Sunday 29 April 2012

Edith-Jane Bahr - A Nice Neighborhood (1973)

"I can't imagine any of this," I said out loud. "It's like a Hitchcock movie."

If Margaret Butler, the narrator of A Nice Neighborhood, is in a Hitchcock film, it would be Rear Window. Sitting in the bay window of her kitchen while giving her six week old daughter a 2 a.m. bottle, Margaret notices a light on in the family room of their backyard neighbors' house. Margaret's first thought is that someone must be sick and so is surprised to see Marilyn Crane, clad in something "loose and see-throughy", furtively let a man out the back door. Her initial surprise at the audacity of Marilyn letting a man in and out of her house while her husband is sleeping upstairs turns into amusement as she witnesses several more of these clandestine meetings, reasoning, as she never hears a car starting up, that Marilyn is carrying on an affair with a local man (who, of course, is only seen in shadow and silhouette). Margaret's amusement is short-lived however; John Crane wakes up one morning to discover his wife in the family room, dead from a stab wound in the back. The police's initial assumption that Marilyn surprised a prowler is discarded after Margaret's account of the night visitor and their focus turns to a disgruntled lover or a vindictive spouse. With the peaceful facade of the neighborhood being stripped away by revelations of affairs, lies and other problems, Margaret becomes more and more uneasy that one of her "nice" neighbors is possibly a killer and that, after a second murder, she herself might be the next victim.

A Nice Neighborhood should be a novel with an atmosphere of suffocating and ever-growing paranoia, but apart from a short scene in which Margaret fears that the killer is hiding inside her house, the narrative isn't very suspenseful. Part of the problem lies with the cast of suspects. While they are supposed to be benign, at least on the surface, I never had the impression that there was an added layer to their characters, that one of them really posed a threat a Margaret and could strike out at any moment. And this benignity extended to the final reveal, a confrontation which was flat (and somewhat abrupt with an overly garrulous killer).

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Spencer Dean - Murder on Delivery (1957)

Lily Inez, beautiful television star, is set to receive a very exclusive gift from the Sak's-like Amblett's department store--a 100,000 blue sable mink coat which is to be delivered on her birthday by two employees of Amblett's. The coat, however, is hijacked at Lily's apartment, the two employees are missing and Don Cadee, the head of Ambletts' security suspects that Lily and her manager have more knowledge about the theft than they want to reveal. The knowledge that this pair has proves to be rather ludicrous, but without this twist there wouldn't be much to the story. Dean, to his credit, doesn't tie everything neatly up at the conclusion.

More information on the series can be found here.

Paul Kruger - Weave a Wicked Web

I'm getting perilously behind on my reviews...and it doesn't help that that several of them could be quickly summarized as "meh" or "okay". So today I'm going for a copy of noon-hour "quickies"...

Weave a Wicked Web is the second in a series of mysteries featuring Phil Kramer, a Colorado attorney. Kramer is retained at the beginning of the novel (by a young, beautiful and wealthy client, of course) to trace a red-headed woman named Kitty Bates. That's all the information the client, Stella Packard, is willing to give him and against his better judgment Kramer agrees to take on the job. Eventually Kramer ties in Kitty Bates with a news item about the discovery of the body of a red-headed woman in the vicinity of his client's home. Questioning his client, Kramer learns that Stella had made a blackmail payment to a woman identifying herself as Kitty Bates. The big problem; Kitty Bates was dead and in her improvised grave well before the blackmail attempt so who was the second Kitty Bates and how does the body tie in with the Packard family? It's an interesting set-up, but the problem I had with the novel is that eventually it seems that everyone was either cognizant of the blackmail or part of it, thereby lessening the impact of the story.

More information on the Phil Kramer series and its author can be found at the Thrilling Detective website.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Frank Kane - Syndicate Girl (1958)

"The syndicate runs this town. If they say go, you go. If they say jump, you damn well better jump. If they say you die, don't start reading any continued stories."

In a previous post I observed the disparity between the plot summary and cover artwork of a Rae Foley Mr. Potter novel, seemingly to make the book more palatable to a romantic suspense fan. Like that book, Syndicate Girl has a presentation at odds with its actual content. The cover blurb (She was as tough as the hoods she worked with--until she met a man who made her feel like a woman) along with the accompanying illustration of a long-legged blonde seductively posed on an armchair with a cigarette dangling from her fingers, would suggest that the novel is a crime melodrama involving the redemption of the syndicate girl (with perhaps a hint of risque action.) The trouble is threefold; the syndicate girl doesn't reform, doesn't meet a man who makes her feel like a woman, and since she isn't discovering her latent womanhood, there's no risque lovemaking either. Actually, the problem might be fourfold as the syndicate girl, Mary Lister, isn't even the main character in the book. That honour belongs to Mal Waters, a young and naive district attorney (and the future son-in-law of the mayor) who becomes involved in the battle against organized crime in a small city and the fight to prove that the suicide of a policeman was actually a mob hit tied to a corruption probe.

