Pick Your Victim, by Pat McGerr (1944)

dell307WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the VICTIM and other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

We begin in a small US Marine base in the Aleutians in 1944. Before being caught by the draft, Pete Robbins was a publicity agent for the Society To Uplift Domestic Service (SUDS), which provided a monthly information packet to its homemaker subscribers of recipes, homemaking hints, child-care information, etc. While the Marines are “waiting for something to happen,” the boredom is exquisite. “All books and papers that came in were passed around until they were worn to rags.” A scrap of newspaper used as padding for a parcel from home reveals that his former boss, Paul Stetson, the managing director of SUDS, has murdered … well, the crucial piece isn’t there, but the surrounding material reveals that the victim was also an executive of the organization. So the Marines know who the murderer is, but not the victim. Under the leadership of the murderer, SUDS was in the process of increasing its reach and power a hundred-fold, and many of the employees were finding both the process and their fellow employees problematic. Some were forming plans to create a rival organization. Which executive provoked Paul Stetson sufficiently to lose his temper, grab a nearby woollen scarf, and strangle them?

3c84ccd26e1521c96c1eaf8915ec40cbIn a believable development among terminally bored Marines, the group forms a betting pool based on Robbins’s listing of the eight executive employees of SUDS. Most of the remainder of the book is devoted to Pete’s telling of the entire history of his employment in exhaustive detail before the Marines place their bets; each prospective victim comes up for discussion in a hilarious reversal of the climatic “gathering in the library” scene. Buried in the morass of detail are some tiny clues which are assembled by one Marine in order to pinpoint the correct victim, before Pete receives an un-torn version of the newspaper clipping from home.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

Pat (Patricia) McGerr is not a household word in the mystery world, but she was certainly an ingenious writer. This novel is the first, and one of the few examples, of a reversal of the whodunit form which I’ll call the whogotit. The killer’s identity is known but the victim’s is not. McGerr did at least one other whogotit, 1948’s The Seven Deadly Sisters.  (We know that one of seven sisters has murdered her husband, we just don’t know which sister.) As you can imagine, it’s exceptionally difficult to come up with a structure for a novel that makes this possible. McGerr managed it twice. Both suffer from the same problem; yes, McGerr is clever, but she’s just not a very good writer.

This novel has a number of structural problems, principal among which is that it’s kind of boring. The entire action of the novel is by necessity told in flashback to serve the plot reversal; I’ll suggest that the more flashback there is in a novel, the less vitality, and hence this book has just about none. None of the characters are all that interesting. The Marines are indistinguishable each from the other, and although the characterization of the SUDS executives is somewhat more creative, it’s not great. The same with the writing itself: not much in the way of effective description, nothing memorable in the way of description, no real knack for dialogue. There’s some interesting social context about the war effort.

The strength of this book is entirely in its plotting and construction, and here it’s on solid ground. The planting of the most delicate clues is beautifully handled — in the last few pages when you realize the clue you’ve overlooked, it all comes together with a satisfying “snap” in your mind and there seems to be a one-and-only-one solution to the identity of the victim. Once you accept the framing story of the Aleutian Marine base, everything flows well and there’s a steady stream of story that unfolds naturally and in a realistic way. It’s just not all that interesting a story.

This is the kind of novel that has an underground following. It’s never been particularly available for reading; the most common version is the Dell mapback edition from the late 1940s. If you mention it in a group of knowledgeable mystery readers, quite a few of them will never have heard of this novel or its author. But one or two will nod, and smile, and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a pretty crazy one, isn’t it!” You may find it worth your time if only for the clever nature of the plotting; not many books are this smart.

My favourite edition

I came to this book via the Dell mapback edition (Dell #307) and, just generally, any mapback edition is automatically my favourite; I love that series. I found an illustration on the internet showing both the front and back covers. although the “crime map on back cover” here contributes little to your understanding of the plot. The Dell edition has a wonderful illustration that has absolutely nothing to do with the novel; even though, yes, it would have been fun to have the victim of a book called Pick Your Victim found murdered with a pick, it just doesn’t happen here. Nevertheless that grotesque smeary skull-face and immense set of green gloves are fun and lurid.

The first, from Doubleday Crime Club, is today represented on ABE Books with a single listing, VG in jacket, for $80 plus shipping. You’ll be able to find a reading copy in the mapback edition between $10 and $20. To the best of my knowledge, no electronic versions currently exist.

Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

51XIWgKNgEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My friend Curtis Evans, whose Passing Tramp blog is essential reading for the Golden Age of Detection aficionado, devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his excellent Masters of the ‘Humdrum’ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. Click on the title in the previous sentence to buy a copy on Amazon. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians like Curt Evans are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

Death at Dyke’s Corner, by E. C. R. Lorac (1940)

UnknownWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

11831756_10207661356081152_1492410585426506123_nWhat’s this book about?

Medical student Steven Langston and barrister Roland Straynge are driving through an exceptionally rainy night, returning to London after a Hunt Ball. When they are navigating a double hairpin turn, they are blinded by the lights of an oncoming lorry as they realize there is a motionless car immediately ahead that is standing in the worst possible place for it to be. With the help of exceptionally good driving by all concerned, the unavoidable crash is not very serious; Langston and Straynge and the lorry driver escape shaken but uninjured, but soon find a dead man at the wheel of the wrecked Daimler. Except that the late Morton Conyers was dead before the crash, and appears to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The late Mr. Conyers is the principal of a very successful company called John Home & Co. — and it will save the modern reader time and effort to think of this company as equivalent to Walmart. When John Home sets up shop in a village, it sells everything and anything, and drives most local merchants out of business. Thus Conyers himself is the object of great hatred among the small businesspeople of the villages into which his company expands. The personal life of the deceased is also tumultuous; his elegant and long-suffering wife has managed to keep quiet about her husband’s many sexual infidelities among women of the lower classes, but her son Lewis has harboured a burning resentment for many years. When they learn of the death, there is a brief but  unusually frank exchange between mother and son. Lewis learns almost immediately that his late father’s valet, the ferret-like Strake, has been eavesdropping when Strake makes a crude attempt to blackmail Lewis; Lewis strikes him to the ground in fury and puts him in the hospital. The Conyers’ chauffeur is also resentful of his late employer and had recently given his notice; suspicion also falls on him since it seems as though the Daimler had been tampered with in order to generate a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.

