I was contacted recently by Dean Street Press, a new imprint.
We will be pretty eclectic, but one major area for us will be the rediscovery and republication of classic murder mysteries from the golden age. We are publishing mostly digitally but with physical editions for some titles. We began this week with the republication of the actor George Sanders’ two crime novels from the forties, CRIME ON MY HANDS and STRANGER AT HOME. You may possibly know that both novels were ‘co-authored’, by Craig Rice and Leigh Brackett respectively.
Well, what could I do but ask for review copies?
Not being a film buff, I wasn’t entirely sure who George Sanders was. Turns out he was a fixture in Hollywood for several decades, appearing in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a number of films playing the Saint and the Falcon, and as the voice of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Crime on My Hands is dedicated to the screwball mystery novelist Craig Rice, and it is widely supposed that she ghost-wrote this story for him (TomCat and the GA Detection wiki offer far more informed discussions of the book’s authorship than I can).
The fictionalised George Sanders who acts as narrator is sick to the death of playing detectives, and is overjoyed when his agent lands him a more challenging role: leader of a band of pioneers in a historical movie. He heads north of Hollywood to capture the desert scenes.
After filming the mandatory Indian raid on the wagon train, it turns out that one of the extras is doing more than merely playing dead. One of the hundreds of guns on set was shooting real bullets.
This may be a movie-related mystery, but it’s not the Hollywood version of a crime.
But here was a nameless bearded corpse sprawled inside the circle of wagons on baking sand. There were no dropped collar buttons, no cartridges of an odd caliber, no telltale footprint with a worn heel, no glove lost in haste.
It seemed as if somebody had simply thrown away an old corpse he no longer needed.
Since he is typecast as a detective, Sanders expects people to expect him to be a deductive genius (which they don’t, necessarily), and gets involved in the investigation on that basis. Plus, he doesn’t trust the local law to do things right. It soon emerges that some of the evidence points his way, so self-interest also plays a part. Soon he is balancing his commitment to his career in movies with his commitment to solving the crime. Things get personal when the killer takes a pot-shot at him.
Sanders is the kind of detective that lays traps for his suspects – physically as well as metaphorically. The real-life Sanders was apparently something of an inventor too:
Among the gadgets I had installed in my trailer is a photoelectric cell which throws a beam across the door. It is connected to the lights, so that when I set a foot across the threshold the lights snap on. I don’t have to fumble around in the dark for a switch.
I plugged in a 300-watt daylight bulb, with a reflector behind it, into the light circuit and unscrewed all the wall lamps. I focused this searchlight on the door, at about the height of an adult’s eyes. If anyone came through the door at night, he should be instantly blinded.
The final motive feels a little tacked on, but the deduction is fair and it should be possible for a cleverer reader than me to identify the guilty party amongst the myriad suspects.
Investigation aside, there are some lovely bits of writing. Here is Sanders on Wanda Waite, a ‘Mother Hubbard’ actress trying desperately to graduate to siren roles.
She opened a catalog of implications with, ‘Can I do something for you?’ She sounded like a one-woman wolf pack.
And local Sheriff Callahan:
He was squat and round, with a froth of white hair and ears like the handles of a beer mug. He hung a smile between his ears and came over to us. I tensed my shoulders against a slap on the back. A good thing, too; I think he tried to knock me down.
(I love the hanging smile.)
This is an amusingly written book with a fine flavour of self-deprecation, a strong sense of place and time, and a gimmick-free fair-play mystery.
Beneath the Stains of Time: A must-read for fans that prefer their sleuths at their most amateurish and face their perils and brave their dangers in an upbeat manner – with a roguish grin plastered across their face. It’s just plain fun, even if the track to the solution runs along a badly maintained railway line.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.