Wednesday, August 15, 2018

*2 Detectives: Astro, the Master of Mysteries, by Gelett Burgess and Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader, by Max Rittenberg



9781616461034
Coachwhip Publications, 2011
622 pp
paperback

My latest stop along my journey into crime/mystery fiction of yesteryear brought me to this book, which despite its hefty weight and 600-plus page length turned out to be an ahhhhh read.  First of all, these books are early examples of stories in the psychic detective zone (Astro, The Master of Mysteries was published in 1912; Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader came out in 1913); second, they both have this lovely early pulp vibe, and the third reason is that the plots of these stories are so out there that reading them is just pure pleasure for someone like myself who thrives on this stuff.

Even heftier than the weight of this book, the true title of Astro, The Master of Mysteries goes like this:

The Master of Mysteries; Being an Account of the Problems Solved by Astro, Seer of Secrets, and His Love Affair with Valeska Wynne, His Assistant



from Public Domain Superheroes
and there they are, the two main characters.  Of course, there's much more to this book than the romance between Astro and Valeska; in fact, we only pick up a vague idea of his feelings for her as the stories progress, right up until the very end when he starts dropping not-so-veiled hints.  In the publisher's note before the beginning of Astro, The Master of Mysteries, we're told that when this book was first published in 1912, it was done so anonymously.  It also provides another clue:
"The Introduction ... suggests there are three cryptograms hidden in the text. Two of these are known and easily discovered. (The first provides the name of the author, Gelett Burgess.) The third cryptogram remains a puzzle." 
In  Classic Mystery Stories (Dover, 1999)  editor Douglas G. Greene provides the way to solve the first two cryptograms, but goes on to say that he doesn't believe that anyone has "yet discovered the third cypher."  So we know we have mysteries within a book of mysteries before we even turn the first page.  Greene also reveals that
"Victor Berch, the scholar of popular fiction, has discovered that the Astro "Seer of Secrets" stories, were first published in 1905-1906 issues of The Sunday Magazine under the pseudonym Alan Braghampton"
and that Astro's real name is Astrogen Kerby. (131)  For a quick look at an Astro story published under the name of Braghampton, you can click here.

While I won't go into the twenty-four stories specifically, Astro is a medium whose spiel runs like this:
"...there are waves of the ether, --N-rays, X-rays, acitinic and ultraviolet vibrations, to which I am exceedingly susceptible.  I have an inner sense and an esoteric knowledge of life and its mysteries that is hidden from all who have not lived for cycles and eons in solitude and contemplation with the Mahatmas of the Himalayas!" 
He is adored by New York society, wears a turban and robes, and is fond of the hookah; he often refers to himself as the "Mahatma of the Fourth Sphere," is a "skilled and artistic musician," reads constantly,  and has a working knowledge of most subjects.  He's also a complete fake, aided by his assistant Valeska, and as the book goes along, he schools her in the art of his own charlatanry, all the while dropping hints to her that he's in love with her. Together, and often with the help of a police detective whose career Astro has helped to boost, they solve a wide-ranging variety of different mysteries that make for hours of fun reading.

Next up is Max Rittenberg's Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader.  Wycherley is an interesting character who blends science, psychology, and his ability as a "mental healer" in solving problems, but he detests the idea of being considered as a detective. As we learn,
"Detective work was strongly distasteful to him unless it were to open out fresh experiences in the realm of the human mind."
 He can also astrally project, but it's his reading of auras that often provides all he needs to know about a subject.   According to Robert Sampson in his Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines Volume 2: Strange Days, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984),   Wycherley made his first appearance in The London Magazine in March 1911, finding his way ("leaped the Atlantic," as Sampson says) into The Blue Book  later that same year.  (47)

The Blue Book Magazine, June 1911 
Wycherley refers to himself as a "specialist," but notes that his name would "not be found on the British register...", and that he is called upon throughout the world, "wherever there is call for my services as a mental healer."  As Rittenberg explains,
"The mental healer was a combination of scientist and humanitarian which is far from usual. As the latter, his warm human sympathies went out unceasingly to the weak, the oppressed, the suffering, the sick of body and the sick of mind. But as a scientist he would for the time being forget the patient in the subject."
We also learn that in his "younger days" he had to fight the "intense" prejudices of the English medical profession against "anything approaching hypnotism or mental suggestion..." and even though he's not on the registers, he keeps a consulting room in London. He also has a villa on the private Isola Salvatore on Lake Rovellasco where his patients often come for help.  He moves in and out of the highest circles of society and government, and for the most part, in his quest to heal minds (his life's work), often leaves it to people to do their duty, to do what is right.  This particular characteristic of Wycherley's is quite interesting, and says a great deal about the Edwardian milieu in which Rittenberg wrote.  As far as the stories go, they take him to several different places, with a wide variety of cases.  The first case, for example, finds him at Isola Salvatore where he does something that reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; while later he'll find himself in Felsbrunnen where he is thrust into the midst of a most bizarre and dastardly secret in an old castle.   He does have a strange quirk: he will sort of put himself into a trance to puzzle out a problem, often locking out the outside world except for the pain caused by a lit cigarette burning in his hands that wakes him up and brings him back around.  The cases themselves are most interesting, as we watch this man combine science, psychoanalysis, and often (it seems) downright mysticism to bring about some sort of resolution.  These are absolutely not your average crime stories, and well worth reading to serious pulp fans or fans of stories involving scientific or psychic detectives

