Friday, June 8, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE BOX OFFICE MURDERS (1929) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Yet another English police procedural by Freeman Wills Crofts, this one highlighted by three murders and a brazen kidnapping Just the kind of thing I was in the mood for. But then, I am very fond of so-called police procedural mysteries, especially those written by 'golden age' authors whose like we'll never see again. Thankfully, their work lives on, though Freeman Wills Crofts' books are harder to find than most. Unusual for an author who is not exactly unknown and wrote some terrific stuff. Luckily, more and more of Crofts' books are being reprinted - but not fast enough to suit me. He was a prolific author whose many books have all but disappeared. Undeservedly so. 

But one day, THE BOX OFFICE MURDERS showed up on a list of Kindle recommendations quite out of the blue. Consider me very pleased. Especially since the book lived up to my expectations.

A young woman who works in a movie box office finds herself in a bind. She talks to a friend. The friend recommends she see an attorney for advice. They do. The attorney sends the young woman to Scotland Yard where, fortunately, Inspector French (Crofts' dogged sleuth) is free at that moment to hear her story.Thus he learns of the mark of the purple sickle.

That mark sounds more romantic than it is and in truth, it is about as fanciful as Freeman Wills Croft gets. But it's a nice touch.

The young woman's name is Thurza Darke and the story French hears from her is an old one, familiar to a seasoned detective. It's the one about a gullible girl being drawn into the clutches of people who have promised her a surefire way to make some side money - a vague sort of gambling scheme which can't fail. Right. Silly sort of ruse, but Miss Darke falls for it. Then of course she winds up owing the wrong people money and being menaced by a particularly evil chap who then coerces her into a perplexing gambit. I won't say anymore since you really do have to read the thing for yourself.

French assures Miss Darke that he will help and tells her to say nothing to anyone. Leave it to him.

But the next day, Miss Darke's body is found floating in the ocean.  Somehow, the bad guys discovered what she'd been up to and disposed of her.

As French, feeling a bit guilty that he didn't have Miss Darke followed, delves further and further into the story initially told by the victim, he finds two other murders, two other young women killed by 'drowning' - two who also happened to work in the box office of two different theaters.

Baffled, French continues to investigate, trying to find out what these clerks could be doing that would benefit a murderous gang. In pursuit of the bad guys, French is called upon to commit burglary but does so with aplomb since there's no other way for him to get the evidence he seeks. It's THAT sort of case.

Going into this tale, I expected (as per usual with Crofts) to be puzzled, confounded, entertained and in general, led about by the hand since there's no one who can fashion a perplexing plot quite like Crofts. And sure enough, I read the book through in just a couple of sittings, muttering to myself. There's little characterization here, so be warned, but you won't miss it. It's not really needed in this sort of story.

But I like that one of the characters, a box office clerk named Molly Moran, turns out to be a plucky girl who, hit over the head, kidnapped and thrown into a car tied hand and foot and wrapped in a rug, then threatened with a horrible death - NEVER gives up the will to survive.

AND on top of that, there's a hairsbreadth last minute chase across English country roads to the sea.

I recommend this very British, very intriguing, very convoluted tale which is not strictly a whodunit but a step by step investigation with dead ends at every turn - just the sort of thing I love.  We basically know who the bad guys are, but we don't know what they're up to except that they're willing to murder for it.

I won't say any more about the plot because it's one of those that you really need to unravel for yourselves and I won't dampen the joy of that. Just go ahead and download this wonderful puzzler while it's still available.

And since it's Friday once again, you know the routine. Head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. The list and the links are there.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ALIAS BASIL WILLING (1951) by Helen McCloy

Okay I admit it, I read this book because of the title. Basil Willing is one of my very favorite character names in all of literature. PLUS a couple of other bloggers have written about the book and made it sound like something I might like.

However, since Willing, an American psychiatrist working for the N.Y. District Attorney, is not nearly as charming or intriguing as Philip MacDonald's English crime solving gentleman of means, Anthony Gethryn, whom he vaguely reminds me of and the plot of this particular book peters out near the end, I can't say that ALIAS BASIL WILLING quite lived up to my expectations. As you'll see, it's a book I'm 'iffy' about.

Helen McCloy was a prolific American writer who wrote not only thirteen Basil Willing full length mysteries and one volume of short stories, but also an assortment of standalone suspense novels. She was a big proponent of the psychoanalytical view of human affairs and her tales reflect it. I've yet to read MR. SPLITFOOT and THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY, which are considered her best Basil Willing books, so I haven't really contrived a final opinion of her work. But so far, from what I've read, I would rate McCloy in the middling-to-good class of Golden Age-to-mid-20th century school of writers. But that may change as I move on.

If memory serves me, I've read one other Basil Willing book, CUE FOR MURDER, so I kind of knew what to expect and truth be told, this was the better of the two, though again, that soupcon of tense excitement so effortlessly created by McDonald in his tomes, is altogether missing from McCloy's efforts. I've also read one of her standalones, DO NOT DISTURB, which I disliked primarily because it SHOULD have been a terrific book and wasn't, bogged down as it was with character speeches about human rights and whatnot, not to mention, an improbable set-up (which could have been overcome, but wasn't). I hate when that happens.

ALIAS BASIL WILLING was okay, maybe just a little better than okay, but the ending left me feeling that I'd been bamboozled and not in a good way. (Needless to say, I never mind being bamboozled in a good way.)

Oh the book starts off brilliantly, no doubt.

A man overhears another man identify himself as himself. What? Oh, I mean that one night Basil Willing, in a coincidence of coincidences, overhears a man identify himself as Basil Willing and the chase is on. Intriguing - right? Real Basil follows fake Basil and winds up at a bizarre party thrown by a Dr. Zimmer, in yet another coincidence, a well known psychiatrist. Zimmer is the sort who regularly likes to observe his patients in a casual party atmosphere to judge how their neuroses work in a social milieu. The parties are a weekly thing.

Real Willing finds this odd. He isn't keen on this sort of psychoanalytical approach, but to each his own. After all, Zimmer has a good reputation and non-Freudians are known to veer off in different directions. But still, there's something untoward about the whole night, especially when a short while later, two guests are murdered.

While at the party, the real Willing is spotted by one of the guests but she keeps quiet. Fake Willing is the guest of a blind woman, Katherine Saw, who happens also to be a patient or is at the party because her nephew brought her. I can't remember which. Anyway, turns out that the blind woman hired the man to impersonate Basil Willing because she fears someone is trying to kill her. 

Fake Willing turns out to be a private detective - not an especially big surprise there. Unfortunately, the man winds up dead that very night after leaving the party. His last words, a cryptic expression (aren't they always) which even when explained near the end, makes little sense.

Here's the thing about 'cryptic dying expressions' - why doesn't the victim EVER just shout out the name of his or her killer? That would make more sense then muttering some line of poetry or fanciful observation or worse - code words! - meant to confound whoever it is that must hunt down the killer. Stands to reason - right? Ah, but then where would we be?

