Friday, November 24, 2017

FFB: Comets Have Long Tails - Madeleine Johnston

I've read a lot of "Yellow Peril" thrillers in my day with the Fu Manchu saga leading the list but I don't think I've come across a more humanistically offensive murder mystery than Comets Have Long Tails (1938). First off I hadn't a clue what the hell the title meant but when I learned within the first two chapters that the victim is a Chinese woman (dubbed White Flower!) cast in the role of exotic and amoral villainess I thought for sure I was going to learn of some obscure Confucian snippet that led to the title. I was sort of right, but we don't really learn of the true meaning of that odd metaphor until the final pages of the last chapter. Until then we must be affronted with the despicable life of the murder victim who certainly had it coming to her and yet at the same time discovering that this Chinese woman is one of the worst stereotypes of the "evil Oriental", and an "exotic female evil Oriental" at that, in all of Golden Age crime fiction. I couldn't wash away the bad taste in my mouth with each new revelation and racial slur Johnston felt it necessary to use.

Our super sleuths on the case are Noah Bradshaw and Tony Craig, rival reporters from two different newspapers. Craig's editor is so impressed with the reporters' detective skills he asks shy is a cub reporter rather than a cop. Craig, ever the wisecracker, replies, "Feet aren't flat enough." This is another book along the lines of Daniel Mainwaring's series (writing as Geoffrey Homes) where reporters are more observant, more astute, and generally better at everything than the police. Even D.A. Teasdale jibes the Chief of police, "If the newspapers keep on there won't be any need for a detective bureau. Why don't you try training journalists instead of Sherlock Holmeses?" The somewhat overly complicated plot treats us to Bradshaw's expertise in the Chinese language and its various dialects (he had worked there for several years) and the fact that Tony at one time dated White Flower and was in love her.

Bradshaw and Craig are tasked with aiding the police and in one case challenged to actually solve the murder of White Flower, the adopted ward of Beulah and Roger Allison. White Flower is found hidden behind a hedge in a park wearing only black pajamas and strangled with a dog leash . It's a sordid crime perfectly suited as tabloid fodder. Add to that the young woman is Chinese whose looks are constantly described as "almond eyed" and "exotic" and you know that the story is headed for lurid and murky waters. Is it because she's Chinese that she will turn out to be a truly nasty young woman? A thieving blackmailer of the worst sort, a seducer of young men tempting them with her body and her charm and plotting the worst sort of revenge? Is she just a symbol of exotic decadence or is there something more insidious at the heart of the book? I don't know what to make of it all.

Here's some choice writing for you to mull over:

Anything that peps me up is a nice fresh murder now and then. And if it had to be anybody I'm glad it wasn't someone who would be a loss to the community. Like a husband and father. Now this Chinese gal--"

"Why was the girl bumped off if not to get possession of the jade bracelet?"
"Why anything," Lt. Hogan demanded, "when it come to the yellow race? Revenge, some ancient grudge dating back to God knows when -- the first century, or dynasty, or whatever it's called in China. [...] When a Chink gets his mad up it's handed down from generation to generation."

The girl would play with him, drain his manhood, drive him insane with jealousy, but she would not marry him. No. She was playing with bigger fish. She would not marry [him]... But she would ruin him.

He was only a reporter. But he had eyes. And ears. And -- what was it [his editor] had said of him? -- a nose for crime. Well, this crime was beginning to smell unpleasantly Chinese.

It was the oriental equivalent of "Get the hell out of here."

It was pure "Pekingese", which to the Chinese language is what true "Parisian" is to the French. (On closer reading that's really just an example of snobbery)


Oh, how about this one? A rare case of a racist joke:

"Wong not know. Not sure. White man all lookee like same man."

