Friday, September 18, 2020

The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy





"...our partnership was nothing but a bungling road to the Dahlia. And in the end, she was to own the two of us completely." 


 In the Afterword section of this book, Ellroy says the following: 
"A personal story attends the Black Dahlia, both novel and film. It inextricably links me to two women savaged eleven years apart."

Those two women  are his mother  (Geneva) Jean Hilliker, who was raped and murdered by an unknown killer who then left her body in a Los Angeles roadside in 1958, and Elisabeth Short, aka "The Black Dahlia" whose body in 1947 was discovered in a lot on an LA street after having been horrifically murdered and mutilated.  Ellroy had first encountered Elisabeth Short's story at the age of eleven, after his mother's death, while reading Jack Webb's The Badge, and from there,  "Jean Hilliker and Betty Short" became "one in transmogrification." Over the years this "Jean-Betty confluence" led to the writing of The Black Dahlia, in which Ellroy, as noted in a 2006 article in Slate,   

"transformed the murky facts surrounding Short's life and death into art, the unknown 'dead white woman' becoming a tabula rasa on which the author could wrestle with his anger and affection toward his mother." 

The Black Dahlia not only lays bare Ellroy's demons, but in his version of the Black Dahlia case, it turns out that no one involved is left unscathed.  

Just briefly so as not to ruin it for potential readers,  it's 1946.  The promise of a coveted spot in LAPD's Warrants Division as well as chance to be a department hero prompts Officer  Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert to agree to a boxing match  that will hopefully result in good PR and a five-million dollar bond for the LAPD.  His opponent is Officer Lee Blanchard; together they become known (appropriately)  as Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice.   A solid partnership builds between the two men, who also become close friends as Bleichert eventually finds himself teamed with Blanchard in Warrants.  Fast forward to January 15, 1947 when the partners get info about a guy they've been trying to find and arrest.  Arriving at the place he's supposed to be, the bust gets sidelined when Bleichert looks out a window and notices a lot of police activity down below at 39th and Norton.   When they go to check it out, Bucky sees a cop "knocking back a drink in full view of a half dozen officers," and "glimpsed horror in his eyes."   It is, as he hears, "the worst crime on a woman" any of the cops have seen.  They have found the body of a young woman who had been bisected at the waist, obviously tortured and horribly mutilated, with her mouth, "cut ear to ear into a smile that leered up at you," and Bucky tells himself that he would "carry that smile" to his grave.  

The body belongs to Elisabeth Short, who will in time be dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the press.  Even though they're not working Homicide, Bleichert and Blanchard are pulled into the investigation, although it isn't too long before Bleichert wants out.  For various reasons peculiar to each of these men, the horrific death of Elisabeth Short becomes an obsession; eventually,  as Bleichert reveals in the prelude to this novel, The Dahlia "was to own the two of us completely."  Set against the backdrop of an emerging, post-WWII  Los Angeles, it is this obsession with her death and her life that Ellroy explores in this novel,  as well as the psychological and other repercussions that move from character to character.  

The Black Dahlia is book one of four in Ellroy's LA Quartet.  An excellent blend of fiction and reality, it  messed with my head, kept me awake and chilled me to the bone.  As dark and disturbing as it is, and while in my opinion it falters a bit in the reveal, it is also one of the best crime novels I've ever read, and I knew immediately that there was no way that I was not going to read the remaining three books.  More on those to come. 

After reading this one, find a place outside to let the sun shine down on you.  You'll need it.  

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Maigret, again: The Grand Banks Café and The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin

"...understand and judge not." 


I've recently been making my way through Ellroy's LA Quartet, and after finishing The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, I grabbed LA Confidential  from the shelf, opened to page one and just put it back.  I think my brain was telling me that I'd had too much for the moment and that it was time to take a break.  I knew exactly what I wanted to read -- Maigret.  These books are like reading comfort food for me.  



