Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Bad Kids, by Zijin Chen


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
translated by Michelle Deeter
332 pp

paperback (read earlier this month) 

Continuing to try to catch up on my posts here,  Bad Kids by Zijin Chen is yet another book in the Pushkin Vertigo collection, available in English for the first time.   There is another book by this author that has been translated from Chinese to English by Michelle Deeter, The Untouched Crime, published by Amazon Crossing.  Needless to say, when I found out about that one, I hit the buy button immediately.   

A brief word about Bad Kids:  the back-cover blurb labels this novel as "Dark, heart-stopping and violent," and I'll agree to dark and certainly to violent, but "heart-stopping" is a bit over the top.  However,  it is certainly one of the most twisty novels I've enjoyed in a while, meaning that just when you think the endgame has played out, there's more.  And then some.  

It's July, 2013, and Zhang Dongsheng has taken his wife's parents for an outing at Sanmingshan, "the most famous mountain in Ningbo," and now a nature park. The in-laws are happy to be there -- it's a popular and crowded place on holidays but on the day of their visit the park is "practically empty."   The "filial son-in-law" suggests that they make their way to an observation point,  where they'll take a break.  Once there, he looks around and sees no one nearby except three kids "clowning around near a pavilion," but "dismissed them as unimportant," then offers to take the in-laws-  picture with the great view behind them as backdrop, convincing them that they should sit on the wall for a better photo.  Once they've done that, he puts his hands on their shoulders as if to position them just so, and then, with a smile on his face, picks up their legs and it's 再见 (zaijian, bye-bye) to the in-laws as they go tumbling down the mountain.  Zhang knows that there is no way they could have survived that fall, yet a few people had heard the in-laws scream so he has to make it look legit and calls for help.   Outwardly he looks panicked; inwardly he's smiling at the thought that he'd committed the perfect crime; even the police label it accidental death.   What he doesn't know (and this is not spoiler territory -- it's on the back cover) is that while he thinks he got away with it,  those "unimportant" kids have inadvertently caught it all on video.  

Two of the three kids,  a boy by the name of Ding Hao and his friend, a girl called Pupu, had run away from an abusive situation in an orphanage  in Beijing,  and not wanting to return to their respective homes, had made their way to Ningbo and to the home of the third, Zhu Chaoyang, Ding Hao's friend in primary school.  To make a very long and complicated story a bit shorter,  Chaoyang's father gives him an old camera, and the kids decide to go to the nature park at Sanmingshan, where Chaoyang's mother works; it just so happens that they were there at the same time that Zhang Dongsheng was knocking off his in-laws.  The kids spend time taking photos, making videos and goofing around with the camera, and after arriving back at Chaoyang's place (and just before heading to KFC), Pupu discovers that they've picked up something completely unexpected on video -- the death of Zhang Dongsheng's in-laws as it really happened.   Chaoyang is ready to report the murder to the police, but is stopped by Pupu, who reminds him that the police just might ask who the other kids were on the video, and would likely send them back to the orphanage, which is an unacceptable choice.  As the back cover blurb notes, "an opportunity for blackmail presents itself," with Pupu deciding that she and Ding Hao could use the cash for their futures.   And so it begins ... with consequences unforeseen for all involved.  

If this were all there was to the plot, it would still be good.  But Zijin Chen isn't quite finished with his readers yet.  There's much more going on outside of the blackmail as one of the characters takes it upon himself to commit a horrific act that will also generate some serious fallout for everyone involved, and then, well let's just say that there will be more deaths than those of Zhang Donsheng's in-laws.   There is, of course, a police inspector looking into these, but for me the story was less about the investigation than the choices that were made in each instance and the resulting consequences.  

Bad Kids was a fun novel to read, and little by little as all of the unexpected twists and turns came into play, and characters played various battles of wit with each other,  it was seriously difficult to put the book down.  I have to admit to a few eyerolls here and there and thoughts of "as if" at different points, but the novel makes for hours of entertainment even as the author shines a light on the complicated nature of family relationships and more than a few social issues that show up within the story.  And by the way, the ending was perfect.  After reading this one,   I would really love to see more Chinese crime novels in translation (hint hint, Pushkin Vertigo).   

Recommended to people who enjoy twisty crime novels and who don't mind going deep into the dark in their reading.  

Monday, December 26, 2022

coming your way in January: Awake and Die, by Robert Ames

Stark House Press, 2023
178 pp


I just noticed that my last post here was in July. Ouch! On the other hand, July through September is usually spent reading the Booker Prize longlist, and truth be told, I haven't read my usual volume of books this year. According to goodreads, it's just 70 to date, but with this book, Awake and Die, we can up that to 71.  

In the brief author bio in the back of this book, we learn that  Robert Ames is the pseudonym of Charles Lee Clifford (1890-1991), who wrote two other books under this name:  The Devil Drives (1952) and  The Dangerous One (1954).  Memo to self: I need to have these.    Awake and Die is part of Stark House's  fantastic Black Gat collection, but was originally published in 1955,  number 518 in the old Fawcett Gold Medal series.  This  Stark House reprint duplicates the cover of the Gold Medal edition, minus the blurb 

"Murder was a pleasure and women were a pain." 

