Friday, July 31, 2015

back to the past #15: The Fifth Dagger, by Dorothy Quick

Charles Scribner's Sons
202 pp


"She always got what she wanted, but when she had it, she destroyed it." 

The Fifth Dagger is the first full-length mystery novel by this author, who is more well known for her poetry and short stories (including weird tales). Personally speaking, I wasn't awed by this book, which was kind of silly in the long run and chock full of melodrama.    But Dorothy Quick isn't that well known for her novel -- her major  claim to fame is in her relationship with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. She chronicled her experiences in a book called Mark Twain and Me (1961), which 30 years later would become a Disney TV movie of the same title.

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Dorothy Quick met Mark Twain at the age of 11 while returning from Europe during an Atlantic crossing.  According to one obituary, she recognized him "by his wavy hair and white suit," and  "she walked around and around the deck, passing very slowly by his chair each time, until he finally came over and introduced himself."  Quick herself wrote in 1954 that "It was the beginning of a friendship that was to last until the very day of his death."  When I read this, I'm thinking, now how often does that happen, until another article pointed out that Twain had a "hobby" of "collecting" young girls as little friends.  According to that article, Twain is reputed as saying in 1908 that
“… As for me, I collect pets: young girls — girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent — dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.”
Just as an FYI, the article also cautions the reader that while this may sound creepy nowadays, the girls in question were part of his Aquarium Club; collectively they were known as Angel Fish and were properly chaperoned at all times. But I don't know...there's just something about an old guy wanting to be around young girls that's just sort of bizarre to me. But I digress. Quick split her adult time between New York City and East Hampton; she married in 1925 but continued to write under her maiden name. She died in 1962.

the author with Mark Twain


The Fifth Dagger begins with the newly-married Diana Blakely (the narrator of this story), who has just recently tied the knot with psychiatrist Allen Blakely. As  the story opens she is being "introduced" to "Boston society" at a charity ball. Out of nowhere, in walks the beautiful Honora Davenport, one of  the Boston Davenports, and it becomes apparent to Diana that Honora and Allen have a history that he's sort of forgotten to tell her about.  He rectifies the situation later that night, but only after Honora slaps her and after someone shoots at the newlyweds as they're getting in their car to leave.  He reveals that Honora is suffering from some strain of inherited madness, and that he was one of the doctors helping her before she went a little psycho and fixated on him as a potential husband.  Despite Honora's family physician telling Allen he should marry her to help her with her illness, Allen's not having any part of the plan, and has to go into hiding until Honora gives up looking for him and moves to California.   She may have given up trying to find him, but it's clear to everyone that she hasn't given up on her fixation with Allen, even though in the meantime she married an actor from Hollywood.  Although his account quells Diana's jealousy (I did say melodrama, right?) she is surprised one day to find the Davenports (Honora and her brother Bruce) in her living room, inviting her to attend a Cotillion that Honora is throwing at her family home.  She's even more surprised to find herself accepting the invitation, but she and Allen trot off to the party.  Bad decision, Diana. Honora throws herself at Allen and monopolizes him the entire evening, and they pair up again on the dance floor where Diana notices that they're dancing too closely together.  While she's watching her husband with the woman who's obsessed with him, Honora suddenly falls in what appears to be a faint.  But as it turns out, she's been stabbed in the back -- and the murder weapon turns out to be one of the daggers given away as party favors.  The police arrive, and it isn't long until Allen becomes the chief suspect, but the Lieutenant asks for Diana's help with the case -- it seems that not too much earlier than this, she had solved the murder of her sister and has made a name for herself among law enforcement.  Of course Diana will do anything to help clear Allen, but things progressively get worse for both of them as the long night continues on.

