Saturday, May 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2019

"There the monster lies..." Master of the Day of Judgment, by Leo Perutz

Arcade Publishing, 1975
originally published as Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages, 1921
translation by Eric Mosbacher
154 pp

"Human vileness remains, and that's the most lethal of all lethal weapons."

I am a bit hesitant in terms of posting  about this book as a crime novel -- it actually sort of defies genre when all is said and done, moving into its own literary territory.  While there are a number of mysteries to be found here,  the author has something quite different in mind as the central focus of this story.   Master of the Day of Judgment is most brilliantly constructed, so much so that as that last page is turned,  you may more than likely find your sense of what is real and what is not being thrown completely off kilter, causing you to go back to the beginning and to read it through a second time.  And when you've finished it that second time, the nature of the title comes into focus more clearly as it dawns on you what the author meant here.

It is at the beginning, the "Foreword instead of a Postscript" that we are introduced to our narrator.  Gottfried Adalbert Baron von Yosch explains that he has just finished chronicling the "whole sequence of tragic events" which had occurred over a certain five-day period in September, 1909, "everything that I wanted to forget and cannot."   He makes a point of revealing that as he wrote, his memory had "distinctly and vividly preserved a mass of detail"  including "trivial" bits of conversation, what was going through his mind at the time, and "minor events of the day." He especially remembers what arrived in the mail on 26 September, a day that "stands out clearly" in his mind for reasons we don't yet know, including  things he did the rest of the day, what was in the newspapers, etc.;  everything is so minutely described so that there should not even the slightest hint of doubt that he is trustworthy in the account that is about to unfold.   However,  there's a bit of a hiccup in that vivid memory of his, as he notes that he thought that things had occurred over a period of "several weeks" and then later, he finds himself thinking that it was "inexplicable" that he has moved one particular event to mid October.   Cue red flag, raised eyebrow. 

One of the Baron's remembrances of September 26th is a "brief item in small type" about the failure of a bank; while he'd been able to get his money out in time, he realizes that he might have warned his acquaintance actor Eugen Bischoff that he should do the same, but had instead kept silent.  He offers his reasons for keeping mum, adding "Why meddle in other people's affairs?" but again the eyebrow is raised wondering what there is between these two men that caused him not to offer a friendly word of advice.  At this point, in my mind, Baron von Yosch himself has become the first mystery to be solved here, but then he slowly begins to shift the focus away from himself by offering a prelude as to what is about to be unfolded about the "sinister and tragic" five days that began on the 26th.  It seems that he and others ("we"),  found themselves involved in
 "the pursuit of of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries"
by following a "trail of blood" leading to the opening of a "gateway to the past."  Even more cryptically, he mentions "the book," and  "that fearful trumpet red" which he hopes that "no human being ever again set eyes on." 

1930 first American edition, from Abe Books

From there, the Baron's account launches into the start of those sinister events, beginning with  a small friendly musical concert among friends at the home of Eugen Bischoff,  and ending in the actor's death.  [Just as an aside, this technically isn't a spoiler since it's in the blurb on the back cover of the novel.]     The Baron is invited to play his violin there by a mutual friend of both, Dr. Eduard Ritter von Gorski, who mentions that Bischoff has no idea that the bank has gone under and that he's lost everything, and no one is telling him about it because Bischoff has enough on his plate at the moment without knowing of his financial ruin.  But once there among his friends Bischoff, his wife Dina, her brother Felix and a newcomer named Solgrub, the Baron casually asks Bischoff if he's seen the morning paper, which he knew they'd hidden from him, drawing disgust from the others at the gathering.   A bit later, Bischoff leaves their company; the Baron goes out for a walk in the garden where he meets up with Dina on his way back, and as they're talking,  the entire household hears Bischoff scream the Baron's name.  As they're wondering what's happening, the sound of two gunshots follows immediately afterward; von Yosch leaves Dina and makes his way to the garden pavilion where he discovers that Bischoff has been shot.  By now, everyone except Dina has arrived, in time to see the dying man throw the Baron a "grimace of blazing hatred."    Suspicion immediately falls on the Baron due to a "silent witness" found at the scene; although clearly a suicide,  Felix speculates that Yosch drove him to it, a feeling shared by everyone present except the newcomer Solgrub, who believes the Baron's claims of innocence in the matter and his oath made on his honor.  He realizes that  Bischoff's suicide makes no sense and that there is something seriously wrong here; he reasons that if he can come to understand exactly why the actor took his own life, then he may be able to prove that the Baron was not behind it and sets out to investigate.  The trouble is that the Baron doesn't have much time since Felix holds the threat of exposure over his head, so he decides to do some investigating on his own.