 Just to be very clear here, Awake and Die is not a whodunit; all you need to do is to read the basic outline  laid out on the back cover blurb to know that this is not an armchair detective sort of thing.  More importantly though, at the very beginning of the novel the narrator, Will Peters, wants the reader to judge whether he is a "cold-blooded killer" or if he "was off in the head," recounting events that take him up to the present day.  As he also says, "it wasn't anybody's fault, except fate's," which in my opinion sort of also challenges the reader to decide whether or not that's how it was.  

from Bookscans

It seems that Peters had been injured during the war in Korea when a bullet had pushed a piece of his helmet into his head.   After three operations, doctors finally managed to get it "all cleaned out."  Being "an outside man," after his surgeries Peters makes his way home to New Jersey to a place called Bayhaven, where he works as a clamdigger; he is to report every couple of weeks  "to be checked" by an Army Reserve doctor in the area.  One day as he lifts his basket of clams out of his boat (to be given to the doctor, a Dr. Algee, as thanks), he notices a gorgeous woman who offers her help with the heavy load, and it seems to be a mutual, instant attraction.  Claire Grace is her name, and after a while he learns among other things that she lives in the "richer part" of Bayhaven and that she's married.  After they spend some time at a bar with a couple of drinks and a dance, she scoots off after Will invites her to his place, making the excuse of not realizing how late it was.  Still, Will can't get his mind off of her, thinking that Claire was "the kind of woman a man ought to have."  

When he finally makes it back to his place, he notices a light on in the house and thinks maybe Claire might have taken him up on his offer.  The thought makes him "feverish," but it's only his former girlfriend Mae there, with her "brassy-dyed hair," her "glaring white makeup with bright-red lipstick" and her fake British accent, waving her cigarette around.   As Peters notes, "it was remembering Claire Grace, and comparing her with this drunken babe, that so enraged me."   Suffice it to say that this is the point when this story truly takes off, leaving bodies to pile up one after the other, a detective with a need to prove himself  who will not give up under any circumstances, and yet another woman who could very easily put Peters in the big house for life.  

Even though this is not a whodunit (as I noted earlier),  there is more than enough here to satisfy any reader of older crime fiction, especially because of  the many twists the author throws into the basic plot, some expected, some definitely not.     Ames lays on the sleaze factor a bit thickly in this story, which given the time of its writing is not unusual, but on the flip side, he was a fine plotter and a pretty good writer, keeping me reading and not wanting to put the book down, tying up a lot of loose ends so that I wasn't left in the dark about anything.    Evidently he was also not without a sense of humor.  One of Peters' neighbors is an old recluse who speaks to others via his seagull, his dog and his cat, each with its own distinct personality and voice; it seems that any one of them (she says, tongue-in-cheek) could potentially make the rest of Will's life miserable. [I really had to chuckle at this bit -- my dog often answers me back or makes comments in a thick New Yawk accent when I'm feeling a bit silly.]  

 My many and very grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy -- I've just recently bought a couple of their books, Only the Good, by Mary Collins (1942) and a two-volumes-in-one edition of The Make-Believe Man (1963) and A Friend of Mary Rose (1961) written by Elizabeth Fenwick, but looking through the little book pamphlet included with those, I'm super, super excited about reading Jay Dratler's Pitfall, which they list as "First in a series of Film Noir Classics."  I'm actually so stoked about that one that I'm going to go buy it now.    

Awake and Die is a big yes for me and it should most certainly be for those people who enjoy indulging in crime from yesteryear.  Recommended, definitely. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Death on Gokumon Island, by Seishi Yokomizo


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
originally published as Gokumon-To, originally serialized 1947-1948
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
310 pp


Completely overjoyed when I learned last year that this book was going to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, I hit the preorder button at lightning speed.  At the same time, I bought a dvd of the 1977 film made from this novel, directed by Kon Ichikawa, which I watched last night after finishing Death on Gokumon Island.  More on that later.    

It's September, 1946 and as the novel opens, a ferry is making its way to a few different islands in Japan's  Seto Inland Sea.   It drops its passengers until there are only three left, all heading for a small island, Gokumon-to, which translates to Hell's Gate Island.  One of these people is Kosuke Kindaichi, who overhears a conversation between the other two -- a priest who had gone to pick up the once-confiscated, now-returned bell belonging to Senkoji Temple, and another man who informs the priest that someone named Hitoshi was "supposed to be coming home soon."  He had heard the news from a soldier in Hitoshi's regiment who had come to the island a few days earlier, when the guy had turned up to tell the family that Hitoshi had sent him to let them know not only that he would be returning, but also that he hadn't been injured in the war.  The priest then asks about someone named Chimata, which captures Kindaichi's attention, sparking a conversation among the three men.  It turns out that Kindaichi, a friend of Chimata, had come to Gokumon-to let the Kito family know of his death aboard a transport ship just a month earlier. 

Kindaichi, "like every other young man in Japan," had been drafted into the army, where he had spent two years in China before being deployed "between different islands to the south." His last stop had been in Wewak, New Guinea, where his division had been defeated, causing them to retreat; his division had joined others and it was then that Kindaichi had met and befriended Chimata-san,  helping him through his bouts of a very bad case of malaria and spending time together while the other soldiers "fell one after the other."   While they eventually made it out okay when the war ended,  each time Chimata fell ill Kindaichi noted that he suffered from "an extreme fear of death."  All was well, it seemed, until Chimata fell ill on board the repatriation ship; before he died he had told Kindaichi that he didn't want to die, and that he had to go home.  Otherwise, he said,  his "three sisters will be murdered."    Exactly why this might be is not explained until the end, but by then, it's too late -- it seems that Chimata had been right, and now our detective must try to discover who is behind these (quoting the back cover) "grotesquely staged" deaths that start not too long after he lands on the island. 

