Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Spiritualist (1948)

The Spiritualist (also titled, for some mysterious reason, The Amazing Mr. X), is one of those forties B mystery-thriller genre flicks that is superior to many much better-known, bigger-budgeted films from the period, in my opinion.

There's a much longer and quite excellent piece on this film and its director, Bernard Vorhaus, I found, over at Sergio's Bloody Murder blog, but, since I promised to semi-live blog the films watched this Halloween, I needs must write up an entry here! Also the great Turhan Bey, who played the title role, died a month ago at the age of ninety, so it seemed the thing to do to highlight one of his excellent acting performances.


The Spiritualist tells the story of Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a rich widow still moping around the family mansion (a stunning neo-classical pile overhanging a California ocean cliff) two years after her husband's death in a car wreck.  Christine hears dead hubby's voice in the crashing waves on the beach and is understandably a bit distracted when her somewhat dull but very persistent semi-boyfriend Martin Abbott (Richard Carlson) continually proposes to her.

The Amazing Mr.Bey
Gradually Christine falls under the sway of a sophisticated spiritualist, known only as Alexis (Turhan Bey, absolutely at his most super-suave), who promises to put her into closer contact with the dwellers in the afterlife.

Martin, along with Christine's earnest but to be honest rather dimwitted younger sister, Janet (Cathy O'Donnell, very amusing) and a private detective named Hoffman (Harry Mendoza, marvelously weird performance), try to expose Alexis as a fraud, but Janet only ends up mesmerized by the spiritualist too!

A fine twist is introduced into the film, about which nothing can be said, of course!

I'll just add a few words about how entertaining The Spiritualist is.  The John Alton cinematography has been much praised, and justly; this is one of the most evocatively filmed black and white movies that I have seen (there's also a neat seance sequence).  And the romantic Rachmaninov-ish musical score by Alexander Laszlo is a great element too.

Hmmm, even I didn't see that coming!

The script of The Spiritualist I found rather clever, with some great scares and genuinely amusing bits at well (witty, not silly slapstick stuff).  Lynn Bari and Richard Carlson are fine as the nominal romantic leads; but the stand-outs here are Cathy O'Donnell, delightful as the ingenue sister, and Turhan Bey, who really delivers the goods with a magnetic performance.

I also got a kick out of Harry Mendoza's deliciously odd turn as the private detective Hoffman (this man surely was meant to play Harry Stephen Keeler in a film).

The Spiritualist now is available in an immaculate print on DVD.  It's a bit pricey, but, I think, worth it.  If nothing else it will teach you to step carefully when taking late-night strolls along ocean cliffs! 

Haunted by Murder: Venom House (1952), by Arthur Upfield

Men had placed stone upon stone, rafters upon walls, a roof upon rafters.  Their hands had worked with cunning while their minds were plotting evil.  They planed and carved and polished that glorious staircase, and raised the great coloured window to enhance beauty.  They loved beauty even when loving evil, and the evil of their thoughts sprang forth to leap into these inanimate stones and panels and beams, there to be imprisoned forever.  From the laying down of the foundations of this house, was ever a loving word spoken?

This house lived only in the dark.

this abstract 1988 paperback edition
actually captures the scene well

 I've always liked the title of the Arthur Upfield novel Venom House (1952) and have had it on my "to read" list for, oh, the last decade or so!  Thinking this might be a good Halloween season novel, I thought I finally would give it go.

Australian author Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) made a hit in the United States in the 1950s with his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte ("Bony") mysteries, though the first one appeared, I believe, as early as 1929.  Anthony Boucher was a great fan and advocate of the series, as was Jacques Barzun.  Indeed, most everyone seemed to like Bony (well, okay, not Julian Symons).

As a "half-caste" aborigine detective, Bony attracted attention in the 1950s, a time when the status of racial minorities in general was starting to get a lot more public notice.  Today the portrayal of Bony by Arthur Upfield, a white man, is considered controversial by some, though in the 1950s liberals and progressives like Anthony Boucher were more than pleased to give the series their endorsement.

Upfield's 1952 novel Venom House is something a bit different for the author, because, as the title suggests, it centers around a domicile, rather than the bush.  For many readers a great part of the appeal of the Bony series was following the detective's wilderness tracking skills.

In Venom House, we get a little of this sort of thing at the novel's climax, when Bony is stalking about the house and its grounds late at night.  However, Venom House basically is a throwback to the Victorian sensation novel, or the Gothic tale, with an old mansion, a family curse, a mad relative locked away upstairs and quite a bit of strangulation.

The cursed family in the novel is the Answerth clan, whose forbears robbed and murdered the local Aboriginal people on their brutal way toward establishing their local cattle and sheep empire.  The bone was pointed at them, with dire consequences--so the locals in the nearby town of Emerson (mostly owned by the Answerths) believe.

First the land around the family mansion flooded, isolating the house on an island surrounded by dead trees.  Then there's the history of violence within the family itself, with fratricide, mistreatment of wives and suicide.  No wonder the Answerth mansion has been dubbed Venom House!

Now two bodies have been found in the lake around Venom House: that of Edward Carlow, a prosperous butcher and Answeth protege and old Mrs. Answerth, the mother of Morris Answerth and stepmother of Morris' half-sisters Janet and Mary.  Carlow was overpowered and drowned in the lake, Mrs. Answerth strangled and thrown into its murky waters.


Suspicion can't help but center on the Answerth siblings, despite the fact that Janet and Mary run most everything in the area.  Mary, a "mannish" woman who seemingly can master any man in a brawl, is especially feared.  Janet, the much more feminine of the two sisters, hides her fist in a dainty velvet glove.  As for Morris, he's not quite all there.  Morris, who boasts he can snap necks like carrots, is kept confined to two rooms on the second story (or so it's thought).  Then there's the housekeeper, Mrs. Leeper, who used to be a nurse in an insane asylum....

