Friday, February 17, 2017

FFB: The Secret Keeper - Shirley Eskapa

"If you keep a secret properly, so that nobody but you knows about it, then it hasn't happened..."

THE STORY: Peter Pritchett-Ward has a diary into which his mother instructs him to write down all his secrets. She is leaving her husband because she knows he is in love with another woman. Peter knows this, too. His mother explains it as "your father's illness" and that for the next six months they will have several secrets to keep from Nigel, her husband and Peter's father. Be brave and patient she tells her son. If we win, we'll be a family again. If we lose, I will come back for you. Peter is unsure of the experiment but does his best to follow his mother's instructions. He does a lot of writing down of secrets. Along the way, the diary will also become a document of his slowly burning anger which leads to hatred which leads to violent fantasies which ultimately lead to tragedy.

THE CHARACTERS: The Secret Keeper (1982) is primarily about the Pritchett-Ward family and Ilsa du Four, the woman Nigel has fallen in love with. Though Caroline Pritchett-Ward is a central character we rarely get to know her as Eskapa chooses to have her appear offstage for the bulk of the novel. Additionally, we only know her through the observations of others. This is a subtly powerful device because Caroline ultimately is the main character although the title would have us believe it is Peter. For Caroline, though physically absent from the action, is ever present. Peter stays in contact with her, secretly of course, via clandestinely arranged phone calls and reports back to her on the progress of their experiment.

In the meantime, Nigel moves in with Ilsa and her asthmatic, spoiled brat of a son Jean-Pierre. Nigel has all but forgotten that he has his own family. He neglects his son and forgets his responsibilities as a father even though Peter is right there living under the same roof with the du Fours. Ilsa condemns Caroline as a heartless and "unnatural woman" for abandoning her son. The focus is always on what Caroline has done to Ilsa and Nigel and not what they have done to Caroline and her family. Nigel in essence is absorbed into Ilsa's family whose life consists of obsessively, often ruthlessly, maintaining her image among the wealthy members of the Mont Blanc country club in Geneva and keeping a watchful eye on her chronically ill son who she loves more than anyone else, including Nigel. All the while Peter suffers silently doing his best to win back his father's attention and love while believing wholeheartedly everything that his mother tells him and following her instructions to a tee.

Peter's diary eventually not only becomes a record of his secrets but an outlet for his hatred. He details violent and murderous fantasies in which he does in Jean-Pierre. A bully at his private school learns of Nigel's affair then taunts and humiliates Peter. The boy starts skipping classes to avoid the constant harassment, his grades plummet, and his simmering hatred previously confined to written word alone blazes into witnessed actions. He begins to spy on Ilsa who he grows to hate the most of anyone. He spends paragraphs on another murderous fantasy in which he repeatedly runs over Ilsa with a tractor. Her death is described with an adolescent's bloodlust.

Is Peter turning into a monster at the hands of his mother? She assures him she is coming back to Switzerland soon. All will be well. But will they achieve happiness at the expense of someone else's? Revenge may be sweet but can leave a very bitter aftertaste that will remain for months, maybe years.

INNOVATIONS: The novel is told in alternating viewpoints.  Eskapa begins in an omniscient narrative voice which allows us to know Nigel and Ilsa and all the supporting characters.  Every other chapter is told in first person in the pages of Peter's diary. The most notable part of the book, as mentioned earlier, is that Caroline is never allowed to be given her private thoughts. We only learn of what she is doing through the observations of others, mostly through Peter. Even the final chapter when she finally returns to Geneva and appears with both Peter and Nigel is told via the diary.

Peter's voice, for the most part, is captured well. Over the course of the novel he has a birthday and turns turns thirteen.  He sounds and behaves very much like a thirteen year old. Only on rare occasions do I get the idea that he's a much older but still a young man.  Eskapa does something very clever about halfway through the book when Peter talks about how he and his mother used to play word games. With the help of a college preparatory exam textbook she helped build his vocabulary by teaching him odd words like "opprobrious" and "asseverate". Peter knows these words can hardly be used in daily conversation but he has fun showing off. Anytime the syntax leans towards a more mature and literate voice Eskapa sort of gets away with it because of Peter's past wordplay.

When the story revolves around Ilsa, who at times threatens to take over the narrative, the book's tone is at its nastiest. Ilsa is portrayed as an ambitious woman who uses everyone and everything around her to achieve a status she doesn't really deserve. She exploits her sexuality to get powerful men to do her bidding.  She learns golf and becomes the best of the women players at the Mont Blanc club. Her devotion to Jean-Pierre borders on pathological obsession rather than maternal love. And her contempt for everyone, including Nigel, is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. When she invades Caroline's bedroom in an effort to get to know her through her belongings and wardrobe we realize what a superficial person she really is.

