Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick or Treat! A HalloWells Celebration (The Clue, 1909; The Curved Blades, 1916)

It's a dark and stormy Halloween night, and while neither of these Carolyn Wells mysteries is particularly scary, they offer a mixed bag: one trick and one treat.

First up: Wells' debut detective novel, The Clue (1909)

This novel set the mold for Carolyn Wells' numerous (over three score) Fleming Stone mysteries.  It takes place in the palatial New Jersey country mansion (yes, New Jersey has palatial country mansions) owned by haughty heiress Madeleine Van Norman, nicknamed "Magnificent Madeleine" on account of her haughty ways.  

On the night before her wedding, "Magnificent Madeleine" is found dead in a chair in her library, killed by a single thrust from her Venetian letter opener (it's always asking for trouble when you keep one of those things in the library of your palatial country mansion).  

The police, of course, don't have a clue (despite the title), and for most of the novel readers follow the actions of an appealing pair of amateur sleuths, a young man and woman who were members of the wedding party (these two anticipated Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence by a dozen years). They find a clue--a cachou, or lozenge, dropped on the floor--but they aren't able to make anything of it.

Finally (and I mean finally--it's like the last ten percent of the novel), Great Detective Fleming Stone shows up and solves the case with absurd ease, using information to which readers are not made privy. Did I mention the butler testified at the inquest that the whole house was securely locked and that no one--absolutely no one, I tell you--could have gotten in without its being known?  Hmmm.......

I liked the amateur sleuths, but Fleming Stone's solution is a cheat.  Verdict: Trick!

Next up: The love song of Fleming Stone, The Curved Blades (1916).

Here we have another country mansion murder.  This time the victim is imperious Lucy Carrington, who is found dead in a chair by her dressing table, decked out in $200,000 worth of jewelery, a smile on her face and a Japanese paper snake wrapped around her neck. Now that is a bizarre tableau worthy of P. D. James!

In some ways The Curved Blades reads like a reboot of The Clue, but it is a big improvement on the earlier mystery, in my view.  

Fleming Stone shows up in the middle of the novel, so we get more genuine investigation; and the problem, which does NOT involve a sealed room situation, is really an interesting one, being rather a matter of psychology.

Fleming Stone falls in love with a suspect, a la Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but I can stand this for the sake of a good problem.  Verdict: Treat!

Fortunately both these novels are available in nice editions in paper and electronic editions from Resurrected Pres--and you can always get an older hardcover edition, back from the era when book making was a real craft.  I'm now going to watch an old mystery thriller, which you'll be reading more about this weekend!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fatal Frontispieces

One of the great sources of appeal of the early Carolyn Wells detective novels(the ones published up to, say, about 1920) is purely in the physical design: the nicely decorated boards, the thick creamy pages and the beautiful color frontispieces.  John Dickson Carr (1906-1977), a great Carolyn Wells fan as a boy, shortly after WW2 nostalgically recalled "....colored frontispieces....the yellow gowns sweeping the floor, the padded rooms cozy with crime."*

*(Query: first use of the term "cozy" in regard to these sorts of books?)

Here are two examples of Carolyn Wells mystery frontispieces: the first, by Frances Rogers,  from The Clue (1909), and the second, by Gayle Porter Hoskins (1887-1962), from the The Curved Blades (1916). The latter illustrator studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and also did a lot of illustrations for western fiction pulps in the 1930s.

On the right, Cicely Dupuy and Schuyler Carleton confront the dead body of heiress Madeleine Van Norman ("Magnificent Madeleine"). She has been found stabbed in her country mansion, "the finest house in Mapleton [New Jersey]."  A purported suicide note lies on the desk by her side. Is it Murder?!!

Wells lavished her inevitably beautiful young female characters, like Magnificent Madeleine, with detailed descriptions: "Her dark hair, piled high on her head, was adorned with a dainty ornament which, though only a twisted ribbon, was shaped like a crown, and gave her the effect of an imperious queen.  Her low-cut gown of pale yellow satin was severe of line and accented with stately bearing, while her exquisitely modeled neck and shoulders were as white and pure as those of a marble state."

