Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story, by Anne Meredith


Poisoned Pen Press, 2018
originally published 1933
243 pp


Warning: cute and cozy this book is definitely not.  While it begins at a family gathering at Christmas, nobody's going a-wassailing, nor is there even the slightest hint of sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting tingling too -- this is the story of an unpremeditated but cold-blooded murder, the person responsible, and the aftermath.  

The usual Christmas tradition at the Gray house is for the Gray children to come to the family home. Out of six, there are two already living at Kings Poplars; the remaining four had long ago left to make their way in the world.  Yuletide is not necessarily a happy time for this family, because, as we are told early on, patriarch Adrian Gray is, "on good terms with none of his children."  We learn why this is over the first forty-something pages, and we also learn why it is that, as the back-cover blurb notes,

"None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead."

Christmas morning rolls around, and Adrian has failed to join the family for breakfast or for the usual Christmas task of reading the lessons.  When he is found dead in his library, it was thought at first he'd suffered a stroke but when the police arrive, it doesn't take long to figure out that Adrian's demise was anything but natural.   The killer, however, is ready for them, having arranged things so that the accusing finger points elsewhere.     I won't reveal any details, but this setup makes for very tense reading right up to the end as an innocent person is arrested, tried, and sentenced.   Will justice be served or will a murderer remain free to walk the streets?  

Portrait of a Murderer is a product of the interwar period, a time of great social change, and the author uses the decline in class as well as the perceived decline in morality in examining her players. It's done very well -- as Martin Edwards quotes Dorothy Sayers in his introduction, this story focuses  "less emphasis on clues and more on character. "  It's not long after the first pages are turned before this point becomes crystal clear, as Meredith weaves her way through the lives of the Grays, laying a foundation for the rest of the story.  She obviously had a keen understanding of human nature that allowed her to grasp the inner selves of these people and to portray their psychologies at work both individually and vis-a-vis  other family members. Readers who must have likeable characters, or characters with whom they can identify likely won't find that in this novel, as the author reveals that with an exception or two, the Grays are a pretty despicable lot.

  I feel like my hands are tied here, since giving away any more about this book than I've already done would be doing a disservice to potential readers. I will say that although the forty-plus pages in part one are mettle-testing to even the most patient of readers, do not give up -- the information gleaned from there will serve you greatly in the long run.   This is the sort of crime novel I love reading, answering the question of why rather than focusing on the who.  As Carolyn Wells is quoted as saying in the introduction, it is indeed a most "Human Document." 

I couldn't put it down once I'd started.  

Friday, December 25, 2020

Where's the warning label? Rules for Perfect Murders, aka Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson

File under:  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?????   I don't know what was going through this author's head, but what he's done here is absolutely unforgivable.  Luckily I picked up the cheap paperback edition, because this book got tossed more than once across the room, something I do when I am so utterly frustrated with what I'm reading and don't want to scream. 

Since I don't read much in the way of modern crime fiction these days, trust me, the premise has to be out there enough to capture my attention, and that is what drew me to this book.  I reprint here the back-cover blurb:

"Years ago Malcolm Kershaw wrote a list of his 'Eight Favorite Murders' for his Old Devils mystery bookshop blog. Among others, it included those from Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Now, just before Christmas, Malcolm finds himself at the heart of an investigation -- as an FBI agent believes someone may be re-enacting each of the murders on his list."

Oh, I thought, this sounds really good, and with the mention of the older crime novels I was hooked.  Then I started reading and nearly choked.  Some seventeen pages in, Malcolm's old blog post was offered in its entirety, with each of the eight books not only summarized (which is okay), but the plot reveals given away (which is not okay).  To make matters worse, as we get more into this story, the author decides to go further,  giving away all of the show on each of the eight "perfect murders,"  and he's not quite done.  He goes on to spoil other classics, including (and this is truly an act of anathema),  Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  

Go ahead, feel free to argue, saying that the author in his own way is paying homage to these older books. Now  I'm no stranger to homage -- the last crime novel I read, Yukito Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders, was clearly a tribute to Christie's And Then There Were None (which, by the way, Swanson spoils in this book as well) -- but giving everything away is not the way to do it. 

Then there's the story itself, which to me was dull, lacking enough suspense to take me to the level of being fully engaged.  It's like this: since the back-cover blurb already reveals that "someone may be re-enacting the murders," we already know what's coming.  We're also reminded of the exact book each murder is based on, including those that happened in the past.   Not only that, but it was so easy to put my finger on who exactly is behind all the killing, since the author practically gives it away close to the start.   And just one more thing:  there could have been so much paring done here to make it sleeker, more taut, and to heighten the suspense; in short, some judicious editing would have certainly helped. 

Just so you know, the eight books that the author totally wrecks for potential readers are 

The Red House Mystery, by AA Milne
Malice Aforethought, by Anthony Berkeley Cox
The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner, by John D. MacDonald*
Deathtrap, by Ira Levin 
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I asterisked The Drowner because it's the only one of the books (like the narrator of this story reminds his readers, Deathtrap is a play) I haven't read, and now I guess I don't need to since I know exactly what's going to happen and how.  Too bad -- that one looked like fun. 

I'm looking at reader reviews and people are absolutely loving this novel, which, you know, to each his/her own.   I am afraid that I am once again swimming against the tide here.

I have to be honest and say that for some time now,  I've been much happier with crime novels from yesteryear -- for the most part they're well and often uniquely plotted, characters seem to be more well defined, and even in the worst ones there's usually a modicum of suspense to be had, none of which is the case here.  

Feel free to throw tomatoes. I don't care. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Decagon House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji


Pushkin Vertigo, 2020
originally published as Jukkakukan no Satsujin  (十角館の殺人),  1987
translated by Ho-Ling Wong
284 pp


"We're just the poor insects that flew into the trap called the Decagon House"

Had I been eating something when the big reveal of this story came along, I probably would have choked because of the huge gasp that involuntarily came out of me.  As soon as that cleared, the first words out of my mouth were "holy sh*t."  I don't have that reaction very often;  even though there have been many times I've been truly surprised at the unmasking of the who, this one absolutely takes the cake.  

It began as a "little adventure" for seven members of their university's Mystery Club, who'd decided to make the island of Tsunojima the destination of their club trip.   They'd gone there looking forward to 
"Freedom on an uninhabited island. A cold case to pick over. A bit of a thrill."
They had arrived on the island on March 26th, having been taken there via fishing boat.  Tsunojima, located about five kilometers off the coast of Kyushu's Oita Prefecture, had been the site of a still-unsolved "mysterious quadruple murder" six months earlier, resulting in the deaths of Nakamura Seiji (last name first), his wife Kazue, and the "servant couple who worked for them.  Nakamura's gardener was thought to have been the killer, but it was never proven since he'd disappeared and never been seen again.  The murder culminated in a fire which had completely destroyed the main house, the Blue Mansion; the "annex building" known as the Decagon House was left intact.  Decagon House was to be their home away from home for the next few days; together, each of the seven members -- Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van (short for Van Dine),  Agatha and Orczy -- comprised "the core writing group" of the club.  For the upcomng April club magazine, they were each asked  while on the island to write one story based on the magazine's title, Dead Island the name of the "first Japanese translation of Dame Agatha's masterpiece" known to everyone today as And Then There Were None. 

from Goodreads

Oh no, I thought, I don't want to spend my reading time going through a Christie ripoff, and as luck would have it,  aside from a few nods in homage to And Then There Were None, it turned out to be anything but.  

