Friday, January 09, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, January 9, 2009

Agatha Christie reading.

I apologize for anyone whose on here that shouldn't be and anyone not on here that should be, but my mother just fractured her hip and I am at the hospital. No one should suffer the way my mother has over the last five years.

I will fix anything later and do the summary another day.

Roberta Isleib

Asking for Murder, the third book in clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib's
series starring a Connecticut psychologist and advice columnist, was
released in Sep
tember. Isleib says the work of the detective in a mystery
has quite a bit in common with long-term psychotherapy: Start with a
problem, follow the threads looking for clues, and gradually fill in the big
picture. So this career move turned out to be a natural progression!
Roberta is the past president of National Sisters in Crime. Her books and
stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards.

When I read SW (Susan) Hubbard's first mystery TAKE THE BAIT, I was ready tosettle in for a long ride. Hubbard's writing promised everything I love in a that never borders on slapstick, a town loaded with interesting secondary characters, a good story, and great writing. Police Chief Frank Bennett flees to a new job in Trout Run, a small town in the Adirondacks, where he hopes for a new start on his career and his personal life. When a local high school girl disappears, the chief begins to understand how hard the town will push back against an outsider.

Hubbard followed up this excellent debut with two other Frank Bennett books,
SWALLOW THE HOOK and BLOOD KNOT, before Avon cut its mystery line to the
bone. Luckily for fans of this series and SW Hubbard, a short story called
CHAINSAW NATIVITY was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in
2008, and BLIND EYE, another Hubbard story, will be be featured in the AHMM
March issue.

Larry Karp
Larry Karp grew up in Paterson, NJ and New York City. He practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care) and wrote general nonfiction books and articles for 25 years, then, in 1994, he left medical work to begin a second career, writing mystery novels. The backgrounds and settings of Larry's mysteries reflect many of his interests, including musical antiques, medical-ethical issues, and ragtime music. His most recent book, The King of Ragtime, the second work in a ragtime historical-mystery trilogy, centers on a real-life dispute between Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin over the alleged theft of a piece of music. Larry lives with his wife Myra in Seattle; they have two grown children. Other mysteries by Larry Karp include The Ragtime Kid (the first book in the trilogy), First Do No Harm, The Midnight Special, Scamming the Birdman, and The Music Box Murders. Larry's nonfiction books include The Enchanted Ear and The View From The Vue.

THE HOUSE OF FEAR. Robert W. Service, A. L. Burt & Co., New York, 1927 (No cover available)

