Friday’s Forgotten Book: Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham

I was enthralled with Albert Campion when I first encountered him many years ago. His creator Margery Allingham wrote 17 books about him beginning in 1929. I’ve re-read them often and find that the earlier ones seem to wear better than the later ones. I have not tried any of the series titles completed by Allingham’s husband after her death or by Mike Ripley. Initially Campion was a clear imitation of Lord Peter Wimsey, a character I liked in his own right. Both were dilettante upper-class investigators, with a feigned inanity shielding great intelligence.  As Britain’s involvement in World War II grew, Campion shed his socialite persona and seemed to take on the role of an undercover agent.

In Coroner’s Pidgin (William Heineman, 1945), published in the United States as Pearls Before Swine (Doubleday Doran, 1945), Campion returns to London after a long stint overseas providing unspecified support to England’s war effort. He stops in his London apartment long enough to take a leisurely bath before catching a train to his country house where he left his wife Amanda three years ago.

Hearing noises from outside the bathroom door, he assumes his manservant, reformed thief Lugg, has arrived but is startled to hear feminine voices as well. With no bathrobe he wraps himself in towels and slides into his bedroom to dress to meet the owners of the voices and discovers a corpse in his bed. A corpse that was not there when he ran his bath fifteen minutes earlier. Upon inquiry he learns that Lugg and Edna, Dowager Marchioness of Carados, took it upon themselves to move the body of an unknown woman that they found in the Carados house to avoid publicity. Unfortunately they were observed and now the quiet disposal they’d planned has gone awry.

In no time at all Campion misses his train and is up to his ears in a murder investigation involving an admiral, the Marchioness, a well-known actress, an RAF hero, and the owner of the most popular restaurant in London. Not my favorite plot, which is a little too frenetic for my taste and relies far too much on happenstance, but perhaps among my favorites because of the bombshell ending.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of the Crumpled Knave by Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher to me these days means his namesake mystery conference, Bouchercon, which is one of the highlights of my year. Then of course I have read many of the anthologies of short mystery fiction he compiled and edited. Reading his own mystery fiction has taken a backseat until recently. His second mystery The Case of the Crumpled Knave (Simon and Schuster, 1939) and the first with Fergus O’Breen, a private investigator, is set in Los Angeles. It opens with Humphrey Garnett, a semi-retired chemist sending a telegram to a retired military friend in New York, urging him to fly west immediately to help with the inquest on Garnett’s own death.

An opening in which a character predicts his own death is an attention-grabbing device, even more so when Garnett is dead by the time the friend can reach California three days later. Colonel Rand finds Garnett’s home in the possession of the police and a murder investigation in full swing. The police focus on the members of the household: Garnett’s daughter Kay, her fiancé, Garnett’s research assistant, Garnett’s brother-in-law, and Garnett’s protege. They lose no time at all in arresting the fiancé of Garnett’s daughter, who of course believes they have the wrong person.

Kay is determined to discover the real culprit. Rand and her uncle support her in hiring Fergus O’Breen, a newly qualified private investigator and someone known to Kay from her school days. O’Breen has a habit of referring to himself in the third person as “The O’Breen” which is entertaining at first but could become annoying. He and Rand team up to interview everyone in the household again, especially the protégé, whose reason for being present is not made clear until late in the book. Perhaps it is an indicator of the social mores of the time that a stranger can be added to a house as a resident with no explanation given to the rest of the people living there. I can’t imagine the circumstances under which it could occur now.

Lots of misdirection and another murder occur with some romance before the killer is identified by the police. I found the discussions of playing cards, their history, and their artistic merits that are woven into the book intriguing. An enjoyable read.

Both Jon Jermey and Mike Grost reviewed the book on the Golden Age of Detection wiki here:

http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931723/The%20Case%20of%20the%20Crumpled%20Knave

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

More than 45 years ago a mononymous private investigator strolled onto the printed page and into the public consciousness, where he has remained, making him one of the most durable characters of contemporary fiction. He features in 40 novels written by his creator Robert B. Parker and lives on in the series credibly continued by Ace Atkins. Over the course of the series Parker gave this Boston private eye named Spenser, with an S like the poet, a love interest in Susan Silverman, a relationship that lapsed far too often into melodrama for my taste. And Spenser had an unlikely BFF in Hawk, variously described as a gun for hire by anyone with enough money or an enforcer or a body guard. Members of the local underworld as well as members of the area law enforcement agencies appeared in the background of the books frequently.

The plots were solid enough and the characters engaging enough to be optioned for screen adaptation. The casting for the subsequent television series and movies was questionable — as much as I liked Robert Ulrich, he did not have enough edge to fit my idea of Spenser. Joe Mantegna was closer but still not quite right. The selection of Avery Brooks for Hawk, though, was nothing short of inspired. Brooks captured the essence of the urbane thug perfectly, and he is always who I think of when I envision Hawk.

