Friday, February 23, 2018

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: HOME SWEET HOMICIDE (1944) by Craig Rice

My first Craig Rice book and again I ask: what took me so long? My only excuse is that though I'd heard of Rice, I'd never come across her books either in the library or in bookstores and it's only lately that I've been hearing more about her writing AND all of a sudden I was able to cash in on a cache of Rice books on ebay for four bucks. I mean, was the universe giving me a nudge or what?

(P.S. Expect to see a couple more Craig Rice reviews down the line at some point. )

Craig Rice was the pseudonym of Georgiana Anne Randolph Craig. A prolific writer, she wrote under various names and ghost-wrote several mysteries purported to have been written by celebrities such as George Sanders and even, rumor has it, Gypsy Rose Lee. Several of Rice's books were turned into popular films.

At any rate, I'm just finishing up the delightful HOME SWEET HOMICIDE and I'm running late, so my review will likely not be posted until Friday afternoon.

Yes I know you're getting tired of me saying that this or that book is a 'delight' but I can't help it. Lately I've just lucked out in the 'delight' department.

A lovely suburban murder is about to take place (well, not so lovely for the victim) in the California country-side and we are about to meet the Carstairs family who will be right in the thick of things.

Of course HOME SWEET HOMICIDE depends on your tolerance of young kids (two clever and self-sufficient sisters and an ingenious younger brother) solving a murder while their mother, a mystery writer, works in a trance-like state on her latest manuscript. Marian Carstairs is a charming widow who likes to sing railroad ditties and has time for nothing but writing, writing, writing - you know where this is headed - right? Yep, there's a handsome police detective about to enter the picture.

The kids are on the scene one afternoon when shots are fired in the Sanford house next door. Naturally, they are immediately eager to find out what's happened though it's pretty obvious from the screams (and their peeks through a window) that a body has been found - to their ghoulish delight. A young woman comes running out of the house and the kids immediately rush into action.

Almost on the spot they hatch a plot to solve the crime so that their mother gets the credit AND the resulting publicity. This, they reason, will help the sales of her books. Makes sense to me. The body next door turns out to be that of Mrs. Sanford. The screaming woman rushing from the house is a young actress suspected of hanky-panky with Mr. Sanford. The kids had conveniently seen two cars leaving the scene of the crime just moments before. They are besides themselves with curiosity. I mean, wouldn't you be?

As time is of the essence, they think nothing of concealing and desecrating evidence that should rightly be in the hands of the police. However, since the cops in this book are not especially competent, the kids get away with just about everything while their mom, oblivious (she didn't hear the shots above the clackity-clack of her typewriter), toils furiously to meet her deadline.

Teenager Dinah Carstairs and her slightly younger sister April, not to mention their brother Archie are 'innocently' underfoot as the police arrive and begin their investigation. They try to shoo the kids away but since they live next door that's kind of hard to manage - most especially on the night of their big party when the house is filled with kids running around while a 'treasure hunt' is in progress. I grew very fond of Archie's slightly disreputable group of friends, a bunch of little boys known as 'the Mob.'  They kind of reminded me of the gang of Scottish street boys so wonderfully created by John Buchan in the classic, HUNTINGTOWER.

As I mentioned, Marian Carstairs, the mother, is a distracted widow who tends to zone out when in the clutches of writing fever, but fortunately her children  have adapted to their mother's idiosyncrasies - she spends most of the day alone in a room slaving away - there but not there, if you know what I mean.  They willingly share household duties, such as making breakfast and dinner and general clean-up. Perfectly content and acclimated to their daily routine, they do occasionally wish their mother would meet someone and get married - she's been a widow for years and years.

Enter the hapless but handsome policeman, Bill Smith who happens to be fond of railroad ditties. (Coincidentally, one of Marian Carstair's fictional detectives is also named Bill Smith.) The kids think Smith would make a perfect hubby for their mom and vow to throw them together as much as possible while solving the murder. To that end, they will run rings around the two cops in charge of the case.

