Friday, September 17, 2021

A James Ellroy Double Feature: Brown's Requiem and Clandestine


Vintage, 2021
originally published 1981
321 pp

(read earlier)

I hadn't really intended to read more of Ellroy at the moment, but back around mid-August I read his My Dark Places and there he was, back in my head and under my skin again. The only way to exorcise his presence was to read more Ellroy, and I decided to start with his earliest work.  Brown's Requiem is his first novel, followed by Clandestine, and I read both.   

 In the introduction to this edition of Brown's Requiem, Ellroy notes from the outset that he was "determined to write an autobiographical epic second to none," but he also realized that his life was "essentially an inward journey that would not lend itself all that well to fiction," which, based on his life as described in My Dark Places,  is probably true.  His response:

 "I then ladled a big load of violent intrigue into my already simmering, tres personal plot -- and the result is the novel you are about to read."

This book is much more a PI novel than anything else he wrote (at least of the books I've read), a fact he makes known in his introduction where he says that this book is "heavily beholden" to  Raymond Chandler.  He also notes that he owes Chandler a "two-fold debt" -- for getting him going and showing him "that imitating him was a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard." The Chandler influence shows.   Fritz Brown is an ex-cop, now private investigator whose main source of income as the novel opens is repossessing cars.  The PI business is slow; before making money from the "repo racket" he'd handled "a few cases," but now his office is more like his reading room; the business much more a tax front than an active concern.   Enter Freddy "Fat Dog" Baker, a caddy with a pocket full of bills, who comes to Brown with concerns about his sister.  It seems that 28 year-old Jane has been staying with an older "rich guy," who evidently wants Jane to have nothing to do with her brother.  There's "no sex stuff" going on -- "it ain't like that," but Fat Dog feels that the man is "not right somehow," and that he is "using my sister for something."  He wants Brown to tail the guy, to see what he's into because "he's fucking her around somehow," and Fat Dog wants to know what's going on.  Brown likes the idea of a "surveillance job," one he can work around the repo schedule, so he agrees.   On his first sight of the older man, Sol Kupferman, Brown recognizes him, and his mind goes back to the Club Utopia,"a sleazy neighborhood cocktail lounge"  that had been firebombed in 1968, causing the deaths of six people.  Three culprits were caught, owned up to what they'd done, but had named a "fourth man" as the mastermind, a story that  the cops never believed.  While on the force, Brown hadn't been involved with that case (he was a rookie at the time), but he had been to the Club Utopia with his patrol buddies before it had gone up in flames, and had seen Sol Kupferman there at the time.  As the face of his investigation begins to change,  his finds his own past becoming inextricably intertwined with the case at hand.  

While my description doesn't do this novel the justice it deserves (and of course, there are plots, subplots and characters that I haven't gone into because of time), it's easy to see the first inklings of what to expect in Ellroy's future writings, especially Ellroy's penchant for writing novels that are dark with a capital D.    In Brown's Requiem the prose is more tame, less zippy than in his LA Quartet, but given that it's his first novel, you can see still detect faint strains of the originality of yet to come.  It's interesting to go back and reread Ellroy from the start, especially knowing that  the first book of his excellent LA Quartet  would be published only six years later.    Recommended for those so inclined, mainly people who've enjoyed Ellroy's books and know what to expect. 

Avon, 1999
originally published 1982
paperback, 328 pp

With  Clandestine Ellroy gets more personal, more autobiographical than in Brown's Requiem, tackling his mother's 1958 murder, albeit in fictional form.  It's so very easy to spot, of course, having read this novel after reading Ellroy's My Dark Places, but he also admits to it in a 1996 interview with Laura Miller at Salon where he says that Clandestine was a "chronologically-altered, greatly fictionalized account" of her murder.  Unlike real life though, in Clandestine he also "solved the case."  My Dark Places also allowed for recognizing a fictional young James Ellroy in this book who under a different name, makes an appearance here as well.  

