Friday, May 20, 2016

* back to the movies we go: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase

Bruin Books, 2010
203 pp



After finishing this book, I went back to the front pages where there is a "note to the reader."  There I learned that this edition "is yet a further update for the latest generation of readers," and I was appalled.  I thought this was a new publication of Chase's original novel, but no.  It's been revised.  So here's my question: if people in "the latest generation of readers" pick up this book, knowing that  was originally published in 1939, why in the hell would they need an "update"? Also published in 1939: Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- does that now need an update to make it  more appealing to "the latest generation of readers?" I think not, she says.  But the story continues, since in my quest to discover the actual text from 1939, I read three more versions of this novel before finally finding the original.  One version even had televisions in it!  The horror!  And, as if that wasn't frustrating enough, I then watched two film versions of this novel -- the original "No Orchids for Miss Blandish," from 1948 which made me want to launch things at the TV, and "The Grissom Gang," another adaptation of  this book, from 1971. That one was almost okay in terms of following the novel, but on the whole, for me sort of missed the boat coming down to the ending.  Frustrating experiences all around.

- end of rant -

The book, though,  stands as a  monument to bleak, raw, and downright depressing crime fiction  -- anyone expecting to find any amount of happiness in this book is definitely not going to want to read this novel.  I think I was in shock by the time I turned the last page, but, actually, overall I thought it was great.  No sappy sentimentality or smiley happiness here, none at all. Zero, zip nada.

When a gang of crooks kidnaps an heiress in the process of a botched robbery,  their dreams of easy money are thwarted when a rival and much tougher, more deadly gang steals their victim. Miss Blandish becomes the hostage of the Grisson Gang, led by Ma Grisson.  Ma (likely modeled after the infamous Ma Barker), has "for the past three years ... built up the reputation of the gang," but among other gangs, the Grissons were  still viewed as "good third-raters."  She knows that the kidnapping of Miss Blandish would turn the gang into "the richest, the most powerful and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City," building its clout -- at the same time, the half million the Grissons will be getting from Miss Blandish's wealthy father is also nothing to sneeze at.  However, complications ensue when her son Slim takes a shine to Miss Blandish and wants her for himself.  Slim, who used to torture animals for fun as a child, began to "develop homicidal tendencies" by the age of eighteen.  The only person with any amount of control over Slim is Ma, who "won't face up to the fact that he isn't normal," since she is "blinded by a mother's love."  When Slim decides that he loves Miss Blandish and won't give her back, things within the Grisson gang start to change.  Ma's not happy  -- she's jealous of Miss Blandish for one thing, and for another, she truly believes that "more gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops."  Just how prophetic her statement will prove becomes evident throughout the rest of the novel.  One the other side, the story follows the efforts of former reporter now private detective Dave Fenner, who's been hired by Miss Blandish's father to find his daughter.   That's all I'll say about the novel for now, except that this is one of the most raw, most twisted novels I've ever read, and despite the apparent misogyny found within this book (it was the 30s, after all, so I can sort of overlook it), I enjoyed it.

So - now to the films.  First, there's the original version, made in 1948, which, if I hadn't read the book before seeing the movie, I would have had trouble believing that the two were related. What really misses in this movie is that it comes across as some kind of strange love affair (and not of the Stockholm Syndrome variety, either) between Slim and Miss Blandish rather than a psychological story of a psychopathic captor and his captive.  I mean, seriously -- I was okay with it up until the point where Miss Blandish has the opportunity to walk away but she chooses to stay (a truly WTF moment) --  that's when it all went sideways for me, and it didn't get any better as the movie progressed.

The second version, "The Grissom Gang"  (1971)  is a bit more faithful to the novel, even though the family's name is Grisson, not Grissom.  It's also much more true to the period (and with no British actors badly faking American accents); however, there are still some major changes that were made in the storyline.  The biggest one comes at the end, which fails (in my opinion) to capture the flavor of the originally ending of the novel, which was just downright pathetically tragic.  However, between the two movie versions, if someone's looking for the one which more or less captures the main thrust of the novel, this is the one I'd recommend -- the portrayal of Slim in this one was just brilliant, more or less the way I pictured him while reading the book.