On the left, haughty brunette Pauline Stuart, niece of the murdered Lucy Carrington of Garden Steps, "one of the show-places of Merivale Park, Long Island," strikes a dramatic pose, while observed by an increasingly fascinated Fleming Stone, Great Detective; imperceptive police detective Hardy; Gray Havilland, handsome cousin of the murdered woman; and Anita Frayne, social climbing social secretary.

In some ways, The Curved Blades seems a reboot of The Clue.  Like Madeleine Van Norman, Lucy Carrington also is found dead in a chair in her mansion, but in much more (indeed rather splendidly) bizarre circumstances.  I'll be writing more about these books later this week.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Coachwhip's Willoughby Sharp Reprints Are Looking Sharp!

Coachwhip now has available the two 1930s detective novels, Murder in Bermuda and Murder of the Honest Broker, by William Willoughby Sharp (1900-1956), one-time stockbroker and dilettante detective novelist.

I found these two books quite entertaining and I think Coachwhip has done a great job with these editions, to which I contributed a sizable introductory essay about the author and his publisher, Claude Kendall.

Murder in Bermuda is an early police procedural style detective novel, with a lot of local color and a good plot.
After the great stock market crash, Sharp, in an attempt at downsizing, gave up his seat on the New York Stock Exchange and moved with his wife and children to the island, where they lived for several years.

With both his detective novels, Sharp seems to have been a firm believer in the adage, "write what you know."

Murder of the Honest Broker, which came next, is about a double murder at the New York Stock Exchange (as Sharp well knew, there was a lot of resentment against brokers back then too!).  I particularly enjoyed the sarcastic police detective, who hates gentleman amateur sleuths.

Included with Murder in Bermuda is a pulp crime story Sharp published when he was a college student.

If you like classic mystery--and if you don't, why are you here--you should like both these novels.

Also check out this earlier blog piece on Willoughby Sharp, which includes a photo of him from the 1930s (the reprints include a prep school photo as well).

There should be one more mystery reprint project with Coachwhip--a woman author--out this year, so stay tuned. Coachwhip also has reprinted Todd Downing and Kirke Mchem, in editions with introductions by me, all part of an effort to further capture the world of Golden Age American mystery (it wasn't just hard-boiled!).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Sticky Problem: Raspberry Jam (1920), by Carolyn Wells

"And that's true," put in Miss Ames.  "For two people who loved each other to distraction, I often thought the Emburys were the most quarrelsome couple I ever saw."

                                                                                      --Raspberry Jam (1920)

the Lippincott first edition
 great lettering and raspberry boards
Carolyn Wells was a popular and prolific American mystery writer who published eighty-two detective novels between 1909 and 1942.

She often is considered a pre-Golden Age writer, although most of her criminous output (she also was a well-known author of humorous verse and juvenile novels), almost seventy novels, actually appeared from 1920 onward.  She also wrote a book on mystery literature, The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913; expanded 1929).

In his 1982 book Gun in Cheek, Bill Pronzini famously lampooned Carolyn Wells (or perhaps he might say he allowed Wells to lampoon herself) as one of his masters of "alternative" crime fiction (crime fiction enjoyable not on account of how good it is, but how bad it is). Pronzini pointed out the frequent improbable, even ridiculous, situations in her books (among other things Wells was great addicted to secret passages).

Similarly, in their massive encyclopedia A Catalogue of Crime (1971; expanded 1989), Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor condemned Wells for the silly characters and situations often found in her mysteries. Most recently, John Norris spent two days reading a trio of Wells books for a blog piece and he concluded that "even as 'alternative classic' reading it was a tortuous couple of days."

After Wells' death it appears that none of her mysteries were reprinted until the last decade, which has seen the rise of the print-on-demand micropress. All, or certainly most, of the now copyright-free detective novels that Wells published prior to 1923 are now in print, many of them through Resurrected Press, which has provided prefaces for each book.

