Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday with family and/or friends. I'll be on hiatus for a few days. See you next week.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE (1933) by Philip MacDonald

A few of you may know that I'm a huge fan of Philip MacDonald's books (when I can find them) featuring super suave sleuth Anthony Gethryn. But that doesn't mean I don't also enjoy the author's stand alone thrillers as well. Though in truth MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE makes me wonder where Gethryn was during this particular grave crisis in which a madman caused such an uproar that he almost succeeded in bringing down the British government. Well, maybe Gethryn was busy elsewhere.

At any rate, here MacDonald has created another smooth sleuthing fellow, this time named Nicholas Revel. He is an elegant, attractive, clever man with a mysterious past and present (no visible means of support) but cut from a similar cloth as Gethryn in his brilliance, cunning and charm. Though what Revel puts those talents to on a regular basis is something the practitioners of law and order would frown upon if only they knew. Nevertheless it's up to Revel this time out, to help save the government and halt the brutal killings of police which have the police themselves, baffled.

To the plot:

We learn early on that the police are being targeted by a mysterious killer who gleefully keeps a diary of his nefarious actions and shares them with the reader. So we know going in who the killer is if not WHO the killer is - if you know what I mean. We switch back and forth between so-called 'X's' enthusiastic bragging and the helplessness of Scotland Yard and others (the Prime Minister is kept abreast) who are charged with keeping the peace and putting a stop to this sort of thing.

As the slaughter of random patrolmen continues, civil unrest grows. The public demands action. Who is there to stop the murdering madman who kills without leaving any clue?

Let's back up a bit. The insertion of Nicholas Revel into the plot occurs by happenstance when one afternoon, while having a drink in a restaurant lounge, he notices a beautiful (of course) young woman seemingly laboring under great strain. There is a folded newspaper on the table in front of her, the front page of which has apparently upset her. (The keenly observant Revel is excellent at picking up these sorts of clues.)

He overhears her last name and is immediately intrigued. For the damsel in apparent distress happens to be Jane Frensham, the daughter of Sir Hector Frensham head of  Scotland Yard. Revel decides then and there that it would be a good thing to get to know Miss Frenshaw. And this he does, by smoothly worming his way into her confidence and fabricating an alibi for Jane's ex-fiancee Sir Christopher Llewellyn De'Ath Vayle who had been arrested the night before for the death by strangulation of a police officer. (This is the story, the headlines of which, had caused Miss Frenshaw such distress.)

Vayle had been drunk and carousing with his friends but all he is guilty of is stealing a cop's helmet to use as a drinking vessel. (He was very drunk.) Still, the police are sure he is responsible for the dead policeman - case closed. But it is not to be when Revel steps in and supplies a handy alibi (corroborated by a taxi driver) for the incarcerated young baron.

Once Vayle is released, Jane is necessarily under a bit of an obligation to the attractive stranger whose timely alibi has saved the day. We assume (as she does) that he will sooner or later pop up in her life once again. My only fault finding with Revel is that he is not especially likable, but that's probably a minor thing is such an active murderous plot. In truth the most likable character turns out to be Sir Hector Frenshaw, the beleaguered head of Scotland Yard on whose shoulders rest the troubles of a great city besieged by a killer. He, at least, is willing to think outside the box and turn to an unlikely source for help.

Meanwhile as the killings continue, questions are raised in the House and insults hurled. The city of London is on edge and the press is fanning the flames of unrest. The constabulary and other officials wrack their brains to come up with a plan - any plan, that might put a stop to the carnage.

"Very well," said the Prime Minister. "The...steps which I was going to put forward for consideration were - and this is your province, Knollys - that we should call upon the military arm to assist the civil arm. You are as well aware as I of the fact that Frensham would like to double his duty posts - and has, in fact, done so in a few places - but that he cannot do this generally for lack of men. What would be simpler really than to double or even treble his man power by the use of the military?"

The Prime Minister halted and looked down at his colleague. Spencer Knollys lay back in his chair; his pipe was out and his eyes were closed. The Prime Minister waited, knowing his man.

Knollys opened his eyes. "No!" He shook his head. "No, it won't do, Campbell. It won't do at all. It'd be fatal!"

"Oh," said the Prime Minister, crestfallen. 

"Not a bit of good," said Knollys. "I'll tell you why: in your own phrase, these murders are undermining the prestige of the law. You're right. But how much more would it be undermining the prestige of the law if you called out the army to help the bobbies protect themselves? See what I'm driving at?"

"Yes," said the Prime Minister. "Yes. A point of view. Certainly a point of view."

