Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy Hughes

Canongate, 2002
originally published 1946
248 pp


(read earlier)

Dorothy Hughes was a writer for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect. Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel of hers that I've read, following The Expendable Man and In a Lonely Place, and quite frankly, she's never failed to wow me.  She is probably best remembered for her In a Lonely Place, since it went on to become a major film starring Humphrey Bogart, and I think that that book tends to eclipse her other work, which is a shame, especially in this case.  Ride the Pink Horse is one of the most intense books I've read recently, and while the plot is very simple, the book as a whole is definitely not.  Like Patricia Highsmith would do a few years later in her first book, Hughes manages to get us inside the head of her main character and keep us there for the duration.  No matter how much we may want out, it ain't happenin' until the last page is turned.

the author, from Women Crime Writer of the 1940s & 50s

The main character here, Sailor, has come from Chicago to what he calls a "hick town" along with his fellow bus passengers who he refers to as "yokels," "hayseeds" and "sheep."  He's here on a mission:  his old boss he calls the Sen, aka "the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglas,"   had set up his wife's murder, a guy was arrested and convicted by the Sen's testimony, and was then killed himself.  There are only two people who know what really happened to the Sen's wife, and Sailor, who is the other one, had been paid off.  The problem is that Sailor was given only a third of what he was owed, so now he's come to collect the rest.  He's tired, a mess in rumpled clothes after traveling forever, and when he hits the streets, he comes face to face with his first dilemma: there is nowhere to stay  in the town because it's the time of Fiesta.  After being told repeatedly at hotel after hotel that there are no rooms, he is forced to count on a low-end hotel "next door to a pool hall," where he was sure they'd take him in.  Again -- nothing available.  As he walks toward the La Fonda Hotel where the Sen is staying, he's a  "ashamed" to ask for a room, since  "it was class," and "He wasn't class."  His anger grows -- he blames his bad luck on the Sen, resentful and envious that he was "Playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes."   The money he'd get from the Sen would help him start a life where he would be somebody and "live like a prince,"  -- the plan is to set up his own business in Mexico and "get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes."  In fact, knowing that the Sen got a $50,000 payout from his wife's life insurance, Sailor decides that he'll demand more money, and figures the Sen can't refuse.   Vowing not to be put off any longer, he plans on doing his business and getting out of this town the next day.  Of course, since this is a noir novel, it's not going to be that simple -- and things begin to get complicated when Sailor discovers that the Chicago cop in charge of the Senator's wife's killing is also in town.

While the plot seems simple, the book is actually quite complex.  I could seriously talk to anyone about this novel for hours just because there's so much here.  Sailor is used to being wronged, used to having doors slam in his face, used to taking a back seat to others, and this has caused to him to become a hateful, spiteful person. His hate extends from people of "class"  to people he thinks are beneath him -- the "spics" for example, as he labels the Mexicans who have come to the town for Fiesta. However, he is surprised to find  that these people are the only ones in the entire town who actually show him a modicum of kindness. He strikes up an acquaintance with a Mexican man whom he calls "Pancho Villa," who runs the old merry-go-round with the pink horse. Pancho offers him a place to sleep, companionship and other help. Sailor also meets a young Native American girl called Pila,  who reminds him of his own past and he does what he can to help her maintain her innocence and her childhood.

   Hughes uses the words "loss of identity" and "trapped" more than once here in describing Sailor's inner fears -- he is a man who wants to be somebody, and now that the opportunity is so close he can taste it,  he aims to take it and let nothing stand in his way. He feels himself an "outsider who'd wandered into this foreign land; all he had to do was finish his business and get out."  For him, the town is an
 "alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even the cool-of-night smell unfamiliar"
that's causing him "panic,"
"The panic of loneness; of  himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity." 
  But first he has to collect from the Sen and deal with the cop MacIntyre,  a man Sailor actually respects, but when it comes to giving Sailor advice, he isn't in the mood to hear it.  The Sen, MacIntyre and Sailor eventually find themselves the players in what will be a three-way game of "cat and mouse" , where only one of them can come out the winner.

