Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crooked Lane by Frances Noyes Hart

Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890-1943) mostly wrote short stories for Scribner’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal, although sometimes she branched out into longer fiction. The Bellamy Trial (1927) was so popular that Howard Haycraft selected it as part of his original definitive list of mystery fiction, later expanded by Ellery Queen. http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/haycraftqueen.htm

The plot of her last crime fiction novel The Crooked Lane (Doubleday, 1934) is straightforward enough on the surface: Karl Sheridan, trained by the Viennese police in the latest forensic techniques, returns to Washington, DC, to join what sounds like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His family’s history with the diplomatic community ensures his immediate entrée into the choicest of social circles. He meets Tess Stuart in the opening pages of the book and his attraction to her obscures his objectivity when she pulls him in to investigate the apparent suicide of her sister.

His investigation largely takes place at one party after another, in which the various suspects reveal more than they intend to in a series of witty exchanges. The New York Times review of this book (August 19, 1934) says the conversation is too sparkling for anything but a novel. I found it makes amusing reading. Away from the parties, Sheridan employs the latest forensic techniques from Vienna, Austria, to examine clues but he is befuddled by his interest in Tess and fails to inform the local police as much as would be expected of a career law enforcement agent.

Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 1934) says this is a good story, not considering the mystery, and I agree. I actually found the mystery to be unsatisfying, as the identification of the culprit created a second question Hart left unanswered. On the other hand, the description of the Washington social whirl was fascinating, as well as the personalities and their interactions as well as Sheridan’s reactions.

What was especially intriguing is the way this story is written. Hart’s style is ornate and melodramatic, perhaps because of her experience writing for women’s magazines. The paragraphs drip with baroque imagery. Tess’s eyes are described thus: “a pair of immense eyes of the purest, the clearest silver gray—still and shining as the sky just before dawn, as young rain falling through a spring twilight, as moonlight on quiet waters.” The fountain in front of the White House: “the fountain, performing its exquisite and eternal pantomime of tossing showers of diamonds against a background of emeralds”. Coming home, Tess tosses her wrap on the sofa: “dropping the silver cloak over the end of the green-glazed sofa, so that it flowed down like a little river hurrying to the green sea of the carpet”. And Hart did not believe in standard sentence structure. Long strings of undiagrammable text are punctuated with a comma here and a dash there and wrap up with a period after six lines or so. The book is full of it. Even a mediocre editor could have reduced its length by 50 pages.

After a few chapters I found that I focused more on the writing than the story or the mystery. It is very different from the crisp, compact style of contemporary mysteries and thrillers. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t following the story line. The ending came as something of a shock, and I found myself wishing for a sequel just to find out what came next.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Last Best Hope by Ed McBain

The Last Best Hope by Ed McBain (Warner Books, 1998) is the concluding book in the Matthew Hope series of 13 titles. One of the noteworthy aspects of this story is that the author clearly ends the narrative arc of Hope’s adventures with it. That option isn’t granted to many writers. I have always found it intriguing when an author deliberately decides his (or her) creation has reached an end. This entry in the series is also anomalous in its title, the rest of the books all have titles taken from children’s stories.

Matthew Hope is a lawyer in Calusa, Florida, who is recovering from severe injuries incurred during his previous case. Hope is one of those lawyers who cannot sit quietly behind a desk and devote his attention to paperwork and legal filings. Unlike his legal brother-in-arms Perry Mason and more like Brady Coyne, Hope generally resolves his cases via investigation instead of in court. Sometimes, as his injuries attest, his investigation gets too close. This final story is no different. Jill Lawton retains him to find her missing husband, who left Florida to find work in New York City and hasn’t been heard from since. What appears to be a straightforward skip-tracing exercise changes to a murder inquiry when a body with her husband’s identification is found. Jill says the dead man is not her husband, creating an entirely new line of questions.

The only known New York address for Jill’s husband falls in the 87th Precinct’s area of responsibility, and Hope ends up talking to Steve Carella of McBain’s other long-running crime series in a great cross-over that runs through the entire book. This isn’t the only reference to McBain’s additional work. A reference to Blackboard Jungle (1954), an early book published under the name Evan Hunter pops up, as does a mention of a later Hunter novel, Lizzie (1984). There’s also a sly allusion to writers named Evan toward the end.

