Saturday, April 10, 2021

Laura, by Vera Caspary

 read in March

9780743400107
ibooks, 2000
236 pp



paperback

I meant to post about this novel some time ago, but in between my reading of the book and now, there's literally been an avalanche of things going on here that have required my focus elsewhere.  I also had  to really consider how to talk about this novel,  sort of mentally pulling my hair out over how not to give too much away, which is no easy feat.   Let's face it -- if you've seen the movie then you're already aware of the surprises in store,  but I am going to try to  avoid mentioning any spoilers here just in case. As a result, this will be reading journal post light. I hadn't seen the film until I'd finished reading the novel (just standard operating procedure), and while I enjoyed the movie very much, for me reading the book is the better experience by far.  

Like most crime/mystery fiction I enjoy reading, Laura is a complex,  twisty and suspenseful story that moves beyond the realm of standard whodunits into the more literary zone where human nature is put under a microscope.  And oh my -- the range of psyches in this book definitely merit close examination.   At the center of this story is Laura Hunt and the people in her immediate orbit, and then there's the detective on the case who discovers her only after she's been murdered. 

In telling this story, Caspary uses a series of first-person narratives, utilizing, as A.B. Emrys reveals in her essay "All My Lives: Vera Caspary's Life, Times, and Fiction" (which does not appear in my edition, but as an afterword in my Feminist Press edition of Caspary's Bedelia, 198), "the Wilkie Collins method of multiple narrators."*   These begin on a Sunday with the account of  well-to-do (and quite snobbish) columnist, collector and aesthete Waldo Lydecker,  as he finds himself grieving over the "sudden and violent" death of his friend Laura Hunt the previous Friday night. Violent death  indeed -- Laura  had been shot at close range on Friday night in her apartment, the buckshot also severely damaging her face.  On that last day of her life, she  had announced to her fiancé Shelby Carpenter (to whom she was supposed to have been married the next Thursday)  that she would need  "four or five days of loneliness" before the honeymoon, especially after having launched her latest successful advertising campaign.   She still planned on having her weekly dinner with  Lydecker that evening, after which she would catch a train to Connecticut where she had a house, returning on Wednesday.  But for some unknown reason, Laura  had canceled her dinner date;  evidently she had changed her mind at the last minute.   Assigned to the case of Laura's murder is Detective Mark McPherson, the second narrator, who had learned from Lydecker that if he wants "to solve the puzzle of her death," he must first "resolve the mystery of Laura's life."   

In attempting to do so, McPherson listens to what the other men in her life have to say about her, but he also develops a personal interest in Laura as well. He comes into the case viewing her as "just a dame" until his interest grows slowly into obsession, taking his time, for example, to go through her apartment, touching her clothes and possessions as a way to understand her.  It is mainly through the gaze of each of the men in this novel that we see Laura, but the author has also included a narrative in which we discover her true nature, that of a "modern" and fiercely independent person concerned about being her own woman, having "given so much of everything else," but always withholding herself, with too much to lose otherwise.  While the story does eventually reveal the "who," in my opinion, it is the question of why that is much more pertinent:  what exactly was it that made Laura a target for murder? 



original 1943 cover from Wikipedia


I did say that I would not post any spoilers, but the truth is that I could seriously go on forever about this book because there is so much to tell.   Unfortunately, that would involve spilling much more about the characters, about the story and about the twists involved throughout, and that's not going to happen here.   I did feel that the author sort of tipped her hand in one very telling scene making it easy to figure out the who far ahead of the actual solution, which was a bit disappointing, but in the long run Laura is a definite no-miss, and not just because of the crime element -- it is much more a study in character that brings out a number of issues that remain pertinent today.   

Don't miss the film, although quite honestly the book is so much better.

As I said, reading journal post light. 




