Category Archives: Fiction

The Big Heat: William P. McGivern (1953)

“You couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the stench.”

I’d hazard a guess that most noir film fans have seen the Fritz Lang film version of The Big Heat. Starring Gloria Grahame (one of my favourite noir actresses), Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, The Big Heat makes many Top Noir Film lists, and it certainly makes mine. That brings me to the book, inspired by a true story, by William P. McGivern. The book, published in 1953 first appeared in serial form; it took the author just three weeks to write it, and that same year, the film rights were sold. My copy sat on a shelf for years, and while I picked it up every few months, I always put the book down. Now after finishing the book, I realize that my reluctance to read it stemmed from a concern that I’d be disappointed. Guess what… I wasn’t.

Set in Philadelphia, The Big Heat is a hard-boiled, moody tale of police corruption, how one brave solitary detective tries to solve a murder case, and the very great personal cost he pays for his integrity.

The big heatOn a night of heavy rain, detectives in the homicide department receive a call from a Mrs Deery that her husband, a police clerk who worked in the Superintendent’s office, has committed suicide. Although two detectives are playing cards when the phone rings, the atmosphere in the office is one of palpable disquiet, and that sensation only deepens with the news of Deery’s death.

A cop’s death is one thing; it means black bunting looped over the door of his station house for a week or so, a few paragraphs in the papers, and a note to his family from the Mayor and his captain. A cop’s suicide is another matter. It can mean that the man was a weakling, a neurotic, a fool–in any case no one to have been safeguarding the lives and properties of other citizens, or it can mean something even less wholesome, something potentially dangerous to the entire, close-knit fabric of the department.

Bannion goes to the Deery home, and although the case seems to be a cut and dried suicide, there are some elements to the situation that are troubling. Deery, a meticulous man, shot himself in his study, and one of things that catches Bannion’s attention is that Deery read travel books–a choice that strikes Bannion as “curious.” Bannion, already sensing that something doesn’t add up, then meets the smiling, composed widow–a woman whose careful grooming seems a little out of place:

Everything about her was meticulously arranged and ordered: her small black patent leather pumps shone glossily, her sheer nylons lacked even the suggestion of a wrinkle, and her nail polish and makeup looked as if it had been applied, and with great care, within the last fifteen or twenty minutes. And possibly it had, Bannion thought, with an odd quirk of annoyance.

The unknown reason behind Deery’s suicide rankles Bannion–although the grieving widow mouths a few words about her husband being worried about his health. The case is apparently closed, but then Bannion gets a call from a woman called Lucy Carroway claiming she has some information about Deery. Lucy, Deery’s one-time mistress, saw Deery 5 days before his death, and according to Lucy, “he was never happier in his life.” Bannion, a decent, hard-working, relentless homicide detective, goes to talk to Mrs Deery again, and tries to align the version of Deery given by his respectable, middle-class widow with the concerns of Lucy, a seemingly sincere woman with a tarnished past. Suddenly Bannion’s off the case and Lucy disappears….

There are several times when Bannion, a truly fascinating character, knows that he’s at a “crossroads […] either he went along and took orders, or he changed jobs.” Surrounded by corruption at every level, Bannion must make a choice, and he understands that there will be a great price to pay if he tries to buck the system. Still mulling over the question of which path to take, the decision is taken out of his hands when the stakes change.

The heat was on, the fix was in, call it what you like. Bannion had been nosing around something safe and protected, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, and so to hell with honest police work

In many ways, The Big Heat has the feel of a western with the lone hero seeking justice in an overwhelmingly corrupt world. Bannion, spurred on by tragedy, soon finds himself seeking revenge against violent gangsters as “the big heat” encompasses the city. As Bannion begins to stalk his quarry, he sets off a struggle within the criminal hierarchy of Philadelphia. Bannion is a character we like immediately–partly for his acknowledgment that “there was nothing more potentially revealing, he felt, than a man’s honest, impulsive reactions to a book.” He’s a tall, quiet man, respected by his colleagues and yet underestimated by his boss and the brutal gangsters who control the city:

Bannion shifted slightly in his chair. “You’d better listen a bit now,” he said. He felt anger surging up in him, pounding for release. This had always been his cross, a violent, hair-trigger temper that tore the control away from his judgement and reason. He fought it down now, as he had fought it for years. Bannion permitted himself no excesses of anger; he refused to pander to his buried need for violence, for unmotivated destruction. Bannion was known as a kind man, a gentle man, but only he knew the effort it cost him to play the role.

