Posts Tagged ‘Mystery-Suspense’

solomons seal hammnd innes 1980Solomons Seal by Hammond Innes ~ 1980. This edition: The Book Club, 1981. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

At one point in my reading life (late teens) I read a fair bit of Hammond Innes, mostly because I had read everything else handy and he was still “there”. I must say that I found his dramatic, testosterone-infused stories acceptable enough, though ultimately easy to re-shelve. This renewal of my acquaintance with Innes reminds me of just how readable-but-not-great he can be.

Please forgive that “astounding breasts” reference in the post header. Coupled with my last post featuring an almost-nude woman on a book cover, you might think I’m reading some pretty risqué stuff these days, but as with Dodie Smith’s allusive-but-not-explicit sex scenes, Hammond Innes avoids most of the details. He does, however, go on at some length about his female character’s physical attributes. Those breasts are mentioned numerous times; the hero describes them as astounding both before and after he has had some hands-on investigation. As a female reader I must say I found this rather off-putting. Hey, dude, what colour are her eyes?

This is merely a digression, though, a side note of personal annoyance regarding what is actually quite an initially promising story of mystery, suspense, and manly derring-do.

Trying to sort out the many plot strands to present them in logical order – more difficult than you’d think, as Innes has obviously decided that more is better in this case – and I am going to refer you to the Kirkus Review of 1980. Whoever penned this summation has neatly separated out the main points. I left the Big Plot Spoiler in, such as it was. See if you can make sense of this:

An improvement over Innes’ recent, dullish adventures – with stamps and sorcery (instead of, as usual, wildlife and armaments) helping to give a lift to at least the first half of the proceedings. Ex-naval officer Roy Slingsby, a temperamental property appraiser for a law firm is sent out to size up the auctionable holdings of the Holland family – and native-looking beauty Perenna Holland (whose twin brother Timothy is supposedly dying of sorcery) shows him the family treasures: carvings and stamps from Papua New Guinea. But before Slingsby can decide how much the stamps are really worth, Perenna disappears…and Slingsby himself quits his job, accepting an offer to relocate to Australia and settle a huge estate down there. Once Down Under, however, the Slingsby/Holland paths will merge again: in Sydney Slingsby meets Jona, a part-native Holland relation who captains an LCT (WW II landing-craft transport), and goes on a cruise with him to Bougainville in the Solomons, working as a navigator for his fare. Re-enter Perenna, of course, who is soon Slingsby’s shipboard bedmate – and the lovers then discover that Jona is delivering a cache of arms to rebels in Bougainville (where the Holland family has a long history). They all become involved in this insurrection (which fails) – and, while in the ancestral area, they uncover family secrets. Above all: grandfather Holland fathered Perenna on his own daughter-in-law – which is partly responsible for the family curse…The stamp stuff is fine, the rest is familiar and foolish but reasonably atmospheric – and none of it is as soporific as The Big Footprints or other Innes super-duds…

Do I detect more than a whiff of damning with faint praise in those first and last lines? If so, I must agree. This was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, and I notice that the Kirkus reviewer left out the cargo cult stuff, which Innes tosses in to justify the mindless actions of his “indigene” characters – the “fuzzy haired” (which epithet occurs as often as the breast reference, and is as equally irritating – did the man not have access to a thesaurus?) natives of Australia, Papaua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands who, in a mostly amorphous mob, get to play the crowd scenes during the bizarre and hardly believable “political insurrection” bits.

Here’s another excerpt from a contemporary review, this one more openly annoyed.

Anatole Broyard, writing in the December 12, 1980 issue of The New York Times, has this to say:

Everyone, even V.S. Pritchett, praises Hammond Innes. But I wonder what they will say about Solomons Seal. It did not work for me, but then perhaps I have the wrong attitude in reading suspense novels. Since they are supposed to be entertainments, I refuse to work very hard in reading them. I tend instead to sit back and wait for the book to come to me, to manipulate me as a skillful masseur might… Mr. Innes’s ambitions, apparently, are of a higher order. Solomons Seal is a heavy stew of voodoo death, cargo cult, family curses, philately and South Pacific politics – plus a dash of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a soupçon of The Ancient Mariner… Much of the action occurs off stage, and we are given huge chunks of plot in summary. I think it was novels like Solomons Seal that inspired Edmund Wilson’s famous attack on the detective story, in which he said that reading them was like looking for a rusty nail in a crate of straw…

Well, this isn’t much of a review so far, dear readers, being mostly a presentation of other people’s words with me fervently nodding in agreement off in the wings.

