6/21/16

Death Duties


"You mean, you want me to play detective?
- Miss Hildegarde Withers (Stuart Palmer's Murder on the Blackboard, 1932)
John Russell Fearn was a prolific British author and a regular contributor to the American pulps, including such illustrious magazines as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories, which were dedicated to speculative fiction on the science-fiction spectrum, but he also penned a whole slew of crime-fiction under many different pennames – such as "Thornton Ayre," "Hugo Blayn" and "John Slate." The name of interest to this blog-post is the last one.

In late March of 2011, John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books published an interesting post on his blog, entitled "Neglected Detectives: Maria Black, MA," in which the work that was originally published under the name of "John Slate" is discussed. John concluded his post by remarking that "it is the unusual and imaginative ideas," such as the reportedly original murder method from Thy Arm Alone (1947), "that make the Maria Black books worth tracking down and reading." But what really piqued my interest was the apparent abundance of impossible material in this series. Nearly all of them were listed by the late Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991)! But first thing first!

The leading character and inquisitive mind in this series is an English school mistress, Miss Maria Black, who teaches at a girl's college and Fearn said about her creation that she was conceived from "a childhood memory of a distant relative" with "the logical mind of an analyst" – which he molded until she emerged as a middle-aged headmistress with "a fund of knowledge" and "understanding of human nature."

She drew for this insight into human nature on her hobby and guilty pleasure: the study of criminology, crime-fiction and the movies. Miss Black refers to her well-stocked bookcase as "the skeleton in my educational cupboard" and barred the schoolgirls from one specific movie theatre in town, which she patronages herself and prefers to enjoy American gangster pictures unobserved. I should also note that the character and personality of Miss Black seems somewhat reminiscent of Stuart Palmer's crime-solving schoolteacher, Miss Hildegarde Withers.

Miss Black is even referred to by one of her own relatives as "a nosy old dragon," which sounded similar to the accusation often leveled at Miss Withers of being "a meddlesome old battle-ax." There are portions in her debut novel, Black Maria, M.A. (1944), that read as an imitation of Stuart Palmer. So let's finally take a look at one of her cases.

Black Maria, M.A. was Miss Maria Black's first recorded case and it is a personal one: her now late brother, Ralph Black, accumulated a small fortune by selling canned broccoli and founding a flock of chain stores – giving him no reason to shoot himself. But that's what apparently happened. One evening, he locked himself inside his private-library and shot himself.

The police treated Ralph's death as an open-and-shut case of suicide. However, his son, Richard, believes otherwise and communicated his suspicions to his aunt in England. Miss Black has already received an urgent summons from her brother's lawyer and she learns from him that her brother shared his son's opinion. A sealed envelope is given to her and contains a handwritten letter from her dead brother, in which he explains the possibility of him dying from a cause other than a natural one and he wants his sister to track down his potential murderer. He instructed his lawyer to hand over a thousand bucks to her, which is meant to cover the expenses of her investigation, but, in case of success, she can look forward to a huge reward – an inheritance of a whopping five-hundred thousand dollars!

John Russell Fearn
One of her first leads involves a dangerous criminal, Hugo Ransome, a gangster whose "methods go right back to the rip-snorting 1920s Gangsterism" and generally considered to be one of the slimiest scoundrels in the city of New York. This plot-line also involved an escaped convict and one of the female members of the Black household. It is this strand of the plot that gave the book a distinctly Withersian touch, because I could easily imagine Miss Withers as Miss Black when using her thousand bucks to secure herself a bodyguard from the underworld. A tough, but honest, criminal, known as "Pulp" Martin, who seems to love the well paid jobs Miss Black has for him, which include staging a riot at a music-hall and pointing a gun at one of the suspects while Miss Black interrogated him.

All of these scenes, including the one at a joined simply called "ICE CREAM SODAS," could have easily come from the pens of Palmer or Craig Rice. On that account alone, I would recommend the book to fans of that pair of mystery writers, but to enthusiasts of Palmer's work in particular. Anyhow...

As Miss Black is busily "knitting together the threads" of "a web with numberless strands," she has to slowly come to the sad conclusion that her brother grossly abused his wealth and influence. Ralph Black wrecked a number of lives and some of those lives had lived very close to his own household, which, to some, made him "worthy of death." The explanation to the who and why is a clever variation on a well-known story by Agatha Christie, but the final twist obviously took its cue from a John Dickson Carr novel from the early 1940s.

Note that Fearn had named Carr as his favorite mystery writer and the whole premise of the locked library, as well as its explanation and surprise twist, struck me as a conscious attempt to imitate and improve upon the ideas set forth by Carr in that one novel – in which Fearn was not entirely unsuccessful. The locked room is clever enough, somewhat original and decently presented, but the problem with these kinds of tricks is that it's very hard to pull them of convincingly. However, it pulled off fairly well here. Hell, it was good enough for the French crime-fiction expert and locked room enthusiast, Roland Lacourbe, to include the book in 99 Chambres Closes (99 Closed Rooms, 1991).