One's enjoyment of SG will depend on how much one can make allowances for the actions of Mal Waters. While he is supposed to be naive, a puppet placed in office by the crime-ridden administration, most of the story depends on the character doing foolish things such allowing himself to be set-up or revealing his plans to those he shouldn't trust (even though he learns early on about the duplicity of those close to him). Mal's development as a character is in contrast to what the blurb promises about Mary Lister: a "nice: guy who has to become as tough as the hoods whose downfall he wants to bring about, although the Mickey Spillanesque ending can be predicted early on.

Paperbacks II

A few more...

Paperbacks I

Yesterday was the final day of a local ten-day book and music sale. Some of my more interesting purchases from the (ever-dwindling) "collecticle" paperbacks section...

Wednesday 11 April 2012

S.S. Van Dine - The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)

"So you want to be a detective" he said cheerfully. "I think that's an excellent idea. And I'm going to give you all the help I can. We'll work together; you shall be my assistant, so to speak. But you must keep very busy at it. And you mustn't let anyone suspect that you're doing detective work--that's the first rule."

I love the Philo Vance mysteries. I love Gracie Allen. I love Philo and Gracie together. But I was greatly disappointed with The Gracie Allen Murder Case as the mystery, about the discovery of a body in a restaurant with criminal connections, was so thin and featureless that I kept waiting for something interesting to happen story-wise. One over-the-top chapter involving a gangster's metaphysical ramblings should appeal to Van Dine aficionados but this is easily the least of the Philo Vance titles that I've read (although I've yet to read The Winter Murder Case). Perhaps it worked better as a film.

John Rhode - Hendon's First Case (1935)

"Not content with a case of housebreaking, you want to tack a murder on to it."

Hendon's First Case is the Dr. Priestley novel which introduces Jimmy Waghorn, a Cambridge graduate with an unremarkable academic history and a lack of ambition who, after his father was ruined in a financial crash, decided to enroll in the new police college at Hendon. Eventually coming under the mentorship of series regular Inspector Hanslet, Jimmy is given the opportunity to distinguish himself when Hanslet receives news of a break-in. Upon arriving at the address, Jimmy learns that the break-in occurred at the workspace occupied by two research chemists, Harwood and Threlfall, and that they were dining together at a restaurant when the break-in occurred. Harwood, who returned to the laboratory alone after dinner, speculates that a rival might have entered  the premises to steal or impede their research. But there is a further complication in the investigation. Harwood appears to be suffering from food poisoning and Waghorn later receives the disconcerting news that Threlfall was admitted to a hospital shortly after dinner and died from ptomaine poisoning. The ptomaine is traced to their dinner at the restaurant and, while Hanslet concludes that the meal could not have been deliberately poisoned, Waghorn is not so sure that it is not a case of murder.

The appeal of Hendon's First Case, apart from the introduction of Waghorn, lies in the mystery of how Harwood and Threlfall were poisoned. However, the means is obviously and clumsily introduced in testimony, so I'd characterize this as a lukewarm Dr. Priestley novel. There is an interesting discussion on deciphering codes however.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Rae Foley...Gothic Mistress?

Comparing a couple of Rae Foley hardcovers with their softcover "danger and romance" well as a scan of a more "gothic" cover (note the obligatory lighted window).

Note the Mr. Potter by-line on the hardcover. You'll never find his name on the paperbacks (a couple of the hardcovers were retitled...presumably to eliminate his name from the titles).

Rae Foley - Where is Mary Bostwick? (1958)

"What's up?"
"Santa Claus. I have to see him about a dead man."

Like Margaret Erskine, Rae Foley is an writer  who found herself repackaged by publishers during the gothic boom of the sixties and seventies as an author of gothic mysteries. Given, in paperback editions, cover artwork featuring worried-looking women in evening gowns, dark and spooky settings and plot descriptions emphasizing danger and romance, a casual reader might be surprised to find out that Foley's main series character was a male detective who is sometimes compared to Albert Campion. Like Campion, Mr. Potter (first name Hiram)  is wealthy, fair-haired and has a bland unrevealing face, although he is more neurotic and considers himself to be a "catalytic agent". The plot summaries of these gothic paperbacks fail to mention Mr. Potter, instead building up the involvement of supporting female characters (and distorting the plots to make them more appealing to the fan of gothic romances).