They also try to make sure that their mom always looks her best when there's a possibility of the handsome cop coming over to interrogate any of them. This is the 1940's when women still wore 'house coats' around the - well, the house - and Marian has an especially nice blue one. She also tucks a flower in her dark hair once in a while. Yep - Bill Smith is a goner.

Marian Carstairs...looked around the dinner table and counted her blessings. Three of them, to be exact. She sighed happily. 

There was a fresh lace cloth on the candlelit dinner table, and a bowl of yellow roses in the center. The ham was marvelously tender and delicately spiced, the sweet potatoes swam in in a thick brown syrup, the corn muffins were scorching hot and light as thistledown. A highly successful experiment had been made in combining the salad.

April, the darling, had brought a glass of sherry upstairs before dinner and said such sweet, such appreciated things! "Mother you look so much prettier in your blue house coat." "Mother, let me fix your hair tonight. " "Mother, put some war paint on. We always like to see you looking schmooz-able." And finally, "Oh, Mother, let me put one of the pink roses in your mane."

Did anyone, ever, have such wonderful children? She gazed at them rapturously. So good, so clever, and so beautiful! Marian smiled at them all, and reproached herself for having had even the faintest and most secret suspicion of them...

..."Mother," April said brightly, "if a lady was found murdered in her own living room, and if a few minutes later a socko motion-picture star drove up and said she'd been invited to tea, and somebody had heard two shots fired but the lady  had only been shot once, and if her husband was missing and didn't have any alibi, but if neither the husband or the motion-picture star had been the person who dood it," she finally ran out of breath, gasped and finished, "who would you say did?"  

"For the love of Mike!" Marian said in a startled voice. "Where have you been reading such trash?" 

Archie giggled and bounced up and down on the sofa. "It isn't trash! he said loudly. "And we didn't read it. We saw it!"

"Archie!" Dinah said sternly. She turned to Mother and said, "It happened next door. This afternoon."

Marian Carstairs' eyes widened. Then she frowned. "Nonsense. I'm not going to fall for any of your tricks, not this time."

"Honest," April said. "It did happen. It's all in tonight's paper." She turned to Archie. "Get the paper. It's in the kitchen."

"I always have to do everything," Archie complained. He left.

"Mrs. Sanford!" Marian said. "That woman! Who did it?" 

"That's just it," April said. "Nobody knows. The police have some loonie-louie theory, but they're all wrong as usual."

Along the way the kids are not averse to making up stories for the benefit of the police and even, in the course of their 'investigation' hiding the main suspect, Mrs. Sanford's nearly hysterical husband, in the playhouse. And coincidentally they are on hand when the victim's lawyer and two neighbors show up and, by various subterfuges, try to get into the victim's house. It doesn't take much putting two and two together to come to the conclusion that Mrs. Sanford was in the blackmail business.

And as the story of Mrs. Sanford's nefarious dealings becomes clearer, the plot itself becomes murkier. And of course at one point the kids get to search the dead woman's house. A very convenient fire in the neighborhood distracts the cops at just the right moment for Dinah, April and Archie to do the searching and naturally, they find what everyone is looking for. Though how the cops overlooked it isn't explained.

When the second murder occurs, the kids are on hand to hear the shots fired then as well. But the body isn't found in the Sanford house, instead it shows up elsewhere. Lots of confusion. Lots of plot twists and turns and in the middle of it all, Mother completes her latest manuscript.There's even a spy in disguise whom Dinah ferrets out and of course, Mother's Day arrives and must be celebrated with bunches of roses from next door and in the nick of time, a kidnapping and murder from the past connects everything up just as...

My favorite character is Archie, the smallest Carstairs (I believe he's about 7 or 8)), smart, wily and the family accountant. My favorite scene: on Mother's Day, Archie gives his mom two kittens named Inky and Stinky.