Hats off to Tim Prasil at Coachwhip for collecting these two very obscure books and putting them into one volume.  I had so much fun here, although it did take me a while to warm up to Dr. Wycherley until "The Countess Plunges," which has such an amazing solution that I couldn't help but to be impressed.  Astro, on the other hand, I loved immediately, because you know right from the start that he is a complete fraud, and the fun is not only in watching how he solves the cases he's given but also in watching him teach Valeska his bag of tricks.   The book as a whole is most likely a niche read for diehard early pulp fans and people like me who are interested in off-the-beaten-path kinds of early crime/mystery fiction, but anyone who falls into those categories will absolutely love this book.

Recommended for fellow niche readers.  Have a great time with it -- I certainly did.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

three from the beachbag

My most recent reads are not from the distant past, but rather more contemporary books.  From time to time I do detach myself from yesteryear to keep up with what's out there right now -- rare these days but it does happen.

9781782271970
Pushkin Vertigo, 2017
originally published 1952 as La Pelouse
translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie
paperback, 154 pp


I love Frédéric Dard's books, and have bought everything of his that's been translated and available.   The King of Fools, while in my opinion not his best book, is still quite good, and definitely one not to miss.  This story is narrated by the main character Jean-Marie Valaise, a sales rep for an American firm that sells adding machines in Europe. As the story opens, he is on the off side of the on again/off again relationship with his girlfriend Denise -- the two were supposed to have been on holiday on the Côte d'Azur, but rather than cancelling his trip, Jean-Marie decides to go anyway.  He's not sad exactly, but as he notes, he's experiencing "a feeling of intense disenchantment," which has left him "weak and vulnerable." I knew the minute I read that phrase that something would happen with him, and I wasn't wrong.  While inside of a restaurant, he notices a young woman, Marjorie Faulks, getting into his car, rushes out and confronts her.  As it happens, she's made an honest mistake -- her car is nearly a twin of his.  She leaves, but they meet again at the roulette table of a casino, and then again when she comes to his hotel to pick up the beachbag she's left in his car.  He can't help himself -- while nothing happens, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to this woman and after learning that she'll be in Edinburgh alone for a while before her husband is able to join her, decides that he'll go too.  He explains what's going on in his head to Denise, who's recently arrived; after four days together he makes his move and rushes off to Scotland to find Marjorie. What happens after he arrives is the meat of this novel, and makes Jean-Marie realize that he had "followed the path of madness at every turn."

A definite noir page turner for sure, but the thing is that I figured out (in part) what was going to happen, so it was a bit of a letdown. That's certainly not Dard's fault; you can blame it on my years of crime fiction reading.  At the same time, there were still a couple of surprises in store, especially with happens at the end of the story, which actually made me laugh.  Clever? Indeed. 

Next up is The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason, which is the second book in his new series following The Shadow District, and for me, it's another really good book by one of my favorite Scandinavian writers.



9781250124043
St. Martin's/ Minotaur, 2018
translated by Victoria Cribb
356 pp, hardcover

The Shadow Killer and its predecessor The Shadow District, are both what I call historical crime fiction, and while it's true that The Shadow District starts out as a contemporary read, it is a blend of both present and past, and I've come to realize that this is a hallmark of pretty much all of Arnaldur Indridason's books. It was true in his Inspector Erlendur novels, and it's certainly the case in this newest one, which continues the series featuring Detective Flóvent of Reykjavik's CID ("the only detective...") and Thorson, an MP who is a West Icelander from Manitoba whose parents had migrated to Canada.  Whereas in the previous book the two had already been working together, Flóvent and Thorson meet for the first time here, as they team up to solve the case of a murdered traveling salesman found shot in the eye.   As Flóvent muses, "Murders didn't happen every day in Reykjavik," so he wants to do things right.  Set during the American occupation of Iceland, Thorson is put on the case since the bullet which killed the salesman had come from a Colt .45, "the standard-issue sidearm carried by American servicemen."  There are already enough problems with "the Situation" (in Icelandic ástandið) between Icelandic women and the military; now, Thorson's superior needs him to stay on the investigation just in case it turns out that the killer is an American.  As he says, "Not all of the locals are happy about our presence here."  As the case progresses, a darker, uglier side of history raises its head; but the book also examines change, especially in terms of the impact on the Icelandic population from the presence of foreign troops in a previously closed society.   I have to say that I'm a bit flabbergasted by the 3.3 average rating given to this book by goodreads readers, because a) it deserves so much better, and b) it is so rich in history, something  that anyone who reads Indridason's work should have known before even turning the first page, since as I said, it's sort of a hallmark of his in all of his work.  Oh, and don't miss the reference to the subject of Hannah Kent's excellent Burial Rites found here.  

