Friday, August 17, 2018

Friday's Forgotten Book: DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY (1932) by T.H. White

I am still capable of delight when I find a book that 'wows' me and wins me over completely and DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY more than wowed me the first time around.  So much so that I've re-worked my review from several years ago just to alert those among you who still might not be familiar with this oh-so-terrific book.

But first things first, I must thank Sergio once again over at TIPPING MY FEDORA for his wonderful review which introduced me originally to T.H.White's one and only mystery. Link. And Kate MacDonald's incisive review is also one to check out. Link.

I was familiar with White only as the author of THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING and other Arthurian books and such, but never even suspected he'd written a good old rip-roaring mystery - one I instantly fell in love with and hated to see end. (I even slowed down my reading to make the story last longer.) Yeah, I was hooked good and proper.

White's book begins like many English mysteries of that period with the discovery of a body - a Cambridge don dead in a locked room (yes, one of those). But then that's followed very quickly by the twin discoveries of  two other bodies - that of a student and a bit later, a school laborer named Rudd. Are the three murders connected? You bet.

Okay so we're off and running. But here's the switch: early on we know who the killer is. So I suppose this is what you'd call an 'inverted' mystery. I'm usually NOT a big fan of those. However, as we know, there's always an exception to any rule. If you're clever enough, smart enough and write well enough, you get away with the unorthodox.

Scotland Yard is on the case from the beginning in the form of Inspector Buller and he soon figures out who's responsible for the three murders. But here's the quandary: there's no evidence. (This is 1932 - forensics aren't what they are today.) The case has no future, Buller's superiors surmise that the professor killed the student (who knows why?) and then killed himself. We don't always know the motives of these things. Case closed.


But who slit Rudd's throat?


Frustrated by his inability to bring the crimes home to the actual killer and feeling guilty because he didn't save the third victim, Buller quits the force. He even goes so far as to contemplate murder himself in order to stop a madman whom he is convinced will kill again. Is there ever any justification for taking the law into your own hands? Especially for an ex-policeman? Questions Buller ponders and his conclusion may not be yours but it sure as heck was mine.

This all occurs after he's confronted the killer and told him what he suspects and the killer has admitted that yes indeed, he committed the heinous crimes and isn't it too bad that there's nothing Buller can do about it. Tsk. Tsk.

A dispirited and despondent Buller goes off to stay at an estate owned by friends of his. A brother and sister who are basically social recluses despite their wealth. The brother has served time in prison for a crime he did not commit but for which everyone (except Buller and a few others) believes him guilty.


But wait a minute, you're thinking, where does this Pemberley business come in? 

Well, the estate in question is THE Pemberley of Jane Austen's book (aha!), the brother in question is named Charles Darcy and his sister is Elizabeth - a family name (which readers of Austen will find familiar) handed down. BUT - and here's the catch, THAT'S the only link with anything Austen-wise and in fact there is no mention of it at all except that we're made to understand (almost as a throwaway) that the current Darcy brother and sister are descendants. So forget about that, it's not important though the house itself plays a HUGE part in the ensuing tale.

The brother rarely leaves Pemberley because of the ill-will directed at him by townspeople and residents of the area and he is chafing at the bit to do something, anything to take his mind off his troubles. When Buller shows up with his story of a murderer whom no one can touch though he has already killed at least three people - an outraged Darcy goes off half-cocked (without telling Buller) to Cambridge to kill the killer. Actually what he does is have a confrontation with him - just the sort of thing you must never EVER do - but when he leaves the murderer is very much alive. Uh-oh.

Though this is 1932, this episode in the story has a very Victorian feel to it, but what the heck. The important thing is that Darcy needs to bring himself to the bad guy's attention so that the rest of the story can take place. It's as good a way as any.

Back at Pemberley, a dismayed Buller tells Charles that his ill-advised meeting with a remorseless killer cannot have a happy end. But Darcy, brother and sister, scoff at this. The fact that the killer has already done away with three victims doesn't frighten them very much. They believe Buller is letting his imagination run away with him. HUH? I don't know about you, but three dead bodies impress the heck out of me.

Even Elizabeth (whom Buller is secretly in love with) thinks Buller is exaggerating the danger. That is until the first and then the second attempt on Charles' life.

Just for the wicked fun of it, the killer begins toying with his prey. Irksome shadows, strange noises, bumps in the night and other spooky manifestations make Charles regret his impulsiveness. It soon becomes obvious that the murderer is hiding somewhere on the estate, mysteriously managing to elude Buller, the Darcys and their loyal staff.

Pembereley and its inhabitants are under siege. The Darcys can't ask the police for help because they would not be believed - I wonder that Buller didn't have a friend on the force whom he could turn to, but apparently he didn't. They do however have a doctor friend who arrives to join in the hide and seek which takes up about three quarters of the book. This action is mostly centered at Pemberley itself as the killer has obviously found a way to maneuver in the dark, moving about the house like a spectre in the night.

