Sunday, March 31, 2013

Murder Ends the Song (1941), by Alfred Meyers (Part Two)

this jacket doesn't quite do justice to Lucifer's Pride
I asked at the end of Part One of this review whether Alfred Louis Meyers' Murder Ends the Song lives up to the standards of American mystery masters like Ellery Queen?  A high bar, to be sure, but I think Song is a work worthy of the masters.

In Murder Ends the Song the famous though getting-past-it soprano Marina Grazie ends up stranded at the isolated, hulking barn of a mansion known as Lucifer's Pride, built for Madame Grazie in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge many years ago by her "wheat king" millionaire lover, Lucifer Bolliver.

Stranded with Marina is her entourage (her niece, her doctor, her accompanist, her companion-secretary and her chauffeur), Tony Graine, the tenor currently performing with her in her attempted West Coast comeback, Tony's accompanist and bosom buddy, Walter Sands ("Sandy"), and the caricaturish caretaking couple, Mr. and Mrs. Tait.

The much-hated Marina soon is murdered (a knitting needle at the base of the skull*), commencing a twenty-four-hour nightmare for those individuals trapped in Lucifer's Pride (here similarities with the real-life coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini end, by the way, for Tetrazzini seems to have been generally beloved).

*(I recall that an English detective novel published about the same time used this same murder method)

a soprano dies
under decidedly outre circumstances

Two more deaths follow before Tony Graine cracks the case.  Along the way, the reader is provided, for her edification, with three illustrations, a floor plan, a list of documents and, near the end of the tale, a tabulation of clues.  All this is highly Ellery Queenish and quite enjoyable.  Unlike in Gerald Bullett's Odd Woman Out, recently reviewed here, some of the clues appear quite early in the tale, showing that Alfred Meyers was a good sportsman, not afraid to "play the game."

Moreover, Meyers' novel has a surprisingly poignant ending. Essentially with this novel Meyers looks back to the past in devising a classical style puzzle, but also ahead to the future in giving his resolution some emotional resonance.

It's a shame that this fine detective novel has been utterly forgotten, but this neglect shouldn't be surprising, I suppose, given that the book was never reprinted in paperback (despite good notices in the New York Times book Review and the Saturday Review) and that its publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, was not to my knowledge much associated with the mystery genre.

Alfred Louis Meyers
Despite apparently having only published this one novel, Meyers, according to Jeffrey Marks' Anthony Boucher: A Bibliobiography, in 1947 was elected the first Treasurer of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America (Lenore Glen Offord was elected Secretary and Anthony Boucher Vice President, which raises the question, who the heck was the President?).

The same year Meyers also wrote one of the chapters in the book San Francisco Murders (along with Boucher, Offord and Hildergarde Teilhet).  What Meyers did after this I don't know, though he was still living in San Francisco in 1958, but five years before his untimely death in 1963.

Besides discovering that my eight great grandfather Richard Buffington married Alice Palmer, a sister of Alfred Meyers' six great grandfather John Palmer, way back in 1720 (I'm not descended from this marriage, by the way, Alice Palmer having been Richard Buffington's third wife), I also found out some interesting details about Meyers' more immediate family background.

Meyers maternal ancestors, the Palmers and the Newlins, though originally Chester County, Pennsylvania Quakers, moved out to Oregon from Iowa in the early 1870s and converted to Catholicism.  Meyers' mother, Mildred Lee Newlin (to whom Murder Ends the Song is dedicated), married a Frederic Louis Meyers, a Catholic originally from Toronto, who moved to the small city of La Grande, Oregon some time in the 1890s, after he graduated from the University of Ottawa.  In La Grande he started as an office boy in the La Grande National Bank, eventually becoming Cashier.

La Grande National Bank
where Alfred Meyers' father was the longtime Cashier

In 1922-23, when Frederick's and Mildred's son Alfred was a high school student, the La Grande chapter (klavern) of the militantly anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan mounted a pressure campaign to get Frederick Meyers fired as Cashier of the La Grande National Bank.

This KKK campaign failed, but the La Grande klavern did succeed in getting Evalyn Rohan Newlin, the wife of Mildred Newlin Meyer's brother Chester Peter Newlin, fired from her job as a public schoolteacher, on the grounds that she sent her children to a Catholic school.

All the Meyers children went to this school, Sacred Heart Academy, themselves.  Alfred's sister Margaret (of the Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Marywrote in 1997 that their parents kept these unpleasant details from the children, though she recalled that that for several years in the 1920s the La Grande klavern burned crosses "halfway up Table Mountain, a steep hillside directly above our residential area in La Grande."  She also remembered seeing "Klan members, their identity concealed under full regalia, riding horseback about our streets in broad daylight."

At the University of Notre Dame, where he received BA and MA degrees, Alfred Meyers found a much different environment!  He also was able to indulge his great passion for singing in the prestigious Notre Dame Glee Club.  And it was this passion that gave life to his single detective novel, Murders Ends the Song.  I think this one merits reprinting.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Diva Got Dropped: Murder Ends the Song (1941), by Alfred Meyers (Part One)

The opera mystery that I can best recall having read previously is Photo-Finish (1980), by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982).  Murder Ends the Song, by Alfred Louis Meyers (1906-1963), preceded the Crime Queen's penultimate novel by four decades.  Did Dame Ngaio ever read Murder Ends the Song?  I have no idea, but there are sure similarities between the two tales.

Alfred Louis Meyers was a great opera buff, without a doubt.  At Notre Dame University, where he received a B.A. and an M.A. in English (his thesis was titled An American Paradox), Meyers was a prominent member of the Glee Club, and in 1937 he sang in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, where he settled after the death of his father, a bank cashier in a small city in eastern Oregon (the son had worked "off and on in his father's bank," all the while "singing in any chorus that would use his talents").

Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940)
In Murder Ends the Song, published in 1941 at the tail end of the Golden Age of the detective novel, Meyers chronicles the murder of Marina Grazie, an imperious but past-her-prime coloratura soprano (the sort who "trills" a grat deal in bel canto operas) attempting a would-be comeback of sorts in Portland, Oregon.

Several times in the novel Meyers mentions the once renowned coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini (one of the true greats of this art form).

It's clear that Meyers' Marina Grazie is to some considerable extent modeled after the great Tetrazzini, who died at the age of 68, the year Meyers was writing his mystery.

You can find a great deal about Tetrazzini on the internet; here, for example, is an interesting recent piece on her in L'ideamagazine by Linda Ann Lo Schiavo, The Dangerous Arrangments of Luisa Tetrazzini.

The diva also got attention on San Francisco websites back in 2010, on the hundredth anniversary of her celebrated outdoor concert in the City by the Bay (a place she loved), staged just a few years after the great earthquake.  And, yes, the pasta dish tetrazzini is said to have been named after her!