Not for cozy readers, for sure, but any true pulp/vintage crime addict like me will want to experience this book. Once is enough, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

the last o' the vacation reads -- The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, by Joyce Carol Oates

Mysterious Press, 2016
315 pp


My many thanks to Mysterious Press for the copy that showed up at my door.

There are six stories in this rather dark collection, and once again the author has focused on human horrors rather than anything supernatural.  While I admit I wasn't overly in love with each and every story  in this book, I will say that the author's ability to create atmosphere continues here as it does in most of her short-story collections. If you've read her work in the past, you know exactly what I mean.  As usual, she delves deeply into the human psyche to examine an odd collection of disturbed minds, and in some cases goes on to examine the effects on the unsuspecting (or in one case, overly suspicious) people falling within their orbit. Trust me, the results are not at all pretty -- some minds are just freakin' deranged here, and belong to people you'd much rather avoid.

I won't go into any great detail, subject or thematic so as not to wreck things, but the six stories in this book start with the titular tale, "The Doll-Master," a story that whets the reader's appetite for more. While I wasn't chilled to the marrow by this one, it made for a good opener, since here she goes into what exactly it is that might make a serial killer tick, given his past,starting a path for Oates' examination of deranged minds.   The next story, "Soldier," is also very dark, hitting on current and relevant issues as we're asked to try and understand why a racist is turned into a model soldier of his cause. This one really bothered me precisely because of today's racist climate in this country, and the growing and widespread acceptance that racism should become the status quo.  She nailed this one.     Moving along, not a fan of "Gun Accident," which like "Equatorial," the next story, could have actually been more suspenseful had it been shorter and had it actually got to the "terror" more quickly. Instead, I found both too long, killing any horror or chills  I might have otherwise gleaned. By the time I got through "Equatorial," I didn't care what was going to happen at that point. "Gun Accident" looks at the aftermath of a single night in a woman's life, while "Equatorial" follows the story of a woman who is either very paranoid, or who is sure that she's in some kind of danger.  These are followed by "Big Momma," the ending of which I saw coming from a mile away.  There is one excellent story in this book, though, a little gem called "Mystery, Inc.," which follows a conversation between two book lovers who have big surprises for each other. That one I really, really liked -- my favorite story of the six.

To me it's much more of a book where predators tend to play with their prey before pouncing; I think had she not given the subtitle the moniker of "and Other Tales of Terror," I may have approached it differently. I was expecting to have hackles on my neck, but I think that with all of the dark fiction reading I do, it's starting to take more and more to actually terrify.  Another thing -- to me, the best short fiction gets the reader coated in atmosphere immediately, starts the uneasiness rolling as you realize that something's just a wee bit off kilter, and then finally moves in for the big shockaroonie.  Nothing too drawn out, just pure and simple bam!  This process didn't really happen here for me, but people are really enjoying this book, so once again it's probably just a matter of my expectations when I see the word "terror" in a title. So my verdict -- like any other collection of short fiction, it's a bit hit and miss.  But when she hits, she hits big time for sure.

Monday, May 16, 2016

another dynamic duo during dedicated down days, this time from Valancourt Books: Wax, by Ethel Lina White and Gilded Needles, by Michael McDowell

 Valancourt Books publishes old crime fiction, supernatural fiction, horror fiction and long-ago forgotten novels, and they've kept me entertained ever since I discovered they existed. My shelves are teeming with their books, precisely because I crave the obscure and because I haven't yet met a Valancourt  novel I didn't like.  Two more books now join the vacation reads:  Wax, by Ethel Lina White and Gilded Needles, by Michael McDowell.  They are two totally different animals -- Wax is pure vintage British mystery while Gilded Needles is more of a dark, historical crime novel of revenge set in New York in 1882.  Gilded Needles gave me a case of the willies and as I noted somewhere, caused me to pretty much stop breathing during the last 1/4 of the book.  Wax, on the other hand,  is more along the lines of a whodunit set in a most incredibly creepy atmosphere that doesn't let up throughout the entire novel.  Both, though, gave me the most intense satisfaction, which is all I can hope for when I'm enjoying vacation time.  I only brought a limited number of books with me, so I got very lucky with these two.  

