Friday, April 13, 2018

FFB: Murder En Route - Brian Flynn

THE STORY: It's a foggy and wet night on the bus route from Esting to Raybourne and one passenger insists on sitting on the upper deck even though the bonnet was not installed that night. A little drizzle is nothing to him. No other passengers went up to join him for the remainder of the trip. But when the conductor goes up to check that all passengers have left the bus he finds the lone man still in his seat. Closer examination proves he is dead -- strangled. How was it possible to strangle the man when no one went near him since his ticket was purchased and the only way up and down is by the stairwell that passes right by the conductor's platform?

THE CHARACTERS: Anthony Bathurst is called upon to assist in solving the murder of the man on the bus in Murder En Route (1930), the eighth book in a long series featuring this consulting detective. I've not been too impressed with Bathurst in the two other books I read. One I finished (The Billiard Room Mystery) and found to be run-of-the-mill and the other (The Ladder of Death) was so dull and stagnant that I closed the book and never finished. Clearly I picked two of his lesser efforts. Murder En Route opens with a baffling murder in the very first chapter. As the crime is investigated the story gets more and more puzzling and will intersect with a secondary story about a missing heir to a vast fortune.

This time Bathurst is not the vain fop I so disliked in the other books. He is engaging and likeable, with a keen eye for minutiae and a skill in getting to people to open up. Granted he still exhibits an egocentric manner in his omniscient detective ways but the usual accompanying arrogance seen in so many similar fictional detectives is absent here. Rather Bathurst is eager to enlist as many people as he can to help him. He has a regular battalion of aides in this outing including our sometime narrator Rector Parry-Probyn, the rector's son Michael often found behind the wheel of Bathurst's Crossley as they travel to and from the multiple locations, and a father and son lawyer team. Of course the police are on the case as well but oddly Bathurst manages to make it seem as if they are working for him rather than vice versa.

We learn early on that Bathurst, in addition to his renown as a police consultant, is quite a Renaissance man with an encyclopedic knowledge on various arcane topics. He tells Rector Parry-Probyn that he is a musician (we never learn what instrument he plays, however) and proceeds to compliment him on the service he attended and in the process showing off his knowledge of church music. The conversation quickly moves from topic to topic. I'll let the rector explain how Bathurst astonished him:
We began to talk and we went on talking. In the space of an all-too-short hour we touched on football (both codes), rowing, church architecture, ancient monoliths, the susceptibility of the turquoise to polish, sclerosis of the posterior columns and degenerative arterial change, the Black Mass and the Medea of Euripedes.
Anthony Bathurst could give Philo Vance a run for his money in a contest of esoterica and arcane erudition! We also later discover that Bathurst has a wide knowledge of the life of bivalves and the laws pertaining to their collection which proves to be very helpful in connecting the dots to the very involved and baroquely performed murder scheme.

Flynn has a keen ear for local patois and likes to recreate dialects and regionalisms among the minor characters. One of the more memorable scenes takes place in the Quarryman Inn where Bathurst tracks down a codger named Old Orlando who has quite a few stories to tell about the murder victim while a couple of other bar patrons volunteer information about one of Bathurst's cohorts in crime solving.

Really there's never a dull moment in this story with its large cast of well defined characters, some of whom sadly run to stereotypes or are barely fleshed out like Eileen Trevor, one of only two women characters in the novel. Yet none of the story ever feels stale or old hat thanks largely to the lively portrayal of Bathurst in the lead role and the deftly plotted, well thought out, but entirely far-fetched mystery that leads to a melodramatic, thrillingly cinematic climax near an abandoned coal mine.