I also have to mention that the story includes a plot summary for one of Richard Black's stage-plays, which gives an ingenious murder method for bumping off a crystal gazer. I suspect David Renwick borrowed this method for one of the plot-threads for his Jonathan Creek television-special The Judas Tree (2010).

So, all in all, Black Maria, M.A. proved to be a good, if second-tier, mystery novel and was pleasantly surprised to discover this was basically a clever piece of fan-fiction from a fellow JDC-fanboy. Definitely worth investigating further.   

Finally, I previously reviewed The Lonely Astronomer (1954), which was an interesting blending of science-fiction and mystery elements, but, overall, not as clever as this one. And the detective-character was rather annoying.  

6/17/16

An Unnatural Place


"This is a house of evil—of evil, I tell you!"
- Hannah (Agatha Christie's "The House of Lurking Death," from Partners in Crime, 1929)  
Back in February, I reviewed An Author Bites the Dust (1948) by Arthur W. Upfield, in which he transplanted his series character, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, from Australia's dense bushes and sun-blasted plains to a small, picturesque valley town – where a pretentious, snobby novelist and literary critic had bitten the dust.

One of the draws of the series is tailing Bony, as he tracks across stretches of dessert or cuts a way through a sweltering green hell, but regardless, the book worked surprisingly well as a quiet, domicile detective novel. In many ways, the book reads a warm, loving homage to the mystery writers from Upfield's time. He would resort back to this traditionalists approach for the writing of Venom House (1952), but this time the earmarks of his descriptive outback-fiction left their mark on both the writing and the plot.

In his review of the book, Curt Evans described Venom House as "a throwback to the Victorian sensation novel" or "the Gothic tale," which is a fair description for a story about a decaying mansion, a cursed family and even a mad relative, but the book is much more than a mere nostalgia act – as it did more than just play a familiar tune on those Victorian-era tropes. So it's not entirely harkening back to the days of the Victorian and Gothic tales of crime and horror, such as was the case with The Third Victim (1941) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, but stands comparison with John Dickson Carr's Poison in Jest (1932).

Speaking of Carr, I think he would've probably approved of the setting of the story and the haunted history clinging to the place.

The "wretched history" of the Answerth clan is firmly rooted "in evil times" and "evil has clung to it all way down the years," which began when the first Morris Answerth of the family came down from Brisbane in a covered wagon – collecting "a dozen runaway convicts" and a woman, "he bought with two gallons of rum," along the way. They laid claim to all of the land in the area, but they had to fight over it with the natives. A battle that had been indisputably won by the settlers, but a lot of blood had to be shed to secure the claim to the land. According to local legends, the last of the Aborigines from the region "pointed the bone at them and their descendants," which for many is an explanation as to why misfortune, tragedy and death has stalked the family for generations. It's also the reason why locals refer to the place as Venom House.

A number of family members have committed suicide, were flung off a horse or simply murdered. The erection of the titular house was as costly in human life as it was in material resources, because the builders were flogged or shot when a strike occurred. A river once "snaked over the valley," but "a cyclone or two" and hundreds of tons of dirt chocked the natural outlet to the sea – which flooded the land and created a dreary moat around the house called Answerth's Folly. Dead or dying trees surround the house and swampy waters. It seems like a perfect place to dump a body or two and that's exactly what happened!

Before the story's opening and arrival of Bony, two bodies were pulled from the dark, murky waters of the Folly: the first body belonged to a local butcher, Edward Carlow, who had been forcefully held under water and the other one, elderly Mrs. Answerth, had been strangled to death.

Bony finds a small, close-knit group of people on the artificial island and they make for interesting posse of potential killers. First of all, there are the two sisters, Mary and Janet. As Bony observed, "no two sisters could be more widely apart than these," which is true in both physic and personality: Mary is a large, rude and discourteous Amazon who could take down anyone in a brawl. Janet has more refined and feminine personality, which comes from having enjoyed a first-class education and assumed control over the family after their father passed away. They have to manage their local empire of cattle stations and flocks of sheep, but they're not particular fond of each other and this provided Bony with several angles to the murders.

There's also a half-brother, Morris Answerth, who's the son of the dead woman, Mary and Janet's stepmother, but he suffers from arrested development and has the mind of a child. As a result, he spends all of his days locked away in his bedroom and is always dressed as a schoolboy. Usually, these kind of mentally ill or disturbed characters aren't the most convincingly-drawn characters in traditionally-minded detective stories, but I found Morris to be a surprising exception to this rule and his childish manners were often convincingly played up – such as his pathetic childish reaction of wonder and want when sees a pocket light for the very first time. The housekeeper-and cook, Mrs. Leeper, who had been the matron of a large mental hospital, rounds out the household. She has been saving money to buy her own hospital and a perfect character to run the day-to-day routine of that decaying madhouse.

However, my favorite characters from the book were two of the hanger-on's and they had, alas, only minor roles in the story. The first is a bright, young and a somewhat reckless driver, named Mike Falla, who tells to Bony that "a bloke's not a real driver if he has to use brakes." Bony takes him along for one part of his investigation, regarding the theft of bales of wool, which showed why Falla deserved a larger part in the story. He would have been perfect as an Archie Goodwin-type of character to Bony's Nero Wolfe. The second character was an elderly, former stockman, Albert Blaze, who tells Bony about the history of the family and place, but he was basically one of those coarse, rugged and rough-tongued outback characters Upfield was so good at describing.

