Wednesday, December 23, 2015

If Only In My Dreams

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all the rest of it, gang!

In sympathy for all of you who will be traveling and may experience weather delays I offer this upbeat holiday tune from Nick Lowe.


And this one from Greg Lake so gracefully captures the true meaning of Christmas.


Whoever or whatever you believe in, however you celebrate this end of the year, have a memorable and magical time. Make the most of it you wonderful people out there in the dark.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Ghosts 2015: Two Short Short Ghost Tales

Each year at this time Loren Eaton who writes at his blog I Saw Lightning Fall invites creative writers to challenge themselves with the micro short story called a drabble. One hundred words -- no more, no less. The only other rules are that each story must have a Christmas theme and must be in the ghost story tradition.  Some take the traditional Victorian road paved with eerie frissons and visited by wispy ghosts, others travel down the darker, bloodier pathways of contemporary horror.  I whipped up two frothy concoctions this year. One intended to make you smile, the other to chill your heart. Be sure to check out at Loren's blog where he is gathering all the links leading to other stories throughout the holiday blogosphere.

The Fire Is Slowly Dying

Christmas Eve and he was flat on his back unable to move. So damn hot. It's December! Makes no sense. He tried to focus. Three silver buttons pushed into his chest. Where were his clothes? His skin was turning golden brown in this heat. All around him that sickly aroma. Sugary, spicy.  Not cologne, more like…a bakery? Ahead of him was a door with a large window and a gigantic face looked at him. A gigantic smiling girl. An alarm, the door opened, then a bellowing voice: "Don't burn yourself! Use the oven mitt. Mmm, don't they look tasty?"

*     *     *

Figure Eight

Every year he returned to watch her skate. The pond was wild, dangerous. She found inspiration outside, surrounded by birch trees and chirping sparrows. She was free. Today she was doing what she did every Christmas Day. Tracing the numeric pattern with studied practice, etching the symbol of her future. No cracking or splintering of the ice so many years ago, no plunging into freezing water.

When she was done she vanished. Not quickly, more like a slow fade as wintry fog surrounded her and took her back. Back into infinity. The symbol she traced when turned on its side.

Friday, December 18, 2015

FFB: The Coordinator - Andrew York (a holiday rerun)

We were Christmas shopping last weekend and I saw this new holiday item being shoved onto the consumers. It's a special copper mug intended to serve a Moscow Mule. Amazing how some alcoholic beverages becomes trendy and manufacturers create ways for you to think you absolutely must join the latest bar trend by buying an item that you absolutely must use in order to drink it. Bah humbug! Anytime I see the words "Moscow Mule" I immediately think of fictional superspy Jonas Wilde and his penchant for odd cocktails. So here's a rerun from years ago (Oct 8, 2011) on one of my favorite spy novel series. Though this title has not been reissued, three other books in the series have been reprinted by Top Notch Thrillers, an imprint edited and coordinated by crime writer and all around good guy Mike Ripley. The Top Notch Thrillers are available through all the usual bookselling sites as well as direct order from Ostrara Publishing.

* * *

The second in this series featuring Jonas Wilde, an assassin in the employ of a secret British espionage unit, is just as good as the first. The book peripherally comments on the action of the first book (see my review here) but does so without spoiling the first book making it fine to read out of sequence. Wilde is assigned to eliminate Gunner Moel, a Danish swimwear designer, who in the Hitler years was an operative for the Allied powers and is now playing a pivotal role in communist espionage. As with The Eliminator this book is divided into two sections: Part one is called “The Bait” and the other is “The Trap.” Based on those structural clues it should be obvious that Wilde’s assignment will turn out to be more than he expected it to be.

Prior to his visit to Copenhagen we know that Kaiseret, one of the villains from The Eliminator, attempted to have Wilde assassinated. It failed when Jonas caught the hit man on board his boat, fought with him and delivered the usual fatal karate blow. When Wilde reports to Mocka, his superior in the covert unit, he informs his boss of the blundered assassination. Mocka claims to know nothing of that plot.

Once again York has created in Mrs. Inger Morgan-Browne one of his strong woman character portraits. She is every inch a match for Wilde in determination, job focus, and ruthless survival. Steely and cold as ice Inger doesn't even have a sense of humor something Wilde thinks is essential to staying saner in the spy world. She turns out to be the Irene Adler of the piece succeeding masterfully where all others have previously failed in overcoming the seemingly invincible Jonas Wilde. She is assigned as his partner in an elaborate escape plan once he kills Moel. But when the original assignment backfires and Wilde needs to escape sooner than planned he makes his way to the hotel and discovers that Inger’s husband has been murdered and Stefan, the chauffeur/thug in Moel’s employ who shot him, is waiting for Mrs. Morgan-Browne. Wilde surprises Stefan in the Morgan-Browne's hotel room, he fights and subdues him tying him up and waits for Inger. When she shows up she wastes no time in putting a bullet in Stefan's brain. A new plan must be improvised and Inger rises to the occasion defying Wilde’s preconceptions and taking matters into her own hands with a handy hypodermic syringe loaded with a potent narcotic cocktail. She captures Wilde, keeps him drugged, and returns to Copenhagen to bargain with the group that Wilde thought was the enemy but who she assures him are the good guys.

The second half of the book displays York's usual spy/adventure novel wizardry. Double and triple crosses, numerous fight scenes with the two women characters proving themselves to be as tough as the men, a ghoulish torture sequence involving rats, and even a cameo from a mad scientist all serve to make this fast paced and very smart book a thrilling read.

Something different about this book is the addition of Bond-like gadgetry and fiendish deathtraps. Gunnar Moel was blinded in a flying accident and he manages to navigate his way through this house via "sonic torch principle." He wears a pair of glasses outfitted with a sound transmitter that sends out a beam which reflects off of solid objects and the signal is picked up by a transmitter behind his left ear. As the beam reflects a different tone for different materials. Much of the furniture in his house is made of glass or chrome to distinguish from the plaster and wood of the walls and doorways and help him find himself around. It also makes for a scenically bizarre home.

Later, in an over-the-top pulpy climax, Wilde and Inger become human guinea pigs in an early form of cryogenic experimentation. They race against time trying to escape from an apparently foolproof glass chamber as the temperature gradually decreases from 20 degrees Celsius to -70 degrees. It's a deathtrap designed by a mad scientist who might have escaped from the pages of Doc Savage story and worthy of a James Bond movie or even the campy Batman TV series though it might be difficult to film (even these days) since both of them are completely naked at the time.


A refreshing Bijou - newly trendy in bars.
An added bonus to reading these stories is learning the names and ingredients of esoteric cocktails. Can a cocktail be  really be described as esoteric? Just ask for a Moscow Mule, a Bijou or a Frisco from your local bartender and I'm sure you'll get puzzled looks and a sarcastic comeback. Either that or an honest "What's in that?" While Jonas tends to favor Bacardi laced drinks he is known to sling back a few gin concoctions as well. A Bijou, for instance, is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, green chartreuse, orange bitters and a twist of lemon. Some enterprising marketing person should've come up with the Jonas Wilde Cocktail Handbook to help promote the series. If these books were published today you can be sure there would be something along those lines sitting right next the scantily clad women on the covers of "The Eliminator" series.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I'll Respect Your Opinion If You Don't Steal Mine

Source Look! I cited the URL where I found this photo. Not hard at all.
What a nice birthday present I discovered today. On December 15 (my birthday) a series of "reviews" on the works of Harriet Rutland appeared on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and every single one of them says the same thing. Here is what the reviewer posted:


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 whodunit 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, every single one!