Parellel story lines show Hope and the police searching for the missing husband and the killer of the unidentified man while the crew of criminals plots to steal a priceless artifact from a museum. Shifting loyalties among the team and a dazzling sequence of double-crosses prove unequivocally that there is no honor among thieves. 

This isn’t a particularly old series but it is largely forgotten, unfortunately. With 13 books still readily available, it is definitely binge-worthy for those readers looking for a lengthy distraction. Fans of contemporary private investigator tales and legal thrillers might especially be interested. Some of McBain’s best work!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) was a pillar of Golden Age crime fiction, writing under multiple names. As John Rhode, he created a series of about 70 books with Dr. Lancelot Priestley, Inspector Hanslet, and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, published between 1925 and 1961. He also wrote short stories, stand-alone novels, stage plays, and non-fiction under this pseudonym.

As Cecil Waye, he wrote four novels about Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, private investigators in London.

Under the name Miles Burton, he wrote about 60 novels between 1930 and 1960 featuring Desmond Merrion and Inspector Henry Arnold. The first of these was The Secret of High Eldersham, also known as The Mystery of High Eldersham, published in 1930 by W. Collins, Sons & Co, and released as a British Crime Library Classic in 2016.

The residents of the village of High Eldersham in East Anglia are known to be reserved and unwelcoming to strangers. So it was a considerable surprise to the owners of the Rose and Crown that the new landlord from London, Samuel Whitehead, a retired sergeant of the Metropolitan Police, slid into his job smoothly. Until five years after his arrival, the village policeman found him stabbed to death in front of his fireplace. Whitehead was known as an easygoing landlord and had no quarrels with the locals. No one could begin to guess the motive for the murder. The county Chief Constable felt the case was beyond the abilities of the area police, to their dismay, and lost no time in sending for someone from Scotland Yard.

Detective-Inspector Robert Young quickly agreed that the village was odd. He requested help from Desmond Merrion, an acquaintance from the war whom Young considered a walking encyclopedia of offbeat trivia. Young continued the investigation along standard police lines, while Merrion looked into some of the village residents. From there, the story expands into a number of directions: witchcraft, drug trafficking, nautical elements such as tide tables and boats, and a romance.

It’s hard to imagine how such diverse threads will come together but they do. The actual mystery is good if predictable, as there are only a handful of characters that meet the essential criteria to be the villain. As others have pointed out, the momentum is uneven. There are absorbing scenes with lots of action or good dialog but the text linking them is ponderous. I was surprised to learn this title is the beginning of a long-running series: I assumed from the ending I was reading a stand-alone story. I have no idea how a series of 60 books was spun off from it. If all of the murders in the series take place in High Eldersham, it is clearly an early instance of Cabot Cove Syndrome. I must sample a few later books.

To see what others thought of the book, see the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7932203/The%20Secret%20of%20High%20Eldersham and Cross-Examining Crime, https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/the-secret-of-high-eldersham-1930-by-miles-burton/.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell

Josephine Bell was the pseudonym of Doris Bell Collier Ball (1897-1987), a British author who also studied and practiced medicine. Bell began to write detective novels beginning in 1936 under her pen name. Many of her works made good use of her medical background. Bell had several series characters, including Dr. David Wintringham, Barrister Claud Warrington-Reeve, Dr. Henry Frost, Inspector Steven Mitchell, and Amy Tupper. In 1953, Bell helped found the Crime Writers’ Association and served as chair from 1959 to 1960. Wikipedia says she wrote nineteen novels and forty-five mystery novels, as well as radio plays, short stories, and series for women’s magazines. I was unable to quickly find a definitive list of titles; the lists on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Stop! You’re Killing Me, and Fantastic Fiction websites are similar but not identical.

Bell tended to deploy her detectives in pairs or trios but occasionally she sent them out on unsupported detecting jobs. Such is the case with Death at the Medical Board (Longmans, Green & Co, 1944) in which Dr. David Wintringham was pulled into a village mystery by a friend.

Ursula Frinton was raised in the village of Shornford by a doting uncle after the death of her parents. A bout of scarlet fever as a child left her family convinced that she was frail and could not exert herself without serious consequences. Nonetheless she was determined to do her part during World War II and applied for military service like every other young woman in England. Before her medical fitness examination, she took the precaution of visiting an eminent cardiologist who assured her nothing was wrong with her heart. She took his letter with her to present to the medical board.