QUOTES: The first lesson from Madame Sanossian had been about hope. There was this simple Armenian proverb which is kind of like a formula. Hope gives strength because hope is strength.

The second proverb goes something like this: Encourage your enemies to believe you despair, so that hope may be your surprise weapon.

Ilsa was our enemy, right? Now Ilsa probably thinks that her enemy who is my Mom has given up, surrendered, retreated to London. Ilsa probably believes that she has conquered her enemy. My Mom hopes that Ilsa does not know the enemy is lying low, waiting to attack.

I don't like thinking about things. But I wonder is praying different from thinking? Praying seems easier -- because when you pray you hope, and when you think you worry.

THE AUTHOR: Shirley Eskapa was born and raised in South Africa. After marrying, she moved to Geneva where she lived with her husband Raymond for several years. Later she settled in London. While in college she studied sociology and psychology and later took a post graduate degree in international relations.

She began writing short stories which were published in The Telegraph, and the magazines Woman, Fair Lady, and Cornhill. The Secret Keeper was her second novel after Blood Fugue (1981), a romance featuring an interracial love affair which was banned by the apartheid regime. In 1984 she published Woman Versus Woman, a controversial non-fiction study of extramarital affairs with a focus on the wives and the "other women". Her findings based on interviews with 200 married women and 150 mistresses led to her thesis that extramarital affairs need not ever be a reason for divorce, that they can be resolved through stratagems between the women, and that most men are basically hardwired to have a "wandering eye" and prone to affairs either fantasized or real. The plot of The Secret Keeper can be seen as a fictional prototype of her theories about these types of reparable affairs.

For more on Eskapa see her in-depth obituary in The Telegraph.

EASY TO FIND? Looks pretty good. I found over one hundred copies for sale consisting of a variety of US and UK editions in hardcover and paperback. There are several signed copies out there, too. Be careful to look for the right copy of The Secret Keeper and enter Eskapa's name as author. The title itself is a popular one for women novelists.

Friday, February 10, 2017

FFB: Danger Next Door - Q. Patrick

THE STORY: Clark Rodman is fascinated with the apartment across the alley. He watches with curious intensity the occupants and in particular the young woman who lives there. He captivates her. She lives there with two other men, both of whom he knows are photographers employed by a news agency. One of them is her brute of a husband. They seem to know a little too much about Clark, too and let him know when in a chance encounter they attempt to make him the subject of a photo essay. When Clark refuses the attention Gene Folwell, the husband, lets on he is aware of Clark's Peeping Tom act and threatens him if it doesn't stop. Of course this only intensifies Clark's morbid curiosity, firing his imagination that there is Danger Next Door (1951) for Laura Folwell.

THE CHARACTERS: Clark, Laura, Gene and the rest of the cast are stock in trade characters you might encounter in any number of "foolish voyeur" thrillers so familiar to crime fiction fans. Clark is a rich kid who wants a taste of the simple life. He turned down his father's offer to join the family business and instead took off for the big city of Manhattan with dreams of becoming a writer. He uses Laura, the girl next door, as his muse and churns out a sordid tale of an abused young woman suffering in silence as a prisoner of her domineering ape of a husband. This turns out in part to be true, for Gene is a sadistic thug who exploits his wife in a blackmail scheme that relies on using Laura as an inserted model in altered photographs of people caught in nearly pornographic, compromising positions. As the story unfolds the reader knows that Clark will be determined to save Laura at any cost. Murder is not ruled out. Soon his outrage gets the better of him and Gene is killed. The final third of the story tells how Clark, Laura and Gene's brother Harry plan to cover up the crime.

But Ted Steele, Clark's intrusive neighbor, is complicating matters. Ted presents himself as a police officer on the vice squad with his eye on Gene and Harry's blackmail operation. He also seems to know a little too much about Clark. Everyone seems to be watching Clark with the same intensity that he is watching Laura. When Clark tries to verify Ted's identity he finds out that there is no one in the phone book listed as either Ted or Edward Steele. Through his connections with a policeman friend Clark learns there is no one named Edward Steele in the NYC vice squad. Who then is Ted Steele? And why is he so interested in Clark's welfare and the activities of the three people across the alley?