The first word that comes to mind when considering the novel as a whole is "cockamamie," as in ridiculous, incredible and implausible. I have several reasons for making this call, but nothing beats this one:   the night that Honora is killed at her family home, Diana and Allen stay overnight there in a guest room, and Diana even borrows a new nightgown from the dead woman's wardrobe.  There's more, but it has to do with the solution to the murder so I can't go there. Trust me -- if you ever decide to read this book, you'll do more than a few eyerolls as you move through the story, especially as it winds down to its denouement. Speaking of which, Dorothy really let me down here since she made it so easy to pinpoint the murderer well before we're anywhere close to where that should happen.  And I do mean easy. Sheesh -- she should have illustrated the particular page with a red neon arrow flashing over the murderer's head!

As it stands, though, I did find another crime-writing woman author I'd never heard of before, so that's a plus, and I also discovered that Mark Twain had a thing for young girls. Now THAT is something I need to read more about.  I'd say if you're truly truly a diehard vintage-crime addict like I am, The Fifth Dagger is worth a shot but do keep in mind that it's a wee bit on the odd side.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

back to the past #14: Murder in the Mist, by Zelda Popkin

Replica Books, 2001
originally published 1940, Lippincott
286 pp

"A country inn is a percolator. News seeps, simmers, and bubbles."
 Published in 1940, Murder in the Mist is a true whodunit in every sense of the word.  In fact, it is one of the best whodunits I've read in a very long time. No angsty detectives, no gratuitous sex or off-the-wall violence in this one -- it is pure mystery-reading pleasure.  As you might be able to surmise from my photo, Murder in the Mist also makes for great by-the-pool reading.

A brief look at the author.
Born in 1898 in Brooklyn,   Zelda Popkin's (née Feinberg) parents were Jewish immigrants who had originally named her Jenny, a name she herself changed.   By the time she was sixteen, she had a job with the local newspaper in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. Eventually Zelda moved to New York where she met her husband Louis; together they started a public relations firm, one of the first in the city.  Sadly, Louis died in 1943, and Zelda decided to turn her hand to writing, closing the PR firm and settling into life as an author.  Between 1945 and 1946, she was sent by the Red Cross to take a tour of the displaced-persons camps that were home to refugees from the Holocaust.  According to her grandson, Professor Jeremy D. Popkin of the University of Kentucky writing about Zelda in an introduction to her novel Quiet Street,
"What she saw 'shocked her into Zionism', as she later told an interviewer, and drove her for the first time to put a Jewish theme and Jewish characters in a central place in her writing."
She had a  had a long and prolific writing career that began in 1938 with the first book in the Mary Carner mystery series, Death Wears a White Gardenia.  She would go on to write four more books in this series, of which Murder in the Mist is the second entry. Another crime novel, So Much Blood (1944),  was written as a standalone, bringing her mystery/detective novels to a total of six.  [You can find a complete list of Popkin's work here.]   She didn't limit herself to crime writing, though -- she has several fiction novels to her credit as well:  The Journey Home (1945), Small Victory (1947), Walk Through the Valley (1949), and Quiet Street (1951), Herman Had Two Daughters (1968), A Death of Innocence (1971), and Dear Once (1975).   She also penned an autobiographical work called Open Every Door (1956), which, according to her grandson, started out as a biography of Zelda's husband Louis but 
"developed instead into the author’s autobiography, recounting her childhood in small towns in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania and her subsequent career."
 Mrs. Popkin died in 1983.  Although she may be a forgotten, obscure crime writer, her novels were very popular -- she won the National Jewish Book Award in 1952 for her Quiet Street, and her A Death of Innocence was made into a TV movie in 1971.  I may have to read more about this woman in the future; I'll certainly be trying to get my hands on her detective novels.