Shortly thereafter she was found dying by one of the board physicians in a changing room. This attending physician wrote her colleague Dr. Wintringham about the murder. Wintringham was intrigued and obtained permission from his unnamed management to probe an angle that appeared to lead to a larger case.

This story is deceptively complicated. The motive for the murder appeared early and I was a little annoyed with the victim for not recognizing her vulnerability and failing to take protective measures. I thought the culprit would prove to be one of two people and was tempted to put the book aside as too obvious to finish. However, I didn’t and was rewarded with enough duplicity and iniquity to satisfy anyone. By the end of the story an intricate set of circumstances, some of them far-fetched, is established. Again, as is so often the case in mysteries set in this general timeframe, identity is a factor. The atmosphere and the outlook of the time and place were well represented and the story is worth reading for that alone.  

Friday’s Forgotten Book: A Deceptive Clarity by Aaron Elkins

Aaron Elkins is an Edgar award winning author, mostly known for his books about Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropology expert in Washington State. Another early series which I rarely hear mentioned is about an art historian and only has three books. The first is A Deceptive Clarity (Walker & Co., 1987), which introduces Chris Norgren. Norgren is going through a painful divorce and finds life in general frustrating. The director of the San Francisco County Museum of Art where Norgren works has noticed his lassitude and proposes to send him to Europe to help manage a traveling exhibit of art pieces recovered from the Nazis after World War II.

Arriving in Berlin, Norgren is almost immediately confronted with one of the trials of the civilian on a military installation: obtaining the correct ID to allow the civilian to do what he (or she) went there to do. What he was given in Rhein-Main is not considered acceptable at Tempelhof, where his office is. His lack of ID becomes a mildly entertaining thread, along with his divorce lawyer who calls him every few days with changing demands from his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Once he manages to gain access to his office, the director of the exhibit Peter van Cortlandt casually mentions the forgery he thinks he’s discovered among the exhibit’s collection. Norgren knows van Cortlandt would never joke about something so serious but does not learn details before van Cortlandt rushes away to catch a flight to Frankfurt.

Norgren of course wants to see these masterpieces and to find the forgery. As the guard unlocks the storeroom, noise inside alerts them and in no time they are being efficiently beaten by two goons who leave them bloody and semi-conscious. The next few days pass in a blur as Norgren recovers in the local military hospital. He’s only back at work a few hours when he learns that van Cortlandt is dead, apparently from a fall in a seedy district of Frankfurt. His puzzling death leaves Norgren in charge of the exhibition. While he works on it, he also examines each of the pictures to try to decide if it is a forgery, which results in a lengthy but absorbing description of the authentication process.

This mystery is as much about the paintings as it is about the death of van Corlandt, perhaps more so. It is quite cerebral. I enjoyed it but I can see readers uninterested in the art world will not find it appealing, which is sadly their loss.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Country-House Burglar by Michael Gilbert

This week’s review is a fine English village mystery by Michael Gilbert, set in the 1950s when the memories of the war had receded but not gone, and the country had recovered economic stability. The stand-alone story was published in the United States as The Country-House Burglar (Harper, 1955) and issued as Sky High in England by Hodder & Stoughton in the same year. My rant against the aggravating practice of giving multiple titles to the same book can be taken for granted.

Brimberley is a quiet country village somewhere south of London but well within commuting range, we’re told, as Tim Artside takes the train up to London every day for a job he doesn’t discuss with his mother Liz. After the excitement of service during the war Liz is a little afraid her son has had trouble settling into a routine. Other than her worries about Tim, Liz is quite content to manage the choir of the local parish and to visit with her friends, many of them retired military officers who knew her husband.

Trouble arises when the vicar reports that the church poor box has been rifled, to the tune of about two pounds (about 53 pounds in 2020). Liz is alarmed when one of her choir members is accused on what she considers the thinnest of evidence. Then a series of country house burglaries spreads into territory closer to Brimberley, giving the local police a lot to think about. Worst of all, a house down the street explodes, killing the sole resident, a Major Macmorris who settled there after the war. After the police learn that Tim’s combat specialty was explosives, they were most interested in the fact he’d argued with Macmorris shortly before the explosion.

