Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Exit to Death: So Many Doors (1949), by E. R. Punshon

Crime detection at its exciting best!

This fascinating tapestry of murder and superior detection is a prime example of the classic type of mystery story--a story whose ingenious kinks and turns absorb you, while its intense scrutiny of clues will keep you agog with anticipation.

E. R. PUNSHON was inducted into the London Detection Club by the late G. K. Chesterton, then president.  This club was founded with the idea of bringing together mystery writers who were willing to aim at high literary standards, and who believed that in the mystery novel "the reader must always be given fair play...."

--From the front and back flaps of the American edition of E. R. Punshon's So Many Doors (Macmillan, 1950)

Does "intense scrutiny of clues" keep mystery readers "agog with anticipation" these days?  Did it in 1950?  Apparently someone at Macmillan thought so. Or, possibly, they were making for traditionalists the most that they could of Punshon's perceived strengths as a mystery writer in an era when, to generalize, male readers of crime fiction were turning increasingly to hard-boiled novels and women to so-called domestic suspense.

Yet to no avail: So Many Doors (to be reissued in January by Dean Street Press), would be the last Punshon novel published in the United States during the author's lifetime, though nine more new Punshons would be published in the UK by the author's longtime publisher, Victor Gollancz.

Taking note of the 17th-century stage origin of the title of So Many Doors, Anthony Boucher, then dean of American mystery critics, praised the "Elizabethan, even Jacobean" aspect of the novel in its compulsive chronicling of the "obscure destinies that drive [Punshon's] obsessed and tormented characters, and...the frightful violence that concludes the story." These were qualities that should have appealed to mid-century American readers, yet they may have been obscured by Punshon's deliberate narrative style for most of the novel.

For much of the novel Punshon's charming series sleuth, Bobby Owen--now, in his 26th novel appearance, ranked a Commander in Metropolitan Police (more on this below)--is trying to determine what happened to to Isabel Winlock, a respectable young woman who has run off with Mark Monk, a magnetic male of doubtful character who is suspected of having done in his wife.

Monk has a connection to Bexley House, a great Thameside mansion from "the days when domestic help was cheap and plentiful and and no one dreamed that it would one day very much be the reverse."  The once abandoned house seems to be the locale for gambling and black market activities, and there's evidence that someone--Mark Monk? Isabel Winlock?--was done in there, evidently stabbed, not long before Bobby pays Bexley House a visit.

Eventually Bobby's investigation of this most mysterious matter takes him to scenic Cornwall, specifically the old tin mining district around Redruth. What does he discover there? Read the novel and find out!

remains of tin mine works in Cornwall

Now, about Commanders on the Metropolitan Police.  Some people have commented that Bobby's rise in Scotland Yard seems meteoric.  Bobby was still a sergeant in 1939, when he left the Yard to join the police force in Wychshire, where he spent the war years as an inspector and later deputy chief constable.  Returning to London in Music Tells All and The House of Godwinsson (both 1948), Bobby is made a deputy assistant commissioner, the equivalent of deputy chief constable, but by So Many Doors he has become a Commander, reflecting the recent creation of the rank of commander out of junior DAC's.

For comparison, PD James' Adam Dalgliesh started off as an Inspector in Cover Her Face (1962), but had made it up to Commander by The Black Tower (1975). It took Bobby about fifteen years to make it up to deputy assistant commissioner (if you think this was too fast, blame Wychshire, not the Yard), but then he was a lot younger than Dalgliesh.

Or maybe not.  Bobby starts off the series at about age 23 and ages more or less naturally as the series progresses over the next 23 years, so at the end of his recorded career he's about the same age as Dalgliesh, who starts off in his forties, I believe, but never seems to age over the 46 years of cases chronicled by James. Good thing too, because had he aged naturally Dalgliesh would have been around 90 at the time of his last case!

More on the next Bobby Owen novel in the series, Everybody Always Tells, coming soon. If So Many Doors bears resemblance to Christie, Tells brings in bit of today's birthday boy, John Dickson Carr.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In with the New: Five Years of Blogging and A Plenitude of Punshons, A Lone Lingo and Murder in the Closet

It's been just over five years since my premier blog post on November 22, 2011, on the mystery genre's "passing tramp" and the once out-of-print mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon, creator of the series character Ben the Tramp.  I followed with another post on Farjeon on the 26th and then made this one on December 26, on a certain Farjeon novel called Mystery in White, which you may have heard of since.  There were other posts as well in those first few weeks, and there have been many since.  Indeed, this post will be the 700th post at The Passing Tramp.