Does that sound familiar to anyone? It should. It's merely a cut and paste of the opening paragraph of my review for Knock, Murderer, Knock.  Just compare them. OK, there may be a few words deleted, and some others altered here and there like all bad plagiarists will do. But that will never change the fact that I wrote those opinions. Those are my thoughts. Clare, the "reviewer" from amazon, did not write them.

It's so brazen!  Cut and pasted not only to Knock, Murderer, Knock but to the other books Rutland wrote as well. The same paragraph with commentary written specifically for one book is applied to two others with no regard for the content of each book. Just slap the review on all items created by Harriet Rutland. This is not thinking or book reviewing, this is mindless consumerism. I bet Clare never read one of these books.

Santosh asked me last night on a different post if the Grinches are spoiling my holiday spirit. No, Santosh, not exactly. They're f----ing pissing me off! This is the third instance in the past month alone (!) of my work being lifted and passed off as someone else's. Only a few weeks ago I sent an email to a blogger who last year allegedly tried to get permission for a post I wrote on another Harriet -- Harriette Ashbrook -- but couldn't get my email. So she just cut and pasted my entire post on Ashbrook that appears on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wiki (clearly with my byline and the date I wrote it) and blithely ignored the fundamental rule of citing where she found it.

I sorted everything out with that women and the post now includes full attribution with my name as author and the original source for the paragraph she cut and pasted onto her blog. She, like Clare, clearly changed a few words here and there like removing every reference that compared Spike Tracy (Ashbrook's private detective hero) to Philo Vance in an attempt to disguise the original source. She denied passing the work off as her own, but the fact that she altered the paragraph proves to me exactly the opposite of what she told me.

The internet is rife with this kind of indifference and laziness with regard to other people's work. It' s this kind of thievery that makes me want to just quit writing altogether and abandon this blog for good. The justifications and excuses you get for the laziness and outright thievery are astounding!

I've reported every post that Clare "wrote" about Harriet Rutland's books on both amazon sites. With luck each "review" will be deleted and I'm hoping she'll be banned from reviewing on either site. But, of course, people like this always find a way to resurface under another username.

UPDATE - Dec 29, 2015:  My relentless accusations and comments on the amazon pages for the Harriet Rutland book reviews paid off. All of Clare's "reviews" were deleted a few days ago.  Guilty conscience on her part or amazon's doing?  I don't really care as long as they're all gone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Is A-Comin'

I love this!  It's just the right combination of weird and old fashioned, unusual music and quirky-sorta-creepy Christmas imagery to put me in the right kind of holiday spirit. Music and singing courtesy of American blues artist Leadbelly, turn of the 20th century movie making courtesy of who knows.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2015

FFB: Death Goes to School - Q. Patrick

It's parents' weekend at Craiglea, an English boarding school for boys, at the start of Death Goes to School (1936). Several events have been specifically scheduled to show off the students' skills in athletics and other non-scholastic areas. Parents have traveled far and wide to visit with their boys and see how the Craiglea faculty are molding them into specimens of fine young men. During the weekend one boy is found dead in a linen closet.

Early on in the police investigation we learn that the boy is the son of a United States judge who had been threatened by Nazi sympathizers when he sentenced to death two criminals for anti-Semitic terrorist acts. The threats manifest in attacks on his two sons. A failed attempt at kidnapping prompts the judge to remove his sons from any further danger by sending them overseas to the boarding school. The prime suspects for the threats and botched kidnap plot are a brother and sister named Heller who are related to the criminals the judge sent to the electric chair.

An American private eye named McFee is hired to keep an eye on the boys. As vigilant as he thinks he is his talents as a bodyguard fall short of the mark when one of the boys dies. In order to redeem himself he turns sleuth to discover who killed one of his charges. As in all good detective novels he finds an accidental sidekick in the person of the headmaster's daughter who serves as Craiglea's music teacher. He also recruits a precocious student who he believes witnessed the murder to be another partner in sleuthing and to do some digging into the other schoolboys' secrets.

Death Goes to School is the very first collaboration between Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler as far as novels go.They had previously collaborated on several short stories which mostly appeared in American Magazine. (see this post). Already we can see themes and motifs that will recur in their later work such as the incorporation of taboo subject matter (child murder) and homoerotic descriptions of the handsome male characters. There always seems to be at least one Adonis in a book written by Wheeler and Webb. This time it's Harvey Nettleton, an English teacher at Craiglea.

The writing duo also display their penchant for the supernatural in the legend of the Grey Lady, a nurse who through negligence was responsible for a student dying of an infectious disease. Ironically, she succumbs to the same disease and dies. Her ghost is said to haunt the hallways of Craiglea. The boys tell stories of the Grey Lady moaning and wailing in grief and remorse for the loss of her ill patient. She makes a few appearances over the course of the book. Or is someone taking advantage of the students' superstitious fears?

Some of the reviews of the time:

"The best tale Q. Patrick has written, with an original finale. The setting seems to indicate that English schools are growing dangerous ground. Surely the fifth or sixth murder in a school, within the past few months!" - Kirkus Reviews, Feb 24, 1936

"Though slightly unfair in denouement the telling is good, the dialogue and background interesting." - Saturday Review Feb 29, 1936

This is a quick read and has some excellent scenes, especially between McFee and his boy sleuth. Some of the clueing is rather obvious but there is indeed rather an unfair twist in the final pages. As an example of Webb and Wheeler's interest in original, lively characters and adept plotting technique Death Goes to School is worth a look for the more discriminating reader of detective fiction. But don't break your back looking for a copy. Most of their later work under any of their three pseudonyms is much better as well as much more easy to find.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A-Haunting We Will Go: Supernatural Elements in G. M. Wilson's Detective Novels

I have ghosts on my mind lately, as many of you probably can guess, so I thought I'd take the time to write up two effective examples of the use of ghosts and the supernatural in murder mysteries. G. M. Wilson, whose work I've discussed before, wrote books I find to be of striking originality. Her fascination for occult and eerie events shows up frequently -- sometimes ingeniously -- in her detective novels.

Through sheer luck I managed to come across a copy of Wilson's first attempt at a supernatural detective novel, an extremely scarce book to come by no matter where you live. Bury That Poker (1957) is not only her debut as a mystery novelist it is one of the rare examples of a detective novel that incorporates genuine supernatural content rather than a rationalized explanation of the ghost activity and hauntings. Quite aptly Wilson subtitles her book "A Detective Story in a Haunted House" and from the very first paragraph she sets up an ominous atmosphere:
It hung by the living-room fireplace, an ordinary domestic iron poker. Well, not ordinary, perhaps; its age alone lifted it out of the commonplace. [...] It's chief claim to distinction was the handle, which the maker--a grim Puritan craftsman with analogies of hell-fire on his mind--had hammered into the likeness of a grinning Satanic face.
How can you stop reading, right? A diabolic fireplace poker with a handle carved to resemble the face of Satan? Give me more, I say.

We then learn of the history of the poker and the horrible fate that befell the Venner family. A cursed object, the poker was used as a weapon in three murders, one of which was dubbed the "Cain and Abel" murder because the victim was named Abel and the killer was his brother. The poker contuse to hold power over anyone who comes in contact with it it. An old woman dying in prison summons inspector John Crawford in order to make a deathbed confession and mumbles something to him about a poker.  A painter named Paul who claims to have "psychometric ability" has flashbacks to the 17th century when he handles the poker.  Knowing all this about the poker the title begins to make a lot of sense. No one should have that horrible thing around their house.