9780141393506
Penguin, 2014
originally published as Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas, 1931
translated by David Coward
154 pp

paperback

"If anyone asked me what the distinctive feature of this case is...I'd say it has the mark of rage on it."



It's June, which is normally vacation time for the Maigrets.  Every year they make their way to a village in Alsace, where La Madame spends her time with family "making jam and plum brandy."  There's a change of plan this year though,  as Maigret asks his wife what she thinks about making a trip and staying by the sea.  The destination he has in mind is Fécamp, a small seaside town north of Le Havre, and he tells his wife that they'll be "able to just take it easy at Fécamp as anywhere else."  While "objections were raised,"  it's a done deal: Maigret has received a letter from an old friend there asking for help for a former pupil of his, Pierre Le Clinche, who has been arrested for the murder of a ship's captain. 

Once in Fécamp, Maigret makes his way to the Grand Banks Cafe, where he finds the crew of the recently-returned Océan, whose captain had been found floating in the harbour just hours after the ship had docked.  He learns that the "evil eye" had been cast over the ship even before it had sailed -- a sailor had broken a leg while waving goodbye to his wife, the ship's boy was "washed overboard by a wave," the captain had seemingly gone mad, along with other disasters including rotting cod.  The sailors, however, are reluctant to talk to Maigret about their voyage; he is told only that it might not be a bad idea to  "chercher la femme," which, without spoiling anything here, turns out be sound advice.    It seems that other than picking up a couple of scattered clues here and there,  Maigret is stumped -- no one even remotely involved with the case, including Le Clinche,  will say anything.  The only thing he knows is that the case "has the mark of rage on it." 

The answers, when they come, are put together slowly; once again, the focus is more on the "why" of it all rather than the who, one of the key characteristics of a Maigret novel, or at least of those I've read so far.  As with all of these books, Simenon, via his detective, ventures into the often dark territory of human nature and psychology to arrive at his conclusion.  This time around the "why" is a true jaw dropper, and once the answer is revealed, the question to be asked here centers around the nature of guilt.  This one is well worth your time; don't breeze through it even though it's a scant 153 pages. 


9780141393520
Penguin, 2014
originally published as La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin, 1931
translated by Siân Reynolds
153 pp, paperback

"It's a banal case, in spite of its morbid nature and apparent complexity." 


As much as I enjoyed The Grand Banks Cafe, the better book is The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, which completely threw me off pretty much from the start for more than one reason, and goes to show that sometimes going rogue is not a bad thing.  

There's something about a crime novel set in the seedier parts of a city that appeals, and this one is no exception.  Here it's the seamier side of Liège, which in real life is Simenon's home town, where the action takes place.  A plot to rob the till after everyone leaves the club Gai-Moulin goes awry when two teens, Delfosse and Chabot, stumble over a body on the floor of the club in the darkness.  A match is lit, and they are sure the body is that of the obviously-wealthy man they referred to as "the Turk", a stranger who had come into the club earlier that night, had bought champagne, and had been entertained by the dancer Adèle.    Needless to say they're petrified and take off.  The next day, a very rattled Chabot happens to see a newspaper article about a body found in a laundry basket on the lawn of the Botanical Gardens; surprised to say the very least,  the two meet up.  It's then that they realize they're being followed, but they make their way to the Gai-Moulin, as it would be completely normal for them to be there.   Strangely they discover that everything is like it always is, but they make yet another plan which very quickly goes horribly awry.  That is really all I'm going to say about plot because really, to know any more ahead of time will completely spoil the enjoyment of reading this book, which is so very different from all of the Maigret novels preceeding this one.   

