11/19/14

Ghouls on Wheels


"Everything's just a game to you, something to make a story out of."
 - Sgt. Beef (Leo Bruce's Case with Four Clowns, 1939)
Last year, I read and reviewed the two sole "Jay Omega" mysteries, Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), written by award winning novelist Sharyn McCrumb. They are detectives stories steeped in science-fiction lore and very much off the beaten track. Fortunately, McCrumb's bibliography extends pass those two mysteries and I recently dug up one of her Elizabeth MacPherson novels – a humorous, inverted crime story by the title of Missing Susan (1991).

Rowan Rover is the bored, waspish guide of a Jack the Ripper tour and an amateur "criminologist extraordinaire," who tries to summon the ghosts of that long-gone East End London of the late 1880s for a few quid per person, but it's not enough to keep the wolves from the door. There are several ex-wives, tuition fees for his son and a smoking habit to sustain. So how could Rowan have turned down Aaron Kosminski's offer to subtly murder his cousin, Susan Cohen, during a three week murder tour in the south of England – in exchange for a nice fee, of course. Susan came into the family money and decided to retire at the age of thirty-six, which didn't garner much sympathy from either the family or Rover.

After this set-up, Missing Susan becomes a strange, but enjoyable, travelogue filled with the chatter of crime lore, detective fiction and the blood-soaked history of the English countryside.

The references to mystery-and crime fiction is perhaps what you'd expect from detective readers and amateur criminologists from the early 1990s: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael, Jeremy Brett's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's disappearance and mentions of Dorothy L. Sayers, Colin Dexter and there's one tour-member who wants to buy a Reginald Hill novel that hasn’t been published in the U.S. yet. They also visit the area in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is set and the disappointing Agatha Christie exhibit in Torre Abbey, among other historical sights, but the snippets of "True Crime" were equally interesting. The murder of William II in 1100 is discussed, Dr. Crippen receives an obligatory mention and the Constance Kent case, known best today from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008) by Kate Summerscale, function as a story-within-a-story – as MacPherson and the tour members try to piece together an alternative solution.

Meanwhile, Susan Cohen isn't making herself popular and beloved among the group, especially with her would-be-assassin, as she's an easy person to dislike: a self-absorbed, draining personality without a glimmer of self-reflection. However, it took nearly two/thirds of the book before Rover began to make serious attempts at earning his fee. The result is a comedy of errors only Rover is aware of and only the reader can appreciate.

Sharyn McCrumb
Missing Susan may come across like a snail-paced, overly chatty and fictionalized travel guide posing as a cozy mystery novel, which is a suspicion I began to harbor halfway through the story, but the ending is worth the grand tour of south England. I have read a lot of detective stories with takes on the supposedly "perfect crime," but McCrumb may very well have the best one I've yet encountered. It's delightfully ironic, beautifully understated and simply tucked away in the final pages of the book, which also has an interesting part to play for Elizabeth MacPherson – who manages to be both right and wrong about the solution at the same time.

Hell, it was infinitely better than the solution I pieced together based on Susan's expensive makeover and the outdated photograph in her passport, which gave her trouble at the airport. I assumed Susan had been "disappeared" before Kosminski approached Rover with his offer. The Susan on the murder tour had to be Kosminski’s accomplish in the murder of the real Susan, but had been convinced to take the tour in England to make it look as if Susan had disappeared abroad – while they (i.e. he) has an unshakable alibi. That would (at least) freeze the money until she was declared dead, but Kosminski wanted to kill two birds with one stone: if "Susan" dies in an unfortunate accident abroad, nobody will be looking for her body back home and he has silenced a potential danger. Rover could never put the squeeze on Kosminski, because it would be his word against his (and a confession to being a murderer).

Well, I was wrong. And my reason for jotting down my failure as an armchair detective is because this is the second mystery novel in a row that I liked, but doesn't give any room to discuss plot. It's a very talky, but fun, mystery with lots of sight seeing and crime discussions, but the ending is worth it.

P.S. the post-title is a reference from the book refering the tour group as "ghouls on wheels." They sure love their bloody history and murder stories.

