Friday, April 24, 2015

FFB: A House Possessed - Charity Blackstock

A House Possessed (1961) was published in England under the title The Exorcism. Both titles are apt but I prefer the US title for its multi-layered metaphoric possibilities. An exorcism does take place but it is not really the ghostly inhabitants who are affected by this arcane Catholic ritual. Collie Lodge is troubled by not only the haunting of other worldly spirits but by the troubled and haunted souls of its very human residents. It is a rich and evocative possession that grips the reader not unlike the complex ghost story The Turn of the Screw. And just as in Henry James' classic tale a child is at the heart of the problem.

Set in Inverness, Scotland by the shores of Loch Ness Collie Lodge is introduced to the reader via a newspaper advertisement in the very first paragraph of A House Possessed. Katie Murphy, the current caretaker of the inn and museum, wrote up a prĂ©cis of Lodge's historical importance, the assorted 18th and 17th century furniture that still fills its rooms, the priceless Jacobite necklace on display and tantalizingly alludes to the ghost of Margaret Cameron, a wronged woman who eloped with her lover in 1813, who is said to haunt the Lodge. Peter Haynes, a twelve year old boy, is fascinated with the legend of Margaret and her soldier lover. He claims to have conversations with her and knows her story intimately. Miss Murphy is not the only one disturbed by Peter's morbid fascination with a dead 18th century woman. His father Nigel and aunt Barbara are also bothered though Barbara is more sympathetic to the imaginative boy's stories than is his belligerent father. Strangely, Margaret's ghost has been acting up with increasing frequency and Miss Murphy is determined to dispel her presence for good. Ghosts have their charms, she says, but when they start scaring the guests it's bad for business. She invites Father Andrews to perform an exorcism which serves as the climax of the book.

The novel flits between past and present as Blackstock tells two interrelated love stories. We learn of the tragic story of Margaret, her lover Dick Cole, and her disapproving father Colonel Cameron who banned her from his house when she asked for his blessing to marry dissolute Sgt. Cole. The story of Margaret and her lover and their doomed child is echoed in the story of Barbara, her brother Nigel, and the antiques broker Dick Ingham, a former flame of Barbara's whom she met in Athens years ago. Ingham has coincidentally shown up in Inverness and is staying at Collie Lodge. This allows for several flashbacks to Athens as Barbara recalls their meeting and her attraction for him. As her story is told we see numerous parallels to Margaret's story not the least of which is that both women have men they love who share the same first name.

All the while there are the strange manifestations in Collie Lodge. Footsteps are heard in the hallways and within the walls. A woman's moaning and keening travels down the corridors in the late night hours. Few people can sleep without some sort of disturbance intruding. The legend of a secret passageway is drudged up again. Peter becomes increasingly frenzied when he learns that Margaret's spirit may forever be driven from the house. He has hysterical fits and lets loose with foul curses at all the adults. He seems to have gone beyond obsessive thoughts to true demonic possession. Peter claims to have become one with Margaret and he will make sure that Father Andrews, the visiting exorcist, will fail in the ritual meant to bring peace to Collie Lodge.

Blackstock adds a few intriguing subplots among the minor characters. There is an unexpected moment of high drama that just misses teetering over into melodrama in the story of Miss Leslie and the troubled war veteran Flight Sgt. Major suffering from haunted visions and a private torment. Miss Leslie is at first introduced as a near caricature of the spinster tourist eager to hit all the top sightseeing spots and sample all the local fare at mealtimes. By midpoint, however, she has one of the book's most poignant moments when she pauses to listen to Major's life story filled with delusional thoughts and visions. She not only listens, she hears the truth where others hear nonsense, and she ends up preventing a tragedy. Blackstock always has the right touch to elicit a quick tug at the heartstrings without descending into sentimental bathos. Her depiction of a mentally ill war vet hits the right notes of compassion and insight.

