Friday, June 28, 2024

PPL #3: Good By Stealth, by Henrietta Clandon


Dean Street Press, 2020
originally published 1936
211 pp


Although Good By Stealth was first published in 1936, in the realm of mystery/crime novels centered around poison pen letters it's something new and different.  One, we know who sent these letters  around the small village of Lush Mellish; two, we know that the perpetrator had served time behind bars for her crime, and three, it all comes out of the mind of a single person via a very long flashback.  It is, as author Henrietta Clandon* writes in the foreword, a "story told from the inside; a story which has already been told from the outside by the newspapers."  

The beginning of the novel has Miss Edna Alice out of prison now for  ten months, and writing "the story of the latter part of my life before malicious people and an absurd verdict, unjustly deprived me of my liberty."   As she also notes, she had found herself "in the same category as a mentally unsound woman who posts disgusting letters to her neighbors."  To hear her tell it,  she was a "victim of persecution, one born before her time," and the letters were meant as "constructive" criticisms, meant to help the receivers to do what was right and in the long run, become a better person.  It's not her fault if her letters caused turmoil among the population of Lush Mellis.   

Arriving in the village with her dog and a determination to be an active part of village life, she immediately finds fault with the several visitors who call on her.   The vet's wife she found "odd," the two doctors' wives she found to be  "a snob" and a gossip, but in the long run, she feels that her move to Lush Mellis was "a good one," and goes on to form and to join several circles in the community.   Before long, she finds and points out a number of problems within each group -- in her mind, she's just trying to offer helpful suggestions or to offer the benefit of her experience. Needless to say, neither her presence nor her help are appreciated, and eventually she begins to find it "strange" that her "efforts to help people, and give them a life, led to ingratitude and offensiveness."   She is never at fault, her dogs can do no wrong, and according to Miss Alice, it must be the case that there is a "campaign to wound and hurt" her, one to bring her name "down into the dust"  and get her to leave.   After some time, as a number of incidents involving Miss Alice pile up and she gets no satisfaction from the police or anyone else,  she begins her own campaign, secretly and anonymously, to  "morally and socially" rejuvenate Lush Mellish  doing her "good by stealth," and the letter writing begins. 

 How terrific it is that Dean Street Press brought this book from obscurity out into the light for modern readers!!  While there is a bit of investigating going on towards the end of the novel as the police try to discover just who the poisonous pen belongs to,  there really is not much of a mystery here at all, and that's okay. Good By Stealth is a most unusual and captivating character study capturing the workings of the mind of a woman whose world and her reaction to it exists in a singular, narrow point of view.  While it's impossible to discount that there just may be a kernel of truth in what she has to say about her fellow villagers, any sympathy I have for Miss Alice comes only in minute, tiny amounts, and that only in connection with her dogs.  On the other hand, the book made me laugh out loud here and there and roll my eyes often because of the sheer hypocrisy involved, and it was absolutely fun to read.  A unique perspective on the poison-pen-letter novel, this is one I can definitely recommend to readers of vintage crime/mystery fiction. 

*Henrietta Clandon was one of several pen names of John George Haslette Vahey (1881 - 1938), likely most known for writing under the name of Vernon Loder.  

Monday, June 24, 2024

Kiss the Blood off My Hands, by Gerald Butler


Stark House Press, 2024
originally published 1948
166 pp


Just released this month, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is the latest in the Noir Film Classics  series from Stark House Press.  I have a few of these books but this is the first I've read.  And since I love to see books I've read  sort of come alive on the screen, I bought a copy of the 1948 film based on this novel starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine and watched it as soon as I'd finished reading.  More on the movie later -- on to the book. 

The action begins in a pub when Bill Saunders, fresh off the boat in England,  kills a bouncer. He hadn't meant to, but the punch he'd landed on the man's face knocked him to the floor, stone cold dead. He doesn't care that the guy is dead; all he cares about is getting out of there.   Before anyone could call the police, Bill takes off running and so do a few others, chasing right behind him.  He notices a woman "going into a door," and takes advantage of the situation, forcing his way in.  Deciding to stay overnight, the next morning Bill discovers that the woman (Jane) has guts and doesn't seem afraid of him.  He realizes that she's different than the other women in his experience, and that  "There was something about her."  Eventually he leaves after she returns home from her job, but it won't be the last they see of each other. 

