Friday, January 30, 2015

Goddess of Death (1982), by Michael Underwood

Since his death nearly a quarter-century ago, the English crime writer Michael Underwood (1916-1992) has fallen off the map, I suspect, for most people; and to me this signifies something I find wrong with the modern world of crime fiction. Like Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) and Andrew Garve (1908-2001), Michael Underwood did much to keep the relatively traditional British mystery alive and kicking in the decades after the Second World War; yet today how often do any of these authors appear in books recommending older mystery writers (Books to Die For, etc.)?

Underwood was a lawyer, like Gilbert, and he also wrote spy thrillers, like both Gilbert and Garve, but he was as well a most reliable practitioner, like Gilbert and Garve, of the classic English mystery, updated to suit the mood of the period when he was active as a writer, 1954 to 1992 (Elizabeth Ferrars, 1907-1995, is another name that comes to mind in this regard).

Goddess of Death is by no means the best Underwood novel, but it is a "good read" for the classic mystery fan and illustrates the author's commendable qualities.  It's short, by both modern standards and Golden Age standards--about 65,000 words. Probably many younger mystery readers today would be surprised to learn that short crime novels were the norm for forty or fifty years in the twentieth century, spurred by paper shortages during World War Two and then lasting well into the 1980s. In the Sixties and Seventies even PD James and Ruth Rendell wrote relatively short crime novels!

One can see how Goddess of Death could have been expanded in the later James/Rendell manner, with more detail about the personal life of the series character, defense attorney Rosa Epton, more descriptive passages and more background on the individuals Epton encounters in the course of the story.  Instead Underwood opts for narrative economy, which allows readers to concentrate on the problem he presents.

In this novel, the third recorded case of Rosa Epton (the series of fifteen novels Underwood wrote about Epton ran from 1980 until his death in 1992), the lawyer takes on, at the request of an acquaintance, Philip Arne, the defense of Arne's young layabout brother, Francis, who has been charged with loitering with intent (not concerning prostitution but car theft).  Epton gets the younger Arne acquitted, but then learns that Phlip has been murdered, bludgeoned to death in his flat with a statuette of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, and that Francis is a prime suspect in the heinous crime.  Did Francis do it?

I enjoyed Goddess of Death.  Rosa Epton is not a troubled, indeed anguished, series sleuth in the modern fashion.  If not a Great Detective either, she does have the reassuring presence of the Great Detective and she does embody, classically, both virtue and justice (though in her early thirties, I take it, she admonishes Francis Arne when he uses the f-word in her office).

The additional characters in the novel are lightly sketched, but some were rather well done, in my view, particularly a judge with a wandering eye that frequently settles in the courtroom on Epton and a police sergeant, Paul Adderley, who is something of a smarty-pants but also a bright cop and a good one.

Without making a great fuss over it, Underwood reveals that Francis Arne is gay and his relationship with another gay character, a quite matey housemate, is credibly done (on the whole I think the gay characters are better done than the Indian ones).

The murder problem does not have the complexity of Golden Age detective fiction, but it is an engaging puzzle that it is fairly clued.  Rosa Epton in the end has the solution handed to her, but the reader has the chance to solve the problem for herself.

I will write some more about Underwood this year, as he had a long and varied career in twentieth-century crime fiction that I think is deserving of greater attention than it receives today.  Happily, Orion's The Murder Room imprint has made his books available on Kindle, though only, I believe, in the UK.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Golden Age Serial Murder: The Series Continues....

In my earlier post, I commented on the lack of American Golden Age mysteries dealing with serial murder on my short list of Golden Age serial killer novels.  Well, here's one that would certainly qualify, I think, The Bishop Murder Case, by the once highly popular S. S. Van Dine, creator of the once-famous Philo Vance (of Ogden Nash "needs a kick in the pance" fame).


In this one there are a series of bizarre murders seemingly linked by nursery rhymes (Christie was not the first to use nursery rhymes).  Bishop was a bestseller in the U. S. and there was a film version starring Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance (I believe he played some other fictional detective later in his career).


John Norris suggested The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick (then collaborative authors Richard Wilson Webb and Mary Louise White Aswell), and that one certainly is a doozy!  Q. Patrick, who was also Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge (well, Richard Webb was all of them; his writing partners varied) was often very good indeed and has been reviewed is his various incarnations several times on this blog. John has reviewed Grindle here.



Noah, TomCat and Yvette all mentioned Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949), which comes outside the Golden Age proper, as usually defined, but Ellery Queen certainly is one of the great Golden Age authors and Cat is one of their great books. Indeed, the trio of Van Dine, Queen and Quentin/Patrick/Stagge is a most impressive one all round for the classic mystery fan.


Going back to England, our England, Moira mentioned Francis Beeding's excellent Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931).  As I recollect they have two or three others from the Thirties that could qualify as serial killer tales as well.  The two men behind Francis Beeding primarily produced spy novels, but they authored some excellent classic mysteries and thrillers as well.