The mystery here is more metaphysical than criminal. That is not to say there is no mention of crime. Blackstock manages to add another unexpected element related to the Jacobite necklace that I'll say no more about. A wary reader who pays attention to the characters and their professions may catch on to her plot tricks. Overall the book is more concerned with the complicated emotional lives of the residents of Collie Lodge, both living and dead, and how Peter Haynes and his eerie relationship with a ghost acts as a catalyst to bring about major changes in the lives of all involved. Dick and Barbara turn sleuth when the exorcism seems to have backfired and while some modern readers may find their antics to be a parody of juvenile fictional boy and girl detectives -- something which Barbara herself makes fun of -- in the end the mysteries of Collie Lodge and their resolution have a powerfully healing effect. A House Possessed while not a traditional detective story per se is most assuredly a mystery of another type that will hold sway over any reader willing to succumb to Blackstock's unequaled prose and perspicacious storytelling.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R2 - "Book published under more than one title"

Friday, April 3, 2015

FFB: Duck Season Death - June Wright

Sometimes when someone unearths a forgotten writer and attracts the attention of eager publishers looking for unique material to reprint we as readers not only get new easy to obtain editions of out of print books we get new books never before published.  Such is the case with Duck Season Death, originally written in the mid-1950s by Australian mystery writer June Wright but foolishly rejected by her publisher Hutchinson for being too old-fashioned and formulaic. Odd thing is the publisher's reading committee members' harsh comments praised the writing and humor in the book while summarily condemning Wright for writing what amounts to a rather clever murder mystery. One wonders what they expected a mystery writer to write. In any case, Duck Season Death is now published for the first time in this handsome trade paperback edition with an introduction by Derham Groves, Australian architect professor and crime fiction devotee. Groves re-discovered Wright's mystery novels several years ago and helped bring her back out of obscurity into the light for an exhibit called "Murderous Melbourne." S. H. Courtier about whom I have written enthusiastically was also featured in the exhibit.

Duck Season Death is, as its title suggests, a mystery with a hunting background. It might also be thought of as both a homage and send-up of the standard country house whodunnit. On the surface it does seem to be formulaic with its detestable murder victim, Athol Sefton, publisher of a highbrow literary magazine and an assortment of suspects all of whom hate him for one reason or another providing us with a variety of motives for the murder. The local authorities seem to want to dismiss his death as a hunting accident until Sefton's nephew Charles Carmichael points out that his uncle was shot with a rifle and all the hunters shooting ducks were armed with shotguns. It doesn't help that there are multiple rifles matching the caliber bullet found in Uncle Athol's body and that everyone at the Duck and Dog Inn is a crackshot with firearms.

But Wright does something clever and a bit irritating at the same time.  She makes Charles a book reviewer who has spent his entire journalistic career writing about detective novels for a special column in his uncle's magazine.  His fanciful ideas are scoffed at by the local doctor, the lazy policeman and later a visiting investigator looking into another suspicious death.  He is constantly being told by the law that he has read too much fiction and that a real murder is nothing like those he finds on the printed page. Charles becomes increasingly exasperated with these dismissals and demands that everyone look at the evidence. Murder is obvious, he practically screams at them. Actually he does scream a couple of times. All the talk about book murders versus real life killing gets to be a little too much even though it is clear that Wright intends it for comic effect. By the time we get to page 156 there is this exchange between the two detectives:

"And you're hoping to trace the call?" asked McGrath sadly. "I wish you luck my boy. I've only known that stunt to come off in books."
"Oh shut up about books!" snapped Charles.

Please do! I said smiling to myself. But I kept reading all the way to the somewhat surprising finale.

There is some darn good detection in this novel encompassing old standbys like muddy boots and  ballistics wizardry to highly technical forensic evidence, at least for the 1950s. Mixed into the puzzling murder on the lake is a questionable natural death of Athol's wife, a plethora of family secrets, and some wild accusations that reminded me of the novels of Christianna Brand. Wright manages to pull off some fine character work, especially in the sardonic owner of the hunting lodge Ellis Bryce. She shows a healthy sense of humor sprinkled throughout the mayhem and throws in a nod or two to Great Detectives of mysterydom. In fact, the solution is predicated on one of the most well known rules in detective fiction. The third section is entitled "The Impossible Remainder" and it is only when Charles is reminded of the famous Holmesian maxim "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable must be the truth." that he finally can assemble the clues and come up his nearly flawless solution.  But Wright has one last trick up her sleeve. One twist too many perhaps and not as much of a surprise to this reader, but an admirable job all the same.

