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. 

happy new year, nearly three weeks late....

While I've been reading steadily over the last 3 weeks or so, time has not been my friend as far as posting goes.  First, it was off to Seattle for a week starting the 24th of December,

from (I'm not endorsing this website; it just had the right image)

then, one week after that, and  still suffering a severe case of west coast body clock syndrome (WCBCS), we made our way to Los Angeles for a week of catching up with friends and family, 

from (again, not an endorsement) -- and yes, I know the map shows San Diego, but whatever. 

arriving home this past Tuesday, with a bad cold and a  fresh case of WCBCS to add to my previous woes.

logo from

fLooking at the bigger picture that is 2019, I'll be making my way through mysteries and crime fiction from roughly 1919 through 1930, with a focus on more obscure titles, although since we're moving into the golden age here, there will probably  be quite a few which are recognizable by readers familiar with that period.  As usual, I'll throw in some contemporary titles here and there, and then it's just what ever happens to be on the shelves to balance things out in my crime-reading universe.  And that could be pretty much anything, so stay tuned.