Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Kerry Garth is a big-time movie star. His career is going just great until the day his publicist and Friend Casey Jones informs him that he is dead. Kerry Garth was murdered the night before.
How can this be? The answer is fairly simple. Kerry wanted a holiday very badly, and he particularly wanted to avoid attending the premiere of his latest movie. So he persuaded his stand-in, Joshua Barnes, to take his place at the premiere. Barnes has such an uncanny resemblance to Kerry that he had no problem convincing people that he really was Kerry Garth. And at the premiere someone shot Joshua Barnes dead.
As Casey Jones explains to the shocked star, the bullet that killed Barnes was obviously meant for Kerry Garth. Someone wants Kerry Garth dead, and when that someone discovers that he or she has killed the wrong man they’ll be coming after Kerry. Casey tells Kerry that he would be well advised to vanish for a while. When you’re a famous movie star disappearing is not that easy, but in this case it should be very easy indeed. All Kerry has to do is to pretend he is Joshua Barnes. Since Joshua Barnes had no difficult in passing for Kerry, Kerry should have equally little difficulty in passing for Barnes.
So far so good, but then Kerry Garth makes an unpleasant discovery. John Barnes was not exactly a nice guy. In fact he was such a swine that there are any number of people who would like to see him dead. Including a racketeer to whom Barnes owes ten grand. Kerry has taken on the identity of a man with many dangerous enemies.
He also discovers that Barnes was something of a ladies’ man. He’s been having affairs with many women, including one affair with a married woman that was likely to end in murder. To avoid being murdered Kerry has now put himself in a position where he seems very likely to become involved with a quite different murder. Or possibly several.
It’s a clever plot and Sale handles it with great skill. He really puts his hero through the mill as Kerry Garth’s impersonation of his stand-in almost becomes much too successful.
Sale gives us a colourful cast of supporting characters. Until quite close to the end there are numerous possibilities as the murderer of Joshua Barnes but none appears to be especially likely. This is not really a crime novel in which a detective plays a major role. Detective-Lieutenant Shane Harker will play his part but for the most part Kerry Garth is left to solve the mystery on his own. He certainly has a strong incentive to solve it since his life depends on it.
The Hollywood background is great fun and Sale clearly enjoys writing about that world. He shows us the glamour, and the emptiness and heartache that so often lurks beneath the surface.
A fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, Highly recommended.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Sir Max Pemberton (1863-1950) was a journalist and novelist and was a noted dandy. He wrote crime fiction as well as tales of adventure and was for a time the editor of a boys’ magazine.
The novel starts with a chance meeting, a meeting that is perhaps not as random as it seems. Mark Strong is a wealthy young man, or at least he had been a wealthy young man. At the age of 25 he has run through most of his inheritance. He meets a man named Martin Hall. Hall appears to be something of a fool but appearances are deceptive. Hall is no fool, although he is certainly engaged in a very risky undertaking. He believes he is close to success but if he fails it will mean his death. He leaves some papers with Mark, with instructions to open them in the event of Hall’s death. He also asks Mark to meet him again in three days in Plymouth.
Most of what remains of Mark’s fortune is tied up in his yacht, the Celsis. He sets out in the yacht for Plymouth but what he finds, under horrifying circumstances, is Hall’s body.
The manuscript Hall had left with him tells a bizarre story. Hall had been a spy engaged in naval intelligence. At a shipyard in Italy he spotted a very striking ship. His instincts tell him he has uncovered something big, and his instincts are correct. The unnamed ship (we never do discover its name) is owned by an American millionaire.
That a private individual should own a warship is unusual enough but this is a very extraordinary warship indeed. It’s immensely well-armoured due to its construction from a very rare and expensive alloy, it’s well-armed, but most significantly it is powered by gas rather than coal. And it is fast. In fact it’s the fastest warship afloat, and being powered by gas it is much less dependent on coaling stations than the average warship of the 1890s. Why would a millionaire have such a ship built for him? The reason is simple. The owner, Captain Black, is a pirate.
The great days of piracy are over, but Captain Black believes he can bring them back. No warship can catch his ship.
Mark Strong now takes on Martin Hall’s mission, to track Captain Black and his mysterious ship to their lair. When he finds the pirate he discovers that things are not as straightforward as he’d thought.
This is Victorian adventure at its best, with a dash of science fiction as well - there’s some wonderful techno-babble about Captain Black’s ship (which will delight steampunk fans). There’s also a surprising level of violence, some of it rather grisly.
