Thursday, June 22, 2017

Just Some Gigolos? Profile of a Murder (1935), by Rufus King

Why, wondered Miss Marshall, were the nicest-looking and strongest men, the most physically attractive men, always found in those impossible positions in life where a marriage with them became almost insurmountably difficult?"

[Alfred's] legs were beautifully shaped, like a runner's....His scant bathing trunks were dazzlingly white against his brown skin, a tan that had been acquired with the slothful poise of a salamander during hours and hours of immobile lying in the sun, and his stunning arms moved just enough to keep the canoe in gentle motion across the lake's surface,

His throat looked like smooth brown velvet out of denim and she felt congealed and rigid with a frozen smile solidly stupid on her face.

"I do forty tricks, all with cards."
"I shall show you how I make them jump with my muscles."

                                                                     --Profile of a Murder (1935), by Rufus King

My generation in the United States most likely associates the song "Just a Gigolo" with the much-mugged mashup version (with "I Ain't Got Nobody") by David Lee Roth, an Eighties MTV video fixture. Roth's raucous version of the song  itself was based on the upbeat version popularized by Louis Prima in 1956. (Perhaps inevitably, the Village People did a version too, rather dreadfully.)

But the original American version of Just a Gigolo (1929) was based on the Austrian "Schoner Gigolo, armer Gigolo," a song composed in Vienna in 1928 as a melancholy reflection on the social collapse that occurred in Austria after the First World War.  The singer is meant to represent the viewpoint of a former Hussar recalling his once proudly parading in uniform in the martial past, in contrast with his sordid peacetime present as a hired dancer.  Rupert Croft-Cooke (who wrote crime fiction as Leo Bruce) visited Vienna in the years after the war and wrote of how the city was rife with destitute male prostitutes, hungrily prowling for customers.

I think the image of the gigolo in between-the-wars detective fiction was decidedly, as least in the UK, that of the continental: if not an Austrian, an ersatz Russian prince perhaps, or maybe some smoothly-mannered Italian, regrettably apt to be termed, by some stolid, outraged English male, "that damn dago."  The image of American film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino comes to mind, an example of what a character in a Mignon Eberhart mystery from the period, notes Rick Cypert in his essay on Eberhart in Murder in the Closet, suspiciously termed men who were "a little too handsome."

To readers of classic crime fiction Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase (1932) is a familiar depiction of what we might term the gigolo culture of the between-the-war years, but I doubt you will ever find a greater crowd of gigolos than those appearing in the works of Rufus King, one of the premier crime writers in the US during the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Or, if not gigolos per se, certainly male gold diggers who with amiable avarice attach themselves to wealthy society women of a certain age.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is found in what is arguably King's best crime novel, Murder by Latitude, but it's also a notable feature of King's Profile of a Murder (1935), which despite its title is less a police procedural than an early example of what is now generally termed domestic suspense crime fiction.

In Profile King on page 109 dispenses with the formal whodunit aspect of the novel, informing readers outright who committed the murder.  King's series police sleuth, Lieutenant Valcour, had very shortly into the investigation deduced the identity of the killer, but he feels he does not have the proof to secure a conviction.

Convinced the murderer will strike again against a specific person, however, Valcour plays a nail-biting waiting game, in order to catch a killer in the act. So you can see how this book is essentially a suspense novel, making it perhaps a little disappointing to me, because all the ingredients for a classic GA detective novel are assuredly present.

Profile of a Murder, which might better have been titled Profile of a Murderer, tells the story of the strangulation slaying of the middle-aged heiress Beatrice Mundy in the master bedroom at her exquisite country home in the village of Peglertown, located on Alden Lake in upstate New York, and its aftermath. There is a quartet of suspects in the dastardly crime:

Rufus King's colonial ancestral home,
located at Rouse's Point, New York,
a few miles from Canada on Lake Champlain
Alfred Mundy, her much younger, oh-so-handsome husband ("He had, from the age of sixteen on, continued to be a pretty perfect example of the physically attractive male")

Emily Haldane, Beatrice's pretty, on-the-make nurse ("She took excellent care of her body, neither ate too much nor drank liquor to any excess, and her not infrequent excursions into the carnal were directed with a scientific lack of nonsense that always resulted in some sound financial gain")

Hilda Mundy, Alfred's kid sister ("the girl had developed a confusedly fumbling infatuation for Beatrice's gardener, a young French Canadian, Segret Gambais")

Segret Gambais, the aforementioned French Canadian gardener ("an agreeable youngster, certainly, of twenty-two, with the slopes of as young bullock")

One of these four people cruelly slew Beatrice, of that you should have no doubt.

Much of this novel seems clearly based on King's own life and personal sensibility, which I have detailed in previous blog posts here and in a "A Bad, Bad Past," an essay in Murder in the Closet. King had a very close relationship with his own wealthy and charming mother, who seems to have been the model for many of the stylish society matrons depicted in his fiction.  For much of his adult life, until he moved to Florida after his mother's death, King divided his time between an apartment in New York City and his ancestral home in a small town on Lake Champlain, close to the border with Canada.