11/9/14

Not a Case for the Police


 "The past is the father of the present."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, 1969)
There is something familiar about the story of a body in the proverbial library of a dreary, Victorian-era mansion and an ornamental, bloodstained dagger covered with incriminating fingerprints. It's a premise so familiar it borders on cliché, but Rupert Croft-Cooke wouldn't have been "Leo Bruce," if he hadn't found a way to sidestep the trite and tropes of the Roaring Twenties – while spoofing them at the same time, of course!

Leo Bruce's penchant for tongue-in-cheek mysteries was cemented in his debut novel, Case for Three Detectives (1936), in which caricatures of Hercule Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey try to unravel a locked room murder mirroring the plotting techniques of their creators. It was, however, a village policeman, by the name of Sgt. Beef, who solved the case with dull, routine police work as opposed to the intricate, fanciful theories erupting from the amateur reasoners.

Case with No Conclusion (1939) opens with a note from the former police sergeant to his longsuffering chronicler, Mr. Lionel Townsend, announcing he's now a private investigator with quarters near Baker Street – the "Harley Street of Detection." Townsend struggles with the concept of Beef as a discreet, private-investigator, but Beef suspects Townsend's portrayal of him as a blundering, speech impaired buffoon in uniform is to blame for the lack of clients. They've zero respect for the fourth wall as commentary from Milward Kennedy and Raymond Postgate are cited, while throwing about allusions to other detectives and their famous biographers. I especially liked the part when Beef began to complain about the stiff competition: "There was that nice little case the other day, for instance, that would just have suited me. Body found in a brewer's vat. And who got the job? Nigel Strangeways, of course, Nicholas Blake's detective." Bruce will let you know you're reading a detective story!

However, there are still more than enough cases and one of them soon finds its way to Beef and Townsend: Mr. Peter Ferrers is the co-editor of a small, leftist newspaper and his brother is to stand trial for the murder of an old family friend, Dr. Benson. The doctor was found on the morning after a small party in the library, stabbed in the throat, when it was presumed he had left the previous evening. A blood smeared, ornamental dagger lays in its usual spot on the desk and the handle has Stewart's fingerprints on it like a signed confession. There was, as to be expected, a violent quarrel between both men, before the party broke up, and Stewart may've been fooling around with Benson's wife – giving the police a nice, clean-cut case to hand over to the prosecution.

Beef and Townsend come in a fortnight after the facts, and the later is immediately annoyed at the unusual methods of the former, because being forced to steal liquor from your client to test it for poison is far off the beaten track in a stabbing case. Evidently, Bruce had a lot of fun writing about Beef and his Boswellian narrator, while poking fun at the genre, but Bruce was besides a good humorist also a very decent plotter. There are clues and hints placed, here and there, while Beef seemingly blunders to a premature end of his career, but I can't delve much deeper in that – because ethics of the mystery reviewer.

I'll say this, though, the story takes dark turn when Peter Ferrers has to stand trial for the murder of Dr. Benson, but the way Bruce handled the newspaper angle and public reactions is what made Case with No Conclusion one to remember. Even the parodies from Case for Three Detectives responded to the outcome of the trial. Of course, there's final revelation, but, again, ethics. Detective stories. Reviewer. You know the story. And that is just my luck. Finally dug up a detective story that I fully enjoyed and I can't tell too much about the plot, which, of course, translates in a badly written and shaky review.  

Oh, well, I'll dig up another unapologetic, traditionally plotted mystery for the next review.

11/6/14

War of Shadows


"The "war to end all wars" was over, but a new one was just beginning-on the streets of America."
- The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-38 (The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908-2008). 
During the last quarter of 2012, I reviewed the splendid Commissioner Daan Vissering trilogy by the "Crown Prince of the Lending Libraries," Cor Docter, but the incontestable "Emperor of the Neighborhood Library" in the Netherlands was the prolific Herman Nicholaas van der Voort – producing roughly twelve to sixteen novels a year. Under as many pseudonyms and publishers!

There have been approximately four hundred books and about two hundred appeared under Van der Voort's most well known and celebrated penname, "Edward Multon," which includes stories from the F.B.I.-series. So, yes, it's pretty much low-grade pulp, produced in high volume, but I couldn't help getting curious about one particular title from the series for self-explanatory reasons.

