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.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Portrait in Smoke / The Longest Second, by Bill S. Ballinger

Stark House, 2018
269 pp


"Blessed are the forgetful: for they get better even after their blunders."

My many, many thanks to Stark House for my copy, especially for Portrait in Smoke, a story I will never forget.     I have to admit that when I first got this book, I said to myself "who the hell is Bill S. Ballinger?," because I had never heard of the guy.   The book's back cover blurb tells us that he was born in Iowa, 1912, and that he went on to study at the University of Wisconsin. During the 1940s, he worked in radio and advertising, and began writing novels in 1948; he was nominated for an Edgar for The Longest Second in 1958, finding himself in fine company with writers Marjorie Carleton, Arthur Upfield, and Ed Lacy (whose Room to Swing won that year).  And as writer/editor Nicholas Litchfield (who writes the introduction to this book) notes at his blog, Ballinger, who also "wrote scripts for eight feature films," and "more than 150 teleplays" went on to win his Edgar in 1961 for "one of his teleplays for Alfred Hitchock Presents." A wee bit of research on my end reveals that it was for "The Day of the Bullet."


Aside from the books he wrote under his name, he used two pseudonyms, B.X. Sanborn and Frederic Freyer, penning his last book in 1979 before passing away in 1980.  In the introduction to this edition, Litchfield notes that Anthony Boucher once described Ballinger as a "major virtuoso of the mystery technique," but as is the case with so many writers of yesteryear, he went on to become an "under-appreciated writer, books long out of print and his name unfamiliar to many."

In Reilly's Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1980), Ballinger is quoted as saying that he considers himself "primarily, a story writer" -- for him
"the story is the thing. Although I usually try to make a point as all good stories should, I stay away from moralizing and propaganda ... I have always enjoyed a good plot, the thrill of plotting." (77)
And in this book of two Ballinger novels, story is definitely the thing.  I'll begin with the second one, The Longest Second  (1957), saving what I think is the best book for last.  Don't get me wrong -- I quite enjoyed The Longest Second and was hooked from the get-go -- the main character wakes up one day in a hospital, having had his throat cut (and obviously unable to speak); worse, he has no memory at all of how he got there or even who he is. Given the opportunity, it would make one think that it is a perfect chance for starting over, but well, ...   Not that that scenario hasn't been done before, but there's a game changer here in the form of a "reoccurring" nightmare that sets the scene for the rest of the novel:

"At first there wasn't much to it; it was only that the hospital room was no longer the same room. It was another room, darkly lit except for a light in the far corner. I kept waiting for something to appear from behind that spot of light. That was all. But the terror of waiting, the anticipation of fear were freezing. Never have I been so monstrously frightened."
This nightmare will follow him throughout the story, and each time he finds himself afraid,  "waiting for someone to appear in the light -- "someone, or something," right up until the bitter end of this tale.

Our man is questioned by the police who take his prints and discover his name, Victor Pacific.  That rings no bells, but little snippets of things run through his head, like quotations by Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, lists of names, and at some point he discovers he knows some Arabic words. Nothing, however, yields any clues.  Down to using a pad and pencil to communicate, he is finally able to leave the hospital; his first stop is to visit and question the woman who found him on her doorstep, Bianca Hill, hoping to find out anything he can about himself and why he was left to die there. She takes him in, offering him some light work which he accepts, but her roommate Rosemary is dead set against the idea, and Vic, who senses something about Rosemary, wants to know why.  As he goes about trying to discover his identity and the mystery behind Bianca's roommate, the police are also busy, most of all a detective who is convinced that Vic is lying about everything and is determined to break him.    There's much, much more here that happens, of course, in this rather twisty story before Vic is able to finally come face to face with that  "someone or something" in the"spot of light" from his nightmare.

original cover, 1950, from Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Moving on, or in this case backtracking, with the first novel, Portrait in Smoke (1950), I believe I've discovered the ultimate in femmes fatales.  I read this story this past Saturday, and I did not move from my spot on the sofa until the last page had been turned -- that's how good it is.  I actually found myself gasping when I got to the ending, and had to run out and tell my spouse about what I'd just read, and then I had to go post about it on my GR pulp fiction group right away.  I had to tell someone about this book, because quite honestly, it blew me away. Trust me: you may think you've seen all that these old books have to offer in the way of femmes fatales, but there is no one, absolutely no one in my reading experience quite like this woman.  She's sort of like an updated Undine Spragg (from Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country) or Thackeray's Becky Sharp for the 1950s -- women incapable of any kind of love who are always looking for the next best thing to come along and grab hold of it by any means possible.  In Portrait in Smoke, Krassy Almauniski (in all of her various aliases) makes it an art form.

