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.  



9780141393506
Penguin, 2014
originally published as Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas, 1931
translated by David Coward
154 pp

paperback

"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. 


9780141393520
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. 

97819944520939
Stark House Press, 2020
277 pp
paperback 



"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.



9781613161654
Penzler Publishers, 2020
230 pp
paperback

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

9780143134244
Penguin, 2020
originally published 2011
translated by Chi-Young Kim
338 pp

paperback

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





9781910570746
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1928
185 pp

paperback

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



9781910570760
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1929
236 pp
paperback


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.




Monday, May 4, 2020

The Hex Murder, by Alexander Williams

 9781616464080
Coachwhip Publications, 2017
originally published 1935
177 pp

paperback

Just last week I was once again suffering from a hefty case of insomnia, so at about 2 a.m. I came downstairs hoping to find something to watch on TV.   I was  just sort of scrolling through what's out there and I found a documentary I hadn't seen before called Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania, released in 2015.  The actual murder took place in 1928, with the killer believing that he had been cursed by the victim.  At the heart of that story is the practice of Braucherei or "powwow," something I'd never heard of before, but which I found utterly fascinating.  After I'd watched this documentary, it hit me that sometime last year I'd bought a book with a hex sign on the cover, so off I went up to the American crime shelves and there it was.

In his introduction to this book, Curtis Evans cites the Rehmeyer murder from the documentary, noting that afterwards "crime journalists, knowing ghoulish copy when they saw it," would go on to report about  any death "even vaguely connected to a powwower -- or rumored to have a connection" as  a"hex murder," which was "most unfair" to these people.  As it turns out though, in 1934 a  real "hex murder" actually occurred when a woman in Pottsville was murdered because of her killer's belief that she had "hexed him."   The author of three other detective novels (The Jinx Theatre Murder, 1933; Death Over Newark, 1933; Murder in the W.P.A., 1937),  Williams, as Evans notes,   had a "large reservoir of life experience"  from which he could draw for material for his books; the Hex Murders reflected "his own background in journalism and the publicity business," as the author "tapped into years of newspaper stoked notoriety about ethnic German folkways in the Pennsylvania Dutch country."   And indeed, while the crime itself takes place in New York City, the investigation will lead the main character into, as the back-cover blurb states, "the backwoods of Pennsylvania." 

At 477 Banks Street, an apartment building not unknown to the beat cops, a patrolman encounters a man wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers, darting this way and that while frantically waving at him, "as though a jumping-jack had gone mad and was indulging himself in an incoherent Caucasian saraband."  Following him into a fourth-floor apartment, he discovers the body of a dead woman, viciously murdered by having had her throat slit to the point of having her head nearly severed.  The police decide that the man who had alerted them to the crime, Robert Crocker, was the culprit after a bloodstained razor was found in his apartment by an eager young reporter, Peter Adams.  His pajamas were also bloody, and rather than phoning an ambulance or the police on the gruesome discovery of his girlfriend Marguerite Scholl,  he had gone out into the streets to hunt down a cop.  Things go from bad to worse when he realizes that he can't account for his time after leaving a party  in Marguerite's apartment, telling police that he'd drawn a "blank" because he was so intoxicated.  The police and the District Attorney are more than convinced of Crocker's guilt, but Adams  isn't so sure.  Worried that they're about to put an innocent man in the chair, Adams takes a leave of absence to try to find anything that might help Crocker.  He begins in Marguerite's apartment, where he discovers letters from Marguerite's mother in Erwinna, Pennsylvania.  On each letter appears this strange sign,



my photo, from page 67


which is duplicated "repeatedly" in color in the arch of the apartment's fireplace.  With the strange letters and added evidence from the beat patrolman, Adams realizes that he needs to begin his investigation in rural Pennsylvania, bringing along with him a friend of Crocker's, a young woman by the name of Houston King, who also believes that Crocker is completely innocent.  It is in Pennsylvania where this story begins to really gather steam; it is also here that Adams will find himself in the midst of the most bizarre strangeness he's probably ever encountered.

