Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On a Desert Shore: A Regency Mystery, by S.K. Rizzolo

Mysterious Press, 2016
269 pp

hardcover, so very thoughtfully and kindly sent to me by the author and by her publisher.  Thank you!

I have never in real life met S.K. Rizzolo, but she is a member of a group I belong to on goodreads.  I had heard of her work, of course, but when I spoke to someone named "SK" for the first time in the group, I had absolutely no idea that that "SK" was the author S.K. Rizzolo.  Then at some point the light bulb over my head flashed on and I put two and two together.  So, when she emailed some months back and said she had x amount of copies of this book, her latest in this series, to give away at her discretion and asked if I would like one, I was beyond honored.

It's true that I don't normally find myself reading crime novels with a romantic edge to them; au contraire, I seem to be on a steady diet of dark, no-frills, edgy, psychological, existentialist-bent, noirish, largely obscure and downright gritty, no-holds barred  (but always well written!) crime fiction.  So, after having read several of these for a while, after having finished some even darker books that I've posted about on my oddly weird fiction page and some even more horrific (because they're true) nonfiction books, I figured it was time to give the old, tired, and probably by-now warped brain a rest. What better way than to relax with some light historical crime fiction?  As I was looking forward to a restorative,  ahhhh-this-is-going-to-be-just-what-the-doctor-ordered kind of novel,  -- surprise! It turns out that Ms. Rizzolo isn't all sunshine and light:  On a Desert Shore picks up some definite Gothic tones,  there is an horrific crime at the heart of this book, and if that's not enough, there is also the issue of slavery that she weaves most deftly into her tale.

In a nutshell, and just to whet appetites, this novel begins in Jamaica in 1796, with a very ill Lt. John Chase of the Royal Navy coming out of his feverish delirium.  He had been nursed through the illness that had killed a number of others by a slave named Joanna, leaving him extremely grateful to her for saving his life.  Chase eventually goes back to work for the navy, but suffers a sidelining injury. Once again recuperating, this time in Naples, he returns to England where he is offered work in Bow Street, to "stick a plug here and there in the crime that flowed through the city."  Now, flash forward to 1813 -- Chase has been offered a job looking after the daughter of a very wealthy English merchant, Hugo Garrod, in the face of some strange events that have been occurring at their home.   Hugo is also the owner of a Caribbean plantation where, unfortunately, slavery still exists. His daughter, in fact, was born to a slave mother, who turns out to be the very same Joanna who helped Chase pull through his near-fatal illness.  Because Chase was never able to thank Joanna, and has always felt a great deal of gratitude toward her, he agrees to take the job.  However, before he can get to the root of  the strange happenings surrounding Marina Goddard, there is a fatal poisoning at the Goddard home.  As the evidence begins to mount, Chase and his friends begin to realize that it all points toward the lovely Marina, but all of them are positive that she has played no part in the tragedy.  Chase and the others find themselves working against time and against the cascading tide of events to prove her innocence before she faces a terrible fate.

Yes, there are a few sweetish sort of romantic spots in this book, but seriously, to her credit unlike many authors I've read, this one keeps them to a minimum; no bodice ripping here.  The story focuses way more on the crime, on the characters, on London itself, and then there's the issue of slavery.  Despite  having never read any of the books in the series that come before this one, I became quite attached to the characters in this book -- all of them flawed with sad or unique circumstances to overcome, making me wish I'd read the other novels.  My personal favorite: Marina Garrod, whose Jamaican roots  come back to haunt her, who had been brought to London by her father to give her a good life in a free country and to be raised among other young women of her class and status. She reminded me so much of another woman I'd read about from the same sort of circumstances,  the very real  Dido Belle, who had much the same sort of experience in her time. Despite the fact that the slave trade in the British colonies had been officially abolished in 1807, slavery still existed there, and there's a wonderful scene in this book that brings home  how some of the products (in this case, sugar) used in the Garrod household continued to be slave produced.  Then there's the Gothic aspect of this book -- I could tell by reading that the author absolutely must be a huge fan of the genre, especially toward the end, when it reminded me so very much of events in Wilkie Collins' Woman in White.  I couldn't help myself -- my heart was pounding hoping the heroine would be rescued in time, just as I do when I'm engaged in any Gothic novel. There's also the incorporation of the exotic -- obeah -- that I just loved.   I want to say that some of the writing also brought back mental flashes of old books my mom used to read and had laying around the house by Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt, stuff I just devoured as a preteen kid. That was a happy memory -- thanks!