And finally, book #3, Tangerine by Christine Mangan.


9780062686664
Ecco, 2018
388 pp
hardcover

Well, as much as I try to find books that I think I will enjoy, I have to admit that this wasn't one of them.  Have you ever read a book and come to a certain point where you say to yourself "I've read this before?" It's not even that I figured out the plot with this one -- it's that I'd actually read this before.  Change the sex, change the location and no matter what, it still comes out like a version of Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, so much so that at one point I considered putting it down because I just knew with certainty how it was going to end. I hung on through the end, and I was so right.  Mix that with some of the elements of a Victorian gothic/sensation novel and well, that's this book.  It wasn't all bad, though ... the backstory of the two main characters was very nicely done and had the author proceeded along a different path than Highsmith's, it could have been right up my alley.  Sadly she didn't and it wasn't.  Not one I can recommend, really, and I feel bad about that, but it is what it is. 


Saturday, July 14, 2018

*Scientific detectives of yesteryear

"There is a distinct place for science in the detection of crime."
                                                        -- Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective 243



The name John Thorndyke should be well known by avid crime/mystery fiction fans, but what about Luther Trant or Craig Kennedy?  What they have in common is that all three use science in some fashion to solve various mysteries,  Thorndyke in England and  Trant and Kennedy in America.



9780755103744
House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1907
214 pp
paperback


 R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark is the first of twenty one full-length novels to feature Dr. John Thorndyke; there are also a number of short story collections in which he does his scientific magic.  Freeman noted in the introduction to his 1909 Dr. Thorndyke's Cases that his stories have, "for the most part, a medico-legal motive,"  and that the methodology used in solving them is similar to what is "employed in actual practice by medical jurists."   According to Mike Grost, whose A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection is one of my go-to places online and  visited quite often when I am looking for books to read, Freeman was the "founder" of the "school of detectival realism." In that same introduction to Dr. Thorndyke's Cases, Freeman goes on to say that "the experiments described have in all cases been performed by me," so obviously this is a man whose feet were firmly on the ground sciencewise and someone who knew what he was talking about.  

The case of The Red Thumb Mark centers around the theft of a parcel of diamonds ("stones of exceptional size and value"  from the safe belonging to a Mr. John Hornby.  Whoever stole them seems to have either cut or scratched his thumb in the process, leaving "two drops of blood" at the bottom of the safe.  Along with a couple of "bloody smears" left on a paper, there was also a "remarkably clear imprint" of a bloody thumb mark.  Hornby's nephew Reuben has been blamed for the crime. Unfortunately for him, he'd earlier provided his aunt with a thumbprint for her Thumbograph (sort of like an autograph book using thumbprints) which matched the print from the safe. Fortunately, while his lawyer advises him to "plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court..." since there was no possible way for a defense case to stand up against the evidence, Reuben swears that he is innocent, and Dr. Thorndyke agrees to take the case. 

I wish I had a lot of time to reflect on what's in this book aside from the mystery at hand and Thorndyke's scientific work. I'll just buzz through a few things here -- Thorndyke's views on the presumption of an accused man's innocence, the problem of  "hooligans" on the streets of London, and criticism of the Edwardian judicial system. Reader beware: the solution is easy to figure out, but that's okay -- there's plenty of other things going on this book that completely make it a worthwhile read. 


Moving on, we come to one of our own American crime solvers, Luther Trant. 


9781332612697
Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1910
364 pp, paperback

The authors of this book, Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg, were both reporters for the Chicago Tribune, so it's no surprise that most of the action takes place in this city.  There were, according to Robert Sampson in his Yesterday's Faces, Volume 2: Strange Days (1984), twelve original Luther Trant stories (17).  The Achievements of Luther Trant leaves out three of them, but 

original 1910 cover, courtesy of L.W. Currey
in the space of the nine stories we do have,  we watch as the main character Luther Trant evolves from a "callow assistant in a psychological laboratory" into a man whose fame has spread so widely that he could
 "not now leave his Club, even on a Sunday, without disappointing somewhere, in the great-pulsating city, an appeal to him for help in trouble."  
Indeed, after his first case, "The Man in the Room", in which he proved that a suicide was actually a murder,  young Trant asks for a leave of absence from his university job to "try the scientific psychology again," putting his talents to work in solving the mystery of the murder of Chicago's prosecuting attorney.  If that is successful, he notes, he'll resign and "keep after crime -- in the new way."