Given that the book isn't very long, it is a huge credit to Williams that he managed to not only tell a suspenseful and quickly-moving story, but he also provided the reader with a vivid cast of characters (some of them utterly unforgettable), and enough of a creepy atmosphere that makes the book difficult to put down.  I did find myself tensing up in reading how the police  treated not only the crime scene but also their suspect, not to mention the fact that circumstantial evidence alone was enough to send the poor guy to the chair; I had to keep telling myself that this is the 30s.   I started this novel last night at around 10:30 and stayed with it until the wee hours of the morning, and not simply because I wanted to know who killed Marguerite Scholl. It's more that this book took me completely into the zone and I didn't want to leave -- it's that good.   I'm seriously paying for it today but it was well worth my current zombified state of being -- this is not your average Golden Age detective story by any stretch.

So very highly recommended, especially for people who enjoy vintage crime but also for mystery readers who are always on the lookout for something completely outside the norm.  "Shuddery" indeed!!





Saturday, April 11, 2020

another fine Stark House novel: Two Names for Death, by E.P. Fenwick

Boston is the location for this whodunit written in 1945 by yet another author I'd never heard of.  According to stopyourekillingme,  Elizabeth Fenwick Way (about whom you can read more here or here) wrote her first three mystery novels under the name E.P. Fenwick;  the rest of her crime/mystery fiction she wrote under the name Elizabeth Fenwick.   In 1963 she won the Edgar Award for The Make-Believe Man which I just bought used; it looks like most of her work is out of print but luckily there are used copies out there to find.  I say luckily because if Two Names for Death is any indicator, I will have to read them all, especially the two Fenwick wrote before this one.




9781951473013
Stark House Press, 2020
originally published 1945
189 pp
paperback

Although he'd parked his cab in the shade, and although it's only 11:00 in the morning, Barney Chance finds himself sweltering in the relentless summer heat.  After a long wait a man and woman appear outside the Clyde Hotel; the man stays behind while the woman asks to be taken to an address on Waterford Street.  The next day, Barney is startled to discover that this same woman was now dead, and he realizes that he just might have information being sought by the police.  The woman was Mrs. Lenore Bellane; although initially Lt. Eggart of the Homicide Squad believed she'd committed suicide in her room at the Hotel Clyde, the ME reveals that she had not died by her own hand, but had indeed been murdered.  What is even more strange is that while Barney did not know the woman, he had recognized the address where she'd asked to be taken since that particular house, owned by the Schaftt family, is where he rents a room.  As the police investigation moves ahead, Barney will find himself in the middle of things, as will his boss Edward Bottman (Bott) who also rooms there, and the rest of the Shaftt family living on Waterford Street.  Things heat up for everyone concerned when yet another death occurs and Eggart finds himself under pressure by the higher-ups to get these cases solved.  And here, the less said about the plot the better so I'm keeping shtum. 


As in many of the best mystery/crime novels from this time period, the skills shown by the author here are first rate, especially since Two Names for Death is only Fenwick's third novel.  There is nothing superfluous that detracts from the plot, the solution to the two deaths is most cleverly crafted, and the police action here seems logical and realistic.  But it's the complicated web of family relationships that the author has constructed that takes center stage here;  given all of the possible suspects along with a variety of motives, it's certainly not an easy task trying to discover the who.  I didn't, right up until the very last.

By the way, if you ever want to know what this book might look like after going through a wash cycle, here it is:




The very cool people at Stark House had sent me an advance reader copy, and I had made it to the midpoint of the novel when I lost the book.  I tore my house apart and looked everywhere except in the sheets from my bed that I'd thrown into the wash.  Imagine my surprise on finding my now very clean but unreadable copy; imagine the embarrassment of having to go to the publisher to explain what had happened and meekly asking for an e-copy so I could finish the book.  I'm sure they had a good laugh, and I thank them.  I later bought a real copy of the novel to add to my Black Gat Books shelf.

