Friday, March 16, 2018

FFB: Cast a Cold Eye - Alan Ryan

In honor of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow here's an eerie Irish ghost novel.

THE STORY: Jack Quinlan has travelled form the USA to small village of Doolin in western Ireland so that he can research the Irish potato famine for his new book. He plans to spend three months. But within days of settling in he begins to see visions of the past. One in particular --a thin, gaunt girl dressed in tattered clothes -- appears more and more frequently. Even manifesting when he travels to Galway for a getaway. Unsure if he has immersed himself too far in his research and allowing his imagination to run wild or if he is actually in the company of ghosts Jack reluctantly reaches out to Father Henning, the local priest. But he gets little help and some strange warnings. Meanwhile, a group of older men in Doolin are keeping their eyes on Jack for their own secret purposes that have their roots in ancient ceremonies.

THE CHARACTERS: While the story of Cast a Cold Eye (1984) is primarily focused on Jack it is the Irish villagers who give the book its life. Jack meets a young woman Grainne who works in a bookstore and a love relationship slowly develops. Mrs. Mullen is Jack's housekeeper who comes with the cottage rental as part of a package deal. She is also the link to the strange ritual the old men are preparing. The group of old men provide most of the eeriness to the book with so much mystery surrounding their brief meetings and ambiguous conversations. What exactly is going on in Doolin? What do they want of Jack? And will the seemingly kindly Father Henning prove to be less of a holy man than Jack thinks he is?

Jack is something of a frustrating character. Like many of these writer characters in books of the supernatural he is determined to go it alone. He is reluctant to confide in anyone for fear of what they will think of him. The writer and his ego come into play a lot here and often its tiresome. It should be obvious that something is not at all right in the village of Doolin. Many of the townspeople are well aware of the ghostly figures that appear around the perimeter of the village. Instead of relying on his innate inquisitiveness (he is researching a book after all) Jack keeps his thoughts to himself and only too late turns to Father Henning who, of course, is not too forthcoming with answers or explanations. Supposedly this is a tactic to add mystery and suspense, but this approach tends to work against the book.

INNOVATIONS: Ryan's novel belongs to the pagan ritual type of supernatural horror that seemed to explode onto the popular fiction scene back in the 1970s. Cast a Cold Eye (1984) with its overpowering religious motifs, secret ceremonies and blood sacrifices comes a decade after better known books with similar themes like Harvest Home and the cult movie The Wicker Man. I couldn't help but think of the whole lot of them and probably spent too much time trying to outguess Alan Ryan and what he had in store for Jack in the final pages.

The book is strong on atmosphere. Ryan does a fine job of evoking both the beauty of the barren Irish countryside as well as the an unsettling creepiness as we follow the story of a man out of his element. The people of Doolin are not typically sinister as one might find in pulpier versions of this kind of story. Rather, they are genuinely friendly and yet simultaneously distant, holding back a bit, harboring secrets in a tacit way that causes concern. The church scenes reveal a lot about the people of Doolin. These portions of the novel are depicted with great reverence and solemnity and one gets the feeling that the only time the people of Doolin ever feel safe and secure are within the walls of the Church while reciting their Catholic prayers. There is ample mystery here -- both theological and other worldly.

When the finale comes, however, the mystery remains and little is really explained. A strange ceremony does indeed take place. It's disturbing, not really as eerie or gory as Ryan probably intends it to be, and yet the reader hasn't much of a clue what it all means or why it is happening.

The biggest mystery left unexplained -- one that seems the biggest cheat of all -- is why we never get to see or read about the Irish famine. Jack comes to the country to do research on this and we never actually see him do any of that. So much lost opportunity for some rich detail and lore on this important part of Irish history. We are meant to associate the famine with the army of emaciated ghosts, I guess. But it's all as hazy of the foggy Irish bogs Jack strolls through.