The titular pink horse, as I said comes from the merry-go-round -- which is a great metaphor for Sailor's life and the future he so desperately wants. How that is I'll leave to others to discover, but to reiterate, this is definitely NOT a book where plot takes center stage. It is not a full on action-packed thriller, and it moves a bit slowly because Hughes invests her time in her people rather than just focusing on crime -- just my kind of book. There are a lot of racial slurs in this book, so beware -- it's very ugly, but then again, I just sort of accept  that writers of the 1940s didn't write with modern sensibilities in mind.

Hughes is an excellent writer, and in my opinion, she holds her own against  any male author of the time, making it a complete shame that she is not more widely read or appreciated.  For readers of vintage fiction written by women, it is an absolute must; I also recommend it for readers of classic noir.  I loved this book.

Friday, May 19, 2017

*an 1840s double feature: A Murky Business, by Honoré de Balzac and The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe

Well, I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I can't remember where exactly I'd read that I shouldn't miss Balzac's A Murky Business (Une Ténébreuse Affaire) as part of examining crime literature of the 19th century, but it really doesn't matter.

Penguin, 1981
originally published 1841
223 pp

In his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes that 
"The crime story as a literary form has developed alongside other fiction in a way shaped largely by social events, and its course has run roughly like this..." (283)
and proceeds to describe six different categories in the "progression."  The first of these is about "crime as a form of radical social protest," and here Symons mentions "Godwin, Lytton, Balzac." In this group, he says, "the criminal is seen as a hero, or a victim of social injustice."  Spot on for all three.  Balzac also has an entry in Encylopedia of Mystery and Detection (eds. Chris Steinbrunner & Otto Penzler), telling us that
"Balzac had no affection for the police..and never presented a detective sympathetically; on the other hand, criminals and murderers are often the heroes of his books." (18/19)
Balzac was also a close friend of Vidocq, and according to Graham Robb's 2004 London Review of Books take on Vidocq's memoirs, he used to "pump" Vidocq "for information on organized crime and political espionage."

It's 1803, and Napoleon is poised to crown himself  Emperor before beginning his long European campaigns.  A "royalist plot" has supposedly been discovered and  two police officials (Peyrade and Corentin) seek four noblemen who are accused of being behind it. By their own machinations, Peyrade and Corentin (who are noted in the introduction as "perfect examples of the cunning and malevolent police spy"), carry out what can only be called a miscarriage of justice by setting up these four men along with an estate steward to be framed for a crime that merits the death penalty.  I think that's about all I'll say -- a) it's way more complicated than just that and b) well, it's a good historical fiction novel that covers political intrigue that deserves a full reading.  As for how it stands up as a crime novel, well, Herbert J. Hunt in the intro does note that "We may find some fault" in how it fares as a "whodunit," citing three major issues re various plot elements, but concludes by saying that "it may be accepted as a fair example of an early mystery story...," and I have to concur.  There is certainly a mystery to be found in and among the police machinations here, one which is not fully solved until just toward the end.  More importantly though, the book reveals much about the courts and the system of justice of the time -- and is very much worth reading.


And now, to what is supposed to be the grandaddy of all modern detective fiction, I turn to the three stories by Poe featuring his detective C. Auguste Dupin in Leonaur's The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories.  

Leonaur Books, 2009
131 pp

Oh dear. With this book I have once again become that fish swimming against the tide of opinions of practically everyone else who's read these three stories contained in this book, the sum total of Poe's Dupin stories. While I get their importance in the history of detective/crime fiction, quite frankly, this book bored me silly.   I love Poe's gothic/supernatural-ish works to be sure; his somewhat cryptic Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was weird but kept me flipping pages, but I just can't stand Auguste Dupin nor do I care for Poe's writing here. 

 First in this collection is the blockbuster "Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and last comes "The Purloined Letter." All of these stories reflect  Dupin's method of  "ratinocination, a cerebral method of combining intellect, logic, imagination and the transference of self into the mind of the criminal," (7), and I sort of get it in the first and last stories, but what killed me was reading "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."  Evidently, Poe's logic behind writing it was that he wanted to tackle the real-life case of the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers; as he notes, 
"The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, at New York." (54)
[As a sidebar, if you want to read about the case and Poe's interest, there's an interesting article from The Smithsonian here.]