Definitely recommendable, Two Names For Death  is perfect for readers of old crime/mystery novels, for people who enjoy old police procedurals before they really became known by that name, and perfect for readers who are into discovering forgotten women writers of the past.  It's also perfect for readers who are looking for just good, solid mystery reading with no clutter getting in the way of the story, so hard to find these days.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Woman on the Roof, by Helen Nielsen


97819444520137
Black Gat Books/Stark House Press, 2016
originally published 1954
194 pp

paperback



A couple of months ago the lovely people at Stark House Press sent me an advanced reading copy of a novel
in their Black Gat line of books, Two Names for Death, by EP Fenwick, which comes out mid-April so I'll defer talking about it for the time being (although I will say that it's really, really good and that vintage mystery/crime readers definitely have something to look forward to).  After I'd finished that one, I started looking at the catalogue of other Black Gat Books, especially those written by women and bought this one, The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen, and two other titles as well. 

According to Fantastic Fiction, Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) authored nineteen novels; she also wrote for television, including the old series Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, and Tales of the Unexpected.  

The titular "woman on the roof" is Wilma Rathjen, whose brother Curtis has set her up in a garage apartment that looks down onto the six-unit apartment complex below.   We discover right away that Wilma has spent time in a sanitarium; she also has a job at a local bakery.   It is actually a muddle with a certain birthday cake ordered by one of the apartment dwellers that not only has her in a bit of a tizzy as the novel opens, but also leads to the discovery of the same woman in a bathtub in one of the apartments that Wilma can see into from her vantage point.  Because her previous trouble that had landed her in the sanitarium had to do with "tall tales" told to the police, and had upset her reputation-fearful, wealthy-businessman brother and made him threaten to send her back if it happened again, she keeps quiet about it, believing that someone else will eventually find the dead Jeri Lynn.   When the body is discovered, the police at first view her death as an accident, until circumstances and a little more digging reveal that her death is actually a case of murder.   Unfortunately for Wilma, she finds herself smack in the middle of it all, and the killer sets out to take advantage of her troubled past while believing that she knows more than she actually does. 



from Goodreads

If you are thinking that perhaps you've read this plot before, you probably haven't.  The author set up this novel so that it moves between two points of view beginning with that of Wilma before moving to  that of the lead detective on the case, John Osgood.  It is cleverly done; we know from the start that Wilma has some issues and that people consider her to be unbalanced.  I have to give serious credit to Nielsen here -- at one point she references a road-company production of The Snake Pit, but she never takes her readers down that road.  What she focuses on instead are Wilma's underlying worries and insecurities about what her brother will think and her fear of being sent back to the sanitarium now that her life is on somewhat of an even keel.  For his part, Osgood (who has his own demons to contend with) has the good sense to realize that
"Even a crazy woman should have a chance to speak for herself. How else could anyone tell the sane from the insane?"
He just knows that somewhere in what others perceive as her chaotic ramblings, she has something important and worthwhile to say and that perhaps she isn't "crazy" at all -- maybe she just has a different way of seeing and expressing things.  It is this slow realization, along with the fact that he must somehow try to impress on others to see things his way  and the slowly-growing trust between Wilma and Osgood  that allows for The Woman on the Roof to become more than just your average crime novel. 

 The list of suspects in this novel is a lengthy one, motives abound, and I never guessed the who.  But my reading focus is always on the people in crime novels, so for me it is a win-win, and a vintage mystery I can highly recommend.  The fact that Helen Nielsen was heretofore unknown to me but  is now on my reading radar is also a plus, and my many and sincere thanks to Stark House for putting her there. 

I'll be back in a couple of weeks with the previously-mentioned Two Names for Death that like this one spotlights another woman crime writer I've never heard of, and after that another, and then the two I recently bought ...  my Stark House reading future looks more than promising. 


Friday, March 6, 2020

The Aosawa Murders, by Riku Onda


"I'll tell you the truth, as I know it."