THINGS I LEARNED: Irish writers don't pay taxes. I thought this was a joke in a brief dialogue exchange between Jack and Father Henning. Then I had to find out if it was true. Sure enough, it is. Well, it's slightly true. They do pay taxes, but the law is an exemption for a certain type of income. From an Irish history website: "Between 1969 and 2010, Ireland allowed writers and other artists who actually lived in Ireland to exempt all of their royalty income from taxation." The regulation was altered in 1997 in order to redefine what constituted residency and outline the rules related to advance royalty payments. From what I gather this law is still in place. As of January 2015 the maximum exemption allowed for all royalties earned is €50,000.

THE AUTHOR: Alan Ryan was born and raised in New York. He spent his early years as an English teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in Bronx. Ryan's writing career began with literary criticism, then book reviewing, and later as an editor. He wrote several short stories and a handful of novels during the 1980s. Valancourt Books says at that time "Ryan was hailed as one of the bright new lights in the horror field." His other horror novels include The Kill (1982) and Dead White (1983). His short fiction was collected in Quadriphobia and The Bones Wizard. As an anthologist Ryan served as editor and contributor to Night Visions I (1984), Halloween Horrors (1986), Vampires (1987) and Haunting Women (1988). Alan Ryan eventually moved to Brazil where he resided for the latter portion of his life. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple copies of various paperback editions available, both US and UK, in the used book market. The majority of those copies are extremely affordable. Readers who want a new edition can choose from hardcover, paperback or digital all from the masterful Valancourt Books. Cast a Cold Eye was reprinted by this fine publisher in 2016.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

F@200: Monster - Dave Zeltserman

Happy 200th Anniversary to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein! Today marks the bicentennial of the re-release of the novel after its anonymous publication on Jan 1, 1818 and subsequent temporary pull from sale. Shelley's name did not appear on the book until an 1823 edition published in France.

I doubt that those select few who have actually read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley will recall the one page in which Victor Frankenstein describes his initial foray in his quest to absorb all knowledge of natural philosophy. At the age of 15 Victor devoured the occult teachings and arcane books written by Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and the medieval German bishop and alchemist Albertus Magnus. He then describes how he is ridiculed for this immersion in the occult by his professors when two years later enter enters Ingolstadt University to study science and medicine. But Dave Zelterserman did not forget this passage. In composing his spin-off of the tale of monster and creator he took off with this bit of information like a madman fleeing a burning Gothic castle pursued by pitchfork armed villagers.

Monster (2012) is the the tale of Frankenstein told from the creature's viewpoint with Victor Frankenstein cast in the role of sorcerer and alchemist. We learn that the monster is not so much a stitched together body of the best physiques of mortal men but a former apothecarian's assistant who is well versed in physical sciences and chemistry. Friedrich Hoffman is his name and he has sworn vengeance on Frankenstein for what he has done to him. Hoffman was engaged to a marry his beloved Johanna but Frankenstein murdered her and framed Hoffman for the crime who was then arrested, tried and executed in a particularly horrific manner. Then Frankenstein used Hoffman's corpse in his experiment in reanimation while also casting a powerful black magic spell that held Hoffman in Frankenstein's power.

Victor and creature by Harry Brockway
Frankenstein (Folio Society, 2004)
The novel is a fine pastiche of a true 18th century Gothic novel yet also a mash-up of a contemporary noir novel of revenge. You can bet there will be no real happy endings. Zelterserman does his best to replicate the tone and flavor of the Gothic novel's origins with some adept prose style but lays it on thick with horror novel motifs. Hoffman escapes from his prison and sets out to find Frankenstein plotting a revenge that is not so much "eye for an eye" as it is the typical "I'll get you sucker" plot crime fiction fans have read in countless paperback originals of the past and still be being recycled in books, movies and TV. The crime plot is out of place in this overloaded Gothic horror novel replete with Satanists in the woods, supernatural wolves, vampyres (Zeltserman's preferred spelling), black magic spells, and perverse sexual orgies with more than the required debauchery and depravity.

The word depraved occurs repeatedly throughout the story. Monster is clearly meant to be not only a revenge novel but a savage satire on the perversities that pass for thrill-seeking among the soulless and bored. The scenes of human degradation passed off as private entertainments are luckily few. Much of the story is filled with the basic ingredients of penny dreadful shockers of days past with hairbreadth escapes from the numerous villains, several daring feats of rescuing the handful of imperiled women, and an assortment of violent hand to hand fights.