Captain Black is the villain but he becomes a sort of anti-hero. Even Mark Strong, repelled though he is by the cruelty and casual violence of the pirates, is strangely drawn to Captain Black. And of course the pirate has a secret that explains his strange choice of career. You might expect the villain in a Victorian adventure tale to be a simplistic villain straight out of melodrama but that’s not the case here.
There’s plenty of action, there are sea battles, there’s everything you could want in an adventure novel. Highly entertaining. Recommended.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Headed for a Hearse, published in 1935, was the second of five crime novels featuring private detective William Crane written by Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983). Latimer would go on to write some of the classic film noir screenplays, including The Glass Key, The Big Clock, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and The Unholy Wife.
Latimer is regarded as being a member of the hard-boiled school of crime writing, but Headed for a Hearse is in many ways rather uncharacteristic of that school. The style is hard-boiled, but combined with generous helpings of humour. And as far as content is concerned this is pure golden age detective fiction, with the typically convoluted and ingenious plot and the obligatory ending in which the detective explains the mystery.
Headed for a Hearse opens on Death Row, with three men facing execution in a week’s time. They are an odd assortment of convicted murderers - Vachera is a psycho sex killer, Connors is a labour racketeer while Robert Westland is a wealthy stockbroker and a prominent member of Chicago society convicted of killing his wife. Westland had been resigned to his execution, but now he’s changed his mind. He’s decided he wants to live.
He manages to persuade the warden to let him contact a new attorney, an experienced criminal lawyer and an old crony of Connors. And he manages to persuade this lawyer, Charlie Finklestein, not only that he is innocent but that there is a chance of proving his innocence. It’s a very slim chance, but the case appeals to Finklestein. The lawyer realises that the only way to save his client is by finding the real murderer, and to do this he calls on the services of private detective William Crane and his assistant, ‘Doc’ Williams. Crane has just six days to solve the case.
In standard golden age detective story style there are half a dozen possible suspects, there are alibis that may or may not turn out to be breakable and the timing of the murder turns out to be crucial. And more than that, this is a classic locked-room mystery.
William Crane is a delightful detective hero. He provides most of the story’s considerable comic elements whilst still remaining a fairly hard-boiled detective. In the course of attempting to solve the case Crane will consume prodigious quantities of alcohol, but as he explains at the end there’s nothing like a hangover for encouraging clear logical thinking.
Latimer manages the trick of combining humour with hard-boiled style surprisingly well.
Highly entertaining and recommended.
Monday, May 13, 2013
Louisa Baldwin (1845-1925) was the mother of Stanley Baldwin, who served as Prime Minister of Britain on three occasions during the 1920s and 1930s. She was also Rudyard Kipling’s aunt. Louisa Baldwin was a novelist and poet.
Her collection is a fairly routine set of ghost stories. Some are quite good, some are mediocre, and none reach any great heights. The Weird of the Walfords, The Uncanny Bairn and Many Waters Cannot Quench Love are perhaps the strongest stories. Most of her tales are fairly predictable although quite competently written and reasonably atmospheric. For those who simply cannot get enough Victorian ghost stories they provide adequate if not thrilling entertainment.
Lettice Galbraith is a rather mysterious figure. She wrote a novel and a number of short stories during the mid-1890s and then promptly disappeared from the literary stage.
Galbraith’s stories are to my mind somewhat more interesting than Louisa Baldwin’s. They’re also mostly fairly conventional but on occasions they offer us something slightly more interesting.
The Case of Lady Lukestan hinges on the vexed legal question - can a jury be persuaded to accept evidence from a dead man? This is an exceptionally interesting story, the strongest in the whole book. In The Ghost in the Chair a mining company is saved from ruin by a man who is already dead.
Revenge is the theme that seems to run through most of her stories. Her ghosts are usually seeking some kind of redress for a wrong done to them. In some cases they wreak their revenge on the guilty; in others it is the innocent who suffer.
The Trainer’s Ghost and Other Stories is a serviceable if short collection that fans of the ghost story will find it worthwhile to seek out.
The book as a whole is not one of Wordsworth’s best offerings but it is, like all their books, very cheaply priced and there are a few stories here that are probably enough to justify the purchase price.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
A wealthy banker, Sir Garth Fratten, dies suddenly on The Duke of York’s Steps in London. Sir Garth had an aneurism and his death comes as no surprise to his doctor. Sir Garth had had a very minor accident (a man had jostled him) and his doctor is satisfied that even a fairly mild shock such as that would have been more than enough to cause the aneurism to burst. He unhesitatingly makes out the death certificate stating that Sir Garth died of natural causes. There are no suspicious circumstances and it all seems so straightforward that there is not even an inquest.
