a nurse, and that nobody is allowed to see him, not even his nephew.   The next day he also learns that the house has its own resident poltergeist.  When he finally meets the nurse, Miss Goff, she offers him another job, to arrange and catalogue the books in the Colonel's library, a task which should take Mertoun about two weeks.   It is during that time that Charlie tells him the story of an ancient Roman soldier whose ghost haunts the area around the Broch.  The legend is well known by the locals of the nearby village, who refuse to go anywhere near it, except for a shepherd who has, it seems, taken his flock to the tower ruins.    It is also during this time that he begins to experience some strange experiences in the house, which culminate in a rather bizarre seance (!) held there at the behest of a local doctor who wishes to contact his wife; it is shortly after this event that a seemingly-impossible, ghostly murder occurs.  However, that's not the only shock that awaits the inhabitants of the house.

RC Ashby, from Persephone Books

As Mark Valentine notes in his introduction, He Arrived at Dusk  is a "chilling story of apparitions, uncanny incidents, and dark legends... " and clearly the author has laid the foundations for such a tale  in the way she evokes the atmosphere that permeates this entire story.  The house at the edge of Northern Sea, the moors that could swallow an unsuspecting person,  the periodic sweeping of the lighthouse beam across the landscape, and the superstition surrounding the old tower itself all combine to create the perfect backdrop for what takes place here.  Add to that Mertoun's own sense of something "hideous" on entering the house for the first time and his recounting of his own strange experiences there, the mysterious Nurse Goff, and the scene is more than set for the strangeness that follows in the next two accounts.   However, there is also a seriously good mystery at the heart of it all, and as a keen reader of these old novels, for me the solution was almost as satisfying as the journey. 

For devotees of these older books, or for people looking for something a wee bit different than your standard British mystery, you really can't do much better.  He Arrived at Dusk is one of those hidden gems I live to discover, and my serious thanks go to Valancourt for bringing it back into print. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

'tis the season, part one: A House of Ghosts, by W.C. Ryan

Arcade Publishing, first North American edition, 2019
384 pp


October reading is generally given over to the strange and the supernatural, so when I heard about A House of Ghosts, I picked it up and on the list it went. 

It's winter, 1917, and a group of people are gathering at Blackwater Abbey at the time of the winter solstice.   The house is on the "remote" Blackwater Island off the coast of Devon, and the guests  of the owners, the Highmounts, will be there to try to contact the dead, hopefully their sons who died during the war.    Two mediums will be in attendance, and the house is the perfect location for doing so, since it has a "reputation" for its ghostly inhabitants, "a mixed group, from several different centuries." Kate Cartwright is more than aware of their existence; she not only seems to have clairvoyant abilities, but has also actually seen these ghosts.  Kate had prevously been invited to Blackwater Abbey along with her parents but had declined;  her plans change however when she is given an assignment by the Intelligence Service -- she is to make her way to the island in the company of her ex-fiancĂ© Captain Rolleston Miller-White, who in turn will be attended by his valet, an undercover Intelligence officer by the name of Donovan.  It will be Donovan's job there to investigate the leak of some plans that had ended up in the hands of the Germans and to discover exactly whoever it was that had passed the classified information.  Since the house is located on an island, the only way to and from there is by their hosts' boat,  making it even more of a closed-circle type mystery; a storm soon traps everyone on the island, but who among them is it? 

I ask you, how could anyone  not enjoy a novel with a  remote island setting, a storm that makes it impossible for anyone to leave, an old house where spirits roam freely, a mystery involving spies,  a murder, and best of all the promise of a seance to bring forth even more spirits (I am HUGE fangirl of novels where there is a seance or two)?  These are all elements that tick my mystery/supernatural-reading buttons, but I was left completely unfazed.   By page 85 I was ready to scream because nothing had happened; by page 155 I was rejoicing that something had finally happened; even the dustjacket blurb promise that "soon one of their number will die" doesn't happen until over one hundred pages after that.  Given the fact that blurbers for this book referred to it as a "chilling ghost story," "a multilayered, gothic masterpiece," or "unbearably creepy," I had high hopes, but I was seriously let down.  Even the ending was a big what??  and believe it or not, I had a huge chunk of this thing figured out long before getting there.  And let's not even go there with the ghosts that haunt Blackwater Abbey -- I don't even get why they were included.  Trust me, traditional ghost stories over the ages are part of my reading bread and butter, and  the blurber who said to "think Agatha Christie meets M.R. James"  may get it right on the Christie end, this is definitely NOT  M.R. James.   

That's me again, the red fish swimming the wrong way against the tide, since I seem to be in the minority of people that didn't care for this book.  Most readers are absolutely thrilled by this novel giving it very, very high ratings in the usual places; sadly I'm not one of them.