There is another victim. Guess what? He's Chinese. Guess what happens to him? Strangling is not enough to dispatch him. He's also mutilated and tortured in a grotesque manner. The book is not only drowning in Chinese stereotypes and xenophobia. Racism is liberally sprinkled on all the non-whites in the cast. There are stereotyped Jews and a black servant character. She is introduced as "a large black woman of the mammy type" and then referred to as "the Negress" and "the servant." But she is never given a name. Of course she speaks in an "Amos & Andy" style comic dialect. It's all way too much. And when it's laid on this thick can it all really be satire? I'm not so sure.

At one point in the novel a character says to himself, "What in hell is this anyway? A murder investigation or a Mickey Mouse cartoon?" No comment.

But here's something I started to do just to put the book into less offensive and modern context. I recast White Flower as an Islamic girl or a Latino girl or any other non-white and I started looking at all of the anti-Chinese remarks and all the racial slurs as if she were one of the many maligned and ostracized "minorities". In fact I made her all of them at once. Suddenly the book was like something that was out of the front page headlines of the past five years. Because really nothing changes when it comes to bigots finding "the other" and ostracizing them, casting them in the roles of monsters or freaks or infidels or sinners or what have you in order to make them less human, less worthy. Just lesser than anyone. Perhaps Johnston was only holding a mirror up to us and showing us the ugly truth. That, at least, is my hope to help explain why she wrote what amounts to a very ugly detective story.

Madeleine Johnston wrote only two detective novels and much to my surprise Coachwhip Publications has reprinted both of them in an omnibus edition entitled Bradshaw Investigates. Included with Johnson's debut is Death Casts a Lure, a sequel of sorts, both featuring --as the title implies-- Noah Bradshaw as the reporter/sleuth. Despite this unusual choice in a vintage murder mystery reprint I'm not sure I'm interested in further exploring Johnston's world.

Friday, November 17, 2017

FFB: Murder under Construction - Sue MacVeigh

THE STORY: Enter the exciting world of railway construction in the pre World War 2 era.  No really.  Come on along.  It's not as boring as you might think.  At least not in the hands of Sue MacVeigh, the ostensible author of Murder under Construction (1939) and the narrator and wife of railway detective Andy MacVeigh.  Her husband has been hired to find out if a series of accidents are actually attempts to murder Winthrop Mason, the head of a railway bridge construction job in Slocum, New York.  Andy has asked Sue to tag along as his Watson. They're going to pose as a civil engineer and his wife and infiltrate the small colony of engineers and contractors to find out who might want Mason dead.  But someone still manages to kill the much loathed engineer and MacVeigh's job leads him to collaborating with the police in a murder investigation.

THE CHARACTERS:  A large cast requires extra concentration so the list of characters and their relationships at the front of the book was extremely helpful in keeping everyone sorted out. Mason married into a wealthy family of railway people. His wife Gwendolyn, the daughter of the railway president, is a beautiful young woman very protective of her husband's reputation which as the story unfolds turns out to be pretty much a sham.  Mason knew next to nothing at all about construction, let alone the intricate physics behind railway bridge construction. As Andy and Sue dig into the lives of the construction crew they learn that Mason was most likely responsible for ruining the project. The bridge is already collapsing due to poor judgment, bad planning and inferior materials. Andy reveals that Mason was faking his knowledge and putting everyone else's reputations at risk, to say nothing of the dangers and unsafe conditions at the bridge site. Motives are aplenty among the workers when Andy further learns of the anger and hatred that have been brewing around Mason's inept handling of the project.

Hillman Publ. #10, 1948
(digest paperback)
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the story is the subplot involving of the wives of the railway engineers. Sue learns that they are a close knit group of women who share nearly every facet of their lives with one another. She uncovers some secrets including a burgeoning extramarital romance.  Between the professional rivalry and the bedroom shenanigans Sue and Andy have their hands full of possible murder suspects.

