Another great opening sentence to open this month’s Books of the Year, of the Month:
The Mystery of the Missing Twins could never have been solved by an ordinary detective.
Which 1958 mystery classic opens with this line? Answer at the foot of the page…
So on with the reviews. An executive summary of which would tell you that 1958 was big on sleaze… The year was the choice of Sorcha at Writing About Books, who selected Lawrence Block’s Borderline. I had no idea Block was writing so early, but it sounds like he was still finding his feet:
This has some of Block’s trademarks from his later books – the shortness and tightness of the story for instance as well as his characters being more than a little damaged (and who like their drink). However, there are some things that have not followed through, such as the explicit horniness of many of his characters (excused in one on her high intake of alcohol and weed), as well as the dealing with the gutters of life – the cathouse, the rapes, incest, pornography, voyeurism, orgies, murders etc…as well as a mad killer with a switch-blade! (and all in less than 170 pages!).
Lucy at The Art of Words picked up Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds, which sounds distinctly odd as a concept – singing serial killer on a cruise:
The “flower murderer” has strangled several girls at ten-day intervals, and strewn their bodies with crushed flowers and broken necklaces. The action plays out over several days as they travel to the tropics. The various characters reveal more about themselves (I believe this is known as “character development”) as Alleyn tries to steer the conversation towards what they were all doing on the night of the murders – particularly the last, which took place the night they sailed. The flower murderer sings as he kills – but his voice could be a man’s or a woman’s.
My contribution was Margery Allingham’s Hide My Eyes, a suspense novel which focuses on a particularly realistic killer operating in an obscure area of London.
Unlike [The Tiger n the Smoke’s] Jack Havoc, who is almost an anti-hero, Gerry arouses nothing but repulsion in the reader. We follow him over the course of a day’s lies and nefarious activities and he is, genuinely, one of the creepiest baddies I’ve encountered this year.
Sergio picked up a sci-fi/espionage/thriller, John Blackburn’s A Scent of New-mown Hay, which involves a plague which kills men and turns women into a human-fungal hybrid. Hence the weird cover.
So what kind of book is this exactly? It begins with General Charles Kirk, the permanently under-heated head of Her Majesty’s Foreign Intelligence Office, learning that a remote region in the the Soviet Union some 300 miles wide is being forcibly and secretly cleared. Right away he thinks this is the projected landing area for a returning space probe, proving that the Russkies have conquered space and world supremacy will thus not be not far behind. He’s wrong though, as becomes clear in one of the book’s most memorable sections, when a British ship is told to get out of the nearby port but is then sunk by other vessels fleeing the area.
Sergio’s next choice was the more prosaic Robert Bloch’s Shooting Star:
This was Robert Bloch’s one and only private eye novel – so of course, given his inclination towards the tongue-in-cheek, he made it a book about an investigator with only one eye! It’s set in Hollywood and it seems that the author did not hold it in very high regard. So how does this story of the scandalous murder of a cowboy movie star actually hold up?
John kicked off with Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke:
Leave your disbelief at the door and be welcome to an Ellery Queen mystery whose solution depends on such esoteric knowledge (origins of the Phoenician alphabet, anyone?) that I’d be surprised if there has ever been a reader who has solved it. To make matters worse, one line of reasoning depends on a system of proofreading marks that hasn’t been in use for decades; I began proofreading in the late 1960s, and the marks we used even then had considerably evolved from the ones displayed in this novel.
John also offered Ed McBain’s Killer’s Choice, featuring two murders, which the author resisted the temptation to link up:
In most modern crime novels, these two would eventually prove to be related. McBain’s style, though, is to keep them separate, the unification of the narrative coming instead from the overlap of personnel investigating the crimes. In terms of the series’ story arc, Killer’s Choice is significant for the introduction of Cotton Hawes, who’s regarded initially by the rest of the cast as an over-cocky twerp.
Jose Ignacio completed his Raymond Chandler readathon with 1958’s Playback, finding the author off his game:
To be honest, I would lie if I say that I have enjoyed reading this novel. But despite all its flaws, I won’t speak evil of it. I’d just like to point out that I don’t think appropriate to choose this book to start reading Chandler for the first time. It is far better to leave it until the end and, in any case, always after having read before The Long Goodbye.