While Simenon's series novels tend to get middling ratings from many readers, he's one of my favorite crime writers ever.   When I want to read something deeply noirish, I turn to his romans durs, but when I want something a bit on the lighter side it's definitely Maigret.   With Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, he offers a plot that may be somewhat incredulous, but when it comes right down to it, I just didn't care that he wasn't exactly following the mechanics of the typical detective/police novel. In fact, using the term "typical" in describing Maigret just seems wrong.     I was much more taken with the very clever  twists in the story as well as the seedy, noir ambience Simenon paints here, down to the "crimson plush" upholstery of a banquette in the club and the "shabby peignoir" and mules worn by Adèle in her room.   And that reminds me:  don't kid yourself that Adèle, the titular dancer at the Gai-Moulin,  has only a small part to play here.  She may not show up often, but she really does take center stage.   

Only 65 more to go!  I'll get there and probably love every second of  the journey.  





Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Dolores Hitchens X 2: Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide

(read in July -- I'm so slow these days)

In this perfect pairing of perplexing puzzlers from Stark House Press published in July,  murder rattles skeletons in a number of closets, unlocking and shaking loose secrets both present and past. 

97819944520939
Stark House Press, 2020
277 pp
paperback 



"These people are all strangers."

Footsteps in the Night (1961) is a whodunit, set in a new housing development in Southern California, more specifically in the hills overlooking Pomona.  It's so new that not all of the houses have been finished, and "everything that's completed or even near it" has been sold.   It seems like an ordinary, upscale neighborhood on the outside, but as Hitchens takes us inside into the lives of some of Dellwood's residents, we discover that there is nothing ordinary about these people at all. Like most people, their secrets are normally kept behind their closed doors, but nothing stays hidden when a young teenaged girl disappears, later to turn up dead.  It also seems as if everyone has made up their minds about who did it,  so it will take a clever Sheriff's lieutenant to not only  sort through and make sense of  the scant clues, but also to weave his way through the secret lives of the Dellwood community to prevent a terrible injustice. 

This is a slow-building, suspenseful and most compelling mystery,  and I changed my mind as to the who more than once before all was revealed.  However, it's the uncovering of everyone's deepest secrets that is the big draw, as the focus here is mainly on the characters.  Some of these people you can feel sorry for, whereas for some of the others, well, let's just say they are likely not people you'd want as your friends.   As Nicholas Litchfield notes in his introduction, there's a wide range including
"... a sex fiend with a conniving, sadistic wife; a bothersome, goofy old grandfather; a middle-aged spinster with a young gigolo for a lover; a sour, short-tempered developer; and a reclusive investment banker and his melancholic, crippled son..."


1961 cover, photo from Amazon
 who "spy on each other, prying into each other's personal business," while dwelling on "their own inadequacies."    And even though there is only one murderer,  as the blurb says, "They're all guilty of something."


sadly and oops, I closed the window (accidently) on the source page for this photo, but I'd found it via ebay/PicClic. 

On to Beat Back the Tide now, which would have made a great film in its day (black and white a plus).   As in Footsteps of the Night,  this story also takes place in Southern California but further south along the coast, and opens with the arrival of young Francesca Warne, a "former schoolteacher, now a nurse," who has come to act as a sort of governess to Jamie Glazer.  The Glazer home sits at the top of a cliff, making it private "for everybody except someone on a ship at sea with a spyglass."  Glazer, a widower,  is a contractor and does very well for himself; as far as Mrs. Warne goes, what he expects from her is a "robot-like efficiency and stamina, and an unrobotlike warmth toward his son.  Just that."  But just after a week, strange incidents occur that upset the household and make Glazer rethink her presence there as he ponders the "disturbing quality about her. An aura, a miasma, of disaster. "  While he tells himself that "she did not appeal to him," he also knows he doesn't really want her to leave, realizing a "bleak solitariness of himself" that "had a kind of death in it."

