Thursday, February 22, 2018

Obscure, yes, but oh so good: The Six Queer Things, by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1937
222 pp

"... the whole web of horror behind them had been brought to light; but somewhere there still lurked the spider who had spun it all..."

The word sinister doesn't even begin to describe what happens in this book.  Originally published in 1937, The Six Queer Things is definitely not your average Golden Age mystery novel; in fact, I can honestly say that I've never read anything quite like it.  It is not only sinister, but it is also one of the most claustrophobic novels I've read from this period, and the author keeps you guessing right up until the last four pages before ending it on a most cruel note.   Before getting to that point, however, this story takes some unexpected and bizarre twists and turns, and the answer to who can be trusted here changes on a regular basis. The only times I put this book down once I started was for sleep and a session at the gym, and I had to make myself do both.  The best way to describe it is that it's like reading an ongoing nightmare from which there is little chance of escape.  

Marjorie Easton has been living with her uncle Samuel Burton since the death of her parents. He is described on the cover blurb as miserly, but Marjorie
"had had a long first-hand experience of absolute absorption in himself, his pettiness, and the supreme importance he attached to money."
She works as a junior typist, making only enough for personal needs with anything left over going to directly to her uncle.  He constantly reminds her of the fact that he had "fed, clothed and educated her," and that she owes him.  The bright spot in her life is her boyfriend Ted, but they can't marry until Ted feels he has enough money to take care of her properly.  Marjorie can't wait to get away from Uncle Samuel, so when she is offered a job that pays much more than she currently makes, she jumps at the opportunity.  The offer comes about as result of a chance meeting, and she finds herself in the employ of Michael Crispin, who takes her on as a sort of research assistant.  As it turns out, Crispin is a well-known medium, and along with his sister Bella, holds regular seances at the family home where Marjorie is expected to live while in their employment.   It is during one of these seances that Marjorie finds herself the object of a visit from the great beyond; soon Marjorie begins to believe that she herself has some psychic gifts of her own.   She sets herself apart from Ted to work on her psychic abilities, and Ted isn't too happy.  Worse, Marjorie's focus on her mediumistic tendencies leave her headed for a breakdown, further separating herself from Ted while she is under medical care.  But everyone's life is upended when Crispin suddenly dies just after a seance; from there this story takes on a life of its own as the police try to figure out who killed Crispin and why.  But this is, as I said, no ordinary mystery and while the police are doing their job, both Marjorie and Ted become locked into frightening nightmares of their own.

The New York Times review blurb quoted on the back of my book says that it is "Mystery and horror, laid on with a trowel," and that's about right.  It is filled with nice Victorian Gothic flourishes as well as contemporary policing, but at the heart of this story lies a most sinister plot with a villain who, even when "the whole web of horror...had been brought to light," still remains the unknown and mysterious "spider who had spun it all" from the beginning.

Hats off to Valancourt yet again for finding and publishing something quite out of the ordinary.  When I say that this book is unputdownable, I'm not kidding.  This book has it all -- a bit of meandering into the realm of the occult (and a sideways commentary on spiritualism in general by the author underneath it all),  a claustrophobic atmosphere that doesn't let up, and a strange mystery at the heart of it all  that will keep you turning pages because once things take that turn toward the strange nightmarish story it becomes,  you will absolutely want to find out what kind of mind it is that could dream up such sheer evil. And while it's probably not going to join the ranks of the greatest literature or greatest crime novel ever written, for me it all comes down to the fun I had while reading it. 

Don't blow it off because it's from the 1930s -- trust me -- you haven't read anything quite like it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

*huzzah for the ladies: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective

Wildside Press, 2012
originally serialized in Ludgate Monthly (1893)
   (minus "Missing"); published 1894
142 pp


"Too much of a lady, do you say?...I don't care twopence halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady." 

So says Mr. Ebenezer Dyer, the head of the "flourishing detective agency in Lynch Court.  In fact, he goes on to brag about his operative, Loveday Brooke, as having "so much common sense that it amounts to genius."  And that she does, often, it seems, moreso than the police or even her boss when it comes to solving a case.

Up to now in this "history of mystery" I've been doing, I've experienced two "lady" detectives, both of them characters sprung from male minds.   Loveday Brooke comes straight from the pen of Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910),  who would go on to write a total of thirteen novels, several short stories (aside from Loveday Brooke), and a novella.  She and her husband were very actively involved in the anti-vivisectionist movement as well as the National Canine Defence League, and she was also engaged in other types of humanitarian work. 