The Invisible Slayer (1963)
De onzichtbare doder (The Invisible Slayer, 1963) begins on a crowded, New York street in the early 1950s when 22-year-old Charles Booth opens fire on Inspector Alexander Haynes from Detroit. Haynes is mortally wounded, but manages to return the favor with a single shot! The last, gurgling words of Haynes' murderer are "bevel... van... mister... Lee..." ("orders of Mr. Lee"). Haynes was in New York to make inquiries in the death of a bar owner, back in Detroit, which may involve espionage and already attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover – who assigned his trump card to the case three days before the shooting.

Peter Finch has the personal appearance of a wise wolfhound with a wolfish grin and the Feds' trump card, but before the investigation is off the ground for the reader, there's another victim waiting in the wings of the third chapter. Mr. Howard Payne is one of the wealthiest and most influential man in the United States, but the best protection money could buy wasn't able to save Payne from an assassins' bullet – even when he was behind metal doors and steel shutters. A policeman attempting to enter Payne's upper floor office, through the window, triggers the alarm system and a steel shutter hermitically seals off the room completely. After peeling away the steel, they find Payne with a bullet hole in the chest and a note underneath him reading, "bevel van Mr. Lee."  

The murders of the Detroit homicide detective and Mr. Payne gives the public Cold War tremors, fueled by Yellow Fear, as Mr. Lee is portrayed as a sinister Chinaman leading a first wave of attacks on the West for Communist China – accompanied by illustrations evoking the image of Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu-Manchu. One illustrator even challengers Mr. Lee, by adding his own name to the list of victims, and is shot and wounded not much later. However, Finch doesn't believe Mr. Lee is Chinese and spreads counter images to see what happens. 

H.N. van der Voort (1900-1982)
It was actually one of the few clever bits in the story, but, unfortunately, everything remotely interesting evaporated within a few pages. Payne was a better fleshed out character in the two, three pages before being written off in a steel vice gripped room than some of the characters who made it to the end of the book. The locked room device itself was abandoned, having served its purpose to justify the title, and the slapdash explanation, casually tossed into a conversation, was a letdown – to say the least. Finch's handling of the Yellow Peril trope with the cartoons didn't last long either and the commentary on the pulps felt more like sniping at the readers. As if Multon was knocking his own readers for enjoying the kind of fiction he was churning out himself. The remainder of the story consists of piling up the bodies by shooting, gassing and curare poisoning in a very mundane, run-of-the-mill gangster thriller.

Sorry I tried and brought up this one. I'll be returning to the green pastures of the proper detective story for my next read and review.

11/2/14

The Sealed Room: A Literal Stronghold


"The lofty ceiling is not high enough,
The walls contain no consummated breath;
And hanging there, the orison of time.
Ticks and ticks and ticks its way to death."
- Hospital Waiting Room (Sister Mary Vista, R.S.M.)
The marginalizing of the detective story has been a recurring subject of discussion and banter on the GADetection Group, which probably began (again) when a gritty, "ultra-modern" private-eye novel, Where the Dead Men Go (2013) by Liam Mcllvanney, with a jaded protagonist won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.

We could literarily feel the foundation of the genre tremble and transcend beneath our feet as we read about the winner's prose-powered, page turning storytelling powers and the books uncanny ability to linger in the mind beyond the final page. It sounded exactly like the kind of bleak, dime-a-dozen, Serious Grime (sic) novels that have come and gone for decades, but critics and scholars have always been favorably disposed to them for "Transcending the Genre" with character-driven narratives – while ignoring such tripe as sound plots and props (i.e. locked rooms and dying messages).

The mystery-sphere's correspondent in France, Xavier Lechard, noted in this ongoing, scattered discussion that as far as the really important "mystery" awards are concerned, "not only traditional mysteries need no apply, but standard crime fiction don't either," favoring novels only marginally affiliated to the genre. 'Cause genre fiction, any type of genre fiction, can be fun-inducing and having fun is dangerously irresponsible – even if it's just from an armchair. Personally, I find it hilarious how the "Respectable Wing" of the genre are distancing themselves from the label "genre fiction" and enclosing themselves in their padded hugbox. I wouldn't have dragged the discussion on to the blog, but I happened to stumble across an old essay from decades ago, more or less, addressing this issue from the perspective of the much maligned locked room sub-genre. The author had written down, what I thought, better than I ever could. I'm a hack reviewer, you see.

