Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of Alan Copeland by Moray Dalton

Dean Street Press has decided beneficently to rescue Golden Age author Moray Dalton from undeserved obscurity and reprinted 10 of her books. We who are unfamiliar with this author have much to look forward to.

Katherine Mary Deville Dalton (1881-1963) fell into a life of crime, so to speak, after publishing women’s fiction. Her first mystery was released in 1924 and it was succeeded by 28 more, the last one in 1951. Most of them featured Scotland Yard Inspector Hugh Collier or private detective Hermann Glide.

The Case of Alan Copeland (Sampson Low, 1937; Dean Street Press, 2019) was one of her stand-alone stories, set in a village with all manner of sharply defined characters, many of them unlikeable. Alan Copeland is married to a woman some 15 years his senior, who bullies him relentlessly. The vicar’s niece Lydia comes to visit for a few days and the two fall hopelessly in love. They correspond after her return to London until Alan’s wife dies suddenly. They marry immediately and travel for months, then move back to the village. Anonymous letters to the police prompt an investigation that results in an exhumation order. An autopsy shows Alan’s wife died of arsenic poisoning, and some 18 months after her death, Alan is arrested for her murder. Both Alan’s solicitor and the private investigator the solicitor hired exert considerable effort on his behalf and uncover significant ammunition for his barrister, resulting in a lively courtroom drama.

The DSP reprint opens with an informative preface by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans, who compares Dalton, especially her later books, to Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. The Case of Alan Copeland has long sections of text that I could easily have mistaken for bits from an Agatha Christie mystery. Of course the village settings are similar. Dalton’s characterization differs from Christie’s, though, in that unpleasantness in Christie’s characters is generally suggested or implied. There might be a raised eyebrow or a look askance among the village ladies when they want to convey disagreement or disapproval. Dalton’s characters, on the other hand, do not hesitate to let fly verbally as their inclinations take them. They are seriously nasty people and seem to take pride in their offensiveness.

The other difference, as Evans points out, is in Dalton’s willingness to incorporate relationships that fall outside societal norms into her tales. Both an extramarital affair and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy take place in this story. Neither generate the repercussions that might have been expected, as Evans observes. Christie dealt with these behavioral anomalies mostly by ignoring them. She might mention a servant “in trouble” but these things did not occur in the other classes. I can’t remember an instance of an extramarital fling in a Christie. Even the servants who went astray were single.

Evans mentions one of the reasons that Dalton fell into obscurity as possibly her failure to capture the U.S. readership. I am wondering if Dalton’s acknowledgement of atypical relationships may have contributed to that failure. The United States is the country of The Scarlet Letter and the Hays Code, after all, and the 1940s and 1950s were particularly strict about behavioral expectations. Individuals who conducted themselves outside established parameters were shunned or otherwise faced consequences that at least in this book did not occur. Fortunately in 2020 people are more tolerant.

I found this book well-written and soundly plotted with some nice surprises. The characters are clearly delineated and are entirely credible. I now understand the enthusiasm of Curtis Evans for this author and can only echo it in my recommendation of this author to readers of classic mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen (Frederick A. Stokes, 1933) is the sixth mystery written by cousins Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay. The series began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and ended in 1971 with A Fine and Private Place. A collection of short stories was released posthumously in 1999.

Buck Horne was a star of the silent Western movies for years but eventually the casting calls stopped. His foster daughter had learned all of his shooting, roping, and riding skills and became a cinema star in his place. Buck yearned for the spotlight again and, in a bid for a comeback, enlisted the assistance of his old friend Wild Bill Grant, a former U.S. Marshal, who cast him as a star in his traveling rodeo. The massive indoor sports arena in New York was rented for a week’s worth of shows, and Grant moved his performers, their horses and caretakers, and all of the supporting staff and gear needed across the country to New York.

Ellery Queen and his father Inspector Queen were given tickets to the opening night and were on the spot when Buck falls off his horse during an early gallop around the stadium floor in front of a crowd of some 20,000 people. A bullet hole is discovered in the body and Inspector Queen takes over what is obviously a homicide scene. Inspector Queen focuses on the search for the murder weapon, while Ellery Queen focuses on the people closest to the dead man.