*9781558615076
Feminist Press, 2005








Saturday, March 13, 2021

Death Casts a Long Shadow, by Anthony Gilbert

Well just crap.   I've been using the list of books from the Séptimo Círculo collection as my main crime/mystery reading guide this year; only four books in and thanks to my own stupidity, I read the wrong book.   I was going to read Anthony Gilbert's The Long Shadow, written in 1932, and completely neglected the date (and obviously the real title)  and bought his Death Casts A Long Shadow, from 1959 (originally published as Death Takes a Wife).  It's no surprise; here at casa mia our 2020 hasn't ended yet with what feels like a quarterly extension.    So today I went to double check what title was up next, and discovered my mistake.  I feel really stupid for being so careless, and now of course, I can't find a copy of the 1932 book anywhere.  



from emojiterra


Moving on, putting aside this morning's long facepalm session,   I'd finished reading Death Casts a Long Shadow earlier this week.  Anthony Gilbert, one of the pseudonyms of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith (Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story) and J. Kilmeny-Keith, wrote a whopping fifty-one novels featuring Arthur Crook, and this book is number thirty-four.  I seriously hate starting this late in the series but it is what it is. 

Nurse Helen Wayland has decided after some brief ribbing from her friend Miles Gordon that she needs a change in assignments from elderly patients "more prone to qualify for a death certificate" to a "case with some prospects of survival."   So when Blanche French slips on the stairs in her home,  breaks a leg and refuses to go to the hospital, she calls the agency to request the nurse who'd looked after her earlier when she was down with a bad case of the flu.  Unfortunately, that wasn't possible, so Helen is sent instead.   The French marriage had started out well enough with wealthy Blanche  helping Paul in his legal career and providing for his every need,   but over the  "nearly ten years"  that Paul and Blanche had been married, her "sense of insecurity"  had caused Blanche to become overly needy, resenting Paul's time away from her for any reason.    






When Helen arrives, Paul falls for her at first sight, and over time she begins to feel the same for him.  One Wednesday night, when it's nurse's night off,  Blanche and Paul have a raging argument; later that same night Helen and Paul meet  and are seen together by the French's housekeeper, Mrs. Hoggett.  With everyone back at the French home much later,  "the night exploded in tumult" as Blanche ends up dead, having been shot.   An inquest is held, and it looks as though Paul might have had a hand in Blanche's death,   but based on the evidence given at the inquest, there is "insufficient proof" to charge him and he goes free.  All of this is just preamble -- we haven't yet come to the meat of the story.   

Paul and Helen are caught up in the wake of the scandal that follows; they go their separate ways and after a year as things seem to be dying down,  find their way back to each other in London and marry.  But things go horribly wrong once Mrs. Hoggett, now a shopkeeper in a seedy part of the city,  comes back into the picture, threatening to tell a completely different story than the one she provided at the inquest unless she's paid to keep quiet.  Murder rears its ugly head once more, and the investigation into this death will unearth, as the cover blurb notes, "an intriguing network of facts" for Arthur Crook,  the "intrepid detective-lawyer" who has agreed to take the case.  

 It's an intriguing and ingenious puzzle that is worked out over the course of this novel; the author also offers up a bit of sleight of hand that merited a silent "bravo" toward the end.  And while I don't want to go too far here,  let's just say that aside from the crimes in this story, the author also  spends a lot of time thematically on examining different types of love that have the power to either make or break a marriage.    Then there's this: when Crook reveals all about the case at hand, I actually said out loud "but what about" ... (and trust me, if you read this book you'll have the same question running through your own head throughout your time with this novel) and the answer appeared on the next page.  Voila -- perfect sense of timing.

I have no other experience with the character Arthur Crook to know how Death Casts a Long Shadow fares alongside the other novels, but this one had me unwilling to set the book down for any reason. Once again I find myself saying that someone really needs to republish these old books; this one was quite cleverly done so I can only imagine that the others might be just as good or even better.  

definitely recommended for those who are into older British mysteries and older mystery fiction in general. 


Friday, March 5, 2021

"Criminally Addictive" -- The Abductor/The Bank With the Bamboo Door, by Dolores Hitchens

 

9781951473273
Stark House, 2021
275 pp

paperback

According to the Stark House website, this new two-in-one volume from prolific but still  somewhat neglected writer Dolores Hitchens is scheduled to be released sometime this month.    I am beyond grateful to Stark House for my copy; these people are the best!   

