Friday, December 14, 2018

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O'Donnell

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2018
369 pp


"men don't need magic to do evil..."

With one of the best opening scenes I've come across in my reading lately, I knew that this book and I were going to get along just fine.  The House on Vesper Sands is  a good mix of historical crime fiction and Victorian sensation fiction with more than a slight supernatural edge -- in short, it hit all of my relax-time, escape reading buttons. I read like I do everything else, wholeheartedly, giving the book in front of me my undivided attention, but sometimes I just need a brain break, and this one fit the bill completely.  Unfortunately, US readers will have to do what I did and order it from elsewhere (in my case Book Depository), since it doesn't seem to be available here except through sellers in the UK or Ireland.

Set in England of the 1890s, the novel begins one snowy night as Esther Tull arrives at a house in Half-Moon street, where she is employed by Lord Strythe as a seamstress.  The first clue we have that this is no ordinary job is that she is locked in to the room where she sews, with the butler, Carew, stationed outside in the hallway reading The Illustrated London News. The second clue that something is not right is the fact that once inside, she proceeds carefully and most quietly to break into a strongbox and remove three crystal bottles that she puts inside a satchel before dropping them off a window ledge onto the ground below. It is all part of a "promise" she'd made and she "meant to keep it."  Finally, as the book blurb reveals, she climbs onto the ledge, and jumps.   When the police arrive to investigate, they find a strange message "embroidered on her body" (not a spoiler - it's on the dustjacket blurb).

 A case of mistaken identity puts young Gideon Bliss on the case along with Inspector Cutter of the Metropolitan Police, and together they work to solve not only this case, but the case of a missing young woman as well. At the same time, society columnist Octavia Hillingdon is looking for a good story outside of the social world, and the two threads link up as she hears an incredible story about a still-open case involving the death of yet another young woman.  In the meantime the newspapers are captivating readers with their headlines about "the Spiriters," who have once again cast "a pall of fear over Whitechapel and surrounding districts." 

That's more than enough about plot; to say more would just be a shame, since I think it's probably fair to say that this book revolves around plot much more than it does its characters.  Once I started reading I realized that some of these characters seemed familiar, albeit from other books I've read, but at the same time, there's something different going on here with these people.  There's great interplay between Inspector Cutter and Gideon Bliss, for example,  that provides a lot of humor that sort of balances out the more disturbing aspects of the novel.  And while the supernatural edge of this mystery might bother some people, one of the main ideas so nicely presented in this book is that "men don't need magic to do evil," as Mr. O'Donnell clearly shows, which also provides a more serious side to the story.

  The House on Vesper Sands is pure entertainment, and one that its author must have had a great deal of fun writing.  Every now and then reading for fun is a great thing, and I'm happy to have spent time with this story.  Recommended for lighter mystery readers who don't mind a bit o' the strange in their stories.  Now I think I have to go pick up his Maker of Swans to see what I've missed.  Relax, have fun, and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

*in which two very independent women embark on two very different paths: Miss Ferriby's Clients, by Florence Warden and The Green Jacket, by Jennette Lee

From different sides of the Atlantic come two very different stories involving two very different women.  The first of these is Miss Ferriby's Clients, written by a highly prolific Florence Warden (neé Florence Alice Price) whose biography  remains somewhat elusive.  There's a bit about her at Furrowed Middlebrow which notes that she was a
"Playwright, actress, and author of more than 150 novels which, .... 'specialized in courtship and marital dilemmas.'  She once bragged that she wrote more than a million words a year, and she routinely published 2 -4 books per year throught her career."
 The blogger at The Androom Archives adds that she
"was born in Hanworth as the daughter of a stockbroker. She was educated in Brighton and in France... In 1887 she married Edward George James. She wrote many more novels, but ... she received little money from her work and her financial situation became more difficult."
Fantastic Fiction offers a list of many of her books, as does The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography, and trust me, I've noted the ones that look like possible mystery novels for future reading.    For right now though, it's all about this book, Miss Ferriby's Clients.

North View Publishing, 2010
Kindle Version
originally published 1910

Young Welton Keynes and his brother Basil  had been brought up enjoying "every luxury" until the day that their father "found himself one morning a ruined man."  While nobody actually knew what had happened to dad,  it was believed that he'd offed himself while crossing from Dover from Ostend on a boat.   Basil was 18, and while he was supposed to have been on his way to Cambridge just after leaving Eton, he had to get a job as a bank clerk, while Welton, 24, found the job market tough.  Three weeks of looking brought nothing until one day he saw an advertisement for a secretary:
"...not over twenty-fve, University man preferred, by elderly lady engaged in philanthropic work.  Salary 500 pounds per annum."
Off to Chiswick he goes, where he gets directions to the elderly lady's home from a younger woman who a bit later talks young Walton into walking to her home, where her mother dishes out the dirt on Miss Ferriby.  She lets him know that "Miss Ferriby changes secretaries very often, and ... and nobody seems to know what becomes of them."  Mind you, this should have been Welton's  clue to walk completely away from this job,  but everything changes when he rescues an old woman "most opportunely" from an attack.  This second strange happening in the neighborhood makes him even more curious, and he returns to Miss Ferriby's residence the next day where he was "not in the least surprised" to find that the woman he'd rescue was Miss Ferriby herself.  He gets the job, but it doesn't take long for him to wish he hadn't. 

What's notable here isn't so much the mystery itself, but rather how the main criminal is portrayed. It's not a spoiler to let on that Miss Ferriby isn't the nicest of elderly women (in fact, she is one of the most brutal women villains in fiction of this era that I've read so far), and the first thing we learn about her is that she is "deformed and stunted," with an "enormous head."  She has "features large enough for those of a man." Her main "deformity", a "hunchback," is mentioned 21 times throughout the novel, and in describing this book, the publishers have noted that often "the main villain" in books of this era (as was the case in the Victorian era as well) was "physically disabled or disfigured ... to make him or her appear more villainous."  There are more than a few surprises in store for the reader of this novel, and seriously, by the time I finished it my head was spinning from all of the twists.

Kessinger Legacy Reprints
originally published 1917
331 pp

Next up is American author Jennette Lee's The Green Jacket. Jennette Lee (1860-1951) went to school at Smith, married in 1886, and then went back Smith in 1901 where she became an associate professor of English in 1904.  Bob Schneider at Women Detectives notes that she left academia in 1913 to become a full-time writer, with 22 books published between 1900 and 1926, and that "less than 15% of her output seems to be in the mystery/detective genre."   The Green Jacket is the first of a series of three novels to feature Miss Millicent Newberry, quite likely, as stated at Women Detectives, the first woman detective who actually owned her own detective agency.  Newberry is also notable in that she feels that she ought to have say in what happens with the criminals she's caught.  She doesn't believe that prison is always the right decision; as she tells her former mentor Tom Corbin, she "couldn't sleep nights, thinking of men in prison that never would have been there," if it hadn't been for her,
"Men that I knew weren't really bad -- drunk or mad or something!"
As she says, "I made up my mind that if I did the catching, I was going to have something to say about the punishment."  Indeed, some of the visitors to her office are former offenders she's caught, including women, who come and check in on a regular schedule much as if she were a probation officer. 