INNOVATIONS: Mason's murder is utterly mysterious.  He's found halfway between his home and the construction site with his head bashed in. The ground is fairly muddy but there are no footprints around the body. No murder weapon can be found. It's a nearly impossible murder. One of the women turns out to be a highly skilled baseball player, especially in pitching. Sue's idea about the affair and jealousies that were rampant lead her to believe that the woman might have managed to throw some heavy object at Mason from her backyard which abuts the murder scene. But the solution is much more complex and horrifying. The murder means, the weapon itself, is one of the most unusual choices to kill someone.

THINGS I LEARNED: Obviously the setting itself and the microcosm of this railway construction village is teeming with opportunities to educate a curious reader. You learn all about the physics and math and geometry knowledge needed on a construction site of such complexity.  And the human element of how the wives figure into the world of the project both as advisors and advocates was even more fascinating than all the work and labor involved. The role of women in this mystery was much more involved that I ever would have expected.

Andy and Sue are one of the better husband/wife sleuthing team s of from this era. There is no artificiality in their banter, they are devoted to one another and very much in love, both are intelligent and exacting in their detection. Thankfully Sue shows not an iota of light hearted whimsy (Haila Troy), vapid domesticity (Anne MacNeill) or absent-minded wackiness (Pam North). Too many wives in these detective duos act as the Gracie Allen of the piece and they tend to irritate me. While Andy is the lead detective dealing mostly with police and engineers Sue does her fair share of noticing the tell tale clues and making suggestions to her husband that lead to the final solution.

THE AUTHOR:  "Sue MacVaigh" is obviously a pseudonym. Hardcore vintage mystery fans know this gimmick of character-as-author was used frequently in Golden Age crime fiction as exemplified in everything from the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen books to the short-lived Gale Gallagher series I wrote about two years ago.  In reality the writer was Elizabeth Custer Nearing, a newspaper reporter living in New Jersey who wrote for three different newspapers including the New York Telegram and Philadelphia Ledger. She was married to a civil engineer involved in the railway business. Based on those credentials I'm guessing that everything you read in Murder under Construction is 100% accurate. This was her debut mystery novel and she went on to pen three other mysteries featuring the MacVeighs involved with trains, the railway business and murder. Her second novel Grand Central Murder, was turned into a very good movie with Van Heflin starring as an Andy MacVeigh stand-in named Rocky Custer. You can find it at various online movie websites for free since it has apparently has fallen into the public domain.

EASY TO FIND? MacVeigh's first two books turn up more often than the others in the series. Currently there are eight copies of Murder under Construction and four of Grand Central Murder.  One copy of the book reviewed here is being sold for only $12.  Hurry before it's gone! These books were published only in the US, yet even with reprints from Grosset & Dunlap and paperback digest editions all four titles are still scarce. Ah well. Did you really think otherwise?  Libraries and used bookstores may turn up a copy or two. I serendipitously found my copy of Murder Under Construction in a Boise, Idaho bookshop on our vacation this past summer. That it came with a undamaged DJ in nearly pristine condition was astounding to me. And at only $22 I felt like I was stealing it from the bookstore owner.

Sue & Andy MacVeigh Detective Novels
Murder under Construction (1939)
Grand Central Murder (1939)
Streamlined Murder (1940)
The Corpse and the Three Ex-Husbands (1941)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NEW STUFF: Ten Dead Comedians - Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians
by Fred Van Lente
Quirk Publications
Hardcover ISBN: 9781594749742
e-Book ISBN: 9781594749759
288 pages
Release Date: July 11, 2017

The blurb on the back cover of Ten Dead Comedians tells it all. One deserted island, two nights of terror, three secret rooms... (see photo below) Actually one of those is a red herring, but it’s number five you ought to pay attention to. Yes, there really are five critical clues. In fact I think there are more than that. And yes those five clues can lead you to the solution of the mystery. This is not only an often laugh out loud funny satire about Hollywood self-involvement and unmanageable egos, or a dead on evisceration of the world of stand-up and improv comedy, it’s also one of the best plotted, fairly clued modern mysteries I’ve read this year. It takes a lot to impress me and Fred Van Lente did it.

