Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Harassed Hero by Ernest Dudley

Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen (1908 – 2006), known as Ernest Dudley, was an author, a screenwriter, an actor, and a journalist. He created the popular BBC radio crime series Dr Morelle that ran from 1942 to 1948 and the television series The Armchair Detective that ran in 1949. He wrote society articles for The Daily Mail in the 1930s. The Harassed Hero (Hodder & Stoughton, 1951) seems to be his fourth novel, although the bibliographies for this versatile writer vary. I learned about this book from Ward Saylor, the guiding light of the Crime Thru Time online discussion, who recommended it.

Murray Selwyn is obsessed with his health. He is convinced the slightest strain will undermine irretrievably his already fragile constitution. All he wants is to get to the nursing home for a nice long rest, which his doctor agrees he needs. After leaving the doctor, who no doubt considers Murray a lucrative patient, he fills prescriptions and purchases lozenges, throat sprays, digestive tablets, and other necessities, then finds a taxi to take him home. His long-suffering valet Twigg brings in his packages while Murray recoups from the stress of the trip. Amongst the parcels is a briefcase neither of them recognizes. Twigg opens it and out falls a pile of five-pound notes.

Thus, Murray’s unsought acquaintance with a group of forgers begins. The one who lost the briefcase tracks it back to Murray and retrieves it from Murray and Twigg at gun point. His erstwhile colleagues take umbrage at his attempt to keep the money for himself and catch up with him outside Murray’s building, knock him out, and return his unconscious body to Murray’s front hall. Twigg is aghast at finding what seems to be a corpse but Murray is still enraged at having a gun waved in his face a short time previously and only calls Scotland Yard to take the body away.

By the time Scotland Yard arrives, the thug has regained consciousness and disappeared, which results in an unpleasant conversation between the police and Murray, who has no corpse to show them, despite protestations that one in fact existed. They leave and the nurse who is to escort Murray to the nursing home appears, expecting a frail invalid instead of a tall strapping hunk. But the forgers realize the plates to reproduce the fivers are gone, and they return to Murray to retrieve them, involving not only Murray but his nurse and the rest home in their machinations.

This book is almost straight slapstick with bodies and bank note printing plates appearing and disappearing. Outraged matrons and absent-minded doctors add to the hilarity, punctuated with Murray’s wails about his pulse, his temperature, and his nerves. The counterfeiters, some of the ugliest customers I’ve encountered recently in the pages of fiction, offset the lighthearted tone. Great break from noir. Recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Away Went the Little Fish by Margot Bennett

Margot Bennett (1912-1980) worked as an advertising copywriter, as a nurse and translator during the Spanish Civil War, and as a television scriptwriter. She wrote literary fiction, crime fiction, and science fiction. Compared to her Golden Age contemporaries, her output was relatively small: only seven mysteries. The last two were nominated for awards and the last one received the Crossed Red Herrings award, now the Golden Dagger award, in 1958 for best mystery of the year from the Crime Writers’ Association. Her diminutive output nowise affected her popularity, which was considerable, as her books were translated into multiple languages. 

Away Went the Little Fish (Nichols, 1946) is her second mystery featuring Captain John Davies. Davies is still in the army more than year after the war ended, his demobilization papers having been misplaced. He’s assigned to a backwater post 40 miles away from London He dislikes the rooming house where he finds living quarters and he dislikes his new colleagues and he dislikes the town of Wetherfold.  A colleague Raphael Sands, who lives apart from his wife, also has a room in the same house but Davies rarely sees him, as Sands has a lucrative sideline in writing potboilers while he is supposed to be working for the British Civil Service.

England after the war was still suffering from severe shortages in food and basic necessities so an estate sale attracted far more attention in the town than it would have in more prosperous times. Even Davies showed up, more to have something to do than to buy anything. When a large chest at the sale was flung open for display, bystanders were horrified to see the body of Sands inside. Sands has unquestionably been murdered.