 I have to say that up to this point (some thirty pages in),  I thought that this novel just  might be taking a bit of a gothic-ish sort of a turn (like those books my mom used to read by Phyllis A. Whitney years ago), but that idea was quickly let go of with the coming of the meat and potatoes of this story:  it seems that Mrs. Warne's husband had been murdered on the beach below the cliff, evidently having been shot from above.  She has come to the Glazer home to learn the truth about her husband's death, about how he was killed and by whom.   Glazer warns her about opening "old wounds," but she reaches out to him for help in solving the murder.  As he begins to look into the murder of Adam Warne, he realizes that pretty much everyone who knew him hated him, so that his killer is not going to be easy to pin down, not to mention that some people believe that the past is the past so Glazer shouldn't be making waves by stirring it all up again.

 I chose the words "perfect pairing" beginning this post on purpose -- in both there is a murder shaking loose a lot of secrets that everyone involved wants to keep hidden; in both there are shifts in points of view from character to character that add insight to respective situations and respective personalities.  In both there are also numerous possible suspects with different motives, and both books have an ending that I didn't see coming.  And oh yes -- both books were selected for the Doubleday Crime Club.    Do not miss author and editor Nicholas Litchfield's most enlightening introduction, where he concludes that these " 'skeletons in the closet' mysteries showcase the author at her very finest."

Recommended to readers of vintage crime, and to readers like myself who truly love discovering women writers not previously read.  I've already started another book from Stark House by Ruth Sawtell Wallis, but we'll save that for when it's published.


********

My very grateful thanks to the powers that be at Stark House -- you people rock. 







Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.

"... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."



Two of my favorite mystery/crime novels within the last year or so have come from Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics series.  First on the list is Dorothy Hughes' excellent Dread Journey, and now there's this one, The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.



9781613161654
Penzler Publishers, 2020
230 pp
paperback

Originally published in 1945, The Red Right Hand  begins with our narrator puzzling over a number of "baffling aspects" of the story that we are about to read, starting with how it was that he completely missed a car that had to have been
"so close that its door latches must have almost scraped me, and the pebbles shot out by its streaking tires have flicked against my ankles, and the killer's grinning face behind the wheel been within an arm's length of my own as he shot by?"
 Was there, asks Dr. Henry N. Riddle,
"something impossible about that rushing car, about its red-eyed sawed-off little driver and its dead passenger that caused me to miss it complete?" 
But the "most important" thing "in all the dark mystery of tonight,"  is the question that opens this book as he ponders
"how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme."
Sitting at the desk of a certain Professor MacComerou, he goes back in his mind to  "set the facts down," so that he can "examine the problem," thereby launching this most strange but genuinely satisfying mystery story that kept me baffled right up until the end.  It all begins in New York when  Inis St. Erme borrows a friend's Cadillac so that he and Elinor Darrie can run up to Connecticut to be married.  Not wanting to wait the mandatory three days in New York, they make their way to Danbury, where they discover that they'd have to wait five days, so there's a change in plan: they'll be moving on to Vermont to tie the knot. First though, they make a stop at a local grocery and decide to have a picnic at a quaint little place called Dead Bridegroom's Pond  recommended by the grocer.   Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker who waits in the car while Inis and Elinor go on down to the lake. But their romantic picnic is interrupted when their passenger attacks St. Erme and goes after Elinor before driving away with the car, leaving her there frightened but unhurt.  Obviously, the same can't be said for St. Erme, as we know from Riddle at the very beginning that he's been killed.    Dr. Riddle, as stated on the back-cover blurb, "discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning both his sanity and his own innocence," but he is most seriously disturbed by how he could have missed the Cadillac as he was walking on the very road from which the car emerged at the very same time that he was there. But things are going to become even more weird before we catch up with the good doctor in real time, at which point the entire bizarre plot unfolds and all is revealed.

To say any more about the plot of The Red Right Hand would be absolutely criminal.



my growing Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics shelf, appropriately shaded in a sort of noirish shadow. 