Victor's obsession with alchemy and the occult have so tainted him that he has lost all sight of his former self. Unlike Shelley's conflicted man of science and religion this Victor is amoral in the extreme. Hoffman is not only his creation but his slave held captive with the aid of black magic. In a complete role reversal from his inspiration Zelterserman makes Hoffman the true man of science. using his skills as an apothecarian and his knowledge of chemistry he will succeed in counteracting the magic with a concoction of herbs and chemicals. Later, he also turns the tables on Frankenstein when he steals a page from one of the occultist's secret books planning on using a spell on his creator. The revenge of course smacks of 21st century irony in another nod to noir plotting.

Many readers may be turned off by what seems an inundation of debauchery and Gothic horror. Yet anyone who is familiar with the work of Walpole, Radcliffe, Francis Lathom and Eliza Parsons will recognize that excess is what Gothic novels are all about. German ghost stories and novels like The Necromancer (1794) in fact served as the inspiration for Shelley's novel. With this in mind one cannot help but admit that Monster is one of the more ingenious retellings of the Frankenstein story. About the only thing missing from this story are wicked nuns and corrupt monks and the body of a child found walled up the cellar of an abbey. As an added bonus, now almost expected in a work of historical fiction, there are cameos from real life figures like Samuel Hahnemann (the founder of homeopathy) and the Marquis DeSade himself. Monster may seem like a deluge of horror, wickedness, and unrestrained cruelty but it all rightly belongs there. However, it is not sustained or resolved in the final pages when disappointment and compromise nearly ruin everything.

We learn that Hoffman, unable to age like a human, is doomed to an eternal life. He survives to see the horrors of both world wars, the invention of automobiles and airplanes, and muses on the horror of modern men and their inventions all of which seem like monsters to him. One day he wanders past a bookstore where he discovers a copy of Frankenstein. After reading the book he is enraged by its contents calling it a nothing but lies. Prior to this sequence Zelterserman had pulled off a well researched, but not quite perfect, pastiche of the nascent Gothic horror thriller. When he resorts to obvious preaching on the well flogged topics of man's inhumanity to man, the inevitability of war, and all the rest of it rather than relying on the strength of allegorical meaning in his use of supernatural legends and Gothic trappings the novel ironically loses much of its power and relevance. Hoffman's anger gives way to a resignation and confession as he takes pen to paper to tell the true story of his creation, his victimization and his many crimes all the whole hoping for forgiveness for what he has done. Eliot's lament from "The Hollow Men" -- "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper" -- comes to mind.

Friday, March 9, 2018

FFB: If Wishes Were Hearses - Guy Cullingford

US edition (Lippincott, (1953)
THE STORY: Sometimes you can get much more than what you wish for as George Martin, a pharmacist in East Anglia, discovers when nearly every person he dislikes suffers harmful accidents or die simply because he speaks ill of them. His family think he's becoming foolishly superstitious and not allowing for random coincidence. Then he thinks of taking his "super power" to the next level by actually doing someone in. When Major Vincent James visits George's chemist shop for his refill of sleeping pills George cannot stand the pompous man's attitude and belittling comments any longer. George adds a single arsenic tablet to the sleeping pills and just before he hands it over to Major his nervousness gets the better of him and he drops the pills all over the floor. He summons his wife to help him clear it all up then sends the Major on his way. That night the major dies apparently of a heart attack, but George believes that his murder scheme happened all too quickly. Overcome with guilt he plains to confess to the police until he discovers that poison apparently had nothing to do with the Major's death. Several cover-ups and murder schemes are revealed over the course of the novel and George even though cleared by the police who have no proof of foul play is convinced the Major was murdered. He turns detective in a strange role reversal in order to prove himself guilty or otherwise find out who killed the odious man.