Lately I haven't been posting here as much as I would have liked, but I have been busy working on proofs for the essay collection Murder in the Closet, which will be out the last day of this year, a long introduction to Ada E. Lingo's regional detective novel Murder in Texas (1935) and the last ten novels in E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen mystery series, beginning with So Many Doors, which Dean Street Press will Release on January 2.

opening in January
For this last set of Punshon Bobby Owen mystery reissues there is bonus material: with the first four novels, selections from Punshon's crime fiction reviews; with the next five novels, a Bobby Owen short story apiece (there are five known Bobby Owen short stories); and with the last novel, a Punshon Bobby Owen radio play, rediscovered by the indefatigable Tony Medawar.  This brings to 41 Bobby's total cases.

For this last set of Punshons I wrote a 3300-word introduction, "Detective Stories, the Detection Club and Death: The Final Years of E. R. Punshon" and short pieces on the reviews, short stories and radio play.  There also a note by Tony Medawar on the radio play, "Death on the Up-Lift," giving more detail about Punshon's work in radio.

I've now written over 30,000 words, when all the Dean Street Press Punshon pieces are taken together, about Punshon, making him the seventh the pre-WW2 Detection Club member about whom I have written at such length, after Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, JJ Connington--see Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery-- and Douglas and Margaret Cole and Henry Wade (See The Spectrum of English Murder).  I also got the chance to write about Ianthe Jerrold, another early DC member, for DSP's reissues of her crime novels.

Coming soon, some more on Ada Lingo and her Murder in Texas and on Murder in the Closet, my major book project for 2016, to which a lot of great people have contributed.  There will also be some more news on additional projects and, I hope, just some regular book reviews!  Thanks for sticking with the blog all these years, I appreciate the readership.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Beware the Bushmaster! She Walks Alone (1948), by Helen McCloy

"Tony, did you ever hear of the Emperor Yao?"

"What on earth...?"

"He ruled China in its Golden Age.  There is a saying about the peacefulness of his reign. 'In the days of the Emperor Yao, a virgin with a bag of gold could walk alone from one end of the Empire to the other without fear of being molested.'  Since then, times have changed."

"Understatement," muttered Tony.

                                                                                               --She Walks Alone (1948)

She Walks Alone (1948) was the tenth crime novel American mystery author Helen McCloy (1904-1994) published over a productive first decade of crime writing.  Six detective novels featuring her series sleuth, psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing, appeared between 1938 and 1943, but Willing's appearances in her novels would diminish relatively in the decades that followed.

Five Basil Willing novels were published between 1945 and 1956, along with five non-series novels. Over the rest of her writing career McCloy produced only two additional Basil Willing adventures in novel form, the beguiling Mr. Splitfoot (1968) and her final crime novel, Burn This (1980). Meanwhile during this comparative Willing drought she published ten non-series novels, beginning with the eerie The Slayer and the Slain (1957) and ending with The Smoking Mirror (1979).

In short, Helen McCloy's career as a crime writer reflects the wider movement within mystery fiction away from the pure, clue-puzzle detective novel toward the realistic and psychological crime novel. Strict detection (though with strong doses of psychological theorizing) predominated in McCloy's output in the late Thirties and early Forties, only to be gradually superseded by psychological suspense (what is often called "domestic suspense" today).

The Basil Willing novels The Goblin Market (1943) and The One That Got Away (1945) incorporate topical espionage elements, while the non-series Do Not Disturb (1943), reviewed by John Norris, is a flight-and-pursuit tale and the non-series Panic is a housebound girl in peril story. (Take a beautiful girl; isolate her in a remote cottage in the wooded Adirondacks; inject an ominous note of peril...and you have--PANIC, runs the jacket blurb). 

