Thursday, April 26, 2018

THE CASE OF THE POISONED ECLAIRS – E.V. Cunningham, aka Howard Fast

Twenty-one years ago when Howard Fast was 82, he told an interviewer he felt compelled his entire life to write. "If I hadn't been able to become a good writer," he told her, "I'd have been a bad writer." As I've read only one of the Fast's 85 published books, I'm unqualified to determine in sum which kind of writer he became. But if the average is even only half as good as The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs I wouldn't be sticking my neck out too far to go with "good writer." And I think it's safe to add that considering perhaps his best-known work, Spartacus, and his best-selling "Immigrants" series, we can bump that average up to damned good writer. I've a hunch his fingers were still trying to type more words when the final deadline caught up with him at age 88.

I finally caught up with Fast last week. The only excuse I can come up with is that I'd always thought his name was a pseudonym for a "real" author who didn't want his/her name associated with the potboilers he/she was churning out. No evidence, just a feeling that a name like "Howard Fast" was...oh, too paperback oriented, maybe? As it turned out I came to Fast through the back door, thinking one of his pseudonyms, E. V. Cunningham, was the real name for "Howard Fast." I know. It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, but what the hey. And even then I might not have read The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs but for my mystery blogger friend Tracy, who lured me in with her review of one of Cunningham/Fast's seven Masao Masuto mysteries. Ah so. Permit me to note that Tracy's love of mysteries includes the mystery of her last name, a mystery I have yet to solve.

The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs is the fourth in the series, and I will be reading the others. What attracted me in Tracy's review was the idea of a Nisei (American born of Japanese parents) police detective in Beverly Hills. Masao Masuto and his Nisei wife do say "ah so" from time to time, but I get the sense they use that stereotypical Asian expression for a little ironic fun. The characters in this 1979 novel still refer to Asians as "Orientals," and aren't hip yet to calling them "Asians." Masuto is good natured about the ribbing he takes, and only gently enlightens people who mistake him for Chinese. He even gently explains to his boss, Capt. Wainwright, that his (Masuto's) eyes are not slanted: “'I have always defended you as a non-racist,' Masuto said unhappily. 'My eyes don’t actually slant, so it’s a kind of unhappy euphemism—'”
Wainright apologizes, claiming he "got excited."
Masuto even pokes fun at himself. He and his partner Sy Beckman, who between them comprise the entire Beverly Hills homicide division, rib each other, as most cops do, but in this case the rib bone is Masuto's Japanese anestry, and he frequently starts it. Here's an example:
“What is it, Sy? What did you learn?”
“You give me a creepy feeling at times.”
“That’s because I’m a wily Oriental."
As I read along I started wondering if maybe Howard Fast was Asian, and if not, wasn't he treading a tad on thin ice making fun of his character's heritage, albeit some years before "political correctness" raised its ubiquitous censorious head? Two things I’ve learned. Fast was a Jewish Communist, and, having spent some time in prison for refusing to give names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably knew rather well the risks he was taking with ethnic sensitivities. Also, as the author of The Art of Zen Meditation, and presumably a practicing Zen Buddhist himself, Fast undoubtedly knew rather well the thoughts and actions of his Zen Buddhist chief character.
Howard Fast
The spirit of ommmmmmmmm... certainly resonated off the page with me. I found Sgt. Masao Masuto’s Zen-disciplined manner, including his police voice, a pleasant, sinus-calming contrast with the usual wise-cracking, angst-ridden cops and detectives in all of the other crime novels I’ve read that immediately come to mind. Here he is doing a little introspection after the pretty, blonde secretary at his headquarters flirts with him:
He never thought of himself as likable or lovable, a tall, dour-faced second generation Japanese man, yet nothing pleased him more than this almost consistent response on the part of women. He pardoned himself; he argued to himself that he had a good wife whom he loved, that he was scrupulous in his behavior as a policeman, that he was content. Or was he?”