As in The Longest Second, Ballinger splits his narrative into two distinct voices. It begins with the first-person account of Danny April, who opens the novel somewhat cryptically by saying that he's a "goner," if he "shoots off" his mouth to the wrong guy, and then asks who'd believe him anyway.  Okay. My interest is whetted.  It seems that Danny had been working for a collection agency in Chicago, right up until the time his grandfather had died and left him as beneficiary of his insurance. With $2500 in his pocket, Danny decides to buy his own business, and becomes the new owner of his own collection agency.  Going through the data cards, he latches onto one in particular, with a newspaper clipping featuring a picture of young girl, Miss Krassy Almauniski, who had evidently won a beauty contest sponsored by the Stockyard Weekly News  some ten years earlier.  Her photo "started a memory clawing and scratching around" in the back of April's mind, taking him to a particular summer night when he was "still a kid."  Not able to sleep, he decided to walk to the North Avenue Beach, where he notices a girl on the breakwater, with whom he becomes fascinated. He follows her at a distance right up until she catches ride on a streetcar, after which she disappears from his life forever.  Wondering if the girl in the clipping was his girl from teenhood, his old desire creeps up again and he decides to do all he can to find her; eventually his quest becomes an outright obsession.  Now, here's the thing ... it's probably not all that realistic a scenario, so you have to sort of suspend disbelief to move on. If not, you miss one of the best, creepiest stories I've read in this genre in a long, long time.

Meanwhile, while we're kept up to date on what Danny April is doing in his search to find the newspaper girl, we go into a third-person narrative which picks up the story around Danny's quest.  The first of these begins on Krassy's seventeenth birthday when she vows that "Starting today ... things are going to be different."  She lives with her father in a "filthy little house in the Yards" from which she is eager to escape; she wants respectability, security, and money enough to make her future secure.  Her life in that district led her to develop an internal "shrewdness and cunning," and she learns that she's going to have to draw on her looks, at least at the beginning of her climb up the social/financial ladder.  Starting with the beauty contest, Krassy goes through a number of changes and we're right there along for the ride, watching as her plans begin to materialize and feeling very, very sorry for the men involved.

Arlene Dahl, in Wicked as they Come -- from Pinterest

To say that I loved Portrait in Smoke would be an understatement; as I said earlier it had an ending that brought out a huge gasp. I won't say why, but in the way of a clue I'll offer that obviously Ballinger didn't care about the usual crime fiction/mystery formula where we're all happy at the end and life has returned to normal yet again.  The shock of the novel, however, didn't translate at all to the 1956 film Wicked as They Come, which likely due to subject matter and morals code, sort of gutted the book.  Still a fine film but the novel is so much better.

Feel free to take issue with the prose here and there in both novels,  but given that Ballinger saw himself, as said above, "primarily, a story writer," I think it's safe to say that he knocked it out of the park here. At least he did for me, and in the end, that's what really matters.  However, I think other readers who enjoy this kind of thing will also find it very much worth their while to lay hands on a copy.   Again my thanks to Stark House not only for my book, but also for introducing me to this man's work, whose books,  like those of so many other fine writers, have been sadly relegated to obscurity.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

*2 Detectives: Astro, the Master of Mysteries, by Gelett Burgess and Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader, by Max Rittenberg

Coachwhip Publications, 2011
622 pp

My latest stop along my journey into crime/mystery fiction of yesteryear brought me to this book, which despite its hefty weight and 600-plus page length turned out to be an ahhhhh read.  First of all, these books are early examples of stories in the psychic detective zone (Astro, The Master of Mysteries was published in 1912; Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader came out in 1913); second, they both have this lovely early pulp vibe, and the third reason is that the plots of these stories are so out there that reading them is just pure pleasure for someone like myself who thrives on this stuff.

Even heftier than the weight of this book, the true title of Astro, The Master of Mysteries goes like this:

The Master of Mysteries; Being an Account of the Problems Solved by Astro, Seer of Secrets, and His Love Affair with Valeska Wynne, His Assistant

from Public Domain Superheroes
and there they are, the two main characters.  Of course, there's much more to this book than the romance between Astro and Valeska; in fact, we only pick up a vague idea of his feelings for her as the stories progress, right up until the very end when he starts dropping not-so-veiled hints.  In the publisher's note before the beginning of Astro, The Master of Mysteries, we're told that when this book was first published in 1912, it was done so anonymously.  It also provides another clue:
"The Introduction ... suggests there are three cryptograms hidden in the text. Two of these are known and easily discovered. (The first provides the name of the author, Gelett Burgess.) The third cryptogram remains a puzzle." 
In  Classic Mystery Stories (Dover, 1999)  editor Douglas G. Greene provides the way to solve the first two cryptograms, but goes on to say that he doesn't believe that anyone has "yet discovered the third cypher."  So we know we have mysteries within a book of mysteries before we even turn the first page.  Greene also reveals that
"Victor Berch, the scholar of popular fiction, has discovered that the Astro "Seer of Secrets" stories, were first published in 1905-1906 issues of The Sunday Magazine under the pseudonym Alan Braghampton"
and that Astro's real name is Astrogen Kerby. (131)  For a quick look at an Astro story published under the name of Braghampton, you can click here.