 The Green Jacket begins as Tom Corbin tells Milly he wants to partner with her. Her business is highly successful, and typical male that he is, he talks about how they are made to "work together."  As he says, Milly has the "good mind for details," but she needs him "to handle the case as a whole." He wants her to take on the case of the Mason emeralds, which he never solved when he was called in two years earlier "after some of the hardest work the office ever put in on anything."  It all came back to him that very morning when he saw a clipping about the death of a woman Corbin's detectives had suspected in the case, and now he tells Milly that she'll "never solve the case."  Milly needs time to think it over, changing her mind when a heavily-veiled woman walks into her office and asks her to take up the same case.  It seems that Mrs. Oswald Mason had gotten Milly's name from her now dead adopted daughter (Corbin's suspect), and they make plans for Milly to stay at the Mason home in the guise of a seamstress so that Milly can make some headway on discovering who stole the jewels.   The title refers to a piece of knitting that Milly works on as she works on the case.  It seems that she has a habit of starting something new for every case that she keeps up as long as it takes her to come to a solution.  She's also sort of a detective Madame Defarge -- reverse stitches in her work here and there are used as reminders of specific things she wants to remember.

I think it's just great that we have a woman writer creating an incredibly independent female detective whose business is going gangbusters, but if I never read another book by this author I'll be perfectly okay with that.  First of all, I don't even see a point to this detective story, something anyone who reads this will completely understand when all is said and done, because really, the only thing that happens is that Milly's on hand at casa de Mason to act as a soundboard for everyone's problems.  A few family secrets come out that have some sort of bearing on the theft of the emeralds, but when it comes right down to it, the whole story is just plain lackluster with much wringing of hands in the process.  Second, the coincidence of Mrs. Mason walking into the Newberry Detective Agency just after Milly and Corbin have their little talk about that very same case he couldn't ever solve is just too much.  And finally, really, this entire book could have been half of its size -- it made me so frustrated I just wanted to scream through most of it.

Truth be told, between these very independent women, I'll take the villain any time -- at least she was much more interesting than the crime solver.  So it's  definitely thumbs up for Miss Ferriby's Clients and a big thumbs down on The Green Jacket. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

a thriller with serious bite: The Monsoon Ghost Image, by Tom Vater

Kindle Version,
October 2018
Crime Wave Press

I would like to thank Henry at Crime Wave Press for my copy of this book.    I didn't use it, because silly me, I failed to see the pdf file he'd included in the email he sent, so I bought a kindle version  But thanks all the same.
Aside from having a cool logo, Crime Wave Press 
"publishes a range of crime fiction -- from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring the world's dark underbelly."
My first experience with this small indie press was, coincidentally, a book by the author of the book featured in today's post, Tom Vater.  The title was The Devil's Road to Kathmandu,  and it was a hell of a story that I remember not wanting to put down, so naturally I said yes when asked if I'd consider reading another one by the same writer.   This time around the action takes place in Thailand, and The Monsoon Ghost Image is the end of a trio of books featuring Detective Maier after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind.   

Former war correspondent, after years in the field and the death of a friend from Cambodia, Maier no longer wants nothing at all to do with war.  He now (2002) works  in "Hamburg's most prestigious detective agency,"and as the story begins, his boss Sundermann hands him a strange case.  It seems that he has had a call from an Emilie Ritter, a woman whose famous photo journalist husband Martin Ritter is missing, presumed dead, with a funeral scheduled for the following Tuesday in Berlin.  Maier knows this already, but he gets a gut punch when Sundermann reveals that Ritter was seen in Bangkok just a couple of days earlier.  Emilie shows Maier and his partner Mikhail an email from someone with the enigmatic name of the "Wicked Witch of the East" confirming that Ritter is not only still alive, but is also "involved in the crime of the century."  Emilie needs to know whether Ritter is dead or alive, so Maier and Mikhail are off to Thailand to try and track him down.  They're there a month with no sign either way, the calm before the storm after which all hell breaks loose, centering around "the world's most wanted photograph, the 21st century's Zapruder document."

As with most thriller novels, while reading The Monsoon Ghost Image  on one level I'd advise a complete suspension of disbelief, as the story explodes into seriously crazy, over-the-top territory.  Our detective friends find themselves caught up in some of the most bizarre situations imaginable (and I'm not joking here).  The story outdarks dark  -- there are at least two psychopaths whose actions will likely keep readers on the edges of their chairs, and knowing who to trust becomes downright impossible through the many twists and turns taken by this story.   Having said that, let me also say that underneath this craziness runs an undeniable grain of truth -- in the war on terror, there are certain agencies that will go to any lengths to get results, all "authorized at the highest levels of the world's most open and egalitarian society."  In the process, sometimes the line between good guys and bad guys becomes unrecognizable, and things get worse as they attempt a cover up in an effort to ensure that  their dirty secrets will never be revealed. And then, of course, there are others who just want to exploit those secrets for their own gain -- in short, as someone notes in this book,  "it's about money."

I am not normally a reader of thrillers, and while this one is, as I said, way over the top, I actually got caught up in it because I had to know what happened next.  Each time I thought things couldn't get any worse, they did, and it was a hair-raising ride to the finish.  It is not at all for the squeamish (I found myself reading quickly through some of the many gruesome scenes, the equivalent of covering my eyes while watching the same on television), and it is not for people who freak out over the use of profanity or violence.  In the end though, what made this book work well for me was a) the focus on that underlying grain of truth mentioned above combined with the author's out-there imagination  in telling that story (!)   and b) the author's depiction of Maier as a man who through it all tries to retain his humanity while others lose theirs by the wayside.  Throw in the exotic locations throughout Thailand and well, it becomes the stuff of a tv miniseries I would definitely watch.

I'd read anything written by Tom Vater -- his mind works in strange and mysterious ways, a quality I genuinely appreciate in the crime fiction universe. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

still catching up here: The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Stark House, 2018
305 pp

paperback (read earlier)

While The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories is not at all connected with crime, I'm posting about it here because Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of my favorite mystery writers of yesteryear and people who know her work in that genre might just be interested in seeing another side of the author.   This book includes not only her novel, The Unlit Lamp (1922),  but also six other stories originally published in Munsey's from 1921 to 1923.  It's a wonderful collection of tales, and my thanks go to Stark House for sending me a copy and along with that, apologies for taking forever to post about it.