Christian mentioned Neil Gordon's The Silent Murders (1929). This indeed is another serial killer story, but it was unfortunate at the time in using the same plot gimmick as John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street, which preceded it by a year.  "Neil Gordon" is much netter known as the English satirical novelist A. G. Macdonell.


Christian also mentioned Phlip Macdonald's X v. Rex (1933), written under the pseudonym Martin Porlock, at a time when Macdonald was so prolific he needed a pseudonym or two.


As I recollect, this one was about a serial killer of police.  For some reason I recall liking this less than Murder Gone Mad, but I can't really remember why....

Yvette mentioned New Zealander Ngaio Marsh's Singing in the Shrouds (1958), a later entry by a Golden Age Crime Queen, which intriguingly combines shipboard mystery with serial murder.

And what about Agatha Christie's bestselling novel, even more popular than The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None (1939)? I suppose this one doesn't qualify, because the setting and the time frame are too compressed, but in a way this punishes the killer for quite amazing efficiency.

So this nets us seven (eight?) more serial killer mysteries published by Golden Age authors between 1920 and 1960, to go with the original half-dozen tales I listed.

Keep them coming!  I'm sure there are others lurking out there in the dark, with additional intriguing forgotten mysteries....


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Golden Age Serial Murder

Over the last quarter-century or so the serial killer has been a common feature of the crime novel--to a great extent, one assumes, because of this guy:


Still, there were serial killers in Golden Age crime fiction.  Two early ones, John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street and Anthony Berkeley's The Silk Stocking Murders, appeared in 1928.



Two of the best serial killer novels from this period, surely, are Philip Macdonald's frantic Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Ethel Lina White's eerie Some Must Watch (1933), filmed as The Spiral Staircase.



We know Agatha Christie made a great splash in 1936 with her ingenious The ABC Murders. Appearing just a couple months after Christie's celebrated novel was Christopher Bush's The Case of the Monday Murders (in US, Murder on Mondays).



It's odd how similarly plotted novels can crop up at nearly the same time like this.  Both The ABC Murders and The Case of the Monday Murders involve letters promising a thematically linked series of murders in the near future.  In ABC Murders the killer's pattern involves the alphabet, while in Monday Murders it's the calendar that inspires our killer.

You know about The ABC Murders, of course, but what about The Case of the Monday Murders?  I'll be reviewing it next week.  Until then, what are your favorite serial killer novels, Golden Age or otherwise?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Drowned in Deceit: The Watersplash (1951), by Patricia Wentworth

The village of Greenings lies about a mile and a half from the country town of Embank. Some day the town will swallow it up....But that day is not yet....The village is, in fact, extremely rural....But into the quietest back water a stone may fall, disquieting ripples may spread....

The Watersplash, published two years after Miss Silver Comes to Stay, the last Patricia Wentworth novel reviewed here, returns readers to the cozily criminous village milieu the author portrayed so often and so well in her 1940s and 1950s mystery fiction.

This time the village is Greenings, presided over by a bigwig family, the Randoms, and populated by assorted quaint and quirky characters. The genteel folk hang on, while the servant population, though diminished, hovers about. There are occasional references to the Labour party, but Lord Burlingham, the local Labour peer ("a self-made man" who "had run barefoot" as a boy, selling "papers in the streets") is a peripheral character (sympathetically presented).

Wentworth excels at portraying the women of this village: the distracted cat-lover Emmeline Random, living off her brother-in-law's grudging hospitality at the Hall's south lodge; the Misses Blake, hypochondriac Ora and acidulous Mildred; Mrs. Ball, the kindly vicar's wife and a daughter of one of those seemingly innumerable old school friends of Wentworth's series sleuth, Miss Silver; nice Susan Wayne, who left the village to work as a personal secretary for a Professor Postlethwaite after her aunt's death, but has returned to catalog the library at the Hall while the professor is visiting the US; and even old Mrs. Stone, who at vicarage sewing parties for displaced children surreptitiously slips into her "rather distressing work-bag" slices of Mrs. Ball's luscious fruitcake, to take to her own daughter, another village hypochondriac.

fatal phone call
Clarice Dean on Greenings'
"party line"
Of course there are ill deeds done in the novel, with two conflicting wills and two nasty murders, both drownings in the local watersplash (a ford over a stream). The first to die is a local ne'er-do-well and discharged servant, William Jackson, and the second pretty Clarice Dean, a designing young nurse, not native to the village (she's very accurately captured on the cover of the latest English edition of the novel; see right).

Into this troubling case comes Scotland Yard, in the person of "posh" Inspector Frank Abbott (a desk bound Chief Inspector Ernest Lamb makes only a brief appearance); but it is, of course, Miss Silver who saves the day when she comes to visit.