All of the above is just the beginning of  more yet to come that will move this story from the mystery behind Bischoff's suicide  into another realm entirely, as the Baron's narrative reveals how it is that the players move onto that "trail of blood" to find the "gateway to the past" alluded to earlier.   As the story begins to shift yet again, it becomes obvious that  Perutz hasn't quite finished with his readers -- there are even more surprises to come.

Reading this book as a conventional mystery story just isn't right.   Master of the Day of Judgment  also appears on Karl Edward Wagner's list of thirteen best non-supernatural horror novels, but it's not exactly horror story either.  In fact, I'm finding it a bit difficult to attach a genre label to it since, as the blurb notes, it blends "suspense and the fantastic," but in the long run becomes something completely different.   It's one of those book that tends to mess with your head and delightedly so; I love challenging, reality-questioning novels like this one. Not for everyone, for sure, but I had a great time with this story.   Then again, I also loved Perutz's Saint Peter's Snow (which is even more hallucinatory and mind-boggling than this one) so I'm not surprised.    

Thursday, April 4, 2019

1921, continued: The Dark Geraldine, by John Alexander Ferguson

Well, just crap.  The only photo I can find of the original dust jacket cover of this book has the bookseller's card in the picture at the bottom right hand corner.  Otherwise, once again, I have only the bland, very matter-of-fact cover from Kessinger Publishing's Legacy Reprints.   I mean, if you can reprint an entire book it shouldn't be that much trouble to give it a decent cover. 

Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints, 2010
originally published 1921 by John Lane
308 pp

Here's the photo of the original dustjacket:

from AbeBooks

and, at $200 plus $21 for shipping, it's no small wonder that I ended up with more or less generic cover  version.  It really doesn't matter in the long run, since a) I'm not a collector and b) the text is the same.

John Alexander Ferguson (1871 - 1952) was born in Perthshire, Scotland.  I came across a reference that took me to Google books and Ferguson's Gang: The Maidens Behind the Masks by Anna North-Hutton (2013) that has some pretty valuable information about the author.  Thanks to the magic of kindle unlimited, I went to Amazon and downloaded it.  [And pardon the tangent, because that's how my brain works, but as a sort of relevant aside, there's another book I downloaded called Ferguson's Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters, in which I discovered that the "maidens behind the masks" were a group of women concerned with the destruction of rural Britain  (especially the Lake District) and took action, so I'll look forward to seeing Ferguson's actual connection with this ladies.]  Anyway, according to Anna North-Hutton, Ferguson was a member of the Scottish clergy, and it was during his time as Chaplain at Eversley School in Folkestone that he began writing his books.  He was also a playwright and editor of "several books of one act plays" published by Penguin (88).   In 1939 he left the school and moved into Duimarle Castle near Culross, where Macbeth killed his wife and child.  Later, in 1946 he went back to Hampshire into a house he had been renting to someone else; he died in December of 1952.

Ferguson wrote a number of mystery stories, most of them featuring private detective Francis MacNab (noted by Haycraft as the author's "likeable Scotsman").  I have four MacNab books on the shelf, Death Comes to Perigord (1931),  Night in Glengyle (1933) The Grouse Moor Murder (1934), all  reprints (the last two came from Coachwhip), and a 1928 Dodd edition of The Man in the Dark, all sitting here unread.   I would love to have a copy of Murder on the Marsh but at over a grand, that's not happening.  Anyway, after I'd finished The Dark Geraldine,  I was wondering if the "McNab" of this story was the same as the MacNab of his other books, so I turned to Hubin for answers.  His Ferguson entry for The Dark Geraldine shows that he isn't quite sure if  they're the same, with a brief note in that reads
"FM (A different character than in the other FM books?")
Here he is a constable who helps out the two main characters here and there, getting them out of a major tight spot in one case.

