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.