Thursday, November 27, 2014

may she rest in peace: PD James has passed away at the age of 94

I've just read that P.D. James, who has entertained me for many, many years, has passed away.  You can read more here, but I will just say that not only have I enjoyed each and every Dalgliesh novel she's ever written, but I had just last week finished watching the dramatization of her Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Mystery.

rest in peace - and thank you

Monday, November 24, 2014

another really obscure writer: Marjorie Alan -- Dark Prophecy

MS Mill, 1945
originally published in England as Masked Murder
188 pages


Talk about obscure -- while researching this author, all I could find on her is the following:

real name: Doris Marjorie Bumpus
born: 1905
number of books: eight, published between 1945 and 1956 

One would think that a crime writer with eight novels under her belt would be more widely known, but I've scoured the internet and have come up with absolutely nothing other than what I've written here, absolutely bupkus on Bumpus. If anyone at all has any information about this author, please share -- I would love to know more.

I found my copy of Dark Prophecy online -- a true 1945 edition with a little tiny blurb about the printing just before page one --
"This book is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all government regulations controlling the use of paper and other materials."
-- a product of the War Production Board of the time, which 
"directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.[2] It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper[3]and plastics."
 So much for the history (although I do think it's kind of cool). Dark Prophecy, as I learned at the mysteryfile blog, falls under a subgenre I've never heard of called "Had I But Known." In fact, the review posted  there by William F. Deeck, says
Had I but known, I wouldn’t have begun the book. But unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey."
Well, I'm not so quick to shrug it off (I mean, seriously...what the hell kind of review is that?)  but Dark Prophecy reads like an English country-house murder mystery with a little hint of romance thrown in.  The main character of this story is Valerie Beech, formerly of Abbott's Rest, but now living in a bedsit in London. It seems that Valerie's father was up to his eyeballs in debt and sort of never told anyone; when he died, Valerie discovered that the family home had been mortgaged.  To try to cover the debt, she sold what furnishings she could, but  that didn't even come close to what the old man had owed. Now Valerie's a "hard-up business girl" in the city, so when she receives an invitation to a weekend house party at Wayfarers, the estate next to Abbott's Rest, she decides after some hedging back and forth to attend.  Wayfarers is the home of Frank and Carol Logan; Frank was once Valerie's fiancé until Carol stole him away. Because of Valerie's shame at losing Abbott's Rest and because of the marriage between Carol and Frank, she hasn't been back to that part of the country in a very long time, but she decides to go despite all of the past history.  The minute she gets on the train at Paddington she realizes "in a clear, definite premonitory flash," that she probably shouldn't go, but she does anyway.  Even though she's a bit uncomfortable at first, things go well for a while until hostess Carol receives a death threat in the mail. But even a death threat won't stop the festivities -- Carol has planned a lavish costume party. She dresses like a bride, wearing a black mask, and outfits Valerie in a "Moorish costume" with "wide mauve trousers and a yashmak," another word for a face-covering veil.  It seems like everyone is having a good time and Carol decides to play a trick on one of her male guests. She asks Valerie to exchange costumes with her -- and while Valerie is reluctant, she decides to play along with the gag.  While she's waiting for a signal to come downstairs and rejoin the party in her new garb, someone takes the opportunity to get rid of Carol in the room next door. Enter Inspector Ferris, who is a friend of one of the guests, and who has his work cut out for him with a large cast of potential killers -- and first on everyone's list, of course, is Valerie.

While the book's publication date is 1945, there's very little in the way of clues as to when the action in this novel actually takes place. My assumption is that it's set during the 1940s, however, I may be wrong here. There's pretty much nothing here that touches on World War II: the men at the house are all young, none of them have any wartime or post war-involvement  issues, and the war isn't even brought up anywhere.  While Valerie is obviously from an upper middle-class background and Wayfarers is filled with people who seem to be quite well off (at least one guest is an artist whose wife lives in London while he paints in the country), the only hint of any class issues is Valerie's father's financial problems that have set her apart from her former neighbors and sent her to London to work.