It may be a long while before I read something like this again, but I had a great time with this book. And, as it turned out, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

*Detour, by Martin M. Goldsmith

Black Curtain Press, 2013
(originally published 1939)
145 pp


" the lions and the spiders and the snakes, the female human is more vicious than the male..."
                                             -- (103)

Toward the end of this book we find the main character musing  about how great things would be if "our lives could be arranged like a movie plot," and how MGM does a "much better job of running humanity than God." As he says, "Things are plotted in straight lines," and
"There are never any unexpected happenings which change everything about the hero but his underwear." 
In this book, though, Alex Roth finds his life turned upside down precisely due to a number of "unexpected happenings" that detour him away from his dream of a decent life with the woman he loves.  Detour is a compelling, dark novel and the film based on this book is also really good, considering that it was made on a shoestring budget and took only a few days to make.

Briefly, Alex Roth is thumbing his way across the US from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his singer girlfriend Sue Harvey. Although Roth had worked hard training to be a classical violinist, he ends up instead in a club in New York city playing with a band.  That gig ended one night when a customer decided to make a pass at Sue and decided to "pat her fanny," causing Alex to see red. It also caused him to lose his job. A month later, just days before Sue and Alex had planned to be married, Sue decides to hotfoot it to Hollywood to take her chances.  Alex, down to his last fourteen dollars, is sort of stuck there, but eventually he too decides to head west to see Sue and to try his own luck in the movies, a la "Heifetz or Kreisler."  So off he goes, and makes it as far as Texas before the money runs out. There he does a "Jean Valjean," stealing food and in turn ends up in jail for a month.  Back on the road once more, Alex is somewhere on Highway 70 in New Mexico when a car stops to pick him up, and it's then that, as he informs us, we have "reached the part where all the mess begins."

And oh, what a mess it is!  Alex's immediate problem is bad enough and great fodder for noir novels, but once he reaches California (alone, but I won't say why), things spiral out of control when he runs into one of noir fiction's most evil femme fatales, Vera.  In one of the best lines in this novel, Alex describes her as being  "like a frozen stick of dynamite; you never knew when she was going to blow," a perfectly, spot-on accurate characterization.   She knows something that puts Alex completely in her power, and the reader spends quite a bit of time in Vera's dark, claustrophobic existence.   But Alex's story is only part of this novel, since Sue's story takes up part of this book as well, the two narratives alternating throughout the book.   Considering how much Alex loves her,  Sue's story, especially her feelings toward Alex,  comes as quite a surprise -- and also allows her to take on the role of femme fatale in her own right. Sue even admits it, noting that she's
"recognized myself to be a weapon, every bit as formidable as a knife or a gun, and liable to do untold damage unless kept in check." 
Between Sue and Vera, the darkness and the snares close in quickly around the men in their lives and just doesn't let up.  Not for one minute.

So we have deadly women, life's plans taking a huge detour for pretty much all of the main characters in this novel, and an overwhelming fatalistic atmosphere all combining here to make for an incredible book, which in my opinion definitely falls squarely into the noir camp.  As I'm fond of saying, it's one of those books that reminds me of watching a train wreck, where you just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something terrible's going to happen, but you just can't take your eyes away from what's coming. Considering the short length of this story, it grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go. I have to say though, that in real life,  the odds would have to be pretty much astronomical in terms of Vera's first meeting with Alex and the threat she's holding over Alex's head, but then again, coincidence, fate, whatever you call it,  is a huge part of the story, I think in this novel.  I think Alex's film counterpart says it best when he notes that "That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you." 