"The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, but Not Dead Yet" by Donald A. Yates, Professor of Spanish-American Literature and book collector, was published in the 1956 autumn issue of The Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review and begins with outlining the critique leveled at literature in general at the time – which boiled down to the "classical concept of structure" and "form-for-the-sake-of-form." Obviously, the detective story (and the locked room prop) is guilty as judged, but, as Yates points out, it's a form of literature that actually thrives on those limitations. It has thrived and proven to be fertile grounds for creative writing for over a century, but has often, unsuccessfully, been declared dead and buried.

Yates' response to the critics, scholars and contemporary crime novelists eagerly signing their name on the death certificate of the detective story should be committed to memory, "I should like to show that even when its death papers are signed and delivered, a genre is capable of lively revolt" and "that it may throw these papers up in server's face and suddenly reveal that it has acquired a new life and new direction—merely through the stimulation of imagination lent to it by a new individual who has dedicated himself to a fresh treatment of its themes and traditions," because it has happened since this piece was written. Many times!

Herbert Resnicow brought four decades of experience in engineering and construction to the game in the 1980s, which is reflected in the unique way Resnicow approached the problem of the sealed room (e.g. The Gold Deadline, 1984 and The Dead Room, 1987). The neo-orthodox movement in Japan has pioneered, what could be called, "Corpse Puzzles," in which writers fool around with dismembered body parts to create identity problems, alibis and seemingly impossible crimes (e.g. Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). Just two examples.

It continues with a (spoiler laden!) historical overview of the locked room device, from Edgar Allan Poe, Melville Davisson Post and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Gaston Leroux, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, which covers the middle portion of the essay, before, prophetically, speculating on its future. Yates states that "the limitations of the locked-room puzzle offer to such writers a challenge which is really rather difficult to resist" and "it seems that in hand of every new advance in the field of human knowledge there comes a new way to polish off someone inside that wonderfully appealing locked room." After all, "Poe had no vacuum cleaner, and we have no penetrating death-ray gun, but it might be next." Last year, M.P.O. Books published Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013), in which crime-scene hermitically locked, fortress-like villa guarded with cameras and motion-sensory detectors, but Books found a way for his murderer to by pass those security measures. And the penetrating death-ray gun... I remember a relatively obscure story (from the 2000s) that had the murderer ignite an incendiary device inside a locked apartment with the assistance of a simple laser pen.

I’ll be citing the last lines of the essay in full for prosperity sakes and to close this rambling post: "No, indeed, the last nail has not yet been driven into the restless coffin of the locked-room tale. On the contrary, its critics probably have had their obituaries interpreted more often as a challenge than as a public notice. So with this toast, I would like to hail the mystery authors of years yet to come who will be rallying to the call—Here's to the second hundred years!"

Hear, hear! And many thanks to Bill Pronzini, Marcia Muller, William DeAndrea, Paul Halter, Louise Penny, M.P.O. Books, P.J. Bergman, Paul Doherty, Richard Forrest, Edward D. Hoch, Martin Méroy, Fredric Neuman, John Sladek, Japan and any other writer who picked up the challenge in the post-GAD era. I'll catch up to you sooner or later!
 
P.S.: I think the actual truth behind the locked room mystery's refusal to die lies in the soft, muffled thumping coming from the tell-tale heart hidden beneath its floorboards. What else did you expect Edgar Allan Poe put in there when he gave life to the detective story? We got a spare heart from the horror genre and now we're immortal! You can bury us. You can wall us up. You can declare us dead, but, like "The Black Cat," we'll always come back. Always!

