Thursday, August 25, 2016

IN BRIEF: The Case of Naomi Clynes

Basil Thomson is a writer I had no interest in reading until I came across TomCat’s review of The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934), the third case for Thomson’s perfunctory detective Inspector Richardson. The story of the investigation of an apparent suicide is soon proved to be very suspicious. Evidence shows her body was most likely dragged across the floor and placed with her head in her kitchen gas stove. Autopsy reveals poison in her system. Dogged investigation leads the police team and his unlikely colleague, a publisher of the dead woman’s detective novel, to France where they uncover an intricate plot involving impersonation, forgery, and a plot reminiscent of Victorian sensation novels replete with wicked guardians and imperiled heirs.

The story is told in a matter of fact manner, highlighted with a healthy sense of humor, some pointed satiric touches, and plenty of good old fashioned detection. Thomson has an imaginative streak in coming up with unusual clues like threads found on a protruding floorboard nail that match the dead woman’s clothes that serve as the foundation for the murder theory. The most clever of all is a cancelled postage stamp. Dorothy L. Sayers was greatly impressed that Thomson managed to spin such an ably constructed and complex plot out of something so seemingly insignificant. And I have to agree.

Apart from the skillful way in which Thomson turns the investigation of a burgeoning mystery writer’s strange murder into a Buchanesque pursuit thriller the most fascinating part of the novel is how Thomason teaches the reader about the differences between how police investigations are dealt with in the US and the UK. With the arrival of the publisher’s uncle who travels from America to England in order to help his nephew there follow several passages in which Thomson discusses the process of trial and punishment in both countries. The uncle is very critical of the US form of justice and sees it as a terrible cycle of repeat offenders being jailed, serving their time, freed on parole, and invariably caught and tried again when they return to a life of crime. Recidivism was just a much a chronic problem in the 1930s as it is now apparently. Some things never change.

For me Sir Basil Thomson’s life is much more interesting than his fiction. I think I’d prefer his biography over his fictional creations as lively as they can be. Martin Edwards’ introduction gives us not only a fine overview of Thomson’s eight detective noels, but also a taste of this remarkable man’s life. We discover his varied career path took him from foreign service in the South Pacific to British civil service to law enforcement ending as a knighted Asst. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the post World War 1 era only to have his life almost ruined by a shameful incident that remains a hazy blur of half-truths, hearsay and sensationalized rumor. Was he guilty of consorting with a prostitute in public? Was only partially guilty? Was he completely innocent? We may never know now.

The Case of Naomi Clynes along with the other seven detective novels by Basil Thomson have all been reprinted by the admirable Dean Street Press. They are available for sale directly from the publisher's website and through the usual online bookselling sites in both paperback and digital versions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

1954 STORIES: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 1954

In my mad obsession with the year 1954 for Past Offenses blog's monthly Crime of the Century meme I've completely immersed myself in writings from that year. This issue of EQMM was brought to my attention when I read that is included a story by L. Frank Baum that was reprinted for the first time in since its original publication in an a obscure magazine at the turn of the 20th century. TomCat, our resident locked room/impossible crime enthusiast, mentioned Baum's "The Suicide of Kiaros" as one of the stories he came across in a different locked room mystery anthology. Of course I had to track down a copy of the magazine. Luckily I found a copy on eBay (why don't I have this kind of luck in casinos?!) and managed to make an offer for a price I thought more suitable for a 50 year old magazine. And when I pored over the table of contents what did I find but a more fascinating serendipitous discovery. The very first story by William Link and Richard Levinson, creators of Columbo and many other TV crime dramas and movies, when they were only 20 years old and still students at the University of Pennsylvania.

As readers of EQMM might know each first time writer's story is accompanied by a brief intro by the editors giving some biographical info on the writer and how the story came about. In the case of Levinson and Link the bio is longer than usual and filled with tidbits that you most likely will not find anywhere else on the web whether it be their separate pages or the Columbo tribute website. I learned that they knew each other since junior high in Philadelphia and became a writing team as early as their teen years. While still in high school they wrote and produced a musical comedy "that was so great a success that both were inspired to pursue a writing career." Having their first taste of "show business" the two college boys went on to write radio scripts in college and humor pieces for the UPenn humor magazine as well as detective short stories. They probably never imagined that their writing hobby would eventually lead to a career as the leading mystery writing duo of TV just under twenty years later.

"Whistle While You Work" is a neat little tale of a henpecked mailman who everyday looks forward to leaving his claustrophobic household dominated by his shrewish wife. Over a period of days a series of weirdly addressed letters in blue envelopes with black borders turn up in his mailbag all addressed to women. Later each woman who received such a letter is found brutally murdered. It's kind of a James Thurber meets James M. Cain story displaying a mature voice, an ironic sense of humor, and some keen insight for a couple of 20 year old college boys. If I were to give you the story to read and you knew nothing about the writers you'd imagine each might be a cynical old 50 something who had his fill of harpy of a wife.

