Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: FOUR STRANGE WOMEN (1940) by E. R. Punshon

A rather strange book aptly titled, I think. Not in the same class as Christie or the other fine writers of the Golden Age, but still a book that intrigues. It is a dark tale in which terrible crimes occur but perhaps it is the theatrical improbability of it all that appealed to me. I can't quite say why I liked it so much, but I did. The whole idea of an unknown femme fatale driving men to their doom inspires a kind of macabre fun.

British author E.R. Punshon wrote quite a few Bobby Owen mysteries and this the fourteenth in the series. Several of the books are currently available as ebooks over at Amazon and that's where I happened onto them. Though I must say that nowhere in this book does the character of Bobby Owen come alive as a 'real' person or for that matter, an especially clever one. But for whatever reason, that didn't stop me being intrigued by this morbid tale of murder which begins cozily enough.

'The fortunate conclusion of a recent semi-private investigation on which he [Bobby Owen]had been engaged had put money in his pocket, won him influential friends, and gained him the promise of an appointment as inspector in the Wychshire country force with special duties as private secretary to the elderly Colonel Glynne, and with the additional prospect, therefore, of some day succeeding him as chief constable.'

So here we are immediately lulled into believing that a cozy set of circumstances will be coming right up. But we would be wrong. Little does the complacent Bobby Owen know as he strolls along on his way home from an evening out with his fiancee Olive, that that very night he will be drawn into a shocking and most mysterious case.

'...he opened his sitting-room. One of the ugliest men he had ever seen was there and got up as he entered. A low forehead; a long, crooked nose; a mouth framing teeth too widely separated and irregular in shape, and stretching, it seemed, almost from ear to ear; ears themselves enormous and standing out nearly at right angles; eyes small and hidden, indeterminate in colour, the left eye with a cast in it; all combined with a squat, ungainly figure and sprawling hands and feet to produce an effect so remarkable that Bobby found himself reflecting that fingerprints would hardly be required for identification if the Records Department at the Yard knew anything of him.'

Unlikely as it may seem, the unattractive late night caller is Lord Darmoor, a man concerned with the mysterious deaths of two acquaintances and the likely possibility that a third friend might be in danger.

FOUR STRANGE WOMEN (love that title) is, in essence, a serial killer book written at a time when such a thing didn't even have a name. It is also a book in which the serial killer is a woman, another odd thing for its time. (Though I'll bet that in reality such a thing was not unknown.) Look, I'm not revealing any real secrets, it's obvious to any mystery reader almost from the very beginning that this book is all about 'cherchez la femme.'

Punshon is not, it seems to me, a natural writer so his work can get a little clumsy, but not to the point of making you want to put it down (at least it didn't with me) because he has a good story to tell. Here's a case where cleverness of plot plus mood equals a good read even if the writing is not brilliant.

Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen is called into a very odd case when an unlikely couple come to his lodgings and spin him a most peculiar tale. Two men (one with a title) have already died under suspicious circumstances and a third is likely in danger. The circumstances leading up to the deaths are similar though the police regard most of it as coincidence. However, once Owen begins nosing around, it becomes obvious that something foul is amiss. And when a third nasty death does occur, Owen is convinced that there's a fourth coming up unless the police can get to the bottom of the mystery and quickly.

As I indicated, this story features a most unlikely set of circumstances which include a remarkably heartless killer who is all things to all men in a very peculiar and hypnotic way. (Maybe you have to be a man to get it.) Again, suspension of disbelief is called for and even if you can't quite believe what's happening, there's something yet alluring about this dark tale of murderous greed and moral vacuousness (not to mention the foolhardiness of men) which kept me reading late into the night.

Dorothy L. Sayer was a fan of Punshon, I understand. Maybe I'll be one too.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom. Todd is doing hosting duties this week for Patti Abbott.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY (1949) by Michael Innes

Michael Innes, as many of us may know, was capable of turning on his scholarly brilliance and eluding his readers, occasionally leaving them in the dust. But I'm happy to state that THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY is prime evidence of Innes' inexhaustible wit, erudition and yes, approachable brilliance. I'm currently in the middle of a re-read and enjoying it as much as I did the first time around.

Yes, I am an unabashed Michael Innes fan and though I promised last year not to go overboard with reviews of his books, I didn't promise never to write one again. So here we are.

I might have featured THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY on the Tuesday Night Bloggers' Murder and Travel meme hosted by The Passing Tramp, but I didn't learn about the subject matter until this week, so I missed out contributing. But along the lines of better late than never, I'm writing up this book for FFB.

