Monday, November 20, 2023

A New Stark House double feature: Too Young to Die/The Time of Terror, by Lionel White


Stark House Press, 2023
270 pp


(read earlier)

Lionel White (1905-1985) was a rather prolific author whose writing career lasted well over two decades.  He got his start as a police reporter and editor of a true crime magazine before moving into the realm of fiction, where his work eventually earned him the title of  "the king of the caper novel."   White wrote nearly forty books  before his death, making his print debut in 1953.  Over the span of his career,  a few of his novels were made into films, one of which, Clean Break became Kubrick's The Killing, 1956, and Quentin Tarantino  listed White in the credits of his Reservoir Dogs (1992) as his inspiration.   Stark House has just released this double feature of two of White's novels, making it the tenth two-book volume in their Lionel White repertoire.  

1958 Gold Medal edition, from ebay

 Let me just say before launching into my thoughts here that it's probably a good thing that White used his powers to produce fiction, considering the way he planned this crime, down to the most minute of details.   Too Young to Die (1958) finds Quentin Price fresh out of prison on parole.  He has come to "One great big tremendous truth" during his time behind bars: 
"...there isn't a damn thing in the world more important than money. With it you have everything, without it you are nothing." 
His friend Tammie O'Neill (who, despite the first name is actually a guy)  tries to remind him that he's just out and that "it was that business of wanting money, thinking you needed money, that put you in the clink."   It just so happens that Tammie is an accountant who works for a firm keeping the books of Levinson and Sons, a wholesale diamond and jewelry dealer with offices in New York's diamond district, which is "supposed to be immune to burglary."  As Tammie explains, "there is isn't one chance in ten million of knocking over a score up there. Not one in ten million."   But Quent disagrees, and eventually a plan is concocted that actually might have every chance of succeeding, due to clockwork precision and the smallest attention to detail. However, White throws a  big monkeywrench into his story with Cindy, seventeen and the fianceé of Patsy Frocetti (also a guy despite the name), a mechanic and stock car racer whom Tammie brings into the plan for his knowledge of cars. As with the other characters in on the job, Patsy is sworn to secrecy, prevented from telling even Cindy because "Quent Price don't trust no girls to know."  But Patsy isn't very good at secrets, and between his loose lips and Cindy's growing attraction to Quent and vice versa, the plan could very well be in jeopardy.  

As far as the caper in this story is concerned, as I said earlier, White's plotting was downright meticulous, with the job planned down to the minute and even the smallest details taken into consideration.  I have to say that while I haven't read many books of this sort (capers and heists), I got seriously caught up in the setup for the robbery because it was done so well. But from the opening chapter, which begins just a hair's breadth from the ending of the story before going back in time to answer the questions of a) what's going on and b) how did we get here, I knew that things evidently had not gone to plan, and that Quent was not going to be walking away in the sunset, pockets jingling with his ill-gotten gains.  But, and a SERIOUS caveat lector here,  the Cindy-Quent subplot, on the other hand, made me completely uncomfortable with the fact that an older guy was attracted to a teenager, but then the author took things waaaaayyyyyy too far with a scene where she's fighting him off, this "man suddenly insane," not hearing hear pleas to stop, where she's crying out "in agony as the pain shot through her."  That's bad enough at any age, but with a seventeen year-old girl, it's especially disgusting and uncalled for.  Without that, Too Young to Die would have made for near-perfect crime reading -- I have no idea exactly why the author felt it would add to the story.  

from Goodreads

Imagine my reluctance then to proceed on to the next book, The Time of Terror (1960).  As it turns out though, I needn't have worried.  From the outset we learn that Elizabeth Farrington Dobie (Bet) finds herself "again and again" reliving some sort of horrific event from a "tragic period."  The day that things happened was June tenth, with its beginning  a "bright, clear, fresh morning."  Bet is married to Chris, and the two have two children, Marion (Midge) and little Christian, aka Christian Dobie III, and they live next door to Christian Dobie Sr., Chris' dad in an upscale neighborhood.  Christian works for the Dyna-Electro Corporation, a company he had founded with two people from his days in the Navy, while Bet is a stay-at-home mom. She has a helper in Grace Williams, whom Bet found at a Catholic Protectory and who had been in some sort of trouble earlier in her life.  Now Grace works as a sort of housekeeper and nanny, taking "marvelous care of the children."    The Dobies live a good life, and on June tenth, Christian is on his way to Washington DC for work.  As we learn,  "It was like every Monday morning."   Bet, with children and Grace in tow, leaves to do some shopping, although an earlier phone call  had left Grace upset and wanting to watch the children at home.  Bet, however, knew the kids looked forward to the ride, and she needed Grace to take care of them in the car.  Off to the shopping center, and after a twenty-minute period of shopping, Bet returns with purchases in hand, watching Grace and Midge at the nearby merry-go-round in the parking lot, but little Christian is nowhere to be found.  