"It's a damned sight more than a point of view! It's the truth! You can't say to London: 'Look here, you've been bamboozled for years into thinking policemen can look after you. I'm sorry but they're so far from being able to do that that they can't even take care of themselves, so I think we'll have to spend a bit more money and the army to help 'em!' It won't do, Campbell!"

In one amusing chapter titled, 'Kaldidoscope,' we flit through relevant and irrelevant incident after incident which include newspaper clips and quick conversations captured on the fly. These are mixed in with a dry snipe or two at the English temperament and even an unexpected comment on the author's pseudonym, and the unfortunate death of a citizen by an over-eager cop - all jumbled together in the most entertaining fashion.

This is not, despite the plot being littered with bodies, a long narrative, it's quick, it's entertaining if a bit graphic in parts, and it's fast-moving - in fact, in paperback it's only 192 pages. The perfect evening pastime for a reader who likes this type of thing, especially after a long day of whatever you're up to at this time of year.

I do so wish that Philip MacDonald's books were more readily available. He really should be as well known as any of the other big names in vintage thriller writing - and not just for THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER.  The books show a bit of their age but otherwise they are, in my view, just about perfection - mainly because they do not require heavy duty thinking on the part of the reader while at the same time supplying just the right amount of puzzle, action and relaxation. And additionally, these sorts of books supply exactly the right ambience. For those of us who love slightly old fashioned tales set in the Britain of once upon a time, ambience is key to our reading happiness.

It's Friday and this week Todd Mason is hosting the Forgotten Book meme in place of author Patricia Abbott. So don't forget to check in at his blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers will be talking about today.

Martin Porlock was a Philip MacDonald pseudonym so I'm assuming he used it on the earlier editions of MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE. This over-the-top cover seems to be the Spanish edition. Love it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: STAIRWAYS OF DOOM

Uh-oh, a frazzled someone is about to get caught up to no good. I like Farjeon's stories, though MYSTERY IN WHITE was a total dismal dud.

I know nothing about this book (there's not much online) except that the sinister young girl on the cover looks like Patti McCormack in THE BAD SEED. I thought maybe this was the book the film was based on, but the author is different. Who knows? Obviously they were trying to capitalize on the film in some underhanded and not very subtle way. Still, it's a great cover.

I've read most of Mary Roberts Rinehart's output, but not this one. However, if I stumbled across it in some used book pile, I'd buy it in a minute even if it does say 'a love story - with just enough mystery.'

This is on my TBR Carter Dickons aka John DIckson Carr reread list. As in: I know I read this eons ago but can't remember a thing about it. Another great cover and less histrionic than most of the artwork usually found on Carr covers. Well, I'm a sucker for a man in top hat anyway.

Never heard of this one, but still how could I pass up this cover AND the title. It fits in so perfectly.

This title is also known as POIROT LOSES A CLIENT which I like much better. One of Christie's more character driven stories and a fabulous treatise on mystery mis-direction.

Never heard of this one either but the cover caught my eye and fits perfectly in today's theme. One wonders why the young woman at the top of the stairs is so bent out of shape.

Shadows and a staircase. What could be better? I've never read any Lorac, I have a feeling this is sort of like Edgar Wallace? Not sure. Someone will correct and set me straight.

I've heard of Bellairs, but never read him either. If I saw this cover, I'd buy the book, no question.

Probably my favorite of the Nancy Drew books as well as favorite cover art. Naturally enough I've read all the early Nancy Drews, but ask me a question about plots and whatnot, and I would draw a blank. Old lady memory is cruel. I only know that these books led me to Agatha Christie mysteries and the rest as they say, is history.

A terrific Peter Wimsey book with some pretty sordid people in it. The ending is not wonderful. The Ian Carmichael video version, if you can find it, is outstanding though again, the ending is unsparing. By the way, if you can get your hands on the audio versions of Sayer's books read by Carmichael, do so. (P.S. the staircase in the story is actually a spiral one, but picking a nit is not on the docket today.)

I used different cover versions for this book in my previous post, but I didn't find this one (which I love) until recently. My favorite cover and my favorite Rinehart book. The audio version too, is terrific.

I've recently begun re-reading some selected Ellery Queen books, but I'd never heard of this one. Somebody tell me if it's worth looking for. Queen's books do not age well, but the ones that were excellent then are usually excellent now if you make allowance for the creaky. (It's funny how some authors from the same period hold up with all their idiosyncrasies better than others. ) Or maybe it's just that some idiosyncrasies hold up better than others.

