Thursday, May 26, 2016

1957 BOOK: Conquest after Midnight - Berkeley Gray

For years I kept coming across the Norman Conquest books being offered up for sale on various bookselling websites. “Hmm,” I often mumbled to myself. “I wonder if those are any good.” But I never gave in to temptation. Maybe in the back of my mind knowing that “Berkeley Gray” was one of the many pseudonyms of the prolific thriller and crime fiction writer Edwy Searles Brooks kept me away for decades. The bulk of Brooks’ career was spent writing juvenile adventure stories for the British boys’ magazines and then spending a lot of time writing for Amalgamated Press and helping to further the exploits of Sexton Blake. I’ve never been interested in that kind of thriller so I avoided all of his books under his various guises.

Then one day earlier this year I stumbled across a mini library of Norman Conquest books at a Half Price Books location near me. All of them were $8 or less and so I bought them all. When I learned that Norman Conquest is a sort of clone of Simon Templar and that one of the books I now owned was published in 1957 fitting into this month’s Crime of the Century reading challenge, I decided to finally sample one of the adventures of the man known as the “Gay Desperado”. My fears all proved well founded. Even though this book was written in the 1950s it was like travelling back to the early twentieth century and read very much like a boy’s adventure story.

Like much of this pulp fiction the story is fast paced and often quite fun. And yet it is plagued with hoary plot devices, shallow observations about human nature, naïve or stupid characters who fail to see the obvious, and cringe worthy dialogue. Witness, for example, what Fiona says after a gasoline tanker crashes through her living room wall and explodes in a fiery inferno. Does she break down in tears, scream, rant, or rave now that her home and all her belongings have literally gone up in smoke? No, she wimpily exclaims, “Oh dear! What a muddle!”

There is nothing remotely modern about Conquest after Midnight (1957) which is a very old-fashioned potboiler. There is a rich master criminal (a prominent member of Parliament who owns an independent political newspaper) who devises a preposterous plot in order to remove a former business partner he cheated and who is now planning to expose him. Does he threaten him with violence or shoot him dead? Does he hire a thug to beat the guy up or otherwise scare him into silence? No, the M.P. pretends to be interested in starting a private zoo, buys a lion, and hires a couple of men to let the lion loose on his enemy who he knows takes an evening stroll. Let the lion be blamed for having escaped and mauling the man in a surprise but bizarre encounter at night. And everyone chalks it up to an accident. You have to give Rupert Hargrove credit for over-the-top imagination. Other bad guys might just try to run down the guy with a car. I think Hargrove watched too many old movies.

Though filled with cinematic escapades and melodramatic incidents the story is very thin. It easily could be told in less than 100 pages but Brooks’ long career in writing serials for magazines reveals the curse of this kind of penny-a-word writing: constant and needless reiteration. If the story was read from week to week the recounting of previous events would be somewhat necessary. To have Conquest tell characters things we’ve already been told three pages prior is more than annoying. A simple sentence like “He told Fiona what he told the police.” would serve perfectly fine. Not for Brooks. He must tell us two, three, sometimes as many as four times things that need only be explained once.

I’ll admit that it was fun to see how many quirks Norman Conquest has in common with Simon Templar and similar “gentleman adventurers” found in thriller fiction. He is independently wealthy having amassed a fortune from somewhat crooked dealings, helping himself to portions of the wealth of the rich villains he does battle with. Like Templar he leaves behind a calling card. Conquest’s has the significant date 1066 printed in red. Cute.

Towards the end of the book there are absurd surprises:

  • A coil of rope Conquest “invariably” wore “as an additional article of attire.” Added as an afterthought: “Easily carried between his undershirt and shirt and quite comfortable.” Batman’s utility belt would be a lot more comfortable.
  • Wry commentary meant to be witty but falling short of the mark: “This was no occasion for applying the Queensberry rules” when Conquest starts throwing punches in a fistfight.
  • The insults and epithets are pretty tame, too: “You’re a fast worker, slug.” “Careless of you, poison, to come alone...” “Don’t be such a rabbit...” (This last one spoken by a murderer to his cohort)
  • An Italian villain actually exclaims “Maledizione!” when foiled as if he were Snidely Whiplash in a literally translated Dudley Do-Right cartoon.
  • Conquest boards his private airplane (a Mills Conister Fury) with his wife and pilots his way to Italy to rescue the requisite damsel in distress who of course is being used as a bargaining chip. Hand over the incriminating documents or the girl gets it--- all the way over in Italy, no less.

