Friday, August 26, 2016

FFB: As Old As Cain - M. E. Chaber

THE STORY: Recently married insurance investigator Milo March has his newlywed bliss interrupted in As Old As Cain (1954). His boss asks him to travel to Athens, Ohio where a movie company has been loaned a collection of 18th century antiques and old books to be used as furnishings and props in a bio pic of an obscure Ohio pioneer. Milo is asked to make sure the security guards in charge of watching over the one million dollars' worth of insured antiques are legit and that theft is deterred. The day after he meets with the guards, the movie producer and scriptwriter, several antiques and books go missing and the guard is murdered. An in-depth police investigation, more murders and plenty of trouble follow. But the biggest mystery may be this: Will Milo ever get out of Ohio to be with his wife so he can start his honeymoon?

THE CHARACTERS: Just prior to the main plot of the guard's murder and theft of the antiques Milo rescues ten year-old Ernesto Pujol from New York immigration authorities. Seems Ernesto, who was Milo's junior Watson in an earlier case that took place in Spain, stowed away on an ocean liner and was promptly arrested when he landed on US soil. Milo consults with lawyers and manages to adopt Ernesto to prevent him from being deported and returning home in shame. It's an odd tangential plot element that doesn't seem to fit at all. Ernesto came to the US to fulfill Milo's prediction that one day they would work together again on another exciting case. The boy speaks no English and so his dialogue begins with Spanish and then trails off into a stilted English to indicate that he's speaking Spanish with Milo. He serves absolutely no purpose to the story except as a comic character since most of his scenes show him learning Hollywood movie slang and gangster-speak from Curtis Hoyt, the scriptwriter. Very odd too is that Ernesto is perhaps the most misogynistic 10 year-old in crime fiction. He has nothing good to say about women or the entire female sex for that matter. He's presented as a miniature parody of Spanish machismo. It's not really funny when coupled with the boys' obsession with eating ice cream, playing with firecrackers, and acting like a stereotype of a boy from a 1950s American TV show. I wonder if Ernesto disappears later in the series just as Greta, Milo's wife does. She serves no purpose in this story either.

But those are my only gripes with this book. The supporting cast of primary suspects are a varied lot and come off more colorful than those characters I'm used to from Ken Crossen's early pulp career. In his guise as "M.E. Chaber" Crossen has matured as a writer. The characters have distinctive voices and personalities. We have Hoyt, the wise acre Hollywood scriptwriter; a shapely, sex-obsessed, but vapid movie actress; an eccentric history professor obsessed with Athens Ohio's intriguing past; two feuding waspish spinsters more interested in their family reputations than anything else; and an assortment of policemen some clever, some bumbling.

INNOVATIONS: This is a legitimate detective novel and not anything like the espionage adventure thrillers that make up the bulk of the Milo March series. From what I have read on other mystery websites and from the allusions to the two previous books in the series March is often sent to foreign countries often undercover to deal with insurance fraud. Here Milo assists the police with a murder investigation that also involves theft. The story is handled like a traditional detective novel with the usual discovery of physical evidence, the odd red herrings, and Q&A of the suspects. Of primary interest among the missing antiques is a diary that was given to Curtis Hoyt. He pulled out of the diary some of the more fascinating incidents of the pioneer woman's life for inclusion in the movie. He also hints that he discovered something that will make for another movie in itself, one that he plans to call As Old As Cain. The history professor was eager to get his hands on the diary, and cannot understand why a Hollywood writer was the only person allowed to read the thing since it is of greater importance to the town. The story turns out to be something of a bibliomystery when the contents of the diary prove to be the underlying motive for all the criminal activity.

QUOTES: "What are you going to do -- slip over to the morgue and cut little slices off of Enoch to sell as souvenirs in the Brown Derby?"

"I'm not quite sure what you are. Certainly not a woman. You've got all the motions down pat, but the role is a little much for you. When the lines aren't written on the prompt card, you can't ad lib." (This delivered to the Hollywood sexpot right after he has sex with her! That's right--one day after he was married. Nice guy.)

