Friday, April 19, 2019

The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant (2019), by Q. Patrick (Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler)

I am excited this Easter weekend to announce that another collection of short stories by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler is due out this year (probably in the summer): The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant.  This volume gathers all 22 of the known Timothy Trant detective tales published by Webb and Wheeler under their Q. Patrick pseudonym. 

cover illustration by Gail Cross
Fans of the novels written by the two men known together as Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin no doubt will be familiar with grey-eyed Lieutenant Trant, the suave yet steely police detective who features in the long form mysteries Death for Dear Clara (1937), The File on Claudia Cragge (1938), Death and the Maiden (1939), Black Widow (1952), My Son, the Murderer (1954), The Man with Two Wives (1955), Shadow of Guilt (1959) and Family Skeletons (1965)--the last five of these written by Hugh Wheeler alone.  The 22 Trant tales in this new collection originally appeared in print in magazines and newspapers between 1940 and 1955, making them contemporary with most of the Trant novels.  With them we now know that the Trant oeuvre consists of nearly 30 murder investigations.

The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant was originally supposed to appear last year, but with the help of fiction treasure finder Tony Medawar we were able at a late date to identify an additional Trant short story, "Death at the Fair," which seemingly had been previously published only in a British newspaper.  (The majority of these tales appeared as well in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.)  We also located a forgotten novella, "She Wrote Finis," which actually is the first known appearance of Timothy Trant in short fiction.  This set the book publication schedule back some months, but I think fans will find the addition of two more Trant tales worth the wait.

After my introduction, the volume opens with a brief biographical entry on Timothy Trant that was penned by Webb and Wheeler.  Then comes the aforementioned "She Wrote Finis," a cleverly clued novella about the murder of ambitious and unscrupulous aspiring novelist Minna Lucas, which originally was serialized in December 1940 and January 1941. 

White Carnations (Cecil Kennedy)
The next story in the collection, a longish tale called White Carnations (wherein Trant is prevailed upon by lovely Angela Forrest, a lovely Princeton dance partner from nine years earlier, to investigate the dire menace to her family and herself symbolized by birthday gifts of white carnations), was published in Collier's in February 1945, when Webb and Wheeler's service in the Second World War was soon to come to an end. The remaining 20 tales, including the novelette "The Wrong Envelope," a superb exercise in screw-tightening feminine tension of Mignon Eberhart proportions, were published between 1946 and 1955, in the US mostly in EQMM

All of them are genuine detective stories, fairly clued puzzles that were highly praised for their skillful construction by noted American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher.

Herein the reader will find a delectable box of poisoned chocolates, including, besides the three tales mentioned above, such deliciously deadly delights as:

Hugh Wheeler
partly the model for Trant
The Plaster Cat, wherein Trant investigates the suspicious death of Madeline Winters at the prestigious Ruskin School for Girls

The Corpse in the Closet, which introduces Trant's amusingly overbearing sister Freda (probably named for Webb's own favorite sister)

Who Killed the Mermaid?, wherein a train passenger is strangled with his own hideous necktie

Woman of Ice, another moving case of death in Venice

Death on Saturday Night, in which matinee idol Tyrone Power provides a key to a clue in a murder which takes place in a New Hampshire skiing village where Trant is vacationing

Girl Overboard, an ingenious shipboard mystery with modern-day resonance

This Looks Like Murder, in which a melodious Strauss waltz inspires Trant in his hunt for a killer

Death before Breakfast and Death at the Fair, in which respectively debut Trant's sister Freda's pet dachshund Minnie and her young son Colvin, both of them equally and amusingly demanding of Trant's attentions

Richard Webb
On the Day of the Rose Show and Going, Going, Gone, wherein murder incongruously takes place at, respectively, a stately Connecticut country house and an antiques auction

Lioness versus Panther, the last known published piece of Trant short fiction, which wryly pits a pair of rival acting divas against each other when murder--the real thing--takes place on stage.