The mystery itself is fairly clued, so fairly, indeed, that I doubt it fools many readers. But is fooling readers what Wentworth really intended?  Or did she simply want to tell a good tale of mystery and murder?

The Watersplash is a suspenseful story, well-told, with a pleasing sense of people and place. It is also superbly classical, according to W. H. Auden's formulation, with, at the end, the magical figure of the Great Detective having cast out evil and restored order, so that nice lovers can love and the good and the just reign again over the village. As Frank Abbott says to his beloved Miss Silver:

You know, the Chief really does suspect you of at least white witchcraft.  I don't think it would surprise him if you were to fly out of the window on a broomstick.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015 Edgar Nominations (Critical-Bio Category)

Well, I only predicted four books, based on the smaller number of submissions this year, but the anonymous committee that makes the Edgar nominations for best critical-biographical work went ahead and nominated five this year.  Had I done five I would have predicted Kiss the Blood off My Hands--On Classic Film Noir as well, but of the four I predicted, only two made it:

J. W. Ocker, Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe (Countryman)

Francis M. Nevins, Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Exploring the Legal Dimensions of Fiction and Film (Perfect Crime)


The other three nominated books are:

James Mancall, James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland)

Robert Miklitsch, ed. Kiss the Blood off My Hands--On Classic Film Noir (University of Illinois)

Charles Brownson, The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis (McFarland)

I'm most surprised about the omission of the posthumously published Donald Westlake essay collection, which was really charming, I thought, and has sold well.  Was the fact that there were a lot of previously published pieces in it held against it?  In any event, it's an interesting volume from a man who knew this business down to the ground and I plan to review it soon.

My guess for the winner, as my last post indicated, would be Poe-Land.  Nevins is a two-time winner, I believe, back with another book (see my view of his Cornell Woolrich biography here) and James Ellroy is always popular with the Edgars.  But my bet with the Edgars is Mr. Poe.  Plus Poe-Land looks like a very good book, which surely can't hurt!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Edgar Nominations Predictions

Tonight I make my 2015 Edgar nominations predictions, but only for the critical-bio category, which, of course, is near to my heart.  It would be nice to see Mysteries Unlocked get nominated, but I'm only predicting four nominees and am leaving MU out of the tally (my fifth prediction, incidentally, would be Kiss the Blood Off My Hands--On Classic Film Noir.

So here they are:

Marvin Lachman, The Villainous Stage: Crime Plays on Broadway and in the West End (McFarland)

Francis M. Nevins, Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Exploring the Legal Dimensions of Fiction and Film (Perfect Crime)

J. W. Ocker, Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe (Countryman)

Donald Westlake, The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany (University of Chicago)

Lachman and Nevins are longtime vets in the field, but the battle for the win should be between Ocker and Westlake, I think (assuming all are nominated). The Edgars naturally love Poe and the Ocker book sounds fascinating (though does it wander too far afield from mystery proper) and of course the late Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was a hugely admired American crime writer, whom the community gets another chance to honor now, in 2015.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Carole Lombard Thriller Double Feature, Part 2: Supernatural (1933)

Supernatural (1933) merits points for its theme, spiritual possession, but I found it, in contrast with the recently-reviewed White Woman (1933), something of a fizzle. The film was directed by Victor Halperin, who helmed the previous year's White Zombie, which starred Bela Lugosi and deservedly is a much better-known film than Supernatural. Hollywood scripter, playwright and occasion mystery novel writer Garnett Weston was involved with both films, although apparently he contributed only the story to Supernatural and the actual screenplay was written by others (let's hope so).


Serial strangler Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne, in a spirited performance) is to be executed for killing three of the men in her life (unimpressed by her incessant peals of maniacal laughter, authorities have declared her sane). Rogen gives custody of her body after her death to eminent scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H. B. Warner, later to receive a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Lost Horizon, but the real stiff in Supernatural in my opinion).  Dr. Houston plans to conduct on Rogen's corpse a series of experiments, based on his theory that violent souls can leave bodies after death, possess the living and continue to wreak havoc though their new fleshly vessels.  He wants to stop this from happening, as well he might, but the best-laid plans....


Meanwhile, beautiful heiress Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard) is in mourning because her twin brother has suddenly died, which is tough breaks for their handsome friend Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott, immediately forgettable), who had been planning to propose marriage to her; but loyally he still hangs around in constant attendance at her side.  Also devoted to Roma are family friend Dr. Carl Houston (small world!) and family lawyer Nick "Nicky" Hammond (William Farnum, in an underwritten, semi-comedic role).

Roma is contacted by a sham spiritualist, Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who tells her he has been getting urgent spirit messages from her beloved dead brother.

Now, hold onto your hats, my friends, but it also seems that Bavian was another one of Ruth Rogen's lovers and, indeed, the man who tipped off the police about her penchant for performing fatal finger exercises.