And there is lots of poetry and quoting from obscure texts in this particular mystery. Kind of nonsensical in a way, because why would a psychiatrist know this much about poetry and English lit? Oh I know people got different educations way back then, but still it did make me roll my eyes a bit. It's not as if he were a professor or collector - but maybe he is and I missed the reference. Or maybe there's something in Willing's background that explains it - possibly in another book. And before you say: Michael Innes! Let me remind you that his detective, John Appleby, was a different kettle of fish, since he was obviously, a kind of prodigy AND his creator was a Scottish academic. Plus you do expect a brilliant English detective of the old school to spout literary quotes and whatnot - at least, I do.

Back to Basil Willing: Another death soon follows and it becomes obvious that there was something far more wrong at that strange psychiatric gathering than the bizarre atmosphere and Dr. Zimmer's strained bonhomie AND a man masquerading as a famous psychiatrist.

There are plenty of suspects amongst the party guests so as we follow Real Willing in his investigation there's no shortage of suspicious behavior and weirdness, including the likelihood of a possible mercy killing to add to the mix. Lots to consider even if none of the characters earn much of our sympathy.

The final denouement, as I mentioned, is of the kitchen sink variety and too weirdly absurd even for a genre that routinely deals with absurdities. I felt kind of cheated.

In truth, this is one of those books that insists you make your own judgement because the reviewer - yours truly - could be entirely wrong and then you'd be missing out on something good. In other words - judge for yourselves on this one. Don't know why I'm saying this except that I'm kind of persuaded that I might have overlooked something but somehow I don't care enough to do a re-reading.

Here is John's excellent review of ALIAS BASIL WILLING at Pretty Sinister Books, he goes into more detail than I do since he's the expert and I'm not.

And since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, May 25, 2018

THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA by KJ Charles (2018) - A not forgotten or overlooked book.

And now for something a little different.

This is not a forgotten or overlooked book really since it's just newly published, but I'm writing about it anyway since this author has been overlooked by yours truly until just recently. Truth be told, I stumbled on the work of KJ Charles on Kindle while looking for Regency romances (I do get in the mood for a good romance now and again and I'm mad about historicals.) I had no clue then that Charles has made a kind of niche for herself writing imaginative, non-traditional historical romances featuring gay heroes. Also I had no clue that she was an exceptional writer with the gift of making the reader care about her characters.

Though some of her stories are set in Regency England when homosexuality was punishable by hanging, this particular book takes place in Victorian times - when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and/or other indignities - certainly not as bad as being dead, but really. So in a way, these are kind of wishful fairy tales (yeah, couldn't help myself) with requisite happy endings but wonderfully - if frankly - written and thoroughly engaging. Between the beginning and the happy ending, though, are enough dramatic entanglements to keep anyone entertained for a couple of hours. I found myself really enjoying several of Charles' books. Who knew? 

However if you object to the depiction of romantic tales of costumed gentlemen and knaves who happen to be gay, and or, for that matter depictions of sex (gay or otherwise), then please move on about your business and don't bother reading my review or voicing your objections. Certainly there are plenty of other terrific books out there for all of us to read and talk about. I understand that not everyone can be as broadminded as moi - though I often wonder why not. But I digress, as usual.

At any rate, THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA is a devilishly good if atypical example of this genre or niche or whatever you want to call it. In this case, Charles has done something clever and in many ways, impressive. She has upended the famed Victorian potboiler THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope and retold the entire story from an opposite point of view, peppering the tale with two incredibly dashing protagonists who just happen to lust after each other in a very manly and steamy way. Both men are characters who appeared in the original novel and apparently sparked Charles' imagination: one is Rupert of Hentzau and the other is a minor character named Jasper Detchard, an itinerant henchman. Both are soldiers of fortune who work for the evil Michael, Duke of Streslau, wicked brother of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Ruritania. All the characters from the original tale are here, but looked at with different and very jaded eyes.

(As an aside: Hope himself wrote a sequel titled RUPERT OF HENTZAU. The Zenda story continued from  yet another point of view. But omitting any hint of male cupidity.)

If you've seen either of the splendid ZENDA movies, the one starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr (1952) and the other starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll (1937) then you already know the official story. Link here to read my review from a few years ago, of the ZENDA movies.

And if you've read the Anthony Hope book (a short read of an evening and fun to boot) then you're that far ahead. BUT, you need not have read the original at all to enjoy THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA, in that case, just read it as a sexy, entertaining swashbuckling standalone.

P.S. And let's not forget Princess Flavia who in this instance is more a presence, even behind the scenes, than anyone bargained for. Is Rassendyll in for a surprise? I can say no more.

Itinerant henchman Jasper Detchard (who was killed off in the original story by Anthony Hope) has lots to say in Charles' version:

"When I read a story, I skip the explanations; yet the moment I begin to write one, I find that I must have an explanation.

This is Rudolf Rassendyll's introduction to his swashbuckling tale of intrigue, love, treachery, cold-blooded murder, and hot-blooded men. His account, privately circulated, has become the accepted truth amongst the few privileged to read it. It is a story of courage in the dark, honour in the teeth of love, nobility above all. It gives us a beautiful, passionate princess, a man who renounces love and crown for the sake of a greater and purer cause, and a villain - such a villain. 

Rupert of Hentzau: reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered. Rupert flees the pages of Rassendyll's story a thwarted monster, never to be seen again; Rassendyll retires from the field with honour unstained' and the true King of Ruritania reigns in Streslau.

What a pile of shit.

My name is Jasper Detchard, and according to Rassendyll's narrative I am dead. This should give you some idea of his accuracy..."

This eye opening beginning of THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA sets us up the rest of this clever, captivating, salacious but boisterously charming tale of derring-do and Victorian chicanery in a mythical country called Ruritania. This is, of course, one of those prickly little kingdoms which may be had for the taking by feckless good-looking, lusty villains who risk life and limb for a paycheck and the keen adventure of it all. Not a typical romance type story, but more an adventure with an ending that makes sense.

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, but then I'm a big fan of Hope, Rafael Sabatini, Baroness Orczy and John Buchan. K.J. Charles gets the tone and the period and the characters just right. (Though occasionally her language is a bit too modern day, but not jarringly so.) Jasper Detchard is not your mom's nice guy hero, but (despite Rudolf Rassendyll and Anthony Hope) a hero nonetheless. And we even wind up feeling an inchoate affection for the handsome thug.

I don't recommend this book to everyone, just to those curious enough to want to read something a little different now and then because why the heck not?

This review from THE SEATTLE REVIEW OF BOOKS of THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA spells it all out better than I can. I'm glad KJ Charles' books are getting this kind of attention.

Since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson to the frontispiece of the original 1898 MacMillan publication of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

National Classic Movie Day - Comfort Movie Blogathon: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947) starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo

What better way to celebrate National Classic Movie Day than with a bunch of movie mavens dishing about some of their very favorite 'comfort' movies. So after you peruse my post, please use the link above to see what other movies other bloggers are writing about today. Classic comfortable movies, what could be better?

Truth to tell, there are many classics I turn to when the going gets rough and life gets prickly, I've written about these films off and on over the years. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is one I mentioned years ago but the review seems to have disappeared from my blog so I've decided to write about it again for the first time.

There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING I enjoy/enjoyed more at the movies than watching Danny Kaye attempt to be suave. Just the lift of that one eyebrow and the beginnings of that supercilious half-smile and I'm already laughing out loud. Can't help it. No one else did it as well or as funnily - or, for that matter, as expertly. It's just something about the swaggering pompousness mixed with a kind of calm, cool bravado. How he managed it - I don't know. Genius, I suppose. Danny Kaye was matchless.