INNOVATIONS: Flynn does a very odd thing in this book. He starts off in third person and then introduces a first person narration in a fragmented manuscript written by the Rector. And yet in much of the first person narration the clergyman was never present for what is described. We get typically lame sentences like "Of course Michael later informed me of what happened and I have done my best to recreate the conversations to the best of my ability." But three entire chapters revert to the third person when the plot veers into the story of Eileen Trevor, her missing father, and the inheritance he is due. Why not just tell those portions of the story where the Rector is absent in the third person as well? It's just strange to me and mildly annoying as a sign of sloppy method of mixing points of view. My guess is that Flynn so enjoyed the bizarre Edwardian style syntax that comes out of the pen of Rector Parry-Probyn that he could not help himself but give over to that eccentric voice as often as he could get away with it.

The most creative aspects of this detective novel are in its construction of the impossible crime, the dizzying number of impersonations, and the amazing abundance of well placed "fair play" clues. Among the tantalizing evidence Bathurst and the police discover are a mysterious white-gray streak on the back of victim's coat and the powerfully fishy smell that permeates all his clothing; a racing program with some odd numbers in columns marked S, T, D, M; a photograph of two men one of whom is holding a sign that reads "Lifting of the Ban;" the strange reference to a street by its decade's old defunct name rather than its current name; and a pair of glasses with a prescription stronger in the left lens than the right. That's just a brief sample of the avalanche of clues and baffling aspects associated with the murder. There's enough here to keep even the most demanding detective novel reader very much on his toes.

If there is anything to gripe about it is Bathurst's unfortunate predilection in not being forthright with all he is thinking or all he has uncovered. He plays guessing games with the Rector at one point and praises him when he's right, but never fills in the missing pieces when the rector is stumped. This is because Flynn is one of those mystery writers who likes to deliver the full solution all at once in a grandiose unveiling in the final chapter. Some of the info would've been better revealed earlier to make the ending less drawn out and cumbersome.

THINGS I LEARNED: Whether it is Flynn himself or the character of the Rector who allowed Flynn to indulge in numerous allusions, Murder En Route is rife with obscure historical and literary references. Some of these allusions were linked by a single person who I think is a primary influence on Flynn's writing.

When someone remarks that no man can be in two places at once the Rector counters with: "Barring, of course, that he's a bird. I hope that in the circumstance Sir Boyle Roche will pardon the flagrant plagiarism." Roche was an 18th century Irish politician known for his absurd mixed metaphors and poor use of figurative language in his speeches and letters. The Rector's comment directly references Roche's most oft quoted quip: "Mr. Speaker, it is impossible I could have been in two places at once, unless I were a bird." Click here for a selection of Roche's other ill phrased metaphors.

Eileen Trevor is a schoolteacher and plays on the field hockey team at Freyne House where she teaches. Her masterful athletic skill is commented on by a sports writer: "That girl...was more like S. H. Shoveller than any woman centre I have ever seen." Shoveller was the star player on England's Gold medal winning field hockey team in the 1908 Olympics. [Men's field hockey was an Olympic event one hundred ten years ago? Waddyah know.]

On page 125 Flynn goes into rapturous detail about his setting of Glebeshire, "universally acknowledged to be the most beautiful county in England." The entire page is filled with the gorgeous weather, the climate that allows tropical plants and fruits to flourish, and the languorous life of a person blessed enough to have settled there. Except that it doesn't exist. It is the creation of novelist Hugh Walpole who set most of his books in that fictional county. Pretty damn ballsy to steal someone else's fictional setting and plop down your own characters there.

Flynn's Great Influence?
About ten pages further into the mystery story (page 138 to be precise) Rector Parry-Probyn makes a passing reference to Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill and what happened at a breakfast they shared. They don't exist either. They are the protagonists in a novel called Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1911) by... wait for it... Hugh Walpole.

Finally on page 158 Bathurst quotes another English writer when he says "When you want a good wife, M. De Marsac." referring to the title character in A Gentleman of France (1895) by Stanley Weyman. Weyman has been described as a writer of "the finest English historical romances since Scott." Guess who said that about Weyman? Hugh Walpole! Is that too much of a coincidence? I think not. Flynn is mad about Walpole. I'm sure his other books are loaded with Walpole references. His elliptcal syntax and repetitive prose is very much reminiscent of some of Walpole's own ornate style of writing.