Venom House is an interesting crime novel, full of Australian local color that should prove especially interesting to non-Australians.  Upfield has a leisurely and measured narrative style that does indeed remind me of the English Humdrums Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street (Julian Symons thought as much), but Bony, despite his tracking skills, seems more intuitive and less dependent than Crofts' and Street's sleuths on material clues.  The book actually is not as viscerally thrilling as I have probably made it sound, but it's a good tale nevertheless.

Arthur Upfield
Arthur Upfield enjoyed a good run in paperback reprintsfor many decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and I think it a shame that he is out-pf-print now--another instance of the maladjustment of the modern mystery book market, for I know there are still people who would enjoy his books.

Note: There's been a lag on the blog, I know, since Friday, but I have been very busy with the proofs of my Todd Downing book, plus helping with the reprinting of six of his novels.  The good news all these books should appear in November (early December at the absolute latest) and I think they look really good!  The fantastically knowledgeable Bill Pronzini, who rediscovered Downing back in the 1980s, has been kind enough to write a preface for my book.

It's a great mission of my mine to get more Golden Age mystery authors back into print and I will keep at it in the year to come, rest assured.

I will be back later tonight with another Halloween post.  Like Dracula, I will keeping late hours!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012): A Catalogue of the Mind

One of the great twentieth century public intellectuals, the historian and literary critic Jacques Barzun, died yesterday, at the age of 104.  You will find tributes to Professor Barzun's myriad accomplishments over his long life in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Telegraph, the Independent and many other locations around the internet.

At The Passing Tramp, of course, we focus on the mystery fiction genre.  Professor Barzun's contribution to the study of this branch of literature was of great significance, though it does not get much attention in the newspaper obituaries.

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)
Much to my regret I never met or corresponded with Professor Barzun, but as a reader of mystery fiction (and more recently a historian of it) I have lived with Barzun's powerful presence in my mental life for over two decades, ever since I read his and his colleague Professor Wendell Hertig Taylor's magisterial critique of crime fiction, A Catalogue of Crime (ACOC).

Originally published in 1971, ACOC was revised by Barzun and Taylor and reprinted in 1989 (Professor Taylor died four years before the new edition appeared, at the age of eighty; incredibly, Professor Barzun would outlive his old friend by nearly thirty years).

The new edition of ACOC fell just short of 1000 pages, with entries on over 5000 works: novels, short story collections, mystery genre studies, true crime studies and Sherlockiana.  Additionally both the revised edition and the original editions have characteristically incisive essays by Professor Barzun on the nature of mystery fiction.

a magisterial, controversial, volume
ACOC is best known for its defense of the true detective story--i.e., a story centered on true detection or ratiocination, or, as Barzun cogently put it, "the rational linking of fact, motive and explanation."

Professor Barzun greatly admired detective fiction, but he argued that it was properly understood as belonging to that category of literature known as the tale.  As a tale, the proper aim of the detective story is entertaining the reader by "exercising the imagination."

Any "attempt to make a crime story 'a real novel' is headed for failure," Barzun pointedly pronounced in the 1989 edition of ACOC.

This position naturally put Professor Barzun at loggerheads with those who believed that the highest aim of mystery or crime writers should be to "transcend the genre," as the phrase goes, and produce what essentially are "straight" novels, albeit with a crime element.

A year after ACOC originally appeared, the eminent English crime writer and critic Julian Symons (1912-1994) published his seminal history of the mysterious genre, Bloody Murder (originally titled Mortal Consequences in the United States).  Like ACOC, Bloody Murder was an influential work over the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s (it had three editions, the last appearing twenty years ago, in 1992).

a contrary opinion
Julian Symons took the opposite view from Professor Barzun, arguing that the best crime genre fiction was precisely that which attempted to approach so-called "mainstream" novels, by emphasizing psychological character studies and searching examinations of society (it should be noted that Symons eventually declared that crime fiction by its inherent nature could never attain the highest level of great literature, a position that confounded and vexed many of Symons' admirers).

These two polar opinions dominated much of mystery fiction analysis for some time, with partisans of both men exchanging rhetorical fire (Symons had more supporters, but long odds and lack of reinforcements never daunted the intrepid Professor Barzun).

Only in the last twenty years has the explosion of academic crime fiction criticism largely turned the preferred subjects of conversation to other things, particularly the genre's approaches to the subjects of race, gender, class and sexuality (you see, just like the mainstream novel!).

Yet the concerns of Barzun and Symons remain alive today with mystery writers and readers.  Ian Rankin complains bitterly about "serious" crime novels not winning Bookers, while traditionalist detective fiction fans pine for that mystery in which the author might actually deign to dangle clues before readers.

I first came across reference to Jacques Barzun's writing on mystery fiction in 1989, when reading the English mystery writer Robert Barnard's fine study of the genre fiction of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive (like Barnard, Barzun held Christie's writing in great esteem).

When I started my graduate school studies in history in 1991, I sometimes used to spend time in between classes reading the massive second edition of ACOC in the reference library of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (other favorite references of mine at this time was Bill Pronzini's and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights and Pronzini's Gun in Cheek).  Although I had read Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and the other British Crime Queens and started my way through John Dickson Carr's books (Doug Greene's splendid biography of the locked room master would soon be out), I had had no clue previously that detective fiction was so rich and varied.

Dedication in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery
Reading ACOC started me off on the long, long trail of writing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961, which, as readers of this blog will know, was just published by McFarland this year.