The novel moves back and forth between what's happening on the island and what's going on back on the mainland, where a former member of the University Mystery Club, Kawaminami Taka'aka, receives a mysterious letter containing only one sentence:
"My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you."

Kawaminami is floored when he realizes the letter is from none other than Nakamura Seiji -- and that he's received an  "accusation made by a dead man."  What's more, he discovers right away that at least one other member of the club, now on the island,  has received the same correspondence.  Along with two other acquaintances,  he begins to delve into the matter of the strange letter, which leads them to also investigate the case of the quadruple murders of the previous September on Tsunojima.  In the meantime, the weirdness begins back at the island with the discovery of seven "milky white plates," on which red characters had been printed, 

quickly followed by the mysterious death of one of the seven and the first of the plates having been tacked to the dead person's door.  With no possibility of leaving the island, and as more deaths follow, as the back cover blurb notes, "the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other." 

As I've always said about this genre that really stands on its own within the genre of crime/mystery fiction,  these stories are less character oriented and more about how the deed was done.   It's no surprise to me on reading several reader reviews  of this book that noted the lack of character development, because that's pretty standard with this sort of thing, something I've come to expect after reading so many of them.  Taking that aspect away, focusing on the who and the how, The Decagon House Murders becomes an intense puzzle, the solution of which I would never have guessed.  I will say that I'm a bit frustrated at not being able to share my experience with the identity of the who, but to do so would be giving away the show.  I do think I would like to take a look at the original though, because I'm not sure I would have translated some things in this book the same way, for example, in having one character refer to the group as "y'all."  I mean, come on. Seriously? 

I had great fun with this novel, and I certainly would recommend it to regular fans of this sort of puzzler, or to fans of Japanese crime fiction in general.  The ending alone was well worth the price I paid for the book.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

two in one: Ruth Sawtell Wallis: Too Many Bones / Blood From a Stone


Stark House, 2020
268 pp

paperback -- my many, grateful thanks for my copy.  

This book is literally hot off the press (well, minus a couple of weeks),  and it's truly a good one.  First, it's by a writer whose work I've never read; second, both mysteries included in this volume are never dull, keeping me guessing right up until the end; third, both stories have a strong, professional female character taking the lead.  

Both of these lead characters take after their creator.  Curtis Evans has a short but remarkably thorough biography of author Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) in his introduction to this book, which discusses not only her short mystery-writing career but her years as an anthropologist.  Before transferring to Columbia University to work with Franz Boas,   Ruth Sawtell Wallis had spent time excavating Azilian graves in the French Pyrenees.  Susan Kent in Blood From a Stone (1945) shares  the author's zeal for anthropology and excavation, eventually coming to claim discoveries in a particular cave site as her own, while Kay Ellis in Too Many Bones (1943) took a job in a museum where she was excited to be a part of a "study of human heredity"  involving the skeletons of four families in a remote, isolate area of the Carpathian mountains, previously excavated in 1900.  

In Too Many Bones, Kay arrives in the very small midwestern town of Hinchdale to begin her work with the Holtzerman Collection and right away she is told that she probably "won't be stayin' here long."  First she's not sure that the Director of the Proutman Museum, Alpheus Harvey will let her do the job she came for; it seems that the museum staff were not expecting a woman to fill the job.  But that's the least of her problems.  As she begins her work, she meets the owner of the museum, Zaydee Proutman, who has designs on Kay's direct supervisor, Dr. John Gordon, and almost immediately the redhead starts to make trouble for her.   As Kay is informed later by librarian Alice Barton, Zaydee holds all the cards:
"...if we are judged incompetent at any time because of illness or other cause, we will be retired on pensions equal to our salaries. The Judge of our incompetence will be Zaydee ...All salaries are paid by her...She hires employees and dismisses them." 

Sensing a rival and hoping to entice her to leave, not too long after Kay starts her job, Zaydee knocks fifty dollars off of Kay's salary because "A young woman ... does not have expenses commensurate with a those of a man."  Kay needs the money to put forward to future PhD studies, so she stays.  But it looks like the prediction that Kay wouldn't be staying in Hinchdale too long just might come true after Zaydee finds out that John Gordon and Kay had gone out for an evening, and that later that Kay had been seen with one of Zaydee's former boyfriends Randy Bill.  The ill-tempered, jealous redhead decides that Kay must go due to being "lazy and insulting."  Even worse, while Kay is packing up her trunk to go home, she finds out that Randy Bill has died in a car accident, that Zaydee is missing presumed dead, and that she is the local sheriff's number one suspect.  While he orders her not to leave town, Kay takes it upon herself to quietly investigate the small circle of people surrounding Zaydee, any one of which may have had their own motives to want her dead.  As she tries to find out who may have been responsible for Zaydee's death, she stumbles upon a horrifying discovery that causes her to fear for her own life.  

from Pinterest 

Given that this book was published in 1943, it is somewhat refreshing to find concerns about male/female salary discrepancy here, as well as discrepancies in the treatment between male and females in the academic realm.  And while there is no denying that there are a few cringeworthy racial epithets in this novel, to her credit the author's portrayal of the two African-American characters in this book affords them strong, realistic personalities, giving them each something to contribute towards Kay's investigation.  I could have done without the budding romance, but that's just a me thing.  Otherwise, there's an ingenious as well as fun mystery here, with plenty of motives all around.  I had absolutely no clue as to the who up until the last minute, and the ending was beyond appropriate and ultimately quite satisfying.  

from Anthrosource

Blood From a Stone takes us to the French Pyrenees and to 1935.  More precisely, we find ourselves in  Volvestre, the valley of St. Fiacre,  outside of the provincial capital of Foix.  There, in a house named La Catine, Susan Kent, an "American girl with red hair," has taken up residence with another woman, Neva (and no man), thus making it "the house of bad habits."  The other permanent resident of the place is a dachsund named Seppel.  As the novel begins, two "farm boys" come across Susan "kneeling by stream, holding a jagged strip of jawbone filled with squat, gleaming teeth," and mistake her for the legendary "White Woman" who "appears in many guises,"  a figure of the local supernatural lore.  Given the strange events to come,   this beginning turns out to be more than appropriate. The daughter of a widowed, wealthy manufacturer, Susan had come to France with a desire to do some excavating in a cave called the Violet Hole, where in 1881 a priest had "picked up some pottery on the surface," but aside from the few "lines about it" that he published, not much more was known.  Just after she is warned by one of the locals that "this work you are about to do is full of danger," a visit to yet another cave with four other people nearly ends in disaster, and things only get worse from there.  Soon enough Susan, "a foreigner, a girl who crawled through caves and played with bones, who might be a witch" finds herself at the top of the list of suspects when she discovers a more recent corpse while exploring the Violet Hole. 

