Friday, November 25, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1959) by Philip MacDonald

No question about it, re-reading this after many years, nothing much has changed - it remains a thoroughly splendid book. There - I said it and I'm glad. Even better then the first time around. It is and should be viewed a classic. Period.

Better, of course, than the movie with those tiresome rubbery make-up tricks meant and failing to intrigue (if you've seen the film you'll know what I mean) - a movie only saved by the wonderfully warm and intelligent performances of George C. Scott, Jacques Roux and Colin Brook. I recommend the film based on those three actors and the spiffy, fast-moving plot (different in many ways from the book) DESPITE Kirk Douglas' ham-bone turn and the rest of the make-up jiggery-pokery. Honestly, if they'd only gone forward with the film in a straight forward way, John Houston would have had another classic film to brag about.

But back to the book:

Which has a richer and more complex plot than the film and becomes the sort of thing you don't ever want to end. Don' you love when that happens? I know, I'm getting googly, but bear with me.

Anthony Gethryn is the gentleman detective/crime-solver par excellence (happy to work with Scotland Yard) conceived by the very underrated Philip MacDonald (who also wrote and co-wrote excellent screenplays), a writer mostly forgotten these days. It's really a shame that MacDonald's books are no longer available in new editions. I, for one, would love nothing better than a whole shelf devoted to his trade paperbacks - stand-alones and Anthony Gethryns. As it is, I pick them up as best I can online.

(I've reviewed MacDonald's other classic, WARRANT FOR X, and would have gladly linked it for you, but for whatever reason, Google - in its infinite wisdom - now no longer permits me to search the blog by name or title so I can't find the damn thing and neither will you. I don't know why this is happening but at some point I hope the powers that be will wake up and change whatever they did and go back to the way it was.)

Anthony Gethryn is, of course, the kind of sleuth we love. He is brilliant, elegant, upper class and worthy of all we've come to associate with gentleman detectives from the golden age. He has manners! He has a family and lives in a wonderful house in London. (Though home and family are conveniently absent this time out, since I suspect they would have only curtailed his agility.)

I can't even begin to express just how much I love this book except to say that I am going to begin rereading it yet again in a few days time just as soon as I finish with several library books whose deadlines are fast approaching.  More about those in later posts. (You can keep track of what I'm reading by checking the blog's left side bar near the top under 'Finished Reading', and also my Page: 'Books Read in 2016'.)

Something odd: I had remembered the ending of THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER film as being a bit better than the ending of the book, but upon this second re-reading, I've decided I was wrong. The book has a better ending. Totally different and in a way, more satisfying.

Okay, and now The plot:

"This tale hinges, like so much in humanity's sorry history, on a piece of paper. In this case no broken treaty or injudicious epistle from one Personage to another, but a slip upon which Adrian Messenger wrote the names and addresses and occupations of ten men."

Messenger is an English author currently at work on a memoir. A day or so before a fateful trip to America, he lunches with a friend, General Firth, who works in an advisory capacity at Scotland Yard - Special Assistant to the head of the C.I.D. (Both Messenger and Firth had shared hair-raising war time activities and know each other to be the sort who wouldn't waste each other's time with nonsense.) They have an enigmatic conversation which results in Messenger giving Firth a list of ten names and asking him to quietly and unofficially check on whether those ten men are still living at those ten addresses within the United Kingdom.

More than that, Messenger will not say. Except that the thing he's working on is so preposterous no one would believe it anyway - and no, it's not a conspiracy of any sort. Once Messenger returns from America, he'll have more details.

But Messenger is destined to gather no more details. Once his plane is over the Atlantic, an explosion takes care of it and the passengers bound for America. All except for one survivor, journalist Raoul St. Denis who, fortunately, overhears Messenger's final rambling words as both men and an unconscious woman (who later dies and has nothing to do with the story) dangle on a crate floating in the sea.

It is assumed, at first, that the tragedy is the result of a horrible malfunction of plane-ware.

General Firth, in the meantime, has done his duty by Messenger - he's instituted a stealthy check of the names on the list and the results trouble him enough that he wants to consult.

In turn, he and Sir Lucas (aforementioned head of the C.I.D. and old crony of Anthony Gethryn) arrange a dinner meeting (naturally at one of their clubs) with Gethryn.

"There was something in your voice, my friend. What is this - a problem?" 

"That," said Lucas cryptically, is what Firth wants to find out."

And find out they do over the next exciting pages of this thrilling escapade of a book. I know, I know, my hyperbole is running amok - but honestly, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I have a strange fascination for stories featuring competent people faced with an enigmatic problem they are determined to solve for no other reason than because something is wrong which must be set right. It's my kind of story and I'm always on the look-out for one I may have missed. It's the kid in me that fell hook line and sinker for tales of this sort, ages ago. I am enamored of rational men (or women) using their guile, intelligence and wit to do the right thing. Old fashioned, especially these days, but there it is.

