Friday, August 11, 2017
Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book (s): BLOOD AND JUDGMENT (1951) by Michael Gilbert and DEATH IN FIVE BOXES (1938) by Carter Dickson
Two books today. First a book in which I couldn't wait to see what happened next and second a book in which (sadly) I didn't care what happened next because I lost interest in who did what to whom.
BLOOD AND JUDGMENT by Michael Gilbert, a really terrific and - far as I'm concerned - criminally unheralded book. I've only recently become a fan of Gilbert, being a relative newcomer to his work. Somehow I'd never heard of him except vaguely as if his books existed somewhere 'out there' and were not relevant to what I wanted to read at the time. Silly me.
Once I read the classic, SMALLBONE DECEASED, I became a fan. I also blogged recently about THE EMPTY HOUSE, another Gilbert book which I enjoyed though it was completely different from SMALLBONE - a thriller and not a whodunit.
I haven't read many, but what I have read from this author has been pretty good. (Well except for one dud.) As with any prolific writer, not all of Gilbert's books are equally wonderful, some are more wonderful than others, but I'd say if you haven't read any, don't wait around. Begin with SMALLBONE (if you haven't already) and take if from there.
In BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, we meet one of Gilbert's series characters, Detective Sergeant Patrick Petrella of the London Police, a dogged intuitive policeman devoted to his work. There aren't that many Petrella books, but based on this one, I definitely want to read the rest.
Though the title is kind of blah, I liked the synopsis and the cover and I was quickly caught up in the developing whodunit. This is a police procedural (of which I am very fond) with the usual police minutiae of which I am also very fond but written in a way that you won't get bogged down if that has been your only objection to procedurals in the past. Gilbert's writing is so fluid that it's almost as if you're gliding through the tale as one unexpected turn after another shifts the plot from here to there and back again all without the kind of heavy lifting that plagues less talented writers.
The plot moves very swiftly and once you begin reading, BLOOD AND JUDGMENT will prove to be a prime example of that wonderful cliche: a book almost impossible to put down.
Detective Sergeant Petrella (he's half Spanish) happens to be the cop who is called to the scene when the decomposing body of a woman is discovered by two boys in a tangled wood near a reservoir. As the tale develops we learn who the woman was and little by little how she came to be the victim of murder in a sordid and ever widening case involving an escaped felon, a vicious London gang, a jewel robbery and a sinister shadow of a man capable of changing his identity at the drop of a hat.
Amid the mixed cacophony of bird calls and the occasional hissing swan, a dark unwelcoming mood lingers at the scene of the crime and in the damp and lonely caretaker's cottage. A mood that reaches out to envelope the rainy streets of London as the investigation, a bit short-handed, must adjust to a publicity seeking Scotland Yard man. "For the head of one of the London districts to call in a detective superintendent from the Central pool at Scotland Yard is quite rare enough to be remarkable, and remarked upon."
Not completely satisfied by the results of the investigation, Petrella continues to dig deeper defying the higher ups even when a suspect is arrested, tried and convicted. Though threatened with disciplinary action, Petrella pursues his own clandestine inquiries. I especially liked the atmospheric night scenes of underwater diving at the reservoir as Petrella and an experienced police diver break the rules in the name of justice.
Here's a tiny sample of the author's often vivid style which I found especially memorable;
"The successful working out of his hunch depended entirely on the co-operation of this fiery little man with the ginger-colored mustache adhering like a blob of bitter marmalade to his aggressive upper lip." I like that.
A well crafted, entertaining book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and recommend highly.
Now I remember why I stopped reading John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) ages ago. Although on the whole I'm a fan - I have recently written two blog posts on a couple of Carr books I liked very much upon re-reading, one I even loved - there comes a point in reading (or re-reading) Carr when your exhausted mind says, ' puh-leeze, take a break.'
Somewhere along the line the locked room or impossible crime nonsense just becomes tedious, (sacrilege to some, I know). But for goodness' sake, the constant rehashing of the crime scene and the ridiculous and detailed suspicions centering on EVERY person in the murder room, not to mention the recounting of the various and sundry ways to imaginatively poison a bunch of people without being seen, eventually made me sleepy.
I know John over at PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS doesn't share my views on this particular book, so head on over there and read his much more appreciative review. Look, I didn't hate the book, I just stopped caring and - gasp - found myself skimming. And if I have to hear Henry Merrivale address another male character as 'son' one more time I will spit. A little bit of Merrivale goes a very long way especially if you make the mistake of reading a couple of the books too close together.
Here is the difference as defined by myself to myself: I like whodunits. John Dickson Carr wasn't really writing whodunits, he was writing complicated and often very eccentric puzzles. Yes, I've enjoyed a few so far, but I made the mistake of reading one right after another - you can't do that with John Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson.
DEATH IN FIVE BOXES begins cunningly enough with a dead man found in a room full of poisoned people who all survive but the victim. The dead guy wasn't poisoned (at least I can't remember if he was or not), instead he was stabbed in the back with a sword blade from one of those tricky umbrellas. So why all the song and dance? Why were the others poisoned? Who poisoned them? And HOW?? What was the point of poisoning the group then turning around and stabbing one guy? Who knows? I still haven't quite come up with the raison d'etre.
At any rate, a doctor who works with the police is almost immediately on the scene (he's the nominal hero) as is the daughter of one of the poisoning victims (the love interest) who, handily enough, was waiting outside the building where the murder takes place AND of course, knows more than she's willing to tell. And that's another thing, the constant lies from everyone involved is SO wearisome after awhile. But maybe that's just me.
Where do the five boxes come in? Well, that's later, first there's the odd contents of the victims' pockets (i.e. four watches in one and the rusted parts of an alarm clock in another) and the speculation about what it all means while Merrivale comes on the scene and smugly deciphers everything almost at once, but won't say a thing. Or in moments when it looks as if he's going to say something, he is ALWAYS interrupted by a door opening or a person entering or a phone ringing or God knows what. Not to mention that the same exact thing happens when one of the suspects exclaims, I KNOW WHO DID IT! Frustrating? Yeah, I'd say so, and underhanded.
I got tired of this very early, that's why I say, I should probably postpone reading more Carr for a while. I recently ordered another of his titles which I will probably just put at the bottom of my unread pile.
Two Carr books I definitely do recommend: THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX and SHE DIED A LADY.
And since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, August 4, 2017
Well, I mean, how can you NOT read a book titled MURDER ON SAFARI? It's almost automatic even if you know going in that there will dead animals. Three of my blogging friends have already written their reviews of Huxley's book though seemingly I was unaware of it until recently. I know, where have I been?
Elspeth Huxley wrote the non-fiction classic, THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA and assorted other books set in the land of her youth (she grew up on a coffee farm in British Kenya) so was very familiar with the African veldt and assorted wildlife. Her knowledge of inhospitable regions is unquestioned and comes through in her vivid descriptions of the land and safari day-to-day.
Of course these sorts of stories usually feature a dead body (it helps if it's a gorgeous female though in this case the female is a little long in the tooth) and a great 'white' hunter and an assortment of witless rich folk 'roughing' it in the wilds of Africa. This group's idea of 'roughing it' is laughable but eccentric enough that you don't hate them for their absurdity - you just sneer, nicely.