"Nicky" calls Bavian to tell him as the family lawyer he won't allow Roma to be taken in by a phony, but Roma insists on attending Bavian's seance, in company with Grant, who is also dubious about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Bavian has had to deal with his drunken landlady (Beryl Mercer, convincingly and constantly tipsy) who knows he is a fraud and threatens to reveal all to Roma unless he buys her silence. That matter taken care of, he goes through the paces in an interestingly staged, if fraudulent, seance that convinces Roma he has the real goods in the spirit department.

Bavian, purportedly speaking for her dead brother, tells Roma that Nicky killed her brother, which is understandably unwelcome news to Roma.  She and Grant rush to discuss the whole matter over with wise Dr. Houston in his swanky art deco penthouse apartment--just at the height of his experiments on Ruth Rogen's corpse (creepy).


Here, finally, finally, finally, the premise of the film is realized, as the spirit of Ruth Rogen appears to enter Roma.  And Ruth Rogen has one thing on her wicked mind: getting her murdering mitts on Paul Bavian!

Supernatural is a disappointing film, and has long been considered so, even by fans of Halperin's prior film, White Zombie.  It runs barely over an hour, yet, in contrast with White Woman, which was based on the play "Hangman's Whip" (it's just occurred to me, by the way: was the title of the latter film a deliberate riff on the former one), it feels extremely stagy, static and "poky," if you will.  The climax of the film, which takes place on Roma's luxurious yacht, where she and the lustful Bavian have absconded, provides some thrills, but they are long past due by that point (there's also a good scene in Rogen's old apartment; see below).


Most of the male characters in the cast are either blandly or badly played.  Alan Dinehart as Bavian is an especially unfortunate piece of casting.  Dinehart "specialized in playing blustering or shifty businessmen" and "crooked politicians," his bio tells us, and one can well believe it from this film. Unfortunately it is harder to accept him as the dark source of Ruth Rogen's obsession or as a murderer himself (as far as I could tell he is responsible for two deaths in this film).  Unlike Charles Laughton, say, Rogen just isn't a star, magnificent in his villainy; he a supporting rat, who in this film comes off much more like a deplorable middle-aged roue.  Of course Ruth/Roma is the lead menace in the film, but Bavian needed more evil oomph in my view.

The women are better.  Vivienne Osborne has the needed mania for her character and Carole Lombard, once she is possessed by the crazed murderess, does a creditable job, though she hated the role and the film, evidently.  Still, I can't really recommend this one, unless you are a completist of Carole Lombard and/or Thirties horror/thriller films.

Note: here you will find John Norris's review at Pretty Sinister.  He acknowledges the film's flaws, but still gives it a more positive assessment.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Carole Lombard Thriller Double Feature, Part One: White Woman (1933)

Film scholars seem not to rate the movie White Woman (based on the play Hangman's Whip) too highly, dismissing it as a lurid "jungle melodrama."  Well, yes, but where in the world would we thriller fans be without melodrama?  I think this film is grand.


Beautiful Judith Denning (Carole Lombard) is shunned by the proper white community in Malaya on account of marital scandal: her recently deceased husband, it is said, committed suicide, believing that she was carrying on with a handsome Australian.  Now impoverished, she has been forced to take employment singing in a club to mixed race audiences, which only makes local society condemn her all the more. Threatened with deportation on account of her "scandalous" behavior, Judith marries vulgar, nouveau riche Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), the "King of the River," the greatest rubber planter in Malaya, and travels upriver with him to the grand converted boat-house where he holds court.

Sadly for Judith, soon the bloom is off this abrupt marriage of convenience (it would have to be; this is only a one hour and nine minute film).  Judith finds that Horace Prin ("Prin," everyone calls him) is an eccentric and sadistic egomaniac with an obsessive need to control everyone around him, including the native workers, his plantation overseers and, of course, his new bride. When Prin notices that his handsome and sensitive overseer, David von Elst (Kent Taylor), has caught Judith's eye, he sends David packing to run a distant plantation, where the previous overseer has just died under highly suspicious circumstances.  Prin replaces David with a brash American--is there any other kind in these films--named Ballister (Charles Bickford).

But the natives are restless and even the scenery-devouring Prin may bite off more than he can chew this time!

What an enjoyable, atmospheric slice of tropical melodrama I found this film! Though of course Lombard found her forte a few years later in screwball comedy, she is quite good in White Woman, reminding me rather of Gloria Stuart, who the year before starred with Charles Laughton (along with Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey) in one of the great Thirties terror melodramas, The Old Dark House.  Kent Taylor is your classic rather willowy early-Thirties male romantic interest (complete with pencil-thin mustache), but in fact he plays his character, who today we would say is suffering from PTSD, rather well. The fine character actor Charles Bickford, a three-time Oscar nominee, is great as the rough American and pivotal to the film's closing scenes.