EASY TO FIND? This one is a strike out, gang. I seem to have bought the only copy available in years. Currently there are no copies available from any online bookselling sites. You may find one at Biblio.com offered by Arroyo Seco but it's gone from their stock. That's the one I bought using their listings on abebooks.com. Now watch one pop up on eBay in a couple of weeks. It's been known to happen after I post about a scarce book. Being one of Flynn's earliest mystery novels Murder En Route was published in both UK and US editions. But obviously both are as rare as a wooden nickel these days. However, if you are lucky enough to stumble across a copy I'd snap it up in an instant. I enjoyed it immensely and it proves that the obscure writers can dish up an engrossing, ingenious and thrilling detective story to match any of the greats of the Golden Age.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

NEW STUFF: A Different Kind of Evil - Andrew Wilson

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson
Atria Books/Washington Square Press
(Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1501145094
336 pp. $16 (paperback)
Publication date: March 13, 2018

Agatha Christie is back in a sequel to the first book by Andrew Wilson (A Talent for Murder, 2017) which presented an alternative story to the reason for her amnesia episode back in the 1920s. A Different Kind of Evil takes place only two months after that headline making event that brought Christie a bit of international notoriety and has repercussions in her latest adventure in crime solving. Also based on her vacation in the Grand Canary Islands taken in the February following the Harrowgate Incident this second novel allows her to become a legitimate sleuth and not a would-be murderer. Her intended escape to Paradise for rest and relaxation turns into a detour into a den of vice and haven for hellish violence. Fans of Christie's mystery novels who might have been disappointed with the lack of detective novel features in the previous book will have nothing to complain about in this book. There are plenty of dead bodies, lots of clues in a wonderful homage to traditional detective novel storytelling, all culminating in a mind-blowing finale that dares to thumb its nose at those traditions while at the same time delivering a satisfying and thrilling ending to the multiple mysteries.

I hesitate to talk about the plot at all. And, in fact, I'm not going to. Imagine that! This is a book that is best read knowing as little as possible. I suggest you not read the plot blurb or any of the publicity related to it. Still, I cannot resist indulging in my knowledge of the Christie Canon by dropping a few hints for her diehard fans. Know that if you are among the cognoscenti who have read all her books and count among your favorites such prizewinners as Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, Cards on the Table, Murder at Mesopotamia and Triangle at Rhodes there will be plenty for you to enjoy. I found elements of all of those books from a Salome Otterbourne clone in the person of the garrulous Mrs. Brendel to the feuding lovers Guy Trevelyan and Helen Hart who recall several similar couples in Christie's books. The inclusion of some Afro-Caribe occult rituals recall the voodoo business poor Linda Marshall got up to in Evil Under the Sun. Gerard Grenville, the occult master of Tenerife in A Different Kind of Evil and a standout creation among the intriguing cast, will remind Christie fans of many similar sinister types from Mr. Shaitana (Cards on the Table) to the creepy "witch" Thyrza Grey (The Pale Horse). None of these references are spoilers in any way, as they will be quite obvious nods to Christie's books by those well acquainted with them.

Set in the Canary Islands on Tenerife and its surrounding villages and beaches A Different Kind of Evil includes absorbing detail on mythology, culture and religion of the islands. With two archeologists and one geologist in the cast of characters frequent discussions of those sciences allow Wilson to enhance an already colorful setting. Of particular interest and what made the book even more unique as a mystery novel were the background on the Guanches (the pre-colonial indigenous people of the Canary Islands), their practice of mummification and death rituals, the mythology related to the volcano Mount Teide, and some fascinating details on the demon figures known as Tibicenas. I doubt anyone will be familiar with any of those topics unless they are anthropologists or students of arcane mythology.