Bill is a certified tough guy, beating up and stealing money from taxi customers, robbing a sex worker, referring to women as bitches and tarts, and violence, which exists just beneath his surface,  is his way of dealing with most situations.  For him, people are just mugs, and as such, they're prey, ready to be taken advantage of.  He doesn't respond normally on an emotional level, but he is definitely attracted to Jane, showing up at her workplace,  but with Jane (whom he refers to as "the kid"), he's different.  He still hasn't told her that he'd actually killed the bouncer, and somehow he is able to persuade her to go out with him, at first to the races, then for tea based on the money she'd won from the track but when they're on a train and Bill tries the 3-card con on a fellow passenger, she sees his true colors when he turns violent when the fellow doesn't want to play any longer.  Then she lets him have it:
"I can't pretend that I didn't know you were a tough guy. I was fool enough to allow myself to be attracted by that. But I thought there was something decent underneath. Now I know there isn't. You're nothing but a cheap, bullying hooligan." 
Although she tells him she never wants to have anything to with him again, and that he's "rotten," it's that "something decent underneath" that Jane saw in him that eventually brings the two back together, with her believing that maybe a decent job would do him some good and give his life "a shape again."  Can she change this man  by taming what Curtis Evans refers to in his introduction as "his brutal impulses with the proverbial good woman's love?"  Is Bill at all redeemable and can he truly be rehabilitated?  In the meanwhile, in an horrific twist I didn't see coming, Jane finds herself in an unexpected dilemma that has the potential to bring everything crashing down around the two of them and tear down what the two have managed to build. 

The length of this book has nothing whatsoever to do with its complexity, and when an author can pack so much into such a short space, in my opinion, he's done a fine job.  Here that complexity is found not only in the character of Bill, or in the question of redemption, but more to the point, in the way that Butler maps out exactly how one random event sets everything else into motion, with unintended, and most certainly unexpected  consequences rippling down the line, definitely a true noir trait. 

It's so good that I couldn't put it down once I'd picked it up.   Solidly good reading and an absolute must for anyone who likes tough, gritty  twisty noir.  A giant thank you to Stark House for my copy!

And now the film -- I once did a mega Burt Lancaster moviefest in the comfort of my own home, but somehow I missed this one.  Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was released in 1948, with Lancaster starring alongside Joan Fontaine.  The opening chase sequence is just dynamite with Lancaster running through the dark, shadowed streets of London before climbing into Joan Fontaine's window.   All of the basics of the novel are there as a foundation, although there are quite a few changes, as expected.   Fontaine plays Jane, whose occupation changed between page and screen from a shopgirl  to a nurse.  I have to think that it's as a caregiver that movie Jane recognizes something damaged inside of Bill, and it is instinct that makes her want to help him.  It's also a good setup, because as part of Jane's ability to help him keep his violent tendencies in check and get Bill focused, she is able to get him a job as the driver for the clinic where she works; in one particular case, he is able to bring a young father the medicine his dying daughter desperately needs to survive.  Even though ignorance causes the dad to not want his child to have it, the scene affords a glimpse of something within Bill that truly cares about this little girl as he forces his past the father to make sure she gets what she needs.  And speaking of Bill, in the film he admits to having been a POW, where in the book, he doesn't really have too much backstory going on.   One of the biggest changes, however, has to do with a blackmailer played by actor Robert Newton, whose utter nastiness comes through on the screen enough to make you uncomfortable just looking at the guy.  I won't say what the differences are so as not to wreck things, but the changes vis-a-vis that particular portion of the plot  worked very nicely in the film, as the suspense ratchets slowly until a fateful moment, but it's clear that the story's not quite over yet.   Nicely done, although I did prefer the ending in the novel to the ending of the film, although I didn't jump for joy over either one.

So, both book and movie are a yes, both I can easily recommend. 

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Dead Girls, by Jorge Ibargüengoitia


Picador, 2018
originally published 1977 as Las muertas
translated by Asa Zatz
194 pp


(read in April -- slowly but steadily trying to catch up)

Wandering through my bookshelves one afternoon looking for something off the beaten path, I found this book, which I'd completely forgotten that I owned. I picked it up, started reading and completed it almost overnight because I couldn't put it down.  It is goes well beyond mere crime fiction into a realm of its own.  