In 1951 Fred Underhill is a young policeman working Wilshire Patrol. When not on the job, he "played a lot of golf and sought out the company of lonely women for one-night stands."   On the job, after roll call one morning, he and his partner were out warning the owner of a small butcher shop/market about a two-man stickup team hitting small markets and a liquor store, and while there they was called to the horrific scene of Underhill's  first murder, a woman identified as Leona Jensen.  Not too much after that, his partner is killed, and later Underhill was sent to the "tragic sinkhole" of the Seventy-seventh Street Division, Watts.   News of a second murder reaches him, that of Maggie Cadwallader, a woman with whom he'd once had a one-night stand after meeting her in a bar called The Silver Star.  It strikes him as more than coincidence that he'd found a matchbook from the Silver Star at the scene of Leona Jensen's death; as he noted, "it was slight, but enough."  Eventually he tracks down the man he believes might be the perpetrator, and thinking about his case, his suspect, his revenge, his collar, his "glory and gravy train," reports his findings to his Captain, only to be slapped down as a "supremely arrogant young man," for whom justice is certainly not a motivation.  Rather than being suspended from duty, however, the Captain sets up a meeting with a certain Lieutenant Dudley Smith, who will be in charge of deciding "the course of this investigation."   And here is where the story actually begins, in my opinion, as Underhill's ambition gets the better of him, making decisions for which the outcome will bring serious repercussions both personally and professionally.    It isn't until he sees the story of the "dead nurse" that he realizes he may have a shot at justice for the dead, as well as for his own personal redemption.

In Clandestine, Ellroy introduces a number of characters (and themes as well) that will reappear in later work, most notably Dudley Smith, a truly bad guy even here, with more than enough hints of what will happen to anyone who crosses him.  This certainly book is more future Ellroy than its predecessor, reading very much like a prequel to the LA Quartet; it would be a great place to start for anyone who's considering Ellroy's work.  Beware: it's good, but it  ain't pretty.  

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Corpse in the Waxworks, by John Dickson Carr

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death."


British Library, 2021
originally published 1932
256 pp

(read earlier) 

A quotation from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" serves as one of two epigraphs for this book and as it turns out, it is beyond appropriate.  Words like "grotesque," "phantasm," "delirious fancies," leap out immediately, but it's more Poe's conjuring of 
"much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust" 

that truly fits the atmosphere, the setting, and the overall action in The Corpse in the Waxworks.   

More often than not I tend to forget that John Dickson Carr was an American author since he wrote so many novels set in the UK. He did spend a good twenty years there before returning back to the US, and according to most biographies, was one of only a very few American writers to be admitted into the Detection Club.    The Corpse in the Waxworks throws yet another curveball: it's set in France, and features M. Henri Bencolin, who is described in the book just prior to this one, The Lost Gallows (Poisoned Pen Press, 2021),   as "a tall and lazy Mephisto," as well as  "juge d'instruction of the Seine, the head of the Paris Police  and the most dangerous man in Europe" (4).   In the present book, he is  also noticed as a "man-hunting dandy," with an associate by the name of Jeff Marle who also serves as narrator.   

The "official" blurb for this British Library edition can be found here at the British Library's website; however, the one on the back of my old Collier paperback (1969) edition of this book is much more fun, with a teaser on the front that reads
"A Dead Girl in a Satyr's Arms -- A Club Devoted to Nocturnal Orgies"

 and then on the back the salacious detail of a "notorious club ... whose masked members revel in carefully planned orgies," as well as mentioning "nocturnal debauches."   

Seriously, who could resist?  