And there are seven more tales too!  This is a fine collection indeed of classic crime fiction, one of my personal favorites from publisher Crippen & Landru, masters of vintage mystery in its shorter, but no less deadly, form.  At least one additional volume of Webb and Wheeler tales is in the works as well.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Americans in Paris and Notre-Dame Cathedral

Adam and Even and the Forbidden Fruit
(stained glass detail)
Hearing of and watching the horrific devouring fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral today reminded me of a post (linked here) which I made at The Passing Tramp over four years ago, about crafty real life thief and crime fiction lover Asa Guy Gurney.  Evidently the American once strolled the streets of Paris with his wife browsing for tomes at the bookstalls.  His personal book plate commemorated this (see the link), with Notre-Dame Cathedral looming magnificently in the background.  The great cathedral could not help but make an indelible impression.

I was also reminded of some reading I coincidentally just did over this weekend, while helping plan a new edition of short crime fiction by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.

Nearly seven decades ago, in 1950, Wheeler and Webb published a novelette, titled "Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep," about a murder which takes place in Paris over Easter, which impacts a group of visiting errant American society debs who are chaperoned by the eponymous Mrs. B..  The dignified chaperone, who has her capable hands full with these tempestuous young ladies, happens personally to discover the murder victim, under most inconvenient circumstances. 

Notre Dame is mentioned:

Laura Black sat opposite Paul Merton at the long nightclub table, feeling happy and at peace with the world, a suitable mood for Easter Saturday in Paris.  At first she had been dubious about bringing Mrs. B.'s Tour for Girls--all four of them--to so Bohemian an establishment as Les Caves.  But everything had been going swimmingly....These cellar nightclubs, where intense aesthetic types danced and argued to the hot strains of American-style jive, were as essential a part of the Paris education as Notre Dame or the Sacre Couer....

At noon she was to take the girls to Notre Dame for Easter Mass....

Paul Merton was waiting outside Notre Dame.  While the majestic Easter Mass had taken place, Laura definitely decided to tell him everything....

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Tea and 'teckery: Speaker of Mandarin (1983), by Ruth Rendell

Nigel stood in the doorway and looked at him [Inspector Alleyn].

"He isn't in the least like a detective," thought Nigel....He's faunish.  And yet he's got all the right things for 'teckery.  Dark, thin, long.  Deep-set eyes...."

"Are you lost in the pangs of composition, Bathgate?" asked Alleyn suddenly.

"Er--oh--well, as a matter of fact I was," said Nigel.

--from Death in Ecstasy (1936), by Ngaio Marsh

I'll leave young journalist Nigel Bathgate, ostensibly heterosexual, to moon a bit more, if he must, over faunish "Handsome Alleyn," but as an aside I wonder whether "all the right things for 'teckery," as Bathgate puts it, needs must include a dark, thin and long corporeal form and deep-set eyes?

Notice, for example, how American paperback publishers in the 1970s visually portrayed Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford, surely one of the most accomplished of fictional detectives, with no fewer than 31 solved criminal cases to his credit in long and short form over half a century. 

52 years old at the time of his first recorded case, From Doon with Death (1964), and in physical appearance not exactly a poem, Wexford as visualized below resembles film comedian Oliver Hardy rather more than Handsome Alleyn.  (As Oliver Hardy might say, "Hmph!") 

However, Wexford, unprepossessing appearance aside, is a smart fellah indeed, quite a bit smarter than his fit and fashionable underling of many years standing, Inspector Mike Burden. 

Kitty Grasemann Melosch (1861-1939), 1st
cousin, 3 times removed to Ruth Rendell
(courtesy Robert Lincoln)
Case in point: the twelfth Wexford detective novel: Speaker of Mandarin, in which during the summer of 1980 Wexford travels halfway around the world but finds unnatural death still dogging his tracks.  (The American edition drops the "The" before "Speaker" in the English title; herein I have adopted this version of the title.)