In contrast with Pronzini, Barzun & Taylor and Norris, RP assures readers that it is her "examination of human nature that makes Wells worth reading today.  While the manners and speech of her characters are definitely of the period, their emotions and reactions are handled as deftly by Wells as by most modern mystery writers."

Some readers on the internet also have reported enjoying Wells' mysteries.  Case in point, Raspberry Jam (1920), which has been praised by some on Goodreads and Amazon, and by internet crime fiction critic Mike Grost.  Certainly the novel has one of the oddest, most counterintuitve titles of any detective novel I can recall (I am also reminded of John Rhode's Vegetable Duck).

I have perused my share of Carolyn Wells, and I have to say that Raspberry Jam indeed is one of the better books by her that I have read (some, I must admit, have been very bad). The novel centers on the locked room poisoning (I won't get into the exact means of the poisoning, which seems improbable), in a tenth-floor luxury New York apartment, of wealthy clubman Sanford Embury.

The poisoning takes place in a suite of three rooms, occupied by Embury, his beautiful wife Eunice and Eunice's eccentric visiting spinster aunt, Abbey Ames.  These rooms all were securely locked, so suspicion falls on Eunice, who is known for her utterly ungovernable temper.  Suggestively, she had an argument with Sanford the night before his death, over his refusal to give her an allowance (I seem to recall an I Love Lucy show like this, though the quarrel between Lucy and Ricky did not end in murder).

This edition looks more like a recipe book!
Did the publisher realize it's a mystery?
This quarrel over the allowance with her patronizing husband gave me a lot of sympathy for Eunice, but she squandered it when the police showed up and she ordered them out of the apartment and actually physically attacked one of the detectives when he did not go.  Instead of carting her off for assaulting a police officer, they seem amused by the incident, on account of the fact that Eunice is (1) beautiful (2) young (3) rich.

I have seen this before in Wells books, where the police allow members of the upper class, who view them with contempt, a great deal of leeway that no one else would get (pretty young woman are especially indulged).  Wells, who came from a privileged position in life herself, seems to share the same attitude as her upper class characters.

One police detective, Shane, the author refers to as "a rude, unkempt, common man" who strides into Eunice's apartment "with a bumptious, self-important air, his burly frame looking especially awkward and unwieldy in gentle surroundings."  The next page, the author continues this catalog of faults, condemning Shane's "heavy voice, which was coarse and uncultured but not intentionally rude."  She later takes note of his "ugly features." Subtle stuff indeed!

Another character reminds Eunice that Shane is "a common clod, but he represents authority--he represents the law, and we must respect that fact, however his personal manner offends us."  Yet this nod to the imperative for deference to authority (which, after all, protects wealthy, idle property owners) does not prevent this scene:

Eunice flew at Shane like a wild thing.  She grasped his arm and whirled him around toward her as she glared into his face quivering with indignation.

"Coward!" she flung at him.  "To attack two helpless women--to accuse me--me!, of crime!  Why, I could kill you where you stand--for such an insinuation!

"Say, you're some tiger!" Shane exclaimed, in a sort of grudging admiration.  "But better be careful of your words, ma'am!  If you could kill me--ah, there!

The last exclamation was brought forth by the sudden attack of Eunice, as she shook the big man so violently that he nearly lost his balance.

Carolyn Wells
I couldn't help thinking how less indulgent the police reaction would be had Eunice been a laundrywoman or cleaning lady, say.  Even if one accepts that this is believable behavior on the part of Eunice and the police, the fact that Wells seemed so much in sympathy with the arrogant Eunice was kind of offputting.

By the end of the book, I was finding Eunice Embury an utterly tiresome character.  Some may see her as an early assertive woman in crime fiction, but I think this is trying to put a positive gloss on what is simply overweening class arrogance, whatever the gender of the person.

Much superior in my view is Miss Abby Ames, an admirably-portrayed eccentric New England "spinster" type whose interest in spiritualism plays a big role in the tale.

