Wednesday, January 17, 2018

PANIC by Helen McCloy

Alison is afraid. Her uncle Felix has died mysteriously. WWII is in full swing and he was doing some confidential work for the War Department. She's taking off for an isolated country house to spend some time alone....but every time she turns around there's another eccentric or creepy neighbor showing up, making threatening remarks. What's going on?

Published in 1944, Panic is one of the few non-series works by Helen McCloy, who frequently featured psychologist sleuth Basil Willing. Panic isn't a straightforward whodunit, though. One of the interesting aspects of it is that it's a mix of genres. There's elements of the analytical, as Alison puzzles her way through a complicated cipher that her uncle left behind. There's elements of espionage, as Uncle Felix's cipher is sought by domestic supporters of the Nazi cause. And there's lots of elements of the gothic damsel-in-distress, as Alison is alone in an isolated house in the Catskills, being stalked by what she thinks may be a supernatural being.

Does it work? Well, kind of. As a contemporary portrait of WWII-era America, it's pretty interesting. (It was later rewritten to reflect the Vietnam era, but I'm glad I found a WWII era edition.) There's quite a bit of discussion of cryptanalysis, to the point I mentally skipped over a few paragraphs as they were obviously the author lecturing the reader. And all the cipher involved in the story is there for the enterprising reader to analyze on their own, if they so care.

I also saw this as a precursor to many of the modern romantic-suspense damsel-in-distress thrillers that are all over the place. Alison is being stalked and harassed by multiple people, including a woman who may be a man in drag, and a strange being who leaves footprints similar to a goat's, making classically-minded Alison to think she's being stalked by Pan.

The solution is no big shock, and much emphasis is placed on physical deformity, especially one that the book says is exceedingly rare but in the real world is not all that unusual. And in the end, the differing aspects of the story don't always hang together well.

In the end, Panic has some interest as history and as a minor landmark in the development of romantic suspense. But it's not a great thriller,and sometimes the heroine is a bit annoying with her dithering and fear of supernatural creatures. Worth reading if you stumble on a copy, but I wouldn't recommend tracking it down unless you're a scholar of romantic suspense, cryptanalysis, or both.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

January in the Phantom Recital Hall!

We're finally starting to come out of the dire cold that's been keeping us inside and huddling under blankets since Christmas, and a friend told us about a performance going on at the university...so why not dress up a little, put on our warm coats, and hear some music?

It's a program of mostly new works, and this piece by Nils Frahm isn't exactly sinister, but it's appropriate for January...



Ah, that's nice. And afterwards, let's go get some hot soup or something at that little bistro in town, shall we? It's nice to be out again...and hope for a brighter new year.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

SILENT NIGHTS, edited by Martin Edwards

I stumbled across this at the library just before the holidays, and it was a natural. Perfect reading material for the break!

And boy, was it ever. This is another superior collection from British Library Crime Classics, so you can't go wrong. Author/scholar Edwards is a great anthologist and digs up all sorts of good and obscure stories for his collections.

There are some that are familiar, like Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," a natural for Christmas mystery anthologies, Chesterton's "The Flying Stars," and Sayers' "The Necklace of Pearls," all of which I skipped. I'd read them all before...why bother?

The rest, however, are a candy box. Ralph Plummer is an unknown author, but his "Parlour Tricks" is an unjustly overlooked and forgotten story for sheer cleverness. Raymund Allen's "A Happy Solution" was my least favorite of the book, in that it relies on a knowledge of chess, a game at which I am a hopeless muddle. (Seriously, I stink at chess. I gave up trying years ago.) "Stuffing," by Edgar Wallace, is an amusing twist-of-fate story that I enjoyed.

H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stars in "The Unknown Murderer," and while it's not the best Fortune story I've read, it's still damn good as Fortune delves into a series of murders that appear to be distantly related to what we now call Munchhausen-by-proxy syndrome. "The Absconding Treasurer," by J. Jefferson Farjeon, is a fun thriller with a murderer being tracked down in the snow.

Margery Allingham's "The Case is Altered" was my first experience of Albert Campion, and I found it acceptable as the hero detective stumbles into a case of blackmail and espionage at a holiday house party. "Waxworks," by Ethel Lina White, mixes damsel-in-distress tropes with a streak of feminism. "Cambric Tea" by Marjorie Bowen builds as a conte cruel but has a happy ending, and "The Chinese Apple" by Joseph Shearing (actually by the same author, Bowen and Shearing were both pen names of the prolific Gabrielle Long) is a fun thriller about a woman meeting a relative for the first time and piecing together a recent murder.