THE CHARACTERS: Mostly told from George and his family's viewpoint eventually the book opens to up to include the viewpoints of the entire cast. We learn of everyone's involvement in the Major's death including the extramarital affair between his wife, Leonora James, and his physician, Dr. Down, who prescribed the sleeping pills for the Major. There are hints that one or the other might have also been tempted to do in Major James. George's intrusive detective work and meddling persistent questions lead to his insistence that Mrs. James hand over all the Major's medicines to him to destroy. His demands only serve to instill fear and paranoia in the widow and sets the doctor thinking George has descended into a strangely obsessive and dangerous behavior pattern. Superintendent Glubb (a not so bright policeman so perfectly named) also thinks George has "gone barmy" and warns him to stop interfering in a case that has absolutely no sign of criminality.

But we as readers know better. Something fishy is going on in Bloxton. Many people had reason to wish the Major dead. And someone most definitely sent him off to an early grave. The majority of the cast is made up of fascinating women characters with two old biddies topping the list as the most memorable. Agnes De'Ath, who goes by the nickname Auntie, is the owner of the William and Mary pub, a local hang out for the working class. In its heyday the "Willyum" was the choice of the elite citizenry of Bloxton, but times have changed. The 88 year-old pub owner, like many a bartender in both real life and fiction, is the surrogate confessor for her many customers. She knows how to ply her guests with alcohol in order to loosen their spirits and their tongues.

When she joins George in his sleuthing she finds her most easily manipulated target in Mother Brose, a filthy hag who lives in a ramshackle hovel at the edge of town. The old woman distributes herbal concoctions to those seeking out folk remedies when George's pharmaceuticals are too expensive to afford. Mother Brose has a dirty little secret, filthier than her home and her clothes and Miss Death (another perfect name!) is determined to uncover it with the help of a bottle of gin, a few kind words and a begrudging tolerance for Mother Brose's unwelcome aroma.

Other stand-outs in the cast are the two White children, Una and Jack, who are fine examples of the modern 50s child who know better than their parents. Also noteworthy are the two Mrs. Whites -- George's put upon wife Mabel, and his bedridden harpy of a mother Nelly White. The final chapter between Mabel and Nelly provides us with the ultimate twist in a story filled with truly unexpected incidents and thrilling turn of events.

UK edition (Hammond, 1952)
INNOVATIONS: Constance Taylor, the real person behind the "Guy Cullingford" pseudonym, was an early practitioner of the kind of genre blending novel that we all know as the modern crime novel highlighted by suspenseful plotting, complex characters, and relevant social criticism as in this novel's case -- an attack on the prejudices in dealing with mentally ill people. Following in the footsteps of the two great Anthony's of the Golden Age -- Berkeley and Gilbert -- Taylor fashioned her own brand of savagely observant stories of murder among common folk.

If Wishes Were Hearses (1952) defies pigeonholing. Here is a crime novel employing detective novel plotting and fair play techniques all the while serving up a story that is not entirely a "whodunit". There are indeed cleverly planted clues about the sleeping pills and even an odd reference to a half eaten pear that lay the groundwork in revealing the murder plot. In one of the more subversive moments it seems that everyone had their hand in killing the Major. But Taylor has a much more devious intent in writing this book than in providing a mere puzzle. Whether seen as a comedy of manners, a satire of small minded village life, or a trenchant study of the criminal fantasies that lie within the dark corners of the soul If Wishes Were Hearses succeeds on multiple levels. Of the Cullingford books I've read so far this has become my favorite of the lot. The book shows off her strengths -- wit, deft characterization, pithy observations and unique storytelling. She never ceases to surprise in her refusal to follow the rigid formula of detective novel plotting.

QUOTES: ... George took care that his duties in the vestry kept him until the gossipers had filtered through the church porch and out of the churchyard gate, a process which took ten minutes at least, as nobody was in a hurry. [...] There was also a state of rectitude to be enjoyed, an afterglow of satisfaction and righteousness

And the truth was, perhaps, that he had worn his filial chains for so long that when they were removed, like many another emancipated slave, he scarcely knew what to do with his liberty.

Mother Brose spat into the hedge, thus with true economy expressing herself on the subject of Council houses.

'Insanity or insanitary', muttered Mother Brose sulkily, 'That's all the same to me.' Issues of life and death have often hung on a yea or a nay. It is only in East Anglia that one could have been suspended on an 'ar'.

