Sunday, October 14, 2018

THE HOUSE ON LUDINGTON STREET – Susan L. Paré

I've read only two novels about my hometown, both by Susan Paré. The only other one I know of, rumored to be a satire about one of my high school English classes by the teacher, was never published (I hope). I ran into the teacher several years later and he snickered when I mentioned the rumor, but didn't deny it. I've not seen the manuscript.
Decades later, merely learning of Paré's The Mayor's Son caused one of my eyebrows to arch—something I cannot will it to do altho I've tried many times. Paré was four years ahead of me in school and I didn't know her, but a cousin dated her younger sister and her younger brother dated my sister. Prime sources for a devious novelist. So, having actually been the mayor's son back then I had no choice but to read the book. Forced myself to read the book, and...and...whew! Deeep deep breath. My fears for naught. Paré’s mayor's son and mayor resembled neither me nor kin! No embarrassment. Great fun actually. Gave me an excuse to dig out the old high school yearbooks to see if any of Paré's classmates or other townies had appeared thinly disguised in her book. None I could say for certain, but I recognized many names.
It is possible some of the characters’ personalities matched their namesakes. But I’d read Lawrence Block’s autobiographical Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, and knew all about the fig leaf of legal boilerplate and artistic license and that changing names “to protect the innocent” really means to protect the author and publisher from lawyers. Same with using names fictitiously. I’ve a hunch, tho, most of Paré's acquaintances who might recognize themselves in her novels, either by name or reputation, are tickled pink. Maybe not the fictitious mayor and mayor’s son. Maybe they really were cut from whole cloth, or were so nasty in life even the hungriest lawyer would laugh with disgust at their depictions, and send them away.
Haunted?

Two weeks ago came The House on Ludington Street. My misgivings this time eased by relief from The Mayor’s Son, I wasn’t nearly so cautious approaching the new book, altho I grew up in a big old house that cornered on Ludington. Curiosity pulled me in. I read Ludington last week, and the whew this time when I reached the end was the kind that caps one helluva fun ride.
Once again out came the high school yearbooks with their dusty, faded nostalgia tickling poignant memories from the long-ago faces and names, silly inscriptions. Hundreds of fragments vying for the focus that could summon forgotten stories back to life. Too late now, tho, with Poop’s grandfather seizing control with a narrative richer and more compelling than any I might find locked in the vault of my subconscious archive. It’s a story about corruption, prostitution, grisly murders, a secret tunnel, and a ghost. It’s about my hometown, but not a town I ever knew. I know it’s my town only because I know the names and the places. Especially the house on Ludington Street, which I’d seen often, but only from the outside.
Susan Paré
I even knew Poop, but as John, and the only Whitey I remember was in Susan Paré's class. During my brief acquaintance with Poop I’d thought he was closer to my age. He moved away shortly after his father died in a highway accident. Unless memory’s playing a trick here, I recall John telling me a strange story around the last time I saw him. He was a mischievous fellow, and I thought at the time he was pulling my leg. Now, half a century later, I’m pretty sure John’s tale was something about a secret tunnel.
In The House on Ludington Street, John tells his buddy Whitey about a secret tunnel. Whitey reacted about the same as I did, except he laughs, while I just nodded and filed it away in my head under “tall tales.” In the novel, John has gotten the idea from his grandfather, and when he and Whitey ask him about it the old man gives them much more than they’d hoped for. The story cleverly unfolds in chapters coinciding with Grandpa needing breaks for meals and rest. At one point the boys actually persuade Police Chief Austin to let them hunt in the city hall basement for an entrance to the rumored tunnel. If you think I’m going to give you for free what happens next, you should know my dad had the real Chief Austin lock me in one of the City Hall jail cells once just to let me feel what it was like. The door slammed shut, and they left the room. I was alone in there about fifteen minutes. It seemed like hours, and I learned the meaning of claustrophobia.
Late at night sometimes my dreams take me back there, and I feel the presence of ghosts in that cell. I don’t want to get them mad at me for giving away their secrets! 
 Image result for columbus wisconsin city hall images 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED – George Bellairs

