Sunday, November 28, 2021

Buffaloed: Banking on Death (1961), by Emma Lathen

a balmy day in Buffalo

Like Athena from Zeus' head, John Putnam Thatcher sprang forth fully formed when sixty years ago this December Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Matha Hennisart) published Banking on Death (1961), their first mystery novel about the canny senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust.  So too did spring forth the authors copious talents as mystery fiction writers.  

In this first one by them it's all there: the drily witty narration, the authority on business detail and the impeccable plotting.  It's probably as good as any other book in the series, although some may miss the higher satirical flights of, say, Death Shall Overcome (1966) and Murder against the Grain (1967),both of which S. S. Van Dine probably would have condemned for "literary dallying."  Even Van Dine couldn't have had a problem with Banking on Death, however; at about 70,000 words it's a lean and superb example of the classic detective novel.  I particularly liked how one clue was waved in front of my face and I still didn't see it.  Clever misdirection.

In 1994 Banking on Death was
another entry in Otto Penzler's
short-lived Classic American 
Mystery Library series, which 
also included S. S. Van Dine's
Gracie Allen Murder Case

Initially Banking on Death seems like it's going to be one of those "missing heir" cases, but things soon turn out differently when said heir turns up dead.  At the Sloan in New York City John Thatcher is cornered by Arthur Schneider, President of the Schneider Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts (makers of felts and industrial textiles), who wants to discuss the matter of his black sheep cousin, Robert, of whom the family lost slight of fifteen years ago, not long after the end of World War Two.  

With the imminent death of Arthur's Aunt Hilda, the trust will wind down, but the whereabouts and fate of Robert must be determined for the distribution to be made to the younger generation of surviving family members, which includes, besides Robert and Arthur, Arthur's sister, Grace, and Arthur's other cousin, Martin Henderson, who heads the firm's New York City sales branch.

Thatcher soon discovers Robert--he has been bludgeoned to death at his apartment in Buffalo, New York!

At his recent demise Robert was serving as vice president of the Buffalo Industrial Products Corporation.  Robert had made good, yet he was disliked by seemingly everyone, including other officers in the company and even his own estranged wife.  Even though the Schneider family trust is managed at the Sloan by young Kenneth Nicholls, the inquisitive Thatcher soon is actively involved trying to determine just who bumped off Robert and why.  (Nicholls becomes Thatcher's dogsbody.)  

It's a complicated question, to be sure, with a cast of suspects residing not only in Buffalo and Framingham but New York and Washington, D. C.  On the night Robert was murdered, Buffalo was being hit by a major snowstorm, so a most interesting question of alibis concerning planes and snow-tired automobiles is raised, one Freeman Wills Crofts surely would have adored.  

On its publication critical enthusiasm for the novel was pronounced.  In the New York Times Anthony Boucher praised the "interestingly unpleasant characters and agreeable love story [one-half of which is composed of Kenneth Nicholls"], as well as the "sound" and "well-clued" "murder puzzle," before concluding: "Miss Lathen is a find."  (I'm surprised that was never used on book blurbs.)

In the UK the frequently misogynistic Francis Iles lauded Banking on Death, though not without taking a broadside of critical obiter dicta at American women writers of what today is dubbed "domestic suspense":

[Emma Lathen's first novel] is head and shoulders above the usual rather dreary and deadly portentous American female crime-writers' syndicate. (There are some half a dozen of them but I say they must be a syndicate becaise any of their books might have been written by any one of them.)  this is a good story, well told, with a good background of banking and bug business, good characterisation, and even signs of humour.

Lathen would go on the write a total two dozen John Thatcher detective novels, finally shutting down with the untimely death of Mary Jane Latsis in 1997.  Nineteen of them appeared between 1961 and 1982, and another five, perhaps a bit antiquated by then, between 1988 and 1997.  The series never really changed to speak of (although at some point women became something other than wives, daughters and secretaries), providing readers with civilized and intelligent mystery entertainment for nearly four decades.  Certainly Emma Lathen was never drearily portentous and deadly dull.

PS: I had read this novel back in the 1990s, but I had forgotten that we learn here that John Thatcher was born in the villager of Sunapee, New Hampshire and served in the First World War.  He's widowed with a married daughter named Laura.  I don't believe we ever learn too much more about him.  Francis Iles probably approved of all this personal reticence.

See also my reviews of:

A Stitch in Time (1968)

By Hook or By Crook (1975)

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Say Good Night, Philo: The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), by S. S. Van Dine

One never rises so high as when one does not know where one is going.--Oliver Cromwell

--highfalutin' but entirely apt epigraph to S. S. Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)

On April 11, 1939 bestselling mystery author S. S. Van Dine suddenly collapsed and died at his swanky art deco apartment at 241 Central Park West, Manhattan  He was only fifty years old, but he had been suffering from heart disease (compounded by chronic drinking) and looked at least fifteen years older than his actual age.  

At his death the author left behind an early draft of a Philo Vance detective novel, The Winter Murder Case, which he had intended to serve as a film vehicle for Norwegian ice skating star Sonja Henie; and it was in this stripped form that the manuscript was published later that year in, appropriately, the winter.  Of actual novella length only, the book as published misses the usual affected Philoisms that people either love or hate and it is, all in all, a rather pallid work.  The Kansas City Star sadly deemed it a "sorry sort of farewell."