First up is Wax, by Ethel Lina White, probably best known for her novel The Lady Vanishes. 

Valancourt Books, 2015
187 pp

Sadly, this particular version is not available in the US, but I bought mine at Book Depository and it was here in no time. Luckily,  Kindle readers  can get a copy for about six dollars.   It is an old novel originally published in 1935, and as soon as I opened it to the first page, I found myself already soaking in atmosphere.  At two a.m., Mr. Ames, who along with his wife serves as a caretaker for the old waxworks museum just outside of the small town of Riverpool, wakes up and remembers that he may have left a candle burning in "the Horrors."  When his wife goes to investigate, she gets a creepy vibe from the wax figures, "a company of -- poisoners" whom she felt "resented her presence," since "At this hour, the gallery belonged to Them." Her fear drives her home in a hurry, where she tells Mr. Ames that
"...those figures were up to some business of their own. And I felt in my bones that it was no good business either." 
Seriously -- what a cool opening!   The Waxwork Gallery was built in 1833, and had been "almost unlucky almost from its beginning." Evidently, the builder had hanged himself in the Hall of Horrors, then in the next decade a dead "tramp" was discovered there.  In the 1890s, a prostitute was murdered there in the alcove, "wherein was staged -- appropriately -- the final tableau in the career of Vice."  Moving the show into the 20th century, the body of a "commercial traveler" was discovered, this time with Virtue as a companion.  Opening the door of the Waxwork Gallery reveals a dimly-lit space with panelled walls draped with black velvet, coated in dust. Some of the figures have seen better days; for example, Mary of Scotland is wearing moth-eaten black velvet and is described by Mrs. Ames as being "germy" and in need of replacement.

When young Sonia Thompson comes to town to take a job at the local newspaper, the Gallery is the first place she visits, and thinks she sees two people come to life. Mrs. Ames tells her that she herself saw no one, so Sonia puts it down to an illusion.  However, she's not at all comfortable -- as we are told,
"She saw the Waxworks, not as harmless dummies, but as malign agents in a corrupt traffic..."
and feels as if the walls themselves were rocking in the "rushes of darkness."  She was, in short, "filled with horror of the Gallery."  As Sonia begins to acquaint herself with the people of Riverpool, she is warned away from the wax museum more than once -- sage advice, as it turns out, since a body is discovered there.  But it's not just the Waxworks that give Sonia the willies, since she soon finds herself wading knee deep into closely-held secrets that no one, absolutely no one, wants revealed and people who will go to great lengths to keep these hidden.   Sonia can't help herself though -- after all, she is a reporter and she wants to discover exactly what is going on in this small town.  She decides that there is only one way to get to the truth, and that is to spend a night on her own inside the Gallery.

Yowie zowie -- what a fun book!  What sets this book apart from a number of other works of the time is the The Gallery, which as I noted earlier, is the focal point of this book, and is in its own way, connected to pretty much everything that goes on in the town. It is not as taut as I generally like my mystery novels to be, and it took a while to get to used to the author's sort of rambling style. On the flip side, what I discovered is that although it seems like there is a wee bit o' the babble going on here, there are important clues to be uncovered throughout the story, so there were places that I went back to in order to pick up what I'd missed.  I have to say that I was hooked immediately, and that the novel turned out to be a fun read with a quite an ending.   Vintage crime readers will definitely enjoy this one, as will readers looking for something just a bit off the beaten path.  I will be revisiting Ethel Lina White later this year, as I plan to read her Some Must Watch (aka The Spiral Staircase) as well as her The Man Who Was Not There, both of which became films in the 1940s.

