Tag Archives: series detective

The Way We Die Now: Charles Willeford (1988)

“That’s my life’s ambition, to grow old and be a burden on someone.”

In The Way We Die Now, Hoke Moseley is back for the fourth and final (sob) novel. This is a phenomenal, hard-boiled crime series from Charles Willeford, and The Way We Die Now is the darkest, most violent and bleakest of the novels. Hoke’s world vision hasn’t improved with the years spent with Miami homicide. His career has spanned some incredible changes in Miami: gentrification of Miami neighbourhoods, inflation and the influx of Cuban refugees. But the changes have also been personal for Hoke: first a female partner, Alita Sanchez in the second novel, New Hope for the Dead. Then his ex-wife departs for California with her new husband and dumps Hoke’s two daughters on his doorstep. Professionally, affirmative action begins in the workplace and Hoke rolls with all the changes, but the hardest of all … laws about cigarette smoking.

The Way We Die Now finds Hoke still working cold cases. When the book opens, he’s chewing over the cold-case murder of a doctor. 3 years ago, the doctor’s garage door opener was stolen, and about a week after that, the doctor was shot as he exited his car. The murder seemed like a professional hit, and the case quickly grew cold. But the doctor’s widow married one of her husband’s partners, and that, to Hoke, seems to point towards motive. On the personal front, Hoke is still living with Alita Sanchez, her baby son, and his two daughters. Trouble arrives in the form of a convicted murderer who, thanks to a technicality, has been released after serving just a fraction of his sentence. The man, Donald Dutton, who was accused, tried and convicted of murdering his brother, swore to get even with Hoke, the homicide detective on the case. In the time that has passed since Donald’s conviction, Hoke hasn’t aged well. He’s lost most of his hair, all his teeth, and he has a paunch. Donald, on the other hand, is dashing and loaded. When Donald moves in across the street from Hoke, you know that revenge is brewing.

As with all Willeford novels, nothing is ever predictable, so what happens with Donald blindsides Hoke. Plus he’s too busy working homicide and going undercover as a favour to Major Brownley investigating missing Haitians who worked picking melons in a remote area. The novel begins with horrific violence which is then connected later to Hoke’s explosive undercover gig. Hoke discovers the hard way what happens when you are dropped in rural Florida with just a few dollars, tatty clothes, no gun and no teeth. As for what happens to Hoke, think those banjoes in Deliverance and you’d just about have it. Mention is made earlier in the tale about burglars who break into empty homes that are tented for termites and then drop like the cockroaches thanks to the poisonous fumes. This tidbit of valuable information seems random, but again it ties into Hoke’s undercover gig later.

In the earlier novels, Hoke had an anemic sex life, and at one point in The Way We Die Now, he’s offered a hand-job by a trailer park hooker. He turns down her offer. His reply: “If I wanted a hand job, I could do it myself. Women don’t do know how to do it right anyway” And somehow this mirrors Hoke’s narrow, meagre sex life which has declined and become increasingly difficult as the series continues. Hoke is an incredible creation: overweight, balding, no teeth and as we would say these days, a fashion victim, but he’s an excellent detective.

The humour in this dark, gritty novel comes partly from Hoke’s conviction that anti-smoking laws and fines in the workplace will never work. But since Charles Willeford died in 1988, at age 69, the year this novel was published, the anti smoking rifts were not meant to be funny. This is only in hindsight. But there’s other humour: Willeford twisted humour: I’ll call them Hokeisms: from yuppies, parenting, voting, marriage, and women. Also there’s the continuing saga of Hoke’s false teeth which he must part with due to his undercover gig. The trailer park hooker keeps a small coke-drinking handicapped child stuffed in a box in a cupboard inside her trailer. At one point, Hoke calls in a favour to have the child removed. Thank god, you think as a reader. But then Hoke follows the request with his opinion that the child is ruining his mother’s life. That’s a Hokeism for you. The World According to Hoke. … There are some loose ends in the novel, and yet there’s also the sense of an ending. Sadly this is the last we see of Hoke and his bleak outlook on life.