I love the originality displayed here in terms of plot and especially style.  This is not just another average mystery from the 40s, to be sure; it moves away from the norm from the get-go.  As author Joe Lansdale says in his introduction to this edition,
"The story moves back and forth in time, akin to the natural thought process, as if the whole thing were spilling out of the narrator's brain from moment to moment, and we were seeing all the in-betweens of thought."
 He also notes the "near stream-of-consciousness" style used by Rogers, and I don't think it would have had the same impact done any other way.  I've seen this book described a few times by readers as "surreal," and that's not an exaggeration -- at one point a dancer weighs in on how to solve the many riddles nested within this case:
"You need to wear a leopard skin, a chiffon nightgown, and a feather duster on your tail, and dance the beautiful dance of the corkscrew and the bottle."
Red herrings abound, so much so that I was completely baffled; there is quite a bit of repetition as well as a number of bizarre coincidences that run throughout this novel, two elements I normally detest and yet, somehow it all seems necessary here and more importantly, it works. As one of the policemen says toward the end of this book, "... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."  I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Joe Lansdale's own reading experience with this novel sort of mirrors my own when he says that at times he
"... felt as if I were seeing the world through a dark and grease-smeared window pane that would frequently turn clear and light up in spewing colors like a firework display on the Fourth of July. At the same time there was that sensation of something dark and damp creeping up behind me, a cold chill on the back on my neck."
I felt that "cold chill" more than once during my time with this book.  It is genuinely one of the most bizarre mysteries I've ever read, with a solution that I never saw coming, one that is completely and utterly satisfying, an ahhhh read to be sure.    I can honestly think of nothing negative at all to say here.

very much recommended; it should delight readers of old mysteries and readers who are looking for something out of the box in their crime fiction.


Friday, June 19, 2020

Seven Years of Darkness, by You-Jeong Jeong

9780143134244
Penguin, 2020
originally published 2011
translated by Chi-Young Kim
338 pp

paperback

For some unknown reason I chose to make this book a daytime read rather than leaving it upstairs on my nightstand, and it turns out to have been a wise decision.  Seven Years of Darkness is an absolute page turner -- had I started it at bedtime, I would have had to stay up all night to finish it. 

The life of eleven year-old Choi Sowon was changed in September, 2004, when for some reason one night his father Hyonsu opened the floodgates of the Seryong dam where he worked as head of Security.  In the prologue opening this story, Sowon describes seeing the devastation his father's act had caused, including the destruction of Seryong village where the family had lived for only two short weeks.  But it gets worse:  Hyonsu was arrested not only for what he'd done at the dam, but also for the murder of a young local girl who had been earlier been reported missing by her father.   Sowon is taken in by relatives, but finds no stability.  Someone is bound and determined to make his life a misery, taking it upon him or herself to send out copies of newspaper articles detailing Hyonsu's crimes, causing Sowon to be moved from relative to relative, and causing him to be ostracized among his peers at school.  He finally finds some measure of peace when he is taken in by Mr. Ahn, who had once worked with his father at Seryong Dam.   But Mr. Ahn has disappeared, and right after Sowon notices that he's gone he receives a package from an unidentified sender containing Ahn's "reporting notebook," a "recording watch," a USB drive, a "bundle of letters," and a scrapbook.   At the bottom of the box, he also finds a  "thick stack of paper" of which the first page was blank, but the next page  of this manuscript begins as a "prologue," set at Seryong Lake, August 2004.  As the back-cover blurb states, the contents of the package "promise to reveal the truth at last." 

I don't usually read books that are billed as thrillers, so I was taking a big chance here.  I needn't have worried -- I was hooked right away in the opening prologue, making it so I had to know what had actually happened here and the why of it all, causing pages to be turned quickly.  I was also immediately enveloped in the atmospheric mists and fog which the author uses to great effect, as well as the creepiness of a submerged village complete with yellow lane-dividing lines and nameplates on the empty houses.  She also managed to handle some pretty horrific scenes of violence without being gratituitous in the telling, which I appreciate these days.  But what I really liked was the author's focus on broken dreams that can take their toll on a person, making this not just a thriller per se but a novel that examines different factors leading up to the moment when, as the author says in her note at the end of the book, "a man ... made a single mistake that ruined his life."  The outward-rippling consequences of that moment follow throughout this story.  I will also say that by the time I'd finished the book, I was thinking that there is more than one person here who could share in the blame leading up to that moment, but I'll leave the reasons why for others to discover. 