The action in this novel begins with the body of a young woman who had been stabbed and then found floating in the Seine.   Mademoiselle Odette Duchêne had last been seen alive going into the Musée Augustin, a wax museum complete with a "Gallery of Horrors."  Her fiancé, a certain Captain Chaumont, had spoken to her the day she went to the museum, when she phoned to cancel a date for tea with him and a friend "giving no reason."  Curious, he went to her home just in time to see her drive away in  a taxi, so he followed until she was let out in front of the museum.  With only half an hour until closing time, he waited, "and she did not come out."  Now she is dead, and he wants answers.  At the museum, Marle makes his way to the Gallery of Horrors, where he comes across the waxwork of a satyr.  After looking at it for a while, he makes his way back to the others who see that he's a bit unnerved, and when asked what's wrong, he tells them that the satyr figure  was "damned good, the whole expression of the satyr, and the woman in his arms."  There's just one problem, as M. Augustin informs him,  "There is no woman in the satyr's arms."  Well, as Bencolin notes, there is one now, "a real woman. And she is dead."  

But what about that club where they go for "carefully planned orgies" and "nocturnal debauches" you might ask, and all I will say is that as the investigation into the body found in the arms of the satyr gets rolling, the connections between the two will make themselves known.  The case begins in earnest with this second death, and the sleuthing begins. In typical Carr fashion, witnesses are discovered, spoken to, bits of information are given out carefully, and there's even a clever prime suspect.  The thing is though that Carr does a bit of sleight of hand here -- just when you believe he's given away the show much too early because there are still several chapters left in the book,  well, trust me, there are still a number of surprises waiting.  

The Corpse in the Waxworks is notable not just for the mystery at hand, but also for the atmosphere that Carr establishes from the beginning.  Marle's initial impressions of his first trip into the Gallery of Horrors are absolutely stunning, including the staircase that suggested "walls pressing in with the terrors so that you might not be able to escape,"  the exhibits imbued with a "pallor on each" face, the soundless terror caught on the faces of a particular group of wax figures,  the ghastliness of the  "shadowy people" who did not move, and the "choking stuffiness of wax and wigs" that left him needing "light and the knowledge of human presence."  But what really sets this book apart is the second half of the story, where pretty much everything that happens is completely unexpected.  And oh, that ending! Whoa! 

Don't miss Martin Edwards' fine introduction, and the added bonus of a short story (also featuring Bencolin), "The Murder in Number Four."  And my many thanks to the British Library for reprinting this novel, since my little Collier paperback is pretty much on its last legs.  Needless to say, I had a great time with this book, and it's one I can definitely recommend. 

Puzzle for Players, by Patrick Quentin


Mysterious Press/Open Road, 2018
originally published 1938
kindle version

294 pp

Moving on to book #17 on the Séptimo Círculo list,  I actually thought I would die of old age before getting through this one.  It is the rare book that tries my patience, but that's exactly what happened here.  The saving grace for me was that not only did I never guess the who, but when all was made known, it was someone I never would have suspected in a million years.  

Puzzle for Players is book number two in Quentin's series featuring Peter Duluth, but it is the first time I've read anything by this author.  The story begins as Duluth is hoping to make a bit of a comeback after having been "tabbed" as the "youngest has-been producer on record."  Re-entering the theatrical arena after having been "tentatively cured" of  a daily "two quarts of rye" drinking problem during his time in a sanitarium,  Duluth is now ready for his "big come-back," after having read the script of a new play called Troubled Waters.  A lot rides on Duluth's success, including regaining his "solvency" and  "lost self-respect," and the fact that the play is to make its appearance in a theater with a reputation of being "jinxed" means nothing to him.  It does, however, seem to make some of the cast of Troubled Waters nervous -- as part of its creepy past, for example, in 1902 a young woman had been discovered "hanging dead" in an actor's wardrobe, very likely a suicide.   But Duluth, while sympathetic, is convinced that this play will restore his reputation, and he's got a fine cast to help make that happen.  

It isn't long until the first of the weird incidents begin, but really, these are the least of Peter's problems. First,  some pretty shady people arrive on the scene, each with an agenda and all adding to Peter's woes.  Events begin taking their toll on the cast and especially on Peter himself, but above all, the show must go on.  However, after two strange deaths, he's not so sure that will be possible.