White's style isvery much of the Wilkie Collins school with a dose of Christie and a touch of Dickson Carr (in the locked room part - the mystery of which is solved early on) but written at a much quicker pace. We know who the killer is but where the heck is he? How is he managing to elude his pursuers while never, apparently, leaving the house? The mystery deepens when another brutal murder occurs.

Those of you who think of Pemberely as hallowed ground will, no doubt, be shocked by all this. But all I can say is: get over it.

DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY is a darkly sinister but fast-paced tale which rattles the imagination - in a good and creepy way. I actually had to stop reading and take tension breaks during the heart of the action - it's THAT thrilling I loved it! Oh and of course near the end, Buller has to take on the killer single-handedly while Charles and Elizabeth's lives hang in the balance. It is to be expected, but it still works when done this well.

My only minor quibble is that the end when it comes seems a bit too hasty, but other than that, the book is pretty near perfect.

If this was going to be White's one and only mystery, it's just as well it was a doozy. But I still wish he'd written a few more.

Todd Mason is doing hosting duties this Friday at his blog, Sweet Freedom so don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are recommending today.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

F.Y.I. If you're a Michael Innes fan (or wannabe a fan), pay attention...

Michael Innes (1906 - 1994)

What kind of fan-girl would I be if I didn't shout to the world that a whole bunch of Michael Innes books are currently available as part of the Kindle Unlimited program Amazon has going on. Remember I told you that if you join you get the first month free then it's 10 bucks per month and you can cancel anytime for any reason - you know how that goes. But here's the thing, if you were going to buy say, two or three Kindle books in any given month, then do the math. It's totally worth the ten bucks.

Okay not every book on Amazon is part of the program (and titles come and go that's why it's best to strike while the iron is hot - so to speak) but enough are that it's worth it to me to sign on for now. And guess what - there are lots and lots of golden age mysteries currently available. 

At any rate, it's MICHAEL INNES, for goodness' sake. I've read almost all of Innes' books and I've mentioned about a million times that I'm a HUGE fan-girl. But if you're still not familiar with Innes or are intrigued but haven't been able to find his books or whatever - HERE'S YOUR CHANCE!!! 

Just thought I'd let you know and no I do not get a penny from Amazon for my unabashed enthusiasm for Kindle Unlimited. 

By the way, K.U. is how I'm currently going through my George Bellairs fixation.

P.S. Yes, yes, I know we would ALL love to have the actual hardcover (or paperback) books in our hands instead of just the electronic version, but sometimes these older almost forgotten writers are not available that readily. So to my mind, e-books are better than nothing. It's one way to remember and enjoy the work of these guys.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book:THE YELLOW ROOM (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart


I remember reading this a few years ago and even more astounding, I vaguely remember having that great feeling of discovery you get when you come across a terrific book where, maybe, you'd only expected a moderately good one. I found THE YELLOW ROOM on one of my kitchen bookshelves tucked behind some other things and truth be known, as usually happens, I'd totally forgotten I had it at all.

I'm currently in the mood to reread this so this is a reworking of an old post from a few years ago. It's possible I may be on the verge of a Mary Roberts Rinehart reading binge. Side by side with George Bellairs. Hey, it's how we roll around here.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was chairman of the board of the 'had I but known' school of mystery writing but that doesn't make her work any the less intriguing. I love her stuff. Though, admittedly, she is an acquired taste.

Rinehart's heroines are of their time, the early 50's, late 40's and they can, occasionally, be a little hard to take, but even so I still enter eagerly into these mid-last-century misadventures. Most of her leading ladies in distress are wealthy or nearly so - in the days when being 'poor' meant having one servant as opposed to four or five, so maybe we have to work a little at empathizing with their various entanglements which often include long hidden family secrets, misguided love and murder most foul. That kind of thing.

These women were of a type and belonged to a certain 'sphere' which, back in the day, they were perfectly willing to remain in. Not that I have anything against nice, Waspy, wealthy young women looking to defy their mothers, fathers, aunts, cousins or guardians by marrying the wrong sort, Although Rinehart's heroines were also occasionally well-to-do middle-aged spinsters which was a nice touch. Truth is a lot of Rinehart's plots tend to be somewhat similar and nearly always involve a mysterious house in some way or other. But so what, murder in a nice big creepy house with unreliable electricity is, in some strange way which I cannot exactly explain, kind of comforting. Ha! Rinehart made a niche for herself and excelled at what she did.