1971 cover from Mandarake

He will definitely have his work cut out for him, since the islanders tend to regard anyone not from there as suspicious; he is even arrested once by the local police sergeant who has no idea of his prowess as a "famed detective" and who views him as prime suspect in the case.  With the arrival of his old friend Inspector Isokawa (from The Honjin Murders) Kindaichi is released (to the sergeant's great  chagrin, I might add), but even then it will not be smooth sailing because, as he says to Isokawa, "everyone here on Gokumon Island is crazy. They're all out of their minds."   Perhaps, but while the Inspector makes note of the insanity behind the murders, Kindaichi eventually realizes that there is most certainly a method behind the madness on the part of whoever is responsible.  

What is done very well is the description of the longstanding power structure on the island and then there's the novel's  immediate postwar setting which captures the  demobilizations that are still ongoing, the families who continue to wait for their loved ones to return home and sit by the radio to hear the latest repatriation news, and a real sense of how the war has interrupted the flow of life for most people such as Isokawa, whose career had basically stalled during World War II and remains unsettled at the moment.   At the same time, the real payoff  in reading Death on Gokumon Island must wait for the end.  I was actually becoming a bit frustrated partway through because the story becomes more than a bit muddled and clunky at times; to be fair to the author, he does toss out clues here and there but they are on the impossible side of figuring out until all is revealed and things fall into place.  Trust me -- even the most seasoned armchair detectives will not be able to figure this one out.  Word to the wise: pay attention to the list of characters offered up front; I found myself returning to it several times.

 So far, Pushkin Vertigo has published four of the books in Seishi Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi series:  The Honjin Murders, The Inugami Curse, The Village of Eight Graves and now this one.  According to Thrilling Detective, there are seventy-seven books featuring Kindaichi, so with any luck (crossing fingers) we may be seeing more in translation.   As I've noted before, my favorite is The Inugami Curse apa The Inugami Clan, but with another seventy-three left, who knows what little gems are yet to be uncovered in this series!  Despite my reading reservations at times,  Gokumon Island ends up being not only clever, but the author injects more than a twisted sense of destiny as well as a sort of tragic irony into this story once all is said and done.  Recommended for fans of the series and for Japanese crime fiction in general; it may be a bit slow in the telling but the reward is well worth waiting for. 

from TMDB

The Japanese film (1977) based on this novel (directed by Kon Ichikawa, whose The Burmese Harp I could watch on a continuous loop) starts with the same premise as the book, but for some reason I still can't fathom, the powers that be here then changed the storyline, including the identity of the killer.  Also unexpected and producing a very loud "wtf"  was a decapitation scene, and I have to say that I actually cringed every time Kindaichi scratched his head releasing clouds of very visible dandruff. Ick.  On the other hand, it streamlines the rather convoluted story making it easier to follow, but I'm glad I read the novel before viewing the movie.   All in all a fun experience but in my humble opinion, not quite as well done as the movie based on Yokomizo's Inugami Clan, also done in the 70s but miles better than this one.  

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A Taste for Honey, by H.F. Heard

Penzler Publishers, American Mystery Classics, 2019
originally published 1941
197  pp


Still following the séptimo circulo list, up next after Night Over Fitch's Pond comes H.F. Heard's A Taste for Honey (#25),  published in 1941 and reprinted in 2019 via Penzler Publishers' American Mystery Classics series.    The book was made into a 1966 film called The Deadly Bees, but more on that later.  

Last week my insomnia flared up again and I grabbed this book  hoping I'd read until drifting off.  The complete opposite happened -- once I started it I couldn't stop.  It wasn't because it's a great book, but more because what happens here was so far out of the range of most mystery/crime novels of the period and so completely unexpected that I knew there would be no sleep that night.    The story is related by Mr. Sydney Silchester, a reclusive  sort of fellow who had come to a small village in the countryside for peace and quiet. He lives under a self-made rule of "keeping myself to myself," wanting to be "left alone, at peace," preferring his own company to that of others.   Evidently something has happened to shatter his solitude and he feels the need to "set it all down" so that his record (narrated retrospectively), will let people know that he had very little blame in the matter, the whole thing having been "forced" upon him.  What follows is not exactly a mystery but a sort of bizarre story that borders on pulpy horror (not the supernatural type but more like a sort of mad-scientist adventure caper), and while there is some  detection involved here,  this is by no means a whodunit.   And it all begins with Silchester's fondness for honey, which he buys regularly from a certain Mr. Heregrove, the local village apiarist.   At one point Silchester discovers that he's running low on the stuff, and while considering his next visit to the Heregrove's farm, he learns from his house cleaner that Mrs. Heregrove had met an untimely end after being stung to death by her husband's bees.  Though the coroner's inquest arrives at a verdict of accidental death, Heregrove has been ordered to destroy his hives, which leaves Silchester without a supplier.  Not keen on asking around the village due to his "dread of business dealings" that might lead to "social entanglements," he finds himself in luck one day while out on a long walk, when he happens upon a sign advertising "a certain amount of honey" for sale.   Happy to find a new supplier,   he goes on to meet the man who posted it, a certain Mr. Mycroft, who, along with the honey, also provides him with an interesting theory.   As the back-cover blurb says, Mr. Mycroft "senses the bloody hand of murder,"  meaning that he believes that Mrs. Heregrove's death was not an accident at all.   That will be it for plot, I'm afraid, because there is no way that I'm going to ruin the show for potential readers.  