I liked the set-up, and greatly enjoyed the details of the stamp collecting sub-world, as well as the introspective passages during the at-sea times, as multi-talented Slingsby contemplates the ocean during his solitary time on the bridge of the sturdy but wallowing Landing Craft Transport he finds himself piloting. There was also a short but good description of open pit copper mining which I greatly appreciated for its verisimilitude, for my husband works in just such a mine here in the interior of B.C. and Innes has obviously paid close attention during his research visit to a similar late 1970s mine site. He even references the many Canadians working in the mine, which I appreciated as evidence of the author’s keen eye for scene-setting detail. (Innes famously travelled for six months of every year, examining story settings and taking notes, then spent the next six months writing up his latest adventure tale. He also had a soft spot for Canada, and was warmly appreciative of the Canadians he met on his research journeys here, as portrayed in his autobiography, Harvest of Journeys, which I think I must really re-read some time soon, since he’s back on my radar.)

Where Innes lost me (setting aside the trying-to-be-sexy bits and the pervasive offhand racism) was in his failure to bring all of the story strands together in an interesting and understandable way. There is a Great Big Secret, which men are prepared to kill (and to die) for – this turns out to be some sort of muddly your-father-betrayed-my-father-therefore-I-don’t-like-you-very-much-and-oh-yeah-if-I-can-I’ll-do-you-down melodrama. The lone female character turns out to have a slightly complicated ancestry (see the Kirkus excerpt), but I was never quite clear on why that really mattered. There is a convenient maybe-suicide of the conflicted primary bad guy, who is really a mix of admirable initiative and evil genius – our hero admires him as much as fears and hates him. The two “native sorcerers” at the heart of the mostly-off-stage insurrection have a weird mental showdown; one mysteriously wins and the other “wills himself to die.” The few stray bodies (all of expendable bit players) are apparently easily disposed of with no apparent qualms or consequences – “These country bumpkin black fellas are continually bumping each other off, no need to interfere” seems to be the attitude of both the local and post-colonial management level and police types. The cargo cult and voodoo elements are continually mentioned but never really detailed, almost as if Innes expects his readers to be completely au fait with this sort of arcane knowledge and able to figure out these references by themselves.

As a plus point, the book title is a neat triple entendre, as the stamps which start the story-ball rolling are actually shipping company business seals versus true postage stamps, and they are embellished with an actual seal-on-an-ice-floe picture cribbed from a Newfoundland postage stamp design, and much of the action concerns the Solomon Islands.

This wasn’t a painful read, but it wasn’t great, either. It was, in fact, resoundingly okay-ish.

I’m eyeing the other Hammond Innes books tucked away on the “B-List” cabin bookshelves with mild surmise; we are about to head out on a longish road/camping trip and much not-too-hard-going reading matter will be required. Solomons Seal was needlessly convoluted, but some of Innes’ earlier works were much more linear in construction, if memory serves. Perhaps I should take along The Wreck of the Mary Deare (ghost ship!), or The Doomed Oasis (Arab chieftans and oil!), or The Land God Gave to Cain (murder and meanderings in desolate Labrador!) Or maybe the autobiographical Harvest of Journeys, which I remember from a long-ago read as being a very good memoir, with the bonus element of being eligible for inclusion on my Canadian book list, as it is much concerned with Innes’ travels in Canada.

Keep an eye on this space, and in the meantime, consider that you’ve been given the heads-up on how well (or not well) Hammond Innes travels through time from his heyday as a bestselling “blue collar” action-suspense writer.

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Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.

 

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the eyes around me gavin black 001The Eyes Around Me by Gavin Black ~ 1964. This edition: Harper & Row, 1964. Hardcover. 216 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Okay, why have I never come across this writer before? This murder mystery novel set in Red-era Hong Kong was pretty darned fabulous. Instant fan, I am. Now I must track down more…

From his obituary notice in The Independent, August 6, 1998:

Oswald Wynd was a modest man who had little to be modest about. As Gavin Black he wrote superior and literate thrillers – school of Stevenson and Buchan – which were at the same time witty and clever, and moved at a by no means gentlemanly pace…

A “superior and literate thriller” describes this fast-paced novel exceedingly well.

