Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) by Rufus King

This book by an author foolishly forgotten has everything you'd want in a mystery and then some. I began reading - not really knowing what to expect - and didn't/couldn't stop until I was over half way through and the only reason I did finally stop was that is was four in the morning. I am now proposing we start a Rufus King Fan Club - with myself as president.

Rufus King (1893 - 1966) was an American mystery writer born in NYC and already seven years old at the dawn of the exciting twentieth century with its influx of new-fangled inventions sprouting right and left and two World Wars on the horizon. He lived long enough to see the advent of most of what we take for granted today. In his time, King was as famous and sought after a writer of whodunits as Ellery Queen and the rest of the American Golden Agers. But have you ever heard of him? Probably not. I had only vaguely done so and have just recently read this one book of his - the others being a bit pricey online.

First a bit of bio from Mike Grost at gadetection:

He [King] was educated at Yale, joined the army in 1916 and later went to sea as a wireless operator. During the 1920's he originated the upper-crust detective Reginald De Puyster in a series of magazine stories. A more famous character, Lieutenant Valcour, appeared in his first novel, MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1929). A further series centered on Stuff Driscoll, a criminologist in a sheriff's office. He [King] also wrote humorous plays with detective themes.

MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) is one of several sea-faring whodunits written by King and features his laconic NYC cop, Lieutenant Valcour. This time out, Valcour is on board the Eastern Bay's scheduled voyage from Bermuda to Halifax, on the trail of a murderer whom he suspects is on board. Well, you know, this sort of mystery - murder on board ship - is like manna from heaven for me. I fairly leaped into the book. Don't you love when that happens?

The plot:  A chap named Gant, the ship's wireless operator (and incidentally, the ONLY crew member on board who knows how to use the necessary contraption), is ruthlessly murdered after receiving an important message - from NYC police headquarters - which would have given Lieutenant Valcour an eye witness description of a killer. Since of course the killer has destroyed the initial message, Valcour is in a quandary, with several suspects among the passengers and even, perhaps, the crew.

Among the passengers is the enigmatic Mrs. Poole, an older woman in stubborn defiance of her true age, honeymooning with a new and sexy young hubby (her fourth or fifth) whom she's picked up on a Bermuda beach. Though in reality she is only as young as surgery and make-up can make her, she is rolling in dough and, as we know, good looking young men without inclination to earn a living, must have means.

As Valcour surmises, the mystery centers around Mrs. Poole and her convoluted family history. In New York, the initial murder victim was Poole's first husband, an event which does not seem to upset the lady over much.

The other passengers on board the Eastern Bay - an eccentric bunch - are several young men of various attitudes and looks, a couple of spinster sisters, an elderly husband and wife, and a guy who wears high heels. Now I don't know about you, but high heels on a man - even a man obviously meant to be gay, seems a bit much. I can't remember when high heels were ever worn with men's clothing (by men, that is) even way back when. But I'm assuming the author means men's shoes with a raised heel? Not, I assume, women's pumps. I was never sure. But anyway, it's only a minor point. And the guy who wears 'em makes no apology for this idiosyncrasy, so it's soon forgotten and/or accepted as the killer strikes yet again.

Note: At one point in the book, Valcour must decide if the murderer is a woman masquerading as a man or a man masquerading as a woman. Hint: Mrs. Poole had an 'adopted daughter' who she'd tired of and given away when the child was nine years old, never to be seen or contacted again except through yearly drafts from lawyers.

Sexual identity is the unusual main theme of MURDER BY LATITUDE and Rufus King handles this very well. He makes no secret of the fact that Gant, the radio operator, had a close pal among the crew, a pal who is grieving and hoping for revenge. With his help and that of the Eastern Bay's voluble captain, Valcour will use his wiles to ferret out a canny killer who seems always to have luck on his side.

I am duly smitten with Rufus King and Lieutenant Valcour and hope I've convinced you to try this book which is one of the easiest to find online for hardly much money at all. Abe Books is currently my 'go-to' for 'cheap' vintage and I always think if I can't find it there at reasonable cost, it probably doesn't exist. I'm not talking about collectible copies, of course - just decent readable ones.

And for another look at MURDER BY LATITUDE, from another Rufus King admirer, check out The Passing Tramp's earlier review.

Also, we musn't forget John at Pretty Sinister Books, who is also a Rufus King aficionado. Here's his review of King's MURDER MASKS MIAMI, Lieutenant Valcour's last case.

And Vintage Pop Fiction's review of King's, 'Very highly recommended'

Something New

I've begun - with this year's list - to add stars to the books I read during the year. So if you'd like to see how I rate what I read, just check out the 'Pages' list on the left hand side of the blog under, 'Books Read in 2015'. Since I don't know how to make cute little stars, I'm just writing it out in a different though easily legible font. You'll get the idea.

But keep in mind that as a rule I generally like most books I finish or else I wouldn't finish them. And, of course, I don't list a book unless I have finished it. It's just my own pedantic way.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan

It's very early days yet, but any book I read from now on will have to go a mighty long way to thrill and enchant me in quite the same way as John Buchan's HUNTINGTOWER has. What a marvel of a book!

John Buchan: What a man. What an amazing life. What a writer. HUNTINGTOWER is just the perfect sort of book for a cold and snowy winter day.

I've already read Buchan's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS and know the film well of course, and I'm also reading GREENMANTLE. I also have MR. STANDFAST lined up as well - all three titles are Richard Hannay books. (I've since read and rejoiced in GREENMANTLE and MR. STANDFAST and recommend them as well. Though neither were quite as wonderful as HUNTINGTOWER.)

