Sunday, September 30, 2012

They're Coming to Get You: Person of Interest (2011-)

I don't watch too much series television, but Person of Interest is one of the television series I like (I also have become a devoted fan of The Mentalist, though the determined "cuteness" of the Castle cast finally drove me away from that show).  Season Two just premiered last Thursday and I have some down time from the book so I thought I would post a few thoughts.

Person of Interest, for those unfamiliar with the series, is succinctly summed up on the show's imdb page:

An ex-CIA man and a scientist team up to prevent crimes before they happen.

But this doesn't begin to describe the deliciously intricate sense of creeping paranoia that the show instills in the viewer.  By the finale of Season One there were so many conspiracies and wheels within wheels that I--a hardened mystery thriller fiction addict--felt like I was getting a really good mental workout with the show.

At this point in human history it's probably hard to be entirely original with a television series, but what impresses with Person of Interest is how the makers have creatively blended numerous influences from both cinema and television: Minority Report (pre-crime), The Bourne Identity (rogue CIA assassin), The Fugitive (man on the run suspected of crime he didn't commit), The X-Files (omnipresent conspiracies), The Terminator (machines taking over the world), Lost and Memento and The Prestige (tricky narrative structure, parallel story lines).

Of course, as the creator and co-producer (with J. J. Abrams, among others) of the series is Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter with his famous brother, director Christopher Nolan, of the films Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, we should not be altogether surprised at the intricacy and acuity of the scripts.  The great casting is an enormous asset too.

Somebody's watching you....

I hadn't paid much attention to Jim Caviezel since The Passion of the Christ, but from that film, The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency (the latter film should appeal especially to mystery fans), I knew he was a charismatic film presence.  His role as John Reese, the fugitive, guilt-ridden CIA assassin, suits him to a T (surely it's not a coincidence that he shares a surname with the Michael Biehn character in The Terminator).  He gets to be appealingly sensitive and an absolute righteous badass at the same time.

Every episode has a great action set piece (or two or three or four....) where Caviezel kicks badguy tail in impressive fashion.  Indeed, he actually carries off something of Arnold Schwarzenegger's old Terminator panache in his ruthless efficiency.

But equally good is Michael Emerson as Harold Finch.  He's utterly convincing as the zillionaire computer genius with a heart.  He and Reese make the perfect brain-brawn duo and their mysterious back stories both are compelling.

The Talented Mr. Finch

Also great in the supporting cast are Taraji P. Henson as good cop Joss Carter and Kevin Chapman as the not so good but I guess not exactly bad either let's wait and see how this turns out cop, Lionel Fusco.

Every episode has a mystery plot of a sort, where our heroes get a name (actually a social security number) from the Super Computer (a REALLY super computer) created by Finch.  This could be a person either about to be killed or about to kill someone.  Finch and Reese have to prevent the killing from happening.  This leads to a lot of fascinating stories.  My favorite probably was "Super" from Season One, a really clever homage to the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window.

But, meanwhile, there are all these overarching plot lines involving: a mysterious super criminal named Elias; a sociopathic woman computer genius named Root; HR, a sleazy network of crooked cops and politicians; and the CIA and FBI, both after Reese.

It also seems that the Super Computer (a REALLY super computer, did I mention?) designed by Finch was taken over to fight terrorism (so they say) by a tiny cabal within the U.S. government and that these people don't want anyone outside this tight circle alive to know about it.  Finch, thought to be dead, still has access to it, which these people would not like if they knew....

With all this going on, I expect Person of Interest to maintain a high level of interest for some time to come!

Friday, September 28, 2012

It Was a Dark and Snowy Night....The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932), by Helen Reilly

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) published over thirty mystery novels between 1930 to 1962.  She was the mother of suspense writers Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen, though she herself probably is best known for the Inspector McKee police procedurals she wrote in the 1930s and the 1940s.  Her books after World War Two are more suspense-oriented (though I believe most or all still have Inspector McKee), as is her very early, non-series mystery The Doll's Trunk Murder.

The beginning of The Doll's Trunk Murder reads like an Old Dark House thriller, as traveler after traveler descends on a snowbound rural house in western Pennsylvania.  Of course, murder has been done in the house, and murder will be done again....

I thought this novel had a tour de force opening section, detailing the (natural???) death of Mary Alice Greer, the elderly owner of isolated Three Mile House (I kept thinking of Three Mile Island); the house's subsequent purchase by the mysterious Miss Fenwick, the flight of Miss Greer's former maid, Minnie Stern; the sudden merciless snowstorm; and the arrival of the stranded "guests."

This part is magnificently Old Dark House-ish, with suspenseful prose and mysterious goings-on.  There is a very unpleasant murder too, something nasty in the storage closet....