Wilson manages to incorporate her usual crime in the past to complicate matters, all sorts of family secrets, and a young girl who is triggering poltergeist activity into the intriguing plot. The detective aspects are very well done with some nicely imagined fair play clueing like the alarm clock in the attic business. Still as a first book it is not without some minor faults the most telling is her indecision about which of her policemen characters (Crawford and Lovick) she wants to be her leading man.

She wavers between the two as primary sleuths - Crawford acting as the Fox Mulder half of this duo being more willing to accept paranormal activity than the skeptical Lovick who can't be bothered with ghosts and poltergeist and cursed objects. Oddly, though Crawford is Lovick's equal he is treated almost like the brilliant amateur whose theories are dismissed if not entirely ignored. The strengths of the story lie in the intensity of Wilson's treatment of the supernatural sequences which are genuine and not fraudulent. The denouement of Bury That Poker is rather spinetingling. This is one book I'd like to see turned into a movie.

It Rained That Friday (1960) was her fifth detective novel and it is much more accomplished.  This time Wilson turns to the world of psychic phenomena rather than ghosts as the springboard for one of her more original and well thought plots. In the middle of a blistering summer Rose Todd sees and feels rain, autumnal weather and remembers a specific afternoon in October. Once again the opening paragraph sets the tone perfectly:

It was the name that did it. When you're looking for a quiet cottage to retire to, and you find one for sale on an island called Todd's island, and your own name happens -- quite fortuitously -- to be Todd, too, why then you can be excused for looking on it as the finger of Fate.

Rose and her sister Charlotte end up buying Todd House where fifty years ago Mary Todd ran away and was never seen again. The strange thing is that Mary disappeared in July. Why then is Rose having visions of a rainy Friday in October? Is Rose having delusional hallucinations? Can she really see into the past? Or is she having visions of events yet to come?

A few weeks after moving into their new home their neighbor and Mary's sister, Louise, is found stabbed to death in a glade. Lovick and Crawford are on the case again and almost immediately they turn up a puzzling piece of information: there is no official record of Rose Todd being a sister of Charlotte. As the investigation continues there are a number of accidental deaths and the uncovering of more secrets in the past, a favorite Wilson plot device. The key to understanding the motive for all the killings is hidden among all those secrets. Crawford and Lovick ferret out the truth with a little help from Rose and her psychic skills.

The characters in It Rained that Friday are just are well drawn and individual as Bury that Poker. Wilson tends to be fond of populating her books with eccentric spinsters though Jem Roker, the troubled groundskeeper of Todd House, is one of her better fully dimensional male characters. The Norfolk settings in both novels are always a highlight with all the sights, scents and sounds that make for an immersive reading experience. Like P. M. Hubbard, whose books feature settings so alive they become integral characters, Wilson has a similar talent in evoking places that are vital and breathing as any human character.

G. M. Wilson's Mystery & Detective Novels
(Books with known supernatural or occult content are marked with *.  Books reviewed on this blog have hyperlinks.)

*Bury That Poker (1957)
*I Was Murdered (1957)
*Thirteen Stannergate (1958)
*Shadows on the Landing (1959)
*It Rained That Friday (1960)
*Witchwater (1961)
Three Fingered Death (1961)
Roberta Died (1962)
*Nightmare Cottage (1963)
*Murder on Monday (1963)
Shot at Dawn (1964)
The Devil's Skull (1965)
*The Headless Man (1967)
Cake for Caroline (1967)
Do Not Sleep (1968)
Death Is Buttercups (1969)
*A Deal Of Death Caps (1970)
The Bus Ran Late (1971)
She Kept on Dying (1972)
Gipsies Don't Have Them (1974)
She Sees Things (1975)
*Death on a Broomstick (1977)

Friday, December 4, 2015

FFB: Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland

Time for a rerun.  When I first posted this review back in 2011 on The Poison Fly Murders I received no comments. That's probably because there were absolutely zero copies to be found in the used book market.  Now that all of Harriet Rutland's books have been reissued, and this particular title is not receiving the amount of attention I feel it is due, I'm re-posting my original review.  I highly recommend everyone get their hands on a copy of this book (so far my favorite of the three Rutland mystery novels) as well as the other two.  All are available from Dean Street Press via all of the amazon.com sites throughout the world.  Both paperback and digital versions are for sale.  Enjoy!

*   *   *

"Butcher" - a trout fly
The original title of this book is the far more evocative Bleeding Hooks. It also happens to be an exclamation uttered frequently by Major Jeans, one of the most colorful characters in the story. An intriguing and devilish puzzler Harriet Rutland's second mystery novel is set in a Welsh sporting lodge that is host to a group of fly fishing Britishers on holiday. One day during the lunch break, on a small island several miles from the lodge, the body of Mrs. Mumsby, a middle-aged woman more interested in the men at the lodge than the fish in the lake, is discovered on the beach. Her face is blue, her body contorted, and in her palm a fishing fly has become deeply embedded. It is thought she died of a stroke or heart attack. Among the group is Mr. Winkley, Rutland's series Scotland Yard detective, serving as yet another policeman on a "busman's holiday," who almost immediately suspects foul play.

"Munro's Killer" - a salmon fly
There is lots of talk about fly fishing, the role of the ghillie (a fisherman's guide and oarsman, I gathered from the reading), the art of fly tying, the difference between fly fishing and regular angling, and the difference between trout and salmon fishing. I thought this would get dull, but none of it was. On the contrary, Rutland manages to make fly fishing rather fascinating. As an example, when talking of fly tying Major Jeans refers to his flies by the macabre names he gave them: "Avenging Murderer," "Blinkin' Bastard," and "The Bloody Butcher."

These mini lectures on fly fishing, and all its arcane skill and art, are interspersed throughout the narrative with much of it being vital to the story of the unraveling of Mrs. Mumsby's strange murder. Mr. Winkley conducts his own legitimate investigation gathering evidence to prove the death is, in fact, a nasty murder. He is convinced that the fishing fly was poisoned then somehow dragged into Mrs. Mumsby's palm perhaps by a skilled fisherman with a rod. While this is going on, two young people step up and try their hand at amateur sleuthing and do their best to discover the killer on their own. In the process, one of the amateurs' life is endangered and another attempt at murder is made. Adding to the oddness is a young man aspiring to be a stage magician who owns a pet monkey that mysteriously disappears shortly after Mrs. Mumsby's death.

"Reid's Assassin"
- another trout fly
There are a couple of neat twists in this clever plot, many secrets revealed and a finale that gives three surprises one right after the other. Most surprising -- to both Mr. Winkley and the reader -- is the final chapter in which it is revealed that the murderer has perhaps pulled off a perfect crime. The last bit makes this book something of a little masterpiece in my opinion.

My only criticism is the author's penchant for cutesy character names. The young couple, a 21 year old woman and man of the same age, acting as amateur detectives are named Pansy Partridge and Vyvyan Gunn, but the reader gets to know them by their nicknames:  Pussy and Piggy.

Harriet Rutland's Detective Novels
Knock Murderer, Knock (1938)
Bleeding Hooks (1940) - US title: The Poison Fly Murders
Blue Murder (1942)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction, part 3

For a quasi Luddite like myself a smart phone was one of the last things I ever wanted to purchase. Begrudgingly I have come to recognize how handy the phone can be. Like satisfying my never waning curiosity. In the "pre smart phone" days if I came across some arcane tidbit while reading I would make a note of it and then wait until I had computer access to look it up. Now I just pull out the phone and get the answer immediately. Odd names, unfamiliar places, historical events, mythological creatures, even foreign words and phrases are no longer mysteries that remain to be solved along with who did in Lady Gertrude Horsey-Ridingsworth in the locked, sealed and unusually hot conservatory. All my questions are answered instantaneously with a few simple keystrokes.

