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.