Her best book, I think, was THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE, which I've read several times over the years - and listened to on audio. (Her most famous book, I suppose, is THE BAT which was actually nothing more or less than a re-working of The Circular Staircase.) Though the actual protagonist in these two books is an older woman of the 'take no prisoners' variety who sets things in motion by deciding to rent a large summer house out in the country.  EPISODE OF THE WANDERING KNIFE with its odd title is another favorite Rinehart. But THE YELLOW ROOM is right up there in my top five.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wasn't the only one fashioning these sorts of talesThere was a certain type of woman writer working during this time - Mignon Eberhart was another, M.M. Kaye possibly (until she broke free with the splendid historical romantic adventure THE FAR PAVILIONS), who wrote pleasant women-in-peril books which contained mysteries, some of them first class, but always under the guise of good manners, country club outings, large summer houses or estates and stalwart young men, often with sun tans. These tales weren't meant, I don't think as anything more than pleasant diversions and sometimes I feel as if I should be wearing white gloves while reading them. 

One of the more interesting coincidences among these writers is that a lot of them lived good long lives. M.M. Kaye (1908-2004) just died a few years ago and Eberhart (1899-1996) and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 - 1958) were also long-lived. Maybe being a mystery writer is the way to go. Look at Agatha Christie. (1890 - 1976). Though of course, of all of them, Christie was the master.

THE YELLOW ROOM concerns the 'opening' of a large summer house in Maine by people whose families have houses in Newport and New York. The heroine is Carol Spencer, a young woman of  means, though she declares herself poor when down to only a couple of reluctant servants to help with throwing back the dust covers at Crestview. (Houses with names, a tip that you're not in Kansas anymore.) But I think Carol is being 'ironic' when she says this, so I decided she was okay.

The story takes place near the end of WWII when shortages are everywhere and there are few men left in villages and towns to do any work. For instance there is only one cop left in town, the chief of police - when it comes to investigating crime. Rations exist and everyone knows someone who is in the armed services either stateside or overseas. Society is changing and Carol's mother is one of those who refuses to believe they won't be able to afford 6 or 7 servants, as in the past. Carol, at least, is pragmatic. Within the scope of her worldview, that is.

Thankfully, her charmless mother is left behind at Carol's sister's house, while Carol is sent up north (kind of like being exiled) to open Crestview, the silent house near the sea, merely on the off chance, it seems, that her brother Greg, a medal of honor winner, will be wanting to stay there for a few days before his coming marriage. (Greg is in the country temporarily to receive his medal in Washington.)

Once Carol arrives with three woebegone servants in tow - I loved the complaints about there being no porters at the train station and having to carry their own bags. They manage to get up to the house, arriving on a chilly, hostile and deserted night. Nights that always exist in these sorts of places in these sorts of books. That's why I like them.

The first thing Carol and her servants do at Crestview, is find the dead, partially burned body of a woman in a closet upstairs. And the fun begins.

From then on, it's any body's guess as to what happens next which is one of the more intriguing aspects of this story. The plot never seems to go where you think it's going to. There are more suspects than you can shake a stick at - Carol's brother, older sister and various neighbors including the father of Carol's fiance. Don Henderson, the fiance, is missing and presumed dead, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. The various relationships are developed nicely and you do get a good picture of this isolated Maine community peopled mostly with women, the elderly and one or two younger men who are there only for a short time and for particular reasons and must soon move on, back to war. That is, if murder stateside doesn't get in the way.

There is a love story thrown in for good measure, between Carol and one of the men staying nearby recuperating from a war wound. That he appears to do mysterious work for the government doesn't hurt the plot any.

I have to say I found it hard to put this book down, so I kind of read it in one fell swoop. A nice surprise, considering too that the book has been languishing on my shelves for years. (The ending is a bit convoluted, but I think that was probably the 'norm' at that time. I've read many mysteries from that era with convoluted endings which often leave me shaking my head. But it's not an intolerable thing.)

Yes, I think it might possibly be time for a Mary Roberts Rinehart marathon of sorts. We'll see how it goes.

In the meantime, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. Todd will be doing hosting duties while Patricia Abbott is away. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book:CAPTAIN BLOOD (1922) by Rafael Sabatini

I can't help it. I love a good, florid, swash and buckle story. Always have. I've been hooked ever since I read Sabatini's THE SEA HAWK years ago. Rafael Sabatini is, to my mind, the king of this kind of idealized adventure tale full of swordplay and good manners.

Read it a few years ago and wrote about it then, so this is an updated review of a book I absolutely adore and can't recommend enough. 

You all know that CAPTAIN BLOOD was turned into an instant classic film starring Errol Flynn back in the day when swashbuckling was taken seriously. But the book is just as good as the film. In fact, it adds a certain level of richness and zest to the familiar plot. Rafael Sabatini, writing in the romantic, flamboyant style of the 19th century had a way with words that today might seem anachronistic or unintentionally humorous. But I suspend my disbelief, curb my 'sophisticated, modern' tastes and throw myself wholeheartedly into Sabatini's dashing world where men were men, honor was a big deal and swordplay was a given. True, women of a certain class didn't have much to do but cling, faint and stand around looking beautiful (really, how much could anyone be expected to do while wearing a cumbersome gown made of acres of fabric with all that bound-in-place underpinning - it was fortunate they could breathe) but one can't have everything. I still love these tales.