The book’s beautifully crafted dark mood is maintained throughout, not only by twists of plot but also by subtle references to the weather and the relentless rain. McGivern paints a portrait of  a corrupt city populated with greedy politicians, brutal gangsters, and a handful of good people who stand up for Bannion. Along the way to justice, Bannion meets Debby (Gloria Grahame in the film), the girlfriend of classless gangster, Max Stone (played by Lee Marvin), and in a very peculiar, yet brilliantly unexpected way, Debby becomes a sort of salvation for Bannion. For this reader, the best scene in the book occurs when Bannion confronts Mrs Deery and we see just how awful this seemingly-respectable widow really is. The roles given to the women in the book are fantastic–there’s Kate, Bannion’s wife who is the exact opposite of Mrs Deery, and then there are two women who exist on the fringes of society, Lucy and Debby, who both make incredibly strong moves and pay the price.

gunIf you’re going to buy a copy of The Big Heat, then try to get your hands on the version pictured here from ibooks. This edition contains an afterword from the author in which he explains some fundamentals about the book and the film, and a very significant meeting he had with Fritz Lang in Rome in 1962. This great director explained to McGivern exactly why he connected with the film and its depiction of a man standing up to evil. There are just a few differences between the book and the film, and it’s a classic case of the film version capitalizing on the visuals implied by the book.

204 pages including afterword

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The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

Review copy

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Eileen: Ottessa Moshfegh

“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:

In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.

The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.

Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements.  There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.

Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town.  Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.

eileen

 

There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:

There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.

Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.

In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …

What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.

Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.

What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:

So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks

Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.

You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.

Review copy/own a copy

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The Prank: Chekhov

Leave it to New York Review Books to present The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov, in its first ever English translation. This collection of 12 stories shows early Chekhov still maturing, still seeking his style. In the introduction, translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that in 1882, Chekhov “decided to gather together what he deemed to be the best of these early exuberant stories between a single cover,” but thanks to the censor Federov, the stories were not published. Following the assassination of Alexander II the year before in 1881, came a “massive political clampdown,” and while these humourous stories seem mild, there’s enough criticism of Russian society here for the stories to fall short of the censor’s approval. Two of the stories are parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, and as Maria Bloshteyn points out, the stories are a “critique of the triumphal follies of Russian imperialism.”

the prankHere’s a list of the contents:

  • Artists’ Wives
  • Papa
  • St Peter’s Day
  • Chase Two Rabbits, Catch None
  • A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya
  • A Sinner from Toledo
  • The Temperaments
  • Flying Islands by Jules Verne
  • Before the Wedding
  • A Letter to a Learned neighbor
  • In the Train Car
  • 1001 Passions, or, a Dreadful Night

If there’s a general theme to be found here in most of the stories, then that theme would be Russians Behaving Badly in their personal relationships. Artists Wives (Translated … from the Portuguese) is set in Lisbon’s Hotel of the Venomous Swan and it’s clear to see that this farcical story isn’t really supposed to be about the Portuguese but instead parodies Russian bohemians. We see the domestic lives of various artists who live in the same hotel. These artists–a painter, a writer, a sculptor and a musician may be suffering for their art, but their wives are suffering a great deal more. Here’s the painter Francesco Butronza trying to persuade his poor German wife, Carolina to pose in the nude “for the sake of art.”