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The Dark Remains: William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin

Glasgow’s crime world of the 70s has three main crime boss figures: John Rhodes, Cam Colvin and the up-and-coming Matt Mason. When lawyer Bobby Carter, money man for Cam Colvin, is found stabbed to death behind a pub in Rhodes territory, naturally suspicion falls onto Rhodes and his men. Carter was a “career criminal. Or rather, a venally clever lawyer who didn’t so much rub shoulders with criminals as steep in the same polluted bathwater.” Carter’s death could be a message, a signal of war, yet to D.C Jack Laidlaw it’s just too obvious and he suspects that there’s more to the murder. Given the power-grab ramifications of the murder, it’s a sensitive case that must be handled carefully. Laidlaw already has a reputation for ‘rubbing people the wrong way,’ and he isn’t easy to work with. His skill as a detective though is respected and it’s acknowledged that he “seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets.”

As Laidlaw investigates, he learns that Carter, with a gorgeous wife Cam Colvin is all-too happy to console, was a womaniser. And one name in the harem sticks out: Jennifer Love, a go-go dancer at Whiskies. The crime world is tightly-knit and it’s hard to penetrate when it comes to solving this murder, but Laidlaw, obsessive when it comes to his cases, keeps digging, and the same names keep floating up.

All cities are riddled with crime. It comes with the territory. Gather enough people together in one place and malignancy is guaranteed to manifest in some form or other. It’s the nature of the beast. In the awareness of the citizens the condition usually lies dormant. The preoccupations of our daily lives obscure any dramatic sense of threat.

The Dark Remains is a prequel to the other Laidlaw books. This was unfinished at the time of author William McIlvanney’s death and the book was subsequently finished by Ian Rankin. The gloomy world of 1972 Glasgow, divided into separate worlds by crime territory, is full of seedy pubs, low-rent hotels, lonely, neglected wives, and violent crims hoping to do their boss a favour before the boss even knows he wants one. Laidlaw is a troubled character who does everything possible to avoid his home life and family responsibilities. But the division of the two worlds, home and crime, are created in such a way that’s it’s understandable (but not forgivable) that Laidlaw finds it uncomfortable to straddle both worlds in one day. Going domestic takes the edge off of Laidlaw’s predatory drive plus it’s much easier to check out of his troubled domestic life, avoid those difficulties, and submerge himself into the dark side of Glasgow. I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals but the case kept my interest here. Laidlaw is a strange one–he likes to cowboy his cases solo, and then he tends to philosophize about human nature. This is tedious to Laidlaw’s workmates, but Laidlaw’s approach, when applied to human nature, works.

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The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald (1950)

“Sex and Money; the forked root of evil.”

Back to Lew Archer for Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool. This novel is the second in the series, following on the heels of The Moving Target. In this novel, Lew Archer investigates a case involving threatening letters, but the case quickly devolves to murder. The very attractive Maude Slocum visits Archer’s office and shows him a short vicious letter which was sent to her husband, James. The letter, which Maude intercepted, accuses Maude of adultery. Maude denies that she has been unfaithful, but Archer isn’t so sure. Maude argues that another letter might reach James and he would give it to his mother. That would ensure an ugly divorce. Archer agrees to take the case, although he thinks there must be more to the accusations of adultery. And, as usual, Archer’s instincts are spot-on.

Archer travels to Nopal Valley, to the home of the Slocums. James Slocum is an amateur actor with the Quinto Players , and Archer, catching a rehearsal, watches James Slocum hamming it up as the dramatic lead in a pathetically bad play written by pompous Francis Marvell.

It was the kind of play that only a mother or an actor could love, the kind of stuff that parodied itself. Phony sophistication with a high gloss, and no insides at all.

While Archer watches a few scenes from this awful play, he also catches a dramatic scene, offstage that takes place between teenage nymphette Cathy Slocum and the man she’s been practicing on, the Slocums’ hunky chauffeur, Reavis.

He turned and smiled wide, full in my face, and I had my first chance to study him. The teeth were white. the black eyes frank and boyish, the lines of the features firm and clean. Reavis had quantities of raw charm. But underneath it there was something lacking. I could talk to him all night and never find his core, because he had never found it.