About a third of the novel is devoted to Wexford's China tour, which he very much enjoys, with a few things excepted, like the summer heat (consuming copious amounts of tea helps with that), the officious Communist Party tour guide Mr. Sung and the fact that the hotels routinely play "White Christmas" for the enjoyment of their Anglo guests.

Then there are the recurring appearances of a haunting, elderly Chinese woman with bound feet, who seems to be following Wexford around the country!  What is the explanation of this strange manifestation?

This latter element in the novel is Ruth Rendell's tribute to classic British supernatural fiction; and as a fan, like Rendell, of such stories, I was intrigued to encounter it.  Rendell in fact wrote the introduction to the first collection of M. R. James short horror tales I ever read, and references to James and other British terror masters like Sheridan Le Fanu are found throughout her own writing.

But there's a plain old murder, or at least a odd death, which takes place as well, when a Chinese man  falls to his death into the river from the boat on which Wexford and a party of Anglo tourists is traveling.  (There is travel by boat, plane and train in this novel, making it reminiscent, in this section, of certain classic Thirties mysteries by Agatha Christie.)  "Not one of us," indifferently pronounces a British woman snapping pictures on the boat, when Wexford asks who has gone overboard.  "A Chinese."

"Here's another nice mess
you've gotten me into!"
Burden and Wexford in the 1970s
A few months after Wexford returns to England, this same woman, Adela Knighton, is found shot to death at Thatto Hill Farm, her country home near Kingsmarkham, Sussex, where Wexford is Chief Inspector.

A leading suspect in her murder is, as is so often sadly the case, the dead woman's husband, wealthy retired attorney Adam Knighton, whom Wexford noticed behaving oddly during the China tour. 

Yet Knighton, past sixty and to all appearances contentedly married with four children, doesn't really seem like a murderously-inclined individual, nor does he seem to have had, even where he such, any compelling motive to murder his wife.  Could there be a connection to someone else in the tourist party, the members of which soon start to seem in retrospect to have been rather a shifty bunch?

This is an enjoyable Wexford detective novel, written at a time when Rendell was at her dexterous plotting prime, and there's a nice twist of the dragon's tail very near the end.  The first few pages can be oddly off putting to modern readers, however, as Rendell saddles us with tour guide Mr. Sung, whom Wexford, it is quite evident, doesn't like at all. 

"He would have given a good deal to have been rid of baby-faced, pink-cheeked, slant-eyed Mr. Sung," writes Rendell of Wexford on the second page; and in the next page or two she saddles Sung with opportunities to use "l's" in place of "r's": e.g., "light" for "right," "velly well" for "very well" and even "I aflaid you be solly" for--well, you get the idea. 

I suppose this r/l bit is for comedic effect at the expense of a minor Communist Party flunkie, but it seems dated for 1983, let alone 2019 of course.  Predictably in modern reader reviews the book has received criticism for "outdated stereotypes" and "racist depictions.  It's just a scant few pages where this occurs, right at the beginning, and it could easily be edited by modern publishers; but in truth all of the Chinese characters in the story are window dressing.

Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)
However, what compelled me to take a recent second look at Speaker of Mandarin, Rendell's "Far East" mystery (I first read it 23 years ago) was my discovery that Ruth Rendell herself had distant Asian relatives. In my previous post I discussed at some length her Grasemann ancestors, without going into her Asian connections.

The gr-gr-gr grandfather of Ruth Rendell (aka Ruth Barbara Grasemann) was Christian Frederick Grasemann, who migrated from Frankfurt am Main, Germany to London, where he married a young woman from Lavenham, Suffolk in 1810.  Christian's youngest son John Charles was Rendell's gr-gr grandfather, but John Charles had a rather more successful elder brother, George, who migrated to Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma, where he was First Superintendent of the Bombay and Burma Trading Corporation.