As we learn from the authors in the foreword, Trant's methods are real, as are "the tests he employs," and are
"precisely such as are being used daily in the psychological laboratories of the great universities -- both in America and Europe -- by means of which modern men of science are at last disclosing and defining the workings of that oldest of world-mysteries -- the human mind." 
 His research involves a number of experiments which measure physical changes in someone under stress that may be slight enough to go unnoticed by the human eye.  He believes that in scientific psychology
"there is no room for mistakes...Instead of analyzing evidence by the haphazard methods of the courts, we can analyze it scientifically, exactly, incontrovertibly -- we can select infallibly the true from the false."
In short, his idea is that by using these methods, which generally include some sort of "apparatus" or "device," including plethysmographs, automatographs, galvanometers (all real -- I looked them up), etc. (one time adding banana oil to the mix),  scientific psychology will be the future of police work. While most of the cops have tried everything but failed to solve the cases Trant is eventually brought into, they also start out wary of his methods. For example, in "The Empty Cartridges," one policeman asks him if he'll be doing his "psycho-palmistry," but has to sort of eat his words when all is said and done.

Of course with nine stories, some are better than others, and my favorite in this collection is "The Chalchihuitl Stone," which in a very big way reads like a cross between a mystery story and a good, old-fashioned pulp fiction yarn, complete  with ancient Aztecs and an expedition to Central America.  Another that reads as a pulp adventure is the above mentioned "The Empty Cartridges," which I have to say is also one of my favorites in this volume.  Some are pretty easy to figure out for the armchair detective, but all in all, it's a great collection that would likely have remained in oblivion had it not been for Hugo Gernsbach, who, according to Sampson, "found these device-oriented cases fascinating," and allotted five of them space in his Scientific Detective Monthly, with four more added  later to Amazing Detective Tales.  Below is a reproduction of Scientific Detective Monthly with  the red-haired Trant at the helm.



from Internet Speculative Fiction Database
I do need to say that while I enjoyed these stories tremendously and that I had a lot of fun reading them, there are several spots where the racist attitudes of the time are made very clear, so beware.  One more thing: had I known before buying my edition from Forgotten Books (a publisher I LOVE),  I would have picked up the Coachwhip Books collection, 2 Detectives, where Trant's adventures are paired with those of Inspector Addington Peace.  I know there are also e-versions of this book; online I'm not sure about.


If you look at the top banner on the photo above, you'll see two names: Arthur B. Reeve and Craig Kennedy, which takes us to book number three, volume 1 of  Craig Kennedy: Scientific Detective.  




9780857060136
Leonaur, 2010
448 pp
paperback

My edition comes from another favorite press, Leonaur, and it is the first of seven volumes of stories to feature "The American Sherlock Holmes."  Kennedy's first appearance was in in Cosmopolitan Magazine, December 1910, and his cases continued to be published through 1935 in a variety of different publications.   At the beginning of the section of stories called "The Silent Bullet," Kennedy offers readers his "theories," in which he says that "there is a distinct place for science in the detection of crime." He plans to
"apply science to the detection of crime, the same sort of methods by which you trace out the presence of a chemical, or run an unknown germ to earth."
Like Holmes, Kennedy  has a sort of sidekick guy, reporter Walter Jameson; unlike Holmes, as we learn in J. K. Van Dover's You Know My Method: The Science of the Detective (1994),
"Craig Kennedy does not search for identifiable cigarette ashes in rooms with twisted carpets, half empty wine glasses, torn bell pulls, and French doors slightly ajar." (172)
Kennedy is a professor at a New York University, and bemoans the fact that "no one has ever endowed a professorship in criminal science in any of our large universities."  As a detective, he investigates a variety of different crimes, ranging from poisonings to arson to fake mediums, always applying the latest science, scientific principles and methodology in each case.  I will say that in more than one case, I was actually appalled at how science was used at the time, especially in the story "The Silent Bullet," when Kennedy spoke of how he used blood tests to determine that the criminal was a "negro waiter."  This is quite frankly pure scientific racism, in which Kennedy reveals that in "adding to our knowledge of evolution," the Carnegie Institute had come up with a study linking the "blood of a certain branch of the human race" to "the blood of a certain group of monkeys, the chimpanzees," with "the blood of another branch" linking to "the gorilla."  By and large, though, most of the stories aren't like this, and actually in most cases have intriguing plots, some crazy enough (like one of my favorites here, "The Invisible Ray") to be great for readers of old pulp fiction.

All three books are but samples of what's out there in the realm of scientific detective stories, and aside from the reflected racism of the time, are actually quite enjoyable.  All of these books I would recommend mainly to people who are interested in the history of mystery/crime fiction, or to serious readers of old pulp fiction. 




Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Blue Room, by Georges Simenon

9780141399041
Penguin, 2015
originally published as La chambre bleue, 1964
Translated by Linda Coverdale
156 pp

paperback

"How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more -- and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle...?"