The two novels offered here are The Abductor, from 1962 and The Bank With the Bamboo Door, from 1965.  Let me just say that Hitchens doesn't mess around in either of these books -- at gadetection we're told that Hitchens "wrote a large number of lightweight mysteries, mostly in the cozy tradition," but that's certainly not what's going on here.  Not at all. 

The Abductor begins as young teacher Miss Moynton is out on the playground at the end of the school day, and notices a "patch of darkness" that she takes to be a shadow near some shrubbery at the edge of the school.  Thinking it might be some errant child, she walks toward it; as she gets closer she hears someone calling a name: "Marion ... Marion ... Marion!" When she asks who's there, a man takes off running. Concerned that he  had been calling out to one of the students, Marion Charles, she brings the matter to the attention of the principal, Mr. Dobbs, whose first thought is that they don't want to cause panic at the school.  She  also visits Marion's mother to find out if she had asked someone to pick up her daughter at school, but Mrs. Charles is neither curious nor alarmed by Miss Moynton's story and thinks perhaps that her elderly uncle had "escaped from his nursing home," but assures the young teacher that Uncle Eddie is harmless and "timid."    Reporting her findings to the principal the next day, Dobbs is convinced that "there was no longer any need to worry," and the school day goes on.  Miss Moynton is assigned to give a demonstration, so a substitute, Marion Kennick,  has been called in.  Out on the playground late in the day, as the students are playing at sports, Mrs. Kennick is convinced she hears her name being called, and looks up to see one of Miss Moynton's pupils out walking alone near the shrubbery. What happens next makes it clear that  Mr. Dobbs' assessment may have been somewhat premature, since, as the blurb notes, "Marion Kennick is kidnapped with one of her students."



original 1962 cover, from Goodreads


 I have to admit that I don't particularly care for novels involving child abduction, so I was a bit iffy at this juncture.  What I discovered however is that what happens next is anything but your standard kidnapping story, as Hitchens delves into the lives of the main players here, setting up a high level of suspense and asking serious questions about moral choices and responsibility along the way.   As the story winds down it definitely becomes an edge-of-your-seat reading experience that lasts until the very end of this very twisty, taut story.  


original 1965 cover, from Amazon


On to the  The Bank With The Bamboo Door, which is set in a "town full of secrets," the exposure of which for the people in this book would be devastating.   In Marlie Renick's case, she stands to lose much more than the beautiful house she now  lives in with her wealthy husband Warren, especially if the prestigious  neighborhood's "Old Hens" find out.     Doctor Roland Ferrie also has a lot on the line as he finds himself "in a damned spot" that he blames on his  own foolishness; his wife Janie also hides a life-altering secret that she's not quite ready to disclose to anyone.  Then there's James Griffin, whose interest in Karen Evans and the gardening store she runs with her friend Lisa Kim conceals far more than his need for fixing up his weed-filled back yard.  As more than one person reveals in this story,  their woes can be traced back to a single source, without whom their lives would be far better off.  

Reading this book is like being a spectator at a plate-spinning act, wondering how in the world someone manages to keep them all going at the same time without at least one crashing down.  I would think that it's difficult to juggle so many storylines, but from the very few books I've read by Dolores Hitchens, I've noticed  that one of her strengths as a writer is in her ability to begin with several different elements of plot and keep them under control individually even as they begin to merge together. Here not only does everyone have secrets but there's also the matter of the "bank with the bamboo door," where a robbery took place in the past; word has it that not all of the money was found and that what was left might just still be there behind that bamboo door.  And then, of course, there's a murder that absolutely no one is sorry about.  

In both books in this volume however, it is really her focus on small-town people that makes all the difference, and there she is a master.  I tend to focus more on human nature than on plot when reading crime,  so she's a great fit for me.   It wasn't until after I'd finished this volume though that I understood why she is so very good at what she does,  discussed in the informative introduction by Curtis Evans. After a brief look at Hitchens' life while growing up and then as an adult,  he makes a great case for her "tangled family life" making its way into her novels.  He especially notes the "myriad dillemas" faced by the women in The Bank With The Bamboo Door as well as the relationship between young Marion Charles and her mother in The Abductor.   Both books go far beyond just straight plot, so that you get caught up in the lives of the characters before you.   While I liked both of them very much, I will admit to being a bit more caught up in the suspense of The Abductor, and more focused on the outcomes of the people than the plot  in The Bank With The Bamboo Door, but  both are, as Evans notes about "Hitchens' crime concoctions," most certainly  "criminally addictive."   One caveat: it was often cringeworthy reading references to Chinese people in the second book, so beware.  