Bony roams around this slightly grotesque gallery of suspects and mournful surroundings, asking questions and poking around in rooms, which is what one comes to expect of a fictional police officer from this era and gives the plot a far more traditional structure – especially compared to such unorthodox entries in the series such as Man of Two Tribes (1956) and The Valley of Smugglers (1960).

The final chapters is somewhat of a departure from this traditional approach and has Bony sneaking back into the pitch-black home, under the cover of night, where he finds a battle of wits and hatred is fought out in the dark. It's not battle that concludes with pulling the rug from beneath your feet, but one that makes sense and neatly ties up all of the loose ends. You can argue that the solution is almost too neat and clean, but a dark, brooding ending would have left the door open to a sequel, which would have never happened with this series.

So the ending also closed the book on several generations' worth of gruesome deaths and domestic violence, which makes for an excellent read and another top-notch entry in this series. I really love Upfield's writing and should return to his stories more often. In the meantime, you should make an effort to discover these books for yourself.

6/13/16

Hidden Under the Sun


"But, man alive, don't you feel it in the air? All around you? The presence of evil."
- Stephen Lane (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941) 
At the end of my blog-post about Death of My Aunt (1929) by C.H.B. Kitchin, I asked if anyone, based on the review, could guess my next read, which, logically, was Richard Hull's The Murder of My Aunt (1934), but Ho-Ling made a clever and perceptive prediction about this blog-post – based on a pattern he had observed.

Lately, the book titles of the mystery novels I reviewed followed an alternating pattern, which goes as follows: John Rhode's Death in Harley Street (1946), Basil Thomson's The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937), Alan Melville's Death of Anton (1936), E.R. Punshon's Four Strange Women (1940), C.H.B. Kitchin's Death of My Aunt and Richard Hull's The Murder of My Aunt. So, following this sequence, the subject of this blog-post should have "death" in the title.

First of all, I had not created this pattern with intent or purpose, but I’m enough of an obsessive-compulsive autist to go along with it and lifted John Bude's Death on the Riviera (1952) from the big pile.

The first detective story I reviewed this year was Bude's debut novel, The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), which had all strength and weaknesses one expects to find in the apprentice work of a promising, first-time novelist – such as an engaging writing style, interesting character and an obvious appreciation for the genre. But the plot also suffered from one or two imperfections. One of them being a disappointing lack of fair play.

Death on the Riviera was written two decades after the publication of The Cornish Coast Murder and Bude had evidently grown as a novelist in those intervening years. As Martin Edwards observed in his introduction, Bude was "at the height of his powers" when he wrote Death on the Riviera and "the assurance with which he blends the plot-lines" reflects "his experience and confidence as a writer" – which is demonstrated here in the way Bude knotted the ends of two separate plot-threads together. Essentially, the book consists of two novellas with a conjoined plot and a shared cast of characters, which is always an interesting approach to tell a detective story (c.f. Robert van Gulik).

The first plot-strand brings Bude’s series character, Detective-Inspector Meredith of the CID, to the golden beaches of the French Riviera, where "the blue waters of the Mediterranean" lapped "at the sun-drenched coastline," but he's not there for a relaxing holiday.

Detective-Inspector Meredith and Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang are en route to the warm, glittering Mediterranean to extend a helping hand to the local authorities, represented by Inspector Blampignon, which concerns a ring of counterfeiters operating along the coastline. The gang left a trail of false banknotes and they had been largely exchanged for British pounds, but that's not the only link to England: all of the forged notes bore "microscopic details of craftsmanship" that read like the signature of Tommy "Chalky" Cobbott – one of the best "engraver of notes." He seems to be the beating heart of this organization.

I found this particular plot-thread to be somewhat reminiscent of Basil Thomson's The Milliner's Hat Mystery, in which the English and French police are breathing down the necks of a gang of smugglers.

The second plot-thread leads to the doorstep of Nesta Hedderwick, called Villa Paloma, which puts a roof over the head of several family members, acquaintances and even a live-in artist – who creates monstrous, post-modern atrocities in his attic-room. Or so everyone assumes. But he's not the only one who’s not exactly been telling the truth: secret marriages, unwanted pregnancies and the counterfeiting case all hover in the background of the villa, which often read as one of those daytime soap operas. A comparison that was also made by the Puzzle Doc. However, this eventually resulted in a very classic murder when someone goes missing and a smashed, faceless body is found at the foot of a cliff.

Well, I have to praise the author here for respecting the intelligence of his audience in regards to the defaced features of the victim. As one of the characters states, "whenever a corpse turns up in a crime story with its face battered beyond recognition" you can safely assume that "it isn't the corpse you think it is," which is acknowledged by them as "a well-worn double-cross." I also appreciated Bude attempt to find a new angle to tackle this problem, but, overall, the explanation was fairly simple and basically it was a short story that was absorbed into a full-length novel. It's also why I remained on the surface of these two cases, because they're extremely simple and lightweight.

