Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.


THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.

Friday, May 12, 2017

FFB: Hell on Friday - William Bogart

THE STORY: Johnny Saxon, once a highly popular short story writer, has given it all up to become a private eye. His latest case will take him back to his roots in the pulp magazine world when he's asked by his former publisher to find Dulcy Dickens, a rising star in the field of wartime romance stories. Hell on Friday (1941) might easily have been called "Everyone Is Looking for Dulcy" because Saxon finds himself in a sort of bidding war as two more people ask him to locate the woman, each time the retainer fee increases considerably. Then the missing person case turns deadly and dangerous when a rival publisher is murdered and Saxon is implicated as the killer.

CHARACTERS: The story is almost exclusively confined to the world of pulp magazine publishing and nearly everyone is involved is a writer, publisher or distributor. Saxon's best friend and colleague Moe Martin is a literary agent with a dwindling list of employable clients. A variety of characters seem to have parallels in the real world of 1940s pulp publishing. Sam Sontag, the murdered magazine publisher in the novel, is loosely based on publisher Harry Donenfield of Spicy Detective fame. Joe Rogers in the book is inspired by Rogers Terrill, editor-in chief of Popular Publications. Or so muses Will Murray in his essay that prefaces the reissued omnibus.

Jasper Ward is one of the more unusual guys of the bunch. He sports garishly colored shirts and ties with his tweed suits just like some kind of hood from Guys and Dolls. That's because while nominally he calls himself a magazine distributor, Ward is nothing more than a hood himself. Unethical and tough with his competitors he conspires with Sontag to undermine Rogers' discovery of Dulcy Dickens by trying to get Bogart to find her for them. Ward and Sontag plan to create a new magazine, just like Rogers is planning, that will be the vehicle for Dickens' wartime romance tales. As the story progresses we learn that the pulp industry is truly a cut-throat business and this kind of copycat publishing happened all the time. Publishers dropped the prices of their magazines along with the pay for their writers in order to be the most popular and bestselling in each genre.

A mystery man named Baron von Elman shows up and is the third person to hire Saxon to locate the missing lady writer. His finder's fee is $5000 making it the least refusable offer of the bunch, but also raises Saxon's suspicions. The Baron has never met Dulcy, but he insists he absolutely must locate her. Saxon wants to find out who the Baron really is and why he is so desperate and eager to pay the highest price to find Dulcy. When the Baron turns out to be the owner of a used bookstore with an interest in French novels Saxon suspects there is more to Dulcy Dickens than anyone has imagined. The mystery of finding her is complicated by learning who she is, where she came from, and uncovering the miracle of her prolific writing talent (she claims she can write four stories in a week!).

INNOVATIONS: The book reads like a B movie script and is chock-full of the conventions of private eye movies. In addition to the missing person main plot and a couple of murders, we get a prison break, gangsters in the pulp biz, two "Follow that cab!" chases, and more than the requisite number of gratuitous "shapely dame" passages. In one sequence Saxon spies on a women getting dressed while in front of her apartment window while he's talking on the phone in his office opposite her building. We get our fill of the usual wiseacre private eye talk and several variations on a running gag that always ends with "That would make a great story title." ("It was getting dark now, and it was snowing again. Winter in Manhattan. That's a good title, Johnny thought.")

QUOTES: Girls walking through the streets with fur-topped galoshes framing their pretty legs, dresses swirling in the wind, or wrapped against slim legs; people hurrying home from offices, leaning into the icy blasts that faced the canyonlike side streets; lights coming on, flickering diamonds that chased away the drabness of night. Taxi horns bleating. Newspaper boys huddled at street corners, flapping their arms, screaming, "Huxtra! Huxtra!" An ambulance yammering down the Avenue. People, weary people, pushing and cramming into subway kiosks like moles burrowing into the damp earth; others fresh and bright, just starting the day. [...] A man without a hat standing in the gutter, waiting quietly while his leashed dog sniffs an automobile tire. A taxi rushing by, its tires quietly making wet, sloppy sounds in the black slush. Mud splashing up. The dog owner cursing, "You louse!" Winter in Manhattan. People on an island. Millions of people. The pulse beat of a nation.

