Thursday, May 24, 2018

TRAITOR'S PURSE – Margery Allingham

A couple of weeks ago, reviewing my first so-called "Albert Campion Mystery," I whined that the only mystery was who in hell was Albert Campion and why would Hide My Eyes be called an "Albert Campion Mystery" if he appeared only occasionally and then seemingly only on the periphery as someone mentioned rather than participating. Several blogging friends rushed to my rescue with suggestions to read other "Albert Campion Mystery" novels by Margery Allingham, and the one getting the most votes was Traitor's Purse.

I immediately read it and it blew me away--so forcefully I had to take a breather and do a nonfiction crime book last week before tackling Traitor's Purse. And then, preparing to write this report, I found a three-year-old Guardian piece that pronounced Traitor's Purse "a wartime masterpiece." No wonder I was blown away, but now I'm intimidated from writing my own impressions of a book that blew away folks vastly better-read than I. Yet, despite quivering fingers on my keyboard, I owe it to blogging friends Tracy and Yvette to give it a try.
First to address my earlier observation that Albert Campion was the only mystery in Hide My Eyes, well, in Traitor’s Purse he’s still a mystery, but not to us. He’s a mystery to himself! He suffers from amnesia for most of the novel, believing he was injured in a fight in which he killed a police officer. He’s now a desperado on the run from the law, but that’s only the half of it. He’s not certain who or what he is, but he has a strong sense he’s responsible for having to stop something from happening that could have terrible consequences for the world if he fails.

Perfect setup for a nail-biting thriller, no? Yes, indeed Traitor’s Purse is one of the most suspenseful novels I have ever read—not only because of what’s apparently at stake but because we have no clue either what he’s supposed to be looking for. We’re pretty much in the same boat as Albert Campion. The suspense is multifaceted: we know he’s got to stop the bad thing from happening, we know the cops are after him for a cop-killing we don’t know for sure he committed, we don’t know who he can trust, and we’re tortured, along with Campion, by the incremental revelations, bit by agonizing bit, as to what in hell the whole thing is all about.
A saving grace along Campion’s snail crawl to enlightenment is the one person he’s pretty sure he can trust, Amanda Fitton, the woman he understands he’s known since childhood and to whom he’s supposed to be about to marry. Learning this, and sensing intuitively trustful of her, he nonetheless dare not reveal to her his helplessness from the amnesia. “He was not the sort of man who ought ever to need the moral support of anyone else on earth with this dreadful sick anxiety,” he muses. “Once she knew the truth about him she'd stick to him with all that eager generosity which was her mainspring. She'd be so kind, so sorry. Pity, filthy humiliating weakening pity! Nauseating compassion! His soul retched at it – the ultimate concentrated essence of second-best.”

A rather competitive sort, our Albert Campion. Well, I suppose he’d have to be, wouldn’t he, to sustain a thirty-book series named for him? And by jove we’d need a competitive sort to save England and perhaps the world from something so hideous as he and we are led to believe will come about unless stopped by the only man in the world who’s supposed to know what it is and how to stop it. (Yikes, I’m in danger of hyperventilating just remembering this plot! It’s been over a week now, and after holding my breath so long while reading Traitor’s Purse, I’m not sure my breathing is back to normal yet anyway. A major whew followed this one!)
And lest you think I’m some kind of ninny, here’s how A.S. Byatt describes Traitor’s Purse in his Guardian essay (being British, he of course abjures the exclamation mark):a startlingly good book. It is taut and trim and full of delicious shocks and narrative tension...”
Byatt points out Allingham wrote Traitor’s Purse during the first half of 1940 as England was under constant Nazi bombing attacks. “...she worked almost furtively on Traitor’s Purse, hiding in the garden, or secreting the manuscript in a biscuit tin during bombings. She wrote: ‘You’ve no idea how difficult it is to finish a modest thriller when all your neighbours are mucking about in the dawn looking for nuns with sub-machine guns and collapsible bicycles to arrive by parachute.’”