Lady Barradale has hired the stalwart Superintendent Vachell to find out who stole her stash of fabulous jewels which she, inadvisedly, insisted on bringing with her on safari. Who brings jewels on safari? Well you might ask - obviously only a very foolish woman. Despite the halfhearted protestations of her hubby, Lady Barradale flaunts her jewels every night at dinner in the jungle then of course has the temerity to be surprised when these jewels go missing.
Turns out that Lady Barradale was carrying on with the second white hunter (there are always two) a young Dutchman who is in love with the lady's step daughter Cara described as 'one of those hard-boiled, prickly girls' and she with him so it did get kind of awkward especially since Cara's fiance is also part of the safari - an affected sort of fellow named Sir Gordon Catchpole. (I know, but THAT'S his name.) He's an interior decorator and seems an odd choice for an heiress, but apparently still waters run deep. 'He was fair and slender and looked delicate.' Vaguely gay characters were written a certain way back in the day and I can't fault Huxley since most everyone else was writing these fellows in the same fashion. (See Christianna Brand among others.) It was a kind of accepted mindset - I suppose if any sympathy were shown to them, the publishers or even the reading public might have caviled. I don't like the stereotyping but if I continue to read vintage, which I plan to, I will run across this sort of thing now and again.
The short-tempered Lord Barradale appears oblivious not only to his wife's bad behavior but to everything else that goes on around him and spends most of his time fiddling with his cameras. There are nine Europeans in the bunch, four to hunt and five - including a pilot who uses her plane to spot the game and report back to the group - smoothing the way for the others. The animals who die are not exactly given a sporting chance which, by the way, is the subject of a later conversation where Lord Barradale's enlightened view refreshes.
There are also assorted natives and personal valets and such who do the grunt work. And since it is 1938, these Africans are occasionally referred to as 'boys' even among themselves. But none, far as I can see, are treated egregiously. This is just the way it was. In addition there is also a group of renegade natives, members of an especially ferocious tribe, lurking about in the bush. So, lots of atmosphere and lots of danger.
Yes, I know, Yvette actually read a book where animals die. Well, I prepared myself for it - knowing it must happen because at that time people hunting in Africa were not just shooting with cameras. (Though Lord Barradale does spend an inordinate amount of time taking pictures of flora and fauna.) But I gritted my teeth and kept reading - there's not really that much wildlife blood shed. The real blood shed is reserved for the corpse of Lady Barradale which is only found after a wake of vultures has finished dining on her flesh. Nasty.
Later, there's a second murder by wild buffalo. Yes, you read it here first (unless it was mentioned in the previous three reviews). Unique in my experience.
There are also assorted attacks upon the person of Superintendent Vachell who joins the safari masquerading as a hunter though he has no experience being such and his 'disguise' is soon seen through by the lady pilot who apparently knows more than she's letting on. And if you have a plane in a story, it follows that there must, at some point, be a crash. And there is - vividly so.
A very enjoyable book in which the killer remains masked until the very end, at least to me. Superintendent Vachell is not an especially clever chap or for that matter, an engaging one. But he is, as I said, stalwart and bound to do his duty. He is described as tall, bony and sun bronzed and that's good enough for me.
Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, July 28, 2017
This is my first Mr. Pinkerton book and I was taken, more than anything else, by the title which is the kind of simplistic thing I love. I read a bit on the series and decided to jump right in though I'm not familiar with the author. David Frome is the pseudonym for a prolific writer named Leslie Ford who was really Zenith Brown (1898 - 1983) whose work I have heard of but am not familiar with - Leslie Ford, that is.
At any rate, I got my hands on an old paperback and lo and behold, I've discovered another enjoyable series to wade through when availability and budget permit. And based on the writing talent displayed in this particular whodunit, I will eagerly be looking to read the rest of Zenith Brown's output under the names of both David Frome and Leslie Ford.
In this series, Mr. Pinkerton is a rabbity middle-aged widower whose wife, when she was alive, made life a living hell. Money-wise he is comfortable, thanks to his late wife's parsimony. Upon her death (minus any will), Mr. Pinkerton inherited the boarding house they lived in and quite a bit more money than anyone thought Mrs. Pinkerton possessed. But despite his wife's death, Mr. Pinkerton has not been set free from a life-time of conditioning. He is still inclined to filter his day to day through the prism of his late wife's disapprobation. Old habits are hard to break.
However, the timid Mr. Pinkerton has managed to become involved in ten mysteries (at least that's the number of books in the series) through his friendship with Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard who previously lived in the Pinkerton boarding house. Through this connection, Mr. Pinkerton has been allowed to add the vigor of an occasional murder to an otherwise monotonous life enlivened only by trips to the movies twice a week,
Since so far I've only read this one book in the series, I can't compare it with any others. Here, Inspector Bull does most of the actual detecting and Mr. Pinkerton is pretty much on the sidelines adding his two cents now and then. We are privy to some of his thoughts but it's Bull who's front and center. I'm wondering if this will be true of the other Pinkerton books - at some point I'll find out. Not that I mind it, for surely it makes more sense to have the Scotland Yard man do most of the grunt work. Though sometimes it's Pinkerton who steers him in the right direction.
On the other hand it is a bit odd that Pinkerton is allowed the freedom to accompany Inspector Bull hither and yon as he tracks down nasty killers who often-times wind up trying to kill Mr. Pinkerton as well. In MR. PINKERTON GOES TO SCOTLAND YARD, we come up against a murderer whose weapon of choice is poison, but as usual suspension of disbelief is needed as Bull allows Pinkerton the unusual freedom of hanging around a murder investigation though he has no legal standing.
A month or so after being prompted by a newspaper article to make a bet with Inspector Bull over the probability that there are murders which go undetected by the police as murders, Mr. Pinkerton overhears some unpleasant gossip. An old woman by the name of Mrs. Ripley is likely being poisoned by members of her household. Curiosity gets the better of Mr. Pinkerton and he is moved to discuss what he's heard with the actual doctor on the case. The doctor of course poo-poos this odd little man who pops up out of nowhere to accost him in the street. In truth, Mrs. Ripley is actually better than she's been in days.
But then things abruptly take a turn for the worst.
The wealthy Mrs. Ripley despised her family and they, in turn, despised her. So when she is poisoned there are several ready suspects at hand. Was the killer Evelyn Ripley, the daughter who was at her mother's constant beck and call? Was it her sister Mrs. Cornish, a widow who had previously been banished when she married a man her mother couldn't abide? Was it the younger brother Hugh Ripley who is also inappropriately in love and lacks the funds to do anything about it? Was it Portus Ladysmith, curate of St. Barnabas in the Field, who was in desperate need of funds for his poverty stricken dock-side church? All benefit in some way from the old lady's will.
A second murder upends the police's investigation which had centered on one person being the most likely culprit. Later we get the usual verbalized denouement in a roomful of suspects as all is revealed by Inspector Bull. But not before the long overdo discovery of a third murder heretofore undetected. It takes Bull and Pinkerton most of the book to finally realize that the killer is 'hiding' in plain sight. The motivation for all this killing is weak but workable. I enjoy whodunits and this is a pretty good one even if the reasoning in the end is a bit faulty.