 The Unlit Lamp is only one of twenty-five novels this author wrote over her lifetime; the last one, Widow's Mite (1953, which I can highly recommend), was published only two years before her death.  My guess would be that her most popular novel was her The Blank Wall (1947) followed by her earlier The Innocent Mrs. Duff  (1946), both of which are outstanding. At the same time, that leaves twenty-three more novels and a large number of short stories by this author to rediscover and to celebrate.   And while The Unlit Lamp doesn't fall into the crime/mystery category, it's still very much worth reading.  As the blurb says, it is an
"emotionally charged social drama from 1922, filled with the issues that burned so bright during the Roaring 20s as changing morals began to break down the tradition family structures of the past." 
She does in this book what she does so well in her others, as Sarah Weinman notes in the introduction to Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car" in her Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, painting
"psychologically nuanced portraits of women making sense of troubled marriages, conflicted relationships with children, or intrigue thrown up by the larger world." (195)
That, in a nutshell, could be the overall description of  The Unlit Lamp, which is one of the author's romantic novels.  It is the story of Claudine, who really wants to marry Gilbert Vincelle, and eventually does so even though her mother tells her that he will never make her happy and vice versa.  Gilbert has quite a high opinion of himself, and bases much of his worldview around that of mother's, with whom he still lives at home. As it turns out Claudine's mother was spot on in her judgment, as Gilbert takes Claudine to his mother's house immediately after their honeymoon.  It isn't at all the life Claudine imagines as a married woman, as her life becomes constricted by the expectations of her mother-in-law as to what a wife should be, as well as her husband's refusal to take her side.    By the end of three months she's ready to chuck it all but is advised not to when a family member considers (but leaves unspoken) the pariah she would become in society.  Everything that Claudine is becomes submerged, and she finds herself taking refuge in her children, in whom later she sees the cycle beginning to repeat. 

There are six "selected stories," many of which run on the same themes expressed in The Unlit Lamp: "Hanging's Too Good for Him," "A Hesitating Cinderella," "Like a Leopard," "The Aforementioned Infant," "Old Dog Tray," and "The Married Man."  The last two of these were my favorites in this group, with  "The Married Man" coming out on top of them all.  It is an excellent satire on a man's viewpoint of marriage, in which the husband decides that he can't "live any more" unless he has his freedom.  There's no one else, he  doesn't want a divorce, he doesn't want to lose his wife; he just wants to be free from marriage's "petty restrictions and obligations."  The fun begins when his wife decides to go visit her mother, sans children.   It was seriously hard not to laugh while reading this story, and I can't help but think that in many cases, this one is as just as relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1920s. Absolutely delightful.

In Sanxay Holding's crime novels, she builds her stories around the psychological; the same is true here in both The Unlit Lamp and the shorter tales, which makes this a must read for fans of this author.  Even though this book is not part of the crime/mystery genre, many of the ideas that will come out in Sanxay Holding's later novels are very much present here.  And don't miss the lovely, poignant, and insightful introduction to this book by Judith Rose Ardron, the author's granddaughter.

I just want to say that Elisabeth Sanxay Holding should hold a very special place in the history of women authors of crime, and that it is such a pity that she is not more widely read.  And once again, as I find myself doing every time I read one of her novels, I can honestly say that  I loved this book.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

and now, back with my old friends from Italy once again: The Pyramid of Mud, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2018
originally published 2014 as La pirimide di fango
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
256 pp


Well, here we are at book 22 in this series, and I'm still in love with Inspector Montalbano and have no intention of ever falling out of love with him.  I'm looking at the Camilleri page at Stop You're Killing Me  and there seem to be only two more novels coming our way.  Oh, what a sad day turning the last page of the last book will be, but I'll enjoy them while I can.

I actually read this book back in October so I had to give it a quick reread before posting.  Montalbano's seen plenty of corpses in his career, but this particular dead man found in a tunnel at a construction site doesn't sit well with the inspector.  The barefoot  man was wearing only a pair of underpants and an undershirt, and had been shot in the back. Evidently, he had gone outside like this earlier that morning, and to top matters, he had come to the construction area on a bicycle.  But here's the thing: how could he have ridden the bike uphill, mortally wounded,  in the middle of a storm where it was "raining like there was no tomorrow?"   The inspector begins with the assumption that the man was fleeing from someone, but who? And what did it mean that he went into the tunnel? Was there some kind of message there?   He quickly gets an ID on the dead man and makes his way to the house, where another surprise awaits which launches Montalbano headlong into an investigation that, as the back-cover blurb says, takes him into a world "just as slimy and impenetrable as mud."

Without going into too many details here, The Pyramid of Mud is another good one from Camilleri; at the same time it's a bit darker in tone than many of the other books in this series.  It ventures into the realm of corruption, and while that's nothing new in a Montalbano novel, we find Salvo despairing, comparing the crime scene and mingling of blood with mud with the state of things in Italy:
"...the mud had entered the blood, become an integral part of it. The mud of corruption, of payoffs, of phony reimbursements, of tax evasion, cams, faked balance sheets, secret slush funds, tax havens, bunga bunga... it was all a symbol of the situation in which the whole country found itself at that moment." 
 What makes this book a bit darker in my opinion is that while he's having to cope with solving this crime, which, as in other Montalbano stories is just the tip of the iceberg,  he realizes that his mind is just not on his work.   It is, as he says,
"as though the real Montalbano had gone away and delegated matters to a rough copy of himself, a stand-in devoid of hunches and ideas, unable to make connections and draw conclusions, lacking energy, passion, vitality ..."
proceeding through the investigation  "with the same enthusiasm with which he normally signed memos in his office."  It all relates to Livia, who is having a very difficult time coping with life after events from a previous book.  It's not our usual Salvo here, and as a long-time fangirl of this character, it's really quite difficult to be caught up in his pain.  Gah -- even now I'm starting to choke up just thinking about it.

all 22 Montalbano books on the shelf, and I wouldn't part with them for the world

  LOL -- I don't usually get this involved with characters who live in crime novels, but these people are like friends whose lives entered mine some years ago and have never left.   Quite frankly, as I've said before, the people in these books are what keeps me buying and reading them, well, that plus Camilleri's savvy examination of the ongoing problems faced by his country, as well as the humor in pretty much every story and okay, the ideas I get from the food.

As I say each time, do NOT start late in the series.  Not only am I pretty much OCD when it comes to reading series novels in order, but with these books, readers who start at random will miss what came before, and each book builds on the others.  I love Inspector Montalbano and the people who surround him, and I seriously doubt that there's ever been a mystery series that has given me as much joy as this one.   And yes, book #23 was pre-ordered long ago.

something new: A Knife in the Fog, by Bradley Harper

Seventh Street Books, 2018
277 pp


Seriously, I am so behind in reading and posting that it's just beyond frustrating.  I calculate that it's about a 4-week lag, so this week I'm hoping to make up for some lost time, starting with this book, A Knife in the Fog, which as you can see by the cover, is "a mystery featuring Margaret Harkness & Arthur Conan Doyle."  What this image doesn't show  is that there's another guest star to add the cast, and that's none other than Doyle's own mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell.  The true star of this show though is the one, the only, Jack the Ripper.