I have to say that I was quite taken with the haunted theater idea, and while the author it ran with it for a while, creepy atmosphere and all,  it just sort of fizzled.   A shame, really, because to me, there was much more he could have done with it and didn't.   The focus is very much the characters in this novel, many of whom are harboring secrets and some of whom are actively doing what they can to cause chaos while the cast is gearing up for opening night.  And while all of the mayhem is certainly engaging, the story tends to be weighed down by the psychological aspects brought in by Peter's doctor, various romance moments, and the sheer volume of red herrings that are added to the story so that by the time the end came, I was ready to be done.   Personally, I think that some careful editing might have given this story more teeth, which is what it needed, in my humble mystery-reader opinion. 

I will be encountering another Peter Duluth mystery shortly, A Puzzle for Fools from 1936, so I'm sort of wary at the moment.  I know there are any number of readers who enjoyed Puzzle for Players, but I can't really count myself among them.   I will say that the final revelation was completely unexpected, which is what saved this novel for me, but the reality is that a good solution does not necessarily a good mystery make. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Midsummer Murder, by Clifford Witting

 #16 on the Séptimo Círculo list, Clifford Witting's Midsummer Murder  brings me back to crime reading once again , although I had hoped to have read much more of that list by now. I've fallen so behind in everything that I'll likely spend the rest of the year catching up.  Oh well. 

Hodder and Stoughton, 1953
originally published 1937
184 pp


I went looking for older, contemporary reviews of this novel after finishing it, and in  googling "Midsummer Murder Witting" without the quotation marks, got thousands of results for Midsomer Murders.  I was a bit annoyed at first but then laughed because even though this book has nothing to do with Tom Barnaby and the gang from Causton CID, there is a character in this story who reminded me of Mrs. Rainbird from The Killings At Badger's Drift (which I recently read with a group on goodreads).  Not unlike that creepy lady who spied on everyone in her village in Caroline Graham's book,  there is a woman in this story who keeps a card file on everyone in her village.  I guess the Mrs. Busybody must be a reality in some villages; on the other hand, both Barnaby and the Inspector in this book, Harry Charlton, came to a point where information gleaned from these  respective sources became invaluable.  

Midsummer Murder is book number two in Witting's Harry Charlton series, which begins with Murder in Blue (1937).  I had to really go digging online for a copy of the edition of Midsummer Murder I have, but luckily, it seems that I won't have to work as hard to pick up the series opener, since the people at Galileo Publishers have seen fit to put that one back into circulation, to be released (at least here in the US) next month.  Pre-ordered, for sure, along with his Measure For Murder (1941, book #5).  His Catt Out of the Bag, book #4 from 1939 is already available for purchase, so I bought that one as well.  As all of this buying might reveal, I liked the lead character, Inspector Charlton.  I didn't particularly love the book itself, but the man intrigued me to the point where I would like to read more of his adventures in crime solving.  As for the novel, I was more than mildly annoyed with the underlying motive that connected all of the crimes (yes, there are more than one), which to me was tenuous, at best.   As an aside, anyone in 1953 who wasn't quite sure of the definition of that word could have easily turned to their Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary advertised on the back cover:

The story begins with a shooting in the Paulsfield Village square on market day, the first Tuesday of the Month.  Set between the wars in 1936, it was close to noon "and the tumult of the fortnighly gathering was at its zenith," including  all manner of livestock which "bleated, grunted and lowed," salesmen calling out their wares, a Punch-and-Judy show going on with a barrel organ for competition and construction complete with pneumatic drills.   It's a bustling, chaotic scene, and in its midst a bull escapes, and at that moment someone decides to let go with a gun and kill Thomas Earnshaw, the man cleaning the statue mid-square. 

frontispiece, the Square (oh! the map!!)