Despite some testing of my patience with Silchester and Mycroft because of their often lengthy expositions on various topics,  I had great fun with this novel.   I have to seriously offer a tip of my hat to the author on even coming up with this crazy plot, which had it not been for Mycroft's habit to  (and pardon the pun) drone on and on, might have made for better reading.  On the other hand, the nature of the villainy revealed here allows for the author to discourse about the limitations of the law which, in this case, leaves these two men no alternative but to handle things themselves.    As Mycroft notes,
"The law protects us from the sudden, unpremeditated violence of the untamed blackguard. It is helpless against the calculating malice of a man who patiently and deliberately studies to get around its limitations  When you have really faced up to the fact ... that the law, the magistrate and the village policeman are helpless to protect you, then you will be free to consider the unavoidability of step two of doing what we can do."
The situation comes down to a battle of the minds, with uncountable lives at stake if things go wrong.

 I should warn potential readers to leave the introduction for last as Otto Penzler reveals "one of the surprises in this book" in his assumption that "the secret has been revealed often enough that few readers will be astounded."  I suppose he never thought that perhaps there are still some readers like me who have neither read this book nor discussed it with anyone before, so that's certainly a big oopsie on his part.   And as to that secret, well, it's not hard to figure it out pretty much right away with all of the clues offered by the author. Trust me, that's the least concern in this novel.  Also, if you are one of those readers who must find something likeable or relatable about the characters, it's very likely you won't find it here.  All in all it was a fun read, not perfect by any means, but still very much worth the time.  

movie poster, from filmaffinity

As to that movie (an Amicus production) I mentioned earlier, the original screenplay was written by Robert Bloch,  but the director of the film, Freddie Francis, evidently didn't like it and along with Anthony Marriott, decided to change it.  That's a shame really, and according to the B&S About Movies blog, Bloch never saw the film but did say that Deadly Bees "buzzed off into critical oblivion, unwept, unhonoured and unstung."   It would probably appeal only to true-blue diehard connoisseurs of old horror films because it was pretty bad, with the plot centering around a pop singer who has gone to Heregrove's farm for a rest after fainting from exhaustion during a television performance.  The roles are actually flipped in this film, with Mr. Mycroft (still painfully expository) as the bad guy.    I couldn't actually lay hands on a copy to watch but I did find an MST3K (of which I've been a huge fan for eons) episode on youtube which didn't actually quite deaden the pain; even the sarcastic bot banter couldn't save the experience. 

MST3K version, my photo

I  also watched an episode of the Elgin Hour, "Sting of Death" (1955), which stars Boris Karloff and hews much closer to the novel than the later 1966 film.  This one is worth the watch, although  the scope is rather limited, I suppose,  due to the allotted television time. It also won the Edgar Award for best TV episode in a series in 1956.  


Boris Karloff as Mr. Mycroft

Bottom line: book fun, movie bad; book recommended just because it's so very different and strange, movie is definitely skippable unless you are a masochist.  

Friday, June 3, 2022

Night Over Fitch's Pond, by Cora Jarrett


Houghton Mifflin Company, Riverside Press, 1933
292 pp

"There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog." 

Night Over Fitch's Pond is number 24 on the Borges/Bioy list of mystery novels, and it is my introduction to author Cora Jarrett (1877-1969).  As a brief aside, I did read number 23, ECR Lorac's Black Beadle (1939), but it was a long while ago, I didn't really care for it all that much, and I was well behind reading schedule so I didn't post about it.  Oh well.  Things are FINALLY settling here at home (after what, two-plus years?)  so I'll just be moving on.   

One particular thing I'm enjoying about going through the Borges/Bioy list of books is that  it affords me the opportunity to read novels I have never read before, and in this case, an author I'd not heard of before starting this project.   Cora Hardy was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and after studying at Bryn Mawr, The Sorbonne and Oxford,  she entered into what would become a lengthy teaching career and married Edmund Seton Jarrett in 1906.   According to a blurb about her book The Ginkgo Tree at Abebooks, she "began writing in her 50s,"  with Night Over Fitch's Pond  her first novel.  She would go on to write five more novels, a number of short stories and a play, and as Barrie Hayne notes in Reilly's Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers , Jarrett's books are "deep probings into abnormal psychology" (Springer, 2015; 858), which is very likely one reason I liked Night Over Fitch's Pond as much as I did.  

The novel begins as our narrator, Walter Drake, sits by the body of Julius Nettleton in a cottage on Fitch's Pond, "a small solitary lake of great beauty."  Reflecting back on events that led to Julius' death, his mind replays what had happened over that particular summer, looking for any kind of clues as to what might have happened out on the lake that caused Julius to die.   

Julius and Mary Nettleton had first come to Fitch's Pond to visit their son George at a camp on the lake owned and run by a man named Maxon. They had discovered two abandoned cottages there, and Julius bought them both -- one for his family and one to be rented out.   Later, after the Nettletons had spent four summers on the lake, Julius had invited Walter to spend his summer at Fitch's Pond as a guest in their cabin.  Walter soon realizes that the Nettletons are no ordinary couple -- Julius, as he notes, wanted Mary to be  "a housemate only, a housekeeper, a serviceable kind of companion," while Mary had decided to "bear with humors of Julius."  Life at the Nettletons, both at home and at the lake, it seems, is built around what "Julius will want..." with Mary acceding to his wishes despite what she might want.  Walter, it seems, is also secretly in love with Mary but doesn't understand why she caves in so easily to what her husband wants.   

The real trouble begins when new tenants, Rolf and Eloise Deming,  move into the second cottage.  On first meeting Eloise, Drake comes to the conclusion (eventually proving correct) that Eloise would "go over the lot of us like a steam-roller," and secretly hopes that Julius would "get his proper come-uppance from this woman he had brought among us." He also realizes  that it would be Mary who "would pay," also a spot-on insight, especially when it hits him that Mary and Rolf had quietly fallen for each other and that Eloise knows.  Drake goes on to describe a  campaign of mental tortures inflicted on Mary by Eloise  taking readers to that "one fatal evening," which had "brought our whole precarious cardhouse of outward appearance at Fitch's Pond slithering and toppling down."   "Abnormal psychology" indeed -- there's a reason why Eloise is referred to as "an Iago in petticoats," but the one really deserving reader scrutiny here is Julius, as Drake spends that long night "laboring to plumb ... the bottomless dark" of his mind.  

