Thursday, May 25, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: PUT OUT THE LIGHT (1931) by Ethel Lina White

I'm kind of venting today, so please bear with me.

Author Ethel Lina White has a major failing - she's not very good at creating the nuts and bolts of an actual setting. That gene is missing from her make-up. So when I'm reading her stories, I'm kind of floundering around trying to find my footing.

I've read several of her books perhaps trying to find one that I'll love. I liked FEAR STALKS THE VILLAGE though it was not as solidly grounded as I would have liked. It was set in an English village which failed to coalesce in my imagination. A generic setting which certainly does not come anywhere near the visually well conceived English villages created by Agatha Christie.

(Read, though didn't love, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Extremely disappointed in THE WHEEL SPINS which is the basis for THE LADY VANISHES, one of my very favorite Hitchcock movies.)

It is my belief that in these sorts of books, the setting is almost as important as the characters. To my way of thinking, if you can't stabilize the surroundings for a mystery novel, it's half over right there. Some writers can pick you up and drop you down in any setting almost immediately, even within the first opening paragraph. They have the knack. Christie had it. She could transport me immediately to wherever and whenever with just a few sentences.

But Ethel Lina White just can't quite do it. She creates a place for her story but doesn't give it any foundation - no toe hold for the reader. I'm usually left trying to visualize and failing. Occasionally that doesn't matter in a book, but most of the time it does.

Some of you may know that I don't write negative reviews if I can help it and this is not really one. I read PUT OUT THE LIGHT all the way through which I would definitely not have done if I'd hated it. It's just that this is one of the stranger mysteries I've read lately and I guess I need to share its strangeness.

Cause here's what I'm thinking - maybe it's just me.

PUT OUT THE LIGHT concerns the murder of a woman named Anthea Vine, wealthy owner of Jamaica Court, an estate perched on a hill above an English town. In that same town live a bumbling Inspector of police and his concerned and keen-eyed sister.

Now, one would think that a policeman with the last name of Pye would be kind of a humorous character, but in this book he is, maybe, just mildly amusing. Pye desperately wants to solve the only murder he's ever been faced with, hoping against hope that Scotland Yard won't be called in by his superiors. But all this is lacking any real connecting charm which is key for this sort of character. The sister, Florence, is supposed to be the one with the brains, but she too is charmless. She helps her brother (whose old fashioned notion that women should be seen and not really heard rankles a bit) by sort of 'directing' him without his being aware he's being directed. He's not a boob exactly, he just needs a bit of guidance.

Florence Pye also likes to tell fortunes. This time out the cards presciently read: 'Death to an old woman.'

Anthea Vine (our pre-arranged victim) is such a strange character that I kept thinking, wait - what? She is apparently a grotesque old woman who wears tons of make-up and likes having young men about her. She preens, she parades around like some young femme fatale, pretending that the men indulge her because she is still beautiful and alluring. Vine is ridiculous in her conceit but enjoys the sense of power and manipulation. And because she is extremely wealthy nobody likes to call attention to the absurdity of it all.

She is a woman who has convinced herself that she is still wickedly sexy and attractive and here's the main problem: it's difficult to take her seriously. (And oh my God, her laborious nightly beauty ritual is outlined in detail.) In some scenes, Anthea comes across as younger than she's supposed to be so that when she's referred to as 'old' the reader is taken aback. She is written in an oddly inconsistent way which is off-putting and VERY theatrical. But then I realize that back in the day, a 40 year old woman was considered 'old' and forget about someone already in her 50's - she would be at death's door. Unfortunately, in some scenes Anthea seems like someone who might be geriatric then in others, she suddenly seems younger. It's almost like the author loses track.

And another thing: here's this woman ripe for murdering and she doesn't get bumped off until well into the book. She's just not THAT interesting a character that we need to be in her company for so long before she gets her just deserts. The other characters, some young people who live in the house with Anthea Vine are not any more interesting in my view. They are her three wards, dependent and hoping to profit upon their malevolent benefactor's death. All have been under Anthea's thumb, including her plucky secretary and the local young doctor.

Anthea pretends (or is she pretending?) that she has ulterior designs on the doctor and even one of her wards - an idea that only revolts them. (Maybe we're supposed to sympathize with Anthea's fading attractions and frenzied need for attention but I didn't.) It's all about control and money.

Though why these youngsters can't tell Anthea to go to hell then go out and get jobs, is beyond me. But in those days that may have been harder than it is today. Also with big money at stake, it's not always easy to walk away even at the sake of your self-respect.