It's inconceivable to me that this book ever would have happened had Professor Barzun not lived.  Barzun greatly admired the work of Street (John Rhode/Miles Burton), Crofts and Stewart (J. J. Connington), particularly that of Street (there are entries on 93 of Street's novels in the second edition of ACOC, taking up over sixteen pages).  I felt it only proper that I dedicate Masters to Professor Barzun (along with Doug Greene and Bill Pronzini).

John Street (1884-1964)
Julian Symons somewhat derisively labeled these authors "Humdrums" (Street and Crofts, anyway; he was less clear about Connington).  Barzun begged to differ.  Major Cecil John Charles Street "has been called dull," noted Barzun in the second edition of ACOC, "most unjustly."  Street, Barzun asserted, "achieved excellence, again and again....Not only were his plots based on solid and original schemes, but at his best he made character and action fresh and engaging as well as functional."

To be sure, Professor Barzun's taste in mystery fiction tended to be austere.  For example, Barzun disliked broad humor in detective fiction.  John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and other ingenious American masters of mystery he tended to find too outre for his taste, thus cutting himself off from natural supporters among fans of these more colorful practitioners of true detection. Additionally, Barzun generally favored classical mystery over more tough (hard-boiled) stuff.

Yet when Julian Symons asserted that he and and Barzun shared no common aesthetic ground, he went too far.  Barzun lauded novels by authors whom Symons similarly highly praised--Raymond Chandler, for example (Barzun rightly challenged the myth that Chandler was incapable of plotting coherently).  Indeed, Professor Barzun even praised works by Julian Symons and included Symons' The Narrowing Circle (1954) in his One Hundred Classics of Crime.  Where specific crime fiction titles are concerned, there is more common ground to be found between these two men than generally is realized.

Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun began writing about crime fiction as far back as the 1940s, when he was a young professor at Columbia University.  Up until yesterday, he was one of the few remaining living people who read Sherlock Holmes stories in their first appearances in the Strand.

Professor Barzun's views on detective fiction were controversial from the beginning.  The prominent and beloved mystery critics Anthony Boucher and Howard Haycraft both took aesthetic issue with him in the forties.  Haycraft refused to include a Barzun essay in his 1946 anthology The Art of the Mystery Story, dismissively labeling Barzun, in a blunt letter to Boucher, "a very dilly tante" (rather a clever pun, if unmerited).

Whether one agrees with Barzun's general view of mystery fiction or his opinions on specific authors, there is no denying his forceful and eloquent defense of the place of detection in detective fiction.  Among his many accomplishments in literary criticism, Professor Barzun made a persuasive case for the true art of detective fiction that entertains through stimulating the mind's ratiocincative capacity; that is no mean thing.

I salute your distinguished life and work, Jacques Barzun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Arm of Mrs. Egan (1952), by William Fryer Harvey

William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) is best known as an author of Golden Age supernatural horror fiction, though in fact he is somewhat difficult to classify as a fiction writer.  To be sure, his most highly regarded short story, the unforgettably macabre "August Heat," is a classic of the supernatural (and his story "The Beast with Five Fingers," about a severed hand with a will of its own, was made into a Peter Lorre shocker film with the same title).  But some of what Harvey wrote is more accurately classified as crime fiction and some as neither crime nor horror, exactly.

Crimes and Other Oddities
 A fine collection of Harvey short stories, The Arm of Mrs. Egan, published posthumously in 1952, illustrates the difficulty in classifying Harvey's tales. Twelve of the sixteen stories (probably all written in the 1930s) are narrated by a middle-aged English nurse named Wilkie, a tough-minded but good-hearted person rather reminiscent of Mignon Eberhart's Sarah Keate--though Nurse Wilkie doesn't share Nurse Keate's propensity for wandering along dark corridors and eavesdropping at doorways (there also are four additional, rather incidental, stories).

The Nurse Wilkie tales are subtitled "twelve strange cases," which is fair enough.  Fully half of them are unambiguously crime tales, however.

One of these ("The Lake") is a true tale of detection, one of the finest I have ever read (in A Catalogue of Crime, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor justly label it "superb"), masterfully told and cleverly clued (with Christiesque precision).  There is also an undertone of eeriness in the story that is characteristic of Harvey.  It's a hackneyed situation--the murder of a rich old lady at a country house by, presumably, one of her dependents--but in Harvey's skilled hands it seems completely fresh.  Every classic crime fiction fan should read this one.

In this volume there are a number of other tales in this vein: "Euphemia Witchmaid"; "Ripe for Development"; "The Vicar's Web"; "Old Masters"; and "No Body."  While none has the structural depth of "The Lake" each is a good tale, with a twist.

All have the fine writing of the master storyteller as well.  Note this bit of observation on the rise of suburban society in England in the 1930s (so contradictory of the view that genre fiction at this time portrayed only stratified and stable rural Edwardian locales):

Cardew summed up her impression of the place by saying that everybody seemed to be shut in.  They all lived their own lives behind hedges which they watched every day to see if they were growing taller, and didn't seem to care to know who their neighbours were, nor what happened to them.  New houses were being built; houses that last year or the year before were new, had notices up that they were for sale.  You came and you went.

Three of the tales in The Arm of Mrs. Egan, including the superb title story, are supernatural--or at least might seem to be so.  In their splendidly unsettling ambiguity I was rather reminded of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

Like James (Henry and M. R.), William Fryer Harvey knew that the truest literary horror is best left understated.

The remaining three stories are rather harder to classify.  One, "Atmospherics," is a psychological study of unexpected malevolence, another, "Chemist and Druggist," a moving sentimental tale with a twist in the manner of O. Henry.  The last of these three, "Dark Horses," seemed to me the only fizzle in the lot.