A hot sunny day in August, a hotel room, and two people have just finished making love, "bodies still flushed with sensation and minds slightly dazed."  Caught up in his own sort of post-sex floatiness, haze, afterglow -- whatever you want to call it -- Tony Falcone is dabbing at the blood on his lip where his lover/mistress over the past eleven months, Andrée Despierre has bitten him, barely listening to her and quietly responding as she asks him a series of questions, words that to him "hardly mattered," since for him, "They were talking for the pleasure of it, as one does after making love..."  and
"Right now, nothing seemed important to him -- he felt good, in tune with the universe."
Still in this frame of mind, where "only the present mattered,"  halfheartedly listening to Andrée, she asks him if he could really spend the rest of his life with her, and he, in a non-thinking sort of way answers "Sure..."  But his happiness is interrupted when looking out the window overlooking the Place de Gare in the town of Triant, he sees something that causes him to grab his clothes, run out of the room and head to his car -- Andrée's husband Nicolas, who is heading right for the hotel.  It may seem that Tony's managed to escape, but in reality, he's already trapped in a nightmare. He just doesn't know it yet. 

However, we know that something has happened just three pages in as Tony describes a "psychiatrist appointed by the examining magistrate" asking him questions about that day, and "studying his reactions."  It's that series of questions, the conversation between Andrée and Tony that he is asked to remember, but why we don't exactly know.  It is that scene which he will be called upon to "relive ten, twenty times and more -- ... every time in a different frame of mind and from a different angle." And indeed, the conversation crops up several times throughout this story, and as we begin to learn what has happened that puts Tony in front of an examining magistrate, it takes on more meaning each time.

But Tony, who is married to a wife he loves and has a young child, struggles to make everyone understand about his affair with Andrée and the blue room, where for him,
"nothing was real. Or rather, its reality was of a different nature, incomprehensible anywhere else." 
Outside of that space they'd never been a couple; as he says, "they were an 'us' only in a bed" there.  For him, their lovemaking was intoxicating; both shared "an animal pleasure" he'd never known with any other woman.  She is, to Tony, the fulfillment of his sexual desire and passion.  But more importantly, as things progress, we hear from Tony that no one can really understand the present without an understanding of the past.  As he says,
"They thought, all these people in Poitiers, policemen, magistrates, doctors, even that unnerving lady psychologist, that they were going to establish the truth, when they knew nothing about the Despierres, the Formiers, and so many others who were important in their own ways."
As in most of his work, Simenon launches us quickly into the past, which ties directly to the present while the principals try to get to the truth.  But we are quick to learn that truth here isn't exactly absolute -- although Tony tries to be as honest and candid as possible, past and present circumstances are "True and false, like all the rest of it."   But the author does something more here, taking us beyond the past and present into the future, and does it so skillfully that it just becomes part of the flow even as he makes the shifts.

 With Simenon's gift for detail, his focus on human nature and his characters, his ability to produce a sort of claustrophobic atmosphere that only becomes more confining as time goes on, and his excellent economy of prose where every word, every phrase is carefully measured and never wasted, The Blue Room  offers an intense study of a man who unwittingly creates his own hell and becomes trapped, with no possibility of escape;  as he is continuously questioned, he is also forced to face his own role and his own responsibility for what has happened.

The length of this book might fool you into thinking that you can buzz through it in a day, but don't do it.  There is so much going on here and it needs to be given your utmost attention because everything, and I do mean everything in this story matters.  I did about 40 pages per day just to absorb it all, and even after a second read, I'm sure there's much more that I could get out of it.  It is, quite frankly, genius writing, but then again, most of Simenon's books are.

Beyond highly recommended, especially for readers who want a challenge and who want to take the time to get underneath what seems to be a fairly cut-and-dried story. Trust me -- it is anything but.




Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding x 2: Widow's Mite and Who's Afraid?

9781944520342
Stark House Press, 2018
263 pp

paperback

As always, I have to begin by thanking the lovely people at Stark House Press for my copy of this book.  The work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is not very well known among today's crime/mystery readers, but Stark House has made a great effort to get her work out there, publishing a whopping sixteen of her mystery novels (of which I plan to buy the eleven I don't have) in volumes consisting of two novels each. 

It is genuinely a shame that this author's work has been left to fade into obscurity.  She was championed by the great Raymond Chandler who said, as we learn from The Guardian,  that for his money, "she's the top suspense writer of them all," and that "Her characters are wonderful."   Writing in the introduction to this book, Gregory Shepard notes that Holding is
"the precursor to the entire women's psychological suspense genre, and authors like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell owe her a very large debt of gratitude."  
And indeed, we do.  I was looking over Amazon reviews of some of Holding's novels, and there was one that complained that Holding should "show, not tell," which sort of threw me for a loop for a minute, since evidently the reader didn't read carefully or just plain missed the point.  Holding shows plenty, but it's what goes on in the minds of her characters that holds the most importance in her stories -- as the intro says, it's the "psychological underpinnings" that "form the basis of the mystery."  I easily figured that out on my own while reading, since I didn't read this book's introduction until I'd turned the last page.  And without getting too deep into either, both novels in this volume center on the old adage of "oh what a tangled web we weave ..." with  the respective main characters hedging about telling the truth about what they know about the crimes.   They each have their own motivations for doing so and their lies send them down a rather slippery slope, but again, while they know that (quoting the introduction again) that " 'There ought to be simply a right thing to do, or a wrong thing,' ..." Holding knows human nature well enough that she also realizes that "this is never the case, that it's never that simple."



