Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A Game of Rails and Sails: The Cuckoo Line Affair (1953), by Andrew Garve

Presently there came a wheezy whistle and the little train panted laboriously into the station.  Its three grimy non-corridor coaches looked of 1905 vintage, the only spot of color being the vivid "British Railways" medallion recently painted exactly in the centre of each.  It seemed surprising that anyone should have wanted to claim them.  The compartment which Edward got into was bare and narrow, with broken window straps and a slashed seat.  A cloud of dust rose from the faded upholstery as he sat down.  Framed under the narrow luggage rack opposite him was a streaky photograph of Southend Pier in which all the men wore straw boaters.  Edward felt rather at home with it.


"I like your railway line--it's got personality."

"We call it the cuckoo line....I'm afraid it has more personality than passengers."

--The Cuckoo Line Affair (1953), by Andrew Garve

A placid train journey through the country turns into a horror excursion when a passenger spies a woman being throttled by a man....  

Wait, isn't this the 1957 Miss Marple detective novel 4.50 from Paddington, by the inimitable Agatha Christie (filmed in 1961 as Murder She Said, the first of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple mystery flicks)?  

Why, no, in this case it's The Cuckoo Line Affair, by Andrew Garve, a detective novel which preceded Christie's novel by four years.

During the four decades that fell between 1938 and 1978, Paul Winterton published forty crime novels, thirty of them under his Andrew Garve pseudonym.  The Cuckoo Line Affair was his sixth Garve.  The first six Garves appeared in a flurry of foul play between 1950 and 1953.  (Another crime novel would follow later in the late summer of 1953, bringing the total to seven.) 

Additionally in this period Winterton published his final Roger Bax crime novel, A Grave Case of Murder, in 1951, making the total eight novels in four years.  It was the author's busiest period as a crime writer, along with 1956-1961, when he published a dozen crime novels in six years, eight of them Garves and four of them opuses by "Paul Somers."  In the final phase of Winterton's career, from 1962 to 1978, he published fourteen crime novels, all of the Garves, mostly at the rate of one per year.  (After 1972, he slowed down to one every two years, until he stopped altogether at the age of seventy in 1978.)

Technically Winterton, like Elizabeth Ferrars and Christianna Brand, just qualifies as a Golden Age crime writer in my view, because he published his first two crime novels, both of them "Roger Bax" international thrillers in the early Eric Ambler style, in 1938 and 1940 respectively (Death Beneath Jerusalem and Red Escapade).  He was very busy the next few years covering the war in his "day job" as a journalist, but then between 1947 and 1949 he published three more Roger Bax crime novels, an interesting trio of books, and left journalism altogether.  

The first of these Baxes, Disposing of Henry, is a quite exceptionally nasty inverted mystery in the style of Francis Iles.  (Henry's murder is surely one of the cruelest in the business; obviously during World War Two Garve realized man's capacity for evil knew no bounds.)  The second one, Blueprint for Murder, is another inverted, though it is more in the workmanlike style of Freeman Wills Crofts.  (It's also, I believe, Garve's longest crime novel, at about 100,000 words.)  Finally, there is Came the Dawn, a flight-and-pursuit thriller set in the Soviet Union.  It was filmed under the title Never Let Me Go, starring Clark Gable and Gene Tierney (as a Russian).  

All of these novels received good reviews, but in 1950 Winterton created a new pen name, Andrew Garve, and by 1952 Garve had completely superseded Bax.  Apparently Garve decided he didn't want to keep up two pen names.  Confused?  Let me list these early books:

Paul Somerton Crime Novels, 1938-1954

Death Beneath Jerusalem (1938) (Bax) (international thriller)

Red Escapade (1940) (Bax) (ditto)

Disposing of Henry (1947) (Bax) (inverted murder novel)

Blueprint for Murder/The Trouble with Murder (1948) (Bax) (ditto)

Came the Dawn/Two if by Sea (1949) (Bax) (international thriller)

No Tears for Hilda (1950) (Garve) (mystery, detection/suspense) 

No Mask for Murder (1950) (Garve) (inverted murder novel)

A Press of Suspects/Byline for Murder (1951) (Garve) (ditto)

A Grave Case of Murder (1951) (Bax) (detective novel) 

Murder in Moscow/Murder Through the Looking Glass (1951) (Garve) (detective novel) 

A Hole in the Ground (1952) (Garve) (suspense)

The Cuckoo Line Affair (1953) (Garve) (mystery, detection/suspense)

Death and the Sky Above (1953) (Garve) (mystery, suspense/detection)

The Riddle of Samson (1954) (Garve) (mystery, suspense/detection)

Out of these fourteen crime novels, really only two, in my view, are straight-up, simon-pure detective stories: Murder in Moscow and A Grave Case of Murder, both of which appeared in 1951.  Earlier in his career Garve/Bax gravitated toward inverted murder tales and international thrillers, but by the early Fifties he was shifting more to suspense stories with detection.  Of these latter hybrids from this period, the most satisficing, as far as detection goes, is The Cuckoo Line Affair.