Harvey does a fine job of capturing Nurse Wilkie's narrative voice (I would have loved for her to have another volume of adventures).  He also is superb at portraying elderly women, beneficent or otherwise.  Read "The Flying out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis" some All Hallows' Eve if you get the chance.  You surely won't be disappointed.

Fortunately these stories are included in Wordsworth's recent generous (and cheap!) edition of William Fryer Harvey tales, The Beast with Five Fingers (2009).  You can also still find some copies of The Arm of Mrs. Egan for $35-$50.  It's a great book.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sighted: The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White

"No, no, not that!  People didn't do things like that.  Not ordinary people--and not in England....Only she was not in England.  She had left her own familiar country when she jumped out of the Streamline Coach into this bewitched village of terrible old women...."

In honor of the month that gives us All Hallows' Eve I return to Ethel Lina White, who,  if not one of the Golden Age British "Queens of Crime," nevertheless was certainly, among Britons, the Golden Age's Queen of Chills (also see my March piece on the author's The First Time He Died).

Ethel Lina White's 1937 novel The Third Eye was the book that immediately followed into print White's celebrated novel The Wheel Spins (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes).  Like its predecessor, it's a doozy of a suspense novel.


It's hard to explain (and even harder to justify) why Ethel Lina White is so forgotten today.  Not only The Wheel Spins but White's classic Old Dark House tale Some Must Watch (1933) was quite successfully adapted to film (the latter as The Spiral Staircase--arguably the film in fact not by Hitchcock that is most commonly assumed to be an Alfred Hitchcock film); and in my view, at least, she produced at least a half-dozen classic suspense novels.  Yet it is hard to find genre histories giving White much credit today (though Some Must Watch has been brought back into print).

Ethel Lina White
Julian Symons refers to the sort of books written by Ethel Lina White as "conventional stories about slightly simple women in danger."  The casual sexism one finds in this dismissive description is not representative of Mr. Symons in particular, but rather, I believe, a larger, once-prevalent attitude among some critics about so-called "women's suspense" novels: that they're slightly silly books about slightly simple women, not to be taken at all seriously.

Personally, I prefer Ethel Lina White to the much lauded Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) and would love to see more of her books back in print.  It surprises me that feminist mystery genre criticism, which has done so much for the cause of the Crime Queens, has done so little for Ethel Lina White.

Let's take a look at The Third Eye specifically.

Like several other other Ethel Lina White tales (such as the one set in the Soviet Union during Stalin's Great Terror), Eye strikes me as rather unconventional.  When I first read the book I had no idea where the narrative was going.  It starts like Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes as a girls' school novel, hops on board a bus to become a transit thriller like The Wheel Spins, then ends up as a village Gothic shocker.  It is successful in each of its incarnations, building slowly but surely to a crescendo of nail-biting suspense.

Stay on the bus....

What's perhaps most strikingly unconventional about the book is its rejection of of England's genteel, class-ridden, country past and its embrace of middle class modernity.  Of course this is another one of the long cherished myths about Golden Age British crime fiction: that it uniformly looked backward, romanticizing England's agrarian age.  Yet in the case of The Third Eye (I'm giving nothing away here) the villainesses are two deliciously repellent older gentlewomen (decayed morally as well as economically), while the heroine is a modern, young games mistress (men are on the periphery).

the attractive hardcover American edition
(just ignore the coffee spills)
This exchange from the book turns a lot of the conventional wisdom about the Golden Age British crime novel right on its head:

"I feel that in these days of upstarts and profiteers, a long pedigree means everything.  Do you not agree?"

"No....that's all old stuff....I place personal achievement far higher....I can't see that any one has a right to feel elevated above the crowd just because he is standing on a pile of moldy bones."

Also worth noting is the very sympathetically presented Jewish schoolgirl, daughter of New Money, who plays a pivotal role in The Third Eye.

Perhaps the modern tone in this novel is not surprising, when we consider that Ethel Lina White's own father, William White, was an innovator who became wealthy in home-building though his "patented dry-roofing process."

But let's not spend too much time here analyzing The Third Eye for sociopolitical implication. It's a superbly suspenseful tale, and thus superbly enjoyable for the fan of mystery genre fiction.  The ending chapter in particular is beautifully fitting. Surely The Third Eye is one of the best portrayals of evil older women in the literature of English mystery, right up there with Shelley Smith's The Party at No. 5 (1954).  Let's leave Ethel Lina White with the last word:

"She was gripped again by the sensation of having invaded some strange region outside time and space, where no one cast a shadow and nothing grew but finger-nails...."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just Deserts 2: Absent in the Spring (1944), by Agatha Christie (Mary Westmacott)

Absent in the Spring is the third of Agatha Christie's "mainstream" novels written under her Mary Westmacott pseudonym.  I find Spring the most fascinating of Christie's Westmacott novels, because in it Christie successfully employs her exquisite mystery plotting technique to structure what is a psychological "straight novel," rather than a murder mystery.

Though published in 1944, Absent in the Spring takes place in the 1930s, a few years before the outbreak of World War Two (in the later part of the novel there is some discussion of Hitler's rise to power and his threat to European peace).

Joan Scuddamore is a seemingly invincibly smug and complacent provincial English matron in her late forties with a lawyer husband and three adult children ("Oh, no, my dear.  I'm a very busy woman in my small way.  I'm the Secretary of the Country Gardens Association--And I'm on the Committee of our local Hospital.  And there's the Institute--and the Guides.  And I take quite an active part in politics.").

Joan is returning from a visit to her daughter Barbara, who married young and moved out to Iraq.  The novel opens with Joan encountering an old school friend, Blanche Haggard.  Joan is very superior when meeting the much married and rather Bohemian Blanche, who has moved down in the world.

