Monday, August 31, 2015

Callander Square - Anne Perry

Anne Perry was at one time considered one of the finest novelists specializing in historical mysteries of the Victorian era. Until a few days ago I had never read any of her books.  I thought perhaps that because she has been so prolific in her nearly forty year career that they would be less than satisfying for some reason. But when Rich Westwood announced that 1980 would be the year for August's "Crime of the Century" meme I knew I could put off no longer sampling a book from her varied bibliography.  I was both impressed and disappointed.  Mostly, I came away with a deep respect for her love of the era and its literature. Based on this one book it is clear she is fully deserving of all her past and present accolades.

Callendar Square (1980) is the second novel in her long series featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte. Pitt seems to be more of a supporting player in this second outing while his wife and her sister play at being amateur sleuths. Lady Emily, in fact, does most of the uncovering of shameful secrets (and there are closetfuls of them) and she rushes to Charlotte's home in order to dish the dirt with her sister.  Charlotte then divulges those secrets to her husband who embarrassingly must admit that the two women have a skill at getting people to spill the beans in a way he cannot.

There is no mistaking that Perry intended this as a crime novel with plenty of mystery. In the opening pages she delivers a grisly scene straight out of the page of Edgar Allan Poe when two gardeners accidentally unearth human bones while trying to plant some trees. The police are called in and the bones are soon identified as the remains of two babies. An investigation begins into who could've done such a horrendous thing as burying the bodies of infants in a public square. But almost immediately afterwards the novel takes on the air of a satiric novel of manners.  Social status and the contrast between aristocrats and their servants dominate the proceedings. The reader is constantly reminded that policeman were part of the working class and treated as servants. Pitt, however, does not behave as expected for a member of his class and is often rebuffed by both servants who are appalled that he uses the front door to call and the heads of the household who find his direct manner rude and his cultivated manner of speech as "putting on airs."

Detection is rather weak and limited to protracted interrogation scenes. However, these scenes are lively and fascinating for Perry is a master at Victorian syntax. Many of the dialogue sequences demand to be read aloud in order to fully appreciate the zing and the sting of her verbal dexterity.  Each encounter between Pitt and those he questions becomes a battle of wits with Pitt doing his best to impress the snobs and the hypocrites and show them that the police are not fools to be trifled with.  There are even scenes that call to mind the stratagems of Count Fosco or the desperate scheming of Lady Audley. A early sequence of wicked wordplay and one-upmanship between the imperious Lady Augusta Balantyne and her sinisterly handsome footman Max is one such highlight.

This book is very much fashioned after the mid Victorian era sensation novels.  It most reminded me of the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (best known for Lady Audley's Secret) with nearly every character plotting and scheming to protect or achieve their own interests.  Blackmail turns out to be a favorite pastime of many of the characters, some are exceedingly better at it than others. Detection takes a back seat, however. Perry is much more interested in the machinations of these characters to whom their social standing is of utmost importance.  She takes the plot formula of the old sensation novel and gives it a strangely contemporary twist cleverly inserting some subversive thoughts and modern worldviews into the storyline.  While some of her choices are unabashedly anachronistic (a male sex surrogate, for example) she somehow manages to make these concepts revolutionary 19th century beliefs, far removed from what should be shockingly amoral to anyone of this era.

There are some finely drawn moments of dramatic irony that show off Perry's talent in maintaining suspense and creating tension. The reader is privy to many events and secrets other characters are unaware of and we watch some of the best scenes play out with rigorous attention paid to how one character gains control over another. What this novel lacks in the way of fair play clueing related to Pitt's unravelling of the mystery of the babies' parentage and why they were buried it more than makes up for in a total immersion in Victorian mores, speech, fashion and history.  While the ending is rushed and sloppy with a motive pulled out of thin air and an overly melodramatic confession from the villain the trip getting there is engrossing, diverting and at times unexpectedly philosophical.

Friday, August 21, 2015

See You In September

No Friday's Forgotten Book for the next two weeks, gang. I'm trying to finish up three essays that are due by the end of this month. And we have multiple home projects going on that are demanding what's left of my little free time.

And so -- I'll see in you September. Take it away, boys!

Friday, August 14, 2015

FFB: A Taste for Honey - H. F. Heard

Now that Ian McKellan is entrancing moviegoers with his performance as the retired apiarist Sherlock Holmes all I can think of is bees. And Holmes. I also happen to be immersing myself in the crime fiction of two writers who were both avowed Holmes addicts -- Gerald Heard and Beverley Nichols. It's been difficult not to think of Holmes for the past couple of weeks. And then, of course, I have also read Mitch Cullin's beautiful novel A Slight Trick of the Mind on which the movie Mr. Holmes is based. I remember much of Cullin's delicate prose, the talk of bees and the education of the young boy at the hands of the aged Holmes. So today I thought I'd write about a book I think all mystery enthusiasts ought to not only be aware of but a book that should be essential reading.

