Wednesday, June 19, 2019

South of Evil, by Brian Dunford

287 pp

The blurb starts like this:
"Special Agent Walter Curtis finds drug dealers by the trail of money they leave. He followed the money and found a vicious cartel operating in secret across the border. But no one believes him."

Curtis is an agent with the IRS and he has really messed up as the book begins.  He had the perfect case nearly in hand, along with the arrest of a very powerful player named Edouardo Mendes.  He could have put away much bigger fish,  but  Curtis didn't quite fully do his homework and  the case he'd been working for years went completely south.  He's lost the respect of other agents who spent time and energy on the case, and his reputation is shot.    All is not completely lost though -- he can still make a case against his prisoner on related counts, and Mendes will still spend time behind bars.   Curtis knows that Mendes is the kind of man "who would be terrified of one night in prison," and he has a vision of Mendes granting him an interview and Curtis walking away with "seized assets, intelligence, and confessions," that would fix the mess in which Curtis now finds himself with his botched case.  Instead, Mendes offers up the story of three million dollars buried in the desert.  Together with his friend Marc Virgil, a Boston cop whose career is currently on the skids, Curtis decides to go into Mexico and find the money, which was, as the back-cover blurb relates, "hidden by a long dead drug lord."  But things aren't going to be that easy, and soon the two find themselves with targets on their backs as they make their way through the harsh Mexican desert.

 While I'm not a regular reader of thrillers by any stretch (more on that below),  I am interested in what motivates people in books, and the author has obviously put a lot of work into building backstories and focusing on why his characters do what they do, and given that this is his first novel, he did it rather well.   As he noted in an interview, most of the people in this book have "serious moral flaws" that cause them to make "terrible decisions," and around that idea is where I kept my own focus, like I do in pretty much all of the books I read.    He also said that the people who make these really bad choices are  more interesting than characters who make good ones, and I found that to be the case here as well.    For example, Curtis has been "ridiculed" and "put out to pasture," after having "bet everything" and lost. He worked very hard and diligently on his case  and he is truly desperate to get the chance to prove he wasn't wrong and that he is "not a joke." His friend Virgil  has had a long career that went south after a "bad" shooting so basically he has nothing to lose.  And then there's the one cop in this book in a small station in Mexico who believes in his job and who joined the force for a reason -- he does what is morally right but in the end finds no reward for  his actions, in fact, quite the opposite.  The storylines of each of these people (and others) intersect eventually both present and past,  and reveal more than  a few unexpected surprises before coming to a downright twisty ending.

I was sort of hesitant about reading South of Evil since I don't as a rule do thriller novels with nonstop action.  The author was so nice though that I couldn't say no even though I did warn him that thrillers weren't my thing, and I have to say that it was a bit too much on the violent side for my taste.  If it is possible to cringe while reading, I think I did that, so  I'm probably not quite the intended audience for this book since it's  more likely to be enjoyed by people who prefer action-packed thrillers as opposed to  someone like me who prefers a gentler mode of crime writing.* I'm well aware that any book about a cartel will likely come complete with bent cops and hit men and that they're not going to be sitting around discussing the weather or good books over tea and cookies, so this is a me thing and not the fault of the author.  Currently this book has a 4-plus star reader rating on both Goodreads and Amazon, so evidently there are a number of people who regularly enjoy this type of story who find it a very good read. 

personal ps/ to the author:  Thanks so much, apologies for taking forever, and finally,  the line at Franklin's can be about three to four hours on a good day, and you still have to hope that they haven't run out of food before you make it to the door.  But it's worth it.

And staying in tune with my more mild crime-reading preferences, and in contrast with the author's choice of narco skull for his cover, my choice of (henna) narco-style tattoo in May in Puerto Vallarta  drifted toward a skull with hearts for eyes and a hair ribbon.

Monday, June 17, 2019

back to the 20s again (finally!) with The Red Redmaynes, by Eden Philpotts

I am beyond proud to have three different sets of initials I can tack on to the back of my name, and then there's the one I'm not all that proud of: QSP, or queen of sporadic posting. Hopefully I can get my act together again (although I blame life, not myself here) and get back into the business of journaling my reading. 

Dover, 1982
originally published 1922
377 pp

Eden Phillpotts was an incredibly prolific author (he wrote all manner of fiction, plays, etc. outside of the crime genre, but you can see his detective works here, both under his own name and that of Harrison Hext); he was a friend of Agatha Christie's, and The Red Redmaynes was also admired by Jose Luis Borges, ending up at number 39 in his A Personal Library project that he never had the chance to finish. 

About this novel, Barzun and Taylor have to say that it is a "classic detective story that has never received due recognition".  (427)  Looking at what a number of readers have to say about it, it's certainly not one they're falling over themselves to praise.   I not only had fun with it, but part of the draw for me is that it is so very different  than other crime/mystery novels I've been reading as I've been flipping through the history of mystery and crime fiction, and quite frankly, I enjoyed it immensely.   This story begins with a CID detective on his holiday who suddenly finds himself in the middle of what appears to be a kidnapping and a murder.   Not having come to Dartmoor "to catch murderers, but to catch trout," he is determined to stay out of things, until he is summoned by the victim's wife, Jenny Pendean, who had heard that he was in the area and now asks for his help.   According to the local policeman, "it's all pretty plain sailing, by the look of it," but for Mark Brendon, it will be anything but, as he steps into one of the strangest mysteries of his career, one that will take him from Dartmoor to Cornwall to Italy and into the lives of the four Redmayne brothers, Jenny's uncles, one of whom has been accused of the crime.    When Brendon has done all he can but things go south anyway, an American named Peter Ganns steps in to help. Gann's "strong suit," he notes, is his "linking up of facts," and he is only too quick to point out that Brendon had it all wrong from the start.  While Brendon isn't exactly pleased at being told about his mistakes, time is of the essence and the two must work together to prevent another tragedy. 

While this is anything but your standard 1920s British murder mystery, it's not without its flaws, and the biggest one of all is that  after a while it is only too easy to figure out what exactly is going on here. While there were several inner eyeroll moments, I will admit that this time around I didn't mind that so much --  the whole story is so very strange, and so out of the ordinary  that it completely merits following it to its conclusion.  It was also nice (although admittedly frustrating towards the end)  to see a detective with his own flaws  -- while Ganns seems larger than life at times, Brendon on the other hand is very much a person who is only too human. 

The Red Redmaynes is a novel I can certainly recommend to readers who like their crime stories a bit more on the out-of-the-box, stranger side.  There will definitely be more Phillpotts novels coming to my shelves in the near future.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Atria, 2019
originally published as 1793, 2017
translated by Ebba Segerberg
370 pp

Now I'm only two weeks behind; I finished this book some time ago and I have to say I hardly moved while reading it. 

Scandinavian crime novels are no strangers to my shelves. I've been reading them a very long time, well before they became all the rage at some point with the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  They can be bleak, dark, and in the hands of some Scandinavian authors, downright disturbing (a la Jo Nesbø's serial killer novels like The Snowman).   In more than one case Scandinavian crime  writers have also taken their characters delving into the past to understand what is happening in the present, and The Wolf and The Watchman follows this pattern.  As the back-cover blurb from Kirkus Reviews notes, it
 "examines the effects of a brutal murder on those who investigate it - and explores the psychological causes for the crime..."
The story  is set in 1793, which also places it into the category of historical crime novel. while there's more than just crime here, it's not at all pretty -- the author goes all-out grisly in the telling, which sort of detracts from more than one of the underlying themes the author tries to bring out. More on this soon.

