Thursday, December 7, 2017

FOURTH DEGREE, by K. S. Daiger

Here's a rarity for you; I just happened to come across a mention of this author in Jess Nevin's Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes and decided to track them down. K. S. Daiger was a local author, and I came across a reference to K. S. being a woman, but am otherwise unable to find much biographical information.

Fourth Degree, published in 1931, opens in the wealthy and bucolic suburb of Towson, outside Baltimore. Beautiful Sunny Paige has been found murdered in her house on the posh Paige estate. Baltimore city cop Everett Andrews, or "Captain Andy" as he's known, is called into the case, although technically Towson is in Baltimore County, not in the city. (This is mentioned, but not much is made of it.) The book is narrated by a newspaper reporter whose full name is never given; they're referred to as "Kay" but it's never clear if that's their first or last name. In fact, I got almost all the way through the book before I found a reference to Kay's sex; I wondered if Daiger had pre-figured Sarah Caudwell's sleuth Hilary Tamar (whose sex is never revealed), but toward the end Kay is firmly referred to as a man. (There are clues galore, but I didn't want to jump to conclusions....but given the time period, and this is a character running around with the cops and handling a gun, chances are it's a man.

It's essentially a country-house murder case mixed with a police procedural; the cops have to piece together the clues leading to the killer of wealthy Sunny. Was it her philandering husband? Her maid, who has a dark past? Her neighbor, who may or may not be a false friend? The lawyer who was in love with her? The shady private eye hired to find clues of his own?

The problem this book has is that the prose is often overheated, and plot elements are introduced, then dropped as soon as they're inconvenient. A shady woman that the husband was involved with? There's a plot thread there that's dropped. The maid's shady past? Same there. A cop's difficult relationship with his family? Yup, dropped. And Daiger goes on several times about how this case "has gone down in the history of Maryland criminology" which is clunky enough to begin with but is repeated too many times.

So, yeah, not a great novel. I didn't hate it, there were a few times I laughed, and it was kind of fun reading all the references to Baltimore of almost a century ago. I work in Towson now, and it's interesting reading of that bustling, very developed suburb as a quiet rural town.

But I had a good belly laugh when reporter Kay refers to Captain Andy as having helped reduce Baltimore's crime rate to one of the lowest in the country. Oh my, how times have changed.

Daiger wrote another book, but I may not bother.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Phantom Solo for December!

Visiting Ramsey at his new place is always an adventure; his house is in a neighborhood that's slowly being revived, and while his place is in wonderful shape, the place next door is a ramshackle wreck, uninhabited for years.

We're gathered there for a pre-holiday get-together, all of dreading the horrors of the season ahead (crowded stores, monotonous music, brutally enforced cheer), when Laura suddenly puts up her hand for silence. "What's that? Is that coming from next door?"

It certainly seems so...someone's playing a piano in the ruined house!

Ramsey does tell us that there is a ruined piano in the living room of the old house, but it's a wreck. Viola and James are all for investigating....I wonder what we'll find....

Saturday, November 18, 2017


And we're back to Bellairs! This time we'll take on his shortest series, the Anthony Monday novels.

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn is set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Hoosac, MN, along the Mississippi River. Anthony is a more-or-less "normal" teen (a rarity for Bellairs) who comes from a lower-middle-class family. His father operates a saloon (euphemistically called a "cigar store"). Despite not being particularly bookish, Anthony's best friend is elderly librarian Myra Eels, who gets him a part-time job at the library assisting her.

The Hoosac library is the unacknowledged star of the novel; it's a quaint, curious building donated by the Alpheus Winterborn of the title, an eccentric millionaire and world traveler who supposedly hid a treasure somewhere, possibly in the library itself, before dying himself.

When Anthony stumbles on a clue that the treasure is real and hidden somewhere in town, he quickly comes to view it as the possible cure to his family's money troubles. Miss Eels warns him that Winterborn was also a notorious practical joker, and this all may be a sham, but he is eager to find a solution.

His efforts catch the eye of Hugo Philpotts, a vice-president of the local bank and a relative of Winterborn; Philpotts, of course, wants the treasure for himself. And as Anthony and Miss Eels stumble on one clue after another, Philpotts becomes more and more dangerous to them. Eventually, the treasure is the library.