While reading, my thoughts often came back to a  passage I'd marked earlier in the novel where Drake is told by a friend that 
There's a moment in the history of any tie between human beings that settles for good the question of who's going to be top dog," 
 and without giving anything away, all I will say is that there is much more than a kernel of truth in that statement, played out right up until the end.  To say much else would be criminal; in the long run, while Night Over Fitch's Pond  may not be a typical mystery story,  after the first few slow-ish chapters, I couldn't put it down.  The truth is that I enjoyed it so very much that I bought a copy of Jarrett's Pattern in Red and Black (1934; Coachwhip, 2017)  written under her alias Faraday Keene.  This character-driven story may not be for everyone, but there's just something about the deep delve into people's dark psyches  that appealed to me.  

Recommended, mainly to readers of older mysteries, as well as to people who, like myself, are always on the lookout for something different and who love finding the writings of authors whose works have pretty much faded away into obscurity.   

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

A Puzzle for Fools, by Patrick Quentin

American Mystery Classics, Penzler Publishers
originally published 1936
237 pp


"It had been a puzzle for fools..."

A Puzzle for Fools is #21 on the Borges/Bioy Séptimo Círculo list, and it's a good one.  It is also the mystery series opener for the nine books featuring Peter Duluth, Broadway producer, ranging datewise from 1936 to 1954.    

Peter Duluth has known his share of tragedy.  His wife Magdalene had died in a fire in the theater, and as a result his life started to hit the skids.  After "drinking to an eight-hour-a-day schedule" over the last couple of years,  and not "particularly reluctant" to drink himself to death, he decided that some time in a sanitarium might be a good idea.  Detoxing was pretty tough at first, but he made it through the worst and now, under the care of a trusted psychiatrist, he seems to be doing pretty well.  His "spells of depression" are less frequent and his physical self was also improving.  As this story begins though, he's not sure sure of himself -- it seems that in the dark of his room, he hears his own voice whispering to him he must get away, and that "There will be murder."  He knows he's not saying these things, and his fright overtakes him until he speaks to his psychiatrist, Dr. Lenz,  who lets him know that "this is not the first disturbing thing which has been reported recently," and that whatever he sees or hears "out of the ordinary, that thing is real and has its basis in fact."   The doctor also feels that there is a "subversive influence" at work in his sanitarium, causing him to worry about the patients and asks Peter for his help. While patients might not reveal things to him that upset them, they might say something to a "fellow inmate."   

It isn't long until he learns about the strange things that are happening among the other patients, including a few who, like Peter,  have also heard themselves talking when they know they weren't.   More talk of murder follows, and it isn't too long until talk gives way to action and someone is actually killed in a way that leaves no traces of violence.  It's a bizarre crime on the impossible side, and while Peter has been allowed to keep up with the police and their investigation in confidence,  he has some ideas of his own as to how to discover who among them is a killer.   However, before he can make any real progress, the strange occurrences continue to plague the patients, and then there's another death. 

After my less than great experience with A Puzzle for Players I was more than a bit  reluctant to once again wade into this series, but  I was surprised at how very much I enjoyed this one.  For one thing, the atmosphere is set at the beginning and doesn't let up over the course of the story.  There's just something compelling about the scene of the crime being inside of a sanitarium with its darkened corridors, locked doors and secrets; even better, this story really is a puzzle -- the author offers any number of clues to put together to get to the heart of this mystery, and his characters are so nicely drawn that at some point I realized that nearly every person in the sanitarium was a potential candidate for suspect, and that ultimately in this story, you can't really trust anyone.   

Don't miss the introduction by Otto Penzler; while I don't quite agree with Penzler's assessment of Puzzle for Fools as a "suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mode," it still makes for a good few hours of fun and unputdownable reading.    Recommended to those readers who enjoy these older mysteries.  The armchair detective in me was highly satisfied -- I never guessed the who and so I was completely taken by surprise when all was revealed.  I call that a win. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Back Country, by William Fuller


Stark House, 2022
originally published 1954
197 pp


Newly out this month, Back Country is yet another entry in Stark House's Black Gat series, "the new face of vintage mystery."  Originally published in 1954, this book is the first of six to feature Brad Dolan, described by Bill Pronzini in the introduction to this book as
"Hardbitten veteran of two wars, with a checkered past in which he ran guns from Tangiers to Saudi Arabia and smuggled aliens into the Louisiana marshes from Mexico. Former advertising exec embittered by the blatant infidelity of his ex-wife Dusty. Adventurer who resorts to violence and to skirting, bending or breaking the law when circumstances warrant. Wanderer whose primary ambitions are fishing and 'blue water, sunshine, and freedom..."

He also enjoys classical music and "can talk a little Nietzsche."