This is the type of book where the rich and powerful villain can’t be bothered to save his own skin. He hides behind his façade of respectability and hires goons and lummoxes, and in one case a femme fatale who owes him a favor, to do all his ludicrous dirty work. There would be no story if these crooks behaved like real violent criminals who want to protect themselves and just shot everyone dead. Instead we get all this globetrotting silliness, murder by a “monstrous device” that resembles lion claws, kidnapping on board a cable car in the Italian mountains, and stowing the abducted damsel in a refugio hidden in the forest.

I expect more from a writer with a long career in concocting this kind of formulaic crime novel. Most crime writers who have successfully had long careers spanning multiple decades found it necessary to evolve and adapt to reflect how the plots, characters and formulae of crime fiction change with the times. Brooks seemed to find it very easy to cling to his origins and remain firmly rooted in the past. After reviewing the various bibliographies at the Edwy Searles Brooks tribute website I learned that Brooks recycled many of his stories. This tends to be the curse of the writer who feels compelled to produce numerous books at a logic defying rate. John Creasey did the same thing in order to deliver his hundreds of books in his various writing personas. Though many of the Norman Conquest books are noted as being rewrites of plots Brooks used in boys' papers or other pulp magazines Conquest after Midnight apparently was an original story for this series. Could have fooled me.

* * *

This is my second contribution for the Crime of the Century vintage mystery blog meme sponsored by Past Offences. During May we read books published in 1957. My other, much more enjoyable read, was Three for the Chair by Rex Stout.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

IMPRESSIVE IMPRINTS: Red Badge Detective, 1930-1970s

One of the longest running mystery novel imprints was Red Badge Detective put out by Dodd Mead. The earliest date I can nail this down to is 1930. According to an advertisement included in the first few titles, this imprint was invented to distinguish the best of Dodd Mead's mystery novels. But as far as I can tell every single mystery novel published by Dodd Mead throughout the 1930s and 1940s carried this imprint info.

It was only towards the end of the imprint in the late 1960s and through the mid 1970s that only a few books carried the Red Badge logo. For instance, Agatha Christie's books were not Red Badge throughout the 60s or 70s while someone relatively new like Leonard Holton was given the Red Badge logo. I guess as Dodd Mead decided it was no longer necessary to brand a recognizable mystery writer like Christie and saved the Red Badge logo for less well known writers they were interested in highlighting.

Inside my copy of The Tragedy of Twelvetrees by Arthur Rees (1930) is this ad facing the title page explaining the reason for the imprint:

The Red Badge imprint also sponsored a mystery novel writing contest that lasted only four or five years. The first winner in March 1937 was Clifford Knight for his detective novel The Affair of the Scarlet Crab which introduced his sleuth Huntoon Rogers. He won $2000 in addition to having his work published. Knight went on to write 23 more detective and suspense novels. Other winners such as Ruth Sawtell Wallis whose first novel Too Many Bones won the prize (only $1000 for her) in 1943 were not as prolific. And some wrote only one novel, collected the prize, saw the book published and were never heard from again. Check out the photo of the rear flap of Sailor, Take Warning! (shown below) for the lowdown on the contest.

The logo went through a few changes as can be seen in these photos. I have no idea of the significance of 449-4A or what it might refer to. Anyone who does know please feel free to leave a comment below.
Original Red Badge logo (1930s-1940s)
First endpaper design included a lightning bolt

Later endpaper design and
Final Red Badge logo design (1950s)

Once again this post shows a mixture of DJs from my own collection and some that I managed to find from online booksellers' catalogs. The authors who were published by Dodd Mead during the heyday of the Red Badge imprint were among the elite of mystery and crime fiction. They included Agatha Christie, R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode, Kelley Roos, Michael Innes, Clifford Knight, Lee Thayer, Hugh Pentecost/Judson Phillips, Bart Spicer, William McGivern, Ursula Curtiss, Rae Foley, two books by Cornell Woolrich, and two books by Edmund Crispin after he was dropped by Lippincott.