Generally I don't reread crime/mystery novels because I can only be surprised once,  but this is no ordinary crime/mystery novel, and it affected me much more the second time through. After the original read I knew I had something great in my hands but things were still a bit murky; rereading brought clarity and I was flat out chilled.  



781912242245
Bitter Lemon Press, 2020
originally published 2005
translated by Alison Watts
304 pp
paperback

It was a summer day and a special one: there were two "auspicious" birthdays at the Aosawa home: those of Dr. Aosawa, now sixty, and the grandmother who was eighty-eight.  There was another birthday as well, that of a grandson, and it was a day for celebration.  A neighbor child, Junji, had gone home to get his brother Sei-ichi and sister Makiko to come back to the Aosawa house to join the festivities, and the three arrived back just in time to witness a "scene from hell."  Seventeen people lay either dead or dying from drinks laced with poison, six of them children.  Two people survive: Kimi, the housekeeper who had only had a small taste of her drink, and Hisako Aosawa, the young daughter of the doctor who had none.   Kimi was out as a suspect because although she survived she was hospitalized right away, severely ill,  leaving only Hisako.  The thing is though that she is blind, and had no way to identify any possible suspects; nor is there any possibility that she could have laced the bottles of sake and soft drinks containing the poison.  The detective investigating the case is sure it's her, but there is no evidence linking her directly to the crime.  The case stalls, but another line of inquiry opens centering on the man who delivered the drinks to the party that day.  It's not until his suicide that, as the back-cover blurb notes, "his actions seem to seal his guilt," but the question is why? No connections could ever be discovered linking him to the Aosawas.  And then there are those people who aren't convinced he's guilty, still holding on to the idea that it was Hisako who was responsible. 

Years later,  Makiko Saiga publishes a book about that day called The Forgotten Festival, which she claims was "ultimately fiction" although it was "based on facts and research."  Nonfiction, she says, "is an illusion," since "All that can exist is fiction visible to the eye. And what is visible can also lie."  Later her assistant will reference her work as a "grey area."  She had written Forgotten Festival after countless hours of interviews with people somehow connected to the crime;  and once published it caused quite a stir.   Now, thirty years after the murders, a friend of Makiko's younger brother feels compelled to start looking into the truth of things, going back to many of the same people who were  involved with the case or who had once been interviewed for The Forgotten Festival, including the detective on the case, Makiko Saiga and of course, Hisako Aosawa herself.

The Aosawa Murders is not simply about discovering the who and the why.  Among other issues, the author so disturbingly reveals throughout this story that although the murders happened thirty years earlier,  that day took its toll and  had a lasting, often devastating impact on several people, and continues to do so in the present.  She also asks the question of how to get to the real truth behind events, especially when it comes from so many different perspectives; there's also the ultimate question of responsibility. 

The author should be commended on how she put this book together, ultimately leaving it to the reader to go through several perspectives using personal recollections, newspaper articles, diaries, pieces of Saiga's Forgotten Festival etc. to pick up a number of clues before arriving at the chilling truth of what actually happened that day and why.    I discovered that there is nothing wasted here, that everything that everyone says is important, and the trick is in putting together things that may not at first seem to matter or to be connected.  We are handed that clue at the outset by Makiko Saiga, who as she is walking around the city talks about a "synaptic experience...all connected but separate."

If you must have a linear, easy-to-follow plot, or you're not one to really sit and think about what you've just read, this book is likely not for you.  This novel is brilliant; it is very different and quite cleverly constructed so as to provide a challenge to even the most seasoned of crime or mystery fiction readers.  It zeroes in on human nature which moves it well into the literary zone, which is where I most enjoy being.

For me, this book is not just Japanese crime fiction at its best; it is crime fiction at its very best.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James

9780440000174
Berkley, 2020
327 pp

hardcover


One of the authors blurbed on the back cover of this book says that The Sun Down Motel is "Deliciously creepy. A chilling blend of mystery and ghost story that will thrill fans of both." That would soooo be me:  I love both a good mystery and a good ghost story, so I picked up a copy in eager anticipation. 