Better was Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, which proved very topical, as Jose Ignacio reveals:
Our Man in Havana was published on October 6, 1958. Seven days later Greene arrived in Havana with Carol Reed to arrange for the filming of the script of the novel, on which they had both been working… the day after Greene and Reed’s arrival on the island, Che Guevara reached Las Villas, moving westwards towards Havana. Six weeks later, on January 1, 1959, after Batista had fled the island, Castro and his Cuban Revolution took power. In April 1959 Greene and Reed were back in Havana with a film crew to film Our Man in Havana. The film was released in January 1960. A note at the beginning of the film says that it is “set before the recent revolution.”
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery read A. A. Fair’s The Count of 9. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are a pairing I haven’t yet encountered, but they sound fun:
Bertha and Donald have an unusual relationship. Bertha is the boss, but Donald goes his own way. They argue a lot but have an affectionate relationship underneath it all. Donald gets beat up a lot and is not big on carrying a gun. Bertha, on the other hand, doesn’t do much detecting. In this book she is hired to watch the entrance of a party and insure that some valuable art objects are not stolen. I am going to have to read more of these because I think I just need to get to know these characters.
Tracy also looked at Colin Watson’s downbeat police procedural Coffin Scarcely Used, finding it:
Very slow, with flashes of wonderful humor, and an interesting resolution. I think this is another series that will grow on me once I read a couple more of them.
Coffin was the only title read by two people this month, with John confirming Tracy’s instinct that the series got better as it went along:
Although the Flaxborough Chronicles would become among the funniest of all crime series — I periodically re-read some of the later titles, like Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (retitled Kissing Covens in the US, one of those rare occasions where I prefer a US retitling) and Hopjoy Was Here — on remaking the acquaintance of this novel I got the feeling that Watson was learning on the job, as it were. I giggled uproariously several times, but there were a few passages that seemed pretty stiflingly dull. (Also, of course, there’s as yet no Lucilla Teatime.)
(You can read my thoughts on Coffin here)
The Passing Tramp Curt went back to the archives to bring us his review of John Rhode’s Licensed for Murder. Incredibly this was the 67th novel to feature the series detective Dr Priestley:
Its murder plot is one of Street’s cleverest and the late-1950s declining rural inn setting is done with conviction and authority, reflecting in plain prose the author’s over half-century familiarity with public houses and his fascination with geography and landscape.
Rebecca at Ms Wordopolis Reads admired a lengthy courtroom drama from Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Murder, recommending its attention to detail and manipulation of the courtroom scenes for maximum impact.
As for other signs that make the book a sign of its era, Traver repeatedly mentions the American obsession with the Soviets and the paranoia of the Cold War, and he has a pointed speech against the then-recently-completed Mackinaw Bridge that linked the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula. And lastly, the casual sexism can be a bit much in spots. Thankfully the courtroom scenes and drama make up for that.
Col’s Criminal Library looked at James McKimmey’s The Perfect Victim, set in the hick town of Willow Creek. As the cover tells us, ‘Her name was Grace. Anyone looking for trouble could find her. And somebody was looking.’
As readers we know how Grace died and we know who is responsible. What follows next is interesting as we see our real killer manipulate the populace into a frenzy, thirsting for vengeance. Common sense, decency and all rational thought, gives way to a lynching party mentality, with the lone voices of reason swallowed up by the screaming of the mob. McKimmey ratchets up the tension until the end. Can Jackson be saved and the town re-discover reason and its conscience or will the bloodlust win out?
This is a classy blog, and I am keen to include lots of dark Scandinavian crime, so I’m delighted to link to the Noirish review of Norwegian noir De Dødes Tjern:
Mystery writer Bernhard Borge (Kolstad) has just finished his latest novel, and starts reading it to his wife Sonja (Engh). The rest of the movie is the story of that novel . . . or is it a recollection of an experience they shared?
The story takes in axe murder, ghosts, and overtones of incest – not a film that would have passed the Hollywood Production Code.
And who solved the Case of the Missing Twins? This little fella, born in 1958:
As usual, thanks gang! Would anybody like to suggest a year for October? We could pumpkin-spice things up for Halloween by saying that any books read have to have a spooky theme.