Along with the smooth, compelling pace of her suspenseful narrative Allingham wove in some delightful characters, describing them with almost caricature strokes. Such is a “Mr. Pyne,” who seems to know Campion and perhaps for this reason seems vaguely familiar to him: “...a heavy round man in early middle-age, with a distinctive ugly face and impudent eyes beneath brows as fierce and tufted as an Aberdeen's. He conveyed energy and efficiency and the sturdy decisiveness which goes with a simple point of view and no nerves. It occurred to Campion that he looked like a man who did not believe in ghosts...”
As Traitor’s Purse is only the second “Albert Campion Mystery” I’ve read, I’m certain there is much more to learn about the eponymous character who’s barely more than a shadow to us in Hide My Eyes and to himself in Traitor’s Purse. I don’t recall a wife in the first one, and maybe I lucked out to the imminent acquisition of her in this one. But here’s an enlightening, if brief, depiction of Amanda’s effect on Albert that I should hope carries through in his later adventures: “Campion put an arm round her and held the small circle of her shoulder-bone. For the first time in his life he felt completely adult. His hesitancy, his qualms, his intellectual doubts seemed suddenly the stuff of childhood. 'Let's get married early tomorrow,' he said.”
'Yes,' said Amanda, who never bothered with illusions. 'It's time we got married.'”

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A FAR, FAR BETTER THING – Jens Soering and Bill Sizemore

The mystery for anyone who knows my reading preferences is why I didn't choose one of the many excellent fiction mysteries I've yet to read that are likely to have satisfying endings over A Far, Far Better Thing. I've confessed many times in this blog that unhappy endings tend to bum me out. And, having spent a career in the newspaper business writing many stories that left me and my readers hanging, unsatisfied, because it was my job to report what happened, not what I would have liked to happen, I should have known better than to read an entire book that I strongly suspected would in this very way bum me out. And it did. And I'm pissed.

I'm pissed because a man falsely convicted of murdering his girlfriend's parents has spent thirty-two years locked in cages in Virginia's prison system despite overwhelming evidence he didn't do it. I'm pissed that Virginia has the strictest rule in the United States against allowing for new trials to be granted on new evidence of innocence. No such evidence is acceptable beyond twenty-one days from sentencing.

I'm pissed that this man likely will die behind bars because Virginia's governors—Democrat and Republican--are too chickenhearted to set him free. In 2010 then-Gov. Tim Kaine reluctantly agreed to release him to Germany, where the prisoner is a citizen and where, in an agreement with Kaine, he would have served out his sentence in a couple of years, but Kaine was a lame duck, and his Republican successor, Bob McDonnell, revoked Kaine's decision on his first day in office. All subsequent Virginia governors have turned their backs on the prisoner.

So why in hell did I bring this funk upon myself, having read enough about the case to know the story would be a bummer? Two reasons. One, the prisoner, Jens Soering, wrote half of the book, which I knew would lend a unique sense of intimacy. More importantly, the other half was written by Bill Sizemore, whose impeccable, celebrated reputation as an investigative reporter is widely known. I figured if Soering's self-interested approach—no matter how well written it might be, and it is—was balanced by Sizemore's unvarnished, penetrating, just-the-facts-ma'am clarity I would learn some valuable, new history about the politics and the criminal justice system in Virginia, and perhaps be able to form an educated opinion about what really happened in, as Sizemore so eloquently put it: "The genteel suburb of Boonsboro, nestled just outside Lynchburg in the shadow of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains...
Derek and Nancy Haysom

"In early April 1985, in their cozy retirement cottage set back from a winding rural road, a prominent local couple were found brutally murdered in a style reminiscent of the notorious Charles Manson cult slayings in California years before."

I have my own confession to make before I get to the amazingly naïve confession the eighteen-year-old Jens Soering made to save his girlfriend "from the electric chair" after she admitted to him she'd murdered her parents. My confession is that before I read A Far, Far Better Thing I didn't really give a hoot nor holler which of these brilliant, rich, scholarship students at the University of Virginia killed the parents. It didn't matter to me personally at all. What aroused my interest was that Bill Sizemore had looked into it. Sizemore and I were colleagues on the long defunct Newport News Times-Herald. We've been out of touch for decades, yet I respect no journalist anywhere one whit more than I do Bill Sizemore. Our editor back then kept the old newsroom adage taped to her office door, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Unlike many many reporters, I fear (including myself), who, facing a brutal deadline cut the occasional factual corner, I'd bet my pension Bill has never met a corner he didn't check, double check, and then check once again. If he says Jens Soering did not murder his girlfriend's parents...well, he doesn't. That wasn't his job. Here's what he does say: "Over my four decades as a journalist, I came to believe that sometimes the criminal justice system seems more about winning and losing than about finding the truth. This book is an attempt to get at the truth about this case.
Bill Sizemore

"In the end you, the reader, will be the judge."