Back to the book:

 Troublesome odds: All of the men on Adrian Messenger's list have, one by one, over the previous five years, met accidental deaths. The odds of which trouble not only Firth, but immediately fascinate Gethryn. Though Lucas drags his feet a bit, he too finally comes to see that the odds of that sort of thing happening by chance are absurd.

Eventually, Gethryn and the lone survivor of the plane tragedy, journalist Raoul St. Denis, meet in person, though they had actually 'met' before during the War when both were underground operatives connected by long distance radio and false names. St. Denis is/was an explosives expert who will fall in love (at first sight) with Jocelyn Messenger, a painter of miniatures once married to Adrian Messenger's brother, killed in the war. Long story short, they all get involved, in varying degrees in the hunt for an unknown and very efficient killer. A man who has been getting away with murder (on two occasions, mass murder) for years and left nary a clue. Not a serial killer of the sort we're used to reading about, so it's not your average tale of a man driven by blood lust or sex or politics or even delusion. As Messenger himself says in the beginning, "And anyway, if I'm right it's a far older sin than any politics..."

In the end, here's my advice: grab a copy anyway you can find it - if you're lucky, your library might have one, though mine didn't. Now and again a copy shows up on Amazon or Abe Books and there's your chance. Mine was only four bucks (a rackety old paperback). But you have to move swiftly.

Then allot a long afternoon to one of the cleverest thrillers ever written. Events in the book happen between one Christmas and the next, so this would be an appropriate title to add to your seasonal reading list even if, well, the holidays don't have anything to do with things except in passing.

And another thing:

One of Philip MacDonald's many writing strengths is his way with settings, convivial or otherwise. He has the Agatha Christie knack of almost immediately being able to lift you up and set you down in whatever surroundings are required. He is especially good at drawing the reader in as if he or she were a guest and welcome to our adventure.

It was a darkening and bitter half past four when, back in London's outskirts again, he crossed the river at Putney and headed for Chelsea; fifteen minutes later when he rang the bell of Number Five Whistler's Walk, and two minutes later when the little Scotswoman, after a short conversation over the inter-house phone, led him across to the studio.

Charming outside, this was even more so within. It was long and high and the whole northern section of the roof was glass. At one end fir logs crackled in a fireplace of dark red brick and at the other a big stove glowed. Around the stove and under the glass roof was all the pleasing litter of a painter's workplace, but about the hearth were order and comfort; deep chairs and a sofa and a low round table upon which stood a tea service on a silver tray.

And he entered, Jocelyn rose from one of the big chairs and from the other side of the hearth, on the sofa, Raoul St. Denis raised a hand in greeting. Permeating the comfortable glow of the place, lending an invisible nimbus to the man and woman already in it, there was an atmosphere of felicitous and personal excitement which for want of a better word Anthony was forced to describe to himself as 'romantic.' He answered Raoul's gesture in kind, and smiled at Jocelyn as she came to meet him. And looking at her was suddenly smitten, albeit with a pleasantly wistful benevolence, by consciousness of his years.

All this and a fascinating hunt for killer who will stop at nothing - what more could you want?

Todd Mason will be doing hosting doings for author Patricia Abbott at his blog, Sweet Freedom this Friday. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HAND IN THE GLOVE (1937) by Rex Stout

First things first: THIS IS NOT A NERO WOLFE BOOK. So don't be misled into thinking it is one you might have overlooked.

This is Stout's first Theodolinda 'Doll' Bonner book, a stand-alone - presumably at one time meant as a possible first in a series. The character does go on to appear (peripherally) in a couple of Nero Wolfe short stories in later years but (evidenced by this first book) she just wasn't strong enough (or interesting enough) to 'carry' a series and thank goodness, I suppose, that Rex Stout realized it before possibly pushing forward with more books.

So in a way, this review is more of a rant than anything else. Possibly because I'm in a ranting mood.

Going in I'll say that despite a few lukewarm reviews here and there online, I began the book expecting to be entertained. I'm just too big a fan of Rex Stout (and admirer of his genius) to expect otherwise. Sad to say, THE HAND IN THE GLOVE is not as entertaining as might have been expected. Good writing is a given when it comes to Stout and there is some of that here, just not enough to save this failed attempt by a man to write from a woman's point of view. Stout, unfortunately, is unable to capture even a smidgen of what it means to be female. His characters are merely that - characters in a story - never once do they come alive. Hard to believe, I know.

Especially when you consider how wonderfully alive Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are in their books. It really is hard to reconcile THE HAND IN THE GLOVE as anything but a very minor Rex Stout attempt at something different. B for effort.