The action in The Dark Geraldine occurs in the small, "somewhat of a backwater" village of Gart, "lying tucked away in a fold of the West Perthshire hills."  The story is narrated by Peter Graham, a "recently qualified" lawyer working for attorney Robert Lawson.  As we're told, he remembers very clearly the events of the day that this story begins, because it was the last time he saw Lawson's client Colonel Duncan before he died.  As the Colonel was leaving, something strange happens -- a man walks in needing money and sells the Colonel a "curious metal figure," an "idol" he says is from Mexico.   No one in the office makes too much of this transaction, and the Colonel goes on his way. However, "two nights and a day later," it seems that the Colonel's body had been found in a ditch very close to his house, with a broken leg and a head wound made by a stone.  Unable to get help, he died there from exposure.  Lawson's entire demeanor changes  after he hears the news, and later, after the office is broken into, his anxiety rises while his mental state goes quickly downward.   He invites Peter to dinner one evening saying that he has something to show him, and "a queer tale" to tell, but later, before Peter could even get his hat on, he was brought unexpected tidings of Lawson's death.    Lawson's sister lets Peter know that her brother had recently become like a "hunted man," a "silly notion" according to Peter's co-worker Allan Macgregor, a sentiment with which Peter agrees -- that is until he receives a strange letter through the office mail box entitled "The Dark Geraldine," directing him to place "it" at a certain place at a  certain day and time.  Peter has absolutely no clue what the message means, nor what the "Dark Geraldine" might be.

novel frontispiece, my photo

The Dark Geraldine is actually quite a fine thriller, and tonewise, it reminded me a lot of the early spy novels written by John Buchan.   The story takes off as Peter and Macgregor realize that the deaths of the Colonel and Lawson may not have been random events, and as they go in search of  "the thing called the Dark Geraldine,"  for which someone is obviously "ready to shed any man's blood."  In the meantime they encounter a host of strange characters, none of whom Peter is willing to trust with his life.

While it may seem a little confusing at times, especially coming down to the ending, I found it to be well written, well plotted and intelligent; careful readers who make their way slowly will find  connections throughout the story.  Like the main characters, I had my own suspicions about the trustworthiness of the various characters who make their way into Peter and Allan's orbit, making the story not only a good thriller, but along with the nature of the Dark Geraldine itself,  a good mystery as well.  The novel also has its more lighthearted moments so that you get a break from the constant tension.  I could say more but anything else coming from me would likely give away too much, so we'll leave it there.

Crappy cover or no, it's what's inside that counts, and this is a good one.  Now I really need to get busy reading more of Ferguson's books, so I'd say there's a high probability I'll be talking more about them later.  Recommended.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

going back to what I love reading and jumping right into the '20s: The Unclaimed Letter by Anna McClure Sholl

I have been the queen of sporadic posting lately due to stuff at home but hopefully I can get on with journaling my crime reading at the usual pace once again.

It's no secret that I love reading old books, especially if they're written by authors who have tended to fade into obscurity.  Anna McClure Sholl is one of these; in fact, she's so obscure that trying to find any information about her other than her birth and death dates (1868 - 1956) is incredibly difficult.  I know she was a painter as well as an author, that she was born in Pennsylvania and attended Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1895.   There is a brief blurb about her at Wikisource: "Woman's Who's Who of America, 1914-1915 which reads as follows:

"Sholl, Anna McClure, National Arts Club, NY City.  Novelist; b. Philadelphia; dau. William J. and Clara (Corson) Sholl; ed. Ogontz Coll.; special student at Cornell University.  Engaged in newspaper work and was on staff of the NY Commercial Advertiser as editorial writer, 1896-97.  Collaborated on the Charles Dudley Warner Library of the World's Best Literature, 1897-98, and other publications; contributor to the magazines.  Author: The Law of Life; The Port of Storms; The Greater Love. Clubs: Lyceum (London), National Arts (NY City). "

She also used the pseudonym Margaret Carpenter in some of her many short stories, and her work has been published in  Harper's, Munsey's and a host of other periodicals.   I did find a photo of her at the website of The Museum of the City of New York in which she is at a dinner to honor Mark Twain's 70th birthday at Delmonico's in 1905; the problem is that even though the participants are listed, I'm not quite sure which woman is Sholl. 

from The Museum of the City of New York

From there, she remains a mystery to me; if anyone has any info he/she would care to share, I would be appreciative.    