I thought this was a clever idea for a story setting. The juxtaposition of the Old West and that quintessential city of cities New York is incongruous, as no doubt it was meant to be. The idea of cowpunchers on the loose in the city that never sleeps evokes visions that are hard to forget. The attempt to reproduce Western dialect was strained but I got the point.

The mystery itself was convoluted and the solution was a surprise. Despite Ellery Queen’s statement midway through that he knew who had committed the murder, I didn’t feel as if all the clues were present from which to reach the final answer. Inspector Queen was remarkably patient with his son when he made these pronouncements. The writing was florid and could have been tightened up to good effect. Probably not the best choice for a first Queen read. Still, an entertaining story with some original characters.

Cover image is from a mass paperback reprint.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford

Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford (Andrew Melrose, 1944) was the second title in their series that featured Dr. Harry Manson, who was a Chief Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard as well as the lead scientist in Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory. It was published the same year as the first one, Inspector Manson’s Success. Dean Street Press has re-released six of the Radford mysteries. Murder Jigsaw has an informative introduction by crime fiction historian Nigel Moss. In this early story, Manson’s scientific and deductive skills are described in detail, laying the ground for future books. Moss states that the Radfords modelled him after Dr. John Thorndyke, R. Austin Freeman’s series detective and that they wanted a police representative to move away from the prevalent amateur detective.

The site of action is Tremarden Arms, a picturesque hotel in Cornwall known for its access to fine fishing waters. A curmudgeon of a retired Army colonel is found drowned in a river with his fishing tackle on the bank nearby. The death is assumed by everyone to be an accident. Dr. Manson, however, at the hotel for a short vacation, visits the scene out of curiosity and sees enough to know that the death was not accidental. The ensuing investigation maximizes the use of forensic procedures and tools as they were known at the time. At a couple of points in the story, the Radfords pause the narrative and invite the reader to assess the clues and decide who the culprit is.

Dr. Manson learns that the colonel was almost universally disliked, and suspects abound. He finds it particularly awkward that some of the hotel guests he has known for years through their mutual fishing interests are among the most likely perpetrators. The colonel defrauded two of the hotel guests, one of whom lost his home because of it, and he appeared to be blackmailing another hotel guest. All in all, not a loss but Dr. Manson is sworn to uphold the law and goes full out to collect and analyze evidence and to identify the murderer.

The Radfords via Dr. Manson were up to date on current knowledge in regards to fingerprinting; one of the last chapters of the book gave a thorough explanation of the science as it was understood at that time. Emphasis is definitely on scientific methods and logical thinking in the solution, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes.  Completely unrelated, just the mention of Cornwall invokes images of seaside villages and picturesque scenery in my mind, and the description of the countryside around the hotel was especially appealing. An interesting, cerebral read.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder in Stained Glass by Margaret Armstrong

Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867–1944) was a well-known book cover designer with some 270 books to her credit, working for A.C. McClurg, Scribner’s, and other publishers. Her covers generally had a plant theme and were in the Art Noveau style. Authors for whom she designed include Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry van Dyke. When dust jackets rose in prominence, she began writing her own books.  From 1911 to 1914, she traveled throughout the Western United States and Canada, discovering several species of flowers as yet unidentified. The results of her research were compiled in her Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (1915), which is considered the first comprehensive guide on the subject.

After that, she wrote three mysteries, the first of which, Murder in Stained Glass (Random House, 1939), was no doubt informed by her father’s and sister’s extensive work in stained glass. In her sole appearance Miss Trumbull of New York visits a school friend in a small New England town. Expecting a tedious stay, she is pleasantly surprised to find a lively young cousin staying with her friend and that the cousin has an attractive young neighbor. The neighbor’s father is Frederick Ullathorne, a noted stained glass artist, known for his temper as much as his talent. The privacy-loving Ullathorne has just moved his studio to the small town to get away from the noise of New York City.

Mr. Ullathorne hasn’t been in the area long but his irritability and unpleasantness has managed to upset many of the locals. When he is murdered in a particularly gruesome way, there are any number of suspects for the authorities to consider. Miss Trumbull is not impressed with the detective leading the investigation so she undertakes her own.