The book as a whole is very well written and fun to read, but the plot-threads lack complexity. So there's not much to go on about without giving those few essentials away. Well, there's one thing that should be mentioned: both plot-threads contain borderline impossible material. One of the objects that hold the police's interest in the counterfeiting case is a hidden printing press, which turns up in a place that had been previously searched without result. The hiding place was one of those so-called "invisible cubbyholes" that can also be found in "Nothing Up My Sleeve," a radio-play by John Dickson Carr, and "Cache and Carry," which is a short story by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller from The McCone Files (1995). Unfortunately, it was not used for an impossible crime sub-plot, which could have added some substance to the counterfeiting case.

Same goes for the semi-impossible material in the Villa Paloma murder case, but that one is a lot harder to describe, because, again, I run the risk of giving too much away. It concerns something a witness saw and this plot point could have been cobbled into an impossible crime, but Bude evidently decided to keep things plain and simple.

Nevertheless, Death on the Riviera is a very readable and enjoyable detective story, but not one you should read if you want to be baffled by a particular ingenious or complex plot. Otherwise, this one can be recommended for what it is and perfect for people who want something to read while launching in a beach-chair.

On a final note, I hope Poisoned Pen Press will consider reissuing Bude's Death on Paper (1940) and Death Knows No Calendar (1942). Why these two? Oh, no particular reason. What's that you say? They were listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991)? Well, I had not noticed that myself, but that would be pretty good reason to reprint them as well.

6/8/16

Double Entendre


"You wouldn't think, would you, one small village could have so much trouble bubbling away under the surface."
- DCI Tom Barnaby (Midsomer Murders: The Killings at Badger's Drift, 1997)
Richard Henry Sampson was an author who enrolled into the British army at eighteen, serving on the French Front during World War I, after which he finally entered civilian life and began to pursue a career as an accountant, but was given an opportunity to write full-time when his first novel, The Murder of My Aunt (1934), became an unexpected success – which appeared under the penname of "Richard Hull." He would go on to write an additional fourteen crime-novels, but none of them left an impression on the genre quite like that first one.

The Murder of My Aunt was selected as one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones, "A Reader's List of Detective Story Cornerstones," which labeled the book "a classic of its kind" and "a shocker par excellence." The book also secured a spot on a 2003 best-of list that was compiled by the members of the Yahoo GADetection Group, which at the time was a good sample group of Western mystery readers. So this is one of those books that have always stuck with readers of crime fiction and I can see why now.

The story is told from a first-person perspective by Edward Powell, a haughty, indolent and repugnant creature, who found himself bound by his grandmother's will to his meddlesome aunt, but he loathes her as much as the place where they live – a hill-top house situated just outside the small, Welsh town of Llwll. Edwards takes the first couple of pages to berate the town, "a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce," decries the "horrible, twisting little lanes," covered with "loose jagged flints," that pass themselves off as roads and looked down his nose at the people who populate the area.

Not exactly a portrayal of a warm, kind and loving person, but Edward, for all his flaws and shortcomings, is not entirely unjustified in his dislike for everyone and everything around him.

Aunt Mildred is an affront to Edward's refined sensibilities, "a dreadful sight in country clothes" with "florid, bourgeois apple cheeks," but being a loud, uncouth plebeian would have been a forgivable offense. Not as easy to ignore is her tight clutch on the purse-strings and stubborn refusal to provide him with an adequate allowance, which prevents him from living on one of the few civilized patches on the globe – such as Paris or Rome. But what prove to be completely unforgivable to Edward are her never-ending personal remarks and the nasty tricks she loves to play on him.

You can safely say that Edward and Aunt Mildred are in a permanent state of "cold war" with each other, but on a domestic level.

In the opening parts of the book, the reader is told about one of Aunt Mildred's schemes, which appears as a fairly innocent tease to get Edward out of the house, but there were several people from the village involved and they all had a good laugh at his expense. However, Edward knew he was being played and tried to spoil some of his aunt’s fun, but this eventually led to an embarrassing scene and she told him in no uncertain terms that when "I say you are going to walk into Llwll, you ARE going to walk into Llwll." She follows this up by pointing out some of the people who had been laughing at him behind his back. So this made one thing very clear to Edward: Aunt Mildred has got to go. But that proves to be easier said than done.

The portion of the book between the opening and closing chapters is filled with Edward's diary entrants, in which gives detailed accounts of his various, often overly ingenious plots and failed attempts on the life of his aunt – some of which could have come from Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. One of the attempts even involved a "horrible infernal machine," which could have been ordered from an ACME catalogue. As he plots and plans, Edward finds several nosey people on his path who ask pesky questions and this reminded me of Leo Bruce's Case for Sergeant Beef (1947). Bruce's book is also an inverted-mystery, consisting of diary entrants, in which the narrator attempts to plot and pull-off the perfect murder, but meets similar kind of people and was not the (super!) genius he imagined. You have to wonder if Hull inspired Bruce's take on the inverted detective story.