In Murder Ends the Song the soprano aria Caro nome, from Verdi's Rigoletto, plays a great role (there's even a diagram of a page of the sheet music provided, along with an illustration of the title of the aria, found scrawled in blood on the mirror in Grazie's dressing room).  Here is a link to an old recording of Terazzini herself singing Caro nome.

Tetrazzini slays 'em in San Francisco

You may guess from all this that I liked Murder Ends the Song.  I did indeed.  Throughout the author handles classical devices with facility.

Eventually we end up with Marina Grazie and her entourage--along with tenor and amateur detective Tony Graine, his accompanist-sidekick Walter Sands ("Sandy") and a caretaking couple--stranded in the hulking old country mansion known as Lucifer's Pride, built many years before along the Columbia River Gorge by an eccentric millionaire as a would-be wedding present for Grazie (she broke it off, keeping his diamond). The mansion, you see, can only be reached by a ferry boat, which is promptly obliterated in an ice storm.

This old gambit, a variation of which is used by Ngaio Marsh in Photo-Finish (there she strands her house party on an island in New Zealand), is always fun.  Meyers also has a snappy pace and narration and additionally in the text supplies readers with, besides the Caro nome items mentioned above, a house plan and an illustration of a snowy footprint.  This is a book definitely in the style of such American mystery greats as Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer.

Death lurks in the gorge....

Does Murder Ends the Song live up to the works of the masters?  I will have more to say about that in Part Two!  I will also have more to say about Alfred Louis Meyers, who, it turns out, is connected to my family by marriage, if you go back far enough!  Alice Palmer, a sister of Meyers' six great grandfather John Palmer, was the third wife of my eight great grandfather Richard Buffington (1654-1748).  Like Raymond Chandler, whose family is also related to mine by marriage, our ancestors go back to Chester County, Pennsylvania at the time of William Penn.  Don't worry, though, I'll make every effort to remain objective with this review!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Author

What Golden Age mystery writer once lived at this apartment house in Nob Hill, San Francisco?  Not only is my coming Friday detective novel forgotten today, so is the author, though he appears to have been part of the social circle of the noted mystery critic and author Anthony Boucher in the 1940s.  Be sure to check in this weekend and see just who this person is!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Odd Ducks: Odd Woman Out (1958), by Sebastian Fox (Gerald Bullett)--and a contest

In my review of the thriller I'll Tell You Everything, by Gerald Bullett and J. B. Priestley, I mentioned how these two respected English authors, primarily associated primarily with "mainstream" works, wrote some additional crime and mystery fiction, including legitimate detective novels.  Today I am reviewing one by Gerald Bullett; in a few days I will review one by J. B. Priestley.

Near the end of his life, Gerald Bullett (1893-1958), published two legitimate detective novels under the pseudonym Sebastian Fox. I didn't like the first Fox novel, One Man's Poison (1956), but I enjoyed the second (and regrettably last), Odd Woman Out.  The first novel was to me a yawner with exceedingly unlikable characters, while the second stands with the best English village mysteries from the 1950s that I have read.  It makes me regret Bullett did not live to provide us any further tales of detection.

there's been an odd death at Regency Cottage....
First let me note that in its front matter Odd Woman Out is explicitly labeled a detective story and an essay in detection by, respectively, the publisher and the author.

What a nice contrast this is with the American publisher Harper & Row, where beginning in the 1950s renowned editor Joan Kahn (1904-1984) seems to have labeled every mystery the firm published a novel of suspense, even if it was actually a detective novel.

This suggests that Odd Woman Out effort was a cri de couer of sorts on Bullett's part--even if it was published by him under a pseudonym.

At one point in Odd Woman Out Bullett's amateur detective, the avuncular and Edwardian solicitor George Lydney, visits the "one and only bookshop" is Sadlers Green, the village where the queer death has taken place, and purchases "the new Agatha Christie." He presents the book to one of the Turpin sisters (more about them anon), whereupon the following conversation takes place:

"Just what I wanted, Mr. Lydney.  It's my favorite sort of reading."

"I rather thought it was," said George, smiling.

"Not that I bother much with clues and things," she confided.  "To tell you the truth I find all that rather muddling.  It's the story I enjoy.  The people, you know."

This is probably true of quite a few classical mystery readers (and no doubt would surprise those scoffers who think that Agatha Cristie's appeal lies exclusively in puzzle devising).  Odd Woman Out fortunately resembles a Christie novel in that a reader can enjoy both the situation and characters, as well as the puzzle.  It works on both levels.

In milieu Odd Woman Out quite resembles a village Christie.  There's the quaint village Sadlers Green, there's the exquisite little house (Regency Cottage) where the Misses Penelope and Clara Turpin live and there's the cast of characters, predominantly women.

The titular odd woman out is Emily Pratt, a recently widowed cousin of the Turpin sisters.  A charitable pair, the Turpins invite Emily to come live with them--much to their regret, for Emily turns out to be demanding, deceitful, selfish, sour, malingering and malicious.

Not long before Christmas, Emily is found dead in her bedroom, which is reeking of coal gas [on this point see Roger Allen's comment below].

Gerald Bullett
 Soon the police suspect murder, but their investigation is complicated by the fact that Joy Newcome and Gerald Weir, a younger sister and a nephew of the Misses Turpin, were visiting at the time of Emily's demise.

Also present was the Turpin's "home help," Kate Mortimer, who, though she comes of genteel origins, actually is eccentric enough to enjoy housework and has made it her profession (the Turpin sisters are quite amazed by this, though exceedingly grateful for Mortimer's ministrations).

Oh, and don't forget those Christmas carolers who were milling around the Turpin house that night!  It seems Emily was a devotee of a fundamentalist church, headed by Arthur Immanuel Goope, and Goope and a rival with Emily for Goope's ministerial attentions, Antonia Limpid, were among the carollers, as was a new member of the church, the lovely bank clerk Muriel Tallow.*

*(Yes, there's some satire against fundamentalist religion here.  Classical English mystery tends to look down on what it frequently terms "religious enthusiasm."  Chief Inspector Jannock tellingly declares, "I never did care for religious mania.")

As you can see, Bullett is scrupulous about providing the reader with a variety of suspects!

The mystery has interesting twists and turns and the writing is smooth and quite enjoyable.  Although Reverend Goope never emerges from the author's rather harsh caricature, the other suspects are subtly done and memorable, especially Penelope Turpin (she published a book of "rhyming platitudes" called Life's Little Lessons back in the 1930s, and she is quite found of quoting from it).

The amateur detective, George Lydney, and the police detectives, Chief inspector Jannock and Sergeant Eustace Oak, are quite well done too.  Sergeant Oak is dapper young highbrow and his humorous byplay with Jannock rather reminded me of Hathaway and Lewis from the British Lewis series.