A little mystery never hurt anyone.
But the damned eclairs did. First they killed a maid who took some home when the ladies for whom the eclairs were intended—all of them professing diet restrictions--turned them down. Then a dog dies when it eats a piece of candy. The dog belonged to one of the dieting ladies.
Masuto and Beckman soon learn both corpses died of botulism poisoning. Because of the poison’s nature which needs an airtight container in which to grow, the detectives conclude someone had injected botulism toxin into the pastries and candy. The women are wealthy divorcees, and their ex-husbands the likely suspects.
Not the most original of plot types, but the police work is authentic in this essentially procedural mystery. I would have enjoyed the solving of the case with any of the detectives I’ve read and enjoyed. But there was something special about Masuto and Beckman working it. I could say this special something was inscrutable, but I don’t have the experience to make such ethnic fun. Wouldn’t be prudent, and, anyway, wouldn’t be funny.
Besides, I know what it was. The calm, good-humored voice, the effortless narrative pacing, the Beverly Hills milieu, memorable supporting Hollywood-type characters—one of the suspects is unquestionably based on comedian Don Rickles-- and, yes, some first-rate suspense.
Ah so.
Fast refusing to give names to HUAC

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

ROLLING STONE – Patricia Wentworth

Peter Talbot is a novelist whose cousin is Col. Frank Garrett, head of the British Foreign Service and a damned negligent fool who should be horsewhipped for it. It's 1940, or thereabouts, world war is raging in Europe, and Garrett has assigned Talbot to spy on the most dangerous international criminals not wearing swastikas.

Here's Patricia Wentworth telling us in her novel, Rolling Stone, how this damned fool escapade came about: Talbot "had been roped in because he had stumbled on something odd, and because he wasn’t a regular agent. The novelist is a privileged Nosey Parker. It is his job to watch people and listen to them. It flatters some, and flutters some but no one suspects him of being in with Scotland Yard or the Foreign Office."
Oh yeah?
When Talbot tells his cousin what he's stumbled onto, Garrett explodes.
'Good Lord!' in a voice exactly like the terrier’s bark." All he'd heard was the name Maude Millicent.
'Who is the lady— an old flame?'
"Garrett used a regrettable expression about Maud Millicent Simpson.
'She’s beaten me twice, and I suppose she thinks she can do it again.”
Who is she?”
Garrett showed his teeth.
'Maud Millicent Deane—that’s how she started—parson’s daughter, and the cleverest criminal alive. She worked with the Vulture, and when we got him, she carried on with what was left of the organization...
"'If she’s in this business, she won’t get away again if I can help it. But if she’s in it, you’re up against something—all of us are. She can write any hand, use any voice, impersonate a dozen different types..." And she murders quickly and easily as swatting a fly.
What a laugh. "If I can help're up against something—all of us are."
Garrett never leaves his office, or his home or club or wherever he hangs out. Talbot's strictly on his own. And apparently he's working for free! In Brussels, after stumbling onto the fringe gang member Garrett had suggested he keep an eye out for, he notifies Garrett by letter and adds, "If I fall a victim to dirt, drains or bugs, I presume that a grateful government will pay for my obsequies."