The Dead Girls opens with four people in a "cobalt-blue car" making a long trip to the small town of Tuxpana Falls.   The group arrives at San Juan del Camino where the only woman in the group goes into the church there and offers a prayer for "good luck" in a particular "undertaking," which will happen within the next three hours.   In Tuxpana Falls, one of the group asks a woman where he might find a bakery, learning in return that there are actually three in the town.  It's at the third of these that they find the object of their search, a certain Simón Corona; it's also there where all hell starts to break loose as the woman, Serafina Baladro, is handed a gun and starts shooting.  While Corona and another woman who works at the bakery take cover under the counter, one of Serafino Baladro's companions sets the bakery on fire.   Serafina and the three men go back to the car and drive away.  As the police ask questions, it turns out that the shooter was no stranger to Simón Corona  -- he had lived with Serafina on and off in the past, until the last time when they'd traveled together to Acapulco and he'd finally called it quits and left.  In a strange twist, two weeks after the shooting, officials called for a second round of questioning with the baker that ended up costing him a six-year stint in prison.  

What unfolds as the author reveals the reasons behind the shooting and Simón Corona's imprisonment is the story of two sisters who own a couple of brothels in rural Mexico.   While "All the characters are imaginary," as the author notes before the novel even begins, "Some of the events described herein are real."  The real-life inspiration for The Dead Girls is the story of the Poquianchis, four sisters, who like the Baladro sisters in the book, owned several brothels.  During the course of their operations between 1945 and 1964, they are known to have been responsible for 91 deaths, although the article I've linked to above notes that the body count might actually be as high as 150.  Ibargeüngoitia's version of the story is not simply a retelling, as he has constructed a narrative moving back and forth in time, incorporating testimony, police reports, interrogations and other forms of reportage that give the novel a sort of true-crime feel, while at the same time bringing into focus the corruption and other factors that allowed it all to happen.  It's a dark book, to be sure, but while reading it's almost impossible not to laugh at some points.  It has a sort of absurdist, black-comedy aspect that made me feel horribly guilty every time I'd feel a chuckle coming on. In its own way, it also offers more than a bit of stinging social criticism, examining issues that continue to plague Mexico today.  

I can most definitely recommend The Dead Girls to readers who want more out of their crime fiction and who enjoy books based on real events, as well as to readers who, like me, enjoy Latin American literature in general.  I loved this book. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Point Zero, by Seichō Matsumoto


Europa Editions, 2024
originally published as Zero no shoten, 1959
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
279 pp 


 I needed a short novel for late-night reading while family was here last week and Tokyo Express (apa Points and Lines) called out to me from my shelf, after which I found myself wanting to read more of Matsumoto's work.  I chose this one,  Point Zero, which, like Tokyo Express, is set against the backdrop of  postwar Japanese society.  I found myself unwilling to put it down at any time once I'd started reading, and I liked it so much that I took out my copy of the author's A Quiet Place (also from Europa) which I'm ready to start later this evening.  About Point Zero, it's best to say as little as possible so as not to give away too much, so my post will be a bit vague.  Personally, I think the back-cover blurb is too spoiler-ish but feel free to disagree. 

 Although Teiko Itane had received marriage proposals in the past, she'd turned them all down.  Her situation changes when she receives a proposal from a certain Kenichi Uhara via a matchmaker.  Uhara is the manager of the Hokuriku branch of a major advertising firm, spending twenty days a month at the office in Kanazawa City and ten days in Tokyo.  That arrangement is of particular concern to Teiko's mother, but it seems that the company has been trying to get him to move to Tokyo for a while and he's finally agreed, using the opportunity to finally get married as well.  Even though they hadn't spent any time alone together, Teiko decides to accept the proposal, and also believes that whatever life he'd had in the past should stay in the past.  This decision will come back to bite her later, but for the moment, aside from some sort of  unspoken "complexity" within Kenichi that she senses, the few early days of the marriage that they share aren't so bad for either of them.  She's made friends with Kenichi's brother's family (who live in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo) and after the honeymoon, the plan is for Kenichi to make his final trip to Kanazawa to hand over the job to his successor, a certain Yoshio Honda, who will be accompanying him on the train journey.   As she watches the train pull out of the station, she has no clue that this will be "the last time Teiko ever saw her husband." 

