Saturday, April 18, 2015

and speaking of Madeleine Smith,

Wyndham, 1976
191 pp


I have this thing for Victorian murderers and murderesses -- I don't understand why this topic is so fascinating to me, but well, it just is. As with Marie Belloc Lowndes'  Letty Lynton, Alas for her that met me! is a disguised version of the Madeleine Smith story, a case so well documented in (just to name a couple of nonfiction works) Mary S. Hartman's Victorian Murderesses and Roughead's  "To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith" in his Classic Crimes (published by NYRB). [As a sidebar, I just bought Jack House's Square Mile of Murder which also takes on Smith's case. ]  You may not recognize the name Mary Ann Ashe, but you will recognize the name of  Christianna Brand, who according to SYKM, has seventeen crime/mystery novels to her credit as well as four short-story collections.  She's also the author of the Nurse Mathilda stories, which were the basis of the 2005 movie "Nanny McPhee."

Unlike Marie Belloc Lowndes who modernized the story and moved it to England,  Ashe (as I'll refer to her in this post), chose to keep her story in Victorian-era Glascow, but she adds a strange twist to the case I didn't see coming. I won't give details just in case any vintage-crime reader is interested in this book, but the novel is set up very nicely so that  it's only near the end of the story when it hits you exactly what's actually happened here, which turns out to be a big surprise.   Getting to that point may seem a little slow and, also like Letty Lynton, Ashe's story seems to hang in the chick-lit realm for quite a while until darkness falls.  While I totally dislike romance-ish crime fiction, the folly of  l'amour does serve a purpose here and to her credit, Ashe doesn't let it ruin or take over the story.   Making just one further comparison to Lowndes' book, while both authors examine class distinction in their work, Ashe takes things a wee bit further by 1) looking at things for a while from a servant's point of view that shows that life in service wasn't always as it was in Upstairs Downstairs and 2)  examining the gradations in the system that existed in upper-class Victorian society, where, for example as in the case of the father of the main character, being x number of years away from a family fortune based on trade was actually a stigma to be lived down.

It's a fun little book that satisfied my appetite for historical crime fiction, and I most definitely appreciated the surprising twist in the story.   I'm afraid it may be a little tame for modern readers who look for a lot of action or kickass heroines in their crime, but vintage crime lovers should definitely enjoy it, especially those familiar with the Madeleine Smith case of 1857.

 And that reminds me -- while I'm a work widow this coming week, I'll be watching David Lean's 1950 black-and-white movie about this Victorian case entitled Madeleine. One of my online friends directed me to the film and now I can't wait to see it.  Getting back to the book, While I preferred Letty Lynton's ending in Lowndes' version of events, the storyline in Ashe's book was definitely better.  Oh, what the hell  -- true vintage/historical crime readers should read both of them!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

the holy grail of mystery/crime fiction? Perhaps.

Good god, I've hit the motherlode. After three, count them three unsuccessful attempts to buy these books, someone finally came through for me.  The first time I tried, the seller sent me a copy of a book by Brett Halliday, mass market paperback. Not even close. Second time, I got a copy of a book by Dell Shannon.  Third time, I was sent something by Carolyn Crane.  Once, I can understand, twice is weird, but three times???? Seriously bad.  Finally I dug a little deeper into the wallet and fourth time was the charm.

I'm talking about Crime Fiction II:  A Comprehensive Bibliography 1749-1990, by Allen J. Hubin.  It is an amazing set of reference books that lists all crime/mystery writers, their books sorted in various ways,  film adaptations complete with screenwriter & other info, yada yada yada.  For someone like myself who enjoys the classics and other old crime/mystery novels, it is absolutely perfect -- the ultimate crime fiction resource.

For example, I needed a book written by someone with a last name starting with 'P' for my obscure women crime writers project (which I'm doing in alpha order), and so after a little research, came up with an author I've never heard of named Zelda Popkin. (Love the name, by the way).  Anyway, here's her entry:

Now that I know what she's got to offer, I'm off to Amazon looking for any of her earliest works that are still in print.

The only downside is that as I come across more of these unknown/forgotten/obscure writers, there's a very good  chance that my tbr pile will grow as my book budget shrinks.