Meanwhile, in the neighborhood known as Shadydell Estates,  Frank Mace has found himself in a jam, in "serious, desperate trouble." His wife and kids have left and he'd lost his job three months earlier, which made a huge difference for his family, who always just "got by" on his salary.  The buyers like Frank who'd moved into Shadydell hadn't counted on all of the extra expenses of home ownership, and with children and a wife to support, the living hadn't been easy to begin with.  Frank, as the breadwinner, soon finds himself in despair, wondering how he's going to make it.  One night when the "troubles and worries and all" had pretty much "driven him out of his mind," he got really drunk and let his friend Barney talk him into letting another woman console him.  Bad idea -- his wife Ruthie, who had stuck by him through the money woes, wasn't about to hang around after he'd confessed to her.  Now he's got creditors chasing him, and he wants Ruthie and his kids back.  All he knows is that "Money was the key," and that "he'd get it no matter what he had to do," even if he "had to rob and kill for it."   On that very same beautiful Monday,  Frank decides on a plan, although opportunity changes things up a bit when he comes upon a little boy alone in a car parked next to his in a shopping center parking lot.  

While the Dobies live through every minute that follows in absolute terror,  Frank's friend Barney discovers what Frank has done and takes charge of things. As the blurb for this book notes, " And that's when the real trouble begins..."

I really enjoyed The Time of Terror.  Frank's utter desperation translates very well from pen to page here as does the horror of the Dobies having to live through the kidnapping of their child.  As Matthew Sorrento notes in his introduction to this volume, the author becomes a "sharp social critic," as he "dissects the flight to the suburbs as a financial trap."   His commentary, says Sorrento, explores "suburban decay hidden beneath the veneer of old money and exploitative practices," a topic beyond relevant more than seventy years later in our own time, another factor in making it a worthy read.   So for me, this two-books-in-one volume as a whole is a mixed bag, with the terrific caper plot in  Too Young To Die completely marred by the unnecessary rape of a teenaged girl while  The Time of Terror kept me turning pages.  

One more thing: Sorrento's introduction will definitely be appreciated by film buffs -- I spent time looking online through each and every description of each movie he mentioned and I was just in awe at his wealth of knowledge.   My (as usual!! ) many thanks to Stark House for my copy.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Double Murder at the Grand Hotel Miramare, by Elena and Michela Martignoni


Kazabo Publishing, 2023
originally published as Doppio delitto al Miramare, 2015
178 pp 


I really enjoy reading translated fiction, no matter the genre.  My last couple of reads (outside of crime) came from Argentina and Mexico, and I'm always delighted when something new in translation comes along.   I'm not quite sure who specifically translated this book, Double Murder at the Grand Hotel Miramare, but there is a baker's dozen of translators listed as being on the translation team, which is something I hadn't encountered before.    According to goodreads, this book is number five of the thirteen in the series featuring Deputy Assistant Chief of Police Luigi Berté,  written by these two women under the name of Emilio Martini.  [sidebar:  one of the books on the goodreads list is shown as number 4.5 so I have no idea what that means, exactly -- how do you write half a book?  It's always tough starting a series that's obviously well underway,  and  although the authors allude to some past events in Berté's life (a messy breakup, some sort of trouble in Milan and a move to his current location in Lungariva along the Ligurian coast),   I feel like I didn't quite have the entire story, which was a wee bit frustrating;  on the other hand, the holes in my knowledge didn't exactly hinder my reading experience too much so it was okay.  

It's Easter Monday, and Berté has his heart set on both a wonderful lunch at the Pensione Aurora and seeing Marzia, the married woman with whom he is in a secret relationship.  But, as he says after a phone call from his sergeant,  "a double murder has a way of distracting you from your thoughts, as well as ruining your plans."  Called to the luxe Hotel Miramare, he finds the two victims, "permanent guests" there,  together in bed in one of the hotel rooms, evidently shot while sleeping by someone  in a "blind rage" who was neither a professional nor someone too familiar with the use of weapons.  Both of them are employed by Countess Licia Trevisan, a very wealthy woman whose husband, the Count Van Der Meer, had made his fortune in South Africa. She is, as the manager notes, "one of our most important clients."   The male victim is Roberto Sommariva, an accountant, while the female victim, Ornella Ferrari, is the Countess' secretary.    After talking to his boss, Berté learns that along with his regular colleagues Pasquale Parodi and Francesca Belli, he has been assigned help from a homicide unit and a forensics team from Genoa.  He will need it -- not only is the hotel packed with guests who are all potential suspects,  but the Countess, who may just be a suspect herself, is being rather tight lipped with the police.  And quite frankly, she rubs Berté the wrong way from the start.  As the two teams get to work,  they discover that there is plenty of motive to go around; the further they get into the investigation, they realize that there are also plenty of secrets being kept that need to be unraveled if there is any hope at all of catching the killer. 