A crime novel by George Bellairs when he was young and sweet and innocent? Blimey, as his British peers probly said back in the day. But that would have been for his later novels, when he was old and curmudgeonly. I started his Inspector Littlejohn series with the later novels, when Bellairs had become snarky and even nasty in his outlook toward people, making fun of most of his characters in ways that would have made their mothers cry. Being old and curmudgeonly myself, I rather enjoyed most of these verbal caricatures, except when Bellairs’s cartooning pen went for cheap sniggers at the expense of certain minorities, such as Jews and gay stereotypes.
After two such novels, however, in which so many potential suspects could be eliminated because of their harsh treatment by Bellairs, leaving me to focus on the few ordinary characters for murdering motive, opportunity and means—relatively easy peasy--I was about to give up on further adventures of Scotland Yard Inspector Littlejohn—in part also because Bellairs portrayed Littlejohn as little more than a name, with no physical description or personality. But a comment by blogger John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books acquainted me with an earlier Littlejohn mystery he described as, “a real detective novel with a plot that was baffling and engaging. It's a wartime mystery and it dares to break free from the ‘rules’ and detective novel conventions that make it a standout for Bellairs.” So I downloaded the Kindle version of The Dead Shall Be Raised, and agree with everything John said. Plus I now have a better impression of Inspector Littlejohn and some really fine description of the English north country where the story takes place.

We learn that Littlejohn is a “large” man, with no other physical description, but this is more than we’re told in The Case of the Seven Whistlers and Intruder in the Dark, published in 1944 and ‘56 respectively. His wife’s name—Letty—is all we’re given about her in these two novels, altho from his mention of needing to call her occasionally it’s apparent he holds her in high regard. In The Dead Shall Be Raised (originally titled Murder Will Speak), which came out in ‘42 and is set in 1940 during the Nazi bombings of England, we learn early in the first chapter just how high the regard:
No-one but his wife could have persuaded Littlejohn to make such a trip on Christmas Eve. One November night, he had arrived home to find all the windows of his Hampstead flat smashed and the roof blown-in. Far worse, his wife, Letty, was a casualty at the local hospital. Luckily, the worst that German frightfulness had done to her was to cause superficial cuts and slight concussion, but the detective, tied as he was to duty owing to the stress of official work, did not feel happy until he had packed her off to a quiet area.