Tom Neal, Ann Savage in the 1945 movie

And now to the film, which I really enjoyed, by the way. Reviews are available everywhere you turn, so I won't go into it, except to say that between book and movie, Sue's narrative somehow doesn't make it onto film, leaving the renamed Alex (now Al Roberts) and Vera in the main frame.  For movie purposes, though,  it works and works well.  The opening sequence is just dynamite -- with Al in a roadside diner somewhere looking scraggy as they come and holding on to his cup of coffee.  The music starts on the juke box and it just happens to have been Al & Sue's song, which sends Al deep into his memory, letting us know exactly how he's come to be where and who he is at the moment. And it just gets better from there. I know there's another later version, but I think I'm going to give it a miss since this one was just so good.

Once again a yes/yes book/movie. More importantly though, I'm having so much fun with this page-to-screen thing -- reading books and watching movies I might not have picked up otherwise.  So it's a win/win for me too.  And while I get that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for old novels from seventy-plus years ago, I just love this stuff, and above all I've been noticing that there are some things that come down from generation to generation without much change.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

a little belladonna with your bovril broth? The Deadly Dowager, by Edwin Greenwood

Valancourt Books, 2016
(originally published 1934)
233 pp


"There's only one thing that matters, ... and that is the Family."

So sayeth the grande dame Arabella, Lady Engleton of the de Birketts, a family whose "fortune -- or misfortune" came into being with a reward from none other than Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII.  Flash forward a few centuries, and meet the entire de Birkett clan, and do it quickly before something terrible happens to them.

Arabella, now 83,  has for the last 65 years of her life devoted her energies to restoring the de Birkett's fallen fortunes, with very little in the way of results.  She's pinned her hopes on her young grandson Henry, age 20, whose mother died when he was three, and who's been in Arabella's care ever since.  Her goal is to
"somehow set the Family on its feet again, enable Henry to wear his coronet in the House of Lords and look his peers in the eye without the stigma of poverty hanging round his head like some disreputable halo."
So, as the novel opens, Arabella seems to have hit on a marvelous scheme for ensuring that Henry will be well provided for and that the de Birketts will continue to maintain their place among their noble peers.  She has called a "Family conclave," bringing anyone connected by blood or marriage (however tenuous that connection may be in some cases) together at their home in Mount Street, London.  Her idea: to insure all of their lives up to twenty thousand pounds. That way, when the policies mature, young Lord Henry should find himself with well over forty thousand pounds to "sustain his position in the world and his dignity in the House of Lords."  God help anyone who doesn't agree, like poor old Uncle Alfred, who is "leaving his little bit to charities," because death has a funny way of making an appearance -- along with a new will leaving it all to Henry.    And the body count begins to rise, slowly but surely. I mean, seriously -- they all should have figured out that this was just a very bad idea.

One would think that the "deadly dowager" would be happy at this juncture, but no, that's not quite all that is up her sleeve.  While young Henry's fortune is being planned (and, if you'll pardon me,  executed), Arabella has other plans for her young grandson that involve marrying into a wealthy family to better secure the de Birkett position and lineage. The problem is that Henry's already in love with Dora, and well, to the Lady Engleton, his choice is simply not acceptable.

So now people may be thinking "oh great. You've just wrecked the whole plot, the whole storyline, the whole book, in fact," but the truth is that I  haven't given away any more than the back-jacket blurb reveals. The fun is actually in waiting to see what our dear, deadly Arabella is going to do next, as well as the truly ingenious characters in her orbit.   As Mark Valentine has written in his introduction to this novel,
 "Greenwood took care to provide an (as it were) full-bodied supporting cast" 
aside from "the book's eponymous assassin," and the resulting ensemble makes for great fun, as does the lovely satire on class in 1930s England.  There is also budding romance here which normally I don't care for, but here it works and is another reason for all of the out-loud chuckles coming from me that kept coming the entire time I was reading this book.  There is a great one liner from the New York Times contemporary review of this novel that pretty well sums it all up:
"Quite the jolliest crime story that has come our way in many moons."
I know murder isn't supposed to be funny, but well, sometimes it's just refreshing that way.