In all three of these tales, it's Dupin's thought process that solves the crimes -- other than a brief visit to the crime scene in "Murders of the Rue Morgue" and a short visit to the home of the known thief in "The Purloined Letter," Dupin turns out to be the epitome of the armchair detective, letting his mind do all of the work.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's the way these tales are written that made me wish I'd saved the book for a night of trying to battle insomnia. Don't get me wrong -- I'm very used to reading nineteenth-century prose, and if I could survive Lytton's writing in Eugene Aram, well, Poe should have been a cakewalk.  However, "Marie Rogêt" just about did me in and in "The Purloined Letter," I counted a five-page rundown of "the particulars" of a search made by the Prefect of the Parisian police.  Five pages just noting every potential hiding place for the missing letter -- that's just uncalled for, really.

But, as I said, readers seem to love this book, so it's probably me.

I'd say give it a try simply because of its place in crime/mystery/detective fiction history -- now I can say been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  Not one of my favorites at all this year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Death Going Down, by María Angélica Bosco

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as La muerte bajo en ascensor, 1955
translated by Lucy Greaves
151 pp


"What do you do when you're standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective."

Originally published in 1955, Death Going Down begins with Pancho Soler's return to his apartment building on Calle Santa Fe in Buenos Aires in the wee hours of the morning -- at two o'clock to be precise.  He's a bit smashed, nauseous, and unsteady on his feet, but all of that changes when he sees that there's a dead woman  in the elevator.  Now he's alert and really shook up.  Luckily he doesn't have to face it alone -- just moments after his gruesome discovery, he is joined by another tenant arriving home, a Doctor Adolfo Luchter.  Luchter realizes that the police will have to be called in, and that the victim seems to have been poisoned.  Thus begins the investigation, but it won't be easy for the detectives to unravel this one -- with six floors of occupants, there are certainly plenty of suspects from which to choose.  The investigators certainly have their work cut out for them, since the apartment building houses a number of  people who harbor a variety of secrets that they are reluctant to divulge.  Yet, as Inspector Ericourt notes, "There is always a truth, even if it's hidden." His task is to find it.

While Death Going Down works along the lines of a police procedural/detective novel, it is neither a cut-and-dried nor a routine detective story. After finishing it, I have to say I was surprised not only at the identity of the murderer but also at the assumptions I made as a reader while following the case.  When I turned the last page, it dawned on me just how very clever the author had been here precisely in how she used reader expectations while developing this story.  The book is well worth reading for several reasons (including the fact that the apartment building is home to a number of European refugees from World War II - very nice move), but for me it was all about the fact that I was completely caught off guard while expecting one thing and ending up with  something completely different. Sorry to sound so cryptic, but I really don't want to divulge anything.

The story moves a bit slowly and may not be for readers who like fast-paced crime; it's really not cozy material, and it's not at all your average police procedural. However, it's quite good, nicely done, and as I said, the solution threw me for a loop.  Suffice it to say that any author who can do this in a whodunit earns my great respect, since I've been reading mystery/crime novels since I was about five.

  From the back-cover blurb I learned  that María Angélica Bosco was known in her day as "the Argentinian Agatha Christie," but I have to say that her writing style (at least as evidenced here)  is most definitely her own.  Readers of translated crime fiction really do not want to pass this one by.

Friday, April 21, 2017

* Eugene Aram, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1832
516 pp


"I looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was." 

 Edward Bulwer-Lytton isn't exactly a household name, but in a way, everyone has some teensy measure of  familiarity with this 19th century author, since he was the guy who coined the famous phrase "It was a dark and stormy night," in his novel Paul Clifford (1830), which gained fame via Charles Schulz (see cartoon below) and via the annual (since 1982)  Bulwer-Lytton contest, a
" whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." 

As a word of friendly warning, I should note that Bulwer-Lytton's style of writing has been labeled as "florid," "turgid," and one of my online friends referred to it as the "paid-by-the-word" style -- in short, he's extremely verbose, a yammerer extraordinaire, and devoted to wordiness to the point where reading is a chore.   I consider myself to be a very patient reader but I almost lost my cool after reading six pages devoted to absolutely nothing but one man trying to convince another to look after his cat while he was off on his travels. I knew this was going to be rough going pretty much at the outset.

