Saturday, September 24, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Undercover" - Joey Deluxe

Infiltrate, investigate, interrogate until you get a clue
Ingratiate, inebriate, infatuate your next ingénue

How about a spy tune, gang! Or...uh...well...a spy tune with a mess of detectives in the lyrics.

Joey Deluxe is the pseudonymous alter ego for sound and music editor Joey Merholz when he's donning his composer hat. He's only written two original tunes for movie soundtracks which he also performed. "Undercover" appeared for the first time in --of all things-- the otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla. Joey's really working his Lou Reed/Leonard Cohen baritone in this pastiche of a 1960s spy theme.

I'll forgive him for not knowing the difference between spies and detectives. And for adding a private eye writer's name in the lyrics just for the hell of it. I just like the overall spy vibe and the jazzy melody with that blaring horn section and that mean Hammond organ heard faintly in the musical break. It's probably all digital music made with a Mac and software. But who cares? Sounds like a jazz combo in some dive lounge off the old Vegas strip. I love it!

I found a video using this tune and made by someone who seems to be madly in love with Ilya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. So enjoy these bits from that old TV show featuring David McCallum, several shapely spy gals, some villainous baddies, and -- every now and then -- Robert Vaughn. All in 1960s living color!

Sam Spade, James Bond, Philip Marlowe, secret agent lover
Now, you're Mickey Spillane and you're goin' undercover
It's a covert operation, in and out, and get yourself out of there
You can get bugged, tapped, wired, and end up caught in her snare
Few are those who can resist the lure of wealth and sex
So wrap it up in your trench coat, baby, and pray it protects

©1998, Joey Deluxe, Sony/Tri-Star Music

Friday, September 23, 2016

FFB: Wild Justice - George A Birmingham

THE STORY: The apparent suicide of an Irishman with ties to the IRA is investigated by Chief Constable Devenish, Lord Benton, and a country parson. The detective novel plot is used to explore ongoing conflict between Irish loyalists living in England and the hatred they endure from British citizens.

THE CHARACTERS: Wild Justice (1930) is narrated by an Anglican minister who is given no name throughout the course of the book. Early on in the book he says "I am no lover of the Irish, who have always struck me as a troublesome race, but I like to be just to them." This is the overarching tenor of the book. The author, an Irishman himself, starts by poking fun at the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent in England at the time. The humor is mildly satiric in pointing out the narrow-minded prejudices of the narrator and others, but by the end of the book the author is clearly espousing his critical opinion of the radical Irish, the revolutionaries and terrorists who have sullied the reputation and history of the homeland he is proud of.

Chief Constable Devenish, a retired army colonel and the primary detective of the piece, is the embodiment of all that is good about Ireland. He's a war hero, affable, fair-minded, and has an admirable skill in making people feel at ease the moment he meets them. The victim and the man put on trial for murder, who happened to be the victim's dearest friend as well as an IRA member, are depicted as everything that is wrong with the country. In fact, the KC prosecuting the case uses the courtroom as his chance to malign all of Ireland as a land of rebels that celebrates "secret societies" and the men who run them. Despite what may seem to be slathering on condemnation for Ireland and its people, Birmingham does not really resort to simplistic black and white portraits of good and evil. Rather he shows the fraternal love Irishmen have for one another and presents legitimate reasons for understanding why the radical factions have such deep-seated antipathy for English law and English culture. The reader understands the Irish mindset, the stubborn beliefs they cling to, their innate sense of humor that helps them cope with trauma and hardship. And you see bigotry uncovered for what it really is.

Servant characters usually allocated to minor supporting roles figure prominently in the first half of the story, especially Bastable the bigoted butler on the Benton estate and George, the beleaguered footman. "Murder or no murder," comes Bastable's reprimand to George, "the rector and Colonel Devenish will be wanting their boots and they're to be cleaned properly before they're brought up." The business of what happened to boots overnight may seem like a minor incident to every other character in the book except George who insists that one pair was not with the rest. He eventually loses his job over the boot incident since no one will believe his story. Knowing how missing boots and the cleaning of them pop up as clues in classic mystery fiction (The Hound of the Baskervilles and Trent's Last Case come to mind) I knew these scenes were not meant to be trivial at all. True enough the boot incident will have repercussions by the end of the novel.

INNOVATIONS: There may be an entire subgenre of mainstream novels about the Irish/English conflict. I can think of The Informer by Liam O'Flaherty and Odd Man Out by F.L. Green as two excellent examples. Wild Justice is the only Golden Age detective novel I have encountered where anti-Irish sentiment and the effect of Irish terrorism on innocent citizens plays such a major part in the story. In fact these themes serve as the underlying motive for the crimes revealed in the most unexpected manner in the powerful finale.