One book not mentioned in the above "Who's Who" blurb is her The Unclaimed Letter, published in 1921.

My edition is from Forgotten Books (2018, 9781527638426), with yet another unexciting cover, but I will say that a) the spines all look great together on the shelves and b) I appreciate that Forgotten Books keeps publishing these old tomes.  (For those of you who don't do physical books, The Unclaimed Letter  is also available online for free.) The publication info page offers two copyrights, one from Crowell Publishing Company and one from Dorrance and Company.  [As an interesting aside, Crowell Publishing Company was incorporated in 1920, changing its name in 1939 to Crowell-Collier.  In 1965 it changed again to Crowell, Collier & Macmillan, ultimately becoming the Macmillan Publishers we all know today. ]

In a story where whodunit blends with pulpy revenge tale, Frederick Dewitt has been ordered to take some time away "for his health," and he decides to spend it at his "old haunt" in the mountains of East Burleigh in Ulster County New York.  As we first meet Dewitt, he's striking up a conversation with the local postmistress, Miss Almira, who's been holding on to a "sinister letter"  that had arrived.  She's actually been saving it so that he would take a look at it, because it's making her nervous.  It is addressed to "the person who committed the Murder at the The old Bostwick Farm,"  which turns out to be the property of Miss Almira's uncle, Abraham Bostwick.  Uncle Abraham's been dead five years, and it's been shut up ever since his death. It's been on the market with no takers, "situation's too lonesome; ground too rocky," and it comes with a legend about a young woman who'd been killed there who continues to cry and walk the house for years.  Neither feels good about opening the letter, but  Dewitt is intrigued, and decides to check things out.   After obtaining a key to the old place and making his way there on foot, he is surprised to see the face of a woman through a window.  At first the old legend pops into his head, but she is very real, claiming to have become lost on her way to where she's actually staying, a house built some one thousand feet above the farm.  Dewitt is instantly smitten and offers to go back into the village and get a car to drive her there, but when he returns, she's gone.  Instead, he meets a man by the name of Ramah Tong, who happens to be the now-disappeared woman's Indian servant, and learns of an "accident" that had happened two days earlier, when a man by the name of Martin Carfax just happened to lean over a cliff and fell into a deep quarry.  Because the accident had happened on April 1, when Tong had gone to seek help the owner of the land containing the quarry had thought Tong was wearing some sort of costume and that he was trying to pull a fast one, and didn't bother to take a look. Dewitt organizes a rescue mission and the body is found.  Eventually a witness comes forward to reveal that it was no accident, and Dewitt finds himself investigating a murder involving his mystery woman, who turns out to be the newly-widowed Christine Carfax (whose husband died on their wedding day), and her former lover Gordon Brent, who not only swears he's innocent but that he has an alibi. As Dewitt begins nosing around, things get even stranger and the body count starts to multiply.

While I'm happy to have read this obscure book  (the more the merrier for me),  from a reader standpoint it's one of the most seriously convoluted mysteries I've ever experienced.   While it starts out as a definite whodunit, it actually has much more of that sort of vibe associated with old pulpy mysteries, where the whys of the crime go back in time.  As a whodunit, it didn't exactly work for me, but I did have fun with the clues that the author threw in that put it more into the zone of the strange, including a mysterious "brotherhood,"  "Buddhist rosary beads," sinister-looking East Indians, and the questions that crop up dealing with astral projection and  "wireless photography" in which someone's dream just might turn into a photo that becomes imprinted on other people's consciousness.  However,  as much as I love reading old pulpy mysteries, a little reining in on the author's part wouldn't have gone amiss here; while The Unclaimed Letter  had its  enjoyable moments,  I found myself mentally willing the story to move on when it started to get bogged down, which was more than a few times.  I won't even mention the flaws in the plot itself, leaving them for others to discover, but trust me, they're there, along with the element of romance.  Still, the point is to discover and read these long-forgotten books and authors, something that brings me joy in the long run, so I can't really complain too much.