Loveday Brooke as a fictional character fits squarely into the "New Woman" mold, a term which refers to
"a significant cultural icon of the fin de siècle, departed from the stereotypical Victorian woman. She was intelligent, educated, emancipated, independent and self-supporting."
 Her significance as a New Woman detective is so important, in fact, that Volume IV of a series produced by Routledge  that explores New Women Fiction is completely dedicated to this character; since it's highly likely that while I'm very much into it, the state of fin-de-siècle Britain's pre-feminist women's literature is probably not a hot topic for a number people reading this at the moment, I'll leave it to anyone at all interested to read Adrienne Gavin's introduction  here and get right to the book.

from victorianclare, original cover complete with business card

We actually learn very little about Loveday Brooke herself here.  We know that she was "a little over thirty years of age" that she dressed "invariably" in black, her dress "almost Quaker-like in its appearance."   Of her backstory Pirkis writes that
"Some five or six years previously, by a jerk of Fortune's wheel, Loveday had been thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless. Marketable accomplishments she had found she had none, so she had forthwith defied convention, she had chosen for herself a career that had cut her off sharply from her former associates and her position in society.  For five or six years she drudged away patiently in the lower walks of her profession; then chance, or to speak more precisely, an intricate criminal case, threw her in the way of the experienced head of the flourishing detective agency in Lynch Court." (8)
Her boss seems to have been a shrewd man; he realized her worth quickly and "threw her in the way of better-class work," which meant better pay.    Over the course of the seven stories in this book, her "common sense" that "amounts to genius" is reflected in the way she not only comes up with solutions to each mystery, but also in the way that she refuses to go along with the police or with the victims of each crime who immediately settle on "foreigners" as the guilty parties. Xenophobic attitudes of the period are writ large here, by the way, but to her credit, our heroine has an ability to see right through them.   She is also not the sort of female detective who needs to rely on seduction as a tool for getting close to suspects, relying mainly on her keen sense of observation and her wide-ranging understanding of human nature.

all pulped-up, from Amazon  (NO!)

I have to say that one thing readers might notice is that in most of these stories it doesn't seem like Brooke is doing much "detecting" -- that she goes on scene, takes in a few details and then dazzles us with her observations.  That is true in more than one case and it has caused readers to complain about the lack of "fair play."  I had to go and look up the concept of "fair play," and learned that the so-called "rules" involved in "fair play" were not codified until 1928, so really, in my opinion it doesn't apply here.  There are a couple of very good stories here, none the least of which is "The Redhill Sisterhood," in which Loveday is sent to spy on a "home for cripples" (you really have to look beyond the language here) in order to try to figure out the connection between the nuns who run the place and a string of country house robberies.   That one was just great, for several reasons I won't go into in case anyone decides to read the book.  I will also mention that I completely sussed the solution to "Drawn Daggers!" not too far into it, but for the most part, the big reveals were complete surprises.  However, because this collection of tales is a product of the late Victorian era, I would advise a bit of patience while reading.  The stories are good, not great, but to me it's all about Loveday Brooke herself, making her way in what was normally a male profession, often doing a much better job than her male counterparts in this book.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
originally published as Verbrechen, 2009
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
188 pp


"The reality we can put into words is never reality itself." 
-- Werner K. Heisenberg, epigraph

I watched the most interesting tv show last week on MHZ called "Crime Stories" and realized when the name Von Schirach popped up that I had this book on my shelves.   Instead of doing my normal thing where I read the book first, I stayed up late and watched the entire show; the next day I grabbed the book and started reading.   In the series the first episode grabbed me and wouldn't let go; reading the book was the same.  

There are eleven short fictional vignettes here, all of which are linked by the concept of guilt. My understanding is that they're are all based on the cases of former clients of Von Schirach, who is a somewhat controversial German defense attorney and very well-known writer. This book, after its publication, remained  on Der Spiegel's bestseller list for 54 weeks, according to Wikipedia.   These are not your standard legal defense narratives by any stretch;  it is the circumstances leading up to the commission of each crime which informs the basis of each story.   It is also an exploration of not only what constitutes the idea of guilt,  but also what it is that lies at the core of each human in this book.  These people are not the sort of monsters one might expect in cases such as these; some of them make very bad judgment calls, some are driven by mental illness, while others, well, those I'll leave for readers to discover.   He also, I think, asks us to consider the nature of sentencing and justice -- given the human factors beneath what these people have done, is it right in every case to hand down a one-size-fits-all-by-law, prescribed sort of judgment?