Middle-aged, recently divorced, lush living Scottish shortbread heiress Ella Bain lives in Hong Kong, in a lavish seaside mansion. An outside staircase to her bedroom allows her to receive gentleman callers without offending the sensibilities of old family retainer Kirsty, and by all reports it is a well-used piece of domestic architecture.

Ella is loud, she drinks too much, and though she has proven herself an astute businesswoman, enlarging her already substantial fortune by her occasional managerial visits back to the family factory in Scotland, she occasionally raises eyebrows by her larger than life actions. Long-time platonic friend Paul Harris views Ella with sometimes-exasperated affection; he has turned down her marriage proposal, but remains in Ella’s will as her chief beneficiary, cutting out Ella’s only brother Angus, who enjoys a fortune of his own.

So when Ella is found dead in her bed on New Year’s Day morning by Paul, who squired Ella about town the night before and stayed over at her house, both the police and the intimately entwined Hong Kong society crowd look at Paul with more than a little speculation.

Paul Harris, wealthy in his own right through a series of past speculations and questionably legal activities which I shan’t reveal to you here, resents the assumption that he murdered his friend, and sets out on a quest to clear his name.

This is a vividly atmospheric mystery novel, with a finely detailed setting and memorable (if occasionally rather unlikely) characters. One forgives the over-the-topness because the thing is so gloriously well written for this type of light fiction; Oswald Wynd/Gavin Black spins an exceedingly readable tale.

Paul Harris comes across as a greatly  improved version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Paul is suave, fast on his feet, good in a fight, exceedingly attractive and attracted to gorgeous women, and (one feels) truly a good guy at heart, despite his somewhat shady backstory. The arrogance which emanates from his fictional counterpart Bond is completely missing; one likes Paul Harris, despite our doubt that he is now a purely lily-white boy, gone all straight and narrow.

I guessed the murderer with surprising ease; I foretold the romantic clinch at the end; as a mystery the thing is decidedly clichéd and predictable, but despite these drawbacks I greatly liked this book.

The author wrote a rather respectable number of novels and thrillers, most set in Asia. I am keen to follow up on my introduction to Paul Harris, who apparently features in all of the Gavin Black-authored thrillers; the Oswald Wynd novels sound intriguing, too, if perhaps a bit “deeper” in theme.

1977’s The Ginger Tree was made into a well-received Masterpiece Theatre 4-part miniseries, and Wynd’s depiction of cross-cultural and mixed race relationships is spoken of very highly in reviews.

For future investigation:

As Oswald Wynd:

  • Black Fountains (1947) (1st novel, winner of $20,000 Doubleday prize for fiction)
  • Red Sun South (1948)
  • Friend of the Family (1949)
  • The Stubborn Flower (1949)
  • When Ape is King (1949) (Wynd’s lone speculative fiction, very rare )
  • The Gentle Pirate (1951)
  • Stars in the Heather (1956)
  • Moon of the Tiger (1958)
  • Summer Can’t Last (1960)
  • Death, the Red Flower (1965)
  • Walk Softly, Men Praying (1967)
  • Sumatra Seven Zero (1968)
  • The Hawser Pirates (1970)
  • The Forty Days (1972)
  • The Ginger Tree (1977)

As Gavin Black:

  • Suddenly at Singapore (1961)
  • The Devil Came on Sunday (1961)
  • Dead Man Calling (1962)
  • A Walk in the Long Dark Night (1962)
  • A Dragon for Christmas (1963)
  • The Eyes around Me (1964)
  • You Want to Die, Johnny? (1966)
  • A Wind of Death (1967)
  • The Cold Jungle (1969)
  • A Time for Pirates (1971)
  • The Bitter Tea (1972)
  • The Golden Cockatrice (1974)
  • A Big Wind for Summer (aka Gale Force) (1975)
  • A Moon for Killers (aka Killer Moon) (1976)
  • Night Run from Java (1979)
  • The Blazing Air (1981)
  • The Fatal Shadow (1983)
  • A Path for Serpents (1991)

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lady molly of scotland yard baroness orczyLady Molly of Scotland Yard by The Baroness Orczy ~ 1910. This edition: Facsimile of the 1912 edition, The Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-97-1. 344 pages.

My rating: Hmmm. Though doubtless a good example of period fiction and an early precursor to the detective-story genre which so abundantly flourished in the decades after Lady Molly’s publication, for actual reading experience the book was not quite as fabulous as I had hoped.