Yet, not surprisingly, it most definitely is Charles Laughton who dominates the film, and he is superb in this colorful "fiend" role.  His theatrical Horace Prin is of a piece with his more famous Thirties villains like Dr. Moreau, Nero, Henry VIII, Javert and Captain Bligh. I found the grim final scene of the film, which Laughton plays to the hilt, riveting. Some will call it the purest ham, but I enjoyed every morsel of it.  Incidentally, I was a bit reminded of Laurence Kirk's suspense novel The Farm at Paranao (1935), very favorably reviewed by me here.

Stay tuned for a review of another interesting, if less successful in my view, Carole Lombard thriller from 1933, Supernatural.

the deadly triangle (Taylor, Lombard, Laughton)

Of Mysteries Unlocked and Closeted Murders

Last year I was much pleased to be able to shepherd into print with McFarland Press, Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, about which Jon L. Breen has written very kindly here.  "One of the finest essay collections on the detective-story genre ever published" certainly are nice words to hear from a reviewer, especially one as distinguished as Jon Breen.  The work of Doug Greene was a great inspiration to me back in the 1990s, when I started thinking seriously about mystery genre history; and it was wonderful that everything came together over 2013-14 to allow the "Doug Book" to be published, with a raft of really fine contributors.

I have decided to try my hand at editing another McFarland essay collection.  Although I have, like Doug, a PhD in history, I try, like Doug, to adopt a somewhat more "popular" approach to my mystery genre history writing, while preserving the scholarly apparatus.

While I don't look as in depth at personal lives as it sounds like Martin Edwards does in his forthcoming book on The Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, I always have been very interested in the personalities of crime writers and how this impacts their writing (Doug's biography of the great Golden Age mystery master John Dickson Carr is a model in this regard).

I have so much biographical detail about mystery writers on my hands, I am always thinking about what to do it with all.  One thing I discovered in my various researches is that there are a good number of gay and lesbian mystery/crime writers from the more closeted era before the Stonewall Riots (1969) who have never been acknowledged as such in mystery genre histories (along with, of course, some who have been, like Patricia Highsmith and, in my view more questionably, Cornell Woolrich).

I thought looking at these writers, as well as, more broadly, gay, lesbian and transgender themes in the works of both gay and straight mystery/crime writers might be of considerable interest in the academic world, and, perhaps, the fan world as well.  So I have launched another multi-contributor essay collection on this subject, which will be out next year.  A dozen contributors have signed on so far.  I believe this book can make a noteworthy contribution to mystery genre studies and I look forward very much to its publication in 2016, as we near the half-century anniversary of Stonewall.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Murdermarch 3: Harm Done (1999), by Ruth Rendell

As I mentioned in my piece on Ruth Rendell's Simisola (1994), in a contemporary review of this twenty-year-old novel Publishers Weekly compared Rendell to great Victorian-era novelists, deeming Simisola "at times like a contemporary Middlemarch with a murder mystery at the heart of it."  I would argue that along with Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999) Simisola forms a sort of Nineties English society trilogy, in which Rendell uses the mystery form to explore contemporary mores and conflicts.

Before Simisola Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels tended to be more strictly puzzle focused (offering some of the best puzzles in modern English mystery) or, if they did concentrate on broader social concerns, the results could be pretty mixed (see the feminism novel An Unkindness of Ravens),

After Harm Done, Rendell's Wexford mysteries declined in quality, I think, being neither as interestingly plotted nor integrating social issues as well.  Not in the Flesh (2007), for example, which I actually have rather an affection for, has a subplot about ritual female genital mutilation that simply does not link with the main story, which in itself is a strictly workmanlike mystery, punctuated by some interesting observations on aging and agriculture.

Harm Done, the third of this Nineties society trilogy, has three mystery problems, all of them linked by disappearances of children. First two teenage girls vanish, then suddenly reappear, not wanting to talk about what happened to them.

Meanwhile a pedophile has been released from prison and is being resettled at his daughter's home in a Kingsmarkham council estate, much to the objection of his neighbors.  When a third disappearance occurs--a toddler girl this time--many assume the "pedo" is responsible, even though, as Wexford points out, he was convicted for actions involving adolescent boys. Eventually there is a riot against the police station, in which a petrol bomb is thrown, killing a policeman.

Too late for the dead cop, Wexford solves the mystery of the vanished child and this solution eventually leads to a murder, which becomes the only formal murder problem in the novel.  This murder story pivots on the issue of spousal abuse, which in turn links with a continuing subplot about Wexford's less-preferred daughter, Sylvia, who has her own marital problems (non-violent) and is now working part-time at a shelter for abused women (happily by the end of the novel there's a bit of resolution, or at least a turning point, in the relationship between Wexford and Sylvia).