I hope Stark House is planning to publish more of Hitchens' novels in the future.  They won't be for everyone, but I love them.  Absolutely.   


Friday, February 26, 2021

The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, by Rudolph Fisher

 

9780008216450
Harper Collins, 2017
originally published 1932
293 pp

hardcover

It is really sad that the author of this book, Rudolph Fisher,  died at such a young age, because after reading The Conjure-Man Dies, my thinking is that had he gone on to write more, I would have probably enjoyed reading everything this man would have produced.   An African-American writer of the Harlem Renaissance,  Fisher died at the young age of 37;  according to Sean Carlson in his recent article about the author for Motifon his death Zora Neale Hurston sent a telegram to Fisher's wife saying that "The world has lost a genius." Langston Hughes would later write that "... Fisher was too brilliant and too talented to stay long on this earth."  Written in 1932 and set completely in Harlem,  the book is the first crime novel to feature an all-Black cast of characters.  

The "conjure-man" is one N'Gana Frimbo, "A native African, a Harvard graduate, a student of philosophy -- and a sorcerer."   He works as a fortune teller/psychic out of an apartment in a house owned by the local undertaker in a room, "almost entirely in darkness," except for the illumination from  "an odd spotlight."  One night Jinx Jenkins and his friend Bubber Brown had gone to visit Frimbo, to get some advice about a business venture -- Jinx went in while Brown waited outside in the waiting room.  It wasn't long until Jinx came running out, grabbed Bubber and took him back to Frimbo's  consulting  room, where they found Frimbo dead. According to Jinx, he'd just   "stopped talkin', " after which Jinx turned the spotlight on the foturne teller and "there he was." It was "an hour before midnight" when the two ran across the street to Doctor John Archer for help, and on returning with them to Frimbo's apartment, Archer pronounces the conjure-man dead.  It is a true mystery; the wound on his head wouldn't have killed him, but on further examination, it turns out that the handkerchief stuffed down Frimbo's throat was more likely the cause of death.   The police are notified, and  Detective Perry Dart grabs the case.  

Dart is one of ten African-American Harlem cops who had been promoted from patrolmen to detective, and "knew Harlem from lowest dive to loftiest temple." The case should have been simple, since there  were only a limited number of suspects, all of whom had been who had either been to see Frimbo or were waiting to see him that night, yet it was anything but.  In the long run it will be four detectives who contribute to its solution, as  Dart and Archer enlist the help of Bubber and Jinx,  who had been  hoping to start a private detective business of their own, to help round up the people who had dealings with Frimbo that night.  All I will say is that all of them are in for a number of surprises before the case of the dead conjure-man is solved. 



from Black Past



I've read a lot of reader reviews in which most people figured out  the "who" pretty quickly, but I did not and it was a case of constant guessing right up until the end.  While that made me rather happy, what I found much more interesting was roaming the Harlem streets as Bubber and Jinx go out to round up the suspects.  When these people are interviewed,  their stories work outside of the mystery to provide a look at Harlem of the time, which is actually the reason I wanted to read this book.   As Scott Adlerburg from the LA Review of Books says in his revealing, in-depth article about The Conjure-Man Dies, Fisher adapts the mystery story "to his own concerns as a Harlem Renaissance novelist." 

In his 1971 introduction to this edition, Stanley Ellin states that in writing The Conjure-Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher "invests" his story with the "qualities of a social document recording a time and place without seeming to,"  and that's precisely what he's done.  Adlerburg notes that Fisher  "paved the way for the Harlem novels of Chester Himes," and that he "wrote something that has lasted" by offering the people of Harlem "as he actually saw them." 