I'll add this comment of my own—strictly opinion, mind you: This book does indeed get to the truth about a terrible, shameful miscarriage of justice.
I harbor not the slightest conceit that anything I say here can begin to persuade you to the same conclusion I reached after reading A Far, Far Better Thing. The best I can hope is to rouse your curiosity enough that you will read it yourself. And if this report succeeds in that aim, and you are of an especially skeptical mind, I would suggest that you start at the book’s second half, and read the results of Bill Sizemore’s exhaustive investigation first.
Based on court records and personal interviews with key participants in the police investigation, trial and appeals, Sizemore has proven to my skeptical mind that Jens Soering’s trial was a shambles. There was withheld evidence, judicial misconduct, and abominable legal representation by Soering’s lead defense attorney, who subsequently was disbarred. Overlaying all of this mess were the political implications of privilege—a small, rural community’s desire to protect the reputation of one of its top-tier families, and the legal community’s reluctance to further embarrass prominent members who so badly botched an internationally high-profile, highly publicized capital murder case.

And, of course, Virginia’s insane twenty-one day cutoff rule prohibiting even new DNA evidence that proves a male other than Soering likely participated in the murders, and might still be at large.

The book’s first half, written by Soering, is well worth the read as well. He’s written six books and translated three others during his thirty years in Virginia’s prisons. Having won one of twelve national Jefferson Scholarships fresh out of high school, his brilliance shines through his account of falling hopelessly in what he considered “love” with Elizabeth Haysom when they met during freshman orientation at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
He takes us along on this whirlwind romance, which led to his agreeing to admit to the murders of her parents when she confessed to him she’d killed them while he waited for her in Washington D.C. She’d gone into a rage, she told him, because her mother had sexually abused her for years. Soering agreed to take the blame to save her from the electric chair, he tells us, thinking that as a German citizen he’d be tried in Germany, which had no death penalty.

Police initially were reluctant to focus on Elizabeth as a suspect because of pressure from the family’s lawyers, Soering says. The lovers eventually were caught in London after fleeing to Europe, where they survived on bad checks, which led to their capture. After their arrests, and Soering “confessed” to capital murder, Elizabeth wrote that she no longer loved him. He later learned she laughingly called him naïve and “the kid” in letters she’d written to other men she’d been sleeping with at the time.

To help psych himself up to falsely confess to the murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom, whom he says he’d met only once with Elizabeth for dinner at their home, he thought of a line from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done...’ So says [Sydney] Carton on the scaffold, [standing in for his true love’s husband, Charles Darnay] and so I told myself as I prepared myself for my ‘confession.’”

In this book, titled after that romantic quote, Soering writes, “I despise who I was back then, in 1986.”


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

Thursday, May 10, 2018

HIDE MY EYES – Margery Allingham

The advent of electronic books came along in the nick of time for me, as I was running out of original ways to complain in the Amazon "customer review" fora about such annoyances as faulty packaging, unpleasant odors, and tardy deliveries, and then to come up with clever rebuttals of other "customer reviewers" chastising me for "missing the point of the 'customer review'" by complaining about "trivia" other than the merits of the writing. It was getting downright exhausting, let me tell you!
I soon had to abandon my penchant for self-righteous pecksniffery after ebooks forced me to shift my focus to poor formatting, a topic which got old real fast, and evidently annoyed Amazon’s curating bots to the extent they got on my case rather hurtfully. And so, gentle readers, I arrived at the much trickier threshold of trying to find things about the writing itself to scoff at. Not so easy to do when your shallow outlook has kept your critical faculties bound like the feet of young Chinese girls once upon a time.

So comes now my review of Hide My Eyes, which I did enjoy but felt a familiar tingle when I sat down to type this report. The tingle tempted me to regress to my old penchant for scoffing. You see, Hide My Eyes is purported to be one in a series of thirty, as it is labeled,
“an Albert Campion mystery.” First, let my old self speak
: Mystery? BWAHAHAHA… there is no mystery. We know whodunnit and howdunnit and even whydunnit. Where’s the mystery? Unless Albert Campion himself is the mystery. He’s barely more than a name and a very occasional voice. He’s supposedly a private dick, but doesn’t bruise even a pinky in this 1958 novel, isn’t hampered by so much as a hangnail! He mainly hangs out with his favorite cops and offers snippets of ideas now and again. At the same time--I really hate to admit this--I found his mere presence vaguely comforting in the grand scheme of things. Yet, he’s still something of a mystery. So much so I did a little Googling, and came up with this essay by British blogger Nick Campbell, who describes Campion as...well, something of a mystery. Here’s how his creator, Margery Allingham, introduces him in Hide My Eyes:

