Friday, July 22, 2016

FFB: Puzzle for Puppets - Patrick Quentin

THE STORY: Lt. Peter Duluth (soon to be senior grade) is on Navy leave in San Francisco. His wife Iris has flown in from Los Angeles where she is finishing up a small part in a movie. Peter's leave coincides with Iris' 26th birthday and they decide to make the most of their limited time together hoping for an amorous weekend where they do not plan to leave their bedroom. That is if they can find one. Hotels are booked up and they're not having much success finding a room. Iris is about to suggest that they stay with her cousin Eulalia Crawford when a vivacious and very loud woman named Mrs. Rose overhears Peter and Iris discussing their hotel room dilemma. Mrs. Rose graciously offers them her room. It seems Iris has touched Mrs. Rose's sentimental side. It also helps that Iris bears a striking resemblance to a woman she knows very well. The Duluths gratefully accept the hotel room, the staff make the registration switch and thus begins an adventure that will include multiple cases of mistaken identity, abounding coincidences, a murdered puppeteer, and some insanity at a circus.

CHARACTERS: Peter and Iris Duluth are one of the most believable married couples in mysterydom. Not only are they truly in love, they have an unabashedly frank way of talking about their attraction for each other. This is a married couple with a sex life that is talked about openly and wittily. They can't wait to get in bed and they can't seem to keep their hands off each other. The sex talk and their attitudes are never vulgar, nor does it descend into wink-wink-nudge-nudge cutesiness. It's just real and human. Iris becomes the center of their truly surreal adventure when she is mistaken for her look-alike cousin Eulalia and she can't help but indulge in her avocation of an amateur sleuth much to Peter's disappointment.

Peter also gets involved in an absurd incident at a Turkish bathhouse leaving him without his navy uniform and without a towel at one point. So we have not only frank talk about their sex lives but an R rated sequence with loads of naked men, including Peter, at the baths. There's even a two sentence bit about Peter being cruised by a young gay boy. This is not your typical WW2 era detective novel by a long shot. But then it was written by two of mysterydom's most famous gay writers. You're bound to get some traipsing into taboo territory with Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler at the helm of your mystery novel.

The supporting cast is suitably fabulous. In addition to Mrs. Rose and her loud laugh and larger than life personality we have two private eyes one of whom helps Peter out of his predicament at the bathhouse. Later this private eye Hatch Williams along with his partner Bill Daggett help the Duluths get to the bottom of the multiple mysteries that begin with who stole Peter's navy uniform and leads to the bizarre stabbing murders of two women, and the identity of a lisping man, the solution to some enigmatic utterings from an inebriated criminologist, and tracking down the man who is running around San Francisco dressed in Lt Duluth's uniform and pretending to be him. Even the smallest walk-on part will turn out to be an important feature in this madcap plot that takes the Duluths on a wild chase throughout the city from the St. Anton Hotel to Eulalia's weird puppet workshop in her studio apartment, from a dive bar in Chinatown to the S.F. zoo, all of it culminating in a near fatal trap in the maze-like backstage corridors and basements of the Lawrence Arena.

Chinatown, San Francisco, circa mid 1940s

ATMOSPHERE: Here is one book published in 1944 that is very much about life during wartime. In addition to all the interesting business about navy officers and enlisted men and the rules they must follow even while on leave. Peter is very much concerned about getting his uniform back. For one thing it cost him $80 and should he be caught be some Navy V.I.P. out of uniform while on leave he'd be in a heck of a lot of trouble. Other references to the war include gas rationing, ration stamps, curfew, and my favorite -- the tattooed lady at the circus sideshow who has "Buy War Bonds" inked across her abdomen ("Surely no other artiste had risen to her country's emergency with such selfless nobility"). The Duluths get around town mostly by using public transportation, especially the trolleys, which allows for some interesting observations of everyday people


"Happy birthday, baby"
"Nylons! Peter, how--how on earth did you get them?"
I kissed her ear. "By selling my body in the right places."

"Something about the room makes me shameless. I think it's the cupids' bare behinds."

"One of the toughest things in the world is explaining to a wife just how you can love her with every part of you and still be raring to get back into battle."

1940s era post card - Bank of America, Owl Drug & cable car turnaround on Powell St.

"I had forgotten what unkind variations age can play on the theme of the masculine form. [...] Men in bulk, without their clothes, lose all personal identity."

"My indignation which had been simmering so long seethed over when I looked down at the Beard snoring his head off on the bed--our bed. That was the ultimate insult."

"I just didn't care. It wasn't as if the mystery ever got nearer to being solved. [...] It was just a succession of doors, one door leading to another door leading to another door leading in an endless chain to the madhouse. Let them all kill each other. Let a howling mob string me up on the nearest lamppost as a mass murderer. I'm through."