Rafael Sabatini (1875 - 1950)

I've read a bit about Sabatini's life and know that for all the success he achieved, he lived though two dreadful tragedies which no human being should ever have to endure:

His beloved son died in an automobile crash on his way back to their home and Sabatini came upon the crash site, his son's body on the road. But that's not all. The son of his second wife died in a plane crash right before his mother and step-father's very eyes, as he piloted his own plane. 

(Tell me the universe makes any kind of rational sense.)

The first class adventure stories Sabatini concocted pale in comparison to this horrific set of real-life coincidences, but maybe he was able to lose himself in his writing.

Captain Blood cover illustration by N.C. Wyeth

'Peter Blood, bachelor of medicine and several other things besides, smoked a pipe and tended the geraniums boxed on the sill of his window above Water Lane in the town of Bridgewater.'

So (deceptively quiet and bucolic) begins CAPTAIN BLOOD, a rip-roaring yarn of betrayal, action on the high seas, courtly gentlemen, beautiful women, pirate derring-do, battles to the death, sword play, torture, flowery words, love, unwashed bodies and all around earthy good stuff. 

A physician and gentleman living in 18th century England, Irishman Peter Blood is a good, honorable man bound to his duties. In the aftermath of a series of unfortunate events, he is unjustly arrested, brought to 'trial' and sentenced to be transported as a slave to the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

Once there, the extreme hardships he and his fellow slaves must endure turn them into wounded, broken men willing to do anything to escape. Most heinous is the grievous treatment they endure at the hands of the odious Colonel Bishop, the land baron who 'owns' them. Peter Blood alone has the 'easier' time of it, since he is a doctor and the island's gout-ridden governor takes a liking to him.

Bishop's niece Arabella (who, in sympathy, had insisted her uncle buy Blood at the slave market) takes a liking to Blood's stalwart demeanor. Though he is seen as nothing but a slave she comes to recognize his worth as a man and a gentleman. He, in turn, is taken with her beauty, kindness and high spirit. 

Soon, and by another series of occurrences - all splendidly written, I might add - Blood and his fellow slaves survive a surprise attack on the island by a blood-thirsty band of Spanish pirates who take no quarter and commit horrendous acts of brutality upon the defenseless islanders. (So, in this instance, the English are bad enough, but the Spanish are worse.)

These thrilling exploits are crafted by a master hand. I LOVED these pages as Blood and his band of ragged fellows not only survive but turn the tables on the rampaging Spanish AND the cruel Colonel Bishop. Hooray!

Once Blood, through cleverness, courage and determination is able to gather about him a fighting band of men - not to mention, a ship - he becomes Captain Peter Blood scourge of the Caribbean. 

Peter Blood is uneasy in his adopted 'trade' but aware of the necessity for he is, in truth, an outlaw - a man without a country. Yet this truth does not sit easy on Blood's shoulders. When he, by chance runs into Arabella Bishop again after three years of plying his trade in the Caribbean, he is stung when she calls him a 'thief and a pirate.'

'Captain Blood...did not hear anything save the echo of those cruel words which had dubbed him thief and pirate.

Thief and pirate!

It is an odd fact of human nature that a man may for years possess the knowledge that a certain thing must be of a certain fashion, and yet be shocked to discover through his own senses that the fact is in perfect harmony with his beliefs. When first, three years ago, at Tortuga he had been urged upon the adventurer's course which he had followed ever since, he had known in what opinion Arabella Bishop must hold him if he succumbed. Only the conviction that already she was forever lost to him, by introducing a certain desperate recklessness into his soul, had supplied the final impulse to drive him upon his rover's course.

That he should ever meet her again had not entered his calculations, had found no place in his dreams.'

How Peter Blood's daring exploits serve to shape the man and the story and how it all contrives to make for a happy ending well, you will have to read CAPTAIN BLOOD to find out. If you're in the mood for a 'thumping good read', then this is the book for you. 

Rafael Sabatini: too good to be overlooked or forgotten.

Todd Mason is doing hosting duties for Patricia Abbott 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, July 27, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CAT OF MANY TAILS by Ellery Queen (1949)


This is a re-working and lengthening of a post from nine years ago. I might be doing this (re-working older posts) for the next few weeks as I happily read my way through as many George Bellairs books as I can find. Yeah, yeah, I'm in the middle of an author frenzy. Haven't had one of those since my Ngaio Marsh marathon of a few years ago. I get like this sometimes. But I wouldn't want to bore you by writing about Bellairs constantly, hence my mining of long ago posts. (I'm also currently reading a bunch of romances - happily ever after stuff which, again, would bore most of you to tears.)