Inspector Charlton is called in to investigate, but finds an appalling lack of clues other than the bullet, a determination of the angle at which it had been fired into the victim, and sightings of a mysterious van that may or may not have something to do with the case.  All he can do at present is to talk to everyone around the square to see who might have a gun matching the murder weapon.  Progress on the case is little to none, and when a second person falls victim to the same fate, he reasons that  
"the murderer either had his intended victim playing right into his hands, or ... was waiting there like a watchful, blood-lusting spider for some innocent sacrifice to come along."

 Even worse, there is a third victim, and yet no one knows if these people had been randomly chosen or if there was some sort of link between the three in a "larger prearranged plan."  The killings have caused people to remain in their homes causing havoc for the shopkeepers, and while the police are starting to make connections, the question of who is responsible remains a mystery and leaves  the Paulsfield Sniper to remain at large.  

As this is my first experience with Clifford Witting's mystery novels, I have no idea whether or not he does this in all of his books, but here he leads the reader on quite a merry chase through the police investigation before we realize at the very end that we've been had in a nice bout of misdirection.   And I was fine up until that point, enjoying the mystery, putting the clues together in my head and even taking notes while reading.  Normally the author's sort of "gotcha" moment is a good one, meaning that he or she has put together a story whose solution I never would have guessed because I was following the trail of red herrings.  And while that happened here, when the killer was disclosed it was so out of left field that I had to go back and reread certain chapters just to try to figure it out.  Still, it was fun up to that point so I can't complain too much, but somehow that final moment  just didn't seem fair.  Be warned that this book ends so abruptly that I was looking for evidence that some of the pages had been torn out of my copy.  

Not great, but not bad, sort of middle of the road with an interesting lead character.  In my mind, not quite as nicely done as the previous  Séptimo Círculo books, but still a good read.  

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz


Harper Perennial, 2018
495 pp


I hadn't intended on reading this book just yet, but after my post about The Shooting Party  one of my goodreads friends commented on the fact that people were wowing the use of the book-within-a-book format  in this novel while technically, as he pointed out in his review of Magpie Murders,  it had already been done by Chekhov over a century earlier.  His remarks, along with all of the high ratings for this book, did the trick and my copy came off the shelf.  

The aforementioned book-within-a-book is called Magpie Murders,  the newest and final installment of  author's Alan Conway's mystery series featuring his German detective Atticus Pünd.  Editor Susan Ryeland begins her tale by giving her readers a warning: "This book changed my life."  The changes she notes are not minor ones -- she  loses her job, "a great many friends," and she no longer lives in her "quiet and comfortable" flat.  She also states that "it was all down to that bastard Alan Conway," whose books she had "always loved," but not the man himself.   But before she can explain the why behind that statement, we are immediately plunged into the small, quiet village of Saxby-on-Avon, 23 July 1955, where a funeral is being planned for Mary Blakiston, who had fallen down the stairs at Pye Hall where she had worked as a housekeeper.  

Two weeks later, a young woman by the name of Joy Sanderling has come to meet with the great detective himself, asking him to come to Saxby-on-Avon to help clear her fiancé's name.  Robert Blakiston, Mary's son, has been getting the evil eye from many of the villagers after his mother's death,  and she is convinced that "they all think he did it."  She would like Pünd to "look into it" and to reassure everyone that Mary's death was indeed an accident, and "that there was nothing sinister going on."  Pünd turns her down, but later changes his mind when he reads an article in The Times about the death of Sir Magnus Pye.  As he says, "Coincidences do occur," but it's not likely that there would be "two unexpected deaths in the same house," so it's off to the village he goes, where he joins the Detective Inspector to investigate both cases.    