These kids are so well conceived and each has his or her own likable personality and what's more, despite their chicanery, they're good kids, fun to hang out with. They even, on occasion, use their own invented language (kind of like pig Latin) called King Tut's English and the author has a King Tut Alphabet chart conveniently placed at the front of the book.

A fun book. A good mystery. Terrific characters. What more could you want?

It's Friday once again and Todd Mason is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

The poster from the film (based on the book) which I've never seen but I want to.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD (1951) by Agatha Christie

Not forgotten and not too overlooked and not my first time writing about this book and probably not my last.

I've read THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD about twenty or so times over the many years since I first began reading Christie as a teenager, and am currently re-reading it for the 21st time - not that I've kept count. This book is like an old friend whose company is very comforting. And who doesn't need comforting these days.

Whose books do I turn to when things get gloomy ? Well, certainly Agatha Christie is at the top of the list. She writes about a world mostly long gone, a world in which the bad guy always got his or her just desserts and if everyone didn't live happily ever after, at least they lived comfortably.

If you would like some serious criticism or museum quality breakdowns of Christie's work, you won't find it here.There are worthy bloggers online who will spend a great deal of time dissecting Christie, comparing her to other Golden Age authors, often bemoaning her 'lack' of deep characterization (totally wrong-headed far as I'm concerned Christie does characterization very well with just a few broad strokes), while wishing she had done more of this or more of that, fitting her work into this that or the other timeline while separating her best writing years from her not so great - I don't do that. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but, just - I don't do that. I enjoy Christie for what she can do, which is genius.

THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD is one of Dame Agatha's stand-alone books, a thriller basically, with aspects of the mystery mixed in. There is no Poirot and no Jane Marple to solve the case. So perhaps I would not pick this as my first entry into Christie-land. Still, it is her best stand-alone I think, next to THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT with which it shares some similarities. In truth, I often get the two books confused in memory. But since they're both my favorites, I just shrug it off. Once I pick up the book and begin reading, it all sorts itself out.

The story begins leisurely enough with the reader meeting several people who will later play key roles. Lots of books begin this way but not as many do it so well as Christie. Uh-oh, would you consider that a comparison? Forgive me.

An enormously important international conference is to be held in Baghdad. Various world-wide national delegations are converging on the fabled city, including a couple of Presidents and a Prime Minister or two - naturally everyone is anxious to avoid catastrophe. What the meeting is about, Christie never makes really clear, but it hardly matters as long as we understand that it is of most importance to the future of post-war World Peace. 

Anyway, the book contains one of my favorite opening sentences:

Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.

I also love this description:

Captain Crosbie often looked pleased with himself. He was that kind of man. In figure he was short and stocky, with rather a red face and a bristling military moustache. He strutted a little when he walked. His clothes were, perhaps, just a trifle loud, and he was fond of a good story. He was popular among men. A cheerful man, commonplace but kindly, unmarried. Nothing remarkable about him. There are heaps of Crosbies in the East.

This is even more telling when we learn, several paragraphs later, that Crosbie's is an assumed persona since he is an undercover agent, a spy. Then we learn that Mr. Dakin, a slovenly, sloop shouldered, ineffectual man whom everyone disregards, is in, actuality, the strutting Crosbie's boss. These two characters have a very interesting opening conversation which sets the book in motion. Exposition, yes, but again, done very well.

From these two we learn that, Henry Carmichael, one of their more important operatives, a brilliant, enigmatic and canny young man of many faces and many languages, has discovered something of paramount importance to be revealed (if he makes it) at the meeting in Baghdad. Carmichael is, at the moment, in disguise as a Bedouin traveller (he speaks all the necessary languages and dialects) attempting to make his way from the mountains into Baghdad. But the enemy is onto him and already several men who had the misfortune to look like Carmichael have been indiscriminately killed in and around the city. It will be a miracle if Carmichael makes it as far as the embassy.

