Saturday, July 26, 2014

Death Has a Past: Anita Boutell

Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offences (classic crime reviews and news) has challenged readers to blog about a book or movie from 1939 during the month of July. This review of Death Has a Past is my second submission to the 1939 book challenge.

This very fitting quote from a poem titled Love's Grave by George Meredith is on the title page:
In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betray'd by what is false within.
Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell is the gradually unfolding story of five women who are in effect subjugated by Claudia Hetherton, who has inherited all the wealth of the Hetherton family. Each woman either needs money that only Claudia can supply, or depends on her good will for her future happiness, or both. 

Claudia has invited them all to her home for a "women only" week, following on the tradition of her mother-in-law, Emily Hetherton. The week has been traditionally called "Emily's Week," and they go along with the tradition for one last year.

The story is bookended by two brief conversations between the story teller and a young friend. The conversations set up the outline of the story and further explain its resolution. Preceding each section, there is a fragment of a confession to a murder, so that the reader knows that someone has died, maybe Claudia, maybe another one of these women. Each piece of the story provides a hint of who could be so desperate or so hurt to be driven to commit murder. There is a twist at the end and I did not expect it.

The story is mostly limited to the six women taking part in Emily's Week; there are servants present on Claudia's estate, and two males make brief appearance. Even so the relationships and the stories of the lives of the six women gets complex. My copy included a family tree, which I referred to often. The story is clearly set (and written) in the late 1930's at a time when women could be beholden to others for their livelihood and survival. Yet at times I forgot that and was sometimes surprised by evidence that the story was written that long ago. 

This description of Claudia, as she begins to unravel, is chilling:
     Claudia sat squarely in the big winged chair than had been old Emily's. She had taken now as her right, and in tacit recognition, the others left always vacant for her use. She sat rigidly upright, her angular shoulders held stiffly from any contact of the back or sides.
     Pippa thought: She sits on it as though it were a throne.
     For an instant, the thought crossed her mind that her aunt was not quite sane. Wasn't this desire to dominate, this overbearing possessiveness of hers, just a little mad?
The author, Anita Boutell, is entirely new to me. I discovered the existence of this book at Clothes in Books, and Moira in turn had seen a review at Martin Edward's blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? I have looked and looked and found only snippets here and there about this author. One interesting fact about the original hardcover edition (not the copy I have) is that the dustjacket art was by Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham.

She published these mysteries:

My copy of this book is a hardcover edition published by Books, Inc. in 1944. Unfamiliar with this publisher and curious about why there would be a new hardcover edition five years after the original publication, I did some research. I found an article about a series of mystery reprints called Midnite Mysteries at Mystery*File. The back cover featured on that page is very similar to the one on my copy of this book.


Publisher: Books, Inc., 1944 (orig. pub. Michael Joseph: London, 1939)
Length:     245 pages
Format:     hardcover
Series:      n/a
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Crow Trap: Ann Cleeves

An excerpt from the summary at the author's web site:
At the isolated Baikie's Cottage on the North Pennines, three very different women come together to complete an environmental survey. Three women who, in some way or another, know the meaning of betrayal...
For team leader Rachael Lambert the project is the perfect opportunity to rebuild her confidence after a double-betrayal by her lover and boss, Peter Kemp. Botanist Anne Preece, on the other hand, sees it as a chance to indulge in a little deception of her own. And then there is Grace Fulwell, a strange, uncommunicative young woman with plenty of her own secrets to hide...
Towards the beginning of this book, there is a suicide. The reader wonders if it will, in fact, turn out to be a murder. About a third of the way into the book, there is a second death, which is clearly murder.

For the most part, this book is told from the point of view of four women. Each has a section devoted to her, and in those sections the reader is only told what that woman knows and experiences. As each woman's turn comes up, we learn facts and background that reveal more about events that were first described earlier. I enjoy books told in unusual formats. Because this one moves from one woman to the next, it is not confusing but adds layers of understanding.

