Thursday, February 26, 2015

FFB: The Fetish Murders - Avon Curry

And now for something completely different....

I've been reading a lot of early transgressive fiction as research for an essay to be included in a book slated for 2016. This has led me into a strange and fascinating world of crime novels with plots that touch on formerly taboo topics mostly to do with sexual preference and unusual sexual practices. So when I fortuitously came across a book called The Fetish Murders (1973), with that cover seen at left, I had to read it. It's not at all transgressive fiction as I thought it might be since it has at its core a respect for morality and normalcy and does not revel in all things rebellious or counterculture. Thankfully, it did not turn into a serial killer novel as the title seems to imply. It's an attempt to present what most people in the 1970s (and I guess quite a few these days, too) would view as a distasteful subject -- erotic fetishism -- in a humanistic compassionate setting. It succeeds to a degree, but it disappoints on a whole other level.

The Fetish Murders begins with a comical scene in which June Hissock, "Carnival Queen of East Ganford", storms into the police station to report being attacked. She is the latest victim of a scissors wielding maniac who has been cutting locks of hair from young blond women. June is incensed; her hairdo is ruined. And the attack occurred just before she was to award some prizes at a school in one of her many beauty queen publicity gigs. Smart aleck journalists have alternately dubbed this hair crazed phantom the Demon Barber and Jack the Snipper. The newspapers also make a lot of allusions to Pope's "Rape of the Lock". It's all tongue in cheek and ridiculing and all a bit wrong. For they have no idea just how dangerous this hair clipping creep will become.

No one has ever seen Jack the Snipper, not even the women whose hair he is collecting. Each young woman has been attacked from the rear, the hair quickly snipped from the nape of the neck and the attacker fleeing before the victim even knows what's been done. Sergeant Pinnett is a bit worried that the attacks seem to be on the rise. He has a daughter who also has blond hair. What if she should be next?

You can guess what follows. Not only is Marjorie Pinnett next on the list she is also fatally stabbed with the scissors in what appears to be an attempt to fight back. And now the Demon Barber is no longer just a creep but a murderer.

This is very bad news for reporter Peter Stack. He had just written an informative news feature on fetishism in which, quoting expert advice of psychoanalyst Dr. Luton-Bailey, he explained the harmlessness of the attacks. The article was to reassure the public and prevent hysteria and vigilantism. He's alarmed by the murder and even moreso when he learns the victim is the daughter of a police officer who he overheard vowing to seek revenge on the Demon Barber. Stack revisits Dr. Luton-Bailey to try to understand why the fetishist suddenly became violent. When the psychologist hears that this particular hair clipping attack happened from the front he comes to the conclusion that the Demon Barber must've been recognized by Marjorie. And in that moment he felt it necessary to kill.

Luton-Bailey is one of the better realized characters. His psychology is modern and sound, even sympathetic, but still a bit too Freudian. I was disappointed that here was yet another instance of a psychological suspense story that dealt with aberrant behavior that must be explained away by an absent father, a domineering mother, and a belittled and abused child who grows up to be a deeply disturbed adult living out "perversions" in order to deal with trauma. No attempt is made to discuss fetishism as a form of eroticism without the taint of mental illness. Not all sexual fetishism is about mommy and daddy issues. There's a lot more involved in the fetish world that Avon Curry didn't seem to want to explore.

Bringing us to the writer. That name is an obvious pseudonym and by page 20 I was sure that the androgynous sounding Avon Curry was probably a woman writer. The way that Marjorie and her friend Nancy are depicted, the detailed talk of women's clothes and hairstyling, the sensitive nature of so many of the male characters -- this seemed not to be a male writer at all. And I was right. After consulting The Dictionary of Pseudonyms I learned that Avon Curry was one of several pen names used by the prolific writer Jean Bowden.

