Friday, April 19, 2019

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



9781559703345
Arcade Publishing, 1975
originally published as Der Meister des J├╝ngsten Tages, 1921
translation by Eric Mosbacher
154 pp
paperback



"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. 

9781120874566
Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints, 2010
originally published 1921 by John Lane
308 pp
paperback


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.