10/29/14

The Game's Afoot


"But when the third... gets killed, and all three of them in the same territory, I begin to get suspicious."
- Capt. Daniel von Flanagan (Craig Rice's The Fourth Postman, 1951) 
Jakob van Schevichaven (1866-1935) is considered here to be the first professional Dutch mystery writer, under the single-name pseudonym "Ivans," who paved the way for later popular writers such as "Havank" and A.C. Baantjer.

I've read and heard about the Fathers of Dutch Crime Fiction, Ivans and Havank, but never got around to reading any of their detective stories, because there's mainly biographical information on the web – while the available plot summaries tend to be vague, unappealing or spoiler ridden. So I never gave them to good old college try. Well, recently, I found a copy of De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926) on my shelves and thought: why not. It has to happen sometime.  

Book has a ton of these illustrations!
Ivans' series characters are a well know, celebrated English detective, named Geoffrey "G.G." Gill, and a Dutch lawyer, Willem Hendriks, who has been chronicling his cases since De man uit Frankrijk (The Man from France, 1917). Gill and Hendriks were obviously cast from the same mold as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, but, interestingly, Hendriks was presented as a more developed, individual character while G.G. acted more as one of the stereotypical, lower-ranking Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, i.e. Martin Hewitt.   

The Forest Spirit was originally published in 1926, but Hendriks informs the reader the story took place several years before The Great War (i.e. First World War) and began with a telegram from G.G. announcing his arrival the next day. G.G. invites Hendriks, alongside with his family (wife and daughter), on a trip to the Eifel (Germany) where they soak up the landscape of hill-and low mountain tops, ruins of medieval strongholds, circle-shaped lakes (maar) and lots of green – even the rude, inhospitable locals can't dampen the mood. The problems begin when a mistake, made at the hotel they booked, forced them to take refuge in a familiepension (hostel). Hendriks wakes up in the middle of the night to see a dark form with yellow/green eyes peering at him through the open bedroom window, but, naturally, there was nothing to be found upon investigation.

I think there was something positively tantalizing about a ghostly apparition in an early 1900s mountain hostel in Germany, followed by the striking of matches and flickering, dying lights of fire, as a household of guests awakes in utter confusion. It was a brief, but nice, scene, I thought! Moving on...

Old-fashioned spelling of De Bosgeest
The next day, during one of their daily hikes, G.G. and Hendriks, see a frightened road worker running and screaming "murder" and "bosgeest," which leads them to the body of a forest ranger and he wasn't the first one to be murdered in the region. Previously, three forest rangers have been murdered, back of their heads caved in, but the police have never been able to find any trace of the murderer. In the last case, the victim was found by following his footsteps, it had rained just before, but they were also the only footprints discovered on the scene – fanning the flames of superstition. Amazingly, the impossible situation of the footprints is mentioned only once and the problem explained itself in the end, which became a slight disappointment as I read on. No theorizing? False solutions? Boo!

Seasoned mystery readers familiar with the early classics will probably experience an "aha" moment at this point, but, first, I have to credit Ivans here for not blatantly copying Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was also a good idea to split the interest for the only real suspect in the game in two camps: the official police, who think he's guilty, while G.G. is convinced he's afraid of the spirit. I was never quite sure if I was on the right track, even though I picked up on an obscure clue, which is what I liked. What I don't like, however, is that I still don't know if I like The Forest Spirit. Ivans went full "Weird Menace" with the solution, and I grunted when it was confirmed, but the explanation is unsettlingly convincing and the motive has a lot to do with it. That, and the villain of the story. Mary Gregor from Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) and Mr. Ratchett from Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1935) were saints compared to this character!

So, yeah, I'm divided on The Forest Spirit, which began as a mysterious travelogue set in Caspar David Friedrich Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist), merging into Holmesian-era detective story and ending on an unsettling weird note... but I can't get pass the how of the murders. I don't think I like it, but than again, I'm probably too traditional minded for the alternative crime novel. That is John's department.

P.S.: Good news for the non-Dutch readers of this blog. According to this website, there have been translations of some G.G. novels in English, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Esperanto.