Confession: I've always had a problem with the Ellery Queen books in general - reason why they are not on my top TOP list of favorites - and some of this stems from the two fictional characters themselves. Ellery Queen is a brilliant detective/writer who, along with the occasional help of his dad - NYC Police detective Inspector Queen - solves all the crimes that the regular police can't. But somehow - as written - these two are just not very interesting people in and of themselves. In truth, Ellery and his cop-pop are a rather boring, fuddy-duddy 'couple'. (Ellery's angst as the series progresses is actually cringe-worthy.) So it's fair to say that the crimes in these stories are meant to be more important and/or interesting than the detectives who solve them. I won't quibble with the idea. But for me, there usually has to be some sort of connection or affection for the main character(s). Otherwise, I'm only reading for the puzzle. Not that that is, necessarily a bad thing - hey, it worked for John Dickson Carr - but it's just not what lingers for long in memory. (By the way, I was never all that fond of the tv series, either.)

A quick word of expo: Ellery Queen, author of the Queen books was the pseudonym of writers/cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They also founded the Ellery Queen magazine. Within the fictional stories, the main character is named Ellery Queen, who also edits the Ellery Queen magazine. A bit confusing, but you get used to it.

Okay, so having said that, I still enjoyed CAT OF MANY TAILS. It's a book I thought I'd already read when I settled in for a re-read a few years ago, but turns out I hadn't.

CAT OF MANY TAILS is an entertaining puzzle set in a frenzied, fearful NYC where a serial strangler has run amok. The city is in the middle of a heatwave, everyone is sweating, frightened and impatient. The newspapers run amok. The cops fester against dead ends.The NYC of the 1940's/50's is the New York I grew up in, so I do retain affectionate memories of Manhattan at that time.

'August 25 brought one of those simmering subtropical nights in which summer New York specializes. Ellery was in his study stripped to his shorts, trying to write. But his fingers kept sliding off the keys and finally he turned off his desk light and padded to the window.

The city was blackly quiet, flattened by the pressures of the night. Eastward thousands would be drifting into Central Park to throw themselves to the steamy grass. To the northeast, in Harlem and the Bronx, Little Italy, Yorkville; to the southeast, on the Lower East Side and across the river in Queens and Brooklyn; to the south, in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Chinatown - wherever there were tenements - fire escapes would be crowded.....The parkways would be bug trails. Cars would swarm over the bridges - Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensborough, George Washington, Triborough - hunting a breeze. At Coney Island, Brighton, Manhattan Beach, the Rockaways, Jones Beach, the sands would be seeded by millions of the sleepless turned restlessly to the sea. The excursion boats would be scuttling up and down the Hudson and the ferries staggering like overloaded old women to Weehawken and Staten Island. 

Heat lightning ripped the sky, disclosing the tower of the Empire State Building.....'

I remember those times - air conditioning was in its infancy (except in ice cold theaters and some restaurants). We hung out on the stoops or the fire escapes. All we had were fans - if we were lucky. Yet, somehow we survived. That's the sweaty setting for this particular tale of serial murder.

The stranglings in CAT OF MANY TAILS are particularly ugly crimes, especially since we get to know a bit about the victims BEFORE the murderer strikes. (It always appears worse when you have something invested in the hapless victims.) The crimes appear to be conscienceless acts of random brutality. But are they? Is there a connecting link between the nine victims? The police are stumped. The press revels. The city is in a panic. The killer lurks. Obviously, the detecting brilliance of Ellery Queen is called for. Despite his on-going angst and protestations (brought about by the case in a previous book), the brilliant sleuth/writer is convinced to take on the job of special investigator, but the stranglings continue.

Anyone who is familiar with the workings of mysteries and their plotting will (by the middle of the book) figure out who is more than likely to be the culprit but still, that doesn't spoil the fun. Oh well, excuse me, death by strangulation isn't exactly fun - but you know what I mean.

Now if only the book wasn't weighed down by the psychological (and to my mind, totally unnecessary) mumbo jumbo extremes of the last couple of chapters, all would be wonderful. As it is, the book succeeds DESPITE the last bits of psycho mumbling. CAT OF MANY TAILS still manages to be a terrific book. Though the tortuous way that Ellery goes about finding the truth in the end is truly fatiguing. 

Still, I recommend the book. It brought back the world of 1940's/early 50's New York City. A funny thing: when reading this, I saw EVERYTHING in black and white. (Possibly influenced by my own few remaining photos of the time.) It was a b/w world, I suppose, until the advent of color film. But for me, Ellery Queen seems even MORE b/w than most. Something in the prose, most likely.

I've stopped reading Ellery Queen for the most part because A) wasn't crazy about the sleuth to begin with and B) the books began to wear me out. All that philosophizing, all those multiple endings...

Having said that, CAT OF MANY TAILS is definitely worth a read.

