Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CAT OF MANY TAILS by Ellery Queen (1949)

This is a re-working and lengthening of a post from nine years ago. I might be doing this (re-working older posts) for the next few weeks as I happily read my way through as many George Bellairs books as I can find. Yeah, yeah, I'm in the middle of an author frenzy. Haven't had one of those since my Ngaio Marsh marathon of a few years ago. I get like this sometimes. But I wouldn't want to bore you by writing about Bellairs constantly, hence my mining of long ago posts. (I'm also currently reading a bunch of romances - happily ever after stuff which, again, would bore most of you to tears.)

Confession: I've always had a problem with the Ellery Queen books in general - reason why they are not on my top TOP list of favorites - and some of this stems from the two fictional characters themselves. Ellery Queen is a brilliant detective/writer who, along with the occasional help of his dad - NYC Police detective Inspector Queen - solves all the crimes that the regular police can't. But somehow - as written - these two are just not very interesting people in and of themselves. In truth, Ellery and his cop-pop are a rather boring, fuddy-duddy 'couple'. (Ellery's angst as the series progresses is actually cringe-worthy.) So it's fair to say that the crimes in these stories are meant to be more important and/or interesting than the detectives who solve them. I won't quibble with the idea. But for me, there usually has to be some sort of connection or affection for the main character(s). Otherwise, I'm only reading for the puzzle. Not that that is, necessarily a bad thing - hey, it worked for John Dickson Carr - but it's just not what lingers for long in memory. (By the way, I was never all that fond of the tv series, either.)

A quick word of expo: Ellery Queen, author of the Queen books was the pseudonym of writers/cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They also founded the Ellery Queen magazine. Within the fictional stories, the main character is named Ellery Queen, who also edits the Ellery Queen magazine. A bit confusing, but you get used to it.

Okay, so having said that, I still enjoyed CAT OF MANY TAILS. It's a book I thought I'd already read when I settled in for a re-read a few years ago, but turns out I hadn't.

CAT OF MANY TAILS is an entertaining puzzle set in a frenzied, fearful NYC where a serial strangler has run amok. The city is in the middle of a heatwave, everyone is sweating, frightened and impatient. The newspapers run amok. The cops fester against dead ends.The NYC of the 1940's/50's is the New York I grew up in, so I do retain affectionate memories of Manhattan at that time.

'August 25 brought one of those simmering subtropical nights in which summer New York specializes. Ellery was in his study stripped to his shorts, trying to write. But his fingers kept sliding off the keys and finally he turned off his desk light and padded to the window.

The city was blackly quiet, flattened by the pressures of the night. Eastward thousands would be drifting into Central Park to throw themselves to the steamy grass. To the northeast, in Harlem and the Bronx, Little Italy, Yorkville; to the southeast, on the Lower East Side and across the river in Queens and Brooklyn; to the south, in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Chinatown - wherever there were tenements - fire escapes would be crowded.....The parkways would be bug trails. Cars would swarm over the bridges - Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensborough, George Washington, Triborough - hunting a breeze. At Coney Island, Brighton, Manhattan Beach, the Rockaways, Jones Beach, the sands would be seeded by millions of the sleepless turned restlessly to the sea. The excursion boats would be scuttling up and down the Hudson and the ferries staggering like overloaded old women to Weehawken and Staten Island. 

Heat lightning ripped the sky, disclosing the tower of the Empire State Building.....'

I remember those times - air conditioning was in its infancy (except in ice cold theaters and some restaurants). We hung out on the stoops or the fire escapes. All we had were fans - if we were lucky. Yet, somehow we survived. That's the sweaty setting for this particular tale of serial murder.

The stranglings in CAT OF MANY TAILS are particularly ugly crimes, especially since we get to know a bit about the victims BEFORE the murderer strikes. (It always appears worse when you have something invested in the hapless victims.) The crimes appear to be conscienceless acts of random brutality. But are they? Is there a connecting link between the nine victims? The police are stumped. The press revels. The city is in a panic. The killer lurks. Obviously, the detecting brilliance of Ellery Queen is called for. Despite his on-going angst and protestations (brought about by the case in a previous book), the brilliant sleuth/writer is convinced to take on the job of special investigator, but the stranglings continue.

Anyone who is familiar with the workings of mysteries and their plotting will (by the middle of the book) figure out who is more than likely to be the culprit but still, that doesn't spoil the fun. Oh well, excuse me, death by strangulation isn't exactly fun - but you know what I mean.

Now if only the book wasn't weighed down by the psychological (and to my mind, totally unnecessary) mumbo jumbo extremes of the last couple of chapters, all would be wonderful. As it is, the book succeeds DESPITE the last bits of psycho mumbling. CAT OF MANY TAILS still manages to be a terrific book. Though the tortuous way that Ellery goes about finding the truth in the end is truly fatiguing. 