And now, moving right along to part two of this post, Gilded Needles is one of the darkest, creepiest tales of revenge that I've ever had the pleasure to have read.

Valancourt, 2015
paperback, 284 pp

The setting of Gilded Needles is New York, 1882.  The first thing that struck me on opening the book was the most excellent panoramic view of the city as the old year changes into the new.  The author provides us here with a glimpse across the spectrum  into what's happening at that moment, giving us a peek at the lives of  "... the poor whose poverty was such that they would die of it," the "criminals whose criminality was no final guarantee against the poverty they tried to escape," the "mildly prosperous and moderately respectable," and finally, for the "very rich who needn't trouble themselves with respectability." But most importantly for the purposes of this book, there is the "Black Triangle," a "little space that lies west of MacDougal, between say Canal and Bleecker Streets."  It is a place where "horror festers," located "within half an hour's walk of the most fashionable houses of the city."  It is in this small slice of the city that "Black" Lena Shanks and her family run their criminal enterprises; everything from illegal abortions, receiving stolen goods, selling dead bodies, you name it.  However, the denizens of the Black Triangle aren't limited to the poor or the criminal -- it is also a favorite locale for the more "respectable" citizens on its outskirts for gambling, picking up prostitutes, and whatever other pleasures they desire that are definitely not found say, in Gramercy Park.

It is just one of these "respectable" people who sets this story in motion.  Young Benjamin Stallworth is having his fun slumming in the Black Triangle, when he notices Lena.  She recognizes his eyes, remembering the time when a certain Judge Stallworth sentenced her husband to death and had her children taken away while she also went to prison.  In the meantime,  the Judge and his son-in-law, Duncan Phair, have decided to build their political and social clout by trying to take down the criminals and exposing the "evils" of the Black Triangle, publicizing their efforts in the newspaper.  But while the plan seems to be working, one particular event sends Lena and her family over the edge, and now she's looking for revenge.  And it definitely isn't going to be pretty.  The novel goes back and forth between the Shanks family and the Stallworths, who really don't help themselves with their own arrogance and their lack of understanding of human nature.

Gilded Needles is written in a way that reminds me so very much of the 19th-century "city mysteries" novels I've read,  exposing the city's dark, seamy underbelly and scratching off the veneer of respectability.  McDowell has captured the style of this sort of old novel while making it his own; he is one of the best dark fiction writers whose work I've had the pleasure to have read.  Gilded Needles  is one of the most horrific non-horror stories I've read in a while -- bleak, very Dickensian and well, let's just say that it's definitely not for the faint of heart.  At the same time, it is absolutely one of those books that once picked up will not easily be put down, and to be honest, I was still shaking after I'd  finally turned the last page.   I highly, highly recommend this one -- a definite no miss for readers of dark fiction and historical crime fiction.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

and we're back, with a Pushkin Vertigo double feature: The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses, by Augusto de Angelis

I have just loved the Pushkin Vertigo books I've read so far, enough to where I've preordered every single book with this imprint that I don't already have. One I had to go to the UK to buy (not physically, obviously), but I'm good through December of this year. I hope this imprint goes on for a very, very long time -- much like my favorite press Valancourt Books, PV is bringing back some old vintage crime stories that have either been long forgotten or frankly, novels which I've never heard of.   The crime novels by Italian author Augusto de Angelis are a great example of a series I didn't even know existed; I've read two now and really, really, really want to read more.