The title of the novel refers to the popular nickname for a rather decrepit, provincial, one-track railway line in East Anglia, Garve's favored stomping ground in his domestic mysteries.  It would seem that the author borrowed the idea of his Cuckoo Line from England's real-life Cuckoo Line, closed since the Sixties, which was located in East Sussex.  Part of that line was single track.  The Cuckoo Trail, a fourteen mile footpath, follows the old one-line track by Hellingly Station, now a private residence.  I include some pictures of the station because I think it captures the ambience of Garve's charming novel.

Hellingly Station on the Cuckoo Line, several years after the line closed in 1965
The previous year it appeared in the British crime film Smokescreen

The key train station in Garve's novel is located at the village of Steepleford.  I assume this is fictional, although the late English folk singer Roy Harris (not to be confused with the American composer) recorded a rendition of "Steepleford Town" in 1975 and there is a town of Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, about thirty miles north of Leicester, where Garve was born.  

In Garve's Steepleford at Lavender Cottage (there's a Lilac Cottage in the title of a John Rhode detective novel) resides sixty-year-old widower Edward Latimer and his unmarried adult daughter, Gertrude, aka "Trudie."  Living separately are Edward's two sons, the elder a somewhat stolid lawyer in a nearby town named Quentin, aka "Quent," and the younger a London financial journalist and fledgling mystery writer named Hugh (no nickname this time).  Hugh writes his mysteries with considerable help with his pretty and plucky fiancée, Cynthia, secretary to an MP.  

Father Edward's great moment in life occurred two decades earlier when he himself, then an "underpaid schoolmaster," was elected to parliament, for a single term, on the Liberal ticket. After that Edward, over forty and with a wife and three children to support, had to make ends meet as a freelance journalist, which he has managed pretty well and contentedly, if somewhat eccentrically.  

Hellington Station on the Cuckoo Trail today

Hugh, having taken Cynthia over on the Cuckoo Line to meet his father and Trudie for the first time, describes his father warmly as follows:

....he had that stab at Parliament and got in and was as happy as a sandboy, meeting people and helping them with their little problems and trying to put things right generally.  He's a great reformer, you know, in his quiet way, and the kindest man alive--if everyone were like him the world wouldn't be a bad place to live in.

I go into detail here in part to emphasize the importance in the novel of Edward as a sympathetic, more rounded character (more on this shortly), but also because if you know something of Garve's life it's obvious he substantially based Edward on his own father, George Ernest Winterton, a Leicestershire schoolmaster turned journalist with the Daily Herald who served briefly in parliament as a member of the Independent Labour Party during 1929-31. 

Ernest was also a Methodist (I believe, though another source claims he was a Baptist) and a most zealous temperance advocate, a trait which Garve embodies in the novel in another, far less attractive character.  I think it's safe to conclude that, much as he may have admired his father in general, Garve did not share Ernest's intense religiosity-- although during the Thirties he did share something of his father's leftwing politics.  

Garve--after graduating from the London School of Economics with a B.Sc. degree at the age of twenty in 1928 and spending nine months on a travelling scholarship, probably in 1930, on a farming commune in Ukraine--ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1931 and 1935 as a Labour candidate in conservative constituencies in southern England.  In Mitcham, a south London borough, he managed in 1935 to cut the Conservative majority from 25,000 to 9000, according to John Harrison, so he must have had some appeal.  Perhaps he was the Beto O'Rourke of Mitcham. 

Andrew Garve
presumably in his late Thirties,
back when he was briefly known as
Roger Bax

Newspapers described the young, bespectacled financial journalist as an "excellent speaker" with a "keen interest in politics."  He garnered sympathy as well when, on the eve of polling, his wife of five years, Margaret Helen Colegrave, expired from injuries suffered in a car accident in which the couple had been involved in Selsdon a month earlier. 

 Garve got off relatively lightly from the wreck and continued campaigning with his arm in a sling, but his wife was taken immediately to Purley Hospital and never left there alive.  Garve remarried in 1936, to Audrey Kathleen Hopkin.

Although as mentioned above Andrew Garve grew up in Leicester, he was living with Audrey in the south London borough of Croydon in 1939.  His parents, then resided in the small market town of Spilsby in Lincolnshire.  Later they moved south to Chichester in West Sussex, where Ernest died in 1942 and his wife, Garve's mother, passed away the next year.  

I'm guessing that Garve rode the East Sussex Cuckoo Line at some point when en route to visiting his parents and that he became familiar with the saltings and fens of the East Midlands/East Anglia during visits to Spilsby.  

Garve obviously was a writer who never wasted a scrap of "material."  He even made the police sergeant in Murderer's Fen, reviewed here, a grief-stricken widower whose young wife was killed in a car accident by a reckless driver, leaving him with a toddler daughter.  (Garve had four children, but I don't know how they were distributed between wives.)  