And with that long winded introduction out of the way let’s segue into this year’s annual post dedicated to only a smidgen of the really cool trivia I’ve gleaned in my reading of both long forgotten and contemporary crime and supernatural fiction.

1. Ever hear of the kylin? Probably not. All you sinologists probably prefer qilin, the accepted transliteration of this Chinese word. In fact, it took me a while to find it online since it was spelled kwylin in The Golden Salamander by Victor Canning where I first came across the word. It’s a mythical Chinese creature and according to a Chinese cultural website the qilin (kylin or however you wish to spell it) "is somewhat like a deer, with horns on the head and scales over the body. Its tail is like that of an ox's. The kylin is said to be an animal of longevity that could live for 2,000 years. It is also believed that the beast could spit fire and roar like thunder." Supposedly the kylin appeared to presage the arrival or passing of a wise person or a powerful leader. Its image is used on talismans, art and sculpture to signify good luck, prosperity and intelligence. One of the "Four Divine Creatures" the kylin is second only to the dragon in terms of importance in Chinese mythology. So how come we’ve never heard of it? We’ve certainly seen plenty of them in movies, post cards and Chinese restaurants. Check out the photo used here. Time to start a "Remember the kylin!" movement.

2. British life jackets were made of cork during World War 2 and blackout procedures so well known on land throughout urban England were also in place on ocean liners. This comes to you courtesy of the madcap plot in Nine -- And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson , also known as Murder in the Submarine Zone. I also learned all about George Robey (1869-1954), a music hall performer who is mentioned in passing in the novel. He apparently was very popular in the pantomime scene in the early part of the 20th century and was well known for his crazy eyebrows exaggerated and enhanced by make-up.

Thomas Hood
3. I had only heard the name Eugene Aram in the context of an obscure book by Bulwer-Lytton. Little did I know that the man was a real person. Eugene Aram was a resourceful philologist and linguist prior to becoming a notorious murderer. The story of Aram’s crime was made popular one year earlier than Bulwer-Lytton's novel in a lyrical ballad by poet Thomas Hood (1799-1845). Thanks, Joan Fleming, who dropped several allusions to the poem and Eugene’s fate in her crime novel Polly Put the Kettle On.

4. World history has always been lacking in my knowledge. Not much of what I learned decades ago in high school stayed locked in my memory bank. Thanks to my voracious reading, however, I’m always learning something new. In Captain Cut-Throat by John Dickson Carr I received a crash course in the Napoleonic Wars and got more than I ever would want to know about Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Minister of Police who serves as a leading characters in one of Carr’s most successful historical crime novels.

A early Murphy drip
It ain't for brewin' java.
5. Long forgotten medical procedures tend to crop up a lot in vintage crime novels. I learned all about the Murphy drip and proctolysis in The Cat Saw Murder. You know what a proctologist studies and treats, right? Well, back in 1909 Wisconsin surgeon John Benjamin Murphy invented a very early alternative to intravenous and subcutaneous injections that focussed on a human's rear end as an entry. It was primarily used like an enema to administer fluids and drugs when the regular oral method was not viable. Here I thought a colonoscopy was the worst possible medical procedure a human could endure.

6. The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter was one of the best historical adventure novels I’ve read in recent years. I learned all about the amoral business practices of the East India Company, how they had their own army (!) and how the company operated on its own agenda disregarding all rules, regulations and humanity in their plan to take over India and subjugate its people. Long live imperialism! (That’s sarcasm, gang.) Yes, it’s a novel but Carter used numerous historical texts and diaries as research in order to tell her story. Eye opening and highly recommended.

7. Ancient Egyptian burial practices and the mythology of Egypt served as the background for The Game of Thirty by William Kotzwinkle. The name of an unrecognizable god or goddess appeared about every five pages and their importance in ancient Egyptian beliefs filled those pages. Rather thrilling for a mythology junkie like me. What wasn’t so thrilling was the pedophile subplot that polluted the rest of the pages. Seemed like every other book published in the mid 1990s was about murderous pedophiles. I always avoid these books and was pissed off that Kotzwinkle included one in his plot.

"Vision after the Sermon" by Paul Gaughin is featured
prominently in Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

8. I learned a heck of a lot about Paul Gauguin and (to me at least) the obscure group of artists who made up the Pont-Aven School in the fascinating German crime novel Death in Brittany (originally published as Bretonische Verhältnisse). I thought Gauguin moved to Tahiti and did all his most well known work in the South Pacific. Little did I know that he founded an entire style of painting in the small town of Pont Aven in Western France, that his early work done here is considered by the locals to be the birth of modern painting, and that he is celebrated throughout Brittany. Someday I’d like to visit this part of France which we completely bypassed the first time I travelled there.

9. Who doesn't learn something arcane when devouring a Christopher Fowler book? Take his latest, The Burning Man. Its pages are chock full of Guy Fawkes facts and legends and the origin of burning effigies that led to the annual celebration of the Gunpowder Plot. But I never need to double check on anything when reading his books because Fowler always gives you *all* the details you'd a ever want.  And then some!

10. Even a former Brit Lit student like me needs a refresher in his supposed field of expertise. So when I came across Malbecco in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion in Catherine Aird's excellent impossible crime novel His Burial Too I was not so surprised that he turned out to be a minor character in The Faerie Queen. I wasn’t a fan of Edmund Spenser back in my college days. I tend to forget everything about that epic poem other than the Bower of Bliss section and that I found most of it boring as hell.  Turns out that using the name Malbecco is an arcane way to call someone a paranoid jealous husband. He’s in Book III, Canto X (et al.) of Spenser’s seemingly endless poem if you want to read about him. I think an Othello allusion would've sufficed. What a show off that Catherine Aird is. Witty and smart, but a show off.

Friday, November 27, 2015

STAGE BLOOD: Sherlock Holmes touring production

In his own words David Arquette admitted that he is an odd choice for Sherlock Holmes, but for me the entire conceit of this uneven production is the odd choice. An amalgam of melodrama, parody and groaning "breaking the fourth wall" gags this schizophrenic production of a new treatment of the Holmes canon never really knows what it wants to be. Add to the mix an array of different performance styles, turgid dialogue with speeches handled ineptly by unskilled actors more suited to vaudeville comic turns than delivering long winded speeches that require verbal dexterity and vocal flexibility and you have the makings for a very tiresome evening. Greg Kramer's script does its best to celebrate Holmes, his prowess as a detective and tries to honor the adventures as written by Conan Doyle with several clever allusions like mentioning The Sign of Four several times and subtitling one section "The Man with the Twisted Hip", however, in the hands of director Andrew Shaver the production is burdened with inept direction in the dramatic sections and weighed down with silly, groan inducing gags in which the actors comment that they are on stage performing a play.