from Pop Sensation


In Widow's Mite (originally published 1953),  single mom/widow Tilly MacDonald is at the home of her cousin Sibyl Fleming with her young son Robert.  Sibyl is high strung, she isn't the nicest of people, and Tilly is dreading the thought of being alone with her, especially after Sibyl knocks back a few drinks when she would
"either cry, about the ingratitude, the treachery, the intrigues against her, or she would become arrogant and domineering."
 On the particular day that begins this novel, Sibyl decides she needs a nap, and despite Tilly's warning to the contrary, also decides that she needs to have one of her pills to help her sleep.  There's one left, so Tilly hands it over and Sibyl falls asleep pretty much right away.  Tilly's surprised that it took so little time for the pill to work, but she goes out to be with her son Robert before the arrival of other guests at the house.  But later, in the middle of the party, when someone goes to check on Sibyl who hasn't come downstairs yet, they discover that Sibyl's not asleep, but dead.  When the police arrive, and  Tilly learns that Sibyl's death came about as a result of cyanide poisoning, she's in a quandary -- if she reveals that it was she who gave Sibyl that last pill, the police might believe she had killed her, and then who would be left to take care of her little boy?  It doesn't help that other weirdness is going on all around her, done by someone intent on putting the blame on her shoulders.  And of course, there's much much more in this novel that touches on other issues, with parenting high on the list.


from Pop Sensation

This old cover of Who's Afraid (1940) says without words exactly what's going on this book, expressing what I thought the main character was going through during the course of this story.  Never mind that once again we find ourselves with a woman who has information relevant to a murder and doesn't speak up; in this book, deception is the rule of the game.  Miss Susie Alban,
age twenty-one, hasn't had much luck in finding a job; that all changes when she responds to an advertisement for a "Young lady, with unquestionable social and cultural background."  She is found by her prospective employer, Mr. Chiswick, to be "exactly the type he had had in mind" for the job, which was to sell his correspondence course, which "offered to the Women of America a system for developing the individual charm that lies dormant in each of you."  Gateways is the name of program, and the job requires Susie to travel to different cities and sell the program to the more prominent women of the area.   On her first outing, she is on the train to South Fairfield where she meets four different men who show her attention; she is convinced to change hotel plans and instead stay at a local boarding house.  All seems well, right up until the moment when the group leaves the train, when we read this:
"I'll have to get rid of this girl, one of the four men in the car was thinking."
And oh, did I ever perk up here.  Note -- there's no name, no description except for "one of the four men in the car," so we have our first mystery. Who is speaking, and why does he feel a need to "get rid of this girl?"  But wait, there's more.  The first appointment scheduled for Susie is at the home of a Mrs. Person, who along with her husband Mr. Person, doesn't seem too put out to see her, that is, right up until she mentions the name of her employer, Mr. Chiswick.  At that moment, Mr. Person screams at her to get out, threatening to kill Mr. Chiswick before he slams the door. Walking home in the dark, Susie meets up with one of the men she'd met earlier on the train but only after she stumbles upon a body lying near the trees on the side of the road, whom, it turns out, is the same Mr. Person that had so rudely thrown her out.  While the landlord of Susie's boarding house gets pinned for the crime, Susie holds information that she decides against giving to the police, and makes her way to the next town on her schedule, where once again her prospective client goes crazy with the mention of Mr. Chiswick, and once again she meets up with the men she'd met on the train.  But which of them is the killer? Why is he following her?  Why will she not believe that she is in some sort of danger even though she is told more than once?  And what's up with the mysterious Mr. Chiswick?   The answers to these questions will absolutely not be divulged until the very end.

