6/28/16

Outlaws of the Forest


"When as the sheriff of Nothingham
Was come with mickle grief,
He talk'd no good of Robin Hood,
That strong and sturdy thief."
- Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow (Joseph Ritson's Robin Hood: A Collection of the Popular Poems, Songs and Ballads Relative to That Celebrated English Outlaw, 1826)
The Assassin in the Greenwood (1993) by Paul Doherty is the seventh entry in his chronicles of Sir Hugh Corbett and takes place in 1302, which was one of those historic, tumultuous period in Europe's history and King Edward I is besieged by problems – such as the expansionist tendencies of France and the return of an infamous outlaw.

A covert war of intelligence, counterintelligence, and espionage is being waged on the continent of Europe. The chess pieces in this war are spies and double-agents, either in the employ of the English or the French, who dance around important crumbs of information pertaining to the situation on France's northern border – where an army is amassing. King Edward's intelligence network is aware they're waiting for the signal "to cross into and destroy the Kingdom of Flanders," but not if these plans extended to England's southern coast.

So it is interest of King Philip IV of France to keep the English in the dark and for this purpose he has dispatched one of his best assassins across the Channel. His target? The Keeper of the Secret Seal and devoted emissary of King Edward I of England, Sir Hugh Corbett. However, Corbett is on a mission himself. A mission that brings him to the dark, dense and dangerous thickets of Sherwood Forest surrounding the castle of Nottingham.

One of the King's principal tax-collectors, Matthew Willoughby, was leading an armed convoy to the forest and they followed a secret route, which went across obscure pathways and tracks, but they were halted by a "volley of arrows" – courtesy of a band of roughly fifty robbers. The iron-bound chests were taken from their covered wagons, the tax-collector was horrible maimed and his entire retinue was massacred.

As shocking as the brutality of this massacre is the identity of the man who acted as the leader of this group of outlaws: an archer clad in Lincoln green who claims to be none other than the legendary thief, Robin Hood! He even has Little John by his side.

King Edward is in a black rage, as he had given the outlaw a King's Pardon in the past, and he has one simple task for Corbett: "go to bloody Nottingham and see Robin Hood hang." But upon his arrival in Nottingham, Corbett discovers that not all of Robin Hood's crimes are simple mugging cases. The Sheriff of Nottingham has passed away under very mysterious and seemingly impossible circumstances inside his chamber.

The body of Sir Eustace Vechey was "in the blackest pit of depression" when he and his manservant, Lecroix, retired to his room, which was locked from the inside and key was left in the lock. There were two guards posted outside of the door and the windows are mere arrow slits. As someone remarked, "not even a rat could squeeze in there," but there must have been an invisible agent in the room to administer a very potent poison to the sheriff – which was not found or tasted in the goblet of wine and pieces of sweet meat that were left in the room.

Doherty is a bit of a specialist where (impossible) poisonings are concerned and the locked room situation, and its explanation, was somewhat reminiscent of the one used in The White Rose Murders (1991), but different enough to stand by itself. It also had a fairly clued explanation and one that you can piece together yourself long before Corbett stumbles to the truth. So that was a nice element of this very eventful novel of thick, braided plot-threads and there are many plot-threads in this book.

First of all, there are the previously mentioned cases of a forest teeming with murderous outlaws and the baffling poisoning of the sheriff, but there's also the question of why Robin Hood has returned and why he has become so cruel. He used to be a champion of the common man (i.e. the poor), but now he seems to be suffering from a severe case of bloodlust. These come on top of a complicated cipher Corbett and Ranulf have to break and an unknown person who shoots three burning arrows over the castle wall on the thirteenth of every month. And then there are the bodies. Doherty has never shied away from stacking up a body count (e.g. The Plague Lord, 2002), but here we have murders, executions and deaths in every single chapter – often more than one body at a time. Death is literally all around Corbett and Ranulf in this one!

One advantage of the bustling plot of The Assassin in the Greenwood is that it makes it a very eventful story, in which the plot is always on the move and events are constantly unfolding. It makes for a very readable story. However, the downside of this is that, to prevent the ending from becoming a convoluted mess, the solution had to be as simple as possible. And that was the case. You don't have to be a particular genius to deduce the identity of the mastermind behind all of this bloody chaos, but, overall, it was competently done and loved the motivation of the killer. It nicely intertwined with the presence and legend of Robin Hood. But the real draw and eye-catcher of this historical mystery is having Robin Hood as one of the main suspects/antagonists.

So, a pretty good, fun and eventful read, but not one of the best entries in the series. I suspect The Demon Archer (1999) was Doherty rewriting this story from scratch and cutting out all of the extraneous matter, because the both stories shares some resemblances, but the plot is a lot leaner and overall better executed – which is a good example that sometimes less is more.

On a final note, Robin Hood seems out-of-time in this novel, because he's typically portrait as a figure from the days of Richard the Lionheart and King John, but Doherty addresses and explains this in author’s note.