Davies decides to investigate, citing the success of his first case, described in Time to Change Hats (1945). The police decline his help, repeatedly, which does not impede him in the least. Davies begins interviewing everyone associated with Sands. When he meets Sands’ estranged wife, he immediately falls in love with her. From there the story begins to meander into multiple unrelated story threads. The actual mystery, essentially a locked room puzzle, could have been relayed in about half as many pages as the book occupies.

The characters are memorable. The owner of the house where Davies rents a room has a school-age daughter who is one of the most obnoxious children I’ve ever seen in the pages of fiction. She monitors the household’s use of electricity, she walks into Davies’s bedroom without asking, and she keeps minnows in the sink of the spare bathroom.  Her mother is consumed with anxiety about finding food amid the rampant shortages; it occupies almost all of her waking thoughts. Then there’s the resident mad scientist who is inventing something he doesn’t talk about. His neighbors reported him for collaboration during the war but the authorities could find no basis for arresting him. Eccentricity is, so far, not a crime.

Finely plotted, well written with sardonic humor, but long and rambling.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger

A wonderful book told from the perspective of a child, Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger (Poisoned Pen Press, 2002) is set in London in 1953, which was awash with excitement over the approaching coronation of Queen Elizabeth. No one was more thrilled than 7-year-old Rosie, who lived in Soho with her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Bert. She did not remember a time when she did not live with them above the café they ran on a street with an Italian delicatessen, a fortune teller, a prostitute, and a gambling lawyer, all of whom were café regulars. Rosie, with her blonde curls and blue eyes, was considered a Princess Anne look-alike, which annoyed her as the princess was younger than Rosie was. She was doted on by all of the neighborhood residents and accustomed to a good bit of coddling.

Rosie came to realize, through the taunting of her classmates, that the heavy drinking lady with the fabulous perfume who visited occasionally was her mother. She didn’t want to live with her mother but appreciated her visits, especially when they went to the bookstores on Charing Cross Road, where Rosie learned to love to read. She also loved Maggie and Bert and the cast of vibrant characters who lived nearby and was happiest when she was with them.

A wrinkle in their uneventful lives was created by a stranger who began watching the café. Inquiry by one of the neighbors elicited the information he was waiting for the Perfumed Lady, Rosie’s mother. The whole street was made uneasy by the man’s more or less constant presence and his search for what seemed to be an ordinary sex worker with a drinking problem. When his attention shifted to Rosie herself, their disquiet escalated to alarm.

This is a satisfying happy story with a lively description of Soho and its colorful denizens in the 1950s, where people tired of rationing and restrictions were beginning to enjoy life again. Despite the light-heartedness, incest, assault, theft, blackmail, and kidnapping figure prominently in the plot. The naïve voice of the narrator Rosie provides much of the humor as a counterbalance to what could have been in other hands a rather grim tale. This is the first of four books about the East End of London in the 1950s based on the author’s childhood. It won the initial Harry Bowling Prize for Fiction in 2000.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Murder on the Bus by Cecil Freeman Gregg

Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960) was a chartered secretary and accountant born in London. He published 42 mysteries between 1928 and 1960, with two main series characters, Inspector Cuthbert Higgins and Harry Prince. Harry Prince was a thief who was driven to a life of crime due to the death of his wife Ethel. Cuthbert Higgins is a versatile Scotland Yard detective who can engage in fisticuffs as well as unravel a complicated mystery. (From the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930698/Gregg%2C%20Cecil%20Freeman.)

The Murder on the Bus (Hutchinson, 1930) is Gregg’s third mystery. Inspector Higgins starts his day with a letter purporting to be from a small-time criminal telling the police that he will have committed suicide by the time they receive his letter. Higgins sends a constable to investigate. Indeed the criminal lay dead in his room, apparently from gas. The inquest finds the cause of death to be suicide and the file is closed, only to be re-opened when a representative from the gas company remonstrates with the inspector days later. It seems there wasn’t enough money in the meter for gas to have been the cause of death. Yet that was the finding of the autopsy. So how did this man die?