He’s taking leave to visit Letty in Hatterworth, where she is staying with a friend from her schooldays. His train arrives at the station nearest Hatterworth too late for the bus to that town, but is met by Hatterworth Police Superintendent Haworth, whose wife is Letty’s friend.
Next evening, while all are gathered at the Methodist Church where Haworth is part of the choir performing its annual Messiah concert, a human skeleton is unearthed on the nearby moorland by Home Guardsmen digging a trench. News of this find unrealistically interrupts the concert, sending Haworth and Littlejohn back to the station, where Haworth slips on the icy steps, and sprains his ankle. Littlejohn graciously accepts Haworth’s invitation to supervise the investigation into the twenty-three-year-old murder case unearthed with the bones of the man assumed to have disappeared after presumably killing his one-time best friend over a girl.
Littlejohn’s job is complicated by the dearth of locals still alive who knew the two men and were familiar with circumstances of the case. He’s aided by two former police superintendents—Haworth’s father-in-law and his father, both honorably retired and living nearby. The narrative picks up speed once the game is afoot, and soon the murder of a potential witness in the case makes it clear the killer of at least one of the two rivals is still alive.
Emphasis of the investigation is procedural, with not much whodunnit mystery, as the list of plausible suspects has shrunk over the years, and not much howdunnit, as the first two victims obviously were shotgunned and the third obviously poisoned. The mystery is whydunnit, and without the typical sleight of hand many fictional mysteries deploy to confuse police and readers alike, I found Littlejohn’s incremental discoveries of motive and circumstances leading to the three murders more realistic.
Bellairs goes much easier on the caricaturing in The Dead Shall Be Raised, altho his keen eye for detail is well displayed—sometimes just with a name, such as the Rev. Reginald Gotobed, pastor of Hatterworth Methodist Church. At least Gotobed didn’t have the “fruity” voice of the minister in Intruder or the “oboe” voice of his counterpart in Whistlers.Albeit with only three of the fifty-eight Littlejohn mysteries read, I am getting the impression Bellairs perhaps has some sort of  colorful history with clergy.
Bellairs
He gives a glimpse of his later caricaturing with this portrait of Bill o'Three-Fingers, a drunken vagabond who plays a brief but intriguing minor role: “He was an unpleasant-looking customer. A general look of disproportion about his face. His mouth, nose and eyes seemed pushed too near the top of his head. Long, broken nose, weak, receding chin, loose mouth with yellow, broken teeth and a long, sloping upper lip. Like a grotesque tailor’s dummy, constructed with freakish features to attract passers-by.”
Another minor character, the girl whose affections split apart a friendship that ended in their deaths, is described twenty-three years later as, “fat and ungainly, with straight bobbed hair, badly cut, as though some amateur had put a basin over her head and clipped off all not covered by it. A round face, with healthy cheeks, grown puffy, and dark, placid eyes, with a look combining innocence and ignorance. Her figure had gone altogether. Heavy limbs, protruding stomach, great breasts flopping beneath her dress. A hard-working woman, weary with child-bearing and gone to seed before her time. She had five children and her husband was a plumber.”
Bellairs goes easier on Mother Earth. Here he rhapsodizes on Hatterworth as he approaches the town:
...built of local stone, [it] seemed to fit snugly in the general scene. Its long rows of three-storied cottages, its public buildings, chimneys and towers and its open-spaces were ranged along a lower highroad which, from the hillside, seemed a mere thread winding into the distance...In the distance, the white smoke of a train, laboriously mounting the ridge into the heart of West Riding.

And this: “The vast, cold moor was a rare place for holding secrets. A silence seemed to brood over it, punctuated now and then by the cries of birds or the shouts of the Home Guard, still maneuvering vigorously. Even the presence of so many men over the wide expanse seemed powerless to dispel the loneliness. The creeping fingers of the powers of destruction worked unseen, twisting and stunting the vegetation, tearing down the boundaries erected by man, shattering his habitation and sliding relentlessly over fields he had cultivated, dragging them back to the wilderness.”


But then a glimpse of crystalline beauty, with Superintendent Haworth singing his Messiah solo: The busy chapelkeeper opened one of the doors leading from the vestibule into the main street and the exquisite aria floated out into the still Christmas night and seemed to ring across the moorland beyond.
The Dead Shall Be Raised is a short novel, or perhaps a novella, packaged with Murder of a Quack, another short one published the following year. I had intended to read only the first, but I liked it so much I’ve decided to read the other. Not wishing to compete with Yvette Banek of In So Many Words for the title of most Littlejohn mysteries blogged, I just might keep my impressions of that one to myself. We shall see.




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]



Saturday, October 6, 2018

RELIC OF HIS HEART – Jane Lebak


As you may recall, Daniel Webster won his debate with the Devil after a long, arduously cunning verbal struggle. Norman Mailer's attempt to repeat the Webster victory, holding forth for the Existential outlook, would have managed only a draw—had I finished the parody I started in college and abandoned when understanding I'd actually have to study Existentialism not merely indulge in its chemically induced illusory semblance in order to give Mailer a fighting chance. I was "chops challenged," as I learned to euphemize much later in politically correct vernacular.

Comes now something a tad more practical and, probably because of its practicality, vastly more interesting: A debate between a snarky atheist midwife named Tessa Testerman and a rather wimpy, guilt-ridden archangel named Maritenael, a name Testerman can't pronounce, so changes to "Martin."

No...Absolutely, no,” Testerman instantly responds, interrupting Martin's description of a sacred relic he's ordered her to recover. The archangel had appeared to her after an exhausting delivery. She assumes she's hallucinating.

The angel stops speaking. He “resembled a generic Christmas tree ornament, with a white robe, a gold sash, and angular features...trim black hair and black eyes so focused they looked fierce.