Though Wilson's book is ingeniously clued in a manner very much in keeping with the Grand Dame's time honored methods of planting her clues as well as her skill in creating ample misdirection I very much doubt even the most astute readers will be able to outguess Wilson in his brilliant homage to Christie's life and work. With only a few sentimental indulgences when the story veers away from mystery to domesticity and motherhood in dealing with Agatha and her daughter Rosamund, Wilson keeps the focus on the many crimes plaguing Tenerife and its expatriate community. He succeeds in creating a pervading atmosphere of amorality and unnerving random violence when he sticks to his murder mystery plot. By far this is one of the most admirably performed and accomplished Christie pastiches in quite some time. Wilson matches Christie's talent in plot structure and mechanics, use of unusual characters, and multiple compellingly told mysteries in a book worthy of standing alongside any of the Grand Dame of Mystery's books.

Friday, April 6, 2018

FFB: Lady in Danger - Susannah Shane

THE STORY: "The Countess de Pontarlieu requests the pleasure of your company at supper, Sunday evening, June 4th, on the yacht Aguila, South Shore Anchorage, Long Island." So reads the invitation sent to ten guests of a motley group ranging from a stage actress to a gag shop owner keen on practical jokes. Someone wants them dead. After a failed attempt at poisoning the entire dinner party with crepes Suzette laced with rat poison, the killer stages a series of fatal accidents. One by one the group is being killed off. But why? What on earth do a Broadway actress, a gas station attendant, a playwright, a lawyer, a farmer, and the five others who barely know one another have in common that would mean they all need to die? Christopher Saxe, urbane playboy and amateur sleuth, digs into their past and discovers a secret pact dating back twenty years and missing $100,000 stolen from a train that someone wants all to himself.
Cartoon of Harriette Ashbrook
(orig source & artist unknown)

THE CHARACTERS: Lady in Danger (1942) marks the debut of Susannah Shane's series character Christopher Saxe. Similar to Spike Tracy, another amateur detective the same writer created under her own name, Saxe is yet another independently wealthy man-about-town who discovers he has a knack for solving crimes. We get his entire history of his previous cases, his relationship with the Manhattan police, and the origins of his friendship with his best buddy Buzz Batterson. Saxe is a likeable, astute young man with a strong sense of righting wrongs and unmasking criminals. Batterson is the typical wisecracking comic relief sidekick you find in many of these mystery novels of the period.

Because of the large cast of characters and the high body count we don't get to know many of the cast very well until after their deaths. Mark Priestley, the writer and playwright, is one of the first victims and we catch him at work with his loyal secretary in only one scene. His file of story ideas both published and unpublished along with the manuscript for the new play he is writing became crucial to Saxe's understanding of why the dinner party took place and why the killer is targeting the guests. Seems that Mark has a penchant for basing his stories and plays on real life events and he is not good at disguising the sources.

The lady of the title at first appears to be actress Juliet Brinig whose latest starring vehicle is bringing her attention and accolades in the Broadway community. Her role as a willful septuagenarian who marries late in life is the talk of the town and people are comparing her work to Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. Juliet is only in her 40s but she is completely convincing as the title character in The Matriarch Marries. A subplot which eventually ties into the main story concerns Juliet's true identity and her mysterious rise seemingly out of nowhere as a leading lady in theater. But there is another woman who just as easily might fit the role of Lady in Danger. She is Miss Tuttle, Priestley's secretary, who Saxe will discover had another role as record keeper for a investment scheme involving all those present at the dinner party on the yacht.

The characters are all well defined, each has a pointed moment in the spotlight, and all of their actions contribute to the solution of the multiple murders. Shane maintains a good level of suspense as each character's many secrets are uncovered further revealing the closely guarded connections that tie them together. Saxe will uncover them all using a combination of street smarts, intuition, and solid detective work. The story is both a crime novel and a literary detective story of sorts as there is a metafiction element involved with Priestley's stories and plays being based on true crimes.

