Thursday, June 30, 2011

Something wicked this way comes...

Dartmoor, at the beginning of our tale
If I spoke about Dartmoor, England, I’m willing to bet that most mystery aficionados would immediately envision the moors, with fog everywhere and a solitary figure walking, as the howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles pierces through the evening… Well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was onto something when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles— Dartmoor, with its landscape and various legends, is a perfect setting for an eerie mystery…

And that’s precisely what Paul Halter gave his readers in 1993, when he wrote his book Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor). This is a fabulous book— without a doubt, it’s one of the best I’ve read in 2011, and it’s surpassed Le Tigre borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger) as my favourite book by Paul Halter.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Young and Innocent Psycho Climbing the Thirty Nine Steps in a Frenzy

Patrick: I would like to welcome readers to this special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! This blog was started when I wanted to vent my fury over the abysmal book by George Baxt, The Affair at Royalties. I had written an online rant about the book’s failings and was so furious about them, I sat down and created a video thoroughly bashing it. (I still attend group therapy and hope to get over it someday.) Needless to say, I come across as rather “shouty” and I consider the video far from my finest review. However, I got relatively positive feedback, and soon enough, I had created this blog and was posting in it regularly. Things were going well and I had just about forgotten about George Baxt...

Until, for his “Q” entry for the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, Sergio (from Tipping My Fedora) wrote about Baxt’s A Queer Kind of Death. Not only did he praise the novel, he gave it five fedora tips! I was stunned to even see a positive take on Baxt, and it was so well-written I wrote the following in my comment: “The book I read was atrocious in every way- you have now successfully made me doubt my conclusion that Baxt had no talent.” The disagreement was an interesting one which immediately guaranteed my readership of Sergio’s blog.

And then I had an idea: as we saw Baxt’s work from two different vantage points, why not read a book of his together and collaborate on a crossover review? I asked Sergio to contact me, pitched the idea (which he liked), and we selected a book: The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case.

Now what motivation could I possibly have had for returning to the work of an author whose book I thoroughly despised? Quite simply: curiosity. I was curious what people like Sergio or William DeAndrea saw in Baxt to give him such positive appraisals. After all, it’s quite possible The Affair at Royalties was his The Hungry Goblin or Elephants Can Remember. So I decided to give Baxt another shot, trying to cast aside the prejudices of my experience reading The Affair at Royalties. And who knew? Perhaps I’d enjoy it…

Thanks for joining me today, Sergio!


Sergio: Buon giorno Patrick,

it's great to be here and thanks very much for having me on your splendid blog - despite my fondness for Baxt! This was a great suggestion of yours and between us we should be able to debate the pros and cons of the author's approach to life, the movies, literary crime and crimes against literature (not necessarily in that order). We've deliberately chosen to stay away from A QUEER KIND OF DEATH and its sequels as it seemed more profitable (and more fun) to pick one that neither of us had read before. THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK MURDER CASE certainly fits the bill - it's the second of Baxt's 'celebrity sleuth' series which combine actors, writers and filmmakers with fictional crimes. The approach is not too dissimilar from Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters series except that the real person becomes the actual detective. And Alfred Hitchcock, the self-styled 'master of suspense' seems a likely candidate for this kind of fictional treatment given his love of thrillers about an innocent man on the run (and personal publicity). 

The book begins in Germany in 1925 where 'Hitch' and his fiancée Alma are working on THE PLEASURE GARDEN, his directorial debut. The tight production schedule gets interrupted however when the script girl is found dead in the shower, knifed to death ... hmmm, sounds familiar ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Canadian Statue Mystery

It seems that, in recent weeks, a bit of an international flavour has been thrown into the mystery blogs. I’ve reviewed Paul Halter, John has gotten a crack at the Boileau-Narcejac writing team, and TomCat has introduced us to Dutch authors like Libbe van der Wal. (An internet meme like the Alphabet of Crime Fiction could totally be inspired by this.) Then, I was asked the intriguing question of whether I knew of Canadian GAD-school authors. I couldn’t think of any, but John came to the rescue and offered a suggestion: Louise Penny.

It is very difficult to capture the Canadian spirit— although we’re similar to Americans, Canadians are very different in many ways. It’s a pleasant surprise when an author succeeds in writing Canadiana. In a mystery, it’s doubly pleasant: Canadians are sorely underrepresented in mysteries of the GAD school. Too often, the Canadian cousin is just a neighbour of the aforementioned cousin (probably deceased), trying to get a piece of the family fortune. Basically, Canada is too often used as an easy excuse for why Bob has been away or where outlaw Mickey Finn has been hiding out. (Canada is not alone in this club— Australia comes to mind as a country that plays a similar role a little too often.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Name is a fence and within it you are nameless."