Soon all seven of June Wright's mystery novels will be reprinted by Dark Passage Books, an imprint of Verse Chorus Press. Currently three of her books are available in smart looking trade paperback editions. In addition to Duck Season Death, there is Murder at the Telephone Exchange (1948), Wright's debut mystery novel, also with an introduction by Groves and So Bad a Death (1950) with an introduction by Lucy Sussex. All three are available through the usual online booksellers or can be ordered from your own local bookstore. Why not introduce yourself to yet another impressive Australian writer of the late Golden Age of Detective Fiction?

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space O3 - "Animal in title"

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

IN BRIEF: Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used (1958) is the first of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough comic crime novels and sets the tone for all that followed in the series. It may not be the most successful of his books but I wager it was pretty daring for its time. Watson shakes up the cozy English village by populating his town with an assortment of venal businessmen, randy husbands, duplicitous housewives and bemused policemen. Sex and greed serve as the primary motivators in a mixture of scandalous criminal activity, base revenge, all oddly livened with Watson's usual absurd antics.

While the denizens of Flaxborough are trying to make sense of the outrageous death of the editor of the town’s newspaper who is found electrocuted at the foot of a power pylon Inspector Purbright is confronted with some incongruous evidence. Why would Mr. Gwill make a impulsive midnight climb up the pylon with slippers on his feet? What of that odd daffodil shaped burn embedded in Gwill’s right palm? Nothing on the pylon comes anywhere close to looking like a flower. And then there are the marshmallows found in Gwill’s pocket and in his stomach. That’s some kind of strange last meal for anyone. To Purbright and Sgt. Sid Love it looks like a murder cover-up. They need to find out where Gwill was really killed and why he was moved and why someone would think anyone be fooled by the implication that he fell from a power pylon.

Investigation of Gwill’s death leads Purbright to the newspaper offices of the Flaxborough Citizen and some strange personal ads setup by Gwill himself. They all seem to indicate an unusual interest in buying and selling curios and antiques and the numerous replies, all sent to Gwill’s personal box, all too coincidentally make mention of evening appointments and all include deposits of eight pounds. Purbright begins to imagine that some kind of underground conspiracy is at work. He is sure the ads have nothing to do with buying old furniture. Eventually he uncovers a surreal secret code that seems modeled on bad spy novels and an eye opening surprise in the examination rooms at a physician’s offices.

The sexual content in Coffin, Scarcely Used may have prevented it from being published in the US until ten years after its original appearance in England. Watson seemed decades ahead of his fellow crime writers (at least those who confined their plots to charming British villages) in terms of dealing with sex in the crime novel and doing so it such a bawdy and preposterous way.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space E1 - "Book with a detective team"

Friday, March 27, 2015

FFB: Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland

There is nothing more satisfying to a mystery novel addict like me than to chose a book fairly at random and from the first amazing sentence to the final paragraph be thoroughly entertained.  I wanted to read a good old fashioned puzzling whodunit this week after indulging in too many suspense style crime stories. One with a gory murder or two, a weird murder method and enough clues to keep me guessing whodunit to the end. Never did I imagine that the book I chose would deliver on all counts, that it would surpass every expectation and that I would actually figure out the culprit and hit all the proper clues and motivations in coming up with my solution. Every single one!

You couldn't find a more unusual detective novel than Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938). From it's quasi Shakespearean allusion in the title to the quote lifted from The Pickwick Papers that serves as the novel's epigraph a hardcore mystery fan couldn't ask for a more literate and witty refresher in the genuine traditional mystery. Harriet Rutland in her debut as a mystery writer not only adheres to the tenets of the fair play detective novel she adds her own subversive spin to a motley group of what at first appear to be just another assortment of cliche country house archetypes. Among the large cast of characters are two retired career soldiers, a haughty aristocratic doyenne, a dithery hypochondriac, a lady author of detective novels, one sexy young femme fatale, a variety of servants including maids, housekeeper and chauffeur, a no nonsense police inspector and the mysterious detective consultant who seems to be mucking up the investigation. Not one of them ever descends to the level of cliche.