“I clean his brushes, his palettes, his rags. I soil my dresses against his painting, I give lessons so that I can  feed him, I sew costumes for him, I put up with the small of hemp oil, I model for him days on end, I do everything, but …naked. Naked? I can’t!!!”

“I’ll divorce you, you red-haired she-harpy! shouted Butronza.

“But where am I to go?” gasped Carolina. “Give me enough money to get to Berlin, from where you’ve taken me, and then divorce me!”

“Fine, I’ll just finish Susanna and I’ll send you right back to that Prussia of yours, the land of cockroaches, spoiled sausage, and roundworm!” shouted Butronza

Papa has no small degree of domestic farce with the wife of the family seeking to talk to her husband about their son’s grades. The maid who’s been sitting on the husband’s lap, must spring off and hide behind the curtains. This may be a 19th c story, but when it comes to parenting, some things apparently never change, so we see parents (including a father with a comb-over) stressing about their son’s success in school.

A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya is the story of a man who failed to find lasting love in his life, and St Peter’s Day contains scenes of cruelty towards animals so once I hit that, I dropped the story.

Chase After Two Rabbits, Catch None is a story of domestic strife with Major Shchelkobokov, married to a much younger woman asking for marital advice from his “valet, hairdresser and floor scrubber” Panteley. A Sinner from Toledo is another story of twisted marital relations.

The Prank shows a different Chekhov than most of us are familiar with. In some of these stories, I saw shades of the zaniness of Gogol. Translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that “anthologies of humorous stories were selling well at the time” Chekhov wrote the stories in this collection, so he was writing to sell, and he was writing for a definite audience. Readers intimidated by 19th century Russian literature need not fear–these energetic, funny stories are very accessible and are written to entertain. For Chekhov fans, the book is well worth catching but they cannot compare to The Duel, for example. This is a young Chekhov before he matured into the incredible writer whose legacy grants him a firm place on the list of the greatest Russian writers.

Review copy

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For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens (1998)

“You could be Alice in Wonderland and me the White Rabbit for all you know.”

It’s taken me too long to return to Scottish author Agnes Owens, but sorting through book stacks revealed the novella: For the Love of Willie, the tragi-comic story of a young girl’s infatuation with a creepy shop owner named Willie Roper. The story is narrated by now middle-aged Peggy who lives in a mental hospital and whose major relationship is with a much older resident named the Duchess, a woman who may or may not have had a husband. Peggy, stealing paper from wherever she can find it, is determined to write her life story, and equally determined to make the Duchess, who’d much rather obsess on a Mills and Boon romance, read it. So the story goes back and forth with some scenes between Peggy and the Duchess and other scenes that tell Peggy’s story.  The big question here, in this story of abdicated responsibility, power and conformity, is what happened to land Peggy in a mental hospital.

Peggy’s story begins during WWII,  a gloomy world of air raids and rationing, with her first day delivering papers. She’s eager and proud to have landed the job which pays six shillings a week, and pleased that Willie Roper, the shop owner, makes special concessions for her. Plus there are those caramels which she, the only girl delivering papers, gets daily while the boys go without. Life at the newspaper shop is peculiar, and the reclusive Mrs Roper who lives above the shop with her husband rarely appears, although she arranges for sherry deliveries, against her husband’s wishes, courtesy of the paper boys. There are some ugly rumours about Willie but that doesn’t stop Peggy developing a crush on a man more than twice her age, and when she leaves school, she’s employed as his assistant….

for the love of willieWhile it’s fairly easy to guess where this story is going, it’s the author’s style that makes this story such a delight.  Peggy’s powerful voice combined with Agnes Owens’ dark tart humour make this tragicomic tale a marvelous read.  At sixteen Peggy is innocent and powerless, or so the adults who surround her think until Peggy’s quirkiness erupts in an unexpected way. In a world in which options are controlled and limited, immature Peggy makes her own tragic decision–the only one she thinks she can live with. Now in middle age, Peggy is in the position, once again, of being controlled by those in power, so we see her shouting through the railings desperately trying to catch the attention of a passing male, locked in the ‘punishment room’ and tranquilized for causing trouble. Even though Peggy is in many ways a victim, somehow she transcends that description, remaining uniquely defiant, obstinately independent, and brutally sane.