Some of the text could have been reined in to make things a bit more taut in the telling, and the climactic scene at the end seemed a bit rushed.  However, those are minor niggles compared to the rest of this story, which kept me on edge throughout.   As the back cover says, it's "Dark, disturbing, and full of twists and turns," to which I say, what more could you possibly want? 

very much recommended.




Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Inspector Stoddard is on the case: The Man With the Dark Beard and The Crime at Tattenham Corner, by Annie Haynes

Back in April I read the first of the series by Annie Haynes featuring as her detective a certain Inspector Stoddart of the Yard.  The Man With the Dark Beard was published in 1928; the three remaining books in this series were published in 1929 and in 1930.   Book number three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929) was published posthumously, while the fourth, The Crystal Beads Murder, was completed by someone else before it was published in 1930, although Haynes had already been working on it prior to her death.  For the complete story you can read Lizzie Hayes' post about Annie Haynes on her informative blog, Promoting Crime Fiction





9781910570746
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1928
185 pp

paperback

This is is tricky book to post about,  because any minor hints past the basic murder plot and subsequent investigation will absolutely give away the show here.  As it was, I had it pretty much sussed  before page 60,  but I do believe that's because it leans way more toward Victorian sensation fiction than a typical golden age mystery, and as I am a huge fan of sensation fiction, the plot was easy to figure out.  On the other hand, it is definitely a murder mystery, one which introduces Inspector Stoddart of the Yard, who will find himself investigating two murders before all is said and done.

It seems that Dr. John Bastow has something rather heavy on his mind when he asks his friend Sir Felix Skrine the following question:
"Suppose that in the course of a man's professional career he found a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?"
 He goes on to up the curiousity ante by asking what if the "hypothetical man" had "kept silence -- at the time," leaving the criminal to go on to having "made good." What then?  Skrine answers that Bastow ought to know his "duty to the community," when they are interrupted by the ringing of Bastow's surgery bell, and they agree to meet later to talk more about Bastow's dilemma.  Unfortunately, the ringing of the bell is not the only interruption that Skrine will have to contend with, because before the two can continue their chat, Bastow is found dead in his locked office, having been shot in the head.  Enter Inspector William Stoddart from the Yard.  There are very few clues onsite, except for the fact that Bastow had been writing a letter to Skrine about their prior conversation, in which he revealed that the "proofs" were in his Chinese box, which seems to have gone missing.  Also near the corpse is a scrap of paper which reads "It was the man with the dark beard."  What is also known is that Dr. Bastow disapproved of his twenty year-old daughter Hilary's plans to marry young Basil Wilton, Bastow's assistant, who just happens to have been the last person known to have seen Bastow alive, and who just happens to have been dismissed from the doctor's service shortly before the discovery of the body.

The concerned Skrine, who is "one of the greatest -- some said the greatest -- criminal lawyers of his day," also stands in loco parentis to Hilary until she comes of age, and to her disabled brother Fee as well. He offers them a cottage near his country house, taking them both away from the city.  As their father's executor, he also means to continue Dr. Bastow's wishes against Hilary marrying Basil, and eventually makes Hilary an offer that she will struggle against yet find it's one she really can't refuse.  In the meantime, Basil has his own issues, not the least of them the fact that he's found himself a suspect in yet another murder.  As Stoddart moves into the investigation of this second unnatural death, he has no clue that time is actually running out and that it's not only Basil's fate he holds in his hands.