David Arquette not known for his work on stage (though his Playbill bio tells us he has a few Broadway credits under his belt) does his best with a role he is entirely unsuited for. He uses an odd voice deeper than his own tenor register that he has obviously worked very hard on. In his effort to maintain his British accent he shouts all of his dialogue at his fellow actors as if they are all deaf. Not once do we get any shift in colors or tone in his voice. He declaims ever line whether it is an egotistical pronouncement or a confidential aside in a stentorian faux baritone. At times his persona of the arrogant and vain Holmes gives way to a quirky mischievous imp. When he scampers about the stage with arms waving about as if he has no bones or flops lazily onto the chaise longue crossing his legs almost femininely we are reminded this is the giggling nervous David Arquette from the Scream movies and not David Arquette trying to be Holmes.

I was not impressed with James Maslow as Dr. Watson who is far too young in appearance and demeanor nor did I find Renee Olstead as the damsel in distress interesting in the least. The less said about the actor playing Inspector Lestrade the better. I won't even mention his name to spare him the embarrassment. Horrid work -- one of the most bombastic, utterly unfunny, "comic" interpretations of Lestrade I've ever seen. His character belonged in a farce not this show. Just one example of an acting style that didn't mesh with the rest of the people on stage.

The story involves Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran (enacted with delicious villainy by two of the best actors in the show: Kyle Gatehouse and Graham Cuthbertson) in a confusing plot of two murders related to the anti-opium movement and some law trying to be passed in Parliament. Historically, there was an attempt to eradicate the opium dens and control the sale of opium based drugs in Victorian era England when this play is set, but the real battle against opium and the successful laws passed didn't take place well until the early part of the 20th century. The parallels with contemporary medical marijuana laws are easy to see. Still, Kramer find s it necessary to hammer home his point by making jokey references as when Moriarty quips "Who would ever want to outlaw a plant?" It's this quasi-hipster, anachronistic and self-aware tone that repeatedly takes us out of the world of Holmes. In the hands of unskilled director Shaver it makes for an uneasy night at the theater.

James Maslow (left) looking more like Ed Norton from "The Honeymooners" than Dr. Watson
and David Arquette as Holmes in a laboratory scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

The real star of the show is set designer James Lavoie. To accomplish the challenging task of depicting the dizzying number of locations, both interior and exterior, that fill the stage in this invigoratingly paced, action filled show Lavoie has resorted to tall sliding walls and projections. As the story unfolds the sliding walls become wallpapered rooms, a study with a blazing fireplace, sooty brick lined alleyways, and a dockside with reflecting water. At several points in the show the characters take hansom cabs not seen but only suggested by the tightly placed bodies of the actors and their bobbing movement while the projections behind them give the illusion of the cab rapidly travelling through the mazelike streets of London.

For those unfamiliar with the actual stories or those modern viewers who find his method of ratiocination and miraculous powers of observation more absurd than awesome this touring production of Sherlock Holmes might make for an entertaining night out. But for the true devotees of Conan Doyle's iconic fictional character this production is best to be avoided.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Have a Spooky Halloween!


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Where Has the Time All Gone To?


Marion Elizabeth Brennan Norris 
(September 24, 1922 - October 22, 2015)

August 1986.  I was 24. And Mom was still mastering her
enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. She never showed her teeth. Ever.


SOME OTHER TIME

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
(from the musical On the Town)


Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

This day was just a token
Too many words are still unspoken
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

Just when the fun is starting
Comes the time for parting
But let's be glad for what we've had
And what's to come ...



The photograph at left was taken in 1942. At the time my mother was working for General Electric where she met my Dad and would marry him two years later. This was a promotional photo for a company newsletter to remind people to turn their clocks ahead to start daylight savings time. She's making a "V for Victory" sign in support of the US army effort.

Here's the tune that makes me think of her every time I hear it.  Very suitable for a fond farewell.






Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1976 Book: The Giant Rat of Sumatra - Richard L Boyer

Original PBO (Warner Books, 1976)
Part of the fun of Rich Westwood's Crime of the Century meme at the Past Offences blog is looking back on the topical elements that may crop up in any given book of a particular publication year. But for two consecutive months now I've chosen a book that is not set in the year of its publication. This month we were to read a book published in 1976. Since another Rich --Richard Robinson of Tip the Wink-- had invited me to help him celebrate his month long Sherlock Holmes reading binge I decided to knock off two birds with one big rock.  I chose Richard L. Boyer's wonderfully authentic, good old fashioned detective-horror-thriller The Giant Rat Of Sumatra.

All you Holmes fans know the title is "the story for which the world is not yet prepared" alluded to at the start of "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire". Boyer, himself an avowed Sherlockian, does an admirable job at capturing the character of the detective and his doctor friend. Though at times Watson is embarrassingly denser than he usually appears in the original tales and he actually faints at one point late in the book!) and Holmes resorts to some equally embarrassing melodramatic statements that seem over-the-top for even a pastiche I thoroughly enjoyed this book. And this was the second time I read it! I remember coming across the book when it first came out back in my high school days, devouring it in a quick reading immersion. I've remembered it ever since. Reading it again I was happy to discover that it lost none of its entertainment value. It works exceptionally well as a fine tribute and celebration of the great detective, as a somewhat gruesome and horrifying thriller, and as a superb traditional detective novel.

1991 hardcover reprint
A scarce collectible!
The story is rife with allusions to the Canon with one work in particular being the primary reference point. When Watson is examining the wounds of a grisly murdered corpse he remarks, "They were, I fear, incisors-- or, if we can give even the slightest credence to Sampson's tale, the teeth marks of a giant rat!" You get the idea, right?  Each time the reader spots an allusion to the Canon he would do well to do more than smile.  Make a note of it, write it down, they are as important as the well placed clues. This is a sort of a Sherlockian wet dream of a pastiche. And the ending, I think, is gasp inducing.

There is a kidnapping of young girl, several truly horrible murders, some sinister gypsies, Holmes in disguise at couple of points, and of course that mysterious beast of the title.  What exactly is it?  Do giant rats actually breed in Sumatra?  Read and become enlightened, my friends.  I truly love this book and will say no more about it for fear of giving away some of its wonderful surprises.


 
Lucky for all of you The Giant Rat of Sumatra has been reprinted as part of Titan Book's impressive "Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series which includes all sorts of fun pastiches with Holmes and Watson meeting up with everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Dracula. The book is available in paperback or digital format.  And there are even cheaper copies of the 1976 Warner Books paperback original for sale in the used book market.  So grab a copy now!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

LEFT INSIDE: A Soldier's Tale

It's been a very long time since I've found anything inside one of my books.  This one was one of those rare instances that I came across while I was actually reading the book.  Tucked into page 79 of my copy of Murder by Request by Beverley Nichols was this:


Transcription:  "Dear Major Steeves,  Thank you for you order and hope the book is to your satisfaction.  I would also like to thank you for your service to the country.  Yours sincerely, B Storey

Send cheque (in another handwriting) -- I'm guessing Major Steeves wrote that.

Remember the days when a bookseller would you send a book prior to your paying for it?  I met only one person in my lifetime who would agree to searching for a book and send it to a customer trusting that payment would follow.

There is nothing noteworthy on page 79 of the book where I found the note.

Printer's Devil or Ignorant Editor?

Santosh has reminded me that I intended to mention in passing a particularly egregious error I came across in my 1933 reprint edition of The Z Murders reviewed only a few days ago on this blog.

I did in fact mention it on the internet, but in a comment on someone else's blog. So here it is for my readers' entertainment. Along with photographic proof of the embarrassing error.

On page 95 of my edition Richard is attempting to broach a topic and wants to start the conversation in a way that will catch her off guard. He fails miserably:


Poiret?!

I was so appalled I took out my mini Post-It note pad, scrawled off this note and stuck it to the page as a reminder to bring it up in my review.