Since this is Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, July 21, 2017
I'd read a Henry Gamadge book quite a while back but it was not nearly as intriguing or as engaging a mystery as this one. ARROW POINTING NOWHERE (aka MURDER LISTENS IN) despite one of its titles, has nothing to do with archery and all to do with a cunning mystery, murder and family obfuscation - what could be better?
Henry Gamadge is an author/dealer/sleuth currently doing secret work for the War Department and so you'd think he's be fascinating in and of himself, but unfortunately as created by Elizabeth Daly, he has little personality and almost nothing memorable about him (though there are some who find him charming). But this particular book still makes for an excellent mystery and fascinating puzzle highlighting human behavior at its most bizarre. I read it in large gulps of anticipation. My favorite way to read a mystery.
It occurs to me to interrupt myself at this moment and mention that memorable sleuth protagonists are quite difficult to create without giving way to satire or copycat embellishment. Lately I've read several mysteries where that the main guy or gal remained a kind of cardboard dud for the entire book. It's quite obvious that Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr and even Ellery Queen and all the other Golden Agers who were capable of fashioning vivid detectives, amateur or otherwise, must have had a quite separate ability for creating interesting sleuths who immediately spring to life. It's funny how some authors can bring most of their characters to life, but leave their main protagonist completely draped in blandness.
But back to the current book:
When Henry Gamadge gets a secret (and very nebulous) message handed him by a rather intelligent and observant mail man, he must find a way to get invited to the house of people he doesn't know. Time seems to be of the essence. So thinking quickly and with the aid of a book dealing connection, he is able to affect an entrance to the Manhattan mansion of Blake Fenway, head of a reclusive family of wealthy New Yorkers.
To Gamadge, the secret 'message' means someone in that very private house needs help of some sort and has chosen a rather odd way of requesting it. (I might have had a bit of trouble making the initial connection, but Gamadge tumbles to it almost instantly.)
Having cleverly gained entrance to the Fenway mansion, home of a family that reviles publicity and shuns the limelight, Gamadge meets several of the Fenways (after first scoping out the land while lurking in the shadows the night before) and soon he believes he knows who sent the message and why that person could not have contacted him in the normal way.
While at tea, Gamadge observes the residents of Fenway House with a keen eye. They are:
Head of the family Blake Fenway, a book collector and a very likable chap. Unmarried, the Fenway name will come to an end with him.
Caroline Fenway, unsettled but pragmatic daughter of the house.
Belle Fenway a widow and Blake's sister-in-law - an invalid in a wheelchair since an injury aboard ship while fleeing from the war in Europe.
Belle's son, Alden, a grown man with the mind of a five year old boy.
Craddock, Alden's 'keeper' whose job it is to watch out for the unfortunate man/boy and keep him out of trouble.
Miss Grove, Belle Fenway's grim-faced companion.
Mott Fenway, a penniless older cousin beloved by most.
And of course, the servants.
Not living at the mansion at the moment but very involved in the story-line is Hilda Grove, Miss Grove's niece, a wide-eyed innocent who has been sent up to Fenbrook, the Fenway country house to do some research among family records. Craddock, who is himself penniless, has a tenderness for young Hilda thought Blake Fenway is uneasy about it.
How all these disparate characters figure in the ever-expanding investigation is a mystery which little by little, Gamadge manages to piece together despite two giant red herrings placed in our path almost from the getgo. Much of Gamade's deductive reasoning is arrived at without much explanation, so you have might have to stop for a moment now and then and say, "Wait - what?" I did.
After Gamadge's first introduction to the family, he is taken aside by cousin Mott who attempts to explain the root of the obvious family tensions. He sets up a second meeing but the very next day someone pushes poor Mott out an upper window. And through some rather fanciful putting together of two and two making four, Gamadge realizes that Hilda Grove may be in danger.
But when the second murder occurs, it is not Hilda who is found dead.
From strange beginning to even stranger end, this is a fine mystery worth looking for. I found it by accident when someone recommended Elizabeth Daly and I was reminded that I'd meant to read another. Even though I hadn't much liked the first one I'd read - I occasionally like to give these things a second or even a third chance. I do enjoy mysteries set among upper crust families, dead bodies turning up in a large mansions - the incongruity of it all. Additionally I will say that this story despite some familiar devices, features an unique twist which I don't remember having ever encountered before. I'd say even if you've been disappointed by a previous Elizabeth Daly book, forget about it and pick up this one.
Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, July 14, 2017
Considering that this book was published in 1942, it's a bit disconcerting to note that there are young men in the cast of characters who are not in uniform. But perhaps the manuscript was written before Pearl Harbor (the story is set in New York's theater community). Or maybe it was mentioned and I missed it, at any rate:
This is an excellent whodunit by a writer I'd never heard of much less read until now. (If I'm not mistaken, McCloy was recently recommended by a blogging friend whose name (as usual) escapes me at the moment. My paperback copy has an introduction by Anthony Boucher, the brilliant and influential mystery maven author and editor for whom the annual Bouchercon convention of mystery buffs and writers is named. He prized McCloy's talents and champions the fair-minded set of clues the author lays before the reader.
As some of you know, I am less interested in fair-minded clues laid before me than I am in being stumped and intrigued by a clever plot and wonderful writing. And oh yes, I must like (and/or find interesting) the main detective, amateur or otherwise. In this particular case, I wasn't bowled over by Basil Willing, psychologist/sleuth and police help-mate, but I love his name so much that I am willing to overlook the fact that he isn't a very vivid presence in this particular book (the only McCloy book I've read so far). He's okay in the role, but I'll have to read more before I make a final decision.
"BURGLER FREES BIRD
New York, April 28 - Police are puzzled by the odd behavior of a burglar who broke into Marcus Lazarus' knife-grinding shop near West 44th Street shortly before dawn yesterday. Nothing was stolen but the intruder opened the cage of Lazarus' pet canary and set the bird free. The shop is hardly more than a shack in an alley leading to the stage door of the Royalty Theater."
A new production of an old chestnut ('Fedora' by Victorien Sardou) starring vivid with a vengeance actress Wanda Morley gets more publicity than the leading lady (or anyone else) bargained for when one of the actors is murdered on stage at the Royalty theater on opening night. Don't you love when that happens?
Only one of the few characters in a particular scene could have bumped off the actor who (coincidentally) had the part of someone pretending to be dead. Oh. the irony.
Basil Willing, psychologist and medical assistant to the District Attorney's office, shows up on the case, brought in by the entreaties of the young costume designer and her friend (and ex-fiance) the male lead in the show who was apparently panting after the leading lady, a known home-wrecker. Turns out the dead guy was Wanda Morley's latest married fling and Pauline the costume designer believes the police are ready to arrest Rodney Tait, said lead in the show. Motive: jealousy. But Rod says he was most definitely NOT in love with Wanda and that it was she who was chasing him and making his life miserable.
Oh by the way, Basil Willing had been at that opening night and so was already familiar with the case and with the suspicious circumstance of the black caped person climbing up the theater's dark and shadowy fire escape.
There are tons of clues in this fair play mystery and if the reader is as finely attuned to the quirks of human psychology as is Basil Willing, then the murderer will be evident to the reader shortly after a certain fact becomes known about midway through the book.
The two main clues are the freed canary and the odd behavior of a house fly. Though head scratchingly esoteric, it is all explained in the end, remembering that psychologists don't think like the rest of us.