The author drenches this novel in atmosphere from the start, and cloaks her story in a dark air of distrust, betrayal and suspicion.  The characters connected to Susan are mysterious in their own right, each holding their cards close and letting out very little information about themselves, so that by the time the revelations came I was not only genuinely surprised but completely flabbergasted -- I never saw it coming.   But it's the getting there that counts in this book, which I couldn't put down once I'd started.  

This two in one I can most heartily recommend for those who are more than just a little fond of vintage crime.   As always, the powers that be at Stark House have chosen the perfect person, Curt Evans, for introducing the book, and there is also a lovely, poignant Foreword by Nancy Wallis Ingling, Ruth's granddaughter.  I love love love finding women writers whose works I'd never read, and Ruth Sawtell Wallis is just one of many I've found via Stark House.  Now I feel this need to find her other novels; while she only wrote at total of five mysteries, Too Many Bones earned her "a $1000 prize and additional royalties in the semi-annual Red Badge new mystery story contest."  Her work is very different from that of many of the women writers I've read of the same period, most likely because she put much of her professional self into these books, and quite proudly, I'd say.   

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman


Viking, 2020
355 pp


I genuinely hope there is another book after this one, since I really enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club.  Obviously I'm a reader who is much more into the dark/bleak side of crime, but sometimes I just feel this need to go light for a change, a sort of palate cleanser/brain relaxer if you will.  The trick is in finding just the right book without falling deep into cozyland or cutesyville, neither of which I like.   I bought this book because my spouse and I are huge Richard Osman fans after watching way too many British TV quiz shows, and I figured that this book had to be good because he is so witty and snarky funny.  I made a good decision here: the mystery is rather slow burning, without the usual pileup of clues that would normally titillate my inner armchair detective, but here it's much more about the cast of characters that make up the Thursday Murder Club, as well as the members of the police department they've sort of co-opted into the group.  Prepare to giggle, but keep a tissue by your side. 

The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who meet every Thursday in the Jigsaw Room at Coopers Chase Retirement Village ("You can't move here until you're over sixty-five").  It had originally been started by retired Kent Police inspector Penny Gray and the mysterious Elizabeth; sadly, Penny now lays dying in the Village's nursing home, Willows.  When she'd left the police force, she'd brought with her a number of files of unsolved murder cases, and she and Elizabeth would pore over them, looking for anything that may have been missed.  Two other members soon came along, Ibrahim and Ron, and with Penny out, Joyce has stepped in to become the fourth.  They continue to go over old cases from Penny's files, but they up their game with a real murder that hits close to home.  It seems that the builder of Coopers Chase has been bludgeoned to death, and that the killer has left behind only a photograph.   Elizabeth wants to investigate the murder, but the problem is that they "have no access to any case files, witness statements, any forensics."  What they do have, though, is PC Donna De Freitas, who gives lectures at Coopers Chase, and who would rather be out solving this murder instead of bringing teas to the officers working on it in the incident room.  Elizabeth finagles her way into visiting PC De Freitas at the local station, where she asks Donna point blank if she wouldn't rather be "part of it."   There's nothing Donna would like more, and the group members manipulate things so that Inspector Chris Hudson puts her on the team, making it easier for the Thursday Murder Club to know what's going on as the case progresses and to provide information they think worthy of turning over -- when they're ready.    When a second murder hits, the Thursday Murder Club moves into even higher gear.  

The book is related from two perpectives. First, there's Joyce's diary, where she not only talks about what's happening with the group, but also through her writing provides insight into the members' histories including her own.  She also offers glimpses here and there of what living in this community is like, and through her, the author has written compassionately about these older people and how they cope with aging or finding themselves alone without family or widowed.  Her diaries produce alternating bouts of giggles and sadness that wells up without warning, When we're not reading Joyce's diary entries, the story is related in a standard style, incorporating other characters and moving the mystery and its solution forward.  There's always more than a tinge of humor to be found here, and the ending allows the reader to consider the true nature of justice, which isn't always as black and white as one might believe. 
The dustjacket blurber has absolutely nailed it, saying that
"Richard Osman has employed all of his considerable wit and intelligence to give us just the curl-up-and-read novel we need right now."
This book was, as the blurber stated,  "pure enjoyment," and a "flat-out pleasure of a book," precisely what the doctor ordered during our strange present time.   I also agree with author Val McDermid's blurb when she says that The Thursday Murder Club is  a "warm, wise, and witty warning never to underestimate the elderly."  Sadly not only are senior citizens too often underestimated, but ignored as well. And even though this book isn't my usual sort of reading material, it was such a pleasure to have read this novel: it is truly the "curl-up-and-read novel we need right now" that the description promises. 

Absolutely delightful. To Richard Osman: Thank you so very much and let's have another!! 



Wednesday, October 7, 2020

and thus we come to the end: White Jazz, by James Ellroy


 " ... it's dues time." 

White Jazz closes out Ellroy's LA Quartet, and in doing so, takes us into the life of  Dave Klein, Ad Vice lieutenant in the LAPD.   Unlike The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential, Ellroy's writing style is dialed up full throttle, set at pure, raw energy here as he moves his reader into Klein's head 

"his voice clipped, sharp, often as brutal as the events he's describing -- taking us with him on a journey through a world shaped by monstrous ambition, avarice, and pervision."

Klein is telling this story years after the events of White Jazz, looking backward with his beginning in the fall of 1958:

"Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events -- so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down -- the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell." 

Afraid he'll forget: 

"I killed innocent men. I betrayed sacred oaths. I reaped profit from horror. Fever -- that time burning. I want to go with the music -- spin fall with it."

 Mind you, we haven't moved into the actual story yet and right away we have a preview of not only what's coming down the pike for Klein, who lived to tell the tale if one could actually call it living,    but of Ellroy's superb jazzed-up prose style as well.  