"He drank," Mrs. Singer said. Her tone made it clear that this explained everything.

"Something must be done. Land's sake, a body just isn't safe in her own bed."
Lady, I thought, you'd be safe in anyone's bed.

Ken Crossen and friend, circa 1950s
THE AUTHOR: "M. E. Chaber" is one of the many alter egos of the prolific mystery writer and magician Kendall Foster Crossen whose pulpy impossible crime novels I've reviewed here and here. He also wrote as "Christopher Monig" and "Richard Foster". Interestingly, M.E. Chaber comes directly from mechaber, the Hebrew word for writer or author. You can read more about Crossen and Milo March on his Wikipedia page and at the Thrilling Detective website.

THINGS I LEARNED: As Old As Cain is utterly rooted in its time and is filled with 1950s style namedropping. I was constantly looking up names so I could understand the allusions in Milo's dialogue.

1. Edmund Bergler was a minor follower of Freudian psychoanalysis and made a name for himself in his theory of "psychic masochism", a self-punishment theory of aberrant human behavior "as the basic neurosis from which all other neurotic behaviors derive." He also wrote a book called Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? (1956) which was apparently considered "groundbreaking" at the time though much of it today reads as nothing more than legitimized bigotry and bad science.

2. Abe Lastfogel (spelled Lastvogel in the book) was the president of William Morris, the nations' premier talent agency. He ran the USO Camp Shows for WW2 military personnel throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

3. The McCarren Law of 1952 was one of the earliest immigration reform laws. It was primarily concerned with restricted immigration into the U.S. Truman vetoed the bill criticizing it as an example of isolationism but the veto was overridden by the house and Senate. From Wikipedia:  "The 1952 Act retained a quota system for nationalities and regions. Eventually, the Act established a preference system which determined which ethnic groups were desirable immigrants and placed great importance on labor qualifications." The rules defined in the Act regarding deportation of immigrants was exploited to keep out anyone associated with Communism.

4. I learned all about Philip Sidney's influential epic romance of the 16th century The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia which is mentioned in passing as one of the handful of old books among the stolen antiques. I'll spare you what I found fascinating about the work. It's egghead stuff only old Brit Lit codgers like me and nerdy Renaissance Lit fans would find interesting.

EASY TO FIND? All 22 Milo March books were reprinted by Paperback Library during the early 1970s. It's those books that you will most likely come across if you're a frequent stalker of used bookstore, thrift store or flea market oldies. The first nine Milo March books (excluding the title reviewed here) were originally reprinted in paperback by either Popular Library or Pocket Books between 1953 and 1960, often with alternate titles. As Old As Cain was reprinted as a first paperback in digest format by Lawrence Spivak's "Bestseller Mystery" imprint and retitled Take One for Murder (1955). This is often mistakenly listed as separate title in the Milo March book bibliographies elsewhere on the internet. The hardcover editions of the M.E. Chaber books are scarce, especially the earliest books in the series published in the 1950s. There are no modern reprints either in print or digital format that I am aware of.

I enjoyed this book despite the odd presence of the pre-adolescent woman-hating Ernesto and the almost pointless marriage and talk of Greta who is relegated to the background cropping up only now and then in Milo's passing thoughts. The plot is strong and the culprit's identity is fairly well hidden though becomes a bit obvious after the third murder. But the motive is unique and very much part of the 1950s mindset. I'll be checking out more of the series later in the year and seeing if the detective aspects hold up or if the espionage/adventure side takes over.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

IN BRIEF: The Case of Naomi Clynes

Basil Thomson is a writer I had no interest in reading until I came across TomCat’s review of The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934), the third case for Thomson’s perfunctory detective Inspector Richardson. The story of the investigation of an apparent suicide is soon proved to be very suspicious. Evidence shows her body was most likely dragged across the floor and placed with her head in her kitchen gas stove. Autopsy reveals poison in her system. Dogged investigation leads the police team and his unlikely colleague, a publisher of the dead woman’s detective novel, to France where they uncover an intricate plot involving impersonation, forgery, and a plot reminiscent of Victorian sensation novels replete with wicked guardians and imperiled heirs.