I have to say right here that I was intensely following this case, and then just as Pünd says that he has "everything I need to know" about the case and I turned the page, the story comes to an abrupt end and we're back in the now with Susan Ryeland.  "Oh no!  "I yelled out loud at this juncture, when I realized, along with Susan, that the last chapter is missing.  I hadn't figured it out at all, and by golly, I wanted to know who killed Magnus Pye.  But then things changed, as Susan discovers that Alan Conway was dead and that it looks like he'd left a suicide note behind.  Her boss, Charles, tells Susan that his copy was incomplete as well, and that there were no missing pages to be found anywhere.  Susan needs to find those pages -- the publishing house had not been doing so well and they "needed" Conway's book to "make a hit."   As she begins searching for the ending of Magpie Murders, she also decides that it might be worthwhile to do a bit of sleuthing herself, to see if indeed Conway's death had been a suicide.

While I had some minor grumbles about the writing here, including some of Susan's detecting skills and choices that seemed rather hollow and Horowitz's ego writ large on the page (mentioning probably every TV show he's written the screenplays for) that caused more than a few eyerolls, I still couldn't put this book down. But then the author does something unforgivable that made me take issue:  while Susan says that as an editor she doesn't care for "coincidences in novels" (and quite frankly, neither do I as a reader), that is precisely where Horowitz goes with this book.  Honestly, it felt like he'd written himself into a corner and had to do something to get her on trajectory to finish this story. 

I know that this novel gets sterling reader reviews, so it's probably just me being picky again.  On the plus side, this book kept me entertained for hours, and  I loved the 1955 story.  It's the modern one with which I have issues:   it's not nearly as well done, and ultimately ended in a kind of letdown for me mainly because of the author's choice here to depend on coincidence.  Not a good move in my mind, and I felt cheated. I also have to say that once the reasoning behind Conway's death was revealed, it didn't seem at all like a big deal and certainly not murder-motive worthy.  I will still recommend it, but as Susan Ryeland says at the beginning of the book, "Unlike me, you have been warned."

Friday, June 11, 2021

There's Trouble Brewing, by Nicholas Blake


Ipso books, 2017
originally published 1937


The back-cover blurb is short but succinct, and reveals that a local brewery owner loses his dog in one of the brewery's vats.  It will also go on to reveal that said brewery owner will later be found in the same vat (more on that later).   I'm not kidding when I say that my mind immediately flashed to particular episodes of Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, New Tricks and even Brokenwood in a variation on the theme (a fermentation vat for wine instead of beer).  I'm sure there are more that I've missed, but it seems that death in a vat is quite a popular way to go.  Of course, all of the above came long after There's Trouble Brewing,  which made its appearance in 1937.   This is the second novel I've read by Nicholas Blake after The Beast Must Die, both read out of series order.  There's Trouble Brewing is number three  in the series featuring Blake's Nigel Strangeways, and I'll confess to enjoying his The Beast Must Die, number four, much much more than this one.  

When Strangeways accepts an invitation to speak to a local literary society in Maiden Astbury (Dorset),  he has no idea that his stay there will last a bit longer than he'd intended. During dinner with his hosts, Herbert and Sophie Cammison,  which includes a bottle of beer from Bunnett's Brewery,  the conversation turns to the brewery's owner, Eustace Bunnett, or at least to his dog Truffles, who had been found dead in one of the vats at Bunnett's Brewery.  Later, after Nigel gives his talk on Caroline Poets,  Bennett approaches him and tells him that he is positive that Truffles had been murdered and that he is "exceedingly anxious to find out who did it."   He then makes a request than Nigel finds "bizarre," asking him to find out who sent Truffles to his untimely death.  Nigel doesn't want to do it, but having been warned earlier not to "sauce" Eustace Bennett and after one of the members of the society urges him to do it, as "none of us will get a moment's peace" until the matter is "cleared up,"  he agrees.   