Then onto the Slocum home where matriarch Olivia Slocum rules with an iron rod. James, Maude, and their teenage daughter Cathy live there too, with mummy holding the purse strings. Her property, which sits on oil, is worth a fortune. She refuses to sell for sentimental and moral reasons, but the property and her fortune keep James tied to her. Olivia is one of those mothers. According to her, James is a Renaissance Man, a veritable genius at everything he turns his attention to. And what is going on between Marvell and James? And why does Ralph Knudson, the Chief of Police, a “tall and thick, a bifurcated chunk of muscle” hang out at the Slocum home? And why is Maude Slocum so tense when Knudson shows up? It’s obvious that the relationships between the Slocums are unhealthy and twisted. Maude hates her mother-in-law, Olivia hasn’t forgiven James for marrying Maude, and Cathy flirts with the help. Add to that the very sick and twisted relationship between Maude and James….

With the discovery of a body floating in the pool, the case becomes more and more complicated. The Drowning Pool is my least favourite Archer so far, but it is still better than most crime books out there. These were unforgiving times for homosexuality, and the characters queasily reflect the attitudes of period. But the family dynamic–people who hate each other yet stick together for money–rang all too true. Packed with atmosphere and MacDonald’s signature hard style, the story packs a powerful punch.

The reflection of a stop-light made a long red smudge on the asphalt where 101 Alternate crossed the foot of the town. Four or five heavy trucks had gathered at the truck stop on the corner like buffalo at a waterhole. As I turned right onto the freeway, I could see the drivers bent over an early breakfast, and a thin-browed, pug-faced waitress smoking a cigarette by the kitchen door. It would have been very pleasant to stop and eat three eggs and talk for a while and then go back to bed in the motel. I cut my wheels sharp left at the next crossing, and the tires whined in self-pity: so late, so weary.

And then there’s the marvelous character of Lew Archer: a man who spends too much of his life exploring the darker side of human nature. This case does nothing to elevate Archer’s opinion of people.

The man in the mirror was big and flat-bodied, and lean-faced. One of his gray eyes was larger than the other, and it swelled and wavered like the eye of conscience; the other eye was little, hard and shrewd. I stood still for an instant, caught by my own distorted face, and the room reversed itself like a trick drawing in a psychological test. For an instant I was the man in the mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one very small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.

Usually with series characters, we get the crime on hand and a continuation of the private life of the series PI. Not so here. As Archer notes, he’s “without a life of his own.

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New Hope For the Dead: Charles Willeford (1985)

Charles Willeford’s New Hope For the Dead, the second Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective called to a suburban home with a dead body inside. The body is, was, Jerry, a young junkie whose tracks on his scrotum supports the presenting evidence that he died of an overdose. But there’s something about the case that doesn’t quite add up for Hoke. Sanchez, Hoke’s Cuban partner likes Jerry’s stepmother, Lorrie Hickey, as a possible murder suspect, but Hoke, who picks up on Lorrie’s sexually ravenous nature, in spite of her grief stricken state, doesn’t think she’s guilty. After all Lorrie is a businesswoman, the owner of a florist shop, but Jerry’s father is a lawyer whose business focuses on drug dealers.

Miami Blues is an introduction to Hoke’s spartan lifestyle. As he has to hand over half his paycheck to the X, he subsists on the remainder. He lives in a 3rd rate motel exchanging rent for ‘private security’ services, services which includes arranging for the dead bodies of the mostly elderly tenants to leave during the night. Also in Miami Blues, Hoke’s long-term homicide partner, Bill Henderson moved on, and Hoke now works with Sanchez. He doesn’t ‘get’ Sanchez at all. She’s smart, has a great figure, but has no sex appeal for Hoke.

A lot of the novel’s humour comes from Hoke who’s slowly moving out of the Dark Ages and waking up to the fact that he can’t send his female partner for coffee all the time. Hoke, (in his 40s?) comes from a different time, and that is underscored by the novel’s focus on Miami gentrification and the shifting dynamic of the Miami population. Hoke seems very much a man of the 60s. In this novel, Sanchez has a personal crisis which she keeps to herself, but Hoke notices her “quiescent moodiness” which he initially chalks up to Sanchez’s period.

Having a female partner in the car wasn’t the same. Maybe he should let Sanchez drive the car once in a while but that didn’t seem right either. The man always drove not the woman, although when he and Bill had been together, Bill had driven most of the time because he was a better driver than Hoke and they both knew it.