The character of Hugh Latimer in The Cuckoo Line Affair, a financial journalist moonlighting as a mystery writer whose hobby is sailing, clearly is modeled closely after the author himself.  There's also a character with the surname of Hopkin, the same as that of his second wife.

much is made of boats as well as trains 
in The Cuckoo Line Affair

Like the Cuckoo Line itself, the saltings  play a huge role in The Cuckoo Line Affair.  Hugh has a small boat, Water Baby, which he shows off to Cynthia early in the novel, and it later plays a great role in the book.  

Indeed, this is probably the saltingest English mystery since Henry Wade's Mist on the Saltings (1933).  The physical descriptions and a later climactic scene in the book are marvelous.  

But what the hell is the book about, you must be asking at this point, where is the mystery?  Well, Garve takes these nice people, the Latimers, and this nice village, Steepleford, and plunges everything into turmoil.  

An attractive young woman, alone with Edward in a compartment of the Cuckoo Line, accuses him of physically assaulting her.  Worse yet, two eyewitnesses, a man actually on the train, and a signalman looking at it, say they saw Edward assaulting the young woman.  The signalman dramatically claims that Edward was actually forcing her head out the window.

It looks certain that Edward will be taken into custody, despite the fact that he is highly respectable and  insists that the young woman threw herself upon him (there are those independent witnesses, you see), when the woman suddenly drops the charge.  This seems a happy ending, but Edward now finds himself shunned by the village.  (Villages do love to shun.)  And then, worse yet, the woman, a Londoner named Helen Fairlie, is shortly afterward found dead from manual strangulation, at a lonely spot on the saltings where Edward had made an appointment to meet her!  

Edward, who is subject to sunstroke and blackouts, has no memory of having actually met Miss Fairlie, but is he going mad, or is he a calculating sex fiend and murderer...or, perhaps, the victim of a wicked frame-up?  But why?  And who?  And how?  

It's up to the Latimer boys to save their Dad, ably assisted by plucky Cynthia. (Trudie is an oddly negligible character, disparaged by Hugh and Quentin for her general dullness in the book's only sour note.)  

Fortunately Hugh and Cynthia, being mystery writers, have considerable imagination!

This is a terrific mystery, highly praised by, among others, highbrows Jacques Barzun and Eudora Welty and mystery writers Frances Crane and Rex Stout ("This one is a doozy," the latter individual.)  It is also a notable example of Garve's approach to the crime fiction form.  The suspense element is heightened considerably from traditional detection, because one of the main characters, one whom we come to like very much, is actually arrested and charged with the murder.  

The reader, in other words, is not just idly enjoying a chess problem, peopled by pieces of wood or stone; they are vicariously involved in a suspenseful situation, feeling anxiety for the players.  Yet there is a quite cleverly plotted problem here, with some very clever twists which you have to watch out for.  It's a model of post-WW2, midcentury mystery, possibly even a Mystery You Have to Read.  (I will think that over, but I already have picked one by Garve, as you will recall, Murder in Moscow.)

Some today have deemed the book that dread word "dated," but I think that's part of its charm, rather.  It's pretty to think that a nice English family can work together to save one of their members in trouble and solve a murder along the way.  All you need is grit and a bit of brains, it seems!  

There are also some fun meta moments as Hugh and Cynthia discuss the craft of mystery writing.  I think I will devote a short separate blog piece to this sometime.  One thing I will mention here is that Hugh grouses about being contractually obligated to write 80,000 word books.  By my count Cuckoo Line is about 75,000 words.  Garve, having become a big name in mystery, would soon liberate himself from this requirement, penning books as short as 50,000 words.  Personally I like Garve's short works, but I think the 75,000 word books work quite well too.  People like blogger Jason Half who want more flesh on their novels probably should look at the earlier books of this length.  (On the other hand, Blueprint for Murder at around 100,000 words feels far too long to me.)

Miss Marple saw it herself in the film version
Margaret Rutherford in Murder She Said (1961)

Two decades later, over the years 1973-75, Eudora Welty corresponded with her great author friend, American crime writer Ross Macdonald, about a series Macdonald was editing, Ross Macdonald Selects Great Stories of Suspense.  Welty wanted to help with his selection of four novels for the series, but she kept deciding that her suggestions weren't quite "good enough" in retrospect.  She reported having the "fondest memories" of The Cuckoo Line Affair, but she still didn't think it quite measured up to the series standard.  

What finally made the cut?  Ross Macdonald's own The Far Side of the Dollar (modestly he had wanted instead to include Beast in View, by his wife, Margaret Millar, but the publisher deemed that book too literary); Dick Francis' EnquiryKenneth Fearing's The Big Clock; and Agatha Christie's What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, aka:

4.50 from Paddington

Them's the breaks!  Dame Agatha always wins.  But surely everyone here has read that already?  Give the Garve a try, why don't you?