And we haven't even talked about his incredible ability to fast forward through those trademark chattering songs with rat-tat-tat lyrics, usually written by his wife, Sylvia Fine. SO spectacularly mind-bogglingly wonderful. Yeah, I'm kind of a Danny Kaye fan-girl.

And since my favorite Danny Kaye film, THE COURT JESTER, was chosen by CAFTAN WOMAN for today's Blogathon, I picked my second favorite.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY screenplay was based on a short story by iconic American writer James Thurber and enlarged into a Samuel Goldwyn extravaganza by Ken Englund and Everett Freeman with some input from Thurber who was not happy with the final outcome. The film does go on for rather long and seems to run out of steam but not so much so that it ruins things, it is an extravaganza after all. Too much of Danny Kaye is always better than not enough.

The film was directed by Norman Z. McCleod who also directed another of my very favorite 'comfort' movies CASANOVA'S BIG NIGHT (1954) starring Bob Hope, Joan Fontaine and Basil Rathbone - an absurd costume farce which I find strangely funny and comforting in all its ridiculousness. 'Farfel, farfel, pippick."

The cast of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is pretty darn good. Besides the genius of Danny Kaye, we also have Virginia Mayo, Fay Bainter, Ann Rutherford, Boris Karloff, Thurston Hall and Gordon Jones who I always thought of as a kind of wannabe Jack Carson without Carson's gifts. Still, he's perfect here as the thuggish bully, wannabe boyfriend.

AND we also have - inserted into the movie for no particular reason except that Sam Goldwyn decreed it - The Goldwyn Girls. They were a pack of glittery, pulchritudinous females, of no particular beauty or charm who dreamt of big Hollywood careers as they paraded around in bathing suits and clingy evening gowns. Goldwyn was fond of pretty girls jazzing up his films.

Kaye surrounded by pulchritude.

Mayo in gear.

Co-star Virginia Mayo, for all her blandness, was a good foil for Danny Kaye (she starred with him in several movies), but in this film she is hampered by one of the more dreadful wardrobes ever foisted on a starring actress. 'Costume design' indeed. The hats alone are frightening enough, but the rest of her outfits - except for maybe the first few scenes in which she is decked out in a blue/green suit - don't enhance Mayo's charms in any way. The designer was Irene Sharaff who must have been having a bad day or maybe she had a grudge against Mayo.

At any rate, none of the this hampers anything much. It's Danny Kaye's movie from beginning to end and that's just how we like it. He is perfectly cast.

Fay Bainter as Mrs. Mitty, showing her normal dissatisfaction with her son, Walter.

Walter Mitty is a hapless, bumbling, milque-toasty sort of guy who, despite his age, still lives at home in the suburbs with his domineering mom (Fay Bainter). Mrs. Mitty treats her boy like an indentured servant, having him fetch and carry and run errands as if he has nothing else to do in life but see to her needs. And Walter goes along with it.

Walter works in Manhattan. So it's not as though he doesn't earn his keep. He is an editor for a pulp fiction publishing house run by blustering, overbearing Mr. Pierce played by Thuston Hall who made a career out of these roles. Of course it's no surprise that Pierce takes credit for all of Walter's ideas.

The one on the left is Walter's fiancee, Gertrude, another dissatisfied female. She shows her dissatisfaction by snapping. The one in the middle is Queenie. She shows her dissatisfaction by growling and snapping.

Nobody respects poor Walter. Not even his fiancee, a rather stupid girl named Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford). She treats Walter as if he is simple-minded and oh-so-very-fortunate to be marrying her. Her fuzzy little dog views Walter with contempt as well. As does family friend and would-be boyfriend Tubby Wadsworth (Gordon Jones). It's obvious from the beginning that Tubby has the hots for Gertrude and she treats him with coy indulgence, as she ought to treat Walter. It's equally obvious that Walter doesn't want to marry Gertrude and is only doing so to please his mother. Sad. 

Anyway, unhappy Walter spends a great deal of his time daydreaming. I mean, wouldn't you? Instead of standing up for himself in real life, he imagines himself the grand-standing hero of an imaginary life or make that, many lives.

The insouciant RAF commander, scourge of the Nazi Luftwaffe.

The keen-eyed riverboat gambler, unwilling to take advantage of a fool. But a man's gotta' eat.

The sharply dressed cowboy defending his woman-folk.

"Oh, Doctor, you were wonderful." The sensitive but brilliant surgeon trying not to look superior. "It was nothing."

The 'topakita, topakita, topakita' machine. You hadda' be there.

Anatole of Paris. I need say no more.

Whenever Walter daydreams, the film takes off into a kind of never-never land of hilarious fantasy sequences in which Danny Kaye shines as an RAF officer, a strutting cowboy, a brilliant surgeon, a French fashion designer, a riverboat gambler, etc. Needless to say, he is wonderful in each larger than life characterization.

And then his reality takes a sudden exciting turn when on one of his train trips, a fetching young woman sits next to him and drags poor, confused, protesting Walter into a 'real life' adventure.  Her name is Rosalind van Hoorn and she is on the run from spies. Something about a little black book - isn't that always the way?

P.S. Is that a spiderweb on her shoulder? Asking for a friend.

It takes a while for Walter to get with the program once he discovers that despite his dreams, he is not much of a hero in real life. Most especially since no one believes him when he tries to explain why he's acting even odder than usual. Besides there's that skulking doctor (Boris Karloff with his hair parted in the middle) who keeps trying to push Walter out a window.

The bad guys hypnotize Walter and try to make him believe that Rosalind is a figment of his vivid imagination.

Subsequently, Walter and Rosalind play cat and mouse with some bad guys who are after a treasure hidden by the Nazis, in the course of  which they come up against a really, REALLY bad guy nick-named, The Boot. Uh-oh. 

Is that hat really necessary?

But all's well that ends well as Walter gives The Boot the boot, becomes the hero of his own life, stands up to his mom, wins the girl of his dreams and gets a promotion at work.

What I find most comfortably comforting about THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is Danny Kaye's presence, his finicky Mitty persona and the actor's professionally sure grasp of the absurd. I also love the story's happy ending of course, where everything settles as it's supposed to. And I do so enjoy the idea of a character finding his true self through adversity even if the whole thing is nothing more or less than a goofy fairy tale. I like fairy tales, goofy or otherwise. I find them soothing.

Danny Kaye and his wife Sylvia Fine by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Salon: Happy Mother's Day!

Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853 - 1919)

English painter Bernard Fleetwood-Walker (1893 - 1965)

American illustrator Amos Sewell (1901 - 1983)

American painter Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926)

Contemporary American painter Brenda Joysmith.

Inta and Karlis Dorahas. I believe they were Latvian painters, but can find no definite attribution.

American illustrator Carter Goodrich.

English illustrator Shirley Hughes. via

Contemporary Chinese painter Xi Pan. via

Paintings in the spirit of the day. Happy Mother's Day to us all.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: PLOT IT YOURSELF (1959) by Rex Stout

Not really forgotten except maybe by a few poor unfortunates who are not familiar with the wonderfulness of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books. But I felt like talking about PLOT IT YOURSELF and here we are. Besides, visiting with Wolfe and Archie is always a treat.