"What past can be yours, O journeying boy,
Towards a world unknown,
who calmly, as if incurious quite
On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?"
Thomas Hardy

THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY features one of Innes' most ingenious spins on mystery, adventure, thrills, chills and spills and an unlikely pair of heroes. With Innes you never know what to expect and this particular story is one of his most intriguing and one in which you must pay close attention to the early details OR you risk getting lost along the way. Just when you think it's one thing, it turns out that it's quite another. Fair warning.

The book also features two protagonists which take a while to warm up to and that's fine with me, because in the end you do warm up to them and realize, looking back, why they had to be as they are.

The plot:

Humphrey Paxton is the troubled teen-age son of British physicist Sir Bernard Paxton, father and son live in quiet splendor in a beautifully refined mansion in one of London's enclaves for the wealthy. The school term has ended and the solemn scientist is interviewing tutors who will accompany Humphrey to relatives in Ireland, there to spend the summer in rural pursuits. Pursuits which will, hopefully, help Humphrey get over whatever is bothering him. The boy is prone to lying, grandiosity, odd fits and spurts and tales of spies and blackmail. Typical bad boy stunts? Sir Paxton, though a brilliant atomic scientist, is confused and anxious when it comes to his son's behavior. Hence his search for a proper companion to help set his boy straight.

The tutor who eventually accompanies Humphrey to Ireland is a certain Mr. Richard Thewless who is, too, confused, especially once the pair boards the train on the first leg of the trip.

Why didn't Sir Bernard accompany Humphrey to the train station as he originally meant to do? Why did Humphrey insist on Mr. Thewless's proving his identification with an ingenious ploy? Why is Humphrey at first hyper and then regressively passive? Who is that bearded man with the new fishing gear stowed in his luggage? Who is the chatty old lady across the way reading a spy novel? Why does Humphrey disappear from the compartment mid-trip? And after an alarmed Mr. Thewless searches for him, encountering a slew of odd travelers, why does a disheveled Humphrey suddenly reappear with no creditable explanation?

(This part of the novel appears to be an homage to Hitchcock's 1938 film, THE LADY VANISHES -based on the 1936 novel, THE WHEEL SPINS by Ethel Lina White - since Innes includes a mysteriously bandaged patient, a large coffin-like package lifted off the train to a waiting limo, and strange circus folk.)

Mr. Thewless, not ordinarily given to flights of any sort of fancy, nevertheless, allows himself to invent all sorts of scenarios which might explain Humphrey's behavior and his own reaction to said behavior as well as that of their fellow travelers.

On the verge of suspecting Humphrey of being an imposter, Thewless shakes off his mental agitations and before they board the night steamer to Belfast, he reaffirms his belief that Humphrey is just what he seems to be: a troubled boy venturing forth - tutor in tow - to spend time in the country with relatives.

Meanwhile, back in London: a man seen entering the Metrodome movie theater alongside a boy and perhaps a woman, has been found dead in his seat - shot during a showing of Plutonium Blonde, a lurid B-movie thriller which feeds on the fears of the public - remember it is l949. The incident naturally brings in Scotland Yard, this time in the person of Inspector Cadover. Questions immediately arise: why has every vestige of identification been cut from the dead man's clothing,? How was this accomplished in a crowded theater? For that matter - why didn't anyone hear the shot? Where is the boy? Was the woman involved in the killing?

One of several bits that I especially liked at the beginning of the story: chapter 3 cleverly consists of nothing but letters and notes between several characters - some of whom we have not yet met.

See why I told you to pay attention to details? Occasionally I find Michael Innes' set-ups to murder a bit long-winded, but here everything clicks just as it ought to. Innes is fashioning a finely woven tale and patience is most assuredly a virtue.

The story holds together, shifting back and forth between Ireland and London as Scotland Yard quietly goes about a murder investigation in a book which is a clever conceit - a combo of police procedural and hair-raising spy thriller as only Michael Innes could conceive of it. Will the cops finally put two and two together? Will Humphrey and Mr. Thewless be able to evade the evil that is gathering around them? The answer will come after a most exciting and unnerving chase along a dangerous stretch of Irish coast.

Needless to say, I recommend THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY very highly - it remains one of my favorite Innes books. It is a wonder to me, that it was never made into a film. Or if it was, I've never heard of it.