Jean Bowden, retired at age 90
There is a lot about Bowden online these days after she formally announced at a 2009 SWWJ conference she was retiring from professional writing. She had a varied career beginning as an editorial assistant for a variety of British paperback houses including Panther and Four Square, moved on to become assistant fiction editor at Women's Own, and ended as editorial consultant for Mills & Boon. She has been credited with discovering Catherine Cookson and a few other bestselling writers. Concurrent with those publishing positions from 1958 to 2009 she used seven different pseudonyms to write over fifty novels consisting of romance, historical fiction, family sagas, crime and detective fiction and tie-in novels for the UK TV series The Brothers and Emmerdale. Her most recent incarnation as novelist is "Tessa Barclay". Using this name she wrote a series of crime/adventure thrillers featuring a series character, the ex-Crown Prince Gregory of Hirtenstein.

The Fetish Murders begins as a crime novel and slowly evolves into a psychosexual mystery but is never a true detective novel. Early in the novel Bowden reveals the identity of the killer and the existence of his mysterious girl friend Angela Good. The book alternates between Peter Stack's sleuthing -- both as a quasi psychological profiler with Luton-Bailey's assistance and a physical evidence gathering detective -- and the tortured behavior of Dennis Justinson determined along with Angela's help to shift the blame to an imaginary mad killer. There is one final twist Bowden adds towards the end of the book that is no real surprise to a modern crime fiction reader and sadly so ineptly handled that it fairly ruins the book. When the end comes it is violent as expected, tragic, a bit pathetic but wholly contrary to how the author led us to believe she felt about her antagonist. When Peter Stack calls Dennis "that thing" I was not just disappointed, I was pissed off.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card R5 -"Author who uses a pseudonym"

Friday, February 20, 2015

FFB: Norman Pink - Neglected Detective

Norman Pink is not your average private detective. He's not chasing after shapely women clients, sneaking pulls on a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk drawer or stumbling into a fistfight every ten pages or so. More likely he's stumbling over the rocky terrain of the English countryside, puffing on his asthma cigarettes, and making excuses for not being home to his very tolerant wife. On occasion he'll indulge in his never-ending work in progress -- a short story parody of Doyle's Great Detective who he has dubbed Sherbolt Houses (his partner is Dr. Tylersdad and housekeeper Mrs. Thames).  It's pure silliness and Norman knows it will probably never be published. Norman is in his mid sixties, a semi-retired ex-policeman, and happily married to a Beth who affectionately calls him Dad. Employed by Peerless Private Inquiry Agents, Ltd, Pink is passing his semi-retired life doing routine work mostly consisting of dreary and sordid divorce cases. But he has an obsession and it is this obsession that serves as the foundation of his first adventure in The Girl Nobody Knows (1965) by Mark McShane.

Years ago he was one of many who witnessed a horrific train wreck. Among the many victims was a young girl Norman had been watching prior to the crash. True to his policeman's instincts he had been wondering who she was, where she was going and why a 12 year old was on a train platform unaccompanied by any adult. When her body remains unclaimed after several days Norman saves her the ignominy of a potter's field burial by paying for her funeral and having a gravestone marking the site with "The Girl Nobody Knows" followed by the number 27 signifying her death statistic in the train wreck.

For the past twelve years Norman has been visiting the cemetery on the anniversary of the train wreck always alone, always seemingly the only person who cares about this anonymous girl. Until the day that opens this book when he chances upon another visitor at the girl's grave site. It's a woman dressed all in brown who seems oblivious to Norman's presence a few feet away. He approaches and gets close enough to see her face but she rushes away. In that brief moment Norman's policeman's training registers the woman's most telling feature -- she has one blue eye and one brown eye.

And so he begins his search for the drably dressed woman with an optical abnormality. With the aid of personal ads, clever role playing and some phone calls to eye doctors he comes up with a list of suitable women from which he begins the painstaking process of elimination until he quite by chance stumbles upon the cemetery visitor. Much to his surprise the woman played a small part in a case he had as a policeman many years ago. And slowly that case proves to be linked to the "Girl Nobody Knows."

This first outing is a real page turner. Pink is one of the most unusual private detectives I've ever encountered and his concern for the dead girl is at times heart wrenching. One night after a long night of searching and questioning Beth asks him, "You don't care too much, do you?" He asks what she means. "That we never had children." "I never even think about it," he assures here. They clasp hands and turn their attention to the TV. But the reader knows better. Norman has created an identity for the girl in the anonymous grave calling her Violette in honor of the color of the dress he last saw her wearing and imagines all sorts of possibilities for what her life was and could have been. He is determined to learn who she is so both he and the girl can finally have some peace.