 Getting back to Deeck's review, I find it to be pretty harsh, considering that by his words " . . . unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey, " he probably never actually read it. True, the wording of the book will make you work a little harder while reading (but it's not nearly as stilted, for example, as something by John Dickson Carr), and true, the story takes pretty much forever after the murder to get to the solution. It's also a little too much romance for my taste, but to her credit, it's less simpering-heroine-type stuff than I expected.   When all is said and done, however,  Alan reveals that basic human nature doesn't really change underneath the veneer of  the well-kept lawns, the at-home tennis courts, and the Rolls Royces of the rich.

If  you can find a copy, and if you're a diehard classic British mystery fan or a fan of country-house murders  looking for another author to read, I'd say give it a try. I  plan on trying to hunt down some of her other works to add to my library of obscure women crime/mystery writers.  The fact that Alan is such an enigma actually appeals to me and makes me want to read more of her books.  Definitely not a novel for those who want a quick read.

Friday, November 14, 2014

pure vintage: Postscript to Poison, by Dorothy Bowers

Rue Morgue Press, 2005
originally published 1938
190 pp


Originally published in 1938,  Postscript to Poison is the first of only five books by British author Dorothy Bowers, who died only ten years later after a battle with tuberculosis.  Bowers had wanted to "make creative literary work" her career, but found herself the owner of  “a fairly regular spate of rejection slips from various editors”  instead.  She also read a great deal, and discovered an "intermittent" attraction to detective fiction, selecting "only ...the best." She eventually started writing mystery novels herself which ultimately led to her being inducted to the detection club in 1948, but her novels soon went out of print.   Thanks to Rue Morgue Press, her works live on and are widely available.  Sadly, she's been overlooked or forgotten at mainstream crime fiction/mystery  info sites like, an oversight which, imho, needs to be corrected. I've already ordered her second book in this series, Shadows Before, which I'm definitely looking forward to reading after having finished Postscript to Poison, so obviously it means that I enjoyed this one enough to merit another.

When the epigraph in the first chapter of a novel has to do with Lady Macbeth, it's definitely notice worthy. Good old Lady Macbeth -- that ambitious,  ruthless and very powerful woman -- could almost be an alter ego to the matriarch in this family drama. I say almost -- unlike Lady Macbeth, Cornelia Lackland is an elderly widow and she dies by the end of chapter two. It's only after her death that the full scale of her tyranny is revealed, which brings to light just how much everyone at Lacklands hates her, and with what I'd say is good reason. She probably would have made a good murderer had she not been a victim.

Before Mrs. Lackland dies, however, there is some monkey business at work in the town of Minsterbridge. Her physician, Dr. Faithful, has received a couple of nasty poison pen letters accusing him of poisoning his patient, and decides to turn them over to the police. While Mrs. Lackland had been ill, she'd recently been making a very good recovery, and was healthy enough to have been excited about the coming visit with her solicitor Mr. Rennie. But even though the good doctor has given her a good prognosis, he is called out to Lacklands one night only to find her dead.  He refuses to give a certificate of death, and calls for the coroner, ultimately leading to the involvement of Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe of Scotland Yard, who quickly discovers how very much the old lady was hated by just about everyone in the household and that she had a rather shady past.  He has to sort through not only this mess, but also has to find whoever may be responsible when a second death occurs.

the detection club  from
Postscript to Poison has its moments, but the author keeps the best one,  the revelation of the murderer, a secret up until the very end. There are so many people who qualify as suspects, all with motives, means and opportunity,  keeping the reader involved until all is said and done. With such a large cast of possibles, the red herrings can't help but multiply, so things are never dull.

Even though it's the 1930s, some Victorian attitudes still prevail in this novel, for example, with the use of the term "hysteria."  Our intrepid detective from New Scotland Yard has a "natural man's horror of hysteria," and is surprised when Mrs. Lackland's companion, Emily Bullen, doesn't live up to his expectations.   The same character is also described by the inspector as "a crafty, hysterical, harmful, but ultimately stupid type."  There are more uses of this word scattered through the book, but you get the idea.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how much of herself the author may have put into Bullen's description when she says
"She has all the traits of the disappointed spinster that has to face a future of starved affections and economic insecurity." 
According to Bowers'  bio at Rue Morgue Press,
"Like her sister and many of her Oxford friends, she never married. If there was ever a man in her life it was an aspect of her existence that she chose not to share with her friends. "
Furthermore, in a article from The Independent about forgotten authors, Christopher Fowler notes that
"Bowers struggled for years to find a job as history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling crossword puzzles." 
Then again, I could be totally wrong here, but these are a definitely a couple of interesting and possibly noteworthy parallels!