Set in Stockholm, the discovery of a corpse floating in what is known as "The Larder" (once a lake, now a dump for waste of every sort) brings watchman Mickel Cardell to the scene, and what he finds is that the body has been dismembered, with eyes and tongue gone as well.  When the body is more closely examined, Cardell understands that this was no afterthought -- it seems that these mutilations have been done over a long period of time, while the poor victim, who has now been named "Karl Johan" because he was once a human being,  was still alive. With only a couple of actual clues to go on, the chief of police asks attorney Cecil Winge to investigate, knowing that he will do so drawing on his "strength of mind."   The problem is that Winge is suffering from a horrific case of consumption, and his time is ticking down.  Along with Cardell, he starts by examining what little they have on the case, but some questions either get no answers or a door slammed in the face, as people in the know aren't talking.  As Winge worries that the two have "encountered a dead end," the story takes a turn backwards, and the solution to the mystery unfolds slowly in two parts --    first in the account of a young would-be medical student who has come to the city to study but who instead gets caught up in the world of amusements and entertainments until he hits rock bottom, only to find that he hasn't even scratched its surface;  the second told in the story of a young woman who ends up in a woman's workhouse, who faces her own horrors (and those of others), and thinks only of escape -- before returning to the present.

Reading through this book, I couldn't help but notice that there are a number of similarities between the way 1793 Stockholm is portrayed and what's happening in our own modern times; it's certainly not hard to guess that the author had this comparison in mind while writing this story. There is also an underlying thread running through this book that looks at the clash between Enlightenment  thought and the chaotic realities of life, both social and political.  But  reader beware -- while the ideas underpinning this book may offer the reader a lot to consider, their value is somewhat muted at times because it is hard to get beyond the gruesome events that happen in this book.  I've  actually seen this novel labeled as "horror," and in the case of one goodreads reader, "torture porn."  EEK!   Personally, I read a lot of horror but it's on the more cerebral side, meaning that I don't want to read about the gory details or go into any sort of suffering; I feel the same about crime reading.  Having said that, though, I made my own focus on the search for the killer and the  ideas here rather than the violence, reading through the more gross stuff very quickly; the story also has a plot that is not the usual predictable thing I can figure out long before I get to the ending, it's claustrophobic, atmospheric and to be honest,  there are many moments where the excitement had me on the edge of my chair.  Quite frankly, I couldn't help being sucked into this story, even while being repulsed by the grotesqueness of it all.

I sort of get why it's being compared to The Alienist, but this book is definitely not that, so don't go there. This book is darker than dark, it's not cozy material, it's not murder light, there is no happiness or light shining through anywhere here, and it's not at all for the faint of heart.   As far as a recommendation goes, some people seriously detested it while others really loved it. so it's one you'll have to judge on your own.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dr. Mabuse, by Norbert Jacques -- pure, unadulterated pulpy goodness.

Bruin Books, 2015
originally published 1921 as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
translated by Lillian A. Clare (1923)

On the deck of a ship traveling between his home and Lake Constance in Switzerland, the author, Norbert Jacques,  happened to sit across from a man who, as David Kalat notes in his The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse (2005), "never moved, never spoke," and caused Jacques to feel "anxious, afraid." There was just something about the man which "cut to the core of Jacques' being,"  that made him not only want to flee, but to also wonder "What was it about this man that exuded some power?"   The journalist in Jacques made him scrutinize this man carefully, studying "his eyes, his forehead, his stature."  It came down to one question for Jacques:
"Was he a hero, or a villain?" 
According to Kalat,
"In this mystery man, who sat motionless and silent all the while, Norbert Jacques read all that was wrong with modern-day Germany"
and on his return home he sat down to "hammer out" Dr. Mabuse der Spieler in a mere fourteen days. It would sell 100,000 copies in its first year, and would go on to sell over a half million copies, making it  one of the bestsellers of its day.  (16)  Kalat says about this book that it depicts
"a criminal Führer who exploits social decay to his private advantage. Under a variety of disguises and assumed names, he has broken free of the traditional class divisions and invaded the previously insulated enclaves of the decadent upper class." (14)
Despite the title, however, the central focus is on the character of the public prosecutor Wenk.  Just as an FYI, Lillian Clare wrote in 1923 that Wenk's actual position was that of Staatsanwalt  word  for which it "is almost impossible to find an English rendering that conveys its full meaning," but for our purposes here we'll continue on with public prosecutor, or as he's also known, the state attorney.   Jacques sets his story in his present-day Weimar Germany, a time during which Wenk believes the nation is "diseased and rotten." It is a time during which money
"was a key that opened all doors, the wearing of a fur coat could conceal any calling, and a diamond scarf-pin shed luster on any character. A man could go into whatsoever company he desired." 
In fact, it is in a gambling club that the novel opens, with a game of vingt-et-un with unlimited stakes.  It is also here that we meet Dr. Mabuse, who is a man of many disguises with seemingly unlimited powers of suggestion that can make his victims do pretty much anything he wishes.  We first see him in action during this game, as one of the players, who is "not really a reckless player" begins to play badly and takes "unreasonable risks" that cause him to lose.  Afterwards, he remembers very little of what had happened during the game, and can't even remember that he was the one who brought the man to whom he had lost to the club.    Some two weeks later, "the circles to whom the life of the day is only a wearisome burden till the hour of play arrives" share stories about the stranger who "simply loaded himself with money wherever he chanced to play," drawing the attention of the public prosecutor, who believes that these are not isolated events, but part of a much a bigger pattern, even though people in the clubs could swear that no wrongdoing had taken place.  He gets his own chance to play against "The Professor," aka Mabuse in yet another disguise, at which point Wenk gets his own taste of Mabuse's immense powers and a sense of just how dangerous this man is.   However, when the public prosecutor is knocked out and his belongings are stolen, including his notebook with all of the information he's gathered about the case, the real game of cat-and-mouse between the two begins.