Mrs. Nelly White lecturing Mabel: "Nonsense, guilt doesn't always make you run. If you're guilty you are far more likely to be hardened. It's the soft and innocent who take to their heels more often than not."

The cat was out of the bag with a vengeance. And now that it was, no one could have been more genuinely horrified than she who had been instrumental in undoing the string.

There are times when even detectives are susceptible to humiliation.

Miss Death on her preference to suburban life: "London is all right for a visit now and again, to go to the theatres and do a bit of window-gazing. But as for living in it, I'd as soon take up residence in a sewer. But everyone to their taste."

Lloyd Loom chair, circa 1930s
THINGS I LEARNED: In talking about the future of her pub Miss Death denigrates the popular trend in furniture "Put in a lot of little tables with glass tops, I daresay and those chairs, what do they call them? Welshman's looms. Look like a lot of painted baskets to me." She is referring to a specific chair design invented by the Lloyd Loom furniture company. Lloyd may be a Welsh name but everywhere I looked it was referred to as a Lloyd loom chair, never a Welshman's loom. Oddly enough the chair was invented in 1917 in America so it has no right being called Welsh despite the inventor's surname. Here's exactly how the loom chair came to be invented according to the Vincent Sheppard furniture company website:

"Entrepreneur Marshall Burns Lloyd, who was producing baby carriages and strollers [in 1917], found himself confronted with a severe drop in the supply of rattan as a result of the war. As an alternative, he invents a technique in which paper is twisted around a metal wire and subsequently machine woven into large sheets of woven paper thread. When putting the material to use in his production of baby carriages, he discovers that this new material is not only much stronger, but also a lot more softer and thus more comfortable than rattan. He calls his invention the 'Lloyd Loom' technique."

THE AUTHOR: For info on the author see my post on Conjurer's Coffin. I've never been successful in tracking down a photo of Constance L. Taylor. Frustrating.

EASY TO FIND? If you want the real thing you'll be hard pressed to find a first edition. I was unable to verify that it was reprinted in paperback like several of her other books reprinted by Penguin. Finding one with a DJ is next to impossible. Remarkably, the only US edition currently for sale online does come with one. It'll cost you $80 plus shipping. Like all my Cullingford books I bought my copy of If Wishes Were Hearses on eBay years ago for under $10 long before digital books were invented. Speaking of which, all of Guy Cullingford's crime novels (along with a handful of her short stories) are available to those readers who prefer their books digitized. The Murder Room, the vintage crime imprint of Orion Books, offers not only Cullingford's books but several other writer's books and all their reprints come exclusively in digital format.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

FFB: Withered Murder - Anthony & Peter Shaffer

THE STORY: The guests at "The Barnacle," a cozy retreat situated on an island near the Cornish coast, have just returned from watching a rather inept production of Macbeth performed by the local drama society. Everyone is ready for a very late night supper. Some retire to their rooms to freshen up, some remain in the living area, while the rest prepare the dining room for the meal. Everyone gathers together, lights are dimmed, candles are lit for atmosphere and then -- Reverend Radley stumbles in the dark, cries out and faints. When the others come to see what the disturbance is they find the body of Celia Whitley horribly murdered. Who killed her and -- more importantly -- how was it accomplished when her secretary had been writing letters at a table only a few feet from where the body was discovered? Mr. Fathom takes charge, puts the fear of God into all nine suspects, and solves the baffling murder in a short six hours.

THE CHARACTERS: The strangest thing about this detective novel is the detective himself. In the UK editions he is called Mr. Verity while in the US editions he is renamed Mr. Fathom. Why, I have no idea. But the editors did a sloppy job of the renaming. Fathom's original name pops up as Verity twice in my edition of Withered Murder which was published the US in 1956.  Made me scratch my head and pause when it happened the first time and then I had to read about the switch in Hubin as well as an online article about the books.

