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. 


Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Inugami Clan, by Seishi Yokomizo

9784925080767
ICG Muse, 2003
originally serialized 1951-1952
translated by Yomiko Yamazaki
327 pp

paperback


"...we hear good tidings...



Having finished Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders, I moved right away into his The Inugami Clan -- a) it's the only other novel in this series to have been translated into English and b) I've had this edition sitting on my shelf forever so it was readily accessible.  Pushkin-Vertigo will be releasing another translated edition of this book called The Inugami Curse, available from the UK in February and here in the US in August of this year. 

Yokomizo opens his story with a scene that will be familiar to many readers of crime and mystery stories:  in a "labyrinthine" house on the shore of Lake Nasu, an elderly man is in his death bed surrounded by his relatives all waiting for the end.   The man is "the so-called Silk King of Japan" and family patriarch, Sahei Inugami, and while everyone "sat silently, listening to the old man's breathing,"  it doesn't take long before it becomes obvious that they're not actually there out of grief.  It seems that no one in the family has a clue about Sahei's "intentions" toward his "enormous fortune;" and as he moves toward his end,  the impatience  of the the eldest daughter, "unable to restrain herself,"  leads her to ask him bluntly about his "last wishes."  The family attorney, also in attendance, announces that he is in possession of Sahei's will, explaining that its contents cannot be made known until Sahei's grandson Kiyo returns home.  After the war, he was last known to be in Burma, but no one has seen him in some time.    If that fails to happen,  the attorney is authorized to read the will on the one-year anniversary of Sahei's passing.  As the head of the Inugami family silently slips away to his final moment of life, the narrator, looking back,  reveals that it was his death  that "set in motion the blood-soaked series of events that later befell the Inugami Clan."

 Some months later, Detective Kosuke Kindaichi arrives in Nasu, summoned by a mysterious letter penned by one of the family attorneys who writes of his fears of "events soaked in blood," and "One family member after another falling victim..."    Kindaichi's arrival coincides with the news that the missing Kiyo Inugami has finally been located and will be returning home,  allowing for the reading of Sahei's will upon his arrival.   The unexpected and explosive contents of this will, as the back-cover blurb notes, will trigger

"a chain of gruesome and bizarre murders as the members of the Inugami family are pit against each other in a desperate contest for his fortune." 
At this point, anyone thinking "been there, read that" is sadly mistaken.  While greed is often the underlying motive of many a mystery story,  Yokomizo cleverly adds to the mix long-buried family secrets, gruesome murders that leave even the most experienced policemen baffled and shaking their heads, a certain measure of sleight-of-hand, a unique crime pattern, several grotesque elements that would be perfectly at home in many a Gothic novel, and an unmistakable  pulpy vibe underneath it all.   While there are a number of plot elements that are certainly familiar to regular readers of mystery or crime fiction in this book, it's important to consider that much of what happens here, as in The Honjin Murders, is rooted in the time and postwar cultural vibe surrounding these events.    As an aside, Sari Kawana's Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture is a great resource for regular readers of Japanese mystery novels; it's very helpful, and one I'd recommend for readers wanting more out of these books than simply story.


1976 movie poster from MyDramaList

My issues with this novel were not so much with plot (which I thought was very nicely concocted), but with Yokomizo's penchant for leaning toward the melodramatic and downright cheesy in his word choice/writing style, and then there are his descriptions of certain characters that became repetitive over time to the point where they tended to grate on my inner ear.   All the same, I had great fun with this novel and ended up liking it very much, despite the fact that it was not too difficult to figure out the who behind it all.   While that's an issue in my crime reading most of the time, it bothered me less with this book because it's not just the identity of villain that matters,  since there is so much more going on here. Parts of the plot are seriously demented and even horrific, making it much darker than many Japanese mystery novels I've read, taking it out of the realm of Agatha Christie  (where so many readers have placed it) and into much darker territory, where as a mystery reader I feel most at home. 


I would certainly recommend The Inugami Clan to readers who have some familiarity with older Japanese crime novels.  They're sort of in a class unto themselves and take some getting used to, but I genuinely appreciate these old books and I'm happy to see them being published again. 

ps/ my copy of the 1976 film will be here shortly -- I can't wait to watch it!!


2020: it's all about cleaning out my shelves



The photo above is a messy bookshelf in one room of my house.  See all those books on their sides, and mass-market mystery paperbacks carelessly tossed into baskets?  Notice that there is no room to wedge in even one more book anywhere?  It's become very frustrating, and in an effort to clear this mess up, here and in all of the other shelves in my house which look much the same, my goal this reading year is to focus on books I've owned forever that have never been read.   I don't know how long my willpower is going to last before I buy more books, but I at least have to try.  So this year it's all about the crime novels and mysteries that already live on my shelves (with some new ones I'd preordered earlier).    I don't even know what I have, to be honest, so I'll more than likely surprise myself.