I am a Rex Stout fan-girl and proud of it. For reasons that are probably too bizarre to be looked into too closely, I fell in love with Nero Wolfe when I was a teenager and just never fell out. I guess I've always found brains to be a kind of aphrodisiac.

Despite the dead bodies littered here and there, Rex Stout managed to infuse his books with a special sense of comfort. The only other author who came close was Arthur Conan Doyle. It's a welcome knack. I like to think that in some corner of my imagination, Nero Wolfe lives on with Archie Goodwin by his side. The brownstone on West 35th St. remains occupied and clients still arrive in need of Wolfe's help. Fritz Brenner still house-keeps and cooks the best omelettes in the world, the orchids still bloom in the large glass greenhouse on the roof and Theodore Horstmann, the grumpy orchid man is still puttering around up there.

The rest of the gang shows up when needed and Saul Panzer is still the best freelance detective in New York. Inspector Cramer remains head of Homicide Division and Rowcliff is still a horse's ass.

I reread my favorite Wolfe books continuously, slipping them in between whatever else I'm reading at the moment. I do the same with Agatha Christie and a few other writers whose work I love. They've become old friends and I can't just walk away from them. It's a way of life for me.

Okay, let's talk about today's book:

PLOT IT YOURSELF has a serious plot fault which is only discovered near the end even as Wolfe himself mentions it in passing. (You may spot it a bit sooner.) Despite that, it's premise is brilliant and far as I'm concerned, this come close to being a perfect crime set-up. (So perfect that I'm amazed someone hasn't tried it in real life.)

The case begins when Wolfe is hired to dig up who is at the bottom of an on-going and extremely clever plagiarism scam. Within the past four years there have been five major charges of plagiarism against five best selling authors. The latest one hasn't been paid off - yet. The approach is always the same as is the set-up. No connection has been found by investigators between the various would-be writers making the accusations. One case even went to trial, but the author lost and was forced to pay thousands to the accuser. Juries are inclined to believe that successful authors might easily steal ideas from those less successful.

The latest plagiarism charge is the fifth - exact same pattern as before. Enough is enough, The National Association of Authors and Dramatists and the Book Publishers of America wants Nero Wolfe to put a stop to it.

"...You said you know nothing about plagiarism, but I assume you know what it is. Of course a charge of plagiarism against a book or play is dealt with by the author and publisher, or the playwright and producer, but a situation has developed that needs something more than defending individual cases. That's why the NAAD and the BPA have set up this joint committee..."

One of the people at the meeting, Amy Wynn, is a first time best selling author who has just received a letter accusing her of plagiarism. The straw that has apparently broken the camel's back.

I won't elaborate on the ruse used in this oh-so-successful - dare I say - brilliant, ploy. It is revealed soon enough once you begin reading, but it's just such an incredibly clever bit of business that my admiration colors my judgement. Maybe you won't be as impressed as I always am.

However, just when you think that Wolfe has figured out a way to solve the thing, the murders begin. The first brought about by a fatal mistake; Wolfe and his clients unaware at the time that they are dealing with a desperate and ruthless individual. Well, I mean, who would know? This is the world of publishing and authors and books and hardly a world where cut throat antics are commonplace. Oh, wait - let me rephrase that. 

Never mind, you all get the gist, I think. The case is such that Dol Bonner (the only female owner of a private detective agency in New York) and her associate are called in by Wolfe. It's all hands on deck as Archie keeps stumbling over corpses and the case gets uglier and uglier.

"...I walked to his address and rang the bell and got no answer. Happening to have keys and rubber gloves with me, and thinking I might find something interesting, I went in and up to h is apartment. For three or four days he had been lying on a couch with a knife in his chest, and is still there. So is the knife. He was probably fed a dose in a drink before - " 

I stopped because he [Wolfe] was having a fit. He had closed his right hand to make a fist and was hitting the desk with it, and he was bellowing. He was roaring something in a language that was probably the one he had used as a boy in Montenegro...Fritz, entering with beer, stopped and looked at me reproachfully. Wolfe quit bellowing as abruptly as he started, glared at Fritz, and said coldly, "Take that back, I don't want it." 

"But it will do-"

"Take it back. I shall drink  no beer until I get my fingers around the creature's throat. And I shall eat no meat."

"But impossible! The squabs are marinating!"

"Throw them out."

"Wait a minute, " I objected. "What about Fritz and Theodore and me? Okay, Fritz. We've had a shock. I shall eat no boiled cucumbers." 

Fritz opened his mouth, closed it again, turned, and went. Wolfe, his fists on the desk, commanded me, "Report."

After several trips back and forth to upstate New York and various inquiries involving Archie, the gang, and the police of a couple of counties - he will keep discovering bodies - Wolfe finally figures out what's what. In a way, the whole thing is simple enough, but not so simple that it doesn't get more and more complicated. All because something which might have been done at the beginning wasn't done. Though, truth to tell, it would have been difficult to do the thing at the beginning because no one, not even Nero Wolfe, is prescient. Yeah, I know, I'm driving you nuts. Read the book, you'll find out what I mean.

PLOT IT YOURSELF is on my list of Top Ten Nero Wolfe books, so you're in for a treat if you've never read it and if you, like me, like a plot with multiple corpses. By the way, the Wolfe books do not have to be read in succession except for one caveat: do NOT read A FAMILY AFFAIR until after you've read ALL the other books - in fact, don't read it at all, you'll suffer less angst.

Okay, it's Friday once again, so don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Link to my Nero Wolfe Pinterest board.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CARDS ON THE TABLE (1936) by Agatha Christie

I am currently listening - for the umpteenth time - to CARDS ON THE TABLE narrated by Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in the original series with David Suchet as Poirot), and what a wonderful job he does. I am especially fond of his interpretation of both Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver. Listening to the audio version is just another way to enjoy my favorite Christie mysteries while I'm doing other things like cleaning, cooking or whatnot. Good while driving too but I don't drive anymore. I have a rule, though, in general I only listen to books I've already read. Don't ask me to explain, it has something to do with comfort, I expect.

In Christie's early and rather absurdly grandiose book, THE BIG FOUR, the number 4 had much to do with the story (as one would expect) and here, years later, in CARDS ON THE TABLE, the number 4 is front and center once again. Numbers, for Christie, held some importance in several of her books as did nursery rhymes - a recurring motif. 

This time though, it's not four evil geniuses of crime, but 4 possible murderers with 4 detectives hot on their trail. (So maybe you might say it was a book in which the number 8 resonates - but let's not be contrary.) This is the book that made me wish I knew how to play bridge. However without knowing beans about it, you can still follow the story quite nicely - it's self explanatory as it turns out.

By the way, this is not one of the great Christie books, but even the lesser Christies are not to be sneezed at. Plus the actual mystery is definitely intriguing as heck, not to mention, the double ending.

Poirot had hinted, in THE ABC MURDERS, that his preferred crime of choice was a quiet domestic murder - say, some people sit down to dinner or a card game and before the evening is out, one of them winds up dead. So here in CARDS ON THE TABLE, Poirot gets his wish.