"She tilted up her chin to glare at him. 'You can leave me alone,’ she says. ‘I’m not retrieving this relic. We’re done.'”

He says, “This is the second time you’ve refused.”

'Then that makes both of us who can count to two.' Tessa folded her arms. 'I said no the first time, and I meant it.'”

She accuses him of being a hallucination, and tells him to vanish, "or whatever it is hallucinations do.”
Image result for archangel raphael

Martin insists he's real.

"Tessa turned, hands on her hips. 'You’ve shown up twice, both times after long births, both times at three o’clock in the morning. You didn’t turn up at an hour when I’m not exhausted and high on someone else’s birth endorphins. If that’s not a hallucination, then what is?'”

Martin admits she's more vulnerable after a delivery, "more willing to accept the impossible."

'And that’s how I know you’re a hallucination,' she retorts. 'Now if you don’t mind, I need to drive home without trees dancing alongside the road. Excuse me, please.'”

He blocks the doorway. Asks how he can prove to her he's an angel.

"She huffed. 'If you’re really an angel, tell me the time of the next birth I’ll attend, plus the gender of the baby.'”

He does so, with precise details including an odd spelling of the baby's name. Four days later Noe (pronounced Noah) is born as predicted, and Martin reappears. Testerman acknowledges his angelhood, but she's no pushover for harps and halos. Before allowng any game to be afoot, the midwife has a demand of her own. It seems a bill is pending before the state legislature that would allow insurance companies to deny paying for birthing procedures not conducted in licensed hospitals. Its passage would put midwives out of business. Therefore, Testerman proposes, if Martin would use his angelic powers to help defeat the bill, she would try to find and recover the sacred relic.
Image result for tom hanks in a dress

Were Dan Brown the author of Relic of His Heart, guaranteed, of course, to be another vehicle for Tom Hanks (this time presumably in midwife drag), Testerman would abandon her husband and five sons to hit the global airways gallivanting from one clue to the next, dodging demons at every step, until at last she'd have the relic in hand and could return home to her midwifery, safe from the restrictive legislation miraculously defeated despite the powerful hospital lobby, and into the forgiving arms of her loving, mother-knows-best family.

Fortunately, for me anyway, the author is Jane Lebak, whose lightly irreverent sense of humor and joie de vivre keep a potentially grim, implausible, horror-riven thriller sensibly grounded and morally sound yet irresistible. Not an easy thing to do with an archangel co-protagonist constantly bouncing back and forth in time who takes to heart quite literally the expression “God-fearing,” reluctant as he is to approach the Father directly for any reason, such as seeking permission to reveal his own name to Testerman.


Martin suffers celestial-grade guilt for having dropped the ball, so to speak, when, during his tenure as guardian angel of the Church of the Holy Cross in Barlassina, Italy, soldiers, enraged by an Italian partisan sniper’s shooting at them, burned the church to the ground and stole the relic, to boot. The angel had been off attending to some other, apparently less important duty, and blames himself for “losing” the church and the relic—a beautifully designed golden reliquary containing a microscopic piece of the heart of St. Peter of Verona taken from the tip of the assassin’s sword that martyred him. Martin also blames himself for, at the same time, not preventing a G.I.’s accidental fatal shooting of Testerman’s Great Aunt Alicia. The relic must be returned to the town to appease the two controlling, feuding families—the Monterosas and the DiOrios—so the church can be rebuilt.


Testerman is a DiOrio, which Martin counts on to spur her into hunting down the relic. Fortunately her husband, Gary, is a freelance writer enthralled by the situation, and researches that period for stories he sells to national publications. Hey, this would be the part for Tom Hanks, and he wouldn’t even have to wear a dress! The midwife’s relatives contribute letters from family in Italy to help round out the picture. One of Gary’s stories had the effect of kicking a hornet’s nest in Barlassina. Threatening letters arrive, but one tells him how carefully he’d balanced the story: You will be pleased to note that some of the smaller-minded among us actually sat down and counted the number of quotes you provided from the Monterosas versus the DiOrios, and they’re furious that you made it exactly even.