So why am I even bothering to talk about it? Well, I am a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe books and an admirer of some of Stout's other non-Wolfe books such as ALPHABET HICKS (now here's a series he might have done well with had he pursued it), not to mention the very enjoyable Tecumseh Fox mysteries which I found over at the Kindle store (since hard copies are notoriously difficult to locate). I definitely recommend the 'Fox' and 'Hicks' books however you can find them.

In a contrary sort of way, it is my enthusiasm and love for Rex Stout's books that makes an anomaly such as THE HAND IN THE GLOVE, kind of fun to talk about. At least it's interesting to me to try and analyze where an author might have gone wrong.

I'll begin with the main character: Theodolinda 'Dol' Bonner. She is a typically spirited young woman, pragmatic and keen-eyed, a budding detective eager to make her way in the world. She was once jilted at the altar and that has soured her on men. We take her and her cynicism at face value though at first glance it does seem a bit over the top considering that many women have been jilted and not had it twist their perceptions with such depth and rancor. It would have helped had we known a few of the details, but none are forthcoming. Just that she was jilted and ipso-facto, she has sworn off men forever.

At any rate, Dol and her heiress friend Sylvia Raffray are on the verge of going into business together. It's all just about a done deal. When, lo and behold, Sylvia pulls out at the very last minute because her guardian, P.J. Storrs has had a hissy fit over the whole idea. He is dead set against Sylvia being associated with 'business' and worse, ' a private detecting business'. People of her sort don't do this kind of thing. And because Sylvia is easily manipulated she goes along with her guardian's demand that she sever her ties with Dol's enterprise though it means that Dol will have to immediately close up shop, fire the receptionist and scramble to get her fledgling business up and running once again. Well, I suppose, friendship only goes so far.

Not that Sylvia doesn't feel guilty, there's plenty of hand-wringing and even a few tears and 'oh will you forgive me' going on. Whereas Dol, reacts rather benevolently and says she understands and not to worry, all will be well. We're still friends even though I have to shut down the office before we even get going. No harm done. Except that as a reader, I immediately disliked Sylvia and began right then to have my doubts about Dol.

This is where the whole story starts to fall apart even before it begins - at least for me.

Now, I don't know about you, but one would expect Dol to harbor at the very least some understandable resentment towards the wishy-washy Sylvia even if they have been friends for years and years and even if she, Dol, admires Sylvia's youth and attractiveness and sweetness of temperament, or variations thereof.

That's just when I began to think that perhaps Dol's deep fondness for Sylvia had more going on with it than just friendship. It would explain all the rationalization and looking the other way when anyone else would have been forgiven for losing their temper and stomping about a bit.

And in fact, for the rest of the book, I felt the same thing. Dol does seem inordinately fond of her friend. (And I do realize that friendship came with different vocabulary back then.) HOWEVER, no one in the book thinks anything of the closeness and Rex Stout gives no hint that the friendship had any unusual aspects. But honestly, it's hard to read this from a modern day vantage point and not see which way the wind was blowing, at least as far as Dol Bonner was concerned. In fact, had Dol's crush on Sylvia (I can't explain it any other way) been allowed to flourish a bit, it might have made Dol a more interesting and certainly a more sympathetic character.

As for Sylvia, well she is the sort of helpless young woman that men of that era danced devoted attendance on. If you've seen movies from the thirties and forties, read a few books, you know the type I mean. Exceedingly tedious today, but back then, seen as delightfully fragile and needing of help, guidance and strong shoulders to lean on.

Dol, in contrast, is the self-sufficient slightly older friend who can be counted on in times of stress. In most books and movies from that era, these women were usually the ones who chose careers and watched bemused as their friends upped and married and lived happily ever after. (Though Dol does go on to fashion and maintain a reputable private detection business in NYC - not such an easy thing to do. And earn the respect of Nero Wolfe - even harder to do.)

Now we come to the second untenable event in the book which threw me for a loop: Sylvia's guardian, though he is unwilling to allow his ward to go into business with Dol turns right around and hires Dol to investigate some suspected finagling going on in his family. My first thought: huh?

It seems that Storrs' nitwit of a wife is under the influence of a charlatan soothsayer (apparently back then this was a big 'thing' with the moneyed class - sooth-saying and so forth) and worse, has been giving said soothsayer chunks of cold hard cash. In the movie this guy would have been played by Cesar Romero.

Well, anyway, Dol isn't in a position to turn down a fee no matter where it comes from and so up she goes to Storrs' country estate just in time to find her client murdered and the house full of suspects, including her friend Sylvia and Sylvia's callow swains (yes there are more than one).

In these types of stories it is really is very helpful if you like the main protagonist especially when she or he will be surrounded by a bunch of not-so-very-likable suspects any one of whom might be a clever murderer. There is a knack to this sort of thing and admittedly, very few had it then or now (it is at the heart of any good country house mystery). Dol Bonner just isn't very likable primarily because she isn't an especially sympathetic character.