Readers also might sense the gay sensibility in the physical descriptions of Alfred and Segret (see above).  It seems clear that King drew upon his own sexual feelings when depicting those of his female characters, leading to an unusual forthrightness for the period on this subject. It's a forthrightness that King shared, however, with other gay male Golden Age crime writers of the period, particularly Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, the two Americanized Englishmen who wrote as Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.

Like Webb and Wheeler, as well as a number of female mystery writers of the period, King was a pioneer not only of the domestic suspense novel popularized in the mid-century US (see Sarah Weinman's recent work), but the manners mystery associated with the British Crime Queens. King's work is filled with incisive social observation and a certain ironic detachment, often amusing and sometimes piercing.

Only once during [Alfred and Beatrice's] married life had he ever made up his mind about anything ad that had been during their honeymoon on the way to Hawaii when he had wanted to view Los Angeles from a blimp.

Snow fell more thickly.  [Segret] thinks, [Beatrice] decided, that I'm crazy.  Then she wondered whether she wasn't, whether money and the ability to do things with it, wasn't just a sesame to the abnormal.  Certainly it must seem so in the eyes of the anchored poor.

No, it's not Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but it's something more penetrating than critics of the social mores of classic crime fiction from the Golden Age often seem willing to allow.

Praise from the Past: Pronzini on Blochman

One of the things I enjoy about Steve Lewis' Mystery*File website, for which I used to write, is his reprinting of old pieces from the massive Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller edited tome, 1001 Midnights, which gathers recommended reading entries (by Pronzini, Muller and others) for scores of crime writers.

In 1986, when it was first published, Midnights offered a valuable mine of information about worthy neglected crime writers.  In the pre-internet age Midnights was an absolutely essential volume and it is still very much worth seeking out today, when so many neglected authors are getting more attention.  Just make some room on your bookshelf--it's big!

Four years ago, when I published Clues and Corpses, about the life, crime fiction, and book reviews of the Native American Golden Age detective novelist Todd Downing, Bill kindly contributed a foreword to the book.  Bill, then something of a voice in the wilderness in this regard, had been there before, you see, as he so often has been, praising Downing in 1001 Midnights.

And, sure enough, here's Bill praising Lawrence Blochman in 1001 Midnights, as uploaded at Mystery*File:

Although most of his work is (regrettably) long out of print and he is little known among modern readers, Lawrence G. Blochman was a popular writer for more than four decades....Bombay Mail (1934) his first and probably most accomplished novel, is set on board an Indian train; features one of his many series characters, Inspector Leonidas Prike of the British CID; and is one of the best of that intriguing subgenre, the railway mystery.

I fully agree, as you will know from my previous (and rather more verbose) blog post.  But Bill goes on to opine that "Blochman's most notable creations" are his short stories about pathologist detective Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee.  Blochman won an Edgar for the title story of the first collection of Coffee tales, Diagnosis: Homicide (1950), and, notes Bill, Ellery Queen selected the book "as the 106th and final entry on his Queen's Quorum list of most important volumes of detective short stories." (You can buy Blochman's Edgar statuette for 6500 dollars.)

In the mood for some Coffee?  Coming this month and will still be warm I hope! Disappointingly, neither of the Coffee short story collections nor the three Inspector Prike novels seem to be in print, over thirty years after the publication of 1001 Midnights, though the sole Dr. Coffee detective novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle format.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One Million Views and One More Review, with Many I Hope to Follow: Bombay Mail (1934), by Lawrence Blochman

One million viewers! (or views anyway)
I suppose I should have mentioned that I passed one million views at this blog last week, something of a milestone I gather.  I started this blog on November 22, 2011 (which means, incredibly to me, that the blog will be six years old this November), with this short piece, on the convention of the passing tramp in crime fiction, with special reference to Jefferson Farjeon, whose thriller Mystery in White I reviewed a month later. You may, perhaps, have heard of that one since. 

Or, say, Anthony Wynne's Murder of a Lady.  Or Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel. Those last two I reviewed back in 2010 on Steve Lewis' excellent Mystery*File website, where I first stuck my toe, so to speak, in the vast ocean of internet book reviewing.  A lot has happened since.

Those of us who have labored these last five years and more to bring greater attention to forgotten Golden Age mystery writers and to rehabilitate the Golden Age mystery in general in the minds of naysayers and doubters have seen many exciting things happen over this time.  I'm pleased to have played a role in all this, and I hope to continue to remain on the critical stage, so to speak, for some time to come.  Thanks to those who made the million (plus) views; it means a lot to know some people enjoy what I write.  Along with, well, actual money, it's the most a working writer can desire.