Gary tracks down those veterans still alive who’d been in the platoon blamed for burning the church, shooting Alicia, and stealing the relic. He gets the story and...no way will I reveal the secret of the missing relic! That’s your job. Do Tessa and Gary actually go to Barlassina? Of course they do, but why and when and what happens when they get there? Something else for you to wonder about. I won’t have the Monterosas and DiOrios sending me any hate mail, grazi!


Thursday, October 4, 2018

THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS – George Bellairs

When it comes to making me laugh, the power of visual triumphs extravagantly over cognitive--graphically or with words. It's a phenomenon similar to the effect of experiencing a joke versus having it explained.

Take, for example one of the owners of George Bellairs's fictional antique shop, a man referred to only as "Mr. Small" but described in grotesquely comic detail as "an enormous man with a huge paunch which hung between his knees when he was sitting. He had solid limbs like the branches of an old tree and a round florid face. His head was shaped like an orange and topped by a brown, ill-fitting wig. His thick, sloppy lips, large Roman nose, small shifty eyes and ill-fitting clothes finished-off an appearance more like that of a shady broker’s man than an expert in old furniture and prints...so flabbily fat that he looked to be trundling his paunch before him like a railway-porter wheeling baggage about...He was smoking a black cheroot which he kept removing from his mouth and then replacing with a repulsive movement of his lips, like a hungry child taking the teat of a feeding-bottle."
Had Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin been working back in the 1940s, and had he and Bellairs perchance collaborated on an illustrated volume of The Case of the Seven Whistlers, Mr. Small, with modified eyes, might have been represented by one of Martin's favorite characters, Fester Bestertester.


Bellairs describes Mr. Small’s niece, Mrs. Doakes, who worked in the shop with her uncle and his brother-in-law, tiny Mr. Grossman, as “a tall, muscular, good-looking woman” with “a way of exciting men whilst putting women out of countenance. Martin might have depicted her thusly, with some essential tweaks:

The entire crew of this novel are portrayed so comically I nearly forgot I was reading a murder mystery, with two violent deaths—one so ghastly I had to wonder if Edgar Allen Poe had gotten a hand in it somehow. Tiny Mr. Grossman is the first victim, found curled up, suffocated, in an antique wooden chest he’d bought from a woman who eventually becomes the second victim, found with her head crushed by either an assailant or rocks at the foot of a cliff from which she’d either jumped or been hurled by a murderer. Tough, I should think, for Don Martin to win laughs with a drawing of that. Perhaps Gahan Wilson could have been brought in for the victim illustrations were time travel an option.

It’s a well-crafted mystery with enough plausible suspects to challenge even the most astute puzzle-solvers, albeit a distinct gullibility in such exercises can challenge my opinion. Anyway, this one fooled me right up to the reveal’s edge. I’m not too proud to blame the thrall holding me captive by Bellairs’s characters. Like a magician’s distracting hands, their general comic weirdness consistently diverted my attention from the story’s Sherlockian signposts. Oh, where to begin?
Don Martin
Miss Selina Adlestrop, a spinster whosesmall button nose, like a whiteheart cherry, little heart-shaped lips and a timid, faltering manner...stood her in very good stead and hid her shrewdness in striking a bargain,” which she employed whilst haggling over the chest-cum-coffin with the tiny Mr. Grossman, whose small hands and feet and slim figure and grace of movement of a ballet dancer” attempted to charm from her more quid than she’d have preferred to put out for the item so dear to her romantic heart.
Then there’s the local constable, Donald Puddiphatt, a duffer “perspiring from every pore and puffing like a traction engine as he argued with Seth Hale,” the local undertaker. “They were an ill-assorted couple. One looked to have been poured into his uniform which fitted him skin-tight owing to his ever increasing size; the other was nearly as fleshless as a skeleton with old clothes hanging from his bony body like washing on a clothes horse.

