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. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

*Scientific detectives of yesteryear

"There is a distinct place for science in the detection of crime."
                                                        -- Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective 243

The name John Thorndyke should be well known by avid crime/mystery fiction fans, but what about Luther Trant or Craig Kennedy?  What they have in common is that all three use science in some fashion to solve various mysteries,  Thorndyke in England and  Trant and Kennedy in America.

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1907
214 pp

 R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark is the first of twenty one full-length novels to feature Dr. John Thorndyke; there are also a number of short story collections in which he does his scientific magic.  Freeman noted in the introduction to his 1909 Dr. Thorndyke's Cases that his stories have, "for the most part, a medico-legal motive,"  and that the methodology used in solving them is similar to what is "employed in actual practice by medical jurists."   According to Mike Grost, whose A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection is one of my go-to places online and  visited quite often when I am looking for books to read, Freeman was the "founder" of the "school of detectival realism." In that same introduction to Dr. Thorndyke's Cases, Freeman goes on to say that "the experiments described have in all cases been performed by me," so obviously this is a man whose feet were firmly on the ground sciencewise and someone who knew what he was talking about.  

The case of The Red Thumb Mark centers around the theft of a parcel of diamonds ("stones of exceptional size and value"  from the safe belonging to a Mr. John Hornby.  Whoever stole them seems to have either cut or scratched his thumb in the process, leaving "two drops of blood" at the bottom of the safe.  Along with a couple of "bloody smears" left on a paper, there was also a "remarkably clear imprint" of a bloody thumb mark.  Hornby's nephew Reuben has been blamed for the crime. Unfortunately for him, he'd earlier provided his aunt with a thumbprint for her Thumbograph (sort of like an autograph book using thumbprints) which matched the print from the safe. Fortunately, while his lawyer advises him to "plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court..." since there was no possible way for a defense case to stand up against the evidence, Reuben swears that he is innocent, and Dr. Thorndyke agrees to take the case. 

I wish I had a lot of time to reflect on what's in this book aside from the mystery at hand and Thorndyke's scientific work. I'll just buzz through a few things here -- Thorndyke's views on the presumption of an accused man's innocence, the problem of  "hooligans" on the streets of London, and criticism of the Edwardian judicial system. Reader beware: the solution is easy to figure out, but that's okay -- there's plenty of other things going on this book that completely make it a worthwhile read. 

Moving on, we come to one of our own American crime solvers, Luther Trant. 

Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1910
364 pp, paperback

The authors of this book, Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg, were both reporters for the Chicago Tribune, so it's no surprise that most of the action takes place in this city.  There were, according to Robert Sampson in his Yesterday's Faces, Volume 2: Strange Days (1984), twelve original Luther Trant stories (17).  The Achievements of Luther Trant leaves out three of them, but 

original 1910 cover, courtesy of L.W. Currey
in the space of the nine stories we do have,  we watch as the main character Luther Trant evolves from a "callow assistant in a psychological laboratory" into a man whose fame has spread so widely that he could
 "not now leave his Club, even on a Sunday, without disappointing somewhere, in the great-pulsating city, an appeal to him for help in trouble."  
Indeed, after his first case, "The Man in the Room", in which he proved that a suicide was actually a murder,  young Trant asks for a leave of absence from his university job to "try the scientific psychology again," putting his talents to work in solving the mystery of the murder of Chicago's prosecuting attorney.  If that is successful, he notes, he'll resign and "keep after crime -- in the new way."

As we learn from the authors in the foreword, Trant's methods are real, as are "the tests he employs," and are
"precisely such as are being used daily in the psychological laboratories of the great universities -- both in America and Europe -- by means of which modern men of science are at last disclosing and defining the workings of that oldest of world-mysteries -- the human mind." 
 His research involves a number of experiments which measure physical changes in someone under stress that may be slight enough to go unnoticed by the human eye.  He believes that in scientific psychology
"there is no room for mistakes...Instead of analyzing evidence by the haphazard methods of the courts, we can analyze it scientifically, exactly, incontrovertibly -- we can select infallibly the true from the false."
In short, his idea is that by using these methods, which generally include some sort of "apparatus" or "device," including plethysmographs, automatographs, galvanometers (all real -- I looked them up), etc. (one time adding banana oil to the mix),  scientific psychology will be the future of police work. While most of the cops have tried everything but failed to solve the cases Trant is eventually brought into, they also start out wary of his methods. For example, in "The Empty Cartridges," one policeman asks him if he'll be doing his "psycho-palmistry," but has to sort of eat his words when all is said and done.

