Monday, February 29, 2016

BEAST IN VIEW by Margaret Millar

Wealthy, neurotic spinster Helen Clarvoe lives alone in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. She's begun to receive harassing phone calls from an Evelyn Merrick, phone calls that frighten her. She's estranged from her family since her father died, so she calls up Paul Blackshear, an investment banker who had dealings with her father, to find out what's going on.

Beast in View was first published in 1955 and won the Edgar award for Best Novel. It's easy to see why; this isn't a traditional mystery novel but a great, trendsetting  psychological suspense work. It takes us from the swank home of the Clarvoes to a pornographer's studio, a massage parlor, and elsewhere. Blackshear starts to fall for Helen, seeing her as someone who needs protection. Evelyn Merrick goes around, harassing people by telling the dirtiest secrets of those close to them, and two deaths occur before Blackshear finally tracks her down and discovers her devastating secret.

As fun reading as this is, there are some drawbacks. One is that the central concept is a bit hackneyed now and experienced readers will catch on quickly. Some of the psychology is a bit outdated; a gay character is handled in a rather odd manner, both cliched and somewhat sympathetic when you realize he's a seriously screwed-up person overall. But we're given looks into the heads of various characters, which makes for good reading. Millar knew human nature, that's for sure.

Millar (1915-1994) was a Canadian-born suspense writer who is criminally overlooked today. (Her husband, Kenneth Millar, wrote highly-regarded hard-boiled novels as Ross McDonald and is still in print. Shameful sexism, I say.) But her books are being rereleased in ebook formats and you can occasionally come across them in libraries and used book stores. BIV was filmed as an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" but little else of her work was filmed; a movie of another novel, The Iron Gates, was planned with Bette Davis in the lead, but Davis rejected the role as her character would be gone for the last third of the film, and the project died.

Beast in View is out there as an ebook and in used copies. Go find it, folks. This is cracking good reading.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A (late) February Night at the Cinema

We eschewed our normal mid-month movie date as it was Valentine's Day, and are meeting instead tonight. V-Day is such a terrible night for a friendly get-together; restaurants all have couples' specials, movie theaters are full of cooing couples, and sometimes you can't stand the bars and cafes.

Tonight is pleasant; rain is melting the snow, the air is warm with the promise of spring, and we're enjoying a good meal at our favorite place, where they're happy to see us, couples be damned.

After dinner, we wander up the street to that slightly shabby old movie house for the latest old chiller...1935's A SHOT IN THE DARK!

After the show, it's off to our favorite cafe, thankfully now devoid of cardboard hearts...

Saturday, February 20, 2016

THE CRAZY CORNER by Jean Richepin

Here's a real treasure house!

Jean Richepin (1849-1926) was a contributor to the legendary Grand Guignol and to the conte cruel literature of fin-de-siecle France, but his relentless ghoulishness set him apart from the rest, who normally wallowed in mere irony. This collection, translated by Brian Stableford, brings together two of Richepin's short-story collections, with a sprinkling of his other works.

It starts off subtly, with the story "Lilith," in which two students observe a neighbor's strange ritual and slowly piece together a vague idea of a terrible tragedy that might be behind it. It becomes more and more "The Clock" an old man attempts to repair a town's tower clock, but only can do so at a terrible price. Some, like "The Enemy" and "A Duel of Souls," deal with madness and obsession. "The City of Gems" look at the line between madness and sanity, and how seemingly sane people can be coaxed into mad beliefs. Some deal with sexuality, like "Booglottism," in which a man is coaxed into a sexual encounter with a woman who keeps her face hidden....and later find a secret, not quite horrible, but chilling and a bit disgusting. Or "The Ugly Sisters," of two old women who live in a small town....who have a somewhat surprising secret. There's femmes fatale, feckless men, criminals, and sex at its most destructive. One faintly appalling story, "La Morillonne," deals with a beautiful woman who consistently gives birth to monstrously deformed children....and it's her livelihood. And the nasty "Jeroboam," a tale of human deception and manipulation that reads like something from a Jim Thompson tale. There's even a novella, "In Less Time Than It Takes to Write," about a callow youth's adventures in the Paris underworld.

Perhaps the most harrowing tale is "Mademoiselle," a tale of a somewhat not-all-there boy in a small town who dresses as a girl and is accepted as "mademoiselle" by the townsfolk until he tries to dress in male clothes...and disaster results. Cross-dressing was nothing new...but this could be an early example of gender confusion or even transsexualism.

The stories are relatively short, and often lack traditional denouements, so sometimes you'll be left feeling like they cut off too soon sometimes...but then you stop and think and piece them together and then...yikes! That was the art of the conte cruel; it was often short and nasty.

This is a superior collection that is available both in print and as an ebook from the good people at Black Coat Press. Look into it...

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A February Night at the Concert Hall

So we're off again to our favorite concert venue, for an evening of music and fun. And tonight, as a change from the usual seriousness, they include some light works from various composers, including this delightful piece of devilishness...

A good bit of fun, eh? This piece was used as theme music for the BBC radio show "Dick Barton, Special Agent." It's a good piece with undertones of excitement and adventure in store.

So we're on to February, folks! Let's hope the usual February blahs don't get us down...

Monday, February 1, 2016

Required Reading: THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE by Anthony Berkeley

So, not long ago I sang the praises of Berkeley's story "The Avenging Chance." Berkeley later expanded it into a full-length novel...and it's even better. The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) is an acknowledged classic of the Golden Age of Detection, and you have to read it.

The setup is the same. A box of chocolates is sent to a raffish nobleman at his club. Revolted at the gesture, he gives the box to a fellow member who just happens to be nearby. Fellow member takes it home to his wife, in payment for a bet. He eats one, she eats several. He gets sick, and she dies. Who sent the box? Who was the intended victim?

This time around, Berkeley has his detective, Roger Sheringham, part of a group of armchair detectives, the Crime Circle, who are contacted by the police after they hit a brick wall in their investigation. There are six people in the Crime Circle, and each person takes their turn presenting their notions of how it was committed, who the intended victim was, and the identity of the perpetrator...and their own ideas of the motive and parallels to real-life crimes. There's no violence or visits to the crime scene here...each person does some of their own digging and investigating, and each hypothesis has its own merits.

And don't think that it ends the same way as the doesn't. The solution from the story is presented as a possibility....and then shot down by further evidence. The various ideas presented get more and more intense...and even include suspicions cast on other members of the Crime Circle, leading to interpersonal tensions. And when the final solution is presented...and everyone knows it's the right's devastating, and we're left hanging as to whether they'll be able to prosecute.

This is a hell of a read, and worth your time. It's been reprinted in paper format; so far unavailable as an ebook yet.

Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the classic authors of the Golden Age; he wrote under a number of pseudonyms, and Francis Iles he wrote Before the Fact, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion. I hope to review more of his works.