1911_Daimler_Landaulette_crashedInspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately begins to investigate not only the family but the economics of the local market town of Strode. From the local squire, Colonel Merryl (and his beautiful daughter Anne) they learn of the social context in which the Conyers family operates. Local opinion of Mr. Conyers is that he was an upstart tradesman and a dirty dog who would not be admitted to the social circles of the upper classes, despite his great wealth; most people felt a little sorry for the innocent Mrs. Conyers and her son, whom Anne describes as “a nicely behaved young man with a pleasant voice and an inferiority complex”), but they were regrettably tarred with the same brush as the father.

Opinions in the village are equally strong since it has been learned that Conyers planned to open a branch of John Home in the village. Macdonald interviews the local chemist, the butcher, and other smallholders in the ancient village; since it seems likely they were about to be driven out of business, they were of course resentful and angry. Opposition seems to be led by a nasty local moneylender, Shenton, who boasts that he has managed to acquire property such that Conyers’s plans to open in the Market Square would be frustrated; Shenton wants to keep many of the local businessmen under his extortionate thumb as he always has. But was Conyers out driving the evening of his death to make a secret cash deal with someone for a key piece of property? Some local businessmen were apparently resigned to progress … many were not. And none of the villagers were prepared to put up with Conyers’s buying of the favours of foolish young local women with presents of expensive jewelry.

Lacock_01As the investigation progresses, Macdonald realizes that local opinion is that Lewis Conyers murdered his father, but Lewis appears to have an alibi of sorts. Apparently he worships Anne Merryl from afar and, the night of the accident, was mooning about hoping to have a brief word with her at the Hunt Ball (from which the first-chapter drivers were returning, and at which Lewis would not have been welcome). The villagers, however, seem to think that the police are stalling on arresting Lewis, whom they believe is obviously guilty. Emotions in the village begin to run high and Lewis Conyers is attacked by an unknown party and seriously injured.

bourton5Macdonald has now got a pretty good idea of who committed the murder, based on some perceptive observations of tiny physical clues that will probably have escaped the reader. But emotions are running high and many of the villagers now seem to think the unpleasant Shenton is the guilty party. When one village suspect attempts to commit suicide, possibly prompted by the Shenton’s apparent impersonation of a police officer, things come to a head. Shenton is taken into custody and is later released, swearing revenge upon the police; the villagers are agog and a little group of vigilantes goes to Shenton’s house to carry out some impromptu investigations in a threatening manner. But Shenton has a store of petrol that gets ignited. One of the little group of villagers dies horribly in the burning building and the fire threatens to spread to the entire village; all the villagers are running around madly rescuing their relations and their possessions. Meanwhile Macdonald is told that Shenton has escaped the fire and the police officer begins to track him through the village; there is an exceptionally tense finish as the two men are locked in a tiny room at the back of a shop as the fire races through the village. But Macdonald breaks free and arrests the murderer, whose identity will probably be a complete surprise to the reader. In the final chapter everything is explained to the local police and the Justice of the Peace — and of course the reader.

6129Why is this worth reading?

I’m starting to think that E. C. R. Lorac, aka Carol Carnac (pseudonyms for Edith Caroline Rivett, about whose personal life not much is known, and to whom I’ll refer here as ECR) is the Golden Age mystery writer who has been most unjustly neglected by the passage of time (although John Rhode/Miles Burton is a close second). Other writers have a few of their novels that have survived the years, and get the occasional reprint. For instance, one or two of Anthony Berkeley‘s tours de force like The Poisoned Chocolates Case continue to remain in print, and when a reader discovers this great book, s/he has a hint that tracking down other Berkeley titles will be worthwhile.

But ECR’s work suffers from two problems; one is that every single volume of her more than 70 titles is scarce, and thus difficult and expensive to obtain (barring a few very late works of no great excellence that you may find occasionally in a secondhand book store), and the other is that there is no single work that stands out and that has been cherished by critics as her finest work. They’re all good, but none of them seems to be great. (I like to call an author like this a first-rate second-rate writer. Not famous, but a really satisfying writer of good books.) ECR’s scarcity and relative obscurity has resulted in many aficionados of the Golden Age of Detection missing out on some very fine mysteries, and I for one would love to see that change. In the meantime, every copy available is frequently snapped up by a collector who cherishes it. And some are so rare that it is speculated that fewer than ten copies exist.

019This particular volume is satisfying and delightful, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a damn good mystery. The solution is intelligent and surprising and you will have the uncommon experience at the end of thinking, “Oh, I should have seen THAT!” ECR does an excellent job of balancing at least two major plot trails, those of the victim’s family and those of his economic victims. It’s rare that a reader enters Act III of a typical mystery without having eliminated at least one major plot trail — here, everything is in play.  Unless you are paying an exceptional amount of attention, you will be fooled; I freely confess I was, and I enjoyed that experience.

The characterization is excellent. Other volumes of ECR I’ve read tend to focus on the upper classes and merely sketch in the “servants and villagers” who provide information to the plot but nothing really important to the novel. Here, we’re dealing with real people. The shopkeepers are quirky and realistic. ECR has done a good job here on making morally unsound characters like the valet and the moneylender three-dimensional and not merely cardboard characters who kick the occasional puppy to demonstrate their complete wickedness.

The flow of this novel is first-rate. ECR’s works occasionally suffer from their slow deliberate pace (as I noticed in my look at another ECR volume, Still Waters, where virtually nothing actually happens in the action of the novel). This volume starts with excitement, lets you get interested in the victim’s family issues, then switches to the larger viewpoint of the village resisting change and starts to build a double line of tension. And I suspect few ECR stories build to such an exciting climax as a manhunt through a burning village that finishes up in the near-death of the detective and the principal suspect and then a final surprise twist in the ending. This novel is really well constructed and built.