It is a bit strange in the telling; on the other hand it is great fun and I laughed out loud more than once,  thoroughly enjoying every bit of this book for the crime and much, much more.   It won't be for everyone, but for readers who want a bit more in their mysteries or for readers who (like me) are more than interested in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, it's a great match. 




Saturday, February 20, 2021

The German Client, by Bruno Morchio

 

9781948104180
Kazabo Publishing, 2020
originally published 2008 as Rossoamaro

kindle edition

A few days ago I received an email from Kazabo reminding me that in March of 2020 I had said that I would be very interested in reading and posting about this novel.  I was actually horrified that I had completely spaced on doing that, so I bought a kindle copy right away (even though the lovely people at Kazabo had sent me an ecopy -- the least I could do, really), and then  yesterday I dropped everything to spend the day reading.   All I can say is that in March of 2020, on top of everything else going on, coronavirus became a new and intense stressor in our home;  quite honestly, I'm not surprised that I dropped the ball.  So to Chiara, my humble and sincere apologies.  

Bruno Morchio (short bio here)  is the author of a number of books featuring private detective Bacci Pagano; while his work is well known in Italy, The German Client is the first of his novels to be translated into English.  The story begins in Genoa's Sestri Ponente  in January of 1944,  as a young girl makes her way to her boyfriend and "his comrades" who are waiting for her on Mount Gazzo, all partisans in a patriotic action group (PAG).   The Sestri Ponente had been the "center of industry" with "more workers than anywhere else," making it "the heart of Genoese Resistance."    Unfortunately for Tilde, she is out after curfew and is arrested.  She is suspected of being part of a "partisan relay" and spends the night in jail before she is released the next day. Fast forward to the present day.  Bacci Pagano waits outside of a guarded hospital room where a woman, Jasmine,  is fighting for her life. As the book blurb states, if she survives,"her testimony will shatter a notorious human trafficking ring."   As he sits outside of her door, he is approached by a certain Kurt Hessen from Köln who has a job for him.  It seems that he would like help in finding his brother, about whom he knows virtually  nothing except that "he is the son of an an Italian woman named Nicla" who may have been active in the Resistance and that he might live in Sestri Ponente. He knows no first name, no last name, and he has never seen a photo of the guy; what he does know is that he too is Nicla's son, and that his father had been stationed in Genoa as an officer of the Wehrmacht before being killed by a bomb at a local movie theater in May of 1944.  Hessen is dying, and he would like to find his brother to leave him a substantial inheritance.    At first Bacci is reluctant to take on the case but changes his mind.   He knows that he will have to start with former members of the Resistance, which he does, but when he begins asking questions, he soon realizes that even though World War II has been over a very long time, there are some things that these old Resistance partisans would rather not discuss.   Bacci also discovers that by talking about the past,  he "seems to have uncovered a world that had been safely buried." The story moves back and forth between present and past until these buried secrets are eventually revealed. 

The German Client is a fine historical crime drama as well as a reminder that while history is never forgotten, for those who were actually a part of it there are perhaps some things just too painful to speak of.  It's a fascinating book, especially when we're in the Sestri Ponente during 1944 along with the Resistance fighters.  The author sets up an ongoing tension there that highlights not only the dangers of being involved in these PAGs, but also the necessary secrecy and the questions of whom one can actually trust.  These pages were flipped like crazy because I was so involved; the present narrative is also done very well, always linked to the past, with one exception:  the story of how Jasmine came to be in the hospital, staged in the manner of a more contemporary-style thriller.  While I'm not a huge fan of that sort of thing, the mysteries of the past that connected to the mysteries of the present were more than enough to satisfy. 

One more thing: at the end of the kindle edition of this book is a link to Kazabo's website, so of course, I went there.  I was happily surprised looking at their "Criminal Destinations" series, all of which will be coming to my home at some point over the next couple months.  It's high time more of these books are translated and made available to an English-speaking mystery-reading public, so good on you, Kazabo! 




Monday, February 15, 2021

Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes

978191294148
ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
275 pp

paperback

"Sen for the deth remeid is non,
Best that we for deth dispone
Eftir our deth that lif may we;
Timor Mortis conturbat me." 