In Where is Mary Bostwick?, Mr. Potter has just returned to his native New York City and is surprised to read in a newspaper that, despite not knowing anything about the case, he is involved in the search for a missing heiress. Mary Bostwick was an average university student before being left a fortune by her unscrupulous and estranged father. However, when the will is read, Mary has been missing for months. As his lawyer is involved in the search, Mr. Potter decides to lend his peculiar talents to the investigation, a pressure-filled task as they only have twenty-nine hours to find Mary before the fortune passes to the other heirs. The lawyer, Adam Eden, assures Mr. Potter that the other heirs knew nothing about the will previously and therefore could not have murdered her (although murder will play a part in the case). The further involved he becomes in the search, the more Mr. Potter believes that Mary Bostwick is deliberately hiding, but for what reason?

Where is Mary Bostwick? depends on a number of coincidences to propel the storyline (Mary makes an obvious cameo appearance early on) for which I could forgive the author. However, the "big reveal" about why Mary is hiding is ludicrous and sinks the novel. Still, I like the character sufficiently enough and would read another Mr. Potter mystery (and hope for a better conclusion).

Anthony Abbot - About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931)

"I would like to have impressions taken of the paws of this cat."

The well-dressed and erudite Thatcher Colt has an advantage over other similar detectives of the 1930s. Unlike the amateur criminologists who often had to intrude upon the police investigations and were at the mercy of wrong-headed decisions, Colt is able to avoid these problems. After all, he is the Police Commissioner of New York City.

In About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (who can resist that title?), Colt investigates not only the death of the titular lady but also that of the clergyman himself, both bodies discovered in a row-boat drifting down the East River. His inquiries are hampered by the reticence and hypocrisy of the Reverend Timothy Beazeley's family and congregation as well as the glib explanations of the family's lawyer (in the most entertaining character interactions of the novel).

While clearly Van Dine inspired, Thatcher Colt is less insufferable than Philo Vance (which perhaps takes some of the humour out of the novel through a lack of over-the-top personality and conflict between a snooty detective and the police), although he does engage in the same Philo Vancian mystification of his chronicler. Unsurprisingly, with a lead character who heads the police department, there's a greater emphasis on police procedure than in the Van Dine novels.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Brett Halliday - She Woke to Darkness (1954)

"If she was a gal who passed out on her third Martini and developed nympho tendencies--that made it all the more interesting."

As the cover proudly proclaims, this is Mike Shayne's twenty-fifth case and it has a trifold narrative structure that sets it apart from the previous twenty-four. She Woke to Darkness opens with Brett Halliday recounting his experiences at the April 1953 Edgar Awards Dinner (which provides cameos from such luminaries as Frederic Dannay). Criticised as being a boring old-timer by several younger and arrogant MWA members, Halliday is pleased to be introduced to Elsie Murray, a fan of his detective novels, and after a brief conversation, accepts an invitation back to her apartment. Elsie is more than a mystery fan however; she's also an aspiring author with an uncompleted manuscript which she claims is based on a real-life experience. After their evening is interrupted by a telephone call (which Halliday assumes to be from a boyfriend), Brett  heads back to his hotel room and begins to read Elsie's novel and SWTD then alternates between Halliday's narrative and the incidents described in the manuscript. Elsie's mystery novel tells the story of a young woman, Aline Ferris, who wakes up during the night, after having one too many drinks, in a hotel room with a man's corpse in the bathroom. Aline doesn't recognise the man, flees the hotel and tries to reconstruct the events of the evening and discover the man's identity and who killed him.

Flattered by her attention, Halliday phones Elsie to give her opinion of the opening chapter of her manuscript and is surprised by two things. Firstly, that a man answers the phone, and secondly, that the man's voice has the official sound of a policeman. Worried by this, Brett phones a friend, true crime author Edward Radin who has contacts within the police department, to discover why a policeman would be at Elsie's apartment in the early hours of the morning. Radin promises to find out and phones back with the shocking news that Elsie has been strangled. Realising that he's about to become the police's main suspect, Brett phones Mike Shayne, a real-life detective whose cases he has been chronicling, for help in clearing his name. Brett is convinced that Elsie and Aline are one the same person, that Elsie was involved in a recent murder case and that the manuscript holds to key to discovering her murderer. The latter part of SWTD is the third-person account of Shayne's investigation.

She Woke to Darkness, with its placement of actual mystery writers into a fictional murder case, is a treat for Brett Halliday fans (who will also appreciate the in-jokes involving Helen McCloy and Matthew Blood) although with Shayne not appearing until well-past the half-way mark it feels more like a Mike Shayne novelette. The investigation, juxtaposing the manuscript with the "real-life" characters and locations is also a clever idea but one which is kept relatively simple (perhaps to bring the book under 200 pages).