A perhaps overly generous 5/10 is all I can bring myself to award it right now, though it is the sort of thing one might well become fond of on a re-read for reasons quite unrelated to literary (or detective puzzle) merit. (Or then again, maybe not!)

We meet Lady Molly, in The Ninescore Mystery, first chapter of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, courtesy Project Gutenberg:

Well, you know, some say she is the daughter of a duke, others that she was born in the gutter, and that the handle has been soldered on to her name in order to give her style and influence.

I could say a lot, of course, but “my lips are sealed,” as the poets say. All through her successful career at the Yard she honoured me with her friendship and confidence, but when she took me in partnership, as it were, she made me promise that I would never breathe a word of her private life, and this I swore on my Bible oath–“wish I may die,” and all the rest of it.

Yes, we always called her “my lady,” from the moment that she was put at the head of our section; and the chief called her “Lady Molly” in our presence. We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don’t tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we shouldn’t have half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation.

Do you suppose for a moment, for instance, that the truth about that extraordinary case at Ninescore would ever have come to light if the men alone had had the handling of it? Would any man have taken so bold a risk as Lady Molly did when–But I am anticipating.

Let me go back to that memorable morning when she came into my room in a wild state of agitation.

“The chief says I may go down to Ninescore if I like, Mary,” she said in a voice all a-quiver with excitement.

“You!” I ejaculated. “What for?”

“What for–what for?” she repeated eagerly. “Mary, don’t you understand? It is the chance I have been waiting for–the chance of a lifetime? They are all desperate about the case up at the Yard; the public is furious, and columns of sarcastic letters appear in the daily press. None of our men know what to do; they are at their wits’ end, and so this morning I went to the chief–”

“Yes?” I queried eagerly, for she had suddenly ceased speaking.

“Well, never mind now how I did it–I will tell you all about it on the way, for we have just got time to catch the 11 a.m. down to Canterbury. The chief says I may go, and that I may take whom I like with me. He suggested one of the men, but somehow I feel that this is woman’s work, and I’d rather have you, Mary, than anyone. We will go over the preliminaries of the case together in the train, as I don’t suppose that you have got them at your fingers’ ends yet, and you have only just got time to put a few things together and meet me at Charing Cross booking-office in time for that 11.0 sharp.”

She was off before I could ask her any more questions, and anyhow I was too flabbergasted to say much. A murder case in the hands of the Female Department! Such a thing had been unheard of until now. But I was all excitement, too, and you may be sure I was at the station in good time.

Holmes to Lady Molly’s Watson (the comparison is inevitable and apt) is our narrator Mary, who started out as Lady Molly’s maid in the days-gone-by continually referred to with much innuendo and mysterious “But I mustn’t talk about that!”

Now Mary and Lady Molly are members of the female division of Scotland Yard’s investigative force, though Mary still seems to be fulfilling many of her old duties in regard to her mistress, as well as some new ones. Messy and boring (and possibly dangerous) investigation to be done – well, let’s send Mary! Though to be fair Lady Molly puts herself in discomfort occasionally. (Very occasionally.) Most of her detecting seems to be done Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe style, from the comfort of an armchair while exercising her own Great Big Brain.

My biggest beef: the class distinctions so blatantly demonstrated throughout. Lady Molly is exceedingly high handed with her inferiors (that would be just about everyone she meets, works with and “investigates”) and meek Mary obviously feels that this is just the way it should be. And Lady Molly never explains; she merely orders, and her “partners” (usually Mary, but on occasion fawning members of The Force) scuttle off, sure in their belief that Lady Molly’s womanly (and aristocratic) intuition will bring a solution to the problem of the moment.

There is also a secret reason Lady Molly took up her profession at Scotland Yard; the big reveal happens in the last chapter, with Mary at last spilling all the beans she was forbidden to display previously.

Well, this allows me to tick off 1910 in the Century of Books, and also to satisfy my curiosity as to what Lady Molly was all about; I’ve occasionally seen her referenced in discussions of Golden Age women’s detective fiction; I need wonder no more.

Tasha Brandstatter’s Review echoes my feelings.

As does Stewartry – grand review.

The Wikipedia entry discusses the plot of the first few chapters in vivid, spoiler-laden detail.

And here’s the whole thing on Project Gutenberg.