Norman's second outing Night's Evil (1966) is as far removed in tone and subject matter as his first adventure. The story starts with a typical private eye opening: a wife wants to learn the truth about her husband's death. Elaine Bland hires Norman to find out why her husband Otis was visiting a carnival where he ended up stabbed to death. Strangely, she doesn't care who killed him. She want to know if he had been seeing another woman. She had suspicions about him for months and his violent end seems fitting to her. She only wants her suspicions proven or disproved. Norman first has to track down the location of the traveling carnival and then infiltrate the tightly knit world of its performers and employees.  Secretly he is also interested in finding out the identity of the murderer but he keeps that as close to himself as he did his relationship with Violette in the first book.

The group of primary suspects at the hyperbolically named Blegg's International Shows is quite a motley crew. From the belligerent owner Alfred Bleggs who has a lot of shady business deals he would rather not be discovered to the lonely dwarf Scurly Steeves, an ex-performer who has become the carnival's self-described PR agent, a job that is really no more than a sign painter and poster hanger. Scurly is secretly in love with the sexy young Molly, step-daughter to one of the amusement ride operators who has a dark secret all her own. She spends most of her time practicing knife throwing and earning a few extra shillings taking photographs of the customers then developing them in her makeshift photo lab in her family's tent.

There's also Charles Meek who shows up looking for work and a mystery woman named Carla.  Meek we soon learn is a former physician. Norman is curious why a well-to-do doctor would give up his career for the life of a carnival handyman who does nothing but fix faulty wiring and mend broken electrical sockets. Meek isn't talking. Carla seems to be the reason he stays on at the carnival yet no one has heard of the woman, let alone seen her. Like all the others Meek has a terrible secret, perhaps the scariest part of the book is when Norman learns the truth about this very mysterious man.

Rounding out the crew is Rosa, the gypsy fortune teller who seems to have a genuine knack for seeing into the future. Her visions of a hellish doom will have an eerie resonance in the cinematically rendered climax.

Because this story is confined to a small group of suspects who rarely leave the grounds of the carnival I found it less engaging than The Girl Nobody Knows. McShane creates some mystery in slowly revealing the secret lives of these troubled people but the overall mystery of who killed Otis Bland never seems to have any urgency or importance. Norman is more intrigued by the odd behavior of Charles Meek, the constant lying of the others and the shifty business practices of Bleggs. It's only in the final thirty or so pages that the book becomes exciting. McShane abandons his wishy-washy psychological suspense and transforms the story into a Grand Guignol revenge scheme gone haywire. The solution to the murder comes quite by accident amid a flurry of flying knives, smoke and fire, and hysterics from a trio of characters.

1st US Edition, Doubleday Crime Club (1966)
The final novel in this trilogy is The Way to Nowhere. It's pretty darn scarce. It was not published in the US making it all that more hard to find. My attempt to find an affordable copy failed miserably.  I have no idea what the book is about as I also failed to find any newspaper or magazine reviews of the book.  Maybe one of you lucky enough to live in the UK or Canada might find it in a local library.

The first book is definitely worth reading. If you like Norman enough you may want to move onto the second title to see a new side of him. Both titles were published in the US and UK and both received paperback reprints in the US. If nothing else Night's Evil gives you a few more silly paragraphs from Norman's ongoing Sherbolt Houses story.  That at least will bring you a smile or a chuckle or two. It certainly made Norman laugh.

The Norman Pink Trilogy
The Girl Nobody Knows (1965)
Night's Evil (1966)
The Way to Nowhere (1967)


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Reading Challenge Update: Silver Age Bingo space S6 "Book with professional detective" and
Silver Age Bingo space I5 "Book with spooky title"

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert - Joan Fleming

"You couldn't ever expose Dr Dysert. [...] He's been too clever for too long. They believe in him, probably with a good deal more conviction than they believe in the Holy Ghost, though they declare it every Sunday."