I was impressed with how Rendell wove this involved and lengthy tapestry together so efficiently. Fans strictly of the puzzle mystery likely will find all the social detail extraneous, but if they stick with it they do eventually get a classic murder problem with one very clever clue and even a twist ending.

On the whole I think I preferred the plot of Harm Done to that of Simsola, although Simisola probably has the more memorable characters.  Much of the characterization in Harm Done focuses glancingly on the lower class residents of a council estate, about whom Rendell writes unsentimentally (Minette Walters explored a somewhat similar subject three years later, in her novel Acid Row). Rendell has some good pointed satire here, though some may discern a scornful edge that may make them uncomfortable.

With the formal murder problem in the last part of the book, we find ourselves in upper, or upper middle-class, surroundings, familiar to the reader of the traditional British mystery; but, though Rendell has some interesting thoughts on domestic abuse, none of these characters are really developed with great depth.

On the other hand, Rendell peoples her novel with an impressively broad gallery of individuals and gives a compelling picture of a place and time.  It's a pleasure to lose oneself for a time in Rendell's Kingsmarkham, with the wise Wexford as our guide. Probably no one was doing the British manners mystery better in the 1990s than Ruth Rendell.

Incidentally, I call this Murdermarch III because the novel Road Rage came between Simisola and Harm Done.  I will have to go back and review that one someday!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play (2011/2015)

This may seem a bit self-serving, but my forgotten book selection for this week is my 20,000 word booklet, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, published in 2011 as a CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) Supplement.  It detailed the debates among Detection Club members about the standards for admitting new members over a near quarter-century period, from 1930 to 1953.  There is quite a bit about the personalities of the members, especially during the Second World War, when the conflict menaced the Club's existence. There were nice reviews of it at the time by Jon L. BreenMartin Edwards and Patrick Ohl.

The booklet was printed in the UK and I believe did not reach many people outside that country, so I am pleased to announce that it will be the lead piece in a collection of my essays and reviews to be published this Spring, Was Corinne's Murder Clued and Other Mysteries: Essays on Crime and Detective Fiction.  It will include CADS articles and Coachwhip introductions as well as additional pieces I have written over the last four years, covering classic English crime, classic American crime, thrillers and pulp fiction, Victoriana and genre historiography.  It is structured to provide a pretty broad overview of American and British crime and detective fiction published over about 150 years.

Additionally I have another book project with McFarland for 2016 that has been shaping up nicely, about which more soon shall be forthcoming.  Also, my book on Henry Wade and GDH and Margaret Cole should be out soon and I hope to finish a genre survey this year (about 200 pages have been written).  There will also be some more mystery reprint introductions, some, but not all, for Coachwhip.

On another, sadder note the news is that Ruth Rendell, a great favorite at The Passing Tramp, has suffered a serious stroke, as reported here at the Guardian.  I know you will join with me in wishing her the best.  I had recently completed Rendell's 1999 Wexford novel Harm Done, and you can expect a full review soon. This month I also reviewed one of her collections of short fiction, Blood Lines.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Putting Carnage into Crime Fiction: Robert M. Coates and Wisteria Cottage (1948)

(And across Richard's mind there flitted swiftly, glancingly, a vision of the tools on the oilcloth floor and the man in his overalls, bending, preoccupied, by the sink; it would be in the kitchen, musty and dusty from long shut-upness, and as Richard crept though the door there would be only the faintest creak of the flooring to betray his presence.  But it would be enough to make the man turn, and see, and shriek.  God!  What shrieks!  I could make you remember, Richard thought.  And then the limp, salt-soused figure, the face oozing blood, and the blood sluicing off the waves.  "I could make you forget too, too," he said.)

He was good, he was goodness himself, he knew that; he was an influence for good, or he could be if his goodness were accepted. But he knew too that when good meets evil it is frequently rejected....

Wisteria Cottage (1948), Robert M. Coates

Although Robert Myron Coates (1897-1973) today probably is best-known as a long-time art critic for the New Yorker (it is said he coined the term abstract expressionism), to the crime fiction genre he contributed three novels, as well as a number of short stories, many of which originally appeared in the New Yorker, with some of them collected in three volumes published between 1943 and 1965.

Coates' crime novels are The Eater of Darkness, first published in France in 1926 and in the US in 1929, a surrealistic spoof of crime thrillers (after graduating from Yale in 1919 Coates moved to Europe and resided among the American expatriate artist community in Paris from 1921 to 1926); Wisteria Cottage (1948); and The Farther Shore (1955).  The latter two novels are studies of criminal pathology that straddle the line between crime and mainstream novels.

Coates followed The Eater of Darkness with two non-criminous works, also surrealistic in form, that met with mixed receptions from critics, from what I have seen. However, Wisteria Cottage seems to have been nearly universally applauded as a tour de force study of madness and mayhem.