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I need to get some of this towering stack of books-to-be-discussed thinned out; my desk is way too crowded; no place to park the teacup! (And my spouse, coming in last night to “borrow” the computer, made comment on the situation and then graciously offered to shelve them for me – which though a sweet gesture is not necessarily a good thing, as he puts things in strange places. Our filing systems differ. 😉 )Time for a few round-up posts, I think.

Where to start? How to group these? Let’s see…

How about this trio of not necessarily bad books, but ones which could have been better. Definitely readable, but not top notch. (My personal responses only, dependent entirely on my mood at the reading moment – yours could be so much different, so please forgive me if I cold-shoulder one of your favourites.)

station wagon in spain frances parkinson keyesStation Wagon in Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes ~ 1959. This edition: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve occasionally flirted with Keyes, because her books have such potentially interesting premises, but I invariably come away sighing. And sadly this concoction is no exception. The very best thing about it was the nine-page author’s foreword, in which she relates her own experiences travelling with her friend Kitty in immediately post-war Italy, France and Spain in 1946, with a rickety American station wagon loaded with relief supplies for an evacuated convent of Bendictine nuns.

Utterly fascinating – “Tell me more!” was my response – but no, Keyes blithely dismisses her own experiences and instead embarks on this rather creatively imagined fictional tale, which starts off reasonably well but soon bogs down in a morass of excessive detail and complicated plotting.

In brief(ish):

A young university professor unexpectedly inherits a large fortune, and, while mulling over his sudden change in situation and his deeply elemental boredom with his life to this point, receives a version of the infamous “Spanish Prisoner” letter in the mail. This one is purportedly from a real Spanish prisoner, and – how handy! – Lambert just happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker himself. Knowing full well that the letter is a scam, he feels that a diversion is in order, so he takes a sabbatical year from his teaching job, packs up his newly purchased big red convertible station wagon, says a dismissive good-bye to the young woman who has been scheming (well beknownst to Lambert) to marry him, and heads off to Spain.

The plot thickens, as Lambert immediately falls in with a luscious adventuress and carries on an intense shipboard flirtation. “Coincidences” start to fall together thick and fast. There does, to Lambert’s great glee, appear to be a genuine prisoner of sorts associated with the fabricated scenario – an impoverished Duke incarcerated in a private sanatorium. Who happens to have a lovely, virginal daughter who could not possibly be involved in any nefarious dealings…

The whole thing is rather bogged down in too much detail. There are long pages of explanation on all sorts of side-issues, as if the author is dead keen on the education of her readers as much as on their entertainment. The plottings of the wicked conspirators get rather see-through and slightly ridiculous early on, and the inevitable romance is just too predictable to be satisfying. (A pox on “love at first sight”, I emphatically say. At least in this situation.)

Moments of excellence; chapters of blah blah blah. Rated at 5/10 because I did willingly carry through to the end, despite my ever-increasing feelings of annoyance that the author would make such a messy job of such a promising plot, and turn her quite likeable protagonist into a bit of a blustering egoist. Points off, too, for the sweetly yielding female love interest (the new one in Spain, not the abandoned American, though she also pops up in Europe to add some more kinks to the tale) and the “unspoken communion of two passionate souls.” Ick!

neither five nor three helen macinnes paperback fawcettNeither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes ~ 1951. This edition: Fawcett Crest, circa late 1960s. Paperback. 320 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Set in post-World War II New York.

I found myself rather taken aback by this story. While many of Helen MacInnes’ books demonstrate her strong stance on capital-C Communism (it’s 100% bad) this one takes that fixation to a whole new level. Instead of clean-cut English/American heroes and heroines flitting about the shadows of war-torn European cities, it’s all about the insidious influence of underground Commies on the home front (in this case America) after World War II, and it comes across as being deeply paranoid, viewed from half a century in the future.

The love story is utterly predicable and really rather sweet; the two lovers are likeable enough and I found myself in general wishing them well; but the anti-Red plotline pushed me past my comfort level into the “Really? Really?” territory. Even taking era-appropriateness into account. So black; so white. Shades of grey are evidence of weakness, on both sides.

MacInnes’ Commies are supremely well organized; they have infiltrated the American publishing industry and are placing their pawns very cleverly in order to slant the perceptions of readers in favour of the political left. Head honchos from the main office (as it were) in Europe undertake clandestine inspirational (and disciplinary) visits to American “party cells”; new recruits are jollied along until they are too deeply enmeshed to easily escape; then the gloves come off and any attempt to back away from participation or to “inform” is punishable by carefully engineered public disgrace, or, just possibly, sudden death. (Cue foreboding music…)

Definitely a Cold War period piece, which was received with warm approval by readers and reviewers of its time.