THINGS I LEARNED: Adolph Sutro was a wealthy mining and real estate entrepreneur who helped develop several public works and supported arts in San Francisco. He created Sutro Baths, a huge salt water swimming pool for public use that lasted nearly one hundred years. It was converted into an ice skating rink in the 1950s but was destroyed in a fire in 1966.

Navy officers and enlisted men are required to wear their uniform when in public while on leave. Peter brings with him two uniforms, his regular khaki one at the bathhouse and his "glamour uniform" he brought along especially for Iris' birthday celebration when they go out to eat and dance.

EASY TO FIND? Some good news for a change! There are multiple editions (US, UK and France) of Puzzle for Puppets, especially in paperback. Most of the Peter and Iris Duluth mysteries by Patrick Quentin were reprinted several times since their original publication back in the 1940s. I count at least five different paperback edition, the most recent being the 1989 IPL paperback. There are a few hardcover copies, both US and UK, and some with DJs out there, too.

This is truly one of the best of the Peter & Iris Duluth mysteries.  Excellent plot w/ lots of puzzling riddles, authentic WW2 background, colorful characters, loads of action, and a generous helping of weirdness -- a whole lot of fun.  Happy hunting!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: "Murder à la Carte" by Jean Toussaint-Samat

Sheer serendipity today!

In researching the life and works of Jean Toussaint-Samat, a new to me author whose book The Dead Man at the Window I will soon be reviewing, I came across this nugget of Gallic Golden Age Fiction. As luck would have it's all about poison. Didn't think I'd have anything more to continue the conversation about toxicity in detective fiction, but here you go.

This scarce English translation was published in The Living Age which billed itself as "an eclectic literary magazine" that lasted from 1844 to 1941. Toussaint-Samat's story appeared in the June 1, 1931 issue. It was translated by an uncredited person from the French and originally appeared in Revue Bleue, a "Paris Literary and Political Semimonthly".

All four pages of this short short appear below. Enjoy!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Three Thirds of a Ghost - Timothy Fuller

Let's talk about meta-detective fiction.

How many times have we encountered a line like this: “But Inspector that kind of thing only happens in books or detective movies. This is real life.” I’ve lost count, frankly. And how many times have I groaned at those lines! There ought to be a law for anyone who writes a novel never to draw comparisons between real life and fiction.

But there is a certain type of self-referential mystery novel that I do get a kick out of. Often the red flag is the inclusion of a mystery writer in the cast of characters. It's almost guaranteed that the story will be chock-full of crime fiction allusions, in-jokes and talk about the genre itself. This kind of meta-fiction when handled correctly can be both entertaining and enlightening. The commentary tends not to be done as a purposeless aside as in the bothersome "But this is real life" line. The discussions are integral to the plot and reveal an overarching intent behind the novel.

In the hands of a sly and witty writer like Timothy Fuller whose Three Thirds of a Ghost (1941) does indeed include a mystery writer the plot becomes a platform for commentary and criticism on the genre itself and the purpose of sensational fiction in popular culture. The title alone ought to signal to the reader that the story is intended to be taken not too seriously.

George Newbury, literary novelist has turned to detective fiction in order to capitalize on the popularity of the genre and increase his bank account. He sees his new career as slumming but the public loves his books featuring an Asian detective known as “The Parrot.” Just before he is about to make a speech at a literary gathering in one of Boston’s most popular bookstores someone shoots him. No one in the audience saw the gun being fired including the two men standing beside Newbury at the speaker’s dais.

Newbury had just been about to publish a roman a clef about a very rich and influential family. All of them are present at the literary event. So is Jupiter Jones, Fuller’s amateur sleuth who previously had solved the murders in Harvard Has a Homicide. Jones finds a gun neatly placed under the seat of one of the audience members. The discovery of the gun is witnessed by Newbury’s Chinese male secretary named Lin who many think is the model for Newbury’s detective. Lin is a gun toting Charlie Chan wannabe who is certain that Jupiter Jones is responsible for his employer’s murder. The two of them act as rivals in the role of amateur detective while the police home in on the puzzling evidence of who might have been the shooter.

The book is filled with ironic wit and subtle allusions to everything from Charlie Chan to the preposterous plotting of popular detective fiction. (How's that for snappy alliteration?) Here's a lengthy sampling from the longest section in the book where the characters discuss the evolution of the mystery novel and its relationship to real crime:

"We've just been discussing the public reaction to a murder of this kind. There's bound to be more excitement than sorrow. Quite usual, perhaps, but is it the result of the popularity of mystery fiction? Which came first? Was the public educated to its interest by the mystery story or was the mystery story the result of a public demand for more mysteries?"

"The fictional thriller glamorized murder," said Burton. "It was a mistake. Murder is more a question of glands than glamour."

