Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An April Night at the Movies!

It's an April night, we've done our taxes, and some of us are on meds for allergies. But we're all getting together yet again for our dinner-and-a-movie date, albeit a bit delayed.

That one over there had to pay through the nose, but the one next to them is getting a big return so they're picking up his tab. And for some of us it makes little difference. Still, it's always good to catch up, to talk about our latest reading material, antique shopping, used-book finds, cemetery exploring, rambles in the country, kitchen experiments, and how we're all getting worn out by superhero movies.

After splitting the bill, we head up the street to the old movie house we love so much...

Tonight's film is the 1934 chiller HOUSE OF MYSTERY.



The flick over, we amble up the street to our favorite cafe....some of us sneezing on the way....

Saturday, April 11, 2015

TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES, edited by Sarah Weinman

I found out about this anthology from the excellent Classic Mysteries podcast, and and glad I did. This is good stuff.

"Domestic suspense" is a subgenre of mystery/thriller fiction that focuses on family relationships, either spousal, parental or a mix, and is normally regarded as the purview of women writers. I've some across scornful remarks that it was the "kitchen sink" school, but as Edna Buchanan once wrote, the person most likely to murder you is sitting across the breakfast table, and she knows her business.

My favorites from the collection? There's Patricia Highsmith's early story "The Heroine," about an unstable woman who's hired as a governess for a well-to-do family, with tragic results. I mean, c'mon, it's Highsmith, of course it's exceptional.

Another good one is "Louisa, Please Come Home" by Shirley Jackson, an incredible tale of a girl who runs away from her wealthy family, covers her tracks, and starts a new life in another city. The exact reasons for her leaving are nebulous, and she's on the verge of forming a new family, when someone from her past shows up and wants to take her home. It's a great tale, full of psychological depth and devastating irony.

Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" is a story of a singer who's growing tired of her most requested song, which her fans don't realize is a tale of the loss of a beloved childhood friend, a nanny who liked to wear lavender. But as the story progresses you realize the singer has filtered the tale through a very sentimental lens, and there's a lot of darkness lurking.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen is a great noir story of a woman, married to a prominent businessman, who is being harassed by a former lover, a pianist. She hatches a scheme to be free of him once and for all, but it takes an unexpected twist.

Some of the others are pretty good but didn't leap out at me as much. Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Place to Stay" is a tale of a woman who prefers life in prison to a hardscrabble, chancy life on the outside. "Sugar and Spice" is a nice tale from Vera Caspary, but I was more enthused by finding out more about Caspary's feminist leanings, which means I have to re-watch "Laura" and view it through a feminist lens instead of the usual gay-rights lens I employ. "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington is a good psychological tale of a long-suffering wife who's finally had enough. Miriam Allen Deford's "Mortmain" is a ferociously nasty tale of a nurse who plans to rob her dying patient after poisoning him, and of the patient who has his own ideas.

Of the others...well, they're good, but some seemed a little out of place. Dorothy B. Hughes's "Everybody Needs a Mink" hardly seems like it belongs here, as there's no real crime or suspense going on. "The Stranger in the Car" by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is a rather run-of-the-mill murder story, at least to my eye, as is "The Splintered Monday" by Charlotte Armstrong. "Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis is hideously nasty, and not as much about domestic relations as it is about racism and prejudice in small towns. "The People Across the Canyon" is memorable and good, but it has a supernatural twist at the end and comes across as a lost episode of "The Twilight Zone" than something from a mystery anthology. The collection closes with "A Case of Maximum Need" by Celia Fremlin, a nasty psycho-thriller that is quite good but doesn't quite strike me as domestic.

Even with a few stories that seemed like they didn't belong, I still had a fabulous time with this collection, and I've added quite a few of the authors' works to my shopping list. (I picked up a lovely vintage Armstrong title, "Murder's Nest", a couple of weeks ago during a used-book expedition.) I know there's a move lately for folks to read less works by white male authors, so this at least will have you reading more female authors! (I don't pay much attention to such campaigns myself; I read what interests me and the author's sex or ethnicity doesn't come much into it, although I do find I read a lot by female authors anyway.)

So seek this one out, folks, it's a great collection, even if there's a few that seem off, and like any good anthology, it will clue you in to other authors to seek out. Get it and have a blast.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April at the Phantom Concert Hall!

Tonight there's a spring gala a that restored old concert hall we visited last month! We've made an evening of it, dining at a new Eastern European restaurant nearby and then heading over to the venue. It's a cool night, but not as cold as it has been; spring has been sluggish in arriving this year, after a winter of much snow and long sustained cold snaps.