This is a traditional mystery, much in the style of Agatha Christie. Miss Trumbull tends to ask a number of questions, heedless of the danger she is putting herself into. A friend warns her against getting involved, but in true cozy heroine style, she persists until she finds herself in a confrontation with the murderer. A fine comfortable read.

Cover from the 2015 reissue by Lost Crime Classics.

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Blood Type by Stephen Greenleaf

Stephen Greenleaf published 14 private investigator mysteries between 1979 and 2000. Each book focuses on a social issue: Southern Cross talked about the Civil Rights movement and Strawberry Sunday is engrossed with migrant farm labor. His protagonist John Marshall Tanner, who lived and mostly worked in San Francisco, is thoughtful and literate, with the usual inability to commit to a long-term relationship. The series was critically well regarded but never achieved significant financial success, and Greenleaf wrapped it up with book 14. Ed Lynskey wrote an excellent essay that summarized each of the 14 books and included an interview he’d conducted with Greenleaf by email. See it on Mystery File.com, http://www.mysteryfile.com/Greenleaf/greenleaf.html

In Blood Type (William & Morrow, 1992), #8 in the series, Tanner drops into his favorite watering hole, an unobtrusive bar that allows some of the regulars to congregate in a back room. His friend Tom Crandall is often there, reading, but this particular night Tom has something on his mind. The two generally do not share the details of their personal lives but Tom confides in Tanner that a well-known business man is in the process of stealing Tom’s wife. He wants Tanner’s advice on what his legal options are; Tanner is sorry to tell him that there really aren’t any. A week after this upsetting discussion Tanner finds Tom’s obituary in the newspaper.

The police aren’t sure how Tom died and want to write the death off as suicide so Tanner sets out to learn more. He interviews Tom’s widow, his mother, his work partner, and others, acquiring much more insight into Tom’s life, as well as more about the medical clinics and plasma banks in the low-rent areas of San Francisco where Tom found himself much of the time. This section of the book provides a worrying view of the way blood banks collected their product then. Subsequently, fortunately, practices have been upgraded.

Much of the story describes the steps of the investigation and Tanner’s thought processes, it is not fast-moving, no car chases or shootouts to speak of, although Tanner finds himself in danger more than once. Some readers will find it too leisurely in its pace. I consistently find his introspectiveness and social conscience appealing. I highly recommend these books to readers of private investigator series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dead Can Tell by Helen Reilly

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) wrote nearly 40 mysteries between 1930 and 1962. Her primary series character was Inspector Christopher McKee of the fictional Manhattan Homicide Squad. She is credited with writing some of the earliest known police procedurals, using forensics and scientific investigation to solve the mystery. Michael E. Grost (http://mikegrost.com/classics.htm) has an essay on her use of scientific detection principles in her books on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki:   http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931406/Reilly%2C%20Helen

She did keep herself informed in the realm of forensics research. In The Dead Can Tell (Random House, 1940) she makes use of the new method of rebuilding the face of homicide victims based on the skull bone structure when they cannot be identified any other way.

In this story, the ninth appearance of McKee, Steven Hazard and Cristie Lansing accidentally meet after ending their relationship years earlier. They are both reminded of what they gave up, especially Steven, who married on the rebound, only to regret it bitterly. He takes a promotion within his company that will take him out of the country and plans to take Cristie with him, after initiating divorce proceedings and handing over virtually all of his assets to his wife Sara. To his great surprise, Sara will not grant him the divorce he wants. Within 24 hours, her car is seen to roll off the street into the river. When the car is recovered within hours, there was no one in it. When her body is recovered weeks later, the medical examiner’s findings are death by accident.

A few weeks after the funeral, Inspector McKee receives an anonymous letter that says Sara Hazard was murdered. While he has no real evidence that the death was anything but accidental, he begins investigating. He learns that Sara Hazard’s maid has disappeared with some of Sara’s jewelry. He finds that Sara was deeply in debt and indulged in blackmail to keep herself afloat. It took no time to discover that her husband wanted to end their marriage. With the list of her enemies growing almost daily, Inspector McKee finds it easier and easier to believe the death was deliberately contrived.

While it’s clear that Reilly did indeed incorporate police procedures into the plot of her book, she wasn’t consistent with their application. For instance, she did not observe the preservation of the chain of evidence as it related to one of the guns in the case. It probably wasn’t as important then as it is now.