Gadzooks, the lad's on the trail of a monster too hideous for James Bond, and doesn't even have an expense account or a license to lie!
But Talbot is smart, bold, and resourceful. He finds the fringe gang member dying in a hotel room, switches passports with him and proceeds to carry out the now dead man's mission, which takes him home to London. How conveeeen-yent as Church Lady would say. But so what, as I and Yvette Banek would say, he and we are off on one helluva fine, heart stopping, heart melting romp, with murders and burglaries and midnight romances and...oh, I think I am about to feel verklempt! (I'd be fanning myself and advising you to talk amongst yourselves, but that's a tale of another horse, as my dad loved to say, the pun of which I just now after all these oblivious years have finally gotten).
I forgot to add "laughs" as one of the features. Wentworth provokes many of them unintentionally, I suspect, with British words and expressions that made me wonder if Mick Jagger hadn’t dictated the novel—or his dad or grandpa, more plausibly. But here's one I think Wentworth made up all herself: On his way to carry out a presumably Maud Millicent Simpson-ordered burglary in his voluntary undercover role, Talbot says to himself, "It would be bad enough to lurk burglariously about Heathacres in the dark, but a very bright full moon would impart an indecent air of melodrama to the proceedings."
I doubt Mick Jagger or his ancestors would say or have said "burglariously" in any context, but it does sort of roll the Rolling Stone narrative along with a hint of hilarity, what?
 The romance? There's really only one. Potentially requited one, that is. It involves lovely young Theresa "Terry" Clive, who witnesses two felonies at the Heathacres estate, where's she's staying as a guest and being courted by a least one other guest. First she sees another guest sneak out at night and slip her hostess's string of pearls to a man she thinks is her boyfriend hidden in the bushes (Of course it's really Talbot lurking burglariously about). Terry sees him take the pearls, comes out in her nightgown, scolds him and takes the pearls back, returning them to her sleeping hostess's room. Talbot, of course, is smitten.
Terry next sees a mysterious shadowy form step out onto a balcony and break a window, then slip back inside. Talbot knows this is his cue. He approaches the broken window, and receives a rolled up valuable painting the shadowy form thrusts through the broken window. Talbot puts the painting into the trunk of his rented car and hightails it out of Dodge.
Things now really get hairy. Talbot figures he's being set up as a fall-guy to take the rap for an earlier painting theft in which a butler who interrupted the theft was fatally shot. He doesn't get much encouragement from his cousin in this dilemma. The Foreign Service chief doesn't do much for me, either. Here's Wentworth's description: "Colonel Garrett sat at an office table and drove a spluttering pen. He was a little sandy man with bottle-brush hair and small grey eyes which could sharpen until they looked like two points of polished steel."
I've never especially liked little sandy men with bottle-brush hair, but I can't really tell you why (If I did I'd hafta—oh, pfui).
Rolling Stone is billed as the second (and final) novel in the "Col. Garrett series" in Wentworth's canon, but why it’s called the "Col. Garrett series" is a bigger mystery than who stole the painting from Heathacres. Garrett’s presence in both novels credited to him—Rolling Stone and Dead or Alive is similar to that of the character “M” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. He sits back, bullies people, and lets others do the work and take the risks. I found an online claim that he was supposed to be the one working undercover in Rolling Stone. Not that this flummery was in the least regrettable. Peter Talbot did an admirable job, as did Bill Coverdale in Dead or Alive. Garrett evidently appears in at least two other Wentworth novels, in his similar stay-at-home bullyboy head-honcho role: Walk With Care and Danger is Calling, both part of the much earlier (1931 and 1933) “Benbow Smith” series. I might give them a looksee. Wentworth’s most famous (and much lengthier) series features a sleuth called “Miss Silver,” [thanks, Marty] of which I am not much inclined to check out.
Then again, Yvette Banek’s delightful reviews are very persuasive.


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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

DEAD OR ALIVE – Patricia Wentworth

Blogging buddyYvette Banek has my number, which means she knows how to get me to read her reviews of books I'd probly never look it if I lived another hundred years or so. Books such as cozy romantic mystery thrillers. Most recently she warned me not to read her review of Patricia Wentworth's British cozy romantic mystery thriller Nothing Venture. Contrary cuss that I very rarely am, I nonetheless chose not to heed her warning, and read the review. I enjoyed it immensely, of course, and went directly to Amazon to see if Nothing Venture was in the Kindle library. I couldn't find it, because Amazon's autocorrect changed the title to Nothing Ventured (which is what I, too, had thought the title should be). But by then, if only to prove my courage to Yvette, I was determined to read a cozy romantic mystery thriller by Patricia Wentworth, who wrote dozens of them. Yet, evidently feeling a tad short of fully secure manliwise to be caught reading one of Wentworth's most famous "Miss Silver" series, I opted instead for the more Mickey Spillanish sounding Dead or Alive, billed as book #1 in the two-book "Frank Garrett" series.

I can see perhaps why the series fizzled after book #2, Rolling Stone, which I am also determined to read, if only to be able to smugly say, "I read the entire Frank Garrett series!" I shall report on Rolling Stone for next week's Friday's Forgotten Books blogging collective. My assumption as to the fizzling is that the barely visible "Col. Garrett" of Dead or Alive will be barely more visible in the last of the series. This, despite a promotional blurb claiming Garrett "must assume the identity of a dead con man to try to infiltrate a bevy of thugs.” If this is true, then he is going to have to participate more than being mostly a gruff, rude “efficient head of the Foreign Office Intelligence.” As both books were published during WWII—1936 and 1940—when secrecy for such organizations would have been extra high, Wentworth might well have had to rely almost entirely on her imagination for a semblance of authenticity in this aspect of both novels.