Bombay Mail (1934)

For Max Miller
whose delightful flair
for the oblique tale may
prevent his reading
such blatantly direct
journalese as this
is without a trace
of nausea, but who
does agree that
books make swell ornaments; from
Lawrence G. Blochman
who used to be
an old waterfront coverer himself

--inscription in Max Miller's copy of Lawrence G. Blochman's debut detective novel, Bombay Mail (1934)

Lawrence Blochman (1900-1975) was an American crime writer who seems to me generally underappreciated (though not, to be sure, by blogger Mike Grost, who on the net has written extensively about his fiction).

I read Blochman's Bombay Mail (1934) back in April when I was constantly at my father's rehab center in Holly Springs, Mississippi (I wasn't impressed with the rehab center located there, to be honest, but at least Holly Springs is an interesting little town).  I found it a fine example of the American detective novel.  It is, in fact, a true detective novel, but one with the sort of narrative "go" then burgeoning in American crime fiction of the period, as writers shook off what the young Turks of the genre deemed the shackles of S. S. Van Dine and his insufferably smug fancypants sleuth, Philo Vance.

Abraham Blochman as a younger man
Lawrence Blochman was the grandson of immigrant Abraham Blochman, "banker, capitalist and public-spirited citizen of San Diego," according to a local history. 

The enterprising Abraham was born in Ingenheim, Alsace, France, in 1834 and settled with his family to Memphis, Tennessee in 1848, before, just a couple of years later, moving down the Mississippi to the prosperous river port of Helena, Arkansas, where he taught French (while he studied English) and clerked in a general store. (So many Mississippi Delta towns of that era had a few Jewish merchants, just as, in the twentieth century, some boasted Chinese grocers, at least one of whom, Yee Gow Suen, read between-the-wars crime fiction).

Rabbi Leopold Sarassin
painting by Marie Mathilde Sarassin
The enterprising young Abraham boldly migrated to California by way of Panama in 1851, not long after the commencement of the California gold rush. 

After successfully establishing a chain of stores Abraham founded, with his son Lucien, the Blochman Banking Company, one of the most prominent banks in the state. Abraham's wife and Lucien's mother was Marie Mathilde Sarassin, daughter of Rabbi Leopold Sarassin, director of the Society for Talmudic Studies in Paris.

Lucien Blochman, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, became one of San Diego's most important figures, not only economically but socially.  Among other things he was an avid yachtsman as the Commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club; his flagship was named Haidee, after his wife Haidee Goldtree.  Lucien and Haidee had a son and a daughter, the son, Lawrence Goldtree Blochman, going on the make his name in journalism and crime fiction.

As a young boy, Lawrence had been enraptured by his grandfather's stories of his adventures in California's gold rush days.  Blocked due to his youth from serving in the navy in the Great War, Lawrence attended college at UC-Berkeley, where during the summers he worked as a police reporter for the San Diego Evening Tribune and a courthouse reporter for the San Diego Sun.

Blochman family gathering photo
Not sure which boy is Lawrence!

After his graduation in 1921, Lawrence, following the example of his intrepid grandfather, commenced several years of globetrotting.  In Asia he worked for the Japan Advertiser (Tokyo),  South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Far Eastern Review (Shanghai) and The Englishman (Calcutta), sidelining as a magician, or "slight-of-hand performer."  At the height of the Jazz Age he also resided four years in France, working as assistant night editor for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribuneread by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, and an editorial writer for the Paris Times.

Lawrence Blochman
at the time of the
publication of Bombay Mail

In 1927, a year after his marriage to Frenchwoman Marguerite Maillard, Blochman began writing fiction for magazines; he published Bombay Mail, his first novel, in 1934.  For this novel, as well as several others, including, besides Bombay Mail, Bengal Fire (1937), Red Snow at Darjeeling (1938) and Wives to Burn (1940), Lawrence made excellent use of his experience in Calcutta as a staff photographer and features writer for The Englishman, in which capacity he traveled all over the sub-continent.

Among other things Lawrence for several weeks was a guest of Tukoji Rao Holkar III, Maharajah of Indore, before the ruler was embroiled in a 1925 crime involving his runaway second wife, Mumtaz Begum.  The Bawla Murder Case, as it was known, led to the Maharajah's abdication and inspired the making of Kulin Kanta (1926), "India's first crime mystery film."*

*(On the Bawla Murder Case, see Brian Stoddart's article at the Murder Is Everywhere blog on the murder and, on the Blochman family, see The Blochman Saga in San Diego, San Diego Historical Quarterly 23 (Winter 1977), San Diego History Center.)

Maharajahs, along with other fascinating features of between-the-wars Indian society and culture, feature in Lawrence Blochman's India mysteries, which seem to me much underestimated today (again, not by Mike Grost, who provides extensive discussion of them at his website).  Anyone who from the same era enjoys mainstream novelist Elspeth Huxley's fine Africa mysteries should enjoy Blochman's early India crime fiction, which, by the by, was published not only in the US but in the UK (in the latter country by premier British detective fiction publisher Collins).