Helen Reilly has a good way with words, as in this description of Minnie Stern:

She always wore decent black that smelled faintly of camphor, had hard gnarled hands that never quite closed and a high stomach.  Her corsets were something with which to frighten children....

Happily, Sheriff Craven is one of the people who turns up at Three Mile House and he is able to do some ad hoc crime investigating.

On hand too is a middle-aged bachelor named Richard Brierly, who for no particularly credible reason that I could ever figure out, is the narrative focal point of the tale.  He's the Watson figure, I suppose (although the narration is third person); yet he's not particularly interesting, nor could I figure why Craven would allow him to be in on the entire investigation!  Heck, Craven even delegates important parts of the investigation to Brierly!

This is one of these great endpaper illustrations
that publisher Farrar & Rinehart was doing at this time.
The captions confuse Susan Tait and Mrs. Brown,
but there's something very cleverly done here....

This suggests to me that at this point in her career Reilly did not quite have a firm grip on the police procedural.  However, after the night spent at Three Mile House, this essentially is what the book becomes: a police investigation (with some improbable amateur bits by Brierly).

Unfortunately, the ending is what Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime call huddled.  There's a lot of explanation from Sheriff Craven, right up to the last paragraphs and the rather abrupt close.  I couldn't really see how the reader is given a fair chance to deduce much of the (very involved!) solution.  Which means that The Doll's Trunk Murder really is more a mystery than a fair play detective novel, making it something of a disappointment to me, despite its other admirable qualities.

A cover that might have made
even Mickey Spillane blanch!
Well, probably not, but still...
Here's the infamous lurid bondage cover of the Popular Library paperback edition of The Doll's Trunk Murder.  Yes, there is a trunk of some sort on the cover, but no one on earth will ever pay it much notice, I expect.

There really is a scene like this in the book too, although it's only described at second-hand after the event.  Also the victim is a dowdy, middle-aged woman. There is an attractive young woman in the novel, but she is never subjected to this!  But I suppose Popular Library knew how to sell paperbacks after World War Two.

This cover and the author are profiled over at the Killer Covers blog.

Also, here's John Norris' review of Helen Reilly's Murder in Shinbone Alley.

Note on my Todd Downing book: Everything finally done but the bibliography.  This should be ready to go to press in October!  I hope to have more detail on it soon, plus more blog posts every week.  There has been a bit of a lag this week, I know.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Listed: Todd Downing's Six Favorite Detective Novels

In 1934 American detective novelist Todd Downing, asked to name his "favorite mystery stories," listed the following:

1. Murder by Latitude, by Rufus King (or any of King's maritime mysteries)
2. The Greene Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (or The Bishop Murder Case)
3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
4. The Red Lamp, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
5. The Silver Scale Mystery (Murder of a Lady), by Anthony Wynne
6. From This Dark Stairway, by Mignon Eberhart

What do you think of this list?  There are probably a few surprises!  Four American authors and two British, three women and three men.  I'm pleased to say that I have actually read all these books.  Would I put them on my list?  A few of them, possibly.  I find the idea of doing such a compressed list daunting, however.  What would you list for yourself?

Compare with, previously posted

Sinclair Lewis' "four essential mystery stories"

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Michael Dirda's alternative to Sinclair Lewis' list

The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie
Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes
The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr 

Who has the best list, do you think?

See also on Todd  Downing:

Review of Vultures in the Sky

The Precious Right to Read a Murder Mystery

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who Kept the File on Claudia Cragge?

Reviewed last week here was the File on Claudia Cragge (1938), the second contribution by Q. Patrick to the Crimefiles series of murder dossiers (books collecting purported documents and exhibits in a fictional murder case for readers to solve).  Over the rest of the year I hope to write about QP's first dossier, File on Fenton and Farr, as well as the one done by the American crime writer Helen Reilly, File on Rufus Ray.

In the comments to my last post, I had a discussion with Sergio of Tipping My Fedora about the late crime writer and critic Julian Symons and his dismissive attitudes to the dossiers, which Symons concluded made dull reading, if it could even be called reading at all (Symons was referring specifically to the English series authored by Dennis Wheatley and J. G. Links, though his remarks seem generalized to include any kind of dossier).  I, on the other hand, actually enjoyed the one I read and I think other fans of puzzle-oriented mysteries would as well.

Porter Hartwell Adams
The Crimefiles actually seem to have been quite popular in the United States and Great Britain for a few years in the late 1930s.  But just who actually read them (besides mystery reviewers)?

Colonel Porter Hartwell Adams (1894-1945) enjoyed a distinguished public career.  A direct descendant of American presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Adams graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was one of the first students to study aeronautical engineering. After leaving M.I.T. Adams was planning the first world flight with former classmate Donald Douglas (1892-1981), founder of Douglas Aircraft Company (now McDonnell Douglas Corporation).