Jethro John has quite a task set before him. He knows that the three deaths of Dr. Dysert's previous wives are anything but what they appear to be -- death from alcoholic coma, a suicide, and an accidental fall. Is any man that unlucky that all of his wives die so unexpectedly and, in two cases, so violently? To Jethro it is far from coincidence and he is determined to prove that each death was orchestrated somehow by Dr. Dysert as part of his sinister design to gain control of his spouses' wealth. In the guise of a journalist Jethro gets to know the locals and through their stories combined with some keen detective skills uncovers the grim truth.

The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert (1955) is more than yet another mad wife killer mystery. There are several mysteries for Jethro to uncover as well as a few for the reader to puzzle out, notably just why Jethro John has come from America to dig into Dr. Dysert's past. Fleming's teasing narrative voice hints that Jethro is not at all what he appears to be. It will be well past the halfway mark, however, before he finds someone who he can trust enough to reveal his true mission in coming to Greenyard.  There are those strange deaths of the women, too.  If indeed each one was a carefully designed murder just how did the good doctor pull them off?  And what did the women truly die of if not the causes stated on their death certificates? It's a slowly played out duel of wits between Jethro and Dr. Dysert.

Dysert jokingly refers to himself as "Dr. Deadcert" alluding to the local's steadfast trustworthiness in his healing powers.  He has nearly the entire town in the palm of his hand.  His charm and easy going manner win over everyone. And his power to use his voice to control behavior and even hypnotize adds greatly to his seeming invincibility and omnipotence.  Jethro has his work cut out for him trying to convince anyone of his suspicions when faced with such a formidable presence.

Luckily, Miss Bettyhill, an elderly woman attracted to Jethro's frank American manner, is open minded enough to listen to his case. He has gathered an oral history from Katharine Mortlock, Dysert's secretary and would-be fiance, in which she tells the detailed stories of Dysert's three wives and their sudden deaths. Now armed with a manuscript he has transcribed verbatim he has some proof of the doctor's guilt. He compliments Miss Bettyhill on being one of the few "real people" he has met in this English village where everyone seems under the physician's influence.  Jethro persuades Miss Bettyhill to read the manuscript and "read between the lines" to see if she cannot see what he is certain is the truth. She accepts and together this incongruous duo turn amateur detectives, risking their lives in order to save Katharine from becoming wife and victim number four.

Fleming begins her story in a lighthearted manner introducing the locals and Jethro in a sort of "Gentle Reader" narrative voice.  She manages to create an ambiguity in the story so that the reader's allegiance wavers between Jethro and Dysert. One is never truly certain if Jethro's interest in the doctor is not tinged with a sinister plan of his own. Why has he travelled from America to accuse a small town doctor in an English village of being a notorious Bluebeard? The narrative tone slowly maneuvers away from archly wry to one of gravitas as the truth becomes clearer. And she manages to increase the tension when Dysert's actions are revealed in their true colors. The closing chapters are a marvel of cat-and-mouse games even if she allows Dysert an egocentric indulgence in a villainy monologue.

All of Joan Fleming's books have been released as digital books by Orion Publishing Group though only available for purchase from the UK amazon site or iBooks. Some of Fleming's books were also released in limited paperback editions by Orion back in 2013. The Deeds of Dr.  Deadcert was one of those titles, but it is now apparently out of print. Of course you can also find the book in the usual online used bookstore websites. The 1950s and 1960s paperback editions are often cheaper then the electronic version.
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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age space G5 "Medical Mystery"

Friday, February 13, 2015

FFB: The Tall Dark Man - Anne Chamberlain

Anne Chamberlain's debut novel The Tall Dark Man (1955) can barely be called a crime novel. Why this book was marketed as a cat and mouse thriller is beyond me. It's not. Yes, there is a crime. But the story is one of those experimental psychological novels that used to flood the shelves in the 1950s. What makes it noteworthy is the voice of the protagonist -- a 13 year old girl. And she is one troubled little girl.

The book is almost a retelling of The Window that remarkable movie with Bobby Driscoll as a boy known for telling lies who witnesses a murder and his desperate attempt to get any adult to believe what he saw was true. Driscoll's character is harassed and hounded by the villains and we fear for him legitimately. Sarah Gross, Chamberlain's heroine of sorts, also is an overly imaginative youngster with a flair for spinning tales but what she sees may not have been real. Unlike the Driscoll character Sarah is more akin to Mary Tilford from The Children's Hour, a mean spirited liar intent on causing harm.