I happened upon a very nice paperback edition and read it through in two nights. This is a Buchan 'romance' in the great tradition of romantic adventures so favored by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott though it takes place in the 'modern day' of 1922 or so. But it is also a tale with a dark undertow of unregenerate villainy, outreach of the revolutionary scourge rampant in Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

Our hero is Dickson McCunn, a nice, middle-aged Scottish grocer who has sold his very successful Glasgow emporium (and its two branch stores) to a big chain and is able thereon, to lead a life of leisure.

Dickson yearns for adventure and the romance of the open road. He has a couple of weeks to himself as his wife has gone off to her favorite spa where she '...put on her afternoon dress and every jewel she possessed when she rose in the morning, ate large meals of which the novelty atoned for the nastiness, and collected an immense casual acquaintance, with whom she discussed ailments, ministers, sudden deaths, and the intricate genealogies of her class.'  None of which interest Dickson in the least.

No, he is off on a walking tour of the Scottish highlands - looking for adventure and whatever comes his way. Though cognizant of the fact that, at his age, he really and truly would not know how to deal with 'Adventure' if it did come his way in large doses, Dickson still yearns for, maybe, a small sort of adventure, something appropriate to his nature and stature. To that end he perforce comforts himself with idyllic thoughts, romantic poetry and moody scenery - languid stops amid the heather and the bracken and the crisp beauty of the Scottish hills stir the longing of his soul.

Not to mention frequent stops at accommodating inns along the way:

Now the Black Bull at Kirkmichael is one of the few very good inns left in the world. It is an old place and an hospitable, for it has been for generations a haunt of anglers, who above all other men understand comfort. There are always bright fires there, and hot water, and old soft leather armchairs, and an aroma of good food and good tobacco, and giant trout in glass cases, and pictures of Captain Barclay of Urie walking to London, and Mr. Ramsay of Barnton winning a horse-race, and the three-volume edition of the Waverley Novels with many volumes missing, and indeed all those things which an inn should have. Also there used to be - there may still be - sound vintage claret in the cellars. The Black Bull expects its guests to arrive in every stage of dishevelment, and Dickson was received by a cordial landlord, who offered dry garments as a matter of course...(Dickson having been caught in an exhilarating downpour while perambulating the countryside.)

At the Black Bull the would-be adventurer first meets John Heritage, ex-soldier, erstwhile poet, admirer of the struggling proletariat, absorbed in a book of poetry. A glance convinced Dickson that the work was French, a literature which did not interest him. He knew little of the tongue and suspected it of impropriety.

Presently, and almost quicker than Dickson, perhaps, would have liked, Adventure with a Capital A, descends on him: a beautiful Russian princess in the immediate neighborhood needs saving. She is being held prisoner in a place called Huntingtower, an isolated, abandoned and decrepit manor perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. A princess in a tower. Yes.

But really, is it any of his business? muses Dickson. After all, it may be a hoax. Things like this don't happen in reality. And anyway, he's much too old to be involved in anything this hare-brained.

So, what if John Heritage thinks he has recognized a voice singing in the night? Heritage is younger and stronger - if he fancies himself a knight-errant, so be it.  - let him go off on a wild goose chase. He, Dickson, will continue on his walking tour.

Well, of course, he doesn't, he can't. His own self-esteem will not let him desert a fellow-being in trouble.

What happens next is as thrilling an adventure as anything Dickson could have invented for himself, an adventure which will test him to the very marrow of his being. In addition, he will be introduced to several wonderful - even life altering - characters.

Not only John Heritage, who, after making a bad first impression, turns out to be as stalwart and loyal a friend and hero as anyone could hope to meet, but also, very unexpectedly, young Dougal and his barefoot, skinny and bedraggled band of steadfast Glaswegian 'boy scouts'  (aka the Gorbals Die-Hards) without whose help, the Princess would have surely perished. Then there's the elderly and very canny Scottish villager, Mrs. Moran, whose indefatigable spirit, gumption and notions of right and wrong will, at one perilous point, help save the day.

As for the villains, there are many - even a hunchback with a limp! Thugs, mindless minions, and an evil master criminal who will stop at nothing and arrives at just the right point in the narrative, eager to do his vile worst - exactly the sort of villainy we yearn for - at least in books.

In the meantime, Dickson McCunn has undergone an evolution: the grocer has discovered in himself a man of action, a man who can be counted on, someone who may be relied upon not to quit when the going gets rough. The adventure he craves, arrives and finds him ready and able to heed its call - after an initial bout of disbelief and self-doubt, which I'd add, is only prudent.

John Heritage too has made a discovery - his cynicism has taken a beating - he has found that, despite his early protestations, his soul does, indeed, crave romance. Heritage goes so far as to quote Tennyson (a poet he'd sneered at) quite willingly, finding that, after all, the Victorian Poet Laureate did have relevance.

'And on her lover's arm she leant, 
And round her waist she felt it fold,
And far across the hills they went
In that new world which is the old:
Across the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
And deep into the dying day
The happy princess followed him'

He repeats the last two lines twice and draws in a deep breath. 'How right!' he cries. 'How absolutely right! Lord! It's astonishing how that old bird Tennyson got the goods!'

What an absolute delight of a tale. I'm in love with the whole idea of the hesitant, middle-aged, secretly romantic English male enjoying scenery, reading poetry and stumbling over an amazing adventure.  I also love the idea of an odd bunch of willing help-mates who will fight to the death - if need be - to save the princess in peril. Honor's the thing here. I love that too - old fashioned notion as it may be. Such a wonderfully developed and dramatically exploited tale. I can't wait to read it again.

Found my copy at Abe Books for very little money.

Lots of love going on in this review, but I simply couldn't help myself.