I’ve just noticed a pattern between today’s review and my last one, The Devotion of Suspect X. Both books were published just this year, in 2011— and today’s book, Bill Pronzini’s Camouflage, was published just earlier this month! So this really is the newest book I’ve ever reviewed!

I have quickly become highly enthusiastic over the work of Bill Pronzini, particularly his Nameless Detective series. Since reading Hoodwink, I’ve gone on to read several books by Pronzini— I consider him one of the finest talents in the mystery field today.

It surprised me somewhat to see Nameless named in Camouflage— Tamara, his partner, refers to him as “Bill” at one point. (Huh. I think I can guess where Pronzini got that one from.) No last name to report as of yet …

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Oh, there's just one more thing...

In the past, I frequently complained about the state of the modern mystery, but in recent months, I’ve discovered wonderful authors like William L. DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini. Still, mysteries in the classic, GAD-style mould often seem unfairly ignored— how else to explain the lack of interest in publishing translations of Paul Halter's work in English? (You can say what you like, but Le Tigre borgne (The One- Eyed Tiger) is an absolute masterpiece.)

And yet, the opposite seems to be true in Japan, where authors like Soji Shimada (author of the brilliant The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) sell well! I’m not Japanese, nor do I understand the language, so I really cannot comment in depth here. However, on the blog Detection by Moonlight, there recently was a guest blog written by Ho-Ling, who pointed out some Japanese detective novels (translated into English) worth checking out. After searching my library catalogue, I managed to find one of the books Ho-Ling mentions in his final list (which includes a disclaimer, “not a complete list”): Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Case of the Catholic Critic

Strictly speaking, I made my first professional sale when I was sixteen; a short ghost story so abominably written that I now feel that the editor who bought it must have had a sadistic grudge against his readers.
— Anthony Boucher, Exeunt Murderers

William Anthony Parker White (alias Anthony Boucher)
Today I will attempt a first here on the blog. Thus far, I’ve mainly reviewed mystery novels, with the occasional foray into the short story collection. I’ve reviewed one film. All of these have been works of fiction, but today, I will write about some non-fiction for a change. But before I do, allow me to give a note of introduction.

Back in my pre-Agatha-Christie days (Heavens! Was there such a time?), I had finished reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and was unsure where to go to next. There were plenty of juvenile mysteries in the library, and I’d read them, but something just seemed to be missing, and soon enough I gave up on the adventures of the Hardy Boys or their female counterpart, Nancy Drew.

Monday, June 20, 2011

XLVI. Where Quinn Booker and Lobo Blacke ride off into the sunset.

I have read only four novels by the late William L. DeAndrea, but I would be willing to put his name among the great GAD authors any day. DeAndrea wrote mystery novels with actual plots; he didn’t unnecessarily pad out his stories, which were solid ones, complete with clues and red herrings. Also, DeAndrea’s writing style was like that of the great Rex Stout: he captured the voice of Archie Goodwin and had it speak through the characters of Matt Cobb or Quinn Booker.

Written in Fire and Fatal Elixir were two books starring Quinn Booker and Lobo Blacke, who were rather like Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe transported to the Old West. Unfortunately, DeAndrea’s untimely death prematurely terminated the series, and it’s a real shame: reading Fatal Elixir, I could only shake my head, dismayed as I read what might have been…

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sur les lieux du crime

Those who regularly check in to At the Scene of the Crime probably know by now of the fondness I’ve developed for Paul Halter. His book Le Roi du désordre (The Lord of Misrule) was a very flawed book, but one I loved reading, which reminded me just why I love mysteries. The freshness of Halter’s impossible crimes is invigorating— not since John Dickson Carr have we been graced with an author who makes impossible crimes so central to his work. I eagerly devoured La Tête du tigre (The Tiger’s Head) and Le Tigre borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger): while I found Tête flawed, I found Le Tigre borgne a masterpiece, which left me eagerly hungering after more by Halter.

I decided to satisfy this craving with Halter’s 1994 novel À 139 pas de la mort (139 Steps from Death), the second of five books found in my Paul Halter omnibus (Volume 3). This novel, like La Tête du tigre, stars the detective duo of Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst. Again, although they are rather colourless, I find this refreshing— Halter doesn’t waste time giving us Hurst’s marital problems or Twist’s struggles against agoraphobia. They are just the detective duo, with Twist taking on the role of the Great Detective, and Hurst being his Watson figure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's in a name?