Sergeant Hathaway (Lewis)
See, for example, this exchange from the novel:

"I agree with you, Chief," said Oak.  "Good morning, Mr. Lydney.  I don't know what I'm agreeing with this time, but I'm sure I do."  Standing languidly before them, a slim neat figure, he fingered his tie and glanced appraisingly at the crease in his trousers.  "What are you drinking, Mr. Jannock?"

"And he calls himself a detective!" said Jannock, scornfully indicating his tankard.  "No more, Eustace.  I've got half a pint left."

"What about you, Mr. Lydney?  They have a very tolerable sherry here.  Or would you prefer a martini?"

Bullett keeps the reader in suspense until very nearly the end of the novel--although it must be admitted that in part that this abeyance is due to his holding so many clues in his hand until late in the game.

Still, decisive clues finally are played and Lydney is legitimately able to intuit his way to a solution of what is, all in all, a most excellent mystery.  As I stated above, it's a loss for the reader that Bullett did not live to pen another one of these "Sebastian Fox" detective novels. With Odd Woman Out, Bullett had hit his stride.

Contest Notice: I have an extra copy of Odd Woman Out and if you would like it, why don't you send me an email (click my "about me" link on the upper right of the page to get the address), listing resemblances between the plot elements in Odd Woman Out that I've described above and any in specific books by the Crime Queens Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (I have two books in mind, but you may think of some others).  I'll keep this contest open through the end of the week.  The winner will be the one listing the most novels, the tie winner, if there is a tie, will be the one who emailed first.  I will pay basic shipping, as long as it's to the United States or Canada.  Good luck!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

100,000 and a Bit of Pulp

Watch your hand, buddy!
This blog was started on November 22, 2011 and now, sixteen months later, I've had 100,000 views, which I suppose is something of milestone!  So I thought I should mention it.

I think I have some interesting review items lined up for next week, plus a contest to commemorate the 100,000; but today I am merely noting a little artifact I discovered recently.

I had never realized until recently that a work by British mystery writer Cecil John Charles Street, one of the subjects of my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, appeared in a classic pulp fiction format, but indeed one did.  

Not a Leg to Stand On, published under Street's Miles Burton pseudonym, appeared in the May 1946 issue of Two Complete Detective Books (the other "complete detective book" appearing in the issue is Manning Long's Bury the Hatchet).

interior illustration
Not a Leg to Stand On offers readers the teasing little problem of the disappearance of Edward Coulston, owner of a "ruby-eyed golden idol" and wearer of an artificial leg.  Eventually the leg turns up, but not Mr. Coulston with it. Quite a mystery for the gentleman amateur detective Desmond Merrion and his attendant policeman, Inspector Arnold!

When I read it some years ago I enjoyed Not a Leg to Stand On, but I must admit that Street's books typically lacked that quality of pep that one associates with pulp.

Nevertheless, the presence of a naked female statuette in Leg seems to have lent the novel an element sufficiently exotic and sexy to carry the day.  Though I must admit that eager readers who bought this item because of the cover illustration may have been a bit disappointed!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Horror of It All: The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), by Mrs. Carver

Within the walls of her monstrous Abbey, [Mrs.] Carver intimately illustrates horrors which haunt the reader long after putting her book down....Like the cold grasp of a dead hand, her images and themes refuse to let go.  They pull us into the dark grave to lie with the clutching corpse....[W]e have no escape from the terrors that await us behind the closed door or beyond the darkened grave....

--Curt Herr, Introduction to the 2006 Zittaw Press edition of The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey: A Romance (1797)

Zowie!  Who could resist this description?  And the front cover illustration of this nicely produced volume doesn't hurt either, when it comes to luring readers desiring to sup on horrors.

You must admit
this is a killer cover
Sadly, however, I found The Horrors of Oakendale something less than a nightmare feast.

When reading it, I couldn't help thinking how much more exciting the book might have been had Curt Herr--according to his interesting website, a Gothic and Victorian scholar, Vampire Historian, and Public Speaker--written it in 2007, judging by his his enthusiastic and colorful introduction.

On the plus side, the book is short--less than 50,000 words, I would guess--and easy to read (so easy that I didn't think footnotes explaining the meaning of words like harangue were really necessary).  And the story is classic Gothic, to be sure.You see a lot of the Gothic tropes cropping up again and again in mystery and suspense tales, right up to the present day.

Debauched (and married) Lord Oakendale, having determined that he will have his way with the genteel, beautiful orphan girl Laura, sends her to his remote and crumbling Cumberland mansion, Oakendale Abbey.

The Abbey is rumored to be haunted by all manner of ghastly creatures, don't you know, and the wicked nobleman thinks that by the time he comes to visit Laura (who is accompanied only by her dimwitted maid, Mary), she will literally fall into his arms and let him do just what he will. This seemed rather a daft plan to me, but then I'm not an English lord, drat it, and I suppose I fail to comprehend the mysterious workings of the mind of such an exalted personage.

What horrors lurk in the Abbey at night?

Anyway, once she finds herself in the dismal Abbey, the virtuous and rather plucky Laura insists on exploring the nasty old dump, thereby encountering such things as:

a skeleton in a coffer! (coffer is defined in a footnote too)

a man's shadow in the gallery!!

an eyeball staring at her through a crack in a wall!!!

worst of all, the hanging corpse of a woman!!!! (this last item finally sends Laura into a faint, understandably)

What happens next?  Well, you'll just have to read it for yourself won't you?  Let's just say that all is not as it seems!

Could this distinguished gentleman be Mrs. Carver?
Quite possibly so!
No doubt these horrors were rather thrilling in 1797, but on the whole it's all rather tame stuff today.  And the way the tale is told, with so many extended asides to detail past events (Laura's story of her life, told over cups of chocolate to a kindly old gentlewoman, is a 24-page monologue), enervates the suspense and mystery elements.

Curt Herr makes this book sound much darker than it actually is, in my view.  I think things are rather happily--not to mention improbably--resolved for our heroine and her beloved at the tale's end, though Herr believes that Oakendale Abbey will leave readers with lingering doubts about the rational order of the universe.

The most interesting and original plot element of The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey is one I can't mention (it's a spoiler), but I will note that it points to the true identity of the author, "Mrs. Carver."

Sir Anthony Carlisle, eminent surgeon
and, probably, Gothic novelist
The question of the authorship of this novel actually is a fascinating one.

It turns out, according to a 2009 article by Don Shelton, that "Mrs. Carver" probably was a man, Anthony Carlisle.  Later knighted, Carlisle was a surgeon to Westminster Hospital at the time Oakendale Abbey appeared, which certainly would explain the realistic (and for the time gruesome) medical detail that pops up in the Mrs. Carver novels.

The pseudonym Mrs. Carver likely was a pun, playing on Carlisle's profession (surgeons carve people up, get it?).  Shelton's piece on Carlisle is very interesting, and you should read it if you are interested in the Gothic novels.