While the pursuit is on, we learn much about Mabuse, including the fact that he plans to use his monetary gains from gambling, drug smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes to realize his dream of establishing an empire in "the primeval forests of Brazil," where he plans to be the absolute ruler of the Empire of Citopomar.   He is
"self-sufficing. What were men to him? He scattered them at will. Yonder, however, in the future, in Citopomar, there would be none who could oppose him."
Wenk's efforts in trying to catch Mabuse take on a greater sense of urgency as people around him are  murdered, but when Mabuse falls for and puts in his power a woman who happens to be the object of Wenk's own affection, the Countess Told, Wenk pulls out all the stops to find and stop him.  As I've said to a few people, Mabuse's powers out-Svengali Svengali, but on some level he is quite aware of his true inner self. He tells the Countess at one point that he is a "werewolf," that he "sucks man's blood."  As he says,
"Every day my hatred burns up all the blood in my veins, and every night I fill them again by sucking the blood of some human being. If men caught me, they would tear me into little bits." 
  Mabuse, however, has no intention of being caught.

from the film by Fritz Lang, at Fandor
 While I wouldn't call Dr. Mabuse great literature, it is great fun, and it also gives a glimpse into the decadence the Weimar era is known for.  The cat-and-mouse game isn't a simple one; Wenk will find himself beyond frustrated as he gets close but realizes that Mabuse seems to have all the luck.  Then there are a couple of scenes that employ some crazy inventions that Ian Fleming would have been proud of.  But it is best as a look at the "diseased and rotten" society Wenk speaks of.  The gambling clubs are here the very seat of decadence -- in chapter seven, for example,  Wenk and his companions find themselves at a gambling establishment known as the "Go-ahead Institute," where in case of a police raid, a black knob can be pushed that does away with gambling apparatus, turning instead into a decadent club complete with a
"quartette of nude twelve-year-old children were to be seen dancing, upon a new stage, to the strains of fiddles and harps"
 with a "change of programme every week..."  Yikes!

Read at a time when I desperately needed fluff, the book kept me entertained for hours (I read it straight through, actually without putting it down), of course rooting for Wenk the entire time to take down Dr. Mabuse and save the Countess.  This is the stuff of pure unadulterated pulp, but here with purpose.  Even if you don't care about the Weimar era, it's still a good, fast-paced read that will keep you turning pages.

I'd recommend it to serious pulp readers who aren't looking for fine literature but rather a good time.  I can only imagine reading this book in its original serialized form -- my sweet pulpy goodness-loving  self would  have had a field day as each episode came to some sort of cliffhanger and I eagerly awaited the next installment.

Friday, April 19, 2019

"There the monster lies..." Master of the Day of Judgment, by Leo Perutz

Arcade Publishing, 1975
originally published as Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages, 1921
translation by Eric Mosbacher
154 pp

"Human vileness remains, and that's the most lethal of all lethal weapons."

I am a bit hesitant in terms of posting  about this book as a crime novel -- it actually sort of defies genre when all is said and done, moving into its own literary territory.  While there are a number of mysteries to be found here,  the author has something quite different in mind as the central focus of this story.   Master of the Day of Judgment is most brilliantly constructed, so much so that as that last page is turned,  you may more than likely find your sense of what is real and what is not being thrown completely off kilter, causing you to go back to the beginning and to read it through a second time.  And when you've finished it that second time, the nature of the title comes into focus more clearly as it dawns on you what the author meant here.

It is at the beginning, the "Foreword instead of a Postscript" that we are introduced to our narrator.  Gottfried Adalbert Baron von Yosch explains that he has just finished chronicling the "whole sequence of tragic events" which had occurred over a certain five-day period in September, 1909, "everything that I wanted to forget and cannot."   He makes a point of revealing that as he wrote, his memory had "distinctly and vividly preserved a mass of detail"  including "trivial" bits of conversation, what was going through his mind at the time, and "minor events of the day." He especially remembers what arrived in the mail on 26 September, a day that "stands out clearly" in his mind for reasons we don't yet know, including  things he did the rest of the day, what was in the newspapers, etc.;  everything is so minutely described so that there should not even the slightest hint of doubt that he is trustworthy in the account that is about to unfold.   However,  there's a bit of a hiccup in that vivid memory of his, as he notes that he thought that things had occurred over a period of "several weeks" and then later, he finds himself thinking that it was "inexplicable" that he has moved one particular event to mid October.   Cue red flag, raised eyebrow. 

One of the Baron's remembrances of September 26th is a "brief item in small type" about the failure of a bank; while he'd been able to get his money out in time, he realizes that he might have warned his acquaintance actor Eugen Bischoff that he should do the same, but had instead kept silent.  He offers his reasons for keeping mum, adding "Why meddle in other people's affairs?" but again the eyebrow is raised wondering what there is between these two men that caused him not to offer a friendly word of advice.  At this point, in my mind, Baron von Yosch himself has become the first mystery to be solved here, but then he slowly begins to shift the focus away from himself by offering a prelude as to what is about to be unfolded about the "sinister and tragic" five days that began on the 26th.  It seems that he and others ("we"),  found themselves involved in
 "the pursuit of of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries"
by following a "trail of blood" leading to the opening of a "gateway to the past."  Even more cryptically, he mentions "the book," and  "that fearful trumpet red" which he hopes that "no human being ever again set eyes on." 

1930 first American edition, from Abe Books

From there, the Baron's account launches into the start of those sinister events, beginning with  a small friendly musical concert among friends at the home of Eugen Bischoff,  and ending in the actor's death.  [Just as an aside, this technically isn't a spoiler since it's in the blurb on the back cover of the novel.]     The Baron is invited to play his violin there by a mutual friend of both, Dr. Eduard Ritter von Gorski, who mentions that Bischoff has no idea that the bank has gone under and that he's lost everything, and no one is telling him about it because Bischoff has enough on his plate at the moment without knowing of his financial ruin.  But once there among his friends Bischoff, his wife Dina, her brother Felix and a newcomer named Solgrub, the Baron casually asks Bischoff if he's seen the morning paper, which he knew they'd hidden from him, drawing disgust from the others at the gathering.   A bit later, Bischoff leaves their company; the Baron goes out for a walk in the garden where he meets up with Dina on his way back, and as they're talking,  the entire household hears Bischoff scream the Baron's name.  As they're wondering what's happening, the sound of two gunshots follows immediately afterward; von Yosch leaves Dina and makes his way to the garden pavilion where he discovers that Bischoff has been shot.  By now, everyone except Dina has arrived, in time to see the dying man throw the Baron a "grimace of blazing hatred."    Suspicion immediately falls on the Baron due to a "silent witness" found at the scene; although clearly a suicide,  Felix speculates that Yosch drove him to it, a feeling shared by everyone present except the newcomer Solgrub, who believes the Baron's claims of innocence in the matter and his oath made on his honor.  He realizes that  Bischoff's suicide makes no sense and that there is something seriously wrong here; he reasons that if he can come to understand exactly why the actor took his own life, then he may be able to prove that the Baron was not behind it and sets out to investigate.  The trouble is that the Baron doesn't have much time since Felix holds the threat of exposure over his head, so he decides to do some investigating on his own.

All of the above is just the beginning of  more yet to come that will move this story from the mystery behind Bischoff's suicide  into another realm entirely, as the Baron's narrative reveals how it is that the players move onto that "trail of blood" to find the "gateway to the past" alluded to earlier.   As the story begins to shift yet again, it becomes obvious that  Perutz hasn't quite finished with his readers -- there are even more surprises to come.

Reading this book as a conventional mystery story just isn't right.   Master of the Day of Judgment  also appears on Karl Edward Wagner's list of thirteen best non-supernatural horror novels, but it's not exactly horror story either.  In fact, I'm finding it a bit difficult to attach a genre label to it since, as the blurb notes, it blends "suspense and the fantastic," but in the long run becomes something completely different.   It's one of those book that tends to mess with your head and delightedly so; I love challenging, reality-questioning novels like this one. Not for everyone, for sure, but I had a great time with this story.   Then again, I also loved Perutz's Saint Peter's Snow (which is even more hallucinatory and mind-boggling than this one) so I'm not surprised.    