At the same time there is a pronounced intellectual aspect to Panic, in that a good deal of the novel is devoted to some quite complex code-breaking.  Anyone who hated that element in Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase probably will hate it in Panic as well.

the imperiled protagonist expresses
yearning for the days of Emperor Yao
She Walks Alone is something of a similar hybrid. Knowing the outline of the plot beforehand--a woman on a ship traveling the Caribbean finds herself entrusted with a packet of $100,000 that people prove quite willing to kill to obtain--I was expecting pure suspense.

Yet in reality the story is a quite complexly structured and plotted affair that reminded me of a detective novel without a strongly marked detective presence for much of its length. The first part of the novel comes in the form of a first-person narrated manuscript detailing recent events, while the second part switches to present time, as Captain Miguel Urizar, of the police force of the Caribbean island state of Puerto Vieja, appears on the scene. 

At the request of the ship captain, Urizar, whose viewpoint this section adopts, investigates a mysterious death on the ship. This marks a return engagement on his part five years after The Goblin Market, wherein he appeared with Basil Willing.

Then we go back to another manuscript portion (a different one this time), then to a finale in third person.  It may seem odd and overly structured as you are reading, but all is justified by the finale. You may figure out what is going on before the reveal a few pages before the end of the novel, but even so you should still admire the cleverness of it all.

Arguably McCloy over-intellectualizes the novel, going into lecture mode occasionally (McCloy seems quite obviously to have been a New Deal Democrat, progressive on both economic and social issues of her day that now more than ever seem not to have ever actually left us); and the novel is not as gripping as it could be, considering that we are presented with a "girl in peril" and that, as the splendid GP Micklewright jacket of the English edition reveals, one of the human victims on the ship is a beautiful women (not the girl in peril), bitten by a deadly bushmaster snake (just think what John Dickson Carr does with snakes in He Wouldn't Kill Patience). Still, I recommend this cleverly wrought piece of crime fiction.

See also Mike Grost on Helen McCloy's writing.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Outer Genre Limits, Part One: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Science fiction was of course around before the explosion of sci-fi films in the 1950s.  Even Golden Age mystery writers, like J. J. Connington (himself a scientist) and J. Jefferson Farjeon wrote fine sci-fi novels.  Connington's Nordenholt's Million and Farjeon's Death of a World are both gripping apocalyptic thrillers.  Indeed, I think the two novels represent some of the best work in any genre by the two authors and I highly recommend them. (Nordenholt's Million has been reprinted by Dover in its "Doomsday Classics" series.)

I don't claim to be an expert on sci-fi cinema from the Fifties but much of it resembles other genres, such as mystery and horror.  Certainly when I think of horror, I think of all those creepy-crawly, big and scaly monster movies like Godzilla (we all know him), Them! (giant ants), Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers) and Tarantula (duh).

Films like The Thing from Another World (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) have "monsters" too in a manner of speaking.  The "pod people" in Body Snatchers are rather akin to zombies, ever so popular today, as we know, and tap into the primal fear many of us have had, in the Fifties and arguably more recently, of being forcibly submerged into a mindless, conformist mass.

Panic: Kevin McCarthy

Yet there's also a strong mystery element in both films. In Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), lately returned from abroad to his small California town, encounters increasingly disturbing evidence that the townspeople are behaving strangely. Then his friends Jack and Theodora "Teddy" Belijec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) present him and his girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), with a human body, a very queer human body indeed, in their game room.

Later on this strange body disappears, just like in murder mysteries, and public authorities start spouting suspiciously pat explanations about the whole thing.  Heck, we might almost be in film noir territory here!  But then of course we veer into pure sci-fi.  Still, much of the early interest driving the film lies (akin to that in detective fiction) in its investigative element, as the doctor struggles valiantly to determine just what is taking place around him.

The body in the game room: Carolyn Jones and ????

During the 1950s the hegemony of the detective novel continued to fracture with the rise not just of sci-fi, but espionage, or spy, novels, noir and psychological (frequently domestic) suspense.  Indeed, publishers started indiscriminately to term what used to be called mystery or detection as "suspense" fiction.  This is not necessarily the most useful term in the world, as some have pointed out, because all storytelling would seem to be based on the question of suspense, i.e., what happens next.  But, still, the mystery form survived in within all of these genres, even if in mutated form, like that of the creatures so frequently found in sci-fi film.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much praised, and deservedly so, for its atmosphere of rising fear and paranoia, buoyed by a terrific performance from Kevin McCarthy. (Dana Wynter and Carolyn Jones are fine too, though a little too much shoehorned into "helpless female" roles characteristic of the era, especially Wynter).  The framing scenes forced on director Don Siegel have been criticized, probably with justification, but the penultimate scene with McCarthy is truly memorable. A great film, as is its 1978 remake.