As one review put it, "It is a perceptive account of how a sick mind, confusing its own need for self-destruction with a desire for world salvation, can seduce itself into crime." Another reviewer bluntly dubbed the novel "the outstanding blood-chiller of the year." Anthony Boucher, dean of American crime fiction critics, referenced the novel a number of times in the 1950s and 1960s, indicating he thought it a model fictional study of criminal insanity.

Wisteria Cottage details the mental disintegration over several months of Richard Baurie, a young bookstore clerk (and supposed struggling poet) in New York. Richard has attached himself to the Hacketts, a family of three women, a mother and two adult daughters (the husband, an engineer, is mostly absent); and for them he finds an ideal Long Island summer beach house, Wisteria Cottage, where is allowed weekend use of the studio on the property.

Unknown to the Hackett women--well, Louisa, the older daughter, has an bit of an inkling--under Richard's amiable facade is a seething mass of lusts, repressions and complexes (some of his back story is explored by means of snippets from a psychiatrist's report).

Over the summer Richard comes increasingly to believe that it is his divinely-appointed mission to save the younger Hackett daughter, Elinor, from the baneful influence of her worldly older sister and her coquettish mother, Florence.  How far will Richard go in his mission to make the world "safe" for his vision of goodness? Well, quite far, as we learn in the penultimate chapter of the novel.

The cover illustration of the Dell paperback edition of the novel (see above) is lurid, no question, but it captures the mood of this novel's grim and disturbing finale, which takes us into the realm of Jim Thompson and is indeed not for the squeamish reader.  Not surprisingly, Wisteria Cottage was reprinted by Lion, who often published Thompson's nightmares, with a typically risque illustration (see below).

Friday, January 9, 2015

Off His Loaf: Wisteria Cottage (1948), by Robert M. Coates

the lurid Dell paperback edition
I love the title of Robert M. Coates' Wisteria Cottage (1948), because it conjures the world of cozy mystery when it is anything but.  The hardcover edition was subtitled a novel of criminal impulse, which gives a clue to what the book is: a sober suspense story about a mentally disintegrating psychopath.

Wisteria Cottage was extremely well-reviewed and went through three paperback editions, including one as late as 1985, but since then seems to have been almost entirely forgotten, one of those vagaries of literary fortune.

I'll be writing about the novel, and Mr. Coates, more this weekend, as well as a novel by another author, one published merely fifteen years ago--imagine!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

By the Bookplate 1 The Telltale Thumb Mark: The Story of the Thief, the Book Plate and Dead Man Twice

Dead Man Twice (1930), which I plan to review here soon, for some reason is one of the easier-to-find early Christopher Bush detective novels, even though most of these early novels all were published in the US and UK.

I actually have copies of both the American and British first editions, but it is my copy of the British edition that carries the book plate of of Asa Guy and Rosamund Gurney, who today lie buried, far from England, in Michigan City, Indiana (Rosamund Gurney died only four years after Dead Men Twice was published).

The Gurney bookplate is an attractive one, depicting in the foreground a man and woman at a Paris book stall--the man has a book in hand--and in the background Notre Dame Cathedral (as Nigel Holmes points out below). But, for the purposes of this blog, what is most interesting about the Gurney bookplate is the Gurneys themselves, or, more particularly, Asa Guy Gurney, who, it seems, once featured prominently in a noted American criminal case.


Back in 1894 $22,500 was found missing from a safe sent from the bank of Commerce, New York to the Whitney National Bank, New Orleans.  David N. Carvalho, an expert in handwriting from New York, was called in to investigate the case.  On the American Express envelope containing the key of the safe he discovered, under the lens of his microscope, "the faint impression of a man's right thumb in the wax of a broken seal."  He determined that the telltale thumb mark identically matched that of the agent of the American Express Company in New Orleans, who happened to be--you've probably guessed it--one Asa Guy Gurney.

As explained by the Microscopical Journal the next year,"It has been shown in numberless instances that the thumb or finger impressions of no two persons are alike, and further, that the impressions stay the same from the cradle to the grave." Yet "such evidence was too subtle for the rural jury which tried the case," noted a newspaper account. Gurney was acquitted, though he later confessed to the theft, validating Carvalho's work.

Apparently Asa Guy Gurney enjoyed crime fiction. Assuming the owner of Dead Man Twice was the same Asa Guy Gurney who robbed the bank safe back in 1894, one can only say, how appropriate!

Mystery writer R. Austin Freeman later explored the matter of crime and thumb marks in his landmark scientific detective novel The Red Thumb Mark, while Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have publicly praised Carvalho's "nicety of reasoning" in the Gurney case.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Death in Its Shorter Forms: Blood Lines (1996), by Ruth Rendell

Since the death of Agatha Christie P. D. James and Ruth Rendell jointly ruled as England's Queens of Crime Fiction, right up until James's own death last year.  Probably the dual monarchs reached the apex of their popularity and prestige in the 1990s.