In the asylum, the Duchess and Peggy are women whose lives have shrunk to a routine of medication and boredom. The Duchess consoles herself with her dreams, saying “I dream a lot myself. It’s like going to the cinema in a way.” It suddenly seems vitally important to Peggy that she tell her story, but the Duchess, theoretically a captive audience, isn’t impressed:

‘I think people might want to read it if you put some romance into it,’ said the Duchess. “I mean if you wrote about falling in love with someone. Women always like to read about things like that.’

‘For God’s sake’ said Peggy, ‘you should know by this time that there’s no such thing as falling in love. It’s only sex with a sugar coating round it. I once thought I was in love, but on looking back I can see it was nature’s way of getting the female pregnant. We’re just like animals, you know. Do you think they fall in love?’

‘How can I tell what they’re thinking?’ said the Duchess haughtily. ‘But I’m quite sure they do in their own way.’

Her mouth closed firmly as she turned her attention to the film on television. Peggy shook her head and went into a reverie which had nothing to do with her present circumstances.

As with Bad Attitudes, there’s something a little off kilter about the characters in the book. Peggy’s mother and Willie are the main adult figures here, and they both act badly with Peggy’s mother abdicating responsibility when it comes to protecting her vulnerable daughter, and Willie taking advantage of an immature mind. Peggy is seen as a bizarre nuisance mainly for her refusal to conform to convenience. This theme is also continued in the mental hospital where the nurses bully and brutalize the patients and harass the poor old Duchess for wetting her bed. When various women in the book react emotionally to the circumstances in their lives, then they’re locked up or if they’re lucky, as Willie says about his wife, it’s all blamed on their hormones:

She’s been acting very funny lately. I’m just hoping that it’s her time of life.

16-year-old Peggy is a quirky character, someone who seems uncomplicated until suddenly she shocks us in a way we didn’t anticipate, and that’s exactly what makes this novella so brilliant. We’re left puzzling over the question of Peggy’s sanity, but certainly the adults in Peggy’s life have a great deal of responsibility here. Agnes Owens is an author who will definitely appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

122 pages

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Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead: James Hadley Chase

Again as if we were planning to drown a cat. No emotion, no nothing. Once more the cold dead finger went up my spine.”

After reading (trying to read) a couple of books which were disappointing, I knew I had to cleanse my mind with an author who would be a good safe bet–someone guaranteed to get me back on track. I have a huge stack of James Hadley Chase titles here, and he was just the antidote I needed to cure my recent reading slump. But which one to pick? Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead fit my mood…

It’s the 70s, post Vietnam, and our narrator finds himself on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sacramento to San Francisco. A former Wall Street trader who served 5 years for embezzling funds, 38-year-old Keith Devery has been out of jail for 10 months now, “living rough,” and moving from one itinerant job to another. He meets a businessman named Joe Pinner, who guessing that Devery is indigent, invites him to stop at the small coastal town of Wicksteed and even points him towards an available job as a driving instructor. Devery who has just $59 in his pocket, no job, no contacts, and no place to go, agrees. Pinner tells Devery that Wicksteed is a “friendly little town,” and that description soon appears to come true.

Devery certainly falls on his feet. His new boss, the owner of the driving school, is a man whose bank robber son was killed during a botched crime, and probably because he couldn’t help his own son keep on the straight and narrow, he’s motivated to employ Devery. Devery’s run of bad luck seems to have changed. He has a job that pays $200 a week, and rents a very pleasant room from a widow:

It had a divan bed on which I was lying, two comfortable armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a colour TV set and by the big picture window a small desk and chair. Facing me was a wall to wall bookcase, crammed with books. There were two wool rugs, one by the divan, the other under the desk. The flooring was polished wood blocks. There was a small, vine covered veranda that looked out onto the beach and the sea. For thirty bucks a week, the room was a steal.