"A break-neck narrative," exclaimed the Spectator of Bombay Mail in England, "a non-stop thriller."  In the US the novel was deemed "zippy" by the Saturday Review, "with much action, sufficient local color and and passable writing.

I agree that the book has great pace, though I think the SR underestimated the quality of Blochman's local color and writing, which to me are decidedly above average for the genre at the time.  Most happily as well, the book is a true detective novel, with an interesting murder plot at its heart.

Government House (Raj Bhavan)
Kolkata, West Bengal, India

"I'm going on the Bombay Mail," insisted the Governor, "I'm not sneaking away.  If anyone wants to kill me, he'll find that Britain can send out new governors faster than they can be done away with."

Well, someone in fact does for His Excellency Sir Anthony Daniels, Bart., CBE, KSI, KCIE, Governor of Bengal.  Whodunit?  Certainly there's no shortage of suspects, from the mighty maharajah to the mere (alleged) mistress; and they're all on board the train the departing governor took on his way out of India: the Bombay Mail.  It's up to the implacable Inspector Prike to ferret out a ruthless killer.

the journey begins
Howrah railway station, Calcutta, 1928

Golden Age train mysteries are always great fun, I think, and they always seem to be eminently filmable.  Of course the gold standard in this sub-genre has become Agatha Christie's classic crime tale Murder on the Orient Express, which in the US was actually published about a month after Bombay Mail; but I also would be remiss not to mention Todd Downing's splendid novel Vultures in the Sky, published the next year, in 1935. 

Downing was a great admirer of Christie's novel (see my book Clues and Corpses); were, I wonder, Christie and Blochman simultaneously on either side of the Atlantic inspired by the success of mainstream novelist Graham Greene's 1932 "entertainment," Stamboul Train (Orient Express in the US)?

Like Downing's Vultures, Blochman's Bombay Mail has thrillerish elements that are absent from Christie's classic, but these elements are very well done in both novels and both of them are genuine detective novels as well.  Both are very highly recommended.

Max Miller
Note: Max Miller, to whom Blochman inscribed a copy of Bombay Mail (see above), was a journalist at the San Diego Sun, where he was a colleague of the slightly younger  Blochman.  In 1932, Miller published a bestselling book based on his work experiences, I Cover the Waterfront. The bestseller inspired, under the same title, both a 1933 hit song (oddly enough) and a film, very loosely based upon the book. 

Blochman's Bombay Mail was itself filmed in 1934, under the same title (though Inspector Prike for some reason became Inspector Dyke), in a well-regarded Universal adaptation upon which Blochman collaborated. During his time at Universal, Blochman also provided the story for the mystery The Secret of the Chateau (1934) and uncredited script work on James Whale's classic horror flick Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In his inscription to Max Miller, Blochman seems to me unduly humble about the "blatantly direct journalese" in which Bombay Mail is written.  It's a ripping Golden Age yarn.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Formal Affair: Some Joan Kiddell-Monroe Book Jackets

Joan Kiddell-Monroe (1908-1972) was born in Clacton-on-Sea, England, the daughter of William Kiddell-Monroe, a private secretary, and his wife, Lallah Ethel Frances Lloyd. (Finally! in my researches in this field I've found someone who actually was employed as a private secretary: the great Golden Age American crime writer John Dickson Carr once opined that the private secretary, that fixture of Golden Age detective fiction, was the most likely candidate to be the actual murderer in country house mysteries.)

"KM," to use Joan Kiddell-Monroe's signature on her work, studied at the Chelsea School of Art and, reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayers, was briefly employed in the advertising industry before she became a successful freelance artist. 

In the 1940s and 1950s KM was a prominent illustrator of children's books, particularly those dealing with world myths and legends; yet she also, more pertinent to this blog, did some crime fiction illustrations for Hodder & Stoughton, evidently having come the publisher's way through the illustrations she drew for the Nettleford series of books by Malcolm Saville (1901-1982), the popular English children's author (and Enid Blyton rival).

KM drew the cover art for Josephine Bell's The China Roundabout (1956), Double Doom (1957), The Seeing Eye (1958) and The House above the River (1959).  I'm guessing she may have done the jacket as well for one of Bell's best crime novels, Death in Retirement (1956), but I have not seen the Hodder jacket for that one.

I'll be reviewing two of the above books pretty soon, incidentally, but not before I post some reviews of books by other authors, in case you are tiring of all this Bell-ringing.  But I will add now that have dug up some interesting personal detail about Bell and her tragic connection to another (short-lived) English detective novelist.  Stay tuned!  Same Tramp time, same Tramp channel, to borrow from Batman, my favorite syndicated television series, along with Scooby-Doo and The Munsters, as a child. RIP Adam West.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Kindertotenlieder: A Question of Inheritance (1980) and Easy Prey (1959), by Josephine Bell

"Excuse me, was it your poor child?"