But the Post-It got moved to the inside cover (see above) and that in turn was covered by an index card. So I never saw it and I forgot to write about it.

I'm wondering why no eagle eyed editor caught that error. True, as my note remarks there had only been seven Poirot novels published by 1933 when this reprint came out, but you would think that someone at Collins might know the correct spelling of a fictional character by one of their own authors who was selling a lot of books by that time.

I have been told that the error does not exist in the 2015 reprint British Library Crime Classics edition. At least in the 21st century someone was on the ball.

Friday, September 25, 2015

FFB: The Jefferson Farjeon Reprint Mystery

In light of the unusual interest in long forgotten mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon and the unrivaled popularity of the recent reprint edition of Mystery in White I thought I'd look at some of his novels that aren't getting the attention of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. Seven Dead (1939) is one they somehow overlooked yet to me is a better candidate for a reprint edition as it highlights Farjeon's skills in narrative experimentation, suspense and is overall one of the more original spins on a detective novel plot from the Golden Age.

As the title suggests the crux of the plot is the discovery of seven corpses found in a locked and shuttered room in a remote seaside cottage. They all show signs of the throes of a violent death but no trace of wounds on any of their bodies. The crime scene is investigated first by amateur Tom Hazeldean, a reporter and yachtsman, and Inspector Kendall. Entranced by a portrait of a young girl that has been inexplicably pierced by a bullet Hazeldean is determined to track down the subject of the painting, now a grown woman. She and her uncle were the occupants of the cottage called Haven House and he is sure they know what happened to the victims. Hazeldean heads to Boulogne after some initial inquiries indicate that Mr. Fenner and his niece were headed that way.

The book begins with the viewpoint of an itinerant pickpocket and thief who stumbles upon the crime scene after breaking into the house through the only open window, shifts to Hazeldean and then Hazeldean and Kendall. When Hazeldean heads off to France (for nearly one third of the book) the book morphs from detective novel into an adventure novel with the reporter as protagonist and Dora Fenner as the damsel in distress. The plot also takes on the air of a romantic thriller with several set pieces featuring our hero and heroine being captured and rescued and several supporting characters filling in as villains of one color or another. This section ends with a cliffhanger and then the story flashes back to England.

Back at Haven House the narrative style and mood switches back to the original detective novel mode as we follow Inspector Kendall and his police team through their investigation of the multiple murders and their desperate attempt to uncover the victims' identities. Most of all the plot is concerned with why all seven people were dispatched at once in the locked room. However, Farjeon has not devised an impossible crime mystery, for the murderer merely locked his victims in the room and left them to their fate in a fiendishly devised deathtrap. Rather the author is more concerned with the slow reveal of the motivation for the mass murder.

Like a good old fashioned detective novel we are treated to the discovery of tire tracks, footprints, other odd clues, and a mix of insightful deductions based on observation of human behavior. There is a well done scene in which Kendall and his Dogberry-like cohort Sgt. Wade follow the trail of a bicycle and discover the surprise method of the killer's escape. "If you weren't smarter than your conversation, Wade," Kendall says to his sergeant, "I'd have you in the bush to join the bicycle. Fortunately, during the past few hours I've found out that you are much more useful than you sound, even if sometimes it's only by accident." Poor Sgt. Wade is the butt of many such insulting jokes. Not as oblivious as Shakespeare's premiere sputtering and ineffectual head of the night watch Wade is nonetheless included for comic relief.

In the end Farjeon once again resorts to a shift in the narrative point of view and has the entire story resolved in an intricate tale of a shipwreck, survival on a desert island, and a horrific revenge plot all of which is recorded in the pages of a diary. The finale has a tendency to go way over the top in Farjeon's insistence on adding twist after twist, but you can't deny that he knows the definition of thriller when he sets out to write one. Seven Dead is a prime example of Farjeon at the top of his game and exemplifies his hallmark in the genre -- the use of narrative tricks and stylistic experimentation.

The same cannot be said of The Z Murders (1932), a much earlier effort that owes a lot to the work of John Buchan than it does to John Dickson Carr. Barely containing a smidgen of the usual plot elements of the traditional detective novel though it is in essence the story of the tracking down of a serial killer, The Z Murders is an outright pursuit thriller calling to mind in many of its scenes classic adventure novels like The 39 Steps.

Richard Temperley operating on a mixture of gallantry and instinct goes out of his way to protect a person of interest in a series of murders. In turn he is pursued by police who feel Temperley will lead them to Sylvia Wynne, the person of interest. The murders seem inspired by the kind of thing found in the pages of Edgar Wallace as a crimson Z made of metal has been left at each crime scene. Intended to baffle the police and signify the work of a mad killer working for some secret society a modern reader may easily see through the deception almost immediately. This is the kind of hackneyed device, already overused in the 1930s, is astonishingly still being used by modern writers of gruesome serial killer novels.

Farjeon writes of his characters being "implicated in the same mosaic." Mosaic is a good analogy for this kind of conspiracy thriller. Seemingly random encounters and strangers act as the colored tiles of a mosaic. When assembled together in the proper pattern they create the full picture and lead to a clearing up of the mystery. This "all things are connected" philosophy shows up again at the beginning of Chapter 17 ("What Happened at Midnight"). Farjeon points out the ironic positive effects of crime and uses as examples the taxi drivers and newsboys who benefit from a sudden rise in their income.

Fast paced and action filled The Z Murders' through line is impeded by repetition notably in the tiffs and spats Richard and Sylvia engage in. Sometimes this banter is entertaining and reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick's sparring wit but in Farjeon's hands each reiteration becomes increasingly annoying. Another irksome gimmick is Richard's tendency to have conversation with himself. His thinking to himself rather than described in prose is rendered as dialogue and the narration even takes on his persona. While this is yet another instance of Farjeon's experimentation I found it to be cutesy and bothersome. Similarly, a Q&A between a police inspector and a "village idiot" rendered as a prose monologue rather than dialogue exists only as a writer's trick and fails to serve the story. The entire middle section of the book drags with the aforementioned tiffs, narrative play and protracted scenes of melodrama. The fifth example of an argument between Richard and Sylvia in which he demands information and she offers nothing almost had me closing the book and never finishing it.

Ultimately, The Z Murders is far too familiar and not as exciting or original as Seven Dead. Why then was something as tiresomely formulaic as The Z Murders chosen to be reprinted while a book as daring and convention breaking as Seven Dead continues to languish in the Limbo of Out-of-Printdom? The mysteries of reprint publishing are often too baffling for me to contemplate.

The Z Murders is available from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. They have also reprinted Farjeon's Thirteen Guests which seems to be more in the line of Mystery in White, being yet another country house style detective novel. I have not read that book, but I'll continue to delve into the work of Jefferson Farjeon. He is one of the most unique narrative experimenters of the Golden Age alongside Milward Kennedy. By the way...why aren't his books being reprinted?

Friday, September 18, 2015

FFB: Murder by Prescription - Jonathan Stagge

"Why should the body live when the heart is dead?"

I'm beginning to think that Richard Wilson Webb was a secret sadist and hated animals. Murder by Prescription (1937) is the third detective novel and the second in the Dr. Westlake series in which cruelty to animals is on shocking display yet again. Not satisfied with the torture of horses and dogs in The Grindle Nightmare, not having worked out of his system even more brutality to horses and dogs in The Dogs Do Bark Webb and his collaborator Hugh Wheeler fill the pages of Murder By Prescription with kidnapped rabbits, a garroted cockatoo, and a dungeon-like warehouse of caged and starved cats that serve as experimental subjects for a couple of borderline mad scientists. All this in a story that is ultimately about the best way to alleviate suffering in terminally ill patients. The writers raise many questions about the practice of euthanasia and whether it is actually murder.