Miss Abby also provides us with the key clue, which does indeed concern raspberry jam.  It takes about 75% of the book to find out what the heck this comestible has to do with the darn story, and I sure was dying to know by that time!

Unlike some of the Wells' books I have read, this locked room mystery, while certainly lacking the dazzling complexity of John Dickson Carr and his followers, is fairly clued--though it is solved mostly through the efforts of Terence "Fibsy" McGuire, the "saucy" boy assistant of Wells' Great Detective Fleming Stone.  Though his dialect is very odd indeed, the working class Fibsy is vastly more interesting than the bland and boring patrician Fleming Stone.

Wells describes Stone in suitably respectful tones, however:

the actual apartment building
where Carolyn Wells lived
the last quarter century of her life
One of the handsomest types of American manhood is that rather frequently seen combination of iron-gray hair and dark, deep-set eyes that look out from under heavy brows with a keen, comprehensive glance.

This type of man is always a thinker, usually a professional man, and almost invariably a man of able brain.  He is nearly always well-formed, physically, and of good carriage and demeanor.

At any rate, Fleming Stone was all of these things, and when he came into the Embury living room his appearance was in such contrast to that of the other two detectives that Eunice greeted him with a pleased smile.

Despite Fleming Stone's "good carriage and demeanor," however, it must be admitted that pretty soon Eunice, consumed by yet another towering rage, is ordering Stone to roll out of her home too.

Fibsy McGuire seems to have appeared in only about eight Fleming Stone books, from 1917 to 1923, which is too bad, because he is much more appealing, I find, than both his boss and Wells' usual crew of snobbish moneyed patricians.  I like to think that young Fibs went into practice for himself, perhaps rubbing shoulders in the 1930s with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  The latter two men, no doubt, would have had some choice words to say about that stuck-up dame Eunice.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Postman Cometh:The Fourth Postman (1948), by Craig Rice

1946: Craig Rice makes the big time
If you've read Jeffrey Marks' 2001 biography of Craig Rice, Who Was That Lady?, you'll know what a troubled life she had.

Apparently bipolar and certainly alcoholic, with five husbands--well, one of them probably wasn't actually her husband--and four messy breakups (one of he partners simply died), Craig Rice lived a life of great highs (gracing the cover of Time) and lows (staggering drunkenly around Hell's Kitchen).

Yet in her heyday in the 1940s, when her books were tremendously popular, Rice wrote some of the funniest (and invariably liquor-drenched) murder mysteries out there.

Her first novel was 8 Faces at 3, which is set in Chicago and introduces her most enduring series characters, the pugnacious little lawyer John J. Malone and his social and sleuthing pals Jake and Helene Justus (the latter individuals don't start off the series married, but do end up that way).

Seven more Malone and Justus novels appeared between 1940 and 1945, Rice's most prolific period as a writer.

After her breakup with writer Lawrence Lipton, her third partner, she entered a prolonged depressive period, where she got very little creative work done.  A single Malone/Justus novel, The Fourth Postman, appeared in 1948, during her very briefly happy fourth partnership, followed by two novels in 1956 and 1957, the second one of which was published after her sadly early death at the age of forty-nine.

this lady was one of the most popular
mystery writers of the 1940s
Despite the fact that The Fourth Postman appeared in the middle of a rough personal patch for Rice, it nevertheless is a good mystery yarn.

In 1001 Midnights Bill Pronzini and George Kelley call Postman "among the oddest of the novels featuring Malone and Justuses" and "Baffling, exciting, and fun."

Jeffrey Marks does not have quite so high an opinion of it, writing in his Rice biography that "this novel must be labeled one of Rice's lesser works....the plot resembles a traditional Golden Age puzzle more than a Rice 'fast and furious' mystery.  The blending doesn't go over well and the book disappoints."

I agree with Jeff that Postman is not as furiously funny as some of her other novels. Jake Justus feels, as Rice herself admitted, like "a fifth wheel all through" and the business with the "Australian beer hound"--the mutt who loves beer--while cute seemed like a repetition of similar business between Malone and the bloodhound in Trial by Fury, the best Malone mystery I have read. However, I found the book still quite enjoyable.