1931 art deco apartment building where 
S. S. Van Dine passed away in 1939

However as I recollect The Winter Murder Case, it's better altogether than Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case, the penultimate Philo Vance mystery, published a year before as a vehicle for the 1939 film of the same title which starred comedienne Gracie Allen, wife of her comedy partner George Burns.  It's a bizarre and not very successful novel, in my view, either as comedy or mystery, or comedy-mystery.  As a Philo completist I'm glad I finally read it, but I can't say I was impressed.

As a kid in the late 1970s I certainly knew about George Burns, whose career at nearly the age of eighty had been rejuvenated when he won an Oscar in 1976 for his charming role in the film The Sunshine Boys.  

Burns remained a familiar presence in American entertainment, finally expiring at the age of 100 in 1996. All I knew about Gracie Allen, his late wife, however, was that she was, well, his late wife.  Allen died back in 1964, before I was born, but Burns actually had played straight man to her in their comedy pieces on radio/television in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.  

In fact Gracie Allen was a very big star, though not so much on film.  Straight man Burns was then best known for imploring Allen, after listening lengthily to her daffy rambles, to "Say good night," which has generally been popularly remembered as "Say good night, Gracie."

entrance to 241 Central Park West, where S. S. Van Dine died

S. S. Van Dine, on the other hand, had made a big thing out of film with his mysteries.  Philo Vance was a famous film detective, particularly in the incarnation essayed by actor William Powell in The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Greene Murder Case (1929), The Benson Murder Case (1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933).  The latter film is considered the peak Philo Vance flick and the 1933 book of the same title upon which it is based is well-regarded as well--in fact it's often seen as the last hurrah of the Philo Vance detective novel series.

Van Dine published four more Philo Vance novels between 1933 and 1936--The Dragon Murder Case (1933), The Casino Murder Case (1934), The Garden Murder Case (1935) and The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), but these are generally seen as inferior to their predecessors, as are the films which were adapted from three of the books.  After losing William Powell as Vance--symbolically Powell eschewed Philo to become Nick Charles, the detective in Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man series of films--the remaining pictures went through a succession of Vances (Warren William in Dragon, Paul Lukas in Casino and Edmund Lowe in Garden) who never really caught on with the public.  A film was not even made of The Kidnap Murder Case, even though it should have been readily filmable.  

determinedly art deco lobby at 241 Central Park West

This was a problem for Van Dine because he and his second wife--he had rather callously discarded his first spouse--were high livers and needed the revenue from the Vance films to maintain their accustomed lifestyles.  This is how the strange mashup between Philo Vance--a stuffed shirt if ever there were one, even if the shirt was lavender with a green carnation--and zany stage "nitwit" Gracie Allen came about.  "Screwball" comedy was popular in the Thirties and humorous bits often were often incorporated into mystery films, albeit with wildly varying success.  If Van Dine--and Philo Vance--had to suffer the Gracie Allen stage persona in order to get back in film, so be it.

Gracie Allen "takes a back seat" to no one--certainly not Philo Vance-in the film version of
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Hence The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which appeared in print in November 1938 and on film the following the year, a few months after Van Dine's untimely death.  As I understand it, the film version differs significantly from the book; and I can't say that surprises me, because in the book ditzy Gracie very much plays second fiddle to Philo, which is not how the filmmakers wanted it.  Van Dine is often condemned for prostituting his creation for film, but in the book he evidently tried to some extent to preserve Vance's integrity (and his).  The problem is, you just can't do this with Gracie Allen hanging around.

Never before in his books having evinced any real sense of humor (to the contrary, the books are, whatever you think of them, rather on the pompous and portentous side), suddenly Van Dine is doing these comic bits for Gracie Allen and trying to get us to believe that Philo Vance finds this "girl"--who in real life was 42 years of age and admitted to 36--to be this simply delightful and enchantin' wood nymph and dryad and elf and suchlike, don't you know.  Not buying it, SSVD!

Heck, I'm much more tolerant than Philo Vance ever was and even I find Gracie Allen intensely irritating, at least on paper.  You really need Gracie Allen in person, I think, to make the Gracie Allen persona bearable.  On paper it's just dire.  (George Burns appears in the book too, by the by, and is so straight a straight man you can barely see him; he's almost as invisible as Van Dine's ghostly narrator Van.)  

certainly the author died but he wasn't laughing
Gracie Allen with Philo (Warren William)

You can tell that S. S. Van Dine was not really comfortable with the Gracie Allen material.  He's more at home in the Gracie-less portions of the book, which read like a typical Van Dine detective novel, just not a good one, unfortunately.  Weirdly Van Dine has grafted Gracie and George and this perfume company they work for (the In-O-Scent Corporation) onto this rather darkish plot about gangsters and assorted fiends who habituate at the symbolically named Domdaniel nightclub in New York.  

There were gangsters in The Kidnap Murder Case as well and it's clear that Van Dine had been trying to toughen up the Philo Vance series, which had been eclipsed by Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled boys.  

So why drag Gracie in to tag along on Philo's cases now?  The answer obviously is the author saw a chance for some desperately needed $$$$!

Unfortunately the actual mystery doesn't work well either.  There's really not time to develop much of a puzzle plot in a novel of only around 50,000 words by my count, with much of the wordage given over to alleged Gracie Allen humor.  But here goes....