Rutland gives each one a jab of her satirist's poison pen. Colonel Simcox spends much of his time knitting multicolored socks instead of reminiscing of his old soldier days. He's more interested in mastering his knitting and purling and wondering what do with the green yarn when he needs to work on the blue. Mrs. Dawson, the lady author, who brags of having written three books and is starting on her fourth has not had a single work published though her agents keep promising great offers are in the works. The aristocrat is a big phony whose title comes via her now dead husband, a former grocer who made his money in the flour business and earned a honorary title from his philanthropy once he became wealthy. The hypochondriac claims to be abused at the hands of her cruel nurse but in fact spends much of her day devising ways to cause her own near fatal accidents.  Here is the first sentence on the novel in which we meet the accident obsessed matron:
Mrs. Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked around to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.
The car misses Mrs. Napier, thankfully, but not a soul goes to her aid. They would much rather laugh at her and insult her.  Mrs. Napier does this sort of thing every day at the Presteignton Hydro where the novel takes place. Nurse Hawkins begrudgingly goes to pick her up all the while Mrs. Napier complains of bruises and manhandling.  Dr. Williams, the director of the resort, wants to murder her. So do a lot of the others. But it's not Mrs. Napier who ends up dead at all.  It's the sexy and alluring visitor Miss Blake.

Some deadly looking vintage knitting needles
Appropriately, size 13.
Miss Blake has been turning the heads of all the men and arousing the ire of the women. Her wardrobe is scandalous, her manner brazen, her humor off color. Miss Blake is vivacious and goodnatured and everything the other women residents at the Hydro are not.  Following the weekly amateur talent night where Miss Blake stood in as piano accompanist for all the singers and became the focus of nearly everyone's attention she is found dead in the lounge. Slumped over in the settee, the maid finds Miss Blake still wearing her slinky evening gown and a knitting needle sticking out of the base of her neck. Someone apparently didn't care for her music. Or her love of life.

Throughout the novel Rutland continually brings up the insidious nature of gossip and the prejudices and bigotry of all the residents at this health resort. It's clear she is having fun ridiculing the small-mindedness of hypocrites but there is something sinister about the way most of the characters are so mean spirited in their hatred for one another.  The atmosphere is one of brooding menace and there is evil at work here amid all the satire. At the Presteignton Hydro the clacking of knitting needles is like the clanging of a death knell.

While Inspector Palk and Mr. Winkley, the mysterious "free lancer" who casually inveigles his way into the murder investigation, are trying to make sense of the murder the killer manages to strike two more times. And each time the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle.


Not much is known about the writer. Olive Shimwell, who wrote under the pseudonym Harriet Rutland, is rather a mystery herself. I attempted to try the magic of internet searching and remarkably discovered that she at one time lived in a house in Ireland that was on the very grounds of a popular Victorian and Edwardian era hydropathic resort (see above illustration of the grounds). It was called St. Ann's and was shut down in the late 1920s. I'm tempted to spend a couple of weeks sending out emails to the locals in Blarney to see if perhaps anyone remembers if the house known as Hillside on St Ann's Hill was part of the hydropathic estate. It seems more than likely. And it really is too much to believe that it is pure coincidence that her first mystery novel is also set at such a health spa.

Sorry to report that this book is yet another one of those ridiculous rarities in the mystery world as the lack of a dust cover on this post will probably signify. After five years of hunting for a copy I finally found one and paid close to $60 for it. There isn't a single copy for sale today.  According to Worldcat.org there are only seven copies in university libraries that subscribe to that library database and about six in British, Scottish and Australian libraries. You may want to try your own local library.

I've reviewed her second novel The Poison Fly Murder, about devilry amongst fly fishing vacationers in Wales, previously on my blog.  It was published under the much better title Bleeding Hooks in the UK. I enjoyed that one as well. Soon her third and last book, Blue Murder, will be reviewed here as well.  Of the three Blue Murder is the most easily found in the US since it was reprinted by the estimable Detective Book Club and it can be found in a three-in-one volume along with The Yellow Violet by Frances Crane and The Gift Horse by Frank Gruber. Should you ever be lucky to come across any of Rutland's mysteries I suggest you grab it.  They're as odd as they come and exceptional mysteries to boot.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O1 "TBR Pile first lines"