The outbreak of World War One necessarily disrupted this scheme, and when the United States entered to conflict, Adams, like John Street's "Miles Burton" detective Desmond Merrion joined Naval Intelligence (though in the U.S., of course, rather than England), overseeing the communication system on the coast of Maine.

After the war Adams helped organize the National Aeronautics Association, serving as NAA President from 1926 to 1928.  Under Adams' leadership, the NAA supported Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight from New York City to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis (1927). Adams retired as NAA President in 1928, on account of ill health that was to plague him for the rest of his life.

After a year spent in Arizona, he moved to his family home in Thetford, Vermont, where he maintained a laboratory, conducting aerodynamic studies.  At his second marriage, in 1931, his bride's matron of honor was a certain Mrs. Amelia Earhart Putnam.

In 1934 Adams became President of Norwich University, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont.  He served in the office for four years, until his ill health prompted his resignation in 1938 ("Throughout the four years that he was president," noted the Norwich University Record, "frequent fluctuations in the condition of his health induced almost constant doubt as to how long he would live").  Adams died only seven years later, at the age of 51.

the front endpaper inscription (note the label
in the lower left corner of Boston's hallowed
Old Corner Book Store)
Does one see evidence of Adams' poor health and the understandable frustration it caused him on the front endpaper of File on Claudia Cragge (a book that was published the same year that Adams resigned as President of Norwich University)?  Or an example of some cruel adolescent mockery?

The book is inscribed

Chief of Defectives
Northfield - Vermont
(+ WHAT an Honor)

The there is a representation of what is called a SOLID GOLD BADGE beneath the inscription.

Active intellectuals and professionals often defended the detective novel as respectable recreational or convalescent reading.  Was this the case with Porter Hartwell Adams?  Or might this have been simply an "irate doodle" done by a sarcastic college student--meaning the book was never owned by Adams at all.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The File on Claudia Cragge (1938), by Q. Patrick (Crimefiles Number 4)

This forgotten book for Friday is certainly a book, I would say, but is it a novel?  The Crimefiles were a 1930s series of murder case dossiers comprised of all the purported documents and clues in the case (letters, reports, statements, photographs, actual physical exhibits, etc.). Different series were published in England and the United States.  "A new dimension of reality has been brought to the detective story," boasted the publisher of the American  Crimefiles series, William Morrow, sounding a bit like Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone.

In his landmark genre study Bloody Murder, originally published four decades ago, critic Julian Symons--who, frankly, could at times be a bit of a killjoy when it came to Golden Age detective fiction--wrote dismissively of this "curious experiment" in mystery storytelling, terming the works produced in the series "artefacts rather than books."

Symons pronounced it "very nearly impossible actually to read them" because "there was in the nature of things no characterization of any kind, and interest rested solely in the comparison of the texts with the visible clues in an attempt to discover discrepancies."

Symons then expanded this criticism, declaring that "the orthodox detective puzzles of the time were only similarly bloodless and characterless games of a more sophisticated kind, after all."

I have to disagree with Julian Symons about Crimefiles, at least as far as Q. Patrick's The File on Claudia Cragge is concerned.  This book, dossier, call it what you will, I found to be rather fascinating and more gripping than one would ever suspect from Symons' negative comments on the series (Symons evidently thought so little of the series that in Bloody Murder he without warning spoils the solutions to two of the English dossiers).

Who strangled Claudia Cragge
 at the seance? It wasn't a spirit.
Symons' view notwithstanding, I thought of the book as a sort of epistolary novel.  It's certainly easy to see how the plot could have been filled out to encompass a full-scale traditional novel.

Claudia Cragge, who is murdered soon after the book starts, is the wealthy widow of Eliot Cragge, late millionaire and faddist of all things faddish, including spiritualism.  Before his death Eliot Cragge told Claudia, to whom he was giving the right to apportion the Cragge Trust among familial heirs deemed  "morally, physically and legally" deserving of inheritance, that he had grave suspicions one of his heirs was not so deserving.

Seemingly Claudia discovered who this person is; thus Claudia Cragge had to die.

Claudia is actually slain in the dark during a spiritual seance, strangled with the cord of a trumpet, while Patrick's detective, Timothy Trant, introduced the previous year in Death and Dear Clara (referenced in the current book), is actually present.  He thus has extra incentive to solve this case!

Besides the various Cragge family members who might have been cut out of the Trust on Claudia's command, don't let us forget the Cragge family spiritualist, the Javanese Julie Van Maas, or Olaf Rasmussen, the handsome Swedish masseur turned chauffeur Claudia was supposed to be planning to marry.

clues in the case (the face powder sample
was missing from my copy of the book)
For my part, I thought the characters came through rather well in the various statements provided (a clever idea also was to have the seance get recorded, providing a transcript of everything said).  Q. Patrick (at this time the writers Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) not only was an ingenious plotter, but he had a considerable knack for conveying character.

