Friday, October 27, 2017

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE PALE HORSE (1961) by Agatha Christie

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death and Hell followed with him."
Revelation 6:2-8

Some readers are not too impressed with Agatha Christie's output in the swinging 60's but I am not one of them. Sure her best work was behind her (though she did manage another classic and one of my favorite Poirot books ever, CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS in 1959, just one year before the onset of the 60's) but Dame Agatha still had something left in reserve and she managed in the next decade to write several terrific books: THIRD GIRL (yes, not many people like this one, but after listening to it on audio, I changed my view and now I like it very much indeed), HALLOWE'EN PARTY, A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY and today's choice: THE PALE HORSE.

The book has a devilishly cunning plot which shifts back and forth between two narratives - one the cop's, one the hero's - though the murders themselves are pure simplity - more or less. Let's just say that the 'how-to' is probably due to Dame Agatha's work in a hospital dispensary during WWI.

There is a kind of dread which hangs over the story precisely because the instrument of evil is so cleverly hidden and so darn mystifying. Then there's the chatter of voo-doo death spells and occult happenings woven throughout the narrative as people wonder if death by remote control is feasible.

But there is also the spectacle of three ridiculous witches in an English village who muck up the works and upon first reading of THE PALE HORSE years ago almost made me stop reading. One began to think Christie had perhaps gone too far. I mean, butchering fowl? But once you realize it's all window dressing, you see the brilliance of it. You will probably also figure out mid-book who the mastermind is. Doesn't matter - it's the HOW to, that keeps this book moving and the nicely developing love story, not to mention the likable heroine with the bright red hair.

This is one of Dame Agatha's stand-alones since it doesn't feature Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, though Ariadne Oliver, the mystery writer, gets involved. Instead the sleuthing and most of the narrating is done by a historian (researching the Mogul or Mughal era) named Mark Easterbrook who enters the fray tangentially after witnessing two girls' hair pulling fight in a dingy Chelsea restaurant.

Later Mark reads the name of Thomasina Tuckerton in the newspaper death notices and remembers that that was one of the girls involved in the altercation. File those incidents in the back of your mind as we move forward.

One night Father Gorman, a Catholic priest, is called out to hear a confession from a dying woman. She reveals the ominous outline of an evil plot together with a list of names. But before he can return to his church and decide what to do next, the priest himself is struck down dead in the street.

Fortunately for the police, the killer did not get the list of names since the priest had a hole in his pocket and had folded the list and inserted it in his shoe for safe-keeping. But the list tells the police exactly nothing - it's just a bunch of names.

In the meantime, Mark Easterbrook has had a request from his cousin Rhoda. Could he ask Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (a friend of Mark's) to attend an afternoon church fete in the village of Much Deeping. He heads on over to Mrs. Oliver's apartment and after much amusing chit chat (those of you familiar with the character of Mrs. Oliver will know what I mean), she says she'll think the invitation over because the last time she'd attended a fete, a murder occurred. "I've never quite got over it." So, she'll let him know.

On another night Mark goes to the theater with his fiancee Hermia (about whom the less said the better) to see a new version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Afterwards they go to dinner and meet up with a couple of friends. The conversation turns to the three witches in Macbeth, then onto the idea of real witches still existing in villages in England (which Mark scoffs at), then onto death and murder and how convenient it would be if you could get someone to cast a spell and the job would be done.

The young woman half of the other couple mentions that there is actually something like that.  'The Pale Horse' is a place one goes to if one wants to arrange a murder. But when questioned, she clams up and seems embarrassed. Later in the case when Mark tries to pry some details loose, she appears frightened and pretends not to know what he's talking about.

"One of the oddest things in life, as we all know, is the way that when you have heard a thing mentioned, within twenty four hours you nearly always come across it again. I had an instance of that the next morning.

My telephone rang and I answered it.

"Flaxman 73841,"

A kind of gasp came through the phone. Then a voice said breathlessly but defiantly:
"I've thought about it and I'll come!"

I cast around wildly in my mind.

"Splendid," I said, stalling for time. "Er - is that - "

"After all," said the voice, "lightning never strikes twice."

"Are you sure you've got the right number?"

"Of course I have. You're Mark Easterbrook, aren't you?"

"Got it!" I said, "Mrs. Oliver."