Aside from his police job, Klein has ties to local bad guy Mickey Cohen, Howard Hughes and mobster Sam Giancana. He is paid well to work as hit man, strike breaker, or to kneecap someone if necessary. He's also a slumlord and a law-school grad.  After the death of a federal witness in Klein's custody,  the case that takes center stage in White Jazz, one which will eventually take everyone involved to places they couldn't possibly have foreseen as ""the City of Angels begins to seem like the City of the Devils," starts with a burglary and the murder of two Dobermans at the home of JC Kafesjian, "LAPD's sanctioned pusher," and the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning establishments.  He is protected by Dan Wilhite of Narco;  Klein is called in "to square things," as Kafesjian insists on no investigation.  Ed Exley, now Chief of Detectives, decides otherwise, and Klein is partnered with Sgt. George "Junior" Stemmons to take care of it.   Away from the job, he is hired by Howard Hughes to keep tabs on a young actress by the name of Glenda Bledsoe, "with an eye toward securing contract-violating information."  In the meantime, as if this all wasn't enough, the  Justice Department investigators are beginning a " 'minutely detailed, complex and far reaching' probe into racketeering in South-Central Los Angeles," part of which would involve rumors of the LAPD allowing vice to flourish and rarely investigating "homicides involving both Negro victims and perpetrators."  Eventually Klein will come to realize that he's been tagged as scapegoat by the powers that be who want to keep their secrets to themselves.  He also knows that he's being used as a pawn in a much bigger rivalry.   He's not going to take either of these lying down -- as the back cover says, for Klein, "it's dues time."  

I really don't want to reveal  anything more about this book plotwise because at this juncture getting into the nitty-gritty of things would just kill it for anyone who hasn't read this book and may want to do so down the road.  There's also the fact that to try to enumerate the subplots found here would just be folly, and there's no way I can possibly describe the bleakness tied to the characters or the way in which things spiral out of control throughout the story.  I will say that while the books that came before this one were dark, this one is downright claustrophobic, a connected web of murder, revenge, sick and damaged souls, making the reader wonder if there is any possibility of justice at all in this hellish vision of LA.   

It also ends the LA Quartet, picking up the speed toward the finish in a way that only Ellroy could make happen as he moved across twelve years from 1947 to 1959.  More accurately it ends what is often labeled as the Dudley Smith Trio that had its roots in The Big Nowhere and comes to a head in White Jazz; although   The Black Dahlia  has little to do with the characters of the three novels that follow, it is most certainly the foundation of Ellroy's vision and as such necessary to understand many of the themes that make their way through all four books.  Word to the wise: do not under any circumstances make White Jazz your starting point -- you will be lost.  

 I think there have only been two other series I've read that have come close to this one in terms of sheer darkness of vision and which out-noir noir,  Derek Raymond's Factory series and David Peace's Red Riding Quartet.   While Ellroy's Quartet novels are, as I've been saying all along, not easy to get through on a number of different levels,  reading these four novels has been an experience in itself and I wouldn't have missed it.  I'm genuinely sad that it's over.  

happier reads now, I think! 

Friday, October 2, 2020

L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy


-- read earlier

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime case and the price for clearing it was very, very high."

I'm one of those weirdos who actually preferred the novel to the film adaptation, and I think it's because it had been so long since I'd seen the movie that it I'd forgotten about it.   I recently watched the film again after finishing the novel and was a bit thrown off -- not only had the story been cut, which due to its complexity I'd expected, but parts of the plot were changed as well, even down to who was killed in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop.   James Ellroy himself said about the film that it was "about as deep as a tortilla." 

Luckily that's not the case with the novel. There is nothing shallow about  LA Confidential, which goes straight for the jugular and doesn't let go.   

As was the case in The Big Nowhere, three police officers are at the center of the story. Sgt. Jack Vincennes  has fifteen years on the force, yet he is not well respected by his superiors.  He was given a fitness rating of D+ by his own supervisor who also remarked that he is "barely adequate."  Jack has a side gig as technical advisor to a TV cop show (think Jack Webb and Dragnet) and also provides celebrity fodder for Sid Hughes' tabloid Hush-Hush, giving Sid the heads up when an arrest is about to be made allowing the magazine a leg up on press scoops. He also wants to leave Ad Vice and return to Narco before he retires,  and is told that if he can "make a major case," in a "Picture-book smut" investigation he'll get his wish.  Like many of Ellroy's tormented characters, Jack has a secret from his past which if uncovered would cost him everything.  Wendell "Bud" White has no use for men who beat women; as a boy he witnessed his mother's murder at the hands of his father.  Lieutenant Ed Exley, former war hero,  lives in the shadow of his father, a retired legendary cop now construction bigwig who is currently bringing a Disneyland-type park and a freeway to Los Angeles.  Exley "works poorly with partners and well by himself;" he is also regarded as a "coward" because he does not use violence against suspects.  Aside from his inner rivalry with his father, he too harbors a secret that he would prefer to keep hidden, and after he rats out the culprit in a jail beatdown by cops during a drunken Christmas Eve party, everyone hates him.  

The main case at the novel's  heart is the shooting at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, "The first all-Bureau call-in in history."  Six people died when at 3 a.m. three men entered and shot the place up. The police have one hot lead on the case: over the previous two weeks, three men had been seen "discharging shotguns" into the air at Griffith Park.  They had been seen driving a purple Mercury coupe at the time and it was a purple Mercury coupe that a witness had seen parked across from the coffee shop at the same time the massacre went down.  But since this is James Ellroy we're talking about there, this case will quickly unfurl well beyond its center and as it spins, it will drag the three cops along with it, catching up to them in ways no one could predict.   And that's an understatement.  

LA Confidential has been criticized by readers for its rather labyrinthine complexity involving numerous subplots, but I didn't have an issue with it and frankly, could care less, since after having read its predecessors The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, I've become used to Ellroy's penchant for grandiose, and I was caught up in each and every turn taken by this story.  What I really want to say is that it's a firecracker of a  read that sucked me so far down the rabbit hole of Ellroy's 1950s Los Angeles that is was a relief when I finally got out.   Again, not perfect, but pretty damn close.  

It's another book that is uberbleak, not for the squeamish, should come with warning labels, and yes, it's long in the reading, but I enjoyed every second of it.  Every nanosecond of it.  

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy

With two books left to read in  the LA Quartet, after finishing The Black Dahlia and Big Nowhere I had to take a break.  They're excellent novels, but even I, someone who lives on a steady reading diet of bleak,  had to take a break before going on.  I didn't stay away for too long though -- these novels are like serious noir-reading crack.

It's 1950, and just three hours into the new year, acting watch commander Detective Deputy Sheriff Danny Upshaw ("a rookie squadroom dick") has already decided that the 1950s "were going to be a shit show."  He eventually becomes caught up in investigating a series of grisly, sexually-motivated murders, all the while fighting the territorial rivalry between the LAPD and the LASD as well as a department that doesn't want too much public attention called to these killings. Upshaw believes that solving this case will "make his name as a cop," but he has to make a deal to work as lead  jointly with both departments, bringing him into a team tasked with getting the goods on "lefties" associated with Communism in Los Angeles, specifically targeting the United Alliance of Extras and Stagehands. The task force  consists of  Lieutenant Mal Considine from the DA's Criminal Investigation Bureau and Turner "Buzz" Meeks, an ex- Narco division cop, now "Fixer, errand boy, hatchet wielder" for gangster Mickey Cohen and head of security at Hughes Aircraft, where his real work is as a "glorified pimp for Howard Hughes."   Lieutenant Dudley Smith of the LAPD is also attached to the team, serving along with Mal as a chief investigator.  The novel follows these two threads as they slowly intersect, moving outward into various connecting subplots while moving inward deep into the minds of the three main characters to reveal how, as the back-cover blurb notes, "All three men have purchased tickets to a nightmare."  