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

Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH IN HIGH PROVENCE (1957) by George Bellairs


I know, I know, I shouldn't be talking about yet another Bellairs book so soon after having posted about him a couple of weeks ago. But - what the heck - I had to write about DEATH IN HIGH PROVENCE simply because I LOVED it to pieces and didn't want any of you to overlook this gem. Forget everything else, get out your Kindle and buy this book immediately. Yes, I am very high on Bellairs.

All I can say first and foremost is that reading this damn fine mystery felt as if I'd traveled to Provence AND solved a murderous plot all at the same time. George Bellairs can visually create ambience as very few writers can - I've mentioned that before. But here in this particular book, he excels at the visuals. The touch, the feel, the colors, even the smell of Provence is brought to vivid life. I've never been there, but now I almost feel as if I have. Yeah, I'm being fanciful, but bear with me.

Chief Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard and his wife are traveling unofficially in the Provencal region of France at the behest of Spencer Lovell, an English cabinet minister. Lovell is not satisfied with the official results of an investigation into the deadly motor accident which took the lives of his brother Christopher and his wife, Elise. The minister suspects a cover-up by the local French authorities.

I'm gushing, I know, but George Bellairs has the essential knack of being able to pick the reader up and placing him (or her) on the scene. Soon enough we're in the French countryside alongside Littlejohn, sights, sounds and smells all around us. True, Bellairs is wordier at description than Agatha Christie whose knack for setting a scene with very few words none can match - but sometimes you need the words and here they are perfection.

They had driven through Meyrargues and Peyrolles and at the defile of Mirabeau the landscape changed again. There, the waters of the Verdon, joining the Durance, seemed to bring with them a kinder breeze from the uplands of High Provence, which now came in view. There was a faint scent of lavender and thyme on the air, and the planes, oaks and poplars on the roadside gave them welcome shade. They turned right at a by-road for which they had been watching. A new signpost marked the way behind them, Peyrolles; ahead, St. Marcellin, Ginasservis. They climbed gently through the groves of lemons, olives and almonds, and skirted the deep-rooted trees of the Forest of Cadarache.

Another deserted village perched high on the rocks to the left, and then a descent by a steep, winding road. The village of St. Marcellin came upon them suddenly, set in a background of hills, with mountains beyond. Behind, they had left the sun-tortured river valleys with their clear brazen skies; ahead lay the distant peaks, over which hung great clouds like burning walls, the sun lowering in the west illuminating them like the reflection of a vast fire.

Upon arrival in the small and very insular village of St. Marcellin, the Littlejohns are fortunate enough to discover a small but charming inn. There is no running water but the tin bathtub can be hauled up and down the stairs to their room and hot water brought up in various containers by the accommodating landlady and her brooding, pipe smoking hulk of a brother.

Beneath an avenue of plane trees stood a fountain, a tall column of stone rising from a plinth, with four jets emerging from copper pipes and splashing into a large basin set in the earth below. Behind the the fountain were two iron tables with iron chairs and, visible through the trees, an inn. Restaurant Pascal. Marie Alivon. The door stood open and a screen of beads hung in the doorway. Advertisement plaques on either side. Byrrh...Biere D'Alsace...Tabac...A tall, narrow, three storeyed building with a cream washed frontage, green-painted iron balconies on the first floor, drawn green shutters keeping the sun from the upper rooms. To the right of the door on the ground floor, a broad shallow window with a window-box full of red and pink geraniums so strong and thriving that they formed a screen masking the interior.

...Time seemed to stand still in St. Marcellin. The children had dispersed, the streets were empty, and nobody seemed interested in the arrival of strangers....The only other signs of life were the sounds coming from unseen places. Rhythmic blows of a hammer on an anvil in a smithy somewhere, the sound of a flail on a threshing-floor, the hum of a motorcycle on a distant road, the fresh splash of the water-jets at the fountain. The air smelt of stables, hay, and apples stored in lofts.

The church clock struck four on a cracked bell. Nobody about, and yet you felt that, from behind the closed shutters of the houses, you were being watched.

Sure enough, as the Littlejohns settle a bit gingerly into French country coziness, the sinister secrets of the village begin to unravel. And what secrets they are. It is not only the deaths of Christopher Lovell and his wife that are under suspicion, but the death too, before the war, of the last Marquis de St. Marcellin, supposedly a suicide. Everyone in the village is afraid to talk since once they do talk bad things seem to happen. And nobody wants to earn the current Marquis' displeasure. The sinister influence of the current Marquis has everyone in the village under his despotic thumb while he sits, like a spider at the center of a decrepit, crumbling estate, selling off bits and pieces down to the last wine bottle, as the family fortunes slither into nothingness.

The entire sequence of tragic events is eventually sorted out by Littlejohn, but not before an attempted murder, two disappearances and yet another murder as the general wretchedness of a slowly dying village is laid bare. Not a fun place to live, for sure. But at least the food is decent.