Who's Afraid? is my favorite of the two, although both seriously and most intensely held me until the last pages.  I'll admit that in the cases of both women, I found myself almost yelling at the pages because I was so completely frustrated at times, thinking "why don't you just listen?" or "just tell and get it over with."  But Sanxay Holding's not going to let us off so easily here and that's the key to reading her work -- it's all about what's in our characters' heads and all about how their decisions take them nearly to the point of no return, usually at some sort of personal peril or some sort of consequence to the people in their immediate orbit.   Quite honestly, I love her books so far -- they may seem somewhat tame in comparison of those of Highsmith or Rendell, but then again, it's very easy to see how she laid the foundations for their work with her own. And now that Stark House Press has made her books once more available, serious crime readers are fortunate to have easy access to them.  This woman's legacy and her books deserve much more than to remain  sadly forgotten and unread.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cult X, by Fuminori Nakamura

9781616957865
Soho Crime, 2018
originally published 2014
translated by Kalau Almony
505 pp

hardcover
The key word is patience with this novel; my own was sorely tested more than once but in the long run, once you get what's going on underneath all of the action here, it's definitely worth the read.  I'm going to just spit this out -- I've enjoyed other books by this author much more than I did this one; for example, his The Thief is the novel that kept me buying books by this author;  Evil and the Mask is just plain great,  and Last Winter We Parted  is also excellent.  Then again, Cult X takes a decidedly different turn than Nakamura's other books, so it's sort of unfair to line it up with its predecessors. 

As the story begins, Toru Narazaki is at a bar with another guy, Kobayashi, who we learn very quickly is a private investigator.  It seems that Kobayashi was hired to find a missing woman by the name of Ryoko Tachibana, who had
"vanished from Narazki's life, who had hinted at suicide and then disappeared."
 Some weeks earlier, he'd seen her, but rather than actually talk to her, he opted to tail her, and she'd led him to an old apartment building.  Now she's gone again and Narazaki is looking for her himself. One thing he knows for sure is that Ryoko had been part of a group that "seemed to be some sort of religious organization," though not registered as such. He makes his way to the mansion where the group meets with a plan to "pretend I'm interested" while asking questions about the missing woman "a little at a time." The group is headed by Matsuo, whose group is focused more on eastern philosophical teachings and pondering such questions as "Is there a god?", not at all the "religious fringe organization"  Narazaki had imagined.  He also realizes that it was likely that the missing woman wouldn't have been "involved with this kind of group" and wonders why she "had to vanish."  But we learn something very interesting here as well, which will have a bearing on later events:  he'd actually
"hoped to stumble into something wilder, something that would change him completely. Something that would make him lose all concern for morals and ethics and the confused human condition. Something that would obliterate him and the life he had lived until now."
Eventually he is led by a woman in the group claiming to know Ryoko's whereabouts to a sort of rival group without a name, known only as Cult X. The journey there was strange enough, complete with sheets over the car windows so he couldn't know his final destination, but once he gets there, he finds a group that prefers more earthly, fleshly matters to those connected to the spiritual.  It isn't too long until Narazaki is taken under the wing of the leader who tells him somewhat cryptically  "I need you."   It's here that things truly begin in earnest; it is the beginning of a what could become a long descent into hell.  And then, there's a revealing twist to look forward to about the leader himself....

Buddhist hell painting,  Jigoku, from Gokuraku as depicted in the inside covers of Cult X,  For more details, you can go to Yokai

The barebones outline here might lead you to wonder why there are over 500 pages if that's all there is to it, but trust me, I haven't even begun to approach what's in this book.  For one thing, there are Matsuo's lectures, which reflect how his approach to the philosophies he's teaching stem from an earlier period of his life.  In contrast with the peaceful, soul-searching approach taken by his group, we also come to understand why the leader of Cult X has chosen his way, with stories also linked to his past.  Contrasts also appear in the members of each group, which also lead to an understanding of why people would be so willing to join cults in the first place.   All of that is wonderfully done, and weird person that I am (and it also might have something to do with the fact that I had a minor field of religious studies with an emphasis on Asian religions and philosophy), I actually enjoyed the backstories and the lectures much, much more than the elements that eventually turn this book into a thriller; having said that, I did find the story of the leader of Cult X kind of long in the telling.  But what I enjoyed most was the focus on religion and nationalism, and what Mr. Nakamura has to say about predatory capitalism,  because he's totally spot on.    Reading what some other readers thought about this book though, I see I am somewhat of the lone stranger here in that sense. 

I also have to give space to parts of the book that seriously infuriated me.  My biggest issue is that while I understand sex is a commonly-used tool of submission in many cults, a point that is hammered home here again and again, do we seriously to be witness to a rape, or do we really need six and a half pages describing wet lady parts, finger sucking, etc. etc.?  I mean, jeez, I'm not a prude and sex is part of most novels these days, but I found it all to be so unnecessary.    One more thing: I'm not a huge fan of thrillers because usually some of the elements involved are pretty out there, and I found that to be the case in this book.   And while I could buy some of the thriller elements here, and I did get somewhat caught up in the building suspense, there was one part of the plan in particular that was just too much, that made me do the internal eyeroll while thinking "yeah, like that could happen," with the sarcastic tone very loud in my head.  However, I did think that the author made his point about why people are drawn to extremism, and did an excellent job of it. 

I will recommend this book, but a) prepare to be in for the long haul and b) beware of the male-dominated mindset that permeates Cult X that is not at all pretty.





Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Syndicate, by Clarence Cooper, Jr.