Lots of misdirection, a romance, and questions about identity, something that seems to be common in post-war mysteries. A comfortable and satisfying Golden Age read.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead Folks’ Blues by Steve Womack

Dead Folks’ Blues (Fawcett, 1992) is the first book in the Harry James Denton private investigator series by Steve Womack, published between 1992 and 2000. All six titles in the series were shortlisted for at least one major award and twice won it. This first book won an Edgar for Best Paperback in 1993. The fifth won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback in 1999, as well as being shortlisted for both an Anthony and an Edgar in the same year. That level of consistency in a series is rare.

Harry James Denton is an ex-reporter. ‘Ex’ because he engaged in a battle with his newspaper employer and, as is generally the case, lost. He decided to become a private investigator, figuring his researching skills were easily transferable. While he waits for PI work to materialize, he helps his friend repo vehicles. Not coincidentally, his friend also has great access to financial databases that are usually closely held, databases that turn out to be really useful to Denton.

His first paying customer is Rachel Fletcher, his old college flame, who asks him to help her surgeon husband find his way out of the morass of gambling debts that are rapidly sinking him. She officially knows nothing about them but has intercepted some threats meant for her husband. Denton asks around and learns Dr. Fletcher not only is deep in debt to his neighborhood bookie but he also has few fans and fewer friends. When he turns up dead in his own hospital, most of his students are quietly delighted. Many of them attend his funeral just to be sure he is in fact gone.

The police do not welcome the “help” of a private investigator, much less an inexperienced one like Denton. He persists in his inquiries, however, not making noticeable headway but realizes he has rattled a cage or two when there’s another murder. Fortunately, he has a cast-iron alibi for this one because the police would love to arrest him just to get him out of the way.

Denton as a character does not especially stand out from dozens of other fictional PIs in his first outing. I assume that he becomes more fully realized as the series progresses. However, the secondary characters are wonderful. The country songwriting team with an office down the hall from Denton, the gambling kingpin who owns the action in that part of town, and Marsha, the medical examiner, all are fresh and well drawn. And the description of Nashville is spot on. Anyone who knows Nashville will understand the references to the traffic, the smog, and the tourists with heartfelt sympathy.

Recommended for devotees of private investigator mysteries and for those who try to read all of the nominees for important awards. I look at those chosen titles as a reading list, although I’ve never managed to keep up with all of them. A good read!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead or Alive by Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth is turning out to be one of my pandemic comfort reads. There’s a certain predictability in the plots, and her writing style is soothing. Plot twists exist of course but none of them are shocking. Fortunately she was a prolific writer so I have a lot to work with. I’ve read nearly all of the Miss Silver stories and have begun to branch out into her other books.

In Dead or Alive (Lippincott, 1936) Bill Coverdale has returned to England after spending a year in South America for his engineering firm. He is looking forward to seeing Meg O’Hara, his long-time secret love who declined his offer of marriage for marriage to Robin O’Hara. The marriage was not a success and Meg had decided to leave when Robin, who worked for an unnamed covert agency, disappeared, presumably on a mission gone wrong. A body was later identified as being unquestionably his. Bill is elated that Meg is free again and hopes that she will see her way to marrying him now.

He finds that Meg is nearly destitute and is being tormented by messages that say her husband is still alive. She is in a state of indecision, not knowing what her status is and distraught over the messages. Her wealthy uncle, who raised her, has retired to the country to finish his latest book and his new secretary is afraid to let Meg disturb him so an obvious source of money seems to be closed. Bill sees his job as to obtain enough proof that Meg will be convinced her husband is dead and to find out who is pestering her.

People who are thought to be dead but come back home after all are a recurring theme in Wentworth’s plots. It crops up more than once in the Miss Silver stories, although not as often as amnesia does. This particular book doesn’t exploit the trope as completely as it could have been. Meg comes off as wimpish and I had to wonder about Bill’s wisdom in fixating on her. While finding someone has been in a locked home is enough to upset anyone, locks can be changed easily enough and I wondered why she didn’t. The perpetrator was a bit of a surprise and there’s some good action toward the end as Bill and Meg seek to extricate themselves from what appears to be certain death, so the book isn’t a complete waste of time. I don’t expect to want to re-read it any time soon, however. For readers who want to consume every single Wentworth.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr

Frank Showell Styles (1908-2005) was a multi-talented writer and expert mountain climber. He published a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, including children’s books, books on mountains, historical adventure, humorous articles, and mysteries, more than 160 books in all. Most of the detective fiction used the pseudonym Glyn Carr.

