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.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dark Garden by E.R. Punshon

The Dark Garden by Ernest Robertson Punshon (Gollancz, 1941) is the sixteenth book in the saga of police detective Bobby Owen. Owen started out as a police constable in London and made his way up the ladder of Scotland Yard and then left London for the rural environs of the Wychshire county police force. In this story he is still being regarded as an outsider by his police colleagues and is trying hard to fit into the office. His supervisor Colonel Glynne, chief constable of the county CID, is out on sick leave, which gives Owen charge of the office as well as responsibility for investigating any crimes that come to his attention. He is in no frame of mind therefore to tolerate much nonsense when a local farmer visits Owen one day, demanding action against a local solicitor who manages a trust for the farmer’s wife. The farmer regards the money as his own and he has plans for it, but the solicitor won’t release it. Owen explains to the farmer that no law has been broken and the farmer leaves angrier than when he arrived. A few days later he learns that the farmer has been issuing threats against the solicitor, and at least a few people are taking them seriously. Owen decides to let the farmer know that what he’s doing is actionable and consequently is pulled into the troubles of the decidedly dysfunctional solicitor’s office.

After the solicitor in question disappears and then is found dead, Owen identifies so many potential motives and so many possible culprits that he is overwhelmed.  In addition to the unhappy farmer, the solicitor has entered into an extramarital alliance with one of his staffers, which has made one of the articled clerks deeply jealous. The solicitor’s partner would be happy to have the law practice to himself, and the managing clerk has been promised a partnership that has not materialized. The list goes on and on.

Because of all the suspects with valid motive and opportunity to commit the crime, the actual perpetrator isn’t clear until the very end of the tale, although I thought there was a strong case against him well before then. All in all, a solid Bobby Owen story. I was sorry not to see much of his wife Olive though, her managing around his work schedule and wartime conditions is always interesting.

This review is based on the Kindle version of the book, with an introduction by noted crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hal’s Own Murder Case by Lee Martin

Anne Wingate (Martha Anne Guice Wingate) has written multiple mystery series, including one of my all-time favorites. Under the name Lee Martin, she created the memorable character of Deb Ralston, a detective on the Fort Worth police force, with three adopted children and a husband in career crisis. One of the threads throughout the 13 books published between 1984 and 1997 is Deb’s discovery of and eventual conversion to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Since Wingate is an adult convert to the LDS church, it’s easy to believe there’s a degree of autobiography in these stories.

I have read all of the Deb Ralston stories more than once and some many times. (For those interested in genealogy, a couple of them focus on family history and research.) I think Hal’s Own Murder Case (St. Martin’s Press, 1989) is among my favorites. After adopting and raising three children, Deb in her early 40s is pregnant and on leave, expecting to deliver within a few weeks. Hal is Deb’s youngest child and only son. His attention deficit disorder in addition to the usual teenage angst makes him utterly maddening, such as when Deb discovers that he and his girlfriend Lori have decided to hitchhike to New Mexico during their spring break without telling anyone. Deb is conjuring mental images of slow and painful punishments while she begins her search, when her husband, in the hospital with a broken leg, gets a call from the police in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Hal is being held there as a potential murder suspect. She is in no condition to chase after the wanderer but since her husband is immobile, she has no choice.

She arrives in Las Vegas to learn that the body of a stranger was discovered in Lori’s sleeping bag and that Lori has disappeared. The murder was committed with a hunting knife that belongs to Deb’s husband. Hal was found disoriented and covered with blood. The local police were confident they had found the culprit and that they would find Lori’s body soon. Deb joins forces with Police Chief Alberto Salazar to find Lori and get her runaway son out of jail. The exchanges between scatter-brained Hal and practical, grounded Chief Salazar are wonderful pieces of dialog.

These books are excellent late 20th century police procedurals, before the explosion of IT and the internet re-invented investigative techniques. The characters are some of the strongest I can remember seeing; it’s easy to think I might run into Deb at the grocery. The ending is unexpected, when Deb’s professional work sharply coincides with her personal life. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Cinnamon Murder by Frances Crane

Frances Kirkwood Crane (1896-1981) wrote 26 mysteries between 1941 and 1965 with private investigator Pat Abbott and his wife Jean in the leading crime-solving role. The Abbotts were based in San Francisco but travelled constantly so the stories are set in a range of locales. All of the books have a color in the title, except for The Polkadot Murder, which, to be strictly accurate, is a pattern, not a color.