6/25/16

A Veiled Threat


"Sure, it's dangerous. It's been dangerous, it is dangerous, and it's going to be a whole lot more dangerous."
- from Ianthe Jerrold's There May Be Danger (1948)
Patricia Wentworth is primarily remembered as the author of thirty-three novels about Miss Maud Silver, a governess who became a consulting detective, which made her "one of the mystery genre's most prominent spinster sleuths," but her casebook only covers half of Wentworth's contribution to crime-fiction – which further consists of several short-lived series and a large pile of standalone novels. It's a part of her output that has long been overlooked, but, recently, the gang from Dean Street Press has dragged them from the bowels of obscurity. So let's take a look at one of them.

Weekend with Death (1941) appeared in the United Kingdom under a different title, namely Unlawful Occasions, but both editions of the book became rare, high-priced items on the secondhand book market. The price of a secondhand copy still hovers between sixty bucks and a full grand. Fortunately, you don't have to be a deep-pocketed collector of first-edition hardcover books to explore this new series of reprints.

Speaking of explorations, the plot of Weekend with Death roams across the neighboring borders of several sub-categories of the large, outstretched territory of the crime and mystery genre. There are components of suspense, thriller and espionage stories, but the plot also employs (faked) supernatural phenomena and this element is used to good effect – elevating the story above the usual fare for a spy-thriller. However, the story begins on a fairly traditional note.

The book opens in a small, cold waiting-room of a mist-enshrouded train station where the heroine of the story, Sarah Marlowe, finds herself in company of Miss Emily Case. A neat, shabby little woman who spend five years in Italy as a private nurse, but the shift from the pleasant, Mediterranean climate to the dreary weather of England is not the only shock Miss Case encountered upon her return home. She confides in Sarah how she found a wounded man, "looking just like death," in a railway carriage of a London train and the young man pressed a oiled-silk packet into her hands – urging her to not allow to "let them get it."

Well, that's enough to throw everyone off-balance, but Sarah is very skeptical and is not interested in getting "entangled with stray lunatics babbling of murdered men and mysterious packages." After all, she has to think of her position as the private-secretary to the President of the New Psychical Society, Wilson Cattermole, which largely consists of typing out letters about haunted houses, listening to his monologue and taking an interest in his wife, Joanna – who's convinced she has made contact with the ghost of a genuine eighteenth-century smuggler. So not exactly a line of work begging for an additional layer of mystification, but that's exactly what Sarah finds when she leaves Miss Case in the waiting-room to board her train.

Sarah discovers the mysterious, oiled-silk wrapped packet inside her handbag and the people who are after its content seem to be already on her tail. But that's not even the most distressing part. She reads in the newspaper about Miss Case's murder and the police is looking for the woman who talked with Miss Case in the waiting-room of the train station, which is accompanied by a good description of Sarah. A good and solid premise for detective-cum-thriller story, but at this point the story slowly begins to harkening back to the days of the sensational novels from the Victorian Era.

Mr. and Mrs. Cattermole gave Sarah a five seconds' notice to pack her bags and accompany them, in her capacity of secretary, to an old, gloomy and reputedly haunted house, which is called Maltings and the occupied part of the home dates back to only the seventeenth century. The wing that leads to the oldest part of the house is securely locked and apparently rife with supernatural occurrences. It's an excellent place to tell a ghost story or two and their host, Reverend Peter Brown, has plenty of them involving shape-shifting creatures, werewolves and vampires, but Sarah quickly learns a lesson we all learned from Scooby Doo – some of the most terrifying monsters are just mortal human beings underneath. But in this case that does not make the monsters any less dangerous or deadly.

This second half of the novel is an old-fashioned tale of suspense with the trappings of the thriller and spy story, but they are framed as a sensational tale from the Victorian period. You can find the influences from that period in the old, labyrinthine house and Sarah wandering through its dark passages at night. She even uncovers a secret passage! There are also some excellent, atmospheric set pieces in this portion of the book: a séance manifesting the ghost of Miss Case, a daring, ill-fated late-night attempt to escape from the place and the villains of the play coming up with a particular nasty and cruel way to rid themselves of Sarah.

So it leans heavily on some very old, time-worn tropes and a handful of incredible coincidences, such as how Sarah (unwittingly) brought the packet closer to its intended destination, but Wentworth knew how to write a yarn. I also believe the ghost-hunting angle lifted these tropes above themselves and helped make Weekend with Death a fun, captivating read. Only the ending and how the events were wrapped up was slightly underwhelming.

I'm not really good at reviewing crime stories that lack the proper structure of a traditional, fair-play and clue-filled mystery novel, but I liked this atmospheric suspense-cum-spy thriller and I think I begin to prefer Wentworth's standalone work to her Miss Silver novels.

I previously reviewed Silence in Court (1945) and The Benevent Treasure (1956).

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.