The general style of the writing and many of the characters in this book remind me of the Lockridges’ work. Perhaps also because it is set in New York, where most of their books were set. I intend to locate a few more in this series for my TBR stack. Recommended especially for anyone interested in the history of police procedurals.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Slayground by Richard Stark

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was an assiduous and creative author with about 100 crime fiction novels and dozens of short stories to his credit under various pen names. His fecund imagination earned him the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993 and the Eye Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 2004. Possibly his most enduring creation is Parker, a professional thief with ice water in his veins. Parker is preternaturally level-headed under pressure, managing inept colleagues and one impossible escape after another. Parker has been featured in graphic novels as well as movies.

My favorite of the 24-book series is Slayground (Random House, 1971), which takes place during the winter at an amusement park shut down for the season. As is often the case, a robbery getaway doesn’t go quite as planned. Parker takes the loot and dives into the park, thinking to lay low for awhile and then quietly escape. A group of crime gang members are in the vicinity for their own reasons and decide to relieve Parker of his cash. Parker is frustrated to learn there is no back exit to the amusement park. With the gang protecting the only way out, he proceeds to protect himself and his hard-earned money.

The suspense rolls off the page in this short book. Under normal circumstances, the thugs should have had no trouble in dealing with one lone gunman. But this gunman was Parker, who has the ingenuity of MacGyver in turning whatever equipment or tools are at hand into effective weapons.  The casualty rate was much higher than they expected. Part of the tension comes from the jarring juxtaposition of an amusement park, the site of light-hearted entertainment, turned into a war zone. Rapid pacing, terse prose, eminently readable.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Innocent Bystander by Craig Rice

Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig (1908–1957) wrote a number of mysteries, short stories, and screenplays under the name Craig Rice after beginning her writing career as a journalist in 1930. She is mostly known for her comic mysteries with Jake Justus, a clueless press agent; Helene Brand, an heiress; and John Joseph Malone, a not especially successful lawyer, all hard drinkers in Chicago, where most of her books were set.

Innocent Bystander (Simon and Schuster, 1949) was an anomaly in her mystery fiction. Set on the carnival boardwalk in an oceanside town in southern California, it is a stark tale that leads with Tony Webb, a recent “graduate” of Sing Sing, who’s looking for vengeance against the mob boss who sent him to prison. The boss turns up dead in a Ferris wheel on the boardwalk and the local police set out to find Tony. A young woman was having a portrait drawn by a carnival sketch artist near the ride at the time and she is believed to have witnessed the murder, so she is included in the search.

Tony has heard from his friends in the carnival that she saw him and he is looking for her to remove her as a threat. One of the detectives is smitten with the girl’s appearance and he wants to save her from Tony. A corrupt detective is determined to find the girl first and brutally beats the carnival sketch artist, trying to obtain information about the girl from him, unaware and uncaring that the artist was both hearing and speech impaired.

While we know something of what many of the characters are thinking and feeling, we do not have insight into the girl except through how the other characters experience her, giving her an opaque mystique.

The boardwalk setting and the closed-in interactions of the carnival personnel to protect themselves against the police are the most interesting aspects of the book. The chase through the hall of mirrors reminds me of Richard Stark’s Slayground, set in a carnival closed for the winter. Otherwise it is a hard-boiled story lacking in Rice’s much vaunted humor, a definite departure from her usual mysteries.

For more information about Rice, see Jeffrey Marks’ 2001 biography of Rice, Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery, her entry on the Golden Age Detection blog, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931419/Rice%2C%20Craig, and a well-done article on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Rice_(author).

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Unholy Writ by David Williams

Unholy Writ by David Williams (Williams Collins Sons, 1976) is the first of 17 mysteries published between 1976 and 1993 featuring Mark Treasure, Vice-Chairman of Grenwood Phipps & Co., merchant bankers of London, and his actress wife Molly. Treasure is clearly cousin to John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice-President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank in New York. Anyone who has read the Emma Lathen series will recognize many of the same themes transported across the Atlantic.

The book opens with a letter dated 19 October 1644 from a landed Royalist to his wife, explaining where he hid the family valuables as well as a manuscript by Will Shakespeare about Arden Forest. The letter adjures the wife to hasten with their son to a place of safety while the writer continues to fight for the King against the traitor Cromwell.