The Cinnamon Murder (Random House, 1946) is the eighth in the series, and the Abbotts are vacationing in New York City. After 10 days they are ready to go home. They attend one last cocktail party where they become enmeshed in the problems of Brenda Davison. They meet Brenda’s brother-in-law and her sister-in-law and learn that Brenda’s husband, their brother, died in an aircraft accident a few years previously. They also learn that the surviving Davisons’ father left a sizeable estate to his grandchildren, skipping a generation and making Brenda’s 3-year-old daughter immensely wealthy. Neither of the Davisons like Brenda but they like the money she controls as her daughter’s guardian, thereby setting up significant tension in the family. The child was quite ill earlier in the year, and Brenda believes that someone tried to poison her.

Between worry about her child and being convinced the Davisons are trying to make her look like an unfit mother, Brenda is upset and hysterical in almost every conversation she has with the Abbotts. Pat is intrigued enough to postpone their departure from New York to look into the situation. They seem to never sleep and, during one of their early morning investigative excursions, find the body of a woman with the same cinnamon-brown nail polish that Brenda wears. Since the face has been mutilated, identification is made based on the nail polish and hair color.

The plot was probably fresh at the time this book was written but not so much 70 years later, as I recognized a couple of twists for what they were. One point that was not cleared up to my satisfaction was the taxi driver that followed the Abbotts around. He turned up at odd times for no reason that I could see.

I appreciated the precise references to colors, as I also tend to notice the exact shade I’m seeing. I would like to know what Schiaparelli blue is, though; a later reference said it is blue violet but I could not find a sample on the Internet. A doorman’s uniform was described as “faun-colored”, which I assume is an editorial error that someone should have caught.

Kirkus called it “sleek” and The Saturday Review said it was “readable.”

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Not Dead, Only Resting by Simon Brett

Simon Brett has been a mainstay of English crime fiction for 45 years. He has published some 60 volumes, in addition to writing for radio and television series. He received the Diamond Dagger Award from The Crime Writers’ Association in 2014 and the Order of the British Empire in 2016 for significant contributions to literature.

In addition to a handful of stand-alone books, he created four distinct series protagonists. Bright Young Things Blotto, the Honourable Devereux Lyminster, and his sister Twinks, in the 1920s; retiree Carole Seddon, who finds her choice of a retirement village has far more crime than she expected; Melita Pargeter, who relocates to a seaside retirement hotel after her husband’s death; and Charles Paris, an actor frequently out of work who drinks a little more than he should.

Charles Paris is perhaps my favorite of the four; I love mysteries set in the theatre. In Not Dead, Only Resting (Scribner, 1984), the 10th in the series, Charles is out of work as usual and looking for ways to pay the bills while he waits for the casting call he knows will come. He jumps at the chance to join friends at the swanky restaurant named Tryst for a meal he doesn’t have to pay for. While he’s there, the gay couple who own and run the restaurant quarrel publicly. When the murdered body of one is discovered a few days later, the other, who has disappeared, is assumed to be the culprit.

Charles is enlisted by the cousin of the vanished restaurant owner to clear his name. This unofficial investigation takes Charles to a country villa in France and to gay escort services and many places in between, always fortified first by strong drink.

A nicely layered plot with murder, blackmail, and criminal assault; lively characters, one of whom uses Cockney rhyming slang so often he’s hard to understand; and an unexpected ending, all woven into a detailed backdrop of the realities of the acting world.

This book was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger Award in 1984.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes

Michael Innes (1906-1994) was the pen name used by John Innes Mackintosh Stewart to write around 50 mystery novels and collections of mystery short stories. He published contemporary fiction and literary criticism under his given name. He released around 35 books about Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard between 1936 and 1987.

Appleby’s Answer (Dodd, Mead, 1973) is a blatant send-up of lady crime fiction writers, country squires, retired military officers, and other stock characters who often appear in the works of English crime fiction. There is no mystery to speak of, and a goat figures prominently in the final chapters. I found it an entertaining, although antic, read after I stopped waiting for the mystery to appear.

Miss Priscilla Pringle, a modestly successful author of such titles as Vengeance at the Vicarage and Revenge at the Rectory, is pleased to note that the gentleman sharing her train compartment is reading one of her books (Murder in the Cathedral). He recognizes her from the jacket photo and embarks on an increasingly odd conversation, suggesting that the two of them collaborate on a mystery that she will publish under both their names. Captain Bulkington, it seems, is willing to pay £500 to see his name on the cover of a book.