St. Matthew's Anglican Church, Moulmein,
where Grasemann marriages took place.
George Orwell attended church services here
in 1926 when he was an Imperial Policeman.
Relatives are buried in the church cemetery.
Before his death from smallpox during a business trip to Calcutta, India in 1879, George Grasemann had five children by his native Burmese wife, Mah Tsee.  Two of his and Mah Tsee's daughters, Kitty and Lizzie, first cousins of Ruth Rendell's great-grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, died in Moulmein when Rendell was a young girl. 

Lizzie Grasemann of 103 Upper Main Road, Moulmein passed away in the city in 1942, not long after the Japanese occupation of the city.  Her will was not probated in the UK until 1956.  Kitty is pictured above.

Did Ruth Rendell know anything of her Burmese Grasemann relations?  I have no idea, though it is interesting that she herself toured the Far East and wrote a detective novel with a far eastern setting which was based on her experiences.

Burma is mentioned but once in Rendell's novel, when a character recalls that in 1941 Adam Knighton, the murder victim's husband, "had to go off with his regiment to the Far East somewhere, Burma I think it was...."

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Women on the Verge--Or Even Past It....The Fallen Curtain (1976), by Ruth Rendell

Part I
Ruth Rendell's first volume of short fiction, The Fallen Curtain, was published in 1976, 41 years before her posthumous and presumably final collection, A Spot of Folly, was published in 2017 (review here).  The 1974 title story had recently won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, the first of many prizes which the distinguished crime writer, whose first mystery novel appeared 55 years ago in 1964, would win over the course of her career in crime (fiction). 

My copy of The Fallen Curtain, given me by my kind and considerate friend Michael Moon, is an American reprint by Bantam which dates from 1978, when Ruth Rendell was still relatively little known in the US.  There's two pages of bio and blurbs in the back, all about "England's New Mistress of Mystery" (who had been publishing mystery fiction for 14 years). 

Bantam at the time was also reprinting their small stock of highly lucrative Agatha Christie novels, including Death in the Nile, which premiered as a film starring Peter Ustinov that same year.  Christie, who had died just two years earlier, had two #1 bestselling novels after her death, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the latter to which Bantam also had the rights. 

So perhaps not surprisingly the front cover of Bantam's edition of The Fallen Curtain heralds the books as being "In the great Agatha Christie tradition."  Perhaps not surprisingly, but to Ruth Rendell distastefully.  When she inscribed this copy I have to Albert Newgarden, she felt compelled to demur from what she deemed the fulsome Christie blurbage:

Not a compliment,
surely, to be
compared to
Dame Agatha!

Oh, Ruth, for shame!  Yet it's true that both she and PD James, England's other modern-day Crime Queen, all through the Sixties and Seventies chafed under the shadow of Agatha Christie, feeling relief only in the Eighties when they were finally able to step fully into their own light.

She was not amused.
Yet there are similarities between Rendell and Christie, whatever the author herself thought.  Rendell's then most recent Inspector Wexford novels, Shake Hands Forever (1975) and A Sleeping Life (1978), are clever little puzzles indeed; and even some of the stories in The Fallen Curtain resemble Christie's more sinister manifestations of short fiction.

Christie stories like "Philomel Cottage," "The Red Signal" and "Wireless" certainly remind me of Rendell at her eerie and malevolent best--though in some of her stories Rendell seems to be striving to leave the mystery genre behind her.  Maybe the obligatory parlor tricks began to seem too artificial to an author yearning to psychoanalyze her characters.  But she was good at parlor tricks too.

Part II
Some cynics might say that the title story of The Fallen Curtain seems like a natural to have won an Edgar Award for crime fiction, because it's well-written fiction that doesn't have much to do with actual crime.  It does involve a man who as a six-year-old boy was said to have been briefly kidnapped by a strange Man, but he doesn't remember much at all about the incident. 

What happens, then, when the curtain falls, and his memory clears?  It's an interesting story but also one which "transcends the genre" so much that in my view it maintains only a tenuous connection with it.