As Jeff notes, there are strong elements resembling Ellery Queen (Fredric Dannay, one half of Queen, was publishing Rice stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine at this time), like the bizarre plot, centering on someone knocking off a succession of postmen, and the artificial setting: three old houses seemingly almost completely cut off from the rest of Chicago that are inhabited by a variety of wealthy oddballs, including Rodney Fairfaxx (yes, two "x's"), who is still waiting for a letter from his fiance--you know, the one who disappeared on the Titanic over thirty years ago.

neither rain, nor snow, nor heat,
nor gloom of night,
nor blunt instrument....
I agree with the Jeff that the family relationships are complicated (a family tree would have been nice), but I'm a sucker for this kind of mystery and was pleased with it.  The central clue is clever and very fairly presented.

I did find it odd that postmen kept getting blithely sent to this neighborhood where previous postmen had been murdered.

You would think that by the third killing, say, someone in the postal system might have noticed that something was going on here.  Or maybe our postmen really are that determined to deliver the mail.

All in all, this book is one I recommend.  In fact I heartily recommend the Malone/Justus series in general.  Every book in the series that I have read has been worth the time spent.

Best yet, The Fourth Postman is available in an eBook version, for only $3.99.  And then there's the used book market (always a good bet), where you can get it in hardcover or paperback, depending on how much you want to spend.  If you order it through the traditional mails, I'm sure your local postman will be happy to deliver it to you!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fourth Postman (1948)--and the Latest Book (2014)

Readers of this blog may recall that back in March I contracted with McFarland Press, publishers of my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), to edit a collection of essays (a festschrift) in honor of the distinguished academic mystery genre scholar and John Dickson Carr biographer, Douglas G. Greene. Since August I have been very busy with all my various editing duties.  With all the essays (nearly thirty, on Victorian/Edwardian mystery/Golden Age detection/Hard-boiled crime/short stories, radio mystery and pastiche) now in, it's down to completing my own introduction for the book, but I'm near deadline so am busier than ever with it.

My Friday Forgotten Book review is going to be of Craig Rice's The Fourth Postman (1948), but I'm running late with it, so why don't we try thinking of it as Saturday's Salutary Reminder?

Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig, 1908-1957), is one of my favorite American mystery writers.  Her stuff is madcap, even screwball, and the characters frequently are boozed to the gills, but there's usually a good mystery plot underneath it all.  And the humor is a great plus for me too.  Craig Rice is fortunate in having been the subject of a biography, the cleverly-titled Who Was that Lady? (2001), by my friend Jeffrey Marks.

After the Rice review, I'm going to try to get uploaded a review of the first season the British mystery series, Endeavor, the prequel to the deservedly much-beloved Morse.  In a nutshell, I found Season 1 lived up to the brilliant promise of the pilot.  More soon!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kindling to Cornell: Mystery in Room 913 (1938) and Murder, Obliquely (1958)

"Love is bad for conversation; dead love, I mean."

                                                                                          Murder, Obliquely

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) was one of the great mid-century American writers of suspense and noir fiction, a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock and other film directors (oddly, as mentioned here last week, he was left out of the award-winning Books to Die For).

Cornell Woolrich
Besides his celebrated "Black" series of novels (The Bride Wore Black, etc.), Night Has a Thousand Eyes and other notable novels, Woolrich wrote over 200 short stories and novelettes. Several of the latter are available as nicely produced e-texts, produced by Renaissance Literary & Talent.

I've just read two of them, Mystery in Room 913 and Murder, Obliquely.  Published twenty years apart, they illustrate the difference between Golden Age detective fiction of the 1930s and psychological suspense fiction of the 1950s.  In this case my nod goes to the 1950s and suspense fiction.

Mystery in Room 913 (1938) offers readers a classic "murder room" story.

Room 913 in the St. Anselm Hotel kills people, you see, like the rooms in Eden Phillpotts' The Grey Room (1921) and John Dickson Carr's The Red Widow Murders (1935).

Originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly, it is a plot-driven story, with a (mostly) fairly-clued mystery problem concerning the series of suicides in room 913: why are people leaping out the window of the room to hurtle to their deaths?

To be sure, there is a great opening line--"They thought it was the Depression the first time it happened"--but mostly readers will read on simply to follow intrepid "hotel dick" Striker as he searches for a solution to the mystery.  There are floor plans, various eccentric suspects and a delightfully loopy explanation that seemed one part John Dickson Carr and one part R. Austin Freeman.  Good stuff.

dead love
Murder, Obliquely was originally published in 1957 in The Shadow Mystery Magazine, as Death Escapes the Eye.

Woolrich heavily revised it the next year for his 1958 Dodd, Mead collection, Violence, under the elegant minimalist title Murder, Obliquely.

Said to be the last story that Woolrich wrote in first person narration from a woman's perspective, it is a remarkable piece of crime fiction.

Nothing that happens in the tale particularly surprised me, but it's a gripping story of obsessive love, both that of the narrator, Annie Ainsley, for Dwight Billings, and of Dwight Billings for Bernette Stone.

Annie describes herself, with brutally frank self-awareness, as "the fifth wheel on the wagon.  The other girl they had to ring in an extra man for, on dates.  She never brought one of her own along. Never had one to bring."

Meeting Dwight for the first time, she falls immediately, and hard:

He was tall and he was thirty-five; brown eyes and lightish hair, blond when he was still a boy.  He was like--how shall I say it?  Everyone's glimpsed someone, just once in her life, that she thought would've been just the right one for her.  I say would've, because it always works out the same way. Either it's too late and he's already married, or if he isn't, some other girl gets across the room to him first.  But it's a kindly arrangement, because if you had got across the room to him first yourself, then you would have found that he wasn't just the right one for you after all.  This way, the other girl is the one finds it out, and you yourself don't get any of the pain.

Again the same painfully disillusioned cynicism.

Annie has a sharp and sardonic sense of observation.  Here she is on Bernette: "She stood there like a mannequin at a fashion display modeling a mink coat.  Even the price tag was there in full view, if you had keen enough eyes; and mine were.  Inscribed 'to the highest bidder, anytime, anywhere.'"

And on Bernette's recently acquired husband, picked up in a gambit to make Dwight jealous:

He was a good deal younger than either one of them, particularly Dwight.  Twenty-three, perhaps, or five.  He had a mane of black hair, a little too oleaginous for my taste, carefully brushed upward and back.  It smelled a little of cheap alcoholic tonic when he got too near you.  He had thick black brows, and the sort of a beard that leaves a bluish cast on the face even when it is closely shaven. He was good-looking in a juvenile sort of way.  His face needed a soda-jerk's white cocked hat to complete it.  It was crying for something like that; it was made to go under it.  And something told me that it had, only very recently.

It's the acutely observed writing that makes Murder, Obliquely so memorable.  Here's one more example, from when Annie is finally making her play for Dwight:

"Did I get you out of bed?"
He smiled.  It was a sort of vacant smile.  The smile with which you wait for someone to go away. The smile that you give at a door when you are waiting to close it.  Waiting to be allowed to close it, and held powerless by breeding.

I've seen the question debated about whether men can "write" women, but I think Woolrich does a powerfully convincing job with Annie Ainsley.

Of course, people will point out that Woolrich was an unhappy man, living a lonely life himself. They will see the author's personal circumstances being poured into Murder, Obliquely, with Annie as a surrogate for the author.  But whatever exactly made it, it makes a great tale based on those classic Cornell Woolrich themes, love and death.

There are five of these Cornell Woolrich tales available as e-texts.  I'll certainly be reading them all.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cleopatra Ain't the Only Queen of Denial: Hide My Eyes (1958), by Margery Allingham

"Don't they make you tired?" he said, referring no doubt to womenkind in general.  "Cruel to themselves half the time, cruel to themselves."