What this important 'thing' is is proof of a nefarious conspiracy to destabilize world peace. This 'thing' is, in truth, what Alfred Hitchcock called, "a mcguffin," a mysterious something everyone wants which sets a story in motion. In her books, Christie was occasionally fond of chatting about the 'real' source of world influence - the power behind the scenes: money. Shadowy money men who helped push the world one way or another, instigating wars and unrest if need be. She uses this idea in several of her books either as guiding light or as reason enough for murder and mayhem.

"...The upshot is that somewhere a third group of people whose aim is as yet obscure, are fomenting strife and misunderstanding and are engaging in cleverly camouflaged money and jewel transactions for their own ends. We have reason to believe that in every country there are agents of this group, some established there many years ago. Some are in very high and responsible positions, others are playing humble parts, but all are working with one unknown end in view. In substance it is exactly like the Fifth Column activities at the beginning of the last war, only this time it is on a world wide scale."

Given today's immense and secret concentrations of money stashed in various countries and the dangerous sway this money has over governments, I can't help thinking that Christie was prescient.

There are two important women characters in THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD, one is our heroine and the other is Anna Scheele, the mysterious confidential secretary to an American tycoon. Scheele's secretly scheduled appearance at the conference in Baghdad sets several governments on edge since they are not quite sure what she - or more importantly, those she represents , are up to. Upon her arrival in London, of course, she is kept under surveillance by the British. How she slips away from them is a tribute to the intelligence of the character and her wily creator.

Finally, we have the heroine of the piece, Victoria Jones. An impressionable (and very inventive) young lady freshly out of a job when she meets a young man in the park, a young man conveniently travelling to Baghdad the next day to join up with a misguided cultural group bent on bringing (among other things) Shakespeare in translation to the Middle East. The group is a kind of non-profit literary peace corps run by an absent minded professor named Rathbone. Victoria's young man - whose name is Edward - regrets he can't stay in London to spend time with her, but may he have a picture before he leaves? Handily, he has a camera.

In a very short space of time and incredible as it may seem, the penniless Victoria does manage to get to Baghdad. Believing herself in love with Edward, thinking herself a Juliet to his Romeo, she arrives lacking a job or a place to stay. But not for long. Soon she is not only reunited with her young man and looking for a job at Rathbone's spurious literary establishment, The Olive Branch, but shortly she finds herself at the scene of a midnight murder.

Of course, it's all a romp, thrilling but confusing when Victoria is kidnapped and for some reason, the kidnappers dye her hair or when we follow Carmichael the spy on his perilous trek into the city, eventually winding up at Victoria's hotel in the middle of the night.

(Earlier I love how he  resorts to Morse Code using Arabic beads to alert a friend, as he plots a quick-witted escape from the waiting room at the British Embassy.)

On the night of the murder, Mr. Dakin, the heretofore very briefly mentioned spy master reappears at a most unusual moment and naturally enough offers Victoria a job spying. Finally, Victoria has paying work.

The plot is neatly woven by Christie, jumping in intrigue from Victoria, to the spies and back again. And just when you think you almost know what's going on, there's that kidnapping with curious beauty salon consequences. Then we're off to an archaeological dig (something Christie knows heaps about) then finally, we're whisked off to the international conference where Anna Scheele comes out of hiding and there's an assassination to be averted.

Phew! This is a Christie book that moves at breakneck speed, full of clever twists and turns and enhanced by a likeable heroine you can't help rooting for.

Just a terrific, unpretentious, fun-thriller which no one - thankfully - has yet succeeded in adapting.

It's Friday and Todd Mason is again doing hosting duties in place of author Patricia Abbott who is currently duking it out with a recalcitrant computer. So don't forget to check in at Todd's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SWAN SONG (1947) by Edmund Crispin

Sorry about the plain cover and all, but great Crispin book covers are in very short supply these days. Had forgotten how much I adore Edmund Crispin so now that I've suddenly remembered and freshly found his Gervase Fen books for my Kindle, there will be no stopping me.