While Higgins is dealing with this puzzle, he’s also looking into a second one. A man is found shot to death on the top of a city bus. He was sitting in the back row of the open bus, where no one could possibly sit behind him, yet he was shot in the back. Higgins decided the shot had to have come from one of the houses the bus passed on its route. Deciding on which houses to search out of the possible thousands was a nice exercise in logical deduction.

Searching for the identity of the shooting victim takes Higgins to a small village and a country manor which he discovers too late is inhabited by a gang of blackmailers with connections to both dead men. Getting away from them requires a good deal of ingenuity and even more physical exertion. Higgins seems to be unusually athletic for someone his age.

Considering the amount of action, the story unfolds slowly. It’s over 230 pages long and could have been edited to speed up the momentum which is leisurely. It’s not exactly a procedural and it’s not an amateur detective tale; I’m not sure how to categorize this book, other than Golden Age. Perhaps Gregg was still finding his way to his style; comparing this early work to a later Inspector Higgins might be instructive.

The plot itself was nicely complicated with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming. I doubt that I will search for more of Gregg’s work but I will likely read another one if it comes my way. A note from the publisher of the ebook I read stated it was based on the version published by The Dial Company in New York. All English spellings were Americanized and “some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit”. I am wondering just how extensive this edit was and if it contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the book.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was an attorney who wanted to earn enough money writing pulp fiction so that he could quit the practice of law. The general public knows him best as the creator of Perry Mason courtroom dramas but under the name of A. A. Fair he also wrote a series about Donald Lam, a private investigator who worked for Bertha Cool. Later in the series Lam became a partner in the agency, but in the beginning (The Bigger They Come, 1939) she owned the agency and he was her employee, an oddity for the time.

According to the afterword by Russell Atwood, The Knife Slipped (Hard Case Crime, 2016) was written in 1939 and was supposed to be the second book in the series, but Gardner’s publisher objected to Bertha Cool’s tendency to “talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people.” It was found some 75 years later in Gardner’s papers.

A mousy woman and her abrasive mother hire Bertha’s agency to follow the younger woman’s husband, whom they believe is playing around. What Donald discovers instead is that the husband has a second apartment, where he is selling the answers from civil service exams to local police and firefighters. The discovery leads Bertha and Donald to look for the source of the information in the city bureaucracy. True to form, Donald falls madly in love with the switchboard operator at the apartment and that blurs his judgment beyond understanding when the husband is found shot to death.

Unusually for this series, Bertha steps in and does a fair amount of investigation herself, both to earn the agency’s fee and, as she says, to cut herself a piece of the pie, that is, pull some money out of the exam corruption scheme.

I can understand the publisher’s reaction to Bertha. She is much brassier here than in subsequent books and Donald is wimpier, although strong resemblances to their later versions are apparent. Bertha has her eye on the financial bottom line and Donald falls for every female who looks in his direction. Bertha also has an annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person that I don’t remember in later titles.

I am sorry to report that Bertha indulges in the earliest instance of fat-shaming I can remember seeing in print. When the mother and daughter duo first appear in the agency’s office, Bertha reminds the daughter that if she unloads the current husband, she will have to find a second one and asks her how much weight she’s gained during the marriage. She points out the daughter had better lose weight before rocking her current marital boat if she expects to find a second husband. It was probably all true for the time and the place but distasteful in the here and now. It reminded me of the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Blonde Bonanza (1962) in which Perry watched a young woman wolf down huge meals every day. Perry made it his business to follow her and document what she was eating. He inquired and learned she was being paid to gain weight to model a new line of large size clothing for women. When he looked at the contract, he of course discovered gaping holes and advised her to start losing weight. Gardner clearly had an attitude about overweight women.

The Knife Slipped is like one of those prehistoric insects caught in amber. A lot of the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s is gone as is antediluvian animalia, but this gives contemporary readers a solid idea of what we’ve lost.