Once again Ellroy brings us into an LA that is based on a foundation of fact, allowing him to construct his fiction around reality.  It's genius, really, when you think about it.   But in trying to describe this book or the others, the truth is as Tom Nolan says in his introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of The LA Quartet,  "Thumbnail sketches do not suffice" (xii).    With The Big Nowhere there is no possible way to encapsulate Ellroy's characterizations,  for example, or the movement toward the intersection of the lives of the three main players who all have their own their personal demons to confront while all the while having to contend with forces from the outside.  Without giving anything away, it's so hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for each and everyone of the these three people, despite what they've done.    It is a book that you feel rather than simply read, and it's visceral. 

 The Big Nowhere is not perfect, but it is a hell of a ride.  Definitely not for the faint of heart.  It is  not a book I'd choose as an initial leap into noir;  it's bleaker than bleak, twisted, unbelievably intense and difficult to read,  but I have nothing but serious praise for this novel. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy

"...our partnership was nothing but a bungling road to the Dahlia. And in the end, she was to own the two of us completely." 

 In the Afterword section of this book, Ellroy says the following: 
"A personal story attends the Black Dahlia, both novel and film. It inextricably links me to two women savaged eleven years apart."

Those two women  are his mother  (Geneva) Jean Hilliker, who was raped and murdered by an unknown killer who then left her body in a Los Angeles roadside in 1958, and Elisabeth Short, aka "The Black Dahlia" whose body in 1947 was discovered in a lot on an LA street after having been horrifically murdered and mutilated.  Ellroy had first encountered Elisabeth Short's story at the age of eleven, after his mother's death, while reading Jack Webb's The Badge, and from there,  "Jean Hilliker and Betty Short" became "one in transmogrification." Over the years this "Jean-Betty confluence" led to the writing of The Black Dahlia, in which Ellroy, as noted in a 2006 article in Slate,   

"transformed the murky facts surrounding Short's life and death into art, the unknown 'dead white woman' becoming a tabula rasa on which the author could wrestle with his anger and affection toward his mother." 

The Black Dahlia not only lays bare Ellroy's demons, but in his version of the Black Dahlia case, it turns out that no one involved is left unscathed.  

Just briefly so as not to ruin it for potential readers,  it's 1946.  The promise of a coveted spot in LAPD's Warrants Division as well as chance to be a department hero prompts Officer  Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert to agree to a boxing match  that will hopefully result in good PR and a five-million dollar bond for the LAPD.  His opponent is Officer Lee Blanchard; together they become known (appropriately)  as Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice.   A solid partnership builds between the two men, who also become close friends as Bleichert eventually finds himself teamed with Blanchard in Warrants.  Fast forward to January 15, 1947 when the partners get info about a guy they've been trying to find and arrest.  Arriving at the place he's supposed to be, the bust gets sidelined when Bleichert looks out a window and notices a lot of police activity down below at 39th and Norton.   When they go to check it out, Bucky sees a cop "knocking back a drink in full view of a half dozen officers," and "glimpsed horror in his eyes."   It is, as he hears, "the worst crime on a woman" any of the cops have seen.  They have found the body of a young woman who had been bisected at the waist, obviously tortured and horribly mutilated, with her mouth, "cut ear to ear into a smile that leered up at you," and Bucky tells himself that he would "carry that smile" to his grave.  

The body belongs to Elisabeth Short, who will in time be dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the press.  Even though they're not working Homicide, Bleichert and Blanchard are pulled into the investigation, although it isn't too long before Bleichert wants out.  For various reasons peculiar to each of these men, the horrific death of Elisabeth Short becomes an obsession; eventually,  as Bleichert reveals in the prelude to this novel, The Dahlia "was to own the two of us completely."  Set against the backdrop of an emerging, post-WWII  Los Angeles, it is this obsession with her death and her life that Ellroy explores in this novel,  as well as the psychological and other repercussions that move from character to character.  

The Black Dahlia is book one of four in Ellroy's LA Quartet.  An excellent blend of fiction and reality, it  messed with my head, kept me awake and chilled me to the bone.  As dark and disturbing as it is, and while in my opinion it falters a bit in the reveal, it is also one of the best crime novels I've ever read, and I knew immediately that there was no way that I was not going to read the remaining three books.  More on those to come. 

After reading this one, find a place outside to let the sun shine down on you.  You'll need it.  

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Maigret, again: The Grand Banks Café and The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin

"...understand and judge not." 

I've recently been making my way through Ellroy's LA Quartet, and after finishing The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, I grabbed LA Confidential  from the shelf, opened to page one and just put it back.  I think my brain was telling me that I'd had too much for the moment and that it was time to take a break.  I knew exactly what I wanted to read -- Maigret.  These books are like reading comfort food for me.  

Penguin, 2014
originally published as Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas, 1931
translated by David Coward
154 pp


"If anyone asked me what the distinctive feature of this case is...I'd say it has the mark of rage on it."

It's June, which is normally vacation time for the Maigrets.  Every year they make their way to a village in Alsace, where La Madame spends her time with family "making jam and plum brandy."  There's a change of plan this year though,  as Maigret asks his wife what she thinks about making a trip and staying by the sea.  The destination he has in mind is Fécamp, a small seaside town north of Le Havre, and he tells his wife that they'll be "able to just take it easy at Fécamp as anywhere else."  While "objections were raised,"  it's a done deal: Maigret has received a letter from an old friend there asking for help for a former pupil of his, Pierre Le Clinche, who has been arrested for the murder of a ship's captain. 

Once in Fécamp, Maigret makes his way to the Grand Banks Cafe, where he finds the crew of the recently-returned Océan, whose captain had been found floating in the harbour just hours after the ship had docked.  He learns that the "evil eye" had been cast over the ship even before it had sailed -- a sailor had broken a leg while waving goodbye to his wife, the ship's boy was "washed overboard by a wave," the captain had seemingly gone mad, along with other disasters including rotting cod.  The sailors, however, are reluctant to talk to Maigret about their voyage; he is told only that it might not be a bad idea to  "chercher la femme," which, without spoiling anything here, turns out be sound advice.    It seems that other than picking up a couple of scattered clues here and there,  Maigret is stumped -- no one even remotely involved with the case, including Le Clinche,  will say anything.  The only thing he knows is that the case "has the mark of rage on it." 