There are, of course, red herrings and the clue of the underlined paragraph in a script which I suppose makes some sort of sense - yet on the whole, it all works together. THOUGH, I must say that the motivation is as old as time but for all the distracting murder mystery finessing and the remarkable luck of the killer who gets away (at least for awhile) with murder twice over on the same character if not the same actor.
Nothing is memorable here except for the canary clue and maybe the fun of the backstage comings and goings, but still I thought this was quite a good example of a tricky whodunit from a lesser known Golden Age author. I will be reading more of her work.
Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom - Todd is doing hosting duties this week for author Patricia Abbott - to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, July 7, 2017
You know, there's something about Carr's writing that almost, ALMOST smacks of soap opera, but he does always manage to steer clear and deliver the goods.
THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX is not part of Carr's regular series stuff and does not feature Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. The detecting genius this time out is calm, cool and collected Dr. Dermot Kinross, a psychologist and expert in the criminal mind. The heroine is Eve Neil, she who behaves in very silly fashion, abandoning her common sense when it's needed most. But that is who she is. She also happens to be exceptionally beautiful and rich and will become the main suspect in the murder of her fiancee's father.
The settings are intimate enough, two French villas across from each other - this is the sort of book that would make for a good play since there are few locations and events take place in a short period of time.
At any rate, Ned Atwood is Eve's ex-husband, a man whom she should never have married. He is a handsome and charismatic n'er do well who treated Eve badly yet claims to still love her. We learn early on that he was capable of more than just verbal abuse during the marriage - a thoroughly bad lot as they used to say, but the sort to which certain women gravitate. Hey, he has curly blond hair.
Meanwhile, the Lawes family lives in a corresponding villa across the street from Eve and she has recently become engaged to Toby Lawes, the upright, uptight son of the family. He appears to be everything that Ned is not - he works for a stodgy bank who will brook no scandal in their employees' lives and he worships Eve.
When Ned reads about the engagement, he uses his old key and shows up one fateful night in Eve's bedroom determined to convince her not to marry the stiff shirt across the way.
What Ned fails to recognize is that after being married to him, Eve is desperate for a 'normal' seeming man who will treat her well and give her a the quiet sort of life she yearns for. What Eve fails to recognize is that Toby Lawes might have a secret or two of his own.
Anyway, while trying to convince the persistent Ned to leave her bedroom before scandal ensues - they eventually discover that all is not as it should be across the street. Looking directly into the third floor study, they can see that Maurice Lawes, Toby's elderly father, is slumped at his desk with his head smashed in.
That's the basic set-up.
What follows is one of those stories where things just get worse and worse. Of course, everybody's lying and things better left unsaid get said and secrets are exposed and everything that happens looks suspicious and for sure the police zero in on Eve because of what happens shortly after she forcefully ushers Ned out of her house and into the darkened garden. Oh, and there's a sinister maid named Yvette which I found very funny. Lately I seem to be running into characters named Yvette all over the place. This Yvette is not above lying and making things very difficult for her employer.
I admit that I figured out who the killer probably was early on, but that's only because I've read a million mysteries (or just about) in my life and I've learned to recognize certain tip-offs - this is a fair play sort of thing so the clues are there. I figured out the 'trick' and felt pretty good about it. But even then, I wasn't sure until nearly the end. I also didn't like that the motive is kind of forced and out of left field, but that's a minor quibble since everything else works beautifully.
If you are new to mysteries (or just new to Carr) this would be a terrific book to begin with because it contains the dazzling sleight of hand Golden Agers Carr and Agatha Christie were famous for and it provides as good a surprise ending as those uninitiated among you could wish for.
Lots of fun to read. So far I'm doing very well with Carr.
Since it's Friday, don't forget to head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
This is the cover on the paperback I have. But I much prefer the older hardcover edition.
Friday, June 30, 2017
Thank you British Library Crime Classics and here in this country Poisoned Pen Press, for making lesser known writers of the Golden Age of Crime readily available. Not all the books are of equal quality of course, but the main idea gets an A+ for effort - especially for the trade paperback format featuring such gorgeous cover art and design.
Years ago I read many Freeman Wills Crofts books and then promptly forgot them. (Hey, I also forgot all my John Dickson Carr reading as well, so it's not a selective thing at all.) The only thing I do remember was loving Croft's railroad mysteries - especially all the arcane minutiae. I had more tolerance for written detail then than I do now. Though if the detail is intriguing in some quirky way or other, I can still be brought to attention.
This enjoyable book is strictly a police procedural (as are most of Croft's books involving the always dogged and reliable Inspector French) which many of us are fond of though some of us are not. When done well, I believe they are wonderful, I love 'em. There's just something soothing about reading this sort of thing while your mind takes a break from grappling with Big Ideas.
In MYSTERY IN THE CHANNEL, it's the English channel (as you might have guessed) and the details of boating/shipping/sea-faring take the place of railway minutiae. In fact the actual murders take place aboard a luxury yacht.
While crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe, an apparently dead body is spotted on the deck of a yacht by the captain of the Chichester, a passing steamer. When crew go aboard the yacht they discover a second dead man in the cabin below and no one else on board. Both victims have been shot. The weapon too is missing.
So begins this carefully detailed murder yarn by the acknowledged master of this sort of thing. If two murders on board an otherwise empty boat in the English channel don't intrigue you from the getgo, then go read another book. I was caught up instantly.
We soon learn that the two dead men are the chairman and vice-Chairman of Moxon General Securities, one of the largest and more important financial firms in Great Britain. Uh-oh. It is 1931 and the country is already reeling from economic woes - Moxon itself, unknown to its investors, has been in serious trouble for weeks. The once thriving firm will crash almost as the two bodies are being discovered in the channel. What's more, the chief accountant of Moxon's is missing as is another member of the firm. The financial ruin of thousands of investors (many of them small and dependent) is guaranteed as the firm has losses amounting to 8 million pounds and to make matters even worse, one and a half million pounds in cash is missing.
Scotland Yard, in the form of Inspector French, is almost immediately on the job.
Here the seemingly indefatigable Inspector travels back and forth between France and England - a bloodhound on the trail of the smallest lead, unwilling to rest until the culprit or culprits are caught. The author's talent for description is here finely tuned as he makes written images that plant us firmly in place. He's not much for character finesse and description but he makes sure we know where we are.
An aside: Mrs. French is mentioned once in passing, though French seemingly lives alone in an apartment in London and the missus is nowhere to be seen. (She shows up as background in some of the other books.) I took it as a slight mistake on Croft's part. If he'd had the missus hidden away in a house in the country don't you think French might have mentioned it?
At any rate, over at the foundering Moxon General Securities, the account books are being minutely looked over by what we would today call a forensic accountant, hoping to grasp how the current disaster came about. Turns out that the firm really was in grave cash flow difficulty and the defection of the key management team was apparently a desperate last ditch effort to save their own skins while leaving behind investors to face utter ruin.
With the help of the very accommodating French police, the Inspector runs himself ragged following several trails which eventually peter out. An arrest is made, but soon turns to nothing. After much keen-eyed concentration on time schedules and how many knots a boat can do in so many given minutes, French will eventually get to the bottom of things and catch (at great risk to himself) a cold-blooded and extremely clever killer hidden in plain sight.