Despite this Fratten’s daughter Inez is not entirely satisfied. She places an advertisement in the London newspapers, seeing the man who had stumbled into her father shortly before his death. The advertisement comes to the attention of the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. He decides the matter should be looked into, purely as a matter of routine. He is in fact quite convinced that there is no question of foul play in Fratten’s death, but he assigns Inspector John Poole to make a few inquiries.
Poole soon realises that there is at least one person with a very strong motive for murdering Sir Garth. There are also some financial affairs connected with the deceased banker that seem worth looking into. Poole becomes more and more convinced that this is a case of murder, but the circumstances of Fratten’s death seem to make that impossible. Nonetheless Poole is now very interested.
It becomes apparent that there are in fact several people with strong motives. But Poole still cannot discover any possible means by which the banker could have been murdered.
Needless to say Poole does eventually uncover the evidence he needs. His investigation leads him into a world of high finance where things are not as they seem, and a sordid world in which rich young men make fools of themselves over chorus girls.
This novel boasts a very ingenious murder method indeed. This is in fact one of the strongest points in the book’s favour.
Inspector Poole is something of an intellectual, at least by the standards of official police detectives, having been educated at Oxford. After university he had been called to the bar and spent a year practising as a barrister before joining the Metropolitan Police. Poole is very ambitious, his aim being nothing less than to become Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. Such a position requires broader experience than would usually be gained by a straightforward police career. His immediate superior is rather sceptical of Poole’s abilities.
Despite his Oxford education Poole is not in the style of aristocratic detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey. His father was a country doctor and he comes across as a reasonably straightforward sort of person, educated but not one to parade his education to any degree. He’s a likeable and interesting enough detective hero.
Henry Wade was the pseudonym adopted by Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet (1887-1969). He wrote quite a few mysteries between the late 1920s and the late 1950s including seven Inspector Poole novels and was a founding member of the Detection Club.
The Duke of York’s Steps is a classic golden age detective story. The plot stretches credibility but outrageously intricate plotting part is part of the charm of this school of crime fiction. Highly entertaining and recommended.
Monday, May 6, 2013
The setting is Scotland in the 1640s. The Civil War is raging in England and there had already been considerable strife between the King and the Scottish Church, the Kirk. Men were torn between conflicting loyalties, and this was particularly painful since all these loyalties were taken very seriously. The Kirk was determined to impose the Presbyterian system of church government not only on the whole of Scotland, but on England as well.
The National Covenant in 1638 rejected papacy and anything that resembled it and was followed by the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643. The Covenanters were effectively in control of government in Scotland. The Kirk was not merely a very militant church but also espoused a rather severe form of Calvinism. Anyone who was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Covenant was assumed to be not merely misguided but a dangerous enemy of both the Kirk and the state.
In this troubled environment the young and newly ordained Reverend David Semphill arrives in the village of Woodilee to begin his duties as minister of the parish. David is a zealous supporter of the Covenant and a sincere Presbyterian.
The parish of Woodilee has a reputation for being exceptionally strong in its support for the Covenant but all is not as it seems to be. David makes the horrific discovery that witchcraft is alive and well in his parish and that many of its chief citizens belong to a coven that meets in the nearby wood.
The wood itself is almost a character in the novel. This is not just a small wood but part of a vast primeval forest. David regards the wood with fear and loathing. It seems to represent a dark and mysterious force. He is however strangely drawn to it as well.
David believes that his duty is clear. He knows the identity of some of those involved in the rites in the wood and he has what he considers to be fairly strong evidence. He is amazed and dismayed when the Presbytery not only rejects his evidence but does so in a manner that suggests that David is the one at fault.
A further complication arises for David when he meets Katrine Yester. She is the niece of the local laird, and David is immediately fascinated by her. Of course a young minister of the Kirk could not possibly hope for marriage with a lady so far above his station, but David’s heart overrules his reason where Katrine is concerned. At first sight he thinks she is a denizen of the realm of faerie. Throughout the book the wood is linked both with witchcraft and with faerie.