It’s so appropriate that I’m writing this blog post today. Let me explain. Exactly one week ago, I was riding in a car across the USA, earnestly reading the book The Ghosts’ High Noon. This was when we crossed the border into Colorado, and in the town of Fruita, we pulled over for a break. We went to the welcome center (about a block away from a dinosaur museum, which my brother eventually convinced us all to visit) and went to the washroom. I then wandered around the place amiably while waiting for the others to come out, looking at the various pamphlets, maps, etc.

While I was crossing the room, something caught my eye: it was a small bookshelf. It only had two rows of books in it, but it was the notice on top of it that caught my eye. It said something along the lines of “Enjoy a free book! These books were donated by so-and-so Bookstore at such-and-such Avenue.” I looked at the shelves and suddenly, something caught my eye. Frantically, I went over to the main desk and asked the lady there: “Excuse me, but… did I read this right? Are these books free?” She smiled and replied: “Yes, they are! Feel free to take any you like!” I could have sworn I heard a host of angels singing at that moment. For what caught my eye? None other than the book Shackles by Bill Pronzini! (God apparently wishes me to read more Pronzini. I don’t object to that plan at all.)

Why do you keep stumbling over dead bodies, Mr... er, what is your name again?

The following is a post originally posted in May, but which was removed when Blogger went down and had yet to be restored.

It’s rare that you pick up a book and finish reading it on the same day, but that’s what happened with me and Bill Pronzini’s Scattershot, which I finished late last night. I simply couldn’t put the book down. Everything I liked in my last Pronzini adventure, Hoodwink, was in here, and somehow, Pronzini manages to tell a far more complex story in about 50 pages less than in Hoodwink. The result is a fast-paced, exciting, and engrossing read that I simply couldn’t put down, and it is the newest entry in Impossible Crime Month.

I guess it’s just one of those weeks for Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. It starts with him jogging in the park on Sunday, at the suggestion of Kerry Wade, and coming to the conclusion that jogging is for jerks. The week does not remain quiet for long, however, as Nameless is hired by three people for three different jobs, and in each scenario, an impossible crime results. First, he is hired to find a woman and serve her with a court summons. Before he can get far on that case, he is hired to follow a businessman who is accused by his wife of theft and infidelity. Finally, to end the week off, he is hired to guard a room full of wedding presents. The result is fascinating—it’s as though three short stories were intertwined and constantly interrupting each other. However, let’s take a look at the plot strands individually:

There's no place like home...

The Carstairs kids (left to right): Archie, April, and Dinah

It wasn’t that long ago that I read Craig Rice’s brilliant novel Home Sweet Homicide for the very first time. It is an absolute masterpiece, with a brilliantly complex plot, extremely funny situations, characters that captivate your imagination, and all the fun of a Rice novel with chocolate malts replacing the booze.

Imagine my joy then, when I found out there was a film adaptation (that information being in the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press edition). Filmed in 1946, Home Sweet Homicide is a wonderfully fun movie, and it is a genuine shame that it hasn’t been treated well over time. The print I got a hold of had an inconsistent quality and two or three times, a few seconds of film seemed to be missing… either that, or the director was fond of cutting to black for no reason at all for a few seconds too long. (I get the feeling the first explanation is more plausible.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Adventure of the Petrified Prankster

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan served as my introduction to the work of author Stuart Palmer, and more specifically, his series of novels starring schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers. The plot concerns the death of Saul Stafford, half of the screenwriting team of Stafford and Dobie. The duo is well known as the biggest pair of pranksters in Hollywood, and it seems that someone decided enough was enough: Saul Stafford was found in his office with his neck broken. The policeman summoned is all too willing to accept that it was an unfortunate accident.

Luckily, who should move into the office next door that very afternoon but Miss Hildegarde Withers? Originally having planned to spend her vacation in Europe, Miss Withers decided she’d much rather see Hollywood after Europe, in Palmer’s words, exploded. (The book was first published in 1941.) Just her luck, a man named Harry Wagman sees her, recognizes her as a detective, and offers to get her a job as a technical consultant on an upcoming film about Lizzie Borden. Miss Withers spoke to Stafford before the man met his maker, and realized that the man was frightened to death: she blames herself for his death and determines to track his killer down.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Revenge of the Mad Hatter

Brighton, 1882. It is the height of the vacationing season, and Albert Moscorp is the protagonist of the story. While on vacation, he becomes involved with the family of Mrs. Zena Prothero, a beautiful woman married to a doctor who seems ignorant of her attractive qualities. But of course, this is a mystery, and after a bit, murder intervenes to cut someone’s holiday short… It is a grisly murder case, in which only a select few of the limbs are recovered by the police: the victim’s severed hand, as it happens, is found in the aquarium’s alligator cavern…