As far as ingenious use of clues there is a section in which a typewriter with a German keyboard turns up twice and the accidental use of umlauts (ä, ö, ü) is a telltale clue in a letter sent to the accused. Our parson narrator, who has been wrokign on a monograph on medieval Irish monastaries, is called upon to use his knowledge of "old Irish" to authenticate the letter which employs several phrases in Gaelic, or Erse as the British characters call it. The linguistic bits though not entirely fair play clues are fascinating. But the typewriter clue is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence. The discussion of the German typewriter keyboard comes up three times in the novel and astute readers will be able to use those scenes to unmask the killer long before the rest of the characters figure it out.

The closing argument of the defense attorney in the climactic murder trial is a brilliant example of legal rhetoric. He manages to do some clever reasoning and does his best to sway the jury to a verdict of not guilty by playing up reasonable doubt, the crucial phrase that can acquit a man of a crime.

QUOTES: On the narrator's inexpert participation at a hunting party: "I missed rather more than usual, and I always miss more than I hit. This does not trouble me, for I have a feeling that a parson ought not to be an expert at killing things, except, of course, fish."

"I am not an expert in Irish affairs but I hold strongly that it is a mistake to assume that anything that happens or ever has happened there is reasonable."

"I wondered at and greatly admired the way [Devenish] dealt with a fanatic like O'Callaghan. I should just as soon have tried to make a joke to an American Methodist Minister about Prohibition."

"He had been foolish enough to slay his man in England, a country in which the old-fashioned prejudice against unauthorized killing still survives."

Bastable's bigotry: "...there wasn't much blood, sir. So Mrs. Mudge informed me. Not so much as might be anticipated, considering that the parties concerned were both Irish."

Bastable again: "Now, I'm Church, sir, and I've always voted Conservative. But what I say is, that if a man would rather be Chapel [Roman Catholic] and vote Liberal that's his business and no affair of mine. But the Irish is different from us, sir."

James Owen Hannay , circa 1930s
photo ©Pirie MacDonald,
courtesy National Portrait Gallery
THE AUTHOR: "George A. Birmingham" is the chosen pen name of James Owen Hannay (1865-1950). Hannay was born in Belfast, educated in Ireland and was ordained a Church of Ireland clergyman in 1889. He served at various churches throughout Ireland and was an army chaplain during WW1. In 1922 he joined an ambassadorship to Budapest. After his time in Hungary he settled in England and remained there for the rest of his life. He began writing novels in 1905 focusing on his critical view of Irish politics in his first novel The Seething Pot. Then he turned to comic novels for which he is best known continuing his critical viewpoint in a gentle satirical vein. Late in his writing career he wrote a handful of detective and crime novels the most noteworthy being The Hymn Tune Mystery (1930), also with a clergyman narrator, that deals with the murder of an organ player and a clever cryptogram that can only be solved with a knowledge of reading music.

THINGS I LEARNED: Stumbled across a very unusual word: peccant - guilty of committing sin. The sentence where this is used: "It was horrible to feel that a fellow human being, however guilty he might be, was being walled in, as they say peccant nuns sometimes were in the dark ages." That's some metaphor!

I was caught up in the section on Gaelic grammar and vocabulary. It went on for about ten pages but I never found it boring. Learned all about the placement of vowels, subtleties in Irish grammar that affect connotation and meaning, and that A chara dhilis is the way to write "My dear friend" in a Irish letter salutation. Also that the Gaelic name Diarmuid is pronounced something close to "Jeermood" in English.

EASY TO FIND? I found this book through serendipitous browsing at BookMan BookWoman, a used bookstore in Nashville, during a weekend getaway earlier this month. The store was having a sale -- $9.95 for every hardcover mystery book no matter what the price marked inside. How fortuitous! (as some Victorian character might exclaim.) I took every vintage mystery I could find that I didn't already own. Wild Justice was the most unusual and the oldest in the small pile of books I purchased. I already knew of Birmingham from my reading The Hymn Tune Mystery several years ago. To my surprise an internet search turned up 14 more copies of Wild Justice mostly of the various Methuen editions, but none with a complete DJ like mine. My copy is a 1935 reprint. It apparently was selling well -- the 1935 edition is the fifth printing since it's original publication in 1930. There are also US reprints from Jacobsen out there to buy. All but one are reasonably priced ranging from $5 to $15. Such deals for a rather excellent yet utterly forgotten detective novel by an undeservedly forgotten writer. I doubt there are any digital copies, but I didn't bother to look for them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

TWICE DEAD - E. M. Channon

Three men are all attracted to the beautiful but haughty Sylvia Marlowe. Philip Braden, is her intended fiancé, but she wants nothing to do with him. Dr. Mackay, the locum tenens, is slowly taking over the practice of ancient Dr. Mapp and has his eye on Sylvia as well but is guarded about expressing his affection for her. And then there’s the man Sylvia would like to propose to her Tom Brent, a young pastor with a devilish temperament. Needless to say there is a lot of unspoken affection going on in this quasi Jane Austen romance disguised as a detective novel.

