Saturday, October 25, 2014

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Update #2

I continue to knock off book after book in my daunting attempt to cover both Bingo cards as part of the "Golden and Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Bev Hankins at My Reader's Block.  However, I haven't been regularly attaching the scans of my progress on those cards with each post.  So here on one page is the current record of all books read so far in both challenges. As you can see I have quite a way to go on the Silver Age. I'll be focussing on those books for the remainder of this year or else I'll never achieve my goal of filling in both cards.

I've picked up another seven books in the Silver Age categories, but only one book that fit a category on the Golden Age card.  Still that one book gained me my sixth Bingo line. If all goes well it looks like the Golden Age card will be finished in three weeks.  I've selected all the books I just need to read them now without being distracted with books like The Longbow Murder (review posted here) which sadly didn't fit any of the remaining open categories on that card.

If you are participating in this challenge how is your progress?  Have you got at least one Bingo line by now?  I hope so.


Golden Age:  30 books read out of 36 with 6 Bingo lines.


Silver Age:  18 books read out of 36. No Bingo lines so far.  Exactly halfway done.

Friday, October 24, 2014

FFB: The Longbow Murder - Victor Luhrs

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Robin Hood, aka Dickon Bendbow) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also rather quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, yon, and prithee elicited more eyeball rolling than smiling.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion over the course of the novel. However, the solution of the murder is dependent on two vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" Some lapses in verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also in loyal knights service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the middle ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the middle ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series. Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- many of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the middle ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

Friday, October 17, 2014

FFB: The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte

Since I've returned to the original purpose of this blog -- reporting on obscure and utterly forgotten writers of popular genre fiction -- I've been combing my shelves for books I've owned for years but never gotten around to reading. Charles Forsyte is one of those writers. Often these long overdue yield multiple rewards. In the case of Forsyte both the books and the discovery of who he really was made for some fascinating reading. I initially purchased two of his books because they fall into the "impossible crime" category. I'm glad to eprot that both can hold their own against the best of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of this favorite subgenre. Forsyte it turns out was not one but two people -- a husband and wife writing team. Gordon Philo, the husband, was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. All of which are skills and talents that he puts to good use in his ingenious detective novels.

Forsyte's series character is Inspector Richard Left, one of the humanist policeman detectives of fiction who knows his police procedure but is more apt to rely on his keen understanding of human nature to help him solve the baffling murders he encounters. In his first adventure, Diplomatic Death (1961) he is sent by Scotland Yard to the British embassy in Istanbul to help sort out the puzzling murder and eventual disappearance of the British consul stationed there. He was found in his locked office and only minutes later the corpse vanished without a trace. Left must discover who killed the man and why and how the body disappeared from a locked office without anyone seeing it done. Like Ellery Queen's infamous The Greek Coffin Mystery, a classic detective novel with multiple solutions and one egregious error on the part of Queen, Left comes up with a variety of solutions to the crime and makes an assumption that proves to be his biggest mistake. The solution to this impossible crime is simple and surprising and perhaps obvious to the most astute reader. But the story is told with elegance and wit and carried off with panache. It's a fine debut which made me want to read more by Forsyte.

This debut novel has a lot in common with many of the great writers of the Golden Age. When Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Queen and Christie. A more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson whose impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks. The murder victim Left learns had an eclectic taste in reading and finds among the books in his office library a copy of The Life of Houdini and a few books by Agatha Christie. Left himself is fascinated with magic since he was a boy, a hobby he shares with his creator Gordon Philo. Similarly, the skill with which the plot is developed and the sprinkling of unusual clues harkens back to the old-fashioned puzzle mysteries of days gone by. Left will finally come to the final and actual solution to the mystery based on three bizarre elements -- a golf ball left on the victims' desk, the Houdini book, and one witness' remembering at the eleventh hour the rigidity in the murder victim's right arm as they checked him for signs of life.

Left appears again in Dive into Danger (1962), originally published in the UK as Diving Death. This time we find Left on vacation in the south of France where he meets his old archeologist pal Sir Paul Pallet. They catch up on old times and Left inquires of Pallet about a yacht called the Knossos that has been moored close to his hotel. Pallet tells him on board are a group of amateur underwater archeologists digging around the ocean floor. He scoffs at the idea of "underwater archeology" as his life's work is one of precision and meticulous time consuming labor. With no real control in an underwater dig site the potential for disaster is far greater. Dermot Wilson, a millionaire playboy with a lot of money to throw around, is nothing more than a treasure hunter. Wilson is looking for proof that an ancient Greek shipwreck will turn up valuable antiquities, statues and artwork. Pallet ridicules the idea. After all these years they'll be lucky to turn up a couple of broken amphora let alone a "valuable statue."

Left manages to get invited to tag along with the next day's dive. He meets the crew made up of Wilson and his girlfriend, a former military frogman, two professional archeologists, and a secretary on holiday who befriended one of the archeologists. The day goes horrible wrong however, when one of the team seems to have lost consciousness underwater. They drag the body clad in its scuba gear out of the water only to discover that it's the millionaire; a harpoon from a speargun is impaled in his chest. Left sees it as a sort of underwater locked room murder. Soon his vacation has turned into a policeman's holiday as Left finds himself teaming up with local French inspector Philipp Lapointe, learning the fundamentals of scuba diving, and uncovering a murder plot that reveals three previous attempts on Dermot Wilson's life. Why was he so hated and why kill him underwater? As the investigation progresses Left learns that Wilson was a blackmailer of the worst sort who made a lot of enemies and that everyone on board the Knossos had a reason to want Wilson dead.