Of course with nine stories, some are better than others, and my favorite in this collection is "The Chalchihuitl Stone," which in a very big way reads like a cross between a mystery story and a good, old-fashioned pulp fiction yarn, complete  with ancient Aztecs and an expedition to Central America.  Another that reads as a pulp adventure is the above mentioned "The Empty Cartridges," which I have to say is also one of my favorites in this volume.  Some are pretty easy to figure out for the armchair detective, but all in all, it's a great collection that would likely have remained in oblivion had it not been for Hugo Gernsbach, who, according to Sampson, "found these device-oriented cases fascinating," and allotted five of them space in his Scientific Detective Monthly, with four more added  later to Amazing Detective Tales.  Below is a reproduction of Scientific Detective Monthly with  the red-haired Trant at the helm.

from Internet Speculative Fiction Database
I do need to say that while I enjoyed these stories tremendously and that I had a lot of fun reading them, there are several spots where the racist attitudes of the time are made very clear, so beware.  One more thing: had I known before buying my edition from Forgotten Books (a publisher I LOVE),  I would have picked up the Coachwhip Books collection, 2 Detectives, where Trant's adventures are paired with those of Inspector Addington Peace.  I know there are also e-versions of this book; online I'm not sure about.

If you look at the top banner on the photo above, you'll see two names: Arthur B. Reeve and Craig Kennedy, which takes us to book number three, volume 1 of  Craig Kennedy: Scientific Detective.  

Leonaur, 2010
448 pp

My edition comes from another favorite press, Leonaur, and it is the first of seven volumes of stories to feature "The American Sherlock Holmes."  Kennedy's first appearance was in in Cosmopolitan Magazine, December 1910, and his cases continued to be published through 1935 in a variety of different publications.   At the beginning of the section of stories called "The Silent Bullet," Kennedy offers readers his "theories," in which he says that "there is a distinct place for science in the detection of crime." He plans to
"apply science to the detection of crime, the same sort of methods by which you trace out the presence of a chemical, or run an unknown germ to earth."
Like Holmes, Kennedy  has a sort of sidekick guy, reporter Walter Jameson; unlike Holmes, as we learn in J. K. Van Dover's You Know My Method: The Science of the Detective (1994),
"Craig Kennedy does not search for identifiable cigarette ashes in rooms with twisted carpets, half empty wine glasses, torn bell pulls, and French doors slightly ajar." (172)
Kennedy is a professor at a New York University, and bemoans the fact that "no one has ever endowed a professorship in criminal science in any of our large universities."  As a detective, he investigates a variety of different crimes, ranging from poisonings to arson to fake mediums, always applying the latest science, scientific principles and methodology in each case.  I will say that in more than one case, I was actually appalled at how science was used at the time, especially in the story "The Silent Bullet," when Kennedy spoke of how he used blood tests to determine that the criminal was a "negro waiter."  This is quite frankly pure scientific racism, in which Kennedy reveals that in "adding to our knowledge of evolution," the Carnegie Institute had come up with a study linking the "blood of a certain branch of the human race" to "the blood of a certain group of monkeys, the chimpanzees," with "the blood of another branch" linking to "the gorilla."  By and large, though, most of the stories aren't like this, and actually in most cases have intriguing plots, some crazy enough (like one of my favorites here, "The Invisible Ray") to be great for readers of old pulp fiction.

All three books are but samples of what's out there in the realm of scientific detective stories, and aside from the reflected racism of the time, are actually quite enjoyable.  All of these books I would recommend mainly to people who are interested in the history of mystery/crime fiction, or to serious readers of old pulp fiction.