Milton Bradley even introduced a
Gracie Allen Murder Case board game to cash in on the film
even though Gracie had no "Clue" as it were

It seems that an escaped gangster, Benny the Buzzard (aka Beniamino Pellinzi) may be on his way to New York to revenge himself on Vance's pal (and longtime stooge) District Attorney Markham.  Benny is connected to the criminal coterie at Domdaniel, which is led by nightclub owner Daniel Mirche, chanteuse Dixie Del Mar and fatalistic philosophizin' crime kingpin "Owl" Owen.  

A dead body is discovered at Domdaniel, in Mirche's office no less, on the night when not only Philo and Van were there but, coincidentally, Gracie Allen, boyfriend George Burns and another swain of Gracie's, Jimmy Puttle, who is even more thinly characterized that Burns.  Earlier Vance had met Allen, apparently entirely coincidentally, out strolling along Palisades Avenue in Riverdale in the Bronx.  In fact there a lot of coincidences in this book, which would be intolerable in a straight mystery, but this thing is anything but.

these guys became important players in
Van Dine's last fully completed mysteries,  
The Kidnap Murder Case and
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Vance solves the case only through Gracie's discoveries, all of them made accidentally, Gracie basically being what at this time they euphemistically called a "natural" in English village mysteries.  (There was another name too, much less polite.)

The murder is a sort of locked room problem, except that Van Dine resolves this puzzle through a feckless mechanism much favored by loopy American mystery writer Carolyn Wells; and there's an additional twist which, while clued, seems absurd.  

Basically the mystery is very simple, with some hot air--or overheated red herring--thrown up to obscure things.  

The laziness of it all is evident in the fact that Rosa Tofana (aka fortuneteller "Delpha") and criminal hubby Tony Tofana, two of the characters in the book--they're listed in the cast of characters at the beginning--do not actually ever appear, although they are frequently referred to by others and play an important role in the plot.  I guess that beat actually attempting to characterize them!

A contemporary reviewer of the novel in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, publihsed under the heading "New Philo Vance Yarn Gives Critic Pain in the Neck," roasted Philo and Gracie alike, asserting that the book fell flat between two stools, being neither "goofy enough for Gracie nor good enough for Vance," and resultantly "neither entertaining as nonsense nor interesting as a mystery."  The only actual mystery in the bemused reviewer's eyes was "why the Scribners published it."

Otto Penzler's 1994 edition
of The Gracie Allen Murder Case
generously included in his
Classic American Mystery Library

Nevertheless, the book provides some vintage Philo moments for fans, like when the amateur sleuth again expresses his ardent support for vigilantism, a topical subject right now.  About the escaped convict Benny the Buzzard, Vance scoffs to proper lawman Markham:

Ah, your precious law and its prissy procedure!  How you Solons complicate the simple things of life!  Even if this red-tailed hawk with the operatic name should appear among his olden haunts and be snared in Sergeant's seine, you would still treat him kindly and caressingly under the euphemistic phrase "due process of the law."  You'd coddle him no end....

And this was uttered in 1938, before the massive criminal procedural reforms imposed by the Warren Court!  What would Vance say today?  I'm guessing his Twitter feed would really have been something, assuming he wasn't kicked off Twitter entirely.*

*(Of course with all those five dollar words--fifty dollars with inflation--Philo likes to use, he would have had a hard time limiting himself to 280 characters.)

There's one rather odd, essentially extraneous chapter, highlighted by Van Dine's biographer as I recall, where Vance philosophizes about death and the utter ennui of life with the doomed crime kingpin Owl Owen, who only has a short time left to live, afflicted as he is (like the author) with terminal heart disease.  

Although Van Dine later condemns Owen as a "diseased maniac" and a "mental, moral and spiritual leper," the high-toned crook sounds a lot like the author, who in his former, financially unsuccessful life as Willard Huntington Wright (before he reinvented himself as a detective novelist) was a prominent aesthete, critic and intellectual.  

Gracie Allen investigates! (perhaps how co-star
Kent Taylor--playing "Bill Brown," a character
not in the book-- got his mustache so thin)

"Owen began speaking now of old books, of his cultural ambitions as a youth, of his early study of music," the narrator, Van, tells us.  How are we not to connect this with the author himself, substituting painting for music?  

When Owen speaks of "the cosmic urge to play a game with life, in order to escape from the stresses and pressures of the finite," is he expressing the author's rationale for having abandoned intellectual criticism for detective fiction?  

And when he laments that "Nothing has the slightest importance--not even life itself," is he expressing the author's own despair with living and his knowledge that he too soon will be gone, mere dust in the wind, as the song says?  

In any event, what in the world is this downer of a chapter doing in the same book with kooky Gracie Allen?  It's discordant in the extreme.  Van Dine knows it, because he has "Van" self-consciously introduce Owen by saying "That night...I could not, by the most fantastic flight of my imagination, associate him in any way with the almost incredible and carefree Gracie Allen."  Indeed!  Nor could I, even when the book was over.

Despite the author's attempts at inducing chuckles--and knowing what I do of the prospect of impending death which he faced--I find The Gracie Allen Murder Case rather a sad book. 