Reprints of Gothic and Sensation novels seem to flying off the presses these days.  I'm all for this, though unless one is a devout fan of the genre or a specialist in it, I think one will have to admit that many of these books are routine.  I think the The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey is on the whole an unexceptional Gothic.  It's a quick, light read with a fairly intricate plot and some historical interest, but after the lights are turned out  it won't be haunting this reader!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Baronet Who Cried Wolf: Twice Dead (1960), by John Rhode

"Family affection not being a strong point among the Yordales...."

In Twice Dead (1960), by John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street), the eccentric Sir Francis Yordale, baronet, wants to find out just how much his brothers and sisters really care for him.  So, naturally, he puts a false announcement of his death in The Times (I mean, wouldn't you?).

Sir Francis is not overly impressed with the funeral wreaths he gets, so he makes a new will giving most of his money to his Australian godson, George Pawlett, and his longtime housekeeper (a distant relation), Ethel Shirland.  Soon afterwards he is found dead in his chair in his study at his country house, Uplands. Yes, he's really dead this time.

What's a country house without a murder?

It seems Sir Francis died from carbon monoxide poisoning, but no one can figure out how this could have happened.  Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn, botching investigations since 1935, knows this is one of those cases a struggling English copper should take to that extremely eminent and now quite ancient scientist, Dr. Lancelot Priestley, who debuted, cantankerously, in John Rhode's The Paddington Mystery in 1925.

Sadly, the aged Dr. Priestley doesn't leave his house in Westbourne Terrace to conduct a field experiment in the fatal study at Uplands, but he does send his faithful secretary, Harold Merefield, to do so.  For me, this was the highlight of the book.  In this, the seventieth Dr. Priestley detective novel, John Street--his John Rhode pseudonym was a pun, you see--comes up with his last clever murder method (two more Dr. Priestley books followed in in 1960 and 1961, but neither book offers anything really new in the way of creative murdering).

When one counts John Street's Miles Burton mysteries, Twice Dead was, I believe, the 141st crime novel published by Street.  It's certainly far from a masterpiece, but that it's as enjoyable as it is is remarkable, given how many books Street had published by this time (to be sure, some of the late Rhodes are complete clunkers).

There's a dastardly murder, a Christmas house party at a country estate, an eccentric baronet, a contentious will-reading, squabbling relations, a chauffeur named Ribble and even an unexpected, if (very) discreet, romance between Sir Francis' sister, a fifty-year-old schoolmistress, and his forty-year-old godson.  This is a traditional an English mystery as one could desire.

Enjoyably, Street in Twice Dead takes a few potshots at the snobbish pretensions of Sir Francis' brother Edgar and Edgar's wife, Alice, who want the baronetcy for themselves (Street's own family was loaded with baronets and knights but Street was never impressed with titles per se).  And Sir Francis Yordale's country house shares its name, Uplands, with the house in Woking, Surrey, that John Street spent his first years living in, until 1889, when he was five and his father, General John Alfred Street, died there.  For me, this lent a certain touch of nostalgia to the tale, as if Street, at age 76, was reliving his youth a bit in this, one of the last of his many tales.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Backstreets: More John Street Family History

I hope I'm not exhausting interest here (a review of a John Rhode mystery is coming tomorrow), but I've made some more discoveries about the family of Cecil John Charles Street (I do wish all this had made it into Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery).  In the last John Street post I discussed Street's descent on one side from Major General John Alfred Street (veteran of the Second Opium War!) and on the other from Caroline Bill, daughter of Charles Horsfall Bill, wealthy landowner.

After service in the Royal Artillery John Street became an electrical engineer for about eight years (he was called up again into service in the R.A. when the Great War started).  After the war and a spot of Army Intelligence work in Ireland, Street settled down to a life of writing, publishing his first mystery novel in 1924, when he was forty years old.  Street's detective novels, particularly his Dr. Lancelot Priestley mysteries published under the John Rhode pseudonym, reflect Street's peculiar mechanical genius.  During the Golden Age of the detective novel, he was especially lauded for his ingenious means of murder, which often drew upon principles of science and engineering.

In his mysteries Street also wrote disdainfully of snobbish gentry who looked down their noses at people in business and mechanical trades (see, for example, Mr. Babbacombe Dies--well, if you can ever find a copy!).  Was he writing from personal experience?  Where did John Street get his marked knack for science and technology?

David Hume and Adam Smith--friends of
John Jardine, "a hard-headed, jolly dog,"
according to James Boswell
It now seems there was a family link after all.  Street's paternal grandmother, the mother of his father General Street, was Catherine Jardine, a granddaughter of Reverend John Jardine (1716-1766).  Jardine was a member, with David Hume and Adam Smith and others, of Edinburgh's Select Society, a founder of the Edinburgh Review and a figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Writes E. C. Mossner in his The Life of David Hume (Oxford University Press, 1980): "Greatly beloved by David Hume was John Jardine, six feet two of a man with large bones and a huge zest for life" (p. 277).  James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, described Reverend Jardine in his journal as "a hard-headed, jolly dog."

I was struck by these references, because in great part they could have been made about Jardine's descendant John Street.

As Doug Greene records in his biography of John Dickson Carr, Street was a tall, large man (grown stout in middle age), a zestful imbiber ("I have watched him polish off ten pints of beer before lunch, and more than that after dinner," an admiring Carr once recalled) and a "great storyteller with entertaining accounts of his army experiences" (some of these were retailed by Street in his war memoirs, With the Guns and The Making of a Gunner).

It was Street who, putting his electrical skill to work, wired the eye sockets of Eric the Skull, the Detection Club mascot, to glow red during initiation ceremonies, like the one Carr participated in when he became a member of the Club in 1936.

Catherine Jardine Street's husband died in 1829, when John Street's father was but seven years old.  Six years later Catherine married Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1780-1848).  Mackenzie was a Scottish baronet, mineralogist and geologist, who co-authored, among other works, Travels in the Island of Iceland, During the Summer of the Year 1810.

plate from Travels in Iceland (1810)

Mackenzie is also known for having conducted experiments, at the age of twenty (four years after his succession to the baronetcy), with his mother's diamonds, in order to establish that diamonds were crystallized carbon.  He succeeded in this endeavor and thereby became at that time the youngest person elected to the Royal Society.

What Sir George's mother thought of the sacrifice of her precious jewels on the altar of science we don't know.

George Steuart and Catherine Jardine Street Mackenzie resided at Coul House, the mansion Sir George had built in 1821.  Catherine had one son with her new husband, who already had fathered ten children by his first wife.  This son of the second marriage, a half-brother of John Street's father and thus a half-uncle to John, was Henry Augustin Ornano Mackenzie (1839-1909).

Coul House in 1888, when Queen Victoria came to visit

Henry Mackenzie was a civil engineer and inventor who was granted several patents, including one to facilitate the opening of wind-chest pallets in organs (see George Ashdown Audsley, The Art of Organ-Building, 1905).