Excerpted from the March, 1951 Kirkus Review:

This is the most important book Helen MacInnes has done … absorbing and challenging from first page to last, as the devious methods of Communist penetration into the fields of public relations are revealed, and the terrifying network of Communist affiliation is convincingly recorded. Rona Metford is engaged to Scott Ettley, a journalist whose loyalties are torn between his mounting commitment to “the party” and his yearning for a normal course of love and marriage. Into this situation comes Paul Haydn, just returned to New York from a very hush-hush assignment in Europe and finding that his love for Rona, which he thought was a thing of the past, is still very much alive. The checkered course of love is traced against the background of gradually unfolding ramifications of the violence and falsity of Communist activities in the heart of the world they think they know…

I personally found the political bits verging on hysteria, and while there was an occasional authorial attempt made to balance the viewpoints by pondering why Clean Young Americans might be seduced to the Red Side, once they went too far they were brutally written off and became completely expendable, in the most ultimate way.

A precursor to MacInnes’ more “traditional” (i.e., European-set and action-packed) espionage stories which were to follow, blending an ideological plotline with a stereotypical together/torn asunder/together again romantic tale, with vaguely unsatisfying results.

my heart shall not fear josephine lawrenceMy Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ 1949. This edition: Peoples Book Club, 1950. Hardcover. 285 pages.

 
My rating: 5/10

Now on to this much more obscure book, also set, as is Neither Five Nor Three, in immediately post World War II America.

Touted as “inspirational” and a “wholesome depiction of family life” in its back-cover promotional blurbs, this earnest novel left me unsatisfied and vaguely uneasy, mostly because of its troubling (to a reader of today) depiction of women’s societal roles in its era.

If I could pin down one thing which bothered me the most, it would be the author’s apparent insistence that female martyrdom is by and large a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a modest manner. The woman who takes a hit for her family, quietly and uncomplainingly, is to be greatly admired. To be fair, this also applies in a lesser degree to men, but is more strongly expected of the “weaker” sex, the men not being subjected to such ironclad standards of societal behaviour.

There is an ambitious cast of characters, including an older couple who sacrifice their much-deserved peaceful retirement to share their home with three not-long-married sons recently discharged from the armed forces, a young married woman who has recently had a baby and who is eager to leave the hospital and settle into a new apartment (which she can’t really afford, seeing that her husband has borrowed a vast sum of money in order to bail out his own ne’er-do-well father), another new mother who is not married and who resists the good-intentioned bullying of a social aid worker to give her child up for adoption, and a young childless woman who is obviously dying of an unspecified ailment – most likely cancer – but is surrounded by a cloud of silence as no one in her circle dares to put into words the obvious, as well as numerous others.

One of the odder and most troubling scenarios is that of one of the young couples separating. The husband has decided that he has tied himself down to his childhood sweetheart mistakenly, and he announces that he is leaving to “enjoy his freedom” while he is still young. The heartbroken wife refuses to argue or present herself as unfairly forsaken, gives her departing spouse the car that she has worked for and purchased with her own money, and even runs out to purchase new underclothes for her deserter as a gesture of undying wifely devotion.

The husband sneaks into the house to pack when his wife is out, and scorns his mother’s pleas to reconsider his actions. (This is one of the couples living with the elderly parents.) The young wife is left dependent for a home upon her in-laws, who are deeply shamed by their son’s behaviour. The deserted wife, by meekly accepting her bleak fate, is gently pitied and openly admired by the other characters for her forbearance. She herself quietly says that she hopes her man will eventually return. All I could think was, “Hey, sister, take back those car keys and tell that lout you married in good faith to find his own transport to ‘finding himself.’ And don’t you dare be here waiting for him when and if he crawls back home!”

Josephine Lawrence was a highly prolific writer of both children’s books (100-ish)  and adult novels (30+) who was well known and dependably popular in her time. Born in 1889, her work was published from the 1920s through the 1960s. She no doubt struck a chord with woman readers looking for a fictional validation of their own sometimes difficult lives, but if this novel is typical, her work is tremendously dated. Josephine Lawrence seems to be almost forgotten today.