However, in spite of the extreme verbosity, Eugene Aram turns out to be a pretty decent book, a tale very loosely based on the real-life story of the titular character.   According to the Newgate Calendar, aka The Malefactors' Bloody Register,  the real Aram,  was "A Self-Educated man, with remarkable Linguistic Attainments, who was executed at York on the 6th of August, 1759, for a Murder discovered Fourteen Years after its Commission."  Bulwer's Eugene Aram is just one example of the body of work known as the "Newgate Novel,"
"so-called because the characters of its stories might have been found in the pages of Newgate Calendars, a collection of criminal biographies that first appeared in 1728."
This sort of book "focused on the lives of real or invented criminals,"  and are of huge  importance to the history of crime fiction, since as stated briefly in a blurb for chapter eight of  The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 3: The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880,  
" These novels and others like them set in place themes and tropes that shaped early fictional narratives of crime.They incorporated factual events, revolved round the figure of the criminal, and promoted a didactic political and social message."   
In other words, according to one literary scholar, the Newgate novel "emerged in the 1830s as a response to contemporary issues within the social, legal and penal systems of Victorian London." For further information, there are all sorts of resources online and in print about the Newgate novel; now it's on to Eugene Aram. 

 Aside from the overly-excessive verbiage here, the novel isn't half bad.  Divided into three volumes, the first few chapters introduce us to the main characters of this book, and situate us somewhere in the English countryside, in the village of Grassdale.  The backstory to what is to come is also introduced, concerning the disappearance of one Geoffrey Lester, brother to squire Rowland Lester and father of Walter Lester. Geoffrey had married a woman with a "competent and respectable fortune," stayed with her a few years even though the marriage wasn't a good one, and then just took off leaving young Walter behind to grow up in the home of his uncle Rowland. Every effort had been made to find Geoffrey, but to no avail.

As he grew older, Walter fell for his cousin Madeline, but she only has eyes for the mild, reclusive scholar who lives nearby,  Eugene Aram.  With the handwriting on the wall regarding that relationship, and with no love lost between Walter and Aram, Walter decides it's time he goes out into the world.  While he's out there, he plans to seek news of his long-lost father. As we're told,
"The deep mystery that for so many years had hung over the fate of his parent, it might indeed be his lot to pierce; and with a common waywardness in our nature, the restless son felt his interest in that parent the livelier from the very circumstance of remembering nothing of his person."
Off he goes and it isn't too long after he begins his quest that he finds the first clue having to do with his missing father; following that up sends him on to yet another place and so on until he is ready to return to Grassdale, as it just so happens, on the day set for the marriage between Madeline and Eugene Aram. But the wedding plans are off after Walter reveals everything he's learned over the course of his travels -- as the back-cover of my copy reveals, Walter's quest will "lead to the discovery of a long-hidden and horrible crime and the trial of Eugene Aram for murder!"

the real Eugene Aram, from Wikipedia

The story goes back and forth between Walter's adventures and scenes between the Lester family and Eugene Aram back in Grassdale, until both come together with Walter's return.  That's really all I'll say about plot, because while it was fun traveling along with Walter through all of his adventures (and there are many), of greater interest to me was Aram's motivation for his role in the crime. He's a complicated man, a closed-off, quiet, yet very respectable scholar and as Walter discovers, there are few in this book who have anything but great things to say about him. Yet, as we know from the real case, Eugene Aram turned out to be a murderer.  So what made Bulwer-Lytton's Aram tick?  I actually struggled with that question right up until I got to to page 400 something when the turning point/aha  moment  for me came as I read the following from a statement given by Aram, in which he says that he
"looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was" 
at which point I was actually sort of floored with the conceit of this guy.   How this is so I won't reveal, but it's a somewhat twisted logic Bulwer-Lytton uses here, and I'm afraid that I'm in agreement with many of his contemporaries who called him out for turning his Eugene Aram into sort of  as Winifred Hughes says in her The Maniac in the Cellar,  a "criminal-hero."

I've noted above the hazards of the writing style in this book, but I will also say that despite the testing of my endurance, Eugene Aram turned out to be a good read for me.  It takes a very patient reader to make it through this book, but it's worth it for many reasons, none the least of which is that it is a part of crime-fiction history.  When  earlier I posted my thoughts on Richmond I said that "it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone..." and I will say that the circle  of people who would be attracted by Eugene Aram is probably even narrower.  I would, however, certainly recommend it to readers who are interested in the evolution of crime fiction, and for those readers who are interested in pre-Victorian British fiction as well.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding: A yes in my book.