The writing, as usual, is excellent. ECR has a good touch with dialogue that displays character; people speak in the way that reveals who they are, but it feels more natural than cliched. And the author’s love of the countryside is apparent here. There are no long rambles through farmland and countryside, as sometimes happens in her novels to slow things down for a moment while she gives you the feel of the land; this is because, as seems to be a bit unusual for ECR, nobody in this book is motivated by their love of the land and thus there is no occasion for anyone to get all lyrical about it. But there’s enough here that we can see the little maze of twisted streets and Tudor-era shops and outbuildings that make up this so-typical ancient village — and we understand what’s going on when Macdonald is racing through its streets and alleys after his suspect.

I have to say that the part I most enjoyed here, though, was what I think of as social context. That’s one of the reasons that Golden Age mysteries are so interesting to me — the chance to find out about a way of life that was commonplace not too many years before I was born, but has its bases and mores rooted in systems of social class and interaction that are completely foreign to the modern day. It is not often done as well here as ECR provides, mostly because many Golden Age writers are standing in a position of agreeing, pretty much, with the upper classes. In this volume we find out how people feel about the potential destruction of the traditional village way of life by the encroachment of modern methods of trade and commerce. This means that the villagers will have access to stylish clothing and a wider range of food and entertainment, to the great dismay of the upper classes who think such things are vulgar and unsuitable for their inferiors. They will also be able to have jobs working in stores rather than being destined for domestic service and work on the land.

The thing that I thought was really delightful about this book’s approach to the social context was made plain by the squire’s daughter, Anne Merryl. When her father begins to whinge about how vulgar and unsuitable it is that the village will be “spoiled” by the economic development inherent in the building of a John Home store in the village, she refutes him. She speaks of her desire to do something useful and earn money by perhaps working at the store as a beauty consultant or a fashion advisor — to the horror of her parents. But she compounds that horror. When her parents remonstrate with her for buying a delicious cake from a not-too-distant John Home store, since it takes business away from local tradespeople, she faces up to them. “If our own tradespeople would sell cakes like this, I wouldn’t go to John Home’s. In Laing’s Baker in Strand you can buy three cakes. One is rich fruit. Awful. One is seed cake. Awfuller. One is Maderia. [sic] Awfullest. Then there are little sponge cakes with pink, green or white icing. I’ve eaten them since I was three.  I never want to see them again.” Her parents remind her that the local tradespeople will be squeezed out — “decent folk with a tradition all their own, all pushed out to make room for John Home”. Anne angrily reminds them of the improved social conditions for staff in the John Home stores as opposed to being bullied by the local tradespeople in the old-fashioned way, and speaks forcefully about “Manton the butcher — another horror. Look at his shop in summer. Flies all over the meat and no cold storage.” Another character remarks about “The small trader, owning his own shop, was a monopolist, and he has underpaid his employees and exploited the necessities of the country folk who had to buy their goods at his shop or go without. Independence has often been used as a cloak to inefficiency, and unwillingness to oblige, and economic unsoundness.”

Now, this is something you just don’t see in many works of Golden Age detective fiction. Bucolic “Mrs. Bumble who runs the village shop” is generally portrayed as merely the centre of gossip and the occasional bit of background information about potential suspects — but the unspoken assumption is generally that her store has everything the locals need at fair prices. (Think about why Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel needs to travel to London to visit the Army and Navy Stores.) ECR has put her finger on the oncoming wave of progress that will shortly sweep away this antiquated lifestyle, but the really interesting part to me is that ECR is saying the villagers themselves knew it was coming and didn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a recent thriller by the excellent John Sandford (Shock Wave) that addresses the same issues, when a thinly disguised version of Walmart is moving into a small Minnesota town, and honestly, there’s not much difference between the two sets of reactions. But many Golden Age mysteries merely sketch in this issue by having the local squire bemoan the advent of progress, or Lady Poobah remark that it’s SO hard to get housemaids these days. ECR gives us both sides of the coin and it’s both fascinating and surprising.  It’s also rather sobering to think that when the village burns down at the end, it will merely make it more likely that John Home will clear the burned sites and build a modern store immediately.

To sum up — good writing, good plotting, great social context, interesting characterization, and a clever and difficult mystery. They don’t write ’em like that any more, and for the life of me I can’t think of why we can’t get our hands on these.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada nn#30 — this is “unnumbered #30” from the first year of this company’s publications, 1942. Another way of describing this, based on internal evidence bound into the book, is “C1”. (I can’t confirm this because my copy is, paradoxically, too tight to show this identifier. But I accept this assertion because it’s shared by a number of knowledgeable individuals.) An experienced dealer in Collins White Circle Canada cites it as “Very rare” and suggests that 20 to 50 copies are estimated to still exist. My copy (not the one depicted here), in reasonable condition (VG) with a good binding, is missing a small piece of the spine at the bottom (essentially the word “Lorac”). I think it might bring $60 to $70 at auction but, believe me, it’s not leaving my hands; it’s irreplaceable. This is the only paperback edition (no, it’s not, see below); as of today, there are no copies of the first edition available on AbeBooks. Similar first editions are trading at a base level of $500 US! So this is my favourite edition mostly because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or I’m ever likely to see.

(Later the same day as this review was published, I learned that there is a Crime Club paperback of this novel; it’s still scarce, just not AS scarce as I’d thought. My thanks to my Facebook friend and fellow GAD aficionado Louise Davis who generously provided the information and a photograph of a book from her collection — second picture from the top.)

The D.A. Takes A Chance, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)

D.A.TakesaChanceThe8047WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel.  This is a work of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solution is not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of this classic work so that you will enjoy it without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

G135What’s this book about?