The Unclaimed Letter is probably best suited for readers who, like myself, are into discovering books that have disappeared into the void of obscurity; it does require a bit of patience but the upside is that this is not your average mystery story, something I genuinely appreciate.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim

Doubleday, 2019
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
292 pp

Expect the unexpected in this book, which is anything but your standard gun-for-hire novel.

Bumping off someone in the South Korea of this book is the domain of the titular (and anonymous) plotters, those behind the scenes hiding in the shadows. Everyone who is powerful enough has access to a plotter to take care of his or her business.  Once a hit is ordered, the plotters work out how the job will be done and then hire a contractor  to do the actual dirty work; the contractor then hands off the work to an assassin.  The person making the hit has absolutely no clue as to who's commissioning him  --  he does the job, picks up his money and waits for the next assignment.    That is, of course, if he follows instructions to the letter and doesn't mess things up. If that happens, well, let's just say that it's not a good thing.

The "assassination industry"  really came into its own after the overthrow of some thirty years of military dictatorship. As we're told, unlike those previously in power,
"...the newly democratic government couldn't use the basement on Nansan to beat the crap out of loudmouthed pains in the ass.  And so in order to avoid the eyes of the people and the press, to avoid generating evidence of their own complex chain of command and execution, and to avoid any future responsibility, they started doing business on the sly with contractors.  And thus began the age of outsourcing."
The Plotters follows the story of Reseng, whose adoptive father known as Old Raccoon,  is the head of one of these assassination syndicates.  Adopted at age four, Reseng was taken to live at his father's "labyrinthine" library, aka in the industry as "the Doghouse," which was always "crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters."  While the business was going on in the background, Reseng preferred to curl up in a chair and read, having taught himself early on to read by matching the Korean alphabet to pictures in books, since Old Racoon had decided he wouldn't learn anything by going to school.    It is notable that his hero was Achilles, and also notable that from his hero he learned that no matter what, you have to protect your weak spot, an idea which carries throughout this novel.    Eventually Reseng learns the assassin trade and becomes very efficient at his job, but after years in the profession, he comes to realize that he himself might be the target of someone who wants him dead.  That's enough about plot for now.

If you're thinking that this book is just another killer-becomes-prey sort of thing, so why read it, don't even go there. While there is plenty of action throughout the story that will make thriller readers happy, the main focus is really on Reseng, whose inner reflections offer more of a philosophical side to the man.  I only got through the first chapter and realized that this was no ordinary thriller, even as he has his victim in the crosshairs. As he watches the elderly man deep in the mountain woods, talking to his plants, playing with his dog, he stops for a moment to ask himself whether or not to pull the trigger, thinking about how once the job is done he might be able to "change his a pizza shop across from a high school, or sell cotton candy in the park."   But he doesn't shoot because "Now's not the right time."  He wasn't sure why it wasn't the right time, only that "there was a right time for everything,"  but this wasn't it.  Not only does he not pull the trigger, but he is actually invited inside by his victim to warm himself by the fire, shares a meal and listens to the old man's story about his grandfather before they both fell asleep.  It was this very scene that had me realizing that I had something very different in my hand, with worries about it being your standard hit man story all dissolved before I even got to the second chapter, and many more surprises were in store.

Aside from Reseng, there are a host of other unique characters all beset with very human problems, including a fellow assassin who didn't follow the plot, a quirky crematorium operator, a cross-eyed librarian, and a  woman who advocates for assassination in cases of abuse.  It's the kind of book where I was laughing one moment, horrified the next, but when all is said and done, the author remains primarily in the inner life of the main character.   It is, in fact, the people in this book who make it successful and to his great credit, the author rises well above mere genre (although some of the trappings are definitely there) to make this a very human story. And while not perfect (it starts to read like a movie in the last half or so) it is also one of the most literary crime thrillers I've read, complete with history and social issues, and despite its faults, it is nicely written.   I'd seriously read anything this author has written or will write in the future.