Since it's Friday, we would normally head on over to Patti Abbott's blog to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about. But this week it's Todd Mason doing hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Damsels in Distress: Mystery Bookcovers of A Certain Sort

Back in the day, many mystery covers were decorated with views of attractive women in various forms of acute (and occasionally not so acute) distress (okay, some of them looked as if all they were suffering from was a bad headache, but still...). Supposedly, women in peril artwork (still popular today, let's face it) serves to entice the book-buying public. Though I've often found this selling point a bit confusing since it's well known that women read and buy more mysteries and perils of pauline stories than men do. (At least I remember reading this somewhere.) And why would women be attracted to covers which showcase their fair sex in anguished scenarios? (Whether the cover has anything to do with the actual story within is a question for another day.)

One would think that a cowering dame on the cover would turn off the female purchaser. But apparently not.

Maybe back then men were, in general, the major book-buying target. Though that doesn't explain the many MANY gothic romance covers showing women running from houses in the dead of night SO popular in the 50's and 60's.

It's all a muddle to me and that is why I am not a publishing kingpin.

P.S. I've only read two of the books in this post, Agatha Christie's DESTINATION UNKNOWN (aka SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH) and Christianna Brand's DEATH OF JEZEBEL and yes, both were women in peril stories - though one more than the other. Both by the way, are highly recommended by me.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: GREY MASK (1928) by Patricia Wentworth - The first Miss Silver mystery.

(Incidentally - I have, since writing this review, learned that almost all of Patricia Wentworth's books are available for free reading in ebook form, at this link, The copyrights have mostly expired in Canada.)

The Miss Silver mysteries by the prolific author, Patricia Wentworth are, without doubt, a mixed bag. The series lasted for many years, beginning in 1928 and lasting through until the last Miss Silver published in 1961, the year of Miss Wentworth's death. I remember reading and enjoying quite a few of the books and then for whatever reason I got bogged down in a slew of bad ones and gave up on Wentworth. (Sometimes that happens over the span of a long series.)

But now, yearning lately for cozy vintage reads, I'm returning and attempting to navigate through the Miss Silvers as best I can since they are suddenly available on Kindle and in hard copy form from Abe Books and even occasionally over at Project Gutenberg Canada, where several of the copyrights have expired. AND I've just discovered that a bunch of 'em are available in ebook format from my local N.C. library. (More than was available in N.J. - go figure.)

Miss Silver is often compared to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. But in my view the only thing the two women have in common is that they are, indeed, two women who solve mysteries. Oh, and they like to knit. But that's about it. In my view, Miss Marple never once worked for a living where Miss Silver is a retired school teacher turned private eye. Christie is the better writer and plotter and her Miss Marple is a more memorable character, though both made their debuts in print around the same time. (Miss Marple in 1927 in a short story, THE TUESDAY NIGHT CLUB and Miss Silver in 1928 in GREY MASK, today's book for review.)

Going in, I'll say that I enjoyed this thoroughly archaic but always entertaining first Miss Silver mystery. Yes, there are anachronisms galore, but for some reason they just add to the enjoyment. I mean, the head criminal honcho goes about in a grey mas (I'm spelling it in the Brit way) and nobody knows who he is. You gotta' love this sort of thing and I do - when it catches me up from the beginning and makes me smile in recognition, as if the writer and I were sharing a joke. Even if I know that's not possible since when this book was written, men in masks were not to be sneered at. But still, that's how I approach it.

Though in this book the detective and her detection remain mostly in the background (not something I usually like), it remains a particularly good debut mystery and has plenty of what I turn to vintage cozy mysteries for. The atmosphere makes up for a lot here. In execution, the writing style reminded me a bit of Philip MacDonald's early work.

However, as a character, Miss Silver is not an especially agreeable or personable one and rarely if ever, comes to resemble a real person. She remains, far as I'm concerned, a clever fairy godmother type with omniscient powers and a very irritating cough, who shows up intermittently in the plot and in the end comes forward wisely to solve the mystery. And yet, somehow, the author makes this work most of the time. Maud Silver's main talent as I see it, is that she is the sort of person to whom people can't help spilling their guts. Couple this with a knack for planning and thinking ahead and you have a fairly decent detective. Yet it does still seem a bit odd that people actually step forward to hire a little old lady (not that old in the beginning, I'm thinking) to solve a crime.

With Jane Marple, there was no hiring to be done except, perhaps, in NEMESIS - in which Miss Marple is 'hired' from beyond the grave by a dead multi-millionaire and his strange bequest.

But Maud Silver is different, she actually has a private detection business - once you overlook that incongruity, the rest of it either falls into place for you or it doesn't. Suspension of disbelief is the order of the day.