Beautiful Doris Kane drives into “Madison City”, California (based on Ventura) to visit her newlywed daughter Paula and her husband Jim Melvin. When she arrives at the house, there’s nobody home and nobody’s been there for a while; there’s a letter in the mailbox from well-known shyster lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr (“old ABC”). A snoopy neighbour mentions the Melvins had a wild party where there might have been a pistol shot. And when Doris investigates the spare bedroom, the bed is drenched with blood. Doris runs for the law. But when she leads slow-moving, hard-punching Sheriff Brandon and handsome war hero District Attorney Doug Selby back into the house, the letter is gone and the house is spotless.

Selby and Brandon continue to investigate. ABC shows up, as does Jim Melvin. He tells Doris the story of some Hollywood type who got drunk and shot himself in the arm. Jim is working to sell a lucrative project to Madison City (newfangled parking meters that reset to zero when the car leaves, thus doubling the take) and tells Doris he and Paula have moved temporarily to a secluded house for reasons connected with the considerable political machinations necessary to get the project across. Jim takes Doris back to the other residence and puts her to bed, the couple mentioning that they have a female house guest who hasn’t been sleeping too well. In the middle of the night, party girl Eve Dawson makes her way into Doris’s bedroom, looking for company and conversation; she’s accustomed to music, dancing, liquor, and company, and she’s been secluded and isolated while she recovers from — a recent bullet wound. The two house guests chatter for a few minutes, then Doris falls asleep. But in the morning, Paula Melvin discovers that Eve Dawson has been stabbed to death with a big carving knife.

7109075167_e1345267d5_bThis kicks up Selby and Brandon’s investigation into high gear, but everyone’s clamming up quickly. When they go to the little town of Highdale to interview Eve Dawson’s mother, they learn — from, among others, a garrulous cab driver who is under the mistaken impression that people don’t recognize him as a blabbermouth — that beautiful Eve had left town to seek her fortune and was apparently on the verge of Hollywood stardom (at least according to Eve).  They also find the source of the carving knife, a local hardware store, which recently sold its last such knife in stock to, of all people, old ABC. The trail of evidence leads to Eve’s roommate, a hard-edged beauty named Eleanor “Babe” Harlin who never met a nickel, or a wealthy man, she didn’t like. Her diamond-hard demeanour enables her to rebuff the lawmen in classic style. Meanwhile ABC has been busy in the background, muddling the trail on behalf of all the politicians and money-men profiting from the civic affairs of both Highdale and Madison City. Every time Selby and Brandon learn something, ABC and the politicians muddy the waters and fiddle with the meaning of the clues, constantly keeping the detectives on the defensive as everyone starts moving around at top speed. Meanwhile, Selby’s ally and sometime romantic interest Sylvia Martin, a reporter for the Madison City Clarion, mobilizes her story to counteract Selby’s political antagonists who control the other city newspaper, the Blade.

As things start to come to a head, someone slips a non-fatal dose of barbiturates to Babe Harlin; then two more characters eat some chocolate creams that appear out of nowhere and find themselves drugged. Intrepid Doug Selby works out what must have happened, then makes an arrest. And in a dramatic showdown finish, Selby realizes that he has enough evidence on old ABC to convict him of criminal conspiracy and put an end to his nefarious career. But the slippery ABC wriggles out of the worst of the charges by embarking on a dramatic and very surprising path with a key witness.  The reader is left anxiously awaiting the developments in the next novel that will grow out of this wild twist at the end of the novel. If I’d read this book when it first came out, I would have immediately placed an order for the next volume and anxiously awaited it for a year!

4701450662_2209e406ab_bWhy is this worth reading?

This is the eighth novel in a series of nine about Doug Selby, published between 1937 and 1949.  From the jacket flap of the first edition: “Too much candy, too many knives, too many politicians, and a great deal too much of suave unscrupulous A. B. Carr make this one of Selby’s toughest and most brilliant cases.” I have to agree.

It’s not clear to me why Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG) gave up writing this series in 1949. As near as I can tell, it was easy money — take the same type of plot that would underpin a Perry Mason novel, turn it inside out so the lawyer is the villain and the district attorney is the hero, and … the mixture as before. ESG had a great hand with a story hook, and this novel starts with a bed full of blood that gets the reader’s attention immediately and never lets it go. The plotting is complicated but the reader can always grasp it. Also, unlike some of the later Perry Mason novels, everyone’s motivations throughout the action make complete sense, even though those motivations aren’t easy to see. The writing is smooth and clear, with just enough description to give you a picture of where you are and what you’re seeing, but it’s the characterizations that carry the plot, and at this point ESG was at the height of his powers.

9351944._UY200_And there are some great characters in this book too. Alphonse Baker Carr is just wonderful; you really get a full picture of this glad-handing, smooth-tongued lawyer who is so sneaky, he could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead of you on the other side. He’s the equivalent of Perry Mason, but minus the moral code and responsibility — and whenever he’s on the scene, he heats up the room and intensifies the action. Another wonderful character is the minor one of the talkative cab driver. ESG doesn’t make the novice mistake of telling us what this guy is really like. Instead, everything that everyone says, including the driver himself, is written as though everyone believes what this doofus is saying about how he’s a model of closed-mouthedness is 100% true. But the reader grasps the picture, through subtle and clever writing, and sees that Doug Selby is counting on the cab driver to spill the beans everywhere he goes, which will suit Selby’s purposes just fine. Babe Harlin is another perfectly-written character; you can see her the hard shell of beauty and grasp the rough-and-tumble life that’s brought her to this point, hooked in with these sleazy politicians. Even Doris Kane, who is not much more than a minor character, in the few glimpses we see of her is a fully-formed character who leads us into the action in the first chapter by seeing Madison City with the eyes of a stranger.