"Oh," said the voice, surprised. "Didn't you know who I was? I never thought of that. It's about that fete of Rhoda's. I'll come and sign books if she wants me to."

"That's frightfully nice of you. They'll put you up, of course."

"There won't be parties, will there?" asked Mrs. Oliver apprehensively. "You know the kind of thing," she went on."People coming up to me and saying am I writing something just now - when you'd think they could see I'm drinking ginger ale or tomato juice and not writing at all. And saying they like my books - which of course is pleasing, but I've never found the right answer. If you say 'I'm so glad' it sounds like 'Pleased to meet you.' A kind of stock phrase. Well, it is, of course. And you don't think they'll want me to go out to the Pink Horse and have drinks?"

"The Pink Horse?"

"Well, the Pale Horse. Pubs, I mean. I'm so bad in pubs. I can just drink beer at a pinch, but it makes me terribly gurgly."

"Just what do you mean by the Pale Horse?"

"There's a pub called that down there, isn't there? Or perhaps I do mean the Pink Horse? Or perhaps that's somewhere else. I may have just imagined it. I do imagine quite a lot of things."

Fortuitously Mark later runs into an old Oxford friend named Corrigan who happens to be a police surgeon and through him Mark learns of the list in Father Gorman's shoe. They go over the list together and Mark notices not only the name of Thomasina Tuckerton, but the name also of Mark's godmother Lady Hesketh Dubois who has recently died of natural causes. The name of Corrigan is also on the list and Mark's friend says "I've a feeling it's unlucky to have your name on that list."

Suddenly bored with his Mughal researches, Mark embarks on his own check of a few other names on the list and finds that they're all dead - died of natural causes one and all. So why was Father Gorman killed? If for the list, why? They're just the names of people who have died of a variety of natural causes.

Shortly thereafter, Mark's cousin's fete came and went and Mrs. Oliver's fears were unfounded. Nothing much happened except the usual.

"The party consisted of my Cousin Rhoda, and her husband, Colonel Despard; Miss Macalister; a young woman with red hair, suitably called Ginger; Mrs. Oliver; and the vicar, the Rev. Caleb Dane Calthrop and his wife. The vicar was a charming elderly scholar whose principal pleasure was finding some apposite comment from the classics. This, though often an embarrassment and a cause of bringing the conversation to a close, was perfectly in order now. The vicar never required acknowledgement of his sonorous Latin; his pleasure in having found an apt quotation was its own reward.

"As Horace says..." he observed, beaming around the table.

The usual pause happened and then:

"I think Mrs. Horsefall cheated over the bottle of champagne," said Ginger thoughtfully. "Her nephew got it."

Mrs. Dane Calthrop, a disconcerting woman with fine eyes, was studying Mrs. Oliver thoughtfully. She asked abruptly: "What did you expect to happen at the fete?"

"Well, really, a murder or something like that."

Mrs. Dane Calthrop looked interested.

"But why should it?"

"No reason at all. Most unlikely really. But there was one at the last fete I went to."

"I see. And it upset you?"

"Very much."

The vicar changed from Latin to Greek.

After the pause, Miss Macalister cast doubts on the honesty of the raffle for the live duck.

"Very sporting of old Lugg at the King's Arms to send us twelve dozen beer for the bottle stall," said Despard.

"King's Arms?" I asked sharply.

"Our local, darling," said Rhoda.

"Isn't there another pub around here? The - Pale Horse, didn't you say," I asked turning to Mrs. Oliver.

There was no such reaction here as I had half expected. The faces turned towards me were vague and uninterested.

"The Pale Horse isn't a pub," said Rhoda. "I mean, not now."

"It was an old inn, " said Despard. "Mostly sixteenth century I'd say. But it's just an ordinary house now. I always think they should have changed the name."

Turns out the the house is owned and lived in by three odd old ladies much invested in the occult, spiritualism and trances and such. And when Mrs. Oliver says she'd love to meet them, the group  decides to visit the next day.

Eventually Mark (with the occasional flash of disjointed wisdom from Mrs. Oliver) will uncover the connection between the three old 'witches' who love putting on a good show, The Pale Horse, a surprising book-making establishment, wholesale death on demand, a wealthy reclusive man whose fortune comes from unknown sources, and a witness who won't take no for an answer all the while slipping comfortably into a relationship with Ginger aka Katherine Corrigan (yes, another Corrigan) the red haired young woman helping him in his investigation (Hermia having decided that it was all a bunch of nonsense.)