Pursued by the mob, is resistance futile? Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

More Than "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938 and 1999), Part One

How many mystery novel titles have been repeated over the decades?  Surely a great number of them.  Both "Murder is Easy" and "Easy to Kill," the British and American variant titles of a popular late Thirties standalone Agatha Christie mystery, had been used as titles before Christie came to them, for example.

"A Slight Case of Murder" is the title of both a late Thirties Edward G. Robinson country house murder farce and and a late Nineties black comedy starring William H. Macy.  Both are very good and happily available on DVD.

Edward G. Robinson's A Slight  Case of Murder (1938) is based on the 1935 play of the same title by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay.  Like the play, the film tells the story of New York gangster and bootlegger Remy Marco (Robinson), who decides to go "legit" as a brewer with the end of Prohibition and become a respectable businessman. 

Remy has an idea
Huber, Jenkins, Robinson
Unfortunately over the next few years Remy starts losing money hand over fist, because his beer (which he has never actually tasted) is really rather awful.  (People took what they could get during Prohibition.)  As the film proceeds, he's having to fend off bankers about to foreclose on his brewery, while keeping the news of his financial meltdown from his wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly), and daughter Mary (Jane Bryan), who has just arrived back home from an outrageously expensive Paris finishing school. 

More trouble on the horizon: Unbeknownst to Remy, Mary is engaged to Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), the scion of an old upper class family in Saratoga Springs, where Remy has taken a country house for the season.  Remy wants Mary to marry "up," so to speak, but the problem here is that Dick, at Mary's behest, has taken a job--as a state trooper.  Cops and their ilk are something that Remy simply can't abide.

Meanwhile, up at Saratoga Springs an armored truck full of bookie's money has been robbed by old cronies of Remy's and the gang of crooks has holed up with the boodle at Remy's house.  One of the crooks shoots the the others, leaving four dead bodies at Remy's place.  (He also keeps hanging around trying to get the money out of the house unobserved.)

Remy's little helpers
Huber, Jenkins, Brophy
So when Remy arrives to open the house party with his entourage, which also includes a trio of three gang underlings--Mike (Allen Jenkins), Lefty (Edward Brophy) and Guiseppe (Harold Huber)--and, as a philanthropy case, an egregiously wiseacre juvenile delinquent, Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan, of Dead End Kids Fame), they find themselves presented with the classic crime film dilemma, so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock: what do we do with the bodies?

There's yet more complication, like when Dick Whitewood's snobbish "old money" father (Paul Harvey) shows up to scout out his prospective in-laws. You get the idea by now: it's going to be a most frantic country house party!

I quite enjoyed this movie.  Edward G. Robinson of course is one of the great contributors to the crime film genre, known, like James Cagney, for playing tough gangsters in films like Little Caesar and Key Largo, but like Cagney he actually had great range and was equally adept at comedies like A Slight Case of Murder and "straight" dramas as well, like Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet, based on a real life man of medicine who courageously battled the scourge of syphilis.  He also played sympathetic characters in classic noirs like Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window

Breaking some bad news to the wife
Donnelly and Robinson
Most of the supporting cast puts in masterful performances too.  I especially liked Ruth Donnelly as Remi's wife, who like Remy, is having trouble adjusting to the ways of respectable society, and Jenkins, Brophy and Huber as Remy's crook underlings, who, like Remy, are having trouble straightening themselves out, so to speak.  These three men were all great genre character actors who you will certainly recognize if you have watched many crime films from the period.

What with all those bullet-riddled bodies upstairs, A Slight Case of Murder is most definitely a crime film, but it's also a film most definitely played for laughs, like a French farce without the sex. (The movie's young lovers are exceedingly wholesome.)  But if you allow that murder can share the stage with mirth, you should like A Slight Case of Murder--and not just slightly.