September of my reads - my reads of the last month
- - American -
**** John Evans, HALO IN BLOOD
Private investigator Paul Pine on his way to a new job assists a burial. A some odd burial, as twelve priests belonging to twelve different churches officiate at turns, and the dead is one John Doe nobody knows real identity. All that at first sight has nothing to do with job billionaire John Sandmark hires Paul to do, that is, breaking his stepdaughter's affair with a crooked guy named Jerry Marlin. On second thought, however...
John Evans, pseudonym of Howard Browne, imitates Raymond Chandler to a T, though the finale paradoxically reminds of "The Maltese Falcon". Pine is a rip-off of Philip Marlowe, the deliquescent Californian setting and writing style come right from the Man of La Jolla, and pastiche sometimes turns in unintentional parody. Browne, however, distinguishes himself and outdoes his master in regard to plotting. Even at his best, Chandler wouldn't have been able to device such a brillant architecture, making a virtuoso use of alternate solutions (no less than four) and misdirection. This reader, not an easily fooled one, still was unable to pick the real murderer(s) before the end, although the whole thing looks quite easy to spot when it's uncovered. Browne also has a fiendish narrative technique, keeping you from putting the book down even for a second. Do I really need to say I recommend it?
**** Stephen Ransome, THE NIGHT, THE WOMAN (1963)
Blake Carden is some puzzled: why does his brother need thirty thousands dollars cash? Why did he need the same amount of money three months ago? Also, why is his client and former friend Valerie Hayward so angry and what do mean the threatening remarks she made in his office? There are some questions you shouldn't ask, for you might be given answers that won't please you. That's what Blake discovers when he follows his brother on a beautiful summer night...
Another great book by another writer using a pseudonym. The man behind Stephen Ransome is Frederick C. Davis, one of the best and most underrated authors of the pulp era. "The Night, The Woman" is the story of a half-consented trapping. Blake Carden, for familial reasons, can't tell the truth and has no solution but watching the door of the cage closing slowly on him. Each chapter brings another brick to the wall, and Davis conveys his hero's agonies very well as he has to face both probable imprisonement and the odd behavior of the only man who could get him out of all that. Convincing characters and setting make this compelling "wrong man" story even more credible and a must-read by all means.
** Joe L. Hensley, COLOUR OF HATE (1960)
It's South, Deep South, and we're a long way from Civil Rights. So when a young white girl is raped and killed, and weapon found in a black man's home, truth seems to be as clear as water - no pun intended. But even black men are intitled to be defended, even though trial is just a formality. Alphonse Jones's appointment with electric chair seems to make no doubt. Seems only, because he hired Sam April to be his defender, and Sam April isn't afraid to face prejudice and community when he thinks his client is innocent.
Joe L. Hensley is a well-intentioned man. Maybe too much well-intentioned. Alike many other "liberal" mysteries of this period, "Colour of Hate" tends to sacrify plot at benefit of social preaching, and characterization, while maybe deep for its time, looks terribly stereotyped and formulaic. Also, modus operandi of the crime is some improbable, not to say implausible, even by considering state of forensics in this time. A decent effort but not much more.
*** Doris Miles Disney, DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE OR MUTILATE (1970)
Matrimonial agencies aren't something you should joke with, for some people using them have no sense of humor. When she had idea of creating a young perfect "candidate", Sophie Tate Curtis thought it would be funny. But what happened wasn't funny at all.
An exercise in terror nicely orchestrated by a specialist. As usual with Disney, characters are credible and rooted in daily life. I must admit, however, that I much prefer her books featuring insurance detective Jefferson De Marco whom I really missed there.
- British -
**** Michael Butterworth, VILLA ON THE SHORE (1973)
See individual review.
- French -
*** Henry Cauvain, MAXIMILIEN HELLER (1872)
Paris, 1841. A melancholic yet superminded young man named (what a surprise) Maximilien Heller investigates to clear his neighbour wrongly arrested for murder. His investigation leads him to a Breton castle when he finds old bones, an old lady with a dark secret, and a master criminal.