There are some great reviews out there with much more to say than I have here (listed below), but seriously, I've been up all night with no sleep so it's amazing I'm still coherent at the moment.  I will say that I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb because they gave away way more than I wanted to know before I'd even started the book, which was seriously disappointing.   Bottom line: it's a definite yes, and this is coming from someone who likely would not pick up a novel about a hit man by choice.   This one I'm recommending wholeheartedly.

from Criminal Element
from The Guardian
from Korean Literature Now

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

* A 1919 crime trio: Lee Thayer, Bernard Capes, and Isabel Ostrander

The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor, by Lee Thayer
The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes
Ashes to Ashes, by Isabel Ostrander

I am a very patient reader, but I must say that more than once while reading this crime/mystery trio of novels I felt like my tolerance was being tested.  Posted in order of annoyance (most to least), the main culprit here was Lee Thayer, whose book The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor was actually a bit of a trial to get through.  

Forgotten Books, 2012
393 pp

My version is from Forgotten Books, one of my go-to place for reprints, but this book was originally published by The Century Company in New York.  In case anyone decides they're brave enough to read this novel, there are also e-versions available at  

original Century edition, 1919, image from AbeBooks
I picked up this book because of my interest in more obscure women mystery writers of yesteryear.  Lee Thayer, full name Emma Redington Lee Thayer (1874-1973)  isn't exactly a household word in the genre, although she wrote some sixty books between 1919 and 1966.    The Thirteenth Floor is the first in her series featuring Detective Peter Clancy, who in this novel is but a mere teen,  but who will go on to solve several mysteries over the long span of his career.  Francis M. Nevins,  in Pronzini and Muller's  1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction  places him in fifty-nine out of Thayer's sixty books (780).   

The story focuses on the death of an attorney by the name of James Randolph Stone, whose death by stabbing occurs immediately after he has two of his employees witness the signing of his will.  The timing of the death and the fact that nobody could possibly have gotten into Stone's Manhattan office and fled (or hid him or herself)  in the scant amount of time before the discovery of his body lands this story in the impossible-crime zone.  When the will turns up missing, it seems that there are several people who are interested in retrieving it, and will (quite literally) stop at nothing to get it.  There is a police detective, and he latches onto the wrong person,  but detection isn't the actual focus here, as Thayer examines motives, character, and the past among her people as she takes us through the story to get to the answer of who killed Stone.  Now, that sounds pretty cut and dried, in typical whodunit fashion, but as it turns out, Thayer decided to take the longest way possible to get to that point, and in the meantime interjects romance, much melodrama, self-sacrificing (aka lying to protect someone else),  and memory musing to the tune of several pages that could have completely been left out or at least edited down to a few sentences to convey her point.  As far as the core mystery of this novel is concerned it was pretty good, and I really did want to know who killed old James Randolph Stone, but just as we're heading to the finish line, the author does something undeniably unforgivable in the form of what I'm sure was meant to be a last-minute showstopper.  Gah! I won't give it away but seriously -- this was beyond frustrating after putting up with all that came before. 

One more thing,  and that's  Nevins' warning in 1001 Midnights that 
"Thayer's novels move the speed of an arthritic snail trying to cross a piece of flypaper."
I couldn't have said it better.

 I'm happy to have read it, and to have discovered yet another more obscure woman author,  but unless I am running short on books someday, I'm not too sure I will be picking up another book by this author in the future.   Reader beware. Even my saintlike reading patience was not enough here.


Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2015
204 pp

Moving on to book two, which was much less frustrating and had a crazy twist that I didn't see coming, is The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes.  I know Capes as a writer of horror/pulpy-ish fiction but not as an author of mystery/crime fiction. Not only was this Capes' first mystery novel, but it was also the first in Collins' Detective Club series, many of which have been reprinted along with their great covers

A country house in Hampshire is the scene for this story, although it actually begins in France, where two of the main characters, Vivian Bickerdike and the Baron LeSage, meet for the first time at a sidewalk cafe in the Place du Palais Royal.  Although the Baron is helpful,  Bickerdike isn't quite sure about him, noticing that the Baron
"could not, or would not, answer a direct question directly; he seemed to love secrecy and evasion for the own sake, and for the opportunity they gave him for springing some valueless surprises on the unsuspecting."
Their paths will cross again as they find themselves on the same train heading for the same destination, Wildshott, the Hampshire country home of Sir Calvin Kennett, who lives there with his son Hugo (a friend of Bickerdike) and his daughter Audrey.  Hugo (also called Hugh) is in a strange state of mind -- Bickerdike senses there's something not quite right with his friend, and Hugo promises to tell all after the upcoming shooting party.  But there are more important things that will take precedence first, since during the shooting the young maid Annie Evans is shot, and it turns out not to have been an accident but rather a solid case of murder.    The police are called and a certain  Sergeant Ridgway ("a clever dog!") makes his way to the scene, where he immediately latches on to the men in the house as possible suspects. While Ridgway investigates, Bickerdike does some clandestine sleuthing, looking both at the case and at the Baron, whom he does not particularly trust and certainly dislikes.   After the coroner's inquest, a suspect is arrested, imprisoned and sent to trial, which should have been the end of things, but the Baron, it seems, has been doing some investigating of his own.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is definitely best read by people who are true-blue fans of British murder mysteries, especially those set in an English country home.  Frankly, it's a bit of a rough go at times,   because it has a tendency to be a slow-moving, overly-written and wordy story.  It has its moments, especially during the trial, but for the most part it can be a bit of a slog, if you're not used to this sort of thing. The ending, however, was a complete surprise that I never saw coming (and most ingenious, I must say); on the other hand there is absolutely no clue leading up to what is coming down the pike since the Baron is a detective figure who holds his cards quite close to his chest --  we really don't know until the very end exactly how  he put two and two together to actually solve the case. It's sort of unfair, really, and when Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder said of this book that Capes "infringed" on the rules governing detective stories, I can see why.  All in all it was the ending that made it an okay read for me.


Forgotten Books, 2017
333 pp
Last, but not least (and among the three the one I enjoyed the most) is Isabel Ostrander's (1883-1924)  Ashes to Ashes.  This may sound weird, but I first heard of Isabel Ostrander a few years back while reading a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.  There's a scene where Lord Peter is looking over some bookshelves in a murder suspect's studio, and after discovering R.Austin Freeman among the lot also finds
"Through the Wall -- that's a good 'tec story, Charles -- all about the third degree -- Isabel Ostrander --..." (Harper Paperbacks, 1995, 196)
I have this habit of writing down book titles and authors found in books for later perusal, and the rest is history.  Anyway, Ashes to Ashes is neither your average crime story of the time nor  a whodunit.  We already know who the killer is, an egotistical, "impulsive" and not-so-clever man of the country club set by the name of Norman Storm. 

The impetuous Storm has squandered away the better part of almost four hundred grand over the last decade in bad investments and speculation, and now his New York City attorney has just informed him he's "reached the bottom of the basket."   As the fuming Norman is leaving his lawyer's office, he sees his wife Leila coming out of a downtown office building.  Later, at home he asks her about it, and she denies having been there, claiming instead to have gone to lunch with a friend.   As little things begin to build up (an overheard telephone call, an envelope with the name of the building where he'd seen her in the city), he comes to believe that Leila has been unfaithful, and during a confrontation, picks up a golf club and beats her to death. An ungrieving Norman knows that if caught he'll face the death penalty, but he's more worried about the publicity and disgrace.  After ensuring that Leila's death will be ruled accidental (you can actually see the gears grinding in this man's head as he sets up his elaborate plan), he congratulates himself on winning a "supreme battle of wits, his against the rest," including his friends, who, not aware of what he's done and to Norman's dismay, will continue to stand by him.   After Norman Storm learns the truth about his wife's supposed infidelity, he finds that he has "descended to the nethermost depths," but trust me, he hasn't even started his descent as events will ultimately prove.