The story is told from two different points of view and from two different timelines; the common ground between both is the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York.   In 2017 Carly Kirk has made her way here to find out anything she can about her missing aunt Vivian, who had just vanished back in 1982.  Carly never knew her, but she'd been "obsessed" with what had happened to her as long as she could remember.  Aunt Vivian was never spoken of at home; there were no photos of her anywhere, and the only thing her mother ever said about Vivian was that "Vivian is dead."  For Carly it was unfair that her aunt had been
"forgotten, reduced to a few pieces of newsprint and nothing else. It wasn't fair that Mom had died and taken her memories and her grief with her. It wasn't fair that Viv didn't matter to anyone but me."
Vivian had arrived in Fell in 1982. She hadn't planned on landing there, but  once she'd arrived she picked up a job as night clerk as the Sun Down Motel.  It wasn't long until she started having strange experiences including the strong smell of someone smoking (with no one else there but her), weird phone calls, footsteps and a presence she felt, lights going off and on, doors opening, and a woman who "wasn't real."   In  2017, when  Carly arrived in Fell, the same night clerk job at the Sun Down Motel was coincidentally (ahem)  available, and she took it.   While she investigates what may have happened to  her missing aunt, she comes across a series of past unsolved murders that occurred prior to her aunt's disappearance; she also begins to experience the same strange phenomena at the Sun Down.  What she didn't know was that Vivian had also become interested in these unsolved crimes.  The novel follows both Vivian and Carly as they explore these crimes in their own way across time.    Much has changed in the meantime, including the advent of the Internet, "murderinos" who share an obsession with and information about crimes past and present, cell phones, etc.,  but two things remain the same: the potential for danger as each woman gets closer to answers in her search, and the weird, inexplicable happenings at the Sun Down Motel.


The Sun Down Motel begins with a number of questions that will eventually be answered when all is said and done, and its first chapter drew me in quickly setting up the strangeness to come, especially at the end when Viv writes the following in her notebook:
"The ghosts are awake tonight. They're restless. I think this will be over soon."
I'm thinking at this point that this was going to be good.   And then something happened: right at about page 102  somehow I figured it out.  I knew who was behind it all and I knew how this novel was going to end including the twisty bit towards the end.   I wrote down the name on an index card as well as a prediction, stuck it in the book and went on to finish reading it, hoping I'd be wrong. I wasn't -- on either count.  Oh, what a disappointment!  Obviously there were plot points that I couldn't know by page 102, but somehow I'd pegged it nonetheless in terms of the weirdness at the Sun Down, the solution to the crimes, and a big part of the twisty ending; for me the suspense just wasn't there.   What was said (referring to the back-cover blurb again) to be  a novel that "takes danger and fear to a new level" came off like a beach read.  So there goes the promise of being  "thrilled."    What about  "deliciously creepy?" one might ask.   Well, that didn't quite pan out as well as hoped either.  Ghostly/supernatural stories from across the world and across time happen to be a large portion of my reading bread and butter, and the one in this book I found sort of lackluster and  not really very frightening at all, landing more on the side of  supernatural effects that you might find on tv or in a film.  To be fair, I will say that for the most part some of these scenes were written so vividly that I could actually see some of them in my head as they were happening, but the hackles on the neck just weren't there -- another disappointment. 







The truth is that  most readers loved this book and have given it stellar ratings as well as an abundance of uber-enthusiastic reviews,  so once again,  I find myself swimming against the tide of popular opinion; once again I am the little red fish going the other way.  Sometimes I'm just not the right audience for certain books; this one falls into that category.  It happens to everyone.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Maigret (and Simenon) again: The Night at the Crossroads

read in January



9780141393483
Penguin, 2014
originally published as La nuit du carrefour, 1931
translated by Linda Coverdale
151 pp

paperback

"The whole thing's a scream, don't you think?"