During his service in Korea,  Dolan's leg had been badly injured, and he'd been stuck in a ditch for seventy hours in minus-thirty conditions, after which he decided that he never wanted to be cold again.  Making up his mind that he'd either go to the Southwest or to Florida, a letter from a friend inviting him to Miami cinched the Florida move, so after a stint at Walter Reed hospital and a medical discharge, he was on his way.   After having left Highway 41 to make an inland crossing to the east coast, he made it to Carter County when his car threw a rod.  He made his way to a  town named Cartersville ("the Florida the tourists never see"), not  exactly his idea of the Florida paradise he'd been aiming for, but in need of a mechanic, he's pretty much stuck at least for a while.  It doesn't take long before he finds himself in trouble at a backwoods juke where he offers to buy a gorgeous blonde a drink, gets knocked out in a fight and wakes up in time to find himself taken to the county jail.  Turns out he chose the wrong blonde ... she's the wife of Mr. Rand Ringo, who pretty much owns the county, "lock, stock and barrel."  Ringo needs someone like Dolan to run his operations, someone with "know-how and intelligence and guts," and thinking he can cut himself in on some of the  action, Dolan decides to stick around for  a while.  He's given money and a place to live, and it seems that Mrs. Ringo has taken a liking to him and becomes a regular visitor (wink wink nudge nudge).   That's before he falls for Ringo's daughter, once again "getting jammed up with women," which seems is a weakness of his.  Not only is he caught between a rock and a hard place in that arena, but when Ringo tells Dolan just what he wants him to do, Dolan's not having any of it.  

original 1954 cover, from Amazon 

Subplots follow and tie in to the main storyline, and as promised in the introduction, there is definitely an "explosive climax."   Dolan's got guts and a brain, but above all he's definitely not someone who can be owned, making for a nailbiter of a showdown.  

 Just so it's clear, given that it's the 1950s and especially given that the story is set in central Florida,  racist comments run through this novel that are extremely difficult to read, but as Pronzini notes in the introduction, racism is endorsed neither by Fuller nor by his creation, Brad Dolan.   And speaking of central Florida, I live in south Florida and have been in the area of the fictional Cartersville many times  and his sense of place, even today, is spot on.  

Back Country sold out its first printing -- half a million copies within three months. I can see why -- it's a powerhouse of a novel,  especially for a first in series. This is serious pulp goodness that should not be missed.   There are no dull moments and I spent much of the time wondering how the hell Dolan was going to get himself out of the predicaments he finds himself falling into.  He's an awesome character and more importantly, Fuller was an awesome storyteller, enough so that now I have to find the other five books.  

My many and grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy of this novel.   Definitely recommended. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Embezzler, by James M. Cain


Avon Book Company, 1944
(Avon Murder Mystery Monthly No. 20)
originally serialized as "Money and the Woman" 1938
108 pp


Ask someone which books they've read by James M. Cain, and my guess is that the answers won't likely include this book, The Embezzler.  Actually, until I started reading my way through the séptimo circulo list, I didn't even know it existed, and I'm sure I'm not alone here.   

Set in the Los Angeles area, bank vice president Dave Bennett has been sent from the home office to a Glendale to check up on "not what was wrong" with the Anita Avenue branch, but rather "what was right with it."  The ratio of savings deposits to commercial was "over twice" that of any other branch, and he'd been tasked by his boss to find out "what the trick was" so that it might be something that could be used at the other branches.    When the novel begins, he's working as acting cashier.  The man responsible for such great numbers is the head teller, Charles Brent, but  Bennett likes neither his method nor the man himself, the latter for reasons he doesn't quite understand.    

Two weeks after Bennett arrives, he receives a phone call and a visit at his home from Charles' wife Sheila, who has a strange request.  Charles, it seems, needs an operation immediately to repair a duodenal ulcer, "verging on perforation," but he is worried that things will "go to ruin" at the bank if he's not there.  Would Bennett let her take his place at the bank?  She's definitely qualified, having worked at the bank in the past, and she knows "every detail" of her husband's work. As he considers his answer, it strikes him as a good idea, not only because of the "general shake-up" Brent's absence would cause, but also because he'd "liked this dame from the start."   So Sheila's in, and one day while she's out trying to bring in a loan, Dave takes over her window and discovers just that Brent's work success hides something else -- an $8500 discrepancy in the books.  Even worse, he discovers that Sheila knows all about it, but he's in love with her -- what to do?   Everything rests on Dave's decisions from this point on.  

By this point in the novel, I already had a feel for what was about to come, and for the most part, I was right.  What kept me reading wasn't so much the action here but my deep  mistrust of Sheila pretty much to the end so I had to see what happened on that front.  I mean, Cain had  already written Double Indemnity, albeit in serialized form (1935 -- it also appears along with The Embezzler in Three of a Kind in 1943)  so I couldn't help but wonder if Dave's judgment would be clouded by his instant infatuation with Sheila, or if she was going to turn out to be another Phyllis Nirdlinger taking Dave down the road to destruction.  No spoilers from me on that score. 

All in all a decent read, but I was more than a bit disappointed with the ending which one reader on goodreads described appropriately as a "major no no" for noir.   No spoilers from me, but jeez -- given all that had come before it just did not work.   Think "sappy" and you've pretty much got it.  

from IMDb

I would love to watch the film made from this novel in 1940, and I found a place that has transferred it to dvd, mine for only $25. Done, making me a happy person.    Unfortunately the shipping was like $45, making me an unhappy person,  so I guess I'll wait and hope to find a copy another time.   

If you're a fan of James M. Cain's books and want to read beyond the better-known novels, this would be a good place to start; in any case it's much better than his The Cocktail Waitress, which was just sleaze, and not good sleaze at that.  This one was just okay. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

My Annihilation, by Fuminori Nakamura


Soho Crime, 2021
originally published as Watashi no Shometsu, 2016
translated by Sam Bett
257 pp


My Annihilation is yet another book I'm reluctant to label as simply crime fiction -- there are layers upon layers to unfold during the reading, and as the author himself notes in an afterword, in this novel he is exploring 
"questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to exist in the world,"
as well as the question "what is a self?"  