 While I have to be honest here and say that The Man The Dark Beard was not as good as it could have been, because of too much focus on the sensation-fiction plot.  However, giving credit to the author, she obviously spent a lot of time in plotting what  turns out to be a truly nefarious crime, as that part of the novel came face to face with the detection in the case.   I had to look at the book from that particular vantage point, otherwise what's left is an all too-easy-to-solve mystery that offers very little challenge to the reader.

That is not at all the case in the next book, The Crime at Tattenham Corner, which I did not want to stop reading once I'd started it.  Again, some nice plotting from Haynes here, but this time the



9781910570760
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1929
236 pp
paperback


actual mystery carries a lot more heft than her first Stoddart novel.  Stoddart and his "most trusted subordinate," Alfred Harbord, are called to Hughlin's Wood, "not a great many miles from Epsom," where a body has been discovered, face down in a foot of water in a ditch.  All that is known is that it is "a man of middle age" and  "evidently of the better class." It seems that the man has been shot in the head, and that a card in his pocket bears the name of a "man high in the financial world." Based on the name on the card, the monogram on the man's watch and a letter in his pocket, it seems that their dead man may be Sir John Burslem of Porthwick Square.  Burslem's valet is sent for, and on arrival, instantly makes the corrorborating identification.   The police immediately begin to wonder if perhaps his death on Derby Day has any significance, since his horse, Peep O'Day, was set to run and was odds-on the favorite for the win.  As it turns out, "an owner's death renders void all his horses' nominations and entries," leaving Peep O'Day's rival, Perlyon, set up to take the prize.  The owner of Perlyon is a Sir Charles Stanyard, who by some weird twist here, was once engaged to Burslem's widow Sophie, his second wife.   Stanyard takes the lead on the suspect list, but there is quite possibly another motive aside from the Derby.  It seems that on the night before his death, Sir John had inexplicably and quite hurriedly changed his will so that Sophie would inherit all, leaving out Sir John's daughter Pamela, "the apple of his eye," completely, followed by the strange disappearance of Ellerby, Sir John's valet, who was witness to the new will.   Before it's over, Stoddart and Harbord will find themselves deep in a convoluted web of mysteries that they must solve before they can solve the bigger mystery of Sir John's murder.

The Crime at Tattenham Corner is truly ingenious, allaying all of my fears about continuing the series after reading the previous book, and it is genuinely satisfying as well.   This time around I was almost finished before I cottoned to the author's scheme, but only a small part of it; the clever twists (and there are more than one) in the plot did not make it at all easy.  Haynes has quite a few tricks up her sleeve this time around, offering a mystery that will keep armchair detectives both  guessing and entertained.  Around the murder investigation there are strange happenings including a séance or two, hosted at her home by the very strange Mrs. Jimmy Burslem, Sir John's sister-in-law, whose husband is known to be trapising around Tibet looking at old ruins, while widow Sophie who never had a head for business, makes plans to run her husband's financial empire.  The main attraction, though, is most certainly Stoddart and his investigation.  He truly is a policeman who never gives up, no matter what it takes.  Wink wink.

So bottom line: The Man With the Dark Beard is okay, but for readers who have familiarity with the often-convoluted plots found in Victorian sensation novels, may be a bit on the easy side to figure out, while The Crime at Tattenham Corner is a definite yes, making me eager to get on to book three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? asap.

Don't miss the excellent introduction in each book by Curtis Evans, whose crime fiction knowledge knows absolutely no bounds.




Monday, May 4, 2020

The Hex Murder, by Alexander Williams

 9781616464080
Coachwhip Publications, 2017
originally published 1935
177 pp

paperback

Just last week I was once again suffering from a hefty case of insomnia, so at about 2 a.m. I came downstairs hoping to find something to watch on TV.   I was  just sort of scrolling through what's out there and I found a documentary I hadn't seen before called Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania, released in 2015.  The actual murder took place in 1928, with the killer believing that he had been cursed by the victim.  At the heart of that story is the practice of Braucherei or "powwow," something I'd never heard of before, but which I found utterly fascinating.  After I'd watched this documentary, it hit me that sometime last year I'd bought a book with a hex sign on the cover, so off I went up to the American crime shelves and there it was.