Never heard of this one either. But it fits in very nicely with today's motif.

I'm currently re-reading BUSMAN'S HOLIDAY and enjoying it yet again. It turns out to be one of my favorite Peter Wimsey's, possibly because he is happy in this one - being on his honeymoon and all. If possible, try and listen to the audio version narrated by Ian Carmichael - it is superb.

Found this other CIRCULAR STAIRCASE cover at the last minute and what the heck - it's perfect for today's theme. In an oddly surreal sort of way, it's kind of comical too and maybe that's not what was intended (there's little funny about the plot) but it's certainly eye-catchy enough.


I've done one other Stairways of Doom posts - link - pointing out how many vintage mystery books had staircases on their cover art, but still there are more. Don't ask why I'm so fascinated by the 'theme' idea, I just am. My brain runs on quirk and melodrama is my middle name.

It's Friday once again and time to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other authors are talking about. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: FREE FALL (1993) by Robert Crais

Jennifer Sheridan, the young and impressionable, innocent and plucky heroine of Robert Crais' fourth Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel is just the kind of girl that Elvis was born to protect. After all Elvis is the ultimate self-confessed, knight-in-shining armor in the guise of a Los Angeles-based private eye -  someone to turn to when your life begins to go down the tubes. He is the original gun-carrying, bone-crushing, boy-scout; a self-admitted Peter Pan who, for a two thousand dollar advance, will come to your rescue with a quip and an elbow to the gut. He is (in his own words) 'the world's greatest detective." Or at least, that's how he answers his phone. World's Greatest to the rescue.

If you can read this book and NOT fall in love with Elvis, then, well, you are beyond mortal help.

Back to the story: Jennifer Sheridan is sure that her fiance Mark Thurman is in some sort of deep trouble but since he won't talk to her about it, she can't help him. She wants to help him. She loves him. He lover her - that will never change. No matter what. Her earnestness is infectious.

"On the phone you said something about your boyfriend."

"My fiance. I think he's mixed up in some kind of criminal thing. I've asked him, and he denies it, but I know that something going on. I think he's scared, and that worries me. My fiance is not scared of very much."

I nodded again and tucked that away. Fearless Fiance. "Okay. What kind of crime are we talking about.?"

"I don't know."

"Is he stealing cars?"

"I don't think so."

"Is he embezzling?"

"No. It wouldn't be that."

"How about fraud?"

She shook her head.

"We're running out of choices, Ms. Sheridan."

.....I took out a yellow legal pad, a black SenseMatic pencil, and made as if I were poised to copy the rush of information she was about to provide. I drew a couple of practice marks on the page. Subliminal prompting. "I'm ready. Fire away."
She swallowed.


She stared at the floor.

I put the pad on the desk and the pencil on the pad. I put my fingertips together and looked at Jennifer Sheridan through the steeple, and then I looked at the Pinocchio clock that I've got on my wall. It has eyes that swing from side to side as it tocks, and it's always smiling. Happiness is contagious. It was twelve twenty-two, and if I could get down to the deli fast enough, the turkey would still be moist and the baguette would still be edible. I said, "Maybe you should go to the police, Ms. Sheridan. I don't think I can help you."

She clutched the purse even tighter and gave me miserable. "I can't do that."

I spread my hands and stood up. "If your fiance is in danger, it is better to get in trouble with the police than it is to be hurt or killed....Try the police, Ms. Sheridan. The police can help you."

"I can't do that, Mr. Cole." The misery turned into fear. "My fiance is the police."

"Oh." Now it was my turn. I sat down.

So begins this very tricky case.

Turns out Mark is a 'special forces' L.A. cop and cops have 'codes' they live by - Jennifer understands that. But Mark has NEVER kept anything from her before. Jennifer is worried. She wants to hire Elvis to find out what's going on.

Elvis isn't crazy about the idea of checking into a cop's private life - they don't usually like that.

Sure enough, almost as soon as Jennifer  Sheridan has left his office, Mark Thurman and his quarrelsome drunken lout of a partner, Floyd Riggins show up, with attitude. (Obviously they had been waiting and watching outside.) The meeting doesn't go well. Floyd is a pain in the ass from the get-go. Mark calms him down and explains to Elvis that the 'trouble' Jennifer senses is of a 'personal' nature and Elvis needs to give him [Mark] time to set things right.  It's personal, he insists. Okay, sounds reasonable.

So Elvis has another go at disentangling himself from what has the appearance of turning into a very messy business. He meets Jennifer for lunch near her office, to let her down gently.