For unclear reasons, Miss Pringle is intrigued by the peculiar conversation and agrees to discuss literary possibilities with the retired military officer by phone, declining to meet him in person. She does visit his village to gather information about him, not a particularly wise thing to do, as the town is far too small for her to escape his notice. This visit contains one of the best scenes in the book, in which the rector announces one hymn number during matins and the order of service another one. Half of the participants in the service sing one song while the other half sing the second. A soundtrack of this event would be wonderful.

Sir John Appleby and his wife Judith are visiting friends in the area and they are pulled into an investigation by the local police on the thinnest of pretexts, in which they meet the captain and the young men he is supposedly prepping for entrance into a military academy, and questions about the death of the previous vicar arise.

This is an amusing read, although not a particularly satisfying mystery. Earlier books in the Appleby series are better in that regard.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Gourmet Detective by Peter King

Peter King wrote eight books about the English chef turned food consultant Goodwin Harper between 1994 and 2003. According to Amazon, King was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and a retired metallurgist who worked on the Apollo project for NASA. I haven’t been able to find much more about him.

Goodwin Harper emerged on the crime fiction scene just when the culinary mystery began to take hold. Goldy Bear, Diane Mott Davidson’s invention, appeared in 1990. Angie Amalfi, a restaurant reviewer in San Francisco, created by Joanne Pence, had her first adventure in 1993. Claudia Bishop released her first Hemlock Falls Inn culinary mystery in 1994. Ellen Hart published the initial mystery about Sophie Greenway, a Minneapolis food critic, in 1994. The earliest culinaries that I know of are the four books (1982-1993) by Virginia Rich featuring chef Eugenia Potter.

Unlike most mysteries about food these days, there are no recipes in the books and Harper focuses on the business aspects of the restaurant and catering industry as well as the cookery itself. When someone expresses surprise in one book at the frequency and extent of criminal activity Harper finds, Harper points out that food is big business that generates billions of dollars in revenue one way or another and wherever that amount of money is found, lawlessness is sure to be there too.

Harper markets himself as The Gourmet Detective, who specializes in locating hard-to-find ingredients, identifying substitutes for ingredients no longer available, finding markets for new products, and menu planning for special events such as Renaissance banquets. One day the owner of one of the most exclusive restaurants in London asks him to find out who is sabotaging his establishment. Deliveries are being diverted, mice show up the day an inspector is due, tax records disappear. Harper is given a generous retainer to get to the bottom of the problem. To his delight, he is invited to attend the banquet of an exclusive gourmet organization later in the week.

The night of the banquet Harper is in ecstasy at being in the same room with so many food experts and listening to them talk. Restaurant owners, journalists, celebrity chefs, they are all there. The food is outstanding and everything is going well, until one journalist falls over dead. The police arrive, examine the body, question everyone present, until the journalist sits up, clearly quite alive. The medical examiner comes in at that point and is irate at being called out erroneously. A few minutes later the journalist stands up and collapses again, definitely dead this time. The police press Harper into helping them understand the food world while the owner closes the restaurant because of the adverse publicity.

This book is fun to read, partly because of all the food descriptions but also because Harper’s hobby is crime fiction. The book is full of references to detective fiction icons, both direct and indirect. One oddity: the voice changes from first person to third person and back, something an editor should have caught. It’s still a series worth finding on the Internet or via interlibrary loan and reading from beginning to end.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney

Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) published nearly 50 mystery novels, most of which were stand-alone stories. She had three series characters: Jeff DiMarco, an insurance investigator; David Madden, a postal inspector; and Jim O’Neill, a Connecticut police detective.

Strawman (Doubleday, 1951) is the third outing for Jeff DiMarco. Called in to the office with several days still to run on his camping and fishing vacation, he’s assigned the task of investigating what seems to be an open-and-shut case against Lincoln Hunter. Hunter has been convicted of murder. When he’s executed, the $100,000 life insurance policy DiMarco’s company Commonwealth Assurance issued becomes payable to Hunter’s estate. (That’s $986,761.54 in 2019 dollars.) Commonwealth Assurance does not want to pay this princely sum to anyone and tells DiMarco to find a loophole somewhere.

Hunter had been seeing Celia Worthen, a stenographer, even after he met Ruth Copper, whom he decided to marry. When he told Celia he was marrying someone else, she insisted that he had to marry her because she was pregnant. He proceeded with his marriage plans and had to cut his honeymoon short because the police wanted to question him about Celia, who was strangled the night before Hunter and Ruth’s wedding. Hunter cannot account for his time during the crucial window that the murder took place and is indicted for murder.  

This is a classic case of investigation by conversation. DiMarco interviewed everyone who was remotely involved and began identifying discrepancies and inconsistencies, In the end he’s nearly killed by the murderer as he wraps up his inquiry.