I was able to deduce the culprit as I would have in a traditional detective novel, thought I did not figure out how everything was done.

I missed the significance of someof the physical clues provided, and I very much enjoyed seeing how they fitted into Trant's solution.

Q. Patrick contributed another dossier to Crimefiles, The File on Fenton and Farr.  Based on my enjoyment of The File on Claudie Cragge, I definitely plan to read it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Social Death: Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick

Q. Patrick is one of the more complicated mystery pseudonyms, hiding as it does four different people:

Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966)
Martha Mott Kelley
Mary Louise White Aswell
Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987)

The two women, Kelley and Aswell, participated in four of the first five Q. Patrick books--Kelley in the first two, Aswell in the last two--with Richard Webb: Cottage Sinister (1931), Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), S. S. Murder (1933) and The Grindle Nightmare (1935). Webb authored Murder at Cambridge (1933) solo.

It seems that Dear Clara
was not such a dear
Beginning in 1936 with the sixth QP book, Death Goes to School, Richard Webb found a new writing partner, Hugh Wheeler.  Born in 1912, Wheeler surely must rate as one of the youngest mystery novelists of the Golden Age of detective fiction (1920-1939). Webb and Wheeler (described by their publisher Simon & Schuster in 1937 as "two very brilliant young men who write as one") went on to author four more Q. Patrick novels after Death Goes to School including the book under review here, Death for Dear Clara (1937), as well as two 1938 crime file type books (collections of documents laying out a murder puzzle), The File on Fenton and Farr and The File on Claudia Cragge.

It gets even more complicated, however, because Webb and Wheeler began writing another series of mysteries, under the name Patrick Quentin (who knows how they came up with that one).

Between 1936 and 1952, the two "brilliant young men" (okay, Webb wasn't so young by 1952), published nine PQ mysteries, to go along with the five QP mysteries (and the two crime file books). After 1952, Webb dropped out of the partnership and Wheeler went on to write seven more PQ crime novels, from 1954 to 1965 (did he deliberately retire the series when Webb died, one wonders).

But, wait, it gets more complicated yet, because Webb and Wheeler started yet another mystery series in 1936, under yet another pen name, Jonathan Stagge.  The pair published nine Stagge detective novels between 1936 and 1949. 

So Webb and Wheeler proved quite a prolific team, under three pseudonyms producing 21 novels and 2 crime file books, all in the years from 1936 to 1952.  Connoisseurs of Golden Age mystery fiction consider their work to be some of the best from their time, yet their books are out of print and have been so since the 1990s, when some Patrick Quentins were reprinted by the late lamented IPL (International Polygonics, Ltd).

You want mysteries, now there's a mystery!  Making this neglect even queerer is the fact that Hugh Wheeler went on to become even more prominent after 1965.  Wheeler won Tony Awards in the 1970s for his books for the musicals A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.  You may have heard of those little shows!

Back to Death for Dear Clara, however.  This is a fine example of a Golden Age detective novel, with a sophisticated milieu, some amusing writing and an impressively twisty ending.  QP has the skill of the greatest detective novelists--Christie, Carr, Queen--of keeping readers guessing.  Yet as with Christe, Carr and Queen, the problem also is fairly clued.  I would say Death for Dear Clara is a model of the more sophisticated 1930s Golden Age detective novel.  In a sensible world, this book would have remained in print.

The "Dear Clara" of the title is hoity toity Clara Van Heuten, who was forced to find employment of some sort after losing her money at the age of fifty (hey, this is something people should be able to relate to today).  She ran an apparently highly remunerative literary advice bureau (I was kind of reminded of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis going into book editing later in life).  When Clara is found stabbed to death in her office, however, it turns out that this respectable society matron had something to hide, as do her clients.  There prove to be quite a few suspects in her murder.

Timothy Trant, the police detective introduced by QP to solve the murder of dear Clara, is a pleasing character.  An amiable, attractive graduate of Kent School, Connecticut and Princeton, he gets all those high society murders that would, of course, flummox your typical flatfoot cop (or so runs the thinking in much of Golden Age mystery, in both the United States and England).

QP dubs Trant "the force's professional amateur," signaling to readers that they are in for a hybrid detective, on the order of Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn (a professional police detective who behaves something like a gentleman amateur).

My favorite passage from the book is one describing his "bachelor apartment" abode.  QP goes out of the way to distinguish Trant from your classic eccentric detectives, your Wimseys, Wolfes, Holmeses, Queens and Vances.

unlike this smart guy
Tim Trant is no orchid fancier
[Trant's] apartment was comfortable without being ultra-modern or depressingly decadent.  It boasted no orchids, no priceless objet d'art, no first editions.  There were no specially monogrammed Persian cigarettes, no quaintly shaped pipes of meerschaum or any other material.  At his bedside there lay no limply leathered Religio Medici.  And his colored boy, Oscar, while reasonably efficient, was utterly without story value.