Street never actually killed anyone with an organ in any of his many books (I think the closest we ever got to this was Ngaio Marsh, with a fatal piano--or is someone actually crushed by an organ in Edmund Crispin's Holy Disorders?), but did he ever meet his uncle Henry Augustin Ornano Mackenzie and get inspired thereby with a passion for gadgets and tinkering, which he put to deadly use in his crime books?  Perhaps we will find out someday, as we keep traveling down the backstreets.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Here Be Villains: Rogue's Gallery (2011), by Robert Barnard

some unsavory characters
Rogue's Gallery, Robert Barnard's third collection of short stores (after Death of a Salesperson and The Habit of Widowhood) is fine contribution the the library of short crime fiction.  Most of the fourteen stories in the book are of twist-in-the-tale variety, rather than essays in detection. With one exception, all were first published in the last dozen years.

The best-known short story from the collection doubtless is the rather brilliantly-titled  "Sins of Scarlet," which won the 2006 Short Story Award from the Crime Writers' Association (beating out over 100 other stories).  The CWA judges, chaired by Peter Lovesey, called "Sins of Scarlet" "the ultimate in locked room murders, set in the Sistine Chapel during an election of a Pope."

In accepting the award, Robert Barnard commented that the story was turned down by "a leading US short story magazine," on the grounds that "it was too offensive to too many people" (it was instead published in a CWA anthology edited by Martin Edwards)  Be that as it may, the situation is a cleverly devised one, with a nice twist explaining precisely how the two deaths that take place in the tale were accomplished.

Obviously Barnard must have been generally inspired in writing this 2006 story by the election of a new Pope in 2005 (though of course there were no murders during that conclave!). Now I review the story the same week another new Pope was elected. Odd coincidence!

Not yet!
In Robert Barnard's "Sins of Scarlet"
there are severe glitches in a papal election

The earlier published title story also involves a wicked pope from a bygone era--or more particularly his painting.  "Rogue's Gallery" actually is more a supernatural tale, and an enjoyable one, somewhat reminiscent of Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House."

The wickedly humorous "Family Values" is one of my favorites from the collection.  Set in 1948, the story takes place at a stiflingly genteel residential hotel in the Peak District.  It's about the mother-and-son--or are they?--who come to stay at the hotel.

The ironically titled "Mother Dear" is a dark tale about a children who begin plotting the murder of their hateful mother.  For me this story had an added frisson from my recollection of an interview where Barnard admitted his own bad relationship with his mother.

"Incompatibles," about a son, a future crime writer, and his ill-matched parents, is another dark tale that seemed like it might possibly be drawing on some personal elements.  The ending is left tantalizingly inconclusive.

The earliest story in the collection, "A Political Necessity," dates from 1991.  It details the plot of a conscienceless politician to get rid of his of his wife, who has became fired with religious enthusiasm--a great deal of it.  Will his plan succeed?

One of the latest stories, "The New Slavery," is original to the book.  This one I would hardly even call a crime or mystery story, but it is a poignant tale, critiquing social conditions in modern England, and parents who palm off the responsibility for raising their children on elderly parents.

Nothing gets past this man!
"Lovely Requiem, Mr. Mozart," is a one more installment of Barnard's alternative history of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in which Mozart lives to become an old man, residing in England and giving musical lessons to Princess Victoria (see two previous novels, published under Barnard's Bernard Bastable pseudonym).

It seems an eccentric, wealthy English gentleman wants to commission Mozart to write a requiem mass for him, but there are some very odd conditions attached....

I liked this one a lot.  It's one of the few lightly humorous tales in the collection.

Some of the tales are less successful.  "The Fall of the House of Oldenborg" and "A Slow Way to Di" seemed to me to wear out their conceits (about Hamlet and Princess Diana, respectively). "The Path to the Shroud" read like a pastiche of Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.  "Last Day of the Hols" seemed rather amorphous to me, though there's a great last line about Agatha Christie, where Robert Barnard, unlike some, gives the Crime Queen her due.

Robert Barnard deserves his due too.  He's an accomplished practitioner of the arts of crime and mystery, in both their long and short forms.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Murder on Tour (1933), by Todd Downing

It's out now!  Todd Downing's first published detective novel, Murder on Tour, which introduced sleuth Hugh Rennert.  The original edition of this book is so rare even I never had a copy of it.  It's a great thrill to be able to make it available again, after eighty years, to fans of classical mystery fiction.

There is also a new introduction by me, never published before, with new information about Todd Downing, courtesy of his sister Ruth's son. It's titled "Day of the Dead: Todd Downing and Murder on Tour."

Without further ado, here is the publisher's blurb to the book:

U. S. Customs Agent John Payne was hot on the trail of the party he suspected of smuggling Mexican antiquities across the Texas border into the United States. Too hot on the trail to be left alive! On October 27, 1933, Payne was found dead, strangled, in his San Antonio hotel room. Three days after the discovery of Payne's savagely slain body, senior Customs Agent Hugh Rennert is in Mexico City to join the thirteen members of the Inter-American Tours party, late of San Antonio. Rennert is hunting for Payne's calculating and callous killer. The party of American tourists seeing the sights around Mexico City initially seems innocuous enough, yet in actuality Murder travels masked among them, patiently waiting, as the macabre Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) approaches, for the opportunity to strike again. Who will be the next to die by violence, before Hugh Rennert finally cracks the case and corners his quarry? First published in 1933, Murder on Tour is the first in Todd Downing's acclaimed series of seven Hugh Rennert detective novels. Read it and see why the New York Times Book Review proclaimed Murder on Tour a "well fashioned baffler" with "characterization . . . contrived with unusual skill."

It has been about fifteen months since I visited Todd Downing's birthplace of Atoka, Oklahoma, and decided to do my bit to revive his work.  It has taken some time and effort, but I'm glad I did what I did.  Working with Coachwhip, I will continue to do what I can to help get other Golden Age mystery authors back in print.  There is yet another middle American mystery writer coming back soon.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Street Fanfare: The Eventful Life of Cecil John Charles Street

Cecil John Charles Street
Golden Age Mystery's
Master of Murder Means
I unearthed some interesting new information concerning Eileen Waller, the longtime companion and second wife of Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964), one of the three primary subjects of my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (the others two are Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart, alias J. J. Connington).

First, however, I had better give some background on John Street, for those of you who have not yet read Masters (all too many I am afraid!).

A founding member of the Detection Club, John Street (like Cecil Day Lewis, he didn't like to be called "Cecil") was one of the most prominent English Golden Age mystery writers and perhaps the most prolific true detective writer of all time.

Between 1924 and 1961, Street, primarily under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton, published over 140 mystery novels, almost all of them tales of detection.

Just as John Dickson Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and Agatha Christie was mystery's mistress of misdirection, John Street was the crime genre's master of murder means, celebrated for his superbly ingenious ways of knocking off murder victims.