and now, back to the show... The Rockledge in Laneport, Massachusetts is home to summer visitors, built while Chester A. Arthur was in the White House. This seaside inn is run by Miss Dow and Miss Moffett, "plump, amiable spinsters, pompadoured, energetic..." who pride themselves in making sure they allow only the right sort of people in their establishment.  On one typical evening, a bridge game is interrupted by the entrance of a new arrival, a beautiful woman wearing red sandals. This is Nola Spain, a model who has come to Laneport with her little daughter.  She asks for directions to a local art gallery and sets off to her destination.  Later, two other guests arrive who are there on their honeymoon after just being married that morning.  On their way to Kennebunkport, they had missed a turn in the fog, ending up instead in Laneport.  Late that night, actually in the wee hours of the morning the next day, bride Mary is awakened by strange noises and the touch of a hand which belongs to the small daughter of Nola Spain. It seems that she can't wake up her mommy and is afraid because she saw "a witch" in the room.  Mary, who is none other than the renowned Mary Carney, New York City store detective, goes into Nola's room and finds the model  laying in bed with the dagger-like object still stuck in her after someone had killed her.  Mary calls the police but the Chief is so inept that he ruins the crime scene, making Mary see red.  Eventually the bona fides of both her husband Chris and herself are established, and Mary is asked by the local DA to take on the case.  With very little to go on, including the murder weapon, the little girl's description of "the witch" that came into her mother's room and a strange footprint that resembles a cloven hoof, Mary has her work cut out for her.

While this may sound like an average whodunit story, it is actually anything but.  Popkin has a deft touch at writing people, and the guests at the Rockledge (as well as the full-time residents of Laneport)  all have interesting backstories and many of them are hiding secrets behind their closed doors that they will go to great lengths to protect. As the author notes at the beginning of Chapter VIII,
"A country inn is a percolator. News seeps, simmers, and bubbles"
and nowhere is this more true than at the Rockledge. Its proprietors and some of the guests of the inn are very into "types" -- after Nola's murder, a Miss Templeton offers the opinion that "she was a very low type," and that Nola brought her death on herself:
"Only certain types of people get themselves murdered. People who have done something which makes other people want to kill them. People like ourselves, for instance, our sort of people never gets murdered." 
There is also a difference in the minds of the locals between the full-time residents and "the summer people," and commentary about small-town politics and small-town life. As just one example, the "Sabbath peace" tradition that is observed by everyone is noted as being
"centuries old, not to be thrust aside by the transitory turmoils of summer people."
Mary and husband Chris steal the show in this novel with their particular brand of sarcastic, snarky humor, and as soon as I can track down the other novels in this series,  I'll be back for more.

Murder in the Mist is an absolute gem and a delightful summery read.  Even though it was published back in 1940, its age should not deter any true-blue dedicated mystery fans from reading and enjoying this book. I absolutely loved it and would definitely say that if you're lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, you should go lay out in your lounger chair and let it carry you away for an afternoon or two. I definitely recommend it for people like myself who LOVE vintage crime and who are looking for something very different to add to their repertoire.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Snow noir?" Sheesh! The Winter of the Lions, by Jan Costin Wagner

Vintage (first published in English -  2011 in the UK)
originally published as Im Winter der Löwen, 2009
translated by Anthea Bell
266 pp

arc from IPG; thank you, Shannon!!

Well now, here's a moniker I've never seen before: the short blurb by the Financial Times calls this book "snow-noir."  There seems to be a noir for everything these days, a concept that doesn't really sit well with me but that's another story so we'll save it for another time or I'll just get myself all worked up.  The Winter of the Lions is third in a series set in Finland, featuring Detective Kimmo Joentaa whose wife has passed away and who finds it hard to move away from his grief. There are two central mysteries in this book having to do with a series of crimes that hits close to home for our grieving detective and a third, more peripheral puzzle which centers around a strange woman who latches on to Joentaa shortly after meeting him at the police station on Christmas Eve.  When all is said and done, The Winter of the Lions turned out to be a dark, haunting read that kept me turning pages during an all-day readfest.