The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of Three Roses both absolutely  hit the spot while sitting out on my hotel balcony last week during my vacation. Written in the 1930s, the mysteries in these books for me are highly satisfying, but they are also notable for their explorations of human nature. In the first one de Angelis introduces his main character, Police Inspector Carlo DeVincenzi, Commissioner of Public Safety in Milan, whose raison d’ĂȘtre as a police officer is "an interest in human justice."  However, de Vincenzi often finds it difficult to solve his cases because of reluctant witnesses who may tell a part of what they know, but for their own reasons tend to hold back on information that would actually allow DeVincenzi to do his job in a timely manner.  In the two I've read, de Angelis has characters who have been heavily burdened with secrets; his people run the gamut from starving artist to wealthy financiers, each with his or her own conflicts, desires, weaknesses and strengths,  which if not actually having some bearing on the solution of the crimes,  still offer a picture of what made people tick at a certain time in a certain place.  

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
paperback, 187 pp
"...above all, there's an interest in human justice, which I believe in and which I must uphold..."

Any time a mystery novel opens in the fog, I do a little happy dance since I know that what's coming is going to be hazy, murky, and a bit of a challenge in terms of seeing things clearly.  This is definitely the case in The Murdered Banker,  where a "bituminous lake of fog" has settled on Milan, making it nearly impossible to see anything.  The opening scene captures two men "moving across the piazza," as "ghostlike shadows." As it turns out, one of these men is the main character Inspector Carlo de Vincenzi, who is heading into the station just after midnight.  After a while de Vincenzi settles in to read his book, Lawrence's  The Plumed Serpent (not Pirandello, as someone else guessed).   While inwardly musing about why he's a cop, and why he'd become the Commissioner for Public Saftety, he is joined some time later, about 1:30 a.m., by his friend and former classmate Gianetto Aurigi, who has just come in after a night at La Scala seeing Verdi's Aida.  He had watched the opera in the box belonging to Count Marchionni and his family; Marchionni is Aurigi's future father-in-law, as he is engaged to his daughter Maria Giovanna. He claims he's been walking around since and that his wandering had brought him to the station to see the inspector.  But soon he opens up with his financial troubles, revealing that he needs "half a million" -- it seems that he owes this sum to someone, and that it is due that very day.  He can't tell Marchionni without facing the prospect of losing his bride-to-be. While they are talking, the phone rings, calling de Vincenzi to a crime scene. After he hangs up, the inspector instructs Aurigi to remain at the station and leaves an officer to ensure that Aurigi doesn't leave. The reason is not that the inspector wants to continue the conversation when he returns, but that the crime he's been called out to just happens to have occurred in Aurigi's apartment.  As he begins his investigation, it all adds up to Aurigi as chief suspect, but through his "intuition and psychological impressions" the Inspector knows that he's the wrong guy.  As other suspects are brought into the case, each with his or her own secrets, de Vincenzi realizes that if he doesn't get to the truth of the matter, the innocent may be caught up in the "machine that will grind them up." His mission -- to save the innocent, and to bring the guilty to justice.

De Vincenzi believes that a crime, when "not a crime of passion," is "a work of art! A work perversely and criminally artistic," and it's obvious to me that De Augusto's writing reflects this idea.  At the same time, it's not so artistic that the whodunit element gets lost -- The Murdered Banker is a solid mystery story that is not only enjoyable, but also very well laid out in terms of buried secrets that could easily serve as motive, creating a group of possible suspects whom de Vincenzi must eliminate one by one to solve the crime.  He takes his time getting there, but that also is part of the author's craft -- creating the reluctant witness who doesn't want those secrets to come out at any cost.  By the time the actual culprit is discovered, it's a rather eye-opening moment, something I look forward to in any mystery novel.  Here it's done right, and done well, although sometimes the writing itself can be a bit overdone, but a) it's the first in a series which is often touchy, and b) the crime and the investigation are both so well plotted that it's forgivable. 

