Friday, July 31, 2015

FFB: A Leaven of Malice - Clare Curzon

Zoe Freeman has left her narcissistic lover Clive Gibley and is looking for a place to stay. She ends up being offered a room in the home of Hester Keeble, a nurse whose specialty is caring for patients with end stage disease and terminal illnesses. Later we meet Dan Hammond, a part time assistant undertaker in his uncle’s funeral parlor but who also runs a second hand and antique furniture business of his own. The three of them become involved in a police investigation of the strange death of Estelle Bentall, Zoe’s best friend in her high school days. Strange because Zoe had visions of Estelle’s death the very night it happened. She heard her voice calling out to her and saw a woman’s bare feet suspended in mid-air in her new lodgings. But she dared not tell anyone for fear they would think the worst of her. When she learns that Estelle was found hanged in her kitchen and barefoot Zoe is sure the vision she had was of Estelle. Estelle’s husband is convinced her death is suicide but the police suspect him of murder due to some oddities like evidence of Estelle’s hands being bound with electrical tape.

The case becomes even stranger when Zoe begins to remember a trail of fatal accidents that followed in Estelle’s wake back in their high school days. Anyone who crossed her seemed to suffer a terrible death or in one case succumb to a nervous breakdown. Estelle used to talk of her being raised in the Caribbean by her mambo Adela who often referred to Estelle as having extraordinary powers since she was the child born after her twin brothers. In Haitian folklore this child is referred to as the dossu (or dossa when a girl) and is supposedly blessed with a charmed life and paranormal abilities that are revered by those who believe in such things. In death Estelle still seems to have an eerie influence over both Zoe and her husband Tim. Is it possible that she has become even more powerful now that she is dead?

Clare Curzon’s novel A Leaven of Malice (1979) is one of the more unusual crime novels to incorporate genuine supernatural and psychic events. It starts off with no real mystery other than Hester's work and past life which are teasingly written about in an ambiguous manner. Then the death of Estelle shifts the story into a crime novel with the murder investigation and the uncovering of her sinister past life. Finally, the bizarre events involving a mural Zoe paints on the wall of her room, the visions she has and some psychic connections Hester reveals shift the book once again into the realm of a paranormal thriller. All the while Curzon’s writing is lush and imbued with a gamut of richly felt emotions. It’s miles above the usual lurid potboilers that made up the bulk of the supernatural thrillers that were being churned out in the 1970s.

Nearly all of the characters have some sort of other world encounter in the book with Zoe acting as the catalyst. Hester Keeble has her own secrets in her past which I will not discuss since they are masterfully revealed over the course of this intriguingly told and well plotted story. Ultimately her knowledge will help uncover the truth behind Estelle’s strange powers and she acts as a sort of modern day occult detective educating Zoe in all things paranormal and the dark side of Caribbean voodoo. The finale is quite a shocker and blends an intellectual approach to evil beyond the grave with some action set pieces that rival the best kind of occult detective battling supernatural beings found in the stories of Margery Lawrence’s Miles Pennoyer or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.

Clare Curzon is the best known pseudonym of writer Eileen-Marie Duell Buchanan. She began writing traditional detective stories in the 1960s using the name "Rhona Petrie". Her first book Death in Deakins Wood (1963) was published in both the US and UK to mild acclaim. As Petrie she continued writing a series of books featuring her detective Marcus Maclurg and two mystery novels with Dr. Nassim Pride. She later abandoned that pseudonym and used Marie Buchanan. Under this pen name she wrote a variety of thrillers, some incorporating elements of the detective novel, but all of them dealing with her fascination with occult and psychic phenomena. Greenshards (1972), better known in the US as Animism, is the story of woman possessed by a malevolent spirit and was favorably compared to The Exorcist when it first was published. The Dark Backward (1975) tells of a haunted archeological site near some standing stones and the slow demonic possession of the archeologist obsessed with his findings. A Leaven of Malice is the first book she wrote as "Clare Curzon" and her interest supernatural is still very apparent. Eventually Buchanan focused on straightforward police procedurals and created yet another policeman series character in Supt. Mike Yeadings. It is this series of books for which she is best known, but all too forgotten by most contemporary readers. She died in 2010 at the age 88 having written close to fifty books under four different pen names.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I4 - "Book by an author you've never read before"