At the brewery next day to begin his investigation,  he is shown around while waiting for Bennett, but everything comes to a halt when a body is discovered in a "pressure copper."  Well, not quite a body, but a "half-disjointed skeleton" wearing the "soaked and tattered remnants of a dinner-jacket and boiled shirt."  When certain other articles are discovered, rumor starts that the remains belong to "the guv'nor" himself.  While the police are brought in, Nigel stays on to help and soon discovers that there are any number of people who wouldn't have minded seeing Eustace Bennett dead for many reasons.  He was, apparently,  the most odious person in the small community, and it seems that nobody is sad that he's gone.   As Nigel himself says, "Eustace was a crook, a menace, and a stunger." 

probably my favorite cover image of this novel, from Coverbrowser

I very much enjoyed the writing here, and only after two books now I have become a fan of  Nigel Strangeways.  I like his wife Georgia who sadly makes only a brief appearance here -- they are perfect for each other.  And who doesn't love a story  in which  a character is so particularly  loathsome that no one's going to be shedding a tear when he or she is dead?   With the number of possible suspects and possible motivations that Strangeways uncovers here, it should have been a great read.   The thing is though that Blake gives away the show much too early here with a particular remark that I took notice of  that colored my thinking,  so that by the time Strangeways cottons on to the solution, I'd already been there and was just waiting for our erstwhile detective to catch up.  At  chapter thirteen where Strangeways is going over the timetable of the case and makes an important discovery, I was just about ready to skip  and get to the ending I knew was coming.  It's a shame when that happens, really, because this could have been a most intriguing mystery novel otherwise.   

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Catching up in double time: The Shooting Party by Anton Chekhov and Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb, by Eden Philpotts

Since I was last here there's been more calamity here at casa mia,  but things are starting to look up and life is moving on in a more positive direction.  Unfortunately, the setbacks mean I'm behind in my crime/mystery reading so today it's a double feature: The Shooting Party, by Anton Chekhov from 1885 and a more obscure title from 1933, Eden Phillpotts' Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb. Both of these books offer an interesting puzzle worthy of armchair detecting, making for hours of reading pleasure; as posted at,  what ties these two books together and what appealed to Borges and Bioy Casares in putting together their list of novels in the Séptimo Círculo collection are the "mysteries, puzzles, tales of logic and clues" that are  "hidden behind surfaces of respectability."  That is certainly the case here.  

Penguin, 2004
originally published 1885
translated by Ronald Wilks
199 pp


As John Sutherland says in his introduction to this edition of The Shooting Party,  while readers are used to a "dash of internationalism" in the twenty-first century, excluding Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment,  the Russian novel has not been a "strong presence" in the realm of  detective fiction.  Like many fine mystery stories of yesteryear, The Shooting Party started out as a feuilleton in serial form, and given the fame of Anton Chekhov and his later dramatic works, has remained "unjustly ignored."  A shame, really, because the mystery itself is quite good, and as Sutherland also notes, the book is "an accomplished crime novel in its own right."  I tend to agree with him when he says that "few who start reading the work will be tempted to lay it down," because that's precisely what happened with me.  

April, 1880.  A man walks into a newspaper office, hoping for an appointment with "the Editor."  After identifying himself as Ivan Petrovich Kamyshev, former investigating magistrate, he asks the Editor to read his manuscript, and if possible, to publish it. The subject, Kamyshev says, is "love, murder," and he calls it From the Memoirs of an Investigating Magistrate,  swearing that the story "happened before his eyes," -- in fact he was both "eyewitness and even an active participant." The Editor isn't quick to bite, citing the readers who have "for far too long now... have had their teeth set on edge by Gaboriau and Shklyarevsky" and are 
"sick and tired of all these mysterious murders, these detectives' artful ruses, the phenomenal quick-wittedness of investigating magistrates."