from Corbaccio

I enjoyed this book so much that when I'd finished it, I asked Chiara from Kazabo if any more of these books had been translated.  I got a no for an answer, but the point is that I was ready to hit the buy button if they had.  There's a lot to like here, beginning with the main character, who banters with his conscience that he's named "The Bastard" (whose words appear in italics), who is constantly razzed about this ponytail, and who has a good working relationship with his two main colleagues as well as with the team from Genoa.  Berté has a temper, can get angry in his job and likes to do things his way; at least he's smart enough to realize that in this investigation at least, there are times when he's walking on thin ice.  Like his father, also a member of the police force,  he is a huge fan of detective novels, and the authors have scattered different titles and writers throughout the novel that shed light on Berté's favorites (and obviously, their own influences in crime writing).    I also want to highlight the fact that the core mystery itself connects distant past with present, which I love in a novel of any genre.   And while there is romance involved here, it's not so distracting as to mess with the investigation/crime solving narrative, which I've seen happen all too often.  Finally,  Double Murder at the Grand Hotel Miramare is a nicely-plotted,  old-fashioned murder mystery written without gore or gratuitous sex,  making it a pleasure to read.   How often does that happen these days if you're not a cozy reader? 

I would like to thank Chiara for offering me the opportunity to read this novel and sending me an e-pub version, which I promptly forgot about until her much-needed but gentle nudge made me feel so guilty about sitting on it that I actually bought a copy.  I love what Kazabo does, offering crime fiction (and other books)  in translation from authors whose work has not yet reached an English-speaking readership.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of translated crime/mystery fiction, as well as to readers who just want to curl up with a good mystery novel where the focus is actually on the mystery itself.  

Thursday, November 2, 2023

and now we come to the end -- The Four False Weapons, by John Dickson Carr


Berkley Books, 1957
originally published 1937
217 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier in October)

It's truly a pity that the British Library Crime Classics series (as of right now)  doesn't include the final Bencolin mystery, because until they do, I'm sort of stuck with this cover, which was probably very cool in 1957 but doesn't hold a candle to the covers from the British Library.   This book lives in one of many baskets of old, beat-up, barely- read mass market paperbacks that I probably bought at yard sales or library sales over the last god knows how many years, while my British Library books live on their own shelves.  It will likely go back in its basket now, and hopefully the British Library will publish a new edition and I can add that one to the other four that came before.  I really hate when things are incomplete.  

In terms of tone, The Four False Weapons is absolutely unlike the other Bencolin novels.  Gone are the sort of grand guignol theatrics and the supernatural-ish/macabre elements Carr flirted with to give his books a different edge, and alas, gone too is Jeff Marle.   I have to say that I missed all of these things while reading Four False Weapons, just as I'll miss Bencolin now after having finished this book.  

The mystery doesn't present itself right away as in the previous books.  Instead, we meet Richard Curtis, who works as junior partner in a law firm whose "professional dealings" are mainly with "the more conservative families of Great Britain and certain English families abroad."  What he does isn't particularly exciting but more on the "humdrum" side, leaving him with the feeling that there has to be more out there and dreaming of something along the cloak-and-dagger lines.  He dreams of the day when his boss will tell him that he has a "mission for you to undertake," and as this novel begins, to his great surprise, today is that day.   As it happens, his boss is sending him off to Paris to meet and take care of Ralph Douglas, a wealthy client whose brother is in the Diplomatic Service, and whose fiancée is the daughter of a highly-esteemed head of a well-known travel bureau.  It seems that there is "something very, very fishy" going on at Ralph's home in the Forest of Marly, the Villa Marbre, that is connected to his former mistress, Rose Klonec (actually, the phrase Carr uses here is "poule-de-luxe" which translates out to something like "kept woman").   Before leaving,  Curtis gets advice from his boss to get in touch with Bencolin, whose might be "very useful" to the business at hand.    Once he meets with Douglas, his client tells him about "three queer incidents" starting with an offer to buy the Villa Marbre.  The second came about when Douglas had gone out to the now-empty villa (where he'd lived with Rose before they broke things off), and found things locked up, dusty and "undisturbed" as he'd expected, but with lights and water working, which he hadn't expected since he'd ordered them to be shut off.   And finally, while taking a look around, upstairs he'd discovered that in Rose's room there were pillows and new linens on the bed, followed by the discovery of a full refrigerator.  All of the above adds up in Ralph's eyes to "something damned funny going on," but there is absolutely nothing funny about the discovery of Rose's body and the maid's unbreakable insistence that Ralph had been there with Rose the night before when he swears he hadn't been near the place.  Enter Bencolin, who just happens to live nearby, and who finds too many clues that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with Rose's death.    

the original 1937 Harper Sealed edition, from AbeBooks

I have to be honest here -- while it's another fun Bencolin entry, it falls heavily on the convoluted side when it comes to the French detective actually solving the case, in my opinion making the book longer and the ending more complicated than it needed to be.  There was one point where I'd thought the story was over, only to count the remaining pages and discover that it couldn't possibly end there.  And I was so right -- Bencolin had more than a few tricks left up his sleeve, none the least of which was an antiquated card game at a private gaming house.