8362746625_6d9bef7c6a_bI can’t say there is much to support my idea, but I’ll hesitantly suggest that the reason that ESG stopped this series was — the characters were too human. Over the nine volumes, Doug Selby has relationships with both reporter Sylvia Martin and someone who’s not in this volume, Inez Stapleton. Given that many of the characters in this series are the exact opposite of their professional counterparts in the Perry Mason series, Inez is a kind of Della Street gone wrong; the daughter of a wealthy family who is sweet on Selby before he runs for political office but, when Selby convicts her brother of a crime, the family loses its social pre-eminence. This is something like what we learn about Della Street in the earliest volume of the Perry Mason series. But where Della became a secretary, Inez went to law school and now is a frequent courtroom antagonist of the district attorney. Sylvia is a staunch ally of the DA and maintains that position here, but it’s pretty clear she’d like to be Mrs. Selby some day. I can’t tell you precisely what ABC gets up to here, for spoiler reasons, but it’s a significant development in his character’s life and lifestyle and represents a real advancement and change. And I think that’s the problem. ESG wasn’t really comfortable with characters who changed as they grew and progressed; it wasn’t really his comfort zone. Every Perry Mason novel is pretty much the same, and similarly with his Cool & Lam series. Even Selby himself changes throughout the series; at the beginning he’s idealistic, later he goes off to war and comes home a hero — but a slightly more cynical hero, more willing to believe the worst of others on short notice, and automatically assuming that he has political antagonists and they’re working against him.

Again, I have to say I don’t know of any evidence to support this suggestion. Gardner was an excellent, prolific and diversified writer, with large numbers of series characters available to him. He could have simply decided to focus on Perry Mason because that’s something he was guaranteed the public would want to buy. If he ever mentioned in writing why he stopped writing this series, I’m not aware of it; I just have a sense of what was going on, that’s all. But what this means, of course, is that this may well be the most well-characterized series he ever wrote. You can trace the development of the characters through these nine delightful novels, and I think you will enjoy them if you do.  But this also means that it’s important to start with the first volume and not this one, the eighth. If you’ve read the previous seven, you’ll enjoy this one a LOT more, and you will be anxiously awaiting your chance to get your hands on the ultimate volume.

My favourite edition

It’s pretty clear that when you have a mystery that involves a beautiful and, shall we say, slutty girl who’s found dead in bed in nightclothes, the cover art is, five times out of the six variations above, based on that Good Girl Art (GGA) selling point. It’s just a natural. When you think of how many covers of this period were GGA when there wasn’t any reason for it, well, you have to expect this cover to be GGA.  That being said, I actually like the edition at the very top of this piece (which, as is my habit, shows the copy at hand from my collection), Pocket #1010 — mine is the third printing. Silver Studios, who produced the cover, cleverly managed to get TWO beautiful women in nightclothes onto the cover in a nice graphic way. Ordinarily as a collector and sometime dealer, my attention is frequently drawn to valuable editions or the true first — in this case, the Morrow edition is, yes, GGA, but the illustration seems muddy; the colours are muted and not really attractive.

A note on genre from Samuel R. Delany

220px-Delany_encycOne of the most intelligent writers of science fiction is a New Yorker named Samuel R. Delany who has spent his life pushing the boundaries of genre fiction. His work is disturbing, highly sexual, ground-breaking, lyrical, frequently brilliant, and has won multiple important awards. (If you think cyberpunk was invented in the 1990s, you need to read his 1968 novel Nova.) None of it is easy to take, but almost all of it is important. One of his books was the only thing I’ve ever read that actually made me vomit; I’ve read that book twice. And I’ve learned more new words from reading Delany than any other fiction writer.

Today I found a piece in the New Yorker that contained an observation about how genre fiction works that I thought was worth sharing — and because I don’t want to lose it in a file of clippings, I share it here.

“[H]e does not believe that science fiction is the right genre for his concerns any more or less than another genre would be. “Nothing about the sonnet is perfect for the love poem, either,” he said. “Genre simply provides a way for the reader to look for things that have been done. A form is a useful thing to use. It has history and resonance. It informs you as to the way things have been done in the past.” In the preface to [his latest publication], Delany writes that, “though the genre can suggest what you might need, it can never do the work for you.”

These are simple words but they have a lot of profound meaning, given that this writer understands genre fiction on a profound level. And he has four Nebula Awards to prove it.

One of the interesting things to me is that this quotation applies to detective fiction — and any other type of genre fiction you can imagine. It’s only rarely that genre fiction manages to transcend itself and show everyone how writing is done, but I’ll suggest that paying attention to Delany is more likely to make that happen than anything else I can think of.

The Remaining (2014): Christian morality porn

The-Remaining-I-2014The Remaining (2014) was recommended by a friend who knows my interest in cheeseball horror or, indeed, cheeseball anything else; given a choice between a four-star film and a zero-star film, you’ll find me curled up in front of the piece de merde with a big smile on my face. I always say you can learn more about filmmaking from a terrible movie than a good one; a good film is seamless and it takes three or four viewings to come a full realization of, say, how the camera angles contribute to a sense of dread, or whatever. Whereas if you’re watching Sharknado or one of its fellow crapfests, you’re constantly thinking to yourself, “Wow, I would have avoided doing THAT,” and you start to learn the difference between good and bad filmmaking.

imagesBelieve me, you’ll learn a lot about filmmaking from this one!

Author: Chris Downing and Casey La Scala, who also directed.

Cast: Alexa Vega, who was the older sister in the Spy Kids movies and is now all grown up. Her Wikipedia biography cites her strong Christian faith. The remainder of the cast is a bunch of, generally, unknown actors who have small TV roles to their credit and who presumably needed the work.