This is a particularly engaging Croft book, possibly because of the various settings. It's made me want to read more tales with French in charge. Croft is too often overlooked when it comes to the Golden Agers and it's really a shame. He was an expert practitioner at a fairly specific sort of exercise, the likes of which I find rewarding and enjoyable.
Todd Mason is doing hosting duties this week at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten (or overlooked) book other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, June 23, 2017
I am a fan of science fiction super-wonder Connie Willis and I loved SLEEPING GIANTS (though not the second book in the trilogy which I found unreadable) by Sylvain Neuvel and THE FOLD by Peter Clines and THE LAST POLICEMAN trilogy which despite its starkly dystopian outlook is still mesmerizing and last but not least, I also enjoyed Stephen King's 11/22/63. I also like China Mieville's work though I think he is more a magical realism guy than a science fiction guy.
Despite this, I'm not much of a regular science fiction reader and know little about the stars of the genre and their bibliographies. I am not especially taken with plots filled with aliens and the inherent bizarre drama of other worlds except, actually, in movie form. But having said that, I'm not immune to a good book with an intriguing storyline either.
So when WAY STATION was recently made available on Kindle, I decided why not? I liked the overall plot idea and decided this would be my first Clifford D. Simak experience.
The book is an abundance of riches almost too much to take in at one reading. While the story is not difficult or full of exotic alien science too convoluted to follow or even imagine, there is still much to consider. The ambience of WAY STATION - despite some violence - has a certain gentleness while at the same time the plot dazzles with ideas.
Enoch Wallace is a modern day recluse. He is an American Civil War veteran who lives in a cabin in the woods which, unbeknownst to his mid-western neighbors, harbors alien teleportation machinery. He is immortal so long as he stays put in the impregnable cabin (and only goes outside for short periods of time) and continues his work which is that of earth's only caretaker of an intergalactic way station. As they planet hop from one deep space locality to another, alien travelers use earth as a sort of pit stop.
'Traveling' is a bit of a misnomer, since the creatures doing said 'traveling' don't actually make the journey - his or her outer shell dies at the point of origin and it is the 'travelers' data which is collected and teleported to the next destination then reassembled in original form.This isn't gone into in much detail, but it would seem a good way to disregard the actual logistics of light years long space travel. If you don't mind being dead and 'reborn' and being dead and 'reborn' as you move around space. Obviously one questions the very idea of the soul's purpose in these re-configured life forms - does it survive the teleportation or did it not exist in the first place?
It is a lonely existence as aliens move on from the way station never really staying long - occasionally one makes a connection with Enoch, but most don't. To them, he is just a caretaker, a necessary fixture. Once in a while, his old friend Ulysses drops by to chat and/or check on things and make sure everything is running smoothly. This is the alien who back in the 19th century chose Enoch to be the keeper of the way station. (Ulysses is the name Enoch gave him.)
Sometimes the alien travelers leave artifacts from their home worlds for the caretaker (with or without explanation as to what the artifact does). Though Enoch has made it his business to learn a few of the interstellar dialects, he can't be expected to know them all. Grateful for these 'souvenirs,' Enoch keeps his singular collection about him - items of wonder and intellectual surmise.
Earthlings are unaware of the way station and of Enoch's immortality, though his neighbors do notice that he never seems to age. Only the postman, Winslow, has an inkling. He's one of the very few humans Enoch interacts with.
Okay, so that's the basic set-up - I would have been happy just to read more and more about Enoch's duties and the aliens which he meets. But this book was first published in two parts in Galaxy Magazine in 1963 and maybe that's the reason for all the plot twists and turns - enough to fill up five volumes let alone two. It's almost as if the author couldn't decide what to leave out so he didn't.
A random sample of what goes on:
There are two invisible-to-everyone-but-himself 'friends' - a man and woman - who show up now and then when Enoch is especially worried or lonely - 'fairies or wraiths' he has conjured up with the help of an artifact. But to his chagrin, the lonely Enoch has fallen in love with the image of the woman and she with him, though their 'romance' is not to be - he cannot touch her and she cannot touch him. This plot line could have been left out of the book and none the wiser - it really doesn't add much to the story.
In addition there's a deaf young sprite of a girl who lives on the farm down the road with an abusive father and ignorant relations. She is known to keep to herself and Enoch has often seen her work small wonders - watched her heal a butterfly whose wing was crushed. For her 'other-wordliness' she is misunderstood and abused by her family. Enoch seems to be the only person she trusts instinctively.
Then there's the 'shooting rage' which Enoch goes to when he needs target practice - a hologram world which has been set up for him by the aliens who run the way station so that Enoch can practice his rifle skills by killing alien monsters on alien worlds.
Also there's a government agent who is lurking about in town at the moment, incognito. He is investigating Enoch and reporting back to Washington.
Then there's....see what I mean?
There is so much packed into this book that you can't figure out what's what until nearly the end when a large rat from outer space shows up at the way station and runs off into the night. Enoch has to go in pursuit since the rat has, in his hairy clutches, a mystical object which prevents war and benefits all lifeforms who are attuned to it. It is an object of reverence which has been lost for generations and for which Ulysses and his federation cohorts have been searching all over the galaxy for years.
And oh by the way, a few days before, Ulysses had dropped by to inform Enoch that he was in some danger of having the way station shut down because of an ancient alien custom which Enoch has unwittingly ignored and which he must now set to rights.
Not to mention, that the townspeople are being whipped into a frenzy by the deaf girl's father and plan to attack the cabin.
LOTS to think about in this story, lots to absorb, lots for the imagination to take in. As I said, more than enough for many books - possibly a trilogy. Well, still, WAY STATION won the Hugo Award in 1964. So I must be in the minority.
But in truth, I enjoyed the book for its old fashioned sense of right and wrong and the whole idea of morality and honor under pressure. I liked how several plot lines do resolve themselves in the end and most of all, I liked Enoch Wallace. Ulysses made a wise choice when he picked this earthling to man the way station.
Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
THE SEVENTH VEIL is one of those films from my movie-crazed youth that, for whatever reason, has fascinated me over the years. The last time I can remember watching it on television I was likely an impressionable teen hooked on local TV. Channel 11's Million Dollar Movie was a favorite (they repeated the movie during the week so if you missed it the first time...) or maybe it was Channel 9 or CBS's evenings of movie magic back when N,Y. TV stations had hours of airtime to fill and did so as cheaply as possible with movies, movies, movies. (CBS even had a daily afternoon movie at 4:30!) All for just the price of a clunky black and white television set made in America and meant to last for years and years (no upgrade needed) and did.
Out of the blue, I was recently able to watch THE SEVENTH VEIL on youtube where it is currently (but who knows for how long) available. I wish I could say that I was instantly transported back in time, but I wasn't. Admittedly, this was a very influential film for an imaginative girl growing up on the lower east side of Manhattan in the 1950's, but the thrill is gone. I'm too old and cynical now to fall under the spell of thwarted love. Sad.
The film stars James Mason, Ann Todd, Hugh McDermott and Herbert Lom, and is based on a screenplay by Muriel and Sydney Box (Oscar winners for Original Screenplay) and directed in histrionic 'woman's film' style by Compton Bennett,
In a nutshell: THE SEVENTH VEIL is a dark and laborious tale of destructive love and pathology, but with a happy ending. I kid you not.