Currently Street's books are out of print (and extremely collectible), though I'm hoping they might be reprinted, like J. J. Connington's books, by Orion Books' Murder Room imprint (by the way, I have been asked to write an introduction to the Murder Room's Connington reprint series).

It has long been known that John Street had a military background (he rose to the rank of Major and often was known as "Major Street"), but in actuality his period of military service was confined to a relatively short span of years.

To be sure, John Street's father very much was career military.  John Street was the son of Major General John Alfred Street (1822-1889), a veteran of the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Crimean War (1853-1856).

I'm guessing that Street was the only Golden Age mystery writer who had a father who fought in the First Opium War! 

John Alfred Street was commissioned as Ensign on November 29, 1839, promoted to Lieutenant on October 5, 1841 and to Captain on January 7, 1848.  In 1842 Street was present at the Battle of Chinkiang and at the landing before Nanking.  See Captain H. G. Hart, The New Army List (London: John Murray, 1848), 108.  In the Crimean War, Street was promoted to Major and then Lieutenant-Colonel.  He was present at the battles of Balaclava, Inkerman and Kinburn.  See H. H. Woollright, History of the Fifty-Seventh (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot 1755-1881 (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893), 289.

Battle of Chinkiang

By the 1870s, Street had been promoted to Major General and placed in command over British forces in Ceylon.  Street's first wife had died of dysentery in Ceylon in 1874, but nearing retirement Street in 1881 married Caroline Bill (1846-?), daughter of wealthy landed gentleman Charles Horsfall Bill (1818-1908), owner of the Georgian mansions Storthes Hall (Yorkshire) and The Priory (Gloucestershire), as well as a London townhouse at Great Cumberland Place.

Great Cumberland Place

John Alfred and Caroline Bill Street had one child, a son, Cecil John Charles (named after his father and maternal grandfather), in 1884.  General Street died in 1889 "somewhat suddenly at at his residence" Uplands at Woking, Surrey, when his son, the future author, was but five years old (Charles Horsfall Bill owned yet another house, Firlands, nearby, into which Caroline Bill and her son moved after the General's death).  For further details on all this genealogy see my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.

Born at Gibraltar, where his father was in service, John Street, the future author, followed in his father's tradition for a time.  He graduated from Wellington College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1903.  However, Street transferred from the Regular Army into the Special Reserves but three years later, in 1906.  The same year, he took his first wife, Hyacinth Maud Kirwan (1882-1949), a daughter of a Major in the Royal Artillery.
electric street lamp in Lyme Regis, 1909 (

Though possessing ample private means, Street, long fascinated with mechanics and applied science, spent the remaining years before the outbreak of World War One as the Chief Engineer of the Lyme Regis Electric Light & Power Company (see Martin Roundell Greene's Electric Lyme).

In World War One Street served as a Captain with the Royal Artillery.  A Forward Observation Officer, Street saw much action and was wounded three times, receiving the Military Cross in recognition of his service.  From 1918 to 1921 he served in British army intelligence (rising to the rank of Major).

John Street, 1920s
Though Street and his wife had one child, a daughter, the couple seems to have become estranged by the time of World War One and I don't believe they ever lived together again after 1914.  By 1936 (probably a good deal earlier), Street was living with another woman, the aforementioned Eileen Waller.

The Streets, as they were known (John and Eileen lived as a married couple, even though they were not in fact married), were great friends of John Dickson Carr, a new Detection Club colleague of John Street's, and Carr's English wife Clarice.

John and Eileen would live together until John's death in 1964 (they officially married after Maud's death in 1949).

Eileen Waller was a daughter of John Edward Hopkins Waller (1856-1930) and Annette Elizabeth Naude, daughter of Adolph Naude (the Naudes were of French Huguenot extraction).

A son of John Francis Waller, an Irish lawyer, poet and songwriter ("The Spinning Wheel"), J. Edward Waller, as he was known, was a very prominent civil engineer.  His firm, Kincaid, Waller, Manville and Dawson was one of the most notable consulting electrical engineering firms in England.  It was involved in such projects as the building of a tramway system of Buenos Aires and the electrification of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.

Waller's partner Edward Manville became one of the most noted English industrialists and was later knighted.  Among other things, Manville was one of the most important people in the Daimler Company, serving on the Board of Directors of the British car manufacturer for twenty-eight years.

Trams, Burton upon Trent, 1913 (National Railway Museum)
one of the Kincaid, Waller, Manville and Dawson projects

Having a fuller understanding of the professional background of Eileen Waller's father, I now better comprehend what helped bring John and Eileen together.  The connection between them was, one might say, electric!

Anyone who reads Street's mysteries, particularly the John Rhode books, should notice the author's marked fascination with business and technology.  When you see what Street's professional background was, this is not surprising.

Horace Edmund Waller
But there is yet more connecting John and Eileen.  Eileen Waller had three siblings, one of whom served in the Great War, but, unlike John Street, did not not come out of the conflict alive.  This was Horace Edmund Waller (1891-1915).  Like Street, Waller graduated from Wellington College, as well as Tonbridge School.  After studying engineering at the University of London, he migrated to Canada, where he worked on the hydroelectric installation of the Algoma Central Railway at Steep Hill Falls, Ontario.

At the commencement of the Great War, Waller enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and reached France in December 1914.  Being fluent in French (presumably a linguistic legacy from his mother), Waller was detailed in France to act as an interpreter and guide.

Frequently in the trenches, Waller soon contracted dysentery.  He entered the hospital on February 4, 1915, dying three days later.

A sergeant in his company wrote Waller's parents that Waller was "one of the best little fellows that ever lived [Waller was 5'6"] and one whom I am very proud to have called friend.  He was the most popular man in the company.

The tragedy of war--another point, a poignant one, connecting John and Eileen, though John Street made it through the fiery furnace of combat and went on to achieve comparative fame and fortune as one of the most accomplished Golden Age English mystery writers.

Horace Edmund Waller's name is listed on the
Memorial at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent
where his family lived

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My New Book Project: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene

Doug Greene's classic biography of Carr
published eighteen years ago
I can now announce that I am under contract with McFarland Press (publishers of my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery) to edit a collection of essays in honor of mystery scholar Doug Greene.  The book should be out next year, before Doug's seventieth birthday.  I am so pleased to have helped bring this project about, because Doug has been such a big influence over my own reading (and ultimately writing)  related to the mystery genre, since the time in Chicago in 1989 when I bought IPL paperback reprint editions of John Dickson Carr's The Judas Window and Hag's Nook, with introductions written by Doug (my introduction to both Carr and Doug).