Anyway, Edward's murderous endeavors are constantly thwarted by Murphy's Law and this, perhaps, helped in making him a slightly more sympathetic character than an aspiring murderer deserves to be. He's basically a fat, lazy and ill-mannered cat who tried to mind his own business, but constantly got yanked from the windowsill by the tail and eventually tried to strike back – which makes his failures all the more adorable. Aunt Mildred is somewhat redeemed in the final chapter and there's an acknowledgment that she should not have publicly humiliated him, but that does not entirely absolved her from all her responsibilities. She knew of his potential mental trouble, probably inherited from his late father, as well as his need for petty revenge, but nonetheless choose to keep him close to her and verbally cudgel on a daily basis.

However, Edward is still an odious character and the nature of his personality, and that of his aunt, is what makes the surprise twist at the end so satisfying. A twist that would probably have received the nodding approval of the great Pat McGerr and gave the book its status as a classic crime novel. A status that's more than deserved. I also realized The Murder of My Aunt may have founded a new sub-genre, the Amateur Murderer, which has a ton of potential, but seems to have remained largely unexplored ever since. A shame!

On a final note, I have to return to my previous blog-post, which was a review of C.H.B. Kitchin's Death of My Aunt (1929), in which I mentioned Kitchin's and Hull's book were often confused with one another. Once I began to read this book, I found it hard to believe any one could ever confuse these them, because they were very different, but then I came to the third attempted murder – which gives a possible explanation for the confusion. For his third attempt, Edward researches a number of poisons and one of his options are oxalic acid crystals. It's not a poison that turns up very often in detective stories, but Death of My Aunt happened to be one of them and Edward remarks of the writer of the article on oxalic acid had an aunt. A discreet nod and a wink at Death of My Aunt? I'll take a gamble and say it was.

So, all in all, you can expect The Murder of My Aunt to make an appearance on my best-of list for this year, because I really liked it and can recommend it without hesitation.

6/5/16

Le Secret de Venus


"Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy."
- Paracelsus (1493-1541)
Back in November of 2015, I posted a review of Crime at Christmas (1935) by C.H.B. Kitchin, a British novelist and affluent dilettante, who authored a quartet of mystery novels about Malcolm Warren – a lowly-paid office worker in a stockbroker's firm.

The first one of these four novels, Death of My Aunt (1929), can stake the claim of having weathered the sands of time and has been fairly well remembered by readers of detective fiction. During the previous decade, I regularly stumbled across comments or simple references to the book, which tended to be positive, even if some of those comments turned out to have been references to Richard Hull's similarly titled The Murder of My Aunt (1934). A common mistake in those days.

Well, I remembered enough of those days to avoid making the same mistake as them, but it would have been somewhat amusing, or gallingly annoying, if this shoddy introduction was followed by a review of Hull's The Murder of My Aunt – which would completely ignore both the opening of this blog-post and Kitchin’s Dead of My Aunt. I should probably start planning some of these blog-posts and reviews in advance. That's a missed opportunity right there. But that's enough palaver for one introduction. Let's get this review on the road.

Usually, the first entry in a series, even a short-lived one, suffers from several weaknesses: a writer is figuring out the ropes or a portion of the story is dedicated to delineating the characters, which tends to come at the cost of the plot, but Kitchin niftily sidestepped the latter in Death of My Aunt – in which he intertwined the introduction of his detective character with the setup of the plot. The title of the book probably gives away how he managed to achieve that.

Death of My Aunt finds Kitchin's nominal hero and narrator, Malcolm Warren, strolling home from his "two pounds a week" office job to his modest bachelor-chamber in Gloucester Place, which is where a telegram is waiting for him on his doormat. It's an immediate summons to the home of his tante a heritage, Aunt Catherine, for the upcoming weekend.

The reader is then given an introductory rundown of Warren's family and he tells how his aunt inherited half a million from her first husband, over which she had unfettered control and absolute power of disposition. It placed her in a position to crown herself "queen of the family" and Warren gives a list of those who "submitted to her rule." I thought this was an original, smart and double-pronged approach to both laying the groundwork of the plot and sketching a picture of the series character – which nicely intertwine from start to finish.

Some writers have been praised over the pass hundred years for their crisp, economic writing style, but the framework of this novel demonstrates there’s also such a thing as economic plotting.

Warren arrives fairly late at the home of his aunt, who has already gone off to bed, but she left him a wax sealed envelope, which contains a letter and a key to a bureau in the boudoir. The letter informs Warren that he'll find an investment book in the drawer of the bureau and she wants him to study its content, but insists nobody else is shown the book or told what's in it. So, of course, the key seems to have been replaced the following morning.

But that's not all. Warren also finds something in the drawer that he had, somehow, missed on the previous evening: a flat bottle of pink glass, "not unlike a large scent-bottle," which "bore an ornate label," stamped with the name of "Le Secret de Venus," in gold letters. When he shows the bottle to his aunt, she identifies it as "a very special tonic" and immediately prepares a dose by shaking some of the crystals in a tumbler of hot water, but the bitter preparation seems like a drastic measure to prevent any future diseases – because her body begins to violently spasm and dies in a matter of minutes. Warren is shocked by the sudden and swift death of his aunt, which happened when he was reading the pamphlet of the preparation, but the doctor is very suspicious and soon there's a police-surgeon, an inspector and constable buzzing around the house. 