In September of 1888, Doyle is surprised to receive a letter from former prime minister William Gladstone, asking him to travel to London for a task he will only explain to him in person, offering him a substantial amount of money to do so, no strings attached.  On Doyle's arrival, he is met at Gladstone's club by a Mr. Jonathan Wilkins, Gladstone's personal secretary who explains that it's about "the Whitechapel homicides."  It seems that Gladstone, who had "always been charitable to the community of fallen women in Whitechapel, had been asked by a "delegation of these ladies" to help end "this reign of terror."  Surely Mr. Doyle, whose "scientific methods of analysis to to deduce the murderer"  took shape in his Sherlock Holmes, would be willing to examine the work of the police, in order to "propose avenues of investigation they have overlooked."  Even with a substantial amount of money as payment, and the opportunity to test his theories as to the importance of science in police work, Doyle is hesitant, referring Wilkins instead to Dr. Joseph Bell. Wilkins sweetens the offer and counters with the suggestion that the two work together.   Doyle, thinking Bell won't go for it, sends a telegram and to his surprise, Bell telegraphs back that he is "intrigued," and that he would come to London the following Monday.  In the meantime, Wilkins gives Doyle the address of the woman who will be his guide through the Whitechapel area, writer Margaret Harkness.   When  Bell arrives, the pace picks up as the three not only become involved with the police  side of things, but eventually find themselves in danger as well.

Margaret Harkness, from Victorian Secrets 

While in general I like my fictional characters to remain completely fictional (unless it's historical fiction based around certain true events, as in the novel I recently finished speculating on the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition),  I quite enjoyed the addition of Margaret Harkness to this story.  In real life, as she is portrayed in the book, she was a journalist, a writer (albeit under a male pseudonym), and a political activist.  The author introduces us to her in men's clothing, armed with a Derringer which she knows how to use.  She is also portrayed as a very strong woman with no obvious vulnerabilities except in the cases of other women she cares about, and she refuses to put up with general male BS that gets thrown her way.    Putting her in the story gave a nice lift  to the usual scenario of a fictional Arthur Conan Doyle as detective (which, let's be honest here,  has been done just too many times), or as in David Pirie's series of books that featured  Conan Doyle and Bell together weaving their logical magic and solving crimes.

Despite its focus on the Ripper murders, A Knife in the Fog, which is the author's first novel,  is not too dark of a read, so it's probably suitable for people who are looking for something beyond the cozy zone but not too close to edge of the darker spectrum.  It's suspenseful and twisty,  and overall, it's fun and a great way to spend a few hours in total relax mode.    Along with the addition of Harkness I found the mystery engaging once it reached the point where Doyle & Bell found themselves in some jeopardy.  The author also gets really quite clever at times, none more so than towards the end where he pulls off an amazing sleight of hand I wasn't quite expecting.   I was also quite impressed with the author's knowledge of the slums of Whitechapel of the time.   At the same time (and it's probably a me thing), I'm not a huge fan of the many deductive-reasoning scenes going on between Doyle and Bell where they are bedazzling each other with their Holmes-like conclusions about people or events  -- in this case, less would be have been more.  And with apologies to Mary Roach, who back-blurbed this novel saying that it had an "utterly unexpected reveal,"  I guessed the who (but not the why) long before that time. I also think there are a number of scenes that could have been left out which would have made this a much more tight narrative  (involving Margaret's roommate) with absolutely no detriment to the story.

However, let me say that I read a LOT of first attempts at novels and I knew that this one was different from the moment I opened it.  The man can write and write well, something I genuinely appreciate these days when, thanks to  e-publishing, everyone can be an author, including some people who really shouldn't.  Truth be told, I much prefer a book where the writing is good with a few niggling mistakes than one with an okay plot and bad writing.   Despite my own little "me things" and nags about this novel about some rookie errors made here and there, it was absolutely refreshing and even pleasurable to read this book. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

*The Blotting Book, by E.F. Benson

Hogarth, 1987
originally published 1908
255 pp


It generally takes me a couple of weeks to recover from October's dark-read fest, but I'm back again, with a novel from 1908, The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson.   I had planned to read this book quite some time ago but, as often happens here at casa mia, it arrived, I shelved it, and promptly lost it.  I found it again mid-October while going through my horror/supernatural books  (which live in a different room from British crime)  and had to laugh at myself --  I'm a huge fan of the author's ghost stories, so evidently my mind said "E.F. Benson. Upstairs" and I shelved it next to the other books I have written by him. I would guess that most readers of British fiction are familiar with E.F. Benson as the author of Mapp and Lucia; anyone who is a serious reader of ghost stories would also know the name.  The fact that he wrote a mystery novel or two was news to me; I had no absolutely no idea until I read Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  There he was, with The Blotting Book sitting between  Horniman's Israel Rank and Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown.  [As a completely unrelated sidebar, I'll be following Edwards' book as a guide for mystery/crime reading all of next year, title by title; I've read quite a few of these so it probably won't be all 100.]    This edition is part of Hogarth's Gaslight Crime series; I have quite of few of these little gems sitting in my British reading room, including another one by this author called The Luck of the Vails.   It's also available online at Project Gutenberg, and there are a few versions available for Kindle. 

Benson opens this story at a house in Sussex Square, Brighton, the home of a Mrs. Assheton.  She had lived there all alone until her son Morris came home from Cambridge.  It is a well-ordered, upper-class home in which everything is done to perfection.  For guests, it stands as "an example of perfect comfort," run precisely as it was before her husband's death some twenty years earlier.   Twenty-one year old Morris is Mrs. Assheton's only heir, and by the terms of his father's will,  Morris will gain his majority and thereby come into "complete control and possession" of  his fortune if he waits until he is twenty-two to marry with Mrs. Assheton's consent; failing that, he will regain  minor status until he is twenty-five. The thirty-thousand pounds that his father had left him is under the trusteeship of the family attorneys Taynton and Mills, who, as Mr. Taynton assures Morris one evening at a small gathering, have carefully invested on his behalf, so that ten thousand more pounds have been added to his portion of the inheritance.  Since the money would fall under Morris' control should Morris marry, Taynton invites Morris to take a look at the books pertaining to his account in their "stewardship," an offer that Morris declines.  As to the question of marriage, Morris most definitely has someone in mind, the other guest at the house that evening, a Miss Madge Templeton.   What Morris doesn't know, though, is that someone has gone to Madge's father and filled his head with some pretty ugly things to the point where Madge has suddenly been forbidden to see Morris in their usual way.    For reasons I won't reveal, Morris probably should have taken an interest in his accounts; he should have also listened to Taynton when he said that "we lawyers and solicitors are always supposed to be sharks..." since what is revealed that very same night at a meeting of the two attorneys reveals some very sharklike behavior, and also acts as a catalyst for everything that's going to follow, none the least of which is murder.


As Edwards notes in his book, this is a slowly-unfolding story, one that reflects "the unhurried nature of life among the well-to-do in Edwardian Britain."  (21)  It is also a novel that limits the number of possible suspects to the point where as it gets closer to the end, it becomes rather easy to guess the "who" since basically we start running out of people who could possibly be guilty.  Before that, however, Benson drops every sort of imaginable clue as well as a dream sequence that had the armchair detective in me second guessing myself for a while.    Interestingly, unlike many of the books published at the time, there is no detective figure -- the investigation as such was handled by a Superintendent Figgis, who makes an appearance here and there, and is described by Benson as
"in manner, slow, stout, and bored, and looked in every way utterly unfitted to find clues to the least mysterious occurrences, unearth crime or run down the criminal"
and "an incompetent agent of justice." 