There are 10 other stories in the collection.  (Odd--why not 12?  Interestingly the title story of the posthumous Rendell collection A Spot of Folly was originally published in 1974, in EQMM like most of these tales, yet is was left out of the collection, even though it would have rounded it off with an even dozen.)  Some of them to me have a similarly tenuous connection with real crime fiction, but a half dozen are superb crime pieces.

"People Don't Do Such Things" (quoting Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler) is a classic domestic triangle tale, with a wicked twist.

"You Can't Be Too Careful" is fine piece of irony about a compulsively safety-conscious, "control freak" young woman.  Today we would call her behavior evidence of extreme OCD.

"Venus' Fly-trap" is about the "friendship" of two older women, one a brash, never-married career woman and the other a reticent, twice divorced mother of three.  The ending seems a bit forced by the structure of the story but it's nevertheless a well-poisoned little pill.

"The Vinegar Mother" has a similarly ill-assorted pair, young schoolgirls Mop and Margery, spending a break at the country cottage of Mop's parents.  Chilling events ensue, symbolized by the titular piece of gobbldygook ("a horrible a bit of liver in a bottle"), which transforms wine into vinegar.  I think this, with all due respect to "The Fallen Curtain," is the best devised short story in the collection, objectively speaking.

red wine vinegar mother
"The Fall of a Coin" is Rendell's take on England's classic gas meter murder stories.  Honestly, how many people were killed by gas maters in the UK, accidentally or otherwise?  You wouldn't get me near one of those things!

And my favorite in the collection, the clever "Divided We Stand," which deals with the problem of providing health care for elderly parents unable to manage anymore for themselves.  Hey, I'm living this one.  I liked it very much at the time when I read it two decades ago, but now I appreciate even more its grim pathos.

Part III
Esteemed horror writer T.E.D. Klein, who markedly contrasts with Rendell in having a decidedly tiny output of long and short fiction, in 1988 penned an unenthusiastic review of Rendell's Collected Short Fiction (which gathered 38 short works from her first four collections).  In it he declared that "one of the most striking features of these tales is their misogyny."

It's true that there are some remarkably "nasty women" (as the American president might put it) in these collections, something which really jumped out at me on rereading.  Rendell may have considered herself a political leftist, but it's hard for me to see these stories being written quite this way today by someone of a similar political persuasion.  Certainly there are a lot of unpleasant people in general in these tales, but the women are to me especially striking.

The mother in "The Fallen Curtain" is, as Klein says, "nagging" and "suffocating"--and it gets worse from there.  Besides figuratively smothering and castrating sons and lovers, women in these stories frequently "get hysterical" and end up either provoking murder or planning it themselves. I suppose it's a testament to the durability of these tropes in fiction that they were still so omnipresent in Rendell's Seventies short stories.  Or is there something about them which pertained particularly to the author herself?  Did these tropes speak personally to her?

Of course in the Seventies sexual mores were being pervasively challenged and Rendell reflects this changing state of affairs in her writing. 

There are lots of unsatisfied wives looking for happiness in the sack with another man and conversely wives who are suffering, much to their husband's chagrin, from that great Seventies bete noire, frigidity.  (Frigidity also pops up in "The Irony of Hate," another story from this period collected in A Spot of Folly.) 

At the age of 45 Ruth Rendell herself divorced her husband of a quarter-century's standing in 1975 (she had married him in 1950 at barely twenty years of age); however, they remarried two years later.  Rendell's only child, a son, had just graduated from college.  Mid-life crisis?   Rendell herself thought so.  It does suggest that at the time the author felt she was missing out on something in life, like so many of the women in her stories. 

After Rendell's death in 2015, Chrissy Iley in the Daily Mail claimed that in an interview with Rendell, the author admitted to her that she had separated from her husband "for some years" before their 1975 divorce and that she had in fact gone "off with somebody else for a bit. And then that fell apart."  Rendell declined to name the other person in her romantic life at this time.