The first hint that something is wrong comes when Kenichi sends a postcard saying that he'll be home on the twelfth and fails to show up.  After a few phone calls, Teiko learns that nobody in the company knows where he is; on the third day the section chief of Kenichi's company advises her that someone will be going to investigate his disappearance in Kanazawa.  He also asks if she would be willing to accompany that person.  Kenichi's brother Sotaro can't get away at that time, so she heads to Ueno station where she learns that Honda has already been in touch with police and is taking Kenichi's disappearance very seriously.  Once she arrives in Kanazawa, she learns a bit more about Kenichi's movements the day before he was to take the train home to Tokyo, the results taking both Honda and herself by surprise. But this information is just the opening salvo of many more surprises to come, including a series of unexpected deaths and a ruthless killer who is determined not to be caught.  The question that drives Teiko here is just how these deaths are connected. She also realizes that "Her husband had a secret. What was it?"   Beginning her quest with only two photos of two different houses that might possibly be some sort of clue,  finding the answers becomes for Teiko nearly a full-time occupation.  She also doesn't realize that she is up against a very powerful and determined opponent, someone who will do anything to prevent the past from catching up to the present, no matter the cost. 

1971 edition (in which the cover is much more relevant and given the story, downright creepy)  from Amazon

Aside from the twists and turns that this story takes, I was struck while reading Point Zero by two things.  The first is the sense of place that Matsumoto layers into this novel, whether it is in describing  various views captured within the neighborhoods of Tokyo or (and most especially), his incorporation  of the natural world away from the city.   The second is that the most forceful characters throughout the novel are women.  Anyone who goes into this novel with preconceived notions of docile Japanese women taking a back seat to the men in their orbits may be surprised at the strength the author affords to many of the females here.  While there are more than a few I could talk about, it starts with Teiko, who is strong, highly independent and more than determined to get to the root of Kenichi's disappearance.  She has no trouble trying to dig out information from people ranging from top company executives to the police to denizens of the neighborhoods her investigation takes her, and obviously she will not be satisfied until she knows everything there is to know, even if she has to rethink things now and again.  

The novel is utterly twisty, full of betrayals and secrets which eventually are unraveled to take the reader to another time and place entirely.  All of the above makes for  a solid mystery at the core of this novel, and I seriously had trouble putting it down once I'd started.  I have a great love for Japanese crime authors who use their writing to explore human nature and troubled psyches, and  Point Zero certainly appeals on that level as well.  What elevates it beyond ordinary is Matsumoto's ability to set the crime not only within historical context but in a changing social context as well.  This one I can certainly and highly recommend, especially to readers of vintage Japanese crime fiction.  I loved it. 


I also watched the film adaptation of this novel made in 1961.  There is also a 2009 version that I would love to see, but I have to wait for a long while for my DVD to arrive.    For now, luckily I subscribe to the Criterion Channel and there it was (the 1961 film) along with other Japanese noir movies.  The beginning happens very quickly  with fast scene changes and seems a bit clunky;  later these quick cuts will be a bit more fleshed out via flashback. It's only when Teiko arrives in Kanazawa that the movie gets a bit more back on track, but I was definitely thankful I'd read the novel ahead of seeing the film or quite frankly I would have been shaking my head at the start wondering what the heck is happening here.   The powers that be did make a number of changes to the original source material, but even with those it is still well worth watching.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

PPL#2: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers


Bourbon Street Books, 2012
originally published 1936
528 pp


I read this book earlier this month but as usual, it's hectic around here leaving very little me time for posting my thoughts.  Gaudy Night arrives late in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, and because I'd forgotten what happens in nearly every book to this point, I've had to do a massive (and quick) reread of all that came before.  Well, not all actually; I skipped the short story collections and The Five Red Herrings after diving into it for a bit and got back on the track leading to Gaudy Night, promising myself I'd go back and pick them up another time, along with Busman's Honeymoon, the final original Wimsey novel.  If the length seems a bit on the daunting side, and while Gaudy Night could easily have been a bit shorter with nothing lost, I was surprised at how quickly the five hundred-plus pages went by.  