The particular story under consideration is called The Shooting Party, and eventually the Editor agrees to read it, telling Kamyshev to come back in three months' time during which  he'll make his decision.  What follows is the story-within-the-story, as the Editor offers Kamyshev's story for the reader's "perusal" after reading it,  assuring that it is "a page-turner."   That it is, and it begins as the local magistrate, here named Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, goes to visit his old friend Count Alexei Karneyev at his country estate that has for some time been in a state of decline.  Karneyev's world is largely defined by debauchery, and Zinovyev is quickly sucked in to that space of drinking and partying, where an orgy is not an unusual event.   But the estate is also where Sergey Petrovich meets the beautiful Olenka, daughter of the forester Skvortsov, now living in a state of madness from perpetual drinking,  and is immediately drawn to this "girl in red."   The problem is that the same is true of  Urbenin, a widower with two children serving as Karneyev's estate manager, and the Count himself.  Olenka, who has "aristocratic pretensions," surprises everyone with the news that she has agreed to marry Urbenin, setting off a chain of events that will end in murder one fine day during a shooting party on the estate. Motives are plenty, as are suspects, but the question of the actual murderer has to wait until the very end.   

That is all I will reveal about plot; anyone who prefers the element of surprise and reads anything about this book that takes plot and the possible identity of the who any further will end up kicking himself or herself in the long run.  And while it may not be one of the best crime novels I've read, it is certainly very much worth the read -- this may have been one of Chekhov's earliest works, but he is a master of characterization here which is much more important than the crime or its solution.   He wrote this in the 1880s, while Russia was still under Czarist rule, but he seems to have keen, almost uncanny insight into the future of class and social structure (including the roles and expectations of women)  in an empire that in just a short while will be completely transformed.   Definitely recommended.  

My copy of  Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb, complete with chipped corner on the dustjacket where it looks like someone took a bite out of the skull, is the first American edition, published by Macmillan in 1934.  The first British edition was published by Hutchinson in 1933, but I can't seem to find a cover image anywhere.  

Two men of completely opposite temperament and circumstances live in separate houses on Heathfield Chine, west of Wellbrook-on-Sea in Hampshire.  Mr. Benjamin Digweed of The Anchorage, a "man of very modest means" with a love of gardening, tends to keep to himself enjoying the company of others only occasionally with his neighbor Mr. Martin Lumb of The Haven, and Lumb's factotum Higgs.  Mr. Lumb, who travels to London now and again, has no money worries, is an avid collector of  and an expert on Aviation Issue stamps.  The two dwelt in "perfect amity" so when Mr. Digweed disappears, Mr. Lumb is shaken and calls in the local police.  Two days had gone by with absolutely no word, and the clincher comes when the housekeeper arrives and finds the door of the Anchorage locked, leaves, returns the next day and there's still no one home.  The policeman (and narrator of this story) is Sergeant William Cartright, who catches the case since his superior is away temporarily; on hearing Lumb's story Cartright makes his way to The Anchorage where he finds a note indicating that a desperate Digweed has fallen on hard times, with no money left to live on and no means of supporting himself, and has thus decided to end it all.   The police accept the obvious, but a bit later Mr. Lumb "smelled a mystery" when he discovered that every bit of Mr. Digweed's clothing remained in his house and when the boat he was going to use in his suicide was discovered in an unexpected place.  While the police begin to look into Mr. Lumb's worries there's another death, but this time it's Cartright's bride-to-be and her father who take charge. 

Again, not the greatest example of a 1930s mystery ever, but there's just something about Phillpotts' ability to put together a good yarn and to provide a challenge that appeals.  Eden Phillpotts may not be a household name in the realm of mystery reading, but I've now read two of his books (this one and The Red Redmaynes) that were both engaging and fun, definitely requiring concentration because the solutions don't lend themselves easily.  I will say that at some point while reading this one, I wrote a note with my theory and stuck it on a certain page where the light bulb started to blink on over my head, only to discover later that I was partly right but mostly wrong.  While there is definitely police presence in this novel, it is not what I'd consider an early procedural, since the crime is actually solved by someone else using intuition and logic;  while they do work on the case, the policemen become somewhat of a captive audience as the solution is revealed to them.    Recommended.  

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Laura, by Vera Caspary

 read in March

ibooks, 2000
236 pp


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. 

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


Stark House, 2021
275 pp


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


Harper Collins, 2017
originally published 1932
293 pp


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


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

ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
275 pp


"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.