You’d think Devery would be happy–a job, a good wage, and a nice place to live, but then, since this is a noir novel…..

do me a favourChase builds this fast paced, page turner with a silky smooth, yet relentless narrative. We’re inside Devery’s head, but through the author’s skill, we’re still outsiders imagining that Devery is happy and grateful for his lucky break. We’re like the suckers who help Devery, imagining that now he’ll recuperate his life and begin working hard. Think again.

My ambition was like the spots of  a leopard. Once you are landed with my kind of ambition, you were stuck with it. My ambition for big money burned inside me with the intensity of a blow-torch flame. It nagged me like a raging toothache. During those five grim years in jail I had spent hours thinking and scheming about how to get my hands on big money. […] Sooner or later, I was going to be rich. I was going to have a fine house, a Caddy, a yacht and all the other trimmings that big money buys. I was going to have all that.

Nudged by “fate’s elbow,” Devery meets the owner of a real estate company, alcoholic, overweight, bombastic Frank Marshall. Marshall has “expectations” and when his aunt finally dies, Marshall will be a millionaire. This is the big score that Devery’s been looking for.

During my stay in jail, I had shared a cell with a slick con man who liked to boast about his past swindles. He had had, according to him, a spectacular career until he had become too greedy.

“For years, buster,” he said to me, “I have traded on other people’s greed and then, goddamn it, if I didn’t get greedy myself and look where it’s landed me … ten years in a cell!”

He had expanded on the subject of greed.

“If a guy has two dollars, he will want four. If he has five thousand, he’ll want ten. This is human nature. I knew a guy who was worth five million and he nearly bust a gut turning it into seven. The human race is never satisfied. The more they have, the more they want, and if you show them how to make a fast buck without working for it, they’ll be all over you.”

Of course, you can read that quote one of two ways: Devery is thinking that he can con Marshall out of his money, but the reader picks up another vibe–Devery has just landed on his feet through a stroke of good fortune. Why risk a steady job with prospects by committing another crime? Just who is greedy here Devery’s mark, Marshall or Devery himself?

My sights were set much higher than to spend the rest of my days in a one-horse town like Wicksteed. I wanted to get into the big league where the real money was.

Hadley plays this dual possibility of exactly which character is being played by his greed, with Devery thinking he’s in the driver’s seat while we know Devery is making a huge mistake. Gradually we see exactly what sort of man Devery is and how he’s able to reflect back the image people want to see. He even picks up the town habit of labelling everything “nice.” When Devery insinuates himself into Marshall’s life, he thinks he can count on Marshall’s greed, but Devery, unknowingly has changed lanes and is headed towards his inescapable fate.

Naturally we have to have a women in the tale, so say hello to Marshall’s much younger, stone-faced, reclusive wife, Beth:

The woman who stood in the doorway gave me a jolt of surprise. Around thirty-three, she was almost as tall as myself and she was thin: too thin for my liking. I prefer women with bumps and curves. Her features were good: a long, thin nose, a big mouth and a well sculptured jaw line, Her eyes gave her unusual face its life: black glittering eyes, steady and coldly impersonal. This wasn’t a woman with whom you took liberties: strictly no fanny patting.

This is my fourth James Hadley Chase novel to date.  Chase, whose real name was René Brabazon Raymond, was British and wrote a large number of books (80-90 depending on which website you read). He wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish after reading James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and realising the market demand for gangster stories, had a remarkable career writing crime novels. Chase’s books are mostly set in America even though he only visited a couple of times.

One of the arguments that Chase wasn’t as successful in America is that he didn’t get many of the details right (and Devery’s $200 a week wage seems high for the times), and that’s certainly apparent in There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a book I couldn’t resist thanks to its title. Unfortunately, Hadley’s view of hippies was more Mansonesque than I think the average person would imagine hippies to be, so the novel was, for me, a curiosity more than anything else. A Coffin from Hong Kong was a standard PI novel for anyone interested.