Anyone who has read the novels that came before will instantly recognize that this one is very different in comparison to the previous Wimsey novels.  While Harriet Vane, the main character in Gaudy Night, had earlier appeared in both Strong Poison (where she first meets Lord Peter while on trial for murder) and Have His Carcase (during which she comes across a body on a rock along the coast, beginning one of the strangest cases of the lot), here she takes center stage.  Since the events of Strong Poison, she'd become a writer of detective stories, had achieved a measure of financial success, and has been asked by Lord Peter to marry him several times, all of which she had turned down.  Now,  in a story that begins as she is invited to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (reunion) at Oxford, she's a bit nervous about going due to how she'll be received after all the notoriety she'd suffered through, but once there, she finds herself welcomed. Fears eased, she goes on to have a good time, leaving with the feeling that she had "broken the ice," and would be going back "from time to time."  It's during a stop for lunch on her way home that she discovers a particularly nasty note in the sleeve of her gown, "made up of letters cut apparently from the headlines of a newspaper," referring back to her earlier troubles.   Back in London,  she continues to receive "anonymous dirt" while trying to deal with her own "conflicting claims of heart and brain" as far as Wimsey goes.  Some time later, towards the end of Easter Term, a  letter from the Dean arrives, inviting her to the opening of the New Library Wing, along with an appeal for her "advice about a most unpleasant thing" that has been going on at Oxford.  It seems they have been "victimized by a cross between a Poltergeist and a Poison-Pen."  The letters are easy to ignore, but not the "wanton destruction of property," the "last outbreak" having been "so abominable that something really must be done about it."  It's obviously someone operating from within, so calling in the police is out of the question, and Harriet's own understanding of the way in which in this sort of thing would be viewed from the outside would make her most welcome to discreetly try to put an end to the situation.   Harriet's return to Shrewsbury is where the story begins in earnest, but there is much more to this novel besides the usual crime solving.  Set in 1935,  while women continue to enter the hallowed halls of Oxford as students and scholars,  Sayers (who went to Oxford herself) integrates into the crime story  her observations of the many problems faced by women in college, most notably the conflict between career and marriage as well as their place in the very male-dominated realm of academia.  While her commentary of the time is fascinating to read nearly ninety years later, it also fits directly into the mystery of the identity of the Shrewsbury poltergeist, since the perpetrator seems to be motivated by a "kind of blind malevolence, directed against everybody in College," rather than simply a "personal grudge."  This idea allows for a rather intense examination of personalities and psychological motivations among the characters (not all of them there for academic reasons)  that might be, as the Dean so nicely phrases it "at the back of it."  

Dorothy Sayers deserves a fair amount of praise here for giving Harriet the freedom to do most of the detecting independently while Wimsey is off doing work for the Foreign Office (signaling, perhaps, an awareness that the interwar years might be coming to a close in the near future) and while other avenues are unavailable (such as calling in the help offered by Miss Climpson -- one of my favorite characters in the earlier Wimsey novels, especially her role in Strong Poison).  It is only when Harriet realizes that the escalation from the college poltergeist is at its most dangerous point that she asks Lord Peter to step in.    Unfortunately, other than the length that could have been shaved with little detriment to the story and a comment about Sayers' obvious expectations that her readers were top-notch intellectuals who  understood each of the untranslated Latin phrases scattered throughout, I can't get into what I see as the downside of this novel without giving away the identity of  the Shrewsbury poltergeist, which I don't want to do. Not even a hint.  

I went into Gaudy Night for the poison pen letters and came out with something completely unexpected.   At the core of Gaudy Night, well beyond the mystery of the Shrewsbury poltergeist,  is Harriet's introspective look at herself on both the intellectual and personal fronts,  which made me think that Sayers had invested much of herself in her character, an idea I couldn't shake even after finishing the book.  So I looked online to see what others had thought. I found several people whose commentary was well worth reading, but maybe Lucy Worsley,  in an excerpt from her A Very British Murder summed it up for me best when she quotes Sayers as revealing that in writing Gaudy Night, she was finally able to say "the things, that, in a confused way, I had been wanting to say all my life."  

My advice: read the series up to that point, especially the other books with Harriet Vane, before you start this novel -- you'll definitely want the backstory and for the most part, they make for fun reading.  Gaudy Night was, as I mentioned, written in the 1930s with that sort of heavier style you often find in novels of the period, but once you get to the hub of this story you won't be able to put it down.    Gaudy Night is a definite standout among them all, and as I see it, it is definitely still relevant in so many ways.   Recommended.  

Monday, February 12, 2024

double feature: Poor Harriet/The Silent Cousin, by Elizabeth Fenwick

Stark House Press, 2024
217 pp


Released just recently, this two-books-in-one edition from Stark House features the work of a woman whose work may not be a household name among mystery readers, but deserves to be brought back into the light.  Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996), aka E.P. Fenwick, wrote her first novel just after high school.  It was rejected upon submission, and she moved on to other things, including French translations.  Evidently she wasn't one to give up -- in 1943 Farrar and Rinehart published her An Inconvenient Corpse and two more crime novels under the E.P. Fenwick pseudonym in 1944 and 1945.  She would return to crime fiction again in 1957 with Poor Harriet, but she hadn't sat idle in between, having written three non-crime books (and evidently a very busy life, according to Curtis Evans' introduction to this volume) before returning to the genre.  Wikipedia offers a list of her published works; I am fortunate enough to have picked up three of her crime novels published by Stark House some time ago: Two Names for Death (as E.P. Fenwick, 1945; part of their fabulous Black Gat series), and another two-for-one containing The Make-Believe Man from 1963 and A Friend of Mary Rose (1961), both written as Elizabeth Fenwick.  