Lady in Danger (UK ed., 1948)
INNOVATIONS: I enjoyed the use of Priestley's stories as the primary clues that lead Saxe to the truth of what brought the ten people together. There are two stories within the novel's story that the reader is privy to and which align with later plot features. It's a clever use of fiction about fiction and it works very well in the context of this novel. Intriguing clues are plentiful as well including a set of golden cigarette cases all engraved with the same cryptic message that keep turning up in the victims' personal effects, Miss Tuttle's unusual coded filing system that relies on ambiguous initials, and Dennis Neville's odd side trip to a Colorado cemetery with Saxe hot on his trail to find out what Neville is up to. Most of this is done in the tradition of a fair play detective novel, but the clues (especially the events related in Priestley's stories) are more like signals of what's to come leading the reader to anticipate the revelation of the not too surprising murder motive. Saxe makes some cryptic remarks like "I had to look up a word in the dictionary" that are also clues to the solution. The word in question is probably one unfamiliar to many contemporary readers and I imagine they too would find themselves drawn to a dictionary for clarification. But we never really know what that word is until Saxe is good and ready to tell us -- in the second to last chapter to be precise.

Surprises, too, are teeming over the course of this rather intricate and complexly plotted mystery. As much as I thought I knew where Shane was headed with her main plot thread she managed to pull the ultimate unexpected punch when it came to revealing the identity of the murderer. The clues were all there and subtly laid out while the more blatant evidence was discussed and mulled over at length. I'm not sure if this was truly ingenious or just a side effect of having such a complicated plot with so many layers and secrets to keep track of. Still, I was impressed and she wins extra points for fooling me.

THE AUTHOR: "Susannah Shane" was the pseudonym and second life for Harriette Ashbrook's detective and crime fiction career. After realizing that her own name was not among the most respected mystery writers (she enjoyed making fun of a handful of middling book reviews) and that she was not a bestselling writer she invented an alter ego. Start from scratch, so to speak. Her first novel as Shane -- Lady in Lilac, a suspense thriller in the style of Cornell Woolrich -- was a huge success winning her the coveted Red Badge Mystery Novel Prize of $1000 and a book contract with Dodd Mead. Lady in Lilac was reprinted in massive quantities by Books, Inc. as part of their "Midnite Mysteries" imprint and to this day is the easiest of the Susannah Shane books to find in the used book market. It was recently reprinted by Coachwhip Press. Why they haven't picked up any of Ashbrook's other well plotted and entertaining books or the remaining Shane novels mystifies me.

Prior to her mystery novelist career Ashbrook was a freelance newspaper writer whose work regularly appeared in The New York Times, New York Tribune and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle throughout the 1920s. She also apparently contributed to the Kiddie Klub Korner as children's advice giver Aunt Jean. This was a column that appeared in the Evening World, another New York paper, also during the 1920s.

Her writing career was cut short when she died in 1947 at the relatively young age of 50. Had she lived longer we might have seen more of Christopher Saxe or even some other series character. For more on Ashbrook see my post on the Spike Tracy detective novels.

EASY TO FIND? Of her six detective novels written as Shane Lady in Danger is the second most common after Lady in Lilac. I found about ten copies for sale in both US and UK editions. Unlike the last few books under her own name none of the Shane books were reprinted in paperback. One of the other titles was included in a 3-in-1 omnibus as part of the Detective Book Club. If you live in the US you might be lucky enough to find one of the Susannah Shane books in your local library or get it through interlibrary loan. I'd like to see all of Ashbrook's books reprinted. While they may not be stellar examples of the genre they are hugely entertaining. When she was cooking up an intricate plot with neatly planted clues as in the case of Lady in Danger she really did a bang up job with her mystery books.