That's why I was happy to see Van, Philo's pal and loyal chronicler (and longtime companion), on page one stating that he and the perspicacious and pretentious amateur sleuth had recalled this case together, "as we sat before the grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events."  I like to think that these two most confirmed of bachelors enjoyed a happier life together than Van Dine evidently ever did with anyone in his own restless and unsatisfied earthly existence.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Walk a Mile: Dead Man's Shoes aka Appleby Talking (1954) by Michael Innes

From its 1936 publication of Seven Suspects--the American title of Michael Innes' first detective novel Death at the President's Lodging (an apt-to-be-misleading title for American readers)--Dodd, Mead's Red Badge Detective mystery fiction imprint employed, with a few exceptions, a specific design style for Michael Innes novels, one which the publisher maintained for over four decades, up through the publication of The Gay Phoenix in 1977.  

Most of the 27 John Appleby detective novels, 3 John Appleby short story collections, and 10 non-series detective novels published in this period had jackets reflecting this design scheme, composed of a black background with minimalistic strokes in red, white and gray.  As far as I am aware this is a unique feature in long-running mystery fiction in this period.  Why the switch-over took place in 1978 I don't know, but the change stayed in place until Innes' (and, indeed, arguably the Golden Age generation's) last detective novel, Appleby and the Ospreys, was published in 1986, during which time there appeared from Innes a total of five more Appleby detective novels, including Ospreys, and three more non-series ones.  

One of the eye-catching exceptions to this rule is Dead Man's Shoes (Appleby Talking in UK), a collection of 23 pieces of John Appleby short fiction published in 1954.  Although the black/white/red/gray color scheme is adhered to, there is a more detailed design, emphasizing, appropriately, a dead man's pant's cuffs, socks and mismatched shoes.  One of the shoes in an unexceptionable black while the other is red--certainly a striking and odd color in this context.  

Sadly, in the title novelette of about 16,000 words we find that the mismatched shoes are actually black and brown, not black and red; so the jacket turns out to be misleading in this regard.  

Before reading the story I had been innocently looking forward to the explanation of why the shoe was red (like John Rhode's green hedgehog): Was it like radioactive or something?  Alas, however, the eventual explanation which the author provided did not involve any weird and woolly science.  

Happily, however, this is still a very clever, well-clued mystery, however, which I probably would have read over twenty years ago, when I was on my first Innes reading jag, had the novelette not had an espionage background, which predisposed me against it at the time (plus the copy I had then was a drab paperback edition).  

Fear not, however, "Shoes" is a "fair play" mystery in the classic mode and a very good one at that.  I loved how it opened with the time-honored gambit of the imperiled "girl on the train" who implores our young hero for help, as she has just escaped from a man in another compartment whom she believes was about to murder her.  These "girls" really should stay away from trains, don't you know.

First there was Agatha Christie's "The Girl in the Train," from 1924 and much later we had Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train from 2015 (filmed with Emily Blunt in the title role the next year), with a plentitude of other troubled train "girls" in between them, like Ruth Kettering in Christie's Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and Iris Carr in Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes.  So all you "girls" out there reading this blog post really should know by know: Beware of the trains!  Read "Dead Man's Shoes" if you still don't believe me.  

Of course trains can get men in trouble too.  See Patricia Highsmith!

A girl in trouble is a temporary thing?

The other 22 works of short fiction in the collection are much shorter--indeed, the majority of them are short-shorts of under 2000 words.  Throughout the 1950s Innes specialized in the newspaper short-short mystery and was quite adept at it, but many of these tales here, I must admit, get rather whimsical, and are even on the shaggy-doggish side. 

Typically they take the form of Appleby talking (hence the English title) about some past crime with some of his male acquaintances (the vicar, the doctor, the lawyer, etc.) in the seaside town of Sheercliff (setting of "Dead Man's Shoes," by the way).  Some of these are clever and a bit more developed, however, like poisoning tale "The Furies" and "The X-Plan," another crime story with espionage trappings, and "Appleby's First Case."  (I think I have seen "The Furies" before in an anthology.)  

J. I. M. Stewart
aka Michael Innes (1906-1994)

Then there are a few short stories proper, about 4000-6000 words long say, which are quite good indeed: "Lesson in Anatomy," "A Dog's Life," "Pokerwork," "The Key" and "Tragedy of a Handkerchief."  "Anatomy" concerns a murder which takes place when the lights go out during an anatomy lecture at Nessfield University.  (See Innes' 1943 John Appleby detective novel The Weight of the Evidence, where in the English edition it is "Nesfield," I believe.)  

This is well-devised detective story, although I must admit that the "rags" which the medical students callously perform with anatomical "specimens" (i.e., blameless human corpses) rather rankled me.  Innes always indulgently gives university students great scope for consummate assery.

Not for the first time was I struck by the obnoxiously privileged behavior of college students in Innes' books, which really hung on over the entirety of the author's fifty year mystery writing career.  The author himself--whose real name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart--was a longtime academic and taught English literature at Oxford for 24 years, retiring at the age of 67 in 1973, when changes were really starting to roil the system.

The other four stories all involve, in one way or another, murderous consequences of illicit passions among men and women.  "A Dog's Life" oddly anticipates the tragic drowning deaths of Daniil Gagarin and Emma Monkkonen which took place just a few months ago and which, due their horrific nature, went viral on the internet.  