If you're a true old crime/mystery novel fan and can lay hands on these books, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

a Marie Belloc Lowndes doubleheader: The Lodger and Letty Lynton

Marie Belloc Lowndes is really not that obscure of a crime-writing woman writer, because she is largely  remembered for her book The Lodger (1913),  which centers on a husband and wife who find themselves in dire financial straits. They are quite literally pulled back from the edge of  starvation and ruin when a gentleman calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to take a room in their home.  The Lodger was the basis for five (yes, five) films, beginning with Hitchcock in 1927, with the latest adaptation in 2009.  In 1960, believe it or not, it was even adapted as an opera.
Aside  from The Lodger,  Mrs. Lowndes also has a huge bibliography of other books to her credit. One of these is Letty Lynton, which is most definitely an obscure, forgotten novel, and which like The Lodger, went on to be made into a movie in 1932.  The film starred Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery;  I tried to lay hands on a copy but found none available. Aarggh! Hopefully someday it will turn up on TCM.

Both of Lowndes' novels here are based on true crimes.  The Lodger is very loosely based on the crimes of of Jack the Ripper, but  is actually more of a highly-atmospheric, psychological study of a woman faced with a horrible dilemma, eaten up by fear and guilt.  The tension and feeling of dread builds slowly as the novel progresses, and I have to say that this was my second time around with this novel and I was just as sucked in to it this time as I was the first time I read it.  Turning to Letty Lynton, Lowndes based this book on the story of Madeleine Smith, a young woman who found herself standing in the dock in Glascow in 1857 accused of murder.  Letty Lynton is moved out of the Victorian era, and is the story of an 18 year-old daughter of a millionaire.  Among Letty's other traits, she is pampered, at odds with her mother (for whom the sun rises and sets in Letty's older brother) and is so beautiful that men are drawn to her like bees to honey.  Sadly, one of these men gets it into his head (after being led on shamefully by young Letty) that the two are engaged to be married, and pressures Letty to tell her family about him. Things take a terrible turn when Letty is introduced into London society and becomes the object of a lord's affection -- the Lynton family is ecstatic but they do not know that Letty's future and the indeed, the reputation of the entire Lynton family is in jeopardy.   If the opportunity ever arises to read this book, I guarantee that you'll discover one of the best and most appropriate endings to ever find its way into a crime novel.  It was so well done that I was actually taken by surprise, which for me personally is a rarity these days.

I'm going to try to figure out exactly which of Mrs. Lowndes' novels are crime novels and try to find them -- finding a keeper copy of Letty Lynton  was incredibly difficult and I had to bite the financial bullet to get one. It was worth every penny and more if for nothing else, that ending.  Wow. Now I absolutely MUST see the film!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Engagement, by Georges Simenon

NYRB Classics, 2007
originally published 1933 as Les Fiançailles de M. Hire
translated by Anna Moschovakis
135 pp


"... his eyes never left the superintendent's face. Indeed they were fixed on it, with the expression of a beaten animal, wondering why men are so cruel."

The Engagement is  not really a "crime fiction" novel, per se, but an unseen crime is what sparks all of the events in this tragic story, so I have no qualms about posting about the novel here. Simenon, of course, is more widely known for his Maigret novels (a whopping 75 total), but he also wrote several bools he called "roman durs" ("tough" novels) which are much more serious both "in tone and intent"  than his series novels. According to David Carter in his The Pocket Essential Georges Simenon (which I highly recommend if you're planning to read any Simenon novels in the future),  "roman durs" was the term Simenon used "to refer to all those novels that he regarded as his real literary works."  I've seen them referred to as psychological novels, but unlike most writers, Simenon doesn't have to spend a lot of time dissecting the motivations of his characters here, nor does he have to enter deeply into their respective heads in any drawn-out way -- his sparse writing style actually heightens the overall effect of the story. 

In The Engagement,  the murder of a call girl in the Villejuif area of Paris has more than a few people on edge. The murder itself is not an event in this novel, but what happens to the protagonist of this novel, M. Hire, is based on fallout from the fear surrounding the killing. It all begins when the concierge of M. Hire's apartment building spies a bloody towel on his washstand while delivering mail, and she makes the leap that M. Hire must be the murderer, setting this story in motion.   From that point on, M. Hire's daily life is scrutinized unceasingly, except at night in the privacy of his apartment, when he watches the beautiful red-haired woman in the apartment across the way.  However, everything changes for M. Hire when one night he realizes she is watching him as well. 