A Taste for Honey (1941) by H. F. Heard is one of the earliest and most cleverly disguised Holmes pastiches in the genre. It's an unusual for book for many reasons: Heard's densely rich somewhat self-consciously ornamental prose; the mixture of elements from the traditional detective novel and the horror novel and the mad scientist genre; but most of all the manner in which he wraps the old man detective in a mystery then drapes him in a shroud of enigma (to paraphrase Churchill's famous quote about the Iron Curtain). Though the detective calls himself Mr. Mycroft we never know if this is meant to be his first name or last name. He confesses that it is "only one of my many family names". But who else has retired to the south of England to become a beekeeper? It's all a little too convenient.

The story is not so much a true whodunit but there is much that is mysterious besides the identity of the detective. Sidney Silchester, the erudite, somewhat snobbish and slightly befogged narrator, apparently has never heard of Sherlock Holmes but he is more than eager to listen to the detective's colorful tale of the sinister next door neighbor from whom Silchester used to buy his honey. Seems Mrs. Heregrove, the neighbor's wife, has died from a bee sting and Mr. Mycroft is suspicious that it was not an accident by a gruesomely engineered murder.

And that is all I will reveal of the plot. You really need to read the book yourself to experience the full impact of story. What Heard does with this seemingly simple idea borders on genius. The writing is lush, a bit too fanciful for its own good, but Heard succeeds in transporting the reader to a world of unimaginable horror. The battle of wits between detective and murderer recalls the long gone days where heroic acts trumped villainy, where the unveiling of breathtaking adventures was the only reason for telling a tale of mystery. This is one forgotten book that should never be forgotten. I'd add that it never will be forgotten by anyone who reads it.

Luckily, A Taste for Honey was such a huge success in its time and became something of a cult phenomenon in mystery fiction that is has been reprinted multiple times since its original publication back in 1941. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of copies o in paperback of this little masterpiece offered for sale in the used book market. I'm sure there must be an electronic version by now, too. Go find one and read it...or else!

Friday, August 7, 2015

FFB: Modesty Blaise - Peter O'Donnell

I don't think this really should be considered a forgotten book, but I'm going to write about it all the same. Surely the character cannot be totally forgotten. Peter O'Donnell created Modesty Blaise as a comic strip back in 1963 and the blurb on the back of my reprint edition tells me the strip ran for 38 year and was syndicated in over 40 countries. The first novel didn't appear until 1965 making this year her half century anniversary. And she still looks fabulous! Always will.

I've never read any of the books until a few days ago nor had I even seen the comic strip until I went trolling the internet looking for images to help illustrate this post. But for anyone e who is well versed in spy fiction, adventure novels and, of course, comic strip history Modesty Blaise will never be forgotten. Truly the first successful and extremely popular female superspy (though that is a very loose term as you will soon learn) Modesty served as the template for all other superheroines of her type. There have been plenty of Modesty Blaise knock-offs in genre fiction, but none come close to capturing the best of qualities.

She seems to me to be the female equivalent of Simon Templar since she actually began her life as a thief, engaging in capers with her lieutenant Willie Garvin and together amassing a huge fortune that allowed them to live in luxury. Only when the British Secret Service learn of her enclave known as "the Network" does she become a spy of sorts. Sir Gerald Tennant becomes her liaison with the British government and she and Garvin are called upon to help foil a slew of sadistic and ruthless international criminals in a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories, as well as the comic strip adventures.

At the start of this introductory novel Garvin is in prison in an undisclosed South American country. Modesty infiltrates the compound, single handedly dispatches the guards and sets him free along with the rest of the prisoners. They join forces in Tennant's plan to prevent the theft of a multi-million British pound shipment of diamonds intended as payment for a Middle Eastern sheikh, one of the UK's most respected allies.

Garvin is the gadget expert of the books and he has invented several lethal weapons like an exploding tie tack and a lipstick that releases lethal nerve gas. The scene in which he puts the infernal device hidden in his diamond tie tack is one of the most gruesome in the book. I literally gasped and groaned at what happens to the poor vain sap who is given the tie as a gift. The action scenes are more graphic than I expected. Modesty and Willie are both very adept at martial arts and hand to hand combat. Neither will use a gun unless absolutely necessary. The book is nothing more than set piece after set piece as they do battle with the numerous thugs and villains. Revenge is the motivating factor in many of these violent sequences with the villains intent on killing either Modesty or Willie or both. Our heroine and hero suffer more than their fair share of cuts, stabbings and near broken bones, but the villains get what's coming to them...and then some!

Modesty Blaise was turned into t what I think was a very dull parody of spy movie. Italian actress Monica Vitti wearing a ridiculous number of wigs played the lead impassively alongside Terrence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Some excellent casting in his part at least. The book shows Modesty to be tough, smart, sexy and oddly compassionate in her battle against nefarious master criminals and their army of thugs. But you'd never know that from the movie where she comes off as nothing more than 60s pop culture fashion plate who kicks a lot. For a parody movie Vitti was thoroughly unhumorous in the role. No comedy chops whatsoever. Best stick to the books in order to get to know the real Modesty. I plan to go through the whole series in the coming months. And I'll do it in much more detail next time.