As in any series novel, we have the crime at hand (what appears to be an overdose of a junkie) and also the main character’s personal life. In Miami Blues, Hoke was given warning that he had to move into his precinct and that means moving out of the motel, but given his lack of funds, finding a place to live is proving to be a challenge. At one point, he tries to get a house-sitting gig, and the first place he looks at comes with an amorous Airedale. In this second book in the series, Hoke, a divorced man, with no regular girlfriend (the woman he left his wife for tossed him out), a father who never sees his kids, ends up living with three females. You have to read the book to find out how that happens. Also in this book, Hoke and Sanchez are given a special assignment to solve cold cases at record speed in order for the boss, Major Brownley, to have a shot at a promotion.

Hoke is a dogged homicide detective. He’s not corrupt. Exactly. But he waves that badge a lot. In this book, he pulls a trick that is unethical and even Hoke questions himself about his actions. Somehow I think his actions will come back to haunt him. While a lot of the humour comes from Hoke’s archaic attitude (and the author is aware it’s archaic), some of the humour comes from Hoke’s version of being a father; that includes a rapid sex ed. conversation and his plans that his daughters get jobs:

“First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”

“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said looking at her fingernails.

“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”

Also, black humour simmers in the off-the-wall reactions of the characters. These are characters who have seen it all, and nothing seems to have shock value. A great example of this is the real estate agent who isn’t so much worried about the Airedale’s sexual needs, as how long it takes.

Hoke is a unique creation. He’s definitely a man of his times and he’s a good, although unorthodox detective. Standard morality is a not a suit Hoke wears. In fact he can’t give up those leisure suits!

Here’s Hoke, called into his boss’s office for a meeting.

“Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leusire suit. Where’d you find it anyway?”

There’s a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only 50 bucks on 2-for-1 sale. I like the extra pockets, with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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Castle Skull: John Dickson Carr (1931)

John Dickson Carr’s moody crime novel Castle Skull, as its title indicates, has an extraordinary setting. It’s an extremely visual novel which creates a doom-laden atmosphere even before we see the first corpse. The novel features the author’s series character, Henri Bencolin while the book’s splendid narrator is Bencolin’s friend, writer Jeff Marle. It’s largely thanks to the strong narration and Marle’s canny observations, that the story succeeds so well. The intro from Martin Edwards mentions that the creepy Castle Skull may be based on the twin castles “The Hostile Brothers,” in Germany’s Rhine Valley.

Castle skull

The book opens in a Paris restaurant where the wealthy Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay meets Henri Bencolin. Also at the memorable meeting is the narrator Jeff Marle. Marle recounts the meeting in retrospect, and we know from hints dropped, that death awaits D’Aunay. The meeting, set against the light, noise and life of a busy restaurant, is the last glimpse we see of normality, for after this everything sinks into the dark macabre. 

D’Aunay requested the meeting with “the celebrated juge d’instruction of the Seine” with employment in mind. D’Aunay explains that the task, if Bencolin accepts (and how can he resist?) “will be the strangest affair you have ever handled.” D’Aunay explains that his friend, the wealthy magician, Maleger, owner of the Castle Skull (Schloss Schadel) died while traveling on the train from Mainz to Coblenz. He was alone in a first-class compartment, and somehow his body ended up in the Rhine. Although there was “no possibility of foul play,” how Maleger fell from the train cannot be adequately explained.

But the plot thickens: Maleger’s heirs are D’Aunay and another friend, English actor Myron Alison. But now Myron is dead: shot three times in the chest, doused in gasoline and then ignited. His blazing body was seen running about on the battlements of Castle Skull.

So now D’Aunay is the sole heir, and he’s understandably nervous. He invites Bencolin (Jeff Marle goes along for the ride) to Myron Alison’s home, now occupied by his sister “the Duchess.” Myron’s home faces Castle Skull. Bencolin’s task is to discover who murdered Myron Alison

“I couldn’t refuse this case, Jeff,” he observed. “It’s bad. That’s the point: it’s worse than anybody suspects. You heard what he said about the body of Maleger–does it mean anything to you?”

I said, “There’s the obvious theory that Maleger’s death was a fake, arranged by himself.”