Friday, July 24, 2015

FFB: The Cat Saw Murder - D. B. Olsen

Well, I've done it. I've read a cat mystery for the first time in my life. And damned if I didn't enjoy it. It's a strange book, one of the earliest cat mysteries if not the utter first. Strange because it is far from what one would expect from a cat mystery. It's in the grand tradition of the Mary Roberts Rinehart school with all the foreshadowing and aggravating hinting at events yet to come that led to the disparaging label of "Had I But Known" plus all the Grand Guignol gruesomeness that was Rinehart's trademark. There's a grisly ax murder, some dismembered body parts, midnight traipsing in secret attic passageways, an attempt on our heroine's life as well as the cat's, and blood everywhere. Literally everywhere. Except on the cat, that is. The only eyewitness to the crime seen popping out of the murder room, the cat is spanking clean and wet as if she'd just been washed. Is it any wonder with all these Gothic trappings and bizarre elements that I lapped up this cat mystery like a saucer of milk?

The Cat Saw Murder (1939) marks the debut of one of those little old lady amateur sleuths that tend too drive me batty now that I'm closely approaching becoming a not-so-little old man myself. But I found Rachel Murdock to be one of the better incarnations of a tired stereotype from the Golden Age. She may be seventy years old, but she's sharp witted, spry and risk taking senior citizen. She fits right into the mold of the Badass Biddy taking on not only a malevolent married couple who indulge in blackmail as a hobby but a crazed and violent murderer who will stop at nothing to cover up the crimes.

The story involves Miss Murdock's niece Lily Stickleman who fears for her life and Samantha, a cat that has inherited a fortune. Miss Murdock makes her way to the beachfront hotel called Surf House, signs on as a guest, and digs into the mysteries of anonymous letters, blackmail and attempted murder.  When her sleuthing does not prevent Lily's murder and nearly leads to her own death Lt. Mayhew steps into the picture.  Together the two make an unlikely detective duo but each helps the other out, Mayhew saving Miss Murdock's life not once but twice, and together they uncover an involved and very deadly conspiracy.

D.B. Olsen is one of the many pseudonyms for mystery writer Dolores Hitchens who is probably best known for two crime novels written under her own name -- Sleep with Slander, called "the best traditional male private eye novel written by a woman" by Bill Pronzini in 1001 Midnights and Fools' Gold, a juvenile delinquent caper novel that became Godard's cult classic crime movie Bande à part.  In her early books written as Olsen she created two series characters Rachel Murdock and Professor Pennyfeather, most of which follow the template of traditional detective novels.

The Cat Saw Murder is a neatly done up puzzle of a mystery with some deft cluing, excellent characterization in the myriad beach hotel guests all of whom have multiple secrets, some offbeat humor, gory murders and a very neat surprise ending. The major clue that leads to the solution of the crime is not all that well hidden and I suspect veteran mystery readers will catch onto her extremely clever gimmick, one I've never seen used in any detective novel of any era. But for those who miss it the ending will be quite a surprise.  It certainly is one of the best examples of the least likely character as murderer.

There is one very odd thing about this book I want to mention.  It's written in both present and past tenses.  The entire first chapter starts off in the present tense, foreshadows three specific events in the plot, then shifts back in time to start the tale at the beginning and stays in the past tense. But periodically throughout the book Hitchens will shift gears abruptly when she wants to do her Rinehart School bit with more HIBK and foreshadowing and weirdly she decides to write in the present tense. It's really jarring and makes no real sense to me.  This odd writing technique may explain why most of her previous books were published by the low rent houses like Phoenix Press and Bart House.  It just doesn't read smoothly.  I'm trying to find her first three books (all released under other pseudonyms) to see if she did this a lot. Only with this unusual cat mystery with a senior citizen stepping into the lead role did she manage to make it to the "big time" when Doubleday's Crime Club published the book.  She remained with the US Crime Club throughout most of her writing career -- well into the 1950s when she also teamed up with her husband to pen a few police thrillers.