It doesn't take too long to become completely immersed in this novel, which begins in "a cramped room in a rundown mountain lodge," where our narrator is considering the "various forms of identification" in his bag, all belonging to someone named Ryodai Kozuka.   In a corner of the room is a white suitcase which he did not bring there, and on the desk is a manuscript, which he believes just might be Kozuka's life story.  As he begins to read, he finds a warning:
"Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life," 

but the narrator reveals that he has "no intention" of giving up his "old life;" all he wants is Kozuka's identity.   Noting that while Kozuka may have left some "unfinished business" behind, he assures himself that "it was no business of mine."    It's at this point (and we're only on page four) that I realized that it may have been a smart thing to heed that warning, but on into the manuscript he goes.  

What he discovers within is unsettling, at best.  It begins with Kozuka's narrative about his childhood experiences, about which after only one-third of the way through, the narrator observes a similarity to his own story.  Reading on, he comes to a passage where Kozuka, looking back, notes that 
"... It doesn't even feel like this is me. It's all so blurry, like something shrouded in a distant fog.  But evidently somebody is going to take my place. Someone willing to take over for me, accepting all the horrors ... I'm going to be saved."  

This bit obviously disturbs the narrator, but only momentarily;  continuing on he comes to the story of  real-life serial killer  Tsutomu Miyazaki,  "one of the most infamous criminals in Japan."  And while the narrator asks himself "What was all that about?"  we know that there are certain things that link both Miyazaki and the author of the manuscript, which I won't mention to avoid spoilers.  Yet for our narrator, nothing seems more important at the time than opening that white suitcase, until he is interrupted by the ringing of a bell to his room.  That's when things, if not weird enough already, start to take the reader far, far down the rabbit hole.  

Without spoiling things for potential readers, what actually emerges here is a sinister plot for revenge,  and I must say it's one of the creepiest I've encountered, with the actual mystery behind it all taking a number of  surprising twists and turns before all is revealed.   Underlying this novel is the answer to the question of "what is a self,"  to which the author responds that  "Under a particular set of circumstances, it becomes impossible to tell."  Using various forms of textual material throughout the novel, the author runs with this idea, revealing just how easy it is "to get inside a person's head," an idea at the very heart of this story.  He raises questions of identity and memory, especially the ways in which they might be changed or in this case, even created. With that then comes the question of what happens to the original self that must somewhere continue to exist; this sort of philosophical/psychological underpinning  is why I noted my reluctance at the outset to define My Annihilation as just another crime novel. At the same time, it moves this book well and deeply into the literary zone, and as the back-cover blurb notes, "into the darkest corners of human consciousness."   In short, it's right up my alley.  

I love to try to solve mysteries as I read them, but My Annihilation is  one of those books where just when you think you have a handle on things, there's a shift and you realize you're completely off base.  As quickly as things change here, for me it became a matter of just giving up, going with the flow and letting things reveal themselves.   I'm not sure I'd recommend this one to all crime/mystery readers, but it's definitely for people who like their reading on the darker side.  

Monday, January 10, 2022

Act of Darkness, by Francis King


Valancourt Books, 2021
originally published 1983
305 pp


I'm actually on the fence about labeling this book as crime fiction, because really, there's so much more to it.  I mean,  there is a crime (quite a heinous one in fact), there is a bit of an investigation and a number of possible suspects who might have been responsible.  At the same time, it ventures well into the literary zone, as the author delves into and  unravels human souls, exposing people for who they really are, and it works on a metaphorical level as well.   The bottom line, however, is that it's quite good, very dark, highly atmospheric and well, anything but typical.  

Just very briefly and excruciatingly barebones so as not to spoil things for anyone who may want to read this novel, Act of Darkness is structured in five parts, and it is in the first of these, the appropriately-entitled "Omens,"  that we meet the Thompson family.   Set in India in the 1930s, they are at home  in the hill-station villa where they've gone to escape the hot summer weather of the plains.   Toby Thompson is the head of this family, although business and other matters interest him far more than his home life.  He is married to second wife Isabel, now pregnant, and they have a young six-year old son named Peter who can often be annoying and definitely curious.  Toby's daughter from his first marriage, Helen, a sort of cold young woman who feels out of place and somewhat resentful,  has recently returned from boarding school in England, and  also living in the home is Clare, Peter's governess, who likes things simple, unmessy and uncomplicated. These characters are introduced from his or her own perspective; by doing it this way King allows the reader to glean an understanding of the complexities and the tensions within their interactions with each other, and most importantly, careful readers will be able to pick out the "omens" of what's to come. 

The central "Act" of this novel is a horrific murder that happens in the middle of one night, but it's the aftereffects that are at the heart of this story.  As the author writes,
"A slow, expected death has a way of irresistibly sucking the members of a family together down its dark funnel. This death, as violent and unexpected as the explosion following the detonation of a bomb, had the opposite effect of blowing the members of the Thompson family in separate directions, however much they struggled to cling to each other." 

The murder also lays bare some of  the pent-up frustrations, jealousies and suspicions that have been simmering and chipped away at under the surface within this household.  The author absolutely excels here as he traces the effects of this crime on those left behind over the years that follow,  offering more than one or two surprising twists as he comes down to its solution.