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Those Bloody Russians 2 and The Mysteries You have to Read 3: Murder in Moscow (1951), by Andrew Garve

[Paul Winterton] published one more book in 1948 using his own name, Inquest on an Ally.  This was an exhaustive analysis of postwar Soviet policy and ambitions, with meticulous documentation of the way in which the USSR had exploited every concession offered by the West and had offered nothing but intransigence in return.  The message was clear: Do not trust the Russians.  

--John Higgins, Andrew Garve and Soviet Russia (2016)

What made my gorge rise was the thought that once again Moscow was going to put a preposterous story across and get away with it.  One more lie was going to be established and we were all going to have to swallow it it even though we knew it was a lie.  The delegation would go back to England with its smug fables and Mullett's death would be shot and shell for them.  The very person who killed him...would probably be the most vocal in denouncing the killing as a monstrous political assassination.

--Andrew Garve, Murder in Moscow (1951)

Unlike many American and British crime novels featuring Russians, Andrew Garve's Murder in Moscow, the fourth novel which Paul Winterton published under his Andrew Garve pseudonym,  is a not a spy thriller but rather a genuine detective novel.  It concerns the slaying, in his Moscow hotel room, of the head of a leftist British "factfinding" delegation on a tour of Russia.  

I read this novel more than a decade ago and enjoyed it immensely, both for its plot and its setting, which the author, a British journalist turned writer who spent a great deal of time in the Soviet Union during the Thirties and Forties, conveys with great authenticity.  "Author knows his onions and his vodka," colloquially commented a delighted American reviewer of the novel.

Without this authenticity of setting Murder in Moscow would be a good detective novel; with it, it becomes a great one, one you have to read, like Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man and Cornell Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black, reviewed by me here and here

meet the new brutes
same as the old brutes

Especially now.  How much has really changed in Russia?  Not bloody much, it would seem.  The country's run by the same sort of corrupt, murderous bastards who have mostly ruled the benighted country for the last century.  Look at that evil old Putin apparatchik Sergei Lavrov, who today was brazenly spewing the old 2 + 2 = 5, bald-faced lies that the Soviet Communists used to tell back in the Seventies and Eighties (and long before that).  

It's just like what Garve wrote about in Murder in Moscow (see quotation above).

Of course Lavrov essentially is a dirty old Russian Commie, having himself been past forty when the Soviet Union collapsed.  These bastards may have jettisoned formal Communist ideology today as they stuff their pockets with their filthy pilfered lucre, but they are the same old, corrupt, murderous thugs from the past; and one hopes they get their due punishments someday, like the Nazis did before them.

Which is why it surprises me that back in 1986, in defending his inclusion of another Andrew Garve mystery title in Collins' Jubilee reprint series, English crime writer and critic Julian Symons dismissed Murder in Moscow as "dated."  And this was in 1980, mere months after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan!  Sadly, Moscow is not dated at all, Symons' view notwithstanding.  We see that every day in Ukraine.

The narrator of the novel of around 70,000 words is George Gurney, a wartime English journalist in Moscow who has returned to the city in 1951 to report on postwar changes there.  Gurney is clearly a stand-in for the author, who spent the war years 1943-45 as a newsman in Moscow--though Garve himself likely never returned to Russia, having published several anti-Soviet books under his own name in the Forties after he reached England (see quotation above).  

Through Gurney, Garve alludes to this most amusingly in the book:

"I thought all the correspondents who were in Moscow during the war were out of favor." 

"Only those who wrote books about it when they got away.  I didn't write a book."

En route via train to Moscow Gurney encounters the leftist delegation headed by bloviating English minister Rev. Andrew Mullett and including 

Islwyn Thomas, a hotheaded Welsh nationalist

Robert Bolting, a  Labour MP

Dr. Schofield, a prominent professor of economics 

Perdita Manning, aristocratic sculptress, "a leading exponent of socialist realism" with "an infuriating drawl"--"a typical drawing-room Red"

Richard Tranter, "an official of one of the big peace societies"

Joe Cressey, a factory worker seeing the USSR for the first time as a protégé of Reverend Mullett

bibulous Mrs. Clarke, "the representative of some Cooperative Women's League in South London"

Who murdered the minister in Moscow?  The MVD won't tell!

When Mullett is fatally bopped on the head with a bottle in his hotel room, an elderly waiter with links to the ancien regime is arrested and promptly "confesses" to the crime; yet Gurney is suspicious of the other members of the delegation and sticks his journalist's nose into the affair, along with his American friend and fellow newspaperman, Jefferson L. Clayton.  Jeff, we soon learn, has a Russian girlfriend, Tanya, who is seemingly implicated in the business and is promptly packed off to the Crimea for a "vacation."  