Forstye's other books include a third detective novel with Inspector Left Double Death (which I have so far been unable to find) and one non-series pursuit thriller with detective novel elements called Murder with Minarets in which the authors return to Turkey. Perhaps the most interesting of all his crime fiction books is The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980). Primarily a literary analysis and history of the numerous writers' attempts from late Victorian era to the 20th century to complete Dicken's unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Philo puts his novelists skills to test in the end by adding his own solution. It is this book for which Philo is best known overshadowing his earlier fine work as a novelist. These first examples of modern day impossible crime mysteries should earn him a place in the Detective Novelist Hall of Fame. They really are that good.

Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky Galsworthy (distant relation to writer John Galsworthy whose "Forsyte Saga" novels inspired their pseudonym) wrote only four murder mysteries in tandem. For a brief overview of Philo's life as an amateur magician and an encapsulation of his life as World War 2 veteran, ex-secret agent in the British intelligence service, and his life as a diplomat in Viet Nam see this fascinating post at the blog "The Ephemeral Collector". Devotees of the use of stage magic in detective novels and locked room fans will find a lot to enjoy and admire in these books about Inspector Left, one of mysterydom's decidedly Neglected Detectives from an undeservedly forgotten but damned good writer.

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)

Friday, October 10, 2014

FFB: Nightmare Cottage - G. M. Wilson

UK 1st edition (Robert Hale, 1963)
"The chilling story of a house that harbored a deadly secret..." is the catch phrase used to market the only paperback edition (see scan below) of Nightmare Cottage (1963). Makes it sound like one of those woman in her nightie Gothic suspense novels. It's not. It's one of G. M. Wilson's many detective novels blending psychic and supernatural events in the context of a murder mystery.

Wilson's series character Miss Purdy (so far I haven't been able to discover her first name) is a mystery writer herself and has a habit of encountering bizarre and inexplicable events that usually end up with someone being murdered. This time she meets an eccentric old woman named Miss Bessiter while both are traveling on a bus tour making stops at the churches and old buildings in Norfolk. Miss Bessiter drops into a faint after looking out the bus window and seeing a house that she has been dreaming of repeatedly.

In her dreams Miss Bessiter enters the house and has made so many frequent tours that she has memorized the placement of each piece of furniture and knicknack on the fireplace mantel. She can describe the patterns in the carpets and wallpaper and  even remarks on the feel of the polished bannisters. She rhapsodizes about the house to Miss Purdy and confesses a desire to go back and visit it to see if it is the same house in her dreams. Miss Bessiter is sure the house holds the key to her cloudy past. Soon we learn she is an orphan and for all her life she has been trying to learn the identity of her real parents and any living relatives.

Pulls Ferry, Norwich
Probably the most famous tourist site in Norfolk
But the next day Miss Bessiter is found dead in her hotel room. The doctor rules it a natural death brought on by the shock of the previous day. Suspecting all is not right Miss Purdy begins asking questions. She starts with a visit to the troublesome cottage of Miss Bessiter's dreams. When she steps inside she finds it matches word for word the detailed descriptions Miss Bessiter gave her of the dream house interior. Can it be a coincidence? She further learns Miss Bessiter managed to visit the cottage as she had planned. But the current occupants are unwilling to discuss that visit. In her exploration of the house Miss Purdy discovers a cursed room, one that the current owners avoid for it was the scene of an accidental death by gas poisoning and it seems anyone who enters the room begins to suffer strange visions and is overcome with fear, not to mention a powerful nausea.

UK 1st paperback (Digit Books, 1964)
When it is determined that Miss Bessiter's death was due to an overdose of digitalis the police are brought in. Miss Purdy joins forces with her usual policeman cohort Inspector Lovick and together they uncover a trunkful of family secrets, learn the real identity of Miss Bessiter and her connection to Nightmare Cottage. They also uncover a devilish scheme to preserve a family's reputation and their fortune that leads one person to commit murder more than once.

The story unfolds with skillful potting, a good dose of fair play clueing and a handful of nifty tricks and twists. Wilson's love of the Norfolk countryside (her home for many years) plays out in colorful descriptions of the land and architecture as well as a few historical tidbits. Her talent for creating interesting often eccentric characters is put to good display in this strong entry in an often uneven series of detective novels featuring Purdy and Lovick. If you like a mix of the spooky and the gritty and don't mind a bit of ambiguity in the explanations of the uncanny events revealed at the story's end G.M. Wilson's mysteries are a smart alternative to the paranormal nonsense littered with vampires, werewolves and zombies found in contemporary supernatural mysteries.

Wilson's books are unfortunately rather hard to find in the US. Only three titles were published over here with the bulk of her books published only in her native England by Robert Hale Ltd. Added to the difficulty in finding used copies is the fact her books were rarely reprinted in paperback editions. Of those in paperback (all from Digit Books, an imprint of Brown & Watson) the three titles I've read are all worthy of your attention. She's one of the better mystery writers who blends supernatural and detection and makes it all work rather well. Her plotting came sometimes attain the exquisite simplicity coupled with baffling incidents found in the work of Christie or Brand or McCloy. More about Miss Purdy and Inspector Lovick coming next week when I discuss four other books in the series.

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I'm picking off a handful of squares on my Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card this month. This book fulfills space L1, the "Spooky title" book.