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"

  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charity Ends at Home - Colin Watson

Once again two stories unfold at once in Charity Ends at Home (1968), Colin Watson's fifth satiric exploration of life in the less than idyllic village of Flaxborough. Mortimer Hive is a private detective working on a routine divorce case yet as an apparent former Foreign Office worker he acts if he is on a spy mission. When reporting to his client he resorts to absurd code names and narrates his surveillance of the philandering couple in a grandiloquent jargon.

While Hive is alternately flirting with the local barmaid and making his telephone reports Inspector Purbright and the Flaxborough police are investigating the peculiar drowning death of Henrietta Palgrove who was found upended in her ersatz wishing well used as a home for her pet goldfish. Mrs. Palgrove was noted in Flaxborough for her avid volunteerism and her ongoing letter writing campaign to her favorite charities. Pet charities, one might say. Quite literally. Mrs. Palgrove was devoted to rescuing animals, most especially dogs. She had recently fired off an insinuating letter to the secretary of the Flaxborough and Eastern Counties Charity Alliance (FECCA) threatening her with exposure of mismanagement of funds from the Rover Holme charity. And who is that secretary? None other than the irrepressible Lucilla Teatime.

The two plotlines converge when Purbright's team begins questioning Leonard, Mrs. Palgrove's husband. It soon becomes apparent that Leonard is not only considered the prime suspect in his wife's death but is also somehow involved in the case Mortimer Hive is working on. But is Leonard Hive's client or his target? a series of anonymous letters proven to have come form Mrs. Palgrove's typewriter also add a bit of mystery to the case. It appears she was in fear for her life and the content implies a murder conspiracy had been in place. Miss Teatime proves to be quite a linguistic sleuth using her knowledge of charity publicity to make sense of the ambiguous letter solving one mystery that Purbright failed to see through.

 The ending may a bit to similar to Watson's previous book (Lonelyheart 4122) with another scene in which the killer tries to silence someone who knows too much. Still, Charity Ends at Home is as lively and engaging as all of Colin Watson's crime novels. This time Watson unsheathes his satirist's rapier wit and targets the indifferent authority of schoolmasters, the bluster of self-important civil servants, the paradoxical selfishness of charitable work and the zealotry of its devoted volunteers.

Mortimer drives the story with Miss Teatime riding shotgun compared to her starring role in Lonelyheart 4122. Despite his pompous speech, his chauvinistic view of women and his undeserved vanity Mortimer Hive is a thoroughly affable character. In the dialogue sequences with Miss Teatime we get a hint of not only a close friendship but some shady business in their past. It's clear that Hive and Miss Teatime are miscreants of one sort or another but Watson isn't letting us know exactly what they got up to in their checkered past. It's one reason that you'll want to keep reading more books in the series. I'm going to be a bit let down when I get to the end. There are only nine left for me to read out of the total of twelve books.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space E6 - "Borrowed from a library"

Friday, March 20, 2015

FFB: Lonelyheart 4122 - Colin Watson

Two plot lines unfold simultaneously in Lonelyheart 4122 (1967), a combination detective novel and sophisticated con artist caper involving a couple of missing women and the dating service they both joined. Inspector Purbright, Sgt Sid Love and the rest of Colin Watson's Flaxborough police are on hand to solve the disappearance and possible murders of the two middle-aged women. But it is Lucilla Teatime who steals the show in the second story that deals with her burgeoning romance with a retired Navy officer. It seems more than likely that Member 4122 of the Handclasp House dating service was responsible for the disappearances. Is Lucy doing some investigating of her own? She certainly seems to have an ulterior motive in seeking out a specific type of man when she too joins Handclasp House.

After reading a series of mediocre detective novels, crime novels that really weren't crime novels for the past three weeks I've finally hit my stride this month with a group of very entertaining books that take basic formulas of the private eye novel (I Found Him Dead), the police procedural (The Late Mrs D), and now the predatory fortune hunter plot and turned them inside out and made them altogether fresh and exciting. Watson's style is a blend of graceful wit, intricate plotting, and all out farce. In Lucilla Teatime he has created one of the most sophisticated badass biddies I've encountered in the genre. She continually surprises the reader with her own devious plans and her impressive knowledge encompassing everything from amateur botany to the mechanics of French sports cars. There are some acutely realized comic scenes that might have been lifted from Fawlty Towers like her surreptitious unearthing of a bunch of primroses just prior to her face to face meeting with Commander Jack Trelawney (Ret.) or her attempt to hire a sporty Renault from a car rental agency.