The first story,  "Fähner," sets the tones of  both writing and discourse within this book.   The author employs a rather lean, unemotional sort of prose style to relate the tale of  a GP from Rotweil who, as the cover blurb notes, finally got a "reprieve" the day he took an axe to his wife's head.  But Fähner is no hardened criminal; as we're told at the outset his "life wasn't anything that gave rise to stories. Until the thing with Ingrid." The thing is, while we have the basic outline of Fähner's life with his wife, there are no detailed scenes between the two of them that allow us to see exactly what was happening; the author leaves it to the reader to read between the lines.   But there's a great scene in this story where, on the night before he turns 60, he looks at a photo of his wife taken during their honeymoon (one he'd salvaged and hidden after she'd thrown away  their wedding photos) , sits on the edge of the bathtub, and cries "for the first time in his adult life." It's the understanding that he comes to at this point that really allows the reader to see inside of his mind and to feel some empathy for this man; his story continues through trial, judgment and sentencing.  Throughout Fähner's experiences, and actually, throughout this entire set of stories, we are called upon to consider something Von Schirach's uncle once told him:  "Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem."

As the author himself says,
"All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it's very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won't bear the weight of some people and they fall through"
and it is that moment that interests him.  How many people in our lives  might be just a set of circumstances away from that moment is another thing we ought to consider; it's a point he makes very clearly in this book:
"If we're lucky, it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we're lucky."
I was floored after finishing it, and there were moments in this book where I had to put it down and really think before I could go back to it.  Whether or not anyone will sympathize with the people in this book is an individual judgment call, but it is really tough not to feel something.  The book itself is  also an excellent use of crime fiction as a way to understand not only human nature, but also in offering insights into society itself.

Definitely recommended; not at all usual crime fare but something unique.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Crooked House, by Agatha Christie

Bantam, 1999
originally published 1949
215 pp


"I think people more often kill those they love than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love really can make life unendurable to you." 

As much as I value these beautiful leatherette editions of Christie's work, mainly because my husband bought them for me some time ago, the covers have absolutely no soul.  I have a deep love for vintage cover art, and the original cover of Crooked House really can't be beat: just looking at that picture conjures up something sinister and sort of whets the appetite for what

might be found between the covers, and since the bulk of the action takes place within the walls of this house, Three Gables, its distorted appearance here is beyond appropriate.

Crooked House is, according to Christie herself in An Autobiography (1977), one of two of her favorite books, the other being Ordeal by Innocence.  As she says, those two are the ones "that satisfy me best."  While maybe I wasn't as satisfied by Crooked House as Christie was, it was still a good read.  Last week I rented the recent film based on this novel but realized I hadn't read Crooked House in eons, and had quite forgotten the plot, so it seemed like a good time to refresh my memory.

I think more than in any other Christie crime novel, Dame Agatha takes us right to the heart of the matter from the very outset.  It seems that wealthy tycoon Aristides Leonides has died, and the doctor has refused to sign a death certificate until there is a post mortem.  His granddaughter Sophia pays a visit to her fiancé Charles Hayward, and tells him that she believes that his death was no accident -- that he may have been killed.  The need for a post mortem makes Sophia think that "It's quite clear that they suspect something is wrong," and that their plans for marriage have to put on hold since they "can't settle anything until this is cleared up."  She would like Charles to help her and to come to the house and to see her family "from an unbiased point of view," giving him access to everyone in the house.    She also reveals that even if her grandfather's death turns out to have been murder and not an accident, "it won't matter -- so long as the right person killed him."