Right at about page 165 of this book I stopped and made a comment on my goodreads group's "currently reading?" thread in which I said that it seems that everything has been laid out by now, and I'm stumped.  Looking back on it now,  it turns out that I may have jumped the gun a bit there thinking I had all pertinent information, but I still had no clue, and continued to remain in the dark until the very end.   This book is hands down one of the twistiest and strangest crime novels I've ever read, which is a good thing; at the same time, I had to really work at this one which raised my level of frustration more than once.  

The main action takes place, as the blurb for this book states, "in the depths of a howling winter night"  in a "remote castle isolated in the Scottish Highlands."  Down below Glen Echany is the village of Kinkeig where, when news came of the suicide of Randalf Guthrie, current laird of Echany,  "there was little grieving."  In fact, as we learn right away, "folk hated his very name."   This information comes from Ewan Bell, the shoemaker of Kinkeig, who lays the groundwork for this story and introduces us to the somewhat strange Guthrie and the castle's inhabitants (niece Christine, Hardcastle the sinister-seeming factor and his wife) before turning over the narration to others who will "tell of their own part in it."  Someone somewhere (maybe on goodreads? I don't remember now) mentioned "Rashomon-style," but for me the telling was much more in the vein of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.  By the end of the story, four other people will offer their voices to the furthering of the tale:  Noel Gylby, a young man on his way home to London and ends up "benighted" at the castle with the young woman whose car he crashed into during a blinding snowstorm;  Aljo Wedderburn, attorney; John Appleby, detective-inspector from Scotland Yard and finally the "testament" from "the doctor"  before the narrative is handed off once more to two people already heard from.  Here's the thing:  piecing together their individual accounts, it seems that perhaps there is much more going on here than Ranald Guthrie simply taking "his own ungodly life" -- and yet, if it wasn't suicide, then what exactly happened that night? 

The title of this book derives from a poem written by William Dunbar (as this brief article notes, one of  "a group of medieval Scots poets known as the makars" -- or "makers" ), and according to Christine, it is  often chanted by her uncle as he roamed about his castle.   The haunting last line of each stanza "Timor mortis conturbat me" (fear of death disturbs me") adds to the already Gothic-ish atmosphere provided by the setting, the overall strangeness that pervades this novel, and even the sighting of ghosts by various people.  While it was written during the Golden Age, it comes across as an example of an atypical story of this time, which I actually prefer. For me it's a case of the stranger the better.

 I quite enjoyed Lament for A Maker, which aside from its bizarre story appealed to my puzzle-solver self who loves a challenge, and I definitely got that here.  I will also admit that the joke was on me more than once, when I thought I had figured it out and really hadn't,  but I'd much rather things go that way than actually solving a mystery early on.    Aside from Innes' The Mysterious Commission which wasn't a John Appleby novel, I haven't read any of his other books, so I'm pretty stoked to read more right now.   Yet, as noted earlier, I did have to put a lot of effort into this one. My main issue with this book is that  it's not often that I sit with my iPad at the ready while reading a mystery novel -- that's usually what I do while reading nonfiction or more esoteric, out-there kind of books --  but here it was almost a necessity, at least at first,  since the entire first chapter was offered in a Scots dialect causing much frustration and necessitating multiple google visits.  It took me a while to warm up to this story, but in the long run, it was well worth it. 

Readers who make it through that first chapter will find a fine puzzler here, so don't give up.  


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Problem of the Green Capsule, by John Dickson Carr

 

Bantam, 1964 (reprint)
originally published 1939
168 pp

mass market paperback


"...there was a trick in it somehow..."



The second book in the séptimo círculo collection, The Problem of the Green Capsule is book number ten in Carr's Gideon Fell series.  I have to be honest: I haven't read many of these novels -- after collecting them from library/yard sales for what seems like forever, they've been living in wicker shelf baskets for years.  It feels weird not to be starting with the first novel of this series as Carr refers to past Fell adventures in this book, but I didn't mind  --  he gave nothing away in terms of plot so I can go back and read them without knowing anything.  