Anyway, a couple of small odd burglaries occur locally and Inspector Pye is called in to try and find the culprit. In the meantime, up at the big house on the hill, Anthea Vine continues to bully those around her, relishing her power and behaving like someone just begging to be murdered.

She does have moments of gothic discontent though - late at night, she imagines shadows lurking about and closing in on her. Very unsettling in that dark and moody old mausoleum of a house for sure. But even that goes on too long.

Eventually, of course, she is murdered and we get down to sleuthing.

In the end, Inspector Pye (with the behind the scenes nudging of his sister) solves the case, putting together a quirky set of curious clues.

Not one of Ethel Lina White's best, but maybe not her worst. I'll probably read one or two more of her books because she did write quite a few and I remain hopeful.

Edgar and Anthony award nominated author Patricia Abbott is taking a blog hiatus until June 12th so Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom is doing hosting duties. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SHE DIED A LADY (1942) by Carter Dickson

We all know that John Dickson Carr had several pseudonyms and to my mind the books he wrote as Carter Dickson are some of his best. Of Carr's two rotund and decidedly eccentric detectives, Sir Henry Merrivale always pleased me more than Gideon Fell.

'I do not like thee, Doctor Fell
The reason why, I cannot tell.
But this I know and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.'

This nursery rhyme is the sort of inconsequential that goes through mind now and then and I've always wondered who Dr. Fell was and why anyone should dislike him enough to write a little ditty about it. I always wondered too if John Dickson Carr picked up the name from the rhyme. When I was reading all of John Dickson Carr in the long ago and far away, I remember having a preference for Sir Henry Merrivale though, unlike the writer of the ditty, I didn't actively dislike Gideon Fell.

And now thanks to Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora, I've renewed interest in one of Dickson's best books. I owe you one, Sergio.

Oh gosh how I loved this book.

It is an almost visceral pleasure when you realize you are in the presence of a true master of mystery and detection so pardon me while I gush. SHE DIED A LADY is nothing less than a masterpiece. I can't imagine any of Dickson's other books will measure up to this one, but that won't stop me from looking to reread the whole batch during the next few months.

Though I never did read John Dickson Carr over and over as I read Agatha Christie or even Josephine Tey or Rex Stout, I always thought I'd go back to his books at some point. This seems like a good a time as any, since SHE DIED A LADY has reminded me just how wonderful Carr can be.

The story features an impossible sounding crime (a John Dickson Carr specialty) - two people who are having a clandestine affair go out to the edge of a precipice overlooking a rocky coastline and do not return. Have they jumped? Is it suicide? No - that much is obvious early on since once their mangled bodies are fished out of the sea, both show evidence of having been shot. So what actually happened?

The story unfolds in the first person from the 'pen' of elderly Dr. Luke Croxley, a retired G.P. who still has a few patients though most of his practice has been turned over to his son, Dr. Tom. Dr. Luke is a likable sort even when he is haplessly clueless and though he is an honorable man, he is not an especially reliable narrator.

It is through his eyes that we view characters and events in the seaside village of Lyncomb during the early days of WWII. Coincidentally, Sir Henry Merrivale has come to town to have his portrait painted by a local artist. But Sir Henry has severely stubbed a big toe which, necessarily, has him tooling around in a motor driven wheel chair. Yes, you can imagine the chaos.

Our narrator, Dr. Luke, has been drawn into the emotional maelstrom of a woman he admires, the lovely and charismatic Rita Wainwright who is unhappily married to an older man. She has blindly fallen in love with a younger guy named Barry Sullivan, an erstwhile actor (no, not THE Barry Sullivan known to a few of us vintage movie aficionados) who happens to be indecently handsome and on the make.

It is interesting to note that this is one of very few mysteries written in the early forties (at least that I can remember) which doesn't mince words and actually mentions sex between unmarried adults.

As the story progresses, there are several active red herrings thrown at us, one of which I fell for. Very annoying to find out, in the end, that my guy was not the killer. And when the final, final ending is revealed, it is all very satisfying and gives credence to the idea that despite being a brilliant detective and dealer in facts, Sir Henry Merrivale is first and foremost a good man.

SHE DIED A LADY is easily available from Abe Books for very little cash. I was lucky enough to get a copy with the cover shown above. But whatever cover, don't miss the opportunity to read one of the best from John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson. A brilliantly plotted, well thought out mystery full of clues passed in front of you so fairly that when Sir Henry explains everything in the end, you say: Oh, of course, why didn't I see that??