Still, I recommend the book. It brought back the world of 1940's/early 50's New York City. A funny thing: when reading this, I saw EVERYTHING in black and white. (Possibly influenced by my own few remaining photos of the time.) It was a b/w world, I suppose, until the advent of color film. But for me, Ellery Queen seems even MORE b/w than most. Something in the prose, most likely.

I've stopped reading Ellery Queen for the most part because A) wasn't crazy about the sleuth to begin with and B) the books began to wear me out. All that philosophizing, all those multiple endings...

Having said that, CAT OF MANY TAILS is definitely worth a read.

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

Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH IN HIGH PROVENCE (1957) by George Bellairs

I know, I know, I shouldn't be talking about yet another Bellairs book so soon after having posted about him a couple of weeks ago. But - what the heck - I had to write about DEATH IN HIGH PROVENCE simply because I LOVED it to pieces and didn't want any of you to overlook this gem. Forget everything else, get out your Kindle and buy this book immediately. Yes, I am very high on Bellairs.

All I can say first and foremost is that reading this damn fine mystery felt as if I'd traveled to Provence AND solved a murderous plot all at the same time. George Bellairs can visually create ambience as very few writers can - I've mentioned that before. But here in this particular book, he excels at the visuals. The touch, the feel, the colors, even the smell of Provence is brought to vivid life. I've never been there, but now I almost feel as if I have. Yeah, I'm being fanciful, but bear with me.

Chief Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard and his wife are traveling unofficially in the Provencal region of France at the behest of Spencer Lovell, an English cabinet minister. Lovell is not satisfied with the official results of an investigation into the deadly motor accident which took the lives of his brother Christopher and his wife, Elise. The minister suspects a cover-up by the local French authorities.

I'm gushing, I know, but George Bellairs has the essential knack of being able to pick the reader up and placing him (or her) on the scene. Soon enough we're in the French countryside alongside Littlejohn, sights, sounds and smells all around us. True, Bellairs is wordier at description than Agatha Christie whose knack for setting a scene with very few words none can match - but sometimes you need the words and here they are perfection.

They had driven through Meyrargues and Peyrolles and at the defile of Mirabeau the landscape changed again. There, the waters of the Verdon, joining the Durance, seemed to bring with them a kinder breeze from the uplands of High Provence, which now came in view. There was a faint scent of lavender and thyme on the air, and the planes, oaks and poplars on the roadside gave them welcome shade. They turned right at a by-road for which they had been watching. A new signpost marked the way behind them, Peyrolles; ahead, St. Marcellin, Ginasservis. They climbed gently through the groves of lemons, olives and almonds, and skirted the deep-rooted trees of the Forest of Cadarache.

Another deserted village perched high on the rocks to the left, and then a descent by a steep, winding road. The village of St. Marcellin came upon them suddenly, set in a background of hills, with mountains beyond. Behind, they had left the sun-tortured river valleys with their clear brazen skies; ahead lay the distant peaks, over which hung great clouds like burning walls, the sun lowering in the west illuminating them like the reflection of a vast fire.

Upon arrival in the small and very insular village of St. Marcellin, the Littlejohns are fortunate enough to discover a small but charming inn. There is no running water but the tin bathtub can be hauled up and down the stairs to their room and hot water brought up in various containers by the accommodating landlady and her brooding, pipe smoking hulk of a brother.

Beneath an avenue of plane trees stood a fountain, a tall column of stone rising from a plinth, with four jets emerging from copper pipes and splashing into a large basin set in the earth below. Behind the the fountain were two iron tables with iron chairs and, visible through the trees, an inn. Restaurant Pascal. Marie Alivon. The door stood open and a screen of beads hung in the doorway. Advertisement plaques on either side. Byrrh...Biere D'Alsace...Tabac...A tall, narrow, three storeyed building with a cream washed frontage, green-painted iron balconies on the first floor, drawn green shutters keeping the sun from the upper rooms. To the right of the door on the ground floor, a broad shallow window with a window-box full of red and pink geraniums so strong and thriving that they formed a screen masking the interior.

...Time seemed to stand still in St. Marcellin. The children had dispersed, the streets were empty, and nobody seemed interested in the arrival of strangers....The only other signs of life were the sounds coming from unseen places. Rhythmic blows of a hammer on an anvil in a smithy somewhere, the sound of a flail on a threshing-floor, the hum of a motorcycle on a distant road, the fresh splash of the water-jets at the fountain. The air smelt of stables, hay, and apples stored in lofts.

The church clock struck four on a cracked bell. Nobody about, and yet you felt that, from behind the closed shutters of the houses, you were being watched.

Sure enough, as the Littlejohns settle a bit gingerly into French country coziness, the sinister secrets of the village begin to unravel. And what secrets they are. It is not only the deaths of Christopher Lovell and his wife that are under suspicion, but the death too, before the war, of the last Marquis de St. Marcellin, supposedly a suicide. Everyone in the village is afraid to talk since once they do talk bad things seem to happen. And nobody wants to earn the current Marquis' displeasure. The sinister influence of the current Marquis has everyone in the village under his despotic thumb while he sits, like a spider at the center of a decrepit, crumbling estate, selling off bits and pieces down to the last wine bottle, as the family fortunes slither into nothingness.