Persephone Books, 2009
originally published 1947
231 pp


"The walls of her home were falling down; there was no refuge." -- 75

It's not surprising that a number of regular crime fiction readers have never heard of Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding (1889-1955), but it's certainly a shame.  According to the Publisher's Note in this book, in 1950 Raymond Chandler wrote to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton asking if "anybody in England" published her work, noting that
"For my money she's the top suspense writer of them all."
He went on to recommend three of her books: Net of Cobwebs (1945),  The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and this one, The Blank Wall.   The publisher's note also states that although a number of her books were published in the UK in the 1950s,
"Elisabeth Sanxay Holding vanished on this side of the Atlantic and all-but vanished on the other."
In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock reprinted the complete The Blank Wall in his anthology called My Favourites in Suspense, and a reviewer at the time described Holding as an "astonishing artist" and called upon "reprint publishers" to take notice, but sadly, no one did.  As late as 1981 Maxim Jakubowski writing in The Guardian also said that for publishers, perhaps "the time has come to take up Raymond Chandler's challenge" and to "resurrect the exemplary books" by this author, but  no one did.  Holding is another sadly-neglected author, but now that I've read two of her crime novels, trust me, the home library will be hosting many, many more.

I consider myself lucky to have found this novel, because it's so nicely done I couldn't stop reading it once I'd picked it up.  It reminded me so much of the work of Patricia Highsmith, but Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, didn't come out until 1950.  The Blank Wall is a book where there are crimes, cover-ups and consequences, but like so very many of Highsmith's books, the focus here is much more on character rather than simply crime.  In that sense, it's not what I'd call a typical suspense/crime novel, so anyone who may be considering it might want to make note of that fact. In other words, the plot is not nearly as important as what's happening around it.

from Early Bird books

Lucia Holley is a mother of two, keeping the  home fires burning while her husband Tom is away, "somewhere in the Pacific,"  doing his duty during World War II.  Her father lives with the family, and she's got a gem of a housekeeper named Sibyl to help her out.  Lucia writes Tom "very dull letters" every evening, letters meant to provide her husband with "a picture of a life placid and sunny as a little mountain lake." And in fact, life had been pretty dull at the Holley home, up until the time seventeen year-old daughter Bee began seeing a much older man named Ted Darby.  Lucia knows he's no good for Bee, and even made a trip to nearby New York City to confront him, but her visit had been "utterly useless," and ultimately harmful, since Ted immediately turned around and told Bee about it, setting up a confrontation between mother and daughter. Lucia, for whom there is nothing she wouldn't do "to stop this thing" makes several threats (cutting off Bee's allowance, for example), but inside she feels as though all of this was her fault -- that she'd made "several mistakes with Bee, even when she was a little girl."

 Lucia's father (Mr. Harper) echoes her concern about Ted Darby, and matters come to a head one evening when Darby shows up at the boathouse.  As Lucia is writing Tom and considering how "badly" she'd done with Bee, Harper reveals that he'd gone to the boathouse and "dealt with" Darby, pushing into the water and sending him off with a "flea in his ear."  The next morning, Lucia wakes up "extra early," and decides to take out the rowboat and go for a swim, "to think of some new and better way to talk to Bee."  As she steps into the rowboat, she looks into the nearby motorboat and discovers Darby's body -- "fallen, on a spare anchor, half upended on the seat, and it had pierced his throat."  Her first thought : "Father did that."
"Of course it means the police, she thought. Then Father will have to know that he did this. They'll find out why Ted came here, and Bee will be dragged into it. And I shan't be able to keep it from Tom. Not possibly. It'll be in the tabloids."
Deciding that she must do anything "to save us all," she decides to hide the body.  But Darby's death  is only the tip of the iceberg:  it's not long until she finds herself targeted for blackmail by a crook who has gotten hold of letters from Bee to Ted, leading to a sequence of events that will reveal exactly how far and to what costs this woman will go to protect her family.

So that's the plot in a nutshell -- suspenseful, definitely, and also twisty along the way to the end, but as I said before, there is much more than merely plot to this book, and Lucia is at the center of it all.  Lucia is a passive, highly-insecure woman  and with Tom away, her "little world," as Lucia puts it, consists solely of her children and her father, for whom she will do anything. Her life since childhood has been relatively uneventful; she married young  at eighteen, directly out of her parents' house, then had her first child. Up until Tom went away for the war, she's rarely had to cope with things by herself, and her life is rather humdrum and dull. She depends heavily on Sybil, who often covers up Lucia's absent-mindedness and sloppy housecleaning; Sybil makes the best deals at the markets to get the most out of their ration coupons, and keeps things on track within the home. But as things begin to threaten Lucia's "little world," Holding does a brilliant job here in slowly bringing out a Lucia who somehow manages to go deep within herself to find the strength she needs to protect it; she also makes us privy to Lucia's thoughts in which she comes to terms with how she really feels about herself and her life.