While I won't go into the twenty-four stories specifically, Astro is a medium whose spiel runs like this:
"...there are waves of the ether, --N-rays, X-rays, acitinic and ultraviolet vibrations, to which I am exceedingly susceptible.  I have an inner sense and an esoteric knowledge of life and its mysteries that is hidden from all who have not lived for cycles and eons in solitude and contemplation with the Mahatmas of the Himalayas!" 
He is adored by New York society, wears a turban and robes, and is fond of the hookah; he often refers to himself as the "Mahatma of the Fourth Sphere," is a "skilled and artistic musician," reads constantly,  and has a working knowledge of most subjects.  He's also a complete fake, aided by his assistant Valeska, and as the book goes along, he schools her in the art of his own charlatanry, all the while dropping hints to her that he's in love with her. Together, and often with the help of a police detective whose career Astro has helped to boost, they solve a wide-ranging variety of different mysteries that make for hours of fun reading.

Next up is Max Rittenberg's Dr. Xavier Wycherley, The Mind-Reader.  Wycherley is an interesting character who blends science, psychology, and his ability as a "mental healer" in solving problems, but he detests the idea of being considered as a detective. As we learn,
"Detective work was strongly distasteful to him unless it were to open out fresh experiences in the realm of the human mind."
 He can also astrally project, but it's his reading of auras that often provides all he needs to know about a subject.   According to Robert Sampson in his Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines Volume 2: Strange Days, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984),   Wycherley made his first appearance in The London Magazine in March 1911, finding his way ("leaped the Atlantic," as Sampson says) into The Blue Book  later that same year.  (47)

The Blue Book Magazine, June 1911 
Wycherley refers to himself as a "specialist," but notes that his name would "not be found on the British register...", and that he is called upon throughout the world, "wherever there is call for my services as a mental healer."  As Rittenberg explains,
"The mental healer was a combination of scientist and humanitarian which is far from usual. As the latter, his warm human sympathies went out unceasingly to the weak, the oppressed, the suffering, the sick of body and the sick of mind. But as a scientist he would for the time being forget the patient in the subject."
We also learn that in his "younger days" he had to fight the "intense" prejudices of the English medical profession against "anything approaching hypnotism or mental suggestion..." and even though he's not on the registers, he keeps a consulting room in London. He also has a villa on the private Isola Salvatore on Lake Rovellasco where his patients often come for help.  He moves in and out of the highest circles of society and government, and for the most part, in his quest to heal minds (his life's work), often leaves it to people to do their duty, to do what is right.  This particular characteristic of Wycherley's is quite interesting, and says a great deal about the Edwardian milieu in which Rittenberg wrote.  As far as the stories go, they take him to several different places, with a wide variety of cases.  The first case, for example, finds him at Isola Salvatore where he does something that reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; while later he'll find himself in Felsbrunnen where he is thrust into the midst of a most bizarre and dastardly secret in an old castle.   He does have a strange quirk: he will sort of put himself into a trance to puzzle out a problem, often locking out the outside world except for the pain caused by a lit cigarette burning in his hands that wakes him up and brings him back around.  The cases themselves are most interesting, as we watch this man combine science, psychoanalysis, and often (it seems) downright mysticism to bring about some sort of resolution.  These are absolutely not your average crime stories, and well worth reading to serious pulp fans or fans of stories involving scientific or psychic detectives

Hats off to Tim Prasil at Coachwhip for collecting these two very obscure books and putting them into one volume.  I had so much fun here, although it did take me a while to warm up to Dr. Wycherley until "The Countess Plunges," which has such an amazing solution that I couldn't help but to be impressed.  Astro, on the other hand, I loved immediately, because you know right from the start that he is a complete fraud, and the fun is not only in watching how he solves the cases he's given but also in watching him teach Valeska his bag of tricks.   The book as a whole is most likely a niche read for diehard early pulp fans and people like me who are interested in off-the-beaten-path kinds of early crime/mystery fiction, but anyone who falls into those categories will absolutely love this book.

Recommended for fellow niche readers.  Have a great time with it -- I certainly did.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

three from the beachbag

My most recent reads are not from the distant past, but rather more contemporary books.  From time to time I do detach myself from yesteryear to keep up with what's out there right now -- rare these days but it does happen.