Jupiter quips later to Burton who is an anthropologist: "I understand, Doctor, the police are looking for you to measure the skulls of the suspects." And the discussion continues:

"There won't be a new type of crime and therefore the mystery story is on the way out. There've been three stages of its development. Novelty, a believable realism, and lastly the fad of the puzzle. The novelty couldn't last, realism went out the their mass production, and a mere puzzle can't stand up for long in book form."

"I don't agree about the loss of realism," said Betty firmly. "I believe every one I read."

"So do I," said Burton, "until I've finished it."

Burton continues for a while castigating publishers and writers and readers alike. Then mentions that baffling crimes are a rarity in real life. No more than ten a year he estimates. Jupiter asks him if he thinks Newbury's murder is one of those baffling cases. Burton agrees that it is. "It looks to me as if someone had gone out of his way to commit murder, though."

There are lots of references to the stereotyped beliefs of the Asian in a mystery story too. As created by Fuller the literary secretary Lin is not at all a stereotype. He speaks in perfect unaccented English, he is an intellectual, yet never once resorts to Confucian snippets of wisdom. But that doesn't mean that other characters in the novel aren't exempt from occasional lapses in judgment often letting their prejudices show.

Lin and Jones reluctantly join forces at the novel's midpoint and Lin proposes that together they trap the murderer with a blackmail stunt. Jones is leery of such a cliché: "That gag has been used before. You're apt to find it at least once in every ten mystery stories." But Lin counters that blackmail is used "because it is based on a sound knowledge of human reaction. A guilty man receiving such a note must act upon it." And then Betty steps in:

"You know, coming from him it might work."

[Lin:] "That is hardly a compliment, Miss Mahan but what you mean has occurred to me"

"I didn't mean..." She blushed slightly and waved her hand. "I guess I go to too many movies."

Much earlier in the book Jones stoops to thinking of Lin as a sort of stock character from fiction and not as Lin really is portrayed:

Jupiter stood up quietly and put up his hands. He had recognized Lin's voice and even if he hadn't known the man had a gun he would have followed no other course. Years of mystery story reading had conditioned him to the proper behavior toward Orientals in dark alleys.
When Jupiter is caught in a compromising situation after he tries to attack Lin with a flashlight the police accuse him of being an interfering amateur. "Who do you think you are, Dashiell Hammett?" Then they remind him of his involvement in the murder at Harvard where he was viewed as a meddling, "eccentric graduate student."  "Are you doing the same thing now?" the cop demands.

Jones quips, "Eccentricity can hardly be construed as an overwhelming impediment in the path of successful detection."

A few pages on Jones confesses that he's been a fool and his impulsive behavior is mismatched with how a rational person ought to react:

It certainly was not reasonable to ask a girl to marry you the same night you'd been caught with no shoes on trying to hit a Chinaman over the head with a flashlight. A short time ago [Lin] had been definitely a Sinister Oriental. Now with his hat turned down and his hands in his pockets he looked only small, wet, and unhappy.

Events had produced a mass hypnosis; sanity, in himself and in others, had been replaced by pure fictional behavior. Murder, as an institution, was not to blame.

All this talk of real and fictional murder then allows Fuller to slip in some satirical social commentary. Often it comes with an unexpected blow:

The discussion turned to a general consideration of the literary scene and Jupiter found it pleasant and relaxing. Obviously Burton and Day had exhausted their talk about Newbury's murder during the course of the evening and until something new developed Jupiter was ready to forget it himself. The ease with which he could put it out of his mind was not surprising to him. If the human ability to forget could cause a second World War it was no trick to abandon a couple of murders.
Feels like a slap in the face, doesn't it?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

1944 BOOK: Death Looks Down - Amelia Reynolds Long

For some reason I keep stumbling across academic mysteries ever since that Tuesday Night Blogger salute back in June. Death Looks Down (1944) is another mystery set on a college campus and one of the more gruesome mystery novels I've read this year. With a high body count and some very nasty ways for some unfortunate characters to shuffle off this mortal coil it makes for some flesh creeping reading. A familiarity with the work of Edgar Allan Poe will prepare the reader for the onslaught of a variety of weird murders and hiding of dead bodies found in its pages.

I wasn't expecting this to be as good as it turned out. After all, Amelia Reynolds Long has a reputation for being one of the many authors consigned to that dubious hall of fame known as "Alternative Mystery Writers." I've written about one of her loonier books (The Leprechaun Murders) and have read five others. All of them show a talent for bizarre plotting told in an unfortunate writing style dominated by improper word choices, poor grammar, surreal metaphors and lapses in logic. Much to my surprise Death Looks Down is not only almost completely free of those writing faults the plot, although very weird, all works out rather well. That this book was published by Ziff-Davis, a publisher with a smart editorial staff, might have something to do with the final product. Her previous publishing house, Phoenix Press, was not known for editing at all let alone publishing writers who had a command of English or the use of logic in creating plots. Death Looks Down also succeeds because Long focuses on her two areas of expertise: literature and academia.