Okay, now on to GREY MASK, the plot:

Charles Moray is an embittered young man who returns to England four years after being jilted by Margaret Langton, a woman he still loves. He has come to claim an inheritance - the house he grew up in - and while staying at a London hotel, can't resist going (in the dead of night) to reconnoitre the old family home.

While lurking about the darkened estate, Moray overhears a conversation which makes him suspect that the house is being used for some sort of criminal activity. He manages to get a glimpse of several men, one of whom is wearing - you guessed it - a grey mask. Not only that, but just as Charles makes up his mind to go for the police, who should enter the room but his lost lady love Margaret Langton, there to deliver some papers. Charles now comes away from the place, confused, angry and determined to save the woman he loves even if she is involved in a criminal enterprise.

The bad guys are after the money a ditzy young heiress may be about to inherit if she can prove her bonafides, her name is Margot Standing, (I know, Margot, Margaret, and yet another Margaret in the background - confusing) whose father left no will. Well, Margot runs away from the sinister forces gathering around her and lo and behold winds up staying with Margaret Langton who may or may not turn her over to Grey Mask. In the meantime,  Margaret warns Charles to stay away and leave her to her cruel fate. But Charles is made of sterner stuff and he is determined to prove extenuating circumstances as he goes ahead and hires Miss Silver to find out the truth, break up a criminal gang and in the bargain, save Miss Langton from the hoosegow.

A terrific book if you can swallow the anachronisms and I did.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book - BEST FIRST IN A SERIES: CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK by Elizabeth Peters

CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK is the first episode (if you will) in the Amelia Peabody series of 19 books, begun back in 1975 and completed in 2010 with A RIVER IN THE SKY. (Author Elizabeth Peters - aka Barbara Mertz - passed away at the age of 85 in 2013)

The author had a PhD in Egyptology and traveled extensively, so she knew whereof she wrote when it came to the setting of her series: Egypt at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The prolific Ms. Peters was a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and also the author of mysteries (many with gothic overtones) under the second pseudonym of Barbara Michaels.

In CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK we meet Peters' greatest creation, the unforgettable Victorian spinster/archaeologist Amelia Peabody. Well, she doesn't remain a spinster for long, but here in this first book, she is the quintessentially acerbic, strong-minded, opinionated (but essentially likable) blue stocking spinster beloved of certain readers. The story is told in the first person, so we are instantly propelled into Peabody's psyche when she makes it known she will not suffer fools lightly, she has 'purpose enough for two' and goes on immediately to prove it by using her inheritance (from an anthropologist father whom no one realized had a fortune to leave) to fulfill her dream of travel and adventure. All this independence is too much for her affronted brothers who immediately threaten to contest their father's will siting undue influence. Amelia's lawyer assures her the will is unbreakable and not to worry.

The transparent attempts of my kin, and of various unemployed gentlemen, to win my regard, aroused in me a grim amusement. I did not put them off; quite the contrary, I encouraged them to visit, and laughed up my sleeve at their clumsy efforts. Then it occurred to me that I was enjoying them too much. I was becoming cynical; and it was this character development that made me decide to leave England - not, as some malicious persons have intimated, a fear of being overborne. I had always wanted to travel. Now, I decided, I would see all the places Father had studied - the glory that was Greece and the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome; Babylon and hundred-gated Thebes.

Once I had made this decision, it did not take me long to prepare for the journey. I made my arrangements with Mr. Fletcher, and received from him a proposal of marriage which I refused with the same good humor that had characterized the offer. At least he was honest.

 "I thought it was worth a try," he remarked calmly.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," I agreed.
Mr. Fletcher studied me thoughtfully for a moment.
"Miss Amelia, may I ask - in my professional capacity now - whether you have any inclinations toward matrimony?"
"None. I disapprove of matrimony as a matter of principle." Mr. Fletcher's pepper-and-salt eyebrows lifted. I added, "For myself, that is. I suppose it is well enough for some women; what else can the poor things do? But why should any independent, intelligent female choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband? I assure you, I have yet to meet a man as sensible as myself."

So Peadbody takes the money and goes off to the Continent, ready for adventure and whatever comes her way.

In Rome, after having lost her insipid traveling companion to illness, she picks up Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young heiress down on her luck (in fact, when Amelia first sees her, Evelyn is in a dead faint, collapsed from hunger on a street near the Coliseum). Evelyn has been cut off from her family after committing the unspeakable sin of running off with a handsome (but oily) music teacher. Now abandoned and left to fend for herself, Evelyn quickly becomes Peabody's companion after confessing her misdeeds which (to Evelyn's consternation) are pooh-poohed by the liberal thinking Peabody who considers herself a 'modern woman'.