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at Edgar and Anthony Award nominated author, Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1929) by Rufus King

'The story of a man who was murdered twice!' Kind of. Sort of. I'm a fan late to the work of Rufus King (1893 - 1966) which I seem to only have discovered thanks to John at Pretty Sinister Books, a guy who knows everything and anything about long lost authors and their works.

At any rate, MURDER BY THE CLOCK is apparently King's most well-known book - the first featuring Lieutenant Valcour, NYPD, in a series featuring eleven books.

(An aside: One of the little known and more interesting facts about King is that he also wrote the only satirical Nero Wolfe mystery I've ever read, HOLIDAY HOMICIDE. All about bout an eccentric genius who solves mysteries, but instead of collecting orchids, he collects rare (edible) nuts.)

MURDER BY THE CLOCK features all sorts of improbabilities and indignities for Valcour to wade through, plus lots of psychology to be explored and considered. Valcour is beckoned to the case by the intriguing and opaque femme fatale, Mrs. Herbert Endicott - she is worried about her philandering husband and thinks 'something' might have happened to him. He has gone out to meet his mistress but she - the missus - is convinced that all is not as it should be. Beguiled by Mrs. Endicott's oddly calm self-assurance, Valcour searches hubby's room to see if anything is missing or amiss.

The lieutenant soon discovers that something HAS indeed happened to Herbert Endicott - he is found, for all intents and purposes, dead. In fact he never left the house at all. Then follows one of the more unique features of this story - something I've never come across in another mystery in all my many years of reading them -  the doctor called to the 'murder' scene devises a plan to bring Endicott back to life once he realizes that Endicott is not ACTUALLY really and truly dead, just comatose. Turns out that the man had a bad heart and it looks as if something occurred to shock him into insensibility.

Assuming that once the would-be murderer realizes that his victim isn't dead he might come back and finish the job, it's Valcour's duty to make sure that Endicott doesn't get 'murdered' again.

The entire plot develops over one long night, hence the title and the late night aspects add a nice surreal element to the story. We get a few changes in point of view, but not enough to annoy and at the end, we get a strange unsettling do-over. I can say no more.

 To my way of thinking, the men in this book are not as well formed as the women characters - there is the husband's unexplained strangeness and peculiar way of talking which seems to be at odds with the callous treatment of his wife. One wonders what on earth the wife ever saw in him and really, hard to take a grown man named Herbert seriously, especially one who is not especially handsome or charming and allegedly uses baby-talk to weasel himself out of the house. Also, it's hard to take the wife seriously, until you realize what is actually going on. As I mentioned, this story is bristling with psychology.

And speaking of psychology, besides the victim and his wife, there are two peculiar servants who positively seethe with hatred of Mrs. Endicott. There is a supposed family friend who carries a concealed stiletto-like paper knife and there is the 'dead' man's mistress who is being blackmailed by her own evidently crazed mother. Lots of bizarre doings.

It is a very difficult thing to make an intriguing mystery with so few suspects, such a short span of time and such limited settings - three apartments - but Rufus King pulls it off.

As John mentions in his review of the book, there is a keen sense of gloom and doom - okay, gothic moodiness - indulged in by the author and his detective, which I liked. This is not your average Golden Age murder mystery as soon becomes evident. It is odd but clever in its oddness which includes a unique double-take ending.

I've read two Valcour mysteries and enjoyed them both though they couldn't be more different: MURDER BY THE CLOCK and the excellent MURDER BY LATITUDE which takes place aboard a cruise. King is a very underrated and under appreciated author. One of those Golden Agers who should be much better known.

Since this is Friday, don't forget once again to check in at author and Edgar Award nominee Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about this week.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE POWER HOUSE (1913) by John Buchan

(But first an apology: apparently I've gotten another Buchan book, THE THREE HOSTAGES, mixed in with my short-term memory of THE POWER HOUSE. Once realizing it I had to go back today and heavily re-edit my post. All I can say is that 'old lady' memory played tricks on me and I will try, in future, to pay closer attention to what I'm doing. Maybe I'll stop doing a post a week and just do one every two weeks. Obviously, I'm having problems sorting things out right now - possibly because I'm so stressed at what is happening in our country that I can hardly think straight anymore. As I said: apologies.)

Everyone knows that I'm a John Buchan fan-girl, so no big surprise that here I am once again, writing about one of his books. I owe a great deal of thanks to blogger and literati extraordinaire Kate MacDonald for without her guidance (and love of  John Buchan) I might have overlooked this smashing novella published in 1913.