The original title of this second book in the Dr. Westlake detective novel series is Murder or Mercy? which underscores the main dilemma of the police when confronted with a series of ambiguous deaths.  Even the Italian title La Buona Morte (literally The Good Death) alludes to the central theme of mercy killing. Dr. Westlake has his reputation at stake all thanks to a newspaper account that mistakenly identifies him as a doctor who made a polemical speech about euthanasia at a community gathering. The real doctor who delivered the speech was a Dr. Westbrook, "an old quack" who "had a passion for getting into the newspapers". And it is this physician who Mrs. Talbot intended to have call on her when she makes her plea to have her life ended. But it's Westlake's name in the newspaper and it's Westlake who makes his visit to her bedside.

He listens to her veiled request to be put out of her misery and also indulges her by witnessing and signing a paper she scrawls out hastily. He leaves with her daughter Hermia a small amount of morphine pills and instructs her to give them as needed. Later that night Mrs. Talbot dies, presumably by her own hand. Police investigation discovers that although Hermia left all the pills by her mother's bedside the envelope containing the morphine fell behind the bed and was out of Mrs. Talbot's reach. Westlake notices that more than half of the 100 pills he started with that night are missing from the morphine bottle. When an autopsy reveals morphine poisoning it is clear to both the coroner and the police that Mrs. Talbot was murdered.

Things go from bad to worse for Dr. Westlake when the newspaper account with his name turns up in Mrs. Talbot's hand. And what of that handwritten paper with his signature? It's nowhere to be found. Was it a last minute change in her will? How convenient it would be for the doctor to take advantage of his euthanasia stance by subtly persuading the woman to kill herself after learning she intended to leave his nine year-old daughter $10,000.

Woven into this fiendish plot to frame Westlake as a sort of 1930s Dr. Kevorkian are some of the most bizarre characters ever created by Wilson and Wheeler. Mrs. Talbot's second daughter Gail and her husband Conrad Fiske are the creepiest, most atypical married couple to ever appear in a 1930s mystery. Conrad, a genius medical student working on experimental narcotics in a fancy home lab, seems to be a precursor to the modern 21st century dude. With his sloppy attire, his permanently unshaven face and unkempt hair he could easily be mistaken for any hipster college student of our age. His wife is similarly unconcerned with her appearance, shying away from the usually heavily made-up faces of 1930s women her own age. But it's her manner that is most shocking. Rude, brusque and entitled she has no boundaries in expressing her opinion. To her Westlake is no better than a servant. She helps herself to medicine from his medical bag, openly insults the man, and dismisses him when he dares to confront her with inappropriate behavior. Wilson and Wheeler do a good job of setting up this unlikeable duo as the villains of the book. They may act like borderline sociopaths and ultra self-absorbed spoiled rich kids thinking nothing of the inhumane experiments and animal victims, but are they really capable of murder?

Italian edition depicting the grisly
discovery of a strangled cockatoo
Westlake's precocious daughter Dawn is probably the most interesting in this book as well. She serves as a foil to the burgeoning romance between Westlake and Hermia Landreth, Mrs. Talbot's martyr-like daughter. Dawn proves herself to be quite the girl sleuth when her father recruits her to find a crucial piece of evidence in the finale. She pulls off her adventurous assignment with the aplomb of Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton and gleefully delivers into his hands the last bit of proof needed to unmask the murderer.

The Westlake series tends to bring out the macabre side of this mystery writing duo. Here is a book that shows us their penchant for Poe-like grotesquery and scenes of unnerving horror. Wilson who was the primary plotter of the two writers knew there are some taboo topics that just weren't meant for books intended as light entertainment and indulges himself with abandon. The sequence in which Westlake and the suspicious butler Josephs make their way to a dingy and fetid cellar and break into the storeroom where the Fiskes keep their animal subjects is as grotesque as the discovery of the walled up corpse and wailing feline in "The Black Cat". The only relief the reader gets from this stomach churning scene is Westlake's rescue of a couple of Belgian hares he bought as his daughter's birthday present. Later in the book the significance of the rabbits' unscarred and healthy appearance will serve as a big clue to one of the book's final surprises.

Murder by Prescription while only the second book in the Dr. Westlake series is perhaps the most unsettling and disturbing mystery written by Wilson and Wheeler. From the series of murders committed seemingly without motive to the horrors of the animal experiments to yet another death trap from which Westlake must escape this detective novel is teeming with nail biting thrills. The various scenes alternating between inflicting pain and relieving pain and the continual reference to the phrase "murder or mercy" make for some moments of uneasy reflection about the right to die and the role of science in medicine. For a book written in the 1930s it still has some resonance for a 21st century reader. Why these books haven't been reprinted since their original publication is a bigger mystery than those presented in the story.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

STAGE BLOOD: Holmes for the Holiday

Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, George C Scott, Stewart Granger, Rupert Everett, and Benedict Cumberbatch have all played the great detective. Add to this list now the most preposterous of casting decisions: David Arquette!

Yes, good ol' goofy David Arquette perhaps forever ingrained in moviegoers' minds as the affable, slightly inept policeman Dewey Riley from the Scream movies will be playing the latest re-envisioned version of Sherlock Holmes. And on stage no less! Arquette will be touring in the award-winning production originally mounted in Montreal by director Andrew Shaver and playwright Greg Kramer who died unexpectedly and rather mysteriously on the eve of the final rehearsal.

Described by the producer as having "frequent laugh-out-loud moments, melodramatic mysteries and sometimes nightmarish moments [that] proved irresistible" Kramer's Sherlock Holmes has been fashioned as a Victorian steampunk adventure with scenery projected onto high tech metal scrims. The plot is summed up in this tantalizing paragraph:

The opium wars have ended. The Ripper has wreaked his havoc. Electricity is on the rise and Scotland Yard is in its infancy. Lord Neville St. John gives a moving speech in the House of Lords to ban opium and a vote on the matter is imminent. Meanwhile, Professor James Moriarty, notorious criminal kingpin, plots to thwart the upcoming opium vote. When a drowned body is discovered, and Lord Neville goes missing, Scotland Yard turns to “the world’s only consulting detective”.

In the Montreal production Holmes was portrayed by someone who seems an even more outrageous choice than Arquette -- Canadian comic actor Jay Baruchel, part of the Seth Rogen pack who did some very funny work in the apocalyptic farce This is the End.

Jay Baruchel (right) as Holmes in the original Montreal
production at The Segal Center back in 2013.

The tour opens in Los Angeles next month and will make stops in Toronto, Washington DC and --- Chicago! We get to see Arquette as the master detective around Thanksgiving. You better believe I'm buying tickets.

The latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes
For more info about the tour visit the website for the touring production. Oddly, when you click on the "Cast" tab you will not see a list of the actors in the cast, but instead will get info on Arquette, the director and the producer. Guess I'll just have to wait until the curtain goes up on the production to find out who'll be playing Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty all of whom appear in the show according to the production's publicity.