Even his father, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, echoes this sentiment, and Charles will hear it more than once from several Leonides family members as he enters Three Gables to hopefully get to the bottom of what's going on.  Most everyone already thinks they know who killed Aristides, and considering the obvious suspect(s), that statement seems like an obvious case of upper-class snobbery.  But wait.   Charles isn't so sure that he agrees with their idea of the murderer.   He can see both sides of the issue, but even more importantly, as he says, he can see the "human side of things," which the family could not.  He puzzles over the
"two sides of the question -- different angles of vision -- which was the true angle ... the true angle..."
because in a "little crooked house," one that "had a strange air of being distorted," Charles realizes that  trying to come up with the right perspective from "the true angle" will be difficult.  At the same time, he has to contend with the idea that if the murderer is one of the members of the family, as Sophia realizes, it would reveal a "crookedness" or distortion among one of their number.

from Deep Work

In a big way, this book is less about plot or solving the crime than it is about delving into human nature; because of Charles' relationship with Sophia, he is made privy to each person's particulars so we get to see each and every member of this household as an individual rather than just as a potential suspect.  We are also let into this three-generation family dynamic, which adds another dimension to this story. Normally this sort of "closed circle" form of mystery allows for the culprit to be caught and order to be restored, but then again, this is no ordinary mystery story.  Sure, there are more deaths, some strange goings on with Aristides' will, and other normal trappings but this one brings us right into the heart of human nature territory, and will lead to a most startling conclusion that was completely unexpected.

After giving it some thought, I've decided that I actually enjoyed this novel mainly because it is so very different from most of Christie's other work; it becomes much more of a personal story in the long run rather than just another detective tale and I think that's what sets it apart. And here, plot is much less important than the examination into human nature, although I have to admit that while it was a quick read, it moved rather slowly until we come to those last few eye-opening pages.

I enjoyed seeing this book come to life in movie form; it wasn't great, but it was definitely fun.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

*The Dorrington Deed-Box, by Arthur Morrison

Wildside Press, 2016
originally serialized in The Windsor Magazine, January - June 1897
originally published in 1897 by Ward, Lock
139 pp


Picking up from where I left off in December, we roll into the 1890s with this little gem, The Dorrington Deed-Box. While it continues the detective-fiction craze of the late Victorian period, Horace Dorrington, of the firm Dorrington and Hicks,  is no run-of-the-mill private enquiry agent.  Au contraire -- the back-cover blurb refers to him as a "cheerfully unrepentant sociopath,"  as well as someone who doesn't shy away from a bit of "blackmail, fraud, or cold-blooded murder to make a dishonest penny."  The Dorrington Deed-Box was actually my second choice of stories by Arthur Morrison -- I had thought to read his collection of Martin Hewitt stories, but Hewitt seemed a bit tame compared to Dorrington and I wanted something different than the usual detective fare.  Trust me, I got what I asked for in this book.  The fun here is not so much in the crime solving but in watching Dorrington slowly ensnaring his victims -- he is the proverbial spider inviting the fly into his carefully-constructed web.

There are six short stories in this collection which begins with "The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby."  In a strange sort of twist, Rigby becomes our guide through five more nefarious adventures of this slimy worm of a detective,  which Rigby unearths from documents left behind in the offices of Dorrington and Hicks after his own harrowing experience.  As he says,
"...among their papers were found complete sets, neatly arranged in dockets, each containing in skeleton a complete history of a case.  Many of these cases were of a most interesting character, and I have been enabled to piece together, out of material thus suppllied the narratives which will follow this." (28)

from Project Gutenberg Australia

It seems that Rigby wants everyone to understand the type of fellow Mr. Horace Dorrington really is,  and if anyone should know, it's Rigby.   His own encounter with Dorrington obviously left several scars, including the fact that he never received any sort of justice in his case.  The book exposes the true nature of the detective, who presents one side of himself to some people and his real self to others.  While I won't go into the individual cases, Rigby enlightens us as to Dorrington's sinister deeds in

"The Case of Janissary"
"The Case of the 'Mirror of Portugal"
"The Affair of the 'Avalanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Limited' "
"The Case of Mr. Loftus Deacon" and
"Old Cater's Money."

in which we find the detective involved in crimes ranging from the upper-class, race-track set on down to a moneylender who makes Scrooge seem generous.  The Dorrington Deed-Box is not only cleverly constructed, but in the character of Dorrington himself, we find something quite different than the normal run of detectives up to this point in crime-fiction literature and I have to say it was refreshing.  My only issue with this book is that there are things in these stories that "skeleton" accounts would not offer, and although Rigby sort of covers that fact by saying he'd picked up things from various people about these cases, it still led me to wonder how he could have constructed conversations and thoughts, etc.  In the long run though, it doesn't really matter -- this is my first exposure to a late-Victorian sleazy detective and I thought it was just great.