Postscript to Poison is definitely a yes for anyone interested in golden-age mysteries, in 1930s British crime,  and for anyone like myself who is or has become interested in rather obscure women writers of past decades.  It does have that sort of language that is pretty typical of golden-age mystery works which may seem sort of weighty for a modern reader, but the story does flow pretty well and the characters are all very well established.  It's also a fun whodunit loaded with clues that will satisfy any armchair detective for a few hours. Watch the epigraphs, too!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

noir at its finest: Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes

Prion, 2001
153 pp


"My soul. Cut from such shoddy goods. Faded and patched and shabby." 

There's a lot of talk about "noir" these days -- Nordic noir, Tartan noir, you-name it noir, which personally I don't always agree with. For me, there's only one noir, and Build My Gallows High is a perfect example of the genre.  Geoffrey Homes is the pseudonym used by Daniel Mainwaring, who, aside from his novel-writing talent also enjoyed a productive career as a screenwriter. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for the 1947 film version of this novel called "Out of the Past," which starred Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, and Rhonda Fleming.  The book is chock full of betrayals, double crosses and murder making for a hell of a good straight crime read,  but it can certainly also stand on its literary merits.

PI Peter "Red" Markham and his partner Jack Fisher have taken on their last case together.  They are called to the home of Whit Sterling, who hired them to find his missing girl, Mumsie McGonigle and the fifty-six thousand dollars she ran away with.  The case takes Markham to Mexico, where he locates Mumsie who swears she never took the cash -- only enough to get by on.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, Red falls hard for Mumsie.  He still has to report to Sterling, though, so the two of them return to California, where Markham gives his client the news that he couldn't find her. When he thinks he's in the clear, the two of them move to a little cabin up near Lake Tahoe, planning to stay there "until the snow flies," then move on to Reno so that Red can open an office there. As plans go it's a good one, but that particular future just isn't in the cards.   Flash forward ten years into the future and Red Markham has become Red Bailey. He's left the PI business behind for a gas station that he owns in little Bridgeport, California, and has an entirely new life.   He spends his time off fishing, and has fallen for a much-younger little blonde named Ann.  But underneath his quiet life in this quiet town, Red is just biding his time waiting for his past to catch up with him, which it does in the form of a summons to Reno. From there, Bailey is sent to New York to do a job, and he has no choice but to comply.  It's only after he gets there that he realizes that he's been duped -- and that there may be  no way out.

from wikipedia

Past the initial setup, Build My Gallows High is the story of how Red tries to find a way out the trap that has been very carefully set for him. From the present it moves in and out of the past, making its way back to Red's current situation as he tries to take control of things and clear himself.   It's extremely well crafted -- double crosses and betrayals abound as the figurative noose around Bailey's neck gets tighter with each turn of events.   If the novel rested entirely on its plot, it would be a very good read, but there's much  more to it than simply story.  For example, there is such a keen sense of place here as the author moves back and forth contrasting hard, edgy New York -- its streets filled with young hooligans, cabbies who ply their trade and know when to keep their mouths shut, crooked cops, gangsters and corrupt women who have no qualms about killing -- with the natural beauty of small Bridgeport, with its flowing streams, quiet fishing spots, tree-lined mountains and people living a good life.

What I find the most interesting about this book, though, is not so much the action, but rather the focus on the characters. Without the time or space to go into them all, the standouts begin with Bailey, who's just been waiting for the day the past comes knocking on his door to reclaim him and who knows that the decisions he's made in the past will circle back to haunt him some day.  He is the poster boy for "if only," thinking about how to get out of his present dilemma so that he and Ann might just be free to start the new life both of them really want, but that he's constantly deferring because he lives in this constant state of purgatory.  Then there's Caldwell, the local Bridgeport game keeper, who is in love with Ann and has dreams of the two of them together in his cabin in the woods -- he also makes a decision that may come  to haunt him as well -- but it's a moral one he feels he must make.  Ann is a quiet beauty, blonde, small, willing to please and trying to do what's right by everyone, but there's a very strong-willed woman underneath her quiet veneer.  She is contrasted with the two femme fatales of this book -- Mumsie and another woman named Meta Carson (in New York), both seductive and charming, but each as deadly as the other.