 In a bit of foreshadowing, Blanche speculates on what Joan would do were she, Joan, to be stranded at a railway Rest House on her way back through western Iraq (the weather is unpromising):

"If you'd nothing to think about but yourself for days and days I wonder what you'd find out about yourself--"
Joan looked skeptical and faintly amused.
"Would one find out anything one didn't know before?"
Blanche said slowly:
"I think one might..."  She gave a sudden shiver.  "I shouldn't like to try it."

Well, sure enough, Joan gets stranded and she finds that being alone with her own thoughts for days on end proves an intensely uncomfortable ordeal (she quickly runs out of reading material, having brought only three books with her--one a detective novel, though she doesn't much like them).

The bulk of the book is devoted to Joan's enforced stay at the Rest House and to her thoughts about her relationships with the people in her life, past and present.  She unwillingly starts to reinterpret earlier events and to see them in new, unpleasing, ways.

This part of the book is rather like one of Christie's detective novels, in that past conversational exchanges start to take on new meanings when looked at in a different way.  There is a puzzle here (complete with psychological red herrings), but it's a puzzle of personality, not crime.

In Absent in the Spring
 there's no oasis in a mental wasteland
I was reminded of the "Dark Christie" mysteries of this period, the tales that dare to make us uncomfortable and that refrain from offering neat and tidy--or "cozy"--resolutions (as Christie's books so often are stated--over-sweepingly--to do).

And Then There Were None (1939), Five Little Pigs/Murder in Retrospect (1943), The Hollow (1946), Curtain (1940s): Absent in the Spring dovetails neatly with all these novels.

Three of the above novels are Hercule Poirot tales. Though Poirot is absent from Absent in the Spring, Spring shares some affinity with Five Little Pigs (retrospective analysis) and And Then There Were None (the idea of being trapped in an isolated location and compelled to engage in unpleasant self-analysis).

Additionally, the character of Joan Scuddamore's elder daughter Averil is very similar to Arthur Hastings' daughter Judith in Curtain (even the central story line concerning the two characters is similar). The resemblance is so close, indeed, that it's hard not to see Curtain having been written around the same time.

People who have accepted the stereotype of Agatha Christie as a complacent and commonplace thinker would be surprised, I think, at some of the attitudes expressed in Absent from the Spring.  The author in the book argues against always doing the safe and "sensible" things in life.   

Absent from the Spring is a fascinating novel, in its own way as much of a compulsive page turner as Christie's best mystery tales.  In the New York Herald Tribune it was praised at the time by Rose Feld as "a gem of a psychological portrait" and I think this is true.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Just Deserts: The Affair in Death Valley (1940), by Clifford Knight

Clifford Reynolds Knight (1886-1963) authored twenty-four crime novels between 1937 and 1952, beginning with the Dodd, Mead Red Badge prize winning The Affair of the Scarlet Crab and ending with Death and the Little Brother:



Clifford Knight was the son of Wesley Charles Knight, a Houghton, Massachusetts native who as a young man migrated West, where he was employed as a St. Louis-San Francisco Railway station agent in Missouri and Kansas.

Clifford Knight was born in what surely is one of the least populated places to produce a Golden Age detective novelist: Fulton, Kansas (Pop. 163 in 2010).  He moved to Los Angeles, married, worked as a journalist and traveled a good deal in California, Nevada, Arizona, Mexico and the Pacific, which explains what was considered the most distinctive feature of his mysteries: exotic murder settings.

Characters in the novel stay at Death Valley Junction's famed
Armagosa Hotel and Opera House
Certainly its setting is the most notable element of Clifford Knight's The Affair in Death Valley.  In the novel Knight mentions numerous ghost towns, buildings and natural features of Death Valley, California (a map really would have been nice).

The novel's puzzle plot, which entails three murders and another attempted murder, is highly classical, if on the far-fetched side. 

These are the positive features of this novel.  Less positive features are the cardboard characters and snail's pace of the narrative.  And I say this is a fan of the British "Humdrums"!  But, truth be told, John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington typically have better pacing in their novels than one finds in Knight's tale.  It helps too, I think, that they usually offer denser material clueing, something on which Knight rather skimps.

Knight's amateur detective, California English professor Huntoon Rogers, is one of the least memorable amateur detectives I have ever encountered in my reading.  Again, Street, Crofts and Connington all created more interesting sleuths.  Some amateur detectives may have too much personality (Philo Vance), but "Hunt" Rogers has too little.

Despite the drab writing, there is this gem: "Let's go and see if we can find the bullet....Since it isn't in Dick's skull, it ought to be in the room somewhere."  This has an ingenuous ring of Carolyn Wells to me.

a deadly climate
Admittedly, it took me several days to finish The Affair in Death Valley.  One could fairly say it is put-downable.  On the other hand, it's a solid enough classical mystery story, and if you enjoy that kind of thing, as I do, you should enjoy this one too.

First editions of Clifford Knight's books tend to be scarce and highly collectible (the exceptional dust jacket art on many of the titles surely doesn't hurt).  Happy hunting!

Note: I hope you forgive the pun in the title to this piece, "Just Deserts," because it's going to be the title as well of the next piece, a review of Agatha Christie's Mary Westmacott novel Absent in the Spring (1944).  There's more affinity between this mainstream novel and Christie's crime fiction than people might think.--TPT.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stock-taking 3: Mystery Scene and News on Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012)


Before I try to get in "Friday's forgotten book" (by Clifford Knight this time), I thought I would post a bit of news on my most recent work, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (McFarland, 2012).  Yes, it's been mentioned here once or twice.

Masters--I prefer this as my shorthand title for the book to Humdrum!--has been reviewed by Jon L. Breen in the most recent issue of Mystery Scene.  Now, readers of this blog will know how I, like so many others, hold Jon Breen in great esteem (see my review of his essay collection A Shot Rang Out) so his review of Masters was especially pleasing to me.