Translated into French as Fais-moi plaisir… crève ! 

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Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

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The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

In Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, The Catherine Wheel, it’s the 1950s, and twenty-five-year-old Clemency James is an Australian lodger living in a grim London boarding house belonging to spiritualist landlady, Miss Evans. Clem’s tiny, bleak attic room has “a diagonal view of bare black avenues and paths and empty seats and grass,” but in spite of the room’s lack of appeal, to Clem, the space represents her “square yards of freedom.” That freedom is about to be swept away when a peculiar couple insinuate themselves into Clem’s life.

Clemency earns a marginal living teaching French to private students while she studies, by correspondence, to be a lawyer. With her father dead, her stepmother, Mimi, back in Australia, and a small legacy to help her survive, Clemency doesn’t have much time for frivolity–in fact she’s on a treadmill alternating between teaching and studying. There’s little to no fun in between, and so perhaps that makes her vulnerable.

The Catherine wheelChristian Roland,  a very good-looking young man, is first introduced to Clem as the new window cleaner, and soon he and Olive, a much older woman he calls his wife, are well established features in the building. Before long, Christian, by using a suave combination of guilt and pressure, manipulates Clem into giving him free French lessons. At first Clem, who already resents teaching and “the draining off of that much energy–but [I] needed the money,” resists and while there are hints that she could give free lessons, Clem initially responds negatively:

And where was the obligation to be heart and soul with everyone who importuned attention? And, really, was graciousness my aim in life?

Christian and Olive make a strange couple. He’s a former actor, strikingly good-looking, with a history of finding a series of women to ‘take care of him’ whereas Olive is much a much older, plain, “large round shouldered woman” who initially treats Clem with embarrassing and unnecessary obsequiousness. There are moments when Clem receives warning signals about Christian and yet these moments fade and then vanish as she’s swept up by his relentless pursuit and charismatic personality. Gradually, Clem is seduced, mesmerized, manipulated, and beguiled into Christian’s chaotic world of poverty, debts, endless menial jobs, drunken binges, and violent arguments. And as Christian slowly dismantles Clem’s defenses, Olive becomes violently jealous of Christian’s relationship with Clem–or so he claims. Yet since Christian loves being in the position of having women fighting for him, and since he is constantly acting a role with himself as the star, it’s impossible to tell just where the truth ends and the lies begin.

Christian, who has a massive chip on his shoulder about class, money and the standard of living he thinks he’s entitled to, is out for what he can get from Clem. There’s the sense that his goal is to overcome Clem’s reservations about his character with conquest as pure ego gratification. Occasionally Clem wavers between fascination and revulsion yet gradually melts under the constant assault of his dominant, narcissistic personality:

I felt myself withdraw, withdraw mentally, from his proximity, I didn’t like him! All at once his earnest pleasure in himself was alarming.

‘Then after they’ve asked me to do their income-tax returns–one actually did the other day–they tell me how poor they are. They get out the old purse and try to kid me along. Can’t afford! They can’t bend their fingers for diamonds some of these old bags!’

As a student of the theatre, I saluted him. As a student of human nature I felt an unprecedented inclination to come down heavily on both sides at once. He was awful! Why did it seem irrelevant?

As Clem becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of Christian and Olive, she isn’t always honest with herself. She’s not honest about her motives for ‘helping’ Christian, and as she sinks deeper and deeper into his delusional, volatile, narcissistic web, her friends become alarmed only to find that they are powerless to help her. Clem sees Christian, with “his bitter, private, despairing intensity,” as noble and someone who deserves a chance. Everyone else sees Christian for exactly what he is–trouble, a user and destroyer of any woman foolish enough to get involved with him. Christian lives in a world in which he manufactures his own reality as evidenced by his scheme to learn French and move to Paris. Given his volatility and sordid past, it’s a ludicrous idea, yet as the novel wears on, and Clem is seduced into Christian’s delusional world, she begins to accept that his fantasies of a glorious future are entirely reasonable and deserved. Trying to talk sense to Clem about Christian is rather like trying to persuade the ardent heroin addict to pass on the syringe already stuck in an arm.