This book is quite simply outstanding -- not just for the story but also because of how Simenon constructed the story. For example, even though M. Hire, a definite loner, spends quite a bit of time alone in his room, it is really when he is out among others that his unremarkable, solitary existence becomes most evident.   He sits in a crowded tram in the same seat every day, doesn't look around at the other people, reads during his time on the train and while walking through the station, sits quietly alone at a cafe

 "watching the people go by: more and more of them, the thousands who walked, ran, stopped, caught up with each other, passed each other by, yelled and whispered..."
At the same time,  as I read into the book it dawned on me that it's not only M. Hire who is the focus here -- Simenon is also offering a look at the  people who exist within M. Hire's orbit, both individually and collectively as "the crowd."   To me, this is the absolute genius of this novel -- and this technique definitely pays off in the final scenes. And throughout the entire book, the reader feels  the confines of Simenon's near-claustrophic settings: the  cold winter, the buses and trams crammed full of people, the busy train stations, the crowds on the streets.  

What will strike anyone who's familiar with Simenon's Maigret and then reads this novel  is the huge difference between the two.  The series novels tend to work toward a solution, have a policeman as a main character who cares about some sort of justice  and has definite clues to follow.  Here, Simenon sort of turns the roman policier on its head, and the result is one of the best books I've read in a very, very long time.  The reader reviewers who complain about "no action," or how "this is not Maigret" obviously missed something here. While The Engagement is sometimes tough to read on an emotional level,  overall it is a beautiful book that should be (imo) on everyone's reading list. Most especially recommended for people who prefer reading about people over plot.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

the "cold-war" years: A Cold Coming, by Mary Kelly

Walker and Company, 1968
originally published 1956, by  Secker & Warburg
239 pp


Before even opening this book, I couldn't help but notice the dustjacket cover. A man is inside of a syringe, attempting to keep whatever is to come out from squashing him.  The X has three lines connected to the syringe, one directly at center, the other two diagonally offset from the center line.  I don't know if anyone else has ever noticed this, but a lot of old mystery/crime novels have covers which reveal clues as to what's going to happen even before you open the book.  Really old Agatha Christie paperbacks are great examples -- after you read the book, you look at the cover again and see that in some cases, the entire story is symbolized by the front-cover art.  For a long time I had to stop even looking at the covers because once I cottoned to this fact, I was worried that the cover art would be a dead giveaway.  This isn't so true any more, but with Kelly's A Cold Coming,  it's right on the money.

Before launching ahead with this discussion, a few brief words about the author.  Mary Kelly (b. 1927) was a prolific crime writer, with one detective series (of which A Cold Coming is first in the series) that had as its main character Inspector Brett Nightingale of Scotland Yard:

A Cold Coming (1956)
Dead Man's Riddle (1957)
The Christmas Egg (1958)

She also wrote seven nonseries novels between 1961 and 1974, winning the Gold Dagger for one of them, The Spoilt Kill, in 1961.   She married Joseph Kelly in 1950, received an MA from University of Edinburgh in 1951, and went on to become a teacher. Kelly also became a member of the Detection Club, where she acted as secretary.  Her 1971 short story "Judgment," was later selected to be included in a 1984 Hamlyn anthology of The Best Crime Stories, but she put pen down and quit writing in 1976.  There isn't much more to discover about her on a personal/professional level; however, it's obvious from the prestigious Dagger award that Kelly's work was both well received and appreciated in the field of crime/mystery fiction. 