The timeframe moves to the present where Mark Treasure is looking forward to a weekend in the country near Northampton after bank meetings have been cancelled unexpectedly. Treasure is a cousin to Sir Arthur Moonlight, the former owner of Mitchell Hall, who has come to regret allowing George Scarbuck, leader of the right-wing Forward Britain Movement, to acquire the white elephant. Treasure is enlisted to arrange to buy the estate back, even though doing so will bankrupt Sir Arthur.

Quite a lot goes on in this compact story. The parish grave digger disappears just before a funeral and his body is found in a burning boat miles away, bringing in the local police. An explosion in the middle of the night causes even more havoc. Scarbuck’s method of circumventing the strict laws on foreign workers — bringing in Filipino natives “on holiday” while they actually do manual labor for pennies a day —  gets a lot of verbiage. One of them escapes on a motorcycle and leads Treasure and the police on a midnight chase through the country. An Oxford grad student working on her doctoral dissertation searches for evidence that Shakespeare’s play As You Like It was initially staged in the gardens at Mitchell Hall. The dry and understated narrative results in some amusing scenes throughout and a hilarious one on the golf course.

Architectural features abound. Every parapet, column, roof, balustrade, etc. is described in exhaustive and exhausting detail. Some of the plot hinges on the construction of specific buildings. I was convinced the author was an architect and was quite surprised to learn he was an advertising executive before he took up mystery writing. Simon Brett wrote an informative obituary about Williams, which can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/oct/02/guardianobituaries.advertising

Review and photo based on the 2002 reprint by Chivers Press. Originally published on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/, on 19 March 2018.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder Can’t Wait by Richard Lockridge

Frances Davis Lockridge (1896-1963) and Richard Lockridge (1899-1982) were journalists known mostly for their Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries. About 70 books form the lavish Lockridge oeuvre, released between 1936 and 1980. In addition to the books about the Norths and Lt. Bill Weigand of the New York City police, the Lockridges also created stand-alone mysteries and mysteries with Nathan Shapiro, a police detective who worked for Bill Weigand; with Bernie Simmons, an assistant district attorney in New York City; with Paul Lane, a detective in the New York City 19th Precinct; and with Inspector Merton Heimrich of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Identification, stationed in upstate New York. Of them all, the books featuring Lt./Capt./Inspector Heimrich are my favorites.

Lt. Heimrich first appears in a North mystery, Death of a Tall Man (1946) and then features in his own book the following year. The Lockridges liked to work their characters hard: Paul Lane pops up in several of the Bernie Simmons books. Professor Emeritus Walter Brinkley shows up in multiple series. Nathan Shapiro appears in Murder Can’t Wait (Lippincott, 1964), billed as a Merton Heimrich story. Bill Weigand emerges briefly, as does Professor Brinkley and his servant Harry Washington.

In Murder Can’t Wait, Shapiro has been assigned to investigate allegations that a point-fixing scandal is brewing at Dyckman University. The police have been approached by Stuart Fleming of North Wellwood, Putnam County, with information. He regrets being unable to visit the police due to a broken leg and asks that they send a representative to receive details. Shapiro drives north from New York, bemoaning the unruly flora and fauna of the countryside. He is a city man through and through, and he doesn’t care for noisy birds and untrimmed grass and unclipped shrubbery. And the curving rural roads leave him in despair. He checks in with the local police to let them know he’s on their turf and to ask where Fleming lives. He’s promptly escorted into Heimrich’s office, where he learns that Fleming was killed earlier that day.

Shapiro’s news creates a larger pool of possible culprits. The local golf pro was upset about the attention he believed Fleming was giving to the golf pro’s pretty and much younger wife. He was known to drink too much and to be quarrelsome. The police were very much interested in his whereabouts at the time of Fleming’s death. However, if someone found Fleming’s plans to report the point-fixing scheme troublesome, as was likely, then that someone had to be identified, located, and interviewed.

As always, Heimrich is thorough and his colleague Charlie Forniss knows people in just the right places to provide background information on some of the characters. Shapiro is diverted into supporting the murder investigation. The interaction between Professor Brinkley and his housekeeper is as always delightful. Highly recommended for lovers of police procedurals and character-driven stories.