This was no place for me, yet I was held to the room–far from fascinated now and the reverse of curious–by something I did not believe in: necessity, compulsion.

Elizabeth Harrower only gives us a few slices of information about Clem’s past, but there are darker hints of some emotional trouble in her past.

Then, all my life I had been ill of emotion, had been much gobbled, prodded. […] To be left alone, I wanted! Not to have people or things, not to be had by them. My very survival, it seemed, had hinged in the absence of feeling in my life. How pure was freedom and isolation!

Does this explain why Clem enjoys a safe platonic friendship with Lewis? He’s already spoken for, and yet he too is in a safely impossible relationship with a married woman.

While Harrower builds a convincing case of how a normal, hard-working, sensible woman can be gradually taken over by a dominant, psychotic personality, at the same time, Clem is a frustrating character–a woman I wanted to shake out of her stupor and passivity. She imagines, at least initially, that she’s an objective, interested observer speculating about Christian’s life and his strange relationship with Olive. Her best friends, Lewis and his sister Helen, can see what a destructive influence Christian is on Clem, but they are powerless (as we are) to stop her descent. There are several scenes when Christian plays both Olive and Clem as if he’s written the script for some tawdry domestic melodrama–scenes in which Clem realizes just how she’s being played.  I wanted Clem to knee him and shove them both out the door….

Emma recently made a comment regarding a novel needing to say something new, and I thought about that as I read The Catherine Wheel. This is the story of an obsessive, destructive  relationship, and how many books have we read on that subject? Yet here Elizabeth Harrower achieves something quite different. She very convincingly shows us a main female character who appears to be very calm, steady and sensible, who is gradually beguiled by a disturbed, charismatic young man, and slowly, gradually, she’s seduced by his dominant personality. His world of chaos, explosive passions, violent jealousy, and financial fecklessness becomes her reality. If you’ve ever had a front row seat to this sort of takeover of one personality by another, then you’ll know that Harrower is a keen observer of human nature.

In Certain Circles, through a handful of characters, Harrower tells the story of marital dominance, and we see how things such as invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouse. The Watch Tower also deals with domestic tyranny, and how abusers create false worlds and then imprison their victims within invisible destructive marital restraints. The Catherine Wheel’s Clem and Christian are not married, but nonetheless, the theme here is dominance and the gradual stripping of power and independence of the underdog in the relationship. While there’s a range of psychotics, bullies and neurotics in these three novels, married or not, Harrower seems to argue that there’s a struggle for power in any relationship, with the more neurotic or psychotic partner gradually eroding the willpower and independence of the other.

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The Hog’s Back Mystery: Freeman Wills Crofts

The excellent, clever innovative Antidote to Venom–illustrates how a decent, conscientious man can be led, by bad choices and the pressure of circumstances, to murder. This novel was so good, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I picked up a second book from author Freeman Wills Crofts, and that brings me to The Hog’s Back Mystery, another crime entry in the British Crime Classic series. Published in 1933, this novel from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, precedes Antidote to Venom by 5 years.

The Hog’s Back Mystery concerns, at least initially, a disappearance, and the novel opens with the arrival of Ursula Stone who has travelled to Surrey from Bath to visit some friends she’s known for decades. She stays with Julia Earle and her husband, a much older retired doctor, and also visiting is Julia’s sister, novelist, Marjorie. The visit promises a great deal of catch-up conversation especially since Ursula has other friends who live by–the sisters of Doctor Campion, the man who has taken over Dr. Earle’s practice.