THINGS I LEARNED: The entire book is a fascinating study of the pulp magazine business and the life of a pulp writer. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the poor pay writers had to accept and the justifications that publishers gave for their "penny a word" or even "half a penny a word" pay scales. Only when a writer proved that his name on the cover would sell a magazine did the pay ever increase, but never by much. Saxon, we are told, was "prince of the pulps", one of the most popular and highest paid pulp writers at the top of his game. Then he just quit because there was no excitement in it for him anymore and "his stuff went stale." The background details also cover production, including the importance of the cover illustrations and the life of the much put upon artists; the intense rivalries between magazine publishers; and the surprising number of corporate informers who spy on the competitors for a price. Bogart drew on his personal experience in the pulp world and much of what is described in Hell on Friday actually took place when he was writing for the magazines.

William Bogart (circa 1946), from the
rear DJ panel of The Queen City Murder Case
THE AUTHOR: William Bogart was a prolific pulp writer who penned crime, detective and weird menace stories. Under the house pseudonym "Kenneth Robeson" he wrote several stories for the Doc Savage series. In addition to the Johnny Saxon trilogy of private eye novels he wrote two other crime novels: Sands Street (1942) and a novelization of the movie Singapore (1947) with Fred MacMurray as a skipper looking for a cache of hidden pearls and his missing girlfriend (Ava Gardner). Singapore was directed by horror and crime movie specialist John Brahm who had great success as a TV director throughout the 50s and 60s.

EASY TO FIND? Hell on Friday in its original hardcover is a scarce book and even more scarce in the US digest paperback edition I own retitled Murder Man (1945). There are three different paperback reprints under the title Murder Man, a digest from Tech Books (US), Harlequin #57 (Canada) and Phantom Books #640 (Australia). None of Bogart's private eye novels were published in the UK. All three reprints are relatively scarce in the used book market, the last two being genuinely rare.

Thankfully, all three books featuring Johnny Saxon have been conveniently reissued in a three-in-one omnibus. The hefty volume is called Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (Altus Press) and can be purchased either new or used from the regular bookselling outlets in this vast digital shopping mall we call the internet. The Altus Press reissue includes an informative foreword by Will Murray, an expert on Lester Dent and the Doc Savage series, who provides a detailed biography of Bogart and interesting background on the real people who inspired many of the characters in the first book. Oh! almost forgot. That omnibus volume is also available for purchase for a Kindle thingamabob from that well known e-tail giant.

Johnny Saxon Private Eye Novels
Hell on Friday (1941) also as Murder Man (Tech Mystery, 1945); (Harlequin 57, 1950); (Phantom 640, 1955)
Murder Is Forgetful (1944) also as Johnny Saxon (Harlequin 114, 1951)
The Queen City Murder Case (1946)
----
Hell on Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy (2010) All three of the above in one omnibus

Friday, May 5, 2017

FFB: What Happened to Hammond? - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Shipping magnate Benson T. Hammond is being threatened with anonymous letters promising his imminent demise.  As if that isn't enough to worry him his daughter announces her engagement to a man he thinks is a fortune hunter. Hours after an argument with the young man during which he refuses permission to marry his daughter Hammond is found dead -- 60 miles from a house he was seen to last enter but never exited. Inspector Garth much to his consternation is forced to once again collaborate with the irascible Dr. Hiram Carruthers, physicist and genius detective, to discover who killed Hammond and how his body ended up being so mysteriously transported from the house to Worthing Road such a far distance in less than ten minutes.

THE CHARACTERS: Garth and his crew of policemen do most of the real detective work. About three quarters of the book is modeled on a standard police procedural. There are several constables and sergeants who do much of the legwork and a pathologist who delivers all the gruesome news about What Happened to Hammond? (1951). Carruthers is called upon late in the book, a bit past the midpoint, when the case seems to involve a strange invention that most likely has something to do with radio transmission.