Don't look now....
What's your favorite Margery Allingham crime novel?  It's been de rigueur for some time now to say The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), but, truth be told, that one's not mine.

Purely as a matter of personal enjoyment I probably prefer the following Allinghams:

The romantic fantasia Sweet Danger (1933); the manners novels Death of a Ghost (1934) and Dancers in Mourning (1937); the Wodehousian The Case of the Late Pig (1937); the richly atmospheric More Work for the Undertaker (1948); the amnesia thriller Traitor's Purse (1941) and, last but certainly not least, the late, dark thriller Hide My Eyes (1958).

Hide My Eyes is in print, both in the US and the UK, so perhaps an odd choice for a forgotten book, but it seems so much in Tiger's shadow that I feel it's a justified choice.

To be sure, Hide My Eyes shows similarity to The Tiger in the Smoke.  Both are suspense thrillers, with very evil men at the center doing nasty things and menacing some typical Allingham nice young people.

There are as well interesting older characters in both books, Canon Avril in Tiger and Polly Tassie in Eyes; and in both Albert Campion is set rather to the side of the doings.

Yet I find the relationship between Eyes' villain, Gerry Hawker, and the older person, Polly Tassie, more fascinating than that between Tiger's Jack Havoc and Canon Avril. Allingham excelled at the creation of "Grande Dame" characters and Polly Tassie is perhaps her greatest accomplishment in this vein.

acid baths
John George Haigh
Polly is indeed grand, but she is also grandly flawed, due to her infinite--and here misguided--capacity for love. Her fatal devotion to the male of the species, in this particular case a relentless homicidal monster, is the main theme of the novel, and Allingham portrays it masterfully.

Polly comes to see this deep failing in herself, and seeing how she finally deals with it makes compelling reading indeed.

In the end I find Eyes a darker and more convincing novel than Tiger.  References to John George Haigh (1909-1949), the notorious acid bath murderer, show the awful wellspring of Allingham's inspiration for Gerry; and I find in him her most chilling and persuasive portrayal of a criminal sociopath.

Impressive too, along with the splendid writing and characterization, is the structure of Eyes. Taking place in a single day, the narrative is a brilliant counterpoint of the actions of a killer, Gerry; his doting surrogate mother, Polly; a very nice boy, Richard; a very nice girl, Annabelle; the police (our old friend Charlie Luke and others); and Allingham's redoubtable series hero, Mr. Campion.

Campion has a few moments to shine, but he could have been written out of the novel without its suffering overmuch.  Campion fans lament his smaller role is some of the later Allingham books and I miss him too, but this book is strong enough to work with so much less of him (and no Lugg whatsover).

Albert Campion
deeper than you may think
There's a nice moment after our Albert meets Polly and Annabelle and the two women discuss him, and, by implication, the silly-ass gentleman amateur detective of the Golden Age:

"He worried me, poor chap.  He seemed so very unsure of himself."

"Darling,...It's an affectation of his time.  Young men invented it in the twenties."

The little, light asides are welcome in what is, really, rather a dark murder novel.

In her biography of Margery Allingham, Julia Jones acutely notes that "Tiger in the Smoke is finally optimistic," whereas Hide My Eyes is more ambiguous in its resolution.  More cannot be said, of course, without spoiling the novel.  If you haven't read it, by all means do so.  And check out Julia Jones' splendid biography, which has been reissued with new material, as The Adventures of Margery Allingham.  She'll show you how Allingham's own troubled personal life influenced the writing of Hide My Eyes.  More fascinating stuff!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Be Careful What You Write: Strangers in the Night (1944)

Who doesn't love old dark house films?  Here's a pretty neat one I had never heard of: Strangers in the Night (1944), a suspense thriller adapted from an original story by Philip Macdonald, one of the best Golden Age English mystery writers (it would have been nice to see him in Books to Die For). 

Topically set during World War Two, Strangers tells the story of Sgt. Johnny Meadows, a wounded marine who during convalescence writes a woman whose name and address is in a donated copy of A Shropshire Lad

They begin a long correspondence and when he returns to the States, he is headed to visit the woman, Rosemary Blake, at her home, Cliffside, in a small northern California town.  