I did enjoy the period detail in this story, and the ease with which the author kept her multiple strands interweaving without tangling. I disliked the pedestrian aspects of her style – it is very workaday prose – and the droning overtone of “womanly nobility is achieved through silent suffering/womanly strength is measured by her fortitude in the face of adversity.” I suppose there is some general merit to this idea as broadly applied to both sexes, but in this case I found it something of a downer when applied so strongly to my particular gender.

I’d gladly read another of Lawrence’s books if it came to me easily, but she is not a writer I will be deliberately seeking out.

A sampling of readers' comments.

A sampling of readers’ comments, My Heart Shall Not Fear.

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the gabriel hounds coronet mary stewartThe Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart ~ 1967. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-04353-9. 256 pages.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was utterly over-the-top, and if it had been written by anyone lesser (say Phyllis A. Whitney) I would have savagely panned it. But I’ve now embraced this author fully, and therefore completely forgave her the bizarre plot and the very weird and unlikely “drugging” scenes. (And the slightly ick-inducing cousinly love.)

Drum roll, please (or you may substitute the snarl of an accelerating Porsche engine here) …

My rating: 9.5/10

Loved it.

Okay, this isn’t even going to be a “proper” review, because I want you to come to it with no idea of where the plot would go, like I did. I will instead throw out these teasers. This story contains:

  • A lovely, unapologetically wealthy, 22-year-old sophisticated world traveller as the heroine.
  • An eccentric old lady who has completely channeled Lady Hester Stanhope and has created her own legend in a decaying Lebanese castle.
  • A ne’er-do-well young Englishman, handsome and intelligent but fatally weak-willed, who has gotten into a situation very much over his head; perks being the privilege of enjoying the favours of a dusky local maiden and galloping about the countryside on a beautiful Arab horse, accompanied by two gorgeous saluki hounds.
  • A scene in which the heroine unwittingly (???) smokes three “marihuana” cigarettes and only succumbs to their “self-will erasing effect” until the end of the third one, after which she is unable to walk and is carried away giggling.
  • A dastardly villain who eventually confesses absolutely EVERYTHING in a long, rambling monologue.
  • A handsome young man who can scale steep cliffs (and crumbling castle walls) without benefit of climbing gear, and who (bonus feature!) drives a white Porsche 911 S with utter aplomb and finesse.
  • Oh, and a fabulously unique and valuable ruby ring, which no one of the evil-doers seems to be able to recognize for what it is. (Among other priceless heirlooms which they casually dismiss and bundle away as “junk”. Hmmm, not quite as sophisticated as all that, then, these out-for-the-main-chance types.)

There. How can one resist all of that? And there’s more. Oh yes, much, much more!

Enjoy!

Couldn't find a white Porsche 911 S, but here's a 1966 in an elegant shade of sand, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How'd you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

Couldn’t find a white 1966 Porsche 911 S, but here’s one in an elegant shade of cream, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How’d you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

 

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death on milestone buttress glyn carr 001Death on Milestone Buttress by Glyn Carr ~ 1951. This edition: The Crime Club, 1951. Paperback. 256 pages.

Provenance: Quesnel Family Thrift Store, October 2013. Previous book owner: Rebecca Lund, who enthusiastically rubber-stamped her name and address on all of her books, in numerous places. I know this because I have acquired a large number of them over the past few years; we obviously share a similar taste in books.

Or perhaps shared is more correct; I strongly suspect that Ms. Lund has passed on and that her books were subsequently donated to the thrift store; there do seem to be an awful lot of them, and they do look like they were carefully collected over a number of years by a dedicated reader. (Note to self: write codicil in will regarding which favourite second hand bookseller shall be the recipient of my own collection…)

My rating: 4.95/10 – I can’t quite put this at a 5 on my personal “enjoyment level” rating scale, and while it’s a very much okay specimen of its genre it’s not quite special enough to inspire me to seek out any more by this author.

Though perhaps I dismiss Glyn Carr too soon; he did go on to write fourteen more mysteries starring his stately, erudite and multi-talented Shakespearian actor/mountaineer amateur detective, Abercrombie Lewker.

Here’s the rundown on the plot, courtesy Rue Morgue Press, which has recently republished this vintage mystery, among many others. Check out their website – what a treasure trove of information on the genre! Rue Morgue Press republishes obscurish vintage mystery novels, and also deals in used copies of rare and out-of-print detective fiction.