Just briefly, because it's difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away,  Joentaa and his colleagues are called to the scene of an horrific crime, involving someone close to the squad.  The forensic pathologist has been brutally murdered while out cross-country skiing. While coming to terms with his death, the detectives soon find themselves with another victim on their hands, a man who makes puppet models of corpses for television and movies.  In both cases the clues are virtually non-existent; it is only through a chance remark that Joentaa reveals that both victims had been together as guests on a popular TV talk show.  After reviewing a DVD of that particular episode, Joentaa and colleagues are no closer to finding the killer, but it does give our angsty, grief-stricken detective a line of inquiry to follow.  Mystery number two, which is written quite well, involves an unidentified someone known only as "She." Her story is revealed slowly until the full weight of what's happened to her comes down on the reader like a ton of bricks. Mystery number three is, as I said, sort of peripheral to the main events of this novel, involving a young woman who first encounters Joentaa on Christmas Eve while reporting a rape. She refuses to give up any details except the name of the guy who did it and eventually walks out of the station in frustration, only to show up at Joentaa's doorstep the next day, basically moving into his house.  All three of these plotlines weave together into a very slow-burning mystery which, once things start to unravel, turns into a dark and haunting story that examines the effects of grief and loss, also pointing to the ways in which people cope.

One reader review of this novel notes that he/she didn't understand why Joentaa didn't figure things out earlier than he did, a question I normally find myself asking in many a mystery novel, but this time I'm going to disagree with that opinion. The pacing in this book is slow for a reason, and in my opinion, very well executed.  Even though his wife has been dead for some time, Joentaa continues to exist in a sort of haze, reminded of her last days at every turn.  Not only that, but our detective has other things to worry about -- the strange young woman staying at his house, a colleague who is up to his ears and in denial about his gambling problem, and a few other distractions.  There are many other things about this novel that, in my opinion, speak highly in its favor, but the high believeability factor (okay, I know that's not a real word but I like it) of the characters and the slow-paced investigation and final reveal combine to make this book pop.  I will say that I am a wee bit tired of angsty cops -- does every detective in Scandinavia have emotional/mental  issues?

Confession time: normally I'm a series purist, and while I do own Wagner's first two novels in this series Ice Moon and Silence, they've sat unread on my shelf for a long time due to a personal need for a Scandinavian crime reading hiatus. The thing is though that the author does such a good job in covering Joentaa's backstory here that it is unnecessary to have read the previous books. Obviously, I would have preferred to have been more prepared characterwise, but not reading the other series entries wasn't detrimental to my understanding  and appreciation of  this book.  Actually, the truth is that even with the angsty detective, The Winter of the Lions turned out to be a fine read -- something very different than its competitors in the world of "snow-noir," and one I'd definitely recommend.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Highsmith again: this time, The Blunderer. Oh, that ending!

W.W. Norton, 2001
(originally published 1954)
265 pp


While the rest of my crime novel collection is screaming at me (most notably a new novel by Mallock, The Faces of God and Jan Costin Wagner's newest release), I'm bound and determined to make this a Highsmith summer. So far it's just been Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, and this one;  these are only three novels out of several, but I'll get there. If not over the summer, then well, before the year is out for sure.   As I posted in a status update yesterday afternoon on goodreads (at page 209),
"I just love Patricia Highsmith's work. I'm sitting here reading this today, and my tension level has been ratcheted up more than a few times throughout this story. I so want to peek at the end to make sure everything comes out all right, but this is Highsmith, so I know it won't."
and as things turned out, I was right. But that's Highsmith for you:  things don't always go the way you think they should in her books.  She often does a 180 in terms of reader expectations;  in this case, she ended up  leaving me a lot more unsettled at the end than I was throughout the story.

The Blunderer examines three different men in terms of two of Highsmith's favorite themes, guilt and justice. The first, Kimmel, is a bookstore owner who specializes in obtaining pornography. He's also a murderer [which is not a spoiler since you see the whole thing unravel right away upon opening the book and it's on the back-cover blurb] who believes he's gotten away with killing his wife and feels no remorse; the second is an attorney, Walter Stackhouse, whose neurotic ballbuster of a wife Clara  is driving his friends away little by little because of her disapproving attitude and crazy imagination.  Unlike Kimmel, Walter only thinks about getting rid of his wife, and on reading the story of Mrs. K's death, becomes obsessed with the way the job was done.  At the same time, he also becomes more and more convinced of Kimmel's guilt, becoming fascinated with Kimmel himself, and trots off to his bookstore to take a look at him.  When Clara turns up dead (also on the back-cover blurb) in much the same fashion as Kimmel's wife, enter the third party of this strange triangle, the overzealous, overreaching, and over-aggressive  police detective investigating Mrs. Kimmel's death.  While Kimmel sails along sure of himself as far as the law is concerned, Walter isn't so fortunate -- he is the titular "blunderer," whose stupid mistakes he's made along the way are enough to cause havoc for Walter in so very many ways.