A favored approach Warren takes to tackling the problems, which surround the sudden death of his aunt, is making lists or committing his thoughts to paper. So they can be "pruned of some extravagant offshoots." The first one, after the family introduction, has him deciding as what kind of detective he’s going to operate: a professional policeman or the brilliant amateur, which he calls a "plain man or superior person," but ended up deciding in favor of the latter – since he could not possible hope to "beat the police at their own game." So he passed on measuring footprints or hunting for cigarette ends to talk with his family and eavesdropping on the police. It's amateur detection at its most amateurish.

One of the things emerging from his narrative and meditations, is that Warren is not the stodgy, old-fashioned conservative that a lot readers think he is. I've always seen him being referred to as a conservative stockbroker, such as in this review of Death of His Uncle (1939), but he shares some of his very liberal views on crime and punishment – stating that he does "not believe in retributive punishment." He does not even believe "murder is always the most awful of all sins," but confesses he would "not be terribly distressed" if some of his least favorite relatives, like his Uncle Terence, were "taken away quietly and executed" – which is not very consistent with his opinion on the death penalty. Combined with him creeping about the house "like a guilty ghost," as he eavesdrop, writes and rummages, which does not make him a very convincing, or likeable, hero. Warren realizes this himself.

As the ending of the book drew closer, Warren has a moment of self reflection and admits that, so far, he has not been able "to lay a fair claim to any admiration" nor were his actions "worthy of applause." He also admits that none of his thoughts has been "illuminating in its grandeur," but promises that his "hour of heroism" is close at hand: he pens a false confession and uses it as bait as he tries to goad one of his relatives into murdering him!

If I had not known Death of My Aunt was the first in a series of four novels, I would have suspected Kitchin of playing a magnificent piece of bluff. Because Warren would have fitted the role of murderer and unreliable narrator perfectly. After all, who's one of the person who could have used the money? Warren! Not just for himself, but his mother and sisters would also inherit from Aunt Catherine as well. Who had a key to the drawer that contained the bottle? Warren! Who handed Aunt Catherine the doctored bottle of tonic? Warren! It could have been one of the most simplistic detective stories in history of the genre, which was only complicated because the murderer was purposely leading the reader down the garden path.

Well, the actual solution is competent enough for a debuting mystery novelist, but the finer details of the murderer's motive hung vaguely in the background, until it was brought to the foreground during the explaination, although it was clear from the start the reason for the murder came down to money. So that's hardly worth mentioning. However, what I should point out is how one component of the solution is never properly shared with the reader, which is the relationship between the murderer and the poison.

The poison in question, oxalic acid, has a practical use and Warren learns that one of his relatives has an occupation requiring that very specific poison, but the reader is never given a hint about this particular occupation of the murderer. Not as much as a nod. I think that could have been safely done, because how many readers would know enough about poisons to make the connection.

Anyway, in spite of the sketchy details surrounding the motive and some of the clues, Death of My Aunt is a good, interesting and well written debut novel. Its successor, Crime at Christmas, showed an improvement on the (minor) flaws I was nitpicking about just a moment ago. So I now want to see what Kitchin was able to do with Death of His Uncle and The Cornish Fox (1949), but, for my next read, I feel compelled to look at another mystery novel first. You can probably guess which one that'll be.

6/2/16

More Deadly Than the Male


"And yet the motives of women are so inscrutable... their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Second Stain," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1904)

Four Strange Women (1940) is the fourteenth mystery novel in E.R. Punshon's Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen series and was republished only last year by the Dean Street Press, which means there's brief, but informative, introduction by genre-historian and fellow crime connoisseur, Curt Evans – who can be found blogging over at The Passing Tramp. It's was his introduction that convinced me to toss this one on the top of the pile.

In his preface, Evans goes over the plot and overarching theme of the story, namely the female of the species, which, as the title of this blog-post gives away, is often more deadlier than the male. A theme that compelled Ellery Queen to compile one of their better-known anthologies of detective fiction, The Female of the Species (1943). But that's literary a different story.

Punshon's exploration of the theme is described as a portrayal of the "darker potentialities in romantic relationships between men and women" and is, justly, likened to a darker, grittier reimagination of The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie, but what ignited my interest a mention of everyone's favorite mystery writer. The introduction revealed Punshon as a huge admirer of John Dickson Carr and he used to shovel a ton of praise on his work when he reviewed books for the Manchester Guardian, which is illustrated by a handful of quotes about The Hollow Man (1935), The Burning Court (1937) and The Reader is Warned (1939) – noting that readers should detect a "resemblance to the memorable Grand Guignol" from "Carr's shuddery shockers" in Four Strange Women. Indisputably, the man had an impeccable and refined taste for the detective stories! Let's see if the comparison to Carr stands.

Four Strange Women follows closely on the events from the previous book, Murder Abroad (1939), in which an important society figure, Lady Markham, engaged the services of Owen to perform a semi-private investigation into the death of a family member in France. As a reward, she would use her influence to get him an appointment as an inspector and private-secretary to the elderly Colonel Glynne, Chief Constable of Wychshire, but the night before his departure he finds a problem on his doorstep – brought to him by the impish looking Lord Henry Darmoor and his fiancée, Gwen Barton.