The first three women are Rachel, Anne, and Grace. Rachel and Anne have known each other and worked together; Grace is new to the group, and does not fit in. Not that any of them are best friends and confidantes. The fourth woman is Vera Stanhope, the Detective Inspector who is investigating the second death.

Vera is a large, unattactive woman, unconcerned with looks or fashion. She commands respect, and she is very outspoken. In this interview, Ann Cleeves describes the type of women that Vera was modelled on:
I was born in the mid-fifties and grew up knowing some formidable spinsters – women who’d either lost men during the war, or who had become so independent that they couldn’t settle to conventional marriage. They were teachers or matrons or librarians and they didn’t feel the need to dress smartly or wear make-up to prove they were up to the job. Vera was modelled on those women.
This is a very long book: 552 pages. I was eager to read this series, but had I known the first book was such a chunkster, I would have had second thoughts. However, once I got into the book, the length did not deter me at all. I loved the way the story is told, and the development of the characters. The plot was convoluted but realistic. The setting, in Northumberland, is also well done and important to the story.

Anne Cleeves has stated that The Crow Trap was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel. Then she liked the character of Vera so much that she wanted to write more about her. Based on that, I wonder if later books in the series will have such an unusual structure, and I look forward to finding out.

The Vera Stanhope series has been made into a successful TV series in the UK, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera. There have been four seasons and a fifth is in preparation. The first three books were adapted in the first season, and a fourth was adapted in a later season. The other episodes are original stories. I have not seen any of this TV series; I will probably give it a try after I have read a couple more of the books.


Publisher:  Pan, 2010 (original publisher Macmillan, 1999)
Length:    552 pages
Format:   Trade Paperback
Series:    Vera Stanhope
Setting:   North Pennines, Northumberland, England
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

7th annual Canadian Book Challenge: Summary post

This year I participated in the 7th annual Canadian Book Challenge. This is an online reading challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set: the Book Blog with a Canadian Bias. Participants from Canada and around the world aim to read and review 13 or more Canadian books in a one year span: July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. A Canadian book is a book written by a Canadian author or set in Canada.

This was my 2nd year participating in the challenge. I read only 10 books for the challenge this year, but I was happy with that accomplishment.

I read these books for the challenge this year:

Unholy Ground by John Brady
The author was born in Dublin but immigrated to Canada at the age of 20. The first book in the series won the Arthur Ellis award for Best First Novel. The next four books in the series were all finalists for the Arthur Ellis award for Best Novel. The protagonist is Matt Minogue, a Detective Sergeant in the Murder Squad, a division of the Gardai, the Irish police force. The death of a elderly resident of Dublin is being investigated; he appears to be merely a British citizen who had settled in Ireland. It turns out he was connected to MI5 in the United Kingdom. This book was published in 1989, and is set in Dublin, Ireland. Thus the political issues in Ireland at the time are a big factor.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
The 4th, 5th, and 6th books in a series, set in post World War II Britain, in the village of Bishop's Lacey. Flavia narrates the stories. She is the youngest daughter (around 11 years old) in the de Luce family, and lives with her two sisters and their father in an ancient country house.

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott is a historical novel set in the years preceding and during World War I. It is the story of three sisters, teenagers as the story begins, who travel with their mother to support the family as a vaudeville act. I loved this book and it is hard to describe why. I was engaged in the story immediately. I loved the way the author switched back and forth between the sisters (especially) and the mother (occasionally). This book covers the years from 1912-1917 and thus World War I figures a great deal. That was also a plus for me. I like to learn about wars in a fictional setting.

Under the Dragon's Tail by Maureen Jennings
This is the second book in the Murdoch Mysteries series, published by Maureen Jennings in 1998, and featuring William Murdoch, an Acting Detective in Toronto in the late 1800's. Maureen Jennings does a wonderful job of portraying Victorian-era Toronto.
We also get well-developed and interesting characters. Without dwelling on Murdoch's past, the author conveys how his childhood has affected him, and his continuing grief for his fiancee who died of typhoid, at the same time he yearns for a relationship with a woman. Maybe he is a tad too perfect, but I can live with that. Constable George Crabtree, and several of the suspects at varying levels of society are also well-defined; their portrayals contribute to the overall portrait of the city, its poverty and its inhabitants. 