Given what happens here, the original UK title, The Black Spectacles, makes much more sense than its American title (more on that later).    The cover is a bit more appropriate (and much better artistically) as well, with the main action of the story in plain view for everyone to see.  At the same time, I own a lot of these old Bantam reprints where they've put what just might be several key clues on the cover.  I used to think this was cool, but now it's just a bit annoying knowing what I'm supposed to be looking for. 



from Wikipedia


Detective Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard's CID has been assigned to look into a case in the village of Sodbury Cross, where someone has been poisoning chocolates in Mrs. Terry's tobacco-and-sweet shop, somehow substituting strychnine-laced confections for the chocolate creams kept on the  shop's counter.     Sadly, eight year-old Frankie Dell died after he'd "wolfed down the lot" he'd bought, while the children of another family and their "maidservant" who had also picked up a half pound of the tainted chocolates became very ill.  The young niece of local businessman Marcus Chesney, Marjorie Wills (for reasons I won't go into here),  is the main suspect.  As Elliot begins to work with the local police on that case,  word arrives that Marcus Chesney is dead.  After arriving at the Chesney home, the detectives hear a fantastic story: as it happened, Chesney's murder not only occurred in front of a small group of people, but that 

"every one of 'em saw the murderer and followed every move he made."

Even more surprising is that "they can't agree on anything that happened."   


What comes next is unlike anything I've ever read before.

Chesney, who has as a hobby "the study of crime," had earlier invited his niece, her fiancé George Harding, his brother Joe and a friend of theirs, a professor Ingram, to a "performance,"  a sort of "psychological test" to start at midnight.  His helper Wilbur Emmet, one of the men who worked at the Chesney home, was to have a role in this scene, and after it was over, Chesney would have a list of questions that the participants were to answer, based on what they'd seen.  George was to film the entire thing as well.   What happens next went according to plan, except for the fact that Chesney was murdered and Emmet was found severely wounded outside next to a bundle of clothing and other props used during Chesney's little game.  The problem is that the potential suspects were all together at the time, never out of sight of one another.  When another murder occurs, a rather mystified Elliot turns to Dr. Fell, who is staying in a hotel in nearby Bath, enlisting his help to solve this rather baffling crime.  

I mentioned earlier that the original UK title, The Black Spectacles, turns out to be more appropriate than its American counterpart.  In a letter from Marcus Chesney written earlier to Fell which he doesn't hand over right away to the police, Chesney had noted the following:

"All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what they see in the proper colours. They do not know what goes on on the stage, still less what goes on in the audience.  Show them a black-and-white record of it afterwards, and they will believe you; but even then they will be unable to interpret what they see."

 As Dr. Fell says  before he goes off to observe George's film record of that strange night,  "that, together with what we are going to see and hear to-night, should complete our case." 

 I'll confess that I had absolutely no clue as to the who and the how before reaching the end and the big reveal, always a good sign.   I'm also sure that the phrase "jaw-dropping" was more than appropriate at that point, garnering silent but worthy praise for the mind that put this puzzler together. At just over 160 pages it should have been a quick read, but there are a number of elements at play here, each to be unfurled slowly,  mused over, and put on hold in the brain as the story progresses.    Not only is there a solid, impossible mystery here, but one of the added perks from my point of view is a brief, whirlwind history of infamous real-life poisoners, in which Fell expounds on the psychological make-up of people who had turned to this method of killing.   Another clue that The Problem of the Green Capsule is not going to be your run-of-the-mill Golden-Age detection story comes from the book's subtitle, "Being the Psychologist's Murder Case."  Add to that the author's  remarkable construction of the sleight-of-hand, misdirection and illusion that rule the day in this well-plotted novel, and it becomes something rather ingenious.  I also had great fun with this book, which in the end, is the most important thing.

Definitely recommended.  


Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake

 

9781911295945
ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
251 pp

paperback

While I'm very a much a mystery series purist, meaning I have to read them in order, over the rest of this year I'll be making a lot of exceptions, including this book which is number four in the series featuring Blake's private detective Nigel Strangeways.   There's a reason for this -- my crime/mystery shelves are overflowing with books I've picked up here and there over the decades that I've never read, so in trying to get through at least some of them, I needed some organizational help.  I found it by chance while reading through a book called Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More (eds. Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti; Palgrave MacMillan 2015) when I came across Miranda's chapter entitled "More Than the Sum of its Parts: Borges, Bioy Casares and the Phenomenon of the Séptimo Circulo Collection" (31-40).     Fascinated, I went online to discover exactly which titles were included, landing here.  As I read through the list, I realized that I owned more than quite a few of these books, and thus the decision was made to read as many as I can  this year and very likely on into the next.  Problem solved. 