Katherine "Peter" Piper, Long's mystery writer/sleuth, has decided to pursue a master's degree and has enrolled in University of Philadelphia's English literature graduate program. Along with six others she is currently taking a seminar on the works of Poe. Discovery of a manuscript of Poe's morbid elegy "Ulalume" in his own handwriting and its subsequent theft and later disappearance sets off a wild tale of greed, collecting mania, and murder.

The characters are completely involved in the multiple crimes and trying to prevent anyone else from dying at the hands of a mad murderer who finds inspiration for his killing spree in the pages of Poe's grotesque tales. Though published in 1944 we get no inkling of the time period other than it is definitely not modern. Reynolds has an ultra-conservative worldview and finds it necessary to express this through her characters. The only aspect of the book that resembles anything remotely 40ish is that everyone is obsessed with social niceties and etiquette. From coarse Sgt. Boone, an average guy cop whose speech is riddled with slang to the prim and proper Miss Kutz who dresses and talks like a little girl every character is always making some aside about proper behavior. It's as if each character is channeling Miss Manners.

Sgt. Boone to a suspect: "Do you generally walk into people's rooms when they ain't home, Mr. Phillips?"

Ginnie Pat in the college dining hall to her two table mates: "May I be excused?" [Seriously? Graduate students?  In a dining hall? Help me.]

He paused to reach for his pipe; then, remembering that he was in the library where smoking was forbidden, he regretfully put it back again.

The last sentence shows you how Long has tendency to overstate the obvious. But she just needed to remind us that everyone was sitting in the library where, for Long, etiquette is paramount. I'll spare you all the stuff in the beginning of the novel when the first victim is discovered in the stacks and how incongruous a murder investigation can be in a library "where there are rules." Maybe it was meant to be amusing, but it comes off as schoolmarmish.

Arthur Rackham's illustration for "Metzengerstein"
from the rare George Harrap & Co 1935 limited edition
The book is pure puzzle with 99% of the story devoted to solving the crimes. There is no attempt to develop character relationships or give us deep insights into their lives, make any type of social commentary (other than the etiquette nonsense), or remind the reader that the story takes place during wartime. That's fine with me because the story is engrossing enough with multiple puzzles to keep you turning the pages. At two key moments Long actually manages to create a chilling atmosphere worthy of her inspirational source. The section inspired by the obscure Poe tale "Metzengerstein" includes one of her best written horror sequences. It both repels and fascinates in its depiction of college kids gone wild with hedonism and their pursuit of grotesque amusements. The illustration on the first edition dust jacket will give you a hint as to what is involved. There is also an unconscious nod to Christianna Brand's style of detective novel in that several of the characters takes turns in proposing solutions to the mystery. By the end of the book four separate and plausible solutions have been worked in out in part or in total. Some feat for Amelia Reynolds Long who usually has difficulty in turning out one coherent solution to her murder mysteries!

One thing I wish she hadn't done was to divide the book in sections with each named after a Poe tale. This spoils what could have been several gory surprises when the victims were discovered. Instead, as the reader approaches each new section he already knows what to expect, especially since three of the five sections are inspired by very well known Poe stories.

THINGS I LEARNED: There was a lot about the publication history of Poe's writing, his work as a editor at two magazines, and a passing reference to Griswold. And that last bit I had to look up.

Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857)
Rufus Griswold started out as one of Poe's supporters when he published his poetry in the groundbreaking anthology Poets & Poetry of America (1842). But their tacit business friendship turned ugly when Poe reviewed the final book. In his thoroughly critical essay of the anthology Poe targeted the unbalanced editorial focus. Griswold obviously favored some poets over others. One poet, for example, had over forty poems included while in Poe's opinion other poets received little to no attention. The absence of some of the best writers of the day was also pointed out. Griswold never forgot that critical essay and he became Poe's rival for the rest of his life. When Poe died Griswold wrote an unflattering obituary hardly eulogizing the man instead leaning heavily on character assassination. To this day what Griswold wrote, much of it lies according to Poe's friends and relatives, is the portrait most people have of Poe when they think of him: morose, alcoholic, drug addicted, temperamental, anti-social, and friendless.

The real detective of Death Looks Down, the character who presents the final and true solution, is Edward Trelawney, an investigator for the Philadelphia DA's office who is of Irish descent. He speaks Gaelic and tends to launch into his native tongue when he's angry. There is one instance when an Irish word appears in the story. I'd never heard or read it: spalpeen - Irish slang for a rascal.

* * *

This is my first review for a book published in 1944 for Rich Westwood's Crime of the Century meme for July. I'll have two more to entice you before this month is over.