Now, I know that the last line quoted above used a term that is objectionable today, but I have to agree with the implied barb about the ostensible "story value" of Ellery Queen's Romany (?) houseboy, Djuna.  By the way, here's an interesting piece by Margot Kinberg on the subject of insensitive language in Golden Age detective novels: You Can't Say That!!  Ellery Queen and Djuna are mentioned.

Another good character is the mercurial Princess Patricia Walonska (nee Cheney).  Once "the debutante to end all debutantes" ("Her wild escapades had run neck and neck on the front pages with the downward careening of stock pices"), then a liberal do-gooder--"the champion and the terror of Manhattan's unemployed"--the one-time madcap heiress, having married a Russian aristocrat, is now a royalist with "a regal bearing worthy of Marie Antoinette and an imminent guillotine."

Fans of Golden Age detective novels should definitely like this one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Murder Rooms: Museum Piece No. 13 (1946), by Rufus King

First off, another piece on a "forgotten book"--Q. Patrick's Death and Dear Clara (1937)--should be posted on Saturday.

Now, just a few notes about my newest books.

Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery is now available at Amazon on Kindle for $17.99.  If you have Kindle and have been thinking you might want to read Masters, it's never going to get cheaper than this!

The paper version is now in thirty-nine university libraries (the book has been out now for three months).  I'll post a list of them later this week. There might be one near you!

I am also very pleased to note that the eminent Allen J. Hubin--who succeeded Anthony Boucher as the New York Times Book Review mystery fiction reviewer, founded and edited Armchair Detective (I fondly remember reading all the issues at Louisiana State University in the 1990s), and is the man behind the massive bibliography Crime Fiction--posted on Amazon of Masters that it "is a marvelous work, thorough, well balanced, free of the clutter of academese.  Edgar Committee, Mystery Writers of America, take note!"  That made my day, I can tell you.

Also, my book on Todd Downing, the 1930s Native American detective novelist and critic, is almost completed and will be published this year, along with reprints of six of his novels.  I'll be writing more about the Todd Downing book soon.

Now back to the books by other people!

Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

The idea behind this old adage supplied the plot for countless novels of what used to be known as the "woman's suspense" mystery subgenre (and their numerous film adaptations).  Of course, come to think of it, in the suspense novel the woman who marries in haste doesn't really have that much time to repent at leisure.  Usually she realizes that there is Something Wrong, that the bloom is seriously off the rose, well less than a year into the marriage.  Sure, the little things mean a lot, but it's also important to be absolutely certain that your new husband isn't really that brides-in-the-bath murderer everyone was talking about a couple years ago....

Usually suspense novels of this sort are associated with women writers, but some of the men tried their hands at these too, including Rufus King, much blogged about here lately.

In 1942, Rufus King, reflecting the tenor of the times, turned away from straight detection (his series detective Lieutenant Valcour made his last appearance in 1939) and began writing what are more properly seen as hybrid detective-suspense novels.

 Museum Piece No. 13 is perhaps the best known of this series of later Rufus King novels, because it was filmed in 1947 by the well-regarded director Fritz Lang as The Secret Beyond the Door (to be precise the film seems to have been based on the serialized version of the novel in Redbook, which carried the same title as the film).  My review of the film will be posted on Steve Lewis' Mystery*File website (I will post a link when it is posted there).

As far as the book is concerned, it is rather good, I think.  To be sure, one has to get over the conceptual hurdle that the rich, pliant New York City widow Lily Constable would marry handsome newspaper owner Earl Rumney, himself recently widowed, when she hardly knows him and that she would hand over a quarter of her fortune over to him to plow into his failing newspaper business.  King portrays Lily no so much as stupid, but as so essentially good-natured and accommodating that she lets strong personalities run right over her.

When she gets to Earl's classical mansion Blaze Creek (located, nebulously, in the town of Lebanon Falls), Lily (now Lily Rumney) finds herself in a full-fledged Gothic pickle.

Husband Earl's menage, which includes his sister and her husband, his secretary, his son from his first marriage and an absolutely horrid leftist woman celebrity newspaper columnist (she's one of those very political people who doesn't talk to you but rather orates at you), are uniformly hostile to, and contemptuous of, Lily.

And then there's Earl's little hobby, which no one in the town but Lily seems to find really rather disconcertingly odd (I found this odd).  It seems Earl Rumney "collects" rooms where murders have taken place.  He's just installed room number thirteen, but he won't allow anyone, including Lily, to see it.

Just what lies beyond the door?

The idea of a collection of murder rooms is ingenious and some of the descriptions of them and the people that they represent are truly creepy (and rather modern in their unpleasantness).

Here's a bit of a discussion between Lily and Earl's strange secretary, Miss McQuillan, that takes place as the secretary takes Lily on an impromptu tour of the museum wing of the house.  One of the exhibits is the childhood bedroom of Race Blandrick.