Wait, I hear you cry. Where's the supernatural? Well, there is none. That's right, this is all a mundane mystery. It's kind of a disappointment, and many Bellairs fans rank this near the bottom. It has its strengths; the milieu is well-depicted, and apparently this was Bellairs' biggest effort at recapturing his own youth in Michigan. However, the villain is a bit over-the-top, the plot sometimes drags, the villain sometimes seems to always be in the right place at the right time, and some events that he should have been responsible for are brushed off as mere accidents. But the nature of the treasure is intriguing and a macabre story could have been built around it. It's unfortunate that Bellairs chose differently.

When first published in 1978, it was illustrated, and had a cover, by Judith Gwyn Brown, but when it was issued in paperback in 1980, it was given a one-off Edward Gorey cover that has stuck with it. Future Monday volumes would feature Gorey art.

Never fear, the rest of the Monday series features supernatural thrills, so there's more to come!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

November in the Phantom Recital Hall

Tonight we're off in the cold evening air to a recital by a talented pianist, on a tour through the country. The venue is a new one, an addition at the university, so we're getting a gander at the new facility and enjoying some good music.

And appropriate for the season, one piece is Bolcom's "The Poltergeist."

I love this playful piece, with sinister hints; it's a good representation of the concept it's named after. It's one of Bolcom's three "Ghost Rags", written after the death of his father and in his studio overlooking a cemetery.

And speaking of cemeteries, we have to pass one on the way home....

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween 2017!

Hope everyone is having a great Halloween! Be safe, but be crazy! At least a little crazy. Or be as low-key as you want. Just honor the day!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DOWN BY THE OLD BLOODSTREAM, "edited" by Alfred Hitchcock

In the 1960s and '70s, Alfred Hitchcock's name was attached to countless anthologies. I doubt he truly edited them; he worked hand-in-glove with former radio writer Robert Arthur who I suspect is probably responsible. Arthur also wrote a good number of the "Three Investigators" boys' series that featured Hitch as a sort of "M" to a trio of teen sleuths.

Down by the Old Bloodstream, published in 1971, is sadly unremarkable as an anthology. There's no real luminaries among the authors, with two a "Hal Ellison", likely our old friend Harlan, but his story "The Good Thief" is a bore. The other is TV cop Jack Webb, and his story, "A Miracle is Arranged," is slightly better, a tale of attempted insurance fraud undone by a Twilight Zone-ish twist of fate.

Some of them write checks they can't cash. "Kurdistan Payload," for instance, sounds like a tale of international intrigue, but instead it's a noir-ish tale involving a moving company and a valuable Oriental rug. "The Monster Brain" sounds like a pulp horror tale, but the title refers to a computer that's only peripherally involved. In fact, that story is part of the one thing that makes this collection interesting...there are three stories in sequence, "The Still Small Voice," "Haunted Hill," and "The Monster Brain," that function as what I can best term "Hillbilly Noir." All three involve crime and conniving in a backwoods setting, with rustic characters. "The Monster Brain" is an exception as it's narrated by an insurance investigator, but the setting and the remainder of the characters put it in that mini-genre I just invented. It's an interesting view of a time when the world was less connected and it wasn't unusual to drive from a major city for less than a day and be in an area with no telephones or very little electricity.

Aside from that, not much to recommend it, really. Another story, "A Fair Warning to Mystery Writers," is amusing in its depiction of an author who rents a quiet place to do some writing but is constantly hassled by neighbors. Otherwise, this is forgettable stuff.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

An October Night at the Cinema!

In October it's nice to take a break from all the Halloween festivities and just relax. We're doing that right now, having a nice time chatting over dinner. It's a blessing to have a chance to breathe and not worry about planning parties and costumes and the like. Next year, we promise, there'll be a more relaxed holiday...

After dinner is over, we head up the street to our favorite old theater. They don't bother to decorate; as the ticket-taker jokes, it's always Halloween there, one way or another, It's true; we've seen so many horror films there that another just seems par for the course.

Tonight's film is a goofy thriller, The 13th Man.

The show over, we depart, making one last joke with the ticket-taker, and then wander up the street for a drink at the usual cafe....