Then there is the mystery of furniture that seems to move by itself in the Folwell apartment. The odd glances Gene makes towards the floor. Was he kicking at an unseen dog? But how can a dog make a sofa glide across the floor? The wallpaper is ripped off and shredded from one of the walls in a room Clark can see from his place.  What might explain that?  Angry fits of temper? A wild animal going crazy? What of the messenger boy Clark enlists to deliver a note to Laura? Why did he return from the Folwell apartment in a terrified state talking of a freakish creature with the face of monster that was hiding behind Laura, clinging to her legs? Is that some kind of apelike pet the Folwell's are keeping in their home?

I liked the irascible forensic pathologist Dr. Talbot Trask who turns out to be one of Clark's few allies and a sort of detective in the final pages. He suffers no fools gladly and can't abide the naivete of the police he must deal with daily. Dr. Trask is interested in a cold case, the unsolved disappearance of Professor Barraclough who apparently was lost at sea. Trask is convinced that Barraclough has been murdered, but without a body he can prove nothing. The professor is an inventor of a photographic method that makes image manipulation very easy, something like a 1950s idea of Photoshop but without the digital aspect. An invention involving photography? Oh yes, you better believe this cold case will figure into the sideline of Gene and Harry Folwell. Trask provides the only bit of humor, albeit a nasty, cynical humor, in a novel that is filled with tension, suspense and few chilling surprises.

INNOVATIONS: More than any other Q. Patrick work Danger Next Door (1951) is a genuine noir novel not much of a detective novel though there are detective story elements. It's also as sordid as the magazine piece that Clark wrote. There is a perverse quality to the plot that recalls the brutality and cruelty of Q. Patrick's The Grindle Nightmare written nearly two decades earlier. I was reminded of the darkest novels of Gil Brewer and the revenge thrillers Lawrence Block wrote in his very early career. Sex and sadism mix together in a tale of twisted blackmailers obsessed with the darkest desires and blackest bedroom fantasies. Elements of the weird menace stories of pulp magazine writers like Anthony Rud, Wyatt Blassingame, and G. T. Fleming Roberts also turn up in one of the more bizarre revelations at the book's midpoint and in the ultimate twist in the final pages.

This might well have been titled Fifty Shades of Ebony. Yet none of the power plays and domination scenes we are shown (thankfully only two) can possibly titillate. It's just violence. Laura's victimization curdles the blood and chills the bone; there isn't a tinge of intended arousal. The reader is longing for Gene to get his comeuppance.

The novel can also be seen as an inverse of the Horatio Alger stories of poor young men who seek success and wealth in city life. Throughout the story everyone Clark meet tells him that he's in over his head. That his rich kid background is something he can never escape and that he should never have left the comfort of his father's house and the guarantee of an easy life in an inherited position at the family business. Here is a sampling of the many warnings and advice our hero receives:

Gene Folwell: This isn't a healthy neighborhood for millionaires' sons.

Dr. Trask: Don't go poking your nose too far into other people's affairs. [...] Rich men's sons are good targets, too. We don't want to have you on a slab in the next room, you know."

EASY TO FIND? Already discussed in my exuberant post when I first discovered the book offered for sale and my immediate purchase of that rare copy. Read about it here. So the answer (as usual) is no. In this case the book is so uncommon that I'd amend that to a blunt "Absolutely not."

Friday, February 3, 2017

FFB: The Screaming Portrait - Ferrin Fraser

Continuing my salute to Alternative Facts Week I offer this pan of a mystery loaded with them. It belongs to the dubious pantheon of Alternative Mysteries. I'll warn you all right now that this post is littered with spoilers.

The Screaming Portrait (1928) is 100% malarkey. A very poor book filled with nonsensical detective novel and pulp thriller trappings. I nearly didn't finish it because the first chapter keeps referring to a tiger hunt that took place in South Africa! A stupid impossibility. The second chapter is devoted to an overly detailed hunting party scene in which the slaughter of several game birds is described with bloody gusto with lots of talk about how the guns work and who shot what in how many minutes. Who cares?  Blood sports enthusiasts, I guess. The rest of us would be nauseated by it.

Guns and shooting do play a part in the real story about a long ago hunting accident in which Sir Charles Dorrington's father, Sir Walter, died a gruesome death. There are whispers of a covered up murder. Arthur...Someone (I never bothered to write down his last name and sold the book several years ago so I can't look it up) receives a letter from Sir Charles begging him to come and stop something dreadful from happening. Guy Sherwood, one of the several guests at Dorrington Castle, confides to Arthur that he is sure that Sir Walter's death was a murder and intimates he knows who was responsible. That night at dinner Sir Charles is cajoled into telling the legend of a haunted room in the castle in which several ancestors died mysteriously. According to that legend one can hear a scream emanate from a portrait hanging there. Guy insists that someone stay in the room that night to witness proof of the legend. They draw lots, Guy wins. Or in this case loses. Oh yeah, you know he's doomed.