But all of that lay in the future. The Godwulf Manuscript (Houghton Mifflin, 1973) was Spenser’s first case. Reviewing outlets such as Kirkus and the New York Times found it to be nothing out of the ordinary, and perhaps it is not. It seems so to me because of the introduction of its leading character and the establishment of the framework for stories to come. Spenser is retained by a Boston university to locate a stolen illuminated manuscript that is being held for ransom that the university cannot pay. Right away he shows himself to be someone who dislikes authority in almost any form, smart-mouthing the university president and the campus security manager and the police later on. In his search for a lead on the location of the manuscript he meets members of a campus radical group. Shortly thereafter one of them is killed and the other one is charged with his murder. Spenser decides that the police are simply looking for a fast and easy way to close the case and goes full out to find the manuscript and the real killer.

Just how much of Spenser was Parker is a perennial question to serious readers of the books. It’s clear there is some overlap. They were both ex-boxers and they both served in Korea. Someone went to considerable effort to establish a biography of Spenser derived from the books and posted it to Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenser_(character). Parker was not concerned with biographical continuity in the books, as this article indicates. For instance, sometimes his mother died when he was born and sometimes she died when he was a child. The Wikipedia analysis makes fascinating reading.

Reading The Godwulf Manuscript and then reading a later Spenser title immediately thereafter is especially informative. Recommended to anyone who hasn’t re-read the early books in the series for awhile and particularly to readers who have come late to the Spenser canon.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Madame Storey by Hulbert Footner

William Hulbert Footner (1879-1944) was born in Hamilton, Canada, and moved to New York before he was 20 years old. Eventually he settled his family in Calvert County, Maryland. He wrote books on travel and developed mysteries around two series detectives: one is Amos Lee Mappin, a successful mystery writer who solved crimes in and around New York’s social scene, the other is Madame Rosika Storey, a private investigator in New York City, whose exploits were described by her assistant. Madame Storey is a 1920s professional who chooses career over the traditional role for women, in itself interesting. Footner’s Rosika Storey cases appeared in Argosy All-Story Weekly every year from 1922 through 1935. Some were collected into book-length volumes and reissued as the following titles:

  1. The Under Dogs, New York, London, 1925
  2. Madame Storey, New York, London, 1926
  3. The Velvet Hand, New York London, 1928
  4. The Doctor Who Held Hands, 1929
  5. Easy to Kill, 1931
  6. The Casual Murderer, London, 1932
  7. The Almost Perfect Murder, 1933
  8. Dangerous Cargo, 1934
  9. The Kidnapping of Madame Storey, London, Toronto, and New York, 1936. (Source: Wikipedia)

The first book featuring Madame Storey was published by Doran in 1926 and is a collection of four short stories:

  • “The Ashcomb Poor Case”
  • “The Scrap of Lace”
  • “The Smoke Bandit”
  • “In the Round Room”

The first story, the longest of the four, describes how Madame Storey met her assistant and then ran circles around the local district attorney in the successful identification of the culprit who murdered Ashcomb Poor, a wealthy man whose womanizing proved to be his undoing.

These stories are more character focused than plot driven. They are a pleasant read, reflecting as they do the Roaring Twenties during which they were written, although not particularly remarkable in investigative techniques or plot devices. They are worth looking into by those interested in Golden Age mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark is one of only six mysteries written by Molly Thynne and the first of three with the intriguing Dr. Constantine, a chess master. Originally published in 1931 by T. Nelson & Sons, this Golden Age classic was re-issued by Dean Street Press in 2016 and contains an introduction by Curtis Evans.

It’s Christmas in England, therefore it’s time for a country house murder or two. No one needs to ask about the obligatory snow in such a scenario: the snow has been falling for weeks and now is no longer a joke to anyone who relies on transport of any kind. Nonetheless, thousands of holidaymakers set out on their travels, many of them heading to an exclusive coastal resort. Angus Stuart expected the great good fortune that had visited him in the past few months as his book became an out-of-the-blue bestseller to hold and make the roads passable for him but he came to grief at the same hill dozens of others foundered upon. Fortunately an old coaching inn that now caters to a hunting crowd is nearby. Stuart makes his way there and watches as other stranded wayfarers trickle in through the rest of the day.

It’s an oddly assorted lot with a hard-drinking Army major, two elderly sisters, a dancer hired for the season at the resort and unable to reach it, the wealthy Lord Romsey and his children, a quiet upper-class lady, an ordinary accountant, an obnoxious American woman, and a traveling salesman as well as Stuart, Constantine, chauffeurs, and assorted support staff. Alarums occur the very first night when one of the elderly sisters awakens Stuart with an account of a masked man in the hall. This is the first of many broken nights for the inhabitants of the inn. Eventually the Army major is found dead and the fabulous emeralds belonging to the American visitor disappear.

The snow prevents anyone outside the village from arriving to assist and the local constable is left on his own to solve the crimes. Constantine and Stuart take an active part in the investigation, which is far too involved to describe here.

This story was a pleasure to read. The set-up was a bit different from the usual country house murder but the basics were all there: limited number of suspects mostly unknown to each other, the weather restricting movement, a sharp-eyed amateur sleuth. The plot was intricate and the resolution was satisfying. Highly recommended.