There are a couple of other reporter characters in the novel, a Mass Observation enthusiast and a droll and jaded chap by the name of Waterhouse, who is like something out of Graham Greene.

Of course this snooping by Western reporters into the killing incurs the wrath of the government, which means our amateur investigators must tread carefully.  They know that in Russia people who don't toe the party line can lose their toes--and worse.

This in my estimation is a terrific book, with plenty of true detection (it might even be called a sealed room mystery--you will have to read it to see what I mean), a superbly rendered setting, good, frequently wry, writing and even a certain amount of moral force (if you believe, as I do, that the Soviet Communism was one of the great evils of the twentieth century).  Further, we have the satisfaction of seeing justice done, at least as much as that was possible in such a situation.  Justice was done distressingly rarely in the real Russia, but at least in fiction we can dream of better things.

Again oddly to me, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor omitted Murder in Moscow from their 100 classics of crime and detection series, in favor of the first Andrew Garve crime novel, No Tears for Hilda (1950).  In 1967 Garve himself informed Jacques Barzun that he thought Moscow "almost the best of his stories."  He professed himself bemused that Barzun and Taylor preferred Hilda, which he deemed a "prentice work."  Personally I agree with Garve!  Though B&T did allow that Moscow was a "masterpiece."  I agree with that too.

Like Smallbone Deceased (1950), by Garve's contemporary Michael Gilbert, Murder in Moscow is proof that the detective novel with its comforting certitudes was holding on as the world entered the second half of the turbulent twentieth century, where one totalitarian regime had been successfully resisted and then routed at great cost but another was running rampant.  It's seven decades later but the Russian beast is ravenously prowling Europe once again.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Those Bloody Russians! Part One: The Ashes of Loda (1965), by Andrew Garve

"How about making a winter journey--say, though the Ukraine?"
--The Ashes of Loda (1965), Andrew Garve

the first American pb edition 
The Russian communist of the era of the Golden Age of detective fiction, between the two world wars, was an excitable sort, usually-- unkempt, hairy (if a man--well, the women might be somewhat hairy too, come to think of it), dirty, with imprecations about capitalist bloodsuckers and imperialist vultures foaming out of their mouths.  

White Russians--exiled aristocrats and pseudo aristocrats--might get some sympathy, frequently reduced as they were to the status of importuning gigolos and gigolettes, trading on good looks and good manners to get by in life.  The Reds themselves received merely ridicule as crude, comical caricatures, unless it was a detective novel by socialists GDH and Margaret Cole, who sympathized with Soviet aims, if not all the methods.

During the second war with Germany, when the United States and United Kingdom were allied with the Soviet Union, the tune necessarily changed.  

Now Russia, Ukrainian genocide and assorted massacres and murders aside, was our noble, if earthy, friend, along with good old Uncle Joe (aka genocidal mass murderer Joseph Stalin).  Then, after World War Two ended and the Cold War commenced, the tune changed yet again, with the USSR becoming the West's direst enemy, neither noble nor comical.  

When the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991, less than 75 years after the Revolution (Anastasia Romanov would have been 90 years old had she survived), Boris Yeltsin became president of the Russian Federation, ushering in a new era of liberal democratic reforms, of sorts, and, supposedly, "the end of history"--a phrase which turned out to be as tragically ironic as "peace for our time" and "mission accomplished."

Increasingly unpopular, the sixty-nine-year-old Yeltsin was eased out of power on the final day of the twentieth century, handing control of the country over to his forty-seven-year-old prime minister, Vladimir Putin, a chap you may have heard of; and history, lo and behold, started up again.  (The parallel with President von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler is interesting.) 

Now it's over two decades later and here we are with Cold War II evidently, with a brutal Soviet dictator with great bellicosity threatening the West with nuclear annihilation as his armed forces snuff out freedom and precious human lives in a Eastern European country he claims as his own.  It looks like all those old Western thrillers about those bloody Russians are timely again.  

One of the most notable Cold war crime writers who addressed the Russian menace in fiction was Englishman Andrew Garve.  Although Garve was not specifically a spy novelist, he dabbled in the subgenre, and he also set one of his best detective novels, Murder in Moscow (1951), in the USSR, as the title makes clear.  (His American publishers changed it to Murder Through the Looking Glass--perhaps they didn't want people to think it was a spy novel!)  

Additionally Garve portrayed or significantly referenced Russia in additional novels over the years, these being the very rare early novel Red Escapade (1940) and Came the Dawn (1949), A Hole in the Ground (1952), The Ashes of Loda (1965), The Ascent of D-13 (1969) and The Late Bill Smith (1971).

borders frequently shifted
in this region of the world
Like Murderer's Fen, reviewed here, The Ashes of Loda is a short book, again around 50,000 words.  