Hiram Carruthers is one of Fearn's series detectives and he belongs to the group of what I've grown to call the "arrogant prick" detectives. He likes to call himself the "Admirable Crichton of Science" alluding to James Barrie's play in which the title character, a butler with common sense, saves his employer and a group of know-nothing aristocrats when they are shipwrecked on a deserted island. I can't imagine a more inappropriate nickname for Carruthers since the Crichton of Barrie's play is the model of civility. Obviously it's meant to be ironic. Carruthers is ridiculously egocentric, belittles everyone for their ignorance, openly insults Garth and his colleagues, and loves to flaunt his knowledge unchecked by anyone. He alone solves the bizarre case by managing to rebuild the strange invention that was discovered dismantled with several parts disposed of in an underground river. He accomplishes this feat with little help from anyone other than a few clever engineers who build him some custom parts, and using the design plans recovered from a safe in the offices of one of the suspects.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Fearn's novels, most of which are structured as long form short stories, he has a limited number of suspects. Figuring out who the guilty parties are in this very short novel is rather easy. The bulk of Fearn's work was in short story format and I think he found it easiest to write his longer works, including all his novels, using the basic rule of short story writing that only the essentials are necessary. Red herrings in the form of characters rarely occur in his novels. We get only the people who are needed to tell the story. In this book there is the additional element of multiple culprits, when all is revealed and the villains are identified there is hardly one innocent character left over.

When originally published in 1951 the solution was perhaps a shocker. More than any other of his mystery novels I've read here Fearn resorts to science fiction in explaining just how Benton Hammond disappeared from the house on Stanton Street and ended up on Worthing Road. Modern readers may find it easy to guess what happened without needing any real understanding of physics or radio transmission since many of us are familiar with some well known TV shows that employ similar mysterious inventions. As the plot progressed I was reminded of the experiments depicted in a cult horror movie based on a story written in 1957. Turns out my analogy was right.

THINGS I LEARNED: Hammond suffers from fragilitus ossiumtarda, a genetic bone disorder now known as osteogenesis imperfecta or "brittle bone disease," an incurable condition that forces the sufferer to live a life of diminished athletic activity less they fracture a bone doing something as simple as running or lifting a heavy object. When Hammond's body is found nearly every bone in his body has been reduced to a jelly-like state making the police think that he fell from a great height. The real solution to his death is grounded more in science fiction than reality.

THE AUTHOR: John Russell Fearn was a prolific pulp writer who is better known for his science fiction though he also wrote many detective stories and mystery novels, even dabbling in romance. Sometimes he wrote detective stories like What Happened to Hammond? in which the solution melds with the world of science fiction. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms and finding his work in original format tends to be a chore if you are not familiar with his assortment of odd pen names like Vargo Statten, Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross among many others. The Dr. Hiram Carruthers detective novels apparently did not first appear in the pulps like many of his other work and were written under the pen name "Hugo Blayn." Luckily, much of Fearn's fiction has been reprinted under his real name and can be found in Linford Mystery Library series, part of F.A. Thorpe Publishing's large print reprint series for readers with poor eyesight. Wildside Press has also reprinted a lot of Fearn's crime fiction.

You can find a lot of bibliographies and biographical information on John Russell Fearn through a general internet search, but you will most likely turn up only his science fiction stories and novels and little about his crime fiction. Thanks to TomCat at the Beneath the Stains of Time blog most of Fearn's impossible crime novels have been reviewed in depth, including nearly all of the books in the Garth/Carruthers series. You can read about them by clicking here.  I hope to review the only "un-covered" Hugo Blayn book left -- Flashpoint -- later this month.

Dr. Hiram Carruthers/Inspector Garth Detective Novels
Except for One Thing (1947) - without Dr. Carruthers
The Five Matchboxes (1948)
Flashpoint (1950)
What Happened to Hammond? (1951)
Vision Sinister (1954)
The Silvered Cage (1955)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Reek of Red Herrings - Catriona McPherson

Today a deviation from the usual Friday's Forgotten Book and instead a review of a neglected modern mystery writer in honor of upcoming Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that I will be attending next weekend. In a rare instance of acting responsibly I chose to read a handful of the books nominated for Malice's Agatha Awards. Some of them were not at all to my liking and I abandoned them quickly. But I was very glad I chose to read Catriona McPherson's books. She knows how to write a mystery and I think those of you who have never heard of her might want to know that her latest is one of the best traditional mystery novels I've read in a very long time.