Tune in again around the end of November for my review. I hope I will be as pleasantly surprised and impressed as the self-confessed skeptical Canadian theater reviewer who was quite taken with the show.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

NEW STUFF: Hollow Man - Mark Pryor

Hollow Man
by Mark Pryor
Seventh Street Books
ISBN: 978-1-63388-086-3
260 pp. $15.95
September 1, 2015

Dominic is not having a good day. First, he gets news that his parents who live in England both have died in a freak weather accident. Next, he learns he's being transferred from his prestigious high profile job in the Austin District Attorney's office to a lesser low paying job in the juvenile court. No more jury trials and too much paperwork. To cap it all off when he goes to his night time gig at a local music bar where he plays guitar and sings the owner cancels his performance pending an investigation into an accusation of "music theft." Another musician claims Dom has plagiarized his songs. Is Dom angry? You bet. And he's planning revenge to recoup his lost earnings and his musician's reputation.

Here's the twist. This lawyer/guitarist is a sociopath and he's done a very good job of keeping his secret hidden from his co-workers and friends. He glides through life mimicking the behavior of "empaths" --as he calls the rest of us normal human beings who have real emotions and a moral compass. While drowning his feigned sorrows at the bar with his friend and fellow lawyer/musician Gus they trade war stories in the Austin legal scene. Gus, an immigration lawyer, has been dealing with a local celebrity of sorts -- a former soccer star who's turned slum lord. He tells Dom and a woman Dom met in juvie court the man has bought a platoon of trailers and rented them out to poor immigrants. Every month he travels from trailer park to trailer park collecting their rent. In cash. The woman (who oddly remains unnamed throughout the entire book) remarks that it's an invitation to robbery. Everyone's wheels start spinning. Dom is eager to take advantage of this chance at easy money.

The book has been compared in the promotional materials to the Dexter series as both lead characters are self-aware of their behavioral problems and neurological rewiring. But I found it reminding me of Donald E. Westlake's tightly plotted caper novels.  In fact, Hollow Man has more in common with Parker than he does Dexter. The plot is about the robbery of the rent money and the expected complications when the simple plan does not go well. Dom is forced to recruit a few accomplices, one of whom is his Tristan, his anti-social roommate, a tech wiz/computer nerd who locks himself in his room each night. Personalities clash, fear and guilt take over -- but only for the accomplices. Dom has no real emotions to impede his scheming.

Literary mavens may recognize that the title and chapter headings are taken directly from T.S. Eliot's groundbreaking poem "The Hollow Men". Pryor's savvy allusion to that nihilistic work is a perfect complement to the action as we watch Dom attempt to regain his reputation, his comfortable life, all the while using anyone, and doing anything including taking life in order to get what he wants.

My only quibble with the book is that Dom is too self-aware, too hip and ironic for someone who is supposedly dead inside. For all his talk of being soulless Dom has real passion and does seems to show quite a bit of emotion though he claims it's all pretend. For the purposes of the story Pryor thinks he needs to convince us that Dom really is different. In using him as a first person narrator Pryor has Dom often go into tangential commentary about the psychological checklist known as the Hare PCL-R which includes a variety of questions that when answered and tabulated will reveal just how much a person is qualified to be labeled as a psychopath. It's glib and sarcastically presented, of course, but I think the story could have been told by showing Dom's behavior and dispensing with sarcastic explanations and hipster wit.

Pryor knows how to tell a story though. His plotting is clever, he even plants clues that may lead an assiduous reader to uncover the slyly laid out twists revealed in the final pages. Even with what I feel are narrative flaws Hollow Man is one of the more original twists on a caper novel and presents us with an anti-hero complex and fascinating enough to stand alongside Tom Ripley and Parker. Cool headed and aloof (but not quite soulless) Dom leads the reader through the "deliberate disguises" he must craft to survive a world that resembles "Death's twilight kingdom."  Though both Eliot's poem and the final chapter end with "not a bang but a whimper" rest assured that Pryor is once again being ironic.  Hollow Man is a firecracker of a crime novel with an explosively surprising climax.

Friday, September 11, 2015

FFB: Bring the Bride a Shroud - D. B. Olsen

Mr. Pennyfeather (later to become Professor Pennyfeather) is D. B. Olsen’s second series character she created while part of Doubleday Doran’s Crime Club cadre of popular mystery writers. He makes his debut as amateur sleuth in Bring the Bride a Shroud (1945), a book that shares more than a few plot points with Olsen’s first Crime Club published detective novel The Cat Saw Murder (previously reviewed here). The detective is a senior citizen, the setting of the murders is a privately run hotel, and the suspects are primarily made up of the hotel guests. I almost forgot! The murder weapon in Bring the Bride a Shroud is also an ax. Is this the way Dolores Hitchens likes to introduce her sleuths to us? Solving ax murders in hotels? I’ll report on that again later when I delve into her other “first” books written in her early career using other pseudonyms.

The story is just as engaging as The Cat Saw Murder and Pennyfeather, while less active and daring than Miss Murdock, proves himself to be more than capable as a detective in this gruesome premiere. En route to a military base in the fictitious town of Superstition, Arizona the college instructor is planning to visit “Tick” Burrell, a former student. He confides all of this to his seatmate on the bus headed from San Diego to Arizona. She is flabbergasted by this news. She happens to be Martha Andler, Tick’s aunt and sometime guardian who has been advising him on his latest marriage proposal. You see, Tick has a habit of collecting fiancées and then breaking the engagements. So far he’s proposed marriage three times and he hopes that this third time is the charm. Aunt Martha thinks otherwise. She’s on her way to counsel him against marrying his latest.

These various fiancées turn up over the course of the story and two of them coincidentally happen to be staying in the same hotel where Mr. Pennyfeather and Mrs. Andler are staying. When the bus makes a rest stop Mrs. Andler apparently has a run in with a volatile fellow bus passenger in a rest room and sustains an injury. Various suspicious conversations are overheard. Mr. Pennyfeather begins to think that Tick and his women problems may result in something more violent than a cut on the wrist. And his fears come true when Mrs. Andler is found butchered in her bed.

Hitchens does a fine job of presenting a tricky plot involving the various women in Tick’s life and uncovering several deep, dark secrets in the lives of the hotel guests. The story is rife with traditional detective novel motifs and abounds with fair play and puzzling clues. The dust jacket illustration points out many of the pieces of evidence like a button from a sweater, a bloody head bandage and – if you look very closely at the bottom edge of the jacket – a centipede. The centipede is one of those nasty large desert species, the kind with a venomous bite. Our poor hero has a rather nasty encounter with this centipede, a naive but creepy attempt to put an end to his amateur snooping.

The murders are solved with a good old fashioned gathering of the suspects and a lecture provided in tag team style by both Pennyfeather and Sheriff Stacey. But when the savage killer is finally unmasked there is still one more mystery yet to be revealed.

Throughout the book Stacey is perplexed why the college teacher will not volunteer his full name to him, in fact, refusing to do so. Pennyfeather offers a couple of hints as to why he never reveals his first name: it’s classically inspired and it’s wholly unsuitable for him. Stacey plays a sort of guessing game a la “Rumpelstiltskin” but never manages to nail the right mythological moniker. Thankfully, the reader is spared the frustration of never knowing when Hitchens delivers the news in the penultimate sentence.

Bring the Bride a Shroud is definitely worth seeking out even if it is — of course! — another one of those hard to find books. I found a copy in the Chicago Public Library system and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have a copy in your local library, too.

Professor Pennyfeather detective novels
(Books reviewed elsewhere on this blog have colored links)
Bring the Bride a Shroud (1945)
Gallows for the Groom (1947)
Devious Design (1948)
Something About Midnight (1950)
Love Me in Death (1951)
Enrollment Cancelled (1952), US paperback title: Dead Babes in the Wood