When Johnny gets there (yes the house is indeed perched on the side of a cliff), after on the train meeting a pretty young woman doctor, Leslie Ross, who just happens to be the new physician in the same town, he is welcomed by a physically disabled, elderly lady--who introduces herself as Rosemary's mother, Hilda--and her nervous companion, Ivy Miller.  


Old Mrs. Blake informs Johnny that Rosemary has gone away for a few days and she invites him to stay with her until Rosemary returns.  She shows Johnny a mantelpiece portrait of Rosemary, who is stunningly gorgeous.  But several days go by and Rosemary doesn't return....

Johnny meets Rosemary....

Although obviously a low budget B film (see the matte painting of Cliffside above), Strangers was directed by Anthony Mann, who helmed a number of noir crime films including the highly effective, visceral Raw Deal (1948).  It is distinguished by some excellent photography and acting. Unfortunately, William Terry as Johnny is rather bland--a second-rate Ronald Reagan you can't see reading A. E. Housman--but the women are splendid. 

Lovely Virginia Grey is credible and intelligent as the woman doctor (her complaints of the resistance she meets in small towns reminded me of Miles Burton's similarly-placed woman doctor character in his detective novel Murder, M. D., published just a year earlier, 1943); yet the real stars are Helene Thimig as Hilda Blake and Edith Barrett as Ivy Miller.

Edith Barrett and Helene Thimig

Thimig is rather extraordinary portraying a woman who, it becomes increasingly clear, is Hiding Something.  Her greatest moment in the film occurs when she makes her Big Revelation, as Mann has the camera movie in ever closer on her face.  I found this genuinely riveting.  Thimig was an anti-Nazi Austrian actress who appeared in some notable WW2-era American genre films, such as Isle of the Dead, Cloak and Dagger, The Locket and Cry Wolf.

Mrs. Blake is not happy with what she sees.....

Equally good is noted stage actress (and first wife of Vincent Price, with whom she had a son), Edith Barrett.  Her increasingly desperate unease is so well-conveyed.  I found myself following her every nervous movement and anguished facial tic.  Besides playing Mrs. Fairfax in the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre, she did the horror films I Walked with a Zombie and The Ghost Ship and the thriller Ladies in Retirement.

The relationship between these two women had something of the unnerving claustrophobic quality of the later iconic film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Unfortunately the climax gets increasingly improbable and over-the-top (especially the "poetic justice" ending), but as fan of this sort of film I definitely can say I enjoyed it.  It's available on a good quality DVD, but unfortunately a bit pricey.  It's nice so many of these older genre films are becoming available, I just wish the prices would come down a few dollars!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cleopatra Ain't the Only Queen of Denial: Hide My Eyes (1958), by Margery Allingham

"Don't they make you tired?" he said, referring no doubt to womenkind in general.  "Cruel to themselves half the time, cruel to themselves."

Don't look now....
What's your favorite Margery Allingham crime novel?  It's been de rigueur for some time now to say The Tiger in the Smoke, but, truth be told, that one's not mine.

Purely as a matter of personal enjoyment I prefer the splendid romantic fantasia Sweet Danger, the manners detective novels Death of a Ghost and Dancers in Mourning, the Wodehousian The Case of the Late Pig, the atmospherically rich More Work for the Undertaker, the amnesia thriller Traitor's Purse and the late, dark thriller Hide My Eyes.

Hide My Eyes is in print, both in the US and the UK, so perhaps an odd choice for a forgotten book, but it seems so much in Tiger's shadow that I feel it's a justified choice.  I should have the full review up on Saturday.

In the meantime, I wanted to pass along this link, to th Crime Writers' Association's Margery Allingham Short Story Competition for Unpublished Short Stories.  Those of you with creative inclinations in this direction should check it out!

Also, all the essays now are in for the Doug Greene festschrift (including two on Margery Allingham), so I hope to talk about this in more detail soon.