That night the guests hear a horrid scream, rush to the bedroom where Guy is staying and find him dead. Not a mark on him. How did he die? It is of course a murder, but the method is not revealed until the third to last chapter when the results of the autopsy are delivered verbally by the village doctor. Prior to that the murder method is guessed at several times. Had the method been mentioned sooner the book would never have been a novel.

The "detective" is an amateur investigator (apparently French) who accompanies the nearly inept coroner to the scene of the crime. His name is Lorillard, he is 25 and is the embodiment of the egomaniacal "brilliant" detective that was popular in the late 1920s in these books by lesser writers. His brilliance, sadly, is all show and bravado. He makes a series of absurd leaps of logic, dreams up a bizarre murder method (poisoned candles that emit hydrochloric gas) and outrageous accusations against nearly every member of the household. All of it proves wrong in the end.

What I found most irritating was how everything was contrived. No one bothers to investigate the portrait until the final pages. Anyone would've looked at it in detail immediately. It is obvious from several incidents and hints throughout the story that there is a secret passageway in the castle. But once again no one bothers to look for it until the author deems it necessary – in the final pages.  Had any of the truly logical behavior and truly common sense reactions taken place when they should have the solution would have come within a few paragraphs.

Here comes the massive spoilers, gang. Those who really want to read this book are advised to skip to THE AUTHOR section now. We learn that Sir Charles killed his father but remained silent and allowed everyone to think the shooting was a hunting accident. There is also a stupid ambiguous ending in which an errant brother, Hubert Dorrington, suddenly turns up and forces a confession out of dying Sir Charles. He, of course, is the murderer but killed Guy Sherwood, we are told, in error thinking he was in the bedroom of Sir Charles. He denies his guilt. however, and as proof he reveals the secret of the screaming portrait: the painting is hinged to the wall and behind it is a secret passage. When the painting is pulled away from the wall to reveal the passage there is silence, when closed the hinges emit a terrible wailing sound similar to a woman's scream. Idiotic. A tacked on "Epilogue" suggests that Sir Charles was innocent and confessed out of fear – a fear of his brother he had all his life. Bleech. My reading experience of The Screaming Portrait will haunt me for the rest of my life. It is not recommended at all.

The author in his happy youth
THE AUTHOR: Ferrin Fraser (1903-1969) was born in Niagara County, New York. He started out working for his family's coal business, then opted for a writing career. Fraser began by contributing hundreds of stories to the slicks like Blue Book and Ladies' Home Journal. In the 1930s and 1940s he turned to radio script writing landing gigs with Lights Out, Suspense, and Little Orphan Annie. He later adapted some of those radio scripts for TV in the 1950s. But the bulk of his writing came as a collaborator with hunter and animal trainer Frank Buck. Together the two wrote five books including Buck's autobiography All in a Lifetime (1941).

EASY TO FIND? Oh, why bother? For those sticklers who must know, there are four copies for sale: two reprints and two first editions both with DJs. Wisely, no paperback publisher ever reprinted after the Grosset & Dunlap edition in the 1930s. Seriously, it's not worth tracking down. Not even as an unintentional chortle fest. This one is a true stinker.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bring Back Emperor Norton!

On September 17, 1859 in San Francisco, Joshua A. Norton proclaimed himself "Emperor of the United States and Protectorate of Mexico". Looking back over his various decrees and proclamations I came across one that has resonance for today's troubled times. On August 12, 1869 he issued a decree that dissolved and abolished the Democratic and Republican parties "because of party strife now existing in our realm." What would the dear Emperor make of the Divisive States now? Wonder no more, my friends.

For the past eight years there's been an eccentric dude who lives in San Francisco impersonating the long dead Emperor and carrying on his congenial spirit, the celebration of common sense, human decency and good citizenship. Three days ago this new and improved Emperor Norton issued his latest decree via the miracle of YouTube.


Those of you who live in the Bay area might want to check out the good works of the Emperor Norton who conducts an offbeat tour of the city, every Thursday and Saturday. Next month in honor of the insanity we are now enduring the Emperor will offer his "Alternative Facts Tour" -- a one day only event, this coming Saturday, February 4, 2017. Sounds like a lot of fun. This special event will "tour through Union Square, downtown, the financial district, the Barbary Coast and Chinatown, but every story will be made up and deliberately false." If we must have alternative facts, let them at least be entertaining.

Vive le empereur!