The gala is a fundraiser for the restoration work on the hall, and has quite a few impressive performers, and one very memorable moment...



This is an aria from a lesser-known Lehar operetta, "Gypsy Love," and I adore it. I have such a terrible weakness for gypsy-tinged music, and this is a shining example of it.

We file out afterwards, the fundraiser having been a great success....a glass of absinthe awaits us at that bar up ahead....

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: "A New Year's Eve Adventure"

Peter Schlemihl, sans shadow.
This is a rather strange tale in structure, perhaps another experiment by Hoffmann?

It's narrated by a "Traveling Enthusiast" who goes to a New Year's Eve party in Berlin, and as a sort of surprise by his host, is reunited by his long-lost love Julia, who treats the narrator coldly and cruelly...and never tells him she is married to someone else. Distraught, he leaves the party and finds a beer cellar.

There he encounters Peter Schlemihl and his frenemy Erasmus Spikher. Schlemihl lacks a shadow, and as such is shunned by human society. Spikher lacks a reflection, and tells the narrator how he lost it. Interestingly, his tale is of an obsession with a beautiful courtesan, Giulietta, who bounces between warmth and cruelty, and Spikher abandons his family for her, eventually losing everything.

It's a somewhat intriguing tale, but it can seem a bit opaque at times, largely because Peter Schlemihl is forgotten today. He was a character created by Adelbert von Chamisso for a pious children's book (published in 1814) about a man who sells his shadow to the devil for an ever-full purse, but eventually discards it and finds redemption as a humble observer of the world. "A New Year's Eve Adventure" was published in 1815 and one supposes that technically this could be considered copyright infringement, if such a thing were being enforced in 1815. But in the past, there were many such crossovers, with authors lifting another author's character and having them face a new situation or team them up with a new character.

The story itself is a classic "beware the femme fatale" or a retread of Keats "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which went on to the toxic dames of film noir and the sexy ladies of direct-to-video erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, which I once saw referred to as "La Belle Dame Sans Panties" (I want to use that for a title sometime, perhaps a play.) It's a classic trope, as misogynist as it may be, but we recognize its familiarity. Although it can also be seen as a commentary on the central characters' weaknesses; they simply can't let go of their obsession with Julia/Giulietta, and that obsession leads to their self-destruction. Ultimately, nobody in this is really good or admirable. Julia may be a cold, manipulative bitch, but the men she leads around are no better, fools who cheat on their spouses and can't move on from a sexual obsession.

This story formed the basis of the third act of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffmann," and includes of the most famous tunes from the opera, and one of the popular tunes in the general classical repertoire, the "Barcarolle." You've probably heard it somewhere, even if you're not a classical fan. Here's an instrumental version...



All told, "A New Year's Eve Adventure" is an OK tale, with some atmosphere in the rathskeller scenes and some effectiveness in Spikher's story of his self-destruction, and some universal truths when it explores how sometimes your encounters with lost loves are just damned painful. But the business with Peter Schlemihl is a problem; you end up having to do some research just to understand part of what's going on. It hasn't aged completely well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

THE CASEBOOK OF JULES DE GRANDIN, by Seabury Quinn

The second de Grandin collection does show some development of Quinn as a writer....some, but not much. He was a pulp writer who had occasional flashes of grace, but at least was never dull, a huge crime in the pulp market. And this book is certainly enjoyable, if not of any real literary stature.

Interestingly, Harrisonville, NJ (the center of de Grandin's universe) doesn't quite serve as a Hellmouth, spewing forth supernatural evil, but it does seem to attract it, as most of the menace here is transplanted. In "Children of Ubasti," a pair of strange immigrants come to Harrisonville, who turn out to be man-eating inhuman creatures, some sort of felinoid creature passing for human, who may have been the inspiration for the ghuls of Middle Eastern lore. It does end with an eyebrow-raising rant from de Grandin about how America is too tolerant of immigrants, which is a bit odd coming from a character who is an immigrant.

"The House of Horror" is a fairly grisly tale of how de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge stumble on a mansion inhabited by a mad surgeon who enjoys operating on...and mutilating...beautiful women. It has the two facing an interesting ethical conflict, but all is resolved by a too-convenient deus ex machina ending.

"The Silver Countess" has de Grandin squaring off against a vampire who inhabits a medieval statue brought to the country by a collector. "The Corpse-Master" is unsurprisingly a tale of a man using voodoo to raise zombies, in this case to get vengeance on those who slighted him. (Some of these villains seek vengeance for very petty reasons...)