Build My Gallows High is such a fine example of true noir goodness that it's easy to recommend it to anyone who is into the genre but hasn't had the good fortune of reading this book yet. The only flaw I could discern is the tedious, often repetitive conversations among the same gangsters over and over again, but aside from that, it's close to perfect.  It is as dark as dark can be, and reveals that present and future are both inextricably bound by the choices we make. The more I stop and think about it, the more it grows on me, and the more in love with this book I become.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Norton, 2014
323 pp

"... something malign is coming nearer and nearer. And in this house at the end of a promontory, I’m trapped."

Rustication begins with an absolute teaser.  The author, presumably since the initials at the end of the Foreword are given as CP, has discovered a document that had "lain unnoticed for many years" in Thurchester's county records office, one that "casts light" on a now-forgotten murder.  Inside this journal he had found a "number of anonymous letters" that had some bearing on that case, and he is intrigued by the testimony of a police officer who admitted that while investigating the murder and going through these letters, there was one where he'd only been allowed to  read part of. The rest of the novel is this recently-unearthed journal kept by seventeen year-old Richard Shenstone, and what follows is  a dark, twisty and ultimately satisfying story which takes place 1863-1864 on the southern English coast. It begins with young Master Shenstone's surprise homecoming after having  been tossed out of Cambridge University. In the parlance of the day, Richard has been "rusticated," meaning  he was "sent down or expelled temporarily," a word that, according to the Kings Language Academy,
"derives from the Latin word rus, countryside, to indicate that a student has been sent back to his or her family in the country..."
Richard is not expected home so soon, and when he arrives, he finds that no one is happy to see him. He finds his mother and his sister Euphemia (Effie) living in near poverty in the gloomy, dilapidated Herriard House, situated on the marshes overlooking the sea. He's amazed to find it in such a low state, since the two women have been living there "for weeks."  Even worse, neither of them wants to talk about his now-dead father, whose funeral he'd missed while away at Cambridge.  Richard himself isn't exactly forthcoming about why he's come home so early, but as the story progresses, it seems that his homecoming is just the tip of an  iceberg of secrets.  Then again,  it isn't just Richard who is holding his cards close to his chest.  While his mother waffles back and forth between him leaving and staying,  he gets out into "society" with his family in the small town of Stratton Peverel, where he discovers this charming little place is just teeming with tension. Underneath the jealousies, rivalries, alliances, even more secrets and worse -- someone is sending letters around that make the term "poison pen" seem tame and slashing local farm stock. Richard, who spends his  nights smoking opium and wandering about the countryside,  fills his journal with his observations (and his sexual fantasies)  and  because he really wants answers to what exactly is going on both at home and in the village, it isn't long until he starts digging up secrets that some people would rather remain hidden. Trying to be a decent sort of chap, he wants to set right a few things,  but only too late does he discover that in  trying to do so he may have fallen into a trap.

Palliser has always been a personal favorite. Some time ago I read and re-read his The Quincunx,  which was my launching point into the world of  Victorian sensation writers such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Just FYI, the term "sensation novel" refers to works of the period that deal in a very large way with family scandals, crimes, sex and all sorts of lurid things not spoken of in polite society. Palliser has in  many ways has recreated the same sort of atmospheric creepiness here in Rustication with the isolated, gloomy house filled with secrets, a few characters who are prone to delusions, the undercurrent of sexual and other tensions that run through day-to-day village life, the portrayal of women jockeying for position among their own and the higher classes, and the reproduction of the hand-written threatening letters.   He also gives us a somewhat  unreliable narrator in Richard Shenstone, now cut off from Cambridge and slowly heading toward another "severance," providing  all the makings of a mysterious melodrama that kept me from putting the book down for longer than absolutely necessary.  It may start a little slow, but keep reading -- you will not be disappointed.