The answers, when they come, are put together slowly; once again, the focus is more on the "why" of it all rather than the who, one of the key characteristics of a Maigret novel, or at least of those I've read so far.  As with all of these books, Simenon, via his detective, ventures into the often dark territory of human nature and psychology to arrive at his conclusion.  This time around the "why" is a true jaw dropper, and once the answer is revealed, the question to be asked here centers around the nature of guilt.  This one is well worth your time; don't breeze through it even though it's a scant 153 pages. 

Penguin, 2014
originally published as La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin, 1931
translated by Siân Reynolds
153 pp, paperback

"It's a banal case, in spite of its morbid nature and apparent complexity." 

As much as I enjoyed The Grand Banks Cafe, the better book is The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, which completely threw me off pretty much from the start for more than one reason, and goes to show that sometimes going rogue is not a bad thing.  

There's something about a crime novel set in the seedier parts of a city that appeals, and this one is no exception.  Here it's the seamier side of Liège, which in real life is Simenon's home town, where the action takes place.  A plot to rob the till after everyone leaves the club Gai-Moulin goes awry when two teens, Delfosse and Chabot, stumble over a body on the floor of the club in the darkness.  A match is lit, and they are sure the body is that of the obviously-wealthy man they referred to as "the Turk", a stranger who had come into the club earlier that night, had bought champagne, and had been entertained by the dancer Adèle.    Needless to say they're petrified and take off.  The next day, a very rattled Chabot happens to see a newspaper article about a body found in a laundry basket on the lawn of the Botanical Gardens; surprised to say the very least,  the two meet up.  It's then that they realize they're being followed, but they make their way to the Gai-Moulin, as it would be completely normal for them to be there.   Strangely they discover that everything is like it always is, but they make yet another plan which very quickly goes horribly awry.  That is really all I'm going to say about plot because really, to know any more ahead of time will completely spoil the enjoyment of reading this book, which is so very different from all of the Maigret novels preceeding this one.   

While Simenon's series novels tend to get middling ratings from many readers, he's one of my favorite crime writers ever.   When I want to read something deeply noirish, I turn to his romans durs, but when I want something a bit on the lighter side it's definitely Maigret.   With Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, he offers a plot that may be somewhat incredulous, but when it comes right down to it, I just didn't care that he wasn't exactly following the mechanics of the typical detective/police novel. In fact, using the term "typical" in describing Maigret just seems wrong.     I was much more taken with the very clever  twists in the story as well as the seedy, noir ambience Simenon paints here, down to the "crimson plush" upholstery of a banquette in the club and the "shabby peignoir" and mules worn by Adèle in her room.   And that reminds me:  don't kid yourself that Adèle, the titular dancer at the Gai-Moulin,  has only a small part to play here.  She may not show up often, but she really does take center stage.   

Only 65 more to go!  I'll get there and probably love every second of  the journey.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Dolores Hitchens X 2: Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide

(read in July -- I'm so slow these days)

In this perfect pairing of perplexing puzzlers from Stark House Press published in July,  murder rattles skeletons in a number of closets, unlocking and shaking loose secrets both present and past. 

Stark House Press, 2020
277 pp

"These people are all strangers."

Footsteps in the Night (1961) is a whodunit, set in a new housing development in Southern California, more specifically in the hills overlooking Pomona.  It's so new that not all of the houses have been finished, and "everything that's completed or even near it" has been sold.   It seems like an ordinary, upscale neighborhood on the outside, but as Hitchens takes us inside into the lives of some of Dellwood's residents, we discover that there is nothing ordinary about these people at all. Like most people, their secrets are normally kept behind their closed doors, but nothing stays hidden when a young teenaged girl disappears, later to turn up dead.  It also seems as if everyone has made up their minds about who did it,  so it will take a clever Sheriff's lieutenant to not only  sort through and make sense of  the scant clues, but also to weave his way through the secret lives of the Dellwood community to prevent a terrible injustice. 

This is a slow-building, suspenseful and most compelling mystery,  and I changed my mind as to the who more than once before all was revealed.  However, it's the uncovering of everyone's deepest secrets that is the big draw, as the focus here is mainly on the characters.  Some of these people you can feel sorry for, whereas for some of the others, well, let's just say they are likely not people you'd want as your friends.   As Nicholas Litchfield notes in his introduction, there's a wide range including
"... a sex fiend with a conniving, sadistic wife; a bothersome, goofy old grandfather; a middle-aged spinster with a young gigolo for a lover; a sour, short-tempered developer; and a reclusive investment banker and his melancholic, crippled son..."

1961 cover, photo from Amazon
 who "spy on each other, prying into each other's personal business," while dwelling on "their own inadequacies."    And even though there is only one murderer,  as the blurb says, "They're all guilty of something."

sadly and oops, I closed the window (accidently) on the source page for this photo, but I'd found it via ebay/PicClic. 

On to Beat Back the Tide now, which would have made a great film in its day (black and white a plus).   As in Footsteps of the Night,  this story also takes place in Southern California but further south along the coast, and opens with the arrival of young Francesca Warne, a "former schoolteacher, now a nurse," who has come to act as a sort of governess to Jamie Glazer.  The Glazer home sits at the top of a cliff, making it private "for everybody except someone on a ship at sea with a spyglass."  Glazer, a widower,  is a contractor and does very well for himself; as far as Mrs. Warne goes, what he expects from her is a "robot-like efficiency and stamina, and an unrobotlike warmth toward his son.  Just that."  But just after a week, strange incidents occur that upset the household and make Glazer rethink her presence there as he ponders the "disturbing quality about her. An aura, a miasma, of disaster. "  While he tells himself that "she did not appeal to him," he also knows he doesn't really want her to leave, realizing a "bleak solitariness of himself" that "had a kind of death in it."

 I have to say that up to this point (some thirty pages in),  I thought that this novel just  might be taking a bit of a gothic-ish sort of a turn (like those books my mom used to read by Phyllis A. Whitney years ago), but that idea was quickly let go of with the coming of the meat and potatoes of this story:  it seems that Mrs. Warne's husband had been murdered on the beach below the cliff, evidently having been shot from above.  She has come to the Glazer home to learn the truth about her husband's death, about how he was killed and by whom.   Glazer warns her about opening "old wounds," but she reaches out to him for help in solving the murder.  As he begins to look into the murder of Adam Warne, he realizes that pretty much everyone who knew him hated him, so that his killer is not going to be easy to pin down, not to mention that some people believe that the past is the past so Glazer shouldn't be making waves by stirring it all up again.

 I chose the words "perfect pairing" beginning this post on purpose -- in both there is a murder shaking loose a lot of secrets that everyone involved wants to keep hidden; in both there are shifts in points of view from character to character that add insight to respective situations and respective personalities.  In both there are also numerous possible suspects with different motives, and both books have an ending that I didn't see coming.  And oh yes -- both books were selected for the Doubleday Crime Club.    Do not miss author and editor Nicholas Litchfield's most enlightening introduction, where he concludes that these " 'skeletons in the closet' mysteries showcase the author at her very finest."

