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.