Just briefly, A Cold Coming starts out of the gate going full speed ahead. It begins with a young student, Alec Starmer,  who wakes up woozy, cold and unaware of where he is. All he knows is that he's on the ground, with the sea nearby on the other side of a rise. His memory slowly returns and realizes that he's without his friend Roy, whose location is a mystery. Little bits and pieces surface and he decides he has to get help, eventually making his way to a house. Suspicious that he might yet be walking into a trap, he sneaks about the grounds and discovers that indeed he'd made the right decision, because there was the car "from which he'd struggled and run" right there in the yard. This time, though Alec plans to use it to make a getaway. Before he can leave, however, he sees a hand waving at him -- and discovers that someone is being kept prisoner in a small building on the property. Quickly gathering his wits and the man, they make their escape on a harrowing ride away from there, but all does not go well. Eventually, though, Alec makes his way to a police station, and later receives word that Roy has been found at a Catholic girls' boarding school in Northumberland.  Once the friends are together, the investigation into what exactly happened to them and why begins in earnest, with Inspector Brett Nightingale taking the lead. 

I have to say, this is certainly one of the more confusing 1950s British mysteries/crime novels I've read -- it moves from a stay at a research/treatment facility for colds to a cancelled opera, then on to kidnappings, moving ever further outward to discussions of potential brainwashing, biological weapons and then to corporate warfare ...I mean, seriously, it was hard to keep track of what was actually going on here. Then everything is all muddled with the two students, one of whom, it seems, is trying to keep a lid on the fact that he comes from wealthy parents, not that his ancestry has anything to do with the actual storyline. For a novel that starts out so strongly, it certainly takes a nose dive once the clues start falling into place, a very unusual phenomenon in my experience. Normally it's the other way around -- here, I felt the author was sort of confused and couldn't piece things together in a coherent way. In short -- this book takes the reader sort of all over the map and the experience just wasn't pleasant. 

I'd be willing to try another novel by Mary Kelly, but probably one of her later ones.  This one -- well, it just didn't do anything for me. I was rather disappointed, actually, but considering it's her first novel, chances are it's  most likely a case of author inexperience in this case. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

here's food for thought -- "Why crime fiction is left wing, and thrillers are right wing," by Val McDermid

Val McDermid, from the bbc
This morning's email pointed me to  an interesting article written by Val McDermid for The Guardian. Entitled "Why crime fiction is left wing, and thrillers are right wing," Ms. McDermid hits on  a topic I've been thinking about for a very long time. At a crime writing festival in France where "They take crime fiction seriously..." over the weekend, she notes that people there are especially interested in "the place of politics in literature," which doesn't seem surprising if you at all follow French politics and what's been happening there lately. But more interesting to me is how she discusses the political question in both crime fiction and in thrillers.

For starters, she notes that
"... the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It's critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world -- immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don't vote." 
 I find myself agreeing with her.  Crime fiction for me is a case of trying to understand what factors external to a "villain" or a "good guy gone bad" helped to put him/her in that position. Where does the system break down for these people? Is it a case of psychological factors?  What might have brought things around differently?

 Examining society's ills is not new in crime fiction.  Not all that long ago I read the complete Martin Beck series written by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, one book after the other precisely because the first book grabbed me with its attention to social issues in Sweden.  Roseanna was published in 1965; the last Beck novel was published in 1975.  The story is well known:  Wahlöö published a book about the social ills of his country and it didn't sell, so brainstorming the problem, he and his wife decided to put their concerns into crime fiction, which ended up becoming incredibly popular.  I then buried myself in  Scandinavian crime fiction for  a really long time because other authors were starting to pick up on this winning formula and for me, as someone who is always more interested in the "why" rather than the "who," well, it was nothing less than a bonanza of like-minded thinkers.  When I got a bit bored with Scandinavian crime, I moved onto authors from  France, Italy, and other European nations, and discovered that by and large among the ones I read, they were also deep into social/economic/political concerns.  But here's the thing -- I went way back into American crime and discovered that writers of the late 1920s and 1930s here were also in their own way pointing out societal flaws.  Look at Horace McCoy's most excellent novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? written in 1935, as just one example, or Chandler's take on a corrupt Los Angeles of his day.

And then there's the thriller, a completely different animal, at least to me.  As the article states,
"The thriller, on the other hand, tends toward the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you." 
I can't speak for anyone else, but I've noticed what  seems to be a huge upswing in the thriller market these days, especially favoring books with a lot of action in terms of gun violence, rogue military/CIA or whatever agents, the threats posed by lethal viruses in hands of our enemies, Russian mob takeovers, political infiltrations, gun smuggling, the border patrol and the DEA,  yada yada etc. etc -- some of the most horrific scenarios one can imagine. Then, of course, comes either the strong-man hero/badass chick heroine who makes the world safe for another day, or the unlikely hero who sort of stumbles into the unimaginable and vows to make things right.