Dolores Hitchens (in a rare photo!)
The Cat Saw Murder is --of course-- rather hard to find. After three years of looking I managed finally to get a cheap copy on eBay but it's beaten to hell and I ended up paying more for it than I would've had I found it in a store in similar condition. The Dell Mapback (my edition) is very scarce and extremely collectible because it's a low number in the series. As you can see above, it sports the giant keyhole logo that was used only on numbers 1 through 49. As of this writing there are exactly five copies for sale in various hardcover, paperback and digest editions.  The one Crime Club edition (without DJ) is only $22.50. A good price, I think, for a copy advertised in "near VG" condition.

Even if you hate the idea of a cat mystery I'd recommend you read this one both for its historical significance and for the story.  It may have started the entire subgenre and it's not at all what would anyone would expect from a cat mystery.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Monkey's Raincoat - Robert Crais

Here’s a brief run down on Elvis Cole, the private eye super hero of The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), for those of you unfamiliar with him. He’s a Viet Nam vet. He practices yoga, tai chi and tae kwan do. His smoldering good looks somehow manage to remind women of both John Cassavetes from 1967 or --of all people-- Andy Summers of The Police. Two men who I think look nothing alike. Let’s see…what else…He can cook up some interesting gourmet dishes on a whim. He’s fascinated with Walt Disney animated movies especially Pinocchio (a clock of the boy/puppet and a couple of Jiminy Cricket figurines decorate his office) and Peter Pan visions of whom helped him survive the horrors of war. That part is still puzzling to me.  I sort of understand the metaphor of the boy who never grew up applied to soldiers, but it seems awfully weird notion to me for such a tough guy. Maybe I missed something there. And of course he’s a wise acre of the first class.  Every other line of dialogue is a smartass comeback or insult. So he just reminded me of so many other characters – Spenser with his love of gourmet cooking, Marvel comic book superheroes with the martial arts stuff, and (name any American private eye character of the past fifty years) with his smart aleck comments.  The book only got interesting for me when Joe Pike, Cole’s partner in the private eye agency, stepped out of the background and took on a meaty supporting role.

For the first five or six chapters of The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) I just couldn’t figure out what was so special about this book. Why was this book included as one of "The Century's 100 Favorite Mysteries"? Never mind that the label given that list is hyperbolic just by itself. I saw nothing really groundbreaking or even original in the book. In fact, the whole thing reminded me of hundreds of TV shows I’ve seen in my lifetime. On a whim I went to Robert Crais’ website to verify that this was not only the first Elvis Cole book but also his first novel and then I discovered something not altogether surprising. Robert Crais spent close to ten years writing scripts for US TV cop shows before turning to novels. Baretta, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, Miami Vice and a couple of others show up on his long resume. Aha! So that’s why the book seemed just like a TV show. Smart aleck dialogue, brand name dropping like some kind of verbal product placement gone wild, jokes based on TV pop culture, and two gratuitous sex scenes one of which seems completely out of character for the two people involved. With all the 1970s TV commercial references -- Virginia Slims cigarettes, the Shell Answer Man, Mr. Goodwrench, the Löwenbräu beer jingle "Here's to Good Friends" -- I thought the book might have been written a decade earlier and polished up over time. Crais assures us on his website that he started the book in 1985. I'm not so sure. Buried in all the distracting TV references, Sunday newspaper advertising brand names, and truly lame jokes is a compactly told story with typical macho fight scenes and brutal violence. I began to see what Crais intended this to be. It turns out to be a repackaging of the old Gold Medal paperback originals. Sex and smart aleck humor and violent fist fights and lots of bloody gunplay.