Thursday, April 4, 2019

1921, continued: The Dark Geraldine, by John Alexander Ferguson

Well, just crap.  The only photo I can find of the original dust jacket cover of this book has the bookseller's card in the picture at the bottom right hand corner.  Otherwise, once again, I have only the bland, very matter-of-fact cover from Kessinger Publishing's Legacy Reprints.   I mean, if you can reprint an entire book it shouldn't be that much trouble to give it a decent cover. 

Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints, 2010
originally published 1921 by John Lane
308 pp

Here's the photo of the original dustjacket:

from AbeBooks

and, at $200 plus $21 for shipping, it's no small wonder that I ended up with more or less generic cover  version.  It really doesn't matter in the long run, since a) I'm not a collector and b) the text is the same.

John Alexander Ferguson (1871 - 1952) was born in Perthshire, Scotland.  I came across a reference that took me to Google books and Ferguson's Gang: The Maidens Behind the Masks by Anna North-Hutton (2013) that has some pretty valuable information about the author.  Thanks to the magic of kindle unlimited, I went to Amazon and downloaded it.  [And pardon the tangent, because that's how my brain works, but as a sort of relevant aside, there's another book I downloaded called Ferguson's Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters, in which I discovered that the "maidens behind the masks" were a group of women concerned with the destruction of rural Britain  (especially the Lake District) and took action, so I'll look forward to seeing Ferguson's actual connection with this ladies.]  Anyway, according to Anna North-Hutton, Ferguson was a member of the Scottish clergy, and it was during his time as Chaplain at Eversley School in Folkestone that he began writing his books.  He was also a playwright and editor of "several books of one act plays" published by Penguin (88).   In 1939 he left the school and moved into Duimarle Castle near Culross, where Macbeth killed his wife and child.  Later, in 1946 he went back to Hampshire into a house he had been renting to someone else; he died in December of 1952.

Ferguson wrote a number of mystery stories, most of them featuring private detective Francis MacNab (noted by Haycraft as the author's "likeable Scotsman").  I have four MacNab books on the shelf, Death Comes to Perigord (1931),  Night in Glengyle (1933) The Grouse Moor Murder (1934), all  reprints (the last two came from Coachwhip), and a 1928 Dodd edition of The Man in the Dark, all sitting here unread.   I would love to have a copy of Murder on the Marsh but at over a grand, that's not happening.  Anyway, after I'd finished The Dark Geraldine,  I was wondering if the "McNab" of this story was the same as the MacNab of his other books, so I turned to Hubin for answers.  His Ferguson entry for The Dark Geraldine shows that he isn't quite sure if  they're the same, with a brief note in that reads
"FM (A different character than in the other FM books?")
Here he is a constable who helps out the two main characters here and there, getting them out of a major tight spot in one case.

The action in The Dark Geraldine occurs in the small, "somewhat of a backwater" village of Gart, "lying tucked away in a fold of the West Perthshire hills."  The story is narrated by Peter Graham, a "recently qualified" lawyer working for attorney Robert Lawson.  As we're told, he remembers very clearly the events of the day that this story begins, because it was the last time he saw Lawson's client Colonel Duncan before he died.  As the Colonel was leaving, something strange happens -- a man walks in needing money and sells the Colonel a "curious metal figure," an "idol" he says is from Mexico.   No one in the office makes too much of this transaction, and the Colonel goes on his way. However, "two nights and a day later," it seems that the Colonel's body had been found in a ditch very close to his house, with a broken leg and a head wound made by a stone.  Unable to get help, he died there from exposure.  Lawson's entire demeanor changes  after he hears the news, and later, after the office is broken into, his anxiety rises while his mental state goes quickly downward.   He invites Peter to dinner one evening saying that he has something to show him, and "a queer tale" to tell, but later, before Peter could even get his hat on, he was brought unexpected tidings of Lawson's death.    Lawson's sister lets Peter know that her brother had recently become like a "hunted man," a "silly notion" according to Peter's co-worker Allan Macgregor, a sentiment with which Peter agrees -- that is until he receives a strange letter through the office mail box entitled "The Dark Geraldine," directing him to place "it" at a certain place at a  certain day and time.  Peter has absolutely no clue what the message means, nor what the "Dark Geraldine" might be.

novel frontispiece, my photo

The Dark Geraldine is actually quite a fine thriller, and tonewise, it reminded me a lot of the early spy novels written by John Buchan.   The story takes off as Peter and Macgregor realize that the deaths of the Colonel and Lawson may not have been random events, and as they go in search of  "the thing called the Dark Geraldine,"  for which someone is obviously "ready to shed any man's blood."  In the meantime they encounter a host of strange characters, none of whom Peter is willing to trust with his life.

While it may seem a little confusing at times, especially coming down to the ending, I found it to be well written, well plotted and intelligent; careful readers who make their way slowly will find  connections throughout the story.  Like the main characters, I had my own suspicions about the trustworthiness of the various characters who make their way into Peter and Allan's orbit, making the story not only a good thriller, but along with the nature of the Dark Geraldine itself,  a good mystery as well.  The novel also has its more lighthearted moments so that you get a break from the constant tension.  I could say more but anything else coming from me would likely give away too much, so we'll leave it there.

Crappy cover or no, it's what's inside that counts, and this is a good one.  Now I really need to get busy reading more of Ferguson's books, so I'd say there's a high probability I'll be talking more about them later.  Recommended.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

going back to what I love reading and jumping right into the '20s: The Unclaimed Letter by Anna McClure Sholl

I have been the queen of sporadic posting lately due to stuff at home but hopefully I can get on with journaling my crime reading at the usual pace once again.

It's no secret that I love reading old books, especially if they're written by authors who have tended to fade into obscurity.  Anna McClure Sholl is one of these; in fact, she's so obscure that trying to find any information about her other than her birth and death dates (1868 - 1956) is incredibly difficult.  I know she was a painter as well as an author, that she was born in Pennsylvania and attended Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1895.   There is a brief blurb about her at Wikisource: "Woman's Who's Who of America, 1914-1915 which reads as follows:

"Sholl, Anna McClure, National Arts Club, NY City.  Novelist; b. Philadelphia; dau. William J. and Clara (Corson) Sholl; ed. Ogontz Coll.; special student at Cornell University.  Engaged in newspaper work and was on staff of the NY Commercial Advertiser as editorial writer, 1896-97.  Collaborated on the Charles Dudley Warner Library of the World's Best Literature, 1897-98, and other publications; contributor to the magazines.  Author: The Law of Life; The Port of Storms; The Greater Love. Clubs: Lyceum (London), National Arts (NY City). "

She also used the pseudonym Margaret Carpenter in some of her many short stories, and her work has been published in  Harper's, Munsey's and a host of other periodicals.   I did find a photo of her at the website of The Museum of the City of New York in which she is at a dinner to honor Mark Twain's 70th birthday at Delmonico's in 1905; the problem is that even though the participants are listed, I'm not quite sure which woman is Sholl. 

from The Museum of the City of New York

From there, she remains a mystery to me; if anyone has any info he/she would care to share, I would be appreciative.    