10/26/14

Malice With Mischief


"A fairy tale in terms of blood--a world in anamorphosis--a perversion of all rationality... It's unthinkable, senseless, like black magic and sorcery and thaumaturgy. It's downright demented."
- Philo Vance (S.S. van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, 1928)
Well, I told you the next review wouldn't take another month to appear, didn't I? O ye, of little faith! However, I did found myself in a spot of trouble in finding my next read, because I'm still waiting for a package to arrive. So I was forced to climb Mt. To-be-Read to pick something from the old stack of unread detective stories, which became surprisingly easier when I decided it had to be something obscure and The Monk of Hambleton (1928) seemed to fit that description.

The Monk of Hambleton was penned by Armstrong Livingston, who's apparently one of those mystery writers too obscure for even the GADWiki, but the capsule-biography in front of the book notes that the author was born in New York City, made his home in Algiers with his wife and began writing in 1918 – which resulted in such novels as The Mystery of the Twin Rubies (1922), Trackless Death (1930) and the (now) ambiguously titled Light-Fingered Ladies (1927?).

I have Trackless Death jotted down on my never-ending wishlist, because Robert Adey has it listed in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but The Monk of Hambleton is my first, favorable exposure to Armstrong Livingston's work. The best way to describe the story is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) as perceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a pinch of Scooby Doo. There's even a young, female investigative operative, named Kitty Doyle, who plays the Miss Climpson to Peter Creighton's Lord Peter Wimsey in the endgame of the story. But that’s skipping ahead of the story.

Varr & Bolt Tannery occupies a couple acres of ground nearby the village of Hambleton and while the weather-beaten, shabby looking buildings of the leather plant may give the appearance of a neglected company, it's actually a thriving business – under the harsh, unrelenting rule of Simon Varr. The opening of the story mentions that it's said of Varr that "he knew how to exact the last ounce of efficiency from men and material without the expenditure of a single superfluous penny," but a strike has brought his efficient machine to a grounding halt. On top of that, Jason Bolt, "a minor partner in the business," is suffering from expansionism and his son, Copley, wants to marry the daughter of the tannery's manager, Mr. Graham – who, in turn, finally wants to be a partner instead of drawing a regular salary.

However, Varr is determined to bend everyone and every situation to his will, including a radical end to the strike, but it seems the universe itself has turned against Varr: his kitchen garden is raided, the first love of his wife, Leslie Sherwood, unexpectedly returns to the village, as did his wife's sister, October "Ocky" Copley, after spending twenty odd years in Asia followed by arson and theft! Varr's stalwart determination is really tested after a late-evening encounter with the legendary and titular monk of the village – who points an accusing finger like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Livingston even included an imaginary passage from The History of Wayne County about the origin of the legend and included this foreboding doggerel:
"Who meets the monk at crack o' dawn
Shall rue the day he was born.

Who meets the monk in light of day
Woe goes with him on his way.

Who meets the monk when dusk is nigh
Within a fortnight he shall die."

It's simply a play on the Irish Banshee legend, but fun nonetheless, especially in a detective story!

Simon Varr took a different path
Simon Varr didn't fare as well in this story as Ebenezer Scrooge did in his, because he simply couldn't catch a hint, and the spectral monk strikes him down in his kitchen garden with an old, Persian-inscribed dagger – reading "I Bring Peace." This scene was delightfully old-fashioned, second-tier stuff, in which Varr dramatically removed the mask in a "What? You!" moment right before being stabbed. So cheesy.

Peter Creighton is a reputable private investigator from the Big City, who was supposed to come, anyway, to investigate the arsons at the tannery, thefts and the ghost, but now has a fresh murder on his hands. I think Livingston purposely made Creighton the exact opposite of his more famous colleague of the time, Philo Vance. Creighton is a modest, nondescript professional instead of a posh dilettante with an intimate knowledge of obscure subjects, which Livingston made a point of by making Creighton say he couldn't read Persian. You just know if this had been Van Dine's The Strike Murder Case, Vance would've revealed himself as an amateur expert on the ancient Persian Empire often consulted by genuine historical authorities on the subject. It would've also been his most terrifying and challenging murder case since triumphantly ending the previous one.  

Anyhow, Creighton's woolgathering technique gathers more tangible clues such as the chips of blue steel, finger prints, written notes, shadowing witnesses and the implications of the shallow footprints concerning a small educated man or a large illiterate one. A nice dash of Chesterton, I think!