Yes indeed it is, and woe be to anyone who decides that the 151 pages comprising this book can just be breezed through in no time, because this is a clear case of brevity disguising complexity.  On the other hand, it's a novel that packs more of a punch when read in one sitting, which is how I did it -- as in the case of A Man's Head, I didn't want to stop reading once I started it.  It is a hell of twisty story, with Maigret at the helm once again to decipher just what's going on here.

The Three Widows Crossroads is situated along the main road from Paris to Étampes, just three kilometers from the town of Arpajon.   It is home to Carl Andersen and his sister Else, insurance agent Monsieur Émile Michonnet and his wife, and Monsieur Oscar, the owner of the garage/repair shop/gas station there.    It is also the site of a murder.  It seems that M. Michonnet's brand new car had gone missing, with Andersen's old "rattletrap"  car left in its place.  Michonnet called the police, who search Andersen's garage and discover Michonnet's car there.  They also find the body of a man who'd been shot in the chest in the driver's seat.  His papers identify him as Isaac Goldberg, a diamond merchant from Antwerp; Andersen and his sister  have fled on foot to Arpajon to catch the first train for Paris where they are picked up by the police.  As the novel begins, Maigret and his colleagues have been taking turns interrogating Andersen, who claims to know absolutely nothing about, his story never waivering throughout the entire seventeen-hour ordeal.  It is a case where the inhabitants at the Crossroads neither saw nor knew anything, let alone have an alibi.  Making his way to the Crossroads after Andersen's release, he speaks to Else Andersen and learns nothing.  He is expecting the arrival of Goldberg's widow, and she gets there while Maigret and his colleague repeatedly make their way "up and down from the crossroads" several times.  As she begins to get out of the car, a shot rings out in the dark hitting and killing Madame Goldberg, bringing the murder toll to two.  As one might guess, finding the culprit isn't going to be easy, especially with the suspects at hand. 

As Night at the Crossroads begins, a mist is hovering over the Seine, turning to fog in the wee hours of the morning as dawn makes its appearance.   Usually when a story begins in this manner, it tends to signal the reader that things are going to be hazy or unclear.  Combined with the darkness that enfolds much of the action at the Three Widows Crossroads, that is definitely the case here. I don't want to say anything else about the plot or how it unfolds, except that like most of the Maigret novels I've read so far, the plot is secondary while the psyche takes center stage. 

Once again, a number of readers found the reading to be slow or boring, which is sad for me to see because it's neither.  Perhaps the temptation to buzz through the novel without thinking overtakes people or maybe it's that there is very little in the way of physical clues to follow  as in a normal police procedural novel, where you follow along as the lead detective finds and makes known his or her dazzling discoveries.  This is not that, nor was it intended to be. Reading Simenon requires a measure of patience and some thought;  he doesn't hand it all to you on a plate.   Personally, I had great fun trying to put all of the pieces together in this strange puzzle where nothing is as it seems, and discovered more than one surprise while doing so.



from imdb


Off to watch the film.



Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Man's Head, by Georges Simenon

read in January.



The story goes that when Georges Simenon  approached Arthème Fayard publishers to pitch his first detective novels, the reaction he got wasn't what he'd hoped for.  As quoted in Lucille Becker's Georges Simenon: 'Maigrets' and the 'romans durs' (Haus Publishing, 2006),  they came back with
"It's not a detective novel! It's not a real puzzle! It's not a chess game; it isn't even a good novel because there are neither good nor bad people, there is no love story, and it almost always ends badly ... [Furthermore], your detective is nondescript and not particularly intelligent. You see him seated for hours in front of a glass of beer! He is painfully ordinary!" (41)
The reality is that Simenon's Maigret is quite intelligent.   He sits. He observes. He drinks a lot of beer while doing both. He lets a roomful of suspects get on each others' nerves until the actual criminal reaches a breaking point.  He listens. He makes his way into people's heads so that he can empathize, sympathize and learn what makes them tick, something he manages to do not just with criminals but with everyone concerned.  Reading through what readers have to say about him, the inevitable comparison with Poirot or Holmes comes up a number of times, mostly when readers have been disappointed with the Maigret novel they've just read.   I don't really read crime fiction solely for plot or action; I could also care less if there's a love story involved, unless it's relevant to the evildoing.   I'm like Maigret -- I'm far more interested in the  motivating factors that speak to the why.  




