Friday's Forgotten Book: Murder on a Bad Hair Day by Anne George

Anne Carroll George (1927-2001) was best known to me as a cozy mystery writer, the creator of the eight Southern Sisters mysteries set in Birmingham, Alabama, released between 1996 and 2001. She was also short-listed for a Pulitzer, nominated in 1993 for her poetry collection entitled Some of It Is True.

The Southern Sisters are Patricia Anne and Mary Alice, otherwise known as Mouse and Sister. Patricia Anne is married to Fred, has three adult children, and is a retired schoolteacher. Mary Alice has been married and widowed three times, has three grown children, and has enough money from her marriages to never have to worry again. They all live in Birmingham, Alabama, which George describes in the most affectionate of terms. In Murder on a Bad Hair Day (Avon, 1996) Christmas is only three weeks away, and Patricia Anne has yet to start her shopping. Mary Alice has invited her to attend a gallery opening, where they meet Abraham, a popular folk artist, whose work they both admire. They also meet the owner of the gallery, Mercy Armistead, who is found dead after the party is over. Not, as it turns out, of natural causes. The gallery owner’s assistant reports someone broke into her apartment the same night and tried to kill her. When the police investigate, they find her apartment has been vandalized. The assistant, a former student of Patricia Anne’s, disappears a day later. As Patricia Anne bakes cookies and shops and decorates, she and Mary Alice try to find the assistant, who seems to have left the hospital, where she was placed for protection, without clothes or money.  

I love Southern literature. Even the lightest of stories set in the South is redolent of family and history. The past is never really past, it’s an integral part of the present. Idiosyncrasy is something to be celebrated, not hidden. This series demonstrates these characteristics in abundance. The characters and the dialogue are wonderful. The sisters bicker as if they were teenagers. Fred and Mary Alice have never learned to like each other much, even after 40 years, which puts Patricia Anne in the middle often. Christmas adds an extra strain on everyone; Fred doesn’t want fresh greenery in the house, he considers it a fire hazard. Patricia Anne buys it anyway and waits for Fred to explode.

The gallery assistant’s twin sisters pop up at odd times, finishing each other’s sentences. Patricia Anne feels certain they know where their sister is. The scene where Patricia Anne finds them drunk and brings them home to keep them from driving is priceless. Fred is upset that she has brought strangers to his house and then decides they look adorable while they sleep off their hangover.

Throughout the perambulations of holiday preparations, Patricia Anne never loses sight of the fact there’s been a murder and a possible kidnapping. Equal parts Christmas story and well-plotted mystery. Readers of cozy mysteries who have not met the Southern Sisters should do so without delay. Those of you who remember them might want to schedule a series re-read as part of your New Year’s resolutions. Highly recommended.

Friday's Forgotten Book: Cry Guilty by Sara Woods

British author Lana Hutton Bowen-Judd (1922-1985) published 48 mysteries under the name of Sara Woods, three under the name Anne Burton, three under the name of Mary Challis, and three under the name Margaret Leek. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, she emigrated to Canada with her husband and there undertook her astonishingly prolific writing career, averaging two books a year, using her experience in a solicitor’s office as the basis for many of the plots.

Antony Maitland, the protagonist of the Sara Woods books, is a London barrister much like his legal cousin Perry Mason in that he is not content to simply practice law, he is compelled to investigate the cases that he undertakes. Maitland is surrounded by supportive family and friends who often ride shotgun with him on his investigations, since a war injury to his shoulder has left him unable to drive. He is devoted to his wife, with whom he grew up and married when they were still teenagers. (This is unusual, as most mystery protagonists are divorced, unhappily married, or desperately single.) His uncle with whom he practices law is often highly critical of Antony and his vagaries but deeply protective all the same.

In Cry Guilty!, the thirty-second title in the series, Antony and Jenny are just back in London from their summer vacation in the country when Antony is asked to represent Alan Kirby, who’s been accused of receiving stolen goods, in this case a Rubens painting that had been taken from a local museum months ago. This robbery is one of the latest in a series of art thefts which cropped up in an earlier book. There seems to be no real defense to the case but Antony decides to look into it anyway. After he spends a weekend questioning a number of people without anything much to show for it, his client is killed in a drive-by shooting. Overwhelmed with guilt, as clearly his questions upset someone more than he realized, Antony is determined to identify both the killer and the mastermind behind the art thefts. As often happens in these books, he does so during an intense courtroom scene.

Woods used a criminal kingpin as a plot device in a number of these stories, and I find they seem to wear a little less well than some of her other plots. The standard characters though are familiar and comforting. In a brilliant move Woods promoted a minor character (small town attorney Vera Langhorne who appeared occasionally) to a more prominent position in the series in an earlier book, and she makes a real difference to the interactions of the more established characters.

This series is one that always survives culling when I clear the shelves to make room for more books. I love the legal elements, the plots are generally well done, and the characters are old friends. These books are out of print now but most of the series can be found online or in secondhand book stores. Highly recommended.