Pontifex, Son & Thorndyke (1931)

The Body on the Beam (1932)
The Crime on the Solent (1934)
The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936)
The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1938)
The Stoneware Monkey (1939)
Cancelled in Red (1939)
Easy to Kill (1939)
The Daffodil Affair (1942)
Rear flap from
Sailor Take Warning
Sailor, Take Warning! (1944)
The Secret of the Lake House (1946)

Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952)

Nightmare (1956)
Violence (1958)
Flowers by Request (1964)
Out of the Depths (1966)
Money from Holme (1965)
Appleby's Other Story (1974)

Note that by 1974 while the Red Badge name was still being used, the logo with the detective had been abandoned on the spine of the DJ. The imprint, the brand name and the use of the logo would disappear from all mystery and suspense fiction by the end of the 1970s.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

LEFT INSIDE: Post-Christmas in Tennessee, 1963

"All of us had a delightful time and hope that cleaning up the wreckage wasn't too much for you."

It's rare that I come across anything for this one time regular feature where I write about things I've found in books. But when I do I'm excited to share it with the world. This letter was discovered in the pages of a copy of Medusa's Head by Josephine Daskam Bacon. I'll be writing about Bacon's supernatural stories later this year, probably in the fall.

The letter was written by Arthur Bushing, a Midwestern American academic, to his parents who lived somewhere near Knoxville, Tennessee. It's an interesting slice of life from 1960 written by a seriously minded man who cares for his parents and family.  His concern for a plumbing problem in their bathroom made me smile.

Click to enlarge in order to read the full letter. I just tested it and it enlarges to a huge, very legible photo.

I like that he signed the letter Son. So old fashioned. Reminds me of my mother and uncle who were never called by their real names in their home by their parents. My grandmother always called them Sis and Sonny. Odd, but folksy and revealing of their backgrounds.
I learned a lot about Bushing from his obituary published on the website for Maryville College.  His father was also named Arthur S. Bushing and this book was owned by his father who stamped his name on the endpapers and wrote his name in pencil on the flyleaf. Both Bushing Senior and Bushing Junior were English professors.  Bushing the son attended Maryville College, graduated in 1943, was hired as a physics instructor (his minor in his degree), then changed to teaching English which was his major field of study. He also served in World War 2 earning some military medals for his active duty in two European battles. He worked his way up the ivy-covered ladder from professor to department chair to Dean of Men and retired in 1996 after fifty-three years at the same institution. Remarkable. This kind of dedication in a career and loyalty to one employer is rare these days.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

FFB: The Hammersmith Maggot - William Mole

UK 1st edition (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955)
Illustration by collectible DJ artist Biro
THE STORY: Alistair Casson Duker (Casson to his friends) is a wine merchant, gourmand, and a self-confessed collector of "human oddities." He watches, observes and investigates when his sixth sense alerts him to people whose behavior suggests that they "live beyond the law." His success with the Witch of Bath case and the journal article he published based on his experience has lent him a reputation for a very different kind of amateur detective work. At the opening of The Hammersmith Maggot (1955) he has set his eyes on a fellow club member Lockyer whose drinking has increased, whose normally unruffled, polite manner is becoming self-involved and worrisome. Duker is sure that something is wrong. So he takes the man home and through a combination of subtle conversation aided by Lockyer's alcoholic loosened inhibition gets Lockyer to admit that he is being blackmailed. But the blackmail scheme is for a wholly fabricated story. Yet so insidiously constructed and damaging to his reputation that Lockyer cannot prove it false. He has succumbed to the blackmailer's demand but as with all blackmail the fear that this "maggot" will strike again with another false accusation has practically ruined him. The story he threatens Lockyer with is that he is a pedophile.

THE CHARACTERS: Duker is a fine creation. A vigilante of the soul, a man driven to root out injustices that would otherwise never be noticed by the law. He marvels at the perversity of a man who would imagine he could extort money from people by telling them complete lies spun from a few threads of credibility based on the truth of the person's private life. How did he know of Lockyer's involvement in charity that benefits misfit teenage boys, that Lockyer spends his free time teaching young men how to sail on his yacht? How did he know Lockyer had enough money to pay without drawing attention to a sudden large withdrawal of cash? Duker starts to paint a portrait of this parasite of a criminal -- a petty man, one privy to his target's banking history and personal life, and -- through a series of coincidences and dogged detective work -- that the blackmailer is a collector of unusual objets d'art. This last bit of information provides Duker an idea for a clever trap in order to expose the blackmailer.

Duker has a policeman friend from whom he manages to extract information that supports his theory of the blackmail scheme. There are others who have been victimized and all of them have been forced to pay for fear of the lies being exposed to their loved ones or employers.