Smug, superior, rash -- these are just three milder words that describe Norman.  He believes himself to be
 "immune, invincible! He could "commit any crime on the calendar and get away with it! There wasn't a living soul clever enough to hunt him down! He was the greatest murderer of the age, the cleverest man in the world!"
but in reality he is weighed down by the "invisible, intangible" bonds from which he struggles to free himself;  he's also a "prisoner in these chains of his own forging."  Normally I can squeeze out some sympathy for someone like Norman, but not in this case.   There is no room for it here, and I don't know about anyone else who's read this novel, but based on his personality alone (never mind his horrific deeds), I couldn't wait for him to get cut down to size.

 Ashes to Ashes worked well for me, not just because it was the least annoying of a read among these three books, but because it was so different. In this book the action is focused on the machinations of one man's mind, rather than the investigation of a crime or the quest for a solution, making it much more personally  appealing.  The writing isn't as dense as was the case with the other two, making it much more reader friendly,  although I will say she must have had a thing about exclamation points because they're everywhere.  This one I can easily recommend for readers like myself who are more into character than plot.

I think I need a modern crime read now just to clear my head.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

another round of catch up: Night Has a Thousand Eyes, by Cornell Woolrich

Pegasus Crime, 2007
originally published 1945
344 pp

(read in December)

"Don't forget, we're fighting death itself."

 Francis M. Nevins, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, notes that a fragment left behind in his papers after the author's death "explained why he wrote as he did."   Woolrich wrote that
"I was only trying to cheat death...I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me."
As early as age eleven, he began to understand that death was unavoidable, noting that he had a "trapped feeling,
like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't and it can't, and it can't."
 Nevins also reveals that Woolrich was "haunted by a sense of doom that never left him."  For me, Night Has a Thousand Eyes most keenly conveys the author's angst regarding that inevitable "darkness,"  his "sense of doom," and his attempt through his writing to "cheat death,"  given that an obsession with death and an attempt to outmaneuver fate are key elements of this story. 

There is a short stretch at the beginning where the reader has no idea what he or she is about to be plunged into, since the story begins so normally after young detective Tom Shawn finishes his shift at the homicide department:
"Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one." 
It is his time to dream, to whistle,  to look at the stars, all things he couldn't do in a bus.  His routine sets him apart from his bus-riding colleagues; it's just a "minor defect," but it's what he does.  Tonight starts out as a "night like many others,"  but as he learns all too quickly,
"Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep on doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once." 
Tom's life is about to change, and it starts with the discovery of a five-dollar bill at his feet.  The owner of the money and the purse Tom eventually finds is  Jean Reid, who is on the verge of committing suicide.  He stops her, and in an all-night diner, she relates to him a bizarre story that begins with her father's business trip to San Francisco and ends with her father in a paralyzing state of trauma stemming from fear.   From there, Tom takes it upon himself to help Jean and her father, enlisting the help of his fellow detectives in an attempt to bring down what he believes is a con man preying on the Reids.  It seems that every prediction this man has made about the Reids has come true so far, so when death on a set date is next in the cards, Mr. Reid just folds. 

original 1945 cover; from Quill and Brush

The book carries with it,  as Jonathan Latimer wrote about his hopes for the film of the same name, "a real sense of terror that these things were coming true."   Woolrich does a beautiful job of making that sense of terror palpable, and in Mr. Reid, he gives us a character who is not only petrified of his own death, but one who begins to feel that he's completely lost any control over his destiny.  Reid, a successful businessman, is obviously someone used to calling the shots and taking the reins of his business to get where he is socially and economically.    However, as each prediction becomes reality, he seems to become increasingly aware that he is no longer in control, and that whatever power he thought he had offers him nothing in the face of the fate that he believes has been mapped out for him.   Being forewarned does not mean forearmed in this case, since it brings with it "a curious sort of clammy terror," a "nightmare feeling."

There's much more going on here underneath but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

Beware -- there is nothing happy going on here; then again it's noir so that should come as no surprise.  Where this book goes is captured by  Francis Nevins in the introduction, where he  acutely describes what's found in this novel as
"the kind of waking nightmare that lies at the heart of noir..." 
in which, as each of the characters in this book will ultimately discover,  what could be more nightmarish than the idea that there is no escape?

Recommended to serious readers of darker fiction or noir.