Just a bit about the Séptimo Circulo Collection before moving on.  According to an article at the blog of the International Crime Fiction Research Group ,  this series of books was the creation of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares which began in 1945.  The name derives from  the seventh circle of Hell, à la Dante's Divine Comedy,  the outer ring of which is reserved for various types of violent criminals.  You can read more about how this collection came about in an excellent article by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads ,  but basically the idea is that prior to the publication of this series,  mystery/crime fiction in Argentina had been classified as "literatura de kiosco"  or newsstand literature, looked down on by as Carolina Miranda notes, " 'serious' Argentine writers,"  but that all changed in the hands of "a close circle of educated writers, translators and editors" including sisters Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, with Borges and Bioy Casares at "the core."   One main influence that would help turn what Scott Adlerberg  refers to as "amusing confections, at best" into a  "literary phenomenon worthy of the educated reader" as well as a "popular ... form of entertainment available to the less educated reader"  was Victoria Ocampo's influential literary magazine Sur, which served "as a platform promoting and validating the collection," publishing seven articles between 1940 and 1948  "specifically referring to Séptimo Circulo titles" (Miranda, 34).   There's much, much  more to this story, of course, but any of the links I've provided will fill in the gaps here, and there are a number of articles online in Spanish as well.  





Original 1938 UK edition.  Photo from John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books 



All right -- back to the book now, which is, if I may say so, a brilliant piece of writing, worthy of the mental round of applause I gave it upon finishing.   It is a solid whodunit -- I went through more than one round of  "it was him/her" and still did not get it right.   It's also a story about which I won't be saying very much, since any hint of what happens here would be a crime in itself.   The barebones outline is this: Frank Cairnes, a writer of crime novels under the name of Felix Lane, is out to get whoever it was that was responsible for the death of his young son in a hit-and-run accident.  As the novel opens, we are made privy to Felix Lane's diary entry of 20 June 1937, which begins as follows:  
"I'm going to kill a man. I don't know his name, I don't know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him ..."

Writing the first part of this book as Cairnes' diary is a move of sheer genius on the author's part, as there is no way anyone will put the book down at that point.  Aside from Cairnes' desire for revenge, and his plans to "kill a man," just some nine days later we discover that he has slowly pieced together the identity of the driver as well as the woman in the car at the time. It's no spoiler to reveal that Cairnes now has his sights set on George Rattery (it's right there on the back-cover blurb), who lives with his wife, his son and his mother in Gloucestershire.  Eventually he meets Rattery, and not too long afterwards has ingratiated his way into the Rattery home as Felix Lane, where he has devised (and detailed) the perfect method of exacting his revenge, with the added bonus of making George's death look like an accident.   One would think that knowing what's going to happen would not leave much room for surprise, but the author  is not quite finished with his reader yet.  After a shift in viewpoint that begins part two, it seems that not only is Cairnes' murder attempt thwarted, but later, someone back at the Rattery home has taken it upon himself or herself to finish the job, albeit in a different way.   A phone call brings in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to help Cairnes, as he has now become the prime suspect in the eyes of the police even though he swears he is innocent.     

Not one more word of plot shall pass my lips (okay, in this case my fingertips) but I will say that my first venture into the mind of Nicholas Blake has been a successful one.   Not only is it worthy of my picky inner armchair-detective self,  but it also offers an insightful character study as well as the ingenious use of literary references that clicked into place in my head only after finishing the book.  Definitely not your typical 1930s, golden-age mystery, and it's one I can most certainly recommend.  I loved Georgia Strangeways; I'll now have to backtrack and go back to book number one to find out more about Nigel. 

My advice: do NOT read reviews of this book that want to take you to the big reveal. You'll kick yourself if you do, trust me.