Mr. Campion was a tall thin man in his early fifties, with fair hair, a pale face and large spectacles, who had cultivated the gentle art of unobtrusiveness until even his worst enemies were apt to overlook him until it was too late. He was known to a great many people but few were absolutely certain about what it was he actually did with his life. In his youth he had often been described as 'the young man come about the trouble', and nowadays he was liable to mention deferentially that he feared he was becoming 'the old one come with it', but now, as then, he was careful never to permit his status to be too accurately defined.
It was certainly true that he had a private practice but also a fact that he and the present Assistant Commissioner, Crime, Mr. Stanislaus Oates, had been hunting companions in the days when Oates was an Inspector C.I.D. Since then Yeo, who was following Oates's footsteps, and many other eminent senior men in the service were content to consider him a friend, an expert witness and, at times, a very valuable guide into little known territory.”
He’s an asset to the reader, in fact, as a blessed contrast to the incessantly chattering cops, who all strike me as Inspector Clouseau understudies, never agreeing with each other very much or even with themselves, swinging back and forth from one notion to another. It’s a wonder, without the rare, quiet nudging of the astoundingly observant Campion, they could catch any wrongdoer, except perhaps those who turn themselves in and write their own confessions. (I cannot deny exaggerating a smidgeon here—a carryover from old habits, I suspect).
I came to this novel surfng on the enthusiasm of two crime-blogging friends Yvette Banek, of North Carolina, and the ever mysterious Tracy, of California.
And—the Amazon bots will be shocked to see this—I enjoyed Hide My Eyes immensely! If only for the writing alone. Here’s the opening to chapter three, following the delightfully atmospheric first murder by the serial killer we come to know almost as well as we do Mr. Campion, and the second chapter when we meet the chattering cops, and, of course get our first glimpse of Mr. Campion: “Sunlight, yellow and crystal in the mist, glowed through the wet black branches of the plane trees while the fallen cream-coloured leaves made a fine carpet hiding the bald patches, the cigarette cartons and the 'bus tickets which in the ordinary way disfigured the discouraged grass.” What a sentence, huh? We continue, “A narrow concrete path ran round the green like a ribbon round a hat. At the furthest loop was a single wooden seat and upon it sat a girl.
Margery Allingham
 “She was not very tall but curved as a kitten, and was clad in an elegant tweed coat with matching tan shoes and gloves. At her feet was a small canvas traveling bag.”
If nothing else, I wanted to learn more about the girl. I did. She’s delightful.
Then there’s the serial killer, another mystery man who goes by various aliases and is most reliably described as “The man in the trench coat.” We learn more about him from him, than from anyone else. This, for example:
“I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright and indestructible. It's a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success. I hand it to you gratis, Richard. Consider it a token of my esteem.”
Nice guy, some might think at first blush. In fact several women find him irresistible. The classic sociopath. Ted Bundy. Murderer of innocents. Lordy but we want to see it come to him, his comeuppance. We want to see him squashed like the bug he is. But we mustn’t forget, this is what is known as a “cozy” crime novel, as opposed to “hardboiled.” This does not mean “sissy” novel that cannot be enjoyed by the discriminating manly man. There’s even a good bout of bare-knuckle fisticuffs near the end.
And...oh, hell, I might as well break down and admit it: Margery Allingham was one fine smart writer. Especially with her plotting. Definitely not plodding, ha ha, despite the chattering cops. I cannot use the cliché “page turner,” as I read Hide My Eyes on my laptop’s Kindle app. Page clicker, maybe? Pulled me right along, anyway—had me running to keep up. 


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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS – John Buchan (1915)

John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps after running out of lite reading to cheer him up one winter when he was sick. He described it to a friend as "that elemental type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel' and which we know as the 'shocker'—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible."