I think this was my least favorite of the five books, yet despite the unnecessary over-complicatedness of it all, the twists and turns in the plot kept me engaged throughout.  More than anything, I was sad to see the end of the weirdness in the basic plots of the first four novels, but having said that, it's clear to me that those four Bencolin stories were the work of an author trying to find his footing; judging by what I've read by Carr outside of that series, The Four False Weapons is the closest in style to his later books.  

So, it's adieu to that series, but not to Carr -- I have every book the man has written, which will likely keep me going for some time.  As far as this novel, I'd recommend it in general to fans of this era of British mystery fiction, to hardcore Carr enthusiasts, and to those readers who must read and finish their mystery/crime series in order.    It's been a good series run. 

The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr


British Library, 2020
256 pp


(read earlier)

In this installment of the Bencolin series, Carr offers up a bit of detective fun that blends British lore, a bit of  Egyptian flair and an intriguing mystery from the past, all of which together make for a crafty whodunit.   

Bencolin and Marle are in London to see a play, and there they are staying with one of Bencolin's old friends, Sir John Landervorne, the former assistant police commissioner of the Metropolitan police.  Landervorne lives at the Brimstone Club (which right away brought to mind the legendary Hellfire Club ) and our two friends are his guests there.   Over tea hanging becomes the topic of conversation, as Bencolin recalls a story about the "odd murder" of a man discovered by the Paris police  "dressed in the sandals and gold robes of an Egyptian  noble of four thousand years ago," who'd been shot in the head."   The sequel, Bencolin notes, was that while in a French prison, an "Englishman" had hanged himself, using the sheets of his bed."  From there, Landervorne launches into his own hanging story, about a man who recently had become involved in "some queer business" after having had one too many and getting lost in the fog.  It seems that the man had seen "the shadow of a gallows and a rope," and that "the shadow of Jack Ketch was walking up the steps to adjust the rope."  Sir John dismisses it  as a "cock-and-bull" story, but Bencolin wants to know more.  Just as Bencolin is remarking the strangeness of seeing a gibbet "under one's own window,"  Sir John calls his attention to a chair in the room, on which a model of one sits:

"no more than eight inches high ... made of cedar wood painted black. Thirteen steps led up to the platform, to a trap held in place by tiny hinges and a rod. From the crossbeam dangled a small noose of twine."  
The lounge steward identifies it as belonging to another resident of the Brimstone Club, a certain Nazem El Moulk,  who had received it earlier that day in the mail.   

The core mystery of this book actually begins after Bencolin, Marle and Landervorne leave the play and Marle is nearly run down by a limo driven by a dead man, whose throat had been cut "ear to ear."  Marle realizes that the limo belongs to El Moulk, and that his chaffeur is the unfortunate driver.  Back to the Brimstone they go, just in time to see the car come to a stop. Although Marle had seen El Moulk get into the car and be driven away, he is nowhere to be seen.   When the police arrive, the inspector reveals that earlier that evening, a call had come in reporting that "Nezam El Moulk has been hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street."   The problem is that there is no such place in the city -- so where is El Moulk?   As they head out into the dark city streets to try to find him, Bencolin and Marle find themselves in a race against time and a modern-day, would-be Jack Ketch intent on upping the body count.

1947 Pocket Books edition, from AbeBooks

As with the other books I've read in this short series,  The Lost Gallows narrowly skirts the supernatural without actually going there.   Carr does a great job of enticing the reader into the story pretty much right away, raising the tension and darkening the atmosphere little by little as the investigation goes on. There's also a bit of meta going on here, as the author delves into the subject of writing crime fiction and the pitfalls faced by writers in the genre when it comes to pleasing their audiences.   Once again, I didn't guess the who, which made me a very happy camper, but I did enjoy the journey, and spent quite a bit of time down the rabbit of hole of researching Jack Ketch and the history of British executions in general.   While modern readers may find these books a bit on the tedious side, I never get tired of them ... I've grown used to Carr's long-winded style by now, and quite honestly, I'm always impressed with the way in which he puts his mysteries together.   And, as I've said before about this series, the books are just plain fun and provide solid entertainment for a few hours when I need an escape.  

Recommended for diehard readers of mysteries of this period, as well as for fans of the British Library Crime Classics series, which is absolutely awesome.