The Night the Gods Smiled by Eric Wright
Eric Wright was born in 1929 in South London, England and immigrated to Canada in 1951. He is an academic; he taught English at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto from 1958  to 1989. Four of his novels have been awarded the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel, including this one. 
This book gives us some insight into the relationship between the French areas of Canada and the English speaking areas. Toronto police detective Charlie Salter is assigned as liaison to a case of murder that takes place in Montreal, because the victim is from Toronto. It is the kind of case that his department doesn't have the time or inclination to deal with, so it is passed down to him. He is thrilled to get it, since he has been working essentially as a "gofer". He works with Sergeant Henri O'Brien from Montreal, and they develop a nice relationship along the way.

In the Shadow of the Glacier by Vicki Delany
This mystery novel is set in the fictional mountain town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. Constable Molly Smith is assigned to assist veteran Detective Sergeant John Winters in a murder investigation. Although Molly (also know as "Moonlight") is a rookie, she has insider knowledge of the community that Winters does not have; on the other hand she is closely involved with various persons who could be suspects. There were a lot of elements to the story: draft dodgers who had moved to Canada years earlier, ecological issues associated with a resort development, treatment of women in police departments, and the complexity of family relationships and working relationships.

Sleep While I Sing by L. R. Wright
This book is the second in a series by L.R. Wright (1939- 2001). The series features RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg and is set in a small town on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. This second entry in the series starts with the discovery of a dead woman in a secluded area. The woman remains unidentified. An artist's sketch is made and distributed, but does not generate the identification they were hoping for.
L. R. Wright excels at characterization. Karl is a loner and divorcee who misses his family. He has his problems, but he is happy in his work and good at it. The secondary characters and side plots are interesting. The writing is understated.

The Film Club by David Gilmour
Overview from Dundurn Press: "The Film Club is the true story about David Gilmour's decision to let his 15-year-old son drop out of high school on the condition that the boy agrees to watch three films a week with him. The book examines how those pivotal years changed both their lives." I read this book as much for the commentary on the films watched as for the story of Gilmour's experiences during those years. 

I will be signing up for the 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge as soon as I read my first Canadian book for the challenge.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Hearse on May-Day: Gladys Mitchell

I am a newbie to reading the books of Gladys Mitchell. I expressed my desire to sample the writings of this prolific vintage mystery author, and Moira at Clothes in Books graciously sent me a copy of one of her books, with skeletons dancing on the cover.

To summarize Gladys Mitchell's contribution to crime fiction, I will quote from this overview at The Golden Age of Detection Wiki:
Mitchell wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career. Her first novel (Speedy Death, 1929) introduced Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a polymathic psychoanalyst and author who featured in a further 65 novels. Her strong views in social and philosophical issues reflected those of her author and her assistant, Laura Menzies, appears to have been something of a self-portrait of the young Mitchell.
Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club along with G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and throughout the 1930s was believed to be one of the "Big Three women detective writers", but she often challenged and mocked the conventions of the genre...
In addition to her 66 Mrs. Bradley novels Mitchell also used the pseudonyms of Stephen Hockaby (for a series of historical novels) and Malcolm Torrie (for a series of detective stories featuring an architect named Timothy Herring) and wrote ten children's books under her own name.
Spooky happenings (phenomena) appear to be fairly normal occurrences in Mrs Bradley stories by Gladys Mitchell. She often includes elements of witchcraft, the occult, or the supernatural. Yet the stories do not read like fantasies; they are fantastic, but firmly in the mystery genre. I don't think I am describing this very well, but this was my reaction to the book that I read: A Hearse on May-Day

This book is divided into two distinct parts. In the first part, Fenella Lestrange (niece of Mrs. Bradley) finds herself taking a detour to Seven Wells, a village she has never visited before. Once there, she gets involved in some very bizarre events. Her car breaks down even though it seemed to be running fine and she has to stay overnight. She is told repeatedly by the staff of the local inn that she should lock herself in her room and not stray outside, because it is Mayering Eve. Apparently this village is known for some very rambunctious behavior on that night. Of course, Fenella ignores their warnings and ventures out to find out what is going on. She encounters several very strange groups, some of them hostile, but does make her way safely back to her room.