      --Mrs. Lancaster to Tuppence Beresford, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), by Agatha Christie

A Question of Inheritance (1980)

Published when the author was 83, the detective novel A Question of Inheritance(1980) is Josephine Bell's penultimate novel and the second of her two engaging Amy Tupper mysteries.  A "resting" actress, long retired from the stage, Amy Tupper is, I think, the most appealing of Josephine Bell's amateur detectives. (The roster of sometime sleuths includes, but is not limited to, heavy hitter David Wintringham, who appears in a dozen books; attorney Claude Warrington-Reeve, who appears in three; and Dr. Henry Frost, who, like Amy Tupper, cracked a couple of cases in novel form. There's also, I should add, Bell's Inspector Mitchell, who appeared in nine of the Wintringham books and all of the Warrington-Reeve books, as well as in at least one solo venture.)

Amy Tupper is, in short, Bell's Miss Marple, her contribution, admittedly minor, to the spinster sleuth genre.  She has a good case in A Question of Inheritance, a short novel of about 55,000 words, divided into two parts.  The first part, of about 15,000 words, is set in 1953, while the second part, about 40,000 words, moves 22 years ahead in time, to 1975. 

With the temporal shift that takes place in the novel, one could see how the plot, in the hands of Ruth Rendell, might have been expanded into a Barbara Vine opus of 120, 000 words, but Josephine Bell was a less ambitious (or if you like, more economical) writer than the Rendell who gave us the rich and rewarding A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, The House of Stairs, The Brimstone Wedding and Asta's Book.

Still, Part One of A Question of Inheritance is rather Rendellian, being a suspenseful and indeed somewhat Gothic depiction of a wife, Florence Bennet (the former minor stage actress "Maisie Atkins"), who is trapped in a loveless marriage at the remote country mansion of Garwood House (Florence's husband, we learn, only married her to beget an heir to his estate).

After her infant son, the begotten heir, abruptly dies, a casualty of cot death (SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome), on a night when Florence is totally alone in the house, the panicking wife decides to flee her husband and the country, covering both her tracks and the traces of her son's death.

Florence ends up in Italy, where she meets a distraught native woman with an infant son who just happens to be the age of her dead child....

Bell has Florence herself thinking how her situation is like something out of a Victorian stage melodrama: "Could it have been a dramatic version of the famous East Lynne?  Quite likely.  It always went down famously in the provinces."  It's also like something you might find in an Annie Haynes novel.

Part Two takes Florence Bennet forward to 1975, where the events of the past embroil her and those around her in a very modern murder case.  Amy Tupper, an old friend of Florence (or Maisie as she was then) from acting days, is on hand to help out, happily, and it's she who grasps the meaning of a clever clue (one daringly staring readers in the face throughout the book, even though I didn't quite grasp it).

The plot involving a dead infant reminds me of the Rendell novel A Fatal Inversion (1987), except that as I recollect Rendell's characters in that book are Sixties hippy types and sexual swingers and Bell's young couple is ever so nice and spruce and "sensible" (as Bell puts it), making them rather akin to the nice young couples in Ngaio Marsh's mysteries.  (They even know their way around a sherry bottle.)

I'm reminded also of that haunting vignette, which actually pops up in several Agatha Christie novels, of the mad old woman in the nursing home asking, "Was it your poor child?"  But Bell's book is more a classic mystery, complete with house servants and a battle over the inheritance of an ancestral country estate. This is a good late Bell (though with some implausible bits, as Moira Redmond has noted), and more of a traditional mystery than most of her other late novels.  In fact it was Bell's farewell to classic detective fiction.

Note: Moira Redmond's 2013 review of this novel makes, as expected, quite an entertaining read.  Check it out.

Easy Prey (1959)

Easy Prey was published during Josephine Bell's heyday back in the 1950s, a year after the final appearance of her longtime series sleuth, David Wintringham. 

Here we have an abundance, or indeed an overabundance, of sleuths, including a young husband and wife, the wife's mother, the canny lawyer Claude Warrington-Reeve, and several impressively able policeman, including Superintendent, formerly Inspector, Mitchell and Inspector Frost.*

*(Any relation to Bell's later series sleuth Dr. Frost?)

The complicated case concerns another dead child, this one appallingly murdered in his crib, allegedly by his own mother, sixteen years earlier.

In the opening chapter of the novel, Reg and Mavis Holmes, a nice young married couple with a nice infant daughter, Joy, come home in their nice London neighborhood to find their nice middle-aged lodger (I think she is forty--"a dangerous age for women," we are told) nearly dead from gas poisoning, in an attempted suicide.

Or is it attempted murder???  To their horror, Reg and Mavis learn that their wonderful lodger, Miss Trubb, served sixteen years in prison for the murder of her young son.  But they begin to suspect that all is not as it seems, and they start snooping into the past, with some deadly results....

Easy Prey is an interesting and complexly plotted detective novel, with an especially good character portrayal of pathos in Miss Trubb, the sort of complex personality type who shows up in more modern crime novels like Minette Walter's The Sculptress (1993).