I guess you'd call this an academic mystery since it takes place in Oxford and the 'detective' is the eccentric Oxford don and Professor of English Literature, Gervase Fen. Though the actual setting is mostly at a local opera house (and nearby housing) currently putting on its first post WWII Wagnerian opus, Die Meistersinger - remember that Wagner was verboten in England during the war.

The cast of characters - mostly singers, and other opera personnel - is SO wonderful and SO entertaining and there are, at the end, two happy romantic outcomes on top of the crime solving - I mean, what more could anyone want? Oh and did I mention that this will be one of those impossible locked room murders? Well, not technically locked room, but the sort of thing where no one is seen going in or out through the only door and yet a man is struck dead under seemingly impossible circumstances - you know the routine. Just the kind of thing that captures our fancy.

But a mystery has to be more than just a puzzle - right? The story needs to have something else going on, something like a terrific cast and sparkling dialogue and even, more than one murder if at all possible. All these things are provided by Edmund Crispin in this, the fourth Gervase Fen book.

The main thing to love about SWAN SONG is the exuberant richness of language and the occasional composition of dense sentences on the scale of Michael Innes but with considerably more humor to soften the academic arcana (of which there is really not that much). Edmund Crispin outdoes himself here. The sniffy, sneery, smirking tone is delightful from the opening paragraphs to the introduction of the murder victim's sanity-challenged composer brother and his intimidating little domineering dragon of a paramour. EVERYTHING about this book is presented with attention to the eccentric detail - these are musicians, after all ( implies Crispin) and you know how THEY are.

Opening paragraph:

"There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied - so perverse are the habits of Providence - by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl."

And on from there.

Edwin Shorthouse is a short, stout, unattractive lout with one saving grace: a beautiful bass-baritone voice. The setting for murder, as mentioned, is Oxford in the gray bleakness of January. The reason we are there is to put on a production of Wagner's opera: Die Meistersinger. The main characters in Crispin's story have an inter-connected history which is revealed at a leisurely pace as little by little other pertinent characters enter the picture though in truth, there aren't that many - just enough to confuse the issue of who the killer might be.

The loathsome Shorthouse is the obvious victim just waiting for the right moment to debut as a corpse. We don't have too long to wait.

"It argues a certain poverty of imagination,' said Gervase Fen with profound disgust, 'that in a world where atom physicists walk the streets unharmed, emitting their habitual wails about the misuse of science by politicians, a murderer can find no more deserving victim than some unfortunate opera singer..."

But everyone disliked Shorthouse intensely, in fact, even his only brother despised him. Sad. So there's no one to mourn when he's found dangling from a hook in his dressing room.

In the hothouse atmosphere of the opera house there are several suspects which immediately leap to mind: First off Adam Langley, the tenor and main protagonist. Shorthouse has never gotten over the fact that Adam is married to Elizabeth Harding, the woman Shorthouse lusted over though she could barely tolerate his presence. He has consistently been making a pest of himself even after the marriage must have made it obvious Elizabeth wasn't his for the taking. She, instead, had her eye on Adam even if marrying a singer carried some risk (see opening paragraph). She is an ambitious writer currently working on an assignment which involves interviewing famous detectives. Adam is acquainted with Gervase Fen so what would be more natural than, once in Oxford, he should introduce them.

'Professor Fen' - Elizabeth adopted her most politic charm - 'would you be prepared to let me interview you for a newspaper?'

Fen made a feeble attempt to show disinclination. 'Oh, I don't know...' he mumbled.

'Please, Professor Fen. It's in a series. I'm hoping to do H.M. [Sir Henry Merrivale], and Mrs. Bradley, and Albert Campion, and all sorts of famous people.'

There's also some name-dropping by Fen himself as when he looks out the pub window and spies fellow Oxford professor C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books among other classics) going about his business. There are all sorts of lovely bits like these intertwined with the mystery of the dead baritone whom everyone disliked.