Poirot and a certain Mr. Shaitana meet casually one day at an exhibition of snuff boxes at Wessex House. The two men make desultory conversation about collecting works of art and thereby springs an idea. Shaitana posits that murder too can be a work of art. He refers to murderers who haven't been caught as the true artists of crime.Uh-oh.

Mr. Shaitana, in appearance, is the sort of man all upright Englishmen desire to kick, so that tells you his type right away. He is a self-important dandy who slithers around town with a superior air, amusing himself at the expense of others. Hard for a guy like that to get on blithely in life without someone eventually showing their resentment.

"The whole of Mr. Shaitana's person caught the eye - it was designed to do so. He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect. He was tall and thin, his face was long and melancholy, his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet black, he wore a moustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial. His clothes were works of art - of exquisite cut - but with a suggestion of the bizarre...

...He existed richly and beautifully in a super flat in Park Lane.
He gave wonderful parties - large parties, small parties, macabre parties, respectable parties and definitely 'queer' parties. 
He was a man of whom nearly everybody was a little afraid.
Why this last was so can hardly be stated in definite words. There was a feeling, perhaps, that he knew a little too much about everybody. And there was a feeling, too, that his sense of humor was a curious one."

But as Poirot states several times in the book, 'Shaitana was a stupid man.' Poirot's point is that anyone who plays truth or dare with a murderer can't be very clever. Poirot also surmises that you can admire a tiger from afar, but you would not willingly step into a cage with one. Makes sense to me.

But Shaitana disdains middle-class emotions and refuses to see the danger inherent in inviting four murderers to dinner and bridge. Of the four, one is an older, sophisticated woman, one a young, naive woman, one a hale and hearty doctor, and one an adventurer who prefers life in the wild. All, we are given to understand have at some time in their lives committed murder - at least so Shaitana would have us believe. How he knows this we are never really exactly sure. But to add to the fun of the evening, he also invites the one and only Hercule Poirot, Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race (secret service) and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver to partake of his vittles.

Before you can say 'we told you so' - Shaitana, sitting quietly before a cozy fire, winds up dead while in the same room, four people play bridge and four others play in an adjoining room. Who did it? Well, obviously a bridge player in the room with the fireplace. But how, without anyone noticing?

We know from the beginning that at least one of the four dinner guests (for we excuse the four detectives as a matter of course) is a murderer, if not all four. Shaitana's ill-advised dinner table conversation drew attention to the subject of unsolved murders thereby putting somebody on guard. Somebody who, by dint of having killed before, is not afraid to strike again.

Superintendent Battle, to be fair, allows Mrs. Oliver (who, after all, is only a mystery writer) to take an unofficial hand in the ensuing investigation since she was in at 'the kill' so to speak. So we have four 'detectives' on the trail of four people, at least one of whom, we definitely know, is a killer.

This is yet another of Christie's character-based murder mysteries. All four suspects are, in a way, archetypes.This very point is made early on as the wheels of the investigation begin to move forward. Poirot, of course, is the first to notice and is able to help his theory along by studying the bridge scores and style of play of each player. He believes that character, in the end, will tell. Hardly anyone, according to Poirot, is capable of acting out of character, especially when it comes to something as dramatic as murder. By studying the characters' bridge game action, he draws some very cogent conclusions.

There are multiple points of view in this story and Christie has the knack of not making the reader resent the shifting back and forth. We learn as much as she wants us to and her sleight of hand, as usual, works a treat. Since all four suspects are apparently murderers, we have to figure out which one panicked or felt threatened enough to murder yet again. And then, of course, there is a further murder as well as an attempted one. Christie even sneaks in a little bit of romance.

All in all, a terrific book, if you accept the premise. My only quibble is that one doesn't really learn just how it is that Shaitana gets his info. To my mind, it's not enough that he was very observant and perhaps, intuitive about people's secrets. Other than that, a good time was had by all. AND we get to see the inside of Aridadne Oliver's flat with its riotous jungle bird wallpaper.

It's Friday, once again so don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE ISLAND OF SHEEP (1936) by John Buchan

This is the fifth Richard Hannay book and the last in what is really not so much a series as five individual adventures not directly interconnected. In other words, you can read them as you find them, or begin at the beginning with THE 39 STEPS. It all depends on how strict you are about these things.

Might as well state that I am a very enthusiastic John Buchan fan-girl (perhaps some of you already knew that) and simply cannot control my zeal for his work even if I know, intellectually, that many of his views are not politically correct seen from the perch of today.

Loving Buchan's work, anachronisms and all, I cannot be sensible about his faults. The truth of it is, that despite being a brilliant thriller writer with an extraordinary sense of color, setting and mood, he was a creature of his upbringing and class. (Certainly, not shocking that this would be so.) There is the implied 'class will tell' motif and stalwart white man stuff, but that's not that unusual, I think. for this time.

The heroes in Hannay's world were, in general, of a certain class and kept to the 'sporting' code of that class. They fought, when necessary, as soldiers, convinced of their superiority, did their best for King and country, and  behaved with gallantry towards women. Bound by honor, once they gave their word there was no turning back. In other words, they were of a type with the flaws and strengths of that 'type.' If you do not enjoy their company, then do not read John Buchan - but then you would be missing out on some thrilling (if not occasionally poetic) adventures.

Buchan was born in Scotland in 1875 and died in 1940. He was not only a wonderful and prolific story-teller but a life-long public servant (1st Baron Tweedsmuir) who became Governor-General of Canada.

Obviously Buchan lived through Great Britain's age of dominion and colonialism, enthusiastically so. But he also lived to see that dominion drawing to a close with WWI and knew, at the end of his life, that a second world war was on England's doorstep.

My favorite John Buchan books are the Hannay series and the Dickson McCunn books, most especially HUNTINGTOWER, a charmingly told, warm-hearted, beautifully put together adventure tale which I've read several times, always with the same enthusiastic sense of wonder and astonishment. Buchan's inventive story-telling genius is, to my mind, unequaled as is his gift for scene setting and mood.

In THE ISLAND OF SHEEP, Hannay is retired and living a quiet, idyllic life (though he suspects he may be getting decrepit) in the English countryside with his wife and adolescent son, a budding falconer. (There are bits of arcane knowledge about falcons and hawks peppered throughout at the beginning of the tale.) But as so often happens to men who have had all encompassing histories of overseas service and its attendant derring-do, people pop up out of the past now and then seeking Hannay out for advice and/or help, usually of a clandestine nature. And of course, there are always old friends and acquaintances from days gone by - memories and stories to share.

This book has everything one could wish for in a Buchan story. The author has the knack of stopping forward motion by having characters tell tales which become relevant to the current plot as we move along. Some may frown on this sort of thing, but in Buchan's hands, it makes for marvelous diversion - the stories are always of the thrilling sort and we understand that Buchan is not wasting our time but getting us in the mood.

It is a tale out of the past which sets the ball rolling in THE ISLAND OF SHEEP: a nearly forgotten oath of honor inspired by the sorts of physically rigorous crisis that characters of a certain stamp always seem to stumble into in books - this one  having to do with a deadly feud involving some very bad men, a Norwegian treasure hunter named Haraladsen and a fight to the death in the South African bush. That long ago oath pulls Hannay into yet another life or death adventure. This time out it will also involve his fourteen year old son, Peter John, an intelligent, intuitive boy, keen on bird lore and as I mentioned, a budding falconer.

