Thursday, June 27, 2019

back in my mystery happy place once again with an Edgar Wallace double feature

Two books, both written by the same author in the same year, 1922.   An iffy proposition, running the risk of getting something same old same old with the second after reading the first.  Luckily, that was not the case here.

Edgar Wallace was a highly-prolific author; he wrote so much in fact that I didn't even bother to count the total number of works in his bibliography to give here because there are so many.  And given my penchant for crime/mystery fiction, one would think that I would have read one of his books by now, but no.  The Angel of Terror and The Crimson Circle are the only two of Wallace's novels I've read, although his books take up nearly one entire shelf in my British reading room.  

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
209 pp

Also known as The Destroying Angel,  The Angel of Terror begins in the courtroom at the end of the Berkeley Street Murder Trial as the judge is about to pass sentence on one James Meredith, who had been convicted of murder.   The jurors and the judge could not but believe the story told by Meredith's ex-fiancée and cousin Jean Briggerland, and ultimately the judge sentences him to death.  His sentence is commuted to a long prison stay, but his attorney and friend Jack Glover knows that Briggerland gave false testimony for what she would consider good reason.  As his cousin,  she will inherit the bulk of James' fortune, since according to Meredith's father's will, if James had not married by age thirty, the money  would go to his aunt and her "heirs and successsors," aka  Jean Briggerland and her father.  His 30th birthday is coming up quickly and   Glover comes up with a bizarre plan to keep the money out of Briggerland's hands:  he has selected a young woman named Lydia Beale,  who is deeply in debt and is struggling to survive to become Meredith's bride.  Seventy-five summons of judgment against her for her father's debts have overwhelmed her;  she will get a huge sum of  money up front, and never has to have any sort of dealings with Meredith.  As the book's back blurb notes, "it is a proposal she cannot afford to ignore."   Glover temporarily springs Meredith via a medical excuse allowing him to escape long enough for the nuptials to be performed.  Lydia becomes not only Mrs. Meredith but also the widow  Meredith all within a matter of moments.  Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, James had written his own will prior to the marriage, so on his death, Lydia receives his estate.  But now that she has Meredith's fortune, the Briggerlands become her heirs, and as Jack Glover so rightfully states, "--there's going to be hell!"   Truer words were never spoken.
In this story, there is absolutely no question of the identity of the "Angel of Terror."   We know from the outset that Jean Briggerland is  one of the most cold-blooded, evil-minded and absolutely mercenary women villains who has ever graced the pages of a crime novel. She is a woman who openly states that what she fears more than death is a "life without money."  However, because of her beauty and her great acting abilities, no one but Jack Glover believes she could possibly be guilty of anything, that she has no qualms about killing, and he will do what it takes to keep Lydia out of her clutches. 

The Angel of Terror was fun, but a bit farfetched considering that Lydia remains clueless for the duration of the novel.  I was looking at what readers said and time and time again they come back to Lydia being either hopelessly naive or absolutely stupid, and in all honesty her character can become a bit exasperating.  However,  I found the story to be more about whether or not justice will ever be served, a point on which the reader will have to make up his/her own mind at the end.

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
220 pp

    Of the two, The Crimson Circle was much more to my liking because it has that pulpy feel to it that I love so much.  Who wouldn't love a book about a secret crime organization and a detective that uses "psychometrics" to help his clients?  It also happens to have one of the most twisty endings, where not one but two surprises await the reader.   This one also got the silent "bravo" in my head after I'd finished it.

Private detective Derrick Yale is called into the home of James Beardmore, who has received four letters from "The Crimson Circle" demanding one hundred thousand pounds.  Beardmore has no fear of the Crimson Circle, but perhaps he should have heeded that fourth letter, since he later turns up dead.  But Beardmore is only one of many victims of this shady organization:  it seems that many members of the upper class have been blackmailed with the threat of death looming if they do not pay.  In each occurrence, something is left behind with the sign of a red circle, and the victims take the warning seriously enough to give the Crimson Circle exactly what is demanded.   Exactly who is the mastermind here is what Chief Inspector Parr has been tasked with discovering, but so far, his efforts have yielded few, if any, results.  Now his bosses have thrown down the gauntlet:  "if he cannot run the organization to earth he must send in his resignation."

Parr knows that the Crimson Circle  "had agents in all branches of life and in all classes."  None of them, however, knew the identities of the others nor their "chief," and each had his own "function to perform."  We, the readers know who some of these people are, including the beautiful Thalia Drummond, a known thief who eventually becomes Yale's secretary.   Time is ticking for Parr, so  he joins forces with Parr  to unmask the ringleader, while one man already knows who he is.  To say more is to spoil but jeez Louise, this was a lot of fun.

from IMDB
I liked it so much, in fact, that I watched the English-dubbed film from 1960 after finishing the novel.   The movie, of course, is not quite as good as the novel, but still manages to get the basics correct, although the shockers from the book don't play out as well on screen.  Of course, it could be that I already knew the ending, so there's that.

Overall, both books were fun reads, but I enjoyed The Crimson Circle a whole lot more than I did The Angel of Terror. One thing they both have in common besides the year in which they were written are strong women who take center stage.     Readers of old pulp fiction would certainly enjoy The Crimson Circle, or anyone who is exploring the work of Edgar Wallace certainly could not go wrong starting with this book which is definitely the better of these two.  I'm sure I'll be back for more Wallace novels in the future.

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.