The sometimes clunky opening chapter takes some concentration. It’s that kind of necessary evil in any send-up of the And Then There Were None style mystery novel overloaded with exposition and character introductions. Yes, as the back cover might have sounded all too familiar to a seasoned mystery reader, this is another clone of And Then There Were None. No, not a clone. An evil twin. A cackling, jibing, nasty spirited evil twin. And I mean all of that in a good way.

As the title clearly spells out for us instead of murderers we have jokesters and comics as the intended victims. Once the introductions are out of the way and we head to the thoroughly booby-trapped island the book settles in for a macabre and creepy weekend of horror and laughs. It becomes a real page turner, the characters are fleshed out more, the plot becomes ever more intriguing and the murder methods become ever more baroque. It’s a gruesome story, my friends. At times it seems that Van Lente may have decided to write a mash-up of Christie with the Saw franchise. Imagine such a monster genre-blender with laughs! Difficult I know, but dang it all it works. Just as Christie’s book becomes increasingly serious fueled by fear and paranoia so does Ten Dead Comedians. The book can be downright somber when it needs to be. Yet another facet that impressed me.

Each of the ten chapters is divided into ten sections and separated by ten transcripts. As the book progresses those transcripts, eight of which are actual stand-up routines, display Van Lente’s versatility as a comic writer perfectly capturing a different tone and style for each of his uniquely different comedians. My favorite and the funniest of those sections is Janet Kahn’s relentless and merciless tearing down of a heckler who dared to interrupt her set. The diatribe was recorded on a YouTube video and we read the transcript of that video. The comic highlight of the novel those three pages alone are well worth the cover charge.

In addition to the mystery of who is knocking off all the comedians and why the reader may find himself engaged in a match of wits with the writer in trying to pair up the fictional comics with their real world inspirations. The most obvious to me is Van Lente’s scurrilous parody of the Blue Man Group empire in the person of Oliver Rees and his absurdly infantile Orange Baby Man act which has become an international phenomenon. He’s about to open yet another Orange Baby Man theater at a Sandals resort in the US Virgin islands as the story opens. There is a sardonic female insult comic who is clearly an amalgam of Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and maybe a few others. The rest are a mix of men and women representing all races and every type you can think of from smug late night talk show host to the tirelessly touring washed up comic seeking solace from the bottle and longing for a clean motel room that isn’t near a loud and busy highway or airport. From the quasi feminist woman comic who enjoys talking about her pet dog more than anything to a subversive podcaster who seems to hate everything about stand up and tries (unsuccessfully) to be funny in pointing out their hypocrisies. Van Lente has some original touches to this motley group like the redneck comic who in reality is an ultra snob with a refined taste in modern art, gourmet food, expensive wine and a multisyllabic vocabulary. In fact, the absolute antithesis of his onstage persona, Billy the Contractor. The audience during his act, a self-deprecating celebration of everything working class and mundane, are unaware of their being cruelly mocked and belittled.

The real draw here and the most pleasant surprise of all is that the book is a tightly plotted, well constructed, genuine traditional murder mystery. The average reader may catch on early to the scheme and motivation of the unseen killer as will the veteran whodunit reader, but I guarantee that even the most polished of fans will miss some of Van Lente’s subtle clues that are revealed by an unexpected detective in the triple twist filled final pages. One of the best jokes cannot be revealed here either because it gives away something about that character and how that person acquired such finely honed detective skills. Apart from Janet’s lacerating tongue lashing of her crass heckler it was the one joke that cracked me up the most.

Be warned, however, that Ten Dead Comedians is just like the title of Steve Martin’s third 1970s album Comedy Is Not Pretty! This is a very American, very vulgar, four letter word (and then some) littered story. Those easily offended or put off by Technicolor swearing and cursing might just as well keep on strolling past this title to something tamer and less colorful. That’s not a joke on the rear cover where it brags of "Seven words you can’t say on TV!", that’s Van Lente’s true homage to one of his many comedy heroes – George Carlin – listed on his Acknowledgments page. And yes, each of those seven words appear in the text. Some of them several times.