9781948596046
Molotov Editions, 2018
originally published 1960
140 pp

paperback: my many, many thanks to  Dominic Stansberry at Molotov Editions for my copy of this book.


"It was no use trying to get around the facts: something was wrong with me. And whatever it was was scary as hell..."


June 15th, three days from now, the small press Molotov editions will be releasing The Syndicate, by Clarence Cooper.  It's highly likely that regular readers of crime fiction have never heard of Clarence Cooper, who wrote this book in 1960 under the pseudonym of Robert Chestnut.  He had written another book prior to this one, which, as the back cover blurb reveals, "was a literary sensation."  The Syndicate, however, was seen as "too raw,"  a negative that would have been "possibly damaging" to Cooper's writing career, hence the name change.

 Clarence Cooper has also been neglected among scholars of African-American crime fiction,  because even in a quick survey of four different reference books I have that pertain to the topic,  Cooper's name turns up in only one.  And even there, in Justin Gifford's  excellent Pimping Fictions: African-American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, Cooper is acknowledged only as one of a "number of black crime fiction authors who were contemporaries of Chester Himes," who have "remained off the radar of most literary and cultural scholars" (180).   That is a shame, really, since if The Syndicate is an example of what came out of this author's head, he should be much better known than he is, by readers and especially by scholars in this field.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, The Syndicate is beyond raw, reaching down into the grittiest depths of darkness as it pulls us into the mind of an extremely troubled and damaged man, Andy Sorrell.  He's been called on by his boss to take care of three men who have double crossed "the Syndicate," an organized-crime group out of New York.   Andy will be paid ten grand for his work, once he finds these crooks who had  made off with half a million dollars "rightfully" belonging to the Syndicate after a "bank job" in New Jersey.  He is then supposed to recover the money and return it to his boss.  After making his way to the coastal town of Hollisworth,
"... a solid little city, with the exception that it belongs to the syndicate, lock, stock, and barrel"
complete with crooked cops, Sorrell begins his quest at his contact's club where he literally beats the information out of a stripper,  Tina, who knows the whereabouts of one of the men he's looking for and won't talk.   Afterwards, he has a moment of regret for hurting her, but he has to focus on his targets.

His anger at Tina actually has very little to do with his anger over her not talking, but stems from the death of his pregnant girlfriend, Carolyn.  As Sorrell reveals, it was Tina
 "so closely resembling Carolyn, that's what got me. She had not right to look just like her, or to say those things like Carolyn might have said! No right!"
Sorrell is constantly haunted by Carolyn.  Early on in the story he hears her talking to him, her voice coming from the sea, telling him that he's "horrid and brutal and a murderer."  She also tells him that when he kills, he's killing "more than one person."  As she puts it,
"You're trying to kill that thing within you."
Exactly what "that thing" inside of Sorrell is is fleshed out more as the story goes along, but it's evident early on that Carolyn's death two years earlier has wounded him to the core and it has played havoc with his mind. 

The Syndicate is a twisty, brutally dark novel.   It is one of those stories where it's difficult to know who is telling the truth or who is trustworthy, since betrayals abound.  Although it's laced with violence that is hard to read at times, the plotting, the pacing and the story are all solid -- not a misstep anywhere.  Yet, aside from the plot it's what's happening within that is utterly fascinating.  We find ourselves inside the mind of a brutal killer, who knows that there's something wrong with him, and that whatever it is,
"it was getting closer and closer to me, ever since two years ago and Carolyn."
I think it's this mix of Sorrell's battles with his own inner demons and the external forces that for reasons I won't spill here want to keep him from finishing the job he's been sent to do that makes this book unique in a big way.  It's definitely not just another dime-a-dozen, enforcer-goes-looking-for-who-screwed-the-mob sort of novel -- it's the author's simultaneous attention to what's going on inside of Sorrell that elevates this book to an entirely different level.

I'll be honest here -- The Syndicate is not an easy book to read because of some of things that happen between its covers;  there were times when I had to put the novel down for a while because of incidents of brutality against women that crop up a couple of times.  However, looking at it from the point of view that there is something in Sorrell's psychological makeup that causes these things to happen makes it a bit more easy to deal with on an emotional level.

This lost crime classic that is about to reappear shortly is well worth the attention of any crime fiction reader that enjoys dark, deep, and gritty -- the back cover likens him to Jim Thompson so that pretty much tells you what you need to know regarding what you might be getting into here.

One final note:  there is an excellent article about Clarence Cooper Jr. at The Guardian , where author Tony O'Neill notes that with some of his books coming back into print, "Clarence Cooper Jr., ignored and reviled in his own lifetime, is gradually being recognised as the great American novelist he is."  Let's hope that's the case, and let's also hope that there will be more of his books made available in the near future.  I hadn't even finished this book before I went and bought his The Farm. and my hat is off to Molotov Editions for bringing this novel back into print and rescuing it from its current state of "pulp oblivion."