I suspect that Stout didn't have a clue about friendships between women and perhaps that's all that is at the bottom of the whole clumsy thing.

Anyway, there you have it. Rex Stout wasn't perfect, only nearly so. And aren't we lucky that he continued to write Nero Wolfe books until the end of his long life.

Since this is Friday, 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tuesday Salon: No Specific Theme, Just Some Paintings I Love

American Impressionist William Howe Foote (1874 - 1965) - 'Sunlit Interior'

English painter Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970) - 'On the Cliffs' - via

English painter Ernest Townsend (1880 - 1944) - 'The Balloon Man' - via

French painter Louis Valtat (1869 - 1952) 'Femme au Chat' - via

French Abstract painter August Herbin (1882 - 1960)  "Composition Monumentale' - via 

Irish painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941) 'Return from the Market'  - via

American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) 'Shimmering Substance, 1946' - via

French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)  - via

Dutch Post Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh 'Portrait of Postman Joseph Etienne-Roulin - via

Contemporary American painter Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920) - via

French Symbolist painter and printmaker, Edouard Vuillard (1868 - 1940) 'Fleurs' - via

Dutch Renaissance Master Jan Vermeer (1632 - 1675) 'Girl with a Red Hat' - via





These few words are about as close as I'm going to get to alluding to the hideous results of the recent Presidential election. I like to think of my blog as a respite from reality. We need to have someplace to go when things around us are falling apart. You are welcome to hide here with me and we will continue to talk about books and art and (mostly) old movies and pretend that somehow or other all will be well.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: THE CORNISH COAST MURDER (1935) by John Bude

Another in the beautifully designed trade paperback series from British Library Classics. Golden age mysteries forgotten by time, emblazoned with gorgeous covers.

John Bude is the pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901 - 1957), an English theater producer/director who wrote mysteries and fantasies which, unfortunately, many of us have never heard of. While not in the upper echelons of Christie and the other Golden Agers, John Bude was certainly deserving of a better literary fate than he received.

THE CORNISH COAST MURDER was Bude's mystery writing debut and a pretty good one. The book features an engaging crime-solving vicar and a befuddled local inspector of police working together to solve the murder of grumpy and unlovable Julius Tregarthan, an elderly magistrate found dead in his study with a bullet in his head. Just the sort of good stuff you go to cozies for. And certainly better written then most modern day attempts which are often nothing more than cartoons looped around some sort of eccentric hobby. In general, I'll take unheard of vintage cozy writers over their modern day brethren any day. In fact, I've given up on most modern-day cozy attempts. But as usual, I digress.

Also involved in THE CORNISH COAST MURDER are a couple of young lovers, one a shell-shocked WWI vet and the other the niece of the murdered man. There is even a sinister butler named Cowper. And a keen-eyed mid-wife named Mrs. Mullion, who happens along a dark lane on the night of the murder at an inappropriate moment.

Not that this is a perfect mystery, but it's not a bad way to wile away a few hours on and Autumn night or two. The book does go on a bit longer than it needs to and in the end, the killer is someone not mentioned except, perhaps, in passing, in the first half of the book. The denouement then is kind of brought in on a tangent, but it's not totally off the wall. You can see how the vicar arrived at his conclusion once two and two begin to make four in a roundabout kind of way. Though the actual 'how-to' of the murder seems a bit far-fetched. Still, it's only a quibble.

I also think the book might have been a bit sprightlier with a second murder thrown in, but maybe that's just personal taste. At any rate, despite that, the story moves along fairly rapidly with the rather small set of suspects being viewed and reviewed and nefarious plots surmised and dismissed by Inspector Bigswell who is on a time table rush to solve the case before the big honchos from Scotland Yard are called in.

I may sound lukewarm about THE CORNISH COAST MURDER, but I'm not. The three main reasons I enjoyed this book so much are:

1) The damp and windswept Cornish coast locale which is captured superbly by the author. Setting and the knack of describing it without seeming like a travelogue is so important in a mystery.

2) The wonderful fact that the murder investigation begins on a dark and stormy night.

3) The character of Reverend Dodd, the crime-solving vicar who enjoys his roaring fireplace, his food, reading murder mysteries and sharing them with his friend Doctor Pendrill who comes over once a week for the ritual sharing of six new mysteries by current (by 1935) writers:

"Let's see now - an Edgar Wallace - quite right, Pendrill. I hadn't read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J.S. Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that inimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You've run the whole gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes!"

The doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe."

Nicely done. Though the doctor never fully comes alive as a character, Dodd more than makes up for it with his admittedly fussy way of sorting through the clues and coming up with the murderer.

Another fine and unruffled mystery of the old school variety - don't miss it if this is to your taste.

Since it's Friday, 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.