Feed me!
Certainly you see restive married women in The Fallen Curtain, yet they generally aren't portrayed by the author with much sympathy.  Women such as Gwendolyn in "People Don't Do Such Things," who comes to feel she likes handsome, womanizing novelist Reeve Baker rather better than her devoted husband.  Or frigid Nina Armadale in "The Fall of the Coin," who has loathed the very notion of having sex with her husband since her honeymoon and refuses to do the dirty deed more than six time a year, but capriciously is venomously spiteful when after years of marriage he tells he has finally fallen for another woman.  Or Mrs. Felton in "The Vinegar Mother," so unutterably bored in her marriage with a wealthy older husband and so cruelly neglectful of her unhappy young daughter.

Even the happily married Marjorie Crossley in "Divided We Stand" is a mostly unsympathetic figure, as she doesn't want to be saddled with any responsibility for caring for her eighty-year-old stroke victim mother and thoughtlessly palms everything off on her younger sister, Pauline, who has had to give up her job and any hopes of a relationship and has even had a nervous breakdown in the process.  In her bland way Marjorie is one of the most unlikable people in the Rendell canon, even if you can understand her impetus toward selfishness in this instance.

Pauline is a single career woman for whom Rendell allows us to have some sympathy, but other such women in the tales come off as grotesques and monsters, like Della Galway in "You Can't Be Too Careful" and, worst of all, Merle in "Venus' Fly Trap," one of the most repellent embodiments in Rendell's oeuvre of her lifelong disdain in her fiction for loud, overbearing and overweight women.

Ruth Rendell grew up in an unhappy home with ill-assorted parents, like her sister Crime Queen PD James, and, like James, she identified much more with her father than with her afflicted mother.  Rendell's father was Arthur Grasemann and her mother Ebba Elise Kruse.  Born in Sweden of Danish descent, Ebba was the daughter of a machinist, Max Kruse, and his wife Anna Larsen, who moved to London with their family in 1905. 

The Grasemann's ancestry in England goes back to the 18th century, the family having come originally from Germany.  Rendell's gr-gr-gr grandfather, merchant and commission agent Christian Frederick Grasemann, son of Johann Gottlieb Grasemann of Frankfurt am Main, in 1810 married Mary Petley, of Lavenham, Suffolk, at St. Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London. The couple had three sons and eight daughters, the last of whom, Bertha, was born in 1837, when her father was nearly 60, and died in 1921, less than a decade before Ruth Rendell was born.

Plymouth Co-operative Society Store

Family fortunes declined in Rendell's branch of the family over the next couple of generations, with members have descended socially, as it was perceived, from business to manual labor.  Christian's grandson, Ruth's great grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, labored in a brewery in Bristol, in his later years making his rounds on the premises as its nightwatchman.  His wife Emma Mary Vine, daughter of a cooper and the source of half of Rendell's "Barbara Vine" pseudonym, was a seamstress.  Their son Frederick Charles, Jr., Ruth's grandfather, who married Ada Hockaday, the daughter of a drayman, delivered milk bottles for the Plymouth Co-operative Society (perhaps a source for some of Rendell's leftist ideals).

Frederick and Ada's son Arthur Grasemann, Ruth's father, left school at 14 and was apprenticed in the dockyards.  However, according to Rendell he somehow managed with the support of his determined mother Ada to get into a university, upon graduation becoming a teacher of mathematics and science.

In early 1929 Arthur, who was nearly 29, married Ebba Kruse, an elementary schoolteacher who was was nine years older than he. The couple's only child, Ruth Barbara Grasemann, was born in London the next year.  Regrettably for their young daughter, the marriage was not a successful one. 