And nice would be a good summarization of The Monk of Hambleton. Livingston has a nice, pleasant, albeit dated, writing style suiting the backdrop of a now bygone era, but the plotting was still (partly) in a previous era – making it not all that difficult to anticipate the eventual ending for the seasoned mystery reader. The normally clichéd ending of the dying murderer/confession was handled better that I could've hoped for. So there's that.

In closing, The Monk of Hableton is a better-than-average, second-tier mystery novel from a period that didn't count the most prosperous years of the Golden Age in its decade, but this book definitely was a sign of things to come. (I consider the 20s as the start-up years with the 30-and 40s as the Golden Decades and winding down in the 50s).

10/18/14

The Shadow of Civilization


"Any truth is better than indefinite doubt."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Yellow Face" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1893)
I know, I know. I promised in my previous post activity would slowly resume, which was a month ago, but, naturally, there was another distraction followed by a slight case of reader-and writers block – preventing even some filler stuff from being posted. So no definite promises, this time around, but this was hopefully the last of the prolonged silences haunting this blog.

The Bone is Pointed (1938) is the sixth in a series of Australian-set detective novels featuring Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police by the English-born mystery writer Arthur W. Upfield. Bony is of mixed blood, a "half-caste," which wasn't as common or accepted back in Upfield's time as it's today, but Bony is presented as a hardworking, intelligent and determined policeman – who moved up the ranks by combining his education with his Aboriginal tracking skills.

The cover blurb of The Bone is Pointed, "the outback's weirdest manhunt," surely promised a more thriller-oriented outing for Bony, but the crux of the problem is that the hunter is being hunted while searching for a missing stockman.

Jeff Anderson is a stockman on the Karwir Station, owned by Old Lacy and his wife, who went missing when checking fences during a heavy rainstorm, but only his horse, The Black Emperor, came back – which could’ve meant he was thrown off by the animal. However, they are unable to find the body and there's no shortage of motives for foul play. Anderson was known as a spiteful, cruel and ill-tempered creature who may have seriously mistreated members of the Kalchut tribe.

Kalchuts are a small tribe of less than a hundred Aboriginals living the tradition lifestyle of the old continent on the neighboring property of Karwir Station, which is owned by the Gordons and they're determined to protect the Kalchuts from the encroaching Western civilization. If they murdered and hidden Anderson, it would certainly mean government interference and the end of the Kalchuts. The relation between the Kalchuts, the crime and their impending doom, if implicated in the crime, reminded me of the relationship between the primitive Marshmen and the ruling class of a fictional sultanate in Peter Dickinson's The Poison Oracle (1974). Anyhow, the case remains unsolved for months and it would've slipped through the cracks of time if it weren't for Sergeant Blake calling in a higher up – DI Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police.

The trail is several month's old when Bony arrives on the scene, but through observation, interviewing witnesses and analyzing physical evidence Bony is slowly, but surely, retracing the steps of the missing stockman. But that's the easy part. As a half-caste, Bony dresses and speaks like a white man, but this case confronts him that he isn't immune to the believes of his Aboriginal side. Kalchuts are known with the ancient and potent magic of bone pointing, which curses its victim to the unwanted comforts of an early grave.

Unfortunately, the combination of Aboriginal folklore and Upfield's uncanny talent for turning the Australian continent in a living, breathing character of its own somewhat failed to produce the story it should've been, because I was giggling (immaturely) every time someone asked Bony if he was still being boned by the blacks. Or tried to banish the boning from his mind. There was so much forced boning that there must've been blood in his shoes by the end of the book. Leave him alone already. No means no!

So aside from my complete inability to take the cultural slice Upfield offered in The Bone is Pointed as a mature-minded adult, everything worked out well enough in the end with a good, simple, but inevitable, conclusion.

Cake in the Hat Box (1954) is still my favorite, from only the handful of Bony novels I have read, but that Upfield is grossly underrated and criminally neglected as a mystery writer is something I'm starting to become convinced of.

Finally, I'll really make an effort this time to make sure this review doesn't become a drawn-out euphemisms for "see y'all next month."