This might be the greatest hoax in mystery history, at least in France. Some of my fellow-compatriots presented this book as a possible - what did I say? probable! - influence for Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, while Maximilien Heller is claimed to be the model for Sherlock Holmes. I guess those propagandists either read another book with the same title or smoked something you shouldn't when you're reading. Heller is admittedly thin, and a loner, and befriends with a doctor, and has a gift for disguise, but comparison stops here. Heller is a depressive guy of a kind romantic era produced in vast amounts. He takes opium, but it's only for sleeping. Also, the structure has nothing to do with the Canon, since the anonymous doctor leaves the scene halfway through the book to let Heller telling the rest of the story. The saddening thing is that Cauvain and his book ultimately don't need that dubious advertising. "Maximilien Heller" is a more than decent detective novel, far ahead from Gaboriau (and, in some ways, Doyle himself) in its use of clues, misdirection and whodunit. Characterization is less stilted than usual back then, and style has a freshness rare in those early mysteries. Not canonical, yet very good all the same.
Note for the curious: One hundred and thirty years before its first publication, Maximilien Heller is finally translated into English. It is available as an e-book at http://www.mycrofts.net/GB-Edition-SH-Heller1.htm .
***** Michel Lebrun, PLEINS FEUX SUR SYLVIE (1956)
Sylvie Sarment was a star, she set hearts on fire and her road to fame is paved with damaged souls. That goddess had to die in a way as flashy and unforgettable as she lived. So it shouldn't surprise anyone *two* people claim to have killed her, with different weapons. Director Willie Braun says he sabotaged her car. Former star Fr�d�rique Mayen tells she poisoned her. The problem is, Sylvie Sarment didn't die any of these ways. She was shot...
The late Michel Lebrun (he passed away in 1996) was a fervent movie fan, and reader hasn't difficulty to see "Pleins Feux Sur Sylvie" as a criminal take on "All About Eve". Narrative structure is the same, with four flash-blacks providing glimpses on Sarment's character and events that led to her death. Lebrun is as sharp as Mankiewicz in his description of film world, and none of his characters are quite innocent, though those coming closer aren't rewarded for that. It would be wrong, however, to think "Pleins Feux" is only a brilliant satire with a crime subplot. It is, above all, a masterful performance by a master-plotter. Reader is bumped from a surprise to another to a stunning final double twist. A masterpiece of a time when French mysteries were still readable. Grand Prix de Litt�rature Polici�re 1956.
*** Jean Marcillac, ON NE TUE PAS POUR S'AMUSER (1959)
Bomber at large in Paris. Has he some connection with Edouard Levet and his mistress Mado? Commissaire Leroy investigates.
Aforementioned Commissaire has a minor role in this story, as it quickly narrows to triangle formed by Levet, Mado and her lover, with a man from her past playing the fourth side. It is a good psychological suspense, well written and aptly plotted, very outspoken for its time, with characters that ring true. Not a cornerstone, but still an enjoyable read. Prix du Quai des Orf�vres 1959.
- Unidentified -
** Patricia Power, THE DEADLY GRIEF (1972)
Nice gothic set in Montreal about a woman whose roomates have disagreeable habit to die. Present one is well decided to staying alive and uncovering the truth, even though her way maybe is not the best one to do it... Probably the only man on Earth enjoying that kind of books and its naive conventions, this reader took a great pleasure to this entertaining book. And Montreal is such a beautiful town.
** Marilyn Ross, PHANTOM MANOR (unknown)
Thirty years ago, Sir Joshua Whedon (sic) refused to open his door to a monk lost in the tempest. Poor monk died, but his ghost chose manor as his domicile, and put in appearances now and then, each time a catastrophe is about to happen.
The book doesn't live up to its appealing title and premise, yet it's an enjoyable read, at least for this reader whose unexplainable fondness for stories about harmless young girls trapped into dark and lonely manors would require help of a shrink. The murderer is spotted early one, but one spents a pretty good reading moment.
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