While it may not be the most exciting mystery of its day, I stayed engrossed throughout wondering how things would turn out, largely due to Benson's writing because he delves into the inner workings of the main characters, especially that of the criminal.  In this sense, Benson's done a top-notch job despite the fact that the mystery is just too easy to figure out, especially for seasoned crime readers.   I can see that many modern readers could easily grow bored with this book, but anyone into vintage crime and mysteries really at least ought to give it a try.  And now that I've moved it downstairs where it belongs, it is a very welcome addition to my library of British mystery fiction.

Friday, October 12, 2018

According to the Evidence, by Hugh Pendexter

Black Dog Books, 2013
stories originally serialized 1906-1914
281 pp


Continuing my look at crime fiction and mysteries just up to the end of World War I, today's book is a collection of short stories by pulp author Hugh Pendexter, whose historical fiction is legendary.  Before I go on, I have to take my hat off to the blogger at Pulpflakes, who found way more than I did about this author.

According to the Evidence is a compilation of tales about a law firm known as The Bureau of Abnormal Litigation.  As author Jeremiah Healy writes in his introduction, these stories serve as a "window into our legal fiction of the early twentieth century."  The Bureau, which is often "called upon as a last resort in many peculiar cases,"  is headed by a certain Ezra Stackpole Butterworth, who sees himself as a
 "foolish, benevolent old man, who tries to help stupid humanity out of trouble." 
He has "mastered the peculiar happenings of life," and will only accept cases which are "abnormal," having always been
 "attracted to the unusual phases of life, called abnormal because so little observed."
When he first came to the law as a profession, he noticed
"many instances where the exact truth would have saved a case, but was ignored because of a fear it might not be believed, or because it impressed counsel as being trivial,"  
leading the Bureau to often refuse retainers in the "absence of any unique ingredient."   Butterworth's  fame has spread to the point that when reporters discover that he's going to be taking on a particular case, it is "sufficient to set the press-table to buzzing," while leaving the DA to wonder about "the inevitable surprise" that's sure to come.   Butterworth is not a detective, but he's sharp as a tack and doesn't miss a trick. He has an assistant, Jethuel who he often puts to work as a sort of private investigator, and another member of the firm who was invited to join the  Bureau to "look after the criminal branch" of the business.

Throughout the course of the thirteen cases the Bureau tackles in this book, circumstances are indeed a bit strange.  In "The Death Cup," for example, there's the statement of the maid who swears she she saw "one or more eyes" staring at her as she stumbles upon a dead body; in "According to the Evidence" (one of my favorites in this book),  an alienist's testimony as to the sanity of his client is called into question as he is forced under oath to relate his own strange visions, and in "Circumstantial Evidence," a pianist dies of a gunshot wound while alone in his apartment.    The shorter stories are fun, but the centerpiece in this book is definitely the novella-length "The Crimson Tracks," which not only has an entertaining mystery involving a strange manuscript, red footprints that come and go, and some pretty quirky characters, but also, given the time, a most ingenious solution to this bizarre case that I never saw coming.

the first appearance of Pendexter's "The Chelsea Vase," in Adventure (Vol. 8 #3, July, 1914) from The General Fiction Magazine Index

Pendexter's stories filled pages and pages of pulp magazines over the years, and luckily the good folks at Black Dog Books have taken the time to put some of these stories into collections like The Bureau of Abnormal Litigation, and  I have another anthology of Pendexter crime tales sitting on my shelves, The Voice of the Night, the stories of Jefferson Fanchon, "Inquirer"  in which Pendexter pits his crime solver against  an evil crime genius plaguing New York.

Bottom line: this book is a fun example of early pulpy crime fiction that would probably appeal to readers who are really into this sort of thing as well as readers of vintage crime who haven't yet discovered Pendexter.    Despite the title there's nothing supernatural about these tales -- just good old fashioned crime solving with a fun premise and a few curveballs thrown in to a) make the cases interesting and b) make the reader chuckle every now and then. I can see that it might get a bit tedious at times for readers of modern crime, but it's solidly right up my pulp-reading, fiction comfort-food alley.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

*Trent's Last Case, by E.C. Bentley

Harper Collins, Detective Story Club, 2017
originally published 1913
212 pp

"This mystery is all wrong."

In John Curran's introduction to this edition, he refers to Trent's Last Case as "one of the most famous milestones in the genre."  He quotes EC Bentley from his autobiography, Those Days (1940) where he writes
"Some time in the year 1910 it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to write a detective story of a new sort..."
and, "among the dozens of detectives" (long dominated by and modeled after Sherlock Holmes) currently filling magazine pages in a market that was "thriving," as Curran notes, "the stage was set" for just that.  Enter Philip Trent.

Trent is an artist who does fairly well, and also works from time to time as a journalist.  It is in this role that he becomes involved in the case of the death of American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, the "Colossus" of Wall Street, a man whose number one concern was the accumulation of his own wealth, often becoming "lawless or ruthless" in the process.  He's someone that no one will likely mourn, most especially the "tens of thousands of the poor;" in his lifetime he is "execrated" by the "financier or the speculator" as well.   And as Trent himself will come to remark later,
"Here's a man suddenly and violently killed, and nobody's heart seems to be broken about it, to say the least."
Trent's work in journalism has brought him a reputation for having "great powers as a detective," with "past successes" in solving cases which have left the police stymied.  However, in writing his detective as someone "as far away from Holmes," as possible, Bentley's Trent has good relations with the police, who are not an object of scorn or derision, but rather people with whom Trent has no problems in terms of cooperation.   In this case though,  even Trent has not-so-positive feelings about investigating Manderson's death; as he says,
"I tell you frankly, I wouldn't have a hand in hanging a poor devil who had let daylight into a man like Sig Manderson as a measure of social protest." 
But he takes on the case anyway and despite a number of suspects and theories, he quickly comes to a solution.  However, he encounters complications that lead Trent to question his confidence as a detective, the biggest of them arising in the form of the murdered man's widow, "The Woman in Black" of the American title of this novel.   I can't really say any more without giving away the show here, but as it turns out, it's probably a good thing that he didn't have his findings published in his newspaper.

There is no question as to the importance of this book in mystery/detective fiction history.   Curran refers to Trent's Last Case in  his introduction as  "one of the most famous milestones in the genre,"  "one of the earliest defining detective novels of the twentieth century"  and a book that "heralded, in fact, detective fiction's Golden Age," a statement with which any number of later detective fiction writers, critics, scholars, and readers concur.   I also can't help but think that  the switch to a more human sort of detective must have been a welcome change to contemporary readers.   Now that I've read this book after finishing a huge number of detective stories where the central character is a serious, Holmesian sort of figure where reasoning or science rules the entire story, I found that I quite enjoyed Trent's "fallible human" personality.  As Bentley wrote, quoted here at House of Stratus:
"I am not sure why Sherlock Holmes and his earlier imitators could never be at all amusing or light-hearted; but it may have been because they felt they had a mission, and had to sustain a position of superiority to the ordinary run of mankind."
Not so with Philip Trent: we watch him sort of crumble a bit while falling in love, lose his confidence more than once, experience doubt and anxiety, and eventually acknowledge his own "high-blown pride" and "the impotence of human reason." Frankly, I find his character quite a breath of fresh air at this stage of the mystery/detective fiction game. 