When the two arrive in Egypt, the fun begins.

Within the over-crowded recesses of the Cairo Museum, Amelia comes up against a will as strong as her own in the crazed, disheveled, unkempt, ill-mannered, wildly bearded archaeologist, Radcliffe Emerson. He and his mild-mannered brother Walter (who is instantly smitten by Evelyn Barton-Forbes) are looking through the displays, Emerson frothing at the mouth over the criminal ineptness of the museum's curators. A theme which will continue throughout all nineteen books since Emerson considers himself the greatest living archaeologist and the only one who cares enough to properly classify archaeological finds. He is known as 'the father of curses,' by the native Egyptians for his rather colorful vocabulary when provoked - which is often.

For me, Emerson is the linchpin of these novels, in fact (next to Austen's Mr. Darcy and Georgette Heyer's Freddy Standon and/or Mr. Beaumaris), Emerson is the only fictional man that I'd ever consider marrying). He is a larger than life individual, an amalgam of all those dashing, handsome, wild-spirited heroes prevalent in books of the era. Yes, I know he is over-the-top and in reality would be impossible to live with, but he so wonderfully crazed and outrageous, not to mention extraordinarily sexy in his archaeological outfit of ubiquitous white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his broad chest, sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned muscular arms, tight jodhpurs and, of course, leather boots. Is Amelia immune to all this male pulchritude? Read the book and see.

Once Peabody decides that Egyptology is her passion, there is no stopping her. And here in the first book, author Elizabeth Peters makes sure we get the full Egyptological effect: a howling mummy skulking about in the dead of night - an eerie creature who has the temerity to show up in Peabody's bedroom at Shepheard's Hotel (where everyone who is anyone stays while in Cairo). Some of us may roll our eyes, but let's face it, what is a tale of thrilling archaeological adventure without a mummy? Not to worry, all is revealed and explained in the very satisfying ending.

But before we get there, we have skulduggery of the vilest form aimed at the two Victorian gentlewomen. The mummy (in cahoots with a smarmy fortune hunter - hissss!!) shows up at the Emerson brothers' excavation site and causes all sorts of villainous complications.

In Emerson, Peabody has met her match (he shaves his unruly beard and she discovers - gasp! - that he has a sexy cleft in his chin) - so hard to resist. Her companion Evelyn Barton-Forbes finds true love in the person of Walter Emerson, the more sedate (and well-mannered) of the two brothers and in the end several nasty evil-doers are dealt with.

But it's the tone of the entire proceeding that I find so beguiling. Amelia's inchoate superiority (with cause), her intelligence, her competence, her essential kind-heartedness, her assumption that all will be as she wishes - makes her a definite force to be reckoned with.

This is a clever, amusing romp (did I just use the word 'romp'?) - in fact most of the books in the series are unabashed satires of the sort of thrillers popular at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th (H. Rider Haggard and his ilk), written in mock Victorian style. The author assumes you are on the same wave-length and have a little knowledge of the absurdity of Victorian society and mores, not to mention the wordy and occasionally overwrought writing style of the times (think Wilkie Collins too). I loved CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK when I first read it, and my ardor hasn't lessened in the many re-readings since.

As an aside: Over the life of these books, Peabody and cohorts will go on to rub elbows with actual historical figures, i.e. Howard Carter (who will later discover the Tomb of Tutankhamun), Monsieur Mospero (whom Emerson despises), director of the Cairo Museum, Flinders Petrie, famed achaeologist and others. For me this is part of the fun.

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

This is a very fun fan production I found on youtube. But oh how I wish someone would make an actual movie out this book!! In a couple more years Emma Watson would be perfect in the part of Amelia.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Salon: A Chair is to Sit On

Louis Valtat - via

Andre Lhote - via

Edouard Vuillard - via

Wayne Thiebaud - Man Sitting in Chair - Back View - 1964

Hans Purrmann - via

Michael Steinagle - via

Henri Matisse - via

Thomas Austen Brown - Mademoiselle Plume Rouge 1896 - via

Kim English - Museum Guard - via

When I'm sitting I'm usually reading, but we've already done a reading theme salon (not that I wouldn't mind doing another one of these days). This time out though, I thought I'd do sitting and not reading as a theme.

You'd think someone sitting in a chair would be a static concept, but these paintings by various artists whose styles I love, are anything but.

I do love that bored museum guard by Kim English. Even in his boredom, there's something going on. The nude in the painting looks like she's ready to shake him up.