What follows is a very funny restaurant scene when Jennifer refuses to let Elvis off the hook. Every time I read this book I can't wait to get to this moment. And every single time I laugh out loud. It's one of those perfectly paced sequences RC is famous for. Elvis is such a sucker for a dame in distress. Especially for a dame who won't stop crying in a crowded restaurant with diners nearby ready to spring to her aid.

AND before you get the idea that this is all fun and games, please think again. It's just that life is occasionally funny (it would have to be for us to stand the rest of it) and Robert Crais makes the most of it. This is one of the things I love best about his writing.

The plot of FREE FALL swirls around L.A. racial troubles, wayward cops and gang violence. But somehow, RC makes it all work together in a new way. (The book is over twenty years old but the same type of troubles, unfortunately, are still pretty much on-going.)

Once he finally accepts the case Elvis finds himself up against a rogue unit of the fearsome L.A. police. Within days, calling on his partner, the enigmatic, taciturn, sunglasses-wearing man of few words, Joe Pike, seems like a good idea. Pike is a man of, shall we say, 'reputation.' Everyone treads carefully around Pike, an ex-cop who doesn't suffer fools lightly and is afraid of no one.

The first phone call between Elvis and Joe:

I used the payphone there to dial a gun shop in Culver City, and man's voice answered on the second ring. "Pike."

"It's me. I'm standing in a 7-Eleven parking lot on San Pedro about three blocks south of Martin Luther King Boulevard. I'm with a black guy in his early twenties named James Edward Washington. A white guy and a Hispanic guy in a dark blue 1989 sedan are following us. I think they've been following me for the past two days."

"Shoot them." Life is simple for some of us.

"I was thinking more that you could follow them as they follow me and we could find out who they are."

Pike didn't say anything.

"Also, I think they're cops."

Pike grunted. "Where you headed?"

"A place called Ray's Gym. In South Central."

Pike grunted again. "I know Ray's. Are you in immediate danger?"

I looked around. "Well, I could probably get hit by a meteor."

Pike said, "Go to Ray's. You won't see me, but I'll be there when you come out."
Then he hung up. Some partner, huh?

These books are not comedies, not cozies, not anything but great private eye stories with their fair share of action and violence, but that not especially overdone. The duo's sense of justice and the rightness of things is especially acute and I like that no matter how difficult the situation, there is never any idea that Elvis and Pike won't do the right thing.

From the moment Pike comes on board, he and Elvis will take on the whole LA Police force AND a bunch of heavily armed lethal gang bangers. As the violence escalates, they find themselves on the other side of the law, (my favorite part of the book), on the run from desperate bad cops, misinformed good cops and a bunch of murderous punks - ugly, nasty dudes who will stop at nothing, to hang onto their turf. It is especially satisfying to read about bad cops getting their comeuppance but it is also especially disturbing reading about cops who have compromised their souls and in the process lost themselves.

But despite the constant sense of danger, there are still moments of pure delight as the relationship between Elvis and Joe is always a joy to read about. These books are basically at their heart all about the strength of their friendship - how Elvis and Joe react to the world around them. A world that isn't  easy. A world in which each man relies completely on the other. There's never any question in my mind that Joe would die for Elvis and vice versa. Though not related, they are brothers. I love that about these books. There are certain 'absolutes' that I enjoy reading about - Elvis and Joe's friendship is one of them. 

Robert Crais loves the city of Los Angeles and knows it like he knows the back of his hand. This comes across in his books as the setting is an integral part of each story. I don't know L.A. at all, but somehow, sometimes, reading R.C., I feel as if I do.

This is a series that should probably be read in order. (Always remembering that Joe and Elvis grow richer and stronger in tone and depth of character as the series goes on almost as if Robert Crais didn't actually realize what he'd created until the series took deeper hold of his imagination.)

My favorites going in:


I recommend reading at least two of these BEFORE you read L.A. REQUIEM which is, to my mind, a genre masterpiece. REQUIEM is very much enhanced if you already know the depth of Elvis and Joe's friendship and Elvis's relationship with attorney Lucy Chenier whom he met in VOODOO RIVER. After that, as you please. It's difficult to go wrong with Robert Crais at the helm. Sequence is not absolutely necessary, after all I began with VOODOO RIVER and then worked my way around the series. Not every book is a keeper, but those that are will remain in my library (to be read and reread) forever.

There are also some quite wonderful books written later on from the point of view of Joe Pike - not to be missed.

Since this is Friday once again (funny how that works) it's time to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other writers are talking about today.