Sunday, January 31, 2016

In which "Meddlesome Matty [nearly] came to a bad end" : Murder in Stained Glass, by Margaret Armstrong

Pepik Books, 2015
originally published in 1939
182 pp


Murder in Stained Glass is the opener of a new series called "American Queens of Crime", issued by Pepik Books. Claire Theyers, the owner and director of this small press, has stated that "only quality fiction" that she's read and "truly enjoyed makes it into the series." Bravo for her -- and good for me, since like Ms. Theyers, I am constantly on the lookout for books from authors whom, as she notes, are "long forgotten about and their stories gathering dust in bookshops and charity stores."

You can read a brief post about Margaret Neilson Armstrong's amazing career here;  now, onto the book itself.   Murder in Stained Glass is absolutely delightful. As the novel opens, the main character, self-proclaimed spinster (although only in her "late forties") Miss Trumbull notes the following while looking back over the events of this story:
"It's like the nursery rhyme about the old woman who milked the cow with the crumbled horn. If the weather hadn't cleared I wouldn't have gone to stay with Charlotte Blair; I shouldn't have been on hand with my eyes wide open when things began to happen; I shouldn't have been forced to play the part of innocent bystander -- a dangerous part when bullets are flying about; and as I should have known nothing about the case, except what I read in the newspapers, I couldn't have been of the smallest use to anybody concerned." 
But the weather indeed cleared, and Miss Trumbull went off to Bassett's Bridge, Connecticut,  to visit her rather moody old school friend Charlotte Blair. Truth be told, she isn't that fond of Charlotte, but the lovely young girl living with "Cousin Charlotte," Phyllis Blair, is another story.   The three of them make their way to the workshop of artist Frederick Ullathorne, who has just finished a lovely (albeit somewhat flawed) stained-glass window destined for a New York cathedral. Phyllis and Ullathorne's son Leo are an item, and provide delightful company for our heroine.  A week goes by, and although she's having a lovely time with these two young people, Miss Trumbull starts thinking that she'd "had about enough of a peaceful country life," and is ready to return to the city.  But her plans are delayed when "our peace broke with a vengeance" --  to everyone's horror, news arrives that bones have been discovered in the kiln at the glass shop.  Unseen by the others, Miss Trumbull watches young Leo pick up something out of the ashes; later it is revealed that it is a dental "appliance" belonging to his father.  At the inquest, the coroner offers his opinion that "for some sordid reason" "a great genius was taken away at the height of his fame."  As the rumors fly as to who may have done away with Mr. Ullathorne, Miss Trumbull decides that she has to do something because suspicion is quickly mounting against young Leo.  She knows that something is not right and has some leads of her own to follow even after returning to New York, but she is warned more than once that her role as "Meddlesome Matty" might land her in jail or even worse.

The blurb on the back cover of this book notes that "If you like Agatha Christie then you'll love Miss Trumbull," and while this book may definitely appeal to Miss Marple fans, Miss Trumbull is a delight on her own.  She is quite independent, both in terms of money and personality, and doesn't let little things like an attempt on her life or potentially dangerous situations get in her way.  In contrast to her friend Charlotte, whom Phyllis describes as a "gloomy old lady in black and rather severe," Miss Trumbull is full of life and energy, well respected and a hit with the youngsters.  The novel also has one of the best twists that I must say I never saw coming -- and in this book, there are a number of potential suspects as well as a few well-placed red herrings that will keep any reader guessing.  Yes, it's a bit dated but once in the mindset of the period, it became a fun, interesting and delightful read.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

*Vertigo, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac -- a stunner.

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as D'entre les morts, 1954
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
189 pp


I have this thing about reading books (or sometimes short stories) before I see the film adaptations; this year's main focus in my crime reading, in and around my normal bouncing from present to past, is reading books that eventually became movies -- my own sort of personal page-to-screen challenge.   Watching is one thing; capturing more of the nuances in a story than the screenwriter can convey in a movie is another. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is The Woman in Black, based on Susan Hill's most excellent novel.  If you watch the film, and that's your only guide to Hill's story, you miss the story of a man who is in profound grief and is trying to rationalize a personal trauma in the only way he can make sense of things.    None of that comes through in the movie -- in fact, the movie changes quite a bit from the original book so that when I got around to watching it, I kept hearing myself say "I don't remember that from the book" and "where did they come up with this" or other things along those lines until I had to go reread Hill's novel to satisfy my own curiosity. My point here is that my experience has been that there's generally something an author wants to convey that tends to not find its way into a film adaptation; there have also been times when I've wondered if the screenwriters have even read the book their movie is based on.