In Poor Harriet, Marianne Hinkley does the books for Bryce Builders in Connecticut,  taking all of the financial woes of the company upon her own shoulders since Mr. Bryce's attitude is one of "To hell with what the books say!"  Money is tight, and the situation is not helped by Mrs. Irma Bryce, whose shopping bills are paid from company funds and who seems to be, as she puts it, "living out of the cash drawer."  On the day this novel opens, Irma is in the office, needing a thousand dollars, which Marianne assures her won't be happening.  Mrs. B has a plan in hand, though, taking out a diamond bracelet and telling Marianne that if she would go to a certain man in New York City, he would "buy this in a minute" and afterward, Mrs. Bryce would give Marianne a percentage of anything over the price Irma wants if she can sell it for more.   She can't go herself, she says, because word might get out; to sweeten the deal, she also promises Marianne that she won't ask for any more money until the new development the company has built has sold out.  That is an offer that Marianne can't refuse;  Irma makes the appointment and Marianne later makes her way to a particular address to make the sale.   The contact, a Mr. Moran, doesn't have the thousand but offers to set Marianne up with someone who does.  She is to wait there with Mrs. Moran, an older English woman named Harriet, while he makes arrangements.  Before Marianne goes with Harriet for tea in her room, however, she decides that she's done with these people and doesn't want to go somewhere else to make the deal, so she calls Irma to let her know it's off.   She makes arrangements to meet at Grand Central, where Marianne will wait for her until midnight.  She's set to go, but as a kindness decides to stay for one cup with Harriet before she leaves.  It's a decision that leaves serious repercussions in its wake, not least of which is murder.   This scenario could be the setup for any number of crime novels, but alongside the murder mystery, there is also a dark depiction of a woman tyrannized mentally and physically by an abusive spouse.  When I'd finished this novel,  I read the introduction, which led me to the excellent and informative introduction by Curtis Evans to The Make-Believe Man/A Friend of Mary Rose, where I discovered that Fenwick had sadly herself lived through this sort of situation, making the aftermath of my reading even more poignant.  

original cover of Poor Harriet, 1957. From Capitol Hill Books

The Silent Cousin also has its share of darkness, although this story is a bit more complicated in the reading than its predecessor and definitely more gothic in tone.    First things first: as Curtis Evans says in his intro, make yourself some sort of family tree or at least a list of who's who in this novel.  I didn't read the introduction until after I'd finished the entire book so I missed that advice, but as luck would have it, I ended up doing it anyway once I got tired of flipping back and forth through the pages.  Trust me, it is a lifesaver and will keep the reading flow going at a good pace with no interruption to the buildup of suspense going on here. 

The Onderdonk estate was established back before the turn of the twentieth century with the building of a grand house named Long Acre.  On the estate are three other dwellings:  the Hall, currently the home of Humphrey and Cora Onderdonk and their older daughters Louisa and Millie, a farmhouse where the estate manager MacDonald now lives, and a cottage originally called The Study in the Woods, which  Millicent Onderdonk (now deceased and daughter of the original Onderdonk) had refitted for her husband, a certain Dr. Potter.   All of the present-day Onderdonks live on the estate with the exception of the family of John Onderdonk, who had left for Chicago and whose grandson John Watson is the current heir.   To make a very long story short, the estate is tied up in trust in terms of both land and money; any requests pertaining to funds go through MacDonald.    