"What"--Lily couldn't help it--"had the child done, Miss McQuillan?"
"Well, his crime career started at the age of thirteen, when he had a habit of tying up and torturing children in the suburbs of Boston.  It reached its climax toward the close of the last century, when he mutilated and killed a boy of four and a girl of nine."
Lily said almost desperately: "It's late.  I think no more today."

Soon Lily is on the phone consulting with a New York psychiatrist she met recently at a dinner party.  She thinks Earl may have a little problem, that he's perhaps a trifle morbid. Fortunately for Lily, the psychiatrist is fine with diagnosing the case over the phone.  He suggests that Lily make a wax impression of the key to Room 13....

This is the sort of book one doesn't want to say too much about, for fear of spoilers, so I just will add that, in spite of occasional over-writing, a fine narrative tension is maintained and the ending is unexpected.  Museum Piece No. 13 is an excellent example of the postwar suspense novel that lives on today as the"psychological thriller" in the hands of such accomplished modern writers as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters.

Note: Here's a review of the book by Diane Plumley.  She liked it too!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Apprentice of the Humdrum Mystery: Death in the Night Watches (1945), by George Bellairs

As "George Bellairs" Manchester bank officer Harold Blundell (1902-1982) published nearly sixty detective novels over forty years, from 1941 to 1980 (he published four as well under the pseudonym "Hilary Landon").  Blundell's first mystery, Littlejohn on Leave (1941) introduced his series detective, Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn; it was written during his spare moments at his air raid warden's post in Machester.

Like Elizabeth Ferrars and Christianna Brand, then, Blundell is not quite officially Golden Age--but he's close enough!  His early novels from the 1940s were published in the United States by Macmillan (they also published, among British mystery writers, E. R. Punshon and Christopher Bush) and he was well received there, getting some favorable notices from, for example, crime fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher.

Harold Blundell (1902-1982)
aka George Bellairs
After about a decade, however, Blundell's novels fell off in popularity in the States and, though he was a quite prolific writer of considerable longevity, he has faded from public memory in the three decades since his death.  However, many of his early books are extremely rare and highly sought by collectors.

To me Blundell is significant for carrying on something of an attentuated "Humdrum" tradition after the deaths of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street.  His books offered straightforward police investigations of dastardly crimes and appealed to those desiring an honest-to-goodness, classical-style British detective novel in a time when such works were losing cachet. 

The George Bellairs detective novel Death in the Night Watches is one of his most classical in milieu, involving murder in a wealthy wartime manufacturing family.  There's a tyrannical patriarch who married a much younger woman, a will deemed highly unsatisfactory by many of his heirs, a timetable, and even a butler!

If it weren't for some references to the war and to business conflicts with energized unions, one might think this novel twenty years older than it is.

The novel starts well, with Harold Worth, manager of the family foundry, Worth's, getting killed off in a dramatic fashion. Then the old nanny, who evidently knows too much, is dispatched through poison in her sugar bowl.  The aforementioned tyrannical family patriarch died before the novel begins, leaving his money in trust to his much younger widow.  She would seem to be the natural target for murder, not Harold, but it is Harold who is dead.

So who might have killed Harold?  Well, his young stepmother, perhaps, or Harold's feckless, arty brother, or Harold's sister, or maybe that no-good, fortune-hunting French count the sister married.  Then it seems that Harold was a bit of a lad with the ladies, so there are various fathers of attractive female employees at Worth's to suspect (including that hot-blooded Welshman Llewellyn Evans--Evans! Oops, I mean heavens! we know he has to be Welsh from that name, plus he helpfully peppers his conversation with "Look you's" just to make sure we don't miss it).

There are some good humorous character sketches in this novel, but unfortunately as a detective novel, Night Watches proves rather a bust in my estimation.  Investigation proceeds largely with Littlejohn going about questioning people continually.  There is not much material or scientific investigation, as there would be in a John Street novel, and there are no brilliant deductions.  Finally, after Littlejohn is told enough for him to alight on the killer, he breaks an alibi that has none of the ingenuity of those carefully constructed contrivances concocted by the Golden Age Alibi King, Freeman Wills Crofts.

So in essence Death in the Night Watches has the surface appeal of the classical British detective novel, without the substance.  The humorous character sketches aren't strong enough to salvage an unmemorable plot, in my view.  I've read better Bellairs, and will keep him on my list, but Night Watches is no rival to the best detective novels by the "Humdrum" masters.