In Dead or Alive, this sketchy foreign office is devoted to tracking down a mysterious international gang of criminals rather than Nazi spies. Our protagonists apparently are familiar with Garrett only as civilians, although I’m not so sure about Bill Coverdale, the male lead, who has just returned from South America where he’s spent the past year “looking for a big engineering contract for his firm.” What type of “firm” is never disclosed. Nor is Coverdale’s longtime relationship with Garrett. We do know that Coverdale’s main concern is Meg O’Hara, on whom he’s been sweet since she was fifteen. Despite their being close friends, though, she’d spurned his proposal of marriage, marrying Robin O’Hara, an operative of Garrett’s. But Robin O’Hara disappeared about the same time Coverdale left for South America. His death is presumed when a badly decomposed body is found in a river. Evidence of an old leg break on the corpse is the same as medical records show Robin O’Hara had.

But Meg believes he might still be alive, perhaps having gone deep undercover in his work for Garrett, which Garrett denies. She turns to Coverdale when a series of mysterious happenings keep her doubting her husband is dead.

For my taste the novel starts out way too slowly, with seemingly endless, witless speculations by Meg and Coverdale, albeit with the almost comic relief of Garrett’s crude disparagement of Meg’s concerns. I had plenty of laughs, both at the old romantic English style and, toward the end, at some intentional comments, as if Wentworth was feeling a little foolish and having some fun with us. This, especially, when a character makes fun of the standard mystery-novel no-no by which an author solves the crime or saves the day for the hero with something completely off the wall, with no logical set-up in the plot:I suppose I’m the deus ex machina!” says the character while violating precisely this rule. The above is not a spoiler, considering Dead or Alive, lives up to the de rigueur predictability of a British cozy romantic mystery thriller.

Romance? Oh, my goodness! Brace yourself: “You can’t be away for a year without a change in every relationship. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly it doesn’t...when [Coverdale] left England Robin O’Hara was still alive. Now that Meg was a widow, there was change between them whether she herself had changed or not...

“What was he going to be? Just the old friend of the next-door days in the country, when she was fifteen and he was twenty, and he had begun to love her? Or was there going to be a chance for him at last?”

What do you think?

And the thrills? Finally, finally, finally when the plot moves off dead center and poor lonely Meg (who still hasn’t decided whether or not she loves poor Bill Coverdale) finds herself in a heap of trouble, in deadly serious harm’s way—way away from anyone who can help her. Way off in an isolated old house with some really really bad folks, including a villain so deviously evil even Ian Fleming’s monsters would blanche. This is the part where, while knowing this is a British cozy romantic mystery thriller and thus has to end in a certain way—a happy way, let us say—I found myself shouting, “NO! DON’T GO THERE, YOU DAMNED STUPID SIMPLE LIMEY FOOL!!” etc. so many times, so loudly, I believe one of my neighbors might have called 911, as I heard what I thought was the distinctive slam of a police cruiser door in the parking lot, whereupon I instantly stopped shouting and held my breath, and...and no one knocked on my door. Whew! Probly just my imagination, thanks to Patricia Wentworth and Yvette Banek and...and now I’m off to read Rolling Stone. Until next week, then, cheerio...or is it...tallyho, what? 

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018


Sure glad I read a little about the author of The Lucky Stiff before I started to pan it as the nuttiest crime novel I'd ever read (which I would have had to do gently anyway so I wouldn't hurt my blogging friend Yvette Banek's feelings, which I probably did last week with my rough handling of an infuriating puzzle mystery by Edmund Crispin, whose work Yvette also had recommended—although she responded to my irreverent words with characteristic grace).

But with Lucky Stiff, doing a little Googling so I at least could appear informed, I found a description of Rice (a pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) that outdid anything I might have tried to come up with on my own. This from a piece on the website Thrilling Detective:
The fact is, Craig Rice was, as a recent (and long-overdue) biography put it, "The Queen the Screwball Mystery." But even that's damning her with faint praise.
What she really was is "The Queen of the Surrealistic Crime Story." Almost everything that happens in one of her witty, wacky novels is completely off the wall. To Rice, reality was truly just a concept; a weird and wonderful playground where her imagination could romp around unfettered.