The-Remaining-movie-church-photoOther data: According to Wikipedia, it grossed $1.7 million. Nobody’s apparently willing to disclose production costs, but I suspect this didn’t make back its money since there is no mention anywhere on the internet of The Remaining 2 being a possibility.

remaining_rapture-eyesAbout this film: This film starts out with an overlong sequence before the Rapture occurs at the 11-minute mark which establishes the characters and situation. It’s part of the currently very awful handheld camera trend, which started out as clever when The Blair Witch Project did it and is now a way of making a movie if you have a very low budget; one character clutches his camera despite all trials and tribulations. At the precise Raptorial moment, a viewpoint character is running his camera while coming down in an elevator with the bride’s parents; her mother is just saying that she wishes her daughter had been married in a church when — in a nice little moment — you can see the characters’ breath as everything gets very cold. Wham, half the wedding guests fall down and die, and their eyes glaze over. Weird things begin to happen; a little earthquake, some sort of sonic boom, and people start running from the building. In what has to be the nicest piece of production in this whole film, a huge airplane falls out of the sky and crashes into a nearby building. A handful of young people leave the building and head for a library to protect themselves as chunks of ice fall from the sky; they immediately decide it’s the Rapture because, as the bride sententiously remarks, “All the good people are gone, and all the bad people are left here.”  Well, the bride may be a bad person (I think we’re meant to believe she and her new husband had premarital sex) but she has grasped the concept immediately. She finds a bible in the library, buried under a stack of Nora Roberts novels, and, sure enough, everything was foretold precisely as it’s happening! They pick up a pretty young blond woman, who comes along with them for no apparent reason. They go to a church to find the bride’s BFF who, unbeknownst to her boyfriend, heads there every time they have a fight. The bride gets picked up by an invisible flying thing and gets dropped to the ground with terrible claw marks in her back; the bible she was clutching is now burned to ash.

images-1The kids meet up with the BFF at the church, engage in some hokey moralizing to cheer themselves up, and get patched up by a woman who is apparently the only person of colour left on earth. Some people head out to a hospital to get the bride some medical assistance, but of course there isn’t any. All the young people start to speculate about what’s going on and why they were spared (one girl says, without a hint of a smile, “I’m a good person. I’m just not a churchy good person, that’s all.”) The handsome bearded pastor who is holding down the church reveals that he was a bad person because even though he sort of believed in Jesus, he didn’t really; he was paying lip service, as it were. The church gets attacked by what might be demons, and everybody heads for the basement; the handheld video switches to the green of low-light shooting, which is both difficult to believe and damn near impossible to see. The pastor gets swept up by the invisible demons and disappears. At daylight, the young people (almost everyone in this film is meant to be 18-25) decide to make their way out through the now destroyed church and past the very-dead pastor. (People seem to develop sudden urges to move to the next location for no really good reason, almost as though the set rental had expired.) Off to the hospital, past a bunch of 18-25 extras wandering aimlessly around, only to find that the hospital is empty of medical help and supplies. The bride dies in her groom’s arms in what is meant to be a dramatic and poignant scene — she sees heaven and whispers how beautiful it is. The groom heads outside and curses God because she died — oh-oh, bad idea.  Yeah, a gigantic spike comes out of nowhere and kills him, then whisks him off into the sky. An invisible force in the hospital kills a few more kids. The few remaining kids, including the cynical videographer, head off to what appears to be a refugee camp. Golly, it’s almost as though the American system has come through and is restoring order! One of the hospital victims has left a video on her phone for her videographer boyfriend where she realizes the futility of her former life, where she was “spiritual” but not religious — now, oh, how she regrets it all. “We all have to make a choice.” She weeps and chooses God; whoops, she gets killed! The boyfriend goes off and gets baptized, while “Amazing Grace” plays in the background. But the other kid realizes that all that churchiness will draw the demons, and the newly baptized videographer gets torn apart by invisible demons. The two remaining kids, cynical boy and non-churchy girl, clutch each other — she decides to choose God too, and leaves the cynical guy behind as dark creepy demons start to come out of the sky. Cynical guy gets dragged away by demons as the movie ends.

This movie is very low budget. There are a couple of expensive pieces of SFX (airplane hits a building, and a quick scene where the young people walk past a burning helicopter) but by and large, the demons are literally invisible. So if you’re accustomed to movies that actually show you the monsters with which they’re trying to scare you once in a while, you will be disappointed; they couldn’t afford it. All the actors are fairly good, but they struggle with the dialogue they’re given. Alexa Vega’s death scene is just awful; it’s as though she said, “I’m not doing this film unless you give me one scene where I can go all out.” The trouble is, the underlying emotions are conceived by people who probably haven’t experienced them, and so they’re burlesqued and hokey. Cheap sets, no costumes, almost zero in the way of good special effects. And that extremely annoying handheld camera throughout, which makes me think merely that they couldn’t afford Panavision. Inserts that are obviously stock footage from Weather Channel. And the whole cast is (a) 18-25, (b) white, and (c) unconvincing. The whole thing is rather like Ed Wood Jr. had converted to Christianity and made this cheese log in honour of his newfound faith.

maxresdefaultWhat does this all mean? Now, as I mentioned, I do enjoy cheeseball horror. What struck me as sufficiently interesting about this film to warrant a blog post is something that I noticed about it, and its companion pieces about the Rapture, Left Behind/Left Behind II, two gloriously awful pieces of cinema starring, in #1, the execrable Nicolas Cage, and in #2, the execrable Kirk Cameron. Essentially, the Rapture flips the horror narrative by killing the good guys and making the bad guys suffer; I think I might have figured out why.

Back at the dawn of the slasher movie, people realized that there was a common pattern to be seen in horror movies intended primarily for a teenage audience; if you were a morally unsound person, you got killed, and if you were a young female virgin, you had a chance of surviving to the sequel. This gave rise to the umbrella description of this genre as “fuck and die movies”. It’s always the kids who are making out in the car who are the First To Die; the bullies, mean girls, sexually advanced, LGBT, petty criminals, disobedient kids, and even cigarette smokers were doomed to be chainsawed, or whatever the killer’s mode of choice happened to be for that property. Bad people die; good people live.

Here, though, all the good people die 11 minutes into the movie, and the rest are merely marking time until Satan’s minions snatch them up. Oh, they’re not REALLY bad; it seems clear that most of these good-looking youngsters are the kind of kids we would think of as good, it’s just that they had the misfortune to not have devoted themselves heart and soul to a Christian church. It’s the equivalent of premarital sex in a Jason Voorhees slasher; if you’re not good, you have to live through — according to the bible — seven years of torture and punishment. (Being strapped to a chair while Left Behind II played on endless repeat, for instance.)