Even if the tale does begin with a suicide attempt.
The poster's dramatic tag line: 'It dares to strip bare a woman's mind,' refers, I suppose, to the fact that most of the film is told in flashback as the beleaguered heroine is treated by a sympathetic psychiatrist (Herbert Lom). He believes strongly in hypnotism and the idea that once you remember everything bad you will come out the other end, cured and ready to tackle a new day.
It's obvious they made that chair too big to try and make Ann Todd look smaller/younger and vulnerable.
Okay so here we have Ann Todd who must play a fifteen year old near the beginning of the film (you sort of have to squint not to see she's too old) and then watch as she ages into an attractive woman in her twenties under the dark brow of her cousin, a controlling, chillingly censorious and very much given to brooding, guardian played by James Mason. Of course he's rich and lives in a large and charmless mansion. Typically: he has a cane and limps which romantically hints at some long ago secret hardship AND he always wears a suit and tie even when just sitting around petting his cat.
Come on in and let me take a look at you. (I'm too lazy to stand up.)
Piano prodigy Francesca Cunningham (Ann Todd) arrives on her guardian's doorstep while still a schoolgirl. James Mason can be menacing without hardly batting an eye when he wants to be which is usually all the time. Once he realizes how musically talented Francesca is, he becomes hell-bent on fashioning the introverted girl into a world-renown pianist and to that end forbids her to have any fun. Everyday it's practice, practice, practice amid lots of scowling intimidation.
Hugh McDermott, an actor with a light-hearted personal charm and the sort of look men in the 1950s had in real life.
When Francesca does get a few moments on her own she naturally enough seeks out smiling young people. One night she meets a likable night club musician, Peter Gay, played by the usually-looks-older- than-he's-supposed-to-be-actor, Hugh McDermott. (He was unconvincing as a college 'boy' in PIMPERNEL SMITH mainly because he looked about the same age as his professor, Leslie Howard. But that's a story for another day.) Peter is smitten with Francesca and she with him and soon they plan to marry though she is still underage. Uh-oh.
Nicolas will not take this well.
Practice makes perfect.
I suppose we have Jane Eyre (and/or Harlequin Romances) to thank for our affection for these sorts of heroes and stories. Because of course we know all along that Nicholas, the dark and brooding villain of the piece is crushingly possessive of Francesca for one reason and one reason only - he is in love with her and has no other way to show it except to try and control her every breathing moment. I know, I know, how 19th century-ish, but this is the sort of thing that made me swoon back in the day.
As a teenager I saw James Mason as the poor misunderstood long-suffering hero. It hardly occurred to me that perhaps he could have behaved a little nicer. But aren't dark, soulful, brooding men supposed to behave this way? Hey, that's what I learned from books.
What do those darkly intense stares really mean?
But the truth is, Francesca is such a wimp that you almost don't feel sorry for her as the story progresses because she seems the sort to warrant intimidation. Do I still feel that way today? Well, to be honest, yeah. On re-watching this film it is perfectly obvious that Francesca should have stood up for herself more and not allowed herself to be so easily manipulated. Though naturally, Nicolas being her guardian, he had the law all on his side. Back then it was much easier to lord it over women.
Forget Peter, he's nothing but a two-bit musician - you are an artiste.
So as I mentioned, Francesca and Peter begin making marriage plans. But first she has to tell Nicholas. It doesn't go well. her guardian won't hear of it. He swoops up his ward and bundles her off on a Mediterranean sea voyage to soak up culture and atmosphere in between more bouts of practice, practice, practice. She doesn't even get a chance to say goodbye to Peter. (Though you'd think she could write a letter.)
Go out there and knock 'em dead - or words to that effect.
When as long last she makes her concert debut, Francesca performs brilliantly. But thanks to a long ago and rather vulgar schoolmate in the audience who reawakens memories of a violent school episode, Francesca faints after the concert right there in full view of the cheering audience. It's not easy being a sensitive soulful female. Genius, as we know, is often an unfair burden.
Once back at the house in London, Francesca goes to look up the man she abandoned, Peter Gay. But she finds to her dismay that he's since married. (A very moving scene - once they meet again for the first time - well handled with no dialogue.) Francesca flees in the night.
Couldn't they have fashioned a better portrait of their leading lady?
Later Nicholas hires artist Maxwell Leyden (Albert Lieven) to paint Francesca's portrait and of course the artist falls in love with his subject. Never mind that the eventual portrait looks nothing like Francesca. Once again, Francesca and Nicholas have it out over another man. This time the man in question wants Francesca to come and live with him in typical bohemian artist fashion. Though Francesca assumes they'll be married at some point. Nicholas is so outraged that he slams his cane down on the piano keys just missing Francesca's hands by a millimeter.
The way to a woman's heart back in the day.
Traumatized, Francesca runs away into the night. I think this is when she jumps off a bridge into the Thames river and is saved by a London bobby - or actually, I think that happens a little later after the automobile crash. There's so much turmoil, it's hard to remember the schedule of events, but I do know that the crash happens when she and the artist run away (poor Francesca can't even run away successfully).
The crash injures her hands and she wakes up convinced she will never play the piano again. At any rate, she winds up in a hospital or 'nursing home' as they used to call it in the care of a psychiatrist who is intrigued by her case. You see, she is sure she can no longer play and doesn't want to live and he is sure it is hysteria of a particular sort since her hands have completely healed.
Herbert Lom as the all-knowing psychiatrist, Dr. Larsen.
One thing leads to another and in the end, said psychiatrist conducts a very unorthodox experiment to determine which of three men (oh, alongside Max the smitten portrait painter, band-leader Peter Gay, newly divorced, turns up at the house at the bidding of Dr. Larsen) Francesca really and truly wants to be with. As if the solution to her woes must be in the hands of a male third party.
Well, in this instance, it is. Hokey, but that's the way they figured things back in the day.
At any rate, I promised you a happy ending and (depending on how you look at it), that's what we get. And oh by the way, Francesca is cured.
Movies like this had such a seductive impact on me back when I was googly-eyed and thoroughly susceptible to stories of storm-tossed romance. I truly believe that certain books and films imprint indelibly on the imagination if watched or read at certain ultra-spongy times in our development. I have always liked tall dark men and it is true that my favorite romantic hero in fiction is Mr. Rochester. And what's more, the guardian/ward romance has always been a favorite of mine though as everyone knows, Rochester is Jane Eyre's employer, not her guardian. But the dynamic is the same. And believe me, I know that in real life, men like these would be extraordinarily difficult to live with, but tell that to my then impassioned teenage heart.
THE SEVENTH VEIL is a rather intriguing period piece and viewed from the perch of today, it is a silly sort of thing. (Though I note that online it is labeled a classic of suspense.) But it stayed with me over the years and I was pleased to have a chance to see it once again. And I still like the chilling way James Mason broods.
Tuesday is usually Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films and other Audio Visuals Day over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, Todd will have the list of participating bloggers. If the links aren't there in the morning, they'll probably show up in the afternoon. Life can often gets in the way of blogging as we all know.