First off, let’s get my major problem with this book out of the way at once: I hate the character of Albert Moscorp. He is a disturbing and frankly psychotic creation: he spies on the entire beach through his various binoculars and telescopes. When he sees Zena Prothero through the lens, he takes plenty of pains to acquaint himself with the family, justifying it all in the name of science. How does he manage to introduce himself to Mrs. Prothero? Quite simple: he kidnaps their young child when they’re not paying attention only to return it. It is a frankly alarming sequence which had my jaw hanging wide open as I waited to see whether we would enter the domain of pedophilia or not. The voyeuristic delights Moscorp takes are creepy: like Drury Lane, he is an unsuccessful, unlikeable experiment, with eccentricities taken to the maximum. This is the main character, folks… The person I would estimate we waste well over half the book on… Enjoy!

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Borrower of the Night

The opening of The Bride of Newgate is stunning. Dick Darwent is in a dark cell in Newgate Prison, awaiting to be hanged in the morning. Meanwhile, Lady Caroline Ross confers with her lawyer, Elias Crockit, and Sir John Buckstone. According to her grandfather’s will, Caroline is to marry before her 25th birthday, or else she will lose her rights to her grandfather’s fortune. The lady finds the prospect of marriage distasteful, and is bitter at her grandfather for creating such a will:

“Do you recall,” Caroline said dreamily, “any particular phrase in the writing of that will?”
“I have forgotten it.”
“I have not. ‘She’s a stubborn filly, and needs the whip.’ — Let us see!”

Caroline eyes Dick Darwent as the perfect escape— she will marry him, pocket her grandfather’s money, and then watch with joy from her champagne breakfast as Dick Darwent is hanged from the neck until he is dead. Dick has nothing to lose, and is offered 50 pounds, which he intends to leave to his lady-friend, Dolly…

Murder in Retrospect

When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
And inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight skies –
When the footpads quail at the night-bird's wail, and black dogs bay at the moon,
Then is the spectres' holiday – then is the ghosts' high-noon!
— Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, Ruddigore

The best part about John Dickson Carr’s The Ghosts’ High Noon is probably the title. Those words are absolutely brilliant, conjuring up ghostly images appearing in dark shadows, with a full moon in the sky… Unfortunately, the rest of the novel falls short of this brilliance. Which isn’t to say the novel is bad; in fact, it’s rather good stuff. It’s a good effort overall by Carr, but it fails to cash in on the promise of ghostliness the title makes.

The novel takes place in 1912 New Orleans, and Jim Blake is its hero. He is a reporter-turned-author, who wrote a best-selling thriller, The Count of Monte Carlo. He is sent on a special assignment to New Orleans, to come up with an article on Congressional candidate James Clairborne (Clay) Blake. Strange things begin to happen, as Jim is convinced someone is following him in Washington. On the train, someone knocks at a compartment he is occupying, but when he opens the door, nobody is there, and two railway officials on opposite sides of the hallway are willing to swear nobody went by them! Things culminate when Jim’s friend Leo Shepley recklessly drives his car into an abandoned shed: a gunshot rings out inside, and when witnesses rush to the shed, Leo is lying on the floor, a gunshot wound in his head… with no gun anywhere in sight!

Death makes a curtain-call...

It is a peculiar irony that, although I always claim John Dickson Carr is my favourite mystery author of all-time, I have not yet reviewed one of his novels on my blog. When I decided to begin this blog, I just missed the opportunity of writing a post on Carr’s brilliant tour-de-force, Fear is the Same. I don’t want to blaze through what little Carr is left unread by me, which is why of late I’ve spread out my Carr reads. However, I have abstained from Carr far too long by my estimation— I just turned 18 last month, and I decided (as a belated gift to myself) to treat myself to a John Dickson Carr trio. This is the first of these novels: John Dickson Carr’s Panic in Box C.

Lady Tiverton, before she married the late Lord Tiverton, was an actress named Margery Vane. As a young girl of 18, she bewitched the famous ageing actor Adam Cayley, who created a theatre company and determined to perform Romeo and Juliet, with him and his beloved in the main parts, despite his being over 60. He dismissed the doctors’ warnings about his weak heart and subsequently died onstage. The company subsequently failed and eventually disbanded. Margery Vane went on to have a rather successful career before retiring.

A very palpable hit...