Of these four clever tales I particularly liked "Pokerwork," about a murder committed with one of the classic slaying weapons.  (A number of the story titles, as you will see, are puns.)  Shorn of the dazzling literary embellishments of the Innes novels (particularly the early ones), these stories make manifest just how able Innes was at the craft of clueing, a skill at which he is underrated.  In a contemporary review of Dead Man's Shoes influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher called the collection "an approximately perfect book" and he asserted that "even readers who have shied away from the long Innes novels may be charmed by these briefer samples."

Dodd, Mead's first edition of Michael Innes'
Lament for a Maker, now selling for $750

Still in my view one needs to read Innes' novels to get the full flavor of Innes.  In a review of Dead Man's Shoes at Jason Half's blog, Jason asks, "Is it fair to judge a novelist based on a set of short stories?" and answers: "The immediate answer is, of course, yes."  I would argue, however, that the answer is, to the contrary, "Heck, no!"  

Set aside the "great" novelists, to really appreciate Michael Innes (and whether you can really appreciate him) you simply must read some of the earlier books, the great detective extravaganzas like Hamlet, Revenge!, Lament for a Maker, Stop, PressThe Daffodil Affair or Appleby's End, say.  (Or you could just start with this one, which is quite good, from the author's middle period, or even this one, from his later period.) 

To do otherwise is like thinking you have done justice to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga by reading, say, "Murder Is Corny" (see my review), rather than Some Buried Caesar or And Be a Villain, for example.  It just won't do, sir!  Though it's actually even worse in Innes' case because the bulk of his short fiction are the merest of trifles by design.

Jason, who posted this review nearly three years ago, in December 2018, admitted then that he had not read any of Innes' novels, so his question is a pertinent one.  At the end of his review he speculates that he might owe it to the author "to sample more of his writing, to see what he can do with one novel-length story instead of 23 too brief but promising little ones."  To which I would add, I should say so!  

Anyone who likes Gladys Mitchell like Jason does should like Innes' early novels, I would think.  I haven't seen a review of a Michael Innes on his blog since then, however.  Did he ever give it another go with Innes?  I hope so.  When it comes to crime fiction, you have to walk a few miles in the dead man's shoes.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ye Beastie Dyde It: More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James (1911)

the 1955 Pan paperback edition

I wasn't surprised to find that medievalist scholar and Cambridge provost Montague Rhodes James, who wrote supernatural horror fiction under the name M. R. James, was a reader of detective fiction by Agatha Christie (and presumably other authors).  The milieus of his stories--villages, country houses, universities--are so often what you find in Golden Age detective fiction.  

But more than that, James' tales often concern investigations into past mysteries, conducted by learned, even eccentric, gentlemen of means.  Even if the resolutions typically are not so tidy as those in a detective story, we are still trying, as in the detective story, to get to the bottom of decidedly queer enigmas.  (Some authors of that time explicitly merged the genres with the employment of "occult detectives.")

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911)--originally simply entitled, I believe, More Ghost Stories--was the follow-up to M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), a cornerstone of supernatural horror fiction.  I don't believe that the second volume measures up to the first, although it has some fine tales in it.  

The leadoff frightener, "A School Story," is by far the shortest of the bunch and the least substantial, a simple tale of revenge from beyond the grave taken upon a schoolmaster, which makes similar creepy use of a well to the Japanese horror film Ringu and its American remake The Ring.  

"The Rose Garden" details what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Astruther (the latter a most imposing matron), decide to lay out a rose garden at a secluded corner of their newly acquired country house.  It's an entertaining enough story, but I thought the scariest thing in it was the intolerably bossy Mrs. Anstruther.

"The Tractate Middoth" and "Casting the Runes" (great titles both) concern scholars in desperate search of mysterious objects.  In the former, there's even a hunt for a lost will, like something out of Agatha Christie.  (Indeed, the Queen of Crime has an Hercule Poirot short story about a missing will.)   

On rereading these stories I found neither as frightening as I had recalled, but "Casting the Runes," I must add, has a simply smashing setup, which was brilliantly adapted in the 1957 horror suspense film Night of the Demon, one of my all-time favorite movies.  

"Runes" is about an amateur scholar and, well, rather nasty demonologist named Karswell who gets a wee bit, um, wrathful when his academic article is turned down for publication.  Coming from an academic background myself, I didn't find this part such a stretch!  

It all results in a sort of supernatural duel to the death, revolving around a slip of enchanted runes, between Karswell and Dunning, the outside reader responsible for Karswell's article getting rejected. Among the things for which the article is condemned, by the by, is its having had split infinitives, which made me sympathize a bit with that poor devil Karswell, I must admit!

Holden (Dana Andrews), aka Dunning from "Casting the Runes,"
senses the presence of unearthly menace in Night of the Demon

Although the "Runes" is not nearly as terrifying and thrilling to my mind as the film (I really could have done without all the stage Cockney dialogue, for example), it has some very neat elements.  The line "However, Mr. Karswell was an astute man" has stuck with me for decades.  It's deliciously chilling in context.  

Moreover, there's an episode, described at second hand, where Karswell "entertains" village children with a "magic lantern" slideshow which is genuinely horrific.  This was only very loosely drawn on in the film, but it surely inspired the slideshow sequence in the latest film version of Stephen King's horror novel It.  (See below.)  Was this is King's novel as well? I'm guessing it was meant as an homage to James.  I thought it was the scariest thing in the film!

My favorite stories in James' second collection, however, are the last three: "The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral," "Martin's Close" and "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance."  "Stalls," set in the early nineteenth century and told largely in diary form, concerns the strange demise of John Benwell Haynes, the late Archdeacon of Sowerbridge.  Essentially this is an inverted crime story with monsters.  It's very creepy!