A great brouhaha breaks out when the chest is opened in Miss Adlestrop’s rooming house, and Grossman’s little body is discovered curled up inside. Women faint. One becomes hysterical and has her face slapped by another, and Seth Hale, the skinny undertaker, “fell unconscious to the ground with a great rattle of bones.”
Oh, and there was the local politician, Councillor Blanket, who “ looked made-up for the part of John Bull, like an actor just ready for the footlights. Grease-painty complexion, tufts of hair, bald head with puffs of white at the side,” and Miss Adlestrop’s uncle, Mr. Alfred, a “rabbity” little eccentric inventor “with a squint and a ragged moustache,” who, "ran so fast from the pandemonium you couldn’t see his legs going, like a mouse," with Councillor Blanket in tow, “lumping along steadily, his head held firmly erect to keep his hat from falling off.”
Superintendent Gillespie, in charge of the investigation for the local constabulary, “would go for days without speaking to anyone and then suddenly change into bouts of great jocularity.He always wore his hat in the office when his liver was wrong side out. He said there was a draught from the windows, even when they were closed.” It quickly became clear the case was too much for Gillespie’s force, so his boss, Chief Constable Colonel Carslake, “tall, thin, peppery and self-important,” was forced to call in help from Scotland Yard, hence the arrive of Detective-Inspector Littlejohn, of the Metropolitan C.I.D. A one-man cavalry, who, for some odd reason is not described in any way, presumably because he’s the only character in the novel who doesn’t look or act funny, and Bellairs was relying on reverse imagination to suggest ordinary sanity and appearance.

The coroner, Emmanuel Querk, tall and thin with “a peculiar head...only a little broader than his long neck,” ending in a point from which “a fringe of downy grey hair spread like a curtain over his neck and ears.” A man of multiple quirks, including an aversion to noise, Querk rushed through his inquest into the murder, adjourning it soon after a “hurdy-gurdy started in the street outside just as he was directing the jury and he could hardly wait for their verdict and beating a hasty retreat to his private room. There he locked the door, unlocked a cupboard and took out a bottle of whiskey. It was all that stood between him and the complete madness to which his wife’s endless debts and incessant nagging were driving him.”
Even Bellairs tires of the inquest, giving us a break from monotonous testimony because “we have heard it all before and it would be sheer torture to go over it again in the form of Puddiphatt’s official statement.”
Bellairs
Bellairs evidently has a thing for tweaking clerical noses. In Intruder in the Dark, the first of the Detective-Inspector Littlejohn series I’ve read, he makes fun of the vicar’s “fruity voice.” In Seven Whistlers, the Rev. Mellodew Gryper has “a voice like an oboe” and is shown Ichabod Crane-like at a funeral in which “the mourners had to struggle to keep themselves upright against the stiff breeze blowing from the sea. The parson’s vestments flapped at right-angles to his body. The bearers staggered beneath their burden and tottered from side to side as they advanced to the graveside. Tall, tortured trees surrounded the churchyard, leaning at an angle caused by the fury of the prevailing winds.”
In another scene, conducting sack races for children in a local festival, his oboe voice is grist for sniggering: “‘Oh, what a shame, Bertha. On, on, you’re winning. Ohhhhh,’ he oboed, trying to urge them all on without fear or favour. He sounded at times as though somebody were murdering him, and his contortions suggested that someone might have dropped a wasps’ nest down his pants.”
George Robey
One last ridiculous character of the many who tortured my funnybone as I vaguely wondered which one of them might not have been the villain who locked poor itsy bitsy dancing Grossman in the chest and left him to suffocate, essentially buried alive. I give you the insignificant-seeming Mr. Troyte, in a walk-on, walk-off role (perhaps exiting in handcuffs, making wuffing noises as he goes?):a small, portly man who looked like a pug dog with George Robey eyebrows...
He had a pug dog’s teeth, as well, and his voice came from straight behind them, a sort of wuffing noise, thick and unctuous. Like one of Walt Disney’s large, benevolent animals. It gave you a queer sort of feeling when he gave tongue. As though a pet dog suddenly started to articulate...His pug’s nostrils were wide as though from continual deep inhaling and he looked to have blown his teeth half-way out of his gums by vigorously exhaling through his lips...”




[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]