David had earlier encountered three soldiers, soldiers who turned out to be followers of the Earl of Montrose. Montrose attempted to raise the Highlands for the King, an attempt that was initially crowned with considerable success. What David doesn’t realise is that one of the men is Montrose himself. The Kirk regards Montrose as the Antichrist and this meeting will have fateful consequences for the Rev Semphill. After Montrose’s defeat David gives shelter to one of Montrose’s lieutenants, thereby exposing himself to the charge of aiding and abetting a dangerous enemy of the Kirk.
While David still hopes to extirpate witchcraft in Woodilee he finds himself facing grave charges and the possibility of excommunication. Then plague arrives in Woodilee. David’s efforts to combat the plague are misunderstood and expose him to further criticism and further charges. David remains in his heart a loyal Presbyterian but he finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile his loyalty to the Kirk with the demands of common humanity.
Of course the idea of portraying religious hypocrisy as a greater evil than witchcraft has become a commonplace today, in fact it’s become a rather tedious cliché. Happily Buchan is not content with such platitudes and his novel is much more complex and more ambiguous. His hero never wavers in his belief that witchcraft is an evil that must be rooted out.
He also doesn’t make the serious but all too common mistake of making his hero hold anachronistic modern views. David Semphill is a man of his time. He is torn between the dictates of his own conscience and the requirement to submit to lawful authority but to Semphill it is a real dilemma - he does not reject (as a 20th century man would be almost certain to) the idea of submission to authority. He simply thinks the Kirk has got the balance wrong. He believes they put too much emphasis on obedience but that does mean that he believes in complete freedom. He wants authority to be less severe and less obsessed with minutiae but he certainly does not reject the necessity for some authority.
Today we are used to the idea that there is something praiseworthy about being non-judgmental. David Semphill would certainly not agree. He is very judgmental and he believes in absolute right and wrong and he never doubts that witchcraft is evil. He believes that judgments should be tempered by mercy and should not be rushed into, but he would never accept the notion that judgments should not be made.
The leader of the coven in Woodilee is a man who takes the Calvinist notion of predestination very seriously indeed. He believes that since he is one of the Elect and therefore guaranteed of salvation he can sin as much as he pleases. This perversion of Calvinist doctrine was seen at the time as being one of the chief dangers of the doctrine as a whole. Again Buchan is struggling with real religious dilemmas of the period.
Buchan’s reputation as a writer of thrillers would lead the reader to expect Witch Wood to be an adventure story but it is actually a very serious work of historical fiction that deals with complex religious and moral questions. It’s entertaining (Buchan could never be dull) but it’s also thought-provoking and intelligent. Buchan’s knowledge of 17th century history was profound (he wrote important biographies of several key historical figures of the period including Montrose). Witch Wood deserves to be regarded as a major work by a great writer.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Reginald Fortune and his friend Lomas, who happens to the chief of the Criminal Investigation Branch of Scotland Yard, have been discussing the mysterious Poyntz murder case. The case is mysterious because Mrs Poyntz does not actually seem to have been murdered. Her death appears to have been, without a shadow of a doubt, suicide. And yet both Fortune and Lomas are not entirely happy about the case.
The death, again apparently by suicide, of Mrs Poyntz’s airman husband only serves to increase their vague sense of unease.
The Poyntz case appeared to be connected with blackmail. Now some other odd occurrences involving Lady Rosnay and the theft of a diamond tiara that was not stolen at all and the curious case of two prominent up-and-coming Opposition politicians have also mystified both Reginald Fortune and Lomas. There does not appear to be any connection with the Poyntz case, and yet...
Needless to say further untoward events soon follow, involving (among other things) Lady Rosnay’s monkey and drug smuggling. And of course there will eventually be murder.
Shadow on the Wall is a fine example of the fair-play mysteries that characterised the golden age of detective fiction. There are clues in abundance, there are red herrings, there is the kind of ingenious complicated plot so beloved of devotees of this genre. And it’s all done with style and finesse.
Reginald Fortune is the type of upper-class amateur sleuth who dominated the genre at that time. That certainly does not mean he is merely a Lord Peter Wimsey imitator. Mr Fortune has quite enough personality of his own. He is a humorous and likeable character.
Bailey’s writing style is very pleasing - not overly ornate or precious but with plenty of liveliness and wit.
It’s difficult to understand why Bailey is not better known, except perhaps that he has the reputation of being better at the short story than the novel, and short stories have been out of favour with both publishers and readers for some tim now. Be that as it may, if you’re a fan of detective fiction you should certainly hasten to make acquaintance of Mr Reginald Fortune.