The protagonist of the novel is Lord Tim Quainton, an unlikely titled British pressman.  On vacation back home in Britain he falls in love, almost at first sight, with beautiful Marya Raczinski, whom he learns is the daughter of a Polish chemist who survived wartime imprisonment at a German labor camp, Loda, outside the city of Lwow, formerly Poland. 

At the time of the events detailed in the novel Lwow, spelled Lvov, was part of the USSR, having been seized by Russia at the beginning of World War Two.  Today the city is part of Ukraine and is spelled Lviv.  

Lviv is much in the news of late, as the largest city in western Ukraine, where many Ukrainians have been fleeing to escape murderous Russian hordes, on their way to becoming refugees in Poland.  Contrary to what Putin will tell you, Lviv has literally been all over the map over the course of its history.  In 1900, the population was ethnically 49% Polish, 27% Jewish and 20% Ukrainian, while a century later it was 88% Ukrainian, 9% Russian and 1% Polish.  The region has a tragic history of war, famine, mass deportation and genocide.

Lord Quainton hits it off with Dad and he and Marya plan to marry, but then he discovers an old Russian press clipping revealing that Dr. Raczinski in 1953 was found guilty in absentia of a war crime at Loda (revealing an escape plan to the Nazis, resulting in numerous deaths).  This causing friction between himself and Marya, who insists it just can't be right, Lord Quainton resolves to try to discover the truth when he gets back to the USSR.  Attempting to do so soon puts him in peril of his life, while he's on a winter tour of Ukraine for his newspaper.  Will he ever get back out of the Soviet Union alive? 

On the whole The Ashes of Loda is a highly effective little Cold War thriller.  Tim's attempt to escape with his life from the USSR is a real tour de force.  According to one authority Garve drew heavily for this winter snow and ice capade on his old, long forgotten thriller Red Escapade, which I hope will be reprinted one day.  There's a moment, 60% of the way into the novel, when Tim, along with the reader, receives a memorably chilling surprise.  Then we are with Tim as he tries to make his way against all odds to the port city of Odessa, which currently the Russian army at Putin's orders is about to attack.  The final book of the novel is a bit anticlimactic, but the Ukraine section is a real thrill ride, if at times an improbable one (but that's the nature of the beast).  

Still for immersion in Cold Water USSR culture, Loda is not a patch on Murder in Moscow, published during the way days of Stalin's misrule and a true detective novel as well.  More on that one, which I am currently rereading, soon.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Fentastic! Murderer's Fen aka Hide and Go Seek (1966), by Andrew Garve--Garve is Marve! Part I

Missing girl cases invariably make national headlines in the United States and the United Kingdom, at least if the "girl" involved is young, white, pretty and, preferably, blonde.  Last year's tragic case of the late Gabrielle Petito was one on all fours, as it were, and accordingly occupied the attention of the national press in the U. S. for weeks upon weeks.

In Andrew Garve's fictional missing girl case, Murderer's Fen (Hide and Go Seek in the U. S.), the missing girl, Gwenda Nicholls, is actually described as auburn-haired, but the cover of the Popular Library reprint, in the John Kahn Harper Novel of Suspense series, depicts her as a blonde, proving my point once again.  Blondes not only have more fun, they get more attention when they go missing--the latter doubtlessly a dubious blessing (not one you hope to have take advantage of, I mean).

But I'm blonde!

Although she is a redhead, not a blonde, Gwenda is young (20 years old to Gabrielle Petito's 22) and pretty and Garve's book lays a lot of stress on her winsome looks.  When the police investigate her disappearance they ruminate over how tragic it is that such a  pretty girl might have been murdered.  Presumably the disappearance of a plain girl (and one girl is dismissed in the book as "extremely plain") would not be quite the same tragedy.  We can scoff at this attitude, but how much has it really changed, I wonder?  And when did we stop calling women in their twenties "girls" in crime fiction, and have we gone back to that convention with The Girl on the Train, et al?

But enough with the social history questions, you want to know about the plot of Fen.  And here the plot is definitely the thing.  

Fen is a short novel, even by Garve's standards, around 50,000 words, so there's not a lot of room for in-depth characterization, but I found it very enjoyable, with real ingenuity in the plotting.  I have read some subpar Garves, to be sure, but I don't believe this is one of them, short as it is.

This puts me at odds, once again, with blogger Jason Half, whom I last mentioned in a post I did on a collection of Michael Innes short stories.  Jason's review of Fen again suggests he's not a short fiction kind of guy.  Interestingly (to me, anyway), I find myself quoted is his review, from this review I did of Garve's novels No Tears for Hilda and The Far Sands, on the matter of brevity in crime fiction.  

In that piece I praised Garve for keeping his novels short, in contrast with lumbering crime opuses of the modern day,  However, Jason's review might well be called "When Brevity Goes Bad."  To be sure, Fen as already mentioned really is rather short (if it were about 10,000 words shorter it would be a novella), but I didn't share Jason's problems with it.  To the contrary I liked the book quite a lot.  