(The treatment of animals in Buchan's books by the way, is respectful but unsentimental and not Disneyesque in the slightest. There's a touch of 'nature red in tooth and claw', but only in passing, not so much so that the animal lover blanches in horror.)

Back to the plot: The treasure hunter's grown son, Valdemar Haraldsen, has turned up in England in desperate need of Hannay's help - he is being tormented by some thugs with a murderous grudge against his late father.

Hannay, with the help of two long time friends, the resourceful and quick-witted Sandy Arbuthnot, Lord Clanroyden and Peter Lombard, now a plump, successful businessman rather than a man of action but willing to do his part, are drawn into a dangerous struggle to keep Haraldsen and his young daughter Anna from being destroyed by this vendetta from the past.

My kind of story. Especially when it involves a fantastic car chase along back roads in the English countryside, a hairbreadth escape in the dead of night, the Scottish highlands, travel to an island in Norwegian waters, colorful customs and lore, impersonations, youthful derring-do and near the end, enraged villagers brandishing knives. Ah, the good old days.

At first I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this Hannay thriller as much as I had Buchan's earlier books, but I did. It's a wonderful tale. I am so enamored of well written stories where friends band together to do the right thing come hell or high water.

And since this is Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Emails! The Emails! (No, I'm not talking about H.C.)

My email account been down for some time while, behind the scenes, I tried to cope. So if you've emailed me and haven't gotten a response, that's why. At the moment, I can't receive or (naturally enough) respond to emails. I have a temporary yahoo email account but don't want to use it for the blog - at least not until all hope is lost.

At some point my daughter (when she gets a free moment or two) will have to straighten it out. But for now, it's kaput.

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE CORPSE STEPS OUT (1940) by Craig Rice

Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig aka Craig Rice wrote 14 novels and was once so popular she made the cover of Time magazine. But she seems to have faded into obscurity over the years except to those of us who appreciate wacky mysteries from days gone by.

This is my second Craig Rice book after HOME SWEET HOMICIDE which was a delight.

Though I loved THE CORPSE STEPS OUT just a little less, it was still tons of fun - the setting, story and characters are totally different in tone and plot than HOME SWEET HOMICIDE. This is the second book in the breezy John J. Malone, shady Chicago lawyer, series (though the cover says otherwise).

Malone's crime fighting (more or less) cohorts are Jake Justus, press agent, and Jake's girl friend (soon to be wife if they can find a moment in the middle of a frenetic case) Helene Brand. She is a high society dame who drinks like a fish (they all seemed to do that back then - didn't they?) and thinks nothing of jumping right into the middle of a baffling murder mystery. How these people can drink all night and yet still manage to put two and two together to catch a killer is beyond me, but they do.

Jake Justus is currently press agenting the very glamorous Nelle Brown, a popular radio singer with her own show. It is the 40's, radio is still king and sponsors insist that entertainers adhere to the strictest morality, especially married entertainers - something Nelle Brown is apparently unable to do. Madcap Nelle indulges a very tangled personal life which it is Jake's job to untangle and keep under control.

Though she is married and loves her elderly husband, Nelle drifts from man to man kind of like in a pin ball game, always on the look-out for some mythical ideal. But people cover for her because she is well-liked and she is the headliner. Her husband, Henry Gibson Gifford aka Tootz, seems unaware of Nelle's proclivities and she wants to keep it that way - in some strange way they are devoted to each other.

However, when blackmail and murder rear their ugly heads, Nelle turns to Jake once more to get her out of this latest scrape. You see, there are a bunch of letters (letters - isn't that always the way?) which need to be found immediately if not sooner. Jake will also have to handle the fall-out from an awkward murder: the corpse of Paul March - Nelle's latest lover - whose dead body she had earlier discovered on the kitchen floor of their little apartment/love-nest.

Naturally, Nelle had thought it best to call her press agent and not the cops.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) when Jake turns up at the apartment later, the dead body has disappeared and the kitchen has been wiped clean of all murder traces.

Where oh where has the corpse gone?

"Why shoot a man, leave the body kicking around for an indeterminate length of time, and then come back, move the body and wash the floor?" 

"Maybe the murderer has naturally tidy instincts,"...

Down at the radio station, the show must go on. Until a second and then a third murder intervenes. But wait - who in the radio biz would kill a potential sponsor? Nobody there is THAT crazy.

This is a frantic hour by hour mystery of the sort made into movies (in fact a couple of these books were) in which everyone runs around, downing drinks to calm their nerves while trying to figure out what the heck is happening and trying to keep the cops from arresting someone they all like.

Yeah, it's all a wacky hoot, but also a good whodunit (though an experienced mystery fiction reader might figure out who the killer is by mid-book) and fun to read. The setting is the city of Chicago - mostly at night, the best time for chicanery. The characters are the sorts of people you would expect to find inhabiting this world of zany fast-talking, morals all askew, radio folk. The action is frenetic as our heroes chase about in those great clunky cars of the time. My favorite scene: a madcap middle of the night escape from a building on fire as the cops give chase - Helene driving for all she's worth, scaring the hell out of Jake. Ah, good times.

In the end, everything works out for the best that can be expected. The denouement is convoluted and hard to swallow, but what the heck, logic is not why we read these mysteries. Right?

I managed to get a copy of THE CORPSE STEPS OUT in a nice cache of Craig Rice books I found on eBay for four bucks. I even got the same fabulous cover shown above. That's what I call luck.

Okay, it's Friday, once again so don't forget to check in with Todd at his blog, Sweet Freedom  to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about this week. Our regular host, author Patricia Abbott, is having a medical procedure. Here's to a speedy recovery, Patti!

Craig Rice on the cover of Time.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: NOTHING VENTURE (1932) by Patricia Wentworth

This is essentially a very silly book, but that doesn't stop me loving it. I've read it twice and will probably read it again and again down the line whenever I need a bit of comforting and a reminder that occasionally love triumphs over evil in romantic hackneyed ways which I guess I'm fool enough to enjoy.

Mathew, stop reading here and go do some errands. This book is not for you, m'dear. Catch up with me next week. 

English author Patricia Wentworth is most noted for her Miss Silver series but NOTHING VENTURE is not a Miss Silver book, it is instead one of several stand-a-lones written in the early years. Wentworth was a prolific author, so there's lots and lots of books (some good, some very good, and some not so) to get lost in. These are all basically the sorts of stories which offer up sympathetic characters, a good (occasionally excellent) cozy type mystery and a romance somewhere in the mix. Books as comfort food - you've heard that before and you know what I'm talking about. Sometimes (especially these days) we just need a dose of comfort reading above all else.

There's little in this particular story-line that coincides with any reality, but that's okay.

Here we go:

1) The heroine is Nan Forsyth, a young (early 20's) English woman who is nobly supporting her too weary to work younger sister who is pining for the man she can't marry because none of them have any money.

Meh, you say? Well, yeah. But somehow we love Nan Forsyth because she is so beautifully self effacing in her nobility plus she is very gutsy. She is also a 'real' heroine in the sense that years ago she saved the life of the man she loves and has loved since she was 10 years old - saved him from drowning. But get this: HE DOESN'T KNOW IT WAS SHE WHO SAVED HIM. Through a series of occurrences he has no clue who she was and/or is once they meet again many years later where, coincidentally, she is working as a typist in his lawyer's office.