 With Vertigo, things are a bit different.  While there are a number of differences between the novel and the Hitchcock film we all know, most of the essential basics of the book are also there, although I did find the book to be much darker and much more inside of the main character's head.  The biggest  differences, aside from setting,  are that in the novel, the big reveal does not come until the very end, making the ending much more of a shocker (in my opinion)  than in Hitchcock's film; the other big difference is in what happens directly after the action in the bell tower -- in the film, Scottie unwittingly plays his role to perfection, while in the novel, the main character does not do what is expected.

 The first part of this story begins in Paris, 1940, with a meeting between a former police detective and now lawyer, Roger Flavières and an old acquaintance, Gévigne, now a shipbuilder married to Madeleine, the daughter of a "big industrialist."  Gevigne reveals to Flavières that his wife is acting strangely, having odd periods of withdrawal, but in trying to narrow down exactly why he's worried about her, Gévigne finally says that he knows it's "ridiculous," but that Madeleine is "someone else," and that "the woman living with me isn't Madeleine." Ruling out mental illness, he confides in Flavières about Madeleine's strange obsession with her great-grandmother, a woman named Pauline Lagerlac, who had met her own end by suicide.    After observing her from a distance at the theatre that same evening at the suggestion of Gévigne,  Flavières  is enchanted.  He lurks and follows while Madeleine does some pretty bizarre things, and then one particular incident pulls him out of the shadows and into Madeleine's life.    Their chats together lead Flavières to begin to wonder if she isn't indeed a reincarnated Pauline Lagerlac, putting the idea of reincarnation into his own mind.  As he begins to fall in love with and starts becoming truly obsessed by this woman, he realizes he's not really doing it for Gévigne at all,  but rather for himself because  "he wouldn't recover his peace of mind till he'd got to the bottom of the mystery." Little does he know that the "mystery" of Madeleine is just beginning; because of the disruption of the war and the Nazi occupation of France, it will be another several years before it is actually solved.

After a second read, one of the biggest things that struck me about this book is that throughout part one,  Boileau and Narcejac have planted several references here and there pointing to and distinctly foreshadowing not only what's going to happen (and if you've seen the movie you know what I mean here) but also supporting Flavières' ever-growing obsession with reincarnation and a return from the beyond that will be important throughout part two.   They incorporate quite a lot of imagery from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice -- as just a few examples, his nickname for her is "little Eurydice,"  Flavières refers to Madeleine as a "woman who was not quite at home in the daylight," noting that he himself had "penetrated into the heart of the earth" as a child, "exploring the shadows, the country of phantoms, of the dead..."  He gives her a lighter on which is engraved "A Eurydice ressucitée."  There are also a number of references to caves that Flavières used to visit in his childhood, which later in the book set off the light bulb over my head as he reveals that he 
"came near to believing in the Christian God because of the promise of the resurrection...That body wrapped in a linen cloth, the great stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre, the soldiers watching ...And then, the third day...When I was a boy, how I used to ponder over that third day ... I went secretly up to an empty cave and shouted into it. The sound echoed under the ground, but no one rose from the dead...It was too early I believe my shout was answered."  (160)
Not only do these references (and others) provide a number of clues as to what's coming (and to Flavières' deterioriating state of mind), but they also reinforce my feeling that the French title for this novel,  D'entre les morts, is much more appropriate and more meaningful than simply "Vertigo."  In the movie, the title "Vertigo" makes a lot more sense, due not only to Scottie's condition but also because of all of the images Hitchcock uses to reveal a man spiraling into his own personal madness.  

There is much, much more that I would love to go into about this novel, but suffice it to say that Boileau and Narcejac have created something unique here.  It is an exquisite book, and that is a word I rarely use when describing books I read.  For anyone planning to read it, I would suggest putting the movie out of your head and focusing entirely and solely on the novel. It is delightfully dark and if modern crime writers wrote crime as intelligently as this writing duo has, I would never, ever find fault in their writing.  It is in a word, stunning. 

Just FYI: there is a brief section discussing Boileau and Nacerjac at the end of the book, and Pushkin-Vertigo has several more titles that they've already released and others that will be available throughout 2016, which, of course, I've already pre-ordered.  