One book not mentioned in the above "Who's Who" blurb is her The Unclaimed Letter, published in 1921.

My edition is from Forgotten Books (2018, 9781527638426), with yet another unexciting cover, but I will say that a) the spines all look great together on the shelves and b) I appreciate that Forgotten Books keeps publishing these old tomes.  (For those of you who don't do physical books, The Unclaimed Letter  is also available online for free.) The publication info page offers two copyrights, one from Crowell Publishing Company and one from Dorrance and Company.  [As an interesting aside, Crowell Publishing Company was incorporated in 1920, changing its name in 1939 to Crowell-Collier.  In 1965 it changed again to Crowell, Collier & Macmillan, ultimately becoming the Macmillan Publishers we all know today. ]

In a story where whodunit blends with pulpy revenge tale, Frederick Dewitt has been ordered to take some time away "for his health," and he decides to spend it at his "old haunt" in the mountains of East Burleigh in Ulster County New York.  As we first meet Dewitt, he's striking up a conversation with the local postmistress, Miss Almira, who's been holding on to a "sinister letter"  that had arrived.  She's actually been saving it so that he would take a look at it, because it's making her nervous.  It is addressed to "the person who committed the Murder at the The old Bostwick Farm,"  which turns out to be the property of Miss Almira's uncle, Abraham Bostwick.  Uncle Abraham's been dead five years, and it's been shut up ever since his death. It's been on the market with no takers, "situation's too lonesome; ground too rocky," and it comes with a legend about a young woman who'd been killed there who continues to cry and walk the house for years.  Neither feels good about opening the letter, but  Dewitt is intrigued, and decides to check things out.   After obtaining a key to the old place and making his way there on foot, he is surprised to see the face of a woman through a window.  At first the old legend pops into his head, but she is very real, claiming to have become lost on her way to where she's actually staying, a house built some one thousand feet above the farm.  Dewitt is instantly smitten and offers to go back into the village and get a car to drive her there, but when he returns, she's gone.  Instead, he meets a man by the name of Ramah Tong, who happens to be the now-disappeared woman's Indian servant, and learns of an "accident" that had happened two days earlier, when a man by the name of Martin Carfax just happened to lean over a cliff and fell into a deep quarry.  Because the accident had happened on April 1, when Tong had gone to seek help the owner of the land containing the quarry had thought Tong was wearing some sort of costume and that he was trying to pull a fast one, and didn't bother to take a look. Dewitt organizes a rescue mission and the body is found.  Eventually a witness comes forward to reveal that it was no accident, and Dewitt finds himself investigating a murder involving his mystery woman, who turns out to be the newly-widowed Christine Carfax (whose husband died on their wedding day), and her former lover Gordon Brent, who not only swears he's innocent but that he has an alibi. As Dewitt begins nosing around, things get even stranger and the body count starts to multiply.

While I'm happy to have read this obscure book  (the more the merrier for me),  from a reader standpoint it's one of the most seriously convoluted mysteries I've ever experienced.   While it starts out as a definite whodunit, it actually has much more of that sort of vibe associated with old pulpy mysteries, where the whys of the crime go back in time.  As a whodunit, it didn't exactly work for me, but I did have fun with the clues that the author threw in that put it more into the zone of the strange, including a mysterious "brotherhood,"  "Buddhist rosary beads," sinister-looking East Indians, and the questions that crop up dealing with astral projection and  "wireless photography" in which someone's dream just might turn into a photo that becomes imprinted on other people's consciousness.  However,  as much as I love reading old pulpy mysteries, a little reining in on the author's part wouldn't have gone amiss here; while The Unclaimed Letter  had its  enjoyable moments,  I found myself mentally willing the story to move on when it started to get bogged down, which was more than a few times.  I won't even mention the flaws in the plot itself, leaving them for others to discover, but trust me, they're there, along with the element of romance.  Still, the point is to discover and read these long-forgotten books and authors, something that brings me joy in the long run, so I can't really complain too much.

The Unclaimed Letter is probably best suited for readers who, like myself, are into discovering books that have disappeared into the void of obscurity; it does require a bit of patience but the upside is that this is not your average mystery story, something I genuinely appreciate.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim

Doubleday, 2019
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
292 pp

Expect the unexpected in this book, which is anything but your standard gun-for-hire novel.

Bumping off someone in the South Korea of this book is the domain of the titular (and anonymous) plotters, those behind the scenes hiding in the shadows. Everyone who is powerful enough has access to a plotter to take care of his or her business.  Once a hit is ordered, the plotters work out how the job will be done and then hire a contractor  to do the actual dirty work; the contractor then hands off the work to an assassin.  The person making the hit has absolutely no clue as to who's commissioning him  --  he does the job, picks up his money and waits for the next assignment.    That is, of course, if he follows instructions to the letter and doesn't mess things up. If that happens, well, let's just say that it's not a good thing.

The "assassination industry"  really came into its own after the overthrow of some thirty years of military dictatorship. As we're told, unlike those previously in power,
"...the newly democratic government couldn't use the basement on Nansan to beat the crap out of loudmouthed pains in the ass.  And so in order to avoid the eyes of the people and the press, to avoid generating evidence of their own complex chain of command and execution, and to avoid any future responsibility, they started doing business on the sly with contractors.  And thus began the age of outsourcing."
The Plotters follows the story of Reseng, whose adoptive father known as Old Raccoon,  is the head of one of these assassination syndicates.  Adopted at age four, Reseng was taken to live at his father's "labyrinthine" library, aka in the industry as "the Doghouse," which was always "crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters."  While the business was going on in the background, Reseng preferred to curl up in a chair and read, having taught himself early on to read by matching the Korean alphabet to pictures in books, since Old Racoon had decided he wouldn't learn anything by going to school.    It is notable that his hero was Achilles, and also notable that from his hero he learned that no matter what, you have to protect your weak spot, an idea which carries throughout this novel.    Eventually Reseng learns the assassin trade and becomes very efficient at his job, but after years in the profession, he comes to realize that he himself might be the target of someone who wants him dead.  That's enough about plot for now.

If you're thinking that this book is just another killer-becomes-prey sort of thing, so why read it, don't even go there. While there is plenty of action throughout the story that will make thriller readers happy, the main focus is really on Reseng, whose inner reflections offer more of a philosophical side to the man.  I only got through the first chapter and realized that this was no ordinary thriller, even as he has his victim in the crosshairs. As he watches the elderly man deep in the mountain woods, talking to his plants, playing with his dog, he stops for a moment to ask himself whether or not to pull the trigger, thinking about how once the job is done he might be able to "change his a pizza shop across from a high school, or sell cotton candy in the park."   But he doesn't shoot because "Now's not the right time."  He wasn't sure why it wasn't the right time, only that "there was a right time for everything,"  but this wasn't it.  Not only does he not pull the trigger, but he is actually invited inside by his victim to warm himself by the fire, shares a meal and listens to the old man's story about his grandfather before they both fell asleep.  It was this very scene that had me realizing that I had something very different in my hand, with worries about it being your standard hit man story all dissolved before I even got to the second chapter, and many more surprises were in store.