Robert Bruce Montgomery, alias Edmund Crispin, was more than just a mystery writer: he was also an influential mystery critic and (under his own name) a prolific composer. I love the story of how he decided to try his hand at mysteries: he read John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge and was so impressed, he decided to try doing something of the sort himself. And thus was born Gervase Fen, Professor of English Literature at Oxford. His name is a reference to Dr. Gideon Fell (they share the same initials) and Fen makes a remark in The Case of the Gilded Fly that establishes Fell as a real person sharing the Crispin universe with Fen. (In Swan Song, Crispin makes similar references to Mrs. Bradley, Sir Henry Merrivale, and Albert Campion.)

Swan Song is the fourth entry in the Gervase Fen series, originally written in 1947. It revolves around the mysterious death of Edwin Shortenhouse by hanging. Shortenhouse was a singer rehearsing for a production of Die Meistersinger, and was universally despised by his fellow cast-members, the musical director, etc. He was despicable, arrogant, and his presence poisoned the atmosphere in the theatre. So nobody really minded when he was found hanging… only the case for suicide doesn’t quite add up, and we’re left with an impossible murder! For the victim was alone in his dressing room, and a witness outside testifies that nobody went in or out...

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Danse Macabre

Ever since John over at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent review of Helen McCloy’s Dance of Death, I’ve been intrigued by McCloy, even buying a handful of her books. At last today, during a very long car ride to and from Seattle, I got the chance to acquaint myself with McCloy and her detective, Dr. Basil Willing by reading Dance of Death, her first foray into the genre.

The set-up is brilliant, as street workers shovelling snow come across the corpse of a young woman. But there’s something unusual about this corpse— for one thing, it’s hot to the touch, even though it’s covered with snow and there’s no other footprints around the area. When the doctor is willing to attribute the cause of death as a heat stroke (in the middle of winter), it seems like this book will be an impossible crime. However, this impression disappears soon enough, as the cause of death is established long before you get an inkling of whodunit and why. The method is diabolically ingenious— I recognized it from some non-fiction reading I did, albeit it has been twisted into murder. It’s interesting to read of a fictional treatment of the subject from a 1930s author.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Quite the Corpse...

When it comes to fitness, I will cheerfully admit that I am far from the picture perfect image of it. In fact, I’m downright overweight. But as it happens, I’m perfectly content with it. I do realize the importance of staying healthy and I do several things to keep from being morbidly obese, like walking to and from the library. However, I cannot understand the obsession so many have with getting slimmer— the French singer Bénabar satirizes this in a song called À notre santé (To our health), where he declares having the perfect body is the new priesthood, mentioning such innovations as dealcoholized beer, decaffeinated coffee, and de-sugared sugar. (Oh, the horror…)

So, when in Alan Green’s What a Body!, fitness nut Merlin Broadstone was murdered in a locked room, I cheered along with the rest of 1948 America, which frankly got tired of the endless stretching, of being told to chew every mouthful of food exactly 30 times, of new exercises involving everything from medicine balls to swimming…

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Mad Hatter Strikes Again!

Somewhere in the early 1930s, Manfred B. Lee and Frederick Dannay (who together wrote under the name Ellery Queen) created a new persona: Barnaby Ross. I recall reading somewhere that they even staged debates in public, with one cousin posing as Ellery Queen and the other being Barnaby Ross. The Ross novels involve retired Shakespearean actor, Drury Lane, who was forced into premature retirement due to deafness.

I had read one Drury Lane novel before: The Tragedy of X. It was an interesting read: the plot was interesting, and Queen actually bothered to explain why someone would bother leaving a dying message, reminiscent of Carr’s locked-room lecture in The Hollow Man. However, I highly disliked the character of Drury Lane. He has an unhealthy obsession for Shakespeare, building a shrine to Shakespeare called The Hamlet. For no apparent reason, he convinces people like his makeup man, Quacey, to move in with him and become his servants. (Quacey’s makeup skills are unparalleled, for instance, but he devotes himself to working for Lane instead of helping in the theatrical world.) Add to that dialogue that he seems to have stolen from Norman Bates, and you have a character that frankly struck me as a psycho in the making.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world

The name Patrick Quentin was a penname for a complex writing team of several people, whose inner workings I really cannot speak of with any sort of authority. I freely admit it: I know nothing whatsoever about the internal workings of this group. In fact, you will get so much more information by reading the GAD Wiki entry on Quentin. My purpose here is to discuss the first Patrick Quentin novel, A Puzzle for Fools.

The main character in A Puzzle for Fools is Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer who hit the bottle a little too hard after the death of his wife in a fire. Eventually, he realised he was throwing his life away and his friends were getting tired of being sorry for him, so he decided to fix his life while he still had the chance. He enrols in a sanatorium run by the very modern Dr. Lenz, who prefers his patients to feel like on some sort of vacation, and not in a sanatorium.