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.