Ebba had come to England when she was fourteen and not then even an English speaker.  She never really adjusted to the country and the couple experienced considerable prejudice.  Rendell's Grandmother Ada refused even to attend her son's wedding with a "foreigner."  Rendell termed her parent's union "a great disaster."  In addition to the challenge of her "foreignness," Ebba, it seems, was not the domestic type and she failed to live up to her Arthur's exacting standards. 

As a result, Rendell recalled, she grew up with "highly emotional parents who were always fighting and generally expressing their feelings, bursting into tears and so on, which, though hazardous at the time, I think didn't do me any harm"--though she admitted it did imbue her "from a very early age with a sense of doom."  Elsewhere she stated, "I felt exasperated with them, because I felt people least put up a show of getting on in front of their child."

Northleach vicarage

Rendell spent some time in the Thirties with Danish relatives as a child (from whom she learned to speak Danish and Swedish).  Did her parents actually stay together?  In 1939, when Rendell was nine years old, Arthur and another male schoolmaster were living in Oxford and boarding with a married couple, William and Dorothy May Pinkney, while Ebba with another female schoolteacher was living away to the east in the Cotswolds, at the market town of Northleach in Gloucestershire.  They boarded at the Vicarage with elderly Reverend Griffith Wight  Jenkins and his organist and housekeeper, Eunice Heaven (seriously).  In 1942 Rendell herself at the age of 12 was evacuated from the London environs to Northleach.  She recalled: 1942 I was evacuated to the Cotswolds....I lived in one house in the village and my mother was in the vicarage.  The vicar had a maidservant who was pregnant and she drowned herself in a pond.  I don't think it was particularly uncommon....But I wonder that they told me--I was only twelve.

Rendell makes it sound like this was the first time both her mother and herself had been in Northleach, but records show her mother was already living at the Northleach Vicarage in 1939, so what's the story, I wonder?

Rendell herself with stark contrast characterized her father Arthur as "a very good, sweet and caring father" and Ebba as "a very vague strange woman."  Nearly forty when Ruth was born, Ebba began exhibiting symptoms of multiple sclerosis when Ruth was a child, which didn't help the trying family situation.  It was Rendell's father, a great reader who quoted extensively from his favorite authors, who taught her the value of self-discipline in life, she recalled.  Rendell's son later pointed out to her that Arthur Grasemann, who died in 1973, shared many attributes with Rendell's benevolent series detective Inspector Wexford.  Rendell had to agree.  Was her mother, no Dora Wexford she, conversely a source of some of those problematic women in Rendell's fiction?

It does seem that the men come off better than the  women in The Fallen Curtain, with a major exception being callow Peter Milton in "The Double."  Even the Man, as he's called, in the title tale...well, read it for yourself and see how it turns out, if you haven't yet done so.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Just a Drop! A Spot of Folly (2017), by Ruth Rendell

When a beloved, highly prolific crime writer passes away while still sitting in their writing saddle, their publisher naturally seeks some way to keep money coming in with yet another new book if possible.  You can't always have an author like Agatha Christie, who kindly set aside a couple of mysteries for publication after her death. 

Sometimes there will be the completion (by means of another hand) of an uncompleted novel.  Or there might be enough uncollected short stories out there for a book.  This was the case after the twin demises of the late, great modern Crime Queens PD James (1920-2014) and Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), who seemed like they would never die but then abruptly did, within a short span of time from each other.  (Rendell's stroke, which proved fatal a few months later, took place just six weeks after James passed away.)

I'll be reviewing PD James's two posthumous short story collections soon (about which I'll have lots to say, both about the stories themselves and about Faber & Faber's odd packaging of them), but here I want to talk about the posthumous Ruth Rendell collection, A Spot of Folly (subtitled Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem), which first appeared in the UK in 2017.  (Shorn of Sophie Hannah's introduction, it was published last year in the US by Open Road.) 

Ruth Rendell was an awesomely prolific author both of novels and short fiction, the latter of which during her lifetime was collected into seven volumes containing 64 short stories and 5 novellas, published between 1976 and 2000.  That slightly surpasses even the number of Rendell's published novels and novellas, which I think stands at 67.  Although Rendell kept publishing a novel a year up until the year of her death, her short fiction production declined precipitously after 2000.(See my review of Rendell's Blood Lines here.)