Next up Nan gets yet ANOTHER chance to step in and save the man she loves again - this time from losing his fortune according to an uncle's idiotic will. You know how that goes.

There are LOTS of coincidences in this story which is why it shouldn't work, but somehow it does - at least for me.

2) The hero - though it's kind of hard to call him that because he's such a blockhead - is Jervis Weare. He has no clue that the young woman he's been forced (well, more or less) to marry (to save his fortune) is the self-same young girl who saved his life once upon a time. In fact, though she keeps on saving his life (several times) once they're married, he prefers to treat her with disdain. After all, she married him for the money to help her sister marry her beau and set off for Australia to live happily ever after - Jervis doesn't know that's what she wanted the money for because Nan doesn't tell him. There's lots of stuff she doesn't tell him because after all, she's the noble heroine.

Anyway, Jervis scoffs at the very idea that anyone would want to kill him though attempts keep happening over and over and it would be obvious to a blind man that he's in some sort of danger. If only he would listen to his wife. Told you he was a blockhead.

But Nan loves him so we put up with him despite our raised eyebrows.

And when they go off to the requisite house in the English countryside, we worry.

3) There's a vamp of course. Her name is Rosamund Carew and she is the blond she-devil of the piece. She's the one who threw over Jervis at the very last minute causing him to marry the next girl who came down the pike which happens to be Nan Forsyth. The uncle's will insists he be married by a certain date or he forfeits the entire estate.

4) The evil bad guy is named Robert Leonard - we know he's a bad dude from the beginning so no spoilers here. This guy is has been up to no good for years, but so far he's failed dismally at killing Jervis. One would think he'd get a clue and quit trying, but he perseveres. Little does he know that he's up against a prescient warrior princess in the guise of a young married girl with a pair of fine gray eyes. She thinks nothing of thrusting herself between her hubby and danger. THAT'S what I love about her. THAT'S what makes the book work for me so very nicely. Even if that hubby walks around clueless and disparaging her warnings. She stands guard.

5) In addition, there's also a heaven sent pal named Frederick Fazackerley, the kind of friend who is always showing up in the nick of time. He's a journalist who travels a lot and had some sort of war related adventures with Jervis.

6) And, last but not least, there's a dog named Bran.

If you can get over the colossal thickheadedness of the hero and accept that the heroine has a finely tuned sense of danger when it comes to her hubby, you will, as I do, love this book. There's just something about it that engages and charms and makes you turn a blind eye to the coincidences and plot contrivances.

One last thing to love about NOTHING VENTURE is the moody mise-en-scene, which is superb. Dark and creepy doings in the night, a huge country house, the wind, the storms, the lightning. Not to mention that the heroine's feelings of encroaching doom are catching. In addition, there are several hairbreadth escapes from certain death and last but certainly not least, a devastating, torturous incarceration in a dank, slimy, underground cave with the tide rising and no escape. These are some wonderfully written chapters. When it came to terror and scene setting, Patricia Wentworth knew her stuff.

Despite a rather abrupt ending, NOTHING VENTURE is worth a good look, especially if you're in a certain sort of mood.

P.S. Nothing wrong with a book in which the hero is a dork and the heroine is the one who comes to the rescue. Kind of refreshing, actually.

Okay, it's Friday once again and time to check in and see what other forgotten and/or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. Todd Mason will be doing hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom, this week while author Patricia Abbott takes a needed break. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: HIDE MY EYES (1958) by Margery Allingham

Except for a rather abrupt end, this is a superb book from a writer whose work continues to surprise me. It is also the sort of book that could teach modern day writers who specialize in serial killer tomes, a thing or two or three. Can you imagine a serial killer book that doesn't relish violence? A book with no eviscerated corpses lying in their own gore, no disgusting visuals or sick humor - yet still a book which draws you in, captures you, frightens, thrills and gives you the absolute creeps? This is the brilliance of HIDE MY EYES.

 I was never a fan of Margery Allingham's work until very recently and I still cannot stomach Lugg and too much of Albert Campion is quite enough, if you know what I mean. But Allingham seems to have written several books in which Campion either doesn't appear or if he does, he's practically missing in action or lost his memory, i.e. TRAITOR'S PURSE which is my second favorite Allingham book so far. I tread timidly through the stacks of her titles and I'm happy to say, except for a dud or two, I have been rewarded for my timidity.

At this point, though, nothing I've read of hers, touches HIDE MY EYES. And yet, here is a book which almost flaunts the sorts of things I generally avoid.

1) A serial killer.

2) Multiple points of view including the killer's. (Geez, does this have to be done well to keep me reading. Because, you know, I generally DO NOT CARE what a killer's thoughts are.) The trick here is that we are privy to the killer's interactions, more than his thoughts. He is a sociopath who marches  to the tune of his own drummer, a cold-blooded creature masquerading as normal.

3) We know who the killer is almost from the very beginning. This, somehow, and unlikely as it sounds, just adds to the suspense of it all. It's a fascinating drip, drip, drip effect.

4) No hero to speak of.  Even the young romantic pair, a naive young girl and an inquisitive red haired chap of the type Golden Age writers created routinely to fill out the ranks, do nothing much to catch the killer (yeah, there's a bit of a slug fest at the end, but even that is anti-climactic). In fact, the young man never actually catches on to what's REALLY going on at all - he even hands the killer back his gun (!?).

With all this you'd think, well how good can the book be? I mean, look at that list.


Why does it work so very well? Maybe it's because Allingham outdoes herself in plotting the thing - the book flows almost effortlessly from first page to last. Couple that with her natural ability to set a dark and ominous stage and you get one of the best books of this type I guarantee you will ever read.

It begins on a dark and stormy night in London, the kind of night tailor made for murderous doings.A smallish old fashioned country bus in which two elderly riders sitting side by side can be seen, slows to a stop in an alley. The bus driver steps out into the night. The couple sits, possibly asleep, while a murderer goes about his stealthy business.

"He looked thirty or a very years older and his face still possessed some of the secrecy of youth. He was good looking in a conventional way, his features regular and his round eyes set wide apart. Only the heavy muscles at the corners of his jaw, and the unusual thickness of his neck, were not in the accepted fashionable picture. The most outstanding thing about him was an impression of urgency that was apparent in every line of his body, a strain and a determination like a climber's nearing a peak."

Later we visit nearby Garden Green in daylight, it is one of those quietly run down London enclaves, in this instance, the setting for a small, private museum full of bizarre artifacts. The  museum, which is attached to a house, is kept up by a nice gray-haired old lady named Margaret (Polly) Tassie. She does this as a tribute, in memory of her beloved late husband's eccentric collecting tastes.

Into this little house comes Annabelle Tassie, a lovely, young, country-bred thing who has been sent - in lieu of a married older sister - to stay with this distant relative in London. Mrs. Tassie is trying, in her own round-about way, to mend fences after a long ago family breach.

At Annabelle's request, Richard Waterfield, a family friend of Annabelle's, will be around to keep an eye on her should the need arise. He hasn't seen Annabelle in two years, but is not surprised when she writes to him - he is, however, surprised by how lovely the girl he knew as a teenager has become. Isn't that always the way?