Friday's Forgotten Book: Pronto by Elmore Leonard

Pronto by Elmore Leonard (Delacorte Press, 1993) is the first appearance in print of Raylan Givens, the U.S. Marshal who featured in the FX series Justified from March 2010 to April 2015. The television series was based on Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” but this book describes the back story of Givens’ dealings with a Miami mobster that’s summarized in the initial episode.

Harry Arno is a bookmaker in Miami. He’s been skimming the profits due his silent mobster partners for years without comment from law enforcement or Jimmy Capotorto, the local boss. Suddenly Jimmy realizes Harry has been skimming and now wants revenge. Harry panics after Jimmy sends an incompetent assassin to settle the score, kills him, and then is under arrest, as the shooter’s gun mysteriously disappears and it looks like Harry killed an unarmed man. Local police urge Harry to turn state’s evidence against Jimmy, only Harry knows nothing good can come of it.

While Harry dithers, various law enforcement representatives are assigned to watch his hotel lobby to ensure he doesn’t jump bail. One of them is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s met Harry before. Givens was escorting Harry, who had been subpoenaed as a federal witness, to Chicago from Miami when Harry escaped at the Atlanta airport, leaving Givens with a major blot on his record with the U.S. Marshals Service. He’s determined to recoup his previous blunder. Unfortunately Harry evades him once again and is on a plane to Italy before anyone knows he’s gone. Completely mortified, Givens takes personal leave to follow Harry and bring him back.

In the meantime, the Miami mobsters are restive under the fading leadership of Jimmy and begin positioning themselves to take over his holdings, resulting in backbiting and quarreling. The various girlfriends sense the way the wind is blowing and quietly arrange to move on to greener and safer pastures. Leonard captures the personalities and the motivations of these lowlifes perfectly.

Givens finds Harry and his girlfriend in a country villa near Rapallo, protects them from the local shooting talent, and moves them safely out of Italy. Harry doesn’t make it easy, as he’s self-absorbed, paranoid, and generally obnoxious. The contrast between the soft American gangsters and their hard-as-nails Italian counterparts is sharply and starkly drawn.

It is impossible for me not to compare the book to the television series. Givens of the book is not quite Givens of the television series. He is still from Harlan County, Kentucky; wears a Stetson; was a coal miner; is a recognized sharpshooter; has an ex-wife who eloped with a real estate agent. In the book though he’s a bit of a country bumpkin everyone ridicules, sometimes to his face. It’s when he’s forced into a confrontation that his core strain of ruthlessness and implacability hidden by the good old boy façade emerges. Some folks live to regret their misjudgment and others don’t.

Absorbing read for someone who hasn’t seen Justified and great background for someone who has. Recommended.

Fridays Forgotten Book: The Perfect Murder by H.R.F. Keating

Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating (1926–2011) was an English journalist, book reviewer, and crime fiction writer, most well-known for his 26 mysteries featuring Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay (Mumbai) CID.  Other novels included seven about Detective Chief Inspector Harriet Martens and about 20 stand-alone crime stories and collections of short stories. He wrote a biography of Dame Agatha Christie entitled Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime (1977) and The Bedside Companion to Crime (1989) as well as other crime non-fiction. He was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) in 1970 and 1971 and president of the Detection Club from 1985 until 2000. In 1996 the CWA awarded him the Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding services to crime literature. On his 80th birthday in 2006, members of the Detection Club produced an anthology in his honor, Verdict of Us All, published by Crippen & Landru.

Inspector Ghote’s first appearance is in The Perfect Murder (1964), which won a Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award and an Edgar Special award. The conscientious Inspector Ghote is sent to the home of the wealthy businessman Lala Varde to investigate what Varde reports as the murder of his secretary Mr. Perfect. Amid much lamenting Varde accuses unnamed corporate rivals of the murder while Ghote inspects the perimeter of the house, finding no opening where someone could have entered. Even the servants, of which there are a great number, appear to have been locked into their quarters.

When he asks to view the body, Inspector Ghote learns that the secretary is far from dead. He is upstairs with Varde’s physician, recovering from a severe blow to the head. While he is explaining the difference between murder and assault to Varde, Ghote is called to rush back to his office, where his supervisor places him in charge of discovering what happened to a single rupee that disappeared from the desk of the Minister of Police Affairs. In addition to juggling the two investigations, both with political ramifications for Ghote’s long-term career and both labelled top priority by his supervisor, Ghote also has Axel Svenson, a visitor from Sweden in Bombay to learn about India police methods, to contend with. Svenson has a gift for making incredibly awkward observations, such as if it’s true the Hindu gods are known to accept bribes, it’s no wonder the Indian police think it’s all right. Svenson turns out to be of more assistance than he originally appears to be, fortunately for Ghote.

The characters are wonderfully drawn in this quietly atmospheric book. Ghote’s devotion to the detection methods described in Gross’s Criminal Investigation, translated from the German, is a delight. Highly recommended.