Aside from Reseng, there are a host of other unique characters all beset with very human problems, including a fellow assassin who didn't follow the plot, a quirky crematorium operator, a cross-eyed librarian, and a  woman who advocates for assassination in cases of abuse.  It's the kind of book where I was laughing one moment, horrified the next, but when all is said and done, the author remains primarily in the inner life of the main character.   It is, in fact, the people in this book who make it successful and to his great credit, the author rises well above mere genre (although some of the trappings are definitely there) to make this a very human story. And while not perfect (it starts to read like a movie in the last half or so) it is also one of the most literary crime thrillers I've read, complete with history and social issues, and despite its faults, it is nicely written.   I'd seriously read anything this author has written or will write in the future.

There are some great reviews out there with much more to say than I have here (listed below), but seriously, I've been up all night with no sleep so it's amazing I'm still coherent at the moment.  I will say that I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb because they gave away way more than I wanted to know before I'd even started the book, which was seriously disappointing.   Bottom line: it's a definite yes, and this is coming from someone who likely would not pick up a novel about a hit man by choice.   This one I'm recommending wholeheartedly.

from Criminal Element
from The Guardian
from Korean Literature Now

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

* A 1919 crime trio: Lee Thayer, Bernard Capes, and Isabel Ostrander

The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor, by Lee Thayer
The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes
Ashes to Ashes, by Isabel Ostrander

I am a very patient reader, but I must say that more than once while reading this crime/mystery trio of novels I felt like my tolerance was being tested.  Posted in order of annoyance (most to least), the main culprit here was Lee Thayer, whose book The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor was actually a bit of a trial to get through.  

Forgotten Books, 2012
393 pp

My version is from Forgotten Books, one of my go-to place for reprints, but this book was originally published by The Century Company in New York.  In case anyone decides they're brave enough to read this novel, there are also e-versions available at  

original Century edition, 1919, image from AbeBooks
I picked up this book because of my interest in more obscure women mystery writers of yesteryear.  Lee Thayer, full name Emma Redington Lee Thayer (1874-1973)  isn't exactly a household word in the genre, although she wrote some sixty books between 1919 and 1966.    The Thirteenth Floor is the first in her series featuring Detective Peter Clancy, who in this novel is but a mere teen,  but who will go on to solve several mysteries over the long span of his career.  Francis M. Nevins,  in Pronzini and Muller's  1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction  places him in fifty-nine out of Thayer's sixty books (780).   

The story focuses on the death of an attorney by the name of James Randolph Stone, whose death by stabbing occurs immediately after he has two of his employees witness the signing of his will.  The timing of the death and the fact that nobody could possibly have gotten into Stone's Manhattan office and fled (or hid him or herself)  in the scant amount of time before the discovery of his body lands this story in the impossible-crime zone.  When the will turns up missing, it seems that there are several people who are interested in retrieving it, and will (quite literally) stop at nothing to get it.  There is a police detective, and he latches onto the wrong person,  but detection isn't the actual focus here, as Thayer examines motives, character, and the past among her people as she takes us through the story to get to the answer of who killed Stone.  Now, that sounds pretty cut and dried, in typical whodunit fashion, but as it turns out, Thayer decided to take the longest way possible to get to that point, and in the meantime interjects romance, much melodrama, self-sacrificing (aka lying to protect someone else),  and memory musing to the tune of several pages that could have completely been left out or at least edited down to a few sentences to convey her point.  As far as the core mystery of this novel is concerned it was pretty good, and I really did want to know who killed old James Randolph Stone, but just as we're heading to the finish line, the author does something undeniably unforgivable in the form of what I'm sure was meant to be a last-minute showstopper.  Gah! I won't give it away but seriously -- this was beyond frustrating after putting up with all that came before. 

One more thing,  and that's  Nevins' warning in 1001 Midnights that 
"Thayer's novels move the speed of an arthritic snail trying to cross a piece of flypaper."
I couldn't have said it better.

 I'm happy to have read it, and to have discovered yet another more obscure woman author,  but unless I am running short on books someday, I'm not too sure I will be picking up another book by this author in the future.   Reader beware. Even my saintlike reading patience was not enough here.


Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2015
204 pp

Moving on to book two, which was much less frustrating and had a crazy twist that I didn't see coming, is The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes.  I know Capes as a writer of horror/pulpy-ish fiction but not as an author of mystery/crime fiction. Not only was this Capes' first mystery novel, but it was also the first in Collins' Detective Club series, many of which have been reprinted along with their great covers

A country house in Hampshire is the scene for this story, although it actually begins in France, where two of the main characters, Vivian Bickerdike and the Baron LeSage, meet for the first time at a sidewalk cafe in the Place du Palais Royal.  Although the Baron is helpful,  Bickerdike isn't quite sure about him, noticing that the Baron
"could not, or would not, answer a direct question directly; he seemed to love secrecy and evasion for the own sake, and for the opportunity they gave him for springing some valueless surprises on the unsuspecting."
Their paths will cross again as they find themselves on the same train heading for the same destination, Wildshott, the Hampshire country home of Sir Calvin Kennett, who lives there with his son Hugo (a friend of Bickerdike) and his daughter Audrey.  Hugo (also called Hugh) is in a strange state of mind -- Bickerdike senses there's something not quite right with his friend, and Hugo promises to tell all after the upcoming shooting party.  But there are more important things that will take precedence first, since during the shooting the young maid Annie Evans is shot, and it turns out not to have been an accident but rather a solid case of murder.    The police are called and a certain  Sergeant Ridgway ("a clever dog!") makes his way to the scene, where he immediately latches on to the men in the house as possible suspects. While Ridgway investigates, Bickerdike does some clandestine sleuthing, looking both at the case and at the Baron, whom he does not particularly trust and certainly dislikes.   After the coroner's inquest, a suspect is arrested, imprisoned and sent to trial, which should have been the end of things, but the Baron, it seems, has been doing some investigating of his own.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is definitely best read by people who are true-blue fans of British murder mysteries, especially those set in an English country home.  Frankly, it's a bit of a rough go at times,   because it has a tendency to be a slow-moving, overly-written and wordy story.  It has its moments, especially during the trial, but for the most part it can be a bit of a slog, if you're not used to this sort of thing. The ending, however, was a complete surprise that I never saw coming (and most ingenious, I must say); on the other hand there is absolutely no clue leading up to what is coming down the pike since the Baron is a detective figure who holds his cards quite close to his chest --  we really don't know until the very end exactly how  he put two and two together to actually solve the case. It's sort of unfair, really, and when Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder said of this book that Capes "infringed" on the rules governing detective stories, I can see why.  All in all it was the ending that made it an okay read for me.


Forgotten Books, 2017
333 pp
Last, but not least (and among the three the one I enjoyed the most) is Isabel Ostrander's (1883-1924)  Ashes to Ashes.  This may sound weird, but I first heard of Isabel Ostrander a few years back while reading a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.  There's a scene where Lord Peter is looking over some bookshelves in a murder suspect's studio, and after discovering R.Austin Freeman among the lot also finds
"Through the Wall -- that's a good 'tec story, Charles -- all about the third degree -- Isabel Ostrander --..." (Harper Paperbacks, 1995, 196)
I have this habit of writing down book titles and authors found in books for later perusal, and the rest is history.  Anyway, Ashes to Ashes is neither your average crime story of the time nor  a whodunit.  We already know who the killer is, an egotistical, "impulsive" and not-so-clever man of the country club set by the name of Norman Storm. 