The-Remaining-2But if you think about it, there’s something wrong with this idea. Who is the audience for this movie? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that the only people who are taking this seriously — and who are not, like me, reeking of marijuana and giggling uncontrollably in the back row — are your basic hard-core dedicated Christians. And the movie is telling them that what they have to look forward to is dying 11 minutes into the movie. Oh, sure, they go to live with Jesus and all. But they die.

So is this meant to be a kind of “scared straight” moment for the pot smokers in the back row? I suppose there are some hard-core Christians who are stupid enough to believe that that could happen. But honestly, if a single person sees “the error of their ways” as a result of viewing this potboiler, I suggest his mental stability was none too solid in the first place, and Christianity is liable to be supplanted by Scientology, weightlifting, or anti-psychotics, in the very near future.

No, I think what this is is actually a particularly nasty kind of porn; Xtian revenge porn. (My regular readers know that I use the word “porn” to describe artistic endeavours that have the trappings of strong emotion without actually delivering.) The message here is, “Teenage evangelical Christians, you are RIGHT. Yes, your classmates all think you’re an idiot; you aren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, are constantly wracked with guilt for your ‘sins’, and are no longer even close to being the dominant paradigm. But you know what? Here’s what’s going to happen. When the Rapture comes, you’re going to go live with Jesus in heaven, and all those people who laughed at you — they’ll be torn to bits by mystical demons.” So your typical evangelical teenager in some rural flyover red state gets to experience what will happen to his enemies — that pretty girl who mocked him for being a virgin, that cynical popular guy who called him a dork, that pastor whom he suspected wasn’t really, really a true believer — in as much grisly detail as the budget could afford, which isn’t much. Yeah, that’ll teach YOU, you bastards. Just you wait till the Rapture comes, then you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth. And I’ll be in heaven! All their lives they’ve watched Freddy Kruger whisk people off to hell, but for the wrong reasons … it makes perfect sense that they would believe that this large-scale revenge on the unchurched would be both imminent and this violent. Because if a little seed of doubt begins to creep in …

And that’s the trouble with the moral high ground — you have to be a really, really good person to claim it, and when you do, it’s awfully easy to slide off. If you think about this logically, taking any pleasure in this movie is a sin (because you REALLY should be trying to lead all these unchurchy people to the Lord, right?) and so by enjoying the suffering of the infidel you render yourself susceptible to be whisked into the sky by invisible demons. Oh, too bad, so sad.

I think I’ll risk the demons. Besides, if I actually did end up in heaven, I might have to endure Kirk Cameron being a pompous dick; I’d rather be in hell with my friends, thanks.

Notes for the collector:

You can get a used DVD of this for $4.82 on Amazon as of today. Why you’d bother I have no idea … but then, I’ve found in the past that it’s the significantly awful artistic items that become the most desirable and expensive in the future. If there is still the equivalent of a Blockbuster in your town, you should be able to pick this up in the bargain bin for $1.49 in about two years; see if you can manage that. But this is not a film for viewing; this is a film for laying down and avoiding.

Death Walks in Eastrepps, by Francis Beeding (1931)

death-walks-in-eastrepps

WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about not only the book under discussion, but also Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad and The Mystery of the Dead Police, and Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, all of which are works of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solutions and the murderers are not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of these classic works so that you will enjoy them without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

As wealthy businessman Robert Eldridge embarks on the 7:15 train to the little seaside holiday town of Eastrepps, we learn a little about him from his interior monologue — not much, but enough to know that there is a secret in his past that has kept him exiled for a number of years in South America. Now he’s off for his weekly overnight visit to his married mistress Margaret.

In the next chapter, on the same date and time, we meet some residents of Eastrepps; middle-aged curmudgeon and borderline drunk Colonel Hewitt, and his unmarried sister Mary, who are sitting down to dinner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Hewitts are broke; they lost most of their money when Anaconda Ltd. crashed. (“Broke” means that their household is down to a single incompetent servant girl.) After a tumultuous dinner in which the Colonel differs cholerically with the secretary of the golf club, the servant girl, and anything else that comes to mind, Mary goes out to take some flowers to the parish church. On her return, she stops in to spend a moment in the lovely garden of her wealthier friend, Mrs. Dampier; then turns her way towards home. She doesn’t live long enough to make it there, though.

We are then introduced to the local police who investigate her brutal murder; Inspector Protheroe, hungry for promotion, and his subordinate, the solid and stolid Sergeant Ruddock. We meet a few more locals, and hear that Mary Hewitt didn’t have an enemy in the world. Then a London reporter, Mr. Ferris, who is vacationing in Eastrepps, smells a juicy murder story. The locals are agog with the news of murder in their sleepy town, but the Honourable Alistair Rockingham, who is being nursed back to health after a nervous breakdown, is surprisingly unaffected. At the coroner’s inquest, which is meant to be adjourned while the police investigate, local fisherman John Masters announces that he has seen the killer walking in the darkened streets; a bearded man.

il_340x270.750477499_q6kfAs the police investigation progresses, Eldridge’s mistress, Margaret Withers, is being blackmailed by her dissolute cousin Dick Coldfoot; her divorce is not yet final and if her affair is exposed, she’ll lose custody of her child. But no one else appears to know of her affair. Then as Inspector Protheroe is making his way home late one night, after a hard day of investigation, he hears what seems to be a baying hound — almost immediately, he discovers the second victim.

Young Miss Taplow is of good family and no one knows any reason why she should have been killed. The murder method is the same, and the crimes are linked; it soon seems clear that a madman is murdering almost at random when there is another murder of a local. The newspaper headlines proclaim the existence of the “Eastrepps Evil”, and Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard begins an investigation (to the chagrin of Inspector Protheroe).