If your tastes in humor lean toward the tasteless, then step right in. The book is not a laugh riot on every page, but there are moments of comedy gold here. It's the bloody well done murder mystery you're after anyway. Mystery aficionados will eat up the plot looking for the similarities to Christie and others of this ilk as well as thoroughly enjoying having the rug pulled out from under them in the final pages. You’ll get some laughs, some chuckles and some well-earned gasps. Just like comics’ slang for doing well in a set you might say that Fred Van Lente really killed with his debut mystery. Slaughtered them even.

Friday, November 10, 2017

FFB: Reservation for Murder - June Wright

THE STORY: As if the plague of anonymous notes being sent to the young women at Kilcomoden hostel were not enough now a dead body turns up in the garden -- the body of a strange man no one has ever laid eyes on before. Mary Allen had the unfortunate meeting with the corpse. Now she and Mother Mary St. Paul of the Cross, the rectress who oversees the running of the hostel, are teamed up with Detective Inspector Stephen O'Mara and Sergeant Wheeler of the Melbourne police plus a mysterious American who goes only by the name Joe in order to find out who the man is and why he was killed outside the women's boarding house. Is it all tied to the nasty poison pen notes? Or could it be related to a burglary that occurred at the hostel several months ago.

CHARACTERS: Reservation for Murder (1958) is Australian writer June Wright's fourth mystery novel but the first to feature her second series detective Mother Paul (let's stick with the shortened form of her name that she much prefers). In this first outing the elderly nun comes across as a mix of Father Brown and Miss Marple. She has the enigmatic speech patterns so often found in the parable laden tales of Chesterton's priest detective, but she is also a manipulative snoop in the manner of Christie's spinster sleuth. Much of her "detecting" is done by inference and instinctive understanding of human nature. She tends to have an eerie skill at getting others to do her bidding with her kind soft voice, subtle ambiguous suggestions, and implied directives. Unfortunately, she is doing much of the real detective work offstage with the police and leaving Mary to grapple with the shady verbal instructions on her own. And in the end there is a lot of non-fair play narrative that the reader is not privy to until the finale. There are a handful of clues to help guide the reader to the correct solution of the killer's identity, the author of the poison pen letters, and the person responsible for some other dreadful deaths, but in the end the we get an arbitrary resolution of the plot with a silly melodramatic boat chase involving a Napoleon of Crime that just comes out of nowhere.

Still the book is truly engaging. Reservation for Murder is one of the many domestic suspense novels with a mostly female cast that were being written in the US, UK and Australia during the 1950s. The emphasis in this story is on the relationships between the many women in the hostel, their petty jealousies, their closely guarded secrets, the friendships and "frenemy" types who show up in the nearly claustrophobic atmosphere of the all female boarding house. The novels and themes of Patricia Carlon, another underrated Australian crime writer, came to mind as I was getting near the end of this one. Wright is definitely more comfortable writing of female maliciousness as is evidenced in the other books that were reprinted by Verse Chorus Press a few years ago and are easily available to the reading public. The cast of characters is truly what makes this a mystery novel worth seeking out.

We have quite a well drawn cast of women here. Mary has two close friends who were my favorites of the bunch: Fenella King and Clare. Fenella is an Eve Arden type, all wise cracks and common sense, while Clare is the "mannish" athlete who adopts an odd Bertie Wooster style of speech peppering her sentences with "eh whats" and "old girls". They're the most fully developed of what often seems a shallow bunch of women. There is a nasty gossip named Verna, truly a sinister young woman and prime candidate as the author of the poison pen notes; two superficial interchangeable blondes called Betty and Jean chittering on mindlessly and obsessed with make up and clothes; mousy Alison Cunningham nearly always feeling sorry for herself; and mysterious new boarder Christine Farrow, slightly older than most of the 20-something women and a moody artiste with a snappish tongue and a dark secret she's not about to reveal to anyone until it's almost too late. They're all very intriguing characters, but can appear a bit like archetypes or even caricatures at times.