Rice twisted and distorted characters, plots, settings and events like a rubber pretzel, yet somehow she always managed to come back to this world, content at having challenged her reader's perceptions of reality.
Well, this she certainly did in her 1945 wacky, witty novel featuring four of her favorite characters: crooked-but-lovable Chicago lawyer John Joseph Malone, his two crooked-but-lovable best friends Jake Justus and his beautiful, bright and gutsy wife Helene, and honest-perpetually-grumpy-but-lovable homicide Capt. Daniel von Flanagan, who detested being a cop so much he had the “von” inserted legally into his name so he wouldn’t sound so obviously like a cop. For the record, von Flanagan had wanted to be a mortician but was pressed into uniform because “somebody at the City Hall owed one of his relatives money. Every promotion he’d had during his twenty years on the force he’d looked on as an injustice and an injury.”

I’m starting to wonder now what was wrong with my brain to think, as I was reading this novel, how on earth I could have thinking about panning it. And I wasn’t just thinking about it. I was taking voluminous notes to prove my pan. I have several pages devoted to the number of times “chiffon” appears as the material used in most of the female characters’ dresses. I made a note when Capt. von Flanagan returns a revolver to a gangster after learning it didn’t belong to another gangster he’d arrested. He gives the revolver back to its rightful gangster owner LOADED, and almost immediately the rightful gangster owner begins firing it at von Flanagan and Malone!
It must be said that despite the novel’s obvious wackiness, it’s just serious enough—or has the appearance of being serious enough—that wouldn’t do to call it satire or intentional farce. Nor would I call it intentionally surreal. It’s pretty clear to me now that “wacky” is the perfect description—perhaps creating a genre all its own.
I hadn’t gotten into my note-taking quite yet at the beginning when the novel’s ingenue, beautiful Anna Marie, is released from Death Row about an hour before her scheduled execution when the real killer of her gangster boyfriend, Big Joe Childers, confesses as he’s dying from lead poisoning (haha) that the murder was designed to frame beautiful Anna Marie (who was wearing a “brilliantly printed chiffon afternoon dress, with a full skirt and long full sleeves”) while being led to the warden’s office instead of to the execution chamber. It seems the life-saving confession had occurred only moments before. I muttered to myself, “Yeah, right,” but didn’t make a note because I was seriously considering abandoning The Lucky Stiff without reading much further into the 300+ pages of what I was thinking was something of a stinker. Something made me hang on, though...oh, wait--I know what it was! Beautiful Anna Marie tells the warden and her lawyer she’d refuse to be released unless they went ahead and faked the execution. This was the hook. I wasn’t quite up to wacky speed yet even though it was spurring me on from my laptop screen. But when it became clear beautiful Anna Marie intended to scare the bejeebies out of the people who’d framed her, I thought Oh what the hell I’ll just read a little bit more and then move on to something else.

And it wasn’t long after that I started taking notes.
Here are some of my observations—quotes, actually (much wackier than any paraphrasing I could come up with:
“(Jake Justus) was, he reflected, the most fortunate man in the world. Other men might be presidents, millionaires, movie stars, heroes. He was married to Helene...The light green of her chiffon dress was like an ocean wave breaking over her white shoulders...Coffee in the sun room in the morning, Helene in her violet chiffon negligee...
“‘Helene,’ he said, ‘every time I look at you I feel as if someone had just given my heart a hot-foot.’
“Her eyes warmed. ‘Darling,’ she whispered, ‘I didn’t know you were a poet!’”
I cannot leave out this:
“Jake Justus, ex-reporter, ex-press agent, and, as he occasionally reminded himself, definitely ex-amateur detective...He was married to Helene, and he owned the Casino...Jake had won it on a bet...
She had everything in the world to make her happy, including— especially—Jake. Just to look at his pleasant, homely, freckled face made her spine feel like a marimba in a rumba band.”
And just a few of lawyer Malone’s Yogi Berraisms. Malone, by the way, were Hollywood to revisit some of Craig Rice’s witty wacky novels, should be played—no question about it—by Danny DeVito. No question about it! On to the Yogi Berraisms:
We’ll burn down that bridge when we come to it,” Malone said,
With me,” Malone said, “a guess is as good as a gander.”
Malone told her, “he means, you can fool all of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
"Remember about the early worm turning over a new leaf.”
Malone hated to see anyone murdered, even when he got a fat fee for defending the murderer. There had been times when he agreed that the victim deserved what he got, and that the world was far better off without him. But murder seemed such a—well, such a sudden way to die.
Craig Rice

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