Christopher Saxe Detective novels
Lady in Danger (1942)
Lady in a Wedding Dress (1943)
Lady in a Million (1943)
The Baby in the Ash Can (1944)
Diamonds in the Dumplings (1946)

Friday, March 30, 2018

FFB: I Met Murder - Selwyn Jepson

THE STORY: I Met Murder (1930) literally starts off with a bang. On the very first page someone attempts to kill John Arden, prominent sociologist and narrator of the book. The wine glass he was holding shatters and a bullet is found in the wall behind him. All this happens while he and five other guests are sitting at the dinner table during a party given by Hamish Page, wealthy businessman and war profiteer. Page soon confesses that someone had attempted to shoot him earlier in the week and that he has hired a private detective to look into the matter. But the next day someone succeeds in shooting Page dead. Was Arden not the intended target at all? When it is discovered that Page has left his entire estate to Anita Skinner, daughter to a professor of mathematics and a weapons designer, suspicion falls on the young lady. Anita turns to Arden as her confidante and enlists his aid in recovering an incriminating letter in which she had threatened Page. If the letter should be found by the police Anita is sure to be arrested. Then a second person is shot dead making it appear that someone has targeted every person at Page's dinner party. Can the police stop the killer before he makes his way through the rest of the guest list?

THE CHARACTERS: Though John Arden is the narrator he is only a sort of Watson character to the main detective of the book. Inspector English is a by-the-book kind of policeman so often found in Golden Age detective fiction. He has his ideas and is rarely open to having them challenged though he is not unaccustomed to compliment his cohorts' detective skills. George Jupp, the private detective hired by Page, conducts his own investigation parallel to the police one. He shares his opinions with English who on occasion can be startled by his perceptions and will begrudgingly accept some of Jupp's theories. Our narrator Arden is mostly along for the ride offering up his few eyewitness accounts, some perceptive observations, but mostly acting as a sidekick to Jupp. Interestingly, in the final chapters two of the main suspects (and last remaining survivors of the massacred dinner party guests) discuss the series of murders and come up with their own astonishing theory of who the killer might be. It turns out to be not too far from the true solution. In effect there are four detectives and two Watsons over the course of the novel.

Out of the lot of suspects it is Anita Skinner and her father Professor Skinner who are the most fascinating. Anita is the primary suspect who has the most obvious motive for killing Hamish Page. But as the body count continues to rise she is eliminated from the pool of suspects. Her father then draws the attention of the police. Skinner's work in weapons design is constantly being discussed. This gives Jepson an opportunity to make the detective plot touch on topical issues in post World War I era when anti-war movement and disarmament debates were always in the news.

Each of the suspects (and later victims) seems to have been created in order to discuss a "hot topic" of the era. Lady Codrington is a writer of erotic poetry that is deemed too overt for publication in Britain. She is called a pornographer by her detractors and enemies and she seeks to have her writing privately published by a small press based in Paris. Jepson devotes several pages to discussing her work and how it affects her life and how she interacts with the others. Likewise, in creating Lionel Lake, a sanctimonious minister who is suspected of having an affair with the poet, Jepson allows for ample talk of religious hypocrisy with an emphasis an issues surrounding sexuality and fidelity.

INNOVATIONS: Jepson presents the reader with multiple puzzling murders many of which involve near impossibilities. The most interesting will turn out to be how the killer managed to shoot through the window at Arden without being seen. The whereabouts of the murder weapon causes a lot of consternation as well. Inspector English and Jupp both comment on the numerous varieties of .22 caliber weapons in Professor Skinner's home and the main suspects' easy access to all of them. But they do not manage to find the correct weapon until the murderer actually shows them where it was secreted.

Despite the humdrum style of plotting with the puzzles overtaking the story and a dry prose style heavy on character monologues the overall tone of the book has a very contemporary feel. Characters like Anita Skinner presented as a willful, devil-may-care "bad girl" bordering on a kind of anti-social amorality is more frequently found in books published thirty or forty years after this one written in the late 20s and published in 1930. The talk about provocative sexuality (Anita confesses to having a three-way with two men), erotic poetry and pornography, gun design and weapon manufacturing, and religious hypocrisy all still have resonance for a 21st century reader.