The most caricatured of the cast is the Gorgon widow Mrs. Carron-Doyle, a thoroughly unpleasant over-the-hill bully who badgers her female companion Mabel Jones into submission and treats all the young women like servants when poor ol' Jonesy is not to be found. I was hoping she'd end up a victim of the stealthy murderer. No such luck. However, as a sort of consolation prize to the reader she does get her comeuppance at the climactic fancy dress ball towards the end of the book.

The policemen characters are well done too. Sgt. Wheeler is a typical comic cop and appears in only few scenes until the arrival of his superior. For some reason Wright chooses to treat O'Mara, like Mother Paul. He too has a nearly sinister manner of getting others to do his bidding and he enlists Mary's help as a sort of undercover agent who will observe all the women and report back to him any unusual behaviors or incidents at Kilcomoden. The first meeting they have at a Chinese restaurant is both amusing for Mary's introduction to Asian cuisine and fascinating for O'Mara's masterful method of steering Mary away from her distaste at being a spy to seeing how helpful she can be not only to the police but her fellow boarders.

INNOVATIONS: Wright employs the traditional mystery novelist's gimmick of the dying clue in this book. The man stabbed to death in the garden manages to whisper what sounds like "Jess" to Mary just before he dies. Much of the first half of the book consists of Mary's clever ways to get the women to reveal their middle names, talk about their female relatives, and other methods of trying to uncover who this Jess might be. The answer to that mystery is revealed in the final pages and turns out to be of the most original and devious dying message tricks I've come across in quite a while. Not quite on par with Ellery Queen and probably the kind of clever clue that only a woman writer could dream up.

In fact the book is quite a celebration of all things female. I usually tire of books where women's wardrobes are discussed in great detail. But clothes play a very big part in the book. A favorite dress serves as major clue to prove that an apparent suicide was actually murder. One of the women works at a dress designer's fancy salon and the climax of the book is a dance where all the women spend a lot of time getting dolled up. One of the women is such a overdressed disaster that Betty and Jean, the two glamour girls, insist on giving her a makeover almost against her will. They tie her to a chair, pretty up her face and nails, and leave her in a bathroom while her hair sets. But... Something quite horrible happens to that young woman that was the biggest shock in the book.

THINGS I LEARNED: The book takes place in Melbourne and the setting itself was an eye opener. I'd never heard of a hostel managed by an order of nuns that is in essence a profit making boarding house. While it's never mentioned if the money the women pay to the hostel is then used for charity I'm guessing it is. Not only were there several real hostels run by nuns in Australia there are others throughout Europe and the North America. Some I learned only accept Catholics as guests. Now how do you prove that?

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. That's right. Ridiculously scarce. Amazingly I own two copies and I found both of them online within days of one another, including one with the gorgeous DJ shown at the top of this post. Sheer luck, gang. I can see why this book was not one of the June Wright mysteries that was reprinted. It most likely has limited appeal to a primary female audience, though I readily admit I was truly captivated by the characters and was not entirely put off by its feminine outlook and emphasis on clothes, make-up and bitchy catfighting. If you live in Australia chances are you can find a copy in a local library, especially in the Melbourne area where Wright lived. But it looks to me to be very difficult to find this book anywhere else in the world. If you do come across a copy, I'd say it's worth it for the characters, the two shocking deaths that occur after the stabbing of the mystery man and as a good example of a nun detective in the early history of the genre before nun detectives became tiresome clich├ęs.

And now an offer -- if you'd like to read this book I will sell my copy (without DJ) to the first one who asks. Price somewhat negotiable and free shipping in the US or Canada. If you live anywhere else you'll have to pay for the shipping.