The story is told in a matter of fact manner, highlighted with a healthy sense of humor, some pointed satiric touches, and plenty of good old fashioned detection. Thomson has an imaginative streak in coming up with unusual clues like threads found on a protruding floorboard nail that match the dead woman’s clothes that serve as the foundation for the murder theory. The most clever of all is a cancelled postage stamp. Dorothy L. Sayers was greatly impressed that Thomson managed to spin such an ably constructed and complex plot out of something so seemingly insignificant. And I have to agree.

Apart from the skillful way in which Thomson turns the investigation of a burgeoning mystery writer’s strange murder into a Buchanesque pursuit thriller the most fascinating part of the novel is how Thomason teaches the reader about the differences between how police investigations are dealt with in the US and the UK. With the arrival of the publisher’s uncle who travels from America to England in order to help his nephew there follow several passages in which Thomson discusses the process of trial and punishment in both countries. The uncle is very critical of the US form of justice and sees it as a terrible cycle of repeat offenders being jailed, serving their time, freed on parole, and invariably caught and tried again when they return to a life of crime. Recidivism was just a much a chronic problem in the 1930s as it is now apparently. Some things never change.

Sir Basil Thomson, KCB (1861-1939)
For me Sir Basil Thomson’s life is much more interesting than his fiction. I think I’d prefer his biography over his fictional creations as lively as they can be. Martin Edwards’ introduction gives us not only a fine overview of Thomson’s eight detective noels, but also a taste of this remarkable man’s life. We discover his varied career path took him from foreign service in the South Pacific to British civil service to law enforcement ending as a knighted Asst. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the post World War 1 era only to have his life almost ruined by a shameful incident that remains a hazy blur of half-truths, hearsay and sensationalized rumor. Was he guilty of consorting with a prostitute in public? Was only partially guilty? Was he completely innocent? We may never know now.

The Case of Naomi Clynes along with the other seven detective novels by Basil Thomson have all been reprinted by the admirable Dean Street Press. They are available for sale directly from the publisher's website and through the usual online bookselling sites in both paperback and digital versions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

1954 STORIES: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 1954

In my mad obsession with the year 1954 for Past Offenses blog's monthly Crime of the Century meme I've completely immersed myself in writings from that year. This issue of EQMM was brought to my attention when I read that is included a story by L. Frank Baum that was reprinted for the first time in since its original publication in an a obscure magazine at the turn of the 20th century. TomCat, our resident locked room/impossible crime enthusiast, mentioned Baum's "The Suicide of Kiaros" as one of the stories he came across in a different locked room mystery anthology. Of course I had to track down a copy of the magazine. Luckily I found a copy on eBay (why don't I have this kind of luck in casinos?!) and managed to make an offer for a price I thought more suitable for a 50 year old magazine. And when I pored over the table of contents what did I find but a more fascinating serendipitous discovery. The very first story by William Link and Richard Levinson, creators of Columbo and many other TV crime dramas and movies, when they were only 20 years old and still students at the University of Pennsylvania.

As readers of EQMM might know each first time writer's story is accompanied by a brief intro by the editors giving some biographical info on the writer and how the story came about. In the case of Levinson and Link the bio is longer than usual and filled with tidbits that you most likely will not find anywhere else on the web whether it be their separate pages or the Columbo tribute website. I learned that they knew each other since junior high in Philadelphia and became a writing team as early as their teen years. While still in high school they wrote and produced a musical comedy "that was so great a success that both were inspired to pursue a writing career." Having their first taste of "show business" the two college boys went on to write radio scripts in college and humor pieces for the UPenn humor magazine as well as detective short stories. They probably never imagined that their writing hobby would eventually lead to a career as the leading mystery writing duo of TV just under twenty years later.