It soon seems as though the Honourable Alistair Rockingham is crazier than anyone has known, and he’s been sneaking out at night and strolling around the village tipping his hat to passing women. The police go through a great deal of trouble to establish that he’s getting out of the house at night, and upon his arrest, he falls to his knees and starts howling like a dog. (Parenthetically, it’s interesting that this particular type of madness appears to have been restricted to fictional crazy people; I’ve never heard of it in real life.) The newspapers trumpet the idea that the Eastrepps Evil has been caught right up until, whoops, the secretary of the local golf club and the genteel Mrs. Dampier are murdered in the same way. But just as questions are being asked in the House, Sergeant Ruddock remembers Mr. Eldridge having told a little lie about his whereabouts at the time of one of the murders. Ruddock finds a clue that links the victims, in that they all lost money when Anaconda Inc. crashed — and it turns out that Eldridge is actually the promoter behind Anaconda. This makes Ruddock the hero of the Yard, to the complete discomfiture of Inspector Protheroe. Inspector Wilkins builds his case and arrests a suspect, who is taken to trial — there’s a long courtroom sequence — and executed. That would seem to be the end of the story, until Margaret Withers notices a tiny physical clue that reveals the very surprising identity of the actual killer, and a dramatic finale ensues.

BeedingWhy is this worth reading?

I’ve written before about early precursors of what was not yet known as the “serial killer” mystery/thriller; the term “serial killer” was not yet invented in 1931. But there are a handful of mystery novels from the Golden Age, such as this, that prefigure the modern serial killer novel. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger fictionalized the case of Jack the Ripper in 1913. Philip MacDonald wrote two “mad killer” novels, Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Mystery of the Dead Police (1933, with two variant titles, which I discussed here). Agatha Christie flipped the narrative in 1936’s The A.B.C. Murders. And then there is Death Walks in Eastrepps from 1931, which was considered so significant that it’s on the Haycraft-Queen list of Cornerstones. This is almost certainly the most important book Francis Beeding ever wrote; the two authors who collaborated under that name do not cut an enormous figure in the history of detective fiction, but this book’s place is assured. Anything on the Cornerstones list is worth your time automatically.

The writing style is interesting. Writers at this point in time were experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and this one is in the “multiple viewpoints” format. We get to dip briefly into the minds and lives of various people in the town of Eastrepps, including some of the murder victims. In that sense it’s like MacDonald’s Mystery of the Dead Police, which does the same thing. This volume is not quite as successful, to my mind, perhaps because the effort of recomplicating the viewpoints is not sustained throughout the entire novel. (The courtroom sequence slows the book down to a crawl and to no really useful purpose.)

UnknownPart of this reason this volume is of particular interest in tracing the development of the serial killer novel is that it’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t go too much into detail without giving away too much about this particular volume, but at the end of the book I think you won’t be 100% clear on whether the murderer is sane or insane, and that’s actually interesting. Sometimes the murder in these early stories is completely crazy (Murder Gone Mad, for instance); sometimes the murderer is a sane person counterfeiting the actions of a crazy person for his/her own purposes. That’s what I meant above by “flipping the narrative”. It only took five years from Murder Gone Mad for Agatha Christie to realize that you could subvert the premise and generate a very clever mystery plot such that a clever killer would mislead the police into thinking they were looking for an insane person.

In this volume, though, it wasn’t really clear to me whether the author was suggesting that either (a) Eldridge, who is tried and executed for the crime at about the three-quarters point, and/or (b) the person who actually committed the murders, is insane. There’s a school of thought that says that any person who murders another, let alone four or five, is insane. I’m not qualified to say whether that’s true or not. The courtroom sequence seems to be implicitly assuming that Eldridge has a reason to murder people whom he ruined financially many years ago; I don’t understand it, but there is also no suggestion that he’s killing them because he’s insane. Nevertheless there is no need to prove motive. The link between Eldridge and the victims seems to be sufficient for the judge and jury.

$(KGrHqRHJCYE8fi(bspCBPOqYprsIQ~~60_35The actual murderer seems very calm and cool and collected when in the process of confessing the crimes; not crazy at all. The part that is especially rational, though, is the deliberate way in which the evidence is planted on Eldridge. The murderer doesn’t have any personal animus against any of the victims; that’s irrational. I don’t want to be specific about the reason the murderer gives for committing the crimes, but — well, it’s sort of rational and sort of irrational. It actually makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s rather like using an elephant gun to kill a flea. So I think whether or not this is a “mad killer” novel is rather up to the reader. The novel says what it says, and what you make of it is up to you.

There is a “trick” — a surprise, or “reveal” — underlying this book that I shouldn’t reveal because it will completely spoil your enjoyment. I have to say, though, that the history of detective fiction is filled with firsts; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first detective novel to work its particular trick on the reader, as are Murder on the Orient Express and The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window and, well, just about every John Dickson Carr novel. There’s a long-standing tradition in detective fiction that writers do not repeat a trick that was first used by another writers. Well, I’ve certainly read a couple of more modern mysteries that use this trick quite effectively, in different contexts, etc. But this is to my knowledge the first time this trick was used, and in 1931, this must have been an astonishingly creative piece of work. It’s clearly the reason why this is a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone volume. The modern reader may not be quite as surprised by this ending as the reader of 1931, but you will certainly understand why 1931’s reader was gobsmacked. Given the somewhat different social contexts, 1931’s reader would have been aghast and astounded. It’s a subversive premise to underlie a piece of Golden Age detective fiction; all I can say is, it would have been a great pleasure to be a reader in 1931 who picked this book up without having heard teasing hints about it from a blogger.

34570My favourite edition

The gorgeous Art Deco first US edition from Mystery League, to the left, is head and shoulders above every other edition. Beautiful colour scheme, a gorgeous piece of hand-drawn typography, and the stylized corpse below the green skull — just lovely. I’m not aware of any mass-market paperback edition; all the others I’ve seen have been just ordinary. You can have your own for about US$75 plus shipping as of today’s date from a dealer on Abebooks. It will always hold its value, because it’s a Cornerstone volume.