"A Problem in White," by Nicholas Blake, is a fun mystery set on a train, with an elaborate solution at the back of the book. Edmund Crispin's "The Name on the Window" is an entertaining short starring his detective Gervase Fen, and Leo Bruce's "Beef for Christmas," a forgotten rarity, rounds out the collection.

This is great reading for the holiday season, and I recommend it unreservedly. I'll have a hard time keeping up with Edwards' collections; every so often I hear of another, and thank goodness the local library system is keeping up!

Friday, December 29, 2017

THE DARK SECRET OF WEATHEREND by John Bellairs

Anthony Monday and Miss Eells are back! And battling the supernatural!

The two are whiling away a summer afternoon by driving through the Wisconsin countryside, when Miss Eells has the inspiration to explore the abandoned Weatherend estate, once home to industrialist J. K. Borkman. In a shed they find some bizarre statues that refer to weather phenomena, and then realize the estate is now inhabited and are chased away by a dog....but not before discovering, and taking, a book they find under the floorboards in the shed.

They soon meet the Borkman heir who's moved in, Anders, and it's clear he has supernatural powers, as he wants the book and exercises some sort of mind control over the two to get it back. Not only that, but all sorts of bizarre weather patterns are holding over Hoosac, WI, leading to speculation that world could end. It's up to Anthony, Myra, and her brother Emerson to figure out a solution and save the world.

I have no idea of Bellairs wanted to start a new series with 1978's The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn but it took him six years to revisit his characters. This is an entertaining adventure but sometimes is a bit lacking; there are plot holes unfilled, such as the nature of the villain and his motivations, and information filled in afterward that nobody could actually know. But the notion of a sorcerer who wants to wipe out civilization with monster storms, and some of the bizarre clues and traps involved, are good, if the execution is sometimes lacking. Overall, enjoyable but flawed.

More Bellairs on the way!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

THE SECRETS OF DREARCLIFF GRANGE SCHOOL by Kim Newman

I'm really starting to kick myself for not having plunged into Kim Newman's works earlier. I read Anno-Dracula back in the 90s and enjoyed it, but never picked up the sequels or anything else by him. Now, after sampling some of his work, I'm making up for lost time.

The Secrets of Drearcliff School (2015) is set vaguely in the 20s, and centers on Amy Thomsett, a young girl with a strange gift; it seems she can levitate herself, but has little control over it. Her uptight widowed mother sends her off to the title institute, which seems to specialize in difficult cases such as Amy. It's not that Amy is a bad person or poor student, but her mother holds Amy's paranormal ability against her.

The school is indeed a dreary spot on the coast, and of course strange things happen. It's not as plainly a magical school like Hogwarts, but it's definitely an odd place. There are the usual problems of bullying and rank and class issues that would rise up in school stories of the type, but here Newman throws in a neat angle in that most of the students are the daughters of mad scientists, pulp heroes, supervillains, and the like. (I chuckled at the mention of a "Sally Nikola" and there's probably a ton of references that sailed over my head.

Amy ends up forming "the Moth Club" with her friends Frecks, Kali, and Light Fingers. Frecks is a stolid British sort who has hidden talents; Kali is the daughter of an Indian bandit lord, and who reads too much gangster fiction and speaks like a pulp gangster. Light Fingers is another Unusual; her hands can move at amazing speed. Amy is a moth fancier and she assigns appropriate code names to her friends. But why? Because hooded figures are stalking the campus, and an attempt is made to abduct Kali.

But once that is resolved, there's a new menace in the form of Antoinette Rowley Rayne, a haughty new girl who openly declares her intention to change the school....and actually succeeds in drawing many of her fellow students into a sort of cult. And the hooded creeps are back, seemingly in league with Rayne.

It's a lot of fun, and my only complaint is that there's a lot of setup with references to strange Other Ones and the like, and when the story concludes there's still a lot of unanswered questions....including the fate of the REAL mastermind behind it all.

Still, it's a good read, and moves well. I enjoyed it immensely, not only for the story and characters but for the many nods to pulp fiction, which is Newman's signature. Worth finding.

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....