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.