Martin's Close is a true tour-de-force, told largely in trial record form, about the murder of a homely common woman, Ann Clark, by the aristocrat who was emotionally toying with her and his subsequent trial before Baron Jeffries, the infamous real-life seventeenth-century English "hanging judge." 

It's a brilliant variant on the "spectral bride" legend, about which I want to say more when I get to posting about Joseph Shearing.  It should have been titled, "Madam, Will You Walk?," however.   Along with Mrs. Anstruther and a garden maze expert named Lady Wardrop (see below), Ann Clark is the only notable female character in this collection of short stories.

Speaking of Lady Wardop, there is, finally, "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance," which tells of the sinister supernatural goings-on at the hedge maze at Wilsthorpe Hall.  Mazes have been great settings for scares since the time of Theseus, as anyone who read mythology and seen the film version of Stephen King's The Shining or read J. J. Connington's detective novel Murder in the Maze will know.  (Is the maze in King's novel?  Is this another homage?)

M. R. James really delivers the goods here, in a story that's rather more ambiguous than the others.  And, after all, surely that's the ultimate horror to a Golden Age mystery fan: having a resolution which fails fully to resolve the mystery!  We are all afraid of the unknown and even more so of the unknowable.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Monday Club Murder: "Sight Unseen" (1916/21), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The body lay in the room overhead.  But what of the spirit?  I shivered as I thought that it might even then be watching me with formless eyes from some dark corner.

--"Sight Unseen," Mary Roberts Rinehart

In "Sight Unseen" by American Crime Queen Mary Roberts Rinehart the Neighborhood Club meets weekly on Monday nights to discuss topics of current interest.  The club is composed of six well-off suburbanites, three men and three women.  These are:

first American edition, 1921

  • stolid Horace Johnson, an attorney and the narrator of the tale, and his wife, "known throughout the neighborhood as a perfect housekeeper"
  • literary editor Herbert Robinson and his sister Alice, "not a young woman, but clever, alert and very alive"
  • Sperry, a heart specialist and "bachelor still in spite of much feminine activity"
  • elderly but engaged Mrs. Dane, who, although confined to a wheelchair, is "one of those glowing and kindly souls that have a way of becoming a neighborhood nucleus"

The "fun" begins when the Neighborhood Group, on a Monday evening on November 2, has as its special guest Miss Jeremy, an attractive young woman spiritualist.  A séance is held, at which Miss Jeremy seems to channel a woman who has just committed, or at least been very recently on the scene of, a shocking murder! 

Later that night, Horace learns that one of their neighbors, fast living Arthur Wells, has died, ostensibly by a self-inflicted shooting.  Was is really suicide, however, or murder???

Avon paperback edition, 1946

Could this have been the murder that the medium Miss Jeremy seemed to be experiencing?  Both events took place around the same time, about 9: 30 in the evening.  Horace and his friend Speer, who starts falling for the pretty spiritualist, begin to investigate and come up with some shocking answers.

This is an entertaining murder story, especially original for its time I would think.  Does anyone know of a situation like this in an earlier story?  

I know of mysteries where murders are committed in the same room during seances, but I'm blanking on mediumistic revelations about murders which are taking place elsewhere while the séance is being held.  There's Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, but that dates from 1931.

Mary Rinehart knows how to spin an engrossing tale and "Sight Unseen" certainly is one.  Nor is it disadvantaged by its shorter length than much of her work--indeed, rather the contrary I think.  (By my count it's just shy of 40,000 words, so it's a long novella.)  

I'm struck again, however, by how Rinehart was more interested in writing stories about crime and character than meticulously clued puzzlers of the Agatha Christie sort.  There's some spiritualistic activity in Christie's detective novel Dumb Witness, which I reviewed recently, and you can bet that when there's a séance in that book there's a good fair play style clue wedged in there!  With Rinehart you don't really get that; it's more a parade of revelations.  And while the mystery is fine and engrossing, there's no shocking twists in culpritude.  

1989 Zebra paperback edition,
which gives "The Confession"
top billing

Indeed what I probably enjoyed more than the murder is the gradual detailing of Horace's life with his wife, that perfect housekeeper as he tells us.  I don't think we ever even learn this imposing matron's first name.  Poor dull Horace comes off as rather a henpecked soul, as it were, and it all makes an interesting portrait of upper middle-class marriage around the time of the Great War.  Just don't hold out great expectations of this linking in with the murder!  

Some of the writing in the novella is actually quite funny.  The blurb on my Avon paperback copy of the story, which has been coupled in published editions with a shorter Rinehart novella, "The Confession" (reviewed by me here) dramatically tells readers, "You Will Tingle and Shudder," but, nah, you won't.  

Truthfully, there aren't any real scares here --"The Confession" actually is rather creepier as I recall--although there is some interesting speculation about spiritualism and the existence of an afterlife.  This being Rinehart, there's a little romance too, though its nothing cloying, as her successors sometimes were with such material.

Originally published in a magazine in 1916, "Sight Unseen" first appeared in book form with "The Confession" in 1921 and has been reprinted in paperback several times since.  Avon's edition, pictured above, appeared in 1946.  Its whimsical cover of a cigarette-smoking skull, cocktail glass and knife bears no relationship whatsoever to the story, but it's a pretty cool visual!