9780141393513
Penguin, 2014
originally published 1931
translated by David Coward
169 pp
paperback

"It was a war of nerves."
The days are numbered for the prisoner in cell number 11 at the Santé Prison,  and he can't believe his luck when on October 15 he is able to walk out of his cell and onto the streets of Paris.  Actually, someone had left this convicted double murderer a note three days earlier, letting him know that his door will be left open, and that the guards' attention will be focused elsewhere.  The note also contained instructions that he was to follow in making his way out of the prison.  What Joseph Heurtin didn't know was that Maigret and the police were not only watching his every move, but had set up his escape.   Maigret himself had arrested him, but wasn't completely convinced that he was guilty.  As he had said to the examining magistrate, "That man is either mad or he's innocent," and decided he would prove it via an "experiment" to be "morally sure;" he also believes that once out on the streets, Heurtin will lead him to the real culprit since he is sure that the convicted man was not alone at the time of the crime.  A man's head is at stake, and  Maigret has ten days; once Heurtin walks out of the prison, the clock is ticking.   

Maigret has no idea of what he's let himself in for when he finds himself going head-to-head with an adversary whose disturbed psychology and "dangerously sharp intellect" seems tailor made for Maigret's method of getting into his opponents' heads, giving the title of this novel a definite double meaning.  Little by little, with some measure of imaginary nail biting I waited  for that moment when, with Maigret's help, the bad guy would crack and the "war of nerves" could finally come to an end; only then did I realize how much tension I was holding inside.  While some readers found the lack of action to be an issue, the telling flat  and in some instances "boring," I found myself so caught up in it that I needed to finish the novel with no interruptions.  What happens in  A Man's Head  so nicely highlights, as Scott Bradfield so aptly describes it in a 2015 essay for The New York Timesthat Maigret "rarely solves crimes; instead he solves people,"  which is precisely why I read and love these books.  

Very much recommended for people who are more all about the whys in their crime reading.  



*****



from imdb


I recently watched the 1933 film based on this book via the Criterion Channel,   La tête d'un homme directed by Julien Duvivier, and let me just say that anyone who found the book a bit on the dull side would not say the same thing about the film, which as one imdb reviewer  noted the director had turned into "something approaching a Gothic horror tale."   Holy crap -- that's a great description of it, for sure.    I was a bit taken aback at the beginning when the entire crime that put Heurtin in prison played out in full instead of unraveling little by little as was the case in the novel, but it worked and worked extremely well, since there's much more of a sense as to the disturbing psychological makeup  of Maigret's adversary from the outset.  This character is so creepy that the same imdb reviewer noted about the actor who portrays him, "With him on screen, one could even describe the screen itself as haunted."  Also a great description, and beyond apt.





from La Serie Maigret

If you prefer, you can catch the French Maigret series episode based on the novel on MHz, starring Bruno Crémer, my favorite Maigret.   The TV version  offers a version that is more subdued and sticks closely to the novel.

both are terrific.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

pure writing excellence: Dread Journey, by Dorothy Hughes


9781613161463
Penzler Publishers/American Mystery Classics, 2019
187 pp 

paperback

Every once in a while (with mega-apologies for the cliché about to be used), I run into a novel that not only knocks my socks off storywise  but also leaves me confident that for the duration of my reading I am in the hands of a master of the craft.   Dread Journey is one of those, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with Anthony Boucher who said of this book (to quote one of the editorial reviews on Amazon)  that it is "Not to be missed under any circumstances."