It's from them that Bobby learns of the sudden, inexplicable deaths of two of their acquaintances: Viscount Byatt of Byatt was found dead in his car, somewhere in the middle of Dartmoor, he had "been dead for a week or two before he was found," which made it difficult to find an exact cause of death. Second man to pass away under peculiar circumstances was Andy White, a second-generation millionaire, who was found in a cottage, "miles from everywhere in Wales," and he had been dead for at least a month. Before they were found dead, they were "getting rid of pots of money," which pertains to the women they were seeing at the time, but some of the expensive jewelry they had been buying has vanished without a trace – which definitely makes the sudden deaths of both men suspicious as hell. Lord Darmoor and Barton fear a mutual friend of them, Billy Baird, is marked for a third victim.

Evidently, the plot of Four Strange Women echoes elements from a previous entry in this series, The Bath Mysteries (1936), in which men who were forgotten by society were found dead in bathtubs. Punshon was apparently not done with exploring potentialities of thus subject, but used rich, successful society men as the victims for this book. And he threw the bathtubs out. 

Anyway, Bobby soon realizes that this case will place him between a rock and a hard place, because all of the women who had links to the dead men are friends of one another, but the worst part is that one of them is the daughter of his new superior – previously mentioned Colonel Glynne. As if the situation was not complicated enough, the charred remains of Billy Baird are recovered from the burned out debris of his touring caravan in a secluded spot of Wychwood Forest.

After this setup, the book begins to echo the story of The Bath Mysteries again, which is, structural an early serial killer novel, but dressed as a police procedural and Four Strange Woman is not much different in that regard. Bobby occupies himself with talking to the people he encounters and poking between the wreckage of the destroyed lives he finds, which allows him to slowly build up a picture of the murderer. However, I would hardly call the slow, plodding advance to the truth a Carrian tale of shocks, shudders and horrors. There are a number of characters who claim that "the powers of hell have broken loose" or how there was "some horror they dared not contemplate," but the atmosphere was only stated as being terrifying and the only genuine piece of Grand Guignol revealed itself in the final chapters of the book – when Bobby tumbled down and explored a dark basement. What he found there uncovered a cleverly hidden plot-thread.

Plot-wise, that plot-thread also gave the book a new and interesting prospective, because it basically turned the entire story in one big prologue to that second plot-thread. Even more interesting, Punshon could have written a detective story that revolved and began with the discovery in the basement, which would have involved the same plot-strands and cast of characters, but would have made for a completely different story – using the serial killer-angle as a dish of clue-sprinkled red herrings in the background. I found that to be a curious, but interesting, aspect of the overall plot of the story.

In any case, Four Strange Women is notable as an early example of the serial killer novel, which would become a cornerstone of the contemporary, post-WWII crime novel. It's kind of astonishing that a man from Punshon's generation, who was born in the 1870s and saw the emergence of the era of electricity, wrote detective stories in the Golden Age of the genre which seemed very modern or predictive of the modern crime novels of today.

But then again, it has been remarked how Fergus Hume's The Mystery of Hansom Cab (1886) and the short stories from J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (collected in 2005) have a peculiar modern feel about them. So maybe the modern crime novel is inherently regressive. Sorry, but I could not resist that small jab, which should not be perceived as a backhanded slight at Punshon. I've become very fond of his mystery novels and while some of his experimental works, such as The Bath Mysteries and Four Strange Women, will not always fully satisfy the purist, I can heartily recommend some of his more traditionally crafted stories, e.g. Information Received (1933), Death Comes to Cambers (1935) and Ten Star Clues (1941).

5/29/16

Doom's Caravan


"Eeee... what a luvly night for a murder."
 - Archie (Leo Bruce's Case with Four Clowns, 1939)
Alan Melville was a jack-of-all-trades in the world of entertainment and occupied many different roles around the stage, ranging from being a playwright and musical lyricist to acting and producing gigs, but really gained name recognition as one of Britain's first television personalities – appearing on programs like What's My Line? and hosting a satiric revue series called Alan Melville's A to Z. It was a rich, varied career, but one of the most interesting chapters from his rise to fame seemed, until recently, to have been largely forgotten.

When Melville was still a young man in his twenties, he wrote a handful of mystery novels reminiscent of the works of Leo Bruce and Edmund Crispin. However, they rapidly vanished from the public conscience and eventually became so obscure that even the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, a veritable Who's Who of Who the Hell Are They, has no mention of Melville or any of his detective stories, which goes to show just how obscure he has gotten as a mystery writer – considering the site has pages for such unknowns as Pierre Audemars, Hector Hawton and Inez Oellrichs. One of the oldest mentions of his work I could find was a review from 2009 of Quick Curtain (1934), but the dust soon settled down and slowly began to accumulate again. 

That is until last year, when the Poisoned Pen Press, under the banner of the British Library Crime Classics, reissued two of Melville's six mystery novels: the aforementioned Quick Curtain and Death of Anton (1936). Both of them were well received and highly praised by some of my fellow connoisseurs in murder. So I had to sample one of those two for myself.