"This is an important book of detective fiction history and criticism," Jon Breen writes, "with all the scholarly care and rigor of a first-rate academic study combined with an enjoyable literary style....This should be a certain Edgar nominee."  This is very gratifying to read, especially when it concerns a project that took such a sizable chunk of my life to complete!

Jon Breen also favorably reviews Max Allan Collins' and James L. Traylor's Mickey Spillane on Screen: A Complete Study of the Television and Film Appearances (McFarland).  This sounds like an interesting book, though I have to admit that I have never been a Mike Hammer fan (I love the film Kiss Me Deadly, however).

There's lots of interest in this issue, but my personal highlight was Martin Edwards' "Robert Barnard: A Talent to Entertain."  I was surprised to learn in this piece that Robert Barnard plans to retire from "regular professional writing," according to Martin Edwards.  Edwards' piece is fine tribute to a man who has carried the torch of the classical English mystery since the mid-1970s, when Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh were still with us.  He has published nearly fifty mystery novels and short story collections.

I also was pleased to see Bill Crider mention, in his review of short story collections, a new volume of very old Sax Rohmer short stories with supernatural elements, from Black Dog Books.  I'm so glad to see presses devoted to golden-oldies. May others follow suit!

Masters has now made it into fifty-three libraries.  I hope to list them by region soon.  Most of them are in the United States, but there also are six in Canada, as well as one in the Netherlands and one in Germany.  I do hope Masters makes it into some British libraries, considering that it's about the British detective novel--eh, what?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Half Full: Halfway House (1936), by Ellery Queen

[A]ny fashioner of crime tales these days will tell you that the modern public--at least, that part of the public which seeks its escape in detective fiction--is a very good guesser indeed; much too good, if you ask me.  In fact, from the letters hurled at my poor head it would appear that the reader who is fooled is the exception rather than the rule.

But....Guessing isn't fair....

For many years I have been a voice crying in the wilderness--I trust not vainly--beseeching readers to repress heroically their guessing proclivities and play the game scientifically.  It's harder, but immeasurably more fun....

--Ellery Queen, "Challenge to the Reader," Halfway House (1936)

The tenth Ellery Queen detective novel published since 1929 (fourteenth if you count the "Barnaby Ross" tales), Halfway House is classified as the first of "Period Two" Ellery Queen, where the author began moving away from the ultra-formal, extremely dense clue structure of his period one mysteries.

I think one might argue that Queen began this transition in The Spanish Cape Mystery, but one can certainly see in Halfway House an attempt by the author to focus more on emotional situations and less on pure puzzle plotting.  While there is some typically ingenious EQ clueing here, there also is emotional melodrama that is less successful, in my view.  If the world divides into people who prefer different periods of Ellery Queen writing (there are four, according to EQ expert Francis M. Nevins), put me down as a Period One man.

Period Two Queen
Halfway House concerns a man stabbed to death at a dilapidated dwelling in Trenton, New Jersey (the title of a Hulbert Footner mystery, Ramshackle House also occurred to me).

It turns out that the dead man was implicated in the lives of two women: Lucy Wilson, purehearted middle-class Philadelphian, and Jessica Gimball, rich-bitchy New York society matron.

Ellery Queen, amateur detective extraordinaire, is friends with Lucy, wife of the dead man, and her brother, upright attorney Bill Angell, and on hand in Trenton when Bill discovers his brother-in-law's body at the place dubbed "Halfway House" (because of its location between New York City and Philadelphia).

Naturally Ellery is allowed in on the case by the local police (he's solved some murders before, don't you know).

Lots of material clues are found on the scene, including a plate of burnt matches (in the foreward to the book it's stated that the novel could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery, in keeping with EQ's previous four word "nationality" titles, and this is certainly true).  Give some thought to those matches!

English paperback edition
The murder victim helpfully made a dying declaration to Bill: "Woman.  Veil.  Heavy veil--face.  Couldn't see.  Knifed me."  This declaration and later discoveries get Bill's sister Lucy arrested for the murder, much to the chagrin of Bill and his chum Ellery.

The third section of the book depicts Lucy's trial. Despite Bill's able defense, she is found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. But don't worry, folks, it's Ellery Queen to the rescue!

I found Halfway House an enjoyable detective novel.  I particularly liked the lengthy final section, where we get to follow Ellery's deductions from the various clues (especially those matches!).

However, I do have a few criticisms of the book.

First, Bill Angell falls in love at first sight with Andrea Gimball, daughter of Jessica Gimball, and immediately covers up (literally) evidence that implicates Andrea in the crime, even though he's fearful (justifiably) that his sister, whom he adores, may be arrested for murder.  We get this love at first sight stuff sometimes in John Dickson Carr too and I invariably find it tiresome, because it always seems to give the young man a license to behave like a total ass.  But then maybe I'm just a middle-aged sourpuss!

Second, it becomes clear that Andrea is lying about something that could impact the case and when we finally find out her motivation for lying it seems flimsy to me; yet both Ellery and Bill immediately let Andrea off the hook for her perfidy, on rather sexist assumptions, I think (maybe it was the sight of Andrea in her "pink and lacy" brassiere).

Don't trifle with Society, darling.
Third, with Dickens in mind it's rather grandiosely stated in the foreward that the novel could have been called A Tale of Three Cities.  Queen seems to have some sort of moral schematic in mind here.

Andrea excepted (though see my caveat above), the Gimball crowd is presented as an unrelievedly revolting bunch, prone to making the most asininely oblivious public comments about how contemptible middle class people are.  It seems a bit overdone.