The impetuous Storm has squandered away the better part of almost four hundred grand over the last decade in bad investments and speculation, and now his New York City attorney has just informed him he's "reached the bottom of the basket."   As the fuming Norman is leaving his lawyer's office, he sees his wife Leila coming out of a downtown office building.  Later, at home he asks her about it, and she denies having been there, claiming instead to have gone to lunch with a friend.   As little things begin to build up (an overheard telephone call, an envelope with the name of the building where he'd seen her in the city), he comes to believe that Leila has been unfaithful, and during a confrontation, picks up a golf club and beats her to death. An ungrieving Norman knows that if caught he'll face the death penalty, but he's more worried about the publicity and disgrace.  After ensuring that Leila's death will be ruled accidental (you can actually see the gears grinding in this man's head as he sets up his elaborate plan), he congratulates himself on winning a "supreme battle of wits, his against the rest," including his friends, who, not aware of what he's done and to Norman's dismay, will continue to stand by him.   After Norman Storm learns the truth about his wife's supposed infidelity, he finds that he has "descended to the nethermost depths," but trust me, he hasn't even started his descent as events will ultimately prove.

Smug, superior, rash -- these are just three milder words that describe Norman.  He believes himself to be
 "immune, invincible! He could "commit any crime on the calendar and get away with it! There wasn't a living soul clever enough to hunt him down! He was the greatest murderer of the age, the cleverest man in the world!"
but in reality he is weighed down by the "invisible, intangible" bonds from which he struggles to free himself;  he's also a "prisoner in these chains of his own forging."  Normally I can squeeze out some sympathy for someone like Norman, but not in this case.   There is no room for it here, and I don't know about anyone else who's read this novel, but based on his personality alone (never mind his horrific deeds), I couldn't wait for him to get cut down to size.

 Ashes to Ashes worked well for me, not just because it was the least annoying of a read among these three books, but because it was so different. In this book the action is focused on the machinations of one man's mind, rather than the investigation of a crime or the quest for a solution, making it much more personally  appealing.  The writing isn't as dense as was the case with the other two, making it much more reader friendly,  although I will say she must have had a thing about exclamation points because they're everywhere.  This one I can easily recommend for readers like myself who are more into character than plot.

I think I need a modern crime read now just to clear my head.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

another round of catch up: Night Has a Thousand Eyes, by Cornell Woolrich

Pegasus Crime, 2007
originally published 1945
344 pp

(read in December)

"Don't forget, we're fighting death itself."

 Francis M. Nevins, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, notes that a fragment left behind in his papers after the author's death "explained why he wrote as he did."   Woolrich wrote that
"I was only trying to cheat death...I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me."
As early as age eleven, he began to understand that death was unavoidable, noting that he had a "trapped feeling,
like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't and it can't, and it can't."
 Nevins also reveals that Woolrich was "haunted by a sense of doom that never left him."  For me, Night Has a Thousand Eyes most keenly conveys the author's angst regarding that inevitable "darkness,"  his "sense of doom," and his attempt through his writing to "cheat death,"  given that an obsession with death and an attempt to outmaneuver fate are key elements of this story. 

There is a short stretch at the beginning where the reader has no idea what he or she is about to be plunged into, since the story begins so normally after young detective Tom Shawn finishes his shift at the homicide department:
"Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one." 
It is his time to dream, to whistle,  to look at the stars, all things he couldn't do in a bus.  His routine sets him apart from his bus-riding colleagues; it's just a "minor defect," but it's what he does.  Tonight starts out as a "night like many others,"  but as he learns all too quickly,
"Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep on doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once." 
Tom's life is about to change, and it starts with the discovery of a five-dollar bill at his feet.  The owner of the money and the purse Tom eventually finds is  Jean Reid, who is on the verge of committing suicide.  He stops her, and in an all-night diner, she relates to him a bizarre story that begins with her father's business trip to San Francisco and ends with her father in a paralyzing state of trauma stemming from fear.   From there, Tom takes it upon himself to help Jean and her father, enlisting the help of his fellow detectives in an attempt to bring down what he believes is a con man preying on the Reids.  It seems that every prediction this man has made about the Reids has come true so far, so when death on a set date is next in the cards, Mr. Reid just folds. 

original 1945 cover; from Quill and Brush

The book carries with it,  as Jonathan Latimer wrote about his hopes for the film of the same name, "a real sense of terror that these things were coming true."   Woolrich does a beautiful job of making that sense of terror palpable, and in Mr. Reid, he gives us a character who is not only petrified of his own death, but one who begins to feel that he's completely lost any control over his destiny.  Reid, a successful businessman, is obviously someone used to calling the shots and taking the reins of his business to get where he is socially and economically.    However, as each prediction becomes reality, he seems to become increasingly aware that he is no longer in control, and that whatever power he thought he had offers him nothing in the face of the fate that he believes has been mapped out for him.   Being forewarned does not mean forearmed in this case, since it brings with it "a curious sort of clammy terror," a "nightmare feeling."

There's much more going on here underneath but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

Beware -- there is nothing happy going on here; then again it's noir so that should come as no surprise.  Where this book goes is captured by  Francis Nevins in the introduction, where he  acutely describes what's found in this novel as
"the kind of waking nightmare that lies at the heart of noir..." 
in which, as each of the characters in this book will ultimately discover,  what could be more nightmarish than the idea that there is no escape?

Recommended to serious readers of darker fiction or noir.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

also heading your way in February: Go Lovely Rose/The Evil Wish, by Jean Potts

Stark House Press, 2019
303 pp

paperback (my many, many thanks to Stark House for my copy)

When I opened the envelope and saw this book, my first thought was "who the hell is Jean Potts?"  while my second thought was "Cool! Another woman writer I've never heard of!" Rather than relegate it to the this-can-wait-a-while stack, I threw it into the suitcase to take with me on my second trip west last week.

As to my first reaction, Jean Potts was born in 1910 in Saint Paul Nebraska, and after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, she went on to work for The Phonograph newspaper in her home town before moving to New York.  Her first crime novel, Go Lovely Rose, published in 1954, won her an Edgar Award; she would go on to write thirteen more crime novels before her death in 1999, the last of which, My Brother's Killer, was written in 1975.  She also wrote
"several short stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Magazine and Women's Day to name a few." 
But who she is as a writer is much more interesting, and it didn't take me long to discover what makes these books work so very well for me personally.   In her New York Times Obituary,   Edward D. Hoch (former president of the Mystery Writers of America)  notes that perhaps her "strongest suit" was her characterizations, and I have to say that this is what I discovered in these books.   What hit me right away and continued to stay with me is how very flawed her characters are, and how they remain in many cases so locked inside of their own heads that for some of them, there is little chance of escape.   After finishing this two-in-one volume, I then turned to the introduction written by  J.F. Norris where he says it so much more eloquently, noting that in Potts' stories,  "Thoughts imprison her characters," to which I said out loud, "Yes, that's it. Spot on."