Friday, June 16, 2017
Georgette Heyer, as most of you know, is the anointed queen of Regency Romance (though several of her books take place a bit earlier towards the end of the Georgian period). I've talked about her often enough since I am a slavish fan-girl. Heyer's brilliance, elegance, wit and charm and her often laugh out loud humor just cannot be duplicated. She combines all that and more in her best Regency books which I am given to re-reading when I'm down in the dumps.
But Heyer also wrote a bunch of mysteries which rival the Golden Age distinction of Agatha Christie and the rest of the talented dames who glorified the country house murder genre I love so much.
While not as lavishly enhanced with wit, charm and humor as her Regencies, Heyer's mysteries are, nevertheless, worth finding and reading because at heart, they are excellent whodunits in the British Golden Age style. And if you love that very particular sort of writing and tomfoolery, you will love these.
A BLUNT INSTRUMENT begins typically: a bludgeoned body slumped over a desk in a study. The local bobby, a bible quoting misery named Glass, is on the scene from the first page on (in fact he provides part of the timeline), and soon it's up to Superintendent Hannasyde and his henchman, Sgt. Hemingway. (Heyer, I note, has a thing for the letter H - see further evidence in her other whodunits.)
The dead man, of course, is more than at first appears and several convenient suspects are immediately in the running for head murderer. One is a devilishly waggish nephew, Neville Fletcher - the heir apparent - and the other is Helen North, the loathe-to-tell-the-truth wife of a man who handily enough is away from home at the time of the murder. Or is he?
It seems that the aforementioned wife was terrified of having her hubby (they are currently estranged) finding out that the dead man, Ernest Fletcher, had in his wall safe, a clutch of I.O.U. gambling vouchers belonging to Mrs. North. Mr. North frowns on that sort of thing.
Then there is Mrs. North's pragmatically inclined sister Sally Drew, (she wears a monocle and chain smokes - well, I tell you, it's 1938 after all). Sally is a mystery writer and is naturally enough intrigued when a real murder lands, as it were, on her doorstep.
There are also a couple of men (obviously fond of calling on potential murder victims late at night) of the lower sort who were apparently up to something or other with the dead man.
There are motives galore, much mis-direction (the whereabouts of the weapon for one) and a long ago suicide to be factored in, but I suspect that experienced readers of mysteries will figure out whodunit before the last page, but still continue reading just to see how Hannasyde and Hemingway finally get to the truth of the matter.
I've been re-reading Heyer's mysteries lately and enjoying them again and again. (Thanks to old lady memory, my re-readings are often almost the same as if I were reading the book for the first time.) I also have several in audio versions which are very well done and fun to listen to. (Most especially THE UNFINISHED CLUE read by Clifford Norgate, a narrator I wish had done more of Heyer's books. Though he did narrate Heyer's Regency tale, FREDERICA, quite fabulously.)
During these days of wretched political strife and horrendous doings around the world, I am so very grateful for my favorite books - how they help soothe my often frazzled nerves. There is just nothing like re-visiting the wonderful worlds created by certain authors. Thank goodness.
Link: a full list of Georgette Heyer books.
Since it's Friday, we once again turn to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Friday, June 9, 2017
Megan Wilson Design
It occurs to me that there have been lots and lots of JANE EYRE book covers over the years (the book was published in 1847) and why don't I post a few. True, this is not exactly a forgotten or overlooked book, but in the past I've posted about favorite not-overlooked and/or not-forgotten books and the world didn't come to an end.
JANE EYRE is one of my favorite books - let's get that over with up front - and if you need to know what the book is about, take a look at these covers - they will give you some idea. Hard to believe that Jane was the first feminist heroine (or so I viewed her then and now) from these romantically brooding covers, but the truth is there in the pages of this memorable novel. JANE EYRE is very definitely worth a read if you, by some wild chance, haven't read it already either in school or on your own. It is not, in any way shape or form, a 'difficult' book, though written in the style of the mid 19th century. It is a brilliant, brooding, deeply affecting classic for many reasons. One of which is the heroine's willingness to do what is right no matter the risk to herself.
Even with the first feminist heroine, Jane's creator had to first publish the manuscript under a male author's name. Better that than not published at all - Charlotte Bronte was no fool.
Her hero, Mr. Rochester was the first tall, dark and dangerous anti-hero, a protagonist so familiar today - he is to my mind, the perfect anti-hero, even better than Heathcliff, in the book written by Charlotte's sister.
At any rate, no more need be said about the book. It is available everywhere in every form imaginable.
Here's the artwork: (Where I can find the info, I'll name the publisher, the artist and/or designer.)
The New American Library - James Hill illustration - 1962 (This is one of the copies I had years ago.)
Anna and Elana Balbusso illustration
Murray's Abbey Classics - 1955
Julien Lacroix, Le Rameau D'Olivier - Grau Sala illustration - 1950
A.L. Burt Co. 1934
Thames Publishing - Regent Classics - 1952
Chatto and Windus Limited - The Zodiac Press - John Sergeant illustration
Scholastic Library Edition - illustrations by W.T. Maks - 1965
Blackie & Son Limited - The Kennett Library
Everyman's Library - detail from a painting byAugustus Egg 1862
Random House - The Modern Libary - Fritz Eichenberg illustration 1950
Claire Louise Milne illustration - 2011
Penguin Classics - Detail from a painting by John Everett Millais
Since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. Author Patti Abbott, our regular long-time host, is still on hiatus.
Since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. Author Patti Abbott, our regular long-time host, is still on hiatus.
Friday, June 2, 2017
THE BURNING OF BILLY TOOBER is a decidedly noir entry in a series that seems to have been overlooked or forgotten by nearly everyone. It is one of the grittier and grungier of Ross's engrossing police procedurals set in London (of the 1960's - 1990's) and its environs. The nattily dressed and perpetually randy Detective Superintendent George Rogers and his crew are back once again to solve the murder by incineration of Billy Toober, a police informant and small time crook.
The book has a terrific opening hook: His mother loved him. So did his brother. It was impossible to believe anybody else could.
Billy Toober had been hoping to evade the retribution of Roy Grattan, the crime boss he helped send to prison. But when Grattan's brother - a violent tough known as Dummy - a large, afflicted sort who can only communicate by grunting or garbling his words - is sent to teach Billy a lesson, Billy turns to Detective Superintendent George Rogers for help. Rogers, not the comforting type, tells him he can do nothing.
The next day a body is found in the park, burnt to a crisp.
This particularly grisly murder sets off several other killings which will keep Rogers and his minions busy as they try to untangle the plots and ploys of London's sleazier denizens. A job made all the more onerous by the actions of a mother bent on grim revenge.
In between, Rogers must contend with the sordid mess he's made of his own personal life. He is not, by his own words, "...a very practised adulterer." But that won't stop him trying. He is currently involved with Dr. Bridget Hunter, the Medical Examiner. Rogers' wife - no fool she - suspects the worst.
While reading several of the books in this series, I've often wondered what it is that women see in Detective Superintendent Rogers. He's a good cop, but he is relentlessly unsparing, "...bloody-minded and destructive..." and inclined to occasional bouts of self-pity. But there has to be something about Rogers that women like; he does get an awful lot of them to fall for his hidden charms.
"Bigger men that you, George, have told women they love them"
He tried to recollect some who had and couldn't. "I don't believe it," he said cynically...."I'm sorry...if it's any consolation, I've never thought of any woman in terms of being in love."