Sarah lives under the shadow of an ugly reputation as a vindictive rumormonger after she tells a very nasty story about one of her male neighbors who slighted her one day. We learn that Sarah spends most of her lonely childhood gazing out of windows, dreaming up stories of the strangers she watches often ending those stories with a lurid finish. In the opening chapter Sarah witnesses a violent fight between two men in hunting garb that ends in a savage and bloody death. But who is going to believe the girl who told such a whopping lie about an adult and impugned the character of some of her schoolmates? Sarah lingers too long at the window and almost too late realizes in horror the murderer is staring at her through his binoculars.

Knowing she cannot tell anyone what she saw without being thought a liar again Sarah is forced to resort to her manipulative ways to escape the school and elude the murderer who she is sure is after her.  Having failed to convince any of the adults to accompany her home or drive her away (she usually walks to school) Sarah holes herself up in the girls' bathroom hoping against hope that the "tall dark man" doesn't get inside and finish her off. Over the course of the book, which takes place in a single evening, the reader gets to know Sarah and her secret life as storyteller and dreamer, her sad upbringing in a home where her father gambled away their savings, a home of heated quarrels and little love. Sarah retreats into her imagination further frustrating her mother and her teachers who have already suggested Sarah be taken to a child psychologist.

The book is a strange mix of psychological study of a borderline antisocial child and an allegory of childhood fears. Chamberlain manages to saddle poor Sarah with a closetful of character flaws ranging from self-loathing to pettiness to desperate longing for one single friend. She's a sad little girl and often one scary little girl as well. In one chilling passage she actually believes that she caused the "tall dark man" to kill the other and begins to identify with the killer recognizing in herself a streak of cruelty that could easily lead to violence. It's hard not to see her as a forerunner to a nastier, less victimized Carrie White. In the first paragraph she makes mention of having had her first period in the past six months and hating herself for "[becoming] a woman". There is a later sequence where she and her mother discuss menstruation with Sarah becoming ever more indignant and spiteful towards her mother when she tries to explain her daughter's ongoing biological changes.

Lost in all of Sarah's ruminating and fixating is the tall dark man of the title. As the story progresses he becomes less a murderer in search of an eyewitness and more of a hazy marauding symbol of everything that a 13 year-old can possibly be afraid of. Chamberlain's writing also tends to waver in and out of nightmarish surrealism and cozy naturalism.  At times her gift for naturalistic dialogue, much of it rendered in spot on Midwestern idiom, gives way to a jarring kind of heightened theatricality peculiar to allegorical playwriting.

The story languishes too much in Sarah's past. Chamberlain heaps on pop psychology explanations for Sarah's tortured emotions. Her continual trips into her past trying to sort out her conflicted feelings for her father and her stepfather grow tiresome. At it weakest moments the story devolves into the well trodden terrain of soap operas. What's at stake and what Sarah fears for in the present is too often abandoned. Intermittently we are reminded of the looming threat when the murderer appears outside windows as a ghostlike face or is seen loitering by the school flagpole. However he never really seems like a menace. He's more of a lingering shadow than a palpable danger.

There are lighthearted moments amid all this grim and self indulgent dreaming. When they do come they are more than welcome. A scene between two janitors complaining about the slovenliness of teenage girls in the third floor girls' bathroom is hysterically funny. Later when a group of students rehearsing a play invade Sarah's bathroom sanctuary she at last finds a handful of allies and much longed for companionship and some long overdue compassion. For me the scenes with the drama students were the best part of the book.

The Tall Dark Man received numerous accolades when it was first published. The paperback edition I have is loaded with blurbs from laudatory reviews that highlight its suspenseful nature. All of the quotes used make the book seem like a real nailbiter and a page turner. One reviewer claims she started the book at 1 AM and didn't put it down until she finished three hours later. But this is a case of exaggeration coupled with overlooking what the book is really about. The final two chapters are the only sections I found to be fraught with tension and the only times I received a smidgen of a frisson. I enjoy being misled in the context of a plot when I read crime fiction, I don't like being misled by marketing hype.

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Reading Challenge update: One of two books I read for Rich Westwood's "1955 Book" for February.