A friend noted that in a very oversimplified way, he thinks crime fiction readers want justice while thriller readers want victory.  I'm not sure that applies to my own way of reading/thinking about crime fiction, but for most readers I think that may be more the case than not.

 McDermid notes that
"When people lose trust in politicians, they need to find it elsewhere. Maybe, because they trust writers to tell some kind of truth buried in the fictions, we’re being listened to in a way we rarely have before. And that’s a scary thought."
Scary indeed, but I think she's right on the money.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins

Valancourt Books, 2015
197 pp


My hat is off to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print. Originally written in 1934, Harriet is based on an actual British murder case from the 1870s known as  "The Penge Murder Mystery." It is  one of the more disturbing books I've read, although I must say it is also one of the best historical crime novels I've had in my hands in a very long time.  While information is widely available online about the Penge Murders or The Staunton Case (the real name of the fictional title character), I held off reading the facts of the actual case until I finished the novel, because I didn't want to have any expectations at all going into this book.

The titular Harriet is an only child and still living at home at age 32. She is rather simple, as the novel says, what would have been called "a natural," which in an afterword by Catherine Pope is explained as "having learning difficulties." Harriet's  "continued presence in any household was a strain."  After her mother remarried,  Harriet was often sent to stay for a time with "various relations," who were paid to have her at their homes.  As the novel opens, Harriet has been sent to stay with her mother's cousin Mrs. Hoppner, who has two daughters. Unlike Harriet's family, which is very well off, with Harriet having her own money and a future inheritance, Mrs. Hoppner and her daughter Alice have need for the eight pounds a month they'll get from having Harriet stay there. She shows up just after the arrival of Mrs. Hoppner's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick Oman, who are on the verge of moving to the country for both economic reasons and because living there would be "more suited to the pursuing of Patrick's profession" as an artist. Patrick, "made scarcely a penny and kept Elizabeth in a poor way."   Patrick's brother Lewis, who is particularly fond of Alice, is also at chez Hoppner, and is warned by Alice to be nice to Harriet because they don't want Harriet complaining to her mother and going home.  Once Lewis finds out exactly how much Harriet's worth he is beyond nice to her and it is not long before he comes up with a plan to marry her for her money.  A rift forms between Harriet and her mother over marriage plans because Mamma has seen right through him, and eventually, without her family there with her, Harriet becomes Mrs. Lewis Oman. And that's when the trouble begins.

At this point, I found myself totally  unprepared for what happens next, and I'm not just talking in terms of  events.  Here I am sitting at my breakfast table, reading in between bread risings, and I was so taken aback that when the timer beeped I literally could not move from the chair.  It's bad enough that the principals take advantage of Harriet for her money; even worse is how conscience, compassion  and basic morality fall by the wayside when self interest is involved. It's absolutely frightening how these seemingly ordinary people can sink to a subhuman level, all the while able to  justify their actions to  themselves. The author's strength in this novel is showing exactly how this sort of thing can happen -- how festering resentments,  lack of money, a need for control  and other factors can easily change seemingly decent people into monsters.  She employs the use of contrast and irony to great effect, she spends a great deal of time in her characters' heads  so that the reader can see exactly how such behavior is justified, and through it all, she never has to resort to graphic detail to get Harriet's horrific situation across to the reader.

To say I walked away from this novel completely floored is an understatement.  One the one hand, it was extremely disturbing in the sense that it's amazing how anyone could do what these people did for the sake of money without ever batting an eye.  On the other, this book was so well done that even without knowing anything about the case, I could see it all happening right in front of me.

I love these old books and I am in awe that Valancourt continues to find such great works to bring back into print. I highly, highly recommend this novel to anyone who is appreciative of good writing, to anyone who reads and enjoys writers of the Interwar period, and to anyone who wants something far above ordinary crime fiction. It's also a great choice for people who enjoy crime fiction based on real cases.  Oh my god, people, this is one of the best historically-based novels ever.