Harold Blundell probably read Freeman Crofts and John Street (in Night Watches there's even a character named Waghorn, a name I've never seen outside of John Street's John Rhode novels, where copper Jimmy Waghorn is a major series character), but in Death in the Night Watches, Blundell's not an old master of the humdrum mystery but, rather, a young apprentice; and his work leaves room for improvement.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Turret Room (1965), Charlotte Armstrong

When The Turret Room opens, Myra Whitman has been viciously attacked in the Whitman family mansion.  Later she is smothered to death in the hospital where she lies comatose.  Suspicion centers on Myra's stepdaughter Wendy's former husband, Harold Page, who conveniently has just been released from a mental hospital (the Whitman family charmingly refers to him just as "the madman").

Wendy Whitman, planning her marriage to another man, penurious playboy Ronnie Mungo, says she saw her ex Harold running away from the house the night her stepmother Myra was attacked.  Wendy, it soon becomes clear, is a pathological liar.  Visiting poor relation Edith Thompson, Wendy's cousin, realizes Harold is being set up to take the fall for another's crime and offers him sanctuary is the Whitman mansion's turret room.  What to do next is a difficult question....

Will Harold take the rap
for another person's crime?
It's easy to see how The Turret Room could have been written as a traditional detective novel (The Turret Room Murder, say, or Terror in the Turret), but by 1965 Charlotte Armstrong had abandoned that form for two decades.  It's also easy to understand from the title how some people might be expecting a traditional Gothic novel, with ghastly shudders in a ghostly pile, but, again, Armstrong confounds expectations. 

Nor would I categorized this novel as "suburban noir," a label that has been applied to Armstrong's work (everything is taken more seriously if it's labeled noir).  Otto Penzler has written of noir that it

is about losers.  The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed.  They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with.  And, let's face it, they deserve it....

Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealously or alienation....It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.

See Noir Fiction Is About Losers  (The Huffington Post, August 10, 2010).

This dark place is not the world of Charlotte Armstrong, from what I have read of her work.  Ultimately Armstrong's world is a just one, where decency, generosity and kindness win out over dysfunction, selfishness and malevolence.  Armstrong's good people overcome those nasty noir types. When it comes to the question of the improvement of the human condition, I find Armstrong a reassuring writer.  There is evil in the world, to be sure, but it can be stymied by determined and decent souls.

avocado green and burnt orange--
yup, it's the 1960s all right!
I have no idea why Armstrong named her heroine Edith (Edie) Thompson.  Surely Armstrong was aware that Edith Thompson (1893-1923) was an English woman notoriously hanged for murder, yet she quickly makes it clear that her Edith Thompson is no such creature (though Edith Thompson may not in fact have been guilty of the crime for which she was hanged, she does not appear to have been a particularly admirable person):

The point was, how could Edie protect a country boy [Harold Page]...from these terrible people?  In particular, from Wendy Whitman, who had lied, would lie, being possessed, as far as Edie could tell, of no scruples at all [now Wendy is noir!].  Which of the household could she approach, to ask for mercy and understanding, or even a mind open to the reestablishment of justice?

The Whitman menagerie is a splendid rogue's gallery of selfish rich people and their hangers-on, the most memorable of which is the family matriarch, Lila Whitman.  A stunning portrait of the arrogance of wealth, Mrs. Whitman is a character you won't soon forget.  She starts off amusingly eccentric and becomes simply horrifying.  It's a masterful writing job by Armstrong.

Heartily recommended.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Reefs: The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), by Rufus King

I've been enjoying reading Rufus King very much, so expect to see more of his stuff here the rest of the year.  But, bear with me, I won't turn this into the Rufus King blog.  After this one will come books by Ian Rankin and George Bellairs (both police procedurals, I would say, no matter how much the term "Tartan Noir" is thrown out concerning Rankin).

However, back to the matter at hand, Mr. King!

The Lesser Antilles Case is the third of three maritime mysteries starring King's series detective Lieutenant Valcour that appeared between 1930 to 1934 (Valcour also solved two non-maritime mysteries in this period).   

Chart your course for death!
 Antilles has a different structure from the earlier two, Murder by Latitude (1930) and Murder on the Yacht (1932).  Instead of starting with Valcour joining the passengers on a maritime craft to try to catch a murderer on board, Antilles begins with survivors of a maritime disaster--the foundering of a yacht, Helsinor, on a reef in the Lesser Antilles--returning to New York unhappily to face the bright, invasive flashes of press cameras.

We learn that while on a lifeboat the survivors may have been drugged with chloral and two of their number--the New York millionaire and owner of the yacht, Lawrence Thacker, and yacht third mate Leighton Klein--pitched by some malign individual off the boat into the shark-infested sea.  A publicity-seeking numerologist, Lillian Ash, is doing all she can to trumpet the word "murder" to the press and Valcour is asking questions of the survivors informally.

Curses! The old hydrocyanic acid
in the highball trick!
For a (non-lethal!)
whiskey highball recipe
see the great cocktails website
 When one of the heirs to the Thacker millions himself dies unnaturally (hydrocyanic acid in his highball), Valcour's investigation becomes official.  This being a Rufus King novel, the only thing to do is to gather Valcour and the survivors of the disaster on board another yacht, Helsinor II, to go back to the scene of the disaster.  Valcour plans to stage a diving expedition to recover clues from the sunken Helsinor.