Pushkin Vertigo, 2017
originally published 1952 as La Pelouse
translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie
paperback, 154 pp

I love Frédéric Dard's books, and have bought everything of his that's been translated and available.   The King of Fools, while in my opinion not his best book, is still quite good, and definitely one not to miss.  This story is narrated by the main character Jean-Marie Valaise, a sales rep for an American firm that sells adding machines in Europe. As the story opens, he is on the off side of the on again/off again relationship with his girlfriend Denise -- the two were supposed to have been on holiday on the Côte d'Azur, but rather than cancelling his trip, Jean-Marie decides to go anyway.  He's not sad exactly, but as he notes, he's experiencing "a feeling of intense disenchantment," which has left him "weak and vulnerable." I knew the minute I read that phrase that something would happen with him, and I wasn't wrong.  While inside of a restaurant, he notices a young woman, Marjorie Faulks, getting into his car, rushes out and confronts her.  As it happens, she's made an honest mistake -- her car is nearly a twin of his.  She leaves, but they meet again at the roulette table of a casino, and then again when she comes to his hotel to pick up the beachbag she's left in his car.  He can't help himself -- while nothing happens, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to this woman and after learning that she'll be in Edinburgh alone for a while before her husband is able to join her, decides that he'll go too.  He explains what's going on in his head to Denise, who's recently arrived; after four days together he makes his move and rushes off to Scotland to find Marjorie. What happens after he arrives is the meat of this novel, and makes Jean-Marie realize that he had "followed the path of madness at every turn."

A definite noir page turner for sure, but the thing is that I figured out (in part) what was going to happen, so it was a bit of a letdown. That's certainly not Dard's fault; you can blame it on my years of crime fiction reading.  At the same time, there were still a couple of surprises in store, especially with happens at the end of the story, which actually made me laugh.  Clever? Indeed. 

Next up is The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason, which is the second book in his new series following The Shadow District, and for me, it's another really good book by one of my favorite Scandinavian writers.

St. Martin's/ Minotaur, 2018
translated by Victoria Cribb
356 pp, hardcover

The Shadow Killer and its predecessor The Shadow District, are both what I call historical crime fiction, and while it's true that The Shadow District starts out as a contemporary read, it is a blend of both present and past, and I've come to realize that this is a hallmark of pretty much all of Arnaldur Indridason's books. It was true in his Inspector Erlendur novels, and it's certainly the case in this newest one, which continues the series featuring Detective Flóvent of Reykjavik's CID ("the only detective...") and Thorson, an MP who is a West Icelander from Manitoba whose parents had migrated to Canada.  Whereas in the previous book the two had already been working together, Flóvent and Thorson meet for the first time here, as they team up to solve the case of a murdered traveling salesman found shot in the eye.   As Flóvent muses, "Murders didn't happen every day in Reykjavik," so he wants to do things right.  Set during the American occupation of Iceland, Thorson is put on the case since the bullet which killed the salesman had come from a Colt .45, "the standard-issue sidearm carried by American servicemen."  There are already enough problems with "the Situation" (in Icelandic ástandið) between Icelandic women and the military; now, Thorson's superior needs him to stay on the investigation just in case it turns out that the killer is an American.  As he says, "Not all of the locals are happy about our presence here."  As the case progresses, a darker, uglier side of history raises its head; but the book also examines change, especially in terms of the impact on the Icelandic population from the presence of foreign troops in a previously closed society.   I have to say that I'm a bit flabbergasted by the 3.3 average rating given to this book by goodreads readers, because a) it deserves so much better, and b) it is so rich in history, something  that anyone who reads Indridason's work should have known before even turning the first page, since as I said, it's sort of a hallmark of his in all of his work.  Oh, and don't miss the reference to the subject of Hannah Kent's excellent Burial Rites found here.  

And finally, book #3, Tangerine by Christine Mangan.

Ecco, 2018
388 pp

Well, as much as I try to find books that I think I will enjoy, I have to admit that this wasn't one of them.  Have you ever read a book and come to a certain point where you say to yourself "I've read this before?" It's not even that I figured out the plot with this one -- it's that I'd actually read this before.  Change the sex, change the location and no matter what, it still comes out like a version of Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, so much so that at one point I considered putting it down because I just knew with certainty how it was going to end. I hung on through the end, and I was so right.  Mix that with some of the elements of a Victorian gothic/sensation novel and well, that's this book.  It wasn't all bad, though ... the backstory of the two main characters was very nicely done and had the author proceeded along a different path than Highsmith's, it could have been right up my alley.  Sadly she didn't and it wasn't.  Not one I can recommend, really, and I feel bad about that, but it is what it is.