So what on earth could have been left uncollected at this point?  Happily that industrious forgotten (or sometimes merely misplaced) fiction bloodhound Tony Medawar discovered some attractive lost gems for A Spot of Folly, though the book is, to be sure, rather a ragbag collection, including not just crime stories but a couple of "weird" tales and one piece of apocalyptic fiction.

The "quarter" tale (really more like a tenth), Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror, is, as the title suggests, a weird story.  I can't lavish too much verbiage on a three-sentence, 51-word fragment, but it's nicely done and does make one want to heed the injunction of the title.

Of the ten remaining pieces seven are crime or crime-ish.  The longest piece (at sixty pages, a fourth of the volume) is The Thief, a novelette that was originally published in 2006.  It's a weak piece in my view and I can't help wishing that her much more interesting novella Heartstones, originally published separately in 1987, had been chosen for inclusion instead, or that The Thief had simply been left out of the collection.  It adds nothing to Rendell's legacy.

As for the remaining six crime pieces, half of them, regrettably, are poor, but the three others can safely be recommended.  The duds are The Price of Joy, Digby's Wives and A Drop Too Much.  Aside from the clever title, The Price of Joy--a whimsical homage, shall we say, to O Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief--has little to recommend it.  Digby's Wives simply fizzles and A Drop Too Much has one of those ludicrously labored murder-your-wife plots and a far too obvious twist.  One is tempted to conclude that these stories were deliberately left out of past Rendell short fiction collections.

A Spot of Folly and The Irony of Hate (excellent titles both) are also 70s twist tales, but these actually come off, exploding with a nasty bang.  Most of Folly takes place in Paris, and it has some genuinely tense moments there.  Hate is the cleverest of the bunch, I think, the only one which totally flummoxed me with its twist. The may lack the depth of the best Rendell short fiction, but they are cleverly done.

In the Time of His Prosperity is an anomaly, being the only "Barbara Vine" short story which Rendell ever wrote.  It also was the last short story Rendell published, of which I am aware anyway.  Like other Vines it is retrospective and evocative, though I imagine you will see the twist coming well before the end, just as I did.  I was reminded of Roald Dahl.

This brings us to the remaining three pieces, all of them short stories.  The Haunting of Shawley Rectory is Rendell's homage to M. R. James and it offers a nice twist indeed on the supernatural genre.  Just what is the nature of the haunting?  The story bears a certain resemblance to the other supernatural tale in the collection, The Long Corridor of Time, the oldest story in the collection, having been published way back in 1974.  It's an atmospheric and eerie piece which reminded me of Evelyn Berckman's splendid Seventies crime novel The Victorian Album, published a year before Rendell's short story.  Was it an influence?  (Review here)

Last but not least is my favorite piece in the collection: Trebuchet, published in 1985, back during the Cold War when people were worrying about nuclear war between the US and USSR and the two countries' respective allies.  In the US the television film The Day After had made a big splash a couple of years earlier, and nuclear disarmament was actively pursued by many groups in both the US and Europe as American president Ronald Reagan in a calculated bid of brinkmanship ratcheted up pressure on successive Soviet leaders. 

Anti-nuclear groups feature in Rendell's detective novel The Veiled One (1988), as well as PD James' Devices and Desires (1989).  People might be reminded in Trebuchet of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, but there are also other crime writers who, like Rendell, wrote apocalyptic novels, including Moray Dalton.  Rendell does a superb job with her effort, reminding me as well of Daphne du Maurier--and you know that can't be a bad thing.

So this eighth and final (?) Ruth Rendell short story collection is for me almost a fifty-fifty affair (I really only liked six and a quarter of the pieces), but then, a spot of folly is better than no folly at all, eh what?