This part of the book recovers some of the high tension of the earlier pair of maritime mysteries, particularly during the nail-biting diving expedition.  However, the first half of the book is compelling as well, a fast-paced, smoothly-written investigation in New York City locales both high and low of events in the near past.

There are several interesting women characters in the novel, particularly the aforementioned Lillian Ash (though she rather resembles Carlotta Balfe from Murder on the Yacht); Erika Land, the young heiress; and Land's society matron aunt, Helen Whitestone.  Often an exaggerated target of lampoonists, the 1930s society matron in Rufus King's hands becomes a character of surprising depth.

beautiful but deadly
King also does the "lower orders" (the servants and the sailors) well, never stooping to attempts to extract cheap laughs from the reader at their expense.  All in all, King's facility with characterization, I think, matches that of the British Crime Queens.

Neither Antilles nor Murder on the Yacht really has what Mike Grost and I both found in Murder by Latitude to be notable gay subtext.

However, King does include this circumspect though suggestive exchange between Valcour and Mr. Pritchett, butler to the poisoned Edmund Gateshead:

"I wonder whether I'm right about Mr. Gateshead."
"In what way, sir?"
"In seeing him as a man who possessed an intense desire for beauty, a man of strong, few, and perhaps curious friendships.  His life with women confined itself almost exclusively to those of an age with or older than himself."
Pritchett said carefully: "That is about correct, sir."

King has a nice way with words all round.

With that almost terrifying facility of the very rich, to think, with Miss Whitestone, was to act....

She did not think, and never had thought, that sunken bathtubs (possibly from some early Roman connotation) were quite nice.

The word murderer hit her with a sickening physical blow.  It was useless to argue with herself that well-bred people didn't do such things.  She thought irrelevantly that Cain must have been, for his time, well bred.

She did something strange with her lips, under the curious delusion that she was managing a smile.

And to top the whole thing off, the plot is classical, clever and fair play!  What more can a mystery fan ask for, really?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Paperback Evolution: The Better to Eat You (1954), by Charlotte Armstrong

My recent post on Charlotte Armstrong caused me to think about the interesting cultural evolution in American mystery paperback art.

For illustration let's look at one Charlotte Armstrong title, The Better to Eat You (1954).  Presumably this title comes from Little Red Riding Hood, specifically the exchange between Red and the Wolf, disguised of course as Grandma ("Grandma, what big teeth you have!" "All the better to eat you with!").

Here's the 1955 paperback edition (with the title changed to the rather less subtle Murder's Nest).

a hapless and helpless heroine
First note that remarkable price, one quarter!  I can just remember when paperbacks were 95 cents (nine pesos in Sanborns department store in Mexico City).

Anyway, note the role of the sexes on this cover.  Our heroine is comatose--a comely burden for our hero (I think he's the hero?), who in a concession to Armstrong's female readership, one guesses, is sporting a ripped shirt that exposes impressive musculature. Of course our heroine's physical allurements are not to be sneezed at either!

An exciting cover, to be sure, and one not far off from what you might find on a Micky Spillane novel, but not exactly capturing the more literary quality for which Charlotte Armstrong was aiming with her work.

Next we have the 1970 paperback edition, issued during the height of the Dark Shadows Gothic craze.

ill clad by moonlight
In these years seemingly every other paperback book by a female mystery author had a cover illustration of a lovely woman in a diaphanous nightdress dazedly wandering around the lawn of an old mansion sometime round about midnight.  What the heck is she doing, anyway? This is an improvement over 1955 in that our heroine now is able to walk, at least, but is she even awake or is she sleepwalking?

Whatever the answer, these covers seem to have been quite popular in the late 1960s-early 1970s.  Also note that Armstrong is termed "Mistress of Romantic Suspense."  Here Gothic seems crossed with a strong dose of Harlequin Romance, even though to categorize the marvelously original and inventive Armstrong as such is rather limiting.  And there's still a man lurking around too ( is he friend or foe? marvelous or murderous?)

Finally, we have the most recent paperback edition, from 1992.

Romance has fled the scene, leaving merely murder.

Which of the covers is the best?  What would a cover for the novel look like today?  Would the title be changed (this title today probably suggests to many a cannibalistic serial murderer)?  Maybe one day all the Charlotte Armstrong mysteries will be reprinted in paperback and we will see!

Coming next week: Reviews of Rufus King's maritime mystery The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) and two police procedurals separated by seventy years, Ian Rankin's The Impossible Dead (2011) and George Bellairs' The Dead Shall be Raised (1942).  Your peripatetic blogger, The Passing Tramp.