Mrs. Tassie and her late husband Freddy never had children, but they did befriend an engaging young man whom they doted on as the years went by. Older now, he is still in the picture and shows up now and then behaving almost as a de facto son. Mrs. Tassie regards him with an indulgent eye. She wants to believe the best of everyone.

As I mentioned, this is one of the books in which Albert Campion makes very little impact since he is hardly on the scene at all and that's just as well. Mostly it's the physically imposing C.I.D. Superintendent Charlie Luke's investigation and he sets the ball rolling by calling in Campion for a chat.

"It was one of Charlie Luke's more engaging peculiarities that he amplified all his stories with a remarkable pantomimic sideshow which he gave all the time he was talking. He drew diagrams in the air with his long hands and made portraits of his characters with his own face."

Luke has a hunch about a murder. Though Campion isn't much taken with said hunch, despite Luke's explanations and digressions, he will get drawn into the mystery once a fortuitously placed phone call arrives.

There are several murders to link and a crafty killer operating with impunity to catch, and along the way, some sympathetic characters whom the killer may or may not harm as we suffer impotently wondering if, how, why and/or when. Midway through, there is one unsettling chapter in which Richard Waterfield, on a hunch of his own, shows up in the dark of night at a large, shadow-filled junk yard (I forget what they're called in England) blindly finding his way through a large maze of intimidating mounds of debris and ominous salvage. Not knowing what might be lurking in the shadows, he comes upon a tumble down brick shack with a sinister interior.

Atmosphere. Atmosphere. This books drips with atmospherics.

The tension builds from a whole host of seemingly ill-assorted events, all moving, bit by bit, towards a final denouement. Too much tension for me. I had to stop now and then and take anxiety breaks. The clues mount up and the dots are connected, but there is still no apparent proof - the careful killer remains elusive.

In the end, it is not really police work, except in a roundabout way, that precipitates a climax, it is the killer's own personality.

The ending, as I mentioned, is somewhat abrupt, but other than that, this is the sort of book you really do not want to miss if you are at all in the mood for a suspenseful thriller written by an expert. If so, drop everything and move this one to the top of your TBR pile.

Author Patricia Abbott, our regular Friday host is taking a break, so Todd Mason will be handling hosting duties this week at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MOTHER FINDS A BODY (1942) by Gypsy Rose Lee

Yes, THAT Gypsy Rose Lee - although some say it was actually Craig Rice who did the writing. At this point, I suppose it doesn't matter much one way or the other but for fun's sake, I'd like to believe it was Gypsy at the helm. In truth, I don't see why it couldn't have been, with maybe a little nip and tuck from her friend Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig aka Craig Rice.

* See J.F. Norris's  (PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS) comment/correction below stating that Rice herself denied she'd written the books. So that takes care of that. 

Regardless, this is a nicely done, amusingly refined mystery set in - among other nearby places of low repute -  a Texas trailer park where everyone does a whole helluva lot of drinking and smoking but very little 'carrying on.' In truth this is a pretty sanitized version of the life we like to imagine goes on in such tawdry places. (Naughty us.) Even the burlesque scenario is pretty much cleansed of any offending adjectives or adverbs.

Just a nice story of murder and mayhem among the denizens of a trailer park, a few of whom earn their living doing the hoochy-koochy in a g-string, accompanied here and there by ancient jokes and capacious quantities of liquor.

Lee wrote two books: THE G-STRING MURDERS and MOTHER FINDS A BODY. G-STRING was turned into the not entirely memorable Barbara Stanwyck film directed by William Wellman, LADY OF BURLESQUE. I mean, the film's okay, it's just not quite as much fun as it should have been - possibly because when you think of strip tease queens, you don't automatically think of Stanwyck. And Michael O'Shea is not my idea of a romantic leading man though he makes for an okay burlesque clown.

At any rate, I was lucky enough to find my particular copy of MOTHER FINDS A BODY on eBay. It came in a cache of other Rice mysteries which included HOME SWEET HOMICIDE, THE CORPSE STEPS OUT and a couple of others. Four bucks - can't beat that. I had no clue, by the way, that Rice was rumored to have written the Lee book, but was happy enough just the same, to receive my treasures.

Gypsy plays herself in the book. She's on her honeymoon after a quicky marriage aboard a romantic water taxi, to Biff Brannigan burlesque clown, currently unemployed. Also along on the honeymoon are Gypsy's Mama and a host of other hangers on tucked together inside a trailer heading east. Makes for a cozy but not very private sort of honeymoon. Especially when you add dogs, a monkey, a guinea pig and a dead body in the bathtub.

"A temperature of one hundred and ten, at night, isn't exactly the climate for asthma or murder, and Mother was suffering from a chronic case of both. She pushed the damp tight curls off her forehead and taper her foot impatiently on the trailer doorstep.

"You either bury that body in the woods tonight or you finish your honeymoon without your mother."

She meant it, too.

Mother is the sort of person who can be very tiresome on a honeymoon. When she's not behaving suspiciously, over-seeing Gypsy's life, having an asthma attack (sometimes accidentally on purpose) and/or mouthing off, she's insinuating herself into the middle of the mystery and using her charm and good looks (yeah, she's not a spring chicken, but she's still got the looks) to her advantage, regardless of the often scatter-brained circumstances. Like, for instance, when she sets the woods on fire. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

The mystery's storybook setting is a lovely honeymoon encampment on the outskirts of Ysleta, Texas, a backwater town full of sleazy dives and somewhat sleazier people. Though the local sheriff isn't a bad sort - he has a friendly eye on Mother's charms. And nearby is a dark wood full of trees and hiding places - handy for disposing of an inconvenient body.

There's lots of dashing about and finger pointing and catching up on old gossip when another one or two burlesque types turn up in a dive in town.

'Biff had always been the Casanova of burlesque. I took that into consideration when I married him, and we were usually running into his ex-flames. But I never expected to find one under a piece of cheesecloth in Ysleta, Texas! 

Biff stared at the dancer with his mouth half open. Then he grinned at her, finally at me. "It's a small world, ain't it?" he asked when she tossed her brassiere on the piano. 

I waited until she threw her G-string into the tuba to answer. "Indeed it is," I replied.'

The aforementioned dive is run by a little guy who has his own bizarre rules of nicety and oh by the way, there's also a doctor behaving strangely to be taken into consideration.

Though beguiled by Mother, the sheriff still casts a suspicious eye on Gypsy and Biff and the motley assortment of show-folk descending on his town. Somebody is guilty of murder.

"...Mamie came in. She turned down the bedcovers and began tidying up the room....."I don't know how your poor mother can stand all this," she said as she rolled up a pair of nylons. "All the drinking and swearing and excitement. No wonder she has asthma."

"Well, things aren't always as upset as this," I said. "Sometimes we go for a whole week without finding one single corpse."

That's before the second corpse turns up. And someone slips Mother an illegal substance in her asthma medication.

But not before we're treated to Dimples, another trailer tag-along, doing her quiver routine at the local strip joint.

Eventually, when the surprising identity of the killer is revealed, the extent of the author's obfuscation earns our grudging admiration. Good job. Darn good mystery. Lots of fun.

And since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers will be talking about today.