Her car is repaired the next day, and she continues on her trip to her cousin's manor. She is travelling to their home to get married. The second half of the book covers Mrs Bradley's investigation into a murder that had occurred in Seven Wells shortly before Fenella's stay there, and whether the strange goings on that happened while she was there are related. This was not the best part of the book, as the progress was slow and at times made no sense to me.  Overall, however, I enjoyed this story, even though it was not my usual type of mystery read.

One of the themes in this book is May Day. Moira's post at Clothes in Books (May Day Special) and a post at Read Me Deadly (The Murderous Month of May) cover this in more detail. Also see reviews by Bev at My Reader's Block and Les Blatt at Classic Mysteries.

This book was published in 1972. Gladys Mitchell died in 1983 and the last Mrs. Bradley book was published in 1984. From what I read, her books were variable in quality (depending on the reader's perspective of course) and had a lot of variety in content and structure. I am looking forward to reading more of her output at various stages in her career. I have read that she was not published much in the US when she was alive; I guess that explains why I have not run into her books in earlier years and at the normal places I would pick them up (used book stores, before the internet) and book sales.

Another great resource on Gladys Mitchell's books and writing is Jason Hall's The Stone House, A Gladys Mitchell Tribute site. It has a great bibliography, biography, and essays galore. I have read enough very positive reviews of Mitchell's unusual Mrs. Bradley series to recommend this book and others from the series. I haven't even gone into the eccentricities of Mrs. Bradley's character in this post, because they were not that evident in this book. I will save that for a later review.


Publisher:  Rue Morgue Press, 2012 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:    158 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Series:     Mrs. Bradley Mystery
Setting:    small village, England
Genre:     mystery
Source:    a gift

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Belated Happy Birthday to James Cagney

James Cagney's birthday was yesterday, July 17th. He was born in 1899, and died in 1986. Most people associate James Cagney with his gangster roles, but he is also well known for his tap dancing, and it is those roles that I love him in. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is my favorite musical; I can watch it over and over. As a child, I saw him many times in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was often shown as a Saturday afternoon matinee on July 4th at my neighborhood theater. James Cagney played George M. Cohan and there were many great tap dancing routines in that movie. Cagney was nominated for his first Oscar for Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) but he won his only Oscar for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He reprised his role as George M. Cohan thirteen years later in The Seven Little Foys (1955).

Cagney and Joan Leslie in Yankee Doodle Dandy
I have two other favorite movies that Cagney dances in. One is Footlight Parade (1933); the other was made when he was around 50: West Point Story (1950). Doris Day was his co-star. Glen and I both like old movies, including musicals. Before we got married, when we still lived in Riverside, California, we drove to Sherman Oaks one night after work to see Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade on the big screen. We arrived so late we had to watch the late shows, and we hallucinated through the By the Waterfall scene, near the end of Footlight Parade.

Cast of Footlight Parade
Recently I was reminded of the movie One, Two, Three (1961), which was Cagney's last movie before retirement. (He later came out of retirement to do a small part in Ragtime, released in 1981.) In a post on London Match by Len Deighton, Moira at Clothes in Books featured a publicity still for a play by Ferenc Molnar called One-Two-Three. I had not been aware that the film One, Two, Three was based on a play. Glen and I rewatched the movie, enjoying it once again. Cagney does not dance in that movie, but he shows his usual energy. Many reviews say that Cagney was the best thing in this film. He is almost never off the screen. Others in this film are Arlene Francis as his wife, Pamela Tiffin, and Horst Buchholz. Cagney plays the head of the Coca Cola plant in West Germany, a very ambitious executive trying to get a promotion. The movie pokes fun at just about everything. It is not a great film but it is fun, and Cagney is wonderful in it.