The twisty plot, however, is the true centerpiece of this book, and as I said to someone recently, I've read so much crime fiction that I feel sometimes like I know every plot possible.  However, Trent's Last Case came with a totally unexpected ending that made me say a not-so-quiet "bravo" in appreciation for a job well done. 

I can recommend this book with no qualms at all -- just please bear in mind when it was written (just coming out of the Edwardian era) when it comes to some rather objectionable content.  It is still a worthy read, even for the most modern mystery and crime fiction lovers.

And one more thing:  I LOVE these Harper hardcover reprints!!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

*climbing back into my comfort zone: At the Villa Rose, by A.E.W Mason

House of Stratus, 2009
originally published 1910
258 pp


I'm back in my happy place (aka yesteryear) once more with this book, which is Albert Edward Woodley Mason's first installment of a series featuring Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté.  I first came across this title while reading Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, where he describes how Mason got the idea of writing this book:
"On a visit to the then-renowned Star and Garter hotel at Richmond, A.E.W. Mason saw two names scratched on a window-pane by a diamond ring: 'One was of Madame Fougere, a wealthy elderly woman who a year before had been murdered in her villa at Aix-les-Bains, the second was that of her maid and companion, who had been discovered ... bound and chloroformed in her bed.'  The incident stuck in his mind, and visits to a provincial conjuring show, a murder trial at the Old Bailey, and a restaurant in Geneva supplied him with further material for the plot of a detective novel." (26)
Mason teamed his Hanaud with Mr. Julius Ricardo who wasn't a detective but rather, as Edwards describes him, "a fastidious dillettante who had made a fortune in the city of London."  In fact, as we meet Ricardo, he is in Aix-les-Bains in the second week of August where he normally spent "five or six weeks" as part of his "habit" at that time of year.  More specifically, he is at the Villa des Fleurs on a Monday evening,  where instead of gambling, he prefers to watch  "the spectacle of the battle which was waged night after night between raw nature and good manners." It is at the baccarat table where Ricardo lays eyes on Harry Wethermill, an "Englishman," and young Celia Harland, who is there with an elderly woman.  He watches them for a while, and the following night Ricardo and Wethermill walk back together to the Hotel Majestic where they're both staying, chatting about nothing.  On Wednesday morning, Wethermill bursts into Ricardo's rooms with a newspaper that carries the story of "an appalling murder" that was "committed at the Villa Rose."  The dead woman was the wealthy Mme. Camille Dauvray; her maid had been chloroformed and her hands tied behind her back.  The newspaper also reports the disappearance of Mme. Dauvray's companion,  a "young Englishwoman," whom Ricardo guesses was Celia, the woman with whom he'd seen Wethermill on Monday at the Villa des Fleurs.  The newspaper suggests that it was she who was responsible for Mme. Dauvray's murder; Wethermill suggests getting in touch with M. Hanaud, "the cleverest of the French detectives," since Hanaud just happens to be in Aix-les-Bains on holiday.    Hanaud warns both men that "the case is dark," but agrees to take it on.

the 1940 movie poster, with Kenneth Kent as M. Hanaud,  from WikiVisually
This really could have been a fine book, except for the fact that Mason decided to reveal the "who" way too early, and  then combined witness testimony and different narratives relating to the crime into one account to explain it all.  Gah! How disappointing!  Edwards refers to this as "lop-sided story structure," and I'm afraid he's spot on with that description.  Had the author put it all together in a different way, there's a hell of a story in there -- a fake medium with a conscience, rivalry, and a rather sadistic set of villains who, in at least one scene, find a sinister joy in causing pain to their victim.  All of the elements are there to have made the book a fun reading experience but they come too late -- by then the shock/suspense value is sort of lost.

I've been looking at what readers say about this book, all of whom noted the crappy structure that ruins the surprise, a point with which I agree, but what I don't agree with is the idea that these characters are, as one person said, "one dimensional."  As someone who pays close attention to the people who populate the books I read, there's a lot going on with the characters in this novel that is well worth reading.  If you're in this just for the usual crime, investigation, and solution, you miss a lot of the interactions between the evildoers and their victims, especially when it comes down to the motivations behind their actions.  The human interest is not just limited to the villains of this piece, either, but I can't say more without giving everything away here.

I will be revisiting Hanaud starting in 2019 when I creep into the Golden Age with my crime novel reading; I'd say that even though you now know  that things are going to be a bit "lop-sided" in the storytelling, it's still a good book and that there is a lot happening here to make it readworthy.  Read it slowly, don't devour it, and now, armed with knowledge of how it's going to be, sit back and relax, paying attention to the unfolding of the plot.

Recommended, certainly for readers  interested in twentieth century,  pre-World War I crime writing.  Frustrating it may be, but there's a good story within the lopsidedness.

Monday, September 17, 2018

... and now, from Nigeria: Easy Motion Tourist and When Trouble Sleeps, by Leye Adenle

When I was asked by Emeka at Cassava Republic Press if I'd like to have a copy of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle's book When Trouble Sleeps, I couldn't say no.  I'm always looking for something different in crime reading in these days where "The Girl Who" or "The Woman In" sort of thing floods the shelves and leaves me sort of meh about modern crime writing,  and frankly, Nigerian crime fiction sounded exciting to me. I wasn't wrong.

  In her email I read that this book was "the highly anticipated sequel to the award winning Easy Motion Tourist," so I immediately picked up a copy of that book.  While you can read When Trouble Sleeps as a standalone, it really does work much better reading the two together; I did so I'll be talking about both books here.

Cassava Republic Press, 2016
327 pp

The first thing to know about Easy Motion Tourist is that even though it's narrated partly from the perspective of  a British journalist who becomes involved in the action quite by chance, the star of this show is a young Nigerian woman named Amaka. 

As the novel opens, Guy Collins has just arrived in Lagos, and wanting to get out of his hotel to "see this country I'd heard so much about," he takes a suggestion from the concierge and goes to Ronnie's bar, hoping that he would be able to share his Nigerian experiences with his now-estranged, part-Nigerian girlfriend on his return to the UK.  Instead, he happens on the murder and mutilation of a prostitute , dumped in the gutter just outside the club, which he is told is a ritual killing. Eager to get in on "breaking news," he realizes that 
"a ritual killing captured on video a few minutes after the incident was bound to be worth something,"
and goes out with his phone to do some filming. Lying to the cops who have shown up, he tells them he's with the BBC, but publicity is the last thing the police want, since the crime occurred in an area called Victoria Island, "one of the few enclaves of relative safety in the city," where the police are paid to keep crime from happening.  The relative safety is "an illusion" which is "guarded religiously" by those who lived on the Island, but it also brings in tourists who freely spend money.    Guy is quickly arrested and taken off to the police station, where he is rescued by a woman named Amaka, who also believed he was from the BBC.  She has a story of her own that she wants him to cover.   Her mission is to protect the prostitutes of Lagos, and has uncovered disturbing information about some very powerful and wealthy men who she believes just may have something to do with the murder, and also with the girls she works so hard to keep safe.  And it is these people who want Amaka and Guy taken care of, at any cost and in any way necessary.