Abercrombie (“Filthy”) Lewker was looking forward to a fortnight of climbing in Wales after a grueling season touring England with his Shakespearean company. Young Hilary Bourne thought the fresh air would be a pleasant change from her dreary job at the bank, as well as a chance to renew her acquaintance with a certain young scientist. Neither one expected this bucolic outing to turn deadly, but when one of their party is killed in an apparent accident during what should have been an easy climb on the Milestone Buttress, Filthy and Hilary turn detective. Nearly every member of the climbing party had reason to hate the victim, but each one also had an alibi for the time of the murder. Working as a team, Filthy and Hilary retrace the route of the fatal climb before returning to their lodgings where, in the grand tradition of Nero Wolfe, Filthy confronts the suspects and points his finger at the only person who could have committed the crime. Filled with climbing details sure to appeal to both expert climbers and armchair mountaineers alike, Death on Milestone Buttress was published in England in 1951, the first of fifteen detective novels in which Abercrombie Lewker outwitted murderers on peaks scattered around the globe.

And while we’re over cribbing info from the Rue Morgue Press site, here’s a snippet of their Glyn Carr Author Biography. (Much expanded on the site – please click through to read the rest.)

If you look upon a mountain climb as taking place in a large, open-air locked room, then Showell Styles was right to choose Glyn Carr as his pseudonym for fifteen detective novels featuring Abercrombie Lewker, all of which concern murders committed among the crags and slopes of peaks scattered around the world. There’s no doubt that John Dickson Carr, the king of the locked room mystery, would have agreed that Styles managed to find a way to lock the door of a room that had no walls and only the sky for a ceiling. In fact, it was while Styles was climbing a pitch on the classic Milestone Buttress on Tryfan in Wales that it struck him “how easy it would be to arrange an undetectable murder in that place, and by way of experiment I worked out the system and wove a thinnish plot around it.”

That book was, of course, Death on Milestone Buttress

So – what am I going to say about this fairly standard issue mystery tale? Perhaps I’ll just note some likes and dislikes, and leave it at that.

I liked:

  • The characterizations of both of the leading characters, Shakespearian actor Abercrombie Lewker and bank “calculating machine operator” Hilary Bourne. Both are nicely presented and sympathetically portrayed, though as the book progresses it is Hilary who stays much more real, while Lewker becomes a parody of the Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe type of detective, easily analyzing esoteric information with his great big superior brain, as it were. Though he is much more active physically than both of his fictional counterparts, being an accomplished amateur climber despite his less than boyish figure.
  • The mountaineering details and the descriptions of the Welsh setting, which seemed sincere and plausible.
  • The parody-like period setting, with the several sincere Communists being viewed by their acquaintances as slightly eccentric, mostly harmless, and generally rather figures of fun. The scientists who also play main roles (one is eventually the murderee) are of course working on a Great Big (not very secret) Secret Project, which when completed will apparently be The Weapon To Beat The Atomic Bomb. Quite ridiculous, the whole thing, and it rather felt like that was intentional. In any event, that’s how I viewed it, and it helped me make it through even when I found the complications of the plot rather uphill going.

I disliked:

  • The grotesque attempts at slang and dialect which were completely incomprehensible and too over-the-top, even given that the speakers of the garbled dialogue were generally meant to be figures of fun.
  • The predictability of the plot. I guessed the murderer very early on, and the red herrings provided were small and not particularly enticing.
  • The absolute unlikableness of the murderee. He had no redeeming traits whatsoever, except for his intellectual abilities as a scientist. No one cries when he dies. (Not for his loss, anyway. Though there are tears because of the multiple situations created by his death.) Created by the writer to be blithely killed off, one rather feels.
  • The love affair between Hilary and one of her fellow vacationers – absolutely meh.
  • The whole “smarter than the police” thing. Lewker takes on the mantle of Nemesis without official sanction, and all of the other players meekly fall into order without a whisper of protest. Including the murderer, who then goes on to an über-predictable end, with detective story justice thus being served with no boring paperwork to fill out or tedious trials to sit through

And that is all I have to say about Death on Milestone Buttress. Here is a rather more even-handed discussion on the Dust and Corruption blog, worth taking a look at.

Oh – there was one more thing. Check out the back cover of my paperback, which features yet more rocks, these with gold and platinum settings. How’s this for period appeal? Check out the ad copy, and those prices!

death on milestone buttress glyn carr back cover advert 001

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