Of course everyone knows Doug for his great John Dickson Carr biography, The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), but he also has produced a lot of additional fine mystery scholarship and has done tremendous things in mystery publishing, including founding Crippen & Landru.  I hope this new book will serve as a fitting tribute to one of the really eminent modern figures in mystery genre scholarship and publishing.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"Would You Believe?..." I'll Tell You Everything (1933), by J. B. Priestley and Gerald Bullett

J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) and Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) were respected mainstream writers who occasionally dabbled in the crime fiction genre (the former writer is still relatively well-known today).  In this case of the 1933 thriller novel I'll Tell You Everything, the two men dabbled jointly, to good effect.

I'll Tell You Everything is a joyful send-up of the Golden Age thriller, where the emphasis is on suspense and excitement, not the measured and logical ratiocination of a murder problem.

This type of book once was associated most with such hugely popular authors as the astonishingly prolific Edgar Wallace, the bestselling writer in England in the 1920s; "Sapper," creator of that fearless, jingoistic dunderhead Bulldog Drummond; and Sax Rohmer, father of the fiendish criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu.

However, today the most read Golden Age thrillers probably are those titles, such as The Secret Adversary, The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery, tossed out occasionally by Agatha Christie as respites from her much more onerously plotted Hercule Poirot detective novels (though Poirot himself got ensnared in one Christie thriller, The Big Four).

Christie's thrillers themselves were pastiches of Wallace, Sapper and Rohmer, which makes their survival when works by the originators have disappeared rather ironic (it should be noted, though, that the the Fu Manchu series is being reprinted).

Be that as it may, the fact that people still enjoy books like The Secret Adversary and The Secret of Chimneys in 2013 should encourage some bright publisher to reprint Priestley's and Bullett's I'll Tell You Everything; for it is quite as enjoyable, I think, as Christie's thrillers, if not more so.

The novel is a highly literate delight, somewhat in the manner of the 1940s/1950s thrillers of Michael Innes, like The Secret Vanguard (1940), From London Far (1946) and Operation Pax (1951)--though not so self-consciously literary.

The great suspense director Alfred Hitchcock is famous for, among many other things of course, popularizing the idea of the MacGuffin in film.  The MacGuffin is the item that the various parties at odds with each other are pursuing.  In Priestley's and Bullett's I'll Tell You Everything, the MacGuffin is a small silver casket, which changes hands a great deal over the course of the novel.

The protagonist in Everything is Simon Heath, "lecturer on Ancient and Earlier European history at the University of Cambridge" (he's "already quite an authority on the Dark Ages").

It all starts, as so many British thrillers do. on a train....

On a train to London to spend his vacation with his jaded journalist cousin Oliver, Simon encounters in his passenger compartment a highly agitated Italian professor, a Dr. Pianella, who, pursued by an obvious ruffian, exhorts Simon to take the casket, which, he avows, hold "the leetle bones and ashes of the Iron Prophet," Yann:

"Of him you have heard in your history, eh?"
Simon rapidly searched his memory.  No, he confessed, he had never heard of the Iron Prophet, the Prophet Yann.  "It's rather out of my place and period," he added, feeling that something of the sort must be said for the honour of Cambridge scholarship.

Priestley in World War One
The ingenuous Simon ("He'd believe anything you told him," says his cousin Oliver of him, "provided it had all happened since the eleventh century") hides the casket in his suitcase and is launched on an adventure involving multiple crooks, a pretty girl (Zoe--perhaps not her real name) and by my count six new, entirely different versions about what precisely the casket does contain, all prefaced with the pregnant words, "I'll tell you everything."

There's amusing satire of naive Cambridge lecturers, facetious, fabricating journalists, detectives who like to don outrageous and unconvincing disguises and the conventions of the thriller genre itself.

Additionally--and at odds with the typical ideological orientation of Golden Age thrillers--British xenophobes and anti-intellectuals are satirized in the form of the patriotic political group known as the Britishers:

In the bar were three gentlemen of a military cut, yapping together like fox terriers.  They were straight, stiff, well-groomed men in their middle forties, and to Oliver's eye they were all exactly alike.  They had little close-clipped moustaches, and a staccato, close-clipped manner of speech, admirable for commanding doomed battalions to attack impregnable salients.

Gerald Bullett
This is a clever, genially satirical book, with lively characters and situations.  J. B. Priestley and Gerald Bullett obviously enjoyed themselves writing I'll Tell You Everything and you should enjoy reading it.

Note: Other genre-related material by J. B Priestley and Gerald Bullett (written separately), include, by Priestley, the novels Benighted (1928) (filmed as the classic horror suspense film The Old Dark House), Blackout in Gretley (1942) (spies) and Salt is Leaving (1961) (murder) and the plays Laburnum Grove (1933) and An Inspector Calls (1945); and, by Bullett, The Jury (1935), The Trouble at Number Seven (1952) and two pseudonymous detective novels, One Man's Poison (1956) and Odd Woman Out (1958) (as Sebastian Fox).

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Short Form 2: The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries (2012), by Elizabeth Ferrars

Crippen & Landru has published a new collection of short stories by Elizabeth Ferrars (1907-1995), over three decades after her first collection, Designs on Life (1980), was published (in the United States she was known as E. X. Ferrars, which is the name Crippen & Landru uses).  I thought it would be nice to review these two books in succession.  I meant to have this posted Monday, but flu intervened!  Even passing tramps get laid low by sickness occasionally.  Must be the food.

Jonas P. Jonas on the job
The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries includes seventeen Ferrars crime tales, ranging from the near "short shorts" (the six cases of Jonas P. Jonas, "Suicide" and "Look for Trouble") to longer works like The Trap and The Handbag that read more like novelettes.

The shorter shorts are unique in Ferrars' short form output in being pure tales of ratiocination.  The Jonas P. Jonas tales also offer, obviously, a series sleuth: a garrulous retired private detective, who tells of his exploits to his niece in the hope that she will write his memoirs.  All six of these stories originally appeared in the Evening Standard in the second week of December 1958.  Four were reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

My favorite of these was "The Case of the Blue Bowl," which is illustrated on the cover.  In four pages Jonas P. Jonas tells of the clever little problem of the disappearance of a reputed village miser.  Has her nephew committed foul play?

The key clue is a piece of Chinese porcelain (Philo Vance would be pleased) and there's also a neat bit of social history concerning milk bottle deliveries.  It's an impressive achievement to pack this much incisive plotting into such a short tale.

death in a bowl

"Suicide?" and "Look for Trouble" were originally published in The Saint Mystery Magazine in 1964.  Both offer solid little murder problems.

Ferrars later reworked and slightly expanded "Look for Trouble" as "The Canceling of Mrs. Arbuthnot," her contribution to the eightieth birthday festschrift for Julian Symons in 1992, but I think the original version, involving a murder that implicates the personnel of a hair salon, is superior.  My only complaint is that the shortened title doesn't make much sense (however, the original, longer title, gives away the mystery).

Between the novelettes, I most enjoyed The Handbag, which tells of theft and murder during one of those English stately home tours.   