Recommended to readers of vintage crime, and to readers like myself who truly love discovering women writers not previously read.  I've already started another book from Stark House by Ruth Sawtell Wallis, but we'll save that for when it's published.


My very grateful thanks to the powers that be at Stark House -- you people rock. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.

"... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."

Two of my favorite mystery/crime novels within the last year or so have come from Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics series.  First on the list is Dorothy Hughes' excellent Dread Journey, and now there's this one, The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers.

Penzler Publishers, 2020
230 pp

Originally published in 1945, The Red Right Hand  begins with our narrator puzzling over a number of "baffling aspects" of the story that we are about to read, starting with how it was that he completely missed a car that had to have been
"so close that its door latches must have almost scraped me, and the pebbles shot out by its streaking tires have flicked against my ankles, and the killer's grinning face behind the wheel been within an arm's length of my own as he shot by?"
 Was there, asks Dr. Henry N. Riddle,
"something impossible about that rushing car, about its red-eyed sawed-off little driver and its dead passenger that caused me to miss it complete?" 
But the "most important" thing "in all the dark mystery of tonight,"  is the question that opens this book as he ponders
"how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme."
Sitting at the desk of a certain Professor MacComerou, he goes back in his mind to  "set the facts down," so that he can "examine the problem," thereby launching this most strange but genuinely satisfying mystery story that kept me baffled right up until the end.  It all begins in New York when  Inis St. Erme borrows a friend's Cadillac so that he and Elinor Darrie can run up to Connecticut to be married.  Not wanting to wait the mandatory three days in New York, they make their way to Danbury, where they discover that they'd have to wait five days, so there's a change in plan: they'll be moving on to Vermont to tie the knot. First though, they make a stop at a local grocery and decide to have a picnic at a quaint little place called Dead Bridegroom's Pond  recommended by the grocer.   Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker who waits in the car while Inis and Elinor go on down to the lake. But their romantic picnic is interrupted when their passenger attacks St. Erme and goes after Elinor before driving away with the car, leaving her there frightened but unhurt.  Obviously, the same can't be said for St. Erme, as we know from Riddle at the very beginning that he's been killed.    Dr. Riddle, as stated on the back-cover blurb, "discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning both his sanity and his own innocence," but he is most seriously disturbed by how he could have missed the Cadillac as he was walking on the very road from which the car emerged at the very same time that he was there. But things are going to become even more weird before we catch up with the good doctor in real time, at which point the entire bizarre plot unfolds and all is revealed.

To say any more about the plot of The Red Right Hand would be absolutely criminal.

my growing Penzler Publishers American Mystery Classics shelf, appropriately shaded in a sort of noirish shadow. 

I love the originality displayed here in terms of plot and especially style.  This is not just another average mystery from the 40s, to be sure; it moves away from the norm from the get-go.  As author Joe Lansdale says in his introduction to this edition,
"The story moves back and forth in time, akin to the natural thought process, as if the whole thing were spilling out of the narrator's brain from moment to moment, and we were seeing all the in-betweens of thought."
 He also notes the "near stream-of-consciousness" style used by Rogers, and I don't think it would have had the same impact done any other way.  I've seen this book described a few times by readers as "surreal," and that's not an exaggeration -- at one point a dancer weighs in on how to solve the many riddles nested within this case:
"You need to wear a leopard skin, a chiffon nightgown, and a feather duster on your tail, and dance the beautiful dance of the corkscrew and the bottle."
Red herrings abound, so much so that I was completely baffled; there is quite a bit of repetition as well as a number of bizarre coincidences that run throughout this novel, two elements I normally detest and yet, somehow it all seems necessary here and more importantly, it works. As one of the policemen says toward the end of this book, "... it was a pretty good play, as criminal plays go."  I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Joe Lansdale's own reading experience with this novel sort of mirrors my own when he says that at times he
"... felt as if I were seeing the world through a dark and grease-smeared window pane that would frequently turn clear and light up in spewing colors like a firework display on the Fourth of July. At the same time there was that sensation of something dark and damp creeping up behind me, a cold chill on the back on my neck."
I felt that "cold chill" more than once during my time with this book.  It is genuinely one of the most bizarre mysteries I've ever read, with a solution that I never saw coming, one that is completely and utterly satisfying, an ahhhh read to be sure.    I can honestly think of nothing negative at all to say here.

very much recommended; it should delight readers of old mysteries and readers who are looking for something out of the box in their crime fiction.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Seven Years of Darkness, by You-Jeong Jeong

Penguin, 2020
originally published 2011
translated by Chi-Young Kim
338 pp


For some unknown reason I chose to make this book a daytime read rather than leaving it upstairs on my nightstand, and it turns out to have been a wise decision.  Seven Years of Darkness is an absolute page turner -- had I started it at bedtime, I would have had to stay up all night to finish it. 

The life of eleven year-old Choi Sowon was changed in September, 2004, when for some reason one night his father Hyonsu opened the floodgates of the Seryong dam where he worked as head of Security.  In the prologue opening this story, Sowon describes seeing the devastation his father's act had caused, including the destruction of Seryong village where the family had lived for only two short weeks.  But it gets worse:  Hyonsu was arrested not only for what he'd done at the dam, but also for the murder of a young local girl who had been earlier been reported missing by her father.   Sowon is taken in by relatives, but finds no stability.  Someone is bound and determined to make his life a misery, taking it upon him or herself to send out copies of newspaper articles detailing Hyonsu's crimes, causing Sowon to be moved from relative to relative, and causing him to be ostracized among his peers at school.  He finally finds some measure of peace when he is taken in by Mr. Ahn, who had once worked with his father at Seryong Dam.   But Mr. Ahn has disappeared, and right after Sowon notices that he's gone he receives a package from an unidentified sender containing Ahn's "reporting notebook," a "recording watch," a USB drive, a "bundle of letters," and a scrapbook.   At the bottom of the box, he also finds a  "thick stack of paper" of which the first page was blank, but the next page  of this manuscript begins as a "prologue," set at Seryong Lake, August 2004.  As the back-cover blurb states, the contents of the package "promise to reveal the truth at last." 

I don't usually read books that are billed as thrillers, so I was taking a big chance here.  I needn't have worried -- I was hooked right away in the opening prologue, making it so I had to know what had actually happened here and the why of it all, causing pages to be turned quickly.  I was also immediately enveloped in the atmospheric mists and fog which the author uses to great effect, as well as the creepiness of a submerged village complete with yellow lane-dividing lines and nameplates on the empty houses.  She also managed to handle some pretty horrific scenes of violence without being gratituitous in the telling, which I appreciate these days.  But what I really liked was the author's focus on broken dreams that can take their toll on a person, making this not just a thriller per se but a novel that examines different factors leading up to the moment when, as the author says in her note at the end of the book, "a man ... made a single mistake that ruined his life."  The outward-rippling consequences of that moment follow throughout this story.  I will also say that by the time I'd finished the book, I was thinking that there is more than one person here who could share in the blame leading up to that moment, but I'll leave the reasons why for others to discover. 