Carr wrote 18 mysteries with Abercrombie Lewker, stage actor/manager, serving as the gifted amateur detective. Each story takes place near a mountain or mountain range and the location is a prominent part of the story. In The Youth Hostel Murders (Geoffrey Bles, 1952) Abercrombie Lewker and his wife Georgina are traveling in the northwest corner of England in Cumberland after the completion of a successful three-month run of Richard III with Lewker in the title role. They have been invited to stay with the Deputy Chief Constable but stop on their way to the DCC’s farm to investigate the village pub’s wares.

There they hear about a young climber who fell off a nearby mountain three months earlier and was killed. The ancient local shepherd is holding forth about the accident when a couple of students from the nearby hostel arrive, seeking help to look for another student who has been missing for nearly two days. Gay Johnson had gone off alone on a solitary ramble among the hills and her friends were not overly concerned that she had not returned the previous night, thinking she had stayed at another nearby hostel. But when she didn’t appear by the afternoon of the second day, and inquiries revealed she had not stayed at the second hostel, the group became alarmed and set out to find her.

Abercrombie volunteered to join the search party and he in fact found Gay’s body, apparently another victim of a climbing accident. He is puzzled about the lack of trauma to the body, expecting to find a good deal of damage after a plunge down a craggy mountainside. Instead, there’s only a significant cranial injury. His concern grows when he learns that the student who fell to his death three months earlier was found in the same condition. The local police are uneasy as well. Abercrombie climbs the mountain from which they were believed to have fallen and leaves with more questions than answers.

Styles has created a locked room mystery in the open air, as the introduction to the Rue Morgue reprints say; its investigation and resolution make entertaining reading. The descriptions of the mountains and the landscape are striking. They are worth reading for themselves alone. I didn’t need to be told that the author loved the outdoors.

The original editions of the Abercrombie series are too expensive for the casual reader to obtain but the late lamented Rue Morgue Press reprinted a number of the earlier titles and they seem widely available in used book outlets. The later titles have not been so fortunate. A lonely copy of Fat Man’s Agony, last book in the series, is available on abebooks.com for $535. No copies on eBay or on ThriftBooks, my go-to for used books. Perhaps some kind GAD publisher will see his way to reprinting them. They would have an appreciative audience!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death in the Dentist’s Chair by Molly Thynne

Death in the Dentist’s Chair is one of only six mysteries written by Molly Thynne and the second of three with the intriguing Dr. Constantine, a socialite and chess master. Originally published in 1932 by Hutchinson & Co, this Golden Age classic was re-issued by Dean Street Press in 2016 with an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The opening finds one person after another congregating in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, including the enigmatic Dr. Constantine. They all move in the same social circles and find a lot to chat about but after awhile begin to wonder what is taking the dentist so long. The dentist has taken a plate to the lab to modify and finds his procedure room locked upon his return. After taking the door off the hinges, he finds his patient, whom he left well and alive, in the treatment chair with her throat cut. Everyone in the waiting room can mostly vouch for the others, turning this story into a nice locked room puzzle.

Detective-Inspector Arkwright and Constantine team up once more to sort it out. They learn with little difficulty the victim was hard up for money, despite being married to a well-off jeweler. She had recently attempted to blackmail someone she had known years ago. Then there was the patient who left just before the victim went into the treatment room, whom the police could not locate. He seemed simply to vanish into thin air. The victim’s husband was worried about something and he was known to have friends on the wrong side of the law, so he definitely interested the investigators. We get to watch Arkwright work through the police processes for homicides while Constantine does a little looking around on his own.

Thynne has an effortless and flowing writing style that is a pleasure to read. The plot got a little fuzzy midway, although I enjoyed the story anyway. I wish she had written more.

Just why so many Golden Age writers wrote a few mysteries and then moved on would make an interesting essay. Thynne wrote six, Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three, Ellen Wilkinson wrote one, and of course Dorothy Sayers wrote eleven novels and some short stories. I expect there are others. It seems as if writing a mystery was a bucket list item, once achieved, there was no reason to write another. Perhaps one of our crime historians will give the subject some consideration for a future article.