Friday, October 29, 2021

Halloweekend at The Sign of the Passing Tramp, 2021


Classic Arthur Hawkins jacket to a
classic creepy Thirties crime novel by
Joseph Shearing,
aka Marjorie Bowen,
aka Margaret Campbell Long
(1885-1952), who will be one of
our honored guests this weekend
Murder and horror go hand in the hand, even in the era of vintage of crime fiction, when murder could be fun, even rather jolly.  The Golden Age of detective fiction was also, after all, the Golden Age of the Horror/Supernatural Story.  In the United States, where there was pulpish hard-boiled crime fiction, there was also the pulpish, hard-boiled horror fiction of HP Lovecraft and others--visceral, weird, hair-raising stuff.  Meanwhile in England we continued to see classic donnish ghost stories, more restrained but in their own way quite eerie, of M. R. James and his followers. 

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, still around as the Grand Old Man of Mystery during fully half of the Golden Age of detective fiction, M. R. James continued to publish genre fiction in the 1920s, with his last book of ghost stories, A Warning to the Curious, appearing in 1926-- although, again like Doyle, James' best work generally dated back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Over this weekend I plan to look at some of the work of M. R. James, to whom I was introduced thirty years ago in a marvelous collection introduced by the late English crime writer Ruth Rendell, a huge admirer of his.  (Rendell herself wrote a few ghostly tales and she well knew how to induce frissons of fear and unease in her murder fiction.) 

Reflecting, I suppose, my general bias in favor of all things olde and English, I greatly preferred James' subtly frightening antiquarian ghost stories to Lovecraft's freakish and ghastly creep shows.  James in turn was a reader of Agatha Christie (who herself wrote some supernatural and "weird" fiction) and I want to look a little about how James' works can resemble classic crime fiction.  At the same time I also want to look at some examples of vintage mystery fiction with supernatural elements.  So buckle of your broomsticks, guys and ghouls, it's going to be a goose bumpy ride!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

And Now for a Stairy Story: Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie (1937)--with a possible cameo by the author herself (and her little dog too)

In a not insignificant portion of vintage mysteries, the primary murder victim dies from having been fatally impelled in some foul fashion down a staircase.  (This happens in Miles Burton's A Will in the Way, recently reviewed here.)  Naturally this murder ploy faded away with the rise of bungalows and ranch houses.  The classic instance of the "true crime" staircase death dates from the sixteenth century, when all the most fashionable people lived in castles and such, don't you know, and had plenty of stairs that they needs must tread.   

This was the death of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.  Indeed, after his wife's death, Dudley's enemies intimated that he might have engineered her untimely demise in order to marry the Queen; and ever since historians have debated the famous question, did she fall or was she pushed?  No one knows the answer to that one.  

Fall Gal
Emily Arundell takes a near fatal tumble
down the stairs at Littlegreen House

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel Dumb Witness, wealthy, elderly spinster Emily Arundell is NON-fatally propelled down the staircase at her home by means of of a trip wire, although this attempted slaying is covered up to look like an accident.  Emily owned a terrier named Bob, you see, and Bob had been trained to drop a little rubber ball down the stairs while recumbent at the half landing.  It's assumed that to her near-death Emily tripped over the ball, which evidently inadvertently had not been picked up and put away in its drawer.  (Someone removed the telltale trip wire, you see.)

However, Hercule Poirot appears on the scene after Emily's later, ostensibly natural, death.  (After the staircase incident Emily had written him an agitated, disjointed letter asking him down, but Poirot received the epistle only after her death.) 

Naturally Poirot discovers this criminal hanky panky and he decides, perhaps a bit quixotically, to stick around to snoop some more into the matter of Emily's ostensibly natural death.  Attempted murder followed by "natural" death he finds a little too hard to swallow, n'est-ce pas, like a plate of bubble and squeak--although his friend Hastings thinks the little Belgian is just dramatizing himself again.  (Hastings will never learn!)

Yes, Hastings comes along for the ride as well, in what would be his last appearance in the Hercule Poirot canon until Curtain was published nearly four decades later.  According to the Agatha Christie Fandom website, Dumb Witness marked the seventh appearance of Hastings in a Poirot novel, which somehow seems fewer than I recalled. However, it's true.

first English edition by Collins, with Agatha Christie's own dog, Peter, gracing the cover as Bob

Hastings appeared in three Poirot novels in the 1920s, followed in the 1930s by Peril at End House, Lord Edgeware Dies, The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness.  After his back-to-back appearances in Peril and Edgware, Hastings missed three consecutive Poirot novels until The ABC Murders (a three-year gap), then missed two more novels between ABC and Dumb Witness.  So it does appear that Christie indeed had become something less than enamored with Hastings in the mid-thirties and was in the process of gradually dispensing with his services.

Certainly Hastings' late appearance in Dumb Witness seems a bit off-kilter, because Christie presents the first four chapters of the novel as having been written by Hastings in the third person, artfully dramatizing the events within Emily Arundell's demesne, Littlegreen House, before he and Poirot arrive on the scene.  Now I know such literary devices are a legitimate conceit of fiction writers, yet, really, I think we all have to admit that such imaginative skill would have been utterly beyond Hastings' capacity.  I can't help feeling that Christie was really ready to move beyond Hastings.  