 As someone who normally reads less for plot than for what an author has to say about the human psyche and human nature in general,  I always have an inner eye open to how (or if)  an author incorporates an exploration into (quoting Norris again),  the "dark recesses of human imagination and its powerful hold."  Potts is deadly serious in this arena, and it begins to show not even five minutes into her first novel, Go Lovely Rose.   Neither of these books are in any shape or form what I'd call traditional whodunit or mystery stories -- in both, I think it is safe and accurate to say that Potts' genius as a writer is revealed via the slow unfolding of these  dark edges that reside within the minds of her characters. Along with a very keen, often delectable sense of irony in her writing, it's certainly enough to make me want to read more of her work. 

original edition cover, 1954. From Amazon

 Because I can't even begin to convey the psychological depths at work in either of these stories, I'll just offer a bit of basic appetite-whetting plot here with no spoilers. 

 Go Lovely Rose begins with the death of Mrs. Rose Henshaw,
"Fifty-six years of age ... For nineteen years housekeeper in the home of the late Dr. G.F. Buckmaster..."
who had fallen down the steps to the basement of the Buckmaster home in Coreyville and had broken her neck.  Rachel Buckmaster, who had left the family home for Chicago, returns home to sell the house so that her younger brother Hartley (19) can pay for college with his share; she's also disturbed after speaking to her brother and to a neighbor who tells her that Mrs. Henshaw's death was an accident, but that "people were talking."  There aren't many people in Coreyville who would actually mourn the loss of the Buckmaster's long-term housekeeper; she was an "evil" woman, even according to her ex-husband, and Rachel realizes that Hartley is  "free now, with Mrs. Henshaw dead."  Things may have worked out just fine for all had it not been for the appearance of Mrs. Henshaw's sister Mrs. Pierce, who insists that Rose was murdered and raises such a stink that Hartley is arrested.  Rachel and the local physician Dr. Craig, along with Hartley's girlfriend Bix Bovard and her father, newspaper editor Hugh Bovard, join together to prove Hartley is innocent, which isn't going to be easy for several reasons.  Trust me, this is not just another murder mystery. 

 1963 original cover, from Biblio

Moving from small midwest townville to New York City for The Evil Wish (1963),   Potts brings us the story of  two sisters who since childhood have grown up eavesdropping on their domineering father from the basement, and continuing the tradition into adulthood, one day discover that their dad has plans that would basically disinherit them in favor of his current girlfriend.  If Lucy and Marcia Knapp don't like it, he says, they can lump it.   The thought of losing their home is devastating, and Lucy can't stand the idea of being "abandoned" by her sister.  Even worse, they discover that they "don't matter to him" and that "he simply doesn't care."  They are savvy enough, however, to know that they have to keep the lid on the fact that they know what's about to happen; they are also irate enough to  decide to kill him.   Fate steps in however, when a car crash does the job, and while their problem has seemingly disappeared, they are left with the "evil wish" of his death, which as the epigraph by Hesiod reveals, is "most evil to the wisher."   As the blurb for this book asks, "what are they to do with their murder scheme and the residual guilt...," but really, reading this book as a story about a case of guilty consciences doesn't at all do it justice, because it's much, much more.   To her credit, Potts provides a hell of an answer to the question with ratcheting tension doled out in increments along the way toward some pretty horrific consequences. 

It is a true pity (she says once more in a familiar lament) that the work of Jean Potts is not more well known. She would be very much enjoyed by readers who enjoy the work of her contemporary Margaret Millar, who also wrote some psychologically-oriented novels, so hopefully the word will get out.  She may never become a household name, but she is definitely a writer whose work deserves the attention of not only serious aficionados of crime fiction of yesteryear,  but also of readers like myself on the lookout for relatively unknown women writers of the genre.     My thanks to J.F.  Norris for his insight into this writer in his introduction, and especially to the lovely people at Stark House for sending me a copy of this book.  I'm just blown away.

Friday, January 18, 2019

first book post of 2019: The Syndicate, by Guy Bolton

Point Blank/ Oneworld
(available February 2019 in the US)
400 pp

advanced reader copy (my thanks to the publishers!!)

The Syndicate is the second installment in Guy Bolton's series that begins with The Pictures, that (as the blurb says) centers around main character Jonathan Craine,
"a detective at LAPD who has spent his entire career as a studio 'fixer,' covering up crimes of the studio players to protect the billion-dollar industry that built Los Angeles."
 I haven't read that book, but evidently things got pretty bad for Craine in the city of Angels, and he is now living on a farm in Bridgeport.  It's 1947, and Craine reflects at the beginning on "all the changes that had happened" in the meantime -- leaving LAPD, moving away from the city, raising a son without his wife, the war "and all the death that had come to the world." Happy in his solitude, he's about to find his peace shattered by a murder in the city he'd left behind.  His help is needed to find the killer, but the people who want it aren't asking: if he doesn't fall in with the plan, he risks losing not only his own life, but more importantly, that of his son.  Faced with no choice in the matter, Craine makes his way first to Las Vegas to meet with the mob, and then back to his old stomping grounds and his past.  We're not talking about just any murder here -- the corpse belongs to mobster Bugsy Siegel, and it will be Craine's job to find out who did him in.  Let's just put it this way: his is not an easy task:  he  has just five days, and his only help is an older hit man who is sent to Los Angeles with him.  He figures out early on that he's going to need much more if he wants to save his son,  and targets an ambitious  crime reporter, Tilda Conroy,  from The Examiner as an asset. 

While this sort of book falls out of my range of normal reading fare (I'm generally a quieter, gentler reader not prone to violent stories and I'm not a fan of real-life people as fictional characters, preferring thinly-disguised replicas), the author has done so many things right here that I found myself enjoying it.    He not only made Craine's story a compelling read, but he moved it in unexpected directions -- it could have been a straight sweep completely focused on solving the murder itself, but it turns out that there's much more going on here: a peek at the darker story behind the growth of Las Vegas into what it eventually became, the  Red Scare in Hollywood, the blatant racism in the city (and the US) of the era, and the abuses of power by those whose job it is to protect not only the citizens of Los Angeles, but the citizens of the United States as well.  And while there's  enough happening to satisfy some readers' needs for fast-paced action, Mr. Bolton  never lets his audience forget how high the stakes are for Craine, who often turns inward to examine not only his current situation but also his past.  Finally, I have to say that I was highy impressed after reading a most interesting article at Shotsmag about how the author came up with the character of Tilda Conroy,   drawing on two real women reporters, Florabel Muir and Agness Underwood, who worked on the Black Dahlia murder and the murder of Bugsy Siegel, "two of the biggest stories of 1947..."   Kudos for that move, Mr. Bolton; it's nice to see women who might have otherwise been relegated to the back pages of history given their due both as an acknowledgment and in the form of one of the strongest characters in the novel.

The Syndicate isn't officially out until February (which is really just around the corner), but I see that early readers are already giving this novel very high marks.  It was much less about solving the crime for me than the factors I've already mentioned that gave me the most satisfaction (although really, I didn't see that ending coming, a definite plus); when an author can get as deeply into such a flawed character's psyche as Mr. Bolton has done here, well, let's just put it this way: anyone can write a murder mystery, but making it as psychologically intense as the author's done here is a job well done.

My thanks once again to Oneworld for my copy.