Glen wants me to mention his favorite Cagney movies: Lady Killer (1933), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) (yes, Shakespeare, playing Bottom, the weaver), and Picture Snatcher (1933).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Double for Death: Rex Stout

Before settling into writing only Nero Wolfe mysteries, Rex Stout wrote several non-mystery novels and a few standalone mysteries. He also wrote a series of three books starring Tecumseh Fox, a private investigator in Westchester County, New York. Double for Death, published in 1939, is the first mystery in the Tecumseh Fox series.

Rich at Past Offences has continued a challenge started in June. In June, bloggers who participated posted about books published in 1963. Now, for the month of July, bloggers are invited to post about books or movies from 1939. This is my entry for that challenge.

Per William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, "(William) Tecumseh (Sherman) Fox was based on Stout himself, similar to Nero Wolfe only in mental acuity and the animal inspirations for their names. Fox is lean and active and lives some miles north of New York City."

I have only two copies of Double for Death. The pictured version is a Dell mapback, and the back has a map of Maple Hill, an estate which figures in the mystery. In addition to special maps drawn for each title, the Dell mapback editions had a list of characters with brief descriptions and special chapter titles. For Double for Death, the main characters listed were described thusly:

whose farm in Westchester County was usually host to many odd, non-paying guests.

who appeared to have a habit of leaving things at the scene of murders.

her uncle, who was thought by the police to have left a bullet at the scene of one murder--in the victim.

wealthy financier with an unblemished reputation and also a very private cottage in the woods.

This is a fairly short book. The mapback copy has 236 pages; the copy I read had 191 pages (tinier print). Yet within those pages are a lot of plot twists, many characters, and a lot of disagreements with the police and the district attorney of the county. (The confrontations with the police and DA are also often elements in the Nero Wolfe plots.) The Fox series differs in the narrative voice (told in third person). Fox is strongly involved in the investigation, unlike Wolfe. Fox does have a leg man; but his "vice president" Dan Pavey just does the grunt work and often makes things worse rather than being helpful.

The story begins with Nancy Grant arriving at Fox's home (also called "the Zoo"), seeking his help in extricating her uncle from being accused of murder. For some inexplicable reason,  her uncle visited Ridley Thorpe at his cabin to beg for his job back, and claims to have found Thorpe's dead body. The police believe he was the murderer. Fox has been acquainted with Nancy's uncle, Andy Grant, in the past and agrees to look into the problem.

If I remember correctly, most of the early non-Wolfe mysteries feature a romance. Double for Death has two. A few mysteries in the Wolfe series have romances. In all cases, the romances are very much a side issue and don't intrude on the mystery plot at all.

I would not rate this mystery anywhere near the quality of the Nero Wolfe stories, but I still found it entertaining. There were clues to the identity of the murder, but they were hidden enough to fool me. Stout considered the plot of Double for Death to be one of his best. Comparing it to many other Golden Age mysteries, I think it holds up well. Stout's characters are often eccentric or wacky, but that is not unusual for mysteries of that time.

While I was investigating this book, I ran into a second mapback edition. The one I have is #9, a very early mapback. This one is #495. The front cover is not as appealing to me, although the cover artist is Robert Stanley, who was a well known cover artist for paperbacks of that era. The map on the back of that edition is very nice, showing Long Island Sound and the locations of Fox's home and Maple Hill (Thorpe's estate). Since I collect various covers for Rex Stout books and Dell mapback editions for any authors, I have now ordered a copy of that edition of the book. You can see that cover (front and back) here.


Publisher: Dell, 1939 (first published in hardcover, Viking, 1939)
Length:    236 pages
Format:    paperback
Series:     Tecumseh Fox
Setting:    Westchester County, New York 
Genre:      Mystery, Private Investigator