My only complaints about the novel are the somewhat huddled and muddled conclusion, something that happens sometimes with Josephine Bell mysteries (like Sophie Hannah, Bell is not blessed with the miraculous clarity of Christie), and the somewhat irritating way the wife, Mavis Holmes, is portrayed.
four years around the corner

It's all very Fiction from the Fifties in the portrayal of fictive marriage, with Mavis occasionally flipping out over stressful events ("She was on the verge of hysteria," he decided), afterward sitting like a child on her husband's knee to be calmed ("Reg took his wife on his knee") and having her mother brought in to help her cope when her husband is absent. ("I'm a lucky old woman, and you are a lucky young one, having a man like Reg to look after you.")  There's no suggestion that any of this is odd or unusual, it's just a typical Fifties husband-wife relationship apparently. 

Needless to say, Reg takes the lead in the amateur investigation, masterful Fifties fellow that he is. It's hard to imagine that Josephine Bell, a doctor who supported four children entirely herself after the tragic accidental death of her husband when he was not even forty years old, all the while managing to write at least one novel a year, would have been so passive.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Some Bells Toll for Me: Such a Nice Client (1977), A Swan-Song Betrayed (1978) and The Innocent (1982), by Josephine Bell

"No one is basically wicked, Elaine.  We were taught that and I still believe it...."

     --Mrs. Chandler, almost pathologically naive social worker, in Such a Nice Client (1977), by Josephine Bell

The 1970s and 1980s were lean times for admirers of the detective fiction of the Golden Age writers, unless they were content to reread the old books. For the most part, the old boys and girls weren't writing new stuff, even if they were still alive and kicking (and few of them were).

Agatha Christie's Curtain and Sleeping Murder were great events for classic crime fiction fans, though of course we learned that they weren't newly composed works.  I was eleven years old when I first read Curtain and Sleeping Murder in paperback in 1977; I had been introduced to Christie paperbacks as an 8-year-old tyke by my mother in 1974 in Mexico City, where my family and I were then residing for a year. 

By 1978 and 1979, I, avid bookworm that I was, was ravenously devouring all the Christies I could lay hands on; she was my "series" reading staple at that time, after I had lost interest in the OZ books of L. Frank Baum and the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and before I got interested in the fantasy and sci-fi fiction of JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert.  How I loved Poirot and, to a lesser extent, Miss Marple. (Tommy and Tuppence, on the other hand, just seemed plain dotty to me, though I did like feisty and facetious "Bundle" Brent.)

By the time I started reading Ngaio Marsh in the 1980s, the New Zealander had passed away just a few years earlier, in 1982.  I didn't really like her much compared to Christie, because the few books by her that I read seemed interminably full of what Robert Barnard memorably termed "Marshy inquisitions" about who was where when.  I loved Dorothy L. Sayers, however, barring the moiderless and lovey-dovey Gaudy Night, and over about a year I read every bit of mystery she ever stitched.  But Dot had died long ago when I first picked up a book by her, and her mysteries had petered out even farther back in time. (Not long after my parents were born.)

Even very late Golden Age writers (arguably more Silver Age) like Christianna Brand and Elizabeth Ferrars I started reading just after their respective passings.  John Dickson Carr had been dead for over a dozen years when I discovered his fantastic murder fiction.  Ellery Queen I only started after the death of the longer surviving half of the team, Frederic Dannay, though I had enjoyed the Jim Hutton/David Wayne Ellery Queen television series when it originally aired (back when I was first reading Agatha Christie).

There were some true Golden Age writers who were still active in 1970s and even 1980s, but I didn't know about them.  Anthony Gilbert's last mystery was published in 1974, a year after her death. Had she survived to her eighties she would probably still have been producing into the 1980s, as did, in fact, two other hardy Golden Age ladies, Gladys Mitchell, whose last detective novels were published posthumously in 1984, and Josephine Bell, who published her last crime novel at the age of 85 in 1982. (She died five years later, in 1987, when she was nearly 90.)

picking at the crusts of the Golden Age

Josephine Bell's last seven crime novels, published between 1975, the year Hercule Poirot with the hardcover appearance of Curtain passed on to that great crime scene in the sky, and 1982, are an interesting group of books, though variously successful.  Bell's first mystery, the once much-lauded Murder in Hospital, had appeared way back in 1937.  A widowed doctor with several children, Bell, like PD James, was a late, but long-lasting, arrival to crime fiction.

Bell was someone who grew bored with the "classic" clue-puzzle detective and over her long writing career veered more into the crime novel form, in addition to writing both "straight" novels and, later in life, period novels set in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

Daring to do what Christie would not (Poirot was too popular and lucrative), Bell ruthlessly ditched her series sleuth, Dr. David Wintringham, who appeared in a dozen mysteries between 1937 and 1958 (half of them, including Murder in Hospital, from 1937 to 1940 and half from 1944 to 1958).  She tried a few other short-lived series sleuths, one of whom, elderly retired stage actress Amy Tupper, appeared in two of her very late books, Wolf, Wolf! (1979) and A Question of Inheritance (1980), which I'll be talking about here later; but she wrote far more non-series works, many of which are more in the nature of crime novels than classic detective fiction.