"I could give you a nice dinner, too. A well-fed capon, and there are truffles from the plateau of Riez...They are very well-known and are good...And there are mountain strawberries.

...The meal already described by Marie Alivon was waiting for the Littlejohns in the private room/

An appetizing hors d'oeuvre of tomatoes, sardines, fillets of herring, black olives and sausages, served with a tempting flavour oil and garlic. The chicken and the truffles from Riez were cooked to perfection, and followed by mountain strawberries in red wine, with whipped cream in a dish. Then goat's milk cheese, flavoured with thyme, appeared. They drank red wine from a carafe which had been placed there without ordering. A full, kindly wine, whose potency soon made itself felt."

A terrific mystery, great food and a trip to Provence, all without leaving your chair. Can't beat that.

This Friday, Todd is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott's usual Friday roundup at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: BEHOLD, HERE'S POISON (1936) by Georgette Heyer


One of Georgette Heyer's more entertaining Golden Age country house mysteries featuring her usual stable of rich or semi-rich English lackwits. While not as engaging as Heyer's Regency Romances, her mysteries are well worth looking for. Had she written more than just a few, I think she might at some point, have achieved mystery immortality. Not that everything she wrote was gold, but on the whole, most everything she wrote sparkled.

BEHOLD, HERE'S POISON is topnotch, plotting-wise, ambience-wise and character-wise. Though there is no deep characterization and most of the characters are not exactly likable - they are close enough to parody to be amusing. Plus the unlikely 'hero' Randall Matthews, despite having a slightly slithering serpent-like manner, is hilariously intriguing when he's not being mysterious. Almost everyone in this cast of characters is eccentric in some way or other and most are the sorts of people one enjoys laughing at. Oh, okay, okay, I do have a soft spot for Randall. Big deal.

Now and then, it's fun to sneer at nobs with money.

The Mathews are a repellent family. Even the young heroine of the piece is not someone to root for - the most one can say for her is that at least she's not as annoying as the rest. Stella is an ingenue whom one dreads seeing out in the world on her own. She is pretty much hapless, as is her brother Guy who, unlikely as it seems, is an interior decorator - there is a slight hint that he and his partner in the biz are more than partners in the biz but one never knows with books written at this time. At any rate, he is in danger of being shipped off to South America (?!) because the head of the family, Gregory Mathews, is fed up with Guy's constant need for money and besides - interior decoration? But the kids' mom, Zoe, a dragoness, is not about to let her baby boy be shipped off anywhere. Uh oh.

 Not the sorts of people one would want as friends unless one likes people who are constantly sniping at each other and worse, serving unpleasant meals like mutton and rice pudding for lunch. I mean, ugh. 

But said head of household, Gregory Mathews, is already dead as the story opens, though we don't know it until the maid finds his body, stiff and cold one morning as she goes about her duties. Naturally enough, the clan is thrown into an uproar.

Not that anyone really mourns the very unpleasant Gregory. But still, appearances must be kept up.

Gregory's oh-so-finicky elder sister Harriet is thrown into more of a tizzy than usual. A miserly spinster who, despite there being no necessity for it, counts and begrudges every penny spent on the upkeep and management of the family house, she is given to sobbing hysterics and serving particularly dreadful meals. And oh, by the way, this bizarre pinch penny-ing will be her undoing, but I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Also living in the house is Gregory's widowed sister-in-law, Zoe the dragoness, a tiresome passive aggressive sort of woman who spends her life 'languishing' in fanciful airs and graces and speaking in sanctimonious 'quotes.' The death of her brother-in-law gives her every opportunity to expound and emote then rush off to London to buy funereal clothing. Her grown children - the aforementioned Stella and Guy, roll their eyes at their mother's heavy duty pretentions but will defend her to the death if need be, especially when it looks as if she's up to no good.

The dead man's married sister, Gertrude, a pontificating mass of a woman whose husband Henry goes about in terror of her sharp tongue arrives on the scene and declares she will not accept that Gregory died of a stomach disorder as per the local stick of a doctor, Deryk Fielding who happens to be engaged to Stella. Gertrude demands an autopsy.

...and sure enough, the dead man was poisoned.

Inspector Hannasyde is on the case.

But with snakey but well-dressed cousin Randall (who is now head of the family upon Gregory's termination) insinuating himself into the investigation and causing minor headaches for the police, skeletons who had been lurking in several closets will be revealed not to mention that a second inexplicable death will throw the case into a tailspin. In the end, it's a miracle that the killer is finally flushed out into the open. More or less.

"Oh, Deryk!' murmured Stella, 'we're a dreadful family."

Sad, but true.