More suspects: Boris Stapleton and Judith Haynes, madly in love and minor singers in the production. He is a wannabe composer hoping for his big chance to show his opera to the world famous Edwin Shorthouse for his opinion. She is a lovely girl who has been physically accosted by the same Shorthouse to the point that a friend coming along at the appropriate time has to resort to knocking the drunken singer to the ground.

Then there's Joan Davis, another singer and in his conducting debut a young man named Peacock for whom Joan has a lingering eye. Peacock and Shorthouse practically come to blows during one interminable rehearsal.

Then of course there's the aforementioned brother, famous composer Charles Shorthouse who in his own eccentric (and rather absent-minded) way is thrilled that someone has done the job of murdering his brother Edwin for him. The chapter where Charles is introduced practically steals the show.

By the way, I thought I had a handle on who the killer might be from the getgo, but turns out I was wrong.

Gervase Fen is of the Henry Merrivale/Dr. Gideon Fell school of fictional detectives though he is younger, taller and lanky and wears a strange hat which is never described - at least in this book. He also has an invisible family which apparently lives in the same lodgings as he does but are never seen. I was especially surprised to find he had a wife whose bicycle he borrows in a scene near the end.

And of course, like Merrivale and Fell, Gervase Fen is of the same run amok school of driving:

"To realize that anyone is not a very good driver takes a little time; the mind is not eager, in the face of a long journey to accept this particular verity; and it was not until Fen emerged into the High Street, with the velocity of a benighted traveller pursued by spectres, that Adam became really alarmed...

The car rushed on towards Headington. It was a small, red, battered and extremely noisy sports car, a chilled looking female nude in chromium projected from its radiator cap; across its' bonnet were scrawled in large white letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III.

'I bought her,' said Fen, removing both hands from the wheel in order to search for a cigarette, 'from an undergraduate who was sent down. But of course she was laid up during the war, and I don't think it improved her.' He shook his head, sombrely. 'Things keep falling out of the engine,' he explained."

But really none of that is as important as finding out who killed Shorthouse and how and making sure that the characters we grow to like have a happy ending. These books have one purpose and that is to entertain and oh, by the way, tell a good mystery while doing so.

Once Shorthouse is dead, there comes an attempted murder of another character and then the death of another and then a further attempt at yet another and FINALLY, we get to the end which is rather convoluted but to be expected. My kind of book.

Though I find this sort of thing completely engaging I realize that others may not be drawn into the proceedings in quite the same way and that's really too bad. For me, what is so attractive about a book like this is the comfortableness of it all. I love Oxford, so that helps as well.

"Fen, Adam and Elizabeth lunched in Fen's room at St. Christopher's. It was a large room in the second quadrangle, reached by a short flight of carpeted stairs which led up from an alley-way giving access to the gardens. It was, as the saying goes, 'lined with books'; Chinese miniatures were on the walls; and various dilapidated plaques and busts of the greater masters of English Literature decorated the mantelpiece. They ate off a noble Sheraton table, and were served by Fen's scout.

They talked about opera, and in particular about Wagner; speculations about the death of Shorthouse had inevitably reached a stasis for want of further information. Over coffee they considered plans for the afternoon."

Oh, and last but not least, did I forget to mention character names? Another Crispin delight:

There is a character named Furbelow. Yes.
A character named Mudge.
A character named Rashmole.
Not to mention the victim's not very elegant name: Edwin Shorthouse.
And the conductor is named Peacock.
(Not that Gervase Fen is a run of the mill name either.)

This is the kind of nonsense I appreciate.

In my mind, SWAN SONG is second only to Crispin's oh-so-brilliant, THE MOVING TOYSHOP. So that gives you some idea how much I loved it.

Since it's Friday once again, Todd Mason will be doing meme hosting duties later on today at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in at some point to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.