Granted some rich people may well have felt this way about "the masses," but they might also have had the sense, in the fourth year of the Roosevelt presidency, to not be quite so "in your face" about it, at least amid a police investigation and public scandal.

I'm reminded of the great British detective novelist Henry Wade (Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher), himself a wealthy baronet, who was able to write more subtly yet for that reason more convincingly and thus damningly of the moral failures of his class.  Still, it's interesting to see such material, when non-hard-boiled mysteries from the 1930s often are declared "conservative."  As Jon L. Breen has noted, it ain't necessarily so.

Henry Street Settlement
Fortunately, Ellery--just a salt of the earth sort of gent at heart, really--awakens Andrea's dormant social consciousness by taking her to see the Clifford Odets play Waiting for Lefty and "that settlement house on Henry Street" (oh, he gives her a copy of William Faulkner's Pylon too).  Soon Andrea is Doing the Right Thing and spilling about what she really saw at Halfway House on the day of the murder.  This gives Ellery his break!

All this is to say that Queen spends more time that usual in Period One on characterization and emotional content, with rather mixed results in my view.  At times it feels like one is reading a Mignon Eberhart novel. The writing of this sort of book was probably best left to Mignon Eberhart, who had down to a T the hyper-emotional style that it requires.

Yet a lot of the puzzle plot itself is quite clever, to be sure.  Though even here I have a few qualms. Besides points raised by Mike Nevins in his Royal Bloodline (which are kind of spoilerish), I might add that one point seemed to me so darned glaringly obvious I got a bit irked when none of the characters (except Ellery, who kept it to himself of course) ever thought of it.  Also, Lucy unbelievably forgets to mention a fact that is central to her case, which is the main reason she gets convicted. 

Still Halfway House stands, I think, as an impressive example of the Golden Age detective novel.  I'd say this glass is at least half full.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Scarlet Circle (1943), by Jonathan Stagge

October is here and thus I thought I would choose as my Friday book a spooky detective novel: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle.

As mentioned previously here, the Jonathan Stagge series of mysteries was the brainchild of those literary wunderkinds Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb, aka Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin.

This great Zaccone dust jacket illustration of an open grave in a dark churchyard suggests the macabre quality to The Scarlet Circle:


The Scarlet Circle benefits tremendously from its creepy setting: Cape Talisman, one of those crumbling (literally) H. P. Lovecraftian oceanside New England villages where seemingly everyone is sitting around waiting for Yog-Sothoth or some such creature to appear from another dimension.

Surprisingly there is to be found in this dying village a place of lodging: the Talisman Inn.  Equally surprisingly Jonathan Stagge's series detective, middle-aged widower Dr. Westlake, likes to vacation at the Talisman Inn with his daughter Dawn (who debuted in the series with her father seven years earlier at age ten and seems not have aged one month since).

And the Westlakes' favorite time to come visit is in September, after Labor Day, when the inn is nearly empty and the wind is apt to squall....

This year murder is added to the list of local attractions.  Three of them actually!  It seems that there is a serial murderer afoot, strangling women, laying their bodies out artistically under the eerie light of red Chinese lanterns and drawing circles with scarlet lipstick around each of their single most prominent moles.  Meanwhile, graves are being dug up in the church cemetery, also by the light of red Chinese lanterns.

How's this for a bizarre set-up?  The Scarlet Circle should be guaranteed to please devotees of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Hake Talbot, to name some of our most admired outre detective novelists.

In The Scarlet Circle the dead don't stay buried

Under the conventions of this sort of tale, Dr. Westlake is invited by the local police (in over their heads of course) to participate in (i.e., take over) their investigation.  He's solved some murder cases before, don't you know.

I suppose that the most original contribution of the Jonathan Stagge novels is the character of Dawn Westlake.  Children aren't too common a feature of Golden Age mysteries.  Dawn seems to be in the book mainly to provide comedy relief, she being one of those irrepressible Tom Sawyeresque hellions you often find in books.  Some may find her irritating (I kind of did), but I must admit that Stagge manages to integrate her into the book's resolution pretty effectively.

The setting is perfect and the characters sufficiently memorable.  Particularly striking is Mr. Usher (hmmm), the unctuous undertaker who seems rather too interested in female corpses.  Then there's Buck Valentine (now there's a name you won't forget!), the terrifically muscled lifeguard at the Talisman Inn ("Standing there in his swimming trunks, he looked like a maiden's dream of Flash Gordon"), who may have been romantically linked to all three murder victims.

There is in fact no shortage of suspects.  Moreover the plot is pleasingly complex and the clueing fair.  The Scarlet Circle is a top-drawer baffler in the classical style, and the best of the Jonathan Stagge books that I have read.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Listed: 100 American Crime Writers (2012), edited by Steven Powell

Here's a brand new reference book in Palgrave Macmillan's Crime Files series: 100 American Crime Writers.  I hope to be able to review it in the future, but it's extremely expensive: $85 on Amazon.com (Gad! And you thought my book was dear!).

On Amazon I looked at excepts from the book, which had fourteen contributors.  Naturally I was curious to see which authors made the cut, so to speak.  And naturally I was especially interested in authors of classical Golden Age detective fiction.

Here they are (all these authors were alive and publishing in the Golden Age, c. 1920-1939, even though Arthur B. Reeve, for example, is considered more pre-GA):

100 crime writers
in under 400 pages
John Dickson Carr
Mignon Eberhart
Erle Stanley Gardner
C. Daly King
Ellery Queen
Arthur B. Reeve
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Rex Stout
S. S. Van Dine
Carolyn Wells

Conveniently, they number to ten (William Faulkner shows up too, though his contribution to genuine mystery/crime genre writing is slight relative to his overall body of work). There are about the same number of hard-boiled/noir writers from the same period (no George Harmon Coxe though).