The Reek of Red Herrings (2014, US edition 2016) is in essence a missing person story but not without an element of a macabre whodunit plot. Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, McPherson's private detective series characters, are hired by fish merchant Mr. Birchwood to find out why several of his herring barrels included some unexpected ingredients -- body parts. They need to go to Gamrie, where the fish barrels were purchased, and to prevent any others from being sold. But at all costs they cannot let anyone know why they are in the town or that Mr. Birchwood has hired them. He is trying his best to prevent a horrible scandal from ruining his business and this is why he refuses to let the police know of the secret of the herring barrels. Of course if they also manage to uncover the identity of the dismembered man more power to them. That part of the mystery doesn't seem to concern Birchwood as much as preserving his reputation and saving his business.

Dandy and Alec make their way to Gamrie in the guise of philologists researching the local patois along with Scottish folklore. They hope by pretending to gather anecdotes and cataloging the unusual Scots vocabulary they will also be able to get the Gamrie people to talk openly about the events of the past few days. They get more than they bargained for when over the course of their many interviews they learn of several strangers who turned up in town and then suddenly disappeared. The mystery of the body parts and the identity of that man becomes complicated when the a total of seven missing men of various physical descriptions turn up. Which one of those missing men could be the one who was chopped up as a herring garnish?

The story is an engaging mix of utterly wacky characters and unnerving menace. You'll meet all the fisherman's wives and daughters, a couple of eccentric taxidermists, and learn more than you ever expected about life in a Scottish fishing village, circa 1930. In addition McPherson finds ways to incorporate a variety of unusual Scottish traditions like handfasting and the accompanying marriage rituals like feet washing and feet mucking and the practice of dousing a bride-to-be with ginger infused mucky milk to prevent Auld Clootie (the Devil) from finding her attractive and spiriting her away prior to her wedding. In their disguise as "language experts" McPherson allows the story sometimes to become overburdened with Scots dialect making the use of a glossary almost necessary. She does allow the local characters to translate their lingo for Dandy and Alec, but not as often as I wish she had. Much of the meaning needs to be gleaned through context. Still, all of it is utterly fascinating for anyone interested in learning about fading culture and mores. Notably the discussion of "teenames", a peculiar nicknaming tradition necessary to keep distinct all similarly named residents, is one facet that astute readers ought to pay close attention to for it has one of the best hidden clues key to solving the many mysteries uncovered by our sleuthing duo.

If you are familiar with McPherson's work then you will know that she has a penchant for Scottish Gothicism. I get a sense of Stevenson and Buchan sneaking their way into her narratives. She makes excellent use of creepy landscapes, eerie natural landmarks, abandoned and dilapidated estate houses, and terrifying meteorological events. Most of the Dandy Gilver books are set in the late 1920s, (though ...Red Herrings is the first to take place in 1930) and take advantage of dialectical language plus a variety of Scottish legends which are always intrinsic to the her intriguing and intricate plots. Compare these with her stand alone books, all set in present day, and you find the same motifs and techniques employed. The stand alone mysteries also give her an opportunity to explore the darker side of her imagination. The Child Garden (2015), for example, is just as macabre as The Reek of Red Herrings making use of some supernatural legends and lore to great effect.

While the Dandy Gilver books lean heavily towards a lighthearted vein generously sprinkled with a sardonic humor they do have their share of harrowing scenes and moments of gravitas. The climax of The Reek of Red Herrings is suitably neo-Gothic with a wild winter snowstorm complete with toppling trees and damaging floods all leading to a cataclysm on an epic scale. The finale reminded me of one of those act of God climaxes that occur so frequently in the detective novels of Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells.

Most importantly to fans of traditional mysteries is the structure of the novel itself as well as her skill with the multi-layered plot. McPherson has a deft way of dropping clues into the narrative and has some subtle methods of foreshadowing that will help readers discover along with Dandy and Alec just what all the multiple mysteries add up to. It is rare that I encounter a modern mystery writer who still honors the traditions of the fair play detective novel and can do it so well. McPherson does an admirable job in laying down the groundwork necessary for clever readers to arrive at the solution almost at the same time as Dandy does. I was impressed with the talent and skill displayed in this genuine detective novel. I hope she continues to find new ways to bamboozle and thrill her readers in all her future mysteries.

UPDATE:  The Reek of Red Herrings deservedly won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 29 on April 29, 2017.  All the more reason to read it, IMO.