After spending his childhood with the Onderdonk cousins, as an adult, Dr. Potter's son Paul (affectionately known as "Polly") has returned each year (minus one) to spend his summers at the cottage.  While he has no legal claim to the place because Millicent was his stepmother, it is a fine retreat for him and he is welcomed back by the family each time, especially now that he is separated from his wife.  The remainder of the year he is a professor of history, although he had once been on track to becoming a doctor, going to medical school but giving it up due to an issue with a  "tricky memory."  However, he still has his own syringe, with which he administers prescribed drugs in cases where the doctor cannot get to the estate quickly.   As the novel opens, he is awaiting the arrival of his young daughter  when he is summoned by estate manager MacDonald to the farmhouse to help with  MacDonald's very ill wife.  The doctor had relayed that Potter should give Mrs. MacDonald an injection immediately, since the wife had been found "wandering" when she should have been in bed.   Found dead on the floor, Mrs. MacDonald won't be needing Potter's help, Too late to be of any help, he makes his way to the Hall to break the news.  Her death had been a bit of a surprise, because she had seemed to be "mending," and Aunt Cora makes her way to the farmhouse where she knows she'll be needed.  Another death is on the horizon though when poor Uncle Humphrey is found drowned in his fish pond.  It seems that his death happened not too long after Paul, Millicent and Louisa had had a serious discussion about the two women's futures as relating to the estate and the trust.   But there is another surprise yet to come for the Onderdonk family:  young John Watson has made his way to Long Acre with plans of his own.  As the blurb for this novel states, it seems that "Change is in the air," and this change "brings with it -- death." 

1966 cover, from Between the Covers (with some editing) 

I absolutely loved Poor Harriet, which, although written over sixty years ago, still sadly has great relevance to our own time with its frank depiction of domestic abuse/violence against women and the tragedy of mental illness, made even more heartbreaking because in this particular case there is no help in sight.   The core mystery is nicely done as well; I eventually figured out the who but not until very close to the end.  Unlike most of the time when I guess the culprit, I didn't care about that  -- what captured me most was the depth of humanity Fenwick managed to infuse into the character of  "Poor Harriet."  Mysteries come and go but Harriet (and this book) I won't soon forget.   The Silent Cousin is also quite good; Like Poor Harriet, this novel  also has an intense, psychological depth to it, in this case examining the effects of the burdens people silently carry for those they love, even in situations that are destined to end in failure.   It also has a chilling ending and a reveal that I never saw coming.  

These books are two examples of the type of crime I love to read, with the author's intense psychological scrutiny of her characters at work in and around the mysteries that are there to be solved.  Fenwick was a wonderful writer, and I'll look forward to reading the three I have now, plus any of her work published in the future.   Do not let the publication dates of these novels deter you -- her subject matter is still highly relevant and she can weave a hell of a tale together, keeping you hanging until the last page is turned.  Recommended for mystery/crime readers of the period, as well as to readers who appreciate some truly good writing.  

My many thanks to Stark House for my advanced reading copy!!

Monday, February 5, 2024

PPL#1: Fear Stalks the Village, by Ethel Lina White

"The moral is, padre, that human nature remains the same, everywhere, and dark places exist in every mind." 

British Library, 2024
originally published 1932
292 pp


Ahhhhh.  My reading has once again returned me to the tranquil English village of the interwar years, one of my favorite settings for British crime fiction.  This book features another personal favorite,  the dreaded poison pen letter.   In this case, it's not just one -- as the back-cover blurb info notes, there is a veritable "spate" of them going around the village.  

Prior to the circulation of these not-so-nice missives, the village, as the Rector notes, is a place where "There's no immorality ... and "no class hatred or modern unrest ... "  Those who live here "reflect the general tone of kindness and good breeding," and he has never known a place with so little scandal," which was as much a rarity "as a unicorn."   We are told that from an airplane it "resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case," with no train station, no "floating population," with birth rates remaining "stagnant" and since "the natives resented the mere idea of dying in such a delightful place," Death did not visit very often.  "Everyone has a pedigree and a private income," while tennis and garden parties are part and parcel of the social life.   It is a place where "only the walls heard" what was going on behind the closed blinds, "and they kept their secret."  
But when the letters begin to intrude and to make their way through this idyllic setting, they slowly release their own form of poison, shattering the quiet village life and  throwing it more than a bit out of whack.   Fear, which is personified here in male form, makes its entry and begins to "stalk the village," as it becomes obvious that these letters are not coming from outside of this small haven. Some people start to silently ask about their neighbors "Is it you?" while others tragically turn to drastic measures to avoid the worst and most feared possibility of the exposure of  secrets they carry.  The letters (which some people deny even receiving although we know they did) are bad enough, yet the Squire's wife would prefer not to call in the police.  The Rector has the perfect solution in the form of a good friend by the name of Ignatius Brown who "rather fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes."  It will be up to him to try to root out the person who has caused all of this upheaval and the "death and disaster" that follows in the wake of "shadow and shame."  