In Rendell's case she had begun downplaying in the 1980s her Chief Inspector Wexford detective novels, in favor of the psychological suspense thrillers written under her own name (such as The Crocodile Bird, 1993, The Keys to the Street, 1996, and A Sight for Sore Eyes, 1998) and the multi-layered Barbara Vine mysteries that she launched in 1986, with A Dark-Adapted Eye (followed with such popular and critical successes as A Fatal Inversion, 1987, The House of Stairs, 1988, King Solomon's Carpet, 1991, Asta's Book, 1993, No Night Is Too Long, 1994 and The Brimstone Wedding, 1995).

Even with the Wexford series, Rendell offered a sort of reboot of it in the 1990s, with much longer novels that are filled with greater detail about social concerns (racism and the exploitation of the poor in Simisola, 1994, environmentalism in Road Rage, 1997, spousal abuse and pedophilia in Harm Done, 1999), yet still have interesting mystery plots (if not up to the level, in this latter regard, with her best earlier Wexfords).

Between 1976 and 2000 Ruth Rendell also authored seven collections of short crime fiction.  On the whole I would say that, in contrast with her novels, Rendell's later works of short fiction are inferior to her earlier ones. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Of Rendell's later three volumes of short crime fiction, which appeared between 1991 and 2000, my favorite is Blood Lines: Long and Short Stories, published nearly twenty years ago, in 1996.  The American edition of this book, by Crown, is a beautifully-produced volume.  Within the covers are a novella, a novelette and 9 short stories. Fortunately both the novella and the novelette are winners, but the short stories are a less enticing melange.

see Stu's Photos

The fruit of the arbutus is beautiful, red and shiny; it looks like strawberries but it has no taste.--Ruth Rendell, "The Strawberry Tree"

The cream-or should I say crime--of the crop is the superb novella (about 25,000 words) "The Strawberry Tree," which originally was published in 1990 and in style and mood resembles the Barbara Vine novels of that period (it is easy to see how it could have been expanded into a full-length novel).

Like a lot of Vines it shifts back and forth over a lengthy, treacherously tangled, space of time. Much of the novella takes place, retrospectively, on the island of Majorca several years after the Second World War, among a small group of people, all but one of them English, vacationing there.

As with the best Vine and Rendell books, one reads on compulsively from a sheer desire to know what will happen next.  Rendell beautifully exploits the classic Had-I-But-Known technique of Mary Roberts Rinehart to keep us in suspense (there's even a haunted house):

Perhaps, in the light of what was to come, it would have been better for all if Piers had not spoken. We would never have come to the Casita de Golondro, so the things that happened there would not have happened....If Piers had been less than he was, a little colder, a little more reserved, more like me.  If we had all been careful not to look in the boy's direction but had swum within the harbor enclosure with eyes averted....

When I think of all the ribbing Rinehart once got for this sort of writing (in truth, wonderfully atmospheric), and I see that whoops, here it is, decades later, in the pages of a highly praised Ruth Rendell novella, well!  All I can say is good on you, Ruth Rendell.

"The Strawberry Tree" is Rendell at her best in crime fiction: atmospheric, mysterious and poignantly observant of the melancholy of human failings.


Also very worthwhile is the Wexford novelette, "Blood Lines," original to this volume, which offers an interesting clued murder mystery involving an extended family of market gardeners.  As was Rendell's wont at this time, she uses the tale to make certain sharp points about relationships between the sexes.  This novelette is worthy of inclusion with the other Wexford short fiction, collected, aside from a single story that appears in The Copper Peacock (1991), in Means of Evil (1978).

Regrettably of the nine short stories, all but one of which was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine over 1995 and 1996, I really liked only one of them, "Burning End."

Like "Blood Lines," "Burning End," is set among an extended family of farmers and scores points against sexual double standards. In the story it is Betty who has to look after Brian's aged mother at the old family home, even though Betty has her own salaried job, in addition to having to act, as best she can, as a traditional homemaker. Betty's mother-in-law is not only ungrateful for Betty's sacrifice, but positively spiteful. Classically, Betty's thoughts start trending in a criminal direction....The twist at the end is superb--on dual levels.


The additional stories others may enjoy, but I found them mostly flat and predictable (some are short shorts of under 1000 words, a very hard form to pull off, in my opinion). One, "Clothes," about a woman's compulsive shopping addiction, is a study in psychology, really, and only a crime story by the most generous of definitions.  And thrilling it isn't.  In all honesty, "In All Honesty," though highly praised by Kirkus Reviews, is not exceptional; however, it does have its share of mordant humor (you will never look at shag carpet the same way again).
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Still, for me, the presence of "The Strawberry Tree," "Blood Lines," and Burning End," which together account for over half the book, make this attractive volume of short fiction well worth owning.