Three of these examples are from late in her career: Such a Nice Client (1977), A Swan-Song Betrayed (1978) and, her final novel, The Innocent.  (Her subpar American publisher, Walker, though it needed to sex up these titles to remind readers they were, after all, murder stories: Client became Stroke of Death, Swan-Song became Treachery in Type, and Innocent became A Deadly Place to Stay.)  I had read, and quite enjoyed, Client some years ago and, having read the other two books back in April and been disappointed with them, decided to reread Client, which I again, I'm happy to say, enjoyed very much.

perhaps the young woman (left) is horrified by the cover to A Swan-song Betrayed (right)

A Swan-Song Betrayed has a promising set-up, involving a woman who was briefly a bestselling mainstream novelist in the later 1930s attempting to make, late in life, a comeback, after decades of having written nothing.  She rashly employs a young woman typist with numerous shady friends, two of whom involve her in a plot to steal her employer's novel and publish it as her own.

Plagiarism is an interesting subject, especially for someone like me, who has been the victim of plagiarism; but the plagiarism plot just kind of peters out, as does the focus on the elderly author, as Bell transfers her interest to the hoods and con artists in the typist's world.  There is a murder, but it feels perfunctory.  (Another, admittedly more incidental, debit for this book for me is the absolutely hideous Hodder cover.)

It's obvious that Bell was, like a lot of people of her generation (my grandparents' generation), deeply disturbed by the chaos which they discerned all over the world in the 1970s (as if there hadn't been a few problems here and there back in the 1930s). 

Bell addressed juvenile delinquency in a sociological study, Crime in Our Time (1962), and in her Seventies crime fiction.  Like many of her generation, Bell was a tough cookie, hardened by hard times, and she tended to fault what she deemed the sentimentality and social permissiveness of the 1970s for such problems as violent crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock birth and poverty. 

These concerns often found tart and blunt expression in Bell's later novels, reminding me of my late friend Helen Szamuely, an outspokenly conservative blogger and mystery reader who passed away in April.  I don't actually know whether she read Josephine Bell, but I think she must have enjoyed her if she did.  Although there are ongoing revisionist efforts, including those by Martin Edwards as well as some of my own, to nuance the conservatism of British Golden Age detective novelists, there is still no denying that a great many of them were indeed conservatives who were greatly shaken by the new order that arouse after the Second World War.

Josephine Bell's The Innocent is a more interesting book than Swan-Song, having something of the feel of one of Ruth Rendell's later (and much longer) social problem crime novels.  Here Bell looks at the life of a thoroughly unappealing teenage girl runaway.  After nearly killing (inadvertently) an old woman from whom she was stealing, she ends up in the home of an oddball fringe Christian sect, which she soon learns is more of a cult that is presided over, most dangerously, by a messianic leader with a penchant for sadism. (He likes to brand disobedient women sect members, for example.)

This was at the time very timely subject for a crime novel (the horrific mass suicide of Jim Jones' and his tragically deluded followers had taken place four years earlier), and Bell handles confused (or "innocent," in the sense that they are bereft of morals instruction from higher authority) modern young people better than, say, Agatha Christie did (see Third Girl), though this is setting, I think, rather a low bar. Actually, though, Bell allows her characters to use the f-word more than PD James and Ruth Rendell ever did!

Again, there is a late murder, but, although it's a smidgen more interesting than the one in Swan-Song, it still has something of a tacked-on feel. (There also a nice boy-girl team of cops investigating, providing some of the romance that a lot of people want in their mysteries.)

More clarion than either of the above Bells, however, is Such a Nice Client, published four decades ago, when Bell was eighty years old.  What lifts this one up for me is the medical milieu, about which Bell as an expert, and the author's splendidly tart and trenchant writing.

menaces, menaces
I'll admit that, on rereading the novel, it especially interested me because the partial focal character is a nice, even noble, young physical therapist working with geriatric patients. This is an occupation about which I have become quite familiar of late, because of my father's health issues. (There's also a good bit of reference to speech therapy.)

It's certainly a striking opening the book offers: Lucy Summers arrives at The Old Farmhouse to keep a rehab appointment with old Mr. Lawrence, speechless and confined to a wheelchair since his recent stroke, and his stylish daughter-and-law and caregiver, Dorothy.

Mrs. Lawrence is nowhere to be seen, but old Mr. Lawrence is in his chair in the back garden beside the bird table.  As a horrified Lucy looks on, she sees the stroke victim with his one good hand scatter the birds and grab the bread crusts off table, before ravenously stuffing them into his mouth. 

Is the elderly man being starved or is he simply suffering from dementia?  Doctors and nurses investigate, but they have to contend with an astoundingly dense social work administrator and her unfathomably incompetent underling.