As Sanxay-Holding lets us into to Lucia's head, we also get a glimpse into how women with domestic responsibilities  like Lucia  are viewed outside of the home. As just one example, while in New York City,  Lucia decides to take out a loan from a company that advertised it would "lend money on a note," with  "no delay" and "no red tape." With no income of her own, the promises don't hold true for her. Thinking about her frustration while in a cab, she notes
"If one of those reporters stopped me in the street and asked me what I thought about Russia, or something like that, he'd put me down as Mrs. Lucia Holley, Housewife.
Why is it 'housewife'? What would I call myself if we lived in a hotel? Nobody ever puts down just 'wife' or even just 'mother.' If you haven't got a job, and you don't keep house, then you aren't anything, apparently."  
There's a lot  happening here outside of plot, as this book takes a look at (among other things) motherhood, family expectations, the true meaning of friendship, race, class, and domestic disruption on the home front due to the war.  At the same time, the focus on the criminal aspects here are very well done, and the suspense ratchets constantly through the novel.  It is so very well done on both inner and outer fronts, and I was so impressed with it that I couldn't put it down. It is highly intelligent and as I said earlier, I feel fortunate in having discovered it completely by chance.  I can seriously and highly recommend this novel to readers of vintage crime, and to readers who enjoy crime fiction written by women.  I promise - it's a story that will not be forgotten.

I'll be back with an update on the film based on this book,  "The Reckless Moment" (1949)  after I've watched it. There was another adaptation, "The Deep End" (2001), but I'm going to pass on that one.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

*Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, by "Richmond," (ed) E.F. Bleiler

Dover, 1976
originally written 1827
266 pp


Continuing on with my look at crime fiction history, I discovered this book, which the front cover says is "the first collection of detective stories (1827) in English."   According to E.F. Bleiler's introduction, true authorship of this book is unknown (well, at least it was in 1976 when this volume was published), although the names of two different men (Thomas Surr or Thomas Gaspey)  have been floated about as having written these tales.  Bleiler dismisses the possibility of either one having done so.

I'd say that for modern readers, it's definitely a book for a niche audience -- for people like myself who can't get enough of this sort of thing, for people interested in the popular side of 19th-century British fiction, for readers looking into the history of British crime fiction, for people interested in the Bow Street Runners (and so on).  The writing is thick, meaning a bit archaic for today's reading audience, and there is a lot of narrative yammering by  both narrator and other characters which can drive a person crazy. Then again, the author realizes this here and there, as in Richmond's fourth case when he notes during a scene in the courts:
"The magistrate soon grew tired of this stuff, as I fear the reader has been long ago..."
or in scenes in which Richmond tells people to, as translated in our modern verbiage, cut to the chase and get on with the story.  That sort of thing is only annoying for me every so often here, and doesn't really bother me too much -- in short, I had great fun with this book.

Originally published in three volumes, here Richmond is divided into two parts, complete with labels as to the ending of each original volume.  The first part is composed completely of "Richmond's Early Life," which follows him from school days on to as he says,  "the period of my education for future duties at Bow-street." It's his love for a woman that, among other things,  sends him on the run, lands him in a small theater group, sends him to live with the "gipsies" for whom he develops sympathy, great respect and true friendships.  The second part consists of five of his cases, throughout which his
"fame travelled in company, waxing, like the moon, brighter and broader as it rolled on"
so much so that his services were in great demand and in "much request for enterprises of 'great pith and moment.' "

There is a wide range of cases for him to solve here.  He begins by looking into the disappearance of a little boy whom, it is feared, has been the victim of a "resurrection man" who kidnaps and kills in order to make money from bodies by selling them to anatomists. Next up is my personal favorite, in which an attorney turned rector via a fake degree decides to make his home among villagers who hate his tithe policies and try to drive him out using some very funny tricks (fake ghosts, fake earthquakes, a rat in the house with a bell attached to it, and more); while he's settling this one, he becomes involved with graverobbers.  In fact, each case is not focused solely on just one crime -- Richmond uncovers others and continues his pursuits throughout the book, so a bad guy from one case may turn up in another.  Moving on, the third case is a bit more complicated, involving smugglers, racing fraud etc., but it is here that he meets the woman he will eventually marry. In case number four, his services are required to rescue a man's daughter from a husband who is driving her mad and treating her terribly, and finally, in case five, Richmond spots a well-dressed woman trying to pass forged bank notes, leading him to bigger fish when he saves the life of a naive young man who tries to drown himself.