The plot can be briefly stated.  Jason calls it "cleanly simple, even cliched," but I would prefer to say it is drawn along classic lines.  

Handsome nogoodnik Alan Hunt meets and seduces beautiful, young, sheltered and naïve Gwenda at a Norwegian pleasure resort where she has gone with her parents.  He just can't help himself from bedding her, even though he is planning to marry another young woman with good financial prospects, Susan Ainger.  Susan, you see, has a rich daddy and money of her own too, even if she is, as mentioned above, "extremely plain."  For her part Susan just can't resist Alan, who is described in the first sentence of the book as "a big, blond, strikingly handsome man."  (See, blonds have more fun too.)

Fun over, Alan returns home, having left dim Gwenda back in Norway with her strict parents and a false address.  Home in Alan's case is a remote spot in the fen country of the East Midlands, where he works as a salesman of caravans and motor cruisers.  Unfortunately for Alan, Gwenda, having managed to track him down, shows up one day and announces that she's pregnant with his child.  

Bloody hell!  What's a bloke to do now?  

Well, Gwenda is very pretty, certainly, but Susan is stinking rich, so obviously it's time to get rid of Gwenda.  As he foists her off with promises of marriage and blissful visions of happily ever after, Alan in his head begins cruelly to map out the girl's liquidation in this providentially isolated location.

So passes Book I.  Book II introduces a good cop team, Superintendent Tom Nield and Sergeant Tom Dyson of the Cambridgeshire police and pits them against the scheming Hunt, who is a most worthy opponent, having gone to a "sound if minor public school"--Have you ever noticed how there are more villains in classic detective fiction from minor public schools than from major ones?--and excelled at "mathematical puzzles" and "amateur theatricals."  In other words, Alan has got a keen, if nefarious, plotting brain and is a blithe and brazen bullshit artist.

Thinking that Gwenda, like other girls gone missing, has been murdered, the police try to find her body, but they come up short.  Now what's a body--er, I mean bobby--to do?

this cover gets the hair color right

Jason will have his nitpicks, but I thought Alan's murder scheme was gloriously devious in the grand Golden Age manner, even though 1966 was well after the demise of the Golden Age.  Book III for me took this inverted mystery to a whole new level.  There is some really adroit clueing gathered on a few pages, which I must admit went over my head at the time!  But you can look back and see how nicely done it is.  

Jason seems bemused by all the great publicity that Andrew Garve once got in the States.  It's certainly true that Garve's American hardcover publisher, Harper, was relentless with with "blurbage" for its authors, like Eudora Welty's "Give us Garve!" which he evidently finds amusingly mercenary sloganeering.  It's certainly not subtle!

However, Garve was even more popular in England, where he was frequently reprinted in paperback and was one of the top names at the Collins Crime Club, who also published Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  To be sure, Garve's named faded after his retirement from writing in 1978 (though he survived in paperback reprints for about a decade), but that has happened to a lot of people.  I don't believe that Garve's popularity was simply a product of smoke and mirrors from Harper's publicity department.

In one of those Harper blurbs Rex Stout points out that "simon-pure detective stories" having become a rarity (and good ones even more so), Garve was the all the more to be appreciated.  I think that gets at some of his appeal. 

Had Garve been a bit older he likely would have become one of the most prominent exponents of the classic detective story, but coming of age as a fiction writer when he did, during the Silver Age of detective fiction (where he was one of its leading figures), Garve diverted a lot of his talent into other forms--domestic suspense, espionage, police procedural--and crime-detection hybrids.  Murderer's Fen is a hybrid, yet it offers a lot of the delights of detection and ingenious crime plotting which we associate with the Golden Age.  

On the brevity matter, Garve wrote short crime novels in an era when short crime novels were in vogue.  Influential crime fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher was sure to grouse in the New York Times if one of the books he was reviewing approached 100,000 words and, indeed, he sometimes complained that 80,000 word books were too long.  One American newspaper review of Hide and Go Seek, as Murderer's Fen was aptly retitled in the U. S., nicely sums up this attitude, so at variance with Jason's:

Endlessly inventive and effective, Garve is in complete command of his tautly built story.  He wastes no time and no words.

Anthony Boucher for his part said of Hide and Go Seek: Grade-A Garve--which is one of the highest recommendations going.  And reviewing the novel in England, future CWA Red Herring award recipient F. E. Pardoe cited the novel as further evidence that Garve was "the best creator of ingenious plots in the crime fiction business."  It's also excellently reviewed on here.  No doubt Jason would prefer reading Ross Macdonald, but others enjoy a little Garvey to moisten their crime meat.

Had Harper asked me to blurb Garve--an unlikely event, to be sure, given that his last book was novel was originally published in 1978--I might have said "Garve is marve!"  First making sure Eudora hadn't taken that one already, of course.  That lady was one mean blurbist.  But she genuinely loved mysteries, just like a lot of literate and brainy people.  She liked the mysteries of Ross Macdonald (and Ross himself) a great deal, no doubt preferring them to Garve's; but she admired Garve's a great deal too.  I'll let Eudora have the last word.  Here's her full "Give us Garve!" quotation:

Andrew Garve, who never lets us down, has written another one as deft, as well-designed, as refreshign as you could ask for.  Hide and Go Seek is a pleasure.  Give us Garve!

Body, body, where's the bloody body?

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

How to Neuter a Novel: "Annabel," The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 1962

Home in New Hope by 9:30 PM--still missed 1/2 the Hitchcock show....Hitchcock did a rather good job of This Sweet Sickness, according to Pat [Schartle].  But quite some exaggerating.

--entry in Patricia Highsmith diary, 1 November 1962

The above was Patricia Highsmith's entire comment about "Annabel," the 1962 adaptation of her novel The Sweet Sickness as an hour-long episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (formerly Alfred Hitchcock Presents), the famed anthology series.  I judge she was just happy with the money and the publicity.  After all, even if Hitch Almighty did not direct the episode, it was still "his" show.  But, really, the episode leaves a lot to be desired, I think.

David (Dean Stockwell) persists

Frankly as an adaptation of the novel it's something of a travesty.  To recap very briefly, the novel, which I reviewed recently here, is about the growing obsession of a man, David Kelsey (who also leads a double weekend life as Robert Neumeister), for a woman named Annabel, his former girlfriend, who is now married to another man.

To be sure, there are a lot of little changes in the television version.

For example, altering the character's name from Annabelle to Annabel, presumably to heighten the connection with Edgar Allan Poe's haunting, melancholy poem Annabel Lee, and having David supposedly spending every weekend out-of-town with his father, rather than his mother, this evidently to discourage immediate comparisons with Psycho, Hitchcock's epochal 1961 film about a polite, mother-obsessed young man.  

Both the novel Psycho and the Annabel television episode were scripted by Robert Bloch, and Bloch probably did not want to have viewers of the episode immediately "go there"--though ultimately the episode does indeed go there.  If I'm being too cryptic, watch the episode for yourself and see.

Also Neumeister is altered to "Newmaster," evidently in order not to confuse people with German.  (Highsmith's father--Highsmith was her stepfather--was of German ancestry and she loved throwing German words around.)

Annabel (Susan Oliver) gets another phone call

But these minor changes aren't the problem.  The problem, as I see it, is the adaptation ends up owing a lot more to Robert Bloch and Psycho than it does to Highsmith and her novel. 

The novel, as I discussed in my last blog post, is about an obsessed man's mental disintegration and it's filled with pathos.  In the adaptation, the man, David Kelsey/Robert Neumeister, is completely nuts to start with and is in no way sympathetic.  

David, as scripted and played by a young Dean Stockwell, who was coming off his film performance as a neurotic murderer in Compulsion, is just a creepy, scary guy, and nothing more.

One of the notable things about Highsmith as a crime writer is how she draws readers in to empathize with her troubled protagonists.  In the book, which is told from David's point of view, Annabelle's husband Gerald is not remotely appealing and Annabelle herself seems a very passive figure, not all that "into" Gerald herself, even though she is committed to the marriage, mostly on account of their new baby, it would seem.

I thought it might have been Highsmith on the phone
to complain about the script

On TV Annabel's husband, played by Hank Brandt, is a big hunky guy and Annabel, played by Susan Oliver, is very much in love with him.  

Dean Stockwell's David of course is quite an attractive man, but boyishly fey and very definitely creepy as mentioned above, begging comparison with Psycho's Norman Bates, as indelibly portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his iconic performance.  

In many ways, this could be Psycho all over again, without all the superb shuddery touches.  Everything in Annabel is so new and bright I found it hard to get very frightened.  All in all, it's an okay 48 minutes if you want to watch a quickie TV shocker, but as an adaptation of Highsmith's novel, it really rather reeks.  

Creepy stalker Linda/Effie, played by Kathleen Nolan
who somehow becomes the heroine in this version

The performance that was actually closest to the book was that of Kathleen Nolan (who bears an astonishing resemblance to actress Amy Adams) as Linda Brennan (Effie Brennan in the book).  In my view Linda Brennan is every bit as much a creepy stalker as her quarry, David himself.  Her stalking is well-captured in the TV version (in fact it is amplified), though disappointingly Linda is allowed the escape the consequences of her behavior.  The ending bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book. 

"Quite some exaggerating" as Highsmith put it is letting the episode off lightly.  But I'm sure she enjoyed the check!  After all Highsmith was underappreciated in the U. S. for a long time, hardly even reprinted in paperback in the U. S. for decades, as amazing as this seems now.  But that's a story for another blog post.

Now that I've spent all this time criticizing Annabel, you can check it out here.  But please read the book first!  Of, if not first, just read it!