Elvis Cole...uh...rather
John Cassavetes as Johnny Stacatto
It’s a find-the-husband plot with mousy wife Ellen Lang being manipulated into seeking out the help of a private eye by her bossy loud mouthed (but of course irresistibly sexy) best friend Janet Simon. The story takes place in Los Angeles and Hollywood, USA is featured front and center for most of the book. Mort Lang, the missing husband, is a talent agent with a roster of D list actors and actresses as his clients. The rest of the cast includes a sleazy drug dealing movie producer, his bodyguard hired because of his extracurricular activities, an airhead starlet with a killer figure, and her hot tempered boyfriend equally stupid and alluring. There are a couple of cops, both LAPD and FBI, too. And because this is the 80s when cocaine was almost a required plot feature of a crime novel we get Domingo “Dom” Duran, a comic book drug lord obsessed with toreo (that’s bullfighting to all us ignoramuses) as his guiding principle and his army of trigger happy thugs and goons beating, torturing and murdering on his orders. Duran’s missing two kilogram package of “pure” cocaine serves as the Macguffin in a subplot that will connect the Hollywood characters with the gangsta characters.

I wasn’t thrilled with the plot at all. Never was enthralled with fistfights (or martial arts fights, I guess) that go on for paragraphs and graphic depictions of shoot outs that describe where all the bullets go and what damage they do to human bodies. And Elvis just doesn't do it for me. At least not in his debut. A poor man's Philip Marlowe (Crais even makes a White Knight reference) with too much sarcasm and too little restraint. It was the slow (but predictable) transformation of Ellen Lang from trampled housewife to vigilante Mom that kept me reading to the final pages. Oh! and the introduction of Joe Pike in the action filled final pages. Even though he's Cole's partner Pike is a background character, a near cipher, in the opening chapters, but he comes into his own in the finale. Pike is the best character in the book. Mysterious, brooding, taciturn and dangerous. None of his dialogue contains a single ounce of wiseacre humor. He gives the book its much needed gravitas and makes a unexpected bond with Ellen Lang.

Interestingly, Crais says on his website that if he were to recommend any book as a place to start LA Requiem, his eighth book, is the one he’d like people to read first. The Monkey’s Raincoat is definitely the work of a rookie novelist: uneven prose style, a tendency to indulge in sophomoric humor, formulaic basic plot, cookie cutter characters. In an effort to try to reinvent the private eye he ends up emulating lots of well known crime writers. And he doesn’t think twice about letting his influences show. Elvis Cole has Valdez Is Coming and other Elmore Leonard titles on his shelves, books we learn he returns to again and again. Those familiar with Leonard’s violent jokey crime novels and westerns may find themselves drawing comparisons between the two writers. Even before the reference I thought Crais was most like Leonard. However, in this outing Crais doesn’t come close to inventing characters as original and quirky as Leonard’s though he does manage to spin a few artful sentences.

There was enough here for me to seek out one of the later books featuring Joe Pike. I'd like to believe that Crais is right when he says, "I am intensely proud of those early novels — but my newer books are richer, broader in scope, and way more complex in structure, so I believe them to be more representative of the work I am doing today."

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I read this as part of Rich Westwood's "Crime of the Century" reading challenge for which each month we read a book published in a specific year. July's year was 1987.

Friday, July 17, 2015

FFB: Floral Tribute - C. E. Vulliamy

"Aged plagues! -- and yet you can't go to the length of sheer brutality in repelling them; and what is worse, one is driven to acts of desperate, obstinate, wearisome kindness (if that is the word) in order to cheer their solitude or relieve their petty wants or listen to their complaints or perhaps to persuade oneself that one is not such a bad fellow after all."
--Lobscot in one of his many
letters to Dulcie Archer

Well, I've left my detailed index card with my fantastic notes and penetrating insights at home. Of course. So being forced to rely on memory alone (not that good these days) this will be a briefer-than-planned overview of a very fine novel by sometime detective and crime fiction writer C.E. Vulliamy.