I so enjoyed this book I took not a single note about the plot. Usually I have several pages worth as well as paragraph citations, but there was too much to take in all at once with this book. This time I came out with one Post-It note with two page citations for the scenes I mentioned above. It's best to know as little as possible about this story in order to fully enjoy it. I just went along for the ride enjoying each hair rising turn and sudden jolt along the way. Watson has a talent for making even the simplest of exchanges laugh out loud funny and he does it all with an elegant prose and witty finesse. Most of the fun comes from trying to figure out if Miss Teatime is a rogue like Trelawney or a a true heroine performing the most underhanded form of amateur sleuthing. It's never really clear until the final chapter. And what an ending!

While Purbright and his crew are the primary series characters in Watson's comic crime novels about the bizarre criminal activity that plagues Flaxborough Miss Teatime was such a hit in Lonelyheart 4122 Watson made her a recurring character in later books.  I'm eager to read more of his novels and see what mischief she gets up to in future adventures. This is one of the better examples of a comic crime novel that is consistently funny yet never succumbs to raucous slapstick nonsense. Amid the wit and humor Watson still maintains a good deal of suspense in the deadly serious parts involving an insidious plot. This has been one of my favorite books I've read so far this year.  Go find a copy now!

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Reading Challenge updates:  Silver Age card, space I2 - "Number in the book's title"
Book published in 1967 for Rich Westwood's "Year of the Month" reading challenge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Found Him Dead - Gale Gallagher

Radio actress Dawn Ferris wants to hire Gale Gallagher to find out if a recently kidnapped girl is the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1933, fourteen years prior to the action of I Found Him Dead (1947). Dawn's ex-husband, however, seems to be blackmailing her now that her successful career on radio has established her reputation and made her a household name.  Prior to radio she and Eddie Wells were a dancing act on the a vaudeville circuit.  Eddie has a shady past and a long trail of aliases and debts he has run away from. Gale is used to Eddie's type, her business is not really private investigation but skip tracing. She is unwilling to accept the case that might be connected to the high profile kidnapping and therefore an obvious police matter. Dawn then reaches into her purse and plunks down two crisp one thousand dollar bills. Gale suddenly has an offer she can't refuse.

Gale heads off to Eddie's apartment first hoping that she can find proof that he engineered the kidnapping and hand the case over to the police. But she finds someone got to Eddie Wells first and put a bullet in his forehead.  As careful as she tried to be she was spotted by three people entering the apartment and now she tries to leave unseen as fast as possible.

Over the course of the novel we learn quite a bit about Gale's childhood and her father who was a policeman. We are told that her mother died when she was a baby and that her father raised Gale as a single father. He wanted a son but Gale turned out to be his only child. She often resented being treated as a boy and being groomed to follow in her father's footsteps. Though she came very close she ultimately decided not to enter the Police Academy. Now in her odd line of work she continues to draw on everything her father taught her. Having a cop for a father comes in very handy as well as her father's best friend, also a policeman, happens to be her best contact with the law. 

The case will lead her to the home of the wealthy Alexanders, parents of the kidnapped girl, as well as to a disreputable physician named Dr. Alois Wurber whose clinic may be a front for an illegal adoption outfit. Rounding out the cast are Montgomery Baxter, the Alexander's unctuous family lawyer, given to bursts of melodrama that seem like a cover for something very shady and John Bartley Crane, a children's portrait artist whose charm and good looks create an unexpected distraction to Gale's work.  Throw in another gruesome murder in a very seedy location coupled with an Ellery Queen-like dying message and you have the makings for a nifty noirish private eye novel with a very intriguing background.

The mysterious author/detective as
she appears on the rear dust jacket
"Gale Gallagher" was the pseudonym of Will Oursler (son of mystery writer, journalist and novelist Fulton Oursler) and Margaret Scott. They created Gale Gallagher who ostensibly writes her own adventures in response to the flurry of Philip Marlowe knock-off books that were appearing in the 1940s.  I Found Him Dead was successful enough to spawn a sequel Chord in Crimson (1949), but after that Gale Gallagher disappeared from the world of female private eyes.

Her place in crime fiction history is overshadowed by later more well known women private detectives. Though several female private detective characters appeared in pulp magazines throughout the 1930s, Gale Gallagher was most definitely one of the earliest to be closely modeled on a typical tough guy private eye.  I Found Him Dead has a cool urban feel to the story.  Gale is as steely and calculated as her male counterparts. Quick witted and sharp tongued she's just as quick with her pistol all the while keeping a keen eye on her whiskey bottle.  I hesitate to call this hardboiled but it sure comes the closest of any of the female eyes I've read from this early period. This is a debut worth discovering both as a pioneer work in the subgenre of fictional women private investigators and as damn good mystery novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space N5 - "Author uses a pseudonym"