Whether known as Fathom or Verity (I'll stick with Fathom since that's how I got to know him) he's a blustery wonderful incarnation of the detective as demi-god. Clearly inspired by Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Fathom is a large man of imposing physique with white hair, a dark haired Van Dyke beard, and a loud voice. Like Fell and H.M. it is his manner, speech and approach to crime solving that make him so notable. Fathom has a habit of indulging in grandiloquent speech making and opinionated rants. Insults are frequent during the many interrogation scenes leaving some of his targeted suspects speechless while reducing others to tears.

If the murder victim -- a vain, controlling, predatory former actress -- is painted as a loathsome woman, hated and reviled by everyone, the suspects are not portrayed any better. From the sanctimonious Rev. Radley to the egotistical and temperamental painter Terence Germayne, from curmudgeon of an antiquarian Meredith Blaire to religious hypocrite Mary Arundel there are not many likeable souls to care about. But this is exactly the point; it's a brilliant satire of the English manor house mystery. Every archetype one can imagine is present down to stereotypical gossipy maids who provide Fathom with some subtle clues just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The whole thing smacks of a tongue-in-cheek homage to the traditional British detective novel. We have a baroquely described setting (the hotel is a converted monastery, once the home to a defunct order of fishermen monks known as the Piscatines) entirely suitable for gruesome murder, an evening out to see one of Shakespeare's most bloody and eerie plays, and a set up for a prime motive for Celia Whitey's long overdue death.

Beleaguered Hilary Stanton, Celia Whitely's secretary/companion, is eager to finish up her last duties with her employer and fly off to India to marry her fiance David, a soldier stationed there. But she is being prevented from leaving Celia's service. Hilary's ex-husband, Germayne, and her close friend Colin Grey are incensed. They even toy with the idea of doing Celia harm so Hilary can be free of the controlling woman who seems to want to possess the girl.

INNOVATIONS: The narrative voice is a cruel one -- patronizing, judgmental and quite often sneering in contempt. No one comes off in a good light least of all the god-like Mr. Fathom, the most judgemental character of the lot. Fathom's speech is not only grandiloquent, intended to highlight the book's most melodramatic moments, it is chastising, admonishing, and powerfully accusatory. He stands as the embodiment of Justice and Divine Retribution. Many of his amazingly constructed pronouncements are so dramatic they beg to be read aloud by a stentorian voiced actor. The theatricality of the novel is one of its greatest appeals. Ultimately the intricacy of stage work, illusions and misdirection, and the entire artifice of theater itself will prove to be the greatest inspirations to Fathom and will provide him with the glue that holds together the solution of the two puzzling deaths.

Fathom alludes to several of his previous cases throughout the novel and here the Shaffers get to indulge in their macabre sense of humor and -- I'm guessing mostly Anthony, the real mystery fan of the two -- draw on bizarre details as might be found in the work of John Dickson Carr and Anthony Boucher. One allusion is to a Scottish murderer who incinerated his children on a Yule log then scraped up the ashes and dumped them in his wife's Christmas stocking. Then there is Fathom's mini lecture about Bongo Bey (the Anatolian Slicer) which must be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

It was the most remarkable triumph. Bongo's mistake, you see, lay in slicing the wrong man. He had meant to kill Hussein the Hairy... Instead, however, he shredded a camel-breeder from Baku who was hiding from his creditors behind a knitted beard whose stitches ran at the wrong moment. This was all revealed by the forty-page codicil to his will, found subsequently by myself under the turban of his son-in-law, a fig merchant.

Though rife with allusions to bizarre cases and direct references to detective novel fiction and techniques there is, sad to say, not much fair play detection on display. Fathom makes pronouncements of the vital clues as part of his accusatory approach in the interrogation scenes. However, we never see him gather this evidence. The few fair play moments that might lead the reader to the truly unexpected solution are so subtle they are almost invisible. Unlike the way most veteran mystery writers disguise the most blatant clues as what might otherwise be thought of as minutiae, the Shaffers present the important clues in some of the most bizarre incidents in the book. Only in retrospect does it dawn on the reader that they were as obvious as the location of Poe's purloined letter. For instance, shortly before the body is discovered a cat viciously kills a rat in the presence of nearly every guest just as they are about to eat supper. Later, Fathom asks everyone about the rat's slaughter, where they were when it happened, how they reacted. No one can understand why he thinks it is so important. But it is. Similarly, Fathom asks the hotel owner to carry a chair from her bedroom around to the outside of the house and place it just inside the French doors of the room where the body was found. She's irritated by his bossiness as he tells he to move faster all while timing her speed with his watch. She does as he asks begrudgingly but is completely at a loss as to what it all means to him. The clueing turns out to be blatant in both of these cases and yet requires out-of-the-box thinking to apply them to the solution of the mysteries.