Cassava Republic Press, 2018 (US, 2019)
323 pp

When Trouble Sleeps follows the harrowing ending of Easy Motion Tourist, picking up the action only twenty-four hours later.  This book shines a light on corruption in politics, and follows the upcoming state elections.  The story begins with the crash of an airplane carrying the leading gubernatorial candidate. It is an important election, not just for whoever might emerge the winner, but also  for "whoever controls him."    To fill the void, the party chooses a replacement, a man that Amaka knows all too well, and against whom she has proof of crimes of a particularly heinous, repellent nature.   When he discovers that she knows what skeletons there are in his past that could bring him and his party down and cost them both the election, he will stop at nothing to get rid of her.  But he is not her only problem -- she also has to deal with the fallout from events in Easy Motion Tourist and face the man she knows is responsible for crimes and sheer depravity against the women under her protection.

I'll be the first person to admit that fast-paced action thrillers aren't really my thing, but I was pretty much glued to both of these novels for several reasons, mainly because of  the author's ability through words to bring Lagos alive and make it real for people like me who have never been there. The action moves through this city of contradictions and complexities as we're taken though the street markets and slum neighborhoods, which in some cases the police won't venture into except at night because it's too dangerous by day, then on into the more wealthy spaces where it's obvious that the residents do all that they can to isolate themselves against the poor and the poverty of this city.  For example, in When Trouble Sleeps, the residents of certain luxury enclaves have the power to "divert state resources to guard their homes," or can actually cause officers to be reassigned to worse places because they didn't understand that their job was to "protect the rich."

The real draw, of course, is the central character Amaka, who is devoted to taking care of not just sex workers but other vulnerable women whom she senses may need her help.  As one of the characters in Easy Motion Tourist notes, "she is the only hope for so many desperate girls in Nigeria,"  and in speaking of sex workers in both novels,  my hat is off to this author who understands that for many women here  "prostitution was not a choice; it was a lack of choice."     While in that book Amaka works with a British man, she is the one to watch; this is not a story where the British man takes control and all is made right again -- in fact, in When Trouble Sleeps he's back in London so her crusade falls mainly on her own shoulders.

I won't lie --  both books can get pretty violent which is not usually my thing, but really, I didn't get the sense that I do in so many thriller novels that most of the violence on the pages is gratuitous.  And considering that I don't particularly care for thrillers, it is what lies underneath all of the violence and action in these books that really came through and made for seriously good reading: a picture of a city that most of us know only through the news; it is also a story of  the people who live there.  Very much recommended, probably for people who read more on the darker, edgy side -- it's not pretty, but then again I don't think pretty was the author's intention here.   Well done, and if this is an example of what Nigerian authors can do in the crime fiction zone, I want more.

 My many and sincere thanks again to the good people at Cassava Republic Press for my copy of When Trouble Sleeps. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

and now, the '50s, part two ... The Gravediggers' Bread, by Frédéric Dard

Pushkin Vertigo, 2018
originally published as Le pain des fossoyeurs, 1956
translated by Melanie Florence
148 pp


"You cannot change someone else's destiny. Each of us bears our own skin and thoughts along the furrows of Fate."

When the mail arrives and I open an envelope to find a Pushkin Vertigo book inside of it, it's happy dance time at my house.   The Gravediggers' Bread did not disappoint; au contraire,  it a dark, well-plotted noir novel that,  as with the best of the best noir novels, has a psychological focus that is the true attraction.  Combined with other elements such as setting, pacing, and some unexpected plot twists, the result is a claustrophobic, bleak, dark, and highly atmospheric story that turns out be a complete surprise, even though I was absolutely positive I knew where it would be heading.  These days, in my case, that's rare.

Returning to France after two years in Casablanca working with "a scoundrel" in a job that didn't quite pan out, narrator Blaise Delange is now looking for work.  Out of money after failing to find a different job in Morocco, Delange makes a call to his friend in Paris  to let him know he didn't get the latest job to which he'd applied.  According to Delange, it's the same old story -- he's "always last in the queue when they're giving things out."   On his way out of the post office phone booth,  he steps on a small wallet, in which he finds eight thousand francs and an ID card belonging to a Germaine Castain who turns out to be the beautiful woman with the "too large eyes" who had  occupied the booth just before Blaise had stepped in.  Seriously in need of cash, he finds himself doing a strange thing: he decides to return the money to its owner.  He doesn't even understand why he should do this; he hasn't "always been very honest" in his life," and he hasn't been kept awake by scruples, but he finds himself on the way to Rue Haute where Germaine lives with her much older husband, the undertaker Achille.  Before handing over the wallet though, he removes a small photo of another man, obviously not Achille, which was a good thing, since Achille grabbed the wallet from her almost right away.  Dodging Achille's questions about where he'd found it, and not mentioning the photo he'd found brings gratitude from Germaine; from Achille he gets a job offer.  As he becomes more of an asset to Achille every day, putting him in direct contact with the two every day, he begins to realize that
"This strange couple concealed a mystery, and I was eager to find it out."
The greatest mystery, according to Blaise, is why Germaine stays with her husband.  As Delange learns more about the strange relationship between Achille and Germaine,  he finds himself drawn deeper into their lives to the point where he is unable to make himself leave because of Germaine, but at some point he realizes that something has to give in this bizarre triangle, of which one side is, as he puts it,  "de trop."  

It is to Dard's great credit that in such a short amount of space he has produced a novel of such depth, a story that focuses a great deal on fate and destiny, explored through the dark mind of one man.  His work here reminds me so much of that of Simenon, especially in how the reader eventually comes to realize that the ever-shrinking corner that Blaise has worked himself into is largely of his own making -- that he was trapped before he was even aware of his situation.  I can't say how this is so without giving things away, but the combination of the stuffy, claustrophobic provincial town in which the events of this  novel occur,  the intense psychological depth afforded to Dard's characters, and the initial slow pace of this story that eventually gathers speed throwing in a number of twists along the way all make The Gravediggers' Bread an unforgettable story that I can certainly recommend to noir enthusiasts.

and now, the '50s, part one ... Ordeal by Innocence, by Agatha Christie

Bantam/Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987
originally published 1958
212 pp, hardcover

A few weeks ago when the spouse was away on business, I decided to watch the latest television adaptation of this novel, which I hadn't read for some time.  At the end (cover your eyes and scroll down a bit if you haven't seen the tv version), when the murderer was revealed, I absolutely screamed out loud, because the television powers that be had actually changed the who.  I was like "I don't think that's how it went," and  because my brain works like this, I looked up other tv versions after finishing that one and was even more surprised to find that someone thought it a good idea to bring Miss Marple into the case.  Good grief. I get creative licence, but sheesh!  As it turns out though, the more I  thought about this latest version, the more I believed it actually worked; that last scene is one that played through my head throughout the night I'd finished watching -- it was downright creepy.  And then, because my brain works like this, I had to go and take my copy off of its shelf and give it a read, and here we are.  

Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor, Ordeal by Innocence. From The Times

Although my very sweet husband surprised me with the set of Bantam leatherette editions of Christie's books some time ago, I do tend to miss the covers of the latest versions, like this one

photo from Amazon

but in the end, it's what's inside the covers that matters.  And while I see that  a lot of readers don't agree with me, this is a good one.  I get that for many people the draw in a Christie novel is Poirot getting his little grey cells all stirred up or waxing his moustaches, or Miss Marple innocently knitting away while taking stock and careful observation of everything and everyone while the cops tend to flounder, but the non-detective novels can be just as good, in my opinion.  Ordeal by Innocence begins two years after Jack (Jacko) Argyle was sentenced for the murder of Rachel Argyle (the woman who had adopted him and the other children who became his siblings as young children).  All of the evidence pointed directly to him, but Jacko had always sworn that he had an alibi.  According to him, he'd been hitchhiking into town, and had been picked up about a mile away from home at a time that would have made it impossible for him to have killed Rachel. He never got the driver's name, nor could he remember the make of the car.  It wasn't an alibi that held up, however, and Jacko was found guilty and was sent to prison, where he died of pneumonia only a few months into his sentence.   The family, to put it concisely, had "no doubts" that Jacko had been guilty, and over the last couple of years life had gone on at Sunny Point.  However, with the arrival of a certain Dr. Calgary, the residents of Sunny Point are in for a shake up as Calgary declares that he was the man in the car, and that Jacko "couldn't have done it."  At the same time, Calgary is surprised at the family's reaction to the news that Jacko was innocent.  Asking Hester Argyle if she doesn't want her brother's name cleared," or for Jacko to have justice, her reply leaves him a bit stunned:
"What does it matter to Jacko now? He's dead. It's not Jacko who matters. It's us!"
She then goes on to say something that will define the rest of this entire story:
"It's not the guilty who matter. It's the innocent." 
It takes him a while, but Calgary begins to understand exactly what he's done here:  if Jacko wasn't responsible for Rachel's death, then the murderer must be one of the remaining Argyle family.  In trying his best to not only set things right but to also help to lift the cloud of suspicion he's brought to Sunny Point, he hangs back, observes, and slowly begins to try to find the person who really killed Rachel.

While this book's premise is very different,  in terms of subject matter Ordeal by Innocence reminds me a bit of Christie's Crooked House, in which an outsider is brought in to help get to the truth of a murder in the family, precisely because one of the family hopes to negate the idea that "it could be one of us." Here though, there's a bit more happening beneath the story's surface; as just one example, nature vs. nature is a big theme that is explored using the lives of the Argyle siblings, all of them adopted, and while we might think nowadays that this is sort of old hat, don't forget that this book was written in the late 1950s so it opens a small bit of a window onto a particular mindset of a particular time.   There's more, of course, especially in trying to fathom Rachel's personality, which is an excellent psychological study unto itself.

Yes, the Poirot and Marple books might be more of a joy to read, but I found myself enjoying this book once again after having read it some years back.  Ordeal by Innocence is much more on the psychological/human nature side of things, and it works very well.  Recommended, especially for dedicated Christie fans.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

*The Complete Judith Lee Adventures, by Richard Marsh (ed.) Minna Vuohelainen

Valancourt Books, 2016
546 pp


"Judith Lee is a young woman who calls herself a teacher of the deaf and dumb; in reality she is the most dangerous thing in England." -- 371

 In August, 1911 the popular magazine The Strand (Vol. 2, #248) first began to serialize the adventures of a young woman in a short story written by Richard Marsh (1857-1915) called  "Judith Lee. Pages from Her Life: I -- The Man Who Cut Off My Hair."  The book is really one of a kind in terms of the literary female detective to this point in time; it is also a stunning collection that is very much a valued addition to my own home library of early crime/mystery fiction. 

Judith Lee is a "teacher of the deaf and dumb," and uses what she calls "the oral system -- that is the lip-reading system" in her work.  Her father was, in fact, "one of the originators" of the system; her mother was deaf with a speech impediment "which made her practically dumb," but through lip reading quickly became able to understand what people were saying and to speak. As a result,  Judith has "lived in the atmosphere of lip-reading" all of her life.   Beginning with "The Man Who Cut Off My Hair," an adventure that she recounts as having taken place when she was a young girl, "this knack of mine," as she says, has led her into "the most singular situations ... the cause of many really extraordinary adventures." 

my photo from "The Man Who Cut Off My Hair," (17). Illustration by W.R.S. Stott

Over the course of these twenty-two adventures, Judith Lee will tackle (among many others)  jewel thieves, a bride with a penchant for disappearing, the Mafia, the theft of deadly curare, mysterious deaths in a lonely house;  while the stories are great, it's really Miss Lee that drew my interest throughout the book.  She is fiercely independent, has no plans or desire to marry ("Never, never, never!")  and travels the world as part of her work. She says of herself that she is a "woman, but no weakling," and takes lessons in jiu-jitsu as part of a duty to "keep my body in proper condition."   Her "gift," which includes being able to read lips in multiple languages, gives her the ability of "entering into people's confidence," but she expresses ambivalence about it at times.  For example, in "Eavesdropping at Interlachen," she says that
"There have been occasions on which, before I knew it, I have been made cognisant of conversations, of confidences, which were meant to be sacred, and, though such knowledge has been acquired through no fault of mine, I have felt ashamed, just as if I had been listening at a keyhole, and I have almost wished that the power which Nature gave me, and which years of practice have made perfect, was not mine at all." 
However, she goes on to acknowledge that "there have been times indeed when I was very glad indeed that I was able to play the part of eavesdropper."  Sometimes her eavesdropping becomes intentional as she notices people who just look wrong (for example in "Conscience"), and often she has "premonitory little shivers" which she feels are sent to her "as warnings," as in "Uncle Jack."  While some of the adventures in this book begin with Miss Lee trying to right a wrong, as in the case of a men wrongly sentenced to death, she also describes herself as "Nemesis," thwarting evildoers to the point of gaining a reputation among them, as noted in "The Finchley Puzzle:"
"Judith Lee is a young woman who calls herself a teacher of the deaf and dumb; in reality she is the most dangerous thing in England."
I didn't discuss these stories in any detail for a reason since this is a book that should be gone into with very little awareness of what they entail. The Complete Judith Lee Adventures is a joy to read, and in this edition we have the great fortune to have an excellent and most eye-opening introduction by Marsh scholar Minna Vuohelainen, who has written extensively on her subject, and who examines not only this book, but puts it into context along with Marsh's other work.  She also quotes Kestner's Sherlock's Sisters, which no aficionado of early female detective fiction should be without; he goes into the Judith Lee stories extensively as well.  It is truly one of my favorite crime/mystery reads this year, and I can't recommend it highly enough.


While I hate to draw attention away from Valancourt Books, there is another edition of Lee's complete adventures available from Black Coat Press, who is also in my top tier of small, independent publishers.