"Whistle While You Work" is a neat little tale of a henpecked mailman who everyday looks forward to leaving his claustrophobic household dominated by his shrewish wife. Over a period of days a series of weirdly addressed letters in blue envelopes with black borders turn up in his mailbag all addressed to women. Later each woman who received such a letter is found brutally murdered. It's kind of a James Thurber meets James M. Cain story displaying a mature voice, an ironic sense of humor, and some keen insight for a couple of 20 year old college boys. If I were to give you the story to read and you knew nothing about the writers you'd imagine each might be a cynical old 50 something who had his fill of harpy of a wife.

The L. Frank Baum story is also a crime story rather than a detective story. It presents the life of a brazen bank teller with a gambling addiction and a taste for embezzlement who seeks out the help of a money lender to help him pay his debts and cover his "loans" from the cashier's till. He seizes an opportunity to make off with a sizable amount of the moneylender's cash only after resorting to murder. He then cleverly seals up the room and makes the crime look like suicide. Does he get away with it? The unusual ending -- especially for a story written in 1897 -- probably made jaws drop. I'm sure the story was shocking and considered tasteless and immoral by Baum's contemporaries.

Included also in the issue are a familiar Hercule Poirot story about poisoning and an unusual murder method ("How Does Your Garden Grow?"); a Lester Leith story ("The Candy Kid", first published in 1931 in Detective Fiction Weekly) featuring Erle Stanley Gardner's version of the urbane, wealthy playboy sleuth popular in the pulp magazines long before he created Perry Mason; and stories by John D MacDonald, Charles B Child and Peter Godfrey. I particularly liked an odd puzzle story by Laurence Blochman ("The Man with the Blue Ears") in which the reader is asked to find 18 intentional mistakes within the story. Some of them were easy to spot like knowing that lapis lazuli is a blue gemstone not a red one or that Washington and Lincoln appear on the $1 and $5 bills not Jackson and Hamilton. But lots of the errors like the mention of Pisco punch being made with Brazilian brandy (it's made with Peruvian brandy) or "a .32 police positive" (it should be a .38) went right over my head. Van Deen test for bloodstains? If you work in a forensic lab maybe. A regular Joe Reader knowing this? Probably not. Apparently Blochman, whose adventure thrillers and detective novels set in India I know very well and recommend highly, wrote a series of these type of "Spot the Mistake" stories for EQMM during the 1950s. This is also one of EQMM's more literary issues with reprints of two crime stories by Jack London and Roald Dahl ("Only a Chinago" and "Taste",  respectively).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise! Surprise!

Yesterday I went to the mailbox and found yet another review copy from a publisher who often sends me ARCs. The timing couldn't have been better; I had just finished a book and was looking for a new read for this week's daily commute. I thought to myself, "Hmm... I wonder if this one is worth reading." I opened the package and burst out laughing. It was an ARC for a reprint of The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen. (But you probably already knew that because of the picture over there on the left.) Yes, the very same book I had just finished and written up for FFB three days ago.

So for the handful of you who read my Friday's Forgotten Book post a few days ago here's some fantastic good news for you. A new paperback edition of this very fine noir thriller (which is also a detective novel) in coming to you in November.  Can you stand the waiting?

I bet Stark House never had this kind of ESP/synchronicity from the vintage book blogs for any of their planned reprints. Ever. I seriously had no clue that anyone had any interest in reprinting anything by Helen Nielsen. I am very, very happy that this book is being reprinted. And talk about advance reviews!

PLUS! Here's my first giveaway in many moons. Be the first person to email me with your interest in reading Nielsen's excellent book, and your mailing address of course, and I'll mail this ARC to you. I don't need it at all obviously since I already have a 1954 paperback as well as a 1st edition hardcover.