“Yes.” Still he stood motionless, staring after the car. “I only wish it were as simple as that. No; I think it’s worse than that, Jeff, and more devilish. More devilish…”

Castle Skull is dreadful, imposing and memorable. It’s the perfect home for someone who dabbled in the macabre.

The name is not a fancy. Its central portion is so weirdly constructed that the entire facade resembles a great death’s head, with eyes, nose, and ragged jaw, But there are two towers, one on each side of the skull, which are rather like huge ears; so that the devilish thing, while it smiles, seems also to be listening, It is set high on a crag, with its face thrust out of the black pines. Below it is a sheer drop to the waters of the river.

There’s a lively set of characters here–some of whom seem immediately suspicious, and the unusual setting adds a great deal to the plot. There’s the typical long explanation at the end which is common with the genre, but it is darker than most I’ve read from this period. 

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Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

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And Then Put Out The Light: E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

E.C.R. Lorac’s (Edith Caroline Rivett) very readable Golden Age mystery And Then Put Out The Light opens with massage therapist, Gillian chatting with one of her many clients, Mrs. Bentham. It’s one of those odd intimate and yet non-intimate encounters shared by clients and professionals in which personal information is frequently divulged. This is certainly true in this instance when Gillian and Mrs. Allison Bentham discuss the recent, sudden death of Mrs. Lilian Mayden, a malicious woman who was disliked by everyone in the North Midlands Abbey town of Paulborough (with the exception of her equally toxic housekeeper/ former nurse, Garstang), a snobby little town inhabited by “ecclesiastical aristocracy.

It seems odd that Mrs. Mayden, a “chronic hypochondriac” dropped dead of heart problems when she’d never shown a sign of having cardiac issues before.  But wait … Mrs. Mayden’s previous doctor (now retired) prescribed heart pills to his patient basically to shut her up, but her new doctor said they were unnecessary and stopped the treatment; now Mrs. Mayden is dead. On top of this controversy, Mrs. Mayden’s long-suffering, browbeaten, spineless husband Guy is embroiled with a local girl who is pregnant, and right before Lilian Mayden’s sudden death, Guy asked for a divorce.

Gillian turned and faced her. “Well, it was a horrible thing to think of saying, but a woman like Mrs. Mayden might have made the mildest of men feel murderous.”

“My dear, my dear, never say that again,” pleaded Mrs. Bentham, “and if you hear anybody else saying it, stop them! It’s so easy to say, but so hard to unsay it.”

“But, Mrs. Bentham, no one on earth could think that of Guy Mayden. He’s the kindest, easiest-going fellow, and he was an angel to her.”

“Yes. He was.” Mrs. Bentham gave a great sigh. “You weren’t born and brought up in Paulborough, my dear. I was. I know that under the very shadow of that great Abbey there is more envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitablenness than in any godless ramshackle township in the Middle West. Plant a seed of slander in this soil and it grows. You should know that. You said just now, ‘She tried to ruin me.’ In any other place than this she wouldn’t have had much chance of success, would she?” 

In Paulborough’s claustrophobic snobby society, which runs with Victorian morality (there’s frequent reference to Trollope, by the way), rumours spread like wildfire. Mrs. Mayden, who loved to spread gossip, and even kept records of her malicious scandalmongering behaviour, was loathed and feared by everyone. Yet her death, rather than bury all the tensions in the town, seems to stir things up. First everyone leaps to the obvious conclusion that somehow or another Guy managed to murder his wife (not that anyone blames him) but then other past gossip begins to surface.

“Do you know there wasn’t a place in the town I could buy a bottle of scotch without Lilian finding out and raising hell about it?” He took the glass from her and drank thirstily. “Of course, she was brought up as a rabid T.T.,” he went on. “Before the war I never bothered. We never had so much as a bottle of beer in the house.”

The police arrive on the scene after being informed by Miss Garstang that she believes Mrs. Mayden was murdered. Emma Garstang claimed to know who killed her employer and how. … Enter Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.

At not quite 200 pages, this is a mystery that rips along, and E.C.R. Lorac’s writing style makes this a swift, pleasant read. Well structured dialogue and strong characterisation brings the inhabitants of Paulborough to life. I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and I suspect that most die-hard crime fans will do the same. Still this is an entertaining read that recreates post WWII Britain and its shifting socioeconomic and moral landscape.