first American edition cover, 1954

While there are definite similarities between this novel and Strangers on a Train (as in an examination of guilt, the psychology of the individual,  and the doppelganger-ish, growing obsession between two men),  unlike SOAT, the ending of this one is a definite shocker.  But before reaching that point, what I find most interesting about this book just may be the way in which the reader is pretty much manipulated the entire way through the story.

As in the cases of  both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, I found myself constantly being thrown off kilter while reading, but that's what makes Patricia Highsmith such a fine writer, and it's likely why her books are still quite popular half a century or more after they were first published.  I don't want just crime, investigation and solution in my reading, and she more than satisfies my need for dark inroads into the psyche.  The Blunderer is one I'd most certainly recommend to readers of darker fiction.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

coming to a bookstore near you soon: Taking Pity, by David Mark

Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2015
324 pp

hardcover (thank you to the publishers!)

Taking Pity is book number four in David Mark's ongoing series featuring Aector McAvoy.  I don't read a lot of series novels any more, but there are a few authors for whom I'll make an exception. David Mark is one of them.

Before I get into the meat of this book, let me say this. I am happy that I read the previous novels in this series before taking this one on, because not only do the characters continue to develop from book one, but this book picks up only a few months after the one before it, Sorrow Bound. The fallout from what happened at the end of that book continues in this one, and it ain't pretty. McAvoy's boss Trish Pharoah is working on trying to track down the criminal organization known as the Headhunters, who have slowly been muscling their way into taking over smaller organizations. When the smaller guys refuse, or balk, they find themselves with their hands stapled to their knees.  In the meantime, McAvoy is living in a small motel room with his son, and his boss  hands him what should be an easy task. It seems that fifty years earlier, a quadruple murder was committed;  the perpetrator, Coles, was caught at the scene, ultimately found not fit to stand trial, and locked away under the Mental Health Act. Now the Home Office is demanding that if Coles is found "mentally fit" after all this time, he should stand trial for his crimes.  McAvoy's job is to ensure that if Coles ever makes his way to court, that the case will be "tied up swiftly and without embarrassment."   In the course of his investigation, however, McAvoy runs into some information that will not only alter the known facts of the case, but will also bring this old case into convergence with things in the present day.  All because of just one act of pity ....

In my opinion, this is the best book of the entire series. It is a very good and balanced mix of police procedural and crime thriller (which I normally detest, but there are individual exceptions here and there -- rare, but they do exist), added to which are the personal stories of the main characters.  It's bleak as bleak can be, and ends on a great note -- a kind of unspoken promise that these people will return.  In fact, this book is almost like one of those big blockbuster novels where the forces of darkness are sort of lining up and getting organized to do battle with the good guys -- except for one thing. It's really tough to tell who the good guys actually are. Things aren't as cut and dried as one would think -- and that's a very good thing.   My only complaint (and I defy anyone to say it's not valid) is that the author gives away some information towards the middle that makes one of the big, twisty reveals as the story is beginning to come to a close not so big any more. It's like by the time I got there, I had already figured things out.

However, if that's the worst thing I can say about this book, then that's not so bad. Frankly,  I don't understand why David Mark is not more widely read -- his work is solid, intelligently written,  his people are realistic and he's so very good at bleak and intense that it's hard to put his books down once they're picked up. And he's twisty. I do love a good twist here and there, and he is really quite good at it.  If that's your cup of tea, I'd definitely recommend his novels, but please, do yourself a favor and start with book one. You will miss so very much if you don't -- the story that I think is going to appear in the next book started with the first one and has continued on through, so take the extra time to pick up his other books for your own good.  Trust will not be sorry.