The Handbag, which originally appeared in 1960 in the magazine supplement to the Toronto Star, has many of the elements found in Ferrars' novels: a murder in genteel surroundings, a nice young woman in peril and a bit of romance.

Six of the other stories in Casebook appeared originally between 1972 and 1992 in Winter's Crimes, the fine English crime story anthology series.  None of these is as good as Scatter His Ashes, Ferrars' Winter's Crime's contribution that was included in Designs in Life, but all are worthwhile.

Three of these Winter's Crimes stories were reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, though not my two favorites of the bunch, "The Long Way Round" (1972) and "Sequence of Events" (1977).

"The Long Way Round" resembles one of those splendid Roy Vickers inverted murder tales, telling of Leo's plot to murder his wife's uncle in Cyprus.

I don't know why this story was never reprinted in EQMM.  Perhaps there was too much for EQMM about the instability in Cyprus owing to conflicts between Greek and Turk Cypriots (Cyprus had achieved independence from Great Britain in 1960).  I found all this very interesting, however, and it's cleverly worked into the plot.

"Sequence of Events" is an overtly humorous story about a local village feud that starts with stolen carnations and ends with multiple murder (or does it?).  I can imagine Ferrars sharing a laugh with her husband, the prominent plant physiologist Robert Brown (1908-1999), over this winning tale.

Killer Carnations

I should also make note of Instrument of Justice (1981) and Stop Thief (1992).  The former tale concerns a desperate wife who will do about anything to get her hands on some blackmail photos of herself.

The latter tale, Stop Thief, was Ferrars' last original short story, published when she was 85.  This is another pure crime suspense tale, about a husband whose wife, having recently suffered a miscarriage, is engaging in an escalating pattern of shoplifting.  It's set in the village of Lexdale--one of those charming, genteel communities in the English home counties, where, despite the charms, bloody murder runs rife, at least in the fictional work of Elizabeth Ferrars--and is a fitting last testament to Ferrars' work in the short form.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Short Form: Designs on Life (1980), by Elizabeth Ferrars

Designs on Life, an  interesting collection of short stories by the prolific British crime writer Elizabeth Ferrars (1907-1995), appeared a little over three decades ago.  Last year, a second collection of Ferrars short stories was published by that fine short crime fiction publisher Crippen & Landru.  Before reviewing the Crippen & Landru volume, The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries, I thought I would go back and reread Designs on Life and review it here.

In this 1980 collection, Elizabeth Ferrars gathered nine stories, most of them substantial, written between 1940 and 1980.  Ferrars had used the title Designs on Life before as the name of a suspense play by one of the fictional characters in her 1971 mystery A Stranger and Afraid.  Apparently she liked the title so much that she used it again nine years later for her short story collection!

 nine clever criminal designs
The longest tale, The Dreadful Bell, also is the most recent one, having appeared for the first time in Designs on Life (it was reprinted in 1999, in the anthology Murder Most Scottish).  By my loose estimate, it's probably around 13,000 words, making it a novelette.

The next longest piece is After Death the Deluge (1940), apparently Ferrars' first published criminous work.  These two tales are, in my opinion, the cream of the collection, and I say more about them below.

I also highly recommend Scattter His Ashes, a 1970 story that appeared in the second volume of that excellent English short story anthology series Winter's Crimes, and The Truthful Witness, a 1958 tale of marital disharmony.  

Scatter His Ashes involves the classic situation of the unhappy "spinster" daughter of a moneyed, imperious father who takes a husband whom Daddy insists is just a conniving fortune hunter--is he right?  A powerfully bleak tale, with a nice bit of deduction and a splendid last line.   

The only Ferrars work adapted for radio, The Truthful Witness offers an effective depiction of marital discord resulting in murder, poignantly seen though the eyes of a child.  It rather reminded me of such Ruth Rendell short works as The Vinegar Mother.

Now on to the two chief selections!  With Scatter His Ashes and The Truthful Witness, they make up over half the volume.

It Tolls for Thee....

"You won't ring the bell, will you?...If you ring it, she comes, but she doesn't like it.  Remember that."

The Dreadful Bell tells of Helen and Colin Benson, a couple just moved into a third-floor flat in an old Georgian tenement in Edinburgh.  Helen is recovering from a car accident that occurred when the brakes in her vehicle went out, sending it "went slap into a lorry" (charming but feckless Colin, it seems, had neglected to get the second-hand car checked like he promised).

Now Helen is stumbling around on crutches, making that steep stairway in the house Colin found for them most inconvenient.  Fortunately there's old Mrs. Lambie, the owner of the house, in the adjacent flat, to help Helen.  And she has all those interesting stories to tell too, like the one about the past murder, by a husband of his inconvenient wife, that took place in the house....

This is a cracker of a suspense tale, like something that Alfred Hitchcock might have filmed for his television series.  The atmosphere of the old Scottish house is first-rate and the closing paragraph in particular is splendidly done.  There also is an echo--I'm sure deliberate--of Edith Wharton's classic ghost tale The Lady's Maid's Bell (1902).  However, I won't say more!  The Dreadful Bell is one of the best suspense stories I have read and one of the best works, I believe, in Ferrars' output.

Though she was born in Burma, Ferrars (whose real name was Morna MacTaggart) came of a Scottish family and lived with her husband between 1957 and 1977 in Edinburgh.  In her books she rarely used Edinburgh as a setting, however, and surely never better than in The Dreadful Bell.  Give this one a ring--if you dare!

Water, Water, Everywhere....

But that particular moment, when her potato-peeler was ripping down the side of the second potato and her humming was sounding tunelessly in the small kitchen, was the last moment that evening when thoughts that grew out of her normal life had any room in Margaret's mind.

The long 1940 short story After Death the Delgue (about 8000 words by my loose count) tells of Margaret Haddow's night to remember, when the London flat she shares with her husband is flooded.  Indeed, water floods all over the block of flats, down to the basement lodging of Ferdinand Shew, borough councillor (Chairman of the Baths and Cemeteries Committee, don't you know).  Exploring the wreckage, the pair discover a battered body in a stairway cupboard.  Now a policeman is needed, as well as a plumber!

Deluge is a far less grim tale than Bell--and, for that matter, Scatter His Ashes and The Truthful Witness--but is has in common with Bell an atmospheric flats setting (the whole situation in Deluge is unique as far as I know).

There is also a good English policeman, Superintendent Cust, rather an appealing Inspector French type who appears in at least one of Ferrars' Toby Dyke detective novels (Your Neck in a Noose, 1942).  However, the crucial murder-solving piece of ratiocination belongs to the observant Margaret Haddow.  Deluge is a fine detective story, told in the best manner of the Golden Age Crime Queens.

Designs on Life was published in 1980 in both Britain and the United States and was recently reprinted by Langtail Press, a publishing concern directed by James Prichard, a great grandson of Agatha Christie.  It is worth your perusal.