Death of Anton lifts one of the tent-flaps to give the reader a glimpse of what lies beyond the sandy rink of the circus, which turns out to be an ill-tempered tiger, jealousy and about half a dozen potential motives for bloody murder – all of them belonging to a troupe of potential, colorful and promising would-be murderers.

The story begins with an introduction of the circus artist who are in the employ of Joseph Carey's World-Famous Circus and Menagerie, which is owned and ran by the man whose name is plastered across the circus' banner, Mr. Joseph Carey. As the proprietor, Carey always puts his employees up in hotels or boarding-houses, but he's always to be found "on the scene of the battle," in a green-and-white caravan, which is where night-time visitors are seen whistling to a closed front door. According to the rumor-mill, he also received some (married) women and one of his nightly rendezvous got him in a knife-fight with an Italian high-wire walker. So that in itself would have been enough material for a single detective story, but there are more characters trampling around the circus tents.

Loretta and Lorimer were high-flying trapeze artists and had shown "a complete disregard for the laws of gravity" since their childhood, but, lately, Lorimer has been hearing rumors about Loretta and Carey. One of the places where they decide to have a marital quarrel is while flying through the air in the Big Top and they laughed "at the idea of using a net in their act." Ernest Mayhew is billed on the posters as "Dodo," King of Clowns, but without a face full of greasepaint he impresses people as a meddlesome inspector of education who lugs around an impressive looking copy of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922) – which he does in order to create the impression of being an intelligent man who can afford to pay thirty shillings for a book. Lars Peterson is fond of a drink or two and is the personal trainer of Horace, "The World's Most Intelligent Performing Sea-Lion," and Miller used to be part of the circus’ main act, but is now reduced to being one of the ringside assistants and drinking. 

The star of the main act is Herr Ludwig Kranz, billed as "Anton," who performs an exciting act with his seven Bengal tigers, but one of them, Peter, engages Anton in a battle of willpower for dominance. So nobody is surprised when Anton's body is found on the floor of the cage, "red with blood," but a closer examination of the body reveals three bullet holes – proving he was not mauled to death by the tigers.  

Luckily, a policeman from Scotland Yard, Detective-Inspector Minto, who had been in town on a family-related matter: his sister, Claire, has a penchant for getting herself in trouble and had once hopped on a train to Milan, after Britons became very unpopular, to opine "in a loud voice that Signor Mussolini was an ass," but this time she had outdone herself. She had gotten herself engaged to a dull, colorless salesman of vacuum cleaners.

They also have a brother, a Catholic priest, to whom the murderer confesses his crime, but he's bound to secrecy. However, it suggests to Minto that the murderer must have been a Catholic, which is a plot strand that should have been expanded upon. It's mainly used to discredit a false solution, confine Minto's attention to a small circle of suspects and confirming his suspicion – by tricking his poor brother into revealing more than he wished to. So this clue serves primarily as a plot-mover. It kept the story going when a perfectly good and acceptable solution had presented itself to the characters, which could have easily taken the wind out of the sails of the story and plot.

It was put to use in service of the story, but I feel a clever clue could have been carved out of this fact.

Anyhow, the introduction of all of these characters, life in a traveling circus and Minto's investigation is told with zest and humor, which is filled with funny exchanges and winking at the detective story. Something that's demonstrated when Minto compiles a list of Questions and Answers to order his thoughts or when he (somewhat illegally) poses as a Housing Inspector to gain access to a building. Or when he removes (i.e. steals) a piece of evidence from a pawnshop. It makes for a fun, fast and mostly light-hearted story in the spirit of the comedy-of-manners and tongue-in-cheek style of mysteries, such as Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon's delightful A Bullet in the Balled (1937), but there's a rather dark, jarring side-note to the last quarter of the book.

Minto decided to set a trap for the murderer and he used one of the innocent characters as human bait, but this has horrible consequences and the fate this person suffered is arguably worse than getting shot, stabbed or bludgeoned by a killer desperately trying to get rid of some loose ends – which made Minto "most grateful for the five minutes' grace" the unfolding tragedy had given him. Well, he was sorry, "very sorry indeed," and there's a bit of a cop-out in the final chapter ("He'll be all right"), but the whole incident made Minto a slightly less sympathetic and fun character.

Well, that being said, I very much enjoyed the overall book. It was a fun, quirky story with an interesting backdrop for the plot and made good use of the tigers. I was able to identify the murderer fairly early on in the game, but the second plot-thread niftily tied every character and plot-points together – which resulted in a mass arrest, for one thing or another, which fitted the overall plot of the story. And that made for a good ending. Still, I would not give this one the full five stars that some have given it, but completely agree Death of Anton is a worthy addition to the British Library and one that's definitely recommended. Particularly if your one of those readers who's still mourning about the fact that you have run through all of the Edmund Crispin and Leo Bruce mysteries on your TBR-pile.

I do hope this review has done some justice to this book, because time forced me to bang out this review in a very short time. So there's my defense for the mistakes/typos that usually find their way into my blog-posts. Finally, I have a legitimate excuse for them!