Read this book!!!! 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Shut Eye, by Belinda Bauer

Grove Press, 2016
292 pp

My thanks to Grove Press for my copy of this book, which is newly-released in the US in paperback this month. 

"A shut eye is for real. An open eye just pretends." 

Normally, I really detest what I call the  "woo-woo" element in crime fiction (aka the supernatural) unless it's specifically stated that this is what I'm getting when I pick up a book, but strangely enough, in The Shut Eye, it works. I gave this novel a lot of thought before posting about it, because it involves the story of a missing girl (12) and a missing little boy (5), and the police involved in the missing girl case had actually called in a psychic at one point, which I know sometimes happens in real life.  So I just let my normal objections roll off my back and immersed myself in it for another quiet Saturday read.

A haphazardly left-open door at the apartment of Anna and James Buck ended in the disappearance of their little boy Daniel.  Anna is wretched, sliding silently toward her own madness, while James stands by watching his wife go off the rails. Anna knows that Daniel will return and that everything will be better when he's back, but until then, she is on that very slippery slope of melancholy and depression. In fact, when we first meet her she is about to jump off a ledge in front of a train.  She is saved, however, by DCI John Marvel, who lies to her about the train schedule  and saves her life.  Unsure of what to do now that she's failed in her suicide attempt, she sees a flyer advertising former television psychic Richard Latham (aka a "shut eye")  --  who is the equivalent of John Edward -- remember him? He's the "I'm getting a message from someone whose name starts with the letter M" guy who was all the rage for a while here in the US.  Anyway, Anna goes to meet him, shows him a photo, and is told by Latham that he can do nothing to help her. Deeply disappointed, Anna meets a woman named Sandra who is there for help to find her missing dog; Anna accidentally walks off with the photo that Sandra showed her. It is at this point that the story swings into full gear. First, Marvel is removed from a murder investigation by his boss to look into the missing dog case, since Sandra turns out to be his wife; second, it is about this time that Anna starts seeing things she feels may be important after looking at Sandra's photo, and takes her visions to the police.  Marvel, who is absolutely desperate to solve the earlier case of the missing 12 year-old girl, notices some very odd things in the photo that pique his interest in regard to her disappearance.

Considering that this isn't my usual reading fare, I found myself very caught up in the two main characters, Marvel and Anna. Marvel, who seems to be a very good, dedicated and determined detective, also is a no-nonsense guy who doesn't mess around. Anna steals the show in this book, though -- she is definitely the one to watch here. And I have to credit Ms. Bauer ... instead of loading this book with the overdone, gimmicky flip of perspective between victim and investigator, which I can't stand, she gives only brief insights into what's going on with her victim and focuses largely on her two main characters and the outward ripples their actions leave in their respective wakes.  I did not, though, think that this book was without flaws here and there -- the whole interrogation with Latham, for example, is a bit murky, and then toward the end when everything starts to hit the fan, things get a bit rushed.  Then there is the whole issue of identifying the who before things were finished after all of the time I'd invested in this story ... I'm just not a big fan of this approach at all.  Still, I would definitely rate it  a bit more readable than I have done for a lot of modern crime fiction -- it's definitely  not same old same old, and well, it does stick out as being quite different and very unusual. That's a big plus from where I sit.

While this is a very different take on a police procedural, it's definitely not a cozy and there's nothing cutesy going on here, although it is also not as dark a read as I generally look forward to.  As I said, eyes on Anna -- she makes this book what it is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

about as obscure as it gets, folks: The Dead Letter and The Figure Eight, by Metta Fuller Victor (aka Seeley Register)

Duke University Press, 2003
388 pp


In the realm of American crime writing, this author is about as obscure a find as a reader can uncover.

For information about this most prolific author, you can click here to get to my newest labor of love, Forgotten Females Found. 

Published in 1866, The Dead Letter, in my opinion, is the better of the two novels featured here. Catherine Ross Nickerson in her The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women labels The Dead Letter as "the first American detective novel" (29); both books are, as she notes,
"documents of a moment in cultural history when the young professional seemed to hold the promise of mediating between the cloudy-minded nostalgia of the landed class and the unprincipled greed of the merchant and capitalist classes."  (31)
I will leave it for the reader to discover exactly what she means, but she is most definitely on target here.  While there's a LOT going on under the surface in this volume  (way more than I can explain here), for example a portrait of a) what was holding the American reading interest at the time, b) societal/cultural attitudes towards outsiders (here including the Irish, Mexicans, Spaniards and other ethnic groups) c) the focus on the home, marriage,  and the domestic sphere as a prime focus of "investigation",  these books are also fun reads for anyone interested in American literature of this period that won't likely be found on any general American Lit course syllabus.