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Newcomer: Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higsahino’s Newcomer is a police procedural featuring Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department. Kaga has just been transferred to Nihonbashi area of Tokyo and he’s assigned to the murder case of a woman.

Newcomer

Newcomer is a slow burn novel. Residents of the Nihonbashi area are slowly introduced as individuals within their settings, and since this is a business district, we see people in the context of their employment.  In the first chapter, for example, we meet the three generations of one family who run a rice cracker shop. It’s been run by one generation or another for the past 50 years, and while the members of this family become dragged into the investigation (their part is to whether or not they can verify the alibi of a suspect), their tiny role in the murder investigation expands into family dynamics and the shifting role of the rice cracker business.

As the investigation begins, we know very little about the victim or the murder. These details are very gradually added as Detective Kaga makes his way through various businesses in the district. His investigation is hampered by the fact that everyone seems to have something to hide. The big question is whether or not these individuals are hiding personal problems or information relating to the murder.

The structure of Newcomer reminds me of TV series police procedurals in which the detectives glom onto one person at a time, one suspect per episode. Broadchurch (series 1) had this sort of structure, for example, and with each episode, you thought DI Alex Hardy and DS Ellie Miller had their killer–after all the actions of the suspects made them seem as guilty as hell. Newcomer is subtler and more focused on the sociological aspects of the Nihonbashi district, but it’s the same structure–minus the pressure. Kaga almost savours the case:

“That’s not how police investigations work. We have to sift through every little detail, asking ourselves why such and such a thing occurred. That will eventually lead us to the truth, even if all those individual things have no direct connection to one another.”

This is not an action-packed novel by any means and requires patience (and interest in Japanese life) to read. I was somewhat frustrated by knowing next to nothing about the murder which begins almost as a rumour which subsequently echoes around the district and then begins to touch the lives of its residents. The book, however, seems to be appreciated by fans of the author. I preferred Malice, but then police procedurals are not my favourite sub genre when it comes to crime

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Higashino Keigo

The Spoke: Friedrich Glauser (1937)

German Literature Month 2018

German Literature month rolls around yet again. I’m late to the party–or at least my reviews are.

“There ought to be a law, the sergeant said to himself, against women painting and powdering themselves. The layer covering their cheeks could easily, all too easily, hide a flush, a sudden pallor.”

A few years ago, during German Literature Month 2015, I reviewed Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint. I had more Glauser on the shelf, so it was time to take the plunge…

Detective Sgt Studer of the Bern police is back once more for what should be a happy occasion. His daughter is going to be married, and the groom is Albert Guhl, a corporal in the Thurgau Cantonal Police. Studer, his wife Hedy, and daughter travel to Schwarzenstein for the ceremony and stay at a hotel run by Studer’s childhood sweetheart, Anni. Anni is now married to Karl Rechsteiner who is bedridden and has been treated for consumption.

The Spoke

Murder seems to follow fictional detectives, and this is certainly true for Studer who should be concentrating on his daughter’s wedding and instead is confronted with a corpse inside the hotel. Murder never takes a holiday, I suppose, and so Studer begins to investigate. The victim, a young man, has been skewered with a sharpened spoke from a bicycle, and guess what, there’s a bicycle repair shop right next to the hotel. …

The case seems to present its own solution, especially when the owner of the bicycle shop, Ernst Graf, seems to be one part of of a love triangle involving the murder victim.

The Spoke was more enjoyable than Thumbprint, possibly because we get to see more of Studer’s personality, investigation style, and his sense of humour, plus there are some very interesting characters/suspects here–including Fräulein Loppacher who appears to have been in relationships with both Graf (the main suspect) and Stieger (the victim). Other detectives would rush to close the case and move onto the wedding, but not Studer. Studer’s family exist in the periphery and he seems to spend far more time dwelling on Anni’s sad, hard life. The novel explores early forensics (this was published in 1937), and reflects attitudes of its time.

Studer’s sense of humour is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tale, but unfortunately I guessed the culprit very early in the book. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press contains a brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, who was, apparently, addicted to opium and morphine. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he spent “most of his life” in various insane asylums, did a stint in the Foreign legion and prison when he was caught forging prescriptions. He died at age 42.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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Filed under Fiction, Glauser Friedrich