Some of the text could have been reined in to make things a bit more taut in the telling, and the climactic scene at the end seemed a bit rushed.  However, those are minor niggles compared to the rest of this story, which kept me on edge throughout.   As the back cover says, it's "Dark, disturbing, and full of twists and turns," to which I say, what more could you possibly want? 

very much recommended.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Inspector Stoddard is on the case: The Man With the Dark Beard and The Crime at Tattenham Corner, by Annie Haynes

Back in April I read the first of the series by Annie Haynes featuring as her detective a certain Inspector Stoddart of the Yard.  The Man With the Dark Beard was published in 1928; the three remaining books in this series were published in 1929 and in 1930.   Book number three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929) was published posthumously, while the fourth, The Crystal Beads Murder, was completed by someone else before it was published in 1930, although Haynes had already been working on it prior to her death.  For the complete story you can read Lizzie Hayes' post about Annie Haynes on her informative blog, Promoting Crime Fiction

Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1928
185 pp


This is is tricky book to post about,  because any minor hints past the basic murder plot and subsequent investigation will absolutely give away the show here.  As it was, I had it pretty much sussed  before page 60,  but I do believe that's because it leans way more toward Victorian sensation fiction than a typical golden age mystery, and as I am a huge fan of sensation fiction, the plot was easy to figure out.  On the other hand, it is definitely a murder mystery, one which introduces Inspector Stoddart of the Yard, who will find himself investigating two murders before all is said and done.

It seems that Dr. John Bastow has something rather heavy on his mind when he asks his friend Sir Felix Skrine the following question:
"Suppose that in the course of a man's professional career he found a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?"
 He goes on to up the curiousity ante by asking what if the "hypothetical man" had "kept silence -- at the time," leaving the criminal to go on to having "made good." What then?  Skrine answers that Bastow ought to know his "duty to the community," when they are interrupted by the ringing of Bastow's surgery bell, and they agree to meet later to talk more about Bastow's dilemma.  Unfortunately, the ringing of the bell is not the only interruption that Skrine will have to contend with, because before the two can continue their chat, Bastow is found dead in his locked office, having been shot in the head.  Enter Inspector William Stoddart from the Yard.  There are very few clues onsite, except for the fact that Bastow had been writing a letter to Skrine about their prior conversation, in which he revealed that the "proofs" were in his Chinese box, which seems to have gone missing.  Also near the corpse is a scrap of paper which reads "It was the man with the dark beard."  What is also known is that Dr. Bastow disapproved of his twenty year-old daughter Hilary's plans to marry young Basil Wilton, Bastow's assistant, who just happens to have been the last person known to have seen Bastow alive, and who just happens to have been dismissed from the doctor's service shortly before the discovery of the body.

The concerned Skrine, who is "one of the greatest -- some said the greatest -- criminal lawyers of his day," also stands in loco parentis to Hilary until she comes of age, and to her disabled brother Fee as well. He offers them a cottage near his country house, taking them both away from the city.  As their father's executor, he also means to continue Dr. Bastow's wishes against Hilary marrying Basil, and eventually makes Hilary an offer that she will struggle against yet find it's one she really can't refuse.  In the meantime, Basil has his own issues, not the least of them the fact that he's found himself a suspect in yet another murder.  As Stoddart moves into the investigation of this second unnatural death, he has no clue that time is actually running out and that it's not only Basil's fate he holds in his hands.

 While I have to be honest here and say that The Man The Dark Beard was not as good as it could have been, because of too much focus on the sensation-fiction plot.  However, giving credit to the author, she obviously spent a lot of time in plotting what  turns out to be a truly nefarious crime, as that part of the novel came face to face with the detection in the case.   I had to look at the book from that particular vantage point, otherwise what's left is an all too-easy-to-solve mystery that offers very little challenge to the reader.

That is not at all the case in the next book, The Crime at Tattenham Corner, which I did not want to stop reading once I'd started it.  Again, some nice plotting from Haynes here, but this time the

Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1929
236 pp

actual mystery carries a lot more heft than her first Stoddart novel.  Stoddart and his "most trusted subordinate," Alfred Harbord, are called to Hughlin's Wood, "not a great many miles from Epsom," where a body has been discovered, face down in a foot of water in a ditch.  All that is known is that it is "a man of middle age" and  "evidently of the better class." It seems that the man has been shot in the head, and that a card in his pocket bears the name of a "man high in the financial world." Based on the name on the card, the monogram on the man's watch and a letter in his pocket, it seems that their dead man may be Sir John Burslem of Porthwick Square.  Burslem's valet is sent for, and on arrival, instantly makes the corrorborating identification.   The police immediately begin to wonder if perhaps his death on Derby Day has any significance, since his horse, Peep O'Day, was set to run and was odds-on the favorite for the win.  As it turns out, "an owner's death renders void all his horses' nominations and entries," leaving Peep O'Day's rival, Perlyon, set up to take the prize.  The owner of Perlyon is a Sir Charles Stanyard, who by some weird twist here, was once engaged to Burslem's widow Sophie, his second wife.   Stanyard takes the lead on the suspect list, but there is quite possibly another motive aside from the Derby.  It seems that on the night before his death, Sir John had inexplicably and quite hurriedly changed his will so that Sophie would inherit all, leaving out Sir John's daughter Pamela, "the apple of his eye," completely, followed by the strange disappearance of Ellerby, Sir John's valet, who was witness to the new will.   Before it's over, Stoddart and Harbord will find themselves deep in a convoluted web of mysteries that they must solve before they can solve the bigger mystery of Sir John's murder.

The Crime at Tattenham Corner is truly ingenious, allaying all of my fears about continuing the series after reading the previous book, and it is genuinely satisfying as well.   This time around I was almost finished before I cottoned to the author's scheme, but only a small part of it; the clever twists (and there are more than one) in the plot did not make it at all easy.  Haynes has quite a few tricks up her sleeve this time around, offering a mystery that will keep armchair detectives both  guessing and entertained.  Around the murder investigation there are strange happenings including a séance or two, hosted at her home by the very strange Mrs. Jimmy Burslem, Sir John's sister-in-law, whose husband is known to be trapising around Tibet looking at old ruins, while widow Sophie who never had a head for business, makes plans to run her husband's financial empire.  The main attraction, though, is most certainly Stoddart and his investigation.  He truly is a policeman who never gives up, no matter what it takes.  Wink wink.

So bottom line: The Man With the Dark Beard is okay, but for readers who have familiarity with the often-convoluted plots found in Victorian sensation novels, may be a bit on the easy side to figure out, while The Crime at Tattenham Corner is a definite yes, making me eager to get on to book three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? asap.

Don't miss the excellent introduction in each book by Curtis Evans, whose crime fiction knowledge knows absolutely no bounds.