De Vincenzi is definitely not your ordinary police inspector -- he works, as noted above, through his impressions and his gut feelings. His reading material speaks volumes about who he is as a person -- Plato's Eros, for example can be found in his desk drawer at work. As a policeman, though, it's all about feeling "the poetry of this profession" -- as he notes
"because I am perhaps a poet, ... I feel the poetry of this profession of mine, the poetry of this dusty grey room, of this shabby old table, of the poor old stove, whose every joint suffers in order to keep me warm. And the poetry of the telephone! The poetry of the nights of waiting, with the fog in the piazza coming right up into the courtyard of this old convent -- now home to the police station, housing criminals in place of saints! Of nights in which nothing and everything happens, because in this huge, sleeping city, even as we speak, there are infinite dramas, even if they're not all bloody. Actually, the worst ones don't end in shooting or with a knife." 
He has this ability to size up situations and people, and often sets things up like a stage director, moving his characters here and there, putting different people together to see what happens, etc. etc. until conditions are just right for him to see everything  -- you know, that moment when the fog lifts and things are visible once more.

It is a fine start to a series that so far I am really enjoying.

Moving on to the second book (although seventh in actual publication order),

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
220 pp

we come to The Hotel of the Three Roses, the blurb of which promises a "chilling gothic mystery" and "bloody drama." It is an example of one of my favorite sorts of mystery tales in which a tragic, horrific past comes flying back full throttle into the present, and oh, what a chilling tale there is to tell here. 

It's 1919, and Inspector De Vincenzi has received a very strange anonymous letter about things at The Hotel of the Three Roses, "an unknown third-rate hotel...not the kind you just just stumble upon," in Milan: 
"...A horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don't intervene in time...the devil is grinning from every corner of that house."
 De Vincenzi is asked by a colleague if he thinks it's a joke, but the Inspector  realizes that "precisely because it is so ridiculous,"  there is something strange going on and that indeed it is definitely not a joke. Just to be on the safe side, he gets the lowdown on the people who are staying there at the moment.  Then, as if on cue, he receives word that there is a dead man at the hotel, one of the five on whom he has gathered information.  Feeling "profoundly disturbed," the Inspector had a "vague presentiment that he was about to experience something dreadful."  After beginning the official investigation into the death, which looks like a suicide, he realizes that it is actually indeed a murder.   The main question for De Vincenzi going into this investigation is precisely this: "Who was Douglas Layng?  And how had this young Englishman ...come to be killed in Italy?"   He realizes right away that this is no ordinary crime, and  that "He would have to battle with the devil. Flush him out, give chase." He also knows that "only the psychological aspects of the crime can reveal the truth."  But before he can devote his full attention to the Layng murder, he finds a clue that warns that  Layng's death just might be the opening salvo in "the beginning of a series." And sure enough, there's another murder. Time is of the essence, and De Vincenzi must solve this one quickly, since as he realizes,
"His adversary was the sort who never misses a chance, and never loses."
However, as in The Murdered Banker, he is again confronted by a hotel filled with suspects, each of whom is reticent to share his or her secrets.

The Hotel of the Three Roses is a fine mystery story with its roots in the past.  Here the inspector finds himself "groping around in the darkness," trying to fit all of the little snippets of clues he's gathered before anyone else becomes a victim.  He also has to figure out how the people currently at the Hotel of the Three Roses are tied together, making for a solid piece of detective fiction.  Once again, though, it's his need for justice that pushes him toward the truth.  As he says,
"What's done is done, unfortunately. The dead don't come back. But human justice does exist, and it must act to defend society." 
Much of this novel is based on the idea of justice -- maybe not in the way that De Vincenzi thinks about it, but justice all the same. Sadly, I can't really say how this is so,  because I don't want to spoil anything for the next reader.

 This book was extremely satisfying for me in terms of the mystery itself, the variety of characters and especially in terms of the process of crime solving.  Again -- often a little overblown writing-wise here and there, but as with The Murdered Banker, the mystery is intense and good enough that the writing just isn't that much of an issue.  I am growing rather fond of the Inspector, so I hope that Pushkin Vertigo continues the series and that more of  de Angelis'  books continue to be  translated for eager readers like myself who love  vintage crime.

both books are definitely recommended!!