Although his infatuation for her was no perfunctory passion, neither was it deep-rooted. His stubborn honesty refused the easy solution of telling her he loved her; women did it as a matter of course, to whitewash promiscuity. And there was still the ridiculous stumbling block of picturing himself as a lover and an adulterer. Astronauts, rent collectors, gynaecologists, insurance salesmen and company directors; he could imagine them all in situ without loss of dignity. But not, somehow, his own grey-suited persona as a Detective Superintendent.
In a strange way, this is part of the draw of these books - to see who Rogers will chase after next - once his eventual divorce becomes final. Also, I suppose, to wonder if and when Rogers' will allow himself to feel anything but the bare basics for any woman. I mean, he can be such a slug. But still a hell of a cop and the mysteries are good ones and over the course of the books I grew fond of his second in command, Detective Chief Inspector Lingard who actually reminds me a bit of the second in command in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' Bill Slider police procedurals. (Another often overlooked series worth searching for as well - but the Slider books must be read from the beginning which is just as well, because the early books in that long-running series are really the best.)
Of course, a man of George Rogers' blunt caliber will make enemies, and he has a couple down at the cop shop. Rogers must daily grit his teeth and hold his bile while waiting for his immediate boss to retire - one year to go! - not an easy thing when your inclination is not to suffer fools lightly.
Still and all, there's just something about Rogers that eventually gets under your skin. There's much to be said for the attractions of a competent cop. But I still shake my head at all the women.
THE BURNING OF BILLY TOOBER, the sixth entry in what was a long-running series, has an unexpected ending which is really a cynical fillip to motherly love.
This is another compelling police procedural in a long string of terrific books by Jonathan Ross and certainly worth looking for.
To see all the titles in Ross's series, please go here to his fantastic fiction page.
It's Friday and this week, Todd Mason is doing hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
In the interest of fair disclosure, this post is a re-working of a review written several years ago. I thought it was about time to bring up Jonathan Ross again. I ran across his name recently and reminded myself that I still needed to read a couple more.
Thursday, May 25, 2017
I'm kind of venting today, so please bear with me.
Author Ethel Lina White has a major failing - she's not very good at creating the nuts and bolts of an actual setting. That gene is missing from her make-up. So when I'm reading her stories, I'm kind of floundering around trying to find my footing.
I've read several of her books perhaps trying to find one that I'll love. I liked FEAR STALKS THE VILLAGE though it was not as solidly grounded as I would have liked. It was set in an English village which failed to coalesce in my imagination. A generic setting which certainly does not come anywhere near the visually well conceived English villages created by Agatha Christie.
(Read, though didn't love, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Extremely disappointed in THE WHEEL SPINS which is the basis for THE LADY VANISHES, one of my very favorite Hitchcock movies.)
It is my belief that in these sorts of books, the setting is almost as important as the characters. To my way of thinking, if you can't stabilize the surroundings for a mystery novel, it's half over right there. Some writers can pick you up and drop you down in any setting almost immediately, even within the first opening paragraph. They have the knack. Christie had it. She could transport me immediately to wherever and whenever with just a few sentences.
But Ethel Lina White just can't quite do it. She creates a place for her story but doesn't give it any foundation - no toe hold for the reader. I'm usually left trying to visualize and failing. Occasionally that doesn't matter in a book, but most of the time it does.
Some of you may know that I don't write negative reviews if I can help it and this is not really one. I read PUT OUT THE LIGHT all the way through which I would definitely not have done if I'd hated it. It's just that this is one of the stranger mysteries I've read lately and I guess I need to share its strangeness.
Cause here's what I'm thinking - maybe it's just me.
PUT OUT THE LIGHT concerns the murder of a woman named Anthea Vine, wealthy owner of Jamaica Court, an estate perched on a hill above an English town. In that same town live a bumbling Inspector of police and his concerned and keen-eyed sister.
Now, one would think that a policeman with the last name of Pye would be kind of a humorous character, but in this book he is, maybe, just mildly amusing. Pye desperately wants to solve the only murder he's ever been faced with, hoping against hope that Scotland Yard won't be called in by his superiors. But all this is lacking any real connecting charm which is key for this sort of character. The sister, Florence, is supposed to be the one with the brains, but she too is charmless. She helps her brother (whose old fashioned notion that women should be seen and not really heard rankles a bit) by sort of 'directing' him without his being aware he's being directed. He's not a boob exactly, he just needs a bit of guidance.
Florence Pye also likes to tell fortunes. This time out the cards presciently read: 'Death to an old woman.'
Anthea Vine (our pre-arranged victim) is such a strange character that I kept thinking, wait - what? She is apparently a grotesque old woman who wears tons of make-up and likes having young men about her. She preens, she parades around like some young femme fatale, pretending that the men indulge her because she is still beautiful and alluring. Vine is ridiculous in her conceit but enjoys the sense of power and manipulation. And because she is extremely wealthy nobody likes to call attention to the absurdity of it all.
She is a woman who has convinced herself that she is still wickedly sexy and attractive and here's the main problem: it's difficult to take her seriously. (And oh my God, her laborious nightly beauty ritual is outlined in detail.) In some scenes, Anthea comes across as younger than she's supposed to be so that when she's referred to as 'old' the reader is taken aback. She is written in an oddly inconsistent way which is off-putting and VERY theatrical. But then I realize that back in the day, a 40 year old woman was considered 'old' and forget about someone already in her 50's - she would be at death's door. Unfortunately, in some scenes Anthea seems like someone who might be geriatric then in others, she suddenly seems younger. It's almost like the author loses track.
And another thing: here's this woman ripe for murdering and she doesn't get bumped off until well into the book. She's just not THAT interesting a character that we need to be in her company for so long before she gets her just deserts. The other characters, some young people who live in the house with Anthea Vine are not any more interesting in my view. They are her three wards, dependent and hoping to profit upon their malevolent benefactor's death. All have been under Anthea's thumb, including her plucky secretary and the local young doctor.
Anthea pretends (or is she pretending?) that she has ulterior designs on the doctor and even one of her wards - an idea that only revolts them. (Maybe we're supposed to sympathize with Anthea's fading attractions and frenzied need for attention but I didn't.) It's all about control and money.
Though why these youngsters can't tell Anthea to go to hell then go out and get jobs, is beyond me. But in those days that may have been harder than it is today. Also with big money at stake, it's not always easy to walk away even at the sake of your self-respect.
Anyway, a couple of small odd burglaries occur locally and Inspector Pye is called in to try and find the culprit. In the meantime, up at the big house on the hill, Anthea Vine continues to bully those around her, relishing her power and behaving like someone just begging to be murdered.
She does have moments of gothic discontent though - late at night, she imagines shadows lurking about and closing in on her. Very unsettling in that dark and moody old mausoleum of a house for sure. But even that goes on too long.
Eventually, of course, she is murdered and we get down to sleuthing.
In the end, Inspector Pye (with the behind the scenes nudging of his sister) solves the case, putting together a quirky set of curious clues.
Not one of Ethel Lina White's best, but maybe not her worst. I'll probably read one or two more of her books because she did write quite a few and I remain hopeful.
Edgar and Anthony award nominated author Patricia Abbott is taking a blog hiatus until June 12th so Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom is doing hosting duties. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.