QUOTES: "I see before me that mutilated face, professor. I see beyond it to a filthy terror. I do not in any way wish to indulge in macabre hyperbole, but when so much combines in one spot I feel a sense of doom. Doom as the ancients saw it, as we two perhaps saw it from the beginning."

"A very creditable performance though I have never fully understood why the Bard is invariably made the butt of School Certificate examination. I suppose it must be done on the inoculation theory--inject enough of the stuff at birth and a lasting immunity will result."

Peter Shaffer (circa late 1960s)
"It simply amazes me how little developed people's sense of tragedy is. A sense of balance, amazing eyesight, splendid palates, all this they have, but nary a sense of doom. Can't you feel it all about you?"

"This is not the police, stupid man. It is Fathom. Your innocence of this crime, if indeed you are innocent, would still hang round your lean neck like a halter. Like a bracelet of unrealised intentions. It is what you have in common with your fellow guests, Mr. Radley: the depravity of the things you haven't committed."

"A woman like Miss Stanton marries a man because she finds him intriguing and sexually appealing. She really doesn't care a fig whether he paints like Leonardo or Joe Louis. There are very few women to whom a superb canvas is more important than a pair of meaty male thighs and the Cooperative Society bill settled regularly every Saturday morning. It is my opinion that all three functions were beyond you and she did the only thing sensible in rejecting you."

"Two and two make four. What do Collective Implication and Collective Ignorance make?"
"How the devil should I know?"
"How indeed?" agreed Fathom, and left him.

Anthony Shaffer (circa mid 1970s)
THE AUTHORS: Originally published in the UK under the pseudonym "Peter Antony" the three detective novels featuring Mr. Verity/Fathom are the work of playwright twin brothers Anthony and Peter Shaffer. During the 1960s and 1970s the two would become heralded playwrights with Anthony also picking up acclaim for his screenplay work. Peter wrote the award winning plays Equus and Amadeus, both later adapted for the screen. While Anthony created the landmark mystery thriller Sleuth and adapted both Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun for the screen. Of the two brothers, it is Anthony who was the detective novel devotee. In addition to Sleuth he went on to write three other thrillers for the stage one of which was a parody of the English manor murder mystery called The Case of the Oily Levantine, retitled simply Whodunnit? when it was produced on Broadway. Several of his plays make direct references to the work of Christie and Carr. The influence of Carr is obvious in Withered Murder. Their combined love of theater, stage life and acting, however, are the most important aspects to keep in mind while reading this last of the Mr. Fathom mysteries.

EASY TO FIND? Practically impossible I'm afraid to say. I stumbled across a relatively cheap copy back in 2012 and set it aside for years. I only took it down now because a reader of my blog had seen the photo in a post on dust jackets I did back in December 2012 and asked if it was for sale. I looked to see if there were any copies for sale and was amazed to learn there were absolutely zero copies being offered online. Nevertheless, I agreed to sell the book to him. But of course I also had to read it before I shipped it off. I thought about photocopying it prior to the sale, just in case I wanted to reprint it. Apparently the Shaffers were loath to have their detective novels reissued. During their lifetimes no one had ever been successful in getting their mystery novels back into print. I'm sure it will be even more difficult to get the job done now that they are no longer alive. Anyone out there is welcome to try to revive these books. I have zero energy to devote to the bargaining and involved correspondence these deals usually require. The books do deserve reprinting, especially this last one, a diabolically clever and often sardonically funny murder mystery.

The Mr. Verity/Mr. Fathom Trilogy
The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951)
How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952)
Withered Murder (1955)