As far as crime plotting goes every one of the murders comes at the most unexpected moments. Even if you know prior to reading (which I did not) that the body count is rather high in this book it is doubtful that you will be able to predict just who is the killer's next target or when in the story each death will take place. In this regard Jepson's novel impresses with its sophisticated construction and brilliant use of suspense. Like many of the early serial killer novels that deal with insanity I Met Murder focuses a bit too heavily on the question of motive and when that appears to be the investigators' stumbling block they begin to see the killing spree as the work of a madman. Nothing could be further from the truth. The motivations when revealed are less the product of an insane mind than they are the work of a popular and paradoxical type of literary murderer found in the late 1920s and early 1930s detective fiction -- the obsessively moral killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: The book is very much about guns, specifically .22 caliber rifles and the bullets they use. This kind of thing can be both fascinating and utterly boring to me depending on how much gun love the author indulges in. Contemporary crime writers tend to get a bit masturbatory about guns and ballistics and it truly sickens me. Here the gun information is necessary to understand the plot and Jepson clearly knows what he is talking about. Thankfully, the gun talk when it comes sticks to basics. The most interesting discussions were on the difference between rifles that shoot bullets and air rifles, how the barrel determines range and distance a bullet or projectile can travel. There was none of the obsessive often pretentious talk that many writers who are also gun enthusiasts tend to throw in. Because the theme of the novel is very much anti-war and leans towards disarmament often the discussion of guns and the ever increasing changes in design to make them more deadly is highly critical.

QUOTES: Inspector English: "I am very glad to have you with me Mr. Arden, on these occasions quite often you produce a useful piece of information at the right time. If I may say so, you have the makings of a deductive mind."

As long as there are Professor Skinners in the world the peacemakers will never succeed in outlawing war; invent an engine of destruction, and you invent a dozen, for you will set rivals at work. To argue with them, to point out their folly, is a certain waste of time and breath and I had long ago discovered the Professor to be particularly impatient of such evangelistic efforts.

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THE AUTHOR: Selwyn Jepson was the son of noted weird fiction and detective fiction writer Edgar Jepson. He is also the uncle of British novelist Fay Weldon. Like his father Jepson began as a novelist but quickly became involved in screenwriting and his career as a scriptwriter often overshadows his life as an author of crime fiction books. By 1930 Jepson had already published eleven books, a mix of crime and adventure fiction, before he was drawn to the world of movie making. From 1930 through 1953 he wrote or adapted over a dozen screenplays. In the 1950s he wrote for the US anthology television series "Rheingold Theatre." His novel Man Running (1948) was adapted for the movies as Stage Fright directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It features Eve Gill (played by Jane Wyman in the movie), the only true series character Jepson created.

But perhaps it is Jepson's life as a British agent assigned to the Special Operations Executive, the arm of British intelligence during World War II that has become his true claim to fame. As his detailed biography on the Fandango website tells us: "Jepson was put in charge of the recruitment and training of agents. His own, most direct task was personally interviewing potential agents. He usually used the name "Potter" in a now well-recounted procedure that took place in a sparely appointed, totally non-descript office in London." His renowned work with the SOE has been recounted in books and movies like Charlotte Gray, Carve Her Name with Pride, and most recently in Shadow Knights: The Secret War with Hitler by Gary Kamiya, marvelously illustrated by Jeffrey Smith.

EASY TO FIND? I'll deliver the bad news first. Neither the first US nor the first UK edition are common. In fact, I found absolutely no copies of the UK edition and only two of the Harper & Brothers 1930 edition for sale. The good news is there are many copies available, all of them priced affordably, of the reprint issued by Modern Publishing Company sometime in the 1950s. Exactly when in that decade I haven't a clue because this publisher does not bother with printing copyright information in any of their books. The dust jacket doesn't even identify their own company anywhere! Even better news is that a contemporary reprint exists. But you'll have to be able to read Italian. Polillo Editore released the first Italian translation in 2012 as part of their classic mystery imprint "I Bassotti". Typically for this publisher, the title has been changed and rendered as Tutto iniziĆ² con un calice spezzato (It All Started with a Broken Goblet). I suspect this was done because the original English title is a subtle fair play clue, almost a spoiler, reminiscent of the kind of thing Helen McCloy used to do with her titles.