And it's Friday once again - time 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, June 29, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS (1944) and DEATH IN THE NIGHT WATCHES (1945) by George Bellairs


Not one but two books by George Bellairs, both lively and entertaining British Golden Age mysteries. Both currently available (alongside a whole host of other Bellairs books) on Kindle. Bellairs was the inducement for me to join Kindle Unlimited (first month free then ten bucks a month) because it's a cheap way to get to read not only Bellairs, but Gladys Mitchell and a bunch of  older mystery writers who may not be readily available. I know a lot of people say it's not worth ten bucks, but yeah, it kind of is. I mean, if I read only three books a month it's worth it. But I read quickly so I expect I'll be over-indulging in my drug of choice: reading - more than getting my money's worth. And I can always quit at any time.

Back to Bellairs:

On the whole, there are more pluses than minuses when it comes to George Bellairs. I've only just recently begun reading his stuff and so far so pretty good. Though his detective, Inspector (later Superintendent) Littlejohn is not exactly Mr. Personality and he never really comes to life at least over the few books I've read so far, but in truth, the same can be said for several of the Golden Age detectives, so no big deal. Let's move on.

THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS

I'm inclined to pick up books with titles that begin with 'The Case of The....' or 'The Mystery of ...' or 'The Adventure of...' Can't help myself. So I picked this one - so to speak - when it showed up on my Kindle recommendations. I'd read a couple of Bellairs' books previously so I kind of knew he was a good writer of puzzlers. So no big surprise that I enjoyed THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS.

The Seven Whistlers is the name of a small antiques establishment catering mostly to tourists in a picturesque English seaside town. The shop is run by a very odd duo: Messrs. Grossman and Small aided and abetted by a bleached blond by the name of Mrs. Doakes who is, apparently, no better than she should be. But something very fishy is going on at The Seven Whistlers.

What I had forgotten is that George Bellairs has a wicked sense of humor and it shows to advantage in this tale of a body found in an antique trunk (I call it a trunk even if it technically is more of a large decorative wooden box.) The intriguing thing is this particular body turns out to be that of Mr. Grossman - proprietor (alongside his slovenly partner, a large man named Small) of The Seven Whistlers. Mr. Grossman sold the aforementioned antique box to a Miss Selina Adlestrop of Hartsbury on the last day of her holiday in Fetling-on-Sea. The box to be shipped by train.

What follows is one of the more hilarious body discoveries in the history of crime fiction. I can say no more - except this alone is worth the price of the book.

The solution is fairly obvious around two thirds in after the second death, but as I mentioned, that didn't dampen my enthusiasm.


DEATH IN THE NIGHT WATCHES

England during WWII. Blackout regulations and other strict measures.This is the second Bellairs book I recently flew through - attracted by the setting. Bellairs is excellent at creating ambience - something I especially like in these sorts of long ago mysteries. Come to think of it, I like good ambience in modern day stuff too - though easier said than done.

You know the harm that a pesky will can cause - especially a pesky will in a Golden Age mystery. And you know how old moneyed codgers in these mysteries are always making imprudent marriages much to the horror of their own grown-up children - adults with expectations. (Nothing more dangerous than adults with monetary expectations.) This is the case when the will of William Worth is read, a will which practically begs for the murder of his widow - a woman younger than Worth's own children. Ah, families.

The Worths are an especially cringe-worthy lot. Suspicion, sniffy snobbery and resentment fester and, as expected, it seems as if someone is, indeed, trying to get rid of young Mrs. Worth.

It comes as a surprise then when it's the eldest son,  Henry Worth, the unpopular managing director of Worth's Engineering Works, who is murdered instead while on firewatch (there is a war on after all) at the factory one evening. Who could have done it? One of the surly laborers? Or looking closer to home - there is that pesky will. But why Henry? It's the stepmom after all who controls the dough.

There are several suspects for Detective Inspector Littlejohn to investigate:  Henry's artsy-fartsy brother, a sister who has married an obsequious French Count, the young stepmother who, conveniently, had been carrying on an affair with Henry under the nose of the contriving elderly hubby (who is already dead and buried as the novel opens). Or could it have been the stepmom's soldier brother who shows up rather surreptitiously one evening? Or how about the nanny, an elderly family retainer with suspicions, who has her own room upstairs at the manor? Or is it possible that the killer is someone who objected to Henry's many romantic dalliances? An outraged hubby or daddy?

Not the greatest mystery ever written, but I enjoyed it precisely because I was in a lazy mood and not looking for anything to wrack my sun frazzled brains in what has to be one of the hottest summers I've ever had the misfortune to live through.

I'm currently reading DEATH SENDS FOR THE DOCTOR, another Bellairs book in which ambience (this time a creepy sort of English town square where everybody overlooks everybody else and everyone knows everyone's business and there's a skeleton in a well which needs explaining) is even more important and liking it very much. I guess I'm on a Bellairs bender for now.

Hey, 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, 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.