(from LibraryThing

A mix of gothic, mystery, romance and sexually-charged domestic novel,  The Dead Letter starts with the story's hero, Redfield, who has been working in the government's dead letter office for just about a year. With just an outline of the basic story here, in going through the mail, he comes across one written to "John Owen, Peekskill, New York," with the date of October 18, 1857, a date that rings a bell in his head. The address also sets off alarms -- he had lived only twenty miles away from Peekskill in the town of Blankville right around that time. When he opens the letter he gets another shock, at which point the narrative begins in earnest, going back two years to the events of 1857 that took place at the home of John Argyll, Esq., Redfield's mentor and benefactor since the death of Redfield's father. Mr. Argyll lived in the house with his nephew James and his two daughters.  As the story opens, Argyll's daughter Eleanor is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her fiancée, Henry Moreland, wondering why he's taking so long in getting to the house. As it turns out, she'll never see Moreland again -- he is found dead on the road,  having been stabbed in the back.  Eleanor goes into deep shock and spirals progressively into melancholia and madness; Redfield, who is secretly in love with her, vows to find and to "bring punishment to the murderer." He hires a deep-cover detective named Burton ("there are not many outsiders who know that person")  to investigate, and between the two they waste no effort in ferreting out the guilty party, although James Argyll has seen to it that the Argyll family should consider Redfield the prime suspect, making him a domestic pariah.   This novel is also highly entertaining -- a "haunted" house complete with ghost, a young girl whose clairvoyant abilities help her father to solve baffling cases, and a lot of female sexual energy going on as well.

Moving along, The Figure Eight is (in my opinion) much more of the domestic-drama fiction variety, although as with The Dead Letter,  murder and detection  is at the heart of this story. Very briefly, the body belongs to Dr. Meredith, who has been poisoned in his own home, leaving behind only a very cryptic message in the form of a figure eight as a clue. Meredith, it seems, had fallen on hard times, made his way to the western gold fields, and came back with enough gold to keep things afloat. Sadly, when Dr. Meredith is killed, no one knows where he's hidden the gold; without it, his daughter Lilian  is headed for penury.  Luckily for Lilian, when the family fortune wanes, another family buys the home and allows Lilian, her governess (who sleepwalks and has a slimy brother named Arthur)  and the very-young, flighty and flirtatious Spanish bride Dr. Meredith had brought home with him to live at Meredith Hall.  This novel follows two main storylines -- first, of course, the hunt for the murderer; the second, the search for the hidden fortune, but embedded here is veritable hotbed of sexual energy, both male and female.  The central character in this book is Joe Meredith, who, like Redfield in The Dead Letter, has been ostracized from the family once suspicion is cast on him for Dr. Meredith's murder.  Unlike Redfield, though, Joe comes from a less-settled, less socially-approved background, eventually undertaking medicine as a field of study in order to please his now-dead uncle; his "rough" upbringing practically ensures that he would naturally be suspect.   This story finds Joe taking on a number of wild disguises (a laborer, and a "mulatto" waiter, as just two examples) in order to keep up his investigation into the identification of the true murderer and to simultaneously spy on the action on at Meredith House.

Nickerson reveals in her book that
"the first Americans to write detective novels picked the domestic sphere as the area most able to support the detective story and the area most in need of investigation," (46)
and as I continued to read through both novels here, this idea became clearer with every page turned.

As I said earlier, there's no possible way to go into all of the under-the-surface things I uncovered  while reading these books, and both are much more complex than I make them out to be here, but trust me, there is a lot between the covers that is discussion worthy. For someone like myself who loves these old books and who tries to read between the lines as to the cultural climate, the politics, and the historical significance of the time in which they were written, it is a goldmine.   On the other hand, they're definitely not for everyone, but if for no other reason, the fact that Metta Fuller Victor made an appearance before Anna Katherine Green (who I've always believed was the first American woman detective novelist) makes her extremely readworthy.