I loved this book -- King has created an atmosphere seething with dark, sometimes violent  undercurrents running below the surface both within this family and also in India under British rule; that tension, once picked up on in the reading, just doesn't go away.  I will say that not too far after the murder, I had this sense that I already knew this story, and rifling through my brain it hit me where I'd previously experienced it.  I won't give away any hints as to what it reminded me of  (just in case), except that it was a particular and sensational crime that had occurred in England during the Victorian era.   Once it dawned on me, I was a bit upset,  thinking "well, I already know how this turns out," but as it happens, I wasn't at all prepared once the truth was revealed.  I can certainly and highly recommend this book, especially to readers who are more into the why behind  things rather than just the who.  It is a memorable story that I still see flashes of in my head  even though I finished reading it a few days ago; it's also a book that I absolutely could not put down.  

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizo

 I'm looking at the date I was last here -- September!  Yikes!   I have to say that we had an extremely rough 2021 which is actually putting it mildly, but now, thankfully, we've turned that corner and things are much better and slowly getting back to normal going into 2022.   I'll be picking up where I left off with the septimo circulo list shortly as well as with a stack of books I've sadly neglected.    Truth be told, I'm just glad to be back.  

originally published 1950
translated by Bryan Karetnyk
349 pp


Village of Eight Graves will be the third book I've read that features the somewhat shaggy-looking detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whose creator Seishi Yokomizo wrote him into a grand total of 77 novels.  Pushkin Vertigo has also published translations of his The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Clan (my favorite of the bunch so far), and there will be another one, Gokumon Island  later this year.   I've already preordered the last one, and I bought a dvd of that film as well.  I tried to find a copy of Village of Eight Graves on dvd, but I'm not all that sure I really want to pay the $60 the one I actually found goes for.   I did however, content myself with the trailer on YouTube (note: if you to and take a look at it you should know ahead of time that there are no English subtitles, but you'll get the drift).  

The story in Village of Eight Graves is set in postwar Japan, but before arriving in that time period, Yokomizo takes his readers back in time to the sixteenth century to explain how the village got its strange name.  Legend has it that eight samurai fled when their daimyo surrendered to another, taking along with them some 3,000 tael of gold.  They ended up in the village, where the people were hospitable to them until they learned that the samurai were being sought;  at that point they killed all eight, offering their heads in exchange for a promised reward.   With his dying breath, however, the leader of these warriors put a curse on the village, "vowing to visit his vengeance upon it for seven generations to come."  The villagers never did find the gold,  and six months later, the "ringleader of the attack on the warriors," a certain Shozaemon Tajimi,  went more than a bit beserk and not only killed members of his family but "every villager he came across."  Seven died, and Shozaemon killed himself, bringing the total to eight.  Believing that this attack was some sort of "retribution from those eight warriors who had been murdered in cold blood," the villagers decided to give them proper burials, "erecting eight graves where they were venerated as divinities."  

Flash forward first to the 1920s and then on to the postwar era,  as a young man named Tatsuya Terada recounts the story of  how he "embarked on an adventure of dazzling mystery and stepped into a world of blood-chilling terror."   It all begins with  the appearance of an attorney who comes looking for Tatsuya on behalf on someone who has been looking for him.  Identity satisfied, all the lawyer will tell him is that the person seeking him out is "extremely wealthy" and wants to "adopt and provide" for him.  But before he gets any further news, he receives a letter telling him  to "never set foot in Eight Graves again,"  and that if he does, "there will be blood!"  It was the first Tatsuya had heard of Eight Graves, but in another visit to his lawyer, he meets his maternal grandfather, whom the lawyer reveals is actually not the person looking for him.  However, he offers Tatsuya his true identity as the son of Yozo Tajimi, reveals that he has two unmarried half-siblings, and that neither one will ever have children. To prevent the Tajimi line from dying out, it seems that his great aunts have decided to name Tatsuya as the Tajimi heir.  But before Tatsuya even travels to the village, he is there when his grandfather dies, not a natural death, but one determined to be from poison.  This is the first of a number of strange deaths; the remainder will wait  for Tatsuya's return to Eight Graves Village, where it doesn't take long for the villagers to believe they are all done by Tatsuya's hand.  If I say much more there won't be a need to read the book, and people will likely be upset that I've spoiled things.  However,  it's when Tatsuya is taken to Eight Graves Village that not only do the deaths continue, but also that there are a number of strange, seemingly inexplicable occurrences that will test Tatsuya's mettle to the limit.  And while Kindaichi is on the scene here and there, his role remains sort of behind the scenes until the very end, leaving a 300-page plus mystery for the armchair detective reader to try and solve.  I never did but I had great fun getting to the big reveal.    

from Amazon Canada.  Kosuke Kindaichi action figure.  I want one of these!. 

One thing brought out very quickly which is extremely well done here is the effects of fear and superstition on the villagers, all stemming back to the  sixteenth-century and the ongoing belief of these people that history tends to repeat itself,  leading to exactly what some people are capable of when overcome by fear for their own lives.   The mystery (and its solution) is beyond satisfying, and there are a number of suspects from which to choose to up the whodunit game.  Like any good mystery writer, Yokomizo lays down any number of red herrings that tend to take readers down certain paths before realizing they've been had.  Unexpected twists and turns abound right up until the very end, adding to the fun and continuing to add more to the mystery itself  as well as ratcheting up the tension level for the reader.  Two things: first, my advice would be to copy the cast of characters offered at the front of the book -- I ended up doing this not too long into the novel because I found myself  constantly flipping back and forth.  Second, the story takes a bit of a turn into the realm of adventure tale having to do with the samurai gold, which was a bit off-putting until I just let myself go with it, figuring we'd get to the solution at some point -- a good decision.    And while it's not great literature, who cares? It's an incredibly fun book that will test any mystery reader's solving ability.  Definitely recommended.