While the 1930s may not be everyone's favorite period for crime reading, The Deadly Dowager was just plain absolutely delightful -- farcical, yes, in its own way, but I defy anyone to read this and not laugh at some point during this novel. Crime light, indeed -- a perfect summer read to toss in the beach bag, lay back and totally enjoy.  I just loved it.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

*" I was born lonely, I guess" -- Dark Passage, by David Goodis

Prion Books, 1999 (part of the Film Ink series)
(originally published 1946)
244 pp

"There's no such thing as courage... There's only fear. A fear of getting hurt and a fear of dying." 

David Goodis has been called "the poet of the losers," and after having read two of his novels now, it seems an appropriate moniker.  Dark Passage is his second novel, after Retreat From Oblivion (1939), followed by another sixteen before his death in 1967.  Sadly, by then, his novels (according to Andrew Nette at the LA Review of Books,)  were out of print in the US, and he had been "almost completely forgotten" among American readers.  Luckily,  sometime back in the 1980s, Vintage Black Lizard Crime started republishing his work, making his books widely available once more to the American reading public.  

The novel begins with one of the best opening paragraphs ever:
"It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin."
But going to San Quentin wasn't Vincent Parry's only tough break in life.  He had been an orphan, and having been rejected by his only relative in Arizona, his hunger finally led him to rob a general store. By fifteen he was doing time at a reform school where he'd been beaten by a guard; after trying to defend himself, Parry found himself doing a stint in solitary.  His marriage to his wife Gert was also less than perfect, starting with his honeymoon and growing worse over the sixteen months they'd been together.  Now she's dead, he's been wrongfully convicted of her murder, and yet even as he went through the prison gates he was thinking that
 "he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble."
But the meager amount of happiness he's managed to carve out for himself in prison is wrecked when history repeats itself and he's once again beaten by a brutal guard and must defend himself.  Facing the fact that prison "was going to be a horrible life," Parry plans and executes a daring escape, and it's at this juncture where the story really begins -- as fate intervenes in the form of young Irene Janney, who, for her own reasons,  had followed his trial and is now willing to go to great risk helping him out after his escape.  What follows is some of the darkest noir ever written, where despite Parry's chance at a new life, the tough breaks continue to follow him.

Parry wants very much to clear his name, and in his isolated and lonely life he has a sincere and desperate need to find someone in whom he can trust. But Parry's world is one where betrayal has become part and parcel of who he is, and Goodis brings this out so beautifully when he's inside of Parry's head, revealing the paranoia that threatens to consume him. Dark Passage is a masterful and solid piece of writing, a book where plot is definitely secondary to Goodis' skill as an author. I could go on and on and on about this book but well, on to the next.

So, now to the film, and I have to say that this is one of the few adaptations of a novel I've read that I actually enjoyed. It's done so skillfully and so very cleverly from the beginning, where we don't see Vincent Parry's face but rather only the faces of the people talking to him, so it's all from his perspective, a technique I've learned since that is known as a subjective point of view.  This approach only changes after Vincent has plastic surgery; one of the masterstrokes of this film are the occasional  glimpses we get of Vince Parry's face in the newspaper which, of course, is not Humphrey Bogart's. While some people have criticized this approach, personally, I thought it was a good way to do it; I found it quite innovative. Then again, I knew the story so I totally understood the decision to it that way. Someone walking into it without knowing what's coming might feel differently, but hey - to each his/her own. I will say that it threw me off for about thirty seconds before I did the inner "ah."  With a few differences, the movie adheres to the novel quite nicely for the most part, although for sure it lacks Goodis' great touch of Parry's inner monologues brought on by his paranoia, something that would definitely be tough to get across on a screen.  It also doesn't really get into the backstory of Madge (played by Agnes Moorehead), who is a very important character here and whose part in Parry's story should have got more airtime.  But overall, I was pretty much glued to the movie. Anyone reading any of my previous *-marked page-to-screen posts will know that most adaptations I've watched just haven't gone over well for me, but this one certainly did.  It also reminded me of how much I love watching Lauren Bacall.

Bottom line: both book and movie are definite don't-miss material. Loved the novel, liked the movie and would seriously recommend both.

Friday, May 20, 2016

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

Bruin Books, 2010
203 pp



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

Mysterious Press, 2016
315 pp


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. 

Valancourt Books, 2015
187 pp

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.

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.