So what do you think?  Would these be your choices, were you limited to ten?

Exclusively pre-Golden Age, by the way, we have Jacques Futrelle (d. 1912) and Edgar Allan Poe (d. 1849).  Among more recent writers I was glad to see our crime fiction power couples Margaret Millar and Ross Macdonald and Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini.

I also was pleased, incidentally, to see how many of these writers I have written about on this blog:

John Dickson Carr
one of the 100
John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr (and John Street)
Mignon Eberhart
Ellery Queen
Mary Roberts Rinehart
William Faulkner
William Faulkner
Ross Macdonald
Bill Pronzini
Bill Pronzini

Not bad for a ten-month-old blog, I think!  There's also my Carolyn Wells pieces on Mystery*File, those were great fun.  Anyway, as is evident from these pieces, I have my own opinions of the GA authors included in 100 American Crime Writers, but what about you?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rub-a-dub-dub, There's a Lady in My Tub: Murder with Pictures (1935), by George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984) is one of those 1930s American hard-boiled detective writers who started writing novels in between the appearances of The Thin Man (1934) and The Big Sleep (1939), but he doesn't get much attention, because, well, he's not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, is he?  But that's a high standard to set, to be sure.

Coxe's first crime novel, Murder with Pictures (which first appeared in 1935, not 1937, as seems to be the date given on the net bibliographies), is certainly not in the league with Hammett and Chandler, yet I found the book interesting, though admittedly more as a social document than a tale of detection.

"Is that your bath brush
or are you just happy to see me?"
Probably what made the greatest impression with Coxe's first novel was the scene where the knock-out blonde, Joyce Archer, bursts into the apartment of our hero, newspaper photographer Kent Murdock, while he is taking a shower.  Demanding that she let him hide in the shower, she barges right in there with him (it's one of those footed tubs with a circular shower curtain).

Gee, just make yourself at home lady!

This blonde had caught Murdock's eye at a party earlier that morning and he's a game fellow anyway, so he plays along, bantering the cops who shortly show up in his place too, as she cowers behind him.

In the fashion of these sort of tales, it seems that Joyce Archer found herself on the murder scene at another apartment (the one where the aforementioned party took place) and naturally she picked up the gun, getting her fingerprints all over it...well, you've heard this one before, right?  I'm pretty sure this happens in every other Mignon Eberhart novel, for example.

Why did Joyce show up at the murder victim's apartment at 4:30 in the morning, you may be asking?  Well, it seems she feared that her brother, wealthy and dissolute man-about-town Howard Archer, was going there to run off with the wife of the murder victim (Mark Redfield, ace defense attorney, by the by).  This is another convention in mysteries of this era: nice girls can always be counted on to get themselves in heaps of trouble on account of their feckless brothers.

Oh, yes, despite her evident propensity to jump in showers with naked newspaper photographers, Joyce is indeed a nice girl.  Blogger John Norris has already reviewed the second Kent Murdock mystery, The Barotique Mystery, in which Kent and Joyce are on their honeymoon, so it won't spoil anything to tell you that they are about to get hitched at the end of Murder with Pictures.

I think back in the 1930s a couple had to get married if they spent any time in a shower together--well, at least when one of them was naked, anyway.

In a Hammett, Chandler or James M. Cain novel, Joyce would be that dreaded thing, a femme fatale, and either shot dead or adorned in bracelets as she's carted off to the paddy wagon, but Coxe's novel is more semi-tough than tough and spares us this sort of unpleasantness.

In fact Murder with Pictures is not so different, it seems to me, from a classical detective novel in its resolution (admittedly the incident is more colorful, in terms of sexual innuendo, gunplay and manly fisticuffs).  Order is rather nicely restored by the end of the tale, with Kent Murdock's estranged current wife, one of those low class calculating chorus girl hussies, effectively bought off, leaving him free to marry good girl Joyce.  Oh, and Kent solves the murder too (all of this is expertly dovetailed by Coxe).

I was engaged less with the mystery than with Murdock's efforts to get everything straightened out satisfactorily.  Murdock likely served as something of a role model for some of Coxe's readers.

We are informed that Murdock had three years of college, where he learned to like books and fine things (he has a copy of Green Mansions in his apartment), and that he's presentable in classy company; yet he's not an effete twit like that rich playboy Howard Archer.  He has a sense of honor that Howard lacks and he knows the value of honest work.  As Joyce says, he's just not like those other, cocktail-swilling society boys she knows, unlike them, he does things.

George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984)
Coxe himself attended college for two years (one year at Purdue and another at Cornell), before trying work at all sorts of places: auto factory, lumber camp, dance orchestra.  Eventually he became a--surprise!--journalist; his hobbies included--surprise!--photography.

We often read how 1930s hard-boiled fiction was ideologically subversive or politically left.  I didn't get the sense of that from Murder with Pictures.  Heck, Coxe even defends Boston cops:

Neither man was brilliant, neither was spectacular, unduly imaginative, or blessed with more than average intelligence.  But in their own line of work, which as often dull and almost always routine, both were hard, competent, and so honest they leaned over backward.

Just to prove this, Murdock doesn't get beaten to a pulp by a cop even once, or even slapped around a bit.  Heck, the cops actually like Murdock.

I don't imagine I will ever be tempted to read this particular mystery again, but I probably will read something else by George Harmon Coxe, something, I hope, with a bit stronger plot (this was his first novel, after all).  But Murder with Pictures was not without interest.

Note 1: Apparently it was adapted into a film as well.  I would love to hear from anyone who has seen the film.

Note 2: A number of George Harmon Coxe novels now are available as eBooks from Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press.  And of course there's always the used market!  Back in his day, Coxe was quite popular in paperback.