I've long enjoyed the Yukon rhymes of Robert W. Service, and have read and appreciated his two autobiographies, Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven. I knew he'd written a mystery, The House of Fear, and thought Forgotten Fridays might be my incentive to read it. I had to search around a bit, but finally managed to find a copy - but my pleasure was short-lived. Disappointed would be far too mild a word for my reaction. The author dedicated the book to his mother, "who in spite of her seventy odd years (sic) can still enjoy a tale of mystery and crime." Well, this is a tale of mystery and crime only a mother could enjoy. Far and away, the greatest crimes in its pages were committed by the author. It's a book of epic badness, maybe the worst mystery ever written. Maybe the worst book ever written. In reviewing it, I won't give any thought to spoilers. You can't spoil a piece of meat that's already gone green and has maggots crawling over it.
The plot is loose, contrived, and ridiculous. The characters are no more than assemblages of traits which change dramatically from moment to moment without apparent motivation other than the author's perceived needs. Setting basically consists of dull lengths of description. Dialogue is both stilted and parodic, and is laced with transparent attempts to create suspense.
The story centers on Peter MacBeth, a fiftyish, fabulously-wealthy, and dissolute British nobleman, whose alcoholism has damaged his heart to the point that his doctor has given him one year to live. His response is to go to Paris and try to drink himself to death ASAP. For no good reason, he hooks up with an apparent gangster-girl, Pascaline, a.k.a. La Irlandaise, wife of Paul Spirelli, a criminal mastermind who is now in jail. Peter's mind-set swings back and forth between trying to hasten his demise, and feeling ashamed that a man as noble as he should behave so ignobly. His physical state is also subject to frantic, improbable swings, where one moment he is drunk and prostrated by the slightest effort, and the next moment he's successfully fighting off assaults from the worst sort of Parisian pickpockets and cut-throats. For no good reason, Pascaline comes to his aid, and in doing so, believes she has compromised herself, and that when her husband is released from jail, he will kill her.
So, off go the pair to the country, pursued by three of Spirelli's henchmen who were charged with keeping an eye on their boss' wife. One of them wants to keep more than his eye on Pascaline...but let's not get completely fouled up here. As Peter and Pascaline drive along, the lady talks about her upbringing in a convent, and the fact that she is Spirelli's wife in name only. She explains that the gangster forced her into marriage, but that this devil of a criminal, whom the entirety of the underworld holds in fear and awe, was sufficiently sensitive that he did not force her to share a bed with him. She also chides Peter for his drunkenness, and they admit affection for each other, but not, well, you know, not that kind of affection. She starts to call him Uncle Peter.
Within a page, Peter and Pascaline find the house of their dreams, buy it on the spot, and then find out they have purchased The House of Fear, where two previous owners have been murdered and mutilated. Then, things really start to get unreal. They meet the owner of the estate next door, Hector de Marsac, an impossibly handsome, impossibly suave judge, who is always away from home when blood is shed. He develops designs on Pascaline, who admits there is something of an attraction there, but swears she will never, ever leave her beloved Uncle Peter.
Meanwhile, there's one brutal killing after another, interspersed by sightings of hideous faces at windows. The three subordinates of the Spirelli gang force their way into the house at night, and for their trouble are all found murdered. Next, a detective appears at the door - none other than Paul Spirelli, released from prison early because he has promised to devote his considerable intellect and knowledge of the criminal world to the solving, rather than the committing of crimes. In his remorse, he is ready to free Pascaline via divorce, and swears to do so as soon as the crimes are solved.
The killings continue, Spirelli and Peter run hither and yon through the grounds, catching a clue here, an oddity there. There are red herrings aplenty, all smelling as bad as the rest of the book. Pascaline vanishes. Finally...all right: major spoiler coming. The criminal turns out to be none other than the honorable Mssr. de Marsac, who has been keeping his congenitally mentally-challenged brother on the grounds. Pascaline is found in the de Marsac home, uninjured and still virginal. De Marsac explains that his own mind is one of pure evil, and his goal has been to establish himself as the most accomplished pervert in history. Over the years he has been practicing mind control, starting with hypnosis, then progressing to being able to control his brother's actions from far off, a sort-of anticipation of wireless networking, I guess. Thus, de Marsac has always had the perfect alibi. But Spirelli and Peter, he explains, defeated him with their combined superior mind power, fueled by love, against which evil is impotent. Then, the mastermind drinks a glass of "poison", leaving Pascaline, who now - for no good reason - feels she just might harbor enough wifely affection that she could re-establish her union with Spirelli, this time on an official basis. And before he dies, de Marsac (who somehow has acquired medical knowledge) tells Peter, "You are what is known as a false cardiac," which frees our hero to live out his life in avuncular happiness.
Can't I say anything good about this book? I had a moment of hope when Spirelli says, "I think that the two great curses of humanity are nationality and religion, or if you like, race prejudice and bigotry. They are at the bottom of all wars and social convulsions." Unfortunately, no one told the author to show, not tell, and the promising comment dies in a barrage of soapbox rhetoric poorly disguised as conversation. Then, Service repeatedly shoots off his toes by authorial references to such stereotypes as swarthy, untrustworthy Jews; a "Chinaman" named Ah Foo, who appears foolish and simple, but may not really be; and "fervid, excitable" Italians, with their "over-expression, as everyone knows."
I can't recommend that any non-masochistic reader should pick up this book other than to toss it into a fire. But for those who write mysteries, particularly beginning writers, there's value here. A good way to learn to write mysteries is to read them thoughtfully, and decide what you think works, and what does not. This book is a cornucopia of what does not work in plotting, character development, dialogue, and presentation of thematic material. Take heart, all ye as-yet-unpublished. You surely can write something much better than this. Go for it!

Try these sites for more forgotten books.

Jacob Weaver
Kerrie Smith
Joe Boland
Martin Edwards
Bill Crider
Scott D. Parker
Lesa Holstine
David Cranmer
Paul Bishop
J. Kingston Pierce
Juri Nummelin
George Kelley
James Reasoner
Todd Mason


David Cranmer said...

Patti, Our thoughts and prayers are with your mother.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks. David. She stopped breathing once so fingers crossed.

sandra seamans said...

Sorry to hear about your mother. Broken bones are no fun and especially at her age. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And especially with heart and lung issues. Thanks for your good thought.

Randy Johnson said...

Wishing your Mother well. Take care of her. That's the important thing.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

So sorry about your mother Patti! It's awful to have to spend your last years in misery.

Todd Mason said...

My uncle has just had a similar accident...better times ahead, I hope.

Barbara Martin said...

Sorry to hear about your mother's accident, Patti. My prayers are with you and your mother.

Kerrie said...

My mother had that happen a few years back Patti. It was long road to recovery but she eventually mended. She's now a rather rickety 88. All the best to your Mum.

pierre l said...

Very sorry to read that Patti. Best wishes for your mother. My thoughts are very much with you.

Lisa said...

Thinking about you and your Mom. Please try to remember to take care of yourself while you're caring for her.

debra said...

Oh, Patti, my thoughts are with you and your family. A Lisa says, do be good to yourself.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Our thoughts are with you over here in the UK

mybillcrider said...

Wishing the best for your mom, Patti!

Anonymous said...

My thoughts and prayers for your mother and you. I understand about being a caretaker. Give yourself a hug.