Enter Grace Winch, former nurse and ex-actress, still clinging to her melodramatic stage talents in her work as a fortune teller for hire. Grace predicts some horrible futures for several guests at a garden party hosted by the imperious Lady Braden, Philip’s aunt. One of the predictions is that Philip will suffer “a double death for [his] end.” Not surprisingly this scares the bejesus out of not only Philip but Sylvia and Tom. Soon we learn that Grace is a malicious woman who has a very mercenary reason for taking advantage of Philip’s fear of a bizarre death, especially one by premature burial. She has been intimately acquainted with him in the past. Her connection to him is fairly easy to guess even before she drops her many unsubtle hints of the scandal it would cause should she tell all. She is also privy to some secrets in Dr. Mackay’s past. You’d think Grace will turn out to be the victim, but no. Her prediction for Philip’s double death indeed comes true and serves as the half-hearted detective novel plot that makes up some of the story in Twice Dead (1930) by E. M. Channon.

This is a mix of an inverted detective novel and a traditional mystery. The surprises are not at all surprising due to the manner of storytelling which robs all suspense from the book. Channon chooses to have us follow the thoughts and actions of Grace, a wicked woman who resorts to blackmail and extortion with everyone she encounters. Her aim is revenge on a grand scale. She’s oddly the embodiment of a nihilistic worldview in a book that is otherwise extremely conventional in its outlook. Grace cares so little for her own life that she commits suicide in a manner that will make it appear that one of her enemies be suspected of her murder.

Another character in the story, Sylvia’s cousin Anne, is just as spiteful in her behavior. She too has been rejected and wronged by Philip. The book is concerned more with soap opera melodrama -- engagements gone wrong, rumors and whispered lies, unrequited love, unspoken love held close to the hearts of the mostly stubborn characters in the book. Channon describes Sylvia as a "brainy woman" but her actions tell us otherwise. She refuses to tell the man she loves how she feels about him relying instead -- as will happen in these Austen-like novels -- on second hand reports of his life and rumors of an intended marriage to another woman. Then Sylvia sits back and sulks and mopes that she will never be happy. She never directly asks Tom for the truth until the end of the book. Shades of Sense and Sensibility, right? Except there’s no elegance or dramatic irony in this book.

Meanwhile Tom Brent tries to act as amateur detective of the piece but only solves the mystery of Philip's double death when he stumbles across the not-so-shocking truth through sheer accident. There are two endings with two culprits revealed through monologue confessions. One done in an over-the-top melodramatic sequence clearly inspired by Macbeth and the other an anti-climactic verbal confession done very matter-of-factly and dully. Both villains are allowed to escape punishment and live out their lives as an example of forgiveness and second chances at happiness.

I found the whole thing utterly unsatisfying from its ersatz melodrama to its naive worldview about love. Most off-putting is Channon’s preference to explain everyone’s thoughts and actions. She adopts a “gentle reader” omniscient narrative voice peculiar to early 19th century novels making continual sideline commentary rather than allowing the reader to discover who the characters are through their actions and deeds. This is probably due to Channon’s primary career as a writer of juvenile novels set in girls’ schools. Most of these adult women act like Edwardian "mean girls" and the men are pretty stereotyped, too. There’s not much here to recommend even as a quaint period piece. There are dozens of similar stories better written, better plotted, and much more maturely handled.

For a different view of Channon as a mystery writer see Kate Jackson’s review of The Chimney Murder one of the other four crime novels Channon wrote. Both Twice Dead and The Chimney Murder have been reprinted by Greyladies, an indie press responsible for reissuing in limited paperback editions novels solely by women writers whose work is a mix of children’s books and romantic novels intended for primarily a female audience.

THINGS I LEARNED: Late in the book Lady Braden exclaims, “This isn’t a Duchess Novelette!” This of course sent me on a ten minute Google search in order to track down the source of that obscure reference. I uncovered one single photograph of an old story newspaper called fittingly Duchess Novelette. Apparently this was one of many short-lived “penny dreadful” romance pulp magazines published in England during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. While the bulk of the penny dreadfuls were filled with lurid stories of gory, blood-soaked crimes with grotesque characters the romance pulps told stories of cads toying with the affections of women and the dirty deeds they are driven to when they’ve been wronged.

The title is taken from a quotation found in Jude 1:12, 13. Again it is Lady Braden, the novel’s resident literary allusionist, who quotes the passage: “[C]louds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots.” She is referring to more than just Philip’s unusual demise. The observations made by Lady Braden and Grace Winch, two women of entirely different make-up and contrasting worldviews, were the only reasons I kept reading the book.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Continental Op" - Rory Gallagher

Check my reputation
Check my pose
First you ought to check my fee

An all out tribute to Dashiell Hammett's nameless private eye. Amazing video for this rockin' bluesy tune. Gallagher was an Irish musician who died in 1995. I'd never heard of him until I found this tune. This song comes from his penultimate album Defender released in 1987.

So who are they gonna get
When the trouble's gotta stop?
Here's my card
I'm the
Continental Op