Bob drops the ball

So why did she use him at all here?  Were the fans clamoring for the return of Captain Hastings?  This seems unlikely, as reviewers at the time mostly just commented, in reference to Poirot's Watson, that he was just as dumb as ever.  My theory is that Christie needed Hastings to relate to the dog Bob, who in fact is a major character in the novel.  Hastings even allows Bob to "speak," in passages which readers likely will either find delightful or painful depending on how much they like dogs.  Being a dog lover myself (like Christie; see below), I don't mind it.  One of the many transgressions of the television version of Dumb Witness, in my eyes, is that it portrays Poirot as Bob's special pal.  Does Poirot have to have everything in this life?  I say at least give Hastings the dog! 

So for better or worse Hastings narrates most of Dumb Witness, which has largely been regarded, since its publication almost 85 years ago, as the weakest of the Thirties Poirot novels.  (Admittedly they set a high bar.)  I have been writing lately about underrated Christies so as I reread Dumb Witness I had to ask myself, is it underrated?  

Poor Hastings! Poirot (David Suchet)
makes a new friend in the 1996
television adaptation of Dumb Witness

On the whole, I think not.  It probably indeed is the worst of the Thirties Poirots, although it is important to add the caveat that even a subpar Thirties Christie was likely better than 75% or more of the detective novels of the time.  She was that good in those days.  

First off, does the title even make sense?  Bob obviously is the "dumb" (i.e., mute) witness, but in the book he's neither dumb (Hastings has him "speak," seriously) nor a witness with anything important to impart to the detective.

This contrasts, for example, with Belisarius, the delightful feline in Miles Burton's detective novel The Cat Jumps (1946), who literally witnesses the murder and could have told sleuth Desmond Merrion all about it, had he but possessed the power of speech.  No wonder the Americans changed the title of Dumb Witness to Poirot Loses a Client--not that that's a great title either! 

Also, what possessed Christie to have Hercule Poirot name the culprits in murders from four of his previous cases (i.e., four of Christie's past novels)?  That's a lot of wanton spoilerage in one book!  I wonder if this indiscretion on Poirot's part still occurs in later editions of Dumb Witness, or in the American edition?  I will have to check.

a long way down

Critics since 1937 have pointed out weaknesses in the puzzle structure of Dumb Witness, but I can't discuss that aspect of the book without massive spoilerage, as it were.  However, I will say that most of the novel's cast of characters is composed of an exceptionally pallid bunch by the Queen of Crime standards.  To be sure, Emily Arundell and her latest beleaguered companion, Wilhelmina "Minnie" Lawson, are done to a turn--Christie always portrayed imperious spinsters and their skittish companions well--but Emily's relations are a forgettable lot, aside from her Greek doctor son-in-law, who is interesting not so much in and of himself but for how the author treats him.  

Truthfully, the dog Bob is more developed than any of these humans.  (Maybe that's the authentic Hastings' touch!)

Strikingly it's Emily's dead relations--her sisters and her brother and her domineering drunk of a father, the General--who strike the most powerful chord.  There's a passage where Emily wanders though her house late at night thinking about the shades of her late family that is quite moving.  It may have been beyond Hasting's literary ability but it certainly wasn't beyond Christie's!  How interesting a Christie murder novel set in the Victorian era would have been.

this "special edition" with pictures
(see photos) probably followed
the first UK edition the next year

As we learned from John Curran, Dumb Witness had its inception in an unpublished Christie short story, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball," written a few years earlier.  Was this story inspired by real life practice of Christie's own terrier, Peter, dropping a ball down the stairs at Christie's own house?  It seems too colorfully specific to have been entirely imaginary.

I assume Christie's main house at the time would have been Winterbrook House, a lovely red brick Georgian house, coincidentally now up for sale, just outside the town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in the village of Winterbrook.  Wallingford is said to have been the model for the town of Market Basing, Berkshire where Emily Arundell's Littlegreen House is located.  Winterbrook at the time was part of Berkshire too.  From what I can tell, Littlegreen House seems a lot like Winterbrook House.

So presumably Christie modeled Littlegreen House after Winterbrook House.  She affectionately dedicated the novel to Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand.  Peter, who also had been a co-dedicatee of The Mystery of the Blue Train nine years earlier (reviewed here), died the year after Dumb Witness was published.  

Peter was photographed as Bob, it has been claimed, in the "special edition" of the Dumb Witness which The Book Club published in England, not long after the original edition.  So this claim goes, Peter appears at the half landing of the stairs, having just dropped his ball, while no less than his mistress, appearing as Emily Arundell, lies prone at the bottom below--at least according to some booksellers.  (See pics above.)  Christie authority Mark Aldridge disagrees, however.  I'm told John Curran emphatically doesn't buy this notion either.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about it.  (Peter definitely appeared on the cover of the Collins hardcover edition of Dumb Witness, published slightly earlier; see pic above.)

If true, I think Christie most definitely must have had more than a passing affection for the book to have done this.  She must not have deemed it the dog that some of the critics did.  Or perhaps that's some other lady at the bottom of the stairs!  Who was that lady?  And who was that dog?

pictured: Agatha Christie's home Winterbrook House, the model for Littlegreen House?
"These large Georgian homes fronting the street must be the devil to get rid off."
(Hastings to Poirot on Littlegreen House, Market Basing, Berks in Dumb Witness)