In his introduction to this book, Curtis Evans cites the Rehmeyer murder from the documentary, noting that afterwards "crime journalists, knowing ghoulish copy when they saw it," would go on to report about  any death "even vaguely connected to a powwower -- or rumored to have a connection" as  a"hex murder," which was "most unfair" to these people.  As it turns out though, in 1934 a  real "hex murder" actually occurred when a woman in Pottsville was murdered because of her killer's belief that she had "hexed him."   The author of three other detective novels (The Jinx Theatre Murder, 1933; Death Over Newark, 1933; Murder in the W.P.A., 1937),  Williams, as Evans notes,   had a "large reservoir of life experience"  from which he could draw for material for his books; the Hex Murders reflected "his own background in journalism and the publicity business," as the author "tapped into years of newspaper stoked notoriety about ethnic German folkways in the Pennsylvania Dutch country."   And indeed, while the crime itself takes place in New York City, the investigation will lead the main character into, as the back-cover blurb states, "the backwoods of Pennsylvania." 

At 477 Banks Street, an apartment building not unknown to the beat cops, a patrolman encounters a man wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers, darting this way and that while frantically waving at him, "as though a jumping-jack had gone mad and was indulging himself in an incoherent Caucasian saraband."  Following him into a fourth-floor apartment, he discovers the body of a dead woman, viciously murdered by having had her throat slit to the point of having her head nearly severed.  The police decide that the man who had alerted them to the crime, Robert Crocker, was the culprit after a bloodstained razor was found in his apartment by an eager young reporter, Peter Adams.  His pajamas were also bloody, and rather than phoning an ambulance or the police on the gruesome discovery of his girlfriend Marguerite Scholl,  he had gone out into the streets to hunt down a cop.  Things go from bad to worse when he realizes that he can't account for his time after leaving a party  in Marguerite's apartment, telling police that he'd drawn a "blank" because he was so intoxicated.  The police and the District Attorney are more than convinced of Crocker's guilt, but Adams  isn't so sure.  Worried that they're about to put an innocent man in the chair, Adams takes a leave of absence to try to find anything that might help Crocker.  He begins in Marguerite's apartment, where he discovers letters from Marguerite's mother in Erwinna, Pennsylvania.  On each letter appears this strange sign,



my photo, from page 67


which is duplicated "repeatedly" in color in the arch of the apartment's fireplace.  With the strange letters and added evidence from the beat patrolman, Adams realizes that he needs to begin his investigation in rural Pennsylvania, bringing along with him a friend of Crocker's, a young woman by the name of Houston King, who also believes that Crocker is completely innocent.  It is in Pennsylvania where this story begins to really gather steam; it is also here that Adams will find himself in the midst of the most bizarre strangeness he's probably ever encountered.

Given that the book isn't very long, it is a huge credit to Williams that he managed to not only tell a suspenseful and quickly-moving story, but he also provided the reader with a vivid cast of characters (some of them utterly unforgettable), and enough of a creepy atmosphere that makes the book difficult to put down.  I did find myself tensing up in reading how the police  treated not only the crime scene but also their suspect, not to mention the fact that circumstantial evidence alone was enough to send the poor guy to the chair; I had to keep telling myself that this is the 30s.   I started this novel last night at around 10:30 and stayed with it until the wee hours of the morning, and not simply because I wanted to know who killed Marguerite Scholl. It's more that this book took me completely into the zone and I didn't want to leave -- it's that good.   I'm seriously paying for it today but it was well worth my current zombified state of being -- this is not your average Golden Age detective story by any stretch.

So very highly recommended, especially for people who enjoy vintage crime but also for mystery readers who are always on the lookout for something completely outside the norm.  "Shuddery" indeed!!