The entire sequence of tragic events is eventually sorted out by Littlejohn, but not before an attempted murder, two disappearances and yet another murder as the general wretchedness of a slowly dying village is laid bare. Not a fun place to live, for sure. But at least the food is decent.

"I could give you a nice dinner, too. A well-fed capon, and there are truffles from the plateau of Riez...They are very well-known and are good...And there are mountain strawberries.

...The meal already described by Marie Alivon was waiting for the Littlejohns in the private room/

An appetizing hors d'oeuvre of tomatoes, sardines, fillets of herring, black olives and sausages, served with a tempting flavour oil and garlic. The chicken and the truffles from Riez were cooked to perfection, and followed by mountain strawberries in red wine, with whipped cream in a dish. Then goat's milk cheese, flavoured with thyme, appeared. They drank red wine from a carafe which had been placed there without ordering. A full, kindly wine, whose potency soon made itself felt."

A terrific mystery, great food and a trip to Provence, all without leaving your chair. Can't beat that.

This Friday, Todd is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott's usual Friday roundup at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: BEHOLD, HERE'S POISON (1936) by Georgette Heyer

One of Georgette Heyer's more entertaining Golden Age country house mysteries featuring her usual stable of rich or semi-rich English lackwits. While not as engaging as Heyer's Regency Romances, her mysteries are well worth looking for. Had she written more than just a few, I think she might at some point, have achieved mystery immortality. Not that everything she wrote was gold, but on the whole, most everything she wrote sparkled.

BEHOLD, HERE'S POISON is topnotch, plotting-wise, ambience-wise and character-wise. Though there is no deep characterization and most of the characters are not exactly likable - they are close enough to parody to be amusing. Plus the unlikely 'hero' Randall Matthews, despite having a slightly slithering serpent-like manner, is hilariously intriguing when he's not being mysterious. Almost everyone in this cast of characters is eccentric in some way or other and most are the sorts of people one enjoys laughing at. Oh, okay, okay, I do have a soft spot for Randall. Big deal.

Now and then, it's fun to sneer at nobs with money.

The Mathews are a repellent family. Even the young heroine of the piece is not someone to root for - the most one can say for her is that at least she's not as annoying as the rest. Stella is an ingenue whom one dreads seeing out in the world on her own. She is pretty much hapless, as is her brother Guy who, unlikely as it seems, is an interior decorator - there is a slight hint that he and his partner in the biz are more than partners in the biz but one never knows with books written at this time. At any rate, he is in danger of being shipped off to South America (?!) because the head of the family, Gregory Mathews, is fed up with Guy's constant need for money and besides - interior decoration? But the kids' mom, Zoe, a dragoness, is not about to let her baby boy be shipped off anywhere. Uh oh.

 Not the sorts of people one would want as friends unless one likes people who are constantly sniping at each other and worse, serving unpleasant meals like mutton and rice pudding for lunch. I mean, ugh. 

But said head of household, Gregory Mathews, is already dead as the story opens, though we don't know it until the maid finds his body, stiff and cold one morning as she goes about her duties. Naturally enough, the clan is thrown into an uproar.

Not that anyone really mourns the very unpleasant Gregory. But still, appearances must be kept up.

Gregory's oh-so-finicky elder sister Harriet is thrown into more of a tizzy than usual. A miserly spinster who, despite there being no necessity for it, counts and begrudges every penny spent on the upkeep and management of the family house, she is given to sobbing hysterics and serving particularly dreadful meals. And oh, by the way, this bizarre pinch penny-ing will be her undoing, but I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Also living in the house is Gregory's widowed sister-in-law, Zoe the dragoness, a tiresome passive aggressive sort of woman who spends her life 'languishing' in fanciful airs and graces and speaking in sanctimonious 'quotes.' The death of her brother-in-law gives her every opportunity to expound and emote then rush off to London to buy funereal clothing. Her grown children - the aforementioned Stella and Guy, roll their eyes at their mother's heavy duty pretentions but will defend her to the death if need be, especially when it looks as if she's up to no good.

The dead man's married sister, Gertrude, a pontificating mass of a woman whose husband Henry goes about in terror of her sharp tongue arrives on the scene and declares she will not accept that Gregory died of a stomach disorder as per the local stick of a doctor, Deryk Fielding who happens to be engaged to Stella. Gertrude demands an autopsy.

...and sure enough, the dead man was poisoned.

Inspector Hannasyde is on the case.

But with snakey but well-dressed cousin Randall (who is now head of the family upon Gregory's termination) insinuating himself into the investigation and causing minor headaches for the police, skeletons who had been lurking in several closets will be revealed not to mention that a second inexplicable death will throw the case into a tailspin. In the end, it's a miracle that the killer is finally flushed out into the open. More or less.

"Oh, Deryk!' murmured Stella, 'we're a dreadful family."

Sad, but true.

And it's Friday once again - 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.