Sunday, January 5, 2014

Death Wears a Mask: The Accomplice (1947), by Matthew Head

Art teacher and critic John Canaday (1907-1985) as "Matthew Head" wrote seven crime novels between 1943 and 1955.  The best known of these books are the four "Mary Finney" mysteries, particularity the three that are set in Africa (two of these were reprinted within the last decade in typically attractive editions by Felony & Mayhem). To my mind, however, the most striking crime novel by "Matthew Head" is a non-series take, The Accomplice (1947).

Set in Paris and Kansas City (the "Paris of the Plains") in the 1930s, The Accomplice reminds me a great deal of one of those between-the-wars American expatriate novels, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1934) and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), although the subject matter in Head's tale is a great deal more lurid (from more recent times I was rather reminded of Ruth Rendell's The Bridesmaid, 1989).

The novel starts with a love triangle of sorts, which we eventually find is actually a rectangle, and a very strange one at that. Hank Bewley, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, becomes enamored with pretty Corrie Walters of Kansas City, but Corrie is besotted with Lex Abbott, also of Kansas City and a quite rich and quite visually arresting young man.  Here's a descriptive passage to give you some idea of the striking writing in the novel, which is told in Hank's voice:

a beautiful design
Whenever Lex and I walked down the street together there was always a ripple of faces turning in our direction, and that never happens when I walk down the street alone.  I've seen people stop dead in their tracks when Lex came along toward them, and then turn around and follow him as if they had lost all control over their direction of movement.  Strangers were always edging up to him at bars or sending him notes in restaurants, yet as long as I knew him I never knew anybody to react to that face with an immediate smile or that happy feeling of expectancy you get sometimes from a new face that you want to know.  It was a sullen and stony face, but as a piece of pure design it was a joy to look at, in shape and in color.  "Joy" isn't the right word, because the face didn't promise anything good.  The word popped up there because I was trying to avoid the word "beautiful," but I might as well go on and say that as a piece of pure design, Lex's face was beautiful.

Initially Hank reminded me of a Nick Carraway outside observer type (see Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby,1925), but he becomes very personally involved indeed in an emotional imbroglio that grows increasingly bizarre when Mimi de Couer, a sort of female roue, appears on the scene.  She is quite an old friend of Lex's, it seems.

a not entirely accurate
but remarkably arresting cover
Later the scene shifts to Kansas city and Mimi's odd interior decorating establishment there. Events finally culminate in murder, of an especially horrific and unforgettable nature.  Although The Accomplice is primarily a character novel, there is a neat little murder problem to be unknotted. After that there is a haunting coda in Paris.

This is a first class crime novel, notably sexually suggestive for its period, that unaccountably has been out-of-print for nearly fifty years, a situation that I hope can be rectified.*

*(Be warned the Dell paperback editions from the 1940s have poor, brittle paper.  Also watch out for a blog review of this novel that reveals too much, imo).

4 comments:

  1. I share your opinion that this is the best of Matthew Head's novels and it also makes me think of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Morley Callaghan. I hope you've said just enough to interest people in reading it; I absolutely agree that it needs to be reprinted so that more people can enjoy it. I first found it through the wonderfully lurid mapback that you've shown; I really do think it's one of the best mapback mysteries in terms of the quality of the writing and it might also be the most daring novel they published, from a line that was not notable for its willingness to publish frank sexual material. Thanks for reminding me that I need to re-read this soon!

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  2. Noah, so glad you agree. Really, had I reviewed this last year it might well have been my #1 book. I'm surprised this gets so little attention compared to his Mary Finney books, even among Golden Era connoisseurs. Someone should have called it noir, maybe it would be remembered!

    I always agonize over plot details, not wanting to give away too much. But it would have been fun to write in detail about the plot and the ideas in the book. The New York Times reviewer was so offended by the book (I think this was Isaac Anderson, not long before Anthony Boucher, who loved the book, came along), he gave away most of the plot! I am surprised at what made it in, though it's all very subtly done.

    I see John Canaday for an M.A. in art history in Yale in 1933 and the book opens in Paris in 1934. Also, he was born in Fort Scott, Kansas.

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  3. Oh, by the way, that is an amazing, if not entirely accurate, Dell cover!

    This would be a great novel to film, although Mimi de Couer especially would be a challenging role!

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  4. Anyone interested in expatriate Paris might enjoy Eliot Paul's The Mysterious Mickey Finn, Hugger-Mugger in the Louvre and Mayhem in B-Flat, especially if they enjoy the Craig Rice type of alcohol-fueled screwball mystery. Paul's gentle satire and affection for Paris and its denizens, which include exiles from all points of the globe, form a backdrop for crime and detection that leaves one with a vivid impression of the times.

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