THE POWER HOUSE is not really long enough or taxing enough for a novel so it can easily be read in one afternoon or evening. The story was first serialized for Blackwood's Magazine, then published in book form in 1916. It is told in a fast and colorful first person style with lots of theatricality and the sort of behind the scene machinations of the nefarious kind that I, for one, enjoy reading about - especially when it involves pre-WWI British society at a time when anarchists apparently lurked under every rock. A whiskey and soda or for those of us less hearty, a bracing cup of tea, makes a nice accompaniment.

Besides Richard Hannay, Scottish born author John Buchan created several other worthy heroes, Sir Edward Leithen being one of them. I had never read any Leithen books before, so again I thank Kate MacDonald for the nudge.

Sir Edward is a barrister, minor member of Parliament and man about London but he views himself as a stick-in-the-mud sort. He likes the law and dusty old books, yet still enjoys his clubs and the friendship of many. He is intelligent, supremely ethical, knows everyone who's anyone, but most importantly, he is a gentleman - back when that word meant something important and instantly identifiable.

Though in understandable hindsight, many readers tax John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedmuir, with the prejudices of his day, let's not forget that he was a Tory and as such his prejudices were bone bred and not very surprising. Yet with the dismal reality of our modern day world, I'd have trusted Buchan to do the right thing more than I trust the creatures in government today. (Buchan, besides being a best-selling author, also rose to become Governor-General of Canada.)

But back to the story: Sir Edward Leithen will become involved in a dark conspiracy of the sort only workable once upon a time when it seemed as if power could be grasped by a handful of men bent on re-negotiating the status quo for no other reason than because they could. At any rate, one night at their club, Leither learns from his friend Tommy Deloraine, that another mutual friend by the name of Charles Pitt-Heron, is apparently headed for deep trouble having just recently bolted for parts unknown leaving a very worried wife - someone whom, by the way, Leithen had once fancied. Deloraine explains that he's going after Pitt Heron to try and bring him to his senses or at least, save him from himself or whatever is wrong with him. Leithen scoffs a bit, but wishes Deloraine well in his quest and no, he will no be going with him, he has too much going on at the moment and it's probably all just a mare's nest.

A little later we meet the lynchpin of the plot, a certain Mr. Albert Lumley:

"It's  old Lumley. Have you ever met him? He doesn't go out much, but he gives a man's dinner now and then, which are the best in London. No. He's not a politician, though he favors our side, and I expect has given a lot to our funds. I can't think why they don't make him a Peer. He's enormously rich and very generous, and the most learned old fellow in Britain."

In the meantime, we learn that Leithen's friend Tommy Deloraine has left for Russia on the trail of their mutual friend Pitt-Heron who may or may not be in deep trouble. Leithen, as mentioned, remains behind and it is from him that we get the full story as it happens. Rather than decamping for an adventure in the wild, Leithen takes his own tack. Though we do get regular updates as to what the two travelers (Deloraine and Pitt-Heron eventually meet up) are up to though not in Russia as it turns out but elsewhere equally fascinating and off the beaten track with desert wastes and camels and bad guys hot in pursuit.

Seems an odd way to structure a tale like this, but John Buchan makes it work. (I suspect if he'd wanted to enlarge the story and take us out of London he could have easily done so, the novella would have become a full fledged novel - there is certainly enough story for it). But our main character stays behind in London while others go off to have adventures that we may or may not hear about. Yet in a series of improbably interconnected coincidences held together by intelligent deduction, he soon has his own dilemmas and mysteries enough to deal with. What is 'The Power House' and where does Andrew Lumley, wealthy recluse revered by many, fit in?

"...supposing anarchy learned from civilization and became international...Suppose that the links in the cordon of civilization were neutralized by other links in a far more potent chain."

"Ir's a horrible idea, I said, 'and thank God I don't believe it's possible. Mere destruction is too barren a creed to inspire a new Napoleon and you can do with nothing short of one."

 "...All that is needed is direction, which could be given by men of far fewer gifts than a Bonaparte. In a word you want a Power House and then the age of miracles will begin."

A splendid tale of chicanery, skulduggery and bizarre doings which stops just inches short of the absurd. The kind of thing they don't tell today probably because readers have gotten too sophisticated for such goings on. But back in the day, this was the sort of story that thrilled. Come to think of it, it still reads pretty thrillingly today.

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