Friday, September 19, 2008
Friday's Forgotten Books, September 19, 2008
With heartfelt thanks to Clair Dickson who found a way to blindside blogger. Any typos are mine because I had to retype all of it.
Patrick Balester is the author of In the Dismal Swamp. You can find him at Picks by Pat.
The Unquiet Night by Patricia Carlon
The Unquiet Night by Patricia Carlon was originally published in the 1960s in Great Britain. Available in the U.S. only in the past few years, the novels of Patricia Carlon are still virtually unknown here. Yet she wrote some of the most suspenseful novels ever to come out of Australia and this may be her finest work.
“He hadn’t meant her to die.” With that opening sentence, we are drawn into the world of Mart Deeford, a young man with a violent temper who strangles a pickup date in a small park on a late Sunday afternoon.
Convinced he can be identified by a woman he sees in the park after the crime, Mart begins to hunt for her and the young girl. He poses as a shopkeeper who needs to find a girl with ponytails who left a parcel in his store. By taking advantage of other people’s good nature and eager desire to help, he eventually tracks down the woman, Rachel Penghill, who is oblivious to the danger she faces until it’s too late. He tricks Rachel into opening her door, and then leaves her entombed in a vault in her small shop. It is only then that we begin to feel the slow terror grow as Rachel realizes that she has been victimized not by a thief, but by a murderer. As the air is consumed, the tension mounts.
Her only hope is to be missed, yet as the night turns into day, repairmen, milkmen and friends move across her threshold, only to step back before they can discover that Rachel has not gone to a jewelry convention in another town, but is gasping for breath just a few yards away. She begins to realize just how isolated her existences has become, and the nosy friends and neighbors she has pushed away become ironically important.
This novel will keep you guessing until the last page. I highly recommend it, and hope more readers will be as thrilled as I was to discover the work of Patricia Carlon.
Charles Benoit is the author of Noble Lives, Relative Danger, and Out of Order
Uncle Dynamite by P.G. Wodehouse
My favorite fantasy about winning the lottery isn’t having the cash to travel all around the world or buying some fancy sports car—it is the blissful knowledge that if I had buckets of the stuff, I’d have a lot more time for reading.
Not (yet) being a lottery winner and paparazzi target, I have to seek out books that cram as much good stuff into one reading as possible, and as a fan of the comic caper novel, that means lots of phony felonious types, rare and priceless/worthless objects, setup plans as intricate as an HDTV manual, multiple mistaken identities, late night crime scene follies, plots that take twists and turns worthy of the Gordian Knot, and a Criminal Mastermind that’s equal parts George Clooney, Cary Grant, John Cleese and Steve Martin, with a heavy dash of a drunken Peter O’Toole. And all of it has to be superbly written with laugh-out-loud chapters, head-slapping brilliant phrases and dialog that fizzes like a champagne cocktail.
Given my caper novel needs, you would assume that I’d make straight for the masterful works of Donald Westlake and you would be correct. Except we’re talking forgotten books and no mystery reader worth the title would forget Westlake. The book I’d like to recommend today has everything you’d expect to find in the best Westlake caper, but—and I know this sounds impossible—this one’s even better. It’s Uncle Dynamite, and it’s by the only author who could out Westlake, Westlake, the inimitable P.G Wodehouse.
If you know Wodehouse, you can stop reading here and call it a day. There’s nothing I can say that can add to The Master’s reputation, and if you don’t know Wodehouse, it’s your loss. But even if you hold Wodehouse in as high esteem as I do (highly unlikely, but I throw it out there just to be sporting), and you haven’t read Uncle Dynamite, well, all I can say is that your quest to discover a meaning to your life is about to be realized.
Lord Ickeham—the Uncle Fred of the title—is the sort of whirlwind you can only encounter in the kind of English clubs where rolls are tossed at the dinner table and vast sums are wagered on the likelihood that the waiter will trip as he carries a tray of cocktails across a shaving cream—covered 13th century Persian carpet. It’s his massive brain that is put to the task of pinching a plaster bust from a country home, a bust that secretly hides a cache of jewels, hidden to avoid paying the customs duty. The bust resides in the stately country home of Sir Aylmer Bostock, a retired colonial governor who collects ghastly African curios and who once went by the nickname “Mugsy.” There’s Uncle Fred’s lovesick nephew, Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton; the lovely Sally Painter, ex-fiancee of said Pongo; the headstrong Hermione, the current Pongo fiancée; Pongo’s pal, Bill, who gazes at Hermione in the way young Romeo used to gawk at fair Juliet; Elsie Been, the straight talking saucy maid who's in love eith Constable Harold Potter, the very same Constable Harold Potter, who had once arrested Lord Ickeham and Pongo during a fracas at the dog races, the self-same dog racing arrest in which Lord Ickeham supplies the false names of George Robinson and Edwin Smith of 14 and 11 Nasturtium Road, East Dulwich. When Constable Potter points this inconvenient truth out to our Lord Ickeham, the peerless peer of the realm simply states that he is, in fact, Major Brabazon-Plank, noted Brazilian explorer…who just happens to arrive for an extended stay at Sir Aylmer’s forementioned country home. And, being a caper novel, there is a bonny baby contest to be judged.
If this sounds impossibly complicated and preposterously ridiculous, then I have done my job well and admirably.
It is one sad shortcoming of the modern educational system that Uncle Dynamite is not required reading in every school in the land, and as a result, this word-perfect caper novel is seldom read by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning mystery readers. Track this book down, give it a read, and if you are not in total agreement that it is indeed, if not the Greatest Single Work of Fiction Ever Written, it’s still a fun read.
You can thank me later.
Louise Penny is the author of the forthcoming THE MURDER STONE, Book 4 in the Armand Gamache mysteries, which began with the award-winning STILL LIFE.
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
I'm not totally convinced she's been forgotten - I sure hope she hasn't.
But this is my small contribution to helping spread the word. For many
years my favorite Tey book was the remarkable, The Daughter of Time.
Infact, I was resistant to reading The Franchise Affair - perhaps out of a
misguided sense of fidelity to The Daughter of Time. I didn't want to be
seen playing footsy with another one of Tey's creations. Or, more likely,
it was the ridiculous title. The Franchise Affair? I ask you. It sounds
like love among the french fries, or groping in the donuts.
Instead, when I finally succumbed and read The Franchise Affair I was
treated to what I now believe is the best mystery of all time. My heart was
There's no body, no murder in The Franchise Affair, though it is based on
the 18th century case of Elizabeth Canning. Like all of Josephine Tey's
books it's about appearances vs reality. Perceptions and manipulation.
Duality. What else drives a really great mystery? Not blood, not a body -
but what's eating away at the marrow. Our deepest selves, hidden, masked.
Then agonizingly revealed.
On the surface The Franchise Affair is about a fresh-faced young woman,
barely more than a girl, who accuses an elderly woman and her spinster
daughter of kidnapping and holding her in their dreary old home on the edge
of the village.
Like all of Tey's works this one is short, almost novella length. And
crystalline in its clarity. It is, in short, brilliant. Disturbing, witty,
sightful. And more horrific than any body count could ever achieve.
Josephine Tey - a pen-name for Elizabeth MacKintosh - wrote all 6 of her
mysteries between 1947 and 1952. Then she died, in her mid-50's. Almost
nothing is known of the woman. No photograph exists of her. Like her
books, she's a mystery. A real woman lurking behind a made-up one. But I
have happily given my heart to her.
A few more forgotten books