After an illustrious career that included writing more than 100 published books and serving as a diplomat and politician, eventually winning a peerage as Lord Tweedsmuir and appointment as Governor General of Canada, he is best known today for that little spy-novel, which The Guardian listed in 2014 as one of the 100 best novels in the English language.
That last, about the language, would have sent one of my eyebrows skyward, were I capable of such a maneuver, because the novel's protagonist, Richard Hannay, spends much of this short novel running and hiding in the wilds of Scotland from police, who believe he impaled his roommate with a dagger through the heart to the floor back in London, and from German spies bent presumably on doing the same to him.

Here’s what I mean about the language barrier:

“'And that's a' I get,' he moaned. 'A heid better than hell fire, and twae een lookin' different ways for the Sabbath.'

“'What did it?' I asked.
'A drink they ca' brandy. Bein' a teetotaller I keepit off the whisky, but I was nip-nippin' a' day at this brandy, and I doubt I'll no be weel for a fortnicht.' His voice died away into a splutter, and sleep once more laid its heavy hand on him.”

Several films have been made of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. I believe I watched part of one on our old B&W TV. If any of them had kept this Scottish brogue in the dialogue, I would have needed subtitles to know what in hell was being said. All I remember is seeing some male character pacing around outdoors by some buildings, counting his steps, while dark, dramatic music throbbed in the background (or maybe the foreground). I’ve wondered ever since what the story was all about.

The Thirty-Nine Steps opens just prior to the first world war with Hannay recently back from an engineering gig in South Africa, bored out of his mind in London. “The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda- water that has been standing in the sun...
Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in mind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.”
Then along comes Franklin P. Scudder to liven things up. Covering the war buildup for a Chicago newspaper, Scudder has stumbled upon a sinister plot involving German agents, who then begin following him. Fearing for his life, he feigns his own death and persuades Hannay to let him hide in Hannay’s flat while he plans to shake the tailing Germans. He tells Hannay what he’s found, stirring Hannay from his boredom. But, of course, the adage “be careful what you wish for” thickens the plot—deliciously.

Hannay returns home from dinner to find Scudder in the aforementioned impaled condition, and Hannay knows the target’s now painted on him. Figuring the best place to hide is in the wilds of his native Scotland, off he goes, about thirty-nine steps ahead of the police, who believe he killed Scudder, and, as we know, of the bad guys mit der terrifying Cherman accents, ja. (I didn’t count the steps between the pursuers and the pursued, in case you were wondering. Just my corny little joke.)

John Buchan and director Alfred Hitchcock, likely taken at the London premiere of The 39 Steps
 The chase. Ah, the glorious chase, with narrow escapes, harrowing suspense, and perhaps a tad too many incredible coincidences of the sort “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." I must say at times they stray a tad over those borders, and yet, like watching Indiana Jones outrun the giant rolling boulder or James Bond crawl through searing heat ducts to escape Dr. No’s evil lair, my imagined adrenalin was pumping with great vicarious enthusiasm for Richard Hannay.
It didn’t hurt that Hannay himself tells us he’s aware of the implausibility of some of these happenstances:So far I had been miraculously lucky. The milkman, the literary innkeeper, Sir Harry, the roadman, and the idiotic Marmie, were all pieces of undeserved good fortune. Somehow the first success gave me a feeling that I was going to pull the thing through.”
Lord Tweedsmuir
And then, fleeing spies on the ground and in the air, he comes upon a remote cottage occupied by an old man who hid Hannay while sending his pursuers away. “Once again I had found an unexpected sanctuary. All the same I was not comfortable. There was something about the old gentleman which puzzled and rather terrified me. He had been too easy and ready, almost as if he had expected me. And his eyes had been horribly intelligent.”
Hannay recalls Scudder telling him about “a man that lisped in his speech, and he described very particularly somebody that he never referred to without a shudder—an old man with a young voice who could hood his eyes like a hawk.”
As he spoke,” Hannay says of the old man in the cottage, “his eyelids seemed to tremble and to fall a little over his keen grey eyes. In a flash the phrase of Scudder's came back to me, when he had described the man he most dreaded in the world…
Then I saw that I had walked straight into the enemy's headquarters.”
So what of the thirty-nine steps? Don’t expect to find the answer until nearly the end. Hannay has no idea, and he’d be the one to shed some light on the mystery. All he does know is simply one bracketed phrase that appears half a dozen times in Scudder’s notebook: “’Thirty-nine steps,’ was the phrase; and at its last time of use it ran—‘Thirty-nine steps, I counted them—high tide 10.17 p.m.'
I could make nothing of that.”

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