"Ancient Fires" is a rather nice little story that starts off as a haunted house tale, but ends up being a a love story with its origins in a Victorian romance that crossed racial boundaries; despite a pat ending that makes things acceptable to the American reader of the time, it does have a surprisingly progressive view of ethic relations.

"The Serpent Woman" is the least story of the collection, in which a seeming case of a baby kidnapped by a monster has a rather dull, mundane solution. But the last, "The Chapel of Mystic Horror," is the best. A well-off family buys a mansion that was imported stone-for-stone from Cyprus, after the people who brought it over died mysteriously. A house party is stricken with strange events, including an artist who finds herself painting scenes she's not intending to paint. A joking seance leads to even more menace, and an ancient evil that comes from the very stones themselves turns out to be at fault. It's a story with some nifty macabre touches and a reasonable solution.

All told, it's like other Quinn works. It's pulp nonsense, but it's fun pulp nonsense that's still readable today. If you can, seek it out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day at the Movies!

The holiday is upon us, but rather than joining the amateurs in drinking green beer (yuck) and poorly cooked corned beef and cabbage, we're heading out to the movies! It's a cool March night; spring is its usual mercurial self, having been warm during the day but alarmingly chilly as the sun set. But we have a nice dinner, dodge the folks weaving down the street in their shamrock beads, and settle in for another delightful old movie.

This month, it's the 1934 thriller Mystery Liner!




The movie over, we slip up the street, hoping that cozy cafe isn't overrun with green-clad revelers...

Thursday, March 5, 2015

TALES FROM THE DEED BOX OF JOHN H. WATSON MD by Hugh Ashton

By now, Sherlock Holmes pastiches are everywhere, and you can't turn around in the mystery world without stumbling over one. I may have written about this before, but really, they're almost inevitable. Some get annoyed by them, but if you take a good look back at the early 20th century, there were Holmes knockoffs, parodies, and pastiches everywhere. (And, in the latest news about a long-lost Holmes story which some now say may not be by Doyle at all, there's some we don't know about.) Even Maurice Leblanc included a thinly veiled Holmes in some of his Arsene Lupin stories, copyright be damned.

So I'm of the opinion that Holmes pastiches are not to be shunned. Enjoy them, but don't take them too seriously.

Anyway, I got this on a whim for my Kindle, figuring for 99 cents I won't feel cheated if it's crap. And, well, I wasn't cheated. In fact, this is a very nice little ebook for the price.

It's three tales, all three inspired by references that Doyle drops in the canon to untold stories. In the first, "Sherlock Holmes & the Odessa Business," Holmes investigates a murder at a girls' school in Brighton, which happens to be run by a never-mentioned Holmes sibling, Evadne Holmes, who is also a mathematician and foreign policy consultant. It seems to be about an attempt on the life of a Russian noble attending the school, but turns out to be more about Evadne's work with the Foreign Office. Diverting, but definitely the least of the series.

Second was "The Case of the Missing Matchbox" and this is the story of Isadora Persano and the worm that was unknown to science. This really works and is the closest to coming to Doyle's level. Isadora Persano is a journalist and known duelist who savages a composer's new opera; he ends up stark staring mad, as Doyle said, but the circumstances are interesting and it's got a macabre edge.

Third was "The Case of the Cormorant," which is based on the Doyle reference to the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant. Holmes and Watson go on holiday to Cornwall, only Watson discovers something's afoot. Holmes has been asked to investigate a politician who lives locally, an amateur chemist who lives beyond his means. There's smugglers, dastardly doings, and a trained cormorant. It's not bad but there's an annoying issue with a story element that's dropped abruptly and forgotten, and how Holmes seems to automatically know right away that the newly-discovered drug heroin is badly addictive.

What annoys me about many pastiches is that they tend to throw dozens of real-life Victorians in the mix, or they clumsily do crossovers with other fictional universes. This avoids all that literary name-dropping. Also, they often try too hard to plunk Holmes down in the author's favorite geographic area, be it Brazil or Minnesota, and that's avoided as well.

This little collection is enjoyable, but does have its drawbacks. The introduction of Evadne Holmes is intriguing but she is not developed much; I wonder of Ashton uses her more in his subsequent stories. The introduction of heroin as a plot element in the third story was a bit jarring; Doyle's description of drugs seldom went further than opium. And there's occasional interactions that seem out of character.

Still, it's a fun little collection, and for 99 cents, you can't complain too much.