Original cover, from Wikipedia (it looks like via Facsimile Dust Jackets)

What makes Fear Stalks the Village work well is in the way the author lays the foundation of  the harmony and more importantly,  the equilibrium defining this village prior to the introduction of both poison pen letters and Fear (the word capitalized throughout the novel).  Once things begin to happen, it is that highly-important baseline that directs reader focus to the threat of loss of this long-established order as it begins to crumble.    The core mystery is good, but it's the psychological aspects of this story that kept me turning pages, both individual and societal.  And then, of course, who couldn't love a dog by the name of Charles Dickens?  

Given the time in which this novel was written, it may seem a bit on the slow side as the author sets forth the atmosphere of the village (down to the flowers) and introduces us to the characters,  but once again, it's a matter of patient reading that will get you to the point of being completely wrapped up in things long before the end is in sight.   While this isn't my favorite novel of those I've read by Ethel Lina White (that one is her Wax from 1935), it's pretty darn good.  It's also a book I can definitely recommend for Golden Age mystery fans and readers who enjoy their crime set in an English village, as well as to those people (like myself) who are studious collectors of the British Library Crime Classics.  

Well done. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

The Long Shadow, by Celia Fremlin


Faber, 2023
originally published 1975
249 pp


I bought this novel to read over Christmas week, but as happens a lot around here, I had to put if off for a while, just finishing it this week.  Not a problem --  while the action in this story takes place during the Christmas season, The Long Shadow is a book that is good for reading any time of year. 

Just a few short months after death of her husband Ivor in a car accident,  Imogen Barnicott, who is still existing in a "grey capsule of bereavement" is awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a phone call.  On the other end of the line is a young man she had met at a neighbor's party, and after a bit of "idiotic conversation," the caller gets to the point.  He knows, he says, that Ivor's death wasn't accidental at all, and that she knows it too -- because it was Imogen who killed him.  She writes off the caller as a "nut-case" because she had been home at the time, some two hundred miles away from where Ivor had gone to speak at a conference.  But there's no time to think about that now -- her stepson Robin has arrived, and she needs to move Ivor's papers up to an attic room so that Robin can have the room where they are currently stored.  Soon the house begins to fill up with Ivor's other (uninvited) relatives -- his daughter Dot and her two young sons (husband Herbert will follow), and Cynthia, Ivor's second wife.  On top of family, Robin has brought in a young woman who goes by the name of Piggy as a tenant in Imogen's home, so she has a full house for Christmas.   Everyone had agreed on a "quiet Christmas," but it's that night when young Timmie announces that he's just seen his Grandpa in his study, "dressed up as Father Christmas."  Of course, there's no one there, but it marks the first of several "rather mysterious" and inexplicable events that occur over the holiday, added to which is the continuing menacing of Imogen about her supposed involvement in Ivor's death.   

The book jacket of this particular edition is a bit misleading, with drops of blood suggesting some sort of murderous activity to be found in this story.  While there are certainly a few mysteries to solve here, they are woven into and around Fremlin's examination of Imogen's new widowhood and her grief.  She undergoes "a sense of loss, total and irretrievable," but at the same time hasn't forgotten her deceased husband's "vast, irrepressible ego" that makes her pray that God doesn't let her "ever forget what a bastard he could be."  She loved and misses him but she's also a realist at heart, and as time goes on, she begins to truly realize just how thoroughly (and often dangerously)  Ivor's larger-than-life personality and his charisma had drawn people under the long shadow he cast while alive.  Fremlin offers a powerful character study here, putting family dynamics under the microscope while building and escalating an atmosphere of tension that lasts right up until the last moment.  At the same time, she injects enough humor to keep things lively and entertaining, no small feat given the intense subject matter.  

The Long Shadow was an unputdownable read for me, perfect for cold-weather, gray-skies reading (yes, we actually do have winter in South Florida) all snuggled up in a blanket with cup of hot tea in hand.  I've only read one other Fremlin novel, The Hours Before Dawn, which is also readworthy, enough in my case that I ended up putting it on my IRL book group's list a couple of years ago.  I will definitely be reading more of her work, and a shout out to Faber for putting The Long Shadow back into print.  

Recommended, with the caveat that it may not be a mystery novel for everyone; I actually prefer mysteries that delve into the psyche but I also know that many readers do not, preferring instead a  standard crime-solving story.  I'll read her books any time.