 Dread Journey is certainly not your average mystery story.  I had an inkling that such was the case on reading the first words of the novel:
"I'm afraid." 
The woman who spoke those words hadn't meant to say them out loud, and it isn't too long before we find out a bit more of what's behind her reasoning:
"It wasn't a tremble of fear. It was a dark hood hanging over her head. She was meant to die. That was why she was on the Chief speeding eastward. This was her bier."
Movie actress Katherina (Kitten) Agnew realizes that it doesn't have to be this way, since she has another option open to her.  She could go to the director of the film she is scheduled to star in (also on the train) and "release him of all obligation," and "from the verdict of death."  Vivien Spender would then be free to star his "newest discovery," young Gratia Shawn, as Clavdia Chauchat in his planned movie production of Mann's The Magic Mountain, the role which he had had in mind for Kitten when he'd first discovered her.   The thing is though, that Kitten won't back down.  Knowing what had happened to those who had come before her, the "innumerable Clavdias," encompassing

"The one in a home for alcoholics. The one picked up soliciting. The one who jumped from a window while Viv was in Florida with the new. And the others, returned to the drabness from which they had once hopefully emerged, walled behind counters, playing walk-ons"

she had hired an attorney to draw up an "unbreakable contract for the role."  But Spender wants Gratia, and Kitten knows from past experience with the man that he usually gets what he wants.  Hence the "Dread Journey," and the suspense begins from Kitten's not-meant-to-be-spoken-out-loud comment and is maintained throughout the story to the point where the book becomes absolutely unputdownable.  

Had this been the sum total of the novel, it still would have been good, but Hughes puts her characters under serious scrutiny here.   As Sarah Weinman notes in her excellent introduction, the author's use of "omniscient viewpoints," allows the reader to examine

"the characters' inner sancta and excavates their fears, their desires, their jealousies, their dreams with the most exacting literary scalpel."

Along with the building suspense, it is Hughes' ability to get her readers directly inside of her characters' heads that elevates Dread Journey well beyond just another crime/mystery/suspense novel, pushing it well into the literary zone, as she has done with the other books of hers I've read. 




 1947 Pocket Books edition, from Goodreads


As just one of the many characters populating this novel, it is the porter James Cobbett who is the most interesting of them all.    He is a man who "had pride in himself," someone who "didn't consider a man equal to him unless he were equal in dignity and pride."  Given that he is African-American, it's to Hughes' credit that she didn't stoop to the racist stereotypes of her time or those which came before.   Cobbett is a sort of outsider, detached from the action of Kitten, Spender, and the other members of this drama; at the same time after  years of doing this job, he has an incredible understanding of human nature.  He sees himself as "responsible for this car and its tenants," and knew instinctively when "something was wrong."    In one absolutely perfect run of prose that lasts for nearly five pages in Chapter Six, it is through Corbett's observations that we see what's happening as he watches his group of passengers while suffering under an unshakeable "weight of depression," and it is not too far off the mark here to say that when "Something cold touched the root of his spine" as he sat watching,  something cold also touched the root of my own spine.  It is a most chilling five pages that I will  never forget.

I love Hughes' books,  and this one is no exception.   It is all about the writing and her ability to direct us immediately into the minds of her characters here, and on top of all that I've mentioned so far in this post, she has an underlying story about the abuses of power and a look at how things really worked in the Hollywood of her time, which is not at all pretty.  It is also a window on the times, with characters down on their luck and affected by the war.  There is so much happening in this little book that keeps it from being just another crime story, and  I'm delighted that Penzler Publishers has released this new edition of Dread Journey.  Despite the fact that Hughes' books are great, she is still widely unknown, so hopefully people will pick up a copy and discover her writing genius for themselves.    I'd recommend it to Hughes readers who perhaps haven't made their way to this novel or readers who, like me, prefer the more literary side to their reading across genres.

I LOVED this book -- it is pure writing excellence and pure reading pleasure.  I can't ask for more.