All this makes for a terrific convoluted thriller, the sort in which everything comes together at the end nice and neatly - but not before nearly costing Ginger her life.

Since this is Friday 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.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday Salon: My Kind of Halloween Movies

A fun/scary movie even my daughter approved of way back when we watched it though she doesn't quite understand my continued and undying devotion. She grew up. I didn't. (P.S.Willie Best practically steals the movie out from under Bob Hope's famous nose.)

For me, this is the best of the haunted house movies especially since the director understood that less is very definitely more when it comes to ghostly apparitions. The movie's undercurrents of illicit love and strange obsessions works well too. Cornelia Otis Skinner makes for an elegantly demented villain.

My favorite of the Frankenstein movies though there are two more on my list which I love to watch when the mood strikes which is usually around this time of year. In this film, Lionel Atwill and the set designer/decorator are the scene stealers. And again I ask, as I always do, why would the child of an English couple have an American southern accent? This continues to be one of the great movie imponderables.

How Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman all wind up in America and get to attend a masquerade party. Still creepily hilarious and, in my book, a classic.

Eeky, slimy Dr. Praetorius and his wierdly off-putting 'tiny' people - need I say anymore?. And I also like the bride's two tone hairdo. James Whale's brilliant direction, the sinister sets and gorgeous photography, make for a truly atmospheric monster fest.

The first and still the scariest of the mummy franchise primarily because of Boris Karloff's eerie persona and compelling mummy presence. You can almost smell the fetid odor of decaying flesh and rancid linen.

The second of the 'scary' Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard pairings. While not as good as THE GHOST BREAKERS, it does have Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco and lots of spooky atmosphere as the characters are stranded overnight in an isolated Bayou mansion.

A fabulous Frank Capra film with just about the worst movie posters of all time. Can't find a single one that has any hint of what the movie is about. At any rate, this is a classic movie with a fabulous cast and one of the best beginnings - a raucous fight on the field during a game at Ebbits Field where the  Brooklyn Dodgers played once upon a time. Everyone in the film is a hilarious scene stealer and all work together to lunatic perfection. Cary Grant should have been nominated for an Oscar for his manic performance - here was a handsome man not afraid to make himself ridiculous on a grand scale.

 A movie saved from banality (well it stars Kent Smith and Jane Randolph) by the captivating presence of Simone Simon whose feline features and foreign accent seem perfectly in tune with the whole idea of cursed exotic females in distress. And Tom Conway all but steals the movie with his portrayal of a really sleazy psychiatrist. Another entry in the 'less is plenty more' sweepstakes of film making in which most of what you think you see isn't really there but in your imagination.

I was going to include Lon Chaney Jr.'s werewolf movie which is the better known, but that one always makes me sad. I don't like being sad on Halloween. So here is Henry Hull's werewolf movie which has a dark and shadowy beginning in a foreign land and Warner Oland NOT playing Charlie Chan. And if the wolfie make-up isn't up to modern day standards, so what - it still works for me.

These are the films I love to watch when the spooks and goblins are abroad in the land. No blood and guts for me, thank you very much. Just creepy crawlies, a few scary moments and the occasional mindless joviality.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE FRIGHTENED STIFF (1942) by Kelley Roos

Yet again I cannot remember who recommended this book to me, but whoever you are/were, THANK YOU! Husband and wife detecting teams aren't all that prolific in the annals of vintage mystery fiction though there are a few (besides Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, my stand-out favorites are the Jane and Dagobert Brown books by Delano Ames and the Mr. and Mrs. North books by Francis and Richard Lockridge) so when I stumble across a 'new' Mr. and Mrs. Detecting Duo, I am thrilled. Haila and Jeff Troy now join my list of favorite marital sleuthing teams.

Husband and wife authors Audrey and William Roos aka Kelley Roos, are not as talented as Christie or Delano Ames , but they seem quite on par with the Lockridges and that's quite good enough for me. Based on THE FRIGHTENED STIFF, I'll definitely be looking for the rest of the books in the series.

Apparently the Kelley Roos combo is another of those authors whose books mysteriously vanished from sight over time. But then Rue Morgue Press stepped up and re-published some of the titles a few years ago and VOILA!