UK 1st paperback (Beacon Books, 1957)
The rest of the cast is made up of the blackmailer's victims all of whom have been threatened with exposure for false accusations similarly constructed so that no proof can be presented to clear the victim's name and yet enough truth exists to make the lie very plausible. Marital infidelity, lax business practices are just two of the other threats of exposure that result in the victims paying out large sums of cash to the "maggot" that Duker knows under his real name of Perry. The novel becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as he forces Perry out of hiding, catching him out of one of his many assumed identities, and by revealing himself and playing to his weaknesses. Duker plans to make the man pay for his crimes by making him feel exactly like his victims. But this game does not come without terrible unplanned consequences. When Duker realizes that he is responsible for the death of one of his witnesses he is even more determined to bring about Perry's undoing.

It is interesting that the author's wife, Elizabeth Hely, only a few years later would try her hand at a crime novel that in essence explores exactly what Mole did here. Duker is a vigilante for unknown victims just as Mark was a seeker of justice for his raped and murdered wife in I'll Be Judge I'll Be Jury. Both husband and wife writers seem to have an uncanny skill in dreaming up stories which uncover the darkest and most hidden of motivations. While Hely's book is perhaps the more unnerving of the two The Hammersmith Maggot certainly is one of the most original twists of the tale of a blackmailer and the kind of Dorian Gray world of a small-minded vengeful man who allows his dreams of unbridled vanity and thirst for power over others to turn him into a monster.

QUOTES: "When would the English learn that a pleasant face and an aptitude for sport were not automatic guarantees of honesty?"

"You say that Fenton's threat was fit only for a cheap novelette. So it was. But there is a part of everybody's mind which yearns to believe in cheap novelettes, in music under the moon, in handsome heroes, in masked intrigue and love triumphant. It is trash and it is untrue, and that is why people believe it."

"Some men collect postage stamps. Some spend their holidays hunting for rare flowers in Continental woods. Some, like your husband, stalk stags. I collect human beings who live along the fringes of illegality. And I collect them Mrs Gordonstoun, because it is then that their behaviour is least inhibited and most human."

"He could just imagine Perry in, for example, [his club], moving like a prim and voracious lamprey between the pillars and the pictures."

"When you were faced by the abyss over which the human mind hung poised, then you got vertigo. You got the height sickness that urged you to throw yourself over and end the intolerable strain of clinging to your balance. And you got nausea, too, when you saw the things which moved with rustling, unclean wings in the depths."

"To blackmail, and in the end to kill, for snobbery was a repulsive comment on the human mind. To do those things for silver candlesticks he could comprehend. But to kill for a handshake was ludicrous, ten-dimensional, a music hall joke."

William Younger as seen on the
rear of the Beacon paperback
THE AUTHOR: William Younger was Dennis Wheatley's step-son from his wife's first marriage. Under the pen name "William Mole" he wrote several thrillers and crime novels, three of which feature Alistair Casson Duker. The Hammersmith Maggot was the first. Under the title Small Venom (as it was published in the US) it became part of Jacques Barzun & Wendell Taylor's series of reprints called "50 Classics of Crime Fiction 1950-1975". Oddly, Younger first started writing poetry and his first book was Inconstant Conqueror (1938), a collection of his poems illustrated by his sister Diana. This was followed by two more books of verse in 1944 and 1946. Much later in life he also collaborated with his novelist wife on a handful of travel books and one book on their great love in life -- wine.

EASY TO FIND? Your chances are pretty damn good for this one, gang. There are about 50 copies right now for sale, mostly in affordable paperback editions. Pick a title, any title. There are three titles the book was published under!  I've shown three editions on this post:  the original UK hardcover, the first UK paperback, and the US paperback published under the title Shadow of a Killer. The only two not shown are the original US hardcover called Small Venom (Dodd Mead, 1956) and its later 1980 reprint in Barzun & Taylor's series. The 1980 reprints were created specifically for sale to libraries, come in dull green unadorned boards with no no DJs, and aren't worth using as illustrations. I had no luck in finding a Dodd Mead edition for sale with the DJ.

William Mole's Crime & Detective Novels
(Only the last three feature Casson Duker in the lead role)

Trample an Empire (1952)
The Lobster Guerillas (1953)
The Hammersmith Maggot (1955)
 -- US title: Small Venom
 -- in paperback: Shadow of a Killer
Goodbye Is Not Worthwhile (1956)
Skin Trap (1957) -- US title: You Pay for Pity