Not only are these stories fun in the reading, but they move in and out of social, economic and class divides, exposing the best and the worst among all kinds of different people; it also moves between city and countryside so that we get the idea that crime happens everywhere.  Richmond's detection skills are first rate; at the same time, having lived with the "gipsies" and gaining an understanding of how need and want can sometimes drive people into crime, he often turns his head to ignore some illegal activities that he feels are not as heinous as others.

As I said earlier, it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone, and that's okay.  For me it's another window into the history of crime fiction, and I'm very happy to have discovered it. For any reader deciding to take a look, Bleiler's introduction covers a wide range of topics not just connected with Richmond -- it also includes a brief history of the Bow Street Runners and how they were perceived as well as many other subjects of great interest to nerdy people like myself.  I found Richmond fascinating -- then again, I could make a steady diet of books like this one.

Friday, March 31, 2017

* The Rector of Veilbye, by Steen Blicher

CreateSpace, 2014
25 pp


"Oh, what is man that he shall dare to sit in judgment over his fellows! God alone is the Judge. He who gives life may alone give death!" 

One would think that a book of only 25 pages would be a no-brainer, easy read with not much to say, but that's just not the case here. First published in 1829, this little pamphlet-sized story kept me up well past two a.m. this morning thinking about what I'd just read.

The Rector of Veilbye  has often been touted as "the first crime novel,"  and is based on real events.  According to the back-cover blurb, "The trial of Pastor Søren Jensen Quist of Vejlby took place at Aarhus in 1626," and involved the disappearance of a farm laborer in 1607 employed by the rector.  Evidently, over a decade later, bones were dug up on the rector's land that were believed to belong to the missing man and the rector was blamed. Also noted on the cover is the fact that this little book was "selected for inclusion in the Cultural Canon of Denmark," and that one official noted the "elegiac pain and discomfort in an eerily intense drama."   It may actually be the first Scandinavian crime novel -- obviously I can't say that for sure, but 1829 is still quite early in the crime fiction game so it's entirely possible.  The story is revealed through journal entries from two different people -- District Judge Erik Sorensen, who outlines the main events of the case as well as his own involvement and how it affects him personally, and then a pastor from Aalso, who lets us in on a most harrowing aftermath some 21 years later.  Sorensen has a role here other than just district judge -- he happens to be betrothed to the daughter of the titular rector of Veilbye, Soren Quist, who has been accused of murdering one of his servants "in a fit of rage," and then burying the body in his own garden.

To tell is to spoil, especially in this very short but powerful work, so I'm not going to give away any plot details other than what I've said above.   At the same time, a note to readers: don't be fooled by its size -- there is a lot going on in this little book.   Not only is it a no-frills story of a crime (and I'll leave it to readers to decide which acts here are actually criminal),  but it also provides a great argument against capital punishment,  while also examining the links between religious beliefs and the law.  It's also, I'll argue, a book that puts the reader in the unhappy position of judge -- considering the evidence as it's given here,  it's simply impossible not to find yourself trying to make up your mind one way or the other, just as Sorensen had to do.

For readers entrenched in modern, fast-paced, violence-laden crime fiction, this book may seem to be a nothing sort of work. That certainly wasn't my reaction though -- it actually became an incredibly sad and thought-provoking story as I considered  the moral implications vs. the legal, and as I said earlier, it kept me awake long after having finished it.  Considering that it's not even thirty pages long, well, that's power. I have to wholeheartedly agree with the Danish official noted above who said that "the story is difficult to shake off" -- there is definitely a lot of truth in that statement.

Anyone who is at all interested in the history of crime fiction needs to read this book, but really, given what happens in this story, well, it's actually a book for everyone.  Amazing.