The L. Frank Baum story is also a crime story rather than a detective story. It presents the life of a brazen bank teller with a gambling addiction and a taste for embezzlement who seeks out the help of a money lender to help him pay his debts and cover his "loans" from the cashier's till. He seizes an opportunity to make off with a sizable amount of the moneylender's cash only after resorting to murder. He then cleverly seals up the room and makes the crime look like suicide. Does he get away with it? The unusual ending -- especially for a story written in 1897 -- probably made jaws drop. I'm sure the story was shocking and considered tasteless and immoral by Baum's contemporaries.

Included also in the issue are a familiar Hercule Poirot story about poisoning and an unusual murder method ("How Does Your Garden Grow?"); a Lester Leith story ("The Candy Kid", first published in 1931 in Detective Fiction Weekly) featuring Erle Stanley Gardner's version of the urbane, wealthy playboy sleuth popular in the pulp magazines long before he created Perry Mason; and stories by John D MacDonald, Charles B Child and Peter Godfrey. I particularly liked an odd puzzle story by Laurence Blochman ("The Man with the Blue Ears") in which the reader is asked to find 18 intentional mistakes within the story. Some of them were easy to spot like knowing that lapis lazuli is a blue gemstone not a red one or that Washington and Lincoln appear on the $1 and $5 bills not Jackson and Hamilton. But lots of the errors like the mention of Pisco punch being made with Brazilian brandy (it's made with Peruvian brandy) or "a .32 police positive" (it should be a .38) went right over my head. Van Deen test for bloodstains? If you work in a forensic lab maybe. A regular Joe Reader knowing this? Probably not. Apparently Blochman, whose adventure thrillers and detective novels set in India I know very well and recommend highly, wrote a series of these type of "Spot the Mistake" stories for EQMM during the 1950s. This is also one of EQMM's more literary issues with reprints of two crime stories by Jack London and Roald Dahl ("Only a Chinago" and "Taste",  respectively).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise! Surprise!

Yesterday I went to the mailbox and found yet another review copy from a publisher who often sends me ARCs. The timing couldn't have been better; I had just finished a book and was looking for a new read for this week's daily commute. I thought to myself, "Hmm... I wonder if this one is worth reading." I opened the package and burst out laughing. It was an ARC for a reprint of The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen. (But you probably already knew that because of the picture over there on the left.) Yes, the very same book I had just finished and written up for FFB three days ago.

So for the handful of you who read my Friday's Forgotten Book post a few days ago here's some fantastic good news for you. A new paperback edition of this very fine noir thriller (which is also a detective novel) in coming to you in November.  Can you stand the waiting?

I bet Stark House never had this kind of ESP/synchronicity from the vintage book blogs for any of their planned reprints. Ever. I seriously had no clue that anyone had any interest in reprinting anything by Helen Nielsen. I am very, very happy that this book is being reprinted. And talk about advance reviews!

PLUS! Here's my first giveaway in many moons. Be the first person to email me with your interest in reading Nielsen's excellent book, and your mailing address of course, and I'll mail this ARC to you. I don't need it at all obviously since I already have a 1954 paperback as well as a 1st edition hardcover.


Sunday, August 21, 2016


David McKay Company, another publisher based in Philadelphia (see previous Main Line Mystery and Lippincott Masked Man posts), joined the post-World War Two era mystery imprint mania around the mid 1940s. They seemed to have copied their line of crime fiction imprints along Doubleday's Crime Club 1940s model which used a set of cartoon drawings to denote the subgenre of each of the books being sold ranging from a magnifying glass to signify "Favorite Detective" to a grinning skull for "Comic Crime". McKay Company also chose to broaden the definition of detective fiction to include spy novels and adventure thrillers that supposedly also include detective novel elements. On the rear panel of each book included in the imprint there was a key to help the buyer determine what kind of crime novel they were holding in their hands. But while Crime Club used distinctive icons McKay used a subtle system of color coding employed in the imprint's very clever logo of man reading in an armchair. And if you couldn't figure it out for yourself they just told you as shown in the example below.

The "Armchair Mystery" dust jackets began with a uniformly designed dust jacket at the start in 1945. The entire DJ had a yellow background with full color art work on the front panel, an ad for another Title on the rear panel, and the logo key explained on the rear flap along with another ad for the upcoming book in the series. The imprint logo or title was placed on the front board and spine of the book and on all panels of the DJ: front, both flaps, rear panel and spine panel. In the years after 1945 the is formula was dropped and DJ art no longer used the yellow background and the logo key was eventually eliminated as well.

The leading writers in the "Armchair Mystery" imprint were Bruno Fischer, W. T. Ballard, and "Edward Ronns" who writing under his own name, Edward S. Aarons, became one of the bestselling writers for Gold Medal when he created the "Assignment" series featuring Sam Durrell, a CIA agent.

The imprint, however, was relatively short lived and ran from 1945 to 1948. I can find no sign of any of David McKay's detective, crime or espionage fiction after 1948 published as part of the "Armchair Mystery" imprint. If anyone knows that this one lasted longer, I'd appreciate knowing of some or all of the later titles.