THE FRIGHTENED STIFF should especially resonate with readers who lived in New York and have memories of the city of once upon a time. (I grew up there in the 40's and 50's and to me, Manhattan was a fabulous theme park.) Even if you don't have the actual memories, you will probably have seen movies set in the city of that time so you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about. There was a neighborhood feel to the city then but also a sense that adventure was just around the corner. And nowhere in the city was adventure more likely to happen than in Greenwich Village, the artistic enclave of eccentrics which still, to this day, carries its own unique cachet.

The pleasure of being young marrieds moving into an atmospheric basement apartment on a great street in The Village is dampened somewhat by the unpleasantness of a dead man in the garden out back. But there's always something - right? The zest of living in the city of eight million stories is captured wonderfully by the authors - even if this particular story is pretty much confined to one building and its surrounding streets. A second dead body would have added more 'oomph' to the plot and considering the eventual solution and explanation of plot mechanics, I'm surprised there wasn't one, but still I enjoyed what the authors did with this cozy NYC mystery of the early 1940's.

When the aforementioned body is spied by a neighbor from a second floor window, the cops are called in and as they begin tramping in and out of their apartment, Jeff and Haila Troy are put in a difficult position. They have to explain that though the victim is lying nude in their garden, the body literally stripped of any identification - they have no idea who he is. But it turns out (once Haila gets a closer look) that the corpse is the same guy they'd noticed acting suspiciously the night before at a neighborhood restaurant.

It also turns out that Haila had overheard the dead man's half of a strange phone conversation. He was making a midnight assignation to meet someone in, of all places, their new apartment. (The Troys had not been expected to move in until a week later so their sudden appearance had obviously upset some nefarious plan.) Then Jeff had almost gotten into an altercation with the guy who'd turned belligerent. But both Troys assumed he'd just been drunk.

Next thing you know, the same shady character winds up dead in their garden. Naturally, the cops suspect the Troys of knowing more than they're telling. So to keep from being arrested for the crime, Jeff decides to solve it. I mean, wouldn't you?

The building is chock full of quirky folk. All seem uneasy, but then having a dead man show up in the building's garden might make anyone uneasy. Especially since it's obvious that the killer has to be one of them.

The tenants:

1) An old friend of Haila's (who now doesn't seem quite so friendly) and her handsome hubby who if he isn't guilty of anything, sure acts like it.

2) Two sisters, one of whom is sickly and spends most of the day in bed (when she isn't staring white faced and spooky out the window) while the other one assiduously mans the entrance to their apartment fending off even the police who want to chat.

3) A coquettish restaurateur with a watchful eye, a secret and a surly brother.

4) A guy masquerading as an art expert.

5) The landlord who isn't above acting suspiciously himself.

6) And last but not least, the dead man who, unknown to Jeff and Haila, had also lived in the building - top floor rear.

Most of the action takes place within the confines of the building, often in the shadowy hallways where odd noises and surreptitious footsteps make Haila very uneasy as well, not to mention that the landlord keeps dragging his feet about getting them a new lock for the busted in front door. (The cops having been a bit too enthusiastic.) Also not to mention that when Haila learns that the dead man was killed inside their apartment in their bathtub (!), she refuses to bathe and immediately wants to abandon their lease and get the hell out. Sort of the same reaction I'd have.

Noises, bumps in the night and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a West Village brownstone which had once been a speakeasy work very well to enhance the logistics of a most engaging whodunit. Likable and amusing main characters, breezy dialogue and a puzzling mystery make for the kind of story I seem to be in the mood for these days. There's just something comforting about this sort of thing, especially if you have a fondness for the setting and the whole improbably idea of young, energetic marrieds solving a murder that stumps the cops.

"You won't find their [Audrey and William Roos] names among the giants of the genre but their contribution to what that other Allentown mystery writer - John Dickson Carr - called the 'Grandest Game," deserves not to be overlooked. They showed, as son Stephen puts it, what it was like to  be young and in love in New York of the 1940's and, perhaps even more importantly, that mysteries were meant to be fun." From the introduction by Tom and Enid Schantz.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Show of Hands

Didn't much feel like writing about any one book this week, so I'm doing pictures. I've posted book cover themes before (and will continue to do so) primarily because I do enjoy looking at covers from the golden age of mystery even if I've not always read the book. I wish it were easier to find out who the various illustrators were. At any rate, I believe these books qualify for our Forgotten or Overlooked Books weekly meme.

And since it's Friday, 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.