The Hog's back mysteryThe visit is almost immediately clouded by domestic discord. The Earles haven’t been married for very long, and this is Ursula’s second view of the Earles’ domestic life. By dinner time, Ursula “realized with some small feeling of regret that what she had anticipated during her previous visit had come to pass.” Fondness and affection has morphed into “little consideration,” and Ursula concludes that the Earles “had missed a companionship which they might so easily had.”  The next day, events at the Earles’ home take on a more sinister hue:

It was indeed on that very next day that the first of those small incidents occurred which were to lead up to the awful culmination which spelled tragedy for the party and gave a thrill to the entire country. 

An unpleasant occurrence causes Ursula to conclude that Julia Earle, a woman who “couldn’t live without male attention,” is having an affair with her much younger, unmarried neighbor.  Ursula tries to mind her own business, but Julia’s sister Marjorie also expresses concerns about the Earles’ marriage along with her fear that Dr Earle won’t tolerate Julia’s behaviour much longer. With this troubled domestic climate established, Ursula then has reason to believe that Dr Earle may also be involved in a dalliance with another woman. It’s a difficult position for Ursula as a house guest, but the situation heats up when Dr. Earle inexplicably disappears. …

Detective Inspector French from Scotland Yard (who is also in Antidote to Venom) is called in to investigate, and in his usual, methodical way he approaches the mystery logically. He concludes that there are “three possible solutions to the mystery: Earle had either disappeared voluntarily, or he had met with an accident, or he had been kidnapped or murdered.” Without a body, French quite quickly dismisses the accident theory, so that leaves him with the possibly of murder or voluntary disappearance. Taking those two possibilities, French approaches the case trying to disprove one and prove another.

One of the key elements to be investigated is the identify of the mystery woman seen with Dr Earle. The discovery of her identity involves some painstakingly methodical, geographical calculations as well as a train timetable thrown in for good measure. Author Freeman Crofts Wills was, at one point in his career the Chief Assistant Engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, and in the introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that the author’s “love of railways meant that train timetables often featured in the unravelling of his culprits’ alibis.”

While French agonizes over the details of the disappearance of Dr. Earle, the case suddenly takes a much more sinister turn….

The Hog’s Back Mystery is a much more traditional detective novel than the later Antidote to Venom, and it’s clear that with the later novel, Freeman Wills Crofts was experimenting with the genre. While The Antidote to Venom builds a story which shows how a decent, conscientious man gradually finds murder an acceptable option, The Hog’s Back Mystery is a police procedural complicated by questions of just how various crimes were carried out. While I guessed one of the fundamental elements of the mystery (no spoilers so I can’t explain) French did not, and I wanted to haul French back to this point and show him a connection I’d made.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is painstakingly methodical in its execution, and it could be used as a textbook for detection, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that when the mystery unravels, the author actually gives us page numbers which correspond to key elements of the investigation. While the details are occasionally exhaustive, it’s clear that the author intends us to follow French every step of the way and perhaps even solve the mystery ourselves. French is a wonderful character, and it was easy to relate to his frustrations, his inability to concentrate on a book, and that dreaded acknowledgment that it was possible he’d made a mistake. I enjoyed the images of French borrowing a bicycle as he rode down country lanes to question witnesses, catching trains and all the labour intensive methods of investigation in an age when cars and phones were scarce and our modern technology nonexistent. To French, a crime is first and foremost a puzzle to be solved, and it’s a puzzle that eats away at him until he has the precise solution.

He was not like an inventor working on what might really be an insoluble problem. He was more like a man trying to solve a crossword puzzle, the antecedent condition of the work being that the puzzle had a solution. Equally certainly, this case had a solution: more certainly, in fact, because in the crossword there was always the possibility of a misprint. In real life there was no possibility of error, unless such error as he had made himself.

With The Hog’s Back Mystery, it’s also easy to see how ‘cozy’ mysteries evolved from The Golden Age of Detective fiction. We have some of the elements of a cozy mystery here–a gathering at a country house, and a genteel cast of characters but The Hog’s Back Mystery doesn’t contain the assurances or humour  of a cozy mystery novel. There are some very dark factors at play here and hideous, heartless crimes I didn’t predict.

Review copy

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