During the course of the novel there are three murders and enough twists and turns to keep things quite lively for the reader (and quite deadly for the characters).  But also notable in Client is the scorn that Bell expresses for a social work bureaucracy that she sees as too often stymieing the proper authority of doctors.  As Bell's fellow crime writer HRF Keating put in in a review of the novel: "...plenty of sharp smacks for social neat mystery."

Special pleading on Bell's part if you like, but the doctor and novelist is not one to mince words on the subject:

Miss Carr was small and dark with a pinched little face that had not changed much since her early childhood and would stay about the same for the next thirty years.  People wishing to be kind to her had called her "knowing" when she was very young.  Later they were less inclined to use an adjective of such doubtful worth.  For Molly Carr did poorly at school at all those subjects where exact knowledge was essential. Her wayward mind floated uncertainly hither and thither without any particular direction.  Her imagination was lively; she produced a few remarkable infant drawings and paintings.  Later one one or two poems in entirely free verse astonished her teachers by the striking misuse of some long words they did not expect her to know and in some cases had themselves to look up in the dictionary.  Possible it was this collection of insubstantial artistic triumphs that won her a place in a minor college where she elected to pursue Social Studies.  The result was a diploma and further training.  Miss Carr continued to enjoy meeting vague, large ideas.  She continued to be incapable of observing or learning any single detail of exact knowledge about anything.

But the diploma earned her a job.  Having passed through several spheres of activity where her deficiency appeared to be much greater than her worth, she discovered a final interest in the great, heaving, clouded sea of human psychology.  Another course, another diploma and Miss Carr, as a psychiatric social worker, was ready to paddle about in shallow waters of that ocean where Dr. Faiclough took his lifecraft on its desperate ventures.

It's the kind of passage I think Helen Szamuely would have appreciated.  Josephine Bell could always deliver one formidable burn.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Petrella Perfect: Blood and Judgment (1959), by Michael Gilbert

oh, let's just say "a classic"
with no qualifiers
"In books of course it is quite simple. I believe that private detectives of great ability abound. Very often, having been invited down for the week-end, before the murder occurs, they are handily on the spot before the police arrive.  They have friends in every walk of life, private laboratories at their disposal, and unlimited money.  I can only say I have never had the good fortune to meet one.  The private detectives that I have been called upon to deal with have been different."  Mr. Harrowing paused again, and added, "Quite different."
"His first book is out in the autumn.  Murder, Mayhem and Mirth it's called.  I get two mentions in it.  'My old friend Albert Dodds agreed with me'--page ninety-two, and 'Sergeant Dodds expressed a contrary view'--page a hundred and four."

"I believe your'e making the whole thing up."

"Cross my heart, I'm not.  It'll be in the
Gazette tomorrow."  Sergeant Dodds picked up three darts from the counter and flung one of them idly into the dart-board.  "One case I don't mind betting he leaves out though, that's the Binford Reservoir Case.  Between you and me, it wasn't really one of our best."

                                                           Blood and Judgment (1959), Michael Gilbert 

The "Binford Reservoir Case" is just what Blood and Judgment, Michael Gilbert's tenth crime novel, details.  A woman's body is found hidden away on the grounds of a London water reservoir and, after it's discovered she has been murdered, the great machinery of the Metropolitan Police is put in motion to solve the case.

An individual is arrested and charged with the crime, but that dogged young detective sergeant, Patrick Petrella, has his doubts that the case has been handled correctly by that showboating celebrity cop, Detective Superintendent Chris Kellaway.  What will Petrella do to see that a fair judgment is delivered?

Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) produced several landmark works of English crime fiction, and surely Blood and Judgment is one of them.  It's not only an important English police procedural, following in the footsteps of the wonderful Henry Wade (see my book The Spectrum of English Murder), of whom Gilbert was a great admirer and whose wryly cynical tone Gilbert shared in his books, it's a nice little puzzle, at its heart the sort of thing you find in Golden Age detective fiction from the between-the-wars years.

The milieu is realistic, the puzzle meticulously designed and the writing masterful. (The final paragraph is especially good and should stay with you in memory.)  Honestly, for what more could you ask in a police detective novel?

This may be my second favorite Gilbert, after Smallbone Deceased (1950), one of the finest examples of post-WW2 ratiocinative detective fiction and a book that postively "wowed" his brother and sister Detection Club members.  My Hodder reprint edition of Judgment (see above) says the book is a "near classic London police novel."  I have no idea why Hodder tempered their the praise with that "near."

Petrella appeared in only one other Gilbert novel, Roller-Coaster (1993), many years later, and the story is not as appealing to fans of classic detective fiction, I would opine.  However, Gilbert's appealing character also appeared in in numerous excellent short stories (fifty I believe), the majority collected, during Gilbert's lifetime, in Petrella at Q (1977) and Young Petrella (1988), but almost two dozen others appearing in additional, scattered volumes, some published posthumously.  One mega-volume of Petrella stories would be simply brilliant!