I previously wrote about one of his books written as "Anthony Rolls", a pseudonym he used back in the 1930s to distinguish himself from his other primarily non-fiction writing. That book, Family Matters, is one of the most entertaining and brilliantly plotted works of the subgenre known as the inverted detective novel. After the 1930s Vulliamy shied away from writing crime fiction, he served time in the military during World War 2 and focused his writing on history, biography and literary criticism. Sometime in the 1950s he began writing detective novels again which were of a very different caliber than those written as "Anthony Rolls." They tend toward a wryly satiric tone, most set in academia, and consist of a too arch sense of humor that can be off-putting to a modern reader. But Floral Tribute (1963), his final novel with crime fiction themes, is decidedly different than all those that preceded, both as Rolls and as himself.

Set in a nursing home and told primarily through letters written by a resident of the facility who is given the name Lobscot by our anonymous narrator Floral Tribute is one of those mystery novels that defies pigeonholing. Ultimately it is indeed a detective novel but ironically is one that has no real resolution. Vulliamy was known for daring experiments with the genre and this perhaps is his tour de force. He delves again into his fascination with the literary device of the unreliable narrator and shifting multiple viewpoints. There are many mysteries to be solved: the suspicious behavior of a volunteer mission worker, an unexpected death that may be murder, and the questionable sanity of one of the characters. We get no real definite answers in the end, but are left with a nonetheless satisfying novel for all the other questions and topics it raises.

C. E. Vulliamy in 1949
(photo by Elliot & Fry,
from the National Portrait Gallery)

At the core of the novel is the treatment of the elderly and quite refreshingly we get no dear old ladies bustling about with handbags overflowing with knitting. Nor do we encounter crotchety old men mumbling to themselves or gruffly brushing off everyone in an effort to be left alone. The residents of Weatherblow are a complicated mass of personalities all of whom refuse to live up to stereotypical expectations of what an old person should be like. Interestingly, the story is also about the pretenses of friendship with a bold attack on how attaining and preserving one's social status can be more of a prison than being holed up in a nursing home where one's every move is being watched over by a staff of well intentioned nurses, doctors and caretakers.

Vulliamy seems to have modeled the entire novel on a Restoration comedy. Lobscot is called a "man out of time", an anachronism who belongs more to the 18th than the 20th century. After making that statement the narrator then launches into his introduction of the rest of the residents and staff at Weatherblow. The character names seem like the Dramatis Personae in a play by Congreve, Wycherley or even Sheridan who I know wrote during the late 18th century but who seems like Restoration to me. Among the residents we have Lady Pounce, Miss Queeg, Mrs. Crawky, and Professor Beesdrop while the staff is made up of Dr. Theophilus Phudd, Nurse Widsley, Nancy Trimridge and Rev. Henry Inchpin. As in Restoration theater the names are perfect evocations of the characters types. The novel will ultimately focus on the acrimonious relationship between the haughty Lady Pounce, a supreme snob who views herself the Queen of Weatherblow, and the loathsome Mrs. Crawky, a vulgar woman with aristocratic pretensions who is hated by everyone in Weatherblow.

Oddly enough despite Vulliamy's artificially sophisticated style meant to evoke the 18th century and the slightly contrived plot situations the wealth of astonishing characters all of whom display contradictions in expected behavior make this one of the most realistic crime novels I've read from this era. Even with its sometimes coy humor and ultra sophistication it seems to me to be more gritty and reflective of truly complex human beings than most of what passes for realism in contemporary crime fiction.

For more scintillating reading on C. E. Vulliamy see these posts:

Overview of Anthony